"Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to."
-Mark Twain, "Following the Equator"
It was an old forest, with ancient trees and long shadows through which kobolds and goblins might creep, and with deep hollows and still ponds and hidden caves and secrets and hazard. Peter walked with his pack and his stick and when he came to the forest he went in. It seemed a good place to be alone.
He was not a priest anymore. Excommunication, they called it. Now wherever he went there were questions he'd rather not answer and mistrustful glances whenever he did. He rarely stayed long in one place anymore. He worked when he could, ate when there was food, slept wherever he was, and it was fine. But now it would be winter soon; the hard months were still ahead. So Peter went into the forest.
The first day he wandered with no particular destination. These woods, it was said, were inhabited by strange folks, furtive and backwards people rarely seen by outsiders, though Peter considered most of the stories told about them mere fairy tales. That first day he encountered no person and even few beasts. The great, moss-covered trunks of the old trees were his only neighbors.
The rundown building, when he found it, looked out of place. It was a windowless, one-room structure planted in the midst of a clearing. Though the roof was fallen the walls were still sturdy enough and the door was on it. When he pried it open, he realized that it was in fact an old chapel.
He frowned. The place had a bad air about it. But it was a roof over his head, or part of one at any rate, and it would be dark soon, so he stayed. Dinner was only a few squirrels and a few roots. His stomach complained, but sleep would quiet it. He went to bed with his coat on, wrapped in a single blanket. In the old days, when he still wore the cloth, twilight was his favorite time, when he would stay up an extra hour or two reading and writing. Now he simply went to sleep. And when he awoke, a man was standing over him.
He was a big, thick man, unshaven, and with small black eyes. He held a pike at his side. He looked at Peter for some time without saying anything. He was not pointing the pike at Peter, but he did not set it down either. Peter blinked at the morning sun and stood, stretched, and offered the man his hand. The man did not take it. Peter introduced himself. The man seemed to chew on nothing for a moment before replying:
"Buchard. I heard someone was here."
"Heard from whom? You are the first person I have seen in this place."
"Those who know."
Buchard (Peter was uncertain if it was a first name or last) spoke with an accent Peter couldn't identify. His voice was low and phlegmy. "No one is allowed here," he said. "Now you have to come with me."
His tone invited no debate, so Peter went, away from the old chapel and into the quiet hollows of the forest, for what destination he knew not. They walked in silence. The trees were older and huger the further in they went, and the shadows smelled damp, and little light crept through the branches. Now and then he heard the rustle of some small creature in the brush, but mostly it was quiet. Peter cleared his throat. "It's a beautiful place."
"If you think so."
They walked on.
"Are there many others where we're going?" Peter said.
"You should not talk so much," said Buchard. "You are in trouble."
Peter said nothing the rest of the way.
Eventually they came to a collection of huts which could be called a village only in the most haphazard sense; perhaps twenty structures altogether, or perhaps less. The men and women Peter passed were lean and had a circumspect quality. They watched him with dark eyes.
Buchard took Peter to one house, a bit larger than the others. A woman was in the yard, feeding a flock of chickens whose cackling was the only thing audible. She said nothing to either of them. Buchard led him into what Peter from the outside took for a stable but where he instead found a furnace and a forge and an anvil and tools and the smell of old fires. Buchard put on an apron made of animal hide.
"Do you work?" he said.
Peter licked his lips. "I'm all right with my hands. I know most tools. I've never been a smith, but I'm sure I could learn."
"A yes or a no."
Peter considered. "Yes," he said.
"If you can work, you can stay. Most strangers who come here we make them leave, but you came when I need someone to help me. If you're good help, you can stay. If not, you must leave."
"Is that the law?"
"It's the way things are done," Buchard said, and he indicated, with a gesture, that Peter should stoke the fire.
They worked all day in near-total silence, Buchard speaking only when it was completely necessary. Peter was soon sweating and he winced at the sparks that flew and at the terrible smell of hot metal. Other people came in often, either to leave things or to take them. They all seemed to communicate without words, as if they knew some sort of secret language of glances unfathomable to Peter. At him they seemed not to look at all.
They ate nothing all day and Peter's stomach complained, but he said nothing, refreshing himself only with water, as Buchard did. Finally, when the light was failing outside, Buchard removed his apron and Peter took this as indication he should to the same. "Come," Buchard said, and led him into the house attached to the forge.
There was only one room, with a kitchen of sorts on one side, a bed on the other, and a table with chairs in the middle. The silent woman, who must have been Buchard's wife since she was not old enough to be his mother, was cooking. Buchard sat him down and dished up what turned out to be a thin stew of chicken meat. Peter ate the entire thing in less than a minute. After, they two sat looking into the fire. Peter tried not to fidget.
Buchard brought out a hammer. Peter wondered if this meant the time for his execution had come, but then Buchard handed it to him, along with a bundle of nails. "You'll need these to fix the roof," he said.
Peter blinked. "On the chapel?"
"Don't use that word," Buchard said. "But yes, on the place you're staying. You cannot stay here because no one has any room, but you can stay in that building if you want. Work for me again tomorrow and I'll give you wood to use with those nails. You work for me three days at a time then stay away for three days at a time. Every time you work for me, I'll give you something you need, but never food again. If you want to eat you have to hunt for yourself like most of us do."
These instructions were delivered in such a way as to indicate that obedience was mandatory. Peter also realized that the proposed arrangement constituted what his host considered an unprecedented degree of lenience and generosity. "Thank you," he said.
"Don't use those words. You worked, so I paid. That is all."
Peter kept his mouth shut.
At the end of the day Buchard walked Peter back to the chapel. "I was not expecting to stay here longer than a night," Peter said.
"There is nowhere else," Buchard said. "It's a good building. Work hard and you'll live through the winter."
"Why is it empty?"
"There used to be a priest here, when my grandfather was young. He taught people about the Christ god. It was fine, for a while. But other priests came: madmen. They said there were witches here."
"I do not know. But they burned and hung many people. Finally we had enough, and killed all the priests. Since then, this place has been empty, and we keep our own gods." Buchard put the bundle of nails into Peter's hands again. "You are a priest."
Peter started. "How did you know?"
"I'm not a priest anymore. They threw me out."
Buchard chewed on nothing for a moment. "That should be all right," he said. "But you should not tell anyone else what you once were. Why did they throw you out?"
"I slept with women." And men, he almost added, but didn’t.
"That was bad?"
"They thought so."
Buchard seemed to accept that, and left.
It was another cold night. Buchard was right, Peter realized, he would need a place to stay for the winter, and the chapel would need repairs if it was going to do him any good. So the next day he went back and worked in the smithy, and again the day after, and then he spent three days building a new roof. As promised, every day he worked Buchard gave him something else he would need: tools, pots and pans, a lantern. If Peter needed anything Buchard could not make Buchard traded for it from a neighbor: cloth for blankets, hides for clothes, oil for the lamp, wood to make furniture and for the coming winter. In the morning Peter set snares in the forest and most nights, upon returning, he found something to eat in them. Most nights.
Weeks passed. Peter learned that the reason Buchard needed help only for three days at a time was because those were the only days he worked the forge. There was not enough demand to work full-time, so the other days he tended his house or he hunted. Most people in the village (which had no name that Peter ever heard) were hunters who survived by catching just enough to feed their own selves and children. As a man with a trade Buchard was one of the relatively wealthiest people here, and the chickens his wife tended seemed to be a status symbol. Peter suspected this was what gave Buchard the authority to sponsor an outsider in their midst.
Peter's job had until recently belonged to Buchard's boy apprentice, but the boy was gone now. Peter asked what happened to him. "He was burned," Buchard said. "A crucible cracked. Two of his fingers burned almost completely away."
Peter looked at the glowing orange iron in the fire. "What happened to him after that?"
"He is not here anymore," was all Buchard would say. Peter became more mindful of his work from them on.
It grew colder. The chapel was at least habitable now, and Peter was learning the best places to hunt. Since the locals did not like the chapel they rarely hunted near it. Other than Buchard and his wife (who never said a word either to Peter or where he could overhear her) he had no meaningful interaction with anyone. Buchard himself was a puzzle Peter could not fathom: He stayed true to his word never to feed Peter or give him anything he hadn't worked for, but he did, for example, spend four days helping Peter construct a fire pit and chimney of sorts in the chapel, the stones for which he bartered off a hermit who lived near an abandoned quarry. "You'll die without it," was all he said.
One day Buchard presented him with a freshly slaughtered and plucked hen. Peter was even more startled when he asked why and Buchard replied, "It's Christmas Eve."
Peter blinked. "How do you know?"
"My grandfather liked the old Christ priest who lived in your building. He helped killed him, you understand, but even so, he liked him. He always remembered the Christ Mass in his honor. I give you this to honor him too."
That night it snowed, the first snow of the season. Peter’s tracks vanished almost as soon as he made them. He found all his snares empty, but the bird he’d received meant better eating than he'd had in weeks. The snow made the forest seem even more isolated, like another world. If I stood still and let the snow cover me I'd look just like the rocks and the stumps of this place, he thought. I'd fade away from the world entirely.
The chapel door was open when he came to it. Peter frowned and set his pack down. Inside, the floor was wet with tracked-in snow, and something was moving in the dark corner. He lit the lantern on the table and shone the light into the corner, and there two yellow eyes waited for him above snarling fangs. He retreated to the door and used its frame as a shield of sorts, keeping it between him and the animal while it barked and brayed. A bit more cautiously this time, he shone the lantern in again
It was a gray she-wolf, thin but strong looking. She laid her ears on her skull and snarled in his direction but did not move or stand. She was curled up by the fireplace and Peter saw she was bleeding and seemed unable to use her left rear leg. Perhaps she had been caught in someone's metal trap.
He came back inside. The she-wolf glared but stayed where she was. Peter shook off his coat and boots and took the old broom from the corner and swept the snow out. After that he took logs from the pile and, very slowly, approached the fire pit. The wolf raised her head and Peter stopped in his tracks. After a moment the snarling subsided, but she kept her eyes on him. To get to the fireplace he would have to come to within a foot of the animal's jaws.
"We'll both freeze by morning without a fire," he said, advancing. He was so close now that the individual hairs of the wolf's pelt were visible in the lantern light. Moving so slowly he barely seemed animate, Peter piled one log onto the hearth, then another. When the tinder caught fire the she-wolf's eyes flared with it. Once the place started to warm up a bit Peter removed his coat and the wolf drew closer to the flames, though she seemed intent on keeping a few feet between the two of them. That suited Peter just fine.
Snowflakes drifted down the chimney and died, hissing, on the burning logs. The wolf watched as Peter prepared Buchard's hen. She kept her injured leg tucked under herself. "I suppose it's good to have a guest on Christmas," he said as he set the meat over the embers. "Though I can't for the life of me figure out how you managed to open the door."
The savory smell of roasting poultry and the snap of sizzling fat soon filled the old chapel. Peter saw the she-wolf's nostrils expand as she took the scent in and her tail wagged, just once. "You're hungry," he said. Peter sliced one of the legs off the bird, cut the meat into strips, and tossed one in the wolf's direction. She snapped it out of the air. Peter ended up splitting the bird with the interloper, feeding her from across the room, the crackle of the logs on the fire punctuated now and then by the snap of her jaws.
He put more wood on the fire. It was growing late and the snow had stopped, which was good because he would have trouble enough digging himself out in the morning. Still, snowfall on Christmas Eve seemed a good omen despite the work it created. A sound roof, a warm fire, and a full belly, he thought; things I once believed I would never have again. The wolf seemed to sleep, but he suspected that her eyes were just as alert behind closed lids as they'd ever been.
"I hope you have not been waiting just to eat me in the morning," he said. "But if you have, I appreciate you putting it off at least that long. It's the token of a considerate guest."
She made a low noise.
Peter considered, for a moment, that he ought to sing a hymn or recite a psalm. It was, after all, Christmas, and it seemed to him that all decent people should observe the day in some way, excommunication or not.
But he went to sleep instead.
He woke to find himself uneaten on Christmas morning. He also found that the wolf was gone. In her place, defying all reason, was a bundle of wolf skin blankets with luxurious gray fur of the same color as the intruding beast. Peter wondered if it had all been a dream or maybe a Yuletide phantom, but then the furs moved. From beneath them came a woman.
She was short and thin and around middle age. Her hair was long and it was gray but not, it seemed, from age. She was naked, and when she stood Peter saw she was lame in the left leg. Her eyes were yellow.
Peter stared. He expected her to vanish at any moment, but she did not. Her nose twitched as she sniffed in his direction. The corner of her mouth pulled back in an expression like a snarl, but it disappeared in an instant. She leaned over him, looking into his eyes, and Peter felt something deep inside him, a feeling between fear and awe. It was a feeling, he reflected, that all prey must have felt when confronted with the sinister beauty of the predator since before the dawn of human imagining, and it froze him on the spot.
And then the strange woman walked away.
She walked right out the chapel door, barefoot and naked into the fresh snow, and vanished. She left the door open. When Peter looked out she was gone, though there were tracks in the snow. They did not appear entirely human.
The pile of wolf's furs on the floor was now the only evidence of what had happened. For a moment Peter considered throwing them onto the fire and never thinking of this again, but instead he folded and stacked them as neatly as possible in one corner and put more wood on. Then he put on his coat and scarves and took the old shovel Buchard traded him to begin the chore of digging the snow away from his door and walls. Mysteries and phantoms would be just as mysterious when he was finished, but the work would go nowhere in the meantime.
He'd been toiling for perhaps an hour when the woman reappeared. Her skin and her hair were so pale that she barely showed up against the fresh snow, popping into view like a ghost right in front of him. She handed him something: It was a hare, its little throat torn out. She held it until he took it and then she went inside. Stumbling a bit, Peter followed.
The woman spread one of the wolf skins on the floor and sat on it. She seemed to be expecting him to do something. Shrugging, Peter began skinning and gutting the dead hare, then cut the flesh into strips, parceling out some for him and some for the woman. She ate half of hers raw but waited for him to cook the rest. They ate in silence.
Peter watched her. She was still naked. She should have frozen out there in the snow or at least have come back trembling and frostbitten, but she seemed unharmed except for her leg, which had all the signs of an old injury. She ate everything in quick bites, barely chewing, and when she was done she licked her fingers clean and wrapped herself up in the wolf skin for a nap. Within a minute her breathing was slow and regular. Only her crippled foot stuck out from beneath the furs. The jagged scar on her ankle matched the teeth of an iron trap, though it looked brown and faded, like something that had happened years ago.
I've gone mad, Peter thought. It was the only explanation that made sense. Somehow, it was a comfort. He went out and finished shoveling the snow.
When he came back the woman was still asleep. Now he dared to lay a hand on her to confirm that she was real. She was unbelievably warm; he would have thought she was dying of fever but something told him that was not the case. Instead it was as if she carried a tiny fire inside of her.
Whoever she was, she could not be one of the people from the village, he decided; they were dark, stocky sorts, and she was pale and sinewy. Was she from some place on the other side of the forest? Or from even further away than that?
As the snow began falling again Peter sat whittling a piece of wood (a practice he'd picked up from Buchard) and watching the woman sleep. He thought: So now is the time you choose to show me a miracle, oh Lord? And I wonder how Adam felt when he woke one morning to find that Eve had appeared, full-grown out of nothing, beside him…?
She woke at dusk and went out into the cold again, returning for a second time with food. He wondered how she caught anything with that limp. This time he attempted conversation as they ate:
"What manner of thing are you?" he said. She did not reply. He tried again:
"Do you have a name?" Still nothing. She looked at him with her yellow eyes. He essayed several more:
"Where did you come from?"
"How were you hurt?"
"Are you the wolf who came here last night, or are you something else?"
The last, of course, was the most important, but the woman remained as inscrutable as ever. He thought she looked almost amused by his badgering, but it could have been his imagination. That night she went to sleep under the wolf skins. She seemed to indicate that he should join her but he dared not after entertaining visions of waking up snuggled beside a real wolf again and losing his throat in the bargain.
He slept in the corner.
She did not vanish the next day or the day after, and it became clear she meant to be a long-term guest if not a permanent resident altogether. She brought home food twice a day but did no other work. Sometimes she followed him around as he worked about the chapel and observed. At idle moments he talked to her but could never quite decide if she understood him or not. Figuring she needed a name of some sort, he began calling her Eve.
When three days were up he sallied to explain to her that he would be absent but there was no telling if she understood. Tramping through the snow, Peter found himself suddenly yearning for the comparable warmth and talkativeness of Buchard's demeanor.
That day they were unusually busy: Many neighbors seemed to need tools for breaking ice and clearing snow repaired or replaced. The forge was a white-hot hell but the outdoors were frigid, and Peter felt tossed back and forth between extremes like some sinner out of Dante, doomed to never find solace. He remembered the pile of warm, comfortable furs laid out by the chapel hearth with envy. At the end of the day, as Peter prepared to head back into the forest, Buchard asked, "Eat well?"
Without thinking Peter said, "Yes, we did."
Buchard looked at him. Peter stammered. "That is to say...someone broke into the chapel while I was gone. Not someone, I mean, an animal. A wolf."
"A wolf?" Buchard said. "You fed it?"
"What happened to it?"
"It was gone the next morning."
Buchard seemed lost in thought for a moment.
"Are there a lot of wolves in this country?" Peter said.
"Not so many," Buchard said. "It's not good if there's one now. Come inside."
Peter was surprised, but followed. Buchard's wife seemed not to be home, so he stirred up the fire himself. Buchard began to whittle in a careless fashion, and as he did he spoke without looking at Peter:
"In my grandfather's day there were many wolves," he said. "They stole our hunts and sometimes came right into our homes in the night to eat more. But the worst thing about the wolves was that they were not always wolves; sometimes they were men or women. A person may put on the skin of a wolf and become one, and in that way steal his neighbor's meat or even carry away his children, and so live through a season when he or she might otherwise starve instead. And when one becomes a wolf there is no way to tell which man or woman is really underneath.
"Once, my grandfather came on a huge wolf while hunting and wounded it in the neck. When he followed the trail of its blood it led to the charcoal burner's hut, and my grandfather saw that the charcoal burner had a bleeding wound just like the one he'd given the wolf. After my grandfather killed him he found the wolf skin and he threw it into the fire, but it jumped back out again. Three times my grandfather tried to burn the wolf skin and three times it jumped out, and in the end he had to hold it in with his spear, and it took all night to burn."
Peter saw the glow of the hearth embers in Buchard's eyes. "We killed the natural wolves so that no man or woman could become one of them ever again. It's a bad omen to see a wolf anymore. Don't tell anyone else that you saw one. It would not be safe for you."
The story troubled Peter all the way home.
Eve was waiting for him and—his greatest surprise of the day—it seemed she'd cooked. The meat (pheasant) was a bit overdone but he did not think to complain. She'd fed the fire while he was out too, he saw. When they finished he thanked her and then felt foolish for it.
They spent some time at the chapel door looking out at the forest together. The moonlight on the twisting, snow-covered beech trees was beautiful and eerie. Peter was warm so long as he stood close to Eve. Part of him had expected her to leave while he was out and he realized he was relieved she had not. He understood her presence to mean that she had made a decision to truly stay, for better or for ill.
They slept side by side that night, using one wolf skin as a mattress and the other as a blanket. Some form of modesty Peter had no name for forced him to try sleeping with clothes on, but Eve's unnatural heat made this impossible and he ended up naked as she. She slept with her back to him and the curve of one bare shoulder visible between the blanket and her hair (both the exact same shade). And how did Adam feel when he woke to find his Eve, naked and whole beside him one morning, he wondered again? Did he blush to think what they were meant to do together? Did he wonder at it?
Something of his old priestly oaths nagged at him still. True, he'd never paid much attention to those, but somehow this seemed different. Surely there would be a whole new class of sin in it? He recited the verses in his mind: "Cursed is he who lies with an animal. If any man lies with an animal, they must both be destroyed."
He tossed and turned all night.
When he woke in the morning he found her back pushed into him and his morning erection squeezed against the back of her thighs. He tensed, wondering how she might react; she pushed her back against him some more and their bodies rubbed together. Then she rolled over and lay facedown on pelts, her hips raised and legs parted. After a moment's hesitation Peter rolled over too, onto her, rubbing up against her thighs again. She was wet and receptive. He draped his body across hers and, shaking already, pushed inside.
You never really forget certain things, he thought. There were memories to draw on: fresh-faced farmer's daughters who had needed private tutelage; widows, still in their black veils, who came for comfort and solace; young couples seeking advice upon finding that their new marriage was not what they had expected; even certain holy novices who had turned out to be interested in more than just the body of Christ.
But this was different than all that. Eve's body felt different, for one thing: hotter, sleeker, stronger. She was not frail and soft like the pampered wives. The farm girls had always had a certain wiry strength, but that was strength that yielded to him, their firm little legs wrapping around his waist and pulling him in tight while their arms twined around his neck until he found himself quite ensnared and with no obvious means of escape except for one, a certain route that if, if traveled long and vigorously enough, would tame this particular beast...
But this was hard and violent; Eve pushed up and down beneath him and after only a minute or two he was red-faced and sweating from exertion. Finishing fast seemed a necessity, though he could not say why, and he so he pumped in and out like a man in a fit. Eve was quiet the entire time but she twisted under him and her fingers dug into the pelts. More than anything else it reminded Peter not of sleeping with any other woman but of the moments he used to spend alone at night, masturbating in a fit of guilt, trying to exorcise his urges.
Yes, being with Eve was very much like being alone, except of course that when alone he did not have such hot, supple flesh to touch, or such sleek haunches to feel, or such tight, wet confines squeezing around his prick. When he ejaculated it was a sharp spike of feeling and then a release and in the seconds after he felt light-headed and almost drunk, though it passed shortly.
Eve broke away from him. Startled, Peter caught her hand and she rounded on him and again he experienced a few brief seconds where he feared for his life. But then she laid her head over his, and in fact laid her entire body over his own, and they slept like that for a while more, and the weight of her leaning on him was comforting.
She would not accept a kiss from him and did not seem to understand the gesture, but now and then she would bite him (an experience that made his heart stop, though it was never hard enough to break the skin, and indeed always turned out to be an entirely tender gesture). Later, when he tried making love to her face to face, she did not seem to understand, and although he eventually coerced her into trying it she again seemed amused, as if he'd gone out of his way to help her with something that she was perfectly capable of doing for herself, and was merely humoring him.
The only expression of affection he seemed to be able to interest her in was attention to her breasts. They were small, pale, and pert, and when he rubbed his thumbs over her nipples she rolled her head in ecstasy. Once, in the heat of the moment, he bit them, and this finally seemed a language she could understand, and she grew even more excitable than usual. They spent long nights stretched out on the fur pelts by the fire, learning one another’s bodies.
Winter came and went. The snow fell and the winds howled and Peter worked the forge and Eve hunted and they spent time with one another in comfortable, natural silence. He got her in the habit of wearing clothes (though they did not fit well, since Buchard's wife sewed them believing they were meant for Peter), as her constant nudity still made him uncomfortable. She allowed Peter to accompany her hunting and he finally how she caught prey, lying in wait for so many hours so perfectly still that she seemed a part of the landscape until some unwary creature wandered too close and then she would snatch it up with her bare hands and break its neck or bite out its throat before it could make a sound. It was a startling display.
Once, he tried to show her how to set snares but she became upset, so he stopped.
Only one thing really troubled him about her: Now and then, once in a week or once every few weeks but never less than once in a month, she would leave at night, taking one of the wolf skins with her, and she would be gone until morning and sometimes well into the next night. On those nights he heard baying and howling out in the darkest parts of the forest and he shivered, and had bad dreams, and woke with no feeling of rest. Whenever she came back from these forays she clung to him a little longer than usual and made love in a hard way that left bruises. But she never offered any accounting of where she went, or why.
Spring came. The ice broke. The forest turned more green and even its long shadows took on a lively quality. It was in the spring when Eve surprised Peter by speaking. All at once she seemed to know a very extensive vocabulary and he could not decide if she'd learned language from listening to him or if she could have talked all along but chose not to. Neither would have surprised him.
She still did not say much, of course. Her answer to most questions was still silence. But one day, when Peter summoned the courage to ask who she really was and where she came from, she took him by the hand and led him into the forest. The dark brambles closed behind them and the disquieting stillness of the trees grew more profound. Where Eve walked (barefoot, as always, though the soles of her feet were ever smooth and unblemished) she left no tracks, and Peter imagined his own steps must be the only human presence in this place in a generation. They came to a clearing with a hole in the ground, lined by rocks, and Eve pointed into its smothering black depths.
"I came from there," she said.
Peter peered in. "It's an old well," he said.
"Most of the time. Some nights, though, it's a passage to another world."
She sat over the mouth of the well, looking down. Peter could see nothing below.
"I used to like to come to this world to explore," she said. "But I went too far and I hurt my leg and I couldn't find my way back before the byway closed." She regarded him with half-veiled eyes. "That was the night I found you."
Peter tugged his lower lip, thinking. "What do you mean by another world?"
Eve shrugged. "It's a place much like this one, only not entirely. There are only two seasons there, summer and winter, and the summers are longer and hotter and the winters colder and darker. The trees and the mountains and everything are much older and much larger than they are here. And there are no men or women there; only wolves."
Peter tried to imagine such a place lurking in the depths of the old well. It did not seem natural. "Can you go back?" he said.
"Not now." Eve stood. "Perhaps one night."
Peter was bewildered. He wanted to ask her again: Who are you? What are you? What created you? Are you a thing of God? Are you a creature of nature or of the devil or something in between? Do you love me? Are you a woman, or an animal, or nothing there's a word for?
But she would tell him nothing more, though that night when they made love they faced each other, and she did not resist or complain when he kissed her mouth. She even kissed him back in a clumsy, uncertain way, and brushed the hair away from his face. When his beard tickled her naked breasts she laughed, something he had never heard her do before, and rather than bite them he kissed them as tenderly as he could, and she writhed underneath him.
Eve opened her legs and drew him into her and then twined her limbs around his neck. The fire in her, usually so hot it seemed he might burn up if she embraced him too hard, now seemed a gentle, comforting glow that nestled between them. She kissed his lips again and again—tiny, uncertain kisses, like a child—as he entered her and they rocked back and forth underneath the eaves of the old chapel. Her body was thin and muscular, like always, but her skin was soft and the curves of her hips and thighs seemed more pronounced. Peter wondered if she was changing from her time here or if he'd just never noticed such things before.
They looked eye-to-eye and he fixated on the strange flecks of gold in her yellow irises as their coupling became faster and hotter. Her lips parted and her tongue slid across her teeth in an expression he'd come to recognize and he bucked his hips faster and faster. Little grunts and groans of satisfaction punctuated each movement, and Peter heard a sound like a low growl—but it wasn't coming from her? It was his own sound, he realized; he felt the vibrations of it deep in his chest, humming through him. It was not a sound like anything he'd ever heard a human being make.
And then she bit him on the collarbone, as hard as she could without quite drawing blood, and Peter's orgasm pushed out of him all at once. They fell over onto each other and stayed like that for hours, her body coiled around his, his cock still inside of her, though spent. As on the first night Peter again entertained the idea that she did not really sleep when her eyes closed and that there were whole worlds behind them that she was awake in still, though they were places that he knew he could never go.
Summer came, and with it came the wolves. Peter felt them before he saw them; coming through the forest one day he detected a presence and when he turned he saw three creeping wolves, two males and a bitch, snaking out of the underbrush. Realizing they'd been spotted they bared their fangs and snarled and Peter, without thinking, grabbed a stone and threw it at as hard as he could. The rock struck the nearest dog in the face and it yelped and all three retreated, but only as far as the relative safety of the thicket. They followed him halfway to the chapel, their eyes full of hate. He slammed the door behind him and waited for his pulse to stop racing.
When he told Eve about them she said, "I know. I've heard them calling. They know that I’m here. They hate me.”
"They know that I don't come from this place. That’s all the reason they need. I'd hoped they might stay away for longer, but..." And she shrugged, a gesture of his that she'd only just begun to imitate.
"I was told there were no natural wolves in this place anymore," Peter said.
"Maybe there aren't," Eve said.
The sun was going down and they sat, arms around each other, in the chapel doorway, enjoying the last of the light. "You're always so warm," Peter said.
"It's the fire you made for me."
Peter frowned; he did not understand.
"The first night I came here I'd have died if you hadn't built a fire," Eve said. "Now I keep that fire in me always."
Peter was bewildered still, but he asked no more. That was one of the nights Eve left, taking the wolf skin with her, and Peter heard a great baying and howling in the dark, and the cries of more than one wolf. And as always he was scared for her, and his dreams were full of violence and fear.
Buchard, too, noted the return of the wolves to the forest. His neighbors were afraid to hunt alone anymore, and those with livestock found their numbers dwindling. "Bad times are coming," Buchard said.
"There will always be a few wolves about," said Peter. "I'm sure they'll move on."
"Bad times," Buchard said again, and that was all he would say.
When autumn came on and the wolves had not departed Peter had to set out for the chapel a bit earlier each day for fear of being caught alone at night. Buchard advised him to carry a spear but he always refused, thinking of how Eve might react to such a thing. The villagers began hunting not just for food but for the pack, though distaste and superstition still kept them far from the chapel, and thus from Eve. Still, Peter worried.
One day, as autumn drew to an end, Buchard sat him down to talk.
"You've lived here a year," he said, and Peter realized it was true. "You do good work. You take care of yourself. But the other people still don't want you here. We don't like outsiders in this place. We are stubborn and do not like to bend. It's our way."
Buchard's wife was busy with a pot of some kind of stew over the fire.
"I have a sister," Buchard said, and it was such a seemingly abrupt change of topic that Peter felt dazed by it. "She lives in a place on the other side of the forest. She had a husband, but he is dead. She'll come to live here soon." Buchard considered him for a moment, his jaw working back and forth on nothing at all, as it often did. "She's one of us. The other people here all know it. If you marry her you will be one of us. No one will be able to argue. You could have a house here with the others. You could belong."
He paused again. "Her name is Maren. She's not old. She has no children. And she'll need a husband."
Buchard seemed to feel that was all that needed to be said. Peter groped for a reaction. "Couldn't I keep living where I am?" he said.
"Maybe," Buchard said. "But maybe not. The people here do not like anyone staying in that place. We cannot know what they may do. But if you marry Maren, then there is no maybe. Marriage is easy here; we don't need one of your priests. Just live in the same house and that is all."
Something about Buchard's demeanor, perhaps the set of his shoulders or the way his bruised knuckles sat on the table, suggested it would be a very bad idea for Peter not to accept this proposal. Even so, he cast about for some excuse.
"I would have to meet her before agreeing to anything," he said.
Buchard obviously considered this a wasteful luxury but seemed ready to accept it as part and parcel of Peter being an outsider with strange ways. "She'll come soon," he said. "You can meet her then."
"Yes, well...I'll look forward to it."
Buchard's wife sat a bowl of stew in front of Peter. "A man should have a wife," she said. Again, there was no argument to be had.
Peter said nothing of the news to Eve that night, but she seemed agitated all on her own. She left the chapel several times, though she always returned a minute later. She would not keep still. "The snows will come soon," she said. She was watching and listening for something out there. When he took her in his arms he did not feel the fire inside her anymore; though he knew it had not gone out, it was as if it had retreated, moving further into her to protect itself. Now she was cool, and though she lay face to face with him and encouraged him to kiss her small breasts and run his fingers through her hair and exert himself over and in her body for as long as he wanted she did not feel the same. She was like a woman made of snow, pale and beautiful.
As he lay his head down on her thighs and kissed her there she trembled and put her hand on top of his head and even gasped when his tongue touched her bare, sensitive skin, but he knew that he had only half her attention. The rest of her was already out there where the snows would soon be falling. But the kiss she gave him reassured him that it was not because she wanted it so.
She left in the night. The sounds of howling and baying and snarling could be heard all through the forest. She did not come back the next day, or the next, but Peter was certain she was not dead, for he recognized one howl from all the others at night, and it comforted him. He was certain that if she could come back, she would, but that was all he was certain of. The chapel seemed a lonely place now, and it was always cold, even with the fire.
When next he came to Buchard's he found the forge dark and empty. Neither Buchard nor his wife were at home. Instead a woman with chestnut hair was minding the house. She seemed to be expecting him. When he came in she took his coat and his stick and sat him at the table. The little house was full of a warm, achingly familiar scent, and Peter realized it was the smell of baking bread. His stomach growled.
"Where is Buchard?" he said.
"Away for a day, maybe two," said the woman. "I'm watching things while he's gone."
"Yes." She was making the bread straight on the hot embers of the fire and she plucked it out in several large pieces before setting it on a plate before him. He hesitated before eating it, but it was clear she expected him to, and the scent was too much to resist; he took a bite. "It's good," he said. She nodded. "Aren't you having any?"
"It's for you," she said.
As Peter ate she quizzed him and seemed satisfied with his short answers.
"You were a priest of the Christ god they hung from a tree?"
"Once. Not anymore."
"You can work metal; build a house; get food?"
"Priests of the Christ god weren't supposed to have children. I could have them now if I wanted to."
She nodded, as if accepting something. The bread was gone. She took him by the hand and brought him to the fire. A rug he did not recognize was laid out in front of it. She must have brought it with her. She knelt on the rug and gestured that he should too, and then she kissed his hand. She seemed to be waiting for something but Peter did not know what. The room was very hot and uncomfortable all of a sudden. When she went to kiss him on the mouth he turned away.
"I'm sorry," he said. "This is...a kind of mistake. I understand the position you're in, but we shouldn't do this."
Maren blinked. "But we already have."
She gestured to the rug. "You ate; you knelt; it's done."
Horror dawned in Peter's mind. "My God! I didn't know—I had no idea!"
Maren shrugged. "It's done now," she said again.
"Well...let's not tell anyone this happened. No one has to know." The woman's countenance grew unmistakably angry and Peter leapt to correct himself. "But not because there's anything wrong with you," he said.
Peter's tongue clove to his mouth. What could he say? "There are reasons," was all he managed.
"Is it because you were one of the strange priests?"
"Yes! Yes, that's the reason."
"But you are not anymore. If you were, the people would hate you and drive you out." She seemed to be pondering her words even as she was speaking. "So if I told them you refused me because of this, you would have difficulty. You would even be in danger."
Peter's blood froze. Her tone was not quite threatening, but it was close.
When she gestured to the rug he found himself kneeling again, and when she clamored up onto him he did not resist. A log on the fire popped and sparks burst forth; Peter flinched.
Maren's kisses were hard, and so was her touch. When Eve was rough it was because she was not thinking of anything, but Peter knew that Maren was hard very much because she meant to be. But she was beautiful, in a quiet way, and she reminded him of certain wives he'd known in the past. And she is a widow after all, he thought. He traced the line of her back and found the curve pleasing. He thought of Eve again but pushed the memory away; it would do him no good now.
Maren wriggled out of her clothes in short order and then laid him out, stripping his garments away and running her fingers across his naked chest. The rug was thin and the floor hard. The orange light from the fire accented the curve of Maren's breasts and she took his hands and put them there. The feel of warm human flesh was pleasing. She kissed the tips of his fingers one by one and then she slid down the front of him and, to his surprise, swallowed him up into her mouth all in one go. He was so startled he sat up a bit but she pushed him down again.
Her mouth was wet and warm. When she moved it up and down on him there was firm pressure that made him squirm, and his breath caught in his throat. She did not move her tongue much but the motion of her head was steady and constant and it drew a keen sensation out of Peter that coiled up tight inside of him, like a snare ready to snap tight.
She was not Eve, of course. She was not wild, mysterious, sensual, and complex. But she was a human woman who was warm and alive and wanted, in her own way at least, to please him, and when she came back up he found himself kissing her and being kissed back and letting the brown tangle of her hair fall around him as their naked forms pressed together and her legs parted for him. She whispered against his lips, her breath hot on his mouth as she gyrated up and down on him, sliding her sweat-slicked body across his. Later he could not remember what she'd said, but it was more words in a human voice than he'd heard all at once in longer than he could remember, and the moans and whimpers she made when he put his hands on her to feel her warm, soft breasts or the slope and turn of her curves were honest and open in a way that made him remember better times he'd rather have forgotten.
Peter did not sleep that night, but Maren did, lying across his naked chest and hugging him. He was certain that, behind her eyes, there was real sleep and guileless dreams.
She expressed no desire to go back with him to the chapel the next day, and appeared content to let him go on his own. There seemed to be an unspoken assumption that he would presently build a new house, closer to the village, and that she would stay with Buchard until it was finished. She offered him no farewell or words of affection at his parting, but she did kiss him. It was a tender thing.
There was no sign of Eve at the chapel. Peter was unused to being alone during the day now, and he paced and fidgeted. He knew he ought to have been collecting wood for the winter; the snows were late, but the grim color of the sky told him they could not be far off, but for some reason he could not bear the idea of working now. He thought of Maren, sitting by a fire of her own in her brother's house and waiting for him, and guilt ate at him. He tried to imagine where Eve might be but the possibilities were too horrifying. For the first time he wished he could still pray and he missed the comfort of the scripture. Angry at this moment of weakness h struck the wall; there was a dull thud, and that was all.
His dreams that night were full of the howling of wolves—or was that a real noise somehow invading his dreams from outside? He heard something else in his dreams too: the screams of someone in pain. He dreamed of blazing torches and flashing knives and fear. He woke soaked in sweat, feverish and weak. When he opened the door the morning light hurt his eyes. It was a moment before he realized Buchard was there waiting for him. Peter squinted He tried to talk but his throat was sore. It took a few drinks of water before his mouth seemed to want to work.
"You are ill," Buchard said to him.
"Yes," said Peter. He was sore all over. His body seemed marked and bruised, as if he'd been flailing in his sleep.
"You left Maren two days ago. You have been asleep that time?"
Peter felt dizzy. "I must have been," he said. "I'm sorry. Is Maren—"
Peter was about to apologize again but Buchard went on: "I mean she was injured, badly; a wolf came into the house in the night and bit her. Her face..."
And he gestured to one side of his face in a way that made Peter feel queasy.
The bottom dropped out of Peter's stomach. He wondered if it was perhaps a joke. Buchard would sooner throw himself off a cliff than tell a joke, and it was not even a little funny besides, but the other explanations seemed to make no sense. "Is she...will she be—?"
"She will live," said Buchard. "But she will not be the same. And now blood has been spilled." He sat on a stump. "She is my sister. You understand what this means?"
Peter considered his words. "You must be very upset."
"She's my blood. There are things I cannot do once my blood becomes part of things. You understand now?"
Peter shook his head, slowly. "No. I don't think I do."
Buchard sighed. He stood and put a hand on Peter's shoulder. "My grandfather liked the Christ priest. Even when he killed him, he liked him. Sometimes we must do things we don't like. When you bring a wolf into your home, I must do things I do not like.”
Buchard's eyes met his. Peter's lips formed a denial, but he swallowed it. Buchard nodded.
"The people from the village will come for you tonight," he said. "They wanted to come a long time ago, but I stopped them. Now I cannot. But I did come here to warn you."
Peter nodded. Buchard sighed again. He turned to go.
"I'm sorry about Maren," Peter said.
"It's all done," said Buchard, and left. "By the way: It is Christmas Eve again." And he left.
Peter shut the door. He looked around. The chapel looked nothing at all like it had when he came here. He would not even have recognized it anymore. For a moment he felt like gathering the entire thing up, like a bundle he could carry under his arm. Then he felt like turning and running away, sprinting like a madman into the dark embrace of the forest and forgetting this place even existed.
Instead he sat, built a fire, stirred the embers, and waited. Outside, the snow was falling.
Around sundown there came a thump at the door. Peter rose, brandishing a flaming log which he thrust before him as he opened the door. But outside there was no angry mob; there was only Eve. She limped in on all fours, wolf's head hanging low, and when she curled up at the hearth the fur seemed to roll off her body, again becoming a hide from which she emerged, his own real Eve again. She looked tired and wan, but uninjured. Dropping the burning brand he ran and took her in his arms.
"Thank God," he said over and over again. "Thank God."
"I had to come back for you," she said.
Peter swallowed. "You shouldn't have. There's danger." And he told her everything. He expected her to be angry, but she proffered no reaction at all. When he finished all she said was:
"Then they'll come for us soon."
"Yes," said Peter. And then: "Did you hurt Maren?"
She appeared confused. "Why I would do that?"
The word "jealousy" was on the tip of Peter's tongue, but he realized how foolish it was. But he wondered whether he'd be able to detect a lie if she told one; was that something she even could do? As always, her yellow eyes seemed to have depths he could not fathom. He shook his head to clear the thoughts away.
"It doesn't matter," he said. “They're going to kill us both no matter what."
"I suppose they will," Eve said.
"We should run."
"They would find us. Unless..." She paused and went to the door, and she seemed to be listening for something. After a moment she turned back. "We could go to the other world."
Peter swallowed again. "The place you came from?"
"Yes. The way should be open again. If we went there, they couldn't follow us."
She sat down in front of him and looked into his eyes again. "But you could not go as you are now."
She held the wolf skin out to him. He took it in trembling hands. It was heavy.
"This other world...we'd be safe there?"
"Of course not," said Eve. "But who is ever safe anywhere?"
"I never understood what you meant when you talked about another world."
"You understood when you dreamed."
Peter shivered. "I don't want to go there, then."
"In my world no one is innocent. In my world we live and die, kill and spare, as the world sees fit. It's not a good place, but it's not a bad place. It's a place where whatever is, is."
Before he could reply she pressed a finger to his lips.
"No more talk," she said. "If we go, we must go now."
Peter ran his fingers through the soft fur of the wolf hide. Then he touched Eve's hair, just as soft. Her eyes gleamed. The embers of the fire were dying in the hearth.
"Then we should go now," he said.
At the door he shed his clothes, his boots, his belt, even his knife and tools. He would need none of these things where they were going. Snow was falling in icy white flakes. Pain shot through the soles of his feet when he stepped out, but Eve touched his arm and he felt warmer. As he watched, she shuffled into the wolf skin and in a blink she was running on all fours, tail behind her, toward a break in the trees. There she waited for him. Breathing deep, Peter wrapped the skin of the wolf around his body, and waited.
At first he did not believe the magic of the thing would work for him. At first, in fact, he thought it had not. Only when he took the first step and saw not his foot but his paw in the snow before him did he realize it had already happened. Or maybe, he thought, it happened a long time ago, and I did not notice then either.
That was the last truly human thought he had. Everything after that was crowded out by the sound of the wind and the smells of the forest and the sharp white glint of the snow on the earth and the retreating figure of the gray she-wolf through the thicket. Though she was slower because of her leg she still kept the lead, since she knew the way and he did not. The nameless wolf (for he'd forgotten his human name now) stayed close to her tracks, because he smelled peril in the winter air.
When the wind shifted heard the crunch of heavy boots on snow and the murmur of quiet voices and smelled not just the scent of the hunters themselves but also the smell of burning pitch from torches that would scorch his hide and burn his fur to nothing if he let them get too close. He had to keep away from them but he also had to stay with the she-wolf. Only the she-wolf knew the way to safety—
But where was she? He could not see or smell her anymore. He glimpsed movement out the corner of his eye and when he turned he saw a furry form slipping toward him—
Too late he realized the danger. The other wolf crashed into him and they rolled end over end in the snow, snarling, snapping, clawing, jaws searching for purchase. He should have realized it would not just be the village hunters looking for them tonight; the wolf pack had lain in wait all this time for an opportunity and now they had it.
The two beasts snarled and rolled over each other. The enemy wolf was bigger and the nameless wolf was still not used to moving in this body. The enemy wolf was on top now and weight was crushing the nameless wolf. There was not enough air in his lungs, not enough breath left to fight with, not enough time to—!
And then the weight fell away and the gray she-wolf stood over their enemy, her jaws dripping red. The other wolf was not moving anymore.
The nameless wolf struggled to his feet. He was hurt, but there was no time to rest, no time even to slow down. The smell of burning pitch drew ever closer.
They ran together, shoulder to shoulder, through the trees and the thickets and the dark and the snow. Around them, they knew, the hunters closed in in a ring, and somewhere out there the other wolves howled and bayed, angry and vengeful. How much further did they have to go? The nameless wolf did not know. His haunches hurt and his ribs ached. He longed to simply turn and fight, to tear their pursuers apart with his jaws or even to throw his body onto their spears in a mad act of defiance. Anything would be better than this blind pursuit. But still he followed the she-wolf.
Footsteps drew closer; voices shouted; the hell-light of orange flames illuminated the tree trunks around them. Smoke was in the air and some dim part of the nameless wolf's brain registered that they must have set fire to the chapel. At least that will have slowed them down a few moments, he thought. Maybe it will be enough. Maybe...
They broke into a clearing. The well was there, the nameless wolf knew. And between here and where it lay was the wolf pack, its surviving two members circling the old well, heedless, apparently, that the approaching mob would kill them just as readily. They were determined to be revenged on this interloper no matter what it cost them. The nameless wolf paused; he was hurt, and the gray she-wolf was lame. A fight now was the last thing they wanted. But the hunters were closing in...
The she-wolf did not hesitate; she charged, and when the other wolves blocked her way she tried to muscle through them and they were both on her at once, and all three made a rolling pile marked by the flash of fangs. The nameless wolf ran in and collided with the first body he found and he and the enemy wolf rolled away, biting, snapping, tearing. The virginal white snow turned red. For a moment the nameless wolf was buried beneath a drift and when he came out he saw, to his relief, that the gray she-wolf had reached the safety of the well and even now was leaping into it, down into the cool, safe, dark world below.
Now there was nothing left to do but run. The nameless wolf was hurt too badly to still be quick or strong, but he would run as fast as he could and hope. Where were the other wolves? Their scent was everywhere but he couldn't see them; the bloodied ground looked like a wound in the forest itself. No point thinking about such things now; now he just ran.
Orange light flared to his left. Men were running at him and he heard their manic, garbled calls. He slipped and slid over the stones of the old well, trying to pull himself up, trying to let himself fall in, but below there was only a black abyss with no bottom and for a moment he was not sure if he could go in, nor sure that he wanted to...
Pain lanced up his body. The smell of singed fur and burning flesh sickened him. Flaming brands were flying through the air, striking him on the shoulders and back and burning his feet and singing his tail. So he jumped, and as he fell through that darkness below he was burning, burning, like a shooting star coming to earth, burning to pieces as it fell...
And then it was over. He lay in a deeper, colder snow than he'd ever imagined, and the flames sizzled and died. His pursuers were all gone. The pain remained, but cold numbed it. He could not stand. He could not tell how badly he was hurt. Would he recover? Or would he die here? There was no one who could say.
But the gray she-wolf was with him. She trotted to where he lay and then lay down on top of him. Her body was warm. She stayed there all night and kept the cold at bay, and now and then she nuzzled him.
The night was long. Perhaps it lasted for days. From somewhere out there came the howling of wolves. Faintly, he howled back. If the day came when he was strong enough to walk, they would follow the sound and join whoever was there. If that day never came, then it wouldn't matter.
For now, though, they were together, with each other and with the sky and the snow and the forest. And home.