Sometimes it’s good to be the wolf. No one tells you what to do; you eat what you want, sleep when you want. Sure, there’s fleas, and sometimes your dinner makes you run to catch it, because if you don’t catch it there’s hunger, and besides man, hunger’s your worst enemy, but for the most part, it’s good. The shepherds sure hate you, though.
I think I’m a better wolf than I was a man, and I’m not ashamed to say it. As a man, I was a pretty lousy specimen – drank too much, loafed around my father’s house, chased girls. My father’s wife, to be precise. Don’t look at me like that – it’s not as if we were related. I still blame him for bringing home a woman who looked like that, all curvy hips and dark hair and gypsy eyes. It’s the eyes that did it to me. Maybe I was expecting someone older, more matronly, more stepmotherish. What is it with stepmothers, anyway? Anyone could see she was only after the old goat’s money. Which is my money now, come to think of it, though what a wolf needs with money is beyond me. No pockets. I could’ve told him she was trouble if I wasn’t so interested in that trouble myself, and soon it was too late to do anything about her at all.
“I’m very sorry,” she smiled, cold-blooded, black-hearted. “But your father is dead, and I don’t need you anymore.” Then she touched my hand and I remember thinking as I fell on all fours, so this is how it goes.
Sometimes, it’s damn boring, being a wolf. If you’re not eating something, you’re thinking about eating something, or you’re sleeping. You have to run faster than your supper at least long enough to catch it, and then there’s never any variation. It’s always the same old thing even if it’s wrapped in different skin. What’s that old saying about the English having only one kind of sauce? Well, when you’re a wolf, there is no sauce. There’s no salt, pepper, sugar, mustard or currant jelly – there’s just meat, bones, blood, and hair, maybe with a little grass occasionally to help everything move along. It’s a bit exciting at first – to hunt and eat what you kill on the spot, to know everything in the forest fears the hollow sound of your voice – but the repetition gets old, especially when you still have a man’s mind inside you, a mind that remembers the taste of fresh, hot bread just out of the oven or sweet, dark wine, or chocolate cake thick with buttercream icing, or ripe red strawberries bursting on the tongue. When was the last time you heard of a wolf eating chocolate cake?
I smelled them before I saw them, the boy and girl asleep under a willow tree, his cloak spread out on the dry summer grass. They smelled of innocent lust and youth and unwashed humanity, as though they had been traveling a long, uncertain way and were far from home. Guileless as a pair of lambs and easier to catch. I crept right up to them in a way no lamb would ever allow. The girl was plump and pale, as though she seldom went outside; the boy was brown and lean and disturbingly familiar, though I couldn’t quite think why. They slept in each other’s arms, lovers, oblivious. I leaned in, panting, and the boy opened his eyes. He sat up and smiled at me.
“Hello, Alfonso,” he said.
Damn. You can’t eat your own cousin – not when he’s looking at you, anyway.
What makes a wolf a wolf? What makes a man what he is?
They were footsore and hungry, so I caught and killed a lamb for their dinner. Guillaume roasted it over a fire while the girl sat and stared at my bloody chaps with a stunned, bovine expression. I wasn’t pleased, but I probably wouldn’t murder the sheep if I knew them by name, either.
“Her name is Melior,” Guillaume told me, as if he knew my thoughts. “She’s the Emperor’s daughter.”
“Splendid,” I said, staring at her white throat. “And I’m a wolf. Doesn’t that bother you in the least?”
“Yes,” Melior blurted, but Guillaume only laughed.
“You’re not a wolf, Alfonso. What are you talking about?”
I craned my neck to look at my own grizzled fur, my four long legs and the undeniable gray brush of a tail. “Well, I don’t see anything else,” I muttered.
“It only works if you let it,” Guillaume said, tasting the roasted lamb. “You say your stepmother has put a curse on you. I think you put it on yourself.”
“Isn’t that clever,” I growled, then put my head on my paws to watch him eat. “You think I want to be a wolf? You think it’s a game?”
Guillaume grinned at me. Then he winked. He was a weird kid, reading those books when the rest of us were playing with wooden swords, but I’d always liked him just the same. You couldn’t not like Guillaume; he was Sicilian and classy and used a fork when he ate instead of his hunting knife, which was what the rest of us preferred. Plus he had a choirboy’s voice and knew all those soppy songs the troubadours sang, which undoubtedly was how he got Melior to run away with him. Foundling orphan indeed. More like a fox in the henhouse. I had to admire his style. He managed to get the Emperor’s daughter to fall in love with him and then stole her away in the middle of the night–an elopement, he said, although I doubted he’d taken time to arrange a hurried nuptial. The Emperor’s men pursued them, he said. Pursued. It sounded somehow much more romantic than chased. If they were caught, he had no doubt what would happen.
“Send her home,” I told him. “What’s so special about her? She’s just some skirt with cow-eyes. You’ll find another.” But he looked at me in that high-minded, scornful Sicilian way of his, his head probably full of troubadours’ songs, and told me I wouldn’t understand.
“Of course I wouldn’t, I’m a wolf,” I said, and jumped up to snap at a flea.
It rained in the night, the first rain those dry hills had seen in months, and the girl woke up and cried. Guillaume tried to light a fire, but it was impossible and he was afraid the Emperor’s soldiers might see the light. I felt rather smug all curled up with the tip of my tail over my nose, dry and warm as toast in my fur, until I saw how hopeless Guillaume looked, huddled under his tented cloak with Melior weeping in his arms. I got up and shook myself and thought how wretched humans could be when they were in love. “Follow me,” I sighed. “I know of a cave.”
So we returned to the primeval world: two bedraggled souls hunched over a smoky fire in a damp, smelly cave, guarded by a gaunt and grumpy wolf that might not have been a wolf, though wasn’t quite a man, either. It rained buckets all night and washed away any sign we might’ve been foolish enough to leave behind – not that any but the most skilled woodsman would find my trail, but the girl was clumsy and tired and petulant. She bent branches back and broke the brush where she trod. I thought her weepy, insignificant, and better left behind. Guillaume shouted at me when I said as much. I told him to watch his mouth; I was the elder cousin, and was always better than him in a fight. He swung at me and missed, and I growled, while the stupid girl bawled like an infant.
“Sit here and smoke yourselves,” I snapped. “I’m going out to get some fresh air. You lot stink like wet monkeys.”
“At least we don’t stink like wet dogs,” Guillaume shouted, but I ignored him and loped away, leaving them in the cave.
Thirty soldiers on horseback are hard to miss, even if you’re not a wolf. If you are, they practically glow in the damn dark. The wet night and wind were with me, and I was invisible even to the exhausted horses. I slunk along through the underbrush on their off side, listening. The men muttered and shouted, bad-tempered as Guillaume and I had been, but with a difference; these fellows had swords.
“When we find the little southern rat, I hope we gut him,” said one.
“Gut him and twist his neck.”
“Twist his neck and cut off his yarbles.”
And more of such pleasant stuff. I curled my lip at them. I remembered a time when I was like them, a man in armor on a horse, riding in my father’s service – and yet, I’d never been like them. If I had been sent to find Guillaume, I would’ve found him within the first quarter hour and been home by now, out of the rain, not crashing through the forest in the wet dark complaining like a bunch of sodden hens. It rankled me no end to think these worthless clods would happily, thoughtlessly murder my cousin just to get back to their tots of ale and tavern wenches (despite the fact I’d been myself leaning hungrily over him not a full day before). Lazy bastards. They could make an effort, you know. For fun, I decided to give them something to complain about.
“Holy Mother of God!”
His armor slipped and skittered under my paws as I took him out of the saddle. Weak human that he was, he couldn’t see what hit him, only that it was huge and hairy and snarling like the Devil himself cut loose out of Hell. He had no time to draw his sword – stupid weapon, when I had a mouthful of ivory daggers at his throat. The horses shrieked and threw themselves mindlessly forward, tossing riders into the bracken. I brought my jaws together on the man’s neck and felt the hot blood spray in my mouth – one solid yank, and his neck snapped. I turned and leaped, tearing a horse’s flanks, and just missed getting brained by a flying hoof. Some of the soldiers simply turned and ran. The officers attempted a feeble rally, but it was too late; I caught one by his cloak and throttled him, while the other tripped in terror over his own sword, and so was the death of himself.
(Later, the tale went about that the Sicilian was a wizard and had conjured up Azazel to scatter thirty armed soldiers and turn them into quivering, squalling babies. I still hold my sides in laughter whenever I hear of it. I never performed such a rout as a man, I can tell you.)
When I returned by first light to the cave to boast of my victory, bloodstained and reeking with the gore of my enemies, I found Guillaume had taken Melior and gone. The fire had burned out; there was nothing left to show where they had been, and the rain had all but washed their footprints away. This is nothing, of course, to a wolf. They left a scent-trail a yard wide and fresh as hot dung that any predator worth his hide could follow blindfolded. I caught up to them in a high meadow, where sight of me must’ve frightened the girl something dreadful. She turned paler than I thought possible and dropped down in a faint.
“Stay back,” Guillaume shouted, a stick in his hands. He had a wild look, as though he might cry or scream or charge me with nothing but that stupid stick. I sat down and cocked my head at him, feeling rather indignant.
“I took care of your soldier problem,” I announced stiffly. “You could be a little more grateful, you know.”
“Alfonso?” He frowned. I could see he wasn’t sure what he saw with his own eyes, and I stood up, grinning, and wagged my tail at him. Still he kept the stick between Melior, himself and me, as though he knew he couldn’t trust me. “What do you mean? What’s that blood on your face?”
“I told you. The Emperor won’t be able to summon any troops to hunt for you for some time.”
He looked sick. Melior mewed at him and he bent over her, and the two whispered fearfully for a moment. When he looked up at me again, he had a stern expression. “I think you’d better leave us alone now,” he told me. “Melior doesn’t like you coming around.”
“She doesn’t,” I said, and coughed up a belt buckle. “Well. Isn’t that nice.”
“Alfonso, don’t be difficult. You have to admit, you’re not exactly –“ Guillaume hesitated. I grinned again and lolled my tongue.
“Not exactly the best company, is that it?” I sneered. “Well then. If you’re both too fine to have me, I suppose I’ve better things to do.”
“Alfonso, wait –“
But I’d already loped away, a hard, hot feeling in my chest. Wolves can’t cry, you know. Not that I would if I could, anyway.
I watched her eyes as they opened, and I thought, green as glass, green as envy. But that wasn’t right, was it? Before they’d been black as sin. She was startled to see me standing over her in her bed, my paws braced on either side of her pillow, but she covered it well with a long, slow smile.
“You’ve come home.” Her nostrils flared at the reek of blood on my fur. “And you’re so… clean.”
“Take the curse off me,” I snarled. “Take it off.”
“Take it off yourself,” she drawled. “I’ve nothing to do with it.” When I made to lunge at her throat, she only laughed. “Kill me, stupid, and what will that help?”
“If you didn’t put it on me, then what difference does it make whether you live or die?”
That sobered her up. She scowled at me, more lovely than ever, a woman who knew what to do with stolen wealth. She wore a yellow gown of silk charmeuse and under that nothing at all; she smelled of lilacs and river water and fresh cream and heaven knew what else, and I wanted to eat her up with a spoon. The bedroom was done up in new curtains and lace and there were fashionable carpets on the floor that my father would never have bought, were it left to him to decorate his own house. I’d burn it all down in an instant before I would see her spend a moment more in idle happiness there.
“You are the wolf,” she whispered, her hand on my ruff. “The wolf is you, don’t you see? It’s what you wanted in your heart of hearts, Alfonso. I only helped you become what was always there.”
“Lies,” I whispered. “I’ll tear out your lights and liver. Take it off, woman. Set me free. No one wants me as I am.” Her scent was like food to a starving man; I thought I’d go mad. I wanted her to remember what we once were, not so long ago, when she whispered to me what pleasure she could bestow if I were man enough to take my father’s throne. I’d believed her silken voice as I’d touched her silken thighs and said yes, yes, yes. I was a man once, and like a man, I wanted to believe in love, that we acted out of love and not greed. I told myself it was not greed that made me push my poor old father down the stairs, not greed that made me go to his room, where he lay incapacitated in his bed and press the feather pillow down over his head. Love and only love, and it wasn’t my fault, it was his. He brought her home; what came afterwards was inevitable, wasn’t it?
She put her trembling hand to my pointed ears and stroked the fur so slowly I couldn’t help but shut my eyes, and in that moment she struck. What, did I think she would share with me? (I couldn’t care less for the gold, for the throne, for the damned land. I wanted her.) Her misericorde pierced my side in a flame of agony and I heard the hideous garbled bark of a pain-maddened dog.
I don’t remember what happened next. I promise I don’t.
When it was finished, the newly decorated room resembled nothing so much as an abattoir, and I crawled across the slick floor with a steel knife in my side. Someone pounded on the door and I heard shouts and the sound of running men, but I hauled myself to the shut window and in a leap and shatter of bull’s-eye panes, managed to launch myself into the garden below.
I crept into the cave in the woods and licked my wounds, recovering slowly in the cool dark, alone with my thoughts, which each day seemed to harden and coalesce into something different from what they had been before, something bright and sure and without doubt. What had been most human about my memories became dim as a dream on waking, and willfully so. I did not want to know what I had been or what I might become, only what I was presently; a beast awake, and watching the gold-green shadows of the forest pass by the mouth of my cave.
In the autumn I became well enough to roam the forest once more, always alone. Every so often I heard the distant howl of other wolves, other packs, though none of them dared trespass on my territory, and though my hackles always prickled at the sound, I never replied. Through the chatter of crows and careless birds I learned Guillaume returned at last to his estate in Sicily with Melior his fainting bride; they were wed, they had children, and if they were not happy, I never heard tell of it.
In more lucid moments, I think sometimes about what they said to me, both my stepmother and Guillaume, that the curse was of my own doing and none other, and sometimes I wonder what would happen if I truly believed such a thing. Would I submit myself willingly to such nonsense? Could I by the force of will make the choice to be a man again and walk the world on two feet instead of four, my head held high in spite of everything I’ve done? I wonder, but never for very long. The hunger takes me, or some delicious scent, and I am off hunting once more, the tangled truths of the past as pale in my mind as faded as leaves floating in a dark pool.
Wolves have nothing to hide. Wolves do nothing wolves are not meant to do. I hunt the dark wood, between the white pillars of trees, following the wild hare’s scent through the blue cold of the snow, and I think sometimes, it’s better to be the wolf instead.
Melissa Johnson is an artist, writer, and now a certified apprentice beekeeper in Washington State. When she isn’t drawing or writing, you can find her out bothering bees, hopefully in the sunshine.
Image: Full moon in Mushasi, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1890.