The Mother Thief

by Leah Erickson

“There. A beautiful crane. See him flying? Look at his wings! Now, it is your turn.”

Small pink fingers lifted up a sheet of paper, a special paper colored black on one side and white on the other. Grace was watching from across the room. Her heart constricted.

“Origami, as they say, is the science of the practical,” murmured the woman interviewer who sat with her at the child-sized table. “And then, there is the Eastern symbolism. Crane, cat, fish, dragonfly….so much is integrated. That is why we teach it in our preschool.”

Grace was listening, but not. She was watching her boy. Though he was facing away from her, she could feel his consternation at this task. She could sense his stillness, the hairs bristling on the back of his narrow stalk of a neck. The feral alertness of a creature that is cornered and about to run. Or bite.

“So you say Logan has not attended a school previously?”

Grace shook her head. “No. I have kept him at home. “

The interviewer scribbled down something in her notebook. “I notice his posture…Logan seems to thrust his head forward a bit. A kind of lunge. Has his pediatrician…”

Yes. He’s fine.” She was trying to will those small fingers to fold on the lines. Come on. The instructor began to help him, showing him where to make the crease. She was getting too close to him and he didn’t like it. She could almost feel the tremor of a growl deep in his little chest.

“And his teeth. I notice that they are rather unusual for a three year old. They look a bit pointed. Have you….”

“There is nothing wrong with him!”

The interviewer drew back a bit, surprised by Grace’s sudden rancor. “Well, I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise.” She wrote something down, underlined it. “We are a very selective school, and we do screen accordingly.” She stopped and looked up at Grace, removing her reading glasses. “What lead you to apply Logan to our program?” Her grey eyes were intelligent and piercing. “What brought you here?
Grace stopped and looked around the room. The school was built to resemble a kind of ultra-modern barn on the outside, of stone and unfinished shingles. Inside, the room was spare and elegant. Skylights bathed everything in a dappled golden light. The space was free flowing, the lines beautiful. Tables of hand painted wooden blocks. Looms of vegetable dyed woolen yarn. Handmade cornhusk dolls. Down the center ran a trough fountain of water and glistening stones, its murmuring ripples so peaceful. And all of these rough hewn little wooden chairs, empty, waiting…

Grace let out a harsh little laugh, put her hand over her eyes, and shook her head. What brought her here?

“Well…I…that is, Logan…”

What could she say? That this place was a kind of heaven to which many aspired but few could enter? That what was real and pure and true was so elusive, but here, a child could hold it in their hand? That she could pay cash on the spot, fund a new playground, build a greenhouse, if they would just let Logan in? That when you are the mother of a changeling, the world is working against you, and time is always running out?

But as she was gaping at the interviewer, trying to pull from her head all the right words, there was a crash from across the room, the whisper of scattered papers, and then a long lusty howl.

Thief. Thief. I am a thief. These words reverberated in her head, giving her a pang of guilt, but also a small thrill of pleasure. She was bathing Logan, pouring the over his head, working the suds into his scalp. The little skull, so round and perfect. The small tanned shoulders, the delicate shoulder blades, moved her to a fierce protectiveness so strong that it seared. Maybe, just maybe, her love was so strong that she could will him to stay the way that he was. A human boy.

And yet, it was undeniable. The change was coming. On that tender, sun browned little back she could feel the bristly hairs growing in, dark gray. There was the hunched posture. And his ears were beginning to become elongated, and twitched. The tiniest sound, from so far away, could make him go still and alert, with a look in his eyes of preternatural focus. He was evolving slowly into a wolf.

It is my punishment. For being a thief. I used to be a good person, I swear! Grace had never stolen a thing in her life. Never done anything remotely immoral. Well, she and Eric had been part of that “radical” environmental group when they were in college. Chained themselves to trees, broke in and set free those laboratory rabbits….but she was proud of those things. Because they were the right things.

But that day, sitting in the bathroom, she no longer knew what certainty was. Because now she was a mother. And a thief. And desperate. Like a wild creature, she felt as though she herself were the one being hunted and cornered by the world.

She had come to this place to be free.

She had wanted a new start. Or rather, to get back to who she really was. As part of the divorce she and Eric had sold the thriving environmental consulting firm that they had started together when they were young. Flush with cash, not knowing what to do next, Grace had purchased three acres of beautiful wooded land that she had once done a site assessment on for a client whose deal had fallen through. Maybe one day she could make it into a wildlife refuge. But for the moment, she just wanted time, and silence.

The house she had built there pleased her; it was contemporary, Japanese-looking, multilevel with folding glass walls. She had put solar panels on small canopies over her garden. There was a wide planked deck to sit on, where she could look down and see the woods, and further, the rugged mountains in the distance. Here, she played CDs of monastic chants. She started a compost heap. She watched sunsets that made her think of a great throbbing neon heart dissolving in the sky. At night, alone in bed, she could hear the strange, wild howling from the night creatures in her woods. The sound of it gave her goosebumps. It was so keening and emotive, it was almost human. She thought of ghost stories of long dead Indian tribes, their ceremonies and rituals echoing out into eternity.

Sometimes her new freedom was just too much. After all the years of meeting with clients, reviewing data, writing reports, giving speeches…everything was so still. Sometimes it made her panic. I should do something. Set up a fund. A small foundation. Find a project, test the waters.

For the time being, she would roam her woods. Her land abutted areas that were owned by the town. She was constantly arguing with Wildlife Services over their predator control program. It had made her furious when she found animal traps on her property. Grace became known for being difficult and eccentric, eager to cause trouble.

When she went out there to walk, she brought cable cutters to disable any snares she found. Yes, I’m a crazy pain-in-the-ass rich woman and I own this land. Deal with me.

One day she found her way to her favorite place, a dark silent area down by the creek. She liked to come there whenever she was feeling overwhelmed by her thoughts. It was infinitely comforting to for her to smell the green smells, to hear the branches sway and the water ripple. It felt as though she were laying her head on some great mothering bosom, listening to the shift and ebb and flow of life itself. She let her body relax, and her eyes lazily explored the creek banks embedded with tree root and jagged mossy stone. As her gaze fell over the soft dry dirt near her own feet, she was shocked out of her meditative state at the site of a bare human footprint. A child’s.

There were many of them. Some were tiny and perfectly formed. And some…were odd. The same size as a child’s foot, but padded like a dog or a coyote. With claws. And some prints were not human at all, but looked like those of a wolf.

She stood for a very long time, frozen. The sight of those tiny footprints made the surrounding woods seem larger, darker, more encroaching. She thought of dark fairytales, stories of transformations, and the volatility of form. Magic and retribution. It made her wrap her arms around herself and shudder. She felt at once spooked and oddly electrified.

“Excuse me, you found what?”

“Footprints. Dozens of them, deep in my woods. Made by kids.”

“Well, they were probably just hiding out and drinking. Were there beer cans and condoms?”

“No. I don’t mean teenagers. I mean children.”

“Well, I’m sure it’s nothing heinous.” Eric’s voice came crackling in and out; he was in the Mojave Desert. Testing rockets at a spaceport. Now that he was no longer a businessman, he was growing out his hair and beard, looking like his younger self again. Keeping company with young people, too. How could he slip back into that identity so easily, while she was marooned alone in middle age?

“Well, I’m not freaked out by random children. What I’m saying is, I get the feeling they aren’t exactly children.” She sighed, trying to think how to explain. She was lying on a lawn chair, looking up at the stars. They called each other several times a week to talk about innocuous things. Since the divorce had gone through tensions had eased, and it was so much easier to talk. She found herself liking him again. Though, lately, she suspected him of seeing a new woman; she intuited it from certain pauses, certain evasions in his speech. “Some of the prints look like some kind of transmogrified creatures! I swear to god. Part child, part animal….There were so many of them, gathered in a group. I hear them at night. Howling.”

After a long pause, Eric said, “Hmm. Well, you were always an expert with the field guides. Sounds intriguing. Like those myths you like to read. The pagan gods and whatnot.” He chuckled softly.“ You know, you sound happy, alone in your little house in the wilderness.”

“I think I am,” she lied.

“It suits you. You love nature, but you hate society.”

“That’s not fair!”

“I’m just joking. Kind of. I don’t think you liked my society, anyway.”

“A-hem. Well. Tonight I’m going out there.”

His sigh rustled like the night wind. She could hear the distance in all the miles between them. “Yes. Of course you’re going out there. “

When evening fell, she dressed in dark clothing. She did not carry a flashlight, only a small video camera with a night vision button, so that she could the trail in front of her rendered in a soft green glow on the view screen.

The chilly spring night smelled alive, like damp earth and moss. It soothed her, gave her courage. If only she could live outside herself, roaming freely and mutely, in a world where only instinct was required. No words.

I’m a stranger in this town, she thought. A whole year had passed and she knew no one. But then, she never tried. There were those town council meetings she went to, but she had made no allies. She knew she could be too outspoken, could come off as rude and abrupt. Maybe I do hate society. Eric knows me best. He is sill my best friend.

As she approached the creek she slowed down, her steps cushioned by thick pine needles; she could feel that she wasn’t alone. She began to panic. It could be that this was a foolish thing she was doing.

There were little noises, little barks and nips, a playful growling like puppies. She almost turned around and went back. She was alone. She was isolated. No one could help her if she screamed. If something attacked her, it would be no one’s fault but her own…

By force of will, she leaned her body forward, raising the little camera in her hand. And what she saw made her gasp in wonder.

It was a group of child-like creatures. In fact, the smallest ones were children. But it was their eyes that reflected in the night vision light that did not seem human. There was something different there, maybe in the pupils…and they hunched, tensely, ready for flight, their posture and bearing unlike any child’s she had ever seen. Though they appeared nude she couldn’t tell if they were boys or girls. Their bodies were spare and beautiful, graceful as the engravings in a book of Greek fables.

Some, the older, bigger ones, were covered with course fur over their backs and scalps. They stood upright but their legs hinged backwards, like a canine’s. Their faces jutted out weirdly in profile, and their ears were pointed and twitched alertly. Did they sense her?

And then, there were the wolves. Some lying on their sides, some sitting up, their heads held high and regal. She jumped when one of them let out a piercing howl, his ears laying flat, his white throat arced, face tilted to the sky. The children answered back in unison, sounding plaintive and lost; it didn’t seem right for children to make that sound.

Her rational brain said, this isn’t real, you’re projecting it. But the beauty of it stilled these thoughts. She could see right in front of her the miracle of this evolution, from human to animal. One of nature’s errant brushstrokes, mysterious and unknowable in its reason. She couldn’t breath, couldn’t move, could only look at the strange and wonderful things in her view screen, rendered small and precise in the green lunar light, for her eyes alone.

Her daytime life became like a dream through which she floated listlessly, doing whatever chores and tasks she had to do. Nothing seemed consequential, or real.

Like an addict, she would compulsively revolve her day around the times she could sit close in front of her large screen television, watching an endless loop of these night scenes she had recorded. Memorizing the faces. She was moved most by the smallest one, a tiny boy hardly past babyhood who howled at the sky as though his heart were splitting in two. She watched him, entranced, drinking glasses of red wine even as sunlight poured in through the windows and the bright sounds of birdsong carried on the wind.

It was the nights that she lived for.

On clear evenings, she didn’t even bring the camera anymore. Her own night vision was sharpening as she adapted to nocturnal life. She easily made out their silhouettes. In the darkness she could feel the life coming off of them, the pure, vibrational hum of the creatures. It was beautiful to watch the young ones play, scampering and wrestling by the water. It was like standing at the gateway of a higher realm. A realm where she might enter, if she could only be admitted.

Always, she kept an eye out for the littlest one. He was the one she dreamed about most in the barren daytime world when she sat stuck in traffic or waiting in line at the post office. So tiny, so perfect in himself. She began feeling such an urge to scoop him up in her arms and lick his head like a mother wolf.

She reminded herself that this would never be possible. But then, there was another voice in her head: Nature has its own authority. Boundaries are always shifting. These words, repeated like a mantra, in a voice not her own. It was this voice that made her happy.

A night, speckled with bright stars. The creatures were grouped together in a circle, howling in turns like a round. Most had their peaked profiles aimed skyward, moaning with such longing, it was all Grace could do to stifle the rise in her own throat.

And that littlest one… he couldn’t be more than two or three. Such a small chunky body, with short chubby legs and a large round head! He was off on his own, carefully tottering forward to cup water from the creek to his rosy little mouth.

Grace couldn’t help it. Her weight shifted forward. She had to come closer, just a little bit closer…

In a quick thrashing, in an animal heartbeat, the creatures sensed human presence and were gone, dashed away as if they never were there. The suddenness of it took her breath away.

Except for one, who on bandied legs was stooped over, entranced by the moonlit ripples on black water. So small and vulnerable, defenseless. He went on with what he was doing, oblivious.

Close, so close. The boy was almost human. There was no reason you could not say he was a human. Why couldn’t one thing be another, if you wanted it badly enough?

“Hello,” she said, her voice soft as the murmur of water. “Don’t worry. I’m safe. I’m one of you. I’m one of you. Come with me. Shhh.”

The playground was bright and sun-dazzled. Grace sat on a bench, watching Logan as he played. Though the day was beautiful and the park was bustling with happy shouting children, Grace felt an undercurrent of foreboding. She could feel the interest of the other parents. Of course they were watching her. Already they had been asking her too many questions: How was the process of adopting from Russia? Was he traumatized somehow in his early babyhood? (Perhaps that was why the child lashed out!) Did she think Logan’s verbal skills would improve if he were around other children more? Did they do playdates?

She watched him as he darted excitedly to and fro. It was like he didn’t even see the other children. And he didn’t care about the slide shaped like an inchworm or the bobbing horsey rides or the low harnessed kiddie swings. It seemed to excite him just to sniff the air, smelling and sensing things unseen. His movements were smooth and stealthy. When she put his stubby little Velcro sneakers on him today she could feel the emerging pads on the bottom of his feet. She could feel the bones rearranging themselves, the sharp little claws that would not stay filed.

She put it all out of her mind and took him to the park. If she gave him all of the experiences of an all-American boyhood, if he had all the right things, if he was happy, maybe he would stay as he was. If she could only do things right.

She had told Eric nothing. In fact, they hadn’t spoken in months. (And, he had started seeing someone. A twenty-five year old painter with dark bangs and large brown eyes; she wore her long braids in loops. She looked like a Viennese choirgirl…)

It was getting married that had been a mistake. They had been happy the way they were, before the wedding day with its costumes and pageantry, the sheer weight and burden of expectations. She had never been comfortable in the role of wife. People had looked at them strangely when they said they wouldn’t burden the planet by having children. While she and Eric thrived in business together, they became stiff and unhappy when they were home alone. It was work that nourished her: Saving wildlife. Working on a book about Thoreau. Writing articles about the evils of agricultural corporations. All of these things helped her escape the unbearable tension of her married life.

But, these days she rarely thought of the past. With pleasure she watched as Logan dug with his hands in the sandbox, his face intent, his pointed ears flattened to his head, his alert nose pressed down into the damp sand, so entrenched and happy it made her heart soar.

Although the sight of him brought her joy, another part of her couldn’t stop thinking of antique photographs of children in carnival freak shows, those bleached 1930’s images of bodies covered in hair or scale. The twisted malformed bones. The humanity in those eyes, so gripping after all these years. What kind of life could she really give this child?

As she was lost in these thoughts, another little boy approached Logan. He was around the same age, wearing camouflage shorts and a t-shirt with trucks on it. He was watching Logan with avid curiosity. Logan, tensing as he sensed the boy’s presence, rose up and turned around to look. Sometimes Grace forgot just how different Logan really was from other children. The two boys, staring at one another, were like mirror images in height and dimension, even coloring. But while the little boy was affable, bright-eyed and inquisitive, Logan seemed set in shadow. He was absolutely still, his eyes flashing fixedly on the boy, showing no emotion at all. He seemed to shrink into himself, gathering up his strength. And the little boy, oblivious, was coming too close! Grace leapt up and rushed over…

…. but she was too late to stop the bite, those sharp teeth sinking into the little pink hand of the screaming boy, the whole playground went still, things seemed to move in slow motion as adults came running, there were the screams and the sound of a lone ball bouncing on asphalt, and Grace, gathering her child up in her arms, ran, ran faster than she thought she ever could, guided by animal instinct, she could only feel the adrenalin pumping through her veins as she panted, terrified, away from human eyes.

Eric, getting out of his car, seemed to be surrounded by an air of buoyancy; he somehow looked lighter than he ever did during their marriage. It was the first time she had seen him in eight months. His hair, though streaked with gray, was longish and tousled like a skateboarder’s. His body looked lithe and loose-limbed, as though he had been doing yoga. He looked… happy.

Which led her to the unsettling conclusion that being married to her had made him heavy and old and unhappy. Well, it had worn her down, too. When they were young they had wanted to save the world, but they had failed. Failure had hardened her. For years, bleary with fatigue, she had not known how to feel anything anymore.

Until now. Which was why she finally asked Eric to come over. Only he would understand that she finally found the answer. It was a wolf-child that had been her savior. But time was running out, and she didn’t know what to do.

Eric, smiling, made his way smiling across her yard and gave her a kiss on the cheek as light as dander. She didn’t know how where to begin.

“What?” he asked, looking at her quizzically. “What is it?”

Without a word she led him into the house.

“What’s wrong? It’s not your mom, is it?”

His smile vanished and he looked worried as they entered the living room. The place was a wreck. Dirty dishes on the table and the floor. Window blinds broken and dangling, casting jagged shadows. There seemed to be chewed-away places on the chair legs. Large, ragged claw marks trailed down one wall. Grace had always been meticulously neat.

“What happened in here? Do you have a dog?”

She led him to into her office, to a small corner behind stacks of boxes that were full of business papers, records and statistics and data that they had thought were strong enough to defend the earth and all the wild things on it.

He was there, in his favorite spot, curled up and dozing. No longer would he allow her to put clothes on him, so now the ecology of his small body was plain to see. His back, his neck, and his scalp were covered with thick silver-streaked fur. The chubby toddler legs had thinned and lengthened, hinging backward to that the boy could spring-leap away from her when she tried to give him a hug. When the stumpy tail had begun to grow she had refused to acknowledge it, but now it was plumy and lush, defiantly there despite her wishes.

Eric stood, stunned into silence. He knelt down quietly, put out a hand but then hesitated and drew back.

“Oh, Grace. Oh Grace. What have you done?”

Gently he reached out and touched the sleeping creature, laying a hand on one narrow hip. The torso and pelvis were still mostly human-shaped. As were the hands, which were still little pink starfish. But tufts of hair were beginning to cover the dimpled backs. And the claws were thick and sharp enough to be dangerous.

Eric shook his head and looked at Grace reproachfully. “You just…. You can’t….” He motioned down to the child, wordless.

But then his expression changed. His face softened. A smile spread across his lips. He shook his head again, but this time in wonder. When he looked up at Grace again he looked joyous, conspirational.

“Oh, Grace. What have you done this time!”

She smiled back, hesitant at first, but then beaming. In the moment that passed between them, she remembered that long ago night in college, when they had freed the lab rabbits. Running stealthily out of the laboratory, each clutching a plastic kennel, feeling the soft thumps and scutters of the furry life within. They had laughed aloud. Their very veins had felt aflame with light and youth and love and the fiery intention to always do right in the world.

Now, middle aged and defeated, they smiled at each other, as the wolf boy dreamed away between them, oblivious.

It was the shoes that were hardest to look at. There had never been time for him to outgrow the sneakers and rugged little sandals, still small enough that she could cup them in her palm. And then there were the ripcord pants with patches ironed onto the knees. The sweaters in bold primary brights. The pajamas printed with dinosaurs wearing toothy, playful grins.

She put them all away in boxes. She could store them in the attic, or she could donate them to the Goodwill. But she couldn’t have them out in her line of vision. She also would have to do something with the Legos and toy cars and the tricycle, which he had never learned to ride. It had never occurred to her that his anatomy just wasn’t right for peddling. How quickly she had forgotten that he wasn’t, in fact, a little boy at all.

Now that his transformation was complete, she kept her distance. He roamed the length of the house on his silent paws, back and forth. His movement was silken and graceful, almost a glide. Though he was a very small wolf, with large paws and an oversized head, his eyes looked ancient and sun-bleached. He did not know her anymore.

In the night, he would dig and claw at the doors, whimpering and trying to get out; he was hearing the noises of his pack, calling out from the woods. The first time he answered back with his own sonorous moon-howl, she knew that it was all over.

She and Eric had ended up making love on the living room floor on that last day. It felt different than it had been during their marriage. This time, they couldn’t control themselves. It was a kind of madness; they were trying to claw at each other, desperate to get through to what was underneath. As though what were underneath could be attained by sheer force of wanting.

Afterward, Grace felt exhausted and disoriented, as though she had washed up on some foreign shore, not sure of what she had just done. Eric’s body was more fragile than she remembered it, the muscles going a little slack with age. She realized that they had always experienced life separately. And they always would.

Eric looked at her helplessly. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, don’t cry,” he said, stroking her hair until she was quiet again. After a while, holding her from behind, he whispered, “You know, we always idealized nature. But we were too young to realize nature is indifferent. Nature just doesn’t care. It was an unrequited love. We got gypped.”

Gypped,” she agreed, sighing. Then after a pause, she started to laugh. They both laughed. The whole thing felt so sad and absurd that they were consumed by laughter, even though her eyes were still wet.

Now, she looked out the window. Outside the leaves were falling. Far off in the distance she could see a yellow schoolbus rolling silently down the country road. It was as good a day as any to set Logan free.

She opened the backdoor and propped it with a rock. She loved the fall, and that whole day she could feel the autumn breeze on her skin. It reminded her of Septembers past. New school clothes and the scent of glue. She sat down in a chair, resolute and straight-backed. Looking forward.

She sat that way all day, still as a statue as the sun made its trajectory through the sky, and then darkness fell. At some point, Logan had gone. As easily as a boy could become a wolf, and that wolf could become a pair of eyes in the shadows. And then just a shadow. Now all that was left was a dream from which she could now wake.

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Leah Erickson’s work has appeared in many magazines in print and online, including The Saint Ann’s Review, The Stickman Review, Prick of the Spindle, The Absent Willow Review, Forge Journal, the Furnace Review, The Summerset Review, and Eclectica. Her work appears in the print anthology, “Unlikely Stories of the Third Kind.” She has work upcoming at The Fabulist and The Devilfish Review. She lives in Rhode Island with her husband and daughter.