The long howl of a wolf rolls over me like a toothache. Higher up, shots ring out, the echoes stretching away till they’re not quite heard but more remembered.
There’s nobody on this strip of mountain now but me and Ida, and my grandson, Will’m. While I love the boy more than life, Ida’s a hole in another sock. She lives in the tar paper shack in back of our place, and in spite of this being the coldest winter recorded in Kentucky, she’s standing out there now, wrapped in a blanket, quoting scripture and swearing like a lumberjack. Her white hair’s ratted up like a wild woman’s.
I’m Ida’s child. That makes her my ma’am, and my pap was Tate Harker. I wish he were here instead of buried by the outhouse.
Whoever’s shooting the wolves is trespassing.
“I’ll be out with the boy for a while,” I tell Ida.
I’ve brought her a boiled egg, bread and butter, a wedge of apple wrapped in cloth, and a mug of hot tea. She follows me inside and sits on her cot. Ida’s face is yellowed from years of smoke, her lips gone thin, and her neck is like a turkey’s wattle. Although there’s a clean nightgown folded on a crate by her bed, she hasn’t gotten out of this one for almost three weeks.
Pap once told me that when he first met Ida, she was pretty and full of fire. She rode her donkey all over creation, preaching streets of gold over the short road to hell. She still calls daily on the Lord to deliver her from drunkards and thieves and the likes of me. Last summer, she sent off for Bibles in seven languages, then never opened the boxes. It’s dark in Ida’s shack, and thick with liniment and old age smells. Maybe it’s the sagging cartons, still unpacked, although my Saul moved her here a dozen years ago. Then he died, too.
“I can’t eat apples with these false teeth,” she says.
“Will’m saved it for you.”
“Pleases you, don’t it, me stuck in this pigsty while you and the boy live like royalty.”
Royalty is a cold-water kitchen behind the grocery store. Will’m sleeps in an alcove next to the woodstove. I take the bedroom. Here in the cabin, I’ve tried to better Ida’s life, bring a table, hang a curtain, but she says no, she’ll be crossin’ soon.
“I’ll be out with the boy for a while,” I repeat.
“I’ll ask God to forgive your sins, Olivia.”
Ida’s not the only thing that sets my teeth on edge. I worry about the way folks come for groceries but have no money. Most of the time, they take what they need. Will’m and I write everything down, and they pay as they can—sometimes in yams or yellow onions, a setting hen when the debt gets too high.
If Pap was here, he’d tell me everything was going to be all right.
“Hurry up if you’re going with me,” I tell Will’m.
Damn fool’s errand. I put on my big wool cape and mittens. I have Saul’s rifle.
Will’m brings the toboggan from the barn. He’s wearing a pair of old boots and so many shirts that he looks like a pile of laundry. I can barely make out his dark grey eyes through the round holes in his wool cap. I know what he’s thinking, just like Pap used to—some injured thing might need his care.
I’ll be forty-two next year—too old and thick-legged to plow uphill through snow that makes my hips ache. I should be home in my kitchen, warming beans from last night’s supper. Behind me, Will’m pulls the toboggan by its rope. We haven’t gone far before my fingers are froze, my toes are numb, and I realize I’ve misjudged the light. Where the snow lays smooth and clean, we stop to get our breath. It’s darker up here among the alders and pine. I set the lantern on the toboggan, strike a match, and lay the flame to the wick.
Below, to the left, lights blink on in Aurora, and a car or two winks along in the slush.
“Another shot!” Will’m says. “Gran?”
I hate it when he looks to me like that, like I can fix every damn thing in Pope County. “Will’m, this winter they’ll starve to death anyway.”
But I don’t mean that, and he knows it. Shortly the hunters will go home to their dining rooms where they’ll drink rye whiskey and eat hot suppers. Past the alder line, the last of the silver-faced wolves are curling up, hungry. They’re the only wolves recorded in Kentucky, and tonight a few more are dead.
In a clearing, we come upon the two males. Will’m stares at the round dark holes in their flanks. Their right ears are gone. A small gray female has crawled off under the brush, and she lies there, baring her teeth. She’s been shot, too, and her ear cut away. The blood has run from the wound, filling her eye and matting her fur. There’s no sign of the ears.
These aren’t just any wolves. The silver-faces have lived peaceably on Big Foley for sixty-five years. Then a week ago, a male was shot and his ear cut off. Will’m and I found the wolf, and finished him off. Today, the hunter was back, and he brought others.
“Damn,” I say. “This one’s had pups, winter pups.”
“Don’t shoot her,” he says.
“There’s lead in her haunch, and she’s near bled to death.”
“We’ll take her home.”
What I’m really thinking is—I know who did this.
“Back off from her, boy.” I lay the gun to my shoulder. “Halfway down, we’d have a dead wolf on our hands.”
Will’m says, “But she’s not dead yet.”
Confound this child. I ache with the cold. More snow is likely, and when it comes, it’ll cover our tracks and the sheer rock faces. It would be right to put a clean shot between her eyes. But also between her eyes is that fine silver stripe.
I wonder if Will’m’s likening himself to the cubs. Time’s coming when I’ll have to tell him about Pauline, although he’s never asked. He hasn’t yet learned that all God’s creatures got to fend for themselves, and the devil takes the hindmost.
“Well, give me your scarf, boy. We’ll muzzle her good and tie her on the toboggan.”
“I could sit with her,” he says, grinning.
“You could not. You’ll walk behind and keep your eyes open. Now do as I say, or we’ll leave her here.”
“And there’s not God’s chance she’s sleepin’ in the four-poster, or under it, either. And if there’s no change by morning, I’m putting her down.”
It’s tricky without a rope. I pull, Will’m steadies. More than once the wolf slides off, and we stop to rearrange, and trade places. God love me, every day I understand myself less. I’m so tired that the wolf and the boy and Ida run together in my mind till I can’t think who’s who, or which needs me most.