Better to be blind than blink, I think.
If I’d been truly blind, Ullie likes to tell me, I’d have had to stay in my mother’s house. My mother would have cried over me and likely beat me out of frustration and—without Ullie’s money—fed me less and less, until I was dead. So Ullie says.
But I’m not truly blind, so here I am. Among the wolves.
I don’t see much, though. By day, I am short-sighted, even in the glasses she gave me. Both eyes are weepy and lazy; sometimes it’s the left one that looks straight ahead, while the right drifts aside, other times it’s the other way around. When the left one looks at her, Ullie accuses me of giving her the evil eye. When the right one is straight, she tells me I’m looking with my fool eye. They both shake as well, and not just because I’m afraid to look at her. I blink all day at what little I see.
At night, though, I can’t see anything. The sun can drop slowly, but the night still falls fast for me. I can never make out the moon or stars. Ullie keeps the lights on in the kitchen when I’m in there, but she only lights a candle in the front room and I can’t see by that. Outside, in the dark, I’d be completely blind. Unless there’s lightning, and even then it’s just a red mark that comes with the thunder, instead of ahead of it. The wolves would eat me at their leisure.
My mother called it moonblink, the night blindness. She didn’t have it herself, but she told me she’d given it to me. She did cry over me. She did beat me, sometimes. She didn’t starve me, but she did ask the grocer’s wife if Ullie still gave kitchen work to blind folks, one day when she was short on the bill. Not that I was truly blind, she was quick to add, as if she could spare herself some shame. As if the town hadn’t already made clear her failings in having me in the first place.
“Partially blind,” she explained. Which is exactly what Ullie wanted.
“I like that you have some colour about you,” Ullie told me, as I stood with my mother on the doorstep. “My previous house folk were all albinos, you know? Mmm-mm. Yes, colour. Almost a shame to have to put glasses on you. You’d be pretty, with your eyes closed.”
My mother put a hand to me then, like she might want to keep me after all. But Ullie slapped the hand away.
“I don’t know what you were just thinking, missy” Ullie told her, “but shame on you. There are no children upstairs. Not in this house.”
Where we live, Ullie and me, and the whores upstairs, there are no neighbours and no street lights.
Just wetlands and the woods that come up out of them. To me, the trees are green from the ground up and the leaves hang black. The yard is a patchwork of grey and brown that only seems to change when the rough shape of a chicken walks across it. The landscape is mostly still, though, which I like, because moving things are hard to spot. Grass snakes. Long-legged wading birds and invisible, biting flies. Wolves. Things that flash in and out of being every time I blink.
They all prefer the evening, though, and I stay inside come evening time.
The house is large and well-tended; I tend it, and the house is the only thing I can see, so I tend it closely. And I was not the first half-blind attendant to this house, as Ullie says. It’s gotten used to close attention. When you have to lie down to see if the floor is clean at all, you see every speck that’s there. You don’t want it pointed out to you.
To be half-blind is to see nothing of the wide world and everything in the narrow spaces.
The kitchen is a blue blur, but here and there are thin scratches that reveal a butter yellow underneath. In the front room, the drapes are fringed in black and green, three silk cords of each repeating. The carpets are brown, but with a gold tuft in every square foot, and the furnishings are walnut—but it’s a veneer. The wallpaper upstairs is pink and all the small pictures that line the walls have peacocks in gardens with mazes. The bedsheets are pink too, but the edges show they used to be white. The whores are white, but their eyes are pink. And glittering, in between the bedroom floorboards you can sometimes find the heads of needles. These are from the syringes Ullie uses to give the medicine.
All the whores are high. They stare or nap, rarely speak, sing small nothings. They don’t seem happy or sad, though I don’t see their faces much to be sure. They smell sick. Ullie says whores mean you’re forever dealing with diseases, but—no, they’re high. She explained what a whore was when I first moved in. I don’t think they’re whores, though, not how she described it; I think it just happens to them. Ullie feeds them, she bathes them, she dresses and undresses them. They never come down.
I don’t think they’re whores. But whore is the only word that gets used.
The main road is a half mile up a lane through the trees, and I never have to go up it because everyone comes to us. The postman, the grocer, the butcher’s daughter, they come out from town, round to the back door, to me. Everyone else comes to the front door, for Ullie. Everyone else comes at night, so don’t ask me who they are, I never see them. I can’t see them.
When they’re here, Ullie’s ‘visitors’, I have to stay downstairs, knowing the wolves are outside. The lights stay on and I am sure they watch me through every window.
First while here, I used to look at the black glass and think, if I held my head steady, eventually I’d spot something. Even though I was blinking, eyelids fluttering, tears streaming. Still, maybe the skew eye would be the thing. Yeah, it’d see some patch, off to one side. Something shifting. A shape. And it would warn me. And it would only be because it’s a lazy, evil, fool eye, that it’d even see that side-slipping wolf. And Miss Ullie would choke on her words, then, with teeth all up in her throat—
Later years, I’d sit at the table with my eyes closed tight, thinking my other senses would sharpen up, to make up for my poor sight. But I reckon you have to be truly blind for that to be the case, because I have never heard the wolves when they didn’t want me to.
Now, I sit and wait for the visitors to leave, so I can run away to bed.
Wolves can’t climb.
My bedroom is at the top of the back stairs and it’s the only room those stairs lead to. I don’t need a light when I’m in there. I don’t need to worry about the window. It’s separate from the rest of the top floor. Still, no wall can keep out every sound and Ullie says she doesn’t want visitors hearing me stumble up to bed. There are no lights on the back stairs, just a roof window over the stairwell. I keep that window clean as I can, because of how dark it can get at the bottom, even in the day. I once tried leaving the kitchen door open when I went up, thinking morning light would stream through from below to help me come down the next day, but Ullie broke my glasses and tore my ear when she closed the door on my head for doing it.
Tonight, she asks me—as I make for the back stairs and she’s by the door into the front room, hand on the light switch—
“I’m going to show you how I give them their medicine.”
“So’s I don’t always have to.”
She’s too far away for me to know what her face is doing.
“You want me to do it? I can’t see straight to do that.”
“You can take your time. They don’t move. They sit pretty as kitties when they know it’s medicine time.”
It’s when she’s too far for me to know what her face is doing that I sometimes forget myself.
“No, Miss Ullie, my eyes—”
“I say, yes.” The light goes out.
As I climb the back stairs, sightless, I hear her stamping and slamming doors on the other side of the walls. I’ll pay for saying no.
In the bedroom, still in my own darkness, I walk to where I know the window is and face out on the night. The wolves are out there. Even if I could suddenly see, I wouldn’t get by them. Even if I could suddenly see, I don’t even know the way off this property.
When my mother first walked me up to Ullie’s house, it was in the dark. To make absolutely sure I wouldn’t know the way back.
“Will you come back for me?”
“No. I can’t.”
“What if I don’t like her?”
“Then…you’ll have to let the wolves take you.”
That was my mother’s parting kindness. For how could I have lived with Ullie all this time if I hadn’t the wolves to fear? A fate worse than her. They make her easier to bear, and I need them now. I never usually light a light when I’m in my room, but there are matches by the untouched candle and my hands find them and take one out. I strike it and it flares. My eyes sting as there’s one white flame in my lazy eye that’s turned toward my hand, and another in the straight eye where the match light reflects on the glass. I blink madly, and the lights dance and flash, move like they’re alive, with legs and hair and teeth.
Sure enough, I hear wolves howling.
First one, then many. I blow the match out and run to the bed. I say a thankful prayer for my mother.
The bathtub is pulled right under the window, and Ullie and I are jammed close beside one another, in between it and the wall, so that I have light enough to see by. I tie my hair up out of the way and rub my eyes, as if all I’d had to do all along was wipe the sleep from out of them.
The veins are dark, but I still can’t follow them as they flit left and flit right. I force each eye in turn to turn inwards and look at them, but they slip aside like grass snakes. The old needle marks that cover the arm make it worse, crawling around in my filmy vision like fat flies. All the while, Ullie keeps snapping at me, because she thinks the marks should make it easier.
“You pick a spot between two of them, damn you! Any two! Oh, for God’s sake, lift the needle away a second and rub your thumb down it again, good and hard. Now—you feel the blood come back? That’s where you go in. If your fool eyes won’t find the spot then use your fingers, child. Unless you got lazy fingers too.”
I try bringing the tip of the needle to the tip of my thumb, to go in blind as she says. I raise my head, to keep from looking down and getting confused, but then the needle grazes my own skin and I flinch in fear, dropping the syringe into the tub.
That’s when I feel the second needle bite my leg.
“Get it out!” she tells me.
“Oh my God! What did you put in me?”
“Nothing! Jeez. I’m not wasting medicine on you. But until you do this right, you get the needle instead. Now get it out!”
I try four times, with wet hands and a wet syringe, and three more times I get the needle in my own leg for missing. But I finally do it to Ullie’s—I can’t say satisfaction, but she accepts it’s done. It has taken almost an hour.
“Well,” she says, “you have six more.”
“All of them?”
My eyes are aching and tears drip off my nose as I lift my face to look at her in despair. Her face is a smear: a frown pulled down beyond where her chin could possibly be, her eyes black splashes. Until she leans in, real close, and her expression is suddenly, unquestionably clear.
“It took you an hour.”
She sticks the needle back in my leg, not a prick but all the way, and raises her voice to be heard over the noise of me.
“In an hour, I would have had them all done. And washed. Right now, I’d be having myself a cup of coffee. Well, you know what? That’s what I’m gonna do.”
She takes the needle as she goes and I grab at the pain.
“See? Your fingers can find the spot just fine when they have the motivation.” She pauses and then she says,
“Let’s keep motivating you. I’m taking my coffee outside, maybe take a walk when I’m done, and I’m leaving the doors open behind me. Air the place a bit. When you’re finished up here, you can come down and close them again. Whether that ends up being before sundown or after will depend on you. Visitors will be plenty late tonight, so you don’t have to hurry on their account, but…
What time do those wolves o’ yours start prowling?”
There are moans and curses, as I haul each of them from their beds or chairs, get them out of their underwear and into the tub, as I douse them and scrub them like burnt pots and pans.
But I am angry, like I’ve never been angry, and in my fury I can’t see their faces and their noises can’t be heard over the howls in my head.
Ullie has never threatened me with the wolves before. She’s never even acknowledged them to me. I know she’s heard them howling and I know she locks the front door same as I lock the back. When the visitors come, I hear her hurry them through the door and quickly shut it. When they go, it’s the same, Go on, get in the car, quick! And she’s as eager to get up those front stairs as I am to get to the back ones.
But we have never discussed the wolves.
I have survived them both because they were separate fears. Because one cancelled the other. Because Ullie—bad as she is—is the lesser of two evils.
Was. Was the lesser.
Now, they’re one. She’s now part of that threat. Even if it’s just by being a fool—because those wolves won’t just politely leave her be because of what she’s doing to me, Oh, pardon us, Miss Ullie, we were going to rip you apart, but now that we see you’re teaching a valuable lesson—
I’m so angry, I’m being a smart-mouth. I’ve never even imagined smart-mouthing Miss Ullie before.
I’m so angry, I distract myself. I can’t focus on focusing and what took an hour the first time takes longer for the rest. The syringes are already in the rooms, already filled with medicine, and Ullie is right—there’s no fussing or moaning as soon as I carry them over to do the injections. But the light gets worse each time. The windows are darker; the light from the bulbs overhead is creamy and weak. I light extra candles to try and make it better, but the whole thing gets harder, not easier. I rub and rub at the veins, but their veins are…shit! I can’t feel the blood returning strong enough to do this blindly. I need eyes for this!
I’m so angry!
I have six done when the sun goes down.
From the top of the stairs, I can feel the night air coming up and I know the front door is still open. I can hear the kitchen door swinging in the breeze, which means the back door is open too. Damn it!
I can’t hear Miss Ullie, inside or out, and I know better than to shout for her.
Apparently I used to know better. Obviously I’m more scared of the wolves than I am of her, and she’s not scared enough.
There’s no answer. I need to close the doors. But I need her inside too. I need her. Because it’s her house, and it’s her doors, her whores, and her stairs. Everything that keeps me safe is hers.
“Miss Ullie!” God damn it!
Angry as I am—enough that the thought of them eating her lips feels a bit delicious right now—if she died, I’d have to leave this house forever. I don’t even know the way off this property, but I know it would mean having to face the night at some point. Where again will I find a place that I don’t have to leave when the sun goes down? Ullie keeps me out of the dark.
I head down the stairs. I have to let the breeze guide me to the door, there isn’t even a candle in the front room. The space behind the doorway is a mess of swamp stink and rustling leaves and birds clacking deep in their throats, but it’s all noisy air in an empty hole.
Still, I’ve never stood by an open door at night, not that I can recall, and it fills my other senses in a way I don’t ever recall feeling this sharply. I catch the sound of a soft splash somewhere, and I swear it has a shape to it that tells me it’s the foot of a wading bird breaking the surface of the waters. If I had imagined this kind of keenness coming to my senses, all those nights at the kitchen table with my eyes closed, it was never as bright as this is. Right now, though, what it tells me most urgently is that I can’t hear Ullie out there. I still can’t hear the wolves coming.
I shut the door. Why did I shut the door? That’s what she’ll ask me. After I had finished upstairs, that’s what she told me. I could close the door then. Only then.
So? Finish upstairs.
I head back to the staircase. At the top, the wolf growls.
I can’t see it. Not really.
The lights are on upstairs, but I blink. Against the watery glow, the wolf is more like a flashing red mark, like lightning, coming alongside the thunder that he’s making in his throat. It’s that sound that’s giving him a shape, as my eyes shake and fill with tears. My left eye—my evil eye—tries to turn towards the kitchen. I can still feel the air from the open back door coming through it.
What if there’s a wolf in there too?
I think I’d smell it if there was. Because I can smell the wolf in front of me: a familiar, unwashed stink of swamp. I can smell the wolf from the top of the stairs and the kitchen door is much closer.
Doesn’t matter where the rest are. There’s a wolf right here.
The wolf got in. The dark got in.
Everything I thought was true, wasn’t. I thought the house was safe. I thought wolves couldn’t climb—clearly not true. Not true of stairs, at least, and stairs are all I—
Not all. Stairs are not all I have.
Maybe wolves can climb stairs, but they can’t fly out a roof window.
The wolf is faster.
The kitchen lights are off and I need the table to tell me where I am. The back stairs and my room are the only places I know in the dark. I put out my left hand to find the table. The wolf bites it off.
Oh God. Oh, sweet Jesus. I feel it tear away.
A terrible force. Then a pain, that comes with acid sourness in my mouth and burning in my flesh.
I fall forward through the door to the stairs, stupidly raising my hands to catch myself, and I can feel what must be a long piece of bone, slick and stripped, sticking out the end of my arm.
On the stairs, the wolf gets its teeth into my thigh. It bites down hard, or maybe I’m soft, but it pulls out a chunk of me that feels…huge, that feels like more than its mouth could hold.
I expect to faint. For lights to appear behind my eyes, lights that only I can see. I want it, to take some of the pain away. But for all the blood I can feel rushing down my ankles, I’m not dizzy yet. So, as long as I’m not falling, I keep on climbing.
I know this climb blind. Habit puts my weight on the chewed-up leg first, which should drop me, but the thin bone inside holds up, despite the pain. It feels lighter. I launch myself up the steps much faster than I moved across the kitchen. The wolf, less sure on the stairs than on the flat, bites again, but meets only air.
I don’t know how I’m going to climb out the roof window with only one hand and a bum leg, but I make it there ahead of the wolf, shove the bar and swing the glass up and out. It’s my right elbow that ends up carrying me through, as the wolf makes a snap for my ankles and I jump to be clear of it.
I roll onto the roof, not sure how I’ve made it. I slide to the gutter, where I shake with pain and cold and the roar of the night in my ears. But not with fear. I blink in the light of the moon.
I see the moon.
It takes me a second to work out what it is, even though I can name it without thinking. Clouds touch it, but where they do, it looks as if it swallows them, only to blow them out the other side, like drawing on a cigarette. It’s covered in all these dark patches, which I never knew it had. As much as I’d call it white, it’s also blue and orange round the edges. It’s like an eye, unexpected colours in that globe of creamy white. I see the moon?
I shake. But not with fear—?
A shape clambers out of the roof window and lands on the roof above me. I try to get up the courage to move, knowing how it’ll hurt, but it’s not the wolf.
It’s a whore. Godfrey. The one I never got to. He’s naked, his skin the same colour as the moon above, his white hair blowing about him like the clouds. Like all of them, his eyes are weak, and he slides gingerly towards me, hands outstretched. I don’t know how he got past the wolf, but I beckon him down.
How am I seeing this?
Godfrey comes to me in his own time, feet slipping on the slate. When he’s settled beside me, he pushes me off the roof.
On the ground, the wolves eat my body.
It isn’t leisurely; they snap and rend in a frenzy, desperate to strip me away.
I howl as I’m gobbled up. But not with fear. Skin and muscle rip and burst and are lost. My scalp splits. They tear my face away from either side, baring my teeth. My foolish, evil eyes are last to go.
But still I see. The eating done, the wolves retreat and I am able to look at what’s left of me. I think it’s going to be bones, but it’s not.
Underneath, I am a wolf.
What I took for a long bone coming from my arm was a narrow paw. I put it down and stand.
I see the moon, and stars, and every shivering leaf on every tree. I see the trembling in every hair on each wolf that surrounds me, can pick out threads of black and tufts of gold that distinguish one from the other. I see everything, unshaking, unblinking. Smell the chickens in the yard dirt, taste the spit of the wolves that devoured me, feel everything. And see! I see!
But I don’t see Ullie approaching.
The needle goes in and this time I feel the medicine follow it. It’s darkness, a liquid blindness, and it washes all my newfound sight away.
I fall, eyes wide and blinking, the moon going out as I do, flashing in and out of existence as the medicine overwhelms me.
“That’s okay,” she’s saying. “Good boy.”
I feel the hair falling off my skin. She rubs her hand down my leg to brush it all away.
“But you’re not a boy anymore, are you? No, you’re a man now. Finally. It was time, wasn’t it? You felt it. God knows I’ve been trying to draw it out of you for long enough.”
My eyes shake. They weep as I look up at her. She shushes my sobbing and takes my hand in hers.
It is a hand; my paw is gone. I struggle to bring it into focus, but my two eyes won’t meet on it. I howl in anger at my eyes.
“I know, child. It shouldn’t have been this hard for you. Your mother had no right.”
The medicine makes the ground soft and the sounds dull. I stop smelling the wolves; have they gone?
“But your mother thought herself too good to visit my house,” she’s telling me. “Thought she’d find herself a real wolf in the woods. The shame of it, lying with an animal, like she was some age-old alpha. All that brings is moonblink. Trapped forever as a half-thing, child.”
She takes my head in her hands as the last of my sight disappears. I’m truly blind, in the dark.
“But you’re a man now. Fixed as best I can and now, I can take care of you. All that lovely colour of you—at least she gave you that. You’ll be my new favourite. The women will all want to visit you. They’ll all want your children, you’ll see.”
“I can’t see,” I tell her. “I can’t see in the dark.”
“You’re safe from the dark, though,” she promises. “You’ll be safe from everything. Upstairs.”
The tears leave my eyes. She tells me I’ll be safe and I can feel my eyes stop shaking. The medicine runs through me and they feel lazy. No fear. The night outside has gotten inside and I don’t need my eyes anymore.
But they still blink