Written by Ted Schnack Jr.
Old Serbia. Little Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. Grimm Fairy Tales were not shy on scare tactics for wandering kids with the likes of the local witch fattening up Hansel and Gretel for a favorite recipe and evil Godmothers bearing poison apples.
But for thousands of years and for good reason the feared villain was the wolf who had a free rein terrorizing old Europe. The peasants of the land armed with nothing more than a few hand to hand weapons and tilling tools. The advent of modern firearms has done little to put a dent in wolf numbers, the highly adaptable wolves changing tactics on how they go about their bloody business. While American children pull the covers tight against the likes of Freddy Kruger in a hockey mask, for the children of Old Europe the boogey man came in gangs dressed in fur slinking about in the shadows of the darkness. Merciless with an eternal thirst for blood a snarling pack of slashing and ripping fangs was the death all feared. Their terror spawning dark myths of Werewolves and other flesh eating beasts that roamed the sinister night. Haunting howls from the black forest bringing a rich harvest of nightmares and a grim nightly reminder the end can be swift, dark, and bloody for the wayward and unlucky. Lore tells of the boy who cried wolf, but the lost tale is the lad who never came home his cries unheard, vanished in the misty darkness.
On break from work in the Balkans and on a pheasant hunt in Serbia with a local buddy of mine, Illa, the subject of wolves, or “Vook” came up. Illa’s normally happy face darkened when he spoke of wolves. His best friend “Potka”, an eager Boar dog was ripped apart by a pack. Seems like when wolves hear the bark of a dog on a pig trail it rings like a dinner bell and the hunter becomes the hunted. Illa told me it was just the two of them on a brutally cold day out looking to scare up a little late season swine. Potka had cut a hot trail of fresh pig his familiar bark echoing thought the frozen hills. He spoke of the wolfs howl, the vicious snarls, the cries and the bitter silence. Illa’s broken English and the few words of Serbian I knew were hardly necessary; his saddened face telling the real story. What was once Potka, a smattering of wolf tracks and gore on the bloody snow.
Having squawked up a few coyotes on the eastern plains of Colorado, my interest sparked and I thought I might ring up a dinner bell of my own. I asked Illa if anyone had ever tried to call wolves using a dying rabbit call. With an abundant rabbits and the wolf’s aggressive eagerness to rundown and kill a healthy dog I thought I might be on to something. Illa didn’t know what I was talking about, and being the president of the Kosovo Hunting association, if anyone would know it would be him. A call to my dad back in Colorado and the call was on the way.
They tell me Wolves in Serbia are as common as Coyotes back in the states. The thought of reintroducing wolves and celebrating them with calendars and coffee cups would make as much sense there as opening the prisons and freeing all the serial killers while sporting a t-shirt with a grinning Charles Manson. All too common tales of mountain dwellers, their family fortune a band of sheep slaughtered to the last, the clan plow horse still alive with hunks of flesh eaten from its haunches. For the wolves of Serbia killing just for food does not tame their blood lust but are thrill killers known to take down whole flocks of sheep in a vicious mealy. Ask some folks in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming about the wisdom of reintroduction and areas once deer and elk rich, now barren wastelands of game of yesteryear. The wolves howl a cold replacement for a freezer of winter meat and the passing tradition of the family hunt.
I grew up reading Jack London’s tales of wolves from the frozen north. Page turners of lone trappers in the Yukon or Klondike, a single bullet left, a dying fire and a pack of circling starving wolves. Much more wickedly clever than the brightest dog, cunning animals with legendary sight, sense of smell and wits, an intelligence honed by the kill or die reality of raw wilderness. I looked at my call wondering if my bag of tricks would trick the cleverest of the wild.
Well named, the “Balkans” means “Blood and Honey” a rich fertile land steeped in history. Local lore says if you throw out your apple core to come back in a few years and have a picnic under that tree eating apples for desert. That’s the honey part; the blood part is darker and more ominous. The Balkans has been the crossroads for many violent struggles in the historical past.
Hitler’s Blitzkrieg ripping through Eastern Europe bogged down in the stubborn Balkans. On modern and ancient battlefields these violent clashes left a grim bounty scattered throughout the lands. With wild game and farm animals long gone to feed hungry armies the wolves thrived acquiring a taste for human flesh.
As you leave the main villages the time machine clicks quickly back hundreds of years. Steep rolling hills, horse drawn carts and sleighs filled with hand cut crops and fences woven with twigs and sticks. Mountain people with faces of yesteryear living in hand hewed stone houses nestled watchfully in the surrounding hills and passed from generation to generation.
It was a cold day. A dark mist and moody clouds drifted through the frozen hills.
After sneaking in to our spot, we settled in. The wind was right; the setup looked to be perfect. I kept having the nagging thought of the actual wisdom of doing my best to sound like fresh meat to hungry wolves. Usually coyotes slink cautiously in, but many times I have been run past by coyotes smoking along at full speed a few feet away with fresh blood on their minds. The dynamic would be drastically different with a pack of 125 pound wolves. “Vook” can reach speeds of 40 mph and as my research pointed out “with jaw pressures exceeding 1500 psi and equipped with large interlocking canines used for slashing and ripping and oversized molars used for cracking and crushing bones.” A pack of eight adds up to a half a ton of running-cunning killing machines. Certainly a different dynamic than a skinny coyote looking for a bite of scared rabbit.
Before I brought the call to my lips I felt a little like I had just poured way to much gas on a pile of wood and was about to flick a match in its direction. It was utterly quiet, dead quiet. A deep breath and the first tortured scream ripped the cold air. After the painful sound died the still quiet again ruled. Nothing. After several set ups I could see Illa and his son Nicolai were becoming more relaxed. I sensed their waning interest in some hocus pocus trick Ted had come up with and I was starting to wonder myself.
Weary after a wet day in the field the centuries old stone house of Rajons our host with its wisp of smoke and glowing windows looked to be a warm oasis from the relentless cold.
Dinner was a steaming pile of spiced lamb its intoxicating aroma mixing with the pungent smell of fresh goat cheese, boiled pork cabbage, blood sausages and thick slabs of cured bacon. The kerosene lamps cast a warm yet haunting light across the stone walls where faded unsmiling photographs of family and soldiers from wars past hung from square nails. Paths worn into the wooden floor planks from the padding feet of generations. The once rosy cheeked toddlers that took their first steps on these floors had children of their own. Having lived their lives now lay in vine covered graveyards of tilting crosses, moss covered stones and tangles of brambles nestled watchfully in the surrounding hills.
Rajon told us of wolves who had been lurking about and rumors of some sheep killed a few mountains over. He continued saying he sometimes heard them every night and sometimes not for a week. He said. “You find the wolf at night when they come out to kill.” It revived me and I talked Nicolai into heading out with me for one more try. My only source of light would be my headlamp which is good for about a 30 yard cast under the best of conditions.
Once outside the still cold night met us with shocking starlight and crystal quiet. A frigid embrace; a merciless sharp edged cold borne in the wastelands of Siberia drifted across the hills and valleys setting a dark and mysterious stage.
A still, heavy mist had settled in, my headlamp visibility about 15 yards at best. As we moved several times I heard howling which Nicloli told me were mountain dogs. After about half an hour I heard a long howl with a lonely tone. Nicolis firm grip on my arm and tooth clenched whisper “Vook” I pulled the call. Sensed the quiet I was about to break, I hesitated, took a deep breath and did my best to sound as if I was suffering an agonizing death. The tortured cries pierced the air. The night answered back with silence. We called as we walked for about an hour along the rolling road deeper into the forest and farther away from the house. We had stopped whispering. The only sound was the muffled sound of our boot falls and the rhythm of our breath. It had remained quiet and I was becoming transfixed by the dark forest and the small sounds of the night. The surrounding trees a haunting of witch skeletons and silence.
A lone mournful howl deep into the night drifted through the trees not betraying its direction and sending shivers through my soul. I brought my call to my lips and screamed into the darkness. All senses on keen ultra alert probed into blackness. The wind was dead still. The fog from our breath slithered through the beam of light like a stalking serpent.
A time passed and then I heard a slight sound. It became clearer and gained a rhythm. I realized it was something running through the carpet of leaves on the forest floor. We had jumped a few deer and some pigs but they ran away from us, this was coming towards us. My headlamp only cast a slight glow about 30 yards and was then was lost in the forest and fog. Whatever it was it seemed to swoop thorough the trees of the forest when I realized it was on a steep hill that rose above us. It was getting closer and then it stopped about 50 yards away. The weight of the buckshot filled double gun was reassuring. We waited quietly.
It could have been two minutes maybe twenty taking half breaths, my light quietly probing the darkness. I slowly turned my head Nicolai silently following the dim pillar of my light. No matter what happens the rest of my life I will never forget what happened next. Two glowing amber-green flickers, reflective eyes just on the edge of the weak light and just inside the cloak of darkness. It was the outline of the wolfs head. Just for a second and then it was gone. Instinctively I tightened the grip on my shotgun waiting for the unknown.
For the next hour or so I felt like a spider on a web waiting for the slightest vibration from the dark night. Several times we heard small sounds, a slight rustling, a muffled movement.
Was it the wolf, was it more of them or just another creature of the forest who spends every night waiting for the wolf. Our brief encounter would be the only time the devil showed his face.
Moving slowly back through the forest to the safety of a stone house that had provided refuge for centuries. Once inside I lay in the darkness unable to sleep feeling the warmth of the dying embers the smell of wet wool and old leather. Still waiting for another howl the vision of glowing eyes seared deep into my memory. That wait lurks in my imagination and when I am expecting it the least it might show up in a nightmare or two. Until then I will think of standing shoulder to shoulder with my Serb brother in the cold silence and blackness of a Balkans night and meeting the devil with blood on his mind.