Copyright is held by the author.
I ONLY got to touch her twice. She was distracted by something on the ground and, wanting to make contact, I instinctively reached out and placed a hand on her back. It embarrasses me to think about it. It was a clumsy and blundering thing to do. I had a second to feel her intense heat through hard muscle. A moment to let my fingers disappear into her coat. Her head jerked towards me and I knew I’d gone too far, too fast. My impulsive attempt at familiarity understood to be disrespect. I stopped breathing, scared that even the shallowest of breaths would prompt an explosion of violence. I prayed that if she decided to attack me, that she would be quick and effective. The thought of what it would feel like if she were to sink her teeth into my flesh rushed through me like electricity. I quickly banished it.
We hovered together in that moment. Then she returned to what she was sniffing in the earth.
The second, and last time I got to touch her, she in fact initiated it. I had just finished dragging the torn carcass of my father deeper under the canopy of the forest as best I could, so the animals could finish off what was left of him. To find his body, I had traced back the route of the struggles he fought with laboured footsteps. His blood had spread out as if on fire into the snow making a million fine lines like the veins of a tree. I had found sudden and intense patches of deep crimson where he had dropped to his knees with fatigue, then sparse droplets of a watery pink where he had plundered his last reserves and dragged himself up and further towards the forest. Then, I had used his shovel to turn over the tainted snow, using the weight of my body to dig down deep for the whitest and the purest, covering over the bloodied trail and burying any trace of what had happened beneath the surface. When I was too tired to lift the shovel anymore, I used my hands to cover over the last of his marks, written like faint traces of pink graffiti, until I could see only white.
When I was only a few metres from our home I sat on my knees. My hands were dead foreign parts from shovelling ice. They could have been cut off with an axe and I wouldn’t have felt a thing. I saw my breath as it left in rapid bursts and she trotted towards me, her black outline gliding across the snow leaving only delicate prints. The ominous arch of her back with her enormous head down, hanging low. She slowed as she neared me, regarded me with luminous yellow eyes and then turned and stood with her back hips lent up against my right shoulder. I could feel her weight against me, but she still looked outwards, scanning our circle, seeking out the next threat. Her breath joined mine in the atmosphere and I saw she still had his blood on the fur of her mouth and chest. Then she sprinted off, ran back into the black forest.
Like all the hair-brained, crazy ideas in my family, moving to a wood cabin in the middle of nowhere had been my fathers. He was the chaos and excitement to my mother’s flatlined steady. My father was forever searching, my mother never bothered to look. So far in my 14 years we’d lived in Cornwall, Malaga, Amsterdam, three places in Wales, outstayed our tourist visas in Nevada and gotten into trouble with two school boards in Hampshire. It was Dad who always wanted to move and it would always start with an argument; a boss, a new friend, the neighbours — whatever. It didn’t matter, he would find a way to argue with someone and it always meant having to start over somewhere new. I’d given up trying to make friends; it was easier being alone.
“Things will be better next time,” he would say.
My mother referred to this perpetual need for new adventures as “destination addiction.” She’d googled it, she’d said, it was a thing. She’d grown more frustrated with him over the years, or maybe I just noticed it more because I was getting older: the lack of money, the arguments, the chaos, never getting any traction and growing, always going round and round in circles like a record on loop until you want to scream. One night she did scream. She was washing up some crusty old pan that belonged to whatever house we were renting, scrubbing it over and over as if she trying to sand a tree down to nothing,
“Patrick, you are dragging us around in an endless pursuit of what! You don’t even know what you want. When will it end!?”
My father had announced his latest idea after getting fired again. Apparently moving to a remote cabin in some isolated forest would unlock the key to his spiritual awakening but that this time, it was better if he went alone. My mother went quiet, twiddled her hair like she always did and stared at a stain on the carpet for what seemed like an age. Then snapping her face into her air hostess smile she said, “You know me honey, I’m happy anywhere. We’ll all go, families stick together.” I’m not sure who hated her more for that — him or me.
If you had asked me to guess who would be driving when we had the accident I would have said my dad for sure, he was so easily distracted. That day we’d left him in the cabin; it had just been me and my mum in the car. When we skidded off the road and rolled down the bank, the cage of the car had rattled as if a giant was shaking it. Glass flew everywhere like confetti. The seats shook about as if loose. A toy car made of sponge and tin cans. I saw black, then woke up face down on pure white, and as the red rolled down my face into my eyes, everything went yellow.
Smoke billowed and the smell of petrol was thick. I felt my head frantically trying to find where the blood was coming from, to check if I was dying. Then I crawled towards the car on all fours. I could make out the silhouette of my mother with her two long plaits hanging upside down in the car, her arms with their lifeless hands breaking on the roof. The explosion smashed open the car like a watermelon, the heat threw me back and flames curled their tongues towards the sky.
I waited there for hours but no one came. No car drove by but even if they did, no one would have seen me that far down the bank and it was too steep and the snow too deep to climb back up. I sat at the bottom of the bank and watched the car burn instead. I didn’t know which direction to walk in as all I could see was fine white snow as if sprinkled by a huge sieve, the sky blistering pink, mauve and purple. The black forest was in one direction and the trees clustered together in the distance like a black velvet curtain that would engulf me. But out here, I would die.
I walked under the shadow of the canopy. Black branches, like arthritic fingers locked in seizures, reached overhead to conceal my existence. Brambles and thickets scratched at my legs. I went deeper and deeper until I heard water running. I stumbled towards it, trying to seek out the direction the sound was coming from and eventually I came to a point where the trees stopped obediently in a line like a stitched seam, a little stream appeared, a crudely carved wound into the earth. I approached the water and bent down to wash the blood from my hands.
It was here we met. Her jagged outline stood black against the snow like a shape cut hurriedly out of paper. Her nose was long and narrow. Droplets of water fell from her jaw where I had interrupted her. One paw was held up. Her eyes were lime yellow and her ears pointed straight; alert and pulled together. She hunched over with her shoulders high up her back, I think considering which one of us was prey. I politely pretended not to see her and started to back away along the stream. I turned and started walking. I dared not look back, any moment expecting to feel giant claws tear the skin off my back. My pace quickened and I cringed as the snow crunched underfoot. I forced myself to look back once and saw she was trailing me. I came to a small wooden bridge that crossed the stream and I felt brief elation at the evidence of human existence. The wolf quickened her pace on the other side to get ahead of me and crossed over the bridge to reach my side. She came to a sitting position with her front paws together, her huge head straight on with chin down, and stared at me. She howled towards the sky and I jumped. The sound of thousands of birds and animals stirred from within the trees, previously hidden in the dead branches. I shook and tried to stay still. She crept closer and closer until I felt her cold wet nose so lightly kiss the skin on my knee as she sniffed at my flesh, the sound of her lungs vibrating as she sought her information from me. I shut my eyes and hoped the shaking of my knees wouldn’t knock her in the face. She circled me several times and I kept my eyes shut until I couldn’t feel her breath on my skin anymore. When I opened them she had started to walk away, I exhaled forever, my whole body dribbling and watched her walk off ahead. Daylight had gone and all was now inky blue. I was alone, abandoned for the second time that day. So I followed her. I didn’t know what else to do so my clownish feet slipped about as I trailed behind her silent paws. She kept on, always a few metres ahead, looking back occasionally, intrigued by her new shadow. After a while she stopped abruptly, thrust her nose up into the air and then turned, weaving her way through the dense brush. I struggled to keep up with my two torn scraped legs but I trailed her close enough to watch her disappear into an upturned base of a tree. I didn’t dare follow her, instead settling myself on the frozen ground a few feet away. It had started to snow again and I let myself be slowly covered and I started then to shiver.
I peered into her den, trying to see her, and could just make her out in the dark mouth of its opening. I edged my way closer and she crept further back, allowing me to enter. I crawled like Alice into the rabbit hole, wondering what was the wisest choice; be devoured or freeze to death. It was here I tried to touch her. Afterwards I sat back and pulled the earth and leaves around me covering myself as best I could. I could feel her reverberating ribcage like the rumblings of an earthquake. It vibrated through the ground and into my bones. It was my comfort. I tried to sleep, but just shuddered the whole night with closed eyes.
The next day I followed her again until I saw a trail of smoke curling up through the trees and I knew it was the chimney of the cabin I called home. I ran towards where it pointed like a finger down to safety and my father. I ran through the trees, jumping, sprinting, not caring what ripped holes in my skin. I didn’t stop to see what happened to the wolf.
The house was hollow and empty as I trailed from room to room, drifting like a ghost back to haunt her own home. I heard my father’s voice bounce around corners and followed it to my parents’ bedroom. I didn’t even wonder who he could be speaking to.
‘Yes, . . . I know. I will. No, just stick to the plan,” he said on the phone.
I listened, dripping water onto the carpet.
“Angie, it’s done. No one will find them. No one can survive out there overnight.”
I remembered the loud crack of something snapping in the car. My mother’s inhuman screams as her hands scratched at the steering wheel and she pumped the brakes even as we were flying through the air. The way he’d checked the car before the trip, something he had never done before. The hotel he’d booked for us as a treat to spoil ourselves, he’d said. The way he’d kissed me goodbye on the head like I was four again, but didn’t look me in the eye.
I tried to disappear into the wallpaper. I used my hands to steady myself against the wall as I stumbled back down the hallway.
I turned to face him. His shoulders were high and clenched together. He inched towards me.
“Hannah, what happened? You’re bleeding. Where’s your mother?”
He opened his arms to usher me in but shifted his weight like he was preparing to wrestle. I ran, down the hallway, through the kitchen and out into the open. He slipped on the kitchen floor on melted snow I had left behind and I heard him crash into the table. He called my name again. I ran, dragging my legs through snow so deep it was like trying to run through tar. I felt his fingers brush against my hair behind me and then he pulled me backwards and down into the snow. I lay half buried and the he was on top of me, his face drooping down like a rabid bloodhound as he straddled my chest, trying to pin my flailing arms down with his legs. He kept pushing me down then squeezed my neck between his rough hands.
“Sshhhh… Hannah, please stop… Shhhh.”
My throat was being crushed and my tongue pushed forward under the pressure of his thumbs. I tried to scream, but only a noise came; all tongue, gasping and gurgling. I grabbed the flesh of his cheek with my fingers twisting as hard as I could. He stopped abruptly.
But it wasn’t me who made him stop. I heard that sound, the engine rumbling so low I could hear every muscle and tendon in her rib cage vibrating. My father slowly released his hands from my neck and shifted backwards. I gasped in frozen air that hurt my lungs. I saw her black shape fly over my head but I didn’t see her tear him because I had shut my eyes. I felt my neck, scared it had been damaged forever and then felt warm liquid spray across my face. I shut my mouth and covered my eyes with my hands. I heard breathless struggle from my father and the sound of his clothes being torn, and then silence.
“Hannah . . . help me. Get my shovel . . . Hannah?”
I didn’t move or open my eyes. I lay in my snow-carved tomb pretending to be invisible. When I did take my hands away from my face and sit up, I was alone. I looked around to see my father’s image getting smaller as he ran towards the forest. I saw him fall to his knees, then get up as my wolf weaved and herded him. She nipped at the back of his legs, then would back away. Guiding him. Edging him back towards the forest.
When wolves hunt, they exhaust their prey first. They wait until their victims have burnt through every last store of energy and can’t summon anything else. That’s when they kill.
I went and retrieved my father’s snow shovel from the shed and followed the trail to where I found what she’d left of him.