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No Vuelvas Nunca Mas
It's grey. No, not grey in my eyes, for my eyes are closed. Grey in my nose, in nostrils uncomfortably dry and drawing in the air and scents in oddly-shaped funnels.
Where the Hell am I?
_What_ the Hell am I?
I blow some of the... grey whatever it is back out from this odd new nose and open my eyes. Just enough to make little slits of light come in.
So there is light. I close my eyes again.
It's bright green and yellow light and has edges of black. The colors are new; the scents are difficult to perceive through my dust-filled and dry nostrils.
_Dust_. So that is why I feel that all is grey. There is dust in my nose. I blow some of it out, again. I forget and draw another breath in the same position, and more layers of the dust-blanket fall in.
I am on my side. I feel a shoulder in the dust and light is beginning to make me want to open my eyes again even though I fight the urge.
_What am I_? Do I want to know?
I shift, to move the shoulder, and instead a front-- fore-- paw of some kind plows into what seems to be a deep layer of dust that extends beyond my face and around me in all directions. I know it is a paw; I feel the dust move into spaces of hair between the pads and recognize, though how I can't tell, fur on the back and toes-- fingers-- somethings-- of my hand. My paw. It is a paw. My paw, and it catches up the layers of progressively slicker and harder ground as I make myself move it again to bring my elbow into a position from which I may rise up onto it.
I blink. The three basic colors of green, yellow and black flicker in once or twice to my nerves and brain. I catch a glimpse of some red. Perhaps some shadings in the greeness, too.
Leaves. Leaves, yellow and green, some bright yellow... Sky, washed out by the yellow. Tree trunks like sticks in black-- trees beyond them in green, and red in and out between them of feathers or flowers or some other ephemerally appearing things. Burned. All around me, to the rounded and brilliant foliage beyond the edge of the layered and often-rained-upon ash, are trees burned into charred and flaking black poles. Tiny slivers of new green prick the ash here and there, but all around is grey and black and some... yellow-white... scattered or piled... like bones...
Better take a closer look. Have people died? How come? And what happened? Where am I?
I-- paw-- at my-- muzzle-- with one rather massive forelimb and snort softly to get the greyness out of my senses. Even the colors seem odd, and the filtering in of sharp and less-sharp sounds from who-knows-where... The jungle around, of course. Somehow just this place was burned. And the ash is flattened down in most places by wet and humidity, but where my body fell and thrashed it is clouded and grey and dusty.
I have nose, paws, shoulders elbows back and tail... Therefore ears as well, most likely on the top of my head.
Indeed, the ears are there. They flick in the direction of any penetrating sound; there are _many_ sounds, and my head needs to choose.
I attempt to stand.
I fall, chin into the ashes, and *humph* out in a sort of startled, coughing grunt. Okay, all right, I am four-_legged_ now. These are my four paws. I blink a few more times, shake my head, make my ears turn to front and sides and back. I realize vaguely that I am in a strange place, a jungle place, a place with unidentifiable calls sounding in the deep, deep green foliage and stifling humidity here in the sun where no leaves have yet recovered to shade me... This could be dangerous. I had better get a map of my body, and this place, but quick. Time later to find out what happened. This is no place that I know, and somehow the body is strange in every molecule, although I cannot, maybe because of the heat and maybe because of whatever happened, remember _why_ it is strange nor what, precisely, I was before.
What am I what am I... I look down at my legs and my chest and bend my long neck to glance once at my side.
Spots. Clustered and rich, over another shade of yellow. Yellow, off-white and black, black, black, with some sort of reddish-orange for shading. Like some skin from a rug hung over a heavy set of bones.
It occurs to me that rugskins have to _come_ from somewhere, and the idea comes to me that I may be some sort of a leopard, but that does not seem right. I seem big, big enough not to be frightened in a threatening place where other eyes may work better than my own new ones. The heat, however, is oppressive and seems more cruel, somehow, than the shadows in the unknown and unexplored jungle.
I take one step forward. My paw sinks only a little into the ash. The paw, too, is spotted like the rest of me that I can see. I flex my other front paw as I lift it to put it down in the beginnings of a walk, and prick the heavy air with several white claws. I reach, step into the ash and relax. Then another step.
My nose is dry, my eyes squinting in the searing sunlight, and only my ears are clear; I try to listen as my body seems to tell me I may-- with great power and perception, but I feel unused to these ears and the messages they send me. I snort again, wishing for a better nose. I awoke with the sense of smell feeding images into me, and I want it with me as I move. I will use my eyes and ears and... pawpads too, yes, my paws seem sensitive too. I can count on nothing if all of this new me is not here and sending to my nerves.
My pads tell me that the ash is hot, with a sort of soft warmth that is deceptive in its gentle, burning surrounding of my feet. I part my oddly curved and weighted lips and jaws and the tongue and saliva inside make a sort of tiny sticking sound. I have a tongue. With it I lick my nose.
The relief is so great to the dried-leather skin of my nose that I realize instantly how thirsty the rest of me is. My tongue wets itself as I curve it a few times upward over my nostrils and the scents of my surroundings catch and flood my brain with startling strength. My other senses seem to be more acceptable with all identified and working. Now to find out where I am, knowing I am a great spotted cat of some kind, and how to drink and remember where I came from and what occurred.
For the first time I hear a stirring right next to me. I look that way and feel shifting of the fur on my spine as I startle, then I lower and elongate my neck to sniff and consider.
The animal, or man, or a little of both as he may be, lies in a disturbed section of ash as I, moments before, had done. His smell is now part of the myriad surrounding me, but with my head turned to him I can recognize it as specifically emanating from this brown-and-white man-beast... a pungent, pleasant, heated-hoofed-mammal scent. Silverings and shadowings of kicked-up dust and ashes obscure some of the whiteness of the person's head, but he seems in the sun to be blindingly white nonetheless. The skin where he melds from other creature into man has streaks of gold from the sun glossed over dark cocoa skin. He murmurs something in his half-awake discomfort.
"Hi," I try to say, but a growl catches in my throat instead and I cough and choke even though the sound feels somehow natural to my new body. I try to think where I might be, and how to get this person up and into the shade with me. He doesn't seem as if he is right for the jungle. Flashes and sounds from otherwheres cross my confused mind: sun? but on a cool day, not like this. And animals not like those from where we are now. I could speak, as I heard myself in my mind speaking before I coughed and growled.
_Jaguar_. Jungle. A burned place, unknown, somewhere in the South Americas or wherever it is that the Jaguar hails from.
Those bones... The sounds... _Thirsty_... I don't know what to do first.
I step a little closer to the animal-man.
The person starts awake with a pained blinking and a snort that must be something like mine when I just now awoke. He stares, covers his face with a brown hand, peeks out again. He bleats suddenly at the sight of-- me or his own hand, it's hard to say. Then he closes his eyes and lays down again.
I nose him. It's no good staying out here in this blackened oven. "Wake up," I try to say, and this time the words are almost there, still deep and catlike in nature but maybe just audible. I find my moistened nose sticking slightly in floss-like, soft and finely packed fur on the person's cheek. It reminds me of something, and I snatch at the thought, before it can tilt itself back into the bewildering array of images in my head. I shake my large cat's head a bit and take another overall look of the man, his white head with the animal ears laid out to the side and the thick white lids over what I saw to be huge and liquid dark eyes.
He looks like a man, in some sort of beige material for clothing, with an alpaca's head. _Alpaca_. Trees, ash, trunks, sun-heat and man-part-alpaca.
Still thirsty and drying up in this odd, realistic Hell.
Well, perhaps not Hell. Another place. Another from the place I used to be, sitting... Sitting with my arms around my knees and watching the... birds. Ducks and geese. I don't recall what happened. But at least I recall some part of me.
"Wake up," I grunt again. The alpaca man curls into a ball, as best he can anyway, and mutters something piteous.
"Come _on_," I say, pawing at him. "It's time to get up. Do you know this place? Do you know where we are?"
"Hm?" He still has his hand over his eyes. He seems to be trying to duck his head down to his chest, but since he can't hide his face entirely that way he holds his arm at an awkward, mildly protective angle.
I sigh, and my dry throat complains. I blink and gaze about myself again, and as the alpaca-man is not yet responding except to lie in the ash as I did, I determine to find out what those lighter-colored bone-things are some steps away from us.
It's difficult to smell the items without drawing bits of ash into my nostrils, and all the time I am distracted by the oppression of the open place and the gathering of animal sounds just outside my area of sight. Some of them register as harmless, recalled somehow from stories or pictures that they complemented, but others are unrecognizable and possibly threatening. Still, I know that the somewhat greasy, jutting pieces of tainted ivory color are bones. They seem large enough to be human. Why would anyone be unable to escape the clearing as it burned? Could they have been injured?
"I'm up." The voice is deep, but light. I wheel instantly, unafraid but heart pounding nonetheless. The alpaca-man's eyes are wide, and he stands as though still ill-at-ease with his body; his arms hang stiffly at his sides and he seems confused, but fearless. He blinks at me a few times, then repeats: "I'm... up. Who are you?"
I almost reply, but the thoughts get tangled on the way to my throat. Who _am_ I? "That's not important now," I tell him gruffly. "It's too hot for us to stay here."
The person slowly turns his head, squinting into the green shadows outside the clearing. Then he pauses, concentrating as if on the insides of his own mind, and makes some sort of decision.
"This way," he says. "If you're friendly, come with me."
The words, now that I am more alert and listening to myself, sound odd. And I still can't recall all that happened to bring me here, nor why it is that if I try to speak my name I _know_ the wrong sounds are going to come out. The white-headed man and I understand each other, but neither of us is speaking a word I ever knew before. It's as if it's unclear in my head, feels wrong, until I speak it; now the thought of other words for anything we have said is beginning to fade from my consciousness. There is only one word for "right," or "all", the one I have just used. But how could I speak a different language? Could this be a dream? Never, I realize. I either _am_ someone else or I am myself in a new place, a different body. I wouldn't be imagining this.
The beige-weave-clad man slides through the ash towards a growth of new-green shrubs, looking back once to see if I am following. I pad after him.
Around me the coolness descends, although it
could only be called cool after that emptied,
black grove. I sit down as soon as all of my
dappled coat is in the shade, and nose my sore
paws. The alpaca-man wrinkles his soft, white
muzzle as he regains his bearings. Then he, too,
sits down in the moist leaves and scattered bits
of rotting bark and blossoms, and touches his own
brown feet tentatively. "It's so close and
humid," he mutters in a puzzled tone.
I lick my lips and nod. "It's the jungle."
He seems to work that over in his mind. "The jungle. Well, our feet are hot from the heated ground, but here it's cooler and we must keep on walking. If we go far enough north, there will be clean air and we can get into the open to see where we are."
"I thought _you_ knew where we were."
He looks at me oddly with those huge eyes. "I have never been here before in my life."
"Great. So what happened?"
He looks at me even more oddly, and some scent that could almost raise suspicion in me-- if he weren't my only choice of companion-- flits out with the next beads of sweat on his torso. "Do you like me?"
"I don't know what to think, I'm completely confused, but yes I like you. What else am I supposed to do? You seem to have some idea of how to get out of here, if not how to get home. Where do you come from?"
"North." He gestures vaguely. "I believe you do, as well."
"Why? Do you know me?"
"I..." the man seems to realize he has said more than he wanted to.
"Please. You can trust me, and I see you are friendly."
I bat a fly from the back of my right ear and stare at this strange person. If this were a dream, he would be one of the pleasant things therein. I like his eyes, and he wasn't lying about believing we should go north. There was that one whiff of hedging, and now it's gone. What else is there to do?
An old question just crosses my heat-disturbed mind. 'If you could be stuck on a desert island with just one person...'
For some reason, this thought clears away my twinge of mistrust. "I don't even know what I can tell you about myself."
"Are you all right in your thoughts?"
"No," I admit. "I need water. I need it badly. You do, as well. And I... can't remember anything. Maybe a little, my knees, a park. Some words. Not the real ones, though. Little else."
Maybe this person has also lost his memory. Maybe he's afraid to appear vulnerable before me. He considers my statement, then says, "There is water nearby, but we need to walk. Resting here will only leave us dehydrated. Can you smell it?"
I try, and among the lush foliage and the bird droppings and rotting insects and flowers there does seem to be something running, dispersing its molecules out in many directions and free to be drunk, not sucked into leaves and stems. "Yes."
"We'll follow it north, and always have water."
I stand, weakly now once my haunches have gotten used to the idea of resting in the sweaty shade. "Let's go."
The alpaca-man leads the way again. This time, my nose confirms our direction as well. I feel slightly more confident; if something _did_ happen to my companion, I could still find the river, and make my way north as per his advice, on my own.
Whoever he is, I'd just as soon the two of us find our rightful homes in equal safety. We already supported each other in waking.
The river appears just when I am beginning to think it will be too much and I'll have to take a rest. If I rest, I doubt I will be up again. My sides hurt and my head is beginning to pound as my thoughts withdraw. "It's not far," my leader tells me in a slightly nasty tone. "Don't lay down! We've only walked a few steps. It's only a few steps more. Do you want to die? I don't want to be alone."
Groaning, I force the few more steps he assures me I should take and am hit with a warm, heavy draught of river-smell.
"You're not weak, you're just thirsty," prods the alpaca. "Get a drink. It's stupid to lie there and die without it."
"Pushy," I say, gazing blearily at the rushing muddy strip beyond the mushy grasses and overhanging tree limbs. I fall forward to the bank and soak my chin in the water.
"There," he grunts, dropping down by the bank and gulping huge swallows while eyeing nearby fallen logs and spots where triangles in the rivulets indicate something below the surface. "Of course I'm pushy. Staying in the undergrowth would have been stupid, I had to say something."
Water drips deliciously off my lower jaw and down the groove between my furred dewlaps. "Agreed."
His ears flick repeatedly, not just at flies but at anything odd in the vicinity. His nose wrinkles again. "Is there anything dangerous in there, do you suppose?"
I pat at the water's edge with my paw. "I think there could be. Some big alligators or something. You think?"
He worries. "I don't know. Best keep an eye out."
"What would be out in this heat, anyway?"
I dunk my head to my ears into the river, raise it up and shake vigorously. "True." Now he's got me nervous, and I glance up and down the bank before each gulp.
We satisfy ourselves in silence for some time. A few dark, iridescent birds chatter and flap into view across the water and perch into obscurity again. Something chirps in the foliage behind me, and my companion and I each turn an ear in that direction, then forward again as a matching voice returns the call from the opposite bank.
"Now," I speak up finally, "what are you called?"
"Snow," he replies, sounding the word out on his tongue in a thoughtful manner as though he, too, has noticed the oddness of the language.
I look around. The warmth practically weighs down the spotted fur on my back. It seems improbable there has ever been such a thing here. The word itself seems fanciful, yet somewhere it must exist or there would be no way to name it.
"Cold rain. Snow."
"And you are called..?"
It's still tricky for me; the word that wants to come out is the wrong one, but I can't remember what the right one is. Something tells me that the sound may be wrong, but the _meaning_ is right. My name, and Snow's as well, must be translated by whatever translated our bodies to this place. I growl in my jaguar voice: "Gatherer."
"Ah. Like the people in the fields."
"Er... Yes. Yes, exactly. Like that."
"Well, now we are identified. Let's get on north, and I'll lead first. You can take over after we rest this evening."
Sounds reasonable. I fall into step behind him as he fades into the forest; I keep my ears on the animal sounds behind us and my eyes on his white head and brown heels. He must know the way to a high place; don't alpacas live in dry, open areas?
On the other hand, aren't alpacas something Man made up?
Aren't half-man, half-alpacas something _no_ one has made up? Maybe in a story sometime, but certainly nowhere real.
Well, if this heat and these insects aren't real, I don't know what is.
"With me, Gatherer?" asks my companion.
"Yes, I'm right behind you, Snow."
Beside us, out of sight, the river runs faster than we move, but stays with us reliably as our guide and our sure offer of a drink. The sun seems as constant. I fear night, when it seems the strangeness of the jungle will inevitably be more threatening and mysterious, but it will be refreshing to stop shaking my head and squinting every time the canopy parts and glints of brightness assault my eyes. Then we will rest, and perhaps when we are used to the trails I can try and catch something to eat.
So far, though, I'm clumsy enough in this body that the light-bodied little animals we have seen take one curious, unafraid look and flit away again. I shall have to try stalking. Snow can find something to... graze on, or whatever.
And so we go.