The wolf awoke. He lifted his head from his paws. Above, the moon was full, but only a drifting ghost through the mixed pine and cedar on the mountainside. The rest of the pack slept.
He alone felt the touch of ... he knew not what. Wolves don't grieve. Not even for themselves.
He rose and went through the rite of fur straightening, then drifted down silently to a stream formed by overflow from a lake above. It was just wide enough to mirror the sky in its water.
Since she died ... no, since she was killed, he had awakened every night at this hour, an hour when all else sleeps ... remembering.
The night has rhythms of its own. Rhythms that resonate in the flesh, blood, and bones of all earth's creatures. Man, alone, has forgotten them, forgotten they ever mattered.
But to the wolf, they came as memories, memories not his own, fragments of a dream. He touched an immortal consciousness as old as life, the experience of a creature not yet self-aware and so immortal. The first of our kind, swimming in the water column of the Cambrian sea. At this time in the night, it ceased the flexions of its muscular body and drowsed in a shimmer of moonlight.
He, the wolf, understood that a catastrophic disruption of his consciousness had taken place, depriving him of the birthright handed down to him by that first dreamer of the ocean sea.
His muzzle shattered the image of the moon in the water in the way sorrow shattered his sleep.
Above, the drifting clouds drowned the moon. Near their kill, the wolves of his pack slept soundlessly and without dreams.
The air around him was cold. It was late autumn, nearly winter again, but he felt a fire within himself--a fire that the wind from the glaciers towering over the mountain passes couldn't quench. A fire that heated his skin under his heavy winter coat.
Fire! They were creatures of fire. And fire followed them everywhere. The smell of burning always tainted the air around their dwellings. Earth, air, fire, and water. All living beings on earth partook of those elements, but of them all, only man was the master of fire.
Why? How did they seize such power? Nothing in his memories could tell him.
When his kind first met them in the darkness and struggle of the world's winter, they controlled flames, extinguishing and kindling them at will, their only advantage in a ruthless battle for simple survival against the omnipresent night and cold. Otherwise, they were pitiable, naked things.
Pitiable, naked things like he himself was, at this moment, because as the last rays of moonlight were caught by the drifting clouds, he became a man.
He remembered that she said--she told him--fire was a gift of the gods.
He had laughed at the word gift
. He had already seen enough of the humans to know they stole and despoiled without conscience or compunction and read in the minds of the gods the things they most wanted for themselves. Worship and submission to the feckless, arbitrary commands of those who maneuvered themselves into a position to rule their own kind.
"A gift," he had asked, "stolen perhaps?"
"Perhaps," she answered with a shrug. "The thieves were mocked by their theft, because, as always, power is a two-edged sword."But power
, the man by the stream thought, whatever it costs, power is life
. Without the theft, they and all their kind could never have survived that long-ago endless winter and they would have been winnowed out, as were so many others.
The man stretched his arms upward as if to embrace the moon, just as the cloud in its passage was silvered at the edges by the returning glow.
Then the silver light shone full in his face. He wondered what the gods really did want.
She, whose touch gave him the power to change from wolf to man and back again, seemed careless of worship and had never asked for thanks.
And, indeed, he didn't even know if he should thank her because, like fire, this gift brought suffering and sorrow in its wake. A gift garnished with cruel knowledge and an awareness of absolute loss.
Then he was wolf again, satisfied to extinguish a comprehension of life that he didn't, at the moment, want.
He remembered fire, and only fire--that spirit, that everlasting ambiguity that could protect, create, and destroy.
And the wolf set out, the only wakeful creature in a sleeping world.
Being aware and knowing awareness was a gnawing curse ... a curse to be extinguished in blood, fire, and vengeance.
How did he know who the man was? He had seen. Why was he sure of his guilt? To the wolf this would have seemed a ridiculous question. He had smelled it, with a certainty that could not be denied--the scent of guilt that is beyond resolve, or anger, or fear.
Even his most ancient ancestor swimming in that first sea had seen, had known. And somewhere its rudimentary consciousness had been able to store the information presented by its deployed senses.
Humans, in their blindness, think intelligence has one path--theirs! But his brain--older and wiser, though not as acute--knew knowledge has many facets and routes.
None of us is any one thing. No more than a bush, a tree, or even an unloved weed is. We are all a combination of many factors, shapes, sizes, odors, movements, habits. Each impinging on the consciousness of others--others we never notice.
So the wolf knew this man. He had marked him, along with those others, in the hour between day and night, in the place that was neither water nor land, never guessing the man's fell purpose until it was too late. Too late to stop him and the others from the completion of their task. A task his mind, as a wolf or human, could never comprehend, understand, or, for that matter, forgive--not in the year since, not ever.
Excerpted from Night of the Wolf by Alice Borchardt. Copyright © 2000 by Alice Borchardt. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.