io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “The Path of Pins, the Path of Needles” by KT Bryski. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast.
It is a northern country; winter and cold weather; you’ve heard this before.
In the bitterness of the woods, the wolves are howling.
You’ve heard them before, too. But this is a new song.
In the very heart of winter, the forest holds its breath. Frozen earth sleeps without dreaming; brittle sunlight breaks and scatters in gasps between the trees. The girl walks through the woods, boots crunching the crusted snow.
There is always such a girl, walking alone. Little footprints point the way back to a clutch of hovels; she peers half-dazzled through shadow and snow-flash. A basket hangs dispiritedly from her arm.
Sausage end. Hardened loaf. The creeping doubt in spring itself.
Lithe grey shadows slip through the trees. They have the most beautiful eyes.
Don’t talk to strangers.
Don’t leave the path.
Don’t linger in the woods.
Old rules, standard rules. We were born with their curves etched into our bones. We all abided by them and never once complained. You’ll do the same, if you know what’s good for you.
“Hello, little girl.”
The low, pleasant voice slides into her ear. It is a honeyed voice, caught somewhere on the rocks between rich contralto and dulcet tenor. Under the gentleness, the voice has teeth.
The girl thinks about that voice all the night through. The mildness intrigues her; but more so, the teeth.
“Do you want the Path of Pins or the Path of Needles?”
This is another voice, ale-sluggish and cracking like ice. Behind the cowshed, the girl gives a vague smile and asks, “What’s the difference?”
The spotted youth brings thumb and forefinger together. “Needles.” He thrusts his hips forward, his hardness straining. “Pins.”
He pulls her close, breath rank on her cheek. “Don’t worry. They both go to the same place.”
Fumbling and joyless, it ends quickly enough. Snow stings her bare thighs, the barn’s unfinished boards catching at her cloak. Stray threads snag on splinters, wool red as blood.
The whole time, she peers over his shoulder to the woods beyond.
The wolves are watching. Steady, unafraid, they loiter until the spotted youth re-buttons his trousers and stumbles away, whistling and swollen with his own cockiness.
Well, that’s over and done with, and a good thing too.
She cleans herself with snow. Sore, a little, but mostly disappointed. When she looks up, the wolves have vanished. The ache deepens and hollows and she isn’t sure why.
In the privacy of her own bed—relative privacy—she has siblings—she thinks of wolves in multitudes.
Brindled dark-flecked hairs streaked black.
(It is such an apt word, brindled. It shivers against her lips. It’s a thin word, sly as a knife, but it carries the chiaroscuro trees and mosaicked forest floor, and when she says it, she sees the wolves’ lean muscled shoulders.)
Thin black gums¬—cream-sharp teeth—lolling pink tongue.
(Another excellent word, lolling. The tongue dripping over the jaws, retreating, teasing, retreating, caressing. She thinks of joy and hunger, and suddenly there is very little space between the two.)
Famine-grey, dove-gray, knife-grey, cloud-gray.
(Grey and gray are different colours, of course. Grey is sinewy; it has stark edges; it is a bare-ribbed wolf in the middle of winter. Gray is rounder, fuller, the soft ruffs of wolves curled nose-to-tail in the den.)
The girl cannot tell if the faint howling rises from the forest or the secret places of her own longing. Beside her, a sibling snores and she clasps her hands together tightly, holding them safe at her pillow.
We have names for girls who seek after wolves. None of them are very flattering. We shall not repeat them here, but leave you to imagine them. You’ve already heard them a thousand times; you can tell this part of the tale.
Sometimes, it happens.
Handsome huntsmen and winsome woodcutters thrust open the cottage door to find a most unnatural embrace. Soft-downed arms flung around a thick furred neck; long bare legs enmeshed with pluming tail; maiden mouth voracious on a bloodstained snout.
A heap of clothes on the floor; tea forgotten on the table.
What big eyes the girls have, startled from the darkness of a deep kiss.
What big ears they have, burning hot and red.
What big teeth, still hungering for their wolf-in-arms.
It’s terribly obvious what must be done.
The wolf, first. Always, the wolf first. It doesn’t really matter how this part happens; it’s up to the strapping huntsman-or-woodcutter, or the concerned father, or the lovesick youth who just needs a chance to prove his worthiness, you know?
One stroke of the axe, one shot of a gun, one thrust of a sword.
Stick the wolf head on a pike by the church; turn the pelt into a champion’s rich winter cloak; bury the claws at midnight to ward off other preying monsters.
It doesn’t matter which path they choose. They all lead to the same place.
The girl, though.
Sometimes they can be brought back into the fold. Especially if it was just curiosity rectified with a hasty wedding and a few sessions in the conjugal bed.
Other times, better safe than sorry.
It doesn’t matter which path they choose. At least they try to make it quick.
That was a necessary digression. Where did we leave our girl?
Oh, yes. Dreaming of wolves.
She knows what happens, though. That’s the thing. She wakes from a languorous vision of musky fur to the sight of another wolf head staked by the church doors. Beside it stands a girl shivering in a thin tattered dress, strands of garlic strung around her neck.
The villagers’ eyes slide to this poor wretch, but they no longer see her. She’s not one of them, not anymore, not really.
Our girl’s stomach clenches. Shame bites like snow screaming down the mountain peaks. It’s sharper than axes and more wounding than guns and wielded more righteously than swords.
It makes it very hard to walk into the church.
She knows what happens, that’s the thing. So she stays inside as the winter drags on. She stuffs her ears against the wolves’ song, contents herself spinning yarn and baking oatcakes on the hearth.
On nights bright with shards of stars, the spotted youth walks her around the village, arm-in-arm through the snow. Repetition numbs her disdain. She even grows to appreciate—dimly, abstractly—the dispassionate pleasure of another warm body in the cold.
“The Path of Pins or the Path of Needles?”
“Whatever you want, dear.”
It’s always pins. Maybe it all leads to the same place, but she wouldn’t mind another way to get there.
“Take these to Grandmother’s house.”
She keeps her eyes on the trudged path and she doesn’t stay beneath the trees a moment longer necessary. Maybe the wolves still watch. Who can say? She isn’t looking.
Anyway, Grandmother’s old. She dies soon enough. Sad but expected. She was frail and the winter’s hold still strong. The important thing is that the girl’s treks through the forest finally end. She’s secretly relieved, even more secretly disappointed, and furiously ashamed about both.
Winters fall one after the next like driving snow. Hard, long, brutal winters. Bellies pinch; skin weathers; hearts freeze over. Spring fades from memory; it fades even from dream. The girl looks out her frosted window to an endless expanse of white. The coldness has seeped well into her marrow and it sets stiffer with each passing year.
But when coldness exceeds a certain point, we stop noticing it. We have always lived in the snowstorm; it is always winter now. Easy not to miss daffodils when you’ve never seen them bloom.
You know; we know.
Eventually, the girl forgets to listen for wolves.
The spotted youth becomes a winsome woodcutter. Predictable, yes. It was either that or a handsome hunter.
Tight dark curls cover his arms like a pelt—the wrong sort. The hairs are coarse; they reek of sweat, ale, and smoke. His beard catches crumbs and slicks of grease. Things are no better below, but we’ll not speak of that.
Reader, she marries him.
A simple country wedding at midwinter. How charming, how quaint. Every girl’s dream. Evergreen boughs strew the village’s single road and holly peeps and prickles at the windowsills. At every lintel they’ve hung white mistletoe.
It’s poison, mistletoe. But you probably knew that. Chaste kisses only, best to move on quickly.
The bride wears a beautiful homespun dress, beauty and functionality here being synonymous. Dyed walnut brown, sturdily constructed, it will see her through many years of labour and labour.
It also has pockets. So it’s not all bad.
The groom wears a wolf skin coat.
The wedding night?
Over and done with, and a good thing too. She cleans herself with snow, no longer sore, barely even disappointed.
Is this what it’s like to be happy? Is this it?
Her husband snorts and rolls over. “Yes, of course—what else do you want?”
There is no good answer to that question.
She still dreams of wolves.
Wolves slipping shadowy through the woods, trailing snowflakes in the sunlight behind them. In sleep, she feels their paws at her throat, their blunt claws pressing gentle to her pulse. Lying side-by-side with her ghosts, she draws her hands down their impossibly soft bellies and inhales the mountain crispness clinging to their fur.
What big eyes, what big ears.
What big teeth, and they know how to use them.
A pink tongue quests—lolls—until it finds hers. Animal heat and northern cold make her breath catch, her hips rise. In her dreams, the wolves dip their heads and gobble her right up.
She hangs suspended—
The dreams blow away like candle smoke. She wakes to an empty bed and streaming sunlight. The winsome woodcutter has long ago gathered his axe and gone into the woods. The hollowness in her chest claws so deeply, so desperately, she wants to scream.
Plenty of people hunger after wolves. Even if they don’t admit it. We can always tell by their eyes. They stare at the woods a heartbeat too long; their gaze never settles comfortably on the hunters and woodcutters.
Children come squalling into the world one after the next. Mewling tyrants, pinch-faced and reddened, with foul excretions at both ends. The less said about them, the better.
But this is the way of things. Girl, wife, mother, grave. That is her path, intractable as ice and obstinate as the stones of the churchyard. Sometimes she glances towards the forest and shivers, imagining black whiskered lips meeting hers. But never often, never for long.
The Path of Pins or the Path of Needles?
It doesn’t matter. It never did.
But is this—it?
At last, she grows old. With the woodcutter dead and her usefulness spent, she does the graceful thing and withdraws to a solitary life at the fringes of the community. A small cottage, of course, rudely constructed with packed-earth floor and sooty log walls. Beside the hearth sit a battered pot, black iron kettle, a small griddle for oatcakes. Last year’s herbs and apples dry in the rafters; the spinning wheel sits disused in the corner, mocking her stiffened fingers.
The bed holds two, were the grandmother so inclined.
She sits by the window and watches the forest. For a long time, she sees nothing but snow dropping from branches, pine needles blowing over the drifts.
But slowly, the wolves return. In silence, they ring the cottage, sleek grey heads tilted to one side and tails wrapped demurely over paws. Their eyes are just as beautiful as she remembers.
“Go and visit Grandmother.”
It happens infrequently. But she flinches every time a stout grandchild pushes through her door. Old habits die hard; she limits her time watching the trees. Even at the fringes, people notice, people talk.
A knock at the door.
“Who is it?”
Not her grandchild.
A brindled wolf, dark-flecked, soft-maned. A hot pink tongue hangs between milk-white teeth; amber eyes burn beneath long lashes. Grey like famine and gray like mist, grey like a breaking heart and gray like dream stealing through the dusk.
Animal musk shivers to the very heart of her, raising the hairs at the back of her neck. A tilt of the wolf’s head, whiskers twitching. Questioning. Gentle.
“The Path of Pins or the Path of Needles?” the grandmother asks, her laugh breaking like light upon the snow.
Neither, the wolf says without speaking. A different path, one that leads someplace entirely new.
What eyes, what ears.
Is this what it’s like?
The grandmother curls into the wolf. Strong forelegs hold her tight; a black-tipped tail tickles between her legs. “Is this what it’s like to be happy? Because I never thought I could—”
The wolf kisses her again.
Imagine the grandchild bowling through the door. In the big cottage bed, an arresting sight.
Grandmother and Wolf, entangled together. These are not Grandmother’s papery dry kisses—oh no, child, not in the slightest. This is heat humming in the long grass; a thunderclap summer obliterating the winter in one fell swoop.
The basket drops from the child’s hand.
Grandmother and Wolf rise from the bed, shake out their fur, and pad into the trees on silent paws.
Keep your pins and needles; keep the huntsmen and woodsmen. We never liked them anyway.
Over the river and through the woods, the wolves are howling still.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
KT Bryski is a Canadian author, podcaster, and playwright. Her short fiction has appeared in Apex, Strange Horizons, and Daily Science Fiction, among others. She currently serves as the Apex Magazine podcast producer, and her audio dramas Coxwood History Fun Park and Six Stories, Told at Night are available wherever fine podcasts are found. Select theatre credits include Six Stories, Told at Night (Toronto Fringe), A Canticle of Light (Missed Metaphor Productions), and East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon (Canadian Children’s Opera Company). KT is a Sunburst finalist, Stonecoast MFA alum, and guardian to a very strange cat. When not writing, she frolics through Toronto enjoying choral music and craft beer. Visit her at www.ktbryski.com or find her on Twitter @ktbryski.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the December 2019 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus nonfiction and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Rick Wilber, Molly Gutman, T.L. Huchu, Cat Rambo, Pat Murphy, Daniel Abraham, Matthew Baker, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.