Crashing through the brush on four legs, water clung to her on her pale yellow fur.
Dirt-covered snout flaring with the scent of moss and cedar.
Creatures-not-her scurrying away from her reckless journey.
Wings flapping in the boughs overhead.
She slowed to a trot as she shook her large ears, then drank from a small, babbling creek made of icy snow melt. She let the water run over her paws as strange instincts overtook her. Unsure what to do next, she pressed her belly into the mud and let her tongue loll from her mouth. Noisy, unhelpful memories of her past swirled in her mind.
She padded her unfamiliar feet in the brook before her and stared at them, then lifted her face to the dark sky above. Over the treetops, the moon shone like a beacon. It hung there earlier in the night, but now it gleamed with inexplicable brilliance.
She slid deeper into the freezing stream. Something about it made it easier to think as it seeped into her fur. She rolled onto her side and lazily lapped at the cold, clear water. It tasted better than anything she’d ever drank before.
Once soaked, she stood and shook her body, launching droplets until the shimmy reached her tail. Exhilarated by the crispness, she hopped from one edge of the creek to the other. Unfettered joy rose from her confusion, expanding from her chest to the tips of her paws.
She left the water, heading into the trees again. She ran, not knowing for how long, unconcerned with hours and minutes. When she came to a small clearing, she circled it, nipping at the grass and wildflowers. A breeze drifted through, and she lifted her nose to huff it, then snorted and shook her head.
Something different floated on the wind. Not trees or ferns. Its familiarity lingered somewhere in the recesses of her mind. She moved in the scent’s direction and stopped at the glade’s edge. The smell was accompanied by the rustle of cloth and the snapping of twigs, disrupting the woods’ tranquility.
It was man, forcing his way through the thicket on two legs.
Humans like her.
She glanced down at her paws. No, not like her. She differed from humans. But she couldn’t shake the sense of familiarity. Step by step, she moved toward the humans until the noises became clear, her ears twitching. The way these sounds strung together—they were her. Her name.
As she opened her mouth to speak, an unexpected noise escaped—a strained bark that startled her. It was not the voice she expected or remembered. She yapped several times, coming to terms with the odd noises. She pounded her feet into the dirt with irritation, then threw her head back. From deep within her came a howl so natural it had to be right.
I’m here, she said.
She focused on the humans and continued in their direction. As she neared them, she made out two distinct voices. They called her name again, closer than before. Their stink of sweat and gasoline overpowered her, and she hesitated, opting for a wide eclipse around them. They stopped walking, their bodies visible through the trees. A short one and a tall one.
“Lumi!” the tall one shouted.
The tall one turned toward her, and his eyes searched the brush. He crouched and held his hand out to her in invitation. The urge to rush to him filled her as foggy memories clouded her mind, but her instincts kept her wary. He was her last hazy memory before the forest.
Did he do something?
No. Not him. He was safe.
She lowered her weight and slunk closer to him until he spotted her between the trees. Pinning her ears against her head, she bared her teeth as she growled. He remained still, not budging an inch. Remaining cautious, she crept toward him. When he reached for his jacket, she bounced backward, but he called to her in a soothing voice.
From his pocket, he took out a hunk of food. Sweet-smelling bread. This was a thing she liked. As he held it to her, she let her ears flip forward. She closed the gap and bumped her snout against the bread. In his other hand, the man gripped a large knife, which she eyed. He turned sideways, moving the blade away, and used it to cut off a piece of the bread. The slice stayed on the knife as he extended it toward her, and she showed him her teeth again.
His voice was deep and melodic. The words were meaningless, but they nevertheless reassured her. She snapped the bread off the flat side of his blade and ran several feet away as she devoured it.
The moment she swallowed, her body grew heavy, and she sat on her haunches. The jumbled noise returned as she collapsed, her paws flailing in the soil. Pain tore through her frame as her bones cracked and her flesh split. Helpless, she whimpered as she convulsed. The men stood over her, their brows drawn together and their mouths set in tight lines.
The hazy forest blurred, then the world went black.
With a gasp, she started awake and clutched whatever her hands found. Strong arms held her steady against a warm chest, keeping her from floundering. She reached up and grabbed the face above her until whoever it was bit her fingers with a chuckle.
“It’s okay, pulu. I’ve got you.”
“Tapio,” she groaned.
“You’ve been through a lot.” Tapio stroked her head, doing his best to comfort her.
The rutted road bumped beneath them. He helped her sit up on his lap, and she rubbed her face. They were in his truck, on the passenger side. Oliver drove and glanced at the two of them occasionally.
“You ran pretty far,” Oliver said. “I’m impressed.”
“I’m confused.” Her eyes were bleary, and words still felt strange in her mouth.
Tapio brushed the hair clinging to her damp face aside, then tightened the blanket around her body. As much as she craved answers, exhaustion won out and the lull of the drive and Tapio’s embrace drew her into a slumber. He kissed the crown of her head before the world faded away.
When she woke this time, the familiar scent of her blankets and the sight of her ceiling confirmed she was home, back in her bed. Her body ached like the universe had reformed her from all the wrong pieces in haste. She coughed and tried to sit up, but couldn’t find the strength.
Her door opened, and both Oliver and Tapio crowded its frame. She smiled, weary, and her eyes shone beneath their dark circles at the sight of them.
“I’m parched,” she said.
“I’ll get some water,” Oliver said, then disappeared.
Tapio sat at her side and smothered her face with kisses before their friend returned. She wound her arms around him and breathed in deep, never wanting to forget how he smelled. She refused to release him when Oliver came back holding a glass, and the older man stood by until she relented.
“None of this makes sense,” she said.
“My dear, you are the proud bearer of a bona fide curse.” Oliver handed her the glass, which she drained in one gulp.
“A curse? Who would curse me?”
“Some crotchety old witch with a chip on her shoulder, I assume,” Oliver said.
Her eyes widened, but Tapio inferred the cause for her alarm with ease and shook his head. “Not Smith or her people. This is far beyond their abilities,” he said.
“I wish I knew. I tried to get him to tell us for years, but he always refused,” Oliver said.
“Him?” Lumi asked.
“Aleksi. He was cursed in the same way. He was vironsusi, and so are you.”
“A vironsusi?” Lumi furrowed her brow as she struggled to recall Finish folklore. “That’s a werewolf, right?”
“Yes, of sorts,” Oliver said. “I don’t know the whole truth—your uncle never told us about you—but it’s not uncommon for such a curse to pass from parent to child.”
“But Aleksi was my uncle. How could he pass a curse like this to me?” Lumi said slowly.
Scratching his head, Oliver searched for the right words. “You’re a lot like him, you know. I see him in you, in the way you stand, the way you laugh.”
“I see it, too,” Tapio said.
Their affirmation of her and Aleksi’s similarities ignited a suspicion she always held but never investigated. Aleksi had treated her so fondly and had looked at her with pride. On top of it all, she resembled her uncle more than her mother or father. But she never asked her parents or Aleksi because it seemed too far-fetched.
“How does this curse work?” she asked, her face pinched as she processed these revelations.
“Thanks to your trust in Tapio, you’re cured of the worst effects. Though you’ll have that tail the rest of your life,” Oliver said.
“Tail?” She shifted onto her hip and searched beneath her. In her exhaustion, she hadn’t noticed it while they talked, but she had been sitting on a fuzzy tail the same color as her hair. She pulled it around and stared at its bushy tip. Now that she was fully aware of it, the tail tugged in her grasp as she discovered new muscles in her lower back. Though peculiar, there was no doubt it was part of her.
“Welcome to the club.” Tapio gave her a wink. “You had to grow a tail bigger than mine, didn’t you?”
“I’d ask if this was a joke, but after everything else that’s happened today, I know better.” She let the tail flop onto the bed. “A werewolf . . . “
“There’s more to discuss, but you should rest first. We’ll talk more once you’ve recovered,” Oliver said. He nodded to Tapio, then took his leave.
Lumi stared at the man she loved, listening to her front door open and close. Tapio wrapped his arms around her and tugged her into a tight hug. She nestled into his lean figure and let him take her as he lay in her bed. Her mind was too full, making it difficult to think. There would be more to learn, too.
He slipped his hand down her back and gripped the narrow base of her tail. She wriggled, distracted from her thoughts by his manhandling, and let out a muffled laugh. Her new appendage flopped from side to side, acting on its own.
“I’ll have fun with this,” he said.
“Don’t you dare start, Tapikka.” It was a toothless warning.
Lumi stood in her backyard with a mug in hand, staring at the tree line in the late morning light. She woke late, having slept the first part of the day away. Despite his need for more rest, she wasn’t surprised to find him awake with food on the table when she shambled from the bedroom.
With a loud yawn, she rubbed her temple and sipped her coffee as she listened to the birds chirp. The apparent normalcy of the world brought her comfort. The colors were all the correct hue, and everything sounded less pointed. But if she tilted her head, she heard sounds once undetectable to her human ears. Especially in the underbrush.
Her nostrils flared, and she shifted toward her nascent garden plot. She held her coffee away from her body and sniffed. There was zero doubt—the soil had a richer, more potent scent.
“You’ve got your nose in the air like a hound dog.” Tapio stepped up to her side with his own steaming mug, one hand stuffed in his jeans pocket. His trusty green jacket that hid his narrow torso was conspicuously missing. “Does it smell different from before?”
“A bit,” she said.
She strode to the nascent garden’s edge and crouched by the patch of dirt. A tickle in her sinuses caught her attention, luring her in. Instinct tempted her to sink her bare hands into the soil, but she stopped, remembering she had a shovel. She handed her mug to Tapio, fetched the tool from the shed, and started digging.
“You’re quite motivated this morning,” he said.
“There’s something. I can’t put my finger on it,” she said.
She worked her way around the patch, following the curious smell. It took her a moment to recognize it, but the scent tumbled free with the earth when she dug out a corner. It reminded her of black licorice. Her shovel hit a hard object, and she glanced up at him.
“Can you smell that?” she asked.
“Anise. It’s old, but there’s a lot.”
“Your senses are good, too.”
“Bears have an excellent sense of smell, you know.”
“Better than wolves?” She smirked as she dug around the mysterious item.
“Maybe. We can test it out if we get bored.”
She laughed as she unearthed a stainless steel box enclosed in a waterproof bag. Curious, he stood over her as she dragged it onto the grass and brushed it off. As the dirt fell away, so did countless aniseeds, many still in their star-shaped pods. She lifted her gaze to meet his, a spark of curiosity fueling her, and her tail swished back and forth behind her. It mirrored her heartbeat, which raced with excitement.
Whatever she found, the only explanation was that it had belonged to Aleksi.
“Do you think it was a coincidence you started digging here yesterday?” he asked.
“Are you suggesting some small part of me detected all this anise?”
She unclasped and unrolled the waterproof bag’s top, opened it, and slid the heavy box out. The lid was unlocked, allowing her to pop it open. Inside, she discovered a single item: a worn black leather-bound journal. She flipped through the book’s pages and frowned.
“It’s in Finnish. This will take me forever to translate.” She stood and traded him the journal for her cup of coffee.
“I can read it if you’re comfortable with that idea. There might be private things in here,” he said as he thumbed through the book.
“I don’t think I have anything left to hide from you, Tapikka.”
She motioned for him to lean over, and when he did, she gave him a quick kiss. She then put the shovel away, and they returned to the kitchen table. There he remained for the rest of the morning and early afternoon, humming as he read the book’s contents. When her patience ran out, she pulled a chair beside him, sat, and rested her chin on his arm.
He nuzzled her hair, then flipped the pages in rapid succession. “These are records of things your uncle did with Oliver, Elias, and Meri.”
“What sort of things?”
“They seem to be investigations into strange phenomena. There isn’t much detail, but Aleksi made notes of useful information. Ways to counter corrupt spirits and communicate with elementals, things like that.”
“It’s like a grimoire, then.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s a good comparison. The last page he wrote is about you, though.”
He fanned the pages until he found the end of the records. An exhausted hand had scrawled the messy writing on the paper. He tapped the top of the page, drawing her attention to her name, then translated it aloud.
“Lumi, if anything strange happens to you, go to Finland. Find Tuuli. She can help. Without knowing the truth, you still did your best to be a wonderful daughter. I always loved you.”
“Oliver was right,” she whispered. “But why didn’t he raise me?”
“I’m sure he meant to hide you from the curse. As far as he knew, it worked.”
“I have so many questions for my mom.” She desperately wanted to call the woman she always believed to be her mother, but the cell towers were dark. She only had Aleksi’s words to rely on. Though they were clear, they did little to explain the situation.
“Can I do anything for you?” he asked, hanging his long arms around her.
She buried her face in his chest. “Distract me. I’d rather not think about any of this.”
“However you like. Music? Beer? Kisses?”
He uprooted her from her chair and set her on his lap, then covered her face in haphazard kisses until she laughed. She gripped his curly hair behind his ears and held his head still as she pressed her lips to his. Though sluggish, she couldn’t help but lean into him and deepen the kiss. She found herself in a fury of limbs and cried out as he stood, cradling her in his arms.
“Something more than kisses?” he asked with a broad, hopeful grin. “If you have the energy.”
“I’ll find some. What about you?” she asked.
“Lumikki, what I propose . . . I’ve been dreaming of for months. I definitely have the energy.”
Her cheeks grew warm, and her stomach flipped as she jabbed her finger toward her bedroom. If she had any words, they failed in her eagerness. They were unnecessary, anyway.