The Wolf Head by Tom Saunders
The Wolf Head
(An outlaw) … wears the head of a wolf from the day of his outlawry and can be killed without fear of penalty.
—11th Century English Law
Then Cain carried out an unwise deed with his hands, slew his kinsman, his brother, and spilled Abel’s blood. The earth swallowed up the slaughter-blood, after the deadly blow, woe reared up, the progeny of sorrow. For a long time since then, cruel fruit has grown from this branch - hostility. The branches of strife have reached widely across the nations of men. The harm-branches have touched the sons of multitudes severely and sorely - as they still do. From these broad leaves, every evil began to sprout.
— The Elder Genesis
I passed many stone ruins on the path to the forest. I had seen them before, when I was a child. My father used to take me here, to this cold and desolate place. He told me they were made by proud men, long ago. He told me they were not just builders, but warriors too, half-giants, and when he told me stories of their feats of battle and bravery my heart quickened.
Now, those ruins are empty, frost-covered, beaten by the storms of winter, crumbling and abandoned. When I pass them, my coat tight against the wind, I do not look, but hasten toward the woods, to safety. With each step, night descends, the ground grows softer, the trees become forest. My breath is a rasping whistle, and my boots are gathering mud, each step heavier than the one before.
I ran for a reason, but I can no longer recall it. There was a woman of raven hair, a man with fire in his eyes, a blade flashing in the night. I call out her name, and the leaves quiver with laughter.
My father told me a bog is ground too soft to hold the body of a man. That’s how we measure this world, he said. By the weight of a man. He told me the world was better once, but that the slaughter of kings and princes, the treachery of queens and commoners, and the rebellion of children against their parents had brought the judgment of the Lord upon us, and that the misery of our world was the prelude to a fate beyond poetry or imagining.
My father told me many things. He told me a bog is more than a floating place. It is where the water meets the weald, where the weald meets flesh, and where flesh remembers the water it came from. The bog is what you were, what you are, and what you will be once more.
A tongue of lightning splits the sky, and the wolf’s-head looms up in my mind. I drown it out with a shout. I cry the name of the wolf, and the name of my father, and my father’s father. I feel hot salt simmer in my eyes. Give me a sword, a spear, a shining lance! Give me a fight, and muscle, and sinew to carve. But I run to the step of the wolf, and mercy is not mine to receive. The forest. The hunt. The judgment. My birthright.
A weapon is no good, nor muscle, or spit. Only the light is worth having, the pale glow of the clearing. Another mud-booted step into the eye of the woods. Rearmice rustle the branches, grass-steppers chatter in the dark, but there is another noise, the noise of a pack, fur-clad men carrying axes carved from the flesh of the trees, and blades that sing as they cut the air.
Or just the rustle of the bark.
Insects rise up from the bog,
a black and brown bee-gang,
biting and speaking. They say:
The weight of the forest is the weight of the world
And you, the world-eater, where have you found?
It’s lonely and cold, out here in the night
It’s wet and it’s dark and it’s-
“______!” I push the words out from my lungs, so hard the words rattle in my ribs, like a prisoner begging for escape. “_ __ ____!” The trees chew my words and echo them; they feast and grow taller still, their heads high as the clouds.
The clearing is broad, the light a grey disc. I reach the centre, the daisy-eye, and stare up at the cold burnished sky, a man at the bottom of a well. Now when I call her name, it is in the voice of the birds, and when I look at my arm, the hairs are stained elm-bark, and brown.
This place was made for me. I look up, up at the dēap-bēam, the death-tree, Tree of Knowledge. It is tall and black, fruits the size of my hand.
The first bite is the sun, the second is the moon, the third is death.
I put on the wulfhēafod, and climb the
gallows at last.
I feel the rope against my neck,
the floor falls away,
I hang at death’s gate until my soul breaks,
my bloody bone-chamber dies,
the dark-cloaked raven takes my eyes.
My life is gone, I am stretched on the mist,
pale on the beam,
hanged on the tree.
I attend my fate without feeling,
I wait without hope for my life.
I feel the hate-branches close in on my body,
pierce my heart,
feel the mottled case grow over me,
my bark-skin cracking and creaking.
I will live on in the branches,
my eyes will be red berries,
my skin as bark,
my head the head of the wolf.