Humanskin: Pack Mentality

Dear Readers: I am in the process of world-building, creating a common setting for a group of stories and longer works. An earlier piece posted on this blog, “A Different Kind of Werewolf Story” introduces a set of characters that I revisit in this piece. Enjoy it, and please let me know what you think! Also, look forward to the next chapter of Afterglow: Godfall–and if you haven’t, take a moment to read the first installment. As always, thank you for your interest and support!  – Alexander C. Chirila

1.

Old Mother had tried to save the little girl, but it was too late. She was supposed to have been the newest member of the pack, one of the youngest awakened to the Totem’s gift. They had watched her for nearly a season. The snows covered the sleeping earth and the vibrant scent-trails of autumn faded into the muted palette of winter. Colorful pockets of warmth were hidden among the blacks, whites, and browns of midseason frost; bear-dens and foxholes, bird’s nests and underground warrens.

The smell of human cookfires drifted in billowing clouds, torn by the wind into bands of thick scent. Burning fat, crisping hides, firewood, death, sweat, blood, and the overpowering fog of humanity hung over the western foothills. How noisy they were! Iron and Snow found it difficult to imagine how the others could have spent so much time surrounded by so much noise. Even at night, in the deep hours between moonset and sunrise, the pack could hear them rustling and breathing, crying aloud in their nightmares and shushing their children to bed.

The little girl would wait until her mother was asleep, wearied by a day of toil in the settlement. Then she would sneak away, silent as a born hunter, and stalk small prey among the dogwoods. She did not hunt as the humans hunted, with traps and tools. She pursued her prey, running it down and biting through fur and flesh with teeth that were made for rending and tearing. There was no question that the Totem was with her.

The pack kept near her, day and night. Her scent-trail became familiar to them.

Rust and Coal adored her. He had even risked contact, though the Alpha had warned them against it. One night the girl had chased down a rabbit; she crouched over it, preparing to tear into its soft abdomen. When the wind changed she caught the pack’s scent and froze. But she wasn’t afraid. She eagerly scanned the trees as if anticipating the appearance of a long-awaited friend.

Rust and Coal slinked cautiously forward, ignoring the warning growls of the Alpha. The girl sighted him. She didn’t move. When he came closer, no more than a breath away from her, she lowered herself down and nudged the fresh kill towards him. He bowed his head and obligingly nipped at the carcass, leaving her the greater portion. When it was done he brushed past her, allowing her to touch him, and loped into the night-shadows of the surrounding forest. The Alpha punished his disobedience, but a little bit of bloodshed wasn’t enough to cause Rust and Coal to regret the risk he had taken.

Soon, the Fever would overtake her. Young as she was, she wouldn’t be able to hide it; the symptoms would manifest and the wolf would wax strong inside of her. Old Mother prepared the ritual tools she would need to free the girl from her original humanskin when the time was right.

They had all been born with an original humanskin. Each of them had been weaned on human milk and nurtured by human mothers. They came to the Totem only later. Overtaken by the Fever, they had chosen exile over quarantine and death. Driven to the staggering precipice of madness by the visions, they had each of them ranged far into the wild. Old Mother had found them all, bringing them flailing and frenzied to her dwelling-place.

She had torn through their tightening shrouds of frail skin. Their screams became howls, echoing among the rounded, forested mountains of Appalachia. Only Iron and Snow had seen the ritual firsthand. Her practiced hand, guided by a bloodline as old as the world, had never failed to release the wolf from the dying chrysalis of human flesh.

At last the Fever came. Her human mother hid her away. A Fever-stricken would not be allowed to live, child or otherwise. It had happened before; an entire settlement wiped out, left rotting under the baking sun and reeking of death.

It had been known by different names in the beginning, when the healers in the World That Ended still believed they could defend their species against it. Before the packs of humankind fell by the droves, rotting alive in their dens while the healthy among them vied like rabid dogs over the corpse of their civilization. By the time the Fever had run its course, the cities were dead, the tribes of humankind scattered into small settlements huddled against the vengeful wilderness. Traces of the Fever still remained, but things were different: the Lineages had awakened, for so long dormant and hidden in the blood of the Old Mothers. Those who belonged to the Lineages were called by the Fever. Some wise-men may have known what it was, having seen it before even in the World That Ended…but most men believed it was the plague returned to finish off the few survivors that had escaped.

They all knew how it was done; all of them except Iron and Snow. The victim would be weak and sluggish for several days. Then, on the fifth day, the delirium would begin. There were fleeting glimpses at first, and strange sounds; a sense of disembodiment. It would progress until it seemed a great crack had appeared in the reality of things, a crack though which poured endless rivers of indescribable vision and sensation. At this point, unless the individual was a solitary wanderer—as Bone and Sand, the ghost-wolf, had been—the settlers would quarantine the Fever-stricken. If the symptoms persisted, as they often did, the victim would be killed and his or her body and belongings burned. His or her family would be quarantined until they were deemed clear of the Fever. This, at least, was the merciful approach.

Mercy was often a luxury of the rational mind.

The little girl’s mother couldn’t keep her condition hidden away. Humans asked too many questions. The pack knew this was coming. The people began to secrete fear. It smoked through the air, a pungent tang that played and tugged at the pack’s instincts.

The day came when an overeager neighbor ran to one of the elders and announced that one of the settlers had been taken by the Fever. That was all it took. Word spread, like maggots through rotting meat, and not an hour passed before the settlers swarmed around the little girl’s dwelling-place. Agitated and gibbering they clustered and gestured. At last the settlers’ leaders came forward and held council.

The men of the encampment chose their brand of mercy. They dragged the poor girl kicking and screaming from her sweat-soaked cot and over to the tanner’s field. They made certain that her flesh did not touch theirs. They threw her down with as much compassion as their terror would allow. One of them drew a pistol. He made ready to shoot her.

Her mother had run after them through a gauntlet of restraining arms and blows, yelling for her daughter. ‘It’s not the Fever,’ she shouted, ‘It’s not the Fever!’ The men did not listen. She threw herself over her daughter and the bullet meant for the little girl found her instead. The crack of the shot echoed against the mountains.

The sky was a thick red color over the empty vastness of the west. Above the mountains the first stars gleamed from the cobalt heights.

The girl managed to squirm out from under her mother’s dying body. Covered in blood, her breath pluming in the winter’s bitter cold, she staggered into the field. She stood there, bewildered. Her eyes scanned the shadows of the woods. She was looking for him. She was looking for Rust and Coal. She could scent him, waiting for her just beyond the field.

She took one step forward, then another. The man with the gun pointed it at her, his hand trembling. The mob surged behind him, urging him to shoot. He swallowed and straightened his arm, trying to call up the strength for it. He failed. He lowered the pistol.

Then the little girl howled.

Rust and Coal went feral, breaking away from the pack and the concealing shadows of the forest. The mob was fixated on the little girl; they didn’t even see him coming. A young male had strayed close to the edge of the woods. He heard the rustle of tall grass and the low growl, turning too late. Rust and Coal hamstrung him; his warning cry turned into a gasping wail.

The crowd looked towards the sound.

The young male’s shrieking warped into a bloody gurgle. Rust and Coal looked up, his muzzle slick with blood, the ribbed cartilage of the boy’s windpipe dangling from his teeth. The man with the pistol trained it on him, but his target was too far and there were too many people in his way. He started to run forward, momentarily forgetting about the little girl. She did not waste the opportunity. She broke into a run, her bound hands stretched out before her.

Rust and Coal darted around the other side, trying to distract the man with the pistol. The mob rippled and shifted like a school of fish surrounded by circling sharks. The girl had almost made it—a few steps further and the welcome dark of the forest would have enfolded her. The pack would have protected her.

But the man with the pistol was not the only man who had brought his weapon. A second, older male brought up his long-barreled rifle and leveled it at the small, fleeing figure. There was just enough light to see her, and that was all he needed. He fired. This was a weapon born of the precise machines that still worked in the World That Ended. The girl’s body was hurled sideways by the impact of the bullet.

Iron and Snow was the closest to her. She was a deer’s long stride away from him. He knew the wound was fatal the moment she hit the ground.

The man with the pistol fired on Rust and Coal and missed. The wolf ran towards the downed girl, pausing long enough to seize her by the fabric of her clothes and drag her into the forest. The two men met in the field and ran forward; after a few paces the one with the long-barreled rifle stopped and gripped the other man’s shoulder.

‘No,’ he said, ‘why bother? That wolf wasn’t the only one; the rest of the pack has to be nearby. They must have smelled the Fever on the girl. Let them have her. They’ll finish her off if my bullet didn’t. We can post a guard to make sure the settlement’s safe.’

‘But she could wander back…the Fever…’

‘Didn’t you see what just happened? Look,’ the older man said, ‘this all went down wrong. Her mother’s dead and the girl will bleed out long before the wolves make a meal out of her. Look at the blood!’ he pointed to the darkened grass, nearly indiscernible now in the gloom.

The younger man relented. ‘Her mother was probably infected anyway,’ he said.

The mob dispersed as the last of the daylight drained behind the world. The wolves waited, protecting the girl in the deeper dark of the forest. They waited for Old Mother to come and take the girl to the Totem’s Pool by the hidden paths of the mountains. Old Mother would surely save her. She was an unparalleled healer. She would save the little girl. The pack would be complete, then. Old Mother would save the little girl.

But the tiny wolf trapped inside that weak, broken shell wasn’t strong enough to hold on. The spirit fled, leaving only the rigid cold behind. By the time Old Mother came, it was too late. The girl was dead. Old Mother gathered the body into her arms and started back, the pack sullenly keeping pace with her steady, trackless step.

 

* * * *

 

This was a Wolves’ Moot; a pack gathering. Old Mother sat on the broken trunk of an old oak felled by lightning a few seasons past. She was silent, listening to the growls, howls, ululations, and subtle variations of the pack’s language. The wolf-speak had come easily to the human-born members of the pack, who even in their former lives could understand the melancholy symphony that haunted the moonlit night.

Rust and Coal was calling for revenge.

Night and Stone, the Alpha and eldest member of the pack, snarled at the younger wolf. Vengeance was not the way of the wolf. If the pack had gotten to the girl earlier, they could have safeguarded her. It was a failure; no more, no less. What would vengeance accomplish? It would draw attention to the pack and to the Totem. The wolves knew what humans did to the sacred. They destroyed it. It was best to move on.

Smoke and Copper moved closer to her mate, her eyes fixed dangerously on Night and Stone. She was careful to moderate her body language, but there was no mistaking the intent in her eyes. Iron and Snow knew she was instigating Rust and Coal to challenge the Alpha; but for all his stubbornness and ferocity, Rust and Coal was not ready to make a bid for leadership. Smoke and Copper was the younger of the two females in the pack. She was also almost feral; more vicious than Rust and Coal, very nearly uncontrollable. Old Mother was the only one she really listened to. She heeled to the Alpha, but only because he dominated her—as he dominated all of them. Old Mother had chosen him first, and he had earned his position many times over. Still, Smoke and Copper did not respond well to his leadership.

Sooner or later, she would goad her mate into challenging Night and Stone. The old wolf would not go easily.

Bone and Sand, the ghost wolf, did not give expression to his thoughts. He never did. He only listened. Iron and Snow suspected that Old Mother knew his mind, as she knew all of their minds. She kept his secrets.

Ice and Soot snapped at Smoke and Copper. It was a warning; she would not abide the younger female’s challenge in front of Old Mother. The pack waited to see whether Smoke and Copper would snap back. Iron and Snow was almost certain she would, but not this time. The younger wolf lowered her head and back-stepped slowly away from the confrontation. Ice and Soot’s curled lips and furrowed snout smoothed, her amber-gold eyes glittering in the moonlight streaming through the trees and setting the small clearing aglow.

‘The humans have done what they always do,’ Old Mother told them. ‘If we attack them, we will have no choice but to protect the Totem at all costs; until all of them are dead or fled. Had we a larger pack, I would drive them from this place. They are too close to the Totem as it is. I fear that it is only a matter of time before the winter drives them deeper into the mountains. Then, we will have a choice to make. But now…’ she sighed, ‘we are not in a position of strength.’

Night and Stone looked at each of them in turn, dominating them, pushing them into submission with an unseen force of presence and strength that did not abide resistance. He would not fall until his ability to dominate the pack visibly weakened. Iron and Snow suspected that Rust and Coal was waiting for that moment. Until then, the unwritten laws that governed their little society would remain the axis around which their actions revolved.

Still, in the World After, things were different. These wolves had been human beings once, and they were able to clothe themselves in human flesh again. Some trace of that humanness lingered, sewn into the mind of the wolf. Was Rust and Coal ambitious enough, reckless enough, to challenge the Alpha before his weakness showed itself?

Iron and Snow loped after Old Mother, leaving the rest of the pack to prepare for the Night Hunt. This was something the young pup loved: to walk beside the Guardian of the Totem, Heiress of the Lineage. If she was so inclined, she would speak her mind to him. He didn’t always understand her thoughts, but it was enough that she trusted him.

She followed an uphill trail that crested one of the smaller peaks in the range. You could see the mighty Atlantic from the promontory, crashing against the eastern hills of the Appalachians. In the distance, over the black sheet of the ocean, lightning flashed behind smoky layers of gray cloud. Thunderheads marched towards the moon, slowly erasing the reflected band of sparkling light that carpeted the waves below.

‘I am disappointed,’ Old Mother said suddenly.

She didn’t turn to Iron and Snow, but spoke out over the steep drop. The wind whisked her voice away, down through the slopes below and the frothing surf beyond. ‘The Lineage must be stronger if we are to hold our own against the settlers. If we cannot grow our numbers, it will be as before, in the World That Ended. They will hunt us down, powerful as we are, and drive the Totem into a silence so final that no upheaval will awaken her again.’

Iron and Snow waited for her to continue, laying his head on his forearms. She said nothing for awhile. The thunderheads overtook the moon; the lightning broke through the cloud bank, streaking through the space between sea and sky.

‘I had counted us fortunate to find a sister so close at hand,’ she said. Now she turned to look down at Iron and Snow. ‘There is nothing quite like the taste of hope turned to bitterness in your mouth. Still, there is one more door open to us.’ Iron and Snow raised his head. Old Mother frowned. ‘When the pack returns from the Night Hunt, I will tell them.’

A Different Kind of Werewolf Story, Part 2

This is the SECOND half of the story. Please see the previous post to start from the beginning. If you enjoy it, please “like” it and share it.

Alexander Chirila

Humanskin, Part 2

We enter the town hall to see the settlers in an uproar, shouting incoherently. The stench is almost overwhelming. Wearing the humanskin dampens our senses, but this sweaty, unwashed, agitated mass of humanity produces a miasma thicker than water. It is profoundly uncomfortable. I have two choices: I can either smell, listen, and feel all of it at once, or I can focus on a single thread of sound and scent.

A noise uncoils itself across the room, like a wave unspooling over the surf. They are saying something, shouting…I know what this is. To call it a ‘trial’ would be a mockery of whatever that word might have meant in the world that ended. There is an accused, there are witnesses, and there is a moderator. Then there is a churn that turns a crowd into a mob. The reality of the thing is simple: either you’re forgiven by the mob or you’re not. If you’re not, there is exile and there is death.

My father had taken me to one of these when I was still a boy. ‘You need to see what a mob is capable of,’ he had said. And I did. They were pronouncing judgment on a thief. Everyone agreed that there was ample testimony: the one witness who claimed that he had seen the accused running away from his house with his daughter’s virginity.

The man begged and pleaded for a mercy that would never come. ‘Never expect mercy from a mob,’ my father had said, ‘anymore than you would expect respect from the vultures who are going to pick out his eyes while he hangs from the old oak tree down the road.’

‘What now?’ Red and Coal mutters.

‘Let’s find out,’ Soot and Snow says, pushing her way into the crowd. Old Wolf grunts and follows, as do we. We are barely noticed; every eye is bent towards the far end of the room, where a dais is separated from the crowd by a polished wooden banister.

Then I see her. I remember her. My wife—Elizabeth. Lizzie.

My will is overtaken; something from deep inside my mind comes tunneling forward. I am conscious of my pack-mates moving towards me. White and Gray is looking at me with concern. Red and Coal is shaking his head. Soot and Snow realizes what is happening almost instantly. But it is Old Wolf I fear, who is looking at me steadily with those yellow eyes of his. I am helpless to acknowledge him. All I can do is listen as one of the elders—Nick’s father!—raises his hand to quiet the surging crowd.

‘This woman,’ Mr. Robbins motions towards my wife, ‘stands accused of a most uncommon crime.’ He pauses for a moment, trying to find the words to express his thoughts. ‘In the world that ended, many of us believed in impossible things. Many of us believed in salvation. That the world would begin anew. Well here we are, in the same world. You have told me some tall tales, I believe.

‘Now I know that you’re all scared. These attacks have taken an incalculable toll on all of us. Many of us have lost loved ones,’ he nods to a grim-faced man, ‘but we cannot allow our fear to drive us into suspicion and superstition,’ he spits out the dirty word. ‘We have buried these beliefs alongside the bodies of our fathers and grandfathers. We have left them in empty churches, where they belong, among the ruins of a world that we can never go back to. This town hall was built sixteen years ago. It was the first building that we labored to build out of this wilderness. This is what we believe in. We can’t afford to resurrect the ghosts of our past; they led us astray once before. We have a chance to preserve whatever good we can. Witch hunts, inquisitions—let’s just leave those things behind.

‘Please, I implore you…tell me the truth.’

The crowd roars at him, a barely restrained animal baring its teeth at a trainer standing too close. ‘You’ll get the truth!’ a woman cries out. ‘The truth!’ an elderly man warbles incoherently. Mr. Robbins raises his hands and nods.

‘Let’s hear it then, from our witness. Mrs. Miller, please come forward and have a seat right here…’ he taps on one of the several chairs arranged opposite Lizzie. Where is our son? I start looking around. My pack-mates regard me warily. White and Gray nods at me, trying to remind me of what we’re here for. None of this matters to the pack. If anything, this is an inconvenience: a mob is harder to scatter, single-minded as it is. Soon, Black and Rust will set up his distraction to lure the settlers out into the open and towards the outskirts of the encampment…

I remember Mrs. Miller. She was our neighbor, an old widowed woman whose husband had died of the fever. She was a comfort to me after my father died, when I lived alone in the years before I married my wife. What could she have to say against Lizzie? She was midwife at our son’s birthing!

After a bit of prompting, my former neighbor begins. ‘I want you to know that I understand what you said before, Mr. Robbins, about superstition. In the world that ended, my mother was a good Christian woman. She went to Church near every day and prayed for salvation. She used to tell me that the world would end, but that she and I had nothing to worry about. She’s been dead near thirty years now, and I haven’t set foot in a church since. This isn’t about that. What I seen, I seen with my own eyes. What I tell you is the truth, and you can all decide for yourselves.’

‘Well go on then, Mrs. Miller, and say what you have to say.’

‘Just a little over a year ago,’ she begins, ‘I saw something. Something old. Something evil. Lizzie was struggling with her newborn. Her husband had been taken by the fever,’ she whispers the last word. ‘After he left, she had a hard time of it. I tried to help as much as I could, but she just kept getting worse. I remember talking to her but once before it happened. She told me that she thought maybe her child had the fever, too. I know the signs of the fever, and that baby was healthy! She kept on about how sick he was, so I decided to keep an eye on her. If she decided to take the baby into the forest, like they used to do when the fever was bad—I would follow her and try to stop her.’

What is she talking about? Lizzie would never…!

‘Why now, Mrs. Miller?’ the schoolteacher asks. ‘Why did you keep this to yourself for so long?’

She looks at him as if his question had been asked in another language. ‘No one would’ve believed me!’ she shouts. ‘With all these wolf attacks, I had to come forward. You don’t understand. I saw it with my own eyes. Meeting in secret with an old crone in the wilderness…!’

My head snaps towards my pack-mates, immobilized in their places. ‘…some kind of witch-woman. Lizzie brought her child with her. I followed her, you see? The night she took her child away, I followed her deep into the mountains. I kept thinking she would dash the boy’s head against a stone or just leave him crying somewhere. She just kept walking as if she knew right where she was going in all that darkness! We come across a river and she tracks it upstream to a cascade, well into this narrow valley on the other side of Clingmans Dome.’

Red and Coal slinks away from the crowd. His hands are shaking. Soon, he will break free of his humanskin. I understand the implications of what Mrs. Miller has just said. If we fail tonight, they will come into the heart of our territory and destroy the Totem. I can feel my hackles threatening to shear through this paper-thin skin. The crowd waits. I can almost feel it about to start. I am hoping that it will—these memories, these feelings—I want them torn asunder in the ripping freedom of release. This humanskin is choking me, strangling my mind.

‘They made some kind of pact that night,’ Mrs. Miller says. ‘She and the crone. I know it. Lizzie left the witch’s hovel alone. Don’t you see? She sacrificed her own babe to that monstrous woman…! I couldn’t just leave. I needed to see what the crone intended to do with the child. I creep up to the window unseen…’

Something isn’t right with this. Old mother may be old, but her senses are as keen as any of ours. Mrs. Miller wouldn’t have been able to creep at all without tripping over her own feet, much less unseen, and much less after a grueling hike through the mountains. Unless I never really knew her at all.

‘…and I see the old witch holding a knife to the child, preparing to cut him open on an altar! Surrounded by the talismans and charms of her foul religion! She howled as I ran from that place, howled like a wolf!’

Our son? What did she do to our son? I stumble backward in confusion. I remember the day he was born. My baby boy.

There’s an expression I never understood before I met Elizabeth. ‘Love at first sight.’ Before her, it was just another one of those sayings that have no context in this world.She was alone in a world where women who walk alone rarely meet with a kind fate. Most of the women who abandon the dead cities without a partner or companion do not survive long unless they join themselves to a larger group. Lizzie walked alone and unafraid. No one had ever seen anything like it. She was beautiful and raw, unapologetically merciless with anyone who crossed her.

I eventually learned that she had been tracking her mother. The woman had left her years ago, but Lizzie had come across someone who insisted that she was still alive. Lizzie told me that her mother had ‘gone crazy’ just before she fled from the dead city; that she had fallen terribly ill. It wasn’t the fever, and it wasn’t any kind of sickness that she’d seen before.

‘I felt like she was in two worlds at the same time,’ Lizzie told me, ‘this one, and another one that no one could see but her. Sometimes I think I see it too.’

We were married two years later. She told me that she knew she would marry me when she realized that she had given up on finding her mother. Our boy was born shortly afterward.

The crowd, setting free its own true face, rumbles and shakes, churning itself into a mob. The wooden floorboards thunder with their stamping feet. Lizzie didn’t stir in the slightest during the whole proceeding; now she rises and looks out over the thrashing mass of people.

Mr. Robbins is yelling for the crowd to just calm down, but there is no calming down. ‘This is insanity!’ he shouts, ‘Madness! How can you believe this testimony? Come now, listen to some reason…’ at last the crowd seethes back, momentarily rebuked. ‘Good, good,’ the schoolteacher breathes heavily. ‘Now Mrs. Miller, what exactly is it that you expect us to believe? That an old witch in the woods sacrificed this woman’s child in some occult ritual? Why, that sounds like a fairy tale!’

I am hardly listening now—my head is spinning—why would old mother have lied to us? Why would she have lied to me? Why would she have told us that she had found the infant drowned in the cascade pool? Old mother had made it seem a predestined thing, that a woman of her lineage should have tried to drown her firstborn in waters sacred to the Totem she unknowingly served. ‘She must have thought that she was destroying something monstrous,’ old mother had said, ‘but the spirit inside her knew otherwise. She was simply giving her baby to the only power capable of ensuring his safety.’

When I saw Black and Rust for the first time, he was a sodden little thing peering at us with large, frightened eyes. A wolf pup cradled against old mother’s bosom. It wasn’t until he took on the humanskin for the first time that we understood what he was: a wolf-born, the first of his kind.

‘I don’t expect you to believe me,’ Mrs. Miller says, rising from her chair. ‘I expect you to believe what you see, just like I did.’ She digs her hand into the pocket of her homespun dress and holds out a familiar object—a ceremonial knife.

It is the same knife used by old mother to shear through my humanskins on the night of my rebirth. ‘It is time,’ she said, hovering over me. My last human memory is of old mother, invoking the Totem and holding that dagger with both hands above her head, thrown back in the ecstasy of her magic. A brazier from the world that ended burned with hot coals to my right. Gusts of cold, rain-sprinkled wind blew into the dim room, tossing the ragged old tapestries that hung over the windows. I tried to rise and push her away from me, but I was too weak.

Mrs. Miller stabs the knife into the table and says, ‘This is what the witch used to cut the child! This is the murder weapon!’

Old mother thrust the dagger into my chest, just underneath my floating ribs. I expected her to push through but she leaned forward, concentrating, parting the skin horizontally across my abdomen. When the flesh was opened she extended her right arm towards the wound. I stared—way beyond pain or shock—as she pushed her wrinkled old hand through the divided skin and into my body. She reached in, the blood pooling and soaking around her thin forearm. Her hand clawed through me until her fingers closed around my beating heart. With a triumphant grin she withdrew, gingerly holding the organ in her hand, pumping in her palm.

She arched her back and howled. She screamed and wailed her incantations, holding the my heart like some offering to a deity stepping through a wound in the skin of reality. When she was done she bent forward again and pushed the heart through the cut, stretching forward with her arm until it seemed as if she wanted to crawl entirely inside my body.

‘Blessed are you by the Spirit of the Wolf,’ she cried, lifting me into her arms as if I were no more than a stick figure. She carried me outside her hovel and to the cascade pool, laying me down into the cold waters.

I was somewhere between life and death.

Lizzie suddenly stands up, her fists clenched and her thin frame shuddering with anger. She starts to move towards Mrs. Miller, but then she stops and scans the room, her nostrils flaring. She’s looking for something…or someone. Then she sees me.

Lizzie starts walking towards me. The crowd is pushing and pulling, beginning to turn, congeal, and sharpen itself into a mob. My pack-mates have already scattered to the far corners of the room. I need to talk to Lizzie.

I push my way towards her, locking eyes with her as I move forward. When I get close enough, I seize her my her arms and bring her close to me. ‘How do you know old mother? What did she do to our son?’ I growl into her face. She is trembling and shaking her head, her eyes wide and staring at me. I ask her again, shaking her roughly. Somewhere in the background, I hear an impossible gargle distorting into a howl that only a wolf could produce. People in the crowd are screaming.

Lizzie turns to me and brings her lips close to my ear. ‘She’s lying,’ Lizzie whispers to me, ‘I sent him to you. I knew you were still out there…’ How could she have known?

She turns away to look. It is impossible not to. Old Wolf is tearing free of his humanskin.

The Totem wraps us in humanskin, but it is an illusion. It feels real, to both ourselves and to anyone who doesn’t pay too much attention—but it’s a veil. We are wolves, a new species of monster born together with a new world. We really are something new. When we shed the humanskin, there is no bone-breaking, agonized transformation. It is subtle, almost impossible for the human eye to register. I see it—and so does Lizzie.

Old Wolf’s humanskin sighs into a curtain of vapor, like moisture revealing a seam in the wall of reality. The beast comes out, parting the curtain and taking shape like a shadow imbued with sudden form and substance. To the human eye, this all happens in less than a second.

When it happens, the humans’ reaction is something to see. In the world that ended, it would have been worse; how cowardly they were by the end! When it all came crashing down around their heads, many of the survivors envied the fever-stricken. Five to seven days of agony compared to watching the husk of civilization break apart.

‘They almost stopped believing in monsters,’ Mr. Robbins once said to me. ‘They managed to convince themselves that they weren’t real. Real monsters existed only in stories and nightmares, fictions and hallucinations. There were only monstrous people. The beast was in the mind.

In this new world, the real monsters have returned.

If they were ever truly in our minds, they must have crawled out of the broken skulls of the billions that died when the world ended.

Nowadays, humans don’t scare so easy. Most of the people flee the town hall in a panicked frenzy, but the stalwart remain; those who carved this settlement out of the wilderness with their bare hands. About twelve settlers stay. I recognize all of them from my old life, but they wouldn’t recognize me. My humanskin is not the same.

When I lived here, there were only seven shotguns, eleven pistols, two rifles, and enough ammunition to keep the settlement safe under normal circumstances. Two of the shotguns are here, and I know who’s holding them—Mickey Donahue and Alan Griselli, refugees from what used to be New York City. Otherwise, unless things changed, the first town rule is that no one carry firearms to a public meeting. Tensions were always high, and one of the first incidents that provided a precedent for that ordnance cost ten lives over a petty dispute.

Old Wolf charges, his jaws open, the skin of his snout pulled back and his teeth—still sharp for all his years—snapping with an audible crack that I can hear above the yelling of the settlers. I step in front of Lizzie and push her behind me. Old Wolf leaps forward, a blur of yellow eyes and gnashing fangs. How quickly he moves! I brace my arms, knowing even as I do that his massive jaws can close over both my wrists and snap them like dry branches. I am ready to sacrifice my arms to protect my throat, but Old Wolf lowers his head and slams into me. I am thrown backward several feet, and he is already over me before I have a chance to raise my head. He snarls at me, defenseless beneath him. I know what he is asking me to do.

He is asking me to submit.

Behind him, a man grabs Lizzie and holds her arms behind her back. Several others cluster around him; one of them slaps her across the cheek. Her hair whips around her face with the force of the impact. I can hear her snarling. She struggles against her captor, her eyes locked on mine. Across from her, White and Gray paws at the wooden floor and mutters a nearly inaudible growl that I understand well enough: now isn’t the time.

I said I would kill Old Wolf tonight.

The doors to the town hall burst open. One of the night watchmen staggers in, his clothing in tatters and his intestines snaking out from between his clutching fingers. Is this the distraction Black and Rust had in mind? I expect him to burst through the doorway with blood around his mouth and gore hanging from his fangs. Instead, two more settlement men come shuffling in, holding a bulk of matted fur and caked blood between them. If not for all the competing scents in the town hall, I would have known sooner that it was Black and Rust.

In the middle of a transformation, we really do think with two minds. The wolf was nearly feral, a confused mess of anger and survival instinct. As for my human mind…She said that she had send him to me. Our son. Why didn’t old mother tell me? Why didn’t she tell me that Black and Rust was my son? My son! What have they done to my son? Old mother once told that me that the most dangerous part of the transformation is when both minds vie for dominance over the Spirit. ‘The human spirit is more cunning,’ she told me, ‘but the wolf spirit is older.’

The two settlement men throw their burden down across the floor of the town hall. It is a calculated move. The others had been trying to stay hidden, letting Old Wolf distract the mob; they had slunk into the shadows and side chambers, waiting for the signal to attack. Now they spring forward, unable to hold back from assessing our pack-mate’s condition and protecting him from further assault. I am no different. I lunge forward across the floor. The settlers back away, but more slowly. The men are starting to realize that they have the upper hand here. The element of surprise we were depending on is lost.

The pup is alive, but seriously wounded. They shouldn’t have been able to capture him. Black and Rust moves faster than any human. He is stealthier than all of us; stronger, deadlier. My son! How did they know he was coming? How did they find him? The rest of the pack circles Black and Rust, their hackles raised, an unbroken harmony of vengeful growling undercutting the fatal quiet of the hall. We are in defensive mode, uncertain of what to do next. Normally, we would all look to Old Wolf for guidance—but he has betrayed us. Why did he attack Lizzie? What is wrong with him?

‘You see with your own eyes!’ Mrs. Miller yells, holding old mother’s ceremonial knife.

Mickey Donahue steps forward and levels the shotgun at Red and Coal. Soot and Snow yips and darts in front of her mate. Mickey fires, the buckshot taking her full on the side. She tumbles away, skidding to a bloody stop against the far wall. Another man, holding a knife, brings his arm back in readiness to stab it through her. Red and Coal is in motion already. He leaps towards the second man and bites through his forearm, pulverizing the bone and turning the muscle to useless pulp.

White and Gray launches herself at Mickey Donahue; he brings up his hands to defend himself, but she doesn’t hold back the way Old Wolf had done with me. The stock of the gun strikes her face, turning her away just enough so that her jaws close around the man’s elbow. She bites down and nearly severs the arm at the joint. She is about to crunch through his face when Old Wolf advances and locks his jaws around her neck. Her pulls her away from the struggling settler and throws her roughly against the floor. She thrashes and snaps but he forces her down, biting until she stops fighting.

He is trying to force her to submit. She is resisting him with every ounce of her strength, her muscles rippling underneath her fur. If she doesn’t yield, he will keep biting until his fangs break through her skin. I want to ask him what he thinks he’s doing. I want to ask him why he betrays us. But I don’t have the words anymore. I have only action. I spring forward, crashing my right shoulder into his flank. He rolls away from White and Gray and my vision narrows to nothing but him: I am ready for this confrontation. I am ready to take my rightful place as alpha.

White and Gray steps between us, tilting her head to look at me. If you were to translate every nuance and gesture of body language expressed by every creature, you may appreciate the immense vocabulary at our command. Add to that the unique scent attached to every emotion on the spectrum, and you may understand that the wolf can discern more in a single moment than what can be spoken in many. Now is not the time, she tells me.

The men to my right are still holding Lizzie. Red and Coal has driven the settlers away from his wounded mate; those who didn’t choose flight chose death. My son’s wolf blood has already sealed his wounds.  The other settlers are likely regrouping for another assault. Those that return will return with weapons. If we stay here, they will finish us. Much as I hate having to back down, White and Gray is right. There is no disgrace in shifting my attention to the more immediate threat.

The schoolteacher looks directly at me for the first time. ‘I know you,’ he says. I stare at him. There is something off about him. I didn’t notice it before, but it seems obvious to me now. My eyes focus on Mrs. Miller. I see the same strange effect. Their eyes don’t match their expressions. They don’t even match their faces.

They are wearing humanskins.

They are not wolves underneath. I would have known. Lizzie would have known. ‘What are you?’ I shout at Mrs. Miller. ‘You’re no wolf!’ Those blessed by the Spirit of the Wolf know one another, regardless of the humanskins they wear.

‘Territory is power,’ she says. ‘That old hag of yours has been snatching up more than she deserves. And this pup,’ she motions disdainfully toward Black and Rust, ‘is a player best removed from the game early. As is your wife…’ She brandishes the ceremonial knife and moves toward Lizzie.

The men holding my wife stiffen when Mrs. Miller moves forward, uncertain of what to do. In that, they give themselves away: this whole affair has been coordinated. Some of them knew what to expect when Old Wolf shed his humanskin before their eyes. Clearly, some of them knew where to find my son. Why would Mrs. Miller have chosen this night, of all nights, to publically denounce Lizzie? She must have known we were going to attack. Old Wolf called the attack. My wife had led a rival to her own mother’s den. I have learned all I can from this vantage, wearing the humanskin. The wolf will be able to tell so much more.

When the decision is made to shed the humanskin, there is no cunning, no intelligence, no anchor of self-identity that can prevent the wolf from coming through. It is a release, not an agony, like relaxing a muscle cramping with tension.

I unloose the wolf-mind, shedding the illusion as if it was an awkward facial expression held for too long. I pass through the tear in the wound between worlds. On the other side is strength, speed, vitality, and clarity. Perfect clarity. On the other side is my true form.

The last question in my mind while wearing the humanskin—what are they?—is still my first priority. I need to identify the threat. I sift through the mélange of scents clouding the town hall: human, dog, rat, ant, fly, blood, feces, urine, bile, phlegm, tobacco, wood, stone, earth, plant, cooked meat, sickness…wolf…and something else…something that doesn’t fit…

Serpent.

I focus my senses on each of them, trying to learn as much as I can before springing into action. The woman—Mrs. Miller—smells like old mother, but different. With old mother it is human and wolf and…magic. The man—Mr. Robbins—smells like serpent tinged with the familiar, subtle odor of humanskin. Old Wolf smells like…disease. Sickness. Like an animal bitten by a venomous snake. And Lizzie…I know that scent. Human and wolf and magic.

Three targets, three choices. Red and Coal moves forward and catches my eye. He is ready. I look down at Black and Rust, training my senses on him; he is conscious, playing possum. White and Gray is dutifully lowering her head to Old Wolf, but things have changed. The men holding Lizzie are coming around to realize that they aren’t in control of anything. They are surrounded by monsters.

They look to the schoolteacher for direction, but Mr. Robbins only stares at me and says: ‘You are not the only monsters born into this new world. The Great Totems have all returned, choosing their blessed ones from among the survivors of the world that ended.’ He suddenly drops to his belly. ‘You may play at wearing humanskins, but to you they will always be cumbersome. They are like gloves to us. You knew me when you were children. I insinuated myself into this community long before the big bad wolf came huffing and puffing. I was there in the grass, waiting for the best time to strike.’

The magic of transformation is the same, but the movement is different. The humanskin becomes dry and brittle, crumbling away from the serpent beneath. The beast itself is massive. He unravels himself from between worlds one great length after another, until it seems the whole hall is filled with his coils. I briefly hope that his bulk limits his speed, but he demonstrates his impossible swiftness only a moment later—darting towards Alan Griselli. Alan fires a round, but his arms are shaking and his senses are static with terror. The shot clips the serpent’s scales, shattering a few into translucent shards. The monster that was Mr. Robbins swirls around Alan, crushing every bone in his body with an audible series of wet pops and crunches. When he is a boneless ruptured mess the serpent gapes open its muscled mouth and leers over him; it funnels down, swallowing the poor man whole. It gulps and undulates, forcing him into its body while the pack watches.

I should have anticipated that those blessed by the Spirit of the Serpent would move with unimaginable speed. The men holding Lizzie let her go and flee from the town hall. Mrs. Miller laughs and plunges the ceremonial knife into my wife’s belly. Lizzie cries out, clutching at the old woman’s arms as if they were two boxers embracing after a fierce exchange of blows.

Black and Rust ends his charade. With a rumbling growl that passes into the dreadful silence of an unrestrained attack, he lunges at Mrs. Miller. The serpent lashes out at him, knocking him aside with a whip of coiled muscle. My son yips in frustration and rebounds, charging at the monster. The snake tries to wind itself around him; he is too quick and too agile. He evades every turn and winding strike, but he is on the defensive. I look towards Red and Coal, who acknowledges my signal. In that moment, all rivalries are forgiven and set aside. A pack member is in danger. My brother sprints into the battle. Soot and Snow, unwilling to let her mate face the threat alone, forces herself up. The ghastly wound on her side is closed, but she’s lost a good deal of blood. She shouldn’t be standing, much less fighting, but that doesn’t matter. My pack-mates charge the serpent.

‘There is an old story that the Great Beasts came first,’ Mr. Robbins once said. ‘In the world that ended, people uncovered their bones buried in a history book of stone. But bones are physical remains. What happened to the spirits of the great beasts? We can argue that they didn’t have any…but what if,’ his voice lowered as the class listened enrapt, ‘they just went into hiding? What if they were just waiting while the humans scurried arrogantly about and proclaimed them gone forever? We once celebrated our power over them by wearing their faces as masks. What if they are doing the same, celebrating their return?’

Lizzie’s broken away from the snake-mother, trying to stem the flow of blood from her abdomen. The witch turns too late to evade my attack. I come in from below, angling my head so that I can open my mouth over her belly and rip through the flesh. She screams and staggers away; I taste blood and muscle in my mouth. I press the assault, nipping at her hamstring as she stumbles in agony towards the exit. She goes down, hissing and dragging herself across the floor. Stepping over her, I give her a muttered growl that I hope conveys everything I feel for her. Then I close my teeth over her face and grind through her skull as if it were a walnut. I relish my kill—what a delicacy!—but I have to restrain myself. Lizzie is bleeding out and the settlers are returning, no doubt armed with every firearm in the settlement.

To my left, Old Wolf is holding his own against White and Gray, but she’s younger, faster, and stronger. She’s playing it safe, knowing that he will exhaust himself long before she does. Behind me, Mr. Robbins thrashes in his death throes as my son, my brother, and Soot and Snow finish him off, crunching through the bones of his spine.

I catch her scent a second before I see her. How did she get inside so quickly? Old mother is here, kneeling over my human wife and administering a pungent tincture that smells like healing. I turn to the battle between our former alpha and his mate. Old Wolf seems to have caught a second wind; he hooks White and Gray’s leg with a bite, severing the tendon. She stumbles, yelps when she puts her weight down, and slips.

I don’t waste any time. Old Wolf sees me coming and turns, but I am counting on that. I have one shot at this. I lower myself when I get close, feigning a posture of submission. He makes to get a hold of my throat. I lunge upward and bite as deep into his neck as my fangs can find purchase. He tries to pull away, but I clench my jaws and pull against him. The serrated backs of my canines cleave through the muscle and tissue of his throat. When he succeeds in jerking his head away, most of his windpipe catches between my teeth.

I can taste the sickness in him. The serpent-mother corrupted him somehow. She must have taken him when he wore the humanskin; otherwise he would have sensed what she was. ‘Have you met Mrs. Miller’s new squeeze?’ Lizzie was always fond of using expressions from the world that ended. ‘He’s an older gentleman from one of the dead cities further south. Atlanta, they used to call it. He’s been on his own for quite awhile, hunting and trapping in the marshes near the bay. He’s a bit strange, and there’s something about him I find unnervingly familiar. I keep thinking I’ve seen him before.’

‘Strange? Everyone around here’s strange, Lizzie.’

She’d laughed. ‘Fine. How about this, then: I saw him around back one evening, just outside the light of the torch behind our house. I could swear that his eyes glowed in the darkness. He walked off towards the mountains, and I kept watching him. I’m telling you, when he got out past the road he disappeared. A second later I saw a wolf run off into the forest…’

‘Wait…this was at night? You can’t see anything past the road, even when there’s a full moon! Lizzie, if you’re going to tell me stories…’

Old mother is already administering to Soot and Snow. Lizzie is standing, a poultice binding her wound closed. We have to go, she says to me, tell your pack that it’s time.

My pack.

I mutter a soft growl of command. The others snap to attention. Old mother returns to Lizzie’s side and nods at me; she and her daughter will take care of themselves. I run towards the window on the far side of the hall. I tuck my head down and propel myself through the glass, landing at a run and taking off through the back ways of the settlement. Through the communal herb garden, past Mr. Frederick’s house, down the dirt road leading past the tannery, and into the relief of the dark woods. I know my pack is behind me; I can hear and distinguish their individual gaits and scents. Soot and Snow is keeping up. She will need to rest, but not before we are well into the forest and over the ridge nearest the encampment.

White and Gray paces beside me. My eyes catch hers. You are the alpha now, she says. But that’s not all she says. My human wife is a living heir to the lineage of our Totem. My human mind, with all its memories and sentiments, is still mated to Lizzie—now more than ever. But the wolf has already chosen White and Gray. Black and Rust, loping ahead to my right, is invigorated by our victory. He is Elizabeth’s son; he is our son.

I can’t help but wonder how many lineages exist in this new world, whether we will vie with other monsters for territory. How many of them wear humanskin? How many of them will consider themselves our enemy?

I remember sitting with Lizzie on the ridge overlooking the settlement. ‘Do you think we’ll make it this time?’ Lizzie asked me.

‘I don’t know,’ I answered. ‘They say everything is different. Mr. Robbins once told me that time is cyclical. The age of humanity has ended, he said. Things are going back to beginning; back to an age of gods and monsters.’

‘Maybe we were the monsters,’ Lizzie said.

A Different Kind of Werewolf Story

What follows is the first half of a story entitled “Humanskin.” It presents a different take on traditional werewolf mythology, employing a setting and perspective that is unique and provocative. If you enjoy it, please “like” it.  Share this narrative with anyone you believe may appreciate it. I write first and foremost for my audience, so let me know if I have one! Thank you for your time, and I hope you enjoy it. Look for the second half of the story to appear soon.

Alexander Chirila 2013

 

Humanskin

I am going to kill Old Wolf today.

The others are expecting this. They see me trying him. I know that, when I was a man, I would not have killed him. I would not have killed anyone. But it is good that I should kill Old Wolf today. It is good that I should take his place as alpha.

Tonight, we hunt with purpose.

The humans’ dwelling-places are encroaching. They do as they did before; they burn, they destroy, they spread and they consume. We will remind them that this is our territory. They will come for us, but we know their weapons. We know their movements. We know their scent.

We run between the dogwoods and falling leaves, quickly over the uneven earth and through the tall grass. Winter is in the bitter wind, in the early morning frost. We lope alongside a river. It is clean, good water. Dark, slippery pebbles shift as we pad upstream. The mountains are blue in the predawn. The distance between their round, forested peaks is measured in shades of blue.

I can smell a buck somewhere on an adjoining peak, separated by a narrow valley. I am hungry, but I can wait. Normally, White and Gray would break off from the pack and see to her own belly. Even she obeys tonight.

She knows that I want her, that I would take her as a mate. She belongs to Old Wolf, and he guards her jealously. He is old, and his eyes are weak. He is no longer fit to be the alpha. It is time for him to find a new place.

The wind shifts, west to east. The scent-trails of cookfires cut through the forest in visible ribbons. On the surface of the ground, there is a fine mesh of varied smells. The more intense seem to move and shift, while those weathered down by time and season are still and faint. There are trails within this network; the footprints of an animal, the burrowing of insects. Our own signatures mark our territory like signposts stapled to trees.

I glance to my right—Black and Rust is darting agilely through a tumble of boulders; young, strong, and just coming of age. Full of piss and vinegar. Damn fool made a play for Soot and Snow last night, but my brother checked him. Nearly took his eyes, and would have served him right. Old Wolf intervened, but Red and Coal nearly made the bid for alpha there and then. Better that he didn’t. My brother should know that my time has come.

* * * *

I don’t like wearing humanskin. I must have been comfortable in it once, when it was mine. I just want to claw it off now. It feels fragile, thin, vulnerable. When I wear it, I remember snatches of things, like pieces of dry tendon sticking to an old bone left out in the sun. I can’t put them together.

Human speech is getting more difficult. I don’t talk to the others—there’s no need. I can read their body language better than if they were whispering their innermost thoughts into my ear.

I’m shivering. It’s harder to feel things, sense things, smell things. I have to paw through all this debris in my mind—I want to see my family again—to find the simplest thing…

For all his weaknesses, Old Wolf remembers everything. He remembers when he wore his own humanskin. He remembers himself. He walks upright without difficulty. The first time I walked upright, I tottered and reeled, flailing my arms like a bird with broken wings. I’ve gotten better since then, but the pebbles are slippery with mist thrown off from the cascade pool. My brother laughs when I fall—he is not my brother—and I try to growl at him. My throat cannot make the same sounds.

Black and Rust changes so quickly. He dons the humanskin smoothly, effortlessly, and it is an irony that a born wolf should so easily wear the mask of a boy. It is a face I always think I recognize. He watches me clutch at the embankment for support, standing with his flat white teeth showing in his face. Impudent pup.

I see White and Gray rising from a stand of cattails, her smooth shoulders flexing as she stretches. I must have wanted other human females—I loved my wife—when I was a man. Then, their skin must not have seemed so thin, or delicate; their shape must not have seemed so awkward and ill-suited to the harshness of the unforgiving earth. She is different. Somehow the wolf is visible, like a new moon on a clear night.

There is an impulse that tears through every single coherent thought, an electric need snagged on an exposed livewire. I just want to take all this energy and do something with it. I want to fight, I want to hunt, I want to range over the wide earth…

She soothes me.

My brother and his mate help one another rise. Red and Coal casts a vicious human eye at Black and Rust. It is the eye of jealousy. He is right to be anxious. When Black and Rust grows, he will become the strongest among us. He is a born wolf. When the time comes, he will make a play for Soot and Snow, and there is a chance he will emerge the stronger. I know that my own time as alpha will be short, when he grows. It is a thing as inevitable as the turning of the world in the dark.

Further up the ridge, away from the cascade pool and the Totem who guards it, there is a ramshackle little hovel assembled from bits and pieces of the world that came before. The world that ended. The old woman who assembled it is the last living heir of an ancient lineage dedicated to the service of the Totem. The Totem herself is a focal point, a living crossroads between worlds.

‘Very few people know about the Totems,’ my wife told me once. We used to walk together for hours to get away from the settlement. Our normal route would take us west, towards one of the many decayed roads that linked the dead cities together. On this day, we went into the mountains.

She would tell me stories of her life in the dead city; about the gangs, the fever breakouts, the starvation, paranoia, and violence. When I asked her why anyone would cling to those crumbling tombs of glass and steel she told that me that many people believe the wilderness is worse—reclaimed by ‘a Mother Nature pissed off at the world.’ Yes, I would tell her, the earth is pitiless and unfriendly…but at least it is alive.

She would also tell me stories about Her Great Journey South, a lonely exodus of refugees that trekked the abandoned roads in search of new homes and new lives. I always imagined that if you could fly above the country, as they say people once did, you would see campfires flickering here and there in the blackness between settlements. Wandering bands of refugees huddling over their light, surrounded by dangerous mystery.

Lizzie was huddled around one of these lights on the night she heard the story, in the company of a strange group of travelers—they were wolves wearing humanskin—who explained that ‘when the world ended, it left a wound. The wound had been there for a long time, but the people had sewn it up with their roads and machines, skyscrapers and subterranean tunnels. The wound bled inside, never clotting up. There was too much poison thinning the blood. But afterward the Fever, with no people to keep stitching the wound, the sutures broke open and the tainted blood poured out. But that’s how it’s done—the poison needs to come out so that the blood can run pure again.

‘When the earth took back what was hers, her children came with her. The Spirits of things. The Totems. They spring up in places where the pure blood flows again. There are people who can see them. They say that in the world of man, the medicine of the Spirits was quieted; but after the world ended, it was reignited. Old lineages that had dripped sleeping down the generations were awakened to power.

Old Wolf is already speaking to old mother by the time the rest of us drag our awkward bodies up the trail and into the clearing. Black and Rust is probably inside already, dining on the lavish meals she prepares for us. ‘I used to cook,’ she once told me, ‘but I have no children to cook for except for the six of you. And you’—she’d laughed in a way that reminded me of a little girl bounding through a field of wildflowers—‘can’t enjoy what I cook unless you wear the humanskin.’

It is she who advises Old Wolf, and we who listen. It is she who knows when the Totem will sheathe us in humanskin, that we may walk among our enemies.

‘What news?’ Old Wolf asks her.

She glances at me. Does she know that I will kill him tonight? Of course she knows. She will say nothing of my intentions to him. She never interferes in the business of the pack.

‘The humans are gathering tonight,’ she says, ‘to deliberate.’

Black and Rust appears in the doorway behind the old woman, his mouth stained with elderberry juice, his eyes glaring. Of all of us, he is the fiercest defender of the Totem. She is at the heart of our territory; she is the caretaker of the blood that binds us to one another and to our ancestors. To him, she is an undying surrogate to replace the mother that tried to sacrifice him in his infancy.

Old Wolf growls; he does not seem to suffer the strictures of his humanskin throat. ‘Their hunting parties kill our brothers and sisters. They push closer to the Totem with each season. Any further and they will find her resting-place. I know what humans do to the sacred.’

He knew. Old Wolf was among the first to be given the Spirit of the Wolf after the wilderness swarmed over the empty habitations of the world that ended.

‘You have harried them for too long,’ old mother says. ‘Now it is time to go for the jugular.’ She grins and draws a bony finger across her thin neck. ‘Go in among their dwelling-places; attend this gathering and be wary of their suspicions. Your attacks will have stirred them into a vengeful frenzy—but this is what we intended. They fight for their survival. We fight for our dominion.’ Her eyes narrow. ‘Show them the boundaries of their territory.’

‘Let me be the one to lure them,’ Black and Rust says, ‘I am the fastest of the pack.’ Old Wolf looks at my brother. Red and Coal says nothing, but his silence is plain enough to understand. The alpha grunts, and the upstart pup bears his flat human teeth in a triumphant snarl.

With the matter settled, the others are ushered into the hovel by the old woman. I remain outside for a moment, staring at an old tin board with the drawing of a woman holding a glass Coca-Cola bottle. I remember that drawing. Old Matheson’s General Store. Trinkets and relics from the World Before. My father loved that store; for every derelict and ruin of bits he could tell the most wondrous stories.

‘You came from this place,’ Old Wolf was saying. ‘If you are not strong enough to find your way out of it again…’

I bear my flat human teeth in response to his not-so-subtle challenge. ‘There is no trap of theirs that can snare me.’

* * * *

‘I know what you’re planning,’ Black and Rust says, interrupting my reverie. I turn from the cascade pool to regard his approach.

To the others, Black and Rust is a trickster. A mischievous spirit, both man and wolf, comfortable in both skins. Old Wolf does not entirely trust him. My wolf-brother would just as soon finish him. Soot and Snow tolerates his impertinent advances. It is only with White and Gray that he behaves like a pup; they roughhouse with one another, and he always comes away with nicks and scratches. I’ve no doubt that she could overcome her mate, but that is a human thought. She will remain with Old Wolf until he is defeated.

‘Do you?’ I ask him mildly.

He smiles. Both as a wolf and wearing the humanskin, he bears his teeth often. ‘You should do it,’ he says. ‘The time has come for it.’

I turn pensively back to the cascade pool. ‘Yes. The time has come for it. He is reluctant to attack the settlement outright. I can smell his unease. He is too cautious. Still,’ I add uneasily, ‘he is an elder. I am a member of his pack. He was chosen by old mother before all of us. What right do I have to vie for his place?’

‘It is the way of things,’ Black and Rust says.

I shake my head. ‘I envy you. Old mother brought you into this pack as a pup. Have you any human memories in you at all?’

This is a sore subject with him. Old mother had found him lifeless in the cascade pool. The child’s mother had drowned him and left him for dead in the water. Her footprints had been plain to see; the stink of her fear and regret hung like snakeskin from invisible branches in the air. When the pack had arrived in response to old mother’s summons—a call inaudible to the humans in their settlement—we had found her cradling a wolf cub.

The pup had been born a wolf sheathed in humanskin, able to shed one and take up the other with no need of the elaborate ritual conducted by old mother. For the rest of us, she observed the movements of the stars and listened to the murmuring voice of the Totem. When all the auguries of her craft deemed the moment right, she summoned us. We came, and amidst incantations and terrible contortions she implored the Totem to sheathe us in humanskin—what a torment it always is! With Black and Rust it is different. The magic is inside of him. He was born of it.

‘Only a woman of my lineage could have birthed him,’ old mother had said. She herself was a woman too old to bear children. Why would the pup’s mother have tried to destroy him? This is a question that remains unanswered even now.

Black and Rust joined our pack no more than a year ago, only a few months after I received the Spirit of the Wolf. I have known him for all of this life. I realize now, just looking at him in his humanskin, how quickly he has grown. As a wolf, it seemed only natural. In another several years, he will be full grown. Looking at him now, I realize how strange it is that he should so rapidly advance in age. To a human, he would appear to have grown a full ten years in the space of one. In another year, he will wear the face of a young man. Would the mother who birthed him even recognize him now?

Black and Rust looks at me. ‘I know that your time has come. I know that I would rather follow you than Old Wolf. All I have ever known is the pack. It doesn’t matter to me where I come from, in that world,’ he gestures towards the settlement, ‘any more than it matters to any of you. We all died to that world when we received the Spirit of the Wolf.’

‘It’s just that you’ve never had a chance to live in it,’ I say.

This startles him. He considers it for a moment, eyeing me strangely. ‘Maybe,’ he says, and I marvel at how easily human speech comes to him. Maybe. What a human word that is.

* * * *

There is a barren place in the foothills, like a burn-blister gutted out of the flesh with a clamshell. I used to call this place home. I remember settling down here with my father when I was a little boy. It used to be nothing but a gathering of tents in a clearing. We were a family of hunters and trappers; we weren’t  refugees from the dead cities. We knew the woods.

It is more than a gathering of tents now. The humans had smoothed out a crossroads and town square. Around it they had built up a town hall, general store, schoolhouse—like something malignant beaten back again and again only to crawl forward in the same, repetitive, inevitable way. There were only a few other children there, the sons and daughters of something new. They were always telling us how we were ‘something new.’ This is a new world, they kept saying, and we must learn from our mistakes. My best friend Nick was the son of the schoolteacher, Mr. Robbins. He was a haunted man, as all our fathers were, fled from the horrors of the world that ended. His father, Nick’s grandfather, had survived the Third World War, the Fever, and the struggle for survival that followed. They burrowed like maggots through the corpses of the cities until Mr. Robbins and his son fled into the open country.

He was a learned man, and he knew more about history than anyone in the settlement. ‘This isn’t something new,’ he said to me once, in confidence, ‘this is something old come back again. An age of monsters.’

‘Hey,’ Red and Coal growls, ‘pay attention.’

We are approaching the settlement from the northeast. In our true forms, we could have run from old mother’s den to the settlement in little over an hour. Wearing humanskin, we’ve been trekking since dusk; it is now well into the evening. While dulled, our senses are not entirely impoverished. We can see well enough in the dark.

We pause on a ridge overlooking the settlement. The torches around the town square are lit, as are many windows in the wooden houses that line the dirt road. Several night watchmen patrol the crossroads, meeting in the square to exchange a few words of an ongoing conversation before continuing their circuit.

After the world that ended, the humans began to creep out of their hiding-places. They were not like the ones that came before. They were neither soft, nor dull, nor cocooned in their chrysalises of metal and artificial light. They came as scavengers first, picking at the carcass of the generation that birthed them out of a dying womb. Now they come as settlers, trying to reclaim territory that we have since taken as our own. The men are dangerous and rough, tempered on the forge of a world no longer under the dominion of their grandfathers. To them a wolf is a wild dog, and it is no complicated thing to put a bullet into one, or into a dozen, even. They know better than to come alone; they learned that quickly enough. We taught them that lesson.

Now it is time for them to learn another.

We come down from the ridge. I am getting easily caught up in the clothing given me by the old woman; the fabric against my skin is distracting and disconcerting. I concentrate on my surroundings. A wave of wind rolls through the canopy of trees, shaking loose the leaves ready to fall and causing the bare branches to clack together. It feels like winter. It smells damp, like rain on dark loam. Ahead, my pack picks its way silently among the rocks and broken branches and dry leaves.

‘We finish them,’ Old Wolf says.

We reach the leveled ground of the settlement. I remember the last time I stood upright on this road, wearing humanskin. The fever left its victims with little choice. They were quarantined or euthanized outright, and then burned to nothing; medieval medicine at its best. There was a doctor among us, an elderly man with a proper degree from the world that ended. Cut-off from the machinery of modern medicine, he was just another healer in the wilderness, forced to learn his craft from scratch. He did what he could, bless his heart, but the fever had nearly slain an entire world. Its vector had cut a swath across the most populated places on the planet, reducing the entire human equation to an endgame of strategy and survival.

In the world that followed, despite the constant fear of sickness, despite the bitter mercilessness of a landscape that culled the weak with an overeager hand—there was still joy. Fragile, fleeting, and terrible in its contrast to the world beyond the small, flickering light it cast on the tired faces of those who tasted it. My family. My wife and son. The last time I stood on this road, it was to say goodbye.

‘Your memories of this place are better than mine,’ Soot and Snow said. This is true. The pack had taken her three years after I had torn free of my humanskin. We had found her buried underneath a heap of deer carcasses. She had been raped by the settlement boys, the darlings of our little community. Red and Coal had been about finishing her off there and then, but White and Gray had stayed his jaws and loped off to summon old mother. When she came she had bid us drag the broken human on a makeshift pallet all the way to the cascade pool. There she had performed her rituals and invoked the Totem, as she had done with all of us.

Soot and Snow remembered everything. Unlike the rest of us, her transition did not throw up a barred gate between her human life and her life with us. To her, it was all one continuity. Old Mother said this was remarkable; that normally, without this barred gate, the mind breaks against the strain. The wolf goes feral. When she first arose from the pool, we thought she was feral—the only choice would have been to finish her. It was Red and Coal who stopped us then. He recognized her anger for what it was. He knew what she wanted, above all else. She wanted it with one mind. Revenge.

The entire pack was ready, of course, but Red and Coal insisted that it be only the two of them. He had already chosen her as his mate. How the settlers had defended those three boys! I knew them. Knew them and hated them. Those little mongrels. They were treated so well, forgiven every sin. They were handled like princes, pathetic as they were, and their families let them have their run of the place, to piss on every damned bush.

I often wondered what the others must have thought, when they found the bodies horribly mutilated among the deer carcasses. Whatever they kept telling me about this ‘new world,’ it didn’t seem right that pain, suffering, violence and fear were the signs of a better dispensation. We were all survivors. As far as I was concerned, my father had rightly taught me the only rule worth following: you fight so that you and your family can survive; but unless your own survival depends on it, you must never endanger the survival of another. ‘We are too few in this world,’ he had said, ‘and we need one another.’

With their guns, hidden behind their walls and windows, the humans can pick us off. We can do a lot of damage, and we have. We can destroy stores of food, massacre their livestock and trample their crops—but we cannot so easily kill them. If they should come against us in force, we are outnumbered. Wearing the humanskin, we are vulnerable. In exchange, we can walk amongst them, allay their suspicions. One moment they will believe their numbers swollen with unexpected aid from a group of strangers. In the next, they will know that this is not the world of their fathers and grandfathers. This is our world now.

Old Wolf’s plan is too simple. I dislike it; he relies too heavily on the strategies of another world, another time. He takes advantage of Black and Rust’s eagerness to prove his worth. He intends that the pup should distract them with a ruckus. When they pour out of the town hall to investigate, we will be among them. If they expect a trap, they will be reassured when they find nothing but a rogue wolf causing trouble.

It is then that he expects us to shed our humanskins and attack them. He assumes too much; he assumes that the humans will accept our disguises—for they are disguises, regardless of whether we were human once. He assumes that they will take the bait and readily abandon the safety of the settlement. He assumes that Black and Rust is faster and more cunning than their hunters and trackers. He is placing the pack in danger.

Part of me thinks that I should have challenged him already. Still, I will not assume that the rest of the pack will accept my right to challenge him. If White and Gray defends him, my bid is lost and I will be disgraced. She must see how foolish he has become. I only hope that we can survive it—and that when it is done, his failure will stand in plain sight for the pack to see.

We approach the first of the houses on the main road. The night watchman spots us. White and Gray steps forward. The moment he sees her, his body language and posture change. The air is suddenly suffused with the unmistakable pheromones of his lust. She knows this, playing her disguise to perfection; nor is she awkward in her mimicry of human speech. She explains that we have come by road from a settlement just over the mountains. There was a settlement there, destroyed by a rival pack claiming the eastern Appalachians as their own.

The night watchman, regaining enough of his wits to look us over, notices that we have no weapons to speak of, nothing that could be perceived as a threat. Old Wolf looks like an elder. My brother and I are playing the part of weary and haggard. Soot and Snow clings to her man, just another refugee looking for safety in numbers. We have absolute command of our bodies. We have meticulously orchestrated every twitch, sigh, and gesture. We betray nothing that we do not wish to.

The night watchman agrees to take us to the town hall meeting; someone will provide us with a fair supper. He offers no guarantee as to our accommodations, but then none is expected. Strangers are not often welcome, and rarely anticipated. That we should be received at all is a gamble that we thought might not succeed. Old Wolf did not tell us whether he had an alternate plan.

The wilderness had received me, another one of countless exiles driven away by the fever. I had been so concerned for my newborn son and young wife that I had failed to see the symptoms in myself. It wouldn’t have made any difference if I had. Still, it was not until the fever took me that I realized what happened. There was time enough to gather some few belongings and say my goodbyes from a safe distance.

For nights the pack must have watched me suffer alone in the forest. I had taken shelter under a natural lean-to of moss-carpeted boulders and the fallen trunks of old growth trees. It rained every day and every night, trickling in glittering fever-enhanced streams from the canopy above. When it did not rain the insects droned on in the night and the wolves whispered in a language of breaking twigs and rustling leaves.

Old mother came to me on the fifth night. The way the fever works, you languish for days in agony. Your skin feels like the skin of some dead bird stapled into the raw muscle. My brain felt like a jigsaw puzzle assembled and scattered over and over again by a lunatic child. On the fifth night, the fever breaks. Just like that. The pain and brokenness is abruptly replaced by clarity. Perfect, uncompromising, enlightened clarity.

She came to me, and I saw her as she was.

‘Strange night for you to be coming through,’ the night watchman says as we approach the town hall. ‘You folks are going to have to explain some things,’ he says, ‘like how you managed to pass over the mountains unharmed.’

‘We never said we were unharmed,’ Old Wolf answers quickly. What a sharp mind he has! ‘If you’re talking about the wolves, we already know about them. We fought them off more than once—but not without loss.’ He nods toward White and Gray, who joins his play as if they had laid it all out beforehand. She bows her head, exuding sorrow and mourning. Old Wolf nods and turns back to the watchman. ‘In the first attack, they took her baby…’

‘Oh!’ The night watchman’s mouth opens in shamed horror. ‘I’m sorry—my apologies—yes, yes, then you already know…’ he recovers himself. ‘Yes, well, there wolves have been harassing us for years. I think they’re trying to run us off…like we’re in their territory and they want us out.’ He nods sagely, proud of his conclusion. He couldn’t possibly know how accurate he was. ‘Anyway, in the past few months, they’ve managed to destroy our stores and slaughter our livestock. We’ve had to trade with the western settlements. They’ve killed our men and women.

‘Everyone figured this was just the way of things; that the wolves were here before us, and they’re just trying to hold onto what’s theirs. But now, they’re saying that maybe something else is going on. It may sound crazy to you folks,’ he looks at us apologetically, ‘but they’re saying that maybe the wolves are being sent after us, deliberately, like someone sicced them on us…’ he shakes his head. ‘Anyway, I think I’ll let you hear all about it for yourselves. Just don’t get involved; the people are pretty riled up tonight. Just hang back and I’ll ask Maggie to look after you.’