At seven, Max feels old – for a sheepdog. Old and somehow lost.
Rounding up the sheep no longer fills him with pride and even the farmyard games seem a little less exciting.
The little white-tailed deer trots over from the barn, dips her head and butts him gently. Max knows this means she wants to play, but he turns his face to make her stop. Pig is next, her flat, pig nose snuffling about in the mud. Max understands that this means she is hungry and content. The snorts attract cat and Max pricks his ears. Cat is unpredictable. This time the old ginger tom flops into the hay and begins to clean his ears and Max relaxes.
Behind the mountains, the sun is starting to set and he drops to his belly to stare into the forest that carpets their lower slopes. If he lifts his ears, he can hear the wild wolves howl.
Not just hear. Hear and understand.
We are free, call the wolves. Free and wild. And this is our land.
Max barks and waits to see if they hear. Hear him and understand.
Beside him, the little deer lowers herself awkwardly to the ground, leaning into Max, nuzzling her soft face into his fur, settling herself for sleep. She smells of milk and hay and Max lets out a soft snuffle. Of all the animals, he loves the little deer best. Max found the deer when she was barely two days old; alone and starving. It was Farmer who had carried her back to the farm but it had been Max who had nurtured her to health, cleaning her matted fur and offering his warmth during the long nights. The little deer had been his constant companion ever since.
The next day, Farmer takes Max to the furthest edge of their land to gather in the sheep. It’s the closest Max has ever been to the wild forest. The trees are tall here, and smell different. It makes his heart beat fast, and he wonders what it would be like to run free.
Back at the farm, he snaps at little deer when she approaches. He wants to be left alone. To think. When the wolves fill the valley with their howls, thinking takes him out into the fields.
We are free, they call and Max feels his skin tingle.
He crosses the field, edges past the farm sheds and splashes through the stream. The forest becomes larger and his walk becomes a run.
As he plunges into the trees, he doesn’t stop to look back. If he had, he would have seen the little deer watching him go.
The forest is different from the open fields. It smells of resin and mould and the ground is spongy with leaves that look like tiny needles. The very newness of it makes his skin all shivery with excitement and he breathes deeply. But it is dark, too, and Max slows to a cautious walk, his nose pointed West towards the dying sun and to where the howls echo loudest.
The moon is rising, when he encounters his first wolf.
It is larger than he was expecting, broader, taller and thick with muscle and fur. Its head is high, tail erect. Max immediately knows that this is the leader of the pack; the alpha male. He can smell its dominance.
A branch splits with a loud crack and he spins around.
There are eight grey wolves emerging from the trees. Their voices fill the night with yips, growls, snarls and howls as they begin to communicate.
To Max it is a language he understands.
What is it? asks a young female.
A male sniffs his flank. It stinks of deer and dog and pig.
Let me drive it away, growls another.
Kill it, snaps a pup.
It is mine to kill, growls the alpha female. I saw it first.
The alpha male approaches and Max drops to the ground, his ears flattened; submissive. He is deeply frightened and lets out a whimper.
It is the farm dog, says the leader. He bares his teeth and snarls. Wolves have no love for dogs.
Max rolls onto his back, exposing his belly. Don’t hurt me, he whines. I accept you as my leader. My pack.
The youngest pup nips at Max’s tail. Let it stay, she yips. It’s cute.
The other wolves relax and for Max, the danger is suddenly over.
Being a wolf is not what Max is expecting.
It is both harder and more exhilarating. He has to learn to sleep during the day and spend hours running through the night. For a farm dog use to a soft bed and rest, this isn’t easy. Even for a work dog.
He also finds out that he is physically weaker than the wolves; and slower.
Run faster, howl the pack. Smell the blood. Catch to Kill.
Max struggles to keep up but for the first time in his life he feels free.
Faster, snarl the wolves. Catch to kill. Kill to eat. Eat to live.
I am wolf, howls Max. And I am free.
When the pack bring down an elk he is shocked at the smell and heat of the blood. He has only ever eaten food brought to him by the Farmer, food that is soft and wet; and dead.
For three nights he runs. By the fourth night his paws are tender and sore, and he begins to limp behind.
It is too slow, growls the alpha female. Slower than the pups. She nips at his ankles. It does not help to hunt, she snarls. It should not share. It is not wolf.
There is tension in the air and the pack looks to their leader. It shall make the next kill, he says.
Max is both pleased and afraid. He has never killed anything larger than a spider. He is a farm dog, a gentle dog. I am wolf, he howls out loud. I am wolf and I will hunt.
That night, as Max stares out from the forest, he notices the lights from the farm and remembers the little deer. His ears and tail droop and for the first time he feels less than happy. Less than wolf.
Faster, howl the wolves. Catch the scent. Smell the blood.
The pack has caught the scent of prey and they are hot on its heels. The trees are a blur and Max is at the front of the pack.
Smell the blood. Catch to kill, he howls and breathes the air deep. The scent follows a narrow ravine and Max swerves in pursuit. He crosses a stream and plunges back into the trees. His paws fly over the soft earth and every kilometre is a heartbeat.
I am wolf, he howls. And I am free.
He finally catches up with his prey on the edge of a clearing. It is small and Max rejoices in the knowledge that the killing will be easy.
The creature is trembling, its body already exhausted by the chase.
I am wolf, snarls Max.
It is only when the moon clears the trees that he sees that it is the little white-tailed deer from the farm. He can see the fear in her eyes and is ashamed.
Behind him the pack gather.
Catch to kill, growls the alpha male.
Kill to eat, snarl the pack.
But Max knows that he can never kill the little deer and turns instead to face the wolves. A growl buries itself deep in his throat and he pulls back his lips, and bares his teeth.
I am dog, he barks. And I will not let you kill this prey.
The alpha male leaps first.
Max meets the wolf face on and is knocked onto his side. Pain explodes in his shoulder. He springs to his feet and is hit a second time. Teeth tear at his side and he yelps in agony. He snaps at a leg and tastes blood in his mouth. All around, the wolves are howling and his heart pounds.
There are too many, he thinks. I cannot win this fight.
A loud crack splits the night and the wolves stop motionless. A second crack sends the pack tearing into the trees.
A familiar shape emerges from the dark, and Max lets slip a soft whimper.
Farmer carries Max all the way back to the farm.
‘You were lucky I was following after that daft deer,’ says Farmer. He washes Max’s wounds and feeds him chicken softened with water. ‘Those wolves would have killed the pair of you.’
Max lifts his head at the mention of little deer, pain and anxiety drawing out a whine.
‘Don’t you worry,’ says Farmer, understanding Max very well. ‘Your little friend is fine.’ He pushes to his feet, and Max sees what he’d missed before.
Little deer is lying less than a metre away her eyes telling him that she is still afraid. There is a blood-spotted bandage around one leg.
I’m sorry, whimpers Max. Please Little Deer.
Little deer struggles to her feet and approaches on shaky legs.
Max wags his tail to show his love, and little deer lowers herself into his side, her face nuzzling into his neck, her smell of milk and hay all that Max needs to knows that little deer is safe and he is home.