Wolf Town

Submitted into Contest #37 in response to: Write a story that takes place in the woods.... view prompt

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Mystery

Don’t go into the woods, my mother used to say. The wolves will find you and gobble you up. There were still a handful of packs in those days—pitiful collections of scrawny runts with bleary eyes and loose teeth. Sometimes, a chicken or small dog would go missing, but I doubt all the wolves in the county could have finished off a plump boy with a good throwing arm and fast legs. The old packs—the man-killers—had all died out years ago.


Don’t go into the woods, my mother used to say. A werewolf will find you and gobble you up.


Then she would laugh, because she knew it wasn’t really true. There were no werewolves near our town, not anymore. The men had killed and skinned them years ago. Every night, I slept in the pelt of the werewolf that had killed my father. Every night, I dreamed of pine forests, snow-capped hills, and soft moonlight trapped in icicle lanterns. In my boy’s heart, I was sad for the wolves. They were akin to the pixies and the trolls and all the other wonders that had left our world. I dreamed they would return, someday. I dreamed they would come back for me.


The wolves never came back for me. The men did.


“Hello, wolf,” the little girl said, when she found me on the day’s after that first, nightmarish night. I had spent the night licking my wounds, hidden beneath a pile of brush the men had gathered for burning. The freeze had hardened the blood on my flank into an icy mass, and my throat was still sore from the huntsman’s fingers. I shuddered, huddling as far from her as I could.


“Hello, witch,” I whimpered.


“You’re the one they chased out today,” the witch said, rolling over until we were nose to nose beneath the brush. I could feel the wonderful town-heat of her. She smelled like hot bread and fire-smoke and soap. She did not smell like blood and snow and moonlight terror. “The werewolf pup.”


I shivered, missing my mother’s fire and her hot soup and my fur pelt – sewn from the skin of the werewolf that had been my father. The witch twitched her shoulder, and the folds of her cloak draped over my shaking body. She wrapped her arms around me, and I nestled against her cheek, breathing in memories of home.


“My name’s Eva,” she whispered. “They chased my grandmother into the woods too, a long time ago. Maybe a hundred years. I’m going to visit her tonight. She’s a witch too, a real grown-up witch. You can come with me, if you like?”


I licked her hand. Some of her long yellow hair tickled my nose, and I sneezed. Eva giggled, then kissed me. I yelped, but a tiny part of me felt warmer.


Later that night, when the full moon had sent my head spinning in a whirlwind of silver flame, Eva took me to her grandmother’s house. Eva’s grandmother was a strong, broad-shouldered woman with curly yellow hair like Eva’s. She didn’t smell like the town, but she didn’t smell like the woods either. Eva’s grandmother smelled of cypress trees, salt, and coffee. Eva called her Gedi, and, eventually, so did I. I never saw my mother again. I never saw the pelt again, either, the pelt of my father. Gedi became my mother and father and village. She taught me how to read and how to hunt. She taught me how to barter and trade in the market and how to steal sheep in the field. She taught me the ways of the wolf, and she taught me the ways of men.


I asked her, one day, why the townsmen had chased me into the woods. It was the day I’d learned that my mother had died the previous night, bearing a son to a new husband who owned no wolf pelts.


 “Consider this, lad. Yesterday, the boy is your son. Or your friend’s son. Maybe he plays in front of your fire. Maybe you give him a sip of your beer at solstice. Then, one day, the boy is a wolf. Or you realize…you think you realize that the girl is a witch. Your neighbor is a vampire. Your brother is an elf. But it’s hard to kill the little boy who played with your daughter and drank your beer and slept in front of your fire. Much better to chase him into the woods. Get yourself good and drunk on fear and hard liquor so you won’t remember. Then you can kill and bury or burn him in the dark, where you can’t really see him. If you don’t see it and you can’t remember it, then it’s not quite real, is it? That’s what these woods are, lad. Men live in the towns, but that is not where they hunt. They hunt in the woods, where the prey lives. Far from the eyes of their priests and their wives and their laws, men do the things that would send monsters to church and make the devil and all his minions weep.”


“Is that what happened to you, Gedi?”


“Me and a thousand others before me, lad. My mother. My sister. My neighbor’s daughter.”


“Will they chase Eva into the woods?” I asked, half hoping, half fearing.


Gedi fixed me with a stare as old as the nightmares of men. Her face was a mask of candlelight and shadow. Her eyes were as dark and rich as ash after a forest fire.  “Perhaps, little wolf,” she said, warily. “Perhaps.”


For ten years, I lived on that ‘perhaps.’ Two or three times a season, Eva would visit us in Gedi’s cabin. She brought the smells and the stories of town with her – cookies and fresh goat’s milk and news of the men who’d driven me out into the snow. The two of us would play in the woods together, exploring or swimming or sitting by Gedi’s fire and sharing stories we’d heard of the wide world beyond our home. Eva would braid her hair with lavender or weave wreaths of berries and leaves to hang on the door.


When I was sixteen, Gedi started sending me into town for supplies. No one recognized me. The small boy they’d chased into the woods had transformed into a lean and silent stranger. I never visited Eva during these trips, although I would sometimes catch sight of her, working in her father’s shop or striding through the streets on family errands. Some of the other men would watch her too, men who stank of sweat and earth and lust. Some nights, they smelled of beer.


Shortly after we celebrated my eighteenth birthday, Eva told me that one of them – a hunter named Bhaltair – had given her a bouquet of snowdrops, the pelt of a fox he’d killed, and a soft new cloak the color of fresh cream.


“I’ve killed you many foxes,” I said, nudging her knee with my paw.


“But never snowdrops, Wolf,” she laughed, stroking my back.


“Anyway, don’t be jealous. Bhaltair’s just another townsman who’s never traveled more than five leagues in any direction. What use do I have for him?” I settled my head back on her lap, mollified, but uneasy. I didn’t want to think about Bhaltair and his foxes. I didn’t want to break the spell.


Summer arrived early that year, bringing with it a delicious, sweet-smelling warmth that clung to the forest as perfume will cling to a woman’s skin. I was in love, lost in a blissful dream of Eva. Every day smelled of lilies, and every evening blazed with fireflies. When it stormed, Eva and I would sit on Gedi’s porch and sink our feet into the mud, then kiss each time the lightning crackled. We talked of ships and adventures and new constellations in foreign skies. Sometimes, we talked of churches and witnesses and cradles.


Everything was wonderful, and everything wonderful dies.


There was a night in early September when Eva arrived just before midnight. Feeling restless, we walked hand in hand to a small lake close to Gedi’s home. It was too cold to swim, so we slipped out of our boots and splashed into the shallows. The water was luminous, like liquid starlight. Eva had taken off her cream cloak and unbound her hair, which tumbled about her shoulders in a waterfall of glistening curls.


 “Why were you late today?” I asked Eva carelessly, wrapping an arm around her.


“I wasn’t late, Wolf,” Eva answered tartly. “I came in my own time, as I always do.”


“Alright, witch” I laughed, kissing the back of her hand. The moonlight framed her face, but she wasn’t smiling. She looked tired and afraid.


“I was speaking with Bhaltair,” she said softly, after we’d walked halfway around the lake. “That’s why I was late. My aunt and uncle asked me to meet with him. I couldn’t say no.”


“Eva, I’m always glad to see you. Whenever you come,” I protested, even though the warmth inside me had frosted. “You don’t need to explain yourself.”


“They want me to marry him,” she croaked, huddling against me.


“They say if I don’t, I’ll be run out of town like Gedi and my mother. But I don’t want to, Wolf. I don’t want to. I don’t want him.”


I didn’t want her to either. I wanted her. “Run away with me, witch,” I growled against her skin, breathing in the scent of wood-smoke and juniper and lemon. “Run away with me tonight. You won’t have to marry him. You won’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”


“Yes,” she whispered, kissing my cheek, my lips, my neck. “We’ll run away. We’ll cross mountains. We’ll cross seas. We’ll do everything.”


“The wolf and the witch?” I asked, lifting her into my arms.


“The witch and the wolf,” she commanded, running her fingers through my hair.


Promises, promises, promises. We made a thousand promises to each other that night, as we made love beneath the pine trees on the edge of the moonlit lake. Hours later, I carried her back to Gedi’s house. We slept side by side on a pile of quilts next to a dying fire.


When I awoke, Eva had already gone. That night would be the first of the full moon, so I spent most of the day brooding in front of Gedi’s house. After my transformation, I raced to the village, then skulked at the tree line closest to Eva’s scent until sunrise. I risked the daylight and allowed several women to catch sight of me before retreating into the woods. The old woman’s movements were slow and clumsy that whole day, and the dark half-moons under her eyes betrayed her own sleepless night. Near sunset, when Eva still hadn’t returned, Gedi seated herself beside me.


“She’ll come back, lad,” the old woman said, her voice as dry and brittle as old firewood. “I can see her, in a crimson cloak, with a crown of wildflowers in her hair.” We both slept fitfully for the next several hours, curled up around each other. I dreamed of Eva, naked in the starlight, with snowdrops in her hair. I dreamed of ships as tall as pine trees, with cream and crimson sails. I dreamed of the town, abandoned and overgrown, haunted by dozens of wild foxes and one grey wolf.


I had thought to spend the night waiting for Eva, but after a few hours I caught the scent of a young doe—a tantalizing treat that lured me into the deepest part of the forest. Despite my sleeplessness and worry, I felt strangely elated. Almost euphoric. The full white moon seared across my thoughts, igniting my bones with silver desire. Lost in my own mad reveries, I tracked the doe further than I intended, far enough to taste saltwater on my tongue and hear the shrieks of gulls. Drunk on moon magic, I understood their song, just as I understood the terrified scent of the doe.


 I am lost, the doe knew.


You are lost, the moon gleamed, cold and terrible as the eye of a god.


We are lost, the gulls screamed. All lost. All lost.


For a moment, that’s what it sounded like. Gulls screaming. Then the smell – sharp as cranberries, bright as the sunset on newly fallen snow. My body twisted in mid-leap. I stumbled, regained my balance, and broke into a sprint. My paws pounded against the springy summer grass. My breath ached in my chest. Everything ached. Screams rang in my ears, louder and lonelier than gull-song and more awful than moonlight. The scent overpowered every thought in my wolf’s mind – plums and yuletide cakes, fire and fresh bread and town. Town. Town. There were other smells as well – steel and sweat and sour beer. The lake where Eva and I had made love. The pine grove where Eva was dying alone.


Men live in the towns, but that is not where they hunt. Gedi’s words were ghosts, haunting me, hunting me. They hunt in the woods, where the prey lives. I wish I’d told Eva that.


She was so close, I could hear her breath, ragged as a wound. Then I saw her, wrapped in a cloak stained crimson with blood. Eva opened her eyes, saw me, and her whole body shuddered. She opened her lips – pale as winter water. I didn’t hear the words. I already knew. Leaping over Eva, I collided with Bhaltair, mid-jump, axe raised. My teeth sank into his throat and I jerked my head, pulling out a bloody clump of flesh and tissue and sinew. Bhaltair gurgled, beating me with his fists. I clawed at his chest, tearing long red ribbons across his skin. His breath stank. His skin stank. His blood reeked. Even his tears – Bhaltair was weeping now and shuddering – were foul and hateful and corrupt. The moon roared in my bones, and the gulls screamed.


“Wolf,” Eva’s soft whisper cracked through my body.  I tore myself away from the huntsman, leaving him choking for a breath that would never come. Dashing to Eva’s side, I licked her face, her hands, her hair. Lost. Lost. Lost. The moonlight shone on her honey hair and her crimson red cloak and her pale, bloodless face.


“Hello, Wolf.” Eva breathed, her eyelids fluttering.


“Hello, Witch,” I answered, trying to staunch the flow of blood with my paws. A man’s hands could have bound up the wound. A man’s voice could have called for help. A wolf could only howl. Eva smiled weakly. Anyone else listening would have heard only growls and yelps, but Eva had always understood my wolf speech. She had always understood all of me. Her hand dropped away. “I can see our ship,” she whispered. A man’s ears wouldn’t have heard her, but I could. I could hear her heart’s rhythm slowing to a death march beat. I could hear the blood bubbling in her lungs. I could hear death’s soft footsteps crushing countless lives in every moment, and the first falling leaves singing lost, lost, lost, as they drifted into oblivion.


“Eva!” I howled, curling up beside her, licking her face, nestling my nose against her cheek. “Eva. Eva. Eva.” I cried her name as the moon sailed across the sky like a great white ship, and the sky lightened from despair to desolation.


 Someone will come, I told myself as the hours marched mercilessly by. Someone will come for Eva. Someone will come to take her home. No one did. Not even Gedi came. Crows came for Bhaltair, and I didn’t try to frighten them off. A few hours after noon, some of the village men came for their fallen neighbor. I listened to them cry his name as they approached. They were slow men, soft and tender, far more tender than the foxes I had once killed for Eva.


Later that night, the crows came for them as well.


The next day, I was a man again—the sort of man who had lived in the town once, had slept wrapped up in a wolf pelt, had played with other boys who had grown up to be men like Bhaltair. I was a man again, and there are certain things a man must do. I picked Eva up. I carried her to her grandmother’s home and placed her on the bed. I remember seeing Gedi waiting for us, stiff and cold in her chair, with a jagged axe wound in her side. I kissed my patient guardian’s cheek, smoothed back her hair, and pulled a blanket over her. I should have said words. A man must always say words. No words came.


The next bit was easy. Wolves can’t light fires, but men can. I found Gedi’s stock of whiskey, took a long slow drink, then poured the rest onto the bed. The tawny liquid splashed across Eva’s cheeks like amber sunlight. There was a wreath of wildflowers lying on the table. I settled it on her head. My woods-witch queen, I thought. Wildflower lady. I still didn’t speak. I could still taste her name on my lips. I could still hear the echo of her name in my ears. But there was only silence in the cabin, when I struck the flint and wrapped Eva and Gedi in their fine red cloaks.


Don’t go into the woods, they say nowadays. There’s a beast in the woods who will tear out your throat and gnaw on your bones. They don’t say it in the town, of course. They don’t say anything at all in the town, because the town is no longer anything at all. The town doesn’t smell of warm bread and fire-smoke anymore. Now it smells of blood and snow and moonlight madness. Now it smells like wolf-town.


April 18, 2020 00:46

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10 comments

Kelechi Nwokoma
21:44 May 07, 2020

It's really nice. I love all your descriptions and your use of metaphors.. Keep it up.

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Des Feller
18:48 May 01, 2020

This story was just as amazing, if even more so, then your last one! I fell in love with the Wolf and the Witch, and I love all of the little pieces of symbolism throughout the whole story. I am so excited for you to continue writing!

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Laiba M
01:21 Apr 30, 2020

Great job, Naomi! I love your stories a lot, especially your descriptions :)

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11:54 Apr 28, 2020

That gave me shivers, it was amazing! After reading the first one, I didn't think this would beat it, but I couldn't stop reading!

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Naomi Coffman
07:05 Apr 29, 2020

Thank you!

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17:16 Apr 23, 2020

Damn, this is wonderful. There have been many, many reworkings of this tale, and it takes a deft touch to write one this original and surprising. It's not easy to go up against the likes of Angela Carter. :) I know that leaving critiques seems to be a thing on this site. I'm new here, so forgive me if I'm totally wrong and overstepping. I only critique things that I think are worth reading. And this very much is. It's faults are few. For me, the first page or two, while (I think deliberately) subtle, could use just a few more words t...

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Naomi Coffman
07:08 Apr 29, 2020

I always appreciate advice and constructive criticism, so thanks for your post! It means a lot to me when people give suggestions for improvement - I am always looking to get better.

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Izzie Q.
17:17 Apr 19, 2020

Yes! I am so happy to find that you wrote another story! Amazing job, along with the last one!

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Izzie Q.
20:45 Apr 23, 2020

It seems as though I check back here every day, waiting for some more stories and I love re-reading the ones you already have, never disappointed. I look forward to more in the future!

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Naomi Coffman
07:08 Apr 29, 2020

Thank you so much!

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