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Authors: Ann Arensberg

Sister Wolf

BOOK: Sister Wolf

Sister Wolf
A Novel
Ann Arensberg















About the Author

So St. Francis spoke again: “Brother Wolf, since you are willing to make and keep this peace pact, I promise you that I will have the people of this town give you food every day as long as you live, so that you will never again suffer from hunger, for I know that whatever evil you have been doing was done because of the urge of hunger. But, my Brother Wolf, since I am obtaining such a favor for you, I want you to promise me that you will never hurt any animal or man. Will you promise me that?”

The wolf gave a clear sign, by nodding its head, that it promised to do what the Saint asked.

And St. Francis said: “Brother Wolf, I want you to give me a pledge so that I can confidently believe what you promise.”

And as St. Francis held out his hand to receive the pledge, the wolf also raised its front paw and meekly and gently put it in St. Francis’ hand as a sign that it was giving its pledge.

Then St. Francis said: “Brother Wolf, I order you, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to come with me now, without fear, into the town to make this peace pact in the name of the Lord.”

And the wolf immediately began to walk along beside St. Francis, just like a very gentle lamb.

—The Little Flowers of St. Francis

Everything looks worse in black and white.

—Paul Simon, “Kodachrome”


on a June night in the highest corner of the Berkshire Hills, there is still some light to see by. On nights when the wind is high and the clouds are racing, the light in the sky is an unstable tinge, reading white, gray, gray-green, yellow-green, and smoke-yellow. By the gray-green rays Marit Deym prowled the hallway of the story under the eaves, using the turret window at one end of the corridor as a lookout for the closed van that should have pulled into the driveway an hour before. The van was coming from the Dangerfield Zoo, an easy trip on the interstate highway, but Marit had instructed the driver to take the long route on unnumbered back roads. If the van had left Dangerfield at six-thirty, there was no chance that it would meet the police patrol car, which made its scheduled rounds at eleven o’clock.

Two events wizened Marit’s soul and shrank her backbone: getting through the hours from dusk to dawn, and waiting for anyone or anything. If she had been driving the van herself, her anxiety would have been manageable. As her restlessness increased, her hearing became painfully acute. Sounds from the basement earlier in the evening had not been astral miners hacking their way to free air, just the shifting and settling of the woodpile. After exploring the cellar she had gone back to the piano bench, beating sticky cobwebs out of her hair. She laid her hands on the keys and her ears began to ring. She played a page of Clementi. It was her head thrumming, not the instrument. She pitted her mind against the sound. It was a high cheeping, concerted, then intermittent, like extraterrestrials bent on reaching her from their airship. She stood up and began to follow it. Was she moving of her own volition, or half-enthralled? The blips grew louder as she reached the third floor. As she mounted the attic stairs, they rose to a manic tweeting.

The attic was a fiasco. Off a hall barely three feet wide were five rooms the size of monks’ cells, impossible for storing furniture and too small for persons of conscience to sleep their housemaids. Marit inched down the hall, shoulders drawn forward, placing one foot directly in front of the other. Past the third cell, which had been fitted for a bathroom, she craned her ears. The noise was concentrated in the next room, and grew erratic at her approach. All the light switches were outside the rooms. Marit flicked the switch, but paused before the door. The cheeping stopped, its faint vibration dying in the air. Marit’s breath came with a rattle in it. She threw the door wide open, so that it banged against the wall, and crossed the threshold.

The floor was speckled with discrete pellets like chocolate shot. Marit breathed better—the leavings of squirrels or house mice? Across the room, one diamond-shaped pane was broken in half. She heard rustling, and took another step inside. Up above, in a corner of the ceiling, hung many bunches of reddish-brown bats. Insulted by the light, they clustered for comfort, folding their wings, their tiny faces puckered by pique or woe. They looked foolish and defenseless, like children who put their hands over their eyes to hide, thinking that they can’t be seen because they cannot see. Marit’s heart hardened. They were dropping filth at a dire rate, and she was not a compost-hound. She saw a bedlamite vision of her evenings alone, gusts of bat guano swirling through the house, and that frantic chirping harrowing thoughts and sleep. But how could she herd them, one by one, out that small triangle of broken pane? How had they managed to get in? Their wingspread was nearly a foot. Were they able to crawl? For fleas, rats, and roaches she had called in Berkshire Pest. Fleas were nearly invisible; rats ate their bane and went outside in search of water; roaches expired in the woodwork, drying up odorlessly. Bats had more and stranger life to kill. The exterminator might pump in cyanide, as he had for the hornets in the loose stonework over the kitchen door. But then Marit would find a hundred little larval bodies staining the cell floor. They would start to rot in their death chamber before she could face carting them away. Perhaps the exterminator could net the bats; perhaps he could tranquilize them. She closed the door but left the light burning; it might force them out.

Marit stood by the turret window and scanned the night horizon. She looked down. The road was dark, and the driveway was still empty. She was calm now, and lucid enough to feel shame. Poor reviled bats, paralyzed in their sheaves, about as feral as motorized ducks at a boardwalk shooting gallery. She had recoiled at their dirt, having heard that they spread disease. What had stopped her from taking a club to them, since she had also been told that they bit veins and dove for women’s hair? She gave herself no marks for enlightenment; clubbing and recoiling were just degrees of a killer’s blow. The only crime of bats is that they hate the light and love the dark: they flout our deepest metaphor for good and evil.

Two headlight beams lit up the gravel drive. Marit drew back. The vehicle was black, but not as large as the Dangerfield van. As it inched around the drive, with minimal crunching, she made out “Sheriff, Hart County,” lettered on the side of the door. It was nine o’clock, so this was not the night patrol car. The driver of the car wore a big hat. Sheriff Stoeber had the soul of a file clerk, but he dressed for business like a Texas lawman. The black sedan drove back out the way it had come in. The Sheriff might have used the driveway to make a U-turn; but it was more likely that he was watching her house for his own reasons.

In order to rile the Sheriff, she called him “Mister.” “Sheriff” meant too much to a man with fat buttocks and a woman’s waist. Marit was an unconscious mimic, and more than once had checked her voice as it raced up the scale to match his reedy lilt. Mister Stoeber had been her enemy since she was twelve, when he had caught her beagle dog, Snap, straying up the road and taken him to the pound, even though he was wearing a collar and a tag and Stoeber knew perfectly well whose dog he was. Her father had brought Snap back, but the dog cringed and hid, and would not eat his food the first day, or the next. When Marit petted him, he yelped and showed his teeth. There was a place on his flank, near the tail, that he would not let her touch for several months. Marit began to imagine ways of torturing the Sheriff, like coating the inside of his hat with runny cat feces, or laying a honey trail over his bedclothes and setting red ants on it. She got her chance the next summer, while the Sheriff was inside the house with her mother, collecting a pledge for the hospital. Marit spiked his gas tank with a quart of Kentucky bourbon, but she was caught in the act and spanked like a child, right in front of him.

Her parents were pleased with the Sheriff and his fawning manners. They were Hungarian aristocrats, who expected a degree of subservience, and classified the Sheriff as one of the help, someone vaguely superior in function to their butler. They thought of the selectman and the fire chief in similar fashion. Luba Deym mailed them tips from New York at Christmas, in the same amount as the checks she wrote out for the doorman and the superintendent who worked in her apartment building. Marit was growing up in America, which is a democracy, and her parents were leaving her a legacy of resentment. The Sheriff was a little man, one of the hairless meek, but he would hold her accountable for her parents’ conduct. She despised him; but he had the power to thwart her. She started to watch him, like a foreign ambassador stationed in a banana republic who knows that the violence of the coming revolution will be in proportion to the harshness of the ruling dictator.

One Thursday evening in February, Marit had stood up to address the Niles Town Council. There was fog on the roads and a fine sleet beginning to fall, and the seats in the old Grange Hall were two-thirds empty. Only elders and regulars attended, who lived within walking distance of the Grange. Marit knew that the Sheriff was not expected. He had been called to Lowell that morning for a statewide police briefing on crowd and riot control. Marit had placed a stack of printed broadsides on a table by the entrance. The sheets were printed, not mimeographed, and all hand signed, so that each villager would feel that he had been personally informed of her plans and could take part in the question period afterward. Marit’s address was a courtesy. She was not obliged, except by diplomacy, to ask for the villagers’ approval, but her nerves were as tight as a lute, anticipating their objections. A feudal current ran deep in her character: she was in a position of power, and it gnawed her alive to underplay it. In better times, mewling and protest had been handled by edict or corporal punishment. When her father, Vladimir Deym, died, he had left fifteen hundred acres to her mother. Three years later, Luba Deym had followed him, making Marit, at the age of twenty-six, the senior landholder in Hart County.

The Deyms were Magyars. Under Duke Géza their dwelling was a hut. For nine hundred years they had worked to bury the crude stone hut. By 1915, when Vlado, aged twenty-five, and his father, the patriarch Arpàd, were driven into exile for refusing to march to war with Germans, they left behind a pile of masonry that had been known since the Renaissance as “the unfinished castle.” It was also known as the castle of towers. Each generation of Deyms had building fever, and when they ran out of lateral space they aimed for the sky. The history of art and alien occupations could be read in those towers: the Fire Tower, with its Gothic spire and set of Norman bells; the minaret, a sop to Turkish rule; the Prince’s Tower (in the Baroque style, to please the Austrian Hapsburgs), which housed an iron throne for visiting kings. Blocks of Carpathian granite sprawled on the riverbank. They were carried on barges down the Bodrog, on standing order, lest any Deym run out of stone and develop feelings of frustration. Like Pharaohs, they kept swarms of slaves to carry out their enterprises. Kossuth freed Hungary’s serfs in 1848. Great-Grandfather Mátyás Deym did not relinquish his bondsmen until forty years later, and only then under pressure of a wheat famine, for he was in the middle of building a hunting box, with plans he had copied from Ludwig of Bavaria.

Marit took joy in her father’s lineage and his childhood. His memories were as vivid as ghost stories told by firelight. His nurse, Bükki, suffered in her joints. Vlado went daily to a mineral spring in the pine grove to fetch her a cup of the sulfurous water, which she would drink, cursing and stamping and patting his head at the same time. He lingered one day, popping the sluggish bubbles in the spring’s mud matrix, and saw a white knobby shape emerging on the surface. He forgot his clean blouse and put his hand in after it, pulling up one muddy bone after another, curved stalks like ribs, cranial plates, a femur as long as he was tall. It was the skeleton of a prehistoric lion, the first acquisition of the little museum he set up in the nursery schoolroom. His second find was a slim glass phial, imprinted with a rainbow. (“Glass turns iridescent underground,” he explained to Marit. “Then why not people?” his daughter retorted.) Romans in passage had left the phial behind; it was unchipped, and belonged to the consular period. As she grew older, Marit had questioned the attributions, wanting to know if her grandfather had kept tame paleontologists and archaeologists, the way other noblemen kept stablehands and stewards. Then she begged Vlado to tell about the west-wing laundry floor collapsing, and the caves that ran underneath it, all the way to Czechoslovakia, and the awful ruddy stalactite formation that was afterward named “the Butcher’s Shop.”

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