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Showcasing creative writing by university students around the world.

Illustration by Claudia Claros

Illustration by Claudia Claros

Published Wednesday, January 30th, 2013

Words by

The Wolfskin

It was said that there was once a woman who lived on the edge of a deep forest that grew so thick the earth never saw the sky. It was said she could control the beasts that roamed in the dark, that she wove songs like the wolves on a winter night, that her sons were sired by demons. She had eyes like a blackbird's wing, skin the colour of silk, rose scarlet lips, and fine nails that could turn into claws. The people of the village came to her house for medicine, and departed quickly for fear of pestilence. It was said among them that she had the power to charm the very Devil up from Hell.

It was said that there was once a woman who lived on the edge of a deep forest that grew so thick the earth never saw the sky. It was said she could control the beasts that roamed in the dark, that she wove songs like the wolves on a winter night, that her sons were sired by demons. She had eyes like a blackbird’s wing, skin the colour of silk, rose scarlet lips, and fine nails that could turn into claws. The people of the village came to her house for medicine, and departed quickly for fear of pestilence. It was said among them that she had the power to charm the very Devil up from Hell.

 
Once in every eighteen years, however, came a night that was feared more than the witch on the edge of the wood, and sent the people of the village shuffling indoors, taking their animals with them. As the sun set all

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was hushed like no other night as they waited for the clamouring that was bound to come. Sure enough, in the lithe ghosts of twilight, a great yowling rose from afar and crashed over the village in a dread wave, deafening old and young and inspiring nightmares that would last for eighteen winters. The dogs took up the noise, and the sheep and cattle and horses in the barns, all trying to drown the demon wolves who flew their power over the valley as they had done since the first of the world.

 
The witch woman heard it, under the eaves in the evening. There were old mouths forming words that no longer existed, and wobbly cub voices learning the notes of their ancestors’ tongues, and those in full throat, prime and primal, leading the tune. Such a sound had been her bedtime lullaby, the promise of a holy sight that would show the Devil to live in the woods. Into the wild she would go, her cloak black against the black in the heart of the forest.

 
The land climbed, and her breath in smoke climbed with it, until the beech disappeared and the sprawling oak was transfigured into glowering, straight-backed pine and then grew thick in marsh moss and gorse in the hollow hills. Above even that, the noise rose still and roved across the fells, heavy and heady to the woman who would find its source.

 

She found it. At the lip of a tarn so old it had no name, the moonlight glared off polished, ice-bared rock and down onto the glassy water. The wolves stood around it, howling their hymns in skin that was not fur, their pelts laid aside for a night of bathing. There were the grizzled giants of the fell tops, and those of the highest north where the nights are long and clear; the silver pelted of the deep wood, keen-eyed and sure-footed; from the south were thin legged beasts with manes the colour of dust and blood. All the packs of all the world seemed joined at this meeting place where the walls were bleached by rubbed ice and the marble of it echoed round and round until it seemed there were nine times nine the beasts that stood on the shade of the lake. The woman watched this strange sight in bated quiet, knowing none before had seen such a devilish wonder and lived.

 
Clouds covered the moon and she wished for her fire, the warmth of the house and the comforting glow of the hearth. Even in the dim light that was left, the wolves’ singing drowned the world in terrifying ink and the witch turned to leave, to flee down the mountainside, but a flare of quicksilver caught her eye on something that lay atop the grass. A white pelt, thick and rippling, stole the moon for its own glory, and stole the gaze of the woman with its strangeness.

 

 

By the middle of the morning the people were once more tending their fields and their flocks, their fear of the dark fled with the dark itself, and, emboldened by the bright sunshine, let even the memory of wolves drain away. The man trudged through them unheeding, his shins and knees stained with mud and scratched by brambles. Whispers dogged his wake, for he had come from the forest, not the road, and was heading for the witch’s house.

 
An iron key lay heavy against the woman’s breast and in her mind. It fitted a lock to a trunk that she wished she could throw in the sea. The man stood at the gate, naked as Adam, and looked in at the window. His hair lifted in pearly waves from his shoulders and his short fingers ended in claws.
“What do you want?” she asked from the door, because she was trying not to be afraid and could not quite hide her guilt.
“I have forgotten,” replied the wolf forlornly.
“Then what is your name?”
“I have lost it.”
The woman felt a sudden pity for this wild creature whose wildness had been stolen, and she led him into the house, to the fire and the hearth where he sat all night while she cut his claws and his mane and pulled a rough grey tunic over his leanness – poor compensation. She took meat from her own stewpot and gave it to him in a rough-hewn bowl, and while he was eating, she named him Hound.

 

In this way, years passed. The man called Hound was set tending the vegetable patch, and then the flock, and every night he would sit by the fire and eat cooked meat from a rough-hewn bowl. Long winters staring into the flames slowly leached the fire from his golden eyes, and they became black as dead embers as he slowly forgot everything he had been. The woman rejoiced at this, for always the iron key hung heavy round her neck and in her mind, and as the wolf was tamed and dimmed it no longer seemed necessary to clutch it close to her breast when the beasts started howling in the dark.

 

And so it was that on a night shining with a fog that hid the moon, eighteen years after Hound had first sat by the fire and the hearth, the woman had no fear for herself or the iron key around her neck. It had been summers since Hound had last raised his head in query at the evening serenade. She had grown complacent with his human eyes and the bluntness of his teeth. But when the wolves began their song, and chorus rose around the walls, he lifted his head and listened. All the village was in uproar, but his back was straight and stiff, his hands aquiver.
“What are they saying?” he asked his wife, for the words were like a half remembered lullaby.
“Nothing,” she replied, reaching for the key at her heart. “They are beasts.”
But the notes were whirling in Hound’s head. The wolf’s heart in his breast at the urging of its kin stirred, and woke, and rose away from the fire and the hearth and the house, out to the moors and the mountain crag and the tarn where his brethren bathed. He looked down at the woman as she sat, mistress, lover, gaoler, with crow’s feet deep about her eyes. She had deceived him and chained him with his own ignorance. He remembered now, and knew why he hated her. Blood and song had

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been denied for so long. They could be denied no longer.

 

And nobody knew what happened then, because nobody was there to see; the door broken by the great bloody-mawed wolf with human eyes; the trunk beneath the bed thrown open and empty; the witch woman lying by her fire on the lip of the hearth with her throat bared and her hand grasping a clump off tattered white fur.

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