I continued to range throughout the M’an-nest, as much as I could. I don’t think I would have had the energy for it if it hadn’t been for meeting the strange Big One–the one who looks and smells of both fox and M’an. (I cannot imagine how so many strange beings have come into existance, or why they seem to congregate here.) He told me he makes his nest outside the wall, not too far from where we Folk hold our Meetings, and he offered to share his catch of voles with me. Though I shall do my best not to abuse such hospitality, as game grows more and more scarce, it will certainly help to keep me at least reasonably well fed.
A few nights after Petalpad’s entrapment, as I was skirting the edge of one of the few large green spaces in the M’an-nest, I suddenly heard an anguished yowling from across the snowy expanse. Abandoning stealth, I tore across the snow, homing on on the sound, and found Leaffrost, a female a few weeks younger than I, pacing inside a metal box. She bounded to a wall, peering through the bars as I skidded to a halt beside it.
“M’anchild!” she called. I winced a bit, but let it pass. There were far more important matters at stake here. Leaffrost pressed up against the bars. “Can you do anything? Is it possible? I don’t want to die!”
“I’ll try,” I replied, nuzzing her as well as I could. “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll try. Just be quiet a moment.” Her cries died down to whimpers. I could deal with that.
I went around to one of the shorter sides, and sure enough, I saw the round metal pieces of the door, and the horizontal metal piece the Big One had raised to open the door. Sniffing carefully at it, I found a metal knob attached to it. I gripped that between my teeth, raised it up as high as it would go, and tried to slide the metal bar to the side. It wouldn’t move. I tried again. It still wouldn’t move. Growling in frustration, I let go and sat back. Leaffrost’s whimpers threatened to increase, and I told her, “Quiet!”
I summoned the memory of the Big One’s retrieval of Petalpad from the box to my mind. I’m sure my eyes took on their fargazing stare as I studied that memory over and over again. And finally, I saw it–the Big One had only lifted the horizontal metal bar *part way* up before sliding it back.
I leaned forward and grasped the knob again, lifting it a little way up and trying to slide the metal bar. Nothing.
I lifted it a little more and tried again. Nothing.
I lifted it a little more and tried again. The bar slid effortlessly back. The door swung open a little.
I was nearly bowled over by Leaffrost as she shouldered her way out of the box. And nearly bowled over again as she nuzzled me hard. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” she cried.
“All right, all right,” I said, gently shoving her away a little. Now that she was free, though, I was finally able to see her condition–swollen belly, but gaunt elsewhere–and I felt rather more sympathy for her. I looked back at the plate of food sitting in the box, and suddenly wrinkled my nose mischeviously. “Well, no sense in letting that go to waste…”
“What?” she asked, aghast. “I can’t go back in there!”
“You don’t have to.” After making sure the door was well open, I stepped cautiously inside the box, bit down on the edge of the plate, and dragged it out.
I ate some of the tuna, but I was content to watch Leaffrost gobble most of it down. As I watched her, I realized that, so long as the cold and snow and dminished supply of prey continued, there would be those of the Folk who would not be able to resist trying to obtain such food, even though they’d been told about these M’an-traps. My vigil was only just starting.
I groomed Leaffrost a little as she licked up the last morsels. “Are you all right now?” I asked.
“Yes.” She ducked her head. “Thank you again.”
“Just be sure you don’t do this again, no matter how hungry you are.”
“I won’t. I promise!” With a last lick at my nose, she bounded away into the night. I went in a different direction, ready for some hunting before finding a place to sleep.