Teeth Long and Sharp as Blades
by A.C. Wise
Have you ever thought about how fairy tale heroines are like final girls? We survive poisoning, curses, imprisonment, mothers who want to cut our hearts out and hold them in their hands. But we survive, and our survival is an object lesson: act this way, and you’ll be all right. Be pure of heart. Be kind to strangers. Don’t go into the woods at night.
It was supposed to be a joke. A stupid prank. A sorority dare. They were never going to let me into their sisterhood, I know that now, but back then I was naive. I was trusting. I walked into the park at the far edge of campus. I stood at the line where impenetrable shadow met safe halogen glow, facing the trees bordering the neat lawns, dense enough to be called a wood. And I didn’t question why I was the only freshman out there, shivering in the t-shirt my mother bought me from the campus store the day we toured the school.
The red shirt read Get Jacked over a white line drawing of a lumberjack, our team mascot. Its hem barely met the waist of the stupid booty shorts Angelica insisted I wear. All I had to do was stand there, dressed like an idiot, and sing the school fight song all the way through, including the verses no one remembers anymore, then I could come back inside.
It was supposed to be safe. I wasn’t even out there alone, though I didn’t know that at the time. Brian, a pledge from a sibling frat, was hiding in the bushes. He was supposed to jump out wearing a wolf mask and scare me. Instead, he ended up holding my guts in with his bare hands, sobbing as he called for an ambulance.
He rode to the hospital with me, holding my hand, but when they wheeled me inside, he stayed in the parking lot. Eventually, he called an Uber back to campus. I heard all this second-hand. After that night, I never saw Brian again.
Do you want to see my scars? Everyone always does. Even if they don’t intend to ask, they eventually get that look in their eye. Maybe a corner of their mouth twitches. They look away, and phrase it like an afterthought. Oh, by the way . . . And then their eyes go wide. It’s always worse or better than they expected. Maybe some people think they’ll actually see my intestines, still hanging out like ropes after all these years. Whatever they expect, I’m never it.
Then they stare and stare and stare, forgetting I’m even here. Us final girls, us heroines, our trauma is a lesson, we survive over and over again for your entertainment, to teach you how to live.
See? When I lift my shirt up, you can trace the marks all the way from my hip to my underarm. There are other scars too, but you don’t get to see those. Of course, it isn’t the same shirt. Don’t be absurd. I bought a new one.
I stood on the edge of the dark and faced the trees. There wasn’t anything to see except the shagginess of them, the way they were indistinct in the purple-brown muddy night. I never did get around to singing. I opened my mouth. I took a step, just one toe closer to the shadows, my heel still on the path, never fully leaving the safety of the light. Why? Did I hear something stir in the dark, a vast impossible mystery ready to open itself up and swallow me whole? Or was I drunk and just trying to keep my balance?
It doesn’t matter. This is my story, but when you hear it, I am irrelevant, a moral in the shape of a girl, an object to be acted upon.
The darkness surged. I don’t remember it making a sound. I did, but it wasn’t a scream, only the thud of my head hitting the ground. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t breathe. Weight crushed me, massive paws on my shoulders pinned me down. Then tearing, tearing, tearing and pieces of me on the outside of my body that should have stayed inside. The heat and the smell.
Do you know there hasn’t been a reported wolf sighting in this area of the country in almost fifty years? We hunted them near to extinction. Drove them out of their natural habitats, killed off their food sources and left them to starve. Contrary to popular belief, it’s very rare for a wolf to attack a human being. Why would they? Too much trouble. They prefer easier prey. The small. The weak. But in a pinch, they’ll eat anything. All starving things will, given time. There are places where wolves live off our garbage like carrion birds. Like coyotes. But don’t let them hear you call them that. I don’t know if that’s true, but it sounds true, doesn’t it? A good story is more important than reality most of the time.
Wolves don’t like to come close to the city. They don’t like the light, the scents, the noise. I should have been safe. I wasn’t even alone. But we’re never as safe as we think we ought to be.
Wolves don’t come this close to the city, but knives don’t leave scars like these. So what were you, then? I’ve wondered for years. Were you sick, hungry, afraid? Were you born one way, but transformed into something else? Did I look like a deer to you? Were you ever a wolf at all?
There is an impossible space between truths. That is where this story exists. That is where creatures such as us belong.
Of course they searched the woods, carrying rifles, both the tranquilizing and the regular kind. For weeks, the edge of campus sprouted white tents filled with coffee and radio equipment and folding chairs. There were sawhorse barriers and fluttering yellow police tape. They never found anything. Or not what they were looking for, at least.
I was in the hospital, so I missed the whole thing. I heard they turned up a vagrant, living in a shelter made from an old mattress and a tarp, the kind you can buy at any home supply store. They may have run a picture of him in the paper, though I can’t imagine why. Regardless, I see him very clearly in my mind—dirty brown hair and beard, matted and unkempt. But not just brown, also a little bit red and a little bit blond. He’s very skinny. White skin. His ribs show. His eyes are green, but flecked with odd droplets of rust. He doesn’t own a shirt. His pants are rough fabric, held up by a rope at his waist. His feet are bare, almost black, with moons of dirt under yellowed nails.
He looks a lot like you.
Wolves aren’t monsters. They are forces of nature. They don’t have a choice in what they do, but if they did, what do you think they would choose? Is there a wolf out there who would rather open a vegetarian restaurant, or take up knitting dressed in your grandmother’s clothes?
I never wanted to be in a fairy tale. There was a poster by the elevators in my dorm, advertising an art show. A flying saucer hovers above a lake; a girl stands on the shore, holding a bouquet of daisies. In my mind, she is about to propose. That’s what I want to be—a girl who marries a spaceship and runs away. But instead, I’m the girl who survived. And I always will be.
When they let me out of the hospital, I expected to dream of wolves. I never did. I got special dispensation to skip exams, start over again fresh next semester. I moved from my dorm to an apartment off-campus, sponsored by a generous alum concerned for my mental wellbeing. It felt like hush money—Has hazing on campuses gone too far? —but I took it anyway. And I decided not to pledge to a sorority after all.
Instead of wolves, I dreamt about men with hungry eyes. Men standing between trees and watching me. Hot breath smelling of cheap whiskey instead of red meat. Do you believe in fairy tale as allegory? Do you believe in the capacity of the mind to protect itself with story, no matter how fantastical and far-fetched the tale may seem?
But as I said, knives don’t leave marks like these.
My grandmother sends me money every year on my birthday. After I got out of the hospital, since I didn’t need to worry about rent, I used the money to go on eBay and buy a fur coat. The seller claimed it was genuine wolf fur. I had no reason to doubt him. Did you know I used to be a vegetarian?
The coat arrived in late spring, with the temperature already pushing eighty-five degrees. It took both hands to lift it out of its box. The seller had wrapped it in tissue paper smelling faintly of lilacs, as if I’d bought it at an old fashioned department store. It felt sleek in my arms, powerful. I imagined running for hours and never getting tired, jaws that could snap a man’s leg in half, straight through flesh to bone. It made me hungry.
I put it on and opened the closet door. I stepped inside and sat with my back against the wall. I pulled the closet door closed.
In the dark, I could barely see the full-length mirror hanging on the door. Looking at my reflection through the fringe of hanging clothes was like looking at myself through a screen of trees. I imagined being swallowed, held close in the belly of the beast whose skin I wore. I put my fingers in my mouth and chewed until I tasted blood. I screamed. A raw, full-throated howl.
After that, I didn’t dream about men in the trees anymore.
Would you like to know how this story ends? You’ve noticed the camera, yes? This is the part where I reclaim the tale, reinsert myself, remind you that I have—after all—been here all along. We’re going to make a film, you and I. You’re going to be the star.
Did you know there’s a $50,000 fine for killing a protected species? I’m still a vegetarian—do you believe that? Cruelty to animals is wrong; they can’t help what they are. But a girl’s got to do what a girl’s got to do if she wants to do more than survive.
Do you believe in the property of transference? The ability of one thing to stand in for another, like a coin for a living sacrifice, or a lamb for a son? Do you believe the wine in the cup turns into blood the moment it touches faithful lips?
I’m going to tell you a story. Once upon a time, a girl walked into the woods. A wolf ate her, but somehow she emerged. When the girl grew up, she walked back into the woods, but this time she carried a spear she’d carved herself out of blackest wood, polished to a shine.
The wolf had come back to haunt the woods, and she knew if she didn’t kill it, it would devour more girls like her. So she strode forth and confronted the wolf, even though it stood taller than her. Even though its eyes were blood and its breath a gale. Each of its teeth was a blade longer than her arm. But she showed no fear, driving her spear straight into the wolf’s brain through its lower jaw. Then she took its snow-white fur for a cloak and declared the forest safe again.
This story is also true. A girl walked into the woods and was devoured by a wolf, but she survived. By the time she grew up, there were no more wolves in the forest; people said there never had been. But the girl had bad dreams and she knew the world wasn’t safe; it would make her into something she wasn’t if she let it. So she snuck into a rehab center for injured animals. She stole a wolf so sickly and drugged, it didn’t put up a fight. It was starving, so hollow and light she could carry it with no trouble at all.
She brought the wolf to the basement of her apartment building. In the back corner, under a burned-out light bulb, she tied the wolf to an old army cot. The wolf was afraid. The wolf begged the girl for water and food. Couldn’t she see he was sick and had nothing to do with her scars? She said no, she couldn’t see that anymore. All she could see was a wolf with winter-white skin and red eyes, teeth long and sharp as blades, taller than her, with breath smelling of blood.
She took a knife that wasn’t longer than her arm. In fact, it was very small. She cut him slowly. She started at his sternum and worked her way down to his groin. It took a long time. His skin didn’t part like a zipper. She had to fight, and it made her arm sore. The smell was very bad, and the predator screamed the whole time and told her she was wrong, wrong, wrong; he wasn’t a wolf at all.
When I cut you open, will I wear your skin and make the woods safe again? Or will I find only blood and guts and organs inside, and no one there to hold them in while an ambulance comes?
You say there have been no wolves in this part of the country for over fifty years. I say knives don’t leave wounds like these. Which story would you rather believe? The world doesn’t always behave sensibly. Sometimes there’s a mystery standing between the trees, waiting to swallow us whole.
I’m turning the camera on now. I would say I’m sorry, but that would defeat the point. This is how we step out of fairy tales. This is how we stop being final girls. We become monsters of our own. Not object lessons. Not dealers of justice and vengeance. Merely alive. Still here. And cruel.
About the Author
A.C. Wise‘s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Shimmer, Tor.com, and The Best Horror of the Year Volume 10, among other places. The podcast version of her story Final Girl Theory, which appeared at Pseudopod, was a finalist for the 2013 Parsec Awards. Additionally, her work has won the Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic, as well as twice more being a finalist for the award, and has been a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award.
She has two collections published with Lethe Press, and a novella published by Broken Eye Books. Along with her fiction, she contributes the Women to Read, and Non-Binary Authors to Read columns to The Book Smugglers.
About the Narrator
Tonia Ransom is the creator and executive producer of NIGHTLIGHT, a horror podcast featuring creepy tales written and performed by Black creatives all over the world. Tonia has been scaring people since the second grade, when she wrote her first story based on Michael Myers. She’s pretty sure her teacher was concerned, but she thinks she turned out fine(ish). Tonia lives in Austin, Texas, though in the summer she dreams of living elsewhere.