Written by Hannah Jarzombek.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.
There is a Wolf that Lives in the Woods and Speaks with a Loved One’s Voice
The wolf is not the villain in this story.
. . .
The book burned quickly in the late evening fire.
Abram stared at the delicate pages curling in on themselves before they burned into charred bits and floated up the fireplace. They were lost against the soot covered stones, but he didn’t look away. It had been a new journal and wasn’t filled yet, so the ache in his chest was less pronounced than it might have been if his father had grabbed an actual book or an old, full journal.
“Abram, please. Just do as he says,” Abram’s little sister begged. When he glanced at her, she was clutching a small doll to her chest and staring at him with wide eyes, tears still wet on her cheeks. She looked all her eight years, a rarity for the mature girl. “You’ll be back soon. It won’t take long.”
What would she know of that, mature or not? Abram looked away again and watched his journal collapse into a heap of ash. Even though the shouting and arguing and angry crying had stopped several minutes ago–about the time the journal was thrown into the fire–the house seemed to hold the noise in, echoing every curse and name and insult. Abram didn’t think it was in his head. He was used to ignoring these kinds of fights.
His father’s hand came down heavy on Abram’s shoulder and Abram took a deep breath. His shoulder lifted his father’s hand with it and then brought it back down with the exhale. “Are you willing to let your sister starve to death because of your own cowardice?” his father asked roughly. “I’ve tolerated your weakness for years, Abram. Not now. Not when you’re actually needed. Not when it’s your fault we’re strained.”
“Papa!” his sister objected. “That’s not what–”
“Enough, Serenity! You shouldn’t have to defend your brother.” The fingers tightened on Abram’s shoulder. “You’d let your baby sister fight your battles for you,” he scoffed and shoved Abram’s head. “I expect you’d send her out in your place.”
Abram closed his eyes and stood up. He grabbed the rifle his father had been trying to force into his arms all evening. A wind gust outside slammed a loose piece of wood against their outer wall and both children jumped.
“Let me go with him. You’d never send us alone if Mama was here to see this!” Serenity accused. She was already up and tugging on the old muddy boots she wore to feed the animals.
“Your mother isn’t here and you aren’t leaving. Abram can manage on his own for an hour.”
“It’s dark! Papa, please,” Serenity tried again.
Abram shushed her with a sharp, “No, Renni. Go to bed and stop being a baby.”
Serenity’s puffy face hardened into a grimace and she huffed out a breath, reaching for her doll and stomping away. Mud chipped off with every step and left a dirty outline and path behind her. Abram ignored her muttering and looked at his shaky hands on the rifle. He tightened his fingers around it until his knuckles went pale.
“A deer, Abram. It’s getting too cold, becoming dark too early for us to go hunting often now. Certainly not by the time I get home in the evening. And I cannot trust you to do this during the day.”
Abram drew in a small breath, trying to be quiet and still so his father wouldn’t hear how shaky he was or see how badly his chin wanted to dimple and wobble. He could feel the ache of restraining his tears settling in just under the corners of his lips. His mouth was watering with every squeeze of his stomach and he just needed to leave before his father saw him break down.
“If you do not bring back meat enough for at least two people, I’ll burn everything in your room,” his fathered threatened and then opened the door and ushered Abram outside. The door slammed behind him and Serenity started to shriek and cry. Abram heard his father curse before storming away to settle the little one. Abram wanted to run back inside and tell her he loved her one last time. To kiss her little fingers and soothe her cries. He wanted to apologize to her and hug her and read her one last story before she went to bed.
Instead, he took another breath and walked to the thick forests that lay beyond his home. They were the farthest house from the village. It was a measly plot of land, but it provided them with just enough sustenance to have a little extra sell in town on the weekends. There were other farms, but most of them were on the other side of the settlement. There was too much forest this direction for many farms to lay out next to each other.
The forest was tall and dark. Even in the day, the trees were deep browns and greens and so densely grown that there was no chance of seeing any farther than ten feet. As Abram approached the tree line, he looked up and ended up stumbling back a few steps when the trees seemed to sway towards him. He couldn’t see the tops of them when he stepped into the forest. Abram’s father had often ranted about the uselessness of bringing a lantern into the forest for light. It would scare away the animals, he said. Hunting is based on gut reactions, he claimed. Sight, he believed, was not important. Instincts kept hunters alive and food on the table.
Abram had no instincts for this, except to run away as quickly as he could. Perhaps he could go into the village and see if anyone was willing to give him food. They still looked at the family with pity in church, and everyone believed that food would help ease the hurt of death. Abram looked back, searching through the trees for the flickering lights of the village as it fell asleep and fires burned down. He could see nothing.
He tried to follow the path that Serenity and he had worn in the dirt from years of playing in the forest. They saw deer often in the day and perhaps there’d be one waiting along the familiar path now. Abram hadn’t ventured out for fun in some years and he was sure Serenity hadn’t been in the forest since their mother died.
A breeze brought goosebumps to Abram’s arms and the leaves to his left rustled. He spun and held the gun up towards the noise. His hands were still shaking where he held the weapon. He wanted to call out, to hear a human voice answer him, but he knew there’d be no reaction like that. Either it had been the wind or it had been an animal. If he shouted now, the deer would run away and he’d be stuck out in the forest and the cold for even longer.
The wind picked up again and more leaves rustled around Abram. He spun to the other side and willed his fingers to do as they were told. At this rate, he was going to pull the trigger on accident and take down a tree.
Something ran behind Abram and brushed against his too-short pants. Abram didn’t spin around this time. He didn’t want to know what was there. He was tall. Perhaps he could pass for a tree in the darkness. Whatever it was wove between his legs and Abram was shaking so badly that he could barely stand.
Serenity would look down. Serenity would handle this. He had a gun for fate’s sake! He took a deep breath tilted the gun down as he too looked down. Instead of blowing off his own foot trying to shoot a monster, Abram found a small fox twisting between his legs. It was young enough that it still had a lot of brown markings making shadows against the soft red fur. When the little fox looked up at Abram, it flopped over onto its back and kicked its paws up in the air. Abram sighed and squatted down, slowly reaching out to run his fingers through the cub’s hair.
“Well, it’s your lucky day, Little Fox. You definitely aren’t enough to feed two people. Maybe if I was just looking for food for my sister….” The fox pulled on Abram’s hand and Abram let it be guided to the fox’s mouth so it could chew on his fingers. “You’re a happy little thing, aren’t you? Bet there’s not much out here to worry you. And a nice fur coat to keep you warm.” Abram slouched his shoulders so he could pull his own coat closer to him.
A branch snapped off to their side and the fox rolled over, alert and eager. Abram stood as well. “Is that Mama Fox?” he asked, taking a cautionary step back.
It was not Mama Fox.
. . .
Cyrus wasn’t necessarily evil.
Really its existence was just about survival. Even as it pushed at the boy’s body with its snout until he was turned over, Cyrus couldn’t imagine it was evil. Sure, perhaps there was nothing the boy had done to deserve this fate, but there was nothing Cyrus had done to deserve its existence. It sniffed at an open gash in the boy’s arm before focusing on his ribs instead. He was thin and Cyrus’s mouth was large, so fitting its jaws around the boy’s ribs wasn’t hard. Gnawing its teeth through the bone was, though, and it took it too long to finally break through to the slippery organs below.
Humans were odd creatures with their concept of time. Cyrus didn’t think it’d start to worry about something’s disappearance for several moon and sun cycles. Humans would begin a search party before the moon and sun could trade positions even once. With every moment, Cyrus heard more and more movement from the village. It might be imagining the noise but probably not. Humans were dangerous and all the animals in the forest had adapted to avoid them.
Attacking the boy had not been survival for Cyrus specifically. Rather, it was trying to save the cub that was frollicking under a gun. The boy had come out with the intent to kill. Cyrus had seen him. He’d pointed the gun at the darkness, not knowing what was out there, who was out there. Cyrus had lept to tackle the boy away before it realized that it was putting itself in danger. It didn’t even know the cub. It just wanted to protect the small thing.
The boy, like all humans, bled too much. He didn’t shout though. Even when Cyrus stood over him, dazed and full of energy and anger, the boy only stared up at it for several moments before his blood slicked fingers fumbled for the gun that was pinned between Cyrus and the boy. Cyrus bit his neck and tore. The boy bled and bled and bled. Cyrus could feel blood and meat sliding into its fur and when it looked up, the fox cub had scampered away and left a damp, foul spot in the dead leaves.
Cyrus wasn’t evil. It just wasn’t. It tried so hard to adapt to the life it now led, the life that was forced upon it. It tried to retain morals and kindnesses from a life it barely remembered. Customs slipped away the longer it was like this and now Cyrus couldn’t even remember what its name had been before. But it remembered complex thought and it remembered how to care like a human.
A human. A human. Cyrus wasn’t a human. It wasn’t even close to a human. It shoved its snout back into the boy’s chest and fought through blood and lungs for his heart. It was starving. Wolves couldn’t survive on a human’s moral diet and Cyrus wouldn’t survive this night if he waited any longer. It’d be such a waste to leave this young heart here.
That was two humans. Cyrus yanked the heart free and stood to run and hide it in a hollowed out tree trunk in the dark forest. Its hind legs were stronger and longer. It would move faster standing upright. A few steps into its retreat, it stopped and dropped the heart, stared at it, and then bit into it. There’d be no time to find it again if Cyrus was forced to flee later. It’d be stronger if it ate now.
A third. How special was this boy? Were humans so different now that they sent those they loved in the dark, cold woods by themselves? Cyrus couldn’t remember thinking to do so. It ran back to the boy and gnawed at his thigh, tearing chunks of flesh free. It didn’t even care about the fabric that was clogging its throat and scratching its insides. The boy wasn’t large. He didn’t give much meat, but it was more than Cyrus had had in far too long. It tore at the boy’s leg until its teeth scraped uncomfortably on bone. It shifted to rip at the boy’s stomach instead, pulling entrails out and shredding them as quickly as possible so it could swallow them without choking.
Suddenly, it remembered slaughtering a cow and standing over its cut open stomach as Cyrus’s human past-self tore out organs and separated them in gorey, stained buckets. It remembered standing in old boots with blood seeping into them. It remembered a small boy scampering into the barn that the carnage was happening in and crouching in an empty horse stall, hiding in the nighttime darkness. It remembered ignoring the boy, pretending not to see him there. The organs were slick and soft between her fingers and it was hard to keep them in one piece. There was so much blood and she didn’t want the boy to be scared. It wasn’t scary. It was just part of their life.
When the cow was just flesh and bone, the past-self set her knife aside and wiped blood off on a burlap apron.
“Joshua,” she said, without looking up. The boy didn’t come. “Joshua.” She waited and still the boy did not appear. Finally, she looked up from the cow and glanced around. “Joshua?” The boy was not to be found but a small fox was chasing after its own tail in the middle of the entranceway. “Joshua!” she called. “Joshua, Joshua–”
“Abram! Good, God!”
Cyrus startled away from the voice encroaching on its memory. A human stood several paces away, lantern in hand with several more coming up behind him. A piece of intestine fell from Cyrus’s mouth. It stood up on its hind legs and the farmer in the front stumbled back into another’s arms. Several of them blessed themselves. Cyrus stared.
“Abram!” a man from the back shouted and started to shove through arms and bodies that were clambering backwards and trying to bring him with them. “Abram, no! Abram, I’m so sorry. Abram!”
Cyrus blinked from the man to the young boy.
“What is that thing?”
The man suddenly broke free and ran to the boy’s body, collapsing next to him and pulling him in his arms. “Joshua Abram, my son!” The man’s voice shattered in the worst way and Cyrus turned and ran, not for fear of the gun, but for fear of the agony that seemed to follow Cyrus around. It heard bullets piercing the still air around it, turning the forest from a silent protector to a dangerous labyrinth, full of noise and fear. Cyrus didn’t care. Noise and fear, danger, death, it would deserve anything that these men seemed to justify. Trees and branches tore at its fur and the thick skin underneath and vines tripped its usually sure, quick feet.
It wasn’t sure how long it ran before it started to tumble over its own feet and crumbled to all fours. Moving without knowing what it was doing, Cyrus found itself in a clearing of the trees. The moon shone down bright and unobstructed on a small pond. Cyrus collapsed next to it and feebly looked at its reflection. Its muzzle was covered in blood and gore, which dripped into the water every now and then, sending ripples and discoloration spreading from its face. Meat stuck in its teeth. Human meat. A part of a human. His name was Abram and someone had come looking for him.
Had anyone come looking for Cyrus? Did Cyrus have a name?
Cyrus dunked its head under the water and held it there until bubbles started seeping out of its nose and then kept it there until they stopped. Its heart raced in its chest. Its shoulders strained under its thick muscles. Its feet dug into the earth under it. Still, it held fast and kept its eyes closed.
“Mama? Mama, don’t do that. Why, Mama?”
Cyrus jerked its head out of the water and looked around anxiously. There was nothing else in the clearing with it. There was no little boy calling out to it. Water dripped back into the pond and that was the only noise in the clearing. Cyrus was the only thing in the clearing. It closed its eyes and settled down in the marshy edge, chin propped on long paws.
It couldn’t hear the hunters anymore. The farmers, more likely. Had Cyrus ever held a gun to something innocent and hiding? It didn’t think so. The mud was warm against its fur and Cyrus felt like it was sinking into the earth. It kept its eyes closed and focused on the way air came into and out of its lungs, how it could feel its ribs squeezed between the ground and its arms.
It remembered a time in its past-self’s life where it was crammed into the corner of a cushioned bench, sat in front of a fire. There was a little boy settled against her side, sitting mostly in her lap and with his arms wrapped around her neck. His eyes were locked on the open book in her hands.
“Read it again, Mama. Before the fire goes out.” The fire in question popped and a log collapsed. The boy yelped and grabbed the book, holding it to his chest as sparks glittered into the air and burnt away before touching anything.
Once he was certain that the book was safe, he settled it across her thighs and turned to the first page again. “One more time. Oh, please, please, please.”
The past-self sighed and flipped through the pages contemplatively with one hand while running her other through the boy’s hair. “Where should we start?” she asked.
The boy’s face lit up and he quickly flipped all the pages back. “From the beginning. Let’s read until we fall asleep.”
She smiled and kissed his hair softly. “Alright, little one. We can do that.”
The boy thrilled beside her and then settled again. She read and he listened.
Cyrus whimpered and held its paws over its nose. This wasn’t what it wanted. This dual existence. It flung Cyrus one way and then the next but never let it land.
There was a story before this.
. . .
In a time before that, Abram was with his sister.
“Did you know there’s a wolf out in the woods?” he asked lowly, stalking after Serenity. Serenity’s eyes were wide, face drawn in horror. More towards her big brother hunting her down than the idea of a monster in the woods.
She darted around their old couch and hid behind it, putting as much distance between them as possible. “I imagine there are lots of wolves in the woods. It’s their woods.”
“No, this wolf is huge.”
“Bigger than Papa?”
“Twice as big as Papa,” Abram agreed. “It stands on its hind legs. Its teeth stretch to its chest.”
“No it doesn’t.”
“Yes it does.” Abram grinned and Serenity grabbed a small pillow she’d sewn years ago to hold in front of her. His grin turned sharp. “I’m not the wolf, little sister.”
“Right now you are.” She threw the pillow at Abram and shrieked as he ran at her. She tried to run away but he was so much taller and had such longer legs. It only took him a few steps to catch her, wrap her in his arms and flip her upside down.
“Abram! Abram!” she shouted in between laughter, hitting his hands where they were linked around her stomach. “Stop it!”
He hefted her higher. “You want me to drop you?” he asked, letting her slide down a little bit before tightening his arms around her legs. “Let go? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Don’t! Don’t! Don’t! Abram, please!” Now Serenity’s fingers clutched at Abram’s hands. She was still grinning though.
Abram turned so Serenity was dangled over the couch and then dropped her down on it. “It tricks you. It talks to you like a human.”
“No it doesn’t,” she argued again and then grabbed another pillow to hold over her stomach to keep him from tickling her.
Abram sat on the other side of the couch instead. Serenity only barely managed to pull her legs out from under him. “It does. Because every time it eats someone, it takes their memories.”
“That’s not possible.”
“It eats their heart, because that’s where all your love is.”
“No it isn’t. Your stories are stupid, Abram,” Serenity scoffed.
“You’ve never heard Mama’s voice out by the woods?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
Serenity’s eyes went wide and she brought the pillow up to her face, biting on the corner of it. “That’s not funny. You shouldn’t disrespect her like that.”
“So you have heard her then.”
“You’re making things up.” She held herself together for a few more moments before beginning to cry. “Mama wasn’t eaten by a wolf. She wasn’t! She just got lost! She’s okay somewhere! She’s trying to come home!” She clambered upright and then into Abram’s lap, tucking herself into his chest and holding onto him tightly.
Abram hugged her back and rested his cheek on her head. “Hey, little one. I’ll protect you. Always. But Mama’s gone, Renni. It’s just us now. Us and all of Mama’s stories.”
“Tell me another one.”
“Are you gonna say it’s stupid too?”
“Maybe.” She sniffled and it undercut her joke.
Abram rubbed Serenity’s back and pulled an old blanket from the couch to cover them both. He adjusted her in his arms and waited for her upset breathing to even out again. “Well, do you know there’s a man in the moon who fishes in the ocean?”
“No there isn’t.”
“There is! You can see him carved out in the rock.” He launched into as accurate a retelling as possible with Serenity interrupting him every few sentences.
He always wrote the stories down so he could be the hero.
. . .
There was only one story about a wolf.
Cyrus woke up to the morning birds chirping and a few brave ones pecking at the earth around it. It blinked sleepily at them and yawned. They scattered at the first sight of its teeth. It stretched its legs out in front of it and stood to loosen its back legs. This felt natural again. It felt taller. The woods were quiet again. The echoing noises that had followed it last night had dispersed between darkness and the sunrise.
It couldn’t remember exactly what had happened but its chest ached and it still felt on edge. But these were its woods and there was nothing to be worried about when it was fed and strong. Walking back into the treeline was walking back into its home, the place it protected. It was different than everything else and it was smarter than everything else. Even when the other creatures couldn’t see it, Cyrus was a force for good for them. It was a legend. A myth. A hero.
It stalked through the trees and came upon a small fox cub darting in and out of piles of leaves. When the fox saw it, Cyrus grinned good-naturedly, but the fox scampered away so quickly it flipped over itself three times.
The world could be so lonely.
Cyrus continued on, enjoying the stretch of its legs and the clearness of its head. Its heart didn’t struggle against its ribs. In fact, its heart wanted to run and test this newfound energy. So Cyrus ran. It ran and ran, ducking nimbly under branches and skipping roots as if it had never forgotten the forest. It switched from four legs to two seamlessly and, upon coming to the edge of the forest, it stopped, closed its eyes, and took in a deep breath. The sun was beautiful. The forest was beautiful. How had Cyrus ever forgotten?
A small gasp drew Cyrus’ attention. It looked around quickly, dropping to all four legs. A half dozen feet into the bare field stood a young girl. She was staring at Cyrus, but not in fear. She was staring at it as if she could see right through the fur and the fangs. Cyrus stood on its hind legs again and took a step forward. The girl stepped forward too.
Suddenly a strange thought floated into Cyrus’ mind and it couldn’t place the sentiment.
I am the wolf, Renni.