The day the wolf appeared in her kitchen, she went to the sink and poured herself a glass of water. The wolf sank down on its skinny haunches, lifted its sharp pointed head and looked at her. She set the glass on the counter, still full. Shakily, she unlatched the back door. Go on, she said in the hopes that it would leave. The wolf approached. Together, they peered out into the mangy yard, the jagged, snow-capped mountains beyond. Go home. The wolf backed away from the door. Well then, I’m going. I need a bit of air. She gripped the railing and winced as she descended the stone steps to the yard. It had rained. Her shoes squelched and the tip of her cane sank in the muddy grass. She lowered herself into the wicker armchair where her husband used to set up his easel and paint: the luminous purple spray of her crocuses, the fey jubilance of her spring daffodils. He’d painted the robins pecking for worms, swollen tomatoes bejeweled with dew. Sometimes he’d painted her: kneeling over the carrot bed, or cradling a bushel of sugar snap peas. Ruddy and round, with freckled arms, her natty hair blowing loose around her face.
How shy he’d been the first time, his quick, keen gaze darting from her face to the page, the stick of charcoal gripped in his bony, blackened fingers. The way he chewed his lower lip. She’d watched him as he drank her in in furtive sips, there on the schoolyard. He drew her as she was: with the mountainous shoulders and untamable hair that caused her mother to fret, her father to look through her. Do you want it? he’d asked, holding out the drawing, and she’d brought it home tucked into her notebook. All evening she snuck peeks at it, at this tender, guileless rendering of her, her likeness stark and beautiful as a tree. At the dinner table, sitting next to her lithe, pretty sister who glowed in the limelight of their father’s gaze, she felt different, like a changeling no one recognized. Had she sprouted eagle wings, they would scarcely have noticed.
She leaned back in the chair and gazed out over the garden, now gone to seed and ravaged by deer. Behind her, she heard the sound of careful paws padding across the waterlogged yard. So you’ve changed your mind. The wolf sank down in the grass, parking itself at the foot of her chair. In the waning amber light, they watched the squirrels scampering up and down the oak tree, the lop-eared rabbit browsing in the grass. You’d better run, she warned the rabbit, or the wolf will make a dinner of you. But the wolf put its great soft muzzle in her lap. It nuzzled her hand with its cold dry snout. They looked out at the pond overgrown with weeds, where the tadpoles once lived, where her daughter used to play. Barefoot, wading thigh-deep in the murky water, skirt tucked into her underwear, that girl would catch those slippery creatures with her hands: fat, bug-eyed, wriggly things with tiny legs and slimy translucent tails, neither tadpole nor frog but something in between. Look! the girl would cry, brandishing her prize in gently cupped hands, stroking its back before setting it free.
How could you let her wallow in that filth? her mother said, horrified by the girl’s muddy legs.
Her father eyeing his granddaughter with wary disdain at the table as she gnawed on the hard crust of her dinner roll. Young lady, he intoned. Were you raised by wolves? The girl shrank in her seat, crestfallen and confused.
Don’t talk to her like that. Her words rang out like a slap. Her father’s mouth pressing into a hard, thin line, her mother’s a startled, glaring O. Her daughter staring at the piece of crust in her hand, moist from her mouth, mottled with bite marks. Her husband surveying the table in silence. Dried paint on his shirt, his cowlick sticking up. Looking at her with those sharp, twinkling eyes, drinking her in. He said, who wants dessert?
The sun was sinking behind the mountain peaks, dusk descending like a shroud over the garden. The arbor that she and her husband had built stood starkly naked against the purple sky. They’d stood under it on the day of her daughter’s wedding, the bougainvillea blooms spilling over the wooden beams. Her daughter flushed and radiant in an ivory tailored suit, her daughter’s wife an elfin beauty in a cream-colored sheath. Her parents hadn’t come in spite of her pleas, nor her sister who by then had children of her own. Gazing out at the small crowd of attendees – her daughter-in-law’s parents and jovial relatives, the girls’ giggling, ragtag mob of college friends – she’d felt, through the luminous sheen of her joy, a searing rage at her own kin, red and raw as a canker sore, lodged in her chest like the tip of an icepick. But then her husband popped open a bottle of champagne, guests shrieking as it spewed a deluge of white froth, people ducking, champagne splashing into the potato salad, the knotted string around her heart unfurling as she laughed and laughed.
Like a sponge, her bones had absorbed the chill. It was nearly dark. She rose stiffly out of her chair. Come. She made the slow, labored trek up the steps. The wolf limped beside her. She let it back in the house. In the kitchen, she struggled with shaking hands to open a pack of raw hamburger meat. Emptying it into a plastic bowl, she set it down on the floor. The wolf turned away. I don’t blame you, she said. She hadn’t eaten anything in days. When her daughter had phoned, she’d lied. I’m fine. I’ve been working in the garden. She kept all her daughter’s postcards. From Borneo, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador. India, Japan, Morocco, Vietnam. Long letters written in her girl’s spidery hand, in her wife’s neat cursive. They came to visit once a year. Clattering up the road in their little campervan, blowing into her house like a warm summer breeze. Their tumbling laughter and mellifluous chaos. They wanted her to sell the house, unburden herself. You could travel with us. Think about it, they said, but she knew she’d never leave. Heavy-footed and slow, she was rooted to this place. The house, the garden, her husband’s paintings on the walls. The heaven they’d built with such painstaking care.
The wolf crossed the threshold into the living room and climbed onto the sofa. It curled up, resting its head on its paws. She looked at the glass of water on the counter, the bowl of glistening meat, the crusty, moldering dishes in the sink. The wolf looked at her. She nodded slowly. Alright. Her feet were numb, ice-cold, but she willed them to move. One step, then another. She gripped the side of the couch. Taking her place beside the wolf, she listened to the husky rasp of its breathing. Gingerly stroking its matted back, she could feel the nubs of its vertebrae, the narrow scapula bones jutting under its skin. The room was growing dark, the darkness spreading like ink, bleeding through her vision, closing in like a tunnel. Through the eye of the tunnel, the wolf beheld her loneliness.
Don’t leave me, she said.
I’m coming with you, said the wolf.
Talia Weisz lives in Brooklyn, NY. She is the author of two chapbooks, Sisters in Another Life (Finishing Line Press) and When Flying Over Water (Plan B Press).