The ad did say “must love dogs” but I expected common house pets, not actual wolves. As I pushed through the gate and fumbled with my luggage, two of the animals hung back, eyeballing me. A third was right at the gate with his huge white ears alert and his raggedy tail wagging. He looked me square in the eye and gave me what seemed like a mischievous grin. Smiling, I dropped my stuff to give him a scratch.
My human host sauntered down the front steps then in a flurry of frizzy blonde hair, pushing her chunky, black-framed glasses up on her nose. She was wearing a ratty tank top that said in faded letters, Witchy Woman. She shooed the dogs away.
“Don’t mind them, they’re friendly. Well, he is.” She said, giving the nice one a pat on the head. He tailed us as we lugged the entirety of my earthly possessions around to the back of the house.
“This is North,” she said, digging around in her pockets for my key.
“He’s around eighty percent arctic wolf. That’s his mom and brother out front. I rescued them from a shelter up in the Yukon a few years ago. I was only planning to take the puppies, but there was a crazy bond between the three. I couldn’t separate them.”
“Wow, so cool. I thought they looked like proper wolves.” As my fingers scratched North behind the ears, my eyes wandered around my new home. I hadn’t seen it in person.
“Make yourself at home. And feel free to kick this mutt out if he’s bothering you.”
North stayed with me for the rest of the evening as I unpacked. It felt strangely natural to have him there by my side, like I’d known him longer than the ten short minutes it’d been.
I went on to spend the next three years of my life living in that tiny basement suite in East Vancouver. The house was small, but the backyard was a special kind of paradise. There, I spent many long days blissfully swaying in a hammock tied to two palm trees, the ocean breeze kissing my face while I lazily flipped through pages and pages of summer reading. It was a miniature jungle; it felt nothing like the Canada I knew. Surrounded by dense greenery-bamboo, palm trees, cherry blossoms, ferns-it felt exotic. And the roaming wolves only magnified its wildness.
North was filthy most of the time; his thick white coat was always matted with evidence of his days spent romping around the nearby forest. On nice days I’d leave my door open, and he’d roam in and out as he pleased. On cooler days, I’d hear a distinct knock, almost as if from a human knuckle. I’d open the door to see North’s face, soaking wet, eyes twinkling, ears begging for play.
I never spent long in my suite without a knock from North. The other two would only come down when I was cooking. They’d come in, sniff the air, weasel some food scraps out of us and leave, but North would always stay long after the aromas of mealtime had faded.
Maggie said he wasn’t like that with any of her previous tenants. Probably because most people don’t want a grimy beast getting mud and twigs and leaves all over their house. But not only didn’t I mind; I loved it. He became a fixture in my life as if he were my own family dog. Although, North was no ordinary dog. While he had the superior intelligence of a wolf and a face full of mischief, he also had the loyalty and neediness of a common Labrador. An amalgamation of the primal and the tamed, I’d soon learn North contained multitudes.
One warm summer evening, he came bounding through the open door as usual. Maggie had shaved him down to make him more comfortable in the July heat and the sight of him was so funny I couldn’t help but erupt into laughter. She left only the hair around his face and at the end of his tail; he looked ridiculous, like an awkward white lion with a head too big for his body. As I laughed, genuinely delighted at the sight of him, the big poof on the end of his tail fell to the ground and settled between his hind legs. His ears flopped, his eyebrows descended into a sad arch, and his gaze went down to the ground in front of his paws. He turned around and walked out the door.
“Oh my god! No! North, I love you!” I called after him. His ears perked up and he turned back, as if to say he’d come back but only if I quit laughing at him.
That’s one example of his sensitive side. There were other times I was reminded of his more primal nature.
One night, a neighbourhood cat wandered into the suite and spent a couple of hours cuddled up beside me on the couch. Later, when I let the cat back into the yard, it happened to be the very second Maggie got home with the dogs. North tore around the house and was confronted by the intruder.
The next thing I heard was screech followed by a small but visceral struggle. I opened the door a jarring sight I’ve never been able to forget: North looking wilder than ever, cat’s blood painting his paws and jawline the richest crimson. I couldn’t tell you what sound I made, but it was enough for Maggie to come running around to the back of the house, worlds calmer and more collected than I. She’d seen this before. She told me to go inside, said I wasn’t helping anyone with my hysterics. I collapsed into the couch with my head in my hands, trying to erase the savage sight from my mind. Sometime later, my phone pinged with a text from Maggie letting me know North hadn’t moved from my door.
Sighing, I opened it and there he was, looking apologetic. He didn’t barrel in as usual; he was waiting for my forgiveness. I had to smile, and I tilted my head in invitation. Perked up, he went straight to his usual spot at my feet and didn’t move for the rest of the day, not even when the smell of lunch came drifting down.
About a year later, I went for a hike with Maggie and the dogs. It was mid-summer and the only refuge from the thirty-degree sun was in the arms of the impenetrable forest. It hadn’t rained in months. The ground was dry and brittle. North and the other two were running ahead, carefree in their element. We weren’t far from a cliffside and could hear the Fraser Valley River rushing far below.
North’s yelp cut through the peaceful humdrum of the forest and along with it came the unmistakable sound of ground falling. He had run too close to the edge and the dry rock face gave way under his feet. Maggie cried out and ran to save him, but it was too late.
The grief was instant. Maggie crumbled to the forest floor, much the same as the ground that had crumbled under North’s feet. We sat there long enough to meet dusk.
“I can’t just leave him there,” Maggie sobbed. I helped her to her feet.
“Maybe we can get a ranger to pick him up,” I offered, my voice small and crackly.
“Yeah, maybe,” she said as she collected herself. She brushed the dirt from her shorts and looked around for the other two dogs. They were right behind us with downcast eyes.
The park rangers were able to retrieve North’s body and Maggie decided to have him cremated. We went back to the spot a few weeks later to scatter his ashes.
Many years later, I returned to Vancouver after a long stretch overseas. I went to visit North’s spot one gloomy afternoon in January. I was intentionally off the grid with the singular goal of reconnecting with that verdant and magical sliver of the world I’d missed for so long.
And as it does, time ran away. Whatever light was able to penetrate the gloom began to disappear behind the mountains. It would be dark soon and any familiarity I once had for these forests was long buried. Every time I felt like I was on track I was back where I started. Blackness fell all around me as I circled the woods in vain. The heavy clouds smothered any light from the moon. My eyes adjusted to the dark, but it was only a small consolation. Being lost in a wintery rainforest overnight was the plot of a true crime story I did not want to be the star of. My paranoia sharpened as the blanket of nightfall settled in, comforting only to the nocturnal beasts lurking in the shadows.
Eventually, after endless circling to no avail, frustration and exhaustion paralyzed me. I slumped down to the mossy ground and leaned up against an oak tree thrice as wide as I. Just then, a shadow flickered in the corner of my eye accompanied by a deliberate rustling. My heart pounded as I traced the sound to find a lone white wolf, his twinkling golden eyes illuminating the darkness. As those wild eyes met mine, my breath ceased to exist. I froze in place as the animal stepped closer. Without breaking eye contact, he sat in front of me, his giant head mere inches from my face.
I should have been scared. It was the middle of winter and hunting was scarce; most of this carnivore’s prey was safely tucked away for the night. It’s a phenomenon that fear wasn’t the emotion tugging at my insides in that moment, but a feeling of profound peace. I smiled, and the creature tilted his head in a dog-like way. I reached out my hand, palm facing upwards, and the wolf leaned forward to give it a curious sniff. Then, with a movement that would have startled the wits out of any sane person, he licked my hand.
I say he, because to this day I’m positive it was North himself, whether it was a reincarnation of my old friend or a spirit or a mirage or a hallucination. I laughed. The sound was strange as it cut through the deafening silence of the night. I scratched him in the spot behind the ears North always loved. He nuzzled into my hand and curled up beside me. His hot-blooded body was as safe, warm, and comfortable as my own bed, and I fell asleep for a while.
After some time, he stood up with an exaggerated stretch and tilted his head as if to say, “come on”. The forest flora had coloured his white paws a deep brown, creating the ethereal illusion of his white body floating. I followed and every time there was a fork in the path he’d amble left or right with the surefooted confidence of a host giving you a tour of their mansion’s west wing.
As the night passed through adolescence into maturity, the coastal air with all its humidity and damp began to seep through my clothes. I was colder than I’d ever been. I looked ahead with desperation to find my ghostly guide sitting in the middle of the pathway waiting for me. As soon as I reached him, the distant city lights sparkled their reflection in his glossy eyes. He looked toward the city and then back at me as if to say, “you’re safe now.”
Cold as I was, I stood there frozen in awe watching as North skulked back into his natural habitat. As soon as I reached the forest’s edge, the distinctive sound of a wolf’s howl pierced the frigid night’s air. I howled back.