Original illustration by Anne Le Guern

The classroom was in one of the old buildings, at the bottom of a wide marble staircase so worn I had to catch myself on the banister so I didn’t slip off the last step. The oak floors whined underfoot, and the plaster molding on the ceiling was splitting apart; a long crack ran between what looked like two nippled breasts above the little desk where I sat. Three radiators hulked inertly along the outer wall. It was summer, and the windows were open, sills laden with flakes of white paint. I had once moved to get away from windows like those. I wondered how much lead I was breathing in. I wondered how much would do it.

There were ten of us. It was an extension class. We were all over the place age-wise, but the others were boys and men, boy-men, Idaho-bred.

Our instructor wore an old wool vest over a flannel jacket. He looked out of place in the cramped room and smaller than he had in his picture in the paper, where his monthly column ran. He had the same anarchic facial hair and two vertical creases down the centers of his leathery cheeks. Instead of introducing himself, he began reading from The Snow Leopard, with the grace of an attention-averse pubescent boy, though presumably he was the one who had designed the class.

A guy decked out in camo raised his hand and said he thought this class was about catching wolves. Errol closed the book and asked if anyone else was confused about the snow leopard as a metaphor.

A metaphor for wolves? somebody said.

Errol didn’t answer.

Wear hiking shoes, he said, and scrawled the name of a trailhead in chalk. No scented deodorants. He looked at me. No perfume. His eyes passed over the patchouli kid a few seats over. No soap when you shower. He sneered, like the thought of us smelling had sent a spark into the dry forest of his brain. This course is not about catching, he said.

He could have just canceled the class. He could have changed his mind after the local government said, Fuck Obiden. Run them down with your ATVs. It’s your right. Slay the babes in their dens. Save the elk. Save America. Let’s go, Brandon, and changed the laws. I wondered what cut he took of the money we’d paid, and how badly he needed it.

* * *

I rolled down the windows of my old Vibe and drove too fast along the mountain roads.
For the record, I don’t wear perfume. About once a year I stand in a grocery store aisle and think about purchasing makeup, overwhelmed until I decide I’d only look like a clown.
At the casino, I played blackjack for hours, lost everything, and got beautifully wasted.

* * *

Waking up — deep in the unnatural dimness of an afternoon, when I should have been alone — was less perfect. At some point, I’d given one of them a key. Karen thwacked blankets and laid them flat. Erin cracked windows. Emilia poked me with a fork; she never let anyone, even me, ruin her fun.

We miss you.

We want you back.


Everyone was relentlessly on message, for which I blamed Karen.

Karen — our perpetual, unelected mother — was hardest to put at ease. Even when I’d just been running, she thought I was doing it for the wrong reasons, and doing it too much.
It was Karen, married to a bastion of stability, who had supplied the deposit for the wolf class. Emilia was the one who forged my name at the registrar. They let Erin, who was ex-Mormon and whom you couldn’t be mean to without hating yourself, tell me that I was going to better myself through continuing education, that I’d be letting them all down if I didn’t show up, and that they wouldn’t be friends with me anymore because they were exhausted and had to think about themselves now too.

You love dogs, Erin said, trying to soften the blow.

Wolves aren’t dogs, I said.

They’re like dogs. They’re doggier than dogs.

Erin had latched on to the fact that I’d worked as a dog groomer at a Petco for a few months after we finished college. Which had been some time ago. She wasn’t wrong, though — and the meaner the dog, the more affection I have for it. I left that job without bitterness after getting eight stiches in my hand. Wet hairs kept finding their way beneath the threads, and the wound wouldn’t heal. I got a job transcribing the memoir of a veteran who’d lost his sight to diabetes; we’d gotten about fifty pages in when I stopped hearing from him. I checked the obituaries for a while, then wondered if he just didn’t like me. I’d asked him a lot of questions, like if he thought he might have lost his sight on purpose, if he’d placed himself in a kind of living purgatory or isolation booth.

It was notable that Karen was back. She’d given me a puppy several months before, a mongrel with a brown patch over one eye and a black one over the other, and soft, pointed, droopy ears, and tiny teeth I let him work over my fingers. I kept him for one night, then drove him back to the shelter. For weeks I avoided Karen, allowing her to believe she’d reordered my life. When she found out what I’d done, it was too late for me to be helped, and she didn’t know what to do anymore. That tiny thing, giving me all its love for nothing. You’re allowed to feel that way, I said. But it wasn’t enough, and she was gone, and my pain had planted a selfishness that coiled through me like a vine.

Karen had two children, twins, one of them beautiful, both of them alive. They gave her endless trouble that she couldn’t complain about in front of me.

All the blankets were thwacked. Every pillow was back on the couch. The fresh air was doing its best, and I was sitting up with a glass of tepid water between my knees. Karen said, now, what she’d been waiting to say: the instructor was going through a divorce.

He must be a hundred, I said. I’d been vaguely aware of his column, which had run in the Saturday Outdoors section of The Mountain Ledger for as long as I could remember. I’d come to this lazy town for college and never left, which was mostly true of my three lovely friends as well, though of course it’s not that simple.

Advil? I said. Please?

Sixty-one, Karen admitted. But I honestly can’t imagine you with anyone younger.

Am I looking?

I bet he’s learned a thing or two, said Erin, looking titillated. She had only ever slept with one man, her husband, another ex-Mormon. I knew she was trying to conceive, not that she would tell me this, and I sometimes felt like one of us should make sure she was doing it right. She probably harbored some belief that I hadn’t done it right. Emilia’s take on the issue was that she’d seen two elks humping once and maybe I’d get to see something like that, something earth-shattering and divine.

Maybe, I conceded.

* * *

We met at the designated trailhead on a Saturday morning, at the base of one of the mountains. It was, by anyone’s standards, a glorious day. I had on my pounded-down Sauconys. Not everyone from the first class was there. Errol seemed more at ease. We were all, maybe, appropriately pathetic. The boy-men compared their gear. We hiked in — scrambling over an initial mound of boulders and then along a switchback that took us in and out of the thickness of trees, that narrowed and widened — and Errol told us the things to look out for, to smell for, to listen for. He told us to follow the ravens. He quickly tired of us pointing out crows.

We stopped at a tree that had been scratched to hell — great big vertical gouges all around it. I stole another look at Errol’s cheeks. He told us a whole pack had probably chased a bear up there. I was glad to not be hiking for a moment. My lungs were not in tip-top shape.

I ran my fingers through one of the grooves. The bark had smoothed over; it had been years since a wolf had done this. Still, I pulled back, sensing I was being watched. Surely he knew this tree was here and that it would give us a feeling of having been close to something. Cheap trick.

* * *

Each class was more of the same: the hiking around, the gasping for breath, the looking for scat and chew marks. The only change was the growing disappointment of my co-enrollees. We were not finding any wolves. And then it was over. Errol had not made it seem like he was really trying; we were more like a group of supervised walkers. I wondered what he had ever meant to really teach us.

Come with me next weekend, he said to me.

* * *

They knew me at the bar in town and always let me drink enough before I walked home. It had rained some, and the porch lights had halos; when you lined yourself up right, they became perfect circles. They probably contained everything you might ever need to know. From down the road, I saw that my own light was out. I squinted at a dog curled up, darkly, on the doorstep. My dog? I looked harder. It was not a dog. My legs went weak. A baby. All wrapped up in some kind of bundle. I surged. My hands came down on a blue backpack with a tall metal frame, a brown sleeping bag coiled against it. I clawed until each content lay dull and meaningless on the cement.

I went to sleep with my cheek against the carpet.

* * *

A pair of secondhand leather boots, a dozen sticks of jerky, and the beat-up copy of The Snow Leopard.

I hadn’t told him my shoe size. I hadn’t given him my address.

* * *

He was at my curb before the sun rose. My only thought was to freshen up with a quick swig of vodka, and then I had another before slipping the bottle into my pack. I kept the lights off as I scrubbed my teeth, and my ragged silhouette was fine.

* * *

For two days we followed deer and elk trails along the eastern Blackfoot slope. I was afraid I’d step in someone’s snare, but Errol stayed in front. I didn’t ask whose shoes were on my feet but assumed they belonged to his wife or ex-wife or whatever she was. Would the leather be enough to block a trap’s metal teeth? Or would it snap shut higher, up by my knees?

We’d been climbing toward a bald peak for hours when he nodded toward the valley a couple of thousand feet beneath us. A dozen silvery backs streaked across the lavender and ocher grasses, and then they were gone.

Know what those were? Errol said. It was the first time I saw the dead tooth at the back of his mouth.

Wolves, I said, only to please him. I didn’t really want to speak just yet.

Coyotes, he said. But running from something.

We prepared our camp under a red dusk, and I took secret swigs from my bottle; I had regretted its heaviness at first, but now its lightness had me panicked. I finished it to get it done with. Errol advised that nighttime was as good a time as any to spot a wolf. They’re never asleep for more than a few hours, he said. And their eyes glow.

In class he’d spoken of separating fact from lore.

Tapetum lucidum, he said. Bright tapestry. Shoots light right back out the retina. He had warned me, already, that I would only see a wolf up close if it was trying to tell me something.

Sleeping on the ground felt right. The lumps fit well into my hips; pebbles and twigs pressed neatly into my cheeks. The predawn cold moved through the lump of me like it did through everything else; I dreamt of being held by steel jaws that absolved me of any obligation to move on.

* * *

Some Saturdays he’d be outside in his truck, his palms open on the wheel until I climbed in. Other Saturdays he wouldn’t be there. I was always ready.

* * *

By the time the first snow fell over the range, I could tell a wolf from a coyote from a mile away. The first wolf I’d seen was a pup in a clearing at the base of the slope we were standing on. It was alone. Unusual, Errol said. There must have been something wrong with it: worms, or epilepsy. Though usually its pack would have killed it.

I see it, I said. Up close. So it wants me to see it?

It’s sick, he said.

He did not lower his binoculars to let me see the loathing I’d asked for, so I raised mine back up as well.

I could see from the flattened grass that it had been pacing in small circles in the clearing for some time. I felt myself going around and around too, felt my tongue loll, my eyes pull back at the corners.

We left it.

It’ll try to find a place in a hierarchy. Or find unclaimed territory, start a family of its own, he said, without looking back at me.

You said it’s going to die, I said.

* * *

In the deep snow, crouched behind a bush halfway up a slope, we watched through binoculars a pack at a carcass. The alpha, an all-black one-hundred-pounder, decided who got to eat and who didn’t. He bared his teeth at the hungry ones who inched toward the meat on their bellies.

You don’t understand his logic, Errol said.

I hadn’t said out loud I hated him.

The starved omega had red fur on the tips of her ears. I could feel the saliva on her tongue.
When I put the binoculars down, the depression was swift, the reentry sudden and merciless.

* * *

We plodded along week after week, took jerky shits in the scrub, rationed dry socks and instant coffee. We watched a pack at play, the young ones tossing up snow with their snouts and chasing the ravens that asked for it.

From across a valley, we heard the cries of a wounded animal.

Fake, Errol said. A recording, a trap. He pulled his binoculars up and tried to locate the source.

For the rest of the afternoon, he didn’t speak. Like I was as cheap and treacherous as the rest of the world.

* * *

He came for me the day before Christmas, though I knew, through Karen, that he had children still in high school. Once, in the beginning, after he’d come and gone from my tent and we were back on the trail, I asked about his wife, and he acted like he hadn’t heard — or, rather, like I hadn’t spoken.

Karen had brought me a Mountain Ledger, pressed her finger on the Community Member to Watch section. A kinesiologist, from the coast, newly hired by the university. Her lover, Karen had said.

The holiday went by unmarked. My brother and his family would be descending on our parents’ home in Massachusetts. Had I remembered to answer their invitation? That could have been last year. I’d go through my text messages soon. My nieces had been glorious to begin with, but the last I’d seem them, they’d begun to sound like him, a kind of smug parroting. They recorded themselves getting ready for the day so the world wouldn’t miss a moment of them. I laced my boots inside my tent. My anticipation felt selfish, almost childish, against the certainty of his own disappointment.

* * *

By the fourth day after Christmas, I wanted to be somewhere else. Snow was piling up, the wind blowing so hard since early morning that we’d been stuck in our tents, which pitched and whined, the vestibules ballooning violently with sudden gusts. I read my assigned text — it wasn’t the snow leopard itself that the author’s host was out to observe but the rutting habits of its blue sheep prey — and slept. In the late afternoon, the air hung suddenly still and quiet, and Errol and I met outside to cook a pot of ramen. He had trouble lighting the stove. His packet didn’t immediately rip between his fingertips; he turned his back and struggled privately. I watched his bare fingers as he finally dumped his hard clump of noodles into the pot. Color had pooled in the joints. I watched the darkness on his face while Errol watched the pot clatter above the flame.

It’s cold, I said.

I rinsed our bowls. A gust blew the hood of my parka up against the back of my head. Errol raised his face into the wind.

Females, he said.

I did sometimes suspect that he was full of shit. Too many years of no one asking questions might have that effect. Years of tamping down doubt with a practiced glare. How much happier was his wife now? I ripped open a pack of jerky with my teeth and started a mental list of claims to verify if I got back to civilization.

It got dark fast, and we both returned to our tents. I felt a tiny warmth between my legs as I was reading by flashlight: This disreputable fellow is somehow known to me, like a dim figure from another life. Tukten himself seems aware that we are in some sort of relation, which he accepts in a way that I cannot. I unzipped my sleeping bag and shined my flashlight into the crotch of my long underwear. It seemed impossible. My period hadn’t come since I’d started the running, hadn’t come back when I switched to drinking. I made a neat napkin out of the squares of toilet paper I kept in my rucksack, next to my trowel. When Errol crawled into my tent hours later, I shook my head. Our sex, as a rule, was mechanical. I’d tried to look him in the eyes, once, early on, and he’d corrected me, using the flat of his hand to turn my head and press my cheek to the ground, holding it there until he pulled his body off mine.

For him it was mechanical; for me it was anguish. Anguish except that it answered the question of why I was there. Without this sex, I’d have been left wondering why he’d chosen me. Better to be free of the distraction. To see a wolf was to be a wolf, for a minute. To be gone.

Karen was losing her children too. Not to death but to life. Her struggle for control was altering her.

I read a little more but was pulled away. You can convince yourself you’re hearing anything out there. The wind continued to rush up under my vestibule and shook my tent as it had all day, but each time things emptied out, I thought I could hear Errol making noises. I wondered if he was thinking of me. I wondered if he was having trouble closing that gnarled hand around himself, blood pooling in some places, rushing elsewhere, nothing lining up.

I slept later than usual. The light must have been up for an hour before I dressed, replacing the wrecked squares of toilet paper between my legs with a sock stuffed full of more, and went out. It would be a day of chafing.

Errol’s cup of instant coffee was sitting in the snow, going cold next to the notebook he scribbled in every day, privately; his need to shit must have come on fast. A red ribbon marked the spot. There was just a list of numbers I assumed had to do with temperature, elevation, snowfall, and wind speed. And a little x by the date. I heard his footsteps coming down the slope, the snow crunching under his boots, and I returned the notebook. I crouched to make my own cup of coffee. He’d know, though, from my tracks, where I’d been.

Morning! he said.

You’re lively.

I’m thinking due north. I’ve got a good feeling.

He picked up his journal and tucked it away inside his coat.

* * *

The howling tore out my heart. I could feel the sinking of it as it plummeted toward the canyon floor. They were long, drawn-out cries pierced by sharper pleas that quickly lost their edge, becoming dull and low and resigned to lament.

Errol took to teaching.

The females all go into heat at once, but only the alpha gets to take one — and he only takes one. The rest get excited, but that’s it for them.

Don’t you think the others ever sneak off and do it? I said. There were hawks in the sky. The moon was already up, but the day was bright.

His good moods were never firm, and I was learning how to kill them faster.

You know, the ones who haven’t been taken, I continued. Besides, you said they only wail out of mourning.

You can’t take these things as totalities, he said. It’s all fluid. There’s no such thing as wolf behavior. Think of how absurd that is. They’re intelligent creatures.

* * *

By April, we’d covered most of the state’s public lands. Whereas with each sighting I still got the rush I was after — the prolonged feeling of disembodiment that no longer ended with depression but with seeping pleasure at being alive in this world — Errol seemed increasingly frustrated. I thought that maybe he was just further gone than me, that he needed to get closer, that maybe he wouldn’t be satisfied until he’d grabbed a hunk of wolf scruff in his hands and pressed his face into it, inhaling the oils and remnant blood until, maybe, he was taken in as one of their own.

* * *

A month passed. Errol didn’t come. I pulled on my mud boots and walked across town to the college library, where I sat at a table with a stack of wolf books I couldn’t check out, since I wasn’t a student. They were boring anyway. No wonder no one could do anything real at this college.

You’re healthier, Karen said. Let’s not lose sight of that.

I did have color. And tone. My hair looked good.

The raven, Errol had said, breathing into my neck from behind, not kissing it, is not pure black. He let my hair fall.

You were probably going to get eaten, Emilia said. It was just a matter of time.

He’s a bastard, Erin said, blushing. You’re better off.

He is a bastard, I conceded.

He didn’t come and didn’t come and didn’t come. The summer went by. My unemployment expired, and I ran out of money. I got a job waiting tables and filtered chitchat into categories of behavior or intelligence. I did not drink the alcohol left on the tables. Most days, I got out my laptop and studied the lore, which — fuck him — was interesting.

Ancient Greeks believed that to eat the meat of a wolf-slain lamb was to run the risk of becoming a vampire.

The Aztecs used wolf livers to treat melancholy.

There was a time and place where a wolf’s severed paw was tied around a sick man’s throat as a way to draw the redness out. It had to be the right paw.

The animals were both sacred and profane, under constant reevaluation across time and culture. Within time and culture. The goal, here, in the current time and culture, was to eradicate ninety percent of them, hang their pelts up as trophies, and string their limp bodies up alongside standing men and boys for photographs to run in The Mountain Ledger.

It was once held that to run a wolf’s tooth over the gums of a teething infant was to ease its pain.

* * *

It was January — more than half a year since I’d heard from him — when he called. I’d been doing a Karen-approved amount of yoga and had enrolled in an associate’s degree program at the college that would enable me to earn plenty of money helping to see the insides of other people. Emilia and I had created accounts with the sperm bank and laughed at the donor profiles we now had access to. Our kids could be siblings, when we had enough cash to go through with it and could agree on a man. We didn’t tell Karen or Erin.

They saw him, Errol said. I positioned my phone closer to my ear. Someone up in Kootenai. A little mangy but still over a hundred and ten. I wondered if he expected me to know what he was talking about. I wondered if maybe he hadn’t slept in a few nights, or months; how bad off he’d been without me.

Be ready by six, he said. It’ll be a drive. Pack for cold.

* * *

I did not tell even Emilia I was going. I was still avoiding her. It had cost me nothing, in the end —just the tiny amount of guilt I felt as I ignored a few calls until they stopped coming.

The kit he’d packed for me sat on the back seat as if no time at all had passed. In my dreams, the blue had been spreading outward from his knuckles, ravaging the whole of him. But here he was, unchanged. Out the window: white, flat, endless, desolate. There was a layer of ice on top of the snow, fissures running through in all directions. The sun had been out at least once since the last snowfall.

A lone wolf, Errol said, defies his nature. His brow was lowered, his eyes on the road. Like a human does. We make scattershot choices that run counter to our own survival because there are conditions we fear more than death.

I was touched by this confession.

I looked at him until he looked back at me.

I had pulled my hand from the groove in the tree.

I turned to the window. Pleasure began to spread. What did he know of me?

* * *

We pulled into a motor lodge after midnight. The parking lot was empty, a single lit bulb the only thing announcing any human presence here. Errol couldn’t get the key out of the ignition.

Leave it, he snarled, and I pulled my hand back.

No one’s going to take the fucking truck.

To have been his wife. Imagine. Imagine being his mother.

I slept in my own room cocooned by thick green curtains until I felt his weight at the edge of my bed.

Go time, he said. I could hear the ripstop polyester of his parka swishing against itself. I saw nothing but a few hashes of red light in the dark: 4:00 a.m. He hadn’t come to my room in the night. I’d lain there wondering if he’d been tracking my cycle all these months — keeping up with it in that journal of his. If he thought it was my time, or if he was done with me, or if he thought I was done with him. I rolled and propped myself up on my elbow.

Is there a chance that any of this has to do with the kinesiologist? I said.

I waved my hand in front of my face. Everything was so still. I wondered if he could have left.

Truck, he said. Five minutes.

His column had been replaced by a different one called A Menace Kept in Check.

He drank his instant coffee from a thermos as we drove. When he finally placed it in the flimsy holder in front of the little vent that was blasting patchy heat at our faces, I picked it up and finished it off, swallowing the mouthful of sludge. I stared down the barren road. Without warning, he pulled off to the side and parked alongside a low fence. We got out. I turned my face from a blast of frigid air, choking on it. We were miles from the shelter of the range.

We walked into a whiteness I could barely look at. I could feel almost nothing but a metallic sharpness in my lungs and, as we walked farther, the rubbing between my softened thighs, skin on skin, until it felt like I was being sliced at by knives.

During the five minutes it took me to roll out of bed, flip the light switch, and dress, he had, I noticed, packed sanitary napkins in my kit.

A thought.

I had to yell to make myself heard over the wind but could hardly do it. My tongue might as well have been lying in the snow. There was a sick, heavy muteness in its absence. I willed my legs to move, to keep up.

Ewoll! I tried again. The fact that I couldn’t enunciate, that my lips and cheeks were too frozen to do it, intensified my feeling that he wasn’t who I thought he was. But I did my best. Hey! I called. You! Are wolves attracted to the scent of menstrual blood?

That’s bears, he said, plodding forward into the nothingness without looking back. I think that’s what he said. My ears were encased in fleece. The back of his fur-trimmed hood bobbed against the white sky that engulfed us.

He wasn’t waiting for me. We stepped out onto a frozen creek. Errol knelt. There were scratches in the cloudy ice, the drag mark of each claw set an inch apart from its neighbor. Paws the size of human hands. Just one animal. I hugged myself, jumped up and down, breathed into my sleeves. I breathed down my neckhole. I considered searching my pack for more hand warmers to press against my stomach. I lifted my eyes. Errol, by the looks of things, might have been happy.

He told me once that a wolf can regulate its circulatory system with the flip of a mental switch to keep its extremities from freezing. I took a deep breath and choked on a blade of air. Maybe because I couldn’t feel my fingers or my toes anymore, because I was already halfway gone the way of the obliterated sky, and because I knew this was the last time, I said the only thing left.

Why do you bring me with you?

But his eyes were locked on something behind me. His expression was slack and peaceful — what he might have looked like in the tent with me, if he’d ever let himself. I subjected myself to the pain of watching him until the grotesqueness of it, or an instinct to avoid the condition of death, made me turn around. Distance collapses in a landscape of nothing. It might have been its breath that warmed me. The light of its eyes. There was no leaving this body now. No exquisite suspension or dispersal. I was stuck, as if pinned by a leaden paw. The wolf lowered his head and turned. The mange on his rear haunch must have left him cold, exposed. He loped through the snow he’d already broken. He was huge, he was tiny.

Key’s in the ignition, Errol said. I heard the crunch of his footsteps, the swishing of ripstop getting quieter behind me. He was just a dark speck in the distance by the time I turned to look. I might have taken him for the wolf if I hadn’t seen the wolf go the opposite way, and if I couldn’t still see it now, just barely, a different dark speck.

* * *

It was easy enough to follow the tracks we’d made, though the sky was purpling by the time I got back to the truck. The keys dangled where Errol had promised they’d be. Because he’d planned it this way or because he couldn’t get them out. I kept the headlights off and drove south on the empty road; everything was visible. We become our own mothers. The heat sputtered on, and I began to feel my fingers and toes and face again, all these parts of myself, the pain coming in excruciating waves until it was just me again, and whatever was inside of me, and whatever it was I was hurtling toward.

Meghan Gilliss

Meghan Gilliss attended the Bennington Writing Seminars and is a fellow of the Hewnoaks Artist Residency. She has worked as a journalist, a bookseller, a librarian, and a hospital worker, and lives in Portland, Maine. Her first novel, Lungfish, came out in 2022.