Cold leaves crunched beneath my bare feet as I walked slowly through the forest, waiting for it to happen. The breeze picked up and I felt goosebumps prickle along my exposed skin. I thought briefly of the clothes I’d abandoned at the house, all left in a pile on the porch. My pajama pants, my underwear, his shirt.
Tonight he’d finally asked me. I’d sensed the question hiding behind his lips for years now, tasted it on his tongue when he kissed me. He had swallowed it over and over, choosing silence, choosing to be satisfied with not knowing. But tonight was a night that gave us all a reckless sort of courage. I could smell it on him—the thick damp earth scent of the air before a storm.
“Where do you go?” he had asked after we’d gone to bed, his body curled around the question of my spine. I knew he could sense it. The itching beneath my skin, the restlessness. The quiet desperation of a wild thing that had been caged.
The silence stretched into the dark for a long moment before I spoke. “Why do wolves howl at the moon?”
His sigh of frustration dug into my back like claws. I felt his muscles clench, then release. I could taste his indecision, his anger, in the air. He hated when I did this. Answering a question with a question, jumping topics. What he didn’t understand was that I wasn’t changing topics at all.
“They don’t.” He turned away from me, rolling to the other side of the bed. “It’s a common misconception. The howling is just a territorial thing.”
I didn’t point out the flaw in his statement.
I’d waited until he’d fallen asleep to slip away into the forest. I didn’t know where I was going, not really; I just knew I had to go. I often wondered if this was how animals migrated. They were born with an innate sense of which direction to go and when, but did they ask why? Or did they just follow their instincts, trusting they wouldn’t be led astray? I didn’t have that trust. I only had the instinct, the incessant urge that wouldn’t stop pushing until I listened. Someday, I feared, it would lead me off a cliff.
The trees thinned as I walked into a small clearing, the damp undergrowth leaving drops of dew on my legs until I reached a small patch of mostly dry earth, digging my toes into the softness of it. I looked to the sky, at the patchwork of dark clouds moving across the stars. The sounds of the forest crept in around me: the rustle of wind in the leaves, the movement of brush as a small animal hunted.
It was not the first time I had done this but I wondered, as I always did, if this time would be the last time. The last time I would leave him in the warmth of our bed to wander invisible paths between the trees. The last time I would tell myself I had to find a way to change. The last time I would tell myself I didn’t truly want to.
The moon broke through the clouds, full and bright, shining its cold light down on my skin. The change was torture, as always. Sometimes I found a kind of freedom in the inescapable agony of it, and sometimes I only found the pain.
I fell to my knees in the dirt, whimpering as my bones began to change their shape. Hair, thick and warm, pushed itself up through each of my pores. My fingernails and toenails lengthened, thickened, sharpened into claws. A tail broke through the skin at the end of my curled spine. My teeth grew, as always, before my jaw changed shape. They pierced my lips, scraped my gums. I tasted the sweet copper warmth of blood.
And then it was done.
I hadn’t told him about this. This was not the answer he wanted to his question. This was an answer that would only lead to more questions, questions to which I had no answers. I could not tell him this and expect him to still love me, even if he did keep taking me back.
I might be gone only one night, or I might be gone for months. It was different each time, and I could never really remember where I’d been or what I’d done. I always woke to find myself curled up on his porch—naked, dirty, and covered in blood.
When people think of territory, they picture the physical world. Fences to be built, signs to be posted, property lines to be drawn. But there are other types of territory. If you’ve never been lost inside your own soul, wandering, unable to identify the flow of the land or the particular bend in a river, then it’s difficult to explain.
I stretched my new, sinewy muscles before turning my gaze to the moon. I opened my mouth and howled.
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Erin Lodes is a Michigan native who recently spent two amazing years living in Ireland. She is currently working on writing short stories and growing her freelance editing business. She suffers from incurable wanderlust, loves red wine, hates coffee, and wants nothing more than to travel the world and tell good stories. She has had short stories accepted for publication by New Zenith Magazine and Boston Accent Lit.