Read Saint Peter’s Wolf Online

Authors: Michael Cadnum

Saint Peter’s Wolf

Saint Peter's Wolf

A Novel

Michael Cadnum

NIGHT BEAST

That night I had the dream again.

I was running. I had never run so fast before. I was the beast.

I slowed, my paw/hands making a soft pat-pat on the lawn. There were warm-blooded bodies here. The bodies of women.

Hurry, I snarled deep within my lungs.

At last I saw the figure of a woman, stepping toward a car in the streetlight. There was a scent of animal about her, and the chemical tang of new clothing. The key bit loudly into the lock. She was no one I had ever seen before, and she was what I wanted.

Her lips were parted, her eyes bright, gleaming bright, then fear-wide. I seized her.

And then I lost the dream.

It was the purest sleep, and when I woke I felt the nap of carpet under my cheek. I did not move for a while. I did not open my eyes. A dream like that was almost too vivid, I found myself thinking. Such joy, and such freedom, had nearly been painful.

When I was fully awake I realized there was something very wrong. What I felt under my cheek was not a carpet at all. I was lying on the lawn of my back garden, in the wet grass. I was naked.

The rest of the dream began to come back to me. Although I could not call it a dream. I had to face what I knew to be true …

For Sherina

I would like to thank Craig Hoffman for his encouragement during the early stages of this novel. I would like to thank Sidney Nelkin for giving me the opportunity to examine a part of his fascinating collection of curiosities
.

I would also like to thank Luke for his years of companionship
.

…
for there's no place here that does not see you
.

—Rainer Maria Rilke,

“Ancient Torso of Apollo”

Part One

One

It was raining, and the world beyond the windshield was a vision, buildings and pavement starred with water that the wipers dashed away. But the drops reappeared, and the wipers at last could not compete with the downpour, and I could not see well enough to keep the terrible thing from happening. A shape like something entirely imaginary, four-legged and indistinct, bounded across the street.

My foot hit the pedal, the brakes squealed, and the car slipped out of control on the wet pavement. Just as the downpour was at its heaviest, with the storm so thick I could see nothing but the steering wheel, the buildings, the few random figures like fragments, the car glided across the water.

It did not happen quickly, but as though it had been predestined, as though this moment could unfold without hurry, because it always had been intended.

The car lurched slightly, a gentle nudge. And then the front end rose and fell, as if I'd driven over a speed bump, a lump of earth. But it was not earth. I could feel my nerves wither.

I've run over something. Something is hurt.

And just as suddenly the rain slackened. I leaped from the car and froze there in the dim headlights, the sun leaking through the clouds.

It was the way no one moved that made it all especially sickening. The way the old man in the distance looked our way, baring his teeth in a grimace, the way my own body felt itself go powerless.

A German shepherd struggled to drag its body. Its front legs scrabbled the wet street trying to pull the broken hindquarters. Convulsions rippled through the dog, and it looked toward a figure at the curb, a silent woman, her hands to her face, the dog blind with pain but knowing that the woman was there and that the woman needed her, even now.

Once I had seen a man bitten by a dog who had been hit by a car. The man had crouched with a blanket, and the crazed animal had snapped and found flesh. But I knew only that this dog was in pain, and that I could not stand here and watch it without acting.

So I did what I knew I should not do. I opened the trunk, tugged the woolen blanket free of the tire iron, shook out its folds, and was at the dog's side, moving smoothly, as though I had done this all before.

“No!” gasped the woman. “Don't touch her—she'll bite you.” The woman's voice was a whisper out of agony, considerate for me even in this anguish, but I did not hesitate. I knelt.

But when I opened my mouth, poised to tell the dog that it would be all right, I did not speak because I knew that any consolation would be a lie. So I said nothing but “I'll take you to a doctor.” I hardly recognized my own voice. It was calming, and more peaceful than I could possibly have felt. “I'm going to cover you with the blanket.”

The dog looked at me, ears cupping toward me, teeth bared in her pain. Her brown eyes saw me, and then failed to see me, as the pain pulsed. There was danger here. The dog was ready to fight for her life.

The animal struggled, as though wanting to crawl to where her mistress stood, one hand to her lips. The woman took a step forward and knelt, and I sensed a powerful bond between them. I sensed, too, that this woman was about to take control of the situation, and render my help unnecessary. But for some reason she hesitated. She looked into my eyes and saw something there that made her trust me.

It was the pain that kept the dog from trying to bite me. The dog did not know where she was. The woman was there as I covered her. She held her coat shut at her throat. Her face was shock-pale. She struggled to speak but could say nothing.

“I'll take her in my car,” I said.

“It's my fault,” she said in a voice that was too steady, kept tight with great effort. “I hate to use the leash.”

There it was, a useless loop of leather in one white hand.

The dog sang, a long note of agony as I lifted her mercifully quickly, as though I had practiced this a dozen times, and in her pain she snapped at the air. She was a big dog. The scent of her wet fur was strong, and the weight of her surprised me. She tried to wrestle around to snap at me. Her teeth were white slashes in the air. They slammed together at my ear and her breath was hot.

“It's all right,” the woman said, and the dog was calmed for a moment by the sound of her voice.

It might have been the worst thing I could have done, moving her like that, but some confidence I could never have anticipated gave me strength. When the dog—and I already began to think of her as nearly a person, or more than a person, a lovely creature in agony—was safely in the back of my car, I turned and guided the woman into the front seat.

Then my confidence broke for a moment, as my hands trembled on the steering wheel and the gearshift fought against me like a tool I had never attempted to use in my life. Where was the nearest animal hospital? I had no idea. Here I was on upper Broadway, a block from my home, with a dog beginning to howl in the back seat. They were long, broken howls, and my stomach knotted with every cry she made. The howls stopped, and were replaced by great, beastly shudders.

The dog was dying. I gripped the wheel and could not even see for a moment.

“On Van Ness,” said the woman beside me. She was weeping, quietly, and yet there was something about her presence that stilled me and gave me strength. “I'll show you where.”

It could have been the waiting room for the most expensive surgeon. Burgundy wool carpets and great spears of cacti, the sort of potted plants that cost hundreds of dollars. I had recently paid my share of remodeling for my own practice, and I knew that these colorful artistic doodles on the wall and this svelte silk-bloused receptionist did not come cheap.

The doctor took no time to offer consolation, or much information. The receptionist mentioned x rays, anesthesia, surgery. Forms were presented, and a pen provided.

And then we waited. The woman beside me struggled not to weep. This was her usual doctor, she said; they all knew and loved Belinda.

Belinda. I was crippled with sorrow at what I had done, and wished that I myself knew medicine so that I might put my hands upon her and heal.

But the woman, who had introduced herself as Johanna, pronounced as the Germans would pronounce it, so that the name was at once stately and musical, blamed merely her unemployed leash. “I never should have taken her in the rain,” she said, a tissue crumbling in her palm.

It had, in truth, been raining. I had not been speeding. And yet I could not have felt more pained, sitting staring at the floor beside this trembling woman. She was blond and slim, and I noticed her hands, delicate and without nail polish. And without a ring. The way she trembled made me want to take her in my arms. Could a guilty man have such thoughts? But she was not like any woman I had ever met before. The entire point of my life became, as I sat there, to ease her anguish. And to see that her dog survived.

“You were so kind,” she said.

She had the slightest trace of a German accent. Her gratitude stung me. “I'm so sorry,” I said.

She touched my hand, unaffectedly, just once. “No, it's my fault.” She made herself stop sobbing, because she could see how much grief she was causing me. She wanted to say something to ease me. “Sometimes these things are fated.”

I realized she had steadied herself once more, and I had to admire her strength, and was touched that she could feel concern for me. I did not, personally, believe in fate, but I recognized the sort of thing people say. Naturally, some things cannot be avoided. They simply happen. They are not planned by anything unseen. I knew we both-felt the same way—we did not believe in supernatural forces. She merely had intended to say something that consoled me.

And so I agreed. Some things were fated.

To continue to distract her I asked what she did, guessing that she was a professional woman of some sort. She was a translator, currently working on the works of Baudelaire. She had just finished translating some previously undiscovered notebooks of Freud's last years. She consulted with researchers and museums all over the world. It took me some time to find this out. Despite her kindness toward me, she was shy. I was a little surprised that such an attractive woman could be so accomplished and yet so unsure of herself, but I respected her reticence. Some people do not talk easily about themselves, especially to strangers.

And I was, unquestionably, a stranger. When she asked me what I did, the answer I gave her surprised me. I told her that I was a collector.

“What do you collect?” she said, even trying to smile, and I was happy to try to distract her with the mundane details of my life. “Anything. Art, books—objects of interest.” It was true enough. I collected prints and books that I found in London and New York, but nearly always donated or loaned the objects to various museums. I collected, but I did not hoard.

She listened with admirable courtesy, but she did surprise me by saying, “You must know Mr. Zinser.”

I must have shown the surprise I felt. Jacob Zinser was the paramount collector, world renowned. “No, but I have always admired him from afar.”

“I just completed some translation for him. I will introduce you.”

Of course, I told her, I would love to meet Zinser. He had discovered a copy of a Shakespearean first folio, a letter from James I regarding witchcraft, and one of the first Tarot card decks, complete. He was the most famous collector in San Francisco, probably in North America. I was a beginner, an amateur in the most pallid sense of the word, compared with the distinguished scholar Jacob Zinser.

“I have been in the Bay Area just a few months,” she was saying.

I had a dozen questions, but just then the door opened and the doctor was there, a gray-haired man in a white smock. Johanna sat absolutely still, searching his face for some sign of the news he was about to utter.

He had a sheaf of x-rays with him. He offered a smile which was reassuring without being cheering. “Belinda is badly hurt,” he said. His manner said it for him: there was little he could do.

Johanna made a sound, worse than a sob. She put her hand to her throat again, in that gesture that made her seem so fearful, so deserving of protection from all harm. “I'm so afraid—”

The doctor must have known he had to reassure her, but apparently the truth was ash. “There's still a chance,” he said.

Was this an offer of hope, or an announcement simply that it was too early to grieve? The doctor glanced at me, as though annoyed that I was there to hear him so bereft of professional platitudes. I knew how he must feel. He was a kind man with cruel tidings.

“The pelvic bone is—” He searched for a gentle way to put it. “Badly damaged. She's lost blood, internally. She's a big, healthy animal but—” He stopped himself. Every word hurt each of us. He held up an x ray, as though to say: look, here's the truth.

Johanna gazed through it. I kept a discreet few steps away, studying an acrylic, done fairly well, splashes of color not unlike what I feared was taking place inside Belinda.

“I can't—” she began. “I'm not used to x rays.” Said nearly apologetically, as though she had found a passage in a language she could not translate.

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