's 2017 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by Miranda

My mother was a shepherd before me, and her mother before her, and so on. Here's the job: I spend most of the year staying out of trouble, avoiding connections with those who would notice something amiss, and once every six months, I feed the wolf.

A single sheep every half year, and the rest of the flock is safe. Better to take one that's wandered away from the others, so as not to alarm them. This December's selection is a young ram, reasonably strong, but I catch him by surprise near the edge of the field. I've been at this job long enough that the sound he makes when I muzzle him is no louder than the birds in the trees. A serum slows the kicking of his legs in a few minutes, and I wrap him up and load him into the truck.

I choose a different cabin in a different state every time, even farther from the rest of society than a shepherd normally lives. There's snow on the roof and my fingers are freezing stiff inside my wool gloves, but I light a fire for warmth and pull the enormous weight of the semiconscious sheep inside onto the wood floor. The serum is wearing off, and the animal feebly squirms, his eyes full of terror. I try to avert my own as I paint the wolf's symbols onto the planks. I do pity the sheep when I have to do this. Sometimes I wish I could make them understand that they're dying for a greater cause, for a flock of seven billion others to sleep in safety.
The wolf arrives, as he always does, his huge feathered head intersecting with the cabin's furniture like a ghost, like something that exists in more dimensions than even a shepherd can perceive. He fixes me with dead deep-set eyes, like he does every six months, and like every six months my hunting knife trembles in my hands. I know that he owns me. That this is a sacrifice, not a victory, and that should I fail to bring him the regular offerings of my own humanity, he'll split open and drain every one of my flock. There is no winning here.

The young ram is now fully awake, as the wolf requests, wriggling and making all the noise the muzzle allows as salty fluids pour down his face. His fingers scrabble at his bonds. I force myself to look him in the eyes before I make the cut. It feels like the most human apology permitted to a shepherd.

Blood spills dark onto the floorboards, and the wolf's five tongues wrap around the dying sheep, pulling him toward his tube-like mouth. He crunches and moans as he eats, flickering in and out of visibility in a way that makes the whole cabin shudder. I've always felt it would be a betrayal to look away. Sated, the wolf slithers back into the walls, the stare of his four eyes the last thing to fade out of my shepherd's sight. The fire has gone out, and outside, snow has begun to fall.