Brush rang against brush as a female caribou bounded past him. She dipped her haunches to the right as an arrow zipped past and burrowed into a tree. The caribou glanced behind her shoulder to size up her predator, a young boy.
The chase amused the caribou so she toyed with the boy, never letting him get close. The boy continued to chase the caribou all throughout the forest.
When the sound of the boy’s pounding feet ceased, the caribou stopped and looked back. The boy was now on his knees heavily panting.
“You’ve won,” he said between his short breaths; white puffs formed at each abrupt exhale.
The caribou studied him. She snorted to herself. His attire disrespected her. He wasn’t fit to kill her. Hunters were to dress elegantly to show their respect to the animals. She began to trot away but soon halted. Curiosity gripped her. Turning around, she calmly walked over to him and stood there, towering. He looked up at her, sweat glazing his face. Her auburn eyes glistened with his reflection. He didn’t raise his spear.
“Boy…” she spoke.
His eyes widened in surprise causing him to look around. The field enclosed only them. He looked back at her.
“Is that you speaking caribou?” he gasped in awe.
She chuckled a bit at his reaction. “For the time being, yes, you can hear me speak,” she said. She lowered her head to gaze into his eyes. “Why do you hunt me in the clothes you’re in? It insults me. Am I not a worthy animal to kill?”
“Oh great caribou, I have the highest respect for you. Believe me when I say these are the best clothes I own. My mother has passed, and my father is away for trading. I now stay with my grandparents with my three younger sisters. I wish to feed and clothe them.” His voice shook from exhaustion and tears formed in his eyes, but he quickly wiped them away. “Believe me,” he murmured lowering his head. The boy felt his head pressed back with the warm fur of the caribou’s forehead.
“I believe you,” the caribou gently spoke. “I praise you on coming this far. No hunter has ever shown the persistence that you have today.” She pulled away. “You may not hunt me, but I will provide you with another gift.” She knelt down. “Get on my back.”
“Oh no great caribou, I don’t wish to bother you anymore. My village is not far…”
“I won, remember? Get on my back,” she said, interrupting him. She chuckled while ruffling her fur. “Come.”
The boy rose to his feet and climbed onto her back. She slowly rose while he held on to her white mane. At that moment, she became fully aware of the boy’s situation because of how light he was. She concealed her concern.
“Why are you doing this for me, great caribou? I’m an ill-suited hunter,” he said.
“I want to help you.”
The boy paused but then leaned over and hugged the caribou. “Thank you.”
“You are welcome,” she replied, lowly humming.
* * *
The caribou carried the boy deeper into the woods, leading him to a small creek. She knelt down and let the boy off.
“Here, you can find fish,” she spoke.
“Aren’t the fish already done spawning?” he asked.
“These fish are moving slower.”
The boy grinned when he discovered the creek did contain fish.
“Wow, thank you great caribou!” he exclaimed while dropping his hunting sack. He readied his spear.
As the boy speared fish, the caribou walked over to the creek for a drink.
“When you are finished, I will take you back to your village, and don’t refuse my kindness boy or I will head-butt you,” she stated while lifting her head.
The boy laughed. “Yes, great caribou.”
* * *
On the way back to the boy’s village, the caribou trekked near oil rigs. She watched the repetitive bobbing of their muzzles, squealing for her to end their suffering.
“Tell me human boy,” she spoke.
“Yes, great caribou?” he asked.
“Why do you fight for this world?”
The boy smiled.
“Because it’s worth fighting for.” He paused. “There’s a lot of heartache and injustice, but I want to prove that I am strong. I think that’s what life is about anyway…to make this world stronger.”
The caribou reflected in a long, serene silence.
“For what, great caribou?”
“For that answer.”
“Oh, you’re welcome.”
“Even as an animal, I sometimes forget why I’m here, but you reminded me.”
The boy rested his cheek against her back as he combed his fingers through her fur.
* * *
When they approached the village, the caribou studied the empty, abandoned campsite. She had expected as much. There were no signs that people had lived there for months.
“Right here?” she asked, walking up to a grave, marked with round rocks.
“Yes,” the boy replied, sliding off the caribou. He began walking into the earth, as if it were soft as water. Waist-deep, he turned to smile at the caribou. “Thank you for the kindness you have shown me today, caribou.”
She nodded. “And thank you, for yours.”
A small quiet drifted between them.
“If you were still alive, I would’ve laid my life down for you,” she said.
“Fortunately I’m not, because I enjoyed the visit I had with you. I hope to have more,” he replied. He then completely submersed himself under the earth, into his grave.
“Why do you still walk these lands?” she asked, turning away.
The boy emerged from the ground to the tip of his nose.
“Every spring, my sisters and grandparents travel by this old campsite. I like to see them…” His voice was muffled by the ground, but the caribou understood him.
She looked to the boy. “I’ll return to visit you another day and keep you company until your family returns.” She then started to walk away.
The boy’s eyes squinted into a smile, buried.
Kaylene Jay Big Knife is from the Chippewa Cree Tribe located on the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation in Montana and is currently attending the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Although Kaylene plans to transfer to the field of aviation in the next year to become a pilot and mechanic, she also plans to continue creating art and writing stories. Kaylene’s creative interests include two-dimensional animation, illustration, storytelling, beading, piano, mixed-media art, and cats.