First Blood

First Blood

She was on her way to the house in the forest. All girls went this way sooner or later. All of them wore a new red cap and carried a gift, an offering of red wine and white cakes. The girls had all been told the story of the Grand Mother ailing, fading away, by their mothers. But this girl was different; she knew it was a story. She’d figured out it had something to do with the moon. It was always new moon when the first-bloods walked through the forest to the house of the Grand Mother. They met the old one there. She’d tell them women’s tales. They’d come back smug, grinning at the boys in the village, too grown up to play. Some would marry soon after.

The basket was heavy. She stopped and set it down. She was thirsty. There were no streams nearby. No branches shadowed the path. It was open to the blue sky. Hot. Dust rising with every step. The forest was dark. It would be cool under its eaves. She could see the soft moss pillows. She’d heard whispers girls left more than wine and cakes on the Moon Mother’s altar. It made her nervous. She wiped the back of her neck with a handkerchief and picked up the basket. It felt even heavier than before.

She strolled under the overhanging branches. Not far, just enough to find some shade, somewhere soft to sit. Her thighs burned, her womb was aching and her shoulders hurt from carrying. It was too heavy; it was the wine, a whole bottle full. And she was so thirsty. She pushed the temptation aside.

She heard him before she saw him. The brush of foliage against clothing, snap of twig under foot. Narrowing her eyes against the glare, she watched him approach. He was slight; his stained clothes hung loose. Who are you, she asked? He didn’t answer straight away. In the dragging silence she took note; he was barely older than she was. There was a scent about him, like bracken and pine and forest soil. He stood balanced on the balls of his feet. The sinews in his neck formed triangles with his shoulders. Brows, like smudges, arched his yellow eyes, colliding over a broad, flat nose. Was he sniffing at her. Could he can smell her blood? Like a beast. She took hold of her basket and got to her feet. Slowly. Not taking her eyes off him. Careful, as if a sudden movement of hers would invite him to spring.

When he spoke, his voice was flat, grinding its way out of his throat. To see Her you’re going, he said. Flowers She likes. Blue ones best. Come and pick them herself She used to, but too old She is. Where they grow show you, he said, turning. Walking away from her without looking back. She felt herself breathe and watched his loping gait and followed. She didn’t realise he hadn’t answered her question, and she had already decided he was no threat.

The flowers grew in clumps, like pools of deep water. She added a large bunch to her basket. He sat watching, his back against a tree, hands hanging limp over his drawn-up knees. She straightened, placing her hand in the small of her back, rubbing the tension. He watched. His tongue flicked across his lips; she saw a glint of teeth. Shortcut show you, he said, leaping to his feet. No, she answered, I know the way, I’ll take the path. She looked around lost for direction. He grinned. She squared her shoulders. Ahead, straight must go. She turned to where he was pointing, peering forward until she recognised the change in light that showed where the path would be. When she turned back to thank him and tell him she preferred to walk alone, he was gone.

The sun was setting. She knew from the older girls that it wasn’t far; she was meant to arrive as the new moon rose. The others all got there early, or so they’d said, to wait at the forest edge until it was time. The delay of picking flowers would get her there as the moon cleared the treetops. It would be dark for the last stretch through the forest.

Her thoughts returned to the nagging question: what would it be like to come back no longer a child? There would be more responsibilities, more restraints, more expectations … She heard something to the left of the path. Like footsteps on last year’s leaves. Turning her head, but unwilling to stop, she peered into the gathering gloom. Nothing There was no one she fancied in the village; she hated the false bravado of the boys. Like the horn-tossing of young bulls. Dust and bellows. Sparing with each other to show … there, the sound of footsteps again … just to her left. She spun around, unsure whether she had imagined or actually seen the movement of a shadow among the deeper shadows of the trees. Wolf-like. Nothing but silence followed and the dry rustle of branches and gathering night wind.

She walked faster now. Keeping to the centre of the path away from the eaves of the wood. Could it be him, the wild boy? She should never have picked the flowers. But he’d felt safe. Not like some boys who left you naked just by looking at you. So pathetic the way the other girls giggle, preen themselves. Path-walkers all of them never straying to new ground all the same, always the same. That’s why she’d talked to the wild boy so different to them … there the sound again … foot falls deep enough in the shadows to stay invisible … She quickened her pace, careful not to run; running showed fear. She was frightened.

She could never remember when she untangled the other sound, the steady fall of hooves ahead of her along the way, from the pounding of her own heart. Or comprehended the silhouette of horse and rider against the lighter surface of the road. In her panic the figure looked monstrous. A fable figure, half horse, half human. Faint with fear, it took moments to grasp his words as familiar language or take the offered hand that pulled her onto the horse. She clutched him tightly, pressing her face against his broad back. Trusting, blocking out the night and the shadow that had followed so closely. Safe. She was safe.

He was a hunter. He told her. It was his job to keep the forest way free of vermin. Where was she going to so late? Oh, to the old woman … well he would look after her. He was witty, his profile sharp in the dim light. His strong hands on the reins. He listened to her chatter. He stopped his horse, telling her it would be more comfortable if she sat in front of him … he would hear her voice better. She dropped down and heard a rustle in the undergrowth. Two points of yellow light. She scrambled back up.

What pretty eyes you have, said the hunter. His arm slid around her waist. She felt his hot breath on her neck. His tongue lashed her ears. She squirmed as his hand squeezed her breast. His fingers prying between her legs. No. She said, don’t. Would you prefer to walk, he asked, already knowing the answer. I’m not ready for that she tried to explain. You’re ready, he said. He reined his horse, dropping to the ground, pulling her down. Her back slammed onto hard earth her basket tumbled glass breaking spilling red wine tearing open white thighs spilling red blood on broken glass screams crushed blue flowers no she fights scratching no hitting with small hands no against the broad back she trusted no no she screams silenced by hard fists consciousness drains like the last drops of wine blood flows rape blood mixed with the blood of crossing from girl to woman he tears her open snarls his dominion marks territory colonises with his seed. Flinging his head back in ecstasy of power. The wolf leaps, lunging at the hunter’s throat exposed to the new light of the moon. Gurgled screams silenced in a flood of blood. A last shake of the prey. Stillness.

The woman-child lies, her bloody thighs splayed wide. Her eyes like the broken shards of glass, her face bruised like the blue flowers scattered and crushed. The white cakes, the sacrifice, ground into the dirt. The wolf presses his cold nose against her throat. She doesn’t move. He sneezes in disgust. His pack knows no violation of females; the power to mate lies with them. He leaves, loping away.

Hours pass. The night wheels over broken child and dead hunter alike. Dawn stains the sky. The old woman led by the boy with yellow eyes hobbles slowly. Softly, she says, softly we don’t want to frighten her. Move she does not, he says peering at the place under the trees. Alive she is, he adds. Yes she’ll live, she’ll mend, we’ll turn it into wisdom we will. I’m old, I need an apprentice, says the woman. She leans heavily on her staff. In a few days the girl will be able to walk, until then they will stay with her. Mend her. And bury the dead.

The old woman taught her the secrets of life and death, taught her of passion and lust. The power in the phases of the moon, the reaping and sowing of grain, the baking of bread, and firing of clay pots and ritual vessels. She learned to find the berries and roots, leaves and bark for the dyeing of wool and the gathering of plants for healing. The old one taught her the weaving cloth and the spinning of threads. Telling her all the secrets, teaching her the skills passed from woman to woman.

The girl learned readily the powers of the goddess to nourish and form, to spin and weave and change.But not a word she spoke.She helped when the girls from the village came. They were shy, finding her so changed; silent and filled with the strange dignity that comes with suffering. She washed them and fed them the white cakes and gave them the red wine to drink. She lay them on the altar and held their thighs and watched how the secret door was gently opened so that womanhood would bring joy, not pain. She listened while they were taught the holy pleasures of the body. She never returned to the village. Never walked the forest path. Never revisited the place.

When she had nightmares, the wolf boy would press his cold nose to her face. They would rise together in the night-dark. She would leave the house and find an open glade. And howl. Howl her pain, her fury to the moon. Till the trees shuddered and her face was livid and her lips as black as the night. Her voice uttered the cry of guilt that struck. Her wordless wrath silenced the voices of men, still as standing stones. She was mirrored in the dark face of the moon. On these nights, no man dared to lift his eyes to the sky. But she would furrow her fingers through the wolf’s dark coat and feel safe. In time the hunter stopped stalking her dreams.

The old one died. For three days the young woman wept. The wolves howled. The trees shed their leaves. But when dawn broke the next day she dressed herself in the cloak of the Moon Mother. It was wide enough to cover her sprouting wings. And gradually she learned to fly. As the moon waxed and waned and grew full again, marking the passages of time and creation, she learned a new language, between the howling of wolves and the whispering of air through the feathers of her wings. She swept the forest roads clean of hunters and fell in love with the wolf-boy. Some say she never bore children of her own; others speak of a small clan of people with yellow eyes and dark hair. Women are safe there, they say.