The wolf boy, the wild child, the strange feral creature appeared early one spring as the iced-over streams started to crack and the blown snow on the steppes was melting. In that place whose history, in its most objective rendering, read like a conflation of myth, magic and madness, and where recent events were so turbulent and improbable that any future, or no future, seemed possible, each sign was seen as an omen of potential catastrophe.
The first villagers to spot him kept their distance and watched warily. These were mountain people. They lived with their livestock in huts--dank, cave-like and carved out of rock. Having just wakened from what amounted to months of winter hibernation, they imagined the boy to be a dream-memory or a lingering shade from the spirit world. It was the custom of their clan to butcher animals on feast days and dress the bloody carcasses in human clothing. Then they wrapped themselves in animal hides and cantered about disguised as beasts. Legend had it that their ancestors descended from a she-wolf that mated with a man in the Heavenly Mountains. To this day when a baby was born heavily downed with hair, the villagers believed a yeti had been among them. So while the wild boy worried them, it didn't so much shock as fascinate them to see him lap water from the communal trough. Silent and stock still, they let him drink and attempted to take his measure.
He was naked, down on his hands and knees. Steam rose in ripples from his bare, weather-browned skin. Bony and misshapen, he might have been mistaken for a cripple, with long stringy arms, claw-like hands and prehensile toes. Yet he moved with lupine grace, and there was a wolfish narrowness to his face. When he caught their scent and jerked up his head, he gazed at them through tilted, agate-colored eyes. Then he whirled around, low to the ground, and disappeared downhill, draining out of their lives and leaving them to the laborious process of assimilating what they had witnessed into tribal lore.
Down on the treeless plains, wind was constant, and people studied it as a sailor would the sea or an aviator the sky. Whenever it blew from the mountains, it was glacial and brought killing frosts and blizzards. When it swung around from the opposite direction, it combed across a thousand miles of desert and carried tons of airborne dust. Wind from the west stank of oil wells and chemical plants, insecticide and fertilizer. The villagers preferred the familiar smell out of the east, an aromatic reminder of horses that had endured ever since the armies of their ancestors arrived a millennium before, bearing nothing but weapons-no art, no skills that weren't martial and only a single maniacal idea: that battle, not building; destruction, not creation, was man's fate and final legacy. These warriors rode for days, sleeping in the saddle, soothed by the susurrus of waist-deep grass that parted and closed behind them. They didn't dismount even to eat. They opened slits in the necks of their horses and drank the blood. This left their lips rouged like a whore's. Myth had it that their leader, Genghis Khan, came from the congress of a wolf with a deer.
The men who lived here still rode horses and they spotted the wild child with a pack of pariah dogs. Starting off on all fours, he built speed in a few strides, then raised up and ran on two legs. It didn't seem to them that he was being chased. Yapping like a puppy, he frisked and howled along with the rest of the pack. A mane of lank hair streamed from his head. Dark tufts sprouted from his back, spiked as the bristles that roached up on the spines of the growling mongrels.
The men mounted up and pursued the boy. To them this was like buzkashi, a brutal variant of polo played with a hundred and fifty riders to a team and a dead goat in place of a ball. The boy, too, appeared to regard it as a game--a darting, dervishing pageant that men and animals participated in together. The riders later claimed they couldn't catch him. They coursed the steppes and never gained on him. They said that he remained tantalizingly beyond their grasp, a chimera at the edge of the earth. A few admitted that they didn't care to catch him. They were afraid that once they had him in their hands he would change into something else.
From Shelter from the Storm by Michael Mewshaw, Copyright © 2003 by Michael Mewshaw, published by G.P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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