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The Way of the Wolf

The Way of the Wolf

The largest of the pack, the big gray wolf, went out ahead, moving carefully along the wind-swept, grim landscape, his orange eyes glaring in the side of his head, his quivering ears peaked, not indulgent, not trusting his strength as a leader, but accepting it. They were being stalked; he sensed their peril. An enemy had come into their being, an unknown force for which they had no hope of retribution; this terrifying evil would consume them in a firestorm of confusion and dismay, the leader knew, because it came from within, and therefore was an evil that, if allowed, would surely defeat them.

He had no other choice but to continue to move ahead, realizing that the evil festered inside one of them, and, like a contagion, once it began to spread, it would not be stopped. As the one who they looked to for guidance, he needed to keep the pack moving forward. The hunger in their bellies was his only hope because each one of them knew that he was stronger hunting with the others, and what any one of them imagined separately had no relevance to what they needed together. He glanced behind him, but he knew that they were there, following him, the hunger growing in their bellies, and this alone brought him peace of mind. Consciousness brought only betrayal to their cause; he needed to guide them now through reflection into action. There would be time for reflection later, and this would be dealt with at that time. If death to the one who had become conscious was necessary, then it would become clear to him at that time, and he alone, who could resist consciousness, would inflict this just and only punishment; it was the way of the wolf.

His sense of smell was keen, and the smell that had been his only concern for the many miles the pack had traveled, for the many hours of travail they had endured, had brought them closer to their destiny. The pack moved with deliberation, with fortitude, with resignation, for their fate had been sealed a long, long time ago. They were hunters. They hunted not for sport, not for glory, but for one reason, and for one reason only: to survive. He knew now, by the strong smell that had brought him here, that what they hunted was close. With precision and single-mindedness, they zigzagged up the steep slope, and lined out along the long ridge, moving warily. The sun was low in the sky, but they had time. They paused in the long shade of a grove of pine trees, their black eyes blinking against the glaring sun, their tongues moving in and out, their heads nestled on their forefeet. While the pack rested, the big gray wolf moved to the far edge of the ridge to survey the remote herd of bison in the valley below. He squinted into the dying sunlight, and held his regal nose into the sweet scent of spring. The winter had been long and hard, but the pack was whole – and hungry. They might fill their bellies tonight, or they might remain hungry, the big gray wolf left this up to a higher fate. For right now, for this one infinitesimal moment in a long line of moments, he felt the warm sunlight on his weary face, and he took in the sweet pine smell of the surrounding forest, looking back with pride at the pack that had traveled so far, through hundreds of thousands of years, to get here, to get to this single moment in time and space, to be what they were, and to live the way they did, which was the way of the wolf.

Unsuccessful in their hunt, the wolf pack retreated to the close pine forest to huddle against the black, cold, early April night. The big gray wolf closed his eyes against the strain of the day, resigned to his fate as a hunter, content now in the close, cold night. He found relief in the simple understanding that tomorrow would once again bring sunlight, and in this simple fact alone he took comfort. There was really nothing else to consider. The pack, acquiescent, slept through the gurgling noises of the black night.

In the morning, the sun spread its warmth across the high ridge of pine trees where the subdued pack had already begun their early morning rustling, stretching their weary bones, yawning with nervous anticipation, and shaking off the frost of the high mountain air. The big gray wolf’s howl echoed with ferocity across the valley, and the pack stretched their lungs in ardent reply. The herd of bison had moved on, and the pack would move on, too, always moving, driven by the fierceness in their hearts, resisting the hunger in their bellies, wary of the disquiet that threatened their tenacity. The big gray was distressed by his suspicion, a gnawing uncertainty tearing at his wild heart. Consciousness would mean the end of everything, and the big gray’s instincts fought against this parasite that would with the fury of a firestorm infect the whole pack. Consciousness would weaken their resolve, it was not the way of the wolf.

The time had come for the pack to begin. Carefree in the warmth of the sun’s ardent gratification, the day stretched out in front of them. Their bellies were quiet now, because they moved with a common purpose. The big gray wolf led them zigzagging down the steep ridge into the shadows of the deep valley, moving along the narrow rift in the valley’s floor towards the trail that would take them to the bright sunlight on the far ridge, moving without notice, without disturbing the crisp morning stillness, the bursts of wolf breath dispelled behind them, their heavy coats stained by the early morning frost. The big gray wolf was a true leader, a warrior who had accepted his role, even though rueful doubt, like a growling bile, grumbled in the pit of his empty stomach. No time for ruefulness now, however. He needed to seek the trail to the far ridge where a new universe would yield to the wolf pack. Exploration would quiet the grumbling in his stomach, for this was his way, the way of the wolf.

The hunter stepped outside the warm one room cabin into the biting cold of the austere spring morning and walked from memory, his warm breath in spurts breaking the utter silence of the predawn morning, toward the small corral where Dan stood pawing the ground, the steam from his nostrils clinging to the air. The hunter entered the lean-to that faced away from the corral, scratching around in the dark for the currycomb, stuck it into the back pocket of his denim jeans, and, before leaving the lean-to, grabbed the halter from the hook screwed into the wood wall. He walked back to the corral, opened the gate, and stretched his arm around Dan’s neck, pausing in Dan’s warm, familiar breath before he slipped the halter over Dan’s muzzle. He thoughtfully combed the bristled hair along Dan’s withers and down his spine and up under his girth. Dan, turning in gratitude, nuzzled up under the hunter’s armpit, casting him off balance. The hunter playfully pushed himself away from Dan and headed back to the lean-to for the feedbag. Upon returning, he slipped the strap over the poll of Dan’s head, the bag that held the moist, steamy grain nestled close to his muzzle. Dan excitedly munched the grain while the hunter went back to the lean-to for the blankets and saddle. In the pitch black of the cold early morning, he felt his way back to the corral, propping the saddle against his right leg while he threw the blankets, stiff with morning dew, over Dan’s back, arranging them carefully before, with one swift, well-rehearsed motion, he threw the bulky saddle up over the blankets, the off stirrup and cinch slapping against Dan’s ribs. The hunter, his warm breath coming in shorter spurts, maneuvered the saddle perfectly along Dan’s back, reaching under Dan’s belly for the front cinch, cinched the saddle loosely, and whispered into Dan’s ear, “We’ll be underway soon, I promise.”

The hunter left the corral and walked back toward the single light of the small cabin, where he picked up the saddlebags, canteen and rifle. He looked around the small cabin, cupping his hand to blow out the flickering flame of the lantern hung from the low rafter, and stepped out once more into the cold morning, the soft glow from the fireplace casting his illusory shadow in the darkness before he pulled the door shut behind him. He looked up into the endless night frozen by a billion stars.

Before the sun broke the eastern horizon, the hunter had already traveled several miles. He had made preparations for several days away because he knew the way of the wolf, and the way of the wolf was rigid and unforgiving. He had been hired by the rancher, and now it was his obsession to find the pack that had come too close. He held nothing personal against the wolf pack, because they were just following the instincts of hundreds of thousands of years, it was simply his job, and the rancher hired him because he understood his job and followed it with fortitude and perseverance. As he rode into the dawn, the hunter embraced the warmth of the early morning sun, blowing warm breath into each hand to revive its grip.

The hunter, confident in Dan’s surefootedness, moved steadily up the steep, long ridge that overlooked a narrow passage that wound its way down the harsh slope, disappearing into the obscure darkness of the canyon far below. He dismounted, stamping feeling back into his feet, kneeling to examine the tracks in the hard ground. He knew they had come this way and had disappeared down there, but he also knew that they wouldn’t be there now. He stood, squinting into the new sun, gazing reflectively across the chasm to the far ridge: that is where he needed to go, that is where he’d find them, that is the way of the wolf.

The hunter contemplated as he gathered wood for a fire, the wolf pack will travel over fifty miles each day over the harshest terrain while he and Dan would weary themselves covering half that much. No, he wouldn’t find the wolf pack by chasing it, through introspection and hard experience he knew that he’d have to call on his imagination in order to discover the wolf pack. The wolf was an adroit traveler.

He set the coffee pot in the blaze of the fire, warming his hands. The smell of coffee in a wood fire was a pleasure he never tired of. Life was harsh and unforgiving, but steaming coffee brought comfort to his weary soul. As he looked up the steep slopes toward the snowcapped peaks, he pondered: the wolf pack was ravenous; in the somber remains of winter, it had become increasingly hard for the pack to find sustenance, so it was on the move. As the snow receded, the unsettled herds of bison and elk would begin their migrations to the higher mountain meadows below the steep snowcapped peaks. The wolf pack would be there.

The hunter looked across the chasm to the far ridge: up there is where he would find them. The hunter rejoiced in the warmth of the sun moving quickly up the morning sky. He marveled at the steadfast routine of clear days when everything progressed with brilliant precision, but he reminded himself of spring’s violent upheavals. He pulled up the thick collar of his mackinaw, removing the coffee pot from the fire to cool before he packed up to resume his journey. The endless hours of his solitary life were filled with contemplation, but he always came to the same conclusion: in consciousness he found disruption, not explanation. Dan was pensive, but once the hunter stepped up into the saddle, Dan never considered any other course. The hunter stroked Dan’s neck, and bent down to whisper in his ear, “We are underway again, my friend.”

The hunter moved with resolve because he had been hired to do a job, nothing else mattered. Like the wolf, his motivation grumbled in his belly. He rode back along the long ridge, along a trail that led down to the wide plain formed over hundreds of thousands of years by the relentless river. The hunter resolved to follow the river until he passed beyond the narrow mouth of the dark canyon, far below where the wolf pack had crossed the unforgiving canyon as it moved with fierce determination higher up the impressive mountainside. He knew that his backwards maneuvers would put him two days behind the wolf pack, but he understood that he wouldn’t have caught the pack anyway, not until the grumbling in its belly had been calmed.

In the broad river valley, the sun’s warmth was peaceful and brought the hunter comfort. When the sun was high overhead, he stopped along the river’s edge to build a fire on which he would boil coffee and cook the one piece of meat he had brought with him. From here on, the hunter would use his hunter’s skills to procure his meals. There was no need to rush now, he knew where he would find the wolf pack. His untamed life had taught him how to anticipate the austere motion of nature, and he understood when it became necessary to rush, and when it was unnecessary. It was unnecessary now. He ate the single piece of meat slowly, basking in the brilliant sunshine. Dan grazed along the plush riverbank. The hunter gazed towards the high mountainside. He’d been there before, and this is where he was headed again, along the familiar trail that traversed the severe mountainside. Dan’s head shot up with the hunter’s whistle. The hunter smiled. He had survived by his wits, but Dan belonged to that special brotherhood that had repudiated him, and even when the hunter thought of the wolf as his brother, he knew the wolf didn’t look at him in the same way, and this saddened him. But he understood, because it was the way of the wolf.

The big gray wolf had taken the most severe route across the dark chasm because it led the pack along the most direct path to its destination. He sensed the need to take severe actions in order to survive. The wolf had been pushed to the very edge of extinction, and only through its fierce resistance had it been able to survive. The big gray always relied on his instincts, because they gave him purpose, and if his instincts led him into disaster, his worries would finally be over. But yet there was an evil growing within the pack, an evil that grew with the hunger inside its belly. His instincts guided him to push the pack to its limits. This was what defined it, this was the way of the wolf.

Before sunset, the pack would be settled into the cold and dark of a higher ridge below the snowcapped peaks. The big gray wolf, who usually slept apart, slept blissfully inside the warmth of the pack, dreaming of the rejuvenation that would come with the warmth of the sunshine the following morning, and of his resolve to lead the pack into voracious triumph, while far below in the broad river valley the hunter slept beside the receding warmth of the dying ashes. He pulled the heavy wool blanket over his head, hoping to find some comfort and warmth in his heavy breath, and he dreamed of a life that existed for him a long time ago even farther below, where the broad river joined the broader river that wound its way through the disheartened population of the city on the plain. He also dreamed of the wolf pack somewhere up on the high slopes of the magnificent mountain still caped in snow. The wolf pack would still be there when he arrived the day after tomorrow, torpid after the fulfillment of its ravenous adventure. The hunter counted on the success of the wolf pack, it was his only hope to catch the pack off guard. Like the wolf pack, he relied on his keen instincts, but unlike the wolf pack, he couldn’t afford to relax. The pack had traveled far, and after its feast, it deserved a respite. It was the way of the wolf, it was not his way.

In his disturbed dreams, the hunter recalled that other world far below, a life of comfort and pleasure, a world that bored him and turned him soft and uninspired. Whenever he was overcome by the dreariness of comfort and ease, he sought the world of adventure, the world where he collided with the hard edge of life. Like the remains of a bad meal, he burped up this other world, leaving a taste of disgust on his tongue. He belonged here far away from that world of comfort and bad meals, worn thin by the fatigue of adventure. The hunter had the utmost respect for his inspirational rival and close friend, and often thought about how the wolf went about his business with honest, immovable resolve. On the other hand, the hunter, before acting, always took into account his motives: why did he act upon this feeling instead of that feeling, or move in this direction instead of that direction? The only time he acted without concern for motive was when he attacked the bad taste brought on by the turmoil in his stomach. His aversion to this evil taste in his mouth pressed him to seek out what was unfamiliar to him. Only through fear could he escape the bile of complacency.

At daybreak, the hunter peeked out from underneath the heavy wool blanket, and in the dawn of consciousness, he leapt up and set about gathering wood for the fire, stepping away from his campsite only to pee. His spirits were warmed by the fierce fire, and his belly was warmed by the sharp coffee that bit his tongue. He could hear Dan moving in the brush along the river. Dan never strayed too far away. Even in desolate places, and during periods of melancholy, Dan’s loyalty brought comfort to the hunter. In the ardor of the fire, the hunter gazed up towards the cold snowcapped peaks, and then threw out the remains of the coffee. With inflexibility, he spread the blanket over Dan’s back, his confident voice reassuring Dan. He laughed out loud when Dan stamped the ground with approval. He slung the saddle up, and snugged the cinches. He kicked dirt on the ashes of the fire, grabbed the saddlebags, and tied them on behind the saddle. He felt the coffee pot to make sure it had cooled, packed it away with the coffee, and then scabbarded the rifle. He took one more glance at the cold snowcapped peaks before slinging his leg over the saddle, and patting Dan’s neck, he reached over and whispered into his ear, “Well, my friend, our adventure continues.” It was enough, he thought, it was enough to keep him going. It had to be.

The wolf pack behind the big gray wolf left the closeness of the pine trees before dawn moving with fierce determination. Before the sun marked its high point in the sky, the wolf pack had relieved its ravenous appetite. The big gray wolf’s instincts had led the pack in the right direction, and, after the onslaught, it retreated back into the drowsy comfort of the trees to recuperate. The pack would spend the rest of the day in quiet seclusion, while down below the hunter progressed steadily up the steep slope. Before the end of the next day, before the wolf pack felt compelled by uneasiness and hunger to venture away from its peaceful enclave, the hunter on the vigilant winds of destiny would disrupt its tranquility.

That night, the hunter built a guarded fire, tucked away in the serenity of his meditations as he sipped the steaming coffee. Something told him that he was close to the wolf pack: maybe it came to him as the rancid breath of recent death carried on the harsh winds off the cold snowcapped peaks, or maybe it came to him as the sweet breath of tranquil sleep carried on the gentle breeze that brushed the soft edges of the succulent mountain meadows. Whatever came to him on the winds, he was unsettled by the uneasy grumbling in his belly. He would face his fate tomorrow.

As the wolf pack drowsed in its torpor in the quiet pine trees up above, the hunter made preparations for his attack. Before dawn he had made a fire and boiled coffee, and as the sun broke the horizon spreading light and warmth along the great plain far below, he stepped into the saddle, and over the creaking of the stiff leather, he bent to Dan’s ear, “This is the day, my friend, the day we have been searching for.” The hunter knew the way up the steep slope, the route had been etched over thousands of years by the constant progression of the migrating herds of elk and bison into the hard line of the ridge. The hunter felt the heavy weight of days in each steady footstep up the endless slope. When he reached the rim of the plateau far below the high snowcapped peaks, where the trail splintered into ancillary fingers, he pulled up, and stepped out of the saddle. He knelt, studying the fractured rock, looking up ahead to the high mountain peaks. From years of persistence he had learned the ways of animals, but not their minds. He lacked the acuity of smell and hearing that guided them, so he had always to rely on his imagination, and he needed his imagination now because the way of the wolf had been concealed in the clutter from hundreds of thousands of years of upheaval. The hunter knew that it wasn’t what was there that would guide him in the right direction, but rather what wasn’t there. The way of the wolf would be discovered not by following conspicuous tracks, but rather by following its mystical spirit. He stood, quiet, listening to the wind. Dan snorted, and nuzzled the hunter’s armpit. “OK, my friend, I know, I know, it is time to do something, right or wrong, it is time.”

The hunter looked back over his shoulder to the wide plain far below that opened up like an endless ocean before the unfaltering sun. He knew which way to go now. He led Dan to an effulgent spring that seeped from the shattered rocks below the wide plateau, and Dan drank heartily. The hunter looked at the spongy earth surrounding the spring, smiled, and bent down to share the cold, inspiring spring with Dan. He felt the warm sunshine on his upturned face, led Dan to the plateau, and stepped back into the saddle.

Up ahead in the rustling pines on the edge of the high mountain meadow, the wolf pack, their bellies full, wrestled playfully, biting each other’s ears, while the big gray wolf lounged on the edge of sunlight, his black eyes half-closed, glancing from time to time across to the far side of the sunlit meadow. The noble warrior who moved with precision and resolve, unaware of fear, could relax for the moment from the pernicious threat that always followed him.

Moving closer, the hunter pulled up to rest, and tucked up against a rock outcrop, the warm sun reflecting off the smooth sandstone, he built a fire from the scattered remains of the few junipers that held firm along the rocky ridge. In the warm pleasure of the overhead sun and the sweet juniper fire, the hunter dozed. Dan stood close by, grazing peacefully on the short sweet grass of the high plateau. When the hunter awoke, the fire was out, but the sun still shone brilliantly. It was time to go. He made sure the fire was completely out before he set out once again, leading Dan up a narrow, rocky trail to where the plateau opened up to a gentler terrain, where he stepped up into the saddle and high trotted to the edge of the plateau where he looked up the steep slope to a pine forest that adjoined a high mountain meadow. High overhead on the anabatic wind of the warm afternoon the hunter saw the birds circling. He counted thirteen. The high flying buzzards told him that something had been killed, but picked clean. The wolf pack had been successful. He was close now. He drew the rifle from the scabbard and jacked a shell into the chamber, and slid the rifle back into the scabbard. He still had an hour to go. He would have to make his way up above the grove of pine trees so that the pack couldn’t scatter ahead of him. Hopefully he could position himself on that outcrop that marked the western edge of the forest without alerting the wolves. He looked farther up the slope to discern an alternate route that would get him above the pines. He had to backtrack, but he knew that he still had plenty of sunlight, so he was worried.

In another hour he was spread out low on the edge of the small outcrop above the heavy grove of pine trees, out of sight of any eyes that might be scanning the surrounding range. Through his binoculars he was able to see that the stripped elk carcass on the southern edge of the meadow was a fresh kill. He surveyed the thick pine forest, but didn’t see any signs of the wolf pack. He looked at the buzzards circling overhead. They had already come, and had left disappointed. Wolves aren’t very charitable, he thought. They would continue to circle overhead, finally drifting with the winds farther down the slope, searching the lower shelves before finally settling on the plains. Buzzards were too much like people, they would always live off the hard work of others.

He looked over his shoulder to the western horizon, already turning purple orange in the dying remains of the day. He had always been amazed how the sun seemed to hold fast to the high sky, until a certain point, when the earth suddenly dipped its broad shoulders, and the sun was flung into darkness. Only over the Pacific Ocean, the earth’s spoiled child, was the sun allowed to stay out longer. To keep Dan out of sight, he had hobbled him away from the edge of the outcrop. He didn’t like hobbling Dan, but he knew how curious Dan was, and he didn’t need Dan poking his nose over the edge of the outcrop, snorting or stamping his feet. The wolf was blessed with highly sensitive ears, and he knew that even though the pack was festive, it was still on high alert, it was the way of the wolf.

The hunter slithered away from the rim of the rock outcrop, and, when he was far enough away, stood and walked back to where Dan, restless and alert, stared back at him. He stroked Dan’s long neck, whispering in his ear, “I know, I know, my friend, I shouldn’t have left you here stranded and alone, it isn’t fair. It will all be over soon, I promise.”

The hunter led Dan to a flat spot next to a large chiseled rock that jutted mysteriously out of the hard ground, as if by the unbending law of gravity it had crashed into the unforgiving ground after its long fall from heaven. He pulled the saddle off Dan’s back, and laid it carefully on the ground. He took off his chaps, wide-brimmed hat, and his boots and spurs, and stacked them neatly on the saddle blanket. He put on the moccasins that had been tied to his saddle. He stood, danced a little jig, and whispered in Dan’s ear, “I’m free once again, my friend, free at last, free from the last of civilization’s encumbrances on me. I know that those boots are made for a special purpose, but believe me it sure feels good to be out of them. It feels real, my friend, real and right and…..but why should I be complaining to you, when every day I throw that heavy saddle up on your back? You are a good friend.” The hunter stroked Dan’s neck, and Dan nuzzled up under the hunter’s armpit, lifting the hunter off the ground.

On the wide, grassy plateau below the high snowcapped mountain peaks, the hunter had to search in a wide arc in order to gather enough wood for his fire, and he gathered with urgency because the mountain peaks were gobbling up what little sunlight remained. Finally, the fire blazing in the cold dusk, he put the coffee on to boil and went to check on Dan, who he had hobbled in a grassy spot not too far from his fire. Darkness had descended on the wide plateau in the lap of the high snowcapped mountain peaks. The hunter looked out over the wide plain to the east where a sliver of moon had risen. It will be a good night for a hunt, he thought. In the glow of the fire, he leaned back against the rugged face of the rock, whose story, like his own, has yet to be written, and sipped the strong coffee, reflecting on how the night would proceed. He would wait another couple of hours before he slipped down the outcrop and move quietly into the close cover of pine trees. He would have to be deathly quiet because the wolf was vigilant. He had only one advantage, and that was his imagination: the wolf would never suspect his attack. The wolf had few enemies, man being his greatest threat, but the wolf never considered it in this way: the wolf feared only hunger, and was moved only by the grumbling in his belly. Since his belly wasn’t grumbling tonight, he slept without fear. The hunter watched the sliver of moon move higher up the sky. A few wispy clouds moved across the slice of moon, and darkness prevailed. The hunter studied the billions of stars that spread with such mystery across the night. It was a good night for star gazing, he thought. Dan rustled close by, and this slight noise was enough to bring the hunter solace.

He poured another cup of coffee and warmed his hands. He set the cup on a rock and turned his hands palms up, studying their deep crevices that, like the chasms in the earth’s crust, had been carved by erosion and agony. The stars had a certain destiny, as did the moon, a sliver tonight, but fuller tomorrow night, each night gaining perspective, until its brilliance would dominate the night. What was his destiny? Had destiny brought him here to warm his tortured hands by a fleeting fire under an infinite sky? What did the stars think of him? He listened for Dan.

He picked up the steaming coffee and sipped its bitterness slowly. He wanted to sleep, but duty pushed him in another direction. And what would happen in that final moment when he stared into the burning eyes of his prey? Would he find exhilaration – or sadness? He worried that he’d find sadness. And why had destiny brought him so far from his small one-room cabin, far from the city on the plain, bisected by the broad river that flowed with such inexorable determination to join an even broader river on its long journey to the sea. He was a traveler, too, but his purpose wasn’t so clear. His imagination had carried him here, but it had brought along doubt and questions. Why? He gazed into the brilliant sky filled with such mystery. The sliver of moon moved higher up the sky as his resolve began to fade away. Wasn’t this enough, to be a traveler under an infinite sky, to be here now to experience this one moment in the hundreds of thousands of moments of his unworthy life? The wolf was a fellow traveler. He might travel in a different orbit, but he slept under the same infinite sky, and he shared this same moment in the hundreds of thousands of moments of his life. To be here with him now meant something. At least, it meant something. The wolf would face his death with honor and dignity, it was the way of the wolf, but the world would be a sadder place without him, as the universe weeps with the death of every star, the universe will weep for the wolf. And the moon, only a sliver now, will stay on its course, and continue to smile down on its fellow travelers, each on his inexorable journey to find the solace of the sea.

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