Call something a fable, and we tend to settle into the mind-set of ancient Greece, or if we're feeling especially contemporary, of fireside legends told deep within the tepees of American Indians.

So Marlais Olmstead Brand's fables create a time warp. They are fables of sorts, their moralizing nowhere near as plain-spoken as Aesop's, but their form speaking to a style of storytelling that is its own. The fables often open with a single, and singularly intriguing, sentence. It's set apart, but meant to be kept in mind.

"She was alive because she was hungry."

"There was a boy who cried like a wolf because he was a wolf."

"Not so many years ago, a girl saw a ghost."

These are tales rooted in northern Minnesota, yet most are not in its past, but in its now.

People in Grand Marais buy clothes at Joynes Ben Franklin and treat themselves at World's Best Donuts. Tourists plant tent poles at the Split Rock Lighthouse campground. A woman has a terrible accident in the Silver Creek tunnel north of Two Harbors.

Brand, a Lakeville writer and wilderness educator with her first collection of short stories, is clearly influenced by her research into Ojibwe and Norwegian and female histories along the North Shore. Yet the resulting fables have a disconcerting topicality. We can't read them with a sense of distance, absorbing a fable's usual moralizing with a knowing, if noncommittal, nod.

Instead, Brand makes her characters' choices feel like choices we may have to confront tomorrow, or next week or next month. The world turns on a dime with car accidents, family dysfunctions and pregnancies ever possible. Their lessons loom.

She is at her best in the fable of Louis Garoux, a baby who from his first breath is different, who struggles in school, drives his parents to distraction, who is brilliant and bizarre. Louis is, somehow, a wolf — no spoilers here; that's the first sentence — yet the metaphor will resonate with parents who may, in some ways, wish their domestic explanation could be so simple.

Brand steps apart from the fable form in one respect: Moralizing is minimal, even nonexistent. These are fables where the lessons are left for readers to discern. The moral challenge, in fact, may be in applying any insights to our lives, right now.

Kim Ode is a features writer at the Star Tribune.