Idaho Wolves

Kath Richards
2024 Fiction Spring Contest Winner

I’ve heard about dissociation, the way our minds can protect us from pain and trauma by removing us, at least mentally and momentarily, from a situation. It’s miraculous, really, the many ways in which brains can protect us. Defense mechanisms. 

My brain, I think, must not be so evolved.


I’m muttering as I dig, talking to him, talking to myself, trying not to look at the space behind me where he lies even more still than the trees standing around me. The sun is setting, all yellow seeped from the sky, but I have nowhere to go, so I dig on. 


I’ve long since abandoned trying to wipe the unending trail of snot from my nose to my mouth, which is dry from hanging open. My throat stings when I close my lips and try to swallow, but I don’t take a drink yet. 

I’ve been portioning my water, I only have what’s left in his bottle. 

I wasn’t smart enough not to drink mine down. My brain hadn’t warned me that I would need it, though I couldn’t blame it for not knowing.


I do my best not to look at him while I dig, and dig, and dig. After a while, I think I’m not digging at all, but instead dancing. There’s a routine to it, digging with my hands, digging with my water bottle, digging with sticks, digging until my nails are bleeding and the blood is thick and clotted with dirt. These are my props in the routine of moving earth from beneath me and beyond me until I have a crude rendering of a grave, at least six feet long, and as deep as me. 

My arms are numb, the ropes of muscle down my back burn from the dance, but I shovel until all I taste is dirt and my snot and the salt from my own tears. 

My eyes would be toast, crusted with sand, if not for all the tears. 

My watch dies when I’ve been digging for four hours. I throw it into my red hat. 


I keep going until the dark is so thick around me that I can barely see my work. I know I have to sleep or try to sleep, but he told me once there are wolves in these woods. Bears. Probably vultures, too—I don’t know, do vultures live in the woods or just on arid hills?

 I sleep in the hole. It’s not a question. If I sleep next to him I don’t know what will happen to me. To him. I don’t know what will happen. 


When the sky is blue again, I pull myself out of the hole, careful to keep my back to him. I catch a glimpse in my peripheral, though, and he hasn’t moved. 

There’s a can of peaches in my backpack I’d been saving for breakfast and I drink it down, chewing on the fruit with the grit of the dirt. I want to save the protein bar, but it’s not worth it. I need the energy, I think. There’s more digging to do. 


When the hole is done, I lie in it again for a long while and stare up at the leaves above me. A patch of light shines onto my cheeks and if I close my eyes I can almost pretend that it’s yesterday morning when we were just fine, holding hands over the center console, Sheryl Crow singing over the speakers. 

It’s a Sheryl Crow day, he’d said, because he always said this on Sundays. 


When it’s time, I tug him by a stiff arm towards the hole. 

I feel all of my pain, though I try to tuck some away. I don’t think my brain knows how because I’m experiencing everything in extreme focus. There’s a little blue bird, the bluest bird I’ve ever seen, and it’s sitting in a tree, watching. A breeze rustles leaves, my hands are covered in broken blisters, my lower lip is cracked down the middle, and my husband looks more dead than he did the last time I let myself look.

There are inhuman noises coming from me as I pull, and I don’t try to stop them, to keep quiet. No animal has come for us yet, and if they find us now, at least he’ll be somewhat safe in the massive hole I made. 

I don’t know how to lower him gently. His skin is so cold and alien that it’s all I can do to tug until he tumbles in. 

I squeeze my eyes shut and count to fifty before dropping back in and evening him out so he lays flat and face up. I get his wallet from his pocket, his cracked phone, a dime and a nickel. I leave his wedding ring. I don’t cross his arms over his chest, but I do drape his hoodie over his face. I do a bit of screaming. 


When it’s done, I curl up as small as my body will go on top of the grave. Tremors are singing through my fingers and arms. I don’t know if I’ll rest here for good or just for now, but I close my eyes anyway and imagine that the earth is warmer for him lying beneath me.  


When the car crashed, we rolled twice, then stuck the landing, held up by some trees. After a quiet, creaking moment, we fell further. My head smacked against the plastic dash and when I woke up, he was alive. I thought he might be dead, but that time he woke up after I shook him enough. 

Our car was on the ground, mostly in the right position, though the front end was like an accordion and the deflated airbags covered our laps like blankets. 

I pushed out of the car and crawled and retched and retched then I crawled to a tree and leaned against it while I caught my breath. He did too. His chest was hurting, he said, but he could walk. It would pass. 

We couldn’t call for help, his phone was busted and mine almost dead. Even if they did work there was no signal. We packed a backpack and went hiking for a road or a cabin or something, someone who could help us.

Later, we ate. He sprayed more bug spray on me and then we slept, our sides against each other. In the morning, he looked like he was sleeping. 


Now, I wake on his grave to the sound of sniffing. I tense at first, there’s a tiny pressure at my back, moving towards my neck, it’s an animal, I think. It’s good that I buried him when I did. Could be a bear, even, and if it is, I think I probably shouldn’t scare it. 

It might be okay if I did. Faster than starving to death. 

I relax, bit by bit. My eyes burn from all the crying I’ve done in the last day. I let a few more fall, a steady stream down my face and my neck, but I keep from shaking too much. 

The beast steps around me, its nose sniffing up my legs (it stops at my pocket, but there’s just a crushed antacid and my house key). Its feet aren’t that of a bear, but a wolf. The biggest damn wolf I’ve ever seen. I think it could fit my skull in its mouth in one chomp. 

I don’t mean to make eye contact with it, but I can’t look away, and as soon as its eyes meet mine it stills. 

It’s going to eat me.

Its eyes are green and round and locked on mine as it moves slow, so slow. I bet its teeth are massive, I hope I don’t feel it, I hope the first bite is right through the nerves in my brain that feel things. Would I still feel the grief? 

I’m wishing again that my brain would take me away from this, that I could view my body from anywhere but inside it, but I stay where I am and the beast’s nose wets my chin, my eyelids, my forehead, and after a moment, the wolf sits back. From behind it, two little ones. Babies.


I let the little ones sniff and lick my face until they get bored and start tumbling over each other like bowling pins. The wolf—their mother, I think—has laid down and watches. I push up to my forearm, then my hands, and I don’t know how many minutes it takes, but I’m sitting straight up and she just keeps watching me.

I think I might already be dead.


They want me to go with them. The mother walks a distance away from me and then returns. She circles around a tree and looks. I whimper over his body, I can’t leave him here, can’t she tell I’m protecting something?

She tugs on my jacket and rips through the fabric, and I cry more. She can’t understand me when I whisper what’s beneath me. I can’t go with her, I say. But when the mother licks my face, I push myself to stand and follow behind them. 


I walk with the family until we get to a cave where I sleep and the babies sleep too. We don’t meet up with any other wolves. It seems they are their own pack. Just themselves and now me, the intruder.


No matter how much I think about it, I can’t let myself starve. My self-preservation hasn’t been entirely shut off. My backpack is empty now, but the mother brings food. She doesn’t like when I try to cook it, so I’ve stopped trying to.  

Breakfast is a rabbit and berries.  

Lunch is fish.

Dinner is fish.

I eat as much as I can and give the babies the fish organs and spine to pick on. The mother gets me another, the fish bleeds over my hands as it dies. 



The kids want to play but their claws slice through the skin on my arm, which startles them. I cry while they lick the wounds. I wish I could boil water to clean it, but the wolves fucking hate fire. 

After a few days, the cuts scab, and then they heal without infection. 


I bathe in the river and they do too. I don’t know how far we are from his grave, but I think he’s still in there. 


I can live, I realize. But first, I have to survive.


When it’s time to move on, we find my car, the front end of it crunched, windows broken.

I tell them it’s mine, that this is how I came here. The little ones wrestle and the mother sniffs around. First matter of business I drink down two bottles of clean water, warm and tasting vaguely of plastic. It’s delicious. 

I find a sleeve of crackers in his duffle and share them with the kids. I throw the mother a couple of dried apricots and eat a few myself before storing them and the rest of the food that hasn’t spoiled in my backpack.
I strip and change into clothes that are so clean and soft they feel foreign against my skin. I’m swimming in his sweatpants and hoodie, but it’s cold at night, and I hate to shiver. I moan putting on a thick pair of socks. I trade my busted sneakers for the hiking boots I’ve had since high school. 

The kids play with empty water bottles that crunch under their teeth and paws. I get as much as I can from the car, my wallet, all of the loose bandaids from the glove box, the book he was reading, and the one I was. I pack my soft blanket, too, and the rolled-up sleep pad. All in all, it fills my backpack and the small duffle, which I sling across my chest. 


I don’t know how long I’m with the wolves, but the cuts from the babies have healed into pink scars and the babies are bigger now, heavy when they lean against me.

I don’t want to go back home. Out here, we are both dead, I think. Our families mourn us both. Maybe I’ve already had a funeral, or maybe they’re searching for me, and for him, but either way they know we are together. There’s a universe where we are still together. If I go back they will know that only one of us made it. 

The wolves will never say that the wrong one survived. At least, I haven’t seen it in their quiet eyes yet.


We do walk past his grave. I know it’s his grave because I left my red hat, dead watch still inside, both covered in a layer of dirt. I tuck the watch in my pocket and shake out the hat before putting it on.

I decide to mark the grave, a tombstone of sorts made of a pile of rocks and a few sticks. It’s pitiful. I’m afraid his fingers will peek out of the dirt, but they don’t. When it’s done, I vomit up my fish and wail and smack my fist on the dirt above him, and the wolves wait. The littlest of the bunch sits by me when I’ve worn myself out.


I need to be honest with myself and the wolves. I don’t think I’ll survive a winter. I am used to heated blankets and a cup of tea every evening. The fact I’ve lived this long is miraculous enough and due only to the family keeping me warm, keeping me fed, keeping me moving.

The leaves are turning yellow and I know it’ll be too cold for me soon. I have to find a town sometime and if I do, maybe it will be a small one, one where I can pretend my name is Samantha Jones and nobody will know any better. Maybe it will be close to the wolves. I wonder if I can recreate myself.


We find a road. Or well, we find a dirt trail. Tire marks. 

I stare until the mother yips and I follow.


I keep dreaming of the road. I wake up sweating sandwiched between the two kids, who I believe have names, only I can’t understand them. I call them both baby, and they speak only with their eyes and little sounds and howls. It’s difficult to breathe when I think I won’t hear them again. 

In the morning, I slide out from between them and stuff my feet into my shoes. Mother lifts her head, eyes following me, but she stays where she is. I hold out my hand and she licks it, rubs her face against it. 

I go before I can convince myself I could survive here. I pretend I can survive where I’m going. 


The walking is better than the digging, though it takes longer. 


There is a car eventually, a truck. The sound of a human voice makes me hiccup and cry and the man asks if I’m okay, if I’ve been hurt.  

How long have you been lost? He asks, and I grip his forearm like I might dissolve if I don’t.


He plays a Kelly Clarkson CD for me because his daughter used to like it. His car smells like the stale air freshener hanging from his rearview and I smell like shit but he doesn’t say anything. I eat pumpkin seeds until my mouth hurts.

He gives me a plaid blanket and we drive until dirt becomes pavement becomes highway becomes a little town in Wyoming.

Is it Sunday? I ask. I’ve been lost since a Sunday.

Thursday, he says, and I think he almost looks relieved. September 13th.

I laugh.
A Sunday in June, I say, and I laugh until I weep, and I think he cries too. 


They ask if I’ll go back for him, show them where he is. They found the car, but not him. I circle where I guess it might be on a map, and tell them about the pile of tombstones. 

When they go back again, they tell me they found him.


For a while, I say I don’t remember anything after the dig. People believe me, too. It was too traumatic, they say. The brain can do some miraculous things in the face of trauma. They can’t imagine what I had to do to survive, though. There are wolves in those woods.  


New people live in our old apartment, a couple with a baby.

My family packed all of our things, his clothes and my clothes and our can opener and CD collection, into boxes and put them in my parent’s garage. After a few weeks, I start looking through them. 

I don’t recognize my stuff. I keep asking if they added things by mistake, an old pink hoodie with a stain I don’t remember, a pair of sandals. They let me wear his clothes, baggy as they are, and they never say anything about it. 

When I look in a mirror, I hardly recognize myself either. My parents don’t say anything but I know I look different. It’s not just the weight or my hair once long now lightened by the sun and chopped into a bob—something about me is different. I’m a stranger to them and to me and to all of my belongings. 

Sometimes I catch my mom staring at me, and when I do, she wipes her eyes and kisses my head or my cheeks and makes me something to eat. She’s always wiping her eyes and cooking for me. 


I am sub-human, I think. A different, nonhuman version of myself, but alive. I keep reminding myself that I’m alive. I listen to music with my dad and sit in his office while he works, like I did as a kid. I like going with him because he doesn’t act like he’s mourning who I am, was. 

He says that people treat grieving people a lot like they do wild animals. Like they don’t want to get too close in case they’ll break or snap. He says it’s okay if I’m a little feral.


I’ve been getting into lino cutting. Making pictures of the woods or flowers or some animals. I am so damn bad at first, the prints are practically illegible, but my nephew is eleven and he says I’m getting better.


When I think it’s been long enough, that the wolves have indeed moved on, I say that I remember everything and it was a family that looked after me, a mother and her kids that live in the woods in a little hut without electricity or water. They have a stove, though, I tell them.

They didn’t want to come with me, I said, because they like their lives out there, but that’s how I lived so long. They believe me, though they don’t believe the family could be happier in the woods. Some want to look for them and I say go ahead. 

Tell them thanks for me, I say. If you find them, tell them.

Kath Richards lives and writes in Utah. She spends most of her free time working on romance novels, but also loves short fiction and poetry.

Artwork: “Lonesome” by Anne Anthony


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