You must remember this; there is always a wolf.
In the seventeenth century, Emma de Longchamps, a girl of seventeen and just married, was seen walking down a lane on her husband’s country estate. She must have been embroidering, for there were sewing needles woven in her sleeves, with bright thread fluttering behind her like an airy cloak.
She did not return that night, or the next, and they said she must have fallen prey to the same pack of wolves that had taken some of the sheep a week earlier. Blood was found beside a stream, a few dark hairs, a steel needle still threaded with red silk.
The Marquis was most wroth; his bride had still been an amusing toy. But the wolf pack, wisely, moved on and did not bother the estate again. The Marquis eventually forgot his rage. The girl Emma had been the least memorable of his wives, having had the shortest tenure.
Fifty years later, it became a game among young women to put needles in their sleeves and go walking together at night, tumbling out of windows with their pretty chemise dresses, moving together under a fat spring moon. What breathless secrets they told, what kisses they exchanged, out there in the silver-limned darkness, when the owls cried, closer, closer! What pretty things they told each other as they walked the path of needles and played its tender games!
Did the wolf come to them, in the darkness? Did they see her eyes flash brilliant in the shadows, reflecting moonlight?
There are only a few reasons for a girl to be walking by herself in the woods. Grandmother does not live out here, no; she lives in the village. You did not flinch when I appeared beside you, instead raising your eyes to mine as bold as anything. I like that in a young girl, that boldness. They shush it out of most young things these days.
You are going to a stream you know of that has a wide flat rock in the sunshine, where you will lie on your belly and watch the little fishes dart in and out of the shadows. It is a prosperous autumn and you will not be missed on this long early evening; your mother is worried about your infant brother, who is not thriving, and your father, who she suspects has his eye on the miller’s plump daughter.
You have your dog with you for protection. Strange, that he did not bark, does not growl. Strange that he flattens his ears in kinship towards me. Your dog knows me, even if you do not.
Will you take the path of needles, my child? Or the path of pins?
At first it was a hat, you know. The story was told about a girl whose favorite possession was a pretty red hat, an improper color for a young girl. Eventually, the hat became a cloak, as these things sometimes do in tales. Red, they said. A deep hood, encompassing darkness beneath. The cape made of heavy wool, practical in this climate save for the color.
The cloak is always red as blood, as red as birth waters, as maidenhead lost.
When Emma de Longchamps died, there were whispers that she had run away, since no body was ever found. She was the Marquis’ third bride in fifteen years. She had lasted only six weeks counted by Sundays.
There were certain maidservants who slept beneath the stairs who liked to think of her wide brown eyes not warming some beast’s forgetful belly, but instead still open, looking at the sea. Perhaps she was walking on a shore somewhere warm with a basket on her arm.
They knew the truth of the Marquis and of his young bride. And they knew that sometimes it is better to put needles in one’s sleeve and go walking into an uncertain future than it is to stay and be pinned into gown after gown, bed after bed.
Emma de Longchamps was sold to the Marquis to pay her father’s debts. In those days, as today, none asked her whether she wanted to be married at all.
You listen, my child, with your direct gaze and your hand light on your dog’s head. Which is the path of needles, and which of pins, you ask me.
I could tell you, little girl. Your mother has told you more, though. Keep your skirt down and your eyes as well. When you speak to men, speak softly. Be only as vulgar as you must, and no more. Braid your hair, your pretty hair, so tightly that it looks like it has been scraped clean off your skull. When you sew and are done with the needle, put it in the pincushion or the needle-box instead of in your sleeve.
That is the path of pins. The path of the good child.
I am far more qualified to speak of the path of needles.
In later days, the country estate was sold and sold again, and the Marquis died heirless. The people who live there tell stories of a girl in a red hood, and they tell stories of her black, black boots and the needles in her sleeves. They tell stories of her hands, so white! so fair! scarred only with the tiny pits of pox!
Her name has been lost to time, of course, and perhaps it is not Emma de Longchamps. Emma who had a mother who cried bitterly when the news came, and six younger sisters who all thought they knew what had happened to the oldest, the prettiest. What always happened to the oldest and the prettiest.
They tell stories of the girls who go walking at night with needles in their sleeves, wanting to catch a glimpse of the red cloak, craving the moonlight illuminating what is beneath that hood, the beautiful curve of bone and the empty blackness where once wide brown eyes resided.
They call to the wolf, and desire her bones, her smooth white bones.
Did I not tell you that there is always a wolf?
Some of the old aunties say that the path of needles and the path of pins end in the same place. I can see that you are thinking the same thing, that a bold girl like you would end up on the same flat rock, no matter which path you took. It is only one path, after all, this twisted deer-track in the woods that are beginning to flame with fall like an orange blush on a green face.
Your hand tightens on your dog’s fur, and I see you begin to understand. He whines softly, and looks at you for reassurance.
Girls not much older than you walk the streets of Paris, in gowns that look fine in dim light but are filthy with the dust and shit of the city, much-mended, dripping beads and feathers when they move. Gentlemen walk as well, and look for the shine of metal on a woman’s upper arm. It is a language they believe they have in common.
The aunties would call these men wolves. But they are to the wolf as your dog is to his wild cousins: tame. Obedient. Dull. They are the end of the path, not the beginning, and only one end at that.
I will walk with you as far as the lightning-struck tree. I have not yet finished my story, after all, and I can see in your eyes that you have a hunger to know how it ends. It is always thus, with girls I find walking in the woods, alone but for their dogs.
Most of the girls in the pretty chemise dresses will take the path of pins, after flirting with the path of needles. They will return to their homes, take the needles out of their sleeves, and hope their mothers never find out what they have been doing under the moon sweet and full as a bag of candy. They will learn their Latin, learn how to make candles, and how to keep account-books. They will be careful and clever even if they cannot be pretty. They will marry well, or poorly, and they will have children, most of them. By the time their daughters are old enough to try sneaking out, they will have forgotten telling them the story of the needle and the wolf.
Some of those girls, though! Some–
Some girls keep a needle or two in their sleeve. Some of them do not marry. Those who marry may have unusual husbands, husbands who perhaps have learned the secret of the needle as well, and who know how to keep that secret.
We have always found each other, the women of the needle.
But you are a bit young still for those stories. There are sins you shall learn of when you are a little older, sins that the priest who you whisper your small confessions to would first assign you a hundred Hail Marys as penance for, and then call on your father for a hushed conference.
I have watched your village priest; he is a man of God, but he is also only a man. I could tell you stories of what fevers his body when he tosses and turns in his narrow, hard bed. I have sat by his window and tasted his dreams, the deeds that the animal in him wishes he could commit. Remember this when you are kneeling before him of a Sunday. Remember that his authority is borrowed and awkwardly worn on his flesh, his bones.
Shall I tell you the truth of what happened to Emma de Longchamps?
Emma walked down a country lane with thread fluttering behind her. She was fleeing the country house in her slippers and her thin dress, her breath sobbing and a stabbing, hot pain in her side. She stopped by a stream, washed her face, drank a little.
When she looked up, a silent form was watching her, wearing a bright red cloak. The figure’s face was shadowed, but the jaw was beardless and the mouth was curved like a woman’s. Emma had not heard the figure approach.
“I won’t go back,” she said quietly, standing straight but shifting from foot to foot. “I won’t.” Six weeks of indignities! Six weeks of this hideous duty! Her back was a mess of bruises, black and red, the skin torn. Blue ringed her delicate neck like a choker.
The nunnery had been so much easier, even though the nuns were strict. There had been sweet times, soft mouths to kiss, and Emma de Longchamps had been an eager student of things the other girls had to teach. She had even taught some of those things to others. She knew much of the ways of pleasure, did Emma de Longchamps, and believed that none of it was a sin.
Then her father had come to fetch her, and she had been made to wear a gown and stand in front of a mumbling priest. She had been pinned to the bed, over and over again, and she had decided at last that she would rather try her luck in the world than spend one more night in the Marquis’ large bed. She had glimpsed little bits of pleasure in her encounters with him, but the Marquis was a man who believed that dogs, horses, and women needed a firm hand.
The voice of the figure was rough, as if he or she had once been hit in the throat. “You do not have to return. But there is a price.”
Emma gestured at the needles in her sleeves. “I will pay. It cannot be worse.”
The finely carved mouth curved up, just a little. “You have no idea how bad it can be, little girl. But I will take pity on you.” Did the illusion waver then? Did Emma see beneath the mouth a row of crooked, broken teeth set in the pitted bone of a jaw?
She must have, she must have, for she swayed back. “Pity? You have pity?”
“Call it mercy. I was once like you.” The hand of the figure in the red cloak went to its waist, and drew a knife. Silver it was, through you would only know it where the touch of a hand had worn through the tarnish, and the edge which was often used and therefore bright. The pommel of the knife was a crude wolf snarling, a ball clamped in its wicked jaws.
Emma de Longchamps looked at her savior, and swallowed. A wind stirred the leaves above her head and she flinched. Rustles heralded evil to her now, like bedcurtains parted by a large hand. “Yes,” she whispered, and, “yes.”
The wolf ate her, you see. The wolf ate her all up, stripping her to her bones, freeing her to the wind and the night and the forest. And when the wolf was done, Emma de Longchamps rose in her bones, and took up the silver knife. With a motion–a snick-snack of the blade! A grate of tendon and bone!–she ended the wolf who had gifted her with a new life.
She took up the heart’s-blood cloak and the tarnished blade, and walked on, and on, and on.
There is always a wolf.
There was blood enough for convincing, and some hair as well, and scraps of dress. Any tracks were covered by the tracks of the dogs that came after, sniffing and sniffing.
The Marquis never questioned the story of the wolf. He was no huntsman, despite his country estate and his wealth. He had never had been one rabbit from starvation and never would be.
The people of the village tell their daughters to stay on the path. Go straight there and straight back. The path will protect you. It is the shortest way.
But girls will stray out under the moonlight. And even the path is little enough protection, as you have just discovered. See how my teeth shine in the evening light, the smooth white curve of my skull?
Am I not lovely, in my cloak and my bones, the most splendid wolf there ever was?
Run home, little girl. Run home and tell them that there is a wolf in the wood. And tell them that her name was Emma de Longchamps, and she chose the path of needles, chose the red cloak and the silver dagger and the pretty girls under the fat full moon. Tell them that in all her life a girl is never feared until she has spilled her first crimson blood, and then, only then, she has power–unnamed, for fear that she might use it.
Tell them that I am watching.
Tell them that I wait for them, on the path.
Kris Millering is a linguist by training, a tech tinkerer by trade, and a writer and photographer by avocation. She lives between two mountains in the foothills of the Cascades in Washington State. Her fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and The Colored Lens. You can find out more online at http://www.krismillering.com/ .