The Wolf Tale: How a Disease Was Born

Giselle’s grandfather told her tales of a huge white wolf who prowled the woods. They were scary, but she didn’t think he told them to scare her. Over time, she understood he told them because he loved the telling, riding its rising tide of tension until it met with the bracing hearth of fear.

She felt wicked listening, because she should have been reading the Bible instead. Giselle was a child of God back then, not just in the way that all children too young to be anything but savage are, but because she was wet with love for the man she could not see. Yet she owed obedience to her grandfather as well as to redemption’s teasing tyrant, so she didn’t worry much.

God blesses the little children, after all.

The other villagers would have laughed if they’d known of seven-year-old Giselle’s inner doubts. To them she was sunshine in a land of near-eternal gloom and cold. Her smile was kind, her manners impeccable, her charity unfailing. And she was pretty.

Nearly everyone doted on Giselle: her neighbors, the village elders, her brothers. She was the only girl in a family of six that had lacked a father for several years. (Hunting accident.) His widow Agrippina had reacted to his sudden loss by turning sterner and more oracular.

Agrippina was the one person who viewed her daughter critically, never sparing her a smile. Giselle wasn’t bothered by her mother’s strictness in itself. Since even the village priest only smiled indulgently when she asked him to absolve her of her sins, her mother’s severe judgments were welcome. But the little girl feared that her mother’s austerity was motivated by something other than the holy, naughty as such thoughts were.

Many were the rumors about her mother’s past. She had been an actress in the city as a girl; she had passed her late teenage years as the mistress of the prefecture’s wealthiest man; she had been a promiscuous beauty before her kind husband agreed to take her soiled soul under his wing; she had killed a man. They said her face was marked by rashes when she was young. The gossip touched on the present too, suggesting that Agrippina always slipped into the woods on the brightest nights to practice witchcraft and blood the moon. Giselle doubted the specifics of most of these tales, but she too felt the vibration in her mother that precipitated them, her just-heard song of wrongness.

Her mother’s strangeness only served to redouble the good will toward her daughter. After all, what a miracle that such a blasphemous creature should have birthed a sweet angel! And how much easier it is to harvest goodwill from dark fields of distrust toward another.

So when Giselle padded down the paths between the cottages or was spied leading a lamb to pasture, the others bleated her name like a psalm’s sole-remembered verse: “Giselle! Giselle! Giselle!”

One day, a passing wise woman told Giselle what her name meant: hostage. And she wondered if her neighbors knew.

Her grandfather did not talk only about wolves. In fact, he was a better conveyor of Bible stories than the village priest. While Giselle sat on his knee—her grandfather wouldn’t tell her stories, he swore, unless his flesh was touching hers—the old man built Byzantium-bright cities in her mind, populated with devout maidens facing the sword, innocents caped with white doves, and hermits who spoke in tongues. Many of these tales were one step away from heresy in their embrace of the bold, the beautiful, the baroque. Yet when his nightly fantasias touched on the travails of a saint, Giselle couldn’t breathe. Was it evil to hope that she could join their ranks? Certainly, she studied their lives as if she, not they, were tested by them.

Her favorite was Saint Teresa of Avila. As a child, she ran away from home to find martyrdom fighting the Moors. Giselle barely paused to wonder what a Moor was and why fighting one should ensure sanctity. Such details weren’t the point and only slowed the story down. What burned in it and in the child upon its hearing was the fire of devotion in a body young as hers. Of course, Saint Teresa had been waylaid by her relatives and quickly recalled to the mundane, but her act now inspired another young girl.

Pilgrims intuit what the architects of festivals and feast days did long ago. That is, we can only return to ourselves once we have left, our hearts marked like the calendars with fleeting flagged tents of the sweet and the savory.

Unaware of any Moors to be slaughtered in God’s good name, Giselle settled instead on the idea of a pilgrimage. She had once been entertained for hours by a visitor who passed through the village during summer’s slim sling. A female visitor, which is to say she would have been hounded as a whore had she not been old enough to discredit the worst suspicions and rich enough to quell any lingering doubts with gifts of food.

This spry old woman described her journey across mountains and between kingdoms, how she stopped to sup at shrines along the way. Her hands swiveled and shrank with invisible castanets and her feet lost years in the stomping as she mimicked how she and other supplicants had danced beside a saint’s still bones.

She dazzled Giselle, not with what she had done but with the idea of what could be done. Her mother, by contrast, gazed at the pilgrim with distrust, as we look upon those who voice what we hide. Agrippina had travelled too, but she’d kept silent about her stations of the cross.

For several days Giselle fasted. There was no other way to stockpile food in a village of just-enough, and she doubted God would want her to die in the snows before she could accomplish her task. Her mission: to walk the pilgrim’s route inscribed by the visitor’s tales and protect its relics from infidels.

To prevent her strength and resolve from failing, she prayed. For the first time, she shied away from her grandfather and his stories, for his eyes grew more knowing in their telling. He became the wolf he called to life through words, his nose sharp enough to smell the scent of heavenly creatures backing away.

It was with a heavy heart that she turned her back on him, but father figures can only walk brides of Christ down the aisle. Once they reach the altar, they must let each other go.

She told her mother she was going to check on the lambs late one afternoon. Recently, two had been butchered by wolves. Batting loosely at truth as children do, Giselle did fulfill this chore before she struck out into the same woods in which her lambs’ death dreamt.

In this land of frequent winter, night fell fast. Giselle knew she had no time to lose, even if she knew not where to go.

After about an hour, a huge white wolf fell across her path, as if conjured by her grandfather as he stroked her hair.

He was coy. She was not his first little girl to seduce. As soon as he saw she saw him, he ducked behind the nearest tree, then peered out, for all the world like the village cocotte at the harvest festival.

But he need not have tried so hard. Something about the wolf’s eyes intrigued, if not quite reassured, the little girl. They reminded her of her grandfather, the collective blue of all patches of ocean that have drowned little girls.

“You can ride me,” his eyes said. So Giselle climbed on top of him and the wolf plunged into the darkest trees.

Giselle was compliant but no fool; she kept her wits about her for as long as she could. Wolves grow hungry and girls more delicious with time.

But the night was stronger than her vigilance, and, rocked by the wolf’s strides, she gradually fell asleep to the lullaby of escape.

When she woke, she was still on the wolf’s back. It was almost dawn and he was still moving forward, his lope as sure as if life made sense. She wondered if he’d slept, if he’d stopped to drink water. She was certain he hadn’t eaten during the night because she couldn’t smell on him the curious satisfaction of death.

But she knew his trials were over, for at the edge of vision was a large estate, its turrets peeking above a colossal hedge maze.

As the girl and the wolf approached its evergreen maw, wolves in the distance began to howl, and her guide answered their blood-punctures on the air. He opened his mouth so wide Giselle nearly fell off his back.

The last stars spilled like breast milk on the mother of the sky as they wove through inscrutable green breaks in the world’s ruckus. The wolf knew this way as surely as he had known the previous leagues.

Once they reached the door of the great house, there was no longer the need to knock.

Giselle’s disappearance alarmed the village. It was her grandfather who raised the cry; her mother said nothing. Well, one thing, but it was near enough to nonsense to be nothing: “She went where little saints are bound to go.”

Half the village suspected the fabled white wolf in the vanishing. The girl’s grandfather was the strongest proponent of this theory. “We must scour the woods for the demon! He has snatched up our treasure in his slavering jaws.”

That night, the most strapping young men followed the grandfather into the woods, bent on destroying the lupine kidnapper. Giselle’s mother stared after them, and the dance in her eyes could have been worried or sardonic.

The next morning, the battalion returned.

The grandfather shook his head. “We heard wolves howling all night. No—they were singing. I could almost read the words on the dark air. But we didn’t glimpse even one.”

Giselle’s mother said nothing because at that moment someone knocked on the door. The village wise woman had come to report that during the night, half her great-nephew’s lambs had been slaughtered.

“The wolves were busy,” she said.

“They caused such destruction even without their alpha,” the grandfather whispered.

Agrippina, unable to refrain any longer, laughed sharply. “If you think the alpha was busy with Giselle all last night, you are wrong. It was not a wolf who took her, but a man.”

“How do you know?” The wise woman watched the mother closely, knowing it would not be lost on her that she had asked how rather than who.

Agrippina turned her huge blue eyes on the crone, and for an instant, she reclaimed the stage of her former beauty.

She smiled. “I had a vision.”

In the village’s legal system, which was underpinned by religion and barbarism in equal measure as all the worst ones are, black arts of any kind could get you stoned. Visions were among the habits and practices that could cause a (female) villager to be condemned. For Agrippina to admit to one might have meant that she felt herself above the law or that her daughter’s fate outweighed her concern for herself. But the smile that eclipsed her face when she confessed her second sight suggested she had seized the opportunity to flout the law and admit her gift.

The villagers gathered around Agrippina. In silence, she spun slowly on her heels, stretching out her arm like one trying to jab through the painted veil that divides the present from something better.

“It was him.”

In a village like hers, every river is a prophecy, every prophecy is a poem, and every poem is a threat.

The words of this one, spoken by Agrippina: “He must be treed.”

The accused was named Sheep. An incongruous name for a man as strong as an ox, but he’d always shown more of an affinity for livestock than people. He was perhaps twenty years old, though years were hard to reckon in that land of winter.

Sheep would sing to the horses, chicken, and his namesakes in a language the color of moonstone. But when other humans spoke to him, he hunched his shoulders as if his body were a foxhole into which he could dive for cover. Afterwards, though, he always did what he was told, without complaint and often with a dreamy smile.

He was a simpleton. No one knew why or how or exactly what was wrong; no one cared. He could still lift the heaviest bales of hay and had even been known to pull a cart when mules were scarce.

Sheep had no living relatives. His father had been killed in a fight over a woman who was not his mother, and his mother perished giving birth to him. Even on his first day of life, he was enormous. No one in the village had ever seen a baby so big. “It’s a wonder she even got it out of her,” a few observed, “and far less wonder that she died doing it.”

His grandmother had lived for about a dozen years more after he became an orphan and raised him to fulfill his role in the group. “He will not impress anyone with his conversation, but he is strong enough to contribute,” she assured her neighbors as she died.

Sheep never spoke to the children. They loved him in the way that cats adore those who ignore them, feeling safe in his inattention. Sometimes, on autumn days when the sight of fallen red leaves stirred them to tenderness, the small boys and girls would nip at his knees like puppies, haranguing him into piggyback rides. They hounded him until he acquiesced, picking up the nearest child, boy or girl, and gently lifting him or her onto his back in continued silence. “Sheep is a horse!” someone would always squeal with delight.

The one child he never picked up was Giselle. She never tried to corner him like the other children, because she couldn’t stand the thought of making anyone uncomfortable. Instead, she would watch him without comment as he carried the other children.

Only Agrippina understood why Sheep never ferried Giselle: he loved her. And if there was one thing, in her mind, that could condemn a person, it was love.

What followed were nights without moon. The stars cracked open, broken like eggs.

The townspeople questioned him, over and over again. The same questions: Where is Giselle? What have you done with the child? The only variation was Agrippina’s: Where is the girl you love? What have you done with the child you love?

She guessed he might not be smart enough to know her name, but we all understand whom we love, if not who they really are.

Sheep remained silent. No one knew the extent of his powers of speech, so they gave him precious paper and ink and hoped he would draw a map to her place of captivity or death, but the terrified man just stared at the implements the same way he greeted the whips and clubs that followed. But those inducements failed to elicit speech as well.

Finally, Agrippina repeated her poem and it became a sentence:

“He must be treed.”

Sheep was silent as ever when he was led, hands bound, to a dark copse a league from the village. The location had been chosen because it was far enough away that the villagers wouldn’t be disturbed while the treed man died.

It took several days. The condemned would be stuffed into a large tree whose trunk had been carved out just enough to fit a grown man. Then the bark door would be closed with heavy chains. There was breath but no food, no water, little movement, much agony.

Along the way to the copse, several of the villagers worried that the tree would not be big enough to accommodate Sheep, but Agrippina did not concern herself, knowing as she did that our nightmares are more capacious than our hopes.

The children who had hounded him into play stood silent as stones as their playmate was hounded into death.

Sheep said nothing as Giselle’s grandfather intoned the sentence and its dream of justice. He said nothing as they made a jigsaw puzzle of his flesh and sealed him inside the tree. Unlike the others, he did not scream once while the villagers were in the copse, and if he did later, no one heard him.

What everyone did hear was the howl of the wolf. For the next five days, a huge wolf (only an enormous animal could have claimed that song) stuffed the night with cries as tightly as Sheep had been pinned within the tree.

On the sixth night, silence. Agrippina knew then that the man who had loved if not abducted her daughter was dead.

For weeks after, the wolf was quiet in both word and deed. Most of the villagers took this as a sign that they had pleased the gods by killing the man responsible for the presumed death of Giselle.

But Agrippina thought that maybe the wolf’s reprieve stemmed from his grief. He was mourning.

She wished she could.

On Giselle’s eighth birthday, her grandfather held a funeral for the lost little saint. No body had been found, but there was something else to worry about. Even though Giselle had been holy since birth, she required prayer if her soul’s impassioned silk was to dance lightly upon the air.

After the funeral, a meager feast was held. In the corner, a group of teenage boys, bored with the solemnity, reached for blasphemy like others grasp a cup of mead. The tallest and weakest among them cracked a joke about what Sheep might have done to Giselle. “He must have been tighter up in her than he was in that tree.” The other boys laughed to hide their shock and shame.

Giselle’s grandfather overheard and said nothing, but when the smartest boy in the group came to pay his respects at the end of the night, he turned his back to him. Everyone in the village saw it.

No one saw the group of teenage boys again after that night.

No one spoke of the disappearance, but whenever anyone thought of it, he thought of the grandfather turning his back to the smartest boy, as if sealing him within an invisible tree.

In the wake of the vanishing, the howling of the wolves increased. It sounded as if the pack had gained new members.

In the wake of the vanishing, attacks on the sheep resumed, and twelve were slain before the moon turned. When it bloated with light, it looked to Agrippina like a tic filled with white blood.

In the wake of the vanishing, Agrippina finally allowed herself a tear.

Moons rose, winds fell, three years passed. The villagers found equanimity in the spoked cycle of the seasons, which is almost to say that they forgot about the lost girl.

Four years after Giselle was last seen, the harvest was blessed. Never before had the village enjoyed such bounty. To celebrate, its people held a ball-by-the-bonfire on All Hallow’s Eve.

Giselle’s grandfather, an elder statesman with a surprising grace in the waltz, partnered each of the nubile maidens, one at a time.

Only Agrippina saw that as each girl took her turn in her father-in-law’s arms, her lovely face was briefly eclipsed by the wolf’s raving mask.

And just like that, lupus came into the world.

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2020