Wishes

Copyright (c) 1997 Phaedrus; All rights reserved

I wrote most of this story in September, as an entry for a contest that Magus the Fox was running for his archive. The contest deadline got moved up by a day somewhere along the way, and I received the contest results while I was still finishing up the last part--always a disheartening sign. :-) So I wound up shelving the story for a few weeks. In retrospect, that was probably a good thing, since the ending wound up being quite a bit better than the one I originally had in mind.

I've pretty much given up on figuring out people's reaction to my stories. I don't care that much for this one at all, but most people seem to like it much better than I do...


To a wolf, time is a nebulous thing. There are no calendars, no watches, no alarms to mark its passage. When there is no weekend, no church, no Sunday football games, what meaning can the "week" have? Without bills or paychecks, what good is a "month"? What good is an "hour" when there is no one to charge for it? The days pass, and the seasons change; nothing else is important.

So it was hard to say how much time had passed before the wolf cub began to realize that there was something different about him.

By that time, he was already leaving the den, making short trips to the stream or the rocks with his five littermates. (There had been eight when he first opened his eyes, but three were gone now.) He loved to stick his front paws in the water, to feel the current pressing by his toes, to see the lights dance across the water when the sun was high in the sky. He wouldn't always go back to the den when the rest of the cubs did; he would stay until he got hungry, or until his mother got nervous and called him back.

That day, as he stood at the water's edge, he heard a strange sound... a buzzing in the sky. He thought he had heard it before, but never when he was outside. Nervously, he started back towards the rocks, where there were better hiding places; but as he did, he looked up and behind him, towards the noise... and what he saw stopped him in his tracks. It flew through the sky, like a bird, but not like any bird he had ever seen; its path was perfectly straight, with no turns, no flapping of wings. And it was shiny, like the water...

He had seen something like that before. He could remember it. But he couldn't remember where, or how.

And, even stranger, he could remember something else... he could remember looking down, and seeing the ground, the trees as small and far away as that shiny thing in the sky...

He ran back to the den, faster than he ever had before, yelping all the way. The adults looked around in confusion when they heard him, for surely nothing was wrong. He didn't stop; he went straight to the back of the den, and wouldn't come out until hunger finally pushed the fear from his mind.

 

From then on, the wolf cub often had memories that he couldn't place, often couldn't even understand. They seemed wrong somehow. There were no smells, for one thing; just sounds, and sights. And the sights had a bizarreness to them, as if there was a different quality to what he was seeing, something more than the difference between light and darkness... but how could that be? And so many of those memories were filled with things he had never seen--huge shiny boxes rising to the sky, and strange two-legged things...

Sometimes, there were more than sights and sounds; sometimes there were feelings as well. These confused him even more, for they nearly always seemed to be wrong. Sometimes, when he licked his father's muzzle and his father brought up food for him, there was a strange feeling of revulsion... and when he grew strong enough to travel with the pack, and he watched them bring down a kill, he sometimes felt a pang of sorrow, of pity. But why was that? What other way was there?

So he tried to put those things out of his mind; he didn't understand them, and they weren't helpful. But still, they continued; and despite himself, he remembered...

 

The wolf grew, and learned.

Two more of his littermates died, but he flourished. He started hunting small game of his own, and eventually took his place in the hunting pack, harassing the prey and driving it into the jaws of the older wolves. When the kill was brought down, he waited for the older wolves to eat their fill first, as was his place; but game was plentiful, and there was enough to go around. He learned quickly, and forgot nothing.

And one day, he watched the deer carefully as the pack chased it, knew which way it would turn next, and was there when it did... and as he leaped for its neck, there were no odd memories, no second thoughts. His jaws clamped down like a vise, and the blood squirted down his throat, and the deer took a few more strides and went down, and his packmates were on it before it could try to rise again, and soon it was over.

The pack gathered around the kill, jockeying for position. He stood his ground. Another male--a year older, a bit larger, slightly higher than him in the social order of the pack--growled at him, nudged him in the side. Almost without thinking, he whirled, snarling, bloody teeth bared, fur standing on end, tail held straight back behind him...

He locked eyes with the other wolf, and they stared each other down for several long seconds, both growling. His muscles tensed, knowing that the older wolf could lunge at him at any moment. But he knew, with every fiber in his being, that if it came to a fight, he would win... and when the elder wolf blinked and looked away, he knew that the elder knew it too.

Then the elder wolf turned and walked slowly away, its tail curled down uncertainly.

He pressed his advantage, following the older wolf, jaws still bared, tail held high now...

...and it rolled over in the grass, exposing its belly, tail curled between its legs, whining piteously.

He got in the older wolf's face, snarling once more, satisfying himself that the matter had been settled. Then he turned, and resumed his place at the kill. The alpha male looked at him questioningly, and he realized that in his excitement he had kept his tail raised, as if in challenge; he lowered his head and tail respectfully to the alpha, and that was that. No one else challenged his place at the kill; the elders left him room, and the younger wolves--and the elder he had just displaced--waited their turns.

Another strange feeling came over him. But this time it was pride, satisfaction. For once, a proper feeling. It was a good sign.

He turned his attention back to the kill, and he ate well.


In many ways, that first kill was the beginning.

From then on, the odd thoughts and feelings came more frequently. He would lie awake at night, curled up nose to tail, looking up at the stars but not seeing them; the strange memories ran through his mind, over and over, and he tried to make sense of them. They all seemed to focus on these pink two-legged creatures, and their tall boxes. Some of those boxes, he knew now, were the two-leggers' dens. Sometimes, in those memories, he would be in one of those boxes, and look into a thing--a thing that was hard and flat, but that the light bounced off, like the water--and he would see a two-legged looking back at him. So these thoughts belonged to the two-legged, not to him.

He wondered what a two-legger's thoughts were doing in his head. Sometimes he wondered if the two-leggers existed at all, or if he was just dreaming things. Yes, the shiny birds had to come from somewhere, but they could be anything...

But then, not long after that first kill, the pack had come across a strange trail--all black and hard, like rock, but all flat, and bad-smelling, and running off both ways as far as he could see. The older wolves seemed unconcerned, but he stared at it, walked up to its edge to smell it more closely, because it was something else he had seen before in his mind, like the shiny birds. And then a loud shiny thing came down the trail, very fast--he ran back to the edge of the trees to watch, with the rest of the pack--and the loud thing had stopped, and he knew that he had seen this thing in his mind too, and he knew what it did. He looked around at the pack, at his littermates especially, to see if they knew it too, to see if they had these thoughts too--and they looked confused, or wary, but he knew that they did not understand.

The side of the loud thing had opened up, and three two-leggers--the first ones he had ever seen, for real, and one of them was young and small--got out, and the wolves looked at the two-leggers, and the two-leggers looked back at the wolves. One of the two-leggers--an older male, he thought--had a little box with a round shiny spot on it, and held the box in front of its head, and the box make little noises. Then the alpha male had turned and trotted away into the woods, and the pack had followed, and he had stayed behind, staring, because he knew that the little box was nothing to fear, and he wanted to see what else the two-leggers would do. And the two-leggers had looked at each other, and they made sounds; and he whined a little in frustration, because he thought somehow that those sounds should mean something, and he should know what it was. But no matter how hard he thought about those sounds, they were still just noises to him. And then the two-leggers had gotten back in their loud thing, and a cloud of something bad-smelling came out, and the loud thing had gone down the trail and disappeared around a curve. And for a moment, he had gotten a strange feeling that he should follow that rock trail, that if he did, it would go to somewhere special, to one of those places in his mind with the shiny boxes that went to the sky.

But he had turned away instead, and run off after his pack. And he had not slept at all that night. And from them on, he never wondered whether the thoughts in his head were real or not.

 

From that day on, the two-legger's memories in his head no longer seemed so foreign to him, and even the strange feelings didn't seem so bad--perhaps that surge of pride he had felt at his first kill, his first successful challenge, had shown him that there was common ground after all. They could be useful, if they could show him what the two-leggers would
do. And they were interesting.

If he thought hard enough, he could do more than see and hear what the two-legger had seen and heard; he could know what it had thought as well. He couldn't understand most of it; even when the two-legger was thinking to himself, the thoughts were all wrapped up in those same strange sounds that the others had used. But he could also feel what the two-legger had felt; and he could understand that.

Most of the two-legger's memories were filled with other two-leggers, and the big shiny things they all used and lived in. The two-legger seemed to spend most of his time travelling on those rock trails; he would push and pull on the insides of one of the loud things, and it would take him where he wanted to go. He would get out, and carry something big and heavy into a big den of other two-leggers; he would open it up, and show them the things inside, and they would all pass the things around and look at them. Then he would go back to his loud thing, and go somewhere else, and do this all again, and again. When the sun started to go down, he would go back to his den, and eat, and watch the pictures coming out of a box, and sleep.

Sometimes the two-legger would feel happy while he was doing these things, and sometimes sad, and sometimes angry, and sometimes nothing at all. And the wolf could not understand this; when the same things always happened, how could there be so many different ways of feeling about it?

But sometimes the two-legger would do different things. Once in a while, he would go to a big place filled with animals--some that the wolf had seen before, but many that he hadn't. There were far too many animals for such a small place, but there were rocks and canyons in between them, so they couldn't run away or get at each other. The two-legger would walk through this place, and watch the animals, but he would always go to the same spot, where there were two wolves. They were fat, and their fur was dull and scraggly, and they were very bored; they would just walk around in circles, or stand and watch the humans, or lie down and sleep. The wolf felt sorry for them; they would never starve, that was clear, but he couldn't understand how they could live in such a small place for so long, and with only one wolf for company. But the two-legger would watch them, and watch, and watch; the other two-leggers would come and go, and even the wolves would lose interest in him, and still he would watch. And sometimes he would be happy, and sometimes sad.

But sometimes, the wolves would howl together, to break the boredom; and the two-legger would close his eyes and listen. And then he would always be sad then, and there would be a longing, deeper than anything else the two-legger felt--like he wanted to howl too, wanted to be on the other side of the canyon and the rocks, where the wolves were.

And the wolf thought he could understand that.

Because when the howling stopped, the two-legger would always turn and leave that place, and go back to his den, and watch the pictures in the box until it was time to sleep. And it was never cold or wet there, and there was always food.

But he was always alone.

The wolf could imagine how hard it would be to live in that small place with the other wolves lived--to look at the same things every day, to pace in circles, to never leave.

But he could not even imagine what it would be like to live alone.

 

The wolf knew now that he thought differently from the others in his pack. He saw the same things that his packmates did, but he saw meanings in those things that they did not. On the hunt, he quickly became a master at studying a herd, picking out its weakest member. And when the chase was on, he could take a quick glance around him, know the twists and turns that would happen in the next few seconds--not just which way the prey would run to, but how his packmates would respond to that--and know where he should be as well. It often wasn't enough--the prey still escaped more often than not. But he made more than his share of kills, and the pack did not want for food, even when winter came and times grew hard.

He rose through the pack; not only was he smart, but quick and strong as well. Rarely did he have to fight for his position, and when he did, it was short. Even when he strained a muscle in his hind leg and was hobbled for a time, he was not challenged, and no one questioned his place at the kill.

The memories still came, and he learned more and more. He started to understand how some of the two-leggers' strange sounds worked; they were things--a sound for every thing. The rock trails were "road"; the loud things that took the two-leggers down them were "car"; their dens were "home"; and the two-leggers themselves were "human". He could see where such a thing would be very useful; they could tell each other about the things, with those sounds, rather than showing them. He even tried making those sounds himself; but they wouldn't come out right at all--that must be why wolves didn't use them--and his packmates just looked at him strangely.

And the two-leggers--the humans--gave themselves sounds as well, each human had a sound of their own. The wolf wondered a bit about that--they knew who they were talking to; why did they need a sound for that too?--but he supposed it might come in handy too.

His human's sound was "Jason".

That seemed familiar somehow. He wondered why that was.


Life in the wolf pack was pleasant... as pleasant as it got. The wolf had earned the respect of his pack. The males above him left him alone, perhaps afraid to force a confrontation; those below him needed only occasional reminders... a snarl here, a nip there... to keep them in their places.

The seasons came and went, and in time, he was the beta male. The Jason's memories in his head felt more like his own, now; he could think of them when he wanted, rather than waiting for them to happen. And he was making more and more sense of the sounds the humans made.

He studied the alpha--his father--carefully, judging his chances. The alpha was getting old, but he hadn't lost his strength, and had a lifetime of experience fending off rivals like him. It would be a tough fight, if it came to that. But somehow, he still knew that he would win that fight.  The alpha's place could be his. Springtime would come soon, and with it the breeding season; he knew that only the alphas would mate, and that desire called to him--he wanted that chance, more deeply than he had wanted anything before. It was almost like what the human... the Jason... felt, when he closed his eyes, and listened to the wolves howl.

He could take it whenever he wanted.

But he was troubled.

He knew that he could win. But he also knew that the alpha had much more experience with the world than he did, had seen so much more than he had. The alpha knew where the prey would run to when the snow went away, where the dangerous ground was. If he were alpha, he would have to lead the pack... and he knew that he could not do it as well.

It was one of those odd feelings. It was something that a Jason would worry about, not a wolf. The wolf knew it.

But the more he thought about it, the more he agreed with it.

So he waited. And life in the pack stopped being so pleasant.

The alpha--perhaps trying to discourage him from challenging, perhaps confused as to why that challenge hadn't come--harassed him unmercifully. Stoically, he took it. Sensing weakness, other males pressed him as well; the battle to keep his place in the pack was constant, and several times he had to leave a younger packmate bloody to make his point.

To make matters worse, the winter was getting hard, and the prey was vanishing. There was simply not enough food to go around; the wolves started fighting for their places at the kill, and those who could not fight, starved. Two of that spring's pups died in the same day. The omega male left the pack, desperate for any chance to find food on its own; the pack found the body a week later, curled up next to a frozen stream. The pack sniffed at the remains for a few moments, then moved on; there was no energy for sentimentality.

The wolf started to think that this human worrying was too much trouble after all.

 

Then, one day, the pack was at the edge of a forest, looking for any signs of prey.

The wolf heard something; a whupwhupwhupwhup in the sky. A helicopter, he thought, not stopping to realize that he was thinking in sounds, like the humans did. He had heard helicopters before, and not just in the Jason's memories; but this one sounded different. It sounded... lower.

Then the helicopter cleared the trees, and his packmates looked up, watching it; they had never seen one so close. Fear battled with curiosity, and curiosity--and the need to save their energy--won out.

The wolf looked up at the helicopter too; he was curious as well. But he saw that the door was open, saw a human pointing a long round metal rod out towards them...

...and he turned in a flash and streaked towards the treeline, barking frantically at his packmates...

...and the rest of the pack, needing little incentive to get away from the loud shiny thing, ran after him...

...and the alpha male, perhaps trying to prove his place in the pack once and for all, stood his ground, bared his teeth at the thing and growled...

...and there was a sound, like a crack of thunder...

...and the alpha gave one brief cry, and dropped in his tracks, and died...

...and the pack watched from the trees, whimpering softly, as the helicopter landed, as two humans got out, picked up the alpha's body, and tossed him in...

...and one of the male yearlings growled, and took a few steps towards the humans; and the wolf crossed the distance in a flash, jumped on the yearling's back, drove him to the ground, then dragged him back behind a tree by the tail...

...and the humans got back in, and the door closed, and it lifted off, and vanished into the distance.

And all was quiet.

The pack slowly edged out into the clearing; the wolves made their way to the red spot in the snow where the alpha had stood, and they sniffed at the place. Then they huddled together, heads down, rubbing close against each other, whining softly.

The wolf joined them, his heart sick. He closed his eyes, tried to force the image from his mind; but he could still smell his father's blood, mixed with the strange odors of gasoline and human sweat. When he couldn't stand it any longer, he threw back his head and howled, low and long; he felt the pack press up against him, heard their voices join his. And they howled on, until he lost track of time, until he managed to stop thinking for a while, and just be.

Finally, the howl drifted to a stop. The pack stayed tightly together for a few more moments; then a few wolves began pacing aimlessly, looking at each other. And the wolf knew what had to be done.

He pulled away from the huddle, looked at the pack, barked once, then started walking away, back in the direction they had come from, head and tail held high, ears up, forcing himself not to look back.

Without a murmur of protest, the pack silently formed into single file, and followed his trail through the snow.

 

His new role was not an easy one. As he feared he would, he made mistakes. But fate was kind; they found food--not as often as they would like, but often enough that there were no more deaths in the pack. He was never seriously challenged.

As the snow melted, the alpha female became more aggressive and dominating towards the other females; he, in turn, found himself snapping at males, sometimes for reasons he couldn't understand. The two of them had no such friction with each other; they got along very well indeed.

Then, one afternoon, they slipped away from the pack, and it was glorious.

They repeated the process over the next few days--one had to make sure of these things, after all...

 

Not long after that, the pack returned to the den--where the wolf had been born, and two more litters after him. Prey was plentiful; it would be a good year. His mate settled in, and he knew the pups would come soon.

One night, the wolf felt strangely restless; he walked away, as he often did, to look at the stars.

He had grown used to his role as alpha, and there was little dissension in the ranks. He had grown used to Jason's memories as well; he thought he had seen all there was to see in them. He still enjoyed them; they were like looking into another world... like watching television. He loved Jason's trip to Colorado the best--flying down the mountain on skis, soaring over it on a hang-glider, basking in the warmth of a roaring fire...

Sometimes he wondered what had happened to Jason. He could remember Jason getting a letter, telling him that his father had died. Jason had felt sad about that--not nearly as sad as he should have, the wolf thought--and he had taken some time away from work, had flown to Florida where his father had lived, to see to the arrangements. He could remember Jason pulling into the driveway of his father's house... and after that, the memory just faded away.

Tonight, the wolf wondered, and he remembered... but this time, the memory did not stop there...

"I wonder where Dad got this old thing?" Jason muttered to himself. He rubbed some of the dust off the lamp, to get a better look at it.

A plume of smoke erupted in his face.

He dropped the lamp with a clatter, and scrambled back, tripping over a box and going down in a pile of old magazines. He lay still for a few seconds, mentally making sure that all his limbs were still attached. Then he looked up... and wished he hadn't.

Beard. Silk clothing. Turban. Just like in the books.

"FREE AT LAST!" it boomed, making his ears ring. "THREE HUNDRED YEARS IN THAT ACCURSED PRISON!"

Jason felt like he should say something, but he had no idea what. "Ummmm... congratulations?"

The genie seemed to notice him for the first time. It looked down. "YOU ARE THE ONE WHO RELEASED ME, MORTAL?"

Jason managed a nod.

"THEN I AM BOUND TO GRANT THEE THREE WISHES. WHAT IS THY BIDDING, MASTER?"

Jason closed his eyes. He thought for, perhaps, thirty seconds. When he spoke, his voice seemed distant, like he was listening to someone else.

"I wish I was a wolf."

The silence in the attic was deafening. For a moment, Jason thought that maybe this was all a dream; that he'd knocked himself out somehow, and he'd just woke up. He opened his eyes.

The genie stared down at him, eyes wide.

"YOU WHAT?"

"You heard me."

"FOR MILLENNIA, MEN HAVE RACKED THEIR BRAINS, TRYING TO PHRASE THEIR LUSTS FOR WEALTH AND POWER IN WAYS I COULD NOT DESTROY THEM WITH, AND NONE SUCCEEDED. NOW YOU WISH FOR SOMETHING THAT ANY SANE MAN WOULD CALL A CURSE. AND YOU WISH FOR IT IN A WAY THAT A BABE COULD FIND A HUNDRED WAYS TO TURN AGAINST YOU. HAS YOUR FALL ADDLED YOUR BRAINS, MORTAL, OR ARE YOU A FOOL BY NATURE?"

Jason was eerily calm; perhaps he was beyond fear. "You said it yourself; if you're out to screw me, I could spend the rest of my life trying to find a foolproof way to phrase it, and I'd still probably miss something. And if you're not out to screw me, it doesn't matter. So why worry about it? And it's the one thing I've always wanted that I could never get on my own; what else would I wish for?"

The genie stared down at him for a few more seconds, as if he'd sprouted wings or burst into flames. "YOU ARE A VERY STRANGE MORTAL," it said finally. "BUT THAT IS NOT MY CONCERN. YOUR WISH IS GRANTED."

Everything went black, and quiet, and warm, and wet.

The world seemed to squeeze him from all sides. He tried to scream, but he had no breath.

The pressure increased... and then he was free, and cold. Something hard was underneath him. He tried to see what it was, but he couldn't seem to find his eyes. Something else... something warm, and wet... pressed into his side, poked softly against him. He opened his mouth, and drew in a breath, nearly choking. He tried again to cry out, and this time he found his lungs, but still he heard nothing.

Then he felt a hot wind across his back... and something warm, and rough, and wonderful, pressed against him. It went up his back, pushing him into the hard thing beneath him, and some of the cold and wetness went away. It made pass after pass, working its way along his back and up his side, pushing him over and starting in on his underside. For a moment, he forgot about seeing and hearing, and just concentrated on arching his body into it, basking in the warmth. Then it reached his face, and touched his nose... and the universe was suddenly filled with the smells of earth and water and wolf. And, most interestingly, the smell of food.

Maybe I should have been more specific, Jason thought, but only for a moment. Then he concentrated on crawling towards the smell...

The wolf blinked, looked down at the ground. The world smelled and sounded and looked the same as it did a moment ago; how could it suddenly be so very different?

He had a sense that he should be feeling something profound right now... happiness, that he had gotten what he wanted, or despair, that he had gotten what he wanted. But every time he thought about it, the only real reaction that came to mind was: Oh. So that explains things...

"AS I SAID, A VERY STRANGE MORTAL."

The wolf waited for his heart to start beating again; then he turned to face the genie.

"SO, WHAT IS YOUR SECOND WISH?"

The wolf knew, somehow, that he could talk, and didn't waste time wondering how that could be. "I wish that my cubs, and their cubs, and their cubs beyond them, could understand the world as I do."

"A NOBLE WISH, BUT ONE YOUR CUBS MAY NOT THANK YOU FOR," the genie replied. "AND NOT A SIMPLE ONE. INTELLIGENCE IS AN EASY MATTER, BUT UNDERSTANDING COMES FROM EXPERIENCE. AND YOUR EXPERIENCE IS A UNIQUE ONE..."

The genie fell silent, as if lost in thought. The wolf waited patiently.

Far away, a young man sat at a computer keyboard, tapping his fingers unconsciously, waiting for the download to complete. On the screen, an image slowly appeared--a black wolf, bounding through snowdrifts towards the camera, a small dot of white clinging defiantly to the tip of its nose.

He felt a familiar pang... then forced it from his mind, brought another window forward, went back to reading Usenet. He could not see the eyes watching him; nor could he feel the small blood clot forming in his thigh, poised to break loose and drift towards the lungs, towards the brain...

"NEVER MIND; I SEE A WAY NOW. YOUR WISH IS GRANTED. AND YOUR FINAL WISH?"

The wolf thought about this, long and hard. He knew what he wanted; he opened his mouth to say it... then he changed his mind, and closed his mouth. He already had what he wanted.

"I wish for good fortune for my pack," he said finally.

"AND SO IT SHALL BE, FOR A DOZEN DOZEN YEARS," the genie replied. "GOOD HUNTING TO YOU, AND TO YOUR CUBS."

The wolf tried to say "Thank you", but nothing came out but a yip. He simply nodded, and padded silently back to his mate and his pack.

 

The pups arrived not longer than that; only six--a small litter--but all alive, and all healthy. The wolf looked down at them, and nuzzled them, and felt a joy like nothing he had felt before.

Raising them--and the litters after that, in the following years--was a story too long to tell. But the pack prospered; and the prey, while not always plentiful, was always there to be found.

And one day, the old wolf looked in the eyes of one of his sons, and he saw the look of confusion, of uncertainty--the look that must have been in his own eyes, years ago. He nodded to himself; it was time. And that night, he looked proudly at his pack for one last time, then walked quietly away.

He got along by himself for a little while, but he couldn't seem to catch his breath the way he used to, couldn't run for long. And then one day, as he was trying to catch a rabbit, his legs simply failed him; he went down in a heap, and there was no pain, only a wave of numbness that started in his hindquarters and quickly worked its way forward. I'm dying, he realized, just as the nothingness reached his head, and everything went black, and quiet, and warm, and wet...

...and he felt the pressure pushing him out into the cold.

And just before his mind fogged over, he realized that he'd gotten his own third wish after all.

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