Saint Francis and the Very Fierce Wolf of Gubbio

by Alan Bern

Part 1

In Italy not terribly long after the end of our first millennium, on a cold, cold early winter day, our wonderful brother, the little poor man from Assisi, Francesco di Bernardone, was walking stride-by-stride from hill-to-hill in his province of Umbria. As he stepped along, the thick-rich, blood-brown earth stuck to the bottoms of his bare soles, rising along the sides of his feet and up between his toes, occasionally washed off by the icy streams as he crossed them.

Francesco came this day in mid-morning to the outer gates of Gubbio, a town he had visited many times before, but nothing had prepared him for the quiet of the normally bustling Piazza della Signoria as he drew near it. Francesco paused, then walked farther into Gubbio, his breath showing as he climbed, accompanied only by the sound of the flap of his muddy feet on the icy paving stones. He approached the tiny house of his friend Fioretta, a lovely round lady, in whose rooms he often slept when he visited. He slapped her wood door four times with his open palm. No response. He slapped again four times, again with his open palm. He heard a slight rustle inside.

Francesco turned to the iron grille at the left of the door and peeked inside.  Only by squinting one eye could he see Fioretta covering herself up with a robe and coming toward the grate: when she saw him through the grate, she looked straight into his eyes, her deep browns seeing into his, even deeper in an instant. She looked very scared. Francesco gestured to her with his left palm held up: What is it? What goes on?

She started to turn away at the shoulders and then turned back and spoke to him in a voice beneath a whisper, calling him by his baptized name, something she did when she was afraid or angry: Francesco di Pietro di Bernardone, what are you doing? How did you come here? Have you not heard of our troubles here in Gubbio with the terrible Wolf who has eaten our sheep, our cows, our horses, our pigs, even some of our children. You must go quickly away or come inside right now! Please, hurry.

Francesco had heard about the fierce Wolf, but thought it only a story. Now he knew otherwise, since Fioretta told him only the truth. He said: I have done no harm to our Brother Wolf so he will do no harm to me. I will go to talk to him now, but I need a donkey to ride out to meet him, for my poor feet are sore and very cold.

Part 2

Fioretta opened her door a crack and reached her hand through to Francesco’s shoulder, holding it firmly: Francesco, will you not stay and dine with me; I have more than enough soup for us both. Francesco turned his head quickly from side-to-side and said, Not now, my dear friend. I must go to talk with the great Wolf before he does more damage.

Shaking her head almost sadly, Fioretta sent Francesco to find SignorGuglielmo dei Cancellati, a wealthy man, ten houses down, who would surely loan him a donkey. Francesco, a man so often quiet that some thought him shy — and he was that shy — paused, looking at Fioretta, first down, then up, and to each side, and, then, set off straight away for the rich man’s house. SignorGuglielmo’s gates were high and massive, but Francesco knocked and knocked with his closed fists, loud enough that neighbors leaned their heads out and told him to sta’ zitto every time he pounded, shush-sh-sh. Finally SignorGuglielmo came to the gate and opened it a finger’s width, then shouted out for Francesco to go on his way: Keep quiet lest the Wolf come back into Gubbio soon and dine on all of us!

Signor Guglielmo, I need to borrow from you a donkey to ride, and I will go out to speak to our very fierce Brother Wolf, said Francesco so loudly that the neighbors would hear. Turning, Signor Guglielmo looked away for a long minute, then turned back to Francesco agreeing to loan him the donkey he had asked for. And will you come with me, Signor Guglielmo, to speak to our Brother Wolf? You can ride with me on Brother Donkey, who is strong and kind and careful as he steps.

Signor Guglielmo looked away again, turning only his neck, and looked down for another minute, for few can return to the little man’s eyes; then turning back to our gracious Brother Francesco, the Poverello, he shook his head from left to right and back again, No, no, please, I cannot go. But… you go!

Francesco mounted Signor Guglielmo’s Donkey and rode slowly down and out of Gubbio hoping to meet Brother Wolf soon for he was very tired — as is everyone who journeys — and wanted to return to Gubbio and lie down on Fioretta’s spare-room bed and fall asleep.

Part 3

Francesco rode easily down through the Piazza della Signoria and then out of town and back along the road on which he had come. Soon he met, coming the other way on this narrow road, other Brothers from a different town, a town whose name he could not remember, but knew to be far off. Francesco greeted them and as he began to ask them to accompany him out to meet the fierce Wolf, a terrible scratching sound and a guttural low growl came from the rock above where they all had stopped.

Francesco paused in mid-syllable, lifted his unshaven face up to their left toward the sound and spoke: Brother Wolf, is that you? Come down to the road here and speak to us. The other Brothers, hearing this, turned around and, looking behind them, hurried off quickly, a good deal more quickly than they had been traveling. Their own bare feet smacked the path as they galloped away.

Another long, loud growl came from the rock and down jumped Brother Wolf, mouth open to the air and wet, yellow teeth dripping spittle/spit, bared at Francesco, eye-to-eye with the little man and magnificent to behold.  Francesco murmured softly to him and asked him to lie down; Brother Wolf did as he was bidden as Francesco expected.  Francesco then spoke quietly to Brother Wolf: Brother Wolf, I can see that you are hungry, but I can also see that you are angry; hunger can bring on terrible anger, as it should, for all of us must eat. You cannot feed as you have: I know that you have eaten the sheep, the cattle, the pigs and horses, even some of the children, of the good people of Gubbio. You cannot keep doing that: these are good people. I know, too, that they are afraid of you and would kill you if they could. I will speak to the Eugubini and make them understand your needs so that they can fulfill these needs and thus sustain you. Promise me, Brother Wolf, that you will stop killing and eating the livestock and children of the good people of Gubbio. I will promise you, in return, sustenance.

This word sustenance stopped Franceso’s lean tongue from speaking further. He realized that he had not eaten in days — no nutrimento but cold water, the aqua casta,of the streams he had crossed to reach Gubbio from Assisi. With his right palm and fingers, he circled his left wrist; it seemed thinned, thinner. He lightly touched his waist and flinched slightly; it felt tight, perhaps as if he had shrunk. He thought of food and wanted some, but felt ashamed. To eat alone? Now, never. Perhaps to eat with Brother Wolf would be an act of holiness and charity together. Francesco imagined his own jaw chewing sacred food and Brother Wolf eating, too: his eyes closed, Francesco saw shocks of light and fire coming from their mouths as they bit and chewed — and, then, soothing moisture replaced the fire as dew and drizzled onto plants around them and then from the plants onto the thirsty soil. Francesco was about to suggest they eat together when Brother Wolf nodded his head to the right, then placed one of his huge paws over the other. Brother Wolf then opened his great jaws as if to speak. Francesco opened his mouth in surprise (and so little ever surprised him!), gasped, and fell into a deep slumber, standing as if in a spell.

Part 4

Francesco awoke into a dream looking directly into Brother Wolf’s great jaws moving and now telling our Francesco a very sad story. At the first word, Brother Donkey brayed in surprise, but our dreaming Francesco leaned back against the steep side of the road and listened intently to Brother Wolf’s story:

As a young cub, I once lived on the tops of these tall mounts with a small pack of other wolves, two sister cubs and a younger brother cub along with both my parents, great hunters. I followed my parents wherever they led, as did my siblings. We were never afraid because my parents were both strong and fierce. Most of the time we traveled quickly and stopped only to hunt, capture, and eat — and, then, full of warm, wet meat, we would lie down curled together and rest, falling asleep almost as soon as we stretched out. It was a fine time, this sleep, all curled together. I still can smell the bottoms of my siblings, my nose near them. So delicious! One day we trapped some deer at the base of a tall cliff covered with snow at the top — it was very cold, in the middle of winter, and we were hungry, we had not eaten in many days. As we were about to attack the deer for our meal, we heard a low, loud sound coming from the cliff, or so we thought. Aieee, it was a strong quake happening deep in the earth and it shook and shook the ground we stood on.  It also loosened snow and ice above that came rushing down upon us in an enormous avalanche! All my siblings and both my parents were covered and suffocated under tons of snow and ice. Only I was spared. I was immediately frightened — saddened later. I know that wolf packs will disperse and then young cubs such as I must try to find a mate, but to lose my whole pack… terrible. As you can see, I have not found a mate, and I must hunt and eat alone — such a hard life. And now I am starving. I must have food soon or I shall perish.

At Brother Wolf’s word perish, Francesco awoke from sleep into the full world’s dream. There beside his foot was a running stream: Francesco cupped both hands and reached for palmful of water which he offered first to Brother Wolf, then to Brother Donkey, and, finally, he drank as well several times. His hunger lingered sharply behind. Francesco, then, spoke to Brother Wolf: Follow me and our Brother Donkey back into Gubbio and let us speak to the good people there. Brother Wolf stood as Francesco nudged Brother Donkey to turn around and head back to the town.

Part 5

Slowly, the three made their way back into town to the Piazza della Signoria where it was still silent. Francesco kept on through Gubbio and back toward the Piazza del Duomo. As they walked along, all the eight bare pads of Brother Wolf and Brother Donkey slapped the cobblestones lightly, and their long nails clicked. And Francesco’s two soles, as well, quietly touched the cobbles. The sounds of the feet almost matched, not quite,  echoing each other.

Heads began to poke out of the windows as the small company marched along, and soon people came out of their houses to see more closely what was happening. Then they began to follow the three into the center of town.  Soon the three reached the Piazza del Duomo, where they stopped; people gathered there keeping a good distance, but staring with eyebrows raised. After many people had come, Francesco, who had dismounted from Brother Donkey, began to speak, more softly than he previously had and the Eugubini leaned in to hear: Good people of Gubbio, Brother Wolf has come following Brother Donkey and me to your city. Speaking now to Brother Wolf, Francesco went on: As I said to you before, Brother Wolf, I can see that you are hungry; I know that you have eaten the sheep, the cattle, the pigs and horses, even some of the children, of these good people of Gubbio.  You cannot keep doing that: these are good people. I know, too, that they are afraid of you and might kill you if they could. Promise me, Brother Wolf, that you will stop killing and eating the livestock and children of the people of Gubbio.  

Again Brother Wolf nodded his head to the right, then placed one of his huge paws over the other, this time laying his enormous chin on his paws, but keeping his eyes fixed on Francesco’s. Francesco spoke now to the People of Gubbio, and said to them: Eugubini! Very Good People of Gubbio, you must promise to feed Brother Wolf because he becomes so hungry that he also becomes angry, and he no longer has the run of the land that his ancients once had. The People in the Piazza nodded their heads, their mouths a little open with shock and fear. 

But they kept their word. Many Eugubini fed Brother Wolf, so often that he became heavy — though still lean in his great jaw — and not so heavy that he did not protect their city and play, running with their dogs. Brother Wolf would go from house to house visiting all who lived in Gubbio, and eating almost everywhere he went — one exception was Signor Guglielmo who still kept his doors firmly shut and locked. On his walks Brother Wolf would continue to howl magnificently, most often and most loudly, near Signor Guglielmo’s door — Signor Guglielmo shook mightily on the inside of his house not knowing, as the other Eugubini knew, how friendly and protective Brother Wolf had become. And the town’s dogs would follow Brother Wolf and howl loudly as well, most loudly near the house of Signor Guglielmo. And, several years later, when Brother Wolf died, mostly fat and very happy, all the Good People of Gubbio gathered in the Piazza del Duomo to weep and mourn their friend. In his memory, they used his skin to make jackets for their children and belts, too, knowing that he would enjoy this honor and knowing, too, that carrying his memory around them would help their children become stronger and brave as they grew together. 

Retired children’s librarian, Alan Bern, is the author of three poetry books and is an exhibited/published photographer. Recent awards include: honorable mention for Littoral Press Poetry Prize (2021); first runner-up for Raw Art Review’s Mirabai Prize for Poetry (2020); medal from SouthWest Writers for a WWII story set in Assisi (2019). Recent/upcoming writing and photo work in Raw Art Review, HAUNTED WATERS PRESS, Aletheia Literary QuarterlyCERASUS, Feral,Please See MeArtemis Journal, and Mercurius. Alan performs with dancer/composer Lucinda Weaver as PACES: dance & poetry fit to the space and with musicians from Composing TogetherLines & Faces, his illustrated broadside press with artist/printer Robert Woods:

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