Chinese Stories in English
The Wolf Pair
by Deng Yiguang
They were walking slowly through the snow flurries, he and she, a pair of wolves. He was huge and sturdily built, with ears pointed like knives and hard, strong teeth. There was a fiery spirit in his eyes. She, on the other hand, was small and delicate, with a black nose. Her eyes were always dewy, like deep blue pools overhung by a hazy mist brought on by a southern breeze. He was like a mountain, and she was like water.
Just now she’d screwed up, on purpose, and a rabbit with fear in its eyes had run away from right in front of them.
He’d taken her when she was still young. After that they depended on each other for survival and had lived together for a full nine years. Over and over again during those years, she’d pulled him from battlefields that reeked of blood. She’d pulled him to their out-of-the-way den in the hills while he was insensible from his many wounds, and had licked those wounds with her tongue, licked clean all traces of blood. She’d cleaned out the wounds and disposed of shotgun pellets or bits of his vicious enemies’ bones. Afterwards, when wind from the hills seemed to clear things out, she’d hunted down a deer or a badger and smeared greasy saliva on the wound for him. When she’d finished she’d lain down beside him, unmoving, all through the day and night.
But most of the time, he was the one who took care of her. Their life was a never-ending chase after food, and life-and-death struggles with their fellows for territory. They had to guard against attacks by competitors stronger and more vicious than themselves, and still at all times had to be on the alert against the malevolence of humans.
Sometimes he was just plain overcome with fatigue, tired of facing the challenges. But she acted like a malcontent troublemaker, constantly adding to the problems he faced aside from natural enemies. She was too curious and had an overly playful personality. She even thought it was fun to manufacture hair-raisingly perilous situations. He had to keep on fighting the environment as well as their mighty enemies. He’d get so angry, having to go to desperate straits time after time to save her from some threat. At such times he was like a majestic war god, and no opponent could stand up to him. His successes and glory were almost all created by her; if she weren’t so headstrong, he’d just be an ordinary wolf.
It was getting darker. He decided to get some food for the two of them as soon as possible, so they could satisfy their hunger.
It was very dark and snowing heavily. They were walking under these conditions towards a village with barely visible lights. Naturally there was no way they could have noticed the well.
It was a dried-up well. The villagers didn’t want snow to get in it. An old yellow palm-frond blanket had been draped over the mouth to keep the snow out, inadvertently making a trap.
He was walking in front and she was following behind, with maybe less than twenty paces between them. He didn’t have the slightest inkling; by the time he felt the suspicious emptiness under his foot, it was already too late.
At that moment she had been watching a snow-devil tossing around a broken-off pine branch like a dancing girl who couldn’t stop. Only when a dampened boom sounded from somewhere underfoot did she become aware that he had disappeared from her sight. She rushed to the edge of the well. He had passed out for a moment, but had quickly come to and had immediately understood his situation. He felt it wasn’t too serious. He had only fallen into a dry well, and he thought it was no big deal. He’d once been caught in a noose set by a hunter. Another time he’d been pinched between two slabs of ice flowing downstream and had been able to work himself free only after two full days. And once he’d met face to face with an injured wild boar; that time his entire body had been dyed red with fresh blood. He’d been through so much bad luck that he couldn’t count the times, but in end he’d always gotten out.
The well was like a big-bellied urn, broader at the bottom and tighter at the top. The walls had been chiseled smooth so there was no place to climb.
He wanted her to stand aside so he wouldn’t hurt her when he jumped out. And indeed she did stand back a few feet from the well’s mouth. Except when she felt like making mischief, she always did what he wanted. From the bottom of the well she heard him take a deep, fully confident breath; then two far-reaching, sharp scratching sounds, followed by the sound of something falling heavily.
He lay at the bottom of the well, completely covered by snow and mud. His jump had reached almost twenty feet, a truly astounding height, but he was still short by the length of his body. His sharp claws had scratched out two deep gouges in the frozen dirt of the wall. The gouges were dreadful to see, and at the same time deeply disappointing.
She crawled around the edge of the well mouth. At first she choked back her sobs, but then couldn’t stop from crying out loud. It’s all my fault, she said between sobs, I shouldn’t have let that rabbit get away, but he just laughed at the bottom of the well. He was amused by her tears. Just before dawn she left the well and went into the forest to search for food. She went a long way but eventually, under a tall, leafless oak tree, she caught a black grouse with a pointy beak that was almost senseless from the cold.
He chewed up that succulent grouse and gulped it down meat and bones together, with nothing left over. He felt a lot better and could continue his attempts to escape. This time she stayed at the edge of the well, no longer worried that he might injure her when he jumped up onto the perimeter. She lay prone on the rim and didn’t stop calling to him, encouraging him, giving him strength, urging him over and over again to jump. At the bottom of the well, separated by that hateful distance, he could see her forepaws sticking out ever so purposefully against the background of the gradually brightening sky. It made him feel an intense desire to leap higher and higher, out of the well, and embrace her with all his strength. But all his efforts failed.
She left the well when it was light and came back after dark. She struggled up to the edge, carrying a badger for him. In the bottom of the well he stuffed every last bit of that badger into his stomach, leaving nothing. Then he renewed his efforts to get out.
Sometimes she would leave the area, but then she’d come back. She always felt something miraculous could easily happen while she was gone.
While she was away looking around, she hoped that when she returned to the well he would already be standing there, exhausted and panting roughly, and smiling sheepishly at her. But he wasn’t. The next morning she would leave the well once more and disappear into the forest.
One night she came back to the well, bone tired. A whole day and she’d only caught a squirrel that hadn’t even had time to grow up yet. She was hungry, of course, but she saw he was hard at work down there in the well, busy to the point of exhaustion. Bit by bit he was digging out the frozen dirt from the side of the well, piling it up under his feet and trampling it until it was hard. He must have been at it a long time. All ten of his claws were split apart and bleeding profusely, so that the frozen dirt he’d clawed out was slippery with his blood. She was dumbfounded but soon understood; he wanted to raise the floor of the well to shorten the distance to the mouth. He was making a ramp to rescue himself.
She took over the work, to let him rest up. She scraped aside the frosty snow from around the edge of the well and loosened the frozen soil beneath it, then pushed the icy dirt into the well. She scraped for a while, and then he took over. He piled up the dirt she had scraped into the well and tamped it down again.
After they’d worked like this for a time, he felt she was starting to slow down. He was somewhat in a hurry to finish. He didn’t know she was hungry and tired and injured. They stopped working at daybreak, satisfied with what they’d accomplished. If they kept going like this, they could get away from this wretched dry well by the next time the sun came up at the latest, and run off together into the forest. But two teenagers from the village discovered them.
The two teenagers walked up to the edge and looked down into the well. They saw him lying there, full of longing. They ran off to the village and came back with rifles. They aimed at him in the bottom of the well and fired.
The bullet went in through his spine and out through his left rib. Blood spurted out of the wound like a dark fountain. He dropped immediately and didn’t get up again.
The kid who had fired was stopped by his companion as he chambered a round for a second shot. He pointed out several clusters of footprints in the snow. They were like gray, exquisitely sculpted plum blossoms, extending from the edge of the well straight off into the distant forest.
She came back after the sun had gone down, dragging a gazelle. She didn’t go near the well area. She had caught the scent of humans and gunpowder mixed in with the faint aroma of oak tree seeds and fragrant pine branches. Then she had heard his howl under the clear night sky.
It was a howl of warning, telling her not to come near the well. He wanted her to go back into the forest, to get far away from him. He’d lost too much blood and his spine was broken. There was no way he could stand up again. But he struggled tenaciously to raise his head from the pool of blood and howl and howl towards the patch of sky above his head.
She heard his howl and it made her nervous. She raised her head and howled toward the well, asking him what had happened. He didn’t answer her directly, just told her not to worry about it. He told her to just get away right now, leave the well, go deep into the forest. But she wouldn’t leave; she knew he was in trouble. She could smell the stink of blood in his howl. She insisted that he tell her what had happened, otherwise there was no way she would leave.
The two teenagers didn’t understand. The wolves whining back and forth at each other, breathing in unison, it was just noise. But why couldn’t they see any trace of her? They weren’t left wondering for long before she appeared. They were transfixed by her beauty; her delicate frame, shapely figure and upright bearing. The point of her nose was jet black and her eyes glistened all over. A hazy mist seemed to hang over her limpid eyes, permeating the air like a light southern breeze. Her coat was a silvery ash color, like condensation. She was quiet, calm and collected, blending with the background and raising herself and everything around her to nobility. She stood there a moment, then walked slowly toward them. One of the kids broke out of his trance and raised his rifle.
The sound of the shot was a dull thud. The bullet bored into a snow bank, sending up a flurry of powdery snow. She disappeared into the forest like a clean burst of wind. When the gun had fired she’d heard a long growl coming from the dried-up well. His growl had shaken the well until it almost collapsed. She spent the whole night waiting in the nearest part of the forest, continuously giving out long, painful cries. He knew she was still alive and he was happy, his happiness plain to see. He kept warning her not to try to get too close to him. He wanted her to go back into the deep forest and never come out again. She howled at the sky, her howls echoing through that part of the forest and off into the distance.
When it got light, the two kids couldn’t stay awake any longer and nodded off. At the same time, she was coming closer to the well, dragging the stiffly frozen gazelle toward the edge. She turned the body over amid a flurry of scraped up snow, and with all her strength pushed it into the dry well. He lay there, unable to move, and the gazelle rolled down beside him. He cursed at her loudly. He wanted her to get away; don’t stay around and hassle him or he’d give her what’s for.
His head was turned to one side so as not to look at her, as though he was extremely mad at her. She crawled along the rim of the well, whimpering shrilly. She wanted him to persevere. As long as he had one breath still in him, she could get him out of this damn dried-up well.
The two teenagers eventually woke up, and she spent the next two days contending with them. They shot at her seven times all together, but didn’t hit her once.
During those two days he howled continuously from the well, not stopping for one second. Of course his throat was torn raw, so that his howls finally became intermittent, and then he was unable to make any sound at all.
On the morning of the third day their wailing stopped abruptly. The two kids stuck out their heads and looked down into the well. The injured male wolf was dead. Something had hit and killed him. His head lay crookedly against the side of the well and his brains had spilled out. The frozen gazelle was lying beside his body, completely untouched.
Those two wolves, they’d been trying all along to get back into the forest. They’d almost made it.
Then they’d met with misfortune. First him, then her, but in fact they had been together all along. Now one of the two had died. With him dead, the other wouldn’t appear any more. Isn’t that why he had died?
The two teenagers headed back to the village to get some rope, but before they’d gone far, they stopped dead in their tracks. She was standing there. The silvery-ash coat that covered her body was riddled with scars, all scabbed over. She looked completely spent, ruined in body and mind. With her wind-blown fur she seemed like the archetypal Ghost of the Forest. She raised her jaw a tiny bit, like she was sighing lightly, then sprang blithely toward the well.
The two kids gaped at her and almost couldn’t move, but at the last second one of them hurriedly raised his rifle.
When the rifle went off, it started to snow again, floating down, for the first time in two days and two nights.
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