WOLF’S BANE • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Her face was dark and strange, unwarmed by the firelight. I’m her heart’s whole world and even I felt chilled by it. That man was every way a fool to make my Nan so angry.

If I grow up half so wise, there’ll be none to say boo! to me. She sorts real from flimflam and truth from lies; knows the bright side and the tricky side of everything that grows.

I help her at the weaving though I don’t yet have her hand. You’d swear it’s silk and not wool that she works so fine. My friends love to tease I dress too bold for a cottager’s girl — too much a taste for crimson. But they’d all wear the same if they could.

Some of her craft’s done quietly, for mercy’s sake only. “Just come to me early,” she says; “can’t help if you come to me late.”

And they do come, trembling up the path as it bends itself to our gate, right where the woods grow thick; frantic that Nan can’t loose them from the snare they’ve got caught in. Mostly she can help, and with little grief to it, and with kindness. With luck only the kindness will follow them after.

It’s hard work, leading up to market day, but we like it more than a festival. Better to fill your pockets than empty them! The treat’s in catching up with townfolk, catching a glimpse of city folk.

It was Alter the wool merchant Nan always liked meeting; he ranged further than we folk can; at the end of the day he’d buy her a coffee and a bit of chocolate for me, and tell us of the world. When he got too old to range from his own fireside, it was his nephew-in-law Herr Luder took his place. A kind man, Herr Alter, but a sad judge of character.

Herr Luder was soft, but not as you’d mean tender. Like an overboiled dumpling coming apart at the edges. It surprised you to see such bright sharp eyes slanting out of a face like that.

Every time he did his little dancing step to come closer to me in the midst of the High Street clamor, Nan was between us. Like a fencing match that nobody saw but me. That was the season’s first market day.

The next had weather just right for lingering. The stalls were crowded; Herr Luder drew plenty of flushed cheeks around him. Country girls love a city man’s banter.

We marked out the fly sinking in honey. A bit of gold on a man’s finger works like ginger in a cake — tempts you to keep nibbling when you’d best leave off. Sharp little Marta was playing with someone sharper.

I’m younger than Marta; sharper, but I don’t show my edges.

Nan looked at her warningly, but she was so busy cat-smiling at Herr Luder she paid no mind to us. It’s the clever ones like Marta end up crying in Nan’s kitchen for a tea that will cure their ills.

And wasn’t it six weeks later she was tapping on our door?

“That one tries to sink his teeth into every milk-white lamb, you ninny,” said Nan while Marta sat there shaking. “The ones he catches drop lambs of their own where his own little ewe won’t find ’em.”

Marta turned all kinds of colors while she gulped down her tea.

Market day after that, Herr Luder was wanting to pinch every succulent joint in the giggling flock around him.

“Herr Luder!” said Nan, and her voice was honey with a kick in it, “Herr Alter always came by for a mug of my summer ale. You won’t break the tradition?”

“Why,” he said, answering her but looking at me, “I love tradition as much as any man!”

“Come by, then,” said my Nan, “and take some ease before tomorrow’s journey. A man away from home likes a bit of cosseting.”

“Oh, he does,” said Herr Luder, “glad of any comfort he’s offered.”


“Don’t you play to him,” said Nan, cutting sausage and bread, grating horseradish to mix in her own special way. “If he thinks I’m serving up pigeon, that’s one more mistake he’s making.”

The ale was special too. We’d put up a small jugful he could carry away with him, for a man gets thirsty in the course of his travels.

Nan’s smile hadn’t much sun in it, when she opened the door to Herr Luder. But it wasn’t her face he looked at.

I helped to serve at table, though I kept well out of his reach, and he slowed as the afternoon faded. Nan kept refilling his plate.

“Well, Herr Luder,” she said at last, “such a pity to lose you, but surely you’d better be off. You’ve an early start tomorrow!”

His eyes were dulling in a red sweating face, as she gave him his cloak and walking stick.

“A jugful for your journey,” said Nan, “to remember my table!”

He hauled himself up and took his leave. I was behind Nan and he couldn’t push past her to kiss my hand.

“What if he shares it?” I asked her, after we’d watched he got on to the High Street safe enough.

“That kind doesn’t,” said my Nan. “He’ll be panting from his big breakfast and thinking of his noontime meal. Blowing like a whale when he steps into the coach, no shock if he can’t step out.”


And on the market day after that, a stranger was setting up in Herr Luder’s stall. Spiky hair above a bright little hedgehoggy face. That sort’s no harm if you handle him smartly.

“Apoplexy!” he said, spreading his news, and he hardly looked regretful. “Herr Luder’ll want to get rechristened if he intends to linger!”

“Why, what’s his name, then?” asked my Nan, though of course she knew it.

“Wolfgang,” he said, grinning.

Sarah Crysl Akhtar‘s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds.

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Every Day Fiction

  • Quite a cool story.

  • This was great – not a word wasted; spare and telling. The only thing I didn’t get was why he should change his name from Wolfgang at the end?

  • LG, I think announcing the name at the end was to bring out the link with the poison “Wolfsbane” in the title. That works for the reader, not for the speaker, though; I can’t see why he would think there’s a reason for a name change – he’s not in on the poisoning, the way we readers are.

    That leads on to the idea of the “omniscient narrator”. I have seen similar stories where the characters do such things as though they knew what the omniscient narrator knew, but which are definitely wrong for them to do on the back of what – for them – are no stronger than serious suspicions. Here, the point of view character doesn’t have to be omniscient, as both she and her grandmother get enough information to know for sure what their victim is. Even so, he is a victim, and I for one would only take his fate as fitting if it were poetic justice or similar, brought on by his own actions; this sort of revenge is unjust, though, at least at this level (I would have found exposing him fitting, for instance).

  • Gail V

    I enjoyed this story – 5 stars. I’m with Liz though and didn’t get the Wolfgang bit at the end – even with PML’s comment.

  • SarahT

    Fabulous story. The ending also threw me for a loop.

    Here’s what it is about:
    1. Nan knew Herr Luder’s name was Wolfgang
    2. She thought it fitting to poison Wolfgang with Wolf’s Bane
    3. The new guy was referring to the Jewish custom of renaming a person in the time of illness… Luder didn’t die, he was just really sick (a stroke or organ failure)
    4. So the new guy didn’t know anything about the poisoning..he was just telling how it turned out.

    Amazing work…. 10 stars!

  • Liked it. Didn’t get the whole wolfsbane/Wolfgang thing. I found the end confusing.

    With the name, the girl, and the grandma I kept expecting a Red Riding Hood thing.

  • Jennifer Ripley

    Gorgeous prose and your words are chosen so artfully. In flash, where there’s little room to spare, you crafted your world with homey dialogue, mostly relating to food which suits the nature of Nan and the provincial setting so well. “Like an overboiled dumpling coming apart at the edges.”

    I love also your seamless flow of exposition. This story is a textbook example of “show, don’t tell.”

    5 stars

  • Love everything of yours Sarah. This was no exception

  • I’m afraid this story didn’t really grab me.

  • Although I knew that the author is Jewish and has often drawn on that body of tradition in her stories, here I discounted that because of the word “rechristened”, which made me think of the character as just being a typical sort of European in a past time. So I didn’t think that there might be a Jewish custom that could explain it. Even so, it doesn’t explain it: even if it’s where the author is coming from, it doesn’t work unless it’s also a custom of someone like that character, set in that time and place – explaining why she thought of it doesn’t explain why the character would. I don’t know, it still might be that sort of wider custom, and then it would work.

  • It may be less complicated than that.


    I believe it’s related to the meaning of the name: Herr Luder is unlikely to be walking like a wolf or following the path (predatory behaviour) of the wolf anymore.

  • I think this is one of those stories where the detail of the account matters less than the evocative under-tow that pulls it along. What happens is important, but not quite so much as the complexities of the people who do what they do.

  • Joanne

    I loved the fairy tale connections…the girl, her grandmother, and the “wolf” —and the sheep/wolf imagery. I don’t think I’ve ever given a story by Sarah fewer than 5 stars. This story is no exception.