Snow, The Seven, And The Moon

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Janet Mullany

Hair as black as ebony, skin as white as snow, she leans into the mirror to apply lipstick as red as blood. She twitches her tight black leather miniskirt into place and goes back out into the bar with the confident stride of a woman who knows her territory. The air is loud with the clack of a game of pool and the high lonesome wail of a steel guitar from the jukebox. She slides onto her stool at the bar, and taps a cigarette out of its case. She senses the men hovering behind her, hears the scrape of a match, the snap of a lighter. Holding back her hair with one hand, she steadies the stranger’s hand with the other as he moves to her side. A slight buzz from his fingers to hers, pale against his darker skin.

“Buy you a drink, honey?” He has a slow, twangy voice, the sort of voice that suggests rumpled sheets, woodsmoke, a golden burn of hard liquor.

She indicates her half-full bottle of beer, and shrugs. “I’m still working on this one, cowboy. I don’t take on more than I can handle.”

He leans forward. His eyes are as blue as a robin’s egg, his hair almost as dark as hers. “Never? You’ve never taken a risk? Gone for the wild side?”

“That’s not what I said.” She smiles and blows smoke at him.

He watches her as she drains the bottle of beer and slips off the stool. “You’re going?”

“Yeah. I’m expected. I’ve got seven of them waiting for me at home. It’s the longest night of the year, remember? We have a busy night ahead.”

“Seven? Seven what?”

“Seven guys.” She gestures with a hand at hip level. “Sorta short, but real loving.”

“You’re kidding.” He looks confused. “You’ve got seven kids?”

She laughs, calls out good night to the bartender, and leaves. She can feel him watching her, all the way across the uneven wood floor until she pushes open the door and takes a lungful of the night air that burns her throat and makes her gasp. Must be ten below at least. The stars blaze in the black velvet of the sky and the moon is like a white blind eye.


“That, my friend,” says the bartender, “Is Dr. Morgan Cantrell, otherwise known as the Wolf Lady. Quite a gal.” He pops open a bottle of beer and slides it down the counter. Gary catches it, fumbling, still unnerved by the woman’s self-possession, the touch of her fingers on his, and the scent of her long black hair as it brushed against his arm.

“Wolf Lady?”

“Yep. That’s what they call her. Runs a refuge for wild animals, wolves mainly. The ranchers didn’t like her too much at first, but she’s okay. They say she was a hotshot at some college back east, got burned out, came here and bought the old Frazer place a few years back.”

“And she comes in here every Friday?”

The bartender laughs. “More like every full moon. She comes into town, buys up some supplies, gets her mail, drops by for a hamburger and beer, and leaves every guy in here with his tongue hanging out. She always leaves on her own, her choice.”

Gary stares at the beads of moisture that gather on his bottle and repeats her name to himself. Morgan Cantrell. It has the rhythm and pull of a melody, the beat of a bird’s wings in flight.

“Well, well. You’re in luck, son.” The bartender tosses a bundle of envelopes towards him. “The doctor left her mail behind. Protect and serve, right?”


The guys are waiting for her. She hears them burst into song as she pulls into the driveway, and as she picks her way through the snow in her high heels, throws her head back and replies. Inside the house she kicks off the high heels, discards the skirt and pulls on a pair of jeans. As she pushes her feet into insulated boots, she checks the computer. She has mail, three of the messages from Mark. She curls her lip and deletes them without reading them. She knows what he says, what he says every time, the master of honeyed words and deception. Forgive me, things will be different, I’ve changed, I still love you. We can work it out. When she thinks of him, the sites of her injuries, the scars and healed fractures, ache and itch. She shuts down the computer, pulls on gloves and a hat and goes out into the moonlight. Her first stop is the barn, where she opens the door a crack. The two hawks and owl in residence shuffle on their perches. In the shed, the raccoon with her leg in a splint chitters a greeting, while the smaller birds sleep soundly, heads under wings.

Boo is the first to arrive to her call, followed by Hiram and Randy. “Hey, Boo,” she says. “How’s the leg?” He grins at her, tongue lolling, and rolls onto his back; she notes that he’s submissive, but keeping his distance. She had worried that he had bonded to her too strongly after she’d found him as a pup with a badly fractured leg, starving and dehydrated, but still ferocious enough to make her grateful for the leather gauntlets she wore. He was her first, and she had cried when she locked the door against him and forced him to go back to his own kind.

Boo stands, stretches, and muscles the other two out of the way, teeth bared. He’s not yet alpha male, but he’s young and strong and working his way up. Here comes Iris, teats heavy, out for a night on the town away from the responsibilities of motherhood, followed by Isadora. Boris and Gus must be babysitting tonight. The wolves prance and frolic around her. She lets Boo approach her and duck his head so she can scratch the creamy ruff of fur at his neck for a moment, before he pulls away, breath steaming in the night air.

She isn’t clear about what happens next. There’s a patch of ice on the snow, her foot shoots out from under her, and she feels herself fall. Mark, she tries to say, please don’t, honey.

He has her face pressed against the mirror, against the splintering glass. Tell me, he says. Who is it? Don’t lie to me. Don’t ever lie to me, bitch.

I’m sorry. Please don’t hurt me. Please.

There’s an explosion of bright light, shards of pain dart into her skull, then darkness.


Gary squints at the map and eases the squad car up the snow-packed road. He hopes it’s not too early to call, and also that she will not greet visitors with a shotgun. He finds it hard to reconcile the image of the recluse of the backwoods with the siren he met last night in the bar. He glances again at her mail; even so near the holidays, there’s very little personal there, mainly letters from universities and wildlife research groups. He approaches her house, not much more than a two-room cabin, with a thin wisp of smoke rising from the stovepipe. As he gets out of the car the cold air snatches his breath away. He bangs on the door. There’s no reply. Maybe she’s out tending to her animals. “Anyone home?” he calls.

He follows a trail of footsteps, lightly dusted with a sprinkling of snow, to a small barn, and opens the door. Three huge, fierce birds glare at him and lift their wings. One utters a small, piercing shriek. He backs out, and looks around. The footsteps lead into an open meadow, and he sees a mass of darkness against the white, and, dear God, is that blood? As his eyes become accustomed to the dazzle of sun on snow, he makes out the shapes, five of them, rangy, muscular and watchful. At first he thinks they are dogs, then sees the pale eyes and powerful jaws. The wolves surround a spill of black hair and pale blue fabric. He recognizes the down jacket she’d worn last night. He holds his breath. No one moves.

As he runs for the car, he recalls all the stories he’s heard about wolves. There has never been an accurate record of an attack on a human; it’s all myth. Ranchers he’s met have told him how the wolves don’t hesitate to attack calves; naturalists claim the wolf staple is rodents. They are cold-blooded killers; they look after each other’s young and are loyal to their families.

After he’s called for an ambulance he turns back to the meadow, gun in hand, and releases the safety catch. To his surprise the wolves are still there, staring at him. It occurs to him that he need only fire the gun in the air to make them run, but his anger grows. The ranchers are right; they are not to be trusted; they are vermin, pure and simple.

As he raises his gun, one of them, a large, mostly black male with a ruff of pale fur, rises to his feet and shakes off the snow that has settled on its back. Gary hesitates. He looks into the animal’s pale eyes and hears it make a surprisingly dog-like whine. The other wolves stir, but stay where they are. He sees now that the woman’s face is unmarked, except for the blood matting her hair and staining the snow, and that her head rests on the flank of one of the wolves. The standing wolf creeps forward, saliva on its jaws, and leaving a trail of urine in the snow. Its tail is tucked between its legs as it whines again, and shudders with fear.

Gary takes a cautious step forward. The wolf pants and cringes. Now Gary’s close enough to see that the woman’s breath mingles with the wolves’, that they are clustered together with her for warmth and protection. “You did good,” he says. He slowly lowers himself to a squat, aware of how he towers over the terrified animal. “Real good. It’s okay.” He watches Morgan’s chest move with her breaths, and the small puffs of vapor that rise from her lips. Her skin is even paler than he remembered, colorless except for a purple web of old scars at her forehead and neck. The wolf backs away from him, noses at Morgan’s face, and lies down next to her again. Gary sees two shadows become whole at the treeline; a pair of wolves stands there, watching. The rest of the family, he guesses.

When the ambulance arrives, the wolves jump up, shake themselves and run to join the two watchers. All seven of them disappear into the forest.


“I’m sorry,” she says. “I can’t remember things. Do I know you?”

Even with her head swathed in bandages and wearing a hospital gown she still takes his breath away.

“We met in Jake’s saloon,” he says. “You left your mail there.”

“Oh. Yes.” Her lashes rest on her cheeks for a moment. Then she opens her eyes. “I didn’t recognize you in uniform. You found me, didn’t you?”

“Me and some others. How’re you feeling?”

“Not bad.” She takes the bundle of mail from him. “Terrible. I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“Gary Johnson.” They shake hands formally and smile at each other. “Look, I don’t want to tire you. I just wanted to see how you were doing. I took a look at your bulletin board in the kitchen, where you’ve got the feeding schedule written out, and I gave your hawks a mouse…” he winced, remembering the plastic bag in the freezer full of matted, shrivelled gray corpses. “And I called your emergency person, and he’s taken over.”

“Thank you,” she says. She fumbles through her mail, finds a large envelope and tears it open. She picks out a large glossy photograph of the wolves in daylight, grouped in a meadow spotted with wildflowers. “They looked after me, didn’t they? The nurses said I stank of dog when they brought me in. They stayed all night.”

“Yeah. It was…” He shrugged. He still didn’t believe it himself. He certainly doesn’t know the words to express the wonder of that moment when he realized what the pack had done, how they had kept a vigil through that long, bitter night.

“I took these last summer.” She looks through the photographs, and hands them to him one by one. “Here’s Boo.” It’s the big one who approached him. She tells him the others’ names, silly endearing names that other women might give to kittens.

“You want me to go tell them you’re okay?”

“Sure. Go along about moonrise. Howl and wait for them to show.” She looks at him and smiles. “You do know how to howl, don’t you?”

“I’ll find my wild side,” he says, and takes her hand.


Originally from England, Janet Mullany now lives outside Washington, DC, with her family, a rabbit and a cat. Her non-writing work includes a diverse career as archaeologist, classical music radio announcer and arts administrator. She is currently at work on a historical romance and a mainstream fiction novel. Janet can be reached at janetmly[at]

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