You don’t stay here on account it’s convenient. You want convenience, you go to Norfolk or Virginia Beach, Richmond or Raleigh. Somewhere hundreds of miles away from the blackwater swamps of the Alligator River, the Albemarle and Pamlico. Here, there is nothing for the city crowd, those what need electricity and hair dryers. Plenty for those who know how to see. Cypress, rust-water thick, knees knocking against each other in clumps of billowing muck. Snakes tangled like cut ropes looped by the current. Broad black mud with a stink so sweet you gather why the gators and deer and bear wallow in it. There’s raptors floating on the updrafts in a robin’s egg sky. Ospreys, bald eagles, buzzards, falcons, all swirling, scanning for dinner. And the fish. Tannic rivers and creeks bleeding with croaker and shad, bass and blue-gill and soft shell crab skittering in summer. Mud turtles and wood ducks and crotchety herons evolved to life in these pocosin waters. Man’s mark is here too, in the rawboned trunks of cut-over forest and falling-down tobacco barns. You see it in the coming-upon of a crab apple in a woodland where not one is native. But even those marks are fading with time. The land reclaims her own. Birthing new generations. Stealing back her territory. Like the wolves.
It was the wolves for me. Red wolves. Thirty years on since those first days trapping the leftovers in Louisiana swamps and people still arguing about red wolves being real wolves and deserving federal protection. Once we argued about human beings being real human beings, slaves and women. When will people educate from their mistakes?
I live here on the Alligator River, always have. Not much of a river. Finger of the Albemarle Sound more like, but currents slug some and river’s the name what stuck. Sometimes that’s the way life is, drops out of the sky or crawls from the water and sticks, a tick burrowed under your skin.
I called her Tick day I found her, thunder storming, huddled next to the wolf pens. She was soaked wet, bruised and scratched with something more than branches and brambles. Hurt she was, by someone who knew how. She wouldn’t tell her name, wouldn’t say a word, just locked her fingers through the chain link of the pen and held for dear life when I pulled her elbows. She wouldn’t bathe, terrified of the water, so I took a cloth to wipe muck enough to see the pinky-white of her skin. How’d she get to my wolf keeper’s cabin in the middle of the swamp I don’t know. No matter how I asked it, soft or booming or bribed with cookies, Tick didn’t answer me. Only sound I heard her make was howling at night when the wolves mounded their calls to the sky.
“Tick, where’d you come from?” No answer. “Tick, what’s your name?” She let on she could hear with a shake of the head, a flick of the tongue over her skinny brittle lips. Made soft sounds too, a whimper, a sigh, when she thought she was out of earshot, but none else.
Wolf would have been a name for her, but it was already took. I am Wolf Woman, weird and strange and living in the swamps. Sixty odd years I been muddling my life out of these woods and waters and muck. Crabber’s daughter, born here and bred on catfish and crabbing before the wolves came in ’87. Moved us to Mann’s Harbor they did when the government took the land for the wildlife refuge. Mama and Daddy were old, and didn’t mind the new house with lights and bathrooms. I did. Too much of the wrong kind of noise even for a place what’s a blink of a town like Mann’s Harbor, a jut of firm land with houses bumped out of the ground like knots on a log. The stars was duller what with watch lights glaring all night and road traffic buzzing by on the highway, vacationers droning to Outer Banks beaches in their bloated cars, metal flies flocking to white-sand honey.
Six, maybe seven, is Tick’s age I reckon. I should have told the authorities, I know, but out here in the swamps you get to thinking there’s no law but nature’s law. Tick came in the storm, child of the storm, though I know’d all along she belonged to someone somewhere. I should’ve told them at the beginning.
“Tick, hand me that scoop.” She does and I scoop the dog food we feed the wolves in the pens. Follows me around everywhere like a lost pup, Tick does, eyes big and hands turtled inside the rolled-up sleeves of my old jacket. Good worker. Tick does whatever I tell her so long as it don’t involve talking or leaving my sight. Scared little thing. How could I not fall in love?
“You know, Tick, these are wolves. Not dogs. Red wolves. Special wolves. They went almost extinct, killed them off we did, save but a few. Bred them. Brought them back. Reintroduction we call it. Wolves running free in North Carolina again. Not for a couple hundred years did wolves run free. Now they’re back. Home. Where they belong.”
Them months in Mann’s Harbor caring for Mama and Daddy, I missed the turning of spring buds and the grunt of black bears stealing apples. I spent what days I could fishing in Daddy’s flat-bottomed johnboat tied to a stump. I’d wade through the brambles and get deep in the pocosin, sit for a while. Listen. Flitting birds. Squirrels scattering up a tree. Tread of a deer herd on sprinkled leaves. A bear wading through a ditch, flinging water drops from his coat on the other side. The wolf. I saw her back then, one of the first four what was released to make their way to wild survival. She did, partnering with a male, whelping a litter of fuzzy pups. I saw them in my days sitting and waiting and blending into the swamp water, a silence ignored by the forest long as I kept from threatening. The wolf, she saw me too. Looked dead at me, head low, sussing the risk. Yellow eyes, like goldenrod blooming in summer. She nosed her pups around me, almost out of sight, well out of reach, slipped down a rabbit path in the cane and disappeared.
Tick has yellow hair. I couldn’t tell with the muck in it, but weeks on, she trusted me enough to close her eyes. I tipped her head back and swooshed it with warm water heated on the wood stove. Not too hot, mixed with cold enough to be just right. Goldie Locks. Her new name? The Algonquins, ones who used to hold this land, if land can be held at all, took new names when weighty events pulled on their lives. Birth, death, coming of age. Washing of hair, closing of eyes—trust. “Tick ain’t no name for a goldie-haired girl,” I tell her, smoothing my fingers over her head, water dripping like summer rain. “Can’t call you else but Tick now. You’ve got under my skin.”
When I buried Mama and Daddy, died quick they did, six months one from the other, I took the job of wolf keeper, minder of the penned wolves what’re not quite ready to run free. The sick, the injured, the too young or too tame to survive on their own. I heal them, raise them up right. Teach them of predator and prey. My job is bound to make even the sanest strange after a time I suppose, living like I do, single room wood slat cabin what’s got no plumbing or electricity. What gets me is I’m thought odd for wanting my first sense on waking to be brightness streaming through my windows, breezes shushing the branches, not the beep of clocks or metal machines roaring down the road. Don’t get why wanting here more’n anywhere makes me a kook. When I wander to town, eyes watch me like they would a bear what wandered out of the swamp. Noses flair, catching my scent. Feet shuffle sideways. Hands fish for children and reel them back. Beware the Wolf Woman.
Tick darts now, a dragonfly defying the air. Fall’s on and the weather’s cooled. Balmy days, chilly nights. Indian Summer. Not afraid of leaving my sight now. She’s up a tree, down a deer path, splashing through runnels of creek water. Darting all the time, humming. Happy. Still no words, not happy enough for words, but I don’t push. Words will come I suppose, one day, but until they do she has new sounds. Tread of feet on moist earth. Brush of her breeze when she zips past. Laughter.
Defensive she is. Always defending her territory. She captured a corner of the cabin for herself, staking a tent from branches and an old sheet. She growls when I get too close but I smile and whisper soft and duck away. And the wolves. She’s taken to the wolves. Since she’s found her legs, she’s found her way to crawl over the fences and into the pens. I caught her playing with juvenile pups, rolling and nipping like she was one. The parents tolerated her but kept to a corner, undecided on the goldy-haired girl what smelled like soap. I tell her get out, not to go in there, but she don’t listen to me. Hardly let me go in to feed the wolves myself for a day or so, growling at me like she was guardian. “You hush up there!” I scolded and puffed and growled right back so she’d know I mean business. She backed off and let me by. I hugged her after, let her know I weren’t mad. She kissed me. On the cheek. No child ever done that before. I dropped my arms and she laughed and darted away, up the side of the cabin and on the roof before I could tell her to get down. My little hummingbird. Bright, tiny, flitting, territorial and beautiful. Oh so beautiful.
There’s a hunter in the swamps. They come this time of year to run dogs and deer. This one, his tracks tell a different story. Alone he is. Always. No buddies. No dogs. Boots with the toe crumpled on the right. Lumbers like an angry bear, probing, pushing, not like any hunter I’ve seen, more like he’s tearing things up. I see the tracks ‘bout a mile from the cabin down near an old cut-water creek. Trash and tracks and bullet casing from his rifle scatter around where he fires at cans set on a falling down stump. I leave his leavings and hurry my way back to Tick. I’ll give the bearman his bit of forest, hoping he’ll stay clear of my refuge.
Rick steps from his truck, and quick as a squirrel, Tick darts up a tree, peering through the leftover leaves of late autumn. “Who’s this, Mae?” asks Ranger Rick. Least, I amuse myself calling him that. “Hey little girl. Don’t you fall now,” he says laughing at the frail, shaking cub in the tree. I feel the Mama Bear rise up, but don’t take him on. Rick is okay, never bothers me. Harmless, like a box turtle. Usually Tick’s gone long before his truck winds down the sandy drive. Must not have heard him today. “She’s my niece,” I lie. “Didn’t know you had family,” he says all smiles. I mimic his face, friendly, defenseless. Like the turtle, I know how to hide too. “Just found out not too long ago myself.” I cross my arms and plant my feet. No Ranger Rick is getting past this Mama Bear. He shifts his cap. “Don’t guess home office needs to know ‘bout visiting relatives.” He nods. “Don’t reckon they do.” Rick and me lifts supplies from the truck bed, Tick watching from her perch in the sweet-gum tree. We shake hands when he leaves and I hold the feel of its roughness long after. All our years working out here and he never touched me before. Tick slips her hand in mine. I didn’t hear her come out the tree. We stand still, watching the light fade and the bats quiver and listen to the penned wolves howl their missives to far away relatives running the swamps.
Homer is the blind wolf. After the poet. One thing about genes, they go bad when they get too cramped together and don’t have enough room to stretch out right. It’s happened to the red wolves. Seventeen came out of the swamps back in ’78. Only fourteen paired up to breed. All the red wolves in the world today came from those fourteen. When you think, it’s amazing there are red wolves at all, but those fourteen were just too cramped in their genes. Blindness set in. Hereditary. Curses passed down through the lines. Homer lives in the pens with his brother, Alpha. Follows him everywhere, depends on him. There was a third brother once. He died. More gene trouble. Now, only Homer and Alpha sing their song come nights. Neither one ever passing on their genes. Never given the chance. Too risky I know, cramping the genes up more, but I wonder if they’re singing sad songs, mourning for their stolen sons and daughters. I wonder when my heart pulls and feels the same thing. I’m too old for babies myself. Over sixty is too old. Wanted them only when I grew too old to have them. When it was safe to want them again. Then Tick dropped from the sky, crawled from the backwater. I wonder when I listen to the wolves if I can hear the mourning of her mother, out there somewhere, crying for her child. The pull of genes is strong. I wonder where it leads.
Tick’s filled out some from the summer. It’s frost now, winter settled in to freezing slow-water edges. “You need schooling,” I tell her. I know this much is true, a child needs to go to school. I went myself. Didn’t like it much and they didn’t like me. Shoved me into the slow class on account of my strangeness. Teacher used to smack us with a wooden spoon if we mussed up our lessons. I cried so much Mama kept me home after awhile, filled me with books what Daddy checked out from the library over the water in Manteo. Never learned arithmetic more than settling up poundage for crabs, but don’t need too much numbering out here in the swamps. Still read though. Ranger Rick brings a stack of books for me every two weeks on his supply runs. Time to teach Tick to read.
She grins at me and darts away. A game, chase and catch. I wait. My own game. I pretend she’s a speck of dust floating in the sun. She can’t resist and stretches forward like a bobcat watching my eyes for a give-away. I snatch her from the air, a swallow on the wing. We laugh and shriek, all a game. I tuck her into my shoulder and settle her on my lap. “We’re going to read,” I tell her and I do. I read for hours. Poetry, because stories taste mostly of sadness. Poems, now, poems are gumdrops. Even when they’re sour, they’re over ‘fore you feel it too much. I pop gumdrops in Tick’s mouth, one for each poem, to keep her still. We work through my favorites, the ones my mama read as a girl and the ones she learned me. Tennyson and Longfellow and Whitman, the great ones. The raindrops of Emily Dickinson so small I scribble them on slips of paper and tuck them around the cabin walls. And Yeats. Yeats most of all.
“Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
Tick stills when I read that one, like she knows, like she’s seen. I hug her tighter, breathe her smell of murky woods and gumdrops. Tick—a poem.
“Eat,” I tell her. Tick looks at me. Used to be she’d guard whatever I put in front of her, hungry, stuffing her mouth and hands, afraid I’d snatch her peanut-butter bread or oatmeal. I’d catch her with pockets stuffed with green tomatoes and bitty cucumbers no longer than a finger. She’d see me tend my garden and sneak food when I weren’t looking, that’s how starved she’d been. Who knows for how long. Now, with meat on her bird bones she affords pickiness. “Eat your squash or you won’t get no cookies.” Ranger Rick brings one pack of Oreo cookies on his supply trips once a month. I hide them, make them last. One a day, no more, save the day he comes with a new pack. With Tick here, I order two packages. “You know these things’ll kill you,” Rick laughs when he scans my order list. I hint a smile, no more. I like Rick, but never say more than I have to. Never quite sure who you can trust, who’s a wicked faery what come to steal you away.
That bearman rumbles, circling my refuge. A blue truck rattles by us out on the refuge road. Tick bolts to the cover of the brush. He drives by, smiling, nodding at me. Can’t see his boots but I know he’s the one, a rifle in the gun rack behind his head. He waves, I don’t, and when he’s long gone down the straight road out of sight, I find Tick hiding in a blackberry bramble. She’s scratched and shaking and peed on herself and my gut knows. I know.
It takes an hour to get Tick out of the brambles and back to the cabin. Another hour to treat her scratches with antiseptic and get some warm food in her belly. I watch her as the evening dims to dusk and dark and when I’m tidying up the dishes, I hear her playing with her pinecone family, whispering, “Don’t tell. Don’t tell. Don’t tell.” She smacks one pinecone against another. I have to stop sluicing the water to make sure it’s her voice I hear, the outside dark pressing through the windows against my two fragile lamp lights.
First words is supposed to be celebrated. Da-da and Ma-ma. Bubby and Sissy. Family. These ain’t no good words falling out of my baby bird’s beak. My belly twists over the whispered hiss. Don’t tell. I won’t say a word O human child. I wait for her to fall asleep on the braided rug before moving her to her cot. The rest of the winter’s night I toss about the cabin, worrying my knuckles until they ain’t nothing but an ache.
Release day. Tick’s plopped on the seat between me and Ranger Rick, driving to the remote pen where one of my breeding pair’s been waiting to be set free. When red wolves are ready to run, they’re moved to a pen way out in the forest, deep in the refuge swamps. We lay off feeding them as much, switch to game meat instead of dog food. Road kill deer if it ain’t rumbled too bad. Wild rabbits Rick raises and lets go in the pen. Gives the wolves hunting practice, lets instinct teach lessons of hunter and hunted. I won’t let Tick watch wolf kills. The screaming of the rabbits is almost too much for me. Want her to see the release though, the day we open the gate. Rick parks a ways away and hauls a deer carcass from the pickup to the pen in a wheel barrow. Tick’s hand grips mine, eyes scampering like a songbird. Me, wolves, deer, Rick, trees, path, back to me. Always back to me, a pup checking with her mother for permission, for safety. Wordless, I help Rick open the gate and dump the carcass. The pair huddles at a far corner, watching us, noses tickling the air. Tick’s locked her fingers round the chains, staring at the wolves. We leave the gate wide and back away, Tick between us, each enfolding a tiny gloved hand. “This is the last meal we’ll feed them,” Rick whispers. “I’ll come back in a few days and they’ll be gone. Off to find a new home, claim territory, start a new pack.” He smiles as Tick ducks behind my legs. She’s not scared I can tell, just playful. Rick’s smile extends to me and I feel that bit of warmth inside I ain’t felt for many a year. First Tick, now Rick. My pack’s growing.
“Mama.” It’s Tick. Her first real word said to me. Mama. Me.
“Come on.” I pull her little hands from the covers, tucked under the sleeping bag and quilt and Army blanket. It’s cold, February cold, and like a hummingbird Tick hides from cold. But she won’t want to miss this. I’ve warmed her clothes by the stove, her boots and sweaters and socks and jackets, all child-sized. Rick knows she’s still here with all my ordering clothes, but he says nothing to the powers that be. I carved a wolf’s head from knot in a maple tree struck by lightning last summer to thank him. He tucked it in his pocket. Said nothing, like me, but he knows what I meant. I wrap Tick in my arms and carry her to the fire, dressing her like a squirmy baby doll. “Stop that now, little bird. You’re going to want to see my surprise.” She stops wriggling long enough to let me pour some oatmeal down her belly. Warm enough she darts outside to the pens, howls to the wolves, gloved fingers wrapping round the chain link. Alpha swifts to the far side of his pen, calculating a good distance from the ruckus. But Homer, he knows her I think. Not close he comes, but not hiding either. He sniffs the air just to her left, right, over her head. He’s learning to trust. She knows how he feels. “Mama, he likes me,” Tick says and I nod, my hands flicking open and closed. Come, come away. I wonder of the mama who taught her to talk. Where is she now? How could she let her baby get lost in the forest? Tick darts, there’s no other word, and we load up the canoe. I paddle for the both of us but she wants to try until she splashes herself with cold and leaves off. She waits until we see them, hundreds of them, a lake, a sea of white feather swans. Tundra swans, bigger than Tick is tall. Massive, grace-filled birds. Supple and snow with black beaks on a slate gray day. Whoo, whoo, whoo they cry as they fly in loose Vs over our heads, splash landings on the water. We watch, paddling around the waters, awed at their agile necks, their liquid movement. Elegance. I knew she’d love them.
Home again, Tick mimes a bird, arms like wings, legs racing in flight. “Whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo.” I watch as I put up the canoe, watch as I feed the wolves in the pens. I know I have to ask with her talking now. I don’t want to. I want her to stay my little bird forever, but you can’t lock up a bird. Or a child.
Eighteen when I met him. Old for a girl with her first boyfriend maybe but I was happy on our scrap of planted land, just me and Mama and Daddy, the goats and chickens and crab pots. Eighteen was the summer Daddy hired a hand, Jimmy, and I caught the need for other people in my world. He was handsome, Jimmy was, with a strawberry smile and teeth not yet stained by chaw. I told him straight up I weren’t kissing no boy what tasted like tobacco. He spit the wad out right there and popped a few spearmint leaves from Mama’s garden in his mouth. Smiled at me, sun warm on my skin, the hum of honeybees in my ears. Sometimes I catch a whiff of Ranger Rick’s spearmint gum, smell of cigarettes on his shirt. Tobacco and spearmint. Two plants what tipped my world over.
“You’re talking now,” I tell her. Tick grins. Mischievous. Pocahontas, means Little Mischievous One but most people don’t read enough books to know that. I take Tick’s hands and settle each with a cookie, look straight in her eyes, signal her attention. “You’re talking now,” I say, “and you’ve got a name what ain’t Tick.” She looks away, out the window, cookie stuck to her damp lip. Is she trying to hear the wolves shifting in their pens? I squeeze her wrists, gentle still. No wooden spoons for her. “What’s your name?” “Tick, Mama.” I shake my head though my heart pulls. “Not my name for you, what’s the name they called you?” No answers. I pick up her pinecone family, the ones she plays with splayed on the rug like a mud turtle sunning his back. “Who’s this?” I ask. “Mommy,” she smiles, touching a finger to her favorite pinecone, the one what’s slim and smooth. “Who’s this?” I ask of another two. “Granma and Granpa.” “And these ones?” “Rick and Mama and Tick.” I put the family back on the shelf before she gets distracted. “My name is Mae,” I tell her. “I was lost once, like you, but I found my way. What’s your name?” Tick gums a cookie, lost in sunlight.
Jimmy. We had us a summer season. Crabbed right through September. A hurricane blew that year, knocked our big old oak tree out of the sky, but the power of winds and rain never compared with my Jimmy. Eyes grey as river water at twilight. Tall and strong and wiry, he let his beard get scraggly when I said I liked a bearded man. He never touched tobacco again once I said I weren’t kissing him if he did. And I did kiss him. Under that old oak tree first, then in the goat shed, up on the straw bales. Kissing and holding me like I was worth more than catfishing and crabbing and sky and water and land together.
I could turn her over, turn her in. They’d find out who Tick is, find her kin. I don’t though. Those what hurt her may be kin.
With spring coming on, that man is back, circling the refuge in his truck, stomping through brambles, flattening brush-grass, disturbing deer and rabbit paths. But you can’t find someone what don’t want to be found and Tick surely don’t want to be found. I have Tick burrowed down.
“Mama! Three puppies!” We thought they had them, the pair next to Homer’s pen, but weren’t sure. Weeks since she went in the den, a plank and plywood box salvaged and nailed together a couple years ago. Used to be Mama’s old goat shed. Hauled it off our strip of land. Our house was bulldozed when they made the refuge, but they left a few falling down outbuildings. I scrounge amongst them every now and then when the need for scrap wood arises. I could have Rick haul in what I need of course, but I like having a reason to visit the old place. Like having a reason to keep that goat shed around, made new, made into a den for fuzzy, blue-eyes red wolf pups born to run free.
Bobby. I wanted to name him Bobby what for the man on the radio wanted to be president and my great-grandaddy named Robert. “You like Bobby for a name?” I asked Jimmy. “Works both ways. Bobbi or Bobby, with a ‘y’ for a boy, an ‘i’ for a baby girl. Family names are as good as land to pass down.” Jimmy’s teeth gnawed on his lip some, scabby from all the nipping. “Yeah,” he said and spit a clear wad, rubbed it out with his boot toe. Gum ain’t quite enough to smash the need for chaw, but Jimmy ain’t touched snuff since his lips touched mine. Months on and my belly full of baby, his lips full of promises. I didn’t want him to go, but Jimmy, he was the kind with big plans. Go to work the boat yards in Norfolk, make good money, build us a house, get married. “Even a honeymoon in Florida, Mae,” and he’d kiss my hesitations away, my worries. Then he left. Gone four months before we got the news. It were a storm, a bad one, and Jimmy was drunk, walking on the deck of a ship, swaying into the wind. Fell over. Found his body two days on, nibbled away by fish and crabs.
Tick darts past me. Early July. Almost a year since I found her crouched beside the pens in a thunderstorm. Thunder Moon the Algonquins called the July full moon for all the storms what blow through the sky this time of year. A woodpecker laughs, clatters his eerie cackle over our heads. Messenger to the gods them Algonquins thought. Sacred bird.
She musta had a birthday sometime this year. Missed it like I did Christmas and my own birthday. And Jimmy’s and Mama’s and Daddy’s. Don’t take the calendar much into account out here in the swampwater. Breeze foretelling a thunderstorm or the sun rising early and setting late. But Tick deserves a birthday with colored candles and cake. I’ve already hung on to my baby bird longer than I should. Rick’s been asking how long she’s gonna stay and if I need to think about school come August. Real school, not just my poetry lessons and the little bit of counting we do of deer tracks and bird feathers found. There’re rules for what happens when lost things return and I know I don’t got no say in it. So I hang on to her a little longer though my rope’s getting frayed. Something’s bound to break.
Bobby Kennedy. Assassinated. I asked the doctor what it meant. “It means we’ve killed all hope.” Nurse give me a jittery smile, shuffled Doctor out the door. I could hear them talking in the hall. Squeezed Mama’s hand holding mine. Daddy pacing the waiting room. “What’s wrong?” “Baby’s turned is all,” she said. It weren’t all.
Bobby, little Bobby, he came out of me without a holler. Dead. “Stillborn,” Doctor said. “It’s a shame, but you’re young. You’ll have more babies,” Nurse said, patting my forehead with a damp terrycloth. Mama said nothing, just looked at the wall, her hand limp and slick like a dead fish. I asked for him, my Bobby, but they took him away. Never got to lay eyes on him myself. “Better this way,” Nurse said. “You don’t need the memories.” I still don’t believe her.
Clouds blow up, drop their shadow. Breeze turns cool, slashing the water with bloodless light. Thunder on the way. “Mama, let’s go back,” Tick says. “In a minute,” I say. We’re almost there. I pluck the tall grasses some, but leave off after a time. Orange tiger-lilies decorate the clearing, planted there myself years and years ago. Wild now, they’ve spread across the ground, popping gentle heads from the earth. Life continuing. There’s no grave, no house now either, but I planted my flowers in memory. “We’ll go home now.” Tick tucks her hand in mine and we walk through the rain back to the cabin on the road, raincoats keeping us dry, Tick splashing in puddles left from the ruts of a truck.
He comes close on toward dinner time, his blue truck rumbling up to the cabin. Tick, jabbering about the snakeskin she found, freezes, fork in her hand crashing to the tabletop. “Get under the bed,” I whisper to her ear when the knock comes. She scrambles as I walk toward the door, wishing my lock were stronger than a hook-latch. “Evening, Ma’am,” that man says tipping his ball cap at me. “How are you doing this evening?” I see his crumpled up boot toe and know for certain this is the hunter what’s been dogging around my refuge for nigh on a year. “I’m mighty fine,” I answer, sliding through the thinnest gap in the door I can manage and on to the porch. “Mighty fine. Yourself?” That man shuffles his feet and lifts his cap, rubbing his cropped head of hair. Not a grey one amongst them and muscles on his arms. For the first time in my life I feel the weight of being in the swamp. When I’m the only human around for miles, nothing but calm accompanies me, but with Tick hiding inside and that man clomping on my porch my gut twists. “Ma’am, I heard tell in town something strange.” I cross my arms. “And what would that be?” That man shifts his weight, leans in. “I heard tell you’re keeping a kid out here in these woods.” I clamp my mouth tighter than an oyster. “You see, Ma’am, I lost a little girl, my little girl, out here a while ago. I’ve been looking for her for a long time. Ain’t you seen the posters up in town?” “I don’t go to town,” I say, raise my chin a bit and tuck my hands down to keep from shaking. That man frowns at me, smacks at a mosquito on his arm. “Ma’am, I don’t want no trouble, but if you do have a little girl I want to see her. See if she’s mine.”
I lie. “There’s no kids around here,” I say, though he can see the child-size boots lined up by the door and the toy truck Tick’s been driving over the sand hill I dug up for her to play. That man stares at me. “Okay,” he says slow, nodding, quiet. I stand my ground. A wolf defending her territory, her pack, her pup. “You got no business here,” I tell that man. “It’s time you should leave.” He nods and smiles and walks off my porch to his truck. He don’t pull away though. Just sits there. He knows how to hunt prey. He knows how to hold his patience.
Inside I latch the door and pull the dresser over to block the way. I have my phone, can call Rick for help, but I ain’t run the generator for a while so the battery’s dead. “Tick,” I say and when she don’t answer I get down on creaking knees to look under the bed. She ain’t there.
Window’s open over the sink. A sneak look outside shows me the truck is here, but that man’s gone, gun rack empty. Rip up the floorboards where I hide the Oreos and my shotgun. Old and ain’t been cleaned in a year on account Ticks’ been here and I weren’t wanting to bring it out. Check the barrels, slip two slugs in, snatch a handful into my pocket. Shove my way out the cabin and down the path past the wolf pens.
Tick could be anywhere, but that man ploughs his way through the brush, laying a path clear to those who know how to see. Follow him. Keep back a ways so he don’t know the Wolf Woman’s on his trail. Lose him at the ditchwater, find his mud tracks on the other side, press on. He will not be hurting her again.
Voices up ahead on the road. Slow and watch through the trees. A scrim of brush keeps me from them, but I see what’s what. Tick a fledgling at a snake’s mercy. “What happened to your Mommy shouldn’t have happened, but you didn’t do what I said, did you?” Tick, eyes wide in fright, shakes her head, a tiny “No” slips from her throat. She turns, ready to run. That man takes another step toward her. “Katie! You have to come with me or bad things will happen.” Poison leaks from his lips, infecting her. Not Tick. Katie. She whimpers. One step. Two. A couple more steps and she’ll be too close for me to do what needs to be done. I raise the shotgun to my shoulder.
We hike out of the refuge by the road. Tick, now Katie, cries like a pup for its mother and I carry her draped across my front, arms aching. I leave my shotgun to rust by the roadside. I get her back to the cabin and cut on the generator, charge up the phone, call Rick. I don’t tell him nothing. Just I need him and since I never call, it ain’t an hour before his truck’s parked outside. Katie won’t let go my hand, still sniffling from her sobs, so I tell Rick where he can find that man. He goes off while Katie and me split a whole pack of Oreos and watch the bats eat their supper. After a time, Rick comes back, head hangdog from what he’s seen. He flips off his cap and twists the brim in his hands, rolling and rolling until I’m sure it’ll roll in on itself and disappear. “Mae, I’ve got to talk to her,” he says and I let him, but Katie holds my hands and won’t let go. “What’s your name?” “Katie.” A whisper. “And who was that man?” She looks at me, checking. “You can talk now,” I tell her. “You can say anything you want.” “He’s Mommy’s boyfriend,” Katie whispers. I stroke her yellow hair, hold her head to my chest and hum soft-like.
“Do you know where your mama is?” Rick asks. “In the water,” she says, a quiet breath, and I know what I’ve known for a year underneath the fear her mama would come steal her away. I’m the only mama anymore.
We sit for a time, me rocking my girl and Rick talking to his friend in the police. Later, headlights blink through the trees as cars drive past the cabin and down the road to where he lies. Katie sleeps, leaning against me, and Rick squeezes my free hand. “What will happen, Rick?” I say low. “There will be questions, Mae,” he says. “You’ll have to talk to them, tell them everything.” I rub Katie’s back. “I ain’t afraid of questions.” I’m afraid of where the answers lead.
Release day. Ranger Rick takes her in the morning. His friend in the police, she waits until Katie’s full awake and washed and breakfasted before taking her to the social services woman. Katie’s looking anxious waiting in the truck, twisting hands, her pinecone family on her lap, but a good kind of anxious is working in there too. She’s learned all I could teach her. My little bird is migrating. I won’t go. Can’t. This place, it won’t leave me and Katie needs school, real school, and somewhere with electricity and plumbing and more family than I can give her. I know soon I’ll have to leave too. Face the police and the courts and the questions. But not today. “I’ll do what I can,” Rick promises. I watch his hand close round the wolf’s head I carved, pull it out of his pocket, thumb rubbing the head, fingers clutched on warm wood. “Thank you,” I tell him. “For all of it.” He gives me a smile, a sad one, but a smile. Shakes my hand again. I don’t wave when they drive away. I know Rick’ll make sure she’s taken care of. Good man, he is. Trustful, enough to hand him over my most precious pup. Can’t help my watering eyes though. I wander down the path to the wolf pens. Homer paces the fence line. I know how he feels. I kneel on the softy pine needles, fingers through the chain link. He steps close, whimpers. “Come away, O human child, to the waters and the wild,” I hum to him. A true poet, Homer steps, wavering closer, his cold nose grazing my fingers.
Art by Kerri Augenstein
Debra Rook lives and works in northeastern North Carolina where the only free roaming packs of red wolves claw their way back from extinction. She teaches, mentors and writes for children and adults. Her works of poetry and fiction have been published in The Lyricist, the Wolf Warriors anthology and the children’s anthology Doorway to Adventure. She is currently at work on a novel in verse.