This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Child death
When we are kids, says Stavros, we eat the heart of a wolf and become half-wolves ourselves.
We roam the streets, village to village, seventeen children: a moving city of no adults. In and through a swarm of ransacked houses—chairs burnt as firewood, dead birds by the broken windows, entire ghost towns all about the North—we find grain on the floor spilled from sacks stolen too hastily; maybe some old, mushy flatbread; once, we find hard candy in a jar. It’s a feast.
“Soldiers ahead,” Kostas whispers. The sweat on our foreheads runs cold.
We know the drill; we lower, let the bushes and the derelict walls hide us like Aerikó has taught us, like the wolves that we are.
Which soldiers are they? This or the other side? We take great care, just in case. Lone children are a provocation. Some of us lost civilian parents in this war, but most of us have not. On sight, the soldiers will know that we roam alone because our parents are up on the mountains, their beards long, their hands full of stolen weapons. Most of us are the children of guerrilla fighters: flowers of evil, buds that should never be allowed to bloom.
I’m one of them. My mother has four, so she thought it better not to join my father up on that mountain. Yet here, they won’t let her work. They hit us at school. We are children of partisans, and we have a Slavic surname. How many more sins can one accumulate at birth? I roam with the pack of children because I find food. Fresh rabbit flesh that I take back to my little sisters and brother. Maybe the time will come when the soldiers will take me too.
Till then, we know the drill; we lower, let the bushes and the derelict walls hide us.
Till then, we hunt; we prey.
Pack, because we are one. We are one mind.
We hunt; we prey.
When I am little, says Matina, I am a wolf for a while. Orphaned of everyone, I wonder if I sprouted. The kids are my pack; my family.
Wherever Aerikó tells us to go, we go. Aerikó knows all the secret places where food is hidden and where dead bodies lie, to loot matches and warm clothes from. Aerikó climbs on top of the pile of dead people, unafraid of the glassy eyes, so many glassy eyes beneath those feet. Aerikó finds the best loot between lifeless limbs, and then throws a ceremony for all who are gone. We cover them with tree branches and Aerikó says prayers in a language that sounds like what the priests say at church, but also maybe it is just made-up. No one knows if Aerikó is a boy or a girl, because everyone thinks they are just fay—Aerikó, a fairy, a creature of the wind.
I am very little, one of the youngest of the pack. Everything is a playground. My favorite toy is a doll with the skull of a dead pigeon as head. The rest of the bones, I keep as treasure in my pocket. Other children covet them: they are thin and delicate and washed by the sun. I trade them for the short but dangerous joy of improvised pyrotechnics made from bomb shells. Whenever we find one, we always check if there is still some way to have fun with it. The noise sends us giggling in every direction.
One day we find needle and thread and lots of empty flour sacks. Some older girls know how to sew and make us skirts and a little cape for me. Aerikó has an idea. They make a cowl with a long snout and two ears.
“Wolf heads,” they say. And, “We must be ready when they come.”
“Who will come?” we ask.
“Why, the soldiers,” someone says. “They take the children,” someone says.
Aerikó looks at me and smiles. Aerikó isn’t getting ready for the soldiers. Aerikó has something else in mind.
One day we do come across them. “Soldiers ahead!” Kostas whispers. I never learn to fear anything, except when soldiers are approaching. It does not matter which side they’re on; they’re always on the side of holding guns. You never know what they’ll do. You never know if you’ll end up in some part of a pile of dead bodies, others looting from you, stealing your beautiful wolf cowl, your bird bones, your wolf heart.
When they get near, I see them: uniforms misshapen, sheep fur on top to keep some of the cold away. Wild, bushy beards. Some ladies with long braids, and long guns. Partisans, someone whispers beside me, as if they know what this means. I’m not sure I do.
“Who goes there?”
With guns pointed toward us, most of us come out of our hiding places. The guns lower.
“Kids, are you all alone?”
Aerikó steps closer, still wearing the cowl, speaking like equal to equal to the bushy-beard man. Aerikó isn’t getting ready for the soldiers. Aerikó thinks very little of soldiers, of this side or the other. Of any side.
“We are alone, yes. We are handling ourselves well, thank you.”
The bushy-beard man laughs. “Seems like you do. Anyone of you know the lay of the land well?”
A few raise hands, one of them: Kostas. The bushy-beard man tells him to step closer.
“Can you guide us through the mountains ahead? We will keep you warm, fed, and safe. You can have a gun if you want.”
Another kid steps in. “I’ll do it. I used to herd sheep all over this mountain range.”
The bushy-beard man grimaces a little, underneath all that hair. “You’re a bit too young, kid. Think you can handle it?”
“I’m twelve. My parents are freedom fighters.”
“What are their names?”
The kid says their names.
The bushy-beard man hesitates, then smiles. “I know them. Come with us. You might find them along the way.”
We part with few tears. Aerikó never insists. If someone wants to go, they can go. But Aerikó makes sure to remind them: We will always be pack. You will always be wolf.
“Kids, be careful,” a lady with a long, dark braid says. “The fascists will come and take you. They put kids in big houses. You have to say you love the queen or they will kick you out on the streets.”
We stare at each other; some laugh. It sounds silly. Silly because it sounds just like the school some of us already have been to, and we didn’t really like it. Silly because they just took one of us, right in front of our eyes, and they are soldiers too, just of a different side. And silly because life on the streets does not scare us; it just sounds a little less interesting than the one we have here—a life in the open wild.
“We take care of ourselves, thank you,” Aerikó insists, not ever trusting anyone except the children, the woods, and the heart of all the wolves.
The cowl keeps me warm in the cold, cold winter. I remember falling asleep on top of the other children, limb entwined with limb, a pack.
In the winter, says Stavros, they find us. 1949, maybe. The year when the heaps of dead bodies are higher than those the Nazis used to leave behind them.
Around Christmas four of us are grabbed by the royalist soldiers and sent to schools. I don’t think the children resist; the cold in the winter woods can pierce bones. The rest of us hide deeper in the forest, but I am a wolf of two packs and promised to go back to my mother in the winter.
“It’s okay Stavro, go see her,” Aerikó says. “But don’t forget your pack. You will always be wolf.”
“I’ll come find you,” I say, and return to my village, bring my mother foraged winter greens, wild berries, and a skinned rabbit. I shed my wolf’s pelt and become human again for a while.
When I go back, the woods are silent. Trees stand tall like tombs; snow has covered the mouths of the earth and they do not speak a word. I roam for days but can’t find any bodies, warm or cold. I look for signs—which way the soldiers take them, how many days ago. But the trees never betray a single secret: the snow has covered all tracks. In the middle of the woods, I scream.
I say, I should have taken the partisan soldiers’ offer. All of us should have gone with them. We would fight, yes, but we would be free, wolves among wolves. I am alone, orphaned of pack. My heart, a heart of wolf now and forever, is throbbing and aching.
And it so does when a night finds me on a cart travelling north, the breaths of unknown children warming the air around me. Mariya, a teacher from a nearby village and a partisan’s daughter, is taking care of us all until we reach Bulgaria. Mariya picks the lice from the younger children’s heads and gives them hugs when they start crying because their stomachs growl hungrily and there’s nothing to eat but roots. Something stings in my stomach too as I watch them. Mariya is near my age and will never do that for me. I take the role of an older brother too; I answer the questions of the younger ones, even though I don’t always know the answers.
“Where are we going?”
“My sister isn’t here. Will she join us later?”
“Perhaps. My sisters stayed with my mother for now. But mother told me she might send them north too.”
“What are we doing in Bulgaria?”
“We’re going to school. We will have a new family there, sisters and brothers in the same school.”
“Will you be my brother then?”
It’s dawn when we reach Karlovo. There are adults there, nurses and teachers with warm smiles. They are comrades, they say, they’re here to help. For the first time in days, I have clean clothes and a full belly. Then they take us to different schools in groups, making sure siblings stay together. My sisters and brother are not here, but I make sure to tell them. The nurse’s smile is a tense one.
“Will you make sure my siblings join me?”
“Lad,” the nurse says, “we do not know. They take the kids to different countries: Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia. There are many people’s democracies. Your mother will try to send them here with you, yes, but they might end up in East Germany for all I know. They will have a warm home and family there too, so try not to worry. It’s best for you kids to not be around the war, nor the queen’s schools. Our fighting comrades know that. You’re safe here.”
I return to the mess hall and sit down to eat a simple meal of beans and potatoes. The children next to me devour it; I only seem to ungratefully push food around in my plate. The little boy from the cart tugs at my sleeve.
“Do you know when my sister is coming?”
“She is coming soon.”
The boy smiles and goes off to play. I keep pushing the food around in my plate, knowing I might never see my family again.
At nights, I close my eyes and recall my mother’s words.
Hide, Stavro, and take your sisters with you. I will keep your little brother with me. He is too young. Don’t go after the orphans. They already took them to the queen’s schools. They won’t like you there, Stavro. It will be worse than the village. If they take you, I will never see you again, do you understand? But if you go to Bulgaria you’ll go to school, university even. Here it’s only death and prison. Don’t fight the war. I want you alive, okay? We agreed I would stay behind to take care of you. Otherwise, I, too, would go up that mountain to fight. Do you think it cowardly? Think all you want. I want you alive.
Someone tells me my mother does go up on the mountain, after sending my little sisters and brother away. She wants us alive but doesn’t care enough for keeping herself alive for us.
No one sees her again.
At nights, I close my eyes, and listen to a giant wolf heart beating.
In the winter, says Matina, they take us to school.
In the summer, I’m on a boat.
In the winter, I’m dressed in school uniform, wool skirt scratchy against my skin but the cotton shirt pleasant, like a hug. I sit with the other girls, our hands busy with wax tablets where we scribble letters. Then we pick up needle and thread and make a giant blue flag with a white cross, and an even bigger banner saying Welcome, our Mother, Queen Frederica. I sew little flowers on the sides because I love the colors of the threads. The teachers are delighted.
In the summer, I wear a white and pink pair of new shoes with shiny red ribbons, and a matching ribbon on my head. The teacher who dresses me quickly wipes a tear from her eye. “A doll,” she says. I touch the ribbons: they are soft, shiny, red, beautiful, cruel. Taste salty, like seawater, like blood.
In the winter, the Queen sees me. She is wearing a beautiful blue dress with little white flowers; she is holding a small shiny black handbag and is wearing small shiny black shoes with little heels. She sees me in the rows of little girls and stops and lowers herself, my eyes against hers—her eyes are the eyes of a lone hunter. Not a wolf. A fox, a snake, a tiger.
“What a beautiful little one,” she says. “Thank God, we saved her from the communists.”
She puts my hand in hers: all I can feel is the scratchiness of her glove and, underneath, skin cold like frost.
In the summer, I’m on a boat, with several other children the Queen liked. We play marbles and stones and other games I didn’t know existed. When I was a wolf, our games were bones and sinew, moss and dust. I look at the sea and it reminds me of the woods: big, empty, lonely, full.
In the winter and in the summer, I sleep and dream of wolves.
In the summer, says Aerikó, I am a prisoner. In the winter, I will escape.
They put me in clothes ironed till the fibers stand straight and obedient. They call me by a name I have forgotten. They tell me I ought to be serious and quiet and pleasant. I am not allowed to run. I am not allowed to scowl. They take us so they can make us.
Quiet I can do, but I can’t do pleasant. I sit and scowl and pretend. My wolf eyes tell me where to look. I watch the others: in identical little dresses, passing needle through cloth with delicate fingers. I long for the smell of blood and soil, for the feeling of mud beneath my feet. But it is not difficult: I mimic them, passing needle through cloth again and again and not saying much. I play the part of who they want me to be. Behind the bushes, I hunt; I prey.
“This feral little thing,” a nurse says. They are looking at me, careful not to point. My wolf ears hear everything they say.
“Found in a battlefield,” she says. “Searching corpses with nothing more than a solemn expression. Even kids have turned into little beasts by this war.”
“Looking alright now,” says the other nurse. “A little food and clean clothes and they’re good again.”
“An ugly one though,” says the first nurse. “And who will adopt the ugly ones?”
The other nurse shrugs.
Needle in, needle out. I hunt; I prey.
My wolf eyes tell me where to look. They show me where the doors are, who goes in and out. They show me how the light is reflected on little rows of keys hanging from belts. I watch everything and speak nothing. When they address me, I smile in my clean clothes and through my full belly. They think I’m good now.
In the winter, I will make my great escape. I will open doors and walk into the city roads and the dust will stick between my hair. I will run North, over river and mountain and seek the darkness of the woods. I will hunt again in the twilight.
But we will be too far apart, my siblings all lost.
I will be lost. No one will care to find me.
I might die or I might live. No one will know of my fate.
In the winter, I shall travel backwards. To the moment we became wolves.
The needle pricks my finger and I put it in my mouth, savoring delicious blood like the little beast that I am.
I close my eyes and go back to the woods. My skin grows thick hair to drive the cold away. My pack’s breaths are keeping me warm.
When I go back, says Stavros, it’s because I can never forget the feeling of claws sinking in snow, of teeth sinking into warm flesh.
They tell me I can work, that my skills as a mechanic are valuable. I take my family with me. I take my son with me so I can show him where he’s really from. To do the same journey with a little one beside me, backwards.
I uproot everything I’ve built in my new home just so I can go back to the woods. The woods are still there, ancient.
My feet take me to my village first, to my home. It’s only a couple of walls now, with no roof. My little son squeezes my hand, a finger in his mouth, eyes wide and staring. Do you need a roof to make a home? I guess not. The woods can be your home, the open sky your roof.
“Where are your sisters, pa?”
“They live in East Germany. I haven’t seen them since I was a boy myself.”
“Don’t you miss them?”
“Then why don’t you visit them?”
I smile. I might do. Those are the siblings whose location I know. Those are the siblings I lost, but perhaps can find again.
Our feet take us out of the village, to the path that has changed so much and that has stayed the same. Bushes and trees, forever renewed, are perennial: the true custodians of this world. We go deeper and deeper, shadows lengthening around us as the trees grow thicker. There was a time when every turn held a horror, every thicket the stench of a dead man. Now the air is clear of flies; my son walks on peaceful ground.
There is still something in the woods. The familiar smell of wet fur, the delicious smell of fear that prey carries. I watch my son, how he soaks the woods in him in delight, how his eyes devour their cruel beauty. For a moment, his pupils dilate, just like pupils do before one pounces at one’s prey. For a moment, my son is a wild beast. The woods will do that to you, even for a moment.
When I go back, it’s because every full moon night I can hear wolves howling.
When I am young, says Emma, I dream I am a wolf. We are pack, looting from the dead, making fireworks out of empty bomb shells. We speak a language I now don’t remember. I have a little cowl with wolf ears and people call me Matina.
When the dream ends, I’m on a boat. On the other side of the ocean, my parents find me for the first time: Robert and Cynthia. They take me gently in their arms, me in my white and pink dress—only the semblance of a girl because my skin underneath is still thick wolf-skin. They scrub me with soap and water, as if to scrub away every last speck of dust I carried across the ocean. Cynthia with her lovely blue eyes, just like mine, just like any mother’s and daughter’s eyes ought to look. She sews me many dresses in quilting cottons and cheerful poplins. Our house is big with grass around it, has many rooms, and I have my very own room with a bed and a carpet and shiny wallpaper with little roses on it. Soon, I forget. I shed my coat; my canine teeth drop. From wolf, I am child again. Straw-colored curls and white skin: my ticket to America. Handpicked by the Queen, they say.
When I go back, I have no relatives to seek, no village to look for. I only have a memory of woods, and of a school made of concrete.
I roam the forest, listen to its quiet breathing. The trees are peaceful; you’d never guess they grew on soil that drank the blood of brother killed by brother. I touch the roots, the dirt. I bring it to my mouth and recognize it: salty and ferrous, it tastes of blood.
We too, grew on this soil. We have the blood of brother killing brother. My blood is burning and yearning for my siblings, for my pack.
I am rootless, my origin obscure. The woods were my mother. I trace back our steps; my vision gets sharper, my hearing keener. A giant hunger rises in me. With every step back, I sink deeper into the memory of wolf.
When my heart beats here, my siblings’ hearts beat in the same tempo over there.
We’ll share a heart until the end. We are one mind.
I close my eyes and I am back in the woods again.
When I meet them, says Aerikó, the wolves speak to me. They say, these are your brothers, this is your pack. The wolves think I’m stronger, think I can lead them. But they lead me.
Deep in the woods, we find sanctuary. Wild hair, nail crescents lined with dirt, mouths sated with raw rabbit flesh. They tell me to wait, for they will come. They will come and take us. So we wait. We hunt; we prey.
In the winter, they find us. The wolves come; their pelts sprinkled with snow. They gift us with the dead body of one of their brothers. I skin it myself and wear the pelt. We all eat that night. Matina and Stavros—I ask them to join me away from the rest.
“You two are my family. We all eat from the wolf’s body. We become pack.”
I offer them the wolf-brother’s most precious part: we eat the heart, fingertips painted red. We are whole.
At nights, no matter how far apart we are, we look at the moon and our heartstrings shake.
We are ready when they come.
We are one mind. We hunt; we prey.
We fall asleep and return home.