When Grandmother disappears from the nursing home, Marika is the only one who understands what’s happened. The family and staff, they wonder how and why a 96-year-old woman could walk out of her room unnoticed and disappear in the middle of the night. They whisper about dementia and Alzheimer’s. They make phone calls to the police and hospitals.
Marika looks at the window left ajar and shivers in the cold spring air.
She’s already seen the deep paw prints in the flowerbeds outside, the muddy tracks leading across the nursing home’s parking lot towards the greenbelt by the creek. She knows that Grandmother is not missing but gone. Taken.
Grandmother told her the stories. About the woods where she grew up and lived most of her life. About the fog that wraps itself around the branches of the pines in the moonlight. About the shadows that lurk beneath the spruce when your feet stray off the path. About the creatures that breathe their hunger into mist, crooning your name beneath the trees.
There was always a wolf and always a girl in those stories; always the safe path through the woods to the shelter of the house, always the beast lurking if you strayed. Everyone else called it a fairy tale, but Marika knew it was more than that; she knew the stories had the ring of truth and memory, not fiction.
She follows the paw prints to the creek. On the other side, beyond the tangled birches and grey sallow, is the highway. Standing there, smelling the damp earth and budding leaves, she thinks about the last time she visited Grandmother; how quiet she was, gazing out the window with those rheumy blue eyes, staring at the darkness crouched outside the glass; her bent, arthritic fingers tangled in the red yarn in her lap, gripping those knitting needles tight.
“It’s still there,” Grandmother said, voice paper-thin like a secret, singsong like a story. “It’s still waiting for me.”
“You’re safe, Grandma,” Marika reassured her, not knowing what else to say.
Grandmother cocked her head and looked up, unsmiling. “I have never been safe,” she said and went back to her knitting.
* * *
Marika gets in her car. She knows where to go, knows where those paw prints will lead her in the end, so she drives north, following the straight path of blacktop and reflective paint.
In the car, she thinks about the house beneath the eaves of spruce and pine where Grandmother lived once upon a time. First, with Grandpa until he died, leaving only his huntsman’s rifle hanging on the wall and garbage bags full of empty vodka bottles. Then, she lived alone until everyone decided she was too old to manage.
Marika thinks about the closet in that house, how it smelled of lavender and sundried linen; how she hid there when she was four or five, playing with her cousins; how she found–hidden behind the woolen coats and polyester dresses–a red cloak, worn and faded, its hem torn and stained.
* * *
Marika drives until there’s nothing but forest and the gleam of furtive, yellow eyes on either side of the road. She drives until asphalt turns to gravel, and all the way, she feels that something is following her. It stays out of sight, just beyond the reach of the headlights–a gangly shadow, loping between the boles, untiring.
* * *
It’s dusk when she arrives at the old house. A lace-thin breath of snow covers everything, and the last bit of road is so rutted and narrow that she has to walk through brush, into the gloom beneath the pines. Along the path, Grandmother’s old flowerbeds are thick with couch grass and dandelions. Stands of nettle huddle near the porch, and beneath the windows, the rosebushes Grandma tended even though Grandpa always told her it was a waste of time to grow them this far north, poke through the scant snow. The door is locked, the house empty, but Marika knocks anyway.
Marika turns and the wolf is there, standing between her and the forest. It’s tall and lean and older than she imagined, its breath a ragged mist of hunger wreathed about its snout, the curve of its back a jagged edge of bone beneath its shaggy hide. It stalks closer until Marika sees her own reflection in the clouded pupils of its eyes. Then it stops and looks back across the faded garden.
Grandmother is standing at the forest’s edge. She is barefoot in the cold, wearing nothing but her washed-out, pale-blue nightgown and the red shawl she was knitting when Marika saw her last, wispy hair spread over her shoulders like spun silver.
Afterwards, Marika will wonder why she didn’t run away from the wolf, why she didn’t scream, why she didn’t call out for Grandmother, but in the moment as it happens, she knows why. She knows the wolf isn’t there for her, and neither is Grandmother.
Standing on the porch, watching the wolf pace toward the trees, watching Grandmother put her hand between its ears, watching the wolf bend its head at her touch, Marika sees the old stories, and Grandma’s life, unravel and knit together into a new pattern.
She wonders if Grandmother always wanted the story to end like this, if the woods always beckoned to her, if she regretted following the path rather than straying beyond it, if she spent her life yearning for the one who knew her scent and silhouette in the moonlight, who crooned her name beneath the trees.
Her phone buzzes in her pocket. It’s Mom; her voice worn and distant.
“They found her in the creek. Marika. Your grandma, she… they couldn’t revive her.” Marika looks at the paw prints leading from the house to the eaves of the forest. “She’s in a better place now,” Mom says, fading.
“I know,” Marika says, watching as a slip of red and a gleam of silver fade into shadows beneath spruce and pine.
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