An ugly young girl dressed all in red carries a large basket in one hand and a bundle of sticks in the other. She is walking from town back to her grandmother’s house. She wears a thick knitted wool shawl, and a hood so no one can see her face. Her grandmother is sick, she has not been able to get out of bed in weeks, and the girl is bringing her food from the market—a loaf of dark, heavy bread, carrots, potatoes, and a bit of meat for soup, and last, a small lavender box of almond cookies—the old woman’s favorite. The girl caresses the sticks, loves the roughness between her fingers. She has always collected sticks. They’re all so different, she says, like snowflakes or fingerprints. Or people, she sometimes thinks, but she never says it. She wraps the sticks in colored yarn and carries them with her wherever she goes. She gives them to people she likes, but there aren’t many of those. People often disappoint her. If she gives you a bundle of sticks and you don’t keep them forever, if you don’t seem proud of them, she will grow to hate you and demand the sticks back. If you see her after this, she will avoid you, will look the other way or even glare at you, scrunching up her nose and narrowing her eyes.
She is on her way to her grandmother’s house, her own home now, she thinks, as she has lived there for nearly a year, and it is just a little farther—just a short way through this patch of woods, past the hunter’s cabin. He is out front chopping wood, and he smiles at her, raises his hand. It is not a forest that she is passing through—it is too small and too bare—though she calls it that. She is a romantic, a child who grew up reading fairytales and stories about magic. Things her mother told her could never happen, but she has always believed they could. She has never seen anything magical, but she waits patiently. She still believes that if you want something enough, you’ll get it.
As soon as she gets to the house, she knows something is wrong. It smells like dog, and she knows no dog lives there. The old woman is lying in bed, panting, her tongue dripping thick pink foam onto the pillow. She has never seen anyone pant like that. The girl isn’t stupid. Naïve, maybe, and young, barely fifteen, but she notices things. Like the fur on her grandmother’s face, the fact that instead of a nose, she has a whiskered snout. She notices the teeth that gleam from her grandmother’s open mouth, strong and white and sharp. The fur around her mouth is tinged with red. The girl thinks she should keep her distance. She puts the basket on the table and opens it, takes out the vegetables and meat, the bread, the cookies. Another strange thing: her grandmother doesn’t speak. She hasn’t even said hello. She just lies there panting, her long meaty tongue lolling against the pillow. This is unusual. The girl’s grandmother has always greeted her with kisses on the cheek and kind words. The girl knows it cannot be her grandmother in the bed. The thought is too strange to even imagine. She breathes in the smell of dog and watches the animal in her grandmother’s bed lie there, bloated and panting like it has just run for miles.
It watches her too, yellow-eyed and open mouthed, then shifts, raises itself up so that it is resting on its haunches and sniffs the air, pointing its nose at her, breathing deeply. Its entire body is covered in dark gray fur, and its paws and chest are matted with blood. A torn and bloodstained cloth rests between its paws, and the girl recognizes it as her grandmother’s nightgown. The wolf sits there, looking at her, and she begins to move toward it. She can smell its breath, the blood on its body and something like sweat.
You will think I’m cruel, but I knew as soon as she was born. She came out and I watched her twisted mouth as she cried and knew there was nothing we could do with her. Her upper lip was thick and red and malformed, like someone had slashed it with a razor and stitched it back together without making sure it came together the right way. She looked like an animal baring its teeth. Her lower lip was normal, but the upper one didn’t allow her to close her mouth completely. When I saw her, all I could do was cry. The doctor told us she should be able to lead a perfectly normal life, that surgery wasn’t out of the question, but I knew it wouldn’t be that simple. Even with a normal mouth, she would still be horrid-looking—those thick eyebrows that met in the middle of her forehead, her nose as long and narrow and pointed sharp as a bird’s beak, those strange eyes, so pale they were almost white. Her father didn’t even want to hold her, but I made him do it. He sat with her on his lap and frowned, tried not to look at her. We wouldn’t let anyone snap a photograph. We held her, and she looked up at us like she knew we were making a decision, but she didn’t try to sway us.
We brought her home from the hospital four days later, our healthy, hideous baby daughter dressed in pink with a pink stuffed bear and a pink blanket we kept tucked under her nose, and two days later, her father left. He wrote a note, but I threw it in the fireplace without reading it, then burned the clothes and other things he hadn’t taken with him. He was a coward. You will think I’m cruel, but at least I didn’t run away in the middle of the night. It was cruel, yes, what I did, but there wasn’t any other way.
She is standing next to the bed near the animal that could never be her grandmother. It looks her right in the face, its eyes fixed on hers. She slowly puts out her hand, holds it, trembling, inches from the wolf’s mouth. The wolf leans its head down and smells it, then looks back up at her. She keeps her hand out, not moving, and it licks it, its tongue soft and warm and wet. The girl sniffs her hand after the wolf finishes with it, and it smells strong and salty. She holds her hand to her nose and inhales deeply, then touches her tongue to where the animal’s was just a minute before.
We named her Sarah, Hebrew for “princess” and her grandmother’s name. Yes, I found it ironic. Bitterly so. The older she got, the more I thought about the operation. Maybe it would help her. Maybe it was my job as her mother to do whatever I could to give her as normal a life as possible. But I couldn’t help thinking that it wouldn’t change anything. She could eat and talk, and she wasn’t in any pain, and no matter what miracles the doctor was able to perform, she would never be a pretty girl. She would probably never even look normal, never mind attractive. You think I’m wrong for not even trying. It’s a wonder what a good doctor can do with a scalpel these days, a skin graft or two. But I couldn’t bear the idea of her going through so much pain for nothing. They couldn’t give her a new face. When she was younger, it didn’t seem to bother her. She played outside by herself, collecting her sticks and rocks and all the other things she liked. She never asked me why her face wasn’t like mine.
As she got older, though, she began to pay more attention to the people around her. She looked at their mouths especially, watched them as they talked and ate and smoked, and then she would put a hand to her own lips as if trying to understand what made them so different. I noticed her looking in the mirror one night, trying to push her lips into a normal position, to mold them into something that looked like everyone else’s. It was like she was trying to shape clay. She stopped when she saw me watching her, but I caught her doing it many times after that. She stared at her reflection all the time, and then she would look at me and then at the pictures of little girls and boys in her books. She knew she didn’t look like any of them, but she never asked me why. She never confided in me. That’s how she was—never really like a child at all, never dependent on me to tell her things. I probably should have tried to teach her more, should have sat her down when she was very young and been direct with her before she could start making up the lies she told herself. I should have talked to her the way a mother talks to a daughter. But she wanted to figure it out on her own, so I let her try. When she couldn’t, she started wearing her hood all the time. She only took it off when I made her, when it started to smell or became so threadbare and dingy that it was time to replace it. And when I gave her another one, I had to make sure it was exactly like the one before it—always bright red, tied right under the chin so you couldn’t see her face.
Her body began to look more like a woman’s than a little girl’s, though she was still so young. She was as tall as I am by the time she was nine and had breasts before her twelfth birthday—real breasts, not just bumps like the other little girls. Breasts that made me buy her a bra and throw away all of the little girl’s dresses she had always worn. She took me by surprise every time I looked at her. She was slender and white, the skin on her hands translucent. With her back turned, she could have been a marble statue, a nymph or a goddess. Men would stop and stare at us when we walked through town. Sometimes they said things like “hey pretty” or “beautiful” at her. Of course they could only see her body and the hood hiding her face, and so they didn’t realize how ridiculous it was to call a girl like her beautiful. When they talked to her, I would take her hand and lead her away. Sometimes I walked so fast she had to run to keep up. She never said anything about the men, or my reaction to them, and I convinced myself she wasn’t bothered.
One night, though, when I got up to go to the bathroom, I heard her talking to herself in her room. Her bedroom was at the end of the hall, so I tiptoed down from the bathroom until I was standing in front of her door. I could hear everything she said.
“Hi pretty,” she said in a voice deeper than the way she usually spoke, “you sure are beautiful.”
And then, “thank you” in her normal voice, only teasing, flirtatious—a tone I’d never heard her use.
“Can I take you out to a movie, or maybe some ice cream?”
And then she made mouth noises, wet, sucking sounds like she was kissing her hand. I heard her murmur “you’re so pretty” again, and then I left, walking back down the hall to my own room as quickly as I could. I didn’t bother to tiptoe.
She couldn’t grow up to expect a man to fall in love with her and carry her away. It couldn’t happen that way, not with her face. I sat down at the table with her one morning while she ate her breakfast, and told her as much. “Men just care so much more about looks than we do,” I said. “If you were a man, it might be different. Women aren’t so superficial.” She looked at me and nodded, but I could tell she didn’t think anything of what I’d said. I found her diary one afternoon. She wrote about the men in town, about how one day when I let her go there by herself she would talk to them, would ask one of them to take her for a ride in his car. “They like me,” she wrote, and next to it she put a little smiley face.
“You are not beautiful,” I finally told her, holding her chin in my hand and staring straight at her. “You’re a sweet girl, a smart girl. Maybe someday a man will love you for that. But never for your looks. You need to accept it.” When I told her this, she yanked her head out of my grasp with a hiss. I put my hand on her shoulder, but she shook it off and ran to her room.
It happened like I knew it would. We were walking one day, past the grimy windows of the café on Main Street. I could see the men inside hunched over their coffee and egg sandwiches, watching us as we walked. Watching her. A few of them got up and came to the window, pressed their red faces against the glass and grinned. “Hey,” they said, their lips sloppy and wet. “Hey sweetheart.”
You will think I’m cruel, and I am. It would be ridiculous to argue. But it couldn’t go on. I simply wanted her to face what she was. “Look up,” I told her, as the men made kissy faces at her, as they preened and showed off, “look at them.” She turned to me, confused, and I said it again. “Look at them.” And when she shook her head, when she ducked down and tried to keep walking, I stopped her, held her shoulders and turned her to face the window. “You look at them.” I pulled the hood back from her face and stared at the men. “Look,” I said. And they did. They stopped slicking their greasy hair back with cheap plastic combs and puffing out their chests, stopped grinning and licking their lips, and I could hear the word “sweetheart” as they exhaled it, half-said. “What the hell is that?” I heard one of the men say as they stumbled back away from the window. “What’s wrong with her face?” Sarah pulled away from me and ran, her hood and her long dark hair blowing behind her. After that, she refused to leave the house. She didn’t even want to go outside for fear of someone seeing her. “You’ll have to go out eventually,” I told her, but she shook her head. “No.” She stayed in her room for weeks, only coming out when I forced her to.
My mother, Sarah’s namesake, lived even farther away from town than we did, almost a full day’s walk, in a tiny log house in the woods. She tended a garden, only went to the market three or four times a year, went weeks without speaking to a soul. She was content with this, said she had no use for people anymore. I had tried to get her to move in with us when my husband and I got married, but she wouldn’t sacrifice her solitude. She loved her granddaughter, though, and when I told her about the troubles we were having, she invited Sarah to come and stay with her for a while. “As long as she likes,” she said, and said she was certain it would be no trouble at all. I asked Sarah if she would like this, if maybe she would be happy living with her grandmother so far away from everything, and she nodded and began packing her things. “It’s probably best this way,” I told her. “You’ll be happier there.”
She sits on the floor, and the wolf sits beside her, puts its head in her lap. She strokes its thick fur, and it nuzzles against her thighs. They stay this way until long past dark, and then she hears someone outside the house, leaves crackling under heavy boots. The wolf raises its head and looks at her, and she presses her face to its neck, then whispers “go,” pushes it gently away. It trots toward the back of the house, and the girl hears the back door creaking as it pushes its way through. It lets out a low howl as it runs through the woods.
When the hunter enters the house, she is sitting next to her grandmother’s bed, holding a torn and bloodstained nightgown in her hands, staring at it. She looks up at him when she hears his footsteps, and the hunter sees that her mouth is deformed, her upper lip twisted and grotesque. Her teeth are clearly visible, and they are beautiful, long and white and shiny. The hunter looks at her, at her horrible face and her long dark hair and heavy breasts, her thin moon-white body. She stares back at him.
“My grandmother,” she says, holding out the nightgown. “A wolf killed her.”
We had a funeral for Sarah’s grandmother, a small service that no one but the two of us, the priest, and the hunter attended. I saw the hunter watching Sarah the entire time, but whenever he saw me looking at him he blushed and put his head down. Sometimes he even pretended to pray. After the funeral, Sarah went back to wandering outside. I told her not to go too far, to stay away from the woods, but she just laughed. “Nothing will hurt me,” she said. She stayed gone for hours, often from dawn until dusk, and sometimes I was sure she wouldn’t come back at all until I heard her footsteps on the walk. Sometimes when she came back she wasn’t wearing her hood, and her hair was loose and tangled down her back, a rat’s nest. Sometimes her dresses were torn and dirty. “What do you do out there?” I asked her as I brushed out the tangles and sewed the dresses, but she only shook her head. I wanted to follow her one time, to see where she went, but I never did. She seemed happy, mysterious, like a girl in love. I waited for her to tell me, to bring the hunter home with her one day and tell me she’d gotten what she wanted.
The hunter is tracking a deer when he hears a wolf’s howl coming from the house where the old woman died. He wonders if the girl is there again, if she has come back to collect her things, and he raises his rifle. There are tracks leading to the door of the house, but none going back in the other direction. He looks in the window. The girl is on the bed, her dark hair loose and spilling over the pillows. She is wearing a torn red dress, and the hunter can see her naked white body underneath. She is on her back. A large gray wolf hunches over her, its mouth at her throat. The girl’s mouth is open, and her eyes are shut tight. Her arms are around the wolf’s neck, and it looks like she is embracing it, but the hunter thinks she must be trying to push it away from her and is just too weak. She is young and thin, and the wolf is clearly more powerful. The hunter watches the struggle for just a moment, sees the wolf bury its face in the girl’s neck, and then he shoots the wolf. It falls onto the floor.
When he enters the house, the girl is huddled next to the wolf. She strokes its head and back and presses her face into its side. She is crying, screaming, and the hunter thinks she must be in shock.
“Are you okay?” he asks her. “It didn’t bite you, did it?”
“Go away,” she says, her twisted mouth sneering and her teeth flashing in the dim light, “just get out of here. Can’t you see what you’ve done?”
The hunter doesn’t know what to say, and so he stands and watches her as she pets the wolf. It is barely alive, and it licks her hands. She presses its head into her chest. When it finally shudders and dies, the girl looks up at the hunter. “You’ll bury it,” she says, and the hunter nods stupidly. “And when you’re done, you’ll take me to my mother.” The girl is shivering. The house is cold, and her dress hangs on her body in shreds. The wolf must have torn it trying to get at her flesh. The hunter takes off his heavy wool jacket and gives it to the girl, and she wraps it around her shoulders without looking at him. “Bury it,” she says, her voice a soft growl.
The second time he brought her back to the house, I cried. It was like I had imagined it would be. He had his arm around her, supporting her as they walked through the yard, and she was wearing his coat buttoned up to her chin. He wasn’t a handsome man, but they made a strange picture walking together. He looked so wholesome, so lovely and bland next to her, with his wheat-blond hair and full cheeks and bright red lips. Next to him, without her hood, she could have been a charity case, a deformed orphan too ugly and sullen to even be pitied. I tried not to think this way as I looked at them. “Your daughter is very brave,” the hunter said as he sat down with the mug of coffee I handed him.
“Her name is Sarah,” I said. “She’s a good girl.”
“Yes,” he said.
He is a kind man, and he takes care of my daughter and their children, but the hunter is not smart. He has been in the woods too long. When he came to ask me if he could marry Sarah, only months after he saved her from the wolf, I don’t think he said more than twenty words. He stuttered and blushed and barely looked at me.
“What do you want?” I finally asked him, putting my hand firmly on his arm. I thought he might cry.
“I have money,” he said finally, “and a house. I can take care of her.”
I stared at him for a long time, until he met my eyes. “Will you allow it?” he asked, twisting his hat between his thick fingers.
“Do you love her?” I asked him. I smiled at him, encouraging.
“I want to take care of her,” he said.
When I asked Sarah if she wanted to marry him, she didn’t say yes, but she didn’t say no either. She just shrugged and went back to the sticks she was tying up with twine.
“Do you think he loves you?” I asked her. “Has he told you?” She shook her head. “He must,” I said, “or at least he will learn to.”
The hunter is gone for days at a time, but when he comes back he brings freshly killed deer and rabbits and sometimes turkeys. Sarah makes dinners and soups out of some of the meat, and freezes enough to last the family through the times when game is scarce. She sends her son and daughter to their grandmother’s house every week with the rest, tucks them into their jackets and hoods and tells them to be careful in the woods, to come back as quick as they can. She knows she should be happy. Her husband touches her, lies beside her and strokes her neck and hair and legs. He has never kissed her mouth, but sometimes when he is happy he’ll kiss her hand or the top of her head. He never says much, but neither does Sarah. The children are loud and cheerful, and the house is never quiet.
At night, Sarah and her husband sleep back to back, and in the morning when she wakes up, he is already gone. She tells herself that he is a good man, that he loves her, and she is content. It is enough. She thinks about this when he touches her, when he buries his face in her neck and her chest, the nights he climbs on top of her and settles between her legs, and later when he falls asleep, his face in her hair. Sarah does not love him, but she loves his hard weight on her, his body’s heat, the scent of sweat and the forest in his coarse dark hair. She thinks of the animals he brings home, their blood on his hands and arms and mouth. She loves his body, so much stronger than hers, as it holds her to the rough mattress, and the sound and smell of his breath as he pants, breathless against her. She pleasures in her husband—half-awake as she lies next to him, gazing into such big yellow eyes, such sharp white teeth.
Beth Couture’s work can be found in a number of journals and anthologies, including Gargoyle, Drunken Boat, The Southeast Review, The Yalobusha Review, Ragazine, and Thirty Under Thirty from Starcherone Books. Her novella, Women Born with Fur: An Autobiography, was recently accepted for publication by Jaded Ibis Press. She is an assistant editor with Sundress Publications, and teaches composition at Bloomsburg University in Bloomsburg, PA.