Shay Sheridan - Reality
"Are you all right?"
Sylvia's voice made him turn. She was still herself, neatly clad and imperturbable, and Mike became aware for the first time that there were half a dozen others who had not changed form. Hunter held his position by the wall, Veronica and a few of the men still sat or stood where they had before. A sound, a sort of muted growl, drew his eyes downward again. One of the wolves, a large brindled male, was nudging the tawny female next to it, huffing into her ear. The look between them was uncannily human, intelligent and somewhat furtive. The white wolf swung his head around sharply, growling, and the two others stopped their interaction. The sequence was unmistakable: they were talking and the white one, the leader -- William! -- just told them to be quiet.
"What are, how did they--" He was breathless again and couldn't finish the thought. Sylvia came towards him and the wolves made room for her to enter the circle.
"Don't be afraid of them. They're still who they were."
"Who they were." He echoed the words but didn't quite understand what she'd meant.
She put a hand on his arm. "They're still the people you know. This is our other form."
His eyes flicked up at her, then down at her clothes.
She smiled. "I don't do it much anymore. Arthritis. Besides, I just had my hair done."
He gaped at her. Her wry manner was so familiar and yet what she was saying was unquestionably bizarre. The wolves watched them. "Can, can they understand us?"
"Of course." She seemed to find the question amusing.
He looked at the others still in human form. "What about them? Why...?"
"Trey over there broke his arm and he's still in a cast. The others can't change. They're only part wolf." She turned and fixed her eyes on his. "Like you."
"Like me..." He tried to digest that bit of information, but his mind wasn't cooperating.
The white wolf whuffed softly and Sylvia nodded. "Come," she said. "You look like you need a drink. Let's let the others get dressed." She took Mike by the elbow and steered him towards the library door. "Don't worry."
The wolves parted to let them pass.
They went into the dining room, where Sylvia opened the sideboard and took out a bottle of brandy and two glasses. She went about her task efficiently, normally, and for a wild moment Mike thought he'd imagined what he'd just seen in the library.
He sat down, sipping brandy, realizing he'd unconsciously taken his old seat at the table. As a teenager he'd much preferred the times he ate in the kitchen with the cook to the formal dinners in this room. William's wife Judith had been even more distant than her husband, a grand dame who inhabited a world that evidently did not include much room for her grandson. Or even for her husband. They'd led rather separate lives, he recalled. Like William, she never talked about Mike's parents, which even at a young age he'd realized was odd, not to mention confusing.
And William? Well, he'd always been as he was now, the chairman of the board in his home as well as his office. A domineering, dogmatic--
The word was from a nature documentary he'd once seen, but Mike knew it was the right term. That was it, wasn't it? William was the leader of the pack. He had a sudden, nearly uncontrollable urge to laugh. He fought it, taking a big swallow of brandy. It burned, but his head felt clearer. "Sylvia?"
"Yes, Mike?" She poured another glass of brandy, but left it untouched.
"The fur, the claws..." He furrowed his brow. "Where does it all go?" It seemed very important that he figure it out, as if a scientific answer might help him cope.
She laughed, mocking him affectionately, and sat down next to him. 'They don't 'go' anywhere, Mike --they just change. Except for the tail, of course. That remains, even when we're in this form."
He was astounded. "You mean --right now --you have a tail?"
"Of course, dear." She smiled flirtatiously. "And if I were twenty years younger, I'd show it to you."
His mouth dropped open and she laughed at him again. Then she patted him on the arm, her expression turning serious. "Normally you'd be taught these things when you're very young. I know it must be hard to accept this when you're an adult and you've stopped believing in magic."
"That will be all, Sylvia." William was standing in the door.
Sylvia got up, once again crisply efficient. She handed the brandy to Wolf, Sr. and disappeared from the room.
"So." The old man walked around the table, staring out the window at the water. "Are your questions answered?"
"Not really." Mike got a secret pleasure out of the way William jerked back around to stare at him. "I mean, where did we come from? How did we get here? I still don't understand what exactly--" He stopped, unable to verbalize everything he wanted to --needed to --know. "I think it fair to say that I have more questions now than I did before."
There was a moment of tense silence while they regarded each other. The old man's face was harsh, almost angry-looking, but then the leathery wrinkles softened and a look of acquiescence came into his eyes. He sighed. "I see." He looked away again. "Perhaps I have been unfair to you, Michael, in not telling you before this. I suppose there's no other way... it's a rather long and complicated story."
"I'm not going anywhere." The two men held each other's eyes. William walked to the head of the table and pulled out the chair. His chair. Alpha, all right.
"I think perhaps I should start at the beginning." The old man settled himself. "Do you know the story of Little Red Cap and the wolf?"
Mike stared at him.
"Many years ago," William began, in the tone of a practiced storyteller, "four generations, as we wolves count them, but generations much longer than those you'd understand as human, a young girl was rescued from certain death at the hands --and teeth --of a big, bad wolf. Her name was Frida, but everyone called her Little Red Cap, not only for her favorite piece of clothing, but for the bright copper curls that covered her head. Her rescuer was a woodsman, who told people afterwards a long, self-aggrandizing story of how he saved the young girl after she'd been swallowed whole by the wolf, and how he killed the beast by cutting him open and filling his stomach with stones.
"At least that's how the story was told. In truth, the 'little girl' was fully sixteen years old, and while the woodsman did give chase and made a lot of noise thrashing about in the forest, Red Cap managed to triumph over the Big Bad Wolf herself, not by violence but by charming him as much as he charmed her. And, after all, what wolf of any size could swallow a teenage girl whole without killing himself in the process? Really, what a ridiculous concept!"
"Ridiculous," Mike echoed.
"You must keep in mind that the wolves I speak of were not wild animals as people know them here, but intelligent and clever and able to assume both human and lupine shapes. In any case, the Big Bad Wolf, who had the perfectly serviceable name of Bejann, but who knew the value of a dangerous reputation, merely stole a kiss from the girl and let her go, escaping into the forest as the woodsman and his hunting party were closing in on the grandmother's cottage. The grandmother who had not been killed either, you understand, merely tied up while Bejann raided her larder.
"When she returned to town, Frida refused to tell the truth about what had happened, because wolves were considered lesser beings by the human population. The woodsman certainly had nothing to gain by contradicting Frida's image as a brave young woman. The woodsman became a local hero, dining out on his reputation for some time, until he had a fatal encounter several years later with three hungry bears.
"As for the girl, she was so endearing, and so lovely, and indeed so brave and clever, that when the old queen died without an heir, Red, as she was now officially known, by popular acclaim was made the ruler of the country. At first she was terrified, but in fact she had a taste for the job and turned out to be quite good at it. In time she married Prince Warren, the third son of Gustav the Hunter, ruler of the neighboring duchy, and their lands were combined into one kingdom. "Queen Red and Prince Warren had a child, a girl called Gudrun, but known familiarly as 'Little' Red. But the Queen never forgot the Wolf who had so intrigued her, and she sent a secret messenger, a serving-troll named Brazen, to seek out what had happened to him."
"Troll?" Mike interjected. "Wolves and little girls are bad enough, but... trolls?"
"I'll come to him by and by. As it turned out, the Wolf had never forgotten Red either. He was the leader of an enormous pack that lived in the hills and forests of what was now called the Second Kingdom--"
"It's not important--"
"Why don't you let me decide that?"
William wagged a finger at him. "I'll draw you a map when we're done. Don't interrupt me again. Now then. For years the Wolf had thought about her day and night, following her tale from afar. But when he confessed to the rest of the pack that he felt she was destined to be his mate, half of them rebelled and deemed him unfit for leadership. Wolves, it seems, can be as prejudiced as humans, if they choose to stoop so low."
William frowned. "Are you taking this seriously?"
Mike waved his interruption away. "I'm sorry. Please go on."
"Fights broke out between the two factions, with the result that those who supported their leader were driven away, and some were even pursued and killed by their former pack mates. But Bejann never wavered; he went after his mate with single-minded purpose. With the help of Brazen, the Wolf and Red first met in secret, but then became more reckless in their encounters. Prince Warren, suspecting his wife's infidelity, but having no proof, instead vented his rage on wolves in general, declaring them all to be villains, and ordering them shot on sight.
"When Red tried to stop his edict against the wolves in the kingdom, the Prince had her charged with treason against the realm and imprisoned. The people of the Second Kingdom, who had so loved her, now turned on her; after all, she had consorted with a beast! Such miscegenation was deemed punishable by death. But before the sentence could be carried out, the Wolf and his followers, assisted by Brash, overcame the tower guards and helped her escape.
"You will no doubt find their means of escape difficult to accept, because I know you think you have a logical mind--"
"Well, I was a math major, after all." William was scowling at him, and Mike made himself stop talking. The problem was, he was feeling quite hyper, and the urge to get up and pace was very nearly overwhelming him. Find this part difficult to accept?!! He fought the urge and sat still, though one foot kept tapping out a frantic rhythm under the table.
"As I was about to say," William gave him a final withering look, "they made their escape from the kingdom in a very unusual way. The old queen before Red had dabbled in magic, and had owned a traveling mirror, one of only three ever made. Supposedly it led to another country, another dimension, if you will. Red had left it hidden for years, for she was a little afraid of its magic. Thus Red and the Wolf and his followers, and even the loyal troll, made their escape through the mirror. With them came Red's daughter, for the queen could not bear to leave the child even if she did not love its father.
"They ran, not knowing what they would find in the other world, but knowing they could never return; for as the queen entered the mirror, the prince and his men found the chamber where the mirror was hidden. The queen's loyal lady-in-waiting, who had never stopped loving her, perceived that the prince meant to send his men after his wife, and so smashed the mirror into a thousand pieces. No doubt she paid for her actions with her life. We will never know.
"But before the mirror was destroyed, the prince himself had touched its surface, and so he, too, was transported to the mythical 10th Kingdom. On the other side he met with Brazen and the wolves and was forced to beg for his life or he would have died right there where the portal ended.
"Imagine the wolves' surprise when they emerged from the mirror into late 19th-century New York! What could they do? What did they know? They came from a place with no industry, a place pastoral, old-fashioned and backwards compared with this bustling metropolis. And their world had magic and this world had none.
"But they were clever, and industrious, and Red had a taste for luxury, so they were motivated to succeed.. They reinvented themselves. The Wolf reclaimed his birth name: Bejann, son of Brice, and translated it into "Benjamin Bryson Wolf." It sounded important, the name of a man on the move, a modern American man. And like other immigrants of the era, he worked industriously and learned about things, and created his own empire. The others did the same, applying themselves to their new lives and succeeding wildly. But he remained their leader, the alpha of their pack."
Mike twitched but said nothing.
"Prince Warren, realizing he was outnumbered, called a truce and threw in his lot with the others. Red allowed him to, for the sake of their child. Only Brazen, with his troll features, had to remain hidden, until he discovered a talent for playing monsters on the stage and in the early motion picture industry."
Mike's head was spinning.
"The situation with Red and Warren was difficult. Prince Warren, Third Son of Gustav the Hunter, was now simply 'Warren, the Third Son,' which he simplified to Thurson." Red found herself in a terrible situation. She loved Benjamin, but Warren was her husband. She couldn't legally be 'Mrs. Wolf' and she refused to be known as 'Mrs. Thurson.' What she did was truly modern for the times. She made up her own name, based on something she found quite by accident about the small country of Iceland. There names pass along gender lines. This independence appealed to her, for many reasons, not the least being her hatred of her husband. She called herself "Regina, for queen, Rauthur, which means red. She intended her own daughter to keep it, to be known forever as 'Red's daughter,' to keep the royal tradition alive.
"Warren was furious. He could do nothing about his wife, not with Benjamin there to back her up, but he drew the line at his daughter being symbolically torn from him. Regina allowed Gudrun to keep her father's surname. But when Gudrun herself came of age, she embraced the new identity her mother had created for her, 'Rauthursdottir,' passing it on as well to her own daughter, Serena. And so the women's names passed through the female line, while Gudrun's son, Hunter, retained Thurson, from Warren's line. And so it has continued. Serena passed the name to her daughter Regina, our Regina.
"Warren's life in this new world of his was short and not very happy. He alone yearned for his old life, but of course could not return. His attempts to gain dominance at the company were futile, for the others were wolves, and had no respect for him. He grew bitter, irrational, prone to outbursts of violence. He became an abusive drinker, a recluse who would appear from time to time to have embarrassing outbursts in the office. Eventually he died. Whether it was of accidental alcohol poisoning or by his own hand, no one knew. Of course," William said with a sly smile, "I have always harbored the suspicion that B.B. and Red helped him on his way."
"So they could live happily ever after," Mike offered.
William's face grew serious. "Well, not exactly. Once Warren was deceased, life indeed became easier for B.B. and Red. They were married, and--"
"Wait a minute, wait a minute." Mike put a hand to his forehead and tried to understand what his grandfather was saying. "Then Red was your mother, which means you aren't a full wolf either!" He couldn't believe he was discussing such a subject, but by now he was hopelessly enmeshed in the story.
But the older man was shaking his head. "No. The company continued to grow, but their family didn't. Red never had any other children, which was terrible for B.B. Then, finally, Red became pregnant, but tragically she died in childbirth. The child was stillborn. A wolf and a human together, well, there are often such misfortunes."
Mike clenched his teeth but kept silent. William's message was coming through loud and clear.
"It was a time of great sadness for the wolves, especially for B.B. He blamed himself for Red's death, for thinking that a wolf and a human woman could live as man and wife without tragedy. He sank into a deep depression from which no one expected him to recover. You see, Michael," William said, leaning in to his grandson, "Wolves choose their mates for life. When one dies, well, often the other cannot survive."
Mate for life... "What, what happened?"
"B.B. was rescued from his despair by the fact that he had become a part of this new world. America was filled with optimists, with people who had left devastating loss behind and come here to try again. People who overcame tragedy and built new lives. He'd so embraced that philosophy, had succeeded so well here, as a human might, that when a young wolf working for him caught his eye, and made it known that she was interested in him, the grieving widower responded accordingly. Several years after Red died, Benjamin and Iphegene became mates. Shortly after, I was born."
Mike looked at his grandfather. "This is quite a story. You must see how it sounds to me. I want to believe it. I mean, I suppose I do --I saw you turn into a wolf, right there in the library, for Chrissake. "
"I am a wolf. I didn't 'turn into' anything. I merely changed form."
"All right, all right, whatever you say. I won't debate semantics. But I need to hear the rest."
"The rest? I've just given you our whole history--"
"--And I appreciate that. I really do. But I need to hear about my father."
William paused, looking at Mike closely for a moment before going on. "Very well. As I said, I was born to B.B. and Iphegene, the first of three --you know of your Great-Aunt Eugenie and Great-Uncle Benedict, both long dead. I was the first, and as such I was considered the inheritor of the firm, and of the pack. By now the pack had grown, some had intermarried, some taken spouses from the world of humans. The blood was thinning.
"I married your grandmother and we had only the one child, your father, Thomas Wilson Wolf. There were no others --Your grandmother was...delicate."
Delicate? Mike thought about his grandmother. "Delicate" was about the last word he could imagine applying to her. What's the truth, Grandfather, that Grandma just hated sex? I remember her, she was a bitch! Then the realization hit that she literally was a bitch, and he nearly choked on the brandy.
But William continued on, oblivious of Mike's reaction. "So you can imagine how we loved your father. He was brilliant, charming, precocious, a delight to everyone. We all saw great potential in him. I suppose in a way we considered him the 'Crown Prince' of our little kingdom in exile. But when he came of age, something was wrong. Very wrong." William paused, looking uncertain for the first time since he'd started his narrative. Then he sighed deeply. "This is a difficult thing to discuss, and I doubt you'll understand."
William looked at his grandson as if he expected a smart answer or rebuke, but for once Mike held his tongue, though inside he was shouting and whose fault is it if I don't understand?
"When a wolf attains puberty, he becomes subject to influences outside himself, primarily the phases of the moon. When the moon is full, a wolf feels the need to change to his lupine form and hunt. It is part of who we are, and what we must be. If dealt with properly, if prepared for and embraced, it is a time of great freedom, and exhilaration, of allowing our wilder nature to take charge over our rational minds. It is more difficult, here, than it was in the Second Kingdom, perhaps, but it is manageable. And it is necessary to our survival.
"Thomas had known about this all his life, but when it happened to him for the first time, he couldn't accept it. Where other wolves would retire to the country and experience the freedom of bounding through the woods under the moon, Thomas refused to leave the house, torturing himself by trying not to change into his animal form. I tried to reason with him. I tried to show him there was nothing terrible or shameful--" William broke off and bit his lip. Emotions played over his face and Mike gave him time to grapple with them.
"In time he did manage to deal with it with more equanimity, but he was never able to shed the sense that it was an affliction. It was clear there was a deeper problem. Your father did not want to be what he was. He wanted to be merely human."
Mike felt a pang of sadness for his father, and, oddly, a rush of sympathy for William, too. "I suppose that's why he fell in love with my mother."
"No doubt. But of course it was a terrible mistake."
"I don't think I want to hear that."
"Come now. It was illogical. Wanting to be something other than he was wasn't ever going to make it true. He needed someone who could help him embrace his heritage, not disavow it. He should have taken a wolf for his mate. There were some appropriate females for him, but he had to be rebellious."
"Christ, William, you sound like a dog breeder!"
"Don't be offensive, Michael. It was important. Thomas being my son, he had to show strength or the others would never accept his leadership. And I wanted the line to continue."
The slow bubble of anger inside Mike erupted. "The line? Don't you mean the 'pure blood line?' I'm sorry you didn't get your master race of wolves, William. I'm sorry you got stuck with me!" He felt his face flush. He hadn't realized he'd feel so hurt.
"You mustn't take this personally, Michael. I didn't know what you'd be like. None of us knew. I just knew that my father's first wife was a human woman, and their child died trying to come into the world. Mixing the blood is...uncertain."
"Oh, please. Medicine has changed a lot since then. There are specialists, hospitals--"
William barked back at him. "And do you suppose wolves have children in hospitals? Where doctors can comment on the newborns' little tails?" At Mike's startled expression, William sat back and folded his arms. "Hadn't thought of that, had you?" When Mike didn't respond, he went on. "That's only part of it. We are a small pack, and there will be no others coming to join us. There is duty involved here. Thomas had a duty to his family. To the firm. To the other wolves. When he turned his back on our heritage he was insulting every one of us, as well as everyone who had come before."
"And yet Benjamin came here because of his love for a human woman."
That stopped the old man's momentum. He drew in a long breath and tilted his head back slowly, looking down his long nose at Mike. "Yes. And because of those actions we will never be able to return home. Understand me, Michael, I loved my father, but what he did was wrong and has forever separated us from our people."
There was no answer for that, but there was still a huge piece missing. Mike had to know. "If you were so committed to keeping this heritage going, to making sure we didn't die out, that my father be 'returned to the fold,' then why, William, why did you keep me from knowing this all these years? Why didn't you tell me about all this wolf stuff, the moon, about what was going on? Christ, William, I don't, I just don't get it! You should have told me! I'm not your son, okay, I can't replace him, but maybe I would've been able to understand, to be a part of what you wanted to preserve! Don't you see? You could have tried --sure, it would've been tough for me to understand at first, but now, now it's too late. It's almost impossible."
The old man's hands gripped the table and his face looked more lined than ever. He picked his words with care. "Your father, when you were born, he didn't want you to live as a wolf. He wanted you to be what he wasn't--" William stopped abruptly. "Michael, you're a half-wolf. You feel the moon, your body wants to change but it can't, not fully. But one thing that never changes for a wolf, full-blooded or half, is his tail. Your father mutilated you. He had your tail removed at birth."
What about the scar --on your back, your tailbone, Virginia had said, and he'd responded, incredulous, furious, You think I have a tail?
"It's not just that, though, your father clearly had deep problems. And your mother, well, she was human, and not one who cared to embrace the reality of living with a wolf, clearly she wasn't capable--"
"--Yes she was! You never even gave her a chance! She wasn't afraid of anything. She wasn't afraid, even when--" Images, sounds, memories, his father shuttered upstairs, horrible noises, Lisette holding a terrified little boy, Shush, don't worry, it will be all right, go to sleep, I'll sing to you. Mike swallowed. "She wasn't afraid."
"Perhaps. But with both of them so unprepared to accept the responsibilities of their own lives, let alone their son's, they didn't tell you. They didn't prepare you at all, and when Thomas died, I thought..."
"What? What did you think?" There was bitterness in his voice, and anger, and he couldn't hold it back any longer. "Did you think that keeping me drugged and dependent on you was somehow going to make everything all right? How could you imagine it would be better to I think I was crazy than to know I was a wolf?"
"I thought you'd accept it better. People here have all sorts of neuroses, mental health issues. It's accepted here, almost expected. I thought the pills would work better. Because of everything that had been done to you, and that which hadn't been done, I don't know, I thought it would be for the best if I kept you close. It seemed to me you did so well. I... suppose I didn't see."
"You didn't want to see." He leaned back, glaring.
"Understand, Michael, that whatever your issues, no matter how upset you are, you were from the start everything I wanted your father to be. You have always made me very proud of you. You are undoubtedly the future of the firm. You and Regina."
"That's why you wanted us to get together."
William nodded. "She's only a quarter-wolf, as it happens, She's virtually human. I know you won't want to hear this, but I thought that even if you weren't able to live as a wolf, you are still descended from B.B., as Regina is from Queen Red. You should lead. You should be together. It would strengthen you. It would strengthen all of us."
"More selective breeding." Mike couldn't stand sitting still any more. He pushed himself upright and stepped away from the table, gathering his thoughts, trying to contain his rage. "If I have any weakness, William," he said through clenched teeth, "you encouraged it. Your thinking is so illogical: be a leader, be a wolf, only don't know you're a wolf. Strong enough to lead, but weak --I still don't get it!"
"Please believe me, Michael, I thought I was doing it for your own good. I wanted to spare you the pain. The pull of the moon, It's much worse, I think, for a half- than a full-blooded wolf. Your father...I was afraid you couldn't... " William was beginning to look decidedly ill, and Mike thought he'd never seen him look so old. He waited. "I was afraid," William said, his voice shaking a little. "I didn't want to lose you, too."
Mike leaned over the table, forcing William's head up. He was dimly aware that somehow, something had shifted between them. "Why? Why would you lose me? Wouldn't it have made a stronger bond between us?"
William's pale eyes were bleak as he turned them to his grandson. "You still don't understand. Thomas couldn't bear to be who he was. I was so afraid that you would suffer the same way. Don't you see, Michael? Your father killed himself."