Home > Wolf By Wolf (Wolf By Wolf #1)(9)

Wolf By Wolf (Wolf By Wolf #1)(9)
Ryan Graudin

The bloodstains were harder to get rid of than the girl. It wasn’t until the real Adele had been carted away and Yael was alone in her flat that she realized how much red her nails had spilled. Enough to notice from the doorway. Even with towels, powders, and a scrub brush, it took her over an hour to hide the stains.

But now all was ready. She wore Adele’s skin, spoke with Adele’s voice, slept in Adele’s bed.

Yael sat down on the mattress, rolled up her left sleeve, and unraveled the gauze where the wolf pack lunged against her skin. Vlad’s was still raw and puffed. Too tender to touch.

She traced the others with a soft finger, let the syllables of their names linger on the tip of her tongue. “Babushka, Mama, Miriam…”

The ones the ash ate.

“Aaron-Klaus, Vlad.” Yael swallowed. Five wolves. Four memories and a reminder.

Her loss was larger than that… but four + one was a number she could remember. A number she could handle without letting the vastness of it pick her to pieces like a crab’s ragged claws. Scavenging death on the ocean floor. Sometimes (usually) there was nothing left for the grief to feed on. Yael was a bare-bones blank slate. A hanger that held a cloth of pretty skin.

Who are you? (On the inside?)

The answer to this question was something Yael had to fight for. Her self-reflection was no reflection at all. It was a shattered mirror. Something she had to piece together, over and over again. Memory by memory. Loss by loss. Wolf by wolf.

It was easy—too easy—to pretend. To fill that empty space inside her with other lives. Bernice Vogt. Mina Jager. Adele Wolfe. Girls who never had to face the smoke or watch the syringes slide under their skin. Girls who never had to stare into the eyes of the Angel of Death. Again and again and again.

It was too easy to get lost.

This was why, every night before she fell asleep, she peeled back her sleeve, traced the wolves, and said their names. Because somewhere in there—in those fragments of gone souls and memories—was Yael.

Not chemicals, but essence. The real Yael.

She’d already lost her face. She could not let the rest of herself (however dark, however broken) slip away. So she traced and she named. She hurt and she raged.

She remembered.

THEN

THE FIRST WOLF: THE BABUSHKA AUTUMN 1944

The Babushka was Yael’s oldest friend. Older than most of the women who slept in Barrack 7. Her hair was silver, and deep lines swooped past the end of her eyes. (Crow’s-feet, she called them, in that heavy, chopping language of hers.)

She was a miracle, Yael’s mother said. Her wrinkles alone should have been enough for the guards to sort her into the too weak! line. But they let her keep walking through the gates. They let her live.

She was old, but she was strong. Every morning, in the cruel cold of the predawn, the Babushka rose with the others. She slipped wooden clogs over her feet, walked to the morning roll call, where she stood under spotlights and stars for hours on end. Then she followed the others to the sorting hall. There her fingers threaded through many things: gold rings, sooty dresses, boots that would not give her blisters. The belongings of the dead (or soon-to-be) were piled in mountains and moved by the women of Barrack 7, to be looted by the SS men’s magpie greed.

After the long day, the weary trudge back (under more glaring bulbs, a callous moon), the soup of withered vegetables and spoiled meat, the Babushka sat in the corner of her bunk. Those brown eyes were drained and glazed, but she always smiled when she caught Yael peeking across the way. None of her teeth seemed the same color. They held the gray of shadows, the black of night. A very few were yellowed white. They reminded Yael of old piano keys.

“Volchitsa,” she whispered Yael’s nickname—she-wolf in Russian, a stubborn, fierce creature for a stubborn, fierce girl—and waved. “I have something for you. Come.”

Yael picked her way through the bodies of her bunkmates (her mother, an older girl named Miriam, and three other women who never spoke to her). Mattress straws raked up her legs as she slid to the floor.

The Babushka’s bunk was just as crowded. Yael climbed through the jumble of bony, inked limbs, and bristle-hair scalps. There was a small patch of mattress by the Babushka’s hip. Enough for her to nestle in.

The older woman smiled and dipped her hand into the thin fabric of her dress. Magic or miracle—somehow her fingers came back wrapped around a piece of bread. Crumbling, so hard that the edges of crust cut into Yael’s gums, but bread. Something to make her forget the dull gnaw of her insides.

“Eat,” the Babushka commanded.

Yael’s eyes fluttered guiltily across the way, where Miriam and her mother slept on. She crammed the food into her mouth anyway, a few more mealy ounces to stick to her sparrow bones.

“Did you see the doctor today?”

Yael’s mouth was too full. She shook her head.

The older woman grunted. “You’re lucky, Volchitsa. Most of the children who go into his office do not come back again.”

A sharp jag of crust caught in Yael’s throat. She thought of the instruments on Dr. Geyer’s silver tray. Not the needles but the crueler ones. The scalpels and wide knives—things he never used on her.

An angel of a different kind.

“He must think you’re special,” the Babushka went on. “He’s saving you. Passing you over.”

“I hate him.” Yael swallowed the final crumb. Her last injection was over a day ago, but her arm still felt like it was on fire. So much hot and pain in such a small body. She gathered it all up and crammed it into words. “I wish the smoke would eat him.”

The Babushka did not tell her to hush, the way Yael’s mother did whenever she said these things. Instead her eyes were sad and knowing. Flooded with smoke-monsters of their own.

“I’ve made you something.” The straw beneath the Babushka rustled as she fished through the mattress innards. Cradled in the callused, canyon skin of her hands was something that reminded Yael of a misshapen egg. A crude line wrapped through its center.

“It’s a matryoshka doll.” The old woman placed it in Yael’s hands. Now that it was closer, she could see the lump was doll-shaped. With awled, colorless eyes. A scratch of a smile.

“Open it.”

Yael obeyed. The wood split apart like a nutshell. Something spilled out. Another doll. Smaller. It, too, had a crack down its center.

Another doll. And another. Each one smaller. Each one with a different face. A half-moon smile, a shepherd’s crook smirk. Eyes both squinting and wide. When Yael got to the end there were so many pieces. Tops and bottoms piled like tiny wooden cups on her bare legs.

Yael’s fingers closed over the last, a pea-sized matryoshka. She tried to think of where the Babushka might have found wood in a place like this. Much less something to carve it with.

Magic or miracle? Whichever it was, the Babushka was full of them.

“My husband was a woodworker. Before everything,” the old woman explained. “He used to carve them for our children. They always loved the dolls. Such bright, happy things. Full of color—so many colors. Ruby red, grass green, blue so deep you think you’re looking at the sky. Yellow like butter. Or the sun.”

Yael knew red. Red was the color of the wet patches on Dr. Geyer’s floor. The color of the guards’ armbands.

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