(Winner of the 2009 Aurealis Award, Best Fantasy Short Story)
The door has three locks, and I am their key.
I was nine before I could open all of them without help. Father’s game of teaching me how the locks worked had become a desperate trial when Mother passed. When Father hunts, the door must be kept locked throughout night, until the morning drives the wolves away.
He cannot go into the night without having the door locked behind him.
The lowest lock is the first one I learned. Little Stefan can touch it if he stretches. I have only to press my index finger to the front piece, curl my thumb behind, and twist my wrist and the lock will spring open in my hand.
The second is a knot of metal and gears. This lock must be wound, or it will seize. Marta is old enough to be trusted and tall enough to reach it, and she is always helpful. Winding the lock is her job. One spins the toothed gear the same number of hours that the sun has been in the sky that day, and the lock will open. The lock will not work if the sun is not out.
The third lock shines regardless of how little light the room holds. I can reach it if I stand on my tiptoes. It is hollow and open at the bottom, wide and deep enough for my hand. Bright silver teeth line the lock. It will not open unless the pressure plates within are pressed just so, and, if they are not, the lock will take my hand as payment.
It is near to night, now, and Father pats Stefan on the head, then sweeps Marta up in his big arms. She giggles, and wraps her arms around his neck. While she hugs him, his blue gaze drifts from me, to the third lock, and back.
I move to the door and unlock the first lock.
Father sets Marta down and her smile unravels at the edges like a split seam. Stefan scampers behind the chair.
I unlock the second lock.
Father lifts the wolf skull from the mantel and places it over his face. His eyes go from blue to yellow.
He is broken and remade.
Marta takes a step backward, and Father pads forward and licks her face.
I stretch upwards, bite my lip, and carefully place my hand within the third lock. It responds, and I swing the door open.
The bite of winter spins in and Father whirls on all fours to face the doorway. Beyond, the night is almost here. He barks, then shakes his pelt into place and trots out into the darkness. His tracks stand stark in the snow and the moonlight.
I lock both him and the night away. Marta helps me pile wood on the fire, then goes about the tasks Mother taught her. The heat grows and presses the cold flat against the walls.
All of us are hungry, but only Stefan opens the pantry to look. It is empty, but that doesn’t stop him from going back again, and once more before coming to sit in my lap. The fire makes the wood pop, and soon Stefan begins to snore, his head against my chest, and Marta comes to sit beside me. I sleep.
The fire is only ash and ember when something awakens me. I roll Stefan’s sleeping form off me and sit up. Marta is sleeping as well. She’s used her doll as a pillow.
There is something at the door. A wide slice of moonlight stretches in from outside, broken only by the wolf’s shadow. It smells us, snorts into the snow outside and whines, then throws itself at the door. Its howl stops short when more howls join it.
The pack outside grows louder. Their claws rake the wood, and yellow eyes glare at me from outside, wolves with their faces pressed to the snow, ears against the ground. I hear them snarl amongst themselves, fighting to be nearest the door. They growl and snarl and scratch at the walls.
Stefan, thankfully, snores through it, but Marta sobs and covers her face with her doll. I get up as quietly as I can and creep to the door. The second lock ticks quietly away, counting the hours to morning
The wolves hit the door so hard I feel it in my stomach. They smell my nearness. They snap their teeth at the space beneath the door, their jaws spasming shut over and over just like the lock does on my hand, in my dreams.
The locks hold strong.
I stop trying to be quiet and trust in the locks. I bring more wood for the fire and Marta helps me stack it high in the hearth.
The pitch of the wolves changes, outside. They are gone, as one, and their yips and barks move away from us, down the valley, and trail off into the night. They have tired of us, and are running something else to ground.
Marta pulls her knees to her chest and rests her chin on her doll’s. “What do they want?”
“Us,” I tell her, and lay my hand on Stefan’s forehead. “That pack out there wants in here. This isn’t anything more than a den, to them, and the way they deal with other packs is the same way they want to deal with us.”
“Will they hurt Father?”
“They might try, but that’s not what they want most of all. A wolf pack kills the rival’s cubs, Marta. They want in here, to be at us.”
I do not take my hand off Stefan, and Marta stops asking questions. I cannot sleep. Stefan doesn’t wake up during the night, and Marta drifts off now and again but whimpers and cries in her sleep, like a dog. Like a wolf cub.
When the night fades and the light returns, Father does not come back to us. I wait, watching the second lock count the time away, and the light beneath the door grows stronger. Just inside the doorway there is a torn claw and curls of wood shavings amidst a spill of melting snow.
When I can wait no longer I shake Marta awake. She looks at me with eyes dark with worry. I take her to the door, careful to let Stefan sleep, and show her how to open the lowest lock. I lock it, and she unlocks it for me. And again. Satisfied, I open the second, and stand on my toes and undo the third. Despite my worry, I cannot help but smile a little. For the first time, the third lock is as easy as the other two.
“Marta,” I say, “throw only the lowest lock.”
Father is not far from home. I find him in the briar, naked, his eyes rolling in his head and drool freezing at his lips. He doesn’t move as I push my way through the bramble to him. My clothes tear, here and there, making more work for poor Marta when I return.
His hands are empty, and I feel a coldness inside that matches the winter around me. He has lost the wolf skull, and I have to fight the urge to yell or cry or despair. We will starve if Father cannot hunt.
When I am near enough, Father grabs my wrist. His skin burns bright with fever. I lead him back to the door, and Marta quickly unlocks the door and pulls it open. I see in her face how Father and I must look, my face scratched and bleeding, clothes torn; Father naked and more bloody and not even shivering, despite the cold.
I take him to the chair in front of the fire, and Marta covers him in blankets. He watches us, and then his gaze goes to the door I’d forgotten to close. I rush over and throw all three locks like I’ve been doing it all my life. Father watches, eyes full of what I hope is pride.
“I hunger,” says my Father, voice rough from the night.
Marta has been busy, and fetches a bowl of gruel, but Father throws the bowl across the room.
I stand, and Marta shrinks behind me.
“Boy, go to my kill and fetch me meat.” His voice softens, becoming more like the Father we know. “The night was long and the hunt a hard one. The girl’s meal is not enough. My strength is gone, and I need the kill.”
I nod. “Where is it, Father?”
“Beyond the valley, in the stand of pines nearest the river. I was hard pressed, last night. I am sure the wolves have been at it. Bring me what they have left. It will have to be enough.”
One, two, three, I unlock the door. Father’s eyes gleam at me, watching as I work at the door. He nods to himself and smiles when I turn back to face him.
“I won’t be long,” I say, and wrap my cloak tight around me as I push out into the wind.
The valley is hardly worthy of the name. I have only my Father’s wolf prints for company as I trudge through the snow. The wind picks up. It makes my cloak snap, and now and then the noise of it grows to a howl. I walk on and on, through the valley and to the pines. When I hear the rush of water muffled by ice, I know the river is nearby.
Father is right. The wolves have been at the kill. Their tracks are everywhere. Split bones and frozen blood have been scattered in a wide circle around the carcass. The wolves have done so much damage that the kill is nothing recognizable, now, just a lump of meat and muscle that is beginning to ice up.
I cut free what I can and wrap it in my cloak. The wind no longer sounds like wolves. I am warm, even without the cloak.
When I return, the door stands open. The winter and the wolves are everywhere, within. I cannot bring myself to enter.
A big gray wolf stands on the table, and it growls at me. The cloak and the kill fall from my hands, and I pull my knife from my belt. Yellow eyes glare at me from two different corners, and three of the wolves fight over what is left of Stefan. His blood is bright, as bright as Marta’s. She lies, open and empty, beside my Father, who rises from the chair and turns to me. One of the wolves has her doll in its jaws.
The thing in Father smiles, wide, showing too many teeth. It howls, and the other wolves howl too. It reaches up with Father’s hands, hands that will soon be paws, and takes my Father’s skull away from its face.
And its eyes go from deepest blue to pale yellow.