Late one October morning in the year 1601 outside a small town in the Jura Mountains northeast of Lyons, France, the cobbler Henri, a man well respected in the community for his intelligence and logic, was walking through a pasture straddling a low ridge on his way to his brother’s farm to borrow a hammer. To pass the time on the long road, Henri was mulling over a conversation he had the previous evening with the mayor and several other friends as they sat around Henri’s fireplace getting drunk until late into the night. For a moment Henri stopped and gazed at the faint sun trying to burn through the mists enshrouding the surrounding forest. He then looked at the narrow path ahead and shook his head as he muttered to himself, “It amazes me that such an intelligent man as the mayor would be so gullible as to believe that the world circles the sun.”
As Henri continued up the crest of the ridge, he discerned a faint sound coming from down the slope to his right. After a few more steps he recognized the sound as a woman shouting. “Hmph,” he muttered, “it must be the widow Beauchamp cursing her chickens again.” As Henri walked a little farther he could clearly distinguish shouts of “Go away, you foul beast, go away!”
Fearing the widow might be in danger, Henri picked up a large branch lying under a nearby tree and, after three attempts, broke it over his knee to form a hefty club. He then picked up a large stone and started in the direction of the shouting. The closer he came to the widow’s farm, the clearer the desperation of the widow’s shouts became, and Henri’s pace progressed from a walk into a trot into a run.
Charging down the slope Henri emerged from the mists into the bottom of a grassy valley. A short distance ahead was the widow’s decaying farmhouse and beside it was the widow swinging a rusty sword at a scrawny wolf trying to get to an injured lamb behind the widow. Henri sprinted ahead, threw his stone, and shouted, “Go away, you old hellhound! Get out of here! The devil take you!”
Just as Henri shouted, “the devil”, the stone struck the wall close to the wolf’s head startling him. The wolf glanced at Henri charging from the side with a large club, then back at the widow with the rusty sword, and dashed from the farmhouse and down the valley.
Henri ran up to the widow and stopped, wheezing and panting. “Did you¾did you¾whew¾did you see that? He-he started at the devil’s name. He must¾he must be a werewolf.”
“I think it was the stone that scared him away,” said the widow. “It certainly startled me.”
“Non-nonsense. It had to be the devil’s name. Sure, a stone might scare him a little, but he was terrified. He must be a werewolf.”
“Well, maybe. You know more about these things than I do.”
Along both sides of the valley Henri saw men carrying hayforks, clubs, and swords running toward the widow’s house leaving the wolf nowhere to run but down the valley and into the town. Henri heard hoofbeats behind him and turned to find Pierre the blacksmith approaching on horseback at full gallop. Pierre reined in his mount next to Henri. “What is the matter? Why all the excitement?”
“We just chased off a werewolf. See! There he goes down the valley.” Henri pointed ahead.
“Werewolf? A werewolf is a serious matter. Werewolves are being burned almost every day over in Franche-Comte. We can’t let them spread into this province. We’ll never get rid of them. They’re worse than Protestants.” Pierre reached down and took Henri by the arm. “Climb up. Let’s go after him.” With Henri clutching to his back, Pierre galloped down the valley toward the retreating wolf and shouted to the men coming down the slopes, “Get him! He’s a werewolf! Werewolf!”
Within a minute the call of “Werewolf!” echoed throughout the valley. More men came running with whatever weapons were at hand. All headed for the lone wolf sprinting across the open pasture.
By the time the townspeople took up the cry, the wolf was already well down the main street. Surprised townspeople began shouting, “Wolf! Wolf!”, and throwing anything handy to ward off the invading beast. In seconds the wolf ran headlong into a hail of cobblestones, sticks, pots, garbage, and farm tools coming from all sides but one, into which the wolf ran only to find himself in a dead end alley. The wolf stopped halfway down the alley and glanced around frightened. Around a corner to his right he heard a loud belch and turned to see the back of a small man urinating against a wall. The wolf heard the shouts and clatter of a mob converging on the alley. He glanced around the dead end again and spotted in the shadows at the far end a large barrel, behind which he could hide or make a last desperate stand. The wolf crept past the man and bounded the last few feet. Behind the barrel, the wolf found a large hole, evidently dug by dogs or children, leading underneath a wall. The wolf squeezed through and found himself behind a pile of hay inside a small stable. Looking around, he found no more openings and the only door locked. He lay down in the darkness behind the hay and waited.
Outside the wolf heard the commotion as the mob surged into the alley and found the small man fastening his belt. Several large men pinned him roughly against the very wall against which he had been urinating and shouted, “We have him! We have the werewolf! What do we do with him? What do we do?”
“Burn him! Burn the werewolf!” came a chorus from the back of the mob.
“No! Don’t burn me! Mercy! I’m no werewolf!”
The entire mob took up the chant,” Burn him! Burn the werewolf!”
“No! I’m no werewolf!”
“Then where is he?” a ragged man with rotting teeth and his calloused hand around the small man’s throat asked menacingly. “We all saw him run in here.”
“Yes, we did,” shouted the mob.
“And you’re the only one in here,” said the man with rotting teeth.
“Burn the werewolf!” shouted the mob.
“I saw no wolf run in here,” said the small man.
“That’s what we would expect a werewolf to say,” said the man with rotting teeth. “Get a rope and let’s tie up the werewolf,” he shouted to the mob.
“Burn the werewolf!” went up the cry.
“No, wait!” came a shout from the back of the crowd. “We have to make certain he’s the werewolf.”
The mob turned to see Pierre and Henri astride Pierre’s sway-backed mare. Henri looked down upon the rabble and for a moment thought he knew what it must have been like to be Moses speaking down to the Israelites. “Werewolves can appear as anything. How do we know he didn’t take on the form of a rat and is hiding in that barrel in the far corner? Let’s make certain we know what we’re doing before we burn anyone.”
“Yes! Yes! I agree!” shouted the small man.
“Shut up,” said the man with rotting teeth. “We’ll hear your voice enough as you scream from the top of your pyre.” He turned to Henri. “How do we make certain?”
Henri dismounted and brushed through the crowd to almost press his face against the small man’s. “Say the Lord’s Prayer.” Henri turned to address the mob. “Werewolves can’t say the Lord’s prayer because they’re servants of the devil and can’t ask for forgiveness of their sins.” He turned back around and stuck his face so close to the short man’s that their noses almost touched. “Say the Lord’s prayer.”
The short man’s lips quivered as he stammered, “Ou-ou-our F-Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name—”
“In Latin! Or are you afraid to speak the language of the church?”
Through a hole in the barn wall the wolf was watching the man tremble as the mob pressed closer to him waiting to see what would happen when he arrived at the words “forgive us our sins”. Then the wolf heard footsteps approaching the doors, as the scent of a man grew stronger. The wolf backed into a dark corner and braced for a fight. He curled his lips back as he began to snarl. The wolf could hear the man stop, then give a wet, hacking cough, and spit. Three more steps and there was the soft clack of wood on wood as the man raised the latch. The door creaked and a beam of sunlight shot through and grew the more the door creaked.
When the door was wide open the man stepped into the darkness of the barn and paused to allow his eyes to adjust. Suddenly the wolf hit his knees at a dead run and sent him sprawling backwards into the sunlight. He rolled onto his stomach in time to see the wolf’s hindquarters speeding down the street. “Wolf! Wolf! There’s the wolf!” he shouted.
Again shouts of “Wolf! Wolf!” reverberated through the town and the wolf ran dodging vegetables, cobblestones, and cooking pans. The wolf rounded a corner and then another, ran past four more streets and found himself in the market in the town square. More vegetables flew at him. He bumped against the legs of a woman and sent her crashing into a cartful of turnips. Children ran after him throwing whatever was at hand. An old man swung at him with his walking stick and missed. A mongrel dog gave chase for a few seconds before a cabbage intended for the wolf hit him full in the muzzle. Several townspeople immediately fell upon him and pummeled him to death thinking they had caught a second wolf.
The crowd closed in from the left and right forcing the wolf straight ahead and up the steps of the church as a door opened and out stepped the priest to be knocked down by the wolf as he bolted inside.
“Quick! Quick! Close up the church!” several people shouted, “We have him now!”
Inside the wolf dashed down an aisle and stopped before the altar. He glanced around looking for an exit. Off to one side a door was slowly opening. The wolf ran ahead and hid in the shadows of the back row of the choir box. The wolf lay still and scanned the nave through the intricately carved choir screen.
A well-dressed, corpulent man entered from the door, dipped his fingers into a holy water font, made the sign of the cross and bowed, and ambled over to a pew, where he sat, then knelt, and began to pray. Although inside the church was quiet to the man on the pew, the wolf’s ears could listen to the shouts outside as calls to lock the doors circled the building. Isolated from the outside world by thick stone walls, to the man the shouts seemed barely audible murmurs. To the wolf, though, the voices were clear. He picked up his ears on recognizing a voice just catching up to the mob.
“Pierre, have all the doors been bolted?”
“Yes, Henri, and there are men outside each one.”
“Where is the priest? Has anyone seen the priest?”
“I am behind you, Henri.”
“Oh. Was anyone inside when you left, father?”
“No, no one. In fact, no one has been in the church all morning.”
“Pierre, are you certain no one went inside before the doors were shut?”
“Uh, yes-maybe-sort of-no one got past me-I think. Everyone was at the doors as soon as the werewolf ran inside-maybe even before that.”
“Good, then we have him at last. You there, boy, run to the men at the other doors and tell them to get ready. Something may try to burst out and if it does, they should kill it. We’ll rush in from here. You men in the back, bring as much wood as you can find and start a bonfire. Is everyone ready?”
A cheer went up from the mob. The man in the pew raised his head from his prayer, listened for a second, shrugged his shoulders, and went back to his prayer.
“In we go!” shouted Henri. The mob cheered again and pulled the doors open. Noise and light coursed through the nave as the mob surged down the aisles toward the altar, but on seeing the lone figure to the side, they converged on him.
The man stood and faced the mob. “What is going on here?”
Those leading the mob stopped and gasped. The rest pressed against the backs of the first and on recognizing the man, they likewise stopped and gasped. The crowd quieted and only whispers disturbed the silence of the church.
“What is going on here?” demanded the man again.
Henri stepped forward. On recognizing the man his jaw dropped and his eyes widened.
“Henri, what is going on here? What is this madness? Well?”
For a few seconds Henri struggled trying to reason out what was happening as the now curious throng pressed against his back straining their ears to find out what was happening. Then Henri’s face relaxed as his eyes narrowed, he closed his mouth, and he began to nod as if he understood.
“So, you have taken on the guise of the mayor. What a foul creature you must be to imitate such an upright and honorable man.”
“It’s the werewolf!” shouted Pierre to the mob.
“Burn the werewolf!” replied the mob.
“Werewolf?” said the mayor. “Are you insane? I’m no werewolf.”
“Burn the werewolf!” shouted the mob.
“Burn me? No. No!”
“Burn the werewolf!”
“B-be reasonable. How c-can I be a werewolf? You all know me.” Fear began to overwhelm the mayor and he began to tremble and sweat.
“Burn the werewolf!”
“N-n-no. Be reasonable. Have mercy!”
“Say the Lord’s prayer,” said Henri.
“What? Why? I’m no werewolf!”
“Say the Lord’s prayer!” shouted the mob.
“The Lord’s prayer? Why?”
“He’s stalling!” shouted someone in the back.
“He’s hesitating, because he’s a werewolf,” said someone else.
“N-no! I’m not. I-I’m not. Be reasonable. Please!”
“Say the Lord’s prayer!”
“Wh-what? Why? What’s the Lord’s prayer to do with this?”
“Burn the werewolf!”
“We’ve had enough of your stalling, werewolf. Shapeshifter!” said Henri. “Burn him!”
The crowd cheered, seized the mayor, and hoisted him kicking and screaming onto their shoulders. As they rushed him out the door to the waiting pyre, the uproar drowned out his voice as he tried to recite the few bits of the Lord’s prayer that arose in his confused mind.
As the last of the mob shuffled through the entrance, closing the doors behind them, the glow of fire began playing on the outside of the windows to one side of the church. The roar of the crowd and the screams of the mayor grew with the intensity of the flames. The wolf watched the flickering glow for a few seconds, then rose, and walked out into the nave watching for movement and sniffing the air. The stink of man lingered, but, except for the smell of rats, the wolf could detect no other creatures. The wolf plodded over to the basin, where the mayor had dipped his fingers, rose, and lapped up the water as the screams of the mayor faded away and the scent of roasting flesh wafted in. The wolf searched through the front of the nave and around the altar for rats to eat, but fatigue weighed more heavily on him than hunger and he plodded back to the shadows of the choir box to pass into sleep as the glow from the flames and the tumult of the crowd faded away.
Just before dawn the wolf rose and went to the font for another drink. As he lapped, the nearby door opened. The wolf quietly slipped behind the nearest pew. He watched as a carpenter entered carrying several tools, laid them near the altar, and went back out the door. In a minute, the door opened again and the carpenter propped it open with a large stone. He fetched more tools, brought them in, and laid them with the first ones. The carpenter went back outside and returned carrying several boards on the shoulder between his face and the wolf. As he carried them past the pew, the wolf slipped out the door.
Outside, the smell of burned meat was strong. The moon had already set, but here and there a soft glow from fireplaces or from the lamps of early risers seeped onto the streets. Keeping to the shadows the wolf worked his way around the church to the remains of the pyre, which was now only dying embers. The wolf circled the pyre, but could not find a way through the coals to the remains of the mayor without burning his feet.
A groan came from behind the wolf and he turned. Three men and a woman were lying together asleep on the cobblestones. They stank of wine. One of them belched and rolled onto his side. The wolf watched for a few seconds and then plodded away. As he left the pyre, the wolf found several more groups of sleeping men and women, some groaning, some belching, some coughing, some snoring, but all stinking of wine.
The wolf picked his way through the streets staying in the shadows and being alert to the slightest sound, smell, and movement. Outside a building from which glowed several lamps, the wolf stopped to drink from a puddle. Just as he finished, the door in the building opened and Henri, Pierre, and three other men stumbled out yawning, stretching, and stinking of wine. The wolf slipped back into a dark corner and watched as they passed.
“Henri, has anyone found the mayor yet?” asked Pierre. “He wouldn’t want to miss something as important as a werewolf burning in his town.”
“No, no one has and I don’t think anyone is going to either.”
“Why is that?”
“Well, put yourself in the mayor’s position. If you were an important man like him, wouldn’t you be embarrassed if a werewolf assumed your shape? He was probably so ashamed that he slipped out of town when no one was looking.”
“He’s probably afraid too that we’ll think he’s in league with the devil, because the werewolf assumed his shape. Did he at least say good-bye to his wife and children?”
“No, I went to talk to her just after the burning and she said that the last time she saw him, he was going to the church to pray that God do something about the werewolves that have infested the area. The werewolf must have seen him on the way to church.”
“Well, it looks like God has started answering the mayor’s prayers already. You’re a very intelligent man, Henri. I wish we had a mayor as clever as you.”
“Yes,” said the rest of the group patting Henri on the back, “absolutely, we need a mayor like you.”
As the group turned a corner, the wolf came out of the shadows, sniffed the air, and walked the opposite way down the street as first light began to show the silhouette of the forest’s edge a short distance ahead.