Tonight, me and Lee gonna kill the wolf. Been digging a pit out in the woods all summer, filling it up with wolfsbane and sharp rocks big as our heads, covering it up with leaves so wolfy eyes can’t tell it’s there. Lee even snatched a whole chicken outta his Pa’s coop, snapped its neck and threw it on the pile like some kinda wolf Christmas come early. Wolf just has to go sniffing over by the edge and we give a good push and we’ll be Nicky and Lee, honest-to-God wolf-killers.
Lee says they still gonna be talking ‘bout us when our grandkids is old and crook-backed, just like they do Old Cooper Lyons. Coop’s mean as a snake in a wood pile, but ever since he tricked that whole pack into calling truce and then burned ‘em to the ground, cubs and all, they ‘bout throw him a parade whenever he comes through town. So by sunup, ain’t nobody gonna care why I ain’t got no Daddy or where Lee’s Ma went off to or how I got my devil eyes. And once that damn wolf’s good and dead, he won’t be coming ‘round my house no more.
First time I seen the wolf was two years past, day I turned ten. Old enough to handle a knife and stand watch like Lee done for his Pa three years already. Wasn’t really nothing to see out there but the same old trees and stars and Lee’s Pa’s cabin down the way, but better’n watching Ma sniffle and drip tears all over the floor like a leaky roof. She been like that since forever, river in her eyes and stone in her throat, always gulping out things ‘bout vows and sins and being sorry, and ain’t a man alive what wants to watch his own Ma cry.
I woke mid-watch, leaned up against the side of the cabin, knife on the ground and wolf in my face, its goldy eyes flashing like fireflies. Froze me up faster than a tongue on ice—barely got my legs squeezed together tight enough not to piss the ground. Lee always says a wolf’ll kill you right off soon as it sees you, add you to its coat of little boy skins. But this one just stood there tall on hind legs, hairy and naked as a hound-dog, smelling like new-killed hogs and dirt and bare feet after running. Then it honest-to-God started talking, real words and everything, voice deep as far-off thunder.
“Your Ma know you’re out here?”
Hearing it talk about Ma unfroze me right quick. Man can’t let no beast come for his kin. I reached for the knife, but the wolf grabbed hold of my wrist and laughed. I tried turning this way and that, but it didn’t make no difference. Its palms was spongy-soft, but they clamped down tight as a bear trap all the same.
“Let go!” I said, voice coming out high and squeaky.
“So you can grab your knife and gut me?”
“Do what I have to,” I said, growling in my throat to get my voice deep. “Protect my kin.”
“Can’t protect nothing with your eyes closed.”
“They open now,” I said, puffing my chest up big like I seen birds do. Ain’t matter if it had me by the wrist or the throat. Can’t show no beast you’re weak.
“Keep ‘em that way,” wolf said. “Dangerous out here at night.”
“I ain’t scared of you.”
“Good,” it said, dropping my wrist and flashing fangs, like the devil tryin’ to smile.
I swung out, hard, but my arms wasn’t long enough to reach and all the wolf did was laugh again, low and quiet under that fangy smile.
“Be sure and tell your Ma I came by.”
“You leave her alone!”
Wolf laughed harder this time, loud and long and wild. Felt the sound rippling all the way in my toes.
“You ask her about that one.”
‘Fore I could do nothing more, the wolf fell back into the night, melted away like snow in spring. I ran inside fast as I could and woke Ma, but telling her just got her asking how he looked and checking out the window and giggling and then crying again, harder than ever. Swore right then I’d kill that thing one day. Don’t like nothing messing with my Ma.
Wolf ain’t show his face again for a full year. Not ‘til the night I turned eleven. Ma throwed me a party for my birthday—just the two of us, but she wore her yellow Sunday dress and fixed wildberry pie and made me wash my feet and everything. She was in one of her sunshine moods all day, humming some song I don’t know, touching her hair all the time like bugs had got in it or something. Even caught her looking out the window once or twice.
“Don’t worry ‘bout that wolf, Ma,” I said. “Probably ain’t coming back noways.”
“Course not,” Ma said, voice shaky. I moved the pie so she wouldn’t salt it none if she started crying. “Lucky I got you, baby. Real lucky. We ain’t meant to travel this life alone.”
“Don’t you worry,” I said. “I ain’t gonna let him hurt you.” That got her smiling a little bit.
“My brave boy,” she said. “Must be all that sunshine in your eyes.” She’s always saying that. Lee says they look like hellfire damnation, but he ain’t never stayed awake for a full sermon on Sunday, so he don’t know heaven from hell really.
“You go on now,” Ma said. “Bring in some wood from the shed. And if you see that wolf lurking ‘round, you just let him know how brave you are.” That was gonna be easy. Ain’t nothing braver than doing some killing.
Wolf was there soon as I got to the woodshed, all dressed up like a man, tall and dark haired and wearing some old sheet like it was a shirt, but eyes on fire and the smell of blood and mud and river.
“So you’re still playing killer,” he said.
“Don’t know what you mean,” I said, faking an itch and hiding my knife behind my back. This time I was ready. Lee told me all ‘bout how just a plain hunting knife can’t hurt no wolf, how you gotta dip it in crushed up wolfsbane first. I hated picking them flowers, all purple and girly and smelling like death, making my hands feel like fire ants had crawled on ‘em. But least this time wouldn’t nobody be laughing.
“Your Ma teach you to lie like that?”
“I ain’t lyin’!” Preacher’d say I was wrong for that. But then preacher’d say only good wolf is a dead wolf, so I figured it came up even.
“Trade you for the knife,” wolf said. “Call it a birthday present.”
“How you know my birthday? You been spyin’ on me?”
“Gimme that thing and I’ll tell you.”
Wolf smiled big and toothy, stuck out a hand full of wildberries. I hit out real fast with the knife, felt it hit skin ‘fore he could pull back. Half the berries went flying and half got crushed up, dripping purple off his hand like spilt Communion wine. He started to chuckling like before, but it turned howl halfway through and he clutched at his wrist, sagging against the shed.
“Wolfsbane?” His whole body shivered as he said it, hairs on his neck flicking back and forth and lines on his forehead pulling together, looking deep and dark as old man scars.
“Kills wolves,” I said.
“Kills men too,” wolf said. Then he brought his palm up to his face, started sucking the berries and the wolfsbane right off, spitting ’em out into the darkness. “Even kills little boys that ain’t quite either.”
“Hot damn!” Lee’s voice, ‘round the corner of the shed. Wolf crouched down soon as he heard it, whimpered as he put the scratched hand down on the ground. Could see his hairy neck still shaking, close enough to slash through, but the knife felt heavy in my hand for a second and then he was gone.
“Why you ain’t kill it?” Lee asked, pushing my back up against the shed. His voice sounded half-whisper half-shout.
“Ain’t have the chance. He ran off when he heard you. Told you not to keep creeping around here tryin’ to be the one to get him.”
“You blaming me? You the one let it get away! Knew I shoulda kept on you soon as you saw it last time—you ain’t man enough to take care of nothing!” Lee’s breath was all hot and his spit was landing on my face like rain and I grabbed the knife handle tight. Could kill a man as easy as a beast if I needed to. Wolf said so.
“Get off me! Got him with the wolfsbane like you said—what else you want?”
“Want it dead,” Lee said. “Want all them damn beasts dead. You want ‘em to poison the water or curse the wheat or take your Ma like they took mine?” I shook my head. ‘Course Missy Green said Lee’s Ma ran off with one of them Bible sellers, but no reason to tell Lee all that. Not when he was ‘bout ready to hit me.
Lee ain’t move for a while, just stood there close enough to share breath. I squeezed the knife so hard my fingers hurt, but he ain’t make a fist or nothing. Just stood there and sighed.
“We ain’t losing it again,” he said, “Next time, me and you gonna kill that thing proper. Like men do.”
“You gotta get it to come this way,” Lee says. He’s sitting on a rock by the edge of the pit, chewing on sourgrass and stomping ants. “But you two so friendly, probably just gotta pet it and ask it nice.”
“Told you it ain’t say nothing to me. Just begging not to kill it.” That ain’t quite right, but it’s all Lee needs to know.
“Heard what I heard,” Lee says, “Like how maybe your Ma—”
“Lay off!” I try to yell it, but I can hear my voice getting all tight and gaspy. Lee just laughs his mean laugh, loud and sharp like a shotgun firing.
“Fine,” he says. “But you get that thing to come this way tonight.”
“Said I’d get it here ten times already, didn’t I? Man’s only good as his word.”
Lee’s face twists ugly and he laughs a little more, under his breath where he don’t think I can hear.
“See ya tonight, Nicky,” he says. “And happy birthday.”
Ma don’t barely look up when I get home from the pit. She ain’t dressed for no party this year, and I don’t smell no pie. Just stares out the window mostly, sniffling and dripping, whispering to herself ‘bout shouldas and mights. Told her I killed the wolf last year, but it ain’t seem to make nothing better. She probably known I was lying. This time I’ma bring back something to prove that damn wolf’s dead. Then she ain’t gonna have nothing to cry about.
See the wolf pacing by the fence soon as I tiptoe out into the dark. Got on pants and a white cotton shirt. Even a little hat, like he’s some Godfearing man heading for prayers, but he still smells like mist and gritty porridge and old men’s breath, and eyes still look like baby fireballs.
I nod at him and start walking away from the farmlands and into the trees. Towards the pit, slow and steady, like I don’t have no kind of direction in mind.
“No knife this time?” he says, walking behind me.
“No knife,” I say, showing my hands. “Ain’t sorry I cut you, tho. Men kill wolves. Wolves kill men. How it is.”
He don’t say nothing back for a little. Just keeps on following, so I keep on walking, watchin’ the trees get taller and closer in ‘til it looks like the leaves is making shadows on the moon. Pit ain’t far now.
“Never killed a man, you know,” he says. “Wouldn’t know how.”
“Plenty of ways. Razor claws. Poison fangs. Wolfy things.”
He laughs, but this time it don’t sound as wild. “You seen any of those? Not enough wolf in me, maybe. Not much left in any of us.”
“Us?” The word gets big in my throat, tries to choke me from inside.
“The pack,” he says. “Could meet ‘em, if you want. Ain’t far.” He points over to the witchwood, where the trees stay bare and the fireflies glow blue and don’t nothing but evil make it through the night. I don’t say a thing. Feet feel stuck to the ground, like the dirt grew fingers and won’t let go.
“Don’t have to go,” he says. “Just thought you might wanna meet some other folks what got sunshine in their eyes. We ain’t meant to travel this life alone.”
He holds out his hand. Moon’s high enough that I can see the palm, gone grey in the middle where I cut him last time, like a chestnut tree rotting from the inside. Makes me think on what he’ll look like laying in the pit, if he’ll make that sound like the pigs do at slaughter, if his face will rot away into dust, if there won’t be nothing left to take home to Ma but that stupid little hat.
I reach out for his hand. Can always kill him in the morning.
“Damn beast!” Lee. “You stay the hell back. Ain’t taking nobody nowhere!”
Lee comes out the darkness fast. Can’t see nothing clear, but the moon glints off knife-metal behind a tree and I smell sweat and death and berries. Then Lee yells loud and close and angry and the wolf’s hand is still stuck out there, hanging half-dead in the air. I hear myself screaming and I reach out for the wolf, like that’s gonna make some kind of difference, but Lee’s too close and I’m too far and there ain’t nothing to do really but pray.
Something hits my arm hard enough to spin me round and I hear a crash, like a tree branch falling to the ground. Open the eyes I didn’t know I’d shut and Lee’s on the dirt, laying still, with the wolf peering over him. Lee ain’t never laid that still in his life.
“Kills men too,” says the wolf. His voice is a whisper, but his eyes are full fire.
“You killed him?” I think I should be yelling, but my voice comes out thin and wet.
“Damn fool boy tripped and cut his own self,” he says.
“Why’d you do that? You ain’t have to kill him.” I say it, but I can still feel it in my arm where Lee musta run into me, smell the copper-sweet of blood mixed with poison. Neither of us ever knew how to stay in our right place.
“Told you I ain’t ever killed nobody,” says the wolf. “But they ain’t gonna care. They gonna burn me and mine just the same, every one.” He turns his head to the witchwood, then back at me. “I gotta—“
“We can put him in the pit,” I say. “It’s a coyote trap me and…it’s a thing we was working on.” Wolf shakes his head. “Won’t nobody blame you if they don’t know you was here.”
Wolf takes a step away, almost trips over Lee’s feet. I ain’t been looking either, just pretending Lee’s a stone or a log or faking dead to keep the wolf off guard. Ain’t got time for thinking. Just doing. Lee’d like that.
Wolf stops trying to get untangled and bends in close by Lee’s face, just staring like he ain’t never seen nothing dead before. ‘Fore I can say one word more, he scoops up Lee’s body off the ground, throws him over a shoulder like a sack of flour.
“Show me,” he says.
Pit can’t be more than three stone’s throws off, but time goes slow as a molasses drip in winter and my feet feel heavy. Takes most of my mind just to keep moving straight ahead, not look over at Lee’s arms hanging down like he’s waiting for me to hand him something just outta reach.
“We still gotta head out tonight,” says the wolf.
“We?” I turn my head his way, almost trip over a branch.
“The pack,” he says. “Ain’t no telling what your people will do once they find the boy.”
“Lee,” I say, even though Lee probably wouldn’t want no wolf to know his Christian name. “And they ain’t gonna do nothing. It’s an accident, right?”
“Yeah. Maybe. But no sense waiting around to see.” Wolf goes quiet for a minute ‘fore he speaks again. “You just gonna have to meet them some other time,” he says. “Next birthday. Maybe.”
I don’t say nothing back. Just step and step and hear the sound of branches breaking and feel the leaves crunching under my feet and think on what I got to do.
First thing I see when we get there is the rock Lee was sitting on just this morning, chewing that damn grass and laughing at me. Pit’s right next to it, still looking just as innocent as you please, like a hole full of leaves just wet from the rain and a chicken like a cherry on top. Wolf looks jumpy, though, sniffing around. He ain’t never gonna get too close on his own.
“All you gotta do is put him right down in those leaves,” I say. “Plenty sharp rocks down there to look like they did the killing. You’ll see.”
Wolf stares my way for a second, then nods, steps careful over to the edge, leans over.
I only have to push a little.
Lee and the wolf fall together, hitting the rocks like a bad apple from a tree, wet and squishy. ‘Course Lee can’t notice, just lays as still as ever, but I wait for the wolf to howl. He don’t even whimper. Just coughs a little, whispers something ‘bout the sun that I ain’t listening to. Plenty wolfsbane in there—he ain’t gonna be doing much for long.
“Ma prolly gonna cheer up once she knows for sure you gone,” I say. “Gonna stop all that crying, start making wildberry pie again and everything.” Wolf don’t say nothing, but I hear panting still, so I know he hears me.
“And Lee’s Pa’s gonna be right proud he killed a wolf. Gonna be telling stories ‘bout that for a long time. Lee and Nicky, genuine to-the-bone wolf-killers.” Wolf don’t say nothing. Don’t even take a breath. Just smells like piss and death and dust.
I keep on talking, even if he can’t hear none of the rest—how the witchwood ain’t no more’n a half-day’s journey out and back. How they prolly gonna let me and Lee’s Pa carry the torches when we burn the whole pack to the ground, cubs and all. How the men gonna nod at me and the ladies curtsey and Missy Green bring me flowers at springtime. And how I’m just gonna smile and flash my yellow eyes and tell ‘em my Ma calls me Sunshine. ‘Cause ain’t none of us meant to travel this life alone.