The Bitter Hopes of Spring

A short story by Damien Smethurst

It had been a harsh winter, the worst any of them could remember, but now, with the first scent of spring in the air, the four survivors made their way outside, ready to begin the daily forage for food. Just on the other side of the hill in which they had made their shelter, the remains of a town glistened in the snow, a reminder of when times had been much better for everyone.

Now, there was just the four of them, and although the sun was shining and the snow finally beginning to melt, one of them was still worried, perhaps even more worried now than she had been at any time during the winter that had just passed, when one by one most of their companions had died either of the cold or starvation, or a combination of the two.

Shyla had, in her mind anyway, a very good reason to be worried. She was the only female to have survived the winter, and while before the males had been too busy trying to survive themselves to worry about anything else, she knew that with the spring would come a need for her to pick a mate. The main problem she had with this was that it was going to leave the other two disappointed, and that could lead to conflict among the group.

She decided to make a suggestion, in the hope that she could stave off the trouble she could sense would erupt in the group once she made her choice of mate. It was important to her that they continue to work together and remain close, as she knew another winter like this one would kill them all if they lost that camaraderie.

Calling to the other three, Shyla put her proposal to them. She wanted to go and explore, look for other survivors. They couldn't be the only group to have made it through the winter, and they all knew that there was more safety for each of them the larger a group they were a part of. She didn't mention her main reasons for wanting to find another group though, as she felt it would be wiser to keep her own counsel on that for now.

Searching for other survivors would focus the guys minds on the task in hand, and would hopefully distract them from the fact that it was spring, the time of year when the urge to create new life was at its greatest, and the fact that there was only one female to go between them. She also hoped that they might find a group in which the females outnumbered the males, and so give the two that she would inevitably reject a chance to find someone else.

There was a brief discussion amongst them once she had stated her case, but it was clear to the others that her assertions were correct, and so before too much time had passed they were ready to begin their search. The main topic of discussion had been whether they should all go together, or search in different directions, meeting up back at the shelter each evening.

It was decided that it would be best to travel together, and to just pick one direction and keep to it, as they would be sure to come across some signs of life eventually. Going out alone would be more dangerous. They were all well aware that it would be dangerous out there, and that even should they find another group they may not be made welcome. Safety in numbers was the message preached continuously by Shyla, and the others saw the sense in her arguments.

It was still early morning when they set out on their trek, having first had a small breakfast of berries that they had saved from the previous evening. It wasn't the most appetizing way to begin a day, but with snow still on the ground it was difficult to find food sometimes. They were all confident that they would be able to find more as they searched, and equally sure that they would be able to find somewhere to shelter when it got late and they were too tired to continue for the day.

As they ambled along, checking for signs of other survivors and any food that may be easily spotted from the path they were taking, Shyla assessed her three companions, knowing that this journey would only provide a temporary distraction to them, and that she would be forced to choose a mate sooner or later.

They had always known one another, and had similar upbringings, yet the three of them could not have been more different personality wise. The eldest was Jafan, although personality wise he was by far the least mature member of the group, and was constantly playing pranks on the others. He was intelligent though, and was much better at the rest of them at finding food, and so they happily put up with his regularly idiotic, and occasionally dangerous stunts.

Next there was Taye. He was the quiet one, and liked to keep his own counsel on matters of importance to the group. When he did decide to raise his head above the parapet to voice an opinion, however, the others always listened to what he had to say. The general feeling in the group was that Taye would only speak when he absolutely had to, and then it was always in order to avoid someone in the group making a disastrous decision.

Finally there was Kito, who was constantly trying to make up for the fact that he was the youngest by trying to prove he was tougher and stronger than the others. His bravery was unquestionable, but he sometimes found himself in dangerous situations because of it, and had twice been rescued from certain death by the timely arrival of Jafan. This, of course, only served to make him more determined to prove that he could get by without this assistance.

It was, as is often the case with the young, a never ending circle. He tried to prove himself, failed, and so became even more determined to try again.

No, he was too young, too rash, for Shyla to pick him as a mate. He may be stronger and faster than the other two, and obviously his youthful energy was fun to be around, but his never ending need to prove himself made him the least likely member of the group to survive in the long term, and if Shyla was going to pick a mate then she wanted it to be the one that could be there for their children in the long term.

This left a straight choice between Jafan or Taye, both of whom had very good qualities that would serve them well as potential parents. The problem was, that although they were undoubtedly skilled at the more practical things, neither of them struck Shyla as long term mate material. Taye was too quiet, too reserved for her liking, and although Jafan was fun to be around, she was sure that his pranks would grow old on her after a while.

Plus, did she really want her children to have a role model that never really took anything seriously?

It was going to be a tough decision, whichever one she went for in the end. All she could do for now was to hope that …..

The attack had come from nowhere. As the four companions had come to the edge of a field, they had started to follow the path into the wooded area beyond. They had barely gone a few feet into the gloom of the trees when Jafan, leading the group due to his seniority, heard a noise that he was familiar with, but had hoped not to hear ever again, especially not here, today, as the group set out in the hope of finding others like them, fellow survivors.

Being the eldest, he had already reached the same conclusion as Shyla had about the group dynamics, and how two of them were going to be disappointed. He didn't think that Taye and Kito had worked this out yet, although it was impossible to tell. Maybe the reason for Kito's rash bravado was because he was trying to catch the attention of Shyla and show that he was the best candidate for her to choose as mate, although nothing had ever been said.

As for Taye, the fact that he had never broached the subject meant nothing. He was renowned for keeping himself to himself. He was certainly very intelligent, but it was impossible to ever know what was going on in his mind.

Now, turning around at the sound of a scream, Jafan realized that any thoughts on the matter were now redundant. He had no idea where it had come from, as he had instinctively been heading into the wind in order to detect the scent of any such predator. Yet his senses had failed him, and as a result Shyla, that lovely young thing that he thought of almost like a daughter, had been taken.

There was no time for remorse now though. There could be a whole pack of them out there, and if so it meant the rest of them were in imminent danger as well. With a grunt of alarm that he knew was far too late to save Shyla, he called the others to him, and the three remaining rabbits ran into the undergrowth, hoping to avoid any more foxes that might be out there.