Excerpt of The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney
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The last time I saw Laurent Jammet, he was in Scott's store with a dead wolf over his shoulder. I had gone to get needles, and he had come in for the bounty. Scott insisted on the whole carcass, having once been bamboozled by a Yankee who brought in a pair of ears one day and claimed his bounty, then some time later brought in the paws for another dollar, and finally the tail. It was winter and the parts looked fairly fresh, but the con became common knowledge, to Scott's disgust. So the wolf's face was the first thing I saw when I walked in. The tongue lolled out of the mouth, which was pulled back in a grimace. I flinched, despite myself. Scott yelled and Jammet apologized profusely; it was impossible to be angry with him, what with his charm and his limp. The carcass was removed out back somewhere, and as I was browsing, they began to argue about the moth-eaten pelt that hangs over the door. I think Jammet suggested jokingly that Scott replace it with a new one. The sign under it reads, "Canis lupus (male), the first wolf to be caught in the town of Caulfield, 11th February, 1860." The sign tells you a lot about John Scott, demonstrating his pretensions to learning, his self-importance, and the craven respect for authority over truth. It certainly wasn't the first wolf to be caught around here, and there is no such thing as the town of Caulfield, strictly speaking, although he would like there to be, because then there would be a council, and he could be its mayor.
"Anyway, that is a female. Males have a darker collar, and are bigger. This one is very small."
Jammet knew what he was talking about, as he had caught more wolves than anyone else I know. He smiled, to show he meant no offense, but Scott takes offense like it is going out of fashion, and bristled.
"I suppose you remember better than I do, Mr. Jammet?"
Jammet shrugged. Since he wasn't here in 1860, and since he was French, unlike the rest of us, he had to watch his step.
At this point I stepped up to the counter. "I think it was a female, Mr. Scott. The man who brought it in said her cubs howled all night. I remember it distinctly."
And the way Scott strung up the carcass by its back legs outside the store for everyone to gawp at. I had never seen a wolf before, and I was surprised at its smallness. It hung with its nose pointing at the ground, eyes closed as if ashamed. Men mocked the carcass, and children laughed, daring each other to put their hands in its mouth. They posed with it for each other's amusement.
Scott turned tiny, bright blue eyes on me, either affronted that I should side with a foreigner, or just affronted, it was hard to tell.
"And look what happened to him." Doc Wade, the man who brought in the bounty, drowned the following spring -- as though that threw his judgment into question.
"Ah, well..." Jammet shrugged and winked at me, the cheek.
Somehow -- I think Scott mentioned it first -- we got talking about those poor girls, as people usually do when the subject of wolves is raised. Although there are any number of unfortunate females in the world (plenty in my experience alone), around here "those poor girls" always refers to only two -- the Seton sisters, who vanished all those years ago. There were a few minutes' pleasant and pointless exchange of views that broke off suddenly when the bell rang and Mrs. Knox came in. We pretended to be very interested in the buttons on the counter. Laurent Jammet took his dollar, bowed to me and Mrs. Knox, and left. The bell jangled on its metal spring for a long time after he walked out.
That was all, nothing significant about it. The last time I saw him.
Laurent Jammet was our closest neighbor. Despite this, his life was a mystery to us. I used to wonder how he hunted wolves with his bad leg, and then someone told me that he baited deer meat with strychnine. The skill came in following the trail to the resulting corpse. I don't know, though; that is not hunting as I see it. I know wolves have learned to stay out of range of a Winchester rifle, so they cannot be entirely stupid, but they are not so clever that they have learned to distrust a free gift of food, and where is the merit in following a doomed creature to its end? There were other unusual things about him: long trips away from home in parts unknown; visits from dark, taciturn strangers; and brief displays of startling generosity, in sharp counterpoint to his dilapidated cabin. We knew that he was from Quebec. We knew that he was Catholic, although he did not often go to church or to confession (though he may have indulged in both during his long absences). He was polite and cheerful, although he did not have particular friends, and kept a certain distance. And he was, I daresay, handsome, with almost-black hair and eyes, and features that gave the impression of having just finished smiling, or being just about to start. He treated all women with the same respectful charm, but managed not to irritate either them or their husbands. He was not married and showed no inclination to do so, but I have noticed that some men are happier on their own, especially if they are rather slovenly and irregular in their habits.
Copyright © 2006 by Stef Penney. All rights reserved.