My mother tells me that I was six when we first came to this place in 1932, for us it was a place of sanctuary.
The end of a long hard, remorseless journey from the Old Country that started in the turmoil of peoples fears as the strictures of ordered civilisation fractured, then descended into chaos. Many were persecuted until death, but the Fates were distracted from our passage and we came safe here.
The weathered stone cottage with a thatch laced with lichen and moss had been here for as long as local recorded history and even before that. To me and my mother it was simply ‘home.’
The war is continuing in countries far away and Mother will not hear a word about it. I am 12 now and to me there has always been war. I have often heard of it spoken of in Hexwolde, the village below, the tones used, low and hushed like secrets being passed. They stop as I near, turning their ashen faces away or down at their feet, perhaps a head would nod towards me hoping I had not seen but mostly, not. I asked my mother why no one spoke, she looked, smiled and kissed me on the head before resuming her chores.
Today I had gone to the village, to collect our groceries and found the mood in the village sombre, with few people doing their normal business. I put it down to the change in weather bringing oppressive heavy air and rumbling clouds with underbelly tendrils of a sooty blackness, edging ever closer across the stark moor.
I needed to be away but I had one last errand, to collect the mail, for none would journey to Pine Cott, where we lived, without good reason, there were ‘stories,’ they said. The old timer at The Post Office said, there was no mail but a swarthy stranger speaking with a foreign accent had asked about the occupants of the place on the hill. I said that we were not expecting anyone and left in a hurry.
It was as if daylight was being challenged it was so gloomy, I thought as I began the winding climb. Up ahead I could see the dark smudge that was the pine forest, thick packed, towering pines that crowded right up to our cottage walls on three sides. As I scurried, my legs increasing pace, some inborn sense alerted me that I was being followed. At the next turn, with my heart pounding I glimpsed two shadowy figures, two of the bigger boys I had seen hanging around the school - they looked mean. I was running hard now with home in sight and then I froze. One was coming at me from the side, the other right behind me, an evil smiley grin on his thin lips. They were cornering me, backing me up to the brooding pines behind. I hated that forest, its sounds and imagined denizens haunted my endless dreams every night.
I was scared.
“Give us what you have,” said one, “ … or we’ll thrash you hard,” said his bigger companion.
“No,” I said as forceful and brave as I could, crouching and trying to be fierce.
“Nooooo …” they screamed in such a fearful way as I have ever heard, their faces white as bone and eyes staring wild.
Breathless I went in, closing the thick pine door fast and dropping the bar. Mother came in from the back and gave a flicker of a reassuring smile before asking what was wrong. I told her with words that came in a rush, tumbling over one atop the other. I said that something in the forest scared them away, I thought I saw only a shape, a large dog, a wolf perhaps?
“Ahh, Lou,” she said, “that would be Charon, farmer Loric’s yard dog, a Saxon hunting hound, big black thing, must have got out again…” and then she picked up the shopping and turned to the larder.
Did she smile again …? I don’t know.
I stayed away from the forest when I could and had to steel myself when asked to collect wood for our meagre fire. This I did with the utmost speed selecting the driest logs where I could from the fringe only. This morning when I was almost done I noticed for the first time that my footfall settled all natural sounds within it, into a deep silence, like all living things there went into instant hibernation. It was just another strangeness; I shrugged it off.
It was three weeks later, I was returning late and as ever, in a hurry, the night clouds sweeping in behind me dogging my steps. There were no assailants to waylay me now, they had long gone but I had this sense, a compelling sense with no remorse. I had to get home.
The man was a brute, a gypsy by his appearance, he was at the open door of Pine Cott, my mother was sobbing on her knees, his heavy ringed hand closed round her neck, she turned her eyes to me.
He turned too.
I closed with him, I had no fear, base feral thoughts roared into my mind, my mouth opened releasing a gush of saliva and my lips, my lips, formed a snarl. Then I saw his eyes, eyes in terror, the sound of his heart stressing, pumping in my mind. He released my mother with imploring eyes and tried to meet my charge.
He fell under the impact, then my teeth at his chin, I saw in his widening eyes my own reflection …
I was the …. WOLF!