Friday, March 09, 2007

Shasta and Her Cubs

Beginnings are Important

She could feel one of the cubs snuggling towards her. They were ready to suckle and made their way based on smell rather than sight. They were only a few days old and their eyes were still closed.

“Which one,” she wondered?

A moment later her question was answered when she felt the latch.

“Kodiak, my boy cub,” she realized with a satisfied thought.

She shifted her body to allow him to suckle more directly and then a moment later adjusted her body once again when she felt the softer pull of his sister Koda at the other breast.

Shasta could hardly believe how small they were now, compared to how big they would become. They were so tiny, half the size of a chipmunk, without much if any hair, and no teeth.

The den was cozy, but pitch black because it was still night. During the long winter days sometimes the only light was from an air hole, which at the surface was as small as the entrance to a mouse den. The air hole had developed naturally along the path of her exhaled breaths as she slept during the long winter.

Now that spring had arrived, some of the snow that covered the entrance had melted and a diffuse light now filtered though the thinner layers of snow crystals, especially when the sun was setting and shining more directly on the den.

Shasta smiled as she considered the choice of such a good den to give birth to her first cubs. She had watched her mother and had learned to choose a location with an entrance that faced towards the cold winter winds and away from the midday sun. This choice insured that her den remained snow covered and invisible for longer into the spring. She chose a hillside covered by a stand of evergreen trees that partially sheltered the entrance from the wind. The steepness of the slope under the forest canopy allowed melting water to run off without accumulating, but was not so steep as to restrict a heavy accumulation of winter snow over the entrance. She had spent a trouble free winter.

“A good beginning,” she thought.

First Kodiak and then Koda disengaged from her breasts and rolled over and into an immediate deep sleep. Shasta repositioned herself so she could attend to their daily bath.

Koda had her back nestled against her mother’s soft warm tummy but Kodiak had rolled away and was already a bit chilled. She gathered him towards her head and nuzzled him gently before she used her tongue to gently wash his tiny naked body. Afterwards she washed Koda in a similar fashion and then nestled them both inside the downy fur of her chest. Just before she drifted off to sleep, she remembered back to the day of their birth.

At first light, she had awakened to the sensation of wetness between her thighs.

“Good,” she thought, “dawn, the start of new day; just the right time for the start of a new life.”

This was her first pregnancy and although happy and excited, she also felt a sense of unease.

“Would everything be ok?”

She had also wondered how many cubs she would deliver. She knew most bears had only two but she had hoped for three.

“Why not,” she thought? “I’ve always been strong and healthy, and I was especially fit and fat when I entered the den, and the father was the strongest grizzly in the region. Why shouldn’t I be blessed with three cubs?” Three would almost guarantee that at least two would survive. Mountain life was harsh at the extremes of age.

Only two cubs had emerged from her womb, but her disappointment was fleeting. The cubs were both healthy. She recollected her happiness during those first few minutes as she licked away the fluid from their bodies so they wouldn’t get a chill, and then nestled them against her breasts. They had both suckled immediately.

“Another good sign,” she remembered contentedly, as she fell into a deep sleep, just as she had on that first day.

As deep as she slept, she awakened immediately when she felt Kodiak roll away from her chest. It was now daylight and she could see the faint outline of Koda still nestled in the fur of her chest and that of Kodiak a little distance away, lying on his back with his tiny paws in the air. His legs were moving as if he was running and she wondered if he might be dreaming.

“What would he dream of,” she wondered? “He has never seen anything to know what to run towards or away from. Is he chasing something we dreamed together when he was still within me?”

Gently she rolled him back into her fur before his body temperature could fall. She shuddered to think what might have happened if she hadn’t awakened and had later found Kodiak against a snow covered wall. The area immediately around the earthen walls was chilly enough to freeze a newborn cub. She didn’t know how she knew this, but she did. Otherwise the den was very warm, even hot at times.

She had chosen and fashioned the den to be big enough for up to three newborn cubs. At the time she had hoped the den might even be suitable for a second winter. That would depend, she knew, on how many cubs she delivered and how big they grew. She had known from the outset that the den would not be suitable for more than one more year at the best. She had also known that it was better to build as small a den as possible so that her maternal body heat would be enough to keep the space cozy.

When she next awoke, she could hear the wind in the trees above. The winds were coming from over the mountain and behind the den and she knew these winds would be warm and dry. They would melt the snow and pick up and carry the moisture out of her valley.

“Where do the winds go,” she wondered?

”The winds must visit with other bears in other valleys,” she decided.

She wondered which bears the winds above might already have visited.

“Perhaps the winds had already visited with Ursus, the father of my cubs. His valley is that way.”

Warm winds and hot days meant the snow would melt and eventually they would need to leave the den.

“But when,” she wondered.

She didn’t have any way of knowing a specific day, but she had a strong sense that she would know when the time was right.

“We will leave before the snow has completely melted away the entrance. Perhaps we will leave as soon as the cubs open their eyes.

“When will that be? Will they be strong enough by then?”

“We will wait until their eyes are open and they are strong and steady when they walk,” she reconsidered.

Both cubs started to suckle again and even as they fed, she fell back into happy sleep.

As the days lengthened and the sun set progressively further up the valley, the thickness of the snow that covered the entrance thinned until Shasta could see the green outlines of the trees that were around and above the den.

Koda’s eyes had opened several hours earlier, and this event was followed shortly after, as if in sympathy with the birth order, by the opening of her brother’s eyes.

Her daughter’s eyes were cinnamon brown and immediately full of curiosity. For several days prior to their opening, Shasta had gently licked the eyes of both cubs every hour, as if to encourage the lids to separate. Her tongue was huge, almost as long as the cubs, and heavier, but she was very gentle; she used only the tip to delicately massage the tiny eyes. Courtesy of this almost constant attention, she was fortunate to witness the precise moment when Koda first saw her mother. Shasta had just finished a tongue caress and was looking to see if the lids had separated at all, when both eyes opened with a suddenness that was as special as it was startling. Koda’s eyes fixed on her mother’s for several glorious moments before they wandered and took in the fuzzy details of her first home. Although Koda’s eyes remained open for only a minute, to Shasta, the time seemed like forever. With her daughter’s eyes open, she redoubled her licking efforts with Kodiak and was rewarded when his lids flickered open a few hours later. There was a sticky substance between his lids that had not been present in his sister’s eyes. She didn’t like that there was a difference, but she was reassured as soon as she looked into his handsome eyes. They were a much darker brown, like those of his father. They positively danced around the den before he too slipped back into infant slumber.

With their eyes open, Shasta felt impatient to leave the den.

“I have a forest world to share with my cubs.”

But she restrained her new mother enthusiasm. “Best to wait until they can keep their eyes open and stay awake for longer periods of time; best to wait until they are strong enough to walk with me down to the valley bottom.”

Both cubs had grown impressively over the three weeks before their eyes opened. They were now as large as a mature red squirrel. Their weight gain however, had come at the expense of their mother’s, and this was a concern for Shasta. She had lost a lot of weight since she had entered the den; her eyes were hollow and her skin hung over her sides in loose folds that spread over the floor of the den like a furry blanket. She was hungry and felt the need to eat soon, very soon if she were to continue to nurture her cubs properly.

Shasta knew that beginnings were important. Growth lost at the beginning was unlikely to be caught up.

Although the cubs were active while they suckled, for the first month they had mostly slept whenever they weren’t feeding. Recently though, they had started to stay awake for a little while before each feed. Both cubs had learned to support themselves on their legs and had taken their first few tentative steps. Now they walked for short times, back and forth in front of their mother’s tummy and chest, but the relatively confined space of the den didn’t really allow much more than stretching. Still, Shasta noted with satisfaction that their legs were steadier with each passing day.

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