I howled for the joy of night and the hunt. The rain and the darkness fell as one, and I licked them up. I leapt and streaked through the trees, and the rabbits knew my name. They knew my name was death. Their name was dinner.
I smelled the wet earth, and the rot of pine needles thick under my paws. The taste of the air was river-fresh and water-wet. I opened my mouth to lap at the rabbits’ sweat as it steamed in the chill air. My dinner smelled of panic. I ran, they ran; the rain ran down the trees.
Howls broke out beside me, and I couldn’t name whose howls they were.
It wasn’t the song of Bristle-Fur, my pack’s alpha male, or of Broken-Teeth, his mate. Long-Tail was a long way behind, and his yaps were faint as footfalls. He never could keep up.
I didn’t recognise the howls at all, and put on a burst of speed. The rabbits appeared and disappeared as they bounded up and down. “My food,” I snapped to the strange she-wolf beside me. “Go hunt with your own pack.”
The bitch burst from a screen of bushes and locked her teeth around my shoulder. It burned.
I couldn’t drag both her and her wet coat no matter how I ached for fresh meat. We two wolves tumbled over and over, off balance and angry.
I felt a warm fluid oozing from my shoulder. The she-wolf had let go and I was bleeding. I struggled upright.
My fur stood to attention when she dared to face me, her back to a broken tree. The colours of her coat mirrored the night sky, where clouds scattered to hunt the full moon.
I didn’t like the way she looked. The mottling of her fur shaded her body in the wrong places, making her shape waver and bulge. I growled, and she lowered her belly against the ground, suddenly submissive. She pointed her muzzle up at me and whined. I quivered with the wrongness of it all: “What are you playing at?”
“I’ve changed you,” she said. “Don’t be afraid.”
“Of you? Your pack?” I barked short and sharp, and she tipped herself onto the ground, drawing her front paws in toward her chest.
Her belly was paler than the rest of her, and her teats grew out of shape. They were larger toward her neck. I turned away in disgust.
“Forgive me,” she said, and her voice screeched like a human in my ears. I turned back to see how she made that sound. My ears flattened against my head. She was writhing on the ground, whimpering, knocking her back paws against the dead tree. I crouched into the prickly sweetness of the pine needles and watched.
She changed in front of my eyes. Her body stretched out, and her fur turned pinkish white. It vanished against her skin. The fur on top of her head grew long, yellow and curling. Her claws turned stubby and wide, the same off-pink as the rest of her. Suddenly she stood over me, balanced on elongated hind legs that were thick with fat. She smelled of control and death. She was human.
“Forgive me,” she said again in her high voice. “I didn’t want to be alone.”
My bitten shoulder seared me with new pain. I squealed with it. But the human wasn’t touching me.
She watched silently as the bite she made tortured me. I twisted my body into the ground, itching so badly I wanted to scrape my fur right off. Desperate, I bit into my own flesh to ease its pain. My fur filled my mouth – and then it shrank under my teeth.
All I had left was a mouthful of blood, stuck through with pine needles. Beyond that was my naked skin, smooth as a snake. I sat bare and shivering on the ground, with my hind legs poking out in front of me. Big fat legs, good for nothing but eating.
There was a root sticking into the back of my knees. I could feel every knobble of the bark. No fur. . . My shoulder settled into a pulsing, but normal, wound, and I lifted my hands to press on it. I had hands, two of them, and my claws were gone. Lifting my hairless chin, I tried to howl. I screamed.
“It’s all right,” said the other girl. “The first change is always a shock.”
“What have you – am I –” I stopped and snarled at her.
“Oh, you can talk. That’s good.”
“You’re adapting well,” she said.
I clenched my teeth against more screams and waited until my heart stopped thumping out of my bent ribs.
“What is going on? Tell me, or I’ll snap your skinny neck.”
She folded her legs beneath her, with her bald belly exposed so I knew she meant no harm. Other than what she’d already done to me. “You’re a human.” Her shoulders lifted and fell.
I stiffened at the movement, but didn’t attack.
“Just for tonight,” she said, “and whenever the moon is full it’ll happen again.” She examined me through narrow eyes, and finally sighed. “My human name is Juliet. What’s your name?”
I stood upright, pleased to find how tall I was, and that I could dominate on two legs. Perhaps the big legs were good for something after all.
“My name is Howler.”
“Okay. For tonight, we’ll call you Helen.”
“You and I are a new pack. A human pack, for the night. The other humans will give us food like you’ve never tasted.”
My stomach growled on my behalf. “Where?”
First she made me dress with her in human clothes she’d hidden away for her own use. I learnt to use buttons and zippers, and to resist the urge to bite off the constraints wrapping my chest and arms and legs. The clothing wasn’t dead and wasn’t alive, and it itched. Fabric flapped against my skin as I walked.
I was still unsteady on my hind legs. My jaw ached with longing to have something struggling for its final breath between my teeth. “Soon,” I muttered. “It had better happen soon.”
Juliet and I trotted down the highway, walking into the realm of humans. My wolf heart told me it was a trap.
I wanted to crouch, to run away, but I grimaced and settled for wrapping my arms around me. The rain slowed and stopped.
Every stone of the road pressed its claw into my soles. It didn’t smell like it should. The metallic road-stink remained, in a smaller dose, but it didn’t smell of danger. That was worst of all. Even my nose told lies to me.
Then we found Blood-Mouth, my mate. I tasted him on the air, and lifted my head. My nose told me the truth: Pain. Danger. Death.
Juliet bared her teeth. “Someone’s body is here.”
We walked on without speaking, and found Blood-Mouth on his side in the bushes. His corpse was packed with maggots expanding their territory outward from his belly. The gravel around him was black with his blood. His mouth was frozen open in his last howl.
Instead of noting his passing and calculating the new social order, I felt tears running down my cheeks.
“What are you doing?” asked Juliet.
I sniffed, and scrubbed my cheeks with the palm of my hand. “Crying. Why aren’t you? You’re as human as I am.”
“He wasn’t my pack, Helen. I’m sorry, but can we go? I feel like there’s maggots in my stomach, just from looking at him.” She sighed. “Being human makes me so weak, I can hardly stand it.”
“Who killed him?” I asked. “It’s. . . important. Was it you?”
She shook her head, and walked to the other side of the road. Her hand over her mouth muffled her words. “It would have been a car, controlled by a human.”
“Then it was humans that killed him.”
“Which ones?” My fragile hands curled up and became fists. “So that’s what they’re for,” I said quietly.“Why are you asking so many questions?”
“This is what it is to be human,” I said, sniffing out the truth of my words as I spoke. “I care. My mate was murdered. It’s. . .”
“Wrong,” she said softly.
“Let’s make it right,” she said. Her eyes gleamed in the darkness.
We ran along the road until we found a house. It was neat and square, and made up of smaller red squares, with a rectangular door. Juliet showed me the human way to knock on the door. A human man answered, yawning and blinking. His top half was unclothed, and his chest and head had orange fur.
“Did you kill the wolf?” I asked. “The one on the road?”
He scratched his head. “Are you from the animal society? It’s late.”
“The wolf was killed some days ago,” said Juliet. I could hear the growl in her voice. “Do you know who did it? Was it you? Your car?”
“Listen, there are far too many wolves around here anyway,” he said. “I had no idea you people needed a report for that sort of thing.”
Deep within myself, I noted the moment when I became fully human. It was hate. I lifted both my fists and hit that murderer in the throat.
He stumbled backward, but gripped onto a table and kept his feet, gasping for air. I could see his skin changing colour, because he didn’t have the fur to cover it. The colour was good. Juliet was one step behind me, and she clawed at his face with her clawless fingers. The table tipped and fell, smashing a vase and sending water and jonquils across the floor. I jumped at the man’s chest and ripped at his throat. My teeth didn’t work properly and I got barely a mouthful of flesh; bald and wrinkled. I spat it out in revulsion. Juliet and I stood to watch the man bleed into the flowers and broken glass. Loosened strands of our hair lay across his chest. Juliet’s hair was yellow. Mine was black. Black is better. It’s always better.
“That was easy,” Juliet said doubtfully.
“Haven’t you killed a human before?” I asked.
She shrugged, admitting it. “They’re just like us except naked. And slow.”
I picked up the table and put it back in its spot. “I’m hungry, but I don’t want to eat him. His blood smells – odd.”
“Humans eat the strangest things. I ate cow once.”
“What, a whole one all to yourself?” I asked.
“Pieces so small I had to ask what it was. Cooked, too. That’s why the blood smells wrong. All blood will smell wrong to you tonight. Us humans have to cook our meat before we eat it. It’s part of being civilised. Come on, we have to find the kitchen.”
Juliet was showing me how to eat fruit when we heard a human scream from the front entrance. We took our apples and went to look.
An adolescent female stood in the doorway, framed by the night sky. The skin of her face was red instead of pink like ours, and her short hair stuck up around her head. I liked her for her hair at once. If it had been grey instead of that same orange colour, she would have looked more like a wolf than Juliet.
“Good evening,” said Juliet, and introduced us both.
The teenager screamed again and ran away. I watched as she grabbed for the hallway phone and sent the plastic base crashing to the floor. “Do you think we should chase her?”
“We can’t eat her – not raw – and I don’t think she’s playing,” said Juliet. “Something’s wrong.”
She sniffed the air, and I knew she was truly worried. “Maybe we should explain to the pup who we are.”
“That seems very human,” I said, and found my head nodding a yes.
We walked up the hall to the girl’s room, automatically stepping lightly so we didn’t make a sound. The carpet was soft as pine needles, and perfectly flat.
It was easy to tell which room belonged to the girl, because we could hear her saying her own address, loudly and clearly.
“She’s on the phone,” whispered Juliet. “Talking to someone who’s not here.”
I lay flat on the carpet and held my mouth to the crack under the door. “Good evening,” I said, copying Juliet’s level manner. The girl stopped breathing. I didn’t need a fully developed sense of smell to scent her sour waves of fear, even through the door.
“I’m Helen. What’s your name?”
“Marie,” she whispered. Juliet nodded encouragingly at me.
“Was that your dad, by the door?”
Marie whimpered, and I exchanged a pleased grin with Juliet.
“Marie?” I said.
She began to cry.
“Answer me in words, little human. Was it your dad I killed?”
“Please go away.”
“You’re doing so well,” I said. My voice was smooth as the sighing wind. Juliet was nodding at me, impressed.
“I’m sorry we had to destroy one of your pack, but we had a reason.”
“You – of course you did.”
I sniffed loudly at the air beneath her bedroom door. “Marie, your dad was a bad human. He killed my mate. Do you understand?”
Before she could reply we heard a splintering of wood from the front door. Marie screamed, and kept on screaming. Juliet and I turned and found ourselves staring right into a new pack. They were all men, bigger than us. Each one was dressed the same, in blue, and they were on the hunt. I could smell it in their sweat.
We gaped at them; at their short hair and at their guns. I could tell without looking at her that Juliet felt the tiny stirring of air on the back of her legs at the same moment I did. We were a pack, and the men were against us. If there was air behind us, there was a way out. I rose into a crouch. The hunters took a step forward and Juliet and I broke for the back door. We toppled two more hunters on the way out.
The air was as sweet as the first breath of a winter morning. Under my naked feet the grass was wet with dew. We ran so fast the wind couldn’t have run faster. The highway was flat and there were no tree branches dragging on our backs.
We scented cars behind us as they bellowed rage at our escape. They roared the hunt to one another, and we remembered my dead mate. Fear-maggots crawled in my own stomach. Juliet and I were smaller than the cars, and slower. We both knew we’d be eaten before the sun rose. I remembered the taste of human skin, and how soft it was in my mouth.
“Cars stay on the road,” Juliet yelled to me. I howled in reply, and understood what hope was. Juliet and I were a pack. We’d stay alive. She ran to the far side of the road, and I cut away into the trees. My legs itched and bled.
I heard her howl out a human song note that flitted through the trees to let me know she was near. It was as familiar as my own voice, and as alien as my hairless, itching hands. I shrieked like a human girl when my body clawed at me from within. There was no time to hide, and no strength to run. I collapsed without another sound. The pine needles cushioned my fall.
Juliet screamed out to me through the trees, and I understood the howl in her voice. My pack member was caught; she was hurt, she was dying. I tried to stand, to go to her, and fell face first into a bush. My fur pushed out of my skin while I shuddered. Juliet’s clothes broke and I ripped them off me. I bit my own lip straight through, but I didn’t cry out. I didn’t want to be dinner.
When I had my own body back, I stood silently to listen for Juliet. The stink of human was already fading from the air. My stink. Sweet-smelling pine needles filled the forest in every direction, and I knew who I was again.
I howled my joy to the morning. The rabbits would feel my teeth in their necks before the sun was high.
Broken-Teeth howled out a reply, calling me to come. But I ran for the road, cursing my bleeding shoulder. There was something I had to do before I ran to him. I had to know.
Juliet was easy to find. The humans had driven off the road in pursuit of her, and all I had to do was follow their car tracks. I could hear them hunting not far from me, but they were as clumsy as giant pups wading through the undergrowth. The forest was mine, and they no longer concerned me.
Juliet was slumped at the base of a tree, almost invisible in mottled grey death. Her body hid the artificial brightness of her human clothes as they lay beneath her. No wonder the men had passed her without stopping. I licked her rough fur, searching for a wound. She was shot. All that killed her was a tiny bite between her ears. It smelled of civilisation; of fire, iron, and blood. I cocked my head, wondering what to make of her, the one who bit me.
She never told me her real name.