By Allison Carr Waechter
In the days after, there has been much debate about whether the knife first belonged to her mother or her father. Some say it was her father’s knife. Some reason that as her father left before she could remember his face that the knife belonged to her mother. People miss the subtleties of the tale. For should it matter whose knife it was to start with? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, you must sit at my hearth long enough to find out. Come out of the dark night and sit by my fire.
It belonged to her when she sliced his chest open. It belonged to her when she watched his blood pool and freeze in the freshly fallen snow. It belonged to her as she cleaned it with his scarf so his blood would not touch her. It belonged to her as she walked off the path, and deep into the forest.
It is a matter of perception to say if this is where the story ends, or where it begins. It depends on who tells the story, and why they tell it. That is always the way with tales like these. They change shape and size, depending on the teller.
Men tell the story to remind you she is out there with her sisters, and our enemies the wolves, in the woods. They tell you to remind you they violate our laws in their monthly rides to gather the souls of the damned. Threats linger in their versions of the tale. Threats to their ways of understanding themselves. Threats to their ways of understanding their women. Their understanding of the story hinges on the origin of the knife, on their fear of the vengeful blade, on the sting of betrayal that women could choose wolves over men.
Women (of all kinds), and children (of all kinds), and “men of a different sort” (as the villagers say), tell a different kind of tale. Their stories sometimes hinge on the knife as well, as an instrument of justice, but more often they will tell you how she came to use the knife and the ways in which the alliance in the forest sparks flickers of hope. For the people who tell this version of the tale are seekers of hope, the ones with their eyes open wide in the murky dark of the world. The ones who venture off the narrow path from time to time, to see if solace lies beyond its purchase.
There is another muddy middle where truth matters little and the salacious nature of the killing governs the tale. This way of telling grows more popular every day-- the version that hones in on the sharpness of the knife, the surgical precision of her cuts, and the question of her sanity. This version bleeds into the other ways the tale is told and it keeps us from understanding the story whole, as it may be known.
Still, you came here for my version of the tale, my truth, and to me the story begins before she was born, before we all were born. You might think my truth dissolves our collective responsibility for how things have turned out. That is why you’ve come to me, isn’t it? Because you would like me to tell you that you are not responsible for the women in the woods bearing knives, accompanied by wolves who gnash their teeth and sharpen their claws on the bones of the wicked.
You would like me to tell you this is not your fault and that you may go back to your cottages in the vale and light your cozy fires, safe in the knowledge they are not coming for you. I cannot say this to you. I cannot reassure you or make you safe again. They are coming for us all eventually, as you will see soon enough, and you were never safe to begin with. That is a lie you tell yourself in the deep of the night when you hear the scratches of claws and howls of the wolf outside your door.
Long before the women you call Red Riders were born, this was a land in turmoil. This you know, of course, but I must tell the tale my own way. I believe that is part of the reason you’ve come to my door, after so long ignoring my kind. We remember the old webs of knowing. We see the filaments that string between us. We know the ways of the ties that bind -- and how to break them. You lost that ability, but deep inside you a longing to see and know again wakes, but it is tempered by the desire to distinguish between good and evil. You shall not remain sightless for long, dear ones. This I promise you. My tale will help you see.
For years upon years, we fought on our chosen sides to quell the never-ending conflicts between us, each side believing it knew best about how to live our lives on this land. Each side knowing the definition of good better than the other, each side knowing better how the forest might beckon or the wolves might circle. But the sides split into more sides, turning on each other, until none were friend and none were foe. We drifted so far from the old ways, building fences and cobbling stones when we should have been growing food and making medicine. Forging paths through the forest, when we’d have been better leaving things there well enough alone.
Everything does not belong to us, no matter what our leaders say. Things that should remain sacred live in those woods. Things that should not have been injured when we sliced our path through. When we began to cut the path, the trees were a sacred copse, but were no more than a few dozen tall pines-- separated from the larger forest that has always surrounded us, but now threatens to swallow us whole. Those trees were our own hallowed grove, to cherish and to tend to, not to rip asunder.
Yet, we craved order more than justice eventually and chose accordingly. We believed most in our narrow minds and forgot to see the bigger world. We believed in our winnowing, our constricting, our rules and our precise navigation through the woods. Our lives became smaller and smaller, we created a council of those with the most among us, believing that having more meant knowing more. We forgot the world beyond. We forgot the sea and the mountain. We forgot the ways of belonging.
We shunned the wisdom that our grandmothers taught -- that we the people, the trees, the wolves are a system, a cycle, a loop. And so we chose to cut a path through our sacred hollow to make travel between one half of the village and the other more comfortable. We did not anticipate that the trees would multiply in defiance. Some do not see the connection between the smallness of our minds and the multiplying trees, but this connection is the only way to understand what is happening now. The trees resisted our urge to make them smaller, as we should have resisted the urge to make ourselves so.
This growing smaller, even as we grew in numbers and strength, and the reaction of the trees, is the true story of how the Red Riders came to be, and how their leader came to wield the knife that cut the winds loose that thrash at us, even as I speak. You look incredulous, but you hear it outside the door, do you not? You say these are unrelated stories, but there are no unrelated stories. This you must try to understand. There is a danger we have forgotten in believing one story is more special than another.
But you are itching to hear about the Riders and care little for the philosophizing of trees. Very well, stoke the fire. My old bones sing at its roar and crackle. I shall give you what you came for, though I cannot tell if you will like the result. As it was with Ruby, I care little for what you care for, but you know this already. That knowledge is in the trembling thrill shivering over your skin, yes?
We will address your tender skin soon enough, dear ones. First, the story you crave.
The man called Jupiter was a son of those you call society’s best. As such, from the time he was a child, his words were respected, regardless of their truth. His actions were praised and honored, regardless of their morality. His hard work was elevated, regardless of the fact that his success was compounded by the position of his father, his uncles, his brothers and his grandfathers.
And so he became accustomed to being loved and admired for his skills as a hunter; they proved he was a man of worth. When the girl called Ruby caught his eye for a wife it did not cross his mind that she might have other plans, or desires. It did not occur to him that she had existed, whole as the moon, before his eyes caressed her body. Before his notice made her real.
He was taken by surprise when she did not return his affection. He was wounded, true, but a deer craves the chase, does she not? And he, the hunter, always hits his mark. The depth of his reaction was cut deeper by the fact that he believed himself a good man, as does our village. Even now, when some tell this tale, they call him good.
Ruby cared little for his goodness or his accomplishments. You asked for a truth, and so I’ll tell you: Ruby thought little either ill or otherwise about Jupiter before he came courting. In fact, she had other concerns pressing on her heart. Concerns that made Jupiter’s wishes seem small to her, and not at all related to her purpose. In my view, her indifference was the first slash into him, before she ever laid eyes on the knife or ventured off the forest path.
We have all seen Ruby on the hill on the nights of the dark moon. We have seen her face alight with the sparkle of the cosmos. Each of us knows the whispers of strangeness stuck to her because of her unconventional resting place, her unusual attachment to the stars swirling overhead. Each of us knows that in our village, being strange is not the same as being virtuous, no matter how innocent your strangeness may be. Some insisted it wasn’t proper for her to walk and sit alone in the depths of the night. Who could know what might find her there on the hill and whisper and whisper into her open ears? Who could know what she might do with murmurs of the wind?
Conversely, there were those who couldn’t imagine the sin in watching the stars. After all, she was only a girl, dreaming alone on a hillside. With nothing but her strangeness to make her special, what real harm could she do? And whispers on the wind are figments of overactive imaginations and we villagers pride ourselves in knowing what is real and what is true.
Perhaps it was this strangeness that attracted Jupiter. Perhaps it was the light shining on her face that made her seem special, but even from my perspective, Ruby was not so unusual in looking to the stars for wisdom or listening to the wind, it was only her choice of seats. Many women in this village sit on their own rooftops at night to do the same, but few think to look for them there. You’ve guessed by now that those women on rooftops have become Riders, so perhaps if given the chance, you might look harder for them.
Of what happens next, we are all in agreement, because most of us saw it happen over weeks and months. We are a small village, regardless of the growing swath of shivering pines between us. Jupiter courted with bushels of flowers from the hothouse, with gifts of gold and sparkling gems taken long ago from the mine on the mountain. He came with promises of a large house on her favorite hill, and many strong children who would bear his name. Each gesture was met with a firm refusal, and a decided lack of interest.
At first we saw Ruby respond with kindness, despite her disinterest in Jupiter’s dreams. And why shouldn’t she? A good man asked for her hand and she should treat him with respect. This is where the tales told of Jupiter, Ruby, and the Red Riders diverge. You have heard Ruby grew mean and ungrateful and as Jupiter’s gestures of affection grew grander, she grew bitter and she was frigid in her rejection. You have also heard the other side, that Ruby felt trapped and afraid. That perhaps the action of her simple words falling on ears that refused to hear scared her.
I say it is somewhere in between. I say Ruby’s initial kindness and respect for Jupiter’s affection was nothing more than what was once common decency and civility, though others will say that had she been clearer about her feelings to begin with he would not have felt encouraged. I say there is rarely encouragement in plain refusal, no matter how it is delivered, but I know I am in the minority. I say that as time went on and Jupiter’s advances became more public, more ardent and yes, more aggressive, that Ruby saw another way might be necessary to make Jupiter understand. She began to see Jupiter as more than a suitor to reject, but a means to a particular end. She saw how Jupiter might indeed be the answer to her dearest dreams.
I say also that as time went on and Jupiter felt spurred on less by love and more by the desire to win Ruby’s heart, that Ruby became angry. We watched him follow her on her trips into the woods and we did little to stop him from doing so, for he was a good man, and what harm would it do for him to accompany her through the now-vast sea of trees dividing our town? She only travelled to see outcasts like myself, after all. Nothing so important that she could not be bothered by chattering bids for her love and attention, or so it is said.
Some even say his presence kept the wolves at bay, and if she had only accepted him the Riders would not threaten us now. They say if she and he had only walked the path together forevermore, that we would not be divided now in our disagreements about how the story should be told. As though agreement is the simple answer to our problems. Agreement is never simple, dear ones, that we should know better by now.
Ruby traveled often between your side of the village and my own, between her mother’s house and my own. Her mother was of the opinion that she should stay upon the path for safety, but I knew she would find succor in the woods, should she need it. And we know now she was not wrong, though you know littler of this than you think. I will tell you in good time, my dears. Fear less, fear not. We are closer now to what you deserve to know.
Whether you believe she was right in rejecting Jupiter or not, you would be cruel not to acknowledge that during this time, Jupiter became less and less like himself. I argue that perhaps he became more and more like himself, but I have heard it said most the other way ‘round. I say this to remind you that no matter which way you look at it, Jupiter’s affections turned sour. On this we agree. The more Ruby said no near the end, the more enraged he became.
On both sides of the woods we heard him shouting at her. On both sides we heard him disparage her character to whomever would listen. Some of you even heard him threaten to make her pay for her rejection, though I notice you admit it less now that the Riders go abroad. Perhaps you should reconsider your strategy, given their targets thus far. But I am an old woman, and you will reject my advice, as you have many times before.
Ruby’s sensitive ears, so attuned to the secrets of hill and hollow, caught wind of those threats. She felt them acutely when he followed her to the forest that day. When he made known to her his intent to take her as his wife in whatever way he saw fit, she did not hesitate. She pulled the knife from her basket and cut him down.
You know she cut his heart out, because he no longer had it in him it when they found him, but you do not know why. That part of the tale has yet to be told by any in the village, but let us be honest, this side is no longer the village. We have been apart too long, you on your side and we who are not like you on this.
Here is the truth this side of the village knows well: The knife was not her father’s nor her mother’s, by any definition of possession. The knife was my own, the blade forged by the hand of my mate on the darkest night of the year. The handle I carved myself from the sacred pine at the center of the forest, freely given when I asked. The two parts of the knife made one by the balance of intention between myself and the man I called husband.
Yes, you have heard tales of him too. A good man himself, back when the word good had a different meaning. He defended the wood from the path and was cut down with the trees for his efforts. Ah yes, avert your eyes. That part embarrasses you to remember. You didn’t come here to for me to spin yarns about those few brave protectors of the trees. You want the gruesome story of the forest and the menace of wolves. You want to know what Ruby wanted with Jupiter’s heart.
It is as I have told you, Ruby cared little for Jupiter himself, one way or another. He was a means to an end, an end that is also a beginning. Now comes the part you are dying to hear, but that is still not the part you should want to know most, dear ones, but we will get there soon. We will.
Ruby cut the heart from Jupiter’s chest to give to the forest. Your stories of witches doing such things holds truth. This is why you feared coming here, yes? Much as you want my wisdom and truth, you fear what might happen to your heart if you enter the house of a witch.
Ruby is my grandchild. Though her mother, with all her love for the path, is a disappointment to me, Ruby is not. She took my knife when I passed it on to her and cut out the poisoned heart of a good man, if you still wish to call him that, as an offering to the forest. As proof that she will do what needs to be done to make things right. As fuel for its greater purpose. Sometimes violent acts precede the greatest good.
She stepped off the path, with his still-beating heart in her hands. She walked deeper into the forest, until she reached a dark place, a hollow. The place where all the whispers come from. This is not a secret place, you only have to want to find it, but so few of you thirst for true wisdom.
The light from the sunny sky above was gone in this shade of the trees. Indeed, all daylight disappeared from the world, sucked into a whirlpool of glittering darkness. It would seem a gaping maw to your eyes, dear ones. But Ruby saw something in it. She saw the swirling cosmos, familiar to her after those nights listening and watching on the hill. Trusting the way her heart beat in time to the dance of the stars, she tossed the heart into the mouth of the forest.
The forest ate it and was pleased. It asked her what she wanted and she whispered: “To be whole again.” I see you nod to each other, and your smug smirks of knowing. You imagine this is the part of the story where the forest negotiated an alliance between wolves and bad women. That Ruby sold her soul and Jupiter’s heart for the joy of betraying you. You imagine this is where Ruby recruited those that ride with her each month on the night of the dark moon.
You are right and you are wrong. The forest did gift Ruby with something special, but it was not an alliance with wolves. You see, the wolves are not the Riders’ allies, dear ones, the Riders are the wolves. What you see when you glimpse them is their double nature, their ability to be both wolf and woman at once. Because you have given into the winnowing of your mind into something narrow and small, your sightless eyes see a pack of wolves, ridden by a coven of wronged women. Women you believe intent on wreaking havoc on this good village for the bitter glee of revenge against those who’ve wronged them.
You believe the gift the forest gave to Ruby was a deadly alliance between your enemy the wolf and your enemy the woman who will not be silent in her acceptance of your truths. The truth, dear ones, is Ruby could always turn into a wolf, as any witch can. And any woman can be a witch if she so chooses. All women are witches; all women are wolves: it is only choice that keeps them from these wild truths. You see now, you have never been safe, so it is impossible be safe again.
The gift the forest gave Ruby and her wolf coven was a transformation of another kind. Instead of teeth that craved flesh for food, they grew teeth that craved flesh for fuel. Eating villagers is not revenge, but rescue. When the Riders feast upon villagers, they take the poison in and digest it. It slides through viscera; the poison breaks down and filters out. The villagers are remade. So it must be.
You tremble. Are you afraid? I would not lead you astray, my dears. You walked the straight path to my door and heard my truths and now you shall be rewarded. It is time to be eaten and digested, translated into something old as the forest itself. It is time to make a return to the soil that grows the trees. This is the truth of Wolf Hollow: A woman, a witch, a wolf, chose to be whole and chose for you to be whole as well.
Now you are well and truly frightened. You knew the Riders took lives, it’s why you call them “Red” -- their jaws smeared with the blood of their victims. But dear ones, they are not victims, they are simply the first to be consumed. How they are destroyed remains to be seen, does it not? How will you know how you might change until you are re-integrated, re-translated, re-formed?
Don’t go yet, dear ones.
Stop clamoring for the door; you will find it locked.
The forest wants us back dear ones, and the only way to get there is through the jaws of a wolf. Every coven has its elders, and we are not above dirtying our claws. Be still now while I work. I would rather not chase you, but I will.
Yes, dear ones, my ears are large. The better to hear you cry in the night. The better to hear your stories and your wicked words, your struggles and your pain.
Yes, dear ones, my eyes reflect the maw of the hollow, the better to see your good, as well as your evil. The better to see your kindness and your cruelty alike.
And yes, dear ones, my voice is a mournful howl now, the better to drown out your explanations, and call my coven home. You may raise your howl to mine if you like; it might hurt less if you do.
Oh yes, dear ones, my wizened fingers sharpen now into claws. The better to tear this world apart and sew it back together again when I am woman once more. For I will always be woman and wolf and witch. The mother and midwife, the teeth and claws of justice, the alchemist of truth. The world must have me all ways.
Turn round, dear ones, I’ve told you the door is locked.
My teeth have grown large and sharp, my jaw wide and open, my throat slick with sweet saliva; the better to eat you with. You may climb in if you wish, but if you do not I will swallow you all the same. The time for running and begging has passed.
You wanted truth and so I have given it. All stories have their price and this one requires you surrender your life, your beliefs, and your comforts, all of which were destroyed when you stood at my door and knocked.
I opened then and you came through, as you must now while I close the cage of my teeth around you and gulp you down. Into the dark you shall go, dear ones, as must we all.
Who will you be on the other side?
Allison Carr Waechter is over sea and under stones, behind the barrow, counting the bones. Send tea.