When I wake, I am curled up as small as a seed. My hands are tucked between my knees, my face pressed into sweet loam. Morning dew blankets my skin like thick, glistening fur. There is a small potato beetle, yellow with black stripes, on my shoulder. I don’t doubt that there are more elsewhere, but I can’t feel the tickle of tiny feet picking their way across my flesh.
I can’t feel anything, really.
That’s how it always is when I wake up. I can’t feel anything, because I have not yet tried to move. When I do try to move, there will be pain. There’s no telling where it will be—my hips, my shoulders, my spine, my thighs, my hands. Some days it lives in the muscles between my ribs, making every breath feel like an argument.
But until I move, everything is numb. I try to stay still for as long as I can. I try to swallow down the feeling of numbness. I know better than to hope, but I hope anyway—maybe today will be the day I get to keep that feeling. Maybe today will be the day nothing hurts.
Today is not that day. Tomorrow won’t be, either. I breathe deep enough to dislodge some of the dew, and it begins to trickle across my skin, the tiny drops finding each other and becoming big enough to gain momentum.
I wish I could just turn back, right now, right away. I wish I could spend all my time as a wolf. But my mother always told me that I mustn’t indulge myself too often. She taught me that escaping into my other self is lazy. It’s selfish, she said, and there’s always a price to pay for selfishness. There’s no such thing as free relief. Every transformation means a day I get to wake up in a body that doesn’t hurt, but the longer I spend Away, the guiltier I feel when I return.
It was a week, this time. A whole week without pain.
I stay curled up in the leaves as long as I can, and I wonder what consequences will be waiting for me.
There are footsteps on the edge of the potato patch. They’re heavy, crunching through the dead leaves the old hemlock tree dropped all at once last night. Too heavy to belong to my best friend, Yana, who walks as quiet as a deer unless she’s mad at you about something. Too heavy to belong to her sister Anneke, either, which is a relief, because Anneke always screams when she finds me in the potato patch even though it’s happened a dozen times before.
That means those footsteps belong to Yana’s father.
“Suss, is that you?” Alger calls softly. I wince into the loam. I hate it when it’s him that finds me.
“It’s me,” I reply. I can hear him shifting his weight from foot to foot. I ease myself upright as quickly as I can, which is not very quickly at all. It’s my hips today, and my shoulders. I roll my neck back and forth, my thick black hair brushing past my shoulders, knocking another potato beetle free. I think my shoulders might only hurt from sleeping in the potato patch, but the hips are something deeper, an ache that splinters down into the tops of my thighs like the thin white roots of a leek.
They’ll be bad all day. Worse by nightfall. I don’t have time for that kind of pain, not today, but I don’t suppose my hips care what I have time for.
I pick my way across the potato patch to where Alger is standing, his back to me. The line of his shoulders is tense. He’s holding out a cloak with one arm, slightly behind him, so I can take it without him seeing me. I grab the cloak and wrap it around myself, breathing in the familiar wool-smell of it. Only when I clear my throat does Alger turn around to smile at me.
“How bad is it this time?” I ask Alger, but he just pats my shoulder, as awkward as I imagine he would be if I were still naked.
“Not bad,” he says vaguely, and he gives me a smile that tells me it is, in fact, quite bad. My suspicion is confirmed a few seconds after we walk through the door of his cottage, when Yana greets me with a bundle of clothes and a grim nod.
“Three chickens, two gardens, the apothecary, and maybe a goat,” she says, by way of a greeting.
“What do you mean, maybe a goat?”
She shrugs. “You know how Nan Gideon is. One of her goats has been on the verge for a while, and it died while you were Away, so she’s been telling everyone you mauled it.”
Away is what we settled on years ago, when we were trying to figure out how to talk about the time I spent as a wolf. Yana used to say when you weren’t you, but I told her that wasn’t right. I’m still me when I’m a wolf, even if I’m missing some of the things that other people think of when they think of me. Even if I’m missing one of the biggest things I think of when I think of me. I’m still myself.
“Nan Gideon is a terror,” I mutter, walking behind the shoulder-high woodpile to Yana’s bed. Stacked wood separates her bed from Anneke’s, and Anneke’s bed from Alger’s, so they can all sleep near the hearth without being right on top of each other, and so they can all feed the fire if they wake up cold in the night. Yana’s bed is a pile of blankets with good soft straw beneath, as tall as my knees, and I want to sink into it and stay put all day. The pain is exhausting, especially when I’ve had enough time Away to grow accustomed to its absence.
But there isn’t time to rest in Yana’s bed, any more than there’s time to doze in the potato patch. I have amends to make. I have a price to pay.
I slip into Yana’s underthings and dress, both sewn from rock-beaten linen that’s been washed so many times it’s soft as clover. I tie one of my own aprons over them, an apron that stays at Yana’s house for potato-patch mornings like this one. The apron is brown, with white flowers stitched across the hem. I sewed them myself, back before my hands became too stiff to hold a needle for long enough to do more than mending. Yana lifts her brows at me in a silent question, and when I nod, she helps me tie the strings around my waist, her fingers flashing quick and light. I don’t need her help—I could tie the apron myself—but it’s good of her to save me from using my hands, knowing the day I’ll have ahead of me. She’s the only person I would ever let do a thing like that for me, in no small part because she still asks every time. She never assumes that I need her help; it’s mine to take, as much or as little as I want.
Yana presses her forehead to mine, her thick black curls surrounding my face. She smells of the sweet oil Anneke works into both of their hair at night before they go to sleep, and there’s clove on her breath, and I love her so much that I could burst.
“How is it today?” she asks softly, too softly for anyone but the two of us to hear, because she knows I don’t like for everyone to know my business all the time, which is difficult for someone who becomes a wolf from time to time and destroys parts of the town she lives in.
“Bad,” I whisper simply. “Hips and shoulders.”
“Fingers?” she asks. “Knees?”
“Not bad,” I reply, then smile a little. “Yet.”
She smiles back. “You’re in for it with Nan,” she says. “She’ll have your knees for dinner if you let her.”
“I wish she’d have my knees for dinner,” I laugh. “Then they’d be her problem.”
Yana laughs with me. She’s one of the only people who would ever laugh with me about things like my knees refusing to bear weight at the end of a hard day, or my fingers swelling and stiffening after too much close work. It’s why we whisper—if Alger overheard us talking, he would fret, offer to help, try to fix the day up so I could rest. If Anneke heard, she would do the same thing, but with more ostentatious pity than Alger, and I would bare my teeth at her and growl to make her shriek and huff and flounce away from me, and then Yana would have to make dinner while Anneke pouted.
I shouldn’t do that to Anneke, but it’s so easy.
Yana walks with me to visit Nan Gideon, because she’s my best friend and would never leave me to deal with Nan alone. It’s a long walk, all the way across our village, from the woods at the south to the woods at the north.
Nan is the oldest person either of us have ever known. She tells people that she’s three hundred years old, and I believe her, if only because I don’t know for sure that spite can’t pickle a person into immortality. She’s tall and hale with broad shoulders and all of her original teeth, a fact she’ll tell anyone who will listen. I don’t blame her for being proud of the teeth, and I don’t blame her for being loud and rude, either—I’m sure that both features are at least as responsible for her longevity as the spite.
But I do wish she didn’t hate me quite so much.
“Suss! You nightmare! Wolf girl!” she shouts once we’re past the fence at the edge of her property. “You’ve done it this time!” She strides out of her cottage with a broom in one hand and a dead chicken in the other. She swings the chicken by its feet, shedding feathers with every angry gesture, listing off my crimes. According to Nan, I’ve killed her chickens and her goat. I’ve also apparently ruined her fence and spoiled her crops and put a hole in her roof and a tear in her favorite scarf.
I offer to pay her for the chickens and mend the scarf, because I know I’m probably responsible for the former, and because maybe I can buy a little goodwill for next time with the latter. “But everyone knows you’ve been complaining about the hole in your roof since the last rain,” I say, folding my arms across my chest, “and you ruined your own crops with that Barley Tonic you bought when the festival came through town, and your fence got busted by that goat you claim I killed.”
Yana winces when I mention the goat, but Nan’s face lights up with triumphant malice. “I don’t ‘claim’ you killed it,” she says, not bothering to defend the rest of her lies. “I know you killed it. I watched you.”
I shake my head at her. “I didn’t,” I insist. “I’m not like that when I’m a wolf, I don’t kill more than I can eat. And your goats are mean,” I add quietly.
“Oh, I’m sure you wouldn’t kill a healthy goat, you cowardly cur,” Nan says, folding her own arms to mirror mine, the chicken sticking out at a strange angle from her armpit. “But Martin wasn’t the same since he cracked his skull on that fencepost. He was slow and sick and weak, and you killed him. Didn’t even eat him.” She clicks her tongue and shakes her head at me. “Wasteful child.”
I look to Yana helplessly. Usually, she would be rolling her eyes at Nan Gideon, but she looks doubtful now, and her eyes dart sideways to me. I can’t tell if there’s fear in her glance, and my belly twists at the idea of it.
“Let’s look at the goat,” Yana says. “That will help us decide.”
“Decide, nothing,” Nan grumbles, but she leads us around her garden to the goat pen anyway. Inside the pen, four nanny goats are pressed into one corner, far from the shoddily mended break in the fence. On the opposite end of the pen, Nan Gideon’s broken-headed billy goat is lying on his side, very obviously dead.
His throat is torn open, a raw and ragged mess of red, practically inside out. Blood has muddied the dirt in that entire corner of the pen.
“I don’t want to gainsay you, Suss,” Yana says softly. “If you say you didn’t do it, I believe you. But… this looks like your handiwork.” She crouches to peer a little closer at the billy goat’s neck. “And to be honest, if Nan went to this much trouble to make it look like it was you, she deserves to get away with it.”
I swallow hard, nodding. I look to Nan Gideon, my throat hot with shame. “I’m so sorry, Nan,” I say. “I don’t… I don’t remember doing it, I don’t know what happened, I—”
Nan spits in the dust. “I know,” she says. “You didn’t mean anything by it. But you left the whole thing dead. What are you going to do about it?”
What, indeed? I usually remember the time I spend as a wolf—maybe not in sharp detail, but in shades and shapes and feelings and flavors. I remember it, when I kill.
At least, I think I do.
But what if I don’t? What if I’m losing myself? Maybe I’m not me anymore—maybe I’m just a mindless, senseless killer.
I nudge the goat’s foreleg with my foot. It’s not fully stiff yet. “How long has he been dead?” I ask.
“Since just before dawn,” she says. “I guess you wore yourself out on him.”
I twist my mouth. I wish I could remember. Or, I think, looking at the amount of blood on the ground, maybe I’m grateful that I don’t remember. “Why would I kill him and just leave him here?” I murmur.
“Henhouse syndrome,” Nan replies at top volume. “I’ve seen it plenty of times before with real wolves. Killing more than you need, so you can save it for later or share it with your friends. Only,” she adds, an unpleasant smile creasing the corners of her mouth, “you don’t have any wolf-friends, do you?”
I purse my lips. I don’t like talking about that, mostly because she’s right. I’m not lonely when I’m a human. There’s no such thing as alone in a village the size of mine, and I have Yana. But when I’m wolf-Suss, I’m on my own. There’s no pack waiting for me in the woods. I roam the streets and sometimes wander into the forest, but it’s just me. Alone.
I tell myself it’s for the best. If I had a pack, I would spend even more time Away. It’s already so difficult to make myself come back.
I redirect the conversation to the goat. “The meat will still be good, I think,” I tell her. “I could get Young Raiphe to come and butcher him. You could sell the meat,” I add quickly, because Nan’s mouth is puckering at the idea of eating goat that was killed by a wolf. She usually just spits on the ground, not at people, but I don’t want to press my luck.
“And we would clean up all the blood and put fresh straw in the pen,” Yana says brightly. “This old billy goat was nothing but trouble for you, Nan. Suss did you a favor by culling him, really.”
I hold my breath. I can’t afford to pay Nan for the goat—as it stands, paying her for the chickens will thin my porridge for a few months, but I suppose that’s part of the price I have to pay. There’s always a price.
Nan considers the offer for a long time before she nods. “All that, plus pay for the chickens you killed, and you’ll mend that scarf,” she says. We shake on it, but I don’t exhale until we’re past her fence again.
“Thank you,” I gasp, grabbing Yana’s arm in both of mine. “I thought she was going to make me into soup.”
“I think she considered it,” Yana says, leaning her head on top of mine. “I don’t know why wolf-Suss picks on her so much.”
“I can’t believe I killed an entire goat. I can’t believe I don’t remember doing it. Have I done other things like that? When I’m Away?” I look at Yana, and she shrugs. I wonder if she thinks that kind of thing is standard for me, when I’m a wolf. I wonder who she thinks I am. “Yana… You’re not scared of me when I’m Away, right?”
Yana laughs, her truest laugh and my favorite one—a high, startled cackle that’s loud enough to scare the crows off the roof of the church nearby. “Of course not,” she says, and I don’t doubt her. “Suss, I’ve slept next to wolf-you more times than I can count. I’ve pulled ticks out of your fur. I don’t know if you remember it, but once I had to comb this mud out of your tail that was the foulest—”
“Okay,” I interrupt, “I think I understand.”
“You really don’t. I think it was from an actual swamp.”
“But this is different. This is a goat. A goat is big, and—”
“I’m not scared of you,” she says, and this is the Yana you can’t argue with, the Yana who’s going to be in charge of the whole world someday. “But I’m scared for you. Nan Gideon is a crone, but she’s nicer about these things than some people would be.” We’re at the next house, with a garden that I apparently dug around in sometime during the week I spent Away. Yana pauses before we get to the door, looping her arm through my elbow. “I know you need this,” she whispers. “There has to be some way for us to keep you safe.”
I swallow hard and nod. “It can’t go on like this.”
She squeezes my arm and I know she loves me exactly as much as I love her. “It can’t go on like this,” she agrees. “But we’ll figure it out.”
I was right about my knees. By the time the sun goes down, they’re weak, threatening to buckle with each step I take. It wasn’t the hardest day I’ve had, but it was up there. I had to make my apologies to several people, and I had to set the apothecary to rights, and I had to convince Young Raiphe, the butcher’s son, to go contend with Nan Gideon. Yana, bless her, refused to help me with that last one. Young Raiphe has been after her for ages, and we both knew he would have demanded that Yana go walking in the woods with him in exchange for his work.
He still tried asking me about her, but I told him I hadn’t spoken to Yana in days, and couldn’t possibly promise her over.
In the end, I had to play piteous wretch for him, twisting my fingers and looking abashed and talking about how hard it is to be all alone in the world. He sighed and said my mother would have wanted him to help me, and I wanted to tear his eyes out for saying it, but then he told me he would handle the goat for free, so I gave him my flowery thanks and promised to tell Yana florid tales of his generosity.
There’s still Nan Gideon’s yard to repair, and her scarf to mend, but those things will wait for another day. Right now, pain consumes everything between my belly and my knees. I need my hearth. I need my bed. Yana lets me lean on her as we leave the apothecary and make our way back to my cottage. I hate to lean on people, but Yana is good at making it look like we’re just arm-in-arm, gossiping as we walk, and I don’t mind so much when she knows I’m hurting.
“I don’t think you’re a bad wolf,” she says. “I don’t think you’re an extra-mean wolf, or a vicious one. You’re always plenty nice to me.”
“It’s hard,” I tell her, because I don’t know what else to say. I just don’t have the right words for it: the way wolf-Suss is still me, but with all different priorities. When I’m Away, I don’t care about the same things the same way, because I’m free. I can do what I need to do, what I want to do, without fear.
Because there’s no pain.
Yana understands, even if I don’t know how to tell her. It’s the reason she’s never once asked me to stop turning into a wolf when I can’t stand to live inside my own body anymore. Wolf-Suss isn’t in pain. Not the same way. Wolf-Suss can get hurt, can bleed, can feel pain—but while I’m Away, I don’t hurt just because I’m alive. I can run without worrying that my body will punish me for it. I can leap and roll and fight and kill, and there’s nothing about me that’s pitiable or powerless. I don’t feel guilty about the joy, not when I’m in it.
I think that’s why I struggle to remember what’s important to human-Suss. The way it feels to live in a body that doesn’t hurt—it’s intoxicating, overwhelming. When I’m wolf-Suss, I feel like I can do anything I decide I want my body to do, and it makes me feel drunk. I become impulsive. I sleep when I want to sleep, without worrying that someone will think I’m lazy. I growl at noises I don’t like instead of trying to ignore them so they’ll ignore me. I run as fast as I can just to feel the wind. I kill chickens because I’m hungry and because something in the way they move makes my brain go all sharp and focused and I know I can get them.
But now I’ve killed a goat, and I don’t remember deciding to kill it, and I don’t remember killing it, but I do know that sharp, focused feeling I must have had when I decided to do it. I know the joy of jumping at something big. I know what it’s like, feeling that I want it feeling that I swallow when I’m a girl. When I’m a wolf, I want it is almost always immediately followed by I do it.
I know what it must have felt like for me to want to kill the goat, even if I don’t remember killing it. And killing a goat is a lot worse than killing a chicken. It’s more destructive. It’s bigger.
“I’m a problem,” I whisper, my eyes stinging with tears.
“Everyone understands, Suss. Everyone knows you need a break sometimes.” Yana says, old anger clipping her words. “Just because your mother told you it was wrong—”
“She was right, though, wasn’t she?” I ask, and one of the tears spills over. “It’s selfish, and people—people must be so tired of dealing with me. How long will they keep forgiving me for ruining everything?” The tiny cottage I used to share with my mother is in sight now, right in the middle of the village, and the thought of collapsing into bed is as sweet as Alger’s mead.
Yana shakes her head. “You’re not ruining anything. And I mean it—you’re not a bad wolf, as far as wolves go. You’re not a problem. But I think… I think this is a bad place. For you.”
It hits me like a blow to the belly. “You want me to leave the village?”
“No,” Yana says, and her voice is the sharpest I’ve ever heard. “I swear, your head is as empty as Young Raiphe’s. I don’t mean the whole village. I mean this place.” She points at the cottage. It’s the right size for me to live there on my own, but it was always too small for my mother and I to share, back before she got the cough that put her in the ground. “It’s not a good place for a wolf to live. It’s not as though you wanted to wander into the apothecary and knock everything over,” she says, her voice thoughtful, that quick flash of anger already gone. “But if I was a wolf stuck in the middle of a village, trying to get out, I would probably cause trouble too.”
Yana is being perfectly reasonable, but a long day of pain and apologies has me feeling more than a little raw. “You’re right,” I tell her. “I should stop being a wolf altogether.”
Yana pats my arm, opening the door to my cottage and walking right in. “You know that’s not what I mean,” she says. “And you don’t need to solve it tonight.”
She’s right. I’m so tired and everything hurts so much that the thought of trying to solve anything at all brings tears to my eyes.
Yana kisses my cheek and asks if I need anything. I wish she would stay the night, curl up beside me in my bed and tell me about everything I missed while I was Away, leave my pillow smelling sweet. But I know she has a rendezvous with the chandler’s son, and I send her off to meet him with a tight hug and a promise that I’ll come by tomorrow on my way to Nan Gideon’s to hear about whatever kisses may or may not transpire.
I feel her absence like a toothache, but it’s for the best. I’m so tired that I only get one shoe off before I fall into my bed.
I dream of being Away.
It’s all I dream about anymore. Being Away from the pain. In this dream, I’m myself, the kind of self that I get to be when I’m not using a quarter of my attention to monitor the pain I’m in, to make sure I’m rationing my energy throughout the day. I’m myself, but I’m not carrying the constant weight of unending hurt.
I’m free. I’m running through the village. Moonlight silvers the church, the apothecary, rooftops and puddles. I splash through one of those puddles for the sheer joy of feeling cold water on my paws. I don’t worry that my legs will refuse to carry me any farther, without warning. I don’t worry that I’ll tire myself out too much to stand later. I don’t worry about any of it. I catch movement out of the corner of one eye, a church cat prowling through the shadows. I turn my head to follow the cat’s low, liquid movement, still running at full speed—
And then I trip. I trip over my own paws, tangling myself up in my own movement, and I tumble snout over tail, landing hard on my flank.
When I’m a wolf, I don’t laugh. But I would if I could, when something like this happens, because it hurts, but it’s also fun. Sharp pain flares through my ribs, through one of my legs. I stand up and try to put weight on that paw, and a flash of pain stops me from taking a step.
I lick the paw, and it feels a little better. I keep licking it until a stone comes loose from one of my paw pads. There is blood, but not much of it. It hurts.
All of it hurts so sweetly.
I don’t get to feel this kind of pain when I’m human-Suss. I am too careful for that. I don’t run and fall like this, because I move in ways that will conserve my ability to keep moving all day. And when I do injure myself, the pain is always a little distant. It’s like the straw in Nan Gideon’s goats’ pen. They don’t notice one fresh extra fistful of straw, even if it’s more yellow than what they’ve already got to walk on. A cut, or a twisted ankle, or a fresh bruise: that pain just adds a new voice to the constant chorus of pain in my body.
But when I am a wolf, the pain sings alone, bright and strident. It calls my attention for a reason—my paw hurts because there is a rock in it, and then it hurts because there is a hole in it where the rock used to be. I feel pain when I am a wolf, but it’s pain I can attend to. It’s pain that has meaning.
It’s pain that’s mine. Mine to notice. Mine to attend to. Mine to see and feel.
In the dream, I’m still licking my paw when I hear a noise. It’s as bright and sweet and lusty as the pain that pulses through my ribs where I landed hard on them.
It’s a howl.
I wake with a start, sweat covering my skin as thoroughly as dew in the potato patch.
A howl. I heard a howl in my dream.
My pulse thuds in my ears. I breathe deep and slow, trying to calm myself down, staring into the moon-greyed darkness of my bedroom. It was just a dream. Anything can happen in a dream.
And then I hear the howl again, and I know I am not dreaming anymore. My pulse picks up again, and I clench my blanket tight in my fists because I know I can’t go. I can’t change, can’t run out into the street and howl in answer, can’t try to find whoever that is. I mustn’t change.
If I change now, I don’t think I’ll be able to change back again. I don’t think I’ll be strong enough to choose this pain.
This one sends a shiver through me, because it’s closer. That howl is coming from within the boundaries of the village. She’s looking for me, I think, and I don’t know how I know that’s true, but I do.
I grip the blankets tighter, and I wait for the howls to die away.
This isn’t good. If she’s looking for me, that means I’ve been Away often enough to make a mark. To make an impression on other wolves in the area. Is she wondering why I’m by myself? What might she want from me? What might she do to me?
I hold my breath, which is always bad for the pain, but sometimes I can’t help myself. I try not to berate myself for my weakness, and ultimately, I fail. If I could just handle the pain, I wonder, would I ever need to be a wolf at all? I think about what Yana said, about this being a bad place for me.
It’s not a bad place for her. It’s not a bad place for anyone but me, and then, it’s only bad because I can’t survive unless I occasionally turn into a thing that doesn’t belong in the middle of the village. That doesn’t belong in the middle of all the human smells and sounds and fences and walls.
I think back over the last year, how much of it I’ve spent as a wolf. It’s been a lot, maybe too much. I bite my lip hard as that howl sounds outside again, and I know something’s got to change. This can’t go on.
She’s looking for me.
It takes a long time for the howls to fade away into the woods, and sleep is hard to find after they do.
When I finally get there, I dream the howls again. I dream that I am howling back.
The next afternoon finds me shoveling blood-crusted earth and straw out of Nan Gideon’s goat pen. Yana scatters fresh straw behind me, telling me about her evening with the chandler’s son. The nanny goats follow the flick of her wrist with their strange eyes.
“Do you think you’ll marry him?” I ask, glancing up at her to see if she smiles before she answers.
She does, and it’s a secret smile, tucked in and quiet. “Maybe,” she says, and the way she draws it out is a yes. I’m about to tease her about it when she looks sharply to the woods. “Did you hear something?”
“Hear what?” I ask. I straighten, bracing one of my aching hands at the small of my back, where fresh pain is starting to bloom.
Yana squints into the forest, and I follow her gaze, trying to see what-ever it is she’s looking for. There’s movement, low to the ground and close to the trees—but it’s too deep into the wilderness for me to really see.
“I think we’re done here anyway,” I tell her. We leave the goats behind, hurrying toward the heart of the village. I can’t help looking over my shoulder, watching for the flash of yellow eyes in the trees.
Eyes that might be looking for me.
“Can we… talk about something?” I ask as Yana finally begins to slow to a normal walking pace.
She squeezes my hand and frowns at me. We talk about everything—we’ve always talked about everything. “Of course,” she says, sounding almost offended that I would ask.
“I’ve been thinking,” I tell her. “About how often I’m Away.” Her frown deepens, and my resolve falters. We walk shoulder to shoulder, and in doing so we take up most of the road. There’s just enough space between buildings for a small cart to pass, and even then we have to maneuver around children and chickens and pots that have been set outside to cool. The thing Yana said hangs in my mind: This is a bad place for you. “I know it’s a lot, and I’m sorry.”
Yana knits her brows. She twists her mouth around like she does when she’s trying to find the right way to say a thing, then shakes her head.
“What is it?” I ask.
“Nothing,” she says. “What did you want to talk about?”
It’s not nothing, and I know it, and she knows that I know it. But I know better than to try to pull it out of her, so I forge ahead. I’ve been building my courage up all morning; I have to see this conversation through. “I think something needs to change.”
“I think so too,” she says, squeezing my hand tight. She looks at me sidelong, her mouth still twisting to one side, her eyes wide with worry. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you about it.”
We get to my cottage and step inside, the shade an immediate relief from the too-bright afternoon sun. Light comes in through the little window over my bed, but it’s an east-facing window, so the light is dim and cool. We both collapse onto my bed. I lift sweat-damp hair from the back of my neck as Yana peels off her stockings. “I think I need to stop,” I say, fast and quiet, trying to get it out as quick as I can. “For real this time.” I nearly choke on the words, and I’m shocked by how quickly the tears come, as if they’ve been waiting for me to say the thing out loud.
Yana freezes, her stockings dangling from her hand. Usually she would drape them over my hearthstone to dry, but instead she throws them across the room without bothering to look where they land. In the same movement, she turns to face me on the bed, and I can see the shock on her face even through the haze of my tears.
“No,” she whispers, her voice raw. Then her arms are around me, her face pressed into my shoulder, and the entire world is the sweet-oil smell of her hair and the clean sweat of her skin. “No, no, you—no,” she says again, and I realize she’s crying, too.
I push her away gently, just enough to see her face. She presses her forehead fast to mine. “I do,” I tell her. “I have to stop. I’m not paying enough attention to what’s important, and I’m… I’m ruining everything. I’m dangerous.” I’m sobbing now, hard and ragged, because I know I’m telling the truth, I know it. “I can’t keep going Away and upsetting people. I can’t keep making them put up with me living here like this. I can’t—I can’t keep making you put up with me. I can’t lose you,” I choke out.
Yana grips my shoulders in her strong hands and gives me a gentle shake, her forehead still pressed to mine so hard that it nearly hurts. “You ridiculous thing,” she whispers. “You’re my best friend, you could never lose me.”
“I’m so scared,” I say, pulling away from her enough to wipe my cheeks on my sleeve. “Yana, you don’t understand. I’m scared that if I don’t stop now, I never will.”
Yana laughs. “So don’t,” she says. She rests her head on my pillow, her face puffy, her eyes shining. “Why do you need to stop? You said… you said it helps, right?”
I shake my head at her. “It feels better, but I can’t keep killing chickens and wrecking the apothecary, and who knows what else.” I put my head on the pillow beside her, staring up at the rushes in the ceiling. “I’m hurting people. They’re nice about it, but…”
“…but something has to change,” Yana says, as though we agree with each other. As though my version of change isn’t directly opposed to her version of change.
I feel like I’ve fallen through a hole in the floor into a whole other room that I didn’t know was there. Yana’s talking about something she can see, some version of reality where I’m not a burden on the village, where I’m not in pain all the time, where I don’t lose my friend and my community. Some version of reality where everything can be okay all at once. “Right,” I say. “Something has to change.”
She reaches for my hand and twines her fingers through mine, the callouses on her fingers matching mine. “So let’s change it.”
I am curled up in Yana’s bed, as small as a seed. My head is resting between my paws, and my nose is covered by my tail, and I am half-asleep, perfectly quiet. A slant of moonlight stretches under the door, but it does not reach Yana’s bed.
I am resting. Not because I am tired, not because I hurt, but because it is good to rest. Because I enjoy resting, now.
In the morning, I will get to spend a few hours minding Nan Gideon’s goats while she goes visiting—warm sun and a patch of grass and a half-nap. I’ll keep one eye on the goats, ready to growl if the new billy goat tries to break through the fence, and the other eye on the woods, in case any foxes get ideas about the chicken coop. In the afternoon, I’ll go into the village to play with the children, who are learning every day how hard they can tug on a wolf’s ears. The littlest ones will cling to my fur with sticky fists, trying to ride on my back, and I’ll let them. I’ve never had a back that could tolerate carrying children around, before now; I don’t cherish the sharp yanks they give my fur as they try to balance, but it’s worth the discomfort.
I get to do that. I get to decide when pain is worth feeling.
There is a noise, low and faint, and my ears prick, swiveling toward the shaft of moonlight that stretches under the door. I open one eye halfway, then all the way, and then I am sliding off the bed to stalk toward the door with a low head and soft, creeping footfalls, because there is not just a noise anymore.
There is a shadow.
This is not the first time the shadow has appeared in the time since I last left my cottage. It’s been two months now, and the money Young Raiphe gave me for the cottage is still sitting in a pot under Alger’s hearth, hardly touched. I have not been back since he bought it from me.
I have been Away nearly the whole time.
My mother was wrong, I think, because it turns out I’m not ruining anything by remaining a wolf. I haven’t lost anything of myself. Alger doesn’t seem to think it’s selfish of me to bring home rabbits for the stewpot, and Nan Gideon has gone from shaking her fist at me to giving me baskets of eggs from her chickens to bring home. I only go into the village when I want to, now, and so I never feel trapped and distracted and uncomfortable, and there hasn’t been an incident at the apothecary or the church or the blacksmith or the butcher.
It’s been two months. I’ve changed back into my human form a few times, to have conversations, or to help with things that need fingers. It’s just as bad as it was before—only, now, I decide when the pain is worth facing, and when it’s time to leave it behind. I walk into the pain freely, and I walk away from it fearlessly.
I slink to the door, the fur on my ruff bristling. There is a huffing noise coming from outside, soft but insistent. I press my nose to the crack beneath the door and take in the smells of dust and pine and holly and creek-water and meat.
The shadow doesn’t move.
I nudge the door open with the flat of my head and slip out, soundless.
The wolf that stands outside is larger than me. She’s broader, too, more heavily muscled. Her fur is dark, seeming to drink the moonlight in where mine reflects it. The only part of her that shines is her eyes, and both of them are fixed on me.
I let my head and tail drop. It took me a few tries to figure out that this is the right way to greet her. The first night her shadow appeared outside my door, I approached her with my tail high and my mouth open in the wolf-smile I show to the people of the village. With them, that stance makes me seem friendly, nonthreatening.
From her, it elicited a low, warning growl, pulled-back ears—and then she was gone.
She came back a few days later, though, and after a few wrong tries, I learned. This is the way to do it. Head and tail low, nearly laying down. I extend my front paws toward her, and I wait.
After a long moment, she makes a sound between a growl and a whimper, and then her face is beside mine. She’s bowed low, her tail waving high behind her, her chest touching the ground in front of me. Her eyes are bright, and I know I’ve done the thing right. Her posture is, I’ve learned, acceptance. It’s permission.
It’s an invitation.
I leap up and the moment I do, we’re off. I don’t know how to tell yet when her play-bow represents an offer to run, or to hunt, or to wrestle, but it doesn’t matter because we’re doing it together. Tonight, she wants to run, and so we do—past the potato patch at lightning speed, into the woods, through the trees. She moves quietly while I crash through the brush, ungainly and gleeful. We muddy our paws near the creek, and I follow a strange scent until I find a snakehole too small to accommodate my nose. Our shoulders brush as we run, and we glance at each other often. I am not alone in these woods anymore.
The moon is nearly gone by the time we return to Yana’s house. The sun, I know, will be up soon. My companion and I press together close. I’m still learning this language, the syntax and the grammar of being a wolf when another wolf is around, but I know this much: when she presses her flank to mine and leans her weight against me, she is making sure I know that she is my friend.
I do the same thing to Yana, now. When I leaned on Yana before, it was because I trusted her to support my weight; I trusted her with the knowledge that I needed her help to stand. Now, it’s because I choose to lean on her. I still trust her, and she knows, because I lean into her. She knows that I love her. She knows that she’s my favorite person, my best friend, no matter what shape I’m in, and no matter how much—or little—I hurt.
I turn to head inside, wanting to get back into the bed before anyone wakes up—but the door is already open. Yana stands in the doorway, watching us. My companion’s ruff begins to rise, but before she can decide that Yana is a threat, I move between them. I walk slowly toward Yana, not to avoid frightening her, but to keep my companion from thinking there is a chase to be had. I press the top of my head into her waiting hand. I lick her fingers, which I’m sure she hates—I’ve never done it before, but it works. It shows my companion that Yana is someone I know, someone I trust and like. She isn’t prey. She isn’t a threat.
My companion takes a slow step forward, every line of her body tense. She moves toward us, silent and cautious, until she’s close enough that I could step forward and press my nose to hers.
Yana lifts her hand, just as slowly as the wolf walked. She offers up the knuckles of her fist. I press my nose to them, then nudge them toward the other wolf. Toward my friend.
My companion stretches her neck forward and, without taking her eyes off Yana’s face, she presses her own nose to Yana’s skin. Yana lets out a soft gasp—and just like that, my companion is gone, running into the woods as fast as a stone falling into water.
“Well,” Yana whispers, digging one hand into my fur. “I take it that’s your friend? The one that killed Nan Gideon’s billy goat?”
I can’t answer her with words, but I let my tail thump against the backs of her legs. That’s one of the first things I learned from this other wolf, when we started running together for the first time—she’d killed Nan Gideon’s goat, and a half-dozen rabbits and squirrels besides, leaving them behind for me. It was an invitation I couldn’t have understood. It was an offering.
Yana shakes her head, her eyes on the trees. She watches for a long time before clicking her tongue at me. “Well, you’re all-over mud,” she says. She starts walking toward the rain barrel, knowing I’ll follow. “And you don’t even have the decency to look embarrassed about it,” she adds in a loud whisper over her shoulder.
I’m not embarrassed, even if I’m not looking forward to the cold water on my paws, and Anneke’s complaints about the smell of my wet fur. I’m not embarrassed at all. I’m home, and I don’t hurt, and just like my mother always said: there’s a price.
The price is mine to pay as I see fit. And I see fit to pay it as often as I need to. As often as I want to. I am loved, and I have purpose, and I am wholly myself. The price I pay for this comfort is only the loss of a human voice, of fingertips and bare skin. I’ve lost nothing of myself, of the person who I am, the person who my friends love, and so the cost of the life I live now is an easy one for me to bear.
Everything is mine to have, if I want it. Finally, for the first time in my entire life, I feel like I can admit: I want it all.
And I will take it all.
(Editors’ Note: “Away With the Wolves” is read by Erika Ensign and Sarah Gailey is interviewed by Haddayr Copley-Woods on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 30A.)
© 2019 Sarah Gailey