”Who can change the way the crab walks or the snake crawls?” Proverbs
by Joe Eliseon
In my family, we have a saying: “If it’s your dog barking, listen.” It comes from the following story, the only story my grandfather ever told me about his grandfather. I treasure the tale and believe it to be absolutely true. Some of you won’t. Some of you believe that wolves are not dangerous and what follows is an old wives’ tale. I can only hope that you never find yourself too far from your rifle.
The she-wolf was dead. His bullet had entered just above her left fore-leg and severed her spine. She had coughed blood before she died. But her life had ended quickly, as he had intended. She was dead by the time he reached her.
He liked to shoot birds. He liked to watch the dogs flush them. He liked to eat them out of the pan with tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, onions and garlic, some salt and pepper and oregano, some wine if he had it in the skin. Other than that he was not a hunter by choice, but by necessity. His flock was his living. Anything that threatened the sheep, he had to kill. He had felt no malice for the she-wolf. She had only killed to live, but so had he.
The dog’s growl came so low that he felt it more than heard it. Lupo, his companion of many years, he who had tracked the she-wolf, stiffened against the side of his leg, eyes narrowed, every muscle hard and unyielding as stone. The man’s grip on his rifle tightened. His dog had scented wolf, living wolf, maybe the she-wolf’s mate. The killing was not over. His voice as low as the dog’s growl, the man uttered a single syllable, “Va!” Go!
Lupo went like death, slowly, surely, head lowered, flowing up the jagged hillside like a cold mist from the sea. The man followed, but the dog quickened his pace, disappearing over an outcropping of ledge and behind a rill. The man mounted over a low point in the rill. As he did, the dog gave a husky snarl, herald of the death stroke. The man swung himself over the rocks and brought up his rifle. He heard something yelping.
Against the rocks, Lupo had brought to bay a male wolf cub, just weaned. The needle points of its milk teeth bared, it yelped, determined to defend itself against the dog. The dog coiled itself against the ground to make its final spring. The man came up behind him, the rifle in the crook of his right arm, and put his left hand on the dog. “Basta,” he said softly, confident the dog would obey. “Enough.”
The dog uncoiled the muscles of his shoulders and thighs and rose from his crouch. But he kept his teeth bared and growled loudly, sweeping his head from left to right, holding the cub against the rocks. The man watched the cub hold its ground against the dog, cornered, overmatched but defiant, teeth bared, unbowed. “Che mafioso,” he muttered to himself. The little thing was proud; it deserved to live. Enough killing for one day.
The man shifted the rifle to his left arm and reached for the cub with his right hand. The cub snapped at him and drew blood. The man snatched his hand back, sucked the blood from his wound and spit it out on the ground. With an oath, he pounced on the cub and lifted it up by the nape of its neck. The cub struggled in his grip and yelped in his face. The man laughed, stuffed the angry ball of grey fur into the game sack he carried over his shoulder and started down the mountain for home. The dog followed behind him, growling.
The months passed and the seasons changed. The man raised the cub as he would a dog. The man grew a year older. His dog grew a year older. The cub grew into a wolf.
He became a great he-wolf, half again as tall at the shoulder as the dog. The man loved the wolf. It was strong and wild and he had spared its life. But the dog hated it. The two animals fought furiously whenever the man turned his back. The man loved the dog; he cherished him. Lupo was a friend allowed the freedom of his threshold. In the field, the man ate first, but the dog ate from the same pan. The man knew the dog was jealous of the wolf. So he made sure to reassure the dog, to show him more affection, to confirm him in his place. But still, whenever he turned his eyes away, the dog attacked the wolf.
As kindness did not work, the man scolded the dog. He punished the dog. He tied the dog. But nothing worked. The dog ignored the scolding, ignored the punishment, bit through the rope that tied him and attacked the wolf. The dog’s good temper failed, poisoned by his unrelenting hatred of the wolf. The man grew tired of the dog’s disobedience. Finally, he beat the dog to make him obey. The dog grew sullen, but nothing changed.
It was the man’s habit to take his afternoon nap in the shade of a great tree that stood before the door of his house. But the two animals’ hatred made sleep impossible. His nap became the worst time between the two enemies. Whenever the man was about to close his eyes, the dog would go wild, howl like a demon and froth at the mouth. The man drove a stake into the ground a little up the hill from the tree, took a chain and chained the dog to it. If the dog made a sound, he would beat him into silence. But the silence never lasted. He got no sleep.
He wondered if the dog had gone mad. He acted badly whenever the wolf was nearby, but why so very badly at the time of his nap? The wolf appeared to be doing nothing unusual. Still, the man wondered.
At last, the man decided to find out. The next afternoon, he chained the dog to the stake and made sure the stake was secure and the chain fast. He walked down to the tree and looked for the wolf. It was lying in the shade by the side of the house, about ten or twelve yards away. He lay down in the shade, his head propped up against the trunk of the tree, the dog behind him, the wolf before him. He relaxed. He slowed his breathing. He closed his eyes almost all the way. He gave the impression of sleep.
Within a few breaths, through the slits of his eyes, the man saw the wolf rise to its feet. At first, it looked like it always did, almost like a dog. It looked about carelessly, the way a dog would. There was no one in sight but the man, the wolf and the dog. Then the wolf lowered its ears. It dropped its tail between its legs. Its eyes grew wide and wild. Without a sound, it bared its fangs, lowered its head and padded menacingly toward the man. It looked like a dog no longer. Suddenly the man realized that the wolf had come between him and the rifle standing against the doorpost of the house. The wolf came closer and the man knew there was no one and nothing to protect him against the wolf.
At that moment, that very moment in which he realized too late that the wolf was still a wolf, he heard a howl split the air behind and above him. He heard the chain snap. He felt the body of the dog rage past his shoulder like the hot wind off the African desert. With all his strength, Lupo hurled himself against the wolf, knocked it over, struck it down. The animals roared and writhed like snakes on the ground, throwing up whirlwinds of dust. The man ran for the door and seized his rifle. He had no clear shot, so he waded into the fighting animals, striking at the wolf with the rifle’s butt.
The animals parted. The dog stood beside the man, purposely staying between him and the wolf, but shaking. The man reached down for the dog. The animal shied away, as if he expected the man would strike him.
The man realized that, all the time he had been beating his dog, his dog had been protecting him. He went to one knee and extended his open right hand to the dog. Warily, the dog stepped toward him. He licked the man’s hand. The man stood and stroked the dog behind his ears. The dog rested against the man’s leg. The world was righted.
Then the man looked at the wolf. It stood a few feet away, its eyes bright, its tongue lolling out one side of its mouth, its tail wagging.
The man shook his head. He took a length of rope and tied it around the wolf’s neck. “Non piu,” he said. “No more.” He had seen its eyes, the eyes of its mother.
He led the wolf down to the river’s edge and put a bullet in its brain, without malice.
(c) 2016 by the Author. All rights reserved.