By Julia Strayer
Winner of the New Ohio Review Fiction Contest: selected by Madeline ffitch
I lost her the night of the squalls, when wind raged hard enough to rip trees from the ground—my husband helping neighbors with a collapsed roof, and me with blood that wouldn’t stop and wouldn’t stop. I carried her for four months. I had imagined her face.
I walked the dark house alone, not wanting to sit, hearing crying that wasn’t mine while the moon trailed after me. I searched out the front window for my husband’s headlights because it wouldn’t feel real until I could tell him, but my breath fogged the glass, and I couldn’t see. Finally, I slept because I was too tired to do anything else.
Empty and quiet. My body. The house. Except for the walls, which were run through with mice and scratching.
They say children choose their parents. What does that say of me? What does that say?
In the wild, a wolf mother will carry a dead pup around in her mouth, showing the body to the rest of the pack, before she buries it.
My husband loved the A-line coat I found at a vintage clothes store. He said it was the color of cherries, just before they’re ripe. It wasn’t warm enough for the coldest months, but I wore it anyway.
When I walked the winter woods, it felt as if someone watched me.
He said my coat made a pretty picture weaving among dark trees and against drifts of blowing snow.
My husband spent most of his time in the garage, rebuilding, piece by piece, the 1969 Camaro he’d brought home. Sometimes before dawn, sometimes well into the night. Sometimes there was quiet, sometimes loud banging.
I stopped washing my face; days-old mascara flaked and smudged. I stopped brushing my hair. Some strands twisted, some knotted up. I didn’t say anything about him hiding in the garage; he didn’t say anything about the way I looked.
I pressed my ear to the wall to hear what the mice had to say. I asked them what was wrong with me that my child left.
I spent my time outside, where I couldn’t see myself in any surface. Walked the naked woods, still empty of its underbrush, with space between trees to exist, space enough to be lonely. And one day, as the air warmed and the musty smell of earth grew thick, I found the wolf pup playing with a sparrow’s wings.
The pup’s small size and folded ears, not yet standing tall, marked him as still needing care. From behind a tree, I scanned the forest for others, but he was alone. And, in a moment where I didn’t think, or maybe thought too much, I tucked him in my red coat and brought him home. That’s the story I told my husband.
The truth was more complicated. That morning, when the sunlight expected too much of me, I dropped to my knees and dug through leaves and twigs, frantic. Pulled at new roots, clawed at the dirt, until my fingernails were thick with earth, rich and dark. Scooped handfuls to my face and breathed in the smell of fungus and moss. Life.
That’s when I saw the pup digging a hole next to mine, slowly then faster, twice as deep. He leaned against me for balance, then danced his hind legs to the other side and dug from that direction. Curled into the hole, tucking in his tail, pressing his nose into the dirt. He fit. I wanted to crawl in with him.
I found the mother wolf lying on the far side of a fallen tree. Her breaths raspy, blood on leaves beneath her. It was too late to do anything but wait for the fire to leave her eyes, so I sat at the end of the fallen tree for her to see I meant no harm. The pup folded into her.
I wanted to tell her I would help. I wanted to gather in the energy of the woods and draw a great breath to steal her suffering, but I didn’t have that power. When she took her last breath, I held my own and waited for her next. I waited for birds to go silent and small creatures to stand still. But everything kept on as it had. The pup licked at her face, but she would not wake. I gathered him under my coat.
At home, I offered him bread soaked in milk. He ate it all, then yowled a little howl. I howled with him so neither of us would feel alone. I left the dirt under my nails and on my face, then teased my hair into small, tufted ears so the pup wouldn’t miss his mother.
I told the mice about the pup, but they already knew. They heard him, I’m sure.
My husband worked late. I pulled the pup against my stomach, my arm draped over him, so I could feel his warmth, the in and out of his breaths and his cries when he dreamt.
The next morning, the pup licked me awake, pressed his face against my forehead. I thought of his mother and wondered where she was. I wondered the same about the baby I lost. Where do the dead go?
I burrowed to the back of my closet, pulled out vintage clothes more to my liking. Clothes I hid when I married and moved to his town.
My husband was angry. Said I wasn’t the pup’s mother. Said I looked feral. Pushed me in front of the mirror. “Don’t you see yourself?”
I had become someone I wanted to know.
To keep the pup close, I wrapped him in a sling around my shoulders when we walked to town. Never on the road. Just inside the woods where dame’s rocket bloomed sweet and wild forsythia burned yellow. The rhythm of my steps, and the whisper of leaves, soothed the pup to sleep. I showed him to the postmaster, the librarian, and the old woman who sold fresh eggs from her front porch.
The postmaster said, “Interesting hair you’ve got going on.” I nodded, opened the sling for him to see. He said, “If you’re not planning to mail the wolf, he’ll have to remain outside in the future.”
The old woman who sold eggs looked me over, narrowed her eyes, and said, “The devil takes many forms.” I said, “Yes, I guess so,” and wished her face would break out in lumpy warts. I spat on the ground hoping to make it so.
The librarian pushed her two-year-old son on the swings in the park next to the library. When she saw me, she stopped. “Honey, are you all right? What are you wearing?”
“I’m on my way to research wolves at the library, find out more about how to be a good mother.”
I opened the sling. “Isn’t he perfect?”
Her son jumped off the swing to look. “A puppy, a puppy.”
“No, that’s a wolf.” The librarian looked me over. She grabbed at the boy’s arm, but he wouldn’t obey.
“Hold me in there too.” He hugged my legs, looked up at the sling.
“You’re too grown up for that. This is just a baby.” He didn’t care about my hair or my clothes or whether I washed my face. He wanted up so I lifted him, rested him on my hip, and he nuzzled his face into my neck.
The librarian reached to take him back, but he wouldn’t look at her, gripped me tighter. “I can call someone for you. Your husband? Doctor?”
“He’s still quite small.” I pulled open the sling again. Her son twisted his head to look in at the pup.
“Honey, you’ll have another chance, but this isn’t it.”
“Do you see how he wrinkles his nose when he sleeps?”
“He’s a wild animal,” she said.
Her son growled like a lion. “I’m a wild animal.”
The librarian pursed her lips into the face of a rat, tight and twitchy. I imagined a giant owl swooping down, grabbing her with his claws. Her son and I would wave as she was carried off, her squeaks growing less shrill as she topped the trees.
She reached for her son, but he wouldn’t let go of my neck until she unloosed his fingers. He growled at her.
After a week, the pup’s ears stood straight, and he was ready for meat. I gave him chicken cut in small pieces. Another few weeks and he was big enough to jump on a chair, so I set him a place at the table. He sat next to me with his front paws on the placemat. Sometimes he ate off my plate, sometimes I ate off his.
My husband said, “He shouldn’t be at the table. You should call someone who can raise him with other wolves.” He dropped the phone book on the table and dragged the phone over, cord snaking behind him. I made a face.
More than once, the pup stole food from my husband’s plate when he was out of the room. I never said anything.
The pup and I swam in the creek that feeds the town reservoir. I taught him the woods. How to listen for scampering, scurrying—sounds not rhythmic. To smell what breathes.
We practiced howling on nights the moon was out full and bright. Sometimes we heard a far-off response.
I tracked the pup’s progress on a chart I kept on the refrigerator.
The pup sometimes got carried away when we played. Once, he bit my calf, broke the skin. I grabbed him by the scruff of his neck just as his mother would. He dropped his tail, then his nose, and whimpered as he rolled over to show me his belly.
The librarian knocked on the door with photocopied articles about how wolves kill people. I said that may be true in the wild if they’re attacked. I invited her in, offered her tea so she could get to know him better, but she declined.
I heard the rumors.
The pup and I walked the woods toward town, then cut out to the road to pick daisies near the house of the old woman who sold eggs from her front porch. She yelled out to me, “It’s not right you bringing a wolf around my chickens.”
“I’m right here with him.” I wanted to climb the porch, see if the lumpy warts had grown in.
“He’s bad luck. You needn’t call the devil. He’ll come without calling.”
I smiled and waved the flowers, told her to have a nice day.
By late summer, the pup was as large as a German shepherd. My husband said if I wasn’t careful, the pup would devour us in the night. I told him he was being ridiculous. He moved to the guest room. I didn’t care.
The pup followed me through the evening woods, night insects chirping, until we reached the edge of the old woman’s yard. I set the pup on the path toward her hen house; it was still early and I knew the chickens would be out in the yard and I could hear them squawking and pecking and carrying on, and he lifted his nose to smell the air, all the while creeping up the path until one lone chicken strutted into sight. Then, he took off as fast as I’d ever seen, leapt, and in a frenzy of feathers the deed was done. I was proud of him and marked the refrigerator chart: Pup’s First Kill.
When I woke, the pup wasn’t with me. I called for him, but he didn’t come. I searched the house and found him whimpering in the garage. My husband said he’d lured the pup with meat and locked him in. “He could bury his teeth in your neck, and you’d bleed out before you could call for help.” I knelt, my face to the pup’s face, and held him tight. He smelled of motor oil. He licked me, pressed his face to my forehead.
The pup was full-grown by the time asters bloomed. His shoulders three feet tall. At night, he slept tight against me with a paw over my chest, hot breath at my neck, and the bed became small and close. I turned over, cupped his snout with both hands and leaned against him. I knew it was wrong, but I stole his breath. Just once.
After a few missing hens, Animal Control came calling. There had been complaints. He should be with his own kind. I said I am his own kind, then yelled I am his own kind, then screamed I am his own kind.
The wolf growled, standing between me and two uniformed men, protecting me while I tried to protect him. I explained it was all a mistake, but a policeman distracted me with legal papers and town ordinance, and the men took the wolf when I wasn’t looking.
I searched my husband’s drawers, pockets, wallet, to find anything with the phone number for Animal Control. I asked if he had called them. He said he hadn’t. I asked where they took the wolf. He promised to look into it, make a few calls.
Again, home felt like someone was missing. Like hide and seek. Like still in a closet or trunk. Like I could call out, All come free, and everyone missing would show their little faces. But there was only the stillness. And mice in the walls to keep me company.
There’s a space between wakefulness and dreaming where children exist. Sometimes, at dawn, when fog breathes heavy at the base of trees, I see the mother wolf in the distance leading a small child, who follows after, staggering and sleepy.
I thought about calling the police myself, but I knew they’d never tell me anything. Eventually, I took scissors to my hair until there was a new person in the mirror. Not the grieving mother, nor the wolf mother, but a new mother. One with no child, no responsibilities, and no purpose other than to find her lost children.
Then, it was just my husband and me. Again, in a silent house. But, instead of working in the garage, he held me every night until I fell asleep and lingered in bed with me in the mornings.
I told the mice I was pregnant. Tapped on the wall to get their attention, whispered the secret. Asked if this baby would stay, but they couldn’t answer.
I didn’t tell my husband because I knew he’d run ahead. I only had the strength to make sure I didn’t give the baby a reason to leave. Every day wondering if that would be the last day.
By the time the first snow fell, my husband guessed. He was angry I hadn’t told him, but I said I was saving the surprise. He wanted to buy baby furniture, choose names, tell the town. I wanted to breathe.
I wore my red coat, walked the woods to hear the quiet. On the coldest nights, after it snows, there is no sound.
To entice the baby to stay, I talked of the weather, how squirrels ran on the roof, and secrets of the woods.
I walked to the coffee shop in town to meet my husband for a late breakfast. Snow fell frail and soft, and I stood with my face to the sky and my eyes closed, so I could hear the whisper.
Inside the coffee shop, my husband and I sat across from one another on what used to be red vinyl booth seats, now strapped with more duct tape than vinyl. He ordered coffee black. I stared at the menu, ordered two eggs and a root beer.
I felt my husband’s eyes on me so I looked at the old-style cash register, the beat-up stools at the counter, the curling linoleum floor tiles, the peeling metal strip around the flecked Formica table, the creeping frost at the window edges, and the cardboard sign hanging on the door that everyone outside could read as OPEN and everyone inside CLOSED.
My husband cradled his coffee mug, said, “Can we at least talk about names? This won’t be like before. You’re much further along.” I forked my eggs.
He said he would paint the baby’s room pale yellow, stencil white snowflakes falling down the wall. If I wanted. Said he thought I would like that. Snowing in the house.
After breakfast, I walked home, stopping at the post office. The postman, who had been sorting envelopes, turned to hand me the mail. Said the old woman who sold eggs had broken out in warts.
“What a shame,” I said.
“You might want to stay away, what with the baby you’re growing there and all. Can’t be too careful.”
“Guess not.” I rested a hand on my belly.
“Been meaning to tell you—that’s a right nice coat you got there.” He turned away, back to his envelopes. “But you can’t wear red to a funeral, can you?”
On my way out, I said, mostly to myself, “Wasn’t planning on going to a funeral.”
“No one ever does,” he said.
I walked to the library, stopped inside to return a book. The librarian sat at the front desk next to two goldfish circling their bowl. Her son colored at the front table. He ran to me, jumped on the wooden box the children used to watch the fish.
The librarian tried to hand me a flyer about a Mommy and Me read-along. “It’s never too early to read to your child.”
I unbuttoned my coat and her son put his small hands on either side of my belly.
“I’ll just leave this on the counter for you,” the librarian said, her mouth twitching. I imagined long whiskers and big ears.
“Hello,” he said into my belly button, then pressed his ear against me.
“You’re planning a natural birth, of course, and you’re going to breastfeed, right? I’m happy to fill you in on everything. We should get together to chat. Let me get my calendar.”
I asked the boy, “What does the baby say today?”
“That’s a secret.” Then he growled into my belly button, his breath warm through my sweater, and put his ear against me again and waited, giggled. He went back and forth like that, growling and listening, the two of them talking about whatever the unborn talk about.
I stopped at the old woman’s house to buy eggs, but she wouldn’t sell me any. She pointed at my belly. “That’s the devil’s baby.”
“My goodness, what is on your face?”
“There’s fire in your eyes. We don’t need your kind here.”
That night, my husband teepeed kindling in the fireplace and lit a match to sheets of crumpled news. The wind kicked up making moonlit tree shadows quiver on the wall.
I read a book in front of the fire, he read the paper in his chair across the room. Depending on how I held my book, I could read the words with one eye and see him with the other, or not. I moved the book back and forth to see him and not see him until finally deciding not to see him. Both of us in the same room, breathing the same wood smoke, hearing the same snapping fire, but apart.
He kissed my forehead and went to bed. The clock over the mantel ticked like dripping water. Dying fire embers shimmered hot while the chimney drew a breath, a steady inhale without an exhale. All the while, I edged closer and closer to the hearth, stretching out on the warmed slate with my belly pressed against the fireplace screen. I felt the baby reach out all fours to warm in front of the fire, heels poked outward.
I slept with the window open a crack that night, even though it was winter. It became unseasonably warm, and I wanted to hear the rain. My husband was already asleep when I climbed into bed, and I was asleep when he left in the morning for work, the sky still black. I awoke to catch the red glare of his truck’s taillights tossed across the fog.
The woods were quiet until the cold returned with the promise of snow.
Nearing the end of my sixth month, I woke on the one-year mark from the loss of my first pregnancy. I didn’t hear mice in the walls.
After my husband left for work, I opened the garage door to the winter sun, dragged the cover off his Camaro, and started the engine to a low roar. His baby rumbled to life. I wanted out of the house and out of town. Away from reminders. Despite a coming storm.
I didn’t know where I was going but followed the road into the hills. The sky hung low and blue, purpling at the edges, dipping between thick boughs of pine and leafless branches of oak. I flipped the knob for the radio, forgetting it didn’t work. Refilled the tank. Stopped for lunch.
What surprised me was the locked glove box. My husband didn’t even lock the front door of the house. I tried to unlock it, but the key to the car didn’t fit. I stared out the windshield at gathering storm clouds and imagined everything that could be inside—something small enough to fit in the glove box, but large enough that my husband wouldn’t talk to me about it.
I pulled myself out of the car, the wind blowing cold through my coat, strong enough that I wondered if the baby felt it. My husband kept a hardware store in the trunk for emergencies—wire cutters, hammer, shovel, duct tape, screw clamps, screwdrivers of all sizes, metal toolbox with spare nuts and bolts, bits of wire and string, and a jack. I wedged a large screwdriver into the slot around the glove box, near the lock, and slammed it with the hammer, again and again, prying and twisting the screwdriver until the glove box splintered open, bits of broken plastic on the floor.
Inside the glove box were two small sample jars of creamy yellow paint and a stack of handmade snowflake stencils. I spread them out in my hands, like playing cards, and admired the detail in each one, the time they must have taken to draw and cut out. My husband hunched over his workbench, all those hours in the garage, creating snow. I laid them across the dashboard and front seat, propped them against the windows, careful with their lacy edges and intricate designs. No two were alike.
I reached into the glove box for the last snowflake, but the paper was a note in my husband’s handwriting. The pencil marks were light, hard to read, the name of a wolf preserve in the hills about an hour away.
I gathered the snowflakes, folded them in my coat pockets, and pressed the broken glove box closed, so it wouldn’t look so bad, but the door kept falling open.
The drive into the hills took longer than I expected, and by the time I reached the preserve the sun had dropped low behind tall pines. I carried a small box of tools from the trunk and spent quite some time with a map of the preserve, hiking the woods to reach the wolf’s ten-acre enclosure. I couldn’t see him, so I called out, howling, but got no reply, except for the baby kicking. I howled again, louder and longer, until his answer came back, then knelt, as best I could in snow, and, even though the sign said I shouldn’t touch, I stretched my arm through the space between the gate and the fence as he loped closer, stopping two feet from my fingertips, lifting his muzzle to sniff the air before coming closer.
My knees grew damp, and I leaned my whole body into the fence, the chainlink cold on my cheek, and wondered if he could sense the baby inside me. He licked my fingertips, then the palm of my hand, all the while moving closer, and pressed his forehead to mine.
Snow fell in slow swirls. The beginning of the storm coming. I used wire cutters to free him for the long drive back.
The road was dark, there was no moon. I only had dim headlights; one directed at the road, the other a lazy eye pointing at the sky.
About a mile from town, the snow was too deep for old tires. I abandoned the car and walked to town, straight down the middle of the snow-covered road, so everyone would see me in my red coat. The wolf followed behind, quiet as a whisper, head hung low.
The road, narrow and winding. Deep woods and tall pines crowded close; branches shivered. A wind rushing, rolling the tops of trees, setting snow loose to find new ground. I closed my coat against the cold, over the baby.
Snow haloed streetlamps. We walked from one glow to the next. A light we didn’t need because wolves see better at night than humans do in the day. The light was for the town’s people—all the better to see us with.
I knew they’d be watching. That they would call my husband.
Small flakes drifted against a dark sky, indistinguishable from the ground. For all I knew, the whole world was upside down. Snow packed hard under our steps, but new snow covered our tracks, and soon, it was as if we were never there.
Julia Strayer has stories in Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review online, The Cincinnati Review, Post Road, SmokeLong Quarterly, Mid-American Review, Indiana Review, Jellyfish Review, and others, including The Best Small Fictions anthology. She won the GlimmerTrain Short Story Award for New Writers and was a 2022 finalist in the CRAFT Literary First Chapters contest for a novel in progress. She teaches creative writing at New York University. Read more at juliastrayer.com