They filed into the room one by one. Each with their own freshly hewed scars. Cheap coffee and day-old biscuits had been laid out on a table in the back and a few of them poured a cup, but no one spoke. When it was time, they took their seats.
“I’d like to welcome you all to the group,” one of them rumbled. “My name is Fenrir and I’m a wolf.”
“Hi, Fenrir,” echoed the group in unison.
“As we begin tonight, it is customary to let those whose are joining us for the first-time to share first if they so wish. Is there anyone here who’d like to start?”
A small silence hung about the air until a paw was raised.
“Go ahead,” said Fenrir.
“Umm, hello…my name is Big Bad and, uh, I’m a wolf.”
“Hi, Big Bad,” said the others.
He was younger than most of them, the wolf known as Big Bad. The inky black fur of his muzzle had not yet whitened with time.
“Yeah. Hi,” said Big Bad. Then with a whimper “My story was read for the first time today.”
A few of the other wolves winced at the memory of their own first reading.
Big Bad’s mouth opened and shut as he tried to speak but he made no sound.
“In your own time,” said Fenrir.
Big Bad nodded and took a breath.
“Okay, so there I was, wandering through the woods, as you do, when I see this little girl in a hood skipping through the woods. So, I ask her where she’s headed. She tells me that she’s going to her gran’s house to deliver some food. Seeing as how it was nearly lunch time and all, I asked if I could maybe have a bit. Just enough to hold me over until I found a juicy rabbit or a deer or something, and you know what she did? She just kept on walking. Like I wasn’t even there.”
Big Bad held a paw to his belly and rubbed it tenderly.
“Then what happened?” asked a wolf named Raksha.
“Well like I said I was hungry and… so…” Big Bad looked away.
“There is no shame here,” assured Fenrir.
“I went to her granny’s house and ate her granny.”
A few of the wolves inhaled sharply. Not because it was gruesome to eat someone, that was all part of being a wolf, but because they knew there was only one possible outcome to the story.
“So then hooded girl shows up and it didn’t take her long to figure out that I wasn’t her gran. She screams like a banshee and in comes the woodsman. Brash as you like. Doesn’t ask a single question to anyone. Just pulls out an axe, one of those big tree chopper jobbies, and well-”
He lifted his paw to reveal a jagged red scar that arced across his belly. Some of them groaned in pity.
“It hurt,” Big Bad continued.
“Yes,” confirmed Fenrir.
Tears began to well in the corners of Big Bad’s eyes. “Why do we have to do this?”
“Because we care.”
The others didn’t say anything to this, but a few of them nodded as if a great truth had been uttered.
“But why?” Big Bad asked again. The anger rising in his throat.
“Because if we did not all the stories would end in happiness. Children will grow up content, untroubled-”
“-and ill-prepared,” Fenrir finished.
“What?” asked Big Bad.
“It is a thankless, miserable life we lead but without us, the children will never know of tragedy, or fear,” Fenrir stared out at them “and when the world beyond our pages acts without kindness, or mercy, or love they will be ready. They will know what to do. We suffer the axe so that the children may one day be brave.”
Big Bad said nothing to this and leaned back in his chair. It did not ease him to know why it happened, but it did leave him with an understanding that had not been there before and that itself was a comfort of a kind.
Other wolves spoke that night. They shared stories of pigs building houses, a village boy who cried. The stories never ended well for the wolf and they weren’t meant to either.
Then it was over, and the wolves had to leave. There were other groups scheduled to meet that night. Others who needed the room before the next bedtime. Before the books were brought out again and the stories imagined real in the minds of children.
Before he left, Big Bad stared into the reflection of his frigid coffee cup.
“What big eyes you have,” he whispered to himself and then he left to face the axe forevermore.
Cooper Anderson was born in the backwoods of North Carolina where he fell in love with all things strange and fantastical. He is currently earning his master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. You can find other examples of his work in Flash Fiction Magazine, the Coffin Bell Journal, and in the “Boundless” Anthology printed by Vinculinc.