My father is sleeping now. His fever has finally broken. I have kept him cool, but he moans almost constantly. It won't be long now before he wakes again.
In the small town of Schwarzburg, the cobbled streets were barren. There was no life to observe, except for a small gaggle of women in black entering the front doors of the large church at the end of the main road.
Inside, my father was speaking, standing at the pulpit, a closed casket in front of him.
"- must learn that in death, we come to appreciate life. Mikhail was a noble man, a father, a husband," my father said, as he gestured respectfully at the dead man's weeping family. "He was all of these things, and a godly man as well. He will be greatly missed. But he, like all of us, was only human. We are not anything more; we cannot pretend to be. And we must live our lives with this on our minds - ashes to ashes, dust to dust."
My father did not smile often, but now he gave a very small, but very meaningful, smile to his audience. Amidst their tears they smiled in return, grateful for his leadership during this great time of mourning.
As the procession departed for the cemetery, my father lingered behind, and I with him. I patted him lightly on the shoulder. "It was well done, father."
My father just looked on the procession with a sad curiosity.
That night, as the moon rose into the sky, the wispy smoke of a small bonfire began to drift across the shepherd's fields to the west of town. I sat in our kitchen, peeling potatoes for stew. Out our window I could see some of the other shepherds making their way out of town. My father, not just a preacher, was not among them. Then I heard him coughing in his bedroom.
I went to the door and listened to him gag violently, a putrid stench emanating from the room. Bravely I ventured inside. "Father?"
My father hid his face from me, ashamed of his weakness. He had been ill as long as I could remember - perhaps before I was born - and was prone to spells. Tonight was no exception.
"Father," I said, "let me go out into the fields in your place." I had never done so before. Once I had gone with him, a few years ago, but the sounds of the night had scared me so greatly that my father had sent me home. I had not been invited back.
But now my father merely shook his head, understanding in his incurable state what must be done eventually. It was about time I took responsibility for this family. He waved me off, in the direction of his rifle. I marched off to guard the family's sheep - to become the man I was destined to be.
By ten o'clock, the bonfire outside the village had grown to dexterous heights, flames licking eight, ten feet into the air. I sat alongside many of of my friends from the village, friends who had taken over as the family shepherd years before. Sometimes they teased me at school or in the playing fields, but it was all in lightness, and I was much more cruel to myself than they ever were to me. Now as I sat among them, they acknowledged in me a greater courage than their own, for I was facing my fear headstrong.
It was not an idle fear.
Mikhail had sat at this very bonfire the night before. When it died, every shepherd left to tend to his own herd, scattering across the lands. The nights were always tense, a hint of danger always lingering in the air, but they were, for the most part, uneventful. Yet last night Mikhail's sheep had been attacked by a creature from the woods. Mikhail had tried to defend them, firing an errant shot - and the creature had turned on Mikhail. It had chased him far off into the woods. He had ran until he had no more strength, and then it had punced upon him, tearing at his flesh. It had literally ripped him to pieces.
Now, by the light of the full moon, and the roaring crackle of the blazing fire, stories began to be told, stories I had yet to have heard. Old Meister Grimm told a particularly chilling tale:
"Legend has it that when Cain killed Abel, and was punished by God, he was given a mark. Some people think this mark was not a visible one, but one from within. One that would only show itself at the darkest hour of night.
"It would transform into one of the beasts, removing his humanity from him, his conscience and knowledge of sin. And then, as the beast, he would gain a lust for blood, lose his faculties, and kill. And when he returned to his human form at the break of day, he would know what he had done, and he would weep for his crimes."
No one in the group laughed or smirked at this tale. They all sat with stern faces, listening intently to the story.
"Since the time of Cain, his mark has spread to others - but it has also weakened. Now it only comes alive within someone during the full moon." Twenty heads turned and stared at the unblinking white sphere in the sky. "The womenfolk, they think poor Mikhail was killed by a pack of wolves. But it was not - it was a werewolf."
I gulped, contemplating Mikhail's last moments on earth, chased by a man who was not a man, whose only desire was to kill.
By the time everyone had finished their stories, the fire had died out almost completely. We went our separate ways, our group slowly dwindling as each went to his flock, until finally I was alone, standing in our field, weapon in hand, awaiting any signal of unrest.
A lone wolf howl echoed through the mountainside.
I sat gazing into the darkness of the woods near the edge of town. There were only a few areas of grass between our plot and the wald. I contemplated how many trees were out there, how many evil shadows could hide in the cover, waiting for someone to wane their vigilance, so that they might feast upon the lambs.
In my imagination, I saw something emerge, a huge beast, making its way at a gallop towards the sleeping flocks. It moved silently, coming closer and closer, until suddenly I realized this was no daydream. It was now plainly in view, much larger than a wolf, its long snout protruding garishly, gnashing teeth glinting in the moonlight.
I had not believed the story, not really, until now. Now this half-man, half-creature was racing towards me. Its bright eyes and thick coat of fur did not reveal the person inside - the mark of Cain was weakened, but it was still very strong. With trembling heart I rose up and took aim with my rifle. It was not but a hundred feet away and closing fast. It was only a matter of seconds before it would be upon me, devouring me in its endless rage.
I fired, and the beast collapsed in a graceless tumble, rolling to a stop at the foot of the hill I stood atop of.
Then it was up again - only this time moving away from me. I must've hit it, but only weakly, for its speed was not diminished. Others now rushed over to see why I had fired my gun. I told them I had shot at a wolf, and had hit it. They all slapped me on the back, congratulated me on my fine skill with the rifle, and returned to their flock. My friend Balder lingered a little while longer, and it was then that I sheepishly confessed that I had only brought enough powder for one shot in my haste to join the others. He laughed, and promised to watch my flock while I ran home. What pride would be in store for me!
As I walked in the door in the heart of darkness, I could sense another person awake about the house. I made my way over to a small box where my father kept his gunpowder and bullets. As I retrieved my fill, I heard my father moan. His fever had worsened, for this moan was one of deepfelt anguish and agony. I went to comfort him, secretly hoping to tell him of my adventure. As I walked in the room, my thoughts of adventure vanished. My father lay on the bed, clutching at his left leg, which bled profusely. "Father, what happened?" I cried, rushing to his side. He moaned again, and I quickly snatched up a nearby blanket to dress the wound. I moved his hands aside -
Buckshot. Embedded up and down his calf.
I quickly took a step back. Blood oozed from the tiny wounds, staining his sheets. At first, I did not understand. It simply did not occur to me. How could it? My own father. But then -
"It was you," I said quietly.
My father moaned again, clutched at his leg again. I stepped back once more, and looked at this man, my father, who only hours earlier had not been my father. So this was his illness, what had plagued him his whole life. The mark of Cain. I began to weep bitter tears. And as I wept, I began to dress his wounds. He wailed quietly as I pulled the knots tighter to stop the bleeding, a plaintive yelping sob. His eyes remained closed; his fever remained.
Finally he drifted off to sleep. I sat in a small chair in the corner, watching his sickness, knowing what I should do.
My father is sleeping now. His fever broke last night. I have kept him cool, but he moans almost constantly. It won't be long now before he wakes again. I cannot bring myself to do it, though it is the right thing to do. I will sit here until he wakes, and we will share his secret forever. And I know there will be more Mikhails. But I must accept this, as I have accepted my father's condition.
After all, I am only human.