This is the sequel/second part of The Forest of the Wolves. Just looking into some ideas – of who or what the wolf-girl is, about Jakub leaving his family, and why he might choose the wolf-girl. A little more introspective than plot-driven, I think, and I like the closing sentences.
The first day in the forest was full of terrors for Jakub.
He had lived by the forest all his life. He had ventured around it, sometimes into it, but had never gone to the heart of it. He had never been brave enough to go further than he dared, sticking to the maintained pathways, preferring the areas where shadows seemed small. He had woken up curled by the shelter of a fallen oak, the bright dawn sunlight showing him a world he had never seen. A world he had never wanted to see. He had run last night and taken himself here, to be found by the tender arms of the loving wolf-girl.
He had hunted wolves that became men. He had tracked them. He had followed their tracks, their scat, the remains of their kills. He was now one of them.
Jakub wondered sometimes whether it was her idea of punishment. But what kind of a woman would punish a man so perfectly and ignore her cruelty? For she had bound up the wound she had caused, the bite that had spread her curse so quickly. She had licked it clean and bound it with a scrap of fabric; a strip, Jakub noticed, torn the clothes he had shed the night before.
“I should find them. Where did I leave them? I do not remember losing them,” Jakub had said, suddenly growing aware of his nudity. Oh, he’d known about it but it had felt like a late night dream, unreal and half-remembered. He felt ridiculous, bare backside full on view, flesh beginning to pucker in the air. He had never been nude in front of anyone, save perhaps his mother – and that was only at his birth. Since infancy, he had been bundled up in fur and wool and goose fat, never feeling warm enough to show bare flesh to the air. Even his wife had never seen his naked body.
As the wolf-girl let go of his hands, he instantly tried to cover himself. He felt such an acute sense of shame at himself, although he couldn’t remember what he’d done. He looked about the clearing for the remnants he had shed. The wolf-girl had crouched down on the log and laughed at the sight of him. It was a rich, throaty sound and it echoed between the trees. Jakub decided it was a pleasant sound he would like to hear again.
“Are you not going to help me?”
The wolf-girl laughed again. “Why should I? You have no need of clothes here.” She stood up and held out her hand. “I must return to my territory. Come now. Quickly.”
“I… can’t. I don’t think I can turn into – I don’t think I can do it again.” Jakub looked up. She was self-assured, confident, stately in her natural element. He, weak pitiful man with a belly rounded from beer and longing for the comforts of bed and fire, felt strengthened by her utter poise in this whole bizarre situation.
“You will be able to change at will, in time. But it is not too good to spend too long in your other form. Come here I said!” She commanded him and Jakub went to her, taking her proffered hand. She lifted her spare hand against his head. “Here, here we are men.” She trailed a finger down, crossing over his skin to his chest, directly over his heart. “Here, we are wolves. But the wolf can eat away at your mind, if you let it. You will lose yourself to it. You will forget everything. You will turn wild. Everything you know or love will be devoured.”
“That’s why the ones I hunted attacked people, isn’t it?” Jakub asked and the wolf-girl nodded.
“They spent so long as wolves they forgot they were men.” She squeezed his hand tightly. “I shall look out for you.” She pulled him away.
Her territory was some miles away. The wolf-girl was used to walking distances; within an hour Jakub was panting and limping. His muscles were soft compared to hers, and they had to stop to give him time to rest his aching legs. They would sit in dappled sunlight, streaming in from green canopies, by the dull trickle of streams as they slowly rolled down from the mountains, and sometimes he would get her to talk.
The wolf-girl had no name – well, no name that she could remember. She had been born half woman, half wolf. She had lived with her mother all her life until her mother had vanished five years ago. She had been alone since then, patrolling the territory that had been theirs. The only time she ventured out was to scavenge for food when she couldn’t sustain herself from the land.
They settled in the evening in an old wolf den dug into the roots of an ancient elm tree. It smelt of wet fur, of droppings, of birth and decayed flesh, but to Jakub’s new senses he had never seen anything finer. He waited there, in the dry, while she went hunting. She had brought back two rabbits for them to feast on and he had gorged himself while she looked on approvingly.
He had then spent the night vomiting copiously. His stomach had not adjusted to meet his new appetites. She had held him, crooning strange lullabies to him through the worst, and curling around him protectively when it finally stopped. They had slept pressed together for warmth through the night. Jakub had been haunted, as he drifted in and out of a fitful sleep, by how easily he had left home. He had left the only life he had ever known on the slimmest of whims. Something inside him had said ‘Go’ and he had. He had left his wife, his son, everything he had known and loved because this girl told him to. He should go home. He should slink away in the night, return him, try to explain himself. As the thought of home surfaced in his mind, he knew that he could never force himself back there. He would always return to the forests, to the woman who had turned him. He would always run here, no matter what.
The trek towards the wolf-girl’s territory, the lands they would share together, took three weeks. Jakub’s feet hardened. His skin grew tougher, tanned by the sun, bitten by insects and ripped by thorns. He lost his reluctance for nudity, becoming as unaware of it as she was. He ate what he could find; the yellow fungus that grew from rotten tree trunks, the last fat berries hanging from bushes, the raw flesh of freshly caught rabbits. He did not find it as repulsive as he once had.
Jakub kissed the wolf-girl for the first time after they had caught and killed their dinner. She had stiffened, affronted by the monstrous indignity, and her lips had had the sharp metallic taste of blood. She had pushed him away furiously but then had turned ran, head over her shoulder, begging him to chase after her. They would eat and they would play.
At night, when he was safe between the paws of the wolf, he would dream of home. The dreams grew fainter, less vivid each time he closed his eyes. It did not hurt as much as it should. He would dream of home, of wife and son. One night he realised that he could not remember his wife’s name. He could remember the colour of her eyes, the scent of her hair, the crease at the base of her throat when she laughed, but no matter how much he begged his mind to let him know, her name was lost to him. He knew that with each day he spent in the forest, each day he spent entwining his life with that of the wolf-girl, his humanity grew further away from him.
Man or wolf. Wolf or man. What was he? He was both and yet he was neither. If he returned home, he would find ways to go back to the forest. If he stayed here, then he would devolve into becoming a creature of blood and fur. He would be hunted and feared. He would be a monster.
The wolf-girl woke him one morning. She pawed at his back, her face perturbed with concern. The expression sat strangely upon her face. She was not one for showing much emotion. “What’s wrong?”
“Can I ever see my family again?”
She pinched her lips together. “You can’t. I am sorry, but you cannot go home. You’re not the man you were. I turned you. You would hurt them if you went back. You could not be happy unless you were free.”
“Why did you choose me? Did you want you take me to punish me?”
She sat up. She hugged her knees, digging her chin into them. “Yes. At first. You tried to kill me. I wanted to hurt you. I knew you would be thrown out. You couldn’t live a man’s life anymore. I… had to come back. I had to look after you. I made you. You could be my mate.” She reached a hand out. She brushed her fingertips along the side of his face. “You are strong. You are kind. I wanted you. I took you.”
“What happens now?”
“Whatever you want to happen. You can travel back. You can go live in man’s world if you wish. You will be unhappy and the people who love you will be hurt. Or you can stay with me in the forest. You will forget what went before, I think, with time. You will become like me.”
Jakub had suspected as much. He didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to make a decision. He couldn’t force himself to make one. Here he was, talking about the philosophy of being a monster, of the concept of happiness, with a woman who did not even possess a name.
“I can’t choose. You can’t make me choose.”
“The longer you leave it, the choice will no longer be yours to make.” The wolf-girl stood up, her sympathy spent. “We are almost there, anyway. Just half a day’s walk left.”
They had walked in a stubborn silence, each disappointed with the response of the other. The forest, once think and abundant, had trickled away to a thin covering around a large twist of the river. Perched on an outcrop jutting into the stream of the river were the crumbling remains of an old water mill, abandoned long ago. It was on the verge of falling away into the waters but someone had taken steps to repair it over the years. The walls had been patched with mud, the holes in the roof filled in. Humanity was infectious; spend half your time in human form and some conventions would stick. The building smelt of old blood, old sweat and the peculiar musk exuded by the wolf-girl. This was her home. This was her sanctuary. Bringing Jakub here was a gesture of trust and affection from her.
“I know you miss the town. Here, take this. I want you to have it. I found it here, when I made this my den.” The wolf-girl picked up a thin wooden tube from the ground and pressed it into his hands.
“It’s a tube for blowing bubbles.” Jakub smiled at the thought of such a small thing surviving. It had been treasured by some child years ago – long before his own family had lived in these lands – and now it was being treasured by the wolf-girl. He would lose his memory and lose his humanity of he stayed with her, she said. But here it was, proof in his hands that the best parts of the man he was would stay.
In the depths of the forest of the wolves, in the dells where no man will ever tread, by the river which flows like shining ice between vivid green boughs, the wolf and her mate dwell. They prosper.