In the early 1970s I had to drive from France to Spain. Even though it was full winter, I decided, when I crossed the Pyrenees, I would take back roads in order to see more of the countryside. It was a mistake. Road signs were few and far between. Evening found me lost, driving down a winding road in an unknown direction. But the road did not narrow and peter out in a farmyard. Someone had been that way recently. With my lights on high-beam, I followed the tire tracks in the recent snow. Finally I saw lights ahead.
I was suddenly in a village, a few houses huddled together on the only flat ground around and, thank goodness, an inn. I don’t know its name; it was too dark to see any sign. I parked my car next to three battered trucks in front and pushed open the door into what passed for a bar. A great rush of heat assailed me, heat and the smell of tobacco smoke, spilled beer, and something very delicious cooking. Of a dozen tables in the place, three were occupied by perhaps ten men. They all turned to look at me with more curiosity than hostility.
“Bonjour,” I said. I hoped I had the right language. I might get answered in Basque or Catalan.
A giant of a man rose from one of the tables. He seemed to me to be huge in every way. He was tall and probably weighted well over two hundred and fifty pounds. His arms were thick, his hand enormous. His greeting was just as immense.
“Bonjour, bonjour. What brings you to our village?” His French had a harsh accent to it, but mine was not exactly Parisian perfect either.
“I’m afraid I’m a bit lost,” I said. “I thought I’d see more of the land if I took the back roads.”
“See more of the lands!” he burst into laughter that was joined by half the men in the room. “And have you seen enough of the lands?”
“More than enough,” I said. “What I really would like is some dinner and a bed for the night.”
“Of course, of course, but first, you need something warming to frighten away the cold.”
I nodded my head. The room was warm, but I felt I had brought the chill of fifty kilometers of winter in with me.
“Charisse!” the huge man shouted. “Bring our traveler a hot cider.”
Charisse appeared in a moment, a plump and jovial woman carrying an immense mug of something that smelled of cinnamon and fermented apples. I sat down at the nearest table and took a long sip. A great tongue of fire reached down into my gut. I have never become so warm so fast before or after.
It was an overnight stay I shall treasure in memory. The room the landlord led me to on the second floor was bare and simple, but the bed was firm. The sheets smelled faintly of perfumed soap. The room had no radiator or fireplace, but enough warmth came from the room below that I was not uncomfortable. I unpacked my suitcase, used the bathroom down the hall, and went downstairs to a meal I could not believe.
Charisse set before me a great bowl of lamb stew, but such a stew. The lamb had been marinated in some divine herbs; the potatoes and vegetables echoed that flavor. I finished the bowl and was then presented with a pastry filled with a fruit I could not identify other than it being the best I have ever tasted. When I finished, I sat there, totally sated.
The landlord came over to me. “I call Charisse my Circe for she turns men into pigs. Do you not agree?”
“I cannot but agree.”
I rose and turned to go to my room when he held up one of his huge hands, blocking my way. “Come, come,” he said, “your room is cold. It is warm here near the fire. Come join my friends and tell us of your travels.”
I had always assumed that men sitting in such a tavern would turn quiet and say little if a stranger sat down in their midst, but not this crew of locals. They asked where I had come from and demanded to know if all the things they had heard about America, and particularly its women, were true. I did my best to disabuse them of their myths. They all participated in this jovial exchange except for one old man who sat by himself, nursing a drink and gazing into the fire. He was thin and gaunt, as if a life of hard work had rung all the strength out of him. Yet his face was relaxed and calm.
We were suddenly interrupted. The door burst open and a young man entered, bundled up in a coat with a huge scarf and fur hat leaving only his eyes and mouth exposed. “Wolf!” he almost shouted. “I saw a wolf. Came right at me.”
The landlord came forward. “Jacques,” he said, “Come, sit down. Take off your coat and hat and have a mug of cider.” He called to Charisse, who brought him the drink, which the youth sipped on greedily.
The room had gone silent.
“Now tell us of this wolf,” said the landlord.
“I was out doing my traps. I was coming down from the Left Peak, you know, where the trail goes through the pine woods.”
“Yes, yes, the pinewoods,” said one of the men across from me.
“I came round a corner of the trail and there, standing right in the trail in front, was this wolf. Big fellow with one eye half closed.”
“Same one that Bellows took a shot at last fall,” said another of the men. “Said he had this bad eye.”
“Go on,” said the landlord.
“I’d only taken one rabbit. But I thought quick. I took it and threw it to the wolf. He grabbed it up in his jaws and disappeared into the woods. I got out of there in a hurry.”
Everyone was silent for a moment. Then the man they called Francois spoke. From his comic remarks previously that evening, I figured him for the town comedian. “Good thing it wasn’t two wolves,” he said.
“Well, all’s well that ends well.” The landlord grasped the young man’s shoulder with one of his giant hands. “I’m going to send you home with some of Charisse’s stew, seeing as you won’t be eating rabbit tonight.”
The young man looked up over his shoulder at the landlord. “Mother will be very happy with that,” he said.
Then the old man by the fire spoke. “Sometimes,” he said, “two wolves are better than one wolf.”
Everyone turned to look at the old man. It was obvious that it was unusual for him to speak up.
“Out with it, Henri” cried the man sitting next to me. “Prove it.”
The old man took a long sip from the mug on the table next to him. He shut his eyes as if trying to remember some important detail of his story. Then he opened his eyes and began.
“Once there were two brothers. I shall call them Jacob and Joseph. They were born on a farm near here back in the middle of the last century. Their father was a careful man and a good father. Their mother was a lovely woman who unfortunately died when the boys were eighteen and twenty. The boys were big healthy young men full of muscle from working on the farm. But they were restless. After their mother died, they decided they needed to get out in the world, out of the hills and find out what the rest of the world was all about.”
“Did they fight with the father?” I asked.
“No. They never fought with their father. He encouraged them to go. He saw their restlessness and knew they would never be happy on the farm until they understood what life was like outside these hills.
“So off they went. They thought they would stay together, but somewhere that first year their desires diverged and they went off in different directions. They had been brought up properly and knew how to avoid bad company. They ranged around the world and observed it all. Jacob signed on as a seaman aboard some sailing ship and ended up as second mate. Joseph made his way to the United States and became a foreman at a factory. I think they both discovered that if you stayed sober and gave your best to a job, you could move up in the world, but only up so far before you bumped into the captain who owned the ship or the manager who was the son of the factory owner.
“They had devotedly kept in touch by mail with their father. He had always carefully replied to each of their letters. They knew the farm was prospering with the help of hired hands. Their father wrote he had remarried. They assumed it was to some widow his own age. Then the father’s replies stopped. A few months later they both received letters from his wife. The letters were short and direct. Their father had died quite suddenly of a heart attack. They had inherited the farm. Would they come back as quickly as possible? So, some ten years after they left, they returned.
“It was winter, and travel in those days was not easy. They each took the train to the nearest town to the farm. As coincidence would have it, they both arrived on the same day. They found men with horses and sleighs who would take them to the farm. It took almost half a day to get there. The sun was low in the sky when they reached their old farmhouse.
“The door was opened by a young woman. She was a lovely creature, in her early thirties, dressed in a skirt and bodice that showed much of her ample and snowy bosom.
“The brothers assumed she was a serving maid. They told her they were the deceased farmer’s sons and could they see his widow.
“She laughed. ‘I am Jeanette, his widow and also your stepmother,’ she said. ‘Don’t just stand there gaping. Come inside.’
“Once inside the warmth of the house, she helped them off with their heavy coats. She pointed into the kitchen where a table for three had been set close to the heat of a familiar iron stove. She sat them down to a huge meal. They had forgotten about good but plain farm food and they wolfed it down.
“When they had finished, Jeanette said, ‘It is good of you to come home. Your father’s lawyer will be here tomorrow to go over the will with you. I can only say that you two have inherited the farm and are to share everything together.’
“The lawyer explained that the will did, indeed, require the sharing of the farm. However, Jeanette had left out one important point in the will, which the Lawyer explained almost apologetically. ‘I don’t usually see this kind of a condition in a will. I argued with your father about it, but I think he was worried about Jeanette and how she would be provided for.’
“‘So how much did he leave her?’ said Jacob.
“‘Nothing in one sense, but a lot in another.’
“‘What’s that mean?’
“‘For you two to keep the farm, one of you must marry Jeanette. Is either of you already married?’
“‘No,’ they said in chorus. They had known women, but their experience had been limited to women with charm and sparkle who laughed easily and enjoyed spending their money before disappearing to other adventures.
“‘Would either of you be willing to marry Jeanette?’
“‘Yes!’ The two of them spoke instantly and together. Then they glared at each other. Until that moment they had been as much good friends as good brothers.
“The lawyer saw the look and smiled to himself. ‘Well, I know you two can work it out. I shall leave a copy of the will. Just remember that if neither of you will marry your stepmother, the farm will be sold, Jeanette gets an annuity. The rest of the profits go to charity.’
“That neither would marry Jeanette was, of course, not the problem. Both the brothers had fallen hopelessly in love with her. Joseph claimed that, as the elder, he had the right to her hand. Jacob told his brother than it was very obvious to him that she favored him.
“At first they only fought with words when working out in the barn where Jeanette could not hear them. Then things became physical. A little shove to prove a point. A harder shove in reprisal. Finally they were standing, fists raised, facing each other, faces red with anger.
“Jacob said suddenly, ‘Of what use is it we fight with fists? We would batter and bruise each other and it would still all be the same.’
“‘So,’ said his brother, ‘you have decided that I should marry Jeanette?’
“‘No, of course not. We must settle this finally once and for all. The pistols. Unless you are too afraid.’
“If he had not so much as accused his brother of cowardice, the two of them might have seen the foolishness of what they were about to do, but Joseph had no choice but to reply, ‘Of course not. Where are the dueling pistols?’
“They found them in an upper cupboard where their father had kept them, high enough so as children they would not have found them by accident. Joseph put the case on the table and opened the lid. There were the pistols, a beautiful matched pair, ivory inlay, polished metal.
“They each picked up a pistol. ‘When?’ said Jacob.
“Silently, side by side, they loaded and primed the pistols. They decided to go out into the woods that bordered the farm, to a place they remembered where the trail leveled off into an opening in the forest. It was far away enough so Jeanette would not hear the shots. It was a bright sunny day, but there was a deep chill in the air. Jacob put on a great bearskin coat he found hanging in the back hallway, and Joseph donned a heavy woolen jacket he found there also.
“Again in silence they walked across the snow-encrusted fields to the woods and up the trail. It was as it had been ten years before. About a half mile up the hill they found the open space. The brush had grown up in the last ten years, but there was plenty of space for what they needed to do.
“They had agreed that they would stand forty paces apart and then Joseph would count to five. On five, both would fire.
“Jacob walked off the paces and turned. It was not going to be a difficult shot for either of them, as their father had taught them to shoot both rifles and handguns.
“‘Ready?’ called Joseph.
“Joseph started the count, speaking loudly. ‘One. Two…’
“He stopped because a large wolf had come out of the forest into the clearing between them. It stood there, its teeth bared. It began to move toward Joseph.
“‘Better kill it,’ called Jacob. He said the words before he realized what that meant. Whoever killed the wolf would then die at the leisure of his brother who held the only remaining loaded pistol.
“‘No,’ called Joseph. ‘You kill it.’
“‘And if I do, what is in it for me? I am a dead man.’
“‘No,’ cried Joseph. ‘If you kill it, I won’t shoot. And you can have Jeanette.’
“Jacob thought that over. Could he trust his brother? ‘Why don’t you shoot it? I won’t shoot, and you can have Jeanette,’ he called to Joseph.
“‘I don’t believe you,’ Joseph called back.
“The two men thought over their propositions while the wolf moved slowly toward Joseph, its large slavering mouth half open. Jacob relaxed a bit. It looked as if the wolf got much closer to Joseph, he would have to shoot in self-defense. When the wolf was less than six paces away, Joseph suddenly took off his bearskin coat and threw it on the ground in front of him. The wolf approached the coat warily and sniffed at it, jerked away, and turned and trotted directly toward Jacob.
“‘Deal’s off,’ shouted Joseph. ‘You can’t have Jeanette.’
“The wolf came closer. Jacob could smell its filthy breath. He backed up a pace. He was thinking of turning and running when Joseph gave a shout. ‘Look, look, there is our salvation!’
“A second wolf had come out of the forest. It stood for a moment, looking back and forth between the two brothers. Then it turned and trotted toward Joseph. It grabbed the bearskin in its teeth, dragged it aside and moved toward Joseph.
“Two shots rang out. Two wolves lay thrashing in their death throes on the cold ground.
“So you see,” said the old man. “Two wolves can be better than one.”
Then he fell silent. No one said anything. I expected him to go on, but he just sipped on his mug and smiled.
The other men around the table smiled and looked at me. I realized that this was probably not the first time that the old man had stopped a story in the middle. He was playing a game to see if anyone would demand he continue. The others would wait him out and see if he’d continue on his own.
I couldn’t help myself. “What happened next?” I demanded.
The old man smiled at me, a winner’s smile. “Jacob walked back around the bodies of the wolves and hugged his brother. ‘You know, that was a pretty stupid thing we almost did,’ he said.
“Joseph nodded his head. ‘Killing each other over a woman. Really stupid.’
“‘You know,’ said Jacob, ‘there’s really a simple solution.’
“‘Let Jeanette decide.’
“‘Well of course. Nice of you to give her away just like that.’
“‘We’ll see about that.’
“They were brothers again. Laughing, joking all the way back down off the mountain.”
The old man stopped and took another sip of his mug, but did not continue. Apparently he liked to play more than one round of his silly game.
One of the men across from me at the table took pity on me. “Come on, Henri,” he said to the old man, “don’t torture the poor American. Finish it out.”
The old man frowned at this, but continued. “When they got back to the house, Jeanette was waiting for them at the door. ‘No one wounded? No one dead? Am I going to have to put up with this carrying on forever?’
“‘No,’ said Joseph. ‘We’ve decided. You get to decide whom you will marry. We’ll give you one week…’
“‘Who needs one week? Got a coin?’
“Joseph produced a one-franc piece and handed it to Jeanette. ‘Heads is Joseph, Tails is Jacob.’ She flipped the coin in the air, caught it, and slapped it on her wrist. ‘Tails. Jacob.’
“‘Wait a minute,’ said Joseph. ‘Shouldn’t you have thought about it? Gotten to know each of us better?’
“Jeanette laughed. ‘Haven’t you read your father’s will? What does it say about the farm?’
“‘That Jacob and I should share everything in the farm equally.’
“‘And where am I standing?’
“‘Here in the farmhouse,’ said Joseph. Then realization dawned. ‘You mean?’
“‘I shall marry Jacob, but everything must be shared. I shall spend Monday and Wednesday nights in Jacob’s bed. Tuesday and Thursday nights in your bed. Fridays through Sundays I spend in my bed. A woman needs some time off.’”
“And that was it?” I said. “How did it work out?”
“Very well,” said the old man. “Jeanette had three children, two boys and a girl. With two hard-working men, the farm prospered. Jeanette and the two brothers lived to a ripe old age. Two of the children went out in the world and did well by themselves. One of the boys stayed behind to run the farm. He too lived to a great old age.”
“A marvelous story,” I said. “May I buy you a drink?”
The old man nodded and the landlord fetched him another mug. I looked over at the other men at the table. They smiled at each other in a funny way, but I thought they were just digesting a great piece of fiction.
Weariness suddenly overcame me. I excused myself and went to bed. I slept well, content in knowing that at least in fiction people could live happily ever after.
Waiting for me downstairs the next morning was a huge breakfast with coffee, an unbelievable quiche, and two great buttery croissants.
Before I left, I got my map from the car. The landlord showed me where I was and how I could reach a main road over the mountains.
“You have given me a most pleasurable stay,” I said to him.
“It was our honor to have you.”
“That old man’s story last night. He really has a great imagination. I suppose you’ve heard that story before?”
“We are familiar with Henri’s story. But the part about the wolves was new to us.”
“Well, that’s what makes a great storyteller, being able to make up new parts to a story to meet the occasion. However, I felt there was a sort of sadness in the old man. Has life not gone well for him?”
“Oh no,” said the landlord. “He has led a good life. It is perhaps the uncertainty that he has lived with all his life that gives him some sadness.”
“Yes. He never knew which of the brothers was his father.”
Stan Dryer is the pen name for an author who lives in southern New Hampshire. Prior to 1990 he published 17 short stories in magazines that included Playboy, Cosmopolitan and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Three of these stories were later republished in anthologies.
He has now returned to fiction writing and has recently had ten stories published in such magazines as Fabula Argentea, Mystery Weekly Magazine and Adelaide Magazine.
To read some of Stan’s other work and find out more about him, visit his blog at standryer.com.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Two Brothers, Two Wolves”:
Author Stan Dryer has crafted an excellent example of a frame story (story-within-a-story), a technique used in several classic novels like The Canterbury Tales, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, to name a few. Dryer’s story pulls the reader along and subtly builds tension with well-placed plot points.
Just when you think the story is over with the main character, the traveler, the author piques the reader’s interest one last time a few paragraphs before the ending—then delivers that final punch-to-the-gut last line so perfectly set up in the story. We’re willing to bet that few readers saw it coming. For us, that kind of ending makes for a truly memorable story.