Smothered in pelts, I am immobilized on a dog sled. My breath freezes and shatters in the hungry air. A man similarly clad commands the pack, staring defiantly into the howling wind. Dogs yelp and pant as they strain against the harnesses, wild and spirited as the bleak, imposing landscape surrounding them. Peering through the rough folds of the blanket, I see a copse of trees huddled along a frozen river. The icy serpent winds towards austere peaks in the distance, disappearing beneath their impassive gaze. All is white. Swirling flakes obscure the line between the ground, air, and sky. A wild stillness pervades this land, blankets of snow dampening all feeling in the stark silence. The crunch of frost beneath the runners echoes eerily as the dogs press on.
Hardly a month prior had the phone rung. My father answered it, his expression turning solemn. My mother was missing, vanished on an excursion to remote British Columbia. I was in disbelief, refusing to accept her death; I was alone in believing she was alive. My father dismissed the idea and instructed me to try and forget about her. But memories brought tears to my eyes: the camping trips with her, the Inuit legends told on rainy nights, her fierce eyes and fiery smile. I sometimes believed she was a wolf like those in the tales she recounted, strong and wild with her piercing ice blue eyes. It was impossible that she had just disappeared.
My anger with my father reached a boiling point, and I left for Alaska to live with my grandfather. Memories of him were scarce, though I remembered his wildness, which went beyond that of my mother; his was an animalistic aura, out of place in the bustling city.
When we arrive at the outpost, it seems to be dusk, but time passes differently up north. The sky shifts in an everlasting spectrum of gray, days spanning hours or months. A fearful shadow seems to be cast over the settlement. Rifles lie in wait along porch railings, ragged fences snake around the perimeter, and fires leap into the air chasing dark plumes of smoke. A child stares through wide eyes out of a small window, but is quickly pulled away and the shutters slam shut. Men shout, sleds are unloaded, dogs yelp as they devour a caribou carcass. Smoke rises from tin chimneys, the smell of meat permeating the air. Heavy hands pull me off the sled, pounding the snow off my back. My legs numb from the ride, I stumble up to my grandfather’s cabin.
As soon as my boots clatter up the porch built of rough hewn beams, the door cracks open, and a bloodshot eye sunk deep in leathery, sun-hardened skin peers out. A second creeps by as he stares at me, unblinking. Realization dawns and the eye widens; the cabin door is flung open. My grandfather pulls me into a rough embrace, the smell of smoke and sweat embedded in his thick flannel jacket.
The room is adorned with hunting trophies. A massive wolf pelt spreads across the wall, fangs bared. Bones, teeth, and skins surround the carcass, a shrine of death. Crossed rifles hang triumphantly over the carnage; a knife glints menacingly on a shelf.
Noticing my gaze, my grandfather explains that the summer has been especially cruel, tendrils of frost lingering over the plains far longer than before, the sun feeble behind persistent clouds. Game has been scarce, and not only for the settlers. Wolves have become more daring, venturing nearer and nearer to the outpost, driven by their hunger. Two have been taken already, a man ambushed on a supply run, and a child snatched from the village itself. My grandfather has appointed himself sheriff of the town and taken it upon himself to purge the area of the beasts.
Still feeling uneasy, I retreat to my room. A small table and chair occupy the cramped space, bare save for a kerosene lamp. A cot is set up against the wall hewn from pine logs, through which I hear the lonely whistling of the wind. As I sink into the straw mattress, the overwhelming emptiness overcomes me, the isolation crushing as I fall asleep.
In the middle of the pitch dark night, I wake with a start. Over the wind’s cacophony of otherworldly howls and moans, I hear a slight crunch of snow and a low panting. It seems to pass by the wall of the cabin, inches from where I lie frozen on the cot. A shriek of terror rips through the wind, and I sit bolt upright. Scrambling for the lantern, I strike a match and enter the common room of the cabin. My grandfather is gone, along with the guns on the wall, presumably on a hunt.
I pace the room, too afraid of what may be waiting outside. In the flickering lantern light, shadows dance across the skulls on the wall. Black, empty eye sockets stare back at me, mocking, accusing, all-seeing. Glinting fangs and horns cast black shadows across the wall, winding and growing into each other until a malevolent creature seems to circle in the darkened rafters. Unable to meet its gaze any longer, I retreat to the side room where I lie, wide eyed, under a mass of blankets. A short while later, the latch of the cabin rattles open. I freeze. Hardly breathing, I rise silently, snatch a hunting knife from the table and peer through a crack between the doorframe.
Every muscle in my body tenses as a figure enters the cabin. Looming in the doorway, it is covered in steel-grey fur, bloodstained claws glinting at its sides. As I stand transfixed, eye straining through the crack, the beast transforms, shedding the fur and rising upright, until my grandfather emerges. A wolf pelt drops at his feet. He is back from the hunt. Relief washes over me as I collapse back in my bed. Trying to close my eyes, one detail buries itself in my mind, refusing to let me rest. As the dead wolf fell to the ground, I caught a glimpse of the inside of the pelt. Where bloody skin and tendons should have been, the cavity looked dry and soft, as if it had been dead a long time.
At last the sunlight begins to reach through the shutters, momentarily dispelling the terror of the previous night as its warm touch reaches me. My grandfather brings me back to the present with a firm hand on my shoulder. To my disbelief, he tells me another was taken last night. A woman had left her cabin to gather firewood and never returned. It was her final scream I had heard. My grandfather had shot and skinned the wolf, but not before it mauled its prey.
That afternoon a bonfire is held in her memory. Solemn smoke rises high above the valley; the weather repents, as if sensing the village’s sorrow, and sheds tears of sunshine through the clouds. I lift my eyes from the pyre, and a sickening unease roots itself in my gut as I meet my grandfather’s stare through the flames. In the golden glow, his eyes seem to smolder, and for an instant his gaze turns inhuman. Predatory.
Despite my attempts to calm myself, I cannot dispel the unease winding itself in my gut. I circle the outpost, yet the only wolf tracks I find are skittish, on the outskirts, only daring towards the trash piles and a storage shed. Back at the cabin, I search through closets and shelves, tearing through storage for any clues that might explain the attacks on the village.
That night, I swear I will find the answer. My grandfather and I eat dinner mostly in silence, both deep in thought about the day’s events. When I am finished, I retreat to my room, but have no intention of going to sleep. I spy through the crack between the door and frame as he sits motionless as the kitchen table, a tumbler of whisky beside him. At long last, my grandfather grabs his gun and the wolf hide from the day before and leaves, extinguishing the candles behind him.
Springing into action, I dress in my warmest clothes, grab the knife and lantern, and abandon my room. In the closet I discovered earlier, I find wolf skins. I am certain they are the same as the one I saw last night; they are far from fresh. The skins have been cured and stitched together, yet blood still clings to the claws. More certain than ever, I don the cloak, steal a pistol and head into the darkness.
The moon is dark, yet everything is covered in pearly white snow, surrounded by a ghostly glow. I follow the defined tracks left behind, my steps muffled by the powdery blanket. As I pass outside my room, I find no animal tracks, but instead heavy marks left by some other creature. I steal forward through the frosty silence. Adrenaline pumps through my blood. I catch every movement around me, hear every sound in the wind’s eerie silence. The trail I follow becomes more and more scattered, hurried, excited. As I struggle to decipher the prints, a roar of terror sounds from the edge of camp, before abruptly being silenced.
Springing to my feet, I race towards the sound. My feet fly over the snow, swift as a deer, wind rushing in my ears. Rounding a utility shed, I am met with my worst fear. The figure is hunched over its victim, a man prone on the ice. The snow beneath him is black in the moonlight. Turning slowly, the fur-covered figure rises, impossibly tall. My eyes meet the wild, hungry, golden eyes, eerily familiar. In an instant it launches at me. Three shots crack through the air. I lower the pistol. The beast crumples in the snow, reaching forward in a seemingly human gesture.
The horrifying realization rushes through me, and in an instant I whirl around and bolt. Panic drives me on, and I plunge through snowdrifts, brush, forest. I stumble, fall to my hands and knees, then redouble my efforts, scrambling on all fours. The wind resumes its wail, shrieking louder than ever, chasing me on. As I reach a hill rising above the treetops, the full moon emerges, clouds fleeing at the sight. All around me, howling sounds, reverberate from the forests, the plains, the hills, the terrible symphony rising to a crescendo as it echoes through the valley.