A wild howl shredded through the trees. Jacob heard the sound; crisp as the frozen air; a good distance away. He smelled fresh cut pine and an earthy stench of wild animal. He hitched the rifle strap up on his shoulder and straightened the weapon against his backpack. His face ruddy and covered with concern. His long beard was iced hard. His heavy boots slushed along the deep snow path; headed a new direction now. Toward the creature. A few minutes or more along the new path, the same sounds came; off to the left. He changed directions again. A few more times just like that- a new howl; a new direction. Always towards it.
Jacob came to a clearing and finally saw evidence she was slowing down. Two halves of a deer which used to be one whole of a deer. It's inner highway spilled out of the ribs and flung across the snow. Strips of deer hide flayed by teeth and claws stretched across its bifurcated skeleton. Its hooves shook out the last of its dying synapse. He thought the contrast of blood on snow could be beautiful if the scene were completely different. Jacob snapped his head up and to the side; he listened. His heart sank. Screams from a different source now. Terrified, primal, screams. Indecipherable English words. Most likely just a few reactionary no's and oh my god's. No time for much else. What're they doing this far out? He picked up the pace, but kept it manageable. By the time I get there. Too late anyway.
The clearing was covered in human blood and entrails. Nothing discernible left. Guts were ripped out of four campers. The meat on all of them was gnawed and lay in grizzly, shredded, piles. Their camp was no better off. Five tents lay dead in the snow and their gear scattered the same way as the bodies. Everywhere.
Went quick. Too far out. No police. Jacob’s frosted voice came out plaintive, “Sorry. I'll be back,” and he plodded forward. She's full now. Getting tired. Water next. Jacob moved toward the river bend and pulled his rifle from his shoulder; then clicked the safety off.
After a while he closed in on the river. He heard the babble along with a perpetual, nature-foreign, grinding. Every other sign of life held still. He made out a large, dark-red, shape through the screen of trees. She was five foot sitting down, seven plus, standing. She sat cross-legged by the river covered in long, course, fur. He pushed out of the tree line and froze in place. His last breath stuck in the air.
She's not drinking.
She held a large dead man like a chicken wing and gnawed on his belly. His eyes and jaw were jacked wide open, held over from a survival frenzy. She looked up through black rings of skin around her deep-set, blue eyes. She barred her huge fangs and snarled, saw his bug-eyed terror and her face slackened. She chewed again with a wide, lazy, circular motion; like a cow with cud in it's mouth. He saw crunched bone in her teeth. It was too much; he puked. Hot tendrils of stinking bile shot into the snow at his feet. She tossed the empty man to the side and sprung up ready to bolt. Jacob recovered and leveled the rifle. She hesitated just enough for him to fire. Her shrill bellow took down snow from the trees nearby. She made an effort to run; instead she hit the ground hard and slept; the drained dart stuck high up her leg.
Birds finally got the nerve to move again and flapped away frantically. Sounds of the river and the life around it came rushing back over him. He smelled more scarred pine tainted with the familiar stink of blood. He became aware of the cold on his cheeks once more and noticed his fingers were numb from his grip on the rifle. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and moved toward her.
Jacob looked down at her, then abruptly turned and walked towards the nearby brush. He began to gather sticks and clumps of dry grass. The creature rolled over in the snow and convulsed. Muscles boiled under her leather skin and fur fell away from her back. Loud, hollow, pops jutted out of her chest. Bones twisted and crunched while they shrunk and changed size. Her huge claws retracted; her feet and hands lost their fur and exposed pink flesh on thin fingers and toes. Her bloody snout vibrated and fangs snapped off as it deflated and dragged connective slime away from her human nose. The snout rapidly degraded into the dirt in front of her blood curdled lips. After some time, the grotesque sideshow subsided. Jacob pulled warm clothes from his pack and brought them to her. He dressed his wife and started a fire.
When she woke, they started the walk back to their cabin without a word. They made it back in under an hour. She fell straight into bed.
“Uff. I’m exhausted,” she turned her head towards the wall and closed her eyes; hands folded over her chest. Jacob shot his eyes at her sideways, but kept quiet. He hung his jacket by the door, then sat at the fireplace, tossed in a few logs, and stoked a new fire out of embers he left behind. Soon the fire pushed the chill out and filled the room with a burning wooden odor. She began to feel comfortable and dosed off again. He looked over at her and thought, She looks like a blood-sucker laying there like that. He dismissed a flippant idea about stabbing her in the heart. His irritation softened and he crossed the room to her, put his hand on her forehead for a moment, then headed for his jacket. He dressed for the outside again and grabbed a shovel hung by the door. She heard him do it and dragged herself up. On the edge of the bed now, she looked fragile and drained.
“Is it bad this time?”, she asked
“I’ll be back in a few hours.”
“I’m sorry, Jacob. I can’t control—”
“I know.” He closed the door behind him and walked out through the yard.
She laid back on the bed and stared at the wall. Her eyes wet. “I love you.”