I met a man in a wood who claimed to be a wolf. He’s the hero of this story. He told me of a she-wolf he’d met many years ago in a snowy clearing one December. They lived together for years, howling and bleeding and sinking their teeth into the other’s fur until finally, finally, parting ways. His name was Walter, and everybody loved him until his lovely she-wolf companion told the whole town that he’d nearly removed her head with his razor-sharp teeth. Responses were divided. Some said she was crazy, that the cuts on her throat were not from his teeth but from her own claws, while others insisted he was a danger to them all and should be put down. One thing was for sure: the two wolves were brother and sister until, one day, they weren’t.
I wouldn’t tell tall tales about him if he hadn’t already told so many about himself. And really, I’m not talking about him so much as the man and the woman and lovers and the family and the fight he described in his stories. Anyway, what’s done is done—a reputation is damaged, a family is lost, and the story is too heavy not to keep telling it.
So here’s what I know.
Let’s call him Walter, not to be confused with anyone else by that name. Like Achilles or Jesus Christ or the Lone Ranger, it doesn’t really matter if he lived or when he died; what matters is that he told a lot of stories about himself until he became something bigger—and smaller—than a man.
He either did or didn’t beat his sister with a wooden spoon when he was meant to be babysitting her, but I know for sure he slapped her whenever she was acting out of pocket, although whether that was a product of the time or the boy or the girl, I can’t say.
Like I said, the story begins in a clearing in December, with the birth of a pup: Emma. She’s still wet around the ears when our hero, only a pup himself, gets ahold of her, and there are photographs, glossy drugstore prints of Walter cradling Emma in his fat infant arms, smiling as though he knows what’s coming, while Emma sobs, maybe because she knows as well.
In Emma’s earliest memory, Walter is slipping a polished stone the size of a pinky nail up her nose. For decades, she will swear she can still feel its cool, unforgiving form pressing against her sinuses and blocking the air on one side. Still a pup, she reaches a grubby paw up to her face and begins to cry when she can’t get it out. Walter, no more than seven at the time, laughs and laughs and laughs. He’s really something, and then he isn’t, but we’ll get to that.
Against all odds, they—he, a brutal sort, and she, a delicate thing—become the closest of friends. The way Emma sees it, having a brother is a privilege, and like all privileges, it’s hers only so long as she follows a certain set of rules, rules that she is never told explicitly but learns through trial and error: One, repeat nothing that you hear. Two, do exactly as you’re told. Three, be a worthy sister.
Emma is a bright, obedient, and sweet child, and she easily conforms to guidelines laid out for her by adults. Walter’s rules are more difficult to follow: they call for stamina, discretion, balls. They challenge her not only to obey but to change, to strain the limits of her character and become someone new. One day, when Walter is eight and Emma is five, Walter makes a demand for her two front teeth. One is already loose, and she tears it out easily enough. The other, fixed firmly in place, resists. Still she pulls, feeling the sinews between tooth and gums snapping like rubber bands, one by one, until the porcelain gem pops into her hand, a lump of red tissue clinging to the root. Walter is delighted.
In this way, Emma comes to hold Walter’s rules in higher regard than their parents’ or teachers’ rules, docile commandments that ask only that she is quiet and polite. Walter forges a note excusing her from class and Emma gives it to her fourth-grade teacher, eyes wide and wet. Emma’s practically begging her to notice the quivering script, the nervous signature, but the teacher sees nothing amiss and excuses her from class. Emma walks off the neat brick campus in a daze: the ground beneath her feet feels liquid and the shadows are all wrong, too long and sharp against the lawns. She goes to meet her brother where they’d planned, by the dumpster behind the grocery store down the street, and there he is, cross-legged and grinning madly, half a beer in his claws. He offers the bottle and she recognizes the gesture for what it is: a command. She throws back a gulp like she’s seen cowboys do on TV. It tastes burnt and cold. She loves it. As she grows, Emma creeps further up her brother’s trellis, the framework he’s built for her future. She wants, more than anything, to please him.
This is what pleases Walter: pussy, power, money, meat, and blood. Older now, he understands that they represent what he has wanted most all his life: control. When he plays tag, he is always “it.” Scurrying about in fear is debasing; he is a predator, snapping and growling and chasing his prey. In classrooms, he is a menace, talking over the teacher and starting fights until finally, when he is barely twelve, he screams so loud for so long that he is expelled.
Instead of attending school, Walter starts a business selling candy to other children. He brings ten-year-old Emma in on the scheme, writing her more counterfeit notes and dressing her in a slutty red-and-white pinstriped outfit that she wears while standing on the street corner and holding a ceramic tray of M&Ms and Snickers and Red Vines for the neighborhood boys and girls to peruse. The candy stand brings in flocks of people of all ages. The outfit helps, but they seem drawn by something else, some magic about Emma that Walter comes to see as an extension of his own. He is pleased, so she is as well.
They enjoy a Golden Age. His cash flow steady and thick, Walter administers to Emma a modest allowance. Soon her net worth surpasses fifteen dollars. A rich woman, she buys them both tickets to matinee showings of animated films; at Walter’s insistence, they sneak into an R-rated movie and sit in the front row. When a woman onscreen gets fucked in a kitchen, her breasts take up their whole field of vision. The children tip their heads back in awe. It occurs to Emma that she might be gay.
In the evenings, Walter and Emma return to their suburban home and do a terrible job pretending to be normal pups, but no one notices the difference. They make horror films on a family camcorder, Walter always the murderer (foreshadowing) and Emma always the victim. Walter waves meat cleavers, hums haunting tunes, and splashes Emma’s face with a bottle of ketchup kept carefully offscreen. Emma is good at pretending to cry out in pain. She does it often in real life.
At night, their dynamic shifts. Emma pretends to fall asleep a few minutes past her bedtime, then, when the house is dark and quiet, she clicks on her bedside lamp and reads. Emma loves to read almost as much as she loves Walter. She is insatiable, gulping down novels meant for readers far beyond her age about falling out of love and dying of cholera and going blind and all that until that she comes to conceive of herself as much older, much better traveled, and much more damaged than she actually is. By the time Walter sleep-walks into her room in a white robe like some Victorian wraith, she’s grateful for the company. He curls up on her feet and she strokes his hair while she reads, novel after novel after novel.
While Emma spends most of her afternoons in school and at soccer practice, Walter goes about the business of being a kid. He catches bumblebees—Emma’s favorite—in transparent pencil sharpeners and hides them in her room; by the time she finds them, they’re suffocated. He kicks cans down the street and heckles pedestrians and shoplifts rings for Emma from the local drugstore, insisting that he bought them himself. Most of all, he drinks. He drinks patiently, indiscriminately, constantly. He is a thirteen-year-old alcoholic, but he doesn’t say so out loud.
The candy stand performs well for a year or so until Walter figures out that drugs sell better than candy and gets into that business instead. He is a wolf after all, and it’s in his nature to be ruthless. He brings Emma in on the scheme but doesn’t tell her that what she’s selling on her little ceramic tray is not candy but clumps of shake, packets of cocaine muddled with baby laxatives, and their mother’s Valium. She stands perfectly still by the dumpster behind the grocery store, a chiclet grin on her face, oblivious.
The charm of the drug stand is simple: it seems to be run by twins, and twins are indisputably charming. Walter is always small for his age, and Emma is always the tallest girl in her class. In spite of the three years between them, they are often mistaken for twins, an irritating mistake (for Walter) but an understandable one: the two pups have the same gangly bodies, the same ash-blond hair that lightens in the summer, the same snub nose and huge light eyes and round cheeks that blotch with rosacea when they run or cry or drink. Walter and Emma’s paws, touched pad-to-pad, align perfectly. They seem to be made up of the same stuff, which of course they are: infuriated by condescension; heartbroken over the shattered hummingbird eggs at the base of the peach tree in their front yard; overcome with emotion when Walter reads the Bible to Emma in bed on Sunday mornings. But when Walter feels upset, he screams and takes a golf club to the family car, while when Emma feels upset, she makes small cuts in her hip with a pocket knife she’d bought with her allowance from the candy stand. With time, they grow into stubbornly different people: a hero, raucous, rule-breaking, and tragic; and a heroine, soft-spoken, rule-bending, and also tragic. Their flowers may be different colors, but they are the same species of vine, ascending the same trellis, and planted in the same pot.
Nothing gold can stay or whatever, so it isn’t long before Emma catches on to the drug-selling, candy-striped ruse—it’s the talk of the town, and quiet Emma is a wonderful listener. She says nothing to Walter about the deceit, tromps off into the woods after dinner that night, and uproots a rabbit trap she finds at the base of an oak, tearing the iron maw from the earth and chucking it high into a tree. I don’t blame her—in this moment of fury, she could have much less symbolic sense than uprooting one trap while she was ensnared in another.
Once the drug-jig is up, Walter sits Emma down and tells her a half-baked truth. He admits he smokes weed, occasionally but not at all often, and describes to her, while Emma sits cross-legged on his beanbag chair, eyes wide and wet, how it feels to be high. He waves his hand as if to say, “It’s not a big deal,” or “I don’t really like it,” as if he isn’t high at this very moment. For the first time, he explicitly swears her to secrecy, and she crosses her heart and wraps her arms around his neck. Emma feels impossibly close to him, closer than she ever has. Walter feels thick and dumb and happy.
When Walter turns fourteen, his wisdom teeth come in early. Their removal is brutal: impacted deep in his jaw, they are shattered into pieces and extracted as bloody shards. For the pain, the surgeon prescribes Walter a large orange plastic bottle of hydrocodone-acetaminophen. Walter swallows a handful of the tiny pink tablets and marvels as every problem in his life is instantly solved. I’m inclined to say that Walter does not realize the gravity of the event, does not understand the implications and consequences of his first venture into narcotics, but the wolf insists he did. He knew exactly what he was doing—he just did it anyways.
Here’s how it goes down: Emma falls asleep on Monday night and wakes to the sound of sirens and rain, millions of gallons of rain: in the candles, pooled in the seats of the patio chairs, tearing down the canopy and the peach tree, cracking glass tabletops and shattering a coffee mug forgotten on the porch. Emma knows something is wrong. In a moment, she is down the hall and in Walter’s doorway, her hands over her mouth. Her brother is barely conscious, face down in a pool of vomit, spitting and hissing in his dinosaur bedsheets like a flattened rodent dying on the side of the road. Men in blue uniforms and black boots trample their clean caramel carpets while sirens strobe through the blinds. After the men have wrestled Walter’s limp body onto a nylon stretcher and whisked him away, a pump strapped to his face, Emma sees that his bed has been scooted a few inches to one side. She moves it further to reveal, tucked below, a cluster of heat lamps that light a small garden of leafy plants: fresh, sticky weed. Emma feels something in her come unstuck.
Robbed of the chance to say goodbye, she goes back into her room and dresses without turning on the lights. When she comes downstairs, the house is empty and still. She walks to the bus stop and sits on a concrete bench and breathes the way Walter taught her to, her throat in a vice. She boards the bus and says nothing to her classmates about the night now behind her. That belongs only to Walter and her, another stitch in their fabrics, sewing them closer together.
Emma returns home from school that day unsettled, unsure of what to expect. She imagines a confrontation, a confession, and an unfamiliar shame sprawling across Walter’s face, his body bent heavily in half. Instead, she finds him upright on the couch watching cartoons, the dark circles under his eyes and flannel sheet over his lap the only signs of convalescence. He greets her matter-of-factly without looking away from the television, and as she stands over him with her arms slack at her sides, her fear congeals into fury. A betrayal exposed without remorse. A lie laid bare without shame. These are stakes she’s only known in her novels, and their raw, real weight settles over her like water, growing heavier as she sinks deeper beneath them. Alone in her bedroom, she rifles around her drawers for her pocketknife and cuts herself from hip to knee. The next time Walter hits her, she kicks him in the shin with her cowboy boots hard enough to draw blood.
Like a peach forgotten in a pantry, Emma’s hatred for her brother ripens, rots, and ferments into a sweet, stinking mass that poisons the air between them. In front of customers at the drug stand the brother and sister seem close as ever; only in confidence do they confess what I will ungenerously describe as a profound hatred for one another. There is love, too, but a violent love, full of blame and fear, and the only hope of each is to be freed from the other. It’s all very sad because I know where it goes, which is also why it’s such a good story: every retelling is rich with irony, and while the characters long for separation, I know that it will come too soon.
When he turns sixteen, Walter—who by now has been to rehab centers and psychiatric hospitals twice each—takes Emma on a road trip of the American Southwest. Emma—who has spent hours of her life in the sterile waiting rooms and visitor’s lounges of those same rehab centers and psychiatric hospitals—agrees because she loves horses and, in some precious part of herself, her brother. They set out late in the day and drive in the dark for far later than is recommended, chain smoking Turkish Royals with the windows rolled up until their lips are sweet with tobacco. They make it to Moab around two in the morning and crawl under the sheets together even though the rented cabin, located in the heart of a massive ranch, has two beds.
Walter and Emma sleep in late, smoke a cigarette on the screened-in porch, and look out at the impossibly blue sky, red plateaus, and green fields. They read aloud to each other from classics tucked into the cabin’s bookshelves. They eat nothing all day. Finally, when night falls, they buy from the corner store a single box of Corn Pops (Emma’s favorite childhood cereal), take showers, dress themselves in those fluffy white terrycloth robes offered at fancy hotels, and walk the length of the ranch. It’s warm out and raining, but just barely, a fine, misty drizzle that dampens their faces and forms glittery droplets in their hair but doesn’t get them wet, not quite. Emma takes off her shoes to walk barefoot through the cold grass, burying her arm up to the elbow in Corn Pops and crunching on the sweet, stale kernels. Walter lights a cigarette to share as they tilt back their head and point out clusters of stars peeking through gaps in the rainclouds. They walk for miles without reaching the end of the property, glowing in their robes, alone in the night. Secretly, Emma resolves to return to this place every summer for the rest of her life, as her happiness is that profound. If they were lovers, it could be said that they were more in love than they ever had been in their lives, but they are brother and sister, and there are no words for what they feel.
This is where it gets odd: on Emma’s fourteen birthday, Walter drinks himself nearly to death, screams while Emma blows out her candles, jumps into his car, peels out, disappears, and, after his return a week later, refuses to tell anyone, not even Emma, where he’s been; Emma wins a writing award at her high school and also tells no one, perhaps because no one really cares what she does well or poorly; Walter goes on a prescribed anti-depressant, throws a potted plant through a window at a house party, and goes off it again; Walter creeps into Emma’s room in the middle of the night and threatens her life if she doesn’t take four shots of tequila, which she does, discovering while giggling and pacing laps around her room that she actually loves liquor; Walter goes back to rehab; Emma takes SAT prep classes; Walter continues to beat Emma with a wooden spoon whenever they are left alone; Emma continues to cut herself; they finish reading the Bible together; they finish writing a poem together; Walter attends his college orientation, his neck spattered with hickeys; Emma loses her virginity; Walter packs up his things; Emma paces in her room, clutching her pocket knife; Walter hugs Emma tightly, as though this moment matters very much, which it does; they say goodbye; and for the first time in her life, Emma goes out to dinner alone with her parents and realizes that they have been here, somewhere, all along.
The three years that follow are murky—the wolf was skittish and evasive about the whole thing. But, having done some research of own, I will fill the gaps the best that I can.
When Walter leaves for college, he forgets all about Emma. Or rather, the Emma-shaped space he had carved in his life has shrunk to the size of a Christmastime text in which he promises to buy her the gift of an expensive watch. He never does. It’s not that he doesn’t love her; rather, his love for her lives elsewhere, somewhere where he is currently not. Out of sight, out of mind, and all that. It’s sad when you think about it, and I try not to.
When Emma is nineteen, it comes to her attention that she—and, most likely, Walter as well—has bipolar disorder. This, of course, explains her strange lapses of judgement, extreme promiscuity, recurring all-nighters, and a furious (and honestly quite poor) stab at writing a novel about God coming to Earth as a bisexual man who seduces as many people as possible and destroys the nuclear family. I mention this because, without the diagnosis, it’s difficult to grasp her about-shift in character, behavior, and values. She becomes, over the course of one summer, an extrovert, a social climber, and a rebel—at least when it comes to sex.
Walter, upon being informed of his probable mental illness, begins to scream. Emma hangs up the phone, and Walter feels pleased with himself, possibly in part thanks to the heroin he’s smoking out of a pipe rigged from a Zippo and tinfoil.
Walter is a senior in college—how, I can’t quite say—and visiting home for Christmas when it all goes terribly wrong. His first night, he walks out to a trail behind his house and takes deep, cloying pulls of heroin until a robust high washes over his body and down to his toes. His face feels strange, like a warm mask. He looks out over a valley twinkling with little houses, their lights like jewels in a velvet bag, and loses track of space and time until he feels a small, soft hand on his shoulder. He turns to see a beautiful young woman and is embarrassed to realize he doesn’t recognize her, though she seems to know exactly who he is, smiling as though there were a secret between them and prattling on about something he can’t quite follow. But she possesses a strange magic, one he interprets as an extension of his own, and so he reaches out and touches her: the soft of her cheek, the knot of her collarbone, the small of her back. Yes, this is someone he loved once. He kisses her on the cheek and her face makes a shape he doesn’t recognize. The lights of the distant houses seem to grow brighter and brighter, casting her face in red and white and green, dancing in her eyes. He runs his hands along her hips and revels in the give of her flesh, tender as a rotting peach. Her breasts in his hands, he kisses her deeply, his chest welling with joy, more in love than he has ever been in his life.
He pulls away. The young woman is gone. In her place is Emma: her eyes wide and terrified, her hands touching her lips where his have been only moments before. A deep rushing horror courses through him, violent and brief, and then he is light as air, lighter than the rain that kissed their hair in Moab. Emma is gone, replaced again by the woman of his dreams, and he clutches her to him. He must have all of her, he must swallow her whole. He’s a wolf, after all, and he’s hungry. She stands perfectly still, the most obedient prey, as he unhinges his jaw, licks his teeth, and puts her head plumb in his mouth.
Emma doesn’t scream, or so the story goes. Instead, she holds her breath, takes Walter by the jaws, and pries his mouth apart. Calm and quiet as ever, she ducks away, touching her fingers to where the blood spurts from her neck. She smiles a smile she has never offered him before, a pitying smile. Calmly, she takes his hand and leads him home, tucks him into her bed, and kisses his forehead. He falls into a deep, dreamless sleep, and never hears from Emma again.
When I visit Emma, now twenty-six, at her house in Gainesville, her Siamese cat curls up in my lap like a grey bagel. Emma is generous and intentional with her story. She shows me the white scars on her neck. She tells me that the wolf I met is sad, yes, and tortured, yes, but she doesn’t hesitate to call him a monster.
“He tried to eat my head,” she explains, and I am inclined to agree. She leans closer, her cheeks flushed with wine. “He ate someone else. He swallowed them whole.”
Letting the topic stray away from murder, I arrive at the reason for my visit.
“He’s dying, you know.”
She shakes her head, gold ringlets dancing around her scars.
“He’s already dead,” she says.
“No, I met him at a hospital in the woods. I was there for a stomach surgery. We were in the same ward. He’s homeless and dying—he got an infection in his heart from the needles.”
“He died when I was eleven,” she insists.
“OK,” I say, not one to argue. “I’m sorry. How did he die?”
“He was eaten by a wolf.”
“But what about the man in the hospital? He says he knows you. He says you’re his sister.”
“That’s not a man, that’s a wolf,” she says, and I stroke her cat, who is purring loudly. I’ve heard Siamese are quite vocal. “Of course he’s asking for me. He’s hungry.”
“But why you? Why not somebody else?”
Emma’s eyes flash and dance, and I find it impossible to imagine her in a candy-striper costume.
“He likes all types of flesh, but he likes wolf-flesh best of all.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“I’m a wolf myself,” she says, “In fact, I’m even bigger than him. It just took me years to realize.”
If I’m honest, I don’t know who to believe, what’s true and what’s not, who’s who and what’s what. I don’t know the truth, only the story, and it’s a story I keep telling. I can’t help it—it was told to me by a man who claimed to be a wolf, and I have to admit: he had such big gnashing teeth.
Claire Nuttall is a queer and neurodivergent writer from California currently earning her M.F.A. in Fiction at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Her work has appeared in Mid-American Review and placed first in The Darling Axe’s 2021 First Page Challenge and The Tennessee Williams Literary Festivals’ 2022 Very Short Fiction Contest.