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Saint Natalis of the Wolves

Emory Noakes is a queer speculative writer born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. Their poetry has appeared at Strange Horizons and this is their first short fiction publication. When they aren't writing, they enjoy baking, playing video games, and learning how to skateboard. You can find them online at emorynoakes.com and @EmoryNoakes.

When the wolves roll into town, I'm sitting in Saturday catechism listening to Father Bradley explain how sex is like Scotch tape--when thoughtlessly pressed onto too many flannel shirts, it won't stick anymore when it counts. But I've heard this talk before. The sudden roll and pop of skateboards in the church parking lot is more exciting.
I steal a look towards the windows, watch as they weave between parked cars. There's something about the way they whoop and howl for each other that fills me with longing.
One catches me staring, and there is a flash of animal recognition. I look away, but Father Bradley catches me.
He rips the tape from my shirt and throws open a window, letting in a burst of autumn air.
"No skateboarding in the parking lot, ladies," he shouts down.
"We're not ladies," one barks back. "We're wolves."
They're not really wolves--Father Bradley knows that, the class knows that, I know that. But there's something about their lupine gate, slouching and snarling across the blacktop, that makes me question everything.
This isn't a story about transformation. Not really.
I'm waiting on the steps after class for my parents, beneath the statue of St. Natalis. He's one of those weird lesser saints, canonized for turning heathens into werewolves. Some kids kicked his hands off last semester. Now he reaches his marble stubs towards the sky, casting shadows on my face.
The wolves skate up to the steps and squint at me through the cold sunlight. I pretend not to notice them, but they don't leave.
"We'll be at the park tonight," one says, tossing long box braids over their shoulder. "If you're free."
"Doing what?" I ask.
They exchange looks.
"Wolf things," the one with the buzzcut growls.
I squirm beneath their stares. There's something about the way they look at me, like they know something I don't. "Metaphorically?" I ask.
"Sure," they laugh.
I don't know what to make of that.
I'm not the kind of kid who sneaks out at night. God is watching, after all.
But the thing about wolves is, they're not going to ask you a second time. They won't hunt you out of kindness. You have to go to them.
They're loping across the soccer field when I arrive, tackling each other to the grass. I crunch across the wood chips and watch from the tire swing. The streetlamps are out and it's just the moon, round and full, hanging in the sky.
When the wind shifts, they see me.
"We won't bite," the one with the pink hair shouts. Everyone laughs, like it's the funniest thing in the world.
I wonder now if I should leave. Go home and slip back under the covers, put this all to rest. But there's something about the way the moon shines on their bodies--flashes of fangs, whispers of fur, shadows of a great beast lurking beneath their nail beds.
I make myself walk to them, ignoring the voice that tells me to run.
We're sitting together on the mowed grass when they pass me a cigarette--except I realize, too late, it's not actually a cigarette. It makes me feel the way incense does at church. Warm, heady, and light. Like something greater than me is watching me.
The moon is big tonight, bigger than I've ever seen. In its light, I see a rabbit at the edge of the woods that line the park.
"Go on," they nudge me. "Catch the rabbit."
"Catch it?" I ask.
"Yeah," they say. "Show us what you got."
They urge me on until I'm standing. I'm still for a moment, questioning everything. But someone reaches out and gives me one final push, and then I'm running faster than I ever thought I could. Bounding across the field, I pounce--
I catch the rabbit.
Its heart thumps against my palms beneath its soft brown fur. Startled, my hands flutter open. The rabbit darts into the underbrush.
I feel them watching me as I return to the circle, empty-handed. The pop of a family-size bag of Hot Cheetos breaks the silence.
"Don't worry," one says, placing a Cheeto on my tongue, fingers warm in my mouth. "There are other ways to be a wolf."
The puffed corn melts and my eyes sting from the heat. I lean back and stare up at the moon. "Are you really wolves?" I ask.
Their eyes flash yellow in the dark. "Are you really human?"
"Well--" I start to say, but the sentence hangs, answerless. For the first time I notice something whining inside me, scratching beneath my skin.
"That pause, that empty space," one says, licking red dust from their fingers. "That's what we are. Got it?"
They hold the bag out to me. I reach my hand deep inside and grab a fistful of Cheetos.
I don't understand them, not yet. But I think I like it here.
In the morning, my parents drop me off at church. Instead of class today, we have Confession.
Before going into church, I dip my fingers in holy water and touch it to my forehead. Too late, I notice the red staining my fingertips. I steal a look in the mirrored shelf that holds the reliquaries. Among the brass crosses and saints' bones, I see the bloody splotch on my forehead. I rub at it with my sleeve, but the red stays. Goddamn Cheetos.
I stand apart from my classmates in line for the confessional. I used to cry before confession, convinced that God would come down and smite me. I don't think that anymore. But today, I feel that familiar itch behind my eyes.
When it's my turn, I don't sit across from Father Bradley, but kneel behind the screen.
"Forgive me Father, for I have sinned," I say, then rattle off my offenses: I was selfish, I was jealous, I was lazy, I was spiteful.
I don't tell Father Bradley about the wolves, but I think he must know. He stares at me through the screen, like he's waiting for more. "Is that all?"
"Of course," I lie.
"You're a young lady now," he coughs. "You have to be careful with the choices you make."
"Yes, Father," I say. But inside, I feel something stirring.
For penance, Father Bradley gives me ten Our Fathers and twenty Hail Marys, the most I've ever gotten. I kneel on the marble steps to the altar and mutter off prayers until I've lost count. I try to focus on the words, but my mind keeps slipping to Father Bradley. I don't think I've ever hated someone so much.
My classmates finish, one by one, and go down to the church basement for donuts and hot chocolate. I'm the only one left. I look down at my hands, still clasped together, though I've stopped praying. The red still stains my fingers.
I think about last night--the mind-blurring smoke, the feverish running, the raw joy of belonging. I hear the roll and pop of skateboards but, too late, I realize it's coming from my very bones. Something inside me is changing. There's a pulling and stretching that I'm only just beginning to understand.
The door creaks as Father Bradley leaves the confessional. When he sees what I've become, he screams. I scream back, a rattling howl.
He fumbles in his robes for his cell phone, but I'm faster than I remember. Bounding across the marble floor, I reach out and grab his robes in fistfulls. This time, I expect the thumping of his heartbeat in my hands.
His phone drops to the floor with an echoing crack.
This story isn't about transformation, you see. It is, but it isn't.
Outside the church, the sky is the softest blue. I see now that the moon remains, a faded thumbprint behind the clouds.
The statue of St. Natalis waits for me, white and handless. I curl up beneath him until my breathing slows. I reach out to touch the cool marble--too late, I see my touch has stained him red.
Then the wind changes, and I cry out at the scent it carries.
There are the wolves--my wolves--skating towards me across the parking lot, whooping and howling at the sight of me. They descend upon me, clamber to embrace me, place warm, wet kisses on my cheeks.
"Let's go do wolf things," I say, voice scratchy in my throat.
"Metaphorically?" they ask.
"Sure," I laugh.
And that's the thing about wolves. They'll wipe the blood from your hands like its Cheeto dust. They will love you before you even love yourself.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 17th, 2021
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