This story first appeared in milk journal. on November 3, 2015.
Some time ago, before you were born, a young girl lived with her mother and her sisters in a town of only women. The girl was almost eight years old, and her name was Hana. She was wild as the wind and cheerful as rabbits.
Hana shared her dark skin, dark hair, and dark eyes with her sisters, her mothers, and many of the women in town. Her hair stood up from her head as if surprised, and her limbs were long and slender, flailing and flowing as she ran from house to field and field to road and road to house.
In the warm summers, Hana wore the plain linen shift and short pants of a young girl, arms and legs free for climbing trees and rolling down hills. Her skin shone as if polished, and the women in town laughed to see her run by, rushing here and there for her mother or on her own mysterious errands.
In the cold winters, Hana wore the same thick woolen coat as her sisters and mother and the other women. Each coat was made of heavy oily wool from the sheep in the meadows around the town, hot boiled in spring after the shearing and pounded into thick felts. While the cream-colored felts were still warm and soapy, brightly dyed wool was added in intricate swirls and spirals. When dried, the felts were cut and sewn into the warm coats, each unique to its owner. Hana’s coat was still big; she would wear it for one more winter after this. Around the heavy lined hood twined brilliant green leaves and branches. Across the cuffs, bright red berries scattered. And around the hem, well below Hana’s knees, danced sunny yellow flowers, the flowers that bloomed outside her mother’s window the day Hana was born. Hana would make her next coat when it was time, shearing alongside her aunts, dyeing with her mother, and lugging the thick wool to the felting house in town to boil and pound. Hana would carry the felts home on the back of the old horse and spend the cooling fall evenings cutting and sewing her new coat before the first snow flew.
This winter, Hana’s eighth, the snow lumped against the windowsills of the snug cottage. Hana, her sisters, and her mother rose late with the sunrise and returned to bed early when the sun dipped below the western pasture. In the close, dark attic, deep in their feather bed, Hana and her next-youngest sister, Boon, twisted their limbs together, warmed by their breath and the heat rising from the house-oven below. In the rafters, dried onions and garlic also twisted alongside thyme and rosemary and sage. In the corners, deep boxes of salted mutton slumbered next to plump sacks of ground wheat and millet and rye.
As the wind howled at the deeply-set windows, Hana dreamed of spring, of lambs and yellow flowers, of the creek babbling again after being locked in ice for months, of tiny bright-green leaves unfurling towards the sun.
One morning, on a day when the wind had stilled but the clouds hung heavy over snowy hills, her mother asked Hana and Boon to take baskets of food to their grandmother’s house. Their grandmother lived in a small cottage huddled at the edge of the western pasture, tucked against the piney forest, an easy trip in summer along the sheep- and horse-worn path, but an hour’s walk in winter across snow-drifted hills.
Hana’s grandmother was young yet and stubborn. Each year she refused to spend the winter at her daughter’s house, and each year her daughter insisted on sending her a basket of food each week, despite their grandmother’s own deep stores of mutton, millet, onions, sage. The same dance each year, the push and pull of loving sighs and tightly held independence. This calm and cloudy day, Hana’s mother packed two big baskets for the girls to carry, topped with a warm clay jug of cocoa and two thick sandwiches of sheep’s cheese and jam wrapped in a clean white cloth. Hana and Boon pulled on high woolen boots over thick socks over thin socks as their sisters threaded their arms through jumper after long shift after short shift.
Underscarves around their necks, then arms out for their coats. On top, an overscarf and their mittens, warmed on the stove. Finally hoods were pulled over wild hair and tied under dark chins. Hana and Boon stood in the kitchen stiff as two dolls, baskets on their backs. A push out the back door and off they trudged from the house, keeping the fence to their right and the forest straight ahead. The girls had walked to their grandmother’s house many times before. With their sisters in the summer, singing as they kicked dust up from the dry trail. With their mother in the fall, carrying fresh bread and newly spun yarn. In the spring, with little lambs in tow. And in the winter, on this same mission of mixed mercy and exasperation.
The girls didn’t talk. It was difficult to hear through the thick wool of their hoods and over the squeak of snow and steady footsteps. They did sing, Hana’s voice lifting first over their heads, Boon joining with the harmony:
Six sheep she had,
and loved them so.
Six times to shear;
six times to sew.
Six coats she made,
so thick and white.
Six girls she had,
and held them tight.
Their breath joined the notes rising above the paddock. The sheep never strayed this far in winter, preferring to stay by the barn where they slept when it was cold, venturing out in the day to crop at grasses buried under the snow.
Above the clouds, the sun feebly brightened the sky, still well to the east. Hana and Boon trudged on, fence to the right, woods straight ahead. They were sweating, moisture sticking tiny baby hairs to their shining foreheads. Hana’s song faltered as she slipped on a hillock of grass, invisible under the snow like every other tuft, mound, and divot erased by the blanket of white.
When the forest seemed much closer but still far away, Hana and Boon stopped at the bottom of a small hill to eat their sandwiches and drink their cooling cocoa. To every side were snow-heaped hills, and above was snow-colored sky. Hana lay back in the snow, and the tunnel of her hood erased Boon and their baskets, leaving only creamy white-grey sameness. Even her breath was invisible, white-grey against the white-grey of the sky.
Their noses cold again, Hana and Boon packed away the clean cloth and the cocoa jug and started up the next hill towards the forest. The squeak crunch of their footsteps filled the air. A giant wolf padded silently over the crest of the hill directly ahead of the girls. She was shaggy, dark grey, and winter-thin, hip bones and shoulders visible through her fur. Her huge paws barely dented the snow, so wide they were. Instead she seemed to float across the top of the hill, head down, tail low.
Hana stood very still and reached for Boon’s hand, first finding nothing, then the wooly wall of her sister’s coat. Hana hated her hood for filling her vision with wolf and snow and no sister at all.
The wolf continued her diagonal path across the hill, and Hana’s heart flared with hope that they wouldn’t be seen, when the wolf stopped some short distance from the girls and raised her shaggy head. Wide eyes with dark centers and white visible around the edges. Grey fur mottled, turning white at the muzzle, across her ears, and down her bony hackles. The wolf stared at them and Hana stared back, unable to look away.
The wolf slowly turned her body towards the girls, floating silently down the snowy hill. Boon pulled at Hana’s hand but Hana didn’t move and Boon stilled, shuffling closer to press her body against her sister’s side.
The wolf was here and so was her odor, strong and wild, musky and dark. Her head was level with Hana’s and when she stopped, her face was all Hana could see. Wolf eyes, wolf nose, wolf smell, and the feel of her sister trembling against her side.
For a long moment, Hana and the wolf looked at one another. Then, sniffing the air as if she could smell anything over her own stench, the wolf stepped around Hana and nudged the basket at Hana’s back. Numbly and without thought, Hana unbuckled the straps at her chest and let the basket fall to the snow behind her. She could feel Boon doing the same. Snow and sky filled Hana’s view again. Wolf smell but no wolf sounds. No teeth, no claws. Boon trembled.
The wolf smell faded and Hana closed her eyes tightly, blocking out the white-grey hill to strain her ears behind her. Nothing through the hood. She knew she had to turn and when she started to move, Boon clutched at her arm. Hana turned away from her sister, not yet ready to see her own fear reflected on her sister’s face.
Snow, sky, snow, sky, snow, sky, then baskets in the snow. Baskets pawed through and food in the snow, shockingly colorful.
The mutton. The wolf had only taken the mutton, two large roasts wrapped in white cloth and tied with red yarn. Gone. Nothing else was taken, not the crusty bread, the velvety dried apples, the small sack of flour, the sprigs of pungent rosemary. In silence, the girls slowly gathered the scattered food and helped each other strap the baskets back on.
Without conferring, Hana and Boon both turned and followed their footsteps back to the cottage. If their mother was surprised to see them back so soon, she didn’t show it. With mugs of soup in their hands, wool rugs on their laps, and their stocking feet pressed against the house-oven, Hana told her mother they had seen a wolf. A wolf who had taken their mutton. Her mother laughed to herself and pressed a kiss against Hana’s warm forehead. She dropped a strong dark hand onto Boon’s shoulder. Her mother didn’t say a word.
That night, as she lay in the attic, breathing in her sister’s breath, Hana dreamed of the wolf, padding silently through the moon-lit snow, belly full.