May we present this wonderfully dark and delicious story by Emma K. Leadley in full for your enjoyment. Emma's story is featured in the anthology "It Calls from the Forest: Volume One", which releases tomorrow! Get this and 23 other terrifying tales here
A Wail of a Tail
Emma K. Leadley
Bill’s stomach grumbled loudly enough that his dog, Jasper, turned to see what the noise was. They had spent a long, fruitless day together, and now dusk was setting. No damned animal had stayed long enough in the groundsman’s sights for him to aim, and even his traps had been disappointingly empty of potential dinner. Not even a tasteless, bony squirrel. Vegetable stew and stale bread it would have to be.
Taking one last look around before heading for the cabin, his heart leapt. Deep-brown fur flashed between the trunks only a short distance away. Bill estimated it to be the size of a very large cat — enough to eat like a king for a week. He pulled up his rifle and breathed deeply to steady his shoulders. Taking aim a single shot rang out, followed by a shrill, piercing scream. “Come on, lad,” he called to Jasper whilst running towards the kill. “Dinner for us!”
On the ground, where the creature should have been, was a tail. It was thick, meaty, and covered in coarse fur. Yet here was no body and, even more puzzling to Bill, no blood — not even a drop. He scratched his head whilst he looked around, perhaps it was getting too dark? Jasper circled, whining in excitement, but couldn’t find a scent trail to follow. It was as though the creature had just...disappeared...
Bill hefted the tail; it was definitely enough to add to the stew pot. Back at the cabin he sat on the stoop and skinned it, hanging the pelt on the rafters to dry. He cut round the bones, and finding them too small for Jasper, threw them into the woods for something else to enjoy. Taking up his knife again he sliced the remaining meat, thinking how sweet it smelt, not earthy like the plentiful squirrels or occasional deer that were his usual fare. Stirring together his foraged selection of herbs and bartered vegetables with the meat, he left the stew to cook over the open fire.
As it bubbled away the cabin filled with a mouth-watering smell. It was exotic and intoxicating, unlike anything Bill had ever experienced before. It promised a satisfying meal and, when staring into the smoke from the fire, he saw strange shapes form: hints of adventure and riches, the woman of his dreams...No, not just those, but all his hopes and aspirations coming to pass?
He shook his head, clearing his sight and his mind. Something wasn’t right. Had he put the wrong kind of mushrooms in the cooking pot? Jasper didn’t even seem to smell anything — he should be whining and pacing by now. But, Bill thought, the meat was tender, and he was ravenous.
He spooned a large portion into his bowl and dug straight in. His lips and tongue blistered with the heat as he ate, but he didn’t care. It tasted too good. He continued eating, spoon after spoon, topping up from the pot and shovelling it into his mouth as though in a trance. He mopped up every last drop with bread.
“Sorry, lad,” he said, turning to Jasper as he realised what he’d done. “There’s just biscuits left for you tonight.” Bill’s eyelids drooped, and even speech was an effort. It felt as though his face was disconnected from the rest of his body, and the room swam. Stumbling to his bed, like a drunkard, he sprawled flat out on the mattress fully clothed. “Must be coming down with something,” he muttered.
Moments later he was snoring. The visions that had started earlier in the wood smoke invaded his dreams, flickering faster and faster. They became darker as he tossed and turned and, even asleep, he screamed. He was desperate to run from these nightmares.
He felt his limbs being ripped from his body as though they were twigs. He heard the wet pull of muscles and sinew as sharp claws shredded his torso, inch by inch. When he screamed his tongue was torn out, and he passed out from the virtual pain. He bled out, left for dead, until the cycle started over again. All the while brown fur flashed in his peripheral vision, the words “Give me my tail,” repeating like a mantra.
Bill awoke with a start, gulping in a great lungful of air as he sat bolt upright. He was dripping in sweat, and he shook as the remnants of his dreams faded from memory. The embers of the fire were still burning, a candle guttering in its holder as it cast long, flickering shadows. He swung his legs out of bed, wanting to take a good swig of brandy, but something was rustling in the cabin that didn’t sound like Jasper. Claws scraped and scratched along the floor, and Bill pulled himself back into bed, gripping the blanket as he stared into the shadows.
He couldn’t see anything, but the noise got louder. Closer. With a final grunt whatever it was stopped, and Bill came face-to-face with orange, glowing eyes. The bright eyes were peering out from coarse, matted fur as it landed on his chest. It stank. Bill choked on the smell, eyes watering as he tried to wriggle out from under the fetid creature. Its sharp teeth and claws glinted in the dancing light, pointed ears silhouetted against the cabin.
“Give me my tail,” it said, mouth working hard to make the right shapes to talk.
Bill blinked and rubbed his eyes. Surely this was another layer of dreams? Jasper paced round, hackles raised, teeth bared as he rumbled a low, warning growl.
“Sleep until the morning, my friend,” soothed the creature. “I have no fight with you.” Jasper sank to the floor, breathing deeply.
“Your dog will be fine, and tomorrow will be rewarded with a fine feast. Now! Give me my tail.” the creature tapped its claws on Bill’s chest. The sound boomed, vibrating through him as though the ground were shaking. His heart beat nineteen to the dozen.
“I c — c — an’t,” he said. “I ate it.”
“Give me my tail!”
“How? I ate it!"
The creature jumped down from the bed and began marching round the cabin in circles. “Oh, oh, how I wail. Oh, oh, I want my tail,” it sang in a melancholy lament, its voice pounding inside Bill’s head. Every time its foot struck the floor the ground shook, and the beast appeared to grow larger. The sky filled with thunder, and rain hammered down on the roof, but all Bill could hear was the creature’s song and a distant stamp, stamp, stamp, as though the thing was far away.
Bill swung out of bed with slow, gentle movements and inched towards the door. His gun was there, and he wanted the safety of its wood and metal. He needed a barrier to put between himself, and whatever that creature was. Perhaps, if the threat of the gun wasn’t enough to scare it off, then he’d have to shoot it. He’d have to steady his hands first though.
Before he could reach the door the creature loomed over him, even larger than before. It was grinning, a too-human expression. “I want my tail.” It reached out a claw-tipped limb and pushed against the man, sending him sprawling to the floor.
Bill scrambled backwards, eyes darting back and forth as he calculated the distance to the door. Not much further...
The creature jumped, landing on his chest. The iron-like weight forced the air out of Bill’s lungs, and he struggled against it. The creature weighed too much, and it pinned his entire body down. Bill's vision flickered and blurred with the lack of oxygen. He screamed, emptying his lungs, and just like in his nightmares the creature grabbed his tongue and pulled. He passed out as agonizing pain overwhelmed his body, not hearing the loud ‘snap’ that would have rung through his ears as his jaw dislocated.
The creature forced a limb down Bill’s throat, claws scratching and gouging, shredding the windpipe and lungs as it worked its way down. “Oh, oh, how I wail. Oh, oh, I can’t reach my tail,” it sang as it pulled the limb back.
It jumped off Bill’s chest and dug its claws lower down into his torso, a wet, ripping sound filling the cabin as muscle and sinew was torn from bone. Sharp cracks rang out as the creature broke through the man's ribs, and soon lengths of intestine filled the floor as the creature piled up semi-digested chunks of meat.
It slipped and slithered through the eviscerated remains to the door, returning a short time later with the discarded tail bones and pelt. Piling everything up together it started singing again, this time happy and upbeat. “Oh, oh, I no longer flail. Oh, oh, I have my tail,”
It pieced together the pelt, flesh and bone, hydrating it with fresh blood from Bill’s corpse. With a quick, sharp toss the tail arced through the air, the creature jumping and wiggling excitedly below until the tail reattached. With a swish of its rebuilt tail the creature left the cabin. It shrunk back to its normal size, and gleefully jumped and leapt its way into the woods.
* * *
A few hours later, at dawn, Jasper awoke. He licked his lips at the smell of blood and raw intestines, saliva drooling from his mouth. After too many meals of dried bread and biscuits this truly was a fine feast. Out the open door of the cabin, a flash of chestnut-colored fur caught his eye, but Jasper didn’t care. He was hungry. Squatting down, he had his fill.
Emma K. Leadley (she/her) is a UK-based writer, creative geek, and devourer of words, images and ideas. She began writing both fiction and creative non-fiction as an outlet for her busy brain, and quickly realised scrawling words on a page is wired into her DNA.
Emma has always had a love of putting words together but only more recently developed the confidence for those words to reach further than gathering cyber-dust on her hard drive. Since early 2019, she's had multiple fiction stories published (or are upcoming) online, in eBook and in print, ranging from 100 words to 2000 words. They're mainly speculative tales: fantasy or horror with some science-fiction thrown in.
The biggest surprise to Emma was a new-found love of writing horror: she is a total wimp when it comes to watching anything with even the vaguest hint of horror -- yes, that includes Doctor Who, Stranger Things and Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- unless it's animated or in book form and consumed in daylight with the curtains open.
Visit her online at her blog where she talks about writing, books and other topics: autoerraticism.com; her author website for new and upcoming publications, emmaleadley.co.uk; or on Twitter @autoerraticism.