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Noumenon 29th Oct 2006 14:14

OLD WOLF - a short story
This was the first short story I'd written for about eight years. After faffing around with it only half completed I joined a local writer's circle with the intention of using their expectation to read out a piece of my own work as a rod to my back and finished it a week later, around the end of June.


Once there was an old wolf who had run with the pack all his life. It was all he knew. He remembered, back when he was still a cub and new in the world, how even though he seemed to shiver with energy at dawn the pack would run tirelessly until dusk and beyond, and his young legs would not. Then his mother would open her jaws wide to scoop him up and carry him on, and even though he could feel her killing teeth press through the softness of his pelt he never again felt so safe as he did there.

There were times when the prey drew so far ahead of the pack that they grew as thin and empty as the moon and the other wolves would look hungrily at him, the smallest and still without a kill to offer for the food he ate. Then his mother would show them her dry teeth and their heads would drop to look for the scent of the hunt elsewhere. In time he grew into a strong hunter, he killed so the pack could eat and he never feared their teeth again. But without his mother’s teeth he would not have lived to do so.

He didn’t remember the day his mother fell from the pack, only that gradually she seemed less present until she was no longer with them at all. The pack runs onward, never back, and although the old wolf – then in his prime – would delay after sleep and run last so she could follow his scent, he never saw or heard her again. Before long he ceased to wait and for a while took his rightful place at the nose of the pack. For many years she passed from his memory entirely.

As his life progressed the wolf both lead and followed, ate and went hungry; but as he grew older the other wolves grew younger around him, stronger, faster, surer in the hunt, and he found himself falling through the pack until he ran last again. As his legs tired the pack would run ahead, so that sometimes the kill came without him and only scraps remained; in time, the others would already be at rest when he finally caught up, leaving him still more tired when all rose and moved on with the next dawn.

It seemed to him that now he hunted his own pack – theirs was the scent he followed, they the sight that fired him, they the slim chance to feed. Then a day came when he followed their scent from dawn to dusk and beyond only to have to lie down in the dark and, for the first time, sleep alone. From then each day their scent grew weaker until finally he could find no trace. He had fallen from the pack.

The pack runs onward, never back. In its wake the old wolf learnt that the prey also knew this to be true, for all around him were the cruel signs of it: sounds of the small, silenced by his approach and too fleet for tired legs to pursue; or the sight of the large, too strong or numerous for him to tackle alone; and everywhere their scent, leading in all directions like the shadow of a tree’s branches, their source just as far out of reach.

He found the hunger of loneliness to be greater than the hunger of the pack. He tried to eat green leaves like the small prey, even gnawed tree-bark like some of the large, but it made his jaws ache and his innards knot, left his tongue dry and soiled. He followed the sound of water to a thin, brackish stream and drank, let it wash through his mouth to deaden the taste. Then came a brief sound from across the stream.

Movement drew his eye. Small, struggling under his yellow gaze, one leg trapped in a tangle of dense briar, wide dark eyes stared back. Long thorns had torn fur and skin, and his nose was suddenly full of the scent of blood – how had it not been before? Saliva gushed into his mouth, drooling into the stream, his legs shaking as though he had hunted this prey over many miles and finally cornered it here.

He took it with lavish joy, not realising until he was done that he squatted half in the stream, damming and soaking it, his hind end matted and chill. He rose and shook, staggered away on stiff legs still relishing the taste of the kill. That night he curled up around the warmth inside him and slept soundly. The old wolf dreamed.

In the deeper dark of the dream, the comforting pressure of his mother’s teeth was felt and seen the same, dry white like distant mountain peaks beneath the moon, small but huge as well. This full moon was not mottled and pale but the glowing coil of her eye, free to rove over all but always turning to watch over him. He felt small, smaller than a cub, smaller even than the prey that had become his last kill. Tiny. Vanishing.

The old wolf woke slowly, stretching tired limbs and aching jaw, and rose. Then the lost memory of his mother swept through him like a stunning fall – he began to spin on the spot, expecting somewhere to see her return. But whether onward or back there was nothing but forest, no familiar scent but that of the elusive prey laying low. Yet something remained, pressing like a memory of teeth, as clear ahead as it was behind. He stopped his frantic turning, instinctively facing onward.

He started away, not at the pace of a pack but slowly, without the intent that comes tracking the hunt but full of this feeling, new yet familiar. A teeth feeling, like the rending of the kill, like being pulled both onward and back. From ahead came the sound of small prey, starting-stopping disturbance of the bracken, but then the rare voice of the prey itself – high chirps of panic. He approached without haste, saw the flurry of its departure through the undergrowth, then saw what it left behind.

Frozen before him crouched the smallest of young prey, too terrified to follow its mother, abandoned at the last only when approaching death became certain. Now it sought to hide behind stillness, too new in the world to know that this was not enough. He had taken such before and would have done so again without hesitation, but now he looked upon the young and felt no hunger. Only the pull of teeth not his own.

The old wolf moved closer, the scent of fear high and powerful, until his shadow lay over the young prey and still it did not flee. He nudged it with his nose and it fell on its side as if stunned, chest fluttering, one unblinking eye staring widely up at him. He looked up, around, seeing and hearing only the forest. Then he opened his jaws and scooped up the young, felt the furious beating of its heart. And he ran.

He ran in pursuit of the young’s mother as if he was with the pack again, with the abandon that only comes when the kill is certain. Even when she could no longer be ahead he ran on, the taste of fur soft in his mouth. The sun swept high then low but still he ran, and when the moon rose and he felt his burden fall asleep on his tongue he ran through the darkness until the dawn, until his legs failed and he fell, heavily and deep. He slept and did not dream.

When the old wolf awoke the sun was gone; so too his tiny burden. The dark of night was all around, except for the round moon high above. Despite his long rest he was weary, more so than ever before in his life, too weak to search for the young prey or carry it onward. So instead he waited, waited for the moon to turn and look down at him, waited for the deeper dark to open its jaws and scoop him up and carry him on.

HP 2nd Nov 2006 23:23

Re: OLD WOLF - a short story
I've been far too busy, flitting in and out of the Palimp to sit down and read this till tonight. So glad I did, Nou - this is delightful! I love the style you've adopted here - the short sharp statements, the absence of ornate language - it conveys the sense of this being a tale from folklore handed down from generation to generation, and has that 'mythical' quality to it. Or perhaps, fable, would be a better term. It's powerful and emotional without falling into the trap of being overtly sentimental - and I like that hugely.

And I do so like your ending - "waited for the moon to turn and look down at him, waited for the deeper dark to open its jaws and scoop him up and carry him on." Beautifully put and such a nice touch rounding the circle like that. It's just so apt for this type of story. Stories - especially short ones - benefit hugely from having a pleasing shape, as this one does. And it's also very nicely balanced. Balance and weighting of the beginning, middle and end being being important factors in what makes a short story successful or not. Too many amateur writers, in particular, (but there are professional writers who are guilty of this too), fail to understand the importance of making a story balanced in terms of how much space and time is spent on the intro, middle and concluding sections of it. The tendency being to put too much emphasis on the beginning setting things up and nothing like enough in allowing the rest, particularly the ending, to unfold without an unseemly scramble. The result is a story that is top heavy and horribly uneven in pace and delivery. Based on this showing, you've got a natural sense of timing for such things, I think. And I do so like the theme of teeth being used as a symbol of tenderness. It's unusual and deliciously paradoxical (as I suspect you meant it to be) since those same teeth can be used - as we are more in the habit of thinking about them - to rip the life out of something.

If I may offer a tiny carp - it's the term, 'small prey'. It's too bland and unspecific to engage the emotions as fully as naming the animal. I can see why you've gone with this term, rather than naming each victim, as it were - and it does fit in with the style of the whole piece, but once we start getting specific, rather than general - ie, the creature that is his last kill, and the one he tries to return to its mother, that very generalness of 'small prey' diffuses the impact and the reader's emotional involvement somehow.

I'm sure others may disagree with me on that little whingette, as it's a personal preference type of thang, but apart from that caveat, hats off to you, Nou, for a very affecting, nicely stylised little gem. Bravo, sir!

Noumenon 3rd Nov 2006 0:54

Re: OLD WOLF - a short story
HP, Thanks for the praise, I'm really pleased you like it, but thanks also for the critique - I want to do something with this, enter it into a competition or something, but I've never quite felt it was ready and feedback is what I need.

Originally Posted by HP (Post 47445)
Or perhaps, fable, would be a better term.

Fable-uous (wince), this was exactly what I was aiming for.


Originally Posted by HP (Post 47445)
Based on this showing, you've got a natural sense of timing for such things, I think.

That's kind - too kind. I've had story structure thoroughly drilled into me, but this was the first time I tried putting it into conventional fiction (as opposed to a screenplay) because it was the first short story I'd written since going back to university. Having said that, perhaps a little natural brilliance and modesty was present beforehand.


Originally Posted by HP (Post 47445)
If I may offer a tiny carp - it's the term, 'small prey'.

This is what I was after - in my first draft I used one word, hunt, to reference everything in that part of the wolf's consciousness: the act of hunting and the creatures the pack consume were both called "the hunt", even his last meal and the baby he carries became "the small hunt" and "the young of the smallest hunt" (or something like that, I forget exactly).

When I read it to my writer's circle they found this problematic so I reverted to the more straightforward "hunt" and "prey", but I was never sure if even this worked. I'm reluctant to give in entirely and in the end just call them "the rabbit" and "the bunny", but "the smallest of young prey" is a (wait for it) bit of a mouthful.

I still need to think a little, but your thoughts are much appreciated.

leyla 9th Nov 2006 17:48

Re: OLD WOLF - a short story
Just read this for the first time, Nou, and I was really touched. In fact, it brought tears to my eyes (must be the fumes from that onion I chopped yesterday, or maybe pre-menstrual sentimentality, she says hurriedly). No crits, thought it was very sweet and moving.

Noumenon 9th Nov 2006 19:30

Re: OLD WOLF - a short story
:-) Thanks! And I hope you enjoy your, er, onions.

Beth 12th Nov 2006 6:36

Re: OLD WOLF - a short story
Noumenon, I've read your story twice now and absolutely think you should take it further, whether competition, writer's group, other avenues. Like HP, I feel the mythical sense of the story and its cadence. If anything, I would think you maybe could pad the story with some more short, descriptive sentences that would further enrich the image of the wolf in his seasons, while at the same time staying true to your sentence structure and overall form. I wanted more of the story, especially the wolf's sensation relating to his mother. And I wanted to know more of his solitude. I'm possibly just a greedy short story reader, but I almost always want them to not end quite so soon. This would be a delicious read out loud story, wouldn't it? You're obviously very talented and so kind to let us read your good work.

Noumenon 13th Nov 2006 17:18

Re: OLD WOLF - a short story
Thank you. They're all a bunch of sweeties on the Palimp in my opinion. I saw your post yesterday when I logged on as a lurker from my parent's house so I fell asleep curled up around the warmth inside too.

It was a little longer originally - there was an earlier passage about the wolf fathering a cub that was to chime with his own experience as an "abandoned" youth, but it didn't sit properly. I had already decided his memory of his mother would be lost until the dream and it seemed to me that if he found himself in a precise roll reversal he'd remember her more easily. If I find an old draft I may post it up here too in case anyone would find the comparison interesting. If/when I make any final changes before submitting it anywhere I will certainly repost Old Wolf - the Writer's Cut. (Plus Deleted Scenes, Writer's Commentary and Gag Reel.)

Lucoid 22nd Nov 2006 14:08

Re: OLD WOLF - a short story
Just read this and think it's delicious. I don't agree with the idea of padding it out - you have balanced it so perfectly that I think any additions would disrupt the flow hugely.

Only have one criticism - the 'spins on the spot' jarred a little; didn't quite seem to fit, and reminded me that I was reading so broke the spell of the story.

amarie 22nd Nov 2006 15:43

Re: OLD WOLF - a short story

Originally Posted by leyla (Post 47952)
or maybe pre-menstrual sentimentality, she says hurriedly).

Lelya, I'm sorry if you think this sounds a bit harsh, but surely this is the sort of detail that we don't need on the Palimp?!

gil 22nd Nov 2006 16:38

Re: OLD WOLF - a short story
This is a really good story, Noumenon, well-written and nicely paced. I agreed with the comment about using the word prey when applied to a specific animal. Everything a predator hunts and eats is "prey", but the actual lunch he has is a mouse, rabbit, deer, whatever. Just tell us what it is. You haven't shrunk from telling us that the predator is a wolf.

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