The Teachings of the Wolves

By Linda Carela

inston left New York City before dawn. He drove for miles, avoiding the highway, assiduously keeping to the speed limit along narrow, secondary roads. He kept driving even as the sky lightened, until he entered Averill State Park. At the pull-off alongside Route 110, he abandoned his car, removing the license plates and then flinging them into the brown creek below the parking area. Then he entered the woods and trekked for two hours along an overgrown, unmarked trail until by the time the sun was overhead he had managed to reach the lean-to that he remembered from his teenage get-high-in-the-woods days. His buddy Carl lived up around here now and when Winston called Carl from a gas station and hinted at some trouble Carl told Winston to go to the lean-to.

Winston slumped to the ground, held his face in his hands, and tried to slow his breathing. Shit, shit, shit. Why did he flee? He should have gone to the police right away. It was an accident. Involuntary manslaughter. That’s what they called it. Something like that. Not murder. No there was no way he was capable of it. No not him. Maybe he could just pretend it never happened. No one would know. Except he called Carl. But he didn’t tell him much. Winston would just disappear, live like an outlaw. Until one day he froze to death on some exposed ledge. Yeah that would be the right thing to do. Just outrun this.

He imagined a Jesse James type existence— rugged, manly, courageous. Of course he had no survival equipment, no gun. Nothing to get food or water. Only Thelma’s fucking purse filled with lipsticks and tampons. Why in the hell did he drag that thing out here? What did he want? Incriminating evidence right on him. Besides that, he could barely move the shoulder where Thelma had slammed the chair down on him. Another stupid argument that led to stupid actions. Once again she had started it, but this time he struck back, hurt her. But he hadn’t meant it. No, no. no. It was just a bad moment. Why should he pay all of his life for one bad moment? But then another thought occurred to him. Maybe she was faking it, lying there all crumpled across the door jamb. He was just having a bad dream.

After a few moments, he exhaled and looked up. A young girl appeared before him. Just padded barefoot right up in the shimmering heat of mid-day.

“Mister?” she said.

He was discovered. Winston exhaled forcefully, his nostrils flared and his palms pushed at the ground so he could rise to standing, but a dog, it looked more like a wolf or a coyote, sprang up out of nowhere and growled.

The child squatted next to Winston and wrinkled up her nose. “You’re hurt, Mister.” She pointed at his shoulder.

“Yeah, never you mind. Get moving. Get out of here.”

But she didn’t move. Instead, she clapped her hands and the wolf-dog came to her side. Without another word, the girl pulled Winston’s shirt away from his bloody shoulder. It had a long gash from his collarbone up to the top of the shoulder which had bruised a livid purple. She placed her small dirty hand on the wound and held it there for a moment. Winston remembered the touch of the school nurse bandaging a scraped knee. The girl waved the animal closer.

“Let him lick the wound. It will heal it.”

Winston shook his head. Now, they were on the threshold of madness. He didn’t get free of Thelma to succumb to a shrunken backwoods devil.

The girl pulled at the ruff of the animal’s neck. “Come on, King,” she said. The dog yawned, as if preparing for a tedious task, and Winston gazed at the long pink tongue and yellow incisors.

“Just lean against that rock there and then King can reach you.” She pushed Winston against the boulder and the dog came forward and began to lick with his rough tongue. Winston’s stomach heaved and he turned his head away from the dog’s fetid breath. He feared that with any quick movement the dog would be at his throat.

“Is that where you live?” The girl stepped in front of Winston and pointed at the lean-to. Winston shook his head slightly, not enough to indicate assent or disagreement. The dog finally stepped back away from Winston and turned his large head toward the girl. She patted the animal. “King is the best healer we’ve got,” she declared.

Winston tugged at his shirt and tried to wipe away the dog’s spittle. He realized he was rubbing at his shoulder and it didn’t hurt as much. He looked down at the wound. Well . . . it didn’t really look too bad now. Maybe the pain had been more in his mind.

The girl chewed on her bottom lip and then ran down the hill and into the woods. Problem was that she left the beast sitting on his haunches and licking his chops. Still, Winston thought that he could get away and heaved himself up. The dog stood too, pulled his ears forward. Winston’s heart quickened. Oh God, what was he so afraid of? It was just a girl and her pet.

But he had no chance to make another move because within minutes the girl was back, waving a few stalks of some dried-out weed and with another even larger dog by her side.

“Hey, Mister.” She was no more than nine or ten with her soft features and round face. She waved the plant at him. “This is just what you need,” she said.

“What I need is to be days and miles away from here,” he said.

“No, no, no you don’t. You are too hurt for traveling. Tell him King.” King bared his incisors and emitted a low growl.

The girl looked at the lean-to and then turned and gave Winston a squint-eyed look. “I know what’s wrong. I bet you’ve seen Tractor’s ghost. Good ole Tractor. He’s been visiting.”

Winston’s nostrils flared. This was pathetic. He was being ordered around by a dimwitted, superstitious, hillbilly child. What was she doing wandering around all alone? Probably had an alcoholic for a mother, a father she never met.

The girl walked over to him, kicked lightly at his leg. “Yeah, you’ve seen Tractor all right. You fell trying to get away, right?”

Winston shook his head and spit on the ground next to her feet.

“Put your hand over your heart,” she commanded.

Winston, who had his own set of superstitions, put his left hand on the right side of his chest, the heartless side. The child nodded, although King, who seemed to know the location of the human heart better than she did, growled.

She rummaged in a small pack she had been carrying and produced a folded, dirty sheet of paper. She shook open the page, stood with both legs together, shoulders pushed back, and began to recite, “From this day forward, I (that’s you, Mister) will be a bodhisattva” (she stumbled over this word and Winston had no idea what she was talking about anyway). “I will obey all wolf spirits. My mind will be clear like the spring of Anawasi and my heart will be as large as the night sky. I will stand tall and strong as the mountain of Black Iron. And no bad will befall me.” She bowed her head for a second, folded the paper along its well-worn creases and placed it back in her bag.

Winston’s mouth hung open. Not even Thelma with her crystals and incense and wind chimes talked such nonsense.

The girl came closer and began prodding him with her foot. “Mister, pay attention. You have to say ‘I swear’ or I can’t bring Waltman to help you.”

“I swear,” he told the girl because what difference did it make. Just let her go away. He must think, plan. Where the hell was Carl? Did Winston have the right shelter? He covered his face to try to kick his mind into gear, to remember Carl’s directions. Instead, he saw Thelma’s body at the door to the bedroom, a trail of blood running under the bed.

The air seemed to be pressing down on him so that he almost fell forward into the mud. He sunk back down to sit against the rock. He would just rest a bit. No one would find Thelma for days. He had time. He still had time.

“What’s the matter with you, Mister? You’re breathing funny. You need some water?”

Winston looked up and met the girl’s eyes. “Yes,” he nodded. “I need water.”

The child pursed her lips. “The creek is down there.” She pointed to a hollow below the shelter. “But I guess you know that, living here and all.” She looked at him and shrugged. “I guess I’ll go get it for you.” She twisted her mouth to one side and furrowed her forehead at the purse lying next to Winston. “Where’s your bottle?” she asked. “How do you fetch water?”

“Don’t you have a bottle?” Winston asked.

She shook her head. “Not on me. The pups and me just drink direct from the creek.”

She opened the purse and dumped the contents: a lipstick, tampons, a few crumpled dollar bills, a bottle of pills and a Swiss Army knife. She shook the pill bottle. They were probably just Thelma’s sleeping pills but as little as the girl weighed it shouldn’t take much to kill her or, at least, make her pass out. Why not? Blood was already on his hands. He felt reckless.

“Hey, honey, you know what’s in that little bottle? Something that will make you so strong. You’ll be able to run faster than either than of these nice fellows here.” Winston waved his hand at the two canines, wolves or dogs he was no longer certain.

She looked up at him, nostrils flared, eyes narrowed. Perhaps she was smarter than he had presumed. He felt relieved. Okay good then. No sense throwing everything away. He would be spared the harming of a child. She opened up the knife and waved the blade through the air.

“Now, child, you don’t want to be messing with that.”

She shrugged, snapped the blade back in place and put the knife behind her. “I am going to bring that to Waltman. He collects knives.”

Winston waved his hand at the bigger animal. “That’s not Waltman?” he asked.

The girl pulled her head back, a gesture of disbelief. “Nooo,” she put her hand on the head of the first dog who had licked him, “this is King.” Then she put her hand on the larger animal, “and this is Princess.” She spoke slowly as if she were instructing a small child or someone who didn’t speak any English.

Okay then. Now he was really fucked. He either got out of there quick or he would face what was coming to him. Two ferocious beasts and some knife-loving creature named Waltman, all in submission to this ill-nourished girl. He swallowed. So maybe he deserved it. So what. He did plenty of good that he never got paid for.

She picked up the knife and stuck it in the waistband of her pants. It looked absurdly large next to her small torso. There goes his weapon, he thought. No matter. He could still get out to the road in less than an hour. He’d hitchhike to town. He’d take his chances. He listened for cars on the distant road. He almost hoped to hear sirens.

“Since you’re hurting so bad,” she tugged at her grimy hair, “I’ll go back to camp for a canteen.”

“Okay, then. Take your time,” he called out. “Keep your pals close.” Winston waved at the animals. “Plenty of bad guys in these woods. I’ll just wait right here.” He patted the rock.

“King comes with me always,” she said. And then, chewing on her bottom lip, “Princess can stay to keep you company,” as if doing him a favor. She slapped her thigh and King trotted to her side. She looked at Princess and pressed one hand flat toward the ground. The animal lay down, long snout resting between its front paws. The girl nodded and then she and King ran down the hill and disappeared into the undergrowth.

Winston cursed and Princess lifted her head. He leaned back against the rock and tried to clear his head, tried to plan. The sun had sunk behind Timber Mountain and even though it was still early autumn it was getting colder. Another couple of hours and it would be dusk. And then it would be pitch dark. Perhaps that would be better. Perhaps the demon child and her Waltman wouldn’t be able to find him in the dark. He looked over at the wolf dog. “Princess, yeah right,” he said. The dog pulled her ears forward and gave him a hard stare.

Winston tried to think so hard he grew exhausted and dozed off. When he jerked back awake, it was dark and quiet. No hope of Carl now. He opened his eyes wider and tried to peer into the darkness. Something white fluttered by. His mouth dropped open, but it was just a moth. A moth seeking out a bit of light. Winston looked up. No moon. That’s why it was so damned dark. He listened for the breathing of the wolf. Nothing. It must have left. With some effort, Winston heaved himself up. The moth flew into his face and he almost inhaled the damn thing. But still, he was standing. He wondered how many hours it would take to find the road in this darkness. As he stumbled along, he listened for the whoosh of cars. All was quiet. Maybe it was just too late for traffic. Everyone was home, nice and cozy in their beds, even the little demon who probably lived in the trailer park just west of the park boundary.

He rested against a tree. His eyes had adjusted so that now he could just discern the path. He knew he had to head uphill first. He rose and propelled himself forward. When he finally made it to the rise, with way too much panting and sweating, he saw a light bobbing in the distance.

Winston put his hands in the air and waited for the light to get closer. He dreaded what he knew was coming. For an accident, maybe three to four years in a quiet cell. Just get it started so it could be over. But then he saw it was the girl again. She carried a flashlight and waved the beam up and down Winston’s body. “There he is. He needs help,” she called out. Tracking behind her were a dozen wolf dogs as well as three men with shotguns. The police were nowhere to be seen.

She went up to Winston, tugged on his sleeve, and then craned her head back and looked into his face. “You moved,” she said. “We’ve been looking for you.” She handed a bottle of water up to Winston and then turned and looked at one of the men. “Yup, Waltman, this is him.”

Winston couldn’t see any of the men’s faces, hidden behind the glare of the flashlights, but he could see the shotguns slung over their shoulders, bandolier style. Winston held his hands up and waved them around. One of the men stepped forward and pointed his chin at Winston. “What are you running from? Sister told us about you.”

Winston felt a wave of nausea roll through him. Sister? “No . . . no . . . not running. It’s just that . . .” he stammered.

Suddenly one of the wolves, teeth bared, leaped toward Winston. Winston gasped and fell into a crouch.

The girl pulled the animal back by the scruff of the neck. “Get up mister,” she said. “We’re taking you back to the camp.”

Two of the men pulled Winston up by his arms, the third man went behind and pushed a hand into Winston’s back. They walked deeper into the woods along the old mining cart road. The girl, ahead of Winston and the men, was surrounded by the pack of wolves and patted a head or two as she walked. The men had their flashlights on but still they tripped over an exposed root or a pointy rock sometimes pulling Winston down to his knees. The girl had no need of light and moved as easily down the dark path as the animals.

After a trek that seemed to last hours but was probably no more than thirty or forty minutes, they approached a clearing surrounded on three sides by steep walls of rock. Winston knew that they were deep in the park now, maybe five miles from the road where he had left his truck. The girl and the wolves disappeared into the darkness. The men kept Winston in the clearing. They pulled him down to sit on a log and then turned their flashlights off. One of the men sat down next to him. “You don’t want to disturb Sister when she’s getting ready,” he said in a strange, soft voice.

“So what is she getting ready to do?” Winston half-mumbled, half-whispered. He didn’t really want his question answered.

The smallest man turned on his flashlight and shone it on Winston. “When we are in the presence of an enemy,” he circled the light around Winston’s head. “And when the old world is nearing its end,” he turned the light up to the dark sky, “then Sister knows what needs to be done.” The man turned the light off.

Suddenly Winston was lifted by his armpits and pulled to standing. All three flashlights were turned back on. The girl, now wearing a fur hat, appeared in the clearing accompanied by at least twenty dogs. She climbed on top of a boulder and one of the men handed his flashlight up to her. She shone it on Winston. Then, like an angel of wrath in a coonskin cap, she crooked her index finger indicating that Winston should approach. Winston shook his head, pointing his chin at the pack of dogs. She called out a word that he didn’t understand and he thought that perhaps she had cursed him and he wondered if he would turn to ash. But the word was meant for the dogs who promptly sat on their haunches. The girl shone her flashlight over the animals and then beckoned Winston once more.

Winston walked over to the rock. The girl squatted and shone the light on his hurt shoulder. She placed her palm flat against the skin and nodded. “It is healed.”

Winston thought, yeah, well, maybe not. But then he looked and the open wound where the splintered wood of the chair had bit into him was gone and even the large purple bruise had disappeared.

The girl waved one of the men over. “Look. This man was hurt and now he’s better. King did that. King has great power.”

The man pulled Winston’s shirt aside and poked at the shoulder. Winston winced, expecting pain, but there was none. The man stepped backward. “I think the power is in you, Sister,” he said.

Sister jumped down off the rock, landing in a crouch like an animal. “Jimman, stop saying that. It’s the dogs.”

“Are they dogs or are they wolves?” Winston blurted. He hadn’t meant to speak.

The girl slapped her right thigh and then her left. With a single bound, King and another still larger animal stood next to Winston, one on each side. “Well, what do you think?” she said. “Are they wolves or dogs? Pet them.”

Winston reached his hand out to King, hoping that since they were already acquainted it might be okay, but the animal bared his teeth and emitted a low growl. Winston pulled his hand back.

“They smell your fear,” she said. She swayed and then sniffed the air. “Even I smell your fear.”

Winston looked over his shoulder at the men. They were staring at the girl as if she were the Virgin Mary coming to save them. Winston half expected them to drop to their knees, but they remained standing, legs spread, hands on hips. Sister uttered another incomprehensible word and this time the men came up to Winston. One held his arms, one stepped on his feet, and the biggest one had a piece of lumber. Winston did not feel much pain, just a bit of nausea as he slumped to the ground.

Winston revived in a pool of spring water. The noise of his chattering teeth woke him before the cold did. As consciousness seeped in, he felt something on his shoulder. He reached back and touched a fur paw. Winston howled.

“I told you if the water didn’t work, Princess would do the job,” the girl said. “Bring him up out of there. We will bring him to the Diamond Cave. That’s the place to let the wolves do their work.” She lifted one of the animals up by the front paws and did a little dance with it. “Diamond Cave, Diamond Cave, Diiiii Mond Caaaave,” she sang.

The men hauled Winston up to the mossy bank, where he lay panting. He wondered if he was about to have a heart attack. Maybe he had already had the attack and this was the aftermath. Fuck, maybe he was dead already and this was some joke of a hell.

The men pulled and prodded Winston through the field and into a rock covered space. It was not exactly a cave, just a dugout under a boulder, and there certainly were no diamonds, just a muddy floor, and a cold dank smell. The girl placed some clothes, a gallon jug of water and a tin bucket of what looked like pig slop by his side. “I will return in two days,” she said.

Then she was gone. Winston shivered himself into a stupor until it was dark. He groped over the dirt until he found the water jug. He shook it. Probably poisoned. The pail of food did not smell bad but he remembered that it looked like something regurgitated. The clothes felt like soft fleece but they smelled like they had been washed in a mud puddle. But no matter they were dry and probably warm. With some difficulty, he shucked off his wet clothes and put the dry ones on. Winston knew that the dark gave him his best chance to escape, but he was exhausted. He leaned back against the rock wall. The she-devil said two days. That gave him plenty of time. For now, he would just rest and regain some strength.

Winston woke to the sound of his own voice and a panic that clutched at his throat. He was talking nonsense, babble. He jerked upright, banged his head against the rock wall. It was an act of will to grip his mind, to hold it still. If he went crazy, he would be Sister’s idiot prisoner forever.

A murky light filtered through the gaps in the rocks. It must be early morning. Sister and company should still be asleep. Now was the time. Now, he repeated out loud. Now. No matter how his body ached. No matter how tired he was. Winston reached his palms down to push himself up, but instead of rock or mud, he touched a warm furry body, one on each side of him. They growled and pushed against him. Winston ran his fingers through their thick pelts, a coarse layer of hair on top and downy warm fur underneath. He ran his hands down the side of the animal on his right, the skin loose over the rib cage and then he patted the animals. Over and over. Left side, right side. The animals slept through it all, peaceful and content. Winston’s breathing slowed as if to keep pace with the beasts. All desire to flee, the urgency to escape seeped away. Winston came to the realization that he had nowhere else to go, nowhere else to be. He felt the energy coiled inside the animals moving up his arm, into his legs, his lungs, his heart. He lay back down cradled by animal heat and breath. In his dreams he felt light, almost buoyant, ready to greet the next sunrise or even to adore the never ending dark of his cave.

On the third day, the girl led Winston out to the highway. No matter that he had three days of threat by flesh-rending wolves and bombardment by cryptic, apocalyptic messages, Winston felt his body strong and invigorated and his mind was as calm and velvety soft as the night sky above him. The girl pointed him in the direction of the nearest town and handed him a flashlight. She waved her hand indicating that Winston should bend down and she reached forward and touched his ravaged face. He half-expected her fingers to burn his flesh off, but it was no more than a child’s sweaty palm.

“Jimman and Waltman and Willman wanted to take you themselves,” she said. Winston shone the light on her. She was chewing on her bottom lip, a childish habit. “But I said that you could do it on your own. Princess and King and Thunder and Luna and Sable and Delta and Flash and Jupiter and Rambler and Loner and Lightning,” she ticked off each name on her fingers, “all of them have transformed you. You were hapless but now you are blessed.”

Hapless? Winston wasn’t even sure what that meant. Where in the hell did the girl learn all this? But the wolf spirit, even in the guise of a child, has been around a long time.

Winston turned away and started the half mile to town. At first, he beat his way through the weeds alongside the road. But after ten minutes of that struggle, he just walked down the middle of the pavement. Let him be killed like a dog. Halfway to town, he felt compelled to discard his shoes and flashlight and he continued barefoot in the darkness. He imagined that Sister was still there. Indeed, he felt like he was one of her wolves trotting alongside her. The town, not the one where he left Thelma bleeding on the carpet, but the next one over, was quiet. A few rangy young men loitering outside a corner store pointed and jeered at Winston.

Winston gave them a flat sober look and asked where the police station was. The men looked at one another, spat on the ground and told Winston to get the fuck out of there. Winston shrugged and moved on.

A police car pulled up and Winston held his hand up in greeting. He tried to open the back door but the cops jumped out and pulled his arms behind his back. They cuffed him and pushed him into the back seat. Winston sighed at their ill manners but still he told them that they should go to 266 Parker Avenue. The cops squinched up their faces and wondered what nut they had found on this lonely night. That was the beginning of his days of freedom. From that night on, no matter where they caged him, Winston walked with wolves beside him.

___

Linda Carela lives in the Bronx, NYC, and works at a humanitarian relief organization where she analyzes donor data and provides customer service. She is also trying to climb the 46 highest peaks in the Adirondacks. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Word Riot, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Midway Journal, Exit 7, Limestone, RipRap, and Crack the Spine. She attended The Writers Studio for four years and studied with Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Schultz.


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