by Sean Eads
On a spring day in May of 1351, in the village of Castrum Saint Jean, two brothers named Adelard and Henriot saw a boy no older than twelve come from the woods that marked their farmland’s northern border. Henriot saw him first when he stood up to knock dirt clumps from his spade. He rubbed his eyes, because the boy was naked and appeared to be underfed and exhausted.
Such occurrences were not unknown in those hopeful months following the Black Death’s decline. Entire villages had disappeared. One might have encountered the sick, beggared orphan anywhere. Nevertheless Henriot was stunned by what he saw, and without a word he cast down his spade and ran.
Adelard looked up, saw his brother hurrying toward the boy, and followed. At twenty-three, Adelard was older by two years, though more often than not he bowed to Henriot’s judgment.
“You, boy!” Henriot said. “What is your name?”
The brothers stopped within a few feet of the lad, who teetered and fell to his knees. They bent over him in alarm and rested him on the ground. The boy’s breathing was very shallow and his shrunken stomach made a steep slope down from his prominent ribcage.
“He has not eaten in at least a week,” Adelard said.
“Let us bring him into the house.”
Adelard stripped his shirt and wrapped it about the boy, whom Henriot carefully managed over his broad right shoulder. They ran the quarter-mile to their farmhouse, which had belonged to their mother and father before the plague took them the previous year. The boy moaned as if very ill but he ate the bread they gave him and drank several glasses of water. Then he smiled and looked up at them.
“What is your name?”
The boy frowned. The way his eyes moved, he seemed to be trying to remember. He shook his head. The brothers glanced at each other. Was muteness among this child’s many calamities?
Henriot bent down and touched the boy’s shoulder. “Do you know where you came from? How did you lose your clothes?”
The boy shook his head again.
The brothers were not as troubled by the boy’s memory problems as might be supposed. Though neither of them spoke of it, both were thinking about Eudon, their third brother, much younger than them, and among the first to die when the plague first came to Castrum Saint Jean. He would have been thirteen. It was not hard for either to fantasize about this brother’s miraculous return.
“You will be Eudon until you remember another name,” Henriot said.
The boy nodded and said, “I am happy to be Eudon.” He had a sweet, chirpy voice that startled the brothers after the near permanent quality of his silence. Henriot and Adelard grinned at each other. Then they laughed.
“Here is evidence that life can be very fine,” Adelard said.
Eudon proved to be industrious and full of cheer. They took him to the village for clothes and were blind to the looks they received when they said his name. The boy’s strength soon returned and within three days he could work the fields with the brothers. His help was good, but not needed.
Eudon seemed to sense this, and at the start of the second week of his stay he disappeared. Adelard and Henriot were frantic over the boy’s absence, almost like hysterical mothers. When the boy returned at sunset, his bright smile did not dim despite the scolding he received.
“But where did you go, Eudon?”
“I went to see Nazaire.”
“The old shepherd? But why?”
“When we went to the village, I overhead talk that he wanted help. I have hired myself out to watch his flock part of the day. The wage is small, but I give it to you in gratitude.”
The brothers did not believe these words at first, but Eudon had spent the day learning from Nazaire and had been paid. He handed them the money.
The brothers laughed and hugged the boy, tousling his mop of hair. “Truly, you are Eudon. We love you, brother!”
Their lives began a new routine. The three brothers rose early for the morning chores, and then Eudon set out to the pasture where Nazaire’s sheep grazed. Adelard and Henriot always gave him bread and cheese and hugged Eudon before he left. Then their attention turned to their crops.
“I miss Eudon when he is away. He has been with us again for such a short time, yet already he is in my heart.”
“Because he never left it,” said Adelard. “Often times I lift my head and look to the forest and hope our parents might come forth, too. Then our family would be complete again.”
The young men raked in silence, overwhelmed by emotion. God was generous with one miracle; it was not proper to beseech for more.
On the second day of the third week of Eudon’s stay, the brothers went to the village to buy two large barrels from the cooper. Just before they completed the transaction, a cry went through the village. Outside many people were running east. The brothers and the cooper followed.
“Henriot, this is the direction of Nazaire’s pasture. You do not suppose …”
Fueled by their worry, the brothers outraced everyone. They heard Eudon’s unmistakable voice saying, “Wolf! Wolf!”
They discovered Eudon standing on a little bluff overlooking the grasslands. The sheep below were not startled. Old Nazaire, who was panting very hard, asked Eudon why he had cried wolf with no obvious wolf in sight. The matter of a rogue wolf near the village was very serious and might require a hunting party to destroy it.
“He is a child and has played a trick on us,” said the cooper, much to his immediate lament. Henriot turned on him, furious, and dared him to challenge Eudon’s integrity to his face. The brothers then refused to buy his barrels, a loss of income quite grievous to the cooper.
They both agreed Eudon had seen something even if it was not a wolf. Returning home, they assured him he had performed well. “It is no disgrace to give an alarm when you think you must, even if there turns out to be no cause,” Henriot said.
They always fed him well, but that night the brothers gave Eudon extra portions of meat and milk to show their pride in his vigilance.
It was only two days later when the village was swept once more by a commotion that sent almost everyone back to the pasture. Once more Eudon stood there, crying wolf with no wolf in sight. He was even pointing at an empty spot of land. “There! Wolf! Wolf!”
“Why, right in front of you. Wolf! Wolf!”
This time more villagers beside the cooper thought Eudon was misbehaving. He was a young boy, after all, and the imagination of young boys could cause great mischief when yoked to boredom. A few thought Eudon was perhaps in some way an idiot child, though they could not prove such an assertion. Certainly the boy seemed normal in every way. Everyone agreed his smile, which was constant, conveyed gentleness.
On the night of the second incident, Nazaire came to tell the brothers what had happened and voiced his own suspicions. By this time Eudon was in bed asleep.
“How could you accuse him of such a thing?” Henriot said.
“I do not accuse.”
“I think we know the heart of our own brother.”
The old shepherd looked down, culling his words. “But he is not really your brother. You know nothing about him.”
“Get out, Nazaire.”
Adelard had not spoken. He did not dare, because his own heart now doubted Eudon.
The brothers did not talk further about the matter. It was as if Nazaire never came to them. But that night Adelard heard Henriot tossing and turning in the other room. The old shepherd had upset his brother a great deal.
In the morning, Eudon seemed very eager to get to the pasture. Adelard had already set out toward the fields. Henriot smiled at the boy. “It must get lonely there sometimes, does it not?”
“What happens when you get lonesome? Do you imagine things? Do you make up games?”
The boy’s cheeks turned red. “I count the sheep and I imagine being back here with my two brothers.”
Grinning, Henriot bent down and hugged Eudon. “Yes, we are all brothers.”
“Are you sure?”
Henriot pulled back with a puzzled look. “Just because you came from the woods—”
“I speak of Adelard,” the boy said. “Perhaps he does not quite think of me as his brother.”
“Adelard is good-hearted and older than either of us.”
“But perhaps he does not have the same depth of feeling you do. That is all I mean.”
Henriot smiled. “Perhaps not. Go to the pasture now, Eudon. Guard your flock well.”
The boy left. Henriot went to join his brother, but discovered the field empty.
Adelard had disdained deceiving Henriot, but he knew he must investigate matters himself. Instead of getting an early start with the crops, he went to the village and waited in hiding for Eudon to pass by. Then he followed the boy and spied on him. For thirty minutes Eudon did little more than sit.
Feeling foolish, Adelard was about to leave when the boy sprang to his feet. With a clever grin, he put his hands to his mouth and faced the village. “Wolf! Wolf!” It was most startling to see the glee in his expression contrasted to the urgency in his voice. Adelard strained to look down into the pasture. The sheep grazed without concern. There was no predator.
He shouted until the echoes of his voice overlapped. At last, after several minutes, some villagers came. But there were far fewer of them than the first or second time they heard Eudon’s cry. Those who bothered to come now showed not the slightest hurry.
The village priest arrived and scolded the boy. “Shame on you! Shame on you to cry wolf like this! Now no one will ever believe you if a wolf should really come. What would you do then?”
“Wolf!” Eudon said, straight into the priest’s face. This stunned everyone and so appalled Adelard that he came out of hiding and grabbed the boy.
“Why have you disgraced us? What is this nonsense, Eudon?”
Nazaire arrived. He was not breathless, as even he had taken his time. He looked at Adelard and said, “I do not know what is wrong with this boy, but he can no longer watch my flock. There is too much mischief in him.”
Adelard’s face burned when he heard this, though his thoughts were for Henriot. Adelard did not know how his brother would react to such news.
He took Eudon by the arm and pulled him away. The boy looked at everyone and shouted, “Wolf! Wolf!” He did this all through the village. People began to mock him. They said they would never believe him again. They said they were through with being fooled by his games. One very old man, older even than Nazaire, wanted the child stoned.
He cried wolf all the way back to their farmhouse, where Henriot waited. Eudon ran into his arms and they gave each other a fierce hug. Then Henriot yelled at Adelard for lying to him about his whereabouts.
“You should feel shame. Eudon went to work and you did not. The boy should be playing, but he goes out to earn us money. Where were you?”
He tried to explain how the boy kept crying wolf and no longer had employment because he now lacked credibility. Henriot would hear none of it. He blamed Adelard. Eudon had been right: Adelard did not see him as a true brother. Adelard had even lied about his whereabouts in order to forge Eudon’s guilt. Eudon sobbed as he heard this, as if it were a revelation. He cast a betrayed look at Adelard before running into the house. Henriot soon followed. Adelard went to walk the fields and contemplate many things. When he returned, Henriot and Eudon were at the table, eating in silence. They would not acknowledge him in any way, even when Adelard apologized—as if all of Henriot’s accusations were true.
“I do not want you to sleep here tonight, Adelard. Stay in the village. You seem to prefer being there.”
Adelard opened his mouth but could not speak. Eudon went on eating his meat and cheese. His mouth did not show even the trace of a smile.
Adelard went to the inn and stayed late into the night. He drank for hours, but slowly, and was not drunk when he and a few other men stepped outside. The moon was bright.
Adelard blinked. Eudon ran past them, laughing and whooping.
“I am sick of that child,” one of the men said. He bent, picked up a rock and aimed at the boy. Adelard seized his wrist.
“Why stop me?” the man said. “Isn’t it clear your own brother loves the boy over you? Be rid of him and regain what you had, Adelard.”
Eudon ran past them again. “Wolf! Wolf!” Now he headed back in the direction of the farmhouse.
“Make him be quiet. The entire village will wake if he keeps yelling like this.”
“I will see to it,” Adelard said. At that he parted company with the men and headed after Eudon.
When he got home, he found the house dark. Neither Henriot nor Eudon were inside. Where could they be? By instinct he headed toward the fields, needing no additional light on a cloudless night with the moon at full.
It did not take long before he discovered Henriot. He lay on his back, his clothes torn away, his throat torn. Yet the twitching of his arms proved he lived. Then the twitching stopped. Adelard just stared. Only a mad animal could have taken Henriot down with such savagery. Only a powerful beast could have overmastered him.
Adelard turned and peered into the shadowy woods. Eudon came forward. The boy had stripped his clothes and approached naked like the first time the brothers saw him. But now the lower half of his body had layers of coarse hair, and his slender legs had narrowed further and became crooked. It seemed impossible they could support the weight of his torso, but they did so very well.
Adelard stumbled back as Eudon went to all fours over Henriot’s body. His human tongue lapped blood from the torn throat. His gaze stayed on Adelard as he drank. Hair began to appear on the boy’s chest and arms. The clever smile returned.
“You—you are—I must—”
He tried to shout for help, but before he could, Eudon cast back his head like a braying animal and cried, “Wolf! Wolf!”
Then Adelard knew the worst kind of defeat. Everyone would ignore the shouts. No one would believe. No one would come. This devil had deceived them all. Enraged, Adelard summoned his strength. He and the beast lunged at each other at the same time. Their war was a beautiful, slow dance as the silver curtain of moonlight closed down on them.
A week later, in another village many miles removed, a naked boy came out of the woods looking quite starved and desolate. He all but fell into the arms of a lonely, childless woman who had abandoned all maternal hopes, as she had grown old in the twelve years since her husband went away in the Smyrniote crusade. But she cherished the story of God’s promise to Sarah and believed in miracles like this boy’s sudden appearance. When the boy seemed to have no name, she took him into her home, gave him bread and water, and called him Isaac.
The boy said he was very happy to be Isaac.
Sean Eads is a writer and librarian from Denver. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Waylines Magazine, Oregon Literary Review, Shock Totem, and Pseudopod. His first novel, The Survivors, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. You can reach him via his Facebook page.