Hank and Mo ran along the muddy strip of field that separated their neighborhood from The Wildlands. It was also the don’t-you-dare-go-past boundary their mothers set and they unfailingly observed it, but past that strip was where the wolves were and it was wolf season and they were wolf hunters. A radio station offered $25,000 to anyone who could produce a real live Cross Riverian wolf, claiming there was no such thing. Daily Hank and Mo raced home to listen to the “Dog-of-the-day” segment at 3:30 in the afternoon. Someone would bring in a wild canine (sometimes alive, mostly dead) caught somewhere in town, only for the deejay to cackle and announce it was a dog, not a wolf.
Most days, the boys could see wolves passing between the trees like shadows. How could anyone question their existence? Those wolves, for Hank and Mo, were as real as raindrops or leaves of grass or the mud underneath their shoes. As real as the line between their street and the Wildlands, which they dared each other to cross.
You got no heart, Mo said.
I don’t see you going, Hank replied.
When I go in, Mo said. I bet you won’t follow.
You won’t go in because you a sucker.
Mo, the older and bigger of the two boys, reached out and grabbed his friend by the neck, trapping him in the crook of his arm. Hank thrashed about, but with each jerk, Mo tightened his grip.
Say that again, Mo said. Say it again.
OK, you a sucker.
The boys fell over into the mud and rolled around, slapping and punching. They stopped at the same time and both sat up, winded and breathing heavily.
Look, Mo said, all I’m saying is stop acting ignorant. We got work to do. Ain’t no use in being afraid. Mo pulled a large cutlass from his bag. When we got that $25,000 to split, both our mothers gonna be so happy they not going to worry about us crossing that line. They’d do it too if they wasn’t old. So let’s go on.
What’s that thing for? Hank asked. You gonna stab me if I don’t come with you?
Of course not. Don’t be ignorant. Wolves are dangerous. Don’t you know that? It’s like no one taught you how to be a man. We might have to wrestle that thing down and stab him and if we can’t bring the whole wolf back we can cut out the heart like the hunters did in Snow White and hopefully they’ll accept that as proof. So let’s go.
Hank nodded. Mo stood and walked past the line, stopping to look back at his friend who had paused and was swaying like a tree.
Mo shivered. It was a new feeling to head past the boundary into the trees. Instead of calling out to his friend, he kept walking.
Hank trotted along after Mo. He too shivered as he entered the Wildlands. The copse of trees overhead made everything dark.
I feel like I should be called Maurice and you Henry, Mo said.
I ain’t never going by Henry. Everybody better call me Hank or they getting punched in the face.
You ain’t punching no one in the face. And besides, you gotta become Henry sometime. When my brother turned 13, he stopped being Jerry. We called him Jerome. I can’t wait till I’m 13. That’s when you get all your freedom. You get confirmed and then you a man and can’t no one tell you you can’t walk past no line. Then you get to go where you want. My brother do whatever he want.
That’s not true, Hank said. I heard your mother yelling at him. Telling him to stay his ass home just last night.
You can hear us in our apartment? I can hear y’all sometimes too, but not too much.
The whole building can hear your mother. She loud. She said: Stay your ass at home and he ain’t go nowhere. He stayed.
That’s cause the dumb nigga got cut in the face by Lou, Mo said. When you do something stupid they start treating you like a boy again. But he got plenty stories from being 13. He killed a wolf, you know. Choked it to death. Did it more than once.
Yeah? Hank said.
We ain’t gonna have to worry about being treated like no kids after this, Mo said. Watch. When we bring in the wolf and get all that money, they gonna act like we 13.
How you know that, Mo?
Hank, stop being ignorant. How they gonna treat expert wolf hunters like little kids? That make any sense to you?
I guess it don’t.
I swear, you be asking the most ignorant things.
The boys walked in silence, tossing rocks and sticks into the water when they got close to the river. Once they thought they saw a wolf, but it was just a deer. A cat dashed by. Some animals they couldn’t identify flitted about in the distance, but no wolves.
The boys could see through the leaves that the sky was turning so they walked slowly back toward home, but after a bit of rambling, nothing looked as it should.
This ain’t the way we came, Hank said.
Stop being a baby, Hank. Yes it is.
Soon the trees looked like spirits and even the birds became menacing and the day’s heat took on a chill and Hank grew tired of following.
Dammit Mo, Hank said. You took me all this way and it ain’t the right way. I know it.
It’s the right way. You ignorant. I told you that before. I know the way and I know where we can find a wolf to take back. Keep following.
Naw, man. I know they out looking for us. I’m going my own way. I’m tired of this. We can get some wolves some other day. Today, I’m trying to avoid a beating. I shoulda been home.
OK, go. You don’t want your destiny. You gonna keep being a little baby. Mo wanted to say more, but he saw that it was no use. Hank had already started walking from him. Mo stood for a moment, watching his friend in disbelief and soon they couldn’t see each other.
Mo walked briskly and then slowly. As the sky darkened, every step took on an impossible importance. The frogs croaking. The water. Just one slip and he’d never be heard from again. People in Cross River talked about a Wildlands bird who lived high in the trees and picked off people whenever it became hungry enough. Mo heard a buzzing. There was a wild throbbing intelligence to it. The sound drew him. There was a smell, rank and heavy. First the smell repelled Mo, but then he realized it was calling him. The buzzing and the smell were an entity. Perhaps a mind with thoughts and even feelings.
His eyes at every moment adjusted and readjusted to the dark. There it was, a wolf. Lying on its side. Dead. Fat slivery flies—their metallic wings and exoskeletons caught shards of light as they flew their wobbly patterns—buzzed all around the dead animal. Its stiff limbs stuck up into the air. How long dead? Who could tell? Not Mo, who was beginning to view the cycle of life and death with a worshipful awe.
As Hank walked through the dark, he heard muffled sounds. Voices in the distance. He followed; they would be his salvation. So many times along the walk, he had become exhausted. At one point, he had even sat down and, for a few moments, was unwilling to rise. He wanted to return and find that fool Mo, but none of those options seemed to make any sense.
Soon, he could make out his name in the muffled sound. Mo’s name too. There on the edge of things was a human shape. An outline. A shadow.
Mo, it called. Hank! Mo! Hank!
It was Mo’s brother, Jerome.
Right here! Hank called.
I found them, Jerome yelled. I found them!
Jerome put his hand around Hank’s shoulder. Where is Mo, he said. Hank didn’t answer. Where is he? Come on, where’s he at?
Hank pointed to the Wildlands. Over Jerome’s shoulder Hank saw more people coming toward him. An aunt, who rushed and hugged him. Mo’s mother. His own mother.
You left my brother in the Wildlands by himself, Jerome yelled. Where is my brother? What is wrong with you?
You left that boy in the woods? It was Hank’s mother talking. You kids aren’t even supposed to go past the line. What were you thinking?
Hank could see his father pushing his way through the gathering mess of people. He smiled upon seeing his father, the first time in nearly three months. Hank’s smile devolved into a pained grimace as his father charged toward him, snatching him by the arm and whacking hard at his bottom.
We gotta go in there, Jerome said.
The Wildlands was forbidden zone, a place to fear. Everyone watched Jerome blankly, except Hank’s father, who kept screaming and whacking as Hank squealed and squirmed and cried.
Flashlights like spotlights cut wildly moving paths of illumination through the trees. And just when all had made up their minds to enter, Mo emerged.
He carried something in his arms, but it was unclear in the darkness. Beams of light struck the boy’s face, which briefly interrupted his look of satisfaction. It only took a moment for Mo to return his smirk to its rightful place as he hoisted the animal’s head— still buzzing with flies—high into the air.