The Wild Daughter
Once there was a country—a strange land, far away—where women were not people, but owned things. In that place, when a woman made a baby, it had to be claimed by a man, or else it was hung in a sling on a certain tree to die. The tree was far from any villages or towns, in a hot, grassy waste where there were few trees and many predators.
A man might take a baby off that tree and give it to his woman to raise, but most babies hung there until they dried into little mummies. The only way for a woman to prevent this was for her to become the property of the man who had helped make the baby. Or some other man—any man who would say “I made that for her.”
As often happened, a girl of that country started a baby. She knew this early, because she knew her body better than some women of that place. She told her mother, who asked who helped start the baby. But she wouldn’t tell who had, and no man or boy came to say “I made it for you.” Her mother and father talked about what to do. They decided they would send her to the town where her mother’s sister lived while the baby grew, so no one would know who its mother was when it was hung on the tree.
Her father wanted the baby brought home. He said “We’ll say it’s ours” and “We’ll say it’s your sister’s and her man didn’t want another” and “We’ll say I took it off the tree.”
But her mother knew what it was to be a woman in that place. She said “They’ll know” and “Such babies always look like their fathers” and “No man will have her.” So they sent her, before the baby could be seen, to the place where her mother’s sister lived, and told her to come home alone.
And the longer the baby grew, the more surely she knew what would be, so the girl tried not to care. She did things to end the baby before it began, but it didn’t end. She did things she had been told would make the birth happen early. She didn’t talk to it, or name it, or sing to it.
In the end, none of that changed a thing. It came early as she had hoped, but the moment she saw it, the girl loved her baby more fiercely than ever she had loved its father or anyone else. It was a girl, and she forced herself hard not to name it, not even a secret name, so it would never really be. She tried not to even look at it when she fed it just once. It looked like its father, and it looked like her.
The man who owned her mother’s sister took the baby and hung it in a sling from a branch of that tree, and when she could walk the girl went home and back to her life. Everyone believed she had been visiting, because she had not been away long enough to make a baby. So she kept her pain and her secret to herself. Even in the household, when the family was alone, they didn’t speak of the baby.
Time passed, and the same time of year returned. When it did, the girl’s mother was very sick. Since she had a fever, she said what she wanted to say: “It’s my grandchild’s birthday. I should bless her to keep her from harm. Why does no one bring her to me?”
She wouldn’t stop asking, or directing them to search here and there. The girl and her father looked all around the house to placate her, feeling hot-faced and stupid as they did so. The girl’s father even went to the tree, but he didn’t know where the baby had been hung, so he couldn’t tell whether it was among the mummies or not.
Finally they told her her grandchild had died. The girl’s mother died soon after. The girl got a husband—a man to own her—who knew nothing of any of it, and they made two daughters, two replacements whom she also told nothing. The woman’s father grew old, lost his eyesight, and came to live with her new family.
The daughters grew also, and when they were big enough to attract the attention of men, their mother worried and wondered: had her first daughter gotten an owner and pretty children?
Her daughters were fourteen and fifteen when the older came inside one afternoon and said “Mother, a stranger asks for you.”
But her daughter didn’t know. “A Traveler,” she said. “A wild man.”
The woman got up and went outside, where she saw a red horse and a crowd—all the village was there. The stranger, though it straddled the horse and gazed out at the world like a man, was a young woman. When she turned to look behind her, the woman knew the twist of her waist and hand she placed on the horse’s rump as if she had watched them grow those twenty years.
Her breasts ached and her womb turned over inside her like a labor pain. Her blood cried to touch the stranger so much that it flung out her arms. Her hands fell on the horse’s neck and stroked there instead. She could not say what should be said; her husband would leave, her children would starve, she would die if she did. Yet she said it: “Daughter.”
It seemed to her that years passed while she waited to hear the stranger answer
She was of an age to have children, but her belly was hard. Her bare feet and the necklace of black claws and red stones she wore made her look like a wild man from the savage tribes indeed, for she didn’t wear what a woman wore in her mother’s country at all. They say
the horse danced between her
thighs and her hips
shifted with it. She thrust
her spear so it stood with
in the ground by the woman’s
and the horse stilled and the daughters shrank back against their mother, who put her hands on them as if the stranger had come to steal them. Then she stroked their heads and told them “This is your sister.” Her husband walked out of the crowd and put his arm around her shoulders to say he forgave her this surprise, and there the family stood, all touching, as the stranger dismounted.
She said “I found you.” Her accent was strange; she had been raised to speak some other language. She ran a brown forearm across her nose, and at the same moment the woman smelled her foreignness: the horse, campfires, strange spices.
“I looked for five years.” Her gaze ran from the woman to her daughters and back again. Her chin came forward, and the woman saw her own nose draw in her own smell. Another second and she would run wrap her arms around the stranger to keep her from vanishing.
The people had stared and murmured behind their hands the while. Now they made a path for her daughter, and when she walked toward the woman, a little boy darted out and took the horse’s reins. Finally the woman could embrace her. She felt the stranger’s arms hang still, then tense without lifting, then hang still again.
“Please,” said the woman’s husband, “Come inside and eat.”
The wild daughter sat down as if she had always lived there. She said, “If you are my mother, feed me.”
And the woman served the midday meal the way people in this country served: guests first; then men, then women, then children, all in order of age. She served her father first, then her owner, then herself; and her wild daughter fourth, to take her back into the family.
While she handed out bowls, she asked “Where were you all this time?” Her wild daughter didn’t stop eating to answer. The woman looked her up and down and saw where she had been raised: among animals that had chewed her forearms and grasses that had cut her legs. Among forest savages who had drilled a row of holes in each ear and Travelers who had given her the horse, for it was one of their small, hard-footed breed. Among strangers who had not taught her not to eat with the wrong hand.
She finished the food and held her bowl out. “I’ve long been hungry, long. Can’t you feed me?”
The woman filled the bowl again, and the wild daughter ate as if she were hollow. Her nose—the woman’s nose—looked wrong there between the strange bold eyes and her father’s mouth.
“Who was y—?” The woman started to ask who had taken her place in the girl’s life, but stopped. “Who took you from the tree?” she said instead.
“I had” came the answer, “so many fathers.” She looked in the woman’s eyes. “So many mothers.” She put her bowl out again. There was no food left to give. The woman’s husband got up—saying “A minute,” as if he meant to make water—and went to borrow more.
The wild daughter asked, “Will you hear a story?” She stretched herself out on the floor so the daughters grew bold and moved to sit closer to her. “I hung in the tree—not for long—until I was almost, almost dead. Sometimes I was rocked by a hot stinging wind. Someone came and fed me once, but she wasn’t my mother.”
She looked at the woman, who shook her head in the smallest way she knew how.
“I cried until the only moisture in me was in my eyes. Now and then a few butterflies came to drink from them. They said Here’s water. I understood them, though I could not understand human speech yet. When my next mother came, I understood her too.
“First I knew she wanted to get into the tree, because I felt the tremble of her feet punching the trunk and falling away again. Then she ran up the tree and snatched my sling in her jaws. I knew she was my mother though her mouth smelled of death, and I was right. She brought me down and lay just there, right by the tree instead of going to safety, and she nosed me to her belly, where there was food.
“Oh, it was good. It was the best milk ever made. It was blue, and sweet, and so rich a mouthful was a meal. There was more than enough for her children to share with me. She took me home to them. There were three, and their eyes were as blue as the milk. About the time they gave me a name, Fish, their eyes turned yellow and they started eating meat. A year and some went by as they crunched bones and went away and I kept drinking milk. My mother stayed lean all the time, because I needed more and more, and her ribs showed even after her next litter began inside her.
“She grew so gaunt she could just rise up and feed herself, and I had hardly grown bigger at all. When I finally learned to go on all fours, I was quite slow.
“My mother butted my forehead with hers one morning. She told me to cling on underneath, because she couldn’t carry me in her mouth anymore. She knew she couldn’t raise her next litter with me drinking all their milk. And because I couldn’t be satisfied, she knew I would grow into a human being, so she took me to the only humans she knew of. Then she found shade, where she washed me for a long time with her big rough tongue to scrape off what I had been. Then a dog barked and she had to go away and leave me there, under a caravan. When I tried to follow her, she ran a few strides. I said ‘Mother!’ and she turned and loped back and struck me with her forepaw (claws in, because she was my mother) so I understood.
“I didn’t have to wait long that time. I didn’t almost die before my next mother came.” The wild daughter had been looking at the ceiling. Now she rolled her head to the side and asked the younger daughters,
“Did she keep you because you both eat so little?”
She rolled it to the other side and asked the woman “Is he my father?”
And the man who owned the woman came back in just then, with food, so he heard the question. “It’s my sorrow I am not,” he said.
The older of the younger daughters understood then. This stranger wasn’t using words like “father” and “mother” to mean people she was close to or had obligations to.
“You’re our real blood sister?”
The wild daughter blinked. She propped herself up and looked at the woman until she had to drop her eyes. “You never told them? It’s part of their story too. Who did you tell? …Was there no one?”
“She told me,” said the husband. “She told me and I took her anyway.” But he had not, for she had not, and the wild daughter saw it.
“That’s not so. Why—?” And she looked at the woman’s owner. “You lie to make her better.” She said it as if she had asked for a kiss and he had thrown the lie in her face instead. “No lie to make me better? No lie to kee—?”
It had never occurred to her that such a thing might be done. Where had she been, the woman wondered, that people there didn’t lie about their families?
“No lie for me. A lie against me only. The lie I am not.” She looked from her husband to her father to the woman herself, unsure who to blame. The woman felt the men stiffen to defend her, but they said nothing.
The wild daughter turned her bowl up and gave her food to the fire.
“What was my name?”
“You have none. Your father wasn’t there to give you his.”
She stood up. “Give it now,” and she thrust out the bowl to catch it.
But her mother had no word for her.
The wild daughter turned her back. Free of her gaze, the woman had to touch her again. The flesh of her daughter’s shoulder shuddered under her hand like a horse’s. She went outside, then turned and said “I can’t.”
She mounted the horse again.
The woman couldn’t speak. Her husband said “I would have you for my daughter. You found what you looked for—your family and your people.” But anyone could see how wrong he was.
“You are hurting yourself for spite. You can’t cast off who you are like clothing.”
But, they say,
wild daughter pulled up
the spear. I’m not
in this story. She turned
the horse, clapped the empty
bowl twice against its rump
to spur it, and rode away
without looking back.
After she left, the woman was hardly spoken to for a few days. Then everyone had questions for her: would the daughter join their village and hunt for them? Was she married? There were none of the questions or accusations the woman expected, only praise, as if all her years of pain had been a joke. Her younger daughters were quiet, and spent more time out of the house than before. When no one could see them, they slipped into the forest and rode invisible horses and promised each other no men would own them.
One day when no one else was home but her father, the woman heard a knock and saw her wild daughter in the doorway. She rapped her bowl against the post with the wrong hand while her eyes looked the other way. The horse and spear were nowhere to be seen.
And the woman’s father said “Welcome, Granddaughter,” because he already knew her step. “Please come inside and eat.”
So the woman cooked the food she had been preparing for the evening meal.
“Grandfather, will you hear a story about Travelers?”
And the woman’s father said, “Tell it.”
“After my panther mother left, the dog came under the wagon to see what I was, and hauled me out by an arm. As it turned out, there was a woman in camp whose baby had arrived dead, and so they gave me to her. I was called Fromunder there, not Fish.
“My new mother sang to me a lot. ‘The brindle bull’ and ‘Three rovers’ and my own song. There were no words to my own song, but it was like having a name.
“I learned to walk on two feet. Later she tau—”
The story ended there, for the woman handed her the bowl and her wild daughter scooped the food hot into her mouth as if she had been starved. She finished very quickly, then put her hand on her stomach.
“That does me no good….There’s something I need to eat. If I could only eat that, I know I’d never be hungry again. But I don’t know what it is. Mother, sing to me.” And she put her head in the woman’s lap.
“Sleep, my baby,” sang the woman, as she had waited to do for so many years. “Your father’s gone to sea….” And her wild daughter fell asleep.
When her mouth fell open the woman saw sharp teeth like a panther’s behind her human teeth. She was frightened, but she went on singing. She took out her comb and began to untangle the elflocks in her wild daughter’s hair. Her father touched her face to feel his family on it. “Yes,” he said softly, “you are my child’s child,” and he smiled; he couldn’t see the extra teeth.
After awhile she woke and said “I know what I want to eat, Mother: I want my story.”
The woman felt everything that was inside her stop and hold its breath. “What do you mean?”
“How long did it take me to come?”
The woman tore and bled inside. She said “Seven months.”
Her father said, “Tell it as your mother told you yours, she wants that, can’t you see?”
The woman pushed the words out of her mouth in twos and threes. It was a story she had never told anyone, and it didn’t want to come; tears did. Where she was, and who was with her, and how many hours she labored, and how her daughter got into the tree. Her father reached out and gently rubbed her back.
“It wasn’t right what we did,” he said, and the woman sobbed.
“This is how I have no name,” the wild daughter said. “Mother, I’m sorry.”
And the woman thought So you ought, but her father asked, “Why ever should you be sorry?”
“I thought she must be a monster not to want her own child. I didn’t know people did such things.”
Panthers don’t and Travelers don’t, thought the woman as her wild daughter pressed foreheads with her like a savage.
“Will you come again?” her father asked quietly.
“Where I live now, I fill a space that shouldn’t stay empty. But my family there knows I ate fourth here. So I can come twice more,” she said, “unless you lie against me again.” And then, quite out of nowhere, she put her arms around her mother’s neck, and they embraced at last. Her daughter’s skin was fever warm; the woman wanted to draw it around her and sink inside.
But if she came twice more, she would bring twice more pain and twice more questions. The woman thought Not mine, you are not my child, but she couldn’t say it. She said “I love you” instead.
Her wild daughter pulled out of her arms with a cry and ran out of the house. They say
to a Travelers’ camp
having feared her return
(for she found them wherever they went),
had taken to leaving food
this angry spirit. When they saw her,
they threw rocks at the
which was a curse
and had never
been anyone’s name.
When her daughters came home, the woman had tears on her face.
“Your sister was here,” said her father.
The daughters made disappointed sounds. “Why did she come when we were gone?” said the older. “Did she bring the horse?” asked the younger.
When the woman’s owner came home, she still had tears on her face. She sat holding her two daughters as if they were very small again.
“Who’s been here?”
The woman said “My first.”
“I should have known that,” sighed the woman’s husband. “Is there any food left at all?”
“She’s skinny,” said the woman.
“She needs meat,” said her father.
“Let her get her own.” The woman’s husband was thinking of the horse and the spear. “There’s really nothing? How can one person eat so much? —Have you been crying?”
The family talked about it over dinner after he brought home more food.
“She takes advantage. If she’s family, she shouldn’t act like a guest. I know she’s yours, but I don’t want her in the house when I’m out. She upsets you.”
The woman looked at her lap.
“She upsets the children.”
The daughters looked at their laps.
“Maybe done is done. Maybe she can’t be family.”
The woman’s father, who had never contradicted him before, said “Her bowl was filled fourth.”
“I don’t know what to do about that,” the husband admitted. “We’ll have to ask. Maybe she won’t come back. If she does,” he told the woman, “don’t give her what she asks for.”
And he went to his elders and asked what could be done. But taking someone back into a family could not be undone so easily as putting them out of it could. No one knew how to accomplish it at all. Even if the wild daughter died, she would remain family and they would be responsible for her ghost, or partly so. They couldn’t know which because they didn’t know whether she had been put out of her other families or whether she still had more than one.
“Don’t name her,” was the only advice they had for him. They would keep thinking on it, but if the wild daughter were named, there would be nothing anyone could do.
One day the woman’s owner came home and saw the horse wandering around the house, sticking its head into windows and withdrawing it again. He went to the elders and one came home with him to see what the problem was. They stood by the horse under a window and heard “I never had a savage mother. I only had two, the panther and the Traveller.”
The woman said “But your ears!”
“I did it.”
The woman grunted, as if imagining the pain. “How could y—Why?”
The wild daughter spoke in the voices of children:
“‘No mother, no mother.’ ‘I do have a mother.’ ‘Where is she?’ ‘In the forest.’” In her regular voice she said “So I did these,” and went back to talking like a child: “‘You see, you see who my mother is.’ They stopped saying it. —Mother, what will you feed me? The more I eat, the hungrier I am.”
“She’s not a person,” declared the elder, without even looking in the window. “She was once, but she’s become something else.”
And they went away to discuss it. The elders had slept and dreamed, and their dreams said the wild daughter was Between- things, neither a person nor a ghost. Such creatures were holy in the most dangerous way possible. Between-things want not to be so, and will do anything to get to one state or the other. This sounded right to the man: the wild daughter was between everything he could think of: she was kin and not kin, neither man nor woman, neither human nor ghost.
The elders warned that if she were becoming a ghost, she would never be satisfied with all the food and all the love that could be provided by the family. “She will take everything,” they said. “When your women lie to you, you’ll know they are hers.”
Meanwhile the wild daughter—she was thinner than ever—slept with her head in the woman’s lap again. She drew the woman’s finger into her mouth and sucked it. The woman held still and let her, though she could feel the sharp teeth behind the human teeth. When her wild daughter woke up, she said,
“That wasn’t the whole right story, Mother: it did me no good.” She reached behind her head and undid the necklace. “Feed me these,” and she poured the little red pebbles from her necklace into the woman’s hand.
“They won’t nourish you.” But the woman heated the little stones in water as if they were food and filled the bowl with them. “Eat, my child.”
She put a pebble in her mouth and sucked it, brought another to her mouth, then two more, and pushed them around with her tongue instead of chewing.
“It’s good, it’s good and hot, Mother,” she said, and swallowed the stones. “That’s what I wanted. I want to weigh. They say where I am that if you can feed me, I can live in this family. —Your man’s here.”
And the wild daughter climbed out a window and onto the horse. She slowed it to a trot when she saw her sisters, who were carrying water home. She pointed at them with one finger as she went by, aiming it at one and then the other; then she set the horse to galloping again.
They took the water home and said, “She wants to take you from us, Mother. She wants you for her mother only.”
And the woman said “No, no,” and hugged them to her. She didn’t know what else to say. The thing they had said, though she would not have thought it before, sounded true.
When the woman’s owner came home, he pretended not to know, to see whether his woman would lie. “Who’s been here?” he asked.
But the woman said “My first,” and served him dinner. So she was still his own and not the wild daughter’s.
“Then how is there food?” he wondered.
“She ate stones.”
At that he decided never to leave his woman alone until the thing was settled.
She came again two mornings later, by which time the husband was annoyed at having stayed in the house for so long. She slid down from the horse and handed its reins to the older of the other daughters, who was washing laundry in a tub. She carried the spear inside and placed it in the hand of the woman’s father, walking by her owner on the way as if he weren’t there.
“What’s this, Grandchild?”
“I’ve come home. The place I filled has another to fill it.”
The woman’s owner said “There is no place here for you.”
But she had been served fourth and there was nothing to be done about it. The wild daughter went to the woman and embraced her, then dropped the black claws in her hand. “Mother, if I can’t have the whole right story, feed me these.”
“They will hurt you.” But she cooked them and put them in the bowl. The hot water had softened them, but they were still sharp-ended. When the wild daughter had finished eating, she spat blood into the fire.
“That’s good,” she said. “I wanted to feel. Thank you, Mother.”
The woman, despite all the warnings, looked at her wild daughter and saw herself torn and bleeding inside. “How else can I help you?” she asked.
“All my story,” came the answer. “Whose name I should have had?”
“Don’t give her any name,” said her husband, but the words the woman had held in for so long were already out:
“The same as mine.”
“Don’t give her what she asks!”
But the thing would be said, and it was: “For the same reason.”
And her owner, who had tensed as if to strike her, jumped up and hit her father instead. “I fed you all these years. If I’d known this, I would have pulled those eyes out with my thumbs.”
Her father said again, “It was wrong what we did—what I did. I have paid and paid for it.” But the wild daughter snatched the spear from his hand and snapped it in half as if it were a twig.
“People don’t do such things. I say it again, I will say it as long as I have a tongue. It’s you who are not people, not I. I will go, not because he doubts me, but because I want to be among people.”
And she sniffed and drew her forearm across her eyes: She was human enough to weep. Before she could stop herself, the woman said “Wait.”
“I don’t want to be in this story,” said the wild daughter. “I can’t live in it.”
“Then I will give you another. A better one. Come put your head in Mother’s lap.”
At that the wild daughter let her belly soften. She knelt and crawled and put her fierce head in the woman’s lap again.
“You have no name because your father was a stranger. You were stolen from me.”
Her owner said “I told you not to do that.” But the woman stroked her daughter’s hair and spoke over him: “Your father is not here. You have no name because a stranger caught me drawing water. I don’t know his name. You were stolen, and I never stopped looking for you.” To her owner she added, “Let me give her what I can give!”
She had never disobeyed him before, and the husband wasn’t sure what to do about it. It was this Between-thing’s doing, and there sat his woman cradling it in her lap as if it didn’t intend to devour them all.
“You were my precious child, and I would never let anyone take you. You were stolen. I never stopped looking, never stopped asking—”
Her owner could stand it no longer. He grabbed the wild daughter’s hair and tore her head from his woman’s lap. There were tears on her face.
The wild daughter tossed her head from his grip. There was no resistance or sound, but she left half her hair in his hand. She said “I could have been human again if you had not done that. I have weight and blood and tears. All I needed was a story to live in. Now I can hurt, but I can never be human.”
She walked out of the house. She stumbled at the doorway, and her right foot dropped off behind her so she had to hop the threshold. Her sisters screamed and grabbed one another and decided they would let a man, any man own them rather than this.
The husband realized he had never asked the elders whether she might be human again, not since they had told him of danger to his family. Between-things could surely go either way. Now it was too late.
The villagers watched her throw the pieces of the spear into the river and knew she would never hunt for them. As soon as the river carried the pieces out of sight, the wild daughter fell to the ground and was gone. When they ran to the spot, there was nothing there but a steaming mass of blood the size of a cow’s stomach, already going sticky in the sun. She had become a ghost.
The older sister learned to ride the horse so well she was said to have taken the place the wild daughter would have had, and that no man ever owned her. The younger one started a baby very young, and no man came to claim it. It was a girl, and the woman’s owner put it on the tree and brought back a boy instead. Of him, the woman and her owner, nothing more is said; only some say the woman’s owner killed her father himself.
This happened many years and a few lifetimes ago. The house where the woman and her family lived is long gone, but the people of that country still leave offerings for the wild daughter where it stood. And when babies are hung on that tree, as they always have been and always will be, the people hanging them say a charm to keep them from coming back. They say:
Your father is
not here. You are
a stranger’s child.
You were stolen from your mother,
who looks for you
and cries for you
even now. Drink all
her tears and be full,
nameless one. Then
Laurel Jenkins-Crowe's fiction has appeared in magazines like The Vincent Brothers Review, Scrivener Creative Review, Barbaric Yawp, and The Pinch. She lives in Memphis, TN with thirty houseplants and a cat. Laurel Jenkins-Crowe's fiction has appeared in magazines like The Vincent Brothers Review, Scrivener Creative Review, Barbaric Yawp, and The Pinch. She lives in Memphis, TN with thirty houseplants and a cat.