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2013 Fiction Contest Winner: ‘Wolf’

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Wolf

Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett.

I wasn’t exactly happy with Jim wanting to change his name to Anatoly, but I tried to roll with it. Change is good 
in a relationship, right? That was the whole reason we went to Yellowstone 
in the first place, to zest up our marriage, have a little fun, do something new.

I didn’t think we needed an overhaul, though. Nor did I think the change needed to bleed outside our marriage. But after the first trip to the park, he started asking our neighbors to call him Anatoly. It was embarrassing.

“Been reading our Dostoyevsky, have we?” said our next-door neighbor Clarence, pleased with himself for dredging up a literary reference.

The other next-door neighbor, Walter, narrowed his eyes, assessed, and then shrugged—neither agreeing nor disagreeing, pretty much just dismissing. I imagined both of them telling their wives, Cathy and Shawna, and having a good laugh on our behalf. Little did I know back then that I needn’t have worried about the neighbors; we’d soon be selling the house.

Still, in the beginning, I tried to find the humor myself. My complaints for the 30-plus years we’d been together clustered around sameness, a hazy boredom that occasionally drifted through our otherwise happy marriage. So a new name? Why not? It didn’t occur to me that it might signify an entire identity change.

Anatoly means east or sunrise. Fitting, I suppose. But how did he know that? Had he been researching wild names before we even visited the park and met the wolf watchers? I heard him tell them his name was Anatoly that very first morning, but I thought I’d misheard. He’d removed his mitten and thrust out his hand, and the reluctant recipient of his greeting had ignored the hand but nodded when Jim said, “Anatoly.” I was barely awake and figured he’d made some obscure joke the other man didn’t get. I got back in the car and unscrewed the thermos lid, poured myself some coffee.

The ranger had told us that the wolves were most active at dawn and dusk, and that the best way to view them was to look for the cluster of people beside the road with viewing scopes. It was the dead of January, but sure enough that morning as we drove out the northern park road and entered the Lamar Valley, we found seven people in one of the pullouts, standing with alert expectation in front of fat cylinders on long legs.

Clouds obscured the stars. The sky was black and the snow, a deep lavender. We parked our Ford Fiesta next to the fleet of SUVs, and that’s when Jim introduced himself as Anatoly. Forgive me for repeating that moment; it’s the part of this life shift I can’t explain. The name must have to come to him in the way dreams lay out whole stories we don’t even know exist in our unconscious. A wild name, Anatoly, parked in the recesses of Jim’s psyche, perhaps for years, waiting for the right mix of circumstances to surface. Or maybe the sight of that black sky and lavender snow, the promise of those long-legged scopes, birthed the name right then and there.

For a few minutes I watched my husband from the car. He asked questions and received brief answers from some of the wolf watchers. Others ignored him. A couple pointedly never even looked at him. I saw him tamp down his eagerness, realize that there was a culture here that he best observe rather than blunder.

This was my first moment of capitulation, although I certainly didn’t recognize it as such at the time. Viewing my husband through the windshield, as if it were a lens that allowed me to see him objectively, I saw a man in longing. For what, I couldn’t have said, but my annoyance at his enthusiasm for a predawn adventure dissolved. He was thrilled to be there, lured by the mystery of wolves, hoping to experience something new. I couldn’t fault him on that. Whatever malaise had settled over our life together, Jim himself had always had a childlike curiosity that I loved. I opened the door and stepped back into the bitter cold air.

The ridge to the east darkened, and the sky directly above it lightened. The mustard yellow burgeoned into a tangerine orange, and then came the first rays of the sun, sheer daggers of light.

A wolf howled.

The wolf watchers aligned themselves with their scopes and began scanning. Jim opened his mouth to ask a question, and I put my mitten against his lips and shook my head. He nodded his thanks, knew that I was right about silence now. The wolf howled again.

Jim looked over his shoulder, as if the beast was about to pounce on him, and then did a quick 360-degree search. I thought he was startled, maybe frightened, but then I realized that the look on his face was deep calm, intense concentration. That howling wolf spoke to his heart more directly than the cries of our babies had.

That night, while Jim was in the shower, I called Barbara from our room at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and told her, “Your father has fallen in love with a female alpha wolf.”

“Meaning?” I could hear the background clanking of dinner pots.

“There’s this culture of people who go into the park every single day, and they stay all day, looking for the wolf packs.”
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“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

“And this has what to do with Dad?”

“I think he does know.”

“Call Mark. Have him talk to Dad.”

“Mark,” I said a few moments later, “I think your dad is considering joining a wolf pack.”

Mark laughed. “Sounds about right.”

“It does? How so?”

“He has that wandering in him.”

This almost offended me. “He’s never wandered from us.”

“No. But essentially he’s a nomad.”

Separate. Quiet. Restless. Yes, the word fit, but I didn’t like it.

“That’s crazy,” I said. “What are you talking about?”

“It just always seemed like he needed a passion.” Mark hesitated, not wanting to hurt my feelings. “He’s always been a little bit sad. Not a lot. But a little bit.”

“And a wolf pack is going to make him not sad?”

“It might.”

Clearly there would be no advantage to putting Mark on the phone with his father. Nor could I make myself tell him that I thought Jim had introduced himself to the wolf watchers as Anatoly.

“Hey, it’s not another woman,” Mark laughed. “Not a human one, anyway.”

“That’s very comforting.”

“What did Barbara say?”

“She said to call you.”

Two hours after sunrise that first morning, the Lamar Canyon pack was spotted. “Got ’em,” said one of the three gray-bearded observers. Later I’d know them as Joe, Gregory, and Zack, but it wasn’t until the next trip that I could tell them apart. He spoke quietly, but with a load of triumph.

“Where?” everyone asked in unison, and the man identified a ridge in the distance, began describing clusters of trees, shapes of long shadows on the snow, and snags that could not be seen with the naked eye.

Jim literally squirmed with the desire to see. One of the gray beards motioned him over to his scope. He spoke quietly, explaining that the alpha female was to the far left, out in front, and that four other pack members were running along behind her.

“Let me adjust the scope,” he said. “They’ve probably run out of view already.”

I saw the others slide their scope handles to the right, following the running wolves. Jim looked again after the adjustment and almost cried out in his joy. He held back the cry, though, and won points, I’m sure, with the viewing pack.

“Did you see?” the gray beard asked, and Jim nodded.

What I saw was my husband’s relationship to those wolves. It was visceral, visual and audible both, as if I could see and hear his heart bursting out of his chest and whizzing out to that pack of freely running canines.

“She…” he said to me later in the car. “She…” So moved he couldn’t finish his sentence, but I knew he was talking about the alpha female, her silvery coat and sprightly legs, her clarity of purpose.

The next morning, we returned to the Lamar Valley well before sunrise, and this time the pack was in the valley itself, playing and resting, only a few hundred yards away. The wolf watchers saw my husband’s serious caring, and they began to feed him tidbits of information about this particular pack and especially about the alpha female. Eventually the pack headed at a trot over the ridge to the west, and in under 10 seconds, the watchers had loaded their scopes into the backs of their vehicles and taken off down the road. Jim and I looked at each other in dismay, confused for a moment, but he caught right on.

“They’re going to the next pullout where they hope to see the pack come over the ridge toward them.” He was at the wheel of the Ford Fiesta before I’d even lowered my binoculars. I swear he might have driven off without me if I hadn’t hopped to, so eager he was to see the pack crest the ridge with the rest of the watchers.

Thankfully our short holiday ended. We were both expected back at work on Monday. I chose to think of the whole experience as a positive infusion of joy and adventure, especially for Jim. He told everyone about the wolves. He also told everyone to please call him Anatoly.

I snapped after about two weeks of this. “Tell me,” I begged, “what’s wrong with the name Jim? It’s been good enough for 52 years.”

My question brought on what I soon learned to call The Look. His gaze slid past me, way past me, over the buildings of town, beyond the fields of the regional park, far beyond. Is it possible to look farther away than a horizon? Jim did. Anatoly did.

We returned to Yellowstone a month later. In the meantime, he read every book there was to read and followed the 10 park packs—and the two loners—on the websites of the wolf watchers. He knew how to identify the alpha males and females, the names and ranges of the packs. The Mollies, he told me, lived just north of the lake, while the Canyon, Blacktail, and Agate packs had territories to the west of the Lamar Canyon Pack.

“Eleven packs,” I told him as we approached the park. He glanced at me, knowing I was including the odd group of people who organized their entire lives around viewing the wolves in Yellowstone, but he was immune to criticism on this front. He merely nodded at my comment. It was like he was a lone wolf on the periphery, looking for a way to be admitted to the pack. Knowledge was always valuable, and he’d armed himself with lots. So was acquiescent behavior, and he greeted the group quietly our first morning of this second trip, nodding like they did, setting up his scope, scanning the ridgetops with his binoculars. He pretended he’d already been accepted.

I’m surprised he brought me along. Couldn’t I be considered a liability? Sure, one astute male who was apparently willing to buy into every single rule had a chance, but I was a dubious female, suspicious, circling on the outside, quite ready to attack from a psychological point of view. I granted these people what I thought was a generous assessment: They were passionate. But where is the line between passion and obsession?

Take Michelle, maybe 45 years old, evidently unemployed, she rose before the sun each and every morning and drove into the park to view wolves. At least Louise and Gregory were retired, or so I assumed by their ages, and they shared the fixation with one another. Ashley and Neil, another couple, were not old enough to be retired, nor did they exhibit a shared delight in the wolf pursuit. In fact, their quiet and infrequent, but forceful nonetheless, banter revealed a deep competitiveness.

“Got her,” Neil said on our first morning back in the park.

“Oh, you mean 54?” Ashley responded with strained cheeriness. “I’ve been watching her for five minutes.”

After an irritated pause, Neil said, “That would be impossible, dear. She came over the ridge 17 seconds ago.”

“Hon?” Syrupy. “You’re talking about 31. He”—the pronoun emphasis pointing out that Neil had gotten even the sex of the animal wrong—“is right there next to the closest tree. You’re right about that.”

“Oh, 31?” Neil retorted. “He’s been there since before sunrise. I recognized his voice, which made it quite clear that he was somewhere in that stand of alders.”

Ashley swung her scope 45 degrees to the right, as if she’d suddenly become aware of a whole new wolf situation and Neil, who’d pulled back from his scope for the argument, couldn’t resist pushing his eye back against the eyepiece and swinging his that way, too. I bet there was nothing there at all. Ashley was just messing with Neil.

The entire group usually stayed all day, until the last possible chance of a sighting at dusk. “See you in the morning!” they’d call out quietly at the end of the day, packing up their scopes. On our last night in the park that second trip, Jim and I overheard them making arrangements to have dinner together. Michelle was cooking spaghetti for everyone at her place just outside Silver Gate. Jim was hurt that we hadn’t been invited.

“Why would we be?” I asked him, appalled at his feeling of belonging. “We don’t know these people. We have lives 200 miles away, a house, grown children, and grandchildren. We have jobs.”

After dinner in our hotel, while Jim interrogated a wildlife tour guide he’d found in the lobby, I sat on a nearby couch and called Barbara. I felt as if I shouldn’t let him out of my sight, though I couldn’t name what it was I feared.

“Mom, it’s late. I’m trying to get the kids to bed.”

“I know,” I whispered, feeling as if I were betraying Jim by telling on him to our children.

“We’re back in the park.”

“You mean Yellowstone?”

“Yes.”

Barbara paused, and I was gratified that she was finally getting the situation. “So that Dad can look for wolves again?”

“Yes.”

In her silence I heard her decide that she couldn’t do anything about my problem. “Girls,” she called to her daughters. “You want to say hi to Grandma?”

After she put them each on an extension, I greeted my two granddaughters, 3 and 5 years old, by telling them, “Your grandpa wants to become a wolf.”

The older one, Bella, giggled, but Heidi said nothing. I may have scared her. Bella said, “Grandma, that’s not possible. That only happens in fairytales.”

“True,” I forced myself to admit.

There was no call for frightening my grandchildren. Nor was it fair to hope for support from five- and three-year-olds. But children can sometimes believe the unbelievable, and I needed someone to witness this change in my husband. Bella snickered again, and Heidi started to ask a question, but Barbara took the phones away from them and announced bedtime. I heard shrieking, and Barbara hung up without saying goodbye. She often assumed rudeness was okay in the wake of parenting, and that I’d understand having had two children myself, but I could have used a “goodbye” and “I love you.”

Two weeks later, we were back in Yellowstone, and this time Anatoly had me drop him off in Lamar Valley. We both doubted very much that the National Park Service condoned camping in the backcountry, at least not here in the most common wolf territory, but there was no talking him out of it. I tried the tactic of telling him that if Joe, Gregory, Zack, Michelle, Ashley, Louise, or Neil found out, he’d be shunned. Not disturbing the wolves in their habitat was the supreme rule.

Never mind the fact that he’d never camped a day in his life. Here we were, though, in the Lamar Valley, in the pitch black of extreme early morning, so he could get out of sight before the wolf watchers arrived. He’d outfitted himself with a backpack, tent, stove, and snowshoes. I insisted on no meat products in his pack, which he agreed was a good idea, but nothing else I suggested held any weight.

I love my husband and I feared for his life, I truly did, but after 30 years of marriage you do learn that you can’t stop anyone from doing something they want to do. You really can’t. And in the case of my husband sleeping with the wolves, “want” wasn’t an even close approximation to the verb needed to describe what Anatoly was after.

The problem was getting him out, and hopefully back, without anyone seeing him. Even though he was setting out well before the wolf watchers arrival, I dropped him far from any of the pullouts, and then he had to hoof it fast, headlamp strapped to his forehead, to get out of sight of the road. How he’d get back to the road the next day, without being spotted, I didn’t know. Or even care. By this time I thought his arrest might be the best outcome.

I lay in bed that night, back in the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, reading a book. I’d already gone to the ranger talk and eaten a multicourse dinner, to pass the time, but there was no television reception out there, so I was left with a book and my thoughts. I’ll spare you the gratuitous details of those. I did sleep for a couple of hours.

The next day I sat in the Ford Fiesta, the engine running so that I could have heat, and scanned the landscape with my binoculars. Earlier, as I scraped the ice off the windows of the car in the dark, I felt like a fool. Why I had allowed this, I didn’t know. I should have insisted on a counselor. I could have refused to be an accomplice. He wouldn’t have been able to get anyone else to help him. I could have put a stop to the whole enterprise.

Instead I had dropped the man off in the soul of February, temperatures barely hovering over zero degrees, in wolf country. My own husband. Seriously, I was the one who should have made an appointment with a counselor.

“You’re enabling,” Barbara had told me a few days earlier.

Mark only laughed, angering me with his blithe reaction. Men supporting men’s harebrained schemes.

What had I done? Introducing my husband as Anatoly was an embarrassment. But explaining that he’d lost his life because I left him off in wolf country in the middle of a winter night was probably criminal.

I saw a dot on the snowy ridge. A moving dot. Just one, with two legs. I trained my binoculars on the animal and whispered, “Got ’im.”

As my husband loped toward me, I checked his gait for a limp. None. As he drew even closer, I looked for blood or pain on his face. Again, none.

I’d wanted him to live, of course, but I realized then that I’d also hoped for pain, for a terrifying experience that would cure him of this newfound love of the wild. Hope and expectation are two different things, though, and seeing that he was fine, just fine, I shifted into the latter. I knew what I would see when he reached the car. A hard, wolfish stare. Maybe a growl. Claims of spiritual visitations. I half-expected him to have found a downed animal and be hauling the pelt, maybe wearing it draped across his shoulders. We’d gone past the chance of a counselor helping us. We’d need an intervention.

Jim pulled the door of the passenger seat open and stuck in his head. “Open the trunk?” I heard him dump his sodden backpack on top of the extra jackets and boots, followed by a clacking of snowshoes, and then he was back at the passenger door, opening it, and dropping into the seat. Would he howl at me?

For the first time I wished for the company of Joe, Gregory, Zack, Michelle, Ashley, Louise, and Neil. Unfortunately, the wolf watchers were in a different part of the park that day, but if they’d been there, they surely would have reported my husband to the Park Service and every other wildlife protection agency. They would never again allow him to set up his scope alongside theirs. He would be a pariah, this man who would disturb the wolves, who believed that he alone could beat his own DNA, join, even for a night, a different species. But they weren’t there, so I was left on my own to accept my husband’s experience.

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.”

“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.”

“They did.”

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.

I did.

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.” SEP Logo Reverse
 

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