When I emerged from the forest I was six years old, all tangled hair and scabby legs. Skinny. Everything had been so blurry, a wash of murky colours and shadowy landscapes that when I saw the sun, my eyes teared up.
The old woman that found me was small, papery and greying, but she bent down and picked me up and carried me into her house. I looked up at her face and thought she looked like a cartoon. She had deep wrinkles and black eyes and when she opened her mouth a stream of question marks poured out.
I refused to sit at her kitchen table, so I sat underneath it. It seemed safer. And I didn’t drink the water from the glass she gave me. I turned my head and saw her little grey dog lap at his bowl. When the woman left the room I scooted over to the bowl, held my mouth to it and drank deeply. The woman caught me in this position and in an instant the rumour started that I’d been raised by wolves, that she’d rescued this wild thing that couldn’t speak or hold cutlery or sit upright.
The story was proven false as soon as she called the police, but the old woman was stubborn and told her version anyway, and too many people listened. I don’t blame them. There are always people clamouring for a good story or for something otherworldly to believe in. I didn’t speak for a week and it was as if I’d never had any human vocabulary. I’ve seen pictures of myself from that time and I have the wild-eyed and frightened look of a captured beast.
* * *
Here’s another story: a mother leaves her two-year-old with a babysitter. Her six-year-old is supposed to stay with the babysitter too, but on the way over she’d started complaining. I miss you, Mommy, I never see you. Let me go with you. Please? The mother faltered. Fine. After the youngest has been dropped off, they stop at a grocery store and buy a bag of food. And then they drive for a long time. We’re going on a hike, the girl is told. Before the two of them go into the forest the mother shows her daughter what’s in the bag: juice boxes, a package of processed cheese slices, apples, animal crackers. The two of them set out into the forest. Sometimes the mother cries and the girl doesn’t know what to do. Finally they stop walking. The mother tells her daughter to go back to the car. Just follow the path, it’s not far away. If you get hungry, eat. She gives her the grocery bag and kisses her on the head. Okay. Bye bye. The little girl starts walking. It’s like they’re playing hide-and-go-seek. Her mother goes in the opposite direction.
* * *
After I was found and before I started talking again, sometimes at night in the hospital I’d whisper to myself or sing. From my room I could see thin lines of light from the hallway seeping under the door. I held my breath and strained to hear the reassuring hum of machines, the faint elevator pings. I would inhale and the antiseptic smell of the hospital burned my nostrils in a way I liked. It was different, sharper than the fetid, earthy smell of the forest. I knew my mother wasn’t coming back.
* * *
The last guy I met at a bar had blue eyes, clear and pale and icy. He asked me to tell him something about myself. I told him that there are people in the world who believe I was raised by wolves.
“Are you really that wild?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “A little.”
* * *
My sister and I lived with my aunt and uncle. They had wanted to stay in town, but when I started speaking again, when my mother’s body was found, when the stories started spreading in newspapers, at water coolers, across kitchen tables, passing from person to person like a game of broken telephone, they realized there was too much to hide, so we moved to a different city, a different province. In the new city I was aware of how normal we appeared. We looked like a regular family: two lovely girls and a young, married couple. People assumed we belonged to my aunt and uncle and we didn’t correct them. They changed our last names.
At school my class did a unit on the metric system and we stood in a long chain from shortest to tallest. I was right in the middle and our teacher gave me a red flag to hold up and wave. Since what had happened to me had happened to the most average person in the class, I worried that it could happen again. I would sometimes hear my aunt crying at night and it reminded me of the sounds my mother made when she cried, a soft crescendo of tears and gasps. I remembered my mother’s cries more clearly than anything else about her.
* * *
I learned early on that things don’t come out of nowhere. There is always a buildup. You just have to be attuned to it, like how sailors study the shapes of clouds to determine when they should set out to sea. I knew the significance of those dark circles under my aunt’s eyes and I knew what it meant for her to be sad. So, as I got older I read books on survival. I wanted to be prepared for something bad, something sudden.
This is what you should keep in a survival kit: two boxes of waterproof matches, a Swiss Army knife, a good length of nylon rope, two garbage bags, a small mirror, some fishing line and hooks, dental floss (handy for repairs or fishing line if you run out), Band-Aids, a few flat packets of anti-bacterial lotion, instant soup, hard candy. And water, of course. All of this, minus the water, can be folded together and stuffed into a small bag or pouch. The average human being can get by without food for up to two weeks, so it’s not a necessity. At age nine I kept my survival kit in my school bag. I didn’t have a Swiss Army knife so I wrapped a small steak knife in a piece of gauze that could also be used in an emergency situation. I gave a kit to my sister and she ran around the house unravelling the dental floss. Our cat ate it and when the threads started hanging from his ass I got in trouble.
* * *
The day my mother brought me with her to the forest, she’d told the babysitter that she was bringing me to the mall for school clothes. When the stores closed and we still hadn’t returned the babysitter got worried. There was no list of emergency contacts, no father mentioned. My mother had found the babysitter through an ad pinned to the corkboard at the grocery store. The babysitter called the police when it got dark.
* * *
I’ve never had a good sense of direction, but I know some tricks, like how to find Polaris using the Big Dipper as a guide or how, if you visualize a straight line grazing each tip of a crescent moon, the imaginary line that extends to the horizon is due south. These rules of thumb are useful, but when I was in the forest, I didn’t know any of this. I was too young and everything seemed too dark. I felt as though I was a foreign object introduced to the land as a science experiment. I bobbed along and ate apples and cheese slices. I walked and then backtracked. Once I thought I saw my mother weaving through the trees, running, so I went in that direction. I sprinted and ended up at the edge of the forest, in a field near a house. I walked towards it, and saw the old woman weeding her garden.
* * *
That night at the bar, the blue-eyed man kept buying me gin and tonics and asking me questions. I told him about the old woman, how she looked for me and took photos and sent them to at tabloid magazine based out of Atlanta, Georgia. There were sensational, nonsense headlines like, WOLF GIRL FOUND IN NORTHERN CANADA or REFORMED SHE-WOLF GOES TO SCHOOL. I wrote a letter to the woman once when I was seventeen. I wish I had never found you. I wish I had torn your fucking head off with my baby teeth. She must have been dead by then because the letter was returned to me, unopened and unread.
“So what really happened?” the guy asked, “You got lost on a Girl Guide trip?”
“My mother hung herself from a tree and brought me along.”
“I was abandoned in the forest.”
He put down his drink. “Shut up.”
“So you saw your mother hang herself?”
“No, she left me before doing it.”
“Why did she do it?”
“The usual reasons.”
I’ve told this story to a few people, only late at night after they’ve had enough alcohol to numb the shock. Some of them believe me, some of them don’t. I like the ones who don’t believe me best and I always end up going home with them. But I never remember anything important about them, like their names or phone numbers, just some distinguishing features instead. Their eyes, maybe. Or their smell.
* * *
I’ve been reading about babies recently — how they grow, how they latch on to you, how they burst into the world, a squelchy mass of blood and tissue and soft, unfused bones. The bond between a mother and her baby starts so early, the baby growing in rhythm with her heartbeat, the same blood shooting through their shared veins.
I don’t carry survival kits anymore, but I still firmly believe in Being Prepared, of steeling yourself for what will happen next. These days I find myself removing bags of milk from the fridge and cradling them to my breast. The cold plastic makes my nipples harden, the way I imagine they might when you’re breast-feeding.
* * *
When I was younger I wished I’d been raised by wolves. I would burrow under my sheets and blankets, surround myself in pillows and imagine they were wolf pups, that I was one of them. I imagined being nudged to sleep by a warm, wet snout. I dreamt of animals with sharp teeth circling me and keeping others away.
Lately it’s been the other way around: I’m the wolf. I see myself walking through city streets holding a naked baby by the scruff of its neck, in my mouth. The baby, a girl, squirms but then goes limp. She has blue eyes, like the guy I met at the bar.
With my free arms I carry shopping bags, my purse, a bottle. I hail a cab and climb in. I’m not sure where the cab is taking us, but I don’t really care because what matters most is that I have my baby in my mouth, that she’s with me, and I won’t let her go.
Toronto Editor: Emily Schultz
Mission: Deemed one of the most innovative literary journals on the web, Joyland Magazine is dedicated to the idea of regionally curated short fiction and novel excerpts. With our editorial outposts in major writing centers across North America and our staff of award winning-authors and MFA instructors, we publish both celebrated and emerging voices every week.
Teri Vlassopoulos is a native Torontonian who now lives and writes in Montreal. For over ten years she wrote, photocopied, stapled, and sometimes sewed the zines Melt the Snow and The Second Part. This story appears in Bats or Swallows, which is her first book. This story was first published in Room Magazine (Volume 31.3, Winter 2009). Visit Vlassopoulos' personal site at bibliographic.net.