This story is a bit of a fudge, but Bob is short of material, so it might get through. Mustn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the adequate, after all…
I’ve long had this idea knocking around in my head, and on doing a bit of research I’ve discovered that it isn’t something I’ve made up, there really was a Native American belief like the one in my story. And if you put ‘two wolves story’ into your search engine, you’ll get lots of versions. I must have read one somewhere and the idea has stuck.
I’ve also been reading stories by Jack Schaefer, author of ‘Shane’, and my version of ‘Two Wolves’ is an attempt at a pastiche of his style. His story ‘Jacob’ gave me ideas, so here is Henry, a dying man in an old folk’s home somewhere in America in the present day. He is talking to a visitor and like many old people, he rambles and reminisces. Here is his story:
“Thanks for coming to visit Old Hank. Not many young-uns would take the time to visit an old codger in a retirement home. And you listen to my stories, too! It’s good to talk about the old times when I was a boy, younger even than you. There’s something about nearing the end of the journey that makes you remember the start. Medicine can’t do a lot for me now.
I grew up in a small town in the MidWest – what the city folks call flyover country today. Seems to me that life then was a whole lot better. We had the run of the town after school, and in those days there were still Indians in town. We called them Injuns, but y’all have to call them Native Americans today in case there’s anyone around looking to be offended. Used to play Cowboys and Injuns too.
Anyhoo, I remember one old Injun.
I would take a short cut from school through the trailer park, and I’d often see him sitting on his porch. Not much of the world went by his trailer but he was there to see it. I used to think he was very old, but to a small boy anyone over twenty is old. Looking back, he really was old. Must have been about ninety, now I think back to his stories.
He had a creased and weathered face, like you only get if you’ve spent years in the outdoors. Black hair with a ponytail. Didn’t look odd to me, to see a man with a ponytail, it suited him. And in that flat unexpressive face were quick dark eyes. And soft shoes. The first time I saw moccasins.
We gradually got acquainted on my daily walks home. It started with a nod and a wave, then we’d say something, and as the weeks went past I found myself stopping to talk and he began to tell me his stories. Bit like I’m telling you my stories today.
He talked about his life on the plains, before the railways came and there were all the buffalo a man needed to live. He talked about the nomadic life, when his people would move from camp to camp following the herds as they roamed the great plains. He talked of his joy when his father gave him his first horse. He talked about the coming of white settlers, and of the war that ended in the bitter winter retreat to Wounded Knee.
One day he told me something of the beliefs that his people had. I wonder now if he had a premonition, as he’d not spoken of this before.
What he told me then has stayed with me all my life. It was their belief that the animals had spirits, and that men who lived as they did were so in touch with the natural world that at their birth they would have spirits of the animal kingdom inside them. All men, he said, were born with two wolves inside their souls. A good wolf and a bad wolf. In most men, the good wolf wins out but not all the time. Sometimes the bad wolf comes to the fore and good men do evil things.
And in a few men, the bad wolf takes over completely.
‘Avoid such men for they are evil’ he told me.
I was fascinated by this idea and I blurted out a question.
‘What makes this happen?’ I asked. ‘What decides which wolf takes over?’
He looked at me for a long time without speaking, and I grew embarrassed. I felt that I’d disappointed him in some way, let him down by asking a stupid question.
But he wasn’t looking at me. His eyes were staring into a past I had never experienced.
‘Which wolf wins?’ he repeated, more to himself than to me. I think he’d forgotten I was there.
At last, he gave me the answer.
‘Which wolf wins? The one you feed.’
The next time I passed, his trailer was empty and for rent. I never saw him again, but his words stayed with me. Be careful which wolf you feed.
© Jim Walshe 2022