The Vaster Wilds

Lauren Groff

September 13, 2023 
The following is from Lauren Groff's The Vaster Wilds. Groff is a three-time National Book Award finalist and the New York Times bestselling author of the novels The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia, Fates and Furies, and Matrix, and the short story collections Delicate Edible Birds and Florida. She has won the Story Prize and the Joyce Carol Oates Prize, and has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Groff ’s work regularly appears in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and elsewhere.

She kept running, though too tired, she ran until the light of the moon waned and her body in its many hours of running had settled into a hot exhilaration.

All at once, she breathed the cold with gladness, and her legs felt light and free. Her skin prickled full of fire.


And when this joy of running arose in her, there also arose small visions that passed before her eyes.

There, within the shape of an elm uprooted by some distant wind‑ storm, its gnarled roots dark against the night, she saw rearing a stallion black and shining.

But no, girl, she told herself, there are no stallions in this new world, for the only horses to be found in this place had been brought upon the ships, and they had been eaten long ago in the deepening hungers of the famine.

Later, from the top of a rise, she saw in the dim and silvery light the wind lifting lighter snow and sculpting it into a shining city with roof‑ tops and chimneys and a steeple and even the smoke of fires merrily ascending from the chimneys toward heaven, and it gladdened her heart so well that she cried out aloud. Then the wind shifted and dashed the fairy city into the ground.

And, in devastation, she ran on.


At last, the stream that she had been following grew wide and the trees in the dimness split open to show a space of vast cold dying moonlight ahead. And there it was, the river, iced in its greenish white, and be‑ neath the surface lay deep and angry waters that churned ever outward, first toward the bay then out into the larger colder wilder oceans.

And this river was so far from where she had begun her flight that it was unlikely, she decided, that even so bloodthirsty a man as any who would be sent after her from the fort would make it to this place before giving up and creeping defeated home. For all the souls who had come over to this country were now at the end of this winter of horror starved, and many of the very stoutest had hungered and shat and coughed themselves into the final kingdom of death, and even the most vicious of the men who had come across the ocean had weakened and become strangely indolent, lying on their cots all day and staring blankly at the gray and ice‑pissing ice‑shitting skies.

At the border of the river, she discovered a crevice within the boul‑ ders that was barely larger than her own body, and she moved swiftly to make it a hovel of her own, for the first new light of the day was now growing in the east and she would be soon plain visible to any‑ one about.


Down in the cleft, away from the blow of wind, she warmed her hands again under her skirts in the hot split of her thighs. When her fingers could move, she untied the sack and set out her few precious things: the two brown coverlets that, though crawling with lice, were thick and warm, then the biting hatchet, then the knife, then the pewter cup so palely glowing, then the flint.

These were all the goods she had thought to bring with her in the moment of rupture. She would have brought food, but there had been no food to steal for many days.


When she had warmed herself enough in the cleft out of the hard wind, she ran to a pine tree with dead boughs and snapped them off and dragged them back over the rocks and stepped upon them until they were small enough to bring down into the hole with her. She took a handful of dry brown needles from their cling on the smallest twigs. She crouched in the hole and struck and struck and struck at the flint with the knife’s hilt, but no spark leapt up. She struck yet more until her hands were numb and her face was wetted with tears in her despair.

Spark, fall upon this leaf and become flame, she whispered. Almighty father, thy servant begs for help.

But for a long while, the spark was deaf to her pleas, and she had to warm her hands between her legs twice more to make them able to move again.


Finally, though, a spark fell and she cradled it with dry needles and dead leaves and breathed upon it, and the spark was shy, it nearly flicked itself dead again, but she prayed and blew again, and it grew, it was hungry, it ate a small bite of the dead leaf and found that it wanted more, it licked up and became flickering joyous flame. She fed it until it became a small and hot fire that she was so grateful for and so de‑ lighted in its warmth that she had the longing to put it in her own mouth to eat it up.

The flame danced prettily, moving its pert little head all around like a living creature. When she was sure it was strong enough that it would not be extinguished, she spat into it for good luck.


From The Vaster Wilds by Lauren Groff. Used with permission of the publisher, Riverhead Books. Copyright © 2023 by Lauren Groff.

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