Past Tense Present
δαιμονίη, τί με ταῦτα λιλαίεαι ἠπεροπεύειν;
“Goddess, why do you long to deceive me with these things?"
Helen to Aphrodite in book three, line 399of the Iliad, my translation.
The past is always present in Becky Cloonan’s Wolves; all the verbs are in the present tense, with the exception of only three cases of the past tense and just one of the future tense. Verbs are the heart of a sentence, and in Wolves, verbs sluice the content and form of the tale into an eternal present where love unceasingly exists and fundamentally transforms a man.
The structure of Wolves is symmetrical—the story opens in the present of the unnamed main character, moves to the near-past (the hunt), then moves to the further-past (passion/prelude to the hunt), then back to the near-past (wolf fight and banishment) and finally a return to the present time when which the story began. These time shifts free the plot from temporal-enslavement; it also stretches suspense by causing the reader to wonder how the unnamed into such a savage state?
What can cause such flagrant regression?
Love. Even memories of a lost love.
The present of the unnamed is dirty, dark, lonely and exposed—his past exiled him not only from society, but humanity as well. The nudity, the eating of uncooked meat, and the hunched posture of the character conveys a defeat, a fatigued beast forever hunted. The present is brutal, but for the unnamed the remembrance of the things past that brought him to this state wounds more than his primitive existence.
These temporal transitions are one of the many deft moves Cloonan utilizes in this story. Not only does love pulse through the story, but the beloved (The king’s wife? Daughter? Mistress? Sister?...it’s difficult to say for sure…as in life, love in this story is a powerful anonymous enigma) moves the story through time. The negative space in the panel when the woman first appears (and in all subsequent human appearances) has a background of hatch lines—that serve not only to highlight and contrast her skin and hair, but also conveys temporal shifting. The verb tense, however, remains in the present, keeping these memories current for the nameless hunted atavistic main character depicted on the opening page of the story.
And the verbs, grammatically sexy, are employed to full effect to make this remembered love immediate. “You are cursed,” are the first words thought by the unnamed. The sentence is in the passive voice, the unnamed is acted upon…he is the hunted rather than the hunter. Cursed by whom or what? The King? Fate? Love? Again, Cloonan molds ambiguity to sharpen the power of the tale and to allows it to extend to any universal time and place.
On page eight, the past tense appears as the unnamed hunter slumped, holding his head, alone thinks about the further-past: “I tried to reassure her. I said, ‘Who else would the king send?’”. The anguish and loneliness Cloonan conjures in this scene with the solid black background, a wispy shade of grey to contrast the character and the bush has the look of flames (both passion, memories, and doubt burning and consuming the main character). The next panel gives an uncomfortable close up, with wide scared eyes and sweat beads that seem pushed out of pores by fear. The unnamed hunter thinks “She’s not wrong. What I do is dangerous…but what we did was practically suicidal.”The use of the past tense in the active voice suggests that the unnamed, and one would surmise his beloved too, knew the full danger of their passion, and yet much like Helen, the characters continued in their action, unable, or unwilling, to resist. They act on the choice, but the consequences of the choice act on them. It is with the effect of the these consequences that the sole use of the future tense is used. The unnamed upon approaching the king thinks "And now there will be no lenience..." In Wolves love is dire in the past, present, and future.
“Take your reward, hunter, and go. You can never return to this place. You are cursed.” The king speaks these commands to the unnamed (as he remembers the near-past). And the reward? Even though coins are shown, they're never retrieved or carried. The love that coins can buy doesn’t wreck souls to the degree shown on the opening pages. What does the king mean by "this place”? The throne room? The castle? Civilization? Humanity? The state of love? Again Cloonan’s resistance to clarify bolsters the mythic eternal implications of this story. All these meanings are contained in the king’s words, and the character leaves the king, the castle, civilization. The unnamed thinks “But the curse was already in my breast. It blackens and consumes. Its corrosion transforms me. Where once was a hunter now lies a wolf. Haunted by my past…hunted by my memories” It is a chilling end. What is the curse? An absence of the beloved? A constant present memory of the lost beloved? Lycanthrope? The only answers Cloonan offers are memories. The memories of the nameless hunter-now-hunted’s lost love have transformed him from man to a beast. This pain of the eternally-present past erode his humanity and his ill-fated love makes him akin to the words Helen utters to Love:
ἔχω δ᾽ ἄχε᾽ ἄκριτα θυμῷ.
("And I hold in my heart unceasing lament." from Iliad Book 3 line 412, my translation. )
Buy your copy of Wolves at Becky Cloonan's website http://beckycloonan.bigcartel.com/! Buy extra copies and give them to friends and strangers!