The Last Werewolf Page 36

Which, to everyone’s surprise, they did. The subsequent excavations at Gharab revealed not just a temple but an entire sunken village dating from the third millennium B.C. Lord Greaves cleaned up his act and led the dig, partly because the wealth of artefacts shocked him into a renaissance of genuine interest and partly out of respect for the good man he’d lost.

For Alexander Quinn never made it back to camp. He and his little scouting party were ambushed by bandits on their return journey. Quinn, the guide and one of the servants were killed. The other servant, John Fletcher, though left for dead, survived a knife wound to the shoulder, wandered delirious for a day in the desert, then was picked up by a merchant caravan. On the strength of the only word they understood, “Qusayr,” the merchants returned him to Greaves there two days later, where, having made it through fever and miraculously dodged infection, he told his lordship the whole story.

The night before the attack, Fletcher reported, the party, camped by the temple site, had been startled by the arrival of an astonishingly old man in rags, who’d come crawling on hands and knees out of the darkness. Skeletal and half blind, he spoke a dialect even the guide only partly understood, but they didn’t need the translator to see the old fellow was close to death. When Quinn made to send for help the old man stopped him. No point. Time to die. But listen. Keep story. No children so tell you. You write down. Keep story. He’d laughed when he said this, at himself it seemed. Fletcher had supposed him mad. Quinn, unwilling to simply let the man die, sent the servants back to the village for help, but by the time they returned the old man had expired. In those two hours he had told, Quinn claimed, an extraordinary story, a story which, if its provenance was genuine, had been passed down from the days before Etana and which would provide the oldest account of the origin of a near worldwide myth—of humans who became wolves.

Quinn, via the guide’s translation, had written the whole thing down in his journal.

That wasn’t all. But for the rags on his back the old man’s only possession, wrapped in the remains of a gunnysack, was a piece of stone, some ten inches by eight, clearly a fragment of a larger tablet, bearing hieroglyphs Quinn couldn’t decipher, but which, according to the old man, was proof of the truth of his tale.

Which isn’t much, is it? Hardly sufficient, you’d think, to form the basis of a neurotic obsession for the better part of forty years. Because for forty years the thought of Quinn’s lost journal—and the story of the Men Who Became Wolves—never ceased being a drain on my energies.

There’s a limit to what one can do. I interviewed John Fletcher, Lord Greaves, all the surviving members of the 1863 expedition. I travelled with an interpreter to Al Qusayr and on to the excavated temple at Gharab. I sought out bandit chiefs and offered rewards for information. I retained half a dozen dealers in antiquities and rare books to keep an eye on the market, despite the laughably overwhelming likelihood that Quinn’s diary had simply been deemed worthless and chucked away to be long since swallowed by the desert sand. It all took time, money, mental illness. I knew it was a ludicrous fixation. (One knows one’s madnesses, by and large. By and large the knowledge is vacuous. The notion of naming the beast to conquer it is the idiot optimism of psychotherapy.) When the Times reported the story in May of 1863 I’d been a werewolf for twenty-one years. The big questions didn’t, it turned out, go away. Once a month I transformed into a monster, part man, part wolf. Fair enough. I killed and devoured humans, starting with my wife. Very well. But where did it all fit in ? Was my species God’s handiwork or the Devil’s? Darwin’s Origin , published four years earlier, had said, effectively, neither, but old habits died hard. What would happen to me when I died? Had I still a soul? Where and when did werewolves begin?

Of course I’d read . Folk tales, compendia of myth and superstition, academic studies. Lycanthropy, even a cursory investigation will reveal, has a place in many cultures. I’d travelled to North America and learned what I could of Wendigo and the skinwalkers, to Germany, where rustics still kept silver handy and cherished wolfsbane (which, by the way, though toxic to humans and pretty much every other animal, has absolutely no effect on us), to Serbia to hear of the vulkodlaks and to Haiti to learn what I could of the je-rouges . None of it conclusively convinced. I was a werewolf but the werewolf stories still sounded like fairy tales to me. I began to wonder if my scepticism was congenital, if the howler was naturally equipped with a nose for his own true provenance, or at least his own false biographers. The stories left me with the same depressing doubt the growing youngster begins to feel about Santa Claus and the Stork, those uniquely deflating intimations of the world’s somehow just not being like that . (These were still the days before I’d actually met any other werewolves, by the way. Not that the half dozen I’ve met since have been any use. One was four hundred and three years old and refused to speak at all. One was the founder of a [failed, naturally] werewolf society in Norway, a sect based around the worship of Fenrir, the illegitimate wolf offspring of Loki and Angrboda, which ruled him out of serious conversation. To the other four—one in Istanbul, one in Los Angeles, one in the Pyrenees and one, incredibly, on a Nile cruise in 1909—each monomaniacally desperate for a She, I was simply unwanted sexual competition and lucky to escape with my life.) Whereas, against all likelihood, John Fletcher’s story of Quinn’s encounter rang … if not true then at least not wholly false. Its very inaptness—werewolves in Mesopotamia?—lent it a whiff of mad authenticity.

One meeting with Fletcher was enough to convince me his story was true (what he was telling us was what Quinn had told him) for the simple reason that the man was incapable of making something like that up. So, granted the veracity of Fletcher’s testimony, what did Quinn write in his journal? What was the five-thousand-year-old story of the Men Who Became Wolves?

What I expected, what I realised I’d been expecting ever since the words “I have Quinn’s book” left my hostess’s mouth, was a deep, a bodily certainty that I no longer cared. What makes you think I give a fuck these days? I don’t give a fuck, actually, now that I think of it. Brave words. In fact I felt sick. Sickened , by the combination of knowing it was all too late and knowing that even now it wasn’t too late. “Quinn’s book” was simultaneously an outgrown childhood fetish and a miraculously resurrected dead love. I knew what a liberation it would be to get up and walk away, with a sad smile, as of a final renunciation that brings peace.

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