Now in those days, wolves did not wear their teeth around their neck; they wore them in their mouth. They did not decorate their threshold with to-the-quick nail clippings; they allowed their claws to grow and curl. They did not keep their fur trimmed neatly, selling to their neighbors to stuff their pillows; they let it grow long and full to warm them on the chilly nights of the deepest winter.
In those days, when a wolf wanted to open a sweet shoppe, no one gainsaid her.
The shoppe your great aunt Taveaj opened had been built on this very spot. See, there, where the grass grows bright, lush, greener than down the hill? Where the shoppe cornerstones are, buried under moss, but scratch at it and you’ll still hear the creak of claw against stone? This shoppe had been her dream, the dream of children’s smiles and laughter after her own had not made the trek through the mountains.
She began with lavender. A sharp taste, to be sure, but she cut it with honey and water and made little hard balls. Then later, she’d shape them into crude flowers.
The children were so bright-eyed with wonder when they popped the candies in their mouths. Ran home to their parents and cajoled for handfuls of wooden coins to pay for more. Many more.
They neglected, those first few weeks, to describe Taveaj accurately. They said her hair was brown, but forgot to mention it wrapped her whole body in color. They said her eyes were bright but did not hint that she could see their shapes even in the early morn when the moon had long set. They spoke of teeth that ripped string, and nails that tapped glass trays of bubbling jelly balls, berry tarts, cinnamon twists, honey-butter hard candies in the shapes of fat-bellied bees.
Ah, see how your own tongue licks. That is why those furless parents did not notice at first; because the sweets, the sweets were all the children could concentrate on.
I’d been visiting from the depths of the woods the first time Taveaj was confronted. The woman shrieked and raged. She wailed so loudly I thought someone had died and those her howls of sorrow. So I’d run up this hill, fast. Well, not as fast as you at the same age, but fast for me then.
The furless woman had painted nails too orange to blend within the forest. A layered coat of green wool and boots that pressed firm imprints in the ground. Her face only bore the slightest hints of fur above her eyes and her nose was dryer than crunchy autumn leaves and shone a pale pink in the cold.
Taveaj lifted her hands, her digits splayed and insisted the sweets were safe, were clean, were made of ingredients from the same woods where the woman gathered her herbs.
My aunt had such a soft voice then, this kind rumble that rolled and comforted me and all the other children, furless or no, who curled by her ovens and snuck bits of cookie dough and candied nuts from the counters. But that woman paid no attention to Taveaj’s voice; she focused on my aunt’s claws, the curl of them, the ivory glint of them in the orange afternoon light.
The way the woman had flinched away, I remember even now.
A few delegates of the sprawling community came by the next day, demanding that Taveaj trim her claws, cut them down and display them where it might be checked, her trimmings counted.
Sit stiller. You don’t want me to cut your quick. Make sure you don’t lose any in the grass, you hear? They must all be there. Every one.
No, Aunt Taveaj did not display them at first, not as we do now. She kept them in a jar outside her stoop. But a rainstorm came and overfilled it, leading to the trimmings pouring down the hillside with the streams.
They bade her stick then in the frame instead, that she might walk beneath. Holes upon holes dotted her frame. Yes, similar to ours, but more so, for we use an extra board I can replace each year so that there’s always space to press new claws that they are not jostled loose and lost when the delegates come a counting.
Taveaj loved the children so, always bent over new recipes, perfecting skills that she might see us squeal with fresh glee. Like we were surrogates, all of us, standing in for her pups she could no longer feed with sweets and sweetness. She said, over and over, that her trimmed nails were fine, were good even, though I sat on a stool watching her, a dusting of flour on my fur, and saw how she struggled with finer details that had once been so easy with a sharpened point. And yet, she crafted rose petal chips, stuffed lemon crème between wafers, designed chocolate paw print cookies and slipped me fresh-from-the-brick-oven gingersnaps that popped under my teeth so satisfyingly.
No, I don’t remember the recipe. I could not eat them now if I did. And I certainly wouldn’t attempt to bake them.
Now then, fetch the broom and one of the burlaps.
Just like now, summertime meant more light, yet more shadows under the woodsy canopy in the forest. Up in her shoppe, Taveaj stood out between her pots, her pans, her sweets. But one day, a man caught her gathering walnuts. She used to make cookies from them, and a nutty crust that went with so many pie fillings.
I wasn’t there, not that time.
When I visited next, I yelped and howled and hid behind the chimney outside the shoppe. I’d thought her a ghost, risen to berate me for childish follies of stealing tarts and caramel crèmes.
Aunt Taveaj came and found me. She reached out with a paw patchy with shorn fur and cut claws. Gently chided me for being scared of my own aunt, my favorite aunt. A hurt had lingered deep in her eyes, like I’d cut her past her quick by not recognizing her. But she’d had so much of her fur gone and in those days that made her the odd one, not me.
She showed me clothing she’d been crafting–reds and yellows and deep sky blues–and though she didn’t tell me, I overheard from the neighborhood children that the clothing was to keep her warm, like them. Only, she had been warm before. That’s what fur does, after all. Keep us warm. Keeps the furless warm now that we stuff their pillows and mattresses.
There, another burlap filled. Dress in one of your favorite shirts, a bright one. Orange is beautiful, yes. Bright like the marigolds, bright like the marmalade Aunt Taveaj would hide in fluffy dough.
All summer long, the sweet shoppe spread sugar crystals and smiles, at least where I could see. At least, where I paid heed.
I spent that summer with furless children the same as furred. We played follow the streambed, hillroll races, and guess my thoughts. And then, one day, we played hide and seek.
I was good at hiding. My fur blended with the woods and not a one of the furless children could find me. They called my name and gave up more often than they strived to search. Some named me cheater, but for what? The fur I’d been born with? The soft steps I’d learned to take in the forest? The quiet way I could hold my breath as they strolled near? I laughed off their anger, ignoring the way my own responding ire bubbled at the unfairness. After all, someone always won; why not me?
For just a short afternoon, I was proud of myself, happy there was a game I excelled at. I stood at the top, at the apex of the children’s group that afternoon as the sun waxed long, as we began to filter homeward in slanting rays that promised an even longer night.
When I went to visit Aunt Taveaj the next day, there were furless parents waiting.
For me. With shears in their hands.
You see, orange clothing, bright clothing, does not blend with the forest, not the thick brown trunks, not the ropey vines, not the shivering leaves.
That was the real reason they bade Aunt Taveaj shave down and purchase clothing she’d never needed before. That she might not scare a man who couldn’t see her gathering her walnuts in the forest, not until she’d bade him hello. And she, who could not stand the thought of the children not being allowed in her shoppe, had agreed. Always agreeable in her timeless grief.
Whereas me, my fury roiled what was left of my patchy fur. They had foisted such ugliness on me. On Aunt Taveaj before me. Afraid of us, hating us for just being who we were.
I’d gone to take the long way home, around the hills rather than straight down. I’d meant to sit by the muddy stream, open the patterned fabric bag Aunt Taveaj had given me in meager consolation, eat my treacle drops and slices of lavender heartbread until my mouth grew gummy and tight and my teeth thick with sugar. Lock away the growl and lick the few tears that might threaten to fall.
Did you know that blood makes teeth as sticky as sugar? Like you’d eaten an entire bag of taffies? Or that furless skin can still get caught between your teeth, unable to come free no matter how you scrub or spit?
I’d been so angry. So hurt. And when the furless children followed me, told me that we should play hide and seek again, well I…
I was never as calm or kind as Aunt Taveaj had been. She had loved all children the same, fur or no.
And yet despite her kindness, her calmness, they took away her claws, that she did not accidentally pierce through soft skin. They took away her fur, that she be forced to press bright clothes against her body to stay warm. Then they tried to take away her teeth, that her smile did not spike terror in the children wanting her sweets after the carven holes I’d left in their flesh.
When she refused, after they had taken so much, they took her shoppe. They bared her inside with her freshly-made lemon bars and cooling walnut crusts. They laughed at her howls and then they came for the rest of us with the still-burning hillcrest a smoking warning at their backs.
They took what made us…us, that we might live among them and assuage their fears.
So when I cut your claws down, down to the quick, know it’s to show we aren’t a threat. When I shave your fur from your back and offer it up for their pillows, know that I wish my arms were enough to warm you.
But when I string these teeth about your neck, keep your mouth closed, my love. Keep your lips pressed tight, and I’ll say, with my own bleeding gums, that the sweets I make now are too bitter for you to smile.
And when you are grown, when your claws have sharpened, your fur filled in, I want you to smile. Smile wide, smile full, and show that they haven’t taken from us all they thought they had.