The Cry of the Wolf By Iris Anne Lewis
Snow fell the night Grandmother died. It was the time of the full moon, but only a dim light glowing through the cloud and the snowflakes spinning down in glimmering shadows hinted at its presence above the mountain forest.
Dusk was shading into night as the storm started. It was the first snow of winter. In the distance we heard the screech of an owl and the low belling of a solitary wolf. ‘The beasts will be hungry tonight,’ said Grandmother. ‘We must keep ourselves safe.’ She wrapped herself in her heavy cape and went outside to walk around our little house, securing the windows. She struggled with the last shutter as a gust of wind fought for possession of it but at last she managed to slam it shut. Only the store room at the back of the cottage to lock now. I heard her drop the stout wooden plank in place across the double doors. Again came the cry of the wolf. A pack of wolves answered, howling in mournful counterpoint across the valley.
‘It’s going to be a rough night,’ said Grandmother, as the wind rattled the roof tiles and whistled down the chimney sending smoke wafting through the room. ‘I’ll give you something to help you sleep.’
As she chopped up dried herbs from the bunches hanging in the kitchen and brewed them up with the milk gently heating on the stove, the wolves kept up their chorus. They seemed to be coming nearer but perhaps it was only the howling of the wind.
‘Drink this.’ Grandmother poured out the draught. I cupped the mug in my hands and took a mouthful. The milk was warm, syrupy, aromatic. I took another sip and then another. I started to drowse. Strange, she had made this drink for me often when she thought I needed soothing or when the brightness of the full moon, finding every crack in the shutters, filled the cottage with light but I had never felt its effects so quickly. An unfamiliar lassitude overtook me and I found it difficult to focus as I stumbled my way to bed. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘I’ve made it stronger than usual. It’s such a wild night. It’s best if you know nothing of it.’
I fell into a troubled sleep. I dreamt a wolf, its pelt shining silver grey in the moonlight, slinked into my room and prowled around my bed before slipping away. I heard a scream. It sounded close by as though it were within the cottage but it must have been an owl hunting prey. I tried to get up and go to Grandmother for comfort but my limbs felt too heavy. Exhausted by the effort I sunk back onto the pillows and drifted back to sleep.
The storm had subsided by the time I woke in the morning. It was no longer snowing and the gale had blown itself out, leaving only an icy breeze in its wake. The store room door banged to and fro as currents of cold air caught it. Grandmother must be up. I pulled on my clothes and went to see her. There was no sign of her in the kitchen or living room. She must be in the store room. But it was empty, the only sign of life the doors swinging back and fore, back and fore. I crossed the room to look out. Perhaps she was walking round the cottage to open the shutters but the snow lay deep and untouched apart from some faint depressions the size of animal paws circling the cottage. I closed the doors and put the plank in place. For some reason Grandmother must have opened the doors during the night. I wondered why she had done so, on such a night, in such weather, and even more puzzling, why she had not closed them when she returned indoors.
I went into her bedroom. She was lying on the bed, the blankets flung aside, her night dress ripped. Blood had run down her face, neck and breast, staining the sheet and pillow bright red. I fetched a damp cloth and wiped away the blood as best I could. The wounds were jagged, her body cold. I needed help.
I pulled on my fur boots, thick woollen coat, hat and mittens and trudged down the snow-covered slope to the village below.
‘Better hold the funeral without delay, before the ground freezes,’ said the old priest, shocked at the story of the wounds and torn night gown. He crossed himself.
He arranged for Grandmother’s body to be brought down to lie in the small onion-domed church. The grave diggers cleared the plot and dug the deep oblong hole before the ground hardened to iron. Three days later the funeral was held.
There were only a few mourners at the service. Grandmother had kept her distance from the villagers, preferring the solitude of living on the edge of the forest that rose steeply above the huddled cottages on the valley floor. I had never attended school. Grandmother was a knowledgeable woman and had taught me herself. Our only contact with the village was the weekly trip to buy provisions. I recognised some of the faces, mainly women with time on their hands. Village busybodies. I could almost hear the scathing tones of Grandmother, as I looked at them.
One of them made the sign against the evil eye. Fancy wearing a scarlet hat and at her grandmother’s funeral too, I heard them whisper.
There was one face I did not recognise – a man with a silver grey beard, smartly dressed in a fur coat, black hat and polished boots.
He stood a little apart when the body was lowered into the grave but when the village women had dispersed, he approached me and introduced himself. He was an old friend of my grandmother, he explained, and had come to pay his last respects.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked. ‘Rosa,’ I said.
‘A charming name.’ He put out a hand and touched my red hat. ‘And so apt.’ I felt hot blood flooding my cheeks. He smiled, revealing a set of perfect white teeth.
‘What’s your name?’ I was curious. Had Grandmother ever mentioned him?
‘Call me Vadim.’ He smiled again. ‘May I escort you home?’ tucking my hand into his arm. We started the slow ascent up the track to the cottage.
He left me at the door after checking that I had food in the house and sufficient fuel for the fire. I was comforted by his concern.
‘I’ll come back tomorrow morning and check that you are alright. I’ll help you get more provisions in. The weather looks set for heavy snow.’
The temperature fell that night. I lay in bed shivering. In the distance I could hear the wolves. It was as if they were singing a lament for Grandmother. At last I drifted into sleep. I seemed to hear Grandmother’s voice. Beware the wolf. Wolves are like men. Young or old, hungry or sated, they are all the same under the pelt.
As promised, the following morning Vadim appeared. We went down to the village, our boots crunching the ice-crusted snow.
We loaded a sledge with provisions. ‘Better get plenty in,’ he said. ‘Bad weather is forecast. You may well be snowed in for a while.’ He pulled the sledge up the hillside to the cottage. We went inside.
I unbuttoned my coat. ‘Let me help you.’ He stood behind me reaching his arms over my shoulders and grasped the heavy fabric. As he slipped the coat off, his hands brushed my newly budded breasts. ‘Delightful,’ he said. The room darkened as a bank of cloud rolled down the mountain. ‘I must go now, but you’ll be quite safe until I return.’
It snowed for weeks. I was cut off from the village, my only company the mice scuttling behind the wainscot and the thin crows cawing as they scavenged for food. At night I heard howling, as famished wolves stole nearer the village. But they did not approach the cottage. I was safe in my snowbound solitude.
Time passed slowly, measured only by the moon’s waxing and waning, as my breasts flowered into fullness and my first woman’s course flowed.
It was the night of the third full moon after Grandmother’s death. The spring thaw had begun. Light flooded the valley as it reflected off the melting snow, illuminating the path down the mountainside. Tomorrow I would be able to reach the village. I lay in bed drowsing as clouds floated across the moonlit sky. The wolves were in full voice, one in particular howling louder than the rest. I heard Grandmother’s voice, they’re all the same under the pelt. I roused from sleep. Luminous eyes were watching me.
I looked up at the silver grey muzzle, the open jaws, the perfect white teeth. I heard the cry of the wolf, the screech of an owl.