I was born neither girl nor boy but somewhere betwixt. My mother called me Runi, which in our language means a secret held between your heart and a dark place. Both a girl or a boy may be called Runi. A secret, or perhaps an ambiguity—the forbearance of a decision.
This ambiguity was a calamity for Pendarvis. I was fate-born for the Great Wolf, you see, marked on my forehead with the red sign. And girls, always girls, only girls, were marked for the wolf.
Honey-skinned or ashen-haired, blue-eyed or tall of form, kind-spirited or unruly as a spring weed, all girls.
The Great Wolf would lick his great lips and, slipping-terror-blood-slick, swallow them into the cavern of his belly. On this sacrificial day, once a generation, all of Pendarvis celebrated with great casks of ale. Long into the night, our people danced circles within circles around the tower at the center of town. Men and women, boys and girls, all of Pendarvis cupped their hands to their mouths and ululated the chants of wolves, singing down the moon’s journey until a bloody-fingered dawn broke the sky in half.
Fate is fate—so it was decided that I was to be raised as a girl, and my mother and father swore me to the Great Wolf. They sent me to the wizard of Pendarvis, to live in the tower at the center of town.
“Your blood buys our protection,” the wizard said, when I was older and understood such things. He spoke without guilt; Pendarvis had many daughters and sons, and I was something else entirely, a sacrifice with a fate woven many years before I was red-born into the world.
But an ambiguity is not just a secret—it is a chance for a choice, a form of freedom.
My brothers became men. My sisters became women. I remained a sacrifice in waiting.
They learned the ways of field and farm. They seeded and scythed and built the wheat into stooks. They wove and baked, learned to hold a baby on the crook of a hip, just so.
This was the Great Wolf’s blessing; to have laid down the way of the sword for that of ploughshares.
Armies parted around Pendarvis as water parts around a rock, pillaging our neighbors but never touching our lands. Soldiers never marched through our fields, salting the soil, nor did they drag our women to the ground or drive swords through the bellies of our men. The sky withheld its most destructive rains and winds for other towns. And if ever some misfortune came upon Pendarvis—an unusually cold winter, an unexpected storm—we knew it was the will of the Great Wolf, that there was something to learn, and counted our blessings.
In this way, we were safe. Free to farm. Free to never change.
I waited for the Great Wolf, alone, apart. I watched from the wizard’s tower as bombs fell on farmlands and soldiers marched like ants across the roads of neighboring kingdoms.
“Night and day are siblings,” the wizard told me, one blue eye watching the sky, one brown eye watching me. “They circle each other eternally.”
The wizard did not scythe wheat, or dance at harvest time, or marry, or raise children. He knew many more things. He was older than my mother and father, older than Pendarvis. Perhaps as old as the Great Wolf himself. The wizard’s fell-dark nails could turn the thread of a man’s fate on his spinning wheel—the hour of death, whether a name would echo down through one’s sons and sons’ sons and daughters, or else fade to nothingness against the shores of time.
“What of dawn and dusk?” I asked the wizard.
“They must choose to become something more than themselves. Dawn to day, dusk to dark. And in so choosing, they are destroyed.”
Sometimes the wizard let me leave the tower. He showed me how to listen to the mushrooms that grew in great webs under our footsteps, to echo the calls of birds, and watch the spiders spin low webs and know a rainstorm was coming. One spring, the wizard cut open the belly of a doe to read divinations and to show me the half-eaten greenness inside.
There was a lesson in this: The world is consumption. To exist is to destroy.
Everything lives by the death of another. With every breath, every mouthful of nourishment, we take. Plants take from the soil, and the deer from the plants, and we from the deer, and the Great Wolf from us. Circles that turn within circles, tightening the noose between that which is living and that which is dead.
As with night and its sibling, day, there is nothing between life and death. These forces circle one another and we, the people of Pendarvis, must choose the bright day or deathly dark.
“What if dawn and dusk did not choose?” I asked the wizard.
“That would be a new kind of world, child,” he said. “A world I do not know.”
“Must I choose?”
No answer to my question. Nothing new ever happened in Pendarvis.
“Do I have a choice?”
His hand gripped my shoulder and squeezed.
On the hour of my last day as Runi of Pendarvis, the wizard marked my forehead and arms with lamb’s blood. If the wizard mourned my loss, his mismatched eyes showed no sadness. I was not the first girl-child he had sworn over to the power of the Great Wolf.
The village boys, now men, guided me into the heart of the woods, where an ancient, never-dying tree grew, paper-birch-barked and red-leaved. Beneath this tree, my mother and father bade me sit and kissed my forehead. Then, alone, I awaited my destiny.
The Great Wolf came at dusk, when rain was falling. His shoulders brushed the ancient tree, shaking the blood of a thousand sacrifices down from the leaves.
“Well,” he said. “Usually they send me girls.”
His coat was empty-black as a moonless night, his teeth longer than a strongman’s forearm.
“I am a girl.”
“Are you sure?” he asked.
Had I not waited, in the tower, for years, just as the sacrifice of Pendarvis must wait? I was called a girl for this purpose; was I not one?
“I am here, aren’t I? What else do you think I could be?”
“Blood is blood. I think you are a sacrifice.”
“Do you accept me as such?”
The wolf laughed. His golden eyes burned merrily as night-fires.
“Blood is blood, yes—and fate is fate,” he said. “Come, climb on my back and hold fast to my fur. We have far to go.”
He washed the blood from my face and arms with his tongue, and I climbed upon his back. He began to run, each stride growing greater and greater until he leapt into the sky. The cloud-road billowed beneath his feet.
He circled the moon and a thousand ancient stars reflected in his gloss-dark coat. From each paw, a line of fire tore the sky. The Great Wolf howled, and his cry shattered a red dawn over the world. Pendarvis was nothing in the distance behind us, a half-forgotten memory.
We landed and the Great Wolf let me off his back.
“It’s time now, young one,” he said. “Do you choose this?”
Oh, choiceless choice.
I could not have run from him. I was the sacrifice of Pendarvis, the child of a loyal family of Pendarvis. My blood was the promise of their protection from ant-march armies and bombs, from storms and floods. I hoped they would remember my decision.
“I am ready.”
Then the Great Wolf swallowed me.
I slipped down his great maw. It was dark and tight, muscle pulsating against my skin as I was pushed down. Spittle-wet, I dropped into his red-lined stomach.
One might think the inside of a beast would be a sludge of half-digested prey, but instead the Great Wolf contained a palace of gleaming bone. Spires made of thousands of thighbones stretched toward a heaving red sky. The countless rib-cage walls towered high above me.
“Your new home,” the wolf’s voice rumbled all around.
I pushed open the palace gates and walked down a skull-bone hall. In the depths of the castle, I found a throne room.
An old woman sat in a chair of bones, combing her long grey hair.
The hair spread all across the room, coiled in countless loops.
“Young one,” she said. “I am glad you’re here.”
“Where are we?”
“Between the Great Wolf’s heart and a dark place.”
Runi, I remembered. My own name.
“Who are you?” I asked, for she, too, was one of the sacrifices, one of a line of girls.
“What did they call me in the village? Names, what do they matter? The sun, the moon, the sky, they do not have names. Eternal things are eternal. I am only the sacrifice, as you are the sacrifice. There is no before, no after. There is always the sacrifice. So, I am no one, nothing.”
I held my true name against my heart and looked on my future. This crone, brushing her hair day after day in the belly of a wolf. For what? To what end, this life, this sacrifice? To protect Pendarvis, yes, to shield it from harm.
“Do you remember Pendarvis, Grandmother?”
“Pendarvis? Is that what it was called, the place with the tower? I remember that tower, child. It rose into the sky, tall enough to see all the land. Have you ever been so high, my child? Have you ever seen the world in a single glance? Oh, yes, that was freedom. To see everything and yet to be above it all, untouched.”
Bile rose hot and blood-bitter in my mouth. Grandmother had stayed faithfully in the bone-palace until I, her replacement, came down the Great Wolf’s gullet. In her protection of Pendarvis, she had found a prison.
Was this what it meant to be a girl, a woman, to stay eternally in this cage of bone and blood? Was it to be consumed? And was it the duty of a boy, a man, to lead the sacrifice to the dark wood, where the wolf awaited?
I was not a girl, if this was what it meant to be a girl. Nor was I a boy, if that was what it meant to be a boy.
And, no, I was not a sacrifice at all.
I was myself. Runi. An ambiguity, a secret. I was my own choice—freedom.
So I began to plan.
There is no night or day inside a wolf. But there is time.
The woman grew even older. She began to fade as twilight fades to night, to death. Her skin became thin as lean-winter turnip peels.
“Say it’s been worth it,” she moaned, as her fingertips disappeared and her eyes turned to air.
“This life I’ve lived. Say I have not suffered in vain, child.”
“You have suffered for Pendarvis, Grandmother. They are safe because of you.”
“What is Pendarvis? How did I come to be in this place?” she cried. “Oh, child, I would that I could help you, before I pass to nothingness. For you will be alone here, once I’m gone.”
“I will not be here at all,” I said, “if you help me, Grandmother.”
“Yes, yes. But what have I to give?”
“Your body, Grandmother.”
“Oh, that,” she said, “always that.”
She cut her long grey hair for me. From that hair, she wove a rope by finger-memory.
I woke one day to find the rope coiled in loops upon loops. The old woman was gone, flesh faded and only her skeleton left behind. I took her bones and added them to the bone-throne, the castle walls. Her skull, I took to the tallest tower, so she could see the entire land within the Great Wolf.
And when that was done, I took a bone from the old woman’s ribcage—the rib that had covered her loyal heart—and fashioned a sword from it.
“Sacrifice,” the Great Wolf rumbled. “What are you doing?”
I recalled that day in the forest with the wizard, the deer’s steaming innards, the green world within.
“Something new,” I said.
Grandmother’s rib sliced through the meat of the Great Wolf’s stomach. The heaves of his muscles were so great, I was cast back many times. But I persisted.
The Great Wolf writhed and leapt with every slice. I felt him running around the moon, around the sun, cutting his paws on the gleaming-bright edges of the stars. Through the growing hole in his stomach, I could see the world on fire, the sun and moon crossing one another. Darkness and light went wild across Pendarvis and all the surrounding kingdoms as dawn and dusk fought against day and night.
I sliced and sawed. Finally, my bone-knife cut enough to slip out of the Great Wolf’s belly into the new world.
Out I came tumbling, naked but not shivering, my body becoming something outside of life and death, day and night, human and wolf. Something entirely new.
There was snow falling, clean and still as the quiet after a birth. The Great Wolf lay on the earth, blood pooling in the snow. I took the old woman’s hair-rope and bound him to the ground.
Where his blood ran, new rivers arose. His body became a mountain and his black fur grew into a thick coat of pines, dark and sharp. His heart became a drooping tree of peeling white-black bark and bloodless white leaves.
People began to congregate at the edges of these dark woods, falling to their knees. I heard their cries for protection. I saw their offerings of girls—and boys, too. I smelt their sacrificial fires. They begged for protection. Pleaded for safety.
I turned my back to them.
There would be no more circle-dances, no more sacrifices.
Alone, I walked into this new world, wholly myself, wholly Runi and nothing else, neither girl nor boy, nor wolf nor human. I chose life and death, day and night, all together. I licked my lips and swallowed air into the gleaming new palace inside of myself.
Genevieve Sinha lives near Boston, Mass. She speaks three languages and studied English at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. Find her at www.genevievesinha.com or on Twitter @genevievesinha.
Photo by zan douglas on Unsplash