The rules circle through her mind like a record left spinning. And yet, here she is – neither possessed nor deranged nor suicidal – staring down at the moss-covered tracks she’s learned all her life to avoid. Misty air oozes over them in pale fingers, beckoning her towards the world of The Gentlefolk.
“Arms out, love,” Pub Witch croaks cheerfully behind her. Mrs. Brown obeys, silent and stoic, as if ordered to do so at the point of a spear. “There we go. Now, just you hold still, I won’t be a minute.”
She watches the witch’s hands, the mottled color of fall leaves, as they twine a scarlet thread of yarn around her waist, brilliant against her muted brown clothing. It pinches like a corset, but Mrs. Brown refuses to complain. It’s bad enough that she has to rely on Pub Witch’s services at all.
Pub Witch, a feral cat in human form, her hair an untamed mass of tinsel gray, perpetually dressed in clanking jewelry and multicolored fabrics. Whose favorite hobby is visiting local pubs, ordering hot mint tea, prowling up to random patrons, and making unsolicited, unfailingly accurate predictions: “You will grant your wife three children in the hopes that she will love you, and you’ll resent each and every one of them. You’ll hate her as well for her inability to love you. If you’re wise, you’ll leave her now.” Or, “You think you’ve got your husband wrapped around your finger, but he has more mistresses than you’ve got misters. One of them’s your sister.” Or, “You’ll wander drunk in front of a trolly car at the age of fifty-seven and die. Enjoy your whisky.”
Pub Witch, who’s rumored to visit The Gentlefolk and dance to their music on moonlit nights. Whose cottage is so close to the moss-covered tracks, it might as well be sitting on top of them.
These tracks, long forgotten by the human world, are nonetheless host to the occasional train, especially when the full moon is blotted with fog. No one knows where these trains come from or where they’re going. No one would dare ask, let alone go near them, except for Pub Witch.
And yet, for all the good, wholesome, respectable people of the town, with their well-manicured yards and well-groomed children, not one of them will help her in any way that matters. So Mrs. Brown skulked shamefully to the little cottage near the tracks, filled with cats and music and seaglass and the smell of herbs, and she accepted Pub Witch’s help, and now she stands here, arms out like a child being dressed for winter. Staring into the fog-shrouded world past the tracks.
“You ever see them before, love?” comes the crackling voice behind her, cracked from decades – centuries? – of pipe smoking. “Wolfie boy, maybe? When he’s on one of his escapades?”
Wolfie boy. It’s so flippant, so devoid of the usual deference, that it takes Mrs. Brown a moment to realize Pub Witch is referring to the dreaded Wolf King of The Gentlefolk. The thought of him makes every muscle in her body tighten with dread.
“How about when he stalks from the curling fog into broad daylight, just to remind everyone he can?” Her rasping voice lilts playfully, like a cat with a mouse. If a cat learned to speak, and that cat also had a habit of smoking, Mrs. Brown thinks it would sound like Pub Witch. “Swaggers down Mainstreet on two legs, like it’s a carpet rolled out just for him, and everyone scatters like bunnies? You ever see him then, love?
Mrs. Brown shakes her head, lips drawn tight. For the love of all things holy, stop talking about him.
“Nah. Nah, not you,” says Pub Witch, with a mocking drawl that Mrs. Brown doesn’t appreciate. “That’s for idiot teenagers, innit? Silly, tittering things, who huddle around windows, necks craning, just to catch a glimpse of him and his cold blue eyes.”
“That’s right,” Mrs. Brown concurs tentatively, suspicious of sarcasm. “Obscene behavior. I don’t want any part in it.”
“Mm. Obscene, he is,” Pub Witch agrees indulgently. “I bet you hide behind locked doors and closed blinds, and pray silently that terrifying, obscene Mister Wolf will pass you by,” she continues, hands working in time with her voice. “Ain’t that so, love? Ain’t that what sensible people do?”
“It’s dangerous to talk about him that way.”
“No, actually, it’s dangerous for you to talk about him that way. Anyway, you’re dodging the question.”
Mrs. Brown sniffs. “It’s what respectable people do.”
“Nobody was born respectable, love. Respectable’s a fancy word for worrying what other people think about you, and that’s something you get infected with as you grow.” Pub Witch leans over Mrs. Brown’s shoulder, probably standing on her toes. “And what about when he’s got his antlers on, and he prowls the woods on four legs? Would you happen to know anything about that?”
Mrs. Brown swallows, keeping her gaze fixedly front. The fog before her reminds her of breath in the cold air.
“You’ve heard the stories. Haven’t you?” The witch won’t stop talking, though the clockwork of her winding hands has come to a halt. “Always in whispers, of course.” The levity has drained from her voice, replaced with a theatrical sort of gravitas. “The way he stalks beneath the fanged moon, teeth curved deadly, eyes wicked blue shards in the night? Crown of antlers as sharp as thorns?”
Mrs. Brown lowers her gaze, feeling strangely exposed. She never told anyone before, of her mistake that night. Of what she saw. Pub Witch must be able to read minds. “I was a child,” she murmurs. “I strayed too close to the tracks, that’s all. I didn’t know any better.”
“Hmm. So you have seen him. I wasn’t sure.”
Mrs. Brown’s throat tightens in a knot. How dare she?
“And now, off you go, flouncing into their untamed world.” The Witch’s hands start working again, tying the yarn at the base of her spine. “And here I thought you were a respectable woman.”
“I said, I was a child,” Mrs. Brown can hear the anger in her own voice, and it frightens her.
“Well, you’re not a child now, are you?” Pub Witch points out, with what Mrs. Brown interprets as sadistic glee. “Yet, here you are.”
Mrs. Brown’s pulse pounds dully at her neck, the words digging into her guilt and fear like a blister. She shouldn’t be doing this, she knows. A decent woman would never be doing this. But it’s too late to change her mind. The knot has been tied, binding her to her fate.
Pub Witch prowls around the front of her, clutching the ball of yarn like a dragon with a pearl. “Righty, then,” she chirps, back to her cheerful self. “Now, this,” – she holds up the ball – “is going to be your tether, holding you to this world. Like a kite. Got it?”
Mrs. Brown stares at her. This is her big plan? She’d accepted Pub Witch’s services under the assumption that she knows her witchcraft. And now, she’s a kite.
And yet, staring into the witch’s sap-dark, feline eyes, she finds she can’t contradict her. Just like the pub owners can’t tell her to leave, even though she’s terrible for business.
Mrs. Brown is only just realizing something Pub Witch and The Gentlefolk must have learned long ago: that the powerful don’t need to be respectable.
“Righty then!” Pub Witch holds out her palm, which has on it a tattoo of a solar eclipse in black and gold ink. “I’m gonna need you to pay me up front. You understand. On the off chance you don’t make it out.”
Mrs. Brown knows better than to protest. She reaches into her purse and takes out her pocketbook, and from her pocketbook she takes out a single golden coin. She places the coin right over the tattoo on the witch’s palm. A perfect fit. It even glints like the sun.
Pub Witch gives Mrs. Brown a crinkling, batlike grin. “Alright, lovie. You’re off. Time runs tricky in there, but make sure you’re back before sunset. You do not want to be gone past sunset.”
Mrs. Brown has to scoff at the thought. “Oh, I wouldn’t. I’ve never been the bold sort.”
“And yet, here you are,” Pub Witch repeats, like it’s something to be proud of.
Here I am, indeed.
She takes a deep, shuddering breath as she turns to face the tracks. It’s been the better part of two decades since she was last this close to them. When she was last feeling brave, younger than her child is now, walking along the tracks like they were her companion. Danger, then, was still little more than an abstraction.
The world was still then. Dark, and cold. Which might have been why she saw him at all, moving between the snow-encrusted trees with the unhurried grace of a creature who fears nothing. On his haunches, he was taller than his kingdom of pines.
Mrs. Brown pushes the memory from her mind. She was a stupid child, then. But she’s learned, she’s learned what The Gentlefolk represent, and she’s prepared to handle herself. She believes this. She has to believe this.
And so, she takes a step forward, onto the tracks that cleave her world from the next. A blasphemous act. The rails are coated thick with moss and tawny explosions of grass, shaggy as lion fur. Before her, the fog oozes from between the trees like curdled buttermilk. It seems to be parting a path for her.
Part of her wants to look back, to take one last look at the neatly arranged houses in their tasteful, muted colors. The distant, geometric silhouettes of buildings and factory chimneys. The world she knows, full of people she can understand, where everything is orderly. Familiar. Well-gardened. Safe.
But if she looks back, all she’ll want is to run away, back to that safe, tame world forever.
She closes her eyes, and steps into the gray unknown. Somewhere inside are The Gentlefolk. And The Gentlefolk have her child.
* * *
Don’t give them your name. Iron might subdue them. They either love cats or hate cats, depending on whom you believe. She circles over what little she knows about them like rosary beads, nursing comfort from it.
Though she arrived with purpose, she already feels like she’s wandering, directionless, through the veil of fog that shrouds Gentlefolk territory during daylight hours. Somehow, she’d always thought the fog was a thin layer, just enough to inhibit prying mortal eyes, but it seems to be going on forever. Maybe it’s following her – a great, sunken cloud, inching along with her like a giant turtle.
It certainly feels alive. Tactile, like it’s getting a feel for her. It smells clean, like mint and pine and citrus, cool and sharp.
She looks behind her. The moss-covered tracks, and Pub Witch, and the world she knows, have already been blotted from view. The only color in the world is the string of yarn trailing behind her. She realizes she’ll need to follow it to find her way out. She reminds herself to be careful with it, to make sure it doesn’t get caught or severed – but in her heart, she knows it’s as enchanted as Pub Witch herself, and it will do its job with or without her assistance.
Pines loom over her like tall men. An owl tree splays like nerves. They’re the only indicators that she’s walking in a straight line.
Back home in The Town – and publicly calling it by name is discouraged, just as sharing any real name is discouraged – there’s some debate as to whether The Gentlefolk are good or evil. “They’re pure nature,” Mrs. Brown’s husband used to say, with his faint, all-knowing smile. “And in nature, there’s no such thing as either.” It was dangerous to make such assumptions about them. Maybe his arrogance was why he disappeared.
But the general consensus is, if not definitively good, The Gentlefolk aren’t completely bad. Their proximity guarantees bountiful harvests and lush gardens, and illness is practically unheard of. On moonlit nights, their music is sweet enough to induce tears and fits of dancing, thunderous drums and crackling trumpets, electric.
All this, most people can agree, is worth the inconvenience of concealing names – the names of people, places, things. Worth the awkwardness of making introductions, or giving directions. Worth the threat of being pulled in by the pulse of that beautiful music. Worth the angry men who once charged the moss-covered tracks and never returned.
Mrs. Brown shakes her head at herself. Poor souls. No one could say with certainty exactly why they did it, or what they could have possibly been thinking. Just that they were angry, and they stoked their cumulative anger with stupidity and dumped liquor on it like gasoline, and then they directed this inflamed, collective, drunken rage at The Gentlefolk.
Armed with hunting knives and sporting equipment and gardening tools, they charged the moss-covered tracks. Someone said they were shouting about “making them shut that damn music up once and for all.” None of them returned. Their clothes appeared in neatly folded stacks the next day, each weighted down with a bag of gold to support their bereaved families.
The thought of them makes her tongue feel heavy. They were together, and here she is, alone, her only weapon a tiny set of iron scissors in her pocket.
She could be standing on the very place they fell, if they’d fallen at all. What had they seen, just before nature reclaimed them? What had her child seen?
Stop it, she tells herself. Her child isn’t gone. She chooses to believe, against all evidence to the contrary, that she would somehow feel her child’s absence. She has to believe that she’s here somewhere, as Mrs. Brown knew her. She has to believe she’ll get another chance.
Another shape materializes through the fog, too geometric to be natural. Mrs. Brown starts, hand pressed to her chest. A building! For a minute, she thinks she’s somehow been turned around, and ended up back in the human world.
She hurries nearer, only to see that the building has been blackened and burned, probably long ago, by the way vines creep like tentacles through the empty orifices of its windows. Fog ghosts freely inside and out.
This isn’t human territory. But maybe it was, once. She chooses to interpret this as comforting.
As she continues on her path, she keeps her gaze on the vacant, burnt building. How could she have thought she was back in the world she knows? It’s too small to be a house – more of a shack. And anyway, besides Pub Witch’s house, the closest building to the tracks is the holy building.
The thought of it makes her throat tighten. It’s hard to think about right now, for a multitude of reasons. The easiest to pinpoint being, it was the last place she saw her child.
The holy building, which doubles as a school. One she attended since her earliest childhood, and which her child attends now, its image pressed deep into her memory. Its sharpened black steeple, piercing the sky. The holy men and holy women inside, always dressed in white and lined up like chess pieces. Situated relatively close to the tracks, as a subtle act of defiance against the unholy Gentlefolk.
Just yesterday, she’d been there. Yesterday, before her version of normalcy shattered like a glass ornament.
Mrs. Brown didn’t usually collect her child. Usually, she was at work, and the school was easily within walking distance. But that day, she’d been given the afternoon off, and she came to greet her child in the hopes that she might see her favorite holy man. The one with the kind face and the large, gentle hands.
She was, at first, delighted to see him – his gentle authority always brought her comfort – but her enthusiasm was somewhat dampened when she saw that he was leading her child gently but firmly by the wrist. The child’s eyes were pinkened with tears, nose rubbed raw.
Concern unfurled in her chest, but it coiled quickly and sharply into shame on the child’s behalf: she had misbehaved, again. She’d been punished. How did she misbehave so often? Mrs. Brown was legitimately baffled. As a child, so much as a disapproving look from a holy man or woman was enough to make her wither with mortification. The child seemed to deliberately provoke them into the harshest possible punishments. But then, her child was born wild and screaming, and she’d changed very little since then.
Seeing Mrs. Brown, the holy man smiled, and the coiling anxiety in her chest dissolved into warm, liquid relief. He wasn’t angry at her. It was a childish concern to begin with, and one she’d never share, but she was ridiculously happy that it wasn’t warranted.
Mrs. Brown looks almost longingly back at the abandoned building behind her, watching it be blotted out by fog. No other structures have emerged yet, to provide her with the dubious consolation that human beings once lived here. Just endless fog, and endless green.
It’s strange to think that just yesterday, the holy man’s approval had made her heart flutter. He knelt down, and even crouching on one knee, he dwarfed the child.
“You be good and stay right here, pet.” The woman felt a stab of irritation as the child turned away from his kind gaze. As a child herself, forgiveness was something she drank like buttermilk. “I’m going to go have a talk with your mum, hmm?”
She twiddled her fingers madly as her holy man approached. She hoped her hair looked alright, that her clothes fit becomingly. He was a big man, over six feet, but he didn’t lumber. He was clean-cut and clean-shaven. Hair neatly combed. Civilized.
He spoke to Mrs. Brown in such a warm, gentle voice, almost loving, as he described the child’s most recent misconduct: chasing a teacher – a holy woman – around the classroom with her own hickory stick. This delighted the other children, who joined in, eventually chasing the poor woman down the halls like a pack of hounds. It had taken nearly an hour for the holy men to restore order.
Mrs. Brown apologized profusely for her child’s rebellious behavior, and the holy man assured her the fault was not hers. “I can’t imagine the burden of raising such a child alone.” His dark eyes were warm with understanding. “The Holy One must think highly of you to devolve such responsibility.”
Mrs. Brown’s heart fluttered like a moth. She imagined him sitting across from her, over a candlelit dinner. His big, gentle hands interlocked in prayer. Saying thanks for her and the lovely food she’d prepared for him.
“Oi! You there!” She was slapped out of her fantasy by the harsh and completely unexpected sound of the holy man raising his voice. She nearly covered her face to protect herself, out of muscle memory from her own childhood, before she realized he wasn’t shouting at her.
He was looking at something past her, the whites of his eyes showing, like a bull. The veins jutted from his neck. Never before had she seen rage on his face. It seemed incongruous, and she felt the need to avert her gaze to protect her image of him.
Only when her gaze settled on the vacant spot behind him did she realize: her child. Her child was gone.
She wheeled around, hollow with panic, to see the child fleeting. Fleeting, like a young deer, towards the distant tracks. Her discarded coat – a part of the school’s uniform – fluttered through the air like a flag.
“Get back here! At once!” the holy man bellowed. Even now, Mrs. Brown started at the force of it. A fleck of his saliva flew through the air. She felt something inside her coil. Some part of her, that she couldn’t quite acknowledge, was disappointed. She smothered the feeling quickly, before it could take root.
She looked back towards the child, ready to cry out, to scream idle threats. To give chase, even. But the words died in her throat.
The child hurtled – without hesitation, without fear, without looking back – over the moss-green tracks, and became a silhouette, receding into the wolf-gray fog. The wolf-gray fog that she’s traversing now.
There are cobblestones beneath her feet, she realizes. They’re mottled with moss, like the backs of sleeping turtles, but they give rise to so many questions. Was there a road here once? Was it paved by human hands? Or is it some elaborate hallucination, designed to taunt her? Do Gentlefolk even have cars?
After seconds of staring at the ground and turning the questions over, the woman realizes it’s probably a good idea to look where she’s going. She glances up, and immediately jolts backwards, covering her mouth to suppress a yelp. There’s an oil-black shape, crouching in the fog.
Or so it seems at first. As she stares at it, she realizes that what she thought were bunching haunches are actually tires, its hunching back a roof. Its hood is half-open, the lichen-skinned tentacles of roots intermingling with gears.
It is a car. There’s a car in Gentlefolk territory. An old model, dated by nearly half a century, but a car nonetheless. She stares stupidly at it, still frozen in place, until the pinch of the corset-tight yarn wound around her waist reminds her that she’s on a time limit. She hurries on.
It’s not long until she comes to a different shape entirely. It doesn’t surprise her at this point – the fog seems to dilute certain natural reflexes – but she has some difficulty identifying what it is. It looks like a well of some kind, overgrown with roping, thorny brambles. Their delicate rosebuds are like droplets of blood against milk-white world.
As she gets closer, she can make out pale, plump-cheeked faces, with terrifying, serene little smiles. It’s a marble fountain, adorned with cherub children. Or it was, rather. Like everything else she’s seen, it’s in a state of transformation, submerging into nature. Married with it. Overtaken. She could be overtaken next.
Panic thuds dimly in her chest at the reminder that she has no power here.
She struggles to recall her own basic knowledge of The Gentlefolk, something that might protect her. Don’t give out names, there’s power in names. Real names are known only by closest kin. She still doesn’t know her neighbors’ names, or the mailman’s, or the milkman’s, or the butcher’s, or the grocer’s, or the baker’s, or the florist’a. People she’s known since she was younger than the child she’s searching for. With her parents and husband gone, the only one who knew her real name was – is – her child.
Her child, whose name she taught herself not to even think. It was too dangerous, this close to The Gentlefolk. After losing her husband, losing her child would be too much to bear.
And yet – and yet.
She finds herself thinking of the surreal moment after the child disappeared into the fog. The moment when she realized life as she’d known it had ended, and something new had just begun. Without any warning. She supposes these kinds of changes seldom announce themselves.
The holy man took Mrs. Brown into his big arms, and she felt nothing – consumed by numbness stronger than his hold.
“It’s all my fault,” she had found herself saying, to no one in particular.
“It’s no one’s fault,” the holy man assured her. She could barely hear him over the continuous, high-pitched thrum of panic in her ears.
She had the strangest urge to push him away. Because it wasn’t true, was it? This was someone’s fault. Probably hers. But also his. He had hurt her child, and she’d let it happen. And now, the child was gone.
But she didn’t push him away. She let him hold her, just like the holy building had held her all her life. She listened vaguely to his murmured assurances.
“My brothers and sisters will begin preliminary prayers,” he said. “And we will alert the mayor and the men and women of the council. They’ll decide what needs to be done.”
She knew exactly what they would do. The mayor would stand before the flashing camera bulbs of the local press and speak into a screeching megaphone and politely request the child’s return. The holy men and women would kneel a safe distance from the moss-covered track and sing hymns about staying faithful in trying times. Her neighbors would offer heartfelt condolences and home-cooked food.
Absolutely none of it would help. She felt like her entire world had been turned into paper, and for the first time, she realized why her child might want to leave it. It was one of the few moments of genuine camaraderie they’d ever shared, and her child wasn’t even there to experience it with her.
She needs to find her. She needs to find her, to tell her she finally understands.
Mrs. Brown is ripped from this moment of recollection when, for the first time, she sees motion in this still world. A shape that moves like a dancing shadow, swims through the fog, lithe and liquid. A faintly visible silhouette that re-submerges as quickly as it appeared.
Mrs. Brown is too frightened to scream. Her pulse thuds dully in her neck. She knows, on some bone-deep level, that whatever she just saw is getting closer.
She’s still taken by surprise when a voice resonates behind her. “Hello.”
Mrs. Brown wheels around wildly to face the interloper, nearly tripping over the red yarn.
The being behind her is too beautiful to be human, even at first glance. The plush protrusions of her lips, eyes wide and liquid as quivering dewdrops, her skin as richly dark as a night sky and flecked with fawnlike splatters of white. Dressed in a three-piece black suit so perfectly fitted it could have been poured over her like liquid.
Mrs. Brown swallows, a wet sound in the silent world.
“I take it, you’re here to see Mister Wolf?” The being has a voice like pebbles, plunked into a black pool at night. Calming, unsettling, somehow both at once.
Mrs. Brown swallows again, a contraction of her throat. The being’s eyes, she realizes, seem to be completely black, like twin inkwells of night, devoid of whites. “Yes,” she whispers.
“Hmm.” Those eyes flick up and down, unimpressed, and Mrs. Brown realizes that they’re not completely black after all – in the middle of each is what appears to be a tiny crescent moon, like a Cheshire cat grin. “You may call me Doe.”
Mrs. Brown has the strangest impulse to introduce herself – with her real name, even though she is aware how disastrous that could be. Fortunately, Doe is already cantering away, back into the fog. After a moment, she pauses, regarding Mrs. Brown boredly over a delicate shoulder. “Are you coming?” Her tone tells Mrs. Brown that she doesn’t care one way or the other.
Mrs. Brown can’t speak – not because she’s too afraid, surprisingly, but because she feels the capacity for speech has been sucked out of her with a vacuum. She staggers after Doe with the grace of a newborn foal. As she totters along, she’s hit with the dizzying surreality of the situation – as if treading water, and becoming aware, suddenly, of the fathoms beneath her.
She has to remind herself to focus. Doe is hard to keep up with. She makes Mrs. Brown think of a loping gazelle, dancing effortlessly out of reach. She’s always on the verge of being blotted out by fog, and Mrs. Brown could swear that her partially obscured silhouette is changing shape – four-legged one instant, and bipedal the next, sliding seamlessly, hypnotically, between the two.
The looming shapes of trees surround them. Or rather, what Mrs. Brown hopes are trees. They sway faintly, like sails in the wind. Though the world around her is unearthly silent, she cannot help but feel that silence is not the natural state of this place – rather, that silence is a reaction to her presence. That through their blanket of fog, she is being silently observed by a thousand eyes.
“Is she alive?” she finds herself asking. It feels foolish, because Doe is such a liquid, insubstantial force that Mrs. Brown might as well be asking the wind.
And yet, the night-rich voice emanates, “Life, death. You…people are so binary. But yes, she’s alive, and well. We’d never hurt our own.”
Mrs. Brown swallows. It somehow doesn’t surprise her that Doe knows exactly what she’s talking about. She’s heard that they can read minds. She looks back at the red yarn trailing behind her – somewhere in another world, Pub Witch is still unwinding her seemingly endless ball. It comforts her. She may be able to get out of this yet.
“You’re looking for answers, aren’t you,” that voice emanates again, disembodied, floating. “Maybe to escape the answers you already have.”
Mrs. Brown can’t bring herself to protest. “I’m looking for my child,” is all she can muster.
“That, too. But more than that, you need a reason why your child ran away. I can tell you, if you’d like. I can tell you exactly what was going through her mind, because I know. Thoughts come easily as speech here.”
Mrs. Brown, under normal circumstances, would protest. She’d argue that she wants no part in Gentlefolk magic, their unnatural powers. But the truth is, she desperately wants to know. She’s drawn to what information Doe may be able to offer, even as it repels her. Even as she wants nothing more than to hide her head with her arms and pray the truth passes her by like a passing storm.
“I’ll tell you anyway.” Doe’s voice lilts, as nonchalant as her cantering, ever-shifting form. “To pass the time.”
Mrs. Brown finds any contradiction is stuck in her throat, or vacant altogether.
“For you,” Doe begins, “this began yesterday. For her, it began last fall. It’s her favorite time of year, fall. You didn’t know this. You never thought to ask. But she loves how the trees blush like burnished gold, how the antlered branches start to show through shedding leaves. She loves the lanterns made from squash and gourds, even though the longer nights make her sad.”
Mrs. Brown is immersed immediately, like she’s submerging into something warm and dark and welcoming and sweet, like a summer night sky. The words seep from Doe’s mouth to her mind, with no thoughts to slow them down. It seems impossible to think when Doe is speaking.
She finds herself being lifted, carried along on the words, like it’s happening to her.
* * *
“The child’s name is Rosalupin, but only in her own mind. She can’t remember the last time you called her anything except ‘the child,’ or just ‘you.’ She’s known by a plethora of nicknames. ‘Sparrow,’ to her friends, or ‘Miss Brown,’ to adults, because she inherited your brown hair.”
As it should be, Mrs. Brown thinks, dreamily. There’s power in real names, she’s always been told.
“But she’s still too young to be reduced to a single characteristic, so she doesn’t think of herself as one,” Doe’s voice goes on. “In her mind, she’s still Rosalupin. And she likes Rosalupin. It makes her think of the rose brambles that keep crawling up the side of the holy building, no matter how many times they have the gardener cut them down.”
Mrs. Brown winces at the sound of her daughter’s real name, without quite knowing why, as if out of muscle memory. She’s already forgetting why names are dangerous.
“That day, those brambles are her ladder to freedom,” Doe continues. “She’s using them as a foothold, clambering out the window of a second-story classroom. The thorns cut harshly into her bare feet, shoes discarded for a safer climb. But her soles have thickened, like paw pads, from years of outdoor play. Bare feet are the pride of all wild children. Shoes – particularly sensible shoes – are objects of disdain.
“In this moment, she clings to the windowsill, feet feeling their way down the brambles. Oblivious to the visitor from our side of the tracks, to the whispers that preceded him.
“It’s impossible to say who first saw him. The Wolf King is coming. The whisper spread throughout your neat little town, like weeds springing up, unstoppable. From the delivery boys and the milkmen and the mailmen to the plump ladies pushing baby carriages to the store clerks and shop owners and florists and butchers and bakers. Within minutes, everyone knew. The whole town clears the streets. Some huddle under beds, some huddle round windows and crane, goose-necked, hoping for a glimpse. But everyone clears the streets.
“Everyone, except for the child busy sneaking out.
“Rosalupin finds her foothold on the frame of a first-story window, a rogue thorn still embedded firmly between her toes, the brambles scratching the undersides of her arms. She doesn’t care. These are her war wounds. She’d been locked in an empty classroom for her latest transgression, which she interpreted as a direct challenge.
“Rosalupin half-falls, half-jumps to the ground. Her hair falls around her face in ribbons as she catches her breath, flushed and heaving, stinging all over, but free. Free from your plain-faced, righteous holy women, with their harsh wooden sticks and loveless voices, who refused to let the children eat or speak or stand or move without explicit permission. Freedom from the holy men – especially that one specific holy man, whom you like so much.”
Something inside Mrs. Brown flinches at his mention, like someone’s just poked her somewhere sensitive. She doesn’t know why.
“He takes special delight in lashing red stripes into the tender arms and thighs of sobbing children. Even behind his carefully maintained mask of sympathy, she could always see how his eyes glittered with it. She knows it. Deep down, you know it, too. You’ve just been trained to accept it.”
It had to be done, Mrs. Brown tells herself. Even though she doesn’t know why it had to be done. Thoughts and memories are slippery, hard to hold on to.
“Rosalupin ran into the road, contemplating. Newfound possibilities stretch to the horizon, boundless and fertile as a sea.” The story keeps going, unencumbered. “Well-versed in the noble professions of bad behavior and delinquency, she could easily sneak into a movie theater to see something violent, or into an orchard to stuff herself with stolen apples. The bakery often has discarded, burnt pastries, which the baker’s daughter is often willing to share. And there are farms, and the geese and chickens – as a natural side-effect of our proximity, of course – lay a surplus of eggs. These eggs could be hurled at the holy building, and at any holy men and women who come out to investigate, consequences be damned. It would be worth it just to see the expressions on their fat, righteous faces.”
Mrs. Brown scowls, as if in sleep. This is bad behavior, she thinks. Isn’t it?
“Lost in exhilaration, Rosalupin overlooks how empty the streets have become. Parked cars have been abandoned, doors left ajar. Horses, still tethered to their carts, graze absently on the plants in window boxes. Bags of groceries lie overturned and abandoned in the streets, contents spilling from their open mouths.
“Rosalupine fails to take note of any of this, because it fits perfectly with her vision of the world: a landscape that exists to be conquered. She rounds the corner into Main Street, each gulp of air fertile with possibilities.
“And then she halts in her tracks.
“There he is, a lone figure. Wolf-gray suit so sharp it could have been cut with a razor blade. There’s no question as to who he could be. There’s no one else he could be, except who he is.”
The Wolf King, Mrs. Brown tries to say, but can’t. Or maybe she does. She can’t seem to tell if she’s speaking. If she is, Doe ignores her.
“Rosalupin stands still, blinking, processing,” the story continues. “She knows he’s powerful, and dangerous, and untamed, and none of these things frighten her. To a child, the best things in life are powerful, dangerous, untamed.
“The Wolf stops in his path and stares back. He blinks, once, the black fan of his eyelashes hypnotic over startling blue eyes. She’d heard he’s beautiful. He is.
“The two of them regard each other, these lone occupants of your quiet, emptied world, in the same manner that a feral puppy might regard a timberwolf. A creature born in domesticity, seeing for the first time its untamed peer.
“The Wolf tilts his head. ‘I thought they locked their little ones up in schools,’ he says, and it’s not a question, or an accusation. Just an observation.
“Rosalupin shrugs. ‘It’s a beautiful day,’ she explains, chin high, unrepentant. ‘Seemed a shame to waste it.’
“The Wolf says nothing, and his expression doesn’t change, not perceptibly. But something like respect forms behind the frost of his eyes. ‘A beautiful day it is, and a shame it would be,’ he agrees. And then, ‘I don’t know if you partake, but I was on my way to the pub, for some cream and sugar. I don’t know if you partake, but you’re welcome to join me if you’re so inclined.’
“Rosalupin considers it. She thinks of things you’ve said, in your hushed, frightened, rabbitish way, that imply the Wolf took her father, before she was even born. But she intuitively feels, as she has intuited for a very long time, that this is not true.”
Something in Mrs. Brown recoils at that, though for the life of her, she can’t think of why. Her mind is now empty of words, except for the ones Doe’s voice is putting there. Emotions remain, unfurling like clouds.
“In the same way,” the voice continues, “Rosalupin intuitively feels that he, this Wolf, is closer to the Holy Being than your holy men and women can ever hope to be.
“So she shrugs, rubbing her nose on her wrist. ‘Okay,’ she says.
“The Wolf continues on his way, unbothered. He stalks more than he walks, like something more suited for four-legged motion. His shoulders lope, rolling with each step, like a pacing tiger. His back is proudly straight, but his head stays down, like something that prowls in the tall grass.
“She trots to keep up with him, and loops her fingers round his black-gloved hand. If he has any objection to this, he doesn’t say so.
“They stride the vacant, cobbled road like a path cleared just for them, till they reach the pub the Wolf was aiming for. It has no name, of course – a name is a valuable thing, though it’s much harder to conceal than you realize – but it does have a poorly-done painting of a wolf drinking a mug of beer to identify its purpose and separate it from its brethren. The door swings open before them, on its own accord. It, too, knows to clear a path.
“Quite a few people, ironically enough, are discovered to be hiding inside. Not just the usual day-drinkers, but matronly ladies jiggling swaddled babies and a mailman with a sack of letters and workmen in hard hats and even a police officer, all of whom had halted their daily business and taken shelter in the nearest available structure. Not unreasonable. They just happened to pick the wrong one.
“Rosalupin at first stiffens at the thought of being noticed outside of school, but no one even spares her a glance. All eyes are on the Wolf, shocked, enraptured, cow-wide with whites showing. As Rosalupin watches, several sets of these eyes fill and quiver with tears. The chests and shoulders of these weak-bellied pub-refugees flutter and heave with silent sobs. The police officer appears most afflicted, belly quivering, gelatinous, with each undignified quake.
“The Wolf barely affords them a glance. ‘You can go,” is all he says.
“And they silently obey, shuffling, snuffling, their way out of the pub like a herd of sheep. Only the bartender remains, though judging by his frightened eyes, he desperately wishes to be among those excused.
“‘A mug of sweet cream, fresh and cold,’ says the Wolf, leaning against the counter with his back to the bartender. ‘Mixed with sugar, twice what you think is too much.’
“‘Make that two,’ chirps Rosalupin, emboldened.
“‘And make them exactly the same,’ the Wolf clarifies. ‘You’re thinking it’ll please me if mine’s nicer than hers. It won’t.’ He doesn’t sound the least bit malicious, which somehow makes the implied threat feel even more serious.
“The man, never taking his eyes off the Wolf, bobs his head vigorously, and scurries off like a scared rodent.
“Rosalupin hefts herself onto a stool, tucking her legs under her. She stares at the Wolf, intuitively aware that manners don’t apply to them. She’s still processing his presence.
“‘The mayor plants a tree for you every year,’ she says, by way of conversation. ‘Everyone always makes a big deal out of it.’
“‘Mm. Yup, I’m aware,’ says the Wolf. He adds, as if out of courtesy, ‘We appreciate the gesture.’
“‘They hope it’ll stop you taking people. You know, pets, kids. And causing mischief.’ She adjusts her foot to pluck out the tiny thorn still wedged between her dirty toes, flicking it onto the floor. ‘My teachers say you do that ’cause you’re unholy.’
“The Wolf gives her a sidelong glance. He says, ‘You already know that isn’t true.’
“She shrugs. ‘I assume pretty much everything my teachers say isn’t true,’ she says.
“And he offers no response, except the faintest curl of a smile.
“The bartender scurries up with two sloshing mugs. As requested, they are, to all appearances, exactly the same. ‘Can I get you anything else, sir?’
“The Wolf still doesn’t bother to look at him. ‘No,’ he says, ‘and you should have asked the lady first.’
“The bartender starts to stammer, eager to correct himself, but the Wolf waves his hand disdainfully.
“‘Fuck off, it’s too late now,’ the Wolf states, and the unexpected curse make Rosalupin giggle. She’s no stranger to foul language, usually from her fellow miscreants, but she hadn’t expected it from him. ‘Next time, show some manners,’ adds the Wolf. ‘She’s a paying customer.’
“‘Right, sir. Of course. I’m sorry.’ To Rosalupin, the bartender offers, ‘I’m very sorry, ma’am,’ though he’s still looking at the Wolf as he says it. To him, he says again, ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ glancing back frantically as he hurries off again.
“‘Bogán,’ the Wolf mutters, turning to reach for his mug. ‘You can always tell when someone’s conscientious out of habit, and when it’s just for show. Even if you can’t see what’s inside of them.’
“‘Bogán,’ Rosalupin agrees. Though she’s never heard the word before, she can contextually sense its connotations.
“The two sip in silence for a moment, in the empty pub. The sunlight makes the dust in the air look like powdered gold, sweet as honey. The cream is sweet and rich with fat, and Rosalupin decides she’s very glad she decided not to go to school today.
“‘I didn’t take your father,’ states the Wolf, as if she’d asked.
“Rosalupin doesn’t find this statement surprising in the slightest. ‘I know.’
“‘Yeah. So does your mother,’ – he paused to take a long swig, knocking it back like hard liquor – ‘though she’s never acknowledged it to herself. When you start running away from truths, or try to force them into existing categories instead of accepting them on their terms, that’s when you become an adult.'”
If Mrs. Brown were sentient enough at the moment to form coherent thought, she might rail against this notion. She might protest that, yes, they did take her husband, because why else would he leave? But right now, the only thing left inside her is the truth. Truth she’s always known.
“Rosalupin feels just a little bit cold at his mention of you,” Doe continues. “She asks, petulant, ‘You think I care what that woman thinks of me?’
“The Wolf regards her peripherally. ‘Yeah,’ he says, ‘I do.’
“Rosalupin lowers her eyes, staring into the frothy cream. In the shade of the mug, it now seems gray.
“‘She’s afraid of losing you,’ the Wolf continues. ‘She fears that more than anything in the world. She herself doesn’t know that. She built a shell around her heart before you were born, because some part of her thinks that if she can keep herself from loving you, it won’t hurt if she loses you.'”
It’s true, Mrs. Brown realizes. The truth resonates wordlessly inside her, like the ringing of a bell. If she were more aware of herself, she might be relieved. So she does love her child, after all. She is capable of it. She was just afraid for her, without even realizing it.
“Rosalupin realizes, as he says it, that she’s always known this. ‘Because of my dad?’ she asks. And then, because she’s always deep down suspected this, ‘Because he ran away?’
“‘Partly,’ says the Wolf, confirming what she’s always felt without any added fanfare. ‘And because of her mother and father, and her mother’s mother and father, and her father’s mother and father, and so on. The fault belongs to none of them, but the responsibility, to all of them.’
“Rosalupin finds herself struck, of all things, by the manner in which he’s speaking to her. He’s not telling her anything new, not really. Nothing she hasn’t always felt, always known. But she’s never been spoken to this way, not by an adult. With respect. Like she’s capable of understanding things.
“‘Because I’m not an adult. Not by any standard definition of the term,’ says the Wolf, and she doesn’t find it strange in the slightest that he can read thoughts. ‘Appearances aside, I’m more similar to you and your fellow children than any of the lumbering dullards that imprison you, day after day. I’m from a kingdom of wild children, allowed to grow on our own terms. Our spark hasn’t been stomped out.’
“A single grain of sugar clings delicately to the rim of Rosalupin’s mug. ‘Will mine be?’ she asks. ‘My spark? Will it be stomped out, I mean?’ She swallows. Turning into the enemy has been a long-harbored fear. ‘I don’t want to be like them.’
“‘Probably,’ says the Wolf, who doesn’t seem to have any option except candidness. ‘Probably, you’ll forget the secrets that children are born with, and you’ll no longer see the world soaked with divinity. Like forgetting a color, and never realizing its absence.’ He pauses, takes a long drink. ‘That’s what they do. That’s what was done to them. That’s what they’ll do to the next generation, if the wheels of their great machine keep turning.’
“Anger flares hot between Rosalupin’s lungs. She inhales a deep, shuddering breath, holds the mug, trembling, to her lips. Swallows down the cream in unrelenting gulps, even when it turns sickly sweet with the sugar at the bottom, and doesn’t stop till she’s emptied it. All that remains when she sets the mug down is a glistening layer of sludgy gray sugar.
“The Wolf doesn’t tell her that her anger is unjustified. He lets her have her rage, because it’s hers. This fact is mutually acknowledged between the two of them. No words are needed to confirm it.
“‘Guard the magic inside you,’ is all he says, simply, without pretence. ‘All children have it. Let it burn fiercely, and don’t let them extinguish it before you see what it can become.’
“Rosalupin’s vision turns wet and foggy with budding tears. It’s been years since she’s cried like this, since she’s let herself. No one understands that she’s been surrounded by enemies all her life, towering, lumbering, plundering enemies, who exploit and expose her weaknesses wherever they appear, and say it’s for her own good. She couldn’t let them have her tears. Even crying in private was giving them power.”
Mrs. Brown’s eyes well up, too, though she doesn’t realize it. Emotion quivers raw inside her. So her child was afraid, too. Just like Mrs. Brown. She just reacted to that fear differently. It imprisoned both of them from one another, in completely different ways.
“But this Wolf is stronger than any of them, she realizes, and more vicious than any of them,” the voice continues. “With him, she’s safe. She can cry now, protected by the orbit of his ferocity, his feral power. He embodies everything they fear, everything they can’t control.
“So, she cries. And the Wolf lets her have her tears, for as long as she needs, without smothering her in suffocating consolations. She’s earned her tears, and this, too, is a fact they mutually, wordlessly acknowledge.
“When she’s done, she rubs her tear-stung eyes, and has no inclination to offer an apology for her outburst, because she knows he won’t demand one. She asks, ‘What if I’m not strong enough?’
“At this, the Wolf looks her in the eyes. His cold stare soothes her, like snow on burning flesh. ‘If you’re not strong enough, then you come to me,’ he says, ‘and we’ll provide you with whatever strength you lack. Our kingdom is your kingdom, and all children can find sanctuary there.’
“Rosalupin contemplates this. She spins in her stool, wiping away the tears on her wrist. ‘Okay,’ she decides.
“Months later, she remembers this promise, when she’s finally pushed too far. And she runs past the moss-covered tracks to collect on it.”
* * *
Slowly, the trickle of words runs to a halt, and Mrs. Brown’s consciousness floats back down to her body.
It takes her a moment to remember where she is, why she’s walking, what she’s here for, like she’s fallen asleep at an odd time and woken in an unfamiliar place.
She takes in the fog around her and the liquid, cervine silhouette ahead of her and the pinch of the yarn wound tight around her. “What?” is all she can manage.
“Weren’t you listening?” Doe’s voice resonates around her, still omnipresent, but it doesn’t carry her off like before.
“Yes, of course.” Of course she’d been listening, she’s not stupid. And the words, the story she’d been told, it’s right there, accessible – but she can’t for the life of her remember it. Each attempt is like grasping at fog, like a dream that was vivid just moments ago.
“Don’t worry. The truth is there,” says Doe. “You’re just not ready to face it yet. An expert at that, I suppose.”
Mrs. Brown tries to take issue with this assertion. All her life, she’s had to face unfortunate truths! She lost her husband, had a child before she was twenty, had to raise that child on her own. She’s not weak and frivolous in the way Doe is implying.
But despite her best efforts, she doesn’t have the foothold yet to muster offence. She’s still getting re-acclimated to the ground beneath her feet, and she reaches back, wrapping her hand around the red yarn, as if to steady herself.
As she continues following Doe on her trajectory into the unknown, she watches the world change shape around her. The silhouettes of trees are bigger now, like slumped, sleeping giants. They’d dwarf any of the buildings back home.
Home. What even is that to her? She doesn’t have anyone waiting for her now.
She finds herself thinking of her child, of her hazelnut brown eyes and sparrow brown hair. The shape of her name hovers in Mrs. Brown’s mind, but she pushes it away like a thorny object.
Finally, the fog gives birth to another shape. Big enough that she thinks at first it’s a formation of rock, but it’s geometric, angular. A building. Sweatered with ivy, the triangular leaves glinting with dew like dragon’s scales. Branches crane their necks curiously out of chimneys and vents. A combination of the pristine and the utterly untamed that suits Doe perfectly.
She starts when she makes out humanoid figures on it and surrounding it, but relaxes incrementally when she realizes that they’re only statues. Squat gargoyles grin down at her with toothy, corvid smiles, webbed wings textured with moss. Vines coil around voluptuous women like serpents. More cherubs, their plump cheeks blushing with lichen. A symphony of green against marble. It’s not just a building. They are traversing the grounds of a mansion – or rather, what once was a mansion.
Only as she gets closer does she see that there are lights in the windows, reflecting off the moisture-slick ivy like oil lamps.
There’s something living inside. The realization triggers the kind of dull panic usually reserved for nightmares – the kind where you can see danger unfurling before you, but you can only stagger towards it. She feels like she’s beginning a wax-winged flight towards the sun.
Mrs. Brown doesn’t even realize Doe has stopped until she nearly walks into her. She’s turned to face the woman with an expression of total boredom.
“Bear will show you in,” she says, with a flippant gesture towards the entryway. “You’ll know him when you see him.”
Mrs. Brown has the strangest impulse to ask – even beg – the Doe to stay. Since entering Gentlefolk territory, the Doe’s been her only guide.
She looks down at herself, at the red yarn wound around her waist, and eyes the tail that drags behind her into the fog. She’s still clinging to it like a child with a toy. She gives it a tug. The yarn, from some impossibly far-off point, tugs back in answer. Proof that it’s enchanted. Never could she have suspected that she’d find a magical object so comforting.
She straightens up, smoothing her skirts with her hands. “If I go in there,” she starts to say, turning to face the Doe, “I need a guarantee that I won’t be –”
She cuts herself off when she realizes that the Doe is gone. A four-legged shape lopes into the fog, as effortless as liquid, slender haunches kicking in the air and tail raised in a plume. She makes not a sound, but the faint clip of cloven hooves against moss-covered cobblestone.
“How rude,” she mutters, smoothing her skirts indignantly.
Mrs. Brown ascends the marble steps, unwilling to touch the ivy-covered bannister. She can’t shake the feeling that plants are not just alive here, but sentient.
Against her will, her mind returns to her holy man, to the sermons that predate her earliest memories, to the days when she attended school in the holy building. She learned when to stand up and when to sit down and when to open her book of hymns like she was a cog in a great clock. She thinks of the holy men and women, of the respectable people of her town, and how disappointed they’d be with her if they knew what she was doing now. Bargaining with Gentlefolk. Meeting them on their own land.
The mere thought of their pinched, disapproving faces triggers an innate impulse to run from Gentlefolk territory and beg for absolution. But even if this were an impulse she would follow through with, when she’s already come so far, the door swings open before her on its own accord. She jolts backwards, nearly falling down the marble stairs.
The being before her fills the doorway, so hulking that he has to hunch slightly to look at her. His suit, like the Doe’s, is impeccably fitted and inkwell black, but the woman is certain they don’t make human clothing that big. He could crush a melon in just one of his massive hands.
Bear – and the Doe was right, Mrs. Brown knows who he is on sight – regards her with fierce, glittering amber eyes beneath bushy, unkempt brows.
“Here to see the Wolf, I’ll bet.” His lips are obscured beneath a feral beard the color of fall leaves, creating the impression that his voice is grumbling directly from his chest.
Mrs. Brown manages a nod. Some vestigial instinct tells her to make herself as small and quiet as possible before a creature so large.
Bear gestures with an ursine swing of his head. “Right this way, lady.”
He pivots his masses and lumbers down the corridor, the floorboards complaining loudly beneath his weight. He has to lean from one side to the other to avoid knocking into the spherical white lamps that protrude from either side of the wall.
It’s striking, how civilized the building is on the inside. If anything, she can reluctantly admit, it’s more pristine than any building she can recall in human territory. The polished mahogany floor glistens like oil in the buttery lamplight. Everything smells inexplicably fragrant, rather like honeysuckle and vanilla. The wallpaper pattern is a textured, intricate pattern of vines and flowers, and she wonders if it’s been embroidered. Only when she reaches out to touch it does she realize it’s actually a network of vines, with delicate, heart-shaped leaves and swan-white flowers. They seem to be getting thicker the further they get into the mansion.
She follows Bear past closed doors, behind which she can hear muffled voices and bell-like laughter. The honey-sweet trickle of some musical instrument, that makes her arteries quiver with desire. She wonders if her child is behind one of these doors.
They come to a spiral staircase, vines coiled gracefully around its bannister, around the column of buttery rose marble at its center. As she begins to climb, her tether snags on the railing, reminding her of its presence, and she gathers it in her hand like a veil to keep it clear. Bear clears three steps at a time, so she has to scramble to keep up. They reach a second floor, but keep rising. By the time they reach the third, she’s panting, her lungs and legs burning with the exertion of the climb.
But Bear hasn’t paused, and she finds herself following him down yet another hallway, almost identical to the one on the first floor. The only difference is how thick the greenery lining the walls has become, the orb-shaped lamps luminating between the leaves like lanterns at sea. Her tether snags on something, again, and she realizes that roots are climbing across the floor like tentacles. Peering past Bear, she can see that the hallway ends in a closed black door.
Her throat contracts dryly. Something, behind that door, is waiting for her. Something powerful, and ancient, and fierce. Something that could swallow her and spit out her bones. She can feel his presence as she approaches, as strong and clean and cold and sweet as the inexplicable scent in the air. She’s felt it before.
“Yeah, you have, haven’t you?” Mrs. Brown stops in her path. Bear has stopped before the doorway, and is eyeing her suspiciously, like a big animal who’s been interrupted mid-feast.
Mrs. Brown stares up at him, wide-eyed. She feels as small as a child, and not just because of Bear’s considerable height.
“No one’s born respectable.” The knowing grumble emanates from beneath his beard. “That’s what our friend the Witch said, innit?”
“No one’s born respectable,” Mrs. Brown repeats, not really processing the words. They leave her lips so soft she’s barely audible, like when she was in the classroom of the holy building as a child. That was what she was punished for the most: she could never speak up.
Her memory of the Wolf King drifts down, delicate as a snowflake. She can’t help but watch it spiral.
The trees were bare and the world was still. Stalking the bone white earth between the trunks. Muscles shifting, liquid, beneath a glinting silver pelt.
All the movement was sucked out of her then. It left her in a cloud of white breath.
His lupine head turned to face her, his eyes like captured lightning, liquid and luminous against the night. He rose slightly onto his haunches, as if for a better vantage point, and her breath caught at the size of him. His antlers brushed the snow-bowed branches. At his full height, they’d touch the treetops.
She knew he was dangerous. It’s what she’d been told all her life.
Breath billowed from the glistening black tip of his nose. He nodded, in eerily anthropomorphic greeting.
She knew he was dangerous. But in that moment, in the silent world of night, she felt like they were peers.
He turned slowly, pivoting away from her, each step a conscientious action. Even from a distance, she could see the glint of hooked claws that tipped his forelegs. A vaguely leonine tail curled behind him, ending in a silken plume. His eyes cast cones of pale blue light, like headlights in the dark. His shoulders sloped from one side to the other with the shifting of his weight, like the swing of a pendulum. She’d seen a moose, once, bigger than a milk van. He was bigger.
Only later, as she lay in her bed and heard the swelling pulse of their music, did she realize she should have been afraid. And only as she grew would she learn to be ashamed of this absence of fear. She’s ashamed of it now.
“Alright, that’ll be enough of that.” Bear’s rumbling voice jogs her from the blue twilight of her recollection. He raises a massive fist.
Mrs. Brown stiffens, on principle, even though she somehow knows that he wouldn’t actually strike her.
Sure enough, he brings his fist down on the door, repeatedly, hard and loud enough for Mrs. Brown to feel it in the floorboards beneath her feet.
“Your guest is here, treacle!” he bellows.
The voice on the other side makes Mrs. Brown think of smoke mixing with stormclouds: “Well. Send her in.”
Bear grunts, turning sideways to shuffle past her. She has to flatten herself against the wall to avoid being bowled over, and her skin pebbles into goosebumps at the tickle of the leaves. Never has greenery felt so dangerous. “Good luck,” he grumbles, sounding less than sincere.
Not a minute later, the door creaks open before her.
She knows him immediately. There’s no one else he could be.
Seeing him in human form, she’s surprised by how small he is. He has the slender, angular build of a young stag whose antlers haven’t yet forked. Lean muscle, tight to a frame of delicate bone, ready to spring at any moment. By all rights, he should be prey.
But he’s silhouetted against a window of flaxen stained glass, his back to her and his hands in his pockets. The sharp angles of his wolf gray suit make his outline unforgiving, edges sharp as razor blades. His back is arched, head held high, in the proud, unbothered way specific to apex predators.
“It’s very dangerous, what you’ve done.” His voice curls in unhurried, smoky tendrils, thick with a lilting accent which is somehow both familiar and impossible to identify. “Everything you touch belongs to me and my folk. And I don’t take kindly to people touching what’s mine.”
Mrs. Brown’s lungs ache, and she realizes she’s been holding her breath. The thread around her waist pinches as she inhales, reminding her of its presence.
“Deep in your little beating hearts, you people, you always think I’ll have some pity for your ignorance. Every once in a while, you charge my border with your pitchforks and your flames, howling like monkeys. You don’t live long enough to remember how that turns out, and you don’t know how dangerous we are, and you always think that will protect you.” He turns his head just slightly to the side. “That I would have mercy for the weak and the ignorant, simply because they are weak and ignorant. But this is nature, and in nature, everything is always busy eating or being eaten. The weak and the ignorant aren’t granted exemption. Generally speaking, the weak and the ignorant are the first to go.”
The air is soaked with power, with his presence. The pinch of the yarn reminds her not to drink too much of it. Her head feels in danger of floating away, like it’s not getting enough oxygen – maybe it’s not – and she tries to ground herself. He has a desk, she notices. Its surface shines oil-black between them. Its presence grounds her, something mundane, maybe even manmade, until she sees the vines that coil delicately around its legs, splaying across its sides. Wine-red flowers open and close, petals delicate as the legs of baby squid, as if greeting her.
His profile is gilded with evening light, his eyelashes delicate as flower petals, eyes glinting otherworldly blue beneath. That’s sunlight pouring in, she realizes. Where did the fog go? Was it following her?
“I am under no obligation to spare you on account of your weakness,” he reiterates. “It is important that you understand this. Only power protects you in nature – yours, or the power of your pack. Which, really, is the same thing. I’m very family-oriented.”
Similar vines crisscross the walls, and climb like tentacles over the stones of the unlit hearth. There are bookshelves, she realizes, stocked with books, but those books are partially obscured beneath the plush, spade-shaped leaves of morning glories. She looks down at her feet, hoping to at least find solace in the floor beneath her, only to discover that it isn’t a rug at all. It’s a bed of moss, plush green and perfectly even. It’s everywhere. Nature, uncontrollable, uncontainable. Inescapable.
Mrs. Brown has to concentrate all of her energy in order to make her mouth shape words. “Then why,” – her tongue feels heavy in her mouth – “then why do you spare me?”
Somewhere inside, she’s impressed with herself that she hasn’t yet cried. Those who encounter the Wolf King – or those who claim to – often report a flood of overwhelming emotions, that sometimes lead to undignified spells of weeping. She’s always been weak-bellied, and the sight of blood makes her dizzy. But she hasn’t yet cried. She didn’t as a child, and she hasn’t yet now.
The Wolf takes his time answering. He reaches into the jacket of his three-piece suit, and retrieves a silver box of cigarettes.
He turns to face her fully, and an unidentifiable emotion sweeps her like an undertow. His face. Almost human, but not quite, and too beautiful to be mortal. His eyelashes fan delicately over milk-white cheeks as he places a cigarette between plush lips. They’re as pale pink as rose petals, and so soft that it seems impossible that there might be fangs behind them.
“Because,” – he lights his cigarette, and the cold blue flame illuminates his sharp-cut cheekbones, the razor-like angle of his jaw – “your child asked me to. And we take care of our own. The power of the pack, that is.” Finally, he looks up, and his eyes blaze as winter blue as the flame. Heavily lidded and thickly lashed, carefully inset, like precious gems, unnaturally luminous.
Mrs. Brown’s chest rises and falls like a pinned rabbit. She needs to look anywhere else. She can’t. She wouldn’t want to. She remembers that night, that night she saw him. She remembers those eyes, blazing cold and beautiful against the winter-white world. The tufts of snow on his fur. The crown of his antlers.
“Anyway, you smell vaguely like a good friend of mine. You call her Pub Witch.” He puts his cigarettes away, and it occurs to her that she didn’t see a lighter. He’s strolling – stalking – around the desk with a liquid, predatory grace. “I’ve called her many things. We go way back, the two of us. There’s history there.”
She knows what he’s saying is important, important to why she came here. She knows she should be listening. But his eyes – his eyes. His eyes are all that matter in the world, and she wants to drown in them.
Emotion swells in her throat like an overflowing well, spilling out her orifices. Her eyes throb with moisture, and a low keening noise pierces the air. She realizes it’s coming from her.
The Wolf King pauses, dark brows pursing together, cigarette hanging from his lips. “Magairlean,” he swears, and his eyes, those eyes, roll skyward. “Not this bit again.” He sounds inconvenienced, like he’s just been caught in the rain. “Look, just have a seat. Have a seat, why don’t you. Just ride it out, yeah? It’ll all be over in a minute or two.”
He’s gesturing past her – presumably, to a chair – but she still can’t bring herself to take her tear-fogged eyes off of him. So she stumbles backwards until she feels it bump against her thighs, and lets herself crumple into it.
The tears dew her vision, turning the world into a series of abstract shapes, until she’s forced to blink them away. As the Wolf King predicted, it slowly recedes – or else, Mrs. Brown becomes acclimated enough to find the sensation bearable. All she can do is sit there, jittering through the aftershock, and looking up at him with tear-stung eyes.
The Wolf King is leaning against his desk, arms folded, those eyes regarding her from beneath unimpressed, drowsy lids. “You done?”
Mrs. Brown, amidst her still-fluttering insides, feels a stab of annoyance. How dare he look bored? How dare he look bored, after doing this to her? Her bones still feel hollowed out, and her lungs still quiver as they fill with air, but she forces herself to sit up, straightening her spine and pushing her shoulders back. She smooths her skirt, and does her best to appear dignified.
“I am done, yes.” Her voice still sounds hoarse and nasal, but she lifts her chin as she says it, like she’s denying a second helping of something. She knows she wants respect, but she’s not sure whose. His, probably. Maybe her own. Maybe both.
“Alright. Good. Then we can talk business.” He arches an eyebrow. “You do have business to talk about. Don’t you?”
“I –” She does. She knows she does. But it feels impossible to ask him for anything. Asking him to return her child would be like asking a cyclone to return a demolished house.
“I assure you, I’m no cyclone. We don’t have human values, but that doesn’t make us mindless. We have our logic. We have our ways.”
Mrs. Brown blinks. Did she say that out loud? Or did she just think it?
“There’s very little difference, you’ll find. In these parts, anyway.” He takes a step towards her, and the center of gravity seems to shift, dizzying. “Now, if you cared enough to come here, you’ve got to care enough to be able to say it aloud. Come on now. What is it you want? Why are you here?”
Mrs. Brown feels simultaneously heavy and buoyant, her head ready to loll off her shoulders. “I need,” she says, and has to pause.
The Wolf King raises his eyebrows, impatient.
She feels like she’s speaking through a mouthful of molasses. “I need Rosa—” She swallows. Never before has she said her child’s name before a stranger, not even by accident. Not even in her own head. “My child. I need my child back.”
“Your child,” the Wolf King repeats, his tone and his expression impossible to read.
“My child,” Mrs. Brown stresses. “I know – I know you have my child. I know you lured my child to you.”
“Ah.” The syllable curls cool from his mouth. “Well, here’s the thing about that.” He’s walking – stalking – towards her, and her head swims with his every motion. Lightning courses, crackling, along her nerve endings.
His eyes, up close, are the most terrifying and the most beautiful sight she’s ever beheld. Twin eclipses of pale, frozen blue, blazing bright and cold as winter skies. His pupils, she realizes, are oblong, like those of a stag. For some reason, this detail doesn’t surprise her in the slightest.
“I can’t return the child to you,” says the soft, curling smoke of his voice, “because the child came to me. And the child means to stay.”
At this, Mrs. Brown does blink. She wants to say it’s impossible. She wants to feel it’s impossible. She wants to at least feel indignant about what he’s saying, like she did with Doe, because how dare he, how dare he even insinuate such a thing? She was raised to stay away from The Gentlefolk, and so was her child. To say that she came here willingly is an absurdity and an insult.
“You know it’s true,” the Wolf murmurs, almost sympathetically, watching the thoughts slip, unable to gain traction. “Only the truth lives here.”
Mrs. Brown swallows. “Why?” she finds herself asking. Even as she watches the word float from her mouth, she knows she doesn’t really want the answer.
“Because. Of all the stories you told of us, all the yarns you’ve spun. All the reasons you’ve given your children to fear us.” He takes a drag of his cigarette, and lets the smoke curl in a question mark. “The world you’ve created? Is far, far worse.”
That’s impossible. She tries again to believe it, but watches the very notion dissipate like the smoke.
“But this place – I thought – I was raised to believe –” The words feel slippery, difficult to hold onto. “I was raised to believe that your world is pure nature, or – or close to it. Humans can’t live here.”
“Humans aren’t separate from nature.” His words are paced patiently, as if he’s explaining something to an illiterate. “You’re a part of nature that’s domesticated itself. You aren’t born that way. Each generation must be domesticated anew. So you put them into boxes, and you regiment their days and their nights, and you tell them when to eat and when to sleep and when to sit and when to shit, until they can’t remember that they ever had a choice. Until they imagine the box around them, even when it’s gone.”
Mrs. Brown wants to speak, but something tells her that he isn’t finished.
“That’s what happened to you, and that’s what happened to your parents, and that’s what happened to their parents, and that’s what was gonna happen to your kid. That’s what you were doing to her, because you forgot that there was ever a choice to begin with.” The tip of his cigarette blazes blue. “But your kid didn’t forget. She ran back to the feral womb from which she came, from which you came, because she could still recognize it as an option. Because you hadn’t pounded it out of her yet.” He puts his cigarette to his lips and inhales, his cheeks hollowing.
Mrs. Brown realizes, somehow, this means he’s finished speaking. That must mean it’s her turn.
“I went to the same school,” she murmurs, her voice as thin as paper to her own ears. “They treated me the exact same way.” She feels like she’s asking him for absolution from some sin.
“Yeah. You just let yourself forget the brutality of it.” A pause. The Wolf tilts his head to the side. His pupils rotate like the hands of a clock, so they stay parallel to the ground. “You remember the holy woman who hurt you? The one with a scar,” – he traces a line from the corner of his lush mouth to his jawline – “right here?”
Mrs. Brown stiffens. She does remember, clearly, like the fog of time has been sucked away. The gaunt, pinched face emerges, pursed mouth a perpetual, anal pucker. The rod forever clenched in gray, spotted hands.
“Yeah.” The Wolf nods, like he’s watching these memories emerge. “You remember. You remember the way her rod sizzled, the way it cracked when it bit flesh?” Visuals spring up with every word. Mrs. Brown’s muscles coil at the remembered, searing pain. “You remember when she made you watch, as she lashed your classmates? When she made them watch, as she lashed you? You remember how she relished it?” Mrs. Brown does remember. In her memory, the holy woman’s eyes are dark and small and glittering, deeply embedded, like those of a sow. “It was the only time you ever saw her happy.”
Mrs. Brown finds she wants to put her hands over her ears, but she can’t. She wonders if this is the Wolf King’s doing, or her own.
“Neither,” says the Wolf, but doesn’t seem inclined to elaborate further. “And do you know something else?”
“What?” The woman’s mouth shapes the word without her consent.
“That scar, that your holy woman got, she got from her father. Who did it with a broken whisky bottle.” He shrugs. “Someone hurt him, and he grew up and hurt her, and she grew up and hurt you, and you grew up and hurt your daughter.”
“I never – I never –” She’s trying to say, I never hurt my child, but finds she can’t form the words. The aborted sentences hiccup from her, until she gives up. “I never whipped my child,” she says instead, because that’s factually true.
“No,” says the Wolf King, his voice infuriatingly calm. “You just let it happen. Just saw the raised red welts on her thighs and on her arms, and you saw her tear-red eyes, and you chose to do nothing. So tell me,” – he takes his cigarette from between his lips, pinching it between his fingers – “do you think that hurt her less, than taking the whip to her yourself would have? The knowledge that you saw, and you knew, and you chose to do nothing?”
“I didn’t – I don’t – it wasn’t –” Every argument Mrs. Brown tries to make dies in her throat. She can’t tell if she’s angry or desperate or both. “Why do you care?” she eventually settles on, her hands wringing like they’re trying to strangle each other. “You’re – you’re supposed to be indifferent, impartial! Like nature. Why do you care enough to take her in? Why do you care enough to judge me?”
For a moment, the Wolf King remains silent, his expression inscrutable. Then, the tip of his cigarette explodes into flame, as blue as his eyes. At the exact same moment, in Mrs. Brown’s periphery, the hearth roars to crackling life. It makes her jolt.
“Let me tell you a little story,” says the Wolf, though he clearly isn’t in any great hurry to do so. The smoke curls from his mouth, cool and cream-white. He inhales it through his nostrils, and blows it out in twin jet streams. It’s so hypnotic, it takes Mrs. Brown a minute to process when he starts speaking again.
“Once,” says the Wolf, and the word leaves his mouth with a curl of smoke, “there was a child, much like yours. His father was an angry man, a resentful man, born into the service of lords and ladies. A man who spent his days saying, ‘yes sir,’ and saying, ‘no sir,’ and saying, ‘right you are, my lady.’ But when he got home to his shack, he fueled his rage with whiskey and took it out on his boy.
“And this boy, he barely ate, for his father drank all his meals. And he ran wild and barefoot, on the streets and in the woods, and his feet thickened and blackened, like hooves. He stole, first out of hunger, and then because he was good at it. He stole candy to share with the other children of the woods and of the streets. He fought. Sometimes out of necessity, for scraps, like a hungry dog. Sometimes to protect children weaker than him, of which there were many. Sometimes for the delight of it.
“He knew it mattered not what he did, because his father’s rage was a beast that came randomly for him. He was just as likely to be beaten bloody for some imagined slight, something his father had broken or misplaced, than he was for anything he had stolen or anyone he had fought. And the elegant lords and their lovely ladies, they saw every day his freshly blossoming bruises and his protruding bones, and they just walked right by. To them, they were just part of his uniform, the bruises and the bones and the dirt. Just part of the station he was born into. Everything was as it should be.
“Except you can’t regulate anything. Not really. Not for long. You can build a fence around it, but you can’t stop the climb of the vines. And vines, they were growing inside him, this boy. Unseen behind the fence that had been built around them. Unknown even to himself.”
The Wolf King turns away, moving towards the hearth, and Mrs. Brown finds herself blinking in surprise. She’d forgotten he was speaking. His words seem to flow directly between them, as liquid as the winter-white smoke seeping from his lips.
“One night, his father passed out drunk before he had the chance to beat him.” He’s talking again, and his words seem to stalk with him. “He still had a bottle of whisky in his hand, and the room wreaked of it. ‘Start a fire, boy.’ That was the last thing he slurred before he lost consciousness, sprawled on the filthy rug.” The crackling hearth makes him into a silhouette, that prowls across the room with an inhuman grace. Like something more accustomed to moving on four legs than on two. He stops before the fire, his back to Mrs. Brown. “And the boy, he started a fire,” says the Wolf King. “He did. He did something he never believed himself capable of.”
The fire blazes in a sudden storm of flame. Eager golden tongues lap hungrily at the outside of the hearth, over stone and the vines alike. Miraculously, none catch fire.
“He dowsed his father in his own whisky, the boy. And all around him, he flicked lit matches. A nest of flame. He ran outside to watch his father’s shack burn, and he knew then that he would hang. Children his age had hung before. Innocent, guilty, it mattered not. Just so long as they were the type of children polite society wanted to do away with. His type of children. So he ran into the woods, barefoot in the snow, to die on his own terms.”
Mr. Brown’s heart is like a clenching fist. The fire licks higher, as if it’s gaining confidence, lapping its way up the walls. She can feel the heat of it, yet the building doesn’t smoke or burn.
“But he didn’t die in those woods. He was adopted by the woods. Reborn in them. In the same way a lion will take in a lamb as its own.” From either side of the Wolf King’s head, twin thorns sprout. They split into sharpened peaks, forking like bare saplings. Antlers. His crown. Silhouetted, they glint deadly, sharper than any human blade.
Mrs. Brown covers her eyes and presses her thumbs to her ears, drawing her knees up to her chest as if she can will all of this to go away. But it’s almost worse, now that all she can hear is the drumbeat of blood in her ears.
She takes her thumbs out, and the first thing she notices is the absence of crackling flame. The Wolf King has gone silent, which she finds disconcerting. She peeks through her fingers like a child.
He’s crouching in front of her now, which should appear unnatural, but doesn’t. His antlers, Mrs. Brown notes with relief, are nowhere to be seen. “I didn’t mean to scare you that badly,” he offers, by way of explanation. “I was just making a point.” His eyes are rounded with something that looks vaguely like concern.
It occurs to her, for the first time, that he has feelings. Maybe not all of them are feelings that she can identify. But some of them are.
Mrs. Brown lets her hands lower. The two of them stare at each other for a moment or two, his inhuman eyes unblinking and strangely expectant. Could he be self-conscious? She certainly would be. He’s just shown her something vulnerable of himself.
“Not necessarily,” says the Wolf. “After all, I never said the boy was me, did I?”
Mrs. Brown nearly scoffs. “Well, who else could he be?” It’s disconcerting, how quickly she’s become accustomed to having her thoughts read.
“That’s the point. He could have been any of us.” Anticipating her next question, he adds, “Not all of us were human. Most of us weren’t. But all of us started somewhere.” He ashes his cigarette, and blue sparks fly from the tip. They gravitate up instead of down. “Every tree started with a seed, didn’t it? Every fire began with a spark.”
“Is that why you take children?”
The Wolf King looks vaguely annoyed. “You’re really not getting this. We don’t take children. Generally speaking, we try not to take anyone,” he says. “Children come to us, when the world you’ve created has become unbearable for them. At any point, they’re free to leave. They usually don’t want to.”
“But –” Mrs. Brown grew up hearing stories about The Gentlefolk stealing children, usually for being naughty, or for disrespecting adults.
“Fucking adults. Who put them in charge of fairy tales? They get it all wrong.” He leans forward, and his energy is imposing. And yet, Mrs. Brown finds herself leaning towards him, and not away. “Kids don’t have to be afraid of us. Never. Not even a little bit. But every time an adult harms a child, they are harming one of our own.” His voice lowers, like something crouching in the grass. “They are crossing us. And those adults – they should be afraid. They should fear very much.”
He pinches out the tip of his cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. The lighting in the room changes, and Mrs. Brown registers that the fire has gone out as well. He’s no longer outlined gold with its flickering light, and his eyes are now the brightest thing in the room, luminating all on their own.
Something unspoken washes over her, then. Thoughts without words. Just a feeling, lukewarm as old bathwater, of loss. Not the loss of her child. Lost potential. Everything that could have been, but wasn’t.
“I saw you, once,” says Mrs. Brown.
“And I saw you.”
I saw you. And maybe, I could have become one of you, is what she thinks, but doesn’t say. Whatever that might mean.
She gets an image in her head of the birds in pet shops, whose wings are clipped from the day they sprout feathers to the day they die. They never know what they’ve missed. Is she like that? Is that what happened to her?
“Don’t waste time grieving what could have been,” says the Wolf. “Think about what can be. From each dying generation of possibilities grows an infinite crop of new ones. They’re sprouting, right now. There’s no limit to what can begin.”
“That’s terrifying,” says Mrs. Brown, without stopping to think about it.
“Yeah.” The Wolf King smiles faintly, sphinxlike. “It is.”
The way he says it makes it sound like that’s a good thing. Maybe it is. Maybe her entire life, she’s hid away from the things that frightened her, never thinking about the beauty that can be found there.
The Wolf offers, unsolicited, “You should stop thinking about yourself so much.” He cocks his head, assessing, and adds, “Sometimes you wonder why you’re not happy. That’s why.”
Mrs. Brown lowers her gaze. “I always tried to think of my child.”
“You can say her name. I already know it.”
If she’d been the person she’d been before she entered Gentlefolk territory, she would have accused him of trying to trick her. She swallows. “I know.” But she can barely bring herself to think of it. Even the shape of the word in her mind makes her heart squeeze. “I always tried to think of her. I worked hard, for her. I raised her alone.” It feels foreign on her tongue. “But I. I –” She tries to swallow, but her throat feels too dry.
“You always thought of what you were sacrificing. Wondered what your life could have been without her,” finishes the Wolf. “The ghosts of what could have been eclipsed the possibilities that lived inside her. You never saw her without them.”
She can’t bring herself to look at him, but the truth is there. Inescapable. “I was seventeen,” she whispers. “Seventeen. And he was twenty-four. A musician. I thought he was special. I didn’t think –” Once again, the words become lodged.
“He got scared,” murmurs the Wolf. There’s not a trace of sympathy in his voice, but somehow it soothes her anyway. Low and dark, with no sharp edges. Like his claws are sheathed. “In his mind, he was ready to be married, but not ready to be a father. Yours was the first child he ran from, but not the last.” He adds, “His fear is no excuse. He’s a coward, afraid of his own baby.”
There’s no harshness when he says it, which makes the truth of it hurt more – a dull, thudding ache in the chest. “I thought – I thought I did everything I could. Raising her without him.” She wets her lips. “Now, I realize I – I never raised her at all. Did I? I was just – there. Just there. I was never with her.”
The Wolf king says nothing, though his silence doesn’t feel judgemental. Mrs. Brown continues, because she feels like she has room to.
“I fed her, like a dog. And I told her when to go to bed and when to go to school. But I was supposed to guard her. To love her. Wasn’t I? And I didn’t.”
“No,” says the Wolf King, without malice, “you didn’t.”
She looks off to the side, still too ashamed to look at him directly. Everywhere she looks, the leaves grow lush, delicate and heart-shaped. Quivering. “She’s never coming back, is she?”
There’s a pause before he speaks, like he’s mentally translating his words before he says them. “Imagine being an untamed creature in a tamed world. A tamed world, that wants to tame you. And then you discover there are more like you. A kingdom of wild children, of feral children, who got out, who got to grow on their own terms.” He pauses. “Would you want to go back to that tame world, Mrs. Brown?”
Mrs. Brown doesn’t need to answer that. And she can sense he doesn’t expect an answer.
“Someone once told me you didn’t care about good or evil.” Her hand drifts down, fingertips brushing the moss. “That those things don’t exist in nature.”
“Those things exist everywhere. It’s vanity to think you invented them,” says the Wolf. “Or that your little holy men can understand them.”
Mrs. Brown nods. “I know,” she says. “I know that, now.” She swallows. “You can’t escape from the truth here, can you?”
“You can’t escape from it anywhere. All that dies here is the illusion that you can.” And then, “Just like you could never escape nature, Mrs. Brown, because you are a part of it. Just like you can’t escape from yourself. All evil things are a part of nature. All good things are a part of nature. And everything you’ve ever done, good or bad, is a part of you.”
Back in the human world, that thought alone would have induced panic. But here, now, she feels strangely calm. Cornered by truths she’s spent her life running away from, confronted by every failure, every misdeed. It shouldn’t be comforting. It is.
“Because you don’t have to run from it anymore,” he explains. “Like a horse from its own shadow. It’s been with you all along.”
“Can I apologize to her?” asks Mrs. Brown. Think of your child, she reminds herself. Think of her, and not your own guilt. “Should I? Would it help?”
She finds she can bring herself to look at him again. The shame is still there, but she can confront it. Right now, she feels like she can confront any truth, and accept whatever pain it brings her.
The setting sun turns the room the color of brown molasses. His eyes contrast sharply against the warm hue.
“No,” he says, not to her surprise. “No, it wouldn’t help. She made me promise, in fact, that she wouldn’t have to see you, if you’re just planning to leave. It would be too painful for her.”
If you’re just planning to leave again.
“If I go, will she be alright?” asks Mrs. Brown.
“Yes. Though she’ll miss you.”
Mrs. Brown swallows. “Will she – does she forgive me?”
“Of course your child forgives you. Your child loves you,” he says simply. “As children, you know nothing but love. It’s what marks them as our own. Resentment is a disease you’re infected with by those around you, like poison in the water. The moment it takes them, they’re lost to us.”
His voice is so gentle, Mrs. Brown feels like it’s curling around her like liquid. She swallows. “You didn’t resent your parents? Not even the one you set on fire?”
The Wolf King tilts his head to the side again, and his pupils recalibrate themselves, as if they’re gears turning in contemplation. “No,” he says. “The boy did what needed to be done. He doesn’t regret it. Doesn’t mean he enjoyed it.”
“And you?” Mrs. Brown finds herself asking. “Do you forgive me?”
If he’s at all surprised by the inquiry – Mrs. Brown certainly is – he doesn’t show it. “In order to forgive you, I’d have to first harbor hatred towards you. And I don’t. I don’t hate anyone. I never grew up that way.”
Mrs. Brown looks at her lap. At the tight coil of string against her muted brown clothing. Conflicted feelings rise inside her like bubbles in boiling water, and the Wolf King watches them as they appear, identifying them before she can.
“You’re afraid. I know,” he says. “Of change, and of the unknown. But if you are living, you are changing. Each day, each moment that passes, you’re reborn as someone slightly new. You’re just not generally aware of that fact.”
She feels a tug at her midsection, as the yarn wound around her is being pulled by some far-off party, in some far-off land.
“Pub Witch,” Mrs. Brown realizes. She’d forgotten about Pub Witch, still waiting for her at the tracks.
The Wolf King makes a sound of agreement. “Letting you know the sun is setting.” He adds, “If you go back to your world, all this will feel like a dream, less real with each passing day. It’s better that way.” He doesn’t explain why, and he evidently doesn’t intend to.
“If I’m here after sunset, you’ll keep me here?” Mrs. Brown almost wishes that he would. It’s funny – her greatest fear, entering this world, was that she’d be stripped of her autonomy. Now it’s all she wants. Nothing is more appealing than the prospect of some otherworldly force making this decision for her.
“No,” says the Wolf King. “You could leave if you choose. But you wouldn’t want to. Once you dance to our music, it’s agony to live without it. It’s not an option to come and go at whim.”
“Pub Witch,” Mrs. Brown points out.
The Wolf King shrugs. “You’re no witch.”
No, she’s not. There was a time when this fact had been a source of pride for her – her precious respectability. “How foolish that all feels now,” she says, well aware that he’s reading her thoughts. “I feel like a child, playing dress-up. Playing so long, I’ve forgotten it’s a game. Dreaming of a handsome prince.”
“Or a holy man,” the Wolf offers.
The image of her holy man’s face flashes through her mind, and she recoils at the thought of him. Gone is the warmth, the divinity she’d bathed him with.
She always thought this place would be illusory. Now, she sees how much of her own world is a fabrication. Houses like cardboard boxes, the pomp of her neighbors. Small, frightened people who turn their own mediocrity into a source of pride by calling it respectability. Who shame anyone who grows outside of the boxes prescribed for them.
The red string tugs again, with a little more urgency now. Tugging her back to the manufactured world, of which she has been made a part.
“Are you ready?” intones the Wolf King.
Mrs. Brown isn’t ready, and she’s pretty sure he knows that. Once again, she’s about to jump into opaque waters, the future uncertain. But maybe that’s what all of life is: a continuous dive into the unknown. Each moment a mystery before it appears.
The Wolf King rises to his feet, smoothing his wolf gray suit. From his pocket, he takes a shiny golden watch.
“Where are you going?” Mrs. Brown asks.
“Business.” He tucks the watch back into his suit jacket. “As I said, it’s a dangerous thing, to cause harm to a child near our territory. Each child is one of our own. And it has been brought to my attention that many have been doing just that.”
Mrs. Brown looks down at her lap, at the red string wrapped around her. She doesn’t have time to contemplate what he means. She just knows she doesn’t want him to leave. She doesn’t want to lose him again.
“I haven’t told you my name,” she says, stating the obvious, “but I want you to know.” This is a surprise, even to herself. In her town, any name is a private thing. Sharing it, willingly, with a member of The Gentlefolk is unheard of. “It’s –”
But when she looks up, he’s already gone. All that’s occupying the room is her, and the gently lapping fire. She hadn’t even realized it had started again.
Oh, well. He probably knew her name all along, anyway.
Without allowing herself to think too much about what she’s doing, she reaches into the pocket of her brown skirt and retrieves her tiny pair of iron scissors. She lets them sit in her palm like a perched butterfly, contemplating them, the glint of their splayed metal wings.
What’s the right thing to do? Not just for her, but for her child? The thing is, she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know what her child wants – what Rosalupin wants, because that’s her name, it’s Rosalupin, and Mrs. Brown won’t let herself be afraid to think it anymore – because she doesn’t know her child. She doesn’t know Rosalupin.
But she wants to. And she wants it to be on Rosalupin’s terms, not her own. There’s been enough of that already.
She turns around, to where the red yarn is pulled taut behind her, as if inviting itself to be snipped.
She poises the delicate beak of the scissors, and to her surprise, her hand isn’t shaking. Her pulse flutters like a trapped butterfly, but it’s a good kind of fear.
She closes her eyes, and snips.
* * *
Pub Witch, who’s spent the past hour crouched by the tracks like a cat in the weeds, finally rises, winding up her ball of red yarn. “Took you long enough, girl.”
Darkness falls, the fog rising from Gentlefolk territory like a sigh. Melted away by their music, so close, yet so very far away. The night crackles to life with it.
Maybe later she’ll go and dance to it, if she can find something to wear.
The moss-covered railway rattles, lit up by twin headlights like glowing eyes in the dark. The train sounds its horn in greeting as it roars past, and Pub Witch waves back to it. She can make out the figures silhouetted in its windows. Some of them look almost human, but not quite.
After the train passes, she spots it: motion between the darkness of the trunks. A smile cracks Pub Witch’s face, anticipating who it might be.
Sure enough, he emerges not a minute later, the crown of his antlers glinting sharp beneath the light of the fanged moon. He moves like liquid, her Wolf, muscles bunching and unbunching beneath his thick, silver pelt.
Enthroned on his shoulders is a tiny girl. Her hair, long cropped short by school regulations, has already grown long and wild, sparrow-brown tresses interwoven with roses of blood red and snow white.
She clings to his deadly antlers like handles, determination flaring bright in her wide dark eyes, almost as fierce as the beast beneath her.
He crosses the moss-covered tracks, and his army follows behind him. Smaller shapes, loping like shadows from the veil of darkness. The white flecks of the Doe glow like stars against her night-dark pelt, her tail a raised white plume behind her. Her horns curve from her forehead, luminous white as crescent moons. Bear lumbers with the strength of a draft horse, mist curling from his flaring nostrils.
They cross the moss-covered tracks, in no great hurry. They can trust their prey to wait for them, because it will never see them coming. Not until it’s too late. Not until it doesn’t matter anyway.
Her Wolf turns to look at her, eyes like shards of blue lightning. He bows his head in greeting, careful not to dethrone the child on his shoulders. Pub Witch, grinning, curtsies back.
She hopes he’ll come over for tea soon. It’s been too long.
* * *
The Wolf King leads his pack, across the fields and through the tall grass. From her perch atop his broad shoulders, Rosalupin watches as the cattle and the horses bow their heads in deference, the lambs kneeling on knobby knees.
They’re approaching the holy building, she realizes. Its sharpened black steeple points towards the moon like it wants to puncture it. And yet, it doesn’t look so frightening now. It looks smaller, from up here.
Inside sleep the holy men and women, who either delighted in lashing real or imagined rebellion out of sobbing children, or stood by, placid and righteous, and let it happen.
“None of them are innocent,” agrees the Wolf King. His flanks vibrant with his grumbling voice, like a storm about to happen. “Children are closer to the Holy Being than they could ever hope to be, yet they beat the divinity out of them. That’s their greatest crime.”
Rosalupin feels herself smile faintly. “So you do believe in a Holy Being.”
“You can’t subsist in nature and not believe in a Holy Being,” he rumbles. “But believing in something isn’t the same thing as claiming to understand it, or speak for it. That kind of arrogance is often punished in nature, like a traveler who thinks he’s gained mastery of the woods, or a sailor who claims to command the sea. Something’s bound to swallow you.”
They finally reach the holy building, on the edge of the world Rosalupin was raised in. It seems so square to her now, everything neatly boxed. Categorized. How did she ever live this way?
“Are you ready?” asks Rosalupin. Her voice is small, even to her own ears, but it resonates clear in the night.
There’s a pause. “I believe,” rumbles the Wolf King, “that’s supposed to be what I’m asking you.”
She shrugs. “Maybe I can read minds too, now.”
He chuckles, like thunder rumbling beneath her. And then, as if out of courtesy, “Are you sure you want to see this?”
And she is certain. She knows he knows this. But she also knows he wants her to have that option. “I want to be able to look them in the eyes,” she says. “One last time.”
The Wolf King rises onto his haunches, so that the crown of his antlers flanks the horned moon.
The next day, the people of the town will come to find the holy building, empty and covered in green. Green moss will carpet its floor, and green leaves will cover its walls. No one will know what happened, though the children will be able to guess. Each will have to choose for themselves whether they remember.
But for now, the Wolf King tilts back his head and lets his howl split the night, as sharp and cold as the moon. And the lambs in their pastures and the horses in the stables and the dogs in their yards and the babies in their cribs all bay right back to him, reminding the world of their true king.
* * *
Somewhere, in a world far away, Rosalupin’s mother sleeps. Curled fetal on a bed of moss, her brown hair spilled around her. Untethered, for the first time in her life.
The music of The Gentlefolk seeps its way into her dreams, like rain, nurturing the earth of her soul. New things are already starting to grow.
Sleep is a womb of its own, like a dark winter in which spring is born. She will awaken, as everything does, as someone slightly new.
Brooksie C. Fontaine was accepted into college at fifteen, into graduate school at nineteen, and has just received her first MFA in English at the age of twenty-two. Her work has been featured with Report from Newport, Boston Accent Lit, Literary Yard, and Eunoia Review. She currently works as a freelance writer, illustrator, and private tutor, while attempting to drink all the world’s coffee.