A Winter Tale
The winter was hard, bitterly cold and full of storms. We had to keep the animals in the near shed, just beside the house. Their musky odor filled our rooms. They paced the small building restlessly, for I could not take them out to graze during the day; the wolves had become too brazen.
My brother, Viktor, was never home anymore. He worked at the river docks. Then the rivers froze over, one by one, and his packages home grew lighter and lighter until the last was just a note: "No work until the thaw. Will stay here til then. My love to all." Mama cried over it, then, taking me by the shoulders, told me I must be the man of the house now. Grandpa was with us, but had been ill since summer. He stayed in his bed, joining us to sit around the fire on rare evenings. I asked him for stories and he would try until the coughs shook his frame, and Mama yelled at me for burdening an old man.
Mama was angry all the time. The feud between her and my sister, Anna, continued. Seven months before, Anna refused to tell her who the father was. Now Anna was swollen and flush and still silent. She burned even in our frigid house. Grandpa and I were pushed aside by the tempest of their battle.
I brought him hot tea and blankets warmed by the fireplace. The hands that accepted them were cold, so unlike the strong, warm hands that lifted me as a small boy onto my first pony and wiped my tears when I fell. More than anything, the cold hands frightened me: more than the coughing or the bloody handkerchief or the bones that jutted out from over-stretched skin. I knew the winter would strip away all warmth from the world. The rivers would never thaw, the wolves would not leave, and eventually, when the firewood had been spent, we would all sit in icy stillness forever.
One day Anna grew hotter than ever. She cried out in pain and Mama, forgetting her anger, rushed to her side, but nothing she did eased the pain. I helped Mama boil water and soak herbs, but as the dark day stretched into night, I retired to my room, leaving them by the fireplace. An icy wind circled around the house, blending its moans with Anna's and the lowing of the animals. An uneasy sleep overtook me then.
I awoke to flickering darkness; my candle burned to nothing, only the fireplace in the room beyond provided a dancing illumination. Grandpa stood before me. He filled the doorway of my small room, his long shadow falling across me. He seemed taller, sturdier, as he had when he was younger and worked as a fisherman down at the river, before Papa died.
"Tell me a story, Grandpa," I whispered. Alone in the dark room, I felt as a young child, not one soon to start his transition to manhood. He came over and sat down on my bed. The familiar smell of sweet grass and cloves enveloped me.
"I've no more time for stories, Jacob," he said. He patted my knee and leaned closer. "You must tell the stories now – mine and your own. Remember that, for it is important."
"I won't forget," I promised.
"I know you won't mean to, but life can get in the way of what we mean to do." He patted my leg again then moved back. "Go help your mother now."
"What do you…" A cry tore through the house. I rushed from the room to find Anna alone at the fireplace; Mama stood in the doorway of Viktor's old room, tears streaming down her face. I went to her and she embraced me.
"Oh, Jacob," she cried. "It's your grandfather. He's gone." She looked up at the dark rafters and wailed, "Oh, Papa! Why did you leave me now?"
"No, Mama. He's just in my room."
"No, Jacob," she smoothed my hair back from my face and kissed my forehead. "He's gone."
I struggled from her grasp and went into the room. A candle burned on the dresser, its weak light playing over the featureless room, over the already-cold body of the old man I had loved. "But how?" I asked though I did not want the answer. I ran back to my own room to find it empty. Tearing the blanket from the bed, I sat by the fire with Anna, leaving Mama to tend to Grandpa's body alone. Anna moaned in a troubled sleep. With her flushed, sweating skin, she was more welcome company than the rest of the dark, cold house. She burned hotter than any of us, a twin of the hearth, and as long as she did not burn out, I would cling to her warmth for as long as I could.
The next day dawned bleak and foreboding. The wind from the night had gained strength. It whipped our coats about our knees and stripped the cloth from Grandpa as we carried him to the outer shed, leaving his pale face uncovered. I could not stop to chase it; it tumbled away into the woods, snagging on a tree branch, just another blotch of white against the pines. Mama and I cleared the table in the shed and placed the body on it. She pulled out another cloth and covered his face again. I waited outside as she prayed. When we started back together, large dusty flakes drifted down on our heads.
We prepared for the vigil, gathering food and candles. Mama paused often to gaze with brow furrowed upon Anna. My sister had grown quiet and listless, pacing the small rooms of the house with a shuffling step. We returned from carrying supplies to the shed to find her on the floor, writhing in pain.
"Hitch up the ponies," Mama said, her voice low and firm.
Outside, waves of snow assaulted me. The animal shed was a relief, warm and pungent from the livestock; it stunk of life. I pulled the cart out and hooked up our two sturdy ponies; the snow clung to their shaggy fur. Mama appeared, carrying armfuls of blankets. I spread them across the rough bottom of the cart. The thin pile looked too meager to offer much protection against the biting cold. I knew Mama planned to go to town, to find the doctor. It was a long ride even in fair weather. Now with the cold and storm, it would be treacherously slow. It was not a trip I looked forward to. I helped Mama get Anna into the cart, then took the reins and started to climb into the cart myself.
"No, Jacob, you must stay here." She took the reins from my hands and hugged me close. "Watch your grandfather."
I struggled to back away, to argue, but snowflakes caught in my lashes; my vision was blurred with their sting and my tears. My mother clasped me tighter and whispered, reassuringly, "Just one night. You will be all right, Jacob. You are strong, strong like your papa." She kissed my forehead and climbed into the cart. The ponies shuffled in the snow, eager to get moving. Soon Mama had them going at a fair pace, their dark manes whipped by the growing storm. They seemed the wild messengers of dark tidings. When they disappeared in the snow, the realization that I was alone clamped down on me. I secured the animal shed and made my way to the outer shed. Already the wind and snow made it difficult to maneuver; I did not want to make the journey at night. The outer shed was a long walk from the house and the nights were dangerous. Even with the rifle, I did not feel safe being in the open alone. I latched the heavy door of the shed behind me and, not looking at the shape on the table, made my way to the corner. I curled up beside the small stove, the rifle nestled in the crook of my arm.
I awoke later to the sound of snowflakes sizzling against the hot metal of the stove. I glanced up to see a small window high up the wall. It had a large hole in the corner. The wind had kicked its curtain off and now pushed snow in. With cold-sore limbs, I climbed the stack of crates below the window and plugged the hole with a bundle of old wool. An icy chill still radiated from the glass, but now that the wind was stopped, the shed felt less frigid. I peered out at the scene beyond. Heavy snow had fallen while I slept and though it fell lighter now, it was still steady. A dense coat of it covered everything. The house was closed up and cold; snow clung tightly to its sharp roof. I moved to get down but something caught my eye: tracks in the snow between the house and the sheds. I focused my vision, straining to peer through the snow, and saw that the prints were heaviest around the near shed, circling it several times. I stared, wondering if I had neglected the latch and the animals had gotten out, when a great grey wolf rounded the corner of the shed and stared straight into my eyes. I stood frozen, only breathing again when it broke its gaze and bounded off into the woods.
A howl tore through the air, striking my heart and sending me tumbling down the crates to the floor, searching for the rifle. The grey wolf was near. Three times he called out. I forced my numb legs into motion and rose to check the door. The latch was secure. I pulled down the heavy crossbar anyway. The sight of strong aged wood reassured me. I returned to the corner to hug the rifle. The fear left me drained. Drowsiness overcame me and I drifted in and out of sleep, moving only to feed more wood to the fire.
The wind returned with a fury as the weak winter sun faded. It howled out of the woods, blasting the shed with snow. I thought of Mama and Anna, hoping that they had reached the town safely. It was left to me to keep the vigil on this night, but despite the guilt of neglecting my duty, I could not force myself up to retrieve the candles, much less light them. I looked at the cold figure stretched out on the table, the table Papa had prepared fish on when he worked the river with Grandpa. Papa had been tall and lean, with cords of muscle like rope. He spent more time on the water than on land. And in the end, it was the river that took him.
It happened late in the season, after the harvests. Everyone gathered in the evening for the town festival. Under the influence of too much drink, the fishermen grew boastful; the fishing had been good that year. Friendly comparisons turned into heated arguments, until, finally, a challenge was made: they would go out that night and see who could pull in the most fish.
Grandpa laughed at the folly of young men. "The fish will hear them before they reach the water. No one will catch more than a minnow tonight." He slapped me on the back and pushed me into the column of men heading for the docks. But once at the docks, I could not take a step onto the boat. The narrow gap between the wood of the dock and wood of the boat seemed immense to me. It changed as the boat rocked beneath the weight of men leaping in. I knew it would surge open, like a black gullet, and swallow me when I tried to cross.
Viktor laughed at me as I stared, then leapt easily into the boat himself. Papa called for us to join him at the front; he was eager to set out and prove his claim.
"He is afraid to come," Viktor called up.
Papa looked back at me, then waved his hand dismissively. "Leave him then." He turned his keen eyes upstream as the boat pulled away, given over to the adventure, as Viktor took his place beside him. I was forgotten on the dock, left behind with the old men and worried wives. Grandpa came over to me but I pushed him away.
I pulled my pony from the stables and rode her along the dark river banks, silently following the boats. On and on, they went, farther and farther upstream, well beyond the usual fishing grounds. Still I followed. The murmur of the river was overshadowed by laughter and drunken shouts. But the quiet whisper soon grew into a loud rush as the river was split by tiny islands. Eddies and swift channels broke the smooth river surface as the water was contorted by the jagged rocks below. My anger and shame fell away into terror. They had come too far; unwittingly they brought their boats right to the river's teeth.
The laughter died. The light-hearted shouts became confused cries. There was the crash of wood against wood, as the boats collided in their attempts to turn back. But it was too late, already some of the boats were pulled away by the eddies, spun and turned as their hulls were ripped open by the rocks below. The sound of splintering wood resounded across the water. The cries were desperate now.
Helpless, I watched from the river's edge as the water licked over my boots, until I could not stand the cries anymore and rode back to the town for help. Dawn was breaking when the other boats arrived to pick up the survivors clinging to flotsam. Many had made it to shore, including Viktor. He sat trembling in Mama's arms as she dried him with a blanket, and asked about our father.
The nets of his boat had fallen out when dashed against the rocks; they trailed in the dark water like widow's hair. When they were finally pulled up, they revealed a grisly catch: men, pale and limp, tangled in their strands. And the palest fish, his once-keen eyes now dull and glazed: Papa.
Viktor and Grandpa secured a new boat and returned to the river, but I could never go onto the water again. I stalked along the banks, alone aside from my pony, returning again and again to that tragic place. If I closed my eyes, I could still see the oily sheen on his hands as he returned to the house from cutting fish.
In the dim stove light, the table shone from the oil of all the fish prepared upon it. But Grandpa was no fish; unlike Papa, he was a man of both water and land. He had taught me how to ride and how to tend the animals. Now as the storm reached a pitch and the wind howled even louder, I could hear them lowing and bleating. I longed to comfort them. Surely, Mama would forgive me for abandoning the vigil before the end of the night. I went to the door and began lifting the heavy crossbar, but stopped. Something other than the storm moved outside. I lowered the bar and pressed my ear to the door. Below the wailing wind I could hear pacing and sniffing. It was an animal. And in that moment, a howl pierced through my head, sending me running back to the corner to yank the rifle uselessly to my shoulder. The wolf just outside the door was silent but from all around, answering howls came, the same ones I had been hearing all along, not the wind after all. The howls grew stronger and closer as they leapt from the woods and surrounded the shed.
Then came the sharp, wrenching noise of wood splintering. I twirled around, looking for the damage, but in vain. The large door was unharmed; it did not even shake in place. I paced the room, listening. The sound came again, but now that some of my terror calmed, I could hear that it was farther away. They were not at this shed. I raced up the crates under the window and peered out. It was difficult to see through the darkness and snow, but I could make out the shapes of wolves around the near shed. Dozens of them, pacing and clawing at the wood. It was a newer building, the wood thin and tightly fitted for warmth, worn now after weeks of animal urine soaking into its lower edges. Several wolves gathered on one side. Already they had made a small hole. They clawed desperately to widen it. Teeth were bared as they fought with each other for position. The large grey wolf was always at the forefront, his great jaws snapping the weakened wood like the thin bones of a lamb. Inside, the animals cried out in terror.
I shouted from the window but if they heard my voice, they were undeterred, being so close to easing the starvation the winter had brought. I pulled the wool plug from the window and raised the rifle. It was a difficult angle to maintain but I managed to fit the barrel through the opening in the glass. I had but five shots, one in the chamber and four in my pocket. Aiming as best I could in the darkness, I shot at the wolf closest to the opening, a scrawny black beast. It yelped in pain and ran into the darkness, leaving a dark trail on the snow. Two of the others ran after it. Anything could become food in this winter. I reloaded and took aim again.
The hole in the shed was now wide enough for a wolf. One had already wedged himself in up to the haunches. I shot at him but struck only the side of the building. The kickback on the rifle shattered the rest of the window. Several of the wolves looked up at me, including the grey one. Without hurry, he padded to the other side of the shed. The wolf in the hole writhed one last time and was in. I could hear the animals stamping inside. A lone wolf would not have much chance against cornered cattle. But then another slipped in, and another. Screams as I had never heard animals make filled the night. More wolves fought to get in, frenzied by the animals' cries, but something blocked the hole. One of the first wolves reappeared, its jaws clamped over the throat of a young goat. The goat's knobby legs thrashed about the opening before being seized by the wolves outside. I fired again and again. One shot found its mark; a wolf went down, still and silent in the snow, but there were several more to take its place. They carried the bleating goat towards the woods before the fighting tore it apart like old fabric.
A louder sound rent the night, the sound of wood collapsing and animals stampeding in terror. The wolves still at the hole circled around to the other side of the shed. The door had given way and I knew who had broken it. In moments, the cattle and goats fled across the snow, the wolves right on their heels. Several geese managed to fly up to the roof of the shed, but the blood splattered on the snow there showed that even they were injured. I had seen enough. I slunk down on the crate and wept, for the animals and for us. How terrible it must be to be torn to pieces by wolves, and how terrible it would be for us to starve as the winter stretched on.
I cradled the rifle in my arms. I assumed the wolves would be busy with what was left of the livestock. But I was wrong, very wrong. In moments, I heard a scratching sound along the side of the shed, slowly moving around it as the wolf looked for a weak spot. This shed was old, much older than the near shed, made of solid timber fitted together decades ago. It had lived more winters than I had. But my heart still shook, for all the beasts needed was one point of weakness, one rotted knot, to gain a foothold. In a moment, it was found. The corner of the door had been dented and damaged by Viktor dragging the old plow from the shed many summers ago. The rain had worked its way in and mold had taken the inside of the wood. The door appeared whole from the outside, but now gave way beneath eager paws.
I stood frozen with fear, watching the paws come through, tearing chunks away with them. Then the jaws, some muzzles soaked in blood, splintered the rest. All the while I could hear him, howling just below the window, in eagerness and, soon to be, triumph, the great grey beast. On and on he howled and my fear-numbed brain could not think to raise the rifle or do anything to save myself. I could only think of the first time I saw a wolf.
It had been autumn and the first dusting of snow had already come. Grandpa and I had gone hunting. I saw it, a magnificent chestnut beast with a tawny belly. It stood on an outcrop, watching us. The late afternoon sun struck it from the side, lighting up the golden notes of its coat. A messenger of the sun, I thought.
"The world is happy when the wolves are fat," Grandpa joked. He raised his rifle in the air and fired a shot. The wolf darted away. "And when they are still fearful of a gun."
Something brushed my legs, pulling me from the memory. It was the cloth that had covered my grandfather's face. I dropped my rifle and ran to the table. So pale he looked in the faint light, almost luminous.
"Please, please," I begged, shaking him by the shoulders. The wrappings around him loosened and his arm fell out. I gripped his hand, still so cold yet familiar again. "Please, save me!" I cried as the wolves tore piece after piece of wood. Collapsing to the floor, I crawled beneath the table, whimpering. The hand that I had clutched so desperately dangled down over the side of the table.
I turned to face the wolves at the door. A dark head had pushed through, stuck at the shoulders. Teeth scratched against the floor as the creature snarled at me. I could already feel those teeth upon my throat. Movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention. The dangling hand slowly returned to the table. Sounds of movement came from above me. I clutched my knees in terror as a bundle of white sheets fell to the floor and two sturdy legs swung down from the table.
My grandfather knelt down before me, his face pale but friendly. He smiled at me and gripped my shoulder before walking over to the door. The wolf had retreated but it snarled outside with the rest. Grandpa lifted the crossbar and the latch.
"No, don't," I called out to him, but he simply smiled and shook his head.
He threw the door open. The snow was blinding, lit by the first slivers of dawn. I shielded my eyes. When I looked again, the door was closed and Grandpa gone. Rousing from my terror, I pushed a heavy crate before the gaping hole in the door and collapsed in the corner.
That was the story I told Mama and the men from town that arrived in the morning. I doubt they believed me, but out of pity or shame, no one mentioned the scraps of cloth or old shoe found among the slaughtered livestock.
Mama sold the farm after that and we moved into town to live with Viktor. When Anna had the baby two months later, that part of our lives seemed a distant nightmare. But for me, the images were still vivid. I became the storyteller my grandfather asked me to be. I learned the truth of storytelling – that for every tale, there is another beneath, and the storyteller must know both. I can see my grandfather lifting the latch on the shed door to disappear in a blaze of light. And, late at night when the rest of the family is asleep and memories press close around my small bed, I can also see my grandfather's glassy eyes staring up at me as I shoved his stiff body through that hole in the shed door.