If you are brave, and venture in the world’s wilderness, you can cross the Wolf’s path and marvel at his tall shoulder, his golden eyes, and the thickness of his pelt.
But the Wolf of tales is no simple Canis Lupus. He is the loss of innocence, the end at the end of all roads, night after day, death after birth, he is the moment of change in the cycles of life. He is, in short, an institution. You might fear or hate him, but you cannot avoid meeting him.
For all his conceptual existence, the Wolf, on that day, hungers. Spring is still young, and he has not been lucky. He’s walked much and ate little. He lays in a ray of sun by a stream to rest his weary bones, when a high voice appears and grows, singing a simple song. A child enters the clearing, twirling in the young grass and plucking flowers as she goes.
The Wolf beckons, using his softest voice and curiosity brings the singer to him.
‘Child, what is this I smell? Pie? Sausages? Will you spare one for a starving animal?’
The girl peers down at him. She wears a peasant’s apron dress, blond locks spilling from an old-fashioned hood. On her arm is the wicker basket that is the source of the delightful aromas.
‘I canna do that, they’re for my Gran, who lives all the way down the forest road, Ma sent me.’
‘You will not spare a single sausage to keep me from dying? Do you have no heart?’
The girl shrugs, jostling her golden curls. ‘Ma says it’s for Gran, not strangers.’
The wolf rises then, his eyes burning with contained fury.
‘If you won’t hear the cries of mercy, what about the simpler call of threat?’ He shows teeth, his mane bristling on his neck.
The girl frowns, but swings her basket behind her, and tries to look at him down her nose, a task made difficult by the fact that he’s rather taller than her.
‘No’s no, mister!’
‘Do you not know who I am?’ The Wolf asks, incredulous.
‘Are you famous?’
‘Famous?’ He snorts. ‘Child, cemeteries the world over are monuments raised in my name. Does your hearth have no fire, that you never heard whispers of my deeds?’
‘I’d no idea we’ve such a neighbour!’ she squeaks.
The Wolf chokes on his protest. He’s noone’s neighbour. He passes through this forest like he passes through the world, but there is little to be gained by confusing her further.
‘It’s alright,’ he says, more to himself than to the girl. But really it isn’t. The child is too old to be this naive, and the Wolf hungers. ‘So you truly won’t give this to anyone but your Gran?’
‘How lucky she is, to have you come all this way for her!’
The child smiles, and brags of her many trips through the woods. It takes little prodding for the Wolf to get directions to the Grandmother’s house, though they come with half the village’s gossip. Seeing her collected flowers, he encourages her to follow the river a little ways to find daffodils and lilies of rare colours. She falls for it all, even thanks him. He ambles away, a smile on his canine lips, and soon is galloping through the underbrush.
The Wolf is half convinced he’s lost before the trail finally turns into a path, that turns into a dirt road, that turns into the yard of a little house. Such a lost place! And not much to look at. The thatch is old and mossy, the walls lean on each other like drunks. There are no chickens in the coop, no cow on the grass, and the pond is fit for naught but a family of frogs.
The Wolf gathers himself and stands up, looking like a stark young man, with a mop of silver hair and a fur coat, for not all of the wolf can quite fit in all of the man.
He steps to the door and knocks.
‘Grandmother, open up!’
‘Who is it?’ comes an old voice from inside.
‘I’m a hunter,’ the Wolf says, ‘been told you lived alone. I’ve more game than I need, so I thought you’d like a hare or two.’
‘Pull the rope, hunter, and come in.’
The Wolf does as he’s told, and the door unlocks and creaks open, revealing a small room, and in it an old crone, hunched over her knitting by a dim fire.
She looks ancient, this woman, full of stories and tales and old adages. The Wolf cannot help but think that if she’d stayed and lived with her daughter, then her grandchild would not be so painfully innocent.
The crone’s eyes squint at his tall figure.
‘Where is your game, hunter?’
‘Oh, you’re the game, Grandmama,’ the Wolf says. ‘Look at you. The reaper would have found you long ago, did you not live at the lost end of a lost road. Your time has long been up.’
The old woman’s eyes widen, but she doesn’t struggle as the Wolf grabs her chin and bends to kiss her wrinkled brow: she falls dead in his arms. Old folks rarely fight. They’ve heard the discreet patter of Death’s footfall in their wake, when it lands off the beat of their own shuffling feet. Most welcome the end of such odious suspense.
The Wolf sets to work straight away. He strips the old woman and drapes himself in her rags, tying her shawl around his head and donning an old apron for the task ahead. He rends her flesh, works her bones and drains her blood. It is hard, messy work, as the crone is tough and dry. No amount of pies or sausages can make you tender past a certain age. Soon he worries he won’t be done in time. But the little girl doesn’t come until the Wolf is finished, tidied and ready, waiting by the fire, his belly filled and his mind wandering.
The knock rouses him.
‘Gran, open up!’
‘Who is it?’ The Wolf calls in his best elderly voice.
‘It’s me, Gran, can’t you tell?’
‘Pull the rope, child, and come in.’
She does as she’s told, and in comes the little girl, all disheveled from running through the woods, her flowers in a large wreath, the basket hooked at her elbow. He welcomes her in, bids her to put her things aside, sits her and serves her a plate of meat, a glass of red (wine, he says) and watches her eat.
The girl looks at him too, as she chews on her meal and drains her cup.
‘What big eyes you have, Gran. And what strong hands!’
The Wolf says nothing, but refills her glass and smiles.
‘What wide mouth you have, too!’ she exclaims.
At that the Wolf barks an awful laugh. ‘The better to mock you with, little dolt!’
The girl, dismayed, looks as the clothes fall away from the Wolf’s shifting body. Claws click on the tabletop, the wine bottle topples and spills its ruby red content. The Wolf towers above her, dark and terrible, outlined as he is by the firelight.
‘Are you surprised I’m not dead in some ditch, after you wouldn’t feed me, not for all the whining I could muster? I’m quite sated now, thanks to your Grandmama. But I’m generous! I can share, unlike others. I saved you a bottle of her blood, and a slice of her flesh. How did you like it?’
The girl stares at him, then her plate, in horror.
‘It is true, he killed her,’ comes a voice, that of a bat, speaking from the rafters. ‘I saw it.’
‘It is true, you ate her,’ comes a voice, that of a bird, speaking from the window. ‘You git.’
She screams, jumps away from the table. She retches and cries.
The Wolf watches the emotions that flash across her face: disbelief, rage, disgust, hatred, fear. Humanity.
‘Here you are, my child,’ the Wolf croons, ‘all grown up at last.’
‘Why?’ she yells in a shattered voice.
‘Because you’re too old not to think for yourself!’ he yells back. ‘I pleaded but you would not be kind! I threatened but you would not compromise! Yet you’re no infant, to not recognise danger when it crosses your road. You would not feed me, so I fed myself at your expense. You did not know me, but now consider us introduced.’
He strides towards her and colour drains from her face. ‘Will you eat me, too?’
The Wolf laughs as he walks past. He stops in the door frame, glancing back at the trembling girl.
‘You can tell your folks I tried, if it makes you feel better. Most do, some even say they cut themselves free of my belly. What matters is the lesson learnt, and besides,’ his eyes glitter with cruel humour, ‘I’m much too full as it is.’