I was six and he wanted a boy. I was seven and she wanted a boy. I was eight and I wanted to be a boy. That’s all I remember. I’m a boy. I should be a boy. Why wasn’t I boy? I would have been a great boy. They would have been happy. I would have been happy. Better to never have been born than to be a mere girl.
I remember listening to my parents when they left me at night, scolded and shivering. There was no heat in my room; I was too far away from the fire of the stove. My brother and I pressed an ear to the damp walls and played the words over in our brain.
She’s getting fat and she’s too much to feed. She’s lazy about her chores. You should see her when you’re working. She’s too small to do anyone any good.
Nothing was going to be easy for me; I was small and pretty and no one wanted to feed me, so I just made him up. I was eight and gave myself a brother. I gave them a son. The son they wanted and didn’t have because they had me, the one they didn’t want. I would make things easier for them.
She’s got an odd look about her, like she’s thinking. What’s there for a girl to think about? Sooner we have her married off, the better.
My brother and I would have none of that; I wasn’t to be ‘married off’ to anyone. I’d roll in dirt all day and smell of a pig, but I’d never belong to any man. My brother would help me; I’d play him and run away. He would be both of us and we would escape.
My brother was kind and good-hearted the way most people aren’t; he wanted nothing for himself: only to see me happy and free. He showed me what clothes to wear and how to pull my hair back to make it look shorter. He showed me the old pair of father’s boots with the soles nearly worn through; he showed me how to pack them with old socks to make my feet fit.
We may not have been very wise; we chose the falling season to make our escape. The leaves were burnished and brown and gold and heavy; they fell around us in the woods while father used his small axe against their skin. He was not paying attention to us, to our look, our desire, our need to leave him behind. We were too much to feed, to think about or care about. We stepped into the woods, into the green-blackness and disappeared.
I never thought he would come for us. I never believed he would have made the trouble. Did he alert the others? Did he tell his wife the unwanted had gone? Did he believe we were taken and did he despair a little, regret a little, his selfishness, his pride? Did he regret her words? We slept in the nook of an oak with a blanket of leaves. If they had looked for us, they would have found us, easily.
We were not found.
Did I regret our decision? I felt strong in the moment of release and I felt the tether of a life unimportant give way. Hunger and cold kept us moving, yet we never gave in to tears; we never turned back to beg forgiveness. There were other mothers and fathers, many without children of their own. We would find one, a family that did not mind a daughter-in-son or a daughter, who would never be a boy.
Trailing along the edge of the stream, water and berries were the only sustenance to be had. I became a lover of wooden smells and sunlight. My breasts were tight in my jacket, the heart beneath a churning fall of hope and wonder. I was not a boy, and never a man. My first bleeding came at the crossing of a meadow; I felt heavy inside and unbound. My brother loosened himself in me and sent me further off. He would not travel so far, not in my skin, not then, though I begged him to carry me. I was growing tired and he was growing tired of my weight. I stripped myself bare of his clothes and lay in the crisp, frosted grass. My skin was soft from the air and the pink flush of a sunrise lit across my body. I was cold as an autumn apple and felt the ripening of an orchard in my chest.
I lie there open to the breeze and whatever flew with it. My first lover was the sky, the shy azure stillness that covered me, pressed into me, inside me, my eyes closed in the hope of its love and kindness. My brother had gone ahead; this was not for him, not this feeling, not this openness. I wanted this for myself, and held it close, kissing the faceless air, the namelessness of wanting. Winter would take me—or nothing.
In the night we kept close; eyes watched us in the dark, a prowl and furrow and tail. Teeth like daggers drawn. It smelled of the woods and the smoke. My cloak covered us both and the moon drew our faces black.
She found me—the one who would not tell me her name. My eyes opened to the sky that was her eyes, to the cloud that was her hand, stirring on my face, the question on her tongue—who am I, where did I, how did I, will I? She gathered me up, her arms a warm cradle, her voice, a woman’s, just a woman, no one’s mother, no one’s sister, just a woman.
Her home was bright as a spring meadow; she kept a garden inside it. Roses hung from the rafters. The smell of honeysuckle and rosemary drifted along the walls. She carried me to the bed, like no bed I remembered, a full bed with pillows and blankets. My bare skin melted over the fabrics; she hovered over me, her eyes like twin moons, pulling at the tide inside of me, pulling me to a new shore, a new home.
I slept then, perhaps for days. I slept and dreamt of sweetness and fire and my brother, waving from another room. I dreamt of her eyes without answers, without a name. I dreamt of the woods and the wolf.
When I rose from bed, she gave me clothes to wear and laid food before me, but she would not speak. Her moon-look had gone hiding.
She kept her head bowed as she moved through her home, tending her daffodils and baking her bread. She did not remind me of anyone’s mother or sister; she did not remind me of my brother. I would speak to her and she would nod, attentive to all I said, but she would not answer. She ran water for me and showed me how to lie in it, like an unborn, waiting for its moment. She would daub my skin with soft cloth, moving slowly over my body, waking and sleeping, until there was no part of me she had not tended to. She ran her fingers through my hair with a lather that smelled of lavender and honey. She held me up and dried me in her shawls.
When I rose from the water, I felt the weight of my fullness; my breasts were round now and heavy. Had she done this? She tended to me as carefully as any of her flowers. I was watered and fed and I had bloomed. I looked to her face for an answer, but her eyes would not be raised to mine. This shy gardener, this woman of the woods; her hands raised me like a tree. I felt strange and I felt real.
She gave me clothes to wear, not like my brother’s hand-me-downs, but the soft spun cotton of a dress. My brother frowned at the sleeves and would not look at my bare feet. He scolded me for being so soft, so easy to please. He warned me of her, of what she might take, of what she might give. He called her a sorceress. He said she would eat from us: that she would spit him out and swallow me whole.
I watched her mouth; her lips were wet as berries, her teeth the bones bared beneath. I imagined myself between them, my skin red and aching; I wondered what I would taste like. Would she eat of me? Would I taste better than my brother? Would she know the difference between us?
I followed her as she tended the house; I watched how she moved, how she bent and touched and lingered over what she loved. Her silence drew me like the smell of bread. I would stand over her, waiting, but she would not look at me. Her mouth would dip into an almost-smile. Was the smile for me? I wanted to run my hands over her hair as she bent to water her roses. I waited for her to water me again. A new, nameless flower bloomed in my belly; its nectar warm and rich ran down my sides. Outside, frost was peering through the windowpanes.
She brought in wood for her fire; the skies were gray now, and the first tiny flakes had begun to fall. She stirred the embers, the heat marking her cheeks like a warning. My brother would not give. Leave her, he said. Shove her in the tinder and let her rush to ashes, she is not for us. Leave this place, he begged. She will swallow you whole and spit me out. She will eat us alive.
My brother had seen me through, helped me escape: my handsome brother who knew everything. Would I listen to him now? She did not seem a sorceress. She asked nothing of me.
She’ll fatten us up, he said.
She gives us strength, I said.
She’ll roast us over her fire, he said.
She gives us warmth, I said.
She’ll eat us alive, he said. She will swallow you whole and spit me out.
She needs feeding, too, I said.
I cannot stay, he said.
Go, I said.
I waited until the first real snowfall; winter surrounding us, holding us in. We would not escape each other now. I waited as she ran the water for me, her head bowed, her eyes on her knees.
My gown removed and my skin red and bare, I stood over her. She would not look. She would not speak. I reached for her hair, the color of autumn woods, and felt their fire on my fingertips.
“Will you eat from me?” I asked.
“Will you take me in your mouth and swallow me whole?
Am I ripe for you yet?”
I could smell her then, a smell I knew, of trees and smoke and something wild and starved. Her nails grazed my wrist and I felt the wet of her tongue in my palm.
The moon bared herself: silver and full as all my fears, slivered in my eyes.
She will swallow you whole and spit me out.
My fingers grazed the fine soft pelt of her. There was nothing of a boy around me now.
Soon, there would be nothing of the girl, either.
The splendid tear of her mouth, the last of my old skin, torn away and the dark.
She will spit me out and swallow you whole.
My sister. She is all I feel now, all I know.
She promises me we will seek them out, come spring. We will show them what women we are, what great eyes and hands and teeth we have.
How proud they will be.