“Timber wolves then,” said my neighbour as I put my hands together, making a circular shape with my fingers and thumbs to show the size of the tracks I had found.
For a couple of nights they had been in the woods around our house, not right outside as the volume of their voices seemed to indicate, but close enough. The first sign they had been there was not their voices at all, or their paw prints, but something else they left behind that drew Murdoch’s nose away from the house, down the driveway towards the neighbours’ woods.
I watched him move with purpose along the road, not rushing, but methodical, steady, and far enough ahead I couldn’t catch him. Molly and I followed as he walked almost on tiptoes, his nose in the air, sparing the odd glance in my direction as I called his name. When he stopped and turned abruptly towards the woods, I knew his brain was already somewhere else.
Molly and I reached the spot on the road where he had leapt onto the snow bank and disappeared amongst the trees and we clambered after him. Not too far in, where trees had fallen against other trees in the last wind storm, where branches tangled into a maze with scrub, Molly squeezed through spaces too small for me and joined Murdoch’s dark shape, noses stuck to the ground, tongues busy scooping things up from the snow.
The route I took was much more circuitous; over this tree, under that one, skirt the brush, feet punching through the crust of snow in spots. “Come on guys,” I barked at them, “Leave it!” My frustration at their belligerence building as my route seemed to take me farther away.
But just past where the pair stayed locked behind branches and trees that snagged my jacket and kept me at bay, the land opened up, airy and spacious between grey trunks sunk into the snow. The ground was completely patterned over with the footprints of birds, most likely the ravens who squawked and rabbled in the treetops above. They had formed a great latticework across the snow, so many it was impossible to pick out individual prints, instead it looked as though someone had painstakingly covered the woods with hashmarks, creating a great quilt out of the snow or else as though every bird that ever flew across this patch of sky had gathered here all at once to converse before all flying off again.
It stopped me in my tracks, this patterned forest floor, it felt like I had stumbled onto a secret meeting ground, a sacred place I had no business being, a sight I was not meant to see. I imagined the great frenzy that must have happened here and I began to piece together a story of wolves in the night, a fresh kill, birds in the dark, waiting. And then the wolf tracks obliterated as though they had never been. The birds owned these woods.
Then Murdoch skipped past and I was brought back to the moment as we clapped eyes on the deer hide across the expanse of disturbed snow at the same time. I stepped quickly after him, grabbed his collar as he grabbed for the hide. I dragged him away to the right, planning to skirt around the tangled brush, but there was the ribcage with the spine and skull still attached, small, a young deer.
I swung in the other direction. Legs. One over here, one over there, we were hemmed in by deer parts and connecting all of them, a million bird footprints. So I went in the exact opposite direction I wanted to go, hand clamped on Murdoch’s collar, made a big loop back to where I had arrived at this spot.
When Molly wandered near in her own little world, nose stuck to the ground, I grabbed her collar too and the three of us stumbled and tumbled our way back through the woods to the road. Behind us the busy voices of ravens called to one another, seeing us off, reclaiming their space, working to eradicate any signs we had been there too.