When Nathan Meyer’s mother passed away, it wasn’t much of a shock.
She and his father had been in their early forties when they had him, and he was pushing the same age now. In other words, she hadn’t been young anymore. Like everyone her age she had had a number of health issues, although she had been surprisingly mobile and active until the end. The signs were there that the end was near, though, even if he hadn’t wanted to see them.
He supposed what made her passing so difficult to process was that it had happened almost instantly. His father had suffered from Alzheimer’s for years before he had died. Day after day, the man had deteriorated until there hadn’t been anything left of the man that had helped raise him.
It hadn’t been like that for his mother. She had gone to bed one night and simply hadn’t woken up the next morning. Nathan was grateful that she hadn’t suffered, of course, but a more selfish part of him wished that there had been time to properly say goodbye.
Putting aside personal sentiment, the one thing that no one is really prepared for when it comes to the passing of a parent is the amount of work that needs to be done by the surviving family. Nathan was an only child, so all of that work fell on his shoulders. His mother’s lawyer had been able to handle a good portion of it, but there was still a lot of paperwork that needed to be taken care of, not to mention the necessary labor of packing up a person’s entire life into boxes.
He and his wife Bethany discussed things the day after they received the news, and they decided that the easiest way to handle things would be for him to take a week off of work so that they could concentrate on getting things taken care of. He was grateful that she would be with him during the process, but he hadn’t expected her to offer. Their relationship had been on the rocks for quite some time. Neither of them had done anything to harm the relationship, at least not intentionally. It was one of those things where people just start to drift apart. He wasn’t sure why, and he couldn’t point to an exact moment when everything had changed. It had just sort of happened.
They still cared about each other, though, and she knew how much his mother had meant to him. On a rather appropriately cold and rainy Saturday morning, they packed their suitcases into the trunk of their car and began the ten hour drive from their home to his parents’ old farmhouse.
Most of the trip was spent in silence. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence, or if it was it wasn’t enough that Nathan noticed. They just didn’t have anything to say to one another.
Despite them traveling through three different states, the rain didn’t stop. If anything it came down harder the longer that they drove. The downpour caused some delays, and between that and stopping for meals the sun had set and night had fallen by the time they arrived at the long gravel driveway leading to the farmhouse.
They had decided to stay at the house while they were in town. Not only would it save them the cost of a hotel, it also made packing more convenient. He used the spare key his mother had given him decades earlier and they went inside. Since it was late, they called it a night and went to bed. Bethany took the spare bedroom while he slept in the same room that he had almost every night until he was eighteen.
Nathan woke up early the next morning, over an hour before the sun would rise. That hadn’t been the plan. In fact, with as long as the previous day’s drive had been, he would have preferred to sleep in. Unfortunately that wasn’t how his body worked. He was so programmed to get up at a certain time during the work week that he automatically woke up around that time even without an alarm. He’d learned that it was best to just get up rather than to try in vain to fall back asleep. Being careful not to wake up Bethany, he left his old room and went downstairs to the kitchen.
It was a surreal feeling being back in his childhood home. His parents had purchased the farmhouse years before he had been born, so he had never known another home until he had gone off to college. Almost everything was exactly as it had been back then. There were a few new pictures on the wall, but beyond that, things were the same as he remembered them.
He glanced over his shoulder at the closed door to his mother’s room as he descended the wooden stairs. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that so little had changed. During his father’s mental decline, she hadn’t had time for anything except for taking care of him. Something of her went with him when he had died, and she hadn’t had a desire to change things after he had gone.
Nathan realized that there was one big difference between when he had been a kid and now. The feeling of the house had changed. It felt empty. All of the furniture and possessions were there, but his parents weren’t. It was like he was walking through a hollow shell of a memory.
He spent the early hours of the morning going through boxes of files that his mother’s lawyer had gathered together. These were records from the past year, everything from grocery receipts to stock records. His parents had never been rich, but they had been smart with their savings and investments so that they could be comfortable in their retirement. The side effect of that was that it left a long papertrail to go through to make sure that all their business was concluded.
In the final box was an invoice from a local pest control company. According to the notes, there had been a wasp nest inside the wall connecting the backyard to the kitchen. He smiled slightly. His mother had hated hiring contractors to take care of things around the house. Over the years she had learned everything from basic plumbing to repairing concrete from a series of home improvement books she had purchased. They had been the ones advertised on the old Bob Vila commercials that had aired constantly on television during his childhood.
He heard a noise from the guest bedroom upstairs. Bethany was awake. He put the lid back on the box and tried to mentally ready himself for the long day ahead of him.
It ended up being harder than he thought it would be. Nathan managed to get through most of the morning, but he broke down a bit at the funeral home as they were making arrangements for his mother’s service. One minute he was giving the funeral director a list of notes they had prepared, and the next tears were running down his face as he struggled to speak. Intellectually he knew that it wasn’t a big deal and that no one thought less of him. He still left the building feeling embarrassed, looking down at the pavement as the continuing rain pattered against his umbrella.
The next stop was at the lawyer’s office, where he signed a small stack of papers that was put in front of him. He wasn’t sure exactly what he was signing, but Bethany was a paralegal and after reading through them she assured him that they were all standard documents. From there they went to the florist to place an order for the funeral service, and since the local newspaper was just a few doors down they took care of submitting the obituary.
They ran several more errands. Everything started to blur together for Nathan. He just wanted to be done with things for the day. He was physically and mentally exhausted.
He was relieved when they finally arrived back at the farmhouse that evening. Bethany retrieved the mail from the mailbox while he went inside and sat down on the couch. Pulling off his soaked shoes, he closed his eyes and leaned back against the soft cushions. He was vaguely aware of her coming inside and heading up the stairs to her room, but he was too tired to say anything.
Despite how tired he was, he felt like he had gotten through the worst of it. The next day would be more physically taxing as they began the packing process, but he preferred that to the mental toll the current day had taken. He sighed as he started drifting off.
Bethany called his name from up in the bedroom. He opened his eyes and frowned. Something had to be wrong. Most of their evenings over the past three to four months had been spent in different rooms in the same house, quietly going about their own lives while interacting as little as possible.
Nathan forced himself to get off the couch and went up the stairs to see what was going on. Bethany was sitting on the bed, her legs crossed under her and an open brown package in her lap. A few unopened letters were piled neatly off to one side.
“Take a look at these,” she said before he could ask her why she had called for him.
She opened the flaps of the box further. He moved closer and sat down on the bed beside her. Inside the box were two similar but distinct objects. They appeared to be some kind of masks, not plastic but instead carved from wood. He reached in and took one of them out to examine it more closely.
The mask he was holding did weight much, and the dark wood was rough to the touch. It was roughly triangular, with the top being the widest and the rest growing more narrow as it drew closer to the bottom. Two pointed ears adorned the crown, and a pair of long teeth protruded from the base. Two eye holes had been cut into it, their teardrop shapes giving the face a sense of anger and intensity. It was the stylized face of a wolf.
He turned the mask over and examined the back. Two leather straps were attached to it. Each had a buckle that would allow the wearer to attach it tightly to their head so it wouldn’t slip off.
Bethany held up the second mask. It was carved in the shape of an owl’s face. The wood was much lighter in color than the wolf mask, and the long beak and high brow had obviously been carved with great care.
“This was in today’s mail,” she told him. “The return address is just a name. S. Pembrook.”
“S. Pembrook,” I repeated. “I don’t recognize the name. It’s probably the person who sold them to Mom.”
“Your mother must have ordered them before she…” Bethany broke off the sentence. “Um, sorry, that was…”
“No, it’s okay. I know you wouldn’t…” He took a deep breath. “Was there a packing slip or something?”
“No, nothing.” There was a long moment of silence before she spoke again. “I think the rain finally stopped.”
Nathan looked out the nearby window. She was right; the seemingly endless downpour had finally ceased. He turned his attention back to her and found that she was looking away from him and chewing on her bottom lip. She only did that when she was feeling uncomfortable.
He turned his eyes towards the floor. They had been madly in love with each other since the first night that they had met in college. How had they gotten to the point where they didn’t feel comfortable just being in the same room with one another?
“Hey, would you do me a favor?” he asked as an idea came to him. “Would you come downstairs with me?”
“What?” Bethany asked as she blinked in confusion. “Why?”
“There’s something that I want to show you. Please?”
“Um, yeah, sure.”
She followed him down the stairs and into the kitchen. He slid the large glass down open and led her out onto the brick patio in the backyard. It was growing dark, but the clouds had parted and the last remaining rays of the setting sun colored the sky a deep purple. The nearest neighbors were over a mile away, and the property was surrounded on three sides by woods. He led her over to the middle of the backyard and stopped.
“What are we doing, Nathan?” Bethany asked, folding her arms against her chest. “I’m tired, and tomorrow’s going to be another long day.”
“I know, but this is worth it,” he assured her. “Close your eyes.”
“I don’t think-”
“Just trust me. Close your eyes and take a deep breath.”
She hesitated, but she did as he asked. Her expression immediately changed. She had been born and raised in New York City, and she hadn’t spent much time outside of cities in general. This was the first time she had ever experienced the fresh scent of pine trees and ozone after a heavy rain. He watched as she inhaled the clean air deep into her lungs.
“Oh,” she said in a voice barely above a whisper. “Oh my. That’s fantastic.”
“Isn’t it?” he agreed. “I’ve always loved that smell. I used to sit on this old porch swing we had for hours after it rained, just breathing the air and listening to the crickets.”
“Well, you’re right, this is definitely worth it.”
She opened her eyes and looked at him, and for the briefest of moments it was like they were how they used to be. That moment was quickly over, however, and the smile slid from her face. They stood there awkwardly for a couple of minutes.
“You brought the mask with you,” Nathan said, more to end the silence than out of any real need to say it.
She lifted the owl mask she was carrying and looked at it in confusion.
“I didn’t even realize I was still holding it,” she admitted. “You brought yours, too.”
It was his turn to be surprised. Clenched in his hand was the wooden wolf mask. In his hurry to bring her outside he must have forgotten to put it back in the box.
“They’re… odd, aren’t they?” she asked as she carefully examined every inch of her mask.
“They certainly look strange,” he agreed.
“No. I mean, yes, they do, but that’s not what I meant. What I meant was… I don’t know how to put this into words. You don’t feel it?”
Nathan watched her as she fell silent. Her eyes never left the mask, and he got the distinct feeling that she hadn’t stopped talking because she had fully finished conveying her thoughts. It was more like she had forgotten that he was standing there and that they had been conversing. Her full attention was on the owl mask in her hands.
He looked down at the mask he was holding. He didn’t say anything, but he thought that he knew what she had meant. The mask felt strange in his grip. He ran his fingers over the wood. It was unblemished. It had been lovingly worked and sanded until it was completely smooth to the touch.
There was something else there, though. He couldn’t see it. He couldn’t feel it, either. Not exactly. It was more like he sensed it, or that he instinctively knew that something unseen was present. Despite all evidence to the contrary, there was no doubt in his mind that the wooden mask was covered in coarse fur.
He didn’t know that he was putting the mask up to his face until the wood was already pressing against his skin. The leather straps slid over the back of his head and fit him perfectly, like they had been set just for him. His hands fell to his side, and he looked over at Bethany just in time to see her own mask being put into place.
He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again everything had changed.
The world around him was no longer dim with the coming night. Everything was vibrant and sharp despite the shadows. He felt as if he was seeing the world for the first time.
HIs nostrils were filled with the smells of the yard and woods. The pine scent that he remembered so well from his childhood was heightened, intense but welcoming as it seemed to beckon him towards the trees. He could smell the wet grass under his feet, and he could tell by the odor on the wind that more rain would fall soon.
There was another smell, one that was stronger than all others. It pulled at him and demanded his attention. He returned his gaze to Bethany. She stared back at him in silence, her head tilted to one side and her eyes unreadable through the holes in the mask. He could see every pour in the wood, every tiny imperfection in the grain. He could smell the unseen feathers covering her.
She was Owl, and she was glorious.
Owl turned her head towards the woods. Yes, she was right, of course. Now was the time for the hunt. They had done this hundreds, thousands of times before. It was ritual as much as it was survival. As one, they turned and raced off across the yard. His steps were loud in his ears as his feet pounded against the turf. Owl’s movements, as always, were silent as she glided through the air like a spirit moving through the darkness.
They broke through the treeline and continued into the woods. There were no paths to follow, but they didn’t need any. Wolf quickly picked up the scent of another animal, and he turned to pursue it. He felt the soft change in the air as Owl adjusted to stay with him. He plunged through the brush eagerly, using both his arms and his legs to propel himself forward. Within moments they came to a small clearing, and in the middle of it was the animal they had been seeking.
The young deer didn’t realize they were there until it was too late. Wolf lifted it off of its feet and slammed it down hard on the dirt. It let out a high pitched squeal. The noise was cut off abruptly as he bit into its throat. Hot blood spilled into his mouth as his teeth dug in deep. The taste was intoxicating and made him want to prolong the kill as much as possible to savor it.
Wolf was merciful, however. It was in his nature to hunt, but he was a predator, not a simple killer driven by disgusting needs. He twisted his head to one side sharply and tore out the deer’s throat. It thrashed around for a few moments before lying still.
Owl descended from the thick tree branch she had been perched on and was once again at his side. She did not usually participate in the kill. She was perfectly capable of bringing down prey when she needed to, but Wolf with his teeth and claws was better equipped to end the hunt most of the time. It was a role he took seriously.
Together they feasted on the kill. Wolf watched Owl as she gracefully tore bits from the carcass and devoured them. He could be stealthy and fast, but her movements flowed like water from a silent stream. They were the perfect compliment to each other, his power and viciousness on the ground matching with her intellect and stealth in the air.
She finished eating and turned to him. Her demeanor had changed. With her hunger satisfied, she was now looking to him to fulfill a different kind of desire. Wolf felt a burning sensation within himself. They came together in the clearing, the scent of the kill still fresh in the air as the man and wolf met the woman and owl.
Hours later, in the darkest and quietest part of the night, they began their short journey back to their den. They moved at a leisurely pace rather than the frenzied rush they had been in during the hunt. Wolf looked up at his mate and felt at peace. When she looked down to return his gaze he saw the happiness and contentment in her own eyes.
The look suddenly changed, and she set down on a nearby branch. He came to a stop and watched her carefully, his ears listening carefully for any sound. She had detected something that he had not, something that she had deemed to be a possible threat. After a few moments her eyes narrowed and she stared into the darkness downwind from their position. He slowly backed into a nearby patch of thick foliage and waited.
A minute passed, then two. Wolf still couldn’t tell what had made Owl nervous, but he had no doubt that something was out there. She was never wrong about such things.
A twig snapped somewhere in the distance. He bared his teeth but remained silent. The wind was blowing in the wrong direction, and he wasn’t able to pick up the scent of the interloper. There was another sound, this time one that repeated and drew closer to them. It was the sound of dry leaves being crushed under foot. There was something wrong with the sound. Whatever was approaching didn’t walk with the gait of any animal he knew.
The rustling in the brush stopped, and there was only silence.
Wolf was uneasy. He wasn’t able to smell the animal’s scent, but it was possible that it could detect his.
His thoughts were interrupted when the intruder stepped into view. It was unlike anything he had ever seen. It was vaguely shaped like a cow, but its head was more like an anteater’s and a pair of bone protrusions ran from its neck all the way to the tip of its long thick tail. Its flesh was black and scaley.
They had two options. They could withdraw and leave the creature to its business. It was unnatural, and its mere presence caused Wolf’s skin to crawl. Perhaps it was best to simply leave it alone and wait for it to leave their territory.
Even before he felt Owl’s change in temperament, Wolf knew that they would instead be going with the other option. This… thing should not be here. They did not know that it would leave, and they would not be safe unless it did. It was better to confront it here and now instead of risking it finding their den.
Owl had not participated in the killing of the deer. This was a different situation, however. This territory belonged to both of them, and it was both of their duties to protect it. She silently glided down from the tree and, before the strange animal knew what was happening to it, sank her talon-like fingers into the creature’s eyes.
It screamed in pain and surprise. In some ways it reminded Wolf of the young deer. He emerged from the brush and slowly circled the intruder. As Owl raked her fingers down the face, Wolf focused on the lower body and tore into the flesh just behind the front legs. He then ripped open the left flank, followed by cutting the tendon in the back of the left rear leg. Each slash was surgical, designed to cause the maximum amount of agony and damage while trying to hobble the creature.
It stumbled back, and Wolf saw his opening. Owl pushed away from the beast as he leapt forward and sank his teeth into its throat. The animal thrashed and tried to throw him off, but his jaws were locked in place. Digging his claws into the turf, he pulled back and twisted his head hard to the side. The creature collapsed to the ground as its throat was torn out.
He had no time to bask in the kill, however, as a second of the creatures emerged from behind the trees. Wolf took a step back and bared his teeth, the first animal’s oddly dark and thick blood dripping from his jowls. They didn’t have the advantage of surprise this time. This would be much more dangerous.
The creature made a noise that Wolf had never heard before, an angry cry that sounded almost metallic as it rang out. He winced and lowered his head. The sound was incredibly painful to his strong hearing.
With him pinned in place, the creature took another step towards him. As it did so, its head began to split open down the middle. It was unlike anything Wolf had ever seen. Each of the two halves had rows of teeth that were covered in small spines. It was like a terrible mouth that opened vertically instead of horizontally.
Wolf’s instincts were screaming at him. The cry the creature was making was affecting him, making him unable to fight or run. It had to be a hunting technique to make it easier for it to kill prey. Knowing what was happening didn’t mean that he could do anything about it, however. It reached him and towered over him as its mouth opened even wider.
It was Owl, beautiful and cunning Owl, that came to his rescue. With a shriek filled with rage, she swooped in and dug her claws into one of the mouth flaps. The creature growled and moved its head back and forth in an effort to force her away.
As it did so, the noise it was emitting stopped. Wolf had control of his body once more. Snarling, he followed Owl’s lead and sank his fangs into the other side of the mouth. Caught between the two of them, the strange animal didn’t seem to know what to do. It bucked around and rapidly shook its head, but they were relentless.
Wolf finally heard the sound he had been waiting for: an almost imperceptible tearing coming from the back of the creature’s throat. With all of his strength, he flung his body backwards with his teeth still gripping the flesh. There was a moment of silence before the creature’s body lost the fight and the mouth split further than it was supposed to, ripping the fullness of its head in half. It thrashed for a moment before falling still and crumpling onto the turf.
For a long time Wolf stood on the cool dirt with his eyes closed, panting in exhaustion as he waited for his heartbeat to return to normal. His breathing finally slowed and he opened his eyes again. Owl was closely examining the corpse of the second creature they had killed, her head tilting from one side to the other. Sensing that he was watching her, she turned away from it and came over to him, lovingly placing her cheek against his.
Caring, protective Owl.
Leaving the bodies of the intruders behind, they continued towards the den. They would leave the bodies for the animals and insects in the woods. As they shriveled and decayed it would serve as a warning to others that would seek to enter their territory. Any that would do so without their approval would meet the same fate.
They reached the treeline and returned to the farmhouse’s backyard. Without a word they removed their masks as they walked across the soft grass. Nathan immediately noticed the change in his senses: the night was darker, the scents were less intense, and it was so quiet that it felt like the world had been muted. Even without the heightened awareness he could still smell the combination of sweat and blood coming from his clothes.
“I’m not sure what happened,” he said.
“What’s happening,” Bethany corrected him. “You feel it, don’t you? It’s still happening.”
“Yes. What do you think it is?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know. I don’t care. All that matters is that we were apart, and now we are one. You are my Wolf.”
He looked at her intently. “And you are my Owl. You’re right. That’s all that matters.”
“Tomorrow we’ll pack up your mother’s belongings, and the day after we’ll celebrate her life and return her to the earth. We’ll need to make arrangements for our things to be brought here as well. I feel like this is where we belong.”
“It is. This is our den and our territory.” Nathan’s thoughts went to the creatures’ bodies in the woods. “It’s ours.”
“This place will never be yours,” a voice said from behind them.
They turned in surprise towards the speaker. There hadn’t been anyone there moments earlier, but now there was a man standing a few yards away. He was dressed in a black suit, and his hands were in his pockets. Somehow he managed to appear both out of place and as if he belonged there.
“Those creatures will continue to invade your property,” the man continued. “They’ll only stop when things much worse than them start to arrive. That’s the nature of Bleeds; unless they’re closed, they start to fester as the rot grows.”
“Who are you?” Bethany demanded as she slowly raised her mask towards her face.
“There’s no need for that, madam. You’re in no danger from me. My name is Silas Pembrook.”
“Pembrook…” Nathan said slowly. “You’re the one that sent these masks.
“Very good, Mr. Meyer. Why don’t we all step inside and I’ll make us some tea? It will take some time for me to explain why I’m here, so we might as well get comfortable. After all, you’re very much going to want to hear what I have to say.”