Understanding Causal Relationships In Animal Groups

by Kiel Stuart

 

Thunder made an ominous growl. Declan Moore sat in the cramped living room of his brother’s apartment, the party in full swing around him.

He had done it. Bought a house. Couldn’t wait to make the announcement.

But things weren’t going as he planned.

The party got noisier. Uneasy, Declan glanced around. No one else noticed the coming storm. They nestled close to each other, a pack of laughing, chattering, eating creatures.

“Ma!” Kate waded through the crowd. “More cole slaw?”

Ma shook her head, spraying a muffled sentence part cole slaw, part refusal. Two-year-old Francie, whose birthday they were celebrating, bumbled over and Ma grabbed the child’s pink cheeks. It was Ma whom Declan resembled, small and dark, not his big, loose-limbed father. Brother John had gotten all the size.

“So.” John lumbered up, beer in hand. “Got yourself a new house?” He made it an accusation.

And Declan found himself explaining how the recent construction boom on Long Island meant lots of work for everyone, house painters included, so Declan could finally buy a home of his own, a two-bedroom handyman special. It needed fixing up.

John, nodding and smiling, had already tuned Declan out. The doorbell rang and John went to answer, leaving Declan in Kate’s line of sight.

For an instant, Kate’s eyes flashed yellow.

John’s wife was a big girl, rosy-cheeked like baby Francie. Declan managed her a quivery smile, but Kate turned away.

John brought the new arrival to greet Declan. “Tina,” said John, his voice already slurring at the edges, “allow me to introduce my brother, the house painter, who bought himself a brand new home all on his little ol’ house-painter salary.”

Tina looked as if she’d like to sink into the orange shag carpeting.

Declan lowered his head, felt his mouth stretch in appeasement. If big John wanted a fight, there was nothing Dec could do to stop it.

“I think Kate’s calling you,” said Tina.

John grunted, shouldering through the crowd.

“Dec, why ain’t you eatin’?” Kate shouted. “Everyone else is eatin’.”

Declan sank into a chair. “Not hungry, thanks.” Besides, he was so tense he might upchuck right in front of all his brother’s friends. Now wouldn’t that just be a sight. Wouldn’t that be something for Johnny Moore to laugh about.

“Why’n’cha eat?” wondered Ma. “Boy your age should eat.”

Boy your age, mused Declan, I’m 33.

“And a boy your age should be married, shouldn’t he?” Ma glanced around the room, seeking an audience.

“Dec don’t need a wife,” laughed John. “Dec has himself a cat.”

“Look at your brother,” continued Ma. “Is that too much to ask, Dec? So when you gonna gimme some grandchildren?” Ma pinched Francie’s cheek too hard; the baby began to bawl, and John dove in to the rescue, picking her up, rocking her into quiet. Unfazed, Ma continued. “How ‘bout it, Dec?”

“I’ll run out to K-Mart tomorrow and buy a couple.”

The older kids sniggered. Declan, glad to share a moment with someone, anyone, winked at them.

“Dec’s too busy to get married, Ma,” said Kate, taking Francie and setting her down. “He’s too busy out there in the Hamptons with all his hoity-toity cocktail party friends.”

Declan’s breath caught. Hampton Bays was a working man’s town and Declan’s “car” was his business truck, an ancient Nissan beater with a patchwork paint job.

Tears forgotten, Francie toddled around the room, bumping into legs like a friendly little animal.

“Lay offa Dec,” John said, and clapped a hand on Declan’s shoulder. That same big hand had snatched food from Declan’s plate when they were kids, held toys at arm’s length. “Lay offa my little brother. He’s okay. He can’t help it if he’s too busy. He can’t help it if he lives all the way out on Long Island. Can’t help it if he’s too tired to ride from the Hamptons into Jersey.”

“Road goes both ways,” Declan muttered.

“Well now,” said John, looking down at Francie. “Well, now. Kind of a rough trip to take with the kids and all.”

“Francie’s too young to drag out all that way,” said Kate.

“When she’s older, then.” But Johnny was 10, Quint 8. The kids would be in retirement communities before Kate deemed them ‘old enough.’

“And you think money grows on trees?”

“Tolls aren’t that high.” Ah, I walked straight into that.

“No, I guess they wouldn’t be, not to someone who lives in the Hamptons with no kids, no expenses. Well, we’re working folks. You think we’re all just sitting here, waiting for Mr. Hamptons to crook his finger so we can come running—”

“Kate,” John said, taking her arm.

A growl of thunder split the silence. Kate was red-faced; John grave; Ma was shaking her head; the kids were wide-eyed, hoping for further entertainment.

Declan’s throat rasped. “I wonder how it is,” he said, “that I can be two people. The nothing of a house painter and the cocktail party Hamptonite all at the same time.”

“Don’t smart off to your brother.” Ma eyed them both.

“But I thought that’s what brothers do. Give and take.”

Ma blinked. “You’re drunk,” she opined.

“I don’t drink. I’m not my father. I’m not even Johnny.”

“Oh, I get it.” Kate shook free of John’s arm. “Mr. Perfect. Too good for the rest of us now.”

“What do you mean, you don’t drink?” Ma peered up at Declan. “You’re always yacking about that bar you hang out in, that fancy Casa Whatsitsname, that—”

“They do serve ginger ale in bars.”

They stood in a line, ranged against him. He edged toward the door.

“It’s a long drive back,” Declan said to no one in particular. “I want to beat the rain.” He went out and headed for his old truck.

He didn’t beat the rain. It started up as a steady gray stream as he sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Verrazzano Bridge. He hated being stuck on a bridge; he could feel the narrow surface sway beneath his pickup. The bridge would collapse and plunge him into the water.

When he was little, very little, and his father still around, the family had rented a car for a “drive in the country”. They had to go over the Throgg’s Neck Bridge, Declan’s first encounter with such a structure. As the car drew closer, Declan stared in horror up at the wild swoop of suspension wires, certain the car would be forced to ride up there, that the winds would push them off, that they’d all be killed. John had laughed at his terror.

Now a solid line of cars snaked across the Belt Parkway, as far as the road was visible. The sky darkened to night.

What was the alternate route, he wondered, The Brooklyn Queens Expressway? He wasn’t familiar with that road, but anything was better than standing still in a curtain of rain.

A glance at his Atlas showed a linkup with the Long Island Expressway at exit 35. It seemed a lifeline.

Home! Rain hammered the car, but at least traffic was moving. He looked at the dashboard clock. He had left at seven; it was now close to nine.

He made the turn. The rain stopped. A dense fog replaced it, cutting off the long view.

There were no other cars with him now. His headlights stabbed down a long twisty ribbon of blacktop. Come on, come on! he pleaded silently, but the truck bumbled along at a maddening slow pace, as if something was clogging the fuel filter.

The fog thinned. He was not on a road, but a slender grass bordered pathway into a park. Did I ever take a wrong turn.

The truck rolled onto the grass and stopped. The motor shut itself off. The headlights died.

His nerves were so taut he felt like crying. He tried the ignition again. Nothing. He tapped the dashboard clock; it, too, had stopped.

Sighing, he got out to pop the hood.

A metal pole lamp cast a circle of light. Grass and trees for about a twenty-foot radius, the rest curtained by night and fog.

Declan stood on the wet grass, leaning over the hood of the pickup. The world was holding its breath.

Sausages of fog floated past. He put a hand on his truck. The metal felt cold. As if the engine had been off for hours, not minutes.

The hairs on the back of his neck lifted.

Someone’s watching.

For several heartbeats he stood alone in the circle of light. Then, he heard a sound, and his heart took a painful leap. Like a horn blasting in his ear, wavering up and down in a full-throated aria: the howling of wolves.

Adrenaline slashed through him. He had no weapon; even his tire iron layout of reach. Turning inch by inch, Declan brought his body around so the truck’s hood was at his back.

Eyes shining in the dark.

Eyes like penlights, in pairs, glinting neon green, arrayed in a semi-circle a little over twenty feet from where he pressed against the cold comfort of his truck.

One pair of eyes detached from the group, and wavered toward him. Bobbing closer, two lambent ovals approached the circle of lamplight, until the pale glow revealed its form entirely.

His mind tried to tell him it was a dog. His blood knew it was not.

The wolf—a long-muzzled creature brindled gray and white—panted out its tongue between daggerlike fangs and shifted its paws. It was close enough to touch. He could surely smell it, that wet-dog aroma layered with something musky, wild, violent. Yet its yellow eyes regarded him with calm.

It began to make sounds, yodels and whines, tossing its head with little emphatic movements like nods. Declan was astounded to find that he could understand the wolf as clearly as if it spoke English.

—We are mourning our dead. Will you join us?

Other wolves padded forward into the circle of light; brindled ones, gray ones, one nearly white, one nearly black. There must have been fifteen of them, an entire pack.

And it was the least of them they were mourning, the Chief of the Wolves explained, the wolf who was last to eat, last to mate, last to claim anything.

Now that Declan understood the wolves did not mean him harm, he could think.

—The least of you, said Declan, still you mourn?

—He fulfilled his function. That was his place. And now he is gone. Brother, will you join with us?

Runt of the litter, Declan thought, that’s me.

Fog nuzzled up against him:

—Time does not exist here, said the fog, Stay.

Declan hesitated. The wolves would make room. But too many things lay as obstacles, calling him back to the world. He lowered his head.

—I can’t, he replied.

The wolves conducted a brief, snuffling conference. Then they stilled, eyes fixed on their Chief.

—We understand, said the Chief of the Wolves. Sing with us, then.

The wolves pointed their muzzles to the sky. Sound poured from them, grief and mourning and loss. The song pounded Declan’s body, raced up his spine, blasted from his throat, and flung itself toward the moon.

For a time there was only the song of the wolves.

Then it stilled. One by one the wolves melted back into the darkness. It was over. Declan stood gasping for breath.

Behind him, the engine roared to life. Headlights blazed. He climbed back into the truck and retraced his route. He got back somehow on the main road; back into driving, thundering rain, and snarling traffic. He was dazed with loss.

It took five and a half hours. Declan had no feeling left in his arms. His legs were pins and needles. It didn’t matter.

When he stumbled into the house, Fizzy rushed up to greet him. He knew exactly what his cat was saying.

Yeowh: You forgot me! Aowh: I’m starving to death!

The big marmalade tom did his best to trip Declan up on their way to the kitchen. He fed the cat, downed a can of tomato juice and collapsed onto the bed, his mind filled with the sight and scent and sound of wolves.

Fizzy managed to stuff himself upside-down into Declan’s lap. He began kneading empty air. A dopey look of bliss transformed his face into something funny and comforting.

Declan switched on the TV and rolled around the dial until he found a show about animals. “How ‘bout that, Fizzyboy, you like animal shows?”

The cat burst into a motorboat purr and settled at his side. The show examined the relationships of animals that lived in groups, wolves in particular. From Alpha to Omega, each wolf had its niche.

Declan found himself laughing. I broke the rules. That’s why Johnny’s so mad. The Omega Wolf could afford a house, and he couldn’t.

He watched for a few minutes. Then he switched it off. Fizzy muttered protests.

“Sorry. Already seen it,” explained Declan.

He sat rubbing his cat’s head, the texture of fur a map of memory. Someday he would go to the wolves again. Or maybe the wolves would come to him.

In the distance, thunder made a companionable growl.

 

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