for Miwa Yanagi
Wolfness. In my sleep sometimes I still smell the stomach of the wolf: sour with bile, my sweat and Grandmother’s, the acrid funk of our terror. After a time (though time had no meaning in the dark) the smell had invaded my mind and I was no longer aware of it.
The wolf swallowed Grandmother, and she laid shivering for the hour it took before the wolf swallowed me, claws snagging my clothes, pink mouth fading to black, the pressure of teeth, the wolf’s tongue sliding over my face and my body so that I felt hot with shame even in the middle of my terror. The throat was a horrible embrace, and then Grandmother’s feet smacked me in the face. I screamed. She moved out of my way as best she could, and when the heaving stopped, she put her arms around me.
I was too shocked to say anything, my mind emptied by the nightmare that I had been eaten, but here was Grandmother waiting for me, just as I had expected all morning as I skipped through the woods.
“God save us,” Grandmother whispered. “God save us,” over and over.
Our clothes dissolved away, our skin burned, and I was too angry to pray. Clearly no god was going to save us. In the liquid dark we whispered, keened, put hope down like a sick dog (we did not make this dog sick, oh no, he kept us in nobly, belched in satisfaction).
“Sorry, child, sorry,” Grandmother said. “I could not see him, only the darkness of his mouth, and I thought Death had come for me.”
“You idiot,” I said, in the wet, reeking cave where manners meant nothing. “Death did come for you. And he brought me along with you.”
Grandmother tried to comfort me, but she was old. She had borne seven children and buried two husbands. I was a girl who’d never even been kissed behind a tree, too dumb to stay on the path, too easily distracted by springtime in the woods. The muffins in the basket got cold. Grandmother got eaten up. I got caught up in whimsy, and it devoured me.
The hot juices of the wolf’s stomach tingled.
“Such alabaster skin,” townsfolk said later, “so fine.”
Every scar, every freckle eaten away. Grandmother emerged looking more like my sister and will bury more husbands yet. But we were not digested, only polished. Only imperfections melted.
Boredom arrived for a long visit. We no longer shit ourselves in terror, no longer felt our hunger. It was constant discomfort, tangled up with Grandmother, with no room to stretch or move, the sting of acid always nagging at us. We whispered at one another. We wrapped around one another like twins. We slept. Always we. We fought until the wolf moved and frightened us.
The dark lurched; the dark sloshed. The dark swung back and forth while Grandmother cried for God to save her and I choked on bile that splashed up into my nose. If we were finally to die, about damn time. It felt like years of nothing that we’d been trapped, ages of fright, eons of Grandmother weeping.
The dark shuddered. The dark sank and pressed against us—me on the bottom, Grandmother lying on top of me—both of us weighted down like unwanted puppies in a bag, all the air forced from us. Grandmother’s mouth knocked my forehead, and the little scar left by her tooth, just over my left eye, was the only blemish left on my body after the wolf. We were crushed and trapped and sinking into the greater black that sucks away even the light of thought.
There was a convulsion, a push. The darkness rolled, and then I was on top, my lungs hot with the need for air as I wriggled in desperation. We lay unbreathing in the dark.
Pressure by my ear: Grandmother convulsed, scrabbled at me. A blade pierced the world between our faces, and we rolled apart as it sliced toward our feet, then back together as light rushed in over us, and air. The light was pain and the air cold, and Grandmother and I clutched one another, breathed as one, cried out. I looked out through trickles of red at a bearded face that stared down at us.
The man bent down to pull us out, from that second womb, from that enormous wound. Covered in blood and wailing, our new skin puckered from damp. We stood on new/tender feet and stared down into our pocket home. The sky could not fascinate us like all that red.
We walked back to our previous life, wincing on the path: the little breeze too biting, the smooth pebbles too sharp, the noon sun too bright. Mother waited for us, ruined her dress with embraces that made us whimper—too soon to be crushed again, her hands rough. She hauled tub after tub of water to get us clean, then wept to find herself looking older than her own mother, to see our skin gone white, all family resemblance gone.
Within a month she would drive us out, back to Grandmother’s house in the woods. She hated to look at us. Hated her own face next to ours. Hated the way we lay together on the bed and whispered to one another.
“What do you hide from me?” she shrieked one afternoon.
“Nothing,” I said. And it was true. We whispered because the quiet was comfort.
“The porridge smells very fine today,” Grandmother would say, or we would try to name the birds singing. Never secrets, but Mother would rather noise and movement, so she sent us back to the woods, her mother and her daughter, each with a basket and a cape with a hood.
Halfway to Grandmother’s house, the woodsman’s cottage. And when we stopped to look, we both saw what we wanted.
The woodsman stood bare-chested, black-haired, brown-skinned, gleaming with sweat as he swung his axe. Grandmother stared, and her mouth drew back in a smile that made her teeth seem to grow.
Next to him, the wolf pelt was nailed to the cottage wall. Splayed out, grey furred, as tall as the woodsman, held taut. Deep in my belly, desire fluttered, and I could feel the consuming grin on my own face. My fingers twitched. Grandmother grabbed my hand and squeezed hard. We stood rooted, longing, each with her eyes devouring the object of desire.
What big eyes we had. The woodsman at last noticed us. Grandmother squeezed my hand again. From the corner of my eye I saw her grin pull even wider.
My but he could stare. Stare at the two of us as if we were twin ghosts bleached in the sunlight.
“Ma’am, miss,” he said nodding.
Grandmother tugged at me; I could smell her annoyance to still be known as older. I was flattered that he bothered to tell us apart. Even Mother had taken to calling us “those wolf girls.”
I wanted to be the girl inside that pelt again. It had been a monstrous beast. Surely an experiment or spell gone wrong or some blowback to an ancestor dire wolf, the fur grey as storm clouds shading toward black at the edges. Had he tanned it well, our mid-husband? Would the fur be silky soft or stiff and falling off like mange?
“We’re going back to my house in the woods,” Grandmother said. “Now that you’ve made it safe.”
The woodsman blushed. Then Grandmother knew—and I knew—that her hunt was successful. He did not learn of it for a long time. He looked like a strong, taciturn man, but he was already bleating prey. Grandmother pulled me down the path, her hips now swaying under his gaze at the edge of the clearing. I turned back.
“What will you do with the pelt?” I asked. I was not able to keep the tension out of my voice, the catch from my breath.
His eyebrows arched upward, and he glanced at my lovely prize as if he had forgotten it existed.
“Why, I hardly know.”
Cold cramps gripped my belly as if I were filled with stones, and Grandmother dragged me away.
We set up housekeeping in the woods, such as it was. Most days we lay on the bed together, whispering, often without any clothes under the covers, making another dark womb for ourselves. We lay this way in the dark, and I could not have told you whether it was morning or night. Time bled together underneath the quilts—the quilts Grandmother had made in her life before—damp with our own and one another’s sweat, tangled limbs, her whisper and mine nearly identical.
“Here we are in the dark.”
“I like the dark.”
“It’s a good kind of dark. Not so smelly.”
“Nice and still.”
Dozy and cozy, I thought. We got up when we were hungry or when we had to pee. We would blink at the light, eyes squinched shut, or stretch and shiver in the night.
And then there was a knock at the door, but not the timid rat-a-tat of Mother leaving food and running away. Fist to door, someone waiting.
We climbed up out of the bed, scowled at the bright window, dragged shapeless old dresses over ourselves. The door boomed at us. Grandmother smoothed down her hair, and I copied her.
In the hideous bright of the doorway stood a great shadow. He blocked the sun. Grandmother angled into the shadow and squinted up. Her face stretched outward in that predator smile, and her expression saved me from having to look further into the bright day. The woodsman had come calling to make a meal of himself.
“Summer’s nearly over,” he said, and his voice creaked like an old tree, as if he seldom used it. “I brought you a load of wood.”
Grandmother stepped back to let him in, and as he entered she sidled into the shaft of sunlight, so that when he turned back the silhouette of her body showed through the ragged dress. The glow of her was reflected in his eyes.
“What will be my prey?” I wondered, a little wistful. Hoping this would not be the end of our sleeping, infant days. It seemed like too much, to grow up to responsibility twice in one lifetime.
“Would you like tea?” Grandmother asked, and in her voice tea meant blood, sex, night.
I heated the water, steeped the leaves, filled three mismatched mugs while Grandmother and the woodsman sat and stared at one another with matching hunger.
“Honey?” I asked as I set his down, standing too close and letting my hair brush over him, just to be perverse. He turned to me slowly, and it was seconds before his eyes focused on me. He blinked twice, frowned a little. Put his hand on the mug, started, stared at it.
“No,” he said, and his eyes turned to Grandmother again. She had gone rigid but now melted, looking almost boneless in her hard chair, grinning with delight. I retreated to the hearth and grumbled into my tea. There were only two chairs in the house. One bed.
“You’re quiet,” he said after a long while, after my tea was finished. And theirs had gone cold.
“You like that,” Grandmother answered.
They sat. I laid my chest down on top of my knees and contemplated the cracks in the floorboards. It was too cold to doze out of time. Too bright. The woodsman stood up and went to the door, turning back to make sure Grandmother would follow. He went out and stacked the would where she pointed, under the eaves by the door, and we watched him. I crossed my arms over my chest. She crossed hers under her breasts and pushed them high. Her nipples distended the thin fabric of her dress.
As she intended, he looked at her. He paused, and his face grew very red. I stepped back—this was not my game. But even as I thought sourly of my ruined days and nights, I could laugh at how he stacked more slowly, his eyes unable to keep from those breasts pointed right at him. It was a wolf laugh, all teeth and silence.
Then the cart was empty, and the woodsman stood in the yard, looking uncomfortable to feel so uncomfortable. He had been the taciturn hero, unflappable until this moment. Grandmother said later that she was almost disappointed to have it be so easy.
He stood and stared, until I shifted with impatience. He blinked at me as if he had forgotten I was there. Then he turned to the cart, and when he turned back every resentment and irritation fell away because his arms were full of grey fur, and he gave it to me.
Did she kiss him then or later? My arms were warm, my face buried in dark softness, and through the tanning smells of piss and smoke I could smell the wolf. That night I laid the wolf skin over our quilts, but I missed it.
Things changed again: not another birth, but a turn of the season. Season of pelts and prey. Early in the morning, Grandmother pinched me awake. The first day we scrubbed away the film of dust that laid over everything. The second day Mother scrabbled at the door while we were scouring pans. She jumped when the door opened, backed away several paces, then ran.
“Idiot girl,” Grandmother said. In the wolf womb she had been a querulous and fearful as in her first life. She said the axe had cut her fear from her. “I died like a rabbit and came back with teeth,” she said.
Rabbits have teeth, I thought but did not say.
Mother’s tied-up cloth was filled with more of the same—buns, a seedcake. We ate all of it but remained famished, as always. It was only when I lay in the bed whispering that I did not feel hungry, was not gripped and twisted by hunger.
The woodsman came that afternoon with another cart of wood and a rabbit. He sat at the table and watched Grandmother split the carcass, stared at her when she bent over to hang the spit in the fireplace. I turned the crank, slowly, listening to the sizzle of it. The smell made me forget even my wolf skin, and my mouth was full of waiting. Even Grandmother stared at the rabbit and not at her other meat.
We poured out cider for him from a long-ago pressing, water for ourselves. The rabbit sat and cooled for an agony until we could pull it to pieces. My share went into a soup bowl—there were only two plates. I sat on the hearth with my back against the warm bricks, my wolf skin over my feet, and ate with my hands. The meat filled my mouth, and it was like my stomach reached up to snatch it. Mother’s stupid buns would never pass my lips again. Oh little bunny, I sang to it in silent wolf-talk. So good, so good.
The woodsman left late. Grandmother saw him to the door and stood with her hands on her hips, cackling softly. Then she turned to me.
“It was a nice little taste of meat,” she said. “Of course, I’ll have a bigger taste soon.”
“He’ll fill you up,” I said, knowing what she wanted to hear.
“Cunt and mouth, he will,” she said, nodding. “Cunt and mouth.” She rubbed her hands together.
For a person, she was quiet, but for a wolf she was loud. We two had come from the wolf womb like twins, but I remembered the miller’s twins—a fair-haired boy and a dark one. The fair boy loved the grist wheel and the light shifting through flour dust. He laughed often and spoke to everyone, and when he got the chandler’s daughter pregnant at sixteen and married her, more than a few girls had cried. His brother apprenticed to the curate and later opened a school. He kept to himself, only laughing in the presence of his brother.
Grandmother and I looked almost alike enough to be curse-twins, the ones just the same, as if God made two copies of one person. She was maybe a little taller, a little more ripe-figured than I. But her prey was not mine. Her voice was not mine. She went into the womb twice a widow, seven times a mother, and she cared about the world. She came out still caring. I went in clinging terrified to the last scraps of girlhood and came out changed. If the axe chopped away my grandmother’s fear, then the juices of the wolf’s stomach ate away my charm, my manners, my duty. I carried the wolf skin everywhere, tried to always be in contact with it.
I rolled up in the skin that night, lay on the floor, and let Grandmother have the bed. She did not complain.
The cottage was clean, top to bottom. We pulled out every rag in the house. The day was cold; we made a fire from our stack of wood. Grandmother picked apart her shapeless old housedresses and started putting them back together to be tighter, more low cut.
“Not too daring, not for a modest woman,” she said, laughing.
In the middle of the pile I found a red flannel nightgown. Grandmother had once made a red hood for me, to contrast my dark hair and make my skin glow. I had liked it, had liked to pull it forward over my face and look out at the world through the red tunnel.
The red hood had been eaten away in the wolf’s belly, along with the pigment in my skin. When Grandmother and I were reborn, the inside of the wolf skin had been red. I spread the skin on the floor, the nightgown on top, and lay on it.
Grandmother looked at me for a long while.
“I’ll cut it for you,” she said, “and show you how to stitch it.”
She was a wolf-person and not a person-wolf, but she understood.
She cut the flannel for me, and when the woodsman came, we were both sewing and silent. He had brought a fish, which he cooked in a pan by the fire. When it was done, I yielded my chair. The hearth was more comfortable anyway.
We ate, and the meat filled me up. It was not as strong as the rabbit, but still it made my teeth feel sharper.
In the silence after dinner I asked, “How do you set a snare?” My voice was low and rough. The woodsman nodded.
“I’ll come back tomorrow, show you,” he said. Grandmother radiated approval.
Just before sunset the next day he knocked again, a string of four little fish in one hand and the other holding a large handkerchief wrapped around a bundle of cress. I had nearly finished sewing the red flannel to my wolf-skin, but I left it behind. We tramped into the woods, and he showed me how to find the little trails of rabbit and mink, the larger trails of fox, badger, deer. He showed me how to make a loop of sinew rope, staked down and held open by the flimsiest branches in a leafy patch over the trail. Then we went on, further toward his house, and there was a rabbit, caught by the neck. It sat quietly, shivering a little. The woodsman looked at me. I shrugged. There was a flutter deep in my belly—I wanted to dance from foot to foot, or to pee, and my heartbeat quickened to think of it. I knew he wouldn’t swallow it whole, as the wolf had done to me. How would it be done, the taking of this prey?
He lifted a sturdy stick and bashed it in the head. The rabbit fell, twitched, laid still. I breathed hard, but it was a disappointing thing, so quickly done, from so far away.
“This is easier than breaking the neck,” the woodsman said. “But louder.”
“Will you show me the other?” I asked, my fingers itching to feel it: fur, snap, still.
He took the rabbit out of the loop.
“You take it away from the trail,” he said. “If you skin it here no other ones will use the same path.”
I filed that away. The wolf had led me well off the path, out behind Grandmother’s house, before it consumed me. How many travelers down the path through the woods had strayed, had sat for a month in those stinging juices and been digested away? There are travelers still. Walking the forest path like deer.
“Or you can hang it,” the woodsman said. “Bleed it, hang it for some days, and the meat gets softer, more sweet.”
More filing away. I had cleaned chickens before, in my previous life, shrieking and cringing the whole time. No more. He dressed the rabbit, rolled up its skin, and later my body trembled around the meat just like the rabbit had trembled in the snare.
The next morning, there was a rabbit in my snare. I hadn’t waited for the woodsman—my eyes opened before dawn, and I snuck out, wrapped in my wolf skin. The rabbit was lately caught, still struggling. It screamed as I approached. A rabbit’s cry is piercing and very like a human voice. The sound smacked at me: I stopped and the echo of it crawled in the pit of my stomach, hot and eager.
I tried to break the rabbit’s neck while it struggled. For long minutes I pulled and jerked, soft skin bucking under my hands while the rabbit wriggled and screamed. Its strong legs raked lines in my thighs, tore my dress, knocked dirt all over me. At first I was eager, joyful to feel the neck under my hands, but this soured to frustration, to panic, to rage.
Finally, I hit it with a branch. The rabbit flopped over and bled from the mouth but still breathed. I hit it four times, until its head was a mess. The snare was shredded, and the rabbit trail was demolished and spattered with blood. Ruined.
I stomped back into our clearing holding the carcass by its feet, having dripped a long trail all the way back. My legs hurt. I hadn’t known a rabbit could have so much blood in it.
Grandmother was standing in the doorway, watching the woodsman pile more logs onto our stack. She saw me and laughed, a cackle that rose into a bellow that filled the yard, startled birds. The woodsman straightened, stared, then came to me and took the rabbit.
“Hunting takes practice, girl,” he said. “You’ll learn.”
I loved him a little, in that minute. And hated her.
The rabbit was tough, after all that struggle. By dinnertime the scrapes on my legs were red and puffy, and Grandmother didn’t mock me further. I nodded over my bowl, worn out by frustration and pain, so she cleaned the dishes while the woodsman smoked his pipe and stared at her. She made a poultice for my legs. Later that night, when we were alone, we again lay together under the covers, and Grandmother whispered to me.
“It was a good thing you did, child. You went after your prey. I may laugh, but I’m proud. The first one is always the hardest. You’ll become the wolf you want to be.”
I slept. I dreamed. For days I dreamed, as it turned out, as my legs swelled up and fever set in. I must have looked at them once, because I remember how my thighs looked like tight red sausages, with four yellow and crimson lines running across the top of each.
Grandmother’s words were like a prophecy in my dream. Over and again I became the wolf I wanted to be. I ran low to the ground in colorless light, smelling my way more than seeing, and this made my brain feel too big for my head, as if my skull might split open from all the scents crowding in, pine and elk far away, a stream nearby, smoke from the fire. The herbs Grandmother kept placing on my legs. In my wolf dream I lay underground sweating in the dark with the scent of dirt all around me and crunched bones in my jaws. I sat by the path to town and watched all the feet go by, knowing that any of them could be my prey—they lived by my will alone, by my hunger. And then I knew that the wolf was my god, more real and powerful than the god in the meeting-house, that I had gone into the wolf-god and come out in its own image, no longer a girl but an animal on two legs.
The woodsman was the priest—the one who enabled the sacrifice, and Grandmother would go to him in her own sacrament, would eat him up in her own way. And I would be free.
The fever broke. I lay in the bed, sweat-soaked and weak, and I didn’t know whether I had spoken, but Grandmother was staring at me with sharp, witchy eyes.
The weather had turned cold, so I spent my recovery wrapped in my wolf skin. I sewed ribbons to the arms and legs of it so that I could tie them to my own arms and legs. This was both warm and right. I drank broth for a couple of days. On the third day after I woke up, the woodsman brought a haunch of deer.
“I’m glad to see you better,” he said to me, but I had eyes only for the meat, for the glistening pink of it, the smell of blood and snow.
Grandmother roasted the venison, and my tired head felt confused. The smell of roasting meat had been all enticement to me in the months since our rebirth, but now, as the scent changed while the meat sizzled, my hunger faded. My excitement ebbed. I ate it greedily, but it was hunger, not desire, that drove me. I ate too much and was ill. Grandmother scowled at me when I clutched my stomach and moaned.
Autumn was a season of snarls. The house seemed too small. I wanted to be outside, and Grandmother wanted to be alone with her prey. The woodsman was often absent, chopping wood or hunting for winter. Mother visited and tried—but not hard—to get us to move into town with her.
“Just for the winter,” she said. “We’ll all be warmer.”
I stared at her. Grandmother simply told her no. Mother opened and closed her mouth several times, looking from one of us to the other. She frowned, then jumped up from her chair. At the door, she turned and made a gesture of warding.
“I won’t ask again,” she said.
It may have been the last time I ever saw her. I don’t remember. She was as transparent to me as winter sunlight, as uninteresting as a weed.
When my legs had finally healed, I went hunting with the woodsman, and it was such a relief to be out of that house, to be back in the forest after weeks cooped up. We checked the traps, and the scent of blood was high up in my nostrils, the adrenaline of the kill singing in my veins. My belly felt hot and low. The woodsman held our kills: two rabbits and a bobolink, strung up, gutted, hanging. I kept running into him, walking close, crowding him—my fellow hunter, my companion.
Grandmother’s eyes narrowed when we came in the yard. She took the meat, silent. Skinned a rabbit, cooked it, silent as the woodsman, only he was jovial for once, laughing at me while I chattered to Grandmother about the hunt, about the forest, the sound of birds in the trees and sunlight punching down through leaves.
The woodsman left. Grandmother walked him to the door, shut it quietly. I sat back against the chimney, full, happy, satisfied with my day. The door shut. My eyes shut.
And then Grandmother was on me, her hands around my throat, her teeth in my face. I learned how unready, how un-wolf I was: I froze. I stared at her, fish-gasping.
“Mine, whelp,” she hissed at me. “He is my prey.”
I gawped at her, not understanding for long moments, while she cursed at me, slapped my face, shook me. The back of my head slammed into the brick of the chimney. Her nails cut my cheeks.
And after a few minutes, I realized what I had done: I had pissed on her house, licked her prey, stood too close to her mate, and I was not yet enough of a wolf to win the fight. Grandmother beat the lights out of me. She threw me out of the house. I landed in the yard, hard on my elbow, and the night’s rain was turning to snow.
The snow first drifted down between the trees, then poured, then blew sideways until I could barely see past my furred hood. Snow and wind wormed their way into every crevice of my clothing, and I had no idea where to go. I only knew to go away, away from Grandmother’s anger, away from her den where I would only ever be the lower wolf. Where the wolf would always hide secret under the person. I wanted to wear my wolf on the outside.
I stumbled between wet trunks, whimpering and cold, until I came to one of the huge old oaks that ruled our forest. I wanted only to get out of the wind. My face felt flayed raw by snow in my cuts and bruises. I crept down among the gnarled roots until I found a little hollow into which my body fitted neatly. I pulled my wolf skin all around me until there were no gaps and I was a furred ball. I cried a little with cold and fright, even while despising myself for it. Incrementally, my shudders stopped, my body warmed, and I slept.
I woke to silence and utter darkness. I was cramped but warm. The coziness and rest had made me feel braver. I tried to stretch, and something pressed at my back. I briefly panicked, then pushed up and stood, dislodging the foot of snow that had fallen over me. Steam rose from my sleeping hollow.
The new day was bright and very cold. I wandered until I got my bearings and floundered home through the squeaking snow. By the time I made it home, I was cold all over again and happy to dump the heavy, wet skin on the hearth, happy to accept Grandmother’s offered mug of tea. I thought hard about that warm little hollow, and later I learned that I could burrow straight into the snow, roll myself into a ball, and stay warm and safe. Grandmother’s anger had blown out in the wind, but after our fight she liked me better on days when I had spent the night out.
We backed away from one another, Grandmother and I, away from the dark home of our second womb as she remained person and I became more wolf. She stayed in the house and roasted what the woodsman brought to her. She kept the fires high, being so rich in wood. I learned to see in the stark winter forest the nibbles of deer on tree trunks, the holes in snow where voles had dug tunnels like my shelter from the wind. I could smell them, hot blood and fur under the cold, astringent scent of snow. My legs grew stronger from struggling through the drifts, my arms from pulling myself forward on branches or tree trunks. For whole days, I did not think in words but in scent, sight, desire. Some days I barely stepped into the trees before I dug out a shelter for myself where I lay in the dark and dreamed of meat, of blood and strength. Some days I ranged for hours, pushing myself beyond fatigue.
Once, a far-away wolf sang to the bull’s-eye moon. I sang back.
On an early spring night, when the sky was ripped by lightning, I stood in sheeting rain and watched through the window as Grandmother consumed her prey.
He had waited long and patiently while she strung him out, a fish on her line. She cooked for him—venison, bread, winter apples stewed in honey. She wore a dress that had once been her dowry linen, pale lilac and cut close at the sides and loose in front, so it looked modest from a distance, but whenever she leaned down, whenever she turned, the woodsman caught a glimpse of her pearl-white breasts. He drank many mugs of ale while she danced around him, filling his plate, pouring more ale. Her mouth moved constantly, but he was largely still, only his eyes flitting about. Poor squeaking rabbit. He thought himself very proper, for all that he never went to the meeting-house. He thought himself respectful and upright.
And when Grandmother unbuttoned her dress, let it puddle to the floor with the fire behind her making the edges of her body glow, he dropped his spoon. When she dipped two fingers between her legs and stepped forward to place them in his mouth, he went rigid as a deer, wide-eyed as a squirrel, before he jumped out of his chair and for a while pretended to be a hunter, rutting over her the whole long night. I could hear Grandmother’s laugh through the wood and bubbled glass.
What would be my prey?
The next day I sat in the knee of the tree roots and ran my hands over my wolf skin. The fur was coarse and stiff from wet and mud, scratchy hair dripping down along the edge of the skin to my own arm. My pale, hairless self, unprotected. Inadequate. The wolf had swallowed me. The girl I was had been soft, stupid, easily led. Lazy and weak—no hard thing for the wolf to be more powerful.
Grandmother had found her power. Months passed, and the woodsman approached her cottage like a man without a soul, his face blank but his arms always full of some gift: wood, meat, a bolt of cloth from town.
I stood at the door sometimes, late morning after the woodsman left, and Grandmother would give me food. She would not have turned me away, I think, if I had wanted to stay, but it was clear by her stance and the look in her eye, by the way she stood in the middle of the doorway, that she was glad I had taken to the woods.
Taken to the woods. Like a thing going wild. I was trying to make myself wild. The woodsman left a belt on the floor of Grandmother’s cottage. She gave it to me, and I belted the wolf skin tight around me, even as the year warmed. I learned to sit so still that deer would walk past me. I learned to reach down into streams and snatch out fish, to eat them raw and wriggling.
The first time I did that, the raw meat and the heavy flavor of the guts made me sick. But it was such a triumph to pull the fish out into the air that I would not stop. I took several to Grandmother, growling discontent to myself at having to wait, having to stand around farting at the sky while the fish cooked.
So I tried again, and the second time I ate only the flesh, which was sweet and cool in my mouth, strong and good in my belly.
By autumn I again set a snare. The rabbit died silently, fur and bone in my hands. My teeth and claws were too weak to crush bones, and fur made me gag, so I had to use my knife. But I carried the carcass with me, eating bits of good, raw meat too small to turn my guts inside out.
I went by the cottage, and Grandmother waited for me outside, frowning around a grin.
“I’m to marry him, girl. Proper, in the village,” she said.
I thought of the woodsman’s face and how his expression looked like pain as he shoved and rocked above her. How he hooted like a sailor’s monkey when he finished. Proper in the village.
“We’re moving back in with your mother.” And then she made a rabbit movement, fingers twisting in her apron strings, and in the back of my throat I wanted to leap forward, knock her down, make her show her belly. No rabbit times for me. Her person was winning over her wolf.
“Do you want to come with us?” she asked.
I barked once in laughter. Grandmother’s fingers stilled.
“Well, you’ll have this house for winter, at least,” she said. Her satisfaction was obvious. Her duty was done.
She left the old quilts for me, her second-best knife, and the firewood. She had salted, smoked, or dried a good amount of meat. I stared at her when I saw it and knew how long she had planned. Grandmother had been busy preparing to leave me while I learned the forest.
The woodsman gave me a small hatchet and tried to find words for me, maybe to make me accompany them, maybe to wish me well. I don’t know.
“You won’t come to the wedding, will you?” Grandmother asked while her prey-mate lifted the cart handles. I shook my head.
So I was alone. And all during the short days, the lengthening nights, I tried harder to be the wolf, though I hardly knew how to do it: what did I know of them? Meat eaters and talk of nightmares. They lived in the woods, but my wolf-father had laid in Grandmother’s bed, her cap on his head, and had spoken to me. He had not sounded like her at all, but I had been too mesmerized by his yellow eyes and the enormity of his lolling tongue to shout.
I tried going on all fours, lapping water from streams. I still used my hands to set snares, but I scooped fish out of the stream without net or pole.
These were days and nights of anger, that I had to use hands and tools, that walking on all fours made my back ache, that I was slow and awkward.
And on the last of these days, I was stumbling along, cursing the pain, the slowness, every sound I was making when I nearly plowed into a bear.
It blinked at me with its small eyes, forehead wrinkling as if it were a frowning selectman bothered by a child. It stank of old meat and mud. The bear sniffed at me, moaned, and I growled at it. I was too angry to be properly frightened. It sniffed, its teeth far too close, and I tried to snap as a dog did, as I thought a wolf might do.
My miserable square teeth clicked softly, and the bear was unimpressed. I crept backward, rage like a white chill in my chest. The bear kept coming at me, sniffing and rumbling. My hand (front paw, I was thinking of it then), landed on a stump of branch as thick as my wrist (ankle). But I was a wolf, not a thing with hands. I snapped and growled, while the bear crowded me, even as its mouth opened wide, as if it were trying to taste the air around me.
I would be the wolf. But I knew that I couldn’t outrun it with my awkward four-footed gait, and wolves don’t climb trees. Plus which, I was obviously a very unintimidating sort of wolf.
Then the bear swiped at me with a dinner plate paw, and fear (or maybe good sense) overruled all my plans. I rose up, shouting hoarsely, and walloped the bear on the side of the head with the fat branch. The bear ran away.
For the first time in many days, I went to the cottage—now mine. It was dusty and cold, with snow drifted under the door. I let myself cross the threshold but not light a fire. I sat on the floor to think, which quickly became a deep sleep. It had been so long since I had slept deeply, slept safely. I woke with words running through my head, words my mother used: “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
I folded my hands over my belly and smiled. Of course I didn’t need to crawl on my hands and be a slow wolf, a weak wolf, bottom of the pack. I am the wolf in human’s clothing.
I sleep in a hard bed with a thin blanket, unless the moon is fat in the sky and I cannot bear to stay inside. I scrub myself with sand; I brush and oil my ragged wolf pelt. I eat my meat raw. Rarely, rarely, I make a fire and sit at my dusty table to drink nettle tea. I practice my human smiles, human words. But mostly I am the wolf in the woods, scourge of rabbits, lazy-lying in the sun on warm days. I am the wolf-headed nightmare of hunters, of trysting lovers.
Grandmother whelped a son by her prey before she used him up entirely, turned him into a shriveled stick of a man who grew colder and colder until he was the same temperature as the dirt they laid him in. Grandmother sends the whelp to me sometimes, to cut wood for me. I practice my words and smiles on him, but he watches me with narrowed eyes. I remember the dance, and the ending of it is meaningless to me. What matters is the stalk, the preparation. The whelp is merely practice. So many people walk the path through the woods. I am waiting for the day when I can whisper:
“Where are you going, little girl?”
BIO: Virginia Mohlere lives in the swamps of Houston and writes with a fountain pen that is extinct in the wild. Her work has been seen in Cabinet des Fées, Fickle Muses, Mythic Delirium, Goblin Fruit, and MungBeing.
IMAGE: Le chaperon rouge, Krakin, 2009.