After settling into the seat, he turned and looked at me. His eyes were soft. Actually, his entire body was soft, almost slumped, loose and happy, like after the best sex. I looked for the part of him that yearned back toward the ridge, but it wasn’t there. He was looking at me.
“Sweetie,” he said. “Thank you.”
“I mean, wow. That was unbelievably scary. And beautiful. And awesome. And here you are, to pick me up. Thank you.”
“Did you see them?”
He shook his head. “No. But I heard them. A lot. And just being there. With them, within their range, in their habitat. I know they smelled me, knew I was there.”
“I suppose so.”
I nodded and wondered if I could start driving now.
“I don’t think any of the others saw me.”
The others. I wished he meant that word, others, as in as opposed to him, but I knew he didn’t. He meant others as in others in his own group. His pack.
“They wouldn’t approve, Jim. They’d be very angry.”
“I know. It was wrong of me. It was just something I had to do. And I knew I had to do it soon, and fast, before I realized the full wrongness of it. Do you know what I mean?”
Understanding came to me in a flash, maybe in the same way the name Anatoly came to Jim, something I’d known all along, a willingness that just needed the right set of conditions to emerge. His gray eyes were still looking at me, directly, and they were full of love. For me, yes, but I saw that the love also encompassed much more: the mountains and wolves, himself. It made me think how we were just two people making a life in a vast world that we barely glimpsed. I thought of how our marriage had sometimes felt like a tar pit: jobs, illnesses, housework, and difficult communication sucking us ever deeper into a thick, gooey place. But all along, beyond the pit, was this open wildness infused with love.
“You do know what I mean, don’t you?” he said.
He took my hand. “Please.”
“Okay,” I said.
We bought the four-wheel drive so we could manage icy roads. On our fourth trip, we got invited to dinner with the others. The look on my husband’s face was more biological satisfaction than happiness; it was as if they’d thrown a chunk of raw elk at his feet. But the thing was, these people turned out to be more regular than I’d expected. Everyone shared stories over the beers and spaghetti, but not just wolf stories. They had children and grandchildren. Some had traveled all over the world. Most had left jobs that had pinned them to lives that had become untenable. Each of them now pursued wolves full-time, pretty much every day, winter, spring, summer, and fall.
At the end of the evening they said, “See you in the morning.”
Within the year, we took early retirements and bought a house just outside the park. Our son Mark finally became concerned. I supposed he was worried about having to support us in our dotage. He should have thought of that at the beginning, when there might have been a chance of talking his father out of the new lifestyle. Barbara surprised me by cheering us on. She and Jason brought the kids out right away, and while they didn’t have the patience for wolves, they loved seeing the bison and elk and coyotes.
I’ve never let myself forget how crazy it looks from the outside. And I’ll never be as devoted as Jim. Some days I stay home. In fact, I found a part-time job in Gardiner, to give us a bit of cash to supplement our retirement income.
Jim dropped the Russian name. That was just a portal, he said. He couldn’t enter the wild as an aging man from suburbia. He had needed to slip out of the jumpsuit of his life, but he was afraid to stand naked. Anatoly was a costume, he said, one that conjured wailing winds and cold snow, a distraction that would allow his transformation.
“So now you’re naked?” our son asked, smirking, no longer male bonding.
“Yes,” Jim answered. “You don’t know until you’ve heard them howl.”