My family is loud. They’re the ones you hear howling across the restaurant, spilling drinks and laughing at their own jokes. They’re the ones who growl in movie theatres, and feel the need to yell during phone calls. No emotions are held back in my family. If you are upset you explain why and crying is done in waves, not ripples.
My mother is the loudest of them all. Her laugh can be heard through oceans, her voice strong, not shrill. But by some strange fate I was born an introvert into this family. My heart grew in a box, and my voice slid through my throat like a rusty piece of wire. In large crowds I would shake and stammer while my feet sunk into the dirt.
When I was young with a stutter my mother was my guide. She would finish my struggling sentences with a confident string of elegant words. She wouldn’t consider herself a poet yet in my young eyes she was.
But shame crawled under my skin when I was forced to speak on my own. I was not one to pull words together quickly, and when I struggled I could see people’s eyes glaze over. Most of the time my silence and short sentences were mistaken for idiocy.
I still have rust in my stomach. I still can’t howl. Where did this weak blood come from?
My dad is not the loudest of the pack, but when he talks, people listen. He knew mum couldn’t be my poet forever, but he didn’t want me to learn to howl the way she had learned.
So dad told me a story.
When he was growing up he saw a man get stabbed outside a coffee house in broad daylight. Dad was 15 and had never ridden his bike so fast home in his life. But he said that still wasn’t as bad as what my mum had been through.
Your mother wasn’t always loud, dad said, she wasn’t always a poet. Her voice, too, was once confined by vines, and other voices had choked her own words in her throat.
Dad said while mum never saw a man brandish a knife, she knew a man that was similar in character. At the time she had called the relationship complicated, like oil and water. She loved to preserve peaches and cherries and artichoke hearts in mason jars, but she hadn’t known how to preserve herself. She would tiptoe over eggshells to be the Rose for this man, but this man only offered up thorns. My mum was lost in a pit of despair and false love but it was not my father who pulled her out of it. Dad said there was only one other in our family who had smelt the oncoming storm. She was the only one who had intervened.
I used to hide at the very end of tables at big family gatherings. But there was another who hid at the other end. My grandma was always under a shadow. My proud Welsh grandpa would always growl a comment on everything in the conversation. My grandma would just nod and sit in silence. I didn’t know that she had a howling bone in her at all.
But my grandma snapped when she saw the bruises on my mums face. So my grandma began to hunt at dusk, stalking the man through the back streets and searching for weaknesses in his house of thorns. She spent many nights creeping in her familiar shadows. She was the one of the best, dad said.
One night with a full moon above her head, my grandma crept out of her shadows. The man was limping home and smelt all bloody and bitter. Although my grandma’s howl was quiet, she was efficient in snapping bones, slashing tendons, and tearing flesh. She torched the house of thorns and growled at my grandpa until they moved across the country.
Even though my mother was safe, she still had thorns in her. It took a long time for her to heal. But my grandma never let her forget that she was a wolf and that she should howl like one.
Your blood’s not weak, my dad said. You can howl loudly or you can howl quietly, but you always have the choice. He said, don’t ever forget you’re a wolf too.
The Cringe welcomes writer Ashlee Poeppmann to the team! Look for more of Ashlee’s short fiction in the coming months.