My Brother the Wolf
I’ve been changed long enough that sometimes I forget I was once a man. I think I had red hair, or maybe it was reddish-brown. Something fierce and proud like that. Now, my hair is coarse and marbled with brown and black and tan and white, just a muddle of forest colors, and rough to the touch. The nose at the end of my snout is dry and cracked. The long tongue that hangs from my jaws is tired from lolling to and fro as my thin, powerful legs carry me mile after mile, farther and farther away from home.
The minutes turn into hours turn into days, and they are still following my trail. I think I’ve been on the move for a week now, maybe two. I’m not sure who “they” are; they found me in the kitchen of my house, cooking curry with my wife. One was a bear, a great brown grizzly who came in through the front door but took the wall with him. His brother, a white tiger as big as my leather couch, shattered the window and sunk his jaws into Samantha’s neck.
When she collapsed to the kitchen tile in a broken pile of yellow apron, limbs and blood, I knew I only had one choice: Call on the wolf, and ask him to rescue me.
So here I am, an animal on the run. I sweep my tongue into my mouth and swallow. It’s a human reflex, a stupid one. I choke on my own sweat and let my tongue roll out again.
My strides have slowed since sundown. The wet that lies beneath the snow bites at the hard pads of my paws. They are designed for this kind of freezing terrain, but only for so long; eventually, even a wolf with the heart of a man has to take a rest.
I stumble into a clearing. I pause, and skirt the perimeter, letting my nose test the air for foreign presences. But it’s quiet, save for the blabbering of two straggler geese as they pass overhead.
I sniff the base of each tree I pass, looking for someplace to hide and sleep before the bear and the tiger find me again. A badger’s burrow or a foxden would be ideal, but I’d be willing to settle for a thistle or simply a hole in a tree.
I don’t know how much longer the wolf will be able to grant me his gift before even his tireless feet give out. Only once before have I needed him to save my own life, and then, my transformation only lasted as long as it took to travel from my broken-down pickup in the Rocky Mountain wilderness to the nearest town. I stumbled naked and blathering onto Main Street and could barely remember afterwards how I’d gotten there.
Maybe the bear and the tiger got wind of my strange story, through one of the cops that found me and helped me recover my truck. Or maybe it was someone at the backwater diner where I had supper after the sheriff picked me up. Just a strange shivering man dressed in sweatpants and a shirt three sizes too large.
Even Samantha didn’t know about my partnership with the wolf, so it couldn’t have been her who spread the word that reached the bear and tiger brothers. Not that she would have told anyone, anyway. We lived a private life. Samantha was raised by her father on the Spokane Indian reservation, and her beliefs were mystic and deeply rooted in tradition. Mountains spoke to her on cold nights, and she braked for animal spirits crossing the road.
She was the one who found me after the wolf devoured me, after all. “There was something strangely beautiful about you,” she said. “Emerging from the woods like that, beard covered in ice and hands nearly frostbitten.” She’d married me not six months later. Her father was disappointed that she had decided to accept the hand of a white man, until he met me. Then he said I was simply a Spokane spirit born in a white man’s body. At the very least, that made our marriage acceptable in his eyes.
The man that’s still inside me misses Samantha more than anything else about my human life.
The wolf has reached his limits. Unable to find anything like a shelter, I eventually collapse in the arms of a stunted juniper tree. My frozen thoughts drift back to the night I found the wolf in the woods, while I was hunting whitetail just off the Colville reservation. It is a bright white memory in a haze of blood, seeing him standing in the middle of that untouched snowfield. Waiting for me.
He lunged, a mass of black and tan fur, and embraced me. I sobbed against him as we fell to the snow, and he comforted me as he licked my blood.
“I am dying,” he told me. “I cannot let these memories be lost forever. I hope you will forgive me.”
Whether he had once been a man, too, I’ll never know; but he died that night and granted me his life, and in return I learned the history of the world.
How the sun had stepped away and the moon appeared, and reached down to the earth with long, steady fingers. She drew the snow upward, and created man. But man was lonely, just a single being in the forest, so he asked the moon for a companion.
“On one condition,” she told him. “I will not make a companion who comes to you blindly. No being ought to be enslaved that way. You must earn your companionship through trust and cooperation.” So the moon created the wolf, and the man offered the wolf a bone, and they became partners.
But as man changed and grew, so did the wolf. Those wolves who aligned themselves with man became his dogs, little more than minions with floppy ears and dulled senses. Those wolves who chose to live alone lived short, hard lives, and wondered where they had gone wrong.
So the wolf formed a new partnership with man, a sacred one, where they could join their bodies into a single object of creation. Me.
I startle awake. It’s daylight, and my eyelids burn from the morning sun turning the snowscape to fire. I shake off the flecks of snow that clung to my coat and though I haven’t eaten in days, I feel rejuvenated.
The bear and tiger haven’t found me—yet. Perhaps they stopped to rest as well. I have something they want, and they won’t give up until one of us is dead.
I raise my head and sniff the air, wondering what the brothers want from me. What do I have that they don’t?
The wolf memories, I realize. The gift the wolf had given me when we joined bodies in life and death. The ability to become animal or man at will. Perhaps as the wolf had passed this hidden memory on to me, the bear and the tiger would draw it from my bloody bones, and learn the secret to the partnership for themselves.
I stop at a river, where rabbit tracks criss-cross snow-covered rocks. I follow them into the woods, right across the brothers’ path, but I can’t go on without getting a meal in my belly. Either they’ll find me and tear me to shreds, or I’ll shrivel up from starvation.
The scent of rabbit grows stronger, until it is so strong I realize I’ve walked into a trap. The body of my prey hangs suspended from a tree branch above my head. I hear a snap, and a sound like unraveling rope. Then I am suspended alongside the rabbit in a tatty, makeshift net.
A man strides from the forest, naked and shivering. Beside him is the white tiger.
“Finally,” says the man, picking up the other end of the snare I tripped. He turns to the tiger. “He’s all yours, Angus.”
I flail in the net, hoping my claws can rake the fibers open, but my legs hang uselessly below me. The tiger stalks forward, shoulders like blades rippling beneath perfect white fur and stripes of black lightning.
I want to cry out, but all the wolf’s primordial mouth can do is whimper.
“Look at that,” says the man, wrapping his arms around himself. His lips are blue. “He’s forgotten his humanity already!”
The tiger turns his head and levels yellow eyes on the man. He goes quiet.
So the bear has worn off. The ability to change between man and animal at the whisper of a thought is not theirs, as it is mine. This makes me proud—and afraid of what they might do to steal this power from me.
The tiger stands at the base of the tree and stares up at me. He raises his head and opens his jaws. The bear man lets out the rope and the net begins to drop toward the ground.
I close my eyes. Coarse, protective fur melts into fragile human skin; my sense of smell seems to evaporate, and leaves me blind. But my thin wolf legs turn into strong human ones, and as soon as my calf muscle has formed, I land a kick to the tiger’s eyes.
He stumbles back, snarling. The bear man runs forward, but I am already up in the net, untying his sloppy knots. He jumps on the tiger’s back to reach me, and the tiger in his rage turns his jaws on his brother. I heard the bear man scream as I climb the rope to the tree branch where it hangs suspended.
When I look down, the man is dead, and the white tiger’s face is copper-brown with blood. He glances frantically between his murdered brother and his enemy, high up in the tree, confused by his bloodlust. I clamber down the branch to the trunk and edge my way around it to another branch.
The tiger roars, and blood sprays from his mouth like vomit. He lunges at the tree and tears at its bark with his claws. But soon his claws turn to fingers, and his fingernails are ripped from his flesh as he drags them down the rough tree bark.
“Get back here!” he screams at me, tripping over the body of his brother in his effort to climb up the tree. “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill you! You don’t deserve the gift! Not a rat-eating dog like you!”
But I ignore his pleas and continue down the branch to another, then to another, until all I can hear are the frenzied sobs of a mad man.
I fall out of the tree when I collapse, but the snow softens the blow. I breathe once, then twice, then three times. The wolf lifts his head to the sky, and I give my body to him. We are united again, my soul inside his eager shell, our eyes surveying the landscape.
Together, we start the journey home, and the gift is protected again.