“Yeah. I’m fine. Don’t worry,” Gretchen smiled, a bit more like her usual self.
“Well, let me know if you need anything,” May said.
After she finished, Molly washed her hair and helped her dress in more reasonable clothes. By then, Gretchen felt almost human. Molly nattered on about nothing while May swept the floors. Gretchen caught herself gazing toward the dark forest and shook her head. Whatever was haunting her must not be brought into the light.
What the wolf knew as it ran through the forest was like a distant dream to Gretchen, one that she always gladly let fade the following day. She despised everything about the wolf and what it had done to her. She separated it, culled it from the experience of her own life, pretended that she and it were two distinct beings. They would never meet, nor know of each other’s cares. Yet, that night, as she curled up in her bed, images passed behind her closed eyes: a cabin, a cage, a shape inside it. Scent returned, new blood on old, musk, hair, and fear.
Gretchen sat upright in horror as it came to her. The wolf had seen a ravaged woman in a cage, and she was alive.
“Holy shit,” Gretchen whispered into the room.
Sleep did not come easily that night and wouldn’t have at all had she not still been exhausted from the night before. Dreams stirred like leaves on the forest floor, but she could not catch them. They passed, like summer does into autumn.
For days she was restless. Alone when her sisters worked, she paced the halls, ate little and worried at the wolf’s memory. There was no way to know what was real and what was not. The human mind must categorize, put color to objects, know distance in feet and yards. The wolf-mind knew shapes, sensations, the taste of air. She felt dirty, touching these things. Shame at what she was overpowered her at times, bending her knees, crawling along her skin like an insect. She rubbed at her arms, shivering, and tried to brush it off. She almost did cut off her hair, as though by doing so it would distance her from the wolf. She warred with it, she did not want to know the wolf’s mind, and yet she must comprehend these visions. If this thing she thought she’d seen was real, if there was a woman in a cage, she must do something. She could not leave her out there alone.
There was something else come through from that eerie night. A longing, a connection almost, that Gretchen could not name.
“That’s it,” she said at last to no one. “I’ve got to go back.”
The next day her sisters both worked early. May’s shift began at nine, Molly’s at one. When they were gone, Gretchen left a note on the table, packed food and water into a bag and left. She did not know when she would be home; she could not guess how far away the cabin was. Her sisters would worry if she did not return before them, but she could not bring herself to tell them of her plan. There was no way to explain it, this thing she saw out of the wolf’s eyes.
In the woods, she stopped. Each direction seemed as viable as the other. Gretchen realized with a slow burn of horror that she would never navigate this place on her own. But for the image of that woman, she would have turned away then and given up, gone back to the house, done anything but what she must do now.
Gretchen breathed deeply and focused, trying to invoke the monster that slept inside her. Down deep she went into the primal source of mind, where flesh means less and instinct is all. She moved, step by step, until her feet became sure and led her onwards toward the stream. Gnats flew into her eyes, things scurried in the brush and overhead, a bird called out in warning. She grew hungry, she gnawed on bread and chicken left over from the last evening’s meal. Hours passed and she barely noticed. She was only half-human now. The wolf led her through the wood.
She stopped in a copse as fear gripped her. Gretchen neither saw nor heard anything unusual, but she heeded the feeling and kept still for several long moments. In the quiet, a faint whimpering and whining—the sound a dog would make if it were pleading—became audible through the trees.
Gretchen pressed on, urgency driving her steps. Fully herself now, she was less cautious than she should have been; sticks snapped underfoot and branches cracked as she pushed them out of her way.
She tracked the sound of the weeping animal to the clearing. She stopped at its edge and ducked down behind a young maple surrounded by brush. Twigs caught in her hair and snagged on her shirt; she ignored them. From behind the tangle of branches she saw the cabin, forlorn and yet obviously tenanted, for there was freshly cut wood stacked beside it and litter strewn around the door. She registered the dwelling, but it was not this that held her attention. In the scuffed and flattened ground before it, she saw what had been making the noise.
Silent now, hackles raised, a crushingly pathetic wolf was held in a cage. It was an ancient construction of black iron, much like those used in old traveling circus shows. In the advertisements, they rose up from the backs of colorful wagons in a merry display meant to arouse excitement and draw unwary customers in. The reality of the device repulsed her. The wolf, sensing her presence, turned toward her. Eyes met eyes. Gretchen’s breath caught in her throat.
Before she had time to process the vision, as if any sense could be made of it, the door to the cabin was kicked open and a man stood in its frame. He was as rotted as the wood surrounding him. Thin, knotted hair topped a skeletal face. Two narrow eyes glared out at the wolf as, from behind the door, the man pulled a rifle.
“Whatsa matter,” he called out to the wolf. “Ain’t you had enough?”
Gretchen held her breath as he approached the cage, gun held over his shoulder. The wolf and Gretchen cringed as one as he swung his weapon, clanging the butt against the bars.
“Cry, you freak. Cry, or I’ll give you something real to cry about.”
The wolf began to whine and writhe on its belly, opening wounds on its legs that would never have a chance to fully heal if this was their treatment. The man grinned and looked out into the forest before turning away. As the cabin door slammed shut behind him, dislodging debris from the roof which fell in a soft rain to the ground, Gretchen felt her skin begin to burn.
The monster was close. Wolf called to wolf and the strange ache blossomed in her chest. Rage consumed her; she tried to tamp it down, aware of the danger she was in. Slowly and ever so silently, she backed out of the thicket and, still on all fours, crept away from the clearing. When she could no longer see the cabin, she rose, but she kept to the trees, moving swiftly from one to the other until she reached the stream.
Home never looked so sweet as it did when she finally left the woods. Running, she crossed the field, only slowing as she reached May’s garden. May was home by now and Gretchen did not want to rush in and alarm her.
“You’ve been gone for hours!” May said when Gretchen entered the kitchen. “Where have you been?”
“Didn’t you see my note?”
“Yeah, but ‘gone for a walk’ could mean anything.” May peered at her sister. “Are you okay?”
Gretchen knew better than to lie to her sister, but she wouldn’t give her the whole truth. How could she? “Not really, no. I got a little creeped out in the woods, that’s all. I don’t even know why I went out there.”
May inspected her sister’s face. “Yes, you do.”
Yes, Gretchen did, but she wasn’t prepared to admit it. There was no woman out there; it was just a wolf. Sad, yes, but just a wolf. It had nothing to do with her. She’d been tricked by her own imagination. She wouldn’t let it happen again.
“Well, you just take it easy, okay?”
“Promise. I’m going to get cleaned up and then I’ll help you with supper.”
“Good. There was a sale on ribs and I grabbed a few packs. We’re having those.”
In the shower, Gretchen scrubbed her body until her flesh glowed a pale red. No matter how she tried, the wolf would not wash away. She wept, quietly so May wouldn’t hear her, unable to contain the emotions that wanted to pull her to the tiled floor.
The monster had been so close. Too close. She still felt it lurking now, just there where she could almost touch it, if she reached a hand into herself. It, she, was howling in frustration. It felt terror and again that same rage. Gretchen was overcome with a scent she couldn’t possibly, as a human, comprehend. As the hot water finally wore away her confusion, a clear thought evolved in her mind.
I was certain there was a woman in that cage.
But it was the wolf’s foul memory describing that figure, not hers. Gretchen shook the water from her hair. There was not much difference remaining between them, and she was terrified.
The two conflicting memories tortured her throughout the evening. Both Gretchen and May were relieved when Molly walked through the door.
“How’d it go?” May asked as Gretchen smiled a greeting.
Molly blushed and May’s eyebrows raised.
“Fine,” Molly said.
“Just fine? Come on, something happened. You’re red as an apple.”
“John asked me out,” Molly said in a small voice very much unlike her.
“And?” May would not give up.