The Adoptive Mother
by Kathryn Bockino
The she-wolf found the boys under a fig tree, only paces away from the river. So young, that when they looked at her they didn’t flinch. They weren’t yet taught to fear her kind. Fear anything, really. They just seemed pleased to see another face, even if it was covered in fur.
She circled around the boys three times before settling down. They were lucky – she recently fed and the summer was good to her. If she found them a few years before, this all would have ended differently. Certain cities would still be standing. Some would burn. One wouldn’t have its founder.
One of the boys began to cry. He knew this wasn’t normal. Him, sitting next to his only kin, in the middle of a land he couldn’t place. How scary, the she-wolf thought. How sad.
But perhaps their birth mother would find them. She’d float down the river on a boat made of reeds and clutch her young to her breast. Relieved that the water didn’t wash away their scent. That scent only babies have. The one that you can’t know until you have one of your own. She’d then look around at the fig tree and the thick grass and thank the gods that no beast found them. That they didn’t crawl far.
Hoping this would be the end to the story, the wolf rose from the boys. She even placed one paw in front and watched it sink into the mud. It would be hard to pick out the dirt from underneath her nails, but she kept it there, unable to leave them.
By now the sun was setting behind the river. The wolf’s favorite part of the day, when the air shifted from warm to cool and she felt her fur rise without any doing. They waited, the boys and her, and watched it disappear until the water and the sky were the same color.
But still their birth mother did not come. Birdsongs were replaced with low howls. The boys didn’t know what those sounds meant, but the wolf did. And she knew they wouldn’t survive the night alone.
It was the clear choice, to lay down and let them roll onto her back. But one clutched her fur so forcibly she felt some of her fur leave her skin. She couldn’t help but growl. It hurt, after all. But his tears falling onto her back somehow felt worse.
She showed them her home. The trees of sweet fruit that fell whenever she kicked its base with her left leg. The tall grasses that she only traveled through if she had no choice. And the valley where she taught her own pups once how to run, jump, and roll. But that was many moons ago now.
When they got to her den, a forgotten cave behind the valley, she laid down again. It took the boys a moment before rolling off. She was sure they wondered where their mother was. Where their father was. Why she couldn’t reproduce that warm, red light for them. But this would have to do.
In the morning she took them with her as she searched for berries. The blue ones stained their teeth and mouths and she had to lick them clean once again and again. Then, they journeyed back to the fig tree.
This would become their routine. She’d feed them, clean them, and patiently wait for their mother to float down the river. They’d play and nap as they all sat under the tree. When the warmth of each day left, and she yet again realized that their mother wasn’t coming, they all returned to her cave.
The first day she didn’t take them back to the fig tree was also the day she named them. The twins wouldn’t respond to the ones she gave, and she didn’t understand their baby coos. So they settled on pitches instead. A high pitch was for the boy with dimples, and a lower pitch was for the one with a mole under his nose. Soon, they knew when she wanted one and not the other.
The warm days left them and eventually the air felt the same when it was light and dark out. She worried about how they’d fare when the true cold took over. There were winters in her past where she didn’t think she’d pull through. She was thankful then for her thick fur. But her pups weren’t growing any.
So, she practiced covering them in leaves she left out to dry. With grasses that she cleaned. She even hunted and killed rabbit after rabbit, tearing at their fluff for hours. But she couldn’t tell if her boys ever felt any relief.
During the nights she worried about their diets, their health. But during the days she exhaled easier. With the sun keeping them all warm and fresh kill always in her eyesight, she didn’t think anything could happen with her nearby.
We all know how wrong she was.
On the last day where her boys were still hers, they were crawling on all fours, and yet, they kept pushing themselves up. With their eyes wide they were amazed that they could stand on only two feet. The wolf circled around, ready for them to grab onto her in case they fell. Her boys still couldn’t speak but they both turned their heads toward her at the same time and hummed. Their way of telling her they loved their mama.
“Get away!” a voice called in a language she didn’t understand.
The fur on the wolf’s back was standing high even though the air was cool. The man was running towards her, a spear in one hand while the other waved. He was frantic, and his white beard kept blowing up and into nose.
Her boys were crying, rolling in the grass. Staining their bare backs. She thought how she’d have to clean them for hours later. She didn’t think this man was coming to take them.
He was almost at her now. The spear shaking in his hand.
She growled and the boys’ screams wavered. This man brought back puzzling memories. His appearance was unknown, but his shape and stature reminded them of others. Others who also loved them and kept them warm. Others whose images were dense on their minds, too heavy to think about when out in the sun.
Stepping forward, the wolf pushed the boys behind her. She dipped her head as her growl grew. The man looked from her to the boys. His beard was still moving in synch with his chest. His unsteady breath giving away his weak body.
The wolf placed one paw forward. Like the day she met her young, her foot sunk into the ground, so when the spear came crashing towards her she couldn’t move away in time. It pierced her skin, severing her toes in half.
A howl. Matted fur in her eyes. She blindly ran away, tumbling with each step. Leaving a trail of red. Staining the ground, turning it a deeper shade of brown. She ran and fell until she found herself near that fig tree. But now there were no little babies there.
Years later, when the food ran scarce and the river dried up, the wolf finds herself near a barn. The smell of blood, of a fresh slaughter, calls her from far away. There’s a wooden fence, a house with many openings for light and air, and a group of chickens cackling.
The door to the barn is open. Slung over a railing is a lamb, the blood forming a thick circle below. Her empty stomach burns as she limps forward.
She doesn’t hear the two sets of feet behind her. She doesn’t notice her shadow darken as another joins. She only feels her back collapse as a blade splits her skin.
Laying on the dirt floor, she looks up. Above her are two boys. One with the largest dimples and one with the cutest mole. Their eyes are wide and hungry and they use words she still doesn’t understand.
She hears other voices, other feet running towards the barn. Before she realizes why, she lets out a high pitch and a low pitch. An instinct overcoming her fading memory. A glimmer of hope hanging besides the bleeding lamb.
The two boys crouch down, running their hands through her now thin fur. Her fur that is more gray than white. They look at one another and smile. She bares her teeth back, trying to mimic their excitement in way her babies once taught her.
That night the twin boys skin the wolf. They carve her and give the chickens her little amount of fat. These parents are proud. “Good kill,” they say.
The boys brush the fur they were able to salvage and drape it over their backs. Never realizing that their new coats once tried to keep them warm in a different way.
About the Author
Kathryn received her MFA in Creative Writing from New York University, and her work has appeared in Barely South Review, Gandy Dancer Literary Magazine, Hampton Real Estate Showcase Magazine and North Fork Real Estate Showcase Magazine. In the fall of 2018, her flash fiction piece was included in Z Publishing House's New York's Emerging Writers: An Anthology of Fiction.