You taught me language; and my profit on’t
Is, I know how to curse.
—Caliban, The Tempest, 1.2
I am folding our mother’s cloak over the passenger seat headrest, admiring its rich green against the beige polyester upholstery, the carved bone clasps glinting in the streetlight, when he stops me.
“Babe, keep that thing on at dinner tonight, OK? My friends, they talk …” He grimaces, searching for the words. “…about how you’re hollow from behind.”
Now that I know his language, I can hear how often I fall short.
After my sisters left the forest with their own husbands, I was lonely.
I surprised him rinsing his face in a stream, rifle slung over his shoulder, most of him blending into the branches behind. When he rose, water streamed through his beard and down his neck, catching the sun on his collarbone. He looked solid, everything about him firm and sturdy, except for the soft red O his mouth formed when he saw me.
For the first time encountering a human, I did not hide.
I walked toward him, pressed my forehead into his. His eyes sparkled like snow flurries, and I told him so. He could not understand my speech, though, so he began to teach me his.
The first word I learned that day was “perfect.” He repeated it, over and over, running hot fingers down the skin of my cheek and neck. His hands found the ragged wooden edges of the hole in my back, danced down to the base of my spine, stroked down the furred length of my tail.
“My grandmother told me about you — the hulders,” he said, lifting a strand of hair from my cheek and then letting it fall. “I never thought you’d be so pretty.”
I clung, grateful for the heat of his body, the warmth of his kindness. When he turned to leave, I asked him a question with my eyes. Would he be back? With kisses and caresses, he answered, yes.
After several visits to the forest, he finally asked if I wanted to come home with him.
By then, he had taught me the words to answer:
When it was my turn to leave, all I took with me was our mother’s cloak, woven of the shadows underneath stones, the silences between drops of falling water. She had always promised that, with it, I would be safe. Under its heavy warmth, the only thing still marking me out as hulder-folk was the swishing tip of my tail.
As he drove home, he taught me more of his words. “Interstate.” “Mall.” “Subdivision.” When we pulled up to his house — “stucco,” he said, as pink as the inside of a salmon, with “windows” gleaming like possum eyes at midnight — he hurried me up the walk, waiting until we were inside to embrace me once more.
“Welcome home,” he said.
Each day I learn new things.
I learn how to keep house. That our bed should be smooth and free of leaves. That bitter coffee is good but bitter bread, ground from acorns I gather in the yard, is not.
I learn to count. I pass the time when he’s gone counting the same four birch leaves repeating in the paper on the kitchen wall.
I learn more words, too. Words sweet as spring water, like “darling,” “baby,” and “you’re beautiful.” Words hard as cold earth, like “weird,” and “try harder,” and — his favorite — “don’t.”
This house is a forest of don’ts.
When you stand up from a chair, don’t leave circles of twigs prickling in the seat.
When you meet a stranger, don’t talk to them about the care and maintenance of cow’s tails.
Don’t sing. Your voice makes the neighborhood dogs howl.
I am trapped in his judgment of me.
He calls me clumsy after I knock a drink in his lap, and suddenly I drop everything: pens, stacks of letters, a wristwatch he bought me so I could learn to tell time.
When he catches me halfway through a carton of berries at the store, their juices smeared across my face, he says I’m “stupid, a moron.” Afterwards I can’t think of the words he’s taught me to say to the cashier, can’t recall the way home, can’t even remember the sound of wind clattering in winter branches.
Surrounded by his buddies and their wives at dinner, I crack a chicken bone between my teeth to suck the warm marrow. He leans across me, tugs it from my hand.
“Use a fork, for god’s sake!” He tosses the bone onto my plate, then smirks around the table. “At least the dinner table isn’t the only place she’s like a wild animal.”
I read the giggles smothered between the women’s lips, the amusement blooming in the men’s wide gazes. But it takes me a moment to translate the roll of his eyes, the curl of his lips, as he leans over again to whisper, “Cut it out. You’re killing me.”
At home, I watch his face slacken, sleeping off dinner in the easy chair by the fire. I let myself dream one last time of us returning to the forest, together.
But he was only ever a visitor. In the forest, I was his lithe and lovely fantasy, sent to add magic to his mundane life. In his reality, he wants no magic. And I am not clean enough. Quiet enough. Normal enough. Not… enough.
I recall the contempt in his eyes again and realize, I was perfect. Until he said I wasn’t.
My back prickles with branches. My face hardens like bark.
I unlace my arms from my mother’s cloak and lay it gently across him, pulling the dark green collar up around his throat where it tightens, swallows.
“Don’t,” he murmurs, shifting, his mouth the soft red O. His eyes snap open, hands to his throat. “Don’t!”