Once there was a girl who lived in a humble home with her father and her stepmother, a pair weathered gray no matter the season. The father and stepmother were doing the best they could. They loved the girl, but distracted by the sadness that steeped between them, did not have much time for her.
The father lived his life as an inadequate apology he struggled to articulate. He could not seem to think beyond a late fall day, so late it might already have slipped into winter with a quick, sharp intake of breath, the kind of fall day whose fallen leaves, brown and rotting at his feet, rebuked him for not having enough laid by, for not being enough; a crisp day whose first brittle snowflakes floated reminders of the death of his first wife. The best he could manage, even now, was to mutter that the wolf was always at the door. The girl knew about the wolf, for she had sometimes seen it lurking about, though when she looked for tracks there were none. But she was never troubled by the wolf and thrilled when it appeared. She did not tell her father and stepmother about her wolf sightings, just kept them to herself like a comforting recurring dream.
The stepmother knew she was the insufficient patch on cloth that, though not quite ripped, was threadbare and worn thin. She had hoped to be more to both the girl and the father. But when she tried to think of spring she could only imagine what it must be like to sink through the thick slush of the melting ice on the lake; a numbing cold, a dragging weight, the sinking shock of realizing the surface will not hold. In silent desperation she clung to her frosty husband.
And so these two, frail under their cloak of destitution and unspoken regrets, did not look up when the girl called out that she was going outside to play. They did not know that the girl had spied the white wolf through the window and had given in to her curiosity. But when the girl did not return by dusk, they were both deeply worried.
The father bundled up and went out into the fading light, calling his daughter’s name. The wind had risen and fiercely pushed his desperate calls back at him. Sleety snow stung his cheeks like needles of grief. The snow thickened and fell faster, filling his tracks behind him. Searching was futile. He returned to the nervous stepmother while he still could. Snow and wind continued to conspire, entombing their small home. He picked at his latest failure while his second wife loyally tried to assuage his guilt.
After three days the storm finally ceased and sunlight danced on the deeply drifted snow outside. Inside, the father and stepmother were buried in feelings of hopelessness and despair. Their few neighbors joined in the search of the surrounding forest but no sign of the girl was found. Winter settled in around the devastated couple. During fitful sleep, they heard the howls of wolves echoing across the frozen lake.
The girl had gone out when she’d spied the wolf through the window. The storm had not yet begun and the white of the wolf’s fur stood in relief against the dark forest and gray sky. The wolf met her blue eyes with its own. Without hesitation the girl went with the wolf. They romped playfully until the wind and snow picked up. Then they sheltered in the wolf’s den, the girl feeling more at home than she’d ever felt before.
When the storm stopped the girl awakened warm and comfortable, snuggled against the white wolf. She was not at all surprised to see that she herself was a smaller version of this wolf. Just as before, words were said without speaking, and together they dug out into the winter starlight, to stand atop the deeply drifted snow. The girl saw that there was much to learn and she eagerly followed the mother wolf. They came upon some deer trapped in the yard they had stomped out for themselves in the deep snow. She saw that satisfying her own hunger brought some relief to the deer. She ate gratefully.
Night after night the girl wolf went hunting and exploring with the mother wolf. She marveled at just how bright a winter night could be, the night sky a pool she drank deeply from. Moonlight reflecting off the snow blinded her with joy, her delighted laughter coming out as a howl. The mother wolf joined her song with the girl wolf’s. They spent the winter together laughing and singing and enjoying one another’s company.
But as the nights grew shorter and the days grew longer, as the snow became granular and soft underfoot, the mother wolf became serious. Just as the girl had not been surprised to become a wolf, she was not surprised when the wolf mother appeared as her own human mother. Still they spoke without words. Her mother told her how much she had enjoyed spending time with the daughter she missed so much. But their time was coming to a close. The girl thanked her mother for showing her winter’s beauty. She knew that now she would forever see the beauty of both light and dark that any season held. That night when the temperatures dropped they ran together once more across the crusted snow. At dawn the mother wolf trotted silently north, leaving no tracks. The thawing ice of the lake held the girl wolf’s easy weight as she crossed, headed east towards the home of her father and stepmother.
Her stepmother was at the lakeshore testing the edge when she saw the little wolf coming across towards her. She hurried back to the house to tell her husband. He went outside to see the wolf but instead found his daughter, healthy and happy, her smile as bright as a spring day. The morning sun brushed the forested hills across the lake as the girl embraced her father and stepmother. Melting ice on the eaves dripped a steady beat. Don’t be sorry she told them. Don’t be sorry. We’ll keep doing the best we can.
Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AMANDABERGLOFF