Yes, there are wolves in India, though all you see are thickets moving in the wind, shimmering grass. They appear in the distance, eyes shining like water on a dry road, and disappear as you draw nearer, their loping figures wavering into heat waves or dust settling beneath the rippling air. Look as if you are not looking, and, if you are very lucky, Bent Ear may lift his head from where he naps among the thorns. His ancestors padded down from the foothills of Jammu and Kashmir, ur-wolves shedding the thick coats their kind wore in the Himalaya, keeping only a shaggy cape across nape and shoulders. Fringe trailed in a dark ridge along their spines and tails.
For the love of such a wolf, the Rig Veda says, young Rjrasva slaughtered a hundred and one wethers. His angry father blinded him, and the she-wolf howled to the Ashvins, Oh oh, sons of the clouds scudding across the sky, bringers of thunder and rain, workers of wonder, restore his sight! Or she howled out only Oh oohoo oh, but the Ashvins knew what she meant. They gave him back his eyes. It was the age of miracles, and they understood the mysteries of loving and being beloved.
But that was nearly four thousand years ago, when time was season slipping into season, when wolves beyond counting coursed hare, barking deer, and herds of blackbuck across the pale pages of the savannahs of Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. The wolves of India, smaller than their mountain kin, red as dirt, golden tawny or overcast, backs speckled with grains of black, bellies pale as warm sand—you’d know one if you saw one up close, but now they are rare. Even the wandering shepherds say, The wolves are dust; they can neither be read nor captured.
Bent Ear’s kind is older than gray wolves, older than the book of deeds, older even than the first farms. After agriculture scraped the parchment, it rewrote the plains, this time without antelope or deer. So the wolves of India lowered their thick necks and powerful shoulders and tore at the livestock pens. They leapt fences to hunt sheep and goats, and were hunted in return. In the dry seasons of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they rose like dust devils, swept into villages, and carried off children. Mostly to eat, though Shamdeo learned to crouch and growl and look away. Like a younger brother, not prey. No Mowgli, this feral child who died half-tamed in an orphanage, talking with his paws, unable to sign, Where is my four-footed family?
When farmers speak, the story ends after the pack wolfs down a poisoned offering. With their bones scattered around an empty space.
Nomadic shepherds tell a different tale. Long ago, Ramappo says, there were three brothers, and when their parents died and they divided things up, two of them took more than their share. The third brother cursed them always to wander, and so they do, still, in the old way. They walk with their sheep on dusty roads and cross-country, or cut through traffic in Raichur, as if the land were not mapped and owned. When the fields open up again, sun-darkened men go off with the grazing flock while women set up the camp. Young and weak sheep are penned nearby. A frail stockade in this day and age! Water to be fetched! Sometimes wolves pull the sticks loose and take a lamb. Ramappo says his people do not begrudge the loss. Wolf is our brother, taking his share. He reminds us we have always been greedy.
- Bent Ear
When a researcher comes, the shepherd turns his turbaned head and tells him nothing. Until he’s sure the stranger is not there to kill the wolves. Then Ramappo speaks of Bent Ear, who can pull a stake and snatch a ewe in perfect silence. Bent Ear is not a legend. He is lean and strong and wise, so he has lived long. Even when he lifts his head, his right ear-tip stays folded down, as if listening to an inner voice. He winds through thick grass and steps on stones so that he passes with barely a footprint.
Bent Ear’s family dens on a hillside it takes the researcher years to find, even after hiring a retired hunter to help.
Because the wolves of Bent Ear’s pack travel singly, the better not to be seen. They do not howl to the moon or each other, the better not to be heard. They are untouchable. What do they eat when Ramappo’s flock is far away? Whatever scurries and scrabbles among dry stalks. Whatever limps or sickens. Whatever flutters carelessly. The wolves of Bent Ear’s pack have a sweet tooth, too; they rear up and pull branches down to snag ripe berries and fruits. Bananas are best—growing in such lush bunches, there’s enough to go around. Some eat peel and all, some bite and paw to get at the heavy flesh.
Disbelieving, the researcher plants a camera, strings up a bright yellow bonanza. But Bent Ear is careful, circles and backs away. Unexpected bananas are bait. He’ll taste no fruit he’s not seen grow. He’s found too many hungry pups turned belly-up. He’s nosed the bones. Better to be hungry. Better to wait, to believe there will be something safer to eat. And, in time, a sufficiency.
- A Kindness of Species
Weeks later, a red-gold dhole appears in his territory, and Bent Ear does not drive her off. The dog-faced creature whistles softly one morning from a rocky outcrop near the wolf-den. The sun strikes sparks from the rounded crown of her skull, the short brush of her tail. When Bent Ear’s mate emerges into the morning light, she finds the saliva-soaked remains of a mouse. Bent Ear returns. Sniffs the gift and finds it good. Feels, it may be, as if one of his long-gone offspring has come back, ready to help with this year’s litter. He extends a paw and flips the tooth-marked bit into the dark, then turns his concave head, lifts his long muzzle, and makes a sound. A faint, high-pitched yip. Tiny echoes from the cave. The dhole lowers her head and coos, then calmly picks a path up and around the hill to just beneath the crest.
Why is it those on the verges, the edges, the rocks, who share? Somehow these two still speak a common tongue: it’s understood that wolves and wild dog will abide, here, sleeping through the heat of midday, hunting the nearby plains when shadows point the way.
Perhaps this is a survival strategy. The researcher chews the end of his pencil and adds Rivals of different species in his notebook. It’s as difficult for him to understand as Ramappo’s respect for Bent Ear or the old hunter praying silently over a whirlwind of wolf bones. Species, the visible form of the consecrated elements of a sacrament. Bread and wine become body and blood. Species, a group of related individuals that resemble one another and are unable to produce viable offspring with members of another species. From the Latin, Species, form, sort, kind. But among the wonders left in the world, there is the kindness of species among canines, so one may roll to show a belly or make an offering and join the pack. Even more mysteriously, though they may tear out each other’s throats defending territory, gray wolf and dog, Indian wolf and dhole, Eastern wolf and coyote can also bear one another’s pups, and these, pups of their own. In the heat of the moment, in season, or hunted almost to extinction, they may turn to one another and turn, turn to something we have no exact name for. Say, hybrid. Shape-changer. Secret sharer.
If you repeat this story, you won’t be objective any more. You’ll say, Once upon a time and Like this, and use one hand to fold down the top of your ear.
About the Author
Dana Sonnenschein is a professor at Southern Connecticut State University, in New Haven, CT, USA, where she teaches Shakespeare, folklore, and creative writing. Her publications include books of poetry (Bear Country and Natural Forms) and prose poems (Corvus and No Angels but These). Individual pieces have appeared in journals such as Epoch, Feminist Studies, Into the Void (Ireland), Painted Bride Quarterly, The Matador Review, and elsewhere.