Painted Paws

Tara Fullington

       It was dusk upon the savanna. The sky shaded from bright red, to glowing orange, to a soft and somber blue and purple mix. All the creatures were settling down for rest or waking for the hunt. Except one den.
       The den of the wild dogs was full of the joyful yips of pups as the stars started to appear. Mama dog was trying to send the pups to sleep. Three little balls of black, white, and orange tussled on the den floor. Mama huffed a short sigh as she separated the rambunctious fuzz balls.
       “It is time to rest my darlings,” she said with a tender voice. The pups pressed their round ears to their head and widened their sepia eyes.
       “No. Puppy dog eyes will not change the sun’s place in the sky.”
       With that the two smaller pups went to the corner of the den to huddle together for sleep. The third pup however stayed put in his pleading position. Mama huffed another small sigh.
       “What other request do you have tonight?”
       “Just one story. Please Mama!” He brushed a paw along the floor mindlessly as he affixed his eyes on Mama’s. 
       “Did you have a story in mind?”
       “I want the one about the legendary hero that gave us our spots.” His eyes widened impossibly wider, as if trying to reflect starlight. 
       Mama looked at him, looked away, looked back, and found herself smiling. She picked him up by the scruff, carried him to the corner of the den, and plopped him onto his siblings before curling herself around them.
       “Ok, but just the one story. Then you have to sleep.” The trio of pups nodded enthusiastically as Mama started her tale.
       “Once upon a time, before our coats were spotted, there was snow...”

                                                            ***
       There was snow as far as the eye could see from the low canyons to the high mountains. The wild dogs of the vast icy wonderland had brilliant white fur and were uncontested in hunting. They ruled the arctic landscape they called home, and they lived in leisure. Until the weather changed. 
       It started at first with less snowfall, until the snow stopped falling altogether. It had instead become rain that hit the frozen terrain with a fury, slowly melting the ice to reveal the tundra beneath. The rain was relentless though and even thawed the frozen earth into mud. The rain finally stopped, but the sun then took its liberty to sap the earth of moisture and turn the ground into a dry, cracked, and dusty landscape. New creatures seemed to spring into existence. The lions, leopards, and hyenas now vied with the wild dogs for prey. The wild dogs with their white coats were unsuited to this new environment and fell from the top of the food chain. The brilliant fur that used to hide them was now a glaring alarm for all prey to run, and predators to chase. The hunter became hunted, and they lived in ruin.
       The wild dogs decided to hold a meeting with the few who still survived in this strange and harsh environment. They gathered round the last piece of ice like haunting spirits, mournful and scared. The oldest among them mounted the ice and gazed upon her remaining brethren. Her heart sank when she saw that barely twenty of her pack could find the strength to leave their dens. They were starving; she could see their ribs poking through their pelts. She knew her very own daughter was lying still in her den, being unable to move since getting injured during a hunt. Her daughter’s mate had been out hunting ever since, to make up for the loss of prey. However, her grandson was in attendance. It was hard to see him looking so grim; he had always been a jokester.
       The crowd of dogs murmured in worry, and soon lost their composure from their leader’s silence.
       “What are we going to do?”
       “How are we going to survive?”
       “How am I to protect my pups?”
       The leader swung her head back and forth, her jaws opened and closed with no sound. Her eyes slid shut, her head hung low, and her muzzle grazed the ground. She could feel her heart cry, but she held no answers for them.
       A bitter voice asked, “How can God be so cruel?”
       The elder’s ears perked up as she recalled the grace of their God, Lycaon, and the ancient ritual performed by their ancestors. The deity that she had heard stories of when she herself was a pup. The being that’s love was so deep for his creations that he spawned stars with the tears that he shed upon any of their deaths. She knew what she had to do.
       She called to the crowd, “Lycaon is not cruel! We have not called onto him.”
       “Why would he care?”
       “Lycaon is only a fairytale.”
       “What could he do anyway?”
       She puffed her chest, “Lycaon is no fairytale. He is our creator; he would care about our survival. He works in mysterious ways. One of us just needs to perform the pilgrimage to speak with Lycaon. Who among us is up to the task? Who will take on the journey? Who has the wit and will to speak to Lycaon?”
       Murmurs spread through the crowd once again.
       “I can’t leave my pups.”
       “I don’t think I could make it.”
       “We are barely hanging on as it is.”
       That is when her beloved grandson, his fur dirtied with mud, brushed past the crowd.
       “I will go!”
       The pack stared at him with shock. The old leader felt worry worm its way within her. She remembered how he would make snow sculptures during hunting practice. She recalled the times he got distracted by falling flakes of snow, or pawprints left in drifts. Even as he got older, he still delighted in making snow slides and forts with the young pups, rather than dedicating time to the hunt. He was always such a careless pup; of course, no one had the time to be careless anymore, not even him. His soiled coat told the story. He had been digging new dens into the dirt while others hunted. The old dog tilted her head.
       “Are you sure? This will be a perilous journey, and we are no longer at home on this land.”
       “I am not afraid. I know I am not the greatest hunter, but I want to help. I still have energy, and I have no reason to stay if I cannot even be of use. If going on this journey can save us, then I will go on it. Lycaon will guide my paws.”
       She admired her grandson’s faith, but would faith truly be enough to spare him from harm? She knew he was young and strong, but she held her reservations.
       “If you mean what you say then come here and look me in the eye.”
       He leapt from the ground onto the ice and met his grandmother’s eyes. In them she saw his will, it sparkled with sure light, like ice on a bright day. The pup she watched grow was still in there, but there was a new steel inside his heart. His eyes held fear, but it was fear for his kind. He wanted them to live.
       “You are ready.”
       She looked back to the crowd and barked, “He shall make the journey to Mount Kirinya and speak with our creator! Let us commend his faith and pray for his safe return.”
       The pack set their gazes to the far away mountain and sang a beautiful chorus of howls for his departure. The leader shared a glance with her grandson and whispered, “Say goodbye to your mother before you go.”
       He made his way to recently dug den and slid his way down. There he saw the still form of his mother. Her breathing was shallow, but stable. She had been hit by a charging prey beast and had trouble breathing ever since.
       “Hi Mom.”
       His mother opened her eyes, and a sweet smile lit her face.
       “Hello my darling. How are you?”
       “I’m supposed to ask you that.”
       They share a quick chuckle before the mirth fizzled away.
       “I’m going to be gone awhile Mom. I’m going on a pilgrimage, to speak to Lycaon. Grandmother believes he can help us.”
       “Do you believe it?”
       “I try to.”
       She gave him a sad smile.
       “You’re going to need a lot more than that to see him, but I have faith you can manage it. Take care my son, don’t dawdle now.”
       He pressed his head to hers and vowed to himself to make it back to her.
       He exited the den and looked over the faces of his pack one last time, his friends and family now holding a faint light of hope. He then turned to the mountain and put his paw forward with the first step of many. 
       He continued until dark replaced light. He knew he must find a place to rest. He was already far away from home and tried to find a decent den to sleep in. Nothing would ever match up with the crisp and cold snow den he lost to the heat, but perhaps he could find some safe hole to borrow. 
       He scanned the landscape in the dwindling light and spotted an entrance in the ground. He climbed down to the hole and caught an unusual scent. He continued onward though, squeezing his way through the narrow tunnel, causing the soft dirt to stain his white coat. Once he was in, he could barely see, but from the frightened scream he knew something saw him. He pushed forward still and felt his nose bump into a hard and rather sharp object. He flinched but pushed the object with his paws; it rolled effortlessly. He wondered if he could eat it, but from the feel of that shell, it was tight and hard, not worth the trouble while the dark pressed upon him. He made himself comfy and tried his best to sleep in this unfamiliar and dirty den. 
       The next morning, he woke to find the spikey ball still there. He batted it around a bit, struggling to understand what it was. He knew it was alive, just not how to eat it. He had never found something alive he could not eat before though. He continued to roll it along with him until he spotted a decent sized cliff and got an idea. He pushed the spikey ball forward off the edge and raced down to inspect it below. The fall had not killed it, but it was stunned and had uncurled a bit. He took advantage of this weakness and sunk his teeth into the soft underbelly, killing the creature.
       “Praise Lycaon for this meal.”
       He was a few bites in when he heard cackling. A group of three hyenas surrounded him. He was famished and unkempt, feeling like a scavenger among scavengers. The hyenas pressed in around him.
       “Leave the pangolin for us and we will let you leave intact.”
       “Yeah, just let us have the food.”
       He knew he could not win against the three of them, and the pangolin thing was too large to carry away. He knew he was defeated but had no way to keep them to their word, and so he thought fast.
       He picked up the pangolin in his jaws and slung it toward the hyenas hitting them with the sharp armor of the pangolin’s back. The hyenas shock allowed him the time he needed to flee, though his belly still panged with hunger.
       He was able to snatch a bird later in the day, for which he was grateful, though soon his path took him to a large plain of grazing grasses. Many large beasts wandered along, though without his pack he stood little chance of catching anything that big, his mother’s current condition showed him that much. He was halfway along the plain and the sun was at its peak. His fur felt on fire from the sun, and he was starting to see spots when his body was suddenly smashed into the ground.
       A quick look only brought more spots to his vision as pain erupted from his side. A leopard had pounced upon him, and its claws were raking down his flank. He panicked to think of any sort of solution that would save him from the large cat's powerful legs. With little choice left he just lashed out with a flurry of nips, noise, and scratches, hoping the struggle would make the cat abandon its attack. He writhed his body in the dust, feeling the coarse particles engrain themselves into his fur. He thought fast and took his nails to the dirt. He squeezed his eyes shut and clawed the dust up to the cat’s face. He swung his leg so far that his nails met the cat’s face and the cat let out a fierce yowl of pain.
       The cat leapt off only to glare at him with blood dripping from a cut above one eye. It blinked furiously trying to dislodge the dust and blood from its eyes. It hissed out strange words that he could hardly comprehend. They sounded slurred and quite unlike the barking communication he was used to.
       “White-fur not worth eating. Too lean anyways.”
       It then bounded away, its spotted fur melting into the grassy landscape. He looked at his wounds to find scarlet blood dyeing his fur. It gave him an idea. He found a mud pit nearby and dragged his body in it to cover his fur that served as a beacon in this landscape. The mud helped to cool him down as well. As he walked away, he saw the mud leave prints behind, just like in snow. He took a second and paced around the mud hole, leaving prints everywhere he went. He spent time to paint mud across the dry land, forming pictures. The pictures formed a pack, his pack. They were not the crisp white that he remembered, but it still helped with his loneliness. A new wave of passion flooded his heart as he remembered that he had to keep fighting for them. With that he turned his head to the mountain and braced himself for the trail. His side still hurt, but he carried on despite his wounds.
       That night he could find no place to nest, and so he lay in the long grass, letting it form a makeshift shelter around him. He looked to the stars and thought about his grandmother’s assertion that they were Lycaon’s tears. They shone bright in the sky to illuminate the way for the departed. Every star was a tear shed for a snow dog’s death; it shone to lead their spirit to his kingdom in the sky. With that thought he fell asleep with new assurance in his heart that he could find Lycaon.
       The next day he could tell that he was getting closer to the mountain. With perhaps a few more days travel he knew he would make it. His camouflage coat was doing the trick of keeping him out of trouble and it even made hunting a bit easier.
       The trick had proven to be the most useful when he noticed a lion in the distance. One good hit from that beast would easily kill him, he knew the need to stay hidden was important. He crouched low to the ground, hiding in the brush. He kept a careful eye on the powerful predator while creeping slowly around the clearing the lion occupied. He stepped cautiously, but his paw snapped a twig. He froze, every hair on his body raising in terror. The lion lifted its head and looked around but did not seem to see him. It took a deep sniff to try and smell him only to give a hearty sneeze from all the dust in the air. Soon the lion became agitated and decided to leave, and he was ever grateful for mud in his fur, though his heart continued to pound for a while after.
       Even with the camouflage's many benefits he felt dirty, his skin itched, and he was aching for the clean and purifying snow of the past. He trudged on for two more days before he could barely stand his own fur, he needed to be clean. He couldn’t even imagine what Lycaon would think of his condition if they met now. He got lucky and found a lovely oasis, courtesy of all the snowmelt.
       He came to the edge and took a long drink from the cool spring. He slowly made his way into the water, the dried mud eddying off his fur in ugly brown rivulets. He could feel the sting the cat’s claws had left on him as he washed away his protective layer. The cold water quickly numbed the pain for him though. It was not snow, but it was the next best thing he could hope for. He spent the rest of that day around the water, relishing his fortune. He splashed around in play, jumping in and out of the spring until his spirit and body were rejuvenated. He spent the night gazing at the patterns the stars made across the water’s surface before succumbing to sleep’s gentle tug.
       The next morning his paws urged him onwards, for he knew he still had a mission to attend to; there were others counting on him. He left the solace of the spring and told himself that he could do this. The mountain was quite a lot bigger now and he knew he would soon have to ascend. 
       At midday he reached the base and began to climb. He climbed his way up and found luck in catching a large sort of rodent creature. With newfound energy he pushed on upwards and found a rhythm. At dusk he reached a sort of summit. The air was thin, and his chest heaved with effort, but he had made it. He let his heart out in a long, keening howl, calling out to the heavens. He placed every ounce of faith he had in this call, all the pain, anger, and sadness welled up in his chest, but hope laced through the call like a fine thread. 
       The heavens trembled in reply, the few clouds in the sky swirled down in front of him and coalesced into a white mass, the same shape and size as himself. The eyes opened to reveal blank mystic silvery orbs.
       “Hello, my child. I have been expecting you.”
       The voice echoed into the young one’s brain, though the figure’s mouth did not move.
       He knew in his soul that this was Lycaon and bowed his head in respect.
       “There is no need for that my child. You have more than earned my respect. Your faith has made my appearance here possible.”
       He lifted his head from the bow, questions flying through his head.
       “My faith has brought you here?”
       “Yes. You see gods and their creations are intertwined. As long as the creation exists the god will exist; however, we are only as powerful as the faith of our creations. They feed into one another. I have not been as present as I should have been and now my creations are doubting that I am here, which only weakens my power to help them.”
       “You can’t bring back the snow then, can you?”
       “I wish I could. My heart cries for my children, and at my inability to do more for them. The world is changing. Many gods walk the heavens now. Their creations are springing up left and right, and their wills influence the world. Making it so my children are no longer suited to it.”
       “Is there a way you can help us?”
       “I will admit I was stuck; I had lost my hope and creativity. You have shown me what I had lost. I lost my passion, my love for creating. You have proved your worth with cunning and wit beyond your years. Your faith has brought strength to me, and I will give you a gift so that you may help your family.”
       Lycaon reached out with a paw to the young one’s tail. The tail began to glow before fading. The young one looked at it with a tilted head.
       “What did that do?”
       “I have given you the gift of art. From now on you shall be Brush. Your tail will be your paintbrush, any of your kind that you touch will become colorful. You shall paint them with camouflage as you had done to protect yourself. You were clever, but the solution was not perfect. Now it shall be comfortable, the color you paint will forever change their fur and your kind shall be born anew.”
       Lycaon then waved his tail to the setting sun and color infused into his cloudy form. Dark purple black appeared along with an orange color along his body. He touched noses to Brush and the color drained into him. Brush stared at his new coat with admiration and felt an inspiration unlike anything before. He saw his pack in his mind, all with differing coats of black, white, and orange. He knew with certainty that they would survive.
       “Thank you Lycaon.”
       The god nodded before his form once more dispersed into clouds across the sky. Brush looked out on his new world before settling down to rest. He dreamt about his kind’s future in a plethora of color. 
       Upon the sunrise he made his way down the mountain and back to his home. He came across a lion on the open plain, but it did not seem to notice him. He crept along quietly and was not once spotted. He passed by the watering hole and had a small bird cross his path almost landing right into his jaws. This new coat was doing him many favors and he gave thanks to Lycaon for it.
       He eventually neared the mud pit where he had made his family picture. He reflected that soon the color would not be all that strange. He noticed near the pit a leopard in the long grass, poised in a hunter’s crouch. It was watching the large prey beasts though and Brush slipped right past it with nary an issue.
       Another day passed and Brush was approaching the pangolin den. He heard the barking laughs of hyenas and surmised that they had likely taken the den. He decided to pass it up when he heard a voice, “Hey! Look over there, fresh meat!”
       Brush turned to look, and it seemed the hyenas had seen him. They were fast approaching, and he turned to hightail it. Dusk was upon them, and Brush planned on using it to his advantage. He ran zigs and zags and was able to lose his pursuers by dark. His painted coat was far less eye-catching than it was before, especially in the light of dusk. He was tired, but unscathed. He made a small crook between rocks his resting spot and dreamed of his return home.
       He trekked through the next day without incident, and once he could see where the last ice piece stood as a mere stone, he let out a sound to signal the pack.
       “Is he back?”
       “Did he speak with Lycaon?”
       “Are we saved?!”
       The pack looked out of their dens to see a much different dog than had left, but his sound and scent was unique to him and so it had to be. They gathered around him cautiously, but Brush beckoned them closer. He told his story with enthusiasm and displayed his new coat as proof of his tale. All the dogs were excited, but doubtful that new fur colors would save them. His grandmother was the first to come forward.
       “You have done well Brush, come and let me be the first to test out your blessing.”
       Brush was uncertain that his tail could paint color onto his family, but he sure was going to try. Lycaon had believed in him, Brush just needed to follow his God’s lead. He did as Lycaon had instructed and brought his tail to his grandmother’s fur. He saw in his mind’s eye where colors should be and they came to be. A golden orange color flowed like magic from his tail tip to her fur. He added black to her coat too, and soon she was a work of art just as Brush himself was. They both glistened in the sun as their color shone new to the world. Her eyes welled with tears of joy, and he knew how proud she was of him.
       The pack saw the change in the leader's fur, and that caused all of them come forth to have their new coat painted onto them. Lastly, he crawled his way down into the den where his mother rested. Brush’s father was sitting, watching over her, he looked so tired. Upon Brush’s entrance his father looked at him with a mixture of shock and love. Together they woke his mother to share the good news of Brush’s successful journey.
       “Mom, I did it! I spoke with Lycaon.”
       She opened her eyes and smiled as she always did.
       “I knew you could do it, my beautiful boy.”
       The family nestled together happily, and Brush painted them both with lovely splotches of orange and black, taking care to leave some of the white that they had since birth. Brush could not imagine a happier place to be in that moment, knowing that although life would never be easy, they would find a way to survive.
       Brush smiled, knowing he had finally proved himself as a capable wild dog, without changing the uniqueness that made him who he was. He was creative, he was clever, and he was looking forward to the future. Upon exiting the den with their new colors, they found the ice stone had melted into a puddle. Their old life was over, but their new one had just begun...
                                                             ***
       “And that is how we became known as painted dogs, for our savior Brush painted on us a coat that would hide us from predators and prey.” Mama then gave each pup a lick.
       “Brush is the best! Do you think I can be like him someday Mama?” Mama gave her insistent little boy a nudge.
       “Of course you can sweetie, but he did not get to be so clever by staying up so late. It is time to sleep.”
       “Okay Mama!” The three pups then curled up to her, finally content enough to close their eyes. She gave a look to the stars outside the den and located the brightest star. She whispered a prayer to that star because all dogs knew that that star was the tear Lycaon shed upon Brush’s death, so many years ago. She took solace in knowing that Lycaon still watched over them. She bent down to her little boy’s ear, her rambunctious, easily distracted, and bright little boy.
       “Goodnight, Palette, may all the world know your colors one day.”

Contributor's Note

Tara Fullington is a senior studying English and Creative Writing. Her goals after college are to get recognized as a fantasy author, own her own place, visit Japan, and have many happy pets. Tara spends her free time playing video games, sculpting, singing, and watching YouTube videos like the sun will not rise the next day.

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