Monday, 10 July 2017

In From The Cold

I joke that I'm something of a cannibal when it comes to my writing. I like to keep hold of all my ideas, even the ones that end up going nowhere, because somewhere down the line, something will snap into place and I'll have the perfect pieces for a whole new story - I'll cannibalise the old writing and make something new.

In the past I've talked about how Aisling from IN COLD BLOOD started out as the heroine in an idea I had for a post-apocalyptic werewolf novel. I never wrote that story. But there's one I did write, a piece of flash fiction that became the backbone of Aisling's own story. A man who became a wolf, then became a man again.

I unearthed it recently almost by accident and figured you might like to read it. Enjoy!

It was the worst winter Old Smoke remembered. The lakes were frozen solid, leaving the birds pecking feverishly at the ice. Thick, glittering icicles hung from the trees, dangerously sharp and blindingly bright in the pale winter sun. Snow blanketed the forest, hiding the prey and driving the predators out from the safety of the trees towards the tempting pens of livestock down in the valley.

Old Smoke hadn't broken yet. The icy wind whipped at his fur and his belly growled, but he was reluctant to leave the forest. Instinct, deeply ingrained, kept him huddled in his shallow cave, water dripping into his ruff, ice caked on his paws. He hadn't eaten for almost a week, and the stringy, starving rabbit he'd snatched days ago had done nothing to ease his hunger even then. The other wolves had already left; Torn-Tail, his mate, hadn't wanted to go, but she had cubs to feed, and she'd slunk away with the pair of them, casting Old Smoke a mournful glance over her shoulder. He'd wanted to follow, but a little voice in his head whispered, no, not back there, and even though he hadn't understood it, he obeyed.
But now the cold was biting at his tired bones and the snow kept on falling. He was getting thinner and thinner, his thick winter coat doing little to keep him warm. He should head into the valley, down to the sheep and cattle, towards the little cottages and the promise of warmth. A memory flitted through his mind: a girl with golden hair and laughing eyes, a pale yellow dress swinging round her slender legs, his name on her cherry lips. Another name, not his wolf name. He barely remembered it, it was so long ago, and that girl wouldn't be a girl anymore. He whined and chewed at his paws, chipping away at the ice.    
The sun began to sink, staining the snow blood red, and Old Smoke forced himself to his feet, staggering out into the chilling wind. The snow was so deep and thick, he sank into it up to his chest with every step, and it took him an age to reach the forest's edge. When he did, he slumped down in the snow, panting and wheezing, his old lungs struggling to drag in the air he needed to keep going. He wanted to close his eyes, just sleep, but that little voice warned him, no, no sleep. Not here, not yet. And he obeyed and forced himself up again.
Out of the forest, the wind was worse, shrieking over the mountain peaks and through the gulleys and ravines. Old Smoke flattened his ears to his skull and trudged on, down the slopes towards the valley. Plumes of smoke rose from the chimneys, just visible against the slate-grey sky. More memory, bittersweet and muddling – himself huddled in front of a fire, cooking thick, herby stews. But not him, for he was a wolf and the himself in his memories had vulnerable pink skin and poor senses.              
He had to stop for another rest a few minutes later, sheltering under a swaying fir tree. The bitter wind carried the smell of fresh meat to him – the cattle down below, juicy and tender, crowded together in a dark, musty barn for warmth. He licked his chops, whining again at the thought of it. He hoped Torn-Tail was down there with the cubs, fat and warm and waiting for him. The hope was mixed with images of the golden-haired girl, though, and the way she'd run from the-him-that-wasn't-wolf, never fast enough to escape. She'd teased and laughed and he'd tumbled her down in the long grasses, kissing her passionately.
He hadn't thought about her in years. He'd been a wolf so long, the human memories didn't matter anymore. They shouldn't matter now. All that should matter was food and warmth.
He picked himself up again, shadowing the treeline now as he entered the valley, the danger zone. Men killed wolves here, shot them and strung up their pelts a trophies. Fear for his mate and cubs flickered through him, but he pressed on anyway, taunted and lured by the smell of the cattle. His ears flicked, catching their lowing and the answering bleats of the sheep. His mouth watered as he remembered steaks and pies and stews and other human dishes. The closer he slunk to the village, the stronger the memories grew, confusing and upsetting him. He'd stopped being human. Chosen to be wolf. These memories were unwanted, a distraction. He focused on finding his pack, nose to the snow, seeking out the musk of his mate.
But if she'd ever come this way with the cubs, her scent was long gone, wiped away by the snow storms. Old Smoke whined, hurt, bereft, and unsure of himself. She'd left him, taken the cubs and gone without a trace, leaving no trail for him to follow. He slumped down, a howl in his throat that didn't quite make it out. He understood. He was old, he was weak, he couldn't provide for his pack. Of course they would move on without him. Torn-Tail's duty was to the cubs and their future, not to her old mate. It hurt, but he understood. That was Nature's rule.
He picked himself up one last time, remembering youth, remembering strong limbs and endless summers, a lifetime away from this starving cold. The scent of the cattle and sheep churned his stomach now; he wanted stew, filling and warm. His thin fur was no protection from winter's bite; he wanted a roaring fire and a warm body curled against his.
But he'd been wolf for so long... He wasn't sure he remembered how to be human.
Shadows cloaked him as he crept through the village. He remembered these streets now, tight and narrow, winding round the small cottages. He'd walked these streets on two legs, a long time ago. A mixture of hope and fear bloomed in his chest and he flattened his ears, tucked his tail between his legs, tried to remember what it meant to be a man, not a wolf.
The memory of the girl helped. Her lips, her laugh, her sky-blue eyes. If he could remember her name, he would be a man again, he knew.
He slunk along, trying to recapture her scent. He recalled hay and horses, mingling sweetly with apples and berries. A cottage with a red door and flowers in the windows. There'd be no flowers now, he knew, but the red door, surely, surely that would still be the same?
In the dark all the doors looked alike but the instinct that first kept him away, and now pulled him on, guided his paws. He felt a little warmer now, as if his returning memories had kindled a fire inside him. He knew this street, that house, those windows. The people behind those doors had been his neighbours once, his family and friends long before Torn-Tail and all their cubs.
And there, a red door, dull in the darkness, but definitely red. Old Smoke padded up to it, pushing through snowdrifts, digging through the caverns of his mind for the golden-haired girl's name. The memories were at once clear and vague and he snarled at himself, frustrated.
The beautiful smell of roasting mutton seeped under the door, and he scratched at the wood, yipping, desperate to be inside, to be warm, to be fed. To be home. She had a name, he knew it well once, whispered it to her under moonlit skies, declared his love, promised her the world... once... before the wild called and he decided to be wolf.
She had a name. He knew it. He knew he did. He pawed at the door, yips becoming barks, frantic and full of hope and longing.
There was a flurry of noise from inside, chairs scraping, humans talking, and he backed away from the door, trembling with anticipation and sharp cold.
The door opened. A woman, golden hair greying but still gleaming in the light cast by the fire behind her. Her blue eyes widened and filled with tears at the sight before her, her hand flying to cover her mouth, to cover the incredulous smile. In the house, an old woman called in a cross voice, "who is it? Close the door! It's freezing out there!"
"It's Vitaly!" the woman cried, reaching out. "Oh, Vitaly, it is you, isn't it?"
He smiled, the expression strange and familiar all at once. "Hello, Izabella," he said in a voice more used to howls, rusty and hesitant. "Hello, my love."
She welcomed him home as if the years meant nothing, closing out the killing cold.

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