Read the first chapter here: https://www.facebook.com/notes/killer-reads/the-wolf-road-excerpt/1070263376373854
Get a sneak peak of The Wolf Road, the debut novel from Beth Lewis, out June 30th in hardback and eBook. This extract carries on from chapter 1, which you can read on Facebook. Click ‘read more’ or scroll down to continue to the second chapter.
The Beginning or Close as You Gonna Get
When the thunderhead comes, drumming through the sky, you take cover, you lock your doors and you find a place to pray because if it finds you, there ain’t no going back. When the thunderhead came to Ridgeway, my clapboard town, I had nowhere to hide. Seven years old I was and screaming up something fierce at my nana. She wanted me to go collect pine resin for the lamps. Said it made ’em burn with a pretty smell. I told her pretty is for fools and I didn’t want no pine smelling up my house.
‘My house, girl,’ she said, ‘you just a guest here till your parents come back. Pray that it be soon.’
I think I had a different name back then. Don’t remember Nana ever calling me Elka.
I told her to go spit seeds and started howling.
‘That mouth of yours is black as the goddamn devil’s,’ she shouted in that tone what meant I was in for a beating. Saw her reaching for her walking stick. Had me welts the shape a’ that stick fresh on my back.
‘My mouth ain’t nothin’, you ain’t my momma, you can’t tell me nothin’.’ I was wailing and trying my damnedest to push over the eating table, to send all them plates and three types a’ fork scattering all over. That’d show her, I figured, show her good.
Nana let out one a’ her big sighs. Seen other old folk in Ridgeway sigh like that, like they weren’t just sick a’ the person giving them ire but sick a’ the world what was full a’ them. All them years, Nana must a’ been hundreds, all them wrinkles creasing up her face, that sigh is what them years sound like, wheezing, long, and dog-tired.
‘Your momma,’ Nana said, ‘my fool of a daughter, running off with that man.’ She looked at me like I was Momma for a minute, kindness in her eye, then must a’ seen that Daddy half a’ me and got mad again. She clenched up all her teeth so hard I wondered brief if they was going to crack and fly out her head.
‘They coming back to get me,’ I said, whining voice full a’ tears. ‘Daddy gonna show you the back a’ his hand for beating me.’
Nana laughed, high-pitched and trilling like a shrike bird. ‘Your daddy’s too busy hunting gold up in the North and your momma’s too busy shining his boots to think of you, girl. You’re stuck with me and I’m stuck with you so you better go out and get that resin or so help me child I’ll beat you blue.’
Nana’s fists was tight and her body was shaking. She was a rake of a woman but she was Mussa valley born, built head to toe out a’ grit and stubborn. She had strength in her what you’d never credit behind that paper skin. Broke my arm once, she did, with just them hands a’ hers.
I crossed my arms over my chest and I huffed and I said I didn’t want no pine and I hated pine ’bout as much as I hated her.
Then she threw up her arms, sick of me, and said she was going walking.
‘Don’t you follow me,’ she said. ‘I don’t even want to look at you no more.’
She’d been gone not half an hour when the sky boomed black, cut out the sun. Sounded like a mountain splitting apart. No matter how many times I’ve heard that since, I get the fear. Cold runs up my bones from my toes to my skull. I shake. I sweat like a snow fox in summer. All because of that day. All because my nana left me alone when the thunderhead came.
Our little two-room shack, far out in the forest, didn’t stand a chance against that weather. Nana said her and Grandpa, afore he died in the Second Conflict some twenty years past, rebuilt that shack a hundred times and she’d rebuild it a hundred more no doubt. Nana and me was like butting rams most days but not all my thoughts a’ that shack were dark. When that thunderhead came, I sure as shit wanted that woman and them iron arms round my shoulders.
I saw the thunderhead coming down from the north, rolling ’tween the hills at the top of our valley. Our idiot valley. Acted like a corral, funnelled all that raging storm right toward our forest, our front door, and to Ridgeway a few miles down the way. It kicked up rocks and broken branches and mashed them all together with ice and rain. I saw it out the window, roaring down the hill like a grizzly in heat.
Ground shook. My toes went cold. The roof ripped off and smashed against the cedars. I don’t remember screaming but I’m sure I was. Felt like all hell was coming down on my seven-year-old shoulders. Cracking thunder all but deafened me. Hail and rain all but froze me solid. I hid under the eating table, arms and legs wrapped tight around its leg, and shouted at it all to go away, leave me be. Shouted for my nana to come back. Cursed her name more’n once.
Then I was in the air. Table lifted up like a dry leaf and afore I knew it, I was too high to let go. I dug my nails into the wood and scrunched up my eyes. Rocks and twigs snagged at me, cut up my arms and legs, pulled out my hair in clumps. Tiny balls of ice hit my face and felt like hot metal filings. That wind threw me and the table around like we was nothing. Only existing for the fun of the thunder. Table got ripped away or I let go, I don’t know. Spinning and careening and screaming. No idea if sky was up, rock was down or if I was already dead.
I don’t know much a’ what happened next. The storm must a’ let me go, had enough of playing. Next thing I knew I was falling, rushing air pulling at me, storm passing off to the east. Head-first into the Thick Woods. I fell through close branches, smells of cedar and alder and cypress. Cradled me, slowed me, till one a’ them branches didn’t want to let me go. My vest ripped and snagged and I was swinging ten feet up from the dirt. Felt blood on me and cuts stinging and my lungs was stripped from screaming. Then my vest ripped and I dropped. Landed with a thud on the moss, a pain shooting right up my back.
Dazed, I was. I remember that clear as spring. The thunderhead blew itself out over the ridge. They never last long though they make sure you never forget them. I sat in that same spot in the Thick Wood, swaying, gathering up all that had just happened in my baby head. Trying to make some kind a’ sense of it all. Could a’ been ten minutes. Could a’ been half a day. Think it was when I started to get hungry that I snapped out of it.
Everything was green and brown. Couldn’t see the sky for the branches. Couldn’t see more’n a few feet in front of me. Lucky I was small and could squeeze ’tween the trunks.
‘Nana,’ I shouted. ‘Nana, where you at?’
But the forest didn’t answer. Didn’t take me long to realise Nana weren’t coming.
She said we lived south in the valley. Ridgeway town was souther still. Showed it me on a map one time. I figured the thunderhead came from the north so that’s where it took me back to. My young head said go south. South was down on the map so that’s the way I went. Down any hill I could find.
Got lost quick.
I tried picturing all those places on that map of BeeCee. That’s what we call our country now, just letters of its real name what most people have forgot or don’t care to remember. The map said that old name behind all the scribblings, all the new borders and territories my nana drawn on, but I could only read letters then, not whole words. All I know is that one day all the maps became useless and we had to make our own. The old’uns called that day the Fall or the Reformation. Nana said some down in the far south called it Rapture. Nana was a babe when it happened, said her momma called it the Big Damn Stupid. Set everything back to zero. I never asked why, never much cared. Life is life and you got to live it in the here-now not the back-then. And the here-now for little me was the Thick Woods with night coming fast.
I had these little boots on, cute things stitched from marten pelt, soft and warm but no good for travelling. They tore up in a few hours. The thunderhead torn a swatch out a’ the knee of my denims and them trees had chewed up my vest so’s it was barely hanging onto me. Seven-year-old me walked till it got dark. Belly rumbling worse than the storm. I started crying proper then, big fat tears, blubbering and wailing. I huddled myself inside a hollowed-out log as the darkness crept through the trees. Bugs and grubs crawled all over me. I shivered so hard it shook rotten wood dust into my hair.
Never been alone before. Always had Nana close by and afore her, though I barely remember them, my momma and dad. Nana said they’d gone north, far far up the world to find their fortune and bring it home to me. That was a few years ago. They sent a letter ’bout a year after they went, brought to the Ridgeway general store by some kind traveller heading that way. I couldn’t read it course but I made Nana read it to me till I knew all them words like I know my own name. Words like gold and sluice and them what sounded foreign and exciting: Halveston, the Great YK, Carmacks, Martinsville. My momma and daddy’s names. I made Nana read them over and over. Made the world and them sound close and far all at one time, that letter did. I kept it ’neath my pillow, ink fading with readings and years. Put an ache in my chest thinking the thunderhead took it.
I sniffed hard, sucked up all my fears, and tried to sleep. Worst night of my life that was. No matter all them nights that came after. No matter all those cold, dark things that happened. That one night was the worst. It was the first time I realised that you’re all you’ve got in this world. One moment you can be in your home, fire in the grate, clothes on your back, your kin nattering beside you, the next moment you’re lost. Taken up by the thunderhead and dropped into nowhere. No point fixating on all those other things. My nana weren’t here, that letter weren’t here. My parents sure as shit weren’t here. I had me and I had this log and, though I would’ve loved some hot stew right then, I couldn’t much complain. I wriggled about, got somewhere close to comfort and shut my eyes.
Something scratched at the side of the log. Claws running down bark. My eyes sprung open.
My heart damn-near stopped. Night was full, I must a’ been sleeping. Moonlight cut through the branches. Sky’s always crystal after a storm, almost brighter’n day sometimes. But these woods were thick and old and I couldn’t see further than the swaying fern tips an arms reach outside the log.
Fern twitched. Heart raced.
Scrabbling got louder. Came closer.
I stopped breathing, hoping it wouldn’t find me. I thought I saw bear claws, heard big grizzly sniffling. Forest was playing tricks. I burst out that log quicker than a rabbit down a hole and ran. Ran and ran and ran. Didn’t look back once. Not a clue how long I ran for, how far. Then I smelt smoke and saw a light.
‘Nana,’ I shouted. ‘Nana! I found you!’
The hut sat square in a small clearing. This weren’t Nana’s shack. This place was smaller. A pipe out the roof puffed smoke and the light spilling out the window showed the fire inside was burning hot. A wooden awning came off the front, propped up with two thick trunks and below it, close to the door, two A-frames stretching deer hide. Dozen or so metal traps clinked together, hung over a branch. Wire snares, broken and not, littered all over the ground and hanging from trees. Thin strips of red meat dried on racks. Sight of them made my belly grumble and filled up my mouth with water. Nana always told me not to steal from good folks but I figured there were so many the trapper wouldn’t miss just one strip. ’Sides I didn’t know if he was good folks and Nana never said nothing ’bout stealing from the bad’uns.
I snuck up, quiet as a wolf on the hunt, listening all around for trouble. The racks were just under the awning and I had to pass by one of the windows. I told myself I was a shadow, invisible in the dark and I could run so fast no fat old trapper could catch me. The smell of that meat was a drug. That metallic tang, that sting of salt and smoke. I thought I could smell juniper in it, maybe even some apple wood. Sweet and salty and close enough to touch. I yanked a wide strip of that jerky and a high-pitched bell rang at the door. Smart trapper. Alarmed his dinner in case of bears and hungry girls.
Big boots stomped inside. I shoved the jerky in my mouth and ran. Couldn’t tell what meat it was, deer or moose or something else, but it tasted as good as it smelt. The hut door flung open. The trapper didn’t shout but I looked back anyway. Hat on his head, just a black shape, but he had a shotgun. Wasn’t no law out in those parts and he had every right to shoot a thief on his land. I forced my tired legs to run.
Then I heard him coming after me.
I was a hare darting quick and low and quiet. He was a lumbering ox, crashing through.
My heart thundered. I didn’t want to die in that forest, shot for taking a mouthful of meat I didn’t even get to enjoy. Curse that thunderhead for dropping me here. I cried and bawled. Must a’ been screaming. That trapper followed me close. He never shouted for me to stop, same as you don’t shout for a buck to stop afore you pull the trigger.
He’s going to kill me, I thought. Shoot me to shreds.
A trailing scrap of fur on my boots caught on a branch, tripped me. Don’t know how I kept that jerky in my mouth but I did, even as I fell ass over face into a dry creek bed. Landed face-first in the dirt and everything went quiet. No more ox crashing. No more footsteps.
I’d lost him. I got the better of that trapper. Got his jerky and got away. I sat up on my knees and ripped off a chunk of that meat, swallowed it whole.
Something made me look over my shoulder. That feeling you get in your bones when someone is watching you. A shadow stood over me.
Big and black and breathing. I didn’t even see the butt of the shotgun.