You call the wolfdog Khalia. You don't know the word "wolf" is a death sentence. At twelve, all you know is rural Texas where the sound of cicadas is deafening and wildflowers grow rampant in the fields, where barns rust and crumble and scorpions and rattlesnakes wriggle over the sun-bleached metal.
Your mother works double shifts at a Best Western hotel as a waitress. Even when she's off work she's never home. You are supposed to be in eighth grade but you're not in school right now. You are alone with an older woman named Dawn your mother met in a psych ward for company. And the wolves. Dawn owns them—a male and a female, pure black and pure white, respectively.
The wolves are caged in a circular, 20ft by 20ft pen they run rings in. Sometimes Dawn goes inside and whispers They only love me, they only love me, they only love me over and over, low and hypnotically. She looks right in your eyes and says the wolves would kill anyone but her. She stands for hours staring at them pacing back and forth at the other end of the cage, the male crisscrossing paths in front of the female. Sometimes she tosses them roadkill deer meat and sometimes they eat it. Other times they lower their heads and stare. You stand outside the cage under a pine tree and watch, your hands gripping the chain link fence. You don't know anything about captive animals. You don't know how Dawn got her wolves and you never think to ask. All you know is that you want a wolf just like this. You want to be inside the cage with something wild and beautiful that will kill anything that tries to hurt you.
Dawn wears turquoise and feather earrings and has short, dyed, bleach-blond hair. She has dark black eyes that cross when she's drunk. She dresses in shirts with mountains and wolves howling at the moon, stiff black jeans and cowboy boots. Her fingernails have blood underneath them. Dawn's house is at the bottom of a hill. The trailer she lets you and your mother live in is at the top of the hill, up a dirt road with tire tracks and grass growing in-between. The wolves' pen is in the middle. Sometimes, when your mother is not home, Dawn comes over at night, drunk and angry. She throws beer bottles against the trailer and screams for you and you mother to leave. Bitch she yells when you won't open the door.
You assume all of Texas is full of wild wolves. You don't know the difference between a wolfdog and a wolf but you search for what turns out to be a hybrid animal. Dawn helps you find one, huge and grey. You search almost every shelter in the county before you find her. You call the wolfdog Khalia. You're told she is part Timber wolf. Later you'll learn of the traits your wolfdog carries that connect it to its lineage—the way her tail falls, a black spot at the crest of the spine, webbed paws and an extra toe, high up on the back legs. A toe so sharp it cuts. The yipping noises she makes when she sees you, that she never barks; her howls at night joining the full wolves.
Here are some things you don't know about wolfdogs. They are shy but very intelligent. They are mischievous and destructive, and they won't eat normal food. They have strong predatory instincts. Most are immediately euthanized when brought into shelters. There is no approved rabies vaccine for wolfdogs. Even if their shots are up to date they are considered "unvaccinated dogs," and thus a rabies threat. Wolfdogs are illegal in many states, and even within cities and counties in legal states. They are illegal in certain parts of Texas, though it is legal to own exotic animals with certain restrictions. Many states, counties and cities restrict or prohibit ownership of wolf hybrids. Because of this, the allure to own a wolfdog is strong. Many people want to possess something illegally.
Twenty years later you read these facts about wolfdogs and burn with shame. But you don't know these things when you are twelve. You don't know much at all. You know you want Mark Staples to kiss you. You met him when you lived with a stranger as a foster child and attended seventh grade in a town where no one knew you.
Mark came to visit you once at Dawn's and sat on the porch of your trailer house. You showed him the wolves and thought he might kiss you but all he wondered was why you're weren't in school and why you were there alone and who all the people were who came and went. The last time you saw him was when he drove away from your house that day. You never spoke to him again and the person who finally kissed you was a mid-thirties man who tasted like cigarettes and alcohol, a man Dawn met at a bar and invited with three others back to her house. You came down the hill in your mother's American flag bikini and you left a different way so this man wouldn't follow. You were right to be afraid, and Dawn should have been afraid, too. You hid by the wolves' pen all night. You still thought they could keep you safe.
Your wolfdog was gone by then. She was all the things a wolfdog is—destructive, mischievous, wild. She killed your cat and ripped out her stiches when you had her spayed, like you're supposed to do for female dogs. You came outside and her guts were pink in the dirt. She let you put them back in and tie a sheet around her belly. She waited for you to run for help. She trusted you. The word "wolf" is a death sentence, but you didn't know that then.
"If you remove the forty-seven facts about wolves that are really facts about human impact on or human mythology about wolves, that leaves fifteen facts for the wolves alone." —Nicole Walker, A Flexible Wolf
This piece took me more than a year to write and is barely 1000 words. I had always wanted to tell this story but writing about animals without anthropomorphizing is fucking hard. I was trying to tell the truthful story of the narrator—how she did this shameful thing that saved her—but I kept running into the difficult question of, how do you write a piece about violence against, and exploitation of, wolves and women without further exploiting or reducing them? Writing a piece that deals so directly with my own regret made me extra wary of this problem. And in the end, I had to include what had happened to "my" wolf, Dawn, and me—what happened to us because of the meanings we had been assigned by others.