by Josh Rountree
Something killed our rooster and three of our brown hens during the night. Thin ice crusts the ground, and it breaks in delicate patterns as I step toward the scattering of feathers and bones. Blood lies dark against the earth. It rarely snows here in the winter like at home. Only ice and gray rain that settles on the trees and pulls their limbs toward the ground like they’ve lost the will to fight for their own lives. These are gnarled, fearful trees, nothing like the commanding black forest of my youth, but their shadows still grow long enough to hide monsters.
The chicken coop door has been pulled from the hinges, and the splintered remains stand evidence to the force with which it was removed. If I were a stupid or fearful woman, I might convince myself that a rawboned coyote was to blame; they forever haunt these hills with their hunger. But I’m neither of those things, and I know how a wolf attacks.
I’ve lived among them my whole life.
Gretchen is already busy with breakfast preparations when I come in from clearing away the carcasses. There’s a pot of water not yet at a boil, and I scrub the blood from my hands as Peter pulls on his shoes and his coat, in a hurry to milk Klara and get the rest of his work behind him. He’s eight years old, two years younger than Gretchen, and I expect tears from him when I tell him about the hens, but he only nods with the air of stoic acceptance that he learned from his father.
Another day of cold survival stretches before us all. In the nearly six months since my husband and eldest son have been gone, we three have learned to face our days one at a time, placing them each after the next like bricks in a road that we hope will lead to somewhere better.
“Mother,” says Gretchen. “We’re nearly out of flour.”
“I’ll make a trip into town today.”
“Were there any eggs?”
“They were destroyed,” I say.
“Klara is safe?” asks Peter.
“Yes, thankfully,” I say. “We’ll have milk at least.”
The smell of the sausage that Gretchen is frying is a harsh reminder that we’re almost out of meat too. My husband always kept us full of venison and small game, and I would be angry at him for how he left us on the edge of hunger were I not largely to blame for his absence.
“Peter, I need you to take the rifle this afternoon and bring back some dinner. And be careful. Whatever killed the chickens might still be about.”
My children are not fools, and they almost certainly know what killed the chickens, but neither of them argues and Peter won’t show any fear. Sending him alone beyond the threshold and into the frozen hills summons old guilt from deep inside me, but what else can I do? It’s no job for Gretchen and if I don’t travel into town we won’t even be able to make bread.
When the din of morning chores gives way to the quiet advance of afternoon, I shove a crust of bread into Peter’s coat and put the rifle in his hand. Even in his wool hat and mittens, he manages an eerie impression of his father. His jaw chews at the cold, and a still confidence nests in his blue eyes. I admonish him to be careful, and above all, to return before nightfall.
My children have spent so much time living with terrible realities that I’m afraid they no longer take the world’s dangers seriously. I wish for them to simply be children, and for myself to be burdened with nothing more than a mother’s routine fears for their safety. Gretchen should not lie awake at night listening for monsters, and Peter is certainly too young to be the man of the house. Yet here we are. Hugging him is like hugging a warm corpse, and when I release him, he trudges into the cedar line without a farewell.
Gretchen leads our horse from the barn and wraps me in one of the extra saddle blankets like I’m her newborn babe. She named the horse Herr Butter when she was younger, though the animal is brown as mud. Gretchen waves as I ride away. Wind tugs her hair into an unruly blonde mess, and she retreats indoors. I pray that I won’t return to find my children torn bone from bone. I will be racing nightfall myself, and the moon is never far away at this time of year.
Travel into town on horseback takes over an hour. In the springtime the ride is pleasant enough. Tall willowy grass rides the breeze and thorny cactus patches erupt with red buds. Bluebonnets pour down the sides of every rolling limestone hill like spilled paint. The air is birdsong and honeysuckle and the electric touch of approaching thunderstorms, and I can almost imagine myself happy here.
But spring is still weeks away, and winter refuses to relent. The landscape around me is the color of bone and rot. Was it any better in my birth country? I remember the warm sweet taste of my grandmother’s strudel and the long afternoons we spent among the trees together, listening for the forest’s secrets. But I remember blood too. And I remember feeling helpless.
The town of Broken Oak has less use for me than I do for it, and I’m thankful that few people are about when I ride into its rutted streets. German immigrants have settled this part of Texas in large numbers, yet Mattias saw fit to plant us near this thoroughly American town, where my poor English brands me an outsider and worse, unintelligent. I can understand conversations well enough, but when I try to summon the proper response in English, the words don’t always come. I want to scream at these people. You don’t know my mind. I can quote long passages from Aristotle and sonnets from Shakespeare. I can compose symphonies in my head. Because I cannot yet explain these things to you in your language, you think you’re smarter than I am? You’re no better than me.
I lash Herr Butter’s reigns to the post in front of the mercantile and hurry up the wooden steps, eager to complete my errand and return to my children. The heat inside the store is immense. Fire rages in the belly of a fat woodstove, and men are gathered around it, rubbing their hands and talking in low voices as the flames paint unsettling masks on their faces. The stove is poorly vented and mesquite smoke clings to the ceiling.
The mercantile belongs to Mr. Starling, and he stands behind the counter in a stained leather apron with a weary air about him, like spending his days hawking frayed rope, horseshoe nails, and penny candy is too large of a burden for any man’s soul. Sweat trails down both of his temples, and he smells vaguely of stale tobacco.
“Well Frau, what are you doing out today?” he asks. “It’s near froze solid out there.”
I produce a weak smile and open my coin purse. What I would like to say is “Children must eat, Mr. Starling, whether it is warm or whether it is cold,” but what I say aloud is, “Flour for bread, please.”
“Oh yes ma’am,” he says and begins rummaging through the shelves behind him.
As I wait, two men separate from the pack surrounding the stove, drawn by the scent of what they consider weakened prey. Mr. Grandly is a grizzled, silver haired goat farmer whose boots always smell of manure. His companion, Mr. Elder, is handsome if a little on the thin side, with preposterous lamb chop whiskers and a voice like a ruined preacher. They position themselves on either side of me, close enough that their shadows join on the counter.
“Hello Frau,” says Grandly.
“How are your children?”
He nods his head. “Glad to hear it. Now listen, you need to be careful up there by yourself, you understand. Your husband ain’t come back, has he?”
Mr. Grandly knows very well that my husband has not returned. They presume me a widow. A woman with hungry children and some modest acreage. They covet all of what I have and are ill equipped to hide their sin. Mr. Elder is particularly forward with his desires, and he inserts himself into the conversation with an odious bark.
“Grandly, you know he’s not come back, else we’d have heard. No reason to hound the poor woman.”
“Well, I ain’t hounding her,” Grandly says.
Mr. Elder smiles. “Frau. You must be home before dark, you know? There are certain to be Indians about.”
“Red savages,” Grandly says.
“A fat white moon drives the Comanche into a frenzy,” Elder says. “They’ll be on the prowl for several nights.”
“They killed a family over near Fredericksburg last night,” Grandly says. “Tore off their faces. Took a little boy’s feet with them too.”
I think of Peter, alone in forest, hunting for dinner, and my heartbeat quickens.
Mr. Starling places a bag of flour in front of me and hisses through his tumbledown teeth. “Enough of that talk, with a lady in the room.”
Mr. Elder places a hand on my back and leans close enough for me to feel the heat of his breath when he speaks. “I will accompany you home to make sure you arrive unharmed.”
“No, I am fine.”
“Then I shall ride out later to ensure that no savages are lurking. We were just discussing a night hunt wherein we might encounter and kill some of them. It will be no extra trouble.”
“I have a rifle. We are fine.”
Mr. Elder removes his hand and withdraws the bulk of his animal mass. The smell of his sweat and his lust remain close, but I refuse to be overwhelmed. I place some coins into Mr. Starling’s outstretched hand, snatch up the bag of flour, and leave Mr. Grandly and Mr. Elder standing at the mercantile counter. They call after me like yapping dogs, encouraging me to hurry home, to lock tight my doors, to shutter the windows and to listen for strange noises in the night.
I don’t require their counsel. I will do all of these things and more. Mr. Elder is right about one thing. There are terrible things in the world that grow bold when the moon is fat. I know them. If he intends a night hunt, then he should pray it is only the Comanche that he finds.
Peter is not home for the evening meal.
We dine in silence, Gretchen and I, unwilling to voice the fear we share. Afterward, she practices her arithmetic, scratching figures on a slate, erasing, starting again, a ritual to occupy her mind. I seat myself in the rocking chair on the front porch, and even outside I can hear the click clack of her chalk and the tuneless humming sound she makes when she’s deep in thought.
The wind is cold enough to burn, but I can’t countenance the thought of Peter alone in the darkness without anyone to share his misery. Colder still is the guilt I feel. Leaving Gretchen alone in the cabin so I might hunt for Peter in the night would simply trade fear for fear. Yet Peter’s father and older brother would be hunting for him even now if not for my actions.
The moon is a raging white fire in the sky, and I can feel the way it pulls everyone and everything towards it. Herr Butter and Klara moan and stomp from within the barn, victims of the moon’s spell. My hands fidget with the arms of the rocking chair and my jaw clenches to the point of pain as I work to bite back the cold chatter of my teeth while I stare off into the tree line.
Something emerges from the nearest stand of wind-beaten cedars. Hulking and slow, it proceeds apace toward the house, and when I rise from my seat and lift up my lantern, a weak yellow light paints the gloom and I can make out the form of my son.
A small doe lies across his shoulders, and he struggles beneath the dead weight of the animal as he trudges toward the porch. Blood soaks his shirt and breeches and lies thick on his face. When he greets me with the thinnest of smiles, he looks like a child who’s just dug his way out of his own grave.
That night I dream of home.
I am young and dancing and surrounded by trees so massive that they banish the daylight. So tall that their tops pincushion the low winter clouds. Snow-covered branches form a white canopy overhead, and I pretend I’m a guest of some Nordic prince in his grand ice palace. The air smells of pinecones and frost and dainty sugar candies and I’m desperate to remain in this beautiful dream forever, but I can feel the call of the path at my feet.
An outsider would never even notice it, but I’ve lived in this forest all my life and I know the ways in and the ways through. Heel and toe I follow the memory of my own footsteps deeper into the maw of that great forest, drawing closer to my Grandmother’s cabin, a place I love far more than any prince’s castle; a place warmer than any mother’s arms.
But Mattias is there before me. He is always there.
A grim harbinger of what my life will become, he sits on the stoop of the cabin, awash in blood, an axe nearly as tall as I am laid across his knees. He is no prince, but he will become my husband one day. On this day he is winter pale from blood loss, and the world’s largest wolf lies dead at his feet. The cabin behind him is too quiet, flooded with darkness, and when Mattias lifts his eyes to mine I see the reflection of my Grandmother’s death. Mattias has slain her killer, but vengeance does not raise the dead.
His shredded shirt reveals several ragged channels where the dead beast took a taste of him, and the woman I grow into will spend many nights tracing those scars with her fingers and considering how foolishly easy it is for young girls to fall in love with men simply because they are strong enough to slay monsters.
The dead wolf shudders, and my younger self screams.
But there is no wolf; not anymore. There is only a man, naked and bloody, with his skull split wide by my hero’s axe.
Then the whole forest shudders, and the icicle ceiling of my world comes crashing down.
I wake, trying to bring the image of Mattias’s face with me from the dream, but no matter how many times I’ve studied his smiles and his grimaces, I’m fast losing the ability to conjure his likeness from memory. Instead, I see only my oldest son, Bernhard, a near doppelgänger for his father, and young Peter grinning through a mask of blood. I shake off the memories, content to spend a few seconds of peace in the warmth of my blankets as the first orange shimmer of morning creeps into the window, but the stillness never lasts. Gretchen calls for me, screams for me, and when I rise and run to her, I find nothing but more blood.
The wolf returned last night.
One barn door has been removed with terrible violence. Herr Butter lies in the doorway, his stomach split, his entrails spilled and cold. Gretchen wails and tugs at his mane as if trying to yank the life back into him. Peter has forgotten his stoicism and weeps openly, no longer the conquering hunter but a little boy with very little left to lose.
Klara, our cow, is missing, but little investigation is required. A bloody trail leads from the barn, beyond the cedar line, and into what passes for a forest in this land. There is more blood than even I could have imagined.
The day is not improved by the appearance of Mr. Elder, knocking at my door. I’m feeding my children and trying to keep their minds from the cleanup that awaits us when he arrives. He stands framed in the doorway, the winter sun at his back, and his horse is tied to a fencepost just beyond the slaughter. He inadvertently walked through some blood and it coats his boots; this provides a welcome excuse to deny him entry into my home.
“What has occurred here, Frau?” he asks. “Have you been harmed?”
I close my children safely inside the house and join Mr. Elder on the porch. He looks as if he’s swallowing back a mouth full of bile.
“A wolf killed our animals in the night.”
“This is not the work of a wolf,” he says. “Wolves are uncommon here.”
“It was a wolf.”
He shakes his head and grips his hat in his hands like he’s trying to wring water from a washcloth. “It was men who did this. Maybe you’ve seen a wolf roaming, but this atrocity has every appearance of a Comanche raid.”
Every appearance but tracks from horses or humans, I think, but I find it better to let some men run until their steam is exhausted. They will often confuse this for agreement on my part and discontinue all efforts to persuade me.
“We were on the trail of a raiding party last night, but they eluded us,” he says. “A dozen red bandits if there was one, we are sure. I’m sorry we weren’t able to find them before they did this to you, but you were more fortunate than you could have been. The Emerson family lost more than animals last night. Their child was murdered.”
I don’t know who the Emerson’s are, but I feel the death of their child in my bones.
“We’ll ride again tonight,” he says. “We’ll keep watch until they move on or they’re all dead. You’ll be safe tonight. I promise we’ll stay close.”
I bite back black laughter. If this fool knew what he was chasing, he’d know that his promise to protect me was one he could never keep.
“I want to say something and say it plain,” Mr. Elder says. “You and your children are alone here, and you are not safe. I would make a good husband to you if you would have me.”
“I have a husband.” My laughter threatens to spill out, but the sight of Herr Butters growing rigid sobers me enough to keep it contained for now.
“Your husband is dead, Frau. A man would not leave his family is such straits if he were able to return. I believe the Comanche must have killed him. And your oldest boy with him, I’m sorry to say.”
“No, they will return.” It’s a lie, but I use it to wall myself away from his advances.
“Maybe he will, but I think it’s unlikely.” He squashes his hat back on his head and takes hold of my arm. His hands are large, and the backs of them are thick with hair, like my husband’s hands. His grip is tighter than necessary, but I refuse to reveal any discomfort. “Consider my offer, Frau. There are worse men to align yourself with in this world.”
Sadly, he is right, but that realization is not enough to sway me. “Thank you for checking on us.”
“You are in my thoughts, Frau.”
Mr. Elder avoids the wide swath of blood this time as he lumbers back to his horse. The animal is as eager to leave this place as I am to have Mr. Elder gone from my porch. Only when they disappear over the horizon do I finally feel the air rush back into my lungs.
The laughter finally escapes, and when my children find me on my knees with my forehead pressed against the porch’s cedar planks, shoulders shaking, they can be forgiven for thinking I’ve momentarily lost my mind.
The most difficult day we’ve spent without Mattias and Bernhard is a bleak procession of butchering and bloody cleanup, for though it would have seemed impossible to me a year ago, my family is not in a position to let any available meat go to waste. With the day drawing nearer to a merciful close, my children gaze back at me across the dinner table with expressions usually reserved for men who have survived particularly heinous wars. I am afraid that they understand the truth of things, though they won’t speak that truth aloud. I was a fool for thinking my hard decisions would keep us all safe. I should have known that blood always wills out.
When the children are in their beds, I sit in a chair by the window, the rifle cold in my hands, and I watch as night erases the hills. I whisper a prayer for spring, for an end to the bloated February moon peeking through the clouds. For some kind of warmth. I’m tired of being cold, inside and out.
But we must all live with our decisions, whether they are right or wrong. I think of the Emerson child and wonder whether it would still be alive if I’d stayed in Europe. Certainly, there are others who would be. But Mattias believed our lives would improve with an ocean to separate us from that ancient forest. He made the decision to come here; he convinced me. And I’d been desperate enough to believe that our problems wouldn’t follow us. Now his corpse lies alongside Bernhard’s, and neither of them are here to make any more decisions.
Along the horizon, lanterns bob like boats on a black sea, likely Mr. Elder and his riding party making their rounds and alerting every man or animal within ten miles to their presence. I fall asleep in the chair in spite of myself, but a sudden hammering at my door throttles me awake and I can’t stifle a yelp. Mr. Elder’s voice is desperate as his fists strike wood again and again. “Open your door, Frau! I’m in mortal danger!”
My hand lingers on the crossbar, and a thin howl freezes me in place. It rides the night like a slow creeping fog and conjures my darkest memories. It’s the sound Mattias made the first time he changed, and the sound of his death rattle. I have wondered for years if it might be the last sound I will ever hear. For a moment, I consider how the problem of the irksome Mr. Elder might solve itself if I simply take no action, but the howl draws closer and I haven’t the heart to leave him outside.
I allow him in, and we bar the door behind us. His hat is gone, and a deep gash runs from the top of his head down one temple and across his cheek. Meat and blood reveal themselves as he speaks, and I’m not certain he understands how badly he’s been injured.
“They’re dead, Frau. My companions. All of them!”
“Comanche?” Even now I can’t muster sympathy for him.
“No, a creature,” he says. “A massive wolf.”
“Wolves are not common here.”
He does not recognize my mockery. His back is pressed against the door as if that will keep out the night.
Something slams against the outside of the door, and the howl transforms into a roar. Mr. Elder lurches forward as the door splinters down the middle. Peter and Gretchen emerge from the sleeping loft. Mr. Elder makes for the back window yelling for everyone to follow. It’s shuttered against the cold, and he’s trying to yank one shutter away in his terror instead of simply unlatching it. Peter and Gretchen eye him nervously like the wild animal he is. They understand what we are facing here, and I wish Mr. Elder had remained warm at home tonight. This man who would be my protector has led a monster to our doorstep.
The door is no match for such a creature, and the wolf is on top of Mr. Elder before he can lift a hand to defend himself. The creature is the size of a small cow, and the stench of it in the tiny cabin is as fearsome as its teeth. My gorge rises and I struggle to hold the rifle steady as it barks again and again, the lever ratcheting in my hand until the gun is empty.
Blood coats the thing’s silver fur, and I can’t tell whether I have wounded him or if the blood belongs to Mr. Elder. The wolf whips its head towards me, and I’m thankful I don’t recognize its eyes. My children are screaming, and I swear I can hear more howls outside, growing louder, and while this lone wolf will almost certainly kill us all, I don’t want to calculate our chances if he’s brought a pack with him.
Now finished with Mr. Elder, the wolf lifts his ears, blood and saliva leaking from his open jaw. There are definitely howls coming from outside, and as I wrap my arms around my children and whisper a small prayer to my Grandmother’s god, a pair of flint-tipped arrows hiss through the open doorway and lodge themselves in the side of the wolf’s neck. It yelps, then turns away from us and roars at his unseen attackers.
Two Comanche men step through the door, their faces painted black with red streaks on their foreheads and chins. Their buckskin shirts are beaded and bloody, and the first man screams and drives a feathered lance into the wolf’s chest. The second launches a relentless attack with a hatchet, and the wolf wilts under the weight of every blow.
The monster is outmatched.
The first man wrenches loose his lance, and the wolf collapses atop Mr. Elder. What remains of its life spills out around us on the cabin floor. My children clutch me from behind, and I can feel their heartbeats against my back. They have heard of wolves transforming back into men, but they have never seen it happen until now.
There is a melting of the wolf’s skin as it slides away and becomes liquid, and what remains is only a man, middle-aged, balding with gray at his temples, naked and still. He is no one I know. Just another unfortunate who encountered my husband in the wrong season. Someone else who can trace his doom back to a blood-ravaged cabin the middle of an ancient German forest.
The Comanche men do not seem unnerved by what they’ve seen. Their chests heave with exertion, but they are otherwise still. I’m reminded of Mr. Elder’s stories about Indian depredations – kidnappings, slayings, the taking of scalps – and I want to tell them that I never had any desire to leave my home. In my dreams my Grandmother is alive, and my husband was never bitten by that thing in the woods, and we are all happy and warm in front of a fireplace with the comfortable smell of sauerkraut and the laughter of my three children filling the air. I don’t want anything to do with this new land and given the opportunity I would leave and never return. But I cannot speak their language and they cannot speak mine, so we stare at one another for what feels like an eternity.
Then, without a word, they leave, and I’m alone with the sound of my children’s crying and Mr. Elder’s moaning. We are all afraid to move, but I notice that one of the men left his hatchet lodged in the back of the dead man, and I can’t stand to leave it there. I crawl over to him, pull it loose, and again I feel Mr. Elder’s hand gripping my arm, not so tightly this time but just as unwelcomed.
“Frau,” he says. “I require a doctor.”
“No doctor,” I say.
“Frau. Summon a doctor.”
“You have been bitten,” I say.
“Do you not understand me?” he asks.
“I understand everything.”
“Please,” he says.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Elder,” I say, “but this is mercy.”
I instruct my children to look away, then I strike him between the eyes with the hatchet, and ensure that he never again comes calling at my door during a full moon.
Spring finds us alive, my family and I, and that is as much as I can ask. Sunlight warms the morning as Peter and Gretchen race together through the knee-high grass, laughing and calling after one another, momentarily children again. This cannot last, but I am learning to find joy in small moments. I sweep dust away from the porch, the boards complaining beneath the weight of my steps, forever a reminder of my responsibilities.
Mattias and Bernhard are still buried together beneath those boards. There was a time when Mattias could control his rage, could recognize us in his wolf form and make the decision not to harm us, but that began to change. I will never forgive myself for what I had to do.
The curse had to end.
But what terrifies me is this: Mattias was bitten by a wolf. Bernhard never was. When his adolescence arrived and he began to change on schedule with his father, there was only one reasonable explanation.
There is more than one way to share blood.
I killed them together so at least they are not alone.
And now I wish for childhoods that last forever. I’m terrified that Peter may have inherited more than his demeanor from his father, and that Gretchen may reach her womanhood and begin to change.
I will do what needs to be done.
But not today. Today is for sunshine.
Let them be children for just a bit longer.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Diane Severson is a lyric soprano specialized in Early Music, specifically Baroque and medieval music and Lieder/Art Song. She is an enthusiastic teacher of singing (taking her cues from her mentor the late Cornelius Reid and his long-time student and mentor in her own right Carol Baggott-Forte).
Diane has been involved in the Speculative Poetry Scene (yes, it’s a thing) since 2010. She has narrated for the StarShipSofa Podcast Magazine since Tony C. Smith started running fiction and found out that she reads aloud to her husband. She quickly became his go-to-girl when he wanted poetry read. As a result of that affinity with poetry, and because she does her best work when she has a Cause (a budding superheroine?), she decided to take up as Science Fiction Poetry’s Spokesperson. She produced the sporadic podcast, which ran as part of StarShipSofa, called Poetry Planet and is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA) and currently serves as Membership Chair, Volunteer Wrangler and Communications Coordinator. She has reviewed genre poetry for Amazing Stories Magazine and the SFPA’s Star*Line magazine and edited an issue of the SFPA’s online journal, Eye to the Telescope on the theme of Music. She continues to narrate stories for StarShipSofa and other podcasts (notably EscapePod, PodCastle and Tales to Terrify) and audio book narrations.
The best place to find her is on the web because she tends to pick up and move to another country at the drop of a hat, having lived in Germany, the UK, and France in the past 12 years. She and her small family, a “rocket scientist” and a young multi-linguist, currently reside in a Home County in England.