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2013 Fiction Contest Winner: ‘Wolf’

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.

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