stef penney

the tenderness of wolves

Chapter one

 

 

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 apologised 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 round 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 offence, but Scott takes

offence 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 judgement 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 was 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 neighbour. 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 learnt to stay out of range of a Winchester rifle, so they cannot

be entirely stupid, but they are not so clever that they have learnt 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 dare say, 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.

     Some people attract an idle and entirely unmalicious envy. Jammet was one

of those, lazy and good-natured, who seem to slide through life without toil or

effort. I thought him lucky, because he did not seem to worry about those things

that turn the rest of us grey. He had no grey hairs, but he had a past, which he kept

mostly to himself. He imagined himself to have a future, too, I suppose, but he did

not. He was perhaps forty. It was as old as he would ever get.

 

It is a Thursday morning in mid-November, about two weeks after that meeting in

the store. I walk down the road from our house in a dreadful temper, planning my

lecture carefully. More than likely I rehearse it aloud – one of many strange habits

that are all too easy to pick up in the back-woods. The road – actually little more

than a series of ruts worn by hooves and wheels – follows the river where it plunges

down a series of shallow falls. Under the birches patches of moss gleam emerald in

the sunlight. Fallen leaves, crystallised by the night’s frost, crackle under my feet,

whispering of the coming winter. The sky is an achingly clear blue. I walk quickly in

my anger, head high. It probably makes me look cheerful.

     Jammet’s cabin sits away from the riverbank in a patch of weeds that passes

for a garden. The unpeeled log walls have faded over the years until the whole

thing looks grey and woolly, more like a living growth than a building. It is

something from a bygone age: the door is buckskin stretched over a wooden frame,

the windows glazed with oiled parchment. In winter he must freeze. It’s not a place

where the women of Dove River often call, and I haven’t been here myself for

months, but right now I have run out of places to look.

     There is no smoke signal of life inside, but the door stands ajar; the buckskin

stained from earthy hands. I call out, then knock on the wall. There is no reply,

so I peer inside, and when my eyes have adjusted to the dimness I see Jammet,

at home and, true to form, asleep on his bed at this time in the morning. I nearly

walk away then, thinking there is no point waking him, but frustration makes me

persevere. I haven’t come all this way for nothing.

     ‘Mr Jammet?’ I start off, sounding, to my mind, irritatingly bright. ‘Mr Jammet,

I am sorry to disturb you but I must ask…’

     Laurent Jammet sleeps peacefully. Round his neck is the red neckerchief he

wears for hunting, so that other hunters will not mistake him for a bear and shoot

him. One foot protrudes off the side of the bed, in a dirty sock. His red neckerchief

is on the table… I have grasped the side of the door. Suddenly, from being normal,

everything has changed completely: flies hover round their late autumn feast;

the red neckerchief is not round his neck, it cannot be, because it is on the table,

and that means…

     ‘Oh,’ I say, and the sound shocks me in the silent cabin. ‘No.’

     I cling onto the door, trying not to run away, although I realise a second later

I couldn’t move if my life depended on it.

     The redness round his neck has leaked into the mattress from a gash. A gash.

I’m panting, as though I’ve been running. The doorframe is the most important

thing in the world right now. Without it, I don’t know what I would do.

     The neckerchief has not done its duty. It has failed to prevent his untimely death.

     I don’t pretend to be particularly brave, and in fact long ago gave up the notion

that I have any remarkable qualities, but I am surprised at the calmness with which

I look around the cabin. My first thought is that Jammet has destroyed himself,

but Jammet’s hands are empty, and there is no sign of a weapon near him. One

hand dangles off the side of the bed. It does not occur to me to be afraid. I know

with absolute certainty that whoever did this is nowhere near – the cabin proclaims

its emptiness. Even the body on the bed is empty. There are no attributes to it

now – the cheerfulness and slovenliness and skill at shooting, the generosity and

callousness – they have all gone.

     There is one other thing I can’t help but notice, as his face is turned slightly away

from me. I don’t want to see it but it’s there, and it confirms what I have already

unwillingly accepted – that among all the things in the world that can never be

known, Laurent Jammet’s fate is not one of them. This is no accident, nor is it

self-destruction. He has been scalped.

     At length, although it is probably only a few seconds later, I pull the door closed

behind me, and when I can’t see him any more, I feel better. Although for the rest

of that day, and for days after, my right hand aches from the violence with which

I gripped the doorframe, as though I had been trying to knead the wood between

my fingers, like dough.

Chapter two

 

 

We live in Dove River, on the north shore of Georgian Bay. My husband and I

emigrated from the Highlands of Scotland a dozen years ago, driven out like so

many others. A million and a half people arrived in North America in just a few

years, but despite the numbers involved, despite being so crammed into the hold

of a ship that you thought there couldn’t possibly be room in the New World for all

these people, we fanned out from the landing stages at Halifax and Montreal like

the tributaries of a river, and disappeared, every one, into the wilderness. The land

swallowed us up, and was hungry for more. Hacking land out of the forest, we gave

our places names that sprang from things we saw – a bird, an animal – or the names

of old home towns; sentimental reminders of places that had no sentiment for us.

It just goes to show you can’t leave anything behind. You bring it all with you,

whether you want to or not.

     A dozen years ago there was nothing here but trees. The country to the north of

here is a mean land that is either bog or stones, where even the willows and

tamaracks cannot take hold. But near the river the soil is soft and deep, the forest

around it so dark green it is almost black, and the sharp scented silence feels as

deep and endless as the sky. My first reaction, when I saw it, was to burst into tears.

The cariole that brought us rattled away, and the thought that, however loudly

I screamed, only the wind would answer, could not be pushed away. Still, if the idea

was to find peace and quiet, we had succeeded. My husband waited calmly for my

fit of hysteria to subside, then said, with a grim sort of smile:

     ‘Out here, there is nothing greater than God.’

     Assuming you believe in that sort of thing, it seemed a safe bet.

     In time I got used to the silence, and the thinness of the air that made everything

seem brighter and sharper than it had back home. I even grew to like it. And I

named it, since it had no name that anyone knew of: Dove River.

     I’m not immune to sentimentality myself.

 

Others came. Then John Scott built the flour mill near the river mouth, and having

spent so much money on it, and it having such a nice view of the bay, decided he

might as well live in it. Somehow this started a fashion for living near the shore,

inexplicable to those of us who had gone upriver precisely to escape the howling

storms when the Bay seems to turn into an angry ocean intent on clawing back

the land you have so presumptuously settled. But Caulfield (sentiment again;

Scott is from Dumfriesshire) took in a way that Dove River never could – because

of the abundance of level land and relative sparseness of the forest, and because

Scott opened a dry goods store that made backwoods life a lot easier. Now there is

a community of over a hundred – a strange mix of Scots and Yankees. And Laurent

Jammet. He hasn’t – hadn’t – been here long, and probably would never have

moved here at all had he not taken the piece of land that no one else would touch.

     Four years ago he bought the farm downstream from ours. It had been lying

empty for some time, on account of the previous owner, an elderly Scot. Doc Wade

arrived in Dove River seeking cheap land where he would not be so much under the

noses of those who judged him – he had a wealthy sister and brother-in-law in

Toronto. People called him Doc, although it turned out he was not a doctor at all,

just a man of culture who had not found a place in the New World that appreciated

his varied but nebulous talents. Unfortunately Dove River was not the exception he

was looking for. As many men have found, farming is a slow, sure way to lose your

fortune, destroy your health, and break your spirit. The work was too heavy for a

man of his age, and his heart was not in it. His crops failed, his pigs ran wild in the

forest, his cabin roof caught fire. One evening he slipped on the rock that forms a

natural jetty in front of his cabin, and was later found in the deep eddy below

Horsehead Bluff (so named, with that refreshing Canadian lack of imagination,

because it resembles a horse’s head). It was a merciful release after his troubles,

said some. Others called it a tragedy – the sort of small, domestic tragedy the bush

is littered with. I suppose I imagined it differently. Wade drank, like most men.

One night, when his money was gone and the whisky finished, when there was

nothing left for him to do in this world, he went down to the river and watched the

cold black water rushing past. I imagine he looked up at the sky, heard the mocking,

indifferent voice of the forest one last time, felt the tug of the swollen river, and

cast himself onto its infinite mercy.

     Afterwards, local gossip said that the land was unlucky, but it was cheap and

Jammet was not one to take note of superstitious rumours, although perhaps he

should have. He had been a voyageur for the Company, and had fallen under a

canoe while hauling it up some rapids. The accident lamed him, and they gave him

compensation. He seemed grateful rather than otherwise for his accident, which

gave him enough money to buy his own land. He was fond of saying how lazy he

was, and certainly he did not do the farm work that most men cannot avoid.

He sold off most of Wade’s land and made his living from the wolf bounty and

a little trading. Every spring a succession of dark, long-distance men would come

from the northwest with their canoes and packs. They found him a congenial

person to do business with.

 

Half an hour later I am knocking on the door of the biggest house in Caulfield.

I flex the fingers of my right hand as I wait for an answer – they seem to have

seized up into a sort of claw.

     Mr Knox has a poor, greyish complexion that makes me think of liver salts,

and is tall and thin, with a hatchet profile that seems permanently poised to strike

down the unworthy – useful attributes for a magistrate. I suddenly feel as empty

as if I had not eaten for a week.

     ‘Ah, Mrs Ross… an unexpected pleasure…’

     To tell the truth he looks, more than anything, alarmed at the sight of me.

Perhaps he looks at everyone this way, but it gives the impression he knows slightly

more about me than I would like, and thus knows I am not the sort of person he

would want his daughters to associate with.

     ‘Mr Knox… I’m afraid it is not a pleasure. There has been a… a terrible accident.’

     Scenting gossip of the richest sort, Mrs Knox comes in a minute later, and I tell

them both what is in the cabin by the river. Mrs Knox clutches at the little gold

cross at her throat. Knox receives the news calmly, but turns away at one point,

and turns back, having, I can’t help feeling, composed his features into a suitable

cast – grim, stern, resolute, and so on. Mrs Knox sits beside me stroking my hand

while I try not to snatch it away.

     ‘And to think, the last time I saw him was in the store that time. He looked so…’

     I nod in agreement, thinking how we had fallen into a guilty silence on her

approach. After many protestations of shocked sympathy and advice for shattered

nerves, she rushes off to inform their two daughters in a suitable way (in other

words, with far more detail than if their father were present). Knox dispatches a

messenger to Fort Edgar to summon some Company men. He leaves me to admire

the view, then returns to say he has summoned John Scott (who, in addition to

owning the store and flour mill, has several warehouses and a great deal of land)

to go with him to examine the cabin and secure it against ‘intrusion’ until the

Company representatives arrive. That is the word he uses, and I feel a certain

criticism. Not that he can blame me for finding the body, but I am sure he regrets

that a mere farmer’s wife has sullied the scene before he has had a chance to

exercise his superior faculties. But I sense something else in him too, other than

his disapproval – excitement. He sees a chance for himself to shine in a drama far

more urgent than most that occur in the backwoods – he is going to investigate.

I presume he takes Scott so that it looks official and there is a witness to his genius,

and because Scott’s age and wealth give him a sort of status. It can be nothing to do

with intelligence – Scott is living proof that the wealthy are not necessarily better

or cleverer than the rest of us.

     We head upriver in Knox’s trap. Since Jammet’s cabin is close to our house, they

cannot avoid my accompanying them, and since we reach his cabin first, I offer to

come in with them. Knox wrinkles his brow with avuncular concern.

     ‘You must be exhausted after your terrible shock. I insist that you go home and

rest.’

     ‘We will be able to see whatever you saw,’ Scott adds. And more, is the

implication.

     I turn away from Scott – there is no point arguing with some people – and

address the hatchet profile. He is affronted, I realise, that my feminine nature can

bear the thought of confronting such horror again. But something inside me

hardens stubbornly against his assumption that he and only he will draw the right

conclusions. Or perhaps it is just that I don’t like being told what to do. I say I can

tell them if anything has been disturbed, which they cannot deny, and anyway,

short of manhandling me down the track and locking me in my house, there is little

they can do.

     The autumn weather is being kind, but there is the faint tang of decay when

Knox pulls open the door. I didn’t notice it before. Knox steps forward, breathing

through his mouth and puts his fingers on Jammet’s hand – I see him hover,

wondering where to touch him – before pronouncing him quite cold. The two men

speak in low voices, almost whispering. I understand – to speak louder would be

rude. Scott takes out a notebook and writes down what Knox says as he observes

the position of the body, the temperature of the stove, the arrangement of items in

the room. Then Knox stands for a while doing nothing, but still manages to look

purposeful – an accident of anatomy I observe with interest. There is a scuff of

footprints on the dusty floor, but no strange objects, no weapon of any sort.

The only clue is that awful round wound on Jammet’s head. It must have been an

Indian outlaw, Knox says. Scott agrees: no white man could do something so

barbaric. I picture his wife’s face last winter, when it was swollen black and blue and

she claimed she had slipped on a patch of ice, although everybody knew the truth.

     The men go upstairs to the other room. I can tell where they go by the creak of

their feet pressing on floorboards and the dust that falls between them and

catches the light. It trickles onto Jammet’s corpse, falling softly on his cheek, like

snowflakes. Little flecks land, unbearably, on his open eyes and I can’t take my

gaze off them. I have an urge to go and brush it off, tell them sharply to stop

disturbing things, but I don’t do either. I can’t make myself touch him.

     ‘No one has been up there for days – the dust was quite undisturbed,’ says Knox

when they are down again, flicking dirt off their trousers with pocket-handkerchiefs.

Knox has brought a clean sheet from upstairs, and he shakes it out, sending more

dust motes whirling round the room like a swarm of sunlit bees. He places the sheet

over the body on the bed.

     ‘There, that should keep the flies off,’ he says with an air of self-congratulation,

though any fool can see that it will do no such thing.

     It is decided that we – or rather they – can do no more, and on leaving,

Knox closes and secures the door with a length of wire and a blob of sealing wax.

A detail that, though I hate to admit it, impresses me.