Σάββατο, 13 Ιουνίου 2009

The Wolf of Magdeburg.



I.

It was the first days of the year 1819, midst the rigid embrace of an infant January and while the brick chimneys relentlessly exhaled their blackness to the sky, when the beast came. The capital town of Magdeburg, the pride and wealth of Prussia, slept its snowy sleep by the ice-stream that was once the river Elbe, when a toll of flesh and blood fell wordlessly upon its people.

In that part of Prussia, the month of January was known as der Wolfmonat, the month of the wolf, for it was that time of year that the bitter Northern winds, drove the hungry wolves from the mountains in the backyards and streets of Magdeburg in search of food and prey. And the dark forests of the Harz mountains were brimming with canine specters that lurked in the heavy forest mist in predatory waiting or sated voraciousness. All men of sanity dared not tread near the edge of the woods, for they knew of the fanged beasts and the gruesome death that was reserved for the mindless wanderer if his guts grew too bold.

And the fences were high in the town of Magdeburg back then and the Jägerbusche rifles were always kept loaded and no child ever left the house unaccompanied -and its company was always to bear a weapon of some sort. Fires were lit in various spots of the town of Magdeburg and great care was taken by the people that they always remain lit and he who would let anything edible outdoors was severely punished, for the scent of food would summon the beasts from the forest.

It was thus with the utmost surprise, that it was during those days of vigilance that on the fifteenth of the Wolfmonat, the infant child of Edmund Speer, a respectable merchant, was found missing. Neither he nor his wife, Ingrid, had heard or seen anything unusual that night. Frau Speer had her child breastfed late in the evening and once he had fallen asleep, she had gone to the conjugal bed to join her husband. The infant was in general of a tranquil nature and its nightly silence was rather unexceptional. With the dawn, its cradle stood empty and only the window which lay ajar betrayed an intrusion.

At once, the mayor ordered a search party to sweep the town of Magdeburg, its streets and alleys, its barns and stables and its every house, no matter how familiar or respectable the tenants were. In the end, the search proved futile and it was thought that the infant had been stolen by some gypsy nomad or a witch. The town mourned with sincerity and all care was taken that the ill-stricken house would always find warmth in the hearts of the townsfolk.

II.

By the end of January, the people of Magdeburg were crumbling with fear and uneasiness. Another four houses had been visited and intruded by the nefarious abductor and no trace of evidence remained to aid the authorities to his, or her, discovery. It was then that the people of Magdeburg turned to their magistrate for guidance, a man called Breber.

Breber was a man of wit and resolved to solve the grotesque mystery that plagued the town of Magdeburg. Soon after the townsfolk had turned to him for his precious aid, the abductor struck again, claiming once more a child no older than two years of age. Breber quickly recognized an advantage in terms of evidence: the night of the abduction, snowfall had been rather mild and the tracks of the abductor could be easily traced and pondered upon. Breber flew to the sight of tragedy to find, indeed, traces that led out the window, out of the town and to the woods. The traces were obviously those of wolf paws, casting all assumptions of human intervention aside. The riddle of how a pack of wolves could ever penetrate a well-lit town, as Magdeburg was at the time, was answered by the most bizarre of indications: the traces were those of a single wolf, obviously of too bold a nature and too intelligent a mind, if he was to dare tread alone in the fire-lit town and break through windows, no matter how frail the latter's nature may have been.

Breber was bedazzled. Surely, a single wolf posed no real threat to men his stature, and indeed was much more preferable than the occasional descent of whole packs of the fanged beasts, but all the same, it made the intruder much more immune to tracing and discovery.

To that end, Breber ordered teams of men to constantly patrol the town after sundown, as much as around its small perimeter, as within and through the narrow streets.

Under Breber's orders, the small town of Magdeburg was to become a fortress, dedicated to the defense against a single, yet most feared and troublesome enemy.

III.

The days and nights rolled on, as did the patrols, yet the abductions had not seized. The wolf month was nearing its end and so did the patience of the townsfolk. The wolf had broken in several other homes, all housing a child of young age -and each time the child had disappeared.

The night that the four year-old daughter of the Mayor himself disappeared, Breber began to take part in the patrols in person. The people of Magdeburg had lost all faith in him but apart from rightful desperation, had nothing to blame him for. Yet nonetheless, Breber was generally shunned in anger by the townsfolk and even in his own home, his wife would seldom address him -a cruel reminder of his failure.

Breber would not patrol the town in shifts as did the other men -he would start his guardian duty the moment the sun began to fall, until the light of dawn was again bright enough. He would carry no firearms, but merely a long sword, sharpened enough to cut through wolf and Ottoman like water. With cold fury in his veins, Breber would tread the town from one end to another, feverishly praying that he was the one to come across the wolf -and when that happened, the beast would be unsuitable even for a rag before the fireplace.

It was not long before Breber had began his second patrol of the town streets, when something came running and panting behind him, crashed on him and knocked him to the ground. Ever vigilant, Breber twisted his fallen body, kicking what felt like two legs of the pursuer, heard the thumping of the fallen body and sprang up, instantly drawing his sword to slay. Alas, before his feet was not the cunning, bloodthirsty wolf, but a tramp. A woman, dressed in rags and torn fabrics, stared her mad stare into his eyes and Breber recognized her. She was once the mother of a beautiful baby boy, before the wolf had taken it deep in the snow-dressed woods, never to be seen again. The poor woman, recently widowed and having none other than her infant son for condolence, had gone mad and roamed the streets of Magdeburg day and night. The warnings of the patrolling men were all in vain and everyone expected that some day -or most probably, night- soon, the woman would be one of the next to disappear.

"Well" thought Breber, "this is certainly not the night."

He helped the poor woman up, apologized to her and explained that he had thought her for the wolf. He made no mention to their unfortunate collision, for even if he had never known about the poor woman's state, anyone would have guessed from the twitching of her face and the nervous movements her head made when she constantly turned to all directions, ever worried that some danger lurked.

Breber turned around and was about to move along, when the mad woman seized his cape and drew his surprised face near hers. After a moment of silent insanity, the madness left her gaze and fell right on her lips -and her lips whispered to Breber

"The night has teeth. The night has claws."

She gurgled an insane giggle and nervously nodded.

"And I have found them."

IV.

Breber barely had time to decide what he should do, before he lost the woman who resumed springing down the street and took a sharp turn in an alley. He darted behind her, resolved to follow her wherever she might lead him -a futile end or an unexpected truth. After all, she had indeed all the chances in the world to sight the wolf -or at least equal chances with the patrol groups.

Breber caught glimpse of the woman as she jumped down a derelict fence -Breber run towards that direction, jumped through the rotten woods, arms folded before his face, breaking the planks to pieces. The woman had already left the town perimeter and was heading for the woods. Breber did not hesitate. Blood steaming in his temples, he ran after her. In an instant, he had entered the woods and was at the foot of the black Herz mountains -the nest of all beasts that feed on life.

He heard noises of branches breaking, of leaves shuffling, of muffled sobs and maniac giggling -he could not see the woman but he could hear her and those miserable sounds he followed easily, for the forest was silent as if all life had deserted it in horror.

But Breber knew that there were at least three lives in the woods that moment -and at least one of those had to end. With the corner of his eye, Breber saw the woman rushing deeper in the woods, and this time the woman was screaming -incoherently, yes, but it seemed like her screams were directed to someone, someone present besides himself. Breber run before her, the woman spotted him, stopped dead in her tracks and turned to look at him. Breber took a step back when he saw her eyes, all gleaming with insanity and at that instant of hesitation, the woman darted again deeper in the darkness between the trees. Moments later, Breber heard her screaming again, yet in a way that seemed no madness could ever impose on any living thing: those were screams of pain.

Breber rushed forward and towards what seemed to be the edge of a small clearing. Tripping on roots and scathing skin on branches, Breber ran struggling, finally reaching the edge of the clearing.

And it was then, that time seemed to slow down over the woods, the mountains, the town and the whole God-made world. In the midst of the small clearing, lay the maddened woman. Her head was torn from her body, her arms and legs thrown away, drawing a crimson signature of Death upon the white snow, her torso mutilated, chest opened, bones ripped apart, entrails melting the snowflakes falling upon them.

And on the other end of the clearing, Breber saw a humongous wolf, standing, as it seemed, on his hind legs, crouching over the leftovers of what was once a woman and in his fore legs he was holding -holding!- a small, bloody bundle, no doubt another infant, torn from the cradle.

Breber felt his hand drawing the sword, very slowly, saw the beast part his jaws and growl in menace. As if in water, beast and man slowly danced their way towards each other, a clawed paw -or was it a hand?- rising and falling towards Breber's head, a flash of silver and a shower of blood, the paw falling away, a cry that made Breber's lungs burn bitter, two hands clutching the hilt of a sword and then the heart, the heart of the beast, sword deeper, blood thicker, time slower -and again, Breber pulled his sword and again he thrust it forward, again and again and many times, until he saw -without stopping the thrusts- that before him lay no more a wolf, but his wife, with countless stabs upon her body, and Breber screamed, half in pain and half in rapture, and swiped his sword one final time through the pale neck of his dead wife, severing the head from her body, just before he fell unconscious on the snow.

V.

A few minutes later, the light of reason returned in Breber's head and he awoke. A broken man, he rose, opened the bloody bundle and saw in his surprise that the infant had not been killed by the beast. He covered it in his cape to keep it warm and started his descent towards the town.

There was much speculation about the causes of transformation of Breber's wife. Some still say that she had drank water from an enchanted mountain spring while on a hunting trip with her husband and some friends -others say that she was bit by a wolf in the full moon. Whatever the case, her body was burned and the remains buried deep under the ground. The abductions stopped and it did not take Breber, now a hero, a long time to find himself another wife.

The patrols lifted and the homes sighed with relief. But the pyres did not dim and the twilight was still regarded with anxiety -for even if almost over, in that part of Prussia, the month of January was known as der Wolfmonat: the month of the wolf.

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