~2400 words, approx 15 min reading time
It’s the smell that wakes me up: iron, wet earth, fur. Not raw, twisting bodies. Not smoke and hot fat. My eyes open. I’m lying on my back. I hear breathing beside my ear. I turn over to see a wolf looking at me with bright yellow eyes, panting as it lies beside my head on a bed of leaves and pine needles. Its black lips are pulled back in a kind of smile; teeth bared. It’s not growling or snarling, just staring at me. It looks more like an animal than a person now, but it still has those yellow eyes, like headlights caught in the dark night sky; they’re glowing starrily and they’re so very sharp; they’re cutting into my brain.
I feel trapped under this wolf’s gaze. I can’t move. My heart pounds even harder than before—it seems to be shaking the ground beneath us both—and then everything gets very slow and sticky but super-clear. It’s hard to be surprised when the wolf rises and, gently, starts to bite my clothes off. Cotton and cheap windbreaker fabric tear and I watch my summerdark skin with its blackheads and cellulite emerging from their woven ruin, a neglected and pitiful landscape. The wolf’s nose leaves a cold, moist trail between my ribs. I wait for its mouth to bite down.
I shouldn’t have gone out tonight. Everyone knows not to go out tonight. You’re supposed to stay inside your house once it’s dark and not even think of the woods. The beach. The moon. No matter what scents and sounds filter through your walls and windows, you don’t go outside. You don’t even step out on your porch for a smoke. You make yourself a cup of tea and you watch something anodyne on TV. You put in earplugs and go to bed early, and you make a point of not remembering your dreams.
I’m not a child, or some thrill-seeking teenager. I’m not a fool. I don’t have a death wish. But something seized me, I knew I could not rest until I found out what happened on the beach each year. Now I know. I’m falling out of my own head, out of my cowardly body, into a gray pit, and I still can’t bring myself to regret the knowledge.
We run: my sibling & I down the sand for sheer joy, splashing in nightfoam, singing to the big moon. Sibling’s eyes gold fire. The smell of ashes swirling over our shoulders.
Time breaks like a wave or a smashed glass. This story is happening all at once, all within each moment of itself. There is no order of events where I’m going, in the shape my wolf will lick out of me.
When its tongue starts tugging the pink tissue of my inner mouth, I gag. My teeth grow, and they itch. I worry the roots will be exposed. For a few years, I had recurring dreams that my gums peeled away from each of my teeth until they dropped into my bathroom sink like ripe, tiny fruit. Those dreams made me unsettled. No one I spoke to about the dreams could tell me what they really meant.
My girlfriend at the time said the dreams were probably about feeling I had no control over my life, but that wasn’t true. I was already planning to cut her loose.
I haven’t been touched this way since the aftermath of our last argument. I haven’t had parts of someone else’s body inside mine. I haven’t been inside anyone but myself. Now,with the lather of saliva spread over my naked chest like ointment, I can get outside my head. I can see through wolf eyes. I can see this scene playing out from above, like I’m floating near the ceiling of the cave.
It isn’t hard to find the secret ceremony. I haven’t had to be clever, or sneaky, or even all that careful. It’s on one of the beaches, the one that’s a little dark sand valley surrounded by humble hills instead of high cliffs. Super convenient; it means I just have to keep low to the ground on top of my chosen hill, and I’m invisible. It’s night, of course. The sea whooshes and the cicadas whir, and I’m not really that far from the action.
There are about twenty of them, I think, gathered around a big pyramidal driftwood bonfire. Different shapes and sizes. Different skin colors. All adults. All naked, or almost naked, though some of their bodies confuse me. Slowly, I realize each person is wearing a cloak made from the skin of a single animal.
I stare and stare, looking for a distinctive tattoo or a familiar pattern of moles, but I can’t recognize anyone from town. I’ve lived here since I was thirteen, so I know pretty much everybody. Still, I can’t say for sure any of them aren’t my friends or neighbors or co-workers, either.
The cloaks are made of all different hairy mammals, not just the deer that live around here. Wild beasts, no dogs or horses. Mostly carnivores. But there’s an anteater, its huge claws wrapped around the waist of an androgynous figure, its boneless, narrow head dripping between the person’s small nipples. Its fanlike tail sways from their hip, brushes the sand like a broom. There’s an ape — an orangutan, I think. There is one deer, antlers spreading like bleached branches. The man beneath the antlers is arm in arm with someone wearing the pelt of a gray wolf.
Their skins have ragged, still-wet edges. I can smell them from up here. I don’t doubt for a moment that they’re the real thing.
Their skins under their skins glisten with milky drops of sweat, or maybe some kind of ointment.
In the shadows farther from the fire, a hulking, shaggy shape pounds its hands on a large, simple drum. A woman with the sleek, babyish face of a seal or sea lion pulled over her human eyes and nose blows into a woodwind instrument that looks carved from bone. The sound is reeds and tumbling stones, whistling wind and thunder, the sea and some lonely bird.
In this town we have a saying: “the wolf in the story comes when he’s called”. Same idea as speaking of the devil, but I’ve never heard our version anywhere else. I was admonished with wolves a lot when I was younger and nosy, gossipy. I outgrew the gossip, but not, I suppose, the nosiness. My nostrils are always twitching at spoor in the air.
Underpaw, soft granules of earthstuff. The hunt in my nose I run to catch warm grasseater the game we dance we chase — my howl & the howl of my sibling a holy braid of sound. Leap through a tangle of moonsoaked smell brambles clutching fur claws splash and we chase chase chase. Foaming the prey’s mouth. Smile and circle. A high, thready bleat.
The moon watches with a ruined stone face from the mouth of the cave, and I think I’ll be stuck here forever, entwined with a wolf, not quite one thing and not quite another. We are in the center of a story. I have always been circling this moment. I have always felt this way, joints pulled out of their sockets, back arched high in pain and ecstasy. Snout gone sharp and crowded and long.
Tear the body, belly, fat muscle organ meat slipping down my throat, wet bursting salt and iron in the mouth, swallow, gulp, play. Throw into the air; catch between teeth. Shake hard, growl. Intestines spilling on the soft ground smelling good — shitsmell bloodsmell sweetsmell. Roll around in it all. Prey smiling beneath fanged off hair skin flesh, new face moonwhite, licked clean.
Slick stalactites drip and glimmer with dim moonlight on the high dark ceiling of the cave. I can’t see them well, but I know they’re there: dozens of swords hanging above me as my body. But the wolf doesn’t bite, doesn’t rip me open, doesn’t eat me. Instead, it starts licking my belly. Not the way a dog licks, to show submission, but with slow, deliberate purpose. Its tongue is long and smooth, and it makes me itch. My skin feels like it’s crawling with insects or bubbling with hives. I’m hot and goosebumped. I’m inside and outside my body as the wolf draws its tongue across my navel and darts between my thighs. It lathes me and molds me. My flesh shifts like a viscous liquid beneath it. Ripples and recedes and remakes me through wolf spit and sweat.
Mom said it was a local myth. She told me people tied any gruesome or mysterious or disruptive thing that happened at the right time of year back to an imaginary cult ritual. My manager once described it as “a bunch of delinquent kids setting off fireworks and mutilating small animals”. My best friend in ninth grade said it was a select few matriarchs and patriarchs of old backwoods families in the area, handing down a tradition from time immemorial, hexing newcomers and interlopers and anybody they just don’t like.
After the dreams of my teeth falling out, after I broke up with my last girlfriend, I started to have dreams of dancing. I danced on the beach as the tide came in, and I danced through mud in the woods. I danced on a long board studded with needles and pins until my feet looked like strawberries, and I loved it.
In the morning, my wolf helps me tear off my new pelt. It hurts, though I’m able to do the last part with my own teeth, tasting my own blood and raw red flesh. Underneath my skin I’m human again, with the same body I had yesterday. I look like I’ve been baptized in a slaughterhouse. I look newly born.
I roll up my skin and look around. I know I’ll need it next year. Probably the safest thing is to take it home with me. I’ve lived alone since Mom died last autumn. I see I’m in a strand of oaks that’s a little way inland, but not more than a mile from my house. I recognize it from hiking, from playing truant in these woods when I was in high school.
My wolf regards me with that yellow stare. Its bushy tail wags slowly, and its tongue lolls. Then it turns and sprints off through the trees.
“Wait!” I call, but I don’t follow it. I don’t move. The air is pleasantly warm and salty on my naked skin. The early light and leaf shadows turn the world a mellow, calming greenish gold.
My wolf darts between trees until I can’t see it anymore, even though I feel like I should still be able to. It’s lost somewhere between the oaks, the low dark bushes, the tumbled piles of gray rock.
The people in skin cloaks are dancing in a wobbly, seething circle. The erratic firelight makes a confusion of all their limbs, all their faces, all the empty, hollow faces of the skins. I feel like they’re all looking straight at me, even though I can’t see any of their eyes. The men and the women and the strange ones in between. The leopard and the wolf and the bear. The others. I can feel them gazing at me from their frolic down in the sandy valley, beside the soft black sea, sight cutting through the darkness and spotlighting my small body in the tall grass, behind the crooked tree. My legs are dead, numb, asleep from all the not-moving I’ve been doing. For how long now? I don’t dare stir.
At first, when the dancers start changing, I think it’s just the firelight. Dirty brightness and unstable shadows can turn an overbite into a long snout, can turn a man’s freely swinging member into a barbed club or give a woman a hairy devil’s tail. Then I hear the crunch of bone reshaping itself, the screams, the groaning and crying. They overwhelm the drums and that terrible little flute or recorder or whatever.
I see flashes of exposed living meat in the glow of those unsteady flames. I see and smell flashes of dripping fat and spilled bowels and veins braiding themselves wildly through the air, oily-wet tendrils, steaming and smoking. The veins dive back under the beast-skins, which flow over each dancer like something more than clothes. Like empty but living creatures swallowing their innards back up. Taking their revenge on humanity. You wore us; now we’ll devour you.
Teeth shine white and wet as pearls. Red, yellow, silver, gold. The screams are dying down, crushed into an array of grunts and growls and snarls by new throat shapes. I see yellow eyes, fire-eyes, looking right at me with dilated pupils. Not down in the valley, but near, more than halfway up the hill. I smell salt and blood. I smell urine as it rivers through my jeans, into the sandy dirt beneath my numb legs. My heart races ahead of my ribcage, ahead of my frozen muscles.
Next year, next year. I have to pick the lock of my own back door. I lost the keys with my clothes. Next year, I’ll find out who all the rest really are. I’ll get to the bonfire early.
I wash both my skins off in the shower and blood goes down the gurgling drain like chocolate syrup in an old black and white horror movie. Next year I’ll dance, and maybe none of it will hurt so much.
I throw up in the shower, and there are chunks of raw meat in the vomit, there are small or shattered bones, there’s some kind of animal eyeball with a sideways ungulate pupil. My throat burns, the way it burned the first time I tried smoking. I wipe my mouth, thinking of how nothing ever ends, thinking of things I can get used to. Next year, I’ll ask my wolf some questions. I’ll get the anteater’s phone number.
When I’m dry, I put the meat chunks and the eyeball down the garbage disposal one by one. I bury the bones in the garden, under my mother’s long-neglected roses.
My sweat glands are vanishing. Coarse hair is erupting from tender places on my palms. We move together in the close, salted dark of a full moon midsummer night.
Briar Ripley Page is the author of several novellas and short stories. His books include Corrupted Vessels and The False Sister. Originally from Appalachia, Briar currently lives in London with his spouse and two horrible cats. Find Briar online at briarripleypage.xyz.