The wolf watches us from the far corner of the enclosure as the girl fumbles with her keys to let me inside. I don’t bother to call to him; his hearing isn’t as good as it used to be, and, besides, he won’t come near until we’re alone.
In the brochure, they called the enclosure an “enriched personal habitat,” but it’s really more of a pen, a section of grass and trees fenced with chain link. They’ve tried to make the grounds look something like a forest, but the effect is too neatly trimmed to be convincing. Instead, it looks more like a park–or a zoo.
The only thing that’s wild here is him.
In the nearest corner, a three-sided wooden shelter shades two stainless steel bowls. One holds fresh water, changed every hour–a touch I appreciate–and the other is half-filled with a pile of pink beef scraps.
I watch two flies buzz around the meat. It doesn’t look like he’s touched it at all.
I sigh and turn back to the girl, who has already closed the gate behind me. “Has he eaten anything today?”
She glances at his chart. “No, sir, not today. They tried giving him venison this morning like you asked, but he didn’t eat any of it.”
“Was it cold?”
Even with the chain link separating us, she blanches under my gaze, and I look away briefly to make her more comfortable. I know, then, that she has no faol blood in her. “I don’t know,” she says.
I try to keep my voice gentle. “He won’t eat it unless it’s warm.”
She jerks a nod. “I’ll make a note, sir.”
I don’t doubt that she will. They love notes at this place: charts and paperwork and orders typed in all caps. But I wonder if they ever bother to read any of them. One shift ends, another one starts, and you might as well have never said anything in the first place.
If it’s frustrating for me, I can only imagine what it’s like for him. At least I can still speak.
“Thank you,” I tell her, though I’m not really sure what I’m thanking her for. “I’ll find you if we need anything else.”
She locks the gate and hurries away. I wonder how long she’ll keep working here.
I double-check that the gate is closed securely, then sit down on the wooden bench under one of the trees. The wolf whines softly as he rises and comes to me. He is thinner than the last time I saw him, and his gait is stiff-legged. If he hasn’t been eating, he likely hasn’t gotten many pills down for his arthritis, either. He thrusts his muzzle against my hands, and I stroke his silver head lightly, respectfully.
“Hi, Dad,” I whisper.
I remember the first time I saw him in wolfshape. He told me not to be afraid, but still, watching the full-body grimace of the change was terrifying to a ten-year-old. It reminded me of the horror movies where you think you’re approaching a loved one from behind, until they turn around and the music shrieks and you realize you’re seeing the monster instead.
But at the end of it, he wasn’t a monster. He was a strong, healthy gray wolf, lean muscle, lush pelt, white teeth. As a man, he had always seemed to me somehow smaller, weaker than the other fathers I saw — although I hated to admit that, even to myself — but as a wolf, he was powerful, he was fierce, and I felt I was seeing his true self for the first time. It was disorienting and wonderful.
As a wolf, I turned out to mirror him in miniature, a fact that pleased me immensely.
He taught me what it meant to be faol, to carry a wildness within you. The wolf is always there in your mind, even in human shape, just as the human side of you still lingers in wolfshape. In form, you are one or the other. But in your mind, you are neither and both. And it is so much simpler, and so much more complicated, than that sounds.
There were no large packs near our home, but he took me to the others within our range. I saw them bare their throats and bellies to him, saw them lick his muzzle. The wolf in me knew what that meant without being told, and the boy in me nearly burst with pride.
Two females ran with that group, both with silver coats and sweet voices, but while they fawned over my father, he never took any special notice of them that I could see. My mother had been gone almost since I could remember, and I asked my father once why I couldn’t have one of these for a mother.
He smiled. “The wolf wants to make things easy,” he said at last, “but the man knows it isn’t that simple. As a wolf, I could. As a man…” He didn’t finish, and, sensing something in his silence, I never asked him about it again.
Those were star-filled nights, summer-sweet, and like all children, I never imagined they would end.
“Dad,” I say now, “you have to eat something. I know it’s not what you’re used to…”
He looks up, his golden eyes cloudy. I can’t read his expression, can’t tell if he’s pleading with me or simply struggling to focus.
“For me, okay? Just a little. I’ll bring some liver next time.” For one crazy moment I wonder if I could smuggle something alive in here–a calf or a lamb or even a rabbit. He needs hot meat, blood meat, but I don’t know if he even has the strength left to make a kill.
The wolf, in the end, is greedy. Bit by bit, year by year, it grows in the mind. Some happily take to the woods for good, as far from humans as they can get. Others hold out as long as they can, until they can no longer change back to human form. Born as men, faol die as wolves.
He always swore he would know when that time came. Sometimes he talked of getting to the national park a few hours’ drive away. Sometimes he talked about the gun in his nightstand drawer.
That day when I went to his house, when I hadn’t heard from him and he wasn’t answering the phone, I didn’t know what I would find. And so when I saw him lying in wolfshape in front of the old recliner, the TV still tuned to the baseball game, I was glad. Even when his eyes met mine and I could somehow taste the sorrow and defeat that hung about him–even then, I was glad.
I glance back at the gate, but there’s no sign of the girl or anyone else. I take my clothes off, carefully arranging them on the bench so they won’t get dirty or wrinkled. The change comes swiftly and easily.
I tuck my tail, lower my ears, whine, and lick his muzzle. His eyes brighten, and his tail lifts a little higher.
I long to run, to play the way we used to. But I don’t know if he can keep up, and I won’t make him feel weak if he can’t. In the end, we settle in a patch of shade, with tiny ants tickling our paw-pads. I breathe in his scent, and it makes me feel little again, safe again. He dozes, and I wonder what he dreams about. If he remembers me, is it as a wolf-pup, or his son?
My human mind whispers that I can’t stay much longer. I lick his ear gently to wake him up, and as he stretches stiffly and yawns, I get an idea. Tail high, ears up, I trot to his dish. Just as I lower my head to the meat, he growls, and I look up to see him standing with his lips pulled back from yellowed teeth. Instinct has won out over stubbornness.
I back off, allowing him his place. He eats most of the meat, then steps aside, and I finish. The taste of it makes me shudder–I’m used to meat either cooked or fresh, not raw and sun-stale–but I force myself to swallow. Afterward, we wash the juices from each other’s faces, just as we used to wash the blood away after a kill.
He whines as I walk back to the bench. I want to stay with him; I want to leave.
The change back to human form is a bit like pushing a wheeled cart over a threshold–a little more force, more of a jolt than the slip into wolfshape. Right now it is still as effortless as breathing, but I know it will gradually get more difficult. And then, one day…
I try not to think about it.
He lies down and rests his chin on his paws, watching as I get dressed. Does he still remember how it felt to tuck in a shirt, pull up a zipper, buckle a belt? Or has the wolf-mind carried those memories away, buried them in the scent of dead leaves and the dreams of moon-dappled deer? I don’t even know how many words he still understands, but I speak anyway, if only for myself. I speak the words that I couldn’t say out loud to the man, the ones I can say only now, to the wolf.
“I love you.” I lift the keypad cover on the gate and enter the code to unlock it. “I’ll be back soon.”
As I close the gate behind me, the low, throbbing howl begins. A moment later, the others join in, the song echoing through the enclosures, and even in human form I can still pick out his voice among the chorus, rising above the others, dying away into a moan, then rising again.
I get to the car, but even with the doors and windows shut, I can still hear them. I put my hands over my ears like a child, rest my forehead against the steering wheel, and weep.
Night falls clear and cool, and I run alongside a white-furred female, our paws skimming the ground. Last night, the two of us shared linguini and red wine; tonight, if the wind is with us, we will feed from an aging doe.
Running is a joy, a song in my blood. I am a pup no longer; I am as fine and strong now as my father was when I first saw him in wolfshape. I am drunk on the night and the run and the she-wolf’s scent in my lungs.
As I leap to bring the doe to the ground, as I join the tussle of teeth tearing at the hide, as the first hot sweetness of blood tingles in my nostrils, I pray that one day the deer’s hard, sharp hoof will find me, a single well-placed blow to blaze my life to its close. Before my eyes dim and my hearing dulls, before the chain-link fence and the stainless steel dish. Before I hold a pistol, or a noose, or the keys to my car, and try to decide. Before it’s too late to decide at all. The wolf I am hopes it will be that easy.
But the man knows it isn’t that simple.