The Wild

by Chloe N. Clark

Luke was the youngest, born two years after me, and he was also the kindest of us all. He, of course, was the first that was taken.
I was fourteen when our father remarried. Our mother had died when I was five. I’d like to say that I remembered her. But I didn’t. Not really. There were just small stray things: a memory of her cutting the skin from a plum, a pair of dragon-shaped earrings hanging from her ears, her laugh wild and happy when, as a toddler, I had somehow covered myself in ice cream.
My father was a good man. That should be stated early. He was, also, a sad man. The accident that took our mother also claimed one of his legs. His limp was a constant reminder; as a child, I believed his wooden leg was the ghost of my mother—forever attached to my father but still not quite real.

The first time we met our future stepmother was a month before the wedding. Her name was Leva and she was beautiful. She looked like fire to me— red hair and golden eyes—though each of us saw her differently I have come to believe.
My father never told us how they met or why they chose to marry so quickly. We were children and some things were never spoken about to children. The wedding was held in winter on the shortest day of the year. There are old legends that this is the day when the veil between the living and dead is the thinnest. If this were true, I believe that our mother would have saved us; if this were true, she would have stopped the wedding somehow.

Leva was not cruel at first, not in the ways which would be noticed by others. She never hit us or withheld our meals. She was cruel like thin ice over a lake—kind enough to trick the eye, until you placed one foot onto the surface. The first time I noticed it was when I was singing. I loved to sing. I would do it without thinking: singing in the shower, while walking to school, doing the dishes.

She had stopped once, upon hearing me. “Oh what a nice voice you have.”I had blushed, smiled at her.
“It’s too bad, though. Your voice is good, but it will never be perfect.”
I stopped singing because I couldn’t stop thinking about the lack of perfection—my breathing was uneven, I couldn’t hit some high notes, I lacked a strong sense of melody.

I started to notice the ways in which she did this to the others. To our oldest brother, Alex, she noted how he would be extraordinarily handsome were it not for the angles of his face. To Lewis, she talked about his skill at sport—how he should be glad he was able to play at such a “fun” level since he didn’t have the body of an athlete. They seemed like such throwaway remarks. They seemed so innocent, as if she were critiquing us on those things we could change, as if we could make ourselves more perfect for her.

She favored Luke. She would always smile at him when no one was looking, or when she thought no one was looking. It wasn’t a smile that I liked, though. It held no sweetness. It was a smile of hunger—she reminded me of a painting I had seen; in the painting Death was standing at the gates of a plague ridden city. Their smiles were exactly the same.

One day, Luke did not come home. He had been at school. She said that he must have gone to a friend’s house. “I’m sure that’s what he told me he was going to do,” she said, calmly.

He did not come home. We looked, everyone looked, for days on end. He did not come home. She acted scared, but “acted” was the important word. Her eyes never fearful, despite how she fluttered about and wrung her hands.

A year passed and we stopped looking. The signs on street posts began to peel from the wood in strips like skin and we did not replace them.

Lewis was the second oldest. He was a year older than me. He was a painter. She often admired his work, though she would tell him that he didn’t have a good eye for color. He was the one she made to suffer. I watched how she watched him. Those slight smiles when he winced in pain. At first, the others thought it was nothing, but I saw her and knew it was not nothing.
The doctors said it was odd, that they had never seen a cancer move so quickly. By the time it was done with him, he might as well have disappeared. He was so thin and his skin so fragile that I was afraid to even touch him, to hold his hand.
Alex, of course, was next. That is how these things go. They happen in threes. He was the eldest, four years older than me. A police officer. He wanted to be a detective, which made me smile when I was younger because I would picture him dressed up like those old film versions of Sherlock Holmes.

He was out of the house. So he should have been safe. She shouldn’t have been able to reach that far. It was an ordinary thing. He was called to a domestic disturbance. A man screaming at his wife; they hadn’t even come to blows, yet. Later, they would say how they always just yelled at each other, how they didn’t even know how the pan was in her hand, and when Alex stepped in front of her, she has no idea why she would have swung out. The pan hit his temple, the most fragile part of the human skull we would hear later in the trial. I had never thought of skulls as things that could break. They seemed like they were the most permanent part of the human body. They could break, though. That I did find out.
It was after Alex that the birds started to come. There were only the three of them. Swans with white coats that settled at the lake near our house. I noticed them when I walked to school. They would watch me—turn their graceful necks to follow my path with their gaze. I tried to not notice them, pretend they were not there, but I couldn’t. There was something about those swans.
Leva began to talk to me a lot. She would smile when she did and every time that I spoke back to her she would smile even more. One day she asked, “Isn’t speaking so nice? Wouldn’t you just hate to lose conversation?”
It was then that I knew that I needed to stop speaking. She wanted me to and so I knew that I shouldn’t. One doesn’t do what the devil asks of them. Or one shouldn’t, at least.

She tried to make me speak. She tried. She would step out from around corners as if to shock me into speaking; she would block my path, just stand there in front of me refusing to budge but I never asked her to move, I’d just turn around and go back to where I came from.

One morning, the day before my high school graduation, I noticed the swans standing in a line. I walked up to them. I reached out towards them. One, the smallest, stepped forward and touched its beak to my hand. Then each in turn stepped forward to do the same. Three swans. My brothers.

It was my father, who told me I had to go to the university. I had planned to stay near him, to keep watch on Leva, but he told me to go. He said there was too much sadness in the house for both of us and that one of us had to be freed from it. The thing about not speaking is that there is no way to say goodbye. To Leva, there were no words I would have said. I could hug my father, but the swans I had nothing for.

Leva left my father a year after I left them both. He seemed so much older and hollowed out like a chocolate egg at Easter-time. He barely acknowledged me when I visited. He spoke only of her, of the one who went away. He said nothing of my mother. He said nothing of my brothers. Of course, I could say nothing either. I wondered if we began to lose people most when we could no longer speak their names.

He died shortly after, my father. I was the only one to attend the burial. And, of course, the swans.
I thought that she would leave me then, too. I thought she would let me go. How much more could be taken from me?
Three years passed before I met him. His name was Ian. I liked the simplicity of his name. I wished I could say it aloud. The sounds would be so nice upon my tongue, so easy and short and sweet.

He didn’t know why I did not speak. I wrote him the things I wanted to say. I did not tell him of brothers lost. I did not tell him that sometimes I dreamed of the sea being filled with crushed glass and I was on a boat made of thorns. I could jump and be cut or I could stay and be cut.

Once while he was sleeping beside me, I woke up and looked around his room. There was a collection of fairy tales, and because I could not sleep I thought to read them. The third story had a picture of a witch. A painting in the style of Edmund Dulac, though I can’t say whether it was by him or not. The witch had red hair and golden eyes. She looked like fire upon the page.

There once was a girl who had eleven brothers and a father. She loved them all so much. One day, though, the father remarried. The new mother was cold though she burned. She did not like the children. She watched them with eyes like diamond points, ready to cut, ready like knives. She plotted and she planned. They were children. They could not know how she plotted and she planned. Now, the father knew, in his heart, of his new bride’s malice. He took the children far away and hid them in a house. But, she found them and the hiding only made her angrier. She turned the brothers to swans. One by one. She thought of what she would do to the girl and it made her laugh. The girl ran. She ran and she ran and she ran. And the girl kept running and the witch kept following her. Witches like those who run the best.

I shut the book. I put it back in its place. I thought about the story until I fell into dreams. I dreamed of a forest and a girl with no hands. I dreamed of my mother. She was a tree. She said to the girl with no hands, “Go out to the forest path, find the house with the stained glass door, knock on the door just once, and ask the woman who answers for three things she cannot give you.”
It was the next day that Leva returned to my life. I was to meet Ian’s parents—his father and step-mother. Any wise reader would guess who I would find. She smiled at me when I saw her. I could not scream out, though for the first time in years, my tongue came closest to yelling something out. No is all I wanted to say.

She watched me looking at Ian and I knew what she would plan. Some catastrophe, some harm to him. I thought of going then, of going and never turning back. But witches like those who run and so I could not run.

I dreamed again that night of my mother. My mother was an ocean. There was a girl dressed up in animal skins and my mother said to her, “Go out to the forest path, find the house with the stained glass door, knock on the door just once, and ask the woman who answers for three things she cannot give you.”

I woke up and thought to myself for the longest time. I watched Ian’s chest rise and fall, rise and fall with the beautiful monotony of breathing. I went out at dawn. The swans were waiting outside the door for me. They had never changed cities for me. Maybe it was migration. Maybe it was my need, stronger even than the poles of the earth.

I found Forest Path Road. Sure enough there was a house with a door made of stained glass. The stone path was white washed and broken jars lined it. There were wind chimes hanging from every branch of every tree in the yard. I went up to the door and I knocked. Just once.

The woman who answered wore a glittering mask. She beckoned me inside. Tiny mirrors hung on strings from the ceiling. I saw reflections of things that couldn’t be reflected in them: faces of people who were not there.

“So, you come to me, finally,” she said.
I nodded my head.
“And what would you ask of me?”
I held up three fingers.
“Three things you want and what may they be?”
I touched my lips.
“A voice returned.”
I held up three fingers and touched my heart with them.
“Three brothers returned.”
I held up one more finger and placed it over my lips.
“And the witch to be gone.”

I nodded my head. The woman in the mask stepped out of the room. I looked around at the mirrors. I caught a glimpse of my father’s eye peering out from one. The woman returned with a porcelain plate. On it were slices of fruit. She offered them to me and I took a piece of plum with its skin neatly removed. It tasted sweet.

There are stories they tell about children. Often the children will suffer greatly at the hands of witches. Boys will be turned into birds or trees. Girls will have their hands cut off or their tongues cut out. Babies will be stolen and replaced with dirt or dogs. Lovers will have their eyes pierced out by thorns. I promised to tell these tales to my children. There is enough in the world of the dark that they should learn about it early.
The first time my husband heard my voice was when he told me of his stepmother’s death. She was near the lake in town and someone said a swan attacked her. The rush of their wings can break bones or so I’ve heard. They flew at her and she went into the water. All I said was, “Oh.”

He stared at me and then I touched my throat. I tried to look surprised.
We have three children now. Three sons. I sing to them often. When Ian finally heard me, the look on his face was so strange that I had to ask him what he was thinking about.

“I used to imagine what your voice would sound like.”
“It sounds so different than I thought it would.”
“How so?”
“It sounds so…. so free. So wild.”

I smiled at that. I smiled and smiled. What things are born inside someone after they have lost so much? Sometimes I dream of fire raging, but I always put it out with water, with ice, with the wind of a thousand birds beating their wings.


Chloe N. Clark is an MFA candiate in Creative Writing & Environment. Her work has appeared in Booth. Bombay Gin, The Stoneslide Corrective, and more. She can be followed on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.