After the Wolf
The huntsman showed me how to split a beast from tail to throat, and this knowledge of splitting made me whole. Though I’d not known a man, I much desired the huntsman and gave myself to the huntsman, who took what I gave with vigor. But after the giving, he cast me out. “You are no maiden fair,” he said. He called my cloak the devil’s red, though it was the same cloak I’d worn when he’d pulled me from the belly of the wolf and wiped me clean and called me “Angel.”
I then lived in the forest, sleeping on damp earth beneath the lace of leaves. I could not go home to my mother, for I could not hide my heartbreak and she would celebrate my disgrace, which she had long foretold.
At the edge of the forest lived the bad girl. News of her badness had spread like my thighs had spread for the huntsman. The bad girl’s thighs had also spread, it was said, to the devil, which explained her kinsfolk’s deaths.
One night I couldn’t sleep, for that day, mad with sorrow, I had returned to the huntsman to plead my case, which he rejected. So I gave myself to him once more, and once more he accepted my gift with vigor. Then he beat me and again cast me out, leaving me with wounds that burned as I lay on the forest floor. I rose, weaving through black trees, blind to the branches that thorned my skin. Only when I saw her did I realize I’d sought her: the bad girl, with a lantern, entering a tent.
Perhaps it was how the light thrust at her face from below, but she seemed scared and eager both, like a girl who had not yet spread her thighs but soon wanted to. I crept closer to the tent, which was made, I could tell, of deer hide. The huntsman and I together had split a deer from tail to throat. I held the knife and he guided my hand. When the deer’s blood had spilled, a warmth flowed in me, and when we’d pulled off its skin, a skin fell from me.
The bad girl ducked her head deferentially as she entered the tent. I stole to the tent’s periphery and heard a voice like no other, scratchy yet soothing: fingers on a back. There was soon a rustling, suggesting motions I’d performed with the huntsman. I dared peek inside.
Behind the bad girl stood a goat of black, on hind legs, rocking against her with unspeakable grace. The bad girl sang out. I missed the huntsman terribly and could no longer watch. In time, the bad girl emerged from the tent, her lantern revealing a face newly pleased.
The next night, again I slept poorly, the image of the goat and the bad girl in my head. I rose, fumbled through the forest, and lingered near the goat’s tent. I heard nothing. As I started to turn back, a voice said, “Enter.” My thighs led me inside the tent, where the goat merged with the night.
“What kind of girl are you?” he rasped.
I had been asking myself the same question and had no answer. I suppose I was a bad girl, but the bad girl was happy, and I was not. So what did that make me? “I don’t know,” I said.
“Then I shall decide.”
His form slunk toward me, sniffing. Light gusts of air brushed between my legs.
“Not delicious,” he said. “Too sweet, your scent.”
Something crumbled inside me, the debris landing heavily. “And the other girl,” I said, “is she not sweet?”
“Sweet, but not too. She is delicious.”
“How, then,” I said, “do I change my scent?”
“Can you not change it for me?” I turned, presenting myself to him as the bad girl had done, the way of the beast.
“I will not,” he said. “Fare thee well.”
The rebuff left a new wound, and the next day I returned to the huntsman. For he had taken what I’d given. And if the giving had cost me, so had the taking cost him, as shown by the rage the taking aroused.
But when I entered the huntsman’s cottage, he was otherwise engaged, sunk to the floor with his back against the wall. In his arms, cradled like a babe, was the bad girl, who had pushed up his garment to suckle at his breast.
I backed outside, found a window. The huntsman bent over her, stroking her hair, until the bad girl pushed him away. She crawled from his lap and lowered his trousers and brought down her head and did something remarkable to him that he much enjoyed. “My love!” he cried, shuddering in a way I knew well. The girl removed herself from him, her smile triumphant and wet. I then felt a wetness on my lips, as if my mouth had become hers. But my wetness, I realized, was tears.
Now the huntsman would darken and cast her out. I would find her in the forest and comfort her, and in turn she would comfort me. We’d share secrets. Perhaps we’d share scents.
But the huntsman pulled the bad girl to his chest and caressed her. He said, again, “My love.” They lay together thus for some time, which I knew because I watched them for some time, waiting in vain for the huntsman’s mood to change. They fell asleep, and I sneaked into the cottage and pulled from the hutch my favorite knife. I stood over the huntsman and the bad girl, watching their chests rise and fall together. Perhaps I was too sweet to slit them. Or perhaps, already, another idea had formed.
That night, I clutched the knife and waited for darkness to thicken. I journeyed to the goat’s tent and entered without invitation.
“Light,” said the goat. A lantern, flaming, appeared in my hand.
The goat lay with his back on the ground, his legs in the air like a human girl. “You will receive from me no fight.”
What he agreed to, I misunderstood, for I dropped the knife and lowered myself and brought down my head, as the bad girl had done with the huntsman. The goat sprang away, kicking me in the cheek as he rushed to his feet.
“Remember,” he said, “why you’re here.” I remembered nothing but the ache ringing through my skull. The goat dropped to his back again, a most unnatural motion he performed with ease, and splayed his legs. I then understood what I was there to do, and the understanding indeed felt like memory, but also like destiny.
“I remember,” I said, and my aching ceased.
“Please,” said the goat. “Proceed.”
I took to my knees and handily slit his throat. Briefly, he panted, as if from bliss, and his breaths slowed to a stop. I then made the longer slit, the goat’s meat resisting me as the goat had not. But I tore the knife through him, bathing in his fount of red, more blood than I’d seen from a beast. I stood, and it rose to my waist, surging in such a precise, persistent manner that I sang out as the bad girl in this tent had sung. The blood then drained into the earth and disappeared, leaving me without stain.
Refreshed, I skinned. I sawed. I carved. I discarded and saved. I removed all from the tent but the miraculously dry fur, which I placed over my person, delighting in my new scent. I inhaled the bad girl before I heard or saw her. My power of smell had, it seemed, increased.
I extinguished the lantern, but she ducked inside the tent with her own. “Darkness,” I said, surprised by my ease in adopting the beast’s voice. The lantern darkened.
“Milord,” she said. She indeed smelled sweet, like an apple over fire, warmed to sauce. Even without the lantern, her pale face generated light, as if the darkness made her glow.
“You have been with the huntsman,” I said.
“Yes.” I listened for shame in her voice but heard none.
“Did you enjoy?” The fur hung heavy on me. Despite the night chill, a paste of perspiration glazed my flesh.
“I did enjoy,” said the bad girl. “But not completely. I shall completely enjoy with only Milord.”
I pictured her again with the goat, though this time I saw her through the goat’s eyes, and heard her sing through his ears. “And what if you cannot help but completely enjoy?”
“I can completely enjoy with only Milord, for only Milord understands me.”
What would it be like, I wondered, to be understood? What would the world offer? What would one become?
“Shall I understand you now?” I asked.
“Please,” she said. I knelt before her and nuzzled beneath her skirt, which incited in her an enormous gasp. Then, with great vigor, I understood her, until she, like an angel, sang.
“Milord,” she said after, “shall I now understand you?”
How pleased she was by her pleasure, and how eager to return it. I rose to my full height, as the goat had done when he’d rocked her. She drew close. I rubbed a hoof along her face, imbibing the scent of her joy.
“Your taste,” I said, “has turned most foul.”
“Foul, Milord?” She said this like her foulness was mere curiosity and remained before me, as if all would proceed as she’d planned.
I placed my hoof in the center of her chest. She breathed roughly, expecting more pleasure. I pushed her. She stumbled.
“Leave,” I said. “Do not return.”
At that, the glow within her dimmed. A part of me wanted to hold her and stroke her and speak of love. But I was no more a foolish girl.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“But you are Milord.”
“Then you must do as I say.”
She clapped her hands to the sides of her head. Even in the dark, I could see her face twisting with realizations, each new truth kicking her from within. The scent of her tears filled the tent. Then she lunged at me—out of love or hate I cannot say, for her defiance startled me so that I struck her, leaving great wounds that smelled like fresh meat, for I’d forgotten my own strength.
Jennifer Wortman is the author of the story collection This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love (Split Lip Press, 2019). Her work appears in TriQuarterly, Glimmer Train, Normal School, Electric Literature, DIAGRAM, Waxwing, Brevity, Hobart, and elsewhere. She is an associate fiction editor at Colorado Review and an instructor at Lighthouse Writers Workshop. Find more at jenniferwortman.com.