I am at most 3 years old, sitting in the basement of our little one-story on Lindsay Street, the red couch looming in the corner, the sometimes hypnotizing multi-coloured coiled rug beneath me, and the too-bright lights on overhead. He is coming. His footsteps echo in my head, a rhythmic beat like a war drum. I press tiny hands against my ears, grabbing hanks of hair in an effort to push harder, to block out that thud---thud---thud. Don't move, don't blink, don't breathe. He is coming and he will find you. I see him behind my eyes. The Big Bad Wolf. Marching down a long tunnel that is at once a path from the outer world to my safe haven, and a road leading him out of my own head. His gait is slow, even, and unstoppable. He walks on his hind legs, and has more resemblance to Frankenstein's Monster than any earthly wolf. Arms outstretched, reaching, with his mouth open enough to see the cold sharp whiteness of his rows of fangs. It is not this that scares me. This is just another beast, something dreamed up for a Saturday morning cartoon. It's not the fact that his fur is blue, or that he stands taller than my father, a giant in my mind. It is his eyes. Huge and unblinking, they have no colour, only the bone and ebony in sharp contrast. Even inside my own imagination, he can see into me, and me into him, and I know that he is mad, mad and evil, and that he will never stop searching for me, stalking me, in and out of nightmares. I do not know what will happen when he finds me. All I know is that he is coming.
You wouldn't think that a Muppet would haunt my dreams for almost three years. But, from the ages of 2 to 5, Jim Henson's incarnation of the Big Bad Wolf plagued both my dreams and my waking hours. I would thrash about in my sleep, unable to see him, only the sound of his footsteps and the unshakable sense of dread, only to wake up screaming. This did not happen every night, and unlike night terrors, I knew perfectly well the menace that haunted my dreams. What terrified me most was that he came for me during the daytime too.
Nightmares are supposed to stay in the dark. What safety does the beam of light from the hallway promise otherwise? Without that rule, the night light does nothing but cast shadows. And the only comfort the daytime gave me was to give a face to my fear. It already had a name.
I do not lay the blame for my fear at Henson's door. There were many beasts in my early childhood. Nor do I fully blame the Brothers Grimm for giving me the current form of the story that helped shape my nightmares, or my mother for telling it to me. Little Red Riding Hood may have given me his name, but I would have known him for what he was without it.
Fairy tales do not give us new fears, they merely weave stories around them until we think they've been tamed.
Freud might have said that my ego was reacting to the awareness of my repressed latent sexual desires. It would be difficult to argue that there are no aspects of sexuality associated with wolves, what with Little Red being coaxed into bed by one. But really, is there anything Freud didn't associate with sex? Though my nightmare took on a fairy tale form, he wasn't a pedophile in wolf's clothing, lurking behind a tree or in Grandma's bed. He didn't need to convince me to lift the latch, to walk into the dark bedroom, to stare into his great big eyes and see his great big mouth with his great big teeth. Why would he, when he could come for me in the daylight, safe inside my own house? He didn't need the three little pigs to let him in, or even to huff and puff and blow my house down. That was what made him so terrifying, that there was no way to outwit him, that he could get me even if I stayed on the path and never wandered.
I had no power, a rabbit trying not to quiver as the fox comes farther down the hole.
What about Jung, what would he say? Maybe that the wolf was an archetypal representation of my own fears of mortality. And certainly, the wolf does seem almost Grim Reaper-esque. But my wolf was more than that. Death is terrifyingly incomprehensible when you are young, and, as I was not raised religious, I had no hopes for a heavenly afterlife. Still, Death is not ravenous, nor mad, and the wolf was both. I knew that about him, in that way that you do in dreams, without reason. He was an appetite unto himself, a gaping black hole of consummation that would swallow me whole. There was nothing but this hunger, nothing to reason with or to make human. Death is relatively benign in comparison.
Considering the level of terror the wolf instilled in me, I have already told my only memory of him. The rest I have had to piece together from stories that other people have told me. Aunt Jess, my namesake, recounts the tale of giving me a magic crystal to keep under my pillow and drive away my bad dreams. I wrack my brain trying to remember this, but nothing, not the colour of the crystal, or the shape, not even the feeling of having a magic talisman to defeat the evil. When I ask my mother, she says it was yellow quartz. Still, nothing.
In the place of memories, I have a poem. My mother wrote it, and I can see myself through her eyes, small and fragile, by now eerily calm in the knowledge of danger. I know, from what she has said afterward, that I had wispy blond hair, and a blue pinafore dress, like Alice in Wonderland, and that when I turned to tell her he had come, I was not hysterical, but quiet in my terror. I know that to her, the wolf was real, a Poltergeist in the TV, and that she taught me to defeat a fairy tale monster with fairy tale magic. Now, in the awkward role of both child and adult, I know that she too was plagued by a wolf, long after she stopped believing in magic, and that no one ever taught her any spell to keep him at bay.
in the plain light
Jessie will stop and listen
her entire new-formed body
committed to the act
and then glance over her shoulder to say,
I don't ask anymore
it's the wolf Jessie hears
I teach her the incantation
"Wolf, wolf, go away..."
I show her the dispellant
a fist thrust out
her face clears
but I ask to be mother-sure
"Yes. He's gone."
I don't mind that she hears the wolf
it gives us a word full of portent
later I need only say
"The wolf lives there, behind those eyes"
and Jessie will see him
and know him
and with her knowing fist
send him straight to hell
the known wolf binds with the fist in Jessie
as it did in me
a lesson incarnate
but my listening child learned on his coming
and I only learned in his belly
I am older now, and the wolf no longer hunts me. I know now that the sound of footsteps was only the sound of blood pumping in my ears, that the wolf is a symbol of fear in dream analysis, that real wolves are more in danger from me than I am from them. And still, I know the wolf is out there, waiting. I see people, and I know, in that way you know in dreams, that he's hunting them; that when they turn around to look, they're looking for him. I see it in their eyes, that moment of recognition.
We know him, we are kindred, bound by our fear. And I wish that I could tell them, swallowed inside his belly, that inside them is the axe.