A Gathering of Wolves
Time: unknown (close to 8:00 p.m. perhaps)
Inside the cabin. Temperature dropping fast. Will’s journal continued.
I tried to be discreet—which meant turning my head away from her as much as I could—and working as quickly as I could.
I removed what looked like a tunic. It seemed thick, but once in my hands, I realized it was quite thin. It was a tightly woven dark green fabric that felt strong like wool but with the light touch of cashmere.
She did not wake, so, hands shaking from the cold and the worry, I slid off her boots.
They stretched up to her knees and were made of leather. But not the cheap junk you buy at the mall. I imagined an old cobbler behind a counter hammering, stitching, and tanning this boot for months. But then again, my imagination can wander.
I reached up to her pant clasp; paused, exhaled, and unlatched the silver buckle. It felt heavy, the difference between a silver dollar and a nickel. I held the buckle in my palm, my hand poised awkwardly at her waist. I ran my fingers across the engraving—angel wings touching, their heads facing out, wrapped in chords of hair.
—So strange, I muttered.
I unclasped her pants and started to slide them off; the tips of my fingers slid against the sides of her pale legs. They felt cold, but soft—like gliding your finger over the still waters of a lake at midsummer as you dangle your arm off the boat pier.
And something else—something beautiful, but troubling. My mind jumped as if sparked by my skin touching hers. At first, I thought it was a normal sensation; like glancing your girlfriend’s hand in seventh grade—afraid to hold it but wanting to do nothing else in the world. But the longing from our touch took hold inside of me somewhere. It was an unfamiliar feeling; like the touch was prohibited yet invited.
I stopped for a moment and looked at her face. Her eyes squinted shut as if she was trying to keep something away; like a child does when they want the evil things to disappear.
But she did not wake.
After I removed her pants, she pulled her legs in to her chest. I looked away from her, grabbed Grandma’s quilt off the back of the couch, and threw it over her. Still, she did not open her eyes.
On her upper body she wore a shirt and what I thought was a sweater, but when I touched it, knew better. It was a kind of light armour—like medieval chainmail, or at least what I imagined medieval chainmail might look like—only feather-light and not silver, but a deep bronze.
The chainmail covered a gray shirt which felt like a lighter version of her tunic. It had no buttons and clung tightly to her torso because it was saturated by the rain. It felt ice cold. I decided to pull both off at once.
As I pulled, her arms straightened, and her hair tangled in the chainmail. But again, she did not wake; only moaned. Stuck, I had to gather the sides of her shirt in my hands, once more feeling her smooth icy skin. This time the touch felt even more powerful.
My mind lit up with memories—dangerous and beautiful memories. One when Chad and Josh and I stripped down naked and launched off “the wall” at the James River—stupid college kids jumping off the 30-foot wall for a midnight thrill.
Another, of John and the girls’ funeral, when Sara’s friend Kaley sang “Oh Shenandoah.” I had kept my feelings about Kaley singing to myself; didn’t want to offend Sara. And I didn’t understand the song choice at first either.
But when she leaned into those first few notes, I found myself caught in utter rapture. A hush fell on the crowd, and for a moment we forgot our sorrow, swept away in the performance. I sat in the back pew of that Catholic church and wept.
My mind felt alive with the memories—quickened by the touch of this young woman’s skin.
I pulled up on the shirt and chainmail with some force and loosed the garments from her torso. Her arms fell and she groaned again. I pulled the quilt up quickly so that it covered her entire body.
I stood up and stepped back from the couch and, holding her drenched clothes, took her in for a moment. The firelight flashed reds and oranges on her black hair—her face barely visible beneath her raven mane. She nestled deeper into the quilt and then stilled.
“Who are you?” I whispered.
I turned and laid her clothes upon the hearth. They steamed and sizzled.
—Well, at least she’s alive.
I stacked more wood on the fire, sat on the hearth, and faced her, my back warmed. My brain churned. The smell of wet drying wool lingered.
I was soaked and mud-covered.
—Some dry clothes might help.
Up from the hearth, and back to the master bedroom I walked. I threw my wet clothes in the corner and dressed—jeans, long sleeve thermal, wool socks, and my merino wool tuuk (or what most people refer to as a beanie).
I returned to the hearth and watched her sleep. Occasionally, she shivered. As I warmed myself in front of the fire, I reviewed my options.
—Can’t call for help, cell service is nonexistent up here. I suppose I could use the landline, but whom would I call? How would I explain?
—Um, yes officer, I found this young woman on my family’s property. She was running through the rain, in the dark, from a bear.
—Oh, well, I shot the bear. Mostly, by accident. I heard a sound in the woods and I …
—Yes, I’ll stick around for questioning.
—Hmmph. I’d wait to make a call.
I sat in the quiet of the popping fire and stared up at the ceiling and the red oak beams girthed with years. Uncle Joe and my dad met those Oregon lumberjacks by accident at some forgettable roadside diner.
“We drudged ‘em up from a riverbed,” said the burly jacks. “Big money in diggin’ up old trees from the river. Hundreds of years old mos of ‘em.”
So, Uncle Joe and Dad bought four and laid them across the twelve-foot walls. They shot up the vault in the ceiling so as to give the feeling of the grand ruggedness of the mountains.
Sara never came to Uncle Joe’s cabin. She hated anything dug up. I didn’t blame her. Still, the beams felt comforting in the firelight.
I stood and paced.
I paced near the front door and looked out every few minutes.
—What am I looking for?
I had no idea.
I thought about making tea then I heard a muffled baying outside. Not a bear but something else. I grabbed the .270 again, threw on my heavy coat, and shoved some rounds in my coat pocket. I gently opened the door and peered out into the dark now-snowy night.
I stepped out and walked to the edge of the porch.
I walked along the porch railing.
Something moved out near the bear. I could see movement and then the baying came once more.
I hadn’t seen wolves up here for years. Not wanting a feeding frenzy, I walked down the steps and across the frozen mud towards the edge of the property. I loaded another shell into the chamber. Threw the bolt forward, pointed the rifle into the snowy sky and fired.
The echoing cough of the rifle dulled into the laden sky. I squinted into the night and could see the wolves teaming around the dead bear, ripping at it. But they danced back when the rifle rang.
“Git!” I shouted with a ferocity that surprised me and a mountain twang that came from nowhere—or maybe just my suppressed Rooster Cogburn alter ego.
I reloaded and slammed the bolt down. The sound of a hundred and eighty grains powdering through the atmosphere sent the wolves back a few paces this time. But they stopped and gathered, then bunched into a war outfit.
And the moment caught up with me. I realized I stood only about thirty yards from death, so I reloaded, my hands trembling in the damp cold.
—A single-shot rifle, a pack of wolves. You idiot.
But this time I did not shoot into the sky. I shouldered the rifle once again and aimed. The snow hindered my view. The wolves did not move. It was a standoff.
The bullet slammed into the earth in front of the wolf standing at the center of the pack—a towering black beast, hulked with his winter coat. He did not move. The wind blew the snow across his ebony figure. He bowed his head back and to the side as if signaling the rest of the pack. One by one they disappeared into the dark.
I stood motionless in the driving snow. My hands felt frozen around the rifle. I finally lowered it and breathed.
—Was I holding my breath the whole time?
I felt the blood rush out of my head. I dropped to one knee and heaved, vomiting fear and dinner onto the snowy earth.
I wiped my mouth on my sleeve and rose. My legs trembled. I kept the stock of the rifle against my shoulder, the barrel pointed down, ready for their return, as I slowly approached the bear.
The wolves had torn the flesh off its back. Blood matted the snow around the dead corpse. A warm smell of bad meat filled the cold air. Blood oozed from the bear’s neck; the head nearly severed from its body. I stood above the bear and scanned for more wolves and listened.
—I must get back to the cabin, I thought.
I backed away from the corpse and cautiously turned to head back. And that’s when I saw it.
To be continued …
Join me for the next instalment, “Chapter 4: The Light, a Blade, and The Mystery of Pages,” in which Will discovers incredible mysteries buried in the pages of the young woman’s journal.
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