Short Fiction by Alex Petropoulos
At the edge of the woods, imaginations run as wild as the animals, and lives shrink to the size of a village clearing. Those who live in the forest are told to fear its depths, warned of beasts that hungerly stalk the shadows ready to gobble up careless little girls.
A young couple from such a village nestled in a clearing at the heart of the woods prayed for a child for so long that when they were finally blessed with one, they weren’t even disappointed it was a girl. She was a beautiful baby and the new parents marvelled at how lucky they were, for if they had to have a girl, they thanked God she was beautiful. Her face was as round as the moon and her milky skin glowed like moonlight, so they named her Luna and promised to protect her from the monsters of the forest.
The village grew fond of little Luna in the way people always love pretty girls, but soon it became clear that Luna was no ordinary child. Perhaps it was her name, or perhaps it was her destiny, but Luna was a child of the night. Like any other baby, as a newborn she kept her parents up all night, crying for milk. But even after the other children her age started sleeping through the night, Luna never closed her eyes after dark. While the villagers went about their days, Luna slept, radiant in a beam of sunlight that shone through her window. At dusk she would rise to play under the stars. She’d watch the fireflies sparkle in the dark, laughing as they rose slowly higher and higher in the summer air. She learned to walk, and her tiny feet took her into the woods that hugged their village, waddling through the trees as her toddler legs still found their balance.
Her parents warned her about the wolves, bears and witches that hunted in the forest. They cried as they told her that these beasts would happily make a meal of pretty little girls like Luna. By the time she was five, no matter how many times her parents urged her to stay in the safety of their home, every night Luna would sneak out after they fell asleep. Finding an empty bed in the morning, her parents would frantically search the woods, worried sick until they found her sleeping at the base of a tree, tucked peacefully in its roots. Fearing for their only child, her parents didn’t know what else to do other than lock her in her room at night. And even though it pained them to do so, they installed iron bars on her window to prevent her from escaping. Before they retired for the night, her parents would tell her stories about beautiful princesses and fearless princes, kiss her goodnight and lock the door behind them. Luna would slowly turn to sit at her barred window until morning, her face pressed against the iron, and sing to the moon as it danced across the sky.
One evening, the spring before she turned sixteen, she leaned against the cool bars with her face turned up toward the sky, singing. It was as she did every night, but on this particular evening, the wind caught her voice and carried it to a young hunter passing nearby. He had never heard such a beautiful melody before, so he followed the sound and spied Luna sitting in her window. He was struck by her beauty. Her eyes, lifted up towards the moon, were as big as a doe’s and her lips a soft pink in the silvery light.
‘What a beautiful voice you have,’ he said as he stepped out from the trees.
Luna jumped at the sudden voice and cut her song short. She watched him curiously as he walked towards her.
‘It’s night time,’ she replied. ‘Don’t your parents lock you up after dark?’
The hunter laughed, ‘Why would I be locked up?’
‘My parents say the woods are dangerous at night, that it’s safer inside.’
‘I’m not scared of anything in the woods.’ He patted the gun slung over his shoulder and puffed his chest. Luna thought of the stories her parents always told her of men like him who save lonely princesses. She wondered mildly if this was her prince.
‘Do you stay up all night too?’ she asked.
‘No, I’ve been travelling all day, but it took me longer than expected to get to your village. I’m on my way to find a bed for the night now.’
Luna sighed. ‘Then I should not like to keep you. Good travels, hunter.’
‘Please, tell me your name before I go.’
‘Luna,’ she replied as she turned from her window.
‘Goodnight sweet Luna, may I visit you in the morning?’ he cried after her, but she had already disappeared into the darkness of her room.
The next morning the hunter returned, asking after Luna. Her parents regretted having to inform such a strapping young man that she was asleep, but they invited him in for tea anyway. Over warm cups, he wooed them with stories of his bravery. Surely, they thought, a courageous man such as he would make a fine husband who could protect his wife and family. As he took his leave, they begged that he come back for supper when Luna would be awake. That evening as they ate a modest dinner of roast vegetables, the young hunter told more stories about his daring adventures as Luna felt herself shrink beneath his stare from across the table. Luna’s parents imagined hearing wedding bells while Luna wondered to herself if she would be as brave as him if only given the chance.
The young hunter visited every evening and soon became like a son to her parents. When he finally asked for Luna’s hand in marriage, they were overjoyed, agreeing before even asking her. Luna tried to believe her parents when they told her she was lucky to have captured the attention of someone so gallant. As her husband, the hunter would keep her safe they would say as they locked her in her room. Luna didn’t know how to tell them that she wasn’t scared, so she agreed like a good daughter and sang her songs to the moon.
They were to be wed the day after her sixteenth birthday later that summer. The nights got shorter and Luna started to feel uneasy around the young hunter. He was polite and her parents loved him, but his eyes always followed Luna. She’d catch him staring from across the dinner table or look up from her tea as they gathered in the sitting room to catch his cool stare. He seemed to be watching her movements, calculating what she’d do next, as if he was hunting, patiently waiting to strike.
Soon Luna started dreaming of her wedding. Sleeping in her beam of sunlight, Luna dreamt that she stood under a canopy of trees like a chapel. She held a bouquet of wild flowers and in front of her was an altar of branches where her groom stood, but instead of the young hunter, it was a wolf that waited for her. He watched her as she marched down the aisle. He was the most beautiful creature she had ever seen. His eyes shone like gold coins and his fur was shades of silver, like shadows in the moonlight. He stood so proud and she longed to bury her face in his coat. But Luna never made it to her wolf. When she had only a few more steps to take, the dream would fade away and Luna would wake up in a sweat, wondering how to find her wolf-husband.
The village celebrated the summer solstice with a giant bonfire. It was the one night that Luna was allowed outside after dark to join in the festivities as the villagers shared drink and told stories by firelight. Naturally, the young hunter sat with Luna and her parents around the fire, drinking their beer. Luna played the part of a good daughter and made sure their cups were always full until their speech began to slur and their merriment got louder. They laughed among themselves and when she was sure they wouldn’t notice, Luna quietly ducked into the darkness.
The moon was full and bathed the forest in pearly light, so Luna could see her way as she took off in search of her wolf-husband. She relished the crunch-crunch of the forest floor beneath her feet. Her steps provided a steady rhythm for a wild symphony, joining a sustained drone of crickets and rustling treetops. Above it all a barred owl trilled its solo – who-cooks-for-you who-cooks-for-y’all.
As she marched through the trees she thought of her dream-wolf, trying to remember his every detail. She didn’t know how to find him, or if he even existed, but knew she had to try. She walked and walked and wasn’t sure how long she had travelled before she came across a small stream trickling through the forest. Seeing it, she was overcome by thirst. She started to climb down the gentle slope of the bank to drink but tripped on a root, falling into the mud. Picking herself up, Luna realised that it was not a root at all, but a bone that shone bright in the moonlight. With a yelp, she stumbled backwards and saw that it was not a bone, but a pile of bones, human bones. They were bright white, as if they had laid there for a long time. Curiosity got the better of her as she leaned in for a closer look. She brushed her fingers lightly along their contours, wondering who they once belonged to.
‘You poor thing,’ she cried. A single tear fell from her cheek onto the bones. No sooner did the tear wet the bones than they began to shake. Luna watched the bones rattle and dance until they stood in the shape of an old woman in front of her.
‘Child, why do you cry?’ the skull clacked.
‘I was sad to see your bones out here, alone and forgotten.’
‘I have been here for so many years, but no one has ever mourned me. I once lived in a hut over there.’ A bone arm lifted and pointed into the forest. ‘The villagers were so terrified of me that they avoided this corner of the woods and I was left to die out here all alone, with no one to cry over my bones. But you, sweet child, have such a kind heart that you grieved for me even though you never knew me. Since you’ve given me the gift of compassion, I will give you a gift. From now on, in the moonlight, you will turn into a beautiful wolf, free to run and roam the woods. May you live a wild life and ever be happy.’
With that the bones crashed down into a pile once more and Luna felt a strange sensation come over her. Her body swelled and her frock ripped. Her back arched as she dropped to all fours. Looking down, she saw large hairy paws where her hands should be, and her nose grew until she had a muzzle that she lifted to the sky to see the moon shining down on her. She stretched, feeling the strength of her canine body and laughed, which came out as a throaty bark. Trying out her tail, she switched it back and forth before leaping with playful pounces between the trees. The wind ruffled her fur, sending a shiver of delight down her new body. She spun in a circle, chasing her tail, but then her ears twitched, catching a sound in the forest. It was barely noticeable, a faint rhythmic stepping, but her wolf senses told her something was approaching. She crouched into the shadows, ready to bolt, but too curious to run just yet.
Soon she spied the young hunter, picking his way through the trees. It hadn’t taken long for them to notice Luna’s disappearance; her parents feared the worst and the young hunter set off, vowing to find her.
He approached the stream and found Luna’s ripped dress. He crouched over the clothes and when he finally looked up, his face was red with anger. It frightened Luna to see him so angry, and for a moment she forgot she had a mouth full of sharp teeth. She tried to slink further into the shadows, but before she could the hunter spotted her.
‘You! You ate my bride!’ he shouted, reaching for his gun.
‘It’s me, Luna!’ she cried, but the words spilled from her as excited barks and yips. By now, the hunter had loaded his rifle and Luna didn’t know what else to do but run. As she turned, a bullet just missed her, rushing past her tail. Faster and faster she raced, bounding through the trees, dodging another bullet. The hunter was quick, but his human legs were no match for a wolf at full tilt. Luna quickly lost him as she dashed through the undergrowth, but she didn’t dare to stop. She ran and she ran and soon the fear began to melt away. Luna thought less about the bullets she left behind and more about the joy of running at speed, dipping and diving through the trees. She yipped with delight. Her wolf muscles were strong and lean, and she loved the thump-thump of her gait echoing through the woods. She let her long pink tongue flop from her snout, which smiled.
The forest felt like an endless new world, rich in smells and sounds. How good it felt to be a wolf! At that thought, she remembered her dream and wondered if she’d be able to find her wolf-husband now. She sat back on her haunches and howled, calling for him, but she heard no answer. The moon moved across the sky but wherever she ran, she found no wolf. Soon the moon set, and Luna stumbled mid-stride as she lost her wolf body. Lying in the damp leaves, she was just a girl once again, naked and oh so tired.
When she awoke, she was in her bed and the sky was the dark blue of twilight. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and wandered into the dining room where her parents and the young hunter were already sitting at the table.
‘Our darling girl!’ her mother cried.
‘We were worried sick!’ her father said.
‘How did I get back home?’ she asked.
‘Our brave hunter tracked the wolf that stole you away,’ her mother said. ‘He found you sleeping and brought you back to us.’
‘But the wolf didn’t steal me,’ Luna told them. ‘That was me! I am the wolf.’
The three laughed, her mother nervously, the men mockingly. ‘Ridiculous!’ the young hunter said. ‘That wolf was horrible, nothing like my beautiful bride. You’re lucky he didn’t eat you!’
No matter how many times Luna tried to explain that she was the wolf, that she changed in the moonlight, and that she felt more alive than ever in her wild, wolf body, no one believed her. That night as they locked her in her room once again, her parents hugged her tight and promised that soon the hunter would protect her from all the terrible things in the woods, that she would never have a scare like that again. They didn’t listen when she said that she was the terrible thing in the woods.
Luna walked to the window where the moonlight already shone through and before she could sit, she felt her body change. Hair became fur and nose became snout. Her senses flared and she became more aware of the room she had spent her whole life in than ever before. She turned from the window and with her bulk, smashed down the door, barking and yipping as she bounded out of the house. Her parents heard the crash and ran downstairs to find Luna’s door open and wolf tracks through the house. They ran to find the young hunter, who set off into the wood, vowing to kill the beast and return with their daughter.
Luna knew she had to find her wolf-husband before it was too late and raced through the forest. She howled and listened, but no matter how far she ran or how loud she howled, she never found another wolf. She eventually came across a small pond and realised her throat was tight with thirst. As she dipped her head to the water, she saw a familiar face in the reflection. A wolf with eyes like gold coins and silver fur stared back at her. She cocked her head to the side as she regarded the image. There were tiny patches of cream coloured fur that outlined her wide eyes while a streak of grey ran down her nose and between her ears and exploded into a patchwork of greys, looking like shadows in the moonlight. She was beautiful. Dipping her nose down to meet the nose of her reflection, she licked the water and the image of her to rippled away.
Wolves can’t dance, but Luna kicked her paws out in delight in a way that one might be forgiven for thinking they can. She sat back and sang a happy song to the moon, which came out as a long, beautiful howl, lifting over the treetops.
The young hunter, who had tracked her through the forest, heard the howl. He followed it until he came to the pond where he saw a wolf and no sign of his bride. He silently loaded his gun and took aim. But before he shot, Luna looked over and saw him crouching there. She knew he would never let her be wild and felt an anger bubble up from inside her. She refused to be caged ever again.
The hunter met her gaze through his rifle’s sight and thought he recognised something in those eyes like gold coins, though he couldn’t quite put his finger on what. He hadn’t realised that he lowered his gun until it was too late.
Neither Luna nor the young hunter were ever seen again, but for years villagers told scary stories of a wolf with eyes like gold coins and fur like silvery moonlight that hunted those woods, and every now and then, they’d hear a hauntingly beautiful howl, singing to the moon.