There was a large crowd of people outside on the sports field. Adults stood around chatting, holding steaming bowls of soup, and children spun around their legs, playfully shoving each other and screaming. Felix remembered coming to the school on this night when he was much younger and doing the same thing with his friends from Murkle Primary School. He wandered through the people, looking for his dad or someone else to talk to. He had put his blazer back on in his room earlier then, having stuck his head out of the dorm window, he changed his mind and replaced it with his padded black regulation coat. He left his satchel on the door handle. He certainly would not need that this evening.
There was no full moon tonight. Or at least no ordinary moon. The Murkle Moon was co-operating, however. It was fat and glowing above the woods at the top of the mountain. It seemed unnaturally large or perhaps unnaturally close, as though, if the trees were only slightly taller, there would be a risk of them pricking its round underside. Felix made it to the far edge of the crowd, noticing vaguely that he was still only eye-level with most men’s elbows. He stood part way up the field facing the Lower School and tried to take in the view of the whole throng, hoping to catch sight of his mum or dad. Someone turned off all the lights in the school at once and the crowd cheered. Apart from the Murkle Moon and the glo-sticks some of the younger children were waving, there was no light at all.
At the same moment as the crowd cheered, there came a chorus of howls from further up the mountain. The pupils from Upper School had changed. Felix remembered this order of events from previous years. The wolves appeared from around the temporary classroom and charged down the sloping field. Felix could hear the parents saying things like, “Is that Matthew? The one with the bushy tail? He’s doing so well, isn’t he?” as though they were watching an infant school nativity play. Oddly, as they came closer there was a point at which it became harder to see the wolves. The Murkle Moon did not shine so brightly on the middle part of the sports field as it did at the edge of the woods at the top. Felix strained to see if he could spot Leo or Toby but he was not sure he would recognise them in their wolf shape.
As the animals ran nearer to the school, parents, teachers and visitors began to change too. Felix caught sight of his mum’s curly black hair a moment before she leant forwards and blurred. People vanished like flying fish diving back into the teeming ocean. He watched as the group thinned and more and more wolves dashed out of the crowd and raced towards the Upper School pupils. For a moment it looked as if the two groups would attack each other as soon as they met. But this was part of a display of sorts; symbolic of the Upper School pupils becoming part of the bigger Murkle wolf community. When they reached one another the wolves play-fought and wrestled on the ground before running off together towards the woods.
Felix noticed for the first time a quiet group of older pupils had walked down the mountain. These were the Murkle children who could not change. They joined the remaining people gathered by the school and started to queue by the kitchen staff who were ladling out soup. Felix did not want to be like them.
Now that so many people had transformed and run up the mountain, it was much easier for Felix to move through the crowd. He still had not seen his dad.
“Hello, you!” said Jinger’s friendly voice. “Where’ve you been all afternoon? Were you doing something special for your birthday? You could have helped me with this in the library.” Jinger held up a large piece of cardboard with ‘Go Wolves’ written on it in silver letters. It looked like she had cut them out of tinfoil.
Felix was relieved. At least now he would not have to stand on his own. He could talk to Jinger for a bit and keep an eye out for his dad at the same time. “I wasn’t doing much. Needed to save my energy for tonight. Where’s Tabs?”
Jinger gave Felix a look which he hoped was not pitying. Even Jinger knew how much he wanted to change and she had only been at the school for a term. “Tabs is erm... she’s just coming. I think she had a headache or something. There’ll be hot dogs later,” she said, confusing Felix slightly with her quick change of subject.
“Oh, suppose it’s because of last year,” Felix said and then asked, “Have you seen my dad?” before Jinger had the chance to ask more annoying questions. He wondered if he would have time to get his birthday presents before he changed.
“No. Not since last Natural History lesson. I suppose he’s out here somewhere. What’s going to happen next? Is this what happened last year? Is your mum here too?”
“She was. I didn’t see her to start with because it was too busy. She ran up to the woods with the others before I spoke to her though,” Felix replied distractedly.
The two stood in the shrunken crowd for a while, Felix hardly concentrating on what Jinger was saying because he was too busy looking out for his parents. This was the first time in his life that he had not seen either of them at all on his birthday. In fact, he struggled to think of a time when he had not seen at least one of them on any day. As Jinger asked another question about what was going on tonight, he wondered if things would be different when he could change. Surely his parents would be as proud of him then as they were his older brothers?
Jinger asked the question again and Felix could not stop himself from snapping, “Why do you need to know, Jinger? It’s not like you’re ever going to change! You shouldn’t even be at this school!” He felt bad about what he had said as soon as he had finished speaking but he was too angry and disappointed about his birthday to put it right. Everyone else had changed and he had not. He could hardly bear to think that he might not change tonight after all.
Jinger looked surprised and then very sad. For a moment she looked like she might just walk away but then she shouted, “I don’t know why I would want to! You want to be a wolf so much that you even forgot to even thank me after I saved you from choking to death!” Then she walked away.
It occurred to Felix lamely that she had not saved him. He had actually managed to cough up the meaty problem himself but he had to agree that he should have said thank you to her for trying. Still, it was just like Jinger to remember something like that. Tabs was a lot easier to get on with. It was as though Jinger thought that remembering to say please and thank you was more important than anything else.
In fact, Felix did not need to tell Jinger what was going to happen next because before she had even reached the path round the school, the wolves in the wood began howling again. Felix knew that the Upper School pupils and the visitors to the school, including his own mum, were about to set off down the other side of Murkle Mountain for the Longest Night Hunt. There would not be much more they would be able to see from down here. The last wolves from the crowd to reach the edge of the woods were disappearing from view and Felix felt a stab of disappointment inside so raw that he almost staggered backwards.
Leo and Toby had talked every evening through the summer about the Longest Night Hunt. Unsupervised hunting was forbidden in the woods because there had been problems in the past with pupils from the school hunting too enthusiastically. Felix had heard his brothers laughing about stories of previous generations of Upper School packs destroying almost the whole population of some little creature or other in a single night because they were unable to stop themselves. Felix’s mum warned them that she herself had had to endure the embarrassment of walking out of the woods and round the lake in her nightie because she had not noticed the sun coming up in time. Leo and Toby had thought that was pretty funny too.
But on the Longest Night, hunting was permitted. Under the supervision of the visitors to the school, nearly all of whom had been pupils themselves at one time, the younger wolves were able to roam the whole woods from the top of the sports field, past the lake and down the other side of the mountain. They could let any scent they caught lead them to what they hoped would be a furry meal or at least a thrilling chase.
Last year Toby had returned with a rabbit in his mouth much to older brother Leo’s annoyance. That had been the best bit of the night for Felix, although he had to force himself to ignore his faint feeling of repulsion and pity for the prey. He remembered how sure he had been on his thirteenth birthday that he would be joining them on his fourteenth. Even if he changed now he would have missed the highlight of the Murkle calendar.
Felix stuck his hands in his coat pockets and began to walk slowly up the field, not particularly thinking about where he was going. He had not been able to find his dad or even Tabs and the rest of his family were too busy enjoying themselves to give him a thought. Jinger was annoyed with him. And he was not a wolf.
As he reached the middle of the field it occurred to him that no one had stopped him yet. He was in the darkest area, dressed entirely in black. Although he was not going to risk looking back, he was fairly sure that everyone left in the crowd was too engrossed in their hotdogs and soup to notice him. It was just a short distance now to the woods, especially if he aimed towards the temporary classroom. There were no lights on anywhere.
Felix reached the woods. The same logic that made him choose meat whenever it was served in the canteen and react unnecessarily rudely at things he thought might be silver, made him carry on walking. He might not have changed yet but maybe he could force it. The Moon would not be able to ignore a Murkle boy alone in the woods on the Longest Night, surely?
The difficulty of moving through the trees focused his mind. There were lots of fallen branches and twisted roots he had to step over and patches of dead nettles to avoid. It was almost impossible in the near pitch darkness. In the distance, he could hear the wolves calling to each other so he did not stop. He wanted to watch them hunting even if he could not join in.
After some time he realised that he had not seen the lake nor the ugly curved Upper School building. Confused, he felt a shred of fear tear through his middle. He had not been this way before. Momentarily losing his courage, he lost his footing too and slipped against the side of a thick tree, scraping himself on the bark in the same places as he had that morning on the gravel. He was about to swear when a large hand snapped out of the blackness and held him firmly over the mouth. He was pulled roughly to his feet and then hauled further into the woods by arms as strong and unmovable as the trees around them. Felix heard the wolves again.
The Murkle Moon had abandoned him to a life without the security of a pack or even his family. As the man carried him effortlessly through the endless woods, Felix now knew without a doubt that he was destined not to be a wolf.
Felix was to be a Woodcutter.