And the following is offered for "lycanthrope": 1: a person displaying lycanthropy; 2: WEREWOLF.
It's my sense of the absurd rather any belief in witchcraft or magic that has me wondering from time to time if I've perhaps ticked off some witch or warlock. In may sound ever bit as absurd, or perhaps just pretentious, but I have two answers to the question, What am I?, to match the two definitions of those two words: 1: a madman; 2: a werewolf. Two answers based on two definitions of two related words to give me two possible solutions to the duality that is my existence. And I can't help but wonder which definition, which answer, holds the truth of me?
Even before my secretary Melinda buzzed me, interrupting my daily 4:10 doodling session, my instincts told me something was up.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, Mr. Russell," her voice sounded over my intercom, "but . . . Mr. Buxton called. Wants to see you upstairs. In his office. Hung up before I could ask what for."
"Right. Thank you, Miss Conway."
She gave me a worried frown as I passed her desk en route to the elevator. I understand her uncertainty about the stability of my position here at Benson, Burton, Buxton & Miller; part of it, I'm sure, stems from some unconscious realization she's made about the fact that I've never made a pass at her. The stable junior execs, whose very auras seem to say they'll be Running Things in a few years, have all made passes at her -- that's the kind of men young up-and-coming BBB&M executives are.
Lovely, petite Melinda of the pert breasts and well-rounded ass, dove-eyed and raven-tressed -- how could I tell her I'll never go there because I'm already committed? I suppose she might regard that as romantic integrity, but what would she think if I added that my True Love eats raw meat and lives in a cave? Would she appreciate the irony if I explained I'm not more of a "wolf" to her because I literally am a wolf?
Actually saying these things could, I know, set wheels in motion that would result in my being committed in quite another way. So I say nothing. I do appreciate the loyalty and care that underlies the look she sends my way -- but I say nothing.
BBB&M's fourth-floor offices are strictly functional: The carpets would be drab even without the holes punched in them to accommodate electrical outlets that rise up at frequent intervals from the floor. Battleship-gray secretaries' desks are arranged in cubicle after cubicle there, each with their own computer terminal, word processor, Dictaphone, electric pencil sharpener, what-not -- desks so sturdy they could probably be dropped out the window and, assuming they didn't flatten someone down on K Street, be brought back up again for years of further use.
The fifth and sixth floors -- for senior consultants, managers and partners -- grow plusher, with solid carpets, mahogany desks, well-tended planters to seduce and impress the clientele.
Buxton has most of the seventh and plushest floor to himself -- where begins a world of thick, deep-colored rugs; large, original, expensive art; chairs of exquisite leather and divans so soft you could lose yourself in their gentle embraces.
As the elevator ascended, I kept telling myself I wasn't important enough to be fired by Buxton Himself. But this was the time of year when promotions and firings occurred, so it was hard to think of any other reason He might want to see me. It was all I could do to hold myself in check, wondering which of my screw-ups had been brought to his attention, when the elevator opened on all that lavish plushness. Or do I mean plush lavishness? Well, whatever.
Miss Rilke, Buxton's blonde and beautiful young secretary, sat in a dark glass-walled foyer, surrounded by her circular marble desk. How does she get out at night? I wondered -- not for the first time. She looked up as I stepped from the elevator. Wonder if Mr. B's getting any of that? Her silky, sultry voice floated the short distance across the room to me: "Mr. Buxton is expecting you." He probably is getting some of that -- maybe in exchange for letting her out at night. I nodded, took a breath of her sweet perfume, went in.
Buxton: a short fat man, about 190 pounds on a 5'6" frame, who wore glasses, smiled like a shark and tended to speak in clipped, barely audible sentences. He'd taken over BBB&M -- retaining the use of Benson and Burton's names, as they'd done years before with Miller's -- on the basis of one accomplishment and lots of backstabbing/dirty dealing.
Do you like irony? Most of BBB&M's clients were governmental units -- but his "accomplishment" involved losing the Interstate Commerce Commission as a client. In a report he wrote for them, he demonstrated his motto ("Go for the Big Bucks") in a way that made him a legend in his own time by implying union and/or political "fix" in the ICC's regulating of rates so as to make railroads noncompetitive in the 100- to 200-mile range ("The trucking industry is not a natural monopoly.") and tore into them for "discouraging competition and the free-enterprise system, thereby forcing the overburdened U.S. taxpayer to underwrite incompetence
Mr. B -- a scrapper, a fighter, a champion? David taking on Goliath? Hardly. Although, as one might expect, the conclusion he reached in his report (at their expense, both figuratively and literally) did not sit well with them. Naturally, they took their consulting business elsewhere. But when the smoke cleared, the gamble brought BBB&M's spokesman for Truth, Justice and the American Way six far-better-paying railroad accounts. BBB&M continues to dominate the municipal consultant services industry, but the swap of a minor federal agency for several higher-paying private industry accounts brought Buxton to the top, like a lump of sour cream rising up in a glass of single malt scotch.
Now he looked up at me from across his impeccable desk. Indicating the bar behind him with a casual wave of his hand, he asked, "Drink?"
"No sir," I said, trying nervously not to grin like an idiot, "I'm, ah, not quite over 'lunch' yet."
Damn. Wrong reply. Buxton'd already started to get up. He sort of paused there in mid-squat, then continued to rise, went over to the bar, poured a Bourbon over ice for himself, stirred it slowly, tasted it. Satisfied with his handiwork, he turned back to say, "You work for Raymond Steinberg."
"Yes sir. I do." I nodded vigorously but made myself shut up -- one verbal faux pas was already too many. He said something I was too nervous (or he spoke too quietly for me) to understand. "What?"
"I said, I'm told you're his right hand -- our next most senior electric utility proposal writer."
"Oh. Yes sir. I am, I guess. Yes."
"Think you could handle his accounts?"
Mistake or no, I was glad I hadn't accepted that drink. I'm sure my reaction would've been fine in a comic movie but in life it's Really Bad Form for junior execs to spew drinks all over their company CEO -- take my word for it. After a pause I was able to say, without betraying excitement, "I've taken over for him before, when he's been out of the office."
I swallowed hard. "I guess. I mean, I probably could, sir."
"Good. So I can assume Steinberg doesn't rewrite you?"
I began to assure him that Ray had enough to do without having to rewrite my copy, but he cut me off: "Until we get someone to replace you, we'll have to redistribute your work among others in your department while you're handling his. And, if I haven't made myself clear, it will be 'your' department."
I let myself smile, not just for what was happening to me but for the corresponding promotion I assumed would be Ray's, since I was going to be stepping into his shoes.
"Thank you, sir," I said.
"You'll keep this under your hat for the time being."
"Certainly," I said, and tested the water a little by adding, "Otherwise it might let the cat out of the bag about Raymond's promotion."
He paused to drain half his glass. "I can understand how you might think that," he said, "but you'd be wrong. Truth is, we're letting him go." I didn't say anything to that. What could I say? "He doesn't have the executive ability BBB&M needs, doesn't run that department, no matter how good a proposal writer he is. . . . But that brings up a 'condition' to your promotion
"You know what I mean by 'executive ability,' Stan? I mean guts." I was too bemused by the fact that he was calling me by my first name to consider a reply. He went on, "I want you to fire Steinberg yourself. Don't humiliate him -- that's not the point of the exercise. Do it in private, maybe take him to lunch sometime in the next two weeks, before we announce your promotion. Being an executive in this firm isn't all tea and cookies, Stan -- I have to see if you can handle the unpleasant side."
"I understand your need to know that, sir," I said, "but . . . well, just so I understand, what's he done? I mean, why're we firing him? What reason do I give?"
"How much of the truth do you want to tell? He's been counseled, several times, about screwing up deadlines. Sugarcoat it if you want or leave it at that. It's not the full reason. Fact is, he's been covering for whoever's been causing the delays -- making excuses because he seems to think they all have to like him to work for him. Nothing wrong with people liking you, Stan, but it can't get in the way of doing what you have to do. Particularly not when it affects output adversely.
"We play hardball at BBB&M, Stan. Hardball. When someone has more guts than I do, he'll come up here and take this away from me," he indicated his desk, the surrounding office and the foyer containing Miss Rilke with a wave of his pudgy well-manicured hand.
He asked if I thought I had what it took and I played Untried Quarterback to The Coach: "Yes. I mean, I believe so. No problem. I think -- that is, no, I'm certain I can do it, sir."
He scowled at his glass (at least, I hoped it was at his glass) and went on, "It's a hard life. Sometimes we have to be . . . like a wolf, you know? Meet things head on. That's why the stipulation. I have to see if you've got enough wolf in you to get things done on time, to cut the waste, to do what's needed." He looked at me and, seeing the expression on my face, smiled his shark smile.
Most people lead internal and external lives and manage to fool themselves into believing their inner self is what's real and true. But only our external personas have any relevance to the world we live in. So there I was, standing in front of the company's Boss of Bosses, with my inner self rising up in righteous indignation to harangue and call him an idiot for denigrating wolves -- wolves! – by using some wholly human trait to describe them, while my external self calmly listened to him winding down: " . . . as a practical matter, keep in mind that word of your promotion will probably leak by next Friday with the secretary's retyping of the organizational charts. You'll want to tell him before that. The sooner you do, the sooner he can start making other plans. Think of it that way. And the sooner it's done, the sooner you can start revamping that department to get assignments accomplished in a timely manner."
He drained his glass, put it down on his desk with a clack; as suddenly as that, I knew our interview was at an end. I wondered, briefly, if Buxton realized that I was probably the person Ray'd been "covering" for. Maybe. Maybe not. With Buxton, it was hard to tell and I wasn't sure it would've changed anything if I'd told him that bit of truth. My internal persona was still lecturing him for sharing most people's misconceptions about the wolf; it was the external reality that answered "Okay," and left him there with his glass, his desk, his blonde and blue-eyed secretary and his misconceptions.
Absolutely nothing is certain in this snow-encrusted timberland -- not food, not shelter, not even the sun's obvious warmth.
The primary wolf is leading his hunting pack of two brothers, three sisters, one of his older sons toward the river's shoreline. (His mate is back at their den, guarding new pups.) Once the wolves reach the watering place, they again pick up the scent of the caribou. The herd may be as much as a mile and a half further on ahead.
Male One is larger than average -- 145 pounds, two-and-a-half feet tall at the shoulders, nearly six foot from nose to tip of tail, with the tail accounting for 16 inches of that length. This is partly why he's Male One: His leadership long established, only death or a long-term disabling injury could depose him; it's unlikely he'd be seriously challenged under any other circumstance. Human misconceptions to the contrary, wolves of the same pack are averse to serious fighting with each other, and while play and rank battle are common, neither usually results in real injury. If another male in the pack grows dissatisfied with his lot, it's much more probable that he will simply sneak off with one of his sisters to start a pack of their own.
Male One turns, tail up, ears forward, waiting until the rest of the pack turns with him. Eventually they all come alongside, stop, making sure their bodies are lower than his. They assemble closely for mutual heat, talk to each other with yips and tails and body language, while awaiting his decision on which way and how fast to go.
When he starts off, they are quick to follow. All move at the same steady untiring pace. And as they begin to approach the herd, Male One deploys them along the route, instructing them with pauses, nudges, nips and barks. The youngest male, who's been acting up, quickly tucks in his tail and does as the primary male wishes. This done, Male One and Male Three can circle the hill and run the caribou back in the direction of the pack.
Once the others are where they need to be, Males One and Three move off to do what they've done successfully many times before. Their confidence, as reflected in the certainty of their movements, is as absolute as it can be in this place of no certainty, as they do have reasonable expectations that they might get the food they need. But among the variable possibilities of failure is the slight yet very real chance that they will meet their own end. Caribou, like the majority of wolves' prey, are capable of turning on and killing the wolves who track them.
Wolves can run up to 40 miles per hour, maintain a chase at less than top speed for upwards of 20 minutes and leap up to 16 feet -- but the caribou can top any of these feats. Individual caribou are also larger than any single member of the pack, and at any moment can decide to turn and give battle with their horns and hooves, weapons that can kill or disable. In this place of no certainty, lone wolves have killed caribou, individual caribou have killed one or two or three wolves, so while a single wolf can kill an adult caribou and yet numerous wolves are no guarantee, experience shows it safer, easier, more sensible and reliable for several to make the attempt. This is the logic of the pack, beyond the emotional ties which wolves form for others in their fighting family. No denying that the odds do favor the pack wolves. Still, out here, there is no certainty.
When they started, two years ago, I called them dreams. In amused tones, I told acquaintances about them in those conversational dalliances you occasionally get into when someone at some dreary social gathering asks, "Did you ever dream you could fly?" or "Did you ever dream you'd died?" While I've never encountered another person in these exchanges who's told me they too have dreamed they were a wolf, it would be too sweeping and presumptuous to claim that I, Stanley Russell, am the only person ever to've had such dreams.
But these dreams of mine, if dreams they are, are unusual in two important respects -- neither of which have all that much to do with their subject matter. The first peculiarity, the one I believe unique, is that every night, without exception, I resume my dream at the exact point in time where it left off the night before. If, for example, I'm dream I'm playfully arguing with a packmate over a piece of meat when I wake in the morning, it is a certainty that the following night I will resume the dream still contending for the same juicy morsel. While it may not be unusual for people to have serial dreams, my wolf dreams have not once skipped a point in time in the two years since they began.
The other thing that made me quit thinking them as "only" dreams is their abundant detail, undreamlike clarity and seeming reality. But even there, you see, even there, when I put my pose of tolerant amusement aside, I feel I have to qualify them as "seeming reality," since I know full well how crazy they must sound.
I really don't know how to explain what's so different except, perhaps, to say it's in the nature of the reality I seem to perceive. It's not the same way I see things in my waking life. Everything is in stark black and white -- the only "color" comes not from what I see with my eyes but by what I hear with my ears and smell with my nose. I'm an adventurer in a dimension that my waking life is aware of but cannot make part of the way I function; I have the same senses but not the wolf's ability to use them.
Back when I had more-or-less regular dreams, when I recalled them, they were in color and were not particularly detailed: Close-by things might be both clear and colorful, but things in the distance not central to the dream were only hinted-at, at best. My continuing dreams of the past two years are filled with thousands of memorable details: sights, smells, sounds: tiny icicles hanging like silvered leaves off leafless tree and bush branches, my mate's aroma when she's ready to make love, the differing pitches of barks and yips that distinguish one packmate from another and the way the wind's whistle varies sharply from what it was before as we come over the top of a ridge. It's in a category all by itself how scent and sound fill in pictures which the eyes cannot see.
These are details I cannot call "unreal" even in my waking life -- seemingly real, yes, to carry on what little pretense I have that I may yet be sane, but not unreal.
There's a duality in this as well. I keep questioning my sanity, acknowledging the possibility that I might be crazy, in part because that sounds like the sane thing to do. I mean, I'm pretty sure this is because it's my understanding that truly insane people don't believe they're crazy, so my acknowledging the possibility "must" be seen as proof that I'm not nuts after all. The real truth is, while I let myself wonder if I "might" be crazy, I don't really believe I am. So maybe that means I have flipped out, after all.
I don't know how to go about proving anything to anyone, myself least of all, but I think there are a few relatively healthy indications that maybe I haven't gone off my rocker. For one, I've not seriously considered suicide since the dreams began, and such thoughts very nearly consumed me before they came. I take that as a hopeful sign. Then too, I'm no Lawrence Talbot, changing form on the Night Of The Full Moon, beating my breast in remorse and shame at all other times to express my shock, horror and dismay at the Terrible Monstrous Thing I Have Become.
But that's at least in part because I know wolves are large wild dogs who hunt, pursue, attack, fight, kill and eat other animals which are, for the most part, larger and stronger than they are. When large game is scarce in the winter, of course, wolves can live on field mice alone -- but that's a mere expedient, a matter of necessity. On the American continent, only man and mountain cats are more successful predators -- and men and mountain cats are more successful only because they frequently, and with less cause, hunt smaller, less dangerous prey.
Anyway, I'm not so much concerned with who but what I am: a human being who turns on a packmate when the opportunity for advancement thrusts itself forward? Or one of the noblest and most successful predators in the Northern Hemisphere?
Males One and Three carefully circle the hill, not wanting to startle the caribou too soon. Females Two and Three and Male Four are far back and high up on the left, Male Two and Female Four are behind and below on the right. Male One wants the herd to move at a time and in the direction of his choosing. This chase has been going on for some time now, so a mere sighting in the distance will not panic the caribou. While not as intelligent as their hunters, they are nonetheless smart enough to expect the pack to show up again sooner or later. To achieve panic, the wolves must be very close. The caribou will move, and at a nice pace, to avoid trouble -- it's part of their nature.
Whichever way they go, they will have to pass one of the hidden groups of the hunting pack, who will show themselves when the herd is almost on top of them. It is this that might make some of the weaker caribou panic, causing one or more of the least wary to fall. Or, if not, the sudden appearance of wolves in front of them while they are running from wolves behind them will cause them to veer toward the other hidden group -- and, if luck is still with the pack, the surprise of finding more wolves ahead when they are fleeing wolves behind will be all the more surprising for happening twice in succession.
So there's a very good chance, in this place of uncertainty, that the pack can mark and then hunt down the food they need.
Males One and Three move slowly, then quickly, then slowly again, depending on how close they are to cover, lowering themselves, practically crawling, as they approach the herd. Once in position, they spring forward, howling as they run. They're heard, then seen, by stags on watch for enemies; a bleat and the herd, almost as a single thinking unit, breaks into a trot, preparatory to the faster bounding run, swinging to the right and up the hill. Up they go, fast, leaping now, gaining speed, very fast . . .
But where are Male Four and Females Two and Three? There: But they start too late. The herd does not change direction, it rumbles past, neither seeing nor hearing the three wolves and if the few who do notice change direction, it is only slightly and there are no slips to give the pack its wanted edge.
Nonetheless, hunger and instinct keep the pack chasing the herd for a while -- even those below and on the left have joined in -- until Male One barks a sharp command.
At that, they slow to a trot. Conservation of energy: Let the herd expend energy in continued flight. Male One knows his pack needs every advantage it can get, since the sun is already sinking. It will be too cold and too dark to try again today if the next attempt does not succeed.
Despite the fact that you work on the same floor, in the same department, sometimes you can go weeks without laying eyes on Ray Steinberg. Yet, as luck would have it, it seems he keeps popping up everywhere you go after that conversation with Buxton.
"Hey Russ," Ray says, standing by the community water cooler (he alone calls you Russ; everyone else calls you Stan), "how's life been treating you?" He doesn't really want to know how life's been treating you -- it's just his ritual way of opening a conversation if the two of you haven't spoken to each other in a while. There are other people in the hallway -- secretaries and the like -- which is the excuse you allow yourself for not breaking the bad news to him on the spot. "Can't complain," is your own ritual response. "You?" The meaningless strokes of associates, he does not acknowledge your query. Instead: "Did I hear right? You got called up on the carpet on Monday?"
So that's it! Turning up like this's no accident. Silly bastard prob'ly thinks I'm in hot water 'cause he didn't succeed in covering for me. That's why he's been popping up like the Pillsbury Doughboy everywhere I go -- he wants to know why Buxton called me to his office.
You repeat your excuse to yourself and say to him, "No. Not exactly. More a case of," you grimace at the words, "good news and bad news. Tell you what, though, if you've got the time I'll tell you about it over lunch tomorrow. My treat."
"Uh-oh," he says. "That bad?"
"Depends on your point of view."
Hey, ol' Mr. B would be proud of you. A wolf might not -- but Mr. Fire-him-if-you-want-the-job Buxton would.
"Right," Ray says, looking at his watch. There's no sign of premonition of disaster on his face -- why should there be?
"Tomorrow. Lunch. Right." And off he goes, down the hallway -- and he's gone.
If Male One is the officer of his dog soldiers, Male Two is his NCO. At a pause, Male Two, exercising rank, snarls reprimand at Male Four for starting too late. Male Four knows what he must do; he whines, rolls over in the snow, crawls toward Male Two and bares himself. Male Two, mollified, stops snarling; after all, Male Four is young, little more than a pup, not all that experienced in the hunt, and besides the pack has often failed in its attempts to get food. And may again. And again. And again.
The caribou are sure-footed; they might have gotten by, even had the plan succeeded in all its particulars. Males Two and Four fall in with the pack again. The chill wind pierces thick fur; the bite of falling snow can be felt on nose, back and tail. The snow fills in the patchwork of ice left by the thawing sun, soon to retire unsuccessful yet again. Trees stand in thicker copses here, large rocks are more abundant.
The scent of caribou becomes strong, stronger; it is near certain that the herd has stopped, feeling itself to be relatively safe again.
The terrain and slush dictate a change in plan. If the caribou can be made to veer sharply as they run, some may slip on the icy snow to give the wolves what they need to mark a victim.
Male One and Female Three move off to the right while Male Two takes Females Two and Four on a path with some cover to the left, leaving Males Three and Four to move up the middle.
Male One and Female Three make slow progress, sacrificing time and distance to the expediency of remaining downwind. They find themselves a hiding place behind a large rock, which gives them a good vantage on the grazing caribou. The two wolves settle in, ignoring hungry bellies that urge them to attack immediately. Both know they must wait until the time is right or they will not eat at all this day.
Now all depends on which way the herd breaks.
At time you find yourself thinking, Now, if only I had something -- anything, really, -- going on in my private life, maybe I-- Righto. You don't even have to complete the thought. If only you had a private life, a real life, Stan, you could come up with a reason for living long enough to enjoy your coming success.
Or maybe just a reason for living and to hell with the success. You could quit this place in disgust or get a grip on yourself, fire Ray, take his job and laugh off your silly "doggy" dreams.
But, no. Each morning between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. you turn off the alarm which has brought you back from your wolf life, haul your sorry ass out of bed and make yourself ready for (if you can ever really be ready for it) another pointless day at BBB&M: A day without real friends, lovers, purpose or meaningful accomplishment.
Funny thing is, you used to have both real friends and lovers, didn't you, Stan? Sure. Sure you did. Friends and lovers aplenty. At college. And after, a beautiful, intelligent, loving wife who bore you a son. Eight years of marital bliss that ended justlikethat.
You just couldn't take it. It shattered your silly male ego and shriveled your already puny dick when you came to realize that your life mate, Helen, had been faking orgasms. For years. Wanting to please you, even while not being pleased herself.
That last didn't matter, wasn't part of your worldview until you had time to reflect on it later, since you were too wrapped up in your own wants and needs. Still, while you didn't try hard enough, that's not to say you didn't try. The first time you noticed the reluctance, her tired and faintly unhappy smile when you invited her to make love, you decided you could wait until she wanted you. But nights became weeks, then weeks stretched to months. When desire welled up -- she was really so damned beautiful -- you took the easy out. Told yourself it wasn't as if she'd ever said no. But you couldn't believe and keep living the lie forever. You couldn't help but notice that, while your desires were met, they were never met with any real enthusiasm. Finally, frustrated, upset, hurt, you brought up the subject, asked her why. And she gave you, for once, not a lie, not a pretense, but the kind of forthright honest answer you'd always said and thought you truly wanted from your life partner.
"Stan, my God, I'm sorry. But I really don't feel that way about you any more. I don't feel the attraction or desire. Don't know why. I haven't lost the warmth or affection. It's not anything you've done. You're Donny's father and I respect that. In every other way, I still love you."
"Love?" you found yourself asking. "Is that what you call love? That's not love. That's . . . the sort of thing one feels for a puppy -- not another human being." And then hurt turned to anger: "If that's all you feel, if you're not willing to try harder, we'd both be better off finding someone else."
You can't take back a statement like that any more than Pandora could take back her gift. Tossed out like an ultimatum, it should have been no surprised to you when she took you up on it the very next day. I'm leaving you, she said -- and she was gone. Gone, taking Donny with her, and by that point what could you have done to prevent it? No more then than you can do now -- still the same nothing.
Like gears in a clock, people don't so much match as just mesh. Big gears and small gears, locked together, but each turning at their own individual rate of speed.
But it's not mechanical, this clockwork. When two humans find themselves meshing, they're often so amazed and pleased at how well they fit together that they can't see or think ahead. And, in some cases at least, about the time it starts to seem they might luck out and they can relax because it will really last forever, they inevitably go their separate ways, in opposite directions. Without looking back. And it doesn't seem to matter how well they meshed, back when they did. Hell, Stan, your wife loved you -- you weren't making so good a living then that she'd want you for your money, so why else put up with joyless sex to let you please yourself when she could have had any man she wanted?
But your dazed, stunned, injured pride wouldn't let you see it, so you pitied yourself -- and for that matter, still do. You wrap yourself in a pose of bitterness that stinks strongly of melodrama: "Never again will I believe in love!" And that, in turn, for the longest time kept you from making another realization: Your life had already ended, even though it might take another fifty years for your animated corpse to fall over.
Males Three and Four panic the caribou, who break in your direction.
Female Three, beside you, is ready to dash across the snow -- but you check her movement with a low growl. Too early is as bad as too late, and your growl not only reminds her of this but tells her that you know the time. She therefore hunkers beside you, eager to wait, watch and follow. And your timing is flawless. A combination of experience and instinct. You simply know the moment -- you pluck it from the air.
The two of you together charge the galloping herd from the side, while looking for and settling on a victim: There. The caribou are so fast that most are past by the time you're in the open. But at just that moment a large old buck sees your speedy approach and in haste to distance himself from you slips sideways and goes down hard in the slick mush churned up by the passage of the herd that has preceded him.
A little ahead of Female Three, you're on him as he falls. You do not go for his throat -- he's too big, too strong, too much a match for you without your packmates. Instead, you snap at and catch his front leg in a bite strong enough to tear through four inches of finely packed hair and thick hide. Yet the buck is able to pull away, get back on its feet and, in an instant, dodge you -- as indeed you wanted him to dodge you -- to dash away, his speed telling the lie that he has not been bitten at all.
Drops of blood punctuate the snow, testament to this lie. The rest of the herd thunders away, as yet unmindful of the fact that you have stopped. The individuals in your pack, by ones and twos, also stop the chase and come back to sniff the spore and nuzzle you. The sweet tasty smell of caribou blood, warm enough to give off a bit of steam, makes you all salivate.
Wounded as he is, you can run the Marked One down before the sun sets. He will try to stay with the herd because that has always meant his safety, but his wound will slow him and the other caribou, with pragmatic instinct, will sense his panic. And smelling his blood spore themselves, they will come to realize that they must abandon him to his fate if they do not wish to suffer it themselves.
Hunger lends urgency to your task. You lead your pack at a steady pace, following the smell and sight of blood -- and, behind you, the wolverines, foxes and other scavengers take note of your pending success and begin to follow at a distance, knowing you and your packmates will leave them a hearty meal when you are done. Overhead, scavenger birds wheel and turn, watch your progress with ravenous interest.
On Thursday, I weaseled out of my luncheon with Raymond Steinberg ("But I'll treat you tomorrow, if you like." "Sure thing. But if you'd really rather not talk about it--" "No. No. In fact, Ray, I have to tell you, sooner or later. But I have to be in the mood for it." "Russ, you're starting to sound like my wife!")
I smiled at the witticism. Ray knew I was divorced, of course, but since he'd never been favored with any details, he couldn't know how the joke would sound, what sensitivities it might impinge upon. I wondered, as I watched Ray's departing back, if I had what it took to stick the knife in it by telling the man he was finished forever at Benson, Burton, Buxton & Miller.
Not that he was a friend. I had no friends, not really. And it wasn't as if Ray didn't realize the state of affairs; he'd be the first to agree they were only business acquaintances. Oh, sure, it was true Ray'd tried to cover for me – but he would have done the same for anyone in the department. And in that respect, the two of them were quite different. They'd managed to get along, despite several other real differences -- that was what made this all so hard. They were opposites in many ways -- Ray (notwithstanding that Jewish-sounding last name) was a Roman Catholic, married for something like 10 or 11 years, with six kids and another on the way. Too, he wasn't particularly good at what he did for a living, which is not the same as saying he was bad at it. He was politically conservative, occasionally something of a bigot and actively chased anything in skirts. While Stanley disliked most of these human qualities when expressed in the abstract, he and Ray had never had any serious difficulties or spoken harshly to one another. They'd been on relatively friendly terms for years now.
Could he fire Raymond Steinberg? Ray? He didn't know. A wolf could actually kill to get the food it needed, but it killed in open battle. While a wolf might kill another wolf, it would not kill a packmate. Even a male wolf that defeats and deposes an alpha male in his own pack will only wound that alpha male and send him off to fend for himself. A wolf might kill another wolf who was not a packmate -- but it wouldn't even kill that wolf if it simply bared its throat to acknowledge defeat.
What I had to do to Ray was, in a way, like murder. I knew Ray was deep in debt with a mortgage, car payments, outstanding bank loans, private Catholic schools for his kids; he'd been with BBB&M 15 years, since it had been Miller, Benson & Associates -- but what recommendation could he expect from BBB&M, meaning Buxton? Where would he find another job that paid anywhere near the same?
My smile turned rueful when it dawned on me that, even if I quit and made the Grand-Gesture-cum-Noble-Sacrifice, it probably wouldn't save Ray's job. It would just go to Nate Huffheinz, the company's next most senior electric utility writer. In actual fact, as Mr. B had as much as said, my futzing around now was only preventing Ray from getting a running jump on finding a new job. All because I was reluctant to swing the ax Buxton had placed in his hands.
But if I quit, I won't have to dirty my hands with this. But, then, where do I find another job? I left early, instructing Melinda to cover for me following S.O.P. -- which is to say, tell anyone who called who wasn't with the client (including those over me at BBB&M) he was at the client's and tell the client (if they called) he was out of the office working on the project.
It was after lunch but before the evening crowd -- so only a few regulars were in McGurk's. I ordered a scotch, neat, then another, found meself thinking fuzzily about what a departure this was for me. For the past few years, at least, I'd not varied from my routine -- which I tended to think of as my "schedule" – by more than half an hour on any weekday.
Goddamn scheduled, anyway, I thought. Leaves no room, no goddamn room at all, for any kind of love life. Not even room to fit the friends I don't have.
By the time I realized all this, I also knew that while a full explanation would probably amuse my Ohio friends, they would probably never tumble to my real point: He, Stanley Russell, wrote management consulting reports because, like so many other aspects of his depressing, run-down, sexless life, it was totally useless, wasteful, devoid of any meaning or purpose and, of course, was very easy to do.
I regarded my reflection in the bar's mirror and considered the lack of meaningful relationships in my waking life. It's not because you're such a bad looking guy, y'know. Sure, you got a little paunch -- and your shoulders could be broader. But you got a nice face, a friendly smile. Most the time you can make people laugh. You pull down $78K a year and are on your way to making more. You're at least not totally insensitive to other people's feelings. You're easy enough to get along with and a decent conversationalist.
I sighed, looked down into my empty glass. (My third or fourth?) I knew very well why I did not have love, why I had never had it except as a brief illusion, why I would never be likely to have it again.
I argued his case to an imaginary jury: Human love (I told them, standing Clarence Darrow-like with one hand in my pocket) is a myth -- like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny -- which gives people an excuse to do something pleasurable on several levels: The physical pleasure of lovemaking, the emotional pleasure of feeling useful and/or wanted/needed. But like so many myths, it requires willing suspension of disbelief; the first time Santa forgets the presents or the bunny leaves no eggs makes it difficult to find one's disbelief suspenders, which leaves nothing to hold up one's trousers but a belt of cynical doubt.
I drank the last drop and put my glass back down on the bar. The evening rush was now underway and McGurk's was starting to get crowded. I dropped a $10 bill on the bar, waved to the bartender and walked toward the door still wrapped up in my own thoughts.
Doesn't matter, I thought. Not since the dreams.
I'd been mated in my dreams from the beginning -- and this mate would be mine forever. life with Female One might not include love as human beings understood it but it was nonetheless filled with pleasure, loyalty, affection, responsibility, playfulness, simple joy. I thought of it as lovemaking without human hang-ups and accordingly felt loyalty toward my mate even in my waking hours, such as those hours were. It didn't matter if other people might not understand. It did not matter if some psychologist should hear of it and, either out of refusal to understand or because they were swayed by their occupational bias, declare that the real problem was self-loathing and/or fear of rejection by women and/or an early dislike of my mother's cousin's great uncle twice removed. No matter what they said to me, I would just say, "Think whatever you want to think. You would, anyway."
I sense rather than merely see the pack barking and running joyously and purposefully behind me in the rush across the snow.
The wind at our backs seems almost to propel us. Up ahead, the herd continues to break into smaller groups, realizing that for once we are being relentless in our pursuit. Each time the herd splits, we continue to follow the group the Marked One chooses.
Until, finally, nearly ten minutes after the chase has begun in earnest, our prey has been completely singled out and forced up a narrow draw.
We have him. Perhaps. There is no certainty.
I send Males Two and Four circling to the left, the others to skirt the draw on the right and head off the buck on the other side. Being largest and most experienced, I continue up the middle alone -- up, into the wind and blood-tinged scent of the Marked One.
I stop, hunker in the snow, ready myself for the leap which must come -- for I know that, when my brave ones get upwind, this old buck will turn back in my direction in an attempt to escape them. And I will be here.
The Marked One does turn back. Indeed, so wild is his panic that he does not see me until I am on him.
He is hurt, surprised and frightened -- yet still more than a match for me alone, despite his wound and the grueling pace of the chase. I hit him fast and hard, he falls, but this time I do not get my teeth in -- and in his fear he finds strength to throw me off. With some motivating fear of my own but without hesitation, I am back on him before he can regain his footing, and now I am going for the death bite. This is Battle Joined: One of us will not leave here to see the sun go down; neither have we time for further fear.
He cannot turn his head to bring his antlers to bear on me, but he strikes out with his hooves and I jump away, snarling and barking, then back again, for if he should get back up he would take my small advantage. But then, snarling and churning up a spray of snow, Male Four comes flying, and with charnel ferocity his teeth sink savagely into the caribou's large throat. It gives a final squeal, reverting to panic, but then I jump in to help Male Four break its neck. By the time the other pack members come up to sniff the bloody carcass, Male Four and I are already sating our hunger, tearing hunks of wet red meat from the exposed innards of our prey. At the approach of Male Two, Male Four attempts to move off with one of the larger hunks of meat, but Male Two barks a reprimand. Male Four looks to me, but all I give him is a growl. Male Four promptly relinquishes the morsel and Male Two picks it up.
Good. Good. My young son knows he deserves the meat, knows he has earned it for his well-played part, but is bright enough to know, above all, that since he cannot win an argument against his father or his uncle, he most certainly cannot win one against both his father and his uncle. But all we are actually doing is reinforcing nonverbal statements we have made before about certain "givens" in our interrelationships: We are underscoring pack position, making a statement to Male Four that says: You do not take this. Male Four has simply acknowledged: Yes, I do not take that. Having "said" this and had it acknowledged, Male Two drops the morsel and backs off. Male Four, slowly and highly tentatively, moves toward it, prepared to abandon the quest if either of us should bark or growl at him. But we do not bark, we stand and watch, and when he finally has it in his control again, we turn and go to feed ourselves. We have told him that we honor him, that he has redeemed his mistake, that he has made the kill. While he eats the morsel, I come to stand with him.
O, my son! O, my brave one! Eat your fill!
While the pack feasts hungrily, scavenger birds overhead hang on to the sky with at least one wing and wait. I eat considerably more than my share, not because I lead nor out of gluttony but because I must bring back enough to feed my wife and our new pups.
When we are all completely satisfied, a large portion of the old buck remains for the scavengers to pick over. Noblesse oblige.
The seven of us head back toward our den now. As always, I take the lead and maintain a steady pace. We're not far from our den but the temperature drops quickly here once the sun goes down, and we are all anxious for the warmth and security of home.
I went to bed at my usual time. But I awakened long before my alarm went off. I very seldom did that. In the darkness I could see the light of (and numbers on) my digital clock: 3:33. Half the number of the beast, I thought as I sat up and turned on the light beside my bed. I lit a cigarette, then stood up; I didn't want to be tempted to lie back and fall asleep and perhaps set the whole place ablaze. The warm glow I always experienced whenever he/the wolf made a kill began to dissipate as the final details of leaving McGuirk's
I remembered having had these feelings and thoughts as I stood in my apartment smoking my cigarette beside my bed at a little before 4:00 in the morning.
I knew what I was going to do. What, I felt, I had to do. Not for the first time -- for all that he'd only recently been thinking how it hadn't happened since my dreams started.
Before the dreams, I had considered putting a period to my life on several occasions -- including but not limited to the death of my mother, the dissolution of my marriage, my breakup with yet another woman who'd left for an alcoholic shoe salesman. There had been other times -- but none as serious as those three. I'd talked about it, sometimes jokingly, sometimes more-or-less serious, always wondering if any of my listeners believed me. But in every single instance thus far, I'd always been able to talk myself out of the notion. Death was the Great Democrat who came for rich, poor, young and old alike, playing no favorites -- everyone born had to die. Before, I'd been able to argue, Why force Death's hand? Why throw down the cards when the flush might still be filled? Why chuck it all when, at any moment, something might happen to make life seem worthwhile? And up until now, he'd always been right -- something very definitely had happened: I had my dreams, my "night life," and a satisfaction I'd never found in my waking life. For all of that, the clincher to the back-and-forth argument that always took place in my own head involved a little self-deprecating humor by way of telling my reflection in the mirror, "Suicide is the only answer -- if the question is What's the dumbest thing anyone can possibly do?" It made the idea of taking my own life seem ridiculously simple minded. And who could do something so "final" while realizing that the act would only be proving myself to be a moronic clown?
But this time it was with a difference that left me cold. Neither arguments nor humor held such power now. As I filled my bathtub, I tried to argue, to tell myself my death would be without meaning. Do I think Helen will see my corpse and say, "Oh, poor thing! Poor thing! If only I had known!"? Or even that she'll blame herself for having blurted out the news about Donny? Or apologize to my dead body for having gone on to another man? Not likely. She might wonder if there was a cause-and-effect between the news about Donny and my death, given the timing.
But chances are she'll never come here, never know I'm gone. What'll Steinberg think? When you come right down to it, he is the closest thing I've got to a friend. But we only have the stupid, pointless, meaningless work we share. Besides, he's too much a Catholic; he'd never understand, never give an oration -- "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, I bring you the Meaning of a Man." – and never blame himself by thinking I did it for him, which is just as well, since that really wouldn't be the case. And anyway, he'll be too busy looking for another stupid, pointless, meaningless job. "Too bad ol' Russ offed himself -- now, what did I do with the want ads?" What about Buxton? When he hears what I've done, will he blame himself, think he put too much pressure on me by asking me to fire my friend? Naw, not crusty ol' Mr. B. He'll prob'ly just think what I weak sister I am and, that being so, how I'm better off dead. And then congratulate himself on how hardened he is. Maybe turn it into a little bromide illustrating The Way a Proper Executive Should Be, which he can tell to Nate Hufheinz before he offers the job to him. Poor fucking bastard.
I acknowledged the futility of trying to prove anything by an act of suicide. It just didn't matter: I didn't want to prove anything; I just wanted to do it, to die, to pack the game in, to have an end. In this empty unfeeling shell I once had the temerity to call a human being, it's not as if I were really living, anyway.
Well, except for the hours when I sleep at night.
That almost gave me pause. No more dreams. But, on the other hand, no more waking, either. Sure, the dreams were good -- simple and good -- but the waking was so much worse. The bathtub was full enough now. I turned the water off. Still in my underwear, I picked up the razor blade and eased myself into the warm water.
An old college pal -- who'd claimed to know such things because he'd done volunteer work at the emergency room of a local hospital -- had once remarked to a roomful of people on how easy it is to tell the difference between folks who slit their wrists and really want to die and those who did it as a cry for help while secretly hoping to be rescued. The latter made their cuts across the wrist -- the former cut lengthwise from the wrist to the crook of the arm. Someone in that room had opined that perhaps some of the cross-cutters really wanted to die but had cut across their wrists out of ignorance. The fellow said it really didn't matter -- both types usually died anyway.
I was surprised to find how much cutting lengthwise actually hurt. Then too, my blood, which started flowing immediately, was so slippery that I dropped the blade while trying to switch hands to cut the other wrist -- and then I had a hell of a time trying to find and get hold of it again in the bloody water, even laughing at myself when I realized I was trying to pick it up delicately so as not to cut himself. And when I finally got it where I could grasp it, I could no longer hold on to it -- the hand with the opened vein was already too weak. So I slashed my legs a few times with the blade in my good hand, then concentrated on keeping my cuts under water.
There was only one brief moment of panic: I realized I was going to die. But then I told myself there was really nothing I could do about it now --I was already 'on my way.' Even if I had the strength to get out of the tub, even if I had already gotten out and had the phone -- which did not exist in my apartment (for whom would I call, who would call me?) -- even if I had this non-existent phone in my hands and was at that instant telling people at the hospital what he'd done, even if I had already done all of this (but of course I hadn't --I was still in the crimson colored water feeling as if I were about to doze off) and the ambulance was even now screaming full-speed toward me on the empty morning streets, there would still be no hope that they could reach me in time.
Well, what the hell, I thought.
On returning to our den, I am greeted by the yipping and barking of the two new pups. A boy, a girl. They scamper up to me, lick my mouth. Obligingly, I regurgitate food for them, this being how we feed our young. But Female One, my mate, comes out to boss them both away. Only when she has eaten her fill -- not selfishly, since without strength she will produce no milk for them -- does she allow them to return. They both settle on a single piece of meat to play tug-of-war with.
She comes to me then, this mate of mine, licking me where I received small cuts in the battle with the caribou. She is proud of who she is, of who I am, of what we are to each other, and all of this is conveyed in her stance and actions. We exchange affection, and her affection to me says You have done well and my affection affirms Yes, well. She has stayed in our den this day to protect our young but tomorrow that chore will go to one of our pups' aunts or uncles, and although my return shows there's nothing outside to cause alarm, she is nonetheless anxious to go out and take a scent to determine if enemies are anywhere about. Although tired from the labors of the pack, I go with her to see if there is any sudden change. But there are no enemies about that either of us can sense.
This is good -- for if there were, I would have to rouse my tired packmates and we would have to meet the challenge, my brave ones and me.
We have long since staked out the area that is ours around our den, marking boundaries with our urine on surrounding trees and rocks. These being respected by most, we generally remain unchallenged and undisturbed. A female bear, who has been run off a dozen times, comes back from time to time -- it's possible she may have hibernated in our den before it was our den or at least in one of the other nearby caves -- but her scent is not on the wind just now. Female One goes for a little romp, chasing mice in a patch of grass, just because she's had to stay so close to the pups until our return. I turn back, reenter our den, and settle down, my belly still full and the sound of our yipping playful son and daughter filling me with pride and joy.
I close my eyes, relax, prepare myself not to move for the next three or four hours.
Contentment washes over me.
I am at rest.