By the Skin of Her Teeth

By Ilana Masad

The first I knew of myself was what I heard. Sounds lodged in my memory that I couldn’t decipher until years later, but there they were, just the same, waiting for me to unlock the secret of their meaning.

“An abomination.”

“She’s beautiful.”

“He won’t want to see this.”

“Whyever not? She’s his daughter.”

“That thing is no more his daughter than I am. We must dispose of it.”

Then a heated shouting match began: my mother—I assume, I believe she was my mother—protesting, trying to protect me; the midwife—for I believe that was who she must have been, her knowledge reigning supreme, logically convincing, full of sharp retorts and vitriol and stubbornness born from watching a thousand-thousand mothers love their children too well—finally making my mother see the truth.

The truth that a girl with a snout and soft padding on her hands and ears threatening to become furry couldn’t be kept by a noblewoman and her gentleman husband.

“We’ll tell him, we’ll tell everyone, that she died. It’s for the best.” The midwife.

“But you won’t kill her, you can’t kill her, not my baby, not my child…” My mother. Her voice comes to me in dreams still.

This is where memory of the sounds stops because my nose, apparently cleared of the mucus of birth, kicked in, and once I discovered scent, it took some years before my impossible memory began to blend my senses together again.

**

“Hey, Tooth! TOOTH!”

I sigh. My hike up the hills is about to be hindered. “What is it?”

“Mam says it’s time. That I can go with you.”

Mam is what we call her. The woman, witch, wretch, freak, abomination herself, who takes us in. Kids like us. And a kid like me is ambling up the slope behind me, a poisonous grin spread across the edges of his face, the scales along his hands just visible in the gaps of the shoddily knit gloves Mam made him. Well, tried to make him. She’s not the best with domestic things, which is why she has us help a lot.

“You swear, Skins? ‘Cause if I find out Mam said no such thing and you’re playing me for a fool, I’ll give you a good whupping later.”

Skins, two years younger than me, exasperating like—I am told—any little brother should be, puts both hands on his heart and solemnly swears on the gods that Mam has said he should join the hunt for supper. “She also said,” he adds, an afterthought he’d rather not admit, “that I gotta listen to whatever you tell me to do.”

That makes me smile. Mam isn’t stupid. She knows Skins is impetuous despite his apparently patient nature, that I’m usually slow and careful, in alignment with my own.

“All right, well first thing is you take those gloves off. Out here?” I gesture at the hills, the woods we’re entering, the quiet and dark of this parcel of land untouched by men. We don’t count, after all. “Out here we’re what we are, no hiding, no masks, no pretending. We’re Beasts.”

This is what Mam told us we are. Not quite human, not quite animal, but something in between, embracing the humanity of thinkers and the strengths and senses of those that follow instinct.

Skins nods and strips off his gloves, stuffing them in the sack he’s slung across his back. He’s fourteen, more or less, we think, and I’m sixteen, though that’s also a guess. Mam found me when she thought I was about three, eating a raw carcass in the woods some miles from here, where my mother and the midwife must have left me, hoping I’d die or that someone would find me and take me in. I wager I survived longer than anyone could have guessed.

“Let’s go,” I say, and begin climbing.

**

After an hour, when we’ve paused in our climb to catch out breaths, Skins hisses at me from below where I’m crouched watching the woods around me for movement. “Tracks,” he says.

“Show me.” He does. They’re bear tracks, big and obvious, and I missed them. It’s an embarrassment, but I manage to make it seem deliberate. “Good,” I say, forcing a smile. “I was wondering how long it’d take you to notice.”

He smiles too, triumphant. He takes a long whiff with his nose, which is nowhere good as mine but still good, and points ahead of us. I smell it too now that I’m paying attention to my nose rather than my ears. There’s a musk wafting from the direction Skins is looking at. I gesture for him to go in front of me, and I follow, trying to stay sharp.

But I’m distracted. It’s thirteen years to the day since Mam found me. Mayhap that’s the true reason she sent Skins out with me today. To make sure I didn’t get too holed up in my own thoughts. Mam says it’s not good that I do that. She says I’m listening too hard to my human parts, to the parts that make me care about who my mother was, who my father was and why he wouldn’t have accepted me.

A hard tap on my shoulder brings me back again. Skins’ has his mouth open wide, his forked tongue tasting the air, his scaled hands gesturing wildly at a curve of stone in front of us that must have a cave opening on its other side. The smell of bear and something dead that it’s dragged with it is overwhelming and my breath goes hot with saliva pooling in my mouth. I feel a growl at the base of my throat that I suppress because—and here is the good thing about being more human than Mam would like—I don’t want to alert the animal that we’re here if it hasn’t smelled us yet.

She. If she hasn’t smelled us yet. I can tell she’s a female bear now that I’m paying attention again.

I get in front of Skins. He may be paying attention well today, but he’s still not as experienced at hunting as I am. He’s gone out with the groups a couple times to fish in the river but never on a silent solo hunt like this. He’s as green behind the ears as his scales are. He knows it too, because he doesn’t dare put up a fuss when I push him behind me, though I can see on his face that he’s not quite pleased.

Moving slow isn’t hard for me. It comes natural, as natural as keeping my fur clean doesn’t and keeping my human skin does. I creep—pretty sure Skins is doing the crawling bit behind me—through the trees and make a wide arc round so that after a time we get to the other side of the stone where we can see the cave.

And that’s when both Skins and I betray all our instincts. I let out a huff of air that might as well be a bark and he hisses through his teeth. The bear was a she-bear all right, and she has a mess of cubs, all sleeping in a heap just inside the cave’s mouth. But that’s not the problem. Cubs are to be expected in this season. It’s the thing that isn’t the cubs. The thing that’s in the middle of the cubs, lying there like it belongs, even though its mother is pawing at it trying to get it away from the others.

She hears us, though, and stops, scoping the area, sniffing the air. “Dog’s breath,” I curse, not unaware of the irony, but it’s Mam’s favorite curse and it’s rubbed off on me over the years. “Here we go.”

The mama bear is lumbering towards us, first slow and then fast, then faster than you’d think those animals can move, and Skins and I stand up, not bothering being quiet anymore. He pulls out his hunting knife and I get mine out and we rush towards her, each from a different side, so as to catch her off-guard. I’m not scared, but I can smell on Skins that he is, and he leaves more space between him and the bear so she naturally goes for what she thinks is the easier target: me. Can’t say I blame Skins. First time I encountered a big one like this I pissed myself. Took months to get the others to stop calling me pissing-pup.

Moments like this, I let my wolf, dog, canine, whatever it is inside me that makes me different from others—I let it take over for a bit. That’s what I learned from that first time: don’t let the human brain get too involved or you’re almost guaranteed to die. I almost did that time, that day. But now, I let the instincts go wild, and my throat goes raw with the low growl that’s coming from me in a constant hum, but I don’t lose my breath from it, because animals don’t. My heart beats faster than normal, and as I rush to meet the bear head-on, I crouch low so that she thinks I’m smaller than her and then rear up and swipe my knife across her shoulder. She loses her balance with the pain—our knives are serrated and they hurt like hell—and I see Skins on her other side, having looped around, and she tries to twist towards him just as he reaches her and his knife plunges into her rib as she’s about to maul him but she falls, falls with a bone-rattling thump, and lies there, injured, bleeding, defeated. Not dead.

Skins stands above her, raises his knife, and I catch his arm as it swings above his head. He’s ready to deliver a killing blow, and I won’t have that. Not when she’s down. Not like this. Besides, Mam hates bear meat. I’d been hoping that following this she-bear would lead us to where she hunts, or mayhap to a fresh kill we could steal—she spends more time in the woods than us, so I wouldn’t feel too bad about that—but killing a mama-bear is something I can’t handle.

“You will not!” I shout as his wrist tries to wriggle its way out of my grasp.

“Why? It’s what we came out here for, isn’t it?”

“We came for dinner. No one back home likes bear-meat. Besides, she’ll heal from those wounds quick if she rests a while, and she has cubs to look after.”

“We can take the cubs too, eat ‘em up, bite—”

“Skins, come back to me now, boy.” His instincts, like mine, have taken over, but he isn’t having an easy time letting them go. I make him turn and look into my eyes which I know have turned from the golden haze they get when I go feral to their regular old brown. Even with the fur around my face and my nose not quite right, my eyes are all human, and thank the gods for that, Mam always says, or I’d see in black and white and top to bottom and nothing else. She knows too much for me to follow but I trust her on this. Having human eyes is good.

“What if Mam were to be killed by someone who hated us, who hated what we are?” I ask Skins, trying to bring him back. “What then?”

“Then we’d—we could—oh.” He’s back, slowly, is skin losing its glow of poison and going back to its regular greenish sheen. His tongue flickers out of his mouth and tastes the air and grabs my arm. He’s looking in the direction of whatever he tasted on the wind, which is coming briskly from behind me and making my fur rustle in my ears. “We can’t let her live,” he says.

“I just told you we have to! And besides Mam said you have to do what I say.”

“No, just, just look!” He turns me around towards the cave, towards the mess of cubs who’ve woken up with the commotion and are cowering, piled on top of each other, in the corner of the cave. “If we let her live she’ll kill him.” I don’t know what he’s talking about. Kill who? Why would she—?

And then I see what he means.

First, there is the carcass I was hoping for, lying in the cave behind the pups, who are too scared of us to go and eat it. It’s a deer, like I suspected, newly killed, not mauled too badly. Perfectly reasonable to take it back to Mam.

Second, and this is what Skins is talking about, and is something I’ve never seen before and don’t know how to comprehend: a Beast. Amidst the curled up cubs is one that doesn’t quite belong. It’s furry all right, like me, but it has a button nose and a pink mouth, and skin bereft of covering on its belly and chest and much of its arms, and its head has hair on it, not fur. The fur is mostly around the hands—not paws—and feet—also not quite paws, though there’s padding on all those extremities that humans don’t have.

“Did you know it could go the other way?” Skins breathes, trying not to scare the cubs even more. The Mama bear is moving a little, stirring, trying to get through her pain. We don’t have much time. I didn’t know it could go the other way, and for all I know this cub, this Beast, is a foundling who found a home here after it—after she was abandoned by someone. Like me. “See why we have to kill her?” Skins says again, nodding his head towards the she-bear.

“No. We can’t. There are others here she needs to take care of.” I walk towards the cubs with purpose.

“What are you doing?” he hisses. “You know how angry they can get when you get near their cubs.” I don’t know how he knows this, having never really been up close to a bear like this but I suppose it’s knowledge Mam knocked through his thick skull.

“I won’t touch the others,” I say. I don’t want my smell on them, don’t want anything to stop mama bear from taking care of them. But she can’t care for this little Beast baby. She might kill it once she figures out it doesn’t belong. Or she’ll leave it somewhere far off and never think about it again. If bears can be said to precisely think, that is.

It’s easy because she’s at the top of the pile, the other cubs pushing her away already, not wanting to protect her like they’re protecting one another. She’s scared, shaking, but when I pick her up with a swift motion and back off from the cubs and the mama bear, towards the direction we came from what seems like hours ago, she begins to relax into my grip. I’m holding her like a baby, her bum under my hand, her head over my shoulder, her body nestled close to me. She smells like musk but also like something sweet. The combination is something I never smelled before. After me, Mam never took in another baby. Never found one. Mostly it was runaways who’d been locked up in rooms to keep them away from prying eyes and managed to run away, or those who’d been able to hide their difference for long enough, until they got old enough that the other villagers started noticing them proper and either ran them out of town with pitchforks and fire or simply threatened to.

But this baby—this Beast baby—she can’t be left here. She’ll learn the ways of bears mayhap, but not of Beasts, and she’ll be lonely, with no way to communicate. Mam found a couple of those too, little ones, not quite babies, who’d been raised with their flock or gaggle or pack, and they were always starved, never accepted quite, and we always thought they were like me, left somewhere and found a way to survive on the outskirts. But maybe it’s always gone both ways. Animal to human, human to animal.

“Let’s go.” I start walking with the baby as fast as I can, turning my back on the bear. She’s not strong enough to give chase, and hopefully my scent will mask the missing cub—the Beast babe.

“What about the food?” Skins doesn’t move.

“They need it more than us,” I call back to him. “Mama’s going to need to gain her strength to take care of them cubs. ‘Sides, you’re supposed to do what I say so come on already!”

He finally starts following, reluctantly. He wanted to come back a hero, I imagine, with a big haul of meat or fish for us to feast on. He wanted to brag about his first excursion. He will, one day. He’ll brag about this because none of us have ever found a babe before, nor rescued it, and he will take credit for seeing her first one day. I know the nature of boys. Skins is only one of the ones I’ve grown up with. One day, he’ll say it was all his idea.

**

Mam stands outside the house, hands on her hips. She’s full human, Mam. But she’s always lived alone and always had a way with animals about her, she’s said. So she’s the one to accept us. That’s just how it is. But I suspect there’s something about her, something we can’t see, something a little Beasty. Otherwise how does she know we’re coming? How does she know to stand there with kind eyes? How does she know to take the babe from my arms the moment she sees her? How does she know to lean forward and whisper in my ear, “You done well, girl,” and kiss me on the cheek? How does she know to look Skins up and down and sniff and raise her chin and tell him to go collect some extra firewood before dark now that he’s so big and has been on his first hunt? How does she know not to chastise us for not bringing home dinner? How does she know to reassure us that Talon got some meat while hunting and not to worry about going hungry tonight, and that besides there are fresh vegetables from her garden and herbs to go along with it all? I think there’s some Beast about her, something that makes her understand.

But then again, maybe a mother just knows sometimes.

 

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Ilana Masad

Ilana Masad / About Author

Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, book critic, essayist, and editor for hire. Her professional work in these fields began in 2012, when she spent a full academic year on the staff of The Oxford Student newspaper at Oxford University, where she worked as chief copy editor, section editor, and finally deputy editor. She was recruited by the Oxford University Student Union to serve on the editorial staff of E&E, a magazine dealing with issues of ethics and the environment. The highlights of her time at OxStu include her interviews with AFI frontman Davey Havok and with director and writer Joss Whedon, and actors Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof. Masad’s first publications of her fiction appeared in Tin House‘s Open Bar, as a winner of round two and the final round of the Master Plotto: Student Edition contest. Later, she also received the Rex Warner Literary Award from Wadham College. She received her BA from Sarah Lawrence College, where she spent her final year as nonfiction editor of the Sarah Lawrence Review. She began writing occasional book reviews, interned for Bookish, and later for Writers House Literary Agent. Masad has published fiction and nonfiction in venues like The New Yorker, the Chicago Tribune’s Printer’s Row, the Guardian, Vice, McSweeney’s, Joyland Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, the LA Review of Books, and many more. Since late 2014, Masad has been working for Leigh Feldman Literary, working closely with Leigh Feldman’s clients on editorial work. In 2015, she launched the podcast The Other Stories, which has featured over 100 writers.

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