From the editor:
Once upon a time, in a village deep in the forest, at every birth a midwife would take one look and declare: wolf cub or child. Cubs were expected to attack, and children were expected to endure; such was the order of things. But one girl named Margaery refuses to accept the role she’s been assigned.
Author Maria Haskins is a Swedish-Canadian writer and translator living just outside Vancouver. Her work has appeared in Flash Fiction Online, Shimmer, Cast of Wonders, and many more. Be sure to subscribe to her Weekly 5 recommended stories she publishes every week on Curious Fictions.
From the author: "It was the kind of village where some were born wolves, and others were born human."
It was the kind of village where some were born wolves, and others were born human.
This all happened long ago, of course, and I am old now, but I remember it as it was when I grew up, across the road from Margaery’s house.
Everyone lived together, as it had always been. Wolves and humans married and had children, and it mattered little what your parents were. Some wolves gave birth to humans, some humans gave birth to wolves. Cubs and children played together, went to the village school together, ate their midday meals together beneath the trees on sunny days: cracked beef bones and marrow for some, bread and soup for others.
It happened when the cubs grew that sharp teeth would sometimes rip a dress or pant leg, would draw blood, maybe give a deeper cut, teeth marks set in flesh. “Just wash and bind it, Ellinore,” my mother would say, like all the adults said. And the children did, nursing old wounds and scars beneath sleeves and petticoats.
As they grew bigger still, sometimes a child would go missing, and a cub—or two or three—would return home from the woods with washed-clean muzzles and no story to tell, their still-hot tongues licking red dribbles from the corners of their mouths.
“Children get lost in the woods,” the parents would say, “it happens. The trails are narrow and winding, and some children stray too far, too deep, too dark. We should have taught them better, to keep steady on the trails, not to step in between the roots and shadows. Not to walk off untended.”
Maybe some thought that cubs, too, should be kept on trails more straight and narrow, but if they did, they kept those words tucked deep inside.
The day Margaery got bitten by a cub, she came home, arm torn from elbow to wrist, bone showing through. I heard her wailing as she ran from the woods, blood soaked through her dress and stockings, dripping dark from dirty fingers.
“Just wash and bind it,” said her mother, shaking somewhat as she helped her.
Once Margaery stopped crying, she said, “I am a cub, too.” After that, she ran on all-fours through the village, brandishing teeth and nails instead of playing hide and seek, cuffing cubs around the head, knocking children over as she ran. She was fourteen, just like me. Too old for playing cub in fields and streets, as younger children sometimes did, and Margaery’s parents watched perturbed. Some neighbours laughed. Until Margaery bit a cub, and a child.
She did it in the schoolyard, where everyone could see: teeth bared, leaping at them, the way she did when they’d called her something foul. She kept that wounded arm of hers aside while she bit and tore, ripping into a cheek and a leg.
The teacher sent her home, and I watched her go scampering down the street. By the time I got home, Margaery’s father had already been at her with his belt, and she lay stretched out on the porch, face turned so I couldn’t see.
“You cannot go around biting others,” said her mother, changing the soiled bandage on Margaery’s arm, wrapping clean linen around the weeping wound, dabbing resin-ointment at the fresh belt-streaks across her back.
Margaery growled. “Cubs do it. I am a cub. They can wash and bind it, same as I.”
She was not allowed to go to school for a week. When she returned, everyone knew her father had whipped her for what she’d done.
“Cubs don’t mind whippings,” Margaery said, and kept going about on all-fours: at school, at home, and in the fields and forest, too. I saw her sometimes, sneaking between the trees at the edges of the fields—dress soiled, face grubby, hair unbraided.
“Come with me, Ellinore,” she called out once when she caught me looking, but all I did was turn and run.
The children didn’t want to play with her, and neither did the cubs. For a while she was all alone.
Then Rebecca, who’d been bitten by some cubs the year before, and Alistair whose brother had wandered too far and deep in the company of cubs that past winter, and not been seen since, started walking on all-fours with her. They’d go off into the woods together, like cubs did, chasing through the deep glades and dark hollows, eating rabbits and squirrels raw, rolling in the muck, washing hands and lips in the creek, licking red dribbles from the corners of their mouths.
By the time first one cub and then another disappeared and didn’t come home for supper or breakfast, the village was in uproar. Margaery and her friends had wiped their chins clean, washed their hands, and had no tales to tell. But others had stories, and Margaery denied nothing.
“Why do you care?” she said when two elders came to speak to her. “Two children disappeared last winter. You didn’t even look for them. Maybe these cubs strayed too far, too deep, too dark, just like those children did. Maybe they lost their way. Maybe someone found them, and searched out that warm spot in their gut, all the cubs know it and so do I, that soft part of the belly where the skin is thinnest.”
She licked her lips.
The elders left, saying they’d be back next morning. Margaery’s father took her to the shed, saying he’d strip the hide off her backside this time. I heard the snap of that leather belt, the thump of that buckle, but afterwards, he was the one tending a bleeding hand, his flesh gouged out in strips. Margaery wiped her eyes and mouth, shook herself, wolf-like, and said her hide wasn’t his to strip anymore.
It made me shiver, the way she said it. The way her words burned beneath my skin, the way her voice tore at me, even though I did nought but listen.
At the village council that night, wolves and humans alike were raging, with the parents of the missing cubs shouting and crying, some thinking that Margaery should be put to death right then and there. Burning was the way to do it, most agreed.
Next morning, Margaery was brought before the council, chained. They made her stand on two-legs when she spoke, though she snapped her jaws and tried to scratch as best she could, even then.
“What makes the others cubs and not me?” asked Margaery. “You call them wolves, and so you let them bite and claw and kill. Those are things wolves do. You’ve all seen the bones in the forest glades, the skulls emptied, the knuckles gnawed clean. You know the deeds. Yet you act now as though these things had never happened before. As if the forest were safe before I stalked there.”
She looked around at the faces in the village hall, bared her teeth at some, mouth wide and leering. I looked at her and thought of Margaery before she’d had her arm torn: wearing dresses, neat shoes, and ribboned pigtails, loath to speak up in class, just like me.
“I am a cub, as much as any other. I bite and claw and kill. That makes me wolf. Would you call me human now? Can a human bite and claw and kill as well as a wolf? Is that what you tell me?”
The people looked at each other, then back at Margaery, and it seemed to many of them that perhaps Margaery had always been wolf, and that they just hadn’t noticed until now. She was led away on all-fours, shaggy-haired and snarling. “Much like a cub,” some whispered in the crowd, uneasy.
“The midwives know best how to tell cub from child,” a man piped up. “They know it from when they’re born. We should ask them what Margaery is for certain.”
The midwives had their house near the village well, and they were always fair busy, drying herbs and roots, making ointments and potions, seeing to the pregnant wolves and humans.
“You can tell when they’re born, of course,” the oldest midwife said, impatient with the askers. “You see them squeezed out into the world, and there you are: some are born wolves, some human. You know which one’s what soon as you see them.”
“Sometimes it takes a bit of looking,” said the other midwife. “But you can always tell.”
“You just know,” said the third and youngest midwife. “You see it in them. And later of course the wolves walk on all-fours and do all sorts of things that only wolves do.”
But what to do then, about a child who had walked on twos, and now went about on all-fours?
The midwives thought on it, whispering amongst themselves about Margaery and Rebecca and Alistair. Then they shook their heads. No, they said, each of those had been a child at birth, and surely was a child still.
“I see what they are, and they are what I see,” said the oldest midwife with her hackles raised, a growl prickling beneath her words, and then she’d say no more.
Meanwhile, Margaery was howling in her cell, Rebecca and Alistair in their cages joining their howls to hers. Margaery ripped and scratched the guards, bit and chewed her chains.
Not even her mother was allowed to see her, though she was stood across the way, listening all day, saying nothing if you spoke to her.
Thinking this matter harder to unravel than first thought, the elders went reluctantly to Henrick, the oldest of the villagers and therefore named lore-keeper. He was half-blind and hobbling, living mostly off rope-work and handouts, housed in a hut on the outskirts: dirt-floor, sod-roof, three goats roaming free outside.
He chuckled when they asked him if he’d ever heard of a child turned wolf before, sipping at his sweet-root tea. How old he was he did not know himself, but no one in the village could remember him as anything but ancient and hairless. Whatever family he’d had were all done and gone, bones beneath the grass and oak at forest’s edge.
“I don’t right recall,” Henrick answered, savouring the words as if they were burned-sugar candies, melting slowly on his tongue. “My life’s too long for me to remember all that’s happened and been done to me, and to this village. Once we were all alike, so the oldest stories say. But if so, were we wolves or humans, then, and why did some turn while others didn’t? I’m not sure of that, if that is what you’re asking.”
I listened as he spoke those words, hiding behind father in the crowd, and when he saw me there, trembling, he winked and twitched his ears. Father would have slapped me if I laughed, so I only blushed and turned to go with the others.
Deep into the night the village spoke and argued, wolves and humans gathered in the church; us children and cubs playing in the hall while the adults talked, or sleeping in the back pew.
There were village laws, rules spoken and unspoken, and all agreed Margaery had broken them. It was not right for a child to kill a cub. One woman grumbled that her daughter had disappeared that past fall, and wondered why no fuss had been made about the cubs seen with her before she got lost. Both wolves and humans shook their heads and looked away.
“Your daughter wandered too far and deep. You should have told her it weren’t safe.
Wiser mothers teach their children not to stray.”
“Just teach your cub the same,” the woman said, a sting in her voice.
“You wolves are all of one kind,” another man’s voice, rising. Alistair’s father it might have been. “All killing and a-slaughtering.”
“I’ve never,” cried one wolf. Others joining in, saying they had not been anywhere near the woods or trails or darker hollows, at least since they were cubs themselves.
“What kind of wolf are you, then?” the man asked. “If not for the snarling and the biting? Seems to me, you’re nothing but a human, except walking ’round on all-fours.”
The wolves raised their voices, howling that being wolf was more than snarls and teeth; that they were villagers of worth and import and should be treated such. In that moment, there was a sudden heat like spark and kindling in the room, a flicker of a feral glow. All could feel it: words and voices likely to catch fire, to set each house ablaze before long.
Flasks and tea were passed around to douse the flames, some were sent home to sleep their rage off, others told to get out of doors to cool their heads.
“Might it be that everyone, wolf and human both, should be treated the same and follow the same rules?” one wolf wondered, glancing about anxiously when most were settled in the pews again. Heads shook. No. Wolves were not like humans, and humans not like wolves.
Wolves had sharper senses, smell and hearing for a start. That was known.
“Say a wolf smells blood,” one wolf put in, “even a smidgen of it, a drop. Their jaws will start a-snapping before they even know they’re doing it.”
All wolves nodded in agreement. Most humans nodded, too. “That’s right, so it is,” they said. “We don’t care over-much for the smell of blood.” Neither did they have the taste for raw meat or howling or stalking between the trees. Those were wolf cravings, surely. And if some humans thought that they might have felt a twinge or two when they smelled blood or flesh, a stirring in the heart and the saliva running freely, they did not speak up that night.
When the lots were cast at dawn, the verdict was decided: not death, but banishment.
That rustled through the village right-quick. It had been years uncounted since such a ruling had been handed down.
Margaery’s mother stood quiet while the lots were counted, while the sentence was read aloud to all the villagers in the square. There were fresh cuts and scrapes on her face and paws, same as I’d seen on Margaery more than once when she’d disobeyed her father.
Margaery saw it, too, from her place on the steps where she had been brought out in chains.
I looked away, but I felt Margaery’s eyes on me, and didn’t dare raise my head: afraid of what I’d see in her face, afraid of what she’d see in mine.
Next full moon, Margaery and her pack, as they called Rebecca and Alistair by then, were taken deep into the woods. Deeper than the hunters went, deeper than the berry pickers and herbalists would go. So far they almost crossed the edge of the world into the realms of other beings and their habitations. There the three were let go, bonds cut, and the wagon drove off, horses whipped into a froth as the driver headed back.
Not even cubs roamed the woods for a good while after that, and neither wolves nor humans would go by themselves into the farther fields. Everyone closed and barred their doors and stayed inside when darkness fell. All except Henrick who sat out on his porch among the goats most nights it seemed, braiding rope or drinking sweet-root tea, rheumy eyes fixed on the woods as if he were waiting.
“She couldn’t make it in the woods,” I said to him when I went there one evening to pass along some fresh-baked bread from grandmother. I kept looking half with dread, half with hope at the edge of the forest where Henrick’s eyes were roaming. “Could she? Might she?”
Henrick only chuckled and dunked a crust of bread into his mug, those hairy knuckles of his almost turning into paws in the dusk-light.
“Who knows what such a one as Margaery might do,” he said, rubbing the smallest of the goats between the horns until the creature bucked and skipped off the porch. He winked at me and smiled. “I’ve seen you wondering, Ellinore, seen you wondering about the way the world is made around you. It’s not easy to live like this, with wolves and humans side by side, so alike that we need the midwives to tell us who is who, and yet told we are so different that the same rules can’t apply.” He peeked at me sideways. “What do you see, when you look at me? Wolf or human?”
I shifted where I sat, unsettled, looking at his face in the dusk-light, the gleam of those grey-clouded eyes.
“I see human, since that is what you are. You’re like me.”
“Yes. Of course. And some days I see it too. But do you see it because it is what I am, or because that’s what you’ve been told to see?” I didn’t know how to answer that, and Henrick turned towards the woods again. “No matter. Maybe you’re too young, yet, to know the difference between becoming what others see, and seeing what you are without their gaze.
And besides, if I’ve gained any wisdom in my old age it’s only this: that it’s safer to wait and be told what I am, rather than make up my own mind. The world shapes itself to what we believe. That’s the way it’s always been.”
He drank from his cup, licked his lips clean after.
“As for that Margaery,” he said, “when she comes again, she’ll bring a fire with her. I’ve dreamed it so. Or maybe what I’ve seen is memory or story. Sometimes it seems to me that all this has happened before, once or many times, but always been forgotten. Either way, you’d best be ready, Ellinore, whether you think yourself cub or child.”
I sat with him as the sun went down, even though I knew mother wanted me back sharpish, sat and thought of woods and trails, thought of cubs and children lost or found within the dark.
Margaery’s mother put away her daughter’s dresses, her ribbons, and her shoes.
She folded them and placed them in a chest. “Have another child,” my mother told her, “if you’ve still got a patch as where to plant the seeds.” But everyone knew by then she wouldn’t let her human husband touch her since Margaery had gone.
Some nights I saw her, sitting next to Henrick, holding a mug of sweet-root tea between her paws, staring at the woods like he did, like I did all those times I couldn’t sleep.
It was a quiet year, mostly. Summer and harvest slipping past to winter, cubs and children almost playing together again by next spring, even those of us still nursing deeper wounds, washed and bound and festering.
Margaery’s pack waited for the first new moon in early summer: night all dark, clouds pulled over stars, no light to glimpse their faces by. Then they came: fierce and silent, fang and claw unsheathed, tearing through the village like a hunter’s blade slits a carcass open from ribs to tail, spilling guts and entrails.
Wolves and humans alike were dragged from their beds into the square past midnight, made to stand before the bonfire where the jail had been: Margaery on all-fours in the glow, blood and gore trickling from her chin and tongue. Three elders and some others were missing, my mother among them, charred limbs and skulls showing in the fire, the sight of it enough to make us all try to turn away, though no turning made the smell of roasted flesh easier to abide.
Rebecca stood beside Margaery, and so did Alistair, as well as at least two-dozen wolves none of us had seen before. They were other cubs Margaery had found in the woods, hurt or lost or wandering, some still thinking they were children until they’d heard Margaery calling them with her howl.
“By morning, there will be no humans in this village,” Margaery said, and when she fell silent, not a word or sound was heard besides the crackle of the flames. Then we were all let go.
Only Henrick smiled that night, nodding as though he’d seen it all before.
When we gathered in the square at sun-up, there was not one human to be found.
Elders, midwives, teachers, parents, children, everyone was all-fours in the dirt. And if some had tender soles and palms from walking the ground, they said nought that day.
Margaery stood on all-fours high atop a roof next to the smoldering pile of wood and bones that had been her prison once. That long and ragged scar where the cubs had bitten her was white against her skin, scruffy hair tangled down her back, sharp claws digging deep into the wooden tiles. I saw then how much she’d grown: strong and tall, muscles taut, voice that made you listen. Grand and mighty had she become, like some creature out of history and legend. At her feet, slung across the ridge of the roof, lay her father, bound and bleeding. I’d seen him walk out of his house on two-legs that morning, looking Margaery in the eye and telling her she couldn’t make him into other than he was.
“Neither could you make me other than I am,” she’d said. “Not even with the whip and belt, not even with the iron-plated handle of a shovel.”
She glanced first at the three midwives, gathered in a huddle below.
“There will be no more children born here, only cubs. You will see them born, and you will call them what they are.”
They nodded, heads bent, crouching in the dust and ashes.
“All are wolves, now,” she said as her pack howled and yipped below. “Same rules and laws for every wolf, for every one of us. Pack and village, one. All are the same. All wolves.
All fierce. All teeth. All claws. None more or less than any other. Be wolves, together.”
I felt the stirring of those words, can feel it still, sitting here so many years past thinking on it. Then she rolled her father off the roof into the dirt. He hit the ground, heavy, like a rain-wet sack of grain. We smelled the blood—all fierce, all teeth, all claws, all wolves—and all went forward, Margaery’s mother at the forefront, all our jaws a-snapping, none could keep away.
And oh, the smell of it, the taste of it, that feeling when you’re wolf with other wolves, of knowing I was wolf, that we were all the same; knowing I was strong with my jaws a-snapping, my paws a-tearing. I scarce recalled whether I’d been wolf or human before that day, and besides, it didn’t matter none: we were all wolf from that day forward.
“I remember now,” Henrick crowed next to me when it was all done, his ears twitching in the dawn-light, blood-spattered paws scratching at the dirt. “First time I saw this village burn I was just a cub, but I turned human as the sun rose, standing up on two-legs next to mother. And now the world has turned and turned again as it does after every fire, and here I am. Same as I was, anew.”
Then he cried a little there on all-fours, and so did I. Crying for the smoke lingering in our eyes from the pyre. For love of our new-won claws and fangs. For love of being wolf.
For love of Margaery.
This story originally appeared in See the Elephant #4 from Metaphysical Press.