Excerpt

The Wolf House: Fair Game

The Wolf House: Fair Game

The Wolf House: Fair Game

By Mary Borsellino

Death by wolf was a lifestyle risk in that first life he led, just as car accidents are an accepted tragedy now. Terrible, certainly, but what alternative was there but to swallow the occasional loss as a side-effect to the comfort of many? The people needed wool, to spin into the long thick cloaks and hoods which kept them from shivering through the stark winter days. Wool needed sheep, and sheep needed shepherds. And sometimes the shepherds died in the teeth of the wolves. That was just how it went.

His name wasn’t Timothy, then, but on the rare occasions he allows himself to revisit the memories he thinks of himself as Timothy anyway. His other name, the older name, is one that he is doing his best to forget. The past is another country, and his lies across wide oceans of time. Even he doesn’t know how long ago those winters really were. The almanacs his father bought every spring from the peddler had the names of the months and the seasons, but that was all. Knowing what year it was wouldn’t have meant much of anything to anybody.

He is trying to forget his old name, but there are other names that are burned into his memory like the scored, sore lines of pokerwork in wood. Ilia, that was the shepherd’s name. He was a little older than Timothy, by perhaps two winters. People remembered how many winters they’d had. Every one was a mark of survival. On the worst nights, the wind was so sharp that grandmothers would tell children that the air itself had teeth to bite with, and the children would believe with all their hearts. Those nights were hungry, snarling nights.

Ilia had soft hands, from the lanolin in the wool. They didn’t call it lanolin, of course. The village joke called that skin-smoothing oil the Shepherd’s Mercy, because it was the one consolation for the wives whose husbands spent season after season out herding on the hills. Ilia didn’t have a wife. He was young enough that his beard was scruffy and half-made, like Timothy’s. Duckling-down, the grown-up men called it with good-natured laughs, the hard-won fluff that boys prized so highly.

Timothy would join Ilia on the hill some evenings, when he wasn’t needed in the house, and they would make up stories about the stars and watch the sheep and laugh and kiss and cuddle, and they were in love. Their families knew, and treated the pair with the same fondness that all young sweetheart pairs in the village had always been treated with. Everyone knew that the boys would each find a wife, or have a wife decide to find them, in the next few seasons, because if a man didn’t have a wife then who would spin his shirts and bear his children and cook his dinners? Wives and husbands were a part of life, like being born and growing old and wolves. And if a woman’s husband wanted to take his warmth on winter nights in a bed with another man, well then, that was her good luck then, wasn’t it? For less nights spent lying with a husband meant less chance of more babies down the line, and that meant a better chance at longer life for the wife herself.

Ledishka wasn’t a wife. She was even younger than Timothy. She was Timothy’s sister, and she was there beside him on the bright cold morning when he went up the hill and Ilia was gone.

There were two sheep dead, broken-necked on the footworn snow, grey and brown and occasional glimmers of white all smeared with red from their torn throats. The rheum of their dull sheep eyes was frozen in the cold.

“Wolves,” Timothy said, heart sore and sick with the thought of a life without Ilia ahead.

“No,” Ledishka answered. Her hair was a darker brown than his, her nose scattered with tiny brown freckles from all her days out-of-doors. She’d been a sickly baby and was small now, like a child, rather than a girl already on the cusp of womanhood. “I don’t think this was wolves. I think it was something else.”