Millie

Late in the day the rays of the setting sun come in low on veranda and Grandpa sits there with his sunglasses on and old Bessie at his side, rocking away and puffing his pipe.  In deference to the fact that the “wolves” will come despite their losses the night before, he sports shotgun in the crook of his elbow, in case any of them get through the fence, and there’s usually one or two; and in deference to the idea that there might be more than one or two, he’s got a speed-loader by the chair too.

Grandpa came here long before I was born, back in the day we picked a place and once we landed that was it, we settled.  Days are long, twenty-eight hours, but we adapted, seems natural to me, I was born here, but Grandpa, he still keeps a clock set to Earth time ticking in the hall, says it reminds him how far we’ve come, and that we still reply on our own two hands when it gets right down to it.  Momma says that any anachronism that’s lived so long on an alien planet and still built a clock should be allowed their eccentricities.

Anyhow, we didn’t know about the “wolves” until the day they woke up from whatever hibernation cycle drives them and we lost a quarter of our people before we drew back to the spacecraft and waited out their destruction.

They’re big, ruffed like lions, an apex predator, teeth like a dinosaur, claws curved and sharp.  They’re a strange kind of omnivore, more like a goat in instinct than anything, cutting grass and crops down with scythe-like motion and chewing it they travel and then pouncing on some lesser animal and ripping it up before crunching it to pieces bones and all.  There are days and nights of this and then they retire to their holes and reproduce and hibernate.

They’re vulnerable while they hibernate, dormant even while mating; their long teeth drop out and they spend a long time chewing the cud of the grasses, and even while almost asleep, feeding it to our young ones.  They have to regrow those teeth before they wake up.  You can record the sound of that if you leave a mic in a burrow.  That’s how we know they’re coming now, we listen to their teeth growing; we get maybe a day’s warning.  We’re still not sure how they grow so fast.

They’re smart too, and communicate somehow.  They came specifically for the ones who had been in their burrows, the second time, and then left them alone.  We make them sick, we’re not good to eat.  We lost a quarter of our people, but they lost two-thirds of their population.  They don’t eat us.

But they hate Grandpa.

They evolve fast.  Looking at the pictures they had bigger ruffs and longer teeth, but our presence has changed them, and they run further afield before beginning their hunt.  To protect the crops we just, well stand in the way, they go around us and travel further on.

But they really hate Grandpa.  Grandma was one of that quarter we lost, and Grandpa, he doesn’t forgive easily.  Already the expedition elder, he knew the risks, but he and Grandma came out here with Ma and Pa; said he wanted to settle and die in a new frontier, like the old folks going out west for a new life; and he resented the wolves for taking his wife.  I don’t blame him, but he’s the only person on the planet ever to have harmed one of these critters in their den, and they hate him for it.

They go for him every night he sits out, and he sits out most nights they’re out.  Bessie is on a chain to stop her going after the things, she doesn’t know any better, but Grandpa does, but he won’t do any better; and the wolves come over the fence, if they can jump it, to try and get to Grandpa.

The ethologists say that the ones with the biggest hind legs go after Grandpa, but that doesn’t make any sense because they’re also the one who don’t seem to have had a chance to breed.  Grandpa is shooting all the big fish, so there should only be small fish left.  But this isn’t happening.  Every wolf season their legs, just the ones who try to jump the fence, are getting longer, and they can jump a bit higher.

Every now and again Grandpa puts another foot on the fence, when he can see more than one or two getting over it.  We think there’s a long period of hibernation coming up.  We’ll see what come out after that.

Grandpa, in the meantime likes to let them get right up to the veranda sometimes before he lets loose.  He shouts Grandma’s name at them.  Out of respect and fear we don’t call anyone else by that name, generally.

We didn’t get it, really.  We were arrogant, came to another world out here in the depths of space, found a place where we could live and took over a little corner of it, brought our invasive plant species here, made it our home irrespective of the idea that it might be anyone else’s home.  We couldn’t understand how alien things could be in even simple ways.  The place seemed a paradise with one flaw which we overcame.  Once our scientists had been in their burrows and not harmed them, we were not a threat anymore.  We’re not good to eat and not a threat, but that’s never been good enough for animals on Earth, they don’t think like that generally.  They have complex behaviours, true, but there is no passing on, no culture, and no control over their own evolution.

We laughed at the ethologists when they said it.

A lot.

We’d had not experience as a species of something that could and would control its own evolution.  That would converge and diverge on purpose.

These wolves, could do, can do all of this and something more now.

The hibernation came and Grandpa relaxed his guard and it would be easy to say that it was his undoing; but that would minimize what the wolves did.

There were twenty of them when they came out this time, twenty looking nothing so much like something that had evolved into a kangaroo, powerful hind legs but the killing power of the giant wolves.  He was sitting there and sucking on his pipe as usual when he saw them come bounding over the fence, clearing it by a good ten feet and racing over the ground towards him.  Grandpa was nothing if not a realist and he stood up just as they reached him and spread his arms wide just as they took him.  I was there.

All the animals stopped, I thought I was going to die too, but one just put its claw through his heart.  Didn’t rip him up, didn’t attack really, just killed him clean.  I was so angry, I took up the shot gun, I wanted to kill them all for taking Grandpa too.

But the one that killed him lay down in front of me, head between its paws and claws and just waited while I pointed the gun at it, and I just couldn’t.  I couldn’t.  I don’t know what I saw that day, but I couldn’t pull that trigger even for Grandpa.

We took the fence down, and buried Grandpa behind his shack, built with his own two hands on a world a trillion kilometres from the place of his birth.  Mayor said a few words and then the wolves came among us, padding along silently and shouldering a space between us.  They raised their heads up and howled a howl like we’d never heard, a terrible and sad sound mourning the old man laying there. Then they lay down while we filled in the grave, great tears pouring out of their eyes and making tracks down their fur.

I miss Grandpa, and sometimes I sit on veranda outside his old shack with Bessie.  The kangaroo wolves come and sit sometimes too.  The ethologists come and watch them get old, you can see it day by day.  The kangaroo wolves never hibernate, they just roam far afield and eat and return for sundown on those days they come, and let out a howl every now and again for Grandpa.

Time passed, and so did the kangaroo wolves and so did Bessie, and we buried her and the wolves behind the shack with Grandpa, last relics of and old war.  The new wolves came and howled for the old, and then moved on.

Me and mine, we had a baby and since Grandpa was gone I called her in memory of Grandma, and Momma said she was proud of me for not carrying on that war.  We had a naming in a few weeks, and usually we’d take any new born to the wolves in the short while so they’d get the scent and treat the child well; but this time, was different.  Naming was outside as the weather was clement, and we say some wolves round the edge, but short toothed and short haired.

We let them in to the gathering and I had a thought and showed them wolves, wolves in full control of themselves, not dopey and vulnerable, I showed them the baby and there was something in their eyes, a question, something.

I told them her name and I thought I heard something in reply.

I said it again, and listened with wonder as the wolves took it up and said it again and again, echoing and repeating until it seemed all the world was saying it…

“Millie.”