Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Country Matters

Beverly Forehand


Used to be that we didn't have much trouble with our flocks around here. Sure, we'd lose a sheep or two to the winter, or falling down a ravine, or sometimes even to wild dogs. But, nothing like this. Nobody's seen anything like this since the times of my great-grandfather, maybe even further back than that and I'm not a spring chicken these days. Last month I lost three lambs to the wolves. Doesn't seem like too much, but I only have a few hundred. Lose three or four each month and you've lost close to fifty by the year's end. And, I'm not the only one. Ranchers up and down this valley have been complaining. Nothing much to be done apparently. Can't shoot 'em, can't trap for the things. Besides trapping would catch as many lambs as wolves, I guess. Sheep aren't the smartest animals on this earth, but they still don't deserve to be torn apart by wolves. Fencing doesn't do much good either. Wolves are smart as dogs, smarter maybe. They can slink under a fence quick as anything.

I was in a pickle. I'd tried watching the sheep more, but it's hard work and I don't really have the manpower. I tried getting more dogs, but dogs aren't stupid and any self-respecting dog'll take off with a wolf pack on its heels. But a neighbor of mine said to try the Old Culley Place. Swore by it, he did. Said the Old Woman'd given him a remedy a few years ago that kept the wolves off his place since then. I can't say I believed it. I mean, witches, in these days. Seems like something out of an old movie or a fairytale. We have satellite and John Deeres around here. And, though some say the Almanac's one step above witchery, well, I still buy one every year. Though, it's more fluff than it was in the past. Too may ads now and all that flower gardening nonsense. Anyway, I was at my rope's end, so I figured, what's the harm in seeing.

Now, the Old Culley Place is not so easy to get to. You can take the state highway up to Grange Road, but once you hit it, you're on pure dirt and gravel. That's bad enough on sunny days, but in the mud or snow, it's a job even for a four-wheel drive. Of course, the Old Woman wouldn't care, I figured. She never went anywhere that I knew of. She had her groceries delivered in bulk from town. Let the delivery trucks and UPS hassle with that horrible road, I guess was her thought. She was the Old Woman when I was a boy, and it's been years since I was called anything except Old Farmer Craig or Old Man Craig.

Well, anyway, I got my dog, Clover—I don't go anywhere without her—and fired up the truck for a day trip. Figured I might hit the Co-op on the way back through town. I'd heard they had some new hybrid seeds that were worth having. Anyway, me and Clover hitched in and made the drive in less than two hours, most of it spent navigating pot-holes on Grange Road. It wasn't even lunch yet when we saw the Old Culley Place looming up ahead. Old Miss Culley was always known for a cook, and I was hoping for something to eat, I don't mind telling you. Driving in dust is hard work. So, it was a more than welcome sight to see the old farmstead, neat and as kept as it was when I was a boy. The flower beds even looked good, if you care for that kind of thing. And I always liked these better than most, laid out wild as they were and not in neat little rows like the houses in town. I could smell lavender and rosemary on the air, which is better than red dust any day. The barn lay off to the side and I could see a couple of old cows lazing about. Miss Culley never kept much stock—just a few cows and a fat old horse that I doubt ever saw a plow or a saddle in his life. She kept cats though, by the hundred, I'd say—well, at least a dozen, and there were always half a dozen dogs. Big dogs. I asked what they were once, there's nothing like them around here. And, she told me they were Irish Wolfhounds. She brought them in as pups and generation after generation they loped around the place, big as ponies.

Now, if you ever drive up to the Culley Place, the first thing you usually see, besides all those cats and the giant dogs, is Miss Culley herself, sitting on the porch, knitting or shelling peas, or doing one of the things that old women do on hot, dry summer days. But, no one was on the porch when I drove up and that gave me a bad feeling. Old folks die. And Miss Culley couldn't be less than a hundred by my reckoning.

I stopped the car and gave the horn a tap before me and Clover got out. Those big dogs perked up their ears, but they didn't look like they minded us about so I climbed down and hoisted Clover out behind me. Right away, Clover crinkled her nose up and let out a low growl. Warning growl's what I call it. She lifted her head twice like she was tasting the wind and hopped back in the cab. "Come on, Clov," I coaxed. But, she let out a huff like she was annoyed and edged back toward the window. I rolled down the window on my door. "Suit yourself," I said, "I reckon you'll come out quick enough if it gets hot." But, Clover lay down on the seat keeping one eye on the door of the Culley Place. I closed the door behind me and yelled out, "Miss Culley?" No one seemed to hear me but the dogs. One of them got up and padded over to give me a sniff and then lay back down.

I started up to the house and opened the screen door, but before I could give the door a big knock, it came flying open. I nearly tripped into the room I was so surprised. A tall girl was standing there in a yellow tee shirt and jeans. Her red hair was twisted up on top of her head and little strands of it fell around her face. She was wiping her hands on a dishtowel and leaning on the doorframe impatiently.

"Well," she said, "What do you want?" sounding for all the world like Miss Culley.

I pulled my ball cap off real fast. "I was looking for Miss Culley," I said.

"Well, you found her," said the girl, flinging the dishtowel onto the sofa behind her, "I guess you'd better come on in."

I stepped inside the room, hat still in hand. "Actually," I said, "I was looking for Old Miss Culley."

"Oh," she said smiling, "Well, she's not about today. Maybe there's something I can help you with? I'm taking care of things while she's gone."

I looked around the room. It looked the same as I remembered. Drying herbs lined the ceiling on neat string lines. An afghan was thrown in the corner with two fat gray tabbies lounging on it. I could smell something sweet and full of vanilla baking in the other room.

Seeing my nose lift, she asked, "Want tea cakes? They're just coming out of the oven."

"I can't stay long," I said, "I've got my dog Clover in the truck and it's a hot day."

"Wouldn't budge, would she?" she asked walking into the kitchen. I followed. She opened the oven, an old cast-iron contraption, with use stains around the burners. "Well," she said, lifting the tea cakes out of the oven, "I reckon she'll come out if she gets hot enough. The other dogs don't mind."

"No," I said, "Miss Culley's dogs have always been friendly enough to strangers, dog or man."

She put the cookies down on the table after she had spread a dishtowel to shield the linoleum top. Using a big iron knife, she cut apart the cookies that had grown into one another. "So," she said, "What is it you came here for?"

I twisted my hat, "You'll think it's silly, a young girl like you'd probably laugh at country superstitions, but. . .well, a friend of mine said that Miss Culley helped him with a wolf problem."

The girl looked up, eyes flashing, "Wolves, is it?" she said, "I suppose you want them killed."

"Not really," I said, "I don't mind them so much, only I want them to stop killing my sheep and move off somewheres else."

"Wolves kill sheep," she said flatly, "If I get them to move off your property, they'll only be hassling someone else. A wolf's got to eat, don't he?"

I nodded. "I reckon a wolf's got to eat same as anything else, but I'd rather he eat something besides my sheep."

She smiled. "Well, maybe I can do something about that after all." She put down the knife and slid the hot cookie tray into the sink. The sudsy water made a low hissing sound. "There's several things, actually, that might work," she said. She reached into a drawer and pulled out some dried herbs in small vacuum-sealed bags. "If you have a little problem, you might want to use a deterrent, something like wolf's bane, aconite's its Latin name. They don't like the smell of it. You might try scattering some of it dried, but it's better to grow it fresh. Course, that won't stop something hungry. That just stops a browser, someone interested in taking a look." She put the herbs down on the counter. "For hungry wolves, you need something strong, something fierce as they are." She squatted down and pulled open a low cabinet. There were several big jars all sealed with wax and labelled. She pulled out a big one with a clear yellow liquid in it. "This is from the zoo. A friend of mine gets it for me and I don't ask how. Smells something awful," she said wrinkling her nose.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Tiger pee," she said, "Nothing that a wolf hates more than a cat bigger than himself. You might want to get yourself a dog, too," she said. I opened my mouth to mention Clover, but she continued "A wolf dog is what I mean. That dog in the car is fine for sheep herding and eating biscuits, but it takes a dog with a wolf's spirit to stand up to a pack."

"Well, there aren't many dogs like that around here," I said.

She smiled, "Well, maybe I'll bring mine around and let them mark up the place, and Briseis is expecting pups in a month or so. Maybe I could hold one for you."

I glanced back toward the door where I could see one of those big dogs peeking in through the screen. "Don't worry," the girl said laughing, "They don't bite—much!"

I frowned. "I was just wondering how Clover'd like a dog that big," I said.

"It won't start off so big," she said, "It'll have to work up to it." I nodded. "I'll bring them around first," she said, "See how the wolves like that, and we can see if your dog takes a liking to them. They're particular. They didn't like the smell of me much at first either, but they got used to me. A dog will even get used to wolves in time, and run with them."

I knew that. I'd seen wolf-dogs before. They were dangerous—as bold as any wolf without any fear of man. Like she was reading my mind she said, "Wolves weren't always afraid of men, you know. They had to learn it, just like anything will if it's hunted enough. You ever hear of the Seine?" she asked.

"Sin? Is that a place or something? I don't guess I have," I said.

"It’s a river," she said, "In France. Big river. Probably nearly as big as the Mississippi, but it's nowhere as long. There was a time way back, in the 1300s when it froze through. Think of it. A river as big as the Mississippi frozen down to the core. Anyway, it froze and the wolves came across it right into Paris, right into the city. They weren't afraid then, you see. There were more wolves than men after the plague, and the wolves didn't have much to fear. But, they learned it later, when guns came and more and more men were born and less and less wolves. They remember, you see. They remember. Dog's memories aren't so long." I thought of Clover and they way she always jumped when the vent came on in the truck, even though she must've had that cool air hit her hundreds of times.

"Wolves remember," she said again, "That's why this," she said tapping the yellow jar, "and my dogs work so good. If the wolves get scared off once, they're likely to stay away unless a great need presses them." She looked out the window. The sun was failing and falling golden over the wooden floor. "It’s not so bad here," she said, "There's plenty to eat besides sheep. It just takes a bit of work—for a wolf." She picked up the jar and pushed it and the bag of herbs into my hand. "Your dog'll be ready to go now. I'll bring my boys by in a week or so. See what we can do and check for tracks and marks to see how big a pack you have a problem with."

I nodded at her, my hands being full, "I'd be much obliged," I said.

She walked with me to the front door and pushed open the screen. "Don't be a stranger," she yelled after me. Clover barked once at her yell, then slunk down in the seat. I carefully centered the jar and the herbs between me and Clover. She gave the herbs a sniff and then lay her head on her paws. I started up the truck and turned around careful of cats and big dogs and turned back down the dusty road toward home.

Well, Clover and I had an uneventful enough ride home and after a few days the girl showed up with those dogs, just like she said. I hadn't had a chance to try out any of her remedies yet and she said that was lucky enough since they would've spooked her dogs. It was already starting to get dark when she drove up and by the time she got all those big dogs out of the back of her truck and set them loping about, it was near to sunset. I studied the sky.

"Clear enough, I guess," she said, "We shouldn't have any problem with the weather."

I nodded. "You sure you want to be going out this late?" I asked.

"It's the reason I'm here," she said, "I didn't figure that wolves would come marching across your fields at mid-day." She whistled and those big dogs perked up their ears. "Reckon we'll take a look around and see what we see," she said. Then, she turned heel and headed off with her dogs toward the low pasture. I watched her till she was too small to make out clearly and then clucked at Clover. She lingered a bit, her brown eyes watching the other dogs in the distance and then followed me. The screen door swung shut behind us and I pulled the heavy wood door closed for the night.

Now, the girl had said that she'd come back in the morning, but I still couldn't sleep. Dogs or not, it didn't seem right for her to be out there, just a girl, in the night. But, what could I do? She didn't even so much as take a rifle with her, not that I saw anyway. Big dogs or not, there are plenty of things prowling about in the night and wolves are the least of them. Mountain lions and rabid foxes and trigger-happy hunters with poor eyesight just to name a few. It might not be hunting season but that didn't stop some folks from getting off a shot or two at a deer. And, I remembered last year a bunch of boys had gotten liquored up and shot old Earl's best heifer thinking she was a prize buck. Some folks got more time than sense, I'd say. The feeling grew on me. Clover sat by the door and waited. Every now and then she thumped her tail and it would make a dry whack on the wood floor. "Think I should go on out?" I asked her, "Make sure everything is okay?" Clover looked at me and gave her tail another whack. "I reckon you're right," I said.

I rummaged around in the cabinets till I found a flashlight with some juice left in it. I flicked it on and off and it gave out a strong steady light. Then, I took down my 30/30, the one with the sight and shoulder strap. Too bad my night eyes weren't what they were once. Still, it was a full moon, hunter's moon, and I thought I could hit a wolf if it came to it. For good measure, I jammed the herbs, wolfsbane she called it, in the pocket of my coveralls. I patted to make sure that I had everything—extra bullets, wolfsbane, pack of cigarettes, lighter. I grabbed a moon pie too. No sense in starving. Clover jumped up when I unlocked the door, wagging her tail something fierce. "No, girl," I said, "This isn't a night for you." She slumped down on the floor and put her head on her paws, looking at me dog-eyed. I reached down and scruffed the fur on her head, "I'll be back soon enough," I said.

I stopped on the porch to let my eyes adjust to the night. It was bright. That big full moon hung heavy and orange in the sky. I wasn't really sure which way to go, but after some thought, I started out the way I'd seen her go, over the low pasture toward the grazing fields. Once I crossed over the hill, the house was lost from sight. Clover must still be waiting by the door, I thought, hoping I'll come back for her. I walked a bit further. The air was crisp and colder than usually for a summer night. And, there was something else. Something like danger on the wind. Like a hint of electricity. A hunter'd know what I mean—it's that excitement you get right before a big buck comes into your line of sight. It's like you can feel him there before you can ever see him. I could see the sheep up ahead clustered together like a cloud gone to ground. They stirred a little when they smelled me and milled in my direction expecting food or comfort. I knew they felt it, too. I had a sheep stung by a bee once come and duck its head under my arm. It's like the whole flock wanted to tuck themselves under and hide. You could smell something wild, that raw, sharp smell, I knew it through and through. All wild things have it, even stray cats and dogs. When wild cats broke into my barn and laid up in the straw, I knew it just by the smell. But, this was a little different. There was no smell of fear underneath. This smell was tangy and high and I knew just from the hint of it that it was old and didn't give a flip about me or any man.

The sheep gave a little collective shiver and pushed in on themselves. Then I saw one of those big dogs on sitting on the hill, like it was watching over the flock. I craned my eyes around and sure enough they were stationed all around, almost hidden from sight. Every dark eye fixed on the sheep, ready to pull down anything that didn't below. I raised my hand, hoping they could see it was me, but the dogs didn't budge. These were professional dogs. They didn't give any little yips of acknowledgment like Clover and cock their ears. I was the same as the sheep to them. I walked through the flock and up past one of the dogs. He turned his eyes toward me, but didn't move and I walked on into the night.

Now, it might seem strange that I didn't call out for the girl. But, to tell the truth, I didn't know her proper name. It was dark and clear and the moon hung low and full. Every tree, every blade of grass seemed outlined in light. There was just the slightest mist, a clash of the humidity earlier in the day and the coolness of this night, hanging low to the ground. I almost missed them—in the mist—low to the ground as they were. I crouched down on the hill sure they had seen me, but not a one moved. They sat in a circle, some on haunches and some laid down with head on paws like Clover was prone to do. There was a big wolf, gray and a half-head bigger than the rest, in the center and another wolf, dark, almost black, but slightly smaller facing him.

They weren’t fighting, just staring nose to nose, like they were in the middle of something. A meeting of the minds, or the muzzles, at least, so it seemed. I felt a brush against my back and looked back to find myself eye to eye with one of those wolfhounds. He growled low in his throat. Warning growl. But, I reckoned he was warning me off or telling me to be careful. There are some things, maybe, a man isn’t supposed to see. Just like there are some things that maybe a dog shouldn’t get used to. I slunk back down the hill and walked back to the house. Clover was waiting for me at the door. I knew the big dog had followed me, though I never saw him. Clover gave a low growl and then a yip of recognition. I unlatched the screen door and stepped inside, leaning my rifle against the wall. I was getting old. The air seemed colder somehow and I was tired.

I don’t know how long I sat there with Clover at my feet. I closed my eyes and laid my head against the back of the wooden chair. After some time, I heard the screen door open and felt Clover bristle against my leg. A low rumbling growl rippled through her body and I looked down to see her on her feet, fur raised. "It’s alright, girl," I said, Clover growled again and kept to her feet.

"Guess it’s hard to put up with," the girl said, standing at the door. Her red hair looked dark and there were bits of weeds caught in its tangled mass.

"Clover’s not used to strangers," I said, patting the still bristling dog on the head.

"Those wolves won’t be bothering you anymore," she said.

I nodded. "Plenty of room around here for wolves," I said, "I reckon they’ll do just fine without my sheep."

She sniffed the air. "Could be a hard winter, though," she said, "Could be they’ll come back if they have to." I nodded again.

"If the winter’s hard, I reckon I could leave something out for them, to tide them over."

"That might do," she said, "I’ll bring that pup around, when it’s big enough." She turned and put her hand on the door.

"I won’t forget what you’ve done for me," I said, "I’ll return the favor if I can."

She turned back and smiled her teeth glowing softly in the dark room, "I’ll remember," she said. She opened the door and was gone. I saw two big dogs melt out of the dark and catch up with her. I watched her till she was gone from sight. Only when she had disappeared over the hill did Clover settle down by my feet. Men may be fooled by disguises, but no self-respecting dog ever will. I got up from the chair, careful to step over Clover, and locked the door. "It’s too late for us, Clover," I said. The dog stretched and gave one happy little yip, glad to be in her home on a crisp summer night.

***

Beverly Forehand is a freelance writer and painter living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her short stories and poems have been published in Atriad Press' Haunted Encounters, Bewildering Stories, FATE, The Harrow, LongStory Short, Quantum Muse, Typhoon.net, Waxing Waning Moon, Ultraverse, The Wheel, Zephyrus, and other publications. She recently published a pet recipe book with Dawson Progressive and is a monthly columnist for Critter Exchange.

© Beverly Forehand

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012