His mother had loved him. His mother had kissed his baby cheeks and nibbled his ears and made him laugh, but then he had not had the bumps that appeared in his late teens. Nothing could have prepared him for it. One day he was a young man easy on the eyes, pleasant to behold, and within in a year, blemishes had appeared on his face, some as large as grapes. A few on his neck meant that even people who approached him from behind were repulsed.
The doctor said they would go away but they did not. And so he moved through his days as a man who alarmed passerby. People would stare and glance away and children’s eyes would stick to him, like bees working nectar. He wanted to hide. He wanted to die. He wanted the bumps to go away.
It was because of them that he had dropped out of college and taken the night security job at the Research Institute on the south side of Chicago. It was an easy job, the neighborhood mostly quiet except when the Sox had a game and then the crowds got rowdy, but as a rule he did not have to see anyone after the changeover from the daytime staff to the nighttime maintenance crew. Still, he could not fool himself. He was hiding. Only the night let him hold his head high. Only the night soothed him.
But even the night could fail him. He remembered walking across the campus and seeing a student who had just left the library. He felt concealed and safe but then had passed under one of the streetlamps along the walkway and she’d been startled, acted as if he were Jack the Ripper or some dumb monster.
There were a few people he could not avoid. Of these, only the night cleaning lady, Esmeralda, was not bothered by his face. He never understood why, what had exempted her from being repelled as everyone else was, but she never flinched or made him feel uncomfortable. “Good evening, Mister-Mister,” she always said, pretending she did not know his name. “It’s Gene,” he always responded, and she would smile and dart toward the elevator.
Esmeralda was small. Standing on tiptoe, her eyes just cleared the height of the reception desk. When she reached for the sign-in sheet, her small breasts rose high, like croissants about to be placed on the counter, but Gene only had eyes for her face. It was such a pretty face. Her skin reminded him of amber, the pale kind, and her eyes shown with the dark sparkle of ale. He found himself thinking about her during the long hours of the night when he was alone at the security console. She made him feel lovable, like the person he’d been before his face betrayed him.
Most times the hours slipped by uneventfully. He had the company of the monitors and a small TV screen that gave him access to the outside world. The evening talk shows were his favorites. There were sports, but his affliction had isolated him from the normal activities of youth, so he could only enjoy them as a spectator, denied the deeper understanding of those who had actually played.
During his worst times, he had comforted himself by entertaining werewolf fantasies. As a werewolf, he could escape being Gene Savoy, the only son of a father killed in a highway pile-up, a mother felled by a brain aneurism right after he dropped out of college. During the long hours of the early morning, he often thought of his parents as the quiet turned his mind back to childhood. He’d disappointed his mom and failed his dad. “Even a man pure of heart,” he said aloud, trying to recall a line from a picture he’d seen with his dad at the rickety movie house on the hill, “can become a wolf.” He remembered the darkness of the old theater and the heat of his dad sitting beside him and felt safe and loved. “Even a man pure of heart,” he said again, as if that would bring his dad back.
It was never clear when it started but something changed, there was a shift, as if a prism had been oriented to catch the light, and one wintry night when he was on his way to work, it made itself known. A thick cloud-cover parted and the full moon emerged and he felt his blood rise as if to meet it, as if to join the circling golden globe, devour it, the communion wafer of the sky. It frightened him, then seized him, a hot rush of bewilderment, rapid as a rash, a burgeoning of his chest that snapped a button on his coat, followed by a sensation of something being freed, and all at once he was more beast than man.
When the waves of dizzying energy subsided, he could see everything sharply defined, black twigs as they swayed against a dark sky, crows circling lethargically above an oak, and a woman, alone, entering the campus from the south end. The light of a streetlamp pained his eyes and he blinked to ease them. The scent of the stranger held him there, immobile, seized by strange hungers. The next minutes uncoiled as if from a spring no longer kept in check and he bound toward her and sunk his teeth into her throat, taking her to the ground easily, tasting the rush of hot blood, ripping and clawing as the pent-up energy of centuries coursed through him.
Spent, he pushed away the mangled corpse. The fit released him, and as it did, his claws withdrew and his sturdy snout collapsed into an ordinary human face distinguished only by pebbly protrusions. He reached and felt the chin he had shaved before he left the house. The man, Gene, had returned and the moon, as if mimicking him, was shrouded in dark, thick clouds.
Suddenly, he remembered the girl! His eyes sought out her chewed body in the snow. Horrified, he ran toward the Institute, the cold air stinging his lungs.
In the days that followed, the Tribune reported a mysterious death on campus but little else. Gene, obsessed, spent his time at the console exploring the myth of the werewolf. It did not take him long to exhaust websites and move on to used bookstores and those devoted to comic books that dotted his neighborhood on the north side. He spent his evenings at the security desk reading from this yellowed, dusty harvest.
“Whatcha readin, Mister-Mister,” Esmeralda asked on the way to the elevator.
“Just some silly stuff.”
Esmeralda disappeared into the elevator, leaving a student newspaper on the counter, and his eye fell upon a headline, “The Hound of Hell Comes to Chicago” A physics professor, Dr. Joseph Bolton, was ridiculed for contacting animal control about a wild dog, “big and ferocious.” Gene flipped the page. “It was dark,” Bolton continued, “the moonlight helped but not enough. The creature looked to be about the size of a bear; but it was most certainly Canidae. At first I thought it was a student having a prank — the human sciences bunch go in for that sort of thing, bringing the extinct back to life, and so on. One year they gave everyone a fright by dressing up as a Velociraptor but it was amateurish and everyone thought it a huge laugh. The girls on campus were not amused, of course, and they protested, but the nonsense came and went and nothing came of it.
“Now, this beast, it was convincing. All I could think was, the Hound of Hell, and I am not a superstitious person.”
Spring and summer passed without incident and Gene relaxed, thinking he had mastered the frenzies. That’s how he wanted to think about it, a passing chemical imbalance that produced seizures – something that was now behind him. Halloween was approaching and the students were donning costumes of favorite characters, the slashers Freddy Krueger, Jason and Leatherface and, of course, the demonic clown, the Joker, that comic books had popularized. The Joker was a favorite on campus that year, along with a sprinkling of Spidermen, but Gene noticed an absence of anything supernatural. All of the modern-day boogeymen were human. Had evil, cast outside by society, taken residence inside? Was it inhabiting the human heart?
He wished he could join in the fun but students didn’t want an old man along and besides, he only had a half-hour before his shift started at nine. A few undisguised students on their way to night classes were interspersed among the merry-makers. Gene was walking across campus when he felt a twitch and a strange feeling of expanding, of bursting his boundaries, as water in a pipe does when frozen.
“Great Werewolf,” a student shouted, and he turned around, but the next thing he knew the air was filled with screaming and he had bits of flesh hanging from his teeth. It all happened so quickly. He’d ravaged a cluster of students before hurdling off into the trees. He couldn’t stop shivering. The excitement had overwhelmed him and he found a spot in a dark basement of the campus tower to recover. It was morning when the shaking subsided.
This time, the incident could not be hushed and the newspapers announced, “Slaughter on IIT Campus.” There was speculation about the manner of the beast, the press contenting itself with a rabid dog or a diseased animal that had escaped the lab. Students joked about the ghosts of cows seeking retribution, animals used for early experiments on heart transplants.
By December the police were no closer to solving the mystery. Gene again relaxed, thinking his problem had passed. He had no words for it, no way to seek help, so it was easy to take comfort in its absence and consider it a passing thing.
At his station, the hours dragged most between two and three in the morning. Gene usually chose that time to police the building, checking the floors, testing the locked doors of the labs, patrolling the floor where secret documents were kept, and making sure nothing was amiss. He could monitor everything from his desk but he enjoyed the stroll.
There was no light under any of the doors. Then he came upon it. A foot in the hall. Small. He followed the trail of blood to a chewed limb and found the remains of Esmeralda’s mutilated torso. Her pretty face was shredded, a cheekbone exposed through chewed flesh, no longer amber but a sickening white. He sank to the floor and held her hand. It was stiff and cold, the nails broken. She had fought.
He wept. He wept for Esmeralda and himself and the life he had known. He wept knowing life as he knew it was over.
The afternoon sun glinted off the buildings, sending sparks that momentarily blinded him as he climbed onboard the Greyhound bus. The police had discovered Esmeralda’s body and were looking for him – in the enclosed space of the Institute there were not that many suspects. He’d wiped out his savings account and headed north for Madison, Wisconsin, where he hoped to blend in with the summer students. There were always newcomers in a college town.
On arrival, he had no difficulty finding an apartment off-campus near one of the larger lakes. Mendota? He always got the names confused. Mrs. Lewis was happy to have the money up-front for a small one-bedroom on the second floor. He purchased a used-car with cash and minimum paperwork from a student.
His plan was to join the daylight world, enroll in a few classes, maybe psychology and literature, something that covered myths, studies that might help him figure out how to control the fits. Compared to them, his facial blemishes seemed trivial. They embarrassed and isolated him but were nothing compared to the monster hiding inside.
It took awhile to get settled in Madison, to find a part-time job as a campus security guard, and to qualify for financial aid when he was without character references and family. Luckily, the school fell for his story of having lost his parents in an auto accident in Czechoslovakia during a time of spotty record-keeping, and did not check his background thoroughly. He pretended to have been in the army, a fiction that went unexplored since he presented it as intelligence work requiring special security clearance. It was surprisingly easy to make up things no one questioned. He had gone to classes in Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and taken summer courses at Northwestern University in DeKalb, so with a few facts peppered in, the lies slipped by.
His first class was on the development of psychoanalysis and he was captivated, especially by multiple personalities and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Facets of himself stared back at him from the pages of case studies. Delusions? The seizures had to be delusional. Multiple personalities? He was trying on a different one now as Eugene, the man who no longer hid. Obsessive-compulsive disorder? His condition obsessed him and he was compulsive in his efforts to conceal it.
Where psychological disorders crossed over into criminality was unclear. Was he a criminal only when the beast took over? Or was the beast a fragment of his personality that was always there? A part of him?
The psych class ended early that day and he stayed behind, asking Dr. Moldrowski if he could spare a moment. The professor took him aside.
“I don’t want to waste your time with drivel,” Gene began, “but is there any place in psychology for mythic beasts?”
The doctor suppressed a laugh. “It’s curious that you would bring that up. Myths brought me to psychology. Leda and the Swan, for example. What could be a more perfect description of Eros? The maiden, the swan a disembodied member, the attraction both human and beastly?”
“What about people who think they’re beasts? Can they be cured?”
Moldrowski’s eyes brightened. He usually kept some distance from students but Gene’s questions stirred an old interest he had put aside when he took his teaching position. “That’s an entirely different subject,” he said, inviting Gene to join him for coffee at a nearby café.
Walking home from the coffee shop, Gene thought about the professor’s parting words, “It’s a murky area, but beast and man are not that separated,” he’d said, “Think of the twins who founded Rome, suckled by the she-wolf.”
Surely, that was metaphorical. Gene had never been interested in fantastical tales, but then, he had never imagined that he would become one. He was a rational man. Maybe he did not change at all, but thought he did, and used fantasy to justify actions that were unacceptable.
Nervously, he glanced up at the night sky; he could not be caught out in the full moon again. He had no memory of the attack on Esmeralda – perhaps he erased it from consciousness, a selective amnesia — but he vividly remembered every detail of the others. The intensity of his desire, the taste of blood that made him even wilder, and the feeling of great power, as if he could soar across creeks and tear a human apart as easily as peeling a banana.
The August moon rose ponderously that evening, the “sturgeon moon” his dad always called it. He could feel it without gazing on it, without letting its rays touch him. It was a presence, persistent, waiting.
“Weren’t you out last month?” his supervisor asked suspiciously, when he called in sick, then agreed to find someone to fill in for him. Already Gene’s hands were trembling when he got off the phone and pulled the shades. He felt his body wavering and resisted, pacing, thinking of the Brewers game he’d watched in the tavern. Monsters didn’t care about baseball. He replayed a perfect pitch in his mind, the bases loaded.
A sliver of moonlight slipped through the edge of the shade and he dashed into the other room, the windowless one. He had always hated being boxed in, but it suited him now. He battled with the cells in his body moving toward change, his stomach queasy, hairs trying to erupt through skin, limbs wanting to grow in spurts. Was he going mad?
At last, daylight came and he lay on the floor panting. His head ached and he imagined deep fissures, like those on a prune, crisscrossing his brain where only tidy folds had been. His eyes longed for light but he feared what he might find. Had he deceived himself and bolted into the moonlight to satisfy his craving?
The computer responded lazily as he searched the news. A wife beaten by a drunken husband. A child missing. A knifing outside a bar. Anxious, he made his way to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Dark crescents were under his eyes and he was in need of a shave but in every other way, just Gene looked back at him. For a moment, he stared at his skin and moved closer to the mirror. The bumps had shrunk! Or was he just wanting them to be? No. Those that had been like plums were now cocktail onions, others as small as pomegranate seeds.
Dr. Moldrowski invited Gene to join him again for coffee after class. The professor was awkward, as if he didn’t belong; in that way, they were alike. Over coffee, Gene learned that Moldrowski had escaped the small town of Quincy, Illinois, on a scholarship. He listened as they enjoyed croissants at the café, feeling less of an exile because the professor was there.
“…always an interest,” Moldrowski was saying. “Psychology and myths. The subjects are not that different. Both guided by ideas of human nature, both interested in making sense of things. Oh, yes, it’s hard to see that in a tale of Medusa, but what better way to characterize a personality than by turning it into a woman whose hair teems with poisonous reptiles. When I first read about Medusa, I felt someone else had known my Aunt Helen, that I was not the only one who knew she was venomous.”
“What do you think of the Werewolf myth?” Gene inserted, casually.
Moldrowski laughed. “It’s marvelous. And widespread. We think of all interesting myths as Greek, but the werewolf is not a Greek invention, although many trace it back to Lycaon, the ruler who served the flesh of a child to Zeus as a test and was turned into a wolf as punishment. No. No one can claim ownership of the werewolf. It’s touched upon in Mesopotamian myth and later in Nordic tales.” He took a sip of coffee and seeing that Gene was interested, continued, “It appears in various cultures and reappears in each era. Conan Doyle may have had it in mind when he wrote ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles,’ though he veered away at the last minute.”
Talking with Dr. Moldrowski eased his mind but he wondered how the doctor would regard him if he knew his hidden wickedness. Gene’s mother had impressed upon him that a man is his deeds, “not his wishes nor wants, but what he does,” and he’d tried to please her, to make her proud of him. Then his skin betrayed him. And now, in some agonizing twist, the bumps were shrinking. Each rampage had that effect, curing him of the curse that had made his life so lonely. But he could not turn to the professor for help. He was alone with his secret.
“Why do you think the werewolf is so popular?” Gene asked, wanting to prolong their time together.
“It’s not that hard to understand,” Moldrowski sighed. “Most men feel confined by life. There’s a more primitive side, an aspect that cannot be tamed, that pushes for expression.”
“The beast within?”
“Yes. Consider modern man. Unable to act spontaneously. What better fantasy than that of the wild beast unbeholden to anyone or anything? Other myths fill this need as well. The Minotaur. The Vampire — a more elegant version to be sure — but satisfying the need for wildness. Even Sasquatch can be seen as an expression of this, the wild man of the wood, large and mighty. Hidden. What young man entering puberty has not experienced opposing desires, the exhibitionist at odds with the desire to hide?”
On the run, he fled through the night into the countryside, barely able to hold on to the steering wheel, the car careening, the road empty except for an occasional lone car practically blinding him with its beams. Anything to outrace the moonlight. The fields sped by, a silver fox ran beside for a brief moment then vanished, the stubble of a harvested field stood out starkly, sharply etched, the fences stood free of crows, the winged ones sleeping, save the denizens of the night. The owl, the nighthawk, the bat, plowed the air in time with him as he struggled to stay on the road, afraid to stop, lest he fly from the car. The lights of a distant farmhouse on a hill pulsed and he was out, bounding across the field, free at last, the farm dog nothing to his fangs, a cow startled and fallen in a burst of blood, a horse in flight, not wanting to be overtaken, the soft lights of the farm house pulling him on.
A tractor in the driveway, a truck, a porch, and then the family at dinner, his dinner, his delight, his feast to quench his otherworldly thirst, but even in the midst of bone and blood and screams he knew there was no satisfying something so unnatural. The farmer did not make it to his rifle, the son dropped the butcher knife, the daughter froze, a little one at her side — only the cat escaped, through a crack in the cupboard.
Nothing was left when he was done but still he craved and sought something warm, something with the throb of life, and found it in a pigpen, then on to the field, seeking anything that froze or moved, anything at all, a fox, several rabbits unable to dodge fast enough, his passion raging out of control. Another house not far from the last, another time of feasting, of ripping and mangling, the force so long constrained let loose with greater power, as if the containment caused it to grow and now released, was wild and free. Nothing could stop him. No fence too high, no beast enough to slack his need, no creature able to bring him down, hunting rifles but twigs to be snapped, knives rubber in his thick coat, his lust fueled by moonlight, piercing and steady, lovely and cold, the night his home, his refuge, his sustenance, his solace. Until, at last, the moon abated, dropped beneath a ridge and the sun began it’s rise, its tour of an empty sky. He awakened in a ditch, his clothes bloody and torn, his countenance peaceful, his heart full.
Returning to his apartment was no longer an option. He found a place to stay in Cambridge, a small town west of Madison. He’d washed up at a rest stop and changed into jeans and a sweatshirt, items stowed and forgotten in the trunk of his car. A local directed him to Marjorie Wipp, a widow who kept a room to rent out back of her cottage, something for summer vacationers who came to enjoy the setting, to tour the local pottery shop, stroll along the river and fish at nearby lakes. To Marjorie Wipp, Gene was another off-season traveler, a man a bit scruffy who hadn’t shaved, but on holiday, men often suspended relationship with the razor.
After he got settled, he went for a walk along the river path. The fall day was sunny and pleasant. A few other strollers greeted him along the way, a father and son, two women engaged in talk, a youth alone, furtive and preoccupied, and an old woman with a walking stick. All greeted him warmly with no skittish glances. Cautiously, he felt his face — the bumps were almost completely gone!
Back at Mrs. Wipp’s, he cleaned the interior of his car and ambled over to explore shops in a small arcade. People were excited, talking about a horror that occurred outside of town. He overheard snippets of conversation, “…mutilated bodies,” “the Wellsfords, the Brawleys, even the family dog,” “not of this world,” “evil…” Returning to his room, he flipped on the news to find it dominated by what was being called “The Wellsford Massacre.” Experts were being brought in, the FBI was involved, and several psychics had offered their aid. He watched a local newscaster interviewing a witch at a rock shop, he didn’t catch her name, Raven something-or-other. “This is something from another dimension,” she said. “A supernatural creature who passes among us undetected. It cannot be stopped by ordinary means.” Gene flipped off the news. Raven was giving him a headache.
He’d left Madison just in time, saved Moldrowski from Esmeralda’s fate, but the farmer Wellsford had not been spared, nor the Brawley family. During the shortening days it had been easy to lose track of the moon’s cycle. An overcast sky had further confused him and a cloud had eased aside so that the moonlight touched him, ever so slightly, a mere drop was all it took, and now he’d made a mess of things.
That night he had fitful dreams in the little room. Sealed behind thick drapes, he sensed the moon attempting to reach him, searching for breaks, a slit, a pinhole, a frayed piece of cloth. In dreams he slipped away from it, over and over, hid beneath bales of hay, buried himself in earth with just a straw to breathe, but the moon slipped into the straw, dribbled down and worked on him from the inside out. Exhausted, he stumbled out of bed at daybreak and rushed to the river.
There was no one about as he entered the path. A frog sunning upon a log plopped into the brown and gold water, a kingfisher screamed at him to go away, and a turtle disappeared, leaving a momentary curlicue in the rushing stream.
Watching the stream immersed him in memories of going fishing with his dad as a boy, the slipperiness of the worms he threaded on the hook, the joy of catching a catfish, silver and sleek, its whiskers delighting him. “That one’s big enough to keep,” his dad would say, and add, “It’s natural to eat this fish, it’s our part to keep their numbers in check; but never take life for no reason.” He always ended with, “We do not own things, Gene, we are but a part of it.” They would return home, confident of their place in the world, of belonging to some large, awesome mystery.
He walked along the path dappled with sunlight, a breeze rippling the leaves of oak and maple and hickory, and thought of his mother. She loved trees but did not want them near the house. “They’ll get into the pipes,” she’d say, as if Nature could not be trusted. She had taught him about boundaries and expectations. He had violated her teachings each time he succumbed to the wildness, had disappointed his dad each time he dishonored life.
Gene stooped and picked up some pear-sized rocks. He tucked them in the sack he’d brought, fastening it about his waist and securing it with the knot his dad had taught him, the anchor knot. It was not something he had to ponder – his mind was made up.
The sunlight made the leaves transparent, like stained glass in a cathedral, and a hush descended. He looked up at them and stepped into the water. With just the frogs and turtles and kingfisher to witness his anguish, he moved into the deepest part and let the current seize him.
The stones dragged him down through amber to the deepest orange and into depths, so like Esmeralda’s eyes, made large and all encompassing. Time stretched as he thrashed and finally a cloth descended and darkness came, soothing and tranquil. Frightened, he thought again of the line in the old movie he’d loved as a boy. He struggled to recall the exact words but couldn’t, his mouth sputtering bubbles, “even, even a man,” as words surfaced, jumbled from the past, “a wolf become,” The words repeated in his thoughts over and over, “even a man, pure of heart,” the cadence comforting, until thought ceased and he surrendered to the buffeting water.
A catfish brushed him with a whisker and he recognized his dad, smiling, arms open, welcoming a son with a terrible secret. A light flickered and he was gone upon it, freed as he’d been in the field when he jumped from the car. No longer struggling for air, no longer fighting for life, no longer hiding a secret. Loved.
Sharon Cogbill is a throw-back to a former time, a time of discovery and exercise of interests without academic sanction. She began writing as a teen but lost touch with it, only to rediscover it at mid-life. For the last year she has been exploring dark subjects, stories that she thinks of as “difficult” because they force her to enter disturbing terrain. That dust can cling so she’s become skilled with the vacuum. She worked as a technical editor at a research institute for more than a decade, had a brief journalistic dance with a consumer magazine, and during a time of retreading, wrote a few feature articles as a freelancer. At present, her livelihood with a bank is disconnected from the pen. This leaves her imagination free to roam.