WHY THE WOLF HOWLS AT THE MOON
by Cheryl Wollner
In the middle of the Forest lived a wolf who desired to be a fish. She dreamed of flaky gills and shiny scales. She imagined how light she would be without her fur and what it would feel like to propel herself forward with the twitch of a plate-like tail. But no matter how long she called and pleaded at the river’s edge, the fish scattered at her approach. They refused to talk to her and she could not understand their speech.
Her brothers would find her drenched and dripping by the riverbank without a single fish in her jaws. They would find her paddling against the current when she was supposed to be chasing down deer. The young male wolves bit and nipped at her but could not always keep watch.
They began to talk. Wolf did not hunt. Wolf refused to eat fish. Father Wolf heard his sons and nodded. He knew the truth of these charges. Father Wolf may have been graying and near blind from a fox fight, but he was mean as a bear and took pride in his pack.
“You are not a wolf.” He prowled around Wolf in circles after another unsuccessful hunt. The pack’s male kin echoed their agreement, shouting out derision for Wolf’s daydreaming ways. They encroached, growling and snarling. She growled back.
“I am not a wolf.” Wolf agreed and kept her eyes high on her father’s face. “I am a fish.”
The pack laughed and laughed. “Banish her!” One wolf called. Cries rang out in affirmation, though banishment meant death. No one would take her for a mate. She would make a poor mother to pups. She did not know how to raise herself, let alone provide for a pack.
Above the snarls and cries, Wolf said, “I am a fish.”
Father Wolf charged at her with snapping jaws but did not strike. She was the least of his children, yes, but she was his only surviving female pup.
Though Father Wolf expected Wolf to cower at his attack, Wolf ran from her father’s snorting breath. She broke through the circle of wolves surrounding her and made her own charge ahead, choosing banishment. She barreled past the bodies of cousins and past playmates now calling for her blood.
She fled further into the Forest.
It did not take long for her paws to lead her to the cache of shells and scales she collected. She nosed aside the leaves covering the rusted can she had found to house her treasure. She would trade these scales and shells from the coast to Fox and her partner Squirrel.
Fox and Squirrel would know how to turn her into a fish. They knew the magic of Humans as well as the magic of the Forest. Fox and Squirrel knew all.
Wolf found the mountain of gifts bestowed upon Fox and Squirrel before she found the burrowing hole into Fox’s den. She padded past fishing line around a wooden spool, copper scraped like gold dust from dented pots and pans, bullet shells all metal and gleaming, boughs sticky with syrup and coated in grubs.
Squirrel sat in the smallest pot just outside brush of the den’s entryway and picked through the scales and the broken shells when Wolf laid them at his feet. He twitched his tail at Fox, who sauntered over.
Fox clicked her tongue and stepped over the treasure. “You want to become a fish? Well,” she licked Wolf’s cheek, “you’ll need broken glass for that magic. Won’t she, Squirrel?”
“And, Fox, I’m afraid I just don’t see any glass here.” Squirrel dragged a paw through the scales. “Any broken glass, friend Wolf?”
“Shells and scales.” Wolf said. “We’ve traded before.”
“But not for something like this.” Fox explained. “I’m sorry, but you’ll need broken glass.”
“How else will you breathe under water unless we have something sharp to cut you gills?”
“And gills, gills, friend Wolf, are a high price.” Squirrel abandoned the pot and scurried onto Fox’s shoulder.
That made sense to Wolf, even if it did sound painful. “Alright. I’ll return with the glass.” But when she started to take back her treasure, Fox clamped a paw down, her claws digging into Wolf’s flesh.
“Down payment, friend.”
“You want to become a fish? Down payment.”
When Wolf was gone, Fox and Squirrel laughed and laughed. “We’ll teach her a lesson. She wants to be a fish. We’ll dump her body in the river!” Fox held malice for Father Wolf’s pack. It wasn’t too long ago that Father Wolf maimed Mother Fox. Bad blood runs deep.
It was five days to the coast and Wolf traveled the long way to avoid Father Wolf’s hunting parties.
Beneath her paws, spring grass sprang back under her weight and she left soft paw prints in the mud. She was crossing during the rainy season when the paths were treacherous with mud pits, ticks, mosquitoes, and floods.
Wolf loved the rain, but on this trip it poured for three full days and nights. The rain fell hard with lighting and thunder like bullets and it was impossible to do more than huddle beneath a fallen log and keep the grubs company.
The rain cleared and Wolf walked on, embracing the smell of loam, but she grew hungry. She had eaten the grubs and chased a down few mice but she was still hungry. She could not bring down large prey without a pack. To fill the emptiness growing in her stomach, she lapped up more and more river water.
When she finally reached the coast, she gulped at the briny air and felt the return of an old hunger: the hunger for breath through gills.
Then, a new scent caught her. It smelled salty like a fish, but it was not a fish. Overlaying this new scent, she could smell a Human nearby, the stink of gun smoke, deer blood, and a roasting fire. She should find the glass and get back to Fox and Squirrel, but the new smell pulled her toward its source.
The scent led her close enough to the waves that Wolf could watch them crash against the rocks. She followed the smell to a barnacled fishing boat which slept plowed into the sand. From within the depths of the boat, Wolf heard moaning and a cry of pain.
“You’re here for the glass.” She reminded herself, yet she slipped toward the boat instead of toward the ocean.
Just then, a Human thrust himself above the boat’s railing and scratched at the hair on his face. He called into the run-down ship, laughing, “You ain’t gonna murder me with your eyes. Best try another trick next time.” He spat onto the deck and climbed from the boat, striding toward the smell of roasting deer.
Wolf clambered aboard as soon as she deemed it safe and found a creature unlike any she had ever witnessed. The creature was smaller in length than the man but had a Human shape with mounds on its chest that reminded Wolf of her own tits.
But what astonished Wolf the most was the fish tail seamlessly attached to her upper body. It took Wolf a few moments of blubbering confusion to realize this creature was bound with rope and wounded across her face and breasts, and where her tail met her torso. Her silt colored skin, speckled with scales, was bruised harrowing shades of black and purple like the night sky. Her tail lapped in a large bucket of water.
“What are you?” Wolf asked.
The creature laughed, dazed and seething. “Today, I am a prisoner. Last neap tide, I was free. And with luck, tomorrow, I will be a murderer.” The creature’s eyes were round and bloodshot, coated with thick mucus.
Wolf could understand this fish-creature! “How did you get your tail?”
Instead of an answer, the fish-creature began to wail. She screamed with a high pitched shriek, her mouth cavernous and gaping and she kept screaming until the sound of boots scraped the rusted metal stairs down into the boat’s cabins where Wolf and the fish-creature lay.
“I told you, mermaid, to shut your damned—” The Human halted on the last step at the sight of Wolf.
He pulled a revolver from his belt and looked from the wolf in his boat to his mermaid. He couldn’t shoot in here, for the creatures stood too close and he would not risk killing his prize. So he backed up instead, one foot at a time, to lure Wolf out.
When his foot slipped, Wolf struck.
The gun fired just by Wolf’s ear and she yowled at the noise, pinning the Human to the stairway. She bit him in the arm, then in the neck when he sliced her under the ribs with a knife. Only when the fish-creature released a final shriek, did Wolf relent her attack. Then hunger took over: she slurped up the blood of the dead man and chewed the tissue, snapping bones and digging out the marrow with her teeth.
And all the while, the mermaid watched with unblinking pearl eyes and smiled. “I have no love of land creatures, but I am blessed to be in your company, Wolf. My name is Anyah. Now, release me back to the sea.”
Wolf licked flecks of bone and chewed cloth off her muzzle. Ah-nye-uh. Wolf liked the way her name sounded smooth like a polished sea shell. She chewed at the ropes around the mermaid’s torso, careful to avoid nicking the scaled and salty flesh near her spine.
Anyah climbed onto Wolf’s back and Wolf picked her way up the bloodied stairs. “Anyah, what’s it like? The sea?” She lowered Anyah down the side of the boat and then stumbled after her into the wet and rocky sand.
“There’s more world than you could ever imagine.” Anyah rasped. “Everything around you is endless in all directions and each layer of the ocean and every creature has a different song.” The mermaid began to sing, a resonant bass voice that burrowed into Wolf’s ears. “That’s the Song of the Flounder.” She coughed a sandy mucus. “It’s one of my favorites.”
Even with Anyah’s struggling voice, Wolf didn’t think she could ever hear anything more beautiful than the Flounder’s Song.
“Why are you crying?” Anyah asked.
“Because I can’t understand your song but I feel I’ve known it all my life.” Wolf was bleeding and licked her side to hide her face.
“Get me into the water.”
When the shallows were creeping around both of their bodies Wolf asked, “How do I become like you?”
Anyah held slick webbed fingers to Wolf’s head and bowed. “You do not become like me.”
“There’s no magic?”
The mermaid laughed and it sounded like sand whipped about by the wind. “I don’t believe in magic. There’s no such thing.” She edged deeper into the waves. “Well met, Wolf. Farewell.”
But Fox and Squirrel promised me gills, Wolf thought. “Don’t go. Can you teach me to sing like the fish?”
The mermaid’s lips turned up in a half smile. “I’ll teach you. If you can learn.”
Wolf proved that she could learn. While she could not swim far with her wounded flank, she learned to live on the outskirts of the coast and meet the mermaid on a different sandbank each night, just past sunset.
“I am strongest at night. I am strongest under the full moon, just like the ocean.” Anyah’s arm muscles rippled silt brown through the waves and Wolf believed her.
During the day Wolf collected glass for her gills. But at night, she listened. Song after song led Wolf to their meetings and Wolf’s jaw ached from the contortions, the stretches of held breath and the resonant hums skipping like rocks. Wolf learned the closed-mouthed song of each fish, the underwater growl of a shark, the way a ripple sounded stretched across underwater miles.
But as Wolf recovered and began to swim farther out into the sea and deeper under the waves, her body’s limitations surpassed even her desire. Many nights, Anyah carried Wolf to shore when Wolf choked on sea water and panicked without air. “I’ll be fine.” Wolf promised. “I’ll get my gills and I’ll be fine.”
The mermaid did not understand and it was not her people’s way to ask. She taught Wolf the language of the ocean and that was enough.
Until the night Wolf sang her to the shoreline and said, “I’ve gathered enough magic to return home for my gills.”
“There’s no such thing as magic.”
Wolf crouched over the glittering glass. “I don’t believe you. I’ve been promised gills. Broken glass for gills.”
The mermaid laughed, harsh with a flip of her tail. “And you believe this?”
“My friends Fox and Squirrel promised to cut me gills.”
Webbed fingers ran along the fur under Wolf’s neck. “They’ll slice you open, these friends of yours.” She turned Wolf’s head to face her. “The first rule of the ocean is to know your enemy’s song. They’ll be quick to learn yours.” She splashed water playfully against Wolf’s face. “Don’t go.” She pulled at a paw. “Come with me.”
Wolf pulled back. “Not until I can go with you forever. I still believe in magic.”
Anyah did not agree but pressed their heads together in understanding. Wolf licked Anyah’s salt-streaked face.
“Leave in the morning then.” Anyah requested and Wolf agreed. Under a sliver of moon, they lay together, wet and content to sleep on the sandbank until the turn of the tide.
The deeper into the Forest Wolf trekked, the more cloistered she felt and the more the sounds of scurrying mice and twittering birds alarmed her with the pandemonium of their noise. There was no order, no rhythm. Her forest home felt crowded and jumbled and she ran for much of the journey, arriving exhausted and disoriented.
When she reached Fox and Squirrel’s den, she discovered the pair gorging on a dead falcon. She dropped the glass near the expanded pile of gifts and approached.
Squirrel raised his eyes and wiped his twitching pink paws on crouched legs. “Looky here, Fox. Looky here.”
Fox grinned. “We didn’t think we’d be seeing you again.” She slinked around Wolf, eyeing Fox’s new muscles and the matt of fur around the wound in her side. “You were gone for so long, we figured maybe you didn’t want to become a fish after all.”
Wolf wanted it now more than ever. All she could think about was Anyah. A few days from now, she and Anyah could be together forever. “I came for my gills.”
Fox pawed at the glittering pile. “It’ll do. Now lay down and hold still.”
Wolf complied and didn’t make a noise even when Fox pinned her to the earth with a paw pressing into her scarred belly.
Squirrel procured a long thin shard of green glass and passed it to Fox.
It would be easier if she closed her eyes, Wolf decided. But she felt the blade hovering above her and remembered what Anyah had said: They’ll slice you open. Wolf remembered and listened. She listened not just to Anyah’s voice but to the Forest around her and she heard the glee in Fox’s bloodied breath.
She rolled away from the slice of the blade. “I will not hold still.”
Fox barely stayed on her feet. She thrust at Wolf again, but Wolf kept rolling into the mound of gifts and buried Fox in an avalanche of battered and bartered treasures.
Squirrel leapt at Wolf as she clambered to her feet. He clawed at her face and Wolf swiped him away. Her paw sent him sailing against a tree with a thunk of breaking bones. Wolf raced away, but behind her the sound of Fox’s wail over her partner’s body chased her through the Forest.
Wolf returned to the coast, singing. It was all she knew how to do then, sing the Song of Grief for her dream of gills. But as she drew nearer to the coast she sang the Homecoming Song.
But, at sunset Anyah didn’t come. Wolf sang of homecoming again, for perhaps after her trip to the Forest, she had lost the magic of oceanic melodies and pronunciations. But at moonrise, Anyah still did not come.
She was not in the shallows or on the sandbanks. She was not diving to weave sea grass into crowns for Wolf and garlands for herself. She was not sucking oysters or mollusks from their shells in the echoing coves.
Wolf searched until dawn and then the next night searched again. For the first time since meeting the mermaid, Wolf clambered back into the boat. Other creatures had claimed the rest of the Human’s remains and Wolf found nothing but scattered bones and clothing scraps alongside her old paw prints marked in blood.
Night after night, Wolf searched. Maybe another Human ensnared Anyah. Maybe her people pulled her away into cooler waters to escape the summer heat. Maybe Anyah thought Wolf was dead. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.
Anyah was missing. And when Wolf failed to smell the mermaid’s wet salt scent even on the night of the full moon, she let out the longest and loudest cry from deep in her chest. The high sound arced out of her belly and up, up toward the moon. She cried for all the magic she struggled to still believe in. Uw
Cheryl Wollner is an asexual feminist. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Polychrome Ink, GNU, Up the Staircase Quarterly, The Best of Loose Change Anthology, and more. She is a fiction reader for Five on the Fifth, writes literary magazine reviews for New Pages, and is the Blog Managing Editor of Luna Station Quarterly. Follow her feminist blog as she reads books by women for a year: https://asexualfeminist.wordpress.com/