The Wolf Hunters

by Jennifer Lynn Krohn

The women and children were supposed to go to the church. Wait out the long night. We’d be helping the hunters, my father assured me, by singing songs that pleased our God and asking on our knees for his intercession. Our cries of piety, he said, would drive away the howls of the hungry wolves that preyed upon our village.

I’d once believed him. I still wanted to, but he gave my mother a necklace of amber beads—one with a strange leaf caught in its glow. He didn’t know that pretty Mathilde had shown me these stones. She’d collected them from the riverbank before the wolf had killed her. When I asked father where he’d obtained these beads, he said he collected them himself.

I go to the church and sing the first hymn, and then slide out of the last pew, crawl on the floor to the grate in the wall, and remove it before slipping into the biting cold night. I clutch the bone-handled knife my mother uses to cut fish. A narrow blade. A delicate blade. A sharp blade.

Under the moonless sky, I run through familiar streets. Keep to the walls so no one sees my movements. This, I imagine, must be what it’s like to be a wolf slinking through the forest. What it’s like to track a fawn or evade a hunter.

My house is on the edge of town so that any merchant can stop and pay the necessary tariffs. Not that we get many merchants since the attacks. It seems every month, some shepherdess or goose girl is killed by these ravenous wolves. The men have bravely taken up arms—a few flint-lock rifles and dozens of traps—against these beasts. At first, they killed dozens of wolves, but now they bring back fewer and fewer skins though there are more and more attacks. It must be a strange wolf, I said to my father, who prefers milkmaids to sheep. My father rolled his eyes and said, what do you know about wolves?

Even though my house is shuttered, I hear the voices of men as I draw near. I circle to the back, jump the fence, and sneak into my cellar. Above me now, heavy footsteps and the bravado of good beer. I wonder what wild animal they hope to trap at the bottom of a tankard.

The jumbled voices fall quieter and quieter as one grows louder. I recognize the voice—father—as he describes following Mathilde along the shore. The current lapping against rock, the birdsong quieted. I put my hands over my ears. Light slips between the floorboards and illuminates the dust dancing on currents of air. A pile of wolf skins—faces flattened and eyes empty—stare at me. I return their stare and feel sympathy, even pity, for the wild beasts. Yes, they would steal a lamb or a calf or a kid, but they would do anything to keep the stomachs of their babies full.

Not even my hands can keep the clapping and cheering out. Soon the men grow quiet again. I start to stroke the face of one of the wolves and listen. The alderman calls out the name of the tanner’s son. More cheering. Men congratulate the boy on his first. Say that he’ll be a man now. Silence and the sound of wooden chips being stirred. They call out the name of the miller’s sister. The miller talks about how he’ll finally be free of that no-good spinster.

I pull the wolf’s skin out of the pile and slip out of the cellar. I go to the forest and wait. The men stay up late singing their songs and boasting of previous conquests, but I cannot hear them. The cold creeps through my fingers and up my arms. I wrap the wolf’s pelt around me, but it doesn’t warm. The cold creeps into my heart.

I wait and wait, thinking about how patient a wolf must be. It cannot rush in and announce itself. It watches the herd, waits for the respected elder, slow and grey, to lag behind, or for some yearling, filled with confidence and foolishness, to wander off. Then it strikes.

I suspect the men have killed all the wolves in the forest, but I hope there is at least one who has slipped their snares, dodged their guns. A single wolf who watches. I don’t want to be alone.

The tanner’s son teeters out towards the outhouse but is confounded by the complexities of a garden gate. He gives up and decides to relieve himself on the furrowed ground. I slip out of the forest, knife in hand.

Jennifer Lynn Krohn (she/her) was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She currently teaches English at Central New Mexico Community College. She has published work in The Pinch, Storm Cellar, Pleiades, and Tinderbox Poetry Journal among others.
%d bloggers like this: