‘Stitched’, Sarah Salcedo

Illustrations © 2021 Sarah Salcedo

 [ Tethered, © 2021 Sarah Salcedo ] Cara walked through the woods, dagger drawn in one hand, the other hand clutching her cloak against a sharp wind that wound its way through the barren trees. Her eyes searched the dark. Bushes bucked and rolled against the wind, every silhouetted shape was a creature about to lunge at her, every branch a claw ready to rend. The tangled web of wilderness at night had always terrified Cara, long before she had to make her home in the forest. The beast hadn’t returned from the dead yet—Cara would feel it through their connection when it did.

The reverberations of the cord that stretched taut between them hummed when plucked. Just now it felt eerily quiet, but she could still feel the tension: the wolf would come for her. She tightened her grip on the cloak and kept walking, the red of the cape caught by the wind and patches of moonlight. She could not be caught off guard again.

She pushed back her hood and looked up, moonlight tracing soft lines around her face, lighting up her eyes against the shadows around her. She couldn’t afford to panic, but she wore her fear as heavy as the cloak pressing down on her shoulders.

Her blade was freckled in blood, its hilt and her hand splattered scarlet as well. She stopped to wipe it off with the edge of her cloak. All evidence of the fight disappeared into the crimson fabric. The smell lingered—a reminder of her failure. Images of her grandmother’s bed torn asunder ripped through the forest scenery. Her breath was thin and sharp in her chest and a tight fist of fear pummeled her stomach. In the darkness, she saw Gran’s death played over and over—her glassy stare, her open mouth frozen in horror, the wolf grinning at her, its mouth full.

Pale light falling through tree breaks caught the color of her hood as she ran, like a sword drawing fresh blood, a bloom of scarlet in the dead dark. It wasn’t so much the sight of her that was the liability, but the scent of blood covering her. If she could remove the red, she would’ve done it two years ago when the village elders had stitched it on. She was at least a few miles from the nearest stream to wash in and snow had melted in this part of the woods a week before. She would be leaving her scent, as well as the scent of her grandmother and the beast, all woven together like a rope binding her to the site of her Gran’s murder.

Cara had attacked the beast before. They’d been sparring since she’d first entered the woods those two years before, but she hadn’t killed it before the other night. While she had been told that its kind did not die, it still shocked her to feel it come back twice more since—it was like her sternum snapped and a low note thrummed through her, pulling her in a particular direction. After killing it the first time, she had fled to Gran’s, hoping she was free. Then she felt the snap, the tug, and heard the growl. Gran shouted “run.” Cara saw the blood spray like mist through the cottage as the wolf’s claws flew.

She had paid her price for trying to be free. She sheathed her dagger and cursed. It was still out there. It wouldn’t let her go. If she could just reach the cave Gran had told her about—a thin hope at best—maybe she’d find a way…

Cara shook her head. Hope felt foolish after so much loss, but what else was left to her but the pursuit of it?

All Reds died eventually. If she was going to be the exception she needed to keep moving and stop hoping for a salvation that would never come.

The sunlight was beginning to break scarlet over the eastern mountains like a ripped seam by the time she reached the damp creek bank. Shadows slid away deep into the forest as the sun rose. The sound of the stream whispering over stones relaxed Cara. She was relieved to stop after a long night of running and dropped to her knees in the soft mud. Everything hurt. Her muscles felt shattered by asphyxiation and her feet had long since passed numb and gone into a deep, bone ache. She crawled into the cold water, her palms steadying themselves on the smooth basalt rocks beneath the swift current.

At least some red washes off. She watched the water catch ribbons of dried blood from her fingers and wrists, carrying them downstream. She looked behind her. Nothing in the woods stirred. She took off her pants and slid her blouse down, tossing each garment into a nook in the river rocks.

She touched the stitching in her shoulders—the thread redder than the cloak itself, runes embroidered deep into her muscles. She gathered the cloak up into her arms in front of her and tied it into a knot, enough to keep it out of the way while she washed.

Shivering, she tried to be thorough without exposing herself for too long. The wind was especially rough and the weight of the balled-up cloak tore at her shoulders, though not enough to break the skin. Nothing had ever been enough to break the bonding. The cloak only stayed knotted for a few minutes. It was a stubborn cloth, resisting any tear she had tried to make at it with knives. It wouldn’t break or rip or fray.

Gran had been the only one to speak with her after the village had condemned her to the red cloak. As the village healer, Gran wasn’t afraid to seek Cara out in the woods and invite her back to her hut that was well beyond the village border. She would sniff, when Cara would ask about the danger, that she’d like to see how the village would fare the next winter when sickness fell if they chose to come after her.

Cara shuddered remembering those nights with Gran. She never stayed long, Gran had too many patients seeking her aid to make that an option. But it had seemed like an immovable piece of home. Even after Cara lost everything, she always thought she’d have Gran. She had actually laughed one night, after the wolf had told her there was always more that she could lose.

“I’ve lost everything already,” she had scoffed.

“You could lose me,” it answered.

Its smoke-colored fur caught the light of the fire that lay between them. It was a color that was hard to look at, a mixture of black and gray that resembled a mid-winter fog on the moors.

Cara scowled.

“I’ve tried to lose you.” She grabbed her dagger and pointed, in a broad elliptical slash, to the dozen or more scars she had given it.

“All you do is try,” it replied in a disinterested tone, “and fail. But what about the day I lose you? You might anger me, and make me do something rash. You’re special, but not like me. Your kind only die once.”

“How many times do your kind die,” she said. “I’d like to count it down.”

The wolf grinned. Its teeth glimmered in the dark.

“We could try again and again, but you’ll never do it. You’re weak.”

It had jumped to bite at her and had laughed when she jumped back.

It was always like that. Or worse.

Cara’s eyes stung with tears as she looked down. Scars adorned her arms. There were plenty of times it hadn’t played around with threats. And yet she had gone back to it, to enjoy its fire, eat the food it killed, talk with it, and worst of all—to share its company.

Wolves were supposed to be the death of their Reds. They weren’t supposed to bond. Cara had thought herself the exception. But now, she wondered if this was how eventual doom came about—stupidity and trust.

Her sleep-exhausted brain had begun to lose track of how far she had traveled that day. She had to keep running until she reached the river—then she would head north. She kept seeing Gran—her mangled body had been caught in the mouth of the wolf. It had only just released her body when Gran writhed, her arm thrusting upward to bury a dagger deep in its chest. Her last breath had been to save her granddaughter. Cara wept as the night, and a rising yellow moon, overtook the forest and swallowed the wilderness in jagged pale light and deep pits of darkness.

The year before, on the anniversary of her Stitching, Gran had told Cara that only a third of Reds made it as long as she had after receiving the cape and the banishment.

“Your wolf must be getting hungrier,” she had said.

Cara shrugged.

“It has rabbits. Deer. Sometimes another wolf. The regular kind, obviously. Nothing like him.”

“Do you know what it is, my love?”

Cara pursed her lips. “A demon.”

Gran squinted, peering into Cara for another moment before shaking her head.

“Yes and no. More no than yes, from what I know.”

“What do you know?” Cara snapped.

She hated yelling at Gran, but it had been a year since she’d seen her mother and father, a year since she’d seen her sisters, her friends, and danced with them in the village square. What did Gran know about sleeping in the woods with a beast as your companion? What did she know about being chased into the forest by the people who’d raised you, harried by spears and pitchforks? Being called a monster? Reviled and run out into the wild?

Gran grabbed the quilt from Cara’s shoulders, a move that read for a moment like a rebuke, but she laid it over both their legs and jabbed at the spaces in the middle where the map was embroidered.

“If you want to know what I know, go here. Once upon a time, before we treated those we love with such fear, we made journeys in our youth to know ourselves.”

Her fingers traced the black thread along the stream, past standing stones, through the darkest part of the forest, along a river, across a valley, and into the Great Forest. In the heart of that forest, after a cliff, was a cave embroidered in red.

“You’re stronger than you know, Cara. Even when you feel at your weakest.”

Now Gran was gone and there was no map but the memory of one in Cara’s mind. But it was the only thing she could think of—the only thing she could focus on besides the memory of her Gran’s vacant eyes.

Cara felt the wolf return at sunset. She breathed a sigh of relief. It wasn’t much of a head start, but it was better than if he’d returned last night as she had feared.

Or it’s been alive for hours, and it’s getting closer now. Two years in and there was still so much about their bond that she did not understand.

She turned to look behind her. The wind was felt like an icy razor against her cheeks. She was glad she had taken the time to dry her clothes before dressing again.

She glared into the lilac-hued woods, twilight elongated shadows and filled them with a haunted light. Inside she felt tainted by the stain of her failure, the cumulative shame of all her banishment. She clenched her jaw, tried to ignore the tears stinging her eyes. She was close to the final valley before the wilderness opened up.

There was only one small village in sight near her crossing point through the valley. It was half the size of the one where she’d grown up. Winter had only just ended and she was far enough north that there would be no crops to hide her crossing, but going around would take her to the river. There’d be no safer crossing there.

She had tried to sneak into a village south of her former one a year and a half before to buy bread—one can only forage for mushrooms and enjoy wolf-caught squirrel for so long before becoming desperate for a good loaf of warm bread. She had been caught and only saved from the swords of the villagers by the wolf.

“When you die, it’s in my jaws only,” it had said that night after she’d tried to thank it. It was one of the many nights she had mistaken that kind of act for friendship.

Cara peered out from behind a bush and through the remaining tree line. Stumps of trees lined the edge of the fields, a massacre for the sake of the village. Funny how she felt more protective of the forest, even if it intimidated her, than she did of the people trying to carve out a living from it.

No, not funny. She touched the rough stitched runes above her collar bones where they bonded the cloak to her.

This village probably stitches girls too, and anyone else who scares them. Old gods demand obedience. We become sacrifices if our behavior deviates from what they—

A twig cracked in the forest. Cara’s breath caught. Was her wolf closing in? It was barely dark enough to keep moving. If she moved out now, she might be spotted. If she stayed, she might be caught by the wolf. Making up her mind, Cara started walking again. She kept her back turned away from the village to keep the remaining light from catching her red cloak.

There were no old gods in the forest that she had met. There had never been anything beyond spirits like her wolf, but they weren’t worshipped. They were used to punish the aberrant. The people who acted like wolves, taking anything they wanted, ripping and rending—those people ended up leading the villages once the ones they had hurt were stitched into the red and sent away. No killing in the villages. That was the old law. Thieves and murderers were sent down river, but anyone who deviated, as the elders saw it, from the law of the old gods by who they loved, how they lived, if they merely thought and acted differently from others, anyone who disrupted the typicality of tradition—they were stitched to the red. Once left in the woods, their wolves were drawn to them. Their fates were sealed.

Most died immediately. Very few lasted their first year. No one befriended their wolves.

Maybe if I hadn’t, Gran would still be alive, if I’d just run like all the others and let it rip me to shreds.

Cara was halfway across the large field. A few villagers could be seen on the outskirts of the village, specks in the distance. She stopped, memories welling up at the sight of it. It was foolish. If someone spotted her, she’d be run down with pitchforks. Reds belong deep in the woods, down the throats of their wolves, and never near a strange village. But Cara was tired, and sat behind some bushes to watch the early evening preparations as the villagers wandered through the lavender twilight to their homes.

“Home” hit Cara square in the chest. When she was a little girl, she believed she was good and only evil people got stitched. As she grew older, she realized the reasons for being seen as different, as deviant, as an “other” were as varied and unimportant as trying to count the number of fish in the river. Labeling some people as “correct” and other people as “wrong” was how the elders had maintained control in a dark and fearful age.

Cara hadn’t seen anything “wrong” in herself, what others had labeled rebellious and willful, even strange, until it was too late. Her reasons for being stitched were too numerous for the elders to name, and yet not one stood out when she asked why—she was too much, too wild, too dangerous, but for loving who she wanted, for saying what she wanted, for thinking how she wanted, Cara had still tried to be a blessing to the village. To become unwanted, to be labeled a liability, was a shock even after a lifetime of being told that she had not fit in.

She shook herself out of her memories. The wolf would close the distance if she sat longer. She stood up and continued walking. She hoped no one would look up from their chores to see her red cloak from the village. She scowled as her pace quickened.

Papa chased me out. Mama helped stitch me. Cara’s face was a perfect storm as she hurried across the fields. Monster, they called me. I wouldn’t go back even if I was free.

She stopped walking. She caught the scent of madder, marjoram, and mandrake on the air. She turned towards the village and saw it. In the square was a young girl, a few years younger than herself, tied to a pole. She was dressed in black, her hair already shorn. A cauldron boiled a few feet away. They were preparing her cloak.

Cara’s fists flexed at her side as pain tightened her stomach. She wanted to go to the girl. They’d spot her, though. They’d run her down. But the girl needed help.

What help can I give—I can’t even save myself?

A voice from the village cried out, snapping Cara out of her deliberations.

“Red Hood! Red Hood!”

Someone had spotted her. The call was taken up by others in a chorus. She hoped they didn’t have horses as she broke out into a run.

The shouts grew closer. She was still too far from the woods, the light still too bright as night lingered on the edge of the day for her cloak to stop waving down every close-minded man and his sheep wife within a mile. Her panting was ragged. A quarter mile. She focused on the woods, heaving in and out, sprinting like a deer away from them.

At least a dozen men followed. Torches. Weapons. No horses. She reached the woods and began weaving through the trees as she ran. She didn’t know this area. This was the beginning of the Great Forest and there was no river on Gran’s map, just the cave.

I have to run until I can’t. She could fight, but a dozen men were too much without her wolf and the time for their partnership was done.

She saw their torches out of the corners of their eyes. An arrow whizzed past her head. They weren’t just trying to capture her to wait for her wolf to come. They were going to kill her.

Another arrow clipped the side of her head. She felt blood on her ear.

Enough. She wheeled around, dagger drawn. Gran had snuck it to her after the Stitching. “You don’t have a wolf’s teeth, my love. But you can draw blood just as easily.”

Once Cara had begun visiting her again, Gran had taught her to lunge and parry.

The wolf had taught her to kill.

Cara crouched, one hand outstretched to feel the air, to balance herself. She had learned to feel the tension of the air in moments like this.

The men caught up to her. They spread out in a circle, their faces grinning like the wolves they gave their daughters to, their eyes as dark as the night that had finally covered them all.

The youngest of the group, a ruddy-cheeked youth near sixteen or seventeen, lunged first as the men began to laugh. Cara dodged to the side. She slid around him as he passed by, slashing him under the ribs on his right side. Let him learn before coming near again.

“No one has to die tonight, not if you let me go further into the forest. Go back to your homes and to the children you’ll eventually betray and leave me be.”

Cara winced inside as she said it. She should’ve left that last bit out. No parent liked to think they were evil for sacrificing their child for the sake of a code, what’s considered normal and acceptable to those who followed the old ways. The way the community was stitched together by that code was more important than the red thread woven into the muscle of a loose or willful girl or a boy who preferred other boys. Those parents called it love, even as their children were ripped from their arms. The faces of the men had hardened even further. Two more jumped for her arms.

Cara spun around, her dagger slashing at their outstretched palms. She landed on the ground, her weapon hand stretched up to the side, her free hand on a rock at her feet. Coming up, she flung it at the man who appeared to be leading the pack, and stabbed a man who grabbed her from behind as she twisted counter to his movement, under his arm, grabbing his wrist, and flinging him into the other men.

Three men had swords drawn and were advancing. It wasn’t enough. She backed up, dagger pointing to each of them in turn, her heels trying to sort out the ground behind her.

“Come with us, Red. Your wolf will come and our crops will be blessed if it kills you in our fields.”

“That’s not how it works, Alfe,” a grizzled old man barked at the leader of the group. “Wolves steal the winter. Next winter will be a month shorter if it kills her here. Don’t have to be inna field.”

A few other men nodded. Cara narrowed her eyes.

“The wolves aren’t gods and they’ll kill you as soon as they’ll kill me,” she growled at them.

“Don’t you dare speak again, monster. It’s blasphemy to speak to or hear from the Stitched.” The leader looked at the rest of the group with a look that said he meant that as much for her as for the rest of them.

“Get her.”

Those with swords lunged first. Cara dropped down and rolled away but a sword caught her in the arm. She jumped to her feet in a blur, turning to run as an arrow caught her in the shoulder. Still, she ran. She heard the thrum of a pulled bowstring, the crack of its release. It hit her in the back. Her breath caught and she waited for an arrowhead to emerge above her heart, but nothing followed. A bruise blossomed next to her spine.

The cloak.

Nothing rips it, nothing breaks it.

She stopped and, pulling the hood up over her head as she drew the cloak around her body, ran towards the men with her dagger out, laughing.

Swords and arrows hit her. She stumbled and it took all her strength to keep from being knocked over, but the cloak kept all things from piercing through. She slashed out from underneath it and drew blood, causing surprise and fear from the untested farmers who had never known a real fight in their lives.

Every time they tried to grab her, she cut deeper and deeper. The cloak was a shield and she lashed out from every end of it as she swirled it around her, keeping them guessing.

She couldn’t risk looking up and out from under the hood, though. Cara felt for the tension, watched the ground for feet and moved as fast as she could until her dagger found nothing. She was clubbed by the swords that caught her unaware, but she paid them back twice-fold, two cuts for every blow.

After a while, hands had stopped grabbing at her, swords had stopped swinging into her. There was nothing but silence.

Cara took a deep breath and pushed her hood back.

The men were running back to the village. She allowed herself a half-smile before she grimaced in pain. There would be more. With ropes next.

She had to keep moving.

Cara felt the pull of the wolf south of her. The crackling buzz of their bond did not let her know the exact distance. He had at least crossed the village. She narrowed her eyes as she imagined those dung-filled villagers cheering it on.

If I could just sit and rest for a moment… She looked at the sloping trunk of a large oak longingly as she passed it. She could barely see it, but the arc of it looked inviting. Moonlight did not reach her in the Great Forest the way it had in the woods where she’d been living. The trees overhead stretched up for miles it seemed. She hoped she was still going in the right direction, now that the stars had been lost and her familiar trails left far behind. Her feet were so heavy and she knew how slow she was going.

“You’re a long way from home, little one.”

She wheeled around, panic surging like lightning through her veins, waking her up.

The wolf was nowhere, but she heard its voice.

“Do you remember the first time we met?”

It let loose a low growl on the “R”s in “remember.

“You were crying, shoulders bleeding, naked and bruised and muddy. Tied to that ridiculous stake in the clearing. I used my teeth to cut you free.”

“So you could eat me.”

“Of course.” She saw its eyes flash yellow and then it was gone again, swallowed in shadow. It was circling her.

“But I didn’t run. I hadn’t run until I killed you the other night.”

“You caught me by surprise.” It sounded offended. “Most aren’t given daggers.”

Cara closed her eyes hard and waited before opening them again. She saw a bit more around her than she had before as her pupils opened, adjusted more to the dark than they had a moment before. She remembered the cloak offered protection and drew the hood a little lower, her eyes on her feet, waiting with her hand on the dagger, the other hand gripping her own stomach.

“Once killed, twice killed, you’ll die again tonight,” she sang to it.

She was crying beneath the cloak but her anger, her exhaustion, was producing a strange humor at the situation.

“Time to sleep again, wolf. I can rest before you come back.”

“I’m sure you’d like that,” it said, farther away, “but I’d rather keep you awake. You’re funny when you’re tired. You’ve always been funny, and I like to play with my food.”

Its claws came out of nowhere, grazing where the hood covered her eyes, but catching her on the chin. Blood ran down her neck. Its claws caught her shoulder too, but the cloak protected her there.

Cara felt it pass behind her. She whirled around. Nothing.

“If you hadn’t killed me, if you had not said you were leaving me for that old woman, then she’d be alive now. You made me do an awful thing. Such a sweet lady.”

Cara couldn’t wait. She began to walk forward in the direction of the cave—she hoped. If it was going to attack, this was her best bet.

“You know the rules, Cara,” it continued. “You’re bound to me until I decide to end you. You mistook our cohabitation as permission—”

“Permission for what?” she scoffed, her voice shakier than she had hoped it would sound. “To exist? To not be cursed? To lead my life?”

Cara whipped around, the breeze pushing back her hood. She was face to face with the wolf.

“Yes. All of it. You have no permission, no rights, no freedom. You have no ability to grant yourself that. Permission implies authority. I’ve given you time and that ends now. You have nothing left but your fate.”

It looked down at her cloak. “You are going to die tonight. You have had more than enough time to get used to the way this world works.”

Cara cried out as she drew her dagger, her free hand pulling her hood just far enough over her face that she could see what she was aiming at. She slashed at the wolf’s neck and drew the cloak around her chest as it opened its mouth, biting down hard on her arm through the fabric. The vice-like strength of its jaw hurt, but it didn’t pierce the fabric. The wolf shook her by the arm until she felt her shoulder strain. Cara passed the dagger to her free hand and thrust out from beneath the cloak into the wolf’s heart.

“Not dying tonight,” Cara whispered.

“The night is young,” the wolf mumbled, its mouth still full of her cloak, still clamped down on her arm.

Its breathing slowed as its body jerked. It stopped and she felt the heat begin to slip away from it. She waited until its jaw loosened before pulling away.

Who knew how much time she had now or how far the cave was? If there really was a cave? She closed her eyes for a minute, willing a night’s worth of sleep into her slow and practiced breathing.

She ran.

Cara came to a cliff the next day around noon. The ground had been heaved up, exposing ancient roots, rocks and bones in its soft earth.

The cliff seemed to stretch up as far as she could see through the assemblage of man-sized tree trunks. She dug her fingers into the dirt. Grabbing a hold of the closest root to her head, she pulled herself up and began to climb. She kept on until her fingers found level ground and reaching it, rolled over to stare up above her. She closed her eyes and caught her breath before leaning onto her side, the cave from Gran’s quilt visible just beyond her.

The cave had a dark and oblong entrance, a mouth of earth distending up from the forest floor, roots and stalactites stretching down like teeth from its ceiling. She took in the sight of it, tears tracing their way through the dirt on her cheeks. Gran had been right.

Cara sat up on her knees and caught her breath. She didn’t know what was waiting in there. Light only stretched so far into the cave, and it terrified her. But she had to embrace it. It was the darkness, the unknown, or the certainty of the wolf. She got up and limped forward into the cave.

Cara was soon surrounded by nothing but black. She tried not to focus on the nightmarish images she saw in the dark, springing out of her mind. She imagined the wolf lunging at her over and over in a loop. She saw her Gran’s death, saw her parents’ ashamed faces as they watched the runes threaded into her. She wanted something else to focus on besides the dark. She held out her hand for the cave wall and moved slowly along it, her fingers sliding over the slick, wet moss. She drew a deep breath as she paid attention to the sensation of the cave. Her feet slid out to search for obstacles or drops before she brought her weight forward. The air was growing stale, smelling of iron and sulfur. Making notes of where she was and what she felt helped steady her.

Occasionally, the cave wall would be wet from water traveling down either the stone or a root. She drank from it, and smelling a root familiar to her from her Gran’s cupboard, ate. The darkness still unnerved her, but it was changing the more she progressed into it. She trusted her senses, caution and courage mixed together. It was starting to feel better than sight.

She wondered how far down she had traveled. Was it already night above ground? It was colder where she had descended to—the air had a damp chill that gave the atmosphere the feeling of diving into a deep pool. It was hours still before her foot stretched forward to search the ground ahead and hit a wall. She traveled along the wall, her arm outstretched, in a large circle, the cave walls feeling like they stretched up into a dome high above her.

This was all there was—no way out, no hidden victory, just this stillness. Cara fought with a moment of confusion, of panic. Why would Gran tell her to come to a dead end? The air was close, and the silence felt holy. Panic subsided. She said I had to know myself. She let go of the wall and walked into the center of the cave. She focused on the sensation of the air, the feel of the cool rock beneath her feet. The darkness no longer held the afterimages of her fear. It was her guide into her other senses.

“The end of our path at last,” the wolf said.

Cara felt its presence displace the air in front of her.

“I didn’t think you’d make it so easy for me.” It was behind her now. “Not when you’d put up such an entertaining fight in the forest.”

Cara wrapped her cloak around her and drew the hood down fully over her face. She was too far from the light for her eyes to make a difference. She clutched one side of the cloak and spun out with it, the heavy fabric twirling around her. She heard it catch the wolf to the side of her and her dagger was there in an instant, catching the wolf in its side.

It snarled and bit at her back. Its teeth scraped along the cloth before it moved away. Cara crouched down and spun the cloak out again, moving on all fours under it until she felt the wolf’s paws moving out of the way. She sprang towards it but was knocked down by the full force of the wolf jumping towards her, pinning her shoulders down, and the air left her lungs. She gasped and winced at the pain. She felt its breath on her face, knew its teeth were right above her neck.

“You did this,” it snarled. “Everything you’ve done, everything you are—it’s led you here. To this moment. You’re as much of a monster as I am.”

The truth of what he said hit Cara. She smiled and pushed the hood back and opened her eyes. She gave into the darkness and let the blade fall to the ground. She felt the air sizzle with potential energy around her, like the cave was inviting her to do something that Cara had carried in with her.

In her mind, she saw the cave opening, the earth’s teeth. She was the cave, its roots, and the rocks. She was the darkness, unseen and no longer defined by the red of her cloak. She was even the wolf, its teeth, its mane, and its sharp claws. In the darkness, she couldn’t see or the threat panting before her—just the suffusive beauty of black. She was now a wolf herself, the cave, and the earth, and most of all, she was Cara and she was as good as she wanted to declare herself to be. She was everything she wanted to inhabit in that moment and nothing that she had been told that she was. Her body ripped and tore, her limbs stretching and muscles breaking down in order to be knit into something new and transformed. Shame and doubt slipped from her as the darkness embraced her like a friend.

“I am a monster,” Cara said.

She opened her mouth and leapt at the wolf. She snapped her jaws upwards into its neck. She inhaled—smoke, sinew, blood and belief seeping through her teeth, down her throat, into her bones. It howled and thrashed to escape. Cara bit down deeper—pulling the wolf apart, feeling a texture to all his lies rip between her teeth—a blast of something warm pulsed through the cave.

The wolf was no more. Cara felt the crackling energy of the cave settle, her body returning to itself, bones realigning and clicking back into place. On the surface, she looked as she had before, but inside, she was something new.

 [ Cara, © 2021 Sarah Salcedo ] She emerged from the cave mouth into the light. Her hand traveled up to her shoulder. The cloak was soft now, the rough red cloth had transmuted into a dark silver fur that covered the cape. It trailed behind her in the dirt, no longer red but the color of smoke, of mist on a cold night. It was even not a color, as she considered it, but a shield from both harm and the sight of others.

She pulled it over her body, her fingers tracing its edge until she found the seams that had been stitched into her. She felt the same, but stronger. Cara looked into the forest, at its tangled darkness, and felt none of her old panic. The wilderness had been her friend, not the wolf. Without the red the village had forced on her, without the fear that she had somehow deserved it, she felt distilled. Gran said I was more than they’d said; I’m what I have chosen to be.

She thought of the village where she’d seen the girl tied up earlier, awaiting the same punishment as Cara.

Not if I can help it.

Cara pulled her hood down. She felt the dark embrace her as she disappeared into it, folding her into that same close stillness she had felt in the cave.

Hidden, she turned toward the village. She began to run, her cloak unfurling behind her like a long shadow stretching out at the end the day until both she and the cloak dissolved into the forest, all of them—the girl, the wild, and the darkness—ready to fight back.

© 2021 Sarah Salcedo

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