Chapter Forty: Werelion of Vine

Editor’s Note: The following is taken from the journals of Simon Sten, great-great-grandson of Peter Sten. Simon Sten’s journals are generally unremarkable, much like his great-great-grandfather’s, but the Sten men’s journals are kept in the town archives along with the Elders’ journals. I wasn’t sure why until I read this: 

When the livestock started showing up bloody and dismembered the town was immediately on alert for some unholy beast. Hunting parties were formed: guns loaded and boots tightened. The army of trucks assembled in town square. Frank walked from pickup bed to pickup bed while folks held out torchrags, waiting to be doused in kerosene. 

“Bet it’s just a wolf,” Carl said. 

“Got to be some kind of giant if so,” Frank said. “Ain’t never seen claw marks that deep. Beast was going for tenderloin and T-bone.”

“Are we sure the beast hunts at night?” Morgan asked.

“These last three months have seen the beast’s ravages turn up at first light,” Frank said. “Surely it stalks the fields at night.”

It was then—as Frank was divvying up the parties and assigning portions of both field and forest to search—that Elder Dr. James Sherman V arrived. A normally well-coiffed and impeccably tailored man, Elder Dr. Sherman on this night appeared uncharacteristically disheveled, brushing gray-black hair across his face in the windless night and still sporting blood stains on his clothes—one presumes arriving after performing autopsies on the unfortunate livestock. 

A man of science and doctor by trade, the noted Elder fancied himself an expert in forensics. Rather than spend the witching hours of night traipsing through vermin-filled forests with unreliable torchlight, Elder Dr. Sherman proposed a new method. Combining ancient knowledge—like tracking—with modern scientific developments—like veterinary science and regional phenological trends—wolves in these mountains had distinct patterns of movement and paw size—Elder Dr. Sherman claimed to be able to guess at the location of the beast’s dwelling. Perhaps predict the next attack. 

The people of Vine were astounded but skeptical. For God’s chosen people in this consecrated land had come to have knowledge of the flora and fauna of the land. They spoke to the Elder saying: “prove it.”

So did Elder Dr. Sherman lead the people of Vine—well-armed and prepared to enact God’s vengeance on the beast—to the site of the unfortunate livestock, limbs distended and flies swarming and fields soaked so thoroughly with blood and feces that all who were there that day swore the boot-stains stubbornly refused to wash off. Elder Dr. Sherman identified the tracks and judged that the beast was likely akin to a mountain lion. 

“One of the great big cats, thought to be extinct in the region until very recently,” the doctor opined. “Viewed by the Cherokee who used to occupy these lands to be friendly with hunters. Mountain lion and man, stalking deer together. In search of a common kill.”

“Take us to the beast,” Frank said. 

“The beast will be hidden tonight,” Elder Dr. Sherman said. “Asleep in its unholy dwelling. But we can predict where it will be tomorrow.”

And so the people of Vine dispersed, bloodlust unsatiated yet cautiously trusting in Elder Dr. Sherman. I myself knew him to be an upstanding and moral gentleman, one of the more thoughtful members of the Elder council. 

So it was the next night that the people of Vine again assembled righteous weapons holstered and Lights of The Lord lit above their heads. “I tell you what I’m killin somethin tonight” Carl said. And the assembled did murmur their assent.

Elder Dr. James Sherman spoke saying: “Follow me and I shall show you the beast.”

The crowd walked to the edge of the forest and paused so that brush-clearers could walk to the front and refine the forest paths. Elder Dr. Sherman directed the brush-clears, steering the assembled through a seemingly random labyrinth based on vague imprints of tracks, periodic checking of the wind, and contemplative sniffs of the humid night air. Note was taken of owl’s nests and the rustling of raccoons. Finally the forest reached a thickness that the brush-clearers could not penetrate, wiping their brows with oil-slicked bandanas and gesturing uselessly at their machetes. 

Elder Dr. Sherman spoke, saying: “The beast is here.”

Carl cocked his sawed-off and Frank pounded the air with the butt of his rifle. “We’re going in, we’re gonna put so much lead in this unholy demon-beast of Hell, the Devil’ll have to solder him back together.” Many in the crowd growled in agreement.

“Patience,” Elder Dr. Sherman said. “For the mountain lion is a cautious beast. It is often said that so few are seen because they are the last thing people see. Allow me to go in stealthily; I shall silently stab the beast and return with its paw. Then you people can take its head.”

So Elder Dr. Sherman slipped into the thickest brush and brambles and was gone long enough that none assembled to hear his rustling. Then an air-splitting roar: the howl of excruciating and righteous pain, impossible to tell from man or beast. Branch-shatter and rock-thud. The owls shrieked into distant shelters. The noise was distant until it was not: the yards-away roars replaced by the running of unmistakably giant paws. The beast lurch from the brush, all wild eyes and teeth larger than the moon or stars could dream of being. 

The assembled crowd of people of Vine reared back, some sprinting for some sort of perceived safety that was unattainable. But lo! The beast did not attack; instead, it disappeared back into the brush, where it continued its sprint until was heard a higher-pitched, more shocked scream of pain. Minutes of quiet ensued until Elder Dr. Sherman emerged, blood-covered: 

“I have struck a mortal blow,” he said. “But the beast has escaped. Let us retire the evening. Though we may never find the body, the lion of Vine is destroyed.”

“Something don’t sit right,” Carl said. 

“Shut up and get the man some help,” Frank said. “He said ‘mortal blow.’”

The next night there were no attacks. Nor the night after. Nor the night after. Nor any night for the rest of the month. And thus the mountain lion was presumed dead. 

Marilyn was assigned to make baked apples for the Church fall picnic and was idly wandering her orchard when she came across the mangled body of who examiners would later determine to be Andrew, the mechanic’s boy, but whose body was slashed to loin ribbons such that the roots of two apple trees were soaked in the young man’s blood. 

The people of Vine beseeched Elder Dr. James Sherman: “how is it that this has come to pass? Either you are lying about striking a mortal blow to the beast, or the beast has rallied from your duel and is once again on the prowl.”

Elder Dr. Sherman spoke saying: “I beg you all, do not go on the hunt tonight. Allow me another chance to track the beast using my methods. The lion is sensitive to sound and the noise of a hunt. I fear there will be more death if I am not permitted to track the beast in my own way.”

But the people of Vine were used to their own bloodthirsty ways, and commenced to strap up and go hunting. They walked through the evening and searched every inch of reasonable radius for a first night’s hunt. No beast was found, though Randy and Bill both accidentally shot themselves in the shoulder and leg, respectively. After a night’s effort the people of Vine were exhausted but vowed nevertheless to remain steadfast in their quest the next night. 

Elder Dr. Sherman, though vocally skeptical of such random hunting, vowed to at least join the search party and apply his methods to those parts of the woods the ravenous hunters did not spoil. I stayed close to him. I personally knew Elder Dr. Sherman to be a trustworthy man. I wanted to see the success of his methods. 

“Those who are uncertain are damned,” Elder Dr. Sherman said to me. “Because they are not acting from faith. Scripture tells us this.”

After a scant twenty of minutes of tracking Elder Dr. Sherman bade me halt. He cautiously approached a thicket and spoke to me saying: “stay here, for a sense great evil here. You must go for help if I do not return in ten minutes.” Beyond the thicket was ceaseless darkness of overgrown nature and the smell of spoiled honeysuckles. I sensed its potential to be one of the hiding places of monstrous evil. 

Elder Dr. Sherman disappeared and there were minutes of silence. Then the by now familiar sounds of the lion—inhuman yowling, violent thrashing in foliage, and most hauntingly: the anguished night-shattering cry of human pain. 

I rushed to the thicket and attempted to scratch my way through but my coat snagged on a branch behind me. I fought but could not tear the coat. Then I heard footsteps: heavy and pained. I gave thanks to the Lord for the blessings of my life and begged forgiveness of my sins. 

What emerged was not beast but Dr. Sherman himself. The bloody slashed body of the Postmaster’s boy in his arms. 

The people of Vine spoke saying: “when will our terror end? What have we done to deserve such suffering? Why does the Lord send the vile beasts to punish us? Out of Egypt the Lord guided the Israelites; but they sinned against the Lord, and he delayed their arrival in the Promised Land. Out of the colonies the Lord guided our forebears; have we so sinned against the consecrated land of Vine? The farmer plants an apple orchard and varietals grow—Granny Smith, McIntosh, Gala. But the trees produce rot, and the people starve. The fisherman casts a net, but the fish are in another river, and the people starve. Woe are we, the people of Vine, for unto God we are nothing more than those sinners of old. Surely instead of a beast such as this it would be kinder to send a flood, for though we have sinned we would appreciate an easy passing, given that we have done so much in service of God.”

Elder Dr. Sherman spoke, saying: “I alone can save you.”

The people of Vine spoke saying: “Save us, Elder Dr. Sherman.” 

Now it was one quiet week following the tragedy of the Postmaster’s boy. The people of Vine were as restless as a toddler in Sunday School. Walk into ClearView, weren’t nobody laughing and carrying on over cornbread, you hear? Carl and Frank took target practice in the field behind Morgan’s house. Morgan drank beer. Those who had lost mourned. The dead were buried in the ground for fear that leaving them in the woods would further provoke the beast.

Elder Dr. Sherman prowled the forests nightly, examining tracks. The beast was still out there, the people of Vine knew that much. Fear hung in the air like an abandoned harvest basket whose fruit has been surrounded by flies. Even the hawks seemed watchful. 

I continued accompanying Elder Dr. Sherman on his searches. The methods were fascinating, and he was a knowledgeable man about a great many subjects. Often our searching adventures filled the air with talk of scripture, political power, heavenly power, or even recitations from the Book of Vine, which Elder Dr. Sherman still had memorized. I confess my knowledge beyond the Pentatuech to be a long-forgotten lesson of youth. We Elders lead different lives than the people of Vine.

Elder Dr. Sherman spoke, saying: “You have proven a studious pupil and courageous friend, Elder Seth. Did you know that our great-grandfathers shared such a friendship as we?”

“All of the Elders share familial connections and friendships dating back to the Revelation of Vine,” I said. 

“Yes, but would you not agree that even the most harmonious of communities, certain friendships—cliques, one might call them—arise above the rest?”

“I would agree.”

“One such friendship belonged to our great-grandfathers. I believe we are on the cusp of one such friendship ourselves.”

An owl’s yellow glare affixed upon us. We were near the river and could hear the current. But the trees above were thickdark with overgrown apples, and the sky was not visible to us. Nearby, a raccoon rustled. Crickets hummed.

Without warning, Dr. James Sherman began to convulse. He closed his eyes and his lips moved nearly soundlessly, as if possessed. His body was not his own, and his skeleton seemed to be trying to escape his muscles. In under a minute, he had transformed entirely: he was the mountain lion; yet he was bipedal, with lean muscle and long, hooked claws. His eyes returned to his soul, and he regarded me knowingly, searchingly, as if sizing up my artillery.

I dropped my rifle, leaving only my revolver at my side. I watched in horror as Elder Dr. Sherman effortlessly changed back to human form. Elder Dr. Sherman spoke, saying: “Now we understand each other. Now we have the truest friendship between Elders.”

By God’s own hand, the evening was silent. 

“How could you?”

“Dare you question my methods? Dare you question my results even? The people are scared, but they are obedient. The people are suffering, but they are serving the Lord. What did God promise us? This land. This consecrated land. God did not promise safety or health or happiness. Those we must make for ourselves. And where there is sin there can be no safety no health no happiness.”

“Have you not killed children?”

“The monstrous must be monstrous.”

“Do you believe you are operating for the good of Vine, Elder Dr. Sherman?”

“Long ago, your great-grandfather had the gift of the shapeshifter. My great-grandfather shielded him from the bloodthirsty wrath of the people of Vine. And now do you his descendent purport to show me an unkindness my ancestor would not dream of unleashing on yours? To leave me to the furious mob of the people of Vine? They shall rend my garments, tear me limb from limb like a pack of possessed dogs. Because I am bold enough to attempt methods others find distasteful! Though it is obvious that my methods are all that can keep the people of Vine in line! As the humble servants of the Lord they claim to be! For this reason, they shall exact a terrible vengeance upon me for their miniscule suffering. Is this the future you want for Vine? One without order?”

I spoke, saying: “It is not the purview of one man to be God,” and shot the shapeshifter in the leg, paralyzing him. 

No prowling. No shapeshifting. No puppeteering. How now does Dr. James Sherman execute his vision? How now can the people of Vine be reminded to be humble servants of God, sinless sinners who empower the Lord’s Glory? 

Elder Dr. Sherman spoke, saying: “a show of force is needed. An implicit show of force.”

“Against evil,” I said. 

“To eradicate it.”

“To prevent it.”

“One cannot prevent evil. The Devil is tricky. One can only punish evil.”

So was assembled a force of able-bodied men in Vine. The people of Vine offered their sons and husbands freely as volunteers. Keepers of peace and order. Meant to beat demons to submission upon even the faintest gossip of such foulness. Elder Dr. Sherman handed them badges and spoke, saying: “Thus are you deputized as a police officer of Vine.”

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