Tales of Wolf Hollow

Midnight Wren

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Sweat dripped down her back and humidity clung to her clothes, but as uncomfortable as she was, Wren did not stop sewing. Everything depended on finishing in time. The summer had been unusually hot at Briar House, and it was spilling into these early days of September. Her fellow inmates, teachers, and even Mistress Gregory had gone away for summer holidays and wouldn’t return for another week. Wren, of course, remained, with only the housekeeper and gardener to keep her company.

Like everyone at Briar House, they kept well away from her. The school was, without a doubt, a second-rate boarding school. Every student with a hint of scandal in her background, every teacher a bit too unrefined for better schools. Even so, Wren was shunned.

It wasn’t the circumstances of her birth. No, plenty of girls here came from unwedded houses. Nor was it her ebony hair, than shone in the moonlight with a hint of blue, the greenish cast to her skin in certain light, or her missing eye. There were other girls here who didn’t meet any standards for acceptable beauty or physical fitness, and they were all given the same adoration and attention. There was a kind of sisterhood among them, a sense of knowing that they would not fit elsewhere in society and so elevated themselves within their own.

Nor was it the whispers of the village over the mountain and through the treacherous forest. Billie May’s mother had been a Rider in her youth, before she turned traitor, and Billie was easily the most popular viper in their year. No, it wasn’t the vague association with the village, which no one ever confirmed with any certainty. It was something worse, something that could not be abided here, when every inmate of Briar House was someone’s secret shame.

It was the neglects that hung about Wren like a rotting stench. She wasn’t pampered like the other girls, despite the fact that her family was as wealthy as any of them. No one came for her on parents’ weekends, no one wrote letters, no one sent new clothes or trinkets for holidays and birthdays. Wren wasn’t here to be polished into something fit for the lower echelons of the highest society, it was clear she was here to be forgotten and so she was.

She was unseen and trapped, and would remain so all her days. The idea made her queasy and dizzy. To always be hidden, to never be free, to never know herself outside one prison or another -- it was very nearly more than she could bear. She shook these thoughts aside. Wren’s arms were tired and her back was stiff, but still she sewed. She must finish in time.

***

The sewing began after the headmistress departed for her summer home, with a warning. Mistress Gregory, imposing and impossibly beautiful said, “Touch nothing while I am gone. Do nothing while I am away. Be as a ghost in this house and leave no trace of yourself.”

Wren nodded in agreement. She knew how to be a ghost. She washed her own clothes, cleaned her own room, and stepped lightly on the floors and carpets. She stepped lightly on the gravel walks in the garden. She never touched a plant or picked a flower. She ate only what was leftover when the gardener and the housekeeper were done with their meals.

One day in late August, as twilight fell and the cicadas sang, she walked the garden paths, sure not to leave even a footprint behind, and spotted a feather. Glossy and black, it shone with blue, just like her hair. She looked around and could not see a bird that might shed such a treasure.

Something about it whispered, I am of your blood, I am of your bone. Mistress Gregory had been clear: she was not to leave a piece of herself behind. She picked up the feather and continued walking. She found another feather, then another and another.

Soon, dozens of them filled her arms, and eventually the skirt of her apron, which she used as a basket to carry them back to Briar House. The next day and the day after were the same. More feathers and no birds. She piled the feathers into baskets, which she wove from reeds near the river, just beyond the Briar House gate.

Then she waited. She knew the feathers were hers, though she did not know why she knew this. She didn’t know what to do with them at first, so she rearranged them by size and left them in the baskets that did not belong in Briar House any more than she did.

She watched the moon wax to fullness, and that night she startled awake. Her tiny room, at the top of the attic stairs was bathed in cool white light. The feathers glowed in the moonlight. Though no window was open anywhere, they rustled in their baskets, as if a breeze had blown gently by or they had been stroked by a hand.

At this thought, Wren felt cold and she reached for the sheet she’d thrown aside in the attic heat. Heightened awareness crawled over her skin and she felt something touch her arm, which she jerked away. It touched her again. Something cold and sharp. Something she might say felt like a knife, if she hadn’t known it was a claw. No, not a claw, a talon.

Then came the singing. It was a soprano, hoarse and haunting, but beautiful even when the notes it sung went flat.

Where oh where has my little bird gone?

Where oh where can she be?

Through blood and stone,

Feathers and bone,

Where oh where can she be?

 

She was here at the start,

But now we’re apart.

Where oh where can she be?

 

I have searched high and low,

But none seem to know,

Where she’s gone,

but she’s still dear to me.

 

Wren could hear there was more to the song, but the voice was far away. A cloud blew over the moon, and the spell broke. The feathers stopped glowing, nothing was touching her, and the house was quiet once more.

She spent the next day anxiously pacing. That night, the moon was still nearly full and she tried to stay awake to watch its effect on the feathers. But by the time the moon was high enough in the sky to cast its light on them again, she’d fallen asleep.

This time she woke to the scrape of a talon down her arm and the sound of the song, already in progress.

Where oh where has my midnight wren gone?

Where oh where can she be?  

Through blood and stone,

feathers and bone,

where oh where can she be?

 

She must hear my song,

For t’will not be long,

‘Fore they drag her back down,

she must sew a black gown,

a mantle that’s fit for a queen.

The voice continued singing, but again seemed a great distance away. She wanted to hear the rest of the song, but dared not leave bed, frozen as she was with fear at the line, ‘Fore they drag her back down. Her body clenched with revulsion at the memory. The one she could not place. The nightmare memory.

The hands that grabbed at her, thick and violent, pulling her from something she loved. Dragging her down and down. The shouts of triumph as they cut out her left eye to complete their evil spell. The blood that spilled on the ground, the crunch of bone as they made her anew. The never-knowing what she remembered, the fractured source of strength, the hole she felt at the core of her being, where something was missing. They took something from her, more than her eye, more than her freedom. They took something that must be returned.

She looked at the feathers in the moonlight and they did not glow. This night, they swallowed the light. She knew what to do with them, but she wanted to hear the rest of the song.

The next morning she barely remembered falling back asleep and she went through her day in a daze. As shadows fell, and twilight crept over Briar House, she felt as though she was waking up. Where she’d numbed herself for years, she felt again. She stretched into her skin, into her body. She gently touched the scar around her eye, and did not shudder once.

As night fell, she stroked the feathers and shivered with pleasure, because it was just like touching herself. She could feel her fingers stroke them. She felt them rustle as though they were attached to her own body. She and the feathers were one, and she would make the gown.

Wren curled into the chair, folding her long legs under her and waited for night to fall. This time she would not fall asleep. This time she would hear the whole song. But again she nodded off and was woken by the scrape of a talon on her arm. This time she was early, the singing hadn’t begun.

Deep within the house, she heard steps on the stairs. Up they climbed until they were footsteps outside her door. She held her own breath, only to hear heavy breathing on the other side of the door. Then the song began. The voice was closer than it had been before, as though the singer pressed their lips against the door, and the song had changed.  

Where oh where has my little bird gone?

Where oh where can you be?

Through blood and stone,

Feathers and bone,

Where oh where can you be?

 

You were here at the start,

But now we’re apart.

Where oh where can you be?

 

I have searched high and low,

But none seem to know,

Where you’ve gone,

but you’re still dear to me.

 

Where oh where has my midnight Wren gone?

Where oh where can you be?

Through blood and stone,

Feathers and bone,

Where oh where can you be?

 

You must hear my song,

For t’will not be long,

‘Fore they drag you back down,

you must sew a black gown,

a mantle that’s fit for a queen.

 

Where oh where has my little girl gone?

Where oh where can you be?

Stolen away,

Sixteen years and a day,

Steal you back, will I, so you’re free.

 

Now I see where you’ve gone,

And it will not be long,

‘Til I steal you back,

Steal you back,

‘Til you’re free.

Wren held her breath, until she felt her lungs burn and tears stung in her eyes. She gasped for air and rushed to the door, throwing it open. The hallway was empty. Sixteen years and a day.

Wren swallowed, feeling her throat acutely for the first time in years. She would be seventeen on September 6th, sixteen years after she’d come to live with her father. Impossible thoughts swirled in her head. Impossible, because her mother was dead, or so she’d been told. She almost pushed the idea away, but for a flicker of clarity. The memory, the nightmare memory of the hands. She was not being pulled down into something, but being pulled down from somewhere.

With certainty, she knew she must make the gown, and so stole into the headmistress’ bedroom, which was never locked. With the house empty of students, teachers and most of the servants, she was free to do as she pleased and had no remorse for entering Mistress Gregory’s room. She riffled through Mistress Gregory’s sewing table, looking for needle and thread.

She found the needle she needed immediately, but had to lift a secret panel from the deepest drawer to find thread. Such strange thread it was, not made from silk or satin. No blues or purples or greens, but only the color of hair. Here was Mistress Gregory’s secret, the mark against her.

Mistress Gregory was a sorceress of the worst kind, one who set the fate of her students with bits and pieces of themselves. Each spool of thread was tied with various beautiful bits of torn dresses and tattered hair ribbons, bound with sacred herbs and flowers, to promote abundance, wealth, and beauty. Each was made to ensure the success of the girl it was harvested from but one. Hers. Hers, bound with ugly, dingy twine and hunk of iron. She tore the twine and iron from her spool and her body felt light as air, as though her bones were hollow.

The next morning, she began work on the gown. It was a thrilling, but painful process. Just as she could feel her own hand touch the feathers, in the same way she felt her hands upon her own skin, she felt each prick of the needle, each tug of the thread. The memory of the hands, and what had been stolen eroded a little with each painful pull.

***

Finally, her birthday arrived and the gown was finished. She quivered as she slipped out of her badly made dress. This was different. It was sleek and elegant, and she was unsure how she’d known the way to sew a gown of feathers together, but it was stunning. Sixteen years and a day. If the song was to be believed, tomorrow she would be free. She pushed the thought of her mother away, afraid to touch it, afraid to hope.

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The housekeeper made no overtures for her birthday, and her father sent no messages or presents. It was as it had always been, until twilight fell and the cicada song turned to a chorus of screams. In the garden, in the place she’d found the first feather, she found a crown, wrought from the same black feathers that made her gown. As she drew it up from the ground to look at it, she saw it glittered with tiny, teardrop shaped diamonds.

Tomorrow, the wind crooned, in the singer’s voice. “Tomorrow,” she whispered back. When night fell, she slept easily and did not wake until late the next day. When she woke the sky was so dark she could only just tell it wasn’t night. The gown gleamed in the dim light of the attic.

There was little left to do but put it on, she supposed. As she stepped into it, something was different. Something about the interior of the gown was prickly, like pulling on a coat of burrs. It stung her body, clinging to her skin, but she did not take it off. Fear and anticipation sang through her bones and muscles when she looked at the crown. She felt her blood rushing through her veins, and the dress clung even more tightly to her body as she raised it to her head.

Open the window, came the voice she knew was her mother’s. She opened the window and an enormous raven swept in on the stormy wind. Their gazes locked and she nodded once in recognition. The nightmare memory was clear now. She’d been pulled from the sky. Pulled from freedom. Pulled from the shelter of her mother’s wing. Her eye taken to stop her ability to shift forms. Sent here to be hidden away and kept weak by Mistress Gregory.

But she was not weak now; no, now she was strong. The gown dug into her human skin, the little prickles became sharp talons. Wren’s human blood seeped into the dress and tears rolled down her face. They were tears of pain, but not of sadness.

She would not be parted from her own self a minute longer. Wren embraced the pain of becoming, and when she was whole once more, she spread her wings and followed her mother back to the sky.

Allison Carr Waechter is singing to bones and stones, calling autumn in. Send tea. You need not read the rest of the Tales of Wolf Hollow to understand this one, but perhaps you'd like to know more about the village over the mountain. If so, click here

Transformations

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By Allison Carr Waechter

The first time Jupiter followed me into the forest his words were honeyed, his doe-eyes slick with unshed tears. He spilled his love and his fear like rivers of intoxicating blood. As pine needles crunched beneath our feet he talked and talked, and never asked me a single question.

It was hard not to salivate over him showing his true self to me. He is so loved in the village, after all. To be paid so much attention, by such an eligible figure was a powerful feeling. And yet.

Behind the crocodile tears and possessive proclamations of ardor lurked a familiar danger. I could not rest easy while he traced my steps. I could not enjoy my grandmother’s tea, when I knew he waited just outside the door. And so I snuck out, with Grandmother’s help, and made my way through the deep woods, ignoring the path.

My dreams that night were haunted with visions of Jupiter pushing me down stairs, breaking my grandmother’s gold necklace, and shouting me down, down, down a hole of belittled fear and shame. I woke, covered in a cold sweat, under the light of a nearly full moon and heard the call of the snowy white owl from the eaves of my roof.

I climbed out my window and onto the roof. The cosmos swirled above me, sparkling amongst the milky rays of the moon. The owl sat still as stone and I asked her,

“Sister, what will happen if I marry Jupiter?”

She answered in a creaking whisper, “You will die.”

And I knew this to be true, from my guts to my bones. But the wise one had more to say,

“If you reject him and he lives, more will die in your place.”

With that, she flew away. I watched her go further and further from the village, higher and higher in the air, until she was naught but another speck, another star for me to watch. What way was there to stop this from coming to pass? I confess, my mind rested solely on the wise one’s phrasing “if he lives.”

If he lives… the pine needles whispered the next week, and the next, as Jupiter followed me through the woods. The further I strayed from the path, the more violent his words became. The louder he shouted and the more names he called me.

Each day that Jupiter followed me, before we went into the woods, I walked to the well at the center of town. It is a great machine, a work of science and magic working together. I waited for Jupiter as pails of water were drawn up, purified and poured into villagers’ waiting vessels. When he arrived I stood and said loudly, each time, hoping every ear within hearing would catch my message up and hold it close:

“Jupiter, thank you for your attention, but I would like to be alone today. Please allow me to walk to my grandmother’s house alone.”

And every day, he would argue that lovers such as we should walk together on the path. To this I responded,

“We have never been and never shall be lovers, friends or partners. Please leave me be.”

But he did not, and though I saw heads turn and eyes narrow as they watched Jupiter follow me, none ever stopped him. None ever joined me in saying that Jupiter should perhaps stay home, and leave me be in the woods.

Nearly seven months after being followed everywhere I went, Jupiter began to send letters to anyone I spoke to, letting them know that they were infringing upon his “territory.” She is mine, the letters said, even when those were not the words he used.

Eight months later, Jupiter moved into the house across the street from my own so he could watch my comings and goings more easily. I don’t know how he managed to find someplace else for Sister Marigold to reside, but one day she was there, milking her spotted goats in the yard and the next, he was there, brushing his unhappy horse.

If he lives… sang the stream.

If he lives… called the mourning doves to one another.

If he lives… whispered the wind through the pine boughs.

One day, Jupiter caught me by the arm in the forest and shook me. “Why do you say no so often, when we all know that you mean yes?” he hissed. “Why do you resist what you know you truly desire?”

“What do you know of my desire?” I screamed. “When have you ever once asked me a single thing about what I want?”

For one moment, I thought he would let me go. But he pushed me down instead and called me filthy names. I waited for the blow. I waited for him to kill me, but he did not. Instead, he walked away, shouting.

My heart beat fast and I was, in that moment, every tiny prey animal I have ever killed in the forest. My body flooded with energy to run, but I felt my teeth sharpen and my heels dug into the ground. My fingers lengthened into sharp claws and my body hunched and bones broke as I shifted into something else. Something dark, and sleek, and magnificent.

On four paws, I ran through the woods and felt my heart beat quickly, but steadily. My sense of smell grew sharper and my vision clearer. My ears, so much larger, picked up a noise I’d never heard, and that can only be described as celestial song.

For when I found its source, I knew it to be so. The gaping mouth of the forest was open in a grove of sacred trees-- and in it I saw the whole of the universe, dancing there to the beat of a distant drum and I bowed to its grace. The bowing trees danced in time and I knew this to be the forgotten place of my people, of my sisters, of the witches of old.

This was the place of the storykeepers, the truth tellers, the ones we villagers so foolishly relegate to the place beyond the village, to the place at the end of the path. Here in the dim light of twilight I saw the truth of the trees we cut to make our straight road and the angry darkness we sense within the woods:

We must be made whole once more, and this work would be done by those of us who are not the light of the village. Instead it would be done by the spat upon, the pushed down, the ones with the least. I would make an army.

We would do the work, and we would call the others to us, knowing they are unlikely to heed our warnings. The ones who would not would meet a different end -- a different kind of transformation, but a transformation all the same.

This work would not be for the Jupiters of this world, who so long betrayed it. They must be swallowed, digested, shat out and made to fertilize the earth, so they might grow anew. And my army would be the vessels that filter them out and start them again.

That night the moon was dark and I went to thirteen doors in the village. Each knock was answered, and they drank from my veins and shifted too into wolves and we ran through the forest to the sacred groves and there we drank from the waterfall that fell from the mouth of the universe and were given a triple life, as human, as witch, as wolf; and in the place where all three meet, there is the power to divine a new world.

Our eyes glittered with new power and knowledge, but sacrifices would be made. We shifted into our human bodies and joined hands.

Who will be consumed?  I asked.

All who will not join us. They answered in unison.

The universe sang its blessing and asked for a gift to seal our bargain and make this world whole once more. The heart of the poisoned, it crooned. All eyes turned to me and I heard the wise-one’s words once more.

I nodded once and we walked back to the village in silence, though Tamyr took my hand before they went into their home and said, “Good luck, Ruby.” I nodded to them once, they squeezed my hand and I was alone once more.

The next day dawned cold and bright. I slipped out of my home when I saw a village elder knocking on Jupiter’s door. Even he wouldn’t dare scorn an elder’s call. I made my way through the forest to Grandmother’s house. When I arrived, she was sitting on her front porch, brandishing a knife, a beautiful knife. She smiled a wolfish smile when she saw me coming up the path and said,

“You’ve come for this, dear one. And tonight you fly, if you give the forest what it needs.”

I took the knife and ran.

It wasn’t hard to find Jupiter. He was shouting my name. Shouting obscenities. Shouting for justice, he said.

My hand did not falter.

The cut was quick.

He fell with a gurgle.

And I gave him to the gaping maw, which did not spit him out to fertilize the soil and grow, but kept him in and shone brighter than I’d ever seen. Time had no meaning and darkness fell while I watched the forest consume Jupiter, and when it was done I could fly.

Allison Carr Waechter is over sea and under stones, behind the barrow, counting the bones. Send tea. She is the Editrix of this magazine and you can find the rest of the Tales of Wolf Hollow by clicking the tag at the top of the story. 

Wolf Coven

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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.