My Step-Sister Is a Wolf Named Helen

"Formerly Feral" from the collection SALT SLOW by Julia Armfield, recommended by Lara Williams


I’ve had my eye on the collection salt slow since reading Julia Armfield’s White Review prize-winning story “The Great Awake.” It’s a story in which people living in cities are besieged by embodied and volatile manifestations of their sleep: “My sleep…preoccupied itself with rooting through my personal belongings, pulling out old photographs and allen keys and defunct mobile phones.” I often struggle with fabulism as a genre; it’s elliptic and slippery where I’d rather something that looks at what’s it’s got dead on. But there is something about Armfield’s clear-eyed approach to stories which feature, among other things, a girl band whose members may or may not be human, ritualistic ex-boyfriend burnings, a woman who literally sheds her skin, that is not just convincing but entirely sensible and correct.

In “Formerly Feral” an adolescent girl’s parents separate, her sister goes to live with her mother, and she remains with her father. Her father remarries a woman who has recently adopted a wolf, and is raising that wolf as a daughter. The two (human) sisters write to each other about the wolf, now effectively their step-sister, and much goes on beneath the surface of these letters. The story contains so much of what makes salt slow an absolute joy. The writing is ridiculously, dizzyingly brilliant, with descriptions like “a navy afternoon” and “a smell more like a temperature” dispatched with an almost off-hand, casual ease. The narrative plays out a little like a thought experiment—what would it be like if you had a wolf as a step-sister? And there is something so addictive about Armfield’s approach to these propositions: the tone is funny yet straight-faced, playful though never corpsing.

The world in the stories in salt slow is uncanny, unsettling, filled with monsters, and consistently quietly devastating. I can’t wait to read more.

Lara Williams
Author of Supper Club

My Step-Sister Is a Wolf Named Helen

“Formerly Feral”
by Julia Armfield

When the woman who lived across the street from us adopted a wolf and brought it to live with her, people were not as surprised as you might imagine. People had been doing stranger things in our neighborhood for years. My father, the novelist, took great pleasure in telling stories about the neighbors—how Ms. Brenninkmeijer lived with a man fifty years her junior who had only knocked on her door in the first place to deliver a parcel, how Mr. Wintergarten was widely suspected of poisoning local dogs and leaving them, taxidermied, on doorsteps for their owners to find. My father said a town was only as interesting as its bad apples and only as safe as its lunatics. When my sister and I were younger, he would point to all the houses on our street, counting on his fingers and explaining that by the law of averages, at least two of our neighbors were likely to commit murder. Had perhaps already done so, he would add when our reactions were not satisfactorily extreme. In the divorce, my mother cited the impossibility of living with a man whose approach to life was so ineradicably ghoulish. In return, my father cited my mother’s treatment of life as though it were someone unpleasant she was stuck sitting next to on the bus. 

In the divorce, my mother cited the impossibility of living with a man whose approach to life was so ineradicably ghoulish. In return, my father cited my mother’s treatment of life as though it were someone unpleasant she was stuck sitting next to on the bus. 

When our parents divorced, my sister went to live with my mother—a hard cleaving that I, aged twelve, felt far more acutely than the divorce itself. In the months directly following her departure, my sister sent me letters on my mother’s headed paper, brand new and with the maiden name loudly reinstated—From the desk of Allison WeylandAllison Stromare no more! My sister wrote in postcard couplets (Sun is shining—wish you were here), offering negligible detail beyond the doodles of herself she always included; little thumbsmudged cartoon sisters generally engaged in some strenuous activity—putting together a bookcase, walking a dog, performing jumping jacks. I kept these letters bulldog-clipped together in the space between my bed and the wall and reorganized them frequently, trying to create a coherent flipbook out of all the little figures in the corners of pages, throwing balls in the air and hula-hooping and dancing and building model trains. 

My father’s house was a strange place once partially deserted; yawn of space, hand held insufficiently over the mouth. My father took to writing in the kitchen where before he had retreated to his study, started leaving his shoes wherever he removed them and cooking heavy dishes which disregarded my allergies. I developed a habit of eating on my own to avoid his bloody meats and creole jambalayas. I smuggled sleeves of water crackers to my room and ate them smeared with peanut butter, stole dates and bits of cake from the untended larder, and siphoned inches of cognac into mugs which I stacked on the floor and allowed to grow rancid with fruit flies. Occasionally, my father would ask me how school was going, how I intended to spend the weekend, but for the most part we coexisted in a kind of conciliatory silence. Without my mother, I became negligent with washing, wore my shirts untucked. I experimented with the makeup she had left behind in bottom drawers of her dressing table—daubed my eyelids the color of tangerines. 

About six weeks after the divorce was finalized, the woman who lived across the street came around to express her condolences, bringing on one arm a fruit basket, which would later turn out to contain only pomegranates, and on the other arm the wolf. My father invited them in for coffee, and ten months later he and the woman from across the road were married. She and the wolf came to live with us, putting her house up for sale. 

It took ten thousand years of selective breeding to get dogs to do what we want. Wolves have spent the same amount of time living wild. You do the maths.

Advice on keeping wolves as pets can be found in publications put forth by various animal-rights organizations—the tone is seldom wholly encouraging. In The Ethical Pet Owner’s Handbook, it is noted that wolves require far more exercise than dogs, are more liable to develop territorial and pack behaviors, and can seldom be trusted to behave gently around children and smaller animals. The Conservationist’s Guide to Wolves and Wolf Behaviours states, rather more baldly, that keeping wolves as pets or working animals is effectively asking for trouble: Captive wolves retain the instincts of their ancestors and will only display these tendencies more openly as they approach sexual maturity. It took ten thousand years of selective breeding to get dogs to do what we want. Wolves have spent the same amount of time living wild. You do the maths. (The Conservationist’s Guide is admittedly more upfront with its agenda than The Ethical Pet Owner.) 

Of course, my father’s new wife was not keeping her wolf as a pet or a working animal, but rather as a daughter, which rendered much of the reading I did around the time of the wedding unnecessary. The day they moved in, she dressed the wolf in a blue pinafore dress she described as its special occasions outfit and presented me with a copy, in my size, which my father suggested I change into before helping with the unpacking. 

The wolf was named Helen, having been named after both Helen of Troy and Saint Helen of Constantinople, who reputedly discovered the true cross in Golgotha in a.d. 337. She was dust-colored, slavered more or less constantly, which wasn’t attractive, and had the other unfortunate habits of defecating in the corner of the kitchen and gnawing on table legs. In the early days of his second marriage, my father took great pleasure in citing all of the literary precedents for her presence in our lives, although he owned that from Romulus and Remus to Mowgli, the more usual setup involved wolves adopting humans, not the other way around. 

My father’s marriage upset the equilibrium—loosened the surety of my grip. My stepmother, as I was requested to address her, unlocked windows, plugged mouse holes with wire mesh and foam insulation. The house opened around her the way you crack a chest cavity, the ribs of it, the unnatural gape. My father and I had rarely felt the need to disturb things, but my stepmother moved in a sort of permanent sweep, gathering up my father’s shoes and papers and the glasses in my bedroom and scuttling them safely away. She was industrious, as I wrote to my sister: she keeps things in the air. She fed Helen three times a day with the kind of bottle you would give to a two-year-old child and read to her from history books she had brought with her from across the street. Sounds exoticbest of luck, my sister wrote, accompanied by a sketch of herself flying a kite with a tail of plaited ribbons. An inked-in sky, a navy afternoon. 

My stepmother took over the washing of my clothes, which I found I resented and combated by leaving dirty garments in places she couldn’t reach, like the top of the wardrobe or draped across the ceiling fan. I re-wore clothes until they came to smell like skin and itched unpleasantly, let my wrists and fingernails grow dark. What little dominion I had I maintained by making as much mess as possible. I balled up paper and threw it about without first having written on it, stacked up poltergeist towers of books. I stamped down the bin in my room until it burst with cotton wool, plucked hairs, and soiled tissues, hung crusty skirts and blouses on the backs of chairs like sails. Every afternoon at three, my stepmother came around with a brush and hoover to blast away this overflow, collecting and dispersing great menageries of garbage: dead violets, blunted lipsticks, forks and plastic beakers, nail clippings, earrings, half-eaten tins of peaches left to rot in my bed. That she did this with alarmingly good grace did not escape my notice, though my response to this was only to try harder, smearing jam from strawberry doughnuts on my bedroom windowpanes. Little savage, my father said, in a tone that implied only anthropological interest, making a neat note in one of the books in which he stored ideas for future novels. Admittedly, I really ought to have outgrown this kind of behavior. In a letter written lengthways on yellow legal paper, my sister wished me happy thirteenth birthday: you’re a grown girl nowfor god’s sake try to behave

In a letter written lengthways on yellow legal paper, my sister wished me happy thirteenth birthday: you’re a grown girl nowfor god’s sake try to behave

The wolf was a novelty at first. On Saturdays, my stepmother washed her in a large green basin which she kept beneath the sink in the kitchen and brought out with great ceremony, filling it first with hot water, then with cold water, then with a drop of vanilla essence and heavy lilac cream. I liked to watch this ritual sitting up at the kitchen table, peeling apples whose cores I would later spirit away and bury in my bedroom carpet until it smelled like sweat and stale sugar. My stepmother washed Helen with a brush and pumice stone, mumbling Judy Collins lyrics and tutting whenever the wolf slipped out of her grasp and bit her. The biting was a frequent occurrence—the wolf was, after all, a wolf. By the time she had finished her scrubbing, my stepmother would usually be bleeding gently into the bathwater and berating Helen for her attitude. 

I had read in The Conservationist’s Guide that the enforcement of unnatural doglike behaviors in domesticated wolves can cause distress and even trauma: pet wolves, or what you might call wolfdogs, are liable to develop depressive and antisocial patterns when forced into systems of subservience that run counter to their instincts. Of course, Helen was not treated like a dog, and her behavior seemed roughly to correspond with her perceived status in the household. Petted, rather than pet, I wrote to my sister, referring to the way the wolf was strapped into a booster seat at mealtimes and fed applesauce and gravy before my food was served. Her wardrobe was extensive and varied—my stepmother had a particular fondness for dressing her in Tenniel bibs and dresses, piecrust collars, yellow hats, and lacy cotton boots. Her attitude was in some regards august, toothsome, more graceful than my own. She bit and scratched with impunity but seldom seemed unsettled or much inclined to escape. 

One afternoon, as my stepmother was just coming to the end of her bathing ritual, the telephone rang in the hallway. She had bound the wolf up in a towel the way she usually did and now passed this bundle to me without first asking, hurrying out of the kitchen before I had a chance to object. I dropped the apple I had been coring, its streamer of peel uncoiling as it span away across the kitchen floor and disappeared beneath the fridge. Momentarily thrown, I adjusted the unexpected weight in my arms, abruptly aware of a smell which I had come to consider a general fact of the kitchen but which was, in fact, the wolf herself. The smell was fierce, a stifling of something thick and fleshy, dark meat beneath a slop of bluebell soap. Feral smell, I thought, before adjusting my vocabulary— formerly feral. My nostrils stung and I tipped my head away, squinting slightly as the trussed-up wolf wriggled up to face me, thick strings of dark saliva at her chin. For a moment, we blinked at each other—damp fur, a smell more like a temperature, straight slant of eyes unlike my own. She leant toward me, sniffed, and briefly licked my teeth. In the hallway, I could hear my stepmother talking loudly on the telephone. The wolf seemed to note this too, flicked her tail beneath the towel as though impatient, and fastened lazy jaws around my chin. 

The smell was fierce, a stifling of something thick and fleshy, dark meat beneath a slop of bluebell soap. Feral smell, I thought, before adjusting my vocabulary— formerly feral.

The apple moldered seven weeks before my stepmother found it, soft and hollowed out by ants which spilled from the dustpan she had thrust beneath the fridge in exploration, running up her wrists and biting at the skin beneath her sleeves. 

At school, I told people my stepmother had a daughter and no one questioned me because, for the most part, no one listened. I wasn’t easy at school, grime beneath my collar. Even before the divorce I had been a poor scholar, slow with mental maths and too sloppy to be trusted with a fountain pen. Classmates picked apart my walk, my ugly tennis shoes, the fact my father wrote purportedly “dirty books.” Boys with names like Callum and Jeremy made boorish jokes about my smelly clothing and the knots in my hair that resembled fists. Pull her head back, dirty girls like it that way. I spent a lot of time getting into fights, skinning my knuckles, the backs of my legs. Girls put chewing gum on my chair, pinched my sides when we clustered in the gym for assembly, sitting cross-legged and knee to knee. My sister, before she left, had been better with situations like this, had happily turned her nose up at people who laughed at her, never getting into fights. Try harder, she wrote, a dark dribble of words around a stick figure sitting upright at a cartoon desk, don’t be such a beast

I was fourteen when the wolf began to escape the house, walking the ten minutes between home and school to wait across the road from the netball courts until I emerged at four o’clock. The first time it happened, I only realized she was there because of the small crowd that had formed around her. A boy from the class below me had apparently tried to pet her and had immediately dissolved into hysterics when she bit him on the arm. By the time I arrived, his mother had already broken up the tussle, leaping from the front seat of a stone-colored Volvo to drag him away, still in tears and with a wad of tissues held to his wrist. Helen, apparently deaf to the uproar, perked up when she caught sight of me. She was clothed only simply, a small black cap and aproned pinafore that made her resemble nothing so much as a waitress at a casual restaurant. I held one hand out toward her and she pushed her snout between my fingers, licking at my dirty nails. The crowd around me pulsed—a mumbled curiosity. It was a Friday, a long time since her Saturday bath. I pressed my face into the protruding bones of her back and breathed her in. A smell like offal, like bone marrow beneath her dress. I elbowed my way through the crowd and she came with me, calm and slavering only lightly. We walked home together and I told her inconsequential things about my day. 

After that, I found she came for me often, waiting patiently outside the school the way parents did, sometimes settling down with her chin on her paws, swatting her tail at horseflies. My stepmother, after her initial panic the first time she had found Helen missing, was surprisingly cheerful about the whole thing. Nice to see you girls getting along, she said, whilst my father noted vaguely that it was preferable to letting me walk home alone.

We became friendly, if not to say filial. I took to brushing her fur until she bit me, fed her white rolls and anchovies until her stomach distended and she threw up on the dining-room floor. My stepmother showed me how to bathe her on Saturday mornings, how to pumice the dead skin from the pads of her feet. There’s a girl was my stepmother’s most common refrain and one I found myself mimicking, soothing the wolf’s irritation when filing down her claws. 

I became familiar with the hunch of her body—the heavy ridge of spine and the way the fur became coarser toward the middle. Sometimes, sitting reading in the kitchen, I found she would clamber up beside me and turn pages at random with her tufted snout. Her smell varied, depending on the day of the week—fleshy, sharp, strangely vegetal. By degrees, I came to take an odd pleasure in mirroring her gestures, raising and lowering one shoulder, swallowing things without first chewing, drawing back my lips to expose the teeth. 

She took to catching bats, at nights in the midge-infested garden, bringing them in at peculiar hours and laying them at my feet. They were gory little offerings, dank-furred and often still twitching. My stepmother disapproved and wouldn’t let me keep them, scooping them up with her dustpan and depositing them on my father’s compost heap. It wasn’t ladylike behavior, she said, though it wasn’t clear whether her problem was with Helen catching the bats or my accepting them. I managed to rescue one, just once, sneaking out in an earthworm-scented dawn before my stepmother woke and fishing the bat from beneath a pile of garden waste. I tried to dry it out beneath hardbacked books, the way my sister had taught me to do with flowers, and kept it the way I kept my letters, pushed down between the wall and the bed, until it came to smell so badly that my stepmother found it and threw it away. 

Sometimes, when the weather was cold, I slept with Helen in the room my stepmother had set up for her, across the corridor from my own. She slept beneath a twin bed which my stepmother made up neatly every morning, despite the fact the sheets were never slept in and the covers undisturbed. The smell beneath the bed was thick—body smell. I pressed my face each night into Helen’s shoulders. She slept a jittery, doglike sleep, whined softly, snapped at nothing. I often imagined her dreams—subterranean, worm casts, a greenish undergrowth. 

 Whenever we had guests over, my father would display Helen in her party dress—his exotic stepdaughter, her interesting table manners. His friends were poets and visual artists, they asked my stepmother serious questions about the urge to Motherhood. Old as the earth, a man who had once exhibited a series of photographs of undecorated driftwood informed her, swilling Côte du Rhone, the maternal desire, the natural order of things

My feral girls, my father would say if Helen and I appeared together, pulling the wolf onto his lap and suggesting I sat at his feet—a broad artistic joke. I was older, taller than I had been. The middle and fourth fingers on both my hands had grown to the same length and my eyebrows met in the middle, which caused me less embarrassment than a certain sort of shifty release. The hair grew too fast to pluck and so I let it go and let my legs and armpits perform a similar trick. At school, a girl who typically sat beside me in French class complained that I smelled and asked to be moved across the room. I continued to get into fights, although now when I did the teachers seemed less inclined to see my side of things. 

At my father’s dinners, my stepmother typically sat at his right and fed Helen with her serving spoon, leaning sideways to pass me pieces of meat from her plate. My father served his guests a lot of salted beef, ox tongue, duck breasts still bloody in their jus. I liked his cooking more than I had in previous years, a fact which I owed both to the maturation of my palate and to the fact that meat, stolen away and buried in my bedclothes, settled down in time to a hard iron smell that I found I enjoyed very much. I had started my period on the evening of my fifteenth birthday and had eaten the steak my father served, near-raw, in a fit of jubilation. There’s a girl, my father had said, tipping the leftover juice from the grill pan onto my plate. Helen, who by this time was nearly out of adolescence, had sat by me through dinner in a muted splendor with a party hat cocked around her ears. It was at this dinner party, held in my honor, that a guest of my father’s—a renowned poet and radio philosopher—had caused a scene by knocking over the salt cellar and, in his haste to retrieve it, brushing his hand over Helen’s flank. As she had with the boy outside my school, Helen had immediately locked her fangs around his wrist— not unpleasantly, but still enough to make him shout. My father had laughed at this and reminded his guest not to upset his daughters, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. 

At the age of sixteen, I became of unexpected interest to a boy in my class named Peter who told various people he was in love with me and took to following me home at a distance of about a hundred yards when I left school for the day. The kind of boy who grows too fast and too abruptly over the summer and returns to school war-torn and alien, Peter was largely solitary; a characteristic which perhaps encouraged the misguided view that I had anything to offer him. The fact that, most afternoons, I had a wolf beside me during my walk home rendered Peter’s omnipresence only nominally unsettling, though occasionally when I stopped, to tie a shoelace or to readjust my bag, he would stop too and only start again when I did. That’s boys for you, my sister wrote on a postcard showing Raphael’s Annunciation, always on the horizon. We hadn’t spoken in a while and the cartoon in the corner of her message showed a girl rather taller than the ones she had previously drawn. It was standing with its hands behind its back, its hair demurely plaited down one side.

Helen was fully grown by this point and had long since lost her baby teeth. The process of losing them had been fractious, uneasy, a season of waking in the night to her dragging her jaw along the floorboards beside me until her teeth came away at the root. Her adult teeth were sharper, vampiric in a way my stepmother regarded with concern, if not outward anxiety. Now and then, she presented Helen with tough things on which she was encouraged to gnaw—coconut shell and softened slabs of pumice, all the better to blunt her harsh new mouthful. Over time, Helen would grow bored of these objects and nudge them over to me. I would pick them up to make her happy, fit my teeth to the sides of a coconut shell, and bite. 

The Conservationist’s Guide noted that wolves, at the point of sexual maturity, are liable to develop more alienating, predatory behaviors, and that domesticated wolves have a tendency either to draw away from their human companions or to become markedly more territorial around them. It was difficult to tell, at the time, whether either of these situations was particularly the case. By the time she had lost her baby teeth, Helen was not behaving notably differently to the way she had behaved before, although she did become more selective with the clothes in which she allowed my stepmother to dress her and grew oddly snappish on the rare occasion I received a letter from my sister. 

My father published a new novel, dedicating it to me and to Helen, describing us as my twin girls. My mother rang him up to berate him for leaving my sister out of the dedication. It was a Saturday, Helen’s bathing day, and I listened to my father’s side of the argument from my seat on the kitchen floor. It was your decision, he said more than once, you chose one and not the other. So did she. Moving the pumice stone idly over the base of Helen’s left forepaw, I thought about the evening my sister had packed her belongings, the expression like the cartoon girls she was so fond of sketching—flat and colorless, still-mouthed. What do you expect, my father said repeatedly, what do either of you expect

The phone call ended abruptly and my father banged into the kitchen, pausing in what seemed like a high temper to observe the bathing ritual. Sitting patiently with her forepaws on the tub’s edge, Helen cocked her head to one side and then the other, her ears today encased in a miniature yellow bathing cab which seemed to amuse my father. He shook his head, moving across the room to a place on the counter where he kept family photographs and removing a snap of me and my sister at the ages of seven and eight from its frame. This he looked at for several moments before dropping it into Helen’s bathwater as unconcernedly as one might stub out a cigarette. The photograph warped quickly in the soapy water and Helen dabbed at it unconcernedly, making no particular effort to rescue it before it sank. My father moved out to the front of the house for some air, returning a half hour later to relate in his novelist’s voice that Mr. Wintergarten had now moved on to kidnapping and stuffing neighborhood cats, if the commotion from next door was anything to go by. 

Walking home one afternoon, followed as usual by Peter, Helen took it into her head to butt at the backs of my knees until I understood her intention to change our usual route. I complied almost unthinkingly, crossing roads as she willed me and circling through unfamiliar streets, although at several points when I looked back, Peter was still following us and by the time we reached home, Helen was ill-tempered and flat about the ears. 

At school, it occurred to me to confront him about following us, though when I did he only grinned and told me I should expect a certain level of interest if I would wander around with a wolf in tow. It was shortly after this that he started stealing pencils from my desk when he passed me to take his seat in the mornings, picking them up as casually as if he’d left them there for safekeeping. The third or fourth time this happened, I jumped up and snatched the offending item back before he could retreat to his desk. I opened my mouth to demand an explanation but found as I did so that the disparity between our heights made him somehow difficult to argue with, a shadow too long to entirely avoid. 

The nights seemed larger by the age of sixteen, a curious sense that the strangulated skies of my childhood had suddenly been granted room to rage about. At full moon, Helen would go out into the garden and howl, the way that wolves are wont to do in movies, and she encouraged me to join her, dragging on my trouser legs until I accompanied her onto the lawn. Full-mooned nights brought with them a very particular ozone smell, a nitrous, liquid atmosphere that turned my hair to greasy curlicues. When she had howled her fill, Helen would prowl the garden in a strange, custodial circle, snapping at fireflies. Did you girls have fun, my stepmother would ask us afterward, sitting up at odd hours in the kitchen with her cup of orange tea. 

You never write enough, my sister said—a cartoon of a girl, somewhat anachronistically, waiting by the telephone—I feel like you’re forgetting about me. I wondered for a long time how to respond to this or to communicate the purge of her image that my father had recently undertaken in all corners of the house. In the end, I filed the letter away like the others, pushing Helen’s snout aside when she slunk up as if to read over my shoulder.

A month or so before my seventeenth birthday, I got into a fight at school. A group of boys with names like Callum and Jeremy had broken into my locker some time before the lunchtime bell and had swiped the box of tampons I kept hidden beneath a towel. The situation was a desperate one, an ooze and panic, dark smear along the back of my school skirt. I lined my underwear with thin school toilet paper, folded seven times, but the moment was torrential, hot fright between my legs, a spreading stain. At the end of the day, I sought out those I suspected, pushed Callum or Jeremy between the shoulder blades—stumble against the chain-link fence. We fought the way dogs do, open-mouthed, heads back and rearing. I smashed the heels of my fists upward without looking, felt one connect—something wet and hard and quite like bone. Someone caught me in the side of the face with the corner of a schoolbag, an explosion like a hand driven into soft fruit, my vision sent marbling across the tarmac. I’m not sure how the fight ended, only that the crowd that had formed around us had dispersed by the time Helen found me and that I was alone when she did. She nosed into my side, licked one side of my face where something that had formerly felt solid now felt shaken loose. I found myself thinking of my sister’s letter: try harder, don’t be such a beast

Someone caught me in the side of the face with the corner of a schoolbag, an explosion like a hand driven into soft fruit, my vision sent marbling across the tarmac

I had to fist my hands in Helen’s fur to pull myself up, though she made no obvious objection. I caught something of my own smell mingled with hers, the dirt in my knees and the fact that between my legs I was still bleeding unchecked, a terrible falling away. We walked home together, a little laboriously, only stopping once when Helen tipped her head over her shoulder and I, following her gaze, saw that Peter was following us at his usual hundred-yard remove. I remember Helen lifted her head toward him, only a minor curl of her lip but enough to reveal the teeth, and he seemed to falter, before appearing to decide that this pause was invitation to move closer. He was, I saw as he approached, bearing the box of tampons that had gone missing from my locker, the ones I had assumed had been taken by the other boys. He raised his chin a little defiantly as he held them out toward me. It was a just meant to be a joke, he said, his tone seeming to follow the set of his chin, though his words were nominally apologetic, badly judged, had no idea. I didn’t mean for it to get so out of hand. Then a blur of action that was hard to follow—his hand passing over Helen’s head in the way that she hated, the curl of her upper lip. Several weeks later, when he had been off from school long enough to make people curious, we heard that his hand had gone septic and that surgeons had ultimately had to remove the whole thing at the wrist. 

In the aftermath of the incident with Peter, I went into my bedroom and found that Helen had ripped up all of my sister’s letters and was sitting amongst the wreckage gently nosing her way through the shreds of cartoon girls, some stretching or skipping or bowling or rowing boats. I said nothing to this, only reached to stroke the hard, high ridge of her back, the familiar smell rising from her fur as I did so. Since the evening of the fight, when we had both returned home bloodied, my stepmother had developed a habit of bathing me in the tub usually reserved for Helen and the scent of it— hot, bodily beneath bluebells—now seemed indivisible from the one I recognized as my own. Apparently satisfied, Helen turned to grate her jaw along the floorboards; a gesture like a sharpening—serrated knife against a block. The moon, I felt, was not yet full enough to excuse this kind of behavior, but by degrees I nonetheless sat down beside my feral sister and joined her in dragging my teeth across the floor. 

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