Kate Elizabeth Russell
In June, the wolves came in a pack twenty-five strong. They came from the north, as they had before, following the St. Lawrence River into the heart of Quebec. The wolves took over towns along the way, trotting shoulder-to-shoulder like soldiers down empty roads, their ears pricked and tails rigid, while the people huddled inside their homes, front doors barricaded with the heaviest furniture and curtains drawn. It had been decades since the wolves last came.
“It’s been twenty years,” a man whispered in the dark of his home.
“Non,” his wife said, clutching their child. “Thirty, at least.”
The wolf pack worked quickly. They stayed in a town only as long as it took to eat.
When they left, people were still too scared to leave their homes. It took days for them to drag the furniture away from their front doors and venture outside. With shaking hands and glassy eyes, they surveyed the damage—dead animals, carcasses picked clean. A child wept over what was left of her dog; a young woman hung her head as she stood over the remains of her favorite mare.
“But we need to be grateful,” someone said. “Look around. Not one human harmed.”
Outside of town, the wolf pack waited until dark to emerge from the woods and circle the secluded dairy farm and its rolling pastures. While the wolves crept closer, the dairy cows dozed in tight circles so their bodies shielded the calves who slept soundly behind the safe cage of legs and heavy hooves. In the farmhouse, the farmer and his wife were woken by the bleating of their cows and the snarls and snapping teeth of the wolves. The farmer and his wife were no longer young, but as they listened to the hunt happening in their pastures, they turned old. Claudette, the farmer’s wife, held her hand over her mouth to keep from crying out and the tears that fell down her eyes cut wrinkles of deep sorrow down her cheeks. While Jean, the farmer, stood at the front door, gripping in his hands a loaded rifle, his hair drained of its color, turning from ash to snow. It couldn’t be true—all their cows, their livelihood, consumed in the course of an hour.
The wolves howled after they ate, the long notes carrying from field to farmhouse. At the sound of the chorus, Claudette dropped her hand from her mouth. It is as though they are mourning, she thought. As though they are sorry for what they’ve done.
But Jean, who had always been a violent man, aimed his rifle at the closed front door. They want more, he thought. Wolves will always be hungry.
In the morning, Claudette and Jean hiked the pastures to take in the damage, but the damage was incomprehensible. Even with the cow carcasses right in front of them, it was an unreal scene. What remained of the herd were only skeletons; nothing had been left behind. The wolves had picked the cows clean, gotten between each rib, gnawed off even the flesh from the tails. The wolves had eaten every organ, the livers and hearts, the eyes and brains. Jean, who still carried his rifle, surveyed his fields that were now dotted with thousands of bones. This was punishment, he thought, a reckoning for all my sins.
When Claudette started towards the next pasture on her own, Jean barked at her to stay close, but then, with his eyes on the skeletons that surrounded him, he softened. “Go on ahead,” he said as sweetly as he could manage, as though the bones could hear him trying to be a kinder man. “But be careful.”
Claudette, who knew to accept gentle words but never to trust them, walked in strong strides away from Jean.
In the furthest pasture, a small bundle of brown gray fur lay curled in a ribcage. It was a living, miraculous thing, its fur rising and falling with each breath the bundle took.
Claudette cried out, thinking it was Minou, her coon cat who had been missing for nearly a week. The sight of the fur propelled Claudette forward. On the morning, surrounded by the death the wolves had left behind, what she needed most was to hold something tender, to cradle a body to her chest and soothe a rapid heart.
But when the bundle of fur raised its head, it was not Minou. Just a few metres away, Claudette froze at the sight of a canine face. It was juvenile: enormous amber eyes, two pricked ears he would still need to grow into, a velvety muzzle ending in an inky black nose. Un loup.
The pup backed away, further into his cradle, until he was nestled against what had been the cow’s shoulder. His oversized paws scratched at the rib bones. He bared at Claudette his needly puppy teeth and yelped for her to stay away. Claudette looked to the thick forest that bordered the pasture, half-expecting in that moment the pack to return for their lost pup and rip her flesh from bone and swallow her eyes, but the woods were silent. The wolves were gone.
“He’s a runt,” Claudette said to Jean after she called him over and showed him the pup who still cowered in the rib cage. “His mama left him behind. He needs a home.”
Jean was stripped of the gentleness that he had tried earlier to embody. He sneered at his wife and spat out a no. “You are foolish,” he said to Claudette. “Still as stupid as you were as a young girl.”
From the belly of the rib cage cradle, the pup let loose a bark of enough, a sound both lupine and human.
Jean stared for a long while at the pup who still crouched in the rib cage cradle. The pup stared back with a yellowy gaze that sent goosepimples up Jean’s thick forearms. The pup didn’t blink. It was Jean who looked away first.
“You want him that badly,” Jean said as he turned and walked back towards the farmhouse, “you keep him in the barn.”
Claudette did want him that badly, and as she watched the orphaned pup, the desire for him became less like a want and more like a need. Claudette, the sweetest girl in the St. Lawrence valley who could never resist a lost, weak creature, sat next to the rib cage until dusk when the pup finally moved towards her soft hands. Weaving through the skeletons that littered the pastures, she carried the pup in her arms all the way to the barn where there she discovered the wolves had eaten the horse, too.
All night Claudette slept with the wolf pup curled against her body. He kicked and nuzzled and, in his sleep, he suckled Claudette’s fingers. The pup was hungry and thin, but when he whined for milk, Claudette could only feed him mash as the milk had died along with the cows.
In the morning, Claudette came upon Minou’s skeleton, picked clean like all the others, in the tall grass behind the barn. She buried the skeleton while the pup hunted grasshoppers by her feet. Claudette named the pup Louvel and fashioned him a collar from a dusty bridle she found in the barn. Standing on the farmhouse porch with the pup in her arms, Claudette begged Jean to let her bring Louvel into the house, but Jean refused with a fury.
“My wife is a fool,” Jean raged. “Just as dumb as the slaughtered cows. That little wolf will eat you and then you’ll be sorry.” Jean took three heavy steps towards Claudette and she turned away from the strike her body expected to come.
But Louvel curled his lips up over his needly puppy teeth and let out the same strange sound that he’d made before when Jean raised his voice at Claudette: enough. Jean stopped, dropped his hand, and with dazed eyes, returned to his chair next to the woodstove.
Claudette was accustomed to steeling herself against her husband. It had been this way since they were married: Jean’s unpredictable temper, Claudette’s resilient pacifism. What they had in common were their work ethics, and the hard labor of running the farm kept them away from one another much of the time.
Jean was a brute, Claudette thought, and then she said the word out loud. “A brute.” Louvel walked across the barn with his nose to the floorboards.
“What does he know, anyway?” she asked and Louvel stopped his sniffing to cock his head at the question. Claudette’s heart drummed in her chest and her stomach flipped in her belly as she watched the pup. She had never brought a child to term, despite wanting one badly when she was younger. It hadn’t seemed just, or smart, or even safe to bear a child with a father so volatile, and they could manage the farm work themselves. After a missed cycle, she’d secretly brewed herself bitter parsley tea and that was that. Jean figured she was infertile, incapable. Another one of her failings.
But here was a babe who could be only her own. No matter what Jean said, Claudette knew the pup could love and trust her. The pup was young, and sweet, and she remembered a man in her childhood village who raised wolves like puppies and once grown, there wasn’t a difference between them and a sheepdog. The wolves followed the man around town unleashed, always a pace behind. He had let the children pet the wolves and Claudette remembered the thrill of her fingers sinking into the wolves’ ticked double coats. “All they need is a leader,” the man had instructed the children. “Once you give them that, they’ll follow you anywhere.”
Claudette gave Louvel a piece of elk antler for chewing and mash and rabbit meat to eat. “He will grow to be a good dog,” she said to Jean when they ate their meals together, and he didn’t argue, but still he refused to let Louvel inside.
And so Claudette slept every night in the barn with Louvel’s body against her own. Within a week, Louvel caught and ate all the mice in the barn and then turned to the woods to catch rabbits on his own. He learned sit, how to come, and when to stay. Quickly, he began to grow.
From the beginning, Louvel hunted Jean. In the pastures, while Jean mended the fences that the wolfpack had broken, Louvel stalked in a wide circle, his head low and hackles raised. Jean ignored the pup but kept his rifle strapped to his back. When he walked back to the farmhouse at the end of the day, Louvel followed a stealth distance behind. At night, Louvel sometimes left the barn and Claudette’s warm embrace to patrol the farmhouse, pacing beneath the bedroom windows, panting in the cool air.
More than once, Jean aimed his rifle at the wolf, who, for all his canine intelligence, didn’t know to fear a gun. He could have killed the thing, it was what justice called for, but when Jean aimed his gun at the wolfpup, his veins turned cold and his snow white hair stood on end. At the end of his rifle, the pup pulled his lips back from his teeth and laughed. Somewhere behind Jean, in the woods surrounding the farm, an animal stirred. A twig snapped, and then another, and another. Jean spun round, still aiming the rifle, but the wolfpup was there, too. Everywhere he looked, the wolfpup was at the end of his gun, tossing back his head and letting out a laughing howl.
Claudette slept every night in the barn with Louvel but still cooked and cleaned in the farmhouse for Jean. She ate with Jean at the table and together they sat by the cold woodstove in the evenings, the radio on, Jean dozing and Claudette’s restless fingers endlessly stitching, but as soon as Jean switched off the radio and made for bed, Claudette hurried out to the barn, and to Louvel who lay waiting in the straw. Summer came on full and the nights grew too warm for the cowhide blanket, too warm even for Louvel’s thick fur against her skin, but she couldn’t turn away from the pup.
“What happened to your mother?” Claudette whispered. “Why did she leave you?”
“She left me for you,” Louvel answered in a voice as clear as her own. Claudette recoiled at the sound of it, but the wolfpup had wound his tail round her ankles. He burrowed his head deeper into Claudette’s arms. A cry of her husband’s name caught in her throat.
“You are a lamb in need of a shepherd,” Louvel said.
The wolfpup pressed his cold nose to her neck and his breathing slowed to a heavy sleep. I imagined it, Claudette reasoned. I love him too much, and my mind made him speak. She’d tried to teach him that trick just a few days before: a piece of jerky in her fingers, Louvel sitting with bright eyes and pricked ears. “Speak, Louvel!”
Claudette dreamt that night of the werewolves of her childhood, the stories her mother told of the loup-garou who roamed the forest in search of lost children who the loup-garou would bite in order to make them her own. She dreamed of the man and his wolves moving slowly through the village streets of her childhood. In her dreams, Louvel spoke freely to Claudette of his love for her. With slinking, slow strides, Louvel courted her in pastures free of the skeletons that now baked in the summer sun.
At dawn, when she woke to find a bleeding bullet wound in Louvel’s flank and Jean’s carcass in the dewy clover and crabgrass in front of the farmhouse, Claudette gathered her husband’s bones and took them inside the house and buried them in the woodbox beneath the sugar maple logs left from last winter. Louvel waited outside the farmhouse door, his bullet wound dripping blood onto the grass, until Claudette opened the screen door and let the wolf in.
Louvel’s eyes followed Claudette wherever she went. Through the farmhouse and its low-ceiling rooms and across the pastures where she spent hours hauling the bleached cow bones into the woods, she moved under his gaze. Louvel was devout, enraptured, willing to sit and stay for as long as she wanted. To test his devotion, Claudette balanced a morsel of meat on the tip of his nose and lifted a single finger: wait. Saliva poured from Louvel’s lips and his body trembled with wanting, but he obeyed. He would do anything she said.
To be the object of such love brought an awakening to Claudette, who had long ago put aside thoughts of the body and heart. She made use of mirrors, began to wear her gray-streaked black hair long and loose. She brought her hands to her own body not only at night but throughout the day—briefly, casually. A touch to her hips while taking a break from working in the pastures, tracing a finger down her thigh while sitting by the woodstove in the evening, even for a moment reaching under her shirt to cup her breast in the midst of making a meal.
She didn’t mourn for Jean. Instead, she spent quiet hours in the evenings constructing the story she’d give for his disappearance. The simplest, she realized, may be the easiest to believe. He left of his own accord, in the dead of night, stealing from their bed so gently that she never felt his body leave her side. Who wouldn’t believe Jean capable of such deception?
From the armchair opposite Claudette, Louvel spoke: “Don’t worry yourself with thoughts of him. Monsters are never missed.” His head rested on the arm of his chair, his stare fixed on Claudette, his amber eyes sleepy and full of love.
“I need to buy new cows,” Claudette reminded Louvel, “and the people in town will ask.”
Louvel couldn’t keep himself from licking his lips at the thought of fresh cows in the pastures that were now finally free of bones.
“You won’t hurt them, Louvel,” Claudette said, a note of panic in her voice. “You couldn’t.”
“You’re right,” Louvel said sadly, though his mouth still watered, “I couldn’t. You’ve told me not to.”
Louvel sat up in the armchair, stretching his neck by tipping back his head the way he might if he were to howl. He had turned from a runt to a handsome wolf, having grown into his ears and paws, and his fur had turned a dark gray that shone nearly black. “Let me get you the cows,” Louvel said to Claudette. “Give me three days and I’ll have you a herd. Don’t trouble yourself with the people in town and the questions they’ll ask. They’ll sense your happiness and want to know who caused it.”
Claudette tried to protest. Let Louvel gather a herd? With what means? And on his own? For three days and nights? But Louvel was patient and steadfast, leaving his chair and crawling to her feet where he lapped at her ankles between giving soothing replies to Claudette’s fears.
“We mustn’t let anyone else in,” Louvel said, his tongue working now on Claudette’s shins.
In a distant voice she agreed, “I suppose.”
By the time he reached her knees, Claudette had drifted off into a heavy sleep. Louvel waited ‘til morning to leave. He refused Claudette’s offers to pack him food and drink for the journey and promised her many times to be careful as he gathered the new herd.
“And kind,” she added from the farmhouse doorway. “Please, be kind.”
Louvel heard, and he agreed, but he heard too what Claudette did not command. She said nothing of not killing.
The new herd thrived. As autumn fell, the cows’ milk flowed freely. Calves were born, the females kept and the males culled or fattened with whey for veal. The work was hard but rewarding, and Claudette took pride in how well the farm was run with her hands doing the labor. Jean, whose bones still lay buried at the bottom of the woodbox where late at night Claudette sometimes heard a restless clattering, had been replaced.
“Yes,” Louvel agreed. “Replaced by me.”
No, Claudette thought. By me. Though she didn’t speak this out loud.
The milk buyer was the only person they allowed on the farm. It was a standing, scheduled appointment of every Saturday morning and Claudette began to look forward each week to the few minutes she had with the buyer, who was himself homely and of few words—perhaps a bit dim—but that was no matter. It was another soul to talk to! Even just an exchange of pleasantries was refreshing as the weather grew cold and the days shorter.
But Louvel loathed the buyer’s visits, hated being kept out of sight until the buyer left, and commenced his complaining of it each Friday night before he and Claudette fell asleep. “I wish it could be only us,” Louvel said, his tail curling round Claudette’s legs under the heavy winter quilt.
On the Saturday morning after the first snowfall, Claudette returned to the farmhouse after the buyer’s visit, her pockets filled with dollars, but Louvel was not there pacing the house as usual. He was not curled up in his chair next to the woodstove, not in their bedroom, and not even in the barn where he sometimes went to sleep in the straw as he and Claudette had done when he was a pup. Claudette scanned the pastures, shielding her eyes against the sun and squinting against the snow, and her stomach bottomed out at the sight of a dark gray bundle of fur stalking towards a single calf, separated from its mother.
Claudette ran towards them, shouted and waving her arms. “Arrêtez! Stop!” Her boots sank into the six inches of snow with each stride. She was too far. He couldn’t hear her. If he heard her, he would stop. As Louvel closed in, the calf bleated in fear. The calf was cornered, doomed. It was a female born only two days before. “Louvel!” Claudette screamed in a last attempt. Her panicked voice caught the wind sweeping across the pasture and stopped Louvel long enough for the calf to escape. The calf stumbled in the snow towards the rest of the herd, falling again and again in an unsteady gait.
Louvel fixed his eyes on Claudette and even from the distance she had from him, she could see that his stare was one she had not before seen. His eyes, usually a dark amber, were a greenish yellow, the color of bile. His lips curled over his teeth and his hackles stood on end.
She had thought the same of Jean the first time his eyes had hardened and his mouth twisted ugly with hate.
He was a beast. She was a fool.
Louvel didn’t kill her in that first attack. For that much, Claudette was grateful.
It was Louvel’s mournful howls that revived her in the snowy pasture. When she opened her eyes, she saw first blue sky, the tips of pine trees, then the snow, the blood, and Louvel weeping in sorrow with her severed arm at his feet.
“I couldn’t help it,” he cried. “I couldn’t stop. You didn’t catch me in time.”
Claudette looked to right, to where her arm should have been, but there was only snow and blood. He’d taken it above the elbow, bit straight through the bone. He’d even begun to eat it. At Louvel’s feet, the skin of her lower arm was stripped and the muscle missing; blood was smeared up Louvel’s muzzle to his eyes.
He groveled. He tended to her. He swore never to do it again. At night she woke to him feverishly licking her wound and refused to stop until she pushed him away. He was again devoted, enraptured. She forgave him. Perhaps she believed him.
She recovered and tended to the farm best she could, but the cows were often painfully bloated with milk and she couldn’t hide her missing limb from the buyer, who asked no questions of “how” perhaps because he’d seen her battered and bruised before.
“Perhaps we would do better with a smaller herd,” Louvel suggested. “Less work for you.” But Claudette knew better; she sensed his hunger.
Her other arm was lost in much the same way. This was how she had to think of it: lost, misplaced somewhere unreachable rather than swallowed almost whole. Louvel again apologized, tended to her, and promised never to do it again, but this period of aftercare and devotion ended much sooner than the last. Claudette was inconsolable over the loss of the farm that came with the loss of her hands and she tried desperately to think of how to help the cows who she knew needed so badly to be milked when Louvel told her he’d take care of it.
“Please don’t hurt them, Louvel,” Claudette said.
“But I have to,” Louvel said in the voice that had once soothed her so well. “Look at you. You have no hands, no way to work. You are helpless. Let me fix this for you.”
Claudette lay in bed and listened to the chorus of cows bleating as they were hunted—the same sounds she and Jean listened to in the dark last June. It was the same. She was the same. Stupid as a slaughtered cow.
It took Louvel ‘til night to kill them all. He came to bed smelling of blood and with his belly distended. He slept for days.
When Louvel ate her legs, it wasn’t even out of anger. He was simply hungry. He began by licking her feet, as though he were driven by love, but soon the licks turned to tiny bites. He kept his eyes on hers, anticipating her to protest.
“Tell me to stop,” Louvel said, but Claudette couldn’t form the words. Her voice seemed lost—had he eaten that, too?
She watched him eat her body, how he struggled to swallow as much as he could at once. Every so often, he would stop to catch his breath, panting out hot clouds. He asked her again if she wanted him to stop. “If you want me to,” he said, “I will leave right now. I’ll leave your bed, your home. You’ll never see me again.” But Claudette couldn’t say no and so her legs settled in his stomach—her arms were there, too—waiting for the rest of her.
It didn’t take long. Only a night of waiting for the end to come, or maybe two. Claudette let out a sigh of relief as Louvel ate her hair. He ate her shoulders, each breast, her stomach and heart, until there was left only her head and then he ate that, too. She slid down his throat, soft, warm and red, and into the expanse of his stomach where she was suddenly again whole, her limbs her own, her hair long and loose. But as she studied the grace of her own hands, of her fingers and the lines of her palms, she saw that beside her body was Jean, also healed and whole, with a river of apologies flowing from his mouth.
In the wolf’s stomach, she let Jean wrap his arms around her, and she let his mouth lock over her own so they could breath each other’s air. Oh, she was foolish, stupid as a cow. There was nothing for her to do but forgive him, just as she had before.
Kate Elizabeth Russell’s fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Mid-American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Crab Orchard Review and other journals. Originally from eastern Maine, Kate currently lives in Lawrence, Kansas where she is a PhD student in creative writing at the University of Kansas. More of her work can be found at http://www.kateelizabethrussell.com