The Ursulina by Brian Freeman

I know you’ll never forgive me for what I did.

Believe me, I’m not trying to convince you that I’m a better person than I am, or asking you to find any sympathy for me in your heart. I won’t even ask that you not hate me. It’s too late for that.

No, I just want you to understand how I came to the place I did and why I felt I had no other choice. I’m sure you’ve asked yourself that question many times over the years.

Why? Why did I do it?

Well, sweetheart, this is the answer. Now I can finally tell you. But be patient with me, because some secrets are difficult to share and prefer the shadows to the light of day.

I was only twenty-six years old when the monster came back to Black Wolf County. The answers you want begin with the death of a man named Gordon Brink at Christmastime that year. However, if you really want to understand everything that happened—and I’m taking a leap of faith that you do—you have to go even farther back in my life.

Years back, to the night I met the Ursulina face-to-face.

So let’s start there.

*

We’d gone boating in the national forest, just me, my father, and my older brother. I was ten years old then. We spent the days on the lake, them with lines in the water, me with a book in my hands. At night, we’d pitch a tent, and my dad would grill the fish he caught, along with mushrooms he’d picked, showing me which ones were safe and which ones weren’t. Then, around the fire, we’d sing Rolling Stones songs. Probably my most vivid memory of my father is him channeling Mick on “Get Off of My Cloud” while chewing on a mouthful of beef jerky.

That camping trip is nostalgic for me. The three of us rarely spent much time together as a family because we were too busy making ends meet. I never really knew my mother; she died of leukemia when I was three. And yes, I know that only adds to the horror of what I did to you. With my father behind the wheel of a truck for weeks at a time, and my brother already taking jobs at sixteen, I had to fend for myself. By the time I was seven, I was biking back and forth to school alone. At ten, I was doing most of the cooking in the house.

It was 1969. The world was going crazy in other places, but in Black Wolf County, life went on without any real unrest. A couple of local boys died in Vietnam, and we mourned them and then went back to work. We had no choice. To this day, the joke in Black Wolf County is that we call it that because the wolf is never far from our door. Jobs have always been few and far between here. We’re remote, a county of dirt roads and dense trees, where close neighbors are measured in miles. Back then, tourists hadn’t really discovered us, other than a couple of lakeside resorts, so life and work revolved around the local bar, the high school, and the church.

And the copper mine.

Our lives rose and fell with the fortunes of the copper mine.

We didn’t have much, but one thing we had a lot of was land. Land was cheap and vast. To a ten-year-old on that camping trip, the whole forest felt as if it belonged to the three of us. I don’t recall seeing another soul while we were away. Of course, that didn’t mean we were the only creatures to be found there. The wilderness teemed with raccoons, deer, wolves, bears, moose, and cougars. We’d find their tracks and scat wherever we went, and even when we didn’t see them, we knew they were out there watching us.

That was why, when I left our tent in the middle of the night, I took my father’s gun with me for protection. I’d been shooting for years. If you live here, you know how to shoot. It’s not optional.

Our tent was pitched near the shore of a large lake shaped like a sunflower, with inlets sprouting from its round center like petals. I stood by the water for a while, scratching the mosquito bites on my arms and legs. The moon was full, making the night bright. I could see very clearly the quiet dark water and the silhouettes of fir trees crowding the fringe of the lake. Somewhere close to me, an owl hooted. I scanned the night sky to find him, but he was hidden in the trees. I’ve always felt a special connection to owls. Looking back, I wonder if the owl was giving me a warning about what was waiting for me in the woods. But I didn’t listen. I just headed into the forest so I could do my business far from the campsite.

I carried a flashlight in one hand and the loaded Colt revolver in the other. The gun with its extended barrel was almost as long as my forearm. I wore hand-me-down shorts that had belonged to my brother when he was much younger than me, plus a ratty white tank top that swam on my skinny frame. I hadn’t developed yet. Not that I ever really would. My black hair was long and as scraggly as a witch in a windstorm. On tiptoes, I didn’t clear five feet, which made it easier to walk, because I was shorter than most of the dangling tree branches.

Ahead of me, I found a small clearing. Lightning had felled an old-growth oak, scorching the bark into charcoal and taking down several young birches as it fell. The ground was soft with leaves. I located a hollow where I could squat and do what I needed to do. I had to put the flashlight and the gun at my feet, so I could balance my hands on my knobby knees. The thick crowns of the trees threw a blanket between me and the moonlit sky, so with the flashlight off, I was literally as blind as if a hood were covering my eyes.

While I was in that awkward position, I heard a noise.

First came the snuffly snort of a breath, like a huffing sound. It was loud and close. Then snapping and rustling followed, the sound of undergrowth being crushed in the woods just in front of me. And then, worst of all, the noise stopped. The silence meant that whatever was out there could hear and smell me and had paused to investigate.

The most dangerous animals are stealthy hunters who don’t like to be heard, so my first thought was: bear. That didn’t really bother me very much. Black bears are common around here, and it wasn’t cub season, when the mothers get protective. Once he got a whiff of me, I figured he’d be on his way. Even so, I finished up what I was doing as quickly as I could, then felt around the ground and retrieved my flashlight and gun. I hadn’t heard anything to tell me that the animal was moving away, which meant that I still had company somewhere close by.

I turned on the flashlight. Slowly, I lit up the trees, first one way, then the other. I sang a song under my breath—“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”—partly to make myself feel better, partly to give the shy bear a reason to lumber off to other parts of the forest.

Just to be safe, I also used both thumbs to drag back the hammer on the revolver and cock it.

Hufffffff. Another quick, loud, angry snort.

The landscape crackled under the weight of heavy paws.

I swung my flashlight toward the noise. At the end of the beam, I glimpsed something moving between the trees, maybe twenty or thirty feet away. The beast was there and gone in a blink. I saw it for only a second, but I had never seen anything like it. It was most definitely not a bear. It walked on two legs the way people do, more than seven feet tall, with a thick, matted coat of shaggy orange-brown fur. It looked right at me when it saw the light, and I saw the reflection of its eyes like two bloodred suns.

Now I was scared.

I stood alone in the clearing, absolutely frozen in place, unable to move a muscle. I wished I would hear those thunderous footfalls head away, but the beast had stopped again. Another loud growl rumbled out of the darkness, and the sound had a menace to it, like a threat.

I was trying to decide what to do when I heard a familiar shout not far away. It was my father.

“Rebecca?”

He was looking for me, thank God. He would save me. I put my head down and charged back into the woods, making as much noise as I could, my flashlight beam bouncing crazily as I ran. I crashed through brambles that grabbed at my tangled black hair and scraped their woody fingers across my bare arms and legs.

I hoped that the noise would scare the beast away, but it didn’t.

There it was. Its giant shadow loomed in front of me and blocked my path. I didn’t dare bring up my flashlight to see it clearly. All I could make out was its shape, hunched and huge, twice my size. We were so close that I could smell its stench and feel the heat of its breath. With a swipe of a paw, it could slash off my face. I tried to scream, but there was no sound in my throat. My whole body shook.

I lifted the revolver, struggling to keep it steady. My quivering finger slid over the trigger. I dropped the flashlight to the ground and balanced my wrist with my other hand. At that range, even a scared little girl couldn’t miss.

But I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t.

I could not kill this thing, which had done nothing to me. Somehow I think it sensed that, as if we had a truce between us. He would not hurt me, and I would not hurt him.

“Rebecca!”

My father shouted again, much closer to us.

At the sound of his voice, the monster stomped past me. The sharp claws on one of its paws scraped my arm as he passed, drawing blood. I held my breath, wondering if he would carry me off with him—but no. The beast vanished into the trees, leaving me behind. When I saw the beam of a flashlight, I called out, and seconds later, my father appeared in the woods. His face dissolved into relief when he saw me.

“Rebecca! What are you doing out here?”

I shrugged, as if it were no big deal. “I had to pee.”

“Well, you scared me half to death. Come back to camp.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“Are you hurt? You’re bleeding.”

“I scratched myself, that’s all.”

I followed him back to our tent, where he bandaged the cuts on my arm. After that, I pretended to sleep, but my eyes stayed wide open until morning. The rest of the night, the rest of the trip, was uneventful. I had no more strange encounters. Overnight, I would listen for the hufffffff that told me it was nearby, but all I heard was the hooting owl somewhere in the trees.

I found myself wondering where the beast was, and what it really was, and why it hadn’t killed me.

Somehow I knew—I already knew even as a girl—that we would meet again.

I never told my father what I saw. Not him, not my brother, not anyone. That moment in the woods has always been my secret. You’re the first person I’ve ever told, sweetheart, but it’s important that you know the truth.

You see, this is what you must remember as I tell you the rest of the story.

The Ursulina is real.