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Once There Were Wolves

by Charlotte McConaghy

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy X
Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2021, 272 pages
    May 3, 2022, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Callum McLaughlin
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When we were eight, Dad cut me open from throat to stomach.

In a forest in the wilds of British Columbia sat his workshop, dusty and reeking of blood. He had skins hanging to dry and they brushed our foreheads as we crept through them. I shivered, even then, while Aggie grinned devilishly ahead of me, bolder than me by far. After summers spent wishing to know what happened in this shed I was suddenly desperate to be gone from it.

He'd caught a rabbit and though he'd let us stalk the woods with him he'd never shown us the act of killing.

Aggie was eager, and in her haste she kicked a brine barrel, her foot making a deep echoing thud, one I felt on my foot, too. Dad looked up and sighed. "You really want to see?"

Aggie nodded.

"Are you prepared for it?"

Another nod.

I could see the furry rabbit and all the blades. It wasn't moving; dead already.

"Come on over then."

We went to either side of him, our noses peeking over his workbench. From here I could see all the fine colors of its pelt, russet browns and dusky oranges and warm creams and grays and whites and blacks. A kaleidoscope of color, all designed, I supposed, to make it invisible and prevent this exact fate. Poor rabbit.

"Do you understand why I'm doing this?" Dad asked us.

We both nodded. "Subsistence living," Aggie said.

"Which means? Inti?"

"We hunt only what we need and we give back to the ecosystem, we grow food, too, we live as self-sufficiently as we can," I said.

"That's right. So we pay our respects to this creature and thank it for sustaining us."

"Thank you," Aggie and I chimed. I had the feeling the rabbit could have cared less about our gratitude. Silently I bid it a glum apology. But all the while something was tingling in my belly, right down at the bottom of it. I wanted to get out of there. This was Dad's realm, the furs and the blades and the blood, the smell he was always draped in, it had always been his realm and I wished it could stay that way; this felt like the opening of a door to a darker place, a crueler one, an adult one, and I didn't know why she wanted this but if she did, if she did want it then I had to stay. Where Aggie went, I followed.

"Before we eat it we have to skin it. I'll cure the pelt so we can use it or trade it, and then we'll eat every part of the carcass so there's no…?"

"Waste," we answered.

"And why's that?"

"Waste is the true enemy of the planet," we said.

"Come on, Dad," Aggie complained.

"All right, first we cut from throat to stomach."

The tip of his blade went to the fur of the rabbit's throat and I knew I had made a mistake. Before I could slam my eyes shut the knife opened my throat and sliced my skin in one long swift motion to my tummy.

I hit the floor hard, cut open and spilling. It felt so real, I was sure there must be blood and I screamed and screamed and Dad was shouting now too and the knife dropped and Aggie dropped and she pulled me tight against her. Her heartbeat pressed to mine. Her fingers drumming a rhythm against my spine. And in her skinny arms I was intact again. Myself, with no blood and never in fact a wound at all.

I had always known there was something different about me, but that was the day I first recognized it to be dangerous. It was also the day, as I stumbled out of the shed into a long violet dusk, that I looked to the trees' edge and saw my first wolf, and it saw me.

* * *

Now, in a different part of the world, the dark is heavy and their breathing is all around. The scent has changed. Still warm, earthy, but muskier now, which means there's fear in it, which means one of them is awake.

Her golden eyes find just enough light to reflect.

Easy, I bid her without words.

She is wolf Number Six, the mother, and she watches me from her metal crate. Her pelt is pale as a winter sky. Her paws haven't known the feel of steel until now. I'd take that knowledge from her if I could. It's a cold knowing. Instinct tells me to try to soothe her with soft words or a tender touch but it's my presence that scares her most, so I leave her be.

Excerpted from Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy. Copyright © 2021 by Charlotte McConaghy. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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