Wolfswood

Becky Allyn Johnson


It’s my seventeenth birthday, and this will be my last trip to the Wolfswood. Dad’s form is becoming indistinct as I lag behind and the distance between us lengthens.

I stop to look back. The glass towers of downtown are still visible between the trees, reflecting the yellow light of the morning sun. Dad’s dreams follow the winding trail into the darkness. Mine are up in the air.

“Maura!” Dad’s shout is like the tug of a leash. I resettle my pack on my shoulders and jog up the trail to catch him. His eyes sparkle as he grins at me and throws one arm around my neck in an enthusiastic hug. “This is the year, my girl, don’t I know it. This is the year.”

I make myself smile up at him and nod. This has been the year since I was six years old and our tradition began with a gentle shake rousing me from bed. “Maura-girl, wake up. We’re going on an adventure,” he whispered, pressing a finger to my lips so I wouldn’t wake my sisters. As he helped me dress into my warmest clothes, he told me the story he would tell and tell again each year as the crisp November morning of my birthday dawned.

There’s magic yet in the Wolfswood. Wild, untamed magic. Not like the stuff you get in shops, bled of wonder and stamped with a trademark. There’s more to the Summerlands than pharmaceutical empires and fae-pop idols. In the deep dark of the wood lies a magic that changes you. You cannot buy that, daughter-mine. The best magic is waiting for you to find it.

Dad draws an apple from his coat pocket and makes a show of polishing the spotted red skin before offering it to me. I pluck it from his hand with mumbled thanks and take a bite. The flesh is soft, a bit bruised, but the sharp tang of the juice and its overripe scent brighten my mood.

The Wolfswood has its own kind of light once you get into the depths of it. It seems to come from below and limns the dark spaces. The pine trees stand at least four stories high and cast shadows every which way. The sun can’t guide you, and compasses just spin and stutter. Dad has a notebook, its yellowed pages all curled up and crawling out from under the cover, in which he’s painstakingly tracked our routes over the years. He’s peering over it now, his long nose twitching as his mouth pulls in and out of a grimace. He scratches his chin with his pencil through the scruff of his black beard.

“Whatcha thinking, Dad?”

“Hmm? Oh.” He walks backwards in a circle as he takes in the surrounding landmarks, then stops and leans against a tree. He tilts his head to beckon me closer. I come to his side, keeping one eye on the tree in case it’s up to something, and look over his shoulder at the route he’s pointing to with the pencil. “Remember your tenth? We followed this creek here, yeah, and found those four-legged birds? With the pretty purple wings?”

I still have nightmares about those birds.

When I don’t say anything, he glances over at me then quickly looks away. “Ah. Right. Well, I don’t think we should go downstream again, but up. Should’ve done that the first time, really. Magic flows out of the forest, not into it.”

“Yeah, all right.” I finish my apple and fish a plastic baggie out of my pack for the core. Don’t feed the magic animals, kids. “Lead on, Dad.”

Another grin and he’s off with a long stride I imagine was well suited to the crags and hills of his native Ireland. Dad’s best stories told of how he, a young man dreaming of Tír na nÓg, had left his country to come to the Summerlands. As my sisters and I sat in rapt attention at his knee, he’d cast himself as a trickster of tricksters who’d wrested a great boon from the fair folk: a path to this land of magic, of opportunity.

It took four, maybe five trips to the Wolfswood before I began to doubt my dad. Each year we returned empty-handed to our tiny flat and my sisters’ poorly concealed disappointment. Dad went back to work at the auto dismantler. I went back to my underfunded district school where I’d be lucky if I learned enough to be an auto dismantler. I came to suspect his immigration to the Summerlands was nothing more than a hapless accident, the cost of passing out in a stone circle after a night down the pub.

Or maybe his stories were true, but the fairies had bested him after all. Perhaps they’d been all too pleased to send him through the magic portal he’d dreamed of, knowing he was too late to stake a claim to the wonders of this world. The real magic of the Summerlands–its power–had been snatched up centuries ago by its conquerors.

He’s leaving me behind again. I can’t see him through the trees, but I can hear his whistling. I duck under a branch hanging heavy with thorns, then follow the bend to find Dad crouched beside a large rock and poking something with a stick. Great. That’s always a good idea.

“Find anything?” I ask, not sure what I want to hear.

“No. Not yet. You?”

“No.”

Dad looks up at me from under his wooly eyebrows. “Are you looking?”

“Yup.” I make a show of studying the moss that hangs from the tree branches overhead and the gnats that buzz around it. Both are a near-black crimson, normal denizens of the Summerlands.

Dad shakes his head slowly as he places his hands on his thighs and rises with a grunt. He continues down the path and I follow. Guilt nudges me, and I resolve to keep an eye out, both for glimpses of tangible magic and for anything Dad might stumble into. After five minutes I’m bored again.

I’m just noticing that the trees have thinned out and the undergrowth is thickening when Dad sucks a loud hiss through his teeth, and I stop before I bump into him. He drops into a crouch. Startled, I do the same, but then I can see nothing but Dad’s backpack. I awkwardly squat-walk to the spot next to him. A silent chuckle shakes Dad’s chest.

There’s a stag–or something like a stag–drinking from the stream. Instead of antlers, two gnarled trees protrude from the beast’s head and bow over the surface of the water. From one hangs a bright orange fruit that seems fit to burst. The stag’s ropy muscles stand out in sharp definition against his hide, like he’s been vacuum-sealed inside his own skin to suggest the thick ridges of oak bark. The beast raises one foot to step closer the creek, and I see he bears long, wriggling root-toes that dig into rocky ground as he sets the foot down.

Dad’s words are barely more than the movement of his lips, “I think I could knock that fruit off him, maybe even a branch. If I do, it’ll fall in the stream. Think you can snatch it out?”

A fruit. That grows. On a deer! Unlike the few remaining fae, who are magic, humans can’t really do magic. We can only extract and manipulate it. Study and channel it. Farm and exhaust it. Wild magic, ripe with new possibilities, is so rare it’s mythological. A myth to trick you into thinking the world doesn’t entirely suck. And here it is, right before my eyes.

We could sell it for a fortune. But in Dad’s shining eyes I see something even better: him and me bent over our treasure as we tease out its secrets for ourselves. All the inventions he’s drawn in his notebook, all the theories I used to bring him from decades-old library books. We’d fill our lives, and our neighbors’ lives, with everyday wonders. Beauty and music and health. Just like on TV.

The stag lifts his magnificent head, ears flicking. I nod and shimmy my backpack off my shoulders. “Good girl,” Dad mouths. He picks up a chunk of wood and hefts the weight of it in his hand. I rise up a bit, ready, and he pulls back his arm to throw.

THUNK! The wood makes contact, but with the stag’s neck instead of his antler. The beast sways, stunned for a moment, and then violently shakes his head. All branches remain firmly affixed, but the orange fruit plops into the stream. As the stag takes off, I dash in to catch the prize.

I halt with a high-pitched shriek as the icy water hits my calves. “The Summerlands” refers only to the magic that didn’t fade here, not the actual seasons. Dad shouts my name as I splash downstream, looking for the fruit. Something orange pops to the surface a few steps away and I lunge for it, but my movement in the water pushes it farther off. It bobs tantalizingly in place.

“Maura, be care–”

With my next step, the stream bed falls away and water is rushing in my ears. The cold stings my face, hands, belly, and I flail my arms as if to bat the water away from me. The stream tugs me farther down. Panic won’t help. I force myself still. The current eases and the water warms. I open my eyes and nearly gasp before I remember to keep hold of my breath.

The pool I find myself sinking into is wider by far than the stream I entered, and littered with sea creatures brilliant and bizarre. A raggedy seahorse, camouflaged like a pile of sodden autumn leaves, whirrs its fins and flutters by the tip of my nose. Then it trills and swims down toward the crystalline sand at the bottom of the pool.

I follow it, passing through a school of violet fish that tickle me with their squirrel-tails. The seahorse hovers above a cluster of tall yellow grass. It begins to pluck the tips off and add them to its camouflage. My toes are just about to touch the sand when a shadow wavers–no, that’s not right. It’s a shadow that doesn’t waver while all others do. I snatch my feet up and a beast springs from the grass, pinning the seahorse beneath its webbed paws.

A wolf. Its tawny fur stands on end like a dandelion puff in the water, but it still looks lanky. Young. It hasn’t yet grown into those giant feet. It stares up at me before bending down and snapping the seahorse into its jaws. Bright clouds of red burst from the wolf’s muzzle.

The wolf gulps down its dinner, licks its chops, and sits back on its haunches. Its tongue hangs over its teeth and waves in the water.

It waits. An ear flicks.

I float, my hands fluttering so I move neither forward nor back, my feet kicking slowly so I stay above stream bed. The wolf blinks one beautiful golden eye, and then the other. I think I hear its stomach growl.

It stands with a stretch and a great yawn and begins to walk away. I don’t want it to go. I want to pet it.

“Wai–” I get out only part of the word before something grabs my throat. I squirm and sputter as I’m yanked back to the surface, dragged over rocks, and thrown to the ground. Air tears its way down my throat as I gasp in an unwelcome breath. Dad’s bent over me, coughing, each exhalation shaking water from his hair and beard and clothes.

“No,” I moan as I scramble to my hands and knees. “I have to go with it.”

“That’s not the realm for you, sweet child.” Dad drops to his knees and wraps his arms around me.

I stare out at the water as Dad holds me for– I don’t know for how long. By the time my glamour-fevered longing has melted into embarrassment, my hair’s nearly dried into a rat’s nest of curls and my jumper’s only wet where Dad’s got his arms around me. I press the backs of my fingers against my flushed cheeks. I know better than to chase magic down a rabbit hole. He shouldn’t have to fetch me out like that anymore. He strokes a rough hand over my hair.

“Maura?” he asks, his voice shaking a little.

“I’m okay, Dad.” He tugs at my chin to look into my eyes, and I make myself smile. “The fruit?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “I went after you instead.”

I cough out a laugh. As if there were any doubt.

Dad stands and begins to gather our stuff. He walks to the edge of the water and leans over, maybe checking one more time for any sign of the fruit. He mutters and shakes his head.

When he turns back, he’s wearing his mournful-dog face. Always the same face, no matter whether it’s him saving me or me him. I know the words he’ll speak, the cadence they’ll fall in. He clears his throat. “Ah, well. I suppose. About time we head home then, yeah?” His question mark hangs in the air.

Yeah, sure, okay, is what I should say. I don’t. It’s stupid, really dumb, but this is the last time. “Nah, let’s keep going.” I stand, brushing off my clothes and grabbing his notebook. “We hit the certain death part early this year. I don’t want to miss the running-through-the-woods-screaming bit.”

“Funny.” He snatches the notebook from my outstretched hand, but he can’t keep from smiling. As he thumbs to the page where he left off, I wander over to the tree line. A small opening beckons from the undergrowth.

“We could go this way,” I say. “Looks like the stag might’ve come from here.”

“What’s that?” He comes up beside me and peers at the track I’ve uncovered. “Hmm, deer trail. As it were. Can’t hurt to follow it up a little ways. You’ll have to tag it, though. I’m about done taking chances for today.”

I unzip a side pocket on my bag and dig out a handful of little wires. Quick-rust iron breadcrumbs that’ll dissolve with the next good rain. Dad spends a week’s wages on them each trip, even though we don’t always need them. Can’t save them because the magic won’t stay bound to iron for more than a few weeks. I twist one around the nearest tree branch. Dad inspects my work, then grunts in approval. “All right,” he says “You lead and tag every twenty, twenty-five meters or so. I’ll keep notes.”

I push through the bushes and start up the narrow trail. After a short walk away from the stream, the undergrowth creeps back as the forest darkens. We pass through the Wolfswood at a comfortable pace, stopping only to tag the trees.

After a while, Dad clears his throat and asks, “You finish your University application yet?”

Not this again. Uni’s for Summerlanders who grow up knowing how magic works, not for kids with hyphenated identities who can’t even afford magical bandaids. “I was thinking, Dad–me and some friends that is–we were thinking we’d get a flat and work for a bit. Save up, yeah?”

“Work for a bit?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Save up?”

“I said as much, Dad.”

“Save up for what?”

I stop and twang a piece of wire against a dangling branch, watching the bark shrivel back where the metal strikes. I don’t have a plan, not really. But once I leave these woods, I’m done with magic. I’ll get by without it. And if I can’t, I’ll–

I’ll what? Leave the Summerlands like Mum?

I whirl to face Dad again, one finger raised to drive home a point I haven’t made yet. But he isn’t there.

“Dad?” I ask. He’s gone. I yell, “Dad!”

“Hush, Maura-girl. Come. Have a look at this.”

I see him then, a few steps off the path bent beside a giant tree stump. My footsteps crunch on the forest floor as I walk over to him. “What is it?”

Dad moves aside and pulls back a leafy branch sprouting from the stump so I can see. “There,” he breathes.

It’s a rose. Deep red in color, its petals just starting to open. But it’s a rose, not a rose bush with one bloom. A single glorious flower on a stem thrust into the ground. It’s an idea, a story of a rose.

I crouch down and curl my hand around the flower, letting its warm petals brush my skin. My touch shakes free a heavy, honey-sweet scent. I look up at my dad in wonder.

“Ah, there, I told you, didn’t I? Just saving the best for last.” He kneels beside me, cupping his hand around mine, and gives me a small, lopsided smile, a resigned look in his eyes.

“I don’t– I mean, it doesn’t have to be the last–” What am I saying? I’m not coming back.

“Don’t worry at it now,” Dad says. He brushes away the twigs and pine needles and starts to dig around the rose with a stick. After he’s loosened the dirt, he thrusts his hands into the ground. He braces himself on his knees and heaves out a great root ball. Dirt patters away from his hands. Dad’s grin is the toothiest I’ve ever seen it. He gives me the rose.

“Home now, then?” he asks. I laugh and nod. He consults his notebook. “This way, I think.” He sets off and I follow.

Dad whistles as he walks. The notes bounce when he ducks under a branch or steps over a root, but then catch on a grunt. Dad’s shoe’s caught in a hole. “Full of grace, you are,” I laugh. Dad frees his foot and lightly punches my shoulder.

We continue, but the whistling soon stops again. Dad tugs his arm free from a snagging branch. After a couple steps in silence, he trips, stumbling to the ground.

“Dad!”

“Nothing to worry at. A bit clumsy, as you said.”

I’ve been walking the same as him, and the path’s been clear enough. He starts off again, but I stay, watching the thick brambles beside the path.

I approach the tangle. Three steps forward. Another. I don’t see it move exactly, but I should be up to my elbows in thorns. I glance down the path at Dad, who’s patting his head as if he’s just dislodged something from his hair. There’s a sound like wind scooping up leaves. A long, low shadow runs through the woods. Shit.

“Maura?” Dad’s trying to tug himself out of his coat. It’s caught up in a mess of vines and is slowly being lifted, pulling Dad’s arms up behind him like vulture wings. I go to him. “Bit of a mess I’m in, eh, girl?” He looks down at me ruefully from the vines that have now lifted him several inches from the ground.

“The rose,” I say.

Dad nods. “A breach of hospitality.”

I drop to my knees and tear at the ground. The hard-packed dirt rips my nails, but I make a hole big enough. I drop the rose in. I look up at Dad, panting, but there’s no change. The woods are keeping him. Not for the having of its treasure, but for the taking of it.

A branch snaps. The smell of wet dog flanks me, and the tawny wolf steps from the trees. Dad doesn’t see it and I don’t want to scare him more. The wolf sits and brushes its tail over the ground.

I guess it’s not going to eat us right now. I need to try something else. Remembering the brambles, I dig up the rose and tuck it into the crook of his elbow. The vines snap free and he drops to the ground.

“Clever,” he says, pride warm in his voice. “Now–”

A vine snakes up over my shoulder and tightens about my neck.

“No!” Dad roars. He shoves the rose at my chest and I stumble back, the vine wiggling free. The wolf stands, legs wide, head low, and shoulders hunched. It raises its lip.

Bound again by the ankles, Dad sighs and rubs his face. “Let’s try this,” he says and beckons me closer. “You keep tight hold of that flower.” I do, and Dad scoops me up into his arms.

The vines let go and Dad starts off in a run. Wind blasts down on us, choking the air with dust and detritus. A great tree limb crashes in front of us, close enough to splatter my face with splinters. Dad dodges between the trees. Over his shoulder, I see the wolf giving chase, teeth snapping.

“Put me down!” I yell. Dad stops and the wind stills. He sets me on my feet. I get between Dad and where I think the wolf is, but I can’t see it.

Dad slumps to the ground. I join him and set the rose between us. One vine wraps around his ankle. One around my wrist. We sit there, panting.

“I’m so sorry, Maura.” He removes his backpack and starts to rummage through it, pulling out his keys, wallet, and notebook. He asks, embarrassment softening his words, “Is there any food in yours I could have?”

“What? No, you’re not staying here.” Definitely not. He won’t last a night.

“I want to stay, Maura. Look at this.” He holds out his hand and a vine wraps around it, new tendrils bursting from the stem like tiny springs. “I’m holding more magic right now than I have in twenty years in this land. You take the rose and go home to your sisters. I’ll be all right.”

This won’t be fair, but– I take a breath. “How can you be so selfish?”

The determination in Dad’s face crumbles. “Selfish was when I brought you here.” He leans over and cups my face with his hands. “I’m fixing that. I cannot leave my child alone in the woods.”

I look past him, watching for the wolf that still hasn’t reappeared. “You can’t give up the magic. You’d take it away from me.”

“What?”

I pull away from him. “Was it just talk, wanting opportunities for me? You’re just going to take it and leave me?”

“We could both stay.”

“The girls are too young and they need their dad.” I need my dad. “I need this.”

His eyes widen. “Oh my girl, what you could learn! Just for a night. Maybe two.” I choke on the knowledge that he doesn’t know me better.

Dad shoves his keys and wallet into his pockets and tosses me his backpack. “I’ve got two sandwiches and a torch in there. Give me the wire breadcrumbs.” He taps his notebook. “I’ll tag my way out and mark the path. I’ll get answers back home. The rose’ll buy us those. Then I’ll be back for you. What have you got in your bag?”

I’m glad he thinks he’ll be able to find me again. If he believes it’s possible now, he might feel less guilty later. I give Dad the wires. “I’ve got a couple sandwiches, too. And an extra sweater.”

He shakes off his jacket and hands it to me. “You better have it. You’ll need to stay warm.” We both pretend not to notice the crack in his voice.

Well, that’s sorted. The vines seem to sense as much and let us go. Dad clears his throat. I look again for the wolf. I try to think of something to say.

“I can stay until dark,” Dad says.

“No. You shouldn’t. I’m okay.”

“Right.” He stands and I do, too. Another awkward pause and then I’m crushed up in Dad’s hug. “I’ll be back.”

“I know, Dad.”

“I can’t wait to hear the stories you’ll tell.”

I squeeze my lips into a smile. I hug him again. After I pull away, he twists a wire around the nearest tree branch. He picks up the rose and his notebook and looks at me. And then he walks away. He starts to whistle, a song I always loved. He stops to tag another tree. He walks on.

When he’s almost out of sight, I turn my head. I don’t want to be watching when I can’t see him anymore. I can hear him, though, that bright whistle. I wrap my arms around my ribs. The whistle is fading. I don’t know if I can still hear it or if I only think I can because I know the tune.

Silence settles on the Wolfswood. A warm wind rustles the trees, like the forest releasing a held breath. It shakes loose the scent of pine needles and loam. Handfuls of night-violets pop open, yellow centers glimmering like stars. I sit down, my back against a tree, and close my eyes.

A cold nose presses against my cheek.


Becky Allyn Johnson is a technical editor who lives in Madison. She has a high luck stat and she's vulnerable to bears. She retweets quite a lot of wolf photos @beckyallyn.