The Wolf Groom
Story by Laura Relyea | Photo by Mandy O’Shea
It was the close of day when a boat touched Savannah’s shore and Clement, a mere merchant with a bag of gold, disembarked.
His voyage from New Orleans had passed without incident, and he had secured the sale of his tobacco before setting sail home to his wife and his three daughters. The sun was setting with an umbrous rage over the Wassaw Sound with a thick downy blanket of indigo thunderheads above. The wind whipped about him with aggression, churning the port into a thick foam. He followed the line of torches along the dock to the boardwalk. Carriages and horses thundered ahead in concentrated silence, determined in their races to their destinations before the storm broke loose. Clement himself made his way into the first inn that he came across, and, after deeming it safe for himself and his fortune, ate an early dinner in solitude before making his way up to his room for the night.
The next morning, before starting the rest of his journey homeward, Clement and his freshly filled purse ambled into town to buy gifts for his three daughters, each of whom was more beautiful than the last. For the eldest he purchased a necklace rich in emeralds from the city’s most renowned jeweler; for the second, a frock embroidered and fashioned with the most ornate beading and delicate pearls. Secured with these two fineries, he scoured the markets and florists for his third gift, but ultimately resigned himself to gather a worthy bouquet on his way through the wilderness towards his plantation. His youngest and fairest daughter, Rosamund, had asked only for a wreathed crown of wild flowers.
He traveled through the thicket and forest for miles before coming upon a clearing. In front of him a rolling field burst with the feathered petals of snowball viburnum, anemones, poppies, and heuchera. The ranunculus’ downy bulbs seemed to turn their heads to greet him, and he gathered them gleefully into a fat bouquet worthy of his most beloved daughter. He plucked them with such fervor that he didn’t even notice when he accidentally grabbed the tail of a large white wolf, which snarled at him, lip curled, guarding a wreath of his own. The merchant reached for the wreath boldly, driven by the whimsical thought of it perched atop Rosamund’s head. “My lord,” the wolf said. “You may have this crown, but only in exchange for the treasure of my choosing.” The merchant held forth the purse from his belt. “No, gold bears no service to a wolf. I’ve a different treasure in mind. Simply give me the first living creature to cross your path on your way home. In three days I will collect it from you.” The merchant imagined the herons, chipmunks, and swallows that had crossed his path on travels past and consented, carrying the wreath away with him. However, much to his chagrin, his travels continued without disruption, and in his final approach to his plantation the first thing to cross his path was his own Rosamund, anxiously awaiting his return on the red clay path to their estate.
The reunited family’s evening passed solemnly, the merchant’s promise looming over them heavy and thick. That night he recounted his misfortune to his wife, who hastily formulated a plan. “How is this dreadful hound to know our daughter?” she asked. “We shall simply outfit the goat herder’s sister and allow her to play the part.”
The expeditious wolf was prompt to retrieve his prize, arriving early on the third day. He ascended the stairs where the bereaved merchant waited for him with the servant’s daughter — the same height and age as his own beloved Rosamund, disguised in one of her most decadent frocks with the cursed wreath upon her head. The wolf lowered himself for the frightened girl to climb on his back and they left the estate without argument.
They ran through the thick forests for some time, only pausing their journey for a rest once – in the valley where the wolf had first crossed paths with the merchant. “This is my land, and soon it will be ours.” he said. The girl looked around terrified, her gaze staring emptily at the fragrant blooms that surrounded her. “What do you suppose your father would do with such a place?”
The girl paused and looked at the wolf. “My father? He would clear this field entirely, and the forest too. He would use the wood from the forests to sell as planks. He would let the goats loose to eat down the flowers, and then he would farm these fields. We would never want for anything again.”
“What could you possibly have want for now? Your father has had such success,” the wolf said, the deception dawning on him.
“Good sir, my father is merely a lowly goat herder.”
The wolf angrily threw the imposter on his back and returned to the merchant’s great plantation. Outside the gate he growled, “Dare deceive me again merchant and your tobacco fields will rot, your crop will turn to ash, and your fortune will be lost – for the earth is my greatest ally.”
He sent the imposter child in the gate and waited. It wasn’t long before Rosamund approached him, humming a somber song, the wreath of flowers clutched in her small hands. She seemed as fragile as the moonlight standing before him, but her green eyes held his gaze tearless and steady, her hair ribboned over her face in the wind. Though the wolf was pleased with her, he did not show it. She climbed on his back in silence and they left.
Rosamund, at this point, had barely ventured off her father’s estate in her life, so the feral woods were a wonder to her. The black and green willows feathered her cheeks as the wolf ran. The pecans cracked under his paws. Everywhere around them amethyst wisteria filled the world with its sugared perfume, and the girl inhaled it happily. When they reached the field she had all but forgotten her fear – she ran freely through the field of campanula and poppy barefoot. The wolf was charmed, but bit his tongue. “This is my land, and soon it will be ours.” he said. The girl paused for a moment and smiled. “What do you suppose your father would do with such a place?”
“My father would tame this place – prune the forest into gardens, lay pathways through the field and form a proper park, and he would conduct business and wander among the glades in the summers.” He knew he had not been deceived twice.
They continued deep into the forest, engulfed in its symphony of birdsong and breezes until they emerged from a dark ravine to find a row of black cedars that led to a great gate. The house wasn’t as grand as her own, but it was surrounded with enchantments and charms new to her, and she marvelled through each room slowly and deliberately. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “I only wish my father were here to see it.” The wolf was close behind her. “You will see him again in a year’s time,” he said and he slipped from beneath his white furry hide. In no way was he a wolf, but a man, standing before her shining like the sun with a striking air of satisfaction and intelligence about him. He led her out of the house into his orchards, where plum trees blanketed off the ascending sun, their fruit sugarcoating the morning air, and he carried her under them and laid her on the ground to stake his final claim on his treasure.
A year passed this way. They kept the house together like it was a fairy land and Rosamund found great joy. Each morning he stained his face with the berries and fruits from the orchard and donned his wolfskin to hunt. Rosamund busied herself with whatever brought her joy, a melody perpetually on her tongue. She cooked grand feasts for the two of them, baked decadent cakes topped with flowers from the fields, wove great garlands, raised the fire in the hearth, and when he came home, they gave themselves over to the joys of paradise. On days he stayed home they took to the soft grass fields and cypress woods, built fragrant green fires of myrtle and cedars, and indulged in heated muscadines and berries pulled straight from the vines before they stretched out and slept in the woods.
One day he woke her lovingly. “My dear, put on your best dress. Today we call on your family. But when we leave you must leave by my side or you will never find your way home without me.” And as she dressed so did he, staining his face with the enchanted fruits of their fields, cloaking himself in his wolfskin. He donned his disguise for the duration of their stay, shedding it only in the evening behind the locked doors of their bedchamber.
The girl’s guileful mother was untrusting of the hound, convinced he had bewitched her beloved youngest, for how could she find happiness with only a beast by her side in the wilderness? One night she hid behind a barrel in the corner of their room. When she saw him drop the mantle to reveal his real person she was enraged at his deception. In his heavy sleep she scrubbed his face clean of stains. And when she cast his fur into the fire to end his artifice she turned to the bed only to find him vanished, her daughter alone in the bed, his form still pressed in the mattress beside her.
In the morning the girl could not be consoled. She wept for her lost husband and cursed her mother before fleeing to the woods. She wandered through the forests blindly without a guide, path, or track to aid her. Days passed like this — she ate from the trees. The forest nurtured her as best it could, covering her over with branches and moss as she slept, feeding her with its fruits, roots, and nuts. All the while the bereaved wolf bride wept, for she knew there was no hope of finding her home.
On the 14th night she fell asleep against the trunk of the oldest elm in the forest. In the moonlight, the tree woke her with its aged branches. “Why are you crying child?” it asked. “I have lost my love, the white wolf, and cannot find my way home.” The wind and the elm consulted, waving the ancient tree from its roots to its branches, pulsing through it. “I have not seen the white wolf, child, but I can point you in a direction. Follow the path that unfolds before you and do not stray from it.”
When Rosamund woke the next morning, thinking it all a dream, she was amazed to see a perfectly formed path before her. It took her out of the dark willowed embrace of the forest and forward again until she reached a wide marsh. Her tears met the water at her feet and stirred the fish below. They gathered around her in one giant school. “Why are you crying, dear one?” they asked. “The forest and wind forged me a path to my love, the white wolf, but I have lost my way.” The fish consulted with one another and studied the murky earth below them — the unerring path was hidden there, concealed. Without a word they flocked around her and carried her across. From afar it would have appeared as if she were flying. At the end of the marsh she found great dunes and a clear path set out ahead, cut by the wind.
The sand was not so accommodating for her – she trekked for days and nights without food or water. By the time she reached its end, her skin was so burned and blistered and her lips so cracked that she thought she might die, but on the distant horizon she caught a glimpse of a rolling verdant field covered in a delicate quilt of carmine, amaranth, and scarlet – her own field. The thought of finding her home brought her renewed strength, and she crossed the fields as if she had just departed.
She was so glad to be delivered to this field that she laid down in its flowers and slept soundly. The flowers, knowing that it was her love for them and her father that had brought her here in the first place, and having admired the great love between the girl and their wolf king for so long, readily embraced her. They held onto her so tightly that they brought her into the ground with them, down to a great river far below the earth which carried her far and swift. When she awoke she remembered her heartbreak and cried out in agony, only to find when she opened her eyes the very gates she had dreamt of – her hound’s estate, covered in a dark cloud and overgrown with vines. From inside she heard pained howls. She ran towards it, crying out the story of her odyssey.
When she finally laid eyes on her husband he was collapsed in front of the hearth clutching the dried wreath he had brought her there in, not even noticing her. It withered in his white knuckled grip. She ran to him and held him.
“My love, this was only a dream.” And they held each other tightly, never to be parted again.