We are the watching eyes of the Irish wilderness. Its panting tongue. Its quickening pulse. Its teeth. The ancient Irish called us mac tír—sons of the land. And it was Ireland that forged us, from our granite pelts and frostwhite muzzles, to our turf-dark noses and shifting, sky-coloured eyes. We belong here, no less than the hawks of the high peaks or the ravenous pike of the still waters. Our night-song sent thrills through children’s dreams. Our glimpsed silhouettes were revered. And in huddles at the moonlit crossroads, people would whisper our legends. Deer were plentiful then, and the forests were creaking with life. We never hungered for human flesh, with its caked-in carcinogens and sweet fattiness. We never wished the Irish ill, until they started to invent stories with which to kill us off.
They said we were sharp-fanged and vicious. That we preyed on children, disguising ourselves as their grandmothers. They said we were mercenaries for hire—the Laignach Faelad—and that we’d only accept payment in the form of the flesh of newborns.
One murder starts a genocide. Within a century, we’d been wiped out, and even the rivers changed course.
Now the time has come for our return.
Humans call it the ‘sixth sense’, but there are so many levels of perception they know nothing about. We sense a woman coming from the New World, driven by a hunger almost as great as ours. We see the deltas of blue veins on her pale wrists. She is sitting on a metal bird in the sky, squinting against hard sunlight above clouds. She swallows to quench the ache in her chest. Her hands grip each other and she watches the map in front of her, a red ember pulsing across an ocean signposted with shipwrecks. She doesn’t realise each maritime disaster draws her closer to us.
‘Skaiste!’ Her name means ‘sky’ in a language her ancestors once spoke.
Her Irish mate holds her, drinking her in. ‘Welcome home,’ he says. ‘Good flight?’
She forces a smile. ‘Great.’
In their stony den, the two fall into each other. Humans don’t only couple during one season, as we do. We mate when the rivers are high, when stags lock antlers and red grouse fly startled from the bilberry bushes. But humans are driven by craving for each other’s bodies all year round. No wonder they make such stupid choices.
Like us, humans are supposed to mate for life, but long ago, this woman had another mate, in her other life across the ocean. Skaiste has never told her Irish partner about the child she carried for months and how it died inside her. How her abdomen became a tomb of bones for the rotting fruit of her womb. How, when she sat on the ice-block bathroom floor of her Phoenix apartment with the blood seeping out of her, before she dialled an ambulance, before she even screamed, she thought about how some animals eat their deceased young, and wondered what this would taste like. She has never told him how snowflakes grazed the frosted window. In Arizona. For the first time in her life. Snow.
She shivers. In the stony den, sweat cools on the backs of her naked thighs.
‘Skaiste?’ Her mate turns her to face him. ‘So, when are we going to start trying?’
She tries not to react, tries not to roll him over and pin him down and take from him the thing she’s wanted ever since she sat on that ice-cold floor with its tiles no longer white but red.
There is a hunger that scalds.
Humans have all seen it and pretended not to. That smug back-in-shape mummy jogging a something-month-old on her hip as she waits to pay at the till. The sales assistant who doesn’t say how old or how cute, but just folds the woman’s receipt, and without blinking, passes over her change. For every woman cooing over a stranger’s baby, there’s another at a safe distance wondering what that infant’s skull would look like split.
Unlike us, humans love to deny their instincts, salivating only for things removed from reach. Skaiste never wanted a child until she lost one. She spent her most fertile years taking pills to keep her infertile, but still a child took seed. Now the yearning for offspring is a tapeworm eroding her internally.
She is the one who will bear witness. Her hunger is savage enough to have brought her here, and it will bring her to us.
The night of our release is pitch and stabbed with stars.
The Irish mate wears a T-shirt embossed with the silhouette of a wolf and the emblem GROWWL—Group for the Reintroduction of Wolves into the Wicklow Locality. He and Skaiste join hands with the others, forming a human wall of rustling legs and squeaking boots that herd us into a corner of our enclosure. We are blanketed, pricked with needles, bundled into massive crates and put into the backs of Land Rovers. When they drive in convoy into the dark mountains, Skaiste’s chest tightens.
‘Don’t worry, honey.’ Her mate rubs her thigh. ‘It’s been carefully planned.’
Honey? As if there were any sweetness left in her.
We can feel the nearness of our homeland. We slabber and ache with the hunger of years.
On the hilltop, humans stand around with searchlights. When they open the doors, the land rises up to meet us, bitter and fresh and pungent with coming rain. As soon as our crates are opened, we bolt with our ears back, as if running from ourselves.
It’s somewhat of an anti-climax. Humans stub their toes, and Skaiste pulls her partner’s arm. ‘Is that it?’
The night is still. The only trace of us is the scent on crate bars, and tufts of fur floating ominously from the skeletal tendrils of ferns. ‘Bloody Lake?’ someone suggests, and the humans rally again. Suck-slam the jeep doors echo, and they drive back down the hill, congratulating themselves on their magnanimous gesture.
Unleashed, we have found a trampled island.
In our absence, the Sika deer have grown fearless, their interloper eyes scanning rocky outcrops. Only the odd tractor sends them skipping up the mountain with the white heart- shapes of their arses flashing. Sheep wander stupidly between heather, filling the hills with droning bleats. Plant life has been chewed and farmed into a bland pitch without the flavours of thyme, fennel and wild garlic that used to dance into our nostrils, making us sing. Everything is flattened now. Trees have been cleared and the wind is merciless.
‘It’s positive!’ Skaiste smiles through briny tears. The two mates stare at each other; cats in a dark alley.
‘So soon,’ he says. ‘I didn’t think… You hear of couples trying for…’
She laughs. ‘Luck, I suppose.’
He doesn’t know she’s been charting her inner workings, just as the ancient Irish built burial chambers by calculating the sunrise. He cannot let the thought dawn; that none of their couplings have ever been spontaneous. That those nights when she came to him with the fullness of her pale pelt uncovered were carefully planned, orchestrated in accordance with the moon. Who would allow themselves ponder the notion that hunger can chase away love?
Soon, her body starts changing. The areolas around her nipples darken. Fangsharp pains bite into her temples. Crimson claw-lines scar her hips. She starts to dream. Other pregnant women dream of eating earth, but Skaiste dreams of teeth. She sees herself climbing into a swirling blizzard that parts to reveal a wolf tearing into a fresh kill. Blood oozes between its paws, and she doesn’t know what type of animal it has caught. She’s drawn towards the hot meaty smell of the prey, trying to ascertain what kind of animal it could be. But every time the kill comes into focus, she wakes, sweating and too terrified to weep. Naked, she clutches her belly like a fortune teller’s globe and stares at the frost-white ceiling.
‘Honey. Are you okay?’ her mate asks one morning as they sit in the sunlit kitchen, stirring breakfast porridge neither of them are eating. ‘You’ve been so…’
‘It’s nothing,’ she says automatically, looking up from a book of wolf legends. Then the need in his eyes makes her buckle. ‘This is gonna sound nuts, but it’s just the wolves… the ones we released into Wicklow? I can’t stop thinking about them. You sure it was okay, releasing them like that?’
‘Of course,’ he says, relieved it’s nothing worse.
He tells her how wolf-reintroduction has been done in Yellowstone. They’ve reported natural control of deer numbers, greater biodiversity and a boost in tourism figures. ‘If you like, we can go for a walk one day? Check up on our wolfies? If we’re lucky enough to see them, that is. They’re very shy. People have been having a hard time spotting them. We’re not quite sure where they’ve gone.’ He nuzzles her neck. ‘Don’t worry, honey. We’ll go find them, make you feel better.’
‘I’d like that,’ she says. They both grimace, fake smiles to nullify each other’s unspoken fears, but then life intervenes.
Their son is born early with blood on his lungs. Famished for so long, for a living child instead of a pooling red mess, Skaiste feels time stop. For the next three weeks she doesn’t know if it’s day or night, or what strange creatures stalk the corridors of her mind.
There’s a fear that’s never fully recovered from. From our frothing saliva, rivers were formed. Shape-shifter warriors. Mercenaries paid in the tender meat of newborns. In Skaiste’s New World, the Skin Walkers of the Navajo channel courage through their hooded pelts. While she was heavy with child, she read of Lycaon, turned into a wolf as punishment for eating his offspring. From Greek mythology to Nordic legends, humans do not fear the wolf so much as the wolf part in all of them.
A part that, once turned, might not turn back.
Four months later, she sits on the seafront at Bray, rocking her son’s pram and watching him breathing. Everything feels far away, as if she’s looking out from behind a waterfall. She squints at the horizon, tries to bring it into focus, returns her stare to the infant. At first, this child was too sick to name. Even now that they have plucked a word to call him, Skaiste hesitates to use it; as if afraid it might hurt him somehow.
‘Honey?’ her mate touches her hand, rigor-mortised around the pram handle. ‘You have to relax. The nurse said he’s grand, right?’
‘Come on. You should be enjoying the fresh air, the…’
She stills his arm. ‘What kind of dog is that?’
‘Umm…’ he says. ‘Is it some kind of German Shepherd?’
Under the candy-striped umbrellas of the Cereal Killer Café, a grey animal lolls across the pavement. Beside it, a young woman with a tasselled handbag sips foamy coffee from a tall glass and absent-mindedly pats the animal’s head. Yellow eyes swoop. The animal stops panting and stares. For Skaiste, it is the creature’s proportions that chill her. Its ears are the height of her son’s plastic bottles with their yellow teats, its tail the length of his wicker Moses basket. The animal licks its jowls, and the young woman feeds it another quarter of her poppy-seed muffin.
Skaiste grips the handle tighter. ‘That is not a German Shepherd. That is a fucking wolf.’
‘Okay, okay. Listen,’ he says, hands up in surrender. ‘I didn’t want to worry you. But there’s been a slight… well. Situation with the wolves.’
January. The wolf moon. The Inuit call it that because all other animals are sleeping. Only our baying can be heard over the winter stillness. And that’s when we began coming into the towns. At first people were afraid. A couple of us were tranquilised and re-released deeper into the hills. But we’d always return and sit outside people’s doors, whining cutely. One clever wolf even rescued a child who’d dashed in front of a lorry in the Lidl carpark, and that was the start of it.
‘I guess they’re not as wild as we thought,’ he laughs. ‘They’re really quite tame. Lots of people have taken them in as pets. They’re very obedient. Great with kids.’
Skaiste stares at him. ‘Have you lost your mind? We need to have them all put down. This is fucking dangerous.’
‘Honey, relax. There’s been no one hurt. They’re very friendly. I promise.’
But with the telepathic certainty in her belly that told her she was bearing a child, she can see through our plan to endear ourselves to the local population. Now, nearly every house in Wicklow has a ‘pet wolfie’ who drools under the kitchen table, leaps for frisbees in the park and lazes by the television. We parade the promenade at Greystones, bejewelled with stylish rhinestone collars to match our owners’ handbags, or pace alongside joggers on their morning power-runs. We are fast becoming status symbols. And each night, we hurdle over garden walls, gnaw through hedges and tear through heather to meet by the shores of heart-shaped Lough Ouler at the top of Tonlegee Mountain. At the point where, if it were a real heart, it would break.
She knows. But—It’s okay, Skaiste, don’t worry, Skaiste. A little boy, Skaiste! You must be so happy, Skaiste—why does no one listen? Are they fucking crazy? Nauseated by Caring For Your Newborn instructing her how to be a good mother, by people telling her how to feel, she will prove the threat we pose is not just in her mind. What about that missing Arklow two-year-old from the news? Or the Roundwood farmer whose lambs vanished overnight? There must be carcasses in those hills. The ivory lantern of a small sheep’s nibbled skull. A toddler’s pelvis, licked clean. One bright May evening, she grabs her camera, ties her child to her front like a clinging bear cub, and sets out into the mountains.
Spring is in full frenzy. Tourists pull into lay-bys to take photographs of mountains that refuse to be captured, each vista outdone by the next. But to Skaiste, the Irish landscape is ravenous. Hedgerows slobber with frothy white blossoms. Pus-yellow gorse erupts over fields. Pines gasp into shapes of yawning jowls. Everything attacks her senses. Crows call, mocking children’s cries. Her son whimpers in response.
She pats his back and keeps on climbing.
At first she doesn’t notice the absence of spring, or the soft coldness against her cheek as winter descends onto Tonlegee Mountain.
The whiteness is sudden. In the haze, patterns of ice and rocks take on the shapes of teeth, tongues and watching eyes.
‘Fuck.’ Skaiste turns back, blinded by the thickening fog. Which way is home? Heart loud in her head, she tries to focus on securing each step, on ground covered with a slick afterbirth of frost. Sleet stings her cheeks, causing a scattering of sound, of feelings.
Skaiste we’re sorry miscarriage sometimes it just body rejects no real reason tea, you want Skaiste not your fault you just have to tea it’s just body rejects
She’s almost at Lough Ouler when the snap of a twig makes her turn.
We step out of the mist.
Before she remembers fear, her first reaction is awe. How beautiful we are. How soft. Our eyes take the evening light and disembowel it into its components. Now red, now indigo, now white. Our howling song speaks to something inside her; a pain she’s been carrying for so long.
Nowhere to hide on the mountain, barren but for a single twisted sapling. In the pause between heartbeats, we have her surrounded.
Her camera slides in her sweaty grip. With each blink of her eyes, our image changes. Now canine, snarling on all fours. Now upright; towering men with matted hair, ragged capes and hardened jaws, pointing blood-rusted spears at her throat. But we are weak, our skins pale, our muscles wizened. Some of us boast ugly welts of unhealed battle scars.
Mirrored in Skaiste’s eyes, every wolf legend she’s read becomes manifest. We are the Laignach Faelad, begotten in the imaginations of the ancient Irish. No longer mac tír, sons of the land, but wolf-shifter warriors, mercenaries for hire. With their story, the Irish justified their brutality, whispering our legend so often it became true. Our spirits attached themselves to the lithe grey bodies of the Irish wolves. In naming us, the Irish breathed life into us.
As wolf and as man, the hunger Skaiste sees in our faces is the same. It will only be sated when we have received our payment. And the fee we require is blood compensation for two-hundred-and-thirty years. Two-hundred-andthirty years since the last of us was shot, leaving our disembodied spirits drifting across Ireland, looking for wolf forms onto which we could attach ourselves. Two-hundred-and-thirty years until two crates of Alaskan Timber wolves were released into the Wicklow hills. Two-hundred-and-thirty years of hunting denied us. Two-hundred-and-thirty years burning in purgatory, while we waited to return. No gold. No silver. No credit cards. We will only accept payment in one form.
She drops her camera, clutches the child to her.
‘Listen,’ she says. As if we could be reasoned with.
She, of all humans, must realise hunger is a cunning creature, not easily appeased. Years of baptisms and children’s birthday parties. Years spent pretending to smile into prams. Even now, as she clasps the head of the son she is supposed to love, Skaiste feels her chest ache for the one she lost. Forcing one life into existence cannot make up for the loss of another. The few lives of a single pack cannot atone for the annihilation of our ancestors. At the very least, we require retribution.
No one will see us come. Down culs-de-sac and mews. Into homes where we have made ourselves welcome. Honey, our wolfie’s at the door! Better let him in. One first payment is all we need to begin regaining our strength.
We watch Skaiste’s thoughts dart across her eyes. She understands. We are the Laignach Faelad. If she gives us the child, we will release her. She could untie the sling, drop the heavy burden of this placebo who’s failed to sate her hunger. She could run back down the mountain, to warm relief, buttered toast, a long hot bath. Her mate will not be home for hours. She could forget—
Horrified, she stumbles backwards. We part, letting her pass, and follow; our paws pad silently through snow.
What creatures dwell in her mind to make her think such things?
What kind of person would conceive such a thought?
She grips her child tight, too tight.
We paw closer, our growls magnificent. Our breath steams onto her skin.
Her child struggles for air.
Cornered, she backs into the gnarled clutch of the twisted sapling. Spindly branches claw her hair. A lone raven wheels above, cackling. Wind roars. Our drool glistens. Skaiste’s hands let go of her child’s fading warmth. Her fingers start to shake.
Rowan berries burst, blood clots against snow.
Icy flurries catch our fur. Life surges through our veins. Our howls echo into the eternal silence of our island. We have returned.