There were at least 30 of us, moving out in different directions with our flashlights piercing through the night. The ground was covered in a fresh blanket of snow, and more was falling still. We were all volunteers: family members, friends and even neighbors of Jasper’s. By that time him and his younger sister had been missing for three days. I was hoping to find footprints in the snow, but we were told that it was so cold, we were likely just looking for bodies at this point.
I had known Jasper since grade school. His family had been traditionalists before, living out in the Navajo Nation. One day they just up and moved. Next thing I knew, my mother was dragging me next door to help welcome them into the neighborhood.
“Jasper’s playing in the backyard,” his mother said to me, in her terse accent.
I was reluctant at first, but my mother urged me to go find him. He turned out to be just a normal kid, like me. I felt bad for having assumed he would be some alien being. He liked video games and football and hotdogs just the same as I did. So we started meeting up more at school, getting closer over the years. We even picked a lot of the same classes our junior year in high school.
Still, there was one thing about him that I was never able to wrap my head around. Although they moved away from the reservation, Jasper still talked about their tribe’s old beliefs, the same way a Christian would talk about Jesus. I wanted to tell him that the legends of his people were just fiction, but I had reached a point where I couldn’t decide if anything spiritual was real. Who was I to try and take his beliefs away?
“I’ve been thinking a lot lately,” he said one day when we were walking home from the bus stop. “About the ánt’įįhnii.”
“They’re great and terrible Navajo witches. They can do all sorts of amazing stuff, like become Skinwalkers. But their power comes at a terrible cost. Many Elders believe they’re evil.”
Now, as my footsteps crunched through the light layer of snow, I tried to push those thoughts out of my head. I tried not to think about what brought Jasper all the way out into the forest like this. I tried not to believe the allegations that he had kidnapped his younger sister and brought her with him.
But beneath it all, I knew it was true. He had told me the cost of the transformation. Time and time again he had shared with me his intense longing to be on four legs, a wild shade in the night. Free from time. Free from humanity.
“What a load of shit,” I had told him, a few weeks before he went missing. I tried being patient for as long as I could, but it was just so Goddamn silly. “You’re telling me that you would kill your sibling, just to test out this insane theory that you might become evil-”
“To reach clizyati,” he corrected me, patiently. “And yes, then I could transform.”
“You’re sick, man,” I said. “And wrong. You’re wrong about thinking you’re capable of killing your sibling, and you’re wrong about this crack-pot custom.”
Snap. A crunching sound in the dark snapped me out of my reverie. I swung my flashlight around to the direction of the sound, but it revealed nothing. I stood petrified and still, waiting for another sound. But nothing came. Not even the sound of the other members of the search party reached me now.
I moved forward a little farther, then found prints in the snow. They were like paw prints, but with bigger claws, almost the size of fingers. At the end of the prints were clearly claw marks, piercing into the snow. To this day, I’ve never seen anything like them.
Suddenly, I had the feeling I was being watched. I turned and for a moment I thought I saw a person standing several feet away. Two eyes glowed like animals’ eyes above a bush that was just beyond the reach of the beam of my flashlight. I took a step closer, but it melted into shadows. And the eyes were gone.
My mind must have been playing tricks on me. That’s the only explanation.
“I would give anything to be free like a wolf,” I remembered him saying. I had just spent a good long hour ripping his mythological theories a new one, but he just held on to that indefatigable gaze that had become characteristic of his face; always looking far away, somewhere else. “I would literally give anything.”
Anything, I thought. I stopped dead in my tracks, watching my breath roll white and smokey into the frigid air. My toes were going numb now. I had lent Jasper my good pair of boots several days before he had gone missing. It was those footprints I wished to find, but all I kept seeing were the absurd looking paw-prints in the snow.
Now, when I think back on it, I believe I may have been subconsciously following those paw-prints. But if I believe that, then I would have to believe that whatever left them had wanted me to follow them. Because they led me exactly where I wanted to go. And after I followed them a little farther, I found exactly what we had been looking for. A body.
I remember the snow wasn’t red. Later, the Sheriff would tell me that that was because it had already bled out before the snow had fallen. But before I called anyone over, before the fullness of the situation actually sunk in, I remembered wondering why the hell the snow wasn’t blood red.
Because by all appearances, it should have been. Jasper’s younger sister, Diandra, was laid flat on her back with her throat slit open from ear to ear. Her brown skin was stained crimson and the tiniest sad arch was tattooed on her blue lips. Her eyes were closed. He had closed them. I knew that much.
Stranger still, was the flesh lying half-covered in snow all around her body. It did not belong to her. It looked like someone had scooped fistfuls of flesh right off their bones and let it drop on the ground. There were enough chunks to cover a skeleton in skin from head to toe.
Then I saw my boots. Right in the middle of the skin, I found the boots I had lent Jasper. And he was nowhere to be found. There was just heaps of flesh.
I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and started to dial the Sheriff. I didn’t know how far I was from the others; had no idea how far I followed those strange wolf tracks into nowhere. But before I could finish dialing, a deep, guttural howl filled the forest with its sound. It did not sound like any wolf’s howl I had ever heard before. It was deeper. Almost as though the being that made the sound had once known another language. And for some reason, I thought it sounded immensely sad.