The story prompt for the latest Word Count Podcast was a photo of a wolf, and Stephen Graham Jones’s novel “Mongrels” (if you haven’t read that book yet, you should definitely check it out).
My story is a riff on a fairytale. Sort of. A wolf. A grandmother. A girl with red hair.
Una is eight when she finds out that Grandmother is a witch.
Until then, she thought every grandmother was the same as hers, boiling frogs alive for potions, keeping forbidden herbs in the locked cellar beneath the kitchen floor, crafting amulets of skin and bone.
It’s Amelia, the village girl with red hair and threadbare dresses who tells her, the one who hangs around Grandmother’s cabin even when Grandmother tells her to stay away.
“That’s why everyone’s scared of her,” Amelia says, “because she might curse them, or turn them into something other than they are. If you weren’t a baby and a cripple, you’d have figured it out yourself by now.”
Una know she’s not a baby, but she is a cripple, on account of having only the one hand. Her left arm ends in a scarred stump as if it’s been cut off, the skin tucked in and sewn together, but she can’t remember the pain of it, if it ever happened, and she knows better than to ask Grandmother about it, because asking questions is a sure way to get your face slapped.
Other sure ways to get slapped include sweeping the floor poorly, peeling the potatoes without proper care, and dropping the firewood or spilling water when you carry it inside. On good days, Una might only earn one slap. Most days, she earns at least three.
Una starts dreaming about the wolf around the same time she finds out grandma is a witch. Or maybe she’s always dreamed of the wolf, but never remembered it before. In her dreams, the wolf is dark grey, almost black, with sharp fangs and yellow eyes. It eats meat and gristle. It crunches bones. It snarls and growls.
Every night she dreams about the wolf, and every morning she wakes up in a sweat, throat raw as if she’s been screaming in her sleep.
One morning, she asks Grandma if there are wolves in the forest. She fully expects a beating for asking, but Grandma only gives her a sideways look and grins, teeth gleaming in the firelight.
“Don’t you fret about wolves,” Grandma says, eyes glinting, “they’re the least of your worries.”
But Una can’t stop thinking about wolves. When one of the villagers comes to buy a healing salve from Grandma, Una asks him if he’s ever seen a wolf. He won’t answer, and once he’s scurried off, Grandmother beats Una until she can’t sit for a week.
Even so, Una keeps dreaming about the wolf. Every night, it’s there, and every morning when she wakes, she thinks of Grandmother’s sharp teeth, glinting.
One day, Amelia comes to Grandmother for a potion. Una hasn’t seen her for months, and Amelia seems different somehow, steps heavier, eyes warier, red hair tucked in beneath a cap. She holds a basket in front of her, but Una can see that her belly is rounder than before. When she comes out with her potion, Una follows her along the path and asks her what she knows about wolves.
Amelia laughs so loud the crows fly out of the trees.
“You’re asking me about wolves? That’s a laugh.”
Amelia’s face goes hard.
“Don’t call her that. I told you, she’s a witch. She’s no more your grandmother than I am.”
Something about those words feels like truth, even though Amelia won’t say anything more.
That night, Una sweeps the floor and peels the potatoes for dinner, brings in firewood and water, just like she always does, but nothing is the same.
“Amelia says you’re not my Grandmother, is that the truth?” she asks, regretting the words even as they’re spoken.
For a long while, Grandmother says nothing, and the silence scares Una more than any rage.
“The truth? The truth is you’ve got no one but me,” Grandmother says finally, and then she beats Una until everything goes black.
In that blackness, Una sees the wolf again. This time it sits beside her, watching her, its yellow eyes gleaming with something that isn’t hunger at all; something that looks more like sadness.
When Una wakes, wincing with pain, she’s on her back, but not on her cot. Everything is cold and damp and full of shadows sliced neatly by strips of dusty light. Shelves line the walls, stacked full of crates and jars, and it takes Una a while to realize she’s in the locked cellar beneath the kitchen, and that the light is coming through the warped wooden floor-boards of the house.
When she stands up and looks around, she sees the wolf.
No. Not a wolf, a wolf-skin, pinned to the cellar wall with crude nails.
Dark grey. Almost black.
Una touches. She feels the softness of the pelt. She traces the empty holes where the yellow eyes once peered out, grasps the curved claws dangling from the paws. She sees the edges where a knife sliced through the wolf’s gut and throat to skin it.
In her chest, memories she thought were dreams quiver like sobs.
On a low shelf below the skin sits a small, dusty, grey thing. Not until Una is holding it does she see that it’s a tiny wolf’s paw, smaller than her own hand, with rough edges of bone and skin where it was once cut off a slender leg, the grey fur stained with old, rusty blood.
Una feels the world she’s known – her own self, too – unravel into nothing more than bones and skin.
Fingers trembling, she pulls the wolf-pelt off the wall and drapes it over her shoulders, knotting the front-paws around her neck, her own eyes peering through the holes a mother wolf once looked through.
Above, the floorboards creak. The witch is awake.
Below, Una feels the weight and warmth of her new skin. She crouches in the shadows, waiting for the cellar door to open, waiting for the wolf to come.
© Maria Haskins 2018.
The artwork for this story was made by me, using Canva, and a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci: “Study of Hands”, from 1474.