An Unlucky Constellation
I woke with the feeling that my skeleton was dancing inside of me.
I felt my bones twisting and elongating into a strange new architecture; one that was foreign and unnatural in my fragile human body. Gasping, I stumbled from my cot and grabbed a tarnished silver mirror from my bedside table. My body was stretching in a million directions, and my reflection showed a pained face unfamiliar to me. The eyes were sunken into a lengthy visage, my pale, freckled skin bubbled and warped over a long snout that protruded from my face, and two sharp canine teeth peeped out of my mouth. I let out a high, feral screech as a spasm of pain racked my body. I fell to my knees, dropping the mirror, which hit the floor and shattered into a million fragments, like a sharp, unlucky constellation.
"Make a wish." His voice echoed in my head as if I was fathoms below the ocean surface. With much effort, I turned my head. He was standing in the doorway to our bedroom, grinning, a stick of hawthorne in his hand. What was he doing to me? Was not being his wife curse enough? As he jabbed his wretched wand at me, fire coursed through my veins again, and my wishes fled me, except for one: I wished it would stop. I was incapable of any greater, wiser wish, for as each of my bones broke, I felt my mind fracturing into unconsciousness. I begged for it to come more quickly, offering up a silent thanks to death's gentle sister for the relief darkness brought. I had no wishes left.
In many ways, I was more powerful now than I ever was as a human. My old legs could not propel me across wide chasms, or allow me to fly silently through the woodlands. My old teeth could not end a life; tearing through jugular and sinew, muscle and bone. My old skin was soft and papery. Fragile. My new pelt of dark, black fur was warm and thick.
A hunting party crashed through my woods with shouting trumpets and trumpeting men and dogs that sniffed and howled like new-born babes. I made a habit of avoiding men now, but it was mid-winter and my stomach felt as dead and empty as the black skeletal trees that arched above me. I crouched in the underbrush, waiting. As they clattered round the bend, I leapt in front of them. I intended to kill one of the dogs, but it a sudden fit of lunacy, I sprang at one of the mounted men. For a moment, I was suspended in the air — large, black, and deadly, but I twisted away suddenly and crashed to the forest floor. I recognized the man. He was the king. His name eluded my grasp, but his face was familiar. He was a wise leader. I backed two paces away, ignoring the arrows nocked and aimed in my direction. I met the king's gaze with baleful eyes. Forgive a hungry woman. I bowed to him. If they shot me, at least I would die trying to regain some humanity.
I realized, with chagrin, that my new form did have one weakness. As a wolf, I did not have the ability to communicate, at least, not in words. Not as humans did. But my message seemed to reach the king, despite its lack of eloquence, for he ordered his hunters not to shoot. I shuddered, relieved to have avoided death for one more day. In my relief, I became more human, forgetting the animal instincts that had consumed me for the past year. In my relief, I forgot to run away.
"That wolf is extraordinary," the king laughed, his breath becoming dragon smoke in the December air, "put it on a leash, we'll take it back to the castle." I didn't struggle. I was still human, underneath the fur. I still longed for the warmth of a fire and human company. Ice had seeped inside my thoughts: I was a crack in the walls of a fairytale world.
"By God! Those eyes look almost human." I smiled to myself.
So far, the king had lost seven children. It wasn't that he was careless with them. The fairies kept taking them, leaving changeling children behind in the cradles. He had hired all manner of warriors, mercenaries, and guards, but none were able to fend of the wily Fair Folk.
The kings's eighth child was being born, and having become his closet companion, he chose me to guard the child. He knew that I was more than a wolf, for he was an intelligent and perceptive man. He ignored the complaints of his advisors and on the night of his child's birth, I stood watch over his son's cradle.
The nursery was in the castle's highest tower, a cold, dank place that was entirely unsuitable for a nursery. The baby slept fitfully, often waking and crying for his mother, who was still recovering. I nuzzled him when he cried, pitying the poor baby, for we both possessed an inability to communicate what we desired. We were both stronger than those around us, but at the same time undeniably weaker than the same people. Soon, I began hearing fey cackles that I answered with angry, guttural growls. Why would they play such a cruel game with the king?
After a few hours it became eerily silent. I was not reassured, and I paced across the floor anxiously. At the stroke of midnight, they came. They crashed through the window and shot down the chimney with a chilling scream, a varied host, at once angelic and demonic, full of pixies, red-caps, brownies, and dryads. I sprang to defend my charge, a maternal fury unexpectedly filling me. I thrashed, and scratched, and bit until dawn, when the fairy host slunk away, defeated. I collapsed to the floor panting, my fur bloody and matted, exhausted from hours of battle.
When the king came in the morning, he rushed to his son's cradle and swept the boy up, crying and laughing at the same time. He danced around the room like a giddy child, tears streaming down his bearded face. He returned the babe to his cradle and fell on his knees beside me. He bandaged my wounds himself, and when he had finished, he looked into my eyes, unable to communicate how he felt. Even kings were wolves and children once. Even wolves could be human.
The chain was broken. For the first three years of his life, Prince Cathal had been attached to me by a thick silver chain, for his protection. While I had dozed in the warm Summer breeze, he had wandered off without me. Was he dead? Did The fairies have him? What an idiot I was. I could not seek help from the King. He would hate me for failing him and losing his only son. I would have to find the boy myself. Spurred on by fear and self-loathing, I fled the castle.
I roved through Ireland for five years, searching for my little prince, who was dearer to me than any family I had once had. I traveled everywhere. My bones ached with sorrow. One day, weary and frustrated, I was passing through a familiar part of the country, and atop of a craggy hill I saw the cottage where I had once lived with that man (I never think of his name). Some suspicion compelled me to mount the hill, and upon circling the house, I saw Cathal inside, playing with a worn stick of hawthorne. The man was nowhere in sight. Joyfully, I broke through the door. I bounded over to him, nearly knocking the boy over in my enthusiasm. He cowered away at first, but then his face lit up.
"It is my wolf-mother!" he cried. He bent down to hug me and I playfully nudged him with my head. Laughing, he rapped me gently on the head with the wand that had once cursed me.
My bones danced inside of me again, after nine years. I shivered and shook with pain, but it ceased quickly. Cathal stared at me, open-mouthed.
"Mama? You aren't a wolf?"
I smiled and shook my head. I stole some clothes from a closet in the next room—a green and turquoise dress. It still fit. Once I was clothed, I took Cathal's hand, but before we could escape, the enchanter returned.
"You?" He sputtered, his face flushed with anger and fear. Without his wand he was powerless. I took the wand from Cathal and snapped it in half, watching with perverse satisfaction as the lunatic who had made my life a living hell fell to the floor, his spine snapped in two. We stepped over his body and left the cottage on the craggy hill behind, making our way home, towards freedom.