I wait until the moon sets and not a moment sooner. My body knows this rhythm already, and it wakes me just as the silence settles again and a hush falls over the blue predawn.
Stretching out my hand, I find what I already suspected—the other side of the bed is empty. I never sleep well, unable to keep my ears from hearing every sound in the night—every whisper of wind and breaking of a branch, every snarl and howl. The noises last night pierced through each deep layer of sleep, and there is nothing for it now except to face the day and what’s been done.
Beneath my feet, the floorboards are cold enough to make me shiver. I dress with haste, tying back my wave of copper hair, pulling a petticoat and skirt over my shift, my numb fingers faltering on the buttons of my waistcoat. The basket is just where I always leave it. Into it goes a wedge of hard cheese, the last of yesterday’s loaf of bread. On top of the food, I place a folded cloak and tie a second around my shoulders—the good one, heavy wool lined with fur. My roughened hands move quickly, working by rote, my mind still buried somewhere between sleep and waking.
Next, I take the silver from its box. This is where, as always, I feel my misgivings flaring to life—this could be the last time I wake from this bed, stand before our fire, venture into the woods alone. But I shake the fear from my bones; the silver necklace will protect me. I should know. And there are many more terrifying things in those woods than what I’m going there to seek.
I make sure the chain, thin like a wisp of moonlight, is secure around my neck. Then I lace my boots tight beneath my skirts and make sure to bank the fire before undoing the sturdy locks on the door and stepping out into the frigid morning.
Each time, I wonder—have we outstayed our welcome? Will this be the day the villagers have forgotten about the ways we’ve helped them and gathered with torches and muskets in front of our door? Heaven forbid a child is dead, or a farmer’s wife—something more irreplaceable than cattle or cats.
But all around me is the silence of morning; nothing yet stirs in the square, and there are no bodies lying strewn about, no trails of blood. The candle in the physician’s window is dark, and there’s no movement in the priest’s humble cottage except the lazy curl of smoke from his chimney.
The village doesn’t look much different than most, except that we’re a settlement of outcasts and dissenters, sent away from society for one sin or another—treason or thievery, adultery or heresy. Though we two have been settled here just over a year, I can never shake the awe of our ramshackle, bumbling existence. The cottages tilt as if they’ve had too much to drink. The farms are pressed close together like a group of travelers huddled around a fire in the dead of winter with their backs to the dark, untamed woods. The soil is rocky and unforgiving, the streams fickle—flooded one day, dry as bone the next. The church, only half-built and likely never to be finished, rises above it all like a disapproving guardian.
Despite the commotion that slipped its way into my dreams last night, this picture of a quiet morning loosens the tangled knot of worry in my chest that seems to grow tighter each time this happens, and I turn away from the village center and head for the outskirts. But each step replaces the worry with a fear that something even worse is waiting for me in the woods. The sun is creeping over the horizon now, though I cannot see it yet between the trees, only the way the light bleeds into the darkness. It will be a long time before the sun’s warmth burns away the frost that glitters on the half-bare trees, the grass in the field.
At the farm down the road, the farmer’s wife eyes me as she emerges from the barn with a pailful of steaming milk. She gathers her skirts in her free hand as if preparing to run, even though I am not the one with claws and teeth. I can see the accusation on her face, the same as all the others: witch.
“Goody Williamson, is your livestock accounted for?” I ask over the fence, which leans away from me like it, too, is afraid.
She gives a sharp nod in return and casts her gaze downward. “Careful, Miss. We heard an ungodly racket in there last night,” she says, tipping her head in the direction of the trees before she hurries back into the farmhouse.
Ungodly. As a religious dissenter, she would know. I back away from the fence and get on my way again, down the rutted, uneven road as quickly as my boots can carry me.
At the next farm, there’s an uneasy silence. The rooster that usually shrieks to the morning doesn’t make its call. Just as I come to realize what this means, the farmer himself steps out onto the road to intercept me.
“Miss Hamilton.” He’s wielding an axe. Perhaps he was just chopping wood, or perhaps he means to threaten me. The blade of his axe glints in the weak morning light. I remember the rumor that he once killed a man and his brother for trying to claim his land as their own, and fled before he could be prosecuted. “I found tracks in my coop,” he growls. “Your beast has taken my rooster and half my chickens.”
I’m half ashamed for the relief that comes over me, so suddenly I almost feel faint. A rooster and some chickens—that is a debt that can be repaid, a wound that can be mended. Perhaps what’s in the woods will not be so terrible after all.
“Goodman Duncan,” I tell him, voice hard, keeping the relief to myself, “be grateful that’s all she took. Such is the price you pay for her protection.” I glance down at his axe and its dull blade. “Or would you care to go into the woods and reckon with her yourself?”
I’ve caught him in an impassable paradox, and it’s not clear at first which will win out, his anger or his repulsion—of me, of her, of what we are. He holds my stare for only a breath more with his tired eyes, the same lifeless color as dry dirt, before he drops the axe and lopes back onto his own property.
“You’ll do well to watch your step,” he mutters, loud enough for me to hear even above the thunk as he buries the blade of the axe back in the wood block. He turns to give me a glare beneath the brim of his hat. “I’m not afraid of you, witch.”
I don’t make a habit of threatening the neighbors, but the words fly from my mouth before I can call them back: “Perhaps, Goodman Duncan, you should be.” I could curse the rest of his chickens till they lose their feathers and lay blackened eggs. I could poison his well, or call a plague down on his crops—but I only grip my basket tighter and hurry down the road again, and he doesn’t follow after.
Soon begins the path into the forest, though it’s only nominally a path, familiar to my eyes alone. I follow it deep into the woods where even the men, with their axes and knives and guns, will not dare to go, until it seems almost night again beneath the heavy cloak of pines. I walk until the faintly-worn path peters away to nothing more than a carpet of moss beneath my feet, and then I follow the blood.
There’s only a spot of vermillion here and there, but it’s a pattern I’ve come to know, and to my trained eye it serves as a path of its own, leading me along. Feathers cling to the grooves in the bark of trees in sticky clumps. As I approach the soft ground by the creekbed, tracks appear in the silt—the heart-shaped pad of a foot, the indents of four toes and gashes gouged by sharp nails.
I find the wolf curled into the hollow pocket of a dead willow tree, gnawing at something held down between her paws, so mangled it resembles only meat and entrails. She looks up when I step closer; my footsteps are nearly silent on the carpet of pine needles and decaying leaves, but she hears them.
Her eyes are round and intense as small suns, suspended in the sky of her rough brown fur. I clutch hard at the silver around my neck, moving my lips in a silent prayer that this time will not be the time I end up bloody and dismembered with the rest of her prey. I am powerful in my own right, I remind myself, and today is not the day I fall.
The wolf does not jump, does not rear up with teeth bared, nor does she slink away. She appears to be waiting, some deeply buried part of her recognizing what is soon to happen, and I know what she is waiting for is me.
I ease my grip around the silver necklace and set the basket on the ground among the brambles. I step closer, extending a hand, holding her gaze with mine. There’s something flickering behind those eyes, something I recognize and that recognizes me, but it will only come forth if I call it.
“Rosana.” I must speak clearly, imbuing my voice with power, so that she might hear.
The wolf blinks at me, long and slow, and rises a little on her haunches.
“Rosana Wells.” I swallow hard around the stone of her name in my throat. “Come home.”
The world falls away around us. There are only her eyes and mine. There’s no more village, no more farmer’s wives carrying the milk, no more men wielding axes, only the two of us on either side of a chasm almost too deep to bear.
The change happens slowly at first, so slowly that I almost don’t notice, like a flower gradually turning its head to the sun. But I blink, and then I see it: her ears pulling back, the fur receding. The eyes don’t lose their wide alertness until she’s fully there again, naked and human, and her eyelids droop with sudden exhaustion. I drop to my knees and embrace her, hirsute and smelling of iron, bloodied to the elbows.
“Thank you, Hester,” she breathes against my neck, pressing her lips there briefly, careful to avoid the burn of the silver chain. Relief unfolds in me like a crow unfurling its wings, the old sense of duty tempered by this reminder of why I venture alone into these woods on days such as this—to bring my love home again.
They’ll hardly admit it, but the villagers rely on her protection. When we had nowhere to go, escaping pitchforks and nooses, they allowed us to stay, even as they sneered witch and beast behind our backs. There are always dangers in the travelers that pass our way, the robbers who’d pick us for an easy looting, the revenge-seekers looking to even the score against what has been done to them, and the real packs of wolves whose howls pierce our sleep.
Rosana is our protector, the woman-wolf who spares no violence. Sometimes, even the rumors are enough to keep the outsiders away; if not, encountering a snarling, hulking wolf in the darkness of the woods is enough to keep them at bay. All this, however, doesn’t mean the villagers want to see her in the act, or after. The often-brutal nature of their lives does not mean they care to understand the brutal nature of ours.
I wrap her body in the cloak from the basket as she curls into me wearily. We have time to linger here in the stillness and quiet before the village really begins to stir, before our return home would be remarked upon. Only when her awareness fully returns does she ask, eyes sparking with a bit of trepidation and a touch of humor, “Have I killed the whole village?”
I shake my head, running my hands down her arms still shiny with sweat, across the tautness of her dirt-smeared thigh, reassuring myself that she is truly there. “Goody Williamson said you raised a racket,” I say, “but I believe it was only Goodman Duncan’s chickens—and his rooster.”
“Strange that the wolf has a hunger for chickens.” She smiles with her bloodstained mouth, but there’s a human guilt behind it. “I felt her rumble inside me last night, warning of some danger. I think I remember scaring off a highwayman, and perhaps I took the chickens as my reward. Has Duncan conspired to murder me yet?”
“He’s not brave enough,” I say, tucking a strand of her dark, tangled hair behind her ear. “Not enough to face both of us.” I’m partly trying to convince her, but also myself, quieting the part of my mind that always wonders if we will be so lucky next time.
“Good,” she replies. Her eyes slip shut in exhaustion again. I help her eat a bit of the bread and cheese—becoming the wolf is ravenous work—and before she can fall asleep there on the carpet of moss and pine needles, I help her into standing. She leans hard against me, but I don’t mind. I’m glad to feel her warmth again. She is a series of little fires—her head against my cheek, her shoulder against my chest, her hand around my elbow.
As we find our way back home, she leaves smears of blood on my arm and half-moons where her nails dig into my skin, but I do not mind that either.
Tara Fritz is a recent graduate of George Mason University’s Creative Writing MFA program, where she served as Fiction Editor of So to Speak Journal. In her writing, she loves to explore the weird, the surreal, and the uncanny. Her work has most recently appeared in Fearsome Critters and The Gateway Review, and less recently The Mochila Review, Brainchild Magazine, and others. She can be found at @taradoeswriting on Twitter.