Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
 print preview

Hungry, Like the Wolf

The wolf was scratching the ground outside the thatched cottage to mark his territory and leave his scent when the old woman opened the door. Standing there in her white cap and gown, her feet bare and brown from her dirt floor, she beckoned like someone who had been waiting. “Come in,” she said. “I don’t have all day.”

The wolf paused in his scratching, his eyes narrowed to slits, his ears perked.

She placed her hands on her bony hips. “Well?”

He trotted through the door and sniffed for a trap. He prowled around outside her house regularly, howling and baying at her doors and windows, but never before had he been inside.

“Have a seat,” she said, gesturing to a short three-legged stool by the hearth.

Keeping his eyes on the old woman, he circled the stool, then lay down between it and the hearth, all the while watching her, alert to human trickery. Her scent, familiar to him from all of her walks and her gardening, ran through the small, neat dwelling; it was especially strong on the plump chair she’d set to face the hearth, even stronger on the crocheted antimacassar. There was another smell as well, one he could not place. It tugged at his senses but eluded him.

“You’re wondering why I’ve invited you in,” she said, standing near him, close and unafraid. “I’m not as foolish as you may think.” Before she could say more, her body bent in a heave of coughing. She hacked and hacked, her small frame bent double, swaying. The frayed hem of her woolen nightgown fluttered. She wiped her mouth with a veiny hand.

He’d never seen her like this.

“I don’t suppose you know that you’re my only friend,” she told him. “My daughter I never see. She’s still angry with me for telling her not to marry that no-gooder. ‘You think life in town is so much better?’ I asked her. ‘Town life will eat you up.’ Everything costs money in town. Everyone’s breath mingles together there. And wasn’t I right? Every so often she sends her daughter out here to me. ‘For a visit,’ she says, but the girl just comes to beg. ‘Please, Nana, a florin, a shilling, a groat, a farthing. Papa needs his ale. Mama says I need a new coat. I would like a red one, wool with a hood.’ That girl never leaves here empty-handed. No, wolf, you’re all I have left. You’re the only one who doesn’t want anything from me.”

She pushed back her hair from her eyes, tucking the white strands back into her cap.

“But you want something from me,” he guessed.

“I’ve been sick for some time,” she said. “I’m not getting any better.”

“That is a bad cough,” he agreed. “Have you tried nettles?”

“It’s not just the cough. I can feel it, like the silt at the bottom of the pond where my husband and I once skipped stones has settled deep in my lungs. I can feel the dying,” she said.

He waited for the catch. She had taken time, of which she had plenty on her hands, to come up with that speech. Time was a thing a wolf understood. Catching the scent of prey was easy, but following and stalking and bringing down the prey took considerable time, especially when the bigger animals—the moose and the bison—stood their ground, refusing him the rush of giving chase, forcing him to wait them out. Time was all that was needed. With enough time wet fur dried, food was brought down, dens were made, territories staked, bitches came into heat, and pups were whelped.

She said, “Soon I’ll die here and I don’t want to rot.” She lived with an image of dying in her bed with no one to see or know, of her body decomposing beneath her clothes and cap, of disintegrating into the sheets, of mummifying, a desiccate in a gown with the sheets pulled up to her neck. Downwind of her, he caught a whiff of the smell he hadn’t placed earlier and his whiskers twitched at the scent of near-death wafting faintly through the cottage, withering the skins of the dried onions hanging above, sprouting from the eyes of potatoes, coating the kettle and cauldron like grime, tainting the water in the bucket, curdling the milk in the pail.

She held out her shaking hand. “It’s already begun,” she said. “I want you to end it for me.”

“And after?” he asked. “What will happen to all of this?”

“I’m giving it all to you. I’ve written a will. It’s all nice and proper.”

“What about your daughter and granddaughter?”

She said, “They can go begging.”

“Wolves don’t own property,” he reminded her. “We don’t need houses.”

“A shelter for when it gets too cold out.”

She had an answer for everything.

She tugged down a corner of her dress, baring her shoulder. She tilted her head, offered her exposed neck. He heard the heart beating in her chest; he heard a sound fainter still, the small trapped bird of death quivering in her ribcage. “Will you do it now?” she asked, afraid he would, afraid he would not.

“Give me some time to think it over,” he snarled. His tail thumped the dirt floor.

“How long?”

“Three days. I’ll be back to let you know either way. Don’t get your hopes up,” he warned.

“Of course, of course,” but she was beaming, certain, sure.


He went straight from her cottage to his den.

His mate said, “Don’t even think of it. They’ll find her body, then come hunting us all. They’ll burn down these woods to get to you.”

“You didn’t see her,” he argued. “She’s in a bad way.”

“Think of us,” she told him. “Think of someone else for a change.”


He was quiet the next two days, no howling, no baying. He nosed the ground like a sow sniffing for truffles. A blind wolf could see that he was mulling it over, worrying the problem.

Finally, when the moon rose on the third day, he said, “I’m going to do it.”

“You’ll jeopardize the pack?” his mate asked. “What if they find the bones?”

“I won’t leave any,” he said, yellow eyes gleaming.


How happy she was to see him!

She said, “I thought you wouldn’t show,” and the young girl shone once more out of that old face, a little girl getting her dear wish.

“I said I’d come either way,” he said. “But this is a mistake.”

“This will all be yours,” she reminded him.

“Even that?” He lifted a paw and gestured to the corner where her white nightgown and cap were balled in a humble pile on the low feather bed against the wall. Today she wore a woolen kirtle and smock, dressed for receiving company.

“Put it on,” she urged him. “See how you’ll look.”

She helped him adjust the cap over his ears. She held out to him a small hand mirror. When he saw himself he let out a whine at his gaudy, human-like appearance. What was next, he wondered, walking on all twos? He shook off the cap—ridiculous!—bared his teeth and backed away toward the door.

She dropped on all fours beside him. “I imagine you’re hungry,” she crooned. His ears pivoted at the sound, and, as if a trap had been sprung, he was caught in ravening memories. He remembered all the times his parents took down a kill, how he and his siblings had to wait until they’d first taken their fill of the meat, and how the wait was unbearable when the carcass was right there for him to see. As a pup, he’d never gotten his fill, making do with half portions though he was larger and heavier than his siblings and should have been allowed to feed the same as the adults. Sometimes, after a long hunt, his parents rested before devouring and let the others go first. It was only on those rare occasions that he ever remembered being full. Often, even when he’d torn off the flesh and taken it to his corner of the den and was already eating, he thought of the next kill, the next carcass, and he imagined the pleasure of nipping at a moose’s hind legs, the pure joy of going for the throat of a roe deer. Being a wolf meant he would always hunger.

“Lady,” he panted, “you have no idea.”

“I think I do. I hunger to escape this world. I want to go on my own terms. I’m starving for freedom; I want to shake this sickness loose.” Her eyes watered beneath their pale, thin lashes. Kneeling, crouching, facing him, she held out her trembling, veined hand and laid it on his paw. “I’m just as hungry as you.”  

return to top