The Wolf and Saint Carnival of Joy

1.

Saint Francis fed a false story to the press, and as usual, the muckrackers ate it up. They would believe whatever they wanted. He held the news conference on the steps of the crumbling church of Gabbro. In attendance were reporters from all over Italy. The Vatican, the Medicis, the Genoan News Service, the Venetians, as well as the usual cavalcade of local beat writers: titmice, cows, flagellants, and lepers, each with their own constituencies.

The news conference followed the lines of the press release, more or less. Piece of cake. Francis didn't even have to wipe his brow.

"Were you injured in the wolf attack, Saint Francis?"

"I repeat, there were no significant injuries." The saint leaned forward on his podium, his hands folded in prayer beneath the stand. "The wolf tried to assail me, but the beast wasn't successful."

"What was the aftermath? Did you confront the wolf?" a horse — a local from Gabbro — quipped, pen in hoof. Francis winked.

"Naturally, I showed the beast the love of God. I think the wolf of Gabbro will make a fine addition to our carnival team. He's a real 'team player.'"

"Are you aware that you're harboring a mass murderer? A seasoned killer who's already taken the lives of six village children, along with two travelers from Turin?" A Dominican said this, shoving the wooden microphone as close to the podium as he dared. Dominicans were always tough and slick. They played hardball. Francis's security guard, a beefy Prussian, inched forward, glaring at the Dominican.

St. Francis paused, then glowed. He had the glowing trick down, and it never ceased to turn hardball questions from the press into baby kissing sessions. "God bless you all. No further questions."

2.

After the news conference, Francis found the wolf hunkered down outside a musty inn and offered a cigarette. They puffed in silence. The glowing embers of their tobacco were like a demon's fingertips.

"Is it over?" the wolf said.

"It's over," Francis said. "I don't think they caught on. It's a good thing I had these wool mittens Clare sewed for me for the Feast of the Transfiguration."

Francis peeled off the mittens, revealing a massive gash on the right hand. Francis had cleaned it off with river water, baptizing the wound (the flesh steamed) but the cut from the wolf's teeth was deep and uneven. "What will happen to me?" the saint asked the wolf.

"You'll be a werewolf. Turn into a wolf by the light of the full moon." The wolf crushed the cigarette into its paw. "It's not so bad."

Francis nodded. "That's fine. Better than fine. I can work these wounds into the storyline. Tell me — why have you decided to join us?"

The wolf snorted. "Do you think being the terror of a village is an enjoyable pastime? Besides..." The wolf leaned closer; its breath stank of blood. "We're bound now, you and I."

Francis beamed, holding out his palms. He really didn't understand what the wolf was talking about, but played along anyway. A pleasant fellow. "Say, while you're here," Francis said, "would you mind biting the other hand? I want to go for the full stigmata effect."

3.

In the bumpy wagon, the caravan made its slow way to Lucca. Saint Clare sat in her rollicking, yet spare, quarters, cutting out an article about the caravan from People. Clare was the marketing director of the carnival. She also liked word games in her free time, so she cut the article into various strips (cutting around the icon of the Pope's shriveled, somehow still living head), tossed them to the floor, and picked the strands up.

Her rearrangement of the article went like this:

"The legend of the Wolf of Gab—... is as follows...
                   terrorized the inhabitants of

alone,        no matter if he was armed       would murder
                                 St. F.         went out to see

to tame it by kindness
                                 He found it, addressed it

cease its attacks it would be supported

                    thus, subdued

two years thereafter, we are told, the wolf went
through house to house and was fed by the inhabitants,

and then died."

Claire hmmed. That didn't sound right. The wolf wasn't dead yet. She had to write a letter to the lifestyle magazines where she had received the clippings, to make sure they got the story right.

The wolf had just joined the Carnival, and rode in the front wagon with Francis. Clare met the wolf only once, and that was pretty brief. She wasn't sure what to make of the wolf. Did the wolf like supper bones? Did it have good table manners? Was the wolf really a "team player," or was Francis talking out of the side of his mouth, as he was wont to do? The wolf provided no answers himself — he was cryptic, sly, pleasant, tight-lipped. He wanted to spend the trip with Francis.

Sighing, she started a rosary, contemplating the Sorrowful Mysteries, and also that Mary would intercede for fairness and accuracy in popular journalism.

4.

Francis and Claire fell in love when she saved him from assassins. They invaded Assisi secretly, black robes and black hoods covering their faces. They were packing — daggers, poisoned darts, cigarette lighter guns, what have you.

Francis was fishing on the muddy banks of Lake Trasimeno, a quick vacation from his pandering followers. He needed a break. The sky was blue like the smock of the Virgin. He was hooking a grub when they first saw him. Francis had a sense that they leered underneath their hooded faces. Since Francis grew up wealthy, he didn't know how to fight. Others always fought for him.

Clare happened to pass by with her bicycle, carrying a monstrance from a chapel that was about to be abandoned, back to her home for safe keeping and continual, vigilant prayer. The monstrance contained a Eucharist; thus, it was living and breathing with Christ, and not just a pretty thing of gold and silver to look at.

Clare was about to enter a nunnery in a week. No one in her family understood her. All of the boys who worked as dye makers in her father's business puttered around on mopeds near her (but never speaking to her), ogling her long white dresses, dreaming of what was underneath the dress. Surrounded by these mouth-breathers, a life devoted to Jesus seemed the last and only hope.

A few of the assassins began to point their cigarette lighters towards Francis's face, still some distance away.

Clare, on her bicycle, intersected the assassins, braking hard. Francis was oblivious. "This poor man in sackcloth, fishing!" Clare thought. Bald. Slightly cute. About to die.

Whipping the monstrance around, she opened the pure gold fliptop that revealed the Host of Hosts, the body of Christ. Ten thousand beams of light (or so it seemed to Clare) pierced the bodies of the assassins. It was a glorious sight for Clare to see that writhing tangle of flesh. When they were done with their cries of agony Francis turned around, bewildered. The hook pierced his thumb as he began walking towards her; a plume of blood trickled down. The first of many klutzy acts in her presence.

"Let me help you with that," she said. Luckily, the monstrance held a miniature first aid kit in the base, for occasions of retribution and/or injury by miscreants, sodomites, or Satan.

Clare and Francis had same-colored eyes, hazel. Both of them talked of their backgrounds. Francis abdicating his cloth merchant family for ministry; Clare just about to ditch her dye-making family for a life of virginity and piety.

"Still," he said, "I wish there was more to this kind of life. I wish there was someone who truly understood me." It was the usual male false humility and pandering, but in Francis's mouth it at least sounded sincere.

"More?" She said. Along the muddy lakeshore, their hands slipped together, as if they were always there.

Francis paused before he continued. "I ought to say something like, follow me, or, you shall find eternal life in my footsteps." He turned to the water. Fish that didn't normally fly, flew and arced through the air and dived back in again. A sigil of God's A-ok if there ever was one. "But you could just as easily say those words to me," he said. "And I would believe in you. And I would follow you."

5.

Those were the glory days, that month of the Wolf & Saint Carnival of Joy, St. Francis and the Wolf of Gabbro, Proprietors! No one questioned the wolf's sound business sense. The wolf "bought into the system" and his presence seemed to pay dividends.

Francis formed the Franciscans for a year or so, but found the group too cloying, too hero worshiping, too self-referential. A traveling circus appealed to him much more. They traversed the Italian countryside, holding prayer vigils, giving homilies, luring the local animals to pray as well. Brother Asmodeus would exhibit feats of strength. Clare would set up her reliquario kiosk — full of relics from a holy host of saints and beautified men and women — and give out rainbow colored pamphlets with titles such as The True Cross and You and Everything You Needed to Know About the Benefaction of St. Boniface But Were Afraid to Ask. And Francis, when he felt physically up to it, would cure the sick and the lame. The main, though infrequent, attraction.

After a week of these glory days of the wolf and saint combination, the wolf would begin to preach in some of the small towns, in a hushed tone on the far edge of the carnival. Crowds swelled to see the famous wolf of Gabbro's lectures on piety and sincerity. Most of the people and animals the wolf talked to were derelicts of some sort or another, or even rabid. The wolf never spoke loud enough for Francis or Clare to hear, though it kept the listeners attentive for hours on end.

Then the wolf would paw the ground and the people and beasts would scatter.

"What do you talk to them about?" Francis asked once.

"The true nature of things," the wolf said. Francis didn't ask the wolf about its sermons after that.

6.

Before Lucca, and hitting the coast, they took a pit stop in Talmia, a sallow village just east of Florence. Francis wasn't crazy about Florence; he liked to hit the urban markets around harvest time, to coincide with the city festivals. So they stuck to the small towns during summer.

In this town, there was a full moon. Francis disappeared one night. Saint Clare went looking for him when it grew dark, because she wanted to sleep with him very badly.

All she found was the wolf, sitting on the stoop of Francis's wagon. "Where is he?" she wanted to know.

The wolf laughed. "Someplace far away. But he'll be back tonight."

Mosquitoes gathered in a halo above the wolf's head. Clare straightened her back. "See here, wolf. Francis and I are lovers. Nothing short of the love of God could ever tear us asunder."

The wolf squinted. "I'll keep that in mind." It went back into the wagon and shut the door.

In the distance, a howl.

In the morning, Francis had a streak of red on his cheek. Clare told him about it, and Francis said it was merely berry juice, and asked for a napkin.

7.

Several weeks passed. The makers of wine, the makers of coffins were having an incredible time of it in Tuscany. Disappearances of livestock sprung up again. Speculation in the media continued unabated that the wolf of Gabbro continued to kill cows and sheep. The wolf released a terse statement, the word no. Francis also vehemently denied that foul play still tainted the wolf, and personally vouched for the dignity of the wolf of Gabbro. He even swore on a Bible. That did the trick.

"Maybe it's a copycat killer," Francis suggested. The press entourage that followed the Carnival scurried to the woods, to check their informants among the oft-maligned lupine population of Italy.

The Carnival gave the Eucharist to five hundred on Wednesday.

Still, five sheep were killed on Thursday. Two on Friday, and then none on Saturday and Sunday.

There were other various signs, all bewildering, and therefore awful.

8.

In Lucca, their lives began to fall asunder. The Carnival usually spent a few extra days in Lucca, camped out in the shadows of the city walls. The usual festivities began, but the troupe's heart wasn't into it. Dark clouds quilted the sky above the city. Clare could see that just outside the city limits, it was a bright, cheerful Italian day. Sheep frolicked there, and shepherdesses too. For an instant Clare wished she was a shepherdess until she snapped out of it.

"I don't like the look of this," she said to herself, gathering her pamphlets into her handbag.

In the Piazza Anfiteatro, the group of the Twelve Dancing Apostle Bears cavorted. The usual cavalcade of jugglers, flagellants, and teen idols milled around the circumference of the carnival.

The core team was restless, though. Francis was focused, but on something Clare couldn't see. When a flock of sparrows fluttered close and asked collectively for his autograph, he swatted them away in anger.

Then he stormed out to weep in his quarters.

"Wrong," he said. "All wrong. God has abandoned me."

Clare draped her arms over him, but Francis stiffened. Clare let go. Francis outstretched his hands.

The stigmata. Clare crossed herself.

"No, no," Francis said, half-smirking in spite of himself. And he told the whole story, the true story. About the wolf biting him, and his lycanthropy. Afterwards, Clare sat down.

"What the fuck's happened to you, Frannie?"

Francis shrugged. Francis had let his hair turn long and gray, which Clare didn't understand until that moment.

"So you're turning into a wolf. And you killed all those sheep."

Francis slowly nodded.

Clare fumbled for cigarettes, and Francis said, you don't smoke, and Clare said, there's more to me than what you see.

"Fair enough. How do I minister as a wolf?"

"The wolf of Gabbro seems to be having a good time of it."

Francis said, "I don't know how much of a wolf he is, anymore."

"I think the more important question, then, is how do you stop killing sheep?"

Francis froze. "Maybe it's better this way. Practice what I preach. Loving the entire kingdom of God. What better way than to be dwell with the beasts themselves? And as for the sheep killing, I guess I'll have to...use my self-control. My willpower."

Clare didn't fall on her knees for him and weep, which was what Francis expected. Clare regarded him as a saint — but, after all, she was a saint too. They were on equal terms.

"I'm not so sure about the willpower, Fran. You have baser instincts now, right? I'm not going to take any bullshit from you, and that's because I love you, Francis."

Francis snarled and stalked off.

Clare stayed to her wagon all dawn, letting Brother Asmodeus handle the micromanagement of the Carnival. When she finally went outside in the sultry twilight, Clare let down her hair. Francis was nowhere to be seen.

A throng of Luccans and beasts of the field gathered in the center of the carnival. A man stood there, teaching.

It was the wolf of Gabbro. Yet it — he — was a man. Hairy beyond belief but a man. Old wives tried to touch his garments. Monks furiously scribbled their illuminations to make their newspaper deadlines; other members of the press (including a rare camel from the Alexandrian Coptic foreign bureau) began taking copious notes, hanging on the wolf of Gabbro's every word.

Clare, too, was transfixed. Brother Wolf noticed her, and winked, just like Francis would have.

"This carnival is a midway of sin. Yet there can still be redemption in this den of iniquity."

He raised his hand up sharply and hundreds, transfixed but moving, swarmed to him. The elephant rides and dart booths stood empty. The entire carnival watched Brother Wolf. Now Brother Wolf really had the crowd going. Clare started feeling sick in the pit of her stomach. "We must purge what used to be ours and make it clean again. Children, learn your catechisms and wear patent leather shoes. Parents, be sure to punish your children severely for any breaches in the catechism. Do not spare any rod. Spouses, don't be afraid to not use condoms! Jesus doesn't want you to use condoms!"

The crowd roared.

Then Brother Wolf looked directly at Clare, even from a distance. "And women should not be allowed to attain positions of power within the Church! I'll do everything within my power to compassionately uphold the values of honor, discipline, and righteousness."

It then dawned on Clare what she'd missed a few minutes before, when she was in her wagon. Brother Wolf must have announced a candidacy to the Sacred College of Cardinals, the body that in turn elected the Pope from among its members. She must have heard the tail end of his announcement speech.

Brother Wolf didn't give any orders, but he didn't need to. A group of Luccans pushed over the elephant's kiosk, and then managed to push over the surprised elephant. There happened to be a box of clubs and flamethrowers — later, no one in the press was able to trace the weapons — and the mob put the weapons to good use. The hoi polloi seized Brothers Asmodeus and Antonio and gathered plywood to set them both ablaze. Binding the two, a woman called out, "Does anyone know a good knot?"

Soon all individual voices drowned out in the din, and Clare began to run, off the main road of Lucca. The Luccans inside the walls boarded and locked up their gates and fired fireworks. What was the celebration? A minor festival? Then Clare realized they launched the fireworks into the Carnival, to kill the crazies. Everyone was crazy. No longer a sign of joy, but of fire.

Analysts would later say that the Wolf of Gabbro kicked off his campaign in splendid fashion...

She reached the woods, and rested under a moss-strewn tree trunk for an hour. She curled up in a ball, trying to gather her breath. After awhile, something furry and damp touched her shoulder.

It was Francis, the wolf-Francis. He was totally a wolf. Whatever Brother Wolf of Gabbro took from Francis, he wasn't giving back. The transfer of identities was complete.

Francis said, "What a doozy."

"They're destroying everything," Clare whispered.

"Yes. Brother Wolf has much support in the Vatican. I suppose that the general populace and the press will prove easier to control than a circus wandering the countryside. It's a sound strategy on his part."

Clare leaned forward into the musky smell of the wolf, her former lover. She had to get used to the word former. "What will become of our work? Of being God's children and living accordingly?"

Francis stuck out his tongue, and Clare realized that was meant as a sign of affection. "The work will never change. I'll just preach to the fields and forests now, rather than the towns. Or something." Francis didn't sound too convinced. "Go in peace, OK?"

Clare managed to nod. Francis the wolf scurried deeper into the forest, away from the flumes of ash on the outskirts the town. Clare burrowed deeper under the tree and slept.

The next morning, Clare walked to Florence and checked into a flea motel in the shadow of the duomo and wept. For the first day of her adult life she didn't pray. No heavenly creatures comforted her, or scolded her.

9.

In her second night away from the carnival, Clare dreamed that, much later, Brother Wolf and the Brother Francis met in the Tapping Hen — Francis's favorite boyhood haunt in Assisi — for an ale or two. They sat in a dim corner where no one would bother them. Along with the beer, they took in the slow draw of memory. And the Francis asked the former wolf of Gabbro, does the word of God go forth from me?

The wolf — now a saint — smiled and blushed.

"Does it?" The candle, wax dim. "Go forth from me?"

The wolf — now a saint — began to laugh.

"Blessed God, answer me!" Francis said, baring his fangs.

Though she heard every word, the dream-Clare was far away from these people. She was flying an ornithopter above the tavern, pumping her legs hard to make the wings work. Below her, ringing the tavern, the Carnival of Joy — and her past — lay in black smoke and ruins.

Clare kept flying.

10.

BROTHER WOLF of GABBRO did indeed win election to the Body of Cardinals, taking the name of Constantine, but he never became Supreme Pontiff. His third election campaign was laced with fraud, adultery with an archbishop's mistress, and the murder of an entire squadron of the Swiss Guard. Our codgerly wolf of Gabbro was hacked to death and thrown into the Tiber. All suspects in the case were released by the Vatican tribunal charged to investigate this brutal, but seemingly inevitable, end.

CLARE took refuge in Ireland, where she shacked up in a convent above a tavern. She spent the rest of her life writing infamous — some would say lewd — broadsides against the Vatican, administering to the pious drunks of Dublin, and designing the contours of a holy city named San Francisco, which she wanted to build in County Cork. The project never reached fruition.

FRANCIS of ASSISSI remained missing. But some travelers have noted: if you listen hard enough around the scraggly woods outside of Gabbro, you may hear a wolf's mumble, asking for entrance into the communion of saints.

This may, or may not, be our peculiar Francis.

 


Alan DeNiro grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania and went to school at the College of Wooster and the University of Virginia. His short story collection, Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead, was published in 2006 by Small Beer Press. It was a finalist for the Crawford Award. His first novel, Total Oblivion, More or Less, came out in 2009 from Ballantine/Spectra. In the starred review, Booklist said: "There aren't many writers who take weirdness as seriously as DeNiro does, and fewer still who can extract so much grounded emotion, gut-dropping humor, and rousing adventure from it. A dizzying display of often brilliant, always strange, and definitely unique storytelling." His second short story collection, Tyrannia, came out from Small Beer Press in 2013. He lives outside St. Paul with his wife Kristin and their 2 year old twins Ally and Toby.