The diffused light of the forest always bothered Mashesta, as if shadows from some netherworld still existed there. But the netherworld had been banished years ago. It no longer existed except in the minds of a few old men. And perhaps in the mind of one old wolf.
For three days now Mashesta had caught glimpses of the wolf, but just as he sighted with his rifle, the wolf would disappear. The third night he camped near a pond, and, watching the embers of his fire, he seemed to drift off to sleep, for suddenly, whether in dream or in fact, the wolf came into the clearing. It stood before him, its eyes boring into his, and then it spoke.
"So, Mashesta, you have come to kill me. I am ready to die, but not die from a distance at the cold hands of that insentient stick. It is the weapon of a coward. If you are to take me, it must be fang against fang, blood against blood, strength against strength."
"Why are you ready to die?" asked Mashesta.
As if not hearing him, the wolf continued. "Not only must you kill me in this way, but you must also cut out my heart while it still beats and devour it. Our blood must mingle, our breath must fill each other's lungs. Only then will I die. And only then will you truly live."
"You are trying to trick me," answered Mashesta. "You would easily defeat me in that kind of fight."
"You have your knife. That is sufficient, for I repeat to you that I am ready to die. I am alone here. I have no fear of death, but I do have a love of this forest. I would leave it my grandeur and my freedom."
"I am not the one to do this thing," pleaded Mashesta.
"But you are the one who is here; therefore you are the one. There still beats within your heart the remembrance of the wild, the unattached, the unquenched. And you must not let it die. For if you do, man will continue to feed upon his own soul as well as the souls of others."
"Then why don't I let you live and return to my village and say that I could not find you. I could say that you are already dead."
"Then you would live and die with deceit. This moment is not an accident. Why do you think the wolves have been killed? Because they interfered with man's plans for the wilderness? No! They have been killed because they reminded men of that which was noble, that which was free, that which could not be bought and paid for. You need me more than I need you. But because this is the land of my ancestors, I offer you this gift: my heart, which will unite with yours and lead you away from the awful numbness of what you call progress. But if you stand apart from me and kill me from the distance that you believe separates us, then man will never again know what it feels like to ride the wild winds of passion. Not the passion of the flesh, for that he has ridden too long, but the passion of a soul that honors its roots in wilderness."
"I cannot possibly do this. I am afraid to fight with hands that have no claws, with a mouth that has no fangs. A mere knife does not make up for this."
"Yet I am not afraid," said the wolf, "and it is I who must die."
"But the outcome is not certain. You might kill me. Why should I trust you?"
"This is what you do not yet understand," said the wolf. "You think that to have no attachments is to be uncommitted. You think that to embrace the wilderness is to be unprincipled. Yet, unlike men, a wolf has honor. He cares for his young and never abandons his mate. To protect his pack, he will lay down not only his self interests but his life."
Mashesta woke before dawn, strangely disturbed, and as he stirred the coals of his night's fire, he vowed to find the wolf and shoot it before the day ended. There was something about this task that made him want to complete it and return to civilization quickly.
It was near the pond that Mashesta saw it. Larger than he had imagined, covered in the matted fur of one who has too long lived alone. And it was still. Mashesta raised his rifle and brought the wolf into his sights. The wolf was watching him, he could feel its eyes looking fearlessly into the barrel of his weapon. He longed to pull the trigger and be done with this deed. To carry the wolf's carcass back to the village in triumph. To resume his real life.
But he could not fire, and the wolf began to advance upon him. He felt sweat break out over his brow. His heart battered his chest like a caged enemy. His breath sawed through his mouth with the hard bursts of air that do not replenish the lungs. At the last moment, before the wolf sprang, Mashesta threw down his rifle, unsheathed his knife, and, with the scream of one who acts from long acquaintance with his limitations, leaped and met the wolf in midair.
At the start there seemed no hope that Mashesta would emerge victorious that he would do no more than die ignominiously under the fangs of this beast. But somehow the wolf's mouth never reached his vitals. And gradually Mashesta sensed a weariness in the wolf and a strength in himself that he had not felt before. Now he fought with renewed courage, or rather, with new courage, for he had never experienced this emotion. He did not hate the wolf, rather he hated his own timidity, and as he drove his knife deep into the wolf's throat and severed its lines of breath, he breathed in the intoxicating air of fearlessness. Without thinking, as the wolf twitched in death, Mashesta cut open its chest and tore its heart from its body and thrust it into his own mouth. Blood poured from his lips, from his wounds, and from the wounds of the wolf. There was hair in his nostrils, in his mouth, in his belly.
Mashesta stood for a moment trembling, not with fear, but with knowledge. He stumbled to the pond and threw himself into its icy depths. And when he emerged he was whole. For a long while he stood looking at the body of the wolf. He no longer needed to carry it triumphantly back to the village to prove his manhood and his courage. In fact he now realized that to treat the wolf in this manner would be to degrade it and dishonor the lesson it had taught. Mashesta did not have the implements to dig a grave and knew that the wolf had no need of burial, but he lifted the body and carried it to a place within the bosom of the trees that he knew the wolf had loved. Then he laid it gently on the ground and covered it with leaves and with the soft vegetation of the forest floor.
When he returned to the village, Mashesta spoke to no one, but went directly to Cintosh. He stood quietly before his ancient leader and smiled with great affection. "Cintosh, father of our welfare," he said, "you will be happy to know that the wolves will live forever."