The wolf was dead. Only the cold had saved it from decay.
The man’s eyes narrowed as he hunkered down to the carcass at the cave mouth. His hair and beard were as tangled as thorn bushes; a bearskin wrap was tied over his shoulder and covered him to his knees. He breathed into rough-knuckled hands. He had never known such a season, with wolves howling through the ice-filled valley. They did not have such hard, white weather where he came from.
The she-wolf’s distended nipples testified to a recent birth. Too thin for meat, but her grey-white coat could be useful. The man tied her paws, murmuring the customary words of thanks to the spirit of the wolf. Then he heard a faint sound from within the cave, and something tugged at his memory.
It was a mewling, like an infant, and a heatless sun caught the sparks of a small animal’s eyes. The man’s hands curled around the cub and lifted it out. A he-cub, with a squashed face, grey-black fur, and a small mouth sucking on the air.
He reached for the flint knife on his belt, meaning to kill the cub. It would die soon anyway. But the helpless wriggling and melting brown eyes softened his resolve. He would bring it back to his mate, he decided, as a gift for her.
When he returned to his own cave, the woman crouched at the fire, chewing a twig to ease the hunger pains. She wore a squirrel-skin wrap, her legs streaked with ash, her eyes sour as winter berries.
She wrinkled her nose at the cub. “He is small. Not much meat.”
“Not for meat,” he tried to explain, sliding the animal into her arms.
She let the cub wriggle to the ground and nodded with approval at the wolf carcass that her mate had hauled home. “We need new fur.”
A sharp noise bit the air, startling them both.
The wolf cub had moved too close to the fire, attempting to reach some dried rabbit bones. It nursed its black nose with one paw, and moments later padded forward more slowly, grabbing a bone between its teeth and dragging it to a comfortable distance.
The man smiled, but his mate’s face remained like stone. It’s true, he thought, her blood has turned to ice.
Once she had been as warm as the sun that shone upon their homeland, as fresh as the waterfall where she’d combed out her hair. Once, they had lived among people who they’d known all their lives, and raised a fat baby boy whose crawling limbs explored anything within reach. But the man fought with the tribe’s elders and was cast out. She agreed to accompany him to find another place, tying the child in a deerskin pouch to her back.
It was a long walk; they were often exhausted but seldom hungry, for they took a fruitful path. The child lost some of his baby fat and his babbles began to form meaningful sounds.
“He said Mama!” The woman clapped. “He said tree!”
If that leaf-fall season had been colder than usual, they paid it little heed. Nothing could have prepared them for the first snow.
Did cold kill the child, or hunger, or both? She held the warm but unbreathing corpse to her breast, where not long before she had suckled. Her eyes were swollen with accusation.
It was you who led us here. You who killed our child.
So lost was she in her grief that she never realised how he too ached for their son.
The wolf cub curled by the fire as the man banked it up for the night. He left the animal and joined his mate under their rabbit-skin blanket. She moved towards him, but her closeness held no affection; it was merely a response to the cold. He touched her soft hair and traced her smooth shoulder. Her eyes cracked open – hard, dark, and hostile.
He tasted bitterness. He had lost his home, his people, his child, and now he was losing her. He rolled over and thumped the ground in anger and frustration.
Suddenly a stale meaty odour breathed into his face. The wolf cub looked at him with baleful eyes, and its thick tongue licked him from chin to forehead. He pulled back, spluttering, but the cub continued to lick.
Then he heard a sound he thought he would never hear again. Laughter. His mate sat to watch the animal slobber over him and appeared to think it was funny. She clicked her fingers to beckon the cub, and it laid its furry head on her lap.
“Funny little thing,” she said. “Sweet little nose. Soft little ears.”
The man snorted and rolled himself into a bundle. He heard her talk to the cub in a soft, playful tone, with words she had once used to their child.
Whiteness turned into dripping wetness and retreated to the higher slopes. Flowers poked through the softening earth and green buds sprigged the valley. A herd of deer wandered through the mountain pass to nibble on the fresh grass.
The man used his digging stick to gather roots, and the woman plucked herbs from the undergrowth. Together they hunted small animals – rabbits, squirrels, and plump white-feathered birds. Sometimes they chased away scavengers to grab the remains of a kill left by a wolf or bear. The cub trotted behind, dashing to grab bones or meat scraps they threw his way.
Sometimes the man thought it a waste to give their hard-earned food to the animal, but he looked at the woman’s smile and felt it was worth it. Not that she ever smiled at him, just at the cub.
He leaned on his spear and watched the deer herd pass. They were almost within range and his fingers itched on the spear shaft. But to hunt large animals required more than two people. He wondered if he would ever be in such a hunt again.
The cub sniffed along the ground. The animal was growing; he had the clumsy limbs of a creature on the verge of maturity. His tail swished and the sniffing grew faster. The man quirked an eyebrow at his mate but she shrugged, as puzzled as he was.
The cub stuck his nose into a hole and a rabbit leapt out. The woman, her reflexes well-trained, hurled her spear. It fell short and the rabbit bounded on, disappearing into another hole.
The fur around the cub’s nose was smudged with dirt. He barked, jumping enthusiastically. The deer took fright, their hooves thundering the ground as they stampeded away.
“Shush, little one,” the woman smoothed his fur.
In the dust left by the retreating herd, the man frowned. That wolf was trouble. He should never have brought him home. He scared away prey and he was growing so quickly. How could they keep an adult wolf in their cave? They must get rid of him somehow.
But his mate raised her eyes to his, and he saw she had another idea.
The sun pulsated, its warm rays feeding the green slopes and valley. A sparkling dragonfly flitted from one blossom to another and landed on the nose of a young doe. She wrinkled her snout to dislodge it.
She caught a familiar but unwelcome scent and her ears prickled. The rest of the herd were close, picking their way through the long grass. The doe started to move with them, but the undergrowth rustled, and she turned in the other direction.
The wolf sprang out and growled.
In the centre of the herd, mothers nuzzled their fawns to them. The stag lowered his head and snorted, pointing his antlers threateningly at the wolf.
The frightened doe ran in the opposite direction. It was a fatal mistake.
She could not move fast. Her back leg had a festering sore that had kept her behind the rest of the herd – a sore that the wolf had smelled. The woman’s spear hit her hindquarter. The doe collapsed with a bellow that echoed against the mountains, and the man’s spear found the back of her neck.
The man reached her first, and finished her with a slash of flint to her throat as he murmured thanks to her spirit.
The woman looked around and smiled when the wolf bounded towards her. He was almost full size and could stand with his paws on her shoulders.
“Oh you good boy!” She ruffled his furry neck.
The rest of the deer herd scattered and a wolverine poked its head from the scrub. The couple moved fast to salvage as much as possible from the deer carcass before more scavengers arrived. The man sliced through the deer’s chest to extract the inner organs from the bloody cavity. The wolf padded beside him, saliva dripping from his teeth.
The man pulled out the liver – the hunter’s portion, the most valued part – and sliced it in two. He handed the larger part to the wolf, who gulped it down greedily.
With as much meat as they could carry in their backpacks, they returned home.
They had a feast that night, roasted deer with herbs, and the wolf had a giant thighbone to chew on. The man patted his full belly contentedly. His mate popped a finger out of her mouth, savouring the last taste of meat, and smiled at him.
Smiled. At him. After all this time. He thought his heart would burst with joy.
The wolf tried to sleep beside them as usual, but the woman shooed him and made him sleep near the mouth of the cave. When she curled beside her mate she still had a pleasant, smoky smell, as if particles of deer and herb clung to her skin and hair. And she was still smiling.
Outside, a full moon rose and a howling echoed throughout the valley. The wolf lifted his head, a whimper of memory and instinct stirring his blood. Then he laid his head back on his paws and went to sleep.
The man scattered dirt over the embers of the fire, extinguishing it for the first time since they had arrived. Berries swelled on the bushes; soon the green valley would turn to red and brown, and the frosted white of the high slopes would creep lower. It was time to leave.
The woman and the wolf waited at the mouth of the cave. She carried a spear and held her belongings in a bag made of deer leather. The man’s bag was far heavier. He insisted she carry as little as possible. He reached an arm around her stomach – still flat, but within a few months it would begin to swell.
He worried about her, perhaps even more so than with their first child. The route ahead would be long and hard. He wondered if they would find a more forgiving climate, or other tribes who could help her with the birth. How would other people react to the wolf walking beside them? It was strange to use an animal not as food or fur but as hunting companion, as friend. Perhaps other wolves had been adopted by people, fitting themselves as neatly into a human pack as they would into a pack of their own kind. Perhaps.
“May the spirits keep you and the child safe,” he said to his mate. The wolf looked up with baleful eyes. “And you also, wolf.”
And together, man, woman and wolf began the ascent to the mountain pass that would lead them out into the wider world.
Fiona Honor Hurley lives in Galway, Ireland, where she works as a technical writer. She has previously lived in Dublin, Glasgow, and Valencia. Her main interests, in no particular order, are history, mythology, swing dancing, amusing her nieces and nephews, hiking, making up stories, watching documentaries, and using Google Maps to plan her next journey. Her work has appeared on Bootsnall, SavvyAuntie, and Number Eleven, as well as on her own blog about the Wild Atlantic Way.
–Background Art by Xavier (abstrkt.ch)
–Foreground Art by Nicu Buculei