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WHEN we go see the execution of the werewolf, it is already panting, listless, with a rope around its neck.

It had been caught as a wolf—it refused to turn back into its human form, to betray its own face—so that is how it will die. But the new Burgermeister had decreed a once-in-a-lifetime touch: bunched pantaloons over its hinds, a filigreed doublet pulled over its slackened hinds, a beard of tendriled wood-shavings fastened to the downy underside of its muzzle. It is dressed as the old Burgermeister, whom the new one had despised.

We trod past our plaster-white houses and the destitute pulp of yellow cauliflower leaves, cracking each other’s heads to get a better view of the werewolf tied to the gibbet post. I clasp my father’s belt, but he brings down the edge of his hand like a guillotine on my knuckles. Not at your age, he doesn’t say.

The crowd thrusts, and through the crests of shoulders I see the werewolf, the terror. I have never seen a wolf before, but I imagine that this one is bigger than most, in light of its monsterhood, all things considered. Despite its hulk, its clothes reduce it. If I were to pet it, I wonder whether it would creak its head in greeting. And though its body only shudders after long moments of pause, its eyes continue to hurtle in its skull, back and forth, back and forth, to and fro, like waning fireflies. As if searching for familiar lips in the crowd.

• • •

My father, the butcher, held court in his shop, concerning all rumors about the Werewolf of Anspach as he tore the bones from the leaking flesh of cow flanks. While I plucked feathers from limp chickens and soaked them in brine, the emptors of my father’s butcher shop—consisting mostly of the wives of our neighbors, the occasional servant of a silver-weighted merchant, or the attendants of the Burgermeister himself—proffered their savory facts. Father doled these to others who came into our shop, begging him for his tidbits and thoughts, with the perverse efficacy of an aristocratic burgrave, dangling the hope of lowered pole taxes above their heads.

Here is what we knew: that this beast had a predilection for liver, dislodged from the underbellies of livestock with the barbarous crimp of long teeth, and that liver is what werewolves love best. That Volker the furrier had spied, while footslogging through the wood, a man who fastened a girdle of untreated lupine skin, thatches crackling with old blood; as soon as it was tied, or fastened, or whatever it was, the half-man, half creature was down on all fours, howls pulling out of his throat. The local mole-catcher, Poldi, said no, Volker was no better than a one-eyed drunk, he too had seen the beast, it wasn’t a belt he hoisted around his waist, but a whole suit of skin, the cloak of a man who allowed himself to be swallowed in his beastliness. And Hannes, a stealer of eggs among other things, eyes unashamed, said that they were both wrong. He too had seen this monster one night. It drank rainwater out of a footprint and fell asleep with gibbous moonlight gamboling across his face, and then it began to stretch and simmer, to change. At the time, Hannes had supposed he was merely a hermit.

None of them said how they ran away from the werewolf.

But how could they see these things so clearly if it was night? I asked.

My father ripped a thread of gristle from a corset of ribs and let out a cruel bark of a laugh. Born from the ass, you are. Who said you could speak? Get back to work, and no more questions, otherwise your hide will be as skinned as this. He took the thick crescent of meat into his fist and shook it, his fingernails cleaving small threads of muscle apart, and shook it in front of my face. Rudi, my son the imbecile. When he put the cut down to attend to customers at the front, the thickened inside of his hand was the way I will always picture it best: corrected in blood.

• • •

The executioner is well fed and never speaks, because all executioners are paid generously and therefore cursed. He wears a black frock and a floppy silk cap to match (the limp brim helps to hide his face), and a scarlet badge to denote his trade. It is unclear whether this is his first werewolf execution or not—thieves and murderers and conmen are a silver mark a dozen, and the occasional sobbing, cantful witch nothing new—but werewolves are exceedingly rare, at least in Anspach. We can’t help but wonder if the executioner has waited for this day for years with a blue-tinged yearning, along with the fear that this day, too, will once again be ordinary.

Even though the werewolf is tied to the hangman’s pole, the gallows are a useless instrument. According to the Burgermeister, the decree is this: that to avoid any form of resurrection, the beast will have each limb tied to a horse, and then each horse will be driven in a different direction, tearing the werewolf apart; afterwards, its lonely body parts—except for the head, removed with an ax—will be bound by the executioner with a rope threaded with stalks of wolfsbane, and it will be pitched into an uncovered trench, to be encased beneath boulders and peels of soil sprinkled in holy water. We do not take chances, not in our town.

The head, with its beard, will be skewered on a pike until, in its last stages of decay, it is unable to look at us anymore.

• • •

They didn’t send the search parties out for the werewolf until after it started coming for the children.

They disappeared from the harvested fields of barley and sugar beets, the milking barns, the market square at dusk. Fourteen children all told, until the werewolf was caught—fourteen so far.

I knew some of the children; we had played hoops and quoits and jacks-and-bowls where the wood dwindled into the outskirts of meadow. Be careful, my mother would have told me, if she weren’t dead; if my father hadn’t begun bringing me to work in his shop. Friederich, Ambros, Gerte, Ernst, Lotte, Anja, Dolf. We clapped hands and kicked trees and scraped our elbows and palms, witnessing each other’s blood freed from the wells underneath our skins. The search parties retrieved scraps of their bodies. Gerte’s braids were ravaged apart, as well as her scalp. Hannes, the egg stealer and drunkard, among other things, found Dolf’s right hand near a bush of black thorns—he had bitten his fingernails right before he was taken, waiting, in silent thrill, during a game of hide-and-seek.

At the shop, my father sharpened his knives on an oiled whetstone, and the sound reminded me of the satisfied growl before one bares his teeth, getting what he wants at last.

• • •

All of us in Anspach tend to forget that the executioner has a name. Under the shadow of his floppy hat, which hides his shame, his affinity with the dead, is a face that none of us can quite sharpen and bring to light, if we bother to think of these things in the first place. But he does have a name, like the rest of us. Pieter, it is. Pieter the Executioner.

Pieter the Executioner is rumoured to have once been a medical student—he left our small city to exchange the ax for the scalpel, to suture flesh instead of cut it—but it was soon discovered that he was the latest descendant of a long line of fathers and grandfathers in the profession of the sword, the thickened noose, the spluttering neck. So he was accosted from his seat at the university in Hamburg and sent back to our deathless city, where, for a time, beasts and monsters feared no demise.

But Pieter, both feared and despised, was the only one who dared to touch my mother’s skin, soaking rags in a copper pot and drawing them across her weltered pustules and distended glands that held the dark, spoiling colors of infection. This happened after the priest had come and gone, warbling in a language none of us could understand, and after our friends and neighbors crowded our window sills, to bid their respects, or to merely watch the way in which a soul could weaken and straggle, then had grown bored when it took longer for my mother to die than originally anticipated. They left after they had had enough with the courtless art of death.

When we were alone—my mother in the bed, my father in the corner, scratching off flecks of blood from under his thumbnail with the tip of my mother’s pewter knitting needle, me clutching the bedpost with my entire body, digging my forehead into the wood grain—it was only then that Pieter came to us, cloaked in a color as expansive as an expired life. The only man who was not afraid to graze it with his palm.

• • •

The crowd begins to whisper and sway, first upon the arrival of the bishop, his face lofted and untouchable, and then the Burgermeister, flanked by two sentries. Despite their officiating presence, we do not desist with our small talk, reining it in with whispers. As we wait, we trade rumors, like fruit for coins, of werewolves in other places. We are not unique, after all this fuss—we are not the only town plagued with a werewolf.

The miller’s wife, Meinhilde, speaks of the village of Wittlich, where they have a candle that remains lit unless a werewolf is present: only then do they know that something is not quite right among them.

Hannes, the egg-stealer and drunkard and wife-peeper, among other things, says that in Lübz, they figured out which among their town was a monster by lining up man, woman, and child, and tossing a piece of iron in front of each and every one. The beast among them was unable to stop himself from transforming, breaking himself into a new beast before them. It ran away into the night, never to be seen again.

In another town, a girl who committed unspeakable relations with her werewolf father was burned at the stake after she watched him flayed alive and spurred with hot pincers. To eradicate all evil, you must do away with the line, the branches as well as the roots, their Burgermeister declared.

We do not know why these stories diverge, why some werewolves manifest differently than others. We do not know how they tick, each a separate cuckoo clock with its own handcrafted and caressed minutiae. All we know is that they do, and we know no explanation. We are afraid, and so we believe.

• • •

My father keeps his knives under the straw mattress where we sleep. We bring flanks of lamb and tender pale hooves of calves in from the store to the rear, where we have our back quarters, and my father the butcher flays it into pieces for our supper. The caustic scent of blood trails behind us wherever we go, like the ghost of a forlorn child.

After we have eaten, my father places his knives in their leather kit, their blades shiny and reflective as undisturbed water. When he lies on the mattress next to me, the knives are parallel to his shuddering heart. Then, and only then, he will begin his nightly ritual, running his fingers down my spine, latch by latch by latch.

• • •

A steward places a wooden crate near a platform adjacent to the gallows, and our Burgermeister ascends to the stage. His words are lost among the crowd and their resurging thirst eager to be slaked. My father grips and ungrips his fists. I am the only one who continues to look at the werewolf as the Burgermeister issues his decree, gifting death to us all. The werewolf, with eyes dulled by fate.

It only occurs to me then that no one, not one among us in Anspach, knows whether the werewolf is a man or a woman, or even a child. No one has watched its fur rescind back into its roots, its paws unwind into fingers, its spine crack and curve into a fragile version of itself. And if it was, at times, a man, or woman, or child, was there anyone here, in the crowd, to miss them?

• • •

My father took me to join one of the search parties with him the night we found what remained of Anja, the last child to be stolen. Despite our torches, the absence of light in the shadow-stained forest made us unhewn and blurred, made it difficult to determine where we or the night began. I thought of stalks of fur erupting from places more potent than muscle or flesh, of darkening, moon-blistered skin.

I held my father’s belt as we tramped deeper into the wood. The others called Anja’s name, but we said nothing. We had braced ourselves. What we were hunting for was not what the others were hunting for.

I stumbled over errant roots. My father, knowing the forest, was sure-footed and didn’t falter.

It was us who found her in the clearing. Anja’s throat had been opened, revealing the red inside, and her skirt had been hiked up over her belly. I turned to my father, who appraised what was left of Anja.

He held up his torch, eyes accepting brightness.

But there was something else there, too. The look of a man palsied with lust. Or with love of his own rebirth. A butcher admiring his handiwork.

And so I waited, the scream to fetch the others battening in my throat, unready for what would come next.

• • •

The executioner ties a rope around each of the werewolf’s limp, useless ankles. Four horses, two black and two white, have been lead to stand next to the gallows, and the Burgermeister’s sentries have cleared a path for each to gallop down, a portion of the werewolf to be left in their wake.

But before this occurs, before the crowd spasms and peaks with the riving of muscle and sluicing of blood, before the ax comes down on the werewolf’s head, before the horses are whipped north, south, east, and west, before the werewolves of Anspach are forgotten, before he is torn apart, this is what death will say to him: first you, then the universe.


J.E. Reich's writing is recent or forthcoming in Luna Luna Magazine, Nerve, LIT Magazine, Armchair/Shotgun, the Daily Dot, and Volume 1 Brooklyn, and her novella The Demon Room is out now. She lives in Brooklyn.

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LF #083 © 2015 J.E. Reich. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, August 2015.

Cleaver icon created by Ryan Mochal from the Noun Project.


the werewolves
of anspach

by j.e. reich