I’ve been reconsidering a lot of fairy tales lately, thinking how else they might have gone, wondering what might have happened in a different world. I am like the Beast I am currently writing in this way, always looking for a different way to see the same stories. In fact, many of the stories I’ve been rethinking have been because he was telling the tale, or was thinking about it anyway.
The following is another of his stories, along with a snippet of the conversation he and Isabel have after he tells it.
Once upon a time, there was a young tradesman who lived in the foothills of the mountains, a foolish man who believed he should be given all that he wanted, no matter the cost to others. One night in the tavern, when ale had loosened the tongues of the men, he heard the story of a beautiful young woman who lived in the mountains. In the daylight in the forest, it was said, she lived as a wolf. But when she wanted to, she could shed her wolf skin and become human, the most gorgeous woman imaginable, lithe and lovely, russet hair swirling around her the same shade as the wolf, golden eyes like the beast.
The stories went on as the ale flowed. “I saw her once, staring at me, just as close to me as you are,” declared one man.
“She came to me as a wolf,” said another. “Knocked me down and stood over me like she wanted to chew me up.”
“Then how come you’re not dead?” someone asked, and at the speaker’s stuttered reply, drunken laughter swept through the room. The young man listened quietly as an idea began to form in his mind.
He would find the woman and take her to wife.
So he began to lay his trap. He’d heard that the woman was curious, drawn by light and the unknown. He built up a bonfire and laid out foods that would be unfamiliar and strange to one who had lived in the forest. Then he stood in the shadows and waited.
Soon enough she came, a great red wolf with eyes a shade too human. She paced back and forth, just beyond the fire’s light, tempted but wary. The scent of the food covered the scent of the man. Finally, when it seemed she would draw away, she glanced around in a furtive manner that was certainly not the way of a beast. Then she dropped her wolfskin and walked forward.
The man sucked in his breath as the firelight fell on her. A wolf’s ears would have caught the sound, but she was all human now. She moved with the grace of a wild animal, but she was drawn to the fire as the wild would never be.
Faster than flame, he ran to where she had discarded her skin. He snatched it up and fled to hide it. When finally she had exhausted her curiosity, she went to find that her wolfskin was gone.
She howled in grief and fear, the human in her too weak to think of what to do. Here was the first secret of the wolfwoman: she was bound to her wolfskin, and to lose that connection would cause her anguish.
And thus, when she learned who held that skin, she was bound to him as well. At first she thought to find it, steal it back from him, but he had hid it too cleverly. In time, when she realized what he wanted from her, she determined that she would give it, so that she could stay close to her wolfskin. One day he would make a mistake. One day she would find that wolfskin, and on that day she would take it up and strike, her claws tearing into flesh, the satisfying crunch of broken bone beneath her jaw.
But she would have to bide her time.
So, in the way of humans, she was bound to him in marriage.
In time the man, who had thought only to possess her, began to see that she was not only beautiful but also kind. The children of the village would flock to her, following her around both for her beauty and for her strangeness. There is nothing that appeals to a child so much as mystery. And when they came to her, she would stop in her task and play with them or sing. She never spoke, only sang sweet, wordless tunes. Her voice was mournful and sharp, like the howl of the wolf on the mountain. The children hovered near her.
But the man could see her kindness only from a distance, for she did not share it with him. With him she was a caged beast, watching and waiting, refusing to be tamed. He began to see what he had not seen before—that he could not force such beauty to be his. But still he feared to let it go. If he could not have it, he still wished to be near it. So he kept her wolfskin hidden from her, and he kept her bound.
Now I mentioned that when the children came, she would stop in her tasks. There was one task that she favored above all others—that of knitting. Herein lies the second great secret of the wolfwoman. She was bound, it is true, to the man who had taken her hide. But there was a way to win free. It would take seven years, and during that time she could not speak, but if she spent that time knitting herself a new wolfskin she could be free again. One word, and she would lose her chance.
Though the man did not release her, he did all else that he could to treat her kindly. He brought her gifts of clothing and food she liked, making sure she had time to play with the village children as she loved to do. He learned the meaning of love.
So the years passed, and she knitted, and he watched.
But as the fifth year came, he began to finally realize it and admit it to himself. He would never have her willingly. So he went to the place where he had hidden her skin, those years before. He brought it before her and placed it at her feet, drawing back to watch what she would do.
Half expecting to be dead any minute, claws sunk deep in his chest.
The wolfwoman looked away from her knitting, down to where lay her skin and her freedom before her. She looked up at him wordlessly, searching his face.
“I’m sorry” is all he said before he could not bear to look at her again. He turned away, waiting for her to take her skin and go. But she did not. She did draw it up into her lap, rubbing it against her human skin to feel its softness against her cheek, but she did not put it on. She breathed it in, the wild scent of the forest still clinging to it after all this time.
Then she folded it gently and set it beside her.
She took up her needles and continued to knit. When another two years had come and gone, she finally took up the finished wolfskin and gave it to her husband. They both pulled on their wolfskins and went out into the mountains to howl and run together, then they returned back to the village. They lived both lives, the wild and the tame, and did so happily ever after.
This was a story to which there was no safe reply.
“Thoughts?” he asked, and I could not pretend that I didn’t understand its significance.
“I’m not sure,” I said slowly. “It seems strange that she would ever come to love him after he stole her.”
“Can he not change?” the Beast asked quietly.
I shook my head. “I don’t know.”