|The Woods Are Lovely, Dark And Deep
by Jeffrey M. Mahr
Story ©1999 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved
Art "Howl" ©1998 Ruth Thompson -- all rights reserved
A story about the coming of age of a teenager in a family of werewolves.
"Yes children, 'the change' is wonderful, a miracle of life. The changes in your bodies, according to the lunar cycle signal your transition into adulthood."
"Will it hurt?"
"A day or two before it happens expect some discomfort. You may feel irritable, with nausea or a headache. You may feel tingly or even 'supercharged' with energy. Then, the change will occur." Mrs. Litvak smiled down on the seated students before continuing.
"Hair will grow in places you've never had hair before. Your bones will change shape. Your senses will become more acute." She stopped talking and frowned at Joe Stublik until he stopped trying to pass a note to Rosa Gostak.
"Your body will begin to change more and more rapidly, with occasional twinges of pain, until finally you have achieved your new form. At that time you will be welcomed into the community Lupinus." Her smile was beatific as she finished. "Are there any other questions class?"
The bell rang. "No? Very well, class dismissed." The matronly woman stepped aside to avoid the stampede of fourteen year old bodies. An occasional snippet of conversation from one of the exiting children would cause her to smile a bit more brightly.
"That Rosa sure is a teacher's pet." That was Joe to one of his friends. They were the last one's out and just moments later all the children were gone from sight on their various journeys home.
"I can't wait for the change so I can raise a litter of puppies of my own." Rosa sighed dreamily to her two companions, Lisa Bartuc and Mrs. Litvak's youngest daughter Carmen. They were just two blocks from home when Erica Talbot and her current boyfriend Vasilli Rodmulik came up behind them unnoticed.
"Who'd want to sire cubs from a tiny wisp of a thing like you Rosa Gostak?" At fifteen Erica was quite pretty and very popular with the boys with her straight black hair and smoldering eyes which was probably why tall swarthily handsome Vasilli, Captain of the Junior Varsity football team, was with her. The "change" had come to her at thirteen and she had already sired one litter although none would ever be of the community. Like all those without the mark they had been brought out into the woods and left to die, as called for by custom. Erica was bitter about not having a cub to raise yet and was hoping for a chance at a second litter later this summer.
"You're so small a lupe would more likely make a meal of you than have a litter with you." She laughed spitefully.
"Erica Talbot, you know that size in human form has nothing to do with size in lupine form." Rosa snarled as she spun about, hands on hips, to face her accuser. Erica was shocked by the audacity of being challenged by the young pup. Then shock turned to anger as she heard Vasilli chuckling. Fists clenched, she snarled back at Rosa and her eyes reddened as her anger grew. Hair began to grow everywhere and fists opened into claw tipped paws.
Before anything more could happen the three younger girls bolted for home leaving Vasilli and a still fuming, partially transformed Erica behind. Struggling to gasp and giggle at the same time they ran into Rosa's house and slammed the front door behind themselves before collapsing, still giggling, to the hall floor.
"Rosa, you're absolutely crazy." Lisa gasped. "What ever possessed you to challenge Erica?"
"You heard what she said. She was totally cruel."
"Yeah, Lisa." Carmen chimed in. "That would have been cause for an adult to issue a challenge."
"But we will be adults soon." Rosa retorted. "And Mrs. Litvak says we've got to start practicing being adult for the change." Carmen nodded.
"Yeah, but Erica? You know what a bitch she can be. She's gonna do everything she can to get you." By now the gasps and giggles had subsided. Rosa gulped but otherwise remained silently steadfast.
"Rosa?" Mrs. Gostak called out from the kitchen. "You have Scouts in half an hour, better get ready."
"Well, the coast seems clear so I better go. My Mom will be waiting for me too." Carmen turned back from the window she had been peeking out. "Good luck." She hugged Rosa and headed out the door. Lisa just gave Rosa a worried look and hurried after.
"Do I have to go Momma? Erica's going to be there and she'll have her teeth and claws out just for me." Mrs. Gostak ignored her daughter's whining and continued to pack the picnic basket.
Mr. Gostak was, as usual, oblivious tearing his attention from the television's sole channel just long enough to mumble, "What's that puppy?"
Further discussion was cut off by the door bell. "Bill dear, would you get that please. I'll be done in the kitchen in a moment."
Rosa growled in anger and frustration as she plopped heavily down onto the couch to wait for the start of hell.
"How're ya doin' Bill?" It was Mayor Talbot at the door with his wife Suzie and, of course, his daughter Erica. Rosa could have cried but she didn't want to give the older girl any more reason to pick on her.
"Hello prey. Are you coming tonight?" Erica's grin was feral.
"Stop that Erica. Don't pick on Rosa just because she's morph challenged." Mrs. Gostak entered the living room, picnic basket in hand, just as Mayor Talbot corrected his daughter.
"Yes Daddy." Erica was all sweet and contrite but Rosa knew better.
"And this is how it begins." Rosa thought with resignation.
"Okay. Everyone in the car." Mr. Gostak chimed in. "I'll drive if that's alright with you Mayor."
"Sure Bill." Mayor Talbot was expansive. "What ever you like."
"Rosa. Help me in the kitchen a moment." Mrs. Gostak took Rosa by the hand calling back to the others, "Go on ahead to the car. We'll be there in just a moment."
In the kitchen Mrs. Gostak kept holding Rosa's hand while kneeling and turning her about so they faced each other. "Rosa, don't worry. I guarantee you everything will turn out fine. All the Gostak women have been slow to develop, but once they have, we've had to beat the boys off. You'll do fine dear."
Rosa looked back towards the living room doubtfully and Mrs. Gostak just smiled knowingly. "I understand your doubts. I had them too. Trust me. You'll be fine. Just stay in the circle and you'll be fine dear."
With a quick glance at the clock she continued, "Let's go or they'll leave without us. Grab that pot please dear." And with that, before Rosa could say a word, they were off.
"Welcome. Welcome one and all." Mayor Talbot's voice bellowed over those of the townspeople milling about. "This is a very special lunar celebration my friends. The ninety-first hunter's moon since the founding of our little community here in the Adirondacks.
"You all know our history, how our ancestors in Europe were feared and hunted almost to extinction, how the few remaining lycanthropes banded together and made the difficult voyage to America, how our forefathers first settled in New York City and suffered in the steel and concrete cages humans so favor, and how they finally moved to the Adirondacks and established a small town near here only to have it bought out from around them by the evil human Rockefeller." The audience growled in response to that dread name just as they always did.
"But now we are here in Conifer. Small, off the major highways at the end of a dead end road. We live our lives undisturbed by human kind." He paused for another growl from the crowd. Invoking the pack's dislike for human's was always good for a growl.
"We have even learned to mimic the human's about us, permitting us to blend in so that we may live and hunt without fear of persecution." This time there was a cheer.
"All hunter's moons are important, but this one is special amongst special days." The crowd was hushed. He had them on the tip of his claw. "The ninety first such celebration since the founding of this community, the confluence of two of the greatest numbers of power." He paused for effect.
"Seven!" He shouted it and the crowd roared. "And thirteen!" The crowd went wild and Mayor Talbot patiently waited for silence.
"Yes friends, brothers, pack mates, this is truly a special moon and I expect wondrous happenings tonight. So, without further ado, I give you Deputy Mayor Bill Gostak, my right hand and an alpha wolf himself. Bill has taken the time from his busy schedule to organize this evening's events so let's all welcome him." Bill gave his distinctive howl with the yip in the middle as he stood up and approached the mayor. Mayor Talbot paused for the cheers for the cheers to end before leaving the podium and taking his seat. He took silent pleasure in noting that the cheers were not as loud as they had been for him.
"Let's let the festivities begin." Bill howled again and waved his arm in the air.
When her father began speaking Rosa skulked off to find Lisa and Carmen. The other two were already in the changling's circle bubbling with anticipation. "Rosa!" They both squealed with excitement when they saw her approaching. Dancing with impatience they waited for Rosa by the edge of the circle. "Come on. Get in here already. They'll be starting soon."
"I'm coming. I'm coming." Rosa stepped up to Mrs. Litvak who was standing guard at the edge of the circle and lay her head on the ground by the teacher's feet. "May I enter the circle of protection Mrs. Litvak?"
"Be you changling or protector?"
"Changling Mrs. Litvak."
"Know you that you must remain within the circle through out the festival of the moon or forfeit your right to the protection of the circle," the woman droned ritualistically.
"I understand and seek the protection of the circle." Rosa responded with equal ceremony.
"Enter the circle changling." Mrs. Litvak stepped aside and let Rosa enter.
Lisa and Carmen hugged Rosa as she crossed into the circle and dragged her further in towards the center. "Come on. It's almost moon rise."
Almost as if on cue, Erica was at the edge of the circle. The protectors would not allow her in, but the rules did not prohibit taunting the changlings. "Hey Rosa, come out and play... if you dare."
"Ignore her Rosa." Carmen pulled Rosa farther in towards the middle of the circle. "She wants you for prey."
"What's the matter Rosa? Is the little cub afraid? Why don't you come out and play with the big wolves?"
"Rosa!" Carmen grabbed one hand while Lisa grabbed the other trying to stop her from storming off to confront Erica.
"Yes Rosa. Listen to your little playmates. They wouldn't want little 'Baby Rosa' to get hurt."
"Erica Talbot you're a mean, evil creature and I'm going to tell your father on you."
"Ooh, such brave threats. How are you going to do that from inside your little circle of protection?" She changed nothing but her face and snarled menacingly.
Vasilli came up behind her and Erica quickly returned her face to human before turning to give him a possessive hug. "Oh Vasilli, look at the little changlings. Aren't they cute?"
Nodding, Vasilli tried to steer Erica away from the circle, but she would have none of it. "Stop that Vasilli. I want to talk to the little girls."
With an meretricious smile Erica turned back to Rosa. "Don't worry Baby Rosa, since you'll never have a real wolf for a mate, I'll tell you all about it. Why don't you meet me at overlook rock at midnight and we'll talk?"
"Erica let's go already." Vasilli began dragging her away from the circle. At first she struggled, but then she snarled a look of satisfaction back at Rosa before grasping Vasilli's waist and laughing as they skipped off into the darkened woods.
The clouds had cleared and a pale, off-white moon shown down on the festival goers. The others in the circle were asleep but Rosa awoke to the sound of howls from the woods.
As she lay quietly on the grass with Lisa and Carmen beside her she could tell from the distinctive calls who was where. Her Brownie training was serving her well as she could even tell what many were doing. There was Daddy off toward the cliff overlooking the Racquette River. He was happily doing what he did best, tracking prey. Rosa had learned a lot about tracking game from him, along with the other Cubs and Brownies he taught. From the sound of the pack following him, the game was big, a bear or moose maybe.
Mommy was off in the other direction, back towards the lake. She had another, smaller group with her, including, Rosa noted with annoyance, Erica and Vasilli. From the sound they were ranging farther and farther from the festival in search of small game burrows. As she listened her mother and her group moved just beyond the range of her hearing.
Unable to hear her mother, Rosa returned her attention to her father who had now moved off alone, away from the rest of the pack he had been leading. They must have gotten close enough to their prey, a bear Rosa decided, that his tracking skills were no longer needed and Daddy was getting old enough that he was more than willing to let others make the actual kill.
Suddenly Rosa's reverie was interrupted as her father's howl cut off by a sharp yelp. Then there was silence. She listened carefully, waiting for the call that would say he was okay, the sound that would tell her that others heard and were coming to help.
She listened and heard... nothing. Mommy was too far off to hear and the pack that Daddy had been leading was too enraptured with blood lust to hear anything but the roars of the bear they had cornered.
Daddy was in trouble and no one else could do anything to help him. Without another thought Rosa slowly disentangled herself from her sleeping friends and headed off to help her father. Only Mrs. Litvak spoke as she crossed the circle's perimeter, "Good luck Rosa. You may not return to the circle. I hope you have chosen well."
The forest was different at night, scary and foreboding. Trails that Rosa thought she knew from her years playing in these woods seemed somehow changed. Was that the knotted tree where she needed to turn right? Was that the fallen bough with the badger's burrow beneath it? It was hard, but somehow Rosa made it to the cliff, nearly falling over the edge as she came out of the trees a bit to the south of where she expected.
Moving to where the trail should have led her, Rosa searched for signs of Daddy's passing. At first she could barely see anything in the dim moonlight, but then as she desperately concentrated she caught a glimpse of something fluttering on the light breeze that always blew up the edge of the cliff. Moving closer Rosa saw a small tuft of fur caught in the bark of a stump just off the path. It was her Daddy's fur, Rosa was sure of it. Sniffing it, she could barely recognize Daddy's... aftershave? No, it was his scent.
Clutching the tuft in her hand Rosa began looking about again. There, in the sandy soil were paw prints, big ones like Daddy's. They led off towards the trail down the cliff to the old salt lick.
Moving to the start of the trail Rosa peered down over the edge of the cliff into the darkness. The quiet splash and rumble of the river below as it passed through a shallow rocky stretch drowned out most other sounds and the salt lick was so heavily used that the scents were blurred; but there, off in the distance, on the rocky shore was a glint of something manmade... and it moved.
The trail was narrow, and steep. Rosa kept grabbing at hand holds in order to avoid falling. "This would be a really great time to be a wolf, she thought, so she could just scamper down the slippery slope." In the distance she could hear a faint howling, maybe help was coming.
About half way down her foot stepped on nothing and Rosa lurched forward into empty air as she grabbed frantically for handholds. Scratching her arms as she frantically scrabbled for a grip, she found first one root and then another, but before she could breathe a sigh of relief the root in her right hand gave way and she was suddenly dangling in the air more than thirty feet above the river. More desperate effort and she had a tenuous foot hold. Her loose hand flailed about frantically until it finally found and grabbed the root she was dangling from and Rosa slowly pulled herself back up to the trail where she lay curled in a ball, panting and shivering with fear.
Looking back at the precipice she'd been dangling over, Rosa saw that the trail had washed out. There was a gap of almost ten feet where even the scraggly shrubs had been washed away with a small level clearing at the other end, maybe five feet by five feet, before the trail resumed.
Standing and brushing herself off, Rosa scoured the area for another way down. Maybe it was not her father at the bottom. Maybe she did not need to go down the rest of the way. Her musings were interrupted by a low moaning from below. She wondered again if it might not be someone other than her father but then an errant zephyr brought a faint scent. There was no doubt now, it was Daddy down there and he sounded hurt.
There was no choice, she was going to have to try to jump the gap; but it was so wide, more than she'd ever jumped.
Rosa moved back several feet along the treacherous path and turned to once again face the gap. She took a deep breath, then another, and started to run. At the edge of the trail she leaped as far a she could -- and landed lightly on her feet on the other side.
Without stopping she continued rapidly down the remainder of the sloping trail and into the rocky river bank. About forty feet away was a large grey wolf lying on its side panting. It whimpered and she ran towards it screaming "Daddy, Daddy." Then she saw what the shiny thing was, a trap. Dropping to her knees beside her father, Rosa began to cry.
"You're not just a baby Rosa, you're a cry baby." Rosa jerked like she was slapped and spun about to see Erica standing at the bottom of the trail. "I've dreamed of this moment," Erica continued. "Just the two of us, alone, outside the circle of protection, little Rosa baby."
Erica please. Daddy's hurt. Help me." Rosa struggled to open the trap on her father's leg.
"I don't think so Rosa baby." Erica gave a feral grin. She began to change and the grin became a howl. Fists became paws and fur sprouted everywhere. Her hips rearranged themselves and she fell forward. Her ears became pointed and her face stretched into a snout. In moments she was a large black wolf. Throughout the transformation her grin never disappeared.
Erica snarled and slowly padded towards Rosa and her father. "I've seen Vasilli watching you when he thought I wasn't looking and Daddy will be so happy to have one less competitor." The words were growled by Rosa somehow found them understandable.
"Erica you stay away from my Daddy. You hear me?"
The wolf stopped and howled a laugh. "Who's going to stop me, you little changling?" Erica began padding forward again.
"Yes," Rosa's voice quavered as she spoke but she stood tall. "Yes, me." Slowly the small girl moved in front of her father and stood defiantly.
"If you feel that way, you first little morsel." Then Erica growled and Rosa jumped but stood her ground.
The wolf was a blur as it charged. Rosa stepped back as it leaped, and tripped over her father's still form. As she fell Rosa felt the breeze as Erica passed just over her head twisting to reach the now supine girl's throat, but managing only a nip to the forehead. Luckily Erica had leapt high, planning on a single bit to the jugular.
Before she could rise Erica was back standing over the small girl, fore paws on each side of Rosa's small chest, leering and growling.
"Why Erica? Why?" Rosa was crying in her frustration and fury.
"Because I don't like you. You're a threat to my dreams to lead the pack with my husband. Your father's a threat to mine's leadership right now. If you die now, your father will die too and life becomes much easier. I'm going to make my life easier. Say goodbye Rosa."
Something within her snapped and Rosa knew what had to happen. Calmly she sought within herself and felt a sudden rush of power, power she's sought in vain in the past. Before Erica could descend upon her to maul her with her teeth and claws Rosa began "the change."
All Rosa's pent up frustration released itself as fur and paws, teeth and claws formed. She transformed in the blink of an eye from a slight teenaged girl into a huge black wolf, easily a head taller and a third heavier that Erica.
"No," she snarled, "you say goodbye." Lunging upward, Rosa sunk her teeth into Erica's jugular and squeezed with all her might. Erica yelped in shock and jumped back leaving a bloody tuft of fur in Rosa's jaws.
They stood glaring at each other over the comatose wolf's body and then they were on each other. Jaws snapped, claws raked and then they were apart, panting as they warily examined themselves. Erica had no new wounds, but Rosa had trickles of blood coming from a dozen different bites and scratches. None were lethal, but it was clear to them both that Erica was winning.
They lunged again with the same results. More wounds for Rosa. At this rate Rosa's size advantage was not helping. She was going to have to fight smart, like her father taught.
At the next lunge Rosa let Erica knock her to the ground. Surprised, Erica began to fall over the supine wolf only to feel Rosa's jaws close on her neck. She gurgled and then could say nothing more. Her struggles were over almost before they started. Rosa felt the warm, salty-tasting blood squirting into her mouth and felt the urge to shake her prey. When it failed to move she shook it several more times. Rosa could already taste the blood beginning to cool.
Releasing the carcass Rosa struggled out from under and stood up. She had a need she had to scratch, but she was not sure what it was. Glancing up, the moon, now free of the clouds that had been hiding it, caught her attention and she howled.
The door swung open and Rosa bounded through it and up to her father's hospital bed. Bill Gostak smiled and put his newspaper down. "Hello Rosa? What brings you here?"
"Oh Daddy, stop teasing." She hugged him, carefully avoiding his still healing foot, as Mrs. Gostak entered the room.
"Hello dear. How are you feeling?"
"Fine thank you dear, especially now that I have my two best ladies here with me." Mr. Gostak smiled and reach for his wife's hand as she came around to the other side of the bed.
"So what have I missed while I've been laid up with this broken leg?"
The two women glanced at each other and Mrs. Gostak spoke first. "Well dear, it's official. You're the new Mayor. Mr. and Mrs. Talbot have left the pack in shame because of Erica's loss in a blood fight with a changling."
Mr. Gostak watched Rosa dancing about in excitement while his wife spoke. "Maybe we'd better let Rosa tell us what's got her so excited."
With a huge smile Rosa began. "Carmen and Lisa changed too."
"That's great Rosa, but is that all you wanted to tell me?"
"No Daddy." Rosa suddenly blushed and looked down at her feet.
"Rosa's a bit shy Bill. Rosa, would you like me to tell your Daddy?"
"Yes. No. Umm, I don't know." Rosa kicked at the tile flooring several times. "It's about Vasilli."
"Vasilli Rodmulik? Eric's son?" Mrs. and Mr. Gostak glanced concernedly at each other.
"He asked me to the festival next week." The words rushed out. "He asked me for a date, but I told him no."
"You're still dancing about Rosa. Is there more?"
"Well, yes Daddy."
"Then please stop scuffing at the floor and tell me dear."
"It's Joe Stublik." She trailed off and her father prompted her again. Finally Rosa looked up at her father with a beatific smile. "He... he asked me too."
About the Author
Jeff Mahr is the happily married father of three plus one very furry cat, a parakeet, and a constantly varying number of hamsters. He has been reading science fiction since eight years of age and first became interested in transformations reading Heinlein's "I Will Fear No Evil."