Victoria was fast asleep when she heard a noise. It came from the direction of the dark forest near the small cottage where she lived. She shivered as she walked the short distance from her bed to the bedroom window. The window pane was frosted over but she could see the night sky lit up by a gorgeous sunset. The large red sun was setting in the pale yellow sky, channelling bright shafts of vivid light through the gaps in the pine forest, onto the sparkling snow. It looked like the sun was melting onto the surface of the ice. Higher in the sky the sunset blossomed into deep burgundy splashes of vibrant colour which contrasted with the amber spray in the blue twilight darkness. Victoria loved to gaze at the bright colours in the night sky. Victoria appreciated the beauty of nature but she felt very sad. At times like this she would look up into the sky and pray that her life would change for the better.
Victoria was eleven years old and lived in an old run down cottage with her cruel step-father, Hans. Her mother had died suddenly, only two years after marrying him, and Victoria hated Hans. He was cruel, selfish and he resented having to look after her. So when she wasn’t collecting kindling for the fire or working in the kitchen, she was locked in her cold and draughty bedroom. Hans was the gamekeeper, who looked after the forest, but he loathed animals. He even hated the herd of beautiful red deer he was paid to protect. Of all the animals in the forest, he particularly detested the wolves. He had already killed most of the pack and suspected that there was only one young wolf left. Hans couldn’t wait for the day when that animal was also in his gun sights. He thought it would only be a short time before he would be sporting another trophy in his living room.
The sound that had disturbed Victoria was of a wolf, crying and howling at the full moon. Victoria loved animals and felt very sorry for the poor wretched animal, it sounded to her like he was suffering from great personal sorrow. She wanted to go out into the forest and find the wolf and comfort it. Victoria was worried her cruel step-father would shoot it, so she kept away from it. She could not bear to hear the sad cries so she went back to bed and covered her ears with her pillow.
The wolf’s name was Jack. He was only two years old and was now forced to live on his own. His mother, father, brothers and sisters had all been killed by the cruel gamekeeper and he knew he had to keep out of his way otherwise the same fate was likely to befall him. He was aware he had to be very careful when hunting for food, because the gamekeeper had cruelly left strong metal traps all over the forest floor. Fortunately his father had shown him where most of them were before he had been killed whilst leading the gamekeeper away from the den where Jack slept. He was sad because he was all alone and missing his family and friends. His instincts told him to howl at the moon, because he was sad and lonely.
Victoria could bear the cries no longer and again got out of bed, the broken wooden floorboards were cold on the soles of her bare feet. She grabbed a lantern lying on a table next to her bed; it was the one she used for searching for fire wood at night. Her step-father refused to feed her if she did not collect the wood, so quite often she had to do it in the dark. She lit the lantern and shone it through the bedroom window towards the forest, hoping she would see the poor creature. Jack saw the light and immediately stopped howling. He was enchanted by this bright shaft of light. The full moon did strange things to his mind, and he felt himself being drawn into its path. He knew this was a mistake because it was coming from the direction of the gamekeeper’s house. His brain told him to keep well away from there, but he followed his canine instincts. Jack could not help himself; it was as though he was in a trance.
Victoria saw his dark shadow in the light and quickly realised her mistake. She heard her step-father banging about downstairs, and she thought she heard the unmistakable sound of the gun cabinet door opening. She felt sick and immediately extinguished the lantern, but it was too late. She heard the squeaky sound of a window opening downstairs, followed by two loud bangs. She froze in fear and then heard the wolf yelp in pain. Jack had been hit in his shoulder, but even worse, he was now lying exposed on the snow covered field, out of the cover of the trees. He knew he had to get back into the safety of the forest but hard as he tried, he could not move his front paw. He shuddered as he heard the gamekeeper opening the cottage door and could hear him swearing. He summoned all the energy he could muster, and took the weight on his back legs as he frantically tried today himself to the shelter of the forest.
The gamekeeper had been drinking whisky, as he did most of the time, and his co-ordination wasn’t as it should have been. He slipped on the ice and fell to the floor banging his knee painfully against a pile of logs. Jack knew he had to take advantage of this unexpected break, and slowly crawled back into the forest. It seemed to take him an age, and every step was filled with intense pain. The angry gamekeeper kicked the logs and called out, ‘I shot you good and proper, you won’t escape me now. I'll come back and find your dead body in the morning.’ The furious Hans limped back into the house and grabbed his almost empty whisky bottle.
Victoria thought about what she had done, and was beside herself with grief. She knew she had betrayed the brave wolf’s trust. Sobbing into her threadbare cotton pillow, she felt sick with the shock of what she had seen. She didn’t know what to do to try to help the poor helpless wolf. Jack was now lying in the snow just inside the forest. He was in agony with the pain, and he could feel blood seeping from his shoulder wound, turning the snow around his upper body red. He knew he had to keep moving, but he couldn’t, and he felt his energy draining away from his once powerful body.
Victoria quickly decided what she must do. She put on her faded white cotton dress and brown clogs, and quietly opened her bedroom door. Every noise she made seemed to be amplified over a hundred times. Removing her clogs, she slowly walked in her bare feet down the old squeaky staircase. She was frightened of Hans, he was very strict, and she knew he would beat her if he caught walking about outside her room. As she reached the bottom of the stairs she saw him sitting on an old, battered, wooden rocking chair in front of the log fire.One hand gripped an empty whiskey bottle, the other one was clenched into a fist. His large head nodded and she saw that he was sleeping. He dribbled out the corners of his mouth, and his dirty grey beard was damp. She stopped by the heavy oak kitchen table and picked up two thick slices of black rye bread, which she had been forced to bake earlier in the day. She was not allowed to eat it, so knew she would be in deep trouble when Hans found out, but for once she didn’t care.
She opened the back door and a flurry of snow blew into the cold damp house. Victoria held her breath as the freezing air ruffled her stepfather’s long straggly grey hair. He murmured something and his head rocked forwards. Her heart skipped a beat, this is it, she thought, this will be the excuse he has been looking for to beat me senseless; but to her immense gratitude, he paused and just carried on snoring. Placing her foot down on the cold snow reminded her to put the clogs back on. The snow was crisp and every footstep sounded loud enough to wake her stepfather, so she sprinted as fast as she could into the forest.
Victoria loved animals but she was afraid of the dark forest with its tall imposing trees appearing to look down on her. She froze as she felt a thousand pairs of eyes watching her from the shadows. Victoria knew she had to be brave and tried not to be intimidated. She used her little lantern to help her to see where she was going. Her heart beat even faster when she saw a sticky trail of bright red blood leading into a shallow ditch. That was when she saw the prone figure of Jack lying in the snow whimpering in pain, he knew he couldn’t walk any further. She saw the gunshot wound on his shoulder and the red snow underneath him. Not caring about the blood, she sunk to her knees in the cold snow, 'what has he done to you?' She gently whispered into his large ear and hugged the prone figure of Jack as tightly as she could. She did this so firmly she could feel his heart beating against her thin clothing. Jack was barely conscious but he could still feel the warmth of the young girl’s body through his thick coat of silver grey fur.
Victoria enjoyed the sensation, and realised that this was the first time she had hugged anything since her mother had died. Jack, on the other hand, was deliriously dreaming that his own mother had returned to comfort him. Victoria knew she had to help Jack; otherwise he might die of his wounds. Using the light from her lantern, she could see the small metallic shotgun pellets in the open flesh around his shoulder; she knew that she had to find a way to remove them, as she had many times before when she was preparing partridge and pheasants for cooking. She had an idea, and took a hair grip out of her flowing, wavy blond hair. Victoria knew she had to be brave for Jack’s sake, as she poked the small pellets out of his flesh with the grip. She then tore a strip of cotton from the bottom of her dress and carefully placed it around his shoulder, tying it off with a neat bow. Jack could no longer feel the pain; his shoulder was becoming numb through lack of blood. She hoped this would now stem the flow.
She stayed with Jack for most of the night, continually comforting him. From time to time his bright, piercing amber eyes would suddenly open and he stared at her face with affection. The first pink and purple splashes of dawn were appearing in the dark blue sky and she reluctantly decided that she must return to her room. Victoria held Jack’s head in her small hands and carefully fed him with the rye bread. He felt some energy returning to his body as he gratefully chewed and swallowed it down. Victoria then covered Jack in broken twigs and leaves, trying to make him as warm as possible in his makeshift den. ‘Goodnight and God bless’ she whispered, taking a large pine branch from the undergrowth, she covered their tracks, and the blood with fresh powder snow. She dragged the branch behind her all the way back to the house; she didn’t want Hans to see her footprints in the snow, as this could lead him to Jack.
Victoria reached the cottage, sick with fear in case Hans caught her outside her room. She quietly opened the old rusty latch on the heavy wooden door and tiptoed in her bare feet across the stone kitchen floor, being careful not to knock over any of the heavy pans she used for cooking. As she reached the living room she was horrified to see that Hans was not asleep in his chair, as she hoped he would be. Her spine tingled, and she frantically looked around in case he was already watching her. Victoria was then relieved to hear running water in the toilet, so she hurriedly ran upstairs to her room and jumped back into bed. She was cold, tired and exhausted, and worried about Jack. Soon she would have to begin her daily chores!
Jack awoke to the sound of the heavy footsteps of the gamekeeper. He could smell his odious scent and it made his skin crawl. He was warm in the little shelter that Victoria had carefully prepared for him. He could feel the snow falling all around him, and knew he would be safe for at least another day. Jack remembered what Victoria had done for him during the night, and he was deeply grateful to her. He was still in pain with his wounded shoulder, but it felt a whole lot better than it had during the long agonising night. Jack heard the gamekeeper cursing, then his footsteps returning towards the old stone cottage.
Victoria was allowed out of her room to begin her daily chores of cooking and gathering logs. Her step-father didn’t mention the missing bread so she assumed he must have thought he had eaten it himself.
She hated her life, she wanted to be treated the same as other young girls of her age. Victoria wasn’t allowed to play with toys, and her friends had been made unwelcome a long time ago. Her step father had taken her out of school when her mother died, and he had told her that her place in life was to cook and look after him. She looked down and saw the whites of her knuckles as she kneaded the dough to make the daily bread. Whilst she was baking, she made another smaller loaf, in the hope she could throw it into the forest for her new friend, Jack. She prayed with all her heart that he had survived the night.
Jack stayed in his warm leafy den until it started to get dark, then when he thought it was safe, he tried to get up. His shoulder was painful but he could at least walk with a limp. He was hungry, but he didn’t think he would be able to run fast enough to catch any hares or rabbits; he would have to make do with roots and berries. As he wandered about inside the forest he could not help but notice shafts of white light shining through the gaps in the trees, lighting up the snow on the forest floor. He looked up and saw a clear full moon; it appeared even brighter than it had the previous evening. Jack knew he shouldn’t, but his instincts told him to howl at the moon. But, this time, he was trying to send a message to his new friend Victoria, telling her he was missing her.
Victoria was tired but couldn’t sleep, there was too much on her mind. From her cold bedroom window she stared out at the beautiful full moon with its distinctive grey craters that gave it the appearance of a human face, marvelling at the pale rainbow coloured halo of light surrounding it. Victoria made a wish to the ‘man in the moon,’ asking him to take care of Jack. Just then she heard the unmistakable sound of Jack’s howling coming from the direction of the forest. Her heart jumped with delight. ‘Thank God he is still alive,’ she said to herself quietly. She was elated to hear her friend, but unfortunately her step-father must also have heard it, because she heard the sound of the gun cabinet door being opened. She screamed ‘No' but no one heard her because the next sound she heard was the back door slamming shut.
Jack had a good nose and he could smell the gamekeeper approaching. The forest was his territory and, unlike the gamekeeper, he also had good night vision. He no longer feared the evil Hans, and lay still behind a tangled thicket of bramble, just as his father had taught him to do. His instincts had changed, and now he wanted to attack the gamekeeper, but he did not trust his wounded shoulder so he continued to crouch motionless, watching his every move. Hans was getting frustrated. He thought he had killed the young wolf, but now the howling had proved him wrong, he clumsily wandered about the forest tripping over fallen trees and all the while Jack knew exactly where he was.
The gamekeeper continued to stumble about in a drunken haze, wandering deeper into the middle of the forest, cursing the young wolf as he did so. Jack noticed there was a light shining from Victoria’s bedroom window. He desperately wanted to see his new friend, so he plucked up the courage and carefully limped towards the cottage, continually sniffing the air to make sure the gamekeeper was not about. He could hear him almost a mile away in the forest, but he had to be sure. Victoria was still staring out of the window and dreaded hearing the sound of a gunshot which could have ended Jack’s life. She was overjoyed when she saw him silently approaching. Quickly running down the rickety stairs, she opened the heavy back door. Jack was not afraid, and as soon as he saw her he jumped up and put his huge paws on her nightdress. She was really pleased to see him and she gave him another massive hug. As she did this Jack began to whine, sniffing the air in the direction of one of Hans’s animal skin rugs. He was very sad because he could recognise the scent of one of his dead family members.
Victoria was a bright young girl, and realising why Jack was so upset she quickly led him upstairs. This was a new sensation for Jack whose paws slid on the wooden surface, but he trusted Victoria. She showed him into her room and motioned him to lie down and then inspected his wound. The ripped cotton fabric bandage was still in place so she removed it to look underneath. The wound didn’t look as angry as it had done the previous night, and was no longer bleeding. Suddenly she heard the back door bang open, and nearly fainted in panic at the thought of what her cruel step-father would do if he found Jack in her bedroom. Jack could sense his friend's fear. His muscles tightened and he began to snarl, preparing to give his life to protect her. He was determined not let the gamekeeper hurt her. Victoria saw Jack’s mood change and gave him a warm hug, then pointed to the underside of her bed. He understood what she wanted him to do, so he dipped his painful shoulder and crawled under the bed.
Victoria heard her step-father’s big, heavy feet stomping up the stairs. Her bedroom door was violently flung open, knocking loose plaster off the wall. Hans stormed in, ‘I can’t believe I missed that damn wolf!’ He shouted, ‘I want you to help me to look for him, I don’t care how cold it is.’ Victoria cowered in her bed and the cruel Hans began to unbuckle his large, black leather belt. She knew what this meant. Jack angrily watched Hans from under the bed and when he saw him aggressively approaching her he quietly and stealthily crawled out from his hiding place. He knew Hans could not see him because he was distracted by the sobbing Victoria. Hans pulled his arm back to hit her with the belt, and Jack did not miss his chance. He leapt at Hans for all he was worth, and bit him as hard as he could on the back of his arm. Victoria moved out of the way as Jack and Hans fell forward across the bed. As they did so Hans banged his head against the solid oak bed frame. He fell unconscious onto the bed. Victoria ran over to Jack and hugged his large muscular neck. She hated Hans, but still checked to see if he was alive. He had been knocked unconscious, but he was still breathing. Victoria and Jack dashed down the stairs and ran together into the forest as fast as they could.
Hans woke up the next day with a very sore head, and a deep cut on his arm. He discovered Victoria was not there, and he remembered being attacked by the wolf. He vividly remembered Jack’s snarling mouth and his large white canine teeth ripping into his arm, but that was all. After that everything went black. As the result of this experience he became more timid and frightened of wolves and vowed to keep well away from them in the future. He also increased his drinking and lived alone in an alcoholic stupor.
Jack and Victoria lived together for a short while in the forest whilst she carefully nursed him back to health. As he grew stronger he was able to catch food, and returned to the den with hares, partridges and pheasants, which Victoria cooked over a log fire. They were very happy times, and they looked after each other. Victoria missed the company of other people, but she enjoyed being with Jack and certainly did not miss being bullied by her evil step-father.
Eventually Hans’ was getting more and more drunk, and one day he fell down the rickety stairs at the cottage, the ones he had been too idle to repair. This time the fall was fatal and he died alone on the cold stone floor. He was found several weeks later by a gypsy family who had parked their brightly coloured caravan next to the forest path. They were told by a neighbour that Hans had a step-daughter who was living in the forest, and so they went to look for her. They saw Victoria and Jack playing together in a clearing and gave Victoria the sad news about her step-father.
Victoria didn’t feel any emotion at his sudden death, but she knew she would now be able to return to the cottage. She took Jack with her and they really enjoyed their precious time together. Victoria made the house look homely. She washed and cleaned and even made bright coloured curtains for the bare windows. Jack could play outside, and Victoria prepared his meals. He wanted for nothing, but for some reason became strangely restless. He wanted to meet other wolves; his canine instincts were pulling him back to the forest. Victoria loved Jack from the bottom of her heart and felt sad for her friend, but, reluctantly, knew what she must do.
On a cold, grey day with the clouds full of snow, it was with a lump in her throat, and a heavy heart, that Victoria led Jack to the edge of the forest. Both were unusually silent; and they knew what was about to happen. Victoria stopped and hugged him as hard as she could, and Jack licked her face as he had never done before. Then she stepped away and he ran into the forest. Her eyes filled with tears as she watched him running into the trees. After a hundred yards he suddenly stopped and looked back at his friend. They stared at each other for several seconds before Jack disappeared out of sight into the thick undergrowth.
That was the last time Victoria saw Jack, but there was many a night when she thought she could hear the sound of a pack of wolves howling at the moon. Was Jack trying to communicate with her? She would never know. One thing was for sure, they would never, ever forget each other for as long as they lived.
Dedicated to my daughter, Victoria Harper,