the H O L L O W
"THERE’S A MONSTER LOOSE IN THESE WOODS. That's what they say.”
The old white wolf puffed, her breath a stain upon the still air. Her crippled frame suggested death could claim her at any hour. That she still lived was a marvel.
“He walks in the solemn whisper of night, when the clouds turn the sky sightless, and when the moon softens. If you stop, you can hear the ice crack at his coming, the birds' flight at his gait, and the woodland animals' recoil at his breath. The forest wilts with his every step. The bracken curls, then dies. Life erodes as death harbors within him.”
Her guest, a wolf much younger than she, listened intently, black-rimmed ears quipped. Solemn, honey eyes pooled as the darkness engulfed the alcove in which they conversed. She shivered as she tried to imagine the beast.
“A charming grin once resided on his face, by legend luring all ladies to his company.” She winked her old crusty eye, though she might have abstained had she known her guest’s ineligibility. The young wolf winced in response, but her host carried on without notice.
“But now, all that remains are yellowed teeth and tainted friendliness. He lost his handsomeness to one cruel winter, not long ago, in an alley of fainting but proud trees. They say the sun shone through the timber and branches upon his princely figure that quiet dusk. But when the sun's light faded, he turned into a monster. He woke up when the baying ceased, and there was blood circling him— the snow had become a crimson lake.”
All the familiar stories the young gray wolf had heard fixated on this very scene of alleged transformation. But she— and likely everyone who passed them on— knew their exaggerated falsehood. The stories satiated a lust for drama in a time of abundance, lolling off every wolf’s tongue to pass time. Licked and toyed with, but never consumed. The old wolf’s potent eloquence made these stories all the more alluring, and most wolves engaged them after falling to temptation.
She twitched at the certainty in which her host narrated, but remained in respectful silence. The first encounter between them was harrowing enough; she wanted no more quarrels, only answers after journeying to the very source of the tale. Her host saw the silence as a mandate to continue.
“He got up to walk and has been feeble ever since. The black fur falls off his skin like fur falls from a decaying corpse. How he still lives, many do not know. But I can tell you this— he lives with a scavenger’s grace.”
The old one coughed, revealing a rotten smile as she flattered herself— she knew her own ancient body persisted under the same grace. She eased into silence.
“He lives?” the young wolf said. “How do you know?”
“Bored tongues bear swift news.” Her grin grew, but her teeth barricaded her jaws shut. For a moment, the two locked eyes and tested the will of the other, the older a warden of secrets and the younger a seeker of answers, both fundamentally opposed to the other’s objective. With flashing eyes, the young female assumed a defensive posture. Her host had to reckon that she was past her prime and past a fight. Her lips loosened. “Someone told me he used to howl and bay at any wolf, even a stranger, in greeting. But they say he's mute now, that he likes it this way, because he enjoys seeing the terror in others' eyes when they are greeted with silence and a walking skeleton. And my, one can never forget those vacant, hollow eyes.”
Now incensed, the gray wolf’s eyes gleamed. “But maybe he doesn't like that he’s mute. And how can you be so certain he intends to scare others? Have pity. He’s just a product of this cruel world we live in. This wasn’t his choice, Lora. No one would ever choose this.”
“So,” Lora began, her white fur rising. “You feel sorry for the Hollowed Loner, the poorest Hollow? Or,” she continued, a snarl contorting her black lips, “should I speak in your tongue— the Breatheless?”
“Yes, I do.” The wolf nodded as her ashen figure rose, signaling her imminent departure. With her fur on end, she knew she could not stay any longer, but she would not leave before uttering her last words.
“To me, Anpu is his only name. And he is no monster, but a wolf, just like you and I. And the blood spilled on the snow that day, we share.”
Lora’s eyes grew wide.
“Now, let me speak in your tongue— ‘the Hollow’ is my brother."