I can’t remember the first day Wolf arrived. He was always there, lurking on the sidelines. Of course, later, he became many things to me, and tooth, and fur, and pain. But to begin with he was just Wolf—ferocious, hairy, and something to be feared.
It was my father who first told me about him. I learned the same way most children did, in the evenings just after dinnertime when I was freshly warm and pink and soft after a bath. My father would have begun, Once upon a time, and there Wolf would appear, walking along the path to ask that young girl in the forest where she was going on such a fine day. First impressions last, and in that story he wasn’t to be trusted.
When he appeared later, dutifully raising a small boy in the Indian jungles, I was suspicious. And although my father said it was okay and smoothed my brow, I had already been taught to distrust him, and so I always watched his movements in the background of the story.
Wolf remained like that for many years, a blur of meat and bones on the periphery. Something to be aware of, but mainly forgotten as our lives ticked on.
But he watched my father and me.
He stalked the suburbs as my father taught me to whistle and spit on the concrete. He lurked in playgrounds while I whispered secrets in my father’s ear and we played one-two-one hopscotch together.
“But it’s true, you know,” my father would say. “There have been cases where a wolf really has raised a child.”
“No,” I would say, that bit older and that bit more skeptical. “It’s a story.”
“That may be, but there was a curious incident in India where a girl, Kamala, was found in the forests. She spoke no language that we use. She only knew snarls and groans. Her elbows were rough, and patches of leather had grown as she walked on them. Her canine teeth were sharpened from eating raw meat.”
“Wolf is a symbol in some countries,” my father tried to explain. But symbols didn’t interest me. We didn’t live in some Russian tundra village in the dark ages. We had nothing to fear in the flat sun-caked streets of Sydney, and anyway, my life was my own and not some myth.
The first time I properly met Wolf was soon after my father became sick with cancer. By this point, I lived in an apartment with a balcony in the middle of the city with another girl, Sarah, who was often at her boyfriend’s, and so I spent much of my time alone. After my father’s diagnosis, I wandered around our house, uselessly picking up glasses and coffee cups and then putting them back down again, unsure of where things were supposed to fit.
One summer evening, I heard a loud thump on the balcony and the sound of something scrabbling and huffing and puffing to be let in. There was a dark stench, and I walked towards the sliding glass doors in time to see a giant black shape loom. I froze. The glass shattered and the air left my lungs as something heavy jumped on top of me, pinning my body to the ground in a tumble of leaves and glass and blood.
“You are scared,” Wolf snapped at me, his hot breath, foul and meaty, rushing over my face.
I was terrified. But I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of admitting this.
“Wolf.” I said. I wriggled and squirmed under his bulk. “Get. Off. Me.”
He gave no sign of moving. But he let out a sigh, in a lone single note that went through my bones. He stayed on top of me as each one of my limbs developed pins and needles and then went numb.
“It will hurt for a while,” he said, and suddenly got up and leapt from the balcony, leaving me to clean up his mess of fur and stink.
He started visiting regularly after that.
He hunched over the kitchen table while I boiled the water for pasta. He asked about my father’s cancer, and I told him about the tumors that were spreading fast through my father’s body.
“Ha. I have eaten tumors like that for breakfast,” he barked at me, thumping the table, his teeth glistening.
Sometimes he would come and lie on top of me in my bed, all bristles and whiskers in my mouth. I could smell the leftover meat in his teeth and wondered where and what he ate in the suburbs, while he slumped and fell asleep. I would lie awake through the night, listening to his jagged breath rise and fall, and wonder if he would leave of his own accord in the morning, or if I would have to create some complicated excuse why he couldn’t stay for breakfast.
One time he whispered, “Why must you always believe the bad about me? What would happen if, just for a moment, you could trust and believe something good?”
I shuffled under his tight hold.
“Did I tell you about the time I suckled those two infant boys?” he asked as he ran his paw over my tangle of curls,. They kept snagging and catching, so it hurt. He didn’t notice.
“They were so yappy and screamy and woof! I wanted to say. But instead I laid down my milk for them, because I could smell their ambition. I could smell their desire to live. For years I gave those boys my attention and my body. And your Great Roman Empire was founded,” he said, looking pleased with himself and grinning so his tooth snagged against the corner of his lip.
“It wasn’t my Empire and it wasn’t your milk; you don’t even have any,” I said, annoyed.
He snarled and snapped at the air. “I don’t smell any ambition in you anymore. Perhaps I will just eat you.”
I didn’t tell my father about Wolf’s visits. His own mind was full with the nausea and the nightmares from the chemo, and I thought it would not be the best thing for him at that stage. But even so, Wolf always seemed to lie between us, his roguish shape imprinted there like some mad paper silhouette.
When I visited my father, he would ask me about my week, and what I was doing, and which friends I had seen. He had moved out of the main bedroom in the house and into the old television room, which had been converted with a special bed to prevent bedsores, because he slept so much now. The bed would rise and fill with air when he moved, so it seemed alive and breathing. There was a sofa near the bed so we could sit and talk with him. I would search my mind for something of interest to say. But all I could think of was Wolf, Wolf, Wolf.
Instead I said, “I had dinner with Sarah, and we watched this movie about a girl who has always wanted to be a dancer, and she goes to New York and realizes she has no talent and that actually all she wants in life is to be kind and have at least one true friend.”
I had watched the film at home late at night on Netflix on my computer with Wolf, who thought it was a comedy and kept laughing at all the sad scenes.
“That sounds like a terrible film,” my father said, rolling onto his side as the bed breathed out. “Have you thought more about continuing your studies? Or maybe applying for one of those jobs you were so interested in?”
Of course I haven’t, I wanted to say. How could I think about anything else right now? Instead, I said I had been working on some job applications and that I was looking into part-time classes. And then I went home after lunch and tucked myself in next to Wolf, who had fallen asleep and kept the bed warm for me.
Wolf started waiting for me outside St. Vincent Hospital when my father was moved into the ward. There was a little sunlit park between the gelato shops and cafes, where he tried to hide behind the manicured shrubbery and palm trees. It seemed obvious to me, and I told him he wasn’t doing a good job with his hiding spots. But as lovers kissed and friends greeted each other, no one seemed to notice how Wolf watched them on the outskirts.
“It’s mostly the fathers and daughters I like to watch,” he told me while I was eating scoops of chocolate ice cream to feel better after one hospital visit. “They fascinate me.” He sloped alongside me.
“Something about the feeling of a father towards his daughter, it has this precious quality that is hard for me to crack. It is the blue-black nighttime before my moon charges up. It smells like dry caves in Russia before the winter hits. It’s a secret language, and the only ones of yours I haven’t been able to understand. Nurturing, I get it. Brotherhood, I get. Lust, oh yes, I understand. And even sisters, well, they are rumble tumble woof!”
He looked to me. “Tell me what it feels like. I want to know.”
It’s like a warm musky scent, which is new-yet-familiar and you know the shape and outlines of it, I wanted to say. Instead, I said “You wouldn’t understand.”
He looked hurt and sniffed the air. I felt bad, so I asked him what his father was like.
“Oh, the usual,” he said, and his tail started to wag.
“He was never around much, but I idolized him. He went away for long winters with the pack, and my mother did most of the raising. But it is different for us. We don’t hold memories like you do. They don’t eat us up inside. But I do remember the time he once showed my brothers how to lay siege to a village. It is quite the art: how to sense when human anger turns to fear, and when it turns soft and pulpy with no center left, like a jellyfish. That is the time to attack. You have to do it quickly. Because it can harden again, and when fear turns to resolve is when things get dangerous, because people get all their pointy, smacking things out. You have to find a high vantage point and howl. So we do that for a while. He was smart, my father.”
“What is that with the moon?” I asked.
Wolf looked reflective.
“For that one night, the moon takes away our animal memory and illuminates our past, our present, and our hopes for the future. It makes you feel sick and deranged and filled with unbearable and exquisite longing. It drives us nuts. When we are cubs, we don’t know what to do with it, so we snap, or fight, or curl into a ball by our mothers. But then later we are shown how to howl, and it really does help. So, the moon is that. The moon is everything.”
“I see,” I said, licking the last of my ice cream, which was dripping down my hands.
“You know, I can smell your fear. It is strongest when you walk out of there,” Wolf said, motioning to the hospital. “But it’s always in your scent.”
“Does it smell bad?” I asked.
“I like it. It’s not bad, just stagnant, like brackish water. It is not moving or leaving or going anywhere. It just sits there.”
That night when Wolf was lying under the covers on one of his sleepovers, he woke me up with some urgency.
“I’ve been thinking. You need to howl,” he said to me. “This tiptoeing around the house, this hiding in corners, this making of tea and washing of cups, this making of lists and calling of phones, this organizing of plans, this cleaning of clothes. What is wrong with you people? Howwwwwl.”
He lifted his wet nose to demonstrate, but I quickly grabbed hold of his muzzle. Sarah was home on this night; she still didn’t know about Wolf and I didn’t want to scare her. I was also embarrassed by this display of emotion.
“Stop it, Wolf,” I said. He shook his head hard to release my hands, but I squeezed tighter. I didn’t want to learn his howl. I had worked hard at keeping things under some kind of control, and I wanted to stay bound up, not come undone. Suddenly I felt a flash of anger towards him for always trying to push me like this. I had never invited him into my life. I had never asked for his help.
He kicked off the duvet with his haunches and tried to roll onto his side. But I pounced on top of him and pushed my knee against his flank. His yellow eyes blazed beneath me, and I knew he was angry too. He flung his head backwards and my hands loosened; when I tried to fasten my grip again one of the silver rings on my fingers snagged on a loose flap of skin under his eye and ripped it. I released my hands and saw a thin gash of blood. I knew I had gone too far. Silent, I waited for his bark.
He just lay on my bed, panting and bleeding. And then he slowly stood on all fours, his immensity filling all the corners and crushing the air out of my whitewashed room. His tail knocked heavily against the Ikea wardrobe. His lip was raised in a snarl, and with a strange giggle I thought, My, grandma, what big teeth you have, and felt all my old fear rushing back. He pushed his face against mine and let out a low, guttural growl, which jangled all my nerves.
“You are learning nothing,” he whispered at me, and then he nudged the balcony door open with his snout and quietly left the apartment.
Around this time, my father decided to stop the chemotherapy. He said the drugs were making his mind foggy. He didn’t like lying in bed all day doing nothing. He said he would rather leave this world being able to read and write, with his mind still intact.
I hadn’t seen Wolf since our fight. He didn’t return, and I didn’t know how to reach him. During this time, the nights stretched and stretched. I was lonely. I could feel my mind sliding into vast and confused territories. I found myself thinking about Wolf. I loathed him. I missed him. I felt bewitched. I found myself thinking about his giant paws and what they could do. It was indecent, I thought, that wet pink tongue peeking from beneath that tangle of black matted fur.
Everything was too cloying during these summer nights, and the sheets and my nightie felt heavy against my skin, so I slept naked and in feverish half-states thinking about his panting, the moon, the howl, and his whiskered love.
They moved my father to a different location, into the palliative care ward. Behind it grew a mangrove swamp: a vast expanse of dank estuaries. The previous day, I had sat with my father. He could no longer speak, and so he stared at me, pointing out the window at the sky, and trying hard to make me understand something that I knew I never could. I held his papery-soft hand, smoothed his brow, and tried to think of a story to take away the fear. But all the stories he had taught me had wolves in them. Instead, I repeated, “Everything is going to be okay,” over and over. But I didn’t know if either of us believed me.
While the family gathered inside the small rooms to make plans and arrangements, I slipped outside to the swamp. I thought I would get some fresh air. Instead the air was stale and muddy and sucking, but even though I knew questions would be asked, and that I should be present in those conversations, I didn’t want to leave that stinking place.
I was sitting, hidden amongst a tangle of roots, when I suddenly smelled that other alive, animal scent. Wolf was stalking through the shrubs and playing with a small mud crab running between his legs. But every step or so, his paws would sink a little into the sloppy bank. He wasn’t made for this environment.
“Wolf,” I said, and he looked up from the crab.
“Yes.” His gaze was expectant and sad.
“Stay,” I said.
The crab scuttled away into one of the breathing holes in the earth. Wolf lay down in the mud.
“Please don’t leave me alone,” I said.
“I will stay until you no longer need me,” he said, bundling me up into his flank, which was covered with moles and raw patches of skin where the fur had been rubbed away with time.
At the funeral, Wolf sat at the front, taking up one of the chairs that were reserved for the family. I marveled at his boldness. But no one seemed to mind. He stood next to me as people kissed me on the cheek, and looked down at the floor. He didn’t even try to make up something nice to say to me. He just snuffled heavily in my ear.
During the wake I lost sight of Wolf. I was swamped by my father’s friends, my friends, our family, and well-wishers. People whose existence I had forgotten pressed against me and held me tightly bound. I kept trying to make my way outside for a cigarette, and I thought Wolf might be lurking around those alleyways, but I found it difficult to take two steps without another person telling me how sorry they were.
Sarah and her boyfriend, and my school friends, and my cousins all worked themselves into a tight protective circle around me and made it hard to move anywhere alone. They bought me gin after gin, and we played old music like Creedence Clearwater Revival and Otis Redding, and at one point I found I was swaying and dancing in the middle of the circle. I got caught up in the thick of it, and for those few, rare, precious hours, I forgot about Wolf.
When we all stumbled out of the bar late at night, I remembered him. I asked the others to wait for me, pretending I had forgotten something. But when I walked back into the bar, it was empty, except for one barman pushing in the chairs and sweeping the floors. “You all right?” he asked me, and I looked around me at the little that remained. It was there, in the pub, suddenly and without any warning, that I began to howl, raggedly and snottily and achingly, as the man swept up the remains of the night around me.
I have only caught glimpses of Wolf since. I will be crossing a street and his dark, floating shape will suddenly drift across the traffic lights. I will be falling asleep and hear the low reverberation of his call on distant moonlit nights. Sometimes I will smell a dark, wet, canine scent. And I wonder which father and daughter he is watching now.