The priest in our village arrived unannounced one Christmas morning; he re-opened the church, blessed the altar, and held mass for the curious ones who ventured inside. We did not ask him his reasons for coming to our village. Our village is so small and privacy is so rare, it is best to let people keep the few secrets they posses. All we knew is that he came from the south, from one of those luxurious and indolent cities with lingering summers and short, dry winters. For the people of the south, our northern forests are a source of terror: nothing good comes from the north, they say, only wolves and the plague.
Peter was seventeen, the beloved youngest son of a proud family that had gambled and whored its way into a genteel poverty, and had lacked the ability to make those clever marriages that had saved others in their positions. His father had been a handsome man, much in demand at society functions, addicted to cards and games of chance; his mother was the youngest daughter of a youngest daughter, her delicate beauty and unexpected smile into should have been parlayed into an advantageous union. They met over the roulette table; he called her his lady luck, but nothing can reverse the downward turn of Fortune’s wheel, and after giving him three sons, she succumbed to one of the fevers which periodically swept through the city.
As the youngest son, seemingly unsuited for either marriage or the military, and despite his unexpected smile, so like his mother’s, he was enrolled in a seminary in a neighboring city. He had never shown an interest in books or religion, but as a man of God, poverty would be a sign of virtue, rather than a source of shame. Peter did not object to this plan. He was old enough to dream of escape, of leaving the floors of cracked marble, the rooms empty of furniture, and the windows, draped with tattered silk curtains that could not be sold, and he was too young and too innocent to realize there is no escape; most men move through life exchanging one prison for another.
The seminarians slept in rooms of three; odd numbers were seen as a protection against unnatural attachments. One of his new roommates cried with homesick loneliness for a month before returning to the vineyards he adored - the roommate who remained was a northerner. He did not look or act in the way northerners should. He was older than the other first year students, having spent two years on a noble’s estate, working to cover any expenses not included in his scholarship, and his hair was of such a pale gold, it almost appeared white. He was studious, poring over his textbooks while the other students escaped over the walls and into the pleasures of town, and pious. Peter felt as if the misfortune that plagued his family had passed over him, and he had been given someone who could be a true companion.
His roommate was not perfect, no one is. Sometimes, Peter would wake up in the small hours of the morning, to see his roommate awake and trembling, covered in sweat, amber eyes open and glassy. The first time it happened, he thought he was witnessing the results of self-indulgence, so he ignored it and went back to sleep. But it happened again, his roommate, clutching a heavy gold locket, was shaking and murmuring desperate prayers. Peter pushed back his blankets and crossed the space between their beds, the floor cold and damp against his feet. He wrapped his arms around his roommate, and like a small child or animal seeking warmth, his roommate curled against him and slept. Peter ran his fingers through his roommate’s white-gold curls, and waited for morning.
This continued through summer and early autumn. Every month had its restless nights; Peter would hold his roommate and whisper words of reassurance into his ear. He would run his hands over his roommate’s shoulders, willing the muscles to relax and the breathing to slow. At sunrise, he would leave the bed, smoothing the blankets around his now peaceful roommate, returning the heavy gold locket to the drawer in which it was usually kept.
The first cold nights of late autumn brought fevers and illness; terrifying diseases that took the young and healthy before the old. One night, Peter awoke to a new sound: a hoarse, choking cough. He did not need to light the candles to know what he would see. He had heard it before; it was a sound from his childhood, the cough that had afflicted his mother’s last months.
One floor of the seminary was given over to the sick, although visitors were strictly forbidden, he would stay by his former roommate’s side, knowing that on those nights when the moon hung low and full, his roommate would be awake, eyes blank, desperate prayers on his lips.
As the days grew shorter and the nights grew longer, he watched his roommate’s once muscular frame wither, and his cough, that blood-edged cough, become more frequent and harsh. Now he stayed in the sickroom every night, holding on to his roommate’s hand, feeling the bones beneath the skin.
Your prayers are all that is keeping me here. His roommate tried to sit up in his bed. He was almost unrecognizable as the same man Peter had met five months earlier. He took the heavy gold locket, his good luck charm for unhappy nights, and dropped it into Peter’s hand. Take this to my sister. Promise. Peter refused. He said that they could take it together; next spring, when the days grew long again, they could go together and visit his sister and the northern village of his birth. His roommate shook his head. Promise.
Once warmed, the heart forgets its fear of the cold.
The roads leading north are empty at this time of year. It is winter, almost the longest night of the year, the time when wolves and other creatures of the night grow bold. They lie in wait for the foolish traveler, the one who travels alone, the one who thinks he sees a shortcut just beyond the trees.
The cold snow is eternal, like sorrow.
His roommate’s directions had been simple: follow the river until it disappears into a forest so dense not even God can see into it. Peter buys new clothes in every town along the way. He has never traveled far from the city, and he is not prepared for winter. He buys a woolen cap and leather boots, a long scarf and thick vest edged in a silver-black fur. He buys gloves. In a town at the edge of the forest, the last town before the endless growth of trees, he buys a gun.
It seems impossible that his kind, handsome friend had come from such a land. The kindness of the north is not like the kindness of the south.
This winter is colder than other winters. The river never freezes before Christmas, but he can sees ice on the surface, and dark shapes moving underneath. A fat toad sits on the riverbank; impervious to frost and cold, he waits for his prey. The darkness in these northern woods is deeper than the darkness of an urban night. Skeletal branches lock together, a grim canopy blocking the sky, and he feels inhuman eyes tracking his movements.
He never leaves the path.
The darkness of the forest is deeper than the darkness of the city; the uncharted trails hold more danger than the forbidden alleys. Even the vilest thief and murderer is not completely beyond the reach of grace, yet all beasts know that such redemption never comes to their kind. Who would choose such a life of exile? Only a madman or a witch.
Peter feels the weight of the gold locket’s chain around his neck. It is comforting; something his friend once held dear, rests against his heart.
Suddenly, the branches clear and the blue sky is overhead. It is the village, the place where his friend was born and where his sister still lives. It is smaller than he expected, smaller and dirtier, but full of unexpected delights. The houses at the edge of the village are built so close to the trees, they appear to be caught in a moment of transformation; houses emerging from the bark of the tree, or trees folding into houses. Children chase flocks of geese and ducks across the town square under the watchful gaze of their mothers; a cluster of laughing girls surround the well. He has never heard women laugh like that before; they are ignorant of his presence and are telling the kind of stories which are never told in front of men. As they pull up their buckets, the squeal of the chain and the pulley laughs with them. These village maidens are not the who he is searching for: they are petite girls with rosy cheeks and dark hair under their white scarves. He clutches the locket; he knows it will lead him to its new owner.
I come from a village of hunters, his friend had once said. Whether you are hunter or prey all depends on the time of year and the mood in the forest.
She is hanging her laundry; crisp white sheets fluttering in the gentle breeze. Peter recognizes her at once; she is tall and her white scarf barely covers a riot of white-gold curls. When she greets him, her amber eyes, so similar to her brother’s, render him speechless. Twins, he thinks, he had a twin sister.
“He was two minutes older,” she says. “Two minutes made all the difference.” He studies her closely. Now the resemblance is less remarkable; yes, she is tall, but she is slender rather than broad, and fullness of her skirts and bodice accentuates her hips and breasts. They sit at her table. Peter places the locket in front of her; he wants to tell her about her brother’s last days, he wants to tell her about their months of happiness. If he is the only one who knows, it almost is if it was never real.
She refuses to take the locket and does not listen. “He is dead? Then I am free. You can keep that. Have you opened it?”
Peter picks up the locket. An image was once carved into its surface, a face, perhaps, but he cannot tell whether it was of man or beast. He presses the latch on the side, and the locket springs open. A few brown, brittle tufts of fur fall on to the table.
“A legacy from a distant grandmother - a woman who strayed from the path. The locket serves as both protection and warning.”
She serves him a simple dinner: bread, cheese, warm beer. She takes down one of the sausages hanging in her cooking area and slices it for him. She does not eat. Peter wants to believe that her lack of appetite is a symptom of grief. He had expected questions, but she is silent; he had expected tears, but her eyes are dry.
She makes a bed for him in the loft and tells him that he can stay as long as he likes.
“This is where we slept as children,” she says.
The fire illuminates the loft; he is surrounded by the debris of a happy childhood. Well-loved dolls sit on a low shelf next to one bed, piles of books surround the other. The books must have been expensive, the cities listed on the covers are distant cities. He stretches out on the bed that once belonged to his friend. The books were expensive and must have been difficult to procure, the dolls were not. Their eyes were black beads and their dresses were made of the same rough material he had seen on girls in the village.
He hears her moving around below, restless, awake. He crawls to the edge of the loft where he has a perfect view of the room and its crackling fire.
She stands in front of the fire.
First, she takes off her apron and tosses it into the fire. Next, her dress, apron, bodice; the fire roars. She takes a knife, and with its sharp, wicked blade, she hacks at her white-gold hair. Chop! Into the fire. Acrid smoke fills the room. He covers his face, choking. The smoke is too thick and the white-gold curls framing the nape of her neck remind him of his lost friend. She opens the door to the cold air, the night, and the darkness.
This is not Walpurgisnacht; she is no witch.
Peter jumps out of the loft, pulls on his coat, and grabs her cloak from its hook near the door. As inexperienced as he is in the ways of winter, he knows she cannot survive long out in the snow. Almost as an afterthought, he takes his gun: five bullets of lead and one of silver. He knows the inhuman eyes that followed him earlier, will be bold now that night has fallen.
He follows her footprints in the snow. They lead him away from her cottage, away from the village, away from all human habitation.
He finds her in a clearing, moonlight reflecting off her marmoreal shoulders. She sits in the snow as easily as if it was the green sun-warmed grass of summer. He steps forward, her cloak in his hand. He will wrap it around her shoulders and carry her back. He will rebuild the fire and together they will share the sadness they both carry. He steps forward.
She stretches out one pale leg, digs her fingernails into the skin, under the skin. As insouciantly as a courtesan unrolling a silken stocking, she pulls and stretches. Muscles and sinew; bones twist; hands become claws. She howls, claws at her human skin, and so the wolf is born.
Peter yells, brandishes his gun. Now he understands: this is why he was given a bullet of silver, this is the wolf his friend fought against during those long, restless moonlit nights.
His bullet goes astray; he is no hunter.
The wolf smiles. Beasts never smile; perhaps her smile is some last vestige of human emotion. She howls, and her howls are joined by others; hers is one voice in a choir of wolves. She runs past him, leaving him alone, clutching her blood-red cloak as if it could protect him from the snow and the darkness.
Some say that he followed her into the woods; wrapped in her cloak he followed her tracks until exhausted, he fell and the wolves tore apart his flesh and fought over his bones. Others say that he returned to the village, re-opened the abandoned church, blessed the altar, and welcomed all who wished to huddle together and celebrate during the darkest hours of the year.
Our priest celebrates a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and another in the morning. There aren’t enough people in our village to hold two services, but I don’t think he’s doing it for us. We never ask who the two services are for, just like we never ask him his reasons for coming to our village, or why a heavy gold locket serves as the mark of his God.