The Time of the White Wolf

Stittenham wolf via Finds.org

It snowed for thirty years and no-one knew when the snow would end.
The old people could remember the times before the snow,
But none of the young ones had ever seen the sun rise or set or blaze at midday.
None of them had traced the patterns made by the stars in the night sky.
They knew only that these were, according to the elders,
As bright as the sparks that leapt at night from the town’s huge bonfires.
None of them knew what the endless blue of the day sky was like, either.
Blue was the colour of the strange, sea child’s hair. It was the colour
Of the sapphires that lay hidden inside the rocks in the deep mines,
Brought up in baskets and broken open by the hammers of the smiths,
Traded for supplies of food, for bundles of fine woollen thread, and for stories.
Year upon year, the sky was the pelt of a white she-wolf, caught in a hunter’s
trap.

The wolf lay still, refusing to die, but her fur would not stop moulting.

The sea child had a secret. The sea child had a dream,
A dream he shared with no-one.
How could he? He was a child of the sea,
Brought to this land long before he could remember,
To this endless expanse of white and bitter cold
Where the bonfires in the town squares cracked like breaking ships,
And the wide looms shuttled to and fro, to and fro, in the factories,
Encoding patterns that were, to him, without meaning.

By day, the sea child laid his left ear to the ground and he listened
— chip-chip-chip —
To the miners extracting rocks from the walls of the underworld.
He liked to lie so still that the snow buried him.
Then, just when the weight was as heavy as a wolf cub’s pelt,
He would push up and out and shake himself free.
Deep inside his bones, this ritual stirred to life a song without words,
And he carried the song inside him, a blue flame of longing.

By night, the sea child laid his right ear to the reindeer rug that was his pillow.
As he slept, he was carried through the snow to the cliffs along the coast.
He stared down to the frozen fields of the sea, and wanted to walk out onto them.
But whenever he tried to do this, the dream dissolved like salt in broth.

Early one morning, when the snow fell so thick and fast
That you could not see your own hand in front of your face,
The sea child awoke and understood what he must do.
He understood that he could not reach the sea in his dreams.
He would have to rouse the blue flame in his soul and start walking.
He tied the reindeer rug around his shoulders and slipped out of the sleeping town.

In the sky, the she-wolf lay still and the rhythm of her breath
was the rhythm of the sea child walking, walking, walking.

The sea child walked through night and through day and through night again
Until he came to a town where the snow-driven land met the wide, frozen sea.
He passed through the town like a ghost from a forgotten tribe
And no-one saw him passing.

No-one but the goldsmith’s daughter.
The goldsmith often worked late into the night, sorting sapphires.
He would hold them to the light of his oil lamp and turn them this way and that.
The goldsmith’s daughter understood that he was waiting.
He was waiting for the stones to reveal their secrets to him.
When this happened, he laid the stones on a velvet tray with tender care.
Then he fashioned them so that they shone,
Setting them in fine metal clasps; creating intricate blue and gold necklaces.
The goldsmith’s daughter loved to see the stones come to life,
So she lay awake at night, watching.
The shadow of the sea child passed the goldsmith’s window before dawn.
She started, and felt a sea-change deep within her heart.
She took her stick, for she was slow and lame,
She also took a necklace from her father’s work table, for his back was turned,
And she set out after the sea child.

In the sky, the she-wolf stirred and the rhythm of her breath altered.
The rhythm now was of two bodies walking,
one of them slow and yet steady, slow and yet strong.

The sea child walked to the cliffs beyond the town.
He made his way down the steps on the side of the cliff
And he stepped out on to the flat, frozen sea.
The sea child walked through night and through day and through night again
Until he came to a rock in the middle of the sea.
He climbed up the rock and here he rolled out his reindeer rug and slept.
Now his dream had changed:
Now he dreamt of a she-wolf who was caught in a hunter’s trap.
When he awoke, he was too weak to go on walking.
The blue flame inside him trembled and dimmed.

Slowly, slowly, the goldsmith’s daughter also came to the rock.
She saw that the sea child was sick.
Slowly, slowly, she pulled her small, lame body up onto the rock.
She stroked her companion’s strange blue hair and she hummed.
She wrapped her fingers around the blue and gold necklace and sang.

The song of the sapphire girl travelled across the sky to the albatross.
The albatross heard the sorrow in her song, and the hope within the sorrow.
He spread wide his magnificent wings and flew down to the rock.
He took the sea child and the sapphire girl onto his back.

In the sky, the she-wolf flicked her ears and the rhythm of her breath deepened,
Matching the rhythm of the great bird’s wings as they sliced the cold air.

The albatross flew through night and through day and through night again
Until he came to the place in the sky where the great she-wolf lay dying.
He set the sea child and the sapphire girl down at her side.

The she-wolf licked the faces of the sea child and the sapphire girl,
And the movement of her long tongue was the rhythm of their breathing.
The albatross flew back to the rock in the middle of the sea and waited.

At last, the sapphire girl awoke. She saw that the wolf was held fast
By the sharp fangs of the hunter’s trap; that she suffered.
The sapphire girl used all of her strength to prise open the trap
And the great she-wolf was free, but the blood from her wound flowed fast.
The sapphire girl lay down in the mouth of the wound.
She made a bandage of her body and in this way, she stopped the blood.

For thirty years the children lay at the she-wolf’s side.
The sea child awoke, and the two children drank from the wolf’s dugs.
The snows stopped, and the she-wolf’s coat grew warm and thick and soft.
The sun rose and set and rose again.
The children woke and slept and woke again.
Then they stood up and looked about them in silent wonder
And the she-wolf knew that it was time for all of them to change.
She ran fleet and free across the wild green world
And the blue flame inside the sea child blazed so brightly that his eyes shone
And the yellow eyes of the she-wolf blazed brighter still.
The albatross soared and glided high above them like the shadow of a dream.
The sapphire girl threw the blue and gold necklace high into the sky
And she laughed.

She laughed and she laughed and she laughed.

And her laughter was the rhythm of the she-wolf running, running.
And her laughter was the wings of the albatross gliding, gliding
And her laughter was the spirit of the sea child singing, singing
And her laughter was heartbeat of life itself, returning and rejoicing.

 
 

Part of The Learned Pig’s Wolf Crossing editorial season, spring/summer 2017.

Image credit: The Sittenham Wolf, via www.finds.org

 
 

The Learned Pig

Tessa Strickland

Tessa Strickland is a writer, editor and psychotherapist of dual English-New Zealand nationality. Co-Founder and former Editor-in-Chief of independent publisher Barefoot Books, she has written extensively for children and adults and her work has been translated into over thirty languages. The mother of three adult children, she makes her home in north Somerset.