“The Wolf” by Allison Williams
Hilde took two steps forward into the blind. Petr was getting more and more precise with the drops. The snow crunched under her knee as she nocked an arrow, sighting the pale ash shaft through the narrow slit. The willow branches had been interlaced by the Temporal Adjustment Facility techs as tightly as anything made in this Here-and-Now. Her uncovered face blended with her brown one-piece jumpall and the dark treebark as long as she was still.
She waited, listening. Emme had asked her once if she wasn’t bored all day, thinking of Hilde pushing paperwork into vac-tubes and double-checking figures.
“It’s fascinating,” Hilde had said, the three of them curled up after dinner on the soft floor of the home unit lounge. She never talked about her work, though Emme knew it was important – their home unit only three stops from the Facility showed that. So did Emme’s place in the Level Three HomeKeeper Supply lines where the wait for onions or carrots might be only a few hours instead of a whole day, where there might be lettuce or oranges or even a bottle of cider from the Rural Regions. And Anneliese, precious Ani, their only awarded child, she, too, was a badge of Hilde’s rank.
Hilde meant it when she said it was fascinating to find and correct mistakes. “Like a birthday scavenger hunt, every day.” Then the two mothers explained to Ani that years ago, natal celebration days were a private family occasion, on different days of the year, with games and treasure hunts instead of speeches and a parade in the square.
“Can I have a bird’s day?” asked Ani, as round-eyed as the stuffed frog in her arms. Emme shushed her, but Hilde turned her back to the Eye and shook her head while whispering that maybe in the summer they would go into the woods, to Hilde’s mother’s house, and play ‘birthday’ with a scavenger hunt.
The woods where Hilde waited now held the hush of snow. On a branch above the blind, a bird landed with a swish, a few icy flakes drifting in front of the slit.
Then the howl started.
“Scheiße,” and she was already running, snaking easily through the trees, spotting the path exactly as she’d trained, the paw prints deceptive – the wolf would be a head shorter, she had the concussion to prove it – but there was clearance if you knew the way.
The cottage in the clearing was smaller than the drawings in Perrault or Grimm, but unmistakable: a stack of wood under a lean-to, log walls chinked with earth, a small and precious window filled with thin-stretched bladder.
The howl stopped, replaced by a low whimper, probably from the child. The old woman’s voice was stern, and then, against the window, her shadow pulled a needle out of a basket. The child would be coming out for heavy rocks any second now. Hilde spoke into her upper arm.
“Scheiße,” came the response in her left ear. “Initiating.”
One step backwards into the portal. Petr knew the length of her stride and placed it exactly every time. Through the Surex wall, she saw him punch a button, and his voice came into the tube, saving the batteries on the comm unit in her arm and ear. She could hear someone else’s mission from another tube –
“It was simple, really – we inoculated the girl’s mother against TB.”
“And the stepmother-to-be?”
“Still a widow with two ill-tempered daughters, next duchy over.”
“We’ll put them on the list. Hang tight for re-vaccination, please.”
“I hate that junk.”
“Exposure equals risk.” The operative chorused with his engineer on ‘equals risk’; they all knew it from the first day of training.
Petr repeated a question, and Hilde jerked her attention back to her own mission. “Oh – I think another hour back. Maybe seventy-five minutes.”
“You want to decontam?”
“Nein. Let’s try and wrap it before lunch, OK?”
“Go-go-go, meine Frau.” Her engineer keyed in the new sequence and she felt the shock in the soles of her feet.
One step to the blind this time. Petr showing off. He was good, they were a good team. The snow crunched. The bowstring tensed in her fingers. On the branch above, the bird landed again – before – and a feather drifted down. Faded blue against the snow, the color of her father’s eyes. You had to be careful, you wanted to see signs and portents, but it was only nature doing as it always does. “Appreciate the real story,” her father used to say.
“The price of being a sheep…” He said that, too. Before he went into a mission and never came back. Maybe he climbed through a hedge of briars and put out his eyes, unable to find his portal; maybe his comm battery died and they couldn’t find him. Maybe he kissed the girl and fell in love.
And then the stink of dog urine and filth, yellow eyes past her before Hilde even realized her grip had slackened. Even as she raised the bow she knew she’d missed, it would be better to go back and restart the mission – but her reflexes had sent the arrow into a birch trunk and now she’d have to dig it out and start over.
Some people hated Decontam. Sure, it stung, but when you’d completed a mission it was better than a hot shower and when you’d failed – had a temporary setback – the combination of stinging air and burning chem was a wake-up call. Focus. Hilde suited up in a clean jumpall and went unseeing down the hall to the cafeteria, where Petr had two trays and a chair for her at a table by the wall.
“I need more time.”
“Exposure equals risk.” Petr swallowed his blue VollEssen and washed it down with a swig of lager, the Facility’s version an exact-tasting match unless you’d had sips at your father’s knee. Hilde always drank hers holding her breath, she didn’t want the taste to replace the memory.
She pushed aside her own VollEssen pill, pink for women, a complete source of everything the body needed except time to enjoy a meal. The simulfood on her tray was social, not nutritional nourishment, and she poked at what was intended to be turkey stroganoff. Even the need to complain about the cafeteria is met.
“Petr, I know we minimize the amount of time-contamination, but it’s not showing up to a party at nine sharp where any fool with a mask and a pasteboard invite can get in. It’s stalking an animal.”
“And that’s why it’s your job.”
“Maybe with a verdammte blunderbuss.”
“You kiss Emme with that mouth? Shame, shame.”
“Why does it have to be an arrow?”
Petr gave her the “hundred times” look. The closer they came to the real incidents, the better their chances of rooting out the fables that sprouted from them.
Hilde dropped her voice and rattled her lager can on the table. “Why does the Facility get involved at all? I love my job, but do they all have to be corrected?”
Petr rattled his own can. It would be obvious something was up, but half the Facility thought he and Hilde were sleeping together despite her pairing with Emme. Neither he nor Hilde was offended by the assumption, instead dropping hints enough to have a reason to talk privately.
He leaned in and touched her hand as though he’d forgotten there were Eyes. “It’s important. Children should not know fear.”
Hilde withdrew her hand and snaked her glance at the nearest Eye, a guilty thing surprised.
Petr rattled his can again and looked infatuated, but his urgency was real. “We’re so close, Hilde! We can walk at night alone, we know that other citizens mean us well. Our partners are suitably-aged and suitably-matched, they’ll never leave us sobbing on the bathroom floor.” He touched her chin and she cut her eyes at the VollEssen dispenser on the wall, where everyone knew there was another Eye, then to the exit sign, where most of the Facility workers didn’t know there was a third.
“You’ve seen the old cinematics. Do you want to go back to that? Do you want to count on hailing the right taxi who will cut through midtown traffic and break laws to get you to the airport before your so-called true love gets on the plane?”
“They wouldn’t be allowed to board without their partner’s registered consent–”
“That’s not the point, Hilde! The point is, it’s messy and it’s dangerous and it hurts people. Real people in this Here-and-Now. Think rationally – how much better will Ani’s life be because she’s secure and guarded and taken care of? She’ll never cry herself sick from a broken heart. She’ll never fear backstreets or strangers or wicked rulers. She’ll never sneak out a window to meet a boy she’s not supposed to, thinking it’s ‘magic’ or ‘fate’. And you’ll sleep better every night.” He’d forgotten to keep rattling his can, but this at least was mission-related, pro-Facility talk, probably not enough to send them down for ReThink. Hilde nodded like she’d been convinced, then gave up on the flaccid noodles on her plate and put the VollEssen in her mouth. Petr shuddered as she chewed.
“It’s still food, mein mann,” she said. “So I’m eating it.”
The hallway back to Mission Dispatch was lined with trophy cases. A glass slipper. A pair of thigh boots. A cutlass and hook. In a refrigerated case, a piece of gingerbread and an apple with one bite. Held with wires to show the shape, a shattered chair.
A red cape.
“You see?” Petr reminded her as they passed, “You’ve already done it.”
And even knowing that it was only to avoid Paradox that she still had to do it at all, Hilde still thought, the price of being a sheep.
Only a half-step into the blind this time. Petr letting her know he had her back, he was still focused one hundred percent on success, on coming back safely, on not letting her go the way her father–
Wrongthought. Analyze. Learn from temporary setbacks. We have all the time in the world, that doesn’t mean we have to use it.
“Third time’s the charm,” Hilde muttered to herself. And there was always something in the tale about that, too. The youngest daughter. The seventh son. Hilde ran her hand over her close-cut hair and longed again for Rapunzel’s tresses, just a few locks, instead of this half-raced Afro, useful only if you grew it enough to stick a pencil in. Ani wouldn’t know that envy, wouldn’t think long, straight, smooth hair was any more desirable than her own.
This time the wolf was slower. It hadn’t shapeshifted; it was still in animal brain, not yet an archetype or a metaphor or a symbol of incipient womanhood or menstruation or the shape of fear itself. Hilde nocked the arrow and took the beast cleanly through the eye.
She dragged the body to the portal and spoke into her arm.”Incoming.”
“Heil, meine frau,” pride and knowing and humor all in Petr’s voice at once.
A hard shove and a shhhhhh, and the wolf’s body was gone, erased in this Here-and-Now. She pushed the hunter’s blind through the portal after it – less temporal disturbance and the woven branches could be re-used.
“Ready?” asked Petr in her ear.
“Hilde–” but she flicked ‘mute’ and ‘power save’ and started down the path.
The door swung inward gently at her touch, and she said to the old woman, “You should keep it locked.”
“I’ve nothing to steal.” And as Grandmother turned her milky eyes towards the strange voice, Hilde could see that even her sight was worthless. “You are not my granddaughter.”
“Just a traveler. May I rest with you?” Hilde deepened her voice and spoke the old language, that she had spoken with her father, before–
The door creaked again, and the child stared openly at the stranger in the house. Her cape was wine-colored really, roughly woven, probably dyed with madder. She was no taller than Hilde’s waist, no older than Ani, what on earth was her mother thinking, letting her walk alone–
Wrongthought. Now it was safe to walk in these woods, Hilde had made it so.
They sat with their hands wrapping mugs of tea, close to the small fire. The child found her tongue and asked for a story. The old woman started with a dying mother, blood on the snow, a besotted king. Hilde only lasted a minute before interrupting.
“Why frighten the child like that?”
Grandmother’s gaze unnerved her, of course the woman couldn’t see her past those cataracts, and if the child used words like “woman” and “brown” she’d be unlikely to be believed.
“Fear is valuable.”
Hilde started to shake her head, but the old woman continued. “Now she knows. Not to walk in the woods after dark. She knows when the king sends out a decree for all the maidens, sometimes you want to win the prize and sometimes it’s better to keep your head down. She’ll pay attention to what men don’t say with their eyes, while their mouths prate sweetmeats and roses. She knows to watch out for wolves – and not all beasts run on four legs.”
A coal fell in the fire, but only Hilde’s muscles tensed. “Maybe she won’t need to see evil in so many places.”
Grandmother smiled calmly. “But she’ll know it when she sees it.”
Stepping out of the Facility, Hilde squinted into the setting sun and saw Workers in blue jumpalls putting up an affirmation billboard at the entrance to the station. Chancellor Tancred smiled at her from every lamppost as she crossed the street, and his proposals for the Reich played from the cinescreen on the transport capsule. Two women across the capsule held stabilization straps and discussed their votes.
“I’m going to affirm Border Controls and Personal Registration.”
“I don’t know…I want to affirm Visible Badges and Transportation of Undesirables, but I’m not sure about Property Confiscation for Traitors or ReThink Camps.”
“What are you going to affirm?” They looked at Hilde expectantly, and her father’s voice rose in her head, The price of being a sheep is boredom, the price of being a wolf is loneliness.
“Whatever the Chancellor recommends,” Hilde said smiling, and casually touched her shoulder badge and took her arm out in a small, mostly-straight salute to the cinescreen, where the Chancellor’s image froze with a smile full of even white teeth.
“Real food, mmmm,” said Hilde, as she walked into the home unit and the smells of stew and pastry.
Emme nestled under her chin, as soft and plump and golden-pale as the roly-poly in the oven. “Friday treat, for my hard-working wife,” and the feeling of their bodies together, the look of the brown skin wrapped around the white, was worth the overtime and, she hoped, Emme’s no-doubt hours-long wait in the Supply line.
Ani came running down for dinner and Hilde said, when asked about her day, “Just one mistake today, but a big one.”
“You fixed it!” said Ani, knowing that Hilde always fixed it.
“I fixed it,” said Hilde, and swung her daughter into the air, knowing that a brother for Ani depended on her own ability to control her tongue or at least remember to rattle the lager can at lunch to hide her questions. Didn’t she love Ani enough? Didn’t she trust the Reich? Would she care for Emme any less, if they had not been identified as Complements, matched and paired? Would she walk home feeling something was missing, it was the wrong destination? Would their eyes meet in the street, could it ‘just happen’?
In the darkness after curfew, Ani called out.
“Your turn,” mumbled Emme into her shoulder, so Hilde scooted out and awkwardly crawled into the other bed capsule. Soon it would be too small even for Ani, but they were generally first on regrade lists. Correcting mistakes came with privileges.
Ani was awake and restless, her red coverlet thrown back. Soothing and singing only keyed her up, and it was black-powder practice tomorrow on the range, so Hilde needed her sleep.
“I’ll tell you a story.”
“What’s a story?” whispered Ani, matching Hilde’s low tone.
Hilde turned on the fan, which was missing a screw and tended to rattle. One day I’ll never fix that. She put the stuffed frog in front of the Eye – you could get away with that a few times a month, as long as there wasn’t a pattern.
“A story is something that didn’t happen, but could.”
“Like a lie?” Ani’s eyes went round.
“No. A lie is meant to hide things, and a story makes them clearer.”
“Where did the story–” Ani tasted the new word in her mouth, “–happen? Was it here in Neue Berlin?”
“It happened in the forest. Remember where we went, with many trees?”
Ani nodded, though Hilde doubted she actually remembered. She settled into Hilde’s shoulder. Hilde put her mouth next to Ani’s ear, barely above a whisper.
“Once upon a time–”
About the Author
Allison Williams is a circus artist and freelance writer and editor. Her essays have appeared in Traveler’s Tales and the New York Times, and been heard on National Public Radio and CBC (Canada). She blogs at www.idowords.net.
“Sheep…wolf” quote from Hugh MacLeod