I woke with salt on my face, ghost trails of the night’s tears. My skin was cold. Even my back was cold where my husband should have rested; he was gone, and I should have enjoyed that aloneness. Instead a noise from the verandah roused me: soft scuffle against the swept clay, coupling with wet, insistent sounds.
It turned my stomach. I pulled my beddress tight around me and went out.
The sun had yet to rise. In the dim light a furred body hunched against the ground, jaws working in my husband’s back. Blood had scattered around them, arrayed in a half-halo. Yellow eyes glinted, and I froze in the manner of deer.
While I slept this beast had come and ripped out my husband’s throat.
So ended my first night in the City of Wolves.
Even knowing better than to run from wolves, I leapt from the porch like an oryx and ran so that the stone streets bruised my heels.
There is no god but God. The Odad, my husband’s people, worshipped wolves and stars and this Godless abandoned city, and now my husband was dead. I came breathless to the gates where our donkeys were tethered, uneaten—the wolves had not considered them fitting sacrifices. They had not considered me a fitting sacrifice. Only the prince of the Odad, my husband, would sate them.
I went to Nashira, my donkey, and rubbed my hands over her muzzle, her neck. Her name meant She who brings good news. The sandalwood rubbed into her black hide, the musk of her skin, and the steadiness of her body calmed me, but there was no point in worshipping animals, and she could not help me. I looked to the horizon; the half-sun, caught in the act of rising, sat like a red coal, and a howl came up from the city to bid the stars farewell.
That wolf should have eaten me instead.
But I had run from the wolf, so perhaps I wanted to live. Even after my husband smeared me through with tallow and aloe, even after he pushed himself inside me, I wanted to live, and I wanted my people to live. I had to act.
“Nashira,” I said, with my fist beneath her chin asking her to rise. I untethered her as our shadows crept toward us, and I mounted and goaded her through the city gates. This evening, men of Odad would see that we had not returned from our wedding night; noon after, they would come to this city whose sandstone was the color of their pale skin. They would find me here, their prince dead. They would ride against my people.
Unless I could appease them.
The city smelled of dust and the sun. My skin still smelled of unguents, cardamom and myrrh. If we’d brought myrrh in the wedding packs I could anoint my husband’s remains. If the city had wood or charcoal I could build him a pyre, and if the wolves ate me while I gathered the body and coal, they might be kinder than the Odad.
The wolves fell silent and the city’s streets were empty. A wisp of cloud hung in the sky before the sun burned it away. Who sent it out to die at dawn? And who decided that I, who should have been the fifth son of Sal, should ride a little black donkey to an abattoir, to carry a ripped-up man to the city gates to burn him?
His name, that prince of the Odad, was Ishur.
We’d passed the wide and empty lanes of the market district when a wolf leapt into the path and Nashira shied. My heart kicked once, twice, like a hare.
The wolf bowed, shoulders low, tail swimming side to side behind him. He called up to us—Khoof, khoof! The way the palace dogs said Play with me!—and bounded away. Nashira tossed, her hooves clattered, and she tried to break. I put my hands over her eyes.
“Wolf-god!” I had nothing to lose. At worst he would eat me, or the true God would smite me for blasphemy. God had never looked kindly on my life before. “Come back, and when you come, bring me my husband!”
Or his bloody bones.
The wolf didn’t return.
Nashira would not walk. I dismounted and looked around; I found a caravanserai, and cajoled her into a stall and barred the gate. I’d carry Ishur’s body with my own hands, if I had to. The sun had climbed two finger-widths up the sky, and though the shade felt like water on my skin, I moved on.
The streets widened as I neared the temple of our wedding night. The city’s roads were a great wheel whose struts led to the city walls, in whose hub stood this temple nearly so old as our two tribes.
Flies swarmed in the temple air like handfuls of thrown peppercorns, landing on my husband’s corpse and jumping from it. The corpse lay supine, not eaten up yet, not unrecognizable. My stomach turned, but I resolved to be as strong as my brothers, and I went to Ishur’s side.
I touched his flesh. Life had been ripped from the hands which had cupped me, the arms which had held me. Ishur’s stomach had been ripped out, though I remembered it whole and sweating against my back. His genitals had been ripped off, his thighs opened. He stank of iron and bile.
I swatted the flies away. A few attempted my eyes, and I swatted them again. I took Ishur’s wrists and dragged his carcass, and it was both heavy and light—heavy because I had never grown to the girth of my brothers, never been trained in the strength of a man; light because the wolves had torn much of him away. I could see his spine, his ribs, one red scapula turning like the wing of a bird. I tugged him toward the door and a wolf trotted in, yellow eyes wide. Was he the one who had bowed to me? He was thin, and his bones protruded. He whined.
Ishur and I hadn’t seen wolves when we came at the setting of the sun. Ishur’s father and grandfather and every ancestor had taken their wives outside the city gates, and they had come back uneaten. Ishur pulled me inside and said these walls and these wolves and this starlight were his ancestors, too, and would not harm him. In that far-off history when my people were stronger than the Odad and had chased them across the desert, they had called to God to save them. God had turned a quarter of the Odad into wolves, who had torn the Sal apart. The wolves were protectors of the Odad. They would not see him harmed.
This wolf whined and swept his tail across the ground. A black band lay across his shoulders like a whipmark, and when his tail moved, his hipbones poked out one flank and then the other. I dropped Ishur’s wrists.
“If you would like,” I said.
The wolf was clever; he understood me. He trotted to Ishur’s side, licked him, and tore flesh from his chest. I choked, deep near my lungs, and turned away. I ask forgiveness of almighty God. I could look at his body torn apart, so why not bear the tearing? I covered my ears.
How I must have looked in the harsh light, my beddress smeared with blood, a wolf breaking his fast on my husband’s chest. I stood with my palms on my ears, whispering the religious rubaiyat. For sixty-one verses the wolf ate, and then he came and nuzzled at my knee. I dropped my hands, and he wagged his tail and let his bloody tongue loll out.
“Ancha,” I said. It meant hip-bone; his hip-bones stuck out like the top of a lyre, even now with his belly full. I could play the lyre, but not well, and I wouldn’t have the chance if the Odad killed me and my family.
Or once the wolves killed me and ate me. While Ancha ate, another wolf had come from the inner halls. He was much larger, sleek and well-fed. Perhaps he’d killed Ishur. Perhaps for stealing his dinner, he’d kill me. He stepped forward and showed his teeth.
Ancha yipped and took my hand in his mouth. He tugged without breaking my skin, and then let go and rolled onto his back with his paws tucked against his chest. The new wolf came closer, tail straight behind him. Ancha whined and kicked at my shin.
I went to my knees, then to my back. Even dogs have kings, and even dogs bow to them. I pulled my hands to my chest, and the big wolf came up to me and lapped his tongue across my neck, my chest, my stomach. It wasn’t until he pushed his head between my legs, where Ishur had touched me before wrapping me over my knees, that I shook. This new wolf snorted, and Ancha pushed his nose against my cheek, and grief and anger and shame battered inside my chest, pushing me to cry.
I named him Malik. King. When I tried to take Ishur he growled and backed me outside, where the sun had climbed the length of my hand. Three more lengths and it would stand in what we called the liver of the sky; then, in that time again, soldiers would leave from the Odad.
I walked toward the gate, hoping to eat something and clear my head. Ancha walked with me, swishing his tail and licking from time to time at my hand.
I thought of two things before reaching the caravanserai: riding back to my people, warning them to take up arms for a battle they could not win. Or perhaps I should find weapons here, and throw myself against the soldiers when they came. Either battle was hopeless. O God, most merciful. What else could I do?
The Odad would ride here under the watchful eyes of the stars. When the wolves in that far-off history had torn my people apart, the Odad had cried then that they could not find their way. God turned a second quarter of their number into stars, to guide them. Even the stars would be against me.
In the caravanserai I found Nashira backed into her stall by two wolves.
I ran in, but no, she wasn’t backed in. She sat placidly, and the wolves sat facing each other before her. I swear before God that they argued like men at market: One would khoof, and then the other, then the first. Then they beheld me and looked at Ancha, and by agreement stood and walked to another side of the room.
I knew wolves. They hunted in packs by the edge of my city. But I had never seen wolves cross the room and sit down, talking in turns, as these did,
Eager not to tarry, I led Nashira out toward the city gates. Ancha followed.
I thought of standing at the gates and yelling, “Look here, you men of Odad! It was your god and not mine who ate your prince, your god and not mine who would not let me burn or bury him.” But what man listens when another maligns his god? The Odad worshipped idols, but they were not forgiving in their unrighteousness.
I set out barley for the donkeys, took dried goat and buttermilk from the provisions they’d carried, and looked up at the pale city walls. The Odad, forever ungrateful, had still cried after the gifts of the wolves and the stars; they had cried that they had no place to rest, nowhere to keep out the harsh sun, and God turned the third quarter of their people into the city which stood before me. The stone was the color of their flesh. The walls were as heavy on the eyes as their broad shoulders had been.
Guardhouses sat on the walls, unused since their creation. Perhaps they might have bows left, or javelins. I knew little of weaponry, but what choice did I have? I sought a stairway, Ancha following at my heels.
Perhaps I could keep Ancha with me and the Odad would see that I was favored among their gods. But the Odad have wanted to destroy my people, and now that we were weak, they were overeager. Men eager for war will ignore their gods even as they say God wills it. And besides, if Ancha was a god, he was a poor one. Even having eaten of Ishur, he was begging after the goat. Then, begging, he pushed his muzzle between my legs.
I cursed and shoved him away. He tumbled down the stairs, yelping, and I gathered my dress and hurried on without him. What did it matter to him, what I had or didn’t have down there? It was only a concern for my father the king, who’d needed a daughter to offer. Only a concern for his surgeons and their sharp knives, and for Ishur. I ran to the guardhouse and threw open the door.
Here there were no knives, I noted. Nor weapons of any kind; only the dusty sun cut the dry monotony of sandstone and clay. Neither bow nor arrow, javelin nor lance. I walked to the window and looked out.
No paths led to this city. Only the princes of the Odad came here, dragging their brides along. There was no road which the search party would ride down; I would be able to stand here and watch the plumes of dust heralding their advent, if I chose. And then I would die.
Ancha whined at the door.
In the night, long ago, as the Odad slept in the body-houses of their kinsmen, as the stars looked down on them, the wolves came and chased them from their home. Since that day, the city stood abandoned.
Ancha crept into the guardhouse.
The Odad have a saying. They say if you go into the house of God and drink and kick the walls and shout and swear, God will eat you. If you are pious and bow at every entrance and bring good wine for oblations, God will eat you. Men have no business in the house of God.
I had no business there, either.
I took the waterskin and threw it from the door; it burst on a roof below. “Come up, stones!” I yelled, and they jeered my voice back at me. “There’s to be a war, you know! Isn’t it the Sal you’ve wanted to destroy, all these years? Isn’t that why your wolves ate my husband?”
The echoes died, and the bitterness faded from the air. Perhaps it was just that the City hated everyone, Odad and Sal alike.
Ancha pressed against my shins.
I looked down at him, and my hand found his ears. He suffered from mange as well as malnutrition. What a poor, afflicted god.
The Odad spent one night in this city before the wolves chased them out. The Odad went and hid at the crook of a river, worshipping the city from afar. Only their princes returned with their brides, and only I walked the streets wondering if the sacrificed ghosts of the city stared from every window, waiting to crowd around me and steal the breath from my throat.
How horrible, to have your body unmade at the order of your king.
Ishur had done the unthinkable when he agreed to marry me: to take a made daughter as a bride when his kingdom was the stronger. He could have refused.
He would have spared my people in exchange for the honor of marrying me.
I brought wine and honey when I returned to the temple. I brought the goat meat and dried figs and the cream Ishur had poured into skins to be rendered to butter by the ride. I brought the apricots we had been given and the bread and the rose-scented marriage cake and I even brought Nashira, who had not been groomed or dressed for a sacrifice. This was all I had.
I walked into the cool air, the scent of blood and the buzzing of flies. Ishur’s bones were gone. His blood made a smear to the door where Malik stood, his head held high.
Ancha tucked his tail down, creeping to Malik. Malik raised his chin to look at me, as if to say Do you see?, and Ancha licked his muzzle, his lips, his throat. I thought of Ishur, kissing my father on each of his cheeks.
I offered food and wine. I thought I would try to tame the beast, only tame him. This was not a sacrifice, Malik not a god. Still, I asked God to forgive me.
“Give me my husband’s bones,” I asked, “or come to the gates when your Odad arrive. Speak for me. If you are anything but beasts, I implore you. Take these gifts, take my donkey, take me, but see that my people are spared.”
Malik came and snapped up my offerings in one bite. Two. Three—four—five. He lapped up the butter, then the wine. Ancha whimpered, but his tail wagged.
Malik walked out. Leaving the dishes, putting the wineskin over my shoulder, I followed.
He led me to the priests’ quarters where Ishur’s remains lay in state. A wide line of blood led from the outer halls like a carpet. I felt a pressure like tears, which could not be tears, against the closure of my throat. I wanted him to stand, alive and uneaten, before me.
Ishur lay on a bed of ancient linen coated with wolf fur. His face was still uneaten, though it was mottled as though bruised. His foot had knocked over a jar of lampoil, and it pooled around his legs. I wished Malik would let me burn his body; now, it would be easy.
I took two firestarting stones from a shelf, but Malik growled to warn me against setting his meal alight. I raised my hands, and laid the rocks between Ishur’s legs. Stones to replace the stones torn off. Then I regretted being so cruel.
The body smelled. I turned away. Malik still growled behind me, and Ancha took my hand to pull me out.
Outside, with the sun lashing my back, I knelt and called God by fifty of the hundred names. God is my refuge. I put my head to the ground. I ask clemency of almighty God. I tried not to think of Ishur pushing me into this position, my thighs beneath my chest, buttocks on my heels.
Ishur, Ishur. He had looked at me with longing, half-woman that I was. Before we left his palace, the dry-nurse for his cousin’s child stopped me and said You should be honored by him. She meant that women like me were no better than ewes, and he shouldn’t have treated me so well. What did I care for how well he was to treat me?
I looked back to see Malik watching me from the door, mouth gaping as Ancha’s did. Perhaps he was smiling, but I did not risk those teeth. I stood and thought of Ishur.
Why should I have thought of Ishur?
My mind returned, like a dog to his dinner, to our marriage night. When we had disentangled, I had shaken in attempts not to weep. Ishur had pressed his lips to my shoulder and said that I was beautiful. Liar. Who was he to call me beautiful, who was I to hear those words? I didn’t want to be beautiful, or to have him inside me. He whispered at my neck and I went tense; I wanted to stifle him, or vomit. He slept, and I could no more push him from my mind than I could push away the arms encircling me.
I hated him. I ask forgiveness, I hated him. I hated every part of him, from the skin which was pale like the belly of a dog to the scent of his sweat, sweet like fermenting bread. I hated his hands on my hip, on my chest, and I hated that he had died in the night and would not stand here in this accursed city with me.
I hated that the Odad would spill my people’s blood, as surely as Malik spilled him.
And I hated his death here, beneath these stars, as surely as I should have hated a life with him.
“He didn’t deserve you,” I told Malik, whose lips closed over his teeth. Why would he not rip me open and finish this? “Of all the princes of the Odad, you could have done worse than letting him live.”
Ishur had not been unkind. He would have had his father spare the Sal. He asked for me, mutilated woman that I was. And he had been gentle; he kissed my father on each cheek before we left. How had he deserved to be torn apart, to be lost in this city with only me to mourn him?
“Neither of us deserved you,” I said.
Malik rose and walked into the temple shade, leaving the sun to brand my shoulders. Soon even the sun would be gentle, and the world would surrender to stars.
“Ancha,” I said. “Least beloved among gods. You’ll stand with me when the warriors arrive, won’t you?”
Ancha looked back into the temple with his ears up, listening for something I could not hear. Then he turned and smiled at me, a dumb-dog look, as always.
“May God make you enough,” I said, and took hold of Nashira’s reins.
I did not sleep. I counted how many fingers’ spans the moon moved against the sky. I looked for familiar constellations and found Adhara, the maidens. Shadir, the breast. Al-dhanab al calbarai, the tail of the dog. What names had they carried as men?
Ancha waited with me, looking to the stars with a sad noise in his throat. “Were they your kinsmen?” I asked. Did they run from my people once? Were they watching for the Odad to set my people to flight? “I’ll beg you or Malik for help, but the stars have nothing to say to me.”
Ancha put his paws on my leg and pushed his nose between my thighs, and I struck him. He yelped and leapt away, and I leapt to my feet, brandishing the nearest thing to me—the skin of wine. “What,” I yelled; “If your grandfathers’ grandfathers were men once you should know better than my family how I feel. Why should you mock me? Why put your head there?” I threw the wineskin, and the cork at the neck burst out. Wine spilled like blood before his claws. “Have I mocked you for being a wolf? The city for its walls? The stars for their white eyes? If you care anything for that, I charge you, help me!”
And then, by God I swear, a star detached itself and fell from the sky. A howl went up, and I think the star howled with it, then a great roar shook the earth. I threw myself to the dirt. I ask forgiveness of almighty God, there is no god but God…
The howling did not stop but multiplied. My mind raced with the religious rubaiyat, and Ancha took my wrist in his teeth, pulling me into the city. The streets clattered as though the buildings had stood and ran with me.
We came to the temple. The falling star had struck it, and it burned red, the wooden pillars and the lamp oil and Ishur’s body with its fire-starting stones.
I yelled and ran toward the blaze, but Ancha bit my dress and made me fall. On my hands and knees I looked at the fire, the temple falling into it. I saw Malik circling the fire, and one by one, other wolves joined him. I counted four, then ten, then I stopped counting as they surrounded the fire and howled like mourners—of course, like mourners at a funeral: The city and the stars and the wolves were Ishur’s kinsmen, and they had made his pyre.
And I who was only his wife bowed to a different God and prayed.
Men from Odad did not come at noon. They pushed their camels and arrived when the sun sat like a fist on the horizon, riding through the gates and down the roads to the still-burning temple. They’d seen the star fall.
They were three men, soldiers all, with the knotted belts of the Odad, with pulwars in their hands. The foremost was familiar, but I could not place his name.
“Ishur your prince is dead,” I said, “and I have tried to bury him—”
They would not let me say that the city had instead. The foremost barked, “Then you have killed him!” and hefted his sword.
What had I to lose? “Your prince was taken by your gods,” I said and stepped back toward the pyre. Perhaps I should have thrown myself on it. “If there is justice in your blood, then take my life in recompense. I was born the prince of Sal. Your prince would have spared my people!”
“Your blood is not as rich as his,” the foremost said. I recognized him, now: Ishur’s cousin. He had the same eyes, though crueler.
“Look at your gods,” I said, pointing to the pyre. “Your city and wolves and the star, fallen from the sky—”
Ishur’s cousin spurred his camel with a shout.
I turned my face to the sky where the sun was climbing. I closed my eyes and my vision swam with red. “There is no god but God,” I said, “and I will go to God.” I did not expect my God to save me.
Ishur’s cousin raised his sword. I could hear the noise of his sleeve, see its shadow through the red in my eyes. I wondered if they would leave me for Ancha to eat. Perhaps it would put flesh on his ribs.
I felt a body press to my legs. My eyes opened to see the pulwar falling, and I heard Ishur’s cousin scream, and Malik had coursed around the burial mound and torn the cousin from his mount. Ancha pushed into my shins and I dropped to my knees to hold him. The wolves coursed in, baying; the soldiers shied and dropped their pulwars, scrambled down from camelback, hands up in entreaty to their gods. All glory is to God, there is—
Ishur’s cousin kicked out and lay still as Malik’s teeth found his throat. The soldiers cowered and bowed. And as the sun broke from the horizon’s arms Ancha licked my face, my throat, my lips, as though we were kinsmen.
Under the eyes of God, the self-same God who had changed them, I could allow that we might be.