Brigette earned an M.F.A. in creative writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her short fiction has also appeared in Calliope and Hidden City Quarterly. She just finished a magical young adult novel inspired by her creative writing high school students, whom she somehow (magically?) convinces to let go of how much they hate writing and just make stuff up. When she isn't grading short stories, she is biking, hiking or otherwise treking about the Sierra Nevada mountains with her husband, two kids, and one super photogenic dog.

Stray

Brigette Pugh

inspired by Marie de France

They were the perfect couple. Everyone said so. Marie, quiet and thoughtful, a balance for Charlie’s charismatic affability. They began dating in high school and it was generally expected that they would finish their university studies and marry soon after. More a question of when, not if, and their union was only one of many expectations for Marie. She was from a talented family and sure to be as successful as the women who came before her—composers, musicians, artists and actors—such a long line of creative achievement. Those who put faith in the fantastic spun tales around an enchanted family heirloom, a moonstone amulet that had been passed down through generations too many to count, and even those who didn’t believe in fairytale things thought the family charmed.

Marie avoided talking about her family when possible, avoided talking altogether when possible. Her reluctance did not stop others from comparing the magical stories she wrote to the work of an ancestor known to scholars as one of the first women to write down the stories that had once only been spoken. An interesting heritage, certainly, but for a few, Marie’s imagination was proof of the amulet’s power.

On one point everyone could agree: a young man as lively and captivating as Charlie could only benefit shy Marie, whose talent no one could deny, even if she was a bit too reserved for her own good. The young lovers had no reason to argue with the future expected of them, it was their intention to marry whether others wished it or not, but on one issue the couple could not find resolution. One night a month, Marie left the apartment they shared near campus only to return in the morning looking exhausted and disheveled, sometimes with a fresh scratch or bruise.

She refused to explain the absence and became agitated whenever Charlie pressed for her defense. That her time away was spent innocent of the suspicions he held was all she would say. He wanted to trust her and for a time was successful in forgiving this one failing but, as is often the case when seeds of doubt thrive, his concern found the fertile ground of a sympathetic ear.

An acquaintance of the couple, a young woman Marie knew from writing class, happened to be at the corner bar one night when Charlie found himself alone and wishing he was not. After a few drinks, Charlie forgot Marie’s private inclinations, for they were not his own. Openness and candor were his natural qualities and soon the woman was offering consolation for the cruel position that had been forced upon him. Surely any feeling person would have his same concerns. His toleration was a sign of character that should be admired, not tested. If, indeed, what happened during her absences was innocent, she was withholding just to test his temperance. Charlie protested, of course, insisting that Marie wouldn’t pretend just to put him on trial. But then does it follow that she is not pretending, she asked, frowning to cover the satisfaction in her voice.

Charlie had no reason to think the lady’s comments anything but sincere. Marie was not one to spread an ill will; even though she knew the classmate to be jealous of the stories she had published, Marie had always been friendly when she and Charlie met her outside of class. It was under this guise of friendship that her influence was able to take root in Charlie’s thoughts as he paced away the last dark hours of morning, awaiting Marie’s return.

The sky began to purple in the east, contrasting the dark silhouette of bare trees before she returned shivering and carrying with her the damp smell of fog and loam. He was determined to confront her and demand she satisfy his uncertainty, but her condition always alarmed him. He found it impossible to interrogate her until she had showered and changed into a clean t-shirt and sweats. He knew she would be lost to sleep if he waited any longer so finally he posed the term he had settled on: he could not possibly marry someone who did not offer transparency.

Marie grew even more silent than usual, which unnerved him, but he refused to retract the ultimatum. They sat in uncomfortable quiet while she toyed with the amulet around her neck, a red line forming where the chain rubbed her skin. When she finally spoke again it was with a hesitancy and regret so thick that he would have saved her if he had not been in such anguish himself.

She related her unbelievable tale with ironic simplicity: once a month she gave herself to the night, to a world of creatures and nature by becoming beast herself, a wolf hunting prey deep in the wood until the sun came up and she returned to him. At first Charlie could only guess that she was finding an excuse from one of her stories, but her manner was so distraught at the telling he finally had to admit that she was not misleading him. She truly believed in the transformation she described. He begged to know by what trick of magic she took the form of beast. This she would not offer, feeling already too exposed. She said only that the curse was partner to her family’s success, each generation required to bow to tradition so that the next would flourish. Charlie sensed her fatigue and stored his questions for another time as she fell into restless unconsciousness but when she awoke Marie refused the topic and would be drawn to it again.

Another month passed in this way and, though he was now free from the pain of his original suspicion, knowledge did not offer relief. That the woman he loved was capable of taking the shape of an animal, of tearing the flesh from her prey, brought suffering sharper than any Charlie experienced while ignorant. Seeking to treat his forced, monthly isolation with company, he returned to the bar where Marie’s classmate found she had to work a little harder for his confidence, but she had suspicions of her own and was resolute in her offer to unburden him. Eventually, Charlie gave over the story, not expecting the girl to believe him and half hoping to be convinced he’d been mad to accept the tale as anything other than fiction. However, the woman not only thought the tale to be true, but admitted she had long suspected Marie to be involved with the occult. Charlie’s dread was fully realized at her obvious appetite for finding out all that he knew, which was not nearly enough to please her. She convinced him that it was folly not to find out all he could if he had any hope of a future with Marie. Her entreaty spoke to a dark fascination he was loath to admit. They settled upon a plan to witness the miracle with their own eyes.

Charlie almost immediately regretted the design but felt powerless to stop its progression, knowing that in no other way would he resolve his horror. He also knew with certainty that the woman would see the scheme through with or without his participation and that his presence might be a necessary protection against any potential danger to Marie. Though he fought revulsion, he still loved Marie and did not fully trust the woman’s intentions. Despite reservations, he and the woman followed Marie to the edge of the woods and watched in amazement as she undressed under the cover of a bare branch canopy. Her clothes she tucked behind a rock and covered with fallen leaves, the amulet she strung open over the fork of a low branch. Once fully bare, she turned and walked into the forest and before her foot fell to the ground a second time she was wolf, grey, white and brown, blending into the landscape within seconds.

The concealed couple stood in awe and shock, neither knowing how to rationally discuss what they had witnessed. Charlie was eager to leave, wanting only to be at home waiting for Marie’s return. He had expected aversion and found instead more admiration than he could account for. His passion swelled so far beyond his former esteem that he could hardly call the old emotion love. The woman seemed not to notice him at all anymore and would not be persuaded to leave the wood until morning when Marie returned and she could see by what trick she would turn back. So they waited. Charlie grew worried that the girl would reveal their position, but she was content to watch quietly when, in the dim predawn hour, the wolf-Marie stepped into the clearing, slipped her muzzle through the chain of the necklace. As the amulet fell toward the fur of her breast, Marie had again taken her human form. Only then did the girl stand quietly and walk back toward town, Charlie following behind her.

In the weeks that passed, Marie was overwhelmed with relief that Charlie finally seemed able to put the knowledge of her secret behind them, and they began making plans for a summer wedding. Charlie fought against confessing his betrayal, wishing he could admit the depth of his wonder for all that she was, but knowing the truth would certainly ruin her love for him. As she prepared to leave him the next month, he worried only that she should no longer feel anxious on his behalf. They parted without conflict and that night, released from his old torment, Charlie fell asleep early wanting only to wake and see Marie again. But instead of her usual appearance at dawn, he awoke to the full morning sun burning through the window.

He ran to the woods, fearing the worst. She stood on the edge of the clearing, a shaft of sunlight warming the grey tones in her coat. When she saw him, her yellow eyes turned to slits and her muzzle pulled up to show a set of fangs. By finding her here he had given himself away. She turned and was gone before he could get up the courage to approach her. The amulet was gone, of course, as were her clothes.

He went looking for the woman but didn’t know where to start. When he finally managed to track down her address, she hadn’t been seen for days. Weeks passed, Charlie avoided friends and family, hoping that the situation could be resolved without revealing his connection to the thief. He often went back to the clearing, even left another of Marie’s necklaces on the branch and a change of clothes, but nothing disturbed his offering. The amulet was the only hope of bringing back his love, so he set out to find the woman and recover what had been stolen.

While Charlie searched, Marie retreated deep into the forest. After an initial descent into wildness, following her predatory instincts, she reclaimed her senses and began to hunt the old woman of the woods. She had heard stories about her as a child. A friend to those the world shunned, but she took no payment and could be persuaded only by virtue. She might help, she might not. She might be real, she might be fairytale. Marie’s own family was powerless without the amulet, and she knew of no one else who could help. The best way to search for a house that appeared in a new location every day was to wander, so Marie wandered. The woods boasted no animals to challenge a wolf, but Marie took care to avoid the pack of feral stray dogs she’d seen on her monthly visits to the forest. They would only draw unwanted attention. The days passed with no ceremony save hunger and hunting. Perhaps she’d been roaming for weeks, or maybe it had been months, with no trace of the mythical house. Then one afternoon she found both what she’d been avoiding and seeking.

She heard the pack before she saw them. Usually she moved away from the eruption of yelps and snarls but found herself trapped on a ledge above the dogs as they backed into a ravine, pursued by a group of boys. The sheer wall to her back afforded no retreat and to do nothing meant watching each mongrel stoned to death, so she raised her hackles and caught the boys’ attention with a growl. Their surprise was quickly replaced by fear, which she worried would only fuel their cruelty. She’d never attacked a human and wasn’t sure she could, but the boys did not force her to prove the advantage. Their leader called the group back and when Marie was sure they were gone she turned to leave as well. The pack sniffed one another and licked a wound or two before gathering as a group to follow behind Marie. No matter how many times she turned to snarl and growl they would not leave off. So it was with an entourage that she stumbled up on the small stone cottage at dusk. The windows glowed yellow, a ribbon of smoke rose from the chimney and the smell of a meal cooking drew the pack’s attention away from Marie’s lead and they broke formation to surround the house.

The front door opened revealing a stooped figure shrouded in black. A feeble voice called to the forest asking who was about, looking directly at Marie who hid in the shadows beyond the clearing. Before Marie could show herself, the pack tightened their trap emitting a collective guttural, rumble. The woman raised her walking stick in a feeble gesture of defense and Marie charged to her side to provide a better shield. The pack stopped short. Marie braced for the blow she expected from the woman’s stick, but she did not move until the dogs began to trail away into the woods. The woman met Marie’s eyes, nodded and as if she’d been waiting, invited her rescuer in for reward. Marie hesitated then caught again the scent of dinner and gave in to satisfying her hunger without the effort of pursuit.

The cottage was close and warmer than Marie had been used to. One entire wall covered with books and another with bottles of every size and shape. While Marie ate her fill of raw fish the woman muttered to herself and occasionally posed a question for the wolf, not pausing or expecting an answer and in this manner the strange pair lived for a few days until their routine was disrupted by unannounced visitors.

Until a young couple came upon the old woman in the yard while Marie was out prowling for her supper. Charlie had found his thief in the next town over, frustrated by failed attempts to use the amulet as Marie had, to write stories the world needed to hear. He feigned sympathy, convinced her that the woman of the woods from Marie’s stories were real and offered to help track her down. All the while hoping to use the search to steal back the necklace and run.

By the time Marie returned from her hunt with a full belly, the woman of the woods had agreed to examine the amulet that its owner claimed broken. All three were all gathered around the hearth and upon Marie’s arrival, the young couple naturally started to see a wolf walk through the front door. Before the woman could offer reassurance, Marie attacked, launching at Charlie, who didn’t even put up his arms for protection. She would have done more than bite into his shoulder and drag her claws through the flesh of his cheek, but she saw her ex-classmate run out the door with the amulet. She let out a howl and charged after her, determined to take her down, but the pack got to her first. The amulet flew from her hand as the dogs moved in, Marie picked up the moonstone with her teeth and carried it to the old woman who had been attending Charlie’s wounds. Marie dropped the necklace at the old woman’s feet and without hesitating the woman circled the chain around the wolf’s neck. Marie stood again on two feet and accepted the robe the old woman held out for her. The cries in the distance were eventually silenced by the satisfaction of the pack until the only sound that remained was the crackle of the fire.

Charlie eventually recovered from his wounds, but the scars left behind twisted his face into a grimace and he never again commanded the attention of a room, at least not in a favorable way. Marie, of course, was never one to talk and without Charlie to distract her she had more time than ever to write. Many still think her stories fantastic, but a few consider them truth.