Carol Holland March
The most beguiling moment in the hunt is the first moment of the encounter. Wolves and prey may remain absolutely still while staring at each other. I think what transpires in those moments is an exchange of information between predator and prey that either triggers a chase or defuses the hunt right there. I call this exchange the conversation of death…
Barry Lopez, “On Wolves and Men”
Terry was cleaning out the detritus of a lifetime from the narrow closets and metal cabinets of her mother’s house, when she heard a howl coming from the front yard. She went outside and, from the porch, threw a bag of trash on top of the mound of black plastic bags piled by the fence. She wiped the sweat out of her eyes and looked out at the empty landscape bisected by a single two-lane highway. Shades of brown. A few spots of yellow Chamisa amidst the washed-out creosote and mesquite. No houses for a mile. Mountains in the distance. Early September, but still hot.
She saw the animal when it rose from a sitting position onto four thin legs that ended in huge white paws. It looked straight at her. She took in the wide pale chest, the cinnamon-colored ruff, the eyes outlined in kohl. The animal raised its head and slowly wagged its thick brush of tail. She stepped back into the house and slammed shut the screen door.
Damn. It was huge. Wild. Ever since she had arrived in Las Cruces, she had shivered at the sounds of distant coyotes screeching to each other at sundown. Her mother had smiled at her fear, even at the end when she could barely talk. What did a coyote look like? Terry pushed her nose against the screen and peered out.
The animal sat on its haunches. Cocked its head to the right.
The word floated into her mind, startlingly clear as it plunked into place, the sound reverberating like the dry whisper of wind in a desert canyon.
She shook her head. Now she was hearing things. She put her hand on the front door, painted bright green in a happier time, intending to slam it shut and call for help, but the sound of a car coming down the long gravel driveway from the highway startled the animal. It disappeared like a streak of reddish smoke.The squared-off two-tone blue pickup stopped by the gate.
Terry stepped onto the porch. “Hi, Karl,” she called. “I might have a load.”
Karl emerged from the cab and touched his Stetson. He inspected the bags. “Not quite,” he decided. “Are you going to keep that old washer in the garage?”
“It doesn’t work.”
“I could drop it off at the Goodwill. Take the rest to the dump. If you think you’re done.”
“This is the last of it. I took Mom’s clothes to the thrift store.”
Karl grabbed a bag in each hand and threw them into the truck. “Gonna miss your Ma. She was a nice lady. But after your Dad passed, she sat on that porch just waitin’ for the call.”
Terry grabbed a plastic bag and handed it over. “I know. I wanted her to come live with me, but she loved this place. Said she found her real home in the desert.”
“Well, it’s an easy place if you settle into it.”
Karl finished loading the bags and nodded to her. “If you open the garage, I’ll just throw that washer in and get out of your hair.”
“You’ve been a big help, these last weeks. I appreciate it.”
“That’s what neighbors do.”
“You live ten miles away.”
There was so much distance between things here that people thought of space differently than city people did. At home neighbors lived in the same building. She had always lived in cities—first in Minneapolis, later Berkeley for college, then San Francisco. She had never liked this desolate land where her parents had retired and where her mother had lived alone for the last five years. The billboards proclaimed it the Land of Enchantment, but to her it was the land of sagebrush and sand. Rattlers. Gila monsters. Dinosaur bones. So much open space it made her want to floor the accelerator of her car as she drove through it. Her mother had wanted her to relocate. Told her every time she visited about the poets and writers who lived in the area.
“Mom, I live in San Francisco,” she had said last year before Esther got sick. “I work in publishing. I copyedit books. My poems get published. There is no better place for a writer.”
The smile her mother gave her made her wish she could have taken back her exasperated words. But now here she was, living in the little house for the last two months of Esther’s illness and another month of getting the house ready to be rented. And the desert did not seem as barren as it once had.
She opened the garage door. Karl pulled a hand truck out of his pickup and wrestled the old appliance into the bed.
“You’ll be looking for a tenant, Miss Terry?” Karl asked after he had climbed back into the cab.
She pushed her Giants cap high on her forehead. “If you hear of anybody, give them my number, okay?”
“Bet you could live here a lot cheaper than you do in the city,” Karl said.
She laughed. “No kidding.”
Esther had said the same thing not long before she died. There’s worse places to be, and there’s more here than you can see, darling. She looked around her bedroom and nodded as if she were speaking to a room full of people.
“Thanks again, Karl.”
“I’ll be in touch.” The truck kicked up so much gravel as he left that it disappeared into a dust devil.
Terry stood in the dried-up yard as the dust settled around her and wondered what she would do after she finished with the house. She had lost her job a month before her mother got so sick she needed help. Orlando had decided he needed more space and moved to New York to prove himself as an artist. She hadn’t heard from him once. Her roommate had taken over the apartment, but there was no telling how long that would last. The dark cold space that threatened to expand from the center of her chest whenever she was alone lapped against the inside of her ribs. And here she was in the middle of nowhere. She sat on the porch steps and looked out over the emptiness. She had nothing else to do so she sat there until the coyotes started howling and the sun went down and the moon rose over the distant mountains, big and yellow and bright enough to fade out the millions of stars she knew were there.
Terry climbed down the ladder and stepped into the center of the room to inspect her handiwork. The sand-colored paint worked well in the living room. When she cleaned up the mess and put back the furniture, minus the two ugly recliners that were tagged to be sold, the room would look pretty good.
Good enough to live in.
The voice was so clear, she turned to answer, thinking someone had seen the For Rent sign she had put on the fence and come to the door. Instead she faced the cinnamon-colored wolf that had been in the yard the week before. It stood in the hallway that led to the bedrooms, ears forward, mouth slightly open, as if it were smiling.
She lifted her right hand and pointed her paint brush at the animal. “Get out of here,” she said loudly.
She fished in her pocket with her left hand for her phone.
The animal sat down and wagged its thick tail against the floor.
“How did you get in here, dog?”
“Fine. Wolf. Whatever. What do you want? And why am I talking to you?”
The animal stared into her eyes.
She waved her paintbrush again. “You need to get out of here, boy. Or I’m going to call animal control.”
The wolf’s ears disappeared into its ruff. It stopped smiling. I do not wish to stay here. And, I am female. The wolf turned and stalked down the hall.
Terry waited until it had disappeared into the smallest bedroom, the one Esther had used for a sewing room. She dropped the paintbrush and picked up a broom. The door to the room was ajar. Very slowly, she used the broom to push open the door. She expected to see that she had left one of the windows open, but both were closed. The room was empty. No sign of the dog. Wolf. She checked the closet. Still empty.
She must be losing it. There were no animals in the house. Better have some lunch and finish up the painting in the kitchen.
Terry hiked into the canyon and followed a rivulet of a stream up from the desert floor through stands of Pinon pine and squat juniper, past towering granite boulders and through a narrow sandstone slot until she came to the little waterfall Karl had told her about. There’s nothing like this at home, she thought as she stripped off her shirt and stood under the trickle of water flowing down from the top of Pacheco Peak.
Drying off in the sun, she listened to the sounds of the desert. Funny how she used to think it was quiet. But if you listened, you could hear the plaintive calls of prairie dogs, birds quarreling in the junipers, the tiny sounds of lizards scrambling over indentations in the sand and looking much like the huge lizards that had once roamed this land when it was the shore of a vast shallow sea. She looked out over the plain below stretching to the horizon. Suddenly it struck her. She was on the bottom of what had once been an ocean.
She twisted around and saw the cinnamon wolf sitting on the trail near the waterfall. Her heart pounded. “What are you doing? How can you be here?”
The wolf pricked up her ears. This is my home.
She looked around for something to defend herself with, but there was not even a thick stick within her reach. She picked up a rock and pitched it at the wolf. It missed by a yard. The wolf rose and walked down the trail, tail and head high, deliberately picking her way around the rocks. She passed Terry and continued down toward the desert floor. When she came to a bend that would take her out of sight, she turned and raised her muzzle as if she were going to howl. Why do you fear to see what you have always sought? Then she was gone.
Terry picked up another rock and slammed it into the sand. Her heart was still pounding. It wasn’t possible that an imaginary wolf knew more about what she was doing than she knew herself. She thought of all the poems she had written about the mysteries of deep water, how often she had imagined walking on the bottom of the sea.
“Here it is,” she muttered to herself. “Right in front of me. Damn that wolf.”
She picked up her pack and started down the trail, hoping to catch up with it, but there was no sign of the wolf, no paw prints on the bank of the stream, and nothing howled in the distance.
No one wanted to rent the little house. Terry stayed on. She hiked the mountains and the open desert and she wrote about life on the bottom of the inland sea. She thought about Orlando and wondered for the first time if she had really loved him. She thought about things Esther had said in her last weeks, snatches of conversation that seemed to belie her view of her mother as placid, conventional, accepting of whatever came her way.
I had to fight your father to leave Minneapolis, but it was worth it.
If you spend all your time in cities, you can miss the sound of your own voice.
Out here, even the air speaks.
At the time, she had thought her mother’s mind was wandering, but now, as the desert seeped into her, she wondered if she had known her at all.
On the last day of September, she set out to explore Rockbound State Park, where you could pick up and carry away any minerals you could find. As she traveled through flat bare desert on a county road that paralleled Interstate 10, she saw a shadow on her left side. It gained on her until it was opposite the car door. She slowed to glance at it and almost screamed, for it was the cinnamon wolf, loping along beside the car as if she were out for a romp. She pulled onto the shoulder and stopped. She gripped the steering wheel with both hands to stop them from shaking. The wolf stopped a little ahead of her and sat, head cocked, sides heaving.
“Why are you following me?” she called out the window.
Come with me.
“I have other plans and anyway, you’re not real.”
As real as you.
Terry rolled up her window and floored the accelerator. When she came to a sign for Deming, she followed it and drove into the town where she stopped at the first restaurant she found. The faded plastic flowers on the brown laminate tables looked more real than she felt. She glanced out the window. No wolf. A tired waitress brought her tacos and coffee and after she had eaten, she decided that living in the desert was affecting her mind.
In the car, she pulled out her map. She had passed the turnoff for the state park. But there was probably some good hiking up ahead. She spotted an area called “Grandmother Mountain” west of Deming and to the north. She decided that’s where she was going.
The mountain range rose in the distance from the dry desert basin, stark and lifeless, with no apparent vegetation to mar the jagged lines of rocks that looked like they had been on guard since the earth’s crust had cooled. She left the interstate and turned onto a two-lane county road with no other cars in sight. She slowed and breathed in the desert, and for a moment she felt it breathing around her, cradling her in its palm. She had forgotten about the cinnamon wolf until she topped a rise and had to brake hard to avoid running her down. The wolf sat in the middle of the road, on the white center line. Tires squealing, the Honda swerved and stopped inches from her nose.
“What are you doing?” Terry yelled out the window. “I could have killed you.”
The wolf raised her head and smiled.
Terry turned off the ignition. Her hands shook. This is not a mind game. This is a real wolf.
“What are you doing?” she called.
“There’s nowhere to turn.”
In every direction stretched sand and creosote bushes. No sign of civilization, not even a road sign. Something clicked in her mind. She blinked and saw, under the sand, buried so long it had been lost from memory, a road stretching as far as the mountains on the northern horizon. In the afternoon sun, it shone as if it were paved with bronze.
“Where does it go?” she asked the wolf.
The word entered Terry’s mind, and floated down into her body. As the rose-colored word entered the dark place inside her, she began to cry. She cried for Orlando who hadn’t loved her, and for her mother who had lived alone for so long, and for all the times she had pulled back when she should have moved forward. The wolf came to the car, put her paws on the door, and thrust her head through the open window. She pushed her nose against Terry’s neck. It was cold and moist. Follow me.
Terry found a tissue and blew her nose.
She scratched the wolf’s silky ears. She started to say no, I don’t want to get lost, but different words came out.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
The wolf yelped once, a high, happy sound, and loped away.
The miles drifted by as if the day had shifted into slow motion. The sun fell toward the west. Everything looked the same. Dusty sage, Chamisa, an occasional creosote bush, prickly pear everywhere. The Honda rocked up and down over the packed mud as she followed the cinnamon wolf. She stopped thinking about where she was going. She stopped thinking about her mother and about why Orlando had left. There was only the path under her wheels and the wolf.
She didn’t see how deep the hole was until her left front wheel had sunk into thick sand. She wrenched hard on the steering wheel. The right tire lifted part way out, coming to rest on the side of the ditch. She scrambled out to look and saw that the left rear wheel was buried in sand while the right one spun slowly in midair.
“I’m stuck,” she yelled to the wolf.
Walk from here.
“Walk where? There’s nothing here but too much sun.”
“Come where? Farther into this desert?”
“No. I’m going back to the road.” She reached for the car door.
A sound froze her in place. A howl. One low, mournful note that escalated slowly, a crescendo that reverberated through her cells. Backing away from the car onto higher ground, she looked around. The cinnamon wolf was not howling. She stood erect, tail pointed straight out, ears forward, mouth slightly open. What was going on? Was there another wolf?
It came from the east, streaking across the sand, a fluid black shape, running with mouth open and tongue sliding over its lips, straight for her. Terry scrambled down the ditch toward the car, intending to get in and lock the door. Before she could, the black wolf veered toward the cinnamon wolf that leaped into the air, emitting low whines. The black wolf slowed to a trot, then stopped and sat, ears pricked and tongue lolling.
The cinnamon wolf approached the black wolf with her head and tail down. She crawled the last few steps so her head was under his neck. She gently bit his jaw; he reached down to nuzzle her. They tore off. The black caught and pinned the cinnamon. She squirmed away, jumped, and ran off with him in pursuit. He stopped. She raced at him and leaped. They kept up what was clearly a game of tag for more than five minutes. They stopped abruptly, and lay sprawled against each other, a few yards from the car.
An unbidden thought dropped into her mind. This is why I’m here. She laughed out loud.
The cinnamon wolf grinned at her over the black wolf’s shoulder. This is my mate.
Terry climbed out of the ditch. “Does he speak?”
Not as I do. Come. We will show you the way.
She watched them start off, in the same direction as before, with quick, backward glances at her. Her fear had evaporated. She picked up her water bottle.It was rough going, but she was wearing boots, and the wolves moved slowly. She fell into a rhythm, slow and steady over the sand. As their shadows grew longer, they picked up their pace. She tried to move faster, but soon they were out of sight. She stopped.
The howls began. The female started, she was sure, a high clear note. A lower tone from the male. The notes grew and grew, higher and deeper and clearer until the sound filled the desert. She followed the sound and came upon them sitting side by side, heads raised, open mouths pointing toward the sky.
The wolves stopped howling and trotted to her, thrusting their noses into her hands and whining softly. She sat on the sand and stroked their thick fur. They licked her face. Over their heads, she saw a flame in the distance. She thought a juniper tree must have caught fire, spontaneous combustion after the heat of the day. Watching the flame, she saw it grow larger.
“Look,” she said to the wolves. “Something is on fire.”
The cinnamon wolf whined.
The flame was coming toward them, and it was no bush on fire, but something foreign and frightening, a freewheeling flame, yards across at its base, tapering as it rose twenty feet or more. Her body wanted to run from this thing, but she was frozen. “What is it?” she whispered.
She comes to speak to you.The wolf poked her hand with a cold nose.
The flame stopped a hundred yards away. She stood, flanked by the wolves. The flame burned more red than orange. It assumed a vaguely human shape with what could be a face, long, wild hair, and beckoning arms. Terry’s body quivered as she realized this flame was a living being.
“I’m here,” she heard herself say.
The flame moved closer. One fiery hand extended. Terry stepped forward. She wanted the warmth. She took another step, feeling a tug in her chest as if she were being pulled by an invisible cord. She went slowly, feeling the crunch of sand under her boots, knowing this was why the wolf had come for her. She lifted her arms to the arms of flame. Just before they met, she wondered why her skin did not feel hot.
A voice boomed in her ears. She tried to turn, to see who was speaking, but moving was meaningless, the flames were everywhere. She saw a sphere coalescing in their center, like a window forming. It swirled indigo and wine-red with gold moving through it and around it. All the colors were contained within it, but they mixed and merged as if they were dancing, showing first one face, then another. The sphere assumed a more defined shape. It developed an edge so the colors were held inside. The colors blazed and merged into a golden purple. The sphere pulsed in a slow rhythm like the beating of a beloved heart. One by one, individual colors rose from the purple and dropped into the flame. A string of bright red fell. A triangle of forest green. A circle of blue. Shapes of every color dropped into the flames. As the shapes dropped away, the image blurred, the colors fading until only a golden circle remained.
She knew this was what would be left of her when her life was over. Or had she already died? She looked down and saw herself standing in the flames, in jeans and wrinkled white shirt. She wiggled her toes inside her hiking boots. Still solid. Her mind whirled so fast, it lost track of where it was going and fell silent. She smiled. The golden circle faded. By the time she noticed the flames dissolving, they had gone.
The sky was darkening. The mountains blazed wine-red. She expected to see the wolves trot out from behind a rock, but there was no movement and no sound except for the call of a raven flying overhead.
She turned in a circle. A small cloaked figure sat on a flat rock not thirty feet away. A long black garment dragged the ground; a shawl covered all but the eyes. A wrinkled hand emerged from the blackness, turquoise and silver rings on every finger, and clutched a stick leaning against the rock. She pulled herself up with the stick and faced Terry.
What Terry could see of her face—thin lips, sharp nose, deep-set eyes—was so deeply lined that Terry was shocked at how old she must be.
“The wolf hunt has gone well, I see.” The voice rasped with age and desert air.
The old woman waved her other hand in the air. “You survived the flame.”
Terry wanted to ask who she was but did not dare. “I’m looking for my wolf.”
“She has joined the pack for the hunt. She will return tomorrow if you call.”
“I see.” Terry’s knees trembled. She decided to sit down on the nearest rock.
“You survived the flame,” the old woman repeated. “Not all who meet her do.”
“What happens to them?”
The old woman shrugged.
“What do you mean by ‘her’?”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Terry said.
The crone opened her eyes wide. Terry saw two pools of utter blackness. She recoiled. Warmth emanated from the pools; she breathed it in; her lungs trembled. The pools of darkness turned into a midnight sky, with the light of a million stars reaching toward her. She blinked back tears. When she looked again, the crone’s eyes were wrinkled slits.
The crone nodded. “It’s not easy to make friends with a wolf, but you have done that. It’s not easy to walk out of a desert, but you can do that too.”
“I’m not so sure.” “You have believed too easily what you have been told. There is more to know. Others of your line have done it.” “I have no line. No parents. No children.”
“Women live alone on the edge of a desert for a reason,” the crone said. “It is not a lonely place for those who have survived the flame.” She lowered her hand into the folds of her dress.
“What do you know of me?”
The crone shook her head. “I know nothing. I am only passing by.”
“Wait.” Terry was sure this old woman held a key she must have. “I don’t know what to do.”
The crone shrugged. “I saw you enter the flame. I waited to see if you would come out. What you do now is your business. If you wish to return the way you came, your car is that way.” She raised her stick and pointed. She turned and pointed her stick in the other direction, toward the mountains, now bathed in silver by the rising moon. “I am going there. If you care to leave this desert, you may come with me. But if you do, it is possible you will never leave it.”
Without waiting for an answer, she hobbled away.
Terry watched her leave. She stood still and listened. The desert was alive with rustlings, sage moving in the breeze, the scurrying feet of tiny desert creatures. Birds bickered in a nearby bush. In the distance, a wolf howled.
The old woman was melting into the darkness. Terry found herself moving. Even though her legs felt like lead, she put one foot in front of the other. When she caught up with the crone, she fell in behind. Neither spoke. They walked until they came to the base of the first mountain which was marked by a small stream and two elderly cottonwood trees. They refreshed themselves with the most delicious water Terry had ever tasted, and, without speaking, they lay down under the trees to rest.
When the first rays of morning struck her face, Terry awoke to find the cinnamon wolf sitting by the stream, looking at her with that open-mouthed grin. She sat up and grinned back. She rose and shook sand from her clothing. Something was different. The wolf trotted over and thrust her nose into Terry’s hand.
Where was the old woman?
Terry looked. A hundred feet up a steep trail, the crone stood, leaning on her stick. One gnarled hand rose in greeting.
The dark weight in Terry’s chest was gone. She was free to do whatever she wanted.
“Come on,” she said to the cinnamon wolf.
They drank from the stream. Terry filled her water bottle. Together they walked up the narrow trail that led to the top of the mountain as the sun rose, casting the desert rocks and the sand and the Juniper trees in a soft golden light that seemed to go on forever.