Inspired by the popular myth of Mokele-Mbembe, Africa’s last living dinosaur (a legend that National Geographic, History Channel, BBC, and 150+ expeditions have chased), Shepherd Wilds is a modern YA twist on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World—a type of story that died out as cartographers mapped the earth, satellites blanketed the sky, and mythical creatures went extinct, when encyclopedias catalogued every variation of life on the planet. This is a story about finding something new in a world that we thought had nothing left to give.
“There is always something new and strange, out of Africa.”
- Pliny the Elder (Roman Author)
If you want to know what happened, you can read the news. If you want to know what happened to me, here’s the fairy tale.
My parents called me fireweed. “You’re joking,” I said. They weren’t. They thought it was funny how annoyed I got. So it stuck. Real mature. It made me sound like a huge pothead or just like a flaming weed running rampant through people’s gardens. They said “fire” sort of fit my personality. I said “weed” sort of represented my role in the family. They didn’t think that was too funny. I think it hit too close to home.
The truth is, fireweed is one of the most beautiful flowers in southeast Alaska. We call it “summer’s timekeeper” because you can always tell the time of year based on the blooms. Right now, at the end of summer, everything was full bloom. There were fields of the tall stalks, like meadows of royal snapdragons.
I told my parents never to call me fireweed in public and they said no problem. I knew it wouldn’t be a problem because they were never home. They were too busy pretending like studying lizard shit and muddy pond water was like working for the CIA.
So I stayed with my grandparents a lot. Grandma would ask me why I preferred dirt to hair brushes and why couldn’t I be like the other girls at school. Grandpa said that I was a real ‘ray of sunshine’ because I sounded like a seventy year old woman inside a seventeen year old girl’s body. I said, “Yeah, well look who I spend all my time with.” He said he was only sixty eight and I’d better watch my mouth or I’d be chopping firewood. Chopping firewood sucks. Your whole body aches after like an hour and then you watch a day’s work burn up in seconds.
But in two weeks, I’d be eighteen and everything would change. I’d be smarter for one. Obviously. But more importantly, I’d legally be allowed to do whatever the hell I wanted. First I’d head to Canada to put an end to the government-sanctioned cull where guys were gunning down wolves with machine guns from helicopters. Then I’d kayak up to ANWR and sabotage the oil sites. Then I’d head to the Philippines, a tropical paradise away from the cold where I could dive Tubbataha, one of the most pristine reefs left in the world before it got bleached.
I’d learned that pretty much any wilderness that was actually beautiful would likely be destroyed by the time I’d saved up enough money to leave southeast Alaska. I’d been lucky enough to be born in the middle of the sixth extinction, just in time to watch the last of the wildlife die. It might sound like I’m from the far future, but I was born in 2001. I’d read a study once that said, “Look around, kill half of what you see. That’s the type of biodiversity loss that we’re expecting by 2050.” So lucky me, I’d be alive to watch the world burn.
Anyways, my grandparents just called me Bell. Everybody thinks that it’s Belle with an “e” like the Disney princess. But it’s just Bell, without the “e”, like steel. I don’t shake songbirds from my hair and make music by brushing dandelions and daffodils against my skin. I spend my time running across my island while everyone tells me I’m an idiot because it’s in a bear’s blood to chase what runs.
The Tlingit called the island Kootznoowoo. “Fortress of Bears”. The Russians had another word for it. Ostrov Kutsnoi. “Fear Island”. I called it paradise, my own lost world, where I washed away the anxieties that festered in the city.
Out here, I was free. I spent hours watching the bears. Everyone calls them grizzlies, but technically they’re brown bears. Grizzlies sounds cooler though. I’d sit and watch them dig for clams against the dawn, chestnut fur rippling and glowing in the dappled sunlight, dragging claws like rakes through tidal silt, and licking their lips like cartoon characters savoring every bite. When they stood on their hind legs at twelve feet, the raw power was just awe-inspiring, especially when they got hit by sunbeams breaking through sucker holes in the storm clouds.
Every chance I got, I ditched my grandparents, went out to my parents’ cabin on the island and started running, hoping I’d find some new secret cove or glade, hide out from the world, and never be seen again. In my fantasy, no tourists would be around to destroy the things that I loved. But that’s not how the world works. The world is full of people and people break stuff.
So usually I just ended up cutting hunter’s snares, messing with the guys who worked at the mine, or inventing obstacle courses until I fell.
Today, I fell.
* * *
Something slimy crawled across my face, like a giant slug oozing across my cheek. It stopped. I felt mist playing on my skin. It was nice compared to the fire pulsing through my skull. On my left cheek—water and cool mud. The slug was back, sliding across my right cheek.
My eyes fluttered open and I saw Grizz dragging his tongue across my cheek.
“Dude.” I pushed him away.
He yipped happily, white fur bristling like an avalanche cut by charcoal tiger stripes. His tongue spilled out and he started wagging his tail. We were in a pack.
I sat up, palm pressing into the quartz splinters to steady myself. My head was spinning.
“How long was I out?”
Grizz didn’t know.
I looked around. Hard to tell. No sun in the sky. It was just spitting out, deciding if it actually wanted to rain. I glanced back up at the spine—the granite backbone that split my corner of the island from the rest, like a geological monster that had tried to break through the earth’s crust but got stuck halfway through and left its vertebrae for me to climb into the clouds. It was really just some rocks that I’d tried to climb without a harness.
I had some sort of vision right before I fell though. Actually, the doctor says that they’re not visions. They’re dreams. In hindsight, they always feel like visions, like they happened before I fainted, but in reality I’m just dreaming. He said it’s actually a good thing that I’m dreaming because that’s how I can tell it’s not a seizure. So anyways, that’s why I slipped. I fainted fifteen feet up. Usually that meant something bad had happened somewhere. Vague, I know, but it was just a feeling I got before I fell.
I couldn’t remember what I’d seen in my vision. It wasn’t the usual nightmare where a screaming woman in some medieval torture chamber got hot iron poured down her throat until she cooled into a steel statue the way that cities pave forests. She was me. I was earth. The iron was us. It wasn’t that dream though. It was something else, something bad.
The doctor didn’t really know why I was having these fainting spells. He said that it was just exhaustion, that I was running my body into the ground and I needed to get some sleep and stop pushing my body to the point of failure. I was skeptical. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” I said.
“Yeah, at this rate…”
Grizz was a real stand up guy. He was always keeping me honest.
I climbed to my feet.
Grizz barked again and stuck his nose in the grass, sniffing something in the muskeg. It was a patch of snapping bells—flowers shaped like snow-white tulips, spattered with red polka dots. They were pretty until you touched them. It was some new species that Dad named after me as a tribute to my patience. Kind of like venus fly traps, their petals could snap like crocodiles if the paper wings of swallowtails got too close. I saw them less and less. They needed it to be just the right amount of cold out and the snow melted sooner every year. “And Dad says we gotta keep them secret or big pharma will harvest the last of them.”
Grizz kept sniffing the flowers.
He barked at the flowers.
“What the hell do you want?” I snapped.
He licked one. The porcelain petals snapped shut and a crimson dot smeared like he’d just licked red paint across the petal. Apparently, not all of the polka dots were part of the petal’s pigment. There were a few ruby spheres glistening like dew drops. Blood spatter.