W O L F E Y E S
In a tiny house beneath the stars, her heart beats to the wolves crying. With every pounding pulse, she feels the beasts prowling through the outskirts of the village—fangs bleached white with the ethereal glow of virgin moonlight, claws inch-deep into the skin of farmers’ watchdogs, red eyes scanning the darkness for another creature to devour. She fears their eyes the most—devoid of any white, only that single bloody hue. Her mother says that their eyes betray their godless natures, but she says that her daughter’s eyes are lovely. Adah finds this ironic, because whenever she looks into the mirror, she sees the same beastial red in her own childish eyes as those of the wolves in the wood.
The villagers call her a work of witchcraft. They call her other things, too, but not to her young face. The people see in her eyes the desperate bargain that was made by her mother and father. They bargained to birth a child—born out of the twisted underground magic. The bargain that always brings repercussions, mutilations, horrors.
But Adah doesn’t feel like a horror when she’s in her family’s tiny cabin— in the kitchen, helping her mother pour soup broth into big pots to heat. Cora stands over her, teaching her with the patience of a doting mother, forgetting she ever cried to the witches and warlocks to help her in her barren state. On the earthy wooden table, Adah watches her mother lower a knife on haunches of lamb. She loves her rhythm and her laughter—one smile to drop the cleaver over the blushed red meat, separating muscle and bone.
She hates going out into the market to buy the lamb with her, though. Even with a hood imprisoning her face into hot, sticky, concealed darkness, everyone wonders what she is—Adah more than anyone else. Perhaps it is her mother’s ethereal beauty that makes her form so much more sickening to the villagers. She trails behind Cora like a twisted shadow, shaming her with every step.
Her mother is a seamstress known throughout the village—fingerprints woven into the robes and cloaks and winter gloves of nearly everyone. Her hands are lithe but steady, producing flawless stitches through fabric soft and heavy. Cora once tried to show Adah how to sew the complex patterns of her craft. Now, she strenuously tries to teach her daughter the simplest stitching, though there seems little hope for her.
Perhaps it is their whiteless nature, but Adah’s eyes never focus on the single plain threads as her mother’s beautiful brown ones can. Instead, her sharp vision darts constantly by instinct around the room—pricking her tender hands with needles that draw brilliant red streams from her fingertips. Regardless, the scabs covering her fingers heal far more easily than the wounds inflicted by her former schoolmates. The most organic form of hatred, somewhat hidden and somewhat more easily seen than looking into a mirror and seeing your own bloodied face.
Helv Rue is tall and broad and larger than the forests he chops to the ground. He swings his axe like an executioner, humming symphonies of nothingness to himself as he goes about his daily work. Nearly every day, Adah sneaks out to watch her father and the other men—the tree butchers, she silently declares them to be, always hard at work. Sometimes, even after the butchers have left their craft at the end of their day, she’ll remain to pick at the wooden chips and wonder if the trees themselves suffer during their decapitation.
Now that her mother took her out of school, Adah wanders the forests by day. The great trees yet to fall victim never judge her when she pulls off her hood to let her deep brown hair and the light from her gleaming red eyes spill out. In some way, these trees are just like her—all different and twisted and gnarled so that no one specimen ever looks identical. A sharp juxtaposition to the children in Knollsborough, who share the same white sclera. The same pristine, youthful skin. The same joyful laughter.
Whenever Cora allows her to disappear, Adah goes straight to the woods. She does not just go to remove her hood and see the trees. Instead, she goes because it is only here that she feels normal—as though the deep dark magic that brought her into the world flows through the forest streams and hides in the foxholes that she ambles over. The sort of witchcraft that hides in the wood, in tiny societies of warlocks and druids that Adah has always heard are twisted and dark beyond even the stories of fairytale. Perhaps these were the witches her parents connived with to bring about her birth.
“Damn it, Helv!” A man growled at her father one day, clutching his axe less like a huntsman and more a murderer. “Why’d you ever trouble yourself with the dark ways? Didn’t you know the cost?”
Helv grunted. “It was Cora’s idea, not mine.”
Adah doesn’t blame her father, though.
Today, she watches her father and his murderous conspirators with as much curiosity as distaste—catching fragments of curses and manly conversations. Her eyes blend into the underbrush like some creature of the night. Her father is bigger than all of the others, tall yet planted firmly on the ground like the trees that he obliterates. She knows that he despises her, but he piques her childish interest. Once when she was younger, she asked him how he kept all of the strength and muscle inside his skin from spilling out like a shrunken old cotton shirt that bursts at the seams when you try to put it on. He furrowed his eyebrows and told her that was the stupidest question he had ever heard. She supposes that any paternal instinct he previously had evaporated when he realized that she was a freak, but Adah still adores him for the simple fact that he is her father.
She loves the underbrush of the forest—the moist leaves wrapping around her feet like some makeshift blanket. She loves the animal tracks that tell the stories of wild journeys taken by night.
“You need help?” A tree butcher grunts at her father, swinging the butt of his axe to rest on his broad shoulders—wider than the horizon.
“No,” Helv replies in his usual gruff l tone. “This tree’s a formidable trunk but no match for me.”
“Suit yourself,” The other man replies with a spit.
Helv pauses, returning to his work.
“You still considering it?” The man with spit still gleaming on his lips mutters.
“I don’t got the coin to.” Helv shakes his heavy head.
“You don’t need to give them coin. They have no need for it. She belongs there anyway.”
“Nobody wants a child that isn’t theirs.”
The murderer of the trees shifts his axe off of his broad shoulders. “You don’t even want the child that is yours.”
“She’s barely mine.” Helv huffs visibly, arching his sweaty back and shifting his weight to lay the fatal blow to the previously indomitable tree. The gargantuan being, now felled at the hands of her father, crashes to the ground with a crack loud enough to rupture the world. Adah lays motionless on the ground—inhaling and exhaling the hatred of her father that rattles in her head louder than the impact of the plummeting giant.
“So take advantage of the opportunity. You’ll likely never get the chance to be rid of her ever again.”
“I reckon she’d die at their hands.”
“You say that like you care.” The spit on the man’s lips is now mingled with the dust that rose when the beautiful tree fell dying. “No one will blame you for wanting to be rid of her. She’s bad fortune—you can see it in those eyes. Besides, she’ll go easy enough. She ain’t much of a fighter, is she?”
“She’s just a little girl,” Helv laughs, as if the whole concept is darkly comical.
“It’s bad omen, you know.”
“Why do you think I’m getting rid of her?”
Another bead of spits falls from the executioner’s lips. “What does Cora say of all of it?”
Her father sneers—mortal eyes squinting in spite. “She’ll have nothing to say of it. She’s blinded by the spell of motherhood. She ignores that the child is cursed and a mistake and has no place in our village. She doesn’t understand that the little creature has overstayed its welcome.”
Adah can hear her heart beating between her ears and behind her glistening red eyes.
Tonight, she does not walk over the bridge and the sky-high hill—through the village gates and back to her parent’s cabin. For eleven years the entirety of her existence has been the collection of flickering village lights framed by trees, yet even she acknowledges the truth now—that her home is not where she was raised or born. Not where her father’s axe leans up against the side of the tiny cabin, somehow immune to the rust from rainstorms and midwinter frost. Not where the other children have beautiful blue eyes and steady hands to help their mothers sew. Not where for every one kind soul who smiles in pity at her on the street, there are throngs who want to burn her alive or send her away to the warlocks of the wood.
“If they want to be rid of me, then I will find my way on my own.”
Adah cannot run from Knollsborough fast enough. She claws at the rich forest soil to pull herself over knotted tree roots slick with deciduous forest mold. Night and day are dark twin sisters under the thick canopy of tree leaves. Her mother once told her stories of the wilderness—mushrooms that would swallow children up, plant specimen with tendrils that could choke you and never let you go—yet even in such a place, the sheer freedom is exhilarating, intoxicating, enough to make darkness and rot unusually beautiful.
She is eleven years old and terrified. She misses stirring soup in the kitchen with her beautiful mother’s eyes examining her face with nothing but unabashed kindness. Once upon a time, Cora told her that she would survive Knollsborough and the hatred and go on to make a good life for herself somewhere else, and Adah believed her with all the hopefulness in her young heart.
A jagged root catches Adah’s foot, and she falls hard. Her hands scrape against the weathered bark—ripping the skin raw and making breath a slow and agonizing feat to be achieved. Adah lays on the forest floor, allowing her hands to rest on the front of her blouse. The blood stains the powder blue fabric—rough cotton and wool. She listens as a light rain begins to fall, mixing a watery concoction of blood and raindrops and the tears that she wishes she were not crying.
Darkness has long-suffocated the wood, but as she looks around her, she sees the eyes. At first, she wonders if there are mirrors hidden by the mysterious sorcerers in the underbrush for some ritual. Or perhaps she is hallucinating a thousand pairs of her own eyes.
But when the first wolf creeps forward, she knows. Its gait is fluid—paws mutilating the rich, dark soil below them. White teeth longer than her fingers are bared with pride through a curiously open maw. It nears her, never striking, but instead staring. Adah stares back—looking into the whiteless eyes so red that if they were not framed by a beastial form she would mistake them for her own. Other creatures emerge from the shadows.
Adah lays motionless, silently daring the beast that is so much like her to act. The pack mother stretches, stepping closer still to her until she begins to wonder if she is preparing to use her godlike jaws.
This creature, instead, leans down in a manner something akin to a horse grazing, and begins to lick at her hands. The sensation is sickeningly kind—almost maternal, not carnal. Adah remembers the way that her mother would clean her hands when she came home with a scratch—the rough cloth lovingly applied that would leave her body feeling cleaner than the day that she was born. Somehow, this feels even better.
The wolf raises her head, only to open her maw and release a howling sound akin to guttural laughter.
“Tell me, pup—did they ever tell you who you really are?”