KINA M. VIOLA
For three whole years, my daughter wished she was raised by wolves. Now she is seven and pretends she is one. Maybe it’s the eyes; how we’re captivated by the one who stares, pupil a slit surrounded by a golden lake of iris. Lydia shows me pictures. They are her friends and family drawn with crayons—she only uses grey, white, and brown—mottled dogs howling at a yellow wax moon.
Each day my daughter comes home from school with a new word in her pocket. A mother is painfully aware of growth. She has words in her mouth and on her hands, she points out the window, commands “night,” and implies “fear,” “cold,” “the whisper of the wind through leaves, the crickets towards the tail end of summer.” She equates magic with lightning bugs, with the grass stains on pink leggings she parades like twin badges of honor. “Equate” she taught me last Monday; she thinks it’s more elegant than any other word, at least of the words she knows. She teaches me that grey wolves can weigh 55-130 pounds, that they hunt large hoofed mammals and small rodents. That sometimes they have to be scavengers.
Our backyard is her territory. Lydia says that at school she can’t act like a wolf—the teachers ask her to use words instead of growls, and words instead of hands. Words, words, words. At home, she touches the trees that are her brothers, growing taller and knobbier as she aches to grow.
“How much longer?” she asks, and I do not know when, or which question she is asking.
When will she reach the second tier of branches on the live oak?
When will she transform, grow hair or fur, sharpen her teeth against rocks?
When my daughter gets on her knees in the dirt, I watch her through the kitchen window, just glancing, just to see what she does. She growls. Later at dinner, she eats with her hands, picking up the chicken leg by the bone and making a face.
“Lydia,” I say.
“I’m a wolf,” she says.
“There are no wolves in Mississippi,” I say, trying to reason. Then, sighing, add: “Except, baby, for you.”
We live in a quiet, quaint town where folks tend gardens, sit on porches, send their daughters to school. At the table, we chew and bare teeth at each other as the light dwindles in the kitchen. Everything looks coated in gold, warm light like flames over my daughter’s hair.
It licks our faces like a playful dog, turns pink and retreats.
At night sometimes I like to go out on the porch, sit on one of my wicker chairs that squeaks, weigh down the plastic cushions. I like to listen. We’ve been on our own for three years now, and everything may seem better than great—I have my dollhouse house in my dollhouse neighborhood, the one where my parents lived their first newlywed years—I don’t go out much.
I sit on the porch with my feet on the railing, all the night sky spread out and open, teeming with bugs and heavy heat, and stay. I grocery shop once in a while, buy things frozen, can and preserve my own vegetables.
Lydia goes to school and brings me back scraps—I am the scavenger.
It’s a work of labor, a labor of love, canning. Lugging in armfuls of beans and cucumbers from the garden out back, boiling, pouring, sealing, waiting. Lydia would be underfoot or sitting at the counter with a book or playing with the long arm of a stringy plant stolen from outside.
For a little while I think about what would be different if Lydia’s father was my husband.
My husband would be outside in the yard weeding, tossing black clumps of earth in piles, sticky and dark.
My husband would be rolling up his sleeves.
My husband would pull the weeds between the rows out back. It’s a ghost-image put together in pieces like a cabin. Lydia takes his place, playing in the dirt, and I tend the earth with my hands, gardening.
I breathe in night air. Lydia by now will have climbed the stairs to her room, tired from the day. I hear her howling at the moon before she brushes her teeth, the sound muffled through the walls, but still crisp and sweet. I hear her spit in the upstairs sink, imagine foam dripping from lips with an animal smile in the mirror. Soon, I will meet her upstairs, hold the scruff of her neck in my mouth, lift her in the air as I place her under the blankets. We’ll sleep curled in two half-moons, surrounded by the nest of blankets that is our cave.
The air’s still warm enough that I’m out here in only a sweater and pants. “How much longer?” I say to myself.
Until the leaves turn browner and fall.
I think of imaginary soft blue and brown flannels stacked neatly in a closet.
I think of the sound of a door opening.
Among the dark leaves, I hear a rustle, sit up, the muscles everywhere holding on. But the figure that emerges is not two-legged. It’s too big to be a cat or squirrel, chewing on something nestled in leaves. Suddenly, I am able to relax. The color of fur is familiar and almost comforting, the same fur-cover drawn countless times in Lydia’s sketchbook. It’s an old friend.
The creature looks up, his pointed head now emerging from the bush enveloped around him. Expecting a grey wolf, I am surprised. The coyote is scrawny with a thinning tail, a snout like a point. But he stares like his regal cousins, and our breathing is in unison.
I cannot move, somehow, am entranced. There is something in his eyes.
He stands in my manicured shrubs, clipped and controlled, his tail touching the edge of our oak tree.
He stands among flowers and weeds, his pawprints tracking wild into the yard.
We tell each other the stories of our lives, and it happens in these few moments under the sliver of a moon peeking from beyond a cloud.
The long beards of Spanish moss drip like sweat down a man’s brow, the humidity still oppressive even in early autumn.
The coyote begins to dig.
“Stop,” I say, standing. “You’re digging up my flowers.”
I don’t know why I think I’m talking to a wild dog, think I can get him away from what he wants.
“Wait,” he says.
He digs and digs, redecorating the garden with pawprints. He pushes dirt with his nose aside, tail swishing in the breeze. My breathing is shallow, shakes slightly. Is Lydia asleep by now? Should I try and run up to her room, scoop her up and show her this perfect specimen, her dream?
But the scene could disintegrate if I closed the screen door. The coyote, disappearing in the breeze.
He covers up some of the holes he’s made, places flowers in new places, away from their rows, looks up at me once more and then is already gone before I ask him to stay: twenty paces away already, loping in that way that only wild dogs do, sauntering with the slyness and grace that comes from being chased and never caught.
I exhale and it’s like I’ve been holding my breath my whole life. I think about following him, like I could become one too if I just stooped down and started to run.
I hold the railing as I walk down the few steps on the porch down to the yard. Where the coyote has been digging, there are fifty or so pearls of wild, sweet onions. They are clear and white in this lighting—for a moment I think they are jewels hung on tiny green stalks. Bending, I gather the onions in my cotton shirt, making a hammock and taking up handfuls.
The next day, I make beef stew. I drive to the market, ask the man at Brown’s Family Dairy for the best cut of meat he has. I ask him and he smiles with a humble, toothy kindness: “I don’t think we’ve met before.”
The onions I sauté in butter, then pour in stock, vegetables, meat, simmer the whole thing all afternoon until it’s cooked down and tender. I pour it over rice in front of Lydia, her nostrils flaring wide, pulsing.
“Smells good, Mama.”
I smile. I pick up an onion with my fingers, placing it in my mouth. Lydia watches me, surprised that for this moment, I forgo the fork. The onion falls apart like a sand castle dissolving in water. It yields to my tongue and its flavor is marked with the subtle ones of grass and soil.
I’ll admit, I didn’t scrub much.
Lydia mimics my movements, and we sit at the table with beef stock dripping down our sleeves, carrots and chunks of meat following the onions; we laugh and laugh.
Tomorrow I will tell her about the coyote, I say to myself. For now, we chew until our mouths are tired, the whole pot next to us on the dining room table, and neither of us plans to leave.
Kina is a recent grad of tiny Hamilton College and currently resides in northern Mississippi with her two cats and boyfriend. She works in non-profit and occasionally tests recipes for the perfect whiskey sour. Writing has appeared in Welter, Crack the Spine, and other journals.