A Short Story

Grey Wolf

Winning entry in the Winchester Writers' Festival Short Story Prize, 2018

Every day I walk home from work alone. My path passes through a wood and emerges by a small row of cottages that stand a little way beyond the trees. Each evening, when I leave the great red-brick mill, with its chimney made from a million soot-covered bricks, I follow this path to my door, and each morning I return. 

Sometimes it is hard for me to leave the burnt-out embers of the fire, but as I pull tight the door in its warped frame – shutting all the memories safely inside – I know that, somewhere, beyond the wood, the brightness of the world beckons. I just need to make it safely through.

One day in early autumn I was returning home and was part way along the path when I saw a movement ahead of me amongst the trees. A flicker. The blackberries, with their loops and snares of thorns, lined my route at this point, and I had stopped to pick those that were ripe, gathering them in a small clay pot. Some of the berries were still hard and green, whilst others fell apart between my fingers, staining the tips blue-black. Then, between the tangles that snatched at my dress, I caught a glimpse of the wolf.

I had always known that she lived in the wood, but she had never shown herself until that day. The sensation I recall on seeing her was one of pure animal terror: the shock of being prey. Fight or flight - I ran. Fighting against the rising panic, and a tightness in my chest as if my innards were curdling and turning to water, I ran, stumbling as my feet caught blindly on the stones and divots of a path that I knew better than my own reflection in the glass. She ran with me - a lolloping stride, and she kept pace with such ease. My sweat ran cold.

I sit now and smile at the memory. Terror falters before a roaring fire but fails utterly when faced with daffodils nodding in the morning sun, or bluebells carpeting a woodland floor. As I recall that day, I see that, despite its magnitude, my terror was somehow akin to the feeling I still get each morning when I leave the empty cottage. The lurch that occurs between hefting the door into its closed position, catching a glimpse of the listless grey windowpanes, and then turning away is just an echo of a more primal terror. Yet it is a sensation that twines thick, strangling tendrils around simple sadness: sadness for the happy house I once lived in, with Mother, Father and Grandmother - all laughing, fighting, eating, sleeping and living together in one tiny room with a table, a stove, a fire and four pallets.

Perhaps that sensation is simply fear of the day beyond the wood. Perhaps it is fear of the mill, and the clatter and din of the relentless looms that beat warp against weft in an endless machine heartbeat. Perhaps it is fear of the men and women whose laughter rings harsh even above such racket. Perhaps it is simply fear itself.

When, breathless, I reached my door that day, I did not know what to think. I hung up my shawl, lit the fire, then rubbed my sleeve against the sooty windowpane before looking out. Nothing stirred at the edge of the wood. The trees were heavy with leaves that were fading to gold. Beneath long outstretched branches of oak and lime, evening shadows fell, whilst rosy sunlight glanced off the satin grey trunks of stately beeches. Everything seemed right with the world, yet it was not.

October came. The world was listless. Leaves began to spiral down from the trees. The air grew crisp and the nights grew long. A grey shawl hid the flowers on my shirt. I was rarely alone when I walked now. The tread of paws was with me each day, from close by the cottage until the wood opened out and passed the foot of the track that winds across the hillside. One morning I decide that I would take that route home instead, for I did not quite like the company I had found amongst the trees. Each morning and evening the wolf's tread was measured; she walked when I walked, and stopped when I stopped, and - a thing more fearful than all that my imaginings could conjure - the steam of her breath rose from behind the brambles as she waited.

That evening it was deadly calm, with the sky amber-grey, and a strange brightness lingering. The air seemed to press down on me as I walked. I was part way along the path before I recollected my idea of crossing the hillside to reach home. My hand was hurting from the shuttle too, and that had distracted me. Then I heard heavy paws brushing through the fallen leaves, and I sensed that something in her footfall was different - the waiting, the stalking had ended. The evening was brooding and impatient. I was wounded, and the scent of my hurt hung heavy in the still air. I was prey.

Forgetting my bruised hand, I ran. I ran hard, until I reached my door. My left hand trembled as I turned the stiff iron key. The wolf was behind me still. She was running. She was ready to pounce.

I slammed the door and leant against it, panting, my heart smashing hard against my ribs. At length, I caught my breath and looked around. The cottage was just as I had left it, nothing out of place. Outside, it remained strangely silent. I did not want to go to the window, but I forced myself - standing as far away from the pane as possible - and looked out. The path was empty, aside from a robin perching on a branch a short distance from the door. I watched him, willing him to see me, to fly nearer and bear me company for a few precious moments.

When he flew away, I sat down, confounded and alone, but some part of me was conscious that night was coming, and I roused myself and lit the fire. I made tea, then I waited in silence, listening to the clock on the mantel tick, and ran my fingers across the many marks that stained the wooden table top. Half an hour passed. A clap of thunder sounded away in the distance.

I tried to compose myself. I knew she, too, was waiting - waiting for the storm to break. I focused on my forefinger, with its bloodied knuckle still unwashed, as it traced out the scars on the wood of the table. Where this morning I only dimly registered a place to rest my bowl and cup, I now saw the marks I had made as a child: the attempt to scratch out my name in wavering square letters. Lottie. The tears came unbidden. Then I counted my father's idle and unconscious tallies, made with his knife on the occasions when he had waited overlong for his dinner, and, last of all, I traced out the black ring my mother made when she set the kettle down forgetfully the night my grandmother died.

I blew my nose and dried my eyes. Lightning flickered – a sheet away in the distance, beyond the mill. I saw my life etched out on the table top, each scratch a diary entry: a memory. When I looked up, it was dark outside, and the rumble of the thunder was closer. Blinking away more tears, I closed the shutters and tended the fire.

Suddenly I was hungry. I toasted some bread over the dancing flames, letting them lick the edges until they were black. Porridge with water boiled in the pot. I recall vividly how the smell of it made me less hungry. It still does. I dipped in the bread, and then stirred the black crumbs into the grey slop. It did not help.

My heart still felt heavy, so I make more tea. The wind had begun to howl outside, and I swear that the sound of a deeper howling was close to the cottage walls. My pallet looked cold, so I huddle by the fire, and when I woke a dim light was eking through the slats of the shutters. Morning. I should have been relieved, but my eyes fell on the table top again and my heart still ached. I made tea and went to work. Beyond the brambles, the wolf walked by my side, and her yellow eyes watched me through red rims. I pulled my shawl tight about me and ran. She ran too.


Winter came. I had given up running. The days were short and cold, and I hated more than ever to leave my fireside. Some days I did not move. Life was simple. No work, no pay. No porridge, just tea. Tea straight and thin. My dress fell about me like a rag, and the brush could not get through my hair.

One day I recall setting my cup down on the table, and my finger tracing out the black ring burnt into the wood. Then, when darkness fell, I asked myself how it was that the day had gone by so quickly. I saw that soot lined the window, so I raised myself and took a cloth to one solitary pane. So many jobs to do. I set the kettle on the fire. But then I told myself that this would not do. I recalled that beyond the wood there was a red-brick mill, and people and horses and churches with bells that rung out on a Sunday. I opened the door. The wolf stood on the path. Patient. Waiting. Her eyes were yellow and bloodshot, and her fur was inky black in the moonlight. Without warning, she leapt...

I woke in my seat by the fire. It had burnt low, and the logs were white, and spat and hissed only faintly. The poker made them crumble, but the wind fanned the flames. The wind... The door was open. My heart faltered, but the tiny room was empty aside from myself.


Spring came. After that winter night, I did not see the wolf again. Sometimes I imagine that I hear her paws padding in the distance, but the new leaves grow day by day, so perhaps this is what makes the subtle sound that is so hard to catch, and that seems to hold its breath as I stand still amidst the trees.

Today, as I approach the mill, the wood falls away behind me, and the great chimney towers, boasting its million soot-covered bricks, and belches out smoke that leaves grime in every raindrop. Real life. I look down to admire the flowers on my shirt. Hooves clatter on the cobbles, and a man cries out to a coach driver to mind his way. Real life.

I do not worry about following the path through the wood as I walk home. It is light, and the evening sun cuts down through the trees, breaking into the clearing and falling on my little wooden door. I leave it standing open as I light a small fire. I have placed a cloth on the table now, claiming it as my own - part of the present and not the past.

The kettle sings as the sun sets. I push the door closed, noticing as I do that the first stars are appearing in a sky that is still tinged with mauve.

Then I lean back in my chair, resting, and add another log to the fire. I am still alone, but all is well. No shadows. Tomorrow is Sunday, and the church bells will ring out across the town.

My feet are warm, and I am at ease. I look down and see that they are resting on soft fur the colour of slate. My heart contracts so sharply that it hurts, and I spill some of the tea that I am holding in my lap. The wolf stretches, but she does not wake.

I breath. My feet remain warm and firmly in place. I sip my tea again. Strong, with no sugar. It tastes like real life, made up from a million soot-covered bricks.

©Donna Brown 2018 

Top of Page: Detail from 'Manchester from Kersal Moor' by William Wyld.