Fantasy magazine

From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism




The Wolves of Brooklyn

It was snowing when the wolves first came, loping down Flatbush Ave., lithe and fast, panting clouds, their paws landing with a soft, heavy sound like bombs falling somewhere far away. Everyone saw them. Everyone will tell you about it, even if they were in Pittsburgh that weekend. Even if they slept through it. Even if their mothers called up on Monday and asked what in the world was going on out there in that Babylon they chose to live in. No, the collective everyone looked out of their walk-up windows the moment they came and saw those long shapes, their fur frosted and tinkling, streaming up the sidewalks like a flood, like a wave, and the foam had teeth.

These days, we go to work. We come home. We put on dresses the color of steel and suits the color of winter. We go to cafes and drink lattes with whiskey and without sugar or bars where we drink whiskey without ice and without water. Bars aren’t noisy anymore. It’s a murmur, not a roar. They keep the music turned down so we can talk. So we can tell our wolf stories. Outside the windows, where the frost crackles the jambs, they stand and press their noses to the glass, fogging it with their breath.

Camille sits with her elbow crossing her knee, her dress glittering ice because they like it that way. They watch you, when you shine. Her lavender hair catches the lamplight, expensive, swooping and glossy, rich punk girl’s hair. She says:

“I was walking to the store for coffee. We always run out; I just never think of it until it’s already gone. I thought I’d get some cookies, too. The kind with jam in the middle, that look like a red eye. I guess that doesn’t matter. You know, I always fuck up jokes, too. Anyway, it was snowing, and I just wanted some coffee and cookies and then it was walking next to me. He was walking next to me. A big one, as big as a horse, and white, so white in the snow and the streetlight, his fur so thick your hands could disappear in it. All I could think of was the horse I used to love when I was a kid. Boreal. My mom used to drive me to the stables every morning and I’d brush him and say his name over and over, and the wolf was white like Boreal, and tall like him, and I started running because, well, shit, he’s a wolf. Running toward the store, like I could still get coffee and cookies. He ran with me. So fast, and I had my red coat on and we were running together through the snow, his breath puffing out next to me, and I saw that his eyes were gold. Not yellow, but gold. I was red and he was gold and we were running so fast together, as fast as Boreal and I used to run; faster. We ran past the store, into the park, and snow flew out under my feet like feathers. I stopped by that little footbridge—the wolf was gone and I had just kept on running out into the frozen grass.”

The wolves never cross the bridges. Sometimes they run right up to them, and sniff the air like Brooklyn has a musk and it fades at the edges, like they accidentally came too close to the end of the world. They turn around and walk back into the borough with their tails down. They stop right at Queens, too. They won’t cross the borders; they know their home. For a while no one talked about anything else, and all our friends in Manhattan wanted to come and see them, photograph them, write about them. I mean, wouldn’t you? But there were incidents—like any dog, they don’t like strangers. This girl Marjorie Guste wanted to do a whole installation about them, with audio and everything. She brought a film crew and a couple of models to look beautiful next to them and she never got a shot. The wolves hid from her. They jumped onto the roofs of brownstones, dipped into alleys and crawled into sewer gratings. We could see where they’d gone sometimes, but when MG swung her lens around they’d be gone, leaping across the treetops in the snow.

Geoffrey, despite the name, is a girl. It’s a joke left over from when she was a kid and hated being the four hundredth Jenny in her grade. She’s got green sequins on, like a cigarette girl from some old movie theatre. I love how her chin points, like the bottom of a heart. We dated for awhile, when I was still going to school. We were too lazy, though. The way you just wake up sometimes and the house is a disaster but you can’t remember how it really got that way, except that how it got that way is that you didn’t do the dishes or pick up your clothes. Every day you made a choice not to do those things and it added up to not being able to get to the door over the coffee mugs and paperbacks piled up on the floor. But still, she was at my house the night the wolves came, because laziness goes both ways.

She says: “Most of the time, you know, I really like them. They’re peaceful. Quiet. But the other week I was down on Vanderbilt and I saw one come up out of the street. Like, okay, the street cracked open—you know there’s never any traffic anymore so it was just cold and quiet and the storm was still blowing, and the street came open like it had popped a seam. Two white paws came up, and then the whole wolf, kicking and scrabbling its hind legs against the road to get a grip on it. Just like a fat little puppy. It climbed out and then it bit the edge of the hole it had made and dragged the street back together. I looked around—you know how it is now. Not a soul on the sidewalk. No one else saw. The wolf looked at me and its tongue lolled out, red in the snow, really red, like it had just eaten. Then it trotted off. I went out and touched the place where it broke through. The road was hot, like an iron.”

The wolves have eaten people. Why be coy about it? Not a lot of people. But it’s happened. As near as anyone can figure, the first one they ate was a Russian girl named Yelena. They surrounded her and she stood very still, so as not to startle them. Finally, she said: “I’m lonely”—it’s weird but you tell the wolves things, sometimes. You can’t help it, all these old wounds come open and suddenly you’re confessing to a wolf who never says anything back. She said: “I’m lonely,” and they ate her in the street. They didn’t leave any blood. They’re fastidious like that. Since then, I know of about four or five others, and well, that’s just not enough to really scare people. Obviously, you’ll be special, they’ll look at you with those huge eyes and you’ll understand something about each other, about the tundra and blood and Brooklyn and winter, and they’ll mark you but pass you by. For most of us that’s just what happens. My friend Daniel got eaten, though. It’s surprising how you can get used to that. I don’t know what he said to them. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know Daniel that well.

Seth’s eyes have grown dark circles. He came wearing a threadbare 1950s chic suit: thin tie, gray lapels, wolf pack boy with a rat pack look. The truth is I’ve known Seth since seventh grade, but we never talk about it. We lived on the same sunny broad Spielbergian cul-de-sac. We conquered the old baseball diamond where we, the weird bookish kids, kept taking big steps backward until we were far too outfield to ever have to catch a ball. We’d talk about poetry instead: Browning (Elizabeth only), Whitman, Plath. We came back east hoping to be, what? A writer and a dancer, I guess is the official line. We run with the same crowd, the crowd that has an official line, but we’re not really friends anymore. We used to conjugate French verbs and ride our bikes home through the rain.

He says: “I came out to go to the restaurant one morning and one was sitting in my hallway. He still had snow on his ears; he took up the whole stairwell. He just stood there, looking at me, the snow melting into his fur and the light that never gets fixed flickering and popping. His eyes were dark, really dark, almost black, but I think they might actually have been purple, if I could have gotten close enough. He just stared, and I stared, and I sat down on my doorstep eventually. We watched each other until my shift would have ended. I reached out to touch him; I don’t know why I thought I could, I just liked how black his nose was, how white and deep his fur looked. He made me think of—” And Seth looks at me as though I am a pin in his memory and he wants to pull me out, so that the next part can be his alone, so that I can retroactively never have pulled down willow branches for a crown. “—of this one place I used to go when I was a kid, in the woods by my school, and I’d make little acorn pyramids or mulberry rings on the ground before first period, and they were always gone when I got back, like someone had taken them, like they were gifts. The wolf looked like the kind of thing that might have seen a bunch of sticks and moss and taken them as tribute. But he didn’t let me touch him, he howled instead—have you heard one howl yet? It’s like a freight train. The lightbulb shattered. I went inside like that was my shift, sitting with a wolf all day not saying anything. The next morning he’d gone off.”

Seth was my first kiss. I never think about that anymore.

I know this guy named David—he never comes out to the cafe, but I see him sometimes, sitting on a bench, his long thin hair in a ponytail, punching a netbook with a little plastic snow-cover over it. The snow never stops anymore. You do your best. He’s trying to track them, to see if they have patterns, migration or hunting or mating patterns, something that can be charted. Like a subway map. A wolf map. He thinks he’s getting close—there’s a structure, he says. A repetition. He can almost see it. More data, he always needs more data.

Ruben always looks sharper than the rest of us. Three-piece, bow tie, pocket watch and chain, hair like a sculpture of some kind of exotic bird. Somehow his hair doesn’t really look affected, though. He looks like he was born that way, like he was raised by a very serious family of tropical cranes. He wasn’t, though. He’s a fourth generation why-can’t-you-marry-a-nice-Jewish-girl Brooklynite. He belongs here more than any of us.

He says: “I keep wondering why. I mean, don’t any of you wonder why? Why us, why them, why here? I feel like no one even asks that question, when to me it seems such an obvious thing. I asked my uncle and he said: Son, sometimes you have to just let the world be itself. I asked my mom and she said: Ruben, sometimes I think everything is broken and that’s its natural state. And, well, I think that’s bullshit. Like, okay, it’s either zoological or metaphysical. Either they are real wolves and they migrated here, or they didn’t, and they aren’t.”

Camille interrupts him. She puts her hand on his knee. She says: “Does it matter? Does it really matter?”

He glares at her. You aren’t supposed to interrupt. That’s the ritual. It’s the unspoken law. “Of course it matters. Don’t you ever wake up and hope they’ll be gone? Don’t you ever drink your coffee and look out your window and eat your fucking cruller and think for just a moment there won’t be a wolf on your doorstep, watching you, waiting for you to come out? They could leave someday. Any day.”

But we all know they won’t. We can’t say how we know. It’s the same way we know that Coca-Cola will keep making Coke. It’s a fact of the world.

Ruben is really upset—he’s breaking another rule, but none of us say anything. We don’t come here to get upset. It doesn’t accomplish anything. “I asked one of them once. She’d followed me home from the F train—what I mean is she’d been all the way down on the platform, and when I got off she trotted up after me and followed me—me, specifically. And I turned around in the snow, the fucking snow that never ends, and I yelled: Why? Why are you here? What are you doing? What do you want? I guess that sounds dumb, like a scene in a movie if this were happening in a movie and DiCaprio or whoever was having his big cathartic moment. But I wanted to know so badly. And she—I noticed it was a she. A bitch. She bent her head. God, they are so tall. So tall. Like statues. She bent her head and she licked my cheek. Like I was a baby. She did it just exactly like I was her puppy. Tender, kind. She pressed her forehead against mine and shut her eyes and then she ran off. Like it hadn’t even happened.”

There’s going to be a movie. We heard about it a couple of months ago. Not DiCaprio, though. Some other actor no one’s heard of. They expect it to be his big breakthrough. And the love interest has red hair, I remember that. It seems so far away; really, it has nothing to do with us. It’s not like they’ll film on location: CGI, all the way. Some of the locals are pissed about it—it’s exploiting our situation, it’ll just bring stupid kids out here wanting to be part of it, part of something, anything, and they’ll be wolf food. But shit, you kind of have to make a movie about this, don’t you? I would, if I didn’t live here. Nothing’s real until there’s a movie about it.

Of course people want to be a part of it. They want to touch it, just for a second. They come in from the West Coast, from Ohio, from England, from Japan, from anywhere, just to say they saw one. Just to reach out their hand and be counted, be a witness, to have been there when the wolves came. But of course they weren’t there, and the wolves are ours. They belong to us. We’re the ones they eat, after all. And despite all the posturing and feather-display about who’s been closest, deepest, longest, we want to be part of it, too. We’re like kids running up to the edge of the old lady’s house on the edge of town, telling each other she’s a witch, daring Ruben or Seth or Geoff to go just a little closer, just a little further, to throw a rock at her window or knock on the door. Except there really is a witch in there, and we all know it’s not a game.

Anyway, the outsiders stopped showing up so much after Yelena. It’s less fun, now.

But it’s the biggest thing that will ever happen to us. It’s a gravitational object you can’t get around or through; you only fall deeper in. And the thing is we want to get deeper in. Closer, further, knocking on the door. That’s why we dress this way; that’s why we tell our stories while the wolves watch us outside the cafe window, our audience and our play all at once.

“Anna,” Seth says to me, and I warm automatically at the sound of his voice, straightening my shoulders and turning toward him like I always did, like I did in California when I didn’t know what snow looked like yet, and I thought I loved him because I’d never kissed anyone else. “You never say anything. It’s your turn. It’s been your turn for months.”

I am wearing red. I always wear red. Tiny gold coins on tinier gold ropes ring my waist in criss-crossed patterns, like a Greek goddess of come-hither, and my shoes have those ballet straps that wind all the way up my calves. My hair is down, and it is black. They like it, when my hair is down. They follow me with their eyes. I’ve never said so to Ruben but they are always there when I get off the train, always panting a little on the dark platform, always bright-eyed, covered in melting snowflakes.

I say: “I like listening. They do, too, you know. Sometimes I think that’s all they do: listen. Well. After Daniel—I knew him, I’m not sure if I’ve ever told you guys that. From that summer when I interned downtown. After Daniel, I started feeling very strange, like something was stuck in me. It’s not that I wanted revenge or anything. I didn’t know him that well and I just don’t think like that. I don’t think in patterns—if this, then that. The point is, I started following one of them. A male, and I knew him because his nose was almost totally white, like he’d lost the black of it along the way. I started following him all over the place, wherever he went, which wasn’t really very far from my apartment. It’s like they have territories. Maybe I was his territory. Maybe he was mine—because at some point I started taking my old archery stuff with me. My sister and I had both taken lessons as kids, but she stuck with it and I didn’t. Seth—well, Seth probably remembers. There was a while there when I went to school with a backpack over one shoulder and a bow over the other. Little Artemis of Central California. I started doing that again. It didn’t seem to bother the wolf. He’d run down Seventh Avenue like he had an appointment, and I’d run after him.

“And one day, while he was waiting for the light to change, I dropped to one knee, nocked an arrow, and shot him. I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t set out to. It doesn’t seem to have happened in a linear way when I think about it. I mean, yes, I followed him, but I wasn’t hunting him. Except I guess I was. Because I’d packed a big kitchen knife and I don’t even remember doing that. You know there’s never any traffic down there anymore, so I just gutted him right there on the median, and his blood steamed in the snowfall, and I guess I brought a cooler, too, because I packed all the meat away that I could, and some organs. It took a long time. I skinned him, too. It’s really hard work, rendering an animal. But there’s an instinct to it. Everyone used to know how to do this. I took it all home and I separated everything out and started curing it, salting it, smoking it.” I twist a big orange glass ring on my finger and don’t look at anyone. “I have wolf sausages, wolf cutlets, wolf bacon, wolf roasts, wolf loin, even wolf soup in plastic containers in my fridge. I eat it every day. It tastes …” I don’t want to talk about how it tastes. It tastes perfect. It tastes new. “They all know me now, I’m pretty sure. Once, a younger one, skinny, with a black tip on her tail, saw me by the co-op and crawled toward me on her belly, whining. I watched her do it, bowing her head, not looking me in the eye. I reached out my hand and petted her. Her fur felt so rough and thick. We were … exchanging dominance. I’ve had dogs before. I know how that works. And I started wearing red.”

I tell them they can come by. There’s plenty of meat to share. It never seems to run out, in fact. They won’t—most of them. They don’t look at me the same way after that. In a week or so Seth will show up at my door. He’ll just appear, in a white coat with fur on the hood, full of melting snowflakes. And I’ll pour the soup into steel bowls and we’ll sit together, with our knees touching.

This is what Brooklyn is like now. It’s empty. A few of us stayed, two hundred people in Williamsburg, a hundred in Park Slope, maybe fifty in Brooklyn Heights. Less towards the bay, but you still find people sometimes, in clusters, in pairs. You can just walk down the middle of any street and it’s so silent you forget how to talk. Everyone moved away or just disappeared. Some we know were eaten, some—well, people are hard to keep track of. You have to let go of that kind of thinking—no one is permanent. The Hasidim were the last big group to go. They called the wolves qliphoth—empty, impure shells, left over from the creation of the world. A wolf swallowed a little boy named Ezra whole. He played the piano.

It snows forever. The wolves own this town. They’re talking about shutting off subway service, and closing the bridges, too. Just closing up shop. I guess I understand that. I’m not angry about it. I just hope the lights stay on. We still get wifi, but I wonder how long that can really last.

We go to the cafe every night, shining in our sequins and suits, and it feels like the old days. It feels like church. We go into Manhattan less and less. All those rooftop chickens and beehives and knitters and alleyway gardeners comprise the post-wolf economy. We trade, we huddle, nobody locks the doors anymore. Seth brings eggs for breakfast most mornings, from his bantams, those he has left. Down on Court Street, there’s a general sort of market that turns into dancing and old guitars and drums at night, an accordion yawns out the dusk and there’s a girl with silk ribbons who turns and turns, like she can’t stop. The wolves come to watch and they wait in a circle for us to finish, and sometimes, sometimes they dance, too.

One has a torn ear. I’ve started following her when I can. I don’t remember picking up my bow again, but it’s there, all the same, hanging from me like a long, thin tail.

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Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over two dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan’s Tales series, Deathless, Radiance, and the crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. She is the winner of the Andre Norton, Tiptree, Mythopoeic, Rhysling, Lambda, Locus, and Hugo awards. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with a small but growing menagerie of beasts, some of which are human.