Science Fiction genetic engineering wolves Extinction

Howl Above the Din

By James Van Pelt
Jun 27, 2019 · 6,596 words · 24 minutes

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Photo by Tom Pottiger via Unsplash.

From the author: The quote, "And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee," has much truth in it, which is exactly what Dr. Roman struggles with in this story about wolves, desire and the need to survive.

Sharon braced the door against the wind with her foot.  “So what’s up with the wolves anyway?  It’s spooky, them disappearing on the night Fitz took his dive.”

Dr. Roman closed his notebook and placed it exactly in the center of the desk.  Sharon leaned against the door jamb, her flannel shirt unbuttoned one button too many as always.  She added sarcastically, “You know he spent his last night outside the enclosure with the wolves, again.”

“He could do that, Sharon.  Dr. Fitzgerald was an expert in wolf intelligences.  You, however, are only a grad student on loan from Environmental Science.”

She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.  Roman automatically categorized the gesture: covering the mouth suggested the person was lying or felt she was being lied to.  “He was naked,” she said, “again.  He thought he was that weird Farley Mowat guy from the old movie about wolves.  Don’t you think that was a little twisted?  Not to speak ill of the dead, but he wasn’t right.”

Roman placed his fingertips on the edges of the notebook and moved it a micrometer, aware that not making eye-contact also suggested lying or evasiveness.  He pressed the notebook hard enough that it bowed slightly in the middle.  “Your job is in front of the computer researching the records or taking notes, not critiquing Fitzgerald’s methods.  He was patterning adaptive behavior for them.”

She “hmphed” loudly.  “His pattern.  Not a wolf pattern, or a coyote one either.  Either he wanted to be a wolf, or he wanted the wolves to be him.  Check the transmission records.  He transmitted himself.  It wasn’t ethical.  And you can pretend to defend him if you want, but I didn’t see you spending any extra time with him the last couple of months.”

Roman closed his eyes and counted slowly backward from five.  The notebook relaxed: he could feel the edges uncrinkling beneath his fingers.  “Six months is a long stay on an island.  Maybe we all are a little twisted.”

“And that’s another thing: Fitz’s ‘geo-psionic’ isolation.  Nobody bought that theory in academia.  They laughed at him at the university.  In the meantime, I haven’t had a date since November.  Wolves only go into heat once a year, but they’re getting laid more often than I am.  This might as well be a monastery.”

Wind pushed Sharon’s light hair around her face and into her eyes.  A poster of canis lupus on the wall fluttered.  Behind her, the sun sharply outlined the wind-warped yews bending away from the Pacific, their gnarled limbs stretching perpetually inland.

“Well, your time is almost up now,” said Roman.  “The ferry will be here this evening.”

“You know what else?  I haven’t heard the wolves since he died either.  A terrible ruckus that night, then nothing.  Not a howl, a bark or a whine.  Nothing.  It’s creeping me out.  I'll bet Fitz was right: they got tired of the limited space and tried to swim to the mainland.”  She tucked her hands into her back pockets and headed toward the Quonset hut that held her quarters and the communication/computer facilities.

Roman stepped to the door; the island spread below him.  The wind beat hardest here, and almost never stopped, but he had liked the view.  In front of him, the west-facing cliffs and their sentinel yews sheltered the island from the worst of the wind.  On the narrow gravel beach a hundred feet below, waves ground and hissed.  Roman avoided looking at the point of rock at the cliff’s edge where they’d found Fitzgerald’s abandoned equipment and the note only Roman had read.  He pressed his hand to his back pocket where he felt the slight bulge of Fitzgerald’s last words.  Now, every plant reminded him of Fitzgerald, every rock, the sweep of sand, the sound of wind over them all, and he wanted to apologize to them.  It’s my fault, he thought, and he blinked his eyes against the weight of memory.

"It can't be done," he said to himself.  "It's thirty miles to the coast, and wolves don't behave like that."

Roman watched as Sharon trudged down the trail to her hut, fifty yards away, her head tucked to her shoulder to resist the wind.  Beyond the hut, the research center rose out of a stand of dwarf Oregon Pine.  It housed the lab and the tunnel exits from the research compound into the wolf reserve.  Like the other two buildings on the island, its sides were deeply rust-streaked.  On storm days, salt spray lashed over the cliffs and dampened everything, corroding the two ATV’s so badly that now the researchers walked everywhere.  Fortunately, Roman thought, the northeast corner of the island, at the extreme end of the reserve, was only a half-dozen miles away. 

Roman scanned the island.  Salt-grass meadows and stands of cedar, yew and pine threaded with trails dotted the sloping bowl of land, which held the rare wolf pack.  As far as he knew, it was the largest collection of wolves on the planet, all the rest were relegated to zoos.  Crowding had eliminated the last wilderness areas years ago.  There were no free wolves. 

On an island this size, if he had to, he could hike anywhere in an hour or two.  And he preferred it that way.  A couple of times a week he would enter the reserve through one of the tunnels and wander, glorying in the space, the solitude.  No buildings.  No roads.  No clatter of machinery.  He’d sit in one of the meadows, a twisted pine to his back and watch the wind rush over the salt grass unencumbered.   

None of the wolves were visible, and they hadn’t been for over a week.  Still, there were only sixteen of them and he rarely saw them from here.  They lay in shelters during the day, avoiding the wind, and were more active at night.  He dismissed the idea that they had jumped into the ocean.  Even if they could smell the mainland, they'd drown long before they got there.  No, they were still on the island.

In the distance, skimming the white-topped waves, a hovercraft oil tanker thundered southward toward San Francisco or Los Angeles.  Sometimes at night the lights of returning fishing boats blinked in the mouth of Desperation Bay where the Columbia emptied into the Pacific. The packed lights of the heavily populated coast were too far away to see but brightened the horizon when the fog wasn’t heavy.

Roman put on a jacket and trotted to the research center.  The April wind was bitter and damp, smelling of the deep ocean and winter storms.  It cut through his clothes.  He didn’t understand how Sharon could walk around wearing a flannel shirt but no coat, and Fitzgerald’s nudist tendencies had been baffling.

Roman struggled to open the research center's door, and he pictured the last time he’d seen Fitzgerald in this building.   Fitzgerald had been scribbling into his notepad, a heavy blanket wrapped around his thin shoulders.  He hadn't turned around when the wind snapped the door out of Roman's hand, slapping it against the metal sided building.  He sat with his back rigid, one hand a fist on his thigh, the other tight around his pen.  Every line of his posture said “anger” to Roman, and the anger was at him.

"Coyotes," said Fitzgerald, still writing, his thick, dark hair hiding his eyes, "will ambush prey.  That's one way they survive.  I have a story here from Wyoming about a coyote that lured a Labrador Retriever out of its yard by appearing to play with it.  The Lab followed the coyote to a gully that ran through the town where a pack of them tore it up."  Fitzgerald had a melodic voice, very smooth.  Roman leaned toward him to listen, then caught himself and drew back.

Roman sighed.  "Coyotes trick, but don't hunt as a pack.  That's wolf behavior."

Fitzgerald looked up.  His eyes matched the darkness of his hair, but he was squinting, and his breathing was shallow. A long smudge of dirt marked one cheek.  "In the old stories, coyotes are tricksters, while the wolf in myth is the dullard.  The wolf gets tricked.  Coyotes adapt.  Something different in their brains allowed them to change.  That's why they still thrive while the wolf has died out.  Wolves pursue prey and pull it down.  They need to comprehend the coyote way.  The coyote even moved into suburban environments.  I have stories here of coyotes in playgrounds, parks and alleys.  The key is to look at the coyote.  We learn from the coyote to make a trickster wolf."

Fitzgerald put his bare feet up on the chair by his desk.  He turned on his hip to face Roman.  His right knee came up; his left dropped.  Right hand on the desk.  Left one on his thigh; the notebook balanced in his lap.  The body language was suddenly open, inviting, non threatening.  A sarcastic invitation.  Insincere body language.  Roman grimaced and resisted the urge to cross his arms on his chest.

“The wolf is not a wolf if you turn it into a coyote.  I still say the answer is in controlled breeding programs in the zoos.  That’s the only way wilderness animals can survive human encroachment.”

Fitzgerald had stared at him a long time after that, his high cheek bones red from the wind, but the rest of his face was pale almost to transparency.  Roman knew that Fitzgerald slept during the day, going out at night when the wolves were most active.

Finally Fitzgerald said, “They’re not wolves if you control them either.”

Roman pulled the door shut against the wind, shaking the memory of Fitzgerald out of his head; his ears popped as the door closed.  He sat in Fitzgerald’s chair and opened the top notebook in a pile of notebooks that reached from the floor to the top of the desk.  Inside, filling the page from one side to the other without a margin, was Fitzgerald’s crabbed, dense handwriting.  Most of it philosophical.  Fitzgerald mixed his research and theories with musings about the wolves’ role in the environment.  Several pages in, Roman found a section on wolf mythology.  Each story ended with an aphorism.  One story told of a wolf who, while passing by a cottage in the forest, overheard an angry mother scolding her baby, “If you cry once more, I’ll throw you to the wolf.”  The wolf, figuring such a small child would surely cry again, waited under the window, tongue out and tail wagging.  Though the child cried many times over the days while the wolf grew hungrier and hungrier, the mother never tossed the child to the wolf.  The aphorism after this story was, “Enemies’ promises were made to be broken.”  Fitzgerald had underlined this several times.

Roman read the pages carefully.  The clues to Fitzgerald’s progress, and maybe an explanation of the wolves’ current whereabouts might be buried in the notebooks, but this book was filled with minutia, and of little help.  Most of the middle looked like a rough draft of an explanation of his work.  Several paragraphs attempted to illustrate how memories and behaviors form, and the multiple techniques he was using to induce behavioral changes in wolves.  Roman frowned, it looked as if Fitzgerald used his own brain configuration as a pattern.  Sharon was right.  For months he’d been using the radio-telepathy equipment to broadcast his own problem solving abilities into the wolves.  He was supposed to be using the coyote recordings.

The last few pages contained an elegiac description of the wolf in the wild.  Fitzgerald had been fascinated by wolf stamina.  He'd written, "No other animal can sustain as steady an effort as a wolf.  They have been known to trot without rest for days.  If they have a goal, no distance will defeat them." 

After a half hour, Roman put the notebook down and opened the next.  He stared at the first page, perplexed.  Then the door rattled, and Sharon entered, holding the door firmly against the wind.  Roman’s ears popped again.

Sharon threw her hip into the door to latch it.  “There’s nothing in the computers, just his stuff on biochemical strategies to convert transient signals into lasting changes in the neurons.  And there’s the DNA work.  Most of his graphs are a couple of months old.  Just when he looks as if he was getting somewhere with it, he quit entering data.  Oh, yeah.  He’s got about a third of the computer tied up in ongoing analysis of the hippocampus CAT scans we took on the alpha couple five weeks ago.  I’m locked out.  Do you know his password?”  She pushed hair out of her eyes.  It was a coquettish gesture

Annoyed, Roman put his finger into the notebook to mark the page.  She always seemed to be flirting, and he bit back the impulse to say something.  “I don’t think what we want is in the computers.  He didn’t like them.  You could be more useful if you hiked north and found out where the wolves have gone to ground.  I’ve only got a week before the funding’s done, and they’ll split the pack between Ottawa and Anchorage in the spring.  If I’m going to salvage any of his work, I need some answers.”

“Thank you very little.  I’ll stay behind the fences.  As I came up, I saw the deer you released last week.  The wolves aren’t eating.  I’ll try the binoculars again.”

“Wear a coat.”

“Did you check the transmission records?”

Roman shook his head, leaned across the desk and punched up the records on a display.  They listed time of initiation, length of transmission, band widths and content. The display confirmed Fitzgerald’s notebooks.  For the last weeks he had abandoned the coyote recordings, and instead had hooked himself into the powerful radio-telepathy array to broadcast himself at the pack.  Hour after hour of it.  Roman tasted bile on his tongue.  What behaviors had he sent?  What inadvertent parts of his personality went with it?  What emotions?  He turned the display off, the switch a noisy click in the small room.

Sharon paused at the door.  The wind murmured around the opening, pushing her hair back into her face.  Roman caught a whiff of salt water.  The weather prediction was for a storm, and evidently it was beating the waves into spray on the rocky western side of the island.  “You were such friends.  What happened at the end?  He really hated you.  I could see it.”

Roman shrugged.

Sharon looked at him compassionately.  “Come off the island.  The wolves don’t need you here.  They’ll be rounded up in a month whether you’re supervising or not.  It wasn’t your fault.  You couldn’t have known.”

Roman looked away.  I’m being evasive, he thought.  I’m lying with my eyes.  “I have work to do yet.”

After she shoved the door tight, Roman opened the notebook.  Instead of more of Fitzgerald’s brain-numbing handwriting, the first page had just two words written on the upper left corner, like the salutation of a letter, “Dear Roman.”  No comma, no other text, just “Dear Roman” and the rest blank.  Page after page the same, until the last page, where under the two words was another of the myths, but this one wasn’t about wolves.  It told about a scorpion that wanted to cross a river and asked a frog to give him a ride.  The frog said, “I can’t let you on my back.  If I do, you will sting me, and I will die.”  The scorpion said, “If I sting you, then you will drown and so will I.”  The frog thought about that for a minute, then agreed to give the scorpion a lift.  Half way across the river, the scorpion stung the frog, and as the paralysis started to reach the frog’s limbs, he said, “Why did you do that?  You’ve killed us both.”  The scorpion shrugged and said, “It’s my nature.”

The story was signed, “Yours in nature, Fitzgerald.”

Sadly Roman recalled coming to the island six months ago.  He and Fitzgerald had spent hours sitting in this room discussing their work, and Fitzgerald often talked of “nature.”  One evening he said, “It is the wolf’s nature to mark its territory.  It is man’s nature to push back the wilderness, to wipe out the marks.”

Roman had paused in his note taking, his pen poised above the page and said, “But man can control his ‘nature.’  He’s not hardwired to behaviors.  There’s no instinctive component in man.”

Fitzgerald tilted his head after that statement, a very wolf-like posture that meant the same thing in the animal: puzzlement.  The sides of the Quonset hut shook with the wind that now Roman was used to, but then he had glanced around as if he expected the metal walls to crumple at any moment.  Fitzgerald wrapped both hands around his coffee cup, brought it to his lips but didn’t drink.  “That’s an odd thing for a behavioralist to say.  What do you think of Sharon?”

“What do you mean?”  They hadn’t been on the island long, and Roman had found much about Fitzgerald to admire: his ease with himself, the liquid transitions from thought to thought, and his genius for connecting them.  “Umm . . . Sharon.  Well, she’s competent enough.  She might get a little lonely out here.  It’s a long haul for a grad student in the field.”

“You don’t think she’s good looking?” asked Fitzgerald.  He put his cup down, ran his fingers through his hair, and then cleared his throat.

Roman automatically cataloged the gestures--all indicated nervousness.  “I hadn’t noticed.  I suppose she is.”

Fitzgerald grinned.  “She showers with her drapes open.  Her window faces your hut.  Notice that?”

“No, I haven’t.  It wouldn’t be appropriate.  She’s a grad student for crying out loud.”  Roman clicked his pen several times in a row, noticed the action and quelled it.  Playing with objects was also a sign of nervousness.

Fitzgerald leaned back in his chair and steepled his hands on his chest.  “You make it sound like she’s a child.  You’re not ten years older than she is.  Maybe it’s not your nature to notice.”

Roman laughed.  “Maybe not.  Maybe not.  But it keeps me professional too.”

Fitzgerald shook his head, then moved into a lengthy explanation of the combined techniques he was using to change the wolves’ behavior.  “If we nudge their learning curve just a bit, we can establish stable populations outside of the zoos.”

“You’re quixotic.  They range too widely.  Too much of their diet is big game, and they won’t stick to park lands and green belts.  Even if people will leave them alone–there’s no guarantee of that–they won’t flourish on limited range.”

“But they have to.  That’s all there is to it.  They have to!”  Fitzgerald’s face darkened in abrupt vehemence, and he looked down to his hands resting in his lap.  “Wolves are part of what’s best about being human.”

Abashed, Roman didn’t know how to respond.  They hadn’t known each other long, and the mercurial switch in moods startled him.  Finally, he reached out and touched Fitzgerald’s wrist.  “It’s all right.  I’ll help . . . do what I can.”

Fitzgerald screwed up his face tightly for a second as some complicated emotion wrestled behind it, but then he relaxed and smiled wanly.  “Promise?”

Roman nodded.

Later, after Fitzgerald cheered up, he said, “Do you want to see the animals in the wild, I mean, really see them?”

They walked through the long access tunnel that emptied onto a screened observation platform hundreds of yards into the reservation.  Fitzgerald held a finger to his lips as they neared the exit, and they crept the last few yards until they were in the open.

Here, the island screened much of the wind, and the rustle of pine filled the night gently, like a steady background of rain in the distance.  An almost full moon behind hazy clouds cast a delicate light on the hills around them, the sand glowed albino bright between clumps of salt-grass.  Roman started to speak, but Fitzgerald pressed a hand to Roman’s shoulder and shook his head.  “They’re just upwind,” he mouthed without sound.

They were only twenty yards away.  Dark movement against the sand.  It took a moment for Roman to pick out the details in the soft light, the long legs, lean chests, ears up, alert and relaxed.  Posture revealed all.  He identified the dominant alpha as it stalked through the pack: larger, a lighter grey than the rest with an almost black chest.  Lesser males dropped their heads, turned away slightly, tails down, ears dropped.  A whole grammar of rank and position in their stance.  Roman held his breath.  It was his first time this close to wolves outside of a zoo.  All of his studies had been on wolves in captivity, on the other side of the glass.  Here, nothing separated them but a thin camouflage netting and a couple of good bounds through the night air.

Suddenly, they all looked toward the platform, their eyes picking up the filmy glint of moon.  Roman froze.  Fitzgerald’s hand tightened on his shoulder.  The tableau remained still for long, long seconds until the alpha trotted to the top of the hill and the rest followed him.  The others flowed out of sight, but the big wolf, silhouetted against the horizon’s clouds gazed back at the netting as if examining the men inside, and, after the evaluation, dismissing them.  He followed the pack.

“I’m going with them,” whispered Fitzgerald.  He rolled onto his back, stripped off his shirt, unbuckled his pants and removed them and his shoes before Roman could say anything.  To Roman’s astonished look he said, “You haven’t done a thing until you’ve run naked with the wolves.”

He raised the bottom of the netting, slipped out and loped up the hill.  Roman rose from his crouch until his head brushed the top of the blind.  The hazy clouds broke, and the moon light brightened Fitzgerald’s path.  For a moment, he paused at the hill’s top looking back, a disturbing vision of white marble poised on the brink.  Roman caught himself fingering the top button of his coat.

Later, and for many nights after, Roman dreamed of Fitzgerald standing on the edge of the unknown, half twisted around, beckoning.  Sometimes, in the dreams, Roman joined him on the hill, and he’d wake up panting, scared so deeply that once he wept.   He didn’t accompany Fitzgerald on a night trip to the reservation again although he was often invited.

Roman stowed a sandwich, a bottle of water and binoculars in a day-pack.  He considered leaving a note for Sharon, but decided that would be melodramatic.  Besides, he thought, with the ferry coming soon, she’d probably never see it.

In the tunnel, green light panels every thirty feet cut the long walk into moments of sickly, pale illumination that turned his skin to weak lime, interspaced by green instances of near total darkness.  It was like walking through the endless interior of a many segmented worm.

At the exit, he passed by the case with the tranquilizer guns without taking one.

But the top of every low hill revealed nothing.  He swept the landscape through the binoculars, peeking under the trees, studying each rounded back of rock for sign of the missing animals.  He found fresh scat and broke it open with the toe of his boot.  It was filled with grass.  He thought, are they ill?  After an hour of criss-crossing the south end of the island and visiting an abandoned den, he hiked to the eastern beach and headed north.  Rough gravel crunched on each step.  He was below the hills now, and couldn’t see farther inland than the sandy crests only a few feet away, but he figured that here, at least, nothing would smell him, and he could poke his head above the dunes every once in a while to scout the land.                                             

The night they learned the grant would not be renewed, and at the end of the current study period the wolves would be returned to their zoos, they met in the communications hut, where Sharon broke out two bottles of scotch from her bags and proposed a party.  After they were all a couple of drinks down, she said, “Damned Philistines think original research is an oxymoron,” then she turned up the music and twirled into the middle of the room to dance by herself.  Her blonde hair swirled around her face like a nimbus.  She danced with her eyes closed, not really moving to the music, but to some unshared rhythm of her own.

Roman took a long pull out of the bottle, and the heat flowed from mouth to gut in an unbroken line.  He was deep into a melancholy, and he pictured the end of the wolves.  For decades now their numbers had declined.  There were probably too few of them left for a viable genetic pool.  The bottle felt cool against his chest; he hugged it close.  He pictured the wolves as he’d seen them that night with Fitzgerald, and the dozens of trips that he’d made on his own, and he saw them as a symbol.  Wolves were primordial in man’s imagination, he thought.  They had stalked cottages deep in primitive European woods, long before the great cities arose and every square mile was tilled and touched and owned.  How families must have trembled when the wind rose and the wolves howled.  Nothing between them and the savagery of the forest but their prayers and their homes’ thin walls.  The fairy tale of the wolf at the door, huffing and puffing and blowing houses down had meaning.  Little Red Riding Hood had reason to be frightened, and in real life, no hunter could bring the little girl and her grandmother back alive from the stomach of the beast.  There must have been a time, he thought, there must have been a time when it looked as if the forest might win.  The wolves would take back what was theirs, and the broken down walls would melt back into the forest floor.

Sharon turned slowly round and round in the middle of the floor.  Music filled the hut, and Fitzgerald threw a towel over the desk lamp that gave the only light in the room so that Sharon spun wraith like in the shadows.  After a while, Fitzgerald rose, and they both danced in the darkness of the communications hut.

Drunk, Roman only half watched their body language until he realized that he was seeing all the signals of a mating ritual.  Sharon moved slowly, hands open and head back, her throat exposed, and she rolled her head around, kept her heavy lidded eyes half open as she swayed to the music.  Her tongue touched her lip, and every turn his way she slowed, holding his eyes for a second before moving away again, every lean a tease and retreat.  Her dance said, come and get me, I’m running until you catch me.  She was dancing to Roman.

Scotch thrummed like a bass chord in his throat and forehead, and he wished he could write it all down.  Of all his time studying gesture, posture and behavior, he’d never felt as if he understood it so well.  Sharon might as well be talking to him.  He could see it in the tension in her arms, the curl of her fingers, the bend of her knees.  She was asking him to dance, in all its metaphorical ways, and he found it interesting.  An academic exercise.  He felt no urge to stand or to join her, but it fascinated him like a good book, like a successful experiment.

In the concentration of the moment, Roman realized he hadn’t paid attention to Fitzgerald, so solemnly Roman shifted his gaze.  He almost giggled; his head felt heavy, and changing his point of view was a ponderous undertaking until he saw Fitzgerald dancing a few feet to Sharon’s side.  More of the light fell on him; his face was less shadowed.  He too danced as if he heard other music than the tune that poured out of the speakers.  A bottle in one hand, Fitzgerald advanced and retreated within a self-imposed box, never moving beyond it, but his dance said he recognized the boundary, and to Roman, Fitzgerald suddenly looked noble and tragic.

A part of Roman recognized his own drunkeness, but even drunk, a little part of him watched from afar, commenting on the moment, and right now the little part said that he was reading too much into what he saw.  However, Fitzgerald sliding back and forth on the floor, drinking to hold back the misery of the lost wolves touched him, and he wanted to hold the man.  All of Fitzgerald’s theories were to be taken away when the wolves left.  They’d never again get a chance like this to study the wolves.  Fitzgerald would never again get a chance to reintroduce the wolves to the rural landscapes where they might survive if he could just change their eons old behavior patterns a little bit.

Fitzgerald danced, and his eyes met Roman’s.  For a second, Roman felt a cold connection, as if he were reading Fitzgerald’s mind, but the feeling passed, and Fitzgerald was just dancing.  Roman watched Fitzgerald gathering himself in movement, speaking volumes of himself and betraying himself as he danced.

And then a little barrier snapped in Roman’s mind.  Fitzgerald’s dance was a mating one too.  His shoulders rocked back and forth on the fulcrum of Roman’s face.  His head wove side to side, always returning his gaze to Roman’s gaze.  Fitzgerald’s lips were parted, and Roman could see the glistening tips of the teeth behind them, and when he looked into Fitzgerald’s uncharacteristically shy eyes he could see that Fitzgerald knew what Roman knew.  The dance was for him.  The invitation was for him.  Roman, the dance said, will you move with me in the night?

Shaking, Roman rose; the bottle slid off his chest and shattered on the floor. He could feel the disgust forming on his face.  The message he sent wasn’t just a refusal; it was revulsion and fear.  Without thinking, he rushed to the door and out of the hut.  A hundred feet up the trail, the wind punishing his face with salt spray, and the waves growling on the beach below the cliff, Roman fell to his knees and retched.  It all surged out, all that good liquor, and as he coughed against the muscles’ iron hold on his gut, he heard a howl behind him that rent the air.  But not a wolf.  The howl came from the hut, and it was pained and sick and betrayed.

After hiking for thirty minutes, trudging up the loose sand dunes every few minutes to survey inland, Roman rested on a weathered limb of driftwood at the high-tide line.  At the water’s edge dozens of tiny crabs worried chunks of flesh off a decomposing fish.  Roman watched while sipping from the water bottle.  The ocean reflected the color of the sky, a sullen grey, and beyond the island’s shelter, the wind sheared the tops of waves into white froth.  Here, though, the breeze was just a gentle but cold push.

Finding the wolves didn’t really matter, despite what he’d said to Sharon.  The grant was dead; the research was over, and no one in ecological management really believed wolves could be introduced back into the wild.  Only Fitzgerald had believed it, and for a bit he felt he’d found an ally in Roman, a kindred spirit.  All that was left was to discover if there was some kind of change in the wolves.  Roman wasn’t worried about research now; he didn’t even think he could get a decent paper out of it, but maybe he could make retribution.  Whatever remained of Fitzgerald remained in the wolves.

He couldn’t say goodbye to Fitzgerald, but he could face the judgement of the pack.

He took Fitzgerald’s note out of his pocket.  The edges were frayed from continuous handling; he’d read it a hundred times.  It said, Dear Roman, A wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf whether it knows it or not.  The myth can be told different ways.  Maybe the wolf wore the sheep skin to fit in.  Maybe the wolf was raised by sheep and didn’t know differently.  But don’t be fooled.  Wolves are villains in so many of the stories because sheep wrote them.  A single wolf truth vanishes in the din of the flock.  But that doesn’t mean the wolf has to like it.  Yours, Fitzgerald.

Rocks skittered against each other, and Roman looked up.  Standing thirty yards away, a single wolf faced him, its ears up, its tail up, tongue lolling out lazily.  Light grey, black chest: the alpha male.  Water dripped from its head; its belly fur hung in a matted line, and water dripped steadily onto the gravel.  Roman thought, it's been swimming.  Wolves don't swim in the sea!

The wolf stood still for a minute, then lowered its head and the ears pointed forward.  Roman scrunched backward on the wood.  This was an attack posture.  Legs bent, staying low, the wolf stepped toward him stiffly.  Suddenly, it charged forward, cutting the distance in two.  Roman didn’t move.  He closed his eyes and waited for the teeth to take him.  And he waited, but nothing happened.  He opened his eyes.  The wolf had stopped, its front legs lying straight on the ground, its rump in the air, tail wagging, flipping water left and right.  It squeaked, a high-pitched cross between a bark and a whine.  Then it dashed twenty feet away from him, up the beach, stopped, looked back and charged to the same position.

“What do you want?”  Roman said.  His voice sounded empty to him and small against the hiss of waves in the gravel.

The wolf cocked  its head to the side and whined again.  It repeated the dash up the beach and back.  Roman stood.  Wind pushed against him, and he glanced up.  The sky was darkening, and to the east a shimmer of lightning flicked within the clouds.  He shivered.

This was not wolf behavior he’d seen before.  It seemed sportive, like a game of tag.  The large grey waited until Roman stepped toward him, then sprinted to the top of the dune.  He flopped onto his chest again, sending a spray of sand down the slope.  Mystified, Roman leaned into the dune’s bank, bracing himself with his hand to follow the animal up.  The wolf raced out of sight, and a second later peeked over the top again as if to see if Roman were following.

Sand slithered away beneath his feet, and it took dozens of steps to climb the few feet to the top.  A wall of dwarf pine filled the gully in front of him.  To both sides bare hills rose like shoulders from the sea.  The wolf popped out of a narrow gap in the pine, paused until Roman moved toward it, then vanished into the vegetation.  Roman got on his knees and looked through the dark arch.  He’d have to crawl.  He left his backpack on the ground.

It seemed a long way.  The strongest sense of deja vu swept over him as he pushed through the pine.  He’d been here before, following a playful wolf.  The behavior seemed familiar, but he didn’t come up with the connection until the pine opened up, and he could finally stand.  There, sitting on their haunches, watching him intently, was the rest of the pack.  He saw Fitzgerald in all their eyes, a little bit of Fitzgerald in the tilt of their heads.  Fitzgerald resided in the passion of their stares. 

Then he figured it out.  Not wolves.  Wolves wouldn’t ambush, but coyotes would.  Clever tricksters, the wolves surrounded him, and the first drops of rain spattered down.

The rain fell.  Roman turned a full circle, water running across his cheeks, dripping off his nose.  As he faced each wolf, it tucked its head down, dropped its ears back and lowered its tail.  It was deference.  When he stepped toward the big grey, it too turned slightly away, exposing its neck, showing by posture a lower rank. 

The wind sliced through Roman’s wet clothes.  He shook against the chill, but he stood in the middle of them until the sky darkened enough to tell him that night was near.  Straight across the island, the research center was no more than a couple of miles away.

What message should he take from this?  What did it mean that the wolves made him the alpha-male?  Was that the lesson that Fitzgerald sent to them through the hours of broadcasting, or was it what they picked up from him directly on those nights he mingled with them?  It seemed a kind of forgiveness, a kind of benediction of clemency.  Roman had turned away from Fitzgerald, but all was not lost.  The wolves forgave him.  Roman fell to his knees in relief, and he let the rain melt the letter until the words were unreadable.

Finally, expended and bone cold, he stepped past the first wolf and headed for the shelter of the research center.  The wolves that had been lying down stood, and the big grey trotted to a spot in between Roman and his goal.

Roman stopped.  The wolf growled deep from the back of its throat; his teeth gleamed.

“I’ve got to go, boys,” said Roman, but the wolf blocked his path, snarling when Roman tried to walk away.  Only when he moved back to the center of the pack did the grey lose interest.  Roman tried twice more to slip past them, but the reaction was the same.  The pack would tear him up if he tried to leave.  Night gradually fell; rain continued, and the wind never stopped.

Later, much later, Roman lost track of what direction he should go if he could go.  He couldn’t feel his hands anymore, and the little voice in the back of his head that stayed with him when he was drunk told him that hypothermia was setting in, but he didn’t care.  Caring took too much energy, and he wasn’t afraid either.  He was just tired.  Below him, the sand felt soft, so he laid himself on it.  He’d quit shivering long ago.

Soon a warm, wet weight pressed itself against him.  Another one warmed his other side.  He opened his eyes slowly, took a long time to focus, and saw on the crest of the hill looking down, a marble white figure like a naked god in the moonlight.  Raising his head lethargically, Roman mouthed the name, but as he studied the shape he realized it was the crescent moon.  The clouds had broken, although rain still fell, and the wind hustled over him, moaning in his ear.  Sand pressed gently against his cheek; he closed his eyes again, understanding the wolves were keeping him warm, and before he slipped into unconsciousness, he knew they loved him.  Fitzgerald and the pack loved him.  They would stay with him until it was time to jump in the ocean and start that long swim.

And they would never, never let him go.

This story originally appeared in Talebones.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."