Lony found the wet, splintered bones with the soles of her feet, when some sound or silence had roused her from her bed. She had always slept barefoot, even in the cold of winter; after that night she never would again.
She screamed, before she really understood what it was she stood in. Then she did understand: that it was not a what, but a whom, and she could not scream any more for want of air. Lony fell amid the wreckage of her baby’s hollow bones and tried to count them, sought order and sense in this most senseless of things. Here in the breathless dark she could not remember how to cry; only the wind sobbed through the smashed door.
In this city of hope, a Wolf did not devour a child every day. But a Wolf might devour a child any day.
Friends and family came to the wake to comfort Lony, as if they didn’t understand that she was already dead.
On the kitchen table, clots of gelatin had formed about the rims of half-empty pans, and the remaining meat rolls wept brine onto their serving platter. Food went cold fast in the city in the winter. Lony focused on those remnants: how she would package them up, where in the icebox they would fit, as her sisters and their husbands and wives offered their condolences.
Lony was lucky, in a sense, the family told her, for sometimes a whole family was eaten up and here Lony still had her eldest, Nis. They pressed her cold hands and wept as they urged Lony to put it behind her, to be reassured. To leave the matter rest, for what good could come of it now? They knelt on the floor in front of her and reminded her: they needed the Wolves to keep the city safe, so all the other little children could sleep soundly in their beds. No other city in the world had such Wolves, and no other city yet survived. Yes, sometimes tragedy struck, for Wolves were still predators, and such things happened. Sometimes they ate the innocent, but mostly they ate the guilty. Surely Lony wouldn’t ask every other mother in the city to sacrifice their little ones’ well-being. Their blood would not bring little Grethe back to her.
Because of the Wolves, they said, there was still a future of hope and freedom from fear, here in the last bastion of light and goodness left to the dark wild world. But Lony did not want to turn her face toward that hopeful beacon, nor could she feel the warmth of goodness in the long cold night.
Attention peeled away from Lony then, toward an old aunt in the corner. To her audience, she recited a litany of poor choices made, of fateful missteps for which Grethe paid the price. If the child had been better taught to fetch her mother before answering the door at night, if Lony were not such a sound sleeper, oh. The family murmured to one another, that they would be wiser, better prepared; that their little ones would stay safe. Lony’s body had gone cold and numb, hardened and preserved in a shell of her own brine.
But while their aunt lectured on, Lony’s youngest sister Moya leaned in close to her ear, and whispered to her. “It was not right that Grethe was taken from you. Not a one of them should dare say otherwise.”
It was Moya, too, that finally ushered the rest of the family out to give Lony and Nis their privacy. They went, anxious and complaining, but they went, in twos and threes out into the quiet streets, and the ice-bitten air ghosted past them into Lony’s house.
As they passed through her freshly-repaired door she felt them leave their burdens behind. They had never plastered over streaks of blood and deep claw-grooves with paint that would never quite match the rest. They did not know the weight of a ruined carcass that had once been a child. Their little ones still woke, and laughed, and ate, and played. This freedom of theirs hung on Lony like rusty chains upon a coffin.
The blood of the city’s children would not bring back Grethe. But when Lony closed her eyes, the city was painted red with it, and the citizens packed the streets to scream and scourge themselves over the price they had gladly paid for false freedom.