BOOK OF THE WOLF
The arborist told her it had to come down right away.
The translator herself had only discerned a problem after the most recent storm. The bark had peeled off in great, unusual strips—like an animal molting its coat—and now she felt ashamed she had not noticed sooner. Perhaps there was something she could have done. Only upon crossing the lawn now did she see that an insect had burrowed its way through the trunk of the ash, leaving a mazelike trail in its wake.
A borer, said the arborist, and the translator gazed at the peculiar loops and spirals as if they comprised a message in a language she could not speak.
Winter had not come so much as become, and the translator found she was still working on the same book. In the mornings she watched the infected tree's branches sway gently in the breeze as her dark roast brewed. It looked perfectly fine from a distance. Things usually look fine from far away.
This book was giving her difficulty in a way no other book had before. The translator had been born and raised on choice, taught to select her words with utmost care, so it was fortuitous when she grew older and discovered one could do this for a living. And so, for years now, she had.
The popularity of the book wasn't the source of the problem. She'd translated best-selling titles before, one in particular about a nascent witch discovering her powers and accidentally killing her best friend over the course of a single, fraught weekend, which had garnered a few award nominations for her efforts in the end. The translator had hewn obsessively to the original spirit of the manuscript, spending hours poring over her dictionaries and tracing etymology back to perfect a particular clutch of sentences.
She'd gotten this offer a year ago now—the writer of the witch book was calling this a "spiritual sequel." Released first in the writer's native language, the book had already received critical acclaim and so public excitement had been rising ever since, coupled with a certain impatience for this translation to be complete. Yet the translator's struggles were building as well.
She usually felt confident about her choices, fluent as she was in synonym and nuance, but she had recently become aware of the fact that she might be taking too many liberties. This writer was known for being spectacularly particular, and the translator had only narrowly avoided several conflicts on the last go-round despite the pains she'd taken. The writer had many connections in the industry, and the translator knew that if she was unhappy with the work, the potential of a besmirched reputation hung on her horizon.
The translator liked her quiet life, camouflaged in the words of others. She had never wanted to write a book of her own. And yet, when she sat down lately, the words that flew out were not following the preordained path that the writer had laid down before her.
They were her own.
The translator often went weeks without seeing another human being. It was easy to pass the time like this and hardly notice; her groceries were delivered, the occasional pack of socks was ordered online, an endless trail of things left for her anonymously on the porch. So when the men came for the tree she realized she had not spoken aloud to another human being since the arborist. As if the dead tree had somehow become her sole link to the outside world.
From the porch she directed them to the trunk wrapped in yellow tape on the front lawn and then returned to her desk, her pages, her book. For she had begun to think of it as hers now, she realized in surprise, something separate, no longer belonging to the writer. Curious. She couldn't pinpoint a time when the shift had occurred; she only knew that it had.
In the book, a werewolf tries to adapt to human life after twenty years of living in the wild with her siblings who, the reader comes to learn, were all murdered by the werewolf's new boss, who has a penchant for hunting on the weekends. No, it isn't an accident that the werewolf begins working for him, either. She has done her research. She knows what he is.
The translator has begun to look at the moon with greater curiosity since she started working on this particular project, as if it might have some bearing on her life after all. She knew about the tides, but this was different. In all her years she'd never done this—you're not supposed to, after all, a cardinal rule—but more and more she had begun to argue with the writer in her head. The werewolf wouldn't do this, she found herself thinking, over and over. It was an impulse the translator once believed she had stamped out, back when she began work on her very first book—the quiet disagreement with particular choices and characters, the desire to take the story in a different direction, which she would gently notice, acknowledge, then release.
All these years the translator had attempted to maintain a certain distance. But the wolf had begun to speak to her.
Now she had not translated a word in days. She already knew, after all, how the writer had intended the story to end: The werewolf poisons her boss' coffee, the replacement promotes her, and she finally acclimates to her desk job—at home in the human world for good, now that the door has finally been closed on her feral past.
It made a kind of sense, the translator thought, this evolution. If that was the kind of story you were writing. But for weeks the translator had been approaching something else, a different kind of ending. Her deadline was nearing, her editor peacefully oblivious. But she had to see it through.
The translator opened her dictionary and inhaled the sweet must of its pages, though she did not need them for what she was about to do.
Several hours later, one of the men knocked on her front door.
We took the tree down, ma'am.
The translator cocked her head and considered how much she hated that word—ma'am, the single flat syllable of it, derived from the French, Madam, meaning woman, married woman, a woman possessed—and how easy the werewolf had it, really, the potential not just to hurt someone that wrongs you, but to frighten—truly terrify them—for the translator had known this from the first page of the book, that the werewolf would never give the hunter the gift of a peaceful death, like sleep, so removed from her own body and experience, after what he had taken from her—and here the translator imagined the convenience of carrying a weapon with you at all times, wherever you were, in your mouth, which could at any moment exact a violence beyond the cruelest word, and she considered very briefly, for just an instant, what it might be like to take a bite out of the cheek of the man before her, and all the while she continued to stand there, just inside the house, smiling wide, showing him every tooth, as she watched the uncertainty pass visibly over his face, as he waited for something—a check, a word of gratitude, any closing measure to bring this exchange back into the realm of human transaction, which was the only possibility he could imagine.
The translator sighed and passed over the check, and as he descended the steps she saw firsthand what the men had done. Only a stump remained, the trunk now hacked to manageable pieces each small enough to wrap one's hands around, like a throat.
In the book, the werewolf would tear the hunter limb from limb and charge from the high-rise, fully transformed, to return to her home in the woods.
The translator was almost there. But not yet.
In recent years I've been watching as many werewolf movies as I can. As is so often the case with my viewing habits, what I watch bleeds into what I write. So far my favorite is The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan's 1984 adaptation of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber.