The hospital is a cruel place: it lives on pain, suffering, loneliness and misery. All that can come from a human soul. There is cold shielded in shadows, threaded through tarnished grey hallways and the fixed strobe lights above sick beds. Dark doors hide broken souls, doctors moving like shades between graveyards. They barely glance at the fresh graves not yet filled in, where life still comes in white breaths from puckered mouths. The endless pings of coffee machines and reception phones try desperately to drown out death. Yet still, there are screams. Bright shrieks of sound which link together life and death in a horrendous reminder of the fleetingness of life. Some from the mouths of babes, freshly born, suckling in their mother’s arms and gazing bleakly out at a world they have yet to conquer. Others from saggy faces and stopping hearts, surrounded by misery and swathed in tears.
Creeping throughout these dank hallways, collecting the sound of suffering and the dread of death in a pearl-stopped glass, comes the Wolf.
He prowls through corridors, but they do not see. The doctors clutching vaporous coffees who pass nurses drenched in sweat, they do not see. Within brown-curtain woods and past white-sheet streams lie the sick – ravaged with age and time and wrapped in wrinkles. They have prowling eyes and beaten hearts and they see nothing. Their ears are old, many lives and deaths have passed their sorry sounds across their minds, and yet they do not hear. Their eyes remain young and do not fit within the wrinkles that have been painted on youth with the brushes of time, and yet the Wolf passes them by without a whisper of movement. Their hearts remain brave and true, yet they slow. Yet they stop. In a beatless silence, they stop.
Then, he strikes.
The Wolf comes with creeping step. He drools. He leaves his musk on the curtain train, on the bleached white sheets, on the cold dead heart. He passes over the red hooded child lying on her grandmother’s breast. Her breath is warm, her teardrops a halo around her eyes, her fingers held together in futile prayer. The warmth wafts across his fur. She is not his prey. Not yet. The small, white haired woman in white sheets, fingers folded in her granddaughter’s hair, is still. The pearl-stopped bottle is at his hip. With one clawed paw he grips the snowy branches of the old woman’s hair.
He took the old woman’s lover, once. It was a fresh spring day. The sun was high. His axe glinted with tree sap. Lemonade in a glass sat on a tree trunk by his side. He was a worker – a woodsman – who had earned a better life than what he had been given. He wiped his brow, and lay back against the trunk. His heart seized. He fell upon the buttercups. The Wolf took his final heartbeat and placed it into his bottle of the dead.
Her screams had barely touched him as he left a house of misery.
She is barely changed from that day. Her wrinkles are deeper, streams cut into old mountain sides, peppered with brown liver spots that sink like forests into the leather skin. Her eyes are closed, but they were ice blue and cold, bereft from her husband’s death. Her claws are curled into the red hood. Chuntering breaths come from lungs tired from years of sighing, crying; heartbreak. A withered tree, cast off by all but the young sapling at her breast. He feels pity for her. Then again, he always does.
The pearl stopper leaves the bottle. There is a moment of pure, uninterrupted silence. He rips his claw into her heart and captures her last breath, last thought, last heartbeat. A rasp, and then a slight pop echoes around the silent, deserted room.
The child raises her head. She is youthful. Untouched by death. A rose amongst battered tree trunks surrounded by the axe of mortality. She touches her grandmother’s shoulder. She shakes it. She begs, moans, sobs, anything to get her grandmother back. In the corner of her eye a hulking mass with a leather belt at his waist and a bloody bottle in his hand seems to disappear in a blink of an eye.
But she does not see.