Connor Blackwater peered into the box at the creature inside. “What is it?” he asked.
“Don’t know son,” replied Uncle Bart. “I was hoping you’d tell me, you being such an expert and all. All I know is it’s injured, needs help.”
“Bartholomew Grigson, what’ve you brought him now?”
“Oh, hi Shona. Just telling young Connor here, it’s something I found injured by the side of the road while passing through Idaho. Middle of nowhere, no idea where there were any vets, so brought it back for Connor to nurse back to health.”
“As if we haven’t got enough waifs and strays. Ah well, one more won’t make any difference I suppose, but Connor, whatever this is it’s a wild animal. Once it’s better, it goes back in the wild. Understood.”
“Yes mom.” Connor knew better than to cross his mother on this. He was allowed to keep his numerous pets – two dogs, five cats and an ever-increasing number of rabbits – on the understanding that any injured waifs or strays picked up went back where they came from once they had recovered.
“I’ve been thinking about that,” Bart said. “I could take the boy up where I found it camping for a couple of weeks this summer. We could take the whatever-it-is back then.” Shona smiled. Her brother had been something of a father figure to Connor ever since her husband had died, and always tried to make some time for the boy.
“That’d be great. In the meantime, you don’t fancy coming over this weekend and building another run for the rabbits, do you? Then perhaps Connor could get round to separating the boys from the girls?”
“Sure. I’ll be round in the afternoon. Connor can help, learn how to make pens himself.”
Bart arrived early Saturday afternoon with wood and nails to build the rabbit pen. “Worked out what that creature of yours is yet Connor?”
“It’s a nay-nay.”
“A nay-nay. See it looks a bit like an aye-aye in its face, except the teeth are wrong and it doesn’t have that long middle finger that aye-ayes have.”
“Besides it can’t be an aye-aye. They come from Madagascar, not Idaho. So if it looks like an aye-aye but isn’t one, it must be a nay-nay.”
“So what you’re saying is you don’t know.”
“Something like that. Anyway, whatever it is, I’ve called him Idaho, ‘cause that’s where he was found.”
“So it’s a boy, is it?”
“Oh yeah. I can see it’s got balls.”
“Whoa young man, too much information.”
“But uncle Bart, I’ve got to know these things if I want to separate boys from girls, don’t I?”
Bart sighed. Kids grew up so quick, he thought. “Suppose so, kiddo. So, how’s this Idaho doing?”
“Oh, he’s doing fine. Took him to Mr Schwarzwald for a check over. His leg’s not broken, just bruised. And we’re keeping that wound clean.”
“And does Bernie Schwarzwald know what it is?”
Connor paused in what he was doing. “No, strange that. You’d have thought a vet would know what animals were what, wouldn’t you?”
“Not necessarily, not if all he’s ever dealt with is domestic animals.”
“Anyway, Mr Schwarzwald has a friend who’s a zoologist, and he’s going to send this guy some pictures, see if he can identify him.”
“So what’s Idaho eat?”
“Oh, just about everything I give him, as long as it’s fresh. Fruit, nuts, vegetables as well as a bit of fresh meat. Likes flowers too.”
“Well, Ethan bought her a large bunch for her birthday and Idaho ate them.”
Bart laughed. Then he looked at Connor seriously. Shona had been seeing Ethan Mayer for a few months now. “You don’t like your mom seeing this guy, do you.” Connor became quiet, but eventually shook his head. “Look kid, it’s been a while since your dad died. One day you’ll leave…”
“No I won’t.”
“Yes you will. It’s only natural. One day you’re going to want to go out in the world, and you’ll leave your mom behind. Even if you visit often, she’ll still be alone a lot of the time. It’s time she found someone.”
“But not him. He tries to take over.”
Bart sighed. “Look Bart, your dad was a very special person in your mom’s life. If she’s to find a prince to replace him, she’s got to kiss a few frogs first. Right? Between you and me, I don’t think much of this Ethan Mayer either. I’ll have a quiet word with your mum, but remember, she’s a big girl, it’s her choice. And I for one trust her judgement. And just because this Ethan Mayer thinks she’s the one for him, doesn’t mean she’s mad about him. Okay?”
“Okay,” Connor said reluctantly, wondering whether to keep the frog analogy in his head; he rather liked frogs.
Spring progressed into summer. Idaho continued to thrive, continued to put on weight, his nose growing from a cute button to a pronounced snout. His wounds healed, his bruised leg improved. He enjoyed the company of both dogs and cats, all of which accepted him. There were times though that he would stand out in the back yard on his hind legs, sniffing the night air. Connor knew that soon it would be time to take him back to the woods. Although looking forward too the camping trip with his uncle, he was not looking forward to saying goodbye to this little fellow.
Mr Schwarzwald had arranged for Bill, an acquaintance in Idaho, someone familiar with the local wildlife, to meet up with Connor and Bart to see if he could identify what the nay-nay actually was.
“What if he doesn’t want to leave us?” Connor would ask Bart.
“Then that’s his choice. But we’ll be there a couple of weeks. Plenty of time for him to decide what he wants to do. What do you think?”
Connor paused before answering. “I reckon he wants to be wild.”
Ethan continued to visit. Whenever he came round, the dogs didn’t greet him like they greeted all other visitors to the house. They kept out the way. The cats likewise tried to avoid him.
Idaho would watch how the dogs and the cats reacted, would crouch under a cupboard where he kept an eye on things.
It was a Friday evening, the day before Connor and Bart were due to leave on their camping trip. Connor’s bags were packed. He’d wanted this last evening alone with his mom, but Ethan Mayer had invited himself round for dinner. Connor could hear from his position at the top of the stairs that he and Shona were having a heated discussion as she prepared the meal. Shona had planned on going out with friends the following day, old friends meeting up for lunch, spending the day together. Ethan didn’t like the idea of her spending time with anyone other than him, but Shona was adamant.
“The thing is, Ethan, we girls have been together since long before I knew you. Couldn’t have made it through Tom’s death without their support.”
“But you’ve got me now.”
“And you want to have discussions with me about my dead husband do you?” Boy, mom had it really bad tonight. “Connor, dinner,” she called before moving into the kitchen to get the food.
Connor came downstairs in time to see Ethan looking around angrily for something to kick. His eyes landed on Pencil, a skinny tabby with a pencil-thin tail. His foot connected with the cat who squealed and flew across the room. Dogs barked, cats howled. And Idaho watched from beneath the cupboard.
“What the hell is all this noise?” Shona yelled as she came in the room.
“Damned cat got under my feet and I tripped over it. You see, this is what comes from having all these damned creatures around?”
“He’s lying mom. He kicked Pencil. Just because you said no to him. Just because you started talking about dad.”
“You little brat. The sooner you’re gone the better.”
“Enough, both of you. Ethan, you’d better leave.”
“Leave? But you invited me to dinner, so as it’s ready, I’ll stay for now, if it’s all the same to you.” And he sat at the head of the table, waiting for his meal.
Shona sighed, went into the kitchen and brought through the food. “Sit down please, Connor,” she said in her ‘I’m-being-serious-so-don’t-mess-with-me’ voice.
Connor reluctantly slid into the chair next to Ethan. His mom had gone to a lot of effort for this evening as it was to be his last at home for a couple of weeks. She smiled at him weakly from across the table, and he knew he had to try for her sake. He focussed his thoughts on the food, tried to imagine that it was Uncle Bart sat there rather than Ethan. Tried to imagine it was his dad.
Ethan made an attempt at conversation, but Shona sighed and said “Just eat. We can discuss this later.”
Oh no, thought Connor. She’s going to forgive him. He kicked Pencil, and she’s going to forgive him and let him stay the night. She’ll probably call off seeing her friends tomorrow too. And I’ll be gone and won’t be here to stop him.
The meal continued in silence until Connor heard a sharp intake of breath coming from Ethan. Connor looked down. There was Idaho, his claws wrapped around Ethan’s ankle, his teeth sunk into his leg. The sparse hair on his back now seemed to have hardened into lush thatch of bristles. His mom noticed nothing. Connor wondered what he should do, yet other than that first indication that he’d felt something, Ethan didn’t seem to notice.
“Damned mozzies,” Ethan said eventually and swiped at his leg. Idaho backed off, slinking back beneath the cupboard, his bristles shrinking back to the sparse hair they had been.
The meal eventually over, Connor hung around to help his mother, but also to keep an eye on how Ethan would be. Had he noticed Idaho? Would he report the creature, demand that it be put down? But if he had noticed, why hadn’t he said anything at the time?
“You’d better leave now. I’ve got stuff to get ready for Connor’s trip tomorrow.”
“You’ve not got it ready yet? I’d have thought you’d be more organised. That’s what comes with having so much chaos around.”
“Okay, so you’ve insulted me, you’ve kicked my cat and you’ve called my son a brat. All in one evening. So, tonight I finish helping my son get ready for his trip, and tomorrow I go see friends. Oh, and I’ll probably be seeing my parents on Sunday too. Or perhaps I should ditch them too? What do you think?” Ethan said nothing. “You know where the door is,” she said turning away. “I’ll give you a call sometime next week. Maybe.”
Not knowing what else to say, Ethan glared at Shona’s retreating back before leaving. Connor stood there open-mouthed.
“Well young man, are you going to help me with the dishes?” Shona called from within the kitchen.
“Mom,” Connor said, “Does this mean you’ve finished with him?”
“Probably. Yes. Should have done it a long time ago.” She paused. “Do you think he got the message?”
“I hope so.”
The following day Uncle Bart came early to pick up Connor and Idaho. His car filled with camping gear, they were soon off. Idaho it seemed was ready to go. He’d followed Connor round the house, overseeing everything that went into the car, getting into the car when it was time. When the doors were closed, he stood on his hind legs by the window.
The journey was uneventful. Whenever they needed to stop, Idaho would settle down in the footwell, out of site. Otherwise he watched the passing miles. If another car spotted him, he just looked like some strange looking dog.
Bart and Connor arrived at the campsite later afternoon. They’d called ahead when they were close and Bill was there to meet them. Bill, Connor could see, was native American, dressed in denims and checked shirt. He greeted them, welcomed them to the area, and then went to look at Idaho. The creature looked up at him with knowing eyes. Bill looked at the creature and remained silent for a long time while Idaho chattered away in his curious clicks and squeaks.
“You say you took him from here?” he asked eventually.
“The creature was injured,” Bart replied. “Didn’t know what it was, didn’t know if there were any vets around, so I took it back for my nephew to look after. He’s good with animals.”
“And now you’ve brought it back?”
“Yes. That was always the plan.”
Bill paused. “You have done best to leave it. Its own kind would have found it, taken care of it.”
“I wasn’t to know, and there was nobody to ask.”
“I’m sure you meant well, and he doesn’t seem to have come to harm.”
“You know what it is then?”
Bill paused again before taking a deep breath. “I might be wrong, but I believe it’s a pukwudgie.”
“A pug-what?” asked Bart.
“A puckwudgie. A creature of the forest. Most people will say they don’t exist, but these woods are so vast, who’s to say what lives in them? Anyway, sometimes they’re seen, but often not without consequences. Was this one young when you got it?” he asked Connor.
“Well, he’s grown since we got him.”
“How many people have seen him?”
“Only Mr. Schwarzwald. And my mom of course. Mr. Schwarzwald said it was best to keep quiet about him.”
“What about Ethan,” asked Bart. “He must have seen him.”
“Ethan was some jerk my sister’s been dating. Isn’t that right, Connor.”
“Yes, though I’m not sure he ever saw Idaho. He used to hide himself away whenever anyone called. Even the dogs and cats hid themselves away when Ethan came round. He and mom fell out last night.”
“Did they. What’d he do?”
Connor told them about the row they’d had, how Ethan had kicked Pencil, and how Idaho bitten Ethan.
“Bet he was mad as hell about that,” Bart said.
“That’s the funny thing, Uncle Bart. It’s like he didn’t notice. And when he did, he thought it was mozzies.”
“Hmm,” Bill said thoughtfully. “Looks like this Ethan upset our little friend here. That might not be good for him. Best stick with the mosquito story if anyone asks.”
“Why, what’s going to happen to him?”
“Don’t know. But if something does go wrong, we don’t want anyone hunting for Idaho up here, do we? So, mosquitos, agreed?”
“Agreed,” said Bart.
“Mozzies,” said Connor.
So, lets get camp set up. If this is where you found him, chances are there’s more not too far away. Maybe with any luck they’ll come and claim their lost youngster.”
Bart and Connor put up their tent. Bill stayed out in the open. “To keep an eye out for bears and wolves, though there’s plenty of game for them this time of year. Leave your tent flap open Connor. Then Idaho can come out if he wants to.
It was about 2am when Idaho got up and wandered out of the tent. Connor sat there waiting, listening to the calls the animal made. After about fifteen minutes, Idaho came back in the tent and curled up again.
“Calling to his family,” is what Bill said in the morning. The next night he ventured out as night fell, returning about half an hour after they’d gone to bed. Each day he went further, explored more. Though they cooked for themselves and brought provisions for Idaho, the creature seemed to know how to get food for itself.
On the ninth evening, there was a call in the wood behind them, a shrill piercing call that made Idaho sit up and take notice. The call came again, and this time Idaho called back. Soon after he wandered off into the night and did not return.
“Has he gone?” asked Connor.
“No, he’s returned,” Bill said. To his family. As you will in a few days’ time. You did good by him, cared for him well, but he’s where he belongs now. You weren’t expecting a tearful goodbye, were you?”
Connor thought for a while. “When I’ve cared for wild animals in the past, say it’s a goose, when I let it go, then if I see another goose, it’s like I’m seeing the one I cared for, even though it isn’t. But I’ll never see another like him will I?”
“No, they’re only creatures on myth after all.”
Connor and Bart returned home a few days later. It was a quiet journey home, Connor sad that Idaho had left to go in the woods, but pleased there was a good outcome.
Shona too was in a good mood when they got back. There’d been no word from Ethan, and she hoped he’d got the message.
But Ethan hadn’t got the message. In fact he wasn’t getting many messages at all. He’d planned to take a couple of weeks off himself, so was not initially missed.
By the time he was found, almost four weeks later, he was in a bad way, not having eaten or drunk much for a while. He was taken into hospital, sedated, rehydrated, tested for bacteria, viruses and parasites. There were no conclusions as to what his illness might be, other than some sort of rapid onset dementia – he appeared to not know anyone, anything. He was admitted to Sunny Hill sanitorium where he would spend the rest of his days. One nurse noticed a bite mark on his leg, but the doctor dismissed it. After all, there were an awful lot of mosquitos around at this time of year.