Seb inspected a pheasant, pulling one limp wing back carefully with his arthritic fingers. The birds were leaner than he had hoped they would be. Matt was lifting wild turkeys from the van by the legs and slinging them carelessly onto the cart. Seb absent-mindedly stroked the wattle of the largest turkey with his thumb and from the corner of his eye caught the look Matt cast him.
‘I’ll be in Alabama soon,’ Matt said. ‘Lot of wild dogs up there, if you want me to trap you one. I’m going for hog, and any quail I can get. I been told it’s slim pickings, but I won’t charge you any more than I did last season. We’re friends, after all.’
‘Sure.’ Seb licked his lips, which were suddenly dry. ‘I’ll take some quail.’
There was silence again, punctuated by the padded thuds of birds landing on the cart.
‘But why you think I want dog all of a sudden?’ Seb asked. ‘You think my boudin’s got dog meat in it? ‘Cos you know it don’t.’
Matt shrugged. ‘I think you have your reasons,’ he said eventually, wiping off his hands on his corduroy pants.
‘What fuckin’ reasons?’ Seb asked indignantly. He was surprised by the tremble in his own voice. ‘What the hell are you talking about, Matt?’
Matt slammed the door of the van and looked him square in the face, which never failed to make Seb feel uneasy. Matt had strong, pleasant features – a full, carefully-clipped moustache and powerful brow – but one of his ears was slightly higher than the other and his thick-framed glasses sat permanently askew across the bridge of his nose, giving Seb the idea that Matt was always looking at him sideways.
He gestured toward the superette with his forehead. ‘You got time?’ he asked.
Seb dragged the cart round to the back door. The squeals of the pigs grew louder as they passed the slaughterhouse, then died down again as they entered a rear door to the market where the freshly-slaughtered meat was prepared. Seb had just put new fluorescent bulbs into the fixtures overhead, and the steel counters gleamed coldly in the hard, clean light.
Seb began lifting the turkeys onto hooks. His face was drawn tight.
‘You want to tell me what this is about?’ he asked eventually.
‘Aw Seb, come on,’ Matt looked away, embarrassed. ‘You know what it’s about. Half of Eunice knows. Hell, half Louisiana probably knows by now. You went and got some creole voodoo shit into your head when you was in New Orleans, didn’t you?’
Seb was silent. The birds were lined up along the wall now like a firing squad. He crossed to the rack, plucked a cleaver from it and began to sweep the blade back and forth across a whetstone. The knife winked brightly at him with each movement of his wrist.
‘I went to New Orleans to see a doctor,’ he said.
‘People talk, Seb,’ Matt said, ‘and they been saying you’re gone strange. Half a dozen people saw you burning some awful, stinking heap of crap in your backyard…’
‘That was just garbage,’ Seb interrupted, his voice rising above the high-pitched shick of steel on stone.
Matt ignored him. ‘And Alf’s wife said you had so many candles lit one night she honest to God thought the house was burning down. And others say they come in here and you look like you ain’t sleeping or eating. You’re like a zombie, Seb. I can see that with my own two eyes.’
‘I don’t know what any of this has to do with any dogs.’
Matt sighed in a wounded way and drew his hand over his moustache.
‘Aggie saw you kill that little stray, Seb.’
Seb dropped the knife on the counter with a clatter that resounded off every surface in the room and left a ringing like tinnitus in Matt’s ears.
‘I don’t know what the hell Agnes was doing hanging round the water two in the morning,’ Seb mumbled.
‘That ain’t the point. The point is that she saw you cut that mutt’s throat in the woods by the lake all alone in the middle of the goddamn night. Now you tell me, why would a man who never hurt so much as a mouse in his life if he could help it go ahead and do a thing like that? Unless you’re starting to lose your fuckin’ mind. And as someone who cares about you I hope that is not what’s going on here.’
Seb’s long, sinewy arms hung heavily at his sides. Arthritis was beginning to draw the fingers of his right hand together, and he knew that one day his whole hand would contract and his fingertips join over the palm in a useless claw because he had seen it in his father. It was with this hand that he reached into the pocket of his butcher’s apron and drew out a small, leather-bound book. He placed it on the counter and slid it across to where Matt stood.
Matt picked it up gently and turned it over in his hands. It was a combination of French and some other language he didn’t recognise and couldn’t decipher. There were stains here and there and strange pictures on some leaves and much of it was written in a long, looping cursive. When he riffled the pages with his thumb they smelled of Cajun spices, and smoke, and death.
‘Well, shit.’ Matt tossed the volume onto the table and stared at it. The leather left a kind of unpleasant oily film on his the pads of his fingers, like the grease on turkey feathers. He rubbed them together idly.
‘I don’t know what that book’s been tellin’ you,’ Matt said, as gently as he could, ‘but it won’t bring her back, Seb. I promise you, it won’t. Louise is gone.’
‘I know that,’ Seb snapped. ‘I just wanted to see her again. Just one more time. But in any case it don’t work.’ He turned away so Matt wouldn’t see the fat tears rolling down his face. He swiped at them with the sleeve of his white coat.
‘Killing that dog was the hardest thing I ever had to do,’ he murmured, ‘but I’d do it again to just be able to talk to her. I’m losing my mind without her, Matt – matter of fact I think I might already have lost it. But I would kill a bear with my own two hands to see her. If there was even a small chance.’
‘What about a wolf?’ Matt asked quietly.
Seb turned around and met Matt’s eye through his crooked glasses.
‘What did you say?’
Matt crossed to where Seb stood and handed him back the book.
‘Now look,’ he said, ‘I’m not saying I believe in this crap, but I do know a little about it, don’t ask me how. And I just thought, shit, a pig probably wouldn’t do it, but a mutt can’t be much good either. A wolf’s got to be better than a dog, right? I got a friend who traps in New Mexico, and he owes me a favour. He can get one, if anyone can.’
Seb drew his arthritic hand across his stubbled head, closed his eyes and thought.
‘How much?’ he asked.
Matt shook his head. ‘I’m not doin’ it for money.’
‘Then why are you doin’ it?’
‘Just promise me,’ Matt said, placing his hand tentatively on Seb’s vast shoulder, ‘that if the wolf don’t work, you’ll stop all of this, and just let her go.’
Seb’s fingers ached. He massaged them with his left hand.
‘All right,’ he said, finally. ‘All right.’
Seb’s wounds kept him awake at night. They were turning from wounds into scars, and the slow healing process, the growing-over of new skin, drove him crazy in the darkness. He lay awake, tried to ignore the relentless itching, and thought.
His life had been predictable until the day Louise died. Louise was tough as old leather and loathed complaining in both herself and others, so she didn’t tell anyone she was in pain until the pain had spread throughout her entire body and she could no longer walk. The cause of the pain was an aggressive and rare kind of bone cancer which, in just under two months, ate up almost everything that was left of her. Seb watched his wife of thirty years transform overnight into a strange, wasted creature he didn’t recognise, and then he watched her die. It was July when Seb first noticed his wife struggling to get out of her easy chair, and by late September and the start of deer season she was dead.
Seb had not gone to New Orleans seeking a witch doctor. He had gone to see a spiritualist, a man who said he could communicate with deceased relatives and friends. He wanted to ask Louise why she had not told him about the pain when there was still time to do something about it. He obsessed over this in the dark. If he had not ceased to touch her, would he have felt lumps or swellings? If he had still sometimes seen her naked, might he have noticed the increased prominence of her ribcage, the way those malignant bones jutted out beyond the confines of her skin as if proud of the mutiny they were committing? He was tormented not by Louise having died, but by the idea that he could have saved her life.
Seb’s mind grew foggy. He was clumsy in work. He worried about losing fingers to cleavers and machinery, and longed to lose them at the same time. He hallucinated, sometimes seeing Louise in her easy chair when he went downstairs in the night for a glass of water, sometimes in bed next to him when he rolled over at dawn, sometimes standing in the door to the slaughterhouse as if it were the gate of heaven itself. Finally, Seb decided to take the trip to New Orleans. He had, in some secret part of himself, hoped that he would find personal healing. Perhaps he would even find God.
He did not find God.
It was in the early hours of Sunday morning that Matt came. Seb sat up in bed as headlights illuminated the room and instantly recognised Matt’s van idling in the driveway. He dressed, tugged on his shoes, grabbed an old duffle bag by the bedroom door and was outside before Matt killed the engine.
He climbed into the passenger seat of the van and peered through the cage into the back. It was too dark to see.
‘It’s sedated,’ Matt said. There was a long, uneven cut extending from the corner of his mouth up to his ear. He looked exhausted. ‘You wouldn’t believe what I have been through with this fuckin’ creature.’
Seb’s hands were shaking. He fumbled with his seatbelt.
‘We have to go the cemetery,’ he said.
‘Are you fuckin’ nuts?’
‘I don’t know that it’ll work anywhere else and I only have one shot.’
‘How about the lake?’
‘I was seen there last time,’ Seb snapped, ‘by your dumb-ass sister.’
‘What if he escapes?’ Matt touched the cut on his face gingerly. ‘I mean, Jesus Christ, we can’t let this bastard loose on the town.’
There was a heavy silence.
‘All right,’ Seb said, finally. ‘Take me to the superette.’
By the time Seb had unlocked the slaughterhouse the wolf was awake and thrashing groggily in the back of the van.
‘I don’t want any part in this,’ Matt insisted, ‘but no way in hell can I leave you here alone with this thing.’
Seb cast a large circle on the sawdust-covered floor of the slaughterhouse with preserving salt. Matt looked on with a mixture of curiosity and disgust as Seb fished a long, unwieldy knife, and the leather-bound book, out of his duffle bag.
‘Shit,’ Matt said, ‘this is for real, isn’t it?’
As Seb spoke the words of the incantation for the final time a profound sense of calm came over him. It was strange, but he suddenly felt that if he lay down he would sleep deeply and soundly, right there on the killing floor.
Matt re-appeared, dragging the trussed and tightly-muzzled sacrificial animal by a length of rope. It was smaller than Seb had imagined it would be. He had never seen a wolf up close, and he had imagined it as a majestic beast, but it was a mange-ridden thing with sunken yellow eyes. Seb felt the same nauseating wave of pity he had felt toward the dog. He forced it down inside himself.
They tethered the wolf to an iron rail. It growled and thrashed and threw itself against the rail and its hind legs buckled repeatedly. Eventually, Seb drew the knife and began to roll back his sleeves.
‘You can go,’ he announced.
Matt didn’t move.
‘You have to leave now,’ Seb said, baring his scarred forearms.
‘I can’t,’ said Matt. He was pale.
‘Go!’ Seb shouted.
Matt looked from Seb back to the wolf back to Seb.
‘Fine,’ he said, eventually. ‘But I’m waiting in the van.’
It was cold in the slaughterhouse and Seb’s arthritic hand ached. With some difficulty, he pushed the blade into his left arm. It went deeper than he had intended. Blood came forth in a hot gush. The blade slipped from his grasp, and as he bent down he saw his own blood forming puddles at his feet, clotting in the sawdust. He struggled to pick the knife back up.
A constant, low growl rumbled in the throat of the wolf. Seb took deep, gulping breaths, then seized the rope with his blood-slicked left hand and gripped the knife in his throbbing right. The animal tried to snap at him, but the rope that bound its jaws held fast. Then, as if it had changed its mind, it began to whine pitifully. Seb silently begged its forgiveness and the forgiveness of whatever God might still deign to listen to him. But it was time. Summoning all his strength, he thrust the knife into the wolf’s throat.
Blood shot forth from somewhere deep beneath the fur. The wolf’s eyes bulged and it juddered, then fell. An awful, gurgling moan filled the cavities of Seb’s skull.
He waited. He felt lightheaded and hot. He was still bleeding, but this mattered little. The seconds ticked by and the wolf continued to cling to life. He waited.
Seb’s heart stopped. It was Louise’s voice. He twisted painfully round, seeking her, but the slaughterhouse was empty.
‘Louise?’ he called, panicking. ‘Where are you?’
‘Seb?’ Her voice rose toward him again. He felt sick.
‘I don’t know where you are!’ Seb shouted, suddenly furious. Tears were pricking his eyes.
‘I’m right here, Seb.’ The voice was close – too close. Seb’s felt suddenly cold. He looked slowly back to the wolf. It was still alive, and its burning eyes were fixed on his. They were human. They were his wife’s eyes.
Seb frantically loosed the rope around the wolf’s jaws. Its tongue lolled out over yellowed teeth. It panted weakly.
‘Louise?’ Tears rolled from his eyes. ‘Is that you?’
‘Where am I?’ the wolf whimpered. It spoke in Louise’s voice.
‘I need to ask you something,’ Seb said urgently. He was holding the wolf’s head tenderly with both hands. Blood poured from its throat over his trembling arms and across the floor. ‘I need to ask you about the pain.’
‘The pain,’ Louise repeated, faintly.
‘Why didn’t you tell me about the pain?’ Seb urged. He could feel the animal dying in his arms. He pressed his face into its neck, inhaling the scent of ammonia and rotted meat. ‘I could have helped you.’
‘No, Seb,’ Louise whispered. ‘You couldn’t. There was nothing you or anyone could have done.’ The wolf’s eyes rolled in their sockets, then shut. Seb buried his face in the burning fur and sobbed.
Dawn reached them, then. A grey half-light crept across the floor of the slaughterhouse and entered the salt circle, and Seb felt suddenly as though he were outside his own body. His forearms ceased to itch, and the pain in his arthritic hand fell away as water slides off bird feathers. He tried to sit up but found he could not. He tried to flex his fingers but found he could not. His tongue lolled from his mouth and his abdomen loosened as his whole body went suddenly slack. It was like the nerves that tethered his body to his brain had been cut. He watched the tide of his blood advance slowly across the slaughterhouse floor and felt a sensation of weightlessness that he had never known before.
Finally, when Seb knew for certain that he was dying, the wolf spoke again. It drew up its long, matted head and unhinged its jaw. The movements were jerky and unnatural, like the twitching of a marionette. Like something possessed. And whoever now spoke to Seb from the throat of the dead beast, it was not Louise.