(Originally aired 2022/10/29 - listen here)
When I sit down to schedule the fiction episodes for the year, sometimes the order has to do with how difficult I think it’s going to be to find the best narrator for the work. But sometimes I’m able to schedule a story for the right seasonal context. Twice I’ve had a perfect spooky story to schedule right around Halloween. And this time there was no question about finding the right narrator, because the author, Miyuki Jane Pinckard is, herself, an experienced fiction narrator.
Miyuki’s story, “The Wolf that Sings on the Mountain” is a tale of shape-shifters and women trapped—not in a particular shape—but in a life controlled and directed by someone else. But even in 10th century Japan—in the Heian era—there are ways for a woman to take agency over her life, and to make common cause with one who might seem destined to be a rival or enemy. Even to find love.
Miyuki Jane Pinckard is a writer, game designer, educator, and the co-founder of Story Kitchen Studio, a community for exploring writing techniques. Her fiction can be found in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, the anthology, If There's Anyone Left, Vol. 1, and other venues. She was born in Tokyo, Japan and now lives in Venice, California, with her partner and a little dog. She likes wine and mystery novels and karaoke. Follow her @miyukijane (for Twitter and Instagram) and at her website, www.miyukijane.com.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
My lord husband’s new concubine arrived at the beginning of my thirtieth winter.
It rained heavily that afternoon. I watched from behind a reed blind as the porters set the shabby palanquin in the center of the courtyard. She climbed out and glanced at the iron-bound gates as they creaked shut behind her. She shivered in her plain hemp robe.
I had arranged for my maids to be cleaning and repacking my spring wardrobe, so no one was there to greet her. I lifted the blind and called out to her. “Are you lost?”
She started, and then, heedless of the wet gravel, fell to her knees to bow. Her black hair spilled like ink over her shoulders. “I’m called Shirayuki, my lady.”
White-as-snow. A silly, sentimental name. “A new scullery maid, I presume? The kitchens are to the east.”
She lifted her head and I suddenly saw a glimpse of why my lord had chosen her. “I have been sent here as my lord’s wife.”
“I am his wife,” I said sweetly. “I don’t know who you are.” I withdrew to my chambers, leaving her alone in the rain.
That night, long after I’d sent my women to bed, I lit my brazier and gazed into my bronze hand mirror. My eyes were clear, my cheeks and forehead carried no trace of a wrinkle or spot. My lips were small and well-formed. I was still Lady Akemi, at the height of my power. I burned sacred herbs in the brazier and let the smoke pass over my skin.
My lord had been married before me, to a woman who’d died shortly after I arrived. I never met her. The maids never spoke of her. I’d never wondered about her fate until now. Her memory had made no more impression on the household than a dream.
Was I expected to fade away like a ghost, ceding my place to a newcomer?
Something had to be done.
When my lord left on a hunting trip, I proceeded to the east wing to meet the interloper. It is best to confront the problem directly, in my experience, and understand it fully before one takes action.
She welcomed me with cautious warmth. She was so changed from the forlorn figure of a few weeks before that I found much to admire. Her hair shone with perfumed oil, cascading like a waterfall down her back, exposing her lovely face with its rosebud lips. Her beauty flowed through every line of her form — the sweet bend of her neck, her fluid spine. But her beauty was not simply physical. Her spirit lit her presence with a subtle glimmer, like sunlight glancing off a frosted lake.
I gave her a bolt of silk that had been gathering dust in storage. “Let’s talk privately, you and I.” I leaned in closer to her. She smelled of peonies.
She seemed surprised, but she was polite. “I’m so glad. I was afraid you hated me.”
“Nonsense! What could be more natural than love between us? We serve the same lord.”
A flash of fury crossed her countenance. “You’ve nothing to be jealous of,” she said. “I despise him.”
Jealous? Of her? I wanted to laugh but I hid my contempt behind my sleeve. “Poor girl. You were a virgin when you arrived, then?”
She flushed and looked down at her hands, twisting the cloth of her silk robe.
I could hardly believe it. “You are still?”
She lifted her chin with a hint of defiance. “I fight him when he comes to me.” She scrubbed at her cheeks like a peasant. “What should I do?”
What did you expect? I wanted to say. You expected love? It was a duty, a price to pay to live in luxury as the mistress of a grand estate. But my words lodged in my throat as her eyes, ablaze, fixed on mine, as if demanding something from me.
She grasped my hands. “Help me. How do you bear it?”
For the first time since I was a child, I had no notion of what to say. I pulled away. “I’m sorry… I cannot advise you.”
“Visit me again, please,” she said, her voice rough. “I’m so alone.”
I returned to my room in great consternation. My heart beat rapidly, though I could not pinpoint the cause.
Since my visit with her, I could think of little else. She invaded my dreams. My thoughts turned to her at unexpected moments during the day. I was so distracted that I nearly forgot to begin preparations for my lord’s winter poetry party, which I’d hosted flawlessly for the last decade.
She was the stone in the stream, interrupting its tranquil flow. I had to be ruthless and expel her.
That evening I told my ladies that I’d be in seclusion for purification.
I took off my silks and put on a simple white robe. I lit my brazier and three sticks of holy incense. I wrote the sigil for “wolf” on paper and passed it through the fragrant smoke of the incense. I closed my eyes and prayed. Then I placed the paper in the brazier, where it flared blue-bright.
With my hand-mirror, I reflected the light from the flame onto the wall, creating a pattern of light and shadow that my incantations shaped into a wolf’s form. I stepped into the shadow and pulled the wolf-form over my own. It scorched my skin as I stretched it laboriously over my limbs and back, across my belly and breasts. I fell to my hands and knees, gritting my teeth against the pain. The wolf-skin scraped hot embers over every inch of my skin, searing itself into place.
At last the agony subsided and I lurched to my feet. Against the wall I saw my shadow — a hulking, long-legged beast. I grinned and my tongue roved over sharp teeth.
On four feet I slipped into the garden and into the darkness. I was free, wild. The moon called to me, but I resisted the urge to howl at it. The snow had piled high in a corner of the garden and I could climb it and jump over the wall. I could disappear forever into the woods, leaving Shirayuki, my lord, the villa, my entire life behind.
I caught her scent. Her perfume was distinct — tantalizing and light, a touch of orange peel, of peonies, and something richer, muskier, that sang to my animal nature. I loped across the villa complex to her wing. I jumped onto the veranda and nosed open the sliding door of her chambers. She lay in her bedclothes, highlighted by a spill of moonlight. She turned over, sighed.
The wolf in me found it difficult to focus. I’d planned to frighten her into hysterics, to chase her, to cause her so much anguish that my lord would deem her unfit to wear the mantle of mistress, and put her aside.
Instead, I felt the overpowering urge to lie next to her and lick away her tears with my tongue.
She stirred with a sigh. “Is someone there?”
I lowered my head and growled. My body tensed, waiting for her scream. Her fear would reawaken the predator in me, and my wolf-self would lunge and chase her.
But she did not scream. She sat up.
I bared my teeth. My growl reverberated through the room. I could smell her anxiety, an acrid spiky smell, and her hands trembled as she drew her bedclothes over her chest.
Her voice was gentle, though unsteady. “Are you hungry?”
Confused, I cocked my head.
“You should run before the guards find you. Such a magnificent animal like you shouldn’t be killed.”
She felt pity—for me! Outrageous! I growled, pulling my lips fully back from my teeth.
“Are you going to kill me?” she said softly. To my shock, she reached a hand to the neck of her robe and pulled it open, exposing her throat. “Go ahead. It might be better than living here as a prisoner.”
I imagined ripping into her inviting flesh, burying my muzzle in her fragrant blood, crunching her elegant bones. Saliva dripped from my jaws.
“Are you lonely?” She reached her hand out towards me.
I staggered back. I scrambled out of her room, through the snow-covered courtyard and back to my own chambers. Ice bit my flesh as I ripped the wolf-form off my skin, leaving me panting and shivering with exhaustion. With the last of my strength, I wiped away the snowy paw prints on my veranda with my robes. I went to bed seething with frustration mingled with wonder.
She had cast a spell on me. I had to break it.
After several days I came to my decision: it would be poison.
The suspicion would fall on me, of course, but I could weather that. It needn’t be death. Illness would be enough. My lord had a horror of disease. He would shut her up in a little house far away from here, to live out the rest of her days in seclusion. I would not have to see her or think of her. I could learn, in time, to forget her.
My chance came one morning when I heard she’d missed a recent shrine visit. I went to her chambers with an offering of medicine: a small vial of plum wine into which I’d mixed dried and powdered organs of the lethal blowfish, along with other components to simulate the symptoms of a plague. Not enough to kill, I judged, but enough to alarm her maids and my lord.
Shirayuki was still in her bedclothes, her eyes red. I slid the door shut behind me so we were alone. “What’s the matter?” I asked.
Then I saw the knife in her hands.
I sat next to her. “You’re planning to turn that blade into your heart?”
Her head drooped and she sobbed. I should have simply walked away and let her complete her plan. I should have left it up to fate to solve the problem of Shirayuki. But when I imagined blood staining her pearlescent skin, the injustice of it, the sheer waste of a life, twisted inside me.
I took the knife from her gently. “You’re still young and strong. Learn to survive, Shirayuki.”
“I used to be angry with you,” she said, in her husky voice. “But now I realize that you’re just as much a prisoner as I am.”
I was too surprised to laugh out loud. A prisoner? I was the queen of the west wing. An army of servants obeyed me, and I feted leading poets and politicians of the city. The emperor himself had admired my beauty. When I spoke, ministers listened. “Don’t waste your pity on me.”
She took my hand. “Pity? No, I admire your strength.” Her voice was both sweet and bitter. She bent over my hand and pressed it to her cheek. Her tears left a damp spot on my knuckles. “But I’m not like you. I’ll die if I stay here.”
I almost told her about my plan then, but I was suddenly afraid. What if the poison was too strong? What if it hurt her? “You could feign illness,” I said. “My lord would send you away.”
“But I’d still be captive,” she said with a fierceness that struck my soul. She was as wild as the wolf inside me.
“Where could you be free? Is there such a place?”
“I’d go to Ise,” she said quickly, as if she’d thought about this. “I’d ask the priestesses for sanctuary.” She paused. Her eyes held mine. “You could come with me.”
“And then what? Spend our days muttering prayers, in seclusion from the world, among coarse nuns with missing teeth? Begging for our supper?” I reached out a tentative hand to stroke her hair. “Is that freedom?”
She said nothing. She turned her face into my shoulder and her tears flowed. It felt oddly as if her head belonged there, nestled against my neck. I closed my eyes and breathed in her scent which was now as familiar to me as my own. The vial of poison I’d prepared remained in my sleeve.
I could not think of what to do. I felt lost.
The next night, a soft tapping at my door roused me.
Shirayuki stepped in, her eyes wild, marked by deep hollows. She clutched her knife in her hand. Around her pale wrist circled a raw red mark, a bracelet of pain.
“My lord grows impatient,” she whispered. “When he comes to me again, I’ll stab him in the heart.”
“The guards will kill you.”
“I don’t care.” Her voice was muffled against my shoulder. “At least I’ll be free.”
My heart ached. She was not like me. My rage bolstered me; hers would destroy her. “Death isn’t freedom.”
She looked up at me. “Then teach me, Akemi.”
She’d never said my name before. It set my skin alight with new awareness. “Teach you what?”
I froze. “You knew?”
“I wasn’t sure. But there was something about your wolf-eyes… My grandmother knew something of the shaman’s arts, too.”
I put my fingers to her chin and raised her lovely face to mine. “I’ve been trained to the practice; you haven’t. You wouldn’t be able to turn back. Once you take on the form of the beast, it’s yours forever.”
“I’d rather be a wolf than his slave.”
“Do you understand what you’re saying? You’ll live by your wits, scavenging food, in constant danger from starvation, traps, and hunters. Sleeping in the dirt every night.” I stroked her cheek. “And all your beauty erased.”
“What has beauty ever brought me but misery?” she said, and I almost recoiled at the raw pain in her tone.
“My lord will hunt you.”
She laughed mirthlessly. “Then let me die with my jaws around his throat.”
I could try to kill him myself. The vial of poison lay quietly in my bureau among my inks and brushes. But then where would we be? We’d be two widows, alone, to be sold off to another lord. I stroked her hair. “Let me think. Return to your rooms and rest.”
“I don’t want to be alone tonight. Let me stay here with you.”
I moved over to make room for her and she crawled in against my body and put her head on my arm. The scent of her hair enveloped me and I closed my eyes.
She shifted and her arm tightened around my waist. “Come with me, Akemi.” Her whisper caressed my ear and I shivered.
And give up what I have? My silk robes, my warm bed, the maids who scurry to do my bidding, my seat at the head of the table? The power I’d built out of nothing, the influence I’d cultivated? I’d fought too bitterly and sacrificed too much. “No.”
“Are you sure?” Her fingertips stroked the bare flesh of my arm. “I’d miss you.”
And I, you. “On the next new moon,” I said. “Come back to me then.”
On the tenth night of the New Year, a moonless night, I lit my brazier.
Shirayuki came to my chamber. Her face was pale and drawn but she did not waver. I took her hand and led her in. I kissed her forehead and cheeks and spoke the spells of transformation. My mirror cast the shadow of her wolf on the wall. I showed her how to step into the animal form.
“It’ll hurt,” I said. “Make no sound.”
“I’m ready.” Her face was etched with resolve.
“When it’s done, your mind will be confused with the wolf-mind. You must run from here, understand? Join the pack on the mountain, and go north with them. Go away as far as you can.”
She embraced me. “I’ll come back for you every winter, when the pack moves south.”
“No. Never come back. Forget me, forget this place.”
She seemed about to argue but only pressed her lips together.
I began the ritual.
It nearly broke me to see her in such torment. Her body writhed under the burning heat of the magic, her beautiful face grimaced with pain. I pulled the wolf-skin over her damp body as quickly as I could, tears painting my cheeks as I worked. “Shirayuki, my brave girl,” I murmured. She panted and groaned softly but didn’t cry out.
At last it was done and she lay on the floor, a white wolf with golden eyes. Her flanks heaved with exhaustion, but she was alive. It had worked. I rubbed her ears and kissed her muzzle. I lifted a bowl of water to her lips and her long red tongue lapped it up. Slowly her strength returned.
“Get up,” I said. “Get away from here, quickly.”
She pulled herself up to her feet. Her golden eyes stared into mine. She licked my hand and whined.
“I can’t go with you,” I said. “I belong here.” But my voice broke on that last word and to my astonishment, fresh tears flowed from me. I remembered my first day here at the villa, when I was the awkward girl in the palanquin, just eighteen years old. I’d quailed at the forbidding walls looming above me. The maids treated me brusquely and without pity. I’d cried myself to sleep every night for months.
Shirayuki nuzzled my shoulder. My arms wrapped her neck tightly and my tears dampened her rough fur.
She pulled out of my embrace to regard me again with her golden gaze, as bright as sunlight on water. She pushed her head against my torso, trying to comfort me. I stood and pulled open the doors to my private courtyard. The wind whipped through my chamber and the flames in the brazier guttered. “Go,” I said, “before they find you.”
She hesitated. She was a wolf, and I was all the pack she’d known. She tried to nose at my hand again, as if asking for a caress. I broke off a branch from my plum tree and struck her flank with it. “Go!”
She shied away, then lowered her head. She sat on her haunches on the veranda and watched me.
“You stubborn fool.” Crystals of ice clung to my eyelashes and cheeks. “I don’t want you here!”
She whined, then lay down on her belly, her eyes fixed on me.
“The maids will wake and call the guards.” Then they will put me to bed with anxious fluttering hands. I thought. They will report to my lord that I was found in my shift on the veranda, snow in my hair. And in the spring I will dress in my spring robes and host moon-viewing parties and tea ceremonies, and the summer will come on the backs of singing cicadas and I will wear the fresh colors of summer and host poetry parties, and then autumn will come with its harvest festivals, a harbinger of the winter, when the wolves will sing again on the mountain.
And at some point in the turning of the seasons, this year or the next, my lord will bring a new woman to the villa.
The white wolf hadn’t moved. She waited for me.
“You wretched, disobedient, thing. I see I have no choice.” I pulled out my mirror and paper and brush. I wrote the spell. The flame trembled and danced like a wild thing. I grit my teeth against a howl of agony as I pulled the wolf-skin over me. Scorching pain painted my bones with heat until my vision clouded. I fell in a heap of bone and fur on the reed mat.
I came to as she licked my muzzle tenderly. I stretched my powerful body. She sat back with a wolf-grin. She waited until I had lapped some water and staggered to my feet. Then she bounded out into the courtyard, checking to make sure I followed. She was so strong and graceful. We leaped over the garden wall and onto the road.
A light snow had started. It would settle over our paw prints, erasing the traces of our passage. She blended into the snowy mist as she strode ahead with long-legged confidence. I followed her.
By dawn, we would be high on the mountain, where the wolves sang together.
This quarter’s fiction episode presents “The Wolf that Sings on the Mountain” by Miyuki Jane Pinckard, narrated by the author.
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