“All wolves are not of the same sort.”
Friends, beware gentle wolves. Never stray from the path. If you’d listened to your mother, little girl, you wouldn’t have been eaten. I wouldn’t be hunting him now in the forest.
Josef, stay, my father said, old and fearful by the fire. Let the woods and the wild look to themselves.
The hearth echoes in my ears, cold under my hat, as I tramp up the crisp white hill. A robin watches, shaking its head against it. On the air, the scent and shadow of the beast. My axe rests over my shoulder. I only ran back to the village to claim it, a broad, golden man barrelling through drifts and sliding down hollows, and then I was gone again. Big Josef. Kind Josef. A brave Christian soul, all hereabouts would say, built for chopping and lugging wood. But a girl must be answered for.
Then take the stones, my father counselled, waving his cane at the cupboard. The axe is only the half of it. A gentle wolf is a-roaming. Of all wolves, the gentle are the worst!
I took the stones, all six of them. Wolf stones. Magic stones. Stones of binding and death. They weighed down my pack like snow on the branches, like my beard by the ice, but never so heavy as my heart. The poor girl was dead and there was no saving her. Well, only her immortal soul. Felling trees in the deep wood I heard it, the bright ring of her scream. Birds taking flight, outraged. Through the briar I thundered, winter and firewood forgotten. Breathless, steaming, I found my way to the cottage. Well my father might caution me; he has not seen the things I’ve seen.
The door stood wide, the embers aglow. By its light I saw the ravaged bed, the old woman lying there, her bonnet askew. Flakes danced over everything as if to hide the sight. Crows shrilled, interrupted at their feast. Eyeball in beak one flapped to the rafters, favouring the darkness there. The girl lay spread-eagled on the floor, her basket strewn beside her. Apples, cheese and oatcakes dotted the spill of her guts like a crate at some terrible harvest. The wolf hadn’t cared for such comfits and taken the girl for his own. Half her face was gone, but I knew her for a villager. Blood and flesh painted the walls, none so red nor tattered as her cape and hood discarded by the fire.
Did he make you undress? I’d heard of such things. All the better to devour you . . .
A lump rose in my throat at that, and one in my breeches to match, the thought of her hellish seduction, and the wolf, the beast who’d made it. I’d heard about him too.
A howl through the trees put me to flight, dashed my own blood out of me.
Beware gentle wolves. Never travel at night under a full moon. Childhood warnings sang in my skull, every snapped twig a bark, every gust a breath on the nape of my neck, rank with the scent of meat. What choice did I have, a poor woodcutter? The village looked to me for protection. Aye, I’d heard this tale before, the wolf come ravaging, the danger. As I climbed the white hills, it seemed that it had been told a thousand times, spun like a web across time, and I tangled in the thread. Doomed to repeat my doom, you might say. The hunter and the hunted. The predator and prey. Who was who?
I climbed and I peered under the pines, my axe as keen as my eyes. I climbed until lights twinkled in the valley below, the dusk settling not long past midday. The smoke curling from chimneys, the holy thrust of the church, an ocean, a world away. No icicle could match the one up my spine at the faint canticle afar, the distant howl of the wolf. A challenge. An invitation. Had the beast caught my scent too? I must stink of fear.
Father, I thought of you. For all your grey hair and crookedness, you might even come to outlive me. Annegret will feed you, no doubt, bring soup and bread from the inn. Zigmund, the blacksmith, who on occasion I dallied with behind the barn, will bring logs for your fire. What Franz the preacher would’ve made of it, how I let Zigmund put himself in my mouth, hard as ironwood . . . How I suckled him like a calf at a teat, the longest draw for his milk! And I thought of rosy-cheeked mothers tucking in their children, all regretting their bedside tales now, of witches and wolves in the forest. There would be no tales tonight.
One, however, stayed with me, whispering in my ear as I built my paltry fire.
“A gentle wolf is made, not born,” or so my father told me, back when the villagers still came to him for wisdom, for whiskey and wards. “One night many winters ago, a sleigh came a-riding through this valley. With every door closed and the watchman asleep, a pack of wolves slipped out of the woods and fell into its speeding wake. Oh, such a howling you have never heard, boy. From the wolves. From the woman who rode on the seat. From the babe swaddled in her arms. The driver lashed at the horses and the farmer at the beasts, but naught could be done to dissuade them. When the pack at last overtook the sleigh, meaning to devour them all, the woman flung a prayer to the sky and the babe to the wolves, granting them time to get away, gallop to the church. How she wept as the pack fell silent, and the infant’s cries besides. Under the sainted beams, on the cold stone floor, she knew no God would ever answer her again . . . ”
The story went that the child survived—at least so it sat upon some tongues—and was raised by a she-wolf in the briar. It accounted for the wiles of the beasts, they’d say, one of whom would sometimes walk under the moon on two legs and order a jug of ale from our very own inn. He was dark, they said, tall and silver-tongued, filled to the brim with charm. He’d tip the wench with gold, surprise the preacher by quoting verse, and regale the whole room with accounts of travel in distant lands. But he’d never say where he came from, this man, and when he declared it was time to go empty his bladder, you’d never step outside with him into the cold. That was a gentle wolf, according to my father. That’s what a gentle wolf was—one given to the devil and abandoned to the woods, and returning to both on four legs before dawn . . .
I’d never have believed it, old man, had I not seen the savage end of the girl and been spurred to plunge into the woods this night. My regret grew deeper with the gloom. Why had I not brought Zigmund along? Summoned farmhands and the priest? There was a part of me, I acknowledged then, that wanted to see, to know. And let no other detect my gaze, the curiosity there. Drowsy, aching under my skins, I looked up through the dying flames of my fire and saw a man standing under the trees.
Too late I reached for my axe. His foot came down, softly, on the handle. Only then did I mark his nakedness, his skin grey-gold in the embers, smooth as polished stone. A fuzz of hair covered his legs, which rose to his manhood between them. It dangled like ripe, forbidden fruit, and when I met his yellow gaze, my shame startled me along with my fear.
“Begone!” said I, abandoning the axe and scrambling away. Away from the fire, into the snow, for I knew at once who waylaid me. “Away with ye, Satan.”
“Begone? Away?” the stranger said. “It was you who summoned me hence. The smell of you. Your need.”
“Nay. Who are you that stalks the woods at night, putting fright to an honest woodcutter? Speak!”
“Does the wind have a name?” the stranger asked. Dark, he was. Tall and doubtless full of charm. “Do the trees that sieve it for secrets? Names aren’t for the lost, Josef.”
“Then what should I call you?” That he should know my name hardly surprised me; the servants of darkness snatch truth from a heart with sorcery and a wolf was a sorcerous thing. “The girl in the hood was innocent. I saw -”
“No one is innocent, least of all you,” he said. “Not in your world, with its laws and traditions that leave no room for desire and unchurchly goings on. The preacher would see you hang for them, but who am I to judge? Your God is not mine. I answer to the wild. If you must call me something, call me . . . ” the man-that-was-no-man paused for a moment, plucking a name from the air, “Ingolf.”
“I’ll call you devil.” If only I could wrongfoot him, dive for the axe. It was clear I had failed. I was going to die here on the hill, miles from home. There seemed no reason for courtesy. “I saw what you did to her, rakehell, and her grandmother besides. You ripped them apart like old cloth.”
“Ah, Ingolf Rakehell. A fitting name.” He smiled. His teeth had no place in a man’s mouth, glinting between the fire and the moon. “All the better to make your acquaintance with.”
“What manner of thing are you?” But I knew. Aye, I knew.
“I am of my nature. That is all.”
“What’s that, eh? Slaughter and ruin?”
“It is cold. I was hungry.” The man, the beast, shrugged. How dare he look so fine in the firelight, a pillar of sinew and shadow? “As are you, Josef.”
Watch out for gentle wolves, friends. No wolf was ever gentle. They’ll slip out under the cloak of night and flit from shadow to shadow like ghosts. So it seemed as I barrelled downhill, crashing through bramble and drifts. A branch whipped my cheek and speckled the snow like a prophecy, red foretelling red. I’d left my pack and my axe by the fire, and barely managed to grab my boots.
And the stones! Oh, the stones! Each one kissed by the village sage and graven with binding runes. The girl will remain wandering the woods, butchered, bodiless and damned . . .
As I plunged, huffing and sweating, I stole glances at the thicket on either side. The moonlight was most unkind. Sometimes I spied the man, his back and buttocks silver in the dark, racing between the pines in pursuit. A second glance and I saw nothing, nothing but the blanket of the hill, a virgin sheet for my blooding. A third and I made out the wolf, the coins of his eyes, his breath coiling from the brake.
There was no escaping this. Tales, I thought, are only good when one isn’t in them.
As if prompted by the thought, by my pounding blood and the smell of me, the wolf came growling through the trees.
“There is another version of this tale, Woodcutter,” said he. “In which I spare the girl and leave her a-weeping. But the wood in winter itself is cruel. Soon the girl ate all of the apples, cheese and oatcakes in the cottage. Starving, ravenous, she sought out rabbits and birds, but all were high in the boughs or sleeping underground. By the end of the second day, while her grandmother softened and reeked, the girl turned her attention to the bed.”
Wolf! Wolf! Every gasp, every step, seemed to shrill the same—Wolf!—but I couldn’t help but hear him.
“Think of it,” Ingolf went on. “Her little white teeth rending a heart, the blood hooding her hair. Aaah. And sweetmeats she had no name for, sliding wet down her throat. And the tender muscle underneath, stewed with nettle and berry. And in time, the smallest bones that she sucked clean. What of your laws and traditions then? The cold is the king of them all.” The beast laughed, a snarl in the briar. “And a wolf is the king of the cold.”
How I wished for the breath to beg him for silence! Or to offer a tale of my own, one father told me long ago, laying out the path of my fate. Aye, I might’ve said. And one tale where the grandmother hides in a wardrobe and the woodcutter comes in time. With a swing of his axe, he slices you open from muzzle to balls, your wickedness undone. Then, with the help of the girl, he fills you with stones and buries you deep. All the better to keep you in your grave.
There was no time nor the strength to say this. Nor would it have spared me grief. As I reached a ring of boulders edging the bluff, there was nowhere left to run.
The wolf saw his chance and leapt.
Gently, he tore at me. Careful, his teeth. For though cuts marked my skin and I bled, it was my clothes that Ingolf shredded, peeling them off like a skin. In and out he darted, a fierce circle, swift under the moon. My coat lay in ribbons on my shoulders. My breeches a skirt of wool. Soon enough, the wolf had bared me to the cold and it was the cold I knelt to, exactly as he’d said.
“Finish it,” said I, shivering on the ground. But Ingolf howled a laugh.
“How briskly you climbed the hills to find me.” He was drooling now, fixed on my naked bones. “How you slowed when you did. Is it death you hunt, Josef? Truly?”
I thought of the girl, ruined on the floor. Why could the memory not hold me, douse the fire in my veins? Slaughter, damnation, quenched by desire. That’s what a man was. A sob escaped me, a cloud like my soul swirling, adrift. I looked up at him then, my gentle wolf untouched by the cold. The way that the night etched him in silver . . . He was a man made of the wild and winter, bound together like hempen cords. It was a semblance, a mask hiding savagery. He was one abandoned to the forest, given to the moon. The buds of his nipples, hard on his chest. The throb of his manhood, lengthening now, blooded by the question.
He took a step forward. The snow hissed under his feet.
“The heat of you,” I said.
“All the better to warm you with.”
I gave myself to him then. There’s no other way to tell it. I would’ve said the same to Franz the preacher in his confession box. But, as Ingolf closed around me and I melted against the fur of his chest, I know I would’ve sung it and laughed, glad to swing for this moment. All shame was gone from me, discarded like a cape and hood. Was this not why I had come?
Such a suckling commenced in the snow, the two of us folded, mouths to meat, a strange, eight-limbed animal. My head was full of him, his scent and the pines, the wet thawing earth, the wild. Ingolf nipped at me, my ears, my nipples, the nape of my neck. With each wound the hunger rose, blazing like doom in the forest. His finger, ice wet, slipped inside of me, into my burning hole. A calling. An invitation. I gave it no second thought. The hole with which I emptied myself would take something back for itself.
Panting, whining, I flung myself against the rock, my rump high, my legs wide to receive him, wide as a cottage door. Then came another blooding, the girth, the thrust of him painting patterns on the snow, the start of a new tale perhaps. Sweat-slicked, engorged, he worked his way inside of me. Together we rode like Selene in her chariot across the stars, out over the twinkling valley, out over the lands and the ocean beyond.
Come midnight, our song climbed higher than the wind. A chorus to crack the moon, bring her down from heaven.
Wolf. Wolf. Wolf.
Friends, embrace gentle wolves. Never listen to your mother. Always stray from the path. Travel at night under a full moon. Dally with the blacksmith behind the barn and laugh at village preachers. Give yourself to the forest, the devil and the moon.
Let the woods and the wild look to themselves.
On four legs, I run across the rise in the flood tide of dawn. Ingolf, my shadow, runs with me. Yellow eyed, red tongue a-lolling, I see now and know. The breath of the night. The pulse in the earth and the sky. These are wonders, true, but oh, I have sights to show of my own! Down in the valley where the first fires glow there lies a feast that I shall place at his paws. Kind Annegret, plump and soft, savoury as her homemade soup. Zigmund, toughened by the anvil, toothsome as a tenderloin steak. Franz the preacher in his shrine of stone, a bitter pudding to cleanse the palette. Oh, and rosy-cheeked mothers and children in their beds, all shivering and sweet, who’ll feel no more the cold beyond the end of this day.
And father, dear father, sat before the fire. Father with his wisdom, his whiskey and his wards, the last of which has proven true.
Of all wolves, the gentle are the worst.