I am always counting my cubs. Ever since we left the sett, I have been looking behind me and counting my cubs. One, two, three, four… and a sudden panic that I have lost one, until he bounds up from whatever turnip he was investigating to join us. A sudden flash of anger happens in me. ‘You had me so worried,’ I want to say to him. ‘Never stray from us again. You never know what might happen.’ And then I worry that when I was young, I might have made my mother feel this way, and I feel ashamed because at the time I didn’t care.
Shelter, you are turning me into a mother, and until now I have not had one maternal feeling in my body.
That brilliant feeling of freedom unleashed as we bound out of the darkness of the sett and into the bright light of day; me and the cubs, we are so excited. The only things I have to do today are growl, walk, run, and pull turnips and carrots from their little nesting holes so I can feed my cubs, who follow me wherever I go, and if they don’t I growl. As I scurry through the Japanese fronds of grass and through frothing white flowers, the cubs are worrying at some apple tree. They fade to grey when they are hungry and tired, so when I knock apples from trees for them I have to pick them up and feed the ones that need it most, or they will…
There’s that twinge again, when I see the faster, browner ones steal the food first, and the little grey one was too slow. I feel like I have failed. Next fox I see, I mentally promise myself, it will go to you, little one. I’m sorry I didn’t pick it up and give it to you, I should have known you were too slow. We’ll be okay. There is plenty of food in this vast forest, and we’re going exploring today. Look how beautiful it is! Look how the hedges and tall grass are waving at us, and the pale light is shining over the fallen oak trees…
I have decided to name my badger Ripley. There is something I always cruelly bring up to friends who are pregnant: the story of my fear of pregnancy, I say, always begins with my childhood memories of watching Alien when I was small. To me, the chestburster scene represents everything I fear about becoming pregnant. A small parasite growing in my body, feeding from my energy. Something that I ultimately can’t sustain. And then, when it is born, it will ruin me. They always laugh and tell me that they had the same fears, but that I would get over it. One friend told me that Aliens is the more important film. Because of Newt. She was right. I have to watch Aliens again.
So my badger is named after the second incarnation of Ripley. And as I sit quietly in this bush, right now, my heart thuds against my chest because I can’t see where my cubs are around me, and there is a bird high in the sky who wants to swoop down and eat them. I can’t count them, when we are hiding. I just have to trust that they are there. I have to trust they won’t run out into the street –
The field. I have to trust that they won’t run out into the field.
This moment here becomes the most tense of your journey in Shelter. It is this moment, where you are waiting in safety for your cubs to get to you, and you know there is a bird of prey up there, screeching and threatening to fly away with them, that you are the most scared. The dreadnaught flies overhead, its curling black shadows draping over your young and you are paralysed. You count them and urge them to you, you will yourself into a little badger magnet. You growl a few times to have them come to you. Come on, you think. Come on. You can make it.
It is night time now, and I have survived with all five. But this only makes it worse. They are a lot of mouths to feed, and now…
Now there are wolf growls, and my cubs squeak and run on ahead of me and I panic like crazy, growling for them to come back but they won’t – I learn to follow them, run up to them. Everything is horrible. The tall bamboo fronds seem jagged and unfriendly, like monsters by the water.
Leaves linger in my vision like little minnows, settling in the air, but I am trying to catch frogs by the stream without losing sight of my cubs. In order to catch frogs you must rush them and then bite, but the rush leaves your cubs behind, vulnerable outside of your vision, so I am afraid to do it. But they are getting hungry, and we have to get out of here. I have to feed them. I wander on, to see if there are turnips. Now I am running, to find food.
But one of my cubs falls out of my vision. There is a growl, a screech!
Now silence. I cry out at my monitor, and a feeling of intense sadness falls around me as only four cubs run up to my side. I feel numb as I carry on, and I wonder if I will get over it.
The situation only gets worse. Frogs are the only food we have found, and my catching them constantly has my cubs fall out of sight.
Agony, as another cub is lost to a silent black growl in the night. I feel huge loss, somehow, at the fact that a little badger graphic has disappeared. What a silly thing, I tell myself. What a silly thing.
Day breaks again, and we are in a bright forest. I run about with joy again: look cubs look! Look how many foxes are here!
One of my cubs is taken by a sprawling-winged bird. We hide in grasses for the rest of the day.
Later we come to a huge river, and I notice somehow that my cubs have gotten much bigger lately. Only two of them now, I think, and they are almost my size. Feeding two of them is so much easier, I think –
And I stop myself.
We have to cross the river here, and the rain is lashing down on us, swelling the riverbanks and making huge waves course down strong rapids. I dip my toes into the water to test it, and am almost swept away. I get it, I think. I have to get them across, somehow.
I time it so that we run across together, just after the last wave went. We make it, and I feel such triumph I run past about twenty turnips in celebration, even though the cubs are jumping up and down like fleas all over them. “Hahahaha we made it!” I yell at them, even though they are computer badgers. They are still busy with some turnips.
I lose one to river rapids soon after. I look at my remaining cub and promise myself nothing will happen to him. But now, the forest is on fire.
Great jagged flames crackle in our ears, it suddenly flares in front of us, coming towards us, almost taunting us to get close as if it were a matador. I am very afraid but we move forward, trying to find paths before it creeps up and consumes us. At least my cub is big now, stronger, faster, and we keep close as we run. We will find a way out.
Eventually, we run out onto a plain where the fire can’t touch us. The shuddering fear of being inches away from walls of fire recedes, and we run out into tall grass again, happy.
Something happens, I can’t make out what, and I slow. I can’t walk as well, between tall grasses now, and suddenly I see something. A shadow on the ground. The curly black wisps in wing formation. I look behind me at my cub and he’s fine, just running away to the grass.
But I am hit, and I slow. I’m not going to make it to the grass.
But Newt’s fine. But Newt’s fine, I think. I watch Newt trot away, his tail disappearing in the fronds.
Yes, I think. Yes. This game is any good. It is good. It is good. Yes, I think. Yes.