Eavesdropping

John Brandon’s Lone Musical Wolf

John Brandon's novels often engage with characters in slightly outsider settings. This excerpt from his critically-lauded 2012 book "A Million Heavens" centers around a wolf prowling New Mexico alone, observing human society from the outside.

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My name is John Brandon. My book follows a whole bunch of folks around the desert of New Mexico, and one of the characters is a wolf. He’s been having a problem with his instincts. He’s been losing them, and they’re being replaced by intelligence, which is bad for him. He’s also been confused about why he is attracted to human music. These things are starting to come to a head, a little bit.

It was daytime, but the moon was out, a tarnished coin in the ozone. The wolf had given up his rounds. His territory was all he had, and he had been patrolling it since before he could remember, and he had forsaken it and wanted nothing more to do with Albuquerque.

He haunted the basin now, a lost land that would offer a lost animal no aid, a land where the dunes shifted overnight and scorpions feared their own stinging tails. The wolf frequented Old Rattlesnake Park, an area that didn’t seem owned by any particular human, a place marked off with no trespassing signs that had been posted by trespassers. Closer to Loft, there was copse of doomed pine trees on a defunct golf course, and the wolf used the branchless woods as cover. The days were not bright and the nights were not dark. The wolf was subsisting on nothing but butterflies snapped from the wind and swallowed in fluttery gulps.

There was no reason for the wolf to do rounds. No animal could encroach upon the wolf, and if the humans encroached, which they had, and would, and did, it was temporary. Their empires fell. Their great cities burned and blew away like cigarette ash. Everyone who lived in Loft lived on the edge of Loft.

One house had a backyard full of chickens, and the wolf found himself gazing down at the penned birds from his perch on a hard hill that seemed high in the daytime, but at night seemed so far from the stars. The chickens were kept in a fence meant to thwart coyotes. The wolf should’ve slipped down and plucked a few, but he didn’t want them to be gone. The chickens were unwittingly keeping him company, and, in a way, he was guarding them. The wolf gave up his promontory and eased down the hill toward the house so he could hear the chickens, and so he could frighten them a little, put them on edge for their own good.

The wolf saw a window with no blinds toward the front of the house, and he saw the form of the girl inside. He stayed put, and, after a short time, the wind died out altogether, and the wolf heard the strumming. It was a guitar. It stopped and the wolf stood still until it started again. The wolf heard the girl trying out her voice, reedy and full of an emotion the wolf couldn’t grasp. There was never a way to tell, once music began, how long it would last. He was panting, and his breath was out of rhythm with the song.

The wolf got right under the window, pinned between the stucco and a line of tough shrubs. Now, he felt this girl’s song pressing on him pleasantly from without and within. The girl convinced her voice to rise with purpose, and the strumming rose with it. The wolf felt quick and dumb. This music could’ve been anywhere, and he could’ve been anywhere, but they were both here. The song was going to end, but that didn’t matter, because whenever it ended would be too soon. If it ended in a human minute, that would be too soon, and if it ended when morning broke, that would be too soon.