You are six years old, and you’re curious. You’re stuck in a classroom, not allowed to move, to run around, to do anything but listen to what some stranger tells you. So you do that. Engage with the subject, as your mother puts it. Your teacher doesn’t like you very much. Your librarian does.
You’re seven years old, and the coolest kid in your class. You have three moms. That’s more moms than anyone else in your class. Life’s a game of moms, and you’re winning it.
A transfer student joins your class. He has six moms. A lifelong rivalry forms.
You’re nine years old, and you’re ravenous . You ask questions, and now people praise you. Every topic, every interest, you pursue intensely. They call you precocious, gifted, prodigious, and you like that. You don’t know any better.
You’re ten years old, and you’ve missed your art lessons. Your parents are hysterical. You’re sorry. You got distracted, you say. You lost track of time, you tell them. You don’t tell them about the fiddler under the bridge, or the hours you stood there, stunned by her smile, her song, the easy way her fingers reached into you and pulled at your heart. The way you cried, and wished you could be so lost to the world as the fiddler under the bridge. You don’t tell them how you panicked when she stopped and turned to leave, or how you tried to climb down the side of the bridge to reach her. You were just playing, you tell them. You slipped.
You’re thirteen years old, and you’re on stage. Your parents are in the audience, beaming with pride - all four of them. Your rival’s pack still outnumbers them, but your family got front (well, front-ish) row seats. You call it a draw.
You play, and you play well. You got the solo, and your teacher tells you that’s a good thing. You want to be the best at this, like everything else, and this is how. You hate every second of it. Later, they say you can play again - on a bigger stage, with a bigger audience. You want to scream.
At breakfast, you ask a mom to take you to the library. You’ve picked up an interest in folklore.
You’re fourteen, and you’re running out of time. You don’t know why. You don’t know why. You read folklore. Academic studies. Original sources. Fringe lunacy. You practice with the fiddle every day. You read survival guides. Field manuals. Your teacher introduces you to his friend with the orchestra. You’re running out of time.
You’re having a sleepover with a friend. The rivalry thing is a running joke between you, now. Mostly. Your parents and her pack get a night out, you get a night in. You’re responsible kids. You’ll be fine for the night. There’s pizza money on the counter. You promise to behave, and call if anything’s on fire.
You’re six games into a best-of-13-what-that’s bullshit-I demand a rematch-best-of-15 when, as usual, you decide to spice it up a little. If she wins, she gets her pick of your holofoil trading card collection, and Player One privileges for the night. If you win-
You’re fifteen, and the moon is a constant hum in the sky, in the air, in your blood. You listen from three rooms away as your fiddle instructor quietly explains what a music school is, and why you need to go there, and all the important connections and opportunities you’ll have, and you know you’re out of time.
You head to the kitchen where you cut and toast two thick slices of bread. You fry up some eggs and bacon. You agonize over sauces. You pick through the freshest vegetables you can find. You craft the most exquisite sandwich you can mustard. They should have sent a poet. You stuff the sandwich along with a can of soda into your bag, then knock on the living room door. “Hey, I’m heading out for a run.”
Your mom looks up from the pamphlet she’s reading, and smiles at you. “Alright, Raeh.”
“Oh, could you pick up some milk while you’re out?” Another mom.
“It’s, uh, not that kind of run,” you explain, holding up your bag. It’s the one with the adjustable strap.
“Oh. Right. Well, stay safe, okay?”
“And have your phone with you!”
You’re outside of town, walking away. The bus turns around behind you and drives back. End of the line. You pull off your shirt, kick off your pants. The country air is cool against your skin, for the few moments you have skin. The change is easy - like shifting your weight from one foot to the other. Skin turns to fur, bones elongate, joints shift and turn and fuse, muscles grow, senses sharpen. You are huge and strong and falling to your hands and knees and shifting further and now you’re sleek and beautiful and so fast . You cross into the forest as a blur of teeth and fur and muscle and sheer, blind panic. You’re gone.
You run until you can’t run anymore. Until your four aching legs carry you to a cozy little hollow under a tree and you collapse into fitful sleep. When you wake up, you pick a direction at random, and you keep running.
On the second day, you find what you’re looking for. You almost miss it, so wrapped up in your own thoughts that it takes the wolf in you all but howling with thirst for you to stop and listen. There, behind your thundering heart, your panting breath - running water. A river .
You shift back to human form for the first time in days, laughing in something like relief, something like delight, as you stagger to the river’s edge, falling to your hands and knees and dunking your whole head into the water. It’s cold enough to knock the wind out of you, and you stay there until your lungs are burning and your whole body shakes and cries out for air and you surface, gasping, sobbing, screaming.
You drink your fill, then shift back to the wolf and cross the river. Someone’s bound to be looking for you, now. You need to muddy your trail. Your hybrid form makes fighting the current easy, and you simply walk up the river a ways. You hope that will buy you some time. This was the easy part. You stop early, drying yourself in the midday sun, then find another nook to sleep in.
When you wake, you wake to a miracle.
A stag. A great, horned thing, gliding out from the trees with all the steady grace of a king in its castle. Its passing barely rustles the grass beneath it. The setting sun washes over its dappled hide like water, and the beast melts into and through the forest brush like a wave. It passes just a scant few meters from the hollow where you lie unmoving, unbreathing, until the it bends its crowned head down to drink from the river.
The king’s blood is hot and thick in your mouth. It streaks your snout as the stag screams through a throat you’ve already crushed with your jaws. The thing kicks and flails and panics and dies as you grind your teeth down, down, down, crushing its vertebrae with your teeth, pulling it down with the weight of you until it’s just you and the king-in-the-woods, twitching, dying, helpless by the river.
You are so hungry .
You rip and tear at the body of the king. You part his hide. You shred his guts. Your paws twist into hands and you twist and pull and break open his ribs and you suck the marrow down and you devour his screaming lungs, his stilled and graceful muscles, feel the fat of his liver squirt down your chin until you wipe it up with your hands and you eat that too, and you eat, and eat, and eat, and eat .
The king’s body fills you with something like life, and you come to something like your senses, covered in sweat and blood and viscera, knee-deep in offal as you dig through the king’s chest cavity with your bare hands, barely able to breathe between shoving fistfuls of gore into your mouth. There’s not a speck of fur on you, but you feel hot . Your whole body’s burning until you feel like the blood covering your skin should be boiling . You eat until your body can’t take any more, until your body is bloated and full, and still you shove more meat and marrow down your throat. The wolf in you burns, howls, thrashes, glories in the blood until it, too, is glutted and still, and you stumble forward crawling on your trembling arms and shaking legs, half-blind and half-conscious, blood in your eyes and ears and nose and mouth and hair and teeth and-
Your hands find something there, wet and strong and tremendous and alive .
The king’s heart beats against your palms, hot and vital.
Expansion. You are queasy with blood. Sick with it. No matter how hard you swallow, there’s still more.
Contraction. You don’t know how long you’ve been eating. You don’t know where you end and the blood begins. You don’t know what’s inside you, only that it’s hot and alive and trying to get out .
It has to stop.
You have to stop this.
You’re out of time.
You bite into the heart. Fresh, searing blood fills your mouth, your nose, your eyes, your lungs. You choke it down, piece by bloody piece, chewing and tearing strips of tough muscle and cartilage until your jaw aches, until you swallow, until finally, it is done.
The ensuing stillness seems impossible, after the thunderous heart you just devoured. The silence is broken by the sound of retching. You heave, gag, and convulse, falling on your side with a wet, bloody splat as your body tries to reject everything you just put into it. You clamp both hands over your mouth, squeezing your eyes shut as you writhe desperately in the now-hollow chest cavity of the murdered king. You try to swallow, and your whole body shudders and jerks at the taste of still more blood. You try to focus on your breathing, and you choke on the thick chunks and clots of blood in your sinuses, the wet bubbling of blood in your lungs, it’s in your lungs. You can’t breathe. The world is going black. You can’t breathe. Stars shimmer and float in your eyes. You can’t breathe.
All at once, you stop struggling. The heart that was hammering frantic in your ears a moment ago is steady now. The blackness, and the stars, are moving .
The dead king stands above you, a towering silhouette of black against the night. A burning hole in the world, from which two eyes like stars look down at you with nothing like feeling, or pity, or mercy.
The shadow king turns away from you, into the forest.
“Wait!” You try to say, reaching for the stag grim, scrabbling to pull yourself out of its corpse. The only sound you make instead is a wet, heaving cough, spitting gobbets of wet flesh and blood from your mouth and nose.
The stag blurs, fades, and springs into a run.
You, too, blur, and fade, and run, bolting after it as fast as your four legs will carry you. You can’t be more than a second behind, but the grim is already a black speck just on the edge of your senses. You push deep into the wolf, dragging it out of its blood-drunk slumber to hunt! Hunt! Chase! Run! Hunt!
The shadow of the stag slips through the forest like a ghost, leaving no trace except you , a streak of blood and instinct, painting a trail like a dripping red wound as you chase-run-hunt the distant flash-blur of black against black. The only sound you hear is the wind of your passing, the blood rushing in your ears, the steady thump-bump of your(?) heart, and-
A bow scraping strings. Fingers plucking impossibly fast between notes. A wild, frantic melody like the pounding of a prey-animal’s heart that jitters staccato into and around a slow, steady, inevitable beat, the two disparate melodies fading into each other closer and closer and closer until-
The music stops. You burst into a clearing, stumbling, shifting, falling to your knees where a break in the trees lets just the barest hint of moonlight reach the forest floor. There’s a small river here - barely more than a rivulet, but enough that it’s carved a small waterfall over a sharp break in the earth, and that waterfall has dug a small, rippling pool where it lands, and the moonlight that breaks and scatters in the pool illuminates the silhouette of a woman.
The woman sits on a fallen tree, its great roots fanning out behind her like the back of a throne. She’s naked, aside from a wreath of bones, feathers, claws, teeth, all strung up on strips of braided hair, tendon, and leathery skin. A hundred different charms and talismans decorate her neck and shoulders. Her skin is a soft brown. Her hair is a dark halo of tight curls and long locs down her back. In one hand she holds a bow of frayed hair, and with the other she rests a squat, rough-looking fiddle on her shoulder. Atop her head and over her face rests a long, wet, yellow-white skull, with a crown of branching horns that almost fade into the wild roots behind her. The stag is nowhere to be seen.
You hesitate, momentarily stunned into silence. You figured Death would be intimidating. You didn’t realize she would be hot .
You no longer hear the music. You no longer hear the beating of the heart. Any heart.
The skull turns to face you. What do you think?
“I-” Your voice is a rough, wet, rasping thing. “What-” There’s an odd quality to the sound, like you’re speaking from the bottom of a deep, dark cave, so vast and empty that your voice dies before it can even echo.
The song. Do you like it?
“Yes.” There are wet, black holes where her eyes should be. “It scares me.”
She nods. Thank you.
That’s me. What’s your name?
“Raeh.” You answer without thinking. You have no idea what to say, or do. On some level, you didn’t actually think you’d make it this far. “You’re very attractive.” If you weren’t dead already, you’re probably about to be.
There’s a sound like the wind rustling through leaves. Grimen is laughing . The charms on her chest rattle gently with the motion. A sliver of moonlight catches on the face beneath the skull as she throws her head back, and you glimpse a sharp jaw, alluring lips, and bright, sharp teeth. So many teeth.
You find yourself on your feet, approaching Grimen. Your wolf, your body, has already realized that you are not in charge here.
She places her fiddle and bow by her feat, leaned against the fallen tree, and pats the space next to her. Sit.
You sit, rubbing shoulders with Death. The spray from the waterfall wets the blood on your skin. She doesn’t seem to mind.
What brings you to me, Raeh?
You feel it all well up inside you. The sourceless fear. The frustration. Chafing under a weight you cannot shake. The constant sense of hurry hurry faster faster time’s up. The fiddler under the bridge.
Grimen pauses longer than you just did. Long enough that you’re eyeing the waterfall pool wondering how long it’ll take her to drown you, or if you should just save her the trouble and hop in.
“Yes!” You break the crushing silence, rummaging through your bag. It’s a miracle that it’s still with you. If you don’t survive this, at least the bag might. “I mean- Do you want one?” You hold up the wrapped sandwich and the soda.
Grimen looks at the sandwich. You’re close enough that you can peek underneath that unreadable skull, and see the way her sharp, beautiful mouth twists with something like amusement. She takes the sandwich.
I could eat.
You try not to stare, but can’t help but watch from the corner of your eye as Grimen eats. The only sound you hear is rushing water, even as she unwraps the sandwich and cracks open the soda can. She’s a messy eater, shedding crumbs and grease as she bites down, chewing carelessly, all without making a sound. It’s like watching a silent film, or a rude mime. There’s only deep, dark, thunderous water.
You break first. “I play the fiddle. I’m pretty good at it. At least,” you correct yourself, “I’m told I’m pretty good at it.”
You disagree? Grimen is in the middle of taking a big swig from the can. Now she’s just showing off.
“Yes. Or, no?” You rub a frustrated hand over the back of your head. “I work hard. I practice. Then they put me on a bigger stage, and they tell me I’m getting better.”
You wince. There’s a knife in your guts and Grimen reaches into you with a word and twists . The words you’ve been looking for gush out of you like blood from a wound. You jerk to your feet, agitated. “I don’t want to be better.” You turn and look her in the eyes. “I want to be the best .” There’s a glint of something shining in those wet, black holes. “Please teach me how to play like you.”
Having made your request, you stand there, frozen, as Grimen finishes her meal. You don’t dare to move, to speak, to breathe, to nudge fate one way or the other. Until…
Sure? Sure? “Wha- Really?”
Grimen bends down and picks up her fiddle and bow.
She tosses them both to you, and you’re so stunned you fumble the grab and end up cradling the instrument awkwardly in your arms. The wood stains red where it touches your skin, and there is a sensation akin to burning.
To play like me, you will play my instrument. You will play for three nights and three days. You will not stop.
You put the fiddle on your shoulder, lean into the brace, and you don’t think about how impossible that is. Ten thousand hours squeezed into seventy two is a pretty good deal. The smile you show Grimen over the strings does nothing to hide your apprehension. “Any requests?”
The strings cut through your skin like paper. You have only a moment to register the blood coating the rough wood and coarse hair and force your hands to grip tighter before they remember that this isn’t supposed to hurt. The pain, once it hits, knocks the wind out of you, but you grip the bow tight and you jerk and saw it over the strings in something like a scream even as the bow string bites through the skin of your palm.
The strings vibrate with every note, eating through the flesh of your fingers. Years of muscle memory keep your arm moving into a second note, then a third - long, heavy gasps of sound that you’re not really hearing over the sound of your body loudly demanding to know what the fuck you think you’re doing.
It hurts. You fall to your knees, wrestling with a body in pain that doesn’t want to be. It hurts. You’re a werewolf. It hurts. You’ve had worse. It hurts. Your body, your wolf, now that it finally has your attention, is making itself very clear. You see: Blood. Blurry, swimming colors and vague shapes. You hear: The same two long, flat notes, spiced with short, sharp whines as your hands try to play something, anything, cutting fresh grooves into your skin. You feel: Like a jukebox that’s been kicked in the balls.
What’s missing: Your pulse should be pounding. Your blood should be thundering in your ears. You should be screaming, howling, gasping for air.
Your arm moves mechanically, instinctively. Slow, flat notes. You find that you can still move your arms, your hands. You shift your grip, and the strings slice sideways through the meat of your fingers, but you quicken your pace, and you find that your vision clears. Grimen is sitting there, exactly as she was, and the deep, dark holes that are her eyes are your whole world.
Given that all your bones are inside you where they should be, and not decorating Grimen’s neck like they could be, you figure you’re safe, for now. You could keep this up. You could keep this up for a while , actually. The pain is constant, yeah, but if you don’t go too hard, keep your eyes on Grimen and off your- and also don’t think about it , you might be able to vaguely, technically “””play””” this thing for three whole days. If that’s enough to satisfy her.
If that’s enough to satisfy you.
You grit your teeth, and Grimen leans in, the first real reaction from her since you started. You try a chord, and then another. You drag out little ditties and half-remembered concert compositions and the strings cut the shape of them into your hands. Aveyan’s ‘Wrath and His Daughter’. Pop Goes The Weasel. Ciel’s ‘The Bluejay and the Sunrise’. The advertisement jingle for Aberration-O’s. DJ Wülfgrrl’s ‘Police Incompetence’, which still slaps to this day. The rhythm of that one girl’s voice from the poetry slam that made you fall just a little bit in love.
How long has it been? The notes come just a bit crisper, your fingers don’t slide so much. You try to ignore the buzzing of your bones scraping the strings.
Maybe it’s been a day. Maybe it’s been an hour. You’ve run out of real material and you’ve moved on to some bullshit. You’re standing, now. You’re working your way through a new song you’re calling ‘I’ve Got Raw Hamburger For Hands’. Grimen is a rough audience to read, but you figure if she gets tired of it she’ll just kill you, and there’s something comforting about that.
This album is called ‘This Sucks, Actually’, and has been positively received by fully half the universe. The other half sits there, unblinking, unmoving. Was that a hint of a smile? Or do you just want her to like you?
You flex the not-muscle that is the shape of you, sprouting new flesh and thicker bones for the strings to shred, sharper teeth to grit, and claws to pluck and strum the vicious thing on your shoulder. The wolf in you is not a fan of this. You remind it who's in charge around here, and it's neither of you.
She’s gorgeous. You’d weep over how beautiful she is, if you could. And kind! She doesn’t have to be here, but she is, and you’re not alone while you cut new shapes into you. You love her. You want to describe her, to capture both her and how you feel about her.
Your world is pain, Grimen, and, occasionally, you. Your body is a distant thing, a confused and cornered animal beaten into submission. Any thought you can manage rides screaming down your nerves, spikes into your muscles, and vibrates up through the strings which cut the awful, singing thing into your bones. You keep time in movements and measures. It has been sixty nine thousand measures since you started counting. (Nice.) That's. Long.
You play stories for her. The best and worst and most boring days of your life, every crush, all your fear and anxiety and all your ugly and hungry and scared. Everything that brought you here that you couldn’t say before. You want her to know you. To love you. To forgive you. If you die, you die known.
Your throat is choked with blood too thick to swallow.
The first time you stop, the first time Grimen shows any emotion, just for a second, is when you realize that you are already dead. The humming, biting strings grow quiet. The last note sounds, stretches, echoes, and at the end of it is Grimen. The thick, wet death of the forest cradles her like a throne. Her horns stretch high into the sky, hung with the bodies of stars.
You force the arm that killed you to move , to rip and tear one more beat, one more measure of life from the strings, and as you stumble back, Grimen steps with you, her arm around your waist, her body pressed against yours in an inescapable dance.
She has scars. You see them shimmer as she moves, faint lines and traces in her skin.
You remember a woman. A fiddler under a bridge who grabs you as you’re passing by and shows you there’s a world, actually, and you’re queer and trans and dumb as hell and you're part of something wonderful.
You remember your family.
You pace the grove, Grimen on your heels. She’s there no matter where you step or turn or twist, so close you imagine you can feel her breathing, feel the beat of her heart on your skin. But your skin is covered in blood and there is no breath and there is no beat but the steps of your feet on the ground, the rapid run-run-get-away of prey before the wolf, and you can’t- you want- you will live .
You elbow death in the face. A sharp, quick note cut short as your elbow connects with her nose. She staggers back, you stand your ground, and now she is the beat and you are the wolf, advancing, stepping, jabbing with long, curving notes that crack open the bones in your fingers. You pace the grove, on Grimen’s heels. You step and turn and twist, closer and closer until you’re sure she can feel your breathing, feel the beat of your heart on her skin.
But your skin is covered in blood, your blood, and you cut and carve your family, your story, your will to live into the marrow of your hands, and there’s no beat but the one you make , and Grimen is smiling so wide around the crack in her face where you hit her, and while she dances just out of your reach she claps her hands to the beat of you, a beat that shakes the world down to its cracked and cut and bleeding bones.
You wake up in a hospital bed.
Something beats in your chest.
You are sixteen. Your hands are more scar than skin. The thing in your chest is not your heart, but it fools the doctors well enough. It shakes your blood into motion, it bids your nerves to fire and your feet to move, and when you hear a particularly good song it echoes through your whole body.
You know the beat to every song.
You are seventeen. You have forgotten how long a day is. You stop counting.
Your hands don’t feel right. You play it off as stiffness, natural for someone with more scar tissue than bone. The doctor gives you an ointment that you throw into a drawer and forget about. You’ve got confetti for tendons and skin like you tried to hi-five a wood chipper. Your hands are more dexterous than they’ve ever been. Your hands don’t feel right.
You don’t touch an instrument for a long time. But you need something to do, or so they keep telling you. You try studying folklore for a while, properly, at a school and everything. But you’re not a folklorist(?). Just a fool with a crush on death.
You pick up the fiddle, and the world makes sense again. Strings fall into place, mapping your scars to scales. The beat in your chest is steady as a metronome. The wood on your cheek is soft as a pillow, and you pull from it ditties, tunes, jams, movements, anything your mind can think of. You invent new musical genres in an afternoon. You play to the beat of passers-by, and they unconsciously fall into step with you. You calm a crying child. You reduce a man to weeping uncontrollably.
You don’t touch an instrument for a long time.
You fall in love. For real this time. She’s an artist. You learn to hold her hand the hard way, and it feels right, so right, for once . She loves your hands, and the things in you that aren’t your hands, and it takes a while but eventually you realize she means it.
The world makes sense, and you pick up the fiddle again.