HORLA FICTION (April 2019)

 

A SMALL TOWN HOWLER

by Michael D. Davis

EVERY town has a howler. Some are drunks, some are teens, others are loonies, but like a gravedigger, every town has a howler.

Like every useful thing I know, I was taught about howlers from my grandmother. She was a wise old short woman that knew everything. However, on this, I didn’t believe her…at first. Much, I suspect, as you are not believing me now. But I guarantee you: every town has a howler.

A howler is a person, male or female, child or adult, that goes out into the night to howl like a beast. The howler in my town, my grandmother told me, was none other than ex-mayor Pratt Swofferton. He was an older, skinny man, always in a suit with three hairs slicked over a large bald spot. The fact that he was the howler seemed more unbelievable than the existence of howlers themselves.

When I was fifteen, two years after my grandmothers’ initial teachings on howlers, I was home in bed having an episode of insomnia in the form of a good book. When I heard a dog’s howl outside.

A quick glance at the clock told me it was approaching four in the morning, just as another howl came. It wasn’t a usual howl of a pooch in the wee hours of the morning. This, I noticed, was something entirely different. It was strange and human sounding.

I went to the window and stuck my head out – and, in the middle of the street, howling at the moon in his slippers, was none other than Old Mayor Swofferton. He wore striped button up pyjamas of the kind you always see Cary Grant wearing in the movies, and his three hairs were dishevelled.

That was the first time I ever saw a howler. But not my last.

A howler’s howl is unique to that of the howler. Much like a person’s voice, but they are often heard and simply thought to be an overactive K-9. One howler in the town of Tibbles was noted for such a low-pitched howl that was closer sounding to that of an elephant giving birth to a mahogany desk.

To keep from being caught or seen, howlers very rarely howl from the same place twice. I saw Old Mayor Swofferton outside my house when I was fifteen and I never saw him out there again the rest of his living days.

I’ve heard a story taking place in the town of Grambler of a group of high school students. As a school project, they took on the task of searching out their town howler and gaining a picture. They tracked him, seeking out how he plots and patterns his movements, before, finally, they were able to predict his next spot from which to howl. Of what I heard they found him, but still didn’t acquire a picture. No one ever has.

Mr. Swofferton, as well as the howlers from Tibbles and Grambler, were all regular howlers. By this I mean they go out on nights when a full moon illuminates the sky. Howling on nights like this, as I see it, gives one a target. It’s a conversation between the howler and the Man in the Moon.

The irregular type of howler is one that goes out willy-nilly on nights of his choosing. I have heard of these howlers, but, as of yet, have never met one myself. It doesn’t seem to make any sense to go out howling at a sky that’s as dark and lifeless as a covered well. If I’m being honest, I’ve always been afraid to encounter a howler of this type because a howler howling at an empty sky is like a crazy man talking to himself in a padded cell. It’s just not right.

Although I never saw Pratt Swofferton howl a second time, I’ve heard him more times than I can count. Sitting up late outside the house or cruising around town at two in the morning I was able to hear him. After a while, I knew his howl like an old man knows his dog’s bark. It was unique in more ways than one and conveyed more emotion than most epic poems. It was through his howl that I knew Old Mayor Swofferton was dying even, I think, before he did.

His howl just got weaker and weaker till no matter where I was, I could hardly hear it. The last one I remember hearing, I heard on the day before he died. I know he gave it his all, but it was hardly a sound. If anything, it was a very weak scream other than a howl. And I was the only one that heard it.  

There was a large turnout for his send off. Most the town showed up because he was a likeable guy with his suit and three hairs. My whole family was there, grandmother included. It probably wasn’t the most appropriate time, but I asked her a question that had been shooting my mind full of holes since Pratt died. Who was going to be the new town howler? This question was just the tip of the arrow, other questions included: Does the mantle get handed off to a family member? Do you have to be a certain age or have certain qualifications to be a howler? Is the next howler going to be someone else I know? Is it like a job? Can you apply?

As the question marks buzzed around my brain like bees my grandmother told me what happens when a howler dies.

Nothing.

According to grandmother, the town is quiet for several moon-filled nights, then it all starts up again with a howler born anew.

That’s how it happened for me. I was waiting for the new howler like the return of Christ when I realised it was me. I’d been sleepwalking lately, something I hadn’t done since I was a child. I would go to sleep tucked in my bed then wake up with muddy feet and footprints circling my room. I don’t know how many times it happened before I realised it. I’d gone to bed and woke up in the street howling at a full moon in my pyjamas. (How it got in my pyjamas I’ll never know.)

I don’t think I have enough skill to describe what it’s like being a howler, but I can try.

Every night that the moon is full I stalk the streets that snake through my town. I howl on nights people can’t get to sleep and nights when they’re sleeping like babies. I slink between houses knowing how close I am to a family that doesn’t know I’m there. I howl in a stranger’s yard when, on the other side of an old house’s wall, a child may wake in fright at the sound of me. I sneak under windows and crawl close to porches on nights when stars polka dot the sky around a large and beautiful moon. All close to people that never know I’m there – until I let go with a howl that shakes the earth’s foundation.

And don’t think that slight sound outside your window tonight, or that howl in the darkest morning hours isn’t a howler, because every town has one. If you don’t want to meet one, or see one, heed my warning and stay inside on the nights when the full moon has risen… and turn a deaf ear to the odd sounds that creep in through the cracks of your home.

Anyone might become a howler, even you. Maybe you’ll go to sleep tonight, tucked away in your bed, but wake in the street howling at the moon.

It has to happen to someone because, like I’ve said before, every town has a howler.

 

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MICHAEL D. DAVIS was born and raised in a small town in Iowa, USA. His fiction has been published by Out of The GutterNear to The Knuckle,Everyday Fiction, Sirens Call and The Dark City among othersHis writing has covered flash fiction to novella-length work. He works in a range of genres including comedy and horror.

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