Once a month my mother, Ash, killed just enough to last until the next. She slunk home triumphant at dusk and hung the bodies in the shed: pheasants, rabbits, the occasional deer in season. The blood trickled under the door and out onto the step. Local cats convened, their tongues rasping in the dark. By morning, the doorstep gleamed white. My mother was a good hunter.
My father, Caleb, worked on a rib boat on Loch Ness. He took tourists out on trips and spun yarns about the things that lurked in the deep waters and dark woods. Some were true, some were not—but what does it matter? There’s no such thing as a true story. Caleb memorised Wikipedia entries about power stations and timber, castle architecture and Aleister Crowley. The tourists absorbed his patter like children listening to a bedtime story. They laughed at the funny bits and gasped at the scary bits. My father was a good storyteller.
Each night Ash went into their little kitchen and cooked something that she’d killed, and they ate it together at their little table. Later they’d lie in the dark in their little bed, all chatter and soft laughing, and fall asleep curled like puppies. They weren’t my parents yet, but they were in love. Everyone should believe that their parents were in love, even for a while. They were so close to being happy. They had almost everything—but that was not quite enough. For years, it was just the two of them. And then there were three.
My mother brought the wolf home in the season of the hunter’s moon: early October, leaf-falling month, the ground burnt and bloody with dead leaves. It was dawn. She was post-hunt, eyes bright, pulse throbbing hard and steady in her wrists.
Caleb came down for breakfast and found his wife standing in the doorway, as if not sure whether to come into the house or run away from it. When she saw him she came in. The wolf followed. Without thinking, Caleb backed away, putting a chair between himself and the animal. Then he remembered that he was a man, and he stepped forward.
“Is that a wolf?”
“Don’t be daft. It’s a dog.” She went to the fridge and pulled out a slab of meat. He couldn’t tell if it was for his breakfast or the wolf’s.
“Looks like a wolf to me.”
“It’s a dog. A guard dog. For the house.”
The wolf stood in the corner of the kitchen and watched Caleb warily. His eyes were the same peaty dark as the loch.
“Wolves don’t live in houses,” said Caleb. No matter what his wife said, he knew that a wolf was not a dog. Even after she’d cooked the meat and served it with scrambled eggs on two plates, he couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d rather have dropped to her knees and eaten the slab raw on the ground.
But no matter what Caleb thought, from that night on the wolf did live in the house. Except for when he lived outside the house—and on those nights, Ash lived outside the house too. She named him Zev. She loved him. And every full moon he loved her too.
Cold moon, bright as an eye. Together they ran, limbs flexing—and I with them, kept safe beneath skin, curled round as a bean. He already knew about me. He could smell me inside her. He knew long before she did.
I shifted as they ran: wolf to human, human to wolf. Inside her, there was no moon to guide me. I shifted with each fluttering beat of my mother’s heart.
One father, two fathers. Two people I could be. Tiny me, shifting wolf-like inside my mother.
No need for time or patience or restraint. Only food and warmth and love. I was happy there. Softened and sharpened. Complete in my duality.
Perhaps they could have managed, the three of them. But not four.
It was a quiet, bloody day when Ash found out about me. The previous night’s hunt was the hunger moon, the February moon, the shortest and the sharpest. Skinning her kill, she lost herself in the texture of meat and sinew. She was happy that day. An unsteady happiness, the way that anything being pulled in two directions is unsteady. As she worked, blood pooled in her palms and dried in the creases of her knuckles.
She wiped her free hand dreamily on her apron and caught her breath. She stared down at the red smears she’d left. Blood. When had she last bled? It had been a whole—two months, three? No: she knew. There was no use in telling herself stories. In her head she listed the next steps: pee tests, call Caleb, folic acid. Maternity jeans. Moses basket.
There in her hanging shed, she placed her knife calmly on the bench. She pressed her hands flat to her belly.
It was a strange day for Caleb too. There was a clan reunion at a hotel on the banks of Loch Ness. Hordes of Canadians and Americans descended on the rib, dressed in their clan tartan, each boasting about their ‘Scaddish’ heritage. Caleb breathed through his mouth to avoid the reek of mothballs. He swayed with the waves along the rib’s aisle, checking the fastenings on the life jackets, and wondered whether he’d have got more tips if he’d borrowed a mate’s wedding kilt. Next time, he thought. I’ll remember for next time.
So there was Caleb, loch-spray catching in his eyelashes, legs akimbo on the deck. So there was Ash, hands bloodied from skinning the hunt, hair ponytailed and brow furrowed. Inside my mother, I shifted.
When he got home she met him at the door holding a piece of plastic the size of her finger. Surprised and tired, he thought it was a toothbrush without its bristles. When he realised what it was he was shocked, and then he was worried, then overjoyed. Later, after they’d eaten dinner at their little table and curled up in their little bed, he was worried again.
“Ash,” he whispered, just loud enough to wake her.
“Yes,” she said, already awake.
“Can we think about Zev?”
“Yes,” she said, already thinking about him.
“I think it’s time that someone else had him. You’ll be busy enough when the baby comes. You don’t need two things to look after. And he needs such long walks. And there’s the mud he’ll bring in, the germs—it’s not good for you. And . . . ”
And honestly, it scared him. Most dogs, when people came in the house, would bound forward to get their ears scratched. Even barking, guard-dog-style, would be normal enough. But the way it stayed in a corner, dark eyes watching, broad back stretching with each pant of its meaty breath.
“He’s not yours, Caleb, he’s mine,” she spat into the dark. “I need him. He helps with the hunts. I can’t do it without him.”
“I don’t know if—love, you can’t hunt. Not now.”
“Things don’t have to change,” she said.
“Ash. They already have.”
My mother and father were awake for the rest of the night, lying back to back. Their bed was not so little any more. The space between them felt wide as the loch.
Ash woke to snores. Layers of tenors and timbres: too many to be just Caleb. He lay burring beside her, mouth tipped open, but from the floor beneath came a chorus of echoes. The room was bright with moon. She wrapped on a housecoat, her limbs tense. She opened her mouth to breathe Zev’s name but he was already beside her, the soft brush of his pelt against her fingertips. Their hearts beat in rhythm. Together they tiptoed downstairs.
Arrayed in the living room was the detritus of the night before. Empty bottles, full ashtrays. A clutch of boys spreadeagled across the floor. Their snoring shook the walls. Ash leaned in to look at the things left in the middle of the coffee table. Chewed-up remnants, blackish with bright scales of bronze. Animal leavings.
The stench caught in her throat, and she turned away with a sound of disgust. Zev’s warm tongue lapped at her hand and she wrapped her arms around him, pressing her nose to his dense fur. She closed her eyes and breathed in his musty-dry smell, imagining she was daydreaming on her grandfather’s Persian rug, the child-Ash still small and safe and entirely herself.
In the bedroom she woke Caleb. He spoke in yawns. His breath smelled of hops and sickness.
“Me and the boys, we were wetting the baby’s head. It’ll be here soon.” He reached out for the swell of her. She took a step back, stumbling as a beer bottle rolled away from her heel.
“Bloody hell, Caleb. You think this is—it’s all—no. Just no. I want them out now.”
“Come on. It’s early. Let them sleep it off.”
“They shat on the table, Caleb. They chewed up the goldfish and spat it out. I want them gone.”
“Och, they’re only playing.” He slid out of bed, scouting in the dimness for his discarded clothes.
“Do you really believe that’s how people play? Not even wild animals play like that.”
“What’s the big deal? You kill things. Every month you kill more things.”
“We need to eat.”
He stopped foraging around the bedroom and stood before her with his clothes in his arms, underwear creased and skin pasty. She felt the thread of his temper pulling taut.
“We need to eat,” she repeated.
“Killing is killing,” he said.
“Hunting is different and you know it. I don’t bring another animal home, put it in a bowl, feed it every day, and then kill it. No animals do that.”
He threw down his clothes and seized her shoulders. “Isn’t Zev an animal? Doesn’t he kill? I’ve told you it’s not safe, ranging round at night with a wild animal, and you just ignore me.”
They faced one another, jaws set. Ash felt her spine lengthen, straighten. The hairs on her arms tingled. A growl hummed deep in her throat. She felt tall enough to smash through the ceiling.
Caleb let his upper lip peel back over his teeth, ready to shout, ready to bite. Ash held his gaze. She did not blink. Caleb let go of her with a sigh and slumped, deflated, down the stairs.
“Party’s over, boys,” he called, loud enough that she could hear it through the floor. “The wife has spoken.”
She wanted to crawl back into bed, bury her face in Zev’s warm side. But she was a hunter. Hunters do not run from animals. She tightened her housecoat and went downstairs.
Caleb’s boys trailed out of the house, heads slung low, arms apishly slack. She stood by the front door, proud as a stag, ready to slam it shut after the last boy had left.
As they shuffled past they patted her shoulder, pulled her into a loose hug, mumbling sorries. Then she felt the press of a closed fist against her cunt, knuckle to bone. Her breath caught. A clever threat, easy to deny as an accident. All she could see was the backs of their heads as they walked away.
That night Ash dreamed of Caleb as a wolf, all his boys as wolves; of wolves circling the house and scratching their claws at the windowsills; of being chased by wolves, her bare feet slapping on the wet black roads, the ends of her hair tangling in her mouth; of forests and falling down into the damp mulch of leaves; and finally, as she closed her eyes, ready for the moon-white flash of teeth on her ankle, she woke.
Caleb drove out to the dock. The morning air was spring-fresh, tinged with green. He pushed a cassette into the player. Mixtapes from his teenage years, the paper inserts scrawled with track lists and scratched doodles. The lengths of tape had stretched out over the years. The music came slow and soupy through the speakers. He sang along under his breath, the lyrics so deep in his memory that he didn’t know he knew them.
Through the windscreen the loch tried to reflect the grey sky but only made it darker. The peat in the water meant it was always black—perfect for Nessie to hide in, he’d tell the tourists with a grin. Today it was glass, seeming solid enough to drive out on.
By nine thirty he was halfway through the first tour’s patter. The tourists pulled their hoods up against the smirr. They hunched against the rib’s sides, gripping the rope handles, peering out across the water. Caleb raised his face to let the soft rain fall on his cheeks.
He told the tourists that he’d been out on the rib almost every day for the past three years. He’d added it up: he’d gone three-quarters of the way around the world. The tourists made appreciative noises. When he’d told Ash that, she’d pointed out that he hadn’t actually gone anywhere. Just round in circles.
As the rib pulled up beside the glass-bottomed boat, Caleb slowed the engine and reached out his hand—perfectly timed to accept the coffee that Davie on the other boat passed to him. At first he’d done that absent-mindedly, not wanting to stop the rib, but it turned out that the tourists loved it. The smooth lines of his arms, his rough northern hands, his cheeky grin to Davie. It was all part of the story they wanted to tell about Loch Ness when they got home. The picture they coloured in based on his outlines. He didn’t even want the coffee now, but he didn’t want to lose the giggles when he accepted the cup with a wink.
He settled at the rib’s prow and sipped the liquid without tasting it, gunning the engine to move to the next section of the tour. He was thinking about Ash. He was always thinking about Ash. Yes, he’d gone out with the boys, and yes, they’d got a bit rat-arsed. But only to wet the baby’s head. And yes, he’d forgotten to lock the door, so they’d come in and carried on the party in the house while he slept. But they’d only done that because he’d left the pub early to get home to Ash and the baby. She couldn’t still be angry, could she?
Love was complicated, but it didn’t have to be. With him and Ash it was simple. It always had been. He loved her so much that he would drink the water left in her footprints. She knew it.
He steered the rib over another boat’s wake, making it bump and dip rollercoaster-like, letting the tourists leave their stomachs behind. He turned to a stop and launched into the first of a series of elaborate tales about the antics of Aleister Crowley and Jimmy Page at Boleskine House. Black magic and rock music could spark any imagination. The tourists hunched to their knees, trying to keep their balance on the rib’s wooden seats while they snapped a photo. All you could see was trees, but it was the story that mattered.
The boys shouldn’t have made such a mess. He knew it. But Ash was wrong to call them animals. The wolf—that was an animal. It had seemed like a good idea, letting her keep it, but now that he thought about it, he’d only done it to impress the boys. A dog that was mostly a wolf: only a real man would have that in his house, he’d thought. The boys hadn’t really cared, but by then Ash was mad for the animal.
But did a real man do things to impress his friends? Peer pressure. Pack mentality. Stupid. He never should have let her bring the thing home. He’d been right: a wolf can’t live in a house.
He carried on with his tour patter but he didn’t hear his own words. Instead he was making a resolution. No more following. No more doglike obedience. He was a father. He had to be a man. He’d get rid of the dog by the end of the month.
“It’s only a dog, Ash!”
“He’s not only anything. And he’s not even a dog.”
“All the more reason to get rid. It’s not safe.”
“I don’t care. You’re not taking him. We’re—he’s mine.”
Inside my mother I squirmed. With each heartbeat I shifted: child, cub, child, cub. Ash grimaced at my motion inside her, peeling her lips back over her teeth.
“What’s wrong? Are you okay? Is it the baby?”
“I’m fine, Caleb. It’s my baby.”
My father laughed. It came out like a protest. “Ours, you mean. The baby is ours.”
“Well, it’s not inside you, is it?”
In the silence that followed, I heard much. I heard decisions being made for me. I heard lives constricting and contracting. I heard something end.
You might wonder how I know all this. How I could hear and see things before I had ears and eyes. I’m telling you this story, and I know it’s true as much as anything is true. All my life I have been wild. I have tried to let my brain and my heart choose, but my mouth, salivating and unruly, has decided for me. I always eat the first and last bites of food, no matter whose plates they are on. One day I smell like I’ve just eaten fresh meat; the next like I am the meat ready to be eaten. My teeth are so sharp they cut my tongue. Leather shoes squeeze my feet to shuffles. Something is missing. Something has been lost.
I know that I was once a wolf—and then I was not.
“This is our baby, Ash,” said my father. “I am going to do what is best. For now and for always, I will do everything I can to keep our baby safe. And until the baby comes out, that means doing everything I can to keep you safe too.”
Bright night, May light, milk moon. They ran. Their paws were damp with blood.
Inside her, I was so close to being happy. So close to being outside her.
Already my fingers were separate, the buds of my incisors formed, the fists of my lungs getting ready to open.
But in the end, we can only be one person.
tumblehome—moondream—sleep, sleep, sleep.
Ash woke to growls. She slid clumsily out of her dreams, eyes gummed. She flexed her feet and flakes of dirt shed into the sheets.
The room was dark. She saw a shadow move against the shadows. The air hummed with sound. She didn’t want to see what she was seeing.
Zev, hunched on Caleb’s sleeping chest. Teeth bared over his pale stubbled throat. Jaw ready to snap.
Her heart choked up her throat. She slithered to the ground and hissed Zev’s name. Still the growls. Still the shadow. She lunged for him, arms around his rough-furred centre, and knocked him away. His bones landed with a thud. The growls turned to a yelp, a series of cries. She lifted her bare foot to kick him out of the room—but already he’d skittered out, jaw shut tight.
She hunched in the corner, heart choking. She couldn’t. He couldn’t. It wasn’t.
When she was calm she woke Caleb. She asked him to take Zev away, right now, in the night, so she could start the next day without him. Fall asleep as one person, wake up as another.
“Please, Caleb,” she said. “Please.” She held him tight, feeling the press of their child, so that he would not ask why.
Caleb did not need much convincing. He took Zev hunting. He left the body out in the woods for the foxes to eat.
Ash salted hunks of venison, ready to cure. Remnants of deer, of rabbit, of pheasant. She’d have to make it last. She’d make the meat into prosciutto, the furs into gloves, the feathers into hats. With the money she would buy a rib and tour with Caleb in pairs. This dying moon marked the end of her hunts.
There are times when we are more than one person. With me inside her, my mother held two people in her one skin. I too was two, a shifting wolfchild in the moon of her belly. But we must always choose. My mother tried not to choose; tried to be two people in one seamless skin. And for a while she managed it. But it couldn’t last. If there was a way for her to be a hunter and a mother, she could not find it. This, this she could do: the paired tour, man and woman, the two of them. And baby makes three. Complete. The tourists would go batshit. They’d want to take her photo, legs akimbo on the rib, her belly round and proud, against the backdrop of peaty water and shadowed trees. She’d better get a haircut. Maybe a new jacket.
With bare hands she sleeve-pulled the empty rabbit pelt, putting the fur on the inside and the flesh on the outside. After Caleb had taken Zev away, she’d fallen back into an uneasy sleep. She’d dreamed again of Caleb as a wolf, all his boys as wolves; of being chased, and bare feet, and forests and falling down—but instead of the white flash of teeth on her ankle, she had been the teeth. She had turned, mid chase, and opened her jaws wide enough to devour Caleb and all his dogs in a single bite.
Was it normal to fear your dreams? To fear yourself? But Zev was gone. Just like that, adopted out to a new home. Another fool who thought a wolf could live in a house. Surely that part of her could be given away as easily. She was a woman, and she had a man. It was enough. She would make it be enough. She’d made her choice.
In the end we can wear only one skin, speak with only one tongue. We choose one, and the other is lost. Ash dunked the rabbit pelt in cold water, ensuring every trace of blood was gone. She held it submerged until the cold-water burn in her hands faded to numbness.
Originally published in A Portable Shelter (a ss collection).