“In the Belly of the Wolf” by Gwendolyn Kiste
Close your eyes, but remember: the wolf hides best in the darkness.
Your family warned you long ago. A young man should never walk unattended in the woods, especially at night when the full moon flashes like a faded coin. The silvery evening spins wicked promises it can’t keep. It conjures magic, like a gleaming figure, her body halfway between woman and wolf.
“Are you lost, sir?” She smiled at you, broad and savage, and never were you so certain you were exactly where you belonged.
In the mountains, bitter as heartbreak, she howled for you, and you answered.
“We’re all born wild,” she whispered, as you curled with her on verdant hills that sloped like breasts beneath your bodies. Soon, she swelled with your love, and you daydreamed of a life together.
But your family discovered your secret. They condemned you, pelted you with words and whips, and told you what you must do. You must be a good son. You must do the right thing. After all, a man cannot marry a wolf, no matter how well the daylight hides her wildness.
Tonight, you find her in the forest, waiting for you, her belly round and smooth as marble.
“You’re late,” she says, and you kiss her, the taste of sweet stars on her lips. The baby kicks beneath her pelt, and you want to stay with her.
But this is not to be.
The knife trembles behind your back, and the last thing you see as the curved blade sinks into her womb is the grief in her eyes, more potent than monkshood.
Hands red with shame, you wrench the child from her, and cut the last tether that binds you to the wolf. Try not to scream in agony as it snaps.
When you’re done, her insides will be cavernous and wanting, and you might feel obliged to give her something in return, a trade of sorts. You have several options.
Fill her with sweat meats, still glistening red.
Fill her with rocks as heavy as regret.
Fill her with nothing at all.
Remember: she is a wolf. She’s lucky you don’t slit her throat. And you’re lucky she doesn’t rip out yours.
You could—should—finish her, but instead, you run. Faster now. In your arms, the child does not cry. She only stares at you, her eyes like fragile ice, soft and accusing.
Halfway home, dip her pink body in the murmuring brook, and rinse the placenta from between her fingers and toes. Banish every trace of the mother who would have loved her—and would have loved you, too, if only the moon had allowed it.
With your heart in your boots, return to your cottage with the child. Remind yourself this is for her own good. She deserves better than a feral beast of a mother.
But she also deserves better than you.
Your family, pleased with your betrayal, welcomes you across the threshold.
“You’ve done well, our son,” they say, but you do not feel well. You fear you’ll never feel well again.
At night, as the baby babbles in her crib, you sit at the fireplace strung with dried amaranth and silver buttons—silly wards that will repel nothing when the wolf comes calling.
And she will come calling. Already you hear her, those distant howls once meant for you, howls that remind you of green hills and sweet stars and a bellyful of longing.
Close your eyes, and pretend not to sob.
Overnight, your daughter blossoms, but not in the way you hoped. Do your best to tame her. Comb the tangle of briars atop her crown, and file her dagger-sharp teeth into a respectable shape. You don’t want your kin to see the wild that lives in her like a wall of ivy, untamed and ever-growing.
Besides, there’s already enough tempest here. The wolf circles closer now. In the evening, her silken pelt rustles against the fastened shutters. The moon is not full, but that no longer matters. No lunar cycle can temper her rage.
Before dawn, her sweet lullaby beckons you, and you swallow the howl that bubbles up your throat like grog in a Yule kettle. You want to go to her, to love her, to beg for forgiveness, but you know it’s too late for sorry.
Their faces gray as steel, your family sets snares around the cottage, desperate for relief and for a hide to drape from the mantle.
“To keep the child from the cold,” they say, and their mere suggestion prickles your flesh. You can imagine nothing crueler than the skin of her own mother warming your daughter on a winter’s eve.
But the wolf is too clever for your simple-minded stock. One by one, the snares snap, but it’s never her body you discover in the morning.
You become good at moving earth, as the funerals—of your mother, your father, your brothers and sisters—become as regular as Sunday mass. At each burial, close your eyes, and this time, pretend to sob. Pretend you are despondent, even though you are not, even though you are secretly relieved that she lives and your family does not.
The wolf leaves you for last. You aren’t sure if this is punishment or mercy.
Tonight, you’ll find her in the forest, waiting for you. Go to her now. There is nothing left to stop you. Just don’t expect forgiveness. Instead, expect only what you deserve.
When she materializes in the shadows, tip back your head and cry out. Don’t worry if the melody from your lips is more monster than mortal. You were born wild. We all are.
As she closes in, offer her the daughter you stole, the daughter who pirouettes in the moonlight as if it’s her own kin.
And in the devouring darkness, walk to the wolf who will never stop loving, never stop circling, never stop howling at the silvery moon, her belly empty as the universe.
|Gwendolyn Kiste is a speculative fiction author based in Pennsylvania. Her stories have appeared in Shimmer, Interzone, Daily Science Fiction, Black Static, Nightmare, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye, among other outlets. Her Bram Stoker Award-nominated fiction collection, And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, is available from JournalStone, and her novella, “Pretty Marys All in a Row,” is out now from Broken Eye Books. You can find her online at gwendolynkiste.com.|