It’s a thought as they drive. Rain patters against misted glass. The engine thrums. They are silent – the radio crackles, rising in and out of white noise. They’ve given up on tuning it. The hills keep interfering and there’s nothing better to do.
“Once extraordinarily numerous in Britain.”
“Are you going to turn it off?” He shouts.
Garbled words and spikes in volume answer. Hills.
“Didn’t suffer from insular dwarfism, and may have grown as large as arctic wolves.”
It raises a few eyebrows, especially the one of them who studies zoology. They won’t turn the radio off now. She won’t let them.
“The wolf became between 1485 official records Scotland - one tale as 1888.”
The driver thumps it with his fist. The station goes out of tune altogether; indignantly. The radio waves are almost smug.
“Bet you they thought it was a dog,” the other passenger speaks, and not the scientist. A history student.
“People see all sorts of strange things,” the zoologist replies, deciphering the code of the radio and that of the history student’s reply. When the wolves went extinct and people still talked of seeing wolves, alcohol might well be the culprit.
Her statement is received with silence. Heads nod. Breath is taken in. No objections in the court.
“You can’t trust our senses. Fear warps what we see," the zoologist concludes, again, hoping for an audibly approval.
“Yes! I can’t believe you fell for that!” The history student laughs, digging up the bones of some old joke he played on her.
“It was dark and I couldn’t see!” The zoologist defends her honour. He shakes his head, wagging it backward and forth in silence.
There are murmurs of laughter and excuses from the backseat – the driver feels the hot grip of envy rise in his gut. He looks ahead. Concentrate on the road. He chants his mantra over in the mind. They slip back into silence. The radio no longer interrupts, they turn it off.
She places her palm again the window, hoping for something mystic. The rain outside runs between her outstretched fingers. She thinks, but fails. How to explain the emptiness? Rocky outcrops, deep forests – all empty and motionless.
She thinks back to the wolves. Extinct. They haunt the marshes. In winter they are glimpsed unseen. Their island is without them. They transcended, falling between, into the gap of myth and legend; spared of total destruction, but robbed of life.
Myth and legend.
Life and Death.
Myth and legend, the surrogate of life and death. She smiled. It sounded poetic. In a flourish, she takes the romantic thought onward.
A generation, born without the fear of the wolf, looks on in romance. Wondering; how empty the night is without the howl? The wolf is no longer a beast; wild with danger, but a symbol, an idea. Stolen from the wild, leaving an empty space among the beasts and birds.
It is a guilt! Guilty! We took the beast from life. Tore out the heart of the wilderness. The barren marches are forlorn, bereft, mourning the lost child. The man, weary of his civilisation, looks to the empty spaces, and in the silence, finds the wolf, adopting it’s cubs for his own. We hope to learn their secret; of vitality, the mythic beast abounds in.
We yearn something other than frail, pale flesh that is fleeting as snow.
“I heard they were debating reintroducing wolves in Scotland,” she says. She has though enough, and now would speak.
“I heard of that too.”
The driver stays silent, but nods his head. He is a thinker as well.
“Why do you mention that?”
“Just wondering." She doubts they'd listen.
He looks, sitting next to her wondering.
He never really thought of the beasts as she did. He studies history; the classics specifically. Wolves were just an emblem of a distant past. He looks out the window, imagining the landscape of the past. His woad ancestors strode through the brush; hunters and kings, spear in hand, or sword at hip. The cunning ones, perhaps lacking the brawn, still caress the soft fletching, hawk’s eyes waiting for their chance to appear through the gloom. They are extinct too, gone and made into myth. Lingering in collective imagination, like the wolf. The fantasy of the weary metropolis takes their marks, seeks woad of their own. He sees their marks, their unearthly spirals, interlocking and interweaving, tossing and turning as a sea; and in them makes his own myth. He would like to claim something from them, to find their secrets.
The driver is quiet. He feigns concentration on the road. His hands grip the wheel tighter, and takes a deep breath.
The company of students was three. One classics, one zoology, one literature. All subject to an unlikely union. None of them really quite seemed to fit. Joe, Jason, Jenifer. All simple names really, interchangeable too.
Jason, the passenger, thought he could become an academic. A professor in the classics. He wished to be the doctor of Ancient Britain studies. In the lectures he imagined himself behind the lectern, entertained himself with dreams of dictating research to students. It kept him motivated. The reality of his desire is much less arrogant – he went to a field in Wales some weekends, took a foam sword and shield – and painted blue spirals over his body. For the day he was an ancient Briton, sheltered by the empty woods, among company that were kindred spirits.
Jenny or Jennifer, the zoologist – she cared little for either, just loved nature. She was fascinated by animals. She spent the summer on a beach in Costa Rica, sleeping out on the sand and to the sound of crashing waves, protecting the clutches of turtle’s eggs below.
The child-like love of nature had been eroded of late, replaced by a simmering anger at her own kind. So many things killed, broken, destroyed. The piece on the radio, garbled as it was, did nothing to raise her spirits. She glowers out the window – wanting to burn the neat hedgerows.
Joe, the driver, never quite seemed to fit. He studied literature, but was always subject to jibes that he should have done something else. He could listen to birdsong and know the species, and had a knack for finding his way through the woods without a map or compass. It was as if he held some sort of sixth sense. When it came to talk about his work, he was less enthusiastic. He complained about things, lamented the backwardness of his course. He was tired of reading worn out classics; fed up of the interchangeable names of Austen, Bronte, and Eliot.
He was driving out this weekend – an impromptu trip to Dartmoor. The bleak fells call to him this time of year. The others asked if they could come. He had spare seats in the car.
He couldn’t refuse.
Jennifer dug up the wolves.
“I can’t put my finger on it,” she said. Jason turned, Joe kept driving. “It’s a strange type of sadness.”
Joe inwardly lamented her lack of elocution. She was imprecise, clunky with language. He thought it better – she was forlorn.
“We always talk about a broken nature. Always what we’ve done to it-”. Words catch in her throat. She looks out the window. She would like to see a wolf appear through the rain.
“You would like Britain to be an island of wolves again?”
She flashes her eyes at Jason. She thought him mocking. He recoils, apologetic to disturb the she-wolf Boadicea next to him.
“Wolves are important,” she retorts, indignant. She decides to correct his ignorance. “Important to maintaining the health of an ecosystem. You can’t remove the apex predator and expect nothing to happen.”
“Hard to say when that ecosystem is gone,” Jason replies, sulking. He thinks back to the past. There were no hedgerows. Ancient Britain was heavily forested, and now it’s the green and pleasant land.
Joe can’t help but think as the two argue.
Nature has become a tame thing. On an island with no predators, there’s no need to fret. The darken woods are no longer brooding – but mysterious. The shriek of the owl at night not a cry of murder, but otherworldly. The wild things that once threatened man are gone; the wild has lost its teeth.
Eyes gleam from the hill; piercing the sheets of rain.
They’ve been hiking for hours.
The moors are no longer kind. The grey clouds flee overhead, overcome by darker ones. A front of rain approaches the three, dark as night. They decide to head for the trees; a small wood would give some shelter.
But rain won’t dampen their spirits.
And they harbour no fear for the tangled boughs. Their call into the wild is felt strong, something deep in the heart.
They all felt it.
A wordless draw.
An invisible path through misty reeds and twisted trees.
They were a company of fellows, seeking the nameless secret - not shelter from the rain. The beckoning branches hold it close. They are oaks, but small. Withered. Stunted. Mossy; thick with it, their bark overcome, buried by it. Lichens hang on the boughs, like Buddhist prayer flags in Tibet. But ancient, bearing the mark of ages. Something lingered here, a deep, simmering power. Yet are human, and cannot hear.
It appears silent to them.
Beyond the wood, the grey sheets of rain roll in like waves, seemingly without end, broken only by brief flashes of sunlight. They are content to stay in the wood's cradle.
“Do you think it’ll snow this year?” Joe asks, his voice stirred by the impending downpour.
A shrug, a brief puff of steam between cracked lips. It’s all they deign to answer with.
“I would like it to.” Jason comments. He is a closeted dreamer, eager to salvage some identity for himself in the wilderness. He paints watercolours of misty glens, tall peaks or haunted marshes.
He wants to find a secret rediscover the energy of the ancient peoples. He wrote on the Dumnonii, Brigantes, and the famous Iceni – he would spend hours thinking of Boadicea, imagining her likeness. She could only be a she-wolf. He thought it apt. But he failed in the study of Brythonic languages.
He was told he couldn't hear the words.
“I wouldn’t. It’ll just cause chaos,” Jennifer interjects, shaking her head. “We’re an island; the sea keeps our climate warmer that the continent. It doesn’t snow every year here.”
Her 'excuse' means nothing to Jason.
“But winter does come every year; and snow isn’t some freak event, once in a lifetime.” He thought it an embarrassment, cars and trains ground to hold by a light dusting.
The thought of snow; and walking through it, made Joe feel a blooming of pride in his chest – he arched his back and strode forward, imagining the crunch underfoot. He thunders his feet down, skin bristling, imagining a tail raised high, snout and ears pointed skyward.
The radio’s words haunted the group.
The rain fell in sheets and droves, unrelenting. The words once exchanged freely are no more. Mouths tight-lipped. The faint tremor of a cold limb. One thought of a romantic landscape, one thought of an ancient forest of wolves.
Another thought differently. It was a thought stolen into his mind. It came behind the clouds; he felt something. He could not say what.
Some would call on the wolf as their own; call them werewolves – a guilt born of blood. Medieval literature was full of them.
A figure split in halves and halves again. A bloodthirsty half, a peaceable one – human or wolf? And some see therein a brokered peace, the wolf and man in strong bodily union – more than either one.
They push down the track, grunting. Thorns and brambles tug at their clothes, pulling them back. They no longer bear blackberries; and so they are no longer to welcome. The thorns are a caution, a layer of defence to keep out the wandering feet. After their transgression against them, the barbs will not let them go.
“How the shifting rain moves – it looks like something moves behind it.”
“Just your imagination.”
It’s the easy, cut off excuse, used in hundreds of times. Always right before they die. They are fatal marks of death.
Joe can’t help but feel the weight of those words. It’s never just your imagination. But he can’t say anything, he can’t articulate his thoughts. His mind abounds with wolves and werewolfery.
“It’s the beast of Dartmoor!” Jenny laughs.
They still are far from the car. They’d never gotten lost. Joe had taken a map, for once. He had read it perfectly. His compass pointed north. Yet the map said they should be there by now.
Jennifer did some calculations.
Yes, they should have been there. They’d walked the miles corresponding on the map – but now, the map mislead them. The granite tors around them should not be there. The twisted, gnarled bark of oaks should not be there. The moon, high above, should not be out yet.
Perhaps their time in the wood accounted for it? They couldn't no - none of them kept time.
Jason shivered – recognising the stones. Not tors, but standing stones.
Joe’s scalp tingled. It all felt magical. He couldn’t keep his open for a moment without the urge to blink. His nails tingle.
Stars are unveiled above. The rain that blighted them has vanished. The ground is dry, as if a midsummer’s eve.
There are no lights, none so ever.
“You did follow the map?”
The answer is obvious. Of course he did. They all checked. Jason and Jenny found no end of amusement from it. To taunt Joe that he used a map, for once – priceless.
“You should have let me use it.”
“You spent plenty of time making sure I did!”
Their calls wail pitifully in the still night. It draws attention.
“Well with good reason!”
Her shrill cry echoes out in the night. Shapes stir in response.
Jason, giddy, is too self-absorbed. He studies the stones. Hands tremble as he traces the marks. Dreamlike. He’s seen these in a journal before – ancient, unknown, unseen. They are as freshly cut as day.
A low, moaning cry pierces the moors, rolling across the fells.
The zoologist freezes. She can identify it.
“Never trust the English student to do something practical,” Jason mutters, glancing back at Jenny, seeking approval for his lip service. He scowls when she doesn’t return a look. She’s staring off elsewhere.
“Says another humanities student - you can’t read anything that hasn’t been stuck in the ground, or the author dead for centuries!” Joe snaps.
He is indignant. He did not ask him to come. He should not have let them come. He knew a map couldn’t be trusted – he trusted his own direction. They insisted otherwise. To stop the wasps buzzing, he relented.
The bickering is white noise. She listens for the call. Hoping for it again. Nothing comes. Jason continues the argument; hoping to stir her interest in him – only to stop. She would want someone who is calm in a moment of crisis. He thinks on, head full of romantic dross. As far as he thought, they were already out – driving back home, and then, he hoped, they would release their stress together.
They couldn’t have strayed far. They’d taken a wrong turn. Maybe there was some confusion in the scale, the conversion of miles to kilometres. He is an English student after all.
And the sonorous moan sounds again. Her ears throb. Her throat itches. Legs tense.
It makes her afraid.
The others do not seem to hear. She opens her mouth, but manages no words. Garbled only. They don’t seem to hear her.
Jason is looking at the stones.
Joe – he is looking nowhere.
Again a beast calls.
It is joined by others.
The ancient Celts, mysterious, painted people, revered water. It transforms things, brings life. They gave offerings to it. Warriors surrendered their swords to it, gifted it with precious metals.
They did so not in vain.
Water cuts more than the steep valleys. Water cuts through the fabric, through materiality – and every year cuts the sundered veil – when it is at its weakest.
The students had strayed from the tors. Off the hills, out of the wind – swept down into the valleys. The sides were steep – they couldn’t climb out. They couldn’t turn back. The stream – picturesque, a thrashing torrent, lapped at the banks, kissed their heels.
It transformed at the touch.
Now they stand here, recognising ancient stones as fresh as day, in a world before light. The sonorous call of beasts echoes about – their calls hitting their ears, forced to hear a sound unheard. Jason, Joe, Jenny – they all fall silent, withdrawing into themselves. Some seem to hear, though as if in dreaming. They dare not speak – their words seem to offend, and Jenny could not be coaxed into sharing knowledge.
It sounded like a wolf. A tapering howl; wild love sonnet to the moon. But they could not trust their ears. Their eyes seem to lead them astray – into a world beyond. It couldn’t be trusted. The brain can make feverish delusions.
Could they say it was a wolf, when they had never heard a real one? Their ears were virgin; wolfsong unheard. It only came from recordings, TV or Radio. All they knew was a recorded sound, reduced to sound effect – a stock sound.
Now that the call shimmers through the air, a real, unfiltered, unmediated sound, they know nothing of it.
Excitement bred from fear. They lost their reservations – and listened.Surrendering to the sound; feeling an unknown energy. Each looked up to the moon, throats itching to add their own voice to the call.
But they were human, and the knowledge held them back.
Could it be a hallucination? Too prolonged. There’s no signal, then again, that’s the moors. It’s impossible to tell.
“We should stay here. Wait for morning.”
The voice of reason is welcome. The night is mild, mercifully. The grass, dry – soft to touch. The stars put on a celestial play – the moon tracking across the stage. It seemed an offence to question their fortune.
Where had all the rain gone?
To one mind, it caused hope. A step into a new world? Joe recalled Alice. What did she feel, falling down the rabbit hole? Did she even fall? The lexical idea rears its head. Falling. Literally, to fall. Metaphorically, with the context of the rabbit hole – it suggested a hierarchy. She fell from our logical reality to a world she couldn’t make sense off.
Joe welcomed another reality. The thought made him smile.
He decided to think of Alice. He thought of Alice, and reasoned he must wait for the white rabbit to arrive. Or how did the story go? There was no cake, no ‘eat me’ sign. Yet the stones, standing imperiously, suggested he had best wait.
These things always mean a transformation.
Something would present itself. Waiting would help – though he hated their logic. In our world it’s never an idea to wander off at night when lost. Even in this world, it seemed like a good idea. That made the new world a lost world, but he was waiting to be found. He had lost the previous world, and found a new one. Joe felt no loyalty in his heart and quickly hailed the new one.
He looks to the stones – enchanting things, not on his map. Someone intelligent had to make those marks. The interlocking, interweaving, intercooling lines. They were symbols, carefully thought. They meant something. They shiver in the moonlight. Hopefully, like Alice, someone would arrive and explain it all to him.
The animal call rolling in from the hills does not scare him.
It might be the Cheshire Cat – or this place’s equivalent.
Jenny’s mind is a myriad of things.
Gnashing teeth. A flurry of fur. Hard. Coarse. Bristling with the skin.
And the stones hum. Her head pulses. Blood rushes.
The moon above sings. A sweet, tremulous call – it soothes a lunar lullaby.
The moon dips below the horizon; but it does not grow lighter. Nothing stirs in the east for minutes. Then a sliver. Another silver orb rises; moonrise again.
A howl bursts from the long grasses. Barely a few steps away from them. Others follow, joining the melody. The voices circle them, but do not cross the boundary of the stones. Neither do they reveal themselves.
And the stones hum. The air seems to pulse. Blood rushes in response.
The howls seem to change.
They hear voices. Clear, calling them on. There are words behind the sounds.
Falling down the rabbit hole. They have waited, and someone has come.
There’s always a transformation with these things.
It tingles first. Skin shivers in the moonlight. Hairs stand upon end; first on the neck, then everywhere. Goosebumps, but they are not cold.
The air they breathe cools. It is cool. Crisp. Clear. Suck in lungfuls. Try to keep cool. But the heat grows. Their mouths hang open, tongues limp beyond their lips.
Lips, that in the moonlight, harden, and turn black.
A tongue, that in the moonlight, flattens and turns red.
It itches next. They shift about, unable to be still. They scratch at their skin with their nails. They writhe on the ground like worms. They rub themselves against the stones - and sigh in relief.
And the stones hum. The air seems to pulse. Blood rushes in response.
Skin, pale alabaster in the moonlight, seems to shimmer.
Eyes, luminous gold in the moonlight, seem to-
It burns. They do not move. Their eyes are wide. Mouths wider - but no screams. And the stones hum. The air seems to pulse. Blood rushes in response. They tear at their skin with claws.
Faces, that in the moonlight, elongate, turn pointed.
Ears, that in the moonlight, lengthen, turn triangular.
And the stones hum. The air seems to pulse. Blood rushes in response.
And they hum. Their voices pulsing.
And the stones hum. The air seems to pulse. Blood rushes in response.
Skin, pale alabaster in the moonlight, seems to shimmer, shiver, shed and fall. Their voices ring out, the call for help. The voices, ringed around them, reply. Jason, Jenny, Joe. Their names mean nothing. They are sleek, wolves in their own. They do not understand, but eyes seem to glow brighter.
Jason, who once was transfixed by the stones, disappears beyond them; a tempered lope and flash of white-tipped tail.
Jenny, who once wished for a world without hedgerows, and an island of wolves, leaves soon after. She does not follow him; but takes one look at Joe. She wanted to say something, but words are beyond her tongue, and barred by her fangs. She flicks an ear, tilting her head sideways, locking eyes. What she said could not be understood.
Joe remains. Something nags in his mind. Words. He knew what he was. His mind had been full of it. The sense of direction, that leads him everywhere without a map, falls silent. There is nowhere to go. The question remains. Does he move forward?
He is unsure. How does he move? The others took to the lope so naturally. He takes a step, but his mind assembles words for it. His claws clack like clicking pens, ready to dab their nibs in blood red ink. They shall write a tale of his own telling.
He knew he had to go on his own. The others had found something, but he would not follow. He could not. Something in his previous self told him.
An Island of Wolves.
He knew he had slipped the veil. He knew water had transformed. But it did not seem to cherish him.
An Island of Wolves.
The radio had said it. Britain was an island of wolves.
The relief to have lost the others sours.
He felt anger, he growls.
He was sure about Jenny. The tacit looks she gave him could not be missed. She knew the speech of his kind. She spoke to him in other ways. She was all the more obvious today. Her hint about the wolves. Clumsy, but clear. She knew. She expected, on a night such as this, that he would do something. She had guessed about him. He knew she wanted to discover some magic. She challenged him to perform tonight.
She knew of Samhain.
But she left, with only a glance for goodbye. He knew why.
They came along, last minute. They were gone now.
They had changed. He did not.
His heart emptied.
He’d missed his chance.