Literary Fiction

Wolves

By L.S. Johnson
3,898 words · 15-minute reading time


From the author: For many months, this story existed on my computer as "Mrs. Dalloway, red in tooth and claw."


Bitches. That was what George Barker said; Clarice heard him as clear as day, standing on the threshold of the butcher shop. He was talking to Ephraim Smith of all people, Ephraim who believed in the rod and the lash, who had beaten his horse to death right outside on the green. A waste of good horseflesh everyone agreed, but Ephraim was right even when he was wrong: you couldn’t tell him anything. And here was George saying they’re all bitches, Ephraim, not an ounce of sense in their pretty little heads, always putting us down and biting the hand that feeds them. Less sense than a god-damned rabbit, that’s women for you. He said all that, and then he punched the long line of bloody ribs lying on the counter and said, now how about these beauties, Ephraim? Sweeter than a titty to suck on and guaranteed not to talk back.

Clarice turned then and walked away quickly, her face burning and her whole body trembling, the basket swinging wildly on her arm. She thought she might be sick. George Barker. There were the men in town, and then there were the good men in town, and until today she would have sworn George was a good man. Less sense than a god-damned rabbit. His scarred, hairy knuckles striking the meat. George Barker.

Above her the summer sun was a deep red-orange color, promising heat even up here in the hills. A blood sun, was there even such a thing? She thought her mother might have used the phrase, or her grandmother. Men never spoke in such a way, they spoke only of the numbers of traps laid, the pounds of hides and meat, the cleanness of their shots. Sometimes I think they just plain hate us, Elizabeth had said once, long ago when Rachel was still in a crib, and when they want us and hate us at the same time it drives them crazy. And Clarice had thought it was the gin talking, the gin and things not going well with Fred, but then she had also thought George Barker a good man.

Fred with his arm draped around Elisabeth, Fred steering her by the elbow, Fred slapping her ass like she was a horse. Your Lizzy should be flattered, the neighbors had told her, a good-looking boy like that, she must be the envy of all the girls.

Clarice hurried into the grocer’s, sweating now, a sour taste in her mouth. Bitches. She moved from shelf to shelf, filling her basket without thinking: flour, butter, milk now since the dairy had moved down to the city and stopped delivering. George Barker’s fist punching the meat. And there was Mary Whidby talking to the clerk, a spotty girl from one of the new families with her lips painted bright pink: you have to watch out for them, they can’t control themselves, it’s up to you missy, your mother should be teaching you better. Spitting the words out while the girl flushed and looked away. All for a little color on her lips! Yet hadn’t Clarice once given Elizabeth the same speech when she came home with her hair curled and her jacket off? Her blouse translucent with perspiration and her curls and bosom bouncing in time. It had made Clarice furious, then, furious and nervous, before this daughter suddenly become a fleshy thing; she had been relieved when Fred Marshall started coming by. A blue ribbon shot, Fred Marshall, with a share in his brother’s tannery. The envy of all the girls. Watching year after year as Fred drank more, as Elizabeth grew quieter, more withdrawn, and what had Clarice said to her?

Try harder.


Biting the hand that feeds you. Always that arm of his around Elizabeth, until she had to contort just to walk next to him.

At the register she greeted Mary but couldn’t look at her. You all right, Clarice? Mary asked. Only you look a bit flushed. This weather, she added, as if supplying Clarice’s answer for her. Pity your Joshua’s gone. And it was on the tip of Clarice’s tongue to say, what do you mean? D’you think Joshua could have brought rain, or lowered the sun in the sky? But she understood, for she had pitied the widows too in her time. Doing the work of a man, she would say sadly at the church socials to the other young women. Like it was the worst fate that could befall them.

Oh, there were far worse fates in the world.

As the clerk rang up her purchases Clarice leaned over and said, you look pretty in that color. But she’s right, even if she said it poorly; you have to mind the boys around here.

Oh, I can handle them, the girl said with a toss of her head. And when Clarice started to speak again she struck the register buttons hard.

Behind the girl was a picture of a buxom woman, her blouse slipping off one shoulder as she raised the bottle of root beer to her lips like she was nothing more than a common laborer. Skin shiny with sweat, a smiling sun gazing down at her breasts. I can handle them, they all said it—they all believed it—until, say, they found themselves in the woods one night—

But Clarice didn’t like to think about the woods.

Less sense than a god-damned rabbit.

As she passed the schoolyard she saw a teacher—David Jameson? Or was it Anthony now?—cleaning a doe, steadily peeling the hide back like a candy wrapper while a circle of boys watched rapt. Keep your hand moving, he instructed. Hesitate and you’re more likely to cut yourself, or damage the meat.

A woman came out with a bucket for the innards and as she bent over to position it one of the boys slyly put his hand on her stocking-clad calf, stroking up and down, and Clarice thought: and so it begins. The stinking carcass and that possessive hand.

 

***

 

Once she was past the edge of town Clarice breathed a little easier, felt some tightness inside her body loosen. There were things she had turned away from, she knew, because of the shortness of life and the smallness of towns, but something felt different now: something was different, because George Barker had said those things, and George’s youngest boy Paul had his eye on Rachel.

Oh how handsome Paul Barker is, the women told her at church. Your granddaughter must be the envy of all the girls. And Clarice had even nudged Rachel at the coffee hour afterwards, why don’t you give him a smile? There’s no harm in being friendly. Because she hadn’t wanted them to think the girl was aloof. They had said as much to her, hinted at it in conversation, your Rachel thinks a lot of herself, can’t blame her they praise her so much at school, too much praise can go right to their heads at that age. And Clarice had felt the sting of it, and told Rachel to smile at Paul, had told her to be nicer, to be more polite, she had even told the girl that she shouldn’t do so well because how would it make the other children feel?

George Barker’s fist, pinning the meat to the table. Her cheeks burned with shame. Telling Rachel such things, all because of Mary Whidby and her ilk. And when it came down to it, if Paul got fresh with Rachel, or worse? They would draw their curtains and say nothing just like they always did.

As the curtains were drawn now, she saw, at the Luthers’ place. The hides were drying in the sun, a trail of smoke was rising from the smokehouse, but the curtains were drawn; the traps were cleaned and ready but still piled on the porch where they were doing no one a lick of good. And when Sally Luther missed church next Sunday, when Constant got mouthy about her in town, who would say anything, do anything? Not Clarice, never once had she even thought of such a thing, what good would it do?

Only perhaps it wasn’t a matter of doing good. Perhaps it was enough to do, perhaps they all just needed to do more, without worrying about good or bad.

Bitches. She had known George Barker since they were kids together, she knew his wife Ginny, and what might she have missed there, always thinking the best of George? Every time Clarice had thought Ginny sick, or tired, or having a problem with her children, what if it had been something else—

but she would have drawn her own curtains and said nothing, it was foolish to pretend otherwise.

On either side of the path the forest rose up now, trees densely green and cooling, and as always her breath became fast and tight in her throat; when her foot caught on a tree root her heart fluttered. George’s fist driving into the meat. Sweeter than a titty. She had fallen, that’s what they had told her, you fell into the brush. That was how her clothes got torn, that was how she became so bruised and sore. And then, when she was feeling better: you fell because you weren’t being careful, you shouldn’t have been out so late, what were you doing coming home so late?

I fell, she had told everyone at school, at church. I fell, I shouldn’t have been out so late. Blushing with the shame of it. Guaranteed not to talk back. And what of the strange bruises she had, the soreness, how the doctor had looked at her when she awoke, as if she wasn’t fit to live?

As she rounded the bend her heart was rabbiting in her chest, oh not even the sense of, and she clutched the basket tight. But where the vast oak had stood there was only a raw stump, still dusty from the blades, creating a bright sunlit gap where before there had only been darkness.

Clarice stopped for a moment, panting, taking it in. The timber crews had been coming further upriver, but never had she seen their work so close by. There were other, smaller stumps dotting the area; the ground was laced with the drag marks of the logs. It’s the end, Fred had muttered when the first posters had gone up about hiring, but he hadn’t said what was ending; now Clarice knew. No more oak, not ever, and she felt a queer kind of satisfaction, as if an enemy had finally been vanquished. Forty years she had hurried by this spot feeling as if wolves were at her heels. No more. The two words like a prayer: no more no more no more.

 

***

 

She had meant to make a meat pie, perhaps rabbit or duck, but the thought of touching raw flesh made her stomach twist up again. George’s scarred knuckles, though they could have just as easily been Joshua’s, he had been forever bleeding all over her kitchen. They were always getting bitten and cut, the men, every one of them was a mess of scars; they held contests at the summer fair for the most unusual. Every man scarred and every woman with her own particular remedies, needles and threads and ointments that were family recipes and roots that made the men sleep heavy enough to stitch them. All of it moot now if the timber crews kept clearing land, there wouldn’t be anywhere to hunt. George had been smart to quit trapping and take over the butcher’s.

His knuckles dotted with blood, pressing into the ribs.

Clarice gathered up what vegetables she had, spring courgettes and some potatoes and onions from the cellar, and set them to simmering while she made the pastry. Strange to think of the oak gone. Like when they shot the last wolf, a whole party to take it down and the triumph of it, but when they brought it back to town it had turned out to be an elderly thing, with swollen joints and a mangy, pocked hide. More than one person had muttered what was the point? Folks had dogs who did more damage and the skin too ratty to be worth anything. They had paid an artist to sketch the corpse and the five men that killed it; you could still buy etchings at the post office, and the head hung in the back of the church. Every Sunday Clarice prayed between the cross and that mounted head and she had never given it a thought. To be in church was to be relieved: that she had managed to get Joshua sobered and cleaned up, that Elizabeth and her brood were presentable, that she herself looked good enough to hold her own against any of the shopkeeper’s wives.

Bitches. She rolled the pastry thin, so thin, smoothing it with flour and rolling until it felt like parchment. Joshua had sworn by her pies. He had been a good man, really, a giggly foolish drunk; she knew she had done better than the others. After the woods she had been so afraid, understanding for the first time how vulnerable she was; she had been terrified that she might lose his interest. Praying every night until she bled, though why she was so frightened she couldn’t bring herself to say; rigid with terror all through her wedding night, though why she was so frightened she couldn’t bring herself to say. Guaranteed not to talk back. And when she had woken up on that first morning after the wedding, woken up to Joshua’s smile and not a word about the lack of blood on the sheets, she had felt cleansed, there was no other word for it. And she had gone through her life believing that to think on it for a moment, to let even a thought of that night into her head, would be to invite it all back upon herself somehow.

Herself or her daughter.

But oh, she was thinking about it now. Four decades standing in church thinking only how she measured up. Never, never thinking about the woods that night, she had fallen, she had fallen, there had been no blow to her back like a fist, sending her hurtling forward against the oak tree looming before her.

Reflexively she touched the scar on her forehead with a floured hand. That blow, she could feel it now, as if it had happened yesterday. George Barker’s fist punching the meat, that slapping sound of flesh on flesh. Her mother had said, I warned you about walking alone at night. She had said, with a look at the doctor who was still in the room, there are wolves in those woods, my girl, and she had given Clarice a hard look when she said wolves.

Everyone knew there hadn’t been a wolf in the woods for decades, save for that one last mangy beast.

The pot bubbled over on the stove, startling her. She swung it off and then stared at the pastry, which she had rolled not in her usual neat circle but a shape like a splatter, like when the men spat tobacco juice on the boards. Spitting and joking among themselves. Perhaps George had just been humoring Ephraim, perhaps he would have a good laugh about it with Ginny tonight. Except it didn’t feel funny to Clarice, it didn’t feel funny at all. Even before—for there was a line in her head now, the Clarice she had been before this morning and the Clarice she was now—even before she had felt queasy when she smiled at Ephraim’s remarks, or heard another of the men make some joke about women: how do you keep a woman satisfied, why do women bleed every month, what’s the difference between a woman and a cow, a dog, a sheep, a pig . . .

She caught up the pastry and draped it over the dish, coaxing it down the sides. George following Clarice and Ginny home from school, talking and talking and it hadn’t been the words so much as the tone, there had been something sly in it, something that made Clarice’s heart race when they reached the woods and she had to go on alone, something that made her relieved when George stayed by Ginny instead, his arm against the tree she had backed against. Clarice had been relieved but now she remembered how Ginny had tried to step one way and another and each time George had blocked her, laughing. Had Ginny laughed? Or had she bared her teeth and smiled in the same way Clarice laughed at the jokes, trying to find it funny but really hoping it would just stop?

George Barker’s boy. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, her mother always said.

There are wolves in those woods.

Clarice carefully spooned the filling into the crust, then began rolling out the lid. Herself, Elizabeth, Rachel, all of them the envy of other girls, oh yes, especially after dark, especially when your fellow’s been drinking, or had a bad day, or had been outdone by another man; especially when you’re hurrying home after helping your friend put up the last of their cherries, your hands still sticky with juice, and in the darkness you hear breathing and whispers and then that blow between her shoulderblades . . .

When she had woken up that morning she had found things stuck to her red-stained hands, not just dirt and leaves but hairs and a glob of tobacco juice . . .

She cried then, sudden heaving sobs that seemed to come from somewhere in her spine and wrenched at her body. Blindly she slapped the lid atop the pie and began hacking away the excess, slicing and slicing and gasping tears all the while, and it was not until the blood spattered both pastry and table alike that Clarice felt the throbbing pain where she had cut into the thick of her own flesh, just beneath her thumb. Like being doused in ice water, the pain, it cut off her tears in an instant, so that when she went to the sink to rinse the wound she was only sniffling.

George Barker had chewed for a while when he was young; all the boys had, the good and bad ones alike. All of them sniggering when she had returned to school a week later.

Biting the hand. Still her blood spattered in the sink, bright red against the scratched ceramic.

 

***

 

Rachel appeared as a spot of red on the horizon, clearly visible through the scrim of trees. Ridiculous, that cloak Elizabeth had bought her. Old-fashioned and as bright as a bonfire; it would only hamper her should she have to run.

On the counter the pie steamed, golden with its own light.

Behind Rachel Clarice could see two dark shapes loping behind her—no, three. Paul and his friends. Not once did the red hood turn around; Clarice saw that she was clutching her cloak tight about herself despite the warm air, sensed that she was walking as fast as she could without running.

There are wolves in those woods.

Clarice nudged the curtains aside with the muzzle of Joshua’s service revolver, sighting Paul’s dark head. She squeezed the trigger, letting the hammer snap against the empty chamber. Too far anyway. Her father, steadying her hands and helping her aim: you have to see it as a thing, Clarice. Don’t think about it as anything but a thing. And he had curled his fingers over hers until they hurt, until at last she squeezed the trigger and the deer had bucked and fallen. The light still in its eyes when they tied it for carrying. She had thrown up the meat later, every time she had thrown it up, while her mother muttered about how no one in town would have her if she didn’t have the stomach to do what needed doing.

What did Paul see, when he looked at her granddaughter?


As Rachel drew closer Clarice slotted home six bullets, swift and practiced, and went to the door. Walked carefully down the porch steps as the bright red figure cut through the fallow meadow, as bright as the sun dropping behind her. Blood suns. Behind Rachel the boys were hooting and calling, telling her to wait, they just wanted to talk, what was the rush? And for a moment it was not Rachel but Ginny coming towards her, and the boys were not Paul and his friends but George Barker and Constant Luther and even Joshua, loping a little behind them as he always had, shrugging at their comments but never saying a word. It was his silence she had bet on in encouraging him, and looking back now she shook her head at the foolishness of such a thing.

Grandma, Rachel said uneasily as she drew close, pushing the hood back. Her face shiny with sweat, red like the sun. Grandma, what are you doing with that gun?

Clarice smiled at her, baring her teeth. Bitches. Showing you how to use it, dear.

She raised the revolver and pointed it at Paul Barker, nothing the flash of wariness on the boy’s sly face; she waited until he was close enough to hear and then cocked the trigger. Not for you, she said loudly.

He stopped then, rocking back and forth. Hello, Missus D, he said.

Not for you, boy, she repeated. You go on home, and if I catch you following her again it won’t be your head I shoot first. She let the muzzle slide first left, then right. That goes for the lot of you.

We’re just talking—

Not. For. You. She enunciated each word.

Come on, Paul, one said in a lower voice.

Your grandma’s gone off her rocker, Rachel, Paul said. He gave Clarice a wink. I don’t want to upset her, though. Gotta be nice to old ladies, that’s what my pa says, young girls need them to show ‘em what to do.

You can tell your father to mind his own business, Clarice said. You can tell him that from me.

Paul gave her a little salute. Will do, Missus D. He smiled at Rachel. I’ll see you in school, Rachel, if I don’t catch you around town first.

They turned and began cutting back through the grass, their hands shoved in their pockets, whispering; Paul suddenly laughed, loud and braying, and looked back over his shoulder. Clarice caught Rachel’s flinch out of the corner of her eye. Red like the sun. Bitches. The battered wolf hanging by its haunches, her father’s finger squeezing hers. The footsteps in the woods that night, the whispering, sniggering voices. It’s just a thing, Clarice. That punch of pain between her shoulderblades, the tree rushing up to meet her. No one will want you if you don’t have the stomach. Not the sense of a rabbit. Sweeter than a titty. She squeezed the trigger. The shot sent up a rush of birds and Rachel cried out, high and thin; a sudden breeze caught her cloak, sending it flying open, turning the world bright, bright red. 

This story originally appeared in Menacing Hedge.


L.S. Johnson

L.S. Johnson writes weird, dark stories.

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