Readers: this is a total cop out because I’m am currently on my UK book tour for SHIVER, and I’ve been going wall to wall with UK events for a week. I have had spotty internet access and rare laptop access and basically, for the first time ever, I’ve not written a story on time for Merry Sisters of Fate.
So instead, I am going to give to you the short story that inspired SHIVER, unedited, and probably quite bad (I haven’t read it since I wrote it, right after waking up from a vivid dream about wolves in a snowy wood). So, without further ado, here is "Still Wolf Watching."
ETA: I just read it and it’s positively weird to see how I changed the mythology and characters and language from this original imagining, but preserved a few of the lines of prose.
I remember laying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, and they were licking me. Or eating me. I couldn’t tell which. I just knew that the huddled bodies of the wolves, ice glistening in their ruffs, blocked what little heat the sun offered. I was lost to a sea of cold, and then I was reborn into a world of warmth.
I saw him again after that – the one who prodded his nose into my hand and against my cheek instead of stealing my warmth with a greedy tongue – standing at the edge of the woods in our backyard. In between day and night, when I stayed out too late playing on the tire swing, I would feel his eyes and turn in time to see him melt into the undergrowth.
I was never afraid of him, although even as an adolescent wolf he was large enough to tear me from my swing if he wished it. I did fear the older female that often accompanied him, though. Even less visible than he, she watched me – or rather she watched him watching me. I saw hunger in her pale yellow eyes.
As I grew into my teenage body, filling out angles with curves and using the tire swing as a perch to read instead of a swing, so too did he grow and mature. His uneven coat of youth shed out and was replaced with a ruff of beautiful, soft-looking fur. His eyes shifted from baby-blue to tawny yellow, and their curiosity gave way to wariness. Still, I wasn’t afraid.
I was fascinated with him and he seemed to feel likewise. It was like making eyes, almost, except wolves mated for life, and surely that hungry she-wolf was his mate. But I was young and fanciful. I imagined great adventures where I became a wolf by night and ran away with him to a golden wood where it never snowed.
One orange-brown evening, as I sat beneath the tire swing tree and read King Arthur, I felt a dry nose push into my hand and touch my cheek. I didn’t move a muscle, lest I frighten him, but my caution was for nothing. He was gone before I could even dart my eyes to where he should’ve been.
The next time I saw a wolf, it was her, and she growled at me from the edge of the wood.
Long weeks passed between his visits, and I always felt his absence as strongly as his presence. And now he and the she-wolf weren’t the only ones spying on my literary evenings. A massive male, muzzle just starting to gray, wove a mysterious path amongst the trees, watching me all the while. He melted away like my wolf, soundless despite his size.
A lean brindle wolf watched too, from far away. I was glad he kept his distance, brindle flashing in the woods like a fish in the water. Everything about him – his dull scraggly coat, his notched ear, his one foul running eye – shouted an ill body, and the rolling whites of his wild eyes whispered of a diseased mind.
And then one evening, before Christmas vacation began, the she-wolf appeared amongst the bare trees, unable to hide her approach amongst the skeleton branches. I watched her, unseen, behind the glass of the living room window, and saw another wolf draw alongside her. He was not my wolf; he was broader in the shoulders and nearly black. He pressed his muzzle to the she-wolf’s, the devoted touch of a spouse, and the faithless she-wolf looked towards the house before she responded in kind to her mate.
Christmas vacation called me away from the wolves’ wood, though all the presents and food and kisses of a grandmother couldn’t drive the wolves from my head.
I didn’t see him again until the fourth snow of the season. He padded softly through the powder towards me and my half-done snowman.
“Are you hungry, wolf?” He looked it; too many ribs. I tossed a sugar cookie from my pocket. He was gone in a flash at the movement, but when I looked up again, the cookie was gone, and he stood at the edge of the wood, licking his lips.
The she-wolf materialized beside him, subtle as a ghost, and stared at me.
“I know your secret,” I told her.
She snarled and vanished. He lingered, though, getting old enough to be brave without her protection.
I smiled at him. “I know you only have eyes for me.”
He lowered his head and his tail waved once before he disappeared amongst his trees.
On the coldest day of the year, when I had the house to myself, I heard screams. They were the sort of screams that rose the hair on your arms and stung tears in your eyes. I was out the door in a heartbeat, bearing my coat and my father’s 9 millimeter from above the kitchen cabinet.
I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find the source outside in the creeping evening, but my worries were unfounded. The screams had given way to a high, unbroken wail by the time I slid over the ice-coated snow into the trees. I worried I would accidentally fire the pistol if I fell.
The trees seemed to go on forever in endless monotony, but so did the wail, thin and inhuman in the still night.
Then it stopped.
There was no sound at all in the wood. The ice had frozen every evidence of life tightly beneath a layer of dead glass.
But it didn’t matter, because up ahead, I saw the woman. A crimson butterfly spread from her body and melted the snow.
She was dead. It was an unavoidable truth, the proof of it so gruesome that afterwards all I could say was that a wolf had done it.
I didn’t run back to the house, though instinct urged me to. Running showed fear and fear showed weakness. I wasn’t sure how many bullets the pistol had and I wasn’t sure that my frozen hands would send them to their mark. So I walked back through the bone-bare trees, my eyes catching glimpses of movement in the wood like fish through water.
The police arrived with flashlights, shotguns, and reassuring accents. They called me ma’am though I was still a miss, destroyed the silence of the icy woods, and returned with only a handful of bloody snow.
The search for the body took weeks and literally kept the wolves from my door. The police found nothing but crushing silence, and after they’d
gone, there was a new wolf. It was another female and in her eyes I saw terror and imprisonment, though she was free to go wherever the trees’ mysterious patterns led.
He appeared a few days later, alone, and I was torn between relief – that his eyes were still for me alone – and anger.
I faced him in the melting snow, close enough that I could’ve reached out and touched his dazzling ruff. “Did you kill her?”
He didn’t vanish at my voice. He remained a statue.
“I can’t forget the screams.” I almost said “her screams,” but somehow that made it even more unbearable.
Then, extraordinarily, he closed his eyes. It went against every natural instinct a wolf should have. Years of an unblinking gaze, and now he was frozen in almost human grief, brilliant eyes closed, head and tail lowered.
It was the saddest thing I’d ever seen.
Slowly, barely moving, I approached him, as always, unafraid. His ears flicked, acknowledging my presence. I crouched, close enough to smell the musky, wild odor of his coat and feel the warmth of his breath.
Then I did what I had always wanted to; put a hand to his dense ruff, and when he didn’t flinch, buried both hands in his fur. His outer coat was not at all soft as I’d imagine, but beneath the coarse guard hairs was a downy soft like a newly hatched chick. With a low groan, he pressed his head against me, eyes still closed. I held him as if he were no more than a family dog, though his wild, sharp scene wouldn’t let me forget what he really was.
Movement caught my eye: far off, the brindle wolf, and on the edge of the wood, the old she-wolf, eyes burning with an awful fury.
I felt rumbling ascending against my body, a rising growl, and I realized he was growling at them. She stepped closer, uncommonly bold, and he twisted in my arms to face her.
She never growled and somehow that was worse. A wolf should’ve growled. She just stared, eyes flicking from him to me, every aspect of her expression breathing hatred.
The brindle wolf watched us all from his vantage point in the trees, unmoving. Still growling silently, my wolf pressed harder against me, forcing me back a step, then another. Together we backed up to the house. My hand found the doorknob and I fell back inside. Like spirits the brindle and the she-wolf melted into the woods, and then my wolf into the darkness of his own path.
Weeks passed. The woods were empty of wolves but brimming with birds only big enough to fill my palm and fresh green buds smelling of life. The time was agonizing. I didn’t want to stay and watch the wood alive with every animal but the one I wanted, but I didn’t want to leave in case I missed his reemerging. What would the she-wolf do in her anger?
My parents took our spring vacation without me, leaving me with a house as empty as the woods for three days. Urgency descended upon me on the second day, an uncertain master, and drove me into the woods with the pistol and my backpack slung on my back for courage. The wood was transformed from the desolate place it had been a few months before when screams had pulled me in. Now the trees were clothed in lush green and hung with vines; trills of uncaring birds and oblivious insects provided a vibrant soundtrack.
But it was the same wood as before and it was the same screams that guided my steps, though these screams made noise to no one but I.
I found him crumpled at the base of a birch tree, whimpering softly. His beautiful ruff was gone and he was naked, but I knew it was him even before he opened his eyes. His pale yellow eyes flicked open at the sound of my approach, but he didn’t move. Red was smeared from his ear to his shoulders; deadly war paint.
I crouched swiftly, laying the pistol on the new grass and taking off my backpack. I took out a towel covered with smiling ducks and gently removed his hand from where it was pressed against the wound at his neck. Holding the towel against his neck, I pushed his blood smeared hair away from his eyes. They were different now – wildness tempered with a comprehension that had been absent before.
“I don’t want to go back.” The agony in his words immediately transported me to a scene where a wolf stood in silent grief before me. “If I – If I start to change, let me die.”
He wasn’t going to die. I had survived this.
“Don’t be afraid.”
He shuddered and closed his eyes. “I kept watching for you. To change. To help you when you did. But you never did.”
I remembered all the afternoons I’d made believe I was a wolf so I could have adventures with him.
“But you were bitten. You should’ve changed like the rest of us.”
I still had the scars on my neck. I remembered the wolves’ tongues, their teeth. I remembered him nosing my hand and my cheek, then forcing himself out of wolf into his true skin. Carrying me home, away from hungry eyes and into life.
I sensed the hope in his voice. “I don’t think there’s a cure,” I said softly. “Is that why you watched me all this time?”
He shivered again. “At first.”
I put his hand on the towel, letting him hold it, and I put the pistol in the backpack before setting it beside the tree; I’d get it later.
“My turn to save you.” I braced myself and lifted him over my shoulders. Heavy, but not as heavy as he should’ve been, and light for me, considering what I was capable of.
Movement flashed, and the she-wolf stood a few feet away, eyes trained on me.
On my shoulders, I felt him spasm, human form losing an ever-waging war, and the she-wolf stepped forward. She would not be robbed of the pleasure of watching him die after refusing her.
I stepped forward. I bared my teeth and snarled, to let her know that she’d been fooled for too long by my unchanging skin.