Her child was a savage child, and when he was grown, they had to migrate with the seasons to keep his savagery in check, the birds passing south in the sky as they went north. The cold, it seemed, could dull his instincts, mitigate the bloodlust, but too much and his core temperature dropped. He’d burrow beneath the ground and hibernate to keep warm. In his youth, it had been animals first and only animals. Yet, after he’d developed this taste—a taste beyond the droplets she used to provide from her own pricked skin to quell his hunger cries—she’d had to bar the door and lock him in at night. It was all she could do to keep him from hunting, and it got so she’d sleep in the day and wake at dusk to ensure he didn’t get out.
He’d begun by picking off several cattle from a rancher’s field before people caught on that it wasn’t a wolf, and even then, since the violence had an element of premeditation unrecognized in the region’s indigenous wildlife, the townsfolk were quick to fall back on superstition, citing some sinister creature in the hills or witchcraft to explain what they couldn’t account for naturally.
Not that the child was natural. No, he was strange as could be, and he was kept hidden away, his parents’ secret, what those who noticed might call an idiot child if they cared enough to call him anything. No one would think he’d done it. No one would think he could take down a heifer three times his size. Not like that.
Even his parents weren’t certain—at least, not at first—for the boy had bathed in a pond to wash the bovine bits away. Yet, one morning, they found him catatonic on the floor, blood congealed on his lips, half-in, half-out of the ditch he’d dug beneath their walls, his spine curled semicircle like a snake that the plow had pushed under. No one had seen him at the kill—not the man closest the herd nor his father, who’d spotted him stealing away in the aftermath—and the speed with which the boy moved suggested he may have been too quick for the guards to catch if they had. Still, his parents had discovered his secret, and his mother worked to conceal it, devising ways to keep the boy in check.
As an infant, the boy had been underdeveloped and had refused to feed from his mother’s breast. She wasn’t a woman built for bearing children—her hips too narrow, frame too slight—and the boy’s birth, two months premature, had ripped her open, stretching the bones, rending her flesh. She’d hemorrhaged badly, and only a skilled midwife, wielding a cotton cloth drenched with whiskey and a needle and thread, had been able to stanch the flow and save her life. As it happened, the woman had passed in and out of consciousness, fretting at the child’s silence, his stillborn presence on the bed beside her of more concern than her own welfare. He’s dead, she thought. Here I’ve struggled to push him from my womb, and he’s dead. But neither she nor the boy had died that night, and when she woke, the midwife placed the child in her arms, silent and still and unwilling to take the food she offered.
He had come into this world without a sound, and his movements, the day being a cold one in December, were limited, though they hadn’t yet discovered this peculiar correlation between the weather and his physiology. Over the next few weeks, the boy’s father had taken care of him while the mother recovered, and since the boy’s natural source of sustenance wasn’t available, the father fed him cow’s milk or meat that he’d gnashed into a paste and pushed onto the boy’s tongue like a baby bird. Still, the boy refused most of these offerings. He took just enough to thrive, and when the mother’s strength returned, she didn’t fare much better.
“What should we name him?” the father asked, as she struggled to suckle the boy, his tiny hands pushing at her breasts.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Before his birth, she’d considered a handful of names, but none seemed to fit. She’d assumed that given time, he’d exhibit characteristics by which he’d name himself. Yet, the Bible, from which her parents had named her, had no precedent for such a boy. Most often, during that winter, the child was docile, and she’d considered calling him Isaac, the sacrificial lamb, the boy who’d let his father bind him and offer his life on Mount Moriah. And yet, on discovering how he fed, she found the boy more closely resembled the biblical forebear who’d slain his brother and started to think of him as Cain.
One evening, while darning her husband’s socks, she had pricked a finger. The boy, whom she’d held in the nook of her arm, had been fidgeting, and as she turned to put the needle down, he grabbed her hand and submersed the digit in his mouth. His toothless gums wrapped tight about her knuckle, suckling, and the woman was so surprised that she released the socks and clutched him closely, swaying back and forth while the boy nuzzled against her chest and fed the way children were intended to do.
Still, she didn’t name him, and though Cain crossed her mind whenever she thought of him, she and her husband simply called him the boy. Her husband had pressed the issue early on, but she told him she hadn’t made up her mind, and he figured they’d come up with something at some point. He wasn’t one to insist, and with just the three of them, he saw no need to rush.
Was he evil? the mother wondered.
This taste for blood was unusual. But she loved him and couldn’t judge. She had yearned for a child for so long and had had such trouble in bearing him that she kept his predilection secret. But whenever she wished to feel close to him, she’d slit a finger, trace the wound about her nipple, and mingle her blood with the milk.
Whenever he ate, he latched on with insatiable thirst, and the mother grew adept at obscuring his idiosyncrasies. She’d throw a blanket over her breasts in the name of modesty or explain that she’d cut herself in prepping their meals. At first, she used the same wound so her husband didn’t suspect, but then she’d started to cut higher up on her arms and legs in spots her clothing concealed. Once the spring arrived, it became simpler with her husband back at the ranch while she stayed with the boy and did the wash and mending and cooked their food and watched him grow.
By summer’s end, he’d learned to crawl and skittered across the ground, chasing rabbits and squirrels. By autumn, he was walking, which his parents marveled at, with his first birthday still three months off. His mother took pride in the act, but his father just said, “It’s odd the way he does it.” Most toddlers careened about, ready to topple over at any moment, yet the boy had an animal’s grace. He balanced on the balls of his feet, and this reminded the man of how his grandfather once said the Indians hunted. They’d stalk real slow through the woods and move without sound and steal up on a man without that man ever knowing they were there, and he couldn’t say why, but it all sent a shiver down his spine.
The boy was eight when he’d killed those cows, but he’d shown signs of this behavior earlier on. One day, when the boy was three, his mother discovered a dead cat by the side of their cabin and knew that the boy had killed it and left it there. It was a full-grown tabby, and while it wasn’t clear whether he’d fed from it, she worried his hunger had surpassed what she could offer. By then, his teeth had come in, and though he took his meals with them, she undercooked his meat and garnished his stews with droplets of blood from her wrists.
The boy still didn’t speak, though his father had tried teaching him. On many nights, he sat in front of the fire, bouncing the boy on his knee, saying, “Mama. Dada.” But the boy merely squirmed from his grip, retreating into a dark corner while the man stood and walked over and picked the boy up to try again. After weeks of failed attempts, he gave up and stood to the side as his wife readied the boy for bed.
“I’m not sure what it is,” he said. “But it ain’t right, the boy acting like that.”
“To each his own,” the mother said. “He’ll speak when he’s ready.”
And the father conceded. He was level-headed when it came to the boy. He didn’t push him too hard or get upset. The man had a gentle nature, which was one of the reasons she’d married him. Yet, she knew that in spite of his tolerance, he’d have to take action if he learned of the cat’s mutilation, and when she found its carcass, she went inside, grabbed a shovel, and buried it in the woods. She was certain he wouldn’t find it. Yet, she feared the boy would do it again, and she hoped to devise a way of explaining whatever else might turn up.
“Tabby got caught in one of your traps today,” she told him that night over supper.
Her husband tore off a hunk of bread and dipped it into his bowl.
“What you do?” he said.
The father had set these traps to catch small game.
“Had a terrible time getting it out. When I did the poor thing was pretty well torn up. I buried it in the woods.”
The boy sat before his bowl, fishing the meat out and thrusting it into his mouth. His eyes were resting on a fixed point, motionless but for the miniscule flickering as he registered moths near the candle. The father glanced his way, silent, yet the mother heard his mind at work: “It’s odd the way he does it.” The same thing he’d said the first time they’d seen their child walk.
“I’ll have to teach you to set ‘em,” he said. “We can’t have you losing an arm now, can we?” And this was the answer she’d positioned herself to get, an excuse for any other creatures she found.
The one thing that bothered her was figuring out how he’d done it. She kept him with her all the time and only stopped watching him to sleep, so it must have been then. She tried to sleep only when he did, but the idea that he was sneaking out at night to do these things filled her with dread. Although they lived three miles from town and a mile away from the nearest homestead, she feared that one of the neighbors might see him and discover what he was, and no matter how hard she tried to keep herself awake, she had to sleep at some point. She did her best to rein him in, keep him close at hand, but every few weeks, she found a new carcass—possum, raccoon, an occasional bird, but never a cat, never again. If the kill was fresh, she took it in and used the meat. Otherwise, she’d bury it, with the boy watching from the shadows of the trees.
Although he never spoke, she hadn’t stopped talking to him. She had no way of gauging whether her words had sunk in, but when she’d found the cat, she gripped him by the shoulders and shook her head. “No cats,” she’d said, holding the carcass at arm’s length and pointing to its limp body. “No cats.” And since there hadn’t been another, she harbored some hope she could teach him to differentiate between right and wrong.
Still, she hadn’t coached him on livestock. She didn’t think she had to. Five years had passed in much this same state. She’d find small game scattered about the cabin each morning, and sometimes she’d cook it and sometimes not. But when her husband came home one evening and told her that something had mauled one of the rancher’s Holsteins, she thought she should have mentioned livestock too. Then she thought, no, it couldn’t be. A cow wasn’t a cat. A cow was so much bigger. It couldn’t be the boy. It must have been something else. It must have been wolves.
The rancher had asked his cowhands to stay on and watch the field that night, and her husband had stopped home to eat before heading back.
“We didn’t find tracks,” he said. “So we can’t be sure it’s wolves, but I bet it’s wolves. What else could have done something like that?”
The mother listened. She was thinking of how she’d have to stay up and watch and make sure it wasn’t the boy. If it had been him, he wouldn’t attack by day. He seemed to know that the hunting was best by night. But now there were men with guns, waiting. They’d mistake him for a wolf and shoot him down, and she couldn’t bear that thought. She had some rope in the cabin, and she considered tying him up, but she knew that this would frighten him. Then too, she wasn’t convinced he’d done it. There had been evidence with the other kills—tufts of fur beneath his fingernails, a smear of dried blood on his shirt. His pants, made of dark wool, were dirty, and after her husband left, she pulled him close and examined them, but she didn’t find any blood. She checked his hands, yellow and sooty, but there weren’t any signs he’d harmed that cow.
“It’s just mischief,” she said. “You don’t mean no harm now, do you?”
She rubbed the corners of his lips and pushed them up, exposing his teeth. They were maybe a bit sharper than most, but not abnormal. They helped him hunt, she supposed. But oh, if only the boy could smile, she might have taken him out in public, left the house, exposed him to life. A child with no expression made others uncomfortable. They’d seen it in the doctor who’d examined him that first winter. He hadn’t wanted to treat the boy, and she supposed he’d only done it out of a sense of duty. The boy’s body temperature, he’d told them, was much lower than it should have been, and yet the boy wasn’t showing any signs of illness or hypothermia. Instead, he seemed to be in a state of hibernation, offset by the fire’s incremental warmth, and so she’d coddled and held him close to keep him from falling into that strange trance, to keep the doctor with his vague, suspicious glances from having to return.
Nothing happened that night. She sat with her son and read to him and put him to bed while the men waited on the rolling hills and gazed into the line of trees. They were looking for movement, anticipating the shot and glory they’d get for taking down a wolf. They were posted in groups of two at intervals near the pasture’s perimeter. They rarely spoke, and when they did, it was in hushed tones.
“Hear that?” one would say.
“It’s just the wind,” another replied.
They were alert, on edge. Many remembered the war they’d fought a few years back, stood sentry with guns slung across the shoulders like soldiers.
It was August, and though the days were warm, the nights had become cooler, and some threw blankets across their shoulders or wore jackets to ward off the chill. Nothing happened that night, but each subsequent night they returned, and by the third, the rancher had hired reinforcements. He was convinced it was wolves, and until a wolf had been killed, he’d have them guard his pasture. He’d put a call out in town that he needed fresh recruits. Not just cowpunchers but men skilled with a rifle, and when they came, there was drinking and talk. The father was there each evening, listening and sometimes joining in, and the week passed without incident.
Gradually, the newcomers settled in, and when nothing happened, their excitement died down. A few night’s inactivity had returned their conversation to the muted pitch of the first few evenings. But on the ninth night, the father heard screaming from a slope on the opposite hill. It began with one man calling for help. His voice rang out in a high reedy screech, and the men rushed toward him. This was it, they thought, the attack, and if they made it in time, they’d kill a wolf and save this man. But once they reached him, they saw he wasn’t in any danger. Rather, he cowered on the grass, turned away, a puddle of vomit at his feet. Within moments, the rest of the guards had arrived, and the father drew close to study what was left of the cow.
They’d all seen slaughtered animals. It was something one dealt every day working a ranch. But the brutality here seemed to indicate that whatever had killed this creature had enjoyed it. The heifer hadn’t merely been torn apart and eaten, but played with. The head had been ripped from its torso and propped as if facing them, accusatory. Its flesh spread in tendrils, draped against the earth, that in the moonlight looked ready to creep back and reattach themselves. The body was warm. Pockets of blood had pooled about its ears, steaming in the early morning air.
“There ain’t no tracks,” a man said. But this wasn’t entirely true. There were faint indentations in the dirt, hard to see, but they certainly didn’t belong to a wolf.
The father scanned the horizon, searching for signs of what had done this. The sky lit up to the east, the sun cresting the plane of the hills. In the distance, he noticed a form roving among the trees. It swung and leapt from one branch to the next. The father had always had keen vision. He noted the slope of shoulders, how the figure balanced on the balls of its feet. His brow furrowed with recognition, and by the time his son had disappeared into the leaves, the man was off and running for home.
As the man reached the woods, his chest was heaving, the wind pumping through his lungs, blood rushing. He could only hope he reached his wife before the boy. He’d left his shotgun lying on the ground next to that cow, but it was too late to turn back. He hurried through the trees, taking the shortest route. The trail was narrow, and he had to fend off the overgrowth, pushing branches away with his forearms, chopping through vines with his hands and feet. His boots slid along the concave incline of dirt, and he slowed and skidded periodically to make sure he didn’t trip on the rocks and roots.
This was his fault. He’d brought it on them, and he planned to handle it himself. I should have known, he thought. But how? The boy was strange, but strange didn’t always mean violent, strange didn’t always mean dangerous. Still, in spite of the damage he’d done that cow, the man wasn’t scared, not yet. Cows were docile, dumb, easy prey. The man was full-grown and he’d been to war. He’d fought on the battlefields there, and figured he could hold his own. Could be, he’d get home and see the boy in bed, sleeping peaceably. Could be, he’d been mistaken. Fooled by a glint of light, the angle. Could be, he’d seen a flock of birds, a spotted owl. He hoped he’d been wrong. But as he stormed through the door and his wife woke and reached for the boy on the bed beside her, he saw he was right. He plucked a knife from the table and crossed into the room.
“Where is he?” he said.
The mother sprang to her feet, glanced into the corners and up at the beams.
“Where is he? Is he here?”
As he strode toward her, she met him head-on, putting a fierce grip on his arms and pushing the knife down.
“You won’t touch that child!” she said.
His wife was a wisp of a woman, but her arms were wiry and strong, and since he’d never hurt her before and didn’t plan to now, he let her keep the knife low, waiting for a clear advantage. His heart was racing, pounding against his chest. He could hear blood surging in his ears. His face was flushed. Sweat dripped from his back, his legs. Her hands slipped against his wrists, but she held tight, feet grinding against the floor.
“You won’t touch that child!”
His muscles strained. The strength to fend her off was more taxing than he’d expected. And right as he planned to sidestep and thrust the knife away from them both, he heard a groan coming from behind the curtain that separated the boy’s bed from their own. His wife loosened her grip and turned toward the sound. As she did this, the knife slipped and hit her forearm and opened a gash that caused her to leap back. She covered the wound with her hand, dark blood seeping between her fingers. She pulled the curtain aside, wrapping her arm in its fabric, and revealed the boy, slumped in the burrow he’d dug, eyes closed, face stained with blood. As the father came forward, the mother grabbed him again, but he knocked her away. He raised the knife, ready to strike, but stopped mid-stride. The boy was small, weak and injured. He was the man’s flesh and blood, no matter what he’d done. And the man found he didn’t have it in him.
He dropped the knife and bent down and pulled the boy through, which wasn’t easy. The boy had worn a heavy woolen coat that was now sopping with water, and this gave the man pause. They’d never before had any indication that the boy could dress himself. But maybe his wife had done it, dressed him before he’d gone out. The boy’s hair was slicked back and glistened with crystalline chips that hadn’t yet melted in the cabin’s warmth. And as they pulled him inside, the man caught sight of something that filled him with fear, something his wife wouldn’t have done.
The boy’s feet were bound with two pieces of cloth, wound tight, the purpose of which could only be to mask his tracks from the men who pursued him. This meant that the boy, on some level, was aware of what he did, that he’d had the forethought to hide it. In a moment of weakness, the man had refrained from killing his son, yet he sensed he’d come to regret it. He’d fill the hole in later, figure out how to keep the boy from getting loose, but in the meantime, he sat, watching his wife tend the boy, watching, as she pulled the dressing from her arm, placed the slit above his mouth, and let him feed.
Photo Credit: “Boehner-misc-019” by Paul-W