Saki sits in an armless wooden chair in a half-empty coffee shop. Uneven, weathered slats press into her spine, press into the angles of her bones. She shifts. Cracks her neck. The table is small, built for one. She stretches her arms out, sliding her hands over its surface. Her nails hook in, damaging the soft wood. The room smells of oranges, of bergamot, of the sweet of milk-laced tea, the comforting warmth of baked sweets.
In the corner a shaded lamp flickers, casting a peculiar shadow. The walls are crooked. They straighten slightly when Saki tilts her head. Amateur photographs hang in dollar store frames, their worth handwritten in black ink on tiny white stickers; a picture of a boy in a red coat chasing a wild-haired dog, a picnic table at the edge of a lake, a forest of snow-capped trees. The sort of art that matches paint chips, and throw rugs and end tables.
Arel makes the art in their house. Angled sculptures of girls with rabbit ears and buck teeth. A dog with an arm dangling from its violent mouth. A woman offering her own heart, a bloody gap where her chest should be.
A gift to Saki on their second anniversary.
In the corner, a man sits in an overstuffed chair. He laughs, a sound that is both too sharp and too loud. Saki covers her ears. The movement draws her coat close to her body. She feels the weight of the pills in her pocket. One bottle. Tiny blue, tiny white; a prescription heavier than any drug she’s ever willingly swallowed, than any sparkle taken to chase the gloom away.
The man’s phone rings, his expression sours. He stands and goes outside. A quiet settles over the coffee shop, down to the hiss of frothed milk, the metallic ting of sugar spoons. Saki cradles her mug in both hands, tilting it toward her chest. The tea has gone to leafy trails, to fortunes waiting to be read. A simple motion clears their milky shadows; a slip of liquid catches an errant leaf. In the smudge of black on cream sprouts a tree, skeleton-limbed and brittle. Its spindle-twigs know the worst of winter. Outside, it’s already so cold. Saki turns the mug clockwise and a bird appears, black-winged and sharp-beaked, its talons needle-thin. In the distance, a wolf rests on its haunches. Saki swallows, her chest tight. She checks her own face for feathers, presses a fingertip into the sharp of her own teeth, but they have not changed. As she moves, the space between her spine and shoulder blade twitches, an itch, a twinge like a stitch ripping.
Were she some other girl, some other rebellion, some other Saturday night, she might have tattoos on the skin there. Etched and dark, black and white to mimic wings, feigned flight, stained by seeping blood where the needle went in.
The wolf wipes away easily. The bird flies, the tree goes to ash. Saki brings her fingers to her mouth and licks the last of them away.
Saki is belly down on the bed. She tucks her toes under a patchwork blanket, watching an amber-tinted bottle tip over onto a gingham square. The lid is loose and pills tumble out. She counts one, two, three, and the pills go into her palm and into her mouth. She takes them because the clock says. She takes them because she promised. She takes them because otherwise the dream is of fallen nests, of broken, shattered bones, and the yellow of splattered yolk. The dreams are of long, pale necks weeping blood where her teeth went in and overhead, that howling, killing moon. Dreams as much as memory. Wings. The sound of flight and on her arms. On her forearms, pale, pale scars.
But those were not from dreaming.
Saki dreams of her father’s gentle hands holding her mother back. The look in his eyes and her mother; her jet-black wings and her talons. A rabbit, an offering of blood in the snow.
Death is anything but peaceful.
Flimsy bedroom curtains filter the morning light. Saki yawns and rolls over, reaching over Paisley’s body for the third pill to set her right. Pale pink and larger than the others, it takes up more room in the palm of her hand.
Arel is already gone and Paisley is snoring. Saki nuzzles, searching for the soft of his belly, a place easy for her teeth. His arm comes over her shoulder and she hears the gentle beating of his gentle heart.
“Tell me again about your father,” she whispers into his skin as if he might tell her a tale of mane, of hooves, of horns. He doesn’t answer. He’s asleep, even as he pulls her in.
She already knows Paisley’s father has curly hair and brown eyes and fingers and toes that aren’t webbed, or clawed, or cloven.
She was seven when her father left.
She remembers the burnished gold of his eyes and the blood under her nails and the hate in her mother’s voice and the smell of death, lingering.
Saki once read that the last wolf in Denmark was shot in 1772. That there were two hundred wolves left in Sweden. That once, wolves were gods.
Once, she told Paisley of her father. The truth of his teeth and tail, and Paisley held her close and stroked her hair as her tears made dark marks on the fabric of his shirt.
He told her she was not her parents.
But he didn’t understand.
“Tell me again about your mother,” Arel says, her hand resting easy on Saki’s thigh. It’s Tuesday and they are down by the water. Rain falls in heavy drops and the ducks have hidden their beaks in the curve of their wings. Arel tears at a chunk of bread, tossing bits into the water where they float, bob along.
“She pressed her cheek to mine when we said goodbye. Her hair was coal, was black, and her eyes were almost the same colour.”
Saki didn’t tell Arel of the shrieking, the sharp of her mother’s beak, snapping and biting, or of the blood feathers, or of the white, powdery down her mother brushed from her arms, the dust she hoped no one would notice.
Saki never told Arel how her mother and father first met. A skeletal tree. A hanging beast. A trail of blood.
Ravens will always lead the wolf to carrion.
“Do you love me?” Saki asks Arel, watching oat flakes tumble from the dented cereal box into a chipped, sky-blue bowl. It’s a game they play sometimes, like truth or dare.
Do you love me?
Saki means more than a girl who loves a girl, who loves a body she sees and a voice she hears and all of the broken places in between. She also means wings, and she means talons.
She means teeth. Tail.
Arel doesn’t know it’s not a fair question.
“You know I do,” Arel answers from the other side of the small, round table. A cup of instant coffee held safe in her delicate hands, her fingers paint-stained cerulean, charcoal, prune. Her hair is gold and her eyes are green, the pale of new leaves. Just as shiny, just as bright.
Saki has never told Arel of her father. Of his white-tipped paws, or the grey of his coat. The promises he made and then broke again and again to her mother, Kara, fond of limbs and branches.
Arel looks at her as if there’s something else to say. Saki answers in a movement, sliding her fingers into Arel’s palm. Mugs rest on the tablecloth. The girls hold hands over chipped saucers and breakfast bowls and an empty teapot painted with old roses. They are quiet until the door opens.
Paisley’s standing in the doorway. A lumberjack in his too-big jeans and red flannel shirt.
His father is a butcher. On Wednesdays Paisley brings home pieces of once-living things, livers and tongues, rump and flank and rib. Arel once said anything not cling-wrapped and price-checked wasn’t food, that a chicken still marked by pinfeathers was much too close to murder.
“There’s a dead rabbit in the yard.”
His cheeks are flushed and when he removes his mittens Saki sees his fingernails are painted blue and one of his hangnails has been bleeding.
“I think I—” he starts, but doesn’t finish. He lowers the bag to the floor and runs a hand through his messy hair, motioning to Outside as he puts toe to heel, pushing off his boots. His face is sour. He has never been good with dead things.
Arel asks him a question, words muffled and jumbled and Saki remembers the shape of tea leaves, fortune’s wolf at the bottom of her cup. She remembers her father, how fast he could run, and pretends not to listen, pushing soggy cereal from one side of the bowl to the other. She nudges her chair back, leaves the bowl on the counter. The curtain covering the window is easily moved aside.
There is a carcass in the snow. Blooded and cold. Fur torn and meat pulled.
Saki looks to the tallest of the trees. A raven, smudge-black and still, perches on a high branch. The bird notices her staring. They blink in unison but its wings are unfamiliar.
“I’ll manage it,” Saki says. Arel’s hand is on Paisley’s arm. He kisses her hair.
“We could call someone,” Arel offers, but Saki shakes her head.
She moves past them, to the doorway. Puts a hand against the glass and the sudden ache for her father-wolf is as deep and vast as the forest.
Saki pads quietly through the field, the rabbit easily found. It is small and thin, but the dead have weight. Its body sinks into the cradle of her arms.
Her boots leave marks, a trail from here to there. Saki walks nearer to the trees, stepping over their roots, the dark of their shadows. She finds a spot, a clearing.
Saki pushes at the snow, makes a grave.
She buries the body.
She hides it away.
They wake in snowstorm. In a bundle of white bedding, toes over toes and hands holding hands, Paisley’s knee and Arel’s ankle. Saki’s arm. One of them laughs and then they are a hundred birds, singing. Paisley kisses them each in turn. They are each other, fingers entwined, toes touching. A pillow splits open and feathers fall like snowflakes. One lands on the tip of Arel’s nose and Saki blows it softly away. The feather arcs, tumbles over. White on one side, black on the other. Saki catches it in the palm of her hand and closes her fingers. There is blood beneath her fingernail.
Paisley mumbles something about breakfast. French toast and eggs. They are always eating breakfast. Arel waves a hand, giggling as she covers his mouth.
A shutter rattles in the wind. Saki rolls over, facing the window. It’s closed up, the latch locked. She closes her eyes and feels a warm hand on her back. The room falls quiet but for the wind. But for the howling through the trees.
Her father’s voice. Calling.
Arel is snoring. Paisley breathes like a puppy, his breath almost as sweet. The shutter bangs again against the side of the house. Saki’s heart stops and the hairs on her arms straighten. The feather in her hand flutters. She tightens her grip and it settles.
Paisley saw the rabbit bloody in the field. Saki felt its fur, felt its lingering warmth, what was left of a once-beating heart.
The familiar howling comes again, closer.
Saki slips from the bed, a pillow falls to the floor. She walks to the window, pulling up a blanket to wrap around her shoulders. She pushes the drape away and looks out into the field, into the trees.
But the woods are silent.
A creak of springs, and then there are hands on her back, splayed over the spot where her wings could be, masked instead by flesh and chemicals. Trapped by the body of a girl who is at least half wolf. Paisley rests his chin on the top of her shoulder and slips his arms around her belly.
“Sometimes I can taste her blood in his mouth,” Saki whispers, “I can feel her bones in my teeth.”
Paisley’s hands tighten. Her body is brittle. She forgets to eat when Arel doesn’t feed her.
“She took him to carrion and watched him feed.” Her beloved father-wolf.
“He loved her.” Her mother of beak and talon.
“I miss him.”
There is a rabbit buried in the trees. A raven will lead a wolf to carrion but in the cold, the rabbit will only be ice, be winter. The wolf won’t know where to find it. Paisley holds on. Saki is small. She disappears into the shape of his body.
Saki putters in the kitchen of their little house. She holds a pot full of porridge that she eats with a wooden spoon. Arel left it warming on the stove. A note on the lid, telling her to eat, that she might grow big, or get small. Hard to say, try it anyway.
The sun rises.
Arel and Paisley are sleeping, or maybe they are kissing, or maybe they are other things. Saki walks to the window, leaning in to look out over the expanse of their field. There are paw prints in the snow, five-clawed, almost the size of Arel’s hand. Saki puts the pot on the floor and walks to the back door. There are snowflakes on the glass. She covers one with her thumb and it melts, goes down to water. Saki licks it away. Her skin is cool, salt-kissed.
Someone left the lock unlocked. The door opens with a moan.
The white of Saki’s nightgown, tattered edge and all thin cotton, wraps around her calves as she walks barefoot into the snow, into the field, toward the tree line.
“Saki,” Arel calls from the bedroom window but Saki doesn’t turn around. She hears conversation, the soft of Paisley’s voice.
Soon Saki is beyond the line of trees, ankle deep in white and bending down, her knees marking the fresh fall, fingertips pressing into familiar hollows, the shapes the wolf’s tracks have made.
The trees, their gnarled branches, act as camouflage, hiding her in limb and branch.
When Saki was fifteen she told her therapist that her father was a wolf and her mother was a bird with coal-black wings. The doctor gave her a red felt-tipped pen and told her to show him. And she did. All angry lines and sharp corners and drops and drops and drops that could only be bleeding. Wounds made by the cut of needle-thin claws. By talons. Wounds without sutures become ragged, angry scars.
The doctor checked Saki for more than just bruises but finding nothing else, gave her a bottle of small white pills and told her not to worry, that things would look better in the morning.
It was five a.m. when they found her, twitching and cooling and pale.
Saki wanders the perimeter of the house; a shack held together by a wish and rusted nails. She is dressed for the weather save for her feet, bony and bare. She walks on the tips of her toes, tapping a branch deep into the snow behind her heels, marking the ground twice for each step.
She pauses, looking over her shoulder and down to the snow. The impressions she’s made are nothing like rabbit, no matter how desperate the wolf. Saki stabs the branch into the ground and sinks to her haunches. She rests her elbows on her knees and stares off, into the forest. A rustle breaks the quiet. Something moves, disturbing a dried leaf, a fallen branch. Her pills are in a bottle on the nightstand and without them the sky is brighter, the forest bigger and more full of promise. Without the pills she smells of fur, of musk. Without her pills her mother’s call grows louder, ringing in her ears like an out of tune lullaby. She tilts her head back, closes her eyes and imagines sinking into the forest floor, a perfect kind of belonging. She lowers herself down, pressing her cheek into a patch of clear, cold earth. She recalls a memory of her father, fur and tail and breath, wrapped around and over her body. Protecting her from beak and talon, the cut of her mother’s voice.
The paring knife in her pocket, pilfered from the block on the counter, digs into her thigh. Sharp. Easy to hold.
By morning there is blood, there are drops of red in the snow.
Saki’s hand is bandaged and when Arel asks Saki says she was cutting carrots, making breakfast, something for Paisley to eat and remember? Paisley found a rabbit in the yard, and the winter has been hard and the wild things in the trees, in the forest, must be hungry.
They have to be fed.
Saki says she is going for firewood. Paisley has a job at the grocery and he’s already gone. Arel watches Saki move across the yard, through the field, to the trees. Her face half-hidden by the kitchen curtains, fingers holding back the rumpled fabric. Saki feels the weight of her worry. Arel who noticed the pill bottles were overly full. Arel who is quietly hiding the knives.
Saki met Arel when she was seventeen. Five years ago and Saki was already with Paisley. They were already in love, holding hands and holding on. Paisley already knew the worst. Knew the pills, their schedule, and the stories. Saki made him promise. It was their secret.
On Thursdays Paisley goes to Jack. Arel sends him off with jars of granola, slabs of cake. She tells him she loves him, he loves her right back. It’s Thursday now, Thursday already. The house feels strange with Paisley gone. Their bed as empty as the field, the vast space between house and forest. The firewood rests in a basket near the trees; it needs refilling, but Saki didn’t bring the axe. A dead leaf dangles from a crooked branch. Saki reaches up, plucking at it, crumbling it in her hand. Overhead, a flutter that’s not leaves. Saki looks up and there, ink-marking a grey sky, sits a raven. The bird tilts its head, looks at her, blinking black eyes. It lifts one claw, one talon, pacing on the branch. Saki puts her hand against the tree trunk to hold herself still and gazes deeper into the woods.
The raven will always lead the wolf to carrion.
Five, six feet from where she stands, a rabbit hangs, its neck caught in a criss-cross of branches. The air is iron rusted. The raven screeches, a knife-sharp sound in the quiet. Saki bends at the knee, palms splayed over the bare of her arms, the frayed bandage. A sudden snap of wood interrupts the raven’s caw. The rabbit falls to the base of the tree in a heavy, muffled thud. Saki goes to all fours.
The rabbit is almost close enough to touch.
Above, there is a parting in the branches, a gap wide enough for wings. The bird barks a warning. Saki holds her arms over her head, her own fingers growing talons.
There is a sudden brush of feathers, of claw through skin, through muscle, through meat.
It’s all too familiar.
The forest blooms roses and violet.
Her mother wore a floral perfume.
Saki’s flesh opens easily, splits in offering, in apology.
The raven settles, preening its wing feathers. Its eyes flashing blue to black and back again.
Blood, another bloom, a falling red petal tumbles to the ground. A second follows. A third deepens the mark. Wet. Sticky. Saki presses fingers into her broken skin. It’s the best way she knows to halt bleeding, but her nails catch on the edge of the wound and she screams.
It echoes through the trees.
Saki closes her eyes, praying for fur. For the safety of her father’s form. Impossible words wrap around her tongue and a howling, desperate moan forms in her throat.
It is the worst sort of begging.
The raven answers in a shriek, in the violent flapping of wings, a smudge of ink-black.
A flight feather slices through Saki’s cheek. She falls forward, protecting her face with her hands.
Arel is screaming, running panicked through the field waving their kitchen broom.
She finds Saki huddled in the cold, bleeding in the snow, pointing into the trees.
“Saki,” Arel takes a single step forward, “there’s no rabbit here.”
The tree is bare. The branch empty. The raven is gone. The snow is as snow is.
Arel reaches for Saki’s hand and Saki steps back, shaking her head. Arel frowns, the broom disturbs the snow. Arel could brush it all away, if she weren’t careful.
“Come home,” she says. “You’re bleeding.”
A nest, a warren, a den.
Saki turns her head. Blood sticks to her cheek, drying to crust, to scab.
No wolf came to save her.
In their house the heater sputters. The floorboards creak. Paisley is at the back porch, his feet stuffed into boots three sizes too small. He holds the door open. Saki is still bleeding and Arel’s eyes are ghosted, wide. Paisley reaches for Saki, taking her upstairs before running hot water into the old, scratched tub. There are scars on her chest, the tops of her thighs. Saki wonders why he was home already. It’s Thursday. He shouldn’t be here at all. He should be with Jack.
“Take them for me,” Paisley says and Saki opens her hand. A movement that promises everything is fine. They both know it’s not, but he doesn’t leave the room. Instead he lowers himself onto the lilac towel they use to dry their feet and drapes an arm over the tub’s edge, his fingers dangling into the water.
Downstairs Arel tightens a screw, fits a deadbolt, a chain. She checks a drawer and hides the knives in better places. She locks the door three times.
Saki takes Paisley’s hand in hers and closes her eyes. She dreams of wolves. She dreams of her father.
When she wakes, Arel is there. They are all in their bed, under covers, their bodies curled into hers. Saki is naked, her shoulder aching where the claw went in. There is tape, bandage. Cloth. Her pill bottles are on the nightstand. Her face throbs.
She buries her head in the bedding.
Morning comes in birdsong.
Saki hears Paisley on the phone. Muffled, murmuring. The bedroom door is open and he’s standing in the hallway, leaning against the wall. Arel is showering. Saki rolls out of bed, grabbing clothing from the floor. She tugs on a shirt, leggings. Arel’s pants, Paisley’s shirt. One too small, the other too big. She’s quiet and Paisley doesn’t turn around, too engrossed in the things he is saying. She bumps his shoulder; he reaches for her as she walks by, his fingers trailing along her arm. The hallway is barely wide enough for them both. He utters her name but she doesn’t stop, she doesn’t turn around.
His voice is soft, a mumbling whisper. She hears him say her name a second time, but she doesn’t answer. The third time it sounds like accusation.
The sun is shining, the wooden floors are foot-printed and need to be swept. She goes downstairs to the kitchen, to the fridge. Opens the door and the fan kicks on. A bowl of salad. A carton of milk. A heart from Paisley’s father resting on a white plate. She reaches; pressing her fingers into the meat, watching the dent she’s made empty, then fill again.
Blood expands tissue. The heart is a thing un-moving but not quite dead.
A breeze slips in through the open window. Saki takes the heart in her hand and, it is wetter than it should be. Deep red blood drips onto the kitchen floor.
Saki looks at the drops, wiping them away with the bottom of her foot. There are new locks and chains on the door, reminders more than anything. She already knows where the key is; she saw it glinting in the cookie jar.
“Saki!” Paisley yells as the door swings open, a sound of wood and knocking metal.
She hears him running, bounding down the wooden staircase, chasing her as she leaps out, into the field.
Saki doesn’t stop, her heels kick up puffs of snow, half-obscuring her path.
Paisley screams, begging her to wait.
She pauses long enough for the trees to shift, to open, to give her passage.
She passes through and behind her the lowest, thinnest branches knit together to form a wall.
Paisley is on the other side, panting. He never runs, not in the cold. His hands are on the trees but they do not move. Their bark is rough, peeling. His shirt is red, a beacon. He is so easy to see in all of the grey and white.
“Saki, what are you doing?”
“I have to go home,” she says, taking a step backward. A twig snaps under her heel. The heart is heavy.
“You are home,” he says.
“No,” she answers, “But I will be.”
There are stories Saki’s father told her about going too deep into the forest. How trees play tricks, how they move, how they cover each other’s tracks, making puzzles out of paths. Saki reaches for one branch and then another, steadying herself among the brittle twigs, limb to limb, stepping over fallen trunks and gnarled roots, careful of the bloody tissue she borrowed from the kitchen, now warming in her hand.
Paisley is far away; the trees won’t let him in. There is emptiness here, among the twisted bark and stale leaves, a silence broken only by the slow beating of her first heart.
Saki presses the second against a nearby tree, dragging its shape over bark, trunk.
“Bring him,” she murmurs, soft as a spring breeze even though she can’t remember the truth of flowers or how they bloom.
Above her head a branch snaps. A twig somersaults down, bouncing from her cheek to the forest floor, disappearing into a tuft of snow.
Midway through the trees a bony, dark shape perches. Its beak the colour of charcoal, of ash, of bones burned to char. A hazy winged bird, a ghost. A skeleton corvid with her mother’s eyes. Its barbs are bare, oily feathers broken at the tip meld with new growth. The bird’s eyes are foggy, the grey of empty city sidewalks.
Saki holds out her hand, the heart set perfect in the width of her palm.
The raven sounds a warning and from another part of the forest trees answer, pushing back the dry of their limbs, their boughs, their branches.
Leaves catch on matted fur.
The bird above her head is a fragile, papery thing.
The wolf comes forward slowly, as if there has never been a rush, never been a reason to run. Its tail sways back and forth.
Saki bends at the knee, settling the heart into the snowy ground. Her hand is sticky with blood that she doesn’t wipe away.
The wolf works its jaw, a pink tongue over sharp, bone-white teeth. Raises its muzzle, sniffing the air. Saki nudges the heart, urging it closer, it rolls over itself, stopped by a rock half-hidden by the white.
The raven paces in the trees. Hops back and forth, branch to branch. The wolf looks up, growls, a sound so low it rustles the dead leaves, trembles in the space behind Saki’s ribcage.
The wolf comes closer, sniffing at the muscle that is meat, that is food. A tongue to taste, a tooth to pierce. A bite, taken.
A tear of flesh.
The raven sings and its song is a funeral.
The heart fits. It fits in her hand, and it fits in the wolf’s mouth. He tugs into the meat. The muscle is dry and her hand is clean, bloodless now, the pale of sunless skin and sleeplessness. Saki runs fingers over her palm, lifting it to her mouth. She remembers the familiar salt of her skin.
The wolf pads forward, nuzzling her hand with his nose.
A paw to hold and teeth to render.
A boy named Paisley calls her name over and over and over again but she is listening for other things.
The bird does not know him and its caw becomes a terrible, threatening wail.
Crackle, snap, the hollow of flight when the bones are dry.
Flesh is consumed. The heart, taken.
Saki warned him,
will always lead the wolf to carrion.