The Quotable

Wolf Boy

Blessed is the lion that the man will devour, and the lion will become man. And loathsome is the man that the lion will devour, and the lion will become man.

- Gospel of Thomas


I was a wolf when I was in the third grade. Most people assumed that I was merely a skinny little Irish Catholic kid with glasses and some missing teeth. But really I was a wolf.

I went to a Catholic grade school attached to my parents' parish church. Unlike my older brothers, who had been born in different parts of the country and had to move every couple of years when my dad got reassigned, I had the luxury of attending only one school. This was in what would probably qualify as the Golden Age of Catholic education, the kind of time that is fondly reminisced about in popular movies and sentimental novels. I suppose this is that sort of story in some ways. But mostly, it's a story about how I became a wolf.

Sr. Jerome was my 3rd grade teacher. She was a pretty standard-issue nun: black ankle-length habit with a white wimple over a black veil, wire-rimmed glasses, bad teeth in a beautiful smile.

Sr. Jerome announced one day that we would be doing a short play for Fr. Brannigan's 50th anniversary as a priest. I suppose they still celebrate that sort of thing, but I wouldn't know. Back then, it was a big deal. I suppose that 50 years of celibacy, black suits and no Sundays off was something to celebrate. All the school kids, from first through eighth grades, would do some sort of skit in honor of the good Father. We would spend a few weeks preparing it, and then have an afternoon off from school work on the day of the show.

There were Catholic textbooks back then too. Maybe there still are. The music books, in particular, were interesting because they had these little plays for the kids to do, based on religious themes. The actors would pantomime out some religious story, usually from the lives of the saints, while groups of kids on each side of the stage would sing/narrate what was going on. Something like performance art nowadays.

Anyway, Sr. Jerome had selected a play from the Catholic third grade music book for us to perform for Fr. Brannigan's anniversary celebration. It was about St. Francis and the wolf. At the time, St. Francis was considered relatively safe fare for third graders. He was kind to animals. By the time I got to Catholic high school, however, we were cautioned against seeing Zefferelli's Brother Sun, Sister Moon, because there were tits in it. And scenes that looked like acid trips. Sounded like a great movie to me.

But in the third grade, St. Francis was concrete statues outside monasteries, holding birds in his hand. Gardeners liked him. He was safe. The wolf, however, was another matter entirely.

The play, albeit watered down for third grade sensibilities, was based on a possibly true story from Italy about a wolf that was terrorizing a small town. He would skulk in from the mountains at night, slaughtering chickens, killing watchdogs, carrying off children, and generally making life miserable. So the townspeople appealed to St. Francis to help them. They knew he had a way with animals, even nasty ones like wolves.

Sr. Jerome had chosen Charles, a doe-eyed Italian kid who was something of a teacher's pet and who wore his glossy black hair slicked down with Brylcreem, to be St. Francis. I had to admit, Charles could look pretty saintly. My own cowlicky ginger locks usually stuck out in a variety of directions, possibly giving some hint of my wolf qualities. Anyway, Sr. Jerome asked me if I wanted to be the wolf. This was a really high honor, being chosen to actually play a part and not just sing in the tiny Greek chorus. I went home that day and excitedly told my mom. She looked at me over her glasses and decided that I'd need a costume, and wasn't it thoughtful of Sister to pick me for the role? Guess who would have to make the costume. But I didn't think about it that way. I was excited to be a wolf.

There was a family tradition of portraying animals. My three older brothers had won a prize at a local department store for portraying Alvin and the Chipmunks singing a Christmas song. I had also recently been initiated into one of the Church's central mysteries, and one of its minor functionary positions: First Communion and altar boy, respectively. I had been raised and taught to believe that there was a central mystery to human existence. Daily religious instruction and weekly Mass gave me a headful of bum Latin and an inkling of what the mystery might be. Transubstantiation and ritual drama! So I was already beginning to understand theatre, and was ready for the transcendent experience of becoming the wolf.

Rehearsals were typically during the last period of the school day, on the stage in the parish hall/cafeteria. Until a costume could be procured, I put my clip-on tie on the back of my belt for a tail. Then I spent an hour or so getting the knees of my corduroys filthy on the stage floor, doing my best impression of a wolf, while the singers on each side of the stage learned their lines and Charles practiced looking saintly. Being a wolf, I didn't have any lines to learn, but I have to admit that my early efforts at wolfish pantomimes weren't particularly convincing, even to myself.

The Saturday following my nomination to wolfhood, I went downtown with my parents to a costume shop This was before the riots, so there were still shops like that in downtown Cleveland, and it was safe to go there, even if you were white (I told you this was during the Golden Age). But they didn't have any wolf costumes. The best they could do was a wolf mask. It fit my 9 year old head, but I couldn't wear my glasses under it.

Like I said, guess who got to make the costume. My mom worked on the costume for a week, sewing it up on her Singer machine that also turned out most of my little sister's clothes. She finished it in time for the dress rehearsal. Grey cotton material, with footies like the pajamas I wore when I was 6. And a tail, of course. I put on the mask and costume for the first time, stood and looked at myself in the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door. I looked at myself through the eyeholes of the wolf mask. Maybe it was because I didn't have my glasses on. Maybe it was because I was 9 year old. Maybe it was because I had one hell of an imagination. But I didn't see me anymore. All I could see was the wolf.

Not Little Red Riding Hood's wolf. Not the 3 Little Pigs' wolf. Not the wolf from the Tom and Jerry cartoons who wore a zoot suit and whistled at lady wolves. Not the wolf decal from the greaser's hot rod. Just a wolf. Grey plastic fur and the tongue lolling out a bit to the right. A clever look in his eyes, not a leer, but a knowing look. My eyes were his eyes too. That was when I started hearing the wolf.

Sister always told us to listen in our hearts for Jesus' voice to tell us what to do. Believe me, I tried. There was nothing else to do during the endless rehearsals for our First Communion. But I never heard anything but my own voice reciting prayers I'd recently committed to memory. I really did try to hear Jesus' voice in my heart, the way I was told to. I even tried when my friend Mark Grasso let a really loud fart in church and got in trouble with Mrs. Dorothy "Hanging Gardens" Lawrence, the 4th grade teacher. But I never did hear Jesus. The wolf, however, I could hear whenever I wanted to.

He didn't howl like wolves in the movies usually did. It was just sort of a low growl, barely discernible amidst all the other racket that inhabits the life of a 9 year old. He would tell me things about himself, about me, about the world of wolves and that of little boys. Most importantly, he told me how to act like a wolf. He didn't disparage St. Francis, but strongly intimated that being a wolf was a whole lot more fun than being a saint.

Wolves are free, he would tell me. They are afraid of nothing. They do exactly what they please and everyone fears them because they are free. Saints aren't free because they have to be saintly. Wolves run like the wind, howl at the moon, and eat chickens and sheep whenever they want. It's the best life under the moon, he would say. Remember that when you go on the stage. Run, leap, howl, and make sure everyone knows that you are a wolf.

Now, with the mask and costume and, most importantly, the wolf's stage direction, I really felt like a wolf. I was ready for the big day.

When the curtain opened, I began jumping whirling leaping snapping my imaginary jaws and terrifying everyone around me as the chorus told the audience what a bad wolf I was. I had never terrified anyone before and I rather liked the feeling. On one level I knew it was all play acting but on another level it really wasn't. I was the wolf looking out through wolf eyeholes, snarling my best wolf snarl, and scaring the piss out of the villagers. I killed invisible chickens and sheep while the chorus described my wicked deeds. And then along came St. Francis with his arm upraised in benediction and I had to stop my lupine dervish dance and pretend to lick his hand. The chorus told the audience that I was a good wolf now. Charles' mom had made him a little brown monk robe so he looked the part perfectly. He was the saint, but I was the star of the show. The kids screamed and laughed and generally thought I was the coolest thing they had ever seen. Fr. Brannigan even called me out at the end of the show. Where's that wolf? he asked, so I got to take another bow and all the kids cheered for the wolf. It was the high point of my elementary school years.

Not long after all this they sent me for a hearing test. Apparently, Sister was concerned that maybe my hearing wasn’t good because I wasn't paying attention in class. The test showed that there wasn't anything wrong with my hearing. I could have told them that. I was listening to the wolf. He didn't leave after the play was over and I outgrew the costume. He stuck around. I wasn't interested in what Sister had to say any more. The wolf's voice was much more compelling.

The wolf has stayed with me ever since and I can hear him any time I wish. I guess that's the way it was supposed to be with Jesus, but it never was. I don't know why. What I do know is that there is the faith that other people want you to have, the faith that you struggle to define for yourself, and something else, perhaps faith, perhaps folly, perhaps something else altogether, that exists solely in the realm of the wolf.

I can hear him now.

 

--

Jeff Byrne is a changeling who was left on his parents' doorstep shortly after the Little Ice Age. Following a long career in the social work field, Mr. Byrne made a full recovery and currently divides his time between writing and researching the sociopolitical significance of cheese doodles in postmodern American culture. Mr. Byrne lives in Virginia, and counts among his enthusiasms high-stakes jellyfish racing, thaumaturgy, and telling other drivers to get the hell out of his way.

 

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