Martha killed the wolf as it belly-wiggled out from the chicken coop. A head shot, on account of the wolf was only halfway out, and the fence blocked most everything else. With her newfangled Winchester, she could’ve had another shot, but there was no call to waste a second bullet. The wolf was practically dead before she shot it, nothing but fur and bones. She set the rifle down and pulled the wolf free. Mangy fur fell away in clumps, hanging off the edges of the chicken wire like fur trim on a winter coat. A decade ago, she and Joseph would’ve taken the pelt up to Wheatfield to collect the bounty, but that money had dried up, and Joseph was gone.
She rolled the wolf onto its back, exposing swollen teats. Damnation. It shouldn’t have mattered that the wolf was a mama, a predator was a predator, and she could ill afford to lose the chickens. Shouldn’t have mattered, but it did.
At least the wolf hadn’t gone after the flock. Martha still had blood crusted underneath her fingernails from earlier that afternoon, when the last ewe had finally lambed. She was grateful for Snow and Cotton, those dogs would protect the flock from a grizzly, never mind a wolf. Kept her company too, in these lonely months of spring when the school was closed and the children were off helping their families plant their crops.
Martha dragged the wolf away from the chicken coop, past the barn and the smokehouse. Flies buzzed up when she moved the ragged corpse, then settled back down. On a scorcher like today it wouldn’t be long before the wolf started to smell something awful. She pulled out her knife, then paused, torn between skinning the wolf and going off to find her den. It was getting dark, but tonight was the Milk Moon, plenty bright for her to follow the trail back to the wolf’s den.
Joseph would have wanted her to wait until morning. She shook her head. He’d have been forty-five this year, and come June they’d have been married for twenty-one years. She always used to find comfort in being younger than Joseph, as if she could never be too old, as long as she was younger than him. Now that he was gone, all she ever felt was old. Old and tired.
She picked up her rifle. Come morning there would be bread to bake, milk to skim, and plenty of other chores that needed doing. Anything she didn’t do herself didn’t get done, and that included making sure there weren’t any other wolves prowling around. Besides, she was the best shot there was this side of Kansas City–well, depending on where Annie Oakley happened to be at the present moment.
She followed faintly scratched paw prints down to Sawmill Creek. Joseph had built her a spring house, set over a little side branch of the creek, with cold flowing water running right under it to keep it cool. So much nicer than a root cellar. Martha unlatched the door and made a cursory check, but there was no sign anything had gotten into the vegetables on the shelves or the crock of cream she’d set into the water to keep it from going too far sour. Much as she wanted to, she couldn’t linger, so she stepped outside and latched the door behind her.
Even with the sun gone down, it was hot. Sweat trickled down her neck and soaked into the collar of her dress. Between the heat and the mange, the wolf had been shedding heavily, so it was easy work to follow the tufts of fur on thistles and stickleburrs. The trail wove through the oaks and maples growing alongside the creek. Clouds of bugs swarmed around Martha in the humid evening air. Swatting them didn’t do any good, but she waved her hand in front of her face anyhow.
About a mile up the creek she saw a well-worn trail of paw prints, starting in the mud at the water‘s edge and disappearing up the hill. Just the one set of prints, from the female wolf. The hillside was a place Martha knew well but had long avoided. The creek cut deep into the limestone, and the water barely moved. When Emma had fallen ill, this was where she and Joseph had baptized her. Good thing too. By the time Brother Stone had arrived, their baby girl had left them. Pa passed away that same week, taken by the same sickness. The both of them were buried up at Crown Hill cemetery, alongside Ma, who’d died when Martha was too young to even remember. Then, a year ago last week, another grave, for Joseph.
The moon shone silver on the water, its light cut into bits and pieces by the tree branches. Martha turned her back to the creek and followed the paw prints up the hillside. The mouth of the wolf’s den was hidden between two roots of a cottonwood tree. It was the sort of tree that little boys would have delighted in climbing, with thick branches splitting off at even intervals, nearly down to the ground.
There was no sign of a papa wolf. Martha ducked her head under the lowest cottonwood branch and reached into the den. A pitiful yipping came from inside, spurred by fear, or hunger, or loneliness. The volume of the yipping increased, and it was joined by an unmistakable sound–the wail of a human infant.
Martha yanked her hand out of the den. She’d been thinking of baby Emma, and now her mind was playing tricks on her. No one would abandon a baby out here, and even if they did, how would it survive?
Martha sat on her heels and looked over her shoulder at the creek. Emma’s baptismal creek. A breeze rippled the surface of the water, and the moon’s reflection wavered and danced. Clouds drifted in to cover the moon, and the water went dark. The only sound was the rustling of cottonwood leaves.
Martha thrust her arm back into the den. Her hand settled on warm fur, and she pulled out a wolf pup. Not more than a month old, she guessed. He was darker than his mother, with fur the color of damp soil. His eyes were open, but he’d never survive on his own.
The clouds parted, blown along by a constant breeze. The leading edge of a storm, maybe, and refreshing on her damp skin. She reached into the den again, and her fingers brushed against smooth skin. Skin, not fur. With both hands, she pulled a baby girl out into the moonlight–a naked baby girl with eyes the color of summer wheat.
The wolf pup she’d removed from the den nudged in closer. Martha started to pull the baby away, then remembered that they’d been in the den together a few moments before. The pup licked the baby’s feet.
Martha untied her apron and wrapped the baby in it. “What are you doing all alone in the woods?”
The baby blinked at the sound of her voice, then dribbled out a glob of drool. Her first tooth poked out from her gums, but she seemed too small to be teething. Not thin, but undersized–barely as big as the wolf pups. Martha stroked the sole of her foot, and her tiny toes splayed wide.
Martha set the swaddled baby down, and the brown pup nestled close. She emptied the rest of the den. There were four pups: three browns, and one with grayer fur, like the mother. They huddled close together around the baby. It would be cruel to leave the pups here, they’d starve to death. She couldn’t bring them home, either–they were cute, but they were wolves. They’d be dangerous as adults.
Her eyes fell on the baby. Swaddled tightly in the apron, the girl was drifting off to sleep. How someone could leave a baby girl to die out here–it was beyond reckoning.
“I’ll call you Grace,” she said, picking the baby up. Emma had been named for Martha’s mother, Emmaline. If they’d had another daughter, she’d have been named for Joseph’s mother, but Abigail didn’t seem fitting. “I’ve been waiting for you a long time, and it’s by God’s grace that I’ve found you.”
Martha laid Grace gently in the lowest crook of the cottonwood tree, and picked up her rifle. She asked the Lord to give her strength, then stood back and took aim.
The crack of the gun woke baby Grace. She screamed until her face went red. The three remaining wolf pups whined. Martha took Grace into her arms and rocked her back and forth. She whispered, “Don’t cry, love, don’t cry, we’re almost done.”
She spoke as much to herself as to Grace, repeating the same refrain over and over, until four shots had been fired and the pups lay silent and still. She pushed the limp bodies back into the den and kicked at the opening until it collapsed. Grace cried the entire time, as though she understood what Martha had done.
The woods reeked of blood and smoke. His fur bristled. He splashed across the creek and ran up the hill. The smells were strong enough to taste. He dug into the earth, following the scent of his pups. He found them and lifted them from the crumbly soil by the napes of their necks. They were coated in dirt and crusted with blood. He licked them clean, then nudged them with his nose. They didn’t move.
Martha lit a candle and rummaged through the hope chest until she found Emma’s white christening gown, hidden beneath Ma’s favorite quilt. There was a hole in the lace where a moth had gotten at it, but Grace wouldn’t know the difference. She fashioned a diaper out of a strip of linen, and slipped the gown over Grace’s head. It was absurdly big, despite being designed for a newborn.
Martha tied her apron into a makeshift sling. She cleaned her rifle, and Grace slept, soothed by her warmth and the steady beat of her heart. Martha wondered if anyone was searching for the girl. She hadn’t heard about any lost child at church last Sunday, or when she’d taken eggs down the road to Widow Barnes a couple days back. She could hear Joseph’s voice in her head, telling her she should go to Wheatfield and ask around. It was a terrible idea. Grace’s mama left her to die. People like that didn’t deserve children. Besides, Wheatfield was a city of lone men, coming through to find work with the railroad company.
Martha sat on the long bench by the kitchen table and held the baby. She should try to sleep some, but she couldn’t bear to set Grace down. Instead she stayed up all night. She fed Grace a bit of milk mixed with honey, and swapped her linen diaper for a clean one when she soiled it. Dawn approached, and Martha could barely stay awake. She should go milk Daisy, and stoke the fire in the stove, and start baking the day’s bread, but she didn’t. One minute more with the baby, then another minute after that.
Martha cradled baby Grace in her arms and rocked the sleeping infant back and forth. The downy hairs on Grace’s cheek glowed in the first slanting rays of morning sunlight. A patch of hair grew thicker and darker in the middle of her cheek. Then the darkness spread, like muddy water in a flooding creek. Martha shook her head, trying to wake herself up.
Grace’s nose lengthened into a furry snout.
Martha screamed. The creature in the blanket woke and began to squirm. It was all she could do not to hurl the swaddled monster away.
She set the creature gently on the floor.
“She can’t be a wolf. She was a girl, a human girl,” Martha said. “I didn’t dream it. She was my little baby girl.”
The pup was darker than the mother wolf, almost black, and its eyes were the same golden color now as when it was a baby.
She stared at the pup in horror.
The pup squirmed out of Emma’s christening gown and scampered into the corner of the cabin, back behind Martha’s spinning wheel.
There had been four other pups.
“I killed them. Shot them one by one.” She knew she should stop, that saying it out loud would only make it worse, but she couldn’t help herself. “What if sometimes they were children too?”
Martha picked up a handful of washed wool and spread it onto her carding brushes. The brushes scritched as she drew them across each other. Grace’s fur bristled at the sound. Scritch scratch, scritch scratch. Martha folded the carded wool over itself in a neat roll, and set it to the side. Repeat, repeat, repeat. It was boring work, the sort that made her arms ache, but left her mind to wander.
Judging from the sky, there was another storm coming. The air inside the cabin was stifling, like trying to breathe the steam coming up off a pot of stew. Rain would clear the air, maybe cool it down a little. Grace wove between the dye pots and the loom, circled around the spinning wheel, paced beneath the kitchen table. The pup was restless, but bad weather was as good an excuse as any for keeping Grace indoors, so she couldn’t run off. Martha didn’t want her to leave, even if she was just a wolf pup, and not a little girl.
Thunder rumbled, and Grace made straight for Martha’s skirt. She’d taken to hiding herself in there any time she got scared. Martha figured it probably reminded her of being in a den. Hail rattled against the roof, and Grace whimpered.
Martha scooped Grace into her lap and stroked her fur. “What am I going to do with you? I can’t keep you locked up in here forever. Promise me you won’t run off next time we go outside?”
Grace squirmed, and Martha let her down.
When the storm had passed, Martha heaped the carded wool into a basket, and stoked up the fire in the stove so she could fix the stew for supper. Grace tried to stick her nose into the pot, and Martha pulled her away and scolded her.
It was time to take the pup out to do her business.
From the moment they stepped outside, Martha kept a close eye on the pup, ready to scoop her up if she tried to run off. It reminded her of herding sheep, which gave her an idea.
“Grace,” Martha said, hoping the pup would eventually come to recognize the name. “Come here, Grace.”
Grace ignored her.
Martha called for Snow and Cotton. The dogs were with the sheep, huddled in the shade of the barn to escape the afternoon sun. They’d been raised with the flock, and likely thought of themselves as big, aggressive, protective sheep. They trotted over when she called.
Snow caught Grace’s scent and growled.
“Stop it,” Martha scolded. “This is Grace. She’s family.”
The dogs approached cautiously. They didn’t know what to make of the pup–she smelled like a predator, but Martha’s familiar scent was on her too. Grace showed no sign of being intimidated by the much larger dogs. She growled. Sniffing, Cotton inched closer.
Grace snapped at Cotton’s nose and both sheepdogs leapt backwards at the sudden attack. They lowered their heads and barked. Startled, Grace hopped backwards too, falling over her own hind legs in the process. Seeing weakness, Snow rushed in and took Grace’s neck in his teeth. Martha reached in to pull him off, thinking that he was being too rough, but he let go before she had a chance to do anything.
Grace stayed low to the ground. She’d stopped growling, and Martha was hopeful that she’d accept the dogs as dominant members of her pack. The dogs wagged their tails, and their tongues hung out as they panted from the burst of activity. Grace rested her head on her feet, then yawned. The confrontation was over.
“Our dogs must be the only ones in Kansas with sheep for parents and a wolf for children,” Martha mused.
Snow picked Grace up by the nape of her neck, and Martha smiled to see the sheepdog holding a wolf pup so gently in its mouth. Martha couldn’t help but love her, even if she was a wolf, even if she’d imagined that wonderful first night.
One sweltering evening in June, it happened. Grace was a girl again. A toddler this time, at least in terms of her physical form. She’d grown several inches, and her pudgy baby legs had stretched thin.
“Grace,” Martha said, picking the child up, “you’re growing so fast. Soon I won’t be able to carry you.”
She was growing at a wolf’s pace. Martha wondered if she’d started her on meat too soon. She wished she could have asked Doc Harding about it.
“Aren’t you such a big girl now,” Martha said.
Grace tried to swallow, then choked and started coughing. Martha held her upright, but Grace kept sputtering. Then she started to cry, which only made the choking worse.
“Shh,” Martha said, “It’s okay, hush now.”
Eventually Grace calmed down. She was having trouble adjusting to her human form. Her arms flailed, her legs kicked, and if her hands grasped onto something, she couldn’t figure out how to let go again.
Outside, Snow and Cotton started barking. Martha peered out the window. Something dark moved in the trees behind the outhouse. She swaddled Grace in a blanket, which looked strange for a toddler, but calmed her down and stopped her flailing.
Then she lit a lantern and took her rifle down from the hook by the door. “I’ll be right back, Grace. It’s probably only a coyote. I’ll just go have a look.”
The moon was bright enough that she hardly needed the lantern. Animals tended to be wary of fire, though. After what happened last month, Martha would just as soon scare the animal off as shoot it. She headed towards the barn and caught a brief glimpse of yellow eyes at the edge of the woods. Then there was nothing but darkness.
Those gleaming eyes could have been a coyote, but something told her it was a wolf. A wolf with dark fur that blended seamlessly into the night. A wolf with golden eyes.
By autumn, Grace was bigger than Cotton, and she’d overtake Snow soon. The dogs wouldn’t let her near the sheep anymore, and she started spending her waking hours in the woods hunting prairie chickens and small game. She’d been a girl five times now, always at night. After the third month, Martha had figured out that it was always the night of the full moon.
Martha saw the dark wolf four more times, always in the distance. He only came on nights when Grace was a girl. Last month, Grace had started to crawl, and it was only a matter of time before she figured out how to open the door. It wasn’t safe to have that male wolf running around.
Since the harvest started, she’d been working long days bringing in wheat and corn–her crops, and the neighbors’ too, since it was more efficient when they worked in teams. They all disapproved of her doing a man’s work, and she hated to leave Grace out wandering with the dogs all day, but it had to be done. She came home exhausted, and most nights she fell asleep soon after supper, with Grace curled up next to her in the bed.
Most nights, but not tonight. Tonight was the full moon.
Martha was dreading what she had to do. A few hours before sunset, she went for a long walk, not thinking where she was going. The autumn wind blew against her face and chilled her skin. Dry leaves crunched beneath her feet as she stomped further into the woods.
Without thinking, she walked back to the den where she found Grace. She poked through the leaf litter, looking for remnants of the den. It was hard to remember exactly where it had been, but she eventually found the cottonwood roots, and, between them, a depression in the earth where the den had collapsed.
Part of her wanted to dig into the den, to find the bones of the wolf pups, to see if they were still there. Instead, she went back to the creek. She scooped up the icy water with her hands and splashed it over her cheeks. The cold calmed her, gave her the resolve she’d need later tonight. When her knees started to ache, she stood up.
Martha heard something coming up behind her. She turned, and the dark wolf stared down at her. Icy water dripped down her neck and her skin turned to gooseflesh. The papa wolf, and she didn’t have her gun, she was defenseless. He trotted down the hill and licked her hand.
“Grace,” Martha realized. “What are you doing out here?”
Grace pushed her head against Martha’s hand. Her favorite place to be petted was behind the ears, and Martha obliged with a good long scratch. It gave her heart time to slow down.
This Grace had nothing to fear from the dark wolf that came on the night of the full moon. She was a coordinated hunter, a quick-witted wolf. The Lord’s will was so hard to understand. Grace was a perfect wolf for 30 days and 29 nights, but the one night she was human, she was flawed. Tonight she’d have the body of a six-year-old girl, but in her human form she could barely crawl, and she still hadn’t spoken a single word.
“But I love you both ways, Grace,” Martha said, kneeling down to bury her face in the dark fur of Grace’s neck.
Grace stood patiently for a moment while Martha hugged her, but when it became apparent that no additional ear-scratching was forthcoming, she wriggled away and waded into the creek. After lapping up several mouthfuls of fresh water, she trotted up to where the den had been, sniffing.
“Come on, Grace, it’ll be getting dark soon,” Martha said.
Grace sniffed one last time at the collapsed den before following Martha back to the cabin. The wolf–too big now to be called a pup–curled up in front of the hearth and fell asleep. She was still napping when her change came. Her sleek fur melted into skin, and she whimpered as her flesh stretched into arms and legs. The changes were getting harder on her. Each time there was more of her to rearrange.
Martha stared out the window, waiting for the dark wolf to appear.
Grace rose onto her hands and feet. She didn’t crawl on hands and knees as a baby would, for when did a wolf ever touch its knees to the ground? Grace put her head in Martha’s lap.
Martha stroked her hair. She resisted the urge to scratch behind the girl’s ears. It was one thing for Grace to act wolfish, but she tried to treat her like a girl, as best she could. Martha pulled a dress down over Grace’s head and smoothed it into place. It was one of her own dresses, several sizes too big, but at the rate Grace grew, there was no point to making her special clothes.
“Sit up, Grace,” Martha said, “A little girl can’t go around on all fours like that. Come on, sit up.”
Sitting was a command Martha had taught her as a wolf, and some understanding carried over. She crouched into a squat, keeping her hands on the ground in front of her. It still didn’t look natural, but it looked slightly more childlike. Martha gently lifted Grace’s hands off the floor. When she seemed to have her balance, Martha let go. The pose looked pretty good. She was sitting with her knees tucked up against her chest. A child might sit that way.
She patted Grace on the head and went back to the window. Across the yard, halfway between the barn and the cabin, was the golden-eyed wolf.
Martha took her rifle down from over the door.
“I’ll be right back Grace, you stay here.”
The wolf made no move to leave when Martha came outside. He’s dangerous, she told herself, he won’t leave us be. She repeated justifications in her head, over and over until they ran together and lost all meaning. She held the gun pointed at the wolf until her arm was tired, and still she couldn’t bring herself to shoot. He was Grace’s father, he had to be, and what if sometimes he was human?
The wolf approached her, baring its teeth and making a low growling sound at the back of his throat. She shouldn’t be out here, she should be inside with Grace. The wolf came closer, slowly, a hunter stalking its prey.
A few yards away, he stopped and sniffed.
The rifle trembled in Martha’s hands. If he leapt for her, she’d have to shoot him, but he stood completely still. The growling stopped. Could he smell Grace on her?
Martha put the rifle down and held out her hand. “Here, wolf,” she called, “I won’t hurt you.”
She waited with her arm extended, but the wolf did nothing. He refused to come closer, and he refused to leave. Martha was just as stubborn, though every moment she spent out here was a moment not spent with her little girl.
They sat that way until dawn. As the sky brightened and the moon set, the wolf lay down in the dirt. He changed the same time Grace did, his fur changing into skin. He screamed from the pain of it. Inside the cabin, Grace howled.
“Don’t look at me.” His voice was higher than Martha expected. He curled up his legs to hide his nakedness. He’d been a full sized wolf, but now he was just a boy, eleven, maybe twelve years old.
Martha gestured for him to come inside, and he followed her warily. She gave him a pair of Joseph’s britches to wear, and one of his old shirts. They were too big for the boy, but better than nothing. He said his name was Daniel, that he lived up north of Wheatfield, and worked for the railroad off and on.
“I’m sorry about the pups,” she told him. “Why didn’t you come back for them? You could have taken the pups away, taken them home. . .”
“All I remembered was a smell, a place I been, sometimes a taste. I never knew what it meant.”
“You could have stayed to find out.”
He traced the wood grain of the table, and for a moment Martha thought he wouldn’t answer. “I didn’t want to find out. I wake up lying by the creek every month, hoping I ain’t killed nobody I know. Best thing for me is not to get too close to people. Ever since I can remember I never did stay long in one place.”
Wheatfield was the perfect place for a boy to live that kind of life, a town where everybody was just passing through. Everybody left. Everybody left her behind. Martha’s eyes fell to Grace, curled up in front of the fire.
“I’ll take good care of Grace,” Martha said. “She’s like the little girl my husband and I lost. We were married for nineteen years when he died, and we always wanted another little girl. You can trust her with me, and head out farther west where there’s plenty of open land–”
“No.” He refused to look at her. “I can’t leave. I already tried. Next time the moon came full I’d be right back, looking for her.” Daniel nodded toward Grace.
Grace was curled by the fire. She noticed Martha was watching and edged closer, on her belly. Martha patted her head. Daniel was Grace’s father, even if he was just a boy. She couldn’t ask him to abandon her. “Stay and live with us.”
They would be a strange family, Martha and her sometimes children, but at least she wouldn’t be alone.
When the moon rose, he woke in a strange place. It smelled of burnt wood and humans, but also something familiar. His pup, the last remaining pup was here. He followed the smell, but found only a human child, lying naked and hairless on the floor. A strange pup, but definitely his. He licked its skin and rubbed his head against its legs. The pup rolled onto its back, exposing its throat. It was a good pup. He wished he could run with it in the woods, as he had run with its mother. He wanted to teach it how to sneak up on deer and sheep, how they could work together to bring down prey. The pup rolled upright again and sat on its hindlegs. It did not look like a hunter; it didn’t even look like it could run.
He rested his head on its fat hairless leg, and it rubbed circles behind his ears with a soft forepaw. There were many things he could not share with his pup, but at least they could share something. At least they could share this.
Spread the word!Tweet