by Aaron Bennett
©2002 Aaron Bennett -- all rights reserved
The cabin smelled of piss and stale beer; its fetid stench seemed alive compared to the cool night air that I had been in moments before. The old gray wolf hide glittered softly in the pale moonlight. Almost without conscious volition I picked it up and a tingle ran through my thin body. This musty piece of flesh seemed to be beckoning me, putting a burning in the back of my brain that seemed to be leading me to the hide with little conscious effort on the part of my body. I knew I had to get the hide when I first saw it a week ago. The hectic events of Homecoming Week had seemed even more rushed by the anticipation of obtaining the hide the first chance I would have...
My class had been doing a bottle drive to raise money for the impending homecoming dance and I got the part of town that used to be the old Hiawatha Indian Reservation. It was no longer a reservation, at least officially. Most of the tribe still lived there, more out of habit than from some mandate and I was already not having a very productive day when I knocked on the run-down excuse for a trash-heap that Ol' Pap Stillwater called home. When he had answered the door, he'd been wearing only a pair of stained boxer shorts that probably only came off for his monthly bath, and this was the end of the month. Scratching his bloated stomach, he had given me one beer soaked belch.
"Are you Pap Stillwater, sir?"
"What'cha want boy? You ain't with the bank is yah?"
"No, no. I just wanted to talk to you. I'm just collecting cans for school..."
"Well I ain't got no cans. Now get on outta here a'fore I sic ma dog on you." The dog stretched himself on the hardscrabble excuse for a front lawn and he didn't look to inclined to be sic'ing anything in the near future. "Aw hell, I don't get many visitors out this way. You want somethin' ta drink boy?"
I mumbled something of an affirmative not really sure.
"Well, all right, come inside. I'll fix yah up. I'm sure I can rustle up some cans for yah."
I followed the old man inside the decrepit house not quite sure what I was doing as scenes from Texas Chainsaw Massacre kept running through my head. A bunch of cans wouldn't be worth getting gutted over. In fact the smart thing would be to move on to the next house and forget about the old man.
The inside of cabin was just as ramshackle as the outside and it looked as if someone had dumped the week's trash for the town in this guy's living room. As my eyes became more accustomed to the dim light, I was able to take in the whole of the one room shack. Dried flowers hanging upside-down; oil lamp on table; single bed with ragged old quilt and Army blanket; wolf skin on the wall above the TV; raw meat on the counter with a bloody knife stuck into the well worn cutting board.
"I got water, iced tea, or somthin' stronger", he turned around and gave me a little wrinkled wink.
"Iced tea will be fine. Thank you sir."
"You kin stop with yer sir'n boy. I gots a name, Hank Stillwater." Pap Stillwater stuck out his hand which I hesitantly shook. "Call me Hank. They used to call me Running Wolf 'cause I was so fast. My Dad called me squatting dog 'cause all I was good for in his mind was hangin' around the house. He said runnin' never got a body anywhere."
I couldn't help but chuckle at the pitiful attempt at a joke.
"Yeah, I always thought that was kinda funny too. I was pretty fast in those days. I could run to Traverse City and back in a day. Let's see any of your fancy track stars nowadays do that." He took a sip of his beer and looked me over. "You play football and track eh?
"Uh, no. What makes you say..."
"Your jacket. You've got a varsity jacket with football and track patches on it. I musta guessed that meant you were an athlete. You don't look much like a Vance anyways."
"No, no. It's my brother's jacket. My name's Eric and he grew out of it and gave it to me. My mom said I'd grow into it but I think I've got a ways to go yet. He's the athlete in the family; I'm the bookworm. I'd rather sit in the hayloft reading a good book." My vision was again pulled back to the wolf hide on the wall. There seemed to be some sort of glow to it but when I looked straight at it, the glow seemed to disappear.
"Ah, I see you like my hide." He walked over and petted the fur on the wall and then looked from the hide to me and then back again as if debating something. "This was my father's that he packed with him fightin' Jerry in Ol' Dubya Dubya One." As Hank took the hide off the wall he looked at it a moment, his internal debate still unfinished, before handing it over. "That's no ordinary wolf hide. My pa was a great shaman and he blessed this wolf hide special. It gives you the power of skinwalking. You put on this hide and you become a wolf. Musta scared them Huns somethin' fierce seein' war painted red men hoppin' into the trenches with a rifle in one hand and a tomahawk in the other. They said he would put this skin on right before going over the top. The Huns just seen a wolf comin' and didn't know what to make of it. Some of the men dropped their guns and ran. So much for the heroic Aryan race. I'd give my right arm to've seen the faces of those man as they watched my Pa come at 'em. I bet you could smell 'em shittin' their pants."
"That sounds cool. I wish I could do that."
"Skinwalking is not always such a great thing boy. It's a difficult path, not many are strong enough to take it. It ain't somethin' to be entered into lightly. It takes strength and determination. Your spirit animal don't make you strong, you make your spirit animal strong. Listen to what it tells you and follow what it says. It'll give you the strength you need but the power is in you. Don't ever let the animal control your human instincts. You've got to start out slow and learn to control your power..."
"I think can handle it. Tell me what I need to do."
"Shut the hell up boy! I'm tryin' to tell you something. Skinwalking ain't all fun n' games boy. It's serious bizness n' people better 'n you have died fer messin' with it. I never told nobody this before. My brother was blessed with the power of skinwalking but he let the spirit of the wolf take over. He came home one night after getting all liquored up at the bar where he got pissed off because some half-breed wouldn't return his advances. She was too good for a poor Injun like him. The guys at the bar were calling him a no good drunken Injun and his little lady was goin' right along with 'em. When he came home, he found our sister in bed with Phil Macintosh and seeing his own flesh and blood lying in bed with that dirty lumberjack musta sent him over the edge because he shifted and ripped those two to shreds. You could hardly recognize what was left as human flesh. The police thought it looked like an animal attack. They got the best trackers from five counties up here to track him down. They probably wouldn't have gone through all that trouble if it had only been my sister. What's one more Indian whore to them folk? My brother couldn't stand the shame when he realized what he had done and he ran for two weeks but in the end it was no use. They tracked him down and shot him in the woods like an animal. They hung him from the old ash tree up by the schoolhouse so everyone could see."
"Didn't he shift back after he died?" I asked. "Wouldn't they have realized what he was."
"That shit about changing back into a man when you're killed is just Hollywood horse-shit. You die a wolf, you stay a wolf. The town thought they'd killed a wild, rabid dog and I didn't tell 'em no different. Nobody asked where Pete went. There were lots of men during them times who didn't come back from war, Or if they did, set out traveling and weren't heared from again. They musta just figured he'd run off and I jest let it be at that. There weren't no more killin's so there weren't no more need to investigate further. I was in the Pacific when I heard the news and I knowed right away what happened. I can't tell you how much it hurt to come back home and see my brother hangin' from a tree. I couldn't tell nobody who it really was so I burned dat tree down with ma brother in it. I couldn't even bear to touch it and he never got no proper burial. My mom died of heartbreak not three months after the killin'. Nobody saw no connection and I tried to put the whole matter behind me and I made my home out here. I been out here ever since. I got married for a spell but that didn't last. I guess I've always just been kind of a loner." Hank stared off into the distance.
"My brother let the spirit take over his body and he was a skinwalker from the time he could crawl. What makes you think you can fight it boy? You've gotta be able to control the shift, not let it control you. I don't think you'd be able to do that n' I don't wanna be responsible if'n somethin' goes wrong. I truly am sorry; I've said more than I should've. You just put that hide right outta your mind. It ain't worth it boy."
"You can't just leave it at that! You have to teach me how to be a skinwalker. You can't just build it up like that only to pull it away!"
"I'll think about it boy. Now you'd best be gettin' home. Your parents liable to get worried before long."
Reluctantly I got up and left and managed to catch another glimpse of the old wolf hide on the wall above his small TV as I glanced over to the window. I watched as the old man went back to his worn chair, scratched his butt, and opened another beer. I had forgotten all about the can drive for the moment -- my mind kept coming back to the hide as I drove the dirt roads back home.
Something inside me wanted that wolf skin, needed it so bad that I found myself there that night, stealing an old hide from a drunken Indian guy I barely knew. If he woke up right then he might call the cops; then again, he didn't seem like the type to bother much with the police. I'd probably just end up with a shotgun in my face rather than locked in the back of a squad car. Damn it! He was the one who put the thoughts into my head. If he wouldn't have went off on his dumb stories and then not let me have it, I wouldn't have to be here stealing it now. It was his own damn fault. He must have known I would want it. Hell, he could have just been bullshitting me the whole time. I guessed there was only one way to find out for sure.
Hurriedly I rolled up the hide and stuffed it into my varsity jacket. I could feel it, warm and furry against my side as I turned around quickly, a little too quickly. The tin cup on the table rattled it's warning and stale coffee splashed on the worn oak table. I tensed up, not even wanting to breathe and I glanced over to the bed where the grizzled man snored. He farted, snorted, and rolled over. Exhaling through my nose I crept slowly out of the door into the moonlight, trying not to knock anything else in the dim light of the cabin. The door creaked its final farewell and snapped home on its latch and I didn't hang around to hear if the snoring old fart on the bed had awakened.
I ran so fast, I didn't even think about where I was going until I was already panting and out of breath. I made it to the edge of a hayfield and stopped. The night was noisy with the various animals that come out to romp under the cool cloudless sky after an oppressive sun on the hot July day and the crickets gave their droning song to the toads' already somber croaks. Finally I calmed down enough so I wasn't gasping for breath, and finally my heart stopped its frantic attempt to free itself from my chest before I removed the hide from the protective cover of my jacket. It was a nice thick fur, and the biggest I'd ever seen. It had to be about eight feet long from nose to the tip of its tail. In fact the tail would drag on the ground if I was wearing it like a robe. At that moment, I realized that's just what I wanted to do. Unrolling it I looked at the tanned underside. It seemed almost made for such a thing. Even before meeting Pap Stillwater I'd known of the skinwalkers from Native American legends, they were braves who would don an animal hide to gain that animal's strength and prowess in battle. Draping the skin over my back I slipped the tanned face over my own. It felt pretty good but, something was missing. Then I remembered pictures of Viking berserkers raging into battle wearing nothing but a sword and a skin. Maybe that was it. I wanted to feel the animal's energy through my skin, to really become the wolf. After taking a furtive glance around to check if anyone was watching, I thought, "Ah hell, here goes nothin'." I stripped off my clothes and felt the cool night air on my sunburnt skin and then I pulled the skin over my back and felt its inherent warmth. The warmth grew to a gentle burn and then it started to get too hot to be comfortable. I tried to remove the hide but it seemed to be stick to my skin. My skin felt as if it was on fire. I clawed at my chest trying to free myself, to no avail, my nails tearing and bringing away pieces of skin. Fur, like that of the hide, sprouted from everywhere on my body and I fell to all fours as it seemed every bone in my body stretched to its breaking point at once. My eyes were on fire and the world turned red as I rolled on the ground in agony.
Pulling my head back I screamed. My tortured human scream became a wolfish howl as my vocal chords strained and reformed. I flared my nostrils and inhaled the night air and it was as if I had never smelt anything ever before. I could smell the hay, freshly cut and lying in the field, pine and cedar trees from the evergreen forest lent their sappy scent to my increased faculties. Then the night noises erupted all around me. I could hear the crickets and toads singing their nighttime melody. The wind whistled through the trees and ruffled my newly sprouted fur and I shook my body from snout to tail as the last pangs of pain subsided.
My stomach felt as if I'd never eaten anything in my entire life and the knot in my belly that was quickly becoming unbearable. Sticking my nose high in the air I took in all the scents the winds would bring me. I smelled the Johnson's dairy cow lowing in the cowpie splattered pen close to the barn. I could hear the gentle breathing of the animal as it slept an undreaming sleep. Then I lopped toward the barn with no fear of awakening my prey as I had about 300 yards to go before I reached the outbuildings of the old farm. Swishing, my tail brushed through the hay as my snout parted the path in front and I could feel the cooling earth between my paws as I ran. I closed my eyes and let my nose guide me to my awaiting midnight snack. Reaching the perimeter fence I stopped and peered into the enclosure, taking a moment to look for any movement that might mean trouble. I took a second to saunter closer to the doghouse of Tonto, the Thompson's German Shepherd, and I could hear the gentle yip of the dog deep in a dream chase. With my new nose I could even smell the stink of the humans on him. What a poor domestic animal that would rather play Frisbee with the Thompson's youngest son than track and kill his own prey. I could be gone before the dog even realized something had happened to one of the animals under his care and even if he did awaken, his tablescrap-fattened body would be no match for my lean, muscular frame.
Tongue hanging out I went back to the cow's pen and quietly leaped over the fence, licking my lips in anticipation of the succulent meat I saw before me. I could already taste the iron tang of the blood in my mouth. Slowly I crept within pouncing distance and watched Ol' Bessie sleep. The smell of manure was strong in my nostrils. Then I stopped, watching her snoring in her sleep, so peaceful in her bliss, but only for a second. I sprang, and at once my teeth were in her neck. Her lifeblood pumped into my mouth as she tried to rise and kick off her attacker and she made a gurgled sound that could not be called a moo by any standards. My lock on her throat turned her death cry into little more than a whisper. I sensed her strength waning as she gave in to the struggle and finally her eyes stopped their frantic movement and her body went slack. I lapped up the blood until it stopped its pulsing flow. Then I glanced up to her bovine face and saw that her eyes had the beginning of the cloud of death coming over them in the cool night air. I listened for the not so watchful dog that lay asleep close by and I could hear him still in the throes of an impassioned dream. I hadn't even broken his snore. Only then did I sink my sharp teeth into the still warm underbelly of Bessie and tore the flesh savagely to gain access to the steaming entrails where I gorged myself until I felt my stomach was about to burst. My whole body had grown sticky with the slick of the cooling blood and I felt like I had eaten five Thanksgiving dinners at once. My stomach was so distended it hurt to walk, but my hunger didn't seem to be satiated.
Waddling to the fence I hunched down preparing to jump over. It seemed much larger than the fence I had hurtled only moments before but I sprang into the air and my forepaws cleared the path. Apparently my leap wasn't high enough as my back legs caught on the metal and I tumbled onto the ground in a heap and that raucous noise was apparently too much for even Tonto's dreamy solace. The dog awoke with a jolt and exploded with barks and growls and I hightailed it out into the field with Tonto on my tail as the farmhouse erupted with light and yelling. I heard a shotgun rack a shell into the chamber and knew I wasn't ready to find out how good of a shot Mr. Thompson was. How would I explain a backside full of birdshot to my parents? I was halfway to the woods before the door of the house opened and the fat farmer was no match for my speed, even in my bloated state. A few yards into the woods ran a cool stream and I plunged in and swam a bit downstream. Tonto reached the edge of the water and lost my trail and I could hear him howling as I kept on drifting downstream. The screams of the humans grew louder and then mixed with the dog's barking raucous by the stream.
I kept swimming, trying to get away from the angry noise but the water was having a strange effect on my wolf body. My fur felt loose somehow. My frantic doggy-paddle started to change into the thrashings of a man as my limbs were turning back to the ones that I had forgotten about. They were after all the only appendages I'd ever known, until tonight. I thought the change was coming just in time though as I had to get away from the enraged farmer and it would be a lot easier in human form. That and the dog wouldn't be able to track me when I emerged downstream as a man. I was getting to like this situation. I was learning more and more about being a werewolf every moment but nevertheless, I had to get home. I stepped out of the water, naked except for the hide on my back and I wrung as much water out of the glittering fur as I could and rolled it up. Then I found my way back to the clearing where I had shed my clothes what seemed like an eternity ago.
I snuck into my house through the window, careful not to wake my parents and I still had an hour before my Dad would wake up for work. Rolling the hide up I stuffed it under the safety of my bed. I could still sense it there as I lay awake in bed, too alive with the night's events to close my eyes. I wanted to feel bad about the Johnson's cow but I couldn't, I actually enjoyed overpowering the beast. It made me feel like I was the strongest man alive! Even my brother the jock would have nothing on me now. He could run around a field smacking pimple faced boys but I could take down an animal that weighed as much as his car. I would never have thought I would like killing something like that but the feeling of ultimate power it gave me overrode any twang of guilt I had from killing the beast. After all, it wasn't as if I'd killed a person or anything. Staring at the ceiling relishing the power and excitement that was still sending aftershocks through my system, I could not wait for another chance to frolic in the woods. The hunger in my soul was eating me up despite my swollen belly.
THE END of the beginning...