I was born a wild thing, fox-red child wrapped in a caul, pushed in a gush, screaming, to meet my mother. I tasted her milk only after I tasted her blood. All my life I thought myself apart, her blood-bitter taste in my mouth a warning: life will not be sweet.
My mother and sister, crowned in honey-gold hair, seemed different. They bent like wheat in the wind, this way and that, when I could only blunder through, breaking and breaking. Fox in the henhouse, they would say. So it was my job to kill the chickens, when the chickens needed killing.
When times were hungry, I killed the rabbits, too, though they were little more than mouthfuls. I broke their necks. And a cat once, run over by a cart in the market. Poor thing. I did it, quickly. When I turned back, my mother was watching. My sister was watching. I thought them ashamed.
I never knew till we died that they were wild things, too.
We should have died fast, with the mercy you’d show an animal.
They meant to strangle us, but they didn’t. Cowards. Bill Tanner tried but fell away weeping. My sister bore his hand-prints around her neck like purple lace. Dick Pursey refused outright, said it was because he didn’t want to carry us.
We walked to the stake.
I pissed myself on the way. I’d never seen a burning. I didn’t know how long it would take to die.
A crowd waited for us at the pyre. Not the whole town, but most of it. What else was there to do on the island? Some looked sorry to see us go, but they didn’t try to stop it.
My sister wept the whole way. When we reached the stake, she stopped. My mother and I didn’t cry. “It’s not right,” she said quietly. She knew it would do no good to protest, but I was glad she’d said it.
Imagine, feeling gladness in a moment like that. Yet, I did.
The bailiff bound our hands behind us.
When the fire started, my mother strained forward like a lady on a ship’s bowsprit. I stood tiptoe to gulp at cleaner air. My sister sunk down, for she was heavy with child. There should have been mercy for that, too. The town wouldn’t slaughter a pregnant sow, and Christ had put devils into pigs.
There are no words to describe burning under the eyes of those you knew. I will not try. It’s worse than Hell. At least God made Hell. Men made this.
I don’t know when I died. I did my killings clean, I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know death.
All I know is, I did not stop. The pain became a different pain. The weight of me became a different weight. Instead of being, I was becoming, and in that becoming I did not cease perceiving the fire. My mother. My sister.
The fire split my sister’s belly, burst her open. The babe spilled out like pudding. Male. Someone snatched him from the flame and I thought, Yes. Good.
Imagine, feeling hope in that moment. Yet, I did.
Hope made me into light and air. I swooped and curled, my stuffing gone loose.
There was a commotion, and I became myself again to hear it, now no longer light as air, but dense as smoke.
They were bringing him back.
Our little lad, unnamed and unbaptized. The bailiff took him, blood-red and burn-red, mewling into the thick air, and tossed him with a little shrug into the fire, as if he were shit tossed onto the midden.
I do not have to imagine.
And then, we were the fire.
The fire was a wild thing. It cracked bones and ate the scraps. When it was done, it quieted. Grew soft, even. Ashes are very soft.
I think we could have gone, then. If not to Heaven, to somewhere peaceful. The breezes, full of starlight, blew through our bodies like they used to blow through our hair. I had always loved how the night filled me with emptiness, made me want to run aimlessly. We stood around where the stake had been, facing it. My sister held the child in her arms, but he did not move. We were whole again, but he was mottled with blisters and burns, oozing.
Mother looked at him, at us. “One husband dead. The other, a minister. A pious life. What good did it do?”
My sister looked down. “My husband was a minister, too. This was his son.”
They did not moan-cluck like marketplace wives. Their words were low, straining, dogs about to slip a chain.
“I was a maiden,” I said. “Like the Blessed Virgin. And they killed us for her, for their Queen across the sea. Mary and Mary—where are they now?”
“In London, with our husbands,” my sister said, her voice rich with dark laughter.
“God and the Queen are nowhere in Guernsey,” my mother agreed.
“But we are still here,” I said.
My sister grinned. I had never seen her smile so, a cat promised cream. “And so is the bailiff.”
My mother smiled, too. I’d believed Guernsey had no wolves, but I was wrong. “So is the Dean. And the rectors.”
Mother stooped, filled her hands with ashes. She poured them over her head, smeared them on her face, her arms.
I followed her example, and the ash on my skin thrilled me like cold water in summer. My sister shivered. When the ash fell on the child, he cried.
Sleepers in their beds stirred at that sound, that thin accusing wail.
Some woke and wept. Their fear was good—more than good. Delicious.
My sister baptized him in the ashes, raining them over his head. Where she poured, his flesh turned new and pink.
She made a mark on his brow. Not a cross. We were done with that. A circle.
There was no moon that night, but we could see it, the sphere of darkness gliding, blotting the stars. For us, it was enough.
My mother bent to kiss his head. I did the same. He did not smell like milk. He smelled like meat.
The Dean lived in a fine house. So, too, did the bailiff, and all the rectors four. Their walls were strong, and their doors were shut.
But to be wild is to be patient.
Out of fever dreams they came, one after another, dwelling in their dread. The rectors first, nervous men, obedient. They dreamed themselves into the square, dreamed flames and watched, when in life, they’d looked away.
They did not dream us. We were already there. Standing, crouching, straining, but still. We stood in wild stillness until he came—Jacques Amy, the Dean of Guernsey, he who consigned our lives to the fire.
He stood larger in dreams than in life, proud as a stag. They were all bucks in their velvet, glossy and fat.
Ready for the fire.
We broke from the flames as one.
I outpaced my mother and sister; death had given me wings. Wings and claws.
I fell upon the Dean as a falcon on a sparrow. I exulted to feel him break beneath me.
I wish the Dean had noticed me before. I wish I could say I’d spurned him, I’d mocked him, I’d kindled his hate. But we never spoke before the trial. In truth, we didn’t speak during the trial, either, for he said one thing, and we said another. Never was one word the same.
Now there would be no words from us.
They screamed. They begged, prayed to God and the Virgin, even to us, for deliverance.
Imagine, asking for mercy.
That night, we were kittens on a nest of mice, clumsy in our glee. We fell on ourselves as much as on them and laughed.
Oh, how we pounced and tore! We released them just to see them run, before we pounced again.
When we bit down, their blood ran red as dawn. I, who was born with blood in my mouth, found death the sweeter draught. No bitter iron to cloy or clot. This was the taste of joy.
I drank it down like wine.
My sister dribbled some of their blood into the baby’s mouth, and he liked it very well. We cooed to see him gurgle so, pressed him to a gash. How well he suckled as we pinned the Dean down! He drank and drank. I think he even drank the Dean’s screams.
Before our little love had his fill of blood, though, the Dean disappeared like a star into morning. Did we kill him?
No matter. There were still the rectors to be had, little mice gone scampering.
We caught them all.
The night left us sated, and the day drew out our prey anew, ash-pale into the sunlight. They still drew breath. Their flesh remained unmarked. They lived—but not well.
What flinching creatures peered out from under eaves, when yesterday they strode brazenly, bold as cockerels!
But we, who died slowly, would be slow to satisfy.
We lolled away the days, reclining in deep shadow. There was no hurry. As spiders know their webs’ lacing, I knew they’d return, knew we would hunt again.
We drove them into the forests. We chased them to the shore. High cliffs were ours, and sharp thickets. Betimes, we killed them quickly to hear the merry snap of bones. More oft than not, we killed them slow, so the babe could drink his fill.
When they died, they disappeared back into waking. But a little weaker, a little less.
And we—each time, we became a little more.
My sister’s son, our little love, fed so well that, before long, he could chase them beside us. He wore his burns as spots. He wore his smile as a knife. Burnt Charlie, they said, when later they woke. Burnt Charlie, they whispered, when they passed the darkest groves, the furthest pastures.
They gave him that name. We gave him none. Neither did we name ourselves; in truth, we had forgotten our birthnames.
Our names were biter, stalker, hunger. Our names were chase and rend and tear.
Sometimes they did not dream of us, and we hunted elsewhere. We ran the deer paths, wended along the shore, and took to the sky. We were the dog, the horse, and the rider; the bow, the sword, and the spear.
Only one thought carried me from fields and forests. Where was the bailiff?
He never appeared. After moons of waiting, perching at his sill and crouching at his door, we sought him out.
His sleep was untroubled.
Old rage filled me. My sister screamed in the night.
“Wait,” our mother said. She wore her wolf smile all the time now. We smiled back. We waited.
We took the Rector of Castel first. Our torments wore him small and smooth, until he was no more fun to pursue than a pebble down the road. When he ceased appearing, we did not look for him. Many moons later, we learned he’d died.
The knowledge did not trouble us. We had already drunk away all his joy.
But then, the Rector of the Forest came no more. Neither did the Rector of St. Andrew’s.
We found others, of course. There were always others. They lit their fires, never thinking about how fire is a wild thing. How it called us. How we answered.
Out little love was all but grown when the bailiff came at last. We smelled his spoor on the full-moon wind. I no longer cared for town, but when we caught the scent, we raced. Into the square. Into the memory of fire.
He was not dreaming. He was dead.
He did not run.
He met us with anger, not with fear. When we struck him, he struck back. He caught me under his fists, drawing blood.
To be wild is not to be fearless. I was afraid, but not alone.
My sister threw herself on him. My mother knocked them sideways.
The bailiff howled with pain.
I hurled myself back into the fray. I punched, kicked, heaved. I hadn’t felt so human in so very long. My nails were short, my teeth blunt, but I was wild all the same.
Bit by bit, we beat him down. We lapped the joy from his wounds, but found it thin, so we tore his flesh. That was better. His heart, although shriveled, nourished us best of all. Four chambers for four hunters. We ate his hope of Heaven, then ate his nascent hope of Hell.
When we were done, his bones sang. We sang with them. We howled. We screamed.
I think we could have gone then, too. Into the earth. Into the deep pools and the old trees, into the granite bones of Guernsey.
But the moonlight ran through us, and the night surrounded us, and I was still wild, wild. So I kept singing. We kept singing.
When the full moon rises, he rises with it. Sometimes he fights, others he flees. He has quested every edge of the island in vain. He will never leave Guernsey.
Come, Mary Queen of England. Come, Mary Queen of Heaven. None shall take our vengeance from us. We are wild things, and we know no rule or reason but our own. We are the sea, the sky, the stone.