Scrawny and boyish in his ill–fitting humanity, the wolf paced naked through my forest. Even my old eyes could see the way grasping brambles had torn his unprotected skin. An unwoven thing he was, a creature of the tower’s making. My responsibility. Or, at least, my fault.
I set a platter of cold meat on the porch and waited. Wolves, my mother had said, were not to be trusted. But such crowings fade over the lifetimes, and what mad old crone turns down a little company?
It took five days before hunger drove him to my doorstep. Weak though he was, he snarled and flinched when I came out to join him.
“Oh, I’ll have none of that, please and thank you,” I said. “I would be Cresa, lady of this house. And you’re eating my dinner. A bit of gratitude might be the thing.”
He tried to growl but such noises aren’t suited for a human throat. The low, choking cough he managed wouldn’t have scared a starling.
“I’m not going to hurt you, wolf,” I told him. “And we both know you could talk if you wished. Let’s have an end to this foolery, shall we?”
Poor wolfling, with no tail to tuck between his legs. Too much the wolf yet, to answer me.
“Very well.” I took a few steps back and watched him eat. “There’ll be more dinner, Wolfling. Come to my door and you’ll always find a meal waiting.”
I stayed on the porch after he fled and listened to the forest ready itself for night. The birds sang love and they sang the sky and I ached, listening.
The wolf came back the next day, and the next, and the one after that. I made a point of sitting outside when he came, my fingers busy with stitching heat and calm into a tunic. After the fourth day, he stopped snarling.
“Why?” he asked, on the sixth day, his voice rough from all his useless howling.
“Ahh, see. That’s a boy. They don’t push creatures out of the Tower Unwoven without first forcing sense upon them. That much, at least, I’ll say for them.”
That, and no more.
“This is sense?” He rocked in place, a constant side–to–side motion that made me itchy for motion.
“Yes, Wolfling. Sense. No use fighting it. You are what you are now. Running about in the altogether and letting yourself starve won’t change what’s been done to you.”
“Forget why,” I said, not ready to speak of the Tower. “It happened. And here we are.”
“You aren’t my pack.” From him, it was an accusation.
“I’m no one’s pack.” And how long had it taken to make a truth of that statement? Wolves are not alone in their clinging.
“My ma said lone wolves are trouble.” The words were coming easier to him, the mind they’d forced on him rising to its use. Humanity is like that. You let it have a bit of your soul, and next thing you know, you forget to dream of flying.
“I’m sure she did,” I said. “And I’ve been trouble enough, in my time. But I’m too old to trouble now.”
He shrugged, a gesture that started in his shoulders and moved down his spine. “What about my pack?”
“Best not to dwell on them.” Best for both of us not to dwell on old packs. “I can’t give you answers, Wolf. What I can give you is a pair of trousers.”
He slept beside my woodpile that night, kept warm and restful by the embroidery on the clothes I’d made him. The next morning I brought him porridge, grateful for the start of a new routine. I had chosen solitude over a pack of my own with its wants, and its cruelties, and its love for me. Seeing him, wary and needing in the watery dawn light, gave shape to the quiet of my exile.
“Up with the sunrise, my boy. Come along, now. Sit.” I settled him on the porch in a relatively human posture. He snatched the bowl from my hands when I held it out, and dove into it face first, hunching possessively as if I might snatch it away.
“Easy, now,” I said. “You’ll not starve while I’ve got you.”
Now, old birds may like to talk but there’s song and there’s nattering on for the sake of the sound. Suffice it to say the wolf learned quickly. He came inside, he learned to hold a spoon, and, other than the issue of the bath, he never tried to bite me. I waited for him to speak of leaving, as those before him had. But wolves aren’t like cats or eagles. They don’t get restless in company.
I should have pushed him from the nest. It would have gone better if I had. But, selfish old thing that I am, I let him stay. We got along, the wolf and I. I didn’t mind him.
In the daylight, he seemed contented enough. But at night I could hear him pacing away his restless pain. When the local wolves ranged close enough, their howls celebrating a kinship he had lost, he cried like any child. I sat up with him on those nights. He was my wolf, his hurt a knife they’d sent with instructions on how to cut myself.
And I did.
“You came from the Tower too, didn’t you?” It was raining that morning and the two of us sat near the fire, having breakfast. He gripped his spoon awkwardly and made a mess of things, but he was trying.
Why was I so proud of myself for that?
“Yes.” I kept my voice flat, inviting no questions. “Long before you even dreamed of it.”
“What do you remember?”
“Memory is bad for the spirit, Wolfling.” None of the others had asked about the Tower. Not the otters or bobcats or starlings. All had rested with me, grown comfortable in their shape, and moved on.
“Memories are all I have.”
“All? Glad to see my accommodations valued so highly,” I said. He only tilted his head to the side, in that puzzled canine way he had. “Tell me then, what you remember.”
“A cave,” he said. “I think it was a cave. And I knew we shouldn’t go in; it smelled like hunger. But we were lost and the sky was spitting ice. I led the way. I wanted for us to be safe.”
“Fragments. Light. A chain on my neck. Laughter.” He began to shake under the pressure of memory. “Spring. A tower of bones that cut the sky. I wasn’t me anymore. I couldn’t smell my pack. The forest wasn’t mine. I found you.”
He folded in on himself, still shaking. If there’s a way to reach for the past without getting burnt fingers for the trouble, I haven’t found it.
“And here we are,” I said, trying to draw him out again.
“Are they safe?” he asked. “My pack was with me. My sister.”
“Probably. The ladies of the Tower do as they will. But I’ve never known them to change more than one at a time.”
“I miss my pack,” he said. “I miss everything.”
I knew it then. Some can loosen from memory. Others flee it, tuck the sky in a box and pretend it isn’t there. Not my wolf. He worried his wounds like any dog, tearing off scabs and courting infection.
For days, the rains came heavy and often. He paced away the nights and would speak only of small things. When a clear dawn came at last, he went out walking without me. I sat out on the porch and stitched healing into my traveling cloak. A fool I might be, but I’d be a prepared one.
I was finishing by candlelight when he finally returned.
“Oh, Wolfling.” I dragged him to the fire and settled him with a bowl of trout stew. He was filthy from his ramblings, his tunic woven through with burrs.
“I couldn’t find it,” he said. “No tower. No cave. It tore the sky, Cresa. I should have been able to find it. My pack, they’re waiting.”
I knew too well the pain in him. I still dreamed of the pack I’d left, with its too many teeth, its too hungry heart. Maybe that’s why I told him. Not for his sake, but to press an old wound and see if it still bled.
“It moves,” I said. “The ladies might prefer stillness, but the Tower has its own ideas. As towers go, it’s a bit on the obstinate side.”
He stared into his stew, watching it cool without tasting it. “I’ll find it,” he said. “I found it before.
“Oh, anyone can find the tower once. Most don’t, but anyone can.”
They liked visitors, my sisters did.
Setting aside his bowl, he crossed to the window, opened the shutters, and stood seeking the moon. “I need to go home.”
“I don’t advise it.” I had hoped he might find some simpler desire. I knew village girls who would fall for his fawning ways. He would have been good, I think, with children. He had gentle eyes.
“I can’t stay here, can’t be this.” He followed his words with a singing, wordless plea. “I need to go back. I need to make them send me back.”
My mother, may her skies be clear, warned me away from wolves. Wolves, she told me, make fools of those around them.
“There is a way. A bridge.” I stroked the embroidery on my traveling cloak. “The Tower Unwoven is what it is and goes where it chooses. But the bridge is young and shy. It sticks to the friendly rivers, the ones it trusts not to drown it.”
He turned from the window, and the cautious hope of his smile was very human. “Where?” he asked. “Cresa, tell me. I’ll go tonight.”
“You will do no such thing. I’m old as stone, Wolfling. I need my rest. We’ll go tomorrow.”
With no tail to wag, I suppose the boy had no choice but to throw his arms around me and lift me into the air. I kicked him in the shin for his trouble, but he hugged me long and hard all the same. Children. Lovable as a summer storm and just as likely to break you.
“Then you’ll come? Really?”
“I’ll get you back into the Tower. Once you’re inside, well, the ladies will find it novel if nothing else.”
“Who are they?”
“You know more than that.” He tugged me back to my chair and sat at my feet, his head resting against my leg. “You always know more than you say.”
I stroked his hair, blonde mingled with gray and thick as a wolf’s pelt. “You wolves are too trusting by half. Who’s to say I won’t lie to you?”
All wolves, as I’ve said, are fools.
“They’re the Tower’s daughters. Once, like you, they stuck beak, or paw, or tentacle, where they should not have. And the Tower, I think, was lonely. It remade them, as is its nature, into the image of itself. Gave them power, mind, and malice.”
“Then what is the Tower?”
“Someone once told me it was a headstone. She said it marked the place where the gods buried Fate’s dark sister, who dared unmake her sister’s tapestry. I don’t know. She was not a woman whose word I trust.”
Maybe I should have said more. Opened that box and let the sky out. But I can be a selfish old woman, hoarding pain. “Get cleaned up and sleep. We’ll leave early.”
It took us six days of hard traveling to reach the ravine. Slick granite cliffs walled in the river rushing far below. And, on the other side of that ravine, the Tower waited. My wolfling had described it as a cave, as a tower of bone that scraped the sky. So it had been, for him. But it was me the Tower dressed for now.
It appeared as an oak, each of its roots the size of my cottage, its trunk the color of the night sky and at least as large as a fine country manor. It stretched for the sky, twice as tall as the ravine was deep, but with branches so low I could almost think of catching them. The birds were the clever bit. Raptors and songbirds, tiny jewel–toned nectar drinkers and bare–headed eaters of the dead. A cacophony of birds, joining their voices in a shared message.
Welcome home, they called. Welcome back to us.
My wolfling, all eager need for days, hung back at the sight of it.
“It was all bones,” he said.
“It is,” I told him, “what it wants to be. Right now it’s a message. Come along.”
“What do birds mean?”
“The same thing a cave does. Home.” I took him by the hand and led him toward the ravine. The bridge had dressed itself for the occasion, all ivy and flower petals, delicate as song.
“It’s just leaves,” the wolf said, stopping at the ravine’s edge. “We’ll break it.”
“Don’t be foolish, Wolfling.” I had humored him all week, hadn’t I? Didn’t I have a right, just then, to be urgent for myself? “It’s nothing at all. There’s no such thing as a bridge that shifts its station, no tree large enough to house so mad a collection of birds.”
“Then what is it?”
“A knot in fate’s threads. Now, come.”
I kept hold of his hand and walked onto the bridge as if I were walking onto stone. It gave like moss beneath our feet, the crushed petals perfuming the air with rose and alyssum.
I plucked a sprig of lilac and tucked it into the pocket of his jacket. “Speak little and carefully. The ladies inside aren’t like me.”
At least, we weren’t as alike as we once had been.
The door in the trunk was the door to my cottage, an obnoxious bit of play. They had added a knocker in the shape of a crow holding a dead rat. I ignored it. They could bar the door if they wished; the Tower wouldn’t reject me.
Inside, a picnic was spread on a collection of wolf pelts in the very poorest of taste. Catching sight of them, my wolf stepped back, gaze darting about in search of escape. I looped my arm through his and he stilled. The pelts were arranged in the center of a moonlit clearing, a thick carpet of lily flowers taking the place of grass. Alder, elm, and oak trees, dressed in autumn colors, ringed us. Their branches were empty. For that, I was grateful.
“Sister!” Victre bounded into the clearing, her arms open for an embrace. “Look at you, the old woman! How we have missed you.”
Victre looked as she ever had, lean and sinuous, with small dark eyes and teeth too sharp and too numerous for a human mouth. She gripped me by the shoulders and pressed a kiss on each of my cheeks, then did her best to tug me away from my wolf. He gripped me by the elbow, playing the guard dog. With an irritated snap in his direction, she danced back toward the picnic.
“Oh, come. Come! We won’t eat the messenger. And he has done so well to bring you. Linds said no, said not this one either. But I trusted him. Didn’t I? Of course I did.”
“What does she mean?” he asked, lowering his voice to a whisper. “You brought me.”
“Wolfling, Victre and her sister Linds are the ladies of this tower. It’s best not to question their meaning.” I didn’t whisper. There was no point in it.
“But she called you sister.”
“I knew her, once.”
“Come now, none of that. No whispering away in corners.” Victre patted the pelts, the gesture more demand than invitation.
“Of course, Victre.” I still held my wolfling’s arm, a hopeless banner of protection. They had cared what I valued, once. But I had been different then. Which is to say, I had been the same as they.
All curve and softness, Linds resolved out of shadow. She had always been the beauty among us and knew it. The blue–gray curtain of her hair swallowed her in waves, moving in winds as imaginary as the clearing where we stood. She wore nothing beneath it, dark stretches of skin appearing and disappearing as she moved
“Ahh. Cresa. And you’ve brought a pet.” Linds sat, her hair pooling around her. “Charming.”
“Linds.” My voice was steadier than my heart. She had not changed. Neither of them had changed. So what of me?
“Well, did you finally like our present?” Victre selected a peach and bit into the warm golden flesh. Blood dribbled down her chin. “We have been sending and sending them, you know. And not even a thank you note. You are not kind, Cresa.”
“She isn’t,” Linds agreed.
“She has been kind to me,” my wolfling said.
I flinched. The charm of loyalty has its limits. They had dangled him from a hook and I had bit. I didn’t want to be forgiven the teeth marks.
“He wants fixing,” I said. “We’re not discussing me.”
“No?” Linds’ laughter burbled up from the depths of her. “You are the supplicant here, Sister. We will discuss what we wish.”
“Please, Ladies,” said my wolf. And hadn’t I done a fine job molding him into a gentleman wolf? Beside Linds and Victre, it was he who seemed the human.
Of course, none of us were.
“Please, says our puppy.” Victre reached out and snatched a chicken leg from Linds grip, gulping it down in three sharp bites. “Please and ma’am and would he tip his hat if we wished him too? I think he would. Don’t you think he would, Linds?”
Linds only smiled, showing teeth so straight and white they seemed not like teeth at all.
“Well,” Victre said, watching me with the same hunger she had showed the peach, “I suppose we could please you, puppy. But you needn’t ask us. Our Cresa could please you just as well. One sister’s as good as the next. The Tower loves all its children.”
“Even,” Linds added, “the ones who don’t deserve it.”
He turned his gaze to me and, brittle old thing that I’d become, I felt myself breaking against all the betrayal that wasn’t in his face.
“Could you?” he asked.
The Tower’s eager magic thrummed against my skin, begging use. I could. And everything would be as it had been.
There had been a time when I belonged to the sky. And there had been a time, after the Tower kissed me, when I was the sky. A time when Victre and Linds had been my sisters and we had played at tearing holes in the fabric of the world.
Everything can be as tiring as nothing. Enough power will sharpen anyone into a blade. I’d grown sick of cutting.
I could let the Tower in. I could free him from the knots they’d made. I could be the sky. I could be their sister, twisting the good until it broke and laughing at the mess.
Oh, but how I liked being a tough old woman, stitching glamour into sturdy cloth. How I loved being kind.
My wolfling was still watching me. Still trusting me.
“I can’t,” I lied. “I could have, once. But I’m not like them, anymore. They are not my pack. You see?”
He looked from Victre, who smiled at him with bloodstained lips, to Linds, whose hair was braiding itself into a noose.
“Oh,” he said. I could see the hope go out of him, see him choking on the memory of the moon. He had believed I would save him. He no longer believed they would. “Cresa, I want to go home.”
He leaned against me, head low, as still as I had ever seen him.
“Oh, puppy,” Linds said. “Don’t go seeking pity. She has none.”
“It’s true.” Victre said. “She left us, you see. Just like that. Tore a hole right through everything.”
“Tore the heart from the sky.”
“Tore the sky from our hearts. Left the tower bleeding.”
He laced his fingers into mine. Strong boy’s hands around frail, elderly bones. “She saved me from what you did.”
“Her?” Victre’s laugh chased itself in circles, all malice and teeth. “She made you. Made us make you. You were a present. A message. And now she won’t send you back.”
“She isn’t like you anymore.” He set each word into place with slow care, and I realized he knew what he was saying. He had seen my lie and forgiven it. “I don’t want her to be like you anymore.”
“How sweet.” Linds stood, and brushed the crumbs from her breasts. “Come, Victre. I have had enough of our picnic.”
“But she was supposed to come back!” Victre kicked over the basket, sending its contents rolling off the pelts and into the flowers. “I want her to come back.”
“There will be other chances. This creature needn’t suffer further for her cruelty.” Linds was smiling. I should have noticed she was smiling. “Here, puppy.”
I let him go to her. She had been my sister once. And I had loved her.
“You’ve been a good dog,” she said. Her hair stroked his cheek, wrapped around his neck. Her lips brushed his. She changed him.
My wolfling was the gold and gray of sun and shadow. He stood at Linds’ feet in a tangle of the clothes I had made him with his ears perked forward, puzzled. I watched him realize, try to grin, and failing that, start his tail in the first steps of joyous wagging. He didn’t quite have the knack of it; his whole back end shook with the motion. He wiggled free of his tunic and bounded to my side, stumbling a little with the four–footed motion.
“Why?” I asked her, digging my fingers into the thick comfort of his fur.
“Maybe I miss it a little, too. Being simple.” She did not sound as if she missed it. Her words were hollowed. “Maybe I’m not as terrible as you think I am. Maybe that was all you.”
“You hurt our feelings, you know.” Victre was still pouting. “And I had such a nice welcome back party planned.”
My wolfling lifted a paw to touch my hand, eager to be going.
“This doesn’t work,” I wanted to sound stern. “You can stop trying.”
A door opened where no door could have existed onto a bridge of woven muscle. The tower was a tree of bones; the birds crowding its branches watched us and made no noise.
“Cresa, you’re family.” Linds was still smiling. “We’ll always try.”
I didn’t say goodbye. I thought, at the time, I was being wise.
The bridge now crossed a river so shallow we might have waded through it. The wolf didn’t care, bounding to the other side in a series of stumbling leaps. The forest before us was populated by evergreens and dusted with snow. My wolf’s eagerness made it clear enough whose forest we had stumbled into.
He yipped, touched his nose to my hand and dashed off again, doing his best to herd me without causing offense. Dog or boy, he was incapable of stillness.
The tower had spat us out into the dregs of day, and the coming night was already threatening to turn biting. The wolf danced in and out of the trees, eager to leave me. I found a stout stump with a view of the river and settled there while he whined his disapproval.
“Wolfling, this is our last night,” I said. “You can’t have an old lady chasing after you while you’re tracking your family. And I—”
But I heard the howling then, and so did he.
He lifted his head, crying back to them with all the desperate want I’d tried to shepherd him through. His howl was thin and slightly off key.
They called back, their voices as strong as his was wavering. Their cries grew closer, until they drowned him out with their welcome.
A small wolf rushed from the forest, kicking up snow and making high, happy noises. She nuzzled against my wolf and he replied with a strained bark, trying to match the language of his sister. She snapped and leapt backward, tail down. He whined as three more wolves, darker in coloring, emerged from the trees. They barked and paced, but did not cross to meet him. He put out a paw in what, to a human, would have been a beseeching gesture.
The final wolf arrived, huge and scarred, and the others lowered themselves in submission.
All except my wolfling. My wolfling who was not a wolf. Who did not play the way his sister expected. Who observed his packmates, head tilted, with more thoughtful analysis than was the right of any animal.
The scarred wolf growled.
My wolfling made an inquisitive sound, a polite helloing noise that any human would have taken for friendly.
My sisters gave him reason, but I gave that reason shape. I had been so proud of what I made of him.
His sister stopped trying to make sense of him and stepped back, no longer trusting her nose. He made another noise, an attempt at reassurance. She whined, backing away with her hackles up. He was getting all the cues wrong.
Linds had given in so easily, smiling as she kissed him. She had known this moment would come, the man’s mind in the wolf’s body.
I could still see the bridge. The Tower’s birds watched through a thousand golden eyes.
My wolf stepped forward. His pack retreated, ranging out behind their leader who stood, stiff and quivering, as ready to attack as to flee. We were humans to him, both of us, and he was old enough to know caution.
My wolf whimpered, looking back at me, not quite understanding. I held out my hand, and he pressed his head against it.
“Oh, Wolfling, such a trap you are.”
I didn’t even have to call. The birds opened their beaks, crying welcome, and the sky was inside me, and I was the sky.
I tore the humanity from both of us, and watched, almost caring as he became again as he once had been: the wolf his pack could know. He ran toward them. I turned away.
I, too, had a pack waiting.
© 2016 by Kelly Sandoval