by Ellis Sandry
At midnight I was out on the hillside, drumming my fingers and toes and waiting to change. Not wearing a lot: a greatcoat, no gloves, and feet bare in my walking boots. Less to retrieve, later.
But that night, nothing happened. I rocked on the balls of my feet trying to entice the change, to spark that shift that topples me forwards. I wanted my springy legs and my sharp nose. I longed to be careening between the trees in Tentsmuir Forest. God, I was impatient! A crotchety middle-aged bitch…
The night turned dreich and I gave up and trudged home. Shucking my sodden coat, I fired up the furnace and dived into my usual scalding bath. But this time there was no mud to wash away. I cried at how clean I was. I could hardly bear to touch my clammy blue skin, but I was frightened of frostbite so I rubbed myself, grudgingly.
After the change, I’d sleep like a bairn, but that night I couldn’t. Instead, I thought of my parents, long dead. The way I lived broke their hearts: out in the wilds and unmarried. I told them about the sunsets, the rivers, the views from Lucklawhill. But I never told them why I came here, to skirt the surf on the beaches then lick the salt from my own fur. Without that, the view from Lucklawhill was meaningless.
My body spasmed, and I thought it was the change, but it was more sobs. I cried out: come on, you bloody enigma. Come into me, or out of me. Christ, why did I never try to find out what caused my change? Because I’d never questioned it. I’d just reveled in it.
It was me, for decades, and now it was gone.
The day after I didn’t change, I was feeble. I drove ten miles to the grocery store for some venison to cheer myself up. The shop girl was gone so long in the backroom that I turned to grumble with the customer behind me.
I saw a halo of ginger hair. It was the warmest thing I’d seen all day.
The redhead was a luxuriously wide woman, younger than me, wound round with velvet. The hippy type, perhaps here on a retreat. Damn, what if she were vegetarian, and I’d held up her day to buy a hunk of Bambi?
“We could rob this place before we get served,” I muttered, by way of an apology.
The ginger woman snaked her arm past me. She wore a row of silver rings, a nugget on each knuckle. In the dust on the shop counter, she drew a grid. Then in one of the squares, a circle. Full moon.
I reached out my own rough hand and added a cross.
Moon, cross, moon, and I chuckled when she inevitably won.
The shop girl burst out of the backroom cradling a huge haunch of meat.
“That looks worth the wait,” said the ginger woman, her voice low and teasing.
I asked her to dinner. That’s something you can do, in a small town, to make a newcomer welcome. I’d never done it, but I knew one could.
She came late, striding up to the farmhouse door. “Do you keep animals?”
A recipe for disaster that would be, me slinking home at dawn and a cage of chickens en route. I couldn’t explain why I laughed. She lit up a cigarette. My breath joined with her smoke, clouding the Autumn night air.
We went inside for the venison, crackling and delicious.
“Do you grow your own vegetables?” she asked.
“Yes. But I don’t catch my own meat.”
She was younger than me but she’d traveled much further. I watched her silver rings as she talked, glinting in the fire-light.
“What do you do, living out here?” she asked.
“I walk.” I lied a little so I could tell her true things about the trails all over the valley. I realized too late that half those trails weren’t navigable by human foot.
“How did you come to live here?”
“My parents brought me, on holidays…”
A memory resurfaced of Ma and Pa and little me in the woods where the midges swarmed. On the ground in a clearing, I saw spots of silver: tiny puddles, reflecting the sky. Paw prints. I remembered throwing myself down to dip my tongue into the pools of light.
“A wonderful wood,” the redhead woman said. “Full of surprises.”
As she looked around my little home, and at me, her gaze was greedy.
The following week, I saw her. I’d slept badly and looked outside, and she was stomping along a rabbit-track. Sturdy shoes, and bare-legged and bare-necked under her greatcoat, cream skin flashing.
She was heading off to find some place to change.
I knew then why she’d made my skin prickle. She had what I’d lost. Maybe my waning powers had drawn her here. But I refused to crawl off and leave the valley to her young sleek paws.
The next month, I changed easily. I sprung into my skin and raced away. There was a scent in the woods, sweet and musky. A polecat family? It was the only warm thing in the crisp cold night. I chased it to a grassy clearing where the smell was so strong it buzzed like a cloud of midges.
She was standing there, my rival, the redhead. I raced towards her, enraged.
My mind, slower than my instincts, noticed she was unchanged. She was undressed, apart from her stout shoes, showing off rolls of cream flesh and a ginger bonfire between her legs. She was breathless, with scratches on her legs. This was what she did in the woods at full moon: she ran, naked. She had never been like me.
But I’d already sprung at her and tumbled her to the grass.
I heard her triumphant, gleeful whisper: “Ha, I knew it!” She threw her arms around me, and her silver rings made me weak. “Behave,” she growled into my ear.
I knew, now, she wasn’t my rival, and I had no need to fight her. But she was smirking and stroking me, and I refused to let her overcome me so easily. I thrust my muzzle into her hair, and gently half-closed my jaws around her soft throat. I tasted her pulse. But I had undone myself; plunging my nose into her vanilla-and-sex smell, I grew dizzy.
I pulled away and set to nipping her shoulders. She cried out and uncurled to me, offering her skin up to be tormented. As she did so, she dragged stiff fingers all over my fur. Her rings gave me an electric twitch when they grazed me. I let down my guard, exposed my belly to her deep scratching, which felt hot and urgent. I rolled her onto her back again, needing to lap at her hanging breasts and her full thighs with my great tongue.
I could not lick up enough of the sweetness. Her skin was almost blue, but she stretched full length on the grass and begged me not to stop.
Then she whispered so only my keen ears could catch: “Bite me. Change me.”
I’d been right, before. She was my enemy, and meant to steal my place, my home.
I streaked away into the wood.
A rattling came at my door around dawn. When I yanked it open she fell into my kitchen. She grasped my hands and I felt fur. Was she changing? No, wearing fur gloves. I lit the furnace and ran the bath.
Her skin was grass-stained, with red spots where I’d nipped her. I lifted her up and lowered her into the piping hot water. She closed her eyes and smiled, eased off her silver rings while I soaped her chill feet.
“That was inconsiderate,” she said. “Not finishing what you started.”
“Oh, did I start it?”
“Did you come here to drive me out? Steal my valley?”
“No! Move your right hand up a bit…” I didn’t trust her, but her flesh was very tender. “I do want your gift. I researched it in old books, they mentioned this valley. But I wouldn’t steal your home. I’d leave, after you changed me. Unless you wanted me to stay?”
“It’s waning, for me,” I said. That was hard to admit, but easier than answering her question. “It’s unpredictable.”
“Oh, I can help with that. The old books have some remedies…” My hands froze from surprise. “Mm, keep going.”
It had been good to have strong jaws and a large tongue, but now it was good to have canny human fingers.
In my bed, covered in sheep’s fleeces, I said: “I don’t know if I can share it.” I meant my gift, my valley, my heart. I knew one could, but I’d never done it.
“I can wait,” she said, and we curled up like two whelps in a litter.
Ellis Sandry lives in London, home to some good ghosts and top-notch grimoires. Ellis has been previously published in the Circlet Press collection Like a Spell: Fire.