Fiction · 05/02/2018

The Wolf-Pit Girl

There is a village five miles from the monastery of King Edmund; near this place are some pits for wolves. During harvest, two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, emerged from these excavations. They were conducted to the village nearly exhausted with hunger, and yet could relish no species of support which was offered to them, until some beans were brought in from the field, which they immediately ate with pleasure. At length, by degrees, they changed their original color and became like ourselves, and also learned our language. The boy died prematurely; his sister, however, continued in good health, and differed not in the least from the women of our own country. Afterwards, as it is reported, she was married.
— William of Newburgh,
Historia Rerum Anglicarum

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My brother and I climbed out of the wolf-pits many years ago. He isn’t here anymore; smaller and younger than me, his body could not adapt to the bright light, the meat, the beer. But I managed. I married. I live in the sunshine world now.

I do not know how we came to the pits, how we came to this land. We had been walking for a long time. Why? Because our legs were young and wanted to move. Because we did not know that worlds ended, and new ones began. We did not know that our home was not everything, until we stumbled into a glaring place, and realized we did not know how to get back.

The forest was an unfamiliar place, but not too bright, not too unlike where we came from, so I took my brother’s little hand in mine and kept walking. I remember we came to a place where the trees were farther apart, sun gaping into the spaces between, until there were no more trees at all, just a harsh landscape of rock and blazing light. My brother covered his face with his hands. It was like burning. All that sun. But we had no word for “burning” then.

You wonder how we failed to see a hole so deep and wide. It had been loosely laid over with branches, and we had no reason to suspect that the ground might betray us. So we fell through the cracks into the dark meant for predators, and we called and cried for Mother and Father.

Eventually, the men working near the mines heard our cries. While they hovered over us, their faces were blacked into nothing by the sun high and sharp in the sky behind them. That is how sun works sometimes: so bright that things are erased rather than illuminated. We screamed at their facelessness as they dragged us up into the day. They spoke in gentle tones while they stared at our bare arms, the flesh of our necks. Their words were garbled nonsense in our ears, but their eyes said, What are you?

They brought us to their village. Two women offered us bread and beans, which we gobbled up. But that’s all we would eat. I wouldn’t touch the potatoes, too pale like blind and hairless little creatures. The slippery fish — I still struggle with those, even now. While we ate, they questioned us:

Where do you come from?

What else could they ask first? I said, in my own language, Our home. The cool dim place full of Mother’s lullabies, friendly eyes bright in the dark, and endless fields of beans. But I could not tell how to get there. I wish I could.

Why is your skin such a strange green color?

I did not understand this question. What is green? They pointed to my arm, then to their own. I could see the difference: mine a reasonable shade, theirs an odd, unnatural one. But I was too polite to say any such thing. I stayed quiet.

Do you worship the Christian God and Jesus Christ, in your land?

I did not understand all the words in that question, but I understood enough to simply answer, “Yes.”

Why do you blink and cover your eyes so? Do you not have the sun, where you come from?

Years later, I might have said: We live always in a dim and comfortable little light. No darkest dark, but no dazzling too-hot-bright either. Not like here. Our world is always edge-lit, just enough to see the faces of loved ones as they approach close. Just enough to grow our beans.

But then, I only blinked and looked to my feet. Now that I can answer in the correct language, nobody is asking.

Seasons would pass before I could speak English decently. Perhaps because they could not understand me, the women of the village insisted that my brother and I crunch into hard, sick-sweet little apples, coarse grainy walnuts, those awful potatoes. My brother gagged and retched, rolled over onto his side to face the wall of the house where they put us. He did not want anything but beans and a place to rest. And our parents. I understood there was nothing in this new place for him. I understood that I was not enough, which hurt, but he did not mean to cause me to hurt, he was just a child. I tucked a blanket around his body, I placed a hand on his forehead, I sang Mother’s lullabies to him. I kept the door closed, I kept the fire low. I tried to make this world easy on his eyes, until he closed them forever.

What was his name? Nobody has asked me that in a very long time. I cannot say it in your tongue. I am not sure I can say it at all anymore.

They put him in the earth, crossed two sticks and stood them in the ground over his head. I planted bean seeds in the barely thawed dirt. The plants grew and clawed their way up the cross. I liked to nibble on the sustenance they bore. I knew the women who were still caring for me — Agnes and Mathilda, such hard, funny clicks and grunts in my mouth — did not approve. They said it was un-Christian. His grave was a holy place that should be respected. I still do not, but I understand that I should not argue, that I should not say, But why add him to the soil if not to grow more, other life? Instead, I learned it was best to visit him in the earliest part of the day, the part that was still mostly night, that was most like home, and to thus avoid Agnes’s eyes and Mathilda’s disapproval.

The bean plants withered with the coming of the cool season. I sat in the little house where they let me stay. I pushed their words out of my mouth: Bowl. Spoon. Bed. Hand. Agnes brought me fresh bread; Mathilda showed me how to milk her cow and drink what came out (at first I choked, but now I like it fine). I spent that winter building so many fires, staring into glaring flame, forcing my eyes to learn how to withstand, and then even enjoy, heat and light.

Snow gave way to fresh grass that I broke into, heading past the green into the dark dirt waiting below. I dug my garden every morning for hours and during that time of soil and sweat my skin changed, the color mottling over many weeks. New food in my gut, new words in my mouth, new skin on my bones. No longer what they called green, but a funny color like their own flesh, a color for which I have never learned a satisfactory name. Of course, it’s not a single color: Agnes is a much paler shade than me. She takes pride in her smooth white hands; I can tell from the way she traces her finger over the flesh of her opposite hand in a gentle loving way without even knowing she does it. Mathilda’s skin is more like tree bark, rougher and darker, especially on her tough hands, as they drag the milk from the cow.

Matilda said to me, “People are beginning to talk, my dear, wondering what your plans are, what you do in this dark house all day. That’s how nasty gossip starts. This cottage is fine for a laborer, but it’s no home for a nice girl. Have you thought about perhaps a husband, a family? You’re just coming into the right age to start thinking about some babies of your own. Wouldn’t you like that?”

Her language was still just beyond me sometimes: I understood“babies,” but not “gossip.” So I said, “Yes, I like babies.”

“It’s settled then. Or, close enough.” Mathilda smiled, and the next day, Richard Hampshire knocked on the door.

Agnes had told me how lucky I was: “He’s a clerk for Lord Farversham, his house is like a castle, the grandest in the realm! Hampshire’s been to the King’s court! Truly, his interest in you is an honor. You must accept whatever he offers.”

I smiled and curtsied before him as Agnes had shown me, and I said, “Please, come in.”

What else could I do? Where could I go? I remembered my old dim life, of course. My mother smiling at me. My father bent over his beans in the dusk (although we didn’t call it that — no need for a word to describe how the world always and simply was). My brother, eyes gleaming with life. But I did not know how to go back there.

I tried, once. I returned back to the wolf-pit early in the morning on the day I was to wed to Richard Hampshire. I peered into the hole through the branches covering it. I wondered: if I plunged myself down into the pit, might I keep falling, back and back, to my dark home? Might my brother be there, waiting for me? Might he say, When they buried me, I just kept crawling, I dug myself a tunnel back, I have been here waiting for you?

But I was afraid of falling into a dark hole, perhaps lying there helpless until the wolves came. Ruining my pretty dress.

I turned away, held my gown clean above my ankles, walked back to my sunny new life.

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I learned, in Richard’s lovely big house, to let the sun ooze warm over my skin, to enjoy the heat of it between my shoulders as I bent in my garden, my bean plants running and reaching everywhere, along the fence, over every trellis I could find. I learned to cook meals of meat and beer for him, even if I only ever ate bread and beans. I learned how to shift beneath him, how much and how loudly to sigh on those nights when he wanted me to. Most nights.

When Richard was away for work, carrying letters and decrees from Lord Farversham to other nobles, I walked to Agnes’s and Mathilda’s houses to visit with them. It was Agnes who understood my complaints first. I rejected her offers of food, admitted I could keep down nothing lately, not even beans, only tiny sips of water, nibbles of dry bread. Of course she knew; she was the village midwife.

I ached through those months like all women, but my worries were my own. I wondered about what she would look like. I did not wonder if she would be a she — I knew it, with every swollen step of my pregnancy (I let Richard imagine a son, I ignored the “he” and “him” and “his” dripping again and again from his mouth). I grew her, but I wondered and worried: would she have skin like mine when I was a child, or would she match me as I am now? Could I still make something green, all these years later?

When the time came, I pushed and groaned. I screamed and hissed with every rush and ebb of pain. Until I felt her breaking out into the world. Welcome to this place. Your home, little bean.

Green as grass. Almost-white hair, blue eyes glazed with the mystery of Heaven (that glaze we all lose as we settle into our earthly days), and pure green flesh all over. My husband’s eyes shocked. I closed my own as I smelled her hair, brought her fresh dirt scent back into my own body.

“It might not stay this way forever,” Richard said. “You changed after you had been here for some time.” No longer “he,” now “it,” I noticed.

Agnes helped lay her at my breast. Richard left, and she said, “Never you mind. She’s lovely and healthy. What’s a bit of green? She will probably change color anyway, sweet little tadpole.”

What if I don’t want her to change?

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“Can you not do anything about it?” Richard asked. He wanted some womanly mystery to come to his aid: a potion; some benign-seeming words with a secret power; ancient words whispered into a bonfire.

But what was there to fix? I grew her green in my belly, and I called her Little Leaf. Richard’s mouth twisted her name into “Livia,” and because that is what her father called her, that is who she became throughout the village. This pleased Richard. He needed something to be pleased about.

I explained to him, “I have no way to change her. I was not green myself because of magic. We lived and worked just like you. I do not know how or why I came to look like you. Perhaps, like me, she will change with time.”

My prayer for her unsaid, lurking in the shadows beneath my words: Please, do not change. Do not leave me with nothing of my old true life. You do not belong here, but you belong with me. I am weak and selfish, I need you here with me.

I went back to the wolf-pit one more time. Wild and sick with longing one night, I carried my baby to the edge. I stood with my toes tipping over the dark hole. The wind in the trees was like a whisper: go back, go back. With my baby in my arms, I tilted my body forward, I hovered above the empty black. Little Leaf sighed and gurgled, her eyes twitching beneath closed lids. Did she dream in green? I wanted to tell her about where I came from. But I would not be able to do that if our bones were lying in the dark forever. I stepped back, I walked back. I shut the door to the house against the night behind us. My husband slept through it all.

Little Leaf began to crawl, her green hands pressed flat on the supporting earth. Any time she whimpered, all I had to do was bring her outside, and she calmed in the sun and the grass. She pressed her cheek against the ground and smiled.

I understood finally that the answer did not lie in the wolf-pit. We had fallen into that hole, my brother and I, but we had come from somewhere else. Somewhere far from this village, beyond the mine and the wolf-pits. But where? With so many years gone, that night was a jumble: there had been hunger in my belly, and fear, and my brother’s little hand in mine. How had we strayed so far from home? Perhaps, if I could ever back there, my mother could tell me, if she lived still.

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I knew it was time to go when she was able to walk. We left while Richard was away doing important work of some kind. I did not say good-bye to Agnes nor Mathilda. I thanked them in my heart, but I was afraid they would try to convince me to stay.

I plucked all the ripe beans from the stalks and stuffed them into the sack I slung across my body.

“It’s time for us to go home, Little Leaf,” I said to my daughter.

“Home?” She moved her mouth around the word. The English thumped too hard against my heart. I will teach you the old words.

“Yes, tiny heart, home. It’s a very long walk, so we best get started.” Not that I expected her to walk the whole way on her own feet. Some days I carried her, wrapped in a sling on my back. Sometimes, when I saw her slowing next to me, I simply scooped her into my arms. She was still small to nestle her face beneath my neck, her head on my chest.

Out of the village, past the mines, past the wolf-pit. In the stark bright of day, it was merely a hole in the ground. Nothing there, save for sleepy memories of a long ago dark night.

I left so much behind: a kind-enough man, a sturdy house, a garden wild with beans. Good women. New words. My brother’s bones.

But once I saw my baby, I knew that none of it was enough.

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We are still walking. She is still green. Summer is over. Already, the nights feel like winter. She is growing very fast. Her flesh expands over her lengthening bones. She stands as tall as my waist now. I cannot carry her, but I do not need to, because she runs and runs. She is still green. And I can see it now on my own skin, too: a grassy tinge, just visible, barely beginning to show beneath the pink-white. I am walking into my original skin. We are getting closer with every step.

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Kristen Holt-Browning holds an MA in English from University College London. She is a freelance editor and writer, and lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley with her husband, two sons, a dog, and two cats.