A black wolf in a yellow field in Yellowstone National Park, howling in front of trees and a faded hill in the background.

In the cobalt hour of 2 in the morning, Tallulah was not Tallulah, was not Miss or Ma’am, was not Mrs. Shaw, ninth-grade language arts teacher at Madison High School; she was Grey Wolf. It started as a joke with her fellow teacher friends, one of those nights when they’d all had too much wine to salve an exceptionally shitty week.

“Check out these masks a student made,” she said, holding up four wolf masks a student created for his Call of the Wild book presentation. She’d kept them in her tote bag for this occasion—wine paired with deranged student projects always provided them a good laugh.

Her friends’ faces soured, and they released laughing moans. The masks were made from stiff construction paper that resisted folding, so everything looked angular—the snouts triangular, the ears elven, the noses sharp as a Ticonderoga. The eye holes were lopsided; wearing one meant forgoing vision in one eye or wearing it crooked, which made the wearer’s face look like it was melting.

“A wolf would never let a parent-teacher conference last an hour-and-a-half,” Tallulah said, slipping a mask over her head. “A wolf would rip off the mother’s face.”

Her friends nodded, each reaching for a mask. No longer Clarissa or Wendy or Elizabeth, they were Brown Wolf, Striped Wolf, and White Wolf.

“Now what?” White Wolf asked.

“Let’s go outside.” Grey Wolf smiled from beneath her crooked mask.

It all felt so instinctual, the running in the nude, the peeing on flower beds, the howling and panting and wrestling. The occasional whisper of coastal breeze licked the salt of summer’s humidity across their limbs, their coarse coils of pubic hair, their  damp and sweaty napes.

When Tallulah arrived home at 4am, she tip-toed up the stairs, down the hall, past her son’s room, and into her bedroom. Her husband would sleep through anything quieter than a missile strike, so she turned on the bathroom faucet and lowered her face to lap at the lukewarm stream. She gulped deeply and looked up in the mirror, startled. She didn’t recognize the woman staring back, her dark and narrowed eyes, the hair knotted around her scalp, and especially not her mouth: curled, almost a snarl, with a water droplet clinging to her left canine.

//

Tallulah was in her seventh year of teaching, and had all the badges of an overworked public servant: the under-eye bags, the orthopedic shoes, the increasingly pessimistic outlook on the future. She both loved and hated her job, shifting from reverence to disappointment, from enthusiasm to exasperation, often in the same day, sometimes in the same breath. For each remarkable student, there was an asshole in the next row, carving a dick with hairy balls into the desk with his pencil. Usually, Tallulah settled for jaded acceptance.

Her husband thought she should be more grateful.

“You have a responsibility to inspire our future world leaders. Isn’t that invigorating?” he’d say whenever she arrived home harried and exhausted with a list of complaints about her day.

Tallulah had enough responsibility. After seven hours with students, she came home to a 3-year-old son and 35-year-old husband, both of whom required regular feeding and couldn’t pick up after themselves. If she wasn’t scrubbing gum off of her classroom carpet, she was at home picking up her husband’s underwear on the bathroom floor or returning LEGO bricks to the Ikea cabinet she’d spent hours building.

A handful of times, she’d fantasized about running away. Literally exiting the front door with nothing but the clothes on her body. Just to see how far her legs could take her; how long it took for her instincts to betray her and bring her home to her family.

Her imagination never took her further than the end of the driveway. She was domesticated, after all; well-trained to appreciate high thread counts, one-pan recipes, and a stocked fridge. That’s what upset her most about her life—not that she was a loyal wife, a dutiful mother, or a giving teacher, but that she couldn’t envision an alternative.

//

Tallulah, Clarissa, Wendy, and Elizabeth didn’t talk about what they did or why. There weren’t words for the freedom they experienced. They knew what they’d done, and they’d do it again.

They fell into a rhythm, meeting on Grey Wolf’s street each night. The first victory was breaking through the cul-de-sac’s clutches, abandoning the familiar roads for the hills and trails a few blocks over.

Being a wolf meant no longer fearing the dark. Mothers told their daughters that they’d grow out of it when they realized bogeymen weren’t real, that their teeth weren’t luxuries for fairies to steal in the night. But that was a lie. They’d only learn to fear more realistic shadows that lurked in alleys and coat closets and parking lots; they’d learn the body was a dangerous enough weapon, enticing enough bait.

In the dusty hills, the brush anemic from drought, they undressed and let the night blanket them. Grey Wolf tumbled with White Wolf, crashed into Striped Wolf, played tug-of-war with Brown Wolf over a broken branch. 

They licked the blood off each other’s cuts, wiped dirt from each other’s shoulders, and admired the sore limbs that would bruise by morning. When the sun began its morning ascent, the wolves returned to unlit homes before anyone noticed they were missing. They turned on the coffeemaker, packed lunches, and hid their battered wolf mask. In the shower, they washed dust and caked blood off their bodies and watched the earth and body gather at their feet before disappearing down the drain.

//

No one warned Tallulah that she’d spend half of her job responding to emails, assembling ridiculous outfits for Spirit Days, and volunteering for activities she’d never attend as a parent, let alone as teacher.

We need your help to proctor the PSAT on Saturday! Coffee and donuts in the staff lounge as a thank you! read the school counselor’s email.

PTA bake sale this Friday! Remember to bring your homemade goodies! shouted a newsletter.

Annual reviews approaching. Please respond with preferred dates for our meeting, emailed the principal.

Tomorrow was Country versus Country Club dress-up day at school. Tallulah grabbed a flannel shirt and hunted in her closet for her most western boots. Teachers weren’t required to dress up for Spirit Days, but the principal had a reputation for confronting staff who refused to give 110% to the Madison High School Dolphin pod.

So, she would assemble a Spirit Day outfit. Next, the baked goods. A second batch of brownies were in the oven because the first round had burned. Then, toddler bath time. Her son would demand a story before bed, possibly two. Tallulah peered out the window and yearned for nightfall.

//

The pack traded the abandoned trails for a park down the street from their neighborhood. They were tired of the unforgiving earth beneath their feet and craved the comforting pillow of grass. They no longer worried about getting caught. After so many evenings in the nude, it felt natural. The way Mother Nature intended.

In the park, they shed their pajamas and yelped as the cool breeze nipped at their breasts, their bodies bare other than the wolf masks crooked on their faces.

In the buttery warmth of the streetlights, Striped Wolf spun in the damp grass, her arms raised above her head. Tallulah saw the half smile of Striped Wolf’s c-section scar, the softness of her stomach forming an upper lip. They’d all observed the way Striped Wolf picked at her lunch. They’d heard her complain about the weight her body refused to shed; her fury at her husband, who had refused to touch her since giving birth eight months ago, fearful he might split her open.

“As if anything could ruin my body more,” she’d snarled the other week. “I love being a mother, but sometimes.” 

Grey Wolf shuddered. For a while, she was the only one in their pack with children. Brown Wolf didn’t want children, and White Wolf had given up trying years ago. Grey Wolf didn’t want to admit that Striped Wolf’s misery was welcome company; she felt relief hearing someone else vocalize all the thoughts that were too cruel to say out loud. Often, she worried she didn’t have the motherly instinct required to be a good parent. She hated reading bedtime stories, tired of the simple allegories involving talking rabbits and chocolate chip cookies with legs and arms. The squeal of cartoons gave her headaches, and nothing bored her more than spending a Saturday at the park, her son insisting she push him again on the swing. She loved her son, but she worried she didn’t love him more than her freedom.

Now, Striped Wolf ran and leaped and jumped, her legs spread, arms open, body on display, daring the world to stare. She glanced at her pack, chin tipped to the sky as they took in her body. How Herculean it appeared under the yellow light, how powerfully it moved. She threw her head up and howled, and the pack echoed her cry.

//

It was difficult living two lives, balancing the woman and the wolf. Or maybe they were never meant to, maybe they’d reached the natural next stage of life. Like the way their teenage selves burrowed ravenous desires in their minds, curiosities about sex and death, fascination with words that took on new meaning and made their bodies tremble. Suck. Pull. Twist. Finger. Lick. Like the way their woman selves no longer trembled from commands masked as compliments, no longer felt sated by giving pleasure without reciprocity. The natural next phase was wolf, which meant making known all the thoughts their woman selves had discovered, instead of locking them away in an iron cage that dragged at their bodies.

They stopped shaving. They tossed their deodorant in the trash, revolted by the sickly sweet smell of honeysuckle. They forewent concealer, which never erased the circles under their eyes, anyway. 

They neglected responsibilities at home, mountains of laundry shoved into bedroom corners and crumb-crusted plates abandoned in the sink. Tallulah demanded her husband take over bedtime story duty for their son. 

Over breakfast, Tallulah’s husband asked if she felt nervous about her upcoming fortieth birthday. 

Clarissa’s boyfriend said she was punishing him for so quickly agreeing to the abortion she’d gotten a few months ago.

Wendy’s husband hadn’t noticed, and Elizabeth’s husband assumed it was another feminist phase, like when she’d shaved her head in college or went a whole summer without wearing a bra half a dozen years ago. There were things women never grew out of, apparently.

//

The Madison High School Open House is Tuesday night. Please decorate your classroom with student work!

Your son has his first swim lesson this Saturday at eight. Don’t be late!

Can you pick up my prescription on the way home when you get milk?

“Couldn’t you have picked up your prescription?” Tallulah asked her husband. She was halfway through making dinner when he charged through the doorway. The chirpy music of a cartoon movie assaulted her ears as her son sat at the dining room table mesmerized by a talking dog.

“You said you were picking up milk, so I thought it would save one of us a trip.” He shrugged and dipped his finger in the simmering marinara sauce.

“You mean you.”

“What?” He licked his finger.

“It saved you a trip. I’m the one who had to go to the store.”

“I was getting home later. You knew I had that meeting, otherwise I would have.”

Tallulah stirred the sauce.

“Bad day at work?” he asked. “Did one of the little shits give you trouble over a misplaced metaphor?”

She considered correcting him, but then she’d have to explain what a misplaced modifier was and he’d call her pedantic in that feigned British voice he used anytime she said something he didn’t understand.

She considered saying, “I do everything around here,” but this would cause an argument. They always battled over who had the busier schedule, the most stress, the more difficult role in the family. Tallulah lost each time. Her husband insisted she was the better person, parent, and spouse.

“I’m just tired,” she said instead.

“Me too!” His voice boomed in the small kitchen. He kissed her head, tore off a piece from the sourdough loaf, and left Tallulah to finish dinner.

//

Sometimes they slept. Even wolves grew tired, and they’d stopped trying to keep their two selves separate. When the day’s exhaustions bled into the night, the pack claimed flower beds and hammocks in neighbors’ backyards, collapsed on chaise lounges that circled the community pool. These were the nights they slept best. A soundtrack of crickets humming. Tree branches whistling in the wind. The occasional passing car lulling them into a dreamless sleep. 

By now, their bodies sensed the rising sun before it broke through the horizon. They yawned, scratched, and stretched before dashing home. They crept into dark bedrooms, now clothed and maskless, but not wolfless. They couldn’t leave that part of them behind anymore.

//

Tallulah stopped responding to emails with apologies and exclamation points and smile emojis to soothe disgruntled parents’ demands. 

If Millie struggles to focus in class, perhaps she isn’t being challenged with engaging projects? one father wrote. 

Tallulah used to take these emails to heart, stressing all  night over how to improve her lesson planning. She’d respond to parents with promises that she’d give special attention to their child in the coming weeks. 

But now she had no patience. She responded:

Millie does not have an A in the class because Millie has not produced A work according to the state standards, for which I am credentialed to assess.

The father responded with a “thank you” and a promise that Millie would impress her with improved effort.

“Good for you,” Elizabeth said at lunch, as the four of them ripped into roast beef sandwiches and leftover pork chops in the teacher’s lounge.

Lately, they craved meat, gagging at limp spinach leaves and browning apples. Even Wendy’s appetite flourished, swapping salads for roast chicken.

Tallulah chewed on a bone and grinned, thinking about her victory. She wanted to howl and yip right now, but would save it for tonight.

//

They gave up the wolf masks. They were battered after so many nights of activity. They didn’t need a mask to become a wolf any longer; they’d been wolves all along. 

The pack fled to the forest, a few miles from their neighborhood. They rolled around in patches of grass, hopscotched from boulder to boulder. They slept when tired and howled when they wanted to howl.

“I don’t want to go back,” White Wolf said.

The wolves rarely spoke, but White Wolf’s husband had filed for divorce, and the others felt that gave her the right to do whatever she wanted. He’d tired of their growing distance, and her recent disregard of hygiene was the final straw.

“It’s not because you stopped shaving your legs,” he’d said. “It’s what not shaving your legs represents.”

Now, in the dark forest, White Wolf no longer knew where she called home.

“We won’t go back.” Striped Wolf patted White Wolf on the pack. “Not yet.”

The wolves stayed in the forest through the afternoon. When they returned to their houses, ravenous and exhausted, they pulled steaks, lunch meat, Italian sausages from their refrigerators and tore through them.

Grey Wolf ripped off the corner of a steak, blood running down the side of her hand, when her husband walked into the kitchen.

“Where have you—” he started, but stopped.

She’d never seen him so terrified. He searched her face, as if he couldn’t make sense of the creature before him. She waited for him to complain about the toddler, about the messiness of bath time and the complications of cooking a perfectly scrambled egg for breakfast, but he didn’t speak.

She swallowed the piece of steak and felt the cold, soft cube of animal slide down her throat. Never had she felt so satisfied.

//

We need to talk about the other day, Tallulah’s husband texted.

You’ve missed two required supervisions. All teachers must supervise at least three sporting events, her principal emailed.

I thought you were going through a phase. An early midlife crisis, her husband texted. We can’t live like this. I can’t live like this.

As Tallulah listened to her principal express his concerns regarding her recent changes—too forward at staff meetings, too sharp with disobedient students, too defiant of the dress code—she examined his carotid artery, fluttering with each breath. The neck was an undeservedly neglected body part, not only a support for the head but the protector of nerves, a necessary bridge for all the brain’s information to pass down into the rest of the body.

//

Grey Wolf’s husband knew.

“This needs to stop,” he said. “Are you trying to prove something that I’m not getting? Tell me, and I’ll do it.”

But she still fled the house each night, meeting with the pack to roam the hills and forest, backyards and parks. Not doing so would be like a whale never coming up for air, a bird giving up  the skies.

Tonight, they ran. Through the streetlights of the park and down into the ravine, circling back to the other end of the neighborhood. Grey Wolf refused to slow, no matter how heavy her heart pounded. She enjoyed the way it reverberated through her entire body, how it crashed against the inside of chest like it wanted to crawl out of her, its cage, and live a life of its own.

She arrived home to her husband waiting for her in their bedroom,  slouched at the bed’s edge. He gazed at her the way he had for weeks now, as if she were a specimen he couldn’t identify; a wild animal that had creeped into his home.

“Look at you,” he said.

She turned to the mirror and assessed her body, limbs long and furry, mud freckling her feet, scratches on her stomach. Her eyes were dark, her nose pointed, teeth sharp. She saw herself for exactly what she was.


Photo by pedrik, used and adapted under CC.