The Snowager's Cave
Portia stepped outside into the icy air. The cold wind cut through the many layers of thick winter clothing she wore. She thought back to several hours before, remembering how her mom had frantically searched through the small family’s closet, unable to find a single non-decorative jacket. She had eventually given up, and simply sent Portia on her way with several scarves and a Brown Winter Hat, despite Portia’s many protests. “None of the others ever have to go out and run your errands, Mom! It’s only ever me!” Now Portia wished she hadn’t yelled. She knew her mom sent her to run the errands because she trusted Portia, much more than any of her sisters. She was grateful for that. But that didn’t make her any happier about having to complete this dangerous task.
She envied her sisters right now. They were all back at home, enjoying warm, summery weather. They got to go bask in the sunlight near one of the ponds surrounding the house, if they wanted to. They could go play outside on the trampoline, without a care in the world. Portia was stuck bundled in half a dozen layers of thick clothing, freezing her tail off at the base of Terror Mountain. Life was so unfair.
With extreme difficulty, Portia refocused herself on her job. Her mom was counting on her. She forced herself to picture her mom’s face, to imagine the excitement that would surely be there if she succeeded. She smiled to herself. Her entire world was brighter when her mom was happy. Portia was generally a shining beacon of positivity, the foil to some of her sisters and their gloomy dispositions. But she certainly wasn’t feeling optimistic now. She shuddered violently. Thinking about what she was going to do wasn’t going to make it any easier to begin. She just had to do it.
She walked toward the foot of the mountain. It seemed awfully high. She contemplated it, scanning the face for her sole objective. The seconds ticked by slowly as another blast of frozen air washed over her. She could hardly believe it was this cold. Wasn’t it the middle of summer?
With relief, the young Kougra spotted the tiny gap in the rocks. It was about halfway up the mountain, and it was there that she had to journey. She considered the opening. If she climbed efficiently, she might be able to return home before dinner. It didn’t seem likely to her - the cave seemed to be among the clouds - but it did seem possible.
She had already delayed as long as was possible. She sighed in resignation. She took the last few steps forward and placed her front paws on the ice-covered rock. She gasped loudly. While the cold air had been bad enough, it seemed like a warm breeze on Mystery Island compared to the agony of feeling the ice on her bare paws. She had forgotten her mittens at home. Her mom had even handed them to her! But she had put them down somewhere, and in her haste to leave she never picked them up again.
There was no choice now but to continue on. Portia firmly clenched her teeth to keep from crying out in pain. She lifted her back paws out of the loose, soft, powdery snow at the base of the mountain and began to climb. She slowly gained momentum. Each step was a fresh blow, the ice biting at her paws so that it hurt to take a single step. But she ignored the pain and pressed on, thinking of the gift she was giving her mom with each step. As time wore on, she discovered that taking smaller, faster steps meant that her paws spent less time touching the icy mountain, and so she reduced her suffering by walking faster. She also noticed, quite accidentally, that humming the Ice Cream Machine jingle was an excellent way to keep herself from thinking about what was coming. That would just make her more reluctant to continue on.
After several more minutes, her feet finally found level ground. She carefully hoisted herself onto the platform and sat down, panting heavily. She gazed in front of her at the sparkling Ice Caves. The mid-afternoon sun shone into the Caves, reflecting off every surface, blindingly bright in Portia’s eyes. She remained on the ledge for several seconds as her eyes adjusted, taking in the beauty of the view she had found. She could not understand why none of her sisters ever wanted to take this trip. The biting cold, the dangerous mission, all seemed insignificant when compared to this. The Caves were beyond belief, as was the view of the village below her, looking just like a greeting card. She just had to be careful not to look straight down. Portia hated heights.
She stood abruptly. She was wasting time. Her mom was still waiting for her. She didn’t want to delay. Much as she loved this part, she missed her warm home, missed her mother, almost even missed her sisters. She bounded forward into the Caves. This was the hour for action. She weaved her way through the various structures, moving swiftly and silently across the frozen ground. There were others around, throwing snowballs, making snow pets, and playing in the most carefree ways imaginable. Not Portia. Portia was on a mission. Portia had a goal, and her every movement reflected that sense of purpose.
She stood there, gazing into the dark cave. This was it. This was the reason she had come all this way. In a few minutes, she would learn whether or not the entire journey was a pointless endeavor.
She tried, without success, to see more than a foot into the darkness of the Snowager’s cave.
He slept three times a day, and this was one of the times her mom had predicted he would be asleep. She and her mom had gone over the plan many times. This was not the first time she had attempted this. And yet, every single time she tried, it was like it was the first. The horror gripped her as though she had never experienced it before, let alone experienced it hundreds of times prior to this one. But talking about doing this in the safety of her living room felt completely different than being at the mouth of the cave, preparing to actually put herself in the line of fire. Still, she had done it before. She had succeeded many times before. And been injured in the attempt many more times. Why did this feel different than all those other times?
She hesitated. For some reason, she could not bring herself to take the next step. Why? What was happening to her? It was never like this! Portia was usually the first to jump into things, always eager to prove herself, to make her mom proud of her. And yet, this time, faced with repeating a task she had performed many, many times before, she couldn’t do it. And all because of some silly hunch she had, that something - she didn’t know what - was going to be somehow different. It sounded ridiculous even in her head. But it was there, dominating her thoughts, and try as she might, her paws still refused to move forward.
She was being silly, she told herself. She had to just do it. Of course, her mom would always understand if she didn’t. But she didn’t want to see that look her mom would have. A look of disappointment would have been better, really. The look of understanding, of acceptance, of pity, was almost too much for Portia to bear, even in her imagination. So she took a deep breath and, unnoticed by anyone else around her, slipped into the shadows of the Snowager’s lair.
The cave seemed pitch-black, especially compared to the sparkling wonderland just outside. Portia was aware of every tiny movement in the cave. She could feel her breathing, and appreciated it as never before. She listened closely for several moments, until she heard the deep, slow breathing she had hoped to hear. The low rumbling meant that, for the time being, she was safe. The Snowager was asleep.
She inched further into the cave. She couldn’t afford to move any faster than that. She was as good as blind there. The darkness was absolute, except for the tiny rays of light from outside that bounced into this cave, and the faint glow she could see in the distance ahead of her, that she could only assume came from some of the objects the Snowager was hoarding. She focused her eyes on that glow. That was the only thing she could see, anyway, and it was why she had come.
She began walking much faster, forgetting the need for stealth and caution. She was so intent on that gigantic glowing pile of items that she almost forgot where she was. Suddenly, out of the gloom, the Snowager’s head appeared. It loomed out of the darkness without warning. Portia stopped in her tracks, suddenly panicked. She breathed quickly, in sharp pants. As she watched, though, she noticed that the Snowager’s head was upside down. Its eyes were closed. It had not seen her, and indeed, was still fast asleep on its back. Still, this was enough. Portia crept toward the pile now, as quietly and carefully as she could. Seeing that giant, icy head had reminded her of the danger of this place.
Without warning, Portia was at the base of the pile. It was much bigger than she had estimated. She was eager to leave by this point. She wasn’t going to climb all over the mounds of junk the Snowager was keeping. She would just sniff around the base, trying to find something, anything, of marginal value to bring home. That would be enough to appease her mom, and for her sisters to gasp in envy of the adventure she had been on.
Within moments, Portia stumbled on a Pink Negg. That would definitely be enough. She picked it up and held it carefully in her mouth, trying her best to not bite down and damage it. She turned around to leave, satisfied with her day’s work. To her horror, however, as she turned around, her tail brushed against the pile and knocked loose several hundred items in a sudden avalanche of junk. The deep, rhythmic breathing stopped.
Portia finished her turn slowly, and finally looked toward the mouth of the cave that was her only escape. The Snowager seemed enormous, filling the entire cave. The thick, dangerous coils of its body promised to inflict untold pain. But she knew that wasn’t what was going to happen here. She knew much, much worse was in store for her.
The Snowager opened its mouth and let out an earsplitting roar. Portia closed her eyes. She didn’t want to watch. She felt the shards of ice rain around her and over her body. Somehow, she didn’t feel their pain this time. She could feel the pressure, and with the impact came pain, but she did not feel the splinters of ice pierce her body. This time was different, after all.
Portia ran. She ran as fast as she could toward the mouth of the cave, Pink Negg still held between her jaws. She had not escaped injury this time. But she had escaped serious injury. And she had also managed to take a souvenir with her. As she came crashing back out into the Ice Caves, all the others outside stopped to stare at her. She ignored them and walked on, thinking hard about what had just happened.
It was all the clothes she had bundled up in, she decided. Instead of just wearing a single layer, she had worn several layers in a futile attempt to keep out the cold. They had protected her, providing a thick barrier against the ice the Snowager had tried to harm her with.
She knew she was lucky. She was hurt, but she was very, very lucky. She could just imagine her sisters’ faces when she described this one. She turned to make the journey back down the mountain. As she walked, she smiled.