We would be heroes—service at the burgomaster’s table. Gottlieb took a bite of apple, and a trail of juice traced the contours of his prominent chin. He was more than a year younger than Hab but acted older. Even when they were children Gottlieb took charge of their play, choosing the game and the terms of it, determining who won and who lost.
Hab didn’t know if he and Gottlieb were best friends, or if their connection was based more on happenstance—being born in the same small village, close in age, and their families sharing pastureland. Gottlieb’s grandfather owned the land; Hab’s father leased space in the pasture. Even though the families’ sheep mixed together, and there was no way to distinguish which sheep belonged to which family, in the spring, when the flocks were separated for shearing and slaughtering, Gottlieb’s family was guaranteed the same number of sheep pastured in the fall. All losses came from Hab’s family. Newborn lambs were divided evenly. If the number wasn’t even, Gottlieb’s family received the odd head.
The arrangement between the families had been struck when Gottlieb’s grandfather was a boy. During a bad year, if fluke ran wild for instance, it could be nearly ruinous for Hab’s family.
For weeks something had been preying on the flock. One by one the sheep were disappearing. It went unnoticed at first, until the remains of a young ewe were found at the edge of the field. The situation was suddenly obvious. At night there were no disturbances—the dogs didn’t bark, there were no irregular noises, no nervous edge to the sheep’s bleating with the coming of darkness.
The two families attempted to keep the predicament to themselves, not wanting to be the focus of village gossip, but there was no containing it and rumors flew: Hab’s father was tired of the arrangement, made long before he was born, and he was spiriting away the sheep in the night to sell at a distant market; there was a gang of thieves, gypsies probably, who’d come down from the mountains to raid the pastureland; there was a diabolical creature afoot, a werewolf perhaps, that had a taste for the families’ fat sheep; there was a pack of forest wolves, emboldened and on the prowl; Satanists, come from some city, were carrying off the sheep to use in their black rituals.
We would be heroes—service at the burgomaster’s table. Gottlieb took a bite of apple, and a trail of juice traced the contours of his prominent chin. At the moment, Hab could only think of slapping the juice from Gottlieb’s ridiculous face. For days, his emotions regarding Gottlieb, his oldest friend, had been a torment of confusion, due to the tears Gott shed at Liesl’s funeral.
Until then Hab didn’t know that Gottlieb, too, had feelings for Liesel. Hab was suddenly stabbed by jealousy and possessiveness: only he had a right to such pain, only he could be paralyzed with sadness, with regret, with shame. It was the last that dammed up Hab’s tears. Gottlieb wept quietly but freely; Hab’s grief was a meteorite of molten iron smoldering in the pitted ground of his soul.
Perhaps Hab’s inability to cry, to exorcise the guilt and grief, came off as indifference to Liesl’s death. Coldheartedness. Maybe that is what Gottlieb believed.
As Gottlieb wiped away the apple juice with his coat sleeve, Hab thought of the field where he and Liesl would sneak away to when they should have been doing chores. Wind swept the grass in waves, and they could disappear from the world, a place that Liesl dreamed of seeing. She would play with her sun-gilded braid, and her cobalt eyes would blaze as she spoke of the great cities and what she would do in each: attend a Wagner in Munich, sip coffee and cream in Vienna, bicycle through the streets of Berlin, cool her feet in the fountains of Cologne, climb the great hill to the emperor’s castle in Nuremberg. She was so full of life it was like a potent perfume. Hab felt lightheaded around her.
The game began with pumpkin seeds, that morning in the field, hiding one in her blouse, then she in his shirt, his pants pocket, her skirt—their hands went searching for the seeds, and it was a different game altogether. His heart hissed like an over-stoked boiler as he kissed the barely-a-bump of her bellybutton. He knew his quick-coming breath was warm on her skin. It was no longer Liesl’s scent of vivaciousness that dizzied him, that enkindled him.
Then her parents were burning her diaries. Her voice was too clear, they said, too painful to hear. What a treasure they would be—to hold the pages she held, to clasp hands with her thoughts, caress her dreams, care for her wishes. Perhaps the pages kept her scent, a trace of the air behind her ear, the dimple of her collarbone, the crook in the bend of Liesl’s knee. All devoured by the flames before Hab even knew of their peril.
It happened so quickly. She was sick, appendix inflamed, they said, then burst, they said. Then Liesl was gone, they said. He wasn’t allowed to see her. No one knew the meaning of what she meant. No one knew what they were. A favorite cousin, yes, an old playmate, but nothing more. Their secret was safe, and its security kept them separated at the end.
A pair of gray horses pulled the funeral cart, though such power was hardly needed. The grays wore garlands of wildflowers while the mourners followed behind. Hab found a white petal in the road and stopped to pick it up. He held it between finger and thumb throughout the graveside service. Just as Father was finishing, a passage from Luke, a strong breeze sprang to life and Hab let the petal go on the wind. Soon it was lost from sight.
At the luncheon afterward, he picked at the shepherd’s pie—every bite of food made him queasy, as if the empty feeling could only tolerate further emptiness, the dark more darkness. Meanwhile Gottlieb ate heartily . . . while he regaled those at his end of the table with the story of how Liesel looked at the end--
Gottlieb visited her?
And what her last words to him had been--
Gottlieb spoke with her?
Gottlieb’s mouth was half-full as he shared the details. Hab was sick with jealousy and hurt. He stabbed the mutton on his plate with a fork and left the parish hall. He wretched in the tall grass behind the church but nothing came up: the potion of poisonous feelings had thoroughly soaked into his soul.
We would be heroes—service at the burgomaster’s table. Gottlieb took a bite of apple, and a trail of juice traced his prominent chin. Hab was disgusted at the sight, but there was no denying the truth: discovering and killing whatever was thinning the flock would bring them celebrity in the village, and maybe, in time, the whole district. What was more, all the losses came from Hab’s family.
Gottlieb swallowed the bite of apple, his own Adam’s apple darting down and up dramatically. Tonight, why wait?
Hab thought. Said, it’s a new moon, it’ll be dark, very dark.
Gottlieb smiled. The element of surprise. Apple skin clung to a front tooth giving him a moronic grin.
Hab was silent about their intentions throughout the day and evening—but there was nothing unusual about his silence, not since Liesl’s death. Sometimes hours passed without his uttering so much as a syllable. He imagined his parents worried, but they were equally taciturn and avoided questioning him.
At ten o’clock he met Gottlieb behind the round barn on the north end of the pasture. It was cold, near freezing in fact. Hab wore his heavy coat and a fur-trimmed cap. The coat was short in the sleeve as he had grown since last winter. He’d taken his father’s Mauser from the cabinet, its caliber better suited for the quarry he imagined. He also brought a bullseye lantern. Gottlieb, when he arrived, had similar equipage.
Gottlieb raised his lantern as if he had to reveal his identity, and the oddly angled light transformed his face into a mask of scattered shadow—a frightful emblem of Gott’s true nature, observed Hab in the moment. How could he not have seen it before?
Gottlieb lowered his lantern, and his face vanished altogether. We should spread apart, said his disembodied voice, cover more ground, I’ll walk the north and west sections. They began moving away from each other, when Gottlieb added, Careful you don’t shoot me. Hab envisioned the grin that accompanied Gott’s comment. Gottlieb was only a voice in the dark, and quickly dissolving lantern-light.
Something about the tone of Gottlieb’s remark, its out-of-place edge of humor, reminded Hab of the story from childhood about the crimson-cloaked girl and the man-size wolf. The human qualities of the wolf disturbed Hab’s dreams—and most disquieting of all was the wolf’s ability to speak. In the night Hab would wake to the eerie cleverness of the wolf’s voice as he deceived the wayward girl. Even as a child Hab understood that since the story came from a picture book, the sound of the wolf’s voice was supplied by his own imagination. The unsettling voice resided somewhere in him.
The voice was at last let loose into the world. He pictured Gottlieb as the wolf, uncannily human, shrewd, malevolent. Hab forced the image from his mind. He must be alert for the real predator. Here and there he sensed the sheep in the field, heard what he hoped were their movements through the grass. They were queerly quiet, only occasionally bleating in the dark. Maybe they sensed a presence in the field, something unnatural, dangerous.
The moon was new and clouds obscured every star. The night Gottlieb chose to confront whatever had been taking the sheep couldn’t be any blacker. To make matters worse, a half-frozen fog was forming in thick patches. The light from Hab’s lantern was devoured by the dark, with only a few drops, like blood, sprinkling the invisible ground.
Hab lifted the strap of the Mauser over his head and held the rifle for a sense of security. The night was colder than he thought it would be, or the cold was more penetrating: his numb fingers were clumsy handling the rifle.
Hab knew the pasture well, but in the dark, with sounds disconnected from sight, it was a strange-feeling place. He believed he was getting close to the spot where he and Liesl would play their children’s games, like knucklebones, or tic-tac-toe with stones. They spent hours there, yet he couldn’t recognize it in the absolute dark. Losing his bearings touched off the loss of Liesl afresh—random things would do that, unsteadying him at odd moments, at the worst times.
More and more the poignancy of losing Liesl was paired with the sickening stew of emotions he felt toward Gottlieb. He thought of Gottlieb being with Liesl before she died, holding her hand, telling her good-bye, perhaps confessing his affection for her, so that it was the last thought on her mind, eclipsing her feelings for Hab, erasing him completely.
His rage rose toward an erupting point. He began running through the dark field.
Ahead, a shape formed on the freezing fog, staying before him stride for stride. It moved with the litheness of a girl. It shimmered as if made of moonlight. The feminine form, her curves contoured on the fog, beckoned Hab to follow, beseeched him; the form called to him, commanded him.
He wanted to answer, Liesl! Her name was on his lips. Yet, the still lucid part of his mind had worked out that the form was only the lantern-light reflecting off the fog, sculpting a spectral image.
Before the conclusion could be fully realized, Hab tripped over something in the pasture -
Hab hit the ground--
The lantern went out as it flew from his hand--
The Mauser discharged--
In the last half-moment of light he saw something move.
Then, Hab lay upon the hard ground in total blackness. The fall jarred the air from his lungs and he waited to recover his breath. He could hear something in the grass nearby.
He found the box of matches inside his coat and struck one as he kneeled on his haunches. The flame revealed a ghastly thing on the ground just before him, the thing he’d tripped over: a dead sheep, its guts strung out like a serpent in the tall grass. Hab was repelled by the sight and scampered backward like a startled crab. The match went out. He tried to quickly light another but his cold fingers fumbled the box and it fell, invisible, to the ground.
His fingers groped woodenly in the wet grass. He was again aware of the thing that moved near him. His frantic fingers found the lantern, which was worthless without the matches. He wondered why Gottlieb did not come; he must have heard the rifle shot.
Then the idea dawned on him: What if Gottlieb did not come because he had accidentally shot him? What if he lay wounded, dying in the dark?
Calmer now, Hab searched for the box of matches more methodically, inch by inch. He should be horrified at the thought of having shot his friend. Hab tried to summon that horror, but in its stead came a sense of satisfaction, even a seed of happiness—emotions that Hab tried to smother. He recalled Gottlieb’s monstrous mask before they began hunting the creature. His mind found images of Gottlieb bent over the dying sheep, rending it with his teeth, a trail of blood tracing the contours of his prominent chin. He thought of Gottlieb being surprised in the dark and springing away from his kill before being shot. He thought of being a hero and of service at the burgomaster’s table.
Hab found the matchbox. Most had spilled out but enough remained. He lit the lantern’s wick. First, he looked to the sheep’s carcass to confirm what he’d seen only briefly. It was even more grisly in the fuller light. A gleam returned from the sheep’s dead eye, which was worse to behold than the animal’s half-eaten organs and snaking entrails.
He turned to the thing still moving in the dark, hidden even more so by the tall grass. He imagined the dying Gottlieb, his face and throat badged with the ewe’s blood. Hab stepped on the stock of the Mauser, and he picked it up. Hab had to practically stand over the thing to identify it in the lantern’s weak light. He first recognized the gray coat. He noted that only its front legs were moving and only feebly.
The wolf—a young male—was nearly dead. The bullet had entered his ribcage and maybe lodged in his backbone, crippling him where he fell.
Hab was beginning to sense his disappointment when a weird sight arrested his attention: a light coming over the hillock. Gottlieb no doubt, led by a shimmering female form, dancing in the moonless and starless night, frolicking like Salome on the fog.
Hab glanced again at the dying wolf before sliding a round into the Mauser’s empty chamber.
Ted Morrissey is the author of the novels The Artist Spoke (2020), Mrs Saville (2018), Crowsong for the Stricken (2017), An Untimely Frost (2014), Men of Winter (2010, re-released 2013), the novelettes The Curvatures of Hurt and Figures in Blue, and the novella Weeping with an Ancient God (Twelve Winters). A new work in progress has been published as First Kings and Other Stories (Wordrunner). Mrs Saville won the Manhattan Book Award. Crowsong for the Stricken won the International Book Award in Literary Fiction from Book Fest, the American Fiction Award in Literary Fiction from American Book Fest, and it was a Kirkus Reviews Best Indie Book of 2017. His short stories, novel excerpts, poems, essays and reviews have appeared in more than eighty journals. He is also the author of three scholarly books: A Concise Summary and Analysis of The Mueller Report (2019), Trauma Theory As a Method for Understanding Literary Texts (Mellen, 2016), and The Beowulf Poet and His Real Monsters (2013), which won Edwin Mellen’s D. Simon Evans Prize for Distinguished Scholarship. He holds a PhD in English studies and lives just north of Springfield, Illinois. A William H. Gass scholar, several of his presentations on Gass’s work are archived at his 12 Winters Blog.
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