This story came to my father from his father. They are both gone now, so it is mine to share with you.
Today I saw a wolf. It has been many years since I have seen a wolf. More than a lifetime. I was sitting on my bench, warming in the sun when I saw him. I only saw him because I was looking down the meadow at the stream. He came from out of the brush on one side and leaped across into the brush on the other.
I am an old man now and because of that I am full of doubt, so I decided to go down and see. A quarter of a white man’s mile below where I sat was the place, and when I got there, my skin became gooseflesh and the hair stood up on my arms and behind my neck. There in the soft earth were two imprints. Like a dog’s, but three times bigger. So. He had been real.
On my slow way back up the slope, a far-ago memory of another wolf began to stir. By the time I returned to my bench, I was filled with wonder at how I could have forgotten something that now was clear and important.
I felt a shiver of fear because I knew this was the same wolf. But no, it could not be. I sat long under the sun before its warmth worked down into me. I closed my eyes and dozed into an old man’s sun-dream. Suddenly, I could see the village again, and Grandfather, and the eyes of a wolf.
It wasn’t a large village. Less than fifty tepees were clustered atop the low ridge above the river. The river was broad, but shallow and rocky with the winter season. This day, the people had just arrived and there was a bustling of activity as they settled in. As the warm days turned cooler, some had argued on whether to come here to the usual winter place or to move across the river and find a new place farther away from the growing numbers of white men and the problems they brought.
Because of the work of putting up the village, it was late when the wolf was first noticed across the river, watching the people. It was a curious thing, seeing a lone wolf in this place, unbothered by all the people and their noise and the smell of their cooking fires.
A few of the younger men came together to talk about the wolf, and since they had no part in the work going on, decided to chase the wolf and kill him. So they mounted their ponies, but when they came near the river, the wolf loped away, to the west from where he had come. He turned now and then and looked back over his shoulder, but the young men could come no closer to him, ride as they might. Everyone agreed over the campfires that night the wolf and his behavior was very strange.
The oldest man in the village, called by everyone Grandfather, was the only one who took sides with the wolf. “Long ago wolves were our brothers. This wolf is alone and means no harm.” But Grandfather would say no more than that.
For the next few days, when daylight came, the wolf could be seen sitting across the river, watching the village. The young men, led by a loud warrior named Strikes the Hawk, began trying to trick the wolf, hoping to trap, or kill him. But each time they tried, the wolf slipped away, running back toward the west, now and then looking over his shoulder.
Around the central fire, Grandfather would tell stories to the young ones, keeping the peoples’ history alive. But now he only spoke about the wolf. “Long ago, wolves and men were brothers. The people learned how to hunt from our brothers the wolves. We watched them in their packs and learned many things.”
One of the young ones, the smallest boy in the village, was very curious and often asked questions. He was many years yet from his name day, and so the people in their custom called him by a pet name. He was called Sky Smiles because he went about with his head cocked back, looking up at those taller than he. And he was of a happy nature and often smiled to those who spoke to him.
Sky Smiles asked Grandfather why, if wolves hunted in packs, this one was alone.
Grandfather’s face was seamed with many wrinkles and his thick hair was completely white, but his eyes gleamed deep and dark and wise. “This wolf is trying to bring a message,” he finally said. “The young men are wrong to chase him.”
But the young men would not give up. They shot arrows, they set snares, they lay in ambush, but nothing succeeded against the wolf. After many days, Strikes the Hawk said he would go down the river, where the white men had a fort, and trade for one of their big steel traps. A small group went with him, and while they were gone things were quiet and peaceful and the wolf watched from across the river.
“What is the message, Grandfather?” Sky Smiles would ask.
“That is for us to learn,” Grandfather said. “But think on this. If the wolf carries a message, who gave it to him?”
When Strikes the Hawk returned, the young men brought a trap and they were loud and unruly and drank from glass bottles that came from the white men. They placed the trap across the river and set bait around it and laughed at who would be wearing the wolf skin that winter.
The next morning the wolf did not appear, and all day the people wondered. The wolf did not come the next day either, but then the trap and the wolf were forgotten because something new was happening. The young men had brought back more than a few bottles and a trap. All over the village the sound of coughing could be heard. By the third day, nearly every family in the village had someone lying with fever. Two days after that, the dying began. The very old and the very young went first. Grandfather died on the sixth day after Strikes the Hawk returned.
Sky Smiles fell to the sickness, too, and thrashed in a fever dream for two days. Around the village, tepees were shut and the people stayed quiet and did not move about and many perished. Those who survived agreed this was a bad place, that they must pack their belongings and move. And so, winter or not, a diminished group crossed the river and went west.
Sky Smiles remembered little of the hard trip west. From one moon to the next, the people struggled on before stopping at another, greater river. There they put up a meager village and endured the grim winter.
During the slow days of travel, Sky Smiles saw little of the sky. Though his fever had left him, he lay thin and wasted in his travois. Bundled and covered, he dreamed of Grandfather and the wolf and even of Strikes the Hawk, who also had died and been left far behind.
His curious mind went this way and that and as the others forgot the wolf, he pondered Grandfather’s words. Finally he was left to wonder, did the wolf bring the sickness? Was that his message? Or perhaps he came to warn the people, who did not understand or believe.
Finally, spring came to the handful of survivors, and it was decided they were not strong enough on their own. Groups broke off to go to other villages. Sky Smiles, being small, was adopted into another family and that summer was given a new name. And so he lived his life and had his own family. He became a father, then a grandfather, and he thought no more of wolves. Until one day, as a very old man, he saw the wolf again.
The clearing in front of the rough cabin was still and quiet. No sound could be heard and nothing moved. Even the old man on his bench, who a moment ago showed a slow rise and fall of his chest, was motionless. The sun was lowering and losing its warmth as the day faded. Then, at the edge of the trees, two eyes blinked from the undergrowth. And for a second, the wolf could be seen as he turned and moved away, into the west.
RF Thomas is the author of “Crossing One”, found in the anthology Yarnswoggle (2018) from Supermoon Press. After nearly 25 years in the manufacturing industry, he is chasing the American dream of becoming a full-time novelist. With lifelong roots in the Midwest, he currently calls Central Illinois home.