The Mother Thief

By Leah Erickson


"There. A beautiful crane. See him flying? Look at his wings! Now, it's your turn."

Small pink fingers lifted up a sheet of paper, colored black on one side and white on the other. Grace watched from across the room. Her heart constricted.

"Origami is the science of the practical," murmured the woman interviewer who sat with her at the child-sized table. "And then, there is the Eastern symbolism. Crane, cat, fish, dragonfly….so much is integrated. That's why we teach it in our preschool."

Grace was listening, but not. She concentrated on watching her boy. Though he was facing away from her, she felt his consternation at this task. She could sense his stillness, the hairs bristling on the back of his narrow stalk of a neck. The feral alertness of a creature that is cornered and about to run. Or bite.

"So you say Logan has not attended a school previously?"

Grace shook her head. "No. I've kept him at home."

The interviewer scribbled down something in her notebook. "I notice his posture…Logan seems to thrust his head forward a bit. A kind of lunge. Has his pediatrician…"

"Yes. He's fine." She was trying to will those small fingers to fold on the lines.

Come on.

The instructor began to help him, showing him where to make the crease. She was getting too close to him and he didn't like it. She sensed the tremor of a growl deep within his little chest.

"And his teeth. I notice that they are rather unusual for a three year old. They look a bit pointed. Have you…."

"There is nothing wrong with him!"

The interviewer drew back. "Well, I didn't mean to suggest otherwise." She wrote something down, underlined it. "We are a very selective school, and we do screen accordingly." She stopped and looked up at Grace, removing her reading glasses. Her eyes were intelligent and piercing. "What led you to apply Logan to our program? What brought you here?"

Grace gazed around the room, thinking. The school was built to resemble a kind of ultra-modern barn on the outside, with stone and unfinished shingles. Inside, the room was spare and elegant. Skylights bathed everything in a dappled golden light. The space was free flowing, the lines beautiful. Tables of hand painted wooden blocks. Looms of vegetable dyed woolen yarn. Handmade cornhusk dolls. Down the center ran a trough fountain full of glistening stones, its murmuring ripples so peaceful. And all of these rough hewn little wooden chairs, empty, waiting…

She let out a harsh little laugh, put her hand over her eyes, and shook her head. What brought her here?

"Well…I…that is, Logan…"

What could she say? That this place was a kind of heaven to which many aspired but few could enter? That what was real and pure and true was so elusive, but here, a child could hold it in their hand? That she could pay cash on the spot, fund a new playground, build a greenhouse, if they would just let Logan in? That when you are the mother of a changeling, the world is working against you, and time is always running out?

But as she was gaping at the interviewer, trying to pull from her head all the right words, there was a crash from across the room, the whisper of scattered papers, and then a long lusty howl.

*

Grace had come to this place to be free.

She had wanted a new start. Or rather, she had wanted to get back to who she really was. As part of the divorce, she and Eric had sold the thriving environmental consulting firm that they had started together when they were young. Flush with cash, not knowing what to do next, Grace had purchased three acres of beautiful wooded land. Maybe one day she could make it into a wildlife refuge. But for the moment, she just wanted time and silence.

The house she had built there pleased her; it was contemporary, Japanese-looking, multilevel with folding glass walls. She installed solar panels on small canopies over her garden. There was a wide planked deck to sit on, where she could look down and see the woods, and further, the rugged mountains in the distance. Here, she played CDs of monastic chants. She started a compost heap. She watched sunsets that made her think of a great throbbing neon heart dissolving in the sky. At night, alone in bed, she could hear the strange, wild howling from the night creatures in her woods. The sound gave her goosebumps. It was so keening and emotive, and almost human. She thought of ghost stories of long dead Indian tribes, their ceremonies and rituals echoing out into eternity.

Sometimes her new freedom was just too much. After all the years of meeting with clients, reviewing data, writing reports, and giving speeches…everything was so still. Sometimes it made her panic. I should do something. Set up a fund. A small foundation. Find a project, test the waters.

For the time being, she roamed her woods. Her land abutted areas that were owned by the town. She argued constantly with Wildlife Services over their predator control program. It made her furious when she found animal traps on her property. Grace became known for being difficult and eccentric, eager to cause trouble. When she went for a walk, she brought cable cutters to disable any snares she found. Yes, I'm a crazy pain-in-the-ass rich woman and I own this land. Deal with it.

One day she found her way to her favorite place, a dark silent area down by the creek. She liked to go there whenever she was feeling overwhelmed by her thoughts. It was infinitely comforting to for her to smell the green smells, to hear the branches sway and the water ripple. It felt as though she were laying her head on some great mothering bosom, listening to the shift and ebb and flow of life itself. She let her body relax, and her eyes lazily explored the creek banks embedded with tree root and jagged mossy stone. As her gaze fell on the soft dry dirt near her own feet, she was shocked out of her meditative state at the site of a bare human footprint. A child's.

There were many of them. Some were tiny and perfectly formed. And some…were odd. The same size as a child's foot, but padded like a dog or a coyote. With claws. And some prints were not human at all, but looked like those of a wolf.

She stood for a very long time, frozen. The sight of those tiny footprints made the surrounding woods seem larger, darker, more encroaching. She thought of dark fairytales, stories of transformations, and the volatility of form. Magic and retribution. She wrapped her arms around herself and shuddered, feeling at once spooked and oddly electrified.

*

"Excuse me, you found what?" Eric asked over the phone.

"Footprints. Dozens of them, deep in my woods. Made by kids."

"Well, they were probably just hiding out and drinking. Were there beer cans and condoms?"

"No. I don't mean teenagers. I mean children."

"Well, I'm sure it's nothing heinous." His voice came crackling in and out. He was in the Mojave Desert, testing rockets at a spaceport. Now that he was no longer a businessman, he was growing out his hair and beard, looking like his younger self again. Keeping company with young people, too. How could he slip back into that identity so easily, while she was marooned alone in middle age?

"Well, I'm not freaked out by random children. What I'm saying is, I get the feeling they aren't exactly children."

Grace sighed and tried to think how to explain. She lay on a lawn chair, looking up at the stars. She and Eric called each other several times a week to talk about innocuous things. Since the divorce had gone through tensions between them had eased, and it was so much easier to talk. She found herself liking him again. Though lately she suspected him of seeing a new woman; she intuited it from certain pauses, certain evasions in his speech.

"Some of the prints look like some kind of transmogrified creatures! I swear to god. Part child, part animal….There were so many of them, gathered in a group. I hear them at night. Howling."

After a long pause, Eric said, "Hmm. Well, you were always an expert with the field guides. Sounds intriguing. Like those myths you like to read. The pagan gods and whatnot." He chuckled softly." You know, you sound happy, alone in your little house in the wilderness."

"I think I am," she answered, her jaw tensing as it did whenever she told a lie."

"It suits you. You love nature, but you hate society."

"That's not fair!"

"I'm just joking. Kind of. I don't think you liked my society, anyway."

"A-hem. Well. Tonight I'm going out there."

His sigh rustled like the night wind. She could hear the distance in all the miles between them. "Yes. Of course you're going out there. "

*

When evening fell, Grace dressed in dark clothing. She didn't carry a flashlight, only a small video camera with a night vision button. She could see the trail in front of her rendered in a soft green glow on the view screen. The chilly spring night held the aroma of damp earth and moss. It soothed her, gave her courage. If only she could live outside herself, roaming freely and mutely, in a world where only instinct was required. No words.

As she approached the creek , her steps cushioned by thick pine needles, she could feel that she wasn't alone. She began to panic. It could be that this was a foolish errand.

There were little noises, little barks and nips, a playful growling like puppies. She almost turned around and went back. She was alone. No one would hear her if she screamed. If something attacked her, it would be no one's fault but her own.

By force of will, she leaned her body forward, raising the little camera in her hand. What she saw made her gasp in wonder.

It was a group of child-like creatures. In fact, the smallest ones were children. But their eyes, reflected in the night vision light, did not seem human. There was something different there, maybe in the pupils. They hunched tensely, ready for flight, their posture and bearing unlike any child's she had ever seen. Though they were nude she couldn't tell if they were boys or girls. Their bodies were spare and beautiful, graceful as the engravings in a book of Greek fables. Some, the older, bigger ones were covered with coarse fur over their backs and scalps. They stood upright but their legs hinged backwards, like a canine's. Their faces jutted out snout-like in profile, and their ears were pointed and twitched alertly. Did they sense her?

And then, there were the wolves. Some lying on their sides, some sitting up, their heads held high and regal. She jumped when one of them let out a piercing howl, his ears lying flat, his white throat arched, face tilted to the sky. The children answered back in unison, in a chord that felt plaintive and lost. It didn't seem right for children to make that sound.

The rational part of her brain said, this isn't real, you're projecting it. But the beauty of what she saw stilled those thoughts. She could see right in front of her the miracle of evolution, from human to animal. One of nature's errant brushstrokes, mysterious and unknowable. She couldn't breathe, couldn't move, could only look at the strange and wonderful images in her view screen, rendered small and precise in the green lunar light, for her eyes alone.

*

Her daytime life became like a dream through which she floated listlessly. Nothing seemed consequential, or real. Like an addict, she centered her day around the times she could sit close in front of her large screen television, watching an endless loop of these night scenes she had recorded. It was not long before she had memorized their faces. She was moved most by the smallest one, a tiny boy hardly past babyhood who howled at the sky as though his heart were splitting in two. She watched him, entranced, drinking glasses of red wine even as sunlight poured in through the windows, the bright sounds of birdsong carried on the wind.

It was the nights that she lived for. On clear evenings, she didn't even bring the camera anymore. Her own night vision was sharpening as she adapted to nocturnal life. She easily made out their silhouettes. In the darkness she felt the life coming off of them, the pure, vibrational hum of the creatures. It was beautiful to watch the young ones play, scampering and wrestling by the water. It felt like standing at the gateway of a higher realm.

Always, she kept an eye out for the littlest one. He was the one she dreamed about most in the barren daytime world where she sat stuck in traffic or waited in line at the post office. He was so tiny, so perfect in himself. She felt an urge to scoop him up in her arms and lick his head like a mother wolf.

She reminded herself that this was impossible. But then, there was another voice in her head: Nature has its own authority. Boundaries are always shifting. These words repeated themselves like a mantra, in a voice not her own. It was this voice that made her happy.

*

There came a night when Grace felt particularly lonely and restless. Though she had intended to go to bed early with a book, she found herself once again drawn to the woods. It was a night speckled with bright stars. The creatures were grouped together in a circle, howling in turns. Most had their peaked profiles aimed skyward, moaning with such longing, it was all Grace could do to stifle the rise in her own throat.

And that littlest one… he couldn't be more than two or three. Such a small chunky body, with short chubby legs and a large round head! He was off on his own, carefully tottering forward to cup water from the creek to his rosy little mouth.

Grace couldn't help it. Her weight shifted forward. She had to come closer, just a little bit closer…

In a quick thrashing, in an animal heartbeat, the creatures sensed human presence and were gone, dashed away as if they were never there. The suddenness of it took her breath away.

Except for the littlest one who, on bandied legs, was stooped over, entranced by the moonlit ripples on black water. So small and vulnerable, defenseless. He bent down to drink, oblivious.

Close, so close. The boy was almost human. There was no reason she could not say he was a human. Why couldn't one thing be another, if she wanted it badly enough?

"Hello," she said, her voice soft as the murmur of water. "Don't worry. I'm safe. I'm one of you. I'm one of you. Come with me. Shhh."

*

Thief. Thief. I am a thief. The words reverberated in her head, giving her a pang of guilt, but also a small thrill of pleasure. She was bathing Logan, pouring the water over his head, working the suds into his scalp. The little skull, so round and perfect. His small tanned shoulders and the delicate shoulder blades moved her to a fierce protectiveness, so strong that it seared. Maybe, just maybe, her love was so strong that she could will him to stay the way that he was. A human boy.

And yet, it was undeniable. The change was coming. On that tender, sun-browned little back she could feel the bristly hairs growing in. There was the hunched posture. His ears were growing more elongated, and they twitched. The tiniest sounds could make him go still and alert, with a look in his eyes of preternatural focus. He was evolving slowly into a wolf.

It is my punishment. For being a thief.

Grace had never stolen a thing in her life. Never done anything remotely immoral. Well, she and Eric had been part of that "radical" environmental group when they were in college. Chained themselves to trees, broke in and set free those laboratory rabbits….but she was proud of those things. Because they were the right things.

But sitting in the bathroom, she no longer knew what certainty was. Because now she was a mother. And a thief. And desperate. Like a wild creature, she felt as though she herself were the one being hunted and cornered by the world.

*

The playground was bright and sun-dazzled. Grace sat on a bench, watching Logan as he played. Though the day was beautiful and the park was bustling with happy shouting children, Grace felt an undercurrent of foreboding. She sensed the interest of the other parents. Of course they were watching her. Already they had been asking her too many questions: How was the process of adopting from Russia? Did she think Logan's verbal skills would improve if he were around other children more? Did they do playdates?

She watched him as he darted excitedly to and fro. It was like he didn't even see the other children. And he didn't care about the slide shaped like an inchworm or the bobbing horsey rides or the low harnessed kiddie swings. He seemed excited just to sniff the air, smelling and sensing things unseen. His movements were smooth and stealthy. When she put his stubby little Velcro sneakers on him today she could feel the emerging pads on the bottom of his feet. She could feel the bones rearranging themselves, the sharp little claws that would not stay filed.

Grace put it all out of her mind and took him to the park. If she gave him all of the experiences of an all-American boyhood, if he had all the right things, if he was happy, maybe he would stay as he was. If she could only do things right.

She had told Eric nothing. In fact, they hadn't spoken in months. (And, he had started seeing someone. A twenty-five year old painter with dark bangs and large brown eyes. She wore her long braids in loops. She looked like a Viennese choirgirl.)

It was getting married that had been a mistake. They had been happy the way they were, before the wedding day with its costumes and pageantry, the sheer weight and burden of expectations. She had never been comfortable in the role of wife. People had looked at them strangely when they said they wouldn't burden the planet by having children. While she and Eric thrived in business together, they became stiff and unhappy when they were home alone. It was work that nourished her. Saving wildlife. Working on a book about Thoreau. Writing articles about the evils of agricultural corporations. All of these things helped her escape the unbearable tension of her married life.

But these days she rarely thought of the past. With pleasure she watched as Logan dug with his hands in the sandbox, his face intent, his pointed ears flattened to his head, his alert nose pressed down into the damp sand, so entrenched and happy it made her heart soar.

Although the sight of him brought her joy, another part of her couldn't stop thinking of antique photographs of children in carnival freak shows, those bleached 1930's images of bodies covered in hair or scale. The twisted malformed bones. The humanity in those eyes, so gripping after all these years. What kind of life could she really give this child?

As she was lost in these thoughts, another little boy approached Logan. He was around the same age, wearing camouflage shorts and a t-shirt with trucks on it. He was watching Logan with avid curiosity. Logan, tensing as he sensed the boy's presence, rose up and turned around to look. Sometimes Grace forgot just how different Logan really was from other children. The two boys, staring at one another, were like mirror images in height and dimension, even coloring. But while the little boy was affable, bright-eyed and inquisitive, Logan seemed set in shadow. He was absolutely still, his eyes fixed on the other boy, showing no emotion at all. He seemed to shrink into himself, gathering up his strength. And the little boy, oblivious, was coming too close.

Grace leapt up to carry her boy away.

*

The beautiful squares of black and white origami paper were scattered all over the gleaming wooden floor. The instructor, a stricken look on her face, held onto her forearm, which had started to bleed heavily from the puncture wounds. But Grace was too late to stop the bite, those sharp teeth sinking into soft flesh. Things seemed to move in slow motion. The classroom seemed to spin in circles. The interviewer dropped her reading glasses to the floor with a clatter and looked at Grace in horror, her eyes wide and her face drained of color. Grace, gathering her child up in her arms, ran, out the door and across the parking lot, ran faster than she thought she ever could, guided by animal instinct. She could only feel the adrenaline pumping through her veins as she panted, terrified, away from human eyes.

*

Eric, getting out of his car, seemed to be surrounded by an air of buoyancy. He somehow looked lighter than he ever did during their marriage. It was the first time she had seen him in eight months. His hair, though streaked with gray, was longish and tousled like a skateboarder's. His body looked lithe and loose-limbed, as though he had been doing yoga. He looked… happy.

It led her to the unsettling conclusion that being married to her had made him heavy and old and unhappy. Well, it had worn her down, too. When they were young they had wanted to save the world, but they had failed. Failure had hardened her. For years, bleary with fatigue, she had not known how to feel anything anymore.

Until now. She asked Eric to come over. Only he would understand that she finally found the answer. It was a wolf-child that had been her savior. But time was running out, and she didn't know what to do.

Eric, smiling, made his way smiling across her yard and gave her a kiss on the cheek as light as dander. She didn't know where to begin.

"What?" he asked, looking at her quizzically. "What is it?"

Without a word she led him into the house.

"What's wrong? It's not your mom, is it?" His smile vanished and he looked worried as they entered the living room.

The place was a wreck. Dirty dishes on the table and the floor. Window blinds broken and dangling, casting jagged shadows. There seemed to be chewed-away places on the chair legs. Large, ragged claw marks trailed down one wall. Grace had always been meticulously neat.

"What happened in here? Do you have a dog?"

She led him to into her office, to a small corner behind stacks of boxes that were full of business papers, records and statistics and data that they had thought were strong enough to defend the earth and all the wild things on it.

Logan was there, in his favorite spot, curled up and dozing. No longer would he allow her to put clothes on him, so now the ecology of his small body was plain to see. His back, his neck, and his scalp were covered with thick silver-streaked fur. The chubby toddler legs had thinned and lengthened, hinging backward so that the boy could spring-leap away from her when she tried to give him a hug. When the stumpy tail had begun to grow she had refused to acknowledge it, but now it was plumy and lush, defiantly there despite her wishes.

Eric stood, stunned into silence. He knelt down quietly, put out a hand but then hesitated and drew back.

"Oh, Grace. Oh Grace. What have you done?"

Gently, he reached out and touched the sleeping creature, laying a hand on one narrow hip. The torso and pelvis were still mostly human-shaped. So were the hands, which were still little pink starfish. But tufts of hair were beginning to cover the dimpled backs. And the claws were thick and sharp enough to be dangerous.

Eric shook his head and looked at Grace reproachfully. "You just…. You can't…." He motioned down to the child, wordless.

But then his expression changed. His face softened. A smile spread across his lips. He shook his head again, but this time in wonder. When he looked up at Grace again he looked joyous, conspiratorial.

"Oh, Grace. What have you done this time!"

She smiled back, hesitant at first, but then beaming. In the moment that passed between them, she remembered that long ago night in college, when they had freed the lab rabbits. Running stealthily out of the laboratory, each clutching a plastic kennel, feeling the soft thumps and scutters of the furry life within. They had laughed aloud. Their very veins had felt aflame with light and youth and love and the fiery intention to always do right in the world.

Now, middle aged and defeated, they smiled at each other, as the wolf boy dreamed away between them, oblivious.

*

It was the shoes that were hardest to look at. There had never been time for him to outgrow the sneakers and rugged little sandals, still small enough that she could cup them in her palm. And then there were the ripcord pants with patches ironed onto the knees. The sweaters in bold primary brights. The pajamas printed with dinosaurs wearing toothy, playful grins.

She put them all away in boxes. She should store them in the attic, or she could donate them to the Goodwill. But for now she couldn't bear to have them out in her line of vision. She also would have to do something with the Legos and toy cars and the tricycle, which he had never learned to ride. It had never occurred to her that his anatomy just wasn't right for peddling. How quickly she had forgotten that he wasn't, in fact, a little boy at all.

Now that his transformation was complete, she kept her distance. He roamed the length of the house on his silent paws, back and forth. His movement was silken and graceful, almost a glide. Though he was a very small wolf, with large paws and an oversized head, his eyes looked ancient and sun-bleached. He did not know her anymore.

In the night, he would dig and claw at the doors, whimpering and trying to get out, hearing the noises of his pack calling out from the woods. The first time he answered back with his own sonorous moon-howl, she knew that it was all over.

She and Eric had ended up making love on the living room floor on that last day. It felt different than it had during their marriage. This time, they couldn't control themselves. It was a kind of madness. They were trying to claw at each other, desperate to get through to what was underneath. As though what were underneath could be attained by sheer force of wanting.

Afterward, Grace felt exhausted and disoriented, as though she had washed up on some foreign shore, unsure of what she had just done. Eric's body was more fragile than she remembered it, the muscles going a little slack with age. She realized that they had always experienced life separately. And they always would.

Eric looked at her helplessly. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, don't cry," he said, stroking her hair until she was quiet again. After a while, holding her from behind, he whispered, "You know, we always idealized nature. But we were too young to realize nature is indifferent. Nature just doesn't care. It was an unrequited love. We got gypped."

"Gypped," she agreed, sighing. Then after a pause, she started to laugh. They both laughed. The whole thing felt so sad and absurd that they were consumed by laughter, even though her eyes were still wet.

She had stood at the window, watching Eric's car as it drove off. Then she remained there long after, unable to turn away. Outside the leaves were falling. Far off in the distance she could see a yellow school bus rolling silently down the country road. It was as good a day as any to set Logan free.

She opened the backdoor and propped it with a rock. She loved the fall, and the feeling of the autumn breeze on her skin. It reminded her of Septembers past. New school clothes and the scent of glue. She sat down in a chair, resolute and straight-backed. Looking forward.

She sat that way all day, still as a statue as the sun made its trajectory through the sky, and then darkness fell. At some point, Logan had gone. It had happened as easily as a boy could become a wolf, and that wolf could become a pair of eyes in the shadows. And then just a shadow. Now all that was left was a dream from which she could now wake.

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