Wolves at the Door

There was once a girl who was raised by wolves.

The girl-wolf did not know how she came to be raised by wolves, nor did the huntsman who found her in the middle of a dark wood covered in dirt and mud. The girl-wolf did not know it was wrong to be raised by wolves, although the huntsman knew. The girl-wolf did not want to be taken, but she was.

The child I can finally give me wife, the huntsman thought upon seeing her.

The girl-wolf was beautiful despite her wild hair filled with knots and brambles and her fierce startling gaze and her nervous temperament. She barred her small yellow teeth at the huntsman and bit his hand when he reached for her, drawing blood. Somewhere in the distance a wolf howled for her; she howled back, trying to say, here I am, here I am.

The huntsman took her home. His wife cleaned her off, gave her pretty dresses to wear, taught her words that made no sense, made her eat cooked meat with a fork and knife, and forbade her from ever going back into the woods.

“The woods are not your home anymore,” the huntsman’s wife told her. “You must remember that you are no wolf.”

With the wolves, the girl-wolf would run and run, her arms and legs brushing against the fur of other wolves, only sometimes wondering why she could not always keep up; she would wrestle with her sister-wolf in the decaying fall leaves, the sister-wolf biting her just hard enough to teach a lesson, but never drawing blood; she would impatiently wait her turn after the pack had killed a deer, then with delight she would chew on the bones, would suck out the marrow; she would sleep soundly in the winter surround by warm fur and warm bodies, dreaming of nothing at all.

With the huntsman and his wife, the girl-wolf only felt an acute loneliness, a grave sense of loss. She was told to call the huntsman and his wife father and mother, told she was daughter, but she did not know what significance those words held; she only knew what it meant to be a part of a pack, to belong to something greater than herself.

Then one day as the girl-wolf sat toiling at the work of mending that the huntsman’s wife had given her, she heard a familiar sound that made her heart leap: a wolf’s howl from the distant dark woods.

The huntsman’s wife looked at the girl-wolf in alarm. “We’ll go to town,” the huntsman’s wife said. “To buy you pretty fabric to make a pretty dress from. Would you like that?”

The girl-wolf did so like the way she looked in her starched dresses that danced and flowed around her knees and like how they protected her from the cold. She had always wanted fur like the other wolves, and her dresses were the closest she ever came to having some of her own. So the girl-wolf, filled with guilt at not answering the howl, went to town with the huntsman’s wife.

Then one day as the girl-wolf sat peeling the potatoes that the huntsman’s wife had given her, she saw a familiar shape moving in the wood’s tree line: a wolf’s silhouette.

“You hair is so beautiful,” the huntsman’s wife said quickly; she, too, saw the wolf. “How about a new comb with which to brush it?”

The girl-wolf did love how shiny and long her hair had gotten. But the sight of the wolf had awoken something inside her. The girl-wolf looked down at her hands; her fingernails were short and clean, a small cut from the peeling knife bled. How she wished she had been born with paws instead. The girl-wolf looked back up at the huntsman’s wife’s face; her eyes were large and bright, and she tried to smile through her fear. Every night the huntsman’s wife tucked her into the small wooden bed that the huntsman had made for her, covered her with a down blanket, and sang her a lullaby. One night when she had first come to be here, when the huntsman’s wife had thought her asleep, the girl-wolf had heard her say, “What a perfect little girl. Blessed, we are, blessed. Thank the gods that brought her to us,” with such emotion that the girl-wolf understood the meaning, even though she did not understand the words.

So the girl-wolf accepted a beautiful comb with an ivory handle and let the huntsman’s wife brush her hair every morning. Yet each night the girl-wolf would dream that she had the body of a wolf, and that she ran and ran in the woods, always searching for what once was.

Then one day as the girl-wolf sat staring forlornly at her plate of cooked meat and potatoes the huntsman’s wife had given her, the huntsman, from the depth of his hunting bag, produced a red, ripe apple.

“For you,” the huntsman said. “The first of the season.”

The girl-wolf had never tasted an apple before, and its color reminded her of the red of freshly spilled deer’s blood on the snow, so she accepted the offering and took a bite. A piece of the apple lodged in her throat; breath stuck in her throat like a sharp bone. She was choking, and then she lay dead on the floor of the cottage.

The huntsman stood and wished that he had left the child in the woods.

The huntsman’s wife cursed the gods, asking them why it was to be that she should always be without a child.

Then the sound of wolves howling and something scratching at the door broke through their grief. The huntsman readied his axe, but his wife steadied him and said, “Let them in.”

And in came a grey wolf, regal and yellowed-eyed, with long, agile legs and long, sharp teeth showing through his lips. The body of the girl-wolf was still lying on the floor. The wolf sniffed at her hair and licked her face, and then very gently took hold of her arm and dragged her into the night. More wolves met him at the tree line, some howled and some yapped and some took hold of the girl-wolf to deliver her back home.

The huntsman’s wife stood at the cottage door, watching as the small girl disappeared back into the darkness, and she was reminded of the time she stood in this same spot and saw her husband emerge from that same darkness with a feral child in his arms, and what joy she felt at the sight, and she did not understand why she could not make the girl her own, why she could not tame her.

In the woods, as the wolves gently clasped the girl-wolf’s dress and arms and legs in their teeth, dragging her deeper into the woods, her head bumped along the ground and the piece of apple dislodged from her throat. The girl-wolf awoke, but she awoke as a wolf. Whether her body was still that of a girl or that of a wolf she did not know or care; she stretched and felt strong muscles underneath her fur; she spoke and it came out as a howl; she ran and felt her four paws hit the soft earth. All around her, the bodies of wolves she had known her whole life jostled and beat against hers in joy, and then they ran.