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My grandmother lived for the wolves. Every day, she went into the woods and laid out offerings to appease them. Every night she told me that the howling of the wind in the pines in the ominous night was the wolves, calling to their brothers and sisters lost in the moon and stars. She told me that if we displeased them, they would ravage our home.
I have never seen a wolf. I am not even sure I believe the story. But every night when the moaning wind shakes the house and awakens me, I think of them. Sometimes I even dream about them. I used to tell my grandmother my dreams, but then I grew tired of hearing her interpreting them as signs and omens from the wolves. I was not sure where this wolf legend even came from.
Now I was hanging the clothes upon the clothes line in the cold morning air. It was early spring, so the trees were still bare (except for the dark green pines, of course) and the mountains still had snow on their heads. The buds were emerging from their winter slumber and the animals were rousing from their dens. I suppose the wilderness was beautiful. The skies were so clear that if you went outside on a clear night and looked into the deep, indigo sky, it felt as if you could see the whole universe. The mountain air tickled your nose and tingled in your lungs when you breathed it in. Being immersed in this beautiful little world made it feel as if nothing else existed and that there were no other people in the whole world.
I had come here to live with my grandmother, who was growing old. I tried to persuade her to come back to the city, but her great wolf hunt brought her to the Alaskan wilderness. I think she was going senile, but eventually she persuaded me to leave my home in the city and come take care of her her in the middle of nowhere. Because I was a writer, a somewhat portable career, I eventually agreed, seeing that there was no way to budge her from her mountainous abode. I had decided to myself that I would stay there, just until she died. At the withering age of ninety, it could not be long. At first, I felt utterly uncomfortable in the cluttered little cabin, but eventually, I took up the housekeeping and learned to appreciate the silence. And silence proved to be just what my mind needed. Words sprang to my mind, born in the silence and peace of the evergreens, and poured out of my pen.
I hung up the last of the laundry and watched it wavering in the breeze. Charms and little bags of crushed herbs lined the boughs of the evergreens surrounding the cabin. To ward off the wolves. I could almost hear my grandmother’s jingling-tin voice in my ears. I shook the wolf nonsense out of my mind and went to chop some wood. In the mesmerizing chop-chop-chop of the iron ax splitting the dry wood I attempted to weave the ending of my novel in my mind, the first novel I had ever written. I could not seem to find the ending. I unraveled it and started over. Chop-chop-chop. Maybe the clanging of the lucky wind chimes was driving away my ideas. Finally, I pumped the water and took it inside.
I found my grandmother wrapped in a blanket and sitting in her wooden rocking chair. Creak—creak. The wood groaned and scratched against the floorboards as she rocked back and forth in it. She was weaving another talisman among many: rabbit’s feet, herb mixtures, dream catchers, trinkets, madstones, amulets, and other pieces of nonsense that seemed to collect on the windows and tree branches. I was not sure what to think of my grandmother’s wolf nonsense. I was not sure what went on inside of her decrepit mind.
“The wolves,” her hoarse voice creaked, “are angry. They are fighting with each other. We must not disturb them.” I was not sure how she knew this, or how she thought she knew this. Never one for superstitions, I took none of this seriously. Instead, I was worried about her mental health. Did all elderly women create their own mysterious legends and serve to them as if they were religions? Maybe it was a religion to my grandmother. I turned away from her and began to cook some gumbo in the kitchen. As the smell of food began to swirl through the house and fight off the musty odor that had previously choked the air, I began to write. At my desk, I felt the ideas coming. They were banging on the inside of my head, yelling to come out. They made their way down to my hand but refused to emerge from the tip of my pen unless I was outside in the wilderness. Far away from this cabin, from the wolf nonsense, so that they could spring onto the paper and have the whole sky to expand.
Over the next three days, my grandmother updated me on the wolves, saying that their fight was getting larger and angrier and that we had to be careful or they might take out their anger on us. She attempted to calm them down by playing music, and for several hours she sat outside beside the water pump releasing stony, bleary notes from her carved wooden flute like birds sent out to fly into the wilderness. In the midst of my grandmother’s superstitious high, I was trying to purge myself of my ideas and weave the perfect ending to my novel.
I lay awake in the night. The wind wrapped its arms around the house, and I heard the dull humming of the evergreens swaying in the night, dipping their branches in the starry sky. I heard the insects and the animals, and listened. Were the wolves that my grandmother put so much faith into out there? Undeniably, there were wolves out there. But the wolves? The superstitious wolves that were the heart and soul of the wilderness? I doubted it.
I still lay awake in the night. I could not sleep. The pressure of the ideas growing within me stove sleep away. I felt them pressing on my fingertips, and exploding in my mind.Strangled in this wolf war nonsense, I did not think the ideas would come out. But then, what if I camped out in the wilderness, in the mountains? My grandmother could live alone for just a few days. I will just leave some extra food and wood for her, no problem.
That morning, I shared my idea with her. When I had finished, her face looked like threadbare strung tightly over a loom.
“No, the wolves! It is not safe!” she cried. I shook my head and offered her more porridge.
“Grandma, I will stay safe. I need to go. I need to have silence to write. It’s my job.”
“And the wolves are mine,” she replied.
By that afternoon, I was still convinced I had to go and my grandmother was still convinced that I could not. But the next morning, she told me that she had prayed to the wolves for my safe passage. She stayed up all night creating a special charm which I was to carry to prevent the wolves from bothering me. I agreed, happy she was allowing me to leave.
I stood at the threshold of the cabin, my possesions on my back, the charm in my pocket. My grandmother bid me goodbye.
“Now do not lose that charm,” she warned for the millionth time, “or the wolves will avenge us.They will ravage our home. And be careful. You are a strong young man. Make sure you come back soon,” she said in her clipped voice. I looked up at her face, a labyrinth of wrinkles etched into the papery skin, her nose and mouth mere folds in the paper, her eyes cloudy gray pebbles.
“I will, grandma,” I replied. And she watched me until I was out of sight.
The hike through the evergreens was peaceful. The sun dappled ground was covered with pines and the twittering of birds filled my ears, calming the ideas down with the promise of solace. With each mile I felt them ease their tension until I was sure that they would slip out of the pen and complete the masterpiece. Finally, I came to a clearing in the woods. This was the place. I pitched the tent on the soft ground and started a fire. By now it was late afternoon. I drank some black coffee and ate a stale biscuit, and for the rest of the night I wrote. I wrote to the crackling of the fire, the silence of the night, the fingers of darkness touching me. The kerosene lamp cast shadows on the paper as the ideas exploded on the tip of my pen. The ideas flowed down and began to form themselves on the paper, like oragami creatures crawling through the pages of the notebook, tunneling their way out of my thoughts. In the morning, I had a completed novel to prove for my travail that had painted the late hours of the night. Exhausted, I tucked the notebook and pen back into my backpack and drank more coffee and ate more biscuits before going to sleep.
Nestled in the tent in the morning light, I had a wolf dream. In my dream I was walking through the woods. I walked and walked, the lowing of the wolves becoming louder and louder. Then, I came to a clearing. (I did not realize it until I awoke, but, it was the clearing that I had been sleeping in.) The wolves were fighting, tearing each other apart. The noise was so deafening; it raged in my ears. The killed wolves dissolved into a hundred spirits that floated away, destroying the woods around them. Then I saw my grandmother. She was sitting on a rock (later when I awoke, I saw that rock). One of the wolf spirits, an amorphous shape of color and appearance I cannot describe, went into her head. She cried in pain, clutching her skull, and eventually flopped down dead, her body like a limp wet leaf. I awoke.
I laid silently, my breaths fast as I panted, processing the dream. It had been a frightening dream. Eventually, its biting strength faded and I got up. At first a bit confused, I deduced that it was late morning. Although my original plan was to stay longer and enjoy the peace and serenity of the wilderness, I decided I would return home that afternoon. I wanted to return to the cabin more than ever now. My work was done. I had completed the novel.
Hiking back to the cabin, I had not realized how long the trip was. Wearily, I sunk down on a fallen tree. The wood was moist and moldy, rows of arching mushrooms coating the wood in a perpetual suit of fungi. But I did not get up. I did not get up for a long time. I stared at the moist ground. The mud, weeds, insects, pebbles, pinecones and needles littered the forest floor. Then, I saw the glint of shiny metal. I approached it and lifted it from the mud. It was the charm that my grandmother had given to me. I recalled her words. Or were they summoned to my mind by an unseen force? Now do not lose that charm or the wolves will avenge us. Now I studied it, encrusted with mud. It must have fallen from my pocket.
Finally, I saw the cabin through the fringe of pine trees. I mustered the energy I did not have and ran to the door. Standing on the threshold, I caught my breath and opened the door. I gasped for air. The interior of the cabin looked as if an army had searched it, or a tornado had stuck its merciless hands inside for warmth. My mind was reeling. It could not possibly be the wolves, the wolves do not exist.
“Grandma! Grandma!” I began calling. No response beneath the rubble. I stumbled into her room. There lay my paper grandmother on the bed, the untouched bed. Not a speck of dust was on the quilts despite the torn room surrounding her. Not a hair was misplaced on her head. I ran to her, navigating through the mess. I cut my arm on a torn piece of metal. The blood was dark, it dripped down my arm like an ominous river. The drops of blood soaked into the quilts.
“Grandma!” I touched her shoulders. They were hard and cold, like clay. Her paper face was cold and stiff, and her pebble eyes were closed.