There is beauty to be found in the corrupt, precious even in the midst of the unholy.
My homeland is beautiful. Arcadia, with its black peaks, its towering cedars too great in number to count, its meandering streams like silver ribbons draped between its hills, its thickets of wild ferns that grow taller than any man’s head. God grant that my homeland remain as lovely, and grow even moreso, freed now as it is from the taint of darkness it bore for so many years!
During my childhood, though, despite its beauty, Arcadia was a land blood-sodden, a place of horrors.
All had heard the legend of the way the curse had started. An ancient king, Lycanon by name, had sought to play a prank on Zeus, the king of the gods. The hurler of thunderbolts planned to dine with the king, the story goes, and Lycanon slew and butchered his own children, serving the meat to Zeus on a gilded plate. As punishment—of course Zeus knew what Lycanon had done—Lycanon was turned into a wolf. It took no great thinkers of my day to realize the myth represented a metaphor for the practice of human sacrifice, the “serving” to the gods of human flesh; all knew the repugnant practice had taken place in the dimness of lost years. Had Lycanon ever truly existed? It did not matter. We, his supposed descendants, bore his curse, and the curse was this: each month, upon the swelling to fullness of the moon, the Devil held sway in Arcadia, held our very flesh in thrall. Each lunar cycle, a number of the men of my country were transformed in body into abominations, as wicked king Lycanon had been transformed in legend before us, transformed into beasts—even beasts that walked upon two legs, as men. Ravening, savage beasts that no blade could kill. The Cynocephali, these were called, the dog-headed men. The condition seemed to strike its victims at random, though it always struck the men first as children.
I had seen eight years of life before the damnation claimed me.
My name is Christopher. It is the new name I received upon my conversion to the holy Faith. Once I bore another name: Reprobus. I still use it sometimes, because it is a reminder to me of how far I have come.
Reprobus—that name was not always reviled. There was a time, fleeting, precious, when I was innocent. I remember far too little of that time.
But we must begin, and those faint memories are useless prologue, of value only to the one who owns them. The beginning, my first taste of blood; as I have told you, my tale begins with a spilling of blood.
The Christ-men had already come to our land by that time, but I had never seen one. Fools, they were called, or madmen, driven by persecution from the Romans, or by zealotry, or both, into even greater danger.
I should add here an explanation: my people fretted little over the Romans, as we had paid little concern to the kings who had ruled over us before them. Some monarch or power had always existed to exact taxes or tribute from us, but our true masters from time immemorial had been hunger, and the need to bring in a good harvest, the health of our livestock, the fear of the Dogheads and the need to secure safety from them. As with the gods of our ancestors—whether men called the almighty Zeus or Jupiter, it mattered not at all to us—we gave little thought to the Empire; we offered each a token fealty, but had more important things to worry about.
The Christians, some of them, went about, even at night, unarmed, trusting in prayers or trinkets to protect them. In the cities of the Empire they may have suffered under threat of death, but in Arcadia they encountered it even more frequently.
All children were forbidden the forests. Looking back upon it, did my disobedience on that day, choosing to sneak away into the woods to play, all the while knowing that my parents had warned me, and ordered me, never to do so, did that instant, that decision bring about my fall from innocence? Or perhaps what happened next would have happened in any case? Once more, it does not truly matter. The result remains the same.
I tarried too late, and the shadows were growing darker amidst the trees. My stomach told me suppertime had come. I started for home; then I came upon the rabbit among the ferns. It fled. I gave chase.
I remember no conscious decision to do so. My act sprang as much from instinct as did that of the hare. I caught it. Among the ferns, with gnats buzzing in my ears and the ground damp beneath my knees, I tore it apart. The blood tasted hot and salty. I pulled out the creature’s entrails and tossed them aside; I ripped off the little brute’s pelt while it kicked at me with its hind legs, trying to fight, to escape, the hopeless, stubborn refusal of life to yield to death.
I had never tasted anything as delicious as the rabbit’s raw flesh.
I do not remember my transformation as it happened. I do remember everything that came after. Such is the nature of the curse, and perhaps its greatest torment. The man always remembers to some degree his actions while in the form of the beast.
I clawed off my clothing, my shoes from my feet. I rolled around on the ground, atop the ferns and the bloody patches of rabbit fur, hearing its bones snapping beneath my weight. I ran. For no sense of pleasure did I run, no sensation of freedom. Not hunger, even. I recall the hottest, most insensate rage driving me to find something else, anything else, to kill. Such rabid hatred must of a surety be the constant state of the Devil.
All night I roamed the forest, killing anything I chanced upon and could catch, vermin for the most part. I never slept.
As the first gray light began to filter through the woods, signifying the dawn, I came upon the Christians, down by the river where it flows its most narrow and its most shallow, the place we of my village called the Stag’s Ford. A number of the Christians, men and women, stood in the water, their tunics hitched up to their knees. One man was kneeling in the water so that it came up to his chest. Another stood above him, speaking, but in my state the words meant nothing. I know now that I witnessed a baptism.
There were some women and a few children standing back from the rest, in the shallow water or on the bank. I recall—God help me, I can see it so clear!—the smallest child, a little girl, her hair a mass of curls the color of honey. I remember thinking how pretty she was; yes, even as a beast I could appreciate this. It was for that reason, for her prettiness, for her sex, that I chose her. I bolted from the trees to snatch her and had disappeared with her back into the forest before the first screams of the mothers and other children had shattered the tranquil sanctity of the holy rite.
I had undergone my first transformation. I had taken my first human life.
It would be far from the last.