I do not remember this. I cannot say what is true. A year after she and my father married, my mother lost her first son in childbirth and was told there would be no other. This was hard as you can imagine, and my mother told my father to go and find another wife who could bear him a child. My father loved my mother and remained. But their dead son was a shadow between them that even strangers could see.
The story she tells: One day, just as winter was turning to spring, my father was helping a neighbour repair his barn while my mother stayed at home sewing. She heard a cry from the forest behind the farmhouse and, rather than wait for him to return, she went out to see what it was. Just beyond the line of the trees, still in sight of the house, she found me lying in the fresh-fallen snow, a baby, naked and shivering and close to death. No footprints anywhere. I had white hair and pale eyes. She thought I was her first son’s ghost. She named me after him, nursed me as if she had borne me and, when no one came to claim me, she and my father made me their own.
But there were wolves in those woods, often heard but seldom seen. They howled, but did not come near. One evening my father was out back with me, near the berry bushes. He looked up and saw a pack of dark hunched figures, with glittering eyes, watching from within the trees. He bundled me up, startling me into tears, and he hurried me into the house. He had a gun, his father’s hunting rifle, but he had never killed with it, and my mother had never touched it. He took it down from the back closet shelf, stepped out the door and raised it. The dark figures and their shining eyes were already gone.
A few mornings later, my mother awoke to feel a cool breeze curling around her toes, the scent of fresh grasses filling the bedroom. She looked out into the hall to see the back door into the kitchen was open, sunlight bursting into the house. She gasped, jumped from the bed, checked my crib. I was gone. She screamed, waking my father, and pulling her clothes around herself she ran into the sunshine, blinded, shouting and crying, into the forest. She stopped just where the leaves cast their shade on the ground, she stood and she looked and she listened. And my father stopped and stood beside her, holding the rifle.
It was silent. More silent than any forest should be.
“We will need help to search,” he whispered. “We will need ten, maybe fifteen men.”
“No,” she hissed. “I will not leave. We must find him now.”
She looked to the right, where a small rise was crowned with a trio of beech trees. She moved slowly towards it while my father watched–then stopped, listened again. A high light whine, and then gentle panting. She motioned for my father to come in closer, then she carefully crept to the source of the sound. In a den on the other side of the rise, a white wolf was nestled on a pile of rags, nursing her young: Three tiny white pups, and me–the warm wolf milk smeared around my hungry mouth.
My father raised the gun–and my mother stopped him. “No,” she said. And as the word spilled from her mouth, three other wolves emerged from among the trees. He lowered the barrel, and the two of them moved backward slowly as the animals stared intently. Once out of the forest, my father turned and asked “What will we do?”
“We will wait,” my mother said. “I will wait. They will not harm him, or they would have done so.” Then she turned to my father and said, “She saw my face, and I saw hers.”
“They are animals,” he spat. “Our son, is he also an animal?”
“We are all animals,” she answered. “I will wait.”
The next evening my mother was in the kitchen making supper, talking to my father in the other room when she realized she was alone. He had slipped out the door behind her. Suddenly she heard one shot, and then another. She rushed out to see him stagger out of the woods, and fall to the ground. She screamed and ran to him–his face and neck had been mauled, he shuddered furiously, the blood coursing out of him and then slowing to a trickle. The convulsions slowed and stopped. He was dead.
A howl tore through the forest behind her. She turned and ran to the den to find a woman who was not a woman, a woman with long white hair and eight teats, shot in the shoulder, her pups bewildered and mewling around her, and around me. She saw my mother and pulled the rags over herself, which my mother saw were her blouse and skirt. My mother went to her, knelt with her, tore her own skirt to clean and dress the wound. She fed the pups warmed goat milk. She went and fetched water and food as the three wolves watched and wailed. She stayed through the night with the woman, came back with me day after day, until one day the den was empty. The wolves had moved on.
I do not remember this. I cannot say what is true. But I do know this: when my mother died many years later, I knelt beside her bed and cried, and the wolves in the woods, they cried along with me.
(from The Thimble Factory – a work in progress)
Photograph: Joanne Hughes