Once Daniel had recovered from the initial shock of the accident, he was angered rather than frightened by the realization that he was trapped. He cursed his own stupidity and clumsiness. Apart from the dull ache where the Jeep’s axle was resting upon his shoulders, there was no pain. He could not lift his head at all, restricting his view to the underside of the vehicle and a narrow strip of the forest floor beyond. His limbs remained free, yet he dared not attempt to drag himself out from under the jeep for fear of bringing its full weight down upon his neck. Only the soft, springy layer of leaf litter and the unevenness of the ground had saved him from serious injury.
For the first time, he was thankful the work was behind schedule. By rights, this last area of woodland on the site should have already been cleared in preparation for the building of a golf course and helicopter landing pad. Had the car jack collapsed on denuded, flattened soil, he would not have stood a chance of survival.
As it was, he would have plenty of time in which to count his blessings before the construction team returned in the morning and freed him. Alternatively, someone from the village might just pass by close enough to hear a cry for help. Very likely, though, Daniel thought darkly, if they realized who it was in need of assistance, they would leave him to the forest and the night.
Earlier that same evening, he had been forced to make a hasty exit via the back door of a packed village tavern. The public meeting had failed to convince the locals of the merits of having Rome’s new country club as their neighbor. With a wry smile, he recalled the jostling crowd of ruddy faces all shouting at him at once. Then, with a slight start and a shiver, he remembered the wolf.
The image in Daniel’s mind was not of the wolf itself, but of the girl, tall and bespectacled, who had pleaded on the animal’s behalf. Crushed by the mob and rendered inarticulate by her nervousness, all she had managed to stammer was, “What’s going to happen to the wolf?”
Shuffling and impatient muttering from those around her had assured him that no one else was the least bit interested in the fate of a single, aged creature, the last of its kind in the area. Nevertheless, Daniel had played to his audience, telling the girl that they could not be having the country club’s rich patrons coming face to face with a wolf at the eighteenth hole. A little humor always eased the tension. The girl, however, had seemed reluctant to show him her smile. Instead, he had treated her to one of his own most indulgent ones, whilst letting her know how terribly sorry he was that the wolf must be removed—a smooth, trouble-free euphemism for “shot.”
The buzz of insects around him, and the itchiness of their hairy, hooked feet and sharp proboscises on his stomach, disgusted him beyond all measure. He wished that he had left his shirt on while trying to jack up the Jeep. It was all the more infuriating because his trusty can of insect repellent was out of reach inside the vehicle. Mingling with the gloating hum of the blood-bloated gnats and mosquitoes was the incessant twittering of a night roost of starlings. The sound was unbearably amplified in the space between the Jeep and his ear. The birds would go, along with the trees, in a few days’ time, but Daniel wished they had already gone.
Then, with an explosion of frantic fluttering, he felt the rush of air dispelled by feathers across his skin, and for an instant he shared with the hated birds a feeling of panic. Then they had left him, and he was straining to make out other sounds above the buzz of the insects, the quickening rasp of his breathing, and the base thump of his heart. What had frightened the birds away? Was it a glimpse of a predator, perhaps a cat or a fox—or the wolf?
The resonant tap of a woodpecker was a sound to take his bearings on. How close was it—a kilometer into the woodland, or more, maybe, if the leafy canopy of the forest imprisoned the sound? There was another sound, definitely much closer—a loud rustling in the bushes directly behind his head. He gasped. It was probably just a bird or a rabbit, he told himself. Twigs were snapping. It must be a larger animal. Wolf! His mind shouted at him, his imagination overcompensating for his lack of vision.
Did wolves actually eat people, outside of fairy tales? If he lay perfectly silent and still, it might not see him. It was scent, though, which attracted some animals to their prey, his mind raced on. It must surely be able to smell his fear.
The beads of sweat, which had recently collected upon his chest, gathered into a cold trickle down to his navel. Daniel shuddered involuntarily. More rustling was superseded by footfalls on the leaf litter, coming closer. The leaves were being crunched beneath its feet. It was certainly a large animal, then. How many claws did a wolf have, and were its teeth long and sharp? No, no, he really did not need to think about that. After all, it might not be a wolf. It could well be some other large creature.
There were deer in the forest, he remembered with relief. Now that this was the only wooded area left, they must all be nearby. Many deer and only one wolf. Therefore, it was much more likely to be a deer. Daniel had only encountered deer on television and at the cinema as a child. His mind compensated for his lack of knowledge by providing a picture of a doleful-eyed Bambi, with huge ears and a spotted coat, prancing towards him. The charming image was instantly dispelled by a throaty growl.
Had he fainted—if so, for how long? Had the wolf gone? He felt a new pressure on his prone torso. Something was pressing against his ribs. The wolf must have one—no, both—front feet on his chest. Its jaws must be somewhere near his left shoulder, he calculated grimly. Why had it not harmed him yet? Perhaps it sensed there was no urgency. It had plenty of time to work up an appetite before morning. Maybe, though, its hesitation meant that it did not intend to harm him. It might even be as scared as he was. Speaking to it might calm and reassure the animal.
“It’s all right, wolf.” Then he recalled that someone had said it was a she-wolf. “It’s okay, girl. I won’t hurt you.”
The wolf uttered another sound, in apparent response to his voice, but the noise resembled a snort this time, rather than a hostile growl. The wolf snorted or snuffled again. It sounded almost like it was trying to stifle a laugh.
“I’m stuck under here, completely stuck.” It was ridiculous talking to this wild animal and being embarrassed about the shake in his voice. Now he could appreciate how that shy village girl must have felt at the meeting. He fervently hoped the wolf would give his words a more sympathetic response than he had given to the young woman.
“Help me, please. Can you go and get help or something?”
He shut up abruptly. He was being stupid. It was a wild animal, not Lassie.
Without warning, the wolf began scratching at the earth beside Daniel, causing the soil to cascade all around him. Daniel hardly dared to breathe, as the wolf dug at the earth close to his neck, fearing that her teeth would find his throat at any second. Although he could not see her behind him, he could hear her breath as she dug. He found himself unable to swallow, almost choking in terror.
“Don’t hurt me. Help me, please, and I’ll do anything…”
Suddenly, the ground beneath Daniel’s head crumbled away and he found himself hanging over the edge of the hole dug by the wolf. She snorted, as if laughing at him again, and then he heard her footfalls retreating across the forest floor.
For several minutes, he did not dare to lift his head, worried that the Jeep would drop upon his neck. Finally, he summoned up the tiny portion of his courage that remained and discovered that he could not only lift his head but turn it, too. The Jeep’s axle was no longer resting on his shoulders. He had dropped into the cavity dug by the wolf.
Slowly, Daniel edged to freedom. As he climbed to his feet, stretching and arching his back, his amazement and gratitude to the animal was already sparking new schemes and ideas in his head. When he ensured the story reached the papers, it would be fantastic publicity for Rome’s newest country club. He would make his rescuer its emblem. It was doubly fitting, as the great city’s original founder had also been saved by a she-wolf. Minor adjustments would need to be made to the country club, naturally. The helicopters would have to land on the area where tennis courts had been planned, and the golf course would have to be scaled down a little, preserving the last remaining patch of woodland for the heroic she-wolf. His four-footed savior would be left to spend the rest of her days in dignity.
The girl crouched down beside the stream at the edge of the woodland. She washed her hands in the clear, moving water. After carefully inspecting her torn and scratched fingernails, she took off her spectacles and cleaned the earth from them with the edge of her shirt. She snorted with mirth at the gullibility of the man from the city, whose knowledge of the animal kingdom was so obviously confined to Lassie films.
Then her face softened and she smiled, certain that, for the time being at least, the wolf and the other wildlife were safe.
About the Author
Judy Upton more usually works as a playwright and screenwriter. She has won theatre-writing awards including: The George Devine Award for ASHES AND SAND, The Verity Bargate Award for BRUISES. Stage plays include: ASHES AND SAND, Royal Court; BRUISES, Royal Court; SUNSPOTS, BAC; PEOPLE ON THE RIVER, Finborough; CONFIDENCE, Birmingham Rep; SLIDING WITH SUZANNE, Royal Court/Out Of Joint; TEAM SPIRIT, National Theatre, THE GIRLZ, Orange Tree, GABY GOES GLOBAL, New Wimbledon Theatre; NOCTROPIA, Hampstead Theatre and LAZARUS – one of the 2010 cycle of Durham Mystery Plays. She has had six original plays broadcast on BBC Radio 4, including JELLY BABES and a film made of ‘ASHES AND SAND’. She is currently writing two episodes for a new audio series to be released on Amazon Audible. Her website is: www.judyupton.co.uk