The Wolf Expert
by Shaena Lambert

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Photo: Nancy Friedland

 

We can’t feed them anymore.

I tell you, husband, we must set the children loose in the woods.

*

Raj has his laptop open, and he types as Kathy leans towards him, whispering intensely. She catches a glimpse of herself in the cabin’s living room window – pale face framed by red pigtails, next to the burgundy orb that is Raj’s turban. Beyond the window the bluff forest falls away to a glint of sea.

“Raj.”

His long fingers tweak and twiddle at the keyboard. Moon cuticles. He is connected remotely to his boss’s laptop in Vancouver. Two hundred miles south, in Kitsilano, a ghost cursor moves through alien files, transferring, saving.

“Maybe we could give the girls walking sticks to carry with them. Or air horns. That’s what the parents did after that attack on Whale Island.”

“Air horns.”

“I was reading online. Apparently just the feel of an air horn in your pocket gives you confidence. Then the wolves read your body signals and stay away.”

Raj nods, head bobbing a little longer than necessary to denote agreement.

“What are we talking about, Raj?”

“I know what we’re talking about.” Click, click. “The wolves.”

“What about the wolves? Raj!”

He stops typing and then tilts his head, seeming to retrieve the data of their conversation from the rafters. “It’s not about us. There are no known records of wolves going after adults. It’s about the children, and if need be we could give them sticks, or better yet air horns, as the parents did on Whale Island, after the wolf pack surrounded those kids on the beach.” He pauses. “Of course we’ll be walking them to school and back.”

“But what if they get separated from us? Or play in the woods at recess? Or there’s a beach excursion?”

“Right.”

“More than anything else, we need to get advice from this wolf expert. The one hired by Parks Canada.”

“That’s what you’ll do tomorrow.”

“I’m going to get her number from Tracy – the cashier at the Island Grocery. Because for some reason she doesn’t list her number on the wolf website.”

He presses send.

She goes up to check on their twin girls, Suki and June, snuggled in the double loft bed. Glossy hair like Raj’s. Plush lips open. Suki’s nose is plugged from her cold. Kathy gets a tissue from the bathroom and gives it a gentle wipe. Her dark, sweet babies. Though not babies anymore. They are five, and will start school the very next day.

When she returns downstairs, Raj has poured them wine. They sit on the couch together, admiring the last light on the islands of the remote Sound – a view new to them still. They have only been at the cabin for two weeks. It is a six-month rental hastily arranged through a friend of a friend at the bakery Kathy managed before the kids. A spontaneous decision, meant to spur an act of spontaneous healing – wasn’t that the idea? Raj had said yes. Yes to Kathy’s impulse. It probably felt good to throw himself into her wake, to give in to the voluptuous sway of her decision-making. He planned to work remotely, with a trip to town every ten days.

“It’s beautiful,” he says.

“We’re lucky.”

The sea glimmers whitely under a streak of moon.

*

The next morning, the big school day, Raj makes pancakes, Kathy finds the girls’ boots in a rubber box, and then all four of them follow the roughly cleared forest trail toward the Montessori schoolhouse. They pass yellow bracken taller than their heads. Suki and June look into the mossy darkness with big, passionate eyes. They are beautiful, perfect children, and Kathy is sorry to think that one day they will have to die, that life produces such waste, that an unfeeling chaos rules the universe and that nobody – nobody! – is exempted, not even her children splashing through puddles wearing raincoats with duck-head hoods. Raj turns to smile at her, as though to say: Look at our happy family on our children’s first day of school. But then he sees her face and reaches for her hand. She is still in shock, that’s what he must think, shock from the cancer that blasted through their lives like a freight train, but now is gone. His clasping of her hand reminds her of the solicitous gestures of the radiation technicians. Can you breathe in a little more, Kathy? Okay, just a little more, a little more. How about a tiny bit more? If she failed to fill her lungs to the maximum would they miss the cancer cells entirely? Radiate her heart? Her lung? The technicians never said, just aimed that pinpoint of burning light at her.

That’s it. Hold still.

Now here they are. Everything in the woods smells of fertile decay. They step over a fallen alder log covered in six inches of moss. Raj holds back a branch and Kathy sees the itchy growth on its achingly tender limb.

They cross a little bridge and emerge out of the forest, onto the farm where the schoolhouse stands in the distance. They made a pact in bed that morning. No talking about wolves with the girls, not until Kathy has the information she needs from the wolf expert. This means no falling into excited discussions with other parents. No mention at all about the two attacks, the one on Whale Island, or the other on nearby Bessie’s Beach, where an elderly couple beat the wolves away from their Jack Russell Terrier.

Raj opens the robin’s-egg-blue door of the schoolhouse. The girls are so shy, they bury their faces against Kathy’s legs, but soon they are seated cross-legged on cushions, reading about pigs.

No posing of wolf-related questions to the grim-faced Montessori teacher, who seems soured from her years on this island paradise.

On their way home, Raj and Kathy are silent. First Raj, then Kathy, step over the fallen alder. It seems to Kathy that they might be able to fix things so easily, return to what they had before, if they just stepped off the path, into the moss beside the horsetails and salal. She imagines taking Raj by the pocket of his raincoat, his look of grateful wariness as she leads him through dripping spiders’ webs, then lies down, reaching awkwardly under her raincoat to undo the clasps of her corduroy overalls. Then him moving on top of her, complaining about his freezing ass. They made love once under the table in a Chinese banquet hall. He loves her spontaneity, that’s what he says, loves it and fears it. Whatever it is that makes her like this (life force? Is it life force?), has pulled him right out of the trajectory laid down by his doting parents. He was meant to marry a nice Sikh girl from Burnaby, and look what he went and did instead. Married a carrot top. The love of his life looks like Anne of Green Gables.

She could grab him now, but it feels like a lot of work, and they’d get cold, and inevitably he would do something careful and kind, like laying down his raincoat. That was the way he was at night now, when he pulled down the straps of her nightgown, and they both looked at her pink nipples. Her breasts so full of heat now, after the radiation – heat, anger, strangeness. When he reached out to touch them, it was with a scientific precision, as though dismantling time bombs.

Are the Wolves out of Control? (Or could it be the humans?)

Public Meeting at the Island Co-op with Island Wolf Expert, Anna Hoffmann.

This is the sign on the bulletin board outside the Island Grocery. Yes. This is what she needs – a public meeting. Unfortunately it took place three days before. Kathy and Raj are strangers here, and nobody thought to alert them. Beneath the headline is a photo of a wolf’s face. Its intelligent stare beneath furrowed brows reminds Kathy of her mother-in-law’s shrewd glance over her reading glasses.

Setting her groceries beside the till, Kathy asks Tracy how the wolf meeting went.

“Ha!” Tracy has silvered hair but a youthful face. She’s swathed in a knitted tunic.

“So, who’s out of control? Wolves or humans?”

“Neither – It’s Anna Hoffmann. Calm down, calm down.” Tracy imitates a Hitler-like accent. “If you don’t know how to relate to wild animals, then don’t live next to them. That’s what she said. And you know my dog Martin has gone missing.” She shakes her head, temporarily unable to speak, before finding her rage again: “It’s fucking ridiculous. We have two out-of-control wolf packs, and another that swims over regularly from the mainland.” Tracy repeatedly swipes a barcode. “She said in front of an entire room that Martin shouldn’t have been let outside. I said, ‘He was on the deck, Anna. Listen to what I’m saying. The deck. The deck!’ Then she says, ‘The wolves were here first.’ What the fuck. I’m going to complain to Parks Canada.”

“I’m sorry,” says Kathy. “Tell me what kind of dog. I’ll help look.”

“Thank you — I appreciate that. I appreciate human reactions to human problems. He’s part Border collie. Short-haired.”

“I’ve been worried about my girls.”

“You can expect zero sympathy from Anna Hoffmann.”

But she gives Kathy the phone number from the co-op directory.

*

That afternoon Raj leaves on the floatplane for Vancouver. An hour later, Kathy is walking through the woods to pick up the girls, when something in the feathered moss catches her eye. She squats, innocently enough, but then her blood chills. The thing is three fingers wide, a foot and a half long, feathered at one end, and thickening at the other to a stump of marbled gristle and bone. A tail. With two sticks Kathy picks it up, as though with chopsticks, and tosses it into the woods, where the girls will never see it, and then she runs, slowing only to note scat by the fallen alder. Grey hairs. Cracked bone. More of Martin’s remains?

“Ja. Hallo?”

“Is this Anna Hoffmann?”

“Yes.”

Kathy stammers out her facts. She has small children, twins, younger than the ones attacked on Whale Island.

“That was not an attack.”

“I’m sorry. I’d heard –”

“The wolves were on the beach first. Those children recklessly approached them. I don’t know how to tell you people. Leave them alone, and they will leave you alone.”

“Could we meet? I’d really like to have a briefing. I’m new here, and I’m not sure…”

Heavy Germanic breathing.

“Please,” Kathy adds, recklessly.

“I don’t like to support the hysteria. Read the website.”

“I’m not hysterical,” Kathy says staunchly, “and I did read it, but I still have questions. Look, I just want to learn the ropes. Wolf-wise.”

It takes Kathy a full half minute, listening for the breathing on the other end, to realize that the woman has hung up.

*

The wolf expert lives up a rutted, washed-out road that is hard for Kathy’s city car to manage. Rocks whack the undercarriage, pinging against the pipes. Poor Raj! He loves this car. Tracy at the co-op supplied directions. Be careful, she said. I actually think she might be crazy. Kathy couldn’t bring herself to mention the tail.

The land is flat in this central part of the island: no mossy bluffs or views of the Sound. No purple wistfulness. Just a forest floor with occasional elephantine stumps covered in salal, the remains of an old-growth forest. Between these, columns of cedar and hemlock rise a hundred feet into the air before they put out branches. Kathy unrolls the window and hears the wind. All that action so high up: it feels as though she is moving across the bottom of the sea.

All at once the road opens to a picturesque clearing in the forest. It is big as a baseball diamond, carpeted in needles, a few rocks showing their cool backs. Across the clearing, a trailer gleams like a refrigerator. This is what Kathy notices, and it disappoints her. It looks so out of place. (Cold, she thinks later.) Why move to the wilderness only to live in a home covered in metal?

When she swings the car door closed, it hits the tongue of the seat belt and bounces open again. Embarrassing entrance, but unnoticed: no face appears at the trailer window.

It is then, as she closes the car door, firmly this time, and turns back towards the clearing, that she sees the little house in the trees. Oh! Kathy gasps out loud. It is so charming, so perfectly nestled at the edge of the clearing, perhaps thirty feet from the trailer. Shingled roof, tin chimney, board-and-batten sides. A window with many little panes, divided by mullions.

And? (She interviews herself months later, lying in bed, going over every detail until they are straight and in order.)

She starts toward that little house. All around she smells pine needles and the loamy scent of mushrooms.

“Hello?” she calls. “Hello?” It is just like that poem, ‘The Listeners.’ Is there anybody there, said the Traveller, knocking on the old oak door. Though this door has a window covered in a square of heavy translucent plastic. The wind snaps at the edge of the sheeting, and rides the tops of the trees. Kathy puts her eye to the plastic, but can’t see through it. She raps on the door. Inside, soft as anything, she hears the creak of floorboards.

“Hello?” she calls again.

She steps over to the mullioned window, frames her eyes with her hands and peers in.

And?

That’s when I screamed.

Because she sees a system of ropes on the far wall. They feed upwards through a series of metal eyes, and then across to the beam, from which hang three purpled carcasses. With their ribs showing, their muscled shoulders and thighs, they look like the skinned torsos of children.

*

“How was the wolf expert?”

Raj has come back on the floatplane, picked up the girls, and now he stands over the stove, a piece of mushroom in his beard. He holds a wooden spoon stained with spaghetti sauce. Kathy takes the mushroom from his beard and pops it in her mouth. Portobello.

“Who?”

“The wolf expert.”

“She wasn’t home. I guess I’ll need to go back another time. Or maybe just use the internet to find out more.”

“You sound calmer.”

“I am calmer.”

The compost bucket on the counter needs to be emptied. She puts on the Crocs that came with the cabin and goes outside and around the house. She dumps the contents in the compost bin. On one side of her is the steep rise of the bluff, wind in the trees, the ferns. On the other, the house. Through the kitchen window she sees a square of light, Raj in the centre, like a Renaissance painting, measuring noodles by hand, a quarter inch for each family member.

She lied. The wolf expert was at home.

Kathy stands with the bucket, watching Raj stir the pasta, while from the loft window upstairs comes a blue-white flicker. The girls are watching The Wonderful World of Bugs. Something is opening inside her. How she used to feel going out for Halloween, running down the driveway towards the night.

Who lives like that? That’s the question she wants answered now. Who lives in a trailer by herself with a workshop set up for skinning deer? The word that comes to her is loneliness. The clearing reminds her of a cupboard swept clean of human things. Also: Poverty, simplicity, pride. The painful biting down on the inside of your cheek, rather than uttering a word of need, a cry for consolation.

Of course she can’t see all this right away. Much of this comes later.

 

Clearing.

Door in seatbelt.

Crossing to house.

Is anyone home?

Eye to window.

Shriek.

*

Then she is running toward the car, catching her toe, falling, grasping her bloodied knee, pink overalls ripped. A door slams. The wolf expert stands over her, angrily wielding a blowtorch. “Who are you?”

Then laughing as Kathy picks herself up.

“I talked to you on the telephone,” Kathy says.

“You’re the one who’s worried about her babies.”

“Not babies. Twin girls. And yes, I’m worried. Why not?”

What nobody has mentioned is that this woman has a face that leads with her cheekbones. Huge Macedonian hair. Coils of it. Tresses. She is perhaps forty, with heavy eyebrows and dark eyes. Olive skin. She wears a red-and-black lumberjack shirt. When she speaks – “So. You saw my deer-skinning station” – her teeth seem small to Kathy, like teeth in a Victorian doll.

She is German on her father’s side, but Turkish on her mother’s. (Kathy will learn this much later, lying in bed beside Anna, tracing the veins down the pathways of her muscled arms.) This accounts for the German accent, the dark colouring. Also, for the two sides perpetually at war with each other: the German side subjugating the Turkish; the Turkish retaliating at night, with scimitars.

This is one way that Kathy will imagine the furious interior of Anna Hoffmann: insisting almost from the beginning that there is gentleness inside. This will be her job. To come close, name that gentleness, taking the ferocious fending-off that comes from this act of touch. To do this Kathy will have to open herself in ways she never dreamed. For instance, riding home in Anna’s truck one tender day after picking bolete mushrooms, their darkly gilled scent emanating from the willow basket on Kathy’s lap, Anna reaches for Kathy’s hand, bringing it to her lips. And Kathy says: I want to be yours. This is her response, breaking some terrible rule about never showing your heart. She is wide open. How did this happen? Let me be yours. This is months before the end, the final banishment, before Kathy kneels in her cotton underwear on the linoleum floor of the trailer with its coffee-coloured swirls, clinging to Anna’s knees, pleading, Look at me, just look at me, please.

But for now the wolf expert stands with her blowtorch, taking in the red pigtails, the pink overalls. She seems awkward, almost deferential. She offers to show the deer-skinning station, and Kathy notices the blood-softened wood of the floor, the deer carcasses hanging neatly from their beams, heads and hooves cut off. The blowtorch is used to remove hair from a skin spread on a rack beside the door.

Inside the trailer there is a single bed with a patchwork quilt, a tidy loneliness. Kathy sits on the quilt and Anna on a plastic chair. She doesn’t seem to know what to do next, and so she asks Kathy if she’d like to see a video of the wolves. She opens her laptop and shows a fuzzy clip of the largest wolf pack swimming to Whale Island. Dark heads, pointed ears. They knew that Anna was filming, she explains. A wolf that doesn’t want to be seen is never seen.

“Off to eat the newborn seal pups. So, you see: you don’t have to worry about your babies. They’re going to eat other mothers’ babies.”

The video is followed by a series of still shots. Anna has caught one of the packs at dawn, at Stayatuk Bay on the south point of the island. Several photos show a grey wolf the size of a large husky running across the beach, leaving huge footprints, leaping over a tidal pool.

“Joy.” Anna’s voice is suddenly loud beside her. “You’ve got to love that. That wolf is leaping for joy – no other reason.”

After the last of the still shots, the computer reverts back to its screensaver: Kathy recognizes the furrow-browed stare of the wolf from the poster. Anna says that that’s it, the show is over. Still, they stare awkwardly at the computer, Kathy on the bed and the wolf expert in her plastic chair. Kathy isn’t sure what will happen next, but then Anna speaks.

“Cute pigtails,” she says. “Trust me. No wolf’s going to want to eat you.”

Kathy is on the verge of saying it’s the twins she worries about. But she doesn’t. Instead, she hears herself saying that she’s been through something recently, doesn’t talk about it much, or at all really. It was hard. Anna leans close, a tang of peppermint soap over the darker scent of sweat. “What is this hard thing?” she whispers teasingly, as though nothing Kathy could say could be so serious, not with the pigtails and all. Still she is asking. She is curious, and Kathy finds herself saying that she had cancer recently.

Anna is so close, Kathy feels rather than sees her answering gesture, which is a shrug of the shoulders. Roughly speaking, it means, What do you expect? Life doesn’t spare us. Then she reaches out and takes hold of one of Kathy’s pigtails. Kathy feels the weight of her braid in the other woman’s grip, then a slight tug against her scalp, as though Anna is testing a length of rope, or the heft of a knife, or any useful object to be learned by hand.

*

Home. Compost bucket in hand. Raj calls the children to the kitchen table and Kathy keeps thinking: In another moment I will go in, in another moment, but still she doesn’t move. The light has spread to the living-room window, the girls sitting cross-legged in their chairs, holding their knives and forks. She can see the soles of their bunny slippers, and hear Raj telling them that they need to wait for their mother.

In another moment Kathy does go inside, but she feels the outside in her eyes, in her hair, and she remembers standing apart from them all in the dark, listening to their voices, familiar, binding. When the children are asleep, she unwinds the wrappings of Raj’s turban, and they make love under his hair, as if surrounded by Spanish moss, his body on top of her, heavy and strong, doing everything he can to reach her. There is still time to retreat into the sweet depths of his love.

“You see,” he says, when they are done. “Bit by bit.”

He leaves it for a long time. She thinks he may have fallen asleep.

“Bit by bit what?” she says.

A pause, then: “Bit by bit we’re getting back to normal.”

She falls asleep and dreams of the wolf expert, olive hands grasping her earlobes, tilting her head back as though she is a pot to drink from. She wakes to Raj’s breathing, his back turned to reveal the knobs of his spine, his hair unbound. And Suki and June are close too, filling the house with their breath. But she is thinking of the wolf running across the sand at Stayatuk Bay.

Stand, Kathy. Go to the window.

See yourself in the glass, and beyond that, the stars, the wind moving the trees. It must never go back to normal. Say it, Kathy. Normal is what you now fear. Your job is to destroy normal. Rip it open. Eat the entrails.

—From CNQ 97 (Fall 2016)

 

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