Wolfside Out, Girlside In / Lucia Iglesias

Close-up of a white wolf, looking into the distance.
 

CONTENT WARNING: dismemberment, references to incest, harassment, kidnapping. 

***

My mother always told me to keep my girlside out and my wolfside in. She would know. She spent a year and a day wolfside-out, hiding from hunters sent by her King-Father. He wanted to wrap her up in wedding vows and tie the knot. She kept him at arm’s length by demanding a brideprice. She asked for gifts of un-things: a gown woven from gossamer starlight, a dress stitched with moonlight’s silver thread, a frock embroidered with sunbeams, and the living skin of a wolf. However, this King hoarded favors as other men hoard gold, so he cashed in his whole purseful of debts, sending messengers to every spy, seamstress, and cat-burglar who owed him a boon. And three days later, his daughter was gowned in starlight.

That night, she folded away the starlight and shrugged on the living wolfskin. It pinched at the shoulders and stretched taut at the waist. Yet as her skin warmed the pelt, she felt the live pulse of a wolf under the fur. Her senses sharpened, ears lengthening to keen points, whiskers fanning out from her cheeks. She had turned her girlside in and her wolfside out. The hunters had no chance. She could run for hours before her tongue lolled out. She could stalk through the woods without bruising a single wild strawberry blossom. Her velvet paws trod so tenderly through the underbrush that even the nosy old owls didn’t notice her coming. After a year and a day wolfside-out, she turned her skins around, begged a scullion’s apron in the kitchens of the neighboring King, and eventually earned herself the right to spread her skirts over the throne beside him. Some called their new Queen a witch, but she has promised me that her only charms were the gap between her front teeth and the secret ingredient she whisked into the King’s morning porridge.

Every summer, the Queen sweated out another royal child to fill the royal bassinet. After three tawny daughters, she retired, and indulged in the luxury of plumping up. Even an army of chambermaids couldn’t cinch her into a corset tight enough to funnel her into the celestial gowns. As her eldest, I inherited the frocks and the wolfskin at the age of twelve. Woven from fine-spun light, the gowns could be folded small enough to fit into a walnut shell. The Queen had her goldsmith hinge a nut and hang it on a chain so that I could carry the impossible frocks with me wherever I went. However, it was the wolfskin that I wore most. Whereas the dresses still hung slack at the chest and swung around my hips, the wolfskin fit me better than it ever fit my mother. That first summer, I hardly ever shucked off my pelt. I felt more like myself when wrapped in wolf than sashed in silk and chiffon. The skin felt so familiar that I often forgot I was wearing it, and once gave our pastry chef half a heart attack when I traipsed into the bakery for an afternoon scone. But that October, when red leaves crusted the earth like a scab and fallen apples glistened like drops of blood, my mother made me peel off my second skin.

“If you wear that wolfskin another season, you’ll go quite frightfully feral,” she warned me. Then she locked it in a chest of wormwood and told me I wouldn’t have the key until I proved I could wear my girlskin as gracefully as wolfskin.

And I did. Enough wolf had rubbed off on me in that one summer to give me extrahuman charms. I had exquisite poise in the ballroom, a voice that could climb to high C at full moon, and ears sensitive enough to hear the Unspoken throbbing under every word. At seventeen, I still hadn’t filled out the chest of the moonlight dress, but I had played the role of princess so well that no one smelt the wolf-musk that still lingered on my skin. My mother even taught me her recipe for amaranth porridge, in the hopes that I would catch myself a King by baiting the bowl with her secret ingredient: a golden ring.

In honor of our secret bargain, my mother threw me a ball just as summer’s vines began blossoming into constellations of starry jasmine. After the ripe moon rose, after the musicians nodded off over their violas, after all the guests were snugged up in their beds, after my sisters had plucked me of pins and folded away the moonlight dress, mother glided into my chamber to comb my hair. Shivers rattled down my spine with every stroke of the tortoiseshell comb. As she knit my dark mane into a braid, she leaned close to kiss my temple. I held my breath, afraid she would smell the wolf on me. But she had worn her womanskin so long that she must have forgotten what wolf smelt like.

Then she crossed the chamber and unlocked the wormwood chest. Without lifting the lid, she said, “I hope you are woman enough to know that this skin is not a plaything. It is no stuffed pup or magic cloak. We’re all born with a bit of wolf inside, but you must tame it. Keep your girlside out and your wolfside in. If you let the wolf out, the girl may never be seen again. The wolf in that trunk almost devoured me, once upon a time.”

For days, I resisted the chest. It crouched in the corner of my chamber, its shadow so bold that even noon couldn’t chase it out. I didn’t allow myself to look at it. But I could smell it. It had the fragrance of rain in the pines, of cool, dry caves. I escaped to the parlor, where my sisters and I embroidered an entire meadow of indigo lupine across a counterpane. As they unleashed me from my corset that night, I convinced myself that I smelt only of needles and thread, of steel and silk.

But the next morning, with my unbraided hair hanging in shaggy bales around my shoulders, the wolf-musk was more pungent than ever. Dawn light dusted the windowsill, sifting through the panes in a fine grey haze. It was wolf weather. A wolf would vanish in an instant in this diaphanous mist.

As I shook the wrinkles out of the skin, I wondered whether it would still fit. I wondered whether the wolf was still alive under the fur, as he had been when the skin was given to my mother as her brideprice. I had felt him stirring during that sun-drunk summer when I ran as a wolf, but he was already old when I was twelve. All day I wondered. Still, my needle was as nimble as ever, and my sisters smelt nothing.

That night, I peeled off my chiffon dressing gown, skinning myself, shedding the girlskin. Then I shrugged on the wolf pelt, easing it over my shoulders, snugging it around my waist, pulling up the hood. As I folded myself into the wolf, I felt him waking up. He stretched. His legs lengthened to fit my new height. Our fur bristled and I felt myself in every hair. I went all the way to the tips of my whiskers. In my second skin, I shivered with the pent-up frenzy of a lightning storm. It was June and the night vibrated at a frequency so high I could hear it in my teeth. Swift and silent as a thunderhead, I swept through the castle. As I ran, my edges stretched and folded to fit the shapes of the shadows. Not even the sleepless bowman in the archer’s box saw me as I dropped to all fours and melted under the half-closed portcullis.

Wolfside-out, I could feel night’s pulse. I could smell morning-glory blossoms wrung of their perfume and folded away for tomorrow. I could hear bats plumbing the darkness for prey, their calls trembling on the very rim of sound. I could taste dew on the wind: an infusion of elderflower steeped in yesterday’s sunshine. Owls glided across the sky like shuttles of blue-black thread, weaving a grave pattern through the weft of the night. In every meadow, I felt the quiver of field-mice huddling under umbrellas of nettle and fiddlehead fern. I loped through groves of gnarled grandfather oaks, and fairyrings where birches danced in swaying circles. I loped through waterfalls of willow boughs and meadows of stormy lupine. I loped through vales of dandelion, kicking up drifts of seed-heads that snowed down around me, flocking my pelt in white velvet.

A wolf runs for the wind in her whiskers, for the lemon-tang of night grass, for the soft slough of clay under her paws. In my girlskin, I was trussed up so tightly in corsets and crinolines and pointed shoes that I couldn’t run down a corridor without having to rest for a fanning. But wolfside-out, I kept pace with the night, chasing the white-sailed moon. By the time dawn beaded up along the horizon, the girlskin was just an itch under my fur.

It wasn’t until I heard the wail of hunting horns that I realized I had run into my grandfather’s kingdom. My father’s hunting horns were cast in silver and hammered into crescent moons so that they sang like the black-throated loon. However, my grandfather’s huntsmen carried the horns of bulls they’d gutted, and their call was strung with terror. As that baleful cry moaned through the woods, the thrush and the whippoorwill went silent. On paws padded in stealth, I stalked through the underbrush, hunting the hunters. I found them in a shallow dell. They had treed their prey, and stood in a loose ring around a rowan. Four of the men slouched under the weight of a palanquin. It was shrouded in a screen of finely carven vines, gilded so that the palanquin glittered ahead of dawn herself. Roses of ivory and alabaster bloomed around the windows.

“Down with you, egg-wife,” the head huntsman hollered at the rowan. “You’re treed now. Running won’t bring you a spit of good luck. Just climb down slow now. Show us that strawberries-and-cream face of yours.”

The knotted old rowan made no reply.

“She’s led us on a mad romp already,” grunted another huntsman. “Let me just scuttle up there and get my hands around that mincing little waist of hers. Then the king can get his ogle out of her all proper.”

“No!” the voice grated from behind the palanquin’s curtain. “No one gets his gloves on her until I’ve had my look.”

I crept closer, belly beaded with dew. The wild grasses grew tall and red in the dell. Silent as a needle, I slipped through the grass until I crouched just a wolf-length from the head huntsman. From there, I could see the rowan leaves quaver where the egg-wife caught her breath.

“Rope her!” barked the head, and the huntsmen began threading lassos onto long coils of hempen cord. This egg-wife, whoever she might have been, was about to be trussed and served to my grandfather. Ever since my mother turned herself girlside-in and escaped his palace, he had been bride-hunting. But no cream-cheeked milkmaid, scullion, or hedgewitch could match his lost wife’s luster, so he remained a gouty widower.

As the first huntsman tossed his lasso aloft, whirling it round and round until it seemed to whip the air into a froth, I sprang from the red grass. Though he was a burl of muscle and leather, I toppled him and leapt onto the shoulders of the next. I heard his clavicle snap like a carrot as he collapsed under my weight. Without bloodying my claws, I ground half the hunting party into the dirt before the others could form a phalanx around the palanquin. Then I heard the croak of a crossbow winch and I froze. Yet before the bolt could spring, my grandfather pulled back the curtain and looked out at me. For a moment his face was just a scrawl of illegible wrinkles, but then they straightened out into a smile of recognition.

“Wait!” he snapped at his hunters. “I know this wolf.” And then to me: “So you’ve come back, you little wildthing. We’ll tame you yet. You’ll be docile enough for the bedroom when I’m through with you.”

With a lurch of vertigo, I realized that my girlskin was showing. In the pell-mell, my wolfskin had slipped, and I could feel the fur tickling my bare shoulder. I pulled my hood lower and tried to retreat around the rowan, but half a dozen crossbows followed. My grandfather leaned out the window to inspect me. His eyes were runny as soft boiled eggs and his hair hung lank and greasy. His mouth was just a slash from cheek to cheek, lipless, a swollen red wound wet with drool.

“Forget the egg-wife. Net her!” cried the king, the words rolling thick and moist from his tongue.

Then, though I hadn’t moved a muscle, the wolfskin stretched to cover my bare shoulder, seaming itself all the way up my neck. The wolf in the skin had met these hunters once before. He wouldn’t let them net him a second time. Before the net could fly, I launched myself at my grandfather. I hurled him back into the palanquin, landing on his chest. His screams lacerated the darkness, but I was too deep inside the wolf to flinch. As he raised a liver-spotted hand to shield his face, my jaws clicked shut around his wrist.

He couldn’t have my mother’s hand in marriage, so he wanted mine. But I took his hand instead.

With the five-fingered trophy between my teeth, I sprang from the window, sailing over the huntsmen. Without a glance at the bawling palanquin, I ran belly-down through the grass. Crossbow bolts hummed fretfully above me, but soon I was out of range. With the wolf’s pricked ears, I could just hear the huntsmen cursing my bones, my gods, my descendants to the twenty-third generation. And then a volley of dismayed shouts—in the midst of the hurly-burly, the egg-wife must have fled the tree.

As impatient breezes shook the forest awake, showers of birdsong filtered through the trees. I followed my own musk back through the woods. My midnight trail was still stamped in the dew, and tufts of grey fur hung like lace veils from the thistleheads. Though the hand dripped down my chin, I didn’t once stop. Wolf-deep, I hardly cared. The flesh was gristly, but the marrow was richer than quails’ eggs. Like a strand of rubies, the clotted blood hung at my throat.

I ran until I could see the castle pennants unscrolling across the sky. Where the wall dipped to follow uneven ground, I leapt right over, landing in the kitchen garden. I slouched through the rows, crouching low behind the early tomatoes. In a bower of runner beans, I slithered out of my wolfskin. Girlside-out, I felt raw, as if I’d peeled off my real skin, exposing grazed nerves. I shivered, suddenly cold without my pelt. Yet my fingers were steady as I held my grandfather’s hand. A golden ring was buried in the flab of his fourth finger. Like soft, white dough, his flesh had risen around the ring, pillowing up on either side of the gold band. His blood and my sweat and dawn’s dew slicked the finger, and with patience I could hardly spare, I managed to wrench the ring free.

Sunlight was already melting down the roof slates, glistening like butter, and scullions would be filing out into the garden with their shears at any moment. Burying my grandfather’s hand amongst the fingerling potatoes, I cloaked myself in the wolfskin, leaving the hood hanging down my back. Grey as the lazy morning shadows, I followed the castle wall until I came to the breakfast terrace where my mother always savored her summer porridge. The little rosewood bowl had already been laid out, with a saucer of butter and a jar of our beekeeper’s pearly white honey. I dropped the ring into the porridge, and waited for it to sink all the way through the thick yellow cream.

Steam unraveled from the porridge in gossamer threads. My mother was moments away. When she scooped the ring up with her spoon, she would know she was free—never again would he try to thrust it onto her finger. Yet by the time she scraped it from the bottom of the bowl, I would be miles gone. I pulled up my hood, turning myself wolfside-out. For too long had the wolf been tamed to the bedroom. There were huntsmen to stalk and egg-wives to rescue.

***

Lucia Iglesias holds a B.A. from Brown University and is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at the University of Kansas. If she were in a fairytale, her godmothers would be Angela Carter, Catherynne Valente, and Margaret Atwood. And she wouldn’t be a princess, but she would be part wolf. Her speculative fiction has appeared in Shimmer, Liquid Imagination, Flash Fiction Magazine, Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores, and other publications.