Werewolf terrorizes an Applachian farm community. Based on a Tennessee folktale, written by Frank Hagelberg.
The creature that first took on deer in the depth of the forest and then moved closer and closer to the village farms, murdering cattle and sheep, was ferocious. It did not bother to eat what it struck. It killed for the sake of killing, or rather shredding to pieces, brutish dismemberment. Once the head of a slain farm animal was found nearly a mile apart from its hind legs. No one doubted that these early victims had fallen prey to a savage, annihilating aggression that would not shy away from humans. Luke, the farmhand, was the first to die in the claws of the mystery beast. The second was a hiker whose identity could only be ascertained after his widely dispersed body parts had been reconstructed by piecing together a macabre puzzle, limb by scattered limb. Footprints connected with those acts of violent rage did not yield a unique picture. Their size was consistent with the anatomy of a giant bear, extinct for millennia in these parts of the world, their shape with that of a wolf.
Mina was no ordinary girl. The forester’s daughter, she went to the girl’s school in the nearby town to attend the traditional curriculum for young women of the middle class. She despised whatever was intended to prepare her for a future career as a housewife and mother. Cooking, sowing, knitting, home decoration were not to her taste. She might have liked French had her language teachers set higher goals than perfection in the art of polite conversation on futile topics. She would have enjoyed her piano lessons had these not aimed exclusively at shallow musical entertainment of house guests. Her interest in the subject of mathematics could have been much more than superficial had her math teacher’s agenda ever strayed away from balancing household income and expenses. Her isolation continued into the hours of recess. Gossiping about other girls was, in her view, not so much immoral as dull and dreary. The strategies devised by her classmates to attract the attention of local boys met with her scornful indifference.
She rooted and bloomed in the woods. Roaming the forest that extended from her doorstep through hundred of miles – and who could have said with authority if it ever ended – walking barefoot through the meadows by the river, running along hidden trails in the tranquil sunshine of August, in January’s ice storms or April’s capricious bouts of hail was her greatest joy. Mina adored her father who, a scientist at heart, had inherited her grandfather’s forestry. On one afternoon each week, she was allowed to accompany him into the woods and delighted in the various tasks at hand: planting saplings, hunting, cutting or taking down diseased trees, and much more.
The afternoon of the outing had come. ‘Not today’, her father said. A disappointed Mina was instructed that the woods were not safe these days. Her father had no choice but going out with some heavily armed workers, but for children, the forest was strictly out of bounds. Mina was unpersuaded. Everyone knew that the beast struck in the night. Vampires, werewolves, ghouls hunting in plain daylight – what a ridiculous thought. And a plan ripened inside her.
She would follow her father and his helpers at safe distance. Once the workplace in the woods had been reached, she would reveal herself and receive a severe talking from her father, but, of course, she would not be sent back home. In final consequence, this afternoon would turn out to be just a regular afternoon of forestry, untainted by piano practice or conjugation of French verbs. Both her mother and her brother were in the town today, so none of them would notice her absence.
The plan seemed to succeed. No one in the group led by her father spied her as she quietly followed the expedition along narrow trails into the dense forest, in fast and skillful zigzag motions. The field trip led into a primeval region, unfamiliar to Mina. The trail ended, and the last mile of the journey went through brush. The men moved in a single file, laboriously paving their way through the almost impassable thicket. They halted at a small clearing, and Mina hid behind an elder bush that was in full bloom, luxuriating in magic blue-reddish colors.
The objective of today’s excursion was not taking samples, securing traces, assessing damage caused by parasites. Today’s project was construction, not research. An elaborate trap for the beast was to be set. The men, assembling light but firm metal segments with saw-tooth profiles, cocking powerful springs, fixing ropes and stretching them taut, appeared nervous and released the safety catches of their rifles at any irregular noise. Finding their weapons pointed at squirrels or woodpeckers did not result in liberating laughter. While joking and storytelling usually lightened the load of the woodwork, none of this would take place today. A leaden atmosphere mixed of fearful tension, gloom and frustration lay over the slowly proceeding work. An argument flared up. The mood grew worse by the moment.
Mina’s courage sank. Maybe her surprising appearance would not just be a matter of a quick scolding. She found it advisable to remain hidden behind the bush. A hot mid-July afternoon, orchestrated with the sleepy hum of bumble-bees and the chirping of crickets. The elder bush spread its narcotic aroma. Mina’s eyelids became heavy.
When she awoke, she was alone. Looking around in the twilight, she realized that her father and his men must have left early. Could she dare going home? Severe punishment would be in store for her, unless she could think of an ingenious excuse..Let’s see…At the same time, she became worried about the hour of the day. For sure, monsters were mandated to strike in the night, but when did the night start? When it was dark, completely dark! But were there some monsters that did not play by the rules? That started striking at twilight? These musings were senseless, Mina decided. She needed to run home now as fast as she could. Retracing her steps in the dim natural light was not easy, but in the end, the trail was found.
The rising full moon shed its light on a somber-looking isolated grove of old oak trees, and Mina realized that, in her confusion, she had strayed into the wrong direction. For how long? For minutes? Hours? Night had fallen, and her bewilderment turned into naked fear. She halted and listened, for the first time in her life with terror, to the sounds of the forest. Every cracking of branches, every scurrying noise of rodents or rabbits seemed to announce the approach of the murderous beast. She ventured on blindly into some random direction. The bright full moon, standing now high overhead, would betray her to the monster. Crouching into a moon shadow, she tiptoed along the path, anxiously avoiding any treacherous sound.
The full moon, the exposing moon, making her such an easy target for whatever was hidden in the dark. And the silver disk overhead was troublesome in still another respect. What was it? Mina pondered and quickly found the answer: It was the night of the werewolf. Yet her sharp, dominating mind did not derail into panic. Had the beast not struck relentlessly night after night? Whatever it was, it could not be a classical werewolf, and this night was not one of enhanced alert, if it wasn’t for the phenomenal clarity of the light that laid an eerie shimmer on the still landscape.
When she recognized the towering figure in the middle of her path, still more black than the black silhouette of the dense, impenetrable woods at both sides of the trail, any attempt to escape appeared absurd. Incapable of moving a single limb, she felt her heart violently beating in her throat. A strangely liberating thought mixed into her paralysis without breaking it – this fatal encounter was both the climax of her torment and its final resolution. The beast would precipitate itself on her, and sharp teeth and claws would bring her agony to the end within moments, too suddenly for suffering. The slight relaxation brought about by this prospect made it possible for her to kneel down on the floor of the trail and cover her head with her arms.
A dark growl – or was this the creaking of an old tree in the night breeze?
No struggle. She would not resist the powerful being. One brutal stroke, and the world would fade out. The full moon would be witness and spectator of the most unspeakable horrors, the shredding of her flesh, the cracking of her bones, the trickling of her blood into the innocent sandy ground of her trail, but she herself would be absent from the scene.
Why did these images move through her mind at a slow, almost leisurely pace? Why did she not sense a last confused and chaotic flicker of consciousness while already sliding into the abyss? She had heard that a person’s last moments would magnify into half of a lifetime, and she accepted this as the answer.
And then the black shadow descended on her. Was this an illusion? No mighty jaws were grabbing for her throat, no fangs were penetrating her neck. Instead she perceived the almost shy and delicate touch of a hand, resting lightly like a bird on her head for a short while.
‘Be not afraid!’ From somewhere she heard a soft yet full and resounding voice. She looked up. The moon illuminated the face of a young man. Her look, gliding upwards from a soft mouth with full, sensuous lips met with a pair of kind, mellow, ever so faintly smiling eyes, and her stupor dissolved.
‘What is your name?’ A deeply reassuring tone lay in the baritone voice, expressing patience and serious concern.
‘You live in the village?’
‘Well, Mina, you were lost and could have remained lost. I’m so glad I found you. Do like to walk through the moonlit woods?’
‘Yes.’ She didn’t even lie.
‘That is fortunate, for what we have ahead of us is a very long walk indeed. I surely hope I won’t be too tedious company for you.’ He stood up, and fright seized her again for a moment at the sight of blackness, the long black robe of a priest.
They walked quietly side by side through the unchanging landscape of the night forest.
‘Do you enjoy school, Mina?’
‘Do you have many friends?’
‘Do you have plans for your future?’
‘Now tell me, Mina, what got you into the middle of the woods in the middle of the night?’
Her truthful report of what had happened was sometimes interrupted by faint sobbing.
‘So you love nature. Good. Love one thing with all your heart, and your love will spread out from that one place to many other places. Whatever it reaches will come to life, and you’ll see – what seems dead to you now is just sleeping.’
He went on about the rich possibilities of her future life with all its beauties and duties, of challenges that would turn out to be even deeper joys than the obvious delights of success and recognition, the pleasures of traveling into far away countries and of friendship in all its shades. A nightingale chanted incessantly, adding a note of dreamlike bliss to the magical night, a Stradivari devised by nature, accompanying the musical speech of the priest. Had he come down from heaven to save her, or was she in heaven with him?
Suddenly Mina noticed that her hand was in his. She did not know this man and shied away from asking for his name. Yet, she was completely at ease in his presence. This calm and comfort, this feeling of trust and unquestioned confidence – was he her older brother? Not a year older as her real brother, no, fifteen years older at least. A brother that was sibling and parent alike. A brother whose visits were awaited with joyful anticipation, who never came without presents, had astonishing stories to tell and could be relied upon as the most understanding and helpful listener to one’s own concerns.
At the first glimmer of dawn they reached the village.
‘I have to leave you now, Mina. The last few steps you must make alone. You’ve gone through much hardship this night, but I’m sure you won’t be too exhausted to find your home.’
She didn’t want him to go. The meadows were covered with thick banks of fog. As the only discernable shape, the simple geometry of the bridge over the river could faintly be traced.
‘Will I see you again?’, Mina asked. He smiled with his eyes and remained silent. Still holding on to him, Mina felt the gentle flow of his fingers through the waves of her dark hair, and an unknown sensation took hold of her. It was set off by a pleasant tickle that she recalled from speedy rides over very uneven ground, and it mounted quickly into a sudden discharge of all the strain and anxiety of this night, a strangely exciting, rapidly intensifying avalanche, and as she rode and rode down to the valley, she desired nothing more than riding forever down, but when finally coming to rest on flat ground, she felt embalmed by a mood of placid and peaceful satisfaction.
The priest had left. When Mina arrived at the house of her parents, she found all rooms lit up. The bright early summer morning didn’t call for artificial lighting, and it seemed likely that the lights had been on all night. Her mother was the first to see the pale, shivering girl. A piercing scream followed by wailing dissolution. Her father – cried? She never knew that her father was capable of crying. An ironic smile, a short good-humored laughter, a mumbled curse at the arrival of bad news, that was, as far as she could tell, the range of her father’s emotions. What multi-dimensional beings her parents actually were!
The next morning, an armed squadron moved in from the country’s capital. Twenty sharp shooters, trained in combat and equipped with rifles, machine guns, and hand grenades. A night and a day, they scanned the forest in vain. A second night passed without any trace of the monster. With the darkness, any hope for quick success of the mission faded away in the early hours of the second morning. A young soldier who had joined the team the evening before was stationed on a makeshift observation tower overlooking a clearing on which a dilettante, comical-looking contraption had been set up. Suddenly he heard the creaking of an old tree – or was it the dark growl of a beast? Looking down, right by the foot of tower, he saw what appeared at first sight like a large black-furred bear, a creature easily capable of toppling the tower, which was unquestionably its intent. The soldier’s scream alerted several of his comrades. Assembling from different directions, they closed in on the beast. Machine gun fire tore through the morning peace. The monster howled and mounted on its hind legs in a final dance of defiance, before lastly collapsing.
The howling changed into a dull grunt and eventually ebbed away. The soldier, believing in trickery played on him by his overstrained nerves, saw from his high post, with well-warranted incredulity, the black fur of the beast slowly transforming into a robe, the black robe of a priest.