“There’s a wolf!” shrieks Heart, skittering in through the front door and hiding behind my legs. “A big wolf!”
I look around. The front door has been left wide open and is flapping wildly in the wind. There’s an animal stalking up the garden path. Stalking? I squint at it.
“That’s not a wolf,” I say, reaching behind me and lifting Heart up. “See?”
“But I’m frightened,” squeals Heart. “It must be a wolf.”
“It’s not a wolf.”
I tuck Heart down behind the sofa and go to close the door. It’s not a wolf, or even a fox, but a very big rat. I don’t tell Heart. We stay up all night listening to it scratching at the door. “I survived a wolf!” Heart tells me proudly as the sun comes up.
“It was just a rat, Heart,” I say gently. “Just a big rat.”
Heart says nothing. I sigh. Heart sees wolves everywhere.
“Wolf!” yells Heart from the garden. I roll my eyes indulgently.
“It’s not a wolf!” I shout back. I’ve grown used to this.
“Wolf!!” shouts Heart insistently. I lift my head from the washing up and stare. There is a wolf on the lawn, mangy and old. Heart is up a tree pointing. I lean backwards and reach for my rifle. I know my duty. I must protect Heart. I level the barrel on the window sill.
“Don’t!” shouts Heart. “It’s old! Don’t kill it! I’m safe!” I lower the rifle and squint at the wolf. It has its nose on its paws and its eyes closed.
“Okay…” I say, slowly. I unlatch the kitchen door. Heart tears down from the tree and stands beside me shivering. We approach the wolf together. I don’t understand why it’s not moving. Heart is hopping up and down. The wolf doesn’t even look up as we draw close.
“There’s something funny about this wolf, Heart,” I say. Its fur is matted and its eyes are dead. I ease the safety catch off the rifle. Heart darts out from behind me for a closer look. There’s a flash of green from the wolf’s mouth and Heart screams. Then I scream. It’s just a wolf skin lying in the grass, flat and empty. The snake that was hiding inside is sliding off through the grass to its next victim. Instinctively I fire, missing my target by miles. The shot rings in my ears for weeks after. I kneel down next to Heart.
“Are you hurt?”
“I’m bitten. I don’t understand. It wasn’t a wolf, was it?”
Heart was poisoned. We stay indoors for a long time after that. I make up soups and stories over winter, a long winter, hard and cold. Heart dreams of wolves. I dream of snakes in the grass.
“Wolf?” asks Heart, half afraid.
“I don’t know. I found it in some bushes.” I stroke the ball of fur in my hand. “Shall we keep it and see?”
Heart nods, slowly. It’s not a wolf but that doesn’t matter. Heart is getting better. I watch them in the garden playing out Hearts favourite stories. The Wolf and The Nanny Goat. The Wolf and The Fox. The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids. Heart is happy. I am happy.
I am happy.
And then the wolf comes.
I see him slinking through the trees at the back of the garden, a streak of grey amongst the green. I put it down to tiredness; to failing eyes; to an overactive imagination. One night I wake up with a gasp. I can hear the wolf howling at the moon. I put my pillow over my head. I am too old for wolves. I pray that Heart is still sleeping.
Months pass. I’m in the middle of “The Wolf and The Man” when Heart says –
“I saw a wolf.”
I stop reading. What can I say?
“What are we going to do?”
I look up.
“What do you want to do?”
There’s a pause, and then Heart says very slowly and quietly –
“I would like to see a real wolf before I die.”
I close the book. Then I close my eyes.
“So would I, Heart,” I whisper, “so would I.”
The next day when I go for my rifle it isn’t there. The house is empty. I rush into the garden in a panic. From somewhere far off there is a shot, and then I see Heart walking back over the field to the gate. Alone. We don’t say anything to each other over breakfast. We are both too sad.
We spend the rest of the morning preparing.
“Now remember, Heart,” I say as I strap on my sturdiest boots. “Don’t be disappointed. We have been wrong about wolves before.”
“I know,” says Heart, checking over the rest of the kit. I shoulder the rifle. We head into the woods.
It’s dark and quiet. We don’t talk much. Twice we almost mistake mossy boulders for our quarry. The woods are deep and confusing. We stop for a rest. I prop the rifle against a tree and start unwrapping the cellophane on our sandwiches. Heart eats three. I eat one. I feel enormously tired. We don’t speak for a long time, but we make no move to leave either. Eventually Heart says: “Shall we go home?”
I get up, moving away from Heart. Moving away from the gun. I’m about to say we should go home, that we were wrong, that there is no wolf after all when there’s a sudden confusion of fur and teeth and growling.
A wolf has Heart pinned to the ground and is biting and snarling between me and the gun.
“Shit,” says Heart, bleeding out on to the ground. “Shit. That’s a real wolf.”
“Shit,” I say.
It is a real wolf.
(c) Em Fleming