Image by Brooke Bourgeois

Fiction The Wolf Man

Caroline Gioiosa

I met the Wolf Man at a pool hall in Point Reyes last summer. Under the sickly bar lights, his face looked scrambled, like a Cubist collage — one eye higher than the other, an uneven nose, a mouth that could swallow a fist. I’d arrived alone on a Thursday night, after driving a half hour north from my parents’ beach house on the mesa. The Wolf Man was the only person in the place who didn’t wear spurs on his boots. At first, that was enough to interest me. I sat at the bar and watched his reflection in the mirror sink billiard balls and sip Tecate. When he lost his game, he came up to me and showed off his missing molar. He touched my arm. He compared our hand sizes. He smelled like a wet dog, salty and mangy. By the way he tilted his head, I knew he was in love with me. I was never wrong about these things.

When he started asking me questions, I kept my answers clipped and factual — Rose, Virgo, graphic design, only twice and never while naked — but then he said, like he was talking about the weather, that every morning and every evening he walked wolves. He’d dropped out of college his sophomore year and driven through Northern California until he found a Craigslist ad that went like this:

Hiring !!BIG ANIMAL!! Caretaker

Seeking someone who can walk, feed, and handle two large, predatory animals. They have teeth. They have claws. They drop long, hairy poops, up to two inches in diameter. You must walk them seven miles, twice a day. They can run farther and faster than you. Some experience with dogs preferred. $26/hour.

He called the number listed on the posting and spoke to an elderly woman who told him that she felt he’d been delivered to her, like he was a baby in a basket who had drifted onto the riverbank. His single relevant resume item was that he had grown up with a pet husky. But the woman said his voice had an aura of tonal sincerity, and when he spoke, he freely admitted his personal shortcomings (his tardiness, his bad memory, his shrooms habit) — traits that she believed qualified him more than any wilderness first-responder training. Besides, he had worked as a ranch hand, so he knew — here the woman repeated herself forcefully, spitting into the receiver: he knew — what hard work was. 

As the Wolf Man told me this, I saw him change before me. His skin turned rough, like the California desert. His eyes went gently dark, like coffee liqueur. He took a sip from the Tecate, and I watched the slink of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed. 

“And then what happened?” I asked. It was my first question of the night. I leaned in close so I wouldn’t miss a word. 

He squinted up at the bar lights, as if he could hardly remember. The morning after the call, he said, he drove down a long dirt driveway, passing acres of cattle farms and wrinkled trees, and met the woman, Agnes, on her patio. Agnes wore prairie skirts stitched from tablecloth and lined her eyes with bright blue kohl. She spoke in fits and starts. The land she owned stretched for miles and miles, she explained, and — oh, would he care for an amethyst? They warded off sunburn and kept young men sober-minded. By the way, had he heard about the vandals who stole from the tide pools?

He accepted the crystal, then followed her along the aging yellow panels of her home, through the garden of succulent plants and over a grassy knoll, until they reached a barn. Its wooden gates moaned when she opened them.

Inside, behind a metal fence, he came face-to-snout with two wolves, leashed and harnessed. The smaller one, the female, sprinted from her spot under a timber post. When she tilted her head back and howled, he saw black sheets of her undercoat shedding from her belly. The male, gray all over, took three slow steps towards them. He wasn’t tied to anything, and a leash dragged behind him. 

“These are real wolves?” I asked. “Not those half-dog things they sell in Russia?” 

He had asked Agnes the same thing. The wolves had been raised by humans since they were pups; they listened to commands like heel, come, stay, and ate deer meat out of pink palms. Still, they were wild. They had teeth. They had claws. The barn stank of shit.

Back then, the Wolf Man did not think of himself as a Wolf Man. He had never dreamed about a pack of white wolves, never pretended to bite his classmates on the playground, not even under the full moon. But Agnes told him that he had the face for the job — his smile was missing the right teeth in the right places — and he needed the money. That job, Agnes explained, was to act as the wolves’ companion and caretaker. After he fed them (she kept deer and hares in her basement freezer), he would walk them up and down the secluded trails by the beach. If they ran too far ahead, he would have to shout — stop, bad, heel — and, if things got real dire, he would have to chase after them and tug them by their leashes back home. None of this, Agnes whispered, was strictly legal. But they were her howling babies. The last wolves in California.

The Wolf Man jiggled my empty beer can and ordered us two more. 

“Can I see them?” I asked. 

The Wolf Man shook his head. 

It was a hush-hush operation. Walking the wolves required an almost transcendent trust. For the first month on the job, he couldn’t walk them without Agnes. It was just after the black wolf stopped snarling at him that Agnes, her hands on his shoulders, inducted him into the pack.

In his three years of walking, he’d only introduced the wolves to a single individual. The previous winter, with Agnes’s blessing, he’d let his then girlfriend, a photogenic soil scientist, take a walk with him and the wolves on the rocky beach. He and the girlfriend were in a rough patch, a months-long argument over their respective body counts. He considered the walk an olive branch, proof of his commitment to her and only her. But the air between them remained flammable. The wolves sniffed the tension out. When the soil scientist shouted heel, the female bolted. The Wolf Man raced after the trailing end of her leash but kept tripping over rocks. 

“Why don’t you try prancing,” his girlfriend shouted. “You won’t trip if you’re prancing.”

“Shut up,” the Wolf Man yelled. 

The wolf scaled the rocks that gradually grew into the cliff. The Wolf Man shouted heel, too, but she kept climbing. As he watched her backside disappear into the brush, his girlfriend suggested calling someone. 

“And then what?” the Wolf Man asked. “Tell a uniformed officer that we let an endangered predator escape into farmland because I wouldn’t prance?”

“What happens between us,” his girlfriend said, “is incomprehensible.”

They broke up with each other instead. The wolf, a dark and delicate creature, was caught in a cattle stampede and killed. Agnes blamed herself and her lenient nature for the death. She replaced her with a white pup that she bought off a man in central Idaho.

In the bar, the Wolf Man took an aggressive sip of his beer. “It was awful,” he said. “I mean, watching something run away from you.” Then he turned to me and put on a big, imbalanced grin. “But when the day comes, maybe my bride can walk them.”

That night, I went back to the Wolf Man’s place to have sex, and when it was over, I thought about black fur, a bushy tail, and a thousand hooves pressed into flesh. I placed my hand over my ribcage, feeling the way it expanded with each breath. I imagined the corpse ballooning with gas, and the maggots eating away at it from the inside out, until it deflated into a dry, inedible thing.

The Wolf Man rolled over in bed and asked me if I would like to hang out again sometime. I said yes. That was how I spent my summer, climbing up and down the hairpin turns of the peninsula, thinking of nothing but wolves.


That fall, juvenile seals returned to the shore and the red tips of bottlebrush littered the cliffs along Highway 1. At a house party, I told Faye that I might ask the Wolf Man to marry me. We were standing in an empty kitchen and listening to the townies in the other room exalt the swell. Faye was my closest friend, literally and figuratively; she slept in a converted storage unit across the street from me. At the end of the summer, Faye and the Wolf Man had exchanged their first pleasantries, after which she told him that wolf ownership was selfish and anthropocentric. She accused Agnes of subordinating a wild animal to her human desires and delimiting its existence to a pathetic number of acres. The Wolf Man claimed that he was not the wolves’ master but their friend. Faye and the Wolf Man did not get along. 

Faye backed into the kitchen counter. A glob of vodka soda spit leaked out of her mouth and landed in her mug. 

“Gross,” I said.

“Rose, you’re not going to marry that poor freak,” she said. She had light eyebrows, so light they barely marred her round face, and she always looked slightly surprised. Shrugging, I picked up the Tito’s from the kitchen table and poured myself another shot. 

“Not marry marry,” I told her. “Not legally. It’s a symbolic ritual. It’s a party. It’s a plan to meet the wolves.” 

I burned the vodka down my throat. The day before, the Wolf Man had stormed out of a restaurant when I let it drop that I’d recently slept with the waiter. It was true — we’d never said we were exclusive — but while I sat alone at the table set for two, I’d stumbled into my idea: my fidelity exchanged for his wolves.

I had been engaged five times, never with the intention of securing a real marriage license. It was something that I did for fun. I lived full-time in my parents’ second home and could only watch so many sunroom sunsets before getting bored. My presence never changed the red pollution of the clouds. But when I touched someone’s ear and looked into his eyes and made love sputter out his mouth, suddenly I had an effect — I held his insides right in my hands. 

Faye drank from the vodka soda, the one with her spit. “You can’t let it go any farther than this,” she said. “It’s outrageous. It’s immoral. It’s sad.” 

I leaned down, close enough that I could see the clumps of mascara on her eyelashes, long and dark like a baby deer’s. “Would you be my maid of honor?”

Faye blinked her deer eyes. “No way in hell. I would rather strap a couple pipe bombs to my chest and set them off mid-vow. Or sleep in the Wolf Man’s wolf pen.”

“Don’t be so dramatic. He would never let you see the wolf pen.” 

“I know,” Faye said. “Because I don’t believe in recreational captivity.” 

I nodded, though I knew that wasn’t really why. The Wolf Man didn’t know or care about Faye’s library of Murray Bookchin hardbacks, her restoration work on the Lagoon, or the strange figures she met on the beach to talk about mass extinction events. He guarded the wolves against anyone and everyone. If you sliced him open, you wouldn’t find truth or sin or love locked up inside him, you’d find his wolves. It was only now that I had something that the Wolf Man wanted that the gates might open for me. 

“If you become the Wolf Woman,” said Faye, “I’ll never talk to you again.”

“You know I won’t. Anyway,” I said, squeezing Faye’s shoulder, “you haven’t heard the rest of my plan. Will you make a deal with me?”

Faye pressed her hand flat against her cheek while she heard me out. 

“Interesting,” she said when I’d finished. I thought about baring my teeth but did not. I thought about sinking to a squat and crawling on all fours. Instead, I pushed my palm deeper into Faye’s bony shoulder. She agreed to do as I said. 


I had already planned the seating arrangements for my wedding when I asked the Wolf Man to meet me on the beach so that he could propose. He was, under normal circumstances, a private man, not a future-oriented thinker, and had to be pushed into doing things like making reservations, taking his car to the shop, and popping the question. I wore a tiered chiffon dress that went down to my ankles, so he could see what I would look like as a bride, and a black parka that kept me warm in the autumn wind, so he knew I was of sound mind. The Wolf Man showed up twenty minutes late. The sun touched the edge of the ocean, spitting glitter onto the surf. The beach was thin, the sand grassy and rough. Slick stones skittered out from the waves. 

“You’re late.” 

He smiled his apology. I rolled out the picnic blanket and sat down, gathering the skirt up and around the milky fat of my thighs. The Wolf Man’s overgrown fingernails traced circles on my knee. 

“We need to talk,” I said. “I can’t commit to you unless you show me the wolves.”

The circles on my knees paused. “Why don’t we fall in love with each other first? I can show you the wolves some other time.”

Under my dress, I had goosebumps from the wind that the white waves blew ashore. I wasn’t going to sit there and wait, and so I told him my first lie.

“I had sex with Faye last night,” I said. 

His hand left my leg. 

“Don’t be offended. It’s nothing to be hurt over. It was a fascination, that’s all. You know how I can’t resist a fascination.”

“But she’s your best friend,” he mumbled, his eyes downcast. 

It was odd to see the Wolf Man sad. Most of the time, he wore open and easy expressions: anger or pleasure, feelings that shifted cartoonishly across his lopsided face. His sadness looked uneasy, like it didn’t know if it belonged there, wet eyes and twitching chin. 

When he finally spoke, he wanted to know what it was like. I told him that Faye and I had played a game. She was the prey and I was the predator. I’d sunk my teeth into her stomach. 

Back when she was still a student, Faye had worked at a wildlife refuge outside the city. There were so many deer in the refuge that they were killing one another; too many mouths grazed too few acres, and so they starved to death. You could see combs of bone through the fawns’ bellies. Faye’s job was to limit the population. At work, Faye shot white-tailed dummies with her bow and arrow. She could hit the lungs, a clean kill shot, about two-thirds of the time. But she couldn’t bring herself to try it on a real deer, not even one she saw hobbling, pained and exhausted, its thin limbs hauling a bulging rib cage, already halfway to its slow death. 

“Faye will never be a predator,” I said. “Isn’t it interesting, the way the hunter and the hunted need one another? She always said that was the reason we should reintroduce wolves to the coast. California’s got too many cattle. They eat all the grass, starve all the elk.”

Reaching into my tote bag, I tore off a piece of baguette and smeared its crusted underside with creamed honey, sweet on my tongue. I thought you could reduce everything to predator and prey. Some people didn’t seem worried about ending up on the wrong side of the equation; they would let you see their intestines if you asked politely. They even liked doing it. I chewed, letting the baguette slice come undone in my open mouth. 

“Once I see the wolves, I’ll never have sex with Faye again,” I said.

Swollen clouds rolled through the gray sky. The Wolf Man looked at me. “You know that I would actually, legally marry you, right?”

I swallowed the bread and did not meet his eyes.


Some days later, I went walking alone on the beach. The Wolf Man had temporarily disappeared, but I wasn’t scared. I passed surfers and fishermen and aging hippies. On a bulletin board near the public bathrooms, someone had hung a scrap of paper with a message. It sounded like something one of Faye’s radical Luddite friends, or else a witch like Agnes, might write:

There is hunger and there is murder. No one can tell the difference. There are creatures who smell blood and who cannot cry. There is no contemplation of god. There are barbed dicks. There are children born from these dicks. There is something running at you.

I tore the paper off the board and stuffed it in my pocket.


Our wedding party took place in the parking lot of the pool hall. We had no chairs and so the guests, all ten of them, stood for the ceremony. Up in the trees, barn owls shrieked like banshee women trapped somewhere in the forest. As promised, Faye was my maid of honor. The Wolf Man bristled when he saw her. He refused to touch her in any photos. 

My neighbor, a retired plumber and mystic poet, officiated. Thankfully, he had no credentials and read off a printed piece of paper. 

With mountain flowers in my hair, I said: “I do.”

Smiling through his missing teeth, the Wolf Man said: “I do.” 

Later, on the dance floor, I watched the Wolf Man watch me take Faye’s hand in mine. While we twirled, she whispered to me that we were living among ghosts. Wolves haunted the hills, ballistics caught in matted fur. Poltergeists of tule elk, starved and parched, roamed fenced-in reservations set up by the Park Service. Red-legged frogs, plover birds, California condors, and yellow warblers sang eerie, bony tunes, their spirits weighing heavy on the branches of the redwoods. Meanwhile the cattle got fat on grass. I shook my head, dizzy from spinning in circles. I wasn’t interested in extinction or the afterlife. I just wanted to see a wild thing kill and run. 

When we were done dancing, I thanked everyone for driving up from the city, and fell into the Wolf Man’s passenger seat. He drove his ’04 Honda Civic for miles, letting it careen down the grassy slopes, flooring it uphill. We passed a hand-painted billboard that told us the seven-day running average for the town’s water consumption (59,664 gallons). Then came the long dirt driveway he’d told me about, and my body vibrated as the car ran over rocks. There was nothing ahead of us except the faint impression of the headlights, but I knew that we were passing thickets of skinned trees and pea-colored saltbush. When we reached the end of the road, I said, “You forgot to tie cans to the back.” 

In the driver’s seat, the Wolf Man fidgeted with the cuff of his rental tux.

“You shouldn’t be nervous,” I said. “This is the best night of our lives. It’s my first time, my very first time seeing wolves.”

I stepped out of the car in my white wedding dress. The lights were off in Agnes’s house, velvet curtains hanging in the windows. I turned on my phone’s flashlight, my bare feet sinking into the weeds. 

Halfway through the backyard, the Wolf Man suddenly stopped. I saw him wavering. 

“Don’t get cold feet now.” I took his hand and pulled him forward. 

“You can’t say anything to insult them,” he said. “None of your mean comments. Only admiration — that’s what they deserve. Don’t say, oh, they’re too small. Don’t imply they don’t satisfy you. They’re sensitive. They understand subtle shifts in tone.” 

“I’m sure I’ll be very impressed,” I said.

“See, that’s what I mean, you can’t say anything like that.”

“I mean it.”

“But it’s how you said it.”

We reached the barn. Through the darkness, I thought I could hear something panting. I fixed my hair so I’d look nice for them. Nervously, I twisted my ring.

The Wolf Man turned around and kissed me, his cracked lips touching mine, his crooked face moving down my neck. 

“No,” I said. “In the wolf pen.” 

He lifted his head up. 

“I’ll be on my best behavior,” I promised.

 The Wolf Man took out a lighter and pressed his thumb against the spark wheel. “They’re scared of fire,” he said.


With his free hand, he pulled open the wooden doors. Through the metal fence, I saw the female’s coat, brushed with white, like a stone covered in snow. The wolves were curled up against each other in the corner, close enough that I could smell them — something sweet and rotting. Their leashes weren’t tied to anything. 

“Aren’t they beautiful?” asked the Wolf Man, his voice low.

“Yes.” I exhaled. 

I ran my tongue over my flat molars. In my mind, the wolves walked like heavyset huskies, but I had gotten the proportions all wrong. These wolves had sixty, seventy pounds on the ones in my imagination. When I caught their eyes, bright as halogen bulbs, I didn’t see a flicker of recognition, like I’d thought I would. 

The Wolf Man lit a candle, the reddish light hitting his nose and chin, carving fresh crookedness into them. Instead of his usual meandering shuffle, he took wide strides with heavy intention. When he stood up straight, his shadow stretched with new length. The light came into his eyes and yellow glanced out of them. Then he turned around and kissed me again, forcing me back until we toppled over. I leaned up slightly to wrap my arms around him, but he pushed my shoulder back into the dirt. 

“Stay down.” His command made my legs tremble with fear and thrill, neither overpowering the other. I kicked my dress off.

The wolves didn’t move until I started moaning. Then the gray one slinked toward me, his snout trailing my scent. I told the Wolf Man not to stop. The gray wolf stood a foot away from me, his leather harness hanging from his stomach. 

“My wolves are massive,” the Wolf Man said, almost muttering to himself. He pressed his hand on my throat, stopping then unstopping my breath. “My wolves are powerful. My wolves are intelligent.”

I heard the metal gate open. Behind the Wolf Man’s head, Faye’s slight body, the wheat of her hair, appeared. At the front of the barn, she crouched down next to the white-haired wolf, the female, who still sat in her corner. I closed my eyes and let out a loud wail that pierced the dark. The gray wolf hovered over me, his breath ticklish and rank against my face. The Wolf Man’s warm mouth pressed into me, the wolf’s rough tongue tasted my cheek. His gray paw touched my shoulder, the barely-there prick of a claw. 

When I opened my eyes, the underside of the wolf’s snout smothered my vision. We were in the same barn, meeting one another on the same trophic level, the apex of the predators, and yet the panting that came out of its mouth was pure nonsense. We had nothing in common.

It was Faye who screamed. The Wolf Man shot up, suddenly still. He was half naked, pants around his ankles. In the window between the Wolf Man’s head and the gray wolf’s snout, I saw Faye, shaking and bloody, like she had been cut from a womb, clutching an empty harness. The white wolf was gone.

“What are you doing?” the Wolf Man shouted at Faye. The gray wolf, lying next to me, blinked his yellow eyes and bared his canines. 

Faye tried to limp toward us but fell to the ground, as if pulled down by a heavy weight. 

“She bit me.”

“What have you done?” cried the Wolf Man, kicking off his pants. “Where is she?”

“They’re wild. I let her go.”

“No, no, no, no.” The Wolf Man’s voice got louder and louder, until it turned into a howl. He bent down and tore off the sleeve of my wedding dress. His body seemed to move without his awareness of it. Leaning over Faye, he wrapped the white fabric around her leg, tight enough that she winced, but he barely looked at her. All he looked at was the open gate and Agnes’s grasslands beyond it. 

“They belong out there,” said Faye. The light from the candle, still quivering, stirred the whites of her deer eyes into a cloudy amber. “They went extinct in California a hundred years ago. We have to help them come back.” 

“She’s going to get shot,” spat the Wolf Man. For a moment, he bristled as if he was going to slap Faye, but then he took a breath and tied off the bandage around her leg. “She’s going to get shot by some cattle rancher, and then the cattle rancher is going to go to jail. And then the wolf will be dead.”

The gray wolf was still watching me, licking his lips. When I sat up and started to crabwalk away from him, he followed. His mouth lunged at me. He stuck his face between my legs. 

“Get off me!” I shouted. I pointed to the gate, still open. “Get out.”

“No,” the Wolf Man said, his voice suddenly calm, his hands open like mittens. “Stay.”

The wolf’s flashlight eyes looked between me and the Wolf Man, me and the exit. The Wolf Man sprinted toward the fence, but before he could close it, the wolf took off, the leash disappearing through the gap.

For a moment, all three of us were silent. Faye’s face had her no-eyebrows edge of surprise. Curled up, her small legs flat against the ground, she looked like a roadside ungulate. I reached toward her and slid a finger under the fabric of her bandage to feel the wound. The wolf hadn’t been trying to kill — the bite was only a warning. 

“It won’t be my fault if they die,” she whispered, closing her eyes tight. 

The Wolf Man sank to his knees, clutching his face, muttering again. I wondered if he knew all the things I had done to him. Maybe, because when he looked up, his face had fixed into something hard and mean.

“You killed them,” he said. 

“He scared me,” I tried to explain. “I didn’t think he’d be so scary.” I backed away until I hit the wood panel of the barn. The Wolf Man loomed half naked above me. 

“Do you ever think about how I could hurt you?” he asked. He hit the wood slat next to my head. “I mean, I could knock you right out. I could leave you without any teeth. How would you like that?”

“That’s not my fantasy,” I said. 

The Wolf Man’s face softened. He patted my cheek. “You’re never scared when you should be.” 

The Wolf Man was right. I had never seen a carnivore bite into something alive, the stretch and snap of gummy tendon. I had always wanted to know what it was like to pounce and kill, to rip open the seams of an underbelly, the meaty taste and rotten smell of it. Was this what it felt like when your insides fell out? Faye breathed heavily beside me, staining my wedding dress. As the Wolf Man circled us, I wondered what I looked like now, naked in his wolf den.

Caroline Gioiosa received her MFA from New York University, where she is the 2023-2024 Axinn Writer-in-Residence. Her fiction is published in The Yale Review.