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  • Jacque Stevens

Meet Howl's Mom (Between Dog and Wolf Chp. 2)

Belle ran. She ran from me. I could call, I could even try running after her again, but it wouldn’t help. She was a wolf, and she was faster than me. Better at hiding. She was gone again, and she would stay gone.

It might be days until I saw her again. It might be forever. I never knew.

I picked up the deer leg Belle left for me in the sheep pasture, but I didn’t want it. I never really wanted it. In the farmhouse, other meat from Belle and bread from one of the Dupuis girls was already on the table, but I hadn’t eaten much, and a few flies had moved in on the scraps. I added the deer leg to the pile and picked up one of Belle’s sheep from the dirt floor instead.

Or at least, it should have been Belle’s sheep. I really wanted her to have them, but when I first came to give them to her, an evil, monstrous wolf named Jean had been here instead. She had been all alone with him, but the village priest told me what he saw, and I saw for myself how it ended. Jean had trapped my wonderful, beautiful Belle inside the house and forced her to marry him. Then he bit and infected her with his curse after she found the courage to force him to change forms and expose himself. And even though it had been three long months since he disappeared, Belle never came out of the forest to live here with me and the sheep like I hoped.

And I didn’t know why.

I was a wolf once too. I was bitten by my father when I was very small. So small I couldn’t remember not being a wolf. Maybe it was harder to learn to change forms when you were older. But, after I bit him, Jean had mastered it in two months. Belle was smarter than Jean.

She could change. I knew she could, but if she still didn’t want to . . . I had no idea why she wouldn’t want to. I just had to keep hoping and hoping that someday she would.

After all this time, I shouldn’t have any hope left, but I still longed for her to be the girl she had been and love me as she once did.

And when she came to me today . . . it had to mean something.

Maybe not now, but someday, maybe things would change.

I sat on Belle’s couch, stroking Belle’s sheep, and staring at Belle’s empty fireplace, just wishing and wishing for things to change, until something did—a knock at the door.

My ears perked up as much as they could as a human. I wasn’t expecting anyone, but I liked visitors. I didn’t like to be alone. So, I put down the sheep and raced to open the door.

It was the priest and someone else.

My nostrils flared, but only in reflex. I hadn’t seen or smelled this wrinkled woman before. And I really didn’t smell that well as a human.

The bald priest shifted his dark robes to the side. “Howl, I have someone here for you to meet.”

“Henri?” The woman I didn’t know started sobbing. Then she ran up and grabbed me.

It could be a hug, but it felt too constricting and sudden to be safe. Humans who didn’t know each other, didn’t get that close that quickly, and something was wrong if they did.

Belle taught me that.

I looked at the priest. “Who is squeezing me? Is she going to hurt me?” Girls weren’t that strong, but they could be sneaky.

“No. Howl, this is your mother.”

I blinked and stared. “You found my mother?” How had he done that? I thought my human mother wanted to stay lost. Like Belle wanted to stay a wolf and never come home.

I stepped away, looking the crying woman over. Her tears had mussed her painted face, and everything else was shrouded in mystery. I couldn’t tell what kind of person she was under the extra lace flowing from her sleeves and the long gloves covering her arms. Her white hair was piled on her head like a honeycomb, and her dress puffed out so wide at the hips that I wondered if she got stuck in doorways sometimes.

The priest nodded. “I’ve been working with people in the capital, trying to help a few of the nobles escape the guillotine, and when I heard who she was—she said she wanted to see you. And she will need a place to stay here in the village until—”

“But she hates me.”

“Hates you?”

“Because of the curse.” I had learned more of the story from a journal my father left behind. I couldn’t read it, but Jean read it to me. And he had laughed while reading it because it wasn’t a nice story. My father had been the count of a lot of the surrounding villages before he became a wolf and the Beast of Gévaudan. He bit and spread his curse to me in an argument he had with my human mother, the countess. She left us both after that.

But I wasn’t a wolf anymore. So, did she love me now?

Did I want her to love me?

The priest was shaking his head. “Howl, why would you say that? I’m sure your mother doesn’t hate you.”

The woman kept her head down. She had been crying this whole time, so it took her longer to speak. “No, he’s right. When I left the count . . . I was scared. I wasn’t thinking. Later on, when I heard the count was killed, the castle burned, I just assumed . . .” Her voice faded to another breathy sob before she continued. “I thought you had burned too. Or that the count had already killed you.”

“And it made you sad?” I asked.

So, she decided she cared about me when she thought I was dead?

I didn’t know if I liked people who only cared about me when I was dead, but she shouldn’t have to cry over false information. “I’m not dead. You don’t have to be sad.”

“But I missed so much.” She looked up at me through her tears as if I was the dawn after a long night, a break in the storm. Then she shuddered and shook her head. “You’re not my little Hal anymore. You’re a man now.”

“I’m still Howl.” Just because I grew up didn’t mean I changed my name.

But the countess was frowning, like I had said something dreadfully wrong. “Henri, I’m sorry. I should have been there. If I was, things might have turned out so much differently.”

I supposed that was true. After the village hunters shot the count, I was left with the other wolves he had experimented on. My wolf mother raised me in her pack and taught me a lot, but the countess could have taught me all the other things humans knew. I was trying to learn all those things now, but it took a long time, and it wasn’t nearly so fun without Belle around to help me.

“And you want to stay here?” I asked. The priest had said she needed someplace to stay in the village. That was why he brought her here. And even though I wasn’t sure how I felt about seeing her, I knew they were cutting off noble heads at the capital, and I couldn’t turn her away.

“You can come in.” I hated being alone here anyway, so I stepped back and let her fully enter the front room—really the only room. Belle had a loft for her bedroom, but the rest of the farmhouse was separated by the furniture instead of actual walls. In one glance, anyone could see the fireplace, table, couch, and a few twisted pieces of furniture Jean had broken.

There were also the sheep, which were my favorite.

The priest looked at the table and shook his head at the flies. “Howl, we talked about this. The meat—”

“Has to be cooked and salted and put in the cellar or it goes bad.” But I still thought just cooking the meat made it taste bad, and I hated fire. I wanted to keep things as Belle, the priest, and the rest of the humans seemed to want it, but it was a lot of work when I was the only one here.

And the sheep didn’t care. That could be why they were my favorite.

I stepped around them to find the firewood anyway. It was in a pile outside the kitchen door. I barely left the house for a moment, but the countess started to talk to the priest like I wasn’t there at all. “He doesn’t know how to cook? That he even should cook?”

“I’ve been teaching him what I can. Some of the other villagers stop by too, but we all have our own work to do, and Howl . . . Well, he has his own way of doing things.”

“I see,” she said and they both were quiet while I built the fire.

It took me a while. I knew how to spark the flint, but I worried it would hit the wrong thing and the whole house would burn like my castle had burned when the rioters came to kill the count. I would smell the smoke, and if I wasn’t careful, I would see all the old images again. The fire would blaze and burn and smoke and—nothing. I hadn’t liked it when the fire burned my castle, but that was also the first day my wolf mother spoke to me and let me join her pack. So really, it was one of my happier memories, and I tried to think of that instead.

And then the fire was lit and stayed behind the bricks like it was supposed to.

I smiled and turned back around. The countess was making a face like she had caught a whiff of the fumes, but she kept the same expression as she moved from the flames to look around the rest of the house.

“And he’s been living here ‘doing things his own way’ for months?” she asked.

The priest nodded. “I told you about Belle.”

I wondered what he had told her. Probably not enough because the countess was still shaking her head at things and seemed on the verge of tears again.

She wouldn’t be doing that if she knew how wonderful Belle was.

The priest made a hasty backstep toward the door. “I have to get back to the church, but I’ll keep you posted on any news, and if you need anything else to get you settled—”

“No.” Instead of tears, the word had a bit more teeth as the woman reached up and took off the white honeycomb that wasn’t her real hair at all. Everything this woman wore seemed an elaborate disguise, but her real hair was a thin yellow patched with white—not too different from the Dupuis girls. “This is just fine,” she said. “I can fix it. That’s why I came.”

I frowned at her blankly. Fix it? I had already started the fire and scared the flies away. What else was there to fix?

#

It turned out that there were a lot of things to fix. I told the countess she could use Belle’s room in the loft because I liked sleeping on the couch with the sheep, but that was the last and only thing I got right. She came down in one of Belle’s dresses, and for a moment, she reminded me of Belle so much that my heart soared at the memory.

When Belle first came to my castle, she wanted everything moved and cleaned so much I thought she might be whelping. The countess was the same, but then one of the sheep stood in her way and she glared. “What are all these creatures doing in here?”

I frowned. There were only two sheep—Sleeper and Biter. But when I first met Belle, my whole pack of wolves lived in the castle with me, and Belle never called them “creatures.” And her eyes had sparkled when she met the new pups. I loved my pack and was happy to share them all with her. But now I didn’t want to share the sheep with the countess. I stood in front of Biter before the woman could hit the poor sheep with her broom.

“They are Belle’s sheep,” I said. “She’s a shepherd.”

The countess wrinkled her nose again. “And was Belle so poor of a shepherd that she could not afford a proper fence or barn for them?”

“Poor? Belle’s not poor.” She had lots of food stored up, and her house didn’t have any holes in the walls like my castle did. “She just likes sheep, and so do I.”

“She might like them, but I do not. Take them outside.” The countess bustled off to clean something else like the matter was decided.

But I just stood there, disbelieving. I couldn’t take the sheep outside. They would be so sad and lonely without me. “But . . . but what if they get hurt? They’re scared of the wolves and—”

“I thought Belle was a wolf.”

“Yes, but the sheep don’t understand, and they cry and . . . and . . .” I sniffed back a tear myself thinking of the poor sheep stuck out there on their own.

“Oh, Henri.” The countess paused, giving me a softened look. She pulled a cloth from her apron and scrubbed my face with it. “You look so much like a man; it’s easy to forget. You’re still a boy, but I’m here now, and I’m going to fix it.”

I blinked, seizing on the word again. Fix it? “You’re going to fix . . . me?”

“Well, don’t you want help?” She kept scrubbing at my face even though I wasn’t crying anymore, like she was trying to take off a whole layer of my skin. “The priest and the townspeople have been very generous, but you can’t expect to live off their charity forever. What would you do if you had to take care of yourself without them?”

I didn’t know. Wolves always helped each other; I didn’t think it was so bad that the other humans wanted to help me, but I wasn’t a pup. I wanted Belle so badly, but maybe I should be helping the villagers more, instead of just waiting for her to come home.

Maybe I did need fixing.

I pushed my human mother’s hand away and squinted at her again, trying to make sense of her under all her layers. “You’ll fix me so the other humans don’t have to help me so much anymore? So, I can help them and Belle and everyone?”

The countess smiled, and the triumph in her eyes seemed deadly. “I’m going to do better than that. You are my son, and when I am done, you will be a count even greater than your father and a proper noble gentleman.”


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