The Old Wolf's Passing
It was nearly 2am before Sara noticed that the rain had stopped, and she decided she needed a breath of fresh air, before she fell asleep over her archeology book. She was trying to get caught up over the vacation, and her Aunt Melinda's place was a nice quiet atmosphere to study in - after her Aunt Melinda went to bed. Melinda was wonderful, but sometimes flighty, and far too energetic for Sara to concentrate on her studies.
Outside, Sara moved quietly across the porch and down the steps, and across the wet lawn, to the pine trees, where she scrubbed the wet needles on her sleepy face. A narrow band of trees screened her aunt's house from a small campground. The stillness of the night drew her along the path under the blackness of the trees. Silence and darkness pressed on her ears and eyes. And then, a distant sound reached her sharp ears - a howl. Even at this distance, she couldn't mistake it for a dog. The sound was a lonely call to a pack, which didn't answer, scattered far and wide.
Her grandfather was an old man, a widower for years, with 5 children and nearly a dozen grandchildren. Now, though his mind was as sharp as ever, occasionally it wandered, and his body had recently begun failing him. Sometimes his control over certain functions was not complete. And so, he had left the seaside town where he had lived most of his life, and moved to the open, sandy woods in the south of the state, to stay with his ex daughter-in-law, Melinda. The plan was that she could tell all who asked that he was just a border who had no family, should the worst happen.
Sara waited like a statue for several heartbeats. Again she heard the call, that odd mix of lonely melancholy with a shiver of wild freedom. It made her ache to run. Now she felt she had a focus on the direction it came from. Then she heard the hounds. She turned to the woodshed, where she left her clothes in a hurried heap, then began at a trot up the trail.
At first she just ran for the sound of the baying up the nearly invisible old road to the campground, quickly between the sleeping RVs, splashing across the narrow part of the small river. Her thick fur was soaked through, but running warmed her. And then, chasing the sound of baying, she suddenly realized that she was getting too close to the dogs. They were being quieter – it sounded as though they had lost the scent, and were stalled. She must have missed Grumpy, not hard to do in the woods at night. She could have passed within feet of him if he was laying low and didn't know it was she. She slowed to make less noise, and looped, scouting for the trail.
Sara knew that if she could find the trail quickly, she would be able to follow it faster and much more easily than they could. Grumpy had taught her all the tricks he was using to throw them off his trail. What they had on their side was that bay, which was making her frantic. She just wanted to run, and get as far away as possible. But, he had also taught her the first rule of tracking, and this she knew the dogs would instinctively follow. Whoever is doing the chasing can follow the trail for as long as the prey can run. The hunter can set a pace to suit themselves, and then catch up at their leisure after the prey is exhausted.
When she found the latest trail that the hounds had been following, she began to backtrack away from where she could hear them. Eventually she found what she had hoped for - a half-fallen log near the trail. Not a tremendous leap up to it, even for a wolf as old as Grumpy. There was his scent running along the top.
It wasn't long before they rectified their mistake, and came on again, as loud as before. She had added herself to the age-old system in an unusual way – tracking and being tracked at the same time. She needed to both keep the trail and not be easy for them to follow. As she went Sara sorted through what she thought would be the next good tactic, and looked for the chance to try it. After trying it, she would soon find his trail again, somewhere nearby, where he had done the same thing.
It seemed her grandfather had been leading the dogs around in circles for a while – twice she passed his scent overlaid by theirs. Their persistance amazed her – she wouldn't have thought that a random sampling of local dogs would have followed a wolf at all, let alone this long and hard. Then it clicked in her head, what should have been obvious from the information her ears had been telling her. These dogs all had similar voices – they all bayed. No yips and yelps, no barking. They were a pack, probably all the same type of hound, trained to hunt together. A trained pack is usually shut in a kennel at night. They could have escaped their kennel. She hated to think of the other possibility, yet she had to admit to herself that it was much more likely than the escape premise. Grumpy had been spotted by someone. A local amateur coyote hunter, perhaps.
The trail she was following turned toward a curve of the river and ran upstream. Entering the water more quietly this time, she found she had to swim this deeper part. The current tugged at her. This time of year the stream was higher than it had been in the late summer last year, when she and her grandfather had stood on the bank nearby discussing the possibility of an easy variation on a classic dodge. At that time it had been simply an amusing intellectual exercise, but now Sara used it hoping that it was what he had been thinking when he arrived here, too. She played log, silently floating downstream, scanning the bank for the best place to get out. An easy landing which would be obvious, or an inobvious landing which would be difficult? How far would he have chosen to float in the icy water, exhausted, as he must be by now?
She stayed in the water until she heard a faint splashing upstream, telling her the dogs had found the stream also, and then she chose a tangle of bushes as her exit point. On the opposite bank, now, and downstream from where the dogs were, she cast about franticly, working her way upstream again, for a few minutes, before she found where his track exited and ran away from the water. Though the scent had been very faint near the water, it grew rapidly stronger. He had passed up another fallen log opportunity. Now she began to truly worry.
A gully floored with slick yellow claylike mud and years of garbage - splintered wood sprouting nails, rusting cans, old lawn clippings and leaves – widened, then terminated in a wall of sand, cut out of a rise in the ground. It may have served as a source of sand during the building of a nearby house, but for years since then it had served as a small private dump. Lying stretched on his side, fur matted with damp, he could have been another piece of trash. She nearly tripped over him, and he snarled before he caught her scent. Then his head fell back, and he weakly thumped his tail once. He hadn't found a hidden place to rest; he had just collapsed in his tracks.
"What about that plan?" he asked, his rasp of a whisper distorted by the long animal jaw. They had gotten used to the sound of their voices like this, but the faintness of his voice almost made Sara not understand him. "One old wolf…" he muttered.
She circled her grandfather, then lay along his back, hoping to give him some of her body heat. She heaved a sigh. "Honestly, I completely forgot about the plan when I realized you were out here, and I heard those goddamn noisy dogs. But, I don’t think they’ll be catching up to us any time soon. You just put on an impressive show."
He thumped his tail again. "I think it was worth having to lie just a little," he whispered.
"Lie?" She stared down at him. His head rested sideways on the ground, as he was stretched at length on his side, and he had to roll his eye awkwardly in order to look up at her. His mouth was open wider than needed to pant, in a dog grin. "You never did lose control of your changing, did you." She didn’t bother to couch it as a question.
"Heh." It was a feeble attempt at a chuckle, but it was real. His grin faded after a moment. "Tell them…" he trailed off.
"I’ll tell them that you’re sorry, but you needed this." He seemed unable to summon more words, but managed a slight nod. However, this wasn’t entirely because of his fatigue, she knew – he had never been good with words like this, and the rest of the family had become skilled, therefore, at understanding what needed saying. Now she felt in necessary to put these things into words, just to be sure that he knew that she understood, since there were going to be no more chances for ironing out misunderstandings later.
He closed his eyes. "And... I’ll tell them that… you love them." Relaxation flowed through his body. It wasn't a long wait before she realized he was not going to open his eyes again. But she lay against his chilling body for a long time before she managed to summon the will to do the next thing she felt she had to do.
Rising, she began to scrape at the ground. The rain had begun again, and she soon uncovered some pieces of plywood from the soft clay. She used these to shore up the sides of the shallow hole as she dug a little further, so that they wouldn't melt in on her. The rain washed some of the mud off of them, and she saw that the plywood had been decorated by some child. Large scrawly drawings, obviously representing animals and birds were done in red, probably crayon. They reminded her of the red-ochre drawings of primitive burials, and she felt somehow happier thinking of them watching over his body. In all likelihood, if this place were ever disturbed, people would take him for someone’s dead dog, which had been tossed over into the garbage pit.
It wasn’t until he was safely covered, and dawn was graying the east, that she had time to realize that small thing which had been niggling at the back of her mind. His body had remained that of a wolf. "Are the movie makers simply wrong, do were-folk merely remain in the form they die in?" she wondered.
Sara sat up, leaned backward her head, and let out a long howl for her Grandfather. Far away, she heard a chorus of answering bays.