Ozmanthus and the Wolf
Ozmanthus was lucky for their name. In a household of recycled names for boys and floral names for girls, Ozmanthus stood out. Yes, they were named after a flower, but one would be hard-pressed to put Ozmanthus in the same category as Rose, Daffodil, Lilly, Iris, and Tulip. While they hated the girlish association even they had to agree it was better than being named after some millionth great uncle or, worse, be stuck with their Pa’s name like their big brother (affectionately called Junior); who would ever want a name like Brent. It just sounded boring.
There was an omen to Ozmanthus. As their ma’s stomach swelled with the little abomination, Great Aunt Bunny began to dissipate. She had been the picture of health one day and the next she could not keep down her food like she used to. After a month she couldn’t make the walk up the twelve steps to her bedroom. But before she could pass on to God’s gates, the expecting couple and their five younglings made the long trek up to Great Aunt Bunny’s tiny home.
Great Aunt Bunny drifted in the three hours that her great niece was in labor. When the screams of anguish and the cries of pain subsided, when all had drifted to calm, when the newborn was left in a cradle beside their sleeping ma, Great Aunt Bunny rose with the spirit of a particularly jumpy rabbit. She walked for the first time in six months without her walker and lifted the six pound and three-ounce baby with an ease she had lacked the past three months. Settled in her beloved rocker, Great Aunt Bunny sang for the first time since her youth. Ozmanthus’s ma could never replicate the song, something “from the old country” as she would put it, lost to time, lost to history. When her song came to an end and her great niece roused from her bed, the revitalized woman pressed her wrinkled nose to the newborn’s head and took in a big breath.
“Ozmanthus. Smells just like Ozmanthus.” Her boney finger glided over the sticky tufts of orange hair that sprouted from the silent child’s scalp. A smile bloomed on her sorrowful lips. “Same shade of orange too.”
“I always loved Ozmanthus.”
Great Aunt Bunny pressed a kiss to christen Ozmanthus’s head and departed.
She was right about the hair—the bright orange mess could be spotted no matter how hard they tried to hide, making hide-and-seek feel like a cheat of a game. Yet Ozmanthus had other reasons to stand out among their ten siblings. They were grounded on a regular basis for trading chores with Michael (named after Pa’s great-great uncle) who was too into his book to bother with sharpening his knives or cleaning the guns. Besides, they were much more likely to die from poisonous plants than the wolves. Pa and the other boys made sure to keep them at bay. But weapons were a man’s duty, so Ozmanthus was put on manure duty nearly every week that at some point they grew dull to the foul scent of cow dung.
What really did them in was the hair. It simply grew too long, too frizzy, too annoying. A few simple cuts and they felt ten pounds lighter. Their parents did not agree to the necessity. The scar on their forearm from the lash was worth it though.
Ozmanthus sat on the porch rubbing freshly picked aloe vera leaves on the still tender wound when their pa marched out, gun strapped to his back and knives on each thigh, with all five brothers following behind like ducklings in similar attire. Pa stopped abruptly and turned on his heel to survey his sons, a deep frown drawing out the lines at his mouth and forehead. At the sight of little Atticus (Ma’s great-great-great-grandfather) no older than three with a butter knife in his chubby grip, Pa sighed.
“Atty, you can’t come until you’re bigger. Stay on the porch with Ozzy and practice today ok?”
Ozmanthus perked up. “Can I have a knife to practice with too?”
Pa ran a hand down his face. “You’re a girl Oz. You can’t learn to hunt.”
“But—” Oz swallowed and glanced at their scar. “But why not?”
With the lumbering steps of a man much too tired for this conversation, Pa squatted down to be face-to-face with Oz. “We all got our roles in this world Ozzy. Men have to hunt and scavenge and protect their women. Women,” he gently chucked their chin, “need to take care of the house and the younger kids. Then we all work together to take care of the farm. It’s a scary world. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
Ozmanthus stiffened, their eyes narrowing. “I’m not weak.”
Pa’s eyes grew soft in that pitiful way that made Ozmanthus want to show him just how strong they can be (even if it was bravado held up by desire rather than fact). “Ozzy, sweetie, a lash is no where near what them wolves can do. They could break your whole arm with just their paw. Now,” Pa stood, scooped up Atticus, and set him in Oz’s lap, “watch this little bug and stay on the property okay?” He attempted a smile, attempted peace. “I’ll find a nice fat turkey for you to eat tonight, okay Ozzy?”
It was not accepted. “Okay.”
With a final sigh and wash of his face with his hand, Pa and his remaining troopers marched down the porch and off into the wilderness. Ozmanthus waited until they were out of sight before grunting and smacking their good hand. Atticus peered up at their frustrated sibling with curious innocence.
“Do you hate Pa, Ozzy?”
“No. He just makes me feel like a baby.”
“But he treats you like all the other girls.”
Ozmanthus sighed. “I’m not a girl Atty.”
“Are you a boy?”
It took them a moment to register what they had revealed. Took another moment to roll that long mused over realization over their tongue, now in the world. Took yet another to process their brother’s question. “No. I ain’t a boy either.”
This made the unjudging arbiter of Ozmanthus’s truth frown. “Are you a wolf?”
Ozmanthus snorted, hugging the funny child. “No! I’m a human like you, silly.”
Atticus sighed, deflating with relief. “Okay good. I don’t want you to be a wolf ‘cause if you were a wolf than Pa would have to kill you and I don’t want you to die.” He tilted his head up to look at them upside down. “You’re my favorite human in the family. Well, after Tulip but that’s just ‘cause we’re twins. But I like you most because you make the coolest forts! Can we make a fort now?”
As appealing as the idea was something more came to Ozmanthus’s mind. While putting Atticus and Tulip down for a nap (and in the care of Lilly who was none to thrilled) their plan solidified. The wolves. The scourge of the woods. Pa had been in pursuit of the pack since they had moved into the isolated forest. Giant, spindly things they were. Bodies too long, too flexible, too twistable. Eyes so dark and deep to look into them was to stare into the abyss of death. And their howl. Oh, their howls. They were like the final screams of the damned before being dragged down into the depths of their everlasting despair. Pa hated them, didn’t trust them. “They’re not of God and shouldn’t live.”
If Ozmanthus could kill one then Pa would never be able to ground them again.
Ozmanthus would prove themselves the stronger human.
Ozmanthus will finally get their pa’s respect.
An hour later Ozmanthus was deep in the woods following a trail of prints that their own boots could dwarfed in. Part of their deal with Michael was that he had to teach Ozmanthus everything about hunting, and Ozmanthus was a damn good student. Naturally, Pa and the boys took all the guns and hunting knives—but not the butcher knife, not the rope. Ozmanthus ran off of pure adrenaline, pure hope, rather than a plan. So, when a wolf came into view, they didn’t have a plan.
While accurate, the stories neglected to mention the wolves’ size. Ozmanthus was on the shorter side, but they knew animals. No animal should have towered over them like this wolf. No animal should be so out of proportioned. No animal should have been able to sense Ozmanthus’s silence present. Those eyes. Ozmanthus thought they knew fear. The longer they stared, the more their mouth watered with a yearning, no, a need to be devoured. Their legs moved on their own towards the now seated beast. (What was happening?). Something tugged on their heart. They threw the knife to the side. They wanted to beg this majestic creature to eat them. (This is wrong). What else could life mean if not to be destroyed by something greater than yourself?
Ozmanthus was reaching their hands into the wolf’s gaping, bored maw when the spell broke. It didn’t notice. Ozmanthus’s arms diverted from mouth to around the throat and, using the angle and moment of surprise, flipped the wolf onto its back and pinned it down in a choke hold. Ozmanthus had to wrap their entire body around the wiggling wretch to keep from being knocked off, to keep themselves alive. From their new position they could only see one of the wolf’s eyes and when they looked in it they felt a weaker version of that need once again.
“You tricky bitch. You fuckin’ coward!” Ozmanthus grunted. “Gotta use stupid tricks at your side?”
The wolf snarled, revealing teeth the size of Ozmanthus’s hand.
Ozmanthus growled back, just as guttural. “I don’t need this shit from a coward! You don’t deserve to eat me if you don’t fight fair.”
It gave a rough twist of its upper body and managed to pin Ozmanthus to the ground. What the beast did not realize was how this second roll would cause their body to wrap itself in a painful, tight constriction. It yelped in pain and tried to roll back the right way, but Ozmanthus would not allow it.
“A coward and an idiot! Don’t even know your own limits.”
So the struggle went for hours, both too stubborn to relent. At times, the wolf would be able to roll back into a comfortable position. Others, Ozmanthus would get close to having the wolf be in a knot of its own flesh. Sometimes the wolf would try to buck Ozmanthus off and get smacked or kick by whatever limb Ozmanthus could risk. Yet other times Ozmanthus would try to their rope around the beast’s maw and instead be met with scrapings from its knife-like teeth.
The sun was beginning to set. Both creatures were tired. Ozmanthus began to yell for their family, for them to find them and help them kill the wolf. In turn the wolf began to howl. Perhaps it was because they were too exhausted for the howl to rip through them or maybe they were simply fading into sympathy for the beast they were entwined with; rather than the screams of the dead, Ozmanthus only heard a resounding tiredness within the howl, a plea for rest. It quieted Ozmanthus’s own screams. It moved them enough to stroke the beast’s cheek with the same reverence they gave to their mother when she was in labor with the twins. Once again they met the beast’s eye and instead of that pull Ozmanthus felt a warmth. A question laid within that stare. A resolution seemed to follow in the strange crack of the air that only Ozmanthus could hear.
“Ozzy!” Pa had his gun in hand, but his eyes were on Ozmanthus rather than the wolf.
In the second it took Ozmanthus to look up at their pa, the wolf wriggled itself loose from their tired arms and sprinted into the distance. Pa dropped his gun and ran to check on Ozmanthus, began tending to their scraped arms. He was saying something to them. Something about Atticus. Something about not caring as long as Ozmanthus was alive and safe. All Oz could do was stare off to where the wolf had disappeared.
They will learn what resolution it came to.