Cousin Stone found him panting against a tree. Was it a wolf with a man’s body or a man with a wolf’s face? She couldn’t tell at first and was deciding whether or not to throttle him to death then and there with her knobbly walking stick or to head back to the small strange house for something sharper, when he spoke.
Cousin Stone lowered her walking stick and peered at him through the shadows of the forest. “What are you?” she asked.
“I’m a school-teacher,” he answered with a smile.
“What are you doing in my forest?” she asked. And that raised another question in her mind. Was he one of the Necessary? Should she have taken him inside the house instead? But he didn’t come down the twisty dusty road, and he didn’t open the smooth friendly gate, and he certainly hadn’t walked through the shade of the cool stone path. No, he had been rubbing shoulders with a pack of wolves, fighting over a haunch of tundra elk that she had left on the porch to rot so she could make her favorite stew. The wolves had scattered when Cousin Stone came running, they still told legends of her vindictive nature, after all. But this thing…this man with a wolf’s face had leaned calmly back into the shadows and was now resting against a tree.
“I was hunting. I’m sorry about the elk. I suppose that was yours?”
Cousin Stone nodded.
“The wolves, they just got excited. Couldn’t resist.” He shrugged sheepishly.
“And I suppose neither could you?” Cousin Stone said, angry at being denied her favorite rotten elk and pickled cabbage stew.
He shrugged again. She watched his face. What she had first mistaken for wolf pelt, thick and densely matted against his small round face, she now saw was just a mannerless beard that didn’t know it’s place in the world. It sprouted up from around his mouth and chin, clambered up his cheeks, covered most of his nose, encircled his blue eyes, and melted seamlessly into the shaggy curls on the top of his head.
Cousin Stone crouched into the dirt, examining the elk haunch. Utterly destroyed. Gnawed to the bone. “I suppose you have the money to pay me for this?” She nudged the haunch with her knobbly walking stick, sending up the cloud of flies that had already gathered to see what they could scavenge.
“I’m a schoolteacher.”
“Schoolteachers don’t make very much money.”
“Huh.” Cousin Stone lowered herself onto the blood drenched soil of the forest floor and rubbed her aching hip. “You aren’t in school now. Don’t you have any children you should be beating?”
He smiled like she had been joking. “It’s summer and school is out. The children are working with their families in the field, most of them.”
“Huh.” She nodded as if she understood the ways of the town and its strange rhythms.
“I suppose you want to know why I was out here. With the wolves.”
Cousin Stone looked up. The thought had never occurred to her. She had wondered how she would be reimbursed for her elk haunch (which had taken her a fortnight of tracking on the tundra to bring down), and she had wondered why a man was in her forest, and she had wondered if he was a Necessity, but she hadn’t thought to ask him why he was shoulder to shoulder with a pack of wolves. The answer had seemed obvious enough.
Cousin Stone frowned. “Are you thirsty?” She gestured to the remnants of the haunch. “After a meal like that I’m sure you need something to whet your throat.”
The man nodded. “Yes. I am thirsty.”
Cousin Stone raised herself up with her knobbly walking stick and gestured for the man to follow.
Unlike most people who entered the small strange house for the first time there were no gasps of wonder, or shivers of foreboding, or cries of panic, from the man. He merely looked around and gave Cousin Stone a smile when she glanced back at him. She gave him a cupful of water from the bucket by the door and he thanked her.
They sat at the big wooden table in the gawping kitchen and drank water in the fading afternoon. After some time Cousin Stone stood up again and gestured for the man to follow her. She led him to the sagging, quilt covered bed next to the fireplace and began undressing. She unwound her scarf, took off her old tired grey hat, lifted off her cotton dress, kicked off her boots and then, deciding better of it, left her knit socks on her feet. She hated cold toes.
They lay together in silence as the afternoon gave way to evening and the moon peeked in through the curtains. If it was shocked to see Cousin Stone and a man with a wolf’s face lying in bed together, it gave no sign.
Seeing that the first star of the evening was high in the east, Cousin Stone knew what she would do. She lifted herself up and lowered herself onto the man. They moved together beneath the faded quilts, the rough hair on his face leaving red patches on her hollow cheeks, her knit socks keeping his feet warm as well. The moon looked away modestly, the stars whispered to one another, and the night animals kept a respectful distance from the small strange house that night.
And in the morning, when Cousin Stone awoke, she was happy to find the man was gone, he had left before dawn. A few coarse hairs had fallen from his undisciplined beard during the night and lay scattered across the tattered pillow he had used. She plucked them up carefully and with a contented sigh popped them inside her mouth and swallowed them for safekeeping. The schoolteacher with the face of a wolf would pay his debt, Cousin Stone would make sure of that.