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Posts Tagged ‘Werewolf’

Beast25

The woman alternately hugged the boy close to her chest and then shook him feverishly, wailing all the while. Her clothes, like his, were soaked with blood. The crowd formed around her, but Clarisse hung back. So did Louis.

“Where did he come from?” Louis asked. “The boy. I saw him in the fields today. Who brought his body in?”

Clarisse stood on her toes to look over the crowd.

“If you’re looking for your cloaked man,” she said, “he’ll be hard to find.”

It was night and the air was chilled—many members of the crowd wore hooded cloaks. Louis stood on his toes as well.

“Blasted!” he said, and the mourning mother’s cries seemed to take on a new life, hoarse as they were.

“What’s happened?” The mustachioed Norman was at his side, still in his day clothes. Louis assumed he’d meant to sleep in them.

“Boy’s dead,” Louis answered.

“Oh dear, that’s horrible,” the man said. “How?”

But Louis’s mind was elsewhere. He turned to ask Clarisse what the cloaked man’s name was, but she was gone. He craned his neck around, trying to see behind him, and then in front of him, amongst the assembly of gawkers. There were a number of lanterns carried, and even a few torches, but the light they threw only carried a few feet from the source and Clarisse didn’t seem to be near any of them.

The people mumbled to each other in hushed tones, the mother still wept, and a few women pulled close to her, wrapping their arms around her in the solidarity of grief.

“This boy is dead!” a cry went up.

The crowd’s murmurs fell silent and everyone looked around to see where the voice had come from, to see to whom they were supposed to be listening.

“Nothing can bring him back!” the call went again.

On the other side of the throng—which was at least thirty-to-forty head by now—someone had jumped upon the edge of the community well. Louis stood again on his toes, but so did everyone else, and it helped little.

“And I know who perpetrated this terrible crime!” the voice rang again. The entire crowd had turned toward the man clinging to the well. Louis tried to position himself better to see, first left, then right, and finally, his eyes locked on the cloaked man. Many of the peasants had now pushed back their hoods to better see within such close quarters, but this man—who perched with one foot along the edge of the well and clutched the beam that held aloft the roped bucket with one hand, while the other waved in the air above him—this man wore his hood and wore it low, and still Louis could not see his face. His cloak was bloody, for it was he who had brought the boy in from the field.

“And I believe that you also know who perpetrated this unthinkable crime!” he yelled.

Louis attempted to push his way through the crowd to the front, but it was locked tight, and his shame would not allow him to too roughly jostle the women therein. There was no going around, as the mass filled the narrow street.

La Famille de Loups!

And with that, fists flew into the air and yells erupted all around Louis. Lanterns waved and torches were swung about above the heads of the people as the cloaked man continued to stir their frenzy.

Then, to their left, the stable door flung open and the chestnut mare came bolting out, Clarisse astride and whipping the horse into a firm gallop past the mob and out of the village. All heads turned and watched while the cloaked man’s waving hand pointed to her and he yelled.

“And she is one of them! This must be stopped, tonight!”

As he signaled after the escaping Clarisse, his cloak opened at the breast, and though his face was still hidden in his cavernous hood, Louis glimpsed—for but a brief moment—a wooden handle protruding from his peasant’s belt. From this handle sprung four steel claws. And just like that, the cloak closed and it was gone.

Louis had been right; it had been a pair.

Suddenly, the crowd lurched forward and Louis could hear the yells of the people, crying out for blood and for vengeance. The cloaked man had come down from his position on the well and Louis could see the stricken mother close to him, cradling her small boy, whose limbs sagged like wilted flowers. She had stopped crying, stopped wailing, and now her face set grimly, her eyes filled with crimson murder.

The mustachioed Norman beside him moved ahead to join the rabble, and Louis grabbed at his sleeve.

“What on earth are you doing, man?”

“They say they know who the murderer is,” the man said. “There is justice to be had tonight.” And he shook free of Louis’s grasp and disappeared into the mass of fury.

“For God’s sake,” Louis said out loud, but only to himself. “It’s a damned mob.” Being a Scot and a historian from that bloody city of Edinburgh, Louis knew well the ravages of an angry mob. He watched the crowd as it moved away, and in it, he recognized the hairstyles of the two literature-loving sisters, and nearby, their cousin, all raging against something they had no idea of. This he half-expected. But when he located the good face of his modest luncheon neighbor, her neat hair covered in a simple nightcap, her once mousey voice raised against a foe she could not name, Louis wept.

He sat on the stoop of the inn with his face in his hands, knowing there was nothing he could do. Once the mob had disappeared, though their yells could still be heard, he went upstairs and grabbed his fur cap. In the stable, Modestine slept, and he woke her with the saddle on her back. He was glad they both had rested that afternoon, for tonight they wouldn’t.

Once she was ready, he led her out and down the street, toward the faint sound of the bloodthirsty horde. He knew there was no measure he could take to prevent what was going to happen, whatever that tragedy would be. He only hoped that Clarisse had convinced her family to run, flee the region for their very lives.

The night was dark, but Louis could see a faint path, recently tread by dozens of angry feet, by the slim light of a crescent moon. Ahead, he could see the glow of the lanterns and torches, and he nudged Modestine forward, if only to be a witness.

When Louis found the mob, they were closing in on and surrounding a two-story farmhouse about a mile out of the village. Some people were already busying themselves letting the livestock loose. Their faces twisted with their shouting, made all the more grotesque by the light and shadow thrown about their features by the wavering flames of the torches.

Louis tied Modestine far back from the house and small outbuildings, to avoid some mob member mistaking her as belonging to this family and making off with her and his effects. He walked slowly around the jeering bodies, as close to the house as he could safely get. People yelled terrible things to the occupants—for much to Louis’s horror, there wereoccupants. Clarisse, perhaps, had come too late, or maybe could not convince them of the danger. They were a good family; they didn’t kill their fellow citizens. Why, he could almost hear her old mother ask, would they want to harm us?

A faint light glowed in the upstairs windows, where he presumed the family had retreated. A group of men attempted to batter down the front door with a fence rail they’d pulled from the ground, and with every slam of wood on wood, there came the screams of two women from upstairs. Louis imagined them to be Clarisse’s mother and sister. Clarisse, he suspected, was holding her own, as she’d struck him as rather sturdy for her age.

Finally, a window upstairs opened and a man stuck his head out—he was an older man, perhaps the father of the family.

Qu’avons-nous fait?” he yelled down. He repeated this question—What had they done?—but there was no way for his voice to break through the cacophony of the bloodthirsty people below. They pelted him with stones until he pulled the shutters back over the window and withdrew with his family.

Louis caught site of the mustachioed Norman at the edge of the crowd, and he went to him.

“Sir, please,” Louis tried to yell above the din. He pulled at the man’s sleeve, but it was yanked out of his grip and he was duly ignored as the man put up his own shouts.

“You don’t even know these people,” Louis tried again. “They are strangers to you, all of them!”

The man turned to Louis with a withering glare and Louis took a step back. The man’s eyes blazed with murder. Again, Louis was horrified—not just for this poor, innocent family, but for all of humanity. If all it took was one life and the instigation of a madman to rouse peoples’ blood to killing, then the species itself was rotten from the core.

Louis turned away and headed towards Modestine, when he heard another voice—this one sailing above the noise of the people, or, more precisely, the people quieted enough to hear the voice speak. He looked back to see the cloaked man standing on the front stoop of the house, elevated slightly over the mass of maniacs he’d produced.

“Children of God,” he cried, “hold your hands. Let us burn this house and its wild dogs!”

With that, a clamor of approval rose up into the night joined by a single panicked scream from the house. The people moved as one, parting to allow torchbearers access to the corners of the house. In no time, it was on fire, burning from the bottom up. A few people managed to get inside the first floor, but made no attempt to climb to the second, for their only mission now was to help the house burn faster. They set fire to the things inside and then ran out victoriously to the cheers of their accomplices.

Louis could not seem to move. As much as he dreaded watching what was unfolding before him, he could not tear his eyes away.

The flames licked ever higher, eating away at the planks and beams. The autumn blooms that hung in pretty baskets from above the windows wilted and curled. The terrified whinnies of the now-loose horses combined with the whine of the inferno peeled in Louis’s ears, and still he could not move. And then, another scream.

From a side window of the second floor, someone leapt. A woman, the mother or sister, perhaps even Clarisse. The screaming continued and Louis realized she was injured. Adrenaline finally pushed him to run toward the sound, but he was too late. The crowd had, upon seeing the woman fall and hearing her scream, shifted to engulf her and were now in the process of beating her. Another scream from the open window—the young sister. Louis saw Clarisse pull her back, and so it must have been the mother this mob was now beating to death.

Louis considered for a moment his pistol, though he knew it would be next to useless with a mad crowd such as this and would likely only end with his own murder. He wanted merely to end her searing misery.

Now, a man burst from the front door, his limbs all in flames. He managed to rush around the side where his wife had fallen, and the crowd parted easily for him. They either recoiled in horror or for self-preservation; Louis guessed the latter. As the man reached his wife he was a ball of flame, but the anguish of his cries were those of grief and not pain. He fell to his knees beside the unmoving woman and then toppled to her side, wrapping his burning arms around her. Then, he stopped moving. They both did.

A cheer rose up in the crowd.

Louis paced back and forth, tears streaming, wiping his eyes, and looking to the house, trying to craft some sort of saving plan, but there was nothing. The first story was engulfed, as the poor father had proven in his effort to get through it to save his wife. There couldn’t have been another access from the second floor, or the woman would not have felt compelled to jump. And now, all there was to do was watch these two women—girls, really—die an agonizing, terrible death.

Knowing there was nothing he could do, he suddenly remembered the cloaked man and looked desperately for him amongst the swarm of fanatics, but he was nowhere to be found. Gone, again.

Louis turned and staggered back to Modestine, untied her, and pulled her back along the faint path, back to Pont de Montvert. When he got to town, he spared no time looking about; he stopped for nothing but just walked through to the other side and away.

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Beast24

After lunch, Louis claimed a bed upstairs by tossing his fur cap upon it. He’d waited until Clarisse made to serve one of his fellow travelers and took the opportunity to run up. Similarly, he waited until he couldn’t see her golden corkscrew ringlets below before making his getaway. He took his sack out to the stable where he hunkered down beside Modestine with his journal. She was paired with a chestnut mare, who chewed oats in a sack. He was only passing the time, but he might as well keep an eye on his companion, as he was feeling more vigilant than usual here in Pont de Montvert, despite nothing seeming particularly out of the ordinary.

The donkey chomped on some hay and gazed languidly at her driver as he scribbled away, catching up on his entries in as much detail as memory would allow. Then, Louis lidded his inkpot and stowed his materials. From his vantage point, he could see the comings and goings of the inn, and now he watched the two sisters and their cousin exit laughing and make their way into the street, going off to see whatever sights the village offered. He thought he should be doing the same, but felt that if he made one wrong move, it would result in some horrific, irreversible tragedy, and so he opted to make a few moves as possible.

Soon after, his modest neighbor from the table also left the inn; she walked directly over to the church, and Louis smiled. Then, to fill the space of time, he produced his sketchpad and proceeded to make a study of Modestine.

Throughout the afternoon, Louis lay in the hay beside his donkey, drowsing, as the inn occupants came and went. Eventually, he fell asleep, and when he came to, it was coming on twilight. He woke with a start, unsure of where he was, and only aware that he was supposed to be on guard. It took a few moments to return fully to the present but when he did, he put his things back into his sack and scratched Modestine’s ears.

“You were supposed to wake me,” he said.

She looked at him.

“Go to sleep.” He left the stable and returned to the inn, just in time for yet another meal.

It was almost an exact repeat of the mid-day meal, with the noted difference of the absence of his modest neighbor. That seat was now filled with a mustachioed Norman, who spent the duration charming the sisters and annoying the cousin. Though Louis was glad to have the attention taken away from his book writing, he found it difficult to eat being situated as such, in the middle of a raucous conversation that often bordered on sizzling debate. He was still full from lunch, and he ate little, but drank more wine than he knew he should. And the sisters still fussed about him, though a little more tamely—perhaps their cousin had had words with them. All the while, Clarisse hustled around the diners, replacing this and that, refilling that and this. She was particularly attentive to Louis’s glass and kept it full at all times.

The more Louis drank, the more he talked. The more he drank and talked, the easier it was to lose track of time. Soon, it was late and most of the diners had gone to bed, save the two sisters, who seemed about as drunk as Louis, the cousin, the Norman, and a few more additions to the boisterous group. They laughed and talked loudly, occasionally hushing themselves so as not to keep awake the other patrons, only to then laugh themselves louder, until . . . there was no more wine. And Clarisse had gone.

“Allow me,” Louis said, dramatically pushing his chair out and rising, which prompted a smattering of applause, presumably for not falling over. And he disappeared into the kitchen to see if he could find either another bottle of wine, or Clarisse, whichever came first.

The kitchen was confined, compared to the dining area, and it didn’t seem like the amount of food that came out of it could have fit in the first place. There was a stove, a basin, a table, and a large wooden cupboard. Louis looked around, but the place seemed bare. As he was about to open the cupboard and investigate, he heard a noise behind him.

Vous êtes ivre,” said a woman’s voice.

“I am not drunk,” Louis said as he turned around.

It was Clarisse. She had not gone to bed like he’d suspected, and was in fact still wholly dressed.

“You are,” she argued, and then walked around him and stood in front of the cupboard. Though she looked nothing like Fanny—she was taller, her hair yellow, her eyes blue—her plumpness reminded Louis of his American love, and all of a sudden, he found this girl attractive. Or, it might have been the wine, but he was in no condition to make such a call.

Clarisse crossed her arms and leaned against the cupboard. It took Louis a moment to understand he was being blocked from the last of the wine, so crossed his own arms and half-sat on the edge of the table.

“Come,” he said. “Just one more.” The sound of laughter spilled in from the dining area, and he motioned to the door, as if to say, see?

Non,” she said. “And shouldn’t you be more careful?”

“Careful? Careful of what?” He was seized with an almost uncontrollable urge to wind a finger through one of her curls.

“Aren’t you hunted, as we are?”

“Hunted?” His hip slipped from the table and he barely caught himself, reseating once again on the table’s edge.

Clarisse made a claw of her hand and thrust it at him.

Hunted,” she said again.

The blood washed from Louis’s face.

“My cousin is dead,” she said and looked at her feet.

“What? I’m sorry, how?” Though his body wasn’t necessarily following, his mind was sobering rather quickly.

“You shot him; you killed him.”

Louis stared at the girl in disbelief as she reached into the collar of her blouse and pulled from it a small bell. She clinked it once or twice and looked at Louis knowingly.

It was the slaughtered foal’s bell.

Louis gasped and was about to back away when Clarisse swiftly moved around him and now blocked the door to the dining area. Another wave of laughter came from the next room.

“Maybe you didn’t,” she said. “But you surely did not help.”

Louis struggled with a response. The drunken attraction had dissipated quickly and he now wanted to be anywhere than alone with this girl.

“Fouzilhac,” he stuttered. “The man from Fouzilhac.”

“His name was Alphonse.”

“He was a beast when I made the shot.”

Clarisse sighed.

“I know.” She continued to toy with the bell and its clapper ticked dully against its sides. “He gave this to me.”

“He may well have murdered the wearer of that bell,” Louis said.

“He may well have, if you can call killing a horse murder.”

“Some might.”

“It doesn’t matter. He didn’t do that either. And by ‘either’ I mean, he didn’t kill your priest.”

“I know,” Louis said. “I found the weapon wielded for that definite case of murder.”

As if confident he wouldn’t now go running from the room, Clarisse walked to the table he leaned against and poured a glass of water from a pitcher. She handed it to him and he drank.

“You can’t say, though,” he continued, “that your family hasn’t killed.”

“I won’t say that then,” she rejoined. She leaned against the table next to him and crossed her arms. “Oui, my family has killed. But not all of us. We are not all loup-garou.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Some are, and some are not. Alphonse was; I am not.”

“But the killing is wrong,” he said.

“I didn’t say it was right.” Clarisse fidgeted with her sleeve. “But it is not . . .” She searched for the right words. “It is not always in one’s control. Not when the change happens.”

“Some,” she went on, “with much practice have trained themselves. They’ve mastered their animal time, like becoming conscious while inside a dream. And they’ve satisfied the hunger with deer, or other animals. But others, like poor Alphonse, could never manage it.”

“But you are not one,” Louis said.

“I am not.” She shook her head and her curls bounced. “My father is. And he does not kill. Nor does my sister. We have been taught right from wrong. Still, we mourn our poor cousin.”

“I am sorry,” Louis offered, for he truly felt it, and he felt his fear of her retreating slowly into the seemingly bottomless well of sympathy he carried inside himself. Again, she shrugged.

The laughter had died down in the next room and the sound of chairs sliding indicated that the party was breaking up, probably leaving Louis for drunk on the kitchen floor.

“How do you know about the cloaked man? ” he asked.

“Is that what you call him? We know him. We know his family. Do you know the story of la Bête du Gévaudan?” she asked.

Louis nodded and she continued.

The cloaked man, she said, was a descendent of the first hired hunters of la Bête, just as she, and Alphonse, were the descendants of la Bête himself. Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his son Jean-François had been hired to hunt the monster, to stop the killing, but they had only turned their hounds loose in the wood, and fired their guns at anything with a pelt. Many wolves were killed, but no beast was caught.

“They were being paid by the day,” Clarisse said. “They had no incentive whatsoever to actually do what the villagers hoped. And, of course, my ancestors could not stop the killing. The change was new to us then.”

In the end, the father and son were replaced by the King’s man who took down one beast, and then another local hunter took down the second. Then the politicians became embarrassed, everything was hushed, and Clarisse’s ancestors continued to kill.

“But don’t think we did so without conscience,” she said sternly. “Our curse has many faces, guilt not being the least.”

Louis nodded and tried to understand.

“All this time,” she continued, “we have tried to be good members of our communities. And while not all of us have been successful, many of us have been. That does not, though, stop this family from hunting us.”

“Why?”

“This man that follows you—he’s not the first. His father hunted us, and his father’s father, but there seems to be a difference with this generation. While the men before him seemed to hunt us because they wanted to stop the killing, this man doesn’t seem to care. This man also kills. And unlike my cousin—who had his faults, I will not argue—this man has no conscience.”

“But if he didn’t want to stop the killing, what does he want?”

“Are you asking me?” She asked him, as if doubting her own opinion on the matter.

“I am,” he said.

“You are a writer?”

Oui.”

“You are famous.”

“Oh, well, non,” he said, and found himself blushing and a little flustered as to how to respond. “No. I have a book. I’ve written some articles and essays, some histories, but really . . .”

“It is only my opinion,” she said. “Kill a peasant and no one cares but the peasant’s family and friends, however, kill a famous writer—”

“But, really,” Louis held up his hands. “I am not a famous writer.”

Louis wanted very much to be a famous writer, but he was glad, at this moment, that he was not one.

This time Clarisse waved her hand.

“Whatever the case,” she said. “You should truly stay your guard.” She tipped the glass of water he was holding to his mouth. “And don’t get drunk.”

Louis laughed and took several long gulps.

“Is there more bread?”

With that, Clarisse disappeared into the dining room for a moment and returned with a small basket of rolls. Louis grabbed one and piece by piece swallowed it. As he worked to soak away what wine was left sloshing around in his belly, and Clarisse went to clear the dining table, he thought.

This man—the cloaked man—could not possibly want to use Louis’s fame as a writer, for he had none. But he was killing: first the poor foal and then poor Father Apollinaris. But were they the first? The man had fashioned himself a specialized weapon, in the form of a massive wolf’s claw. Louis thought about the carnage wreaked upon the friar’s body and tried to imagine a man inflicting that level of damage. Indeed, Louis thought, he may have fashioned at least two, one for each hand—all the more to imitate that of a wolf-man. He only lacked teeth, and for that he made up in tenacity.

Louis tried to form an image of the man—in those glimpses he’d had of him—and he could not remember him being exceptionally large. Average, at best. Even a little stooped. In trying to understand and fully command the facts Clarisse had given him through the drunken haze that was already dissipating, it hadn’t occurred until now to ask the girl what the man’s name was.

He slapped his forehead and made to leave the kitchen and join Clarisse in the dining room, when there came from the street a blood-chilling scream. It was a woman’s scream, throaty and anguished, and it repeated itself over and over, with hardly a pause for breath.

Louis ran through the kitchen door. Clarisse was already moving through the front door of the inn and some of the male patrons were making their sleepy way down the stairs. He ran ahead of them, behind Clarisse. On the street, people gathered slowly about a young woman, in whose lap laid the limp body of a small boy. Louis recognized him as the boy who waved at him this morning from the fields before the village.

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Beast23

When Louis woke again, it was still dark, but the whisper of dawn played upon the horizon. The sky was deep blue, anticipating morning proper, but the woods that sheltered the two travelers was still heavy with night. The stars had diminished considerably and the moon hung far over, ready to begin its journey to the other side of the globe.

Louis rose and noted the wind had picked up, passing cold over his weary limbs. The branches above and around him swayed as he fetched water from the natural faucet nearby. He shielded his lamp and boiled a sufficient quantity for a thin chocolate drink. While not rich, it was comforting.

Modestine stood chewing on some grass. Louis gave her a hunk of bread for breakfast but declined more for himself than the chocolate. He listened but heard only the growing sounds of daybreak—birds shrilled wakeful, flitting through the still-dark forest. Soon, he would hear the ox-carts moving uphill to fetch their quarry of wood for the winter, and wanting to avoid them, he hurriedly packed his things and the two continued their upward trek.

Though the path would sometimes reward their diligence with a respite of level ground, it never lasted very long and up, up they were again sent. Eventually, the path beneath their feet disappeared and they tread upon a simple terrain marked only, again, by the standing stones for winter travel. Small birds hopped from stone to stone, and it seemed to Louis that they were the same birds for miles, following him along, his destination theirs. It was warm and Louis had removed his coat, walking in only his knitted vest, his shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows.

Finally, they reached a summit that distinguished itself from the smaller peaks they’d rolled over. Even if one closed one’s eyes as they breached it, one would sense its majesty. Le Pic de Finiels, about which Louis had heard so much, stood 5,600 feet above sea level. From here, through the hazy afternoon, Louis could make out lower Languedoc all the way to the Mediterranean.

It was spectacular, but Louis was tired. And he did not relish that his next stop, probably for the night, was the dreaded Pont de Montvert.

He goaded Modestine, who had stopped, assumed he’d want to spend more time, and made for the nearest grassy spot for a snack. She huffed a disappointed sigh and shuffled on, down this time. A little while later, the standing stones they’d been following disappeared and Louis stopped to look around.

Not far down, he could see a trail begin—it looked very steep and seemed to spiral down the slope.

“Are you ready for that?” he asked Modestine, who only blinked her answer in return.

Down they went. The path turned so tightly and so vertically that Louis insisted Modestine go first, for if she started to roll, she’d surely crush him despite her tiny frame. She took the lead happily enough, almost trotting, and while it had looked like a rather long drop from above, it was only a matter of a few minutes before they spilled from the corkscrew onto a straight, flat plain. First Modestine, and then Louis, separately and in opposite directions, jogged to a dizzy stop before halting to collect their balance and rejoin one another on the path.

Oddly, or so Louis thought, the path continued along the trickle of a brook, with the waterway flowing zigzagged back and forth over the walkway, so that as they progressed, Modestine refreshed her tired hooves in the water while Louis sure-footedly stepped over. They found themselves in a green valley dotted abundantly with rocks. In due course, the path grew into a road and the trickle grew into a stream, which diverted to the side. Their course advanced over a slight, but regular rise and fall through the vale, flanked by a forest of oak on either side.

With each step, the watercourse they raced grew bigger and bigger, soon a foaming tributary eager to throw its contents against stones, the banks, and itself. Rapids formed as its width expanded to eventually become the strong-flowing Tarn River.

Just under the raging, babbling current, Louis heard a sound, and looking up and forward to a break in the valley walls that spread meadows left and right, he saw a little boy, who waved enthusiastically to Louis. This was the first sign of le Pont de Montvert.

* * *

As they came into the town—over a stone hump-backed bridge that took them across the Tarn and ended on the other side with a medieval tower—it struck Louis that it had been exactly a week since he’d left Monastier. Pont de Montvert was all bustling with the Sabbath post-church activities—people buying a day’s or a week’s worth of necessities at the vendors that gathered loosely along the main thoroughfare, lined with one- and two-story stone houses.

Louis peered about them suspiciously, looking for a familiar face, listening for the singing voice that harassed him in the night amongst the trees of Mont Lozère, but there was nothing. Citizens moved about, jostling him, Modestine, and each other, an undulating sea of ruddy faces and muted color, though the eyes and mouths smiled at a day’s rest.

They made their way to the nearest public house, where Louis planned to hole up for the day and night, until events either played themselves out or enough nothing happened to warrant a feeling of safe passage. But Louis did not expect his stay to be without incident, and so he left Modestine in the stable with strict instructions to the stable boy to watch her carefully, then headed into the inn to wait it out.

There was a considerable crowd at the table for the mid-day meal, at least a dozen, including himself. The server called herself Clarisse—she was a buxom young woman: her hips and bosom ample, her face round, her eyes and nose small. She had curly yellow hair that spiraled over her shoulders, her cheeks were naturally rosy. Clarisse moved about the crowded dining area deftly, despite her size and the speed at which she went.

Louis took an empty space between a middle-aged, well-dressed man and a dowdy, timid woman of roughly the same age as his other neighbor. Across from him sat two women who chatted animatedly to each other. They were both handsome, which Louis counted as a special treat as he swore he had not seen a beautiful woman since leaving Monastier, and even then, he could remember no female face from that village aside from the pamphleteer’s ancient mother he’d endlessly sketched. The remaining travelers beyond this immediate group held no interest for him.

The two lovely women, as it turned out, were sisters—both married—traveling with the man to Louis’s right, a cousin. They were meeting their husbands—railroad surveyors currently in Chasseradès—in a few days, before moving on to another town to spend a few weeks with their widowed mother.

“I know them!” Louis exclaimed. “Well, that is to say, I passed a magnificent evening with them just two days ago.”

“They are well, then?” one of the sisters asked.

“Oh, indeed,” Louis said, “very well.”

Stoneware plates were filled with stewed vegetables, beef, and bread. Cutlery clicked together and against teeth. Clarisse moved about the room, plate to plate, and rested by the stairwell in the corner until her service was again required.

“Are you familiar with the village, sir?” the man to his right inquired.

“This village? No, I am not. Though I mean to be. I am writing a book.”

And the conversation followed as such. The sisters fawned over Louis—having discovered a writer in their midst—and they all asked for the details of his travels so far. Louis did his best to leave out anything grisly—anything related to wolves or murder—and largely succeeded. This pleasant exercise gave him hope that his journal notes weren’t all for naught and that he might—if he made it to Alès alive and back into the arms of his friends and family— still have a book from all this mess.

Clarisse suddenly appeared beside him, heaping a second helping of beef upon his plate before he’d even half-finished the first, and she was gone again in a flash. Louis hadn’t had this much sensory excitement in weeks. Perhaps months.

“And, so the brothers of Our Lady of the Snows,” a sister began, “there is no vow of silence?”

“Ah, no, see,” Louis explained, piling the beef onto itself. “It is merely an economy of words. Nothing unnecessary nor impractical.”

He saw his shy neighbor to the left had drained her cup and he neatly refilled it without losing his thought.

She tried weakly to refuse, but then acquiesced for the sake of good manners and presented Louis with a wan smile. She styled her dark hair parted concisely down the middle and combed back in a low bun; she wore a small, modest cameo taut on a humble ribbon around her neck. It had a look about it that spoke of something handed down, possessing significant personal value. She was clearly not of the party immediately surrounding them.

“Where are you going to, Mademoiselle? Where are your people?” he asked warmly, trying to help her feel included.

Her face reddened with the attention. She smiled and tried to wave it away, but he persisted.

“Florac,” she finally answered. “To see my sister.” Louis had to lean close to hear her, as she spoke barely above a whisper, and this caused her to blush further.

“If your sister is half as lovely as you, Mademoiselle . . .” he began.

Clarisse now appeared to his other side, laying down another roll, though his sat yet untouched. And, again, gone.

“Have you published other books?” one of the sisters across the table interrupted, and the little mouse to his left looked more relieved than spurned, so Louis turned his attention back to the beautiful women.

“I have had a book out this past spring,” he answered, and then opined appropriately on An Inland Voyage, which had met mixed reviews.

The sisters gushed, and Louis noted that they wore fairly low-cut chemises, with hanging necklaces that drew attention to their busts, quite unlike his easily embarrassed neighbor. He took an opportunity to offer her more bread, which she declined. He got a closer look at her.

Her eyes were almond shaped and her brows neat and even; her face was the shape of her eyes and beginning to show just the first faint lines of age. Her mouth was not overly cheery, nor was it too firm. Louis judged her to be about as old as Fanny, about ten years his senior. In fact, once one tallied the merits of this woman’s features as a whole, she was actually rather pretty.

He again turned to the laughter of the sisters in front of him and joined them in their joviality, but also reexamined their virtues. Their hair—tawny and blond, respectively—was curled and set with pins. Their cheeks blossomed with what he believed to be a powder of some sort. Their lips were also tinted.

They tittered on about the novels they were currently reading, which Louis should have been keen to hear about but was instead lost in a reverie of his own conclusions. He thought perhaps his modest neighbor could just as easily be as bland as the women before him, in character and in taste, that is, but she didn’t open her mouth enough for that judgment. The sisters, however, exhibited a veneer that promised interest, when, in fact, they overflowed with tediousness in every breath. They were also both closer to his age, and if Louis had learned nothing else of his own inclinations in his short life, he learned that it was a mature voice that held his attention.

He was about to turn his mind back to his modest neighbor when the sisters’ cousin started up.

“I’m in the quarry business,” he said. And while the man talked of the astonishing difference in stone and their application, the woman to his left presently finished her meal and quietly excused herself from the table to no one in particular.

Louis pretended to hear the man, nodding when it seemed necessary, and focused most of his attention on his plate, systematically filling his thin frame with the stuff. When he ate as much as he could and pulled his napkin from his lap, he excused himself. As he looked up, his eyes happened to fall across the room to Clarisse, standing beside the stairwell, hand on her hip. She was staring at him.

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Beast22

Louis rifled through the sack and found his revolver. There was no use in pushing the donkey further and Louis, now seeing the reason for her stubbornness, felt badly for forcing it. He let her wander off the path, reluctant to tie her off in case either of them needed to run in a hurry, and once he was sure she wouldn’t just head straight back down the way they’d come, he moved cautiously forward to see how far this trail of blood went.

From where they stopped, the trail continued on for thirty or forty more yards, deeper into the wood where the trees became denser. There was still room to maneuver a small donkey with a strange-shaped pack, but it certainly darkened the further Louis went. The terrain still traveled upwards, though it also rolled, and here and there a large boulder sprang from the ground, between trees. It was behind one of these stones that the trail eventually disappeared, and although Louis mostly expected that it continued on after, he readied himself for anything the rock might hide.

As he gradually inched his way around, a naked foot came into view, and he cocked back the hammer of his pistol. The foot didn’t move, nor did the leg, or any of the body that revealed itself as Louis moved better to see.

On the ground, half-propped against the back of the boulder was a naked man, bone white for blood loss, as there was a vicious wound to his side and what looked to be a puncture of some kind in the opposite shoulder. His back, Louis noted, was a mass of thick, black hair that ran up the stern of his neck and blended into the hair on his head. His forearms were equally wooly and it traveled all the way to his first set of knuckles.

He could not tell if the man was dead or not, so he took a few more careful steps, snapping a small twig as he went. At once, the pale man on the ground jerked his head up and his torso around a little, though he winced and grunted as he did. Louis gasped.

It was the unhelpful man from Fouzilhac, his single, thick eyebrow lying inert over a pair of sunken black eyes. He seemed to recognize Louis and he smiled dimly. His bluish lips pulled apart, sticky with blood, and his teeth were stained red.

“You are hurt,” Louis said and lowered his revolver. The man had refused to help Louis to cross a darkened landscape safely, and had even thought the situation amusing. But Louis was not a man to refuse another help, regardless of the wrong done. When he took a step toward the man, the pale thing growled and snapped, and then fell back limp against the boulder. His head and eyes rolled.

A distinct signal emanated from the man on the ground, so strong that it belied the man’s status as human being—it was the feeling one got from a wounded animal. No matter how powerful the desire to administer care, the sense of danger was so overwhelming, one recoiled, helpless. He would lash out, like an animal does, as if his understanding of what was happening had been compromised.

Louis backed up and leaned against a tree, at a loss as to what to do. Why was he so far from his little hamlet, and where had the man’s clothes gone? There was little blood pooled around him, so much of it must be soaking the ground from here all the way back to—

“I would say you are a good shot, but I could see it was luck that you hit me at all,” the man wheezed.

Our Lady of the Snows.

Louis raised his revolver again.

“No point in that,” the man responded, one hand curling around the wound in his side, as if to pull the flesh back together like one would a sweater in the cold. “I am dead.”

“Who are you?” Louis demanded, realizing that this might be his only chance to get answers. “Who is the man with the cloak? What has any of this to do with me?” He took a few steps forward, now perfectly prepared to threaten this dying man.

The man from Fouzilhac pulled a breath in through sharp teeth and released it slowly and silently, his eyes sideways on Louis. They seemed to shimmy back and forth in his head, looking more and more glassy with each painful breath.

Je suis désolé,” the man said, weakly reaching a hand to Louis. It shook like an old man’s and was covered in blood and golden pine needles. Louis recognized that hole in his shoulder as the wound made by the only bullet he’d ever fired from a gun.

Je suis désolé,” the man said again. “But it is very dark, you see . . . très noir . . .” Then, the man on the ground laughed softly, laughing the very last breath from his lungs, until he folded slowly on himself and his chin met his chest. The life was gone from his eyes, and although Louis brimmed with frustration, he saw that at least this man’s suffering was over.

He spent the next half an hour pacing the stretch of ground between Modestine and the dead man hiding behind the boulder, thinking. Trying to see the point of all of this, except maybe to brand his soul for life, he occasionally kicked a loose stick or rock. What good did it do anyone for him to see this—to change the recent events in his mind from his having shot a wild beast to his having murdered a man? And was this a man at all?

As his pacing took him back to the boulder, he rounded it, stared at the corpse for a second, and then continued. He looked like a man, hairy back and hands or not. Louis had shot and killed a man, and still he was no closer in understanding anything around him. In fact, he never felt further from reality.

And he’d have paced that space all night had Modestine not walked into his path and blocked him. It was then that he realized the day was getting late and he was no further along this mountain than he was two hours ago.

Now that the animal energy emanating from the wounded man was gone, along with his life, Modestine found no trouble continuing through the trees. As they passed the boulder, Louis glimpsed the naked, white foot, but the donkey merely sniffed the air in that direction and moved on. Soon, Louis’s guess with the shortcut paid off and they emerged from the wooded area. The ground was soft and there was no discernable path or road, as Louis had expected, but there were the familiar standing stones to indicate the way in winter. He steered Modestine along them. All was quiet around them, save a lark that flew from one stone to another, marking their progress with his song.

They passed a man driving an ox cart up the side of the mountain they were now coming down and Louis was momentarily struck with a fear that the body of the man from Fouzilhac would be found. But it wasn’t along a marked path and wasn’t on the road—it might be months or even years before someone wanders across his bones. Then, Louis was shocked by the unexpected wave of guilt that followed. Having killed the man was bad enough, but having left his corpse unburied certainly compounded the situation.

But maybe it wasn’t his bullet that had killed him, Louis reasoned. It was more likely the ugly gash of Brother Roland’s edger that did him in, after a painful day and a half of running and bleeding out. And he did not have time to bury the man, nor did he have the means to.

Louis became lost in his own thoughts and blindly goaded Modestine on through the hollow valley and finally off the incline of the mountain. They traversed a series of open fields spotted with sheep and poplars. Even the sound of the sheeps’ bells did not break Louis’s concentration, and they walked straight through the town of Bleymard and some ways past it before he came to himself. When he did, he couldn’t tell Modestine what he’d been thinking, for he couldn’t remember. He could see, though, that they’d made a good way up another incline and the ache he suddenly felt in his calves and knees told him it was too far to turn back.

After looking at his map once more, he goaded Modestine on up this section of Mont Lozère, having some idea where they might make camp tonight. Although he didn’t like the idea and he chastised himself for being so stupid as to pass right through their best bet at a safe bed, the revolver—now that he saw what sort of damage it really could do—made him feel a little safer. However, he did not expect to sleep much this night.

As they ascended the vague, stony path, they passed a number ox-carts descending, laden with the winter’s fuel—long, thick pines. Each cart conveyed one, its top hanging off the edge of the cart and bouncing along the ground behind it. To avoid them, Louis turned Modestine left and followed a loose trail along a spread of pines until they came upon a small, grassy glade. There, a tiny rivulet fell from a rock, creating a kind of spigot and small basin before spilling out into space over the ridge. The clearing itself was surrounded by thick, new forest growth.

Louis looked around, then around again, and arrumphed to himself satisfactorily. He could not have lucked upon a better campsite, and as campsites went, this was as close to a private hotel suite as one could find. On three sides, the trees were like walls. On the forth, there was a drop that looked out upon miles of hilltops. And with his own personal bath, who could complain? As dusk gathered around them, he stripped Modestine of the pack and saddle, and went about settling in. The donkey, once free of her burden, spent the time until the sun went down nibbling here and there on the lush patch. Similarly, Louis ate a dinner of sausage, bread, chocolate, and a brandy-water mixture. When they were both satiated, Louis tucked himself into his sleeping sack, and Modestine, whom Louis had judged a standing sleeper, curled her little legs beneath her and slept lying down.

Louis put out his lamp and rolled a cigarette in the dark. He smoked it, then drifted off.

In the wee hours of the deep, dark night, Louis awoke.

The air was mild, the sky clear. Around him, the trees cast shadows darker than any cave, though their silence—save the resonance of innocuous night insects—allowed Louis to relax. Nothing in particular had woken him.

He rolled another cigarette, then lay back in his sleeping sack, propping his head up a little under his makeshift pillow with his arm. He had woken, he thought, in the same way shepherds and peasants had been waking for centuries, long before the gas light and its lamp-lighters drew our days intolerably long. Not so very long ago, though it seems so primitive—to wake in the night was preferable to unbroken sleep. It was during this time that workers too tired from the day’s toil would feel refreshed enough to take on any number of chores, or games, that he’d be too exhausted for before his first sleep. He would chat with neighbors, he would pray, and he would, if he were lucky, confer with his wife.

At this thought, Louis expected to follow his mood down some lonely corridor, thinking of Fanny so very far away. But, he didn’t. He thrust it forcibly from his mind and dragged on his cigarette, deciding it was the best cigarette he’d ever had—here, in this small sanctuary that nature provided, the glittering glow of constellations overhead, the sound of a caressing breeze through the mighty, swaying tree tops, and he preparing his mind and body for the wonderful second sleep to follow this enchanted period of wakefulness. Louis thanked whomever there was to thank that he’d joined his ancestors in this long-tested tradition of broken sleep.

After finishing his cigarette, he tucked his other hand beneath his head and gazed up at the sky, thinking his thoughts, none of them terrible. He lifted himself successfully from his troubles, both near and far, and heartily enjoyed every moment of it, when, distantly, he thought he heard something.

It was a tune, he thought, but for some minutes had almost convinced himself that it was merely his mind’s twisting of some night bird’s song. But as it grew louder and more pronounced—and presumably closer—he could, indeed, make it out as some human refrain. Finally, the silence of the night being so full and therefore empty of any other distraction, Louis could hear the sound of footsteps crunching on what parts of the rocky path the traveler’s boots traversed. He listened, holding his breath.

Whoever the voyager was, he played a flute. Louis relaxed, for it was only a fellow adventurer making his way over the mount, unafraid of the dark, and certainly unencumbered with Louis’s rightful fears. He made the most of his isolation from the sleeping world and made merry with his instrument, which caused Louis to smile. But as the flutist drew closer—as he was about to pass by the section of woods that enclosed Louis—Modestine’s ears pricked up, and Louis placed the tune. It was the same air he’d heard the little girls singing in Lestampes.

He thought that perhaps the traveler was also coming from that village, but then, he was sure it was a song that most villagers—certainly the children—knew in this region. And then the flute stopped and the traveler took up the song in voice. He sang:

Let’s stroll in the woods
while the wolf is not here.
If the wolf was here
he would eat us,
but since he’s not here
he won’t eat us.
“Wolf, are you here?
Do you hear?
What are you doing?”
“I got my rifle. I’m coming!”

Louis had not listened to the words the little girls’ had sung, but he listened now, translating deftly in his head, without effort, and his blood ran cold. As the refrain ended, so did the footsteps, and the night was again still.

Louis strained to hear any small sound from the other side of the short wood, but there was nothing. He pulled one hand from beneath his head and, in a manner so slow it agonized, he reached for the revolver he’d placed beside his sack. Once he gripped its cold handle, he brought it to his chest and debated himself as to whether he should cock the hammer, or raise himself to a seated position first.

He decided that having a ready weapon trumped whether he would shoot lying down or sitting up, and he warily drew the hammer back, fearing the sound of it and hoping it would be unheard.

The hammer clacked noisily into place and Louis winced, trying harder to hear what the singer’s reaction might be, but he didn’t have to. After a second or two of painful silence, the singing traveler on the other side of the trees broke into a hardy laugh that sent ice through Louis’s veins and almost made him cry out.

Retour à dormir, écrivain,” the voice sailed through the branches to Louis, and then the flute’s whistle followed, playing the child’s tune over and over until it gradually grew softer with distance and Louis could no longer hear the man’s boots along the path.

When all sound had diminished, and the night returned to itself, Louis found himself still gripping the readied weapon, pulled tight to his chest. He was in the grasp of two minds—numbing fear and insufferable anger. Finally, he leapt from the sleeping sack and paced the glade as Modestine snorted her disapproval.

Louis wanted to yell his frustrations, fling them from the precipice and out onto the hills of Mont Lozère. He scorned himself a coward and demanded a good reason as to why he didn’t run through those woods and confront his tormentor.

Because, he was afraid. His mind went to the claw-like cultivator now polluting his own possessions; he remembered how the wooden block beneath Father Apollinaris’s chin sank into his torn, cold flesh. Gun or not, Louis could not guess what this maniac was capable of. He thought, indeed, he had less fear of the half-man, half-wolf he’d watched die in the wood in the hills by Lestampes.

He stopped and listened. The cloaked man was gone. Far gone enough that it was pointless for Louis to follow him, not now. And far enough away for the pair to return to something like sleep.

Retour à dormir, écrivain! Go back to sleep, writer!

Louis hoped he could. After rolling and smoking one last cigarette, Louis crawled back into his sleeping sack, cradling with him the uncocked revolver, and prepared to enter his second sleep. As he drifted, he wondered if he’d ever be able to enjoy anything again, thinking of the meditative mid-night waking he’d been so thankful for just moments ago. Was his existence now only a series of terrifying episodes, one after another? Louis finally did sleep and when he did, it was fouled wholly by the noise of that flute, and the sound of the man’s laughter, echoing retour à dormir, retour à dormir . . . .

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Beast21

Louis handed Modestine off to the son of the innkeeper, unstrapped his sack, and, without a word, entered the inn. It was like most of the others he’d encountered—rustic and spare—but the company he’d hoped for before and never quite received finally sat itself around a large table in the kitchen, eating a hardy meal and laughing. Five men who were in the area making a survey for the projected railroad welcomed him. For a brief moment, he thought to wave off the amity and continue with his sack to his bunk, making an early sleep for an early departure. The sooner he reached Alès, at this point, the better. But the smiling faces—as boisterous as his four French friends in Monastier—were too inviting a comfort, and Louis had always been an optimist at heart.

He tucked his sack in a corner and squeezed himself into a place at the table, where the hostess sat before him a sizable plate piled with beef, fish, parsnips, and bread. Louis put his hands together and gazed up at the crude wood ceiling—whomever it was that received his thanks had finally seen that he was at the end of his tether and surely must have sent this night as the cure for the malady that ailed him. He almost wished he could pull Modestine into the kitchen so that she could also partake.

As the walk was uneventful, the evening before bed was as well, in the sense that nothing in particular pulled at his heart and no one was killed. While there was not sufficient wine to be drunk, everyone got on so well that it didn’t matter. Together, they managed to solve all of France’s problems in the matter of a few hours, and all agreed on how to go about it. A rare occasion, indeed. The six men howled and occasionally gave way to hysterics, until at length, someone noted the time and they all scuttled off to the four beds in an upstairs room, snickering and stumbling up the narrow stairway.

Louis, clutching his sleeping sack, followed the group, feeling as much a part of it as he half-expected to begin his new occupation as a railroad surveyor the following morning. Courteously, the five men somehow managed in three beds, leaving Louis to have one to himself—each donned a nightcap, and Louis being without one, substituted his fur hat. The six friends chuckled themselves to sleep.

Louis woke on his own well before the sun threatened to spill over the hill.

Hé, Bourgeois; il est cinq heures![1] came the call through the open window. He stretched inside his sack and counted the five nightcaps lined up at the ends of the other beds. One or two stirred and Louis smiled. Whether weighed with the heaviness of a previous night’s drunk or not, the most satisfying follow-up to a night of good company and good fun is a long and glorious morning of sleep. Not so for these men, who must be up and about soon to get on with the company’s work. Nor for Louis, who swung his legs out of bed and dressed.

The previous day and night had been so unexpectedly without incident that Louis felt perhaps he’d insinuated more into the unfortunate events than was warranted. Whatever was going on—and whatever rules of truth had been broken—was tragic, no doubt, but chances were that it was out of his hands and completely unrelated to him.

He worked to make this new vision more substantial as he packed up. Rolling up his sack into its more convenient wiener shape and securing inside it his myriad effects, he worked through the incidents that had so unnerved him and discharged them as being, frankly, none of his business. As deflating as his life had been prior, it was, he realized, significantly preferable to the death and misfortune he’d stumbled into. Louis did not care that he was picking and choosing what to recall and what to dismiss. He did not concern himself with anything that might ruin his new vision of his experiences, which, as far as he was concerned, were not even his. He was, he told himself, merely a bystander witnessing events that had nothing to do with him. And now, he must only move forward, onto the next town—on through les Montagne du Goulet, through Bleymard and Villefort, to the Pic de Finiels, through . . .

Pont de Montvert. And here his decision to ignore all that had happened ruptured and bled out. For Louis could not reach his final destination without passing through the place his “friend,” the cloaked man, said he would meet him.

As Louis readied Modestine, he tried to save his fantasy by insisting that Father Prior had been wrong and that Louis hadn’t been the only writer in residence at Our Lady of the Snows. The man could easily have been referring to someone else. And Louis did not know this man.

As the sun rose just above the horizon and dawn rolled into full bloom, Louis and his donkey bade his hosts farewell. A few of his surveying friends, now awake, waved with smiles from the upstairs window. Louis smiled and waved back, although his thoughts still heaved against each other, trying to find the right combination of reason and whimsy that would relieve him of any responsibility to anything but himself. The two worked their way from town, Modestine requiring a few early-morning pokes to get her going, and as soon as they rounded a bend that put them out of sight of Chasseradès, Louis stopped and threw the goad to the ground.

“Damn it, damn it, straight to the damned devil with all of this,” he yelled. He picked up the goad and threw it down again, this time stomping on it with his boot. Modestine took a few steps away, eyeing him at an angle.

Louis continued to swear and throw down the goad, sometimes kicking it and running after it to kick it again, until he grew tired. Then he sat down on a nearby rock and stared at the ground. The donkey saw the storm was over and proceeded to find a tasty patch of grass to work over.

Whatever had happened had happened. It was what it was. Why he was involved somehow, he did not know. But he was. And regardless of the present respite, Louis felt deeply that it was not finished. He knew not where the assurance came from, and after having witnessed the beast on Apollinaris’s road, where it came from mattered not. Call it, stupidly, intuition. Fanny would call it second sight, the gift of which she wholly believed she possessed. If only it was a clear picture of what was to come and not just a nagging, sickening feeling of foreboding.

“The devil with it,” Louis muttered and he rose, picked up the goad, and pulled Modestine back on track. He resolved to think about nothing but the book that would eventually come from this voyage and so he set himself to memorizing every detail of everything around him.

They moved across another long plateau like the one before Chasseradès and moved through a number of tiny hamlets set steeply into the Chassezac valley walls. The houses and their presiding church clung perilously to the outcropped ridges; their chimneys sent dissipating trails of smoke that rose to join the high-off clouds. Louis wrote his notes in his head—and would later transfer them to his journal—every blooming broom flower, every hollow, every beech and every birch. He set to memory every corner and every gully until they finally came ascending into the village of Lestampes.

The tight street was packed with sheep, which slowed their progress considerably. Although Louis showed no signs of caring, Modestine snorted and gave the occasional bray. With his hand on Modestine’s bridle, Louis shuffled through and let his eyes bounce evenly from one wooly back to another, the din of their bells forming an ocean of sound that could be pushed into the stern of one’s mind. To bring himself out of his stupor, Louis found one black sheep amongst the field of white and focused on it until they reached the other end of the herd and could continue through the village. As they passed that black sheep, Louis bent and let his fingers trail along its back; it bleated a response that floated over the sound of the ringing bells. He thought, this must be some sign of either good luck or bad—run your hand down the black sheep’s back . . . . Maybe some French folklore he’d never heard of, or better, the legend of some far off Pacific island. Someplace he’d never been.

Louis wondered vaguely if there were sheep in the Pacific and he held the sound of the black sheep in his thoughts until the bells diminished behind them to a faint tinkling. Resetting his stride beside Modestine, he tapped her rump with the goad.

In the village, they passed two men in a tree, pruning the branches. Three little girls danced around the trunk of another nearby tree. One of them sang:

Promenons-nous dans les bois
pendant que le loup n’y est pas
si le loup y était
il nous mangerait,
mais comme il n’y est pas
il n’ nous mangera pas.
“Loup, y es-tu?
Entends-tu?
Que fais-tu?”
“Je prends mon fusil. J’arrive!”

Louis heard the tune, but didn’t translate the words, and so he hummed along as they passed. He waved at the men and they waved back.

The road that ran through Lestampes bent itself before and after, with a straight-away through the center of the village, all of it inclined up and up. As Louis made his way to the end of town, ready for the winding to begin again, the girls’ play song faded and was replaced with the sound of cocks crowing to the air of a flute. It was played by someone Louis did not see, but the sound helped to push the bleakness from his soul. The flute-player could be anyone—the village priest, a talented milkmaid, or maybe a country schoolteacher. Whomever it was, they filled this late day with song and Louis was glad for the player’s leisure. The somewhat shapeless melody structured itself around the song of the children dancing around the tree, and Louis was cheered by the confluence of experience.

Even uphill, Modestine picked up her step a bit and although Louis was reluctant to leave the joyful music of Lestampes, he knew she was right and they’d better keep moving. As much as these small moments lightened the load he carried, and as much as the surrounding countryside warmed his heart —finally made pleasing with good weather—it could not completely erase the solemn sense of dread.

Soon, they were treading past the last few houses and out of the range of the flute player, up and up still, following the road as it twisted and turned past boulders and their companion rocks, and around the occasional ancient tree whose trunk rivaled the width of the road. Higher still they rose until they finally stopped upon a flat to rest before moving ever upwards.

The constant incline was bad enough, but that it snaked back and forth—likely doubling or tripling the length of the walk—was worse. For the first time, Louis was required to consult the map the pamphleteer in Monastier had left him, that previously-silly Beast paraphernalia. He was determined not to think on it, and instead sought a short cut, but there wasn’t one. There was no route but this exhausting upward winding path to breach the summit, and Modestine climbed slower and slower.

Louis rolled a cigarette and smoked it. He examined the donkey’s legs, which were healing well, and dug into the sack in search of the ointment he’d been given in Cheylard. Finding it, he slathered some onto the pink donkey flesh and then stowed it away again. Now, they were ready to continue.

The two moved slow but steadily, Louis’s eyes always searching for another way, when finally they came upon a section not rockily walled in—to their right, the land moved off at a gentle slope and he could see a reasonably straight path through a wood of dwarf pines. He steered Modestine in that direction, but she immediately became stubborn, which was not unusual at first.

He manned the goad, but to no avail. He thwacked her a few times, but, again, nothing. She snorted and reared. This was worse than usual. Louis shouldered her behind and pushed, but she brayed back in retaliation. Little by little, Louis managed to move her off the road and into the small wood, every inch of it a struggle. She wailed and kicked, screeched and bucked with every step, so that Louis was forced to hold the pack onto her back so as not to lose it. A few times she came close to toppling over backwards, so much did she fight on the incline. At one point Louis thought to just give up and lead her back to the winding road, but her obduracy only fueled his own, and from that point on it was a sheer battle of wills. Louis vowed he would rather camp another night on the ground, forgoing the safety of an inn, than give in to this impious little brute.

Still in the wood, Louis went around front and grabbed Modestine’s bridle with both hands, set his boots firmly, and pulled as hard as he could, swearing between clenched teeth. Drops of sweat fell from him and landed on his arms, so profusely he glanced up to see if it was raining. But the sky through the branches was clear. As he continued to pull, he directed his gaze down, where, amongst the fallen and exploded drops of his own sweat on the carpet of pine needles were blood drops of similar size.

Louis stopped pulling so abruptly that Modestine almost fell back head over hooves. He immediately searched his hands and then around the donkey’s bridle. Finding nothing, he re-examined her forelegs, and again found naught. Finally, he looked all about the both of them, trying to locate the source, but they were unscathed. After a moment’s thought, he looked back over the path they’d made and then forward in the direction they’d been going. They had been inadvertently following this trail of blood, which Louis did not notice but Modestine apparently had. Or, she sensed the spring.

[1] “Hey, middle class, it is 5a.m.!”

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Beast20

Chasseradès, Lestampes,

Bleymard, Le Pic de Finiels,

Le Pont de Montvert

She’d burnt the bread. Fanny stomped through the apartment toward Louis, her face angry and her brow slick with sweat. For a moment, he tensed, but she only closed the bed curtains with a huff and returned to the oven. He heard windows opening. They hadn’t opened the windows for weeks, fearing the chill might worsen his condition.

Under the nutty smell of smoke, Louis could discern the green smell of leaves. Something clean. He wheezed a small, innocuous cough. It had been subsiding, the coughing.

“It’s ruined,” she bellowed from around the corner.

Louis had taught himself to play the flageolet, and he wished he’d had the lung capacity to play it now. It might cheer her; it would certainly cheer him. He didn’t care about the bread, and frankly, the loaves she didn’t burn didn’t taste like bread either. They were always still doughy in the middle, but he ate them anyway, when he could eat.

He wanted to call out to her that nothing was ruined. He heard the oven door open, slam closed, then what he perceived to be the muffled thud of the loaf hitting the ground in the garden. Out the window it had gone.

*

At dawn, after a simple and silent breakfast, Louis gathered his things and packed Modestine by the gate. The donkey seemed relaxed, much to Louis’s consternation—he would continue to travel with this little beast, to whom he was growing closer despite himself, and yet who couldn’t be told of the previous night’s horrors. But then, he thought, perhaps it was a relief, that this creature, with her big brown eyes and tiny, searching feet—whose only concern is to get from one point to another without stumbling—should carry on without fear.

“It is better that you do not know,” Louis whispered into Modestine’s long ear.

“You take your leave early,” a voice said behind him.

Louis spun to find Father Prior, his hands, as usual, hidden inside his sleeves.

“Yes,” Louis said after a quick recovery, though he wiped his palms on his coat as they’d broken instantly into a sweat. “Early to leave, early to arrive.”

“Your next stop?” Father Prior chose not to draw attention to Louis’s obvious nervousness.

“Chasseradès.”

The friar nodded. There was a moment of silence between them.

“I am very sorry for what happened to Father Apollinaris,” Louis stated as he played with Modestine’s ears, to her delight.

“As are we all,” Father Prior began, “but, it is something that would have happened whether or not you slept under our roof. It is what it is. These hills are full of wolves. We must simply not allow ourselves to become complacent, as, perhaps, Father Apollinaris had.”

It is what it is. It dawned on Louis that he kept hearing this phrase, or some version of it.

He nodded, but could no longer look at Father Prior, so he returned to fastening his pack and making sure all the knots were secure.

There was little left to say except their goodbyes, which they did warmly. Father Prior opened the gate and Louis and his donkey left the relative safety of Our Lady of the Snows, continuing on their journey.

They again aligned themselves with the Allier river, backtracking into Gévaudan once more, and then forsaking the river’s direction to take an advised trail that blazed over a hill and across a long and comparably flat terrain. The wind had calmed to a pleasant breeze and the grey skies had born themselves miles away. It was, in fact, perhaps the most agreeable leg of the trek so far, and Louis found himself wishing for rain, for a strong wind to force him to fight to steady his pack, as he did on the way to Luc, anything to engage him away from the multitude of thoughts that invaded his weary brain.

His mind on the subject of the cloaked man and the werewolf—and the terrible carnage that unfolded from this still puzzling situation—fell upon itself in a circular fashion, getting absolutely nowhere. So he tried to return to his intended purpose—to take advantage of this wide-open space and meditate on his life and where he was going—and was disturbed to find that it took him more than a few seconds to form a picture of Fanny’s face. Granted, it didn’t take long, but long enough to concern him. Just a handful of days ago, Louis was positive the woman’s image was tattooed forever along the folds, and in the deepest recesses, of his brain.

He spent the rest of the walk occasionally goading Modestine, who would slow and stop to munch, and wondering whether he should be alarmed or thankful for this distraction from his Fanny troubles. On one hand, the situation that he would return to was such stunning chaos that, though he was reluctant to agree with his friends, he did not see a clear way out of the heartache, and secretly feared he was growing accustomed to the constant, throbbing pain it put him in. In this way, his fate was entirely in her hands, and it did not seem as if she felt particularly uncomfortable with this burden, if it was, indeed, a burden at all. On the other hand, the obvious way out of that mess seemed to be right here, but only not in the manner he might have envisioned. It was as if his dependence on Fanny was being secretly severed each time he found himself diverted. And he didn’t think that he liked it.

Quite suddenly, it occurred to Louis that perhaps Fanny’s husband, Sam, knew of their affair, and perhaps it was he—or one of his many unsavory cohorts whom Fanny had occasionally described—who followed him along this passage. Whomever it was, they knew him, knew he was a writer . . . but, alas, even Fanny would only know of this adventure through a letter that may yet have been delivered, much less Sam. No, it was unlikely, if not impossible, though the idea gave Louis a brief spate of comfort, if only to have an answer. Any answer. He pushed it away.

It was on this walk—the route from Our Lady of the Snows to the town of Chasseradès—that he had to admit to himself that he really hadn’t taken this journey to sort out his emotional affairs, or even to gather material for another travel book. These things were not absent, but they had been so low on his list of priorities that pretending to them had become cumbersome. No, Louis ventured off into the French mountains to wallow in self-pity and then throw his hardships into Fanny’s face as proof of his perpetual love, to show her to what lengths she had the power to send him. Now, with this sliver of emotional distance wedged between them, he wondered if, when he’d set forth on this adventure, he’d been in his right mind. In this moment of lucidity, he was beginning to have his doubts.

The longer the walk to Chasseradès, the more agitated and angry Louis became. Ultimately, he thought, the end question was what it was to be a man. Was it defying every last one of his friends and family to be with the woman he loved—to have made that life-altering decision and to have stuck with it? Or was it cleanly abandoning a love that was not equally and clearly returned? Louis feared to find an answer to that question, because, as things set, he felt capable of the former, but perhaps not the latter. It didn’t matter because neither felt easy.

Oh, why couldn’t she just write and say the divorce had been petitioned, and that they could be married?

Modestine snorted. They walked on.

Louis had managed to direct his attention from his immediate troubles back to his more existential troubles, to the extent that he found himself complacently returning to the internal pleas from his mindset in Monastier—begging Fanny to just say yes and solve all of these problems for him. Instead of falling limply over the precipice, he could claim he was pushed. Lo, the burden was still his to bear.

Finally, over a slight hill, the town of Chasseradès came into view, and the two travelers entered uneventfully with Louis as troubled as when he left the monastery, only for a different reason.

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Beast19

Louis was in the room, a part of the proceedings, but he felt miles away. He listened to the words swirling around him and fingered the handle of the clawed thing in the pocket of his coat, which he had yet to remove. He stared at his thin legs sprawled out in front of him. Sitting in the middle of three chairs in the office of Father Prior, flanked by his fellow werewolf hunters, Louis felt the breeze of the friar’s robes as he paced back and forth behind them.

Pierrick and Roland described to the saintly man what they’d seen. It was followed by silence, but more pacing. Finally—

“And you have a pistol,” he said, addressing Louis.

Louis nodded slightly.

“Under other circumstances, you would be asked to leave,” Father Prior said. “But tonight, I am thankful that we are not mourning the loss of three more souls.”

The friar set his hand on Louis’s shoulder, gave it a soft squeeze, then withdrew to resume his pacing.

There was some discussion about the beast: that the two men trailed it by the blood it left for about a mile, until concluding that, though wounded, it was likely outrunning them. Louis hardly heard—he was considering whether or not to reveal his find. When he’d first stumbled upon it so literally, he had fully and quite readily assumed it the murder weapon, wielded by human hands, monstrous though the deed. But now, with the very presence of that ferocious, inhuman thing at the scene, Louis was unsure, and thus, also uncertain as to the usefulness of such a revelation.

Further, and perhaps more important to Louis, he couldn’t help but feel personally tied to what had happened. Not because he’d felt a personal connection with Father Apollinaris, pleasant though their forbidden conversation was, but because of all previous events: all the warnings; the poor foal at Pradelles, as tattered as the unfortunate friar; the bizarre interaction at Fouzilhac; and not least, the possibility of the cloaked man.

With that thought, Louis started upright his in chair, startling the others. He turned to Roland.

“You had said earlier, before we went out into the fields, that there was another man housed in the public dormitory. Who was he? What did he look like?”

The old man crossed his arms and looked away.

Louis was surprised to see the soldier’s face still red from where he’d hit him, though it did nothing to raise much sympathy in him. For a brief moment, Louis felt ashamed—not of the slap itself, but of his lack of compassion, particularly as he was surrounded by men of the cloth. He was who he was, and he was not a holy man. He returned to ignoring the old soldier and turned to address the present Father Carthage, who’d been a part of that earlier conversation.

The priest had been so busy gauging the silent, ugly communication between Louis and Brother Roland, he’d almost forgotten Louis’s inquiry.

“Oh!” he remarked as it came back to him. He thought for a moment. “The other man, yes.” He turned to Father Prior, who’d stopped pacing and listened intently. “Father, the man who arrived this morning, just after myself. I didn’t see his face, but he wore a rather imposing hooded cloak. Of a charcoal color.”

Father Prior’s eyes grew wide, as something he’d forgotten flooded his brain.

“Indeed!” He turned to Louis. “Please pardon my lapse in memory, Monsieur Stevenson. Your friend arrived this afternoon, and his message for you slipped my mind completely. And even more so after this night’s events. I do hope you’ll forgive me.”

Louis’s brow furrowed in utter confusion.

“My friend?”

Oui,” Father Prior continued. “He said to tell you that he will meet you at le Pont de Montvert, though he would likely see you before then.”

“What did he look like?” Louis pressed.

“I could not tell,” Father Prior said, “as Father Carthage expressed, the man wore a rather deep hood. It fell over his face.” He turned his palms up. “It is not our custom to pry, Monsieur Stevenson. Not in matters that appear so delicate—I assumed that he was hiding some deformity, and since I did not note any lesions on his hands, I felt safe that leprosy was not the issue, and perhaps merely a terrible accident of the past had left him malformed.”

The man, Louis presumed, was deliberately hiding his identity.

“Did he call me by name?”

“Why, no, he did not,” Father Prior answered. “In fact, he only called you the writer. And as we are housing no other writer, I presumed it must have been you. You do not know him?”

Louis almost missed the question as he’d nearly slipped back into the private room of his thoughts. There was a cloaked man, and he was being followed.

“Yes,” Louis mumbled. “I suppose I do know him.”

“Well,” Father Prior put his hands together. “Then I suppose you will be meeting up with him soon enough. If you will all excuse me, there are still preparations that need to be made for the interment of Father Apollinaris.”

Father Prior made to leave, but Louis stopped him with a hand on his sleeve.

“May I, Father,” he began. “May I pay my last respects?”

Father Prior’s face grew ashen and grim.

“My son,” he said. “While it is only a shell, it is somewhat . . .” He paused, not finding the appropriate word.

“Ghastly,” Louis finished.

Father Prior nodded.

“But if you feel up to it, you may view him and pray over him.”

Louis thanked him and the friar slipped from the room, the heavy hem of his robe sweeping the floor.

* * *

The chapel of Our Lady of the Snows was plainer than Louis had expected. Instead of muraled, plaster arches and towering stained-glass windows, the vaulted roof was modest and constructed of simple wooden beams. The pews were unadorned, the crosses wood, and the candleholders iron.

When Louis entered, there were but two monks sitting separately in two front pews, whispering their prayers, heads bowed. There was no haze of incense, but the scent lingered tangibly from so many years of vigils and vespers. He walked slowly up the main aisle and the two monks rose silently, moving to the outer ends of the pews, and back up to the exit, acknowledging, he presumed, his need for privacy. Indeed, he thought, he needed it.

In front of the altar—his feet pointing to the nave, his head to the apse—lay Father Apollinaris. Louis approached the corpse, though he was loathe to. It was not dressed, but only covered to the chin with a set of clean robes, as though it had been too difficult to dress such a ravaged body. No part of the man was bare except for his head. The friar’s face was ivory, and Louis studied it, wondering at the stillness of his dead skin, taking note that, in life, the very flesh must have some barely-perceptible movement that signifies the soul surging beneath. The dead man’s mouth set strangely, and Louis saw that it was propped closed with a wooden block beneath the chin. Looking around to be sure he was alone, he pushed the edge of the robe down just a bit. Indeed, he suspected the only part of the poor friar that went unscathed was his peaceful face, as even the block that held his jaw shut sank into the wounds he’d received in that area.

To their devoted credit, there was no blood. None to soil the habit that covered him, none to stain the wood of the block. His body had been so thoroughly cleaned, the men that performed the duty could sleep well knowing they’d helped deliver Father Apollinaris to his heavenly Father cleaner than he’d come into this world. Louis pushed the robes down a little further, searching for the thing that would answer his troublesome question. He prayed he would not have to see more than his spirit could take.

Below the block, the holy man’s flesh lay mangled and torn. Louis marveled at the man’s resilience, for his wounds were so grave, his lingering time had defied the truth of them. His eyes searched the carnage anxiously, hoping not to have to descend to the man’s belly, which, judging by the shape of the covering, could not be seen without a lifetime of nightmares. Then, he found it. Around the edge of the butchery that extended from the friar’s chest to his right shoulder, spread four claw marks, as from an animal.

Louis looked around again, and seeing he was still alone, he moved to the other side of the dead man and looked closely. He thought of the monster’s spread forepaws, its talons flashing. These marks, Louis thought, just didn’t seem large enough—widely spaced enough—to accommodate the size of the wolf. Le loup-garou.

Louis shuddered. He considered his excitable state at the time he’d seen the thing and knew that, in such situations, one’s memory could become exaggerated. He thought briefly to search the body for fur, perhaps embedded in the wounds, but his conscience and his stomach forbade him. Also, it is likely that the brothers had washed away anything that might have remained.

He stared at the marks on Father Apollinaris’s shoulder, and then remembered that he held evidence right in his pocket. If he cannot disprove one, maybe he can prove the other. With that, Louis pulled the bizarre clawed tool from his coat pocket and unwrapped it from the handkerchief. The blood had dried, and the cloth stuck, having to be pulled away. He set the points of it against the dead man’s flesh, just where the wounds ended.

It was a match. Louis re-wrapped the weapon quickly and pulled the robe back up to the friar’s chin. He’d found what he’d needed and best to put things back as they were. But he remained. Louis felt elated at the discovery, but also didn’t know how it resolved anything. It answered the question as to whether or not the murder had been committed by the beast or by a man, but it did not allow Louis to unsee what he’d seen in the fields, nor did it corral and catch this cloaked man, Louis’s only suspect.

It didn’t matter. It was one solid piece of information that could not be disputed. The claws of the creature were too broad to have caused these particular wounds, whereas the claws of the cultivator matched perfectly. One single piece of true evidence was all Louis needed to, at least, be able to sleep a few hours this night, as it gave him that small foothold back to the world he knew, where he could find purchase and return, something he fully intended to do.

Finally, Louis laid his hand across the cold forehead of the dead friar and said a small prayer of his own composition. Then, as a few brothers entered to continue their vigil, Louis bowed silently to them and left the chapel. He made his way to his dark cell, undressed, and crawled into his sack spread across the cot. He penciled the events into his journal—a few of his own thoughts on the matter, some short, rudimentary sketches—and then he extinguished the candle and fell almost immediately into a deep, dreamless sleep that went unperturbed until dawn, even sleeping through the ringing bells that woke the brothers for their first office of the day at 2 a.m.

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Beast18

The three lanterns threw barely enough light to see five feet of road before them, and Louis strained to remember what the terrain had looked like in the daylight just this morning as he’d arrived. But he could only envision Father Apollinaris’s dirty habit trailing along the ground, sullied by a happy day of honest labor.

There was no point in searching around the edge of the light of the lanterns, as it only served to make the band more nervous than they already were. So, the three men merely cast their eyes down to their feet—to avoid loose stones and random divots—and hoped for the best. They could have walked this road entirely blind, as it was—to Father Apollinaris’s great credit—as smooth as the barrel of the gun in Louis’s coat. In this fashion, the trek out into the field, which seemed to have been much longer for the good talk with the friar along the way that morning, came to an unexpectedly abrupt end in a tacky pool of blood.

They stood around it with their lanterns. Pierrick had already seen it and only wiped his mouth, Roland stood stoically gazing down at it, hardened, Louis supposed, by years of the carnage of war. Louis, though, struggled to force his dinner to settle and remain tranquil.

Silently, the three men circled the immediate area, each piecing together what might have happened. The blood on the ground told a short story—Father Apollinaris was attacked suddenly, dragged only a few feet, then eviscerated.

“It is a miracle he survived long enough to die in the comfort of his brothers,” said Louis.

“Well, it is good to see you believe in miracles,” Roland answered.

Louis was about to reply hotly when he was interrupted.

“Over here,” Pierrick called, and the two men followed his voice.

Pierrick stood beside Father Apollinaris’s barrow. Inside lay a few hand tools deemed worthless because of the close proximity required to use them for defense. But there were also two long-handled tools: an edger and a tamp. While one could use them at a distance and the heads were of iron, they looked to be from the last century and well worn. Pierrick handed the edger to Roland and kept the tamp for himself, as he was younger and strong enough to heft and swing the heavy head if necessary. Once everyone was armed, Louis wandered away—the lantern in one hand and his revolver in the other—to explore the area a bit more.

There was little in the way of topography: just the compacted soil of the road with its paper-straight border—the work of the tamp and edger, now makeshift weapons—and the grassy fields on either side. Louis walked, his lantern illuminating only the ground beneath his feet, fading quickly into pitch on all sides. Like the night before Cheylard, the light felt isolating, and again, he felt cut off from the world, not to mention his two companions.

He drifted a little ways down the road from which they came, while the other two explored other directions. As he scrutinized the perimeter of light, Louis noticed distractedly that the boots and gaiters he’d bought so recently, just for this trip, were so scuffed and worn they looked to be as old as Father Apollinaris’s tools. His thoughts drifted, perhaps as a reprieve from the immediate tragedy—to images of his family, his friends, and Fanny. He wondered what they were all doing, this very moment, to pass the evening. Did they have clear skies, or was it raining? Were they reading by a fire? Enjoying the company of others for whom they cared and by whom the same?

Then, Louis tripped.

The road had been so meticulously compressed and cleaned of debris that he immediately blamed his own clumsy feet and awkward limbs, but instinctively returned to the spot with his lantern to inspect it. Lying there, points down and into the ground—probably from the force of Louis’s toe against it—was a strange thing. He recognized it as similar to a common, claw-shaped garden cultivator, such as the one his mother used with her potted herbs. Though this was different.

He set the lantern beside it and got down on his queasy belly to inspect it. The iron claws of the thing, instead of being bent at angles were curved and of two pieces each—one like the finger of the thing and then tipped separately with another, smaller piece that was ground to a sharpened point. The handle was of wood and just an inch or two longer than the average hand tool. Most curious, it was engraved with the crude figure of a snarling wolf. The wooden end had been drilled and a thick strip of leather was looped through the hole, as if to wear over one’s wrist for better, surer service. And as if all of this was not sufficient, it was coated in gore.

Louis brought himself to his knees, carefully lifted the thing by its leather strap, proceeded to wrap it in a handkerchief and then pocketed it. He then stood with his lantern and revolver, and was about to call out to the other men when he heard a yell.

“Here!” called Roland. “The beast!”

Louis ran, and as he did he heard first a growling, and then a vicious snarling, as a wild dog over a piece of meat. Pierrick reached Roland first. Louis heard both men shouting. As he approached, he could make out what was happening.

The two men held their weapons in front of them, their lanterns on the ground, staring into the darkness. Roland looked frantic. Whatever it was must have already attacked once and then retreated back into the shadows, as the blade of the edger was wet with blood. Beyond, in the black, an angry growl rumbled cavernously, building.

“Where is that goddamned Camisard with his goddamned pistol?” Roland bellowed.

As he ran, Louis could feel the awkward weight of the clawed thing he’d found bouncing against his hip through his coat pocket. When he finally arrived, his additional lantern gave just enough added light to reveal what it was the men cowered from.

At the edge of the light, bleeding from a wound in its side, was a massive wolf-like creature. It hung its enormous head low and glared up at the men with yellow eyes that sat strangely in their sockets, and when it blinked, it seemed less an eyelid than a fur-covered membrane that slid over the orb somewhat sideways and snapped back. Overall, it was fawn colored, except for its hackles, which began at the top of its head and trailed down its thick neck to its back and beyond—this was a reddish color, striped black. Its tail and hind legs were of a wolf’s, only significantly larger; its forelegs were thicker, longer. The four toes featured four corresponding claws which flexed and penetrated the earth beneath them and extended long past the unguicular crests, not at all like a dog or wolf, but like a cat.

Louis had to take all of this in over mere moments, for just as he arrived and had enough time to set down his lantern, the beast reared. Or, Louis thought it was rearing, when, in fact, it was only standing. The three men gawped as they watched a thing they’d never experienced before do something they’d never expected. It was certainly an action Louis had never witnessed in a wolf, or dog, or any sort of canine creature. The thing raised itself on its hind legs in such a way that didn’t seem as if it required much balancing, but was as natural as its menacing crouch. When it reached its full height, which Louis guessed to be roughly nine or ten feet, it spread its claws as wide each as a dinner plate, and its mouth gave way to rows of vicious, jagged teeth. It snarled and Louis could see the pink flesh of its throat tremble with the sound. And just as is seemed poised to strike, Louis heard a gunshot.

The thing yelped and flew back, then yapped and squealed a trail through the field to a nearby wood. Louis felt his palms throb against the butt of the pistol, aching with the recoil of its action. Smoke floated like a fog from the barrel.

“After it!” Pierrick yelled, and the two other men grabbed their lanterns and ran. Louis, though, stood for another few moments, gazing at the contraption in his hands, and finally let out the breath he’d been holding since he’d put down his lantern. His legs shook beneath him and, slowly, he lowered himself to a seated position.

Everything he’d been told in this strange land was true, and therefore everything he’d believed about the world was scattered. He could almost feel his convictions landing on the ground around him, some up facing, some down, none what they previously had been. As he sat, he felt the clawed thing in his pocket poke his outer thigh and he shifted enough to silence that sensation. After the realization that he could never trust anything ever again, his mind merely went blank. He thought of nothing—not of family, nor friends, nor even of his beloved Fanny, on whose image, in other times of crisis, he’d relied wholly. He thought nothing, neither saw, nor heard, anything—later, of those following minutes, he would only remember the sulfur smell of the shot he’d so recently fired.

By the time the two men had returned, Louis was standing and wandering around his circle of light, pistol drawn, and thinking. He’d gathered himself, but the only reason he didn’t shoot the advancing men was because they were smart enough to call ahead their approach.

“Why didn’t you follow?” Roland demanded.

Louis said nothing, only placed his pistol, hammer uncocked, into the pocket opposite the clawed thing, and picked up his lantern.

Indignant he was being ignored, Roland placed himself between Louis and the way back to the monastery.

“Protestant coward,” the old soldier hissed.

Louis, with his free hand, hauled back and slapped the man across the face, hard.

Roland’s eyes grew and his cheek reddened. Pierrick said nothing, did nothing, as though he knew exactly why Louis hadn’t gone along and chased the beast. The peasant’s eyes said to Louis, you are not from here. You’ve never seen what we’ve seen.

“Now get out of my way,” Louis said to Roland, almost calm.

The old man obeyed, and with that, they made their way back to the holy sanctuary, Pierrick wheeling Father Apollinaris’s barrow full of tools.

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Beast17

Out of patience, but to some degree pleasantly engaged, Louis was about to explain that Modestine, his irascible donkey, led him here, and if the men were game to argue the guidance of two asses then he’d be happy to stay up all night. But it was just then that a commotion sounded at the close-by gate. All three men were to their feet.

Au secours!” a haggard voice called from the gate.

Il été a attaqué!” another voice shouted.

Louis, the priest, and the soldier ran from the kitchen and joined a collection of monks, robes flying, all hurrying to the gate.

The night beyond the threshold of the monastery was as black as the blind eve Louis had spent beside the road to Cheylard. Lanterns were hastily lighted, and soon a glowing procession made its way to the wrought iron entry that stood between the blessed retreat and the fields. As they approached, the light revealed an unholy sight.

Two peasants struggled to carry what seemed to Louis but a large, unruly sack of entrails. The habit was clearly of their order, and once a brother had wiped the blood from the man’s face with the hem of his own robe, he was shown to be no other than poor Father Apollinaris.

Louis groaned, and the two laymen, who wept openly, handed the dying man off to his brethren. They gathered him silently and rushed him into the shelter of their sacred house. At first, they began to carry him to his private cell, but he cried out in such pain that they stopped and laid him on the cold, hard floor of the corridor, unsure of exactly what to do. Brother Porter cradled the father’s head in his lap. Father Prior had been called for immediately and he joined them now, assessing the situation. Louis, Father Carthage, Brother Roland, and one of the peasants stood nearby, hating to hear the man’s weeping, but wanting to be close in case they were needed. The second peasant had tearfully excused himself, stating that he could take no more than he had already seen, and afraid to make his way home alone, he waited amongst the three empty bowls in the kitchen.

Father Prior knelt beside Father Apollinaris, spreading his hands over the friar’s lacerated body, haltingly, as if searching for a place untorn to lay them. Not finding that place, he finally took the man’s dirty face in his hands, gently but firmly, and beseeched him.

“You must tell me what happened,” Father Prior said.

Father Apollinaris’s mouth gaped like an airborne fish for water; he brought one bloody hand up to touch Father Prior’s tear-streaked cheek, and then his shaking fingers fell to his own throat and he gasped.

“He cannot speak,” Father Prior announced quietly.

Louis heard the poor friar in his memory, I cannot speak! At this, he could no longer hold back and sobbed loudly at first, but then he turned from his companions, facing the wall. He fought desperately to erase this image from his memory and hold only that smiling, red-cheeked face, that builder of roads, who took so much pleasure in their conversation. Louis lamented that he would, indeed, not be able to search for this good man at the edge of the wood on his way out of the valley tomorrow, for the chance to let a few more fine words flow between them. Father Apollinaris cannot speak, would likely never speak again.

In the gloom of the hallway, the friar’s gurgles faded into unconsciousness, and a steady, but weak and belabored breath. Father Prior directed some brothers to move Father Apollinaris to the chapel. At this, some of the younger of the brothers wept, as it meant the savaged friar was not expected to live. Other brothers were instructed to fetch clean water and rags with which to gently cleanse their brother so that he may enter the kingdom of heaven as uncontaminated as was feasible.

As they lifted his limp, white body, he made no sound, and all that could be heard was the shuffling of the men’s’ sandals against floorboards.

Louis wiped his eyes and face with his sleeve.

“Let us return to the kitchen,” said Father Carthage. “There is nothing we can do.”

The peasant who had been in the kitchen jumped as the door opened and the men filed in. Once he saw who it was, he let his face fall back into his hands, his fingers tangled in a rosary, his lips moving quietly.

After they returned to the benches around the table, Brother Roland broke the sad silence.

“What are your names?”

Je m’appelle Pierrick,” the peasant who stood with them in the hallway said. He was bearded and filthy from his daytime toil; his eyes were dark, but honest. “Et il s’appelle Rémy.” He pointed to the praying man at the table. Heads nodded.

“Wolves?” This time Father Carthage spoke.

“Maybe,” answered Pierrick. “We found him on the monastery road. We sometimes cut through from his field to mine. We were later coming home tonight than usual. Mostly we see him at dusk and he waves. I did not expect to find him.”

“Why would he have been out there still in the dark?” Louis asked, angry.

“Perhaps time slipped from him,” said Rémy softly.

“Not likely,” Louis retorted. “He’s building a road. In the dark?”

“Then he may have been attacked before the sun went down,” Brother Roland said.

The thought of poor Father Apollinaris laying on his own road slowly bleeding to death made Louis’s heart ache.

“Well,” said Brother Roland as he stood. “Let us go and look.”

Quoi?” said Rémy. “Non, I go nowhere but home and only then with a party. Or I sleep here until daybreak.”

“Coward,” said Roland, his chest swelling with disgust. Rémy only glared at the old soldier.

Brother Roland looked at Father Carthage, who turned his eyes away and put up his hand.

“I am best employed in prayer, I’m afraid,” he said.

Roland snorted and then looked at Pierrick. “And so it is only the two of us,” Roland said.

Pierrick nodded.

“I am going,” said Louis, angry he’d been excluded.

Brother Roland shook his head.

“I cannot trust my back to a heretic,” he said coldly.

Louis thought he might lash out and strike the old man, but Pierrick spoke up.

“I don’t care how this man worships,” he said. “His eyes are as good as any, and the more on my back the better.”

“I am willing to bet,” Louis added, “that despite anyone’s little red ribbons, I am the only man here holding a pistol.”

Roland’s face turned crimson, and Father Carthage gasped. Louis insisted they remain until he returned with it, and with that, he dashed to his cell and retrieved the revolver from his knapsack.

“But there is another man,” Father Carthage insisted as Louis walked through the door and stood by it.

“Right,” said Roland. “I saw him in the afternoon, but I haven’t seen him since. And he hasn’t seen fit to dine with us. Perhaps he is already gone on his way.”

“Perhaps,” said Father Carthage and the matter of the extra man was dropped. Louis didn’t think much of it. Four men would be preferable, but he felt confident that, with three plus his pistol, they’d be safe enough.

“We have no other weapons,” Roland said.

“The father’s barrow and tools were nearby,” Pierrick said. “Obviously, it didn’t seem important at the time.”

“We will make our way . . .” Louis began, but Roland spoke loudly over him.

“Our unit will make its way to Father Apollinaris’s barrow and then inspect the area.”

Louis closed his mouth and resolved not to concern himself. In the end, the old soldier would arm himself with a stick, whereas Louis would be able to blast anything that growled in the shadows.

“Father,” Roland turned to Father Carthage. “Please inform Father Prior of our operation.”

All but Rémy stood and they left the kitchen. Each grabbed a lantern from the line that remained glowing just inside the door.

“My son,” Father Carthage addressed Louis. “It is not too late.”

For a moment, Louis couldn’t see what Carthage was getting at.

“Your sect,” the priest went on, “for I think you will admit I would be doing it too much honor to call it a religion, will not shield you from what is out there.”

Louis’s face burned.

“Where ever should my sect fail me, Father Carthage,” he spit, “The three of us shall be shielded by the God of steel.” He patted the revolver beneath his coat and Father Carthage crossed himself.

The three men let themselves out through the door and then paused at the gate to open it. As they did, the abbey bells rang out across the night, echoing their somber song over the hills and valleys of Vivarais. Father Apollinaris had died. The men stopped and bowed their heads, except for Louis, who looked up to the sky above the belfry, half-expecting to see the jolly white-clad friar ascending on a beam. The chimes changed from sad to joyous, as if welcoming the dawn of a new day, and in fact, he supposed they were, for one man, at least. After a moment, Louis could discern the distant song of what must have been the bells of a hundred surrounding holy houses, all joining their brothers in both their joy and sorrow. And, despite Brother Roland and Father Carthage, Louis’s esteem for the Catholic faith expanded a little more.

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Beast16

Brothers in the garden came and went. Three took their prayers on the terrace, a few tended the browning vegetation, which Louis could see must have bloomed beautifully in the spring and summer months. Others walked alone or in pairs, all in silence. The monastery and garden sat in its hallowed valley between two hills; on one side, the slope ascended nakedly, and on the other, a blue carpet of firs. The atmosphere, though not as sterile as he’d feared, still felt ultimately lifeless, for life was more than quiet contemplation. Life was action. It was more than the bare contours of a rocky terrain; it was the sun warming the needles of the pine and sending its scent up to heaven. It was the comforting shade beneath the boughs. It must be more than this.

Louis sat on a bench looking at his hands. His wrists were slight, his fingers thin, with two gold bands on the left—one on his ring finger, the other on the index. The tips and cuticles of his right were ink stained, the knot of his middle finger pronounced. He examined them because he didn’t know where else to look, being surrounded by people, but not really, as it felt a veil had been drawn between him and them. It was not quite dusk yet, but the light took on that affected golden tone that murmured the coming of night.

Finally, a brother approached. He had so quickly blended back in with his brethren, Louis didn’t know the monk until he was practically upon him. Brother Porter made a slight hand gesture to Louis and smiled. Louis followed him.

He was taken to the part of the building reserved for messieurs les retraitants and to a compact cell that was, like the outside, whitewashed and clean, and sparsely furnished, as he’d expected. Brother Porter humbly received Louis’s thanks and departed. There was a cot, a crucifix on the wall, and a bust of the Pope on the windowsill. Next to the cot was a tiny nightstand, upon which was stacked a book of religious meditations, Kempis’s De Imitatione Christi, and a copy of the Life of Elizabeth Seton. Above the stand were instructions for the visitor, a schedule of prayers, and whatnot. Attached, a note that read: “Free time is used for examining the conscience, for confession, and for making good resolutions.”

Yes, it is, thought Louis, and indeed, all the world really was his own monastic cell.

He spread his sack double over the cot, for a moment feeling guilty and sure no one else in the building would be as warm. They were, though, living this life by choice, whereas he was merely passing through. He set his knapsack—full of his other effects—by the bed and then crept stealthily out the door to explore his surroundings.

This more public section of the building was nearest the gate through which he and Modestine had entered. There was a dining room on the ground floor, in addition to another corridor leading to more visitors’ cells. The adventure was briefer than he’d expected, as there really wasn’t anything exciting or complicated about this place. It made sense, he supposed. The fewer distractions, the closer the mind gets to God, and so follows the spirit.

He lingered in the halls for another ten minutes or so, walking the length and back again, listening. Small noises met his ear amidst the ambient silence—the shuffling of a page, the slight clearing of a throat. So, he wasn’t alone in this part of the monastery. This gave him a sense of relief, as he felt he’d never be able to sleep, entombed as he’d be in this empty honeycomb of rooms. After a few more minutes, no one emerged from any room and Louis’s hopes to find conversation diminished enough to send him back to his own cell, and take up the Life of Elizabeth Seton. With that—boring words on dreary paper, revealing the dull life of this American Catholic convert-turned-Saint—he fell asleep and dreamt disjointedly of friars and firs, of donkeys and dormitories.

When he awoke, it was hard on sunset and his stomach growled angrily. He opened his eyes just in time to watch the last sliver of golden light fade and turn the air blue with evening. He heard a door open and then close, but softly, as though the occupant was an elephant fumbling through the wine cabinet in search of a fluted glass.

* * *

The monastery kitchen, despite being as new as the rest of the building, felt more rustic than anything Louis had seen here so far. The walls were still white, and the tables and cabinets bore only the small scars of the last forty years, but the bowls and utensils—the most intimate objects relating to food—were wooden and pocked with age. There was a large brick oven built into the wall that operated like any rural fireplace, except in that you didn’t have to bend over as much. Long-handled ladles hung beside it; a number of hefty iron pots stacked on the floor. One nestled in the oven over a fire, steaming up the mouth-watering smells of a monkish soup—the best soup in the world.

When Louis entered the kitchen, there was one man sitting with a bowl in front of him, and another man—a religious man—filling his own. There were three lamps—one by the door, one on the table, and one by the oven—that threw three yellow rings of light that connected just around their edges. The rest of the room was in darkness.

Bonsoir,” Louis said quietly. “May I join you?”

The two men looked at him strangely.

“Of course,” said the religious man, as he sat down opposite the other man with his soup.

Louis knew he was religious because he wore a habit, although it was different from the robes of Our Lady of the Snows. It was brown, like sack cloth, only much heavier.

“I am Father Carthage,” he said. “And this is Brother Roland.”

Brother Roland nodded to Louis. He was a short, stocky man of perhaps fifty, with a grizzled peasant’s face. Although Father Carthage called him Brother, he wore a tweed suit with a red ribbon knotted in the top buttonhole, signifying that while he may be a religious novice now, he was, at some point, and still is, proud of having been a soldier.

Louis filled a bowl with the soup that was more of a stew. Although prepared entirely with vegetables, it was so thick with them, and of such variety, that it nearly tasted meaty.

As they ate, Louis learned that Father Carthage was a parish priest on holiday—he’d walked over that morning from Mende for a handful of days dedicated to seclusion and meditation. He complained of the trouble he’d had with his skirts over the rocky paths and grumbled that he would have to have a talk with the Sisters who did the hemming. Brother Roland was, as Louis suspected, an old soldier, who, immediately upon his discharge from a lengthy military career, sequestered himself to this religious life. He found, though, that no matter how calm his disposition became, the soldier in him was not easily quelled. Eventually, he had to conclude that his taking the robes was never meant to be, but that God had led him here for a reason, and therefore he would exist straddling that line, between soldier and monk.

Louis explained who he was and why he was there. The men nodded, seemingly disinterested, which struck Louis as odd. The priest kept glancing down at the hem of his robes and shaking them, as if the mud of the morning’s walk had still not come off completely. The soldier only sat bolt upright and spooned the stew into his mouth, elbow stiffly out. His bowl was empty in about ten seconds. He wiped his mouth and then retrieved another helping, which he readily dispatched as quickly as the first.

Louis dipped a piece of what might have been the most delicious bread he’d ever eaten—soft, but dense, with a nutty country flavor and a consistency that gave the impression of flying straight from the millstone to the oven. He was about to resign himself to the fact that conversation would never come. As with the four Frenchman at Monastier, Louis longed to relax into the charming conversationalist his friends knew him to be. He swore his muscles itched to fling him this way and that, to act out what news of the day happened upon topic, to flap his hands in the face of his audience to drive home whatever salient and belief-altering piece of philosophy he espoused. He missed his friends. But he’d just have to satisfy himself with this fine meal and be off to bed, when the soldier finally spoke.

“It is a shame about Mac-Mahon,” he said, and folded his napkin, placing it beside his empty bowl.

It was a start.

And from there, the three men launched into a dialogue that would fairly cover all aspects of contemporary French politics and last about an hour, until Louis inevitably made his fatal mistake.

“But at least Gambetta has acted in moderation,” Louis said, rubbing the now-dry bottom of his bowl with the edge of his spoon. This was worse than no conversation at all and he sought grounds to excuse himself.

It was as if the temperature in the room had dropped. Louis looked up to see perhaps that someone had walked through the door and caused both the chill and the silence. But the two men merely stared holes into Louis’s forehead. He traced his mistake and knew immediately—although Gambetta was politically moderate, and even kept Mac-Mahon from losing power sooner than he did, he was also a well-known anti-cleric. It made sense that it slipped Louis’s mind.

Comment, monsieur?” the old soldier finally exploded and he sprang from his seat. “Comment? Gambetta a moderate? Will you dare justify these words?”

The man’s anger shook the walls of the little kitchen and Louis cringed involuntarily, but as he was about to rally himself for a defense, the priest set his hand on Roland’s arm. The soldier looked at him and was thus reminded of where he was, and who he was trying to become. Brother Roland took a deep breath, composed himself by running his palms down the breast of his suit, inadvertently flicking the red ribbon as he did, and sat down. He didn’t look at Louis. And when Louis opened his mouth to explain, Father Carthage held up his hand to stop him. The priest gave him a look as if to say, he will not hear you; wait until he is truly calm. Louis nodded his assent.

It was an argument, but infinitely more interesting than the conversational route they had been on.

After a few minutes, the soldier, who seemed as if he’d spent that time meditating fruitfully and was entirely composed, spoke.

“And are you even of the true faith?” he asked Louis.

Louis sighed deeply and then watched Father Carthage’s face collapse slowly as the silence before Louis’s answer lengthened, clearly indicating that it would not be to the holy man’s liking. Louis stared at the bottom of his bowl, as if scrying the wood for a way out. Finally, the priest reached out and patted Louis on the shoulder.

“Well,” he said simply.

Louis was already thanking the stars for the forgiveness he was about to receive.

“Well,” the priest repeated. “You must simply be a Catholic, and come to heaven.”

And so went a defense, infuriating to commence, not simply of politics, but of personal faith. When Louis professed the faith of his countrymen, the priest answered:

“And you mean to die holding that sort of belief?”

When Louis fell to the justification of his parents, the priest answered:

“Very well; you will convert them in their turn when you go home.”

No motive, no matter the impetus, was any match for the holy man’s vindication. All mens’ faiths—apart from his own—were malleable, and once transformed, it could be spread to those equally pliable. Brother Roland sat with his palms now flat on the table before him, looking at Louis’s rings.

“No,” Louis said, finally. “I have no intention of changing.”

“But you must,” Father Carthage pressed. “God has led you here and you must embrace the opportunity.”

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