Norma Bessouet: Matias and the Wolf, Oil on Linen
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How Late the Moon

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by Conor Mc Donnell

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The Montreal Review, November 2010

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Once upon a time, Grahnmalle the Wolf decided he'd had enough of the way things were and the way they were supposed to be. In stories of old, he had raised the founders of Rome; now he was reduced to ravenously stalking children who wandered too far from home. His most recent embarrassment, involving a girl in red and her grandmother, had humiliated him into taking the most drastic of steps.

He wandered through the trees day and night until he arrived at a secluded spot deep in the Black Forest: an unknown clearing in the trees topped with a grassy hill and exposed to the night breeze. A naked unmapped place where he underwent the strangest of surgeries, one that permanently removed every hair from his body save that on his head and his pubis.  Leaving the forest forever in a borrowed lambs-wool suit, he came to a small town he'd seen from the crest of the clearing. Irregular puffs of smoke rising toward the evening clouds signalled a train station that clung to the edge of the town's darkest peripheral streets. Skirting the last of the trees, he rose to his hind legs and moved upright from the forest with rising discomfort and unease. He stole through shadowy streets and slid round misty corners until finally he arrived at the station unnoticed. 

As his train clanged through the night, Grahnmalle looked around his traveling quarters at the family who had sat laughing, drinking and eating their fill without ever once offering him so much as a crumb to eat or a drop to drink. They plumply slept, draped on seats like napping pigs and salting their sleep with the snores, curses and idle threats of people who have never been truly afraid. And so they slept.

All but one, who lay awake in the corner diagonally opposite Grahnmalle. She could not sleep for curiosity, to see him scratching his freshly plucked skin put her in mind of a newborn lamb. But this was no lamb, this much she knew, so as night fell full and the moon dropped into view, Grahnmalle turned and stared out the carriage window straight into the heart of the moon. She noted how his gaze never wavered from that moment on, and some time later she finally spoke.

"Are you afraid the moon will fall without your support?" she said.

Grahnmalle flinched, but did not reply. She whispered across the carriage so none of her family would hear. 

"I know what you were, but I know not what I see.  Why haven't you eaten my family and me?" she asked.

"And what do you see?" he replied, surprised at her intuition but not allowing his attention to falter from the moon, not even for a second.

"You are very well dressed, Sir, especially for a wolf," said the girl. Her gaze passed over his hairless face and neck, his pale smooth hands, and lingered at the sight of his short-bitten nails. "And, if I might add, without being too forward of course, your tailor is second only to your barber."

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Still Grahnmalle made no move to look at the girl but concentrated on strangling a low growl in his throat. "You have met me at a strange juncture in time," he said, "where I am no longer sure of what I am. I have no desire to eat you or your family, no matter how fat you all may be." He paused a moment. "But should this pregnant moon shine its light unobserved by my hungry eyes, then you may yet meet a very different me. Tonight I am neither man nor beast, but tomorrow I may be both."

The girl made her way through familial flatulence and drowsy complaints to sit opposite Grahnmalle on her brother's knee. She moved her head close to Grahnmalle's unwavering eyes, all the better to see him.

"Don't you recognize me?" she said. "We met just a few days past."

"I cannot see you," he said, "but your voice is familiar. Come closer, that I may see your eyes reflected in the window."

She did as he asked and when their eyes met, reflected in the pane, he gasped. She looked abruptly down with embarrassment. "I'm so sorry," she said, "we treated you very badly. Is this why you have changed so?"

"Changed?" he said, recognizing her crimson shame. "Changed? You cannot begin to fathom how changed I am." He stared on at the moon and memories of recent calamitous events stirred.

What should have been a routine (and unremarkable) scaring only two days past, scripted by the Bavarian brothers Grimm, had begun true to form when he encountered the red-haired girl as she skipped through the woods. Despite his ferocious appearance and big bad reputation she had spoken to him freely and without fear. She feigned no surprise when he asked for directions to Grandmother's house and was both forthcoming and accurate in her answers. Further along the path he spotted Grandmother and was inexplicably drawn to her youthful energy as she picked bluebells and apples. She was known as Grandmother to all wood-dwellers, but Grahnmalle was old as the tallest trees so to him she seemed no older than a Spring sapling. Following the woman to her house, Grahnmalle was confused by this strange plot development and his unaccustomed feelings: feelings that warmed towards Grandmother from where wolves burned hottest.  He swooped indoors and swept her off her feet with midnight moves and lupine lullabies. Not without her own moves, the woman deftly convinced him to broaden his horizons, and when the red-haired girl burst unannounced into the bedroom she was greeted by the sight of Grahnmalle draped across the bed wearing only Grandmother's nightcap and leather suspenders. Grandmother hovered silent and unnoticed in the bathroom, mortified at being implicated in such a sordid scene. She did not offer a word in poor Grahnmalle's defense; nor did she intervene when the local woodcutter burst through the door wielding an axe. He chased Grahnmalle from the bedroom and as the wolf tore through the house out into the woods, suspenders snapping noisily on branches and shrubs, the wolf was certain he could hear laughter spreading through the house behind him.

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As the train clacked on and on through the moonlight Grahnmalle spoke again. 

"It has never been my nature to murder," he said. "The desire to kill beyond the need for food is a human proclivity, yet one increasingly forced upon me. The laughter of grandmothers and their red-headed cubs chased me to the darkest of despairs. I wandered far into the night until I found myself on a hidden clearing deep in the heart of the Black Forest. There I met a man who offered me peace, hope, and the means to cope. I told him my woes and angry tears came in floods while I recounted cruelties of grandmothers and wretched harpies in hoods. Centuries of wandering had led me to this night. My life as a wolf was over, the next about to begin. What we both agreed to we both would reap, so he sheared this wolf as if I were a sheep.  He worked for hours throughout the night, sharpened silver shears flashing in moonlight, 'til I lay cold and exhausted before his eyes - a trembling newborn, naked to the skies. The midnight moon struck my bare skin for the first time and a terrible hunger drove me to rip that precious midwife to pieces. I awoke the next morning bloodied and exhausted, my muscles swollen, his meat hanging heavy in my gut."

"My God," said the girl, "you are surely cursed. You have turned your back on your natural form and you have eaten one of the enchanted"

"Yes," said Grahnmalle, "I am cursed. Cursed to spend my nights awake staring at this moon; cursed for not realizing that its light spells man and woman's doom. I grow evermore sensitive to her quicksilver touch, this lunar Eve that tempts me such. This much I now know: where before I was an animal wearing the occasional mask of a man, now I am something else no one yet understands. But the night understands and taunts me with her incessant childish singing. Do you hear her?"

If I were a man,

Where, Mam, would I go?

For under late moons,

Is where wolves lie low...

Grahnmalle turned briefly to look at the woman, for in the moonlight she was no girl. He glanced for no longer than a second, yet in that instant he confirmed the red roots of her shame, tied tight underneath her still wet, dyed black hair, woven with seven ribbons white as snow. His face took on a horrible aspect, hungry and insatiable, accusing, and yes, accursed. She froze in silent terror, waking her brother by wetting his legs. Grahnmalle quickly faced the window again and found the moon beyond. He swallowed his hunger, such an inadequate meal - and said to her:

"If my self-control were anything like that of your bladder, your brother's legs would be wet with more than your water. You have the animal in me to thank for this mercy."

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At the very next station the family piled out of the train and onto the platform at the urging of the woman's sodden brother, for he had seen and heard the monster in their carriage and would stay there no longer. The woman stood on the platform staring at Grahnmalle as her family argued around her, cold and confused. But Grahnmalle refused to tear his eyes from the moon to meet hers, not even for a second. For now, while he still held some control over these rising human appetites, Grahnmalle the Wolf was better than that.

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Illustration: Matias and the Wolf (Oil on Linen, 15 x 19 inches) by Norma Bessouet

"Bessouet's painting merges certain Latin American strands of literary magic realism with Surrealism, often recalling the fabulous pictorial narratives of female Surrealist painters like Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning and Toyen with their explorations of dream, memory and sexuality. Like Leonor Fini, another twentieth-century painter who combined Argentinean and European pictorial traditions, Bessouet makes her female protagonists the active agents of an imaginative life that transforms reality by seeing beyond its surfaces and conventions..."

-- Witney Chadwick

Born in Argentina, schooled in Argentina and London and currently dividing her time between New York and Argentina, Bessouet's work is in numerous private and public collections throughout the world.

Norma Bessouet's website: www.normabessouet.com

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