TALKING WITH ANIMALS:
THE MYSTERY OF THE SABINE WOLF
By Paul B. Donovan
The Montréal Review, January 2024
In bocca al lupo!
‘Into the Wolf’s mouth’, as Italian idiom would have it, glib and edgy, street-modern to the hilt, belies its closet status as a literary fossil. Folklore traces its beginnings back two millennia arguably, to a single individual, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, infamous to all students of the Latinate language simply as ‘Horace’ — he of the hexametrical rhythm, at once daunting, sensuous, and nonetheless charming. The well-honed story, as it trickles down to us, embroidered no doubt through countless retellings, goes something like this.
Leaving his bucolic Villa nestled in the Sabine Hills, tucked away from his patron, Caesar Augustus, and the venomous politics of imperial Rome, Horace went wandering into the leafy woods one fine, autumnal morning… light-hearted, puckish as ever. It is the customary season for trekking: the dreaded sirocco winds have petered out, bright sunlit days are here, and winter gales lie in the distant future.
Horace insists on being alone despite the flinty, though well-meaning mutterings of his household steward, Melleus. As a rule, he would have agreed — arriving straight from Rome however, he wanted nothing more than blissful solitude! Impressed by the gentle teachings of Epicurus, advocating the quiet, secluded life, Horace was given to poetical musings on Nature and the wisdom of simple joys. He would forego his writing lap-box and footstool, rather than suffer the intrusion of taking slaves as porters…as well as protection, ignoring an ironclad rule of his own making. Life assumes its own immortality — and lives accordingly, helter-skelter — regardless of what Reason (or Melleus) may dictate! If nothing else, the Saharan dust-storms have flushed out the mosquitos.
Deep in the forest glades and rolling hills, “free of all worries” as he describes it, Horace — usually circumspect in the presence of others — begins humming along in rhythm with his strides, soon breaking into impromptu singsong. He will spend the night in his droughty mountaintop aerie: a dwarfish, thick-walled, dry-stone hut, slate shingles and a skillion roof, dug into the grassy tundra above the tree-line — windswept, with sweeping vistas of Mount Soracte and its sunlit, snowy skyline, then stretching southwards across the Tiber plain, to the city walls of Rome itself. Devoid of windows, dim and musty, the otherwise stark refuge nevertheless boasts a mortared chimney and fireplace. Stray bears and shaggy goat-herders are the only misbegotten visitors.
Like the great if slightly absurd figure of Plato long ago, Horace is middle-aged, balding, paunchy, but smallish, just enough to clear the tight headroom of his diminutive hut (Aristotle by comparison, was a beanpole with a lolly-pop head). Unlike the home comforts of his sprawling farm, the primitive conditions play to Horace’s quirky self-image as a would-be Spartan, if only part-time — though he admits that the amphora of Massic wine, a stock item in the hut, aids his cultivated ‘hardiness’. He grazes purposefully on wild cherries and sloe, the purple, tangy fruit of the Blackthorn, true to his rugged ideal of ‘living it rough, off the land’!
Sucking in the pine-scented alpine air with each labored breath, hours pass as Horace happily wends his way up densely wooded escarpments, switchbacks, and limestone outcrops, laden with thistles, wild thyme, and the ever-present swarming of bees. Unflappable, his song bursts forth evermore gravelly and boisterous as he pushes forward, huffing and puffing in high-spirits… into an open stretch of the serpentine, well-worn trail. What began softly as a lonely shepherd’s love-song is now reshaped by the rugged terrain and Horace’s burgeoning confidence. Transformed into a beating rhythm, it gradually takes up the triumphant marching meter of the Roman legions — sure-footed, chanting all the way, he should reach the hut well before nightfall.
Horace’s free-spirited concert, while safely removed from the jeers and slanders of a strait-laced Roman Senate… is not however without consequences. With the coming of autumn, the track is carpeted with layers of dead leaves, turned dun-brown and moldy-dry, white-spotted with sprouting mushroom fungi, crackling and crunching under foot.
A sudden rustling brings him to a halt, alert — quietening his off-key effusions. Horace stiffens, craning his neck this way and that, listening. Not only the leaves are crunching, but also the grinding mill of impermanence decreed by the Fates, for human destinies are in perpetual, constant motion — little did Horace realize, with the next random step, his life as he presently knew it, would never again be the same.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a magnificent wolf, mottled white with darker bands, emerges from the thickets ahead, filling the pathway… “a monstrosity” as he so colorfully describes it. The She-Wolf pads headlong into the dappled light, one stealthy leg following the other, gnarling as it inches ever closer towards Horace. Counting down what he fears will surely be his last earthly moments, Horace nevertheless holds his ground, hair standing on end, his face ashen but unflinching. Baring its fangs, saliva dripping, claws tearing at the earth, the apex predator shifts back on its haunches, squatting, ready to hurl itself forwards for the kill. Having neither sword nor shield, Horace stands transfixed, quiet and straight, not fleeing. Looking out from under his hat rim, heart pounding, he calculates the odds. In hindsight, Horace remembers Melleus’ dire warning: his stout, alpine walking stick, though better than nothing, is no match for a hungry wolf! His mouth running dry, Horace sucks his lips grimly, waiting for the fatal lunge, the pit of his stomach heaving. He hardly dares even to breathe. No dramatics, just the stillness of acceptance.The pause becomes unbearable, broken only by the snorting and panting of the predator.
Knowing that flight is hopeless, resigned to his fate, he nonetheless finds himself staring uncannily into the dark, merciless eyes of the hunter. The white She-Wolf, muscles taut, remains poised but curiously motionless. In place of a blank stare, a keen intelligence looks back at Horace, inquiringly, as if taking stock of this most peculiar, two-legged creature. His curiosity piqued, Horace becomes ever more absorbed in a wordless trance, light as a feather, without a body. He tumbles slowly downwards, lacking all fear, into a bottomless, radiant tunnel — as if the earth had fallen away beneath him. Strangely enough, a comforting wave of warmth and serenity washes over him, though eerily still as if time itself has stopped — an eternity passing in the blink of an eye.
Abruptly, a sharp, haunting shriek, neither human nor wolf, shatters the uterine peace, startling Horace — shaking with a cold shiver — back to the shock of bodily, conscious awareness. The She-wolf stands boldly before him, eye-to-eye, …. all just as it was before. The timeless spell is broken, snapping shut as quickly as it first took hold. Mysteriously, as if a ghostly apparition from Hades, the wolf turns aside — its silver-white flanks catching the muted sunlight filtering through the bare branches of mountain-ash — silently fading into the ferny bracken and blue-black shadows from whence it came.
Horace can’t believe his crazy luck in still being alive… unfathomably. He stands there reeling in palpable relief as if stricken, firmly rooted to the ground, tremulous and stupefied. At some point, the eerie silence takes on an ominous presence in itself, begetting movement. One foot takes a faltering first step, followed by another, then the next — seemingly a reflex, driven by instinct, not connected to his brain — footsteps crushing and scattering the matted dry-leaves as he finds himself trundling forward, gathering speed. Shortly after nightfall he arrives at the hut. Horace flops down, prostrate and confused on a rough-hewn wooden bench, slipping into a mindless state of exhaustion.
So encapsulated is the encounter, frozen in time, Horace doubts his own senses, or so he tells us in his poetics, couching his words in an outpouring of glowing, bewildering images — as if struggling to contain some rapturous inner experience, bursting forth. Talking to himself for reassurance, he shakes his head in disbelief.
Goshawks wheel and float in the early morning thermals… but Horace is already well on his way at a breakneck pace — eyes scanning left and right warily — jog-trotting, silent and vigilant, pressing on down doggedly through the forest…no lallygagging at Mount Lucretile this time around.
Safely back amid the spring-fed fountains and mineral spa-baths of his white-marble Villa, Horace is bone-weary, haggard and disheveled, dripping in sweat, but nonetheless thankful to be alive. Anointed with sweet oils, a hardy Spartan no longer, he hobbles into his warm, soaking bath as the only thing that matters…and a feast of slow-roasted pork. Try as he may, he has no words to explain what befell him, or worse still for his own sanity… was it all just a harrowing delusion?
Horace’s devotion to words first began most curiously as an early childhood infatuation with his nurse, the pale-faced, fragile Pullia, his ‘first love’ who taught him to read by repeating her words, crisp and enchanting as they were to his young ears. Words became invested with a tender, naive passion, as if alive themselves, a kind of infectious transference which continued long after her innocent life was abruptly cut short by the pestilence — whisked away so lightly, ghostly, like a fading apparition. Words meant reality, plain and simple, as if word and object were one and the same thing, inseparable, all that mattered — the imprinted remainders of a long-lost devotion. Nothing existed if it wasn’t named with words. Horace’s otherwise remarkable facility for wordplay — in which objects become facile words — now fails him miserably. His mind skitters from one topic to another, frustrating all attempts to grapple with the She-Wolf encounter, mocking the very idea of words. Horace is shaken to the core, lost and trembling, as if Pullia’s reliable presence, like the serenity of his trance, had also snapped shut, rupturing his precious bond.
Normally chatty with everyone, Horace bristles when asked about his trek, only to become annoyed with himself, quickly adding a mumbled, self-conscious apology…but no explanation. Household slaves scurry about gingerly, with furtive peeks at Horace, keeping up the appearance of propriety and manners, passing on hearsay in secret whispers. Amid growing concern, everyone in the household knows that something — seemingly unspeakable — has happened to their venerable master. A Crackup of sorts? Another dose of heartbreak with Lalage, his erstwhile beloved? The blurred, surreal events of the previous day press down upon him.
Horace sleeps fitfully, a temporary refuge from overthinking — festering in the shadowlands between dreaming and waking. His mind drifts unbidden into the subjectivity of memory, a trackless morass, doubting his own sensations. Pulling back instinctively, he redoubles his efforts to look at things by all practical means. At some point, Hector hit on a truly novel idea: he would speak to himself, carefully in private, mouthing out words aloud, step-by-step as they popped into his head, gradually assembling a practical explanation. He hoped — in vain, as it turned out — that hearing his own spoken words would somehow juggle his whirring thoughts into a logical pattern…. unruly soldiers called to order on the parade ground.
“I need to speak, yet all is muddled. I have not even the words to bring it out of mind, into daylight…. gossipers will think me to be a raving madman, sprouting naught but twaddle, … some things are better left unsaid. I must stay the course, to keep close the dignity of my silence,” Horace muses to himself aloud, “Do the soothsayers yet tell the truth, that there are things hidden by the Gods, forever remaining unknowable, thereby untainted, having no name, beyond the reach of us poor mortals?”
Nodding off again, napping, he wakes with a start, a solitary thought looming large in his mind.
“This surely has happened to other wayfarers,” he murmurs thoughtfully, in quietly measured words, mulling on his late-night revelation, rubbing the salt-and-pepper stubble on his chin.
“I’m nary the only one. If it so happened to other persons, then most surely it cannot be some delusion of my mind. There’s a story behind my story… some lurking truth, there for the finding!”
Rousing from his troubled sleep, Horace stretches in the early light, then slips on his purple-hemmed toga… staggering bare-footed and redden-eyed out to the terraced portico. Sipping his honeyed-wine, he idly sniffs at the platter of olives, figs, and goats-cheese, brooding all the while… when his attention wanders absentmindedly to the grazing grounds of the Digenza valley, far below. It’s daybreak and the scudding mist is rising, leaving pastures still heavy with dew. For a full minute he stands poised, staring down at a herd of oxen, loosed from their yokes — bulls, heifers, and calves — shaded by oak trees and ilex, paddocked on the riverside-meadows. They no doubt belong to his rascally tenant farmers. His eyes shift across the river, settling upon a high-perched mountain village, and its residents — the same big-jowled farmers, chiseled timber-getters, and burly blacksmiths — no bumpkins here: all battle-hardened veterans, retired from the legions with Caesar’s generous land-grant for their service. Enough, that it gets Horace thinking. His random gaze morphs into a fixated stare, eyes ablaze.
Horace drains his leaden mug with fresh determination, setting it down with a resounding thud… startling the nearby house-boys. Softly, he asks for his trustworthy Melleus — revealing nothing, as if a mere afterthought — to chat with the villagers on market-day, casually mentioning ‘sightings of a white She-Wolf, probably a dangerous loner, cast out of the pack’? Melleus shoots Horace a dubious glance, eyebrows raised discreetly: mixing with the local peasantry is surely a lowly chore for house-born slaves — certainly not for a house-steward, more-so if it means asking those roughneck rabble-rousers about mysterious white wolves! Himself a freed Cretan slave — by decree, from a grateful Horace! — Melleus knows he has little choice and nods with lips pursed, forcing a smile, quietly grumbling as he goes. Thinking it over, he admits begrudgingly that any course of action is worthwhile if it returns the master to his once-affable self.
Come market-day, Melleus launches himself undeterred into the bustling mob, elbows fanning outwards for space, making small-talk with anyone who would listen. The heady brew of street-pigs rolling in cattle dung mixed with the press of too many unwashed human bodies strike Melleus in nauseating waves. For their part, the plainspoken villagers —often testy and cantankerous — are more than ready to talk of their rich folklore, full of spells, sorcerers, and of course, wolves…. though carefully sidelined as haunting, bedtime fairy-tales for their wide-eyed children.
At one point, Melleus catches sight of a barrel-chested, hulking figure in a bearskin cloak, memorable for his pearly-white forked beard and hearty laugh — striking up a casual conversation. Forkbeard’s rough-mannered, tattooed appearance belies his openhearted, sentimental nature — betrayed by his wholesome bellowing — one of those ‘gentle giants’ whose ease of being comes with having made peace with life. Before long, the veteran soldier is recalling his own foreshortened childhood, another plague-orphan, tears forming in the corners of his lively blue eyes. Looming over his perplexed listener, Forkbeard ends his tearful reverie with a crushing, well-meaning bearhug. Melleus is dumbfounded, breathless yet strangely gratified, his tightly-lined face softening imperceptibly. As it happened, the legend of the ‘Sabine Wolf’ — unlike the other plodding stories — was recounted in hushed tones by Forkbeard the Story-teller, quietening the crowd in ripples, whispering to themselves…. hinting at a darker provenance. There was a certain uncanniness to Forkbeard’s telling of tales, a gift from the gods, felt by all who listened, as if the sacred ‘animal’ was none other than a remote ancestor come back to life… only wearing a wolf-hide.
Days pass and dutiful Melleus arrives back from the market, heavily laden with his findings — full of surprises, and not whatever he expected. However bizarre it sounded in the telling, he faithfully delivers his report, all very matter-of-factly, everything exactly as told by the villagers. His master’s questions converge relentlessly, back and forth, on the She-Wolf and especially, on the workings of her curse. Finally, comes a pinprick of recognition: the breakthrough Horace desperately needs. He gasps at first, then cackles to himself. Curious he couldn’t see it earlier… as a true epic, like Homer’s allegory of Troy, and the godly curse against Helen and Paris. Melleus remains silent, stuck in the villagers’ mythical wonderland, ‘bedtime folklore for children’, though Horace — every bit the the cryptic, lyrical poet — would have none of it! Appearances are not always quite what they seem. Putting aside the world of myth, it’s the buried subtext he was hoping to find, reading keenly between the lines, following the thread of his heroic interpretation. At once exhausted and enlightened, Horace settles into his lions’ head couch, his head spinning with age-old tales of the dreaded Sabini. Morose no more.
Demented and bitter by the loss of her kingly partner following a recent deadly ambush, the Queen raves and wanders about, eventually swallowing several mouthfuls of a potion of Belladonna to conjure up a foresight of events to come. She anxiously inspects the sacrificial entrails of a white heifer for an omen — further assured that she will join her beloved in the afterlife, she impulsively drinks the full vial of Belladonna… as ‘the beautiful lady’ takes her away to her wishful reunion, happy-ever-after. This is when matters went badly awry. Quirinus is the god of the Sabinites — one of the most ancient of hoarily gods, born from the time of Chaos — also not surprisingly, their vengeful God of War. Being every bit a peevish God, Quirinus became greatly angered with the Queen as he alone retained the sole power of life-or-death over his earthly domain — by her willful actions, the Queen had presumed to challenge his authority.
Wearing her crown of Delphic bay-leaves and face painted royal-purple with wild bilberries, the Queen is summoned into the underworld presence of Quirinus. As Queen, and daughter of the mythical Sibyl of Cumae, she could not be treated as a mere commoner. In hushed Sibylline tones, she offers up her touching plea of innocence — that her only actions were taken in the name of true love; that she was already dead without her king — but alas, divine punishment is swift as it is merciless. The labyrinth of malice, whosoever the victim, assumes many godawful forms, not least in this case, an exile of a wickedly different kind — reincarnated henceforth as the Sabine Wolf-Queen. She listens to her fate, unmoved, mindful of her prophetic role to begin the great order of the ages whereby a mighty city-state — still hidden in the future — shall arise from ancient seed. The pompous old trickster fears the riddle as a threat to his godly status… but surely the Queen can do nothing as a wild animal! Henceforth, she is all fire, brimming over with hellish fury, as the curse takes her over.
Come the swelling of the full moon, blood-curdling howls at dusk announce the unmistakable presence of the Wolf-Queen, shimmering in ghostly white before the tribal Elders, waiting in awe. Behold, the huntress and moon-goddess: the spectral Queen stands aloof, upon her ceremonial dolmen, under a copse of venerable cypress, four paws splayed to the ground, eyes bulging in bloodlust. Let the Lupercalia begin, the sacerdotal dances of the wolf-cult — the villagers in animal pelts, faces painted blue with woad, monstrous shadows foot-stomping before the swirling fumes of a blazing bonfire, satiated with fungal hallucinogens.
The children cower and tremble with glee, clinging to him in the sputtering lamplight,
Only much later, at the beginning of history, when the Sabini sought alliances against those pesky Etruscan neighbors, did the immortal Wolf-Queen fulfill her own momentous prophecy — suckling back to health the orphaned infant Romulus, the mythic founder of Rome and forefather of the Roman race. Centuries pass as Empires rise and crumble, Ages come and go… and the World keeps on turning. The old Sabines are gone, along with the Etruscans, Phoenicians, Greeks, Gauls and many others… absorbed into the Roman colossus. Still, the lupine Queen roams the forests and rugged ravines of the foothills without rest. Forever cursed, she enters the minds of solitary male travelers — according to ancient Sabinite folklore — seeking in vain to find the kindred soul of her long-lost king.
Melleus’ retelling of the ‘Wolf-Queen legend’, however esoteric, nonetheless provides a foundation narrative for Horace — in the following weeks, he gradually mulls over its apocryphal meaning and possible origins, piecing together the elusive words he needs to understand his encounter. Faced with the prospect of imminent death, to be torn asunder limb from limb, Horace was overcome surprisingly by a quiet courage he had never expected of himself, greater than a simple calculus of risk.
Horace’s freeman father had been disgraced, his estate confiscated, and reduced to poverty as a bonded slave! Horace’s own single battlefield experience at Philippi did him no honor, being on the losing side of the catastrophic civil war — he barely escaped, while his nobel friend Brutus who led the Republican cause, fell on his own sword in deep despair.
“Morbid thoughts of you have long been lurking in the back of my mind,” Horace cries out aloud to the dead Brutus, “lingering unseen in the farther-reaches, hiding out in plain sight — as if I should feel the guilt for still being alive, cursed and unworthy of love”.
“Just as the Grecian Epicurus once taught long ago, a cursed fear of death was surely buried deep within me, aggravating all my other everyday fears to grow and linger — so narrowing my will to life, draining away my vital energies! In hindsight, the poor Wolf-Queen is naught but a reflection of my own craven self; she is me — hellishly cursed to eke out my days, forever seeking my beloved, yet mired in an endless repetition of death-in-life”.
The lasting impression is one of something extraordinary unfolding within Horace of which we know alarmingly little; we are told no more, other than the special blossoming that followed. All at once, as if thwacked by Jove’s thunderbolt, Horace felt a surge of heroic self-worth, equal to the love of his idealized mistress, the mysterious ‘Lalage’, alluring but fickle in the ‘gifts of Venus’ — where previously he had fretted for weeks, sulking and sick-at-heart, pining for a lock of her hair. A newborn poet, brimming with zest and confidence, had sprung into being.
Horace and the Sabine Wolf, as told in his waxing, otherworldly verses, remains controversial to this day: the enduring story has become something of a literary staple attracting countless scribblings over the ages — though the archetypal image of the wolf as a mythic, changeling creature, shape-shifting for better or for worse, has curiously taken on a life of its own.
Despite his sagging career of ‘sweet-nothings’, Horace — still an unproven, provincial poet — reels off the ‘Odes’ straightaway in a climax of creative mastery, a pulsing of elation and metrical finesse beyond his wildest imaginings. Writing day and night, his mind running away from him, as if possessed by a horde of quarreling demons…and lo, behold his masterpiece of eighty-eight astonishing, sometimes racy poems on loving, courting his mistress as he goes, ever so wolvenly.
Could his famous ‘Odes’, brimming over with unrequited longing, be a direct outgrowth of locking eyes with the great She-Wolf: Horace’s ‘trance’ as a mesmerizing catalyst, healing the open wound of his self-hatred? Stranger-than-fiction? Who can say?
It turns out however, that Horace’s cross-species experience is very far from unique: such life-changing, eyeball encounters with other higher chordates — whales, chimpanzees, coyotes, and…yes, wolves — have a long and storied history, running under the euphonious banner of ‘eye-to-eye epiphanies’. One of them particularly, is groundbreaking.
The year is 1960 — an eager, young scientist gazes transfixed into the receptive eyes of a wild chimpanzee. The scientist is none other than Jane Goodall; the chimp of course, is David Greybeard. An eye-to-eye mutuality is established between them, in which Greybeard seemingly responds to Goodall’s thoughts with corresponding behavior… altering the course of natural history forever. Go back 26,000 years…a lone, adolescent human leaves footprints in one of the far galleries of the recently discovered Chauvet Cave, loaded with ancient wall-art, along with pawprints originally assumed to be those of a large dog…now upon closer analysis, believed to be the imprint of a wolf. Theories abound, learned or just plain loony, purporting to unravel the baffling ‘what’ that happens during the transformative gaze with a non-human animal… though the encounter still remains largely ineffable, ‘unnamed’ as Horace had originally declared in frustration!
Jane Goodall herself comes closest arguably, when she describes it as a communication that predates words… most likely used by our own Neolithic ancestors. Nothing less than a deeply rooted sensory mode that has been forgotten…. or neglected, in large part, as the spoken word came to dominate everyday communication! Horace’s ‘trance’ then becomes a carry-over relic, a sensibility repressed in the great cause of civilization?
Ever notice on crowded, city sidewalks…how so many passersby wearing ‘life-is-serious’ frozen faces — when a raggedy old dog just happens to cross their busy path — crack into irresistible smiles, their dour moods brightened unconsciously if only for a few fleeting seconds: a telling reminder of a long-buried ancient past? Millennia ago, well before Horace’s fated walk in the woods, there was a glacial period of long frigid winters and short summers which made for a scarcity of food, dire circumstances in which new, unexpected partnerships were forged. Humans and wolves hunted side-by-side amid the snowdrifts and sleet, communicating eye-to-eye, — a golden time lost in the fog of prehistory — tracking steppe bison and perhaps even woolly mammoth through a late Ice-Age tundra… that in the distant future, would become the gently rolling hills and technology hub of the Thames Valley, where ritzy owners now happily walk their pet ‘dogs’ along manicured parkways!
(The ‘Odes’ of Horace, seemingly inspired by his encounter with the Sabine Wolf, fable or otherwise, won him immediate and universal recognition by all Romans, from slave to Emperor, through to the Renaissance, and later, much beloved of the Victorian era, posterity continues to smile on his Latinate genius into the 21st century).