If you had been watching me an hour ago, you would have seen a light bulb flash on over my head. (It’s an incandescent one; I have a compact fluorescent waiting, but I won’t switch until this one burns out.) You see, a while back I wrote a piece I really liked. Some good stuff, if I do say so myself. I bundled it up and sent it to a place that pays money for stories. They rejected it. “Send us your next thing, though,” the rejection said. Writing: good. Story: not so much.
I worked on the piece some more, made it longer, and sent it to another place that pays money for stories. They rejected it. More edits, more length, more movement. Another rejection.
Then, while mulling some feedback I got yesterday, it hit me. The feedback had a rather long list of the ways that the while the writing was good the result fell short of being a good story. “But,” I said to myself, “I really don’t want it to be like that.” That’s when I realized the problem. It’s not a story. I wrote this thing, then sent it to story people, said, “here’s my story,” and was rejected. I’d edit, trying to make my non-story more story-like, and submit again, and be rejected again.
It’s not a story. Criticism based on common story-telling norms really don’t apply. Now I can feel good about the writing again, even as I recognize that its commercial value is negligible. I think my recent attempts to make it more story-like have probably undermined it somewhat, so now it occupies an uncomfortable no man’s land where there’s enough story-like stuff going on to make the reader expect a story, but it still doesn’t deliver. (Reading the piece with this new insight in mind, “Blood” is definitely too story-like now. So it goes.)
I could go back and dig up earlier, more-obviously-non-story versions, but I think I’ll just take the easy way out and publish, right here and now, the current somewhere-in-the-realm-between-an-image-and-a-story version, and move on with my life. Now, however, after I write something purely for the imagery and atmosphere, I know not to bother story editors with it.
I shouldn’t have looked back. Nothing good could have come of it; behind me lay nothing but a brief life of confusion and terror. I shouldn’t have looked back, but of course I did. I turned and cast a furtive glance over my shoulder and froze, my breath catching in my throat, choking off my hoarse cry. I stumbled, forgetting to move my feet, almost falling before I wrenched my gaze forward again.
Fire followed me, a thread of silvery flame shimmering coldly in the moonlight, careening drunkenly across the waste and disappearing over the horizon.
I took a breath, tried to slow my heart. Forward. The only answer, the only hope. I lifted a foot and watched with distant fascination as a drop of blood detached from my naked toe and fell to the sterile earth. Where it struck, a new flame erupted, curling up and reaching for my foot, but unable to touch me.
It was a long trail of fire behind me. A long trail of blood.
I took a step, and another. The blood, the fire, would continue to flow until there was none left and I was dead. No helping it. I had to be somewhere else before then. I chose a peak, sharp and snowy-white in the light of the full moon hanging directly over it. I thought if I could get to the top of the mountain perhaps I could climb right onto the beacon moon itself, and be safe at last.
I stumbled and saw that the mountain was off to my right. I altered course again, but as I walked the mountain was always to one side or the other, weaving like a prizefighter. Hell of a world where even the mountains won’t stay where they belong. Hell of a world.
A breeze, restless and uncertain, shifted around me, but brought no relief. Like the land around me the bitter air was a stranger to life; all ability for it to nourish, to sustain, had been drawn from it. Nothing stirred except shiftless drifts of dust — aimless, random, revealing nothing, mocking my crazed path.
Far behind, beyond the curve of the Earth, I heard the howl of a wolf, calling out to her pack. I hesitated for a moment, then quickened my pace. They would be coming for me soon, following my burning tail. I looked to the mountains, with their promise of safety. Too far, too far, forever distant, a life away.
My first memory, my awakening, hours ago now. An awakening, but not from the gentle embrace of sleep; I find consciousness slowly, emerging naked and whole out of a haze of pain into a world of fear and need. Alone, with no past and a future written in blood. The scent of wolves all around me, choking me.
It is all I can do to suppress my urge to run, but I am born knowing that my only hope lies in escaping unnoticed. I wait, motionless, breathing silently. Waiting for a sign. The clouds part and far away the mountains shine white in the moonlight, calling to me, and I know what I must do to survive. It is the moon that tells me, in a whisper as cold as death. I do… something — I wrap myself in shadow, cover my scent with the cold forest air, hide the sound of my tread behind the stirrings of the night. I slip away, and once clear of the wolves I slink to the edge of the forest and begin a slow jog out across the blasted plain, ignoring the pain in my abraded feet. Time is important, I know; eventually whatever it was I did to hide myself will fail, and the wolves will catch my scent. Eventually the sun will rise, and the power the moon gives me will be lost.
Behind me the wolf’s call came once more, urgent, excited. It was answered by a half-dozen others and the hunt was on.
I staggered into a shambling run I could not sustain; the air was burning now, rushing over my swollen tongue and searing my lungs as I gasped, its alkaline bite nauseating me. Even the air wanted me dead. No urge to look back now. Ahead the mountain peak is a black silhouette, a tooth biting into the face of the moon. The sun would be rising behind me soon, bringing death as sure as the wolves.
Forward. The stars asserted themselves as the moon was swallowed by the mountain. Without the moon’s support I stumbled again and the world turned in a dizzying arc and I was painfully on all fours, gasping and staring at the ground between my hands. I tried to stand but my legs wouldn’t support me. Forward, crawling; now blood flowed from my hands as well. The mountains stayed put and my path was straighter, but my destination seemed more distant with each passing minute. Impossibly distant. No sound from behind; the wolves were intent on their prey, but I imagined I could hear their steady tread coming ever closer.
I tried to speed up but my arm buckled, driving my face into the abrasive surface, stars dancing in my eyes as the smell of ancient death filling my nostrils. I righted myself and pressed forward at a slower gait, awkward on all fours and limping on my bad arm, but it was the best I could do. Blood oozed from my forehead and fell in fat drops off the tip of my nose, exploding in flame when they struck the earth inches below my face. My trail was getting brighter.
Forward. Finding a rhythm in my crawl even as the ancient mud tears at my hands, moving faster now than I thought possible. The mountains nearer. The pain distant, someone else’s pain, the blood someone else’s blood. The air itself more expressive, filled with hidden messages: the fetor of decay. All around me were the graves of others, even their bones ground to dust, only the scent of death to mark the places they had fallen. As I neared the mountains the graves grew closer together.
My own scent, I knew, would be waiting for the next to attempt the wasteland. I was not going to make it.
The breeze shifted, found a direction. The smell of wolves, close behind me, a coarse, honest smell, pungent with the excitement of the hunt. I sped up, surprising myself with my pace for a few hopeful moments before my shoulder gave out and I was down and the wolves were on me, past me, arrayed in front of me in an arc, blocking my path. I lowered my head and laid my ears flat back; I showed my teeth and growled, and I discovered I was also a wolf.
“Let me pass.”
A female, tail lowered but ears back, deferential but prepared. “No, Shaman.”
Memories. Images from before my awakening, from a different life. Hunting, running. Wolf. I looked to the mountains, heard them whisper to me and fragments of memories scattered. Behind I knew the sun would soon rise and all would be lost.
“I must go to the mountains.”
“It is forbidden.”
“Forbidden by whom?” I allowed a snarl to creep into my voice.
The female hesitated and I could smell her frustration. “By you, Shaman, and all who came before.”
A male, barely more than a pup, couldn’t keep silent any longer. “Ha! Old Dog! That was a hell of a run you gave us! Even on two legs!” He danced with the energy of youth, barely winded from the long run. I felt a twinge of pride, its source a mystery. A cub, newborn. Something is wrong. And I — what? I do something — twisting the light of the moon and making the pup whole; he stands on tottering legs and finds his mother’s teat. The mother’s eyes wide, looking up at me with wonder and gratitude.
The female turned to the youngster. “Show some respect.”
“You would have died a whelp if it weren’t for the shaman’s skill,” another female added.
While their attention was on the youth I edged to the side, hoping to slip out of their arc and
sprint for the mountains. The peaks were close now; I could feel the chill air sliding off their snow-clad flanks, rich with the fertile scent of forest. It smelled of shade, and game, easy hunts with plenty for all, long afternoon naps and no need of a shaman to protect the pack from evil.
The pack reacted to the smell differently; one sneezed, another whimpered softly.
The sun was coming; I could feel its rush toward the horizon, its urgent desire to catch me with its deadly rays. Panic rose sour in my throat. No time left. I lowered my head into a fighting posture and stood carefully so I wouldn’t reveal my weak foreleg. “I will reach the mountains.”
The largest male, the chief of the tribe, matched my posture. “You told us yourself to kill you rather than let you get there.”
Had I said that? It sounded familiar. “Why?”
The pack exchanged glances. A female spoke almost too low to hear, her voice a hiss. “Stalkers.”
Stalkers. With the word, another memory, cold in my stomach. Fear in the night. Circling us is a wolf, or something wolf-shaped, smelling of rotting flesh, gray fur hanging in long strips, eyes filmy white. “The shaman of Long Tooth clan,” someone near me says. Around us lie wolves, bleeding, dead. The pack is shielding me, a pup, but it is I who must fight. It is I the stalker seeks. I carry the blood of the moon.
The pack leader watched me, his yellow eyes narrowed. “Think, Shaman. Remember. The blood is strong in you, so strong it burns the sand of this cursed plain. If the mountain spirits took you, you would destroy us all.”
The peaks glowed pink in the predawn light. I had never been so close before.
Before. As I prepared to make a last desperate dash the sun broke the eastern horizon and the mountains stood before me, barren, dead. In the light of the new day there was no snow on the peaks, no forest climbing the slopes. The sweet smell on the air turned to ash and dust and something bitter I had tasted once before.
The stalker, dead, its blood cold on my tongue. I retch and spit the unclean flesh, step away from the corpse. Where it lies, no plant will ever grow again.
Before. There had been many befores, many moonlit nights on two naked legs, called by the mountains. I looked at the ring of faces, my clan, my friends. I saw their concern and their fatigue, and I saw their unquestioning loyalty to another member of the pack.
The female spoke, still formal, still cautious. “Your power yet grows, shaman. The scent of the decoy you left stayed true for many hours.”
With the memory comes shame. I lowered my tail. “I’m sorry,” I said.
My chieftain, my brother, spoke. “We are fortunate to have the blood of the moon in our pack. If we pay a price when the moon is full, it’s nothing compared to the price you pay.”
The cold mountain air touched me again and my hackles stood. Not from the chill, but from something else, brooding, hateful, thirsty for blood that has been touched by the moon. The Life Eaters, the shamans call them. I could feel them watching me, feel as they reached out through the wind to touch me with an icy claw. Few shamans had felt that touch without surrendering their lives to the dark ones who lived there. I did not count myself fortunate.
“They’re close,” I said. The pack was uneasy; they felt it too. “Let’s go,” our chieftain called out. “This is not a friendly place, and we are a long way from home.”
Two of the younger wolves flanked me, offering support. Gratefully I accepted and we began the journey back to the shelter of the distant forest, safe for another month.