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by Charles C. Cole

More than anything else, as he neared the end of his life, with all his acquired wealth, Thaddeus Wolffe desired something invaluable, something possessed by no one else, a rare and elusive, never-before-confined animal of legend.

Managing this endeavor took specialized resources, significant funding, and unrivaled discretion. But after four years of false starts and dead ends, he was finally able to coordinate the capture and transport of the therianthrope.

Observing safely from outside the custom enclosure, he sighed the first time he saw his quarry in the flesh: a lowly man in torn rags, dirty, primitive, common. He was deeply relieved the visitor came from Costa Rica because the native language was gibberish to his ears, so he could overlook the likely cries for liberty and compassion when it wore its bruised human form.

To avoid his involuntary sympathy, an unplanned emotion rarely used as a captain of industry, he created a one-of-a-kind artificial moon, which was almost as expensive as shipping his exotic beast halfway across the world. Not satisfied with the familiar monthly pattern, he daily, repetitiously, forced the creature to transform into a wolf, looking forward to his after-dinner ritual like a glass of wine.

The human form seemed to wither from the increased frequency. The wolf form bloomed, but it bored him, looking exactly like a typical animal in a zoo, so completely altered, everything anthropomorphic eliminated, not a single visual clue to its exotic origins.

The only still-titillating part was the transformation, the writhing that led to rebirth, loud and passionate, authentic. But at these times, both brief and uncontrolled, the captured half-man, who was perhaps self-conscious and resentful, apparently sensed the approach and hid until the transformation was complete.

“Why didn’t we put closed-circuit cameras everywhere?” mused the collector to himself. “Because we respect the magic.”

The sophisticated arc lamp, an evolution of intelligent light, was a near-perfect reflection of the orbiting moon, mounted high against the vaulted ceiling. Even to its inventor, someone who peeked repeatedly behind the curtain at life’s gears and sharp edges, the glow was eerie and hypnotic. He impulsively turned off the light and lingered for a few minutes, the room still glowing faintly by a false sky of blue-white stars.

And then something happened.

The wolf had been watching the old man closely, for weeks really, noting the details of his height and weight, the thin white wisps of his hair, the fat-knuckled arthritic hands he kept mostly balled, pinned under his crossed arms. And the wolf remembered, right down to his cells.

So when the moon faded away and he returned to manhood, he did not resume the form of the Costa Rican farmer from the isolated village. Instead, he became the mirror image of the man just outside the cage.

“What have we here?” blurted Thaddeus.

“I hope you’re pleased,” said the wolf brazenly.

“But how?”

“In my case, the folklore has it wrong, reversed in fact. In your terms, I’m not a man who becomes a wolf but a wolf who becomes a man. And I can be any man I choose. I became the simple villager because that was whom I observed in my jungle valley. It’s all I knew, all I could learn. Now I have learned you.”

“But the moon, the curse?”

“It’s not a curse at all. The sun is the curse: daylight, as with your phantom vampires. The moon is everything to me, not just a full moon: every phase. But again your stories reduce me to a disease that needs to be cured. I am an outbreak. ‘Chronic episodic,’ isn’t that how you described the depression you’ve fought all your life?”

“You were listening.”

“No timid human goes in the jungle at night. And if they did, where everything is dense and lush, they’d see nothing, because it’s uninvitingly dark — to you. And so you dare only when there’s a reassuring ball overhead, bright enough that your familiar shadow accompanies you everywhere. In other words, you spot me by the light of a full moon and therefore you assume. It didn’t matter because it meant you forgot me the other nights.”

“And now what? What happens now?”

“I like you, human. You’ve invented opportunities where others would have seen certain failure. You’ve literally given me the moon. I haven’t felt so invigorated in decades. I’m not going anywhere. In return, I can give you yourself, a companion who looks like you and talks like you, and agrees with you. You’re old; I will outlive you. Before you die, do two things for me. One: teach me to read. There’s so much to learn.”

“Of course.”

“Finally, you have unrivaled resources. This brilliant moon you’ve built, which you thought as some on-off switch, find out how it affects me, invent me a lotion or a pill, give me control. I want the moon in my pocket. And then, when you die — not by my hand — I’ll step into your shoes and your dress coat and your limo, and continue your legacy for years to come. And no one will be the wiser.”

The old man thought briefly. “I liked you better as a wolf,” he said. He turned the moon back on and turned his back to the enclosure. “There’s only one me, and I like it that way.”

Copyright © 2012 by Charles C. Cole

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