As many have noted, the Ozark Howler has an appearance so outlandish as to make the literal reality of its existence as an earthbound creature too implausible to ignore. Large land animals on Earth do not have glowing eyes. Carnivores do not have horns. Furthermore, the difficulty of obtaining reliable eyewitness reports about the Ozark Howler, much less photographs or plaster casts of its footprints to prove its existence, is infamous.
Nonetheless, old stories of encounters with the Ozark Howler continue to increase in number, even as the old stories persist. If the Ozark Howler is such an implausible creature, how come so many people from the Ozarks report sightings of it?
The following short story, written by Timothy Godwin and published in the science fiction magazine Cryptic Universe in 1973, proposes an unusual explanation: Though the Ozark Howler (referred to as the Black Howler by the author) is seen here on Earth, it is not of the Earth. Indeed, according to this story, the Howler is only passing through our dimensions of existence.
The Hair of the Black Howler
by Timothy Godwin
The Mayor tells them that the Black Howler is just like any other animal out there in the hills, but they know that he lies.
A man who hunts a white tailed deer, a wild boar or even a black bear is given a nod for his contribution to the pantry. A man who successfully brings home the pelt of the Black Howler, however, he would be a king.
When Eleanor Ratcliffe came to the river port of Toad Suck, to the north of Little Rock on the Arkansas River, she was appreciated by the men for her bookish good looks, but otherwise, her special skills escaped the town’s attention. This is not to impugn the perceptiveness of the people of the little settlement. Miss Ratcliffe simply chose not to share her project with the people of the town.
Of course, given the traditional values prevalent in Arkansas, most folks in Toad Suck presumed that Eleanor had no project at all, other than the general project of being a young woman. This prejudice, and the lack of curiosity that resulted from it, afforded a convenient cover for her work.
If she had been more open about her activities, perhaps the calamity never would have taken place. No one can say for certain, though we believe there exists at least one potential reality in which Toad Suck was not reduced to a smoking crater.
That’s what this story all comes down to: Potential realities.
Reality seemed full of potential to anyone who watched Eleanor driving west out of town on route 60 with her long, dark hair trailing behind her in the wind. Her ride was a 1960 Ford Galaxie Sunliner with the top down – permanently. The convertible mechanism was rusted shut, not that it worried her. She only ever wanted to take the car out of the garage when the sky was clear anyway, she said.
No one ever asked where she was going on these trips, and Eleanor never offered the information. She was just going for a drive, she said, and that was good enough for everyone… until David Coggburn turned up dead one morning on the sidewalk in front of Eleanor’s door.
It was three months to the day since she had moved in.
David’s body was impossible for anyone to miss, despite his small size, because of the bright blue tshirt he wore, celebrating the high school football team from Conway, just across the river. Everything about the 12 year-old boy looked completely normal, as if he were about to head off for a day at school, except for the fact that his skin, from head to toe, was a livid green.
Eleanor Ratcliffe was nowhere to be found.
Sheriff William Boone stood with his team by the bank of the swollen river, away from the crime scene and from the curiosity of reporters from the Democrat-Gazette.
“Let’s go over what we know,” he said.
As usual, Deputy John Tanner was the first to speak up, with the least to say. “It’s easier to talk about what we don’t know,” he offered. “We have no idea what killed Davy. The coroner’s never seen anything like it. Why here? Why now? What does Miss Ratcliffe have to do with it? Where is she?”
The Sheriff stroked his moustache for a minute, then took off his hat. “Right. Like I said, let’s go over what we know.”
It was Frank Billings who spoke up this time, reading from his notebook. “Davy was last seen by his parents last night when he went to bed. They didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. He had a clean record at school – good grades, member of the middle school science club. His attendance this year was perfect, except for a couple of days last month when he was home sick with a cold. Everybody speaks highly of him.”
“Of course they would right now, given the circumstances,” Tanner pointed out.
“In comparison, no one seems to have anything at all to say about Eleanor Ratcliffe,” Billings continued. “They all say she seemed nice, but didn’t notice anything but that, or else they didn’t want to say. She was last seen for sure yesterday morning, as she was driving out of her garage. Mr. Bunyan saw her as he was taking out the trash, said she waved hello. Her car isn’t in the garage, or anywhere else in town.”
The Sheriff scratched his head. “So she wasn’t here when Davy’s dead body was found?”
“Not when it was found,” said Deputy Joe Partridge, raising his hand. Being just over five feet tall with his shoes on, Partridge was in the habit of raising his hand every time he had something to say. “She could have been here in the middle of the night, of course.”
“Was she seen here last night?” the Sheriff asked.
“What do we know about her, anyway?”
Billings responded. “She’s been here for just a few weeks. She moved here from Idaho…”
“Iowa,” said Partridge, raising his hand again.
“Right. Iowa. No one really knows what for.”
“What about the color of the body? What did the coroner have to report about that?”
“He has no explanation,” said Tanner. “It’s not a color that’s on him, though, like a paint that can be washed or scraped off. It goes all the way through.”
“What does that mean?”
“Davy’s corpse is colored green, inside-out, from the skin all the way down to the bones. The coroner did examinations… with his scalpel.”
“Did he find out anything else?”
“Only that there’s no sign of a cause of death. There are no bruises or cuts, or swellings. Davy’s just green, and dead.”
No one had anything to say to that, and so the huddle of law enforcement officers fell silent for a long moment, listening to the sound of the wind, watching the muddy currents in the water, until the Sheriff’s radio interrupted.
“Sheriff,” came the voice of Jeanine, the receptionist back at headquarters. “There’s a man here to see you.”
Sheriff Boone’s office was clean. Not a thing on the desk came between him and the man sitting in the his chair, drinking coffee from the Sheriff’s favorite mug, a cup featuring the logo of the local diner.
“Sit down,” said the man. The Sheriff did not sit.
“Do whatever makes you happy, then,” said the man. “My name is Jenner, Director Jenner of the Special Science Administration. I’m here about your situation.”
“Which situation is that?” asked the Sheriff.
“The green one.” Jenner had the facial expression of a man who had little patience for resistance. His solid, dark blue suit expressed a similar attitude toward anything unexpected. “You have a dead boy. I have a missing weapon. I believe we have the same solution.”
Jenner stood up, walked around the desk to the door, and handed the Sheriff his business card. “I’d rather not speak at greater length here. Come visit me if you’d like to discuss the matter.”
After Jenner had pulled out of the parking lot, the Sheriff turned over the business card. On the back of it was written the address of the Johnson Hotel in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, room 312.
“Jeanine, I’ll be in late tomorrow. I’m taking a trip.”
“Can it wait 10 minutes?” The question came from a voice so confident, there was no doubt that the 10 minutes would be given. The Mayor stepped forward from his seat in the lobby and shook the Sheriff’s hand. “It’s a busy place you’ve got here today, Boone.”
The two sat to talk back in the Sheriff’s office. This time, the Sheriff made sure to occupy his own chair before it was taken.
The Mayor was tall, with a confident presence, though the end of his youth was belied by a hint of thinning of the hair on the top of his head. “I’ve been hearing a lot of stories today, Boone,” he said. “People are getting worked up, and I worry that this day could get a lot worse before it’s done.”
“What stories are those, Mr. Ridgeford?”
“I don’t lend them any credence, you understand.”
“Certainly not, but what stories are they telling you?”
“Your family comes from the city, Boone, so I don’t expect you to understand, but most of the people here, myself included, come from the hill country.”
“The law is what I care about, Mr. Ridgeford, and that’s the same wherever you go.”
“It’s easy for you to say that, easy for you to think that, but there are some things that came here before the law. I’m talking about ideas, now – old ideas.”
“I’m sorry to be so direct, but I’ve got an investigation of a young boy’s death to deal with here. I’ll need you to be more specific.”
“That’s fine. It has to do with young Mr. Coggburn’s, the way he, well there’s no easy way to say this. It’s his skin. People are saying this isn’t the first time they’ve seen a color like that.”
Before he could address Jenner’s challenge, Boone had another visit to make. He never felt comfortable going into the coroner’s laboratory. That aversion was a good thing, because it made it a certainty that the only time he passed through these doors, it was because there was something even more disconcerting taking place in the world outside them. Coroner Pickett understood that, and showed extra attention during Boone’s rare visits as a consequence.
This time, however, Pickett did not turn around at all when Boone entered, but remained engaged with the subject of his attention. He was standing at the window, holding a glass flask up to the sunlight, turning it this way and that as he craned his neck from side to side.
“Come over here, Sheriff,” he said. “I think you’re going to want to see this.”
Boone followed the suggestion, but wasn’t sure what he was supposed to be impressed with. In the glass flask, there was nothing but a thin black strand.
“Tell me what you see,” said the coroner.
Pickett had instructed Boone in his expectations for observations in his laboratory many years ago. “It’s something long, dark, thin,” the Sheriff said. “It’s curling, or maybe bending, at strange angles every now and then, as if there’s some stiffness to it. It doesn’t look like it has much mass, but as a bending line, it fills up most of the flask. I estimate that it’s something like three feet in length.”
“So what do you guess it might be?”
“A very thin wire, I guess, or a hair.”
The coroner finally turned to meet Boone’s eyes. “A hair. Yes, at one end, there’s the telltale shape of an attachment to a follicle, a subtle widening, a little bulb.”
“Who would have hair that long, though? A woman, perhaps. It’s dark. Could it be Miss Ratcliffe’s?”
“I might think so,” said Pickett. “But the texture doesn’t match. This is coarse and wiry. Look at the harsh angles at which it turns. I don’t know any women who would allow their hair to fall into this coarse condition.”
“But if it doesn’t belong to a woman…” The Sheriff was at a loss.
“We just don’t know, of course. What’s important is that it was found on David Coggburn’s body this morning, draped right across his face.”
Boone narrowed his eyes. “Are you sure?” I looked things over very carefully before anyone else came close, and didn’t see it there.”
“Ah, yes.” The coroner motioned for the Sheriff to come closer. “It makes perfect sense that you wouldn’t have seen it, or it will, in just a second. Watch this.”
Pickett placed the flask on a cold, dark, examining table. “Bend down, and pay attention,” he said.
“I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be looking at,” Boone said. “I don’t see anything new.”
“You will,” said Pickett, with a strange, clever smile on his face. Slowly and smoothly, he began rotating the flask in a counter-clockwise direction, with the container’s bottom remaining flat on the tabletop. When it reached about 45 degrees from the angle at which the coroner had placed it, the hair suddenly could no longer be seen.
Pickett registered Boone’s surprise with satisfaction. “It must be very thin, to become invisible so easily. No wonder I didn’t see it.”
“Yes, that’s what I thought at first. But now, try to see it if you can, without touching the flask.”
The Sheriff walked around the table, crouching down, squinting at it from every angle, even shining his flashlight at the glass from all directions. “I don’t get it,” he said. “It was so easy to see before.”
“The best is yet to come,” said the coroner, and reached out to rotate the flask again. With just a little turn, the hair became visible once again.
Boone couldn’t summon more than a whisper. “It’s as if it wasn’t there.”
“No,” the coroner corrected. “Not as if. It wasn’t there.” He rotated the flask counterclockwise as before, and again, it disappeared. “Go ahead and reach in. Try to take it out.”
The Sheriff felt nothing but empty air.
“And now,” Pickett couldn’t stop himself from flourishing like a magician as he rotated the flask back to its original position. “Try again.”
The hair reappeared, bending stiffly within the flask at it had been when he first walked into the laboratory. Cautiously, the Sheriff dipped his fingers into the flask. Immediately, he felt a thin but certain strand that rose easily with his hand as he withdrew it.
“It wasn’t there,” the coroner said, his voice trembling with excitement. “But here it is, as plain as day, and I have no idea why. The strangest thing of all is that it doesn’t disappear at all when I’m carrying the flask around the room. I have to rotate the flask with a conscious purpose for it to happen, and I have no idea why.”
Sheriff Boone had a lot to consider during his drive west along highway 70 that evening, even if it wasn’t for the disappearing thread that was winding its way through his investigation.
Mayor Ridgeford didn’t know about this strange hair. Boone and Pickett had agreed to keep that bizarre piece of evidence between themselves until the coroner could figure out a way to talk about it in a sensible, scientific manner. Still, the Mayor had been in an unusual mood of his own during his meeting with the Sheriff, showing an unsettling combination of belief and skepticism as he had relayed the stories being told by the people of Toad Suck. It was as if he was talking in two voices at once: One the voice of an educated, practical politician, and another the voice of a frightened child.
These were the stories of the Black Howler. The Sheriff had heard of these stories before, but before today, he couldn’t have recalled any of their details. Growing up in Memphis, the tales had been as distant from him as the Legend of Sleepy Hollow would have been from a child in Manhattan. Maybe it was the darkness around him as moved toward the state border, but now, the stories felt like they belonged to him.
The Black Howler had been to Toad Suck, people were saying. At least, that’s what the Mayor told him. The Sheriff hadn’t summoned the courage to actually go out and ask anyone about the rumors just yet. Better to stick to the facts, he told himself. Nonetheless, there was something about the Black Howler that was sticking in his mind the way that no mere fact ever could.
Stories had been passed down generation to generation, Ridgeford said, of something dark that made the Ozark Mountains its home. From as far back as anyone could remember, and even further than that, folks up in the hills talked about seeing an animal of sorts, but not like any animal you or I have seen.
It was the size and build of a bear, but it wasn’t a bear. It had a long tail like a cat’s, but it wasn’t a cat. It had a beard like a goat’s, but it wasn’t a goat. It had a howl like a wolf, but it wasn’t a wolf. Its eyes glowed red in the darkness, and it had two long horns rising up above its shaggy head.
Had anyone ever been killed by the Black Howler? That wasn’t certain. On the mornings after the Howler had been seen, or the sound of it had been heard, somebody would turn up dead – with their corpse as green as the grass in springtime.
As the Sheriff kept driving west, from Bonnerville through Newhope, on to Holly Creek and Eagletown, he kept turning it around and around, the story Mayor Ridgeford had told him. He was looking for the gap, for the place where the edges didn’t meet up right. This was the way he always worked through his investigations, exercising mental manipulation of witness testimony like it was a geometrical object. It always worked, if he had enough time, and on the road tonight, he had all the time he wanted.
Still, it wasn’t until he pulled his patrol car alongside a convertible with its top down in the parking lot of the Johnson Hotel that he figured out where the gap was in the Mayor’s stories about the Black Howler. The gap was that there was no gap.
Director Jenner was dressed more casually than he had been back in Toad Suck when he answered the door of room 312. Nonetheless, his plaid flannel pajamas looked every bit as crisp as the suit he had worn earlier in the day. It was as if Jenner had pressed the wrinkles out of the pajamas. He certainly hadn’t worn them to bed, though it was almost midnight.
The room looked like a luxurious Swiss chalet, with thick wooden beams in the slanting roof above, and a pair of ample armchairs in front of a flagstone fireplace where the coals, though they had clearly died down from an earlier blaze, were still glowing hot.
Jenner poured a glass of bourbon for the Sheriff, along with another for himself. “I’m sorry for my brusque manner back in your office,” he said, “but there was no time for the embroidery of protocol. Circumstances are more dire than you can imagine.”
The Sheriff had a difficult time imagining how things could possibly be more dire than for people to be spreading rumors that a dead boy whose corpse was colored green inside and out had been killed by a legendary spirit animal of rural Ozark landscape. This difficulty was alleviated, however, as Jenner put down his drink and put the matter plainly: “We have lost a nuclear weapon, and believe that it is about to go off.”
Neither one of them spoke another word for at least another minute. Jenner broke the silence. “I understand you may be wondering what this has to do with you and your problem with the dead boy. In fact, the two are intimately connected. In fact, until I received word of the green body this morning, I despaired of ever finding our missing weapon.”
The Sheriff shook his head to cast off the overwhelming feeling of unreality that was clinging to him like a winter fog. “You just said that there is a nuclear bomb that’s about to explode. Are we safe here? Shouldn’t we find a fallout shelter or something?”
“We are most certainly unsafe,” Jenner said, “but a nuclear explosion itself is not among our worries. Unless we can stop it, the bomb will go off 200 years ago.”
“In 1773? I’m sorry. I don’t follow.”
“This nuclear weapon will have exploded on November 11, 1772, to be precise, unless we are able to stop the militants who are intent on detonating it. I know that this may sound strange to you, but ironically, I don’t have the time to give you a full briefing. I believe that we have only a few minutes before we will finally have the chance to put a stop to this attack.”
Jenner stood and walked over to look at himself in the mirror that hung on the back of the door leading out to the hallway. “I have been preparing myself for this moment for years, without ever knowing how it might unfold. Can you imagine what that has been like? I have had to train myself to deal with the unexpected.”
“I’m sorry, but this makes no sense,” said the Sheriff. “You’re going to have to explain yourself pronto, or I’m going to go and call the local police for backup.”
“Yes, I can see that. It is essential that we stay right here, where we are, for just a short while longer, so I will try to explain. You must understand that the nuclear weapon I am talking about is no ordinary atom bomb. It is a weapon with multiple cores, each arrayed around a central trigger in such an arrangement as to do something much, much worse than merely triggering an explosion that would reduce this town to a mushroom cloud. No, this nuclear weapon was developed by my agency in the future with the goal of producing a quantum bubble.”
“A what bubble?”
“A quantum bubble is a multidimensional distortion of reality. Imagine that you poked a straw down into a very thick milkshake, and blew through the straw to create a bubble in the shake, a bubble that would expand for a while, and then pop as it collapsed under the inevitable pressure. That is what a quantum bubble would do, only our universe, along with many others right next to it, are the milkshake.”
The Sheriff followed about half of what Jenner was saying. “Hold on. What are these other things in the milkshake next to us?”
“They are universes that exist right along side our own, very close to us, but separated from us by an intricate folding of reality that takes place in dimensions other than those we are ordinarily able to perceive. We believe that there are, in addition to the four dimensions of space and time that we are familiar with, three additional dimensions, all of which come unfolded when the quantum bubble is released.”
“A bubble just pops, though, and then everything goes back to the way it was, right?”
“You could say the same about a nuclear explosion. Imagine this quantum bubble as like a nuclear explosion so powerful that it rips into dimensions we haven’t even dreamed about, opening up other universes onto our own. When we at the Special Science Administration invented this weapon a century from now, we didn’t understand the consequences. We do now, and we have to stop it.”
“I don’t get it. You say you did this a century from now, like it was in the past. How does that work?”
“When this device explodes, it unfolds our reality. It’s capable of turning entire portions of time upside down, much as an ordinary bomb can flip parts of a building upside down. That’s what’s going to happen to portions of your future, and your past, if we don’t stop this bomb from going off.”
“Look, some strange things are happening, but the explanations I’m getting from people in positions of authority are even stranger. Just this afternoon, I got a big long lecture from the mayor of our town about how the death of Davy Coggburn is the fault of a spirit animal people from the hills call the Black Howler. Now, you’re telling me it’s somehow linked to an interdimensional bomb. This is ridiculous.”
“I agree, it does sound that way, but people have a reason for saying that truth is stranger than fiction. Your mayor is on the right track, you know, but I don’t have the time to explain it all to you. We’ve got about just one minute…”
“This is insane! I don’t know why I should believe you, but if I did, I’d be asking why we’re standing around here talking and not doing anything about it!”
Jenner turned his back to the Sheriff, and flattened his back against the wall, watching the door out to the hallway as if he were expecting room service at any moment. “We are doing something about it. When I saw that you had a green body on your hands, I knew that the leader of the militants had been in your town. I then only needed to be seen, and to use you as a lure to bring this leader to this hotel room at this moment. We have mapped out a pattern of places and times within five hundred years and three hundred miles from the epicenter, places where the original attack doubles back on itself, like a seven-dimensional tsunami. Right here, in just twenty seconds or so, is one of those places. Prepare yourself.”
It seemed a much longer time than twenty seconds that Director Jenner and Sheriff Boone waited for the attack. When it came, it didn’t look a thing like what the Sheriff expected. It began when the door to the hotel room opened, and Eleanor Ratcliffe stepped through.
She stood for a moment on the threshold, light from the open door revealing a face that looked worn from exertion. In her hair was a long streak of gray Boone had never noticed before. She wore a floor length black trench coat of a style that he could not identify, with an extra large collar that draped over her shoulders, almost like a cape.
Jenner leaped at her from behind the door, and grabbed at a glowing green object she held in her hands. As soon as he wrestled it from her grip, however, he lost consciousness and fell to the floor.
“He always falls for that,” Miss Ratcliffe said, and then turned her attention to the Sheriff. “We need to talk.”
Boone was following Eleanor Ratcliffe out the side exit of the Johnson Hotel and into the field of corn that surrounded it, and he wasn’t sure why.
In the blur of stalks brushing past the forearm he had raised to protect his face, he couldn’t see much more of her than a vague glow of moonlight reflected in a strange, almost greasy way from her coat as she strode ahead of him at an eager pace. Every hundred feet or so, she shifted over another row to the right.
“We’re almost there,” she said after about five minutes walking in this way.
What Miss Ratcliffe had told him back in the room didn’t match Jenner’s warnings at all. Davy Coggburn, she said, was the victim of some kind of industrial accident. She could take him to the place where it took place, but they had to leave now.
Without any real understanding, he left Jenner’s room with her. More often than he would ever admit, his work as a Sheriff involved following along with others without knowing exactly what was happening.
She turned now to the right, plunging through about 20 rows of corn until they came to an opening in the field, perhaps 50 feet wide. In the middle of the opening, an intense red light came out of what seemed to be a crack in the ground.
Illuminated by the glow, standing on the far side of the crack were two men, familiar yet unfamiliar to him. Deputy Joe Partridge was immediately recognizable, but his hair was long, down to his shoulders, and his face had the same kind of careworn look that Boone had noticed in Miss Ratcliffe back at the hotel.
More difficult to interpret was the man at Partridge’s side, taller, with a ring of white hair circling a bald crown. The face was the same, but even in the strange light coming out of the ground, the wrinkled upon it were clear. It was Mayor Ridgeford, but 20 years older than he had been the day before.
Both men were wearing their strange long black trench coats, and their collars were turned up, rising stiffly above the tops of their heads. At their feet was a body, lying still on the ground.
It was Partridge who spoke first. “Davy isn’t dead.”
Boone said nothing. Miss Ratcliffe crossed the opening to crouch down in front of the deputy and lay her hands on the body in front of them. “It’s true,” she said. “Though your coroner gravely injured him with his examinations, we have healed him. He’ll never be quite the same, but then, that was always true.”
The Sheriff stepped forward hesitantly toward the crack, far enough to see the face of Davy Coggburn on the face of the body. There was something else on that face, though, besides the boy’s familiar features, something dark emerging.
“It will be awkward at first,” said Partridge. “But he’ll come into his own in no time. In no time at all, really.”
Miss Ratcliffe looked up with an expression that begged for understanding. “It’s the radiation. He just had more than we anticipated.”
At the mention of radiation, Boone’s instinct for preservation took over. He leaped over the crack, bent down to pick up the body, and braced his feet to run, when he felt a sharp pain in the back of his knee and fell to the ground. Partridge’s boot pressed down firmly on his shoulder, keeping him pinned.
“What on earth are you…”
The Mayor raised his hand for silence. “No one needs to be rescued. This boy will have a life far beyond whatever was waiting for him back in Toad Suck, Sheriff.”
Davy Coggburn’s face was now just a few feet from Boone’s, close enough for him to have a clear view of its changes. Thin, dark hairs were emerging from the boy’s green skin, twisting like stiff snakes across his face, a first beard growing all too fast.
“He was gathering the wool of the Howler for us,” the Mayor explained. “Yes, the Black Howler of the Ozarks is real, but it’s not at all what we thought it was, and strictly speaking, it’s not from the Ozarks.”
The Mayor gently pushed Deputy Partridge back, and offered the Sheriff help to stand. “Ever since our ancestors came to settle here, they’ve told stories about something dark and strange out here in the hills,” he said. “They spoke of a large beast, with horns on its head, and a shaggy coat of dark fur, and a howl unlike that of any known creature. What they could not have imagined was that the Black Howler was not of their world, not of any world, that it was a traveler between worlds. The time has come for Davy to join the Howlers.”
The young body at the Sheriff’s feet convulsed, as if it was preparing to vomit.
“He wanted to help,” Miss Ratcliffe said. “His arms were the only ones that could reach inside the crack.”
“We are travelers too,” the Mayor continued, “but not like the Howler, though we use its hair for our journeys. I believe that Coroner Pickett showed you its unique properties. Each hair that grows from the hide of the Black Howler curls into dimensions we cannot see, dimensions that are opened up by its intention to move through them.
Deputy Partridge raised the fabric of his coat. “A coat woven of Howler hair keeps its properties even when detached from the Howler’s body,” he said. “It takes on the intention of whoever wears it.”
“We move through time and space,” said the Mayor, wrapping his coat tighter around him and drawing the collar over his face. “At will.” The old man turned suddenly, and then disappeared.
“Like the hair in the laboratory,” the Sheriff said, and fell into dumbfounded silence.
A few seconds passed, and then as quickly as he had gone, the Mayor appeared, but this time on the far side of the opening in the field. “His horns will grow with each voyage,” he said. “Davy’s DNA has been changed by the radiation irrevocably. He is becoming a Black Howler, and will not be with us for much longer.”
Partridge reached out to hold her hand. “We set it off together just a few days ago, centuries ago,” he said. “before we settled down in Toad Suck, a safe place to start a family.”
The boy lurched again, and the Mayor stepped forward to observe. “These two are my grandparents, but it was only yesterday, after you left to come here, that they brought me in to my family heritage. Davy Coggburn had been initiated into the truth weeks ago. Of course, in another sense, that was decades ago for me.”
“You’re family, too,” Miss Ratcliffe said, as she pulled something dark out from somewhere the Sheriff couldn’t quite see. “It’s time you travel with us.”
Sheriff Boone reached out to touch the coat she offered to him. Its fabric felt like nothing else, stiff yet smooth at the same time.
Then the ground shook, and the crack at their feet opened wider. “Your coat is made from the wool of the Howler, collected at cracks like this, scattered throughout space and time, places where it emerges from the space between worlds. Davy was helping us collect the material we needed for his own heirloom.”
From inside the crack came a strange sound, like the creak of a gigantic wooden beam in a ship, groaning against the waves of a great storm at sea. In response, the thing that had been Davy Coggburn opened its eyes, now glowing the same red color as the crack at their feet. His face, his hands, his entire body was now covered in strange dark fur, each fiber twisting in a manic dance, though there was no breeze in the air at all.
With a series of strange, jerking movements, his dark, seething body moved to adopt a new form, what had been hands fell to the ground, and stretching, again and again, the body took on a new shape, something more like a broad-backed bear than anything else. Then, it shook, in a manner not unlike that of a dog twisting itself to rid itself of the water in its fur after a swim, and its body rippled in disappearance and reappearance, whole sections of its body flashing out of existence and back into view, so that its body never appeared to be completely there.
Davy Coggburn had become a Black Howler.
Raising its head to greet the dark sky above them, it opened its mouth and released an echo of the call that had come from the red crack, a bellow, a creak, a strange metallic song. Then, with just a second’s hesitation after the end of its first tremendous howl, the new thing leaped into the air, then arching down, dove headfirst into the crack in the ground, which opened wide to meet it before slamming shut.
There was less than a minute of silence in the moonlight before another voice came out of the night.
“No one else travels tonight,” Jenner said, stepping out from the corn, pointing a pistol at the group.
The response was immediate. The last thing Sheriff William Boone saw was the Mayor, Deputy Partridge, and Miss Ratcliffe wrapping themselves in their long, dark cloaks and preparing to turn.
“I could join them,” he thought, “If I knew how to put it on.”
This idea was barely born, however, before a loud sound, quite unlike the call of the Black Howler, killed all thought. He felt a surge of power moving through his chest, a force external to himself breaking through the boundaries of his body, tearing him apart from the world forever.
Before he sank into nothing, Boone heard the voice of Jenner once more. “The coat is mine.”