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The Wolf of Woodhall

A whispering wind blew crisp white snowflakes from the hanging branches as he crunched along the icy forest path. Moonlight filtered by tall oaks lit the silence- disturbed only by desperate footfalls. Winter’s touch kissed him cruelly, burning his lips and neck as his shallow broken breathing betrayed his path with plumes of frosty breath.

Somewhere a wolf howled.

Oh how she wanted him; she yearned for him: his teary eyes and his tight embrace: the salt of his skin and his touch so familiar. She would follow him and she licked her lips at the thought of it. She craned her neck towards the soft white light and cried her love.

The woodsman hurried down the path and opened the cabin door. In the centre of the room the embers of the fire glowed brightly and swelled as the wind exhaled new life into them. The door slammed shut behind him. He bolted it and turned the worn iron key to keep out the terror. He unscrewed a cold copper cask with shaking fingers and drank deeply from it. But the burn of the amber liquid did not warm the chill of fear he felt for what stalked outside.

He reached for the gun above the door and fumbled in a box on a dusty shelf. The weight of it gave him small comfort as he stared anxiously out of the frosted window to the forest. He clumsily grasped a handful of shotgun shells, loaded them quickly and snapped the barrel closed kicking a scattered few under the bed where the children slept. Woodhall village was not far- a mile’s walk from the cabin during the safety of the sunlight. But at night, the gas lit lamps: scarce sentinels that lined the forest path, were too few to guide travellers. Especially now.

The forest was quiet. Sound deadened by the veil of snow. He hoped she would not come.

Paw over paw she wound around the trees through the strobe light of snowfall. Twisted branches reached out and snagged at her fur from knotted gnarled fingers but she was close now. Her breathing became desperate and shallow. ‘My love, my love, my love’ she panted.

Woodhall village slowly drifted into silence and sleep.

The last dregs of sticky sweet beer dried on the tavern floor. The fisherman wiped his mouth and stood swaying unsteadily. He lit his pipe letting a wisp of smoke drift across the room and scattered a few coins onto the table. He made sure the barmaid knew he was leaving. His eyes lingered at hers, waiting for reciprocation. Louisa? Did she say her name was Louisa? She smiled back. A practised smile he felt. He nodded his farewells and opened the door to the night. Outside, clouds moved too quickly. Like blown silk they drifted whilst the world lay frozen below. Boats bobbed in the harbour like floating corks.  The lighthouse, broad and proud was a looming watchful monolith. Despite its beacon it cast a long shadow over the village path gently suffocating with snow. Laughter spilled from an upstairs window. Silhouettes danced misshapen forms behind winter curtains.  The freezing stars were cloaked behind thick mist but the moon, like a round eye, gazed on hungrily. The darkness was listening. A brown wolf, head bowed, eyes fixed, stalked from the forest onto the path. Her tongue lolled eagerly and licked at pointed teeth as sharp as knives. Staggering from lamp post to lamp post the fisherman puffed at his pipe and began to sing.

 O’er the crest beneath the moon

The perilous swell we ride.

On wooden steeds we horsemen gallop

Swept by frothy tide.

As the eye above us blooms

From home we sail souls hollow

Salty splash of ocean wash,

as thunderous waves devour.

Hot and soft. She felt the body tremble and struggle. The resonance of the fisherman’s yell turned to a shrill scream as he felt his flesh rip and shred to silk ribbons. There was a last violent sweet and sudden shudder as she sank her teeth into his throat, twisting and tearing to break his neck with a brittle crack. A pool of deep crimson as red as roses bled into the snow. When the cold corpse lay lifeless and still she tugged at the sodden meat, dragging it back into the darkness of the trees and fed.

 The faint echo of a scream filled the woodsman with a guilt that clenched at his stomach. Tears ran in silver streams down his tired and weathered face. The framed photo of his wife smiled down at him: a memory of happier times that began to blur and distort. He wiped his streaked face with the back of his hand and kissed the photo. In a whispered voice he recited his promise. He picked up the shot gun that leant on the hearth and traced a cross over his heart. The ropes had not held. From a chest at the foot of the bed he pulled a snakelike iron chain and wound it over his shoulder and round his waist. Still crying he strode back out into the soundless blizzard ignoring the pained and frantic scratching coming from the hatch hidden beneath the worn carpet.

She lifted her wet bloody nose to the air. Her howl burst the silence. He was coming.

It came from the harbour. His pace quickened. His eyes burned. His throat and lungs were aflame. The painful pulse pounding in his temples fell in syncopated bursts with the thump of his steps in the snow. He finally saw the intermittent glow from the lighthouse flickering through the trees and knew he was near.  He crashed through into the clearing and onto the path. It was too late.

Louisa stood helpless and frozen; her shawl pulled protectively and uselessly close. A scream died in her throat. Speechless she staggered backwards as the large wolf crept towards her baring its teeth exposing a bloody and aching chasm. The wolf’s flanks, matted and damp heaved with excitement as it menaced closer. Strings of saliva dripped from its jaws. The woodsman, raised his gun, and stepped purposefully past the frightened girl towards the wolf aiming the barrels at its head.

‘Stop! , get back’ he shouted. ‘Please, I can’t do this, please stop’. He begged.

Ravenous golden eyes glowered back at him. But the wolf had stopped moving. It growled and snarled, snapping its jaws, turning itself in circles. It began to whine, its tail between its legs confused and suddenly lost. It fell to its side convulsing. The woodsman moved forward with a sympathetic outstretched hand stopping a short distance from the beast as it writhed in the melting snow. Above their heads in the inky night, the moon like a silver coin began to turn. From the she-wolfs body came the snap of breaking bones; it howled and thrashed in the red snow. Its spine, cracked, flesh and fur peeled away from its body and fell in steaming fleshy lumps from the struggling form. The teeth in its jaws shattered and splintered as they grinded together. The beast raised its head towards the moon and howled pitifully, full of sorrow it slumped to the ground broken and still.

Silence. The mournful cries of the beast had stopped. The amorphous bloody sac that was left breathed slowly. Something alive from inside pushed at the translucent skin, stretching it- distending the sheath until it began to tear. Firstly a hand, reaching, clawing at the snowy earth pulling itself out: an arm, a shoulder and then a head, struggling for breath until a body slipped free: slick, desperate and shivering. A woman. His wife.

Crawling on all fours like an animal towards the woodsman, ‘My love’ she wept.

Louisa, stunned with deep dread found her voice and screamed. She turned and began to flee, stumbling frantically towards the safety of the village.

He gazed into his wife’s pleading eyes. ‘I’m so, so sorry. I love you. I love you’. He told her.

He raised the gun and pulled the trigger.

The thunderous echo of the gunshot stirred the village to life. The alarm bell shrieked, banging and clanging as Policemen pulled on their boots and winter coats and hurried outside. The blizzard continued; slant drifts of silent snow fell in blankets. Anxious folk stood muttering in their doorways holding lanterns as husbands and sons, their dogs straining at their leashes, joined the hunt. They thudded down the harbour path between the forest and the water painting lantern light in panicked splashes and yelling. They found Louisa nearby dead in the snow. Her face contorted in terror, her body bloodied and punctured by the gun shot. A maelstrom of flesh further down the path sent the dogs into frenzy.

They howled to the waning moon.

From the warm glow of the woodsman’s cabin, three trembling children, the remnants of matted fur clinging to their damp naked skin crawled from the open hatch and nestled themselves closely in their mother and father’s loving arms.

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