Sophie turned her back to the old root cellar door, leaned into it, felt its splintery boards, and prayed to whatever gods might protect wild things. “Help me,” she whispered, then pushed. She lost her balance as the door shifted, but managed to stay on her feet. There it was. The click. Now she could fasten the padlock. Lock the body inside.
Turning toward the house, she started her slow journey back. It’s not far, she said to herself by way of encouragement as she struggled over the uneven ground, and I do have Howler for company. But the dragging marks, the traces of blood in the snow, even her own and Howler’s footprints, these worried her, and she hoped that the weather forecast was right. A good blizzard was what she needed now.
One step at a time, she thought. The lights of the house seemed close enough, but lately, as old age set in for real, distance was as elastic as time. She would focus on the kitchen light, the glow from the reading lamp on her bedside table. These would be her guides. Besides, it was only dusk, and she could still see the outline of the farmhouse, stark white against the woolly gray skyline.
Sophie loved the old house where she’d lived for the past ten years, but there were several rooms she no longer entered. One by one she had closed them up, yielded territory to wild creatures who might want to live there—mostly mice, she supposed, perhaps the odd chipmunk or flying squirrel, though she liked to imagine more exotic animals. Sometimes she dreamt of a mother bear with two or three cubs. She knew it was a crazy idea, but still, it couldn’t hurt to imagine a better world. She was ashamed to admit that she didn’t know how many cubs a bear usually had. She would look that up if she ever figured out the new programs on that fool computer. Regardless, she wished she had left back windows open so that larger animals could have had easier access. It would have been such a noble thing to do—give sanctuary to a mother bear.
In her limited way she was trying to do her part to defend nature against the rabidity of mankind. Humankind, she supposed she should say. She had, after all, been one of those braless women back in the day, out on the streets protesting almost everything in what now seemed like some other life. She’d been a real Nellie Knock-off in those days. Frequent speaker at feminist rallies. Older than most women in the group, but always supporting the cause. In hindsight, she wished she’d supported her own anatomy, now that her breasts hung so low they fought with her belly.
Back in the kitchen, Sophie eased herself down onto one of the straight-backed chairs. Rubbed her left leg. It seemed that the nerve damage there was getting worse. What I really need, she mused wryly, is a good neurologist. She wondered whether she had the energy to make herself a cup of tea before tackling the unpleasant task she still faced. There seemed to be much more blood than one would expect from such a swift kill. This would be a big job, and she thought it best to get at it right away. She would hold the cup of tea in her head instead of her hand, like a concept of heaven: a promised reward for a job well done. Not that she’d ever believed in heaven—but a good cup of tea, now that was something she could have faith in.
On her hands and knees, she envisioned herself as “Arthritis”, goddess of old age and pain. She wondered about the actual derivation and meaning of that word. She knew, of course, that “itis” meant inflammation, but she couldn’t recall whether it was Greek or Latin in origin. And what about the first part of the word? What was its significance? Inflammation of Arthur, perhaps? She smiled as she pictured her former husband, Arthur, inflamed, then returned to the worrisome task at hand: mopping up the reporter’s blood.
As her gnarled hand scrubbed the stiff-bristled brush back and forth across the pine boards, she sank into the rhythm, and soon caught herself humming, then singing, “We shall overcome,” she sang quietly to herself, as Howler lay on the floor beside her, watching with baffled, yellow eyes. She recalled her involvement in sit-ins and peace marches in the States in the 60’s with Dr. King. What she remembered most was how cold she’d been during the Selma to Montgomery march. She’d imagined Alabama as hot, but she’d shivered all the while they had camped out. Still, it had been energizing. Ten years later, back in Canada, she’d been involved in much smaller, less buoyant protests about the Murdoch Case. From the struggle for integration of black Americans, to property rights of an Alberta farm wife. What an era that had been! How idealistic and hopeful it all seemed in hindsight. She recollected her mixed feelings when Irene Murdoch had finally received a $68,000 settlement from her ex-husband after an appeal. Unjust, yes. Absolutely. And she understood the rage of most feminists. Yet, it was better than nothing. A small step for humankind. One step at a time.
A few years back, there had been a meeting of major world leaders in a nearby town. While meetings were in progress, the leaders’ wives were taught the history of the canoe, and given chocolate paddles to eat. When Sophie had read about it, she’d been embarrassed for her country. Why not harness the talents of these women? And what amazed her was the way in which women who reported on it in the national press seemed able to do so without any sense of the absurdity of the situation.
In spite of all the years of protests, the major decisions that affected life around her were still made by men, mostly white. She couldn’t imagine a woman of any colour putting lakes and streams and all the wildlife that depended on them at risk for the sake of a uranium mine, for instance, but that’s what was happening where she lived. Still, she’d seen her share of women wasting the earth’s resources. Had done so herself. But she was doing her best to redeem herself now, in her final years.
The days of protest and activism were over for her, though. There would be no more peace marches, no more time spent sewing up young girls with severed hands, mutilated genitalia as she’d done when she worked with Médecins Sans Frontières. Nowadays it took her five minutes just to get downstairs in the morning. Preparing breakfast had become a major chore even though she ate only toast, an orange, and a cup of coffee. What a creature of habit she had become! It was hard to believe she had been reduced to this. But still, in her own small way, she tried to fight for what she believed to be right. And it seemed to her that man’s disregard for wildlife was the greatest current evil.
She did enjoy the paradox, though, that as humans destroyed more and more of the natural world around them, they ratcheted up the vocabulary designed to express their love for it. Even church leaders spoke of “greening” the building or the congregation. Greening? A gerund she supposed. How had that happened? Another linguistic aberration. Newspeak? Thinkspeak? Where was Orwell now that she needed him?
Well, it was all beyond her control. She was in charge of herself and this rambling, old house. That was all. And bit by bit she was relinquishing even those jurisdictions. At first it was only the attic she had ceded. She’d been able to hear scurrying sounds up there in the evening as she was reading the paper in the living room. Or sometimes at night after she’d gone to bed. Her niece, Yasmin, had even heard them one afternoon when she was visiting, and had offered to call an exterminator. Sophie had said she’d look after it herself. And after that she was careful to serve Yasmin’s coffee only in the kitchen, which had no attic.
The day she heard scurrying and thumping sounds in the guest bedroom, she’d shut the door. Kept it that way. Put newspaper in the gap between it and the floor. But then she’d noticed the newspaper reappearing in shreds on the stairs and in other parts of the house. And she had resorted to duct tape. She’d found the rolls of tape out in the garage, and was surprised that they were still sticky after so many years, but they’d worked to seal the door up tight. Just the guest bedroom at first, then later, the one that Arthur had always used as his office.
She knew that if Yasmin found out she was doing this, she’ d think it was time to ship her off to Sunset Point or whatever they called the nursing home now, since privatization. So she was always careful to keep her in the kitchen when she visited. Or out on the patio in nicer weather. And she did her best to keep Howler out of sight on those days.
The first time Yasmin had seen Howler, she had screamed, “There’s a wolf at the door!” Sophie chuckled to herself every time she recalled that day. She felt quite proud of the way she had coped. How quickly she had come up with the name “Woolly Coat Husky” and the story about the call from the Humane Society asking her to take him in. Ah, if Yasmin only knew how long it had actually taken her to lure Howler into her yard. How long it had taken for him to learn to trust her. All those days of circling, nights of distant, then not-so-distant howls.
Her sciatica had been particularly bad at that time, so she’d used her walker to get to the back of the yard—a bowl of raw lamb precariously balanced on the cross bar. She’d had to lift the walker after each step as its wheels had refused to roll in the early snow. But she had made it. And Howler had accepted her offering. Weeks had passed before either one of them was comfortable with his presence on the back veranda. Months before she could persuade him to share the living room in the evening—lie at her feet as she read last week’s news. Howler had gradually become one of the family. He even tolerated the cat. He seemed to recognize its special status here, to realize that Eliot wasn’t prey, but part of this motley, new pack that he had adopted.
But today Howler had given Sophie a new dilemma: what to do with the remains of the news reporter who’d been hanging around here lately. Sophie couldn’t help but wonder whether Yasmin had let something slip about her once-famous aunt hiding out at the old Jackson place. Perhaps she was misjudging the girl, though. She’d always seemed to respect her great aunt’s desire for privacy, had run interference for her with people who fancied they knew her simply because they had read her books. Sophie was tired of it all—the overly familiar fan who felt he had bought an hour or two of her time with a $5.00 donation to one of her pet causes; the interviewers with their persistent quest for biographical details in her novels; the academics who imagined literary influences that weren’t there. And Yasmin had helped her escape it. But lately she’d been insisting that Sophie should at least speak with the UBC scholar who wanted to talk to her about the letters and manuscripts designated for their archives. And Sophie had insisted with equal firmness that she had given her last interview. Let them sort out her papers after her death. Let them make what they would of her works then. She’d done what she could to protect her friends.
She wondered now whether the young man Howler had killed had been from UBC, but surely that wasn’t possible. This intruder had not struck her as an academic. More the reporter type. She imagined there were still investigative journalists out there in the world of gossip that passed for news. And she supposed that some might consider it newsworthy that a once-famous neurologist, best-selling author and philanthropist was living in quiet seclusion near their town. Those facts alone might have brought him out here. Must have done so.
Sophie had not liked the young man’s attitude. The way he had kept his foot in the door when she’d tried to close it. And Howler had not liked the way he had pushed the door open, causing Sophie to lose her balance and fall. Sophie heard the snarl, saw a blur of grey leaping over her, and called out. But she’d been too late, her voice too weak to overpower instinct.
Fortunately, Sophie was used to dealing with blood. And the body was small. She and Howler had found it relatively easy to drag into the old root cellar out behind the house. But she knew that would not be the end of it. Someone would miss Herbert Pembleton. That was his name, she’d discovered, when she’d looked in his camera bag. And someone would come looking for him. And she would have to decide what to say. Though a person might be excused for killing on the grounds of self-defence, or even the defence of a loved one, humans would not forgive a wolf for killing a member of a so-called superior species. Sophie could not allow herself to imagine what Howler’s fate would be. The death of any animal bothered her. But this would be too much to bear.
Sophie was a vegan partly because she saw other life forms as equal to hers, but mainly because she thought the playing field had become too uneven. She had seen humans shoot wolves and caribou from helicopters. And her father-in-law had told her about the abattoir where he’d been forced to work to support his family when they first immigrated. She had no quarrel with those who continued to eat meat, provided they cared enough to ensure the animals had been raised on a free-range farm. And fish, if they could find anything edible swimming free in the polluted rivers and lakes. But no farmed fish.
She had once rented a cabin on the shores of Pohjanlahti, the Gulf of Bothnia off the coast of Finland. All night she had been kept awake by a strange, frantic splashing. In the morning she’d paddled out, and discovered a fish farm with thousands of desperate captives struggling to escape. She had been surprised to see panic in the eyes of a fish. Until that time, she had never really thought of sea creatures as having feelings, but she hadn’t forgotten that look, and had never been able to eat fish again. Her real quarrel, though, was with people who killed, or imprisoned and “trained” wild animals for human entertainment. Thinking of all the animals who had died at the hand of humans, she took one final, vicious sweep with the brush, and flushed the last bucket of pinkish grey water down the toilet.
She had just put the kettle on to boil when the phone rang. It startled her. Who could be phoning at this time of day? It was unusual for Sophie to get calls from anyone other than Yasmin, and Yasmin never phoned after dinner because she knew that Sophie went to bed early. She realized she hadn’t eaten dinner this evening, but still, the hour was late. It must be after nine. She felt weak as she pushed herself out of the chair and tried to hurry across the room to stop the infernal ringing. Her hand shook as she lifted the receiver. Her voice sounded hoarse and weak to her own ears as she spoke into the despised piece of plastic that had interrupted so many pleasant moments of life.
“Auntie Soph?” Yasmin said. “Are you okay?”
“Absolutely fine,” Sophie responded. “Why do you ask?”
“You sounded a bit shaky, that’s all. I was just wondering . . .” Yasmin’s voice trailed off. She knew that Sophie hated the idea that she might need someone to look after her. She paused, then she continued. “There’s supposed to be a blizzard tonight. I was worried about you. Wondered if you’d like to come out to my place for a couple of days.”
“Don’t be silly, Yasmin. You know how I love blizzards. Some of my best memories ever are from times when I’ve been snowed in. And I have everything I need here. It would be fine with me if nobody ploughed me out until Spring. I have both the phone and the internet if I want to get in touch with the outside world.”
“Internet! Does that mean you’ve figured out your new computer?”
“Of course. Piece of cake! You worry too much. Everything is fine out here. Enjoy your life while you can,Yasmin. A good blizzard may mean a day or two off work for you. Just have fun. And don’t worry about me. Howler and Eliot are here with me. The Three Musketeers. We can take on anything life throws our way.”
Yasmin laughed. “Well that’s good news, because life may just be throwing a PhD candidate your way. I’ve done my best to head him off, but Cindy says he’s been nosing around the Post Office, and she’s afraid he may have got your address from the mail carrier.”
“Thanks for the warning. I’ll keep an eye out for him. But, as I said, blizzards have always been good things in my life. And I have a feeling this one is on my side too.”
“I love your attitude, Auntie Soph. But I’ll call you again tomorrow, anyway, just to make sure everything is okay.”
As Sophie hung up the phone, she looked out the window. The storm was moving in. She wished she had thought to ask Yasmin that young man’s name.
DOROTHY SJÖHOLM is a word junky who lives in Barrie, Ontario with her husband and their very spoiled husky. Her stories and poems have appeared in journals and anthologies in Canada and Great Britain, including The Antigonish Review, Lichen, Jones Av., Cede, Airforce, and Aesthetica. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC.