Howls echoed through the night. The village lay frigid and silent in the moonlit valley. A soft glow emanated from some homes, ours among them. Nobody heard the padding of paws until panicked bleating rang out, followed by hungry growls.
“Wolves,” my mother said in a hushed tone.
The wolves had come down from the mountains. The pack snarled and yipped as they loped, eager for another easy meal.
Through the safety of a window, I watched them march purposefully under the glow of the full moon. A mangy wolf, maw white with age, sniffed, flipped his tail, and raised his head. His haunting howl produced a visible jet of steam in the chilly air. Others bolted from the shadows to accompany him. A younger wolf bowed to the alpha. They joined in a chorus of yips and yowls. The sound terrified me as it resonated throughout the village and sliced far into the night. Birds abandoned their nests. Baying dogs turned, tucked their tails, and fled.
The black and gray predators circled the house, trapping us inside.
In the morning, mother gripped my hand, tugging through the barn, over rough dirt toward the fresh carcass of one of our sheep. Claw and teeth marks scarred its face and flanks, pieces of blood-stained fleece lay scattered about. The poor animal’s entrails spilled from a ragged gash in its belly, the pink tongue lolled limp and chewed from its muzzle. “This,” my mother whispered, her breath tickling my ear, “is what wolves do.”
I looked away, but she pushed my head back. “See these paw prints. Wolves will stop at nothing to kill, especially when they are hungry. You have to be careful, my son.”
In the years that followed, the wolves morphed into the shapes of human predators. These intruders brought a new kind of terror. Where the four-legged wolves left shredded livestock, the two-legged left the charred remains of our fellow men. Some of our people resisted.
I joined the rebels. We chose the high mountains’ freedom.
It was our turn to hunt. We traveled in packs from the shadowy heights, striking our enemies down one by one, raiding the camps of these intruders. As I dug shallow holes along the roadside and lined them with explosives, a sense of power sparked within me. I was no longer one of the hunted sheep. Now, I was an alpha wolf — in charge, confident, standing tall, and tail high.
One day, my camp leader assigned me a target to kill: a female spy who worked in a cafe in a nearby village. Traditionally, a man would never harm a woman, but in war there are exceptions. Fellow rebels had died because of information the spy had disclosed to the enemies.
The scarlet-hued twilight painted the snow on the tree limbs shades of dusky pink as I waited to hike down to the village. The onset of night spread like long trailing fingers through the forest. In the distance, sheep grazed in the meadow.
I crept forward, leaving footprints in the light snow. The cold numbed my fingers, while a lone dove murmured in the thick pines. Cooing, it flashed blue feathers before flying away.
As I entered the village, the rustle of woodland creatures gave way to the clop of horses through muddied streets. Memories of my early life flooded back, tarnished with hatred. The blood of my friends had stained the dirt along the sides of these roads. The enemies kept their heads as mementos. The vile memory of the acrid stench of their decaying bodies mingled with the mountain mist.
I slunk from doorstep to doorstep. My commander had described a thatched-roofed hut. As I approached it, laughter rang from the lit windows.
The worn wooden door creaked on its hinges as I pushed inside.
Villagers crowded the cafe, laughing and joking together. The ceiling lamp’s dim illumination and trails of cigarette smoke made it hard to see their faces.
Cutlery clinked; mutton crackled and sizzled. The homey scent of meat frying in cast iron pans intermingled with the aroma of bread baking in the clayoven. People huddled together like sheep. They paid no attention as I wove my way through the tables. Their gossip kept them busy.
My friends and I visited here once way back when my country was free. I gazed around the room, at the same chipped chairs and tables, discolored from years of use and rough scrub-downs. The rowdy gathering resembled the social life of my youth.
I stepped forward, a young wolf on the prowl.
A sweet melody floated from the kitchen — so foreign, yet familiar. My prey was unaware of approaching death. I took a seat on one of the few stools and drummed my fingers on the countertop. A woman working in a place for men was proof of how our culture had changed. How these new invaders had beaten us down with false hopes and dreams, to have us live more like them.
Seconds later, a waitress pushed through the door. A few curly wisps of chestnut hair escaped her tight ponytail to frame her round face. Blue, almond-shaped eyes fixed on me, made me think of my lost love — the love of my youth gone forever in the days of war.
Her… it was her.’ I touched my heart to calm the beating. She was the spy — the description matched.
“Welcome!” She smiled, leaning towards me, and resting her elbows on the table. Food spattered her blue dress, and her cuffs were wet from dish soap.
“What can I get you?” she asked in an accent that was no longer her own.
I glanced at her elegant fingers with purple-enameled nails, and then at my own scarred etched hands. I remembered the warnings about female spies, and anger replaced my brief attraction to her.
“Mutton stew with rice,” I said.
The locals dipped sugar lumps into their cups while sipping their tea. I remained anonymous on my stool at the counter.
What will they do if they identify me? Will they attack and fight over the reward on my head? Will my head become a trophy on the wall? Will she join them?
A quiet voice inside me whispered, “Wait and listen.”
When she put a plate of stew before me, I didn’t lift my eyes from the table.
“I don’t bite,” she said.
I glanced up. Her empty eyes belied her happy tone and attempted humor. Something else in her expression said, “Men like you come and go.”
She tilted her head and smiled, showing pearly teeth. “Your rice plate is coming up.”
I caught sight of her slim, unscarred hands again and longed to touch them.
Instead of going back into the kitchen, she washed dishes in the small sink behind the counter. She sang as she dried a plate. The tune was familiar. Had I known the words, I might have sung along.
The cafe’s door opened and two young, clean-shaven men entered, bringing the chilly outside air in with them. Their gaze lingered on me.
Do they know me? Are these the people for whom she is spying? I grasped the hilt of the dagger concealed beneath my shirt.
The waitress led them past, into the kitchen. Fear was an incessant buzz in my head. They would reward her for selling me out. A cash reward would lift her out of poverty.
The kitchen door opened. My heart pounded as I reached for my knife. The men laughed at something the waitress said. One chewed on a chunk of bread as they threaded their way back to the cafe’s entrance.
“Do you need anything else?” she asked.
Even knowing she was my enemy, it was hard to keep from looking at her.
“Would you like some tea?”
I nodded, and she headed to the kitchen.
Should I kill her? It would serve the spy right for consorting with scum. Although my mother, long dead now, would condemn me if I butchered a woman.
Her blue eyes sparkled as she returned with a cup. “Best tea in town,” she proclaimed.
I balled my fists and mumbled a curt, “Thank you.”
She gave an awkward smile and then walked away.
I focused on the people around, noticing that most had dirty shoes, plain clothes, and weather-beaten faces. I didn’t know these people, not the way I had known my friends — those who would never again sit in a place like this or listen to a sweet melody, my companions who had been jailed, tortured, and murdered, who would never taste their favorite foods or sleep in a warm bed at night.
She must die today with a hollow cry; this is what we do to traitors.
I remembered the day we executed a spy. The entire camp encircled the traitor like a pack waiting for its prey to falter. An event like this was a treat, and dealing retribution attracted nearly every fighter in the compound. The spy’s shirt hung, ripped and stained, his arms pinned behind his back, bound by a dirty rope.
“Spies must die,” our commander said as he held a knife up in front of the spy’s face. We jeered and hooted. With a flick of the blade, he sliced into the spy’s neck. It would not be an easy death, not like a pistol shot to the head.
The traitor stumbled. The blood left a red line as the wounded man ran. He begged for the quick death by pistol. The pleas echoed from the walls surrounding the crowd. Everyone cheered.
Our commander circled the spy then stopped in front of him. He held the bloody blade aloft for all of us to see.
“Death is the price for treason!” he shouted.
His second cut was deeper, and the spy collapsed. He fell, his gasping breath like the last of a slaughtered sheep. His feet thrashed and beat the ground as if running. The sound drummed up shouts of glee that drowned out our clapping. It was more than fifteen minutes before the man stopped moving. We drifted away, seeking the warmth of our cook fires. I had no appetite.
The waitress wandered around, said goodnight to the men as she picked up any remaining glasses, and peered out the nearest window before closing it.
I waited until the last customer paid his bill and slipped away into the night.
I would take my time slaying her, like the wolves that had killed my sheep all those years ago. Her pink tongue would loll from her mouth, her belly ripped apart and steaming in the cold night air, her blood slowly seeping into the dirt where she belonged. It was the punishment a spy deserved. It was my one purpose, the essence of all I’d become.
Her feet padded across the floor. I stiffened as my prey approached. The dagger was warm and sticky in my palm.
My muscles tightened ready to strike. My focus shattered as the cafe door flew open to laughter accompanied by eight tiny feet bouncing into the room.
“Mother!” the four children shouted.
They ran to the waitress, wrapping their arms around her as she kissed their heads and cheeks. They chattered happily, telling her stories about their day. Memories of my own mother jumbled together with the scene in front of me. I thought of how she had cared for me and prayed for me. I watched this mother, laughing and praising her children.
The woman directed a smile at me while waving her children to a table.
“Sit and sing for me, my moons, while I bring your food,” she said.
Their sweet voices filled the room, a familiar tune about a boat crossing the sea. She carried a pot, a ladle, and bowls for their supper. Her voice rang out as she joined them.
I imagined my mother beside me, talking with me during dinner, rice sticking to my face as I shoveled in spoonful after spoonful.
After they finished eating, I pulled up a chair and joined them.
“Where is your father?” I asked the eldest boy.
“Wolves took him in the mountains,” he replied.
“Human wolves,” his mother said looking me in the eye. Did she know why I was there?
My stomach tightened. “Why?”
“Because he refused to join them,” she gave me a hard glance. “They took him away, up to the mountains, killed him, and sent his head to us. Now I must work hard so I can feed my children. I come to the cafe early in the morning and leave late at night. Every night I ask one last customer to stay here until my children finish their dinner. And you kept sitting without my request. Thank you.”
“Do you see that red sky in the evening?” one of the small girls spoke. “That is my father’s blood.”
The child’s words cut like daggers to my heart. My breath caught in my throat. I stood and turned away before she could see the pain and sorrow etched on my face. Without a word, I settled my bill and headed towards the door.
“Wait,” the mother’s voice stopped me. She pulled her shawl from the back of one of the chairs and handed it to me. “Take this. It’s cold outside.”
A howl echoed in the distance.
“Are you not afraid of the howling?” I asked.
“Only the howls of humans scare me.”
“How do you know them so well?”
“Because I’ve been close to them.”
“Close?” I looked at her, not quite understanding.
“You know they kidnap the beautiful women and present them to their commanders.” She looked down, appearing to study her hands.
“But they are very religious people.”
“Yes, they are, but they have their own interpretation of religion. They force girls to sign a marriage contract and then divorce them in the morning. Their smell churns me every day.” Her voice sounded distant.
Melancholic wind hummed through the doorway, caressing my face. I pressed my eyes closed for a moment then stepped into the street.
The mountains no longer called to me.