The wolves came at night, late in the evening of our first camp, with the almost full moon bright in the sky. The fire was dimming after we cooked and consumed our meal; there was talk of people settling in for an early night. We were to wake at dawn and be on our way. Everyone was tired from the long ride today, and tomorrow’s was to be even longer.
There were fifteen of us in camp, including my parents. Conall stayed behind to run the farm and tend to Manya’s needs, but three of my father’s field hands and their wives and older children were traveling with us to help with camp duties and to run the market at the fair.
My father spent the evening telling the old stories. He sometimes seemed as if he wished for another life, to be trained by some ancient poet, like Oisin son of Cormac, roaming the tribes of Erenn, honored for his words and memory above all others. My father’s calling, however, was to love the unusual woman that was my mother and to honor her family and her ancestors by keeping her land for the next generation of Bandrui. Caring for our lineage in this way was undoubtedly honorable, but Father could not hide his wish to bring the old tales alive and to advise kings on what history might reveal for those who asked it questions.
When his last story was over, we sat in silence listening to the wind creak the trees overhead, the smell of wet and wood-smoke in the air. A nearby stream rushed over rocks, pregnant with news meant for the expanse of the dark sea, rushing from the recent heavy rains that drenched the landscape. These consequences of this latest storm left patches of mist and unseasonable cold in its wake, but it was a pleasant night despite it.
My eyes were closed, listening to the water, trying to make out what it whispered and if it had any word for me. A rustle behind me startled us all, for I seemed to have drifted into an almost-sleep, that place where images from both worlds meet and shake hands like old friends. A stick-break echoed through the wood, closer now, and I sat up, rubbing my face. Only a few people were awake, and my father was prodding the coals of the fire, readying it for sleep as well. He stood up at the sound and moved toward the edge of the circle.
From a space in the woods behind me, a smell drifted into the circle and grabbed me — all of us. It smelled of wet fur and animal. Almost as soon as the scent arrived, a great, grey wolf, eyes glowing red-brown in the fire-light walked inches from me. She bent her head to sniff my arm as she passed. She sat first, then laid down next to the stones heaped around the fire, her eyes watching us, ears alert for motion.
Everyone froze. My father, still standing, didn’t take another step. I glanced to see if there were others, as wolves travel in packs and there were undoubtedly others around us, but I could see nothing in the dark of the wood. No one moved or even breathed.
The wolf glanced around at the faces gathered at the fire, and then — I swear this is the truth — she spoke words, words of people…not the howling, whining, and yipping of wolf talk. She spoke words to us, to me, in the old-fashioned way of the ancient poets, as if she were a woman sitting at the fire and not an animal:
“I have lived the days of my life. I have joyed and wandered in woe.
I am feeble and fain and would rest from my travel, searching to and fro.
But that day I am fain to behold, and I fain to behold that day
Raise up the stones from my mound, and cleanse my bones from the clay.
At that time, in times to come, the keepers of stories and lore
Will bring to this isle, to all our kin, precious treasures and so much more.
I was not afraid now. As soon as she had finished her impossible pronouncement, she got up, shook herself off, and left the circle at a trot.
Manya once told me a sign borne by animals was surely one from the Gods or from some past or future Bandrui walking the spiral and were to be believed absolutely. What would she would make of this? I committed the wolf’s words to memory and my mother sat wide-eyed next to me and did the same. Everyone else broke from the fire in silence
The earthy animal smell endured in our camp until day-break, a reminder we had experienced together something impossible. The children spoke of it in the morning in hushed tones, asking if the wolf was still here somewhere. The farm-hands packed the camp, some saying Christian prayers as they worked. I made my way to a nearby stream with mother, to wash the scent of animal off me, if it could be scrubbed from us at all. But I continued to smell the wolf for days to come. To be honest, I am not sure the smell of that wolf will ever leave me.
This is an excerpt from The Other Land, by Marie Goodwin. The book is filled with strange and mysterious stories, things most would find impossible in the 21st century. But if you read medieval Irish literature or the Icelandic Sagas, you will soon realize that such events and experiences were, if not commonplace, accepted as the way the world operated. What if such things were still welcomed into our lives, talked about, and shared with others around the campfire?
by Marie Goodwin