The Stag’s Song
When the sun sets, Daughter is peeling roots over a kettle of greens and bruised herbs. The fire snaps and hisses in the hearth as one of the logs breaks. Daughter nudges the grate with her boot, settling ashes and embers so the fire can breathe, and reaches for another root. Before she starts peeling again, she scatters a handful of morels into the kettle. Morels, coaxed from The Mountain by a recent spate of rain. She adds an extra handful to make up for the lack of meat. (They only eat meat when the forest delivers. Sometimes The Mountain’s red wolves leave a deer haunch, or Bobcat might leave white rabbits on winter nights.)
While Daughter cooks, she watches Old Mother’s hands. Old Mother’s stories live in her hands, which tremble impatiently, as if they could tell everything faster without waiting for her voice. Tonight, Old Mother is talking about wolves. Not the shy red forest wolves Daughter meets on The Mountain at twilight. This tale is about the great gray wolves that live in the forests and prairies below.
The girl is frightened at night and wishes she had not left her mother’s house. Especially when the wolves come. They sing to each other, you know. As they hunt. Their voices are cruel, savage with wisdom, and always, always hungry. Not like any of the world’s other voices.
Daughter’s knife has a damp, crisp voice as it peels the roots. Its rhythm and the fire’s hot whisper keep the cottage awake inside. Outside, orchids dream about ghostly prairie wolves. Old Mother raises her hands to the fire, casting fearsome, fleet shadows.
She knows well enough how to keep them away. Wild, fey things…they are frightened of fire. It catches in their eyes and takes too long to fade once they’ve seen it. Their eyes will glow for days. So the fire keeps them away, as the girl knows. And she knows how to build and tend a fire, even on open plains, even in rain. So the wolves won’t hunt her. But that doesn’t make her sleep any easier, because it’s not their teeth she fears. It’s their voices, and their terrible song.
Keening, wailing cries drift into the cottage. Far away howls. The mountain wolves are hunting.
Badger knocks twice, asking to stay the night. He comes every third or fourth night, more often when seasons are frosty and cold and the fire smells like an invitation. Old Mother shifts to let him burrow under her blankets, sharing heat without taking her hands from the fire. Stoat is already under Daughter’s bed frame, and a family of harvest mice is nestled into a bundle of rags under her second largest kettle.
The prairie wolves’ hunting song tells a long ago story of a massive blue-gray Stag who was older than the prairie itself. He lived in his time without fear of wolves. His hooves were sharp as blades and hard as iron. His fur was thick, matted into armor, and his neck so strong no wolf could hope to see him fall.
One long, hungry season, Stag was the only living thing the wolves had not hunted, the only flesh they had not devoured or driven from their lands. All of the other animals, all of their winter prey, had left the frozen prairie in search of a softer season.
Now Old Mother’s hands are tucked across her chest, bundled into blankets for warmth. The dimly lit walls are blank without their shadows, cold and silent. Daughter imagines the great Stag is listening, his antlers tangled in orchids, his breath fogging the window’s thick glass. Her skin tightens with a borrowed memory of ice and deep snow.
In Stag’s time, the prairie wolves hunted in silence and only sang after they had feasted. But now they sing as they hunt, repeating Stag’s story night after night while the girl crosses the prairie.
The song tells of a hard, silent chase that lasted three nights. On the third night, the wolves cornered Stag at the edge of a frozen lake, and there they struck a bargain.
The wolves told Stag that they needed his death, but wished him no cruelty. The cold winter had frozen their cruelty into desperation. They needed his death to feed their dying pack. Their dying elders and young, their dying mothers and aunts.
The hunters told Stag that they knew he would fight, and perhaps he would kill them with his hooves and antlers. They preferred these deaths to starvation, but such deaths would not save Stag. All of the wolves of the prairie had joined the hunt, and during the fight their numbers would grow and grow.
Old Mother’s hands reach, as if to touch and comfort. Her fingers curl and uncurl in thick fur, cup to soothe a velvet nose. At last they push, urging Stag to run farther and faster. The fingers flick out, shooing the cottage’s shadows.
The wolves told Stag how the coming fight would tumble onto the frozen ice. Further and further from shore, until the lake cracked under Stag’s cold hooves. Then the wolves would watch him drown, his flesh forever lost in water. This ending would take his life, but it would also end the pack, which was too weak to survive without food.
All during his long dying, the wolves would howl anguish for their wolf sons and daughters, born and unborn. Stag’s last breaths would taste of loss, of bitter song. And he would pass into death burdened with the grief of all the dying prairie wolves.
But the wolves offered a different future: that they might take Stag’s life quickly, there on the bank, using his death to feed their offspring and ensure the pack’s survival. In return for his sacrifice, their sons and daughters would add his song to wolf lore and sing his death as they hunted.
In this way, Stag’s sons and daughters might also be saved. Never again would the great gray prairie wolves hunt in silence.
The silence in Daughter’s ears is slow, true silence, despite the snapping fire and Stag’s antlers rustling through orchids outside the window. In the cold interlude, Badger sneezes, still part of silence, but the suddenness of his motion startles Daughter, who drops her spoon into the kettle of vegetables. Old Mother does not seem to notice, her eyes are wide and her gaze far away and her hands have fallen into her lap, clenched into fists and echoing silence with their stillness. They lift at last in a helpless gesture, palms upward and empty.
And Stag agreed.
Old Mother’s hands become soft and restless, smoothing blankets and lifting one corner to show Badger’s scarred nose, wet and twitching with another sneeze.
Night after night, as she crosses the prairie, the young girl hears this song-tale. Because the wolves keep the bargain they struck with Stag. They howl out his song as they hunt, night after night singing Stag’s death until even mice in their burrows feel death in their bones.
Deer hear Stag’s death and know it should rouse them into flight. But the chorus is too terrible and beautiful. They are struck as they listen, frozen in horror and awe.
Daughter abandons her spoon to the broth. She unpins Old Mother’s white hair and takes up a thick comb, coaxing snarls with her fingers. She watches her hands gather Old Mother’s hair and wonders what story they are trying to tell, if her own hands speak without her knowing.
And the terrible voices of the wolves change into excited yips after a kill. And they fight amongst themselves as they share fresh meat, snarling and growling and gnashing their awful teeth. And always, always, they are hungry.
Then Old Mother and Daughter eat in silence. Old Mother is nestled into her blankets with Badger, watching firelight. Letting it catch in her eyes until they glow.