“Their nightly singing became as soothing as rainfall on a window, an ancient sound of the earth, of life itself”
– J. Dutcher
Most men had forgotten about the King property on the south bank of the Wolf River, halfway between Rossville and Piperton. The land was overgrown with vine and bushes, and the steel gate on the country road was rusted beyond repair. The path that led up the hill from the waterfront had long since been overrun, and was not easily traversed. Atop the hill stood the old house with the thick timber walls and the tall windows overlooking the water. The Wolf River flows slowly through Tennessee, and its winding curves make for a pleasant and unchallenging course. It’s said that the local Indian tribe, the Chickasaw, used to travel from village to village on a calm day without paddling their canoes, drifting down the stream like leaves on a lazy wind. The spring-fed Nashoba, as the Chickasaw called it, is no more. In its place sits the Wolf, silted and contaminated. Eroding banks and sanded bogs now littered the shore, the bright sounds of yesteryear long since faded into eerie quiet.
The dead branches on the ground crumpled underfoot as Michael stepped out of the dinghy. The dock swayed in the current as he tied the boat in place and slung the canvas bag over his shoulder. Standing tall, he spat into the murky depths and stepped onto the shore of the small pebble beach. Aside from the bag and the machete sheathed at his waist, Michael had brought little with him. He wore a cotton shirt that hung loose at the neck and a pair of old infantry pants tucked into wool socks. With the tip of his boot, he scraped through the long grass, pushing aside dry leaves until he found the rocks hidden underneath. The bushes, once kept trim by his brothers at his father’s behest, had grown wild and tangled, their leafy branches intertwined, obscuring the graveled path.
Michael dropped his bag to the ground and took to the brush on the hill with the machete. He pushed methodically upwards; sweat dripping from his arms into the soil. The blade was sharp, and struck quickly through the wood and leaves. He was halfway up the hill as the sun began to fall beneath the trees on the river’s opposite bank. The sunlight flickered and reflected off the windows up above, the glare reflecting in his eyes. Cutting through the last of the overgrowth, Michael stepped from the path onto the well-worn wrap-around patio. As he turned towards the water, the sun finally settled across the shore. The Wolf River grew dark, but the constant whispering of the current remained.
There had once stood a cabin on the land, small but sturdy, almost a hundred years ago. Now, in its place stood a grand old home, built by Michael’s grandfather Marlon after his war. The front of the house was built facing the river, and was perched precariously over the side of the steep slope where the path led down to the dock. The porch was dotted with wrought iron benches, where Michael and his brothers used to sleep on hot summer days. When he was young, their home had been the pride of the county, but now it was grey and rot with age. Every door had been bolted shut from the inside, save the one overlooking the lake. Michael laid his bag at his feet and patted down his jacket pockets before finding the iron key hung on a cord of twine. He had received it in the barracks post in ‘43, attached with a form letter from the bank, explaining that the house was his property now. He hadn’t understood until he received the letter from his cousins in Rossville the next day. Though the escutcheon had long since rusted, the lock held true, and the key slid easily into place. Michael heard the grinding of the unused gears, and pushed the door unstuck into the living room. No one had set foot in the house in eleven years, and the floors were choked with dust. As he walked past the fireplace, Michael dropped his bag on the wide dining table and stepped into the kitchen.
He remembered his brother Robert taking him on a walk towards town when they had been only five and seven years old; they had cut through the wheat field across the road, and trucked through a shallow pond just north of the Twin Lakes. As they came down the gentle slope onto the McInnes farm, they had seen the old man and his wife out in the orchard, and had offered their hands, picking the low hanging fruit near until sunset. They had left with wide smiles, sore arms and a small hemp sack of apples given in thanks. Walking back, Robert got the idea to cut the apples and ask their Ma to bake a pie. When they climbed the steps and walked through the back door, their father was sitting in his favourite chair smoking from a small bruyere pipe. The chair was old and worn, but he loved it well, as it had been his father’s.
Their father hardly lifted his head from his book as the boys made way to the kitchen and Robert drew a long sharp knife from the block. He stepped onto the stool, and as the pipe smoke floated above their heads, began to slice the apples methodically. All of a sudden, he hollered like a beast, and the knife slipped from his hand and fell and stuck in the floor inches from Michael’s feet. There was blood everywhere, and the screams woke the baby and Ma yelled from upstairs, but before the panic truly took hold, their father was there with his clasped iron box. The case was well polished, with silver latches, a thick leather handle and the arms of the U.S Army emblazoned across its front. It clicked open, and their father removed a small tin sewing kit and several pads of gauze. He was calm, and his lips were taut under his thick red beard as he told Michael to hold the gauze to the wound and told their Ma to stay upstairs with the baby. The cut was deep, Michael could see that much, and the pale white bone of Robert’s thumb was visible halfway between the knuckle and wrist.
His father’s hands were steady, never faltering, threading the needle back and forth through the flesh of his brother’s hand. Robert was crying, trying to stifle his sobs by clenching his teeth as the stitches brought sinew and skin together. Their father’s concentration never wavered, his pale green eyes set solely on the task at hand. He didn’t speak other than to ask for gauze or thread, and for a moment, Michael felt as if he were standing by his father’s operating table in town. By the time they were done, Robert’s tears had dried. Their father reminded them that they were too young to handle knives, and called down their Ma to dote on the patient. She did, and had kisses for Michael and Robert both. She had made them throw away the apples, which had been sprayed with blood, but she promised to buy more.
Michael stood and slowly walked towards the basement door in the northwest corner of the house. As he did, the floorboards moved and creaked beneath him, the dust jumping and settling with every step. It was then that he heard the howling whistle through the cracks in the walls, carried adrift over the river from up in the hills. Quickly, he rushed to the door, and opened it to swallow the sound. It was beautiful, he thought, to hear as the wolves joined each other from miles away. The moon was crisp and white, only a sliver away from full, its light hanging soft on the trees like snow. Every howl was followed by another and as each joined the baleful orchestra grew stronger. The Nashoba was alive with the night as the moonlight played off its surface, like a projection in a cinema, with the wolves as a beautiful accompaniment. Each voice was different than the one before it as they cried out to their brothers and sisters from miles away. Suddenly, the song began to fade and the voices dropped off one at a time, as Michael stood silent, shivering from the cold.
Stepping back inside, he climbed down the basement stairs and opened the cellar door. He stood before the large antique cabinet with wound metal handles and fumbled in his pockets for the key he had found in his father’s safety deposit box in Rossville. It was small and silver and it bore his grandfather’s initials engraved in block letters. As he moved to turn the lock the door gently swung open on its own, revealing the collected armaments of four generations of the King family. That the door was unlocked was worrisome, but to his relief all the weapons were accounted for. On the far left was the Enfield rifle laid down by his great-uncle William at the skirmish at Moscow. Next were his grandfather’s three hunting rifles, with which Michael, his brothers and his father were all taught to shoot, firing at cans perched on a dock out on the river. His uncle’s Lee-Enfield, which his father had bought back after the Great War, reddened with rust, hung next to a leather holster with his father’s pistol.
Their father had first killed a man in the Belleau Wood, though he had rarely spoken of it. He had been reassigned from his battalion to the Marines, and followed Sergeant Daly’s group as a medic on the first charge through the field. Sixteen men were dead in the blink of an eye as the machine guns tore through their ranks, their bodies disappearing beneath the waist-high wheat. His father had been lucky, and had time enough to drop flat to the ground. Crawling on hands and knees, hidden to the enemy, he could find no sign of life in any of his men as the second wave charged the enemy encampment. He heard someone shout for a medic from the nearby wood, and had run to help. The man was an officer, and badly wounded, blood seeping through the front of his shirt. His father had reached for his kit, but before he could open it, a shot rang out and the officer’s chest burst open in a splash of bright red. He turned to see a German soldier advancing slowly, rifle in hand. Their father had always insisted that he had “only done what was necessary” that day, sparing the details until Michael and his brothers were old enough. He had feigned surrender, but when the German stepped closer to take his gun, he swept the man’s legs out from under him. They had wrestled in the mud, tearing at each other blindly. In the end Michael’s father had prevailed, and had drawn the German’s own dagger and sunk it in his throat. His father had never shown remorse when he told the tale, but Michael had seen the pain behind his eyes.
Michael took the pistol, climbed the stairs and stepped through the back door into the yard behind the house. Even in the dim light, he could make out the trees several yards away. The woods had seemed infinite when he was a boy, climbing over fallen trunks and through the thicket at dusk. It was an old oak forest, and the ground was thick all year round with dried leaves and twigs that crackled underfoot. He had only ever been lost once in those woods as a young boy, though he had not been scared. It had been so quiet and peaceful. Robert and Patrick had found him hours later, sitting with his back to the trunk of a tall birch tree, eyes closed, a smile hanging on his lips.
Michael stuck to the edge of the forest and collected birch bark and kindling. Passing the old wooden storehouse in the yard, he strode back towards the door of the house. He lit a match, and lay it gently under the birch in the small stone fireplace until the bark began to smoke and crisp. Adding the kindling and the logs, the flames spit and crackled, the heat creeping into Michael’s bones and bright yellow light flickering throughout the room. Once again, the house felt like home, and Michael could almost hear his Ma yelling at Patrick to finish his chores or calling the boys down for dinner. He remembered the sound of Patrick’s shouts when he caught his first trout, and their father’s laughter, and Robert smiling when he got his AGCT results in ’39. He was old now, Michael realized, and his brothers were gone, and here he was on the old sofa in their house, burning the old wood and staring down at the same old river. The fire wavered, reflecting in Michael’s eyes as his eyelids begun to shut. He felt the day and the night and the day before it in his bones. The heat softly cradled him against the pillows and he slept, the way a man can only sleep when he feels at home.
The howl carved through the silence and Michael woke with a start. The embers were fading, and he shivered in the early morning cold. The light filtered through the trees and dew collected on the windowpane as he rose with the fur blanket draped around his shoulders. He wiped the sleep from his eyes and walked out onto the porch into the dawn. He thought it queer that the wolves were howling now, with the night long since faded into day. The howl sounded again, and reverberated against the shore, along the river and through the trees, but there was no answer. It was a lone mournful wail, a pup looking for its pack. Michael turned and stepped back inside, leaving the door ajar to let the wind whistle in with the fresh country air. The wolf must have gotten lost. He hoped that its brothers were looking for it.
The fire’s embers had turned to charcoal and the house was dark, as the sun had not yet fully risen from behind the trees on the opposite bank. He opened the first drawer nearest the back door in the kitchen, and pulled out an old wooden box. Sitting down at the chair near the window, he set the box on his lap and opened it. The seat creaked, and the well-worn cushions spat up dust as he settled in. Michael sat back in his grandfather’s chair and loaded a single round from the box into the chamber of his father’s pistol, and stared out at the calm waters of the Wolf River as the sun rose above the trees and the last howl of the lone wolf rang out across the dawn.