It is hard not to be jealous. I’m thinking of Jonah and his whale. I can only presume that the whale swallowed him whole, that he never even grazed himself off the teeth, that pain was minimal, really. He must have dropped quietly down into the cavernous belly, a soft splash into the salty brine that sloshed around inside.
Jonah could’ve danced around, would’ve had enough room to practice a waltz, could’ve sang loudly into the darkness to remind himself that was still there, still going on, existing. I think of him sometimes, wandering around a great whale belly, thinking about his god, praying in the wet corners. There’d be enough pockets of air, space to cry, thrash around in fury at his loneliness. His shoes must have been covered in the slime, the weeds that grew up through the stomach lining like moss.
When I was a little girl, I used to curl up inside my duvet and pretend I was inside the body of some huge lumbering creature, that I had been swallowed whole just like Jonah. Each night it was the same, the creature found me in the forest, all alone, opened a huge mouth and forced me inside. I would sway to the creature’s footsteps, put my hands over my ears until I could hear the throb of my own blood running through my head, pretend that it was the creature’s loud veins thudding full of blood all around me.
Until recently, I still played pretend in my bed, hid under the sheets, wrapped up tight, imagined myself curled in the wet warmth of the wolf belly.
It’s not the same.
Most wolves are grey or white, they light up in the woods. She, who found me, was black like a dog from hell. Her green eyes shook inside her skull as if she were panicking, wondering what she should do. I didn’t put up a fight, she flung herself at me, grey claws digging into the flesh of my chest. She opened up her mouth. Her tongue was snake-long and pink. There was no time for terror, she swallowed me whole. Or did she? I can never remember. Perhaps she tore a limb away, ate one or both of my eyes in front of me, pulled back the skin to look at my muscles without their veil of skin.
I thought I’d suffocated and died, stuck midway through her throat. She swallowed hard and I was pushed through an oesophagus that had to pain and stretch to allow me to fit, then, finally, down with a thump onto the warm lining of her stomach which throbbed pleasantly at my arrival.
All the air around me was hot, already used up. I had to keep my breathing to a minimum, just tiny gulps here and there to keep going. Sometimes I went whole days without breathing. We do what we have to.
There were little blips of light now and again when the wolf must have opened her mouth, light flooded in and, if only for a second, the place lit up and I could see all the carcasses and bones that had been left to rot. Then quickly back into darkness again.
I never went hungry. I picked the gristle and fat from her leftover victims. At times she nibbled on grass, the little sprinkles of green raining lightly from her throat, landing in the fold of my hair and dress.
The stomach acid came each day to dissolve away the remains of previous victims, everything was cleared, leaving the stomach pristine and tidy again. I saved myself by perching upon on a swelling, a cyst that had started to grow inside the wolf belly. This way I kept myself out of reach of the stomach acid so that I was never cleared out, kept immaculate inside my airless home. I could tell the swelling caused her pain. Whenever I sat on it, she whined, the noise vibrating through her whole body, shaking the ribcage up above. There were times when she convulsed so violently with the pain that I was almost knocking off my perch and into the acid.
Although I was mostly intact inside the belly, little bits of my face were dissolved away by the stomach acid. Accidents happen. I must look different now, I thought to myself. When the bubbling stomach acid started the froth all around me, I tried to catch a glimpse of my reflection, but she girl who looked back was distorted, her face forever moving and undulating so that I could never get a good look.
The wold became ill. The tumour in her belly chamber continued to fatten, bulged bigger each day, threatening to burst. Perhaps it was from me walking my dirty shoes all over it. I felt very sorry then, I should have been polite and taken them off like my mother had always taught me to.
One day the wolf was shot, her body thrown so violently by the force of the bullet that I thought she had jumped off a cliff. We both waited. I could feel her breathing, still steady and strong. No one came to carry her away. I made my way up to her throat, her wet mouth, pushed open her jaws. There was blood on the leaves. The bullet had cut through her mouth, leaving her mangled but alive. She was pining on the grass, lying very still as if the stave off pain that way. We had been shot on the outskirts of a village.
The villagers took me in, they were at war with the wolves, shot them whenever they saw them in an attempt to dwindle their numbers. They dressed me in purple gowns, tied tight with ribbons at the waist. I was housed in a little cottage near the main square of the village, as far away from the forest and its wolves as possible. There were steady deliveries for the Girl from the Wolf Belly; cakes and pastries that went dusty and dry in my mouth, vats of green vegetable soup gone lumpy and sickly, cheese and eggs fried on hot plates. Children brought me chocolate, slipped it through my letter box until each day there was a pile of foil covered sweets at my front door.
There was never any meat. I grew itchy at that thought.
You don’t know this but when Jonah got out of the whale, he developed an insatiable taste for fish and for salt water. He went to the coast, ripped his mouth open wide, tore himself a bigger, better mouth, gulped in litres and litres of the sea, tangled clumps of sea weed, the broken masts of old ships and the skeleton of their crew. He grew the flesh between his fingers and toes until it was thick and rubbery. He cut gills into his neck with the shards of glass people left on the beach after they’d smashed their beer bottles, stumbled home drunk to threaten their families. Jonah walked straight into the sea. He soon found he had no need for his legs anymore so he discarded them, his arms too. He trawled through the ocean, searching. Whenever he felt weak from hunger, he opened his magnificent mouth, collecting tiny fish and unfortunate scuba divers who were two slow getting away, tanks of air still strapped to their backs. He finally found what he was looking for. The whale had not changed. Shells were stuck to his sides, encrusted like jewels on his thick skin. Jonah went through the belly, cut through the mass of pink entrails, climbed inside, claimed his new skin.
Just like Jonah, I became insatiable. I ate and ate, but could never be satisfied. When I requested meat from my villagers, I was bought cold piles of red, raw, glistening chunks. I filled my mouth then spat them out, vomited on my silk gown. Whatever creature these globs of muscle came from had been dead for some time. I shuddered. I needed to feel hot blood on my lips, didn’t they understand? Of course not, pastry crumbs stuck to their clothes and faces like scum, decay, filth.
I wanted to run naked through the forest but my skin was bald and pathetic against the cold. Once I caught a small stray cat and tried to rip at its flesh with my teeth. I gave up in frustration and went home crying, my arms and face covered in bright, red scratches. I stopped bathing, did not see the point. I lay with the dogs in the alley so that I could to be close to kindred spirits, stray mutts with almost no teeth, patches of balding fur. I caught fleas, developed a habit of biting and gnashing at my arms and legs with my teeth, shredding at my skin with my nails. I drew blood quick enough, my own tasted sharp, vinegary. I devoured rabbits from the park, mice in the walls of my apartment, various husbands I acquired over my years in the village. Despite my singed face, I have always been alluring in my own way. Their blood was sweet and tangy, hot and thick, rather satisfying.
I found her one day, sniffing at some rocks by the river, the carcasses of rotting rabbits scrabbling and split over the stones. She stunk, the wound near her mouth was open and festering, several of her teeth were gone now. There was a large bulge on her side where the cyst had swollen against her skin. She was not beautiful but I forgave all that.
She made no move as I approached her, walking straight through the river, the water icy, unforgiving on my bare legs. She didn’t even move as I gently forced open her jaws, although I was careful around the bullet wound. I opened her mouth up wide and saw little lost parts of me still sitting inside her belly; a finger, kneecap, lost fragments of my face. Still, she did not move as delicately, ever so delicately, I put my hands on her pelt, quietly tore apart her flesh, ripped through the soft wolf belly, eager to get back inside.
During my time in Greywood, I became aware of its proximity to wildness. Anyone who lives in the area will no doubt laugh at my naivety but, having lived in a city for so much of my life, the place fascinated me. There sprawling patches of forest, animals hidden in the folds of it and a river cutting through the place like a border dividing one world from another. Although there no wolves that I could see or hear at Greywood, any woodland always seems to bring them to mind for me. I found myself thinking about Little Red Riding Hood, Peter and the Wolf as I walked through the trees, imagining that perhaps, suddenly, I would see a pair of yellow eyes watching me calmly from behind a tree trunk.
The story I have written here was an opportunity the take control of that wolf fairy tale narrative. The narrator is eaten by a wolf, yes, but she enjoys it, she is at home in that belly. When the world displeases her, she craves that wolf belly home once again.
Aisling is a writer from Bray in Wicklow. She received her MA in Creative Writing from UCD in 2017. This year she was a finalist in the RTÉ Radio 1 Short Story Competition and Lilliput Press Short Fiction Competition. Her work has appeared on RTÉ Radio 1, the HCE Review and the anthology, Bridges Between. She is currently working on a collection of stories.
Aisling was the recipient of the 2018 Winter Writing Residency Award for fiction at Greywood Arts