The Dire Wolf

"The wolf, in all things, protects itself."

Genevieve Valentine’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Journal of Mythic Arts, Fantasy Magazine, Lightspeed, and Apex, and in the anthologies Federations, The Living Dead 2, The Way of the Wizard, Running with the Pack, Teeth, and more. Her nonfiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Tor.com, and Fantasy Magazine, and she is the co-author of Geek Wisdom (out from Quirk Books). Her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, has won the 2012 Crawford Award and is nominated for the Nebula. You can learn more about the novel at the Circus Tresualti website. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog. We’re delighted to feature her short story “The Dire Wolf,” originally published in Running with the Pack (ed. Ekaterina Sedia), as part of our 12 Days of Monsters. – The Editors

***

The bone is worrisome.

It’s huge, Lia,” says Christopher over the phone. “The guy who found it thought it was a bear jaw.”

“What’s the quality of the joint?” she asks, like she’s stumped.

“Great condition on one side.”

She guesses the other side has been broken off. (When werewolves fight, it’s almost always a dive for the throat – the skull gets in the way.)

“I’m sorry to call you,” he says, “but I figured if anyone would know -”

“I’ll come out tomorrow,” she says.

She hangs up the phone, her palm pressing flat against the receiver as if she can keep the news from spreading.

*

Velia doesn’t really worry, the whole journey up to Fairbanks. People find bones from time to time. She can find a place somewhere in the Canis family to put almost anything. She’s identified the remains of more rare species than any other xenoarchaeologist in the country.

She doesn’t worry when Christopher shows her the jawbone and says wonderingly, “I’ve never seen anything like it – I mean, there’s no meat left, but it’s so…”

“Fresh?” she asks, and Christopher pulls a face that means Yes.

“I’ll take a look,” she says, as if she’s planning some tests, but she’s already planning the paperwork. It’s only a bone fragment. She’d name it a gray wolf already and call it a night, except that it was good to put on a show of working hard.

(The jaw is missing a third of the left mandible, snapped clean away. She had forgotten how powerful a werewolf could be when it was cornered.)

Velia isn’t worried at all, until Christopher says, “We called in someone else to help speed up the identification. If there are dangerous animals in the Park somewhere, we need to know.”

Then she sets down the bone with trembling hands.

She doesn’t listen to Christopher after that. No need; she knows who they’ve called in.

She would have called him in, too, if they were still speaking.

*

The Dire Wolf did not survive.

The fossil record says the dire wolf vanished. It wasn’t clever enough to live in the age after ice, after the mammoth was gone. It was all force, no cleverness. It was too large to live in the close, tight foliage of the world’s new spring.

The skulls line the walls of the Tar Pit Museum, tidy rows of dead.

Velia had spent one summer carefully brushing dust away from the piles of bones in La Brea, picking tar from around the eye sockets and the incisors, edging the little furrow that ran from nose to neck. By the end of August they had eleven skulls.

“God, no wonder they all died,” said Pauline, holding up a skull with no jaw – the jaws never made it. When Pauline held the base, the front teeth pressed into her elbow. “Smallest cranial I’ve seen on a dog. Poor puppies. Too stupid to get out of the tar.” She patted its head. “Adapt or die, right?”

Velia had more pity. She knew what it was like to be blinded by want.

*

He arrives late.

She’s running her fingers over the clean break on the mandible, and when she hears him coming and looks up she sees that the windows have all gone black, and her little lamp is the only thing fighting the dark.

It’s almost dark enough to hide his flinch when he sees her. (Almost; not quite.)

She’s grateful to have been the one who knew it was coming. She didn’t want to think about how she might look if he ever caught her unaware.

“Velia,” he says.

He’s only ever used her full name. (“If you ever call me Lia, I’ll know you’re under duress,” she said once, and he had looked up for a long moment before he smiled.)

It’s been six years. He hasn’t aged.

“Mark,” she says, the same tone.

Even tired, worn out from travel, his dark eyes are sharp. He glances around the room, leans against the doorway too casually, sets his bag down like it’s a trap and he’s ready to run. The draft from the outer door hits her; snow, and evergreens.

She can see his fatigue in the slope of his shoulders. She doesn’t even know where he came in from; his work takes him all over, and it’s not like they’re in touch.

After a second he asks, carefully, “Have you been expecting me?”

“Allan told me he’d called you, after I got here.”

He looks at the jaw in her hand. She’s been playing with it without noticing. Now it’s hanging from her wrist; the front of the jaw follows the curve of her hand, the teeth small pressure points against her knuckles. One has cut through the skin, and a little red bead is forming under the white.

(The teeth on a dire wolf are impossibly sharp. If you shove a pipe in its mouth, the wolf will bite clean through it and keep coming.)

She says, “The ones from La Brea are so dark from the tar, you start to think that’s just what they look like.”

He doesn’t answer. When she finally looks up, he’s watching her without blinking. He looks torn.

She remembers, too late, what it feels like to have him watching her.

“It’s good to see you,” he says, and it almost sounds like the truth. (Almost; not quite.)

*

There was a wolfish quality about him right from the beginning. He had a way of leaning back in a chair, tilting his head down when he was deep in thought, that answered some need she didn’t know she had.

They had been in Alaska then, too, studying the migratory patterns of wolves.

(One of the other anthropologists was in love with him; you could see it in the way she half-turned her head when he spoke.)

Halfway through the project, it stormed, and all five of them spent days sitting close together in the main room of the rented house, because it had the only fireplace.

Velia spent most of her time at the kitchen table (she didn’t mind the cold). She looked at foliage lists for the Russian and Alaskan sides of the Bering Straight, glancing absently at the sketch of the dire wolf beside the gray wolf, the gray wolf looking spindly and half-grown next to its dead cousin.

From one of the chairs near the fire, Mark asked (his first words to her), “Velia – why would you cross a land bridge when there was sufficient prey where you were?”

“The fever of pursuit,” Velia said, absently.

When she looked up, he seemed caught off-guard for the first time since she’d met him. For the rest of the night, he cast long looks her way when he thought she couldn’t see him, as if a worthy opponent had walked onto the field and taken him by surprise.

She let it pass. She didn’t get involved with people.

*

He stands in the doorway like he’s thinking of something cutting to say, but in the end he leaves his bag behind and approaches with long quiet steps to peer at the jawbone.

He doesn’t touch her, but as he lifts and turns the bone she rolls her hand along with it, not letting go, and he looks at her palm before he looks at the bone.

“Whoever won this fight will want to keep this under wraps,” he says, after a long examination.

She knows. It’s why she was worried about Mark’s coming. Werewolf fights – always to the death – are such a waste. Dire wolves are rare enough as it is.

She says, “Whoever won this fight woke up with bone in his teeth.”

He half-smiles, doesn’t look up from the jaw. When he runs his fingers over the flats of the teeth, the pad of his thumb just brushes her skin.

Her stomach turns over.

She ignores it; it’s residual. Old habit.

*

The dire wolf had a temporal fossa out of proportion to its brain cavity. It was what made the top of its skull so different from the skull of an Arctic wolf or a grey wolf; the dire wolf’s cranium was low and narrow, the caved-in temples on either side looking like two kicks from a horse.

For a long time, Velia thought the slender skull meant that the dire wolf wasn’t clever enough to survive the new age without adapting.

After she met Mark, she began to think more about the temporal fossa, the deep indentations in the skull that housed the jaw muscles. The skull was narrow because the muscles were large.

When the dire wolf bit down, it held on. That’s what it was made to do.

*

She sits awake for an hour, imagining she can hear him breathing, before she gets up the courage to go to sleep. It’s her imagination; the sudden shock of nearness had brought back old caution. That was all.

(It was easier to be lonely. His companionship was dangerous.)

If in the middle of the night he walks back and forth outside her door like a sentinel, scuffing the carpet just loudly enough to cut through her dreams – well, maybe she imagines that, too.

If in the dark she bolts awake, listening to an animal breathing warm and strong in the snow outside – that, she’s not imagining.

*

“Does it frighten you?” he asked.

She said, “Always.”

*

She’s been awake for an hour, watching out the window, when he knocks on her door. It’s not quite dawn, but she’s not surprised; she knows he’s been awake, too.

“There’s another wolf,” he says.

In the small room, in the welcome dark, he seems impossibly far away.

She stands up. “I know.”

He flushes, goes white. “You haven’t – have you been outside? You can’t go out there, Velia. It will kill you.”

There is a stab in her side, just for a moment, as if he’s cut her. She fights to stay calm. There is no safety with him any more.

“I’ll be fine,” she says.

He takes two steps. They’re close enough to kiss. “Velia,” he says, his voice rumbling in his chest, “that wolf snapped another’s jaw clean off. What is it going to do with you?”

“Talk,” she says.

*

To a dire wolf, the human form is like a paved street; the wolf lives in the tree roots that silently push until the stone swells and cracks and falls apart.

Velia has done better at keeping human than most wolves, but it’s hard to ignore another of your kind when it comes calling.

*

She parks her car close to the trees. (It’s a useless human habit; the wolf can run faster than any speeding car can save you.)

When she’s far into the forest and can smell she’s alone, she folds her shirt and pants and boots under the branches of a fir tree, where the snow has not reached.

(Any dire wolf who lives in human form has had to explain their nakedness. The smart ones learn to leave their clothes where they can be retrieved before people find them naked and start asking questions.)

She proceeds barefoot, wrapped in her coat – waxed cotton, the closest texture she can find to human skin. It’s nice to have a human skin that doesn’t hurt.

She stops short when she smells the other wolf.

The change surges into her throat like vomit; she swallows and tries to breathe. She won’t give in to the wolf unless she has to.

(The pain is worse than the fight.)

She reaches the clearing where the wolf has been – the smell of blood is still strong – and hangs back, waiting.

It’s rare for dire wolves of the same form to fight one another. As humans they attract each other, as wolves they form packs. But those who stay in human form often go mad, or fall in love with humans, and the true wolf has no patience for either one. The human wolf must be careful.

It won’t be the first time Velia’s had to fight for this body.

*

Her father died of some human cancer. He wouldn’t let anyone treat him for it (“What if they find out somehow?”), and as he took his last breaths, a ripple of the wolf’s face slid over his features, a last toothsome grin before he was gone. It was how Velia would have wanted to remember him.

Her mother died later that year during a new moon, while her body was trying to make the shift back from the wolf. Velia gathered her mother in her arms and sobbed into the soft grey fur until the form in her arms was human, and Velia could pick her up and carry her home.

(The dire wolf takes human form when it dies; that lets them pass through the world without leaving proof behind.)

It was her mother’s broken heart that did it, Velia knew. Her mother could have lived another fifty years, another hundred – their kind was hardy, if they could strike some balance between human and wolf that didn’t drive them to the brink. It was a weak heart that had taken her mother.

Velia learned early that it was safer to be alone.

*

She never told Mark how rare it was for a dire wolf to care for a real human. Even after he knew what she was, how could she explain what even the dire wolves struggled to come to terms with?

She told him, early, “I can’t.”

Later she told him, “We can’t.”

Just that word frightened her, the idea that there was danger to more than just herself, that she had to worry for them both.

He fought her on it. They parted badly.

But she was right. Two years after she left him, she had to identify the teeth marks on a human man who had been torn to pieces by a wild beast. A pack of coyotes, she said. The bites looked big because there had been so many of them overlapping, she said.

She never found out if the wolf had killed its own lover, or if it had been punishing another wolf for keeping human company.

Velia spent every new moon that year looking forward to the change. On four legs, at least, she could hunt without thinking.

*

An hour later, the wolf appears.

Velia tenses, once, just to make sure she hasn’t frozen. But her muscles are warm and ready (she’s never really been cold), and she’s not frightened.

The wolf has never frightened her. It’s how she can live as a human without losing her mind; she accepts the shape of the beast.

(In her bones, she knows that sooner or later, she’ll give in to the wolf and disappear.)

It pads to the edge of the clearing opposite her and stands in the shadows, waiting. Once, it shifts, and the sun catches its head for a moment – one amber eye, sharp tight muzzle-fur the color of dust.

“I’m here,” Velia says. “What do you want?”

When there’s no answer, she tries again, in her true language. Silence.

“Why did you kill one of your own?”

It’s one of their own – the jaw of one of their own is sitting in the dinky office lab ten miles away – but those who live as wolves don’t like hearing solidarity from those on two legs.

The wolf-change claws at Velia’s throat; she bites her lips against it until she tastes blood.

“What do you want?” she calls again, finally, but the wolf startles and runs, leaves nothing behind but a maze of prints and a cloud of breath that hangs in the air for a few moments after the wolf has disappeared.

She shivers; pretends it’s from the cold.

Velia takes her time putting her clothes back on.

They make her feel more human, a little less afraid.

*

The wolf, in all things, protects itself.

It’s why Velia studied animals. It’s why she examines bones and tags them wolf or coyote or some breed long dead. It helps keep them all from being found out.

She fears for her kind. They are fragmented (the human-living and the beasts, taking turns hating one another more), and she knows that even under threat they would not unify. Some humans would submit to the knife rather than give in to the beast, and the true wolf would kill all comers until it died of exhaustion.

So she keeps her human shape, walks through the world, tags her jaws “Canis lupus arctos”; because what else could humans do but wipe them out, if they knew?

*

Velia and Mark were at the end of the Alaska winter when the thaw came.

They got called away from wrap-up in Alaska to work a dig in Iceland. Spring had come early, and they were summoned to take advantage of the softer ground and dig down another layer.

(“What are you really looking for?” he asked, like he already knew why she agreed to come.

She didn’t ask why he had come with her. She knew what pursuit looked like.

“I can’t explain,” she said, as if it answered him.)

For two weeks she scooped mud out of her taped-off square and carved bone after bone in bas relief, and all the while she knew she wasn’t alone. The mossy tundra had eyes for her, and whenever she was near Mark, under his wolfish eyes, she felt a beast in the forest hating her.

(A wolf knows a wolf.)

They were done for the night, back at the rickety two-bedroom house near the dig site, when the wolf came.

There was the single howl as it called her to battle (they both stood up so fast the work table skidded), and then nothing but the wind; the dire wolf is silent when it hunts.

“Stay behind me,” Mark said.

Then came the thunder of the charging beast.

It was too fast for her to get away, too fast to hide Mark, too fast to explain.

There was only time to throw open the door and leap (Mark shouting at her to stop), force the change between one breath and the next, so that she furled inside-out and the air crackled with the sound of snapping tendons and the grind of bone.

(She won. She doesn’t remember how. All the way home she coughed up bits of the other wolf; spat up bone and teeth and fur.)

The fight carried her a quarter-mile from the cabin, and she padded back as the wolf.

There was a chance he hadn’t seen her. There was a chance he didn’t know.

(No chance.)

When she saw him standing in the doorway, the blanket in his hands, she made a high, keening noise that started as a howl, and became – between one breath and another – a human cry.

(Grief.)

Her bones seemed painfully soft and frail in her human form; she could hardly feel her blood pumping through such long, twisted veins. She set her weakling jaw against the shaking, but her skeleton rattled inside the meat.

It was worse than the new moon, ten times worse. It was the tree roots erupting through the pavement, shattering the stone.

Mark got both arms under her and carried her inside, out of the ice and the dark. He smelled like snow and detergent and fear, and she didn’t know why a smell like that would be comforting to a wolf.

(She didn’t know much about love, back then.)

He carried her up the stairs and ran a hot shower until the blood and dirt were gone, and his hands were shaking.

(Fear, she thought then. She knows now – desire.)

When she came downstairs again, he was standing outside. There was a wolf’s footprint in the snow outside the cabin. It was the same length as Mark’s foot, and as wide; her claws had pierced right through the snow and dug up four thin sprays of black dirt across the white as she ran.

He passed his foot over it, smoothing the snow free of the evidence. She waited, wondering what she would do if he threatened to expose her.

(It was a lie. She knew what she would do. On four legs, she could hunt without thinking.)

After a long time, he took a step backwards, closer to her, without turning.

“Does it frighten you?” he asked.

She said, “Always.”

When he came at her, the kiss drove her against the door with a thud, and he tore away the blanket as if he wanted some part, any part, of her fight.

She dragged her nails over his back, five thin trails of red against his skin.

*

The dire wolf that lives in human form spends the day of the new moon curled in a corner, trembling, aching, grinding her teeth as the bones scream for change. The moment of transformation is unbearable (there is always the wrenching cry), but it passes, and the bones and the fur and the teeth of the wolf are her relief.

A dire wolf can turn at will, but it’s the last line of defense; between pain and death, some choose death.

Changing at every new moon from human to wolf and back can drive you mad. Most dire wolves eventually give in to their true form, and make their homes in forests, or tundra if arctic wolves are nearby, or desert caves. They can go anywhere once the moon has lost its power over them. What animal would stand up to a beast twice as large as a wolf, twice as fast, twice as cunning?

Legend, which looks for monsters within its own neighbors, claim that werewolves are people who achieve the body of the wolf.

This is untrue.

The dire wolf took on a human form; down at the bone, between every breath, each of them is really the animal. The human shape is a useful trick, that’s all.

(Adapt or die.)

*

Christopher’s waiting at the lab when she comes back.

“Mark says it looks like an Arctic wolf that got on the wrong side of a bear attack,” he says. “What are you thinking it is?”

“I think that wolf had a pretty sad end,” she said. “Did you find anything else of the skeleton?”

Christopher shakes his head. “We don’t have the manpower we used to, but as far as we looked, there was nothing to find. Maybe the head got carried over to where our guy found it.”

“Was there any skull? Any other bones?” She thinks about the deep, low temporal fossa – a jaw is easy to disguise, but the skull would be hard to explain.

He shakes his head.

“Where’s Mark?”

“Went out looking for you,” Christopher says. “I’ll call him back in on the radio.”

When she’s alone, she looks at the jaw under the magnifying glass, marks on her report the hundred tiny dents where the birds pecked the flesh away, the smooth expanses where the insects got there at last, carrying away whatever was hanging on.

The bone is cool, and smooth as human skin.

Mark opens the door too fast, gets too close.

“I saw the tracks,” he says, quietly, so Christopher won’t hear. “It’s big.”

He means, it’s bigger than you. His breath is warm on her scalp.

“I’ll win,” she says.

After a little silence, he says, “I’d forgotten what it feels like to be close to you.”

She doesn’t know what he means; doesn’t dare ask.

*

The dire wolf was too slow to evolve, everyone knew.

“Poor guys,” Pauline said (she pitied all the bones). She waggled the sabretooth skull she was working on, like it was nodding. “The sabretooth says nature cuts us all down sooner or later. He should know. Poor kitty.”

Pauline always got punchy near the end of an excavation.

“Nature might surprise you,” Velia said, ran her tongue over her teeth.

*

“Promise me you won’t fight,” he says.

They’re in his room. He’s pacing; she’s watching the moonlight play over his face. When he passes back and forth, his shoulder brushes her shoulder.

“It doesn’t want to fight,” she says.

He stops and looks at her. “What can I do? How can I help you?”

She doesn’t know how to explain how he’s only ever been a danger. She doesn’t know how to tell him how different he is from most of his kind, in loving her.

(Most wolves find a mate in each other, because humans are frail; because when faced with a monster, a normal human senses danger and retreats.)

She says, “Live where there are no wolves.”

He frowns like she’s cut him. She knows that pain.

She wants to leave here with him and go somewhere where there are no wolves, carve some narrow sliver of love from each of them, see what it can build.

Doesn’t dare.

They don’t embrace; his hands are shaking, her hands are fists. He kisses her temple, presses his lips to the temporal fossa; she holds her breath, closes her eyes.

*

At night, the wolf’s tracks are easier to follow. There’s a better quality of shadow when the moon is out, and in her waxy coat and bare feet, Velia is an extension of the snow; only her dark eyes and black hair give her away.

(They used to be the color of dust, and her face was broad and sharp-mouthed. There’s too much human in her face, now.)

The den is in a shallow cave, close to the surface. It’s shallow enough that by the time Velia smells decay, she is looking past the narrow entry through the darkness to the wolf and the human body of its dead mate.

Of course there were no wolf bones to find; the human shape is the dire wolf’s last defense.

But Velia’s eyes have always been sharp, and she can see from where she’s standing that there’s an empty shadow beneath the torn throat, the wrinkled skin. (She was old, old enough for even the true wolf to die.)

The break in the jaw was a clean one. It must have snapped as he dragged his mate’s body to the shadow of the den, before the change, where he could make sure no stranger would find her.

He watches her with gleaming eyes, and she braces herself against his sorrow.

She says, “We found the bone. You’re safe. You can find another place.”

The head droops, and a huff of breath mists over the black for a moment.

Then the wolf lies down beside its mate and stretches its neck along the ground, waiting for the strike.

Velia hadn’t known enough true wolves to know what can happen when a wolf is parted from its mate. She had hoped her parents were the exception, and not the rule. But the dire wolf does what she dreaded; it mates for life.

No, she thinks, I can’t, I can’t, but the wolf is willing. (The human form is just a trick; at the roots, the wolf is always waiting.)

When the change comes over her, the other wolf whimpers a welcome. She chokes through the pain before the wolf form takes, bites down on her cries.

Old habit. The wolf is silent when it hunts.

*

According to the fossil record, dire wolves hunted in packs to the exclusion of good sense, leaping into the tar pits by the dozens until every last one of them was drowned.

“Live together, die together, I guess,” sighed Pauline, cleaning dirt off her chisel. “I mean, what could possibly drive an animal into the tar pits, once you saw what happened to the others? They couldn’t ALL be stupid.”

Velia blew a layer of dust off the skull at her feet and wondered about that first wolf, the first one who had retreated from the edge of the tar. She wondered how it got desperate enough to turn to humans just to find some pack to live among.

That was the dire wolf that had fathered them all. The true wolf had always been separate; had been always alone.

*

When Velia can stand on her two feet, she washes the blood off in the river, then pulls on her waxy coat and walks back the way she came.

She scuffs gently over her footsteps on her way, so that no one might find the tracks and disturb the dead.

*

She leaves that night.

She doesn’t ask where Mark was going. Doesn’t dare.

(When the dire wolf bites down, it holds on. That’s what it’s made to do.)

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