Hey, I wasn’t gonna leave you hanging THAT long…
“Perhaps it would be best if Turtle hid in the outhouse for this,” said her grandmother.
Turtle wanted to protest—if somebody was going to get killed, she certainly didn’t want to be hiding in the privy and wondering what was going on!—but the wolf beat her to it.
“Your children are cubs too long already,” he said. “You do them no kindness by teaching them to be fools.” He yawned. “And if she stays out there, what is to stop him from finding her there first? It is better that she stay here. If she is here, we are close enough to help her.”
“The wardrobe, then,” said Grandmother, and bowed her head.
“How do you know he’s going to try and kill you?” asked Turtle, whose eyes were so wide that she thought she might never blink again.
“He killed the goat,” said Grandmother. She swiped the back of her hand over her eyes. “That makes me the angriest. That poor goat. She never did anything to anybody. She was a nice goat.”
“He killed your goat?” Turtle had listened to the description of the woodsman with the general ambivalence of children, but this was something else again.
Like many people who live close to the land, Turtle’s family divided animals into two camps. There were those animals that created food—milk cows and laying hens and and plow horses and the better sort of nanny goat—and there were animals that were food. And while the latter went unnamed (unless it was “Dinner”) the former fell somewhere between employees and family. They had names. They had personalities.
Even Turtle’s mother had to wipe at her eyes when the black-speckled hen had died last year.
So far as Turtle was concerned, killing a goat—particularly that rarest of breeds, a nice goat—put the woodsman in a camp of villains that included the devil, her father’s mother, and Attila the Hun.
“And the worst of it,” said Grandmother, getting up to pace and gesture with the sloshing tea cup, “the worst of it was that he somehow expected that to make it better! Like chopping the poor goat’s head off was going to make me glad to see him again!”
“What did you do with the goat?” asked Turtle, who was a practical child. There was a lot of meat on a goat.
“I couldn’t deal with it,” admitted Grandmother. “I was too angry. My friend here took it.”
The wolf grinned and dragged his tongue across the white fringe of his teeth. “We are not sentimental about our meat. To keep live prey about the house is a strange foolishness of humans. But I accept that this is a human thing, and to kill another’s house-prey is a great crime.”
He stood up and stretched, and the cottage got a great deal smaller again. “Soon, now. The woods are quieting in the wrong sort of way. Someone is coming.”
Grandmother checked the blue bottle again, stuck her little finger in the neck, and licked the thin film of moisture again. “Very well,” she said, tossing it down. “Turtle, get into the wardrobe. If things go badly—if—well—if something happens—“
“Something is going to happen,” said the wolf, amused. “Perhaps we will all sit around like cubs in a den, and frighten each other with what we imagine to be outside, but even that is something.”
“I shall kick you,” said Grandmother with dignity.
“I shall bite off your leg,” said the wolf, grinning.
“Very well, then,” said Grandmother. “Turtle, if I am—killed—then go with the wolf. He will see that you get home safe. And if we are both killed, then stay in the wardrobe and do not make a sound until he has left, then run home as fast as you can.”
“That is better,” said the wolf.
Turtle climbed into the wardrobe. It was a few inches off the ground and creaked a little. There were winter blankets piled on the bottom, under the hanging clothes, and she was flexible enough in the boneless way of girl-children to curl herself up inside.
The keyhole let a little shaft of light inside, and there were gaps under both hinges. By shifting ever so quietly inside, Turtle could see both the door and the bed, though not both at the same time.
She pressed her eye to the keyhole.
The wolf lay down on the bed again, and Grandmother draped the orange crazy-quilt over him. “Loosely,” he said. “It will do no good to draw him near if I cannot escape the blankets in time.”
“I hate this,” muttered Grandmother. She picked up her faded mobcap—Turtle could not remember ever seeing her wear it, but it had lived on the bedpost as long as she could remember—and set it over the back of the wolf’s head. “Don’t wag your tail, no matter how much this amuses you. No, that won’t do. Your ears are too big.”
“The better to hear with,” said the wolf, still sounding amused. “And I hear now that the birds outside the clearing have fallen silent. Truly, if you would let me tear his throat out at the door, this would be much easier.”
“I don’t want to kill him,” growled Grandmother, sounding almost like a wolf herself. “If he would simply go away…” She stuffed the wolf’s enormous ears under the mobcap, and draped it across the side of his face. With the quilt pulled up high and the fire burning down, Turtle thought that perhaps it was not completely unconvincing.
“He will not go away,” said the wolf, very softly. “He is coming even now.”
“I know,” said Grandmother, and dropped with grace that belied her age and slid underneath the bed.
The steps creaked.
“Amelia?” called a voice from outside the door. “Amelia?”
It was a male voice. It did not sound strange or monstrous. It didn’t sound the like the voice of a goat-killer, but who knew what they sounded like? Turtle wiggled in the blankets and peered out the narrow notch underneath the hinges.
“Go away!” yelled Grandmother. “I don’t want company!”
“Now Amelia…” said the woodsman, opening the door. “Don’t be like that.”
Grandmother groaned. She might have been acting, but Turtle thought that it was a particularly heartfelt sound. “I don’t feel well. I just want to sleep. I don’t have anything to say to you. Go away.”
He stood framed in the door. He was tall and rawboned and his face was lined, except for the skin around his eyes, which was smooth. He carried an axe in one hand, a wicked looking thing with a curved blade, and Turtle’s heart clenched at the sight of it.
“Don’t be like that, Amelia,” he said again. “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. Can I make you some tea?”
“Just go away,” said Grandmother (whose name, yes, was Amelia). “I have plenty of tea. I told you I didn’t want you here. I will feel better if you leave.”
The woodsman took a few steps closer. “I came to say that I forgive you for the things you said earlier,” he said.
“For the love of god, will you just go?”
It was his death she was warning him away from, Turtle thought, and he didn’t seem to be listening.
In fact, he was staring at something by the foot of the bed.
“What is that?”
Turtle slithered around to the keyhole. Had the wolf’s tail popped out? What was he seeing?
“What?” asked Grandmother, and for the first time, Turtle could hear the fear in her voice. She craned her neck to one side, trying to see what the woodsman was looking at. Her left eye ached from not blinking.
It was the basket of muffins.
“Someone’s been here,” said the woodsman. His voice was thick and choked. “Someone else came here. We talked about this…”
“It was one of my grandchildren,” said Grandmother wearily. “And you are a fool. I will see whoever I wish in my own house. Leave now, and don’t bother me again.”
She knows he won’t do it, Turtle thought. She wouldn’t sound so tired if she didn’t.
The woodsman stepped toward the bed. His face had gone red and blotchy. The straw mattress rustled a little as the wolf shifted his weight.
“We talked about this,” the woodsman said again, sounding almost plaintive, standing beside the bed. Turtle thought that surely he must see through the disguise, surely the shape of the ears must be wrong or a tuft of gray fur would show through, something.
He lifted his axe over his head.
“Fool,” said Grandmother under the bed, with the finality of a death sentence.
The wolf erupted from the quilt.
For Turtle, watching through the keyhole, there was only a blur of grey and a flash of the orange quilt and a horrible yell that turned into a gurgle that turned into nothing at all. The woodsman’s body came crashing down. The wolf gave a muffled yelp and a snarl and the metal axe-blade clattered across the floor.
And then there was no sound at all.
Turtle flung the wardrobe door open, heedless of the very strict orders, and saw the wolf crouched atop the woodsman’s chest, his teeth still buried in the man’s throat. The orange quilt was splashed with blood, sodden with it, a color that matched the orange rather regrettably well.
“Well,” said Grandmother, surveying the scene, “that quilt’s had it.”
The wolf let go. Turtle very deliberately did not look at what he had done to the woodsman’s neck.
“Are you hurt, my friend?” asked Grandmother.
The wolf licked at his shoulder briefly. “Hardly at all. He dropped his axe on me. It will heal.”
Grandmother pulled the quilt the rest of the way off the bed. “Well. I suppose…I suppose we should…”
She put her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. “I am sorry, my friend,” she said. “I do not seem to be able to think right now.”
The wolf nodded. “Help me roll him onto the quilt,” he said. “The cub and I will see to the body. You should rest.”
“And have more tea,” said Turtle firmly.
“Yes,” said Grandmother after a moment. “Yes. You are both right.” She spread the quilt next to the dead man and grabbed his shoulder. Her eyes were averted and stared at a blank spot on the wall.
The wolf, with dexterous teeth, grabbed the woodsman’s clothing, and they rolled him face down onto the quilt. Grandmother pulled the far end over the top of him.
“I think that is all that I can do,” she said. Her lips were very white.
“It is all that needs to be done,” said the wolf. “Rest. When you are done resting, clean your den.”
“You’ll have to stain the boards,” said Turtle practically. “With walnut juice or something. You’ll never get all this blood up. When Father killed the white rooster and it got inside the back door without its head, we had to stain with walnut.”
The wolf made a noise that in a human might have been a cough.
“Thank you, Turtle,” said Grandmother dryly. “I will take that under advisement.” A little bit of color crept back into her face, and she swung the tea kettle back over the fire.
“Come with me, cub,” said the wolf. He grabbed the end of the quilt and lifted it, and proceeded to drag the body toward the door.
Turtle felt odd. She felt a bit like crying, but there did not seem to be any time to do so, and the wolf was clearly expecting her to open the door.
The body went down the steps in a series of damp thuds. Turtle wasn’t quite sure that she wanted to go with the wolf, but while she stood on the porch, undecided, he reached the gate in the fence, and Turtle had to run to open it, and after that, it seemed that the time when she might protest was gone.
It was an odd journey. The wolf hauled the dead man, wrapped in his crazy-quilt shroud, and Turtle held low tree branches aside and shoved the woodsman’s arm back into the cocoon when it flopped out. She wrapped the end of her hooded cloak around her hand so she didn’t have to actually touch him.
They followed some kind of deer path. The wolf set his burden down occasionally to turn his head and look up it.
They did not speak. They travelled in silence, the three of them, the wolf, the girl, and the dead man. There was only the girl’s footsteps and the wolf’s breathing and the scrape of the body over the ground.
Once, across a rough patch of knobbled tree roots, the dead man was jarred partway out of the quilt. The wolf stopped, and Turtle had to grab the woodsman’s pant leg and help roll him back into the quilt.
The wolf pushed his nose briefly against her arm. His nose was cold. Blood had dried in stiff red spikes across his muzzle, but Turtle felt better for it anyway.
“Here,” said the wolf, what seemed like a long time later. “This is far enough.”
It was twilight. Turtle was amazed that it was only twilight. It seemed like several ages must have passed, like it should be twilight of the day after.
They stood in a little clearing. Turtle shook herself and looked around. Night was gathering under the trees, and there were eyes in it, and a suggestion of teeth.
A growling began somewhere behind Turtle, and ran around the ring of trees. It was very soft and very hungry.
“It would be wise,” said the wolf, “if you would lay your hand on my shoulder now. And I will see you home.”
Turtle set her hand on the wolf’s shoulder. He was hot as fire under his fur, and his ribs heaved as he panted.
They walked away from the clearing. The wolves under the trees slunk out of their way, heads low, their eyes gleaming like frozen moons.
She thought about looking back, but the wolf said “I wouldn’t,” so she didn’t.
It was not a long walk. She cried a little. There seemed to be time now. The wolf didn’t say anything. When she stopped, she tangled her fingers in the wolf’s fur, and felt better.
They reached the path home twenty minutes later. Turtle expected it to take longer, but then again, it went much faster when one of you was not walking backward and hauling a dead man’s weight in his jaws.
They stood on the edge of the path, where the spurge grew thick and choked out the ferns and daggers of grass stabbed up through them.
“Well?” said the wolf finally.
Turtle thought about it, scuffing her foot in the dry pine needles of the path. “I’m sorry he had to be killed. But he shouldn’t have killed the goat.”
The wolf bowed his head, accepting this judgment.
“Will Grandmother be okay?”
The wolf shrugged. His fur rippled under Turtle’s hand when he did so. “She is strong. She would not be a friend to wolves if she were not. Give her a day or two to re-make her den around her and howl, and then visit her again.”
“Will you be here?” asked Turtle. “I mean…if I come into the woods, some time…”
“It is very likely,” the wolf said.
“Would you talk to me?”
“Quite possibly,” said the wolf. “If you are not too foolish, and will be silent sometimes. You do not smell like a foolish child, but there is often no way to be sure.”
“I promise to be silent sometimes,” said Turtle solemnly.
“Then I will be here,” said the wolf, and turned like a cat on the path and vanished into the wood.
No, that’s not the end of the story. Hush. I’ll tell you the rest. There isn’t much.
Turtle went home. The yelling was mostly over, although Turtle’s mother said a few things about the state of her clothes and the stained hood.
“Grandma’s goat got killed,” said Turtle, and that was enough explanation for everything, although Turtle’s mother then muttered a few more things, mostly related to letting a child gad out in the woods so late.
“It wasn’t late when I started,” said Turtle, much aggrieved, and that, too, was enough explanation for everything.
Nobody asked about the woodsman, then or ever. He probably had a name, but Turtle never learned it and did not ask. Her grandmother continued on the same as ever, except that she stopped hiring anyone to cut her firewood, and Turtle’s brother came home sweaty and full of splinters and complaints.
Her next batch of brownies came out chewy and if they were overly wet in the middle and burnt to a brick-like crust around the edges, everyone agreed that it was still a great improvement.