What I think I’m doing here: I wrote a little Christmas story for my kids (with thanks to Thomas Hardy’s The Oxen and Isaiah 11). Editorial suggestions from my offspring included the following: “maybe the wolves could pull Santa’s sleigh,” “keep the story going, but this time the farm animals trick the wolves,” and “maybe the wolves could wave with their little paws and say ‘Merry Christmas.'”
Silas the wolf loped through the snow. That is what wolves do, they do not trot like a horse or hop like a rabbit or frolic like a dog: they lope with long strides through dark, snowy forests with gleaming eyes and sharp teeth. Silas was a hungry wolf. He had not eaten for many days, and he dreamed of a feast of elk shared with the brothers and sisters of his old pack. But, he was alone now, a dark shadow in search of a meal. Right now, he would be happy with even the snack of a wayward squirrel that had ventured too far from its tree.
It was cold, and his journey among the black trunks of the spruce trees was muffled by the heavy snow. Silas suddenly slowed and then stopped, sniffing the air. He was not the only shadow in the woods this winter evening. Dropping to his belly he crawled towards a clearing where a solitary figure stood in the gathering gloom.
“Come on out, pup,” called an old grey wolf. He too, looked hungry.
“Evening, Uncle,” growled Silas, as he stepped out of the trees. Younger wolves will always call an older wolf they don’t know “Uncle” or “Auntie” as wolves don’t give their name to anyone who is not in their pack. Silas walked stiffly up to the older wolf, head held high, annoyed at being called a pup. This might be his first winter without his pack, but he was no pup.
The old wolf showed a flash of teeth, “Come now, young one, we are two hungry wolves on Christmas Eve, there is no need to be unfriendly. I won’t bite.”
As Silas approached, he saw that the old wolf was lean and scarred. One eyelid, torn in some past battle, seemed to stay half closed. “My apologies Uncle,” he said, still tense. “It has been many nights alone in the forest.”
“And many nights without a meal, I have no doubt.” Silas whined his agreement. “Well, then, come on then pup, let’s run together for a little while. I am not opposed to company tonight.” Without waiting for a reply, the old wolf turned and melted into the trees. Silas hesitated for a moment. The cold wind pushed against his dark fur. He did not know this old wolf, and he did not like being called pup. But, perhaps an old wolf who had spent many years on his own would have some idea of where to find food in the winter, and on that thought Silas bounded after him.
The two wolves made their way through the darkness. Silas noticed after a time that the trees were starting to thin, and that there were strange smells on the dry winter breeze. The old wolf felt him slow at his side as they approached a wooden fence, “Come now, Nephew, there’s nothing to fear here tonight.” And he leapt over the fence with a grunt and started across the open field.
The moon shone, free from the cover of the trees. Its white light revealed a huddle of large shapes, square and boxy, and Silas scented all sorts of strange and delicious smells. He knew that they should not be here, on a farm. His mother, back in the days when he and his siblings would huddle together in the safety of their warm den, would tell them stories of wolves who ventured into pastures or onto farms and never returned to the pack.
The old wolf seemed to read Silas’s mind: “I’m sure you’re thinking of old wolves’ tales, of wolves who get a taste for cattle and one day don’t return from their hunting. Don’t worry, there is nothing to fear tonight.” The old wolf had slowed to a walk now, and Silas watched him approach the largest building. There were sounds of shuffling hooves and hushed woolly sounding voices. This was no place for a wolf. But, while he wanted to turn and run back into the woods, curiosity pulled him towards the barn door.
He crawled up to the doorway, where the old wolf already lay just beyond the threshold, head on his paws. Someone, a large ram, was speaking from deep within the barn: ” … and in those distant days the sky was filled with light, and messengers sang out the good news: the arrival of the Good Shepherd!” The oxen, the chickens, the donkey, and the other sheep all looked to the ram, for Christmas Eve is a night of high honor for sheep, the night on which they tell the story of Jesus’s birth.
The ram’s voice carried through the barn to the two wolves lying outside, and as he continued, Silas felt a spark of memory: “Oh the shepherds, they bumbled around in fear, running into one another and crying out in astonishment. It is a wonder they could hear anything at all. But we, we sheep, we listened. ‘Peace on earth’ was the song, ‘God is with you, yes even you, the sheep of the field.’ And when the shepherds hurried off to Bethlehem, we sang it again among ourselves, and to the hills …”
“I know this story, Uncle,” Silas whispered, “my mother used to tell it to us in our den in the winter. But it was … different.”
“Yes Nephew,” rumbled the old wolf. “We wolves were there too that night long ago, out beyond the edges of the firelight to be sure, but we also heard the good news. And, when the shepherds rushed off, leaving their flocks behind, we too sang the song of peace and spared the flock, at least for the night. The song was for us too.” And it was true, the sheep did tend to tell the story from a very sheepish point of view.
As the story came to its end the animals in the barn began to shift and shuffle: they had noticed the two dark figures at the door. A lamb nuzzled into its mother’s soft woolly side, trying to disappear. A cow fixed her large, liquid eye on the rows of sharp teeth. Silas expected at any moment for there to be panic and cries of alarm. But instead of screams he heard the ram begin to sing, and then the other animals joined in. It was a song Silas knew, but sung in voices he had never imagined – bleating and lowing and braying. It was what wolves call “The Mercy Song,” the song of the pack sparing the flock, the song of Christmas Eve. He and the old wolf joined in, in gravelly, growly voices. People might think that wolf singing is like howling, but they are not the same thing at all – a wolf singing sounds more like rumbling thunder than anything else. It all sounded faintly ridiculous, each animal singing in their own voice, and there was no harmony in it, but it was all the same song.
The song had not even ended before the old wolf turned and started out across the field back towards the forest. Silas followed after, turning his back on the huddled farm animals. The Mercy Song was the Mercy Song, and he felt the warmth of it in his chest, but he was still hungry.
The two wolves ran silently back towards the dark shadows of the trees. “So, young one,” said the old wolf, stopping when they reached the tree line, “When I ran with a pack, I was called Caleb. We can part here, and each go our own way. Or, we can run together for a while longer.”
Silas looked past the old wolf into the forest. The snowy paths among the trees looked cold and clear, but lonely. “I’m called Silas,” he said. And so, the two hungry wolves stepped into the forest, on the hunt for their next meal, together.