In other words, a whore — Shelley Puhak’s DETAINED: A Genealogy…

By Shelley Puhak

DETAINED: A Genealogy of Whores and Wolves

Editor’s Note. We’re re-posting this piece from Columbia Journal’s print Issue 54 at her request, and because it’s timely. We hope you enjoy it.


1.

The Buttonhook Men turned her eyelids inside out to check for infection. Pacing the arrivals line, which ran from the docks all the way to the Baggage Room and then up the staircase of the main building at Ellis Island, the Public Health Service doctors hunted for limps, wheezes, weird nail fungi.

Making her way up the stairs on June 28, 1912, into the cavernous Registry Room criss-crossed by arched metal railings and cages, my great-grandmother Elzbeta knew she needed to navigate this maze of iron without being detained. Too late, Elzbeta must have realized she wasn’t dressed for the occasion. She was too easy to spot in the throng — her brightly embroidered red bodice and full black skirts advertising her origins.

The American Consul had advised: “these Slovaks are not a desirable acquisition for us to make, since they appear to have so many items in common with the Chinese[i].” Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the Boston Brahmin precursor to Donald Trump, had railed that Elzbeta’s people were “utterly alien to us, not only ethnically, but in civilization, tradition, and habits of thought[ii].” This was at least more refined than his earlier remarks, which cast Eastern European immigrants as animals: “They live in miserable sheds like beasts; the food they eat is so meager, scant, unwholesome, and revolting that it would nauseate and disgust an American workman… their habits are vicious, their customs are disgusting[iii].” The women from this race of people were the wolves at the gate: they were vaguely Asiatic and not quite white; they were bad housekeepers, worse mothers, and probably whores.

My great-grandmother was exactly the sort of woman various acts of Congress were designed to keep out. Elzbeta had already been showing when, in 1906, she married a much younger man. She was 33; he was 21. In the parish records, the officiating priest wrote an unusual word next to Elzbeta’s name. Most genealogists I consulted were stumped as it wasn’t any of the ordinary terms used in marriage records: unmarried woman, virgin, widow; nor any of the more exotic: divorced, deflowered, pregnant. It took years until one genealogist was able to translate this archaic notation for me: a female of doubtful reputation. In other words, a whore.

Is it any surprise then, that after passing from one iron cage to another, passing from one blue-serge inspector to another, my great-grandmother was detained for further inspection?

 

2.

I was detained by a man one afternoon in the state park. Another hiker, I first thought, given his T-shirt and shorts. Then I noticed his shoes, which weren’t beat-up sneakers, or expensive trail shoes, or even Birkenstocks or flip-flops. I remember them clearly— shiny black leather oxfords— and less clearly I remembered, what was it— a book? a movie?— that started with this same premise. Something wrong with the shoes. This man smiled at me, took a step closer. Why hadn’t I ever taken a self-defense class? Should I spring at him? Slink away?

My off-leash dog was suddenly at my leg.

Aww. What a beautiful dog, the man said. His eyes caught and held mine. Does she bite?

Only if I tell her to, I said, and pulled myself up to my full height.

On cue, my dog growled. She is just a spaniel-lab mix, but drawn up to her full height, teeth bared, hackles up, she managed to look fearsome. And I, of the jelly stomach and rubber spine, felt a bit fearsome too. And the man said Oh, then a smaller oh, and then he took off.

You are such a bad-ass, I cooed, assigning the qualities I wish I possessed to my dog.

After all, my dog was tagged the alpha of her litter. She wasn’t the largest of the ten puppies being fostered by my in-laws’ neighbors, but she grew up to be the scrappiest. She humped male dogs that tried to hump her. She won every neighborhood standoff without a single actual bite, snarling and snapping and whirling until the other dog ran or roll over onto his back.

The first time I saw her take down a groundhog, I was stunned. The cool precision of the deed seemed a ghostly loop of every predator-and-prey slow motion sequence on National Geographic— claws, teeth, throat; a wet rip; shake, shake, done. What was most unsettling was not that she was capable of killing, or incapable of remorse, but that she was so, well, efficient.

Still, once when my dog scuffled with an Irish wolfhound the size of a small pony, my throat clenched shut. Snarling, yelping, the two dogs started a slow tumble down the hill. I raced to keep up, at the bottom running into the other dog’s frantic owner, already apologizing. Then trotting out of the underbrush towards us, my dog with the wolfhound at her heels. She gave a sharp bark, and the other dog sat. The wolfhound’s stunned owner admiringly called our dog an alpha bitch. And, when the two dogs then took off in mutual pursuit of a rabbit, he said: Man, she moves like a wolf.

Of course, watching my dog is nothing like watching a real wolf, a true alpha bitch, in action. I know this because I’ve watched reel upon reel of the most famous she- wolf in the world, 832F. A research wolf from Yellowstone National Park, 832F headed up the Lamar Canyon pack. Also known as the “06 Female” for the year of her birth, she scored the cover of the magazine American Scientist, a National Geographic documentary about her life, and even her own obituary in the The New York Times.

The groundhog weighed 35 pounds and my dog weighs 50; she had the advantage. 832F was famous for going into every hunt as a true underdog: weighing in around 120 pounds, she could take down a full-grown 700-pound male elk. By herself.

One prominent Yellowstone wolf researcher, Rick McIntyre, described her hunting strategy with obvious admiration: “Normally, wolves want the elk or the deer to run away from them, but what she preferred would be to have a standoff with an elk where it was face-to-face direct combat to the death….She’d run directly at the elk, jump as high as she could in the air, turn her jaws to the side and grab the throat…I just never got tired of watching her in action.”[iv]

832F seemed the stuff of legend. No one had ever seen such daring in a she-wolf before, but then again, no one had seen wild wolves up close before either. Wolves were eradicated from Yellowstone in 1926, hunted to extinction, and reintroduced only in 1995. Tagging these wild wolves with radio or GPS collars and tracking their movements showed biologists that everything we think we know about wolves, and by extension our own dogs, is wrong.

 

3.

In the foothills of the Carpathians in the village where my great-grandmother Elzbeta was born, fifteen people, all women and children, all children who played with Elzbeta’s grandchildren, were detained on the orders of a man who insisted he was an alpha wolf.

The idea of the alpha wolf is a recent one, based on the work of a single animal behaviorist named Rudolph Schenkel, who studied captive wolves in Switzerland’s Basel Zoo in the 1930s. Although Schenkel was not a Nazi, his findings so closely mirror Hitler’s ideas of social hierarchy — the master race of the alphas, the clear-cut gender roles— that it is difficult to imagine Schenkel was not influenced by Herr Wolf ruling the nation next door.

Hitler, after all, was enamored with wolves. He was pleased that his first name derived from the Old High German Athalwolf, or noble wolf, and asked his sister to live under the pseudonym of Frau Wolf. He even demanded his lovers call him Wolf in bed. Hitler’s wolf-worship extended to the names he chose for his headquarters: in France Wolfsschluct (Wolf’s Gulch), in Prussia Wolfsschanze (Wolf’s Lair), and in the Carpathian Mountains, the birthplace of the modern-day gray wolf, Werwolf.

Hitler even called his beloved all-male S.S. his pack of wolves and saw himself as their leader. Hitler, like modern day dog trainers and pick up artists, was terribly misinformed. Among actual wolves, the females are usually the specialist hunters. So are the pack alphas.

 

 

4.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service flew 832F’s grandmother, 42F, across the Canadian border in a metal shipping box. The pup had been captured via a tranquilizer dart from a helicopter. While unconscious, she was examined, tested, vaccinated, wormed, ear-tagged, and radio-collared.

Once in Yellowstone, 42F was detained in her little metal box by a court injunction. The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone was being vigorously opposed by many ranchers and communities that saw the wolf as an agent of change. Wolves born on the other side of the Canadian border were said to be bigger, more voracious, more likely to harbor diseases. One protester’s sign: a photo of a wolf, mid-snarl, captioned Thank you, U.S.F.W.S. / Non-Native Canadian Wolves.[v]

One Op-Ed in a local paper:

“Let’s bus all those poor, homeless, immigrant children to Washington, D.C., directly to the White House and dump them all off… Then, let’s trap all those poor, homeless, immigrant, Canadian wolves and ship them back East so they can prey on their cattle, horses, sheep, deer and, of course, the poodles.[vi]

One message left on the nonprofit Wolf Fund’s answering machine:

“Yeah, as far as I’m concerned you can just fuck all them wolves…Kill every last one of the bitches. Fuck ‘em all…The guys that gets this fucking message can shove it up his ass. If its a bitch she can suck my dick, all fucking eight inches of it, down her fucking throat.[vii]

Despite this opposition, 42F was released first into a larger acclimation cage, to keep her from bolting for home, and then eventually into the park proper. Her pups would be among the first Canadian wolves born on US soil, the anchor babies.

 

5.

Also in the village where Elzbeta was born, among the ribs of a ruined house and the splayed legs of an old chicken coop— archeologists found Iron Age finger bones encircled by the intricate spiral of a golden ring.

This ring belonged to an Iron Age wolf-priestess. Her people were called the Dacians, a name some historians claim originated from the Phrygian Daos for wolf, as their tribal standard was a wolf head. The warriors this priestess blessed were tall, bearded, heavily tattooed, and usually high on psychedelic mushrooms, which may explain their fearsome reputation in battle. When the Dacians were not at war, they tended sheep. They wore wolf pelts and used their magic mushrooms to try to transform into what they most feared— wolves.

Most patriarchal peoples have similarly feared women, and so conflated female sexuality with the wolf— the smell, the shamelessness. The Dacians’ conquerors, the Romans, were no different— the Latin for she-wolf, lupa, even served as slang for whore. On the cobblestones of ancient Rome, dirty and itinerant streetwalkers, the lupae, serviced their clients in alleys and gave blowjobs in graveyards. This lower tier of prostitutes may even have howled to attract customers. Or at least, that’s one theory advanced to explain the link between the wolf and the whore in the Roman Empire.

Rome itself may have been founded on the kindness of a whore. The legend of Rome’s founding is retold through the bronze Capitoline Wolf statue in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. A fierce she-wolf suckles Romulus and Remus, ears cocked, eyes narrowed. Legend has it that a female wolf rescued the abandoned twins and nursed them until a shepherd found them. But this she-wolf may simply have been a woman of ill repute. Quintus Ennis, Livy, and Plutarch all asserted that the double meaning of lupa is what gave rise to the legend. Perhaps the shepherd’s wife was not a wolf, but a common whore.

 

6.

You’ve heard it, the long whip-woo —a wolf-whistle.

The perpetrator is usually not alone, but showing off for his friends. His pack. Usually it is some boys in an older brother’s car on a spring night, itching to go somewhere, but it is grown men with convertibles and bald spots too.

What is worse is what comes after, when you ignore their whistle, which infuriates them even more. Cant you take a compliment, bitch? Or more aggressively, more inexplicably: Slut! Whore!

My usual response is eyes down, shoulders sloped, slinking away.

But once I calculated that if I threw myself up onto the hood of the Jeep and started screaming, a crowd would gather, and it did. I was on the hood howling Im pregnant! (I wasn’t yet pregnant) and also These boys followed me, these boys threatened me, these boys tried to run me over! (yes on the first two counts, but the latter was pure fiction). Someone started shouting and someone else took down the license plate. Someone else said we should call their parents, and another someone said no, the police. The boys couldn’t drive away now. They were detained. I was pounding on the hood with my fists, then pounding on the windshield with my flat palms, and I saw the confusion and then, in the driver’s eyes, the tears. I had turned and begged them earlier, leave me alone, please go away, and they had laughed at me, called out suck my dick! and dumb whore! but now it was the teenaged driver begging me, just let us go home, please.

 

7.

As Christianity ascended, the lupae were one more symbol of Rome’s decadence, ready to infect unsuspecting citizens. After all, the symptoms of rabies overlapped with those of venereal diseases, also conveyed through a savage kiss.

By the Middle Ages, the wolf became both a symbol of and slur for ambitious women, queens and courtesans alike. In Canto I of The Inferno, Dante uses the she-wolf to represent sins of the flesh like lust and adultery. Marriage manuals of the period consoled rejected suitors that some women, rabid with lust, “have the instinct of she- wolves in choosing a mate, since they are said to choose the vilest and most foul-smelling of the males that follow after them[viii].”

But wolves are actually serial monogamists, and therefore quite shrewd in their mate selection. While she may have dalliances with more than one male, the she-wolf’s preference is to find a partner for life, one selected for his parenting potential.

A she-wolf is fertile for only one week out of each year. What we mistake for voraciousness is really limited opportunity. Wolf-watchers may snicker when they sight wolves fucking multiple times a day during breeding season, but really, if you had only a week or so to squeeze in all the sex you were going to have that year, you’d probably go at it all day too.

Besides, all sex occurs at the she-wolf’s insistence. An unwilling female will growl, snap, bite, and run, and the only means to subdue her—teeth and claws— could potentially kill her, and thus doom the entire pack.

In fact, wild wolves may love more loyally, and lie with one another more tenderly, than most human couples. During the window when the she-wolf is fertile, she and her mate set off on a journey that it is tempting to anthropomorphize into a honeymoon. The pair touch constantly: mouthing muzzles, grooming one another, walking pressed together. Even after sex, the pair stays close, nuzzling one another and sleeping curled together.

 

8.

Was she pregnant with his child, or someone else’s? Was she thinking strategically, or sentimentally? Why would my great-grandmother Elzbeta pick an inexperienced mate twelve years her junior?

I can’t know how tender they were with one another, or if they ever talked about the notation on their wedding certificate, and if, drunk or discouraged, he ever called her a whore too. But when Maria, the daughter born very shortly after the wedding, died in the measles epidemic, Elzbeta’s husband fled to Yonkers, New York, and she agreed to follow him.

That June day in 1912, despite being unable to read or sign her own name, despite having only $38 on her person, despite her overly-big bosom and her bright clothes, despite the black X now scrawled next to her name on the ship’s manifest, Elzbeta managed to convince one of the inspectors that she was a respectable 38-year-old housewife.

The guards holding Elzbeta in temporary detention telegraphed her husband to come fetch her. Elzbeta was taken downstairs to wait on a bench behind an iron grate. At the end, an officer at a desk and a railing, against which waiting relatives pressed. When Elzbeta’s husband filed past the officer to account for himself, the latch on the gate was lifted and Elzbeta was released into the space designated for reunions, an aisle playfully termed Kissing Lane.

Her young husband brought Elzbeta to a tenement in the section of Yonkers called the Hollow, to live among a throng of other immigrants in the lint of a carpet factory, then the felt scraps of a hat factory. Until our family’s anchor baby, my grandfather, was born.

 

9.

Researchers took to calling the silver-grey 832F “the Angelina Jolie of wolves… drop-dead gorgeous[ix].” After she dispersed from her pack, 832F was courted by, and cavorted with, five older, more established males. She rejected all of them.

After a period as a lone wolf, 832F set her sights on a pair of yearling brothers. She was more than twice their age, and when she found herself pregnant by possibly both of them,[x] she was stuck with immature providers more interested in playing than hunting. Biologists were puzzled by her choice: “To us it really didn’t make sense because she had to do the lion’s share of work to make sure that her pups were going to survive[xi].”

As confused as they were, scientists and wolf-watchers could only crow over 832F maternal instincts— she was not just fierce, she was strategic. Once, she spent twelve hours luring a grizzly bear away from her pups, moving in to nip the bear and then sprinting away from her den, over and over[xii]. Another time, still recovering from giving birth, 832F was completely vulnerable when a rival pack attacked. Biologist Rick McIntyre describes how 832F limped away from her den, chased by 16 wolves. She was headed straight up a cliff, without any avenue of escape, and he recounts how, “watching this, I was resigned to the fact that I was going to see her torn apart[xiii].” But then 832F disappeared.

The rival pack stopped, confused. 832F reappeared at the base of the steep cliff, unharmed. It turned out that there was a secret gully down the face of the cliff, that once again, what had passed for panic was actually a tactic.

 

10.

Elzbeta was 41 when she found herself unexpectedly, improbably, pregnant. So she quit the factory, became a washerwoman, and started saving— coin after coin in a mason jar set out on the counter.

Senator Cabot Lodge had complained that her people “do not come here with the intention of becoming citizens; [their] purpose being to accumulate by parsimonious, rigid, and unhealthy economy a sum of money and then return to their native land….They have not the influences, as we understand them, of a home; they do not know what the word means; and, in the opinion of the committee, no amount of effort would improve their morals or ‘Americanize’ this class of immigrants[xiv].”

And he was partly right. A decade after her arrival, she was still illiterate, still unable to speak English. Her husband never filed his first papers.

Whore is descended from the Proto-Germanic horaz, meaning one who desires. What did Elzbeta desire? She had no desire to become an American. She desired to go home, and she seemed to know exactly what the word entailed. Elzbeta was able to save enough so when the family did migrate back home, they bought the biggest orchard and built the biggest house in the village.

Elzbeta’s beloved son, my grandfather, became the village mayor. Whenever he went drinking at the local tavern, he was the top dog, occupying the seat of honor that had once been reserved for the village priest, usurping the man who had called his mother a whore.

 

11.

It turns out that wolves are more egalitarian than our own dogs. Alpha rank is derived not from shows of dominance, but rather by virtue of being the parent, and usually, the mother. The parents discipline the children; the older siblings boss around younger ones. Wolves are not constantly jockeying for social position. In the wild, younger wolves do not try to overthrow their parents because they have no desire to mate with them; when they get old enough, they disperse from the pack to find a mate and form their own family.

At one point wolves were, like humans today, an invasive species at the very top of the food chain, stretching over almost every continent and climate zone. But wolves are said to be an indicator species, meaning they are exquisitely sensitive to any shift in their habitat. Unlike their cousins, the domesticated dog, wolves do not adapt well to human encroachment.

But if everything else we think we know about wolves is skewed, maybe this idea is too. Perhaps it is humans who do not adapt well when encroaching upon wolves.

Months after wolves were delisted as an Endangered Species, during the first season it was legal to hunt in the borderlands surrounding Yellowstone National Park, some hunters began honing in on the telemetry frequencies of the research wolves’ radio collars, luring them out of the park with carcasses.

832F avoided humans, but she had no reason to fear us. She rarely left the park, but she did so that winter presumably to look for her mate’s brother, another collared wolf who had been shot two weeks earlier.

832F was killed on December 6, 2012, fifteen miles outside of the park by a hunter who had waited in the woods for 20 consecutive days for the most celebrated alpha wolf in the world to cross the border between protected park and open season.

Following the public outcry over her death, a ban on hunting in the borderlands of Yellowstone was instituted. But the buffer zone around the park was lifted in January 2013 and the wolf hunt continues.

Today, the Roman lupa lives on in lives on in loba, used as slang for sexy in some Spanish-speaking countries, and the more refined Italian lupa and French louve, respectable enough to grace restaurants and gardens. Today, the black forests of the Carpathian Mountains are one of the she-wolf’s last refuges where, mingling with the soil she trods, feeding the roots of the birch and the spruce that shelter her— the remains of our priestesses, our grandmothers.

Is it any surprise, then, that after being told time and time again that I don’t belong (in this seminar room, in this meeting, in this public park, in this parking lot, in this country) I have detained my great-grandmother for further inspection?

12.

The Roman’s first description of lycanthropes, of wistful shapeshifters, insinuates they should be pitied instead of feared, these nut jobs who “mimic the ways of the wolves[xv].” The Romans first undermined the Iron Age wolf-warriors that roamed Elzbeta’s village by making them into whores, and then by making them into psychiatric patients.

Likewise, I don’t know if those boys in the parking lot ever intended any harm, and if they were frightened of me in the way I wanted them to be, or if they thought I was just nuts.

I don’t know if that man in the woods was hunting me. Maybe his shoes were wrong because he hiked on his lunch break, and had forgotten his sneakers at home that day. Maybe he dashed off just because I was a crazy lady with a crazy dog.

I still don’t know what I, or my dog, would have been capable of if he had attacked. Like Elzbeta, I have been called a whore. Like Elzbeta, I have one beloved son and I am certain that I would kill for him, but I’ve no idea if I’d be any good at doing so.

The only other time I’ve had the courage to make a scene was the summer of ’06, the same season of 832F’s birth. I was still in my bloodied gown with the IV portal taped over, sucking down a cigarette someone had found and sobbing with two friends out front of the hospital. The man approached and he had a swagger and a schtick, he was trying to hustle us, maybe grab my friend’s purse, he was standing too close and he just needed a quarter for the bus, he could use something to eat, and when I turned my back, he cursed me: fuck you, you stupid whore.

I wheeled on him, I was snarling, I was snapping, I was keening: how dare you, how fucking dare you? And when he went blank, I couldn’t stop: Ill fucking kill you. Ill rip you apart.

For the first time I can remember, I can’t remember. I wasn’t thinking; I was going for his throat. We locked eyes, the world stopped spinning, and then he fled too.

 

*

I am here by virtue of some man’s good graces— the benevolence of a village priest, a man hiking in dress shoes, a boy in his daddy’s Jeep, an Ellis Island inspector, a too-young husband with a back ready to be broken in the factories. But what can a whore know of virtue?

832F survived attacks by bears, elk, and rival wolf packs; she lived to have three litters and raise thirteen pups to one year of age, a success rate unheard of in the wild. Yet the most famous and successful alpha wolf in the world could not survive one trophy hunter with an $18 license.

Elzbeta survived Hitler, the wanna-be wolf, but she could not survive the next dictator, Stalin, the son of a whore who doodled wolves in the margins of official documents.

Elzbeta saw her beloved son and seven grandchildren off to safety in 1947. After that, I don’t know if Elzbeta was detained along with her neighbors, if she was shot on the spot, or if she was allowed to slink off to die alone in the forests.

All I can know: that she was 5’3” tall and had black hair and brown eyes; that she was tagged whore, #30, factory worker, washerwoman, housewife, mayors mother, and then fate unknown.


[i] Consul Sterne qtd in Henry Cabot Lodge in “The Restriction of Immigration,” The North American Review 152 (January 1891): 29

[ii] Henry Cabot Lodge, Address delivered before a joint convention of the Senate and House of representatives of the General court of Massachusetts (February 1909): 467

[iii] Lodge “The Restriction of Immigration”: 33-34

[iv] qtd in NPR’s “06 Female” segment on Snap Judgement (23 May 2014)

[v] image included in Farrell’s The Battle for Yellowstone 180

[vi] “Letter to the Editor: Send Wolves, Homeless, Immigrants to East Coast” Twin Falls Times-News (27 August 2014). Web. MagicValley.com

[vii] recounted in Farrell’s The Battle for Yellowstone 176

[viii] Juan Luis Vives’ The Education of a Christian Woman (1524).

[ix] Rick McIntyre qtd in NPR’s “06 Female”

[x] Mentioned by Jeff Hull in “Out of Bounds: The Death of 832F, Yellowstone’s Most Famous Wolf” Outside (13 February 2013).

[xi] Rick McIntyre qtd in NPR’s “06 Female”

[xii] ibid

[xiii] ibid

[xiv] Lodge “The Restriction of Immigration”: 33-34

[xv] qtd by Aëtius VI.11


Shelley Puhak is a poet and essayist from Baltimore. She is the author of two collections of poems, the more recent of which is Guinevere in Baltimore (Waywiser 2013). Her essays have appeared in Black Warrior Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, and Salon.

One thought on “In other words, a whore — Shelley Puhak’s DETAINED: A Genealogy…”

  1. Pingback: Wolves, Whores, Trump & Immigration | Kelly McQuain
  2. Trackback: Wolves, Whores, Trump & Immigration | Kelly McQuain

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *