The Wolf & The Woodsman

Here. Listen.

I’ll tell you a story.

Listen.

Once upon a time there was a girl. She was probably about twelve or thirteen, but that was an age when children were older than their years and expected to do real work and help with the harvest, so perhaps she was only nine or ten.

Her hood wasn’t red. Red dye is expensive and doesn’t hold well, and nobody who had to dye it themselves would make a red cloak for a child who could be expected to outgrow it by autumn. That was added later because it alliterated. It wasn’t a riding hood, either—the only horse she ever rode was the broad-backed giant that drew her father’s plow.

Still, we make do.

Her name was Turtle. Probably that wasn’t her name, probably she had a perfectly normal name, like other girls, but everyone in the village called her Turtle. There is undoubtedly an amusing story about this, possibly involving a pudgy five-year-old and a suspiciously good-natured snapping turtle, but time is short and dawn comes earlier every year.

Turtle loved to bake. I am sorry to say that she wasn’t very much good at it. Her scones were like rocks and her cinnamon rolls weighed more than the crookback iron stove they were cooked in.

Children are odd creatures. If they are thwarted, they tend to do one of two things—they refuse to ever do whatever-it-is again as long as they live, or they grit their teeth and throw hours and days and weeks at it, like a general throwing soldiers at a wall until they can stand atop their piled dead.

Turtle was one of the piled-dead variety, at least with baking. She brutalized flour and butter, she visited wartime atrocities to milk and yeast. She committed acts of crumpet. She developed the sturdy forearms that come from punching dough, but since all the other children had the muscle that comes from milking cows and wrangling goats and digging potatoes, no one noticed.

One day Turtle had savaged an innocent bowl of batter into something that almost (but not quite) resembled muffins. Her mother, who had a great deal to bear on other fronts which do not enter the scope of this story, except to say that Turtle had three older brothers, each more reprehensible then the last, opened the back door and told Turtle to take herself and her regrettable muffins to her grandmother, and if she had to stay the night, so much the better, as there was going to be a great deal of screaming presently, and Turtle was a bit young to be hearing all the words that Turtle’s mother planned to be using.

Turtle, not being a stupid child, swept her muffins into a basket. They went glop, which is not an appropriate sound for muffins to make upon contacting wicker, but Turtle was pleased by this, because the last batch had gone clonk and glop was progress of a sort.

She set out of the backyard and into the woods. Why did her grandmother live a good half-hour’s walk into the deep dark woods, and not in the village? An excellent question. Very likely it had a lot to do with the aforementioned brothers, and the fact that her grandmother loved her mother very much and would chew her own leg off at the hip before she lived in the same house with her. Families are complicated that way.

Turtle set out on the forest path, with her hood thrown back and her basket swinging and the muffins jostling and sloshing inside.

She had gone only a little way—just far enough for the bustle and frolic of a woodland edge to give way to the deeper quiet of a wood—and a wolf stepped out on the path and said “Where are you going, my child?”

He was not standing on his hind legs, as he may be in some illustrations you have seen. Wolves are more dexterous with their paws and mouths than you would believe, but walking on their hind legs hurts their hips. He was not wearing clothes or jewelry or anything else. He was just a wolf, a big, rangy grey-furred beast with a deep chest and narrow hips, and that meant that he was leaner and taller and longer-legged than Turtle, who was used to dogs, would have imagined.

Also he talked.

Turtle was not as surprised by this as you or I would be. In that part of the world at that time, talking animals were not completely unheard of. The problem was figuring out if they were a wicked fairy or a cursed prince—royalty was very bad about being turned into animals, and there were quite a few noble houses who still kept Great-Grandfather’s hide nailed up over the fireplace for a conversation piece—or just an ordinary talking animal. Fairies and princes tended to get you mixed up in unfortunate doings, but there was nothing wrong with a talking animal, who were usually more polite than most people you would meet.

That it was a wolf was somewhat comforting. Wolves talked occasionally. So did bears. Foxes talked all the time, particularly if you caught them in the hen house, where they would do their best to addle you with fine nonsense until they could slip out the door, and it was generally believed that all cats could talk and simply refused to do so for inscrutable reasons of their own.

Talking stags, on the other hand, were nearly always bespelled royalty, and fairies, who could theoretically choose to look like anything, nearly always picked white cats or black horses. Fairies are very beautiful and very vain and they haven’t got the imagination to fill a thimble. And they never learn from their mistakes.

So Turtle was not terribly frightened of the wolf, but she was wary. She gripped her basket in both hands and bobbed a curtsey to the wolf and said “I am going to my grandmother’s house, Master Wolf.”

The wolf looked at her for a little while. He had big gold eyes and he smelled strong, like a lathered horse or a cat in heat, one of those rough animal smells that humans do not like and cannot drive out with soap or candles.

“Be careful,” said the wolf finally. “There are unkind things in the woods today.”

“Oh,” said Turtle. “Um. I will. Thank you?”

The wolf nodded once, and turned like a cat in a tight space, nose over tail, and trotted into the woods. She saw him slip into a run, and the thick green ferns closed over his trail.

She realized that she was gripping her basket very tightly, and pried her fingers loose. There were red marks in her palm and across the pads of her fingers where the wicker handle had bit into the skin.

Still, she was young, and it did not occur to her to turn around and go home. There might be unkind things in the woods, but there were very definitely brothers and yelling at home.

So Turtle kept walking down the path, and because she was a little nervous, she began to sing to herself. She did not have a very good voice, and she could not remember most of the words, but that didn’t matter, because the point was to make noise and reassure herself that she was not scared, not one little bit.

Eventually she fell back into a lot of “hey fiddle dee and hidey ho,” with the occasional “hey nonny” thrown in. “Hey nonny” is a parasite that attaches itself to folk music, and left unchecked can suck an unsuspecting song completely dry. The infestation of this particular song was not far advanced, but did not bode well for future generations.

So Turtle went on, singing badly and occasionally remembering a line or two about crows in the corn and the wee yowes amongst the heather. (It is worth noting that Turtle had a vague image of a wee yowe as some kind of miniature monster, possibly an elephant.) And in such a state, she arrived at the clearing that held Grandmother’s house.

Her grandmother kept the house tidy, and flowers grew all around the front porch. Hollyhocks rose in great columns against the wattle walls and a climbing rose had invaded the thatched roof. Turtle walked under the thorny archway and tapped the door.

It was slightly ajar and swung open at her touch. She took a step inside, holding her basket in front of her with both hands.

“Grandma?” she asked, in her wavering child’s voice.

And stopped.

And stared.

There was a wolf in her grandmother’s bed.

Turtle was not a stupid child. The wolf was clearly a wolf, even across the room, not anything else. He lay stretched across the blankets, as long as a human was tall, and he raised his great head and looked at her.

It was the same wolf from earlier. She was almost sure of it.

She did not scream. She did not run away. She most certainly did not say anything foolish about her grandmother having very large teeth, because she was not a sarcastic child by nature, and even if she had been, her heart was pounding very loudly in her ears and making it very hard to think.

“Oh,” she said, in a very small voice, and clutched the basket handle so hard that the wicker cut into her fingers.

“Turtle?” asked her grandmother. “Child, what are you doing here?”

Her grandmother sat up in bed. She had been lying next to the wolf, with her arms wrapped around his neck and her face buried in his shoulder. Her voice was thick and raw and it did not occur to Turtle until much later that her grandmother had been crying.

“Mother told me to come and stay with you tonight,” said Turtle. “Um.” More explanation seemed to be needed, so she flapped her hand in the direction of the village. “My brothers…”

“Ah,” said her grandmother, with all the comprehension that one can pack into a single syllable. She pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers. “It would have to be tonight, wouldn’t it?”

Turtle’s grandmother was not an old woman, not in the sense of being ancient and crooked down by the weight of years. They had children early in that part of the world, early and often. I would say that she was about sixty-five. The oldest part of her was her hands. Her hair had gone the color of iron. She was still handsome in a tall, haggard way, and there was never any problem with living alone. She hired men to chop her firewood, or dragged her grandsons out to do it, but that was her only concession to age, and the broad vegetable garden she weeded herself.

Grandmother swung her feet over the edge of the bed and said “Perhaps it would be better if you went home.”

Turtle fidgeted. She did not want to go home. The woods had frightened her a little, and the best thing she could hope for at the end of the return journey was yelling and brothers.

“If she goes now, she may meet him coming here,” said the wolf.

Grandmother inhaled sharply.

“Who?” asked Turtle.

Her grandmother fidgeted a patch of quilt between her fingers.

“The woodsman,” said the wolf, when it became obvious that the older woman would not answer.

“The woodsman?” asked Turtle, puzzled. “Which one?”

For there were woodsmen all through the land in that time, and none of them were precisely alike. They carried axes and cut down trees for houses, most of them, but they were also hunters and trappers and brought fur and pelts to trade, or wild mushrooms, or strange herbs. There was one woodsman who lived up in the hills—no one knew exactly where—who panned for gold in the streams and brought tiny vials of glittering dust to trade.

They were odd people. They were welcome in town, of course, and if land needed clearing, you sent out word and a half-dozen would show up with their great pitted axes, but they had territories rather than homes, and they wore furs instead of homespun.

“His name isn’t important,” said Grandmother. “I’d rather not…that is…oh, surely she can go home!”

The wolf, who had no name (wolves never do) said “She may do as she wishes, but I would not let a cub of mine go down that path tonight.”

“Perhaps he won’t come,” said Grandmother wretchedly.

“Then he will come tomorrow,” said the wolf, “or the next day. But I believe it will be tonight.” He heaved himself off the bed and paced toward the fire.

Turtle set down her basket, which was growing heavy, and put her hands on her hips, and said, in her very best grown-up voice, “I want to know what is going on!”

“Oh…oh, my dear…” Her grandmother fidgeted again. This was unusual. Her grandmother was not a fidgeter by nature, and she generally had little patience with maundering.

The wolf lay down. He did it all at once, with a great hwwuffff! and he took up a great deal of the cottage doing so.

Grandmother sighed. “Let us have tea. This will be easier with tea.” She got up, stepped around the wolf, and poured herself a very small drink from a small blue bottle on the mantle. She drank it.

Turtle tapped her foot. This did not look very much like tea.

“The woodsman came here earlier in the season,” said Grandmother, coughing a little on the contents of the bottle. She took down the kettle, shook it a little—water sloshed inside—and she set it on the pot-bellied stove to heat. “He offered to cut firewood for me, and I accepted. He would take no payment, but he seemed lonely, so when he stayed to talk to me, and came back sometimes for tea and to talk, I thought it was the least I could do.”

The wolf set his head on his paws. Turtle sat down on a little three-legged stool and hugged her knees.

“He seemed lonely,” Grandmother repeated. She got out two mugs for tea, gazed at the little blue bottle for a moment, then took a slug directly from it. “And odd, but many of the woodsmen are. They live such isolated lives. I thought—perhaps he had simply forgotten some of the social graces. And he said that people had been unkind to him. I felt sorry for him…”

Sarcasm is largely foreign to wolves, and completely unknown in dogs (although coyotes have a well-developed sense of it), but the sound the wolf made was very close.

“Yes, well,” said Grandmother. “I should have listened to you.”

“Yes, you should have,” said the wolf. It was a statement of fact that held no censure in it. “But you did not, and now we are here. Perhaps if you had listened, we would also be here. There is no counting the rabbits you did not catch.”

“He came more and more often,” said Grandmother, as the tea kettle began to wail. “He wanted to talk more and more. It was not so strange, perhaps. But I was tired of listening to him, because he told all the same stories of people being unkind. It was exhausting to listen to. And he would do things around the house—little things, things I do not mind doing or do not want a stranger doing—and then would be angry when I asked him not to.”

“That’s odd,” said Turtle, hugging her knees. Chores were something you did, but getting mad because you didn’t have to do them was completely incomprehensible behavior.

Her grandmother shook her head and ran a hand through her iron gray hair. “He would act hurt. He said he didn’t want to be paid, that he was doing it because I was alone out here, and hadn’t he chopped my wood? And asked for nothing in return? It was all very tiring. It was easier to just let him patch the wall or hoe the vegetables than to listen to him complain about it.”

Turtle accepted her cup of tea and chalked this up to one more example of grown-ups being strange.

Her grandmother shrugged. “It is a long story, and it doesn’t reflect too well on me. I should have told him not to come here then. My friend here told me as much. But I felt sorry for him. And some of the things were so odd, it was hard to know how to react—he would get angry over such odd things—do you remember when you brought me those scones last week, dear?”

“They were cookies,” said Turtle.

“—and they were lovely,” said Grandmother, who was an accomplished liar about the important things. She investigated the blue bottle again, found it nearly empty, and grumbled. The wolf huffed a laugh.

“Well, never mind all that. It was too much. He had been here three days running, and the cucumbers needed pickling and I did not want him in the house again dredging up all those tales of past hurts. I told him to go away, that I was busy and needed time to myself to work. There is something very satisfying about pickling, isn’t there? You get the neat little rows of jars and wax seals and the house smells like dill and vinegar, and I know it’s not supposed to be a nice smell, but I rather like it.”

Turtle nodded vigorously. She loved pickles. Pickles were one of the great unrelenting good things in life, and the highest state that a cucumber, which was otherwise a rather wet and insipid vegetable, could aspire to.

“And he…well, he said a lot of things. Not nice things. I don’t know what he was expecting, but I wouldn’t take that kind of talk from your grandfather, so damned if I was taking it from some crazy woodsman who hung around the place like a puppy waiting for a kick. “ She gave an awkward little laugh into her tea. “I am old enough that I should have known better. If I had driven him off early on—well, maybe it wouldn’t have come to this. But I felt sorry for him. Stupid of me, but there you are.”

“Pity is a poor kin to mercy,” said the wolf.

“And what do wolves know of either?” snapped Grandmother, nudging the wolf with her foot.

“Of pity, very little,” said the wolf agreeably. “But of mercy we know much, particularly when it comes with teeth. That is what we are doing here tonight, is it not?”

Grandmother sighed. “I suppose.”

“What happens tonight?” asked Turtle, leaning forward on the stool.

Grandmother gazed into her tea.

“Tonight,” said the wolf, “I believe the woodsman is going to come to kill her. And we will kill him first, or not, as may be.”

“Perhaps it would be best if Turtle hid in the outhouse for this,” said her grandmother.

Turtle wanted to protest—if somebody was going to get killed, she certainly didn’t want to be hiding in the privy and wondering what was going on!—but the wolf beat her to it.

“Your children are cubs too long already,” he said. “You do them no kindness by teaching them to be fools.” He yawned. “And if she stays out there, what is to stop him from finding her there first? It is better that she stay here. If she is here, we are close enough to help her.”

“The wardrobe, then,” said Grandmother, and bowed her head.

“How do you know he’s going to try and kill you?” asked Turtle, whose eyes were so wide that she thought she might never blink again.

“He killed the goat,” said Grandmother. She swiped the back of her hand over her eyes. “That makes me the angriest. That poor goat. She never did anything to anybody. She was a nice goat.”

“He killed your goat?” Turtle had listened to the description of the woodsman with the general ambivalence of children, but this was something else again.

Like many people who live close to the land, Turtle’s family divided animals into two camps. There were those animals that created food—milk cows and laying hens and and plow horses and the better sort of nanny goat—and there were animals that were food. And while the latter went unnamed (unless it was “Dinner”) the former fell somewhere between employees and family. They had names. They had personalities.

Even Turtle’s mother had to wipe at her eyes when the black-speckled hen had died last year.

So far as Turtle was concerned, killing a goat—particularly that rarest of breeds, a nice goat—put the woodsman in a camp of villains that included the devil, her father’s mother, and Attila the Hun.

“And the worst of it,” said Grandmother, getting up to pace and gesture with the sloshing tea cup, “the worst of it was that he somehow expected that to make it better! Like chopping the poor goat’s head off was going to make me glad to see him again!”

“What did you do with the goat?” asked Turtle, who was a practical child. There was a lot of meat on a goat.

“I couldn’t deal with it,” admitted Grandmother. “I was too angry. My friend here took it.”

The wolf grinned and dragged his tongue across the white fringe of his teeth. “We are not sentimental about our meat. To keep live prey about the house is a strange foolishness of humans. But I accept that this is a human thing, and to kill another’s house-prey is a great crime.”

He stood up and stretched, and the cottage got a great deal smaller again. “Soon, now. The woods are quieting in the wrong sort of way. Someone is coming.”

Grandmother checked the blue bottle again, stuck her little finger in the neck, and licked the thin film of moisture again. “Very well,” she said, tossing it down. “Turtle, get into the wardrobe. If things go badly—if—well—if something happens—“

Something is going to happen,” said the wolf, amused. “Perhaps we will all sit around like cubs in a den, and frighten each other with what we imagine to be outside, but even that is something.”

“I shall kick you,” said Grandmother with dignity.

“I shall bite off your leg,” said the wolf, grinning.

“Very well, then,” said Grandmother. “Turtle, if I am—killed—then go with the wolf. He will see that you get home safe. And if we are both killed, then stay in the wardrobe and do not make a sound until he has left, then run home as fast as you can.”

“That is better,” said the wolf.

Turtle climbed into the wardrobe. It was a few inches off the ground and creaked a little. There were winter blankets piled on the bottom, under the hanging clothes, and she was flexible enough in the boneless way of girl-children to curl herself up inside.

The keyhole let a little shaft of light inside, and there were gaps under both hinges. By shifting ever so quietly inside, Turtle could see both the door and the bed, though not both at the same time.

She pressed her eye to the keyhole.

The wolf lay down on the bed again, and Grandmother draped the orange crazy-quilt over him. “Loosely,” he said. “It will do no good to draw him near if I cannot escape the blankets in time.”
“I hate this,” muttered Grandmother. She picked up her faded mobcap—Turtle could not remember ever seeing her wear it, but it had lived on the bedpost as long as she could remember—and set it over the back of the wolf’s head. “Don’t wag your tail, no matter how much this amuses you. No, that won’t do. Your ears are too big.”

“The better to hear with,” said the wolf, still sounding amused. “And I hear now that the birds outside the clearing have fallen silent. Truly, if you would let me tear his throat out at the door, this would be much easier.”

“I don’t want to kill him,” growled Grandmother, sounding almost like a wolf herself. “If he would simply go away…” She stuffed the wolf’s enormous ears under the mobcap, and draped it across the side of his face. With the quilt pulled up high and the fire burning down, Turtle thought that perhaps it was not completely unconvincing.

“He will not go away,” said the wolf, very softly. “He is coming even now.”

“I know,” said Grandmother, and dropped with grace that belied her age and slid underneath the bed.

The steps creaked.

“Amelia?” called a voice from outside the door. “Amelia?”

It was a male voice. It did not sound strange or monstrous. It didn’t sound the like the voice of a goat-killer, but who knew what they sounded like? Turtle wiggled in the blankets and peered out the narrow notch underneath the hinges.

“Go away!” yelled Grandmother. “I don’t want company!”

“Now Amelia…” said the woodsman, opening the door. “Don’t be like that.”

Grandmother groaned. She might have been acting, but Turtle thought that it was a particularly heartfelt sound. “I don’t feel well. I just want to sleep. I don’t have anything to say to you. Go away.”

He stood framed in the door. He was tall and rawboned and his face was lined, except for the skin around his eyes, which was smooth. He carried an axe in one hand, a wicked looking thing with a curved blade, and Turtle’s heart clenched at the sight of it.

“Don’t be like that, Amelia,” he said again. “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. Can I make you some tea?”

“Just go away,” said Grandmother (whose name, yes, was Amelia). “I have plenty of tea. I told you I didn’t want you here. I will feel better if you leave.”

The woodsman took a few steps closer. “I came to say that I forgive you for the things you said earlier,” he said.

“For the love of god, will you just go?”

It was his death she was warning him away from, Turtle thought, and he didn’t seem to be listening.

In fact, he was staring at something by the foot of the bed.

“What is that?”

Turtle slithered around to the keyhole. Had the wolf’s tail popped out? What was he seeing?

“What?” asked Grandmother, and for the first time, Turtle could hear the fear in her voice. She craned her neck to one side, trying to see what the woodsman was looking at. Her left eye ached from not blinking.

It was the basket of muffins.

“Someone’s been here,” said the woodsman. His voice was thick and choked. “Someone else came here. We talked about this…”

“It was one of my grandchildren,” said Grandmother wearily. “And you are a fool. I will see whoever I wish in my own house. Leave now, and don’t bother me again.”

She knows he won’t do it, Turtle thought. She wouldn’t sound so tired if she didn’t.

The woodsman stepped toward the bed. His face had gone red and blotchy. The straw mattress rustled a little as the wolf shifted his weight.

“We talked about this,” the woodsman said again, sounding almost plaintive, standing beside the bed. Turtle thought that surely he must see through the disguise, surely the shape of the ears must be wrong or a tuft of gray fur would show through, something.

He lifted his axe over his head.

“Fool,” said Grandmother under the bed, with the finality of a death sentence.

The wolf erupted from the quilt.

For Turtle, watching through the keyhole, there was only a blur of grey and a flash of the orange quilt and a horrible yell that turned into a gurgle that turned into nothing at all. The woodsman’s body came crashing down. The wolf gave a muffled yelp and a snarl and the metal axe-blade clattered across the floor.

And then there was no sound at all.

Turtle flung the wardrobe door open, heedless of the very strict orders, and saw the wolf crouched atop the woodsman’s chest, his teeth still buried in the man’s throat. The orange quilt was splashed with blood, sodden with it, a color that matched the orange rather regrettably well.

“Well,” said Grandmother, surveying the scene, “that quilt’s had it.”

Turtle nodded.

The wolf let go. Turtle very deliberately did not look at what he had done to the woodsman’s neck.

“Are you hurt, my friend?” asked Grandmother.

The wolf licked at his shoulder briefly. “Hardly at all. He dropped his axe on me. It will heal.”

Grandmother pulled the quilt the rest of the way off the bed. “Well. I suppose…I suppose we should…”

She put her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. “I am sorry, my friend,” she said. “I do not seem to be able to think right now.”

The wolf nodded. “Help me roll him onto the quilt,” he said. “The cub and I will see to the body. You should rest.”

“And have more tea,” said Turtle firmly.

“Yes,” said Grandmother after a moment. “Yes. You are both right.” She spread the quilt next to the dead man and grabbed his shoulder. Her eyes were averted and stared at a blank spot on the wall.

The wolf, with dexterous teeth, grabbed the woodsman’s clothing, and they rolled him face down onto the quilt. Grandmother pulled the far end over the top of him.

“I think that is all that I can do,” she said. Her lips were very white.

“It is all that needs to be done,” said the wolf. “Rest. When you are done resting, clean your den.”

“You’ll have to stain the boards,” said Turtle practically. “With walnut juice or something. You’ll never get all this blood up. When Father killed the white rooster and it got inside the back door without its head, we had to stain with walnut.”

The wolf made a noise that in a human might have been a cough.

“Thank you, Turtle,” said Grandmother dryly. “I will take that under advisement.” A little bit of color crept back into her face, and she swung the tea kettle back over the fire.

“Come with me, cub,” said the wolf. He grabbed the end of the quilt and lifted it, and proceeded to drag the body toward the door.

Turtle felt odd. She felt a bit like crying, but there did not seem to be any time to do so, and the wolf was clearly expecting her to open the door.

The body went down the steps in a series of damp thuds. Turtle wasn’t quite sure that she wanted to go with the wolf, but while she stood on the porch, undecided, he reached the gate in the fence, and Turtle had to run to open it, and after that, it seemed that the time when she might protest was gone.

It was an odd journey. The wolf hauled the dead man, wrapped in his crazy-quilt shroud, and Turtle held low tree branches aside and shoved the woodsman’s arm back into the cocoon when it flopped out. She wrapped the end of her hooded cloak around her hand so she didn’t have to actually touch him.

They followed some kind of deer path. The wolf set his burden down occasionally to turn his head and look up it.

They did not speak. They travelled in silence, the three of them, the wolf, the girl, and the dead man. There was only the girl’s footsteps and the wolf’s breathing and the scrape of the body over the ground.

Once, across a rough patch of knobbled tree roots, the dead man was jarred partway out of the quilt. The wolf stopped, and Turtle had to grab the woodsman’s pant leg and help roll him back into the quilt.

The wolf pushed his nose briefly against her arm. His nose was cold. Blood had dried in stiff red spikes across his muzzle, but Turtle felt better for it anyway.

“Here,” said the wolf, what seemed like a long time later. “This is far enough.”

It was twilight. Turtle was amazed that it was only twilight. It seemed like several ages must have passed, like it should be twilight of the day after.

They stood in a little clearing. Turtle shook herself and looked around. Night was gathering under the trees, and there were eyes in it, and a suggestion of teeth.

A growling began somewhere behind Turtle, and ran around the ring of trees. It was very soft and very hungry.

“It would be wise,” said the wolf, “if you would lay your hand on my shoulder now. And I will see you home.”

Turtle set her hand on the wolf’s shoulder. He was hot as fire under his fur, and his ribs heaved as he panted.

They walked away from the clearing. The wolves under the trees slunk out of their way, heads low, their eyes gleaming like frozen moons.

She thought about looking back, but the wolf said “I wouldn’t,” so she didn’t.

It was not a long walk. She cried a little. There seemed to be time now. The wolf didn’t say anything. When she stopped, she tangled her fingers in the wolf’s fur, and felt better.

They reached the path home twenty minutes later. Turtle expected it to take longer, but then again, it went much faster when one of you was not walking backward and hauling a dead man’s weight in his jaws.

They stood on the edge of the path, where the spurge grew thick and choked out the ferns and daggers of grass stabbed up through them.

“Well?” said the wolf finally.

Turtle thought about it, scuffing her foot in the dry pine needles of the path. “I’m sorry he had to be killed. But he shouldn’t have killed the goat.”

The wolf bowed his head, accepting this judgment.

“Will Grandmother be okay?”

The wolf shrugged. His fur rippled under Turtle’s hand when he did so. “She is strong. She would not be a friend to wolves if she were not. Give her a day or two to re-make her den around her and howl, and then visit her again.”

“Will you be here?” asked Turtle. “I mean…if I come into the woods, some time…”

“It is very likely,” the wolf said.

“Would you talk to me?”

“Quite possibly,” said the wolf. “If you are not too foolish, and will be silent sometimes. You do not smell like a foolish child, but there is often no way to be sure.”

“I promise to be silent sometimes,” said Turtle solemnly.

“Then I will be here,” said the wolf, and turned like a cat on the path and vanished into the wood.

No, that’s not the end of the story. Hush. I’ll tell you the rest. There isn’t much.

Turtle went home. The yelling was mostly over, although Turtle’s mother said a few things about the state of her clothes and the stained hood.

“Grandma’s goat got killed,” said Turtle, and that was enough explanation for everything, although Turtle’s mother then muttered a few more things, mostly related to letting a child gad out in the woods so late.

“It wasn’t late when I started,” said Turtle, much aggrieved, and that, too, was enough explanation for everything.

Nobody asked about the woodsman, then or ever. He probably had a name, but Turtle never learned it and did not ask. Her grandmother continued on the same as ever, except that she stopped hiring anyone to cut her firewood, and Turtle’s brother came home sweaty and full of splinters and complaints.

Her next batch of brownies came out chewy and if they were overly wet in the middle and burnt to a brick-like crust around the edges, everyone agreed that it was still a great improvement.

 Author’s Note: This story first appeared on the blog at Red Wombat Studio, under the name Ursula Vernon. It is included in the Toad Words anthology.