Dusk. Fresh flakes of floating snow lit the mountain. Douglas Firs strained under the weight of white blankets. A silence where even a pulse could be heard.
He was outside. I could feel him. And I knew he could sense me. He sheltered his pain beside the woodpile. Foolishly I once threw him some meat on a bone. But I didn’t want to entice him into my world. I had returned to his. This time for good. He appeared every evening. I felt a connection that transcended fear. Only doubt kept my rifle close.
I eased open a cabin window. His head was raised, and we shared a moment searching each other. I’d looked into many eyes but seen nothing, unlike those of Gray Wolf. I felt he understood my need for silent sharing.
It was folly going back to the city. The mountain was where my spirit sang; where my emotions soared. But I wanted it all; the need to share the joy and to be complete. Leaving Joanne with another the first time was painful enough. But in the tranquility of the mountain, it is easy to paint reality onto a dream.
We were raised as kids in the woods. Our young love of the lake and the mountain bound us together. As teenagers at college we renewed our promise to never leave the mountain. I suppose it was our poor backgrounds that made it easy for the city boy to lure her away to his luxury apartment over the river. Only because I knew the mountain would always be in her soul did I agree to take the job with her company in the hope of persuading her back. But after just six months I could no longer watch her be drawn deeper into the city boy’s world. He was offering her material wealth. I knew I could give her a life of shared joy. Sometimes you know when something is just perfect, and then the universe doesn’t respond.
I ached for her, and agonised over my decision to leave. I wanted to scream. But no one screams in the city.
Back in my cabin I licked my wounds and indulged my pain. Nature and my duties as a ranger encouraged me to draw my attention outwards; sometimes succeeding. And I never doubted that one day Joanne would return.
The snow surrendered to a milky moon climbing above the Lodgepole Pines that clung to the side of the Idaho mountain. Soon Gray Wolf would make his way to the ridge. I had watched him grow from a pup down in the ravine, until he left to join a pack by the lakeside.
He arrived late in the spring with a shoulder wound and sheltered under the cabin overhang, leaving nightly to go to the ridge to howl. Twice he returned to the pack, each time coming back with a freshly-bloodied neck. Only alpha males in a pack can breed with the dominant female. The wounds never seemed to bother Gray Wolf. It was as though they were too entwined with memories to want to heal.
Summertime, when he made his way to the ridge, I walked a few feet behind, carrying my rifle. I’d sit on a rock and watch him from a short distance. If I paused on the way he would wait for me to catch up. When moonlight sliced through the pines, he would turn to check that I was still there. From the mountain top he would raise his head until his muzzle aligned with his erect back, and howl as though he was emptying his soul into the wild.
Then one night, the risen moon was full and glistening snow lit the path between the trees. It was an overwhelming evening that awakened the need to share. I wanted to join Gray Wolf, but was held back by emotion. I watched from the cabin door as he made his way, stopping to look back for me. Drawn into the moment I suddenly left the cabin and followed him. Close to the ridge I realised that I had left my rifle behind. Despite the bond between us, I still felt unsure. I took a few steps back when Gray Wolf suddenly rounded in front of me. I froze. He snarled, and bared his canines. His eyes locked onto mine. I strained to find their meaning. He hunched his shoulders and growled again as I tried to side-step. Somehow it didn’t feel like a threat — more a demand to follow him. So I continued on to the ridge and settled on my rock. Gray Wolf had crept ahead, but now stood beside me whining. I took that to mean I had further to go. Cautiously I joined him at the mountain’s edge. He was now calm. We were inches apart and I could feel his heat through my jacket. Then it happened. He arched his body back and bayed loudly into the sky beyond the treetops. The call echoed through the valley. Exhausted, he lowered his head and fixed a hypnotising stare into my eyes. It was then that I realised how much we understood each other. I raised my head, cupped my hands around my mouth, and let out a long continuous cry into the wilderness.
We walked back together through the snow to the cabin, emotionally spent.
In the morning Gray Wolf was gone. He never returned. And I waited.
Dan Keeble hails from a village in Essex. UK and has had published a number of articles and short stories.