Thrashing about, Amias tried to swim, choking and sputtering, clay swirling about him. Eduardo kept his distance but Pabiola was soon at his side, soothing him with gentle words and telling him how to swim. In his fear of drowning he forgot all about his mother and listened only to his sister until he’d calmed down enough to follow her directions. Finally he could remain afloat, and he blinked a few times to clear his vision; beads of water trickling down his forehead and rolling off his whiskers. He looked toward the shore.
Genoveva sat on her haunches and roared her displeasure the moment they locked eyes.
I knew you were hiding something, she said with a hiss.
He continued to tread water, eyes wide and pulse racing. He looked from Eduardo, to Pabiola, and back to his mother again.
I don’t know who or what you are, she went on, but I’m going to give you a head start to leave my sight right now. Unless you can get rid of those, those . . . spots . . . don’t ever set foot in this territory again. You do not belong.
Go, Pabiola whispered; her tone urgent. Go now or she’ll kill you.
Amias turned and swam away from them as fast as he could down the middle of the river. The sun finished setting as he swam and swam, the last semblance of light swallowed up in darkness. When his legs could carry him no farther, he veered off to the riverbank and climbed up onto the shore, collapsing in the grass. There, despite the heat, he spent the rest of the night shivering, too tired to budge.
Come morning his fur was dry and poofy, and he felt agile without the weight of clay, despite his fatigue. He roamed and prowled about from day to day, enjoying his free limbs—something he’d only been able to dream of before—but failed every attempt to catch a fish or a mammal, for he knew no hunting techniques. All he could do was scavenge for dead animals, but even here his success was limited, since many other creatures were doing the same. It was nowhere near enough to fill him. He learned to climb trees and slept the hours away up in the branches, legs dangling. There was plenty to drink of course, but he grew thinner each day without enough sustenance—the hunger pangs becoming more and more painful. The joy of freedom faded away as he became malnourished, his emaciation eventually making swimming and climbing too dangerous to continue. One morning he decided there was nothing left to do but pick a sheltered area near the river, lay down, and await death.
The next day, or perhaps only hours later—he didn’t know if night had come and gone—he sensed something nuzzle his cheek and a warm breath cross over his face. He tried to open his eyes but everything was blurry, the exertion too much. They slid shut again.
Amias, a sweet voice whispered, it’s me, it’s your sister.
His heart, already having long ago slowed its throb to a crawl in his chest, skipped a beat and sped up. He summoned the last bit of residual strength in his body and forced his eyelids halfway open, hoping his vision would clear.
When it did he realized she was only inches away, hunched down on all fours and peering at him with round, glinting eyes. Sunshine dappled the ground around them. She’d grown a great deal since he’d last seen her.
Is it really you? he asked, his voice like the croak of a frog.
Yes, it’s me. I came to find you, I’ve been searching and searching.
And they . . . they let you?
She laid down, resting her chin on her paws.
No—they said I had to choose between you and them. For all I knew, you were already dead, but I had to know. Amias—I love you, always have. You are beloved.
He didn’t know what to say but his throat constricted with emotion. He tried to lift his head from the ground but couldn’t.
I think it might be . . . too late, he said; words barely audible.
It’s not too late, she said. You wait here—I’ll be back in a little while with some food, I promise.
He closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep, wondering if the whole thing had been a dream, but he awoke again later to her shaking him with her paw. It was evening. She’d caught a three-foot long pirarucu fish in the river and it now lay beside him in the grass, its wet scales pasted with sand from being dragged along the ground. He immediately salivated, tears springing to his eyes.
Once your strength is restored, she said, I’ll teach you how to hunt.
And that’s exactly what she did.
Within a few months he’d doubled his body weight and become a skilled and robust hunter. Soon they’d be a year old and would establish their own territories.
There’s something I’ve been wanting to show you before we start our new lives, Pabiola said one sunny day, a playful gleam in her eye. She explained that she’d been keeping it as a surprise, waiting for the right time. And with that she led him on a full day’s journey to a new area of the jungle, refusing to explain herself despite all his cajoling. You’ll see, you’ll see, she said.
At last they reached a clearing with a stream winding through it. They crouched down in a thicket to hide.
Watch, she said.
A few minutes passed by with nothing more to see than insects skipping across the translucent water; the ever-present cacophony of birds and monkeys in the canopy.
Then, a shadow moved through the foliage across the way.
The grass parted and a tawny, spotted panther stepped out, strolling gracefully to the water’s edge to stoop for a drink.
She’s a jaguar, said his sister, just like you.
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