April 6, 2019

WOLFSKIN by Matilda Lewis

"Dear girl, why have you called me?"
"The man I loved has wronged me..."
The blacksmith’s daughter stumbled through the woods like a blind woman. Her steps were small and careful as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, but the barren branches of the trees reached out to tear at her skirt, scratch her arms, and tangle in her fair hair all the same. Though the moonless night and the tight weave of the branches above her bathed the woods in blackness, she didn’t dare light her lantern; she was still too close to the village. Only when she was certain that she was far enough from the path that there was no chance of a late-night traveler spying the flickering of the flame from afar did she light her lantern. Still, her heart beat like the wings of a panicked bat. Every few steps, she looked back over her shoulder, half hoping and half fearing someone would step out from behind a tree to drag her back to her bed.

It took the blacksmith’s daughter the better part of three hours to find the clearing in the woods where the earth had been trampled to dust and nothing grew save a gnarled tree that wept a thick black sap. The hooting of the owls and the rustling of the forest beasts in the underbrush ceased the moment the girl set foot in the clearing. Even the fox whose dying-woman cry had unnerved her more and more each time it screamed had gone silent. The girl approached the ancient tree and knelt at its trunk, setting her basket down beside her. She reached in and pulled out her fine green cloak, five white tapers, and a pair of sewing shears.

She glanced around the clearing one last time. Though the blacksmith’s daughter knew she was alone, the fine hairs at the base of her neck stood on end. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something watched her just at the edge of the woods, sunken back in the shadows.

She bent to lay her cloak out flat on the ground. A blood-beat pounded in her ears as she lit one candle with the flame of her lantern before setting the other four down in a line at the hem of her cloak. The fifth, she placed above the hood.

The girl drew in a shuddering breath as she opened her sewing shears, bit her lip as she sliced into her palm with the blade. She held her hand out over each candle in turn and squeezed a drop of blood into each wavering flame.
She closed her eyes, bowed her head, and waited. She had made charms and cast little spells before, trifles so small she had never been sure that they had done anything at all, except perhaps in her own mind. But that sort of witchery was something most of the village girls did, now and again, when they could do so without fear of the admonishments of their parents or the minister.

Calling upon spirits was different than the childsplay that entertained the village girls in the dull winter months, when there was little else to do. It was deeper, older, darker, and it made her tremble as if stricken with fever. With every moment that passed, the drumming in her ears grew louder and louder until it was all she could hear.

Then came a voice, sweet and sonorous and thick as honey. Fair girl, lift your eyes, it said. The blacksmith’s daughter did as she was told.

Standing at the edge of her cloak was a spirit in the shape of a pale woman with black eyes that glinted like treasure at the bottom of a well and cloven hooves where it should have had feet. It wore nothing but the tumble of its dark, thick hair and an iron crown hanging from a cord around its waist. The crude points dug into the spirit’s hip and silvery-black blood dripped from the wounds. It should have been in agony—and perhaps, the blacksmith’s daughter thought, it was—but it wore a serene smile upon its lips.

Dear girl, why have you called upon me?

After a moment’s hesitation, the blacksmith’s daughter answered, “The man I loved has wronged me terribly.”

And you want him to suffer for it, don’t you, sweet girl?

The girl’s response caught like hooks in her throat. Unable to voice her reply, she nodded.

The spirit smiled, and the girl cringed away; behind its rosy lips, it had far too many teeth, all sharp and glinting.

Crooning like a mother to a child, it said, Darling girl, do not be afraid. I can give you the means to the retribution you crave, if you are willing to strike a bargain.

The girl had expected this. In the village, children whispered of witches dealing with spirits, trading things they held dear in exchange for riches, or love, or forbidden knowledge. “I’ll give you my first child,” she offered. She had heard stories of people trading their firstborn children with spirits in exchange for that which they desired.

The spirit shook its head. Lovely girl, that is not a fair trade. Its lips curled back in a wolfish snarl. You aren’t certain to have a child. I will not make a trade for something that may never exist. I won’t be cheated, precious girl.

“I’ll give you all of my memories of my mother, whose soul is in heaven.”

What need have I for your memories?

The girl’s heart hammered in her chest, battering at her ribs like a frantic bird trying to escape its cage of bone. She knew one thing the stories said spirits were always willing to trade for. She swallowed hard and steeled herself before looking the spirit in its drowning-dark eyes.
The sun had not yet risen when the blacksmith’s daughter returned home from the woods with the spirit’s resonant parting words repeating over and over in the back of her head. When you return home, beloved girl, it had said, look under your blankets and quilts. You will find the skin of a wolf. When you are ready, go into the woods where nobody will see you, and wrap it around your shoulders. Then, you will have the means to take revenge upon the man who cast you aside.

The girl crept into the house she shared with her father, walked on her toes past him where he lay snoring in bed, and clambered up the ladder to the loft where she slept.  Sure enough, the spirit had spoken true. When she peeled her blankets and quilts back off of her bed, there was a timber wolf pelt spread out over her straw mattress.

The blacksmith’s daughter reached out to run her slim fingers through the fur, smiling to herself.
Every afternoon, the weaver’s pretty black-haired daughter went out into the woods to gather plants for her mother’s dyes. Though she had been told time and time again to be wary when she walked the forest paths, she never was. She knew the woods too well and loved them too much to be afraid of them.  She knew every bird, every beast, every tree, every flower, and it seemed as if they all knew her, too—and loved her. In the village, they whispered that the weaver’s daughter had a touch of witchery in her blood, for who but a witch could walk the wolf-haunted woods without a care or fear? One day, they said, her luck would run out.

With her basket at her hip, the girl stepped lightly, nearly skipping, down the path, humming a cheerful tune to herself. That evening, she had arranged to meet with the handsome hunter who often brought her flowers when he returned from the woods.

So lost in her daydreams was she that the weaver’s daughter did not hear the padding of the wolf’s paws as it stalked her. She did not hear the twigs snap when it stepped upon them, and she did not hear how it whined after her. Only when it stepped out from the underbrush and onto the path, snarling, did she whirl around, dropping her basket in fright.

Before she could turn to run, before she could even let out a scream, the wolf was upon her, pinning her to the ground and tearing at her throat. Weakly, she tried to push the beast away, but what little strength she had left her with each spurt of blood upon the dusty path.
 
Gore-spattered and panting, the wolf gazed down into the eyes of the weaver’s daughter, once such a pretty grey, now clouding over. The blacksmith’s daughter had taken her revenge, rending the flesh and tasting the blood of the girl who had stolen the man she had loved away with shy smiles and winsome glances. He would grieve for a time, she knew, but she could be there to comfort him, to remind him how he had loved her. He would never know it was she who had murdered the weaver’s daughter; everyone in town would agree that the girl had gotten what had always been coming to her for being so careless, for wandering heedless of their wise counsel to be wary of beasts when she went into the woods to gather plants for her mother’s dyes.

Gloating, the girl in the shape of a wolf drew back from the pretty corpse of her rival and began to pad down the path. When she felt she was far enough away that none would think to connect her to the savage killing of the weaver’s daughter, she closed her eyes and entreated the spirit,

Take this beast’s hide from me and make me a girl again.

Nothing happened. When she had donned the wolf pelt earlier that day, just as the spirit had instructed her, the change had been immediate. For a brief moment, she had felt the agony of her bones popping and flesh reshaping itself, and then she had become a wolf.

This time, she felt nothing.

Again, she begged, Make me a girl again. It was harder to think those words the second time. Her mind grew slow and foggy. She tried to speak, but all that left her throat was a panicked whimper. I want—

The spirit had fulfilled its end of the bargain. It was time for the blacksmith’s daughter to fulfill hers.  The soul she had once had was gone, lost in the sinew and blood, bones and fur of the wolf she had become
The hunter pulled the arrow from the she-wolf’s throat. Her blood stained the tips of his fingers red, though he paid it no mind. Beside him, his brother stood with his bow lowered, looking quite pleased with himself; he’d never shot so lovely a beast before.  

Turning to his brother, the hunter said, “She’ll make someone a fine cloak, don’t you think?”

When not writing, Matilda Lewis can be found loitering in cafes and bookstores like a complete stereotype, watching horror films, and getting a little too excited about glasses and eye care.  She can be bothered on Twitter @gremlin_mattie

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

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