The Anatomy of Spines

Lorelei was so close I could barely breathe: a leftover habit from days when we shared one sleeping bag. She had her sharp nose buried in my neck. Her fingernails pressed a thin staircase of white lines into my hip, clutching at me as if she would like to climb inside me. She’d have made quite the little home in the zipper of my spine; she would have been comfortable among the teeth.

I turned over, interrupting her protest with a kiss.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Happy birthday,” she answered, “and I’m sorry for your loss.”

“No loss. Not yet.”


“I told you I won’t do it.”


Our teacher, Elias, first tried to explain it to me when I was small. The classroom: a circle of stones worn flat by centuries of bottoms, old snow churned to green-gray slush, other children ushered into the creek and encouraged to savage its newly cracking ice. Rosco, stay behind, I need to speak with you. No, you’re not in trouble.

I cupped my palms over my knees. I stared after my friends, who tumbled over one another and tore at each other’s coats in the haste to smash the ice and smother the silver fish underneath. A weight, a crash, a reckless abandon, a failure to know anything but all of the above.

Elias explained about lines, simplicity, the order of things, blood, burials, necessity, mothers. Usually it’s fathers, he said, but your case is special.

I didn’t look at him. Instead I watched Lorelei pull a fish out of the stream. She’d skewered it on three of her claws; red spots glistened in a row like buttons. She could have undone them one by one to reveal muscle, bone, a buried sachet of eggs. She retracted her claws, dropped the fish into her palm. She grinned as our classmates gathered around her, poking the feverish fish and the blood that ran over her hands.

She met my eyes. She smiled wider. It was the first time I saw her smile.

Elias tilted his head, scratching forlorn at the gray whiskers of his jaw. He said, Are you paying attention?

I wasn’t.


“Rosco,” Lorelei said. “You have to.”

“I’m a special case.” I pulled on my jeans.

We’re a special case,” she answered. She reached out, linked her fingers through mine, pulled me back to face her.

She pressed my hand to her chest, over the tiny carved minnow that hung against her collarbones. Little fish, smaller than a coin, strung on a piece of leather.

“Yes,” I said. “But.”

“You’re always swimming upstream.”


To me, as a seven-year-old, it seemed she arrived out of nowhere. The necklace she had when she came wasn’t the minnow—I made that for her, later, after the first smile. The one she came with was a little sparrow, half in flight.

Lorelei was always half in flight, too. Her claws emerged at every sudden half-sound. Her teeth sharpened at a millisecond’s notice, grew too large for her to close her lips. Her transformations were faster and meaner than they had a right to be. She always needed new clothes and old patience. Only one of those things could be bought in inland towns, under the duress of winters biting harder each year.

At a Pack dinner one evening, I decided it was my job to make her laugh. I molded my mashed potatoes into a pile and spooned them onto my face: a butter-drenched beard.

Lorelei sat across from me, ensconced near the center of the long table. On either side of her, adults called comments to friends across the tables. Lorelei sat with her head down, eyes locked on her food.

My mother was distracted, discussing something about borders. I had limited time so I hissed: “Lorelei.”

She looked up. Her blue eyes went wide. She stared at my potato-smeared chin, then down at my plate, then into my eyes.

Her face was frozen, frozen, frozen—and then cracked. The smallest tightening of her mouth, an upturning at the corners of her lips.

My mother groaned beside me.

“Rosco,” she said, sighing. “Gods almighty. Why?”

I didn’t answer, even as she dragged me away by the ear to scrub my cheeks raw.


I let Lorelei pull me back to bed.

“This is what she wants,” she said.

“It’s what she tells herself she wants.”

“How is that any different?”

Outside: the aching, oblivious trills of small birds. A beautiful summer day. A beautiful day to die, if somebody could choose.

“What do you want?” I asked her.

She moved my hand from her chest to her cheek. Her skin under my palm looked so soft, but it was roughened by the endless days of buffeting wind.

“You,” she said.

“That’s what you tell yourself you want,” I said.

“Fine,” Lorelei admitted. “I want you. And I want to run this place by your side as consort. And I want our people to be happy and to prosper and to be strong. I want to protect this place.”

I stayed quiet.

“I want you to be the best leader we’ve ever seen,” she said, her voice dropping a few decibels. “And I want you to be happy.”

I shook my head.

“You’re right,” Lorelei continued. Now she skimmed the pads of her fingers down my bicep, stroked the back of my hand. “Your mother doesn’t want to die. But she wants all those things. She wants you to be Alpha.”

“It’s not what I want.”


My mother sat cross-legged in a clearing on a summer day near my seventh birthday, the breeze lifting her cropped curls. A mother is always something like a fairytale. Ethereal. Impossible. Beautiful.

They brought Lorelei to her. Led the wild-haired, sharp-toothed child practically into her lap, until she stood with her toes six inches from my mother’s knees.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hello,” Lorelei answered.

My mother refused to whisper around Lorelei as the other adults did. Did not take special care to eradicate words from her vocabulary like slaughter, hiding, mother, blood. She believed no word should get exceptional treatment.

“You will live with us now,” my mother said. “I’m not sure if you’ll like it, but it’s what will be.”

Lorelei continued to stare.

“Tragedy makes you iron,” my mother said. “Do you understand?”

Lorelei didn’t answer. But never, never did I see her bend.


I left the cabin and Lorelei in our bed. Outside the sun did nothing to warm my skin or my gut. I tracked across the curving bare path to my mother’s cabin, five hundred feet away.

I knocked; she opened the door. I expected, at least, dark purple circles under her eyes, a beaten dull color to match the strands of gray in her hair. She stood as calm and impassive as ever, dressed for the day as if it were any other day.

“Good morning,” she said. “Happy birthday.”

“Hardly,” I said.


I first kissed Lorelei when we were eleven years old. It made sense—survivor of one Pack, heir of another. We were inevitable. We didn’t want to believe it was sensible: we wanted to believe it was desperate, doomed, forbidden. We were frustrated when my mother and the other adults caught us kissing and walked by, amused.

When we were eleven, the kissing was childish. By thirteen we’d moved on to the desperate, handsy, clawing stuff you could expect from any kids our age. We were sick of being two separate people: we wished we could fuse our bodies.

Our people aren’t talkative. Lorelei especially—who idolized my mother—preferred to speak with actions. The pads of her fingers, ever-present on the insides of my wrists. The pressure of her chin resting on my shoulder. The quiet kisses in my hair, almost absentminded, which invariably sent awed chills rolling down my chest. She rarely spoke her feelings, but I almost never wondered how she felt.

“I love you,” I told her when we were fourteen.

She smiled. “Of course.”

I frowned.

“Do you love me?” I asked her. The only time I ever did.

She folded my palms into hers and lifted to her toes and kissed me, slow and deep and smoldering.

“I do,” she answered. “I always will. You are the other half of my soul. I don’t know who I am without you.”

Soft warmth poured over my skin, making me want to shed layers even in the subzero temperatures.

“Why do you love me?” I asked her, just fishing at this point. I thought.

She rolled her eyes. Smirked.

“I love you for who you are.”


My mother invited me to sit across from her at the huge slab of tree trunk that stood in the cabin—half coffee table, half center of command.

“I won’t do it,” I told her.

“You must.”

“What kind of leader takes orders from his mother?”

“A good one.”

I gripped the arms of the rocking chair, trying not to remember lullabies, my forehead under her chin, being small enough to fit completely in the crowding of her elbows. I didn’t say, I can’t take orders from my mother if she’s dead.

“I don’t want this.”

“Why would you?” she replied. “And why should that change anything?”

“Surely the Pack doesn’t want an Alpha who doesn’t want this,” I said.

“No,” she said, “but they want you more than someone who does want it.”


Lorelei never outgrew the idea that love is just constancy, that always is short for always here, that being mutually consumed in something heady and suffocating is the highest expression of forever. Love became an exercise in balancing the vacuum of her desire, her need, with my speeding heartbeat, which had less to do with arousal and more to do with panic.


“You’ll meet me at the river,” my mother said.

As she passed me, she let her fingers fall on the back of my neck. The lightest touch, the roughest fingers. I felt a thrum of warmth, a desire to lean in—but her nails were cold and knife-sharp on my spine.


Lorelei thumbed the minnow around her neck, worrying the tiny, clumsy scale details smooth.

“It’s a new beginning,” she said.

“That’s not what it feels like.”

“So dramatic.”

“It would be the end of everything.”

She paused. Her fingers dropped lower, tracing the fabric of her shirt between her breasts, where I knew the sparrow still hung hidden.

“The end of everything is much worse than you know,” she said.

“Lorelei, I didn’t mean that.”

“You always do, whether you know it or not.”

“I am no fool,” I said. “I would never compare one death to hundreds. I would never compare the loss of a mother to the loss of a people.”

“But,” she said.

“But this is my personal nightmare.”

“It’s your birthright,” she said.

“I never wanted this.”

“I never wanted to be a lone survivor,” she said. Breathing heavy but even. “I thought…”


“If you were an orphan, too, you might understand.”

My lungs were not my own: she was inside my ribcage, breathing with me, for me, instead of me.

“Why would you ever want me to understand what that feels like?”

“I’m selfish,” she answered, easily. “And so are you.”


Riverbank. In the water next to us, dozens of oblivious silver fish. A crowd, gathered.

“Ready?” she said.


My mother nodded. A hand sailed down in lieu of a flag. She closed the gap between us in half a second. By then she was half-transformed—her jaw elongated, body hunched and furred, teeth and claws at ready.

Her palms-paws collided with my chest, knocking me to the ground. An animal roar escaped her. The rancid heat of her wolf’s breath blew in a dizzying fog around my face.

My body shook with tension. I let her knock me down, let her hiss. I dug my fingers into the leaf litter underneath me and willed the instinctive sharp points of claws to slide back underneath my cuticles.

She stopped. She didn’t tear my throat out. I hadn’t expected her to—still, some small part of me feared she was exactly as ironclad as she appeared to the world.

She made a growling, guttural noise that sounded vaguely like: Fight back.

“No,” I whispered, so only she could hear.

Rosco!” Lorelei screamed from the sidelines. I didn’t take my eyes off my mother’s yellow irises, but I could sense the heat-movement-struggle, the many hands pinning Lorelei’s arms to her sides and barring her from the fray. “Rosco, fight her!”

“No,” I whispered again, even more quietly.

My monster-mother rose, looking down on me now from a distance of two feet instead of two inches. She lifted one furred, heavy arm and slapped me.

My cheek opened underneath her nails and stung with the gush of hot blood and flecks of dirt. I howled, and I could feel my nails curving outward again, my jaw cracking, desperate to stretch into slavering maw.

When I still didn’t react, she climbed off me. She fought her wolf features, packed them away into herself chunk by chunk, till she had returned to a petite woman with gray-streaked hair in stretched-out, dirtied clothing.

“Coward,” she said, her voice carrying in echoes, drowning out the sound of the water, the ignorant minnows. “Weakling. You are not my son.”

I closed my eyes against the betraying blue of the sky and let the open wound in my face weep.


Lorelei, stitching my face closed with clumsy, unpracticed hands: always the fighter, never the healer. My mother’s child, more than I ever was.

“It will scar,” she said. “That’s good. It will remind you.”

“You’re just like her.”

“That’s no insult.”

“I know.”

“Why didn’t you fight?” Her fingers tender now, my hair sliding between them. She kept her other hand on her chest, pressing the carved minnow.

“I don’t want to. And,” I added before she could object, “I can’t. I am no fighter. She would kill me.”

“She’s your mother.”

“She doesn’t believe in pulling punches.”

“Believe me, as someone ‘just like her.’ She wouldn’t kill you.”

The dust motes danced in the late-afternoon light. The world inside our cabin was insulated. I didn’t want to think about what awaited me among the Pack outside: there was no place for me anymore. My mother bore a son too early, and she was so young to have an adult heir already. If I had really killed her, they’d have hated me. But they must have hated me more for failing to kill her. For failing them: for failing the age-old rituals which had kept us hot-blooded in centuries of tundra winters.

“What do you see for us?” I said. I laid my hands on Lorelei’s hips. “Someday. A family?”

“Yes,” she said. A cautious glow hovered over those blue eyes. I never wanted to talk about the future.

“How many kids?”

“Well, the one is traditional,” she said. “I wouldn’t mind another, if it wouldn’t complicate…things. Or we could make like your mother and take in a stray.”

“You’re always swimming upstream,” I said. I thumbed the necklace at her throat.

She caught my hand. Moved it to her breast. She leaned in with a heated, breathless smile. Her cheekbones shined with the day’s washes of adrenaline, terror, the warm pressure of love.

She kissed me, touching her lips to mine with an agonizing slowness. My hand, still on her hip, squeezed involuntarily. Lorelei swung her left leg over my legs and lowered herself into my lap, gentle-careful not to touch the stitches in my cheek.

We’d spent so many afternoons this way: bathed in the mellow light, kissing and fucking the afternoon away as if we had all the time in the world.

“The one, traditional child,” I said. “She grows up to kill me.”

Lorelei froze.

“A long way off,” she said.

“Not long enough,” I said.

“This is how things are. This is how we have done things.”

“Centuries ago. When the Packs were always at war, when our people wanted leaders to prove they could be ruthless and sacrifice anything to win. Things aren’t the same.”

“Your mother believes differently.”

It didn’t matter that, on an intellectual level, above the ache in my chest, I knew that Lorelei didn’t want me to kill my mother, that she just wanted what she thought was best for me. And us.

“I will not kill her,” I told her. “Whatever it takes. If I have to leave, become a lone wolf, live with humans in the city—”

“Rosco,” Lorelei said. “Don’t talk like that.”

I touched her face. I ran a thumb along her jaw. She frowned, recoiling at what must be unusual pressure there, a tension I couldn’t shake even when I wanted to be gentle.

“I’m serious,” I said. “I’m sorry, Lor, but I will never, never give you what you want. If…when, someday, my mother leaves this earth, it won’t be because of me.”


I woke at dawn. I lingered under the blankets, unmoored in the sense of being awake before I needed to be. I rolled over, letting the battery-powered heater go a while longer.

Then I felt it. My body locking at the joints. My breath gone, lungs sucking in on themselves. An emptiness tore open my chest—I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think—

But I knew then, without knowing. Mom.

I shot out of bed like a vampire out of noon sunlight, like a silver bullet out of a sawed-off shotgun.

I sprinted across the worn ground in bare feet. I ripped my mother’s door off its hinges and flung it, ignoring the splinters.

My mother lay on the ground, cheek in dirt, misleading delicate curls clotted with blood. Blood streaked down her back, soaked her nightclothes, gushed out of inch-thick, glistening gouges that showed the pale shattered bones beneath.

And there, beside her: Lorelei. Her chest heaved. She crouched over my mother, disheveled and feral. The minnow and the sparrow had both come loose, hanging in front of her black shirt.

Two of Lorelei’s fingers were buried in a deep hole in my mother’s neck. Her other hand lifted into the air as she turned to look at me. Her fingers stained red. I remembered the river, the fish. Her almost surgical deconstruction of its body, the glee with which she speared its flesh. The first time I’d seen her smile. She didn’t smile now.

And I was still, again.

Without inhaling or breaking eye contact, Lorelei sank her claws an inch deeper. My mother still did not move.

I waited to feel it. The bubbling red heat. The razors bursting from my fingertips, the teeth crowding my jaw, the snap of bones reforming and springing toward her.

My fingers twitched. My shoulders convulsed, an uneven flinching that forced me to take a step back. The building pressure at the nape of my neck, then—nothing.

Lorelei rose. Aside from her hands, she was painfully clean: just a few flecks of blood across her cheeks and shirt, blending into the dark color. She straightened and took one slow step toward me, as if testing the water.

I was somewhere else—watching from some space outside my body—I couldn’t move it, could only watch her, numb in the head, as she took two more steps. One more, until she was close, and I could smell the blood.

She smeared the blood across my bare chest with trembling hands. With the two fingers that had sliced through my mother’s spine, she drew splattered lines across my cheek. She flicked her fingers out in a fanned shape, so that droplets danced across my stomach and shoulders. She pulled my hands from the clenched fists at my sides and undid my fingers, smearing them red in long strokes. I imagined her scrawling words with her fingertips, writing gods knew what.

The red was an unmistakable brand, bright and shining against my skin. Almost serene in her movements, Lorelei stepped away from me. She found the wash basin in the corner of the room and rinsed the thick viscous red from the creases in her palms. She baptized her hands.

Outside, the Pack’s voices began to swell.


Lorelei is so close I can barely breathe. Her sharp nose buries in my neck. Her fingernails press a thin staircase of white lines into my hip, clutching at me as if her limbs were a finely wrought cage. She learned the anatomy of spines from these long-night embraces: she discovered just how to reach in and unzip.

Every night I dream about that morning: the icy arrest of knowing, the sprint across the path, the standing there, watching Lorelei sever the last thread that connected my mother to life. My mother would have been proud of her. Sometimes, in my dreams, the boiling red overwhelms me, my jaw snaps, my claws lurch forward, and I skewer an open-mouthed Lorelei under the ribs: the strings of her necklaces caught between my impaled fingers. On those nights, she chokes and gurgles and stills next to my mother.