Heroines Women’s Writing Prize 2020: “Grey Wolf”

On 15 November 2020 I read aloud in public for the first time. Like many others, I am horrified at the prospect of public speaking, and yet, in the same vein of other events during the past two years, it was a moment of needing to conquer a fear. I read an excerpt from Grey Wolf: the angry, spiteful tale of an unrecognised character in a classic Russian fairy tale. And on this day of firsts, Grey Wolf was announced winner of the short fiction category of the Heroines Women’s Writing Prize.

Scroll down to read part of the spoken excerpt. The story is seething, gory, and I hope enjoyable. In that notoriously trash fire year, this was a surreal moment, one of elation and disbelief. The morning of the reading, I could not imagine what it would feel to take those steps to stage – would there be a microphone? What if no one was interested? What if no one turned up? What if I literally could not form words? From the moment I began to write her, the Grey woman in Grey Wolf had an energy and voice of her own. I could relate to her resentment and sense of betrayal. Ultimately, she may return to the forgotten world of myth, but her strength resounded past the page (I hope) and made it possible to speak.

Read the full work, and many beautiful, startling, ambitious stories and poetry in Heroines Anthology Volume 3 from The Neo Perennial Press for $20AUD. Support small press and emerging writers like me, and make it possible for these stories to be told and shared in the future.

I am incredibly grateful for the work of Sarah Nicholson, Caitlin White and many others behind the scenes who made this possible.

Grey Wolf (extract)

I am tired of breaking my bones for unworthy men. None were less worthy than that child, that greedy hero of whom they’ll sing through the ages: Prince Ivan. Was I not all things to you? Was I not pliable enough? Strong enough? Silent enough? Could I have been faster, or more beautiful?

I carried you – physically, if not figuratively – on my back, young Prince Ivan. You with your fine, slender build and high-toned voice. They’ll make a man of you in the stories. Me – they’ll say I came from nowhere, offered assistance readily and fell over my feet to aid you. They’ll say you thanked me, bowed three times, and I disappeared back into the forest.

            A common saying in Russia: “‘Thank you’ is too generous, I’ll take my payment in coin.”

I would take mine in the safety you promised.

Imagine the field, in summer, as the sun sets over the taiga. You’ve never seen the sky so purple, and the belt of gold that reams over the pines, it’s more precious than your coveted firebird cage. Or the gold-plaited mantle. Or the silent Princess Helen. 

The hoof prints from your gold-maned horse still mark plods in the soft earth. Your two brothers took your flaxen-haired, quiet bride, and left pieces of you scattered across the grass.

Crows gather, already tasting the morsels of your sweet flesh. How pale your skin, even before your brothers hewed you, limb from limb and threw your parts across the clearing.

They laughed while they did so. I know because the crows speak of it as they tread over your cumbersome ribs and peek closer for soft liver, or a kidney, or a piece of your naïve heart.

“–wish they cracked the skull! Oh, how delicious, to taste the brain of a prince.”

“Be glad for this offering. An ample feast.”

“Ha! Hardly an inch of fat on him – still a boy, shame.”

One, ready to prize your ripe, right eye for her chick, glosses out her dark wings. She senses my nearness in the final moment. The chick, ugly and pink, squawks. Indignant hunger. I snatch her in my jaws.

Other crows take flight in flurries of coal-black. Cursing me for claiming their spoil. My kind, when there was a kind such as mine, we wouldn’t eat your leavings. We don’t feast on the fallen.

We made it fall.

“Grey Wolf – I beg you, release my chick!”

I paw the ball of fluff from one paw to another. The scent of Ivan’s entrails is in my nostrils. Sweet as berries. The scent of sanctuary lost.

“Hmm… I wonder. What a snack,” I muse.

“Let her go, you – you foul dog-bitch!”

Pecks at my ear. She’s a feisty one.

“Ey! Alright then, listen, Crow-Mother. I’ll let your offspring live, but you must do something for me. Fly off and bring me two types of water: one still, from a deep well, and one which sparkles – dew from the needles of the tallest pine in the forest will do. Yes, you’ll have to work in the early morning, but do not fear. I’ll watch over your youngling for now.”

Her watchful eye shines with panic and the concern only a mother has for a child left in the company of her most feared foe. Let her think what she will of me. The chick quivers beneath my paw. I hear it’s beating heart. Poor little thing, you keep going like that and you’ll burst. 

“I do not trust a wolf to keep its promise,” Mother-Crow intones.

“I am not a wolf.”

In Ivan’s story (it’s always Ivan’s story), he is the third brother to try and catch the thief stealing the golden apples in his father’s orchard. The others, on two consecutive nights, fall asleep, and fail to report the thief to father Tsar Berendey.

The nervous little nothing of a boy, so anxious not to fall asleep, washes his face with dew. And in the lowest point of night, sees a firebird pick at the precious fruit. Why Berendey had the apple trees to begin with is never answered. He acquired it the same way other powerful warlords obtain whatever desirous thing they like.

He slew and he plundered.

But you didn’t hear it from me. I was meant to be getting on the good side of the Tsars at that stage. They banished us Greys to the cruel, unkind forest, called us names like Baba Yaga and hag, and slew those of us who came close to towns and villages. Heroes, they called themselves.

Anyway, Ivan – crafty Ivan, clever Ivan – sneaks up to the firebird, plucks a single glowing feather from its glorious tail as it flies off, and in the morning, presents it to his father.

It’s the greed of men that keeps this story going, you following me, little Chick?

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