Lupita snuck a photo of the high priest straightening his tiara. The old man looked like he was wearing the Pope’s hand-me-downs. He teetered in red shoes, wearing a golden stole and a gray furred cape. The cape wasn’t Catholic, of course. Only an Orthodox Lupercalian wore gray wolf fur to church. Her parents delivered a list of rules before coming to Rome for Lupus Lupercalia — stay on the grounds, speak respectfully to your elders, and don’t photograph the rituals. The rituals hadn’t technically begun, so Lupita snuck a second picture. She was stealthy and quiet, and nobody would suspect she was secretly documenting her parents’ bizarre cult.
Lupita nudged her twin brother and showed him her phone. Lyall wore headphones, listening to music, and doing his best to ignore the entire Lupercalia. Their parents came to Rome every February, and usually left the kids at home, but turning thirteen was a big deal in their faith, and this year was a special rite of passage. Unfortunately, their parents talked endlessly about philosophy while providing almost no practical information. Today something important would happen, they would be changed forever, it was a blessing, praise be to the Goddess Rhea — or the Grand Pumba — or whatever. That was Lupita’s interpretation.
She pulled her brother’s headphone aside and whispered in his ear, “Today you are a man!” Lyall chuckled. Last week they’d gone to their friend David’s Bar Mitzvah. As a rite of passage, it seemed a lot more organized and a lot less secretive.
This morning their mother had woken them with a kiss on the forehead and said, “In boca al lupo.” In the mouth of the wolf, which was a special greeting for the morning of the first full moon after your thirteenth birthday. They were the only kids being initiated this year, and the only twins in a religion founded by the legendary Romulus and Remus. They were, in their mother’s words, very special.
Lupita nudged her brother again. “Let’s go for a walk. I want to take pictures.”
“We’ll get in trouble.”
“Okay then, as long as you know.” And they went outside and looked around. The gates were guarded by a bunch of stern guys with mirror sunglasses, but nobody was at the west wall of the sanctuary, where the kids tucked their phones in the pockets of their jackets and climbed up over the thick vines.
Dusk was settling around the Palatine Hill, and the twins were happy to be out. Aside from the sanctuary, the area was quiet, and the narrow streets were isolated. They wandered, laughing, taking pictures of graffiti — black spray paint on terracotta walls — and the early spring flowers popping bright in the shadows as the sun began to set.
They wondered about the cave where the mother-wolf had raised Romulus and Remus, and how to find it in the moonlight, which would be more fun than whatever their parents had planned tonight. Then Lupita noticed an itch at the back of her neck, as though she was being watched. Their mother had taught them to trust their natural instincts, one of her few fragments of practical advice. “Something’s wrong,” she whispered.
“I know,” Lyall said, “I feel it too.” He turned casually. “We’re being followed.”
“Is it the priest in the tiara?” she tried to joke.
“No, two creepy guys. Send Mom a text.”
They kept walking, and Lupita casually took a picture of the closest street sign, sending it to her mom with the text.
Sorry we might need help
Then she saw another man about half a block away, walking towards them. He leered and made an obscene gesture, and the twins, without thinking, turned to the right to avoid him. And found themselves blocked into a dark alley. As they swung around, they saw all three men facing them.
“Herded like sheep,” Lyall said quietly.
“Like lamb babies,” said one man and the other two laughed. “Pretty little lamb babies.”
Lupita and Lyall moved back into the alley, and the men moved towards them, arguing among themselves in Italian. Suddenly, Lyall pushed Lupita behind him.
“Tell them we’re Americans.” Lupita said, while surreptitiously taking a picture over Lyall’s shoulder. She ducked back and texted it to her mother. Lyall understood Italian, but she’d chosen to study Latin.
“They know we’re Americans, Lu. They’re arguing about whether to rob us or ransom us. And by the way, the big one likes sweet virgin boys.”
Lupita pushed in front of her brother, and quickly texted a clearer photo of the men. The big one might like boys, but the middle one was staring directly at her, and she suspected that he liked power and pain. She and Lyall had fought bullies before, but when the man flicked open his knife, she froze with terror for the first time in her life. Fear choked her, like a fist in her throat. Then suddenly — just as evening settled in the dark alley — a change came with the night. The air felt charged, the fist unclenched, and a growl rose in her throat. She felt protective, and rageful, and had a sudden and surprising desire to bite. And the desire was growing. Her shoulders and neck itched, then burned, and sudden pain shot through the bones of her face, her ears, and along her spine.
“What the heck?” whispered Lyall.
Lupita’s phone lit up with a text from her mother.
The moon is rising
Trust your instincts
And don’t spoil your appetite
And then Lyall howled — a sound of pain turning rapidly to power — and Lupita dropped the phone as her hands transformed, her limbs changed shape, and she dropped to all four paws. She smelled the adrenaline of her attackers’ fear, and the sharp scent of one attacker’s urine, and she raised her head and howled a blessing to the moon.
Marianne Xenos is writer and visual artist living in western Massachusetts. She works with photography, collage and stories. Along with narratives about shapeshifters and urban dragons, Marianne is working on a fantasy novel set in Boston’s queer community in 1983.
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