Saturday
Nov142009

Running Night

Cooper Renner



Note: Dr. Aldo Fenech, a native of Malta, worked up this narrative after interviewing the subject at Ghajnsielem (Gozo, Malta) in August 1908. It was intended for inclusion in the doctor's
Guide to Lycanthropy in Malta, slated for publication in 1913, but canceled after the preparation of galleys.

The old gentleman of Ghajnsielem sat in the narrow line of shade on the east side of his house in the heat of the early afternoon. "We never say it's true," he told me, speaking in a Gozitan dialect of Maltí that made it occasionally difficult for me to follow him, even though I grew up only a few miles away in the hustle of the knights' Valletta.

"We scare the children, sometimes just to make them behave, and the women holler at us about nightmares, but we never tell them it's true."

"We?" I ask him politely.

"I have seven brothers. I have twenty-seven cousins, all males, all strong for the fish and the fowl and the fold. At night the fowl sleep in their silly coops. At night the fishermen leave their boats, all but the fools. But the fold always needs tending." He watched me write in my little notebook, then pointed. The first joint of the finger was swollen with arthritis, the nail almost gone. "You write in English?"

"Yes," I answered in Maltí. "It makes me concentrate more intently on exactly what you say, to be thinking it in two languages."

He laughed. "Good for me. The women will never know I am telling you." He put that gnarled finger to his mouth, as though cooling a burn. When he brought it out again, he held it up for examination—his and mine. "I lost the nail that night. It never grew completely back."

"How did it happen?" I prodded.

"Oh, there was at least a dozen of us at the fold. Maybe you know that orphans' home on the hill that overlooks the harbour. That was pasture then. That night we were using that fold."

"That fold?"

"A lot of pasture, a lot of brothers and uncles and cousins, a lot of folds. The breeze was better there. Kept the mosquitoes off us. We took our clothes off, you know. Hell, not everything. Enough to cool us down, feel the wind. We always waited till the sun was down. Didn't want the women hollering at us. July was hot. We called it the Devil's Triumph. Hot. We sat there in our drawers, catching the wind, listening to the sheep mew, singing or telling the boys stories to shut them up.

"But we weren't storytelling that night. We were singing the old songs, the ones about the Turks coming, and the knights catapulting the heads of captured soldiers into the fleet, and the Turkish plague."

"The Turkish plague?"

"They only have it in the cities, don't they? The plague? The Turks came from their big city. We were just village boys."

I was fascinated to hear him fall into the story, to hear him mention the Great Siege of 1565 as though it had happened to him and his cousins, "the village boys." To hear him blame the plague on the Turks.

"So we were singing along, and they aren't scary songs; they aren't bogeys and witches. But the boys were scared anyway. They were songs of death. Real death. And little Alek, little Alek, he comes over and puts his hand on my knee and tells me it keeps running.

"I lean down to him with a wad of cloth. I think he means he's snotting his nose. But he pushes my hand away from his face and points. 'It keeps running over there,' he says.

"I'm at the end of the line of us all, at the corner of the fold closest to where the hill drops down toward Ras el Tafal. And I see what he means. The hill is dark because the moon is almost down, but something darker is moving around, fast, running, over there where the orphans' chapel is nowadays.

"So Alek and I—he's a father now, maybe a grandfather—I take him by the hand and we drop over on the outside of the fold wall and start toward that cliff. We're both barefoot, but our feet are as tough as goats' hooves after eight weeks out in those fields every day.

"'I don't want to,' he says to me. He pulls his hand away. So I swat him on the shoulder and shove him back toward the fold.

"He's still a coward too.

"I keep going, watching that moving darkness. I can't tell. Is it moving too fast or too low for me to get a shape out of it? Or is it just too dark? You know how these fields and slopes are: a cup inside a plate, a high place, a low place, you think it's a shadow, then you fall six feet into a hollow. I'm not little Alek. Son of a bitch. I'm not afraid. I may be only twenty-two, but I'm as hairy-chested as any Turk. But I can't see what I'm making toward. Even if it's just a dog, it's a threat if it's rabid. Or has a taste for blood.

"But the shadow seems bigger than that. I mean, it's not getting any bigger as I get closer, not yet, which—You know what that means? It's bigger than I thought, and farther off. I'm not nearing yet. Not nearing enough, I mean. And I can't think the field's that big. Saucer or cup, I'm thinking it has to fall off into the harbour before I get that far. Far enough for the shadow to get a shape.

"I can hear the fellows back there behind me, the wind sometimes blowing so that their voices are almost with me, but mostly farther, getting farther—maybe the only thing that tells me I'm not stepping up and down in one place instead of walking forward.

"Then it's like I say. There's another shadow closer in, and I'm sure that's a hollow I couldn't see from back there where I was. And the next thing I know I'm falling into it, not deep enough to hurt me and not surprising enough to keep me from thinking I been pushed.

"But I look back, look up, as soon as I'm bottomed out—only a second—and there's nothing there. And not eight or ten feet away there's a boulder jagging up before the land drops, and I can tell it's dropping all the way down to the shore from there because I can hear the surf down there. And the shadow inside the hollow, the shadow in the shadow I'm in now, is right there. It was so far off, and now it's right there, still moving. Restless, yeah? Back and forth, not bigger than me after all. But breathing heavy.

"It starts sort of shimmering. You aren't a fisherman, are you?"

I shook my head no.

He grinned. "You city boys in Valletta. You got ink under your nails instead of dirt and crap." Then he held the misshapen nail up again. "Well, if there's a school of fish that comes right up to the surface, and their back and upside fins start breaking out of the water, there's this light, color inside of color, sort of like dawn spreading over the chop, sort of not. Well, of a sudden that's what the air looks like. And then this old man is on his knees in front of me, moaning.

"I don't know where he came from. I can't figure he was the one making that shadow. I swear it was more like the shadows on a moving pelt. You know. An animal running, like the night was an animal.

"Anyway, I reach down to give him a hand up, and the old bastard snarls and bites me.

"Yeah, you guessed it. Took most of the nail right off.

"And I'm jerking my hand out of his stinking mouth and scrambling out of his reach when the whole flock of shadows comes right over me. Right over me, like they was coming up out of the field the same way I come. And the hollow is just ugly with dogs—not our dogs either—wild ones, big as wolves, and they're all around that crazy old son of a bitch, nipping and nuzzling and yelping that soft yelp they give each other. And then they're gone. It's just me. It's just me."

He stopped talking then, glanced down at the long-injured hand resting on his knee. I heard the clink of cups from the café a few doors down, the wind whistling around the saint on the corner. "Back there in the empire," he said, "the Turks have these big baths, these big public baths, and they're all in there—men in one part, women in another—naked as jays getting clean together. I don't know how that Christians ought to do like that. But my hand was bleeding like only hands and foreheads do. So I tore my drawers off and wrapped them all up tight around my hand after the dizziness passed.

"I dream, doctor. I dream there's another island out there, where the night runs, and the men run in the night, loping like dogs and wolves, and the big old moon is like a woman watching her man get out of the bed in the morning when he hasn't got a stitch on, and she just smiles, doctor. That moon's a smiler."