It is the first day of winter in the Altai mountains – the place where Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan come together. The majestic golden eagle, the Grey wolf, Eurasian lynx, snow leopard and the brown bear roam around the layers of the snowy mountain range. My name is Leo the leopard and my mother’s name is Lucia. We live on a steep hill, overlooking the frozen, forgotten valley down below. Tomorrow mummy says I have to leave home and go off into the unknown wilderness on my own. I am scared and I don’t know what to do. ‘Til next time, bye, bye.
I glanced at my mum’s pale green eyes and her spotted white-grey coat, for the last time, standing on a blanket of melting snow.
“Woooooolf! Woooolf! It’s time, Leo!”
“Woolf! No, mum I can’t, I don’t want to go!”
“I know, sweet Leo. I know you don’t want to go, but we’ve talked about this already. I said, in a few months, when you turn two, life will be a little different – you’ll have to leave the me and wander the wild alone. Don’t worry Leo, you’ll see you’ll make lots of new friends in the wild. You know, when I was two, I too had to leave my mother and go off by myself into the wild. It’s the way things have always been and the way they continue to be, Leo.”
When she came closer for the last time and nudged me on my furry little head, I sunk my paws in the snow deeper to retain my position, but the snow was too thin and soft, so it didn’t work. Then mum put her thick, warm paws around me, squashing me like a bug, before slightly opening her jaws to smile.
I conjured a crooked smile, wishing I could melt into the miserable snow.
“Run, Leo! Run, Leo!” mum cried.
“Run and don’t come back!”
I did as she instructed and began to run away.
“Don’t come back Leo; you’ll find your way! You’ll find your way!”
I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to hug her again and never let her go. It wasn’t fair. Why do things have to be this way? But deep down I knew the right thing to do is to listen to her. I knew she was right – it was time for me to leave the nest even though it was the last thing I wanted to do in the world.
The further I ran north, the quieter her voice became, and at some point, my old life disappeared forever.
Snowflakes, the size of tennis balls, fell out of the sky, covering the green earth below. Through long, frost-clothed paths I trod, finding my way in the snow. When I was a cub, my mother did not leave me out of her sight. She gave me shelter, food and love, but now I don’t have her. I don’t have anyone, I thought.
The Altai mountains rose over the sky. Their ruler-straight snow-white peeks beamed in the lemon sun. Right before me slept a river, similar to the one I played in with mum when I was a little cub. “Leo, don’t go too deep into the water!” I heard my mother’s high-pitched howl – the comforting sound of home. Mum, how come there are mountains in the water? I’d ask her. She’d tilt her head back, stretch her paws out and laugh at me, and say, oh, silly Leo, there are no mountains in the river, the clear water is just reflecting its mountains.
Small and bulky shrubs grew in the milky terrain. Shrunk and pale blue, red, orange-coloured wild-flowers were scattered along the swollen meadows, waving in the frosty wind. As I got closer to the mountain, the wild frozen flowers disappeared, and the tall trees, covered in layers of long, dense branches appeared, obstructing the lemon light. Darkness loomed over me.
Suddenly, I heard a sound of a mysteriously loud grunting coming from the distance. At first, I suspected it might be the cry of a blue nightingale, but when I come closer, I spotted two long antlers laying on the grassy woodlands. Quietly approaching the scene, I saw an abandoned deer laying in close range. Around its head was a thin, metal wire. Its blood smelt sweet and I my stomach was growling. Could it be free food? I thought to myself, as I followed the gripping scent of deer.
All of a sudden, I heard humans talk.
“Alright boys, let’s load the beast in the truck!”
“We are feasting tonight, boys!” another one shouted.
“Wait, do you hear that, Yankov.”
“Don’t move,” another man whispered.
“Did you bring a rifle, Vinnie? I think I see a snow leopard.”
“Shall we go and inspect?”
“Of course. We’ll sell it first thing tomorrow morning. People pay good money for leopard’s fur.”
I couldn’t understand the creatures, but my instinct whispered that something was wrong. In an instant, the tall, bearded creatures began to slowly walk in my direction.
I began to turn back and retreat when I heard thundering footsteps came charging towards me.
“Look, can you see it? It’s behind that tall tree. If we just come closer, we can take a shot.” In the blink of an eye, I heard a loud explosive sound. It pierced my little ears, making me jolt. My stomach dropped to my paws and sheer fear ran through my spine. I began to run.
I didn’t stop to think. Suddenly, I bumped into something furry and froze still.
“Oouch!” A scary brown creature was hovering over me.
“Don’t you look where you’re going?” It boomed.
“It’s okay. Don’t be scared. I won’t eat you. I doubt my belly would be fond of snow leopards or any other animal. I’m a vegetarian. By the way, my name is Benny the Bear. What’s yours?”
I sprang my eyes wide open and said nothing.
“Don’t you have a name?” the giant, round creature asked me.
“Or should I call you Snowy?”
I took a deep, shaky breath in and then, I let it out.
“My name is…is…Leo, Leo the Leopard.”
“Ah, great name.” Then the round creature scanned me up and down, scratched his round hairy head and wiggled his rounded ears.
“I’m going to take a wild guess. It’s your first day out on your own, young man. Am I right?”
“What’s the matter, did you swallow your tongue?”
I nodded.Then, another slightly smaller brown creature appeared in between the trees.
“Benny, I told you to stop picking on cubs.” She came closer and peered into my blue eyes.
“Who may you be, young man?”
“Did this big ogre scare you, Leo? He thinks he’s the boss around these parts.”
“Don’t listen to her, Leo, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”
The smaller creature let out a mocking chuckle. “Will you cut it out, you are scaring the poor thing.” She smiled and added, “My name is Barbara, what’s your name?
“Leo,” I replied as I looked down at my shaking paws.
Then, the smaller creature with kind eyes turned to her brother, signalling something at him.
“No way, we’re not bringing him back with us.”
“The boy is lost, and it’s hunting season,” she shot back.
“Fine, but you’ll have to care for him yourself.”
“I will. Don’t you worry.”
Then the smaller creature turned to me. “Me and Benny are going south, where there are less hunters and more food, would you like to come with us?”
I don’t know what came over me, but I said yes.