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By Brigette Pugh
Illustration by Zach Bowman
They were the perfect couple. Everyone said so. Marie, quiet and thoughtful, a balance for Charlie’s charismatic affability. They began dating in high school and it was generally expected that they would finish their university studies and marry soon after. More a question of when, not if, and their union was only one of many expectations for Marie. She was from a talented family and sure to be as successful as the women who came before her—composers, musicians, artists and actresses—such a long line of creative achievement that those who put faith in the fantastic spun tales around an enchanted moonstone amulet that had been passed down through generations too many to count, and even those who didn’t believe in fairy tale things thought the family charmed.
Marie avoided talking about her family when possible, but her reluctance did not stop others from comparing the magical stories she wrote to the work of an ancestor known to scholars as one of the first women to write down what had once only been spoken. An interesting connection to most, and fuel for those who believed that Marie’s imagination proved the amulet’s power.
Magical speculation aside, on one point everyone could agree: a young man as lively and captivating as Charlie could only benefit shy Marie, whose talent no one could deny, even if she was a bit too reserved for her own good. The young lovers had no reason to argue with the future expected of them. It was their intention to marry whether others wished it or not, but on one issue the couple could not find resolution. One night a month, Marie left the apartment they shared near campus only to return in the morning looking exhausted and disheveled, sometimes with a fresh scratch or bruise. She refused to explain the absence and became agitated whenever Charlie pressed for her defense—that her time away was spent innocent of the suspicions he held was all she would say.
He wanted to trust her and for a time was successful in forgiving this one failing but, as is often the case when seeds of doubt thrive, his concern found the fertile ground of a sympathetic ear. An acquaintance of the couple, a girl Marie knew from writing class, happened to be at the corner bar one night when Charlie found himself alone and wishing he was not. After a few drinks, Charlie forgot Marie’s private inclinations, for they were not his own. Openness and candor were his natural qualities and soon the girl was offering consolation for the cruel position that had been forced upon him. Surely any feeling person would have his same concerns. His toleration was a sign of character that should be admired, not tested. Charlie protested, of course, insisting that Marie wouldn’t pretend just to him put him on trial. But then does it follow that she is not pretending, the girl asked, frowning to cover the satisfaction in her voice.
Marie had always been friendly to the classmate when she and Charlie met her outside of class, though others had privately warned Marie that behind her back the girl spoke ungenerously, perhaps even jealously of the stories Marie had published. But Marie was not one to spread an ill will, and Charlie had no reason to think the girl’s counsel anything but sincere. It was under this guise of friendship that the girl’s influence was able to take root in Charlie’s thoughts as he paced away the last dark hours of morning, awaiting Marie’s return.
The sky began to grow purple in the east, contrasting the dark silhouette of bare trees before she returned shivering and carrying with her the damp smell of fog and loam. He was determined to confront her and demand she satisfy his uncertainty, but her ragged condition on these mornings always alarmed him and he found it impossible to interrogate her until she had showered and changed into a clean t-shirt and sweats. He knew she would be lost to sleep if he waited any longer so finally he posed the term he had settled on: he could not possibly marry someone who did not offer transparency. She grew even more quiet than usual, which unnerved him, but he refused to retract the ultimatum. They sat in uncomfortable silence while she toyed with the cloudy moonstone amulet around her neck, a red line forming where the chain rubbed her skin. When she finally spoke again it was with a hesitancy and regret so thick that he would have saved her if he had not been in such anguish himself.
She related her unbelievable tale with ironic simplicity: once a month she gave herself to the night, to a world of creatures and nature by becoming beast herself, a wolf hunting prey deep in the wood until the sun came up and she returned to him. At first Charlie could only guess that she was finding an excuse from one of her stories, but her manner was so distraught at the telling he finally had to admit that she was not misleading him, but truly believed in the transformation she described. He begged to know by what trick of magic she took the form of beast, but this she would not offer, feeling already too exposed. She said only that the curse was partner to her family’s success, each generation required to feed the tradition so that the next would flourish. Charlie sensed her fatigue and stored his questions for another time as she fell into restless unconsciousness, but when she awoke Marie refused the topic and would not be drawn to it again.
Another month passed in this way and, though he was now free from the pain of his original suspicion, knowledge did not offer relief. That the woman he loved was capable of taking the shape of an animal, of tearing flesh from prey, brought suffering sharper than any he experienced while ignorant. Seeking to treat his forced, monthly isolation with company, he returned to the bar where the girl found she had to work a little harder for his confidence, but she had suspicions of her own and was resolute in her offer to unburden him. Eventually, Charlie gave over the story, not expecting the girl to believe him and half hoping to be convinced he’d been mad to accept the tale as anything other than fiction. On this point he was disappointed, the girl not only thought the tale to be true, but admitted she had long suspected Marie to be involved with the occult. Charlie’s dread was fully realized at her obvious appetite for finding out all that he knew, which was not nearly enough to please the girl. She convinced him that it was folly not to find out all he could if he had any hope of a future with Marie. Her entreaty spoke to a dark fascination he was loath to admit and they settled upon a plan to witness the miracle with their own eyes.
Charlie almost immediately regretted the design but felt powerless to stop its progression, knowing that in no other way would he resolve his horror. He also knew with certainty that the girl would see the scheme through with or without his participation and that his presence might be a necessary protection against any potential danger to Marie. Though he fought revulsion, he still loved Marie and did not fully trust the girl’s altruistic claims. Despite reservations, he and the girl followed Marie to the edge of the woods and watched in amazement as she undressed under the cover of a bare canopy. Her clothes she tucked behind a rock and covered with fallen leaves, the amulet she strung open over the fork of a low branch. Once fully bare, she turned and walked into the forest and before her foot fell to the ground a second time she was wolf, gray, white and brown, blending into the landscape within seconds.
The concealed couple stood in shock and awe, neither knowing how to rationally discuss what they had witnessed. Charlie was eager to leave, wanting only to be at home waiting for Marie’s return. He had expected aversion and found instead more admiration than he could account for, his passion swelled so far beyond his former esteem that he could hardly call the old emotion love. The girl hardly seemed to notice him anymore and would not be persuaded to leave the wood until morning when Marie returned and she could see by what trick she would turn back. So they waited and though Charlie grew worried that the girl would reveal their position, she was content to watch quietly when, in the dim pre-dawn hour, the wolf-Marie stepped into the clearing, slipped her muzzle through the chain of the necklace and as the amulet fell toward the fur of her breast, Marie had again taken her human form. Only then did the girl stand quietly and walk back toward town, Charlie following behind her.
In the weeks that passed, Marie was over-whelmed with relief that Charlie finally seemed able to put the knowledge of her secret behind them and they began making plans for a summer wedding. Charlie fought against confessing his betrayal, wishing he could admit the depth of his wonder for all that she was, but knowing the truth would certainly ruin her love for him. As she prepared to leave him the next month, he worried only that she should no longer feel anxious on his behalf and they parted without conflict. That night Charlie felt released from his old torment and fell asleep early wanting only to wake and see Marie again, but instead of her usual appearance at dawn, he awoke to the full morning sun burning through the window. He ran to the woods, fearing the worst.
She stood on the edge of the clearing, a shaft of sunlight warming the grey tones in her coat when she saw him, her yellow eyes turned to slits and a her muzzle pulled up to show a set of fangs. By finding her here he had given himself away. She turned and was gone before he could get up the courage to approach her. The amulet was gone, of course, as were her clothes.
He went looking for the girl, but when he finally managed to track down her address she hadn’t been seen for days. As the weeks passed Charlie avoided friends and family, hoping that the situation could be resolved without revealing his connection to the thief. He often went back to the clearing, even left another of Marie’s necklaces on the branch and a change of clothes, but nothing disturbed his offering.
Marie had retreated deep into the forest and—after an initial decent into wildness, following her predatory instincts—she reclaimed her senses and began to search for the old woman she had heard stories about as a child. Marie’s own family was powerless without the amulet and she knew of no one else who could help. The best way to search for a house that appeared in a new location every day was to wander, so Marie wandered. The wood boasted no animals to challenge a wolf, but Marie took care to avoid the pack of feral stray dogs she’d seen on her monthly visits to the forest. They would only draw unwanted attention. The days passed with no ceremony save hunger and hunting. Perhaps she’d been roaming for weeks or maybe it had been months with no trace of the mythical house and then one afternoon she found both what she’d been avoiding and seeking.
She heard the pack before she saw them. Usually she moved away from the eruption of yelps and snarls, but she found herself trapped on a ledge above the dogs as they backed into a ravine, pursued by group of boys. The sheer wall to her back afforded no retreat and to do nothing meant watching each mongrel stoned to death so she raised her hackles and caught their attention with a growl. Their surprise was quickly replaced by fear, which she worried would only fuel their cruelty. She’d never attacked a human and wasn’t sure she could, but the boys did not force her to prove the advantage. Their leader called the group back and when Marie was sure they were gone she turned to leave as well. The pack sniffed one another and licked a wound or two before gathering as a group to follow behind Marie. No matter how many times she turned to snarl and growl they would not leave off. So it was with an entourage that she stumbled upon the small stone cottage at dusk. The windows glowed yellow, a ribbon of smoke rose from the chimney and the smell of a meal cooking drew the pack’s attention away from Marie’s lead and they broke formation to surround the house.
The front door opened revealing a stooped figure shrouded in black. A feeble voice called to the forest asking who was about, looking directly at Marie who hid in the shadows beyond the clearing. Before Marie could show herself, the pack tightened their trap emitting a collective guttural, rumble. The woman raised her walking stick in a feeble gesture of defense and Marie charged to her side to provide a better shield. The pack stopped short and Marie braced for the blow she expected from the woman’s stick, but she did not move until the dogs began to trail away into the woods.
The woman invited her rescuer in for reward. Marie hesitated until she saw the flicker of fire and caught again the scent of dinner. The cottage was close and warmer than Marie had been used to, one entire wall covered with books and another with bottles of every size and shape. While Marie ate her fill of raw fish the woman muttered to herself and occasionally posed a question for the wolf, not pausing or expecting an answer and in this manner the strange pair lived for a few days until their routine was disrupted by unannounced visitors.
Charlie and the girl came upon the house while Marie was out prowling for supper. By the time she returned with a full belly, the old woman had agreed to examine the amulet they carried and they were all gathered around the hearth. The young couple naturally started to see a wolf walk through the front door, but before the woman could offer reassurance, Marie attacked, launching at Charlie, who didn’t even put up his arms for protection. She would have done more than bite into his shoulder and drag her claws through the flesh of his cheek, but she saw the girl run out the door with the amulet. She let out a howl and charged after her, determined to take her down, but the pack got to her first. The amulet flew from her hand as the dogs moved in. Marie picked up the moonstone with her teeth and carried it to the old woman who had been attending Charlie’s wounds.
Marie dropped the necklace at the old woman’s feet and, without hesitating, the woman circled the chain around the wolf’s neck. Marie stood again on two feet and accepted the robe the old woman held out for her. The cries in the distance were eventually silenced by the satisfaction of the pack until the only sound that remained was the crackle of the fire.
Charlie eventually recovered from his wounds, but the scars left behind twisted his face into a grimace and he never again commanded the attention of a room, at least not in a favorable way. Marie, of course, was never one to talk and without Charlie to distract her she had more time than ever to write. Many still think her stories fantastic, but a few consider them truth.
About the writer, in her own words: "I earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University, where I received a recruitment fellowship. I was also awarded the Fiction Writing Award at VCU for my short story, 'Loose Skin.' Most recently, my fiction has appeared in Calliope and Hidden City Quarterly. I currently teach writing at University of Nevada-Reno."