This Document Copyright ©2014 By Laura Morrigan All Rights Reserved
She had hunted in her youth, those wrinkled hands, knuckles so swollen she can barely grip her cup of coffee once held a bow, held the string taut, never shaking. All her senses narrowed down to a pinpoint, to that soft spot in the flesh where the arrow would hit its mark. She would concentrate so hard she could hear the animal's heartbeat, her senses would, for a moment, be as intense, as overwhelming as theirs, and she would understand their bloodlust.
With those young hands, she would skin the dead wolf, the flecks of blood dotting her hands like the dark spots that would later cover them in her age. Usually, she would sell the skins at the the market, sometimes, she would take the whole skin, for a rug, or to make a fur coat for one of her lovers. Lovers now long dead. Sometimes, she would take the skull, bury it behind her house for the ants and worms to clean, dig it up months later and hang it on the wall with a rusty, bent nail. That was when she lived in a cabin in the hills, alone but for her some-time lovers, with whom she lay under a thick wolf's pelt at night. They understood her strangeness as the city people do not. Here, the wolf's pelt is rolled in a cupboard, brought out on only the coldest nights. It holds too many memories of dead hands anyway.
In the cabinet, behind her fine china, she hides the wooden trunk. The china was a gift from her last dead husband, whose name she barely remembered anymore. He was of no consequence. He never knew her past and saw only the tweed jackets and pearls and expensive haircuts, saw what she wanted the world to see. He never looked past this cocoon of possessions to see what she truly him to see, the secret inner self she hid from everyone. Secrets she could not tell, but longed for someone to guess at and accept.
Only Lise, her youngest grandchild, who was, from childhood, as strange and fey as she was herself, knows about this trunk. Only Lise is permitted to move the china, to open the trunk, and look at the contents, her grandmother's hands shaking as the girl unwraps the tissue paper and mothballs, to reveal the trophies within. She lifts them out with the proper amount of reverence, puts them in her grandmother's lap, so she will not drop them from her shaking hands. Lise's own hands are young, unspotted, unshaking. Lise would have made a good hunter. She thrills to the tales her grandmother tells her. The grandmother talks in an emotionless matter of fact way, although her blood always rises at the memory of the hunt. Afterwards, Lise, who is a nurse, will tut at her high blood pressure, but she won't stop asking for the stories. She knows it is only the shared stories now that keep the old woman alive.
Lise is sitting on the floor at her grandmother's feet, a young woman, but she still sits on the floor like a child. Normally she paces, restlessly, but when her grandmother tells stories, she sits still and silent.
Lise gazes down into the box, not touching anything, searching only with her eyes, until she finds what it is she is looking for. She takes it from the box, handling it carefully. A knife, with a bone handle, the blade still sharp after all these years. Sharp enough to cut at a touch.
The old woman smiles.
'My old hunting knife. I used that to skin the wolves I killed.'
'But there is another story, isn't there, grandma', Lise says.
'I am getting to that, child, give an old woman a minute to remember', the old woman clears her throat.
'Ah, yes,' she says after a suitable pause. She enjoys watching Lise squirm with eagerness. 'That knife. It used to have a wooden handle, it was a good knife, but nothing special. Then one day, while I shot a wolf, it's partner sneaked up behind me. It knocked me to the ground, my bow flying from my grasp. The wolf had me pinned to the ground, about to tear out my throat, when I managed to reach my belt, and pull out that knife. I buried it in the wolf's neck up to the hilt, plunged it in so hard the wood cracked. Afterwards, I carved a new handle for the knife out of the wolf's leg bone.' A satisfied smile curled up the edges of the old woman's mouth, the years seeming to recede from her face at the memory.
The grand-daughter, Lise, lets the old woman sit with her memories for a time, before she hands the old woman something else. She had found it at the bottom of the box, somehow she had never seen it before. It is the skull of a young wolf, wrapped in brown paper so old and hard, she had perhaps mistaken it for part of the box all those other times.
'And this grandma?'
At the sight of the skull, however, her grandmother's face falls back into its wrinkles and lines, and suddenly, she is an old, old woman.
'I am tired, Lise, no more stories for today, get me my medicine.'
Hurriedly, Lise packs the skull away, right at the bottom of the box. She puts the box back in the cabinet, and the china in front of that, then goes to get the medicine.
Lise is gone, and the old woman is snoozing in her chair, when the door cracks open. Slowly, a woman slips through the door. Her step is so light, no one would have heard it but the old woman, whose eyes snap open immediately.
'Who's there?' she calls. The woman steps into the light, and the old woman gasps. The woman who stands before her seems like she has stepped out of her dreams. She is young and lithe, the curves of her body visible through the suede pants and jacket, and the fur cape she wears. Her hair is tree bark brown, streaked with yellow like sunlight through the trees. Her eyes are almost yellow too. Her beauty is marred only by the jagged, faded scar on her throat, white and raised against her brown skin. She grins at the old woman. 'Surprised to see me after all this time?'
The old woman sighs. 'No, not at all, I always knew you would come, although you took your time. The years certainly have been kinder to you than to me.'
'It is so for all our kind, those who keep the way,' the woman says, her eyes seeming to grow more yellow. It would have been so for Ivar, if you had not killed him.'
The old woman fights the memory, the one hunt she does not care to remember, the blood on the snow, the ragged breathing of her lover as he lay there. 'Ivar's death is on your conscience, too, Setta.'
'You killed him!' Setta snarls, 'you killed him because he loved me and not you and then, you became something worse!'
Although she does not want to, the old woman is spiralling back down the years of memories. A cottage in the woods, a warm fire. Lovers, intertwined on the fur rug. Promises to love forever. Then coming home, one day, fresh, red cheeked and bloodstained from the hunt to find Ivar with her sister. The terrible sound of ripping flesh, the blood bathing her, baptising her as something new, something different, something dark. Later, sitting here, the drip, drip of blood onto the floor. Finally finding the strength to bury them both. Coming back a day later to find the grave open, her sister gone. Not dead after all. Only Ivar laying there, cold and torn. Never to awaken again.
They hunted her, Setta and the others, but they could never find her. She had always been the master tracker, the master hunter, they could never catch her. She found a new place, in a new woods, hunted for her food as usual. Eventually, they gave up searching for her.
But with the full moon, a new change came. The pain was terrible. And she lay there, wishing she would die, knowing that the curse was on her, for what she had done. For she could no longer change, with the full moon, her fur was stripped from her, and she was no more a wolf, nothing but a weak and naked human.
She was forced to seek out the company of other humankind. They sickened her, their weakness, their inability to change, to become something better. They had to use tools, their teeth were weak, and they could not use them to kill. Over time, she grew used to human ways. She had her lovers teach her the use of weapons, arrows and knives did the killing for her. She became the best hunter among the humans, as she had been among the wolves. One day, she set out alone, her knife stuck through her belt, bow and quiver of arrows slung over her shoulder to find her pack.
She hunted them for days, she could no longer find them by scent and sound, as she used to. She had to rely on footprints, on fresh kills left stripped of meat in the snow. She still had some of their stealth, though, and she was able to hunt them near the fringes of their town, to pick them off, one by one. It was a long war, one that took years, but she won it. As the final insult to her pack, she sold their pelts at the market, every time she stopped back in the town for supplies. She built a cabin in the woods, and her lovers would visit her there. She would anoint them with the blood and scent glands of the wolves, which made their scent so much better, and they would make love through the night. Sometimes, with the wolf scent in her nose and the rough fur of her pelts scraping her skin, she could almost imagine she was one of them again.
She had thought, then, that she would live the lifespan of a wolf, but as her people died, so did her aging begin to speed up. For the first hundred years, she stayed a young woman, but after that, she began to age at a faster rate, until, eventually, she was ageing just like a human. It was humiliating, and sometimes she wished that, like one of the elders of her race, she had the courage to go out into the snow and die, but somehow, she could not do it. She felt as if her death at her own hand would be a victory for those that were once her own people.
In the hundreds of years she lived, there was one of her pack she could not find, hard as she tried. It was her sister. The sister who now stood in front of her.
'Where is it?' her sister, Setta asks, 'your box of trophies, I know you keep it still.'
'Behind the china in the cabinet', the old woman sighs. Impatiently, Setta pushes the china out of the way, not caring as the plates fall and smash. The old woman winces at the sound. Setta drags the chest out. She does not need to rummage through it, her hands going at once to the bottom, pulling the skull from the trunk, reverently unwrapping it from those torn paper wrappings.
'I couldn't find you for years, sister, then I heard it, Ivar's skull, calling to me. I knew, then, where to find him. And you.' Her eyes mad with love and longing, Setta kisses the yellowed wolf skull.
'So this is it,' the old woman says. 'You are finally here to end my life, to avenge Ivar and all of your people. Do it then, I am old, I am not afraid to die.'
To her surprise, Setta bursts into mad laughter.
'Kill you? Is that what you think?' the wolf woman says. 'My dear sister, long ago I might have wished you dead, but now, seeing you here, this weak, withered thing, lingering on the edge of death, I see that this is the best punishment for you. You have lost the majesty of our kind, you gave it up for pitiful revenge. You are old, and, apart from that little niece that visits you every month, you are alone.'
The old woman feels her anger rising. 'And what of you?' she goads her sister, 'I killed the man you loved, I killed your tribe, you are alone too, just like me!' Secretly, she still hopes that her sister would kill her. Perhaps it is the thought of this violent reunion that has kept her going all these years.
Setta smiles, a real smile, this time, wide, but a little cruel. The smile of a wolf.
'Oh, I was not alone, sister, I was never alone. When I finally gave up the search for you, all those years ago, I left our pack, too. I wandered for a long time, until I was taken in by another pack. I have cubs, dear sister, grand cubs, great grandcubs. I have so many family I cannot even count or name them all, and they are always with me. They revere me, the great matriarch of their clan. I have what you might have had, if you had dared to love again, instead of killing Ivar out of spite. You may have been married, but you were bitter and cold, you drove your children away, they sensed your differentness, something in you, like a plague. They shun you, fear you. Even little Lise will tire of you eventually, find herself a human man, spawn more weak human offspring. You will fade away, unloved and unremembered.'
'But you will remember me, sister', the old woman says.
'I will not spare a thought for you', Setta replies. She takes Ivar's skull in her arms. 'I am taking Ivar home, I will give him the proper burial honours, as he always deserved, and I will leave you, alone with your memories and your trophies.'
Setta spits in the box of trophies. She leaves without another word.
The old woman sits in her chair. Her hands are shaking harder than usual. She half wishes that Lise were here to bring her medicine, and she half wishes she would die from shock. She knows that neither will happen.
The old woman who had been a hunter, and before that, a wolf, looks down at her box of trophies, befouled by her sister's spittle. There had been a time when her sister had not destroyed everything she had. There had been a time when they ran through the woods together in their pelts, swift and straight as arrows. She cannot help but remember that hunting with a bow and arrow could never live up to those days. She cannot help but remember a time when the kills had been with tooth and claw, and the blood, the blood had tasted like the sweetest of ambrosias. The trophies are bitter dust and ashes, nothing more. Her whole life has been ash, since the day her lover's blood covered her and changed her world forever.