~3900 words, ~19 minutes reading time
CW: war, violence, multiple deaths
Men die first, they always do. Outside of sentimental value they are nothing but fodder for war. Now women, women are molded for an arduous battle. We, who handle life from the very first breath know best how to extinguish it. We are patient. We are soft footed and sharp clawed. So, when our men perished, we took to the forests.
Against the winter silence, a crisp shot splits the forest in two. Gone is my left cheekbone, my left eye, and a sliver shy of my brain, taken down by a soldier tracking me for the better part of three weeks. When I hit the snowed over forest floor, my neck snaps to a right angle, as if the bullet didn’t do a satisfactory job.
They strip me of my coat and my rifle. Nothing improper, nothing indecent. I would have done the same were I in their soaked boots. Yes, they take those too, and my socks with them. They’re foreign to this land; they’ve come unprepared. The forest is cold in the winter, and desperation runs high. The boy with the winning shot stands over me. He’s no older than twenty, his cheeks stained with winter’s flush, still round with youth. He kneels by my side and closes my right eye.
Don’t worry boy, I want to tell him, I don’t take it personally.
Then they move out, all five of them, my boots and rifle in hand.
I will come for you when the night grows dark, I want to tell them. I will come for you silent as the first snow, quick as the cold’s bite. But in the coming silence, my body cools, stiffens. Frostbite spins a web across my right cheek. Some small animal nibbles at my calf. It won’t be long at all before the forest makes good use of me.
Are you cold, girl? A voice, crystalline and gentle echoes through the bare treetops, creeps along the forest floor. The forest knows how to comfort in those moments when the end grows near.
I’m dead, I’d like to say, I’m not anything at all.
The wind changes direction and with it the voice flutters into the sky, like fog from an open mouth. The night stretches on. But I know to be patient.
Are you cold, girl? The voice returns when the first stars light up as icy pinpricks in the hollow sky. My bare feet are frozen solid. The rest of me will follow soon. The voice pierces through a memory of the home fire, the humble dinner, so crisp I can taste the stew. The voice breathes air into my lungs never asking if I want it.
“No, I’m not cold,” I tell the voice. “But I am ready.”
Our grandmothers warned you. Never bury a woman in the forest, for it will welcome her home with open arms like her father never did. Never bury a woman in the forest for she will return home in three days’ time, and she won’t be herself. Her eyes will be as black as a winter’s night, and her hair will be tainted with mud and pine needles. And she will smile with all of her teeth, and she will show you no mercy. Pray, if you are the one that harmed her, for she is out to hunt.
But you never listen.
Is it your life that you wish returned? The voice echoes through the night sky and through the forest floor. It resonates in every broken bone in my body and sings in the fractures. No, my life will wait, not until the job is well and done, and gunfights ends, and the nights are safe to sleep through.
Is it a gentle passage to the other side you desire?
One day, perhaps.
Is it blood spilled, and bones shattered that your heart calls after?
I’d laugh, but my lips are blue and frostbitten, and dead. “And nothing more,” I answer as calmly as I can.
How will you find them now that you only have one eye?
By their scent alone if need be. Gunpowder and cigarettes, laced with cowardice. “Lend me the eye of a fox then, and I will find them swiftly.”
The voice ponders, mulls over my request until it’s ready to make the bargain. Then, without signal or warning, the forest floor rushes by me on all sides. Snow piles over my head as I zip by a tree, dive into a burrow. The voice provides, and it has given me far more than just the fox’s eye. As if by magic, trails of scent wind themselves around the protruding roots of the trees. In vibrant ribbons they run below the snowbank and from the treetops. Here, a rabbit sought shelter. Here, an owl takes reprieve. And here—here men have walked, carrying what never belonged to them.
Are you satisfied with my gifts? The voice beckons.
“Grateful am I for the eye of the fox,” I tell it, “and the nose of the fox. But I will need claws or talons if I am to spill their blood.”
The voice ponders. Then I will give you the fangs of the wolf to assist you. A piercing howl splits the night. In a moment, the heat from the wolf’s gaping maw thaws my skin. It sniffs at my face then nudges it with its nose.
“And something to help me walk?” The fall shattered at least one of my femurs. The frost ate its way through my muscles.
Then I will give you my own limbs. At those words, the forest floor below me rumbles. At first the sound is faraway, muted by the meter of frozen ground. But with each passing moment it grows closer, louder. And then, at once, it’s upon me. Four tree roots split the snowy ground and lunge into the night. They split into two or more appendages, each writhing in the starlight.
The first root bites into my heel and pierces my leg along the tibia and femur. If I weren’t dead, I’d scream in agony, but my mouth is dead and frozen. The second root enters through my palm. I can feel it wrap around the ulna. It digs deeper and deeper, until it finds my ribcage where it tenderly caresses the sternum and finds its home around my spine. One by one, the roots pierce my body. One by one they sever their ends and disappear below my pale skin.
For as long as you walk along the forest’s soil, these will walk for you, but step beyond it and none of my gifts will be there for you. Tread carefully now, girl, for I did not make you indestructible.
“What have you made me, then?”
A part of myself.
The wolf waits patiently by my side, watching me with predator eyes. Its tail wraps around its feet for warmth. I press up from the ground and pet it across a wide skull. “Go hunt,” I tell it, “and listen for my call.” At once the wolf hops to its feet and howls into the night. Before its howl dissolves along the treetops, the wolf is already gone.
Tread carefully, girl, for everything returns to the forest.
In the starless night, the fox scurries along the forest floor, my little scout. Silent, focused. The soldiers that killed me made good progress overnight while I was wasting my time freezing. Now, they have set up a fire and set out their rations. The fox watches on from the bush with anticipation. I listen to the crackling fire with its ears. The jokes and the laughter flow freely. Not for long.
The wolf returns to me, its hunt successful. A bloodied rabbit pelt hangs from its mouth. “Don’t worry,” I tell it, “soon I will get you a more substantive meal.” But for now, we wait, for now, we stalk. The fox’s ears relay that they’re meeting another company at the forest’s edge. What better opportunity to maximize our bounty?
The wolf whines softly by my side and nuzzles my cool palm. I feel its hunger like my own, drenched in longing, muddied with an urge for slaughter. I scratch behind its ear, “Alright, just this once.”
When the night falls silent and the men have gone to sleep. I slip through the overgrowth towards their camp. Drunk and half-conscious, one staggers away into the bush to relieve himself. A wolf is nearly silent in its hunt, but nearly isn’t good enough. The fox’s eyes show the man lean against a tree trunk in his stupor, my coat draped around his shoulders. My feet fall into rhythm with the wolf’s steps as we close in.
He spins around, terror twisting his features. I press my finger to my lips. Hush, foolish man. I am a sight to see, bloodied and eyeless, with pale, naked flesh glistening against winter’s night. A scream seizes up in the man’s throat. A fresh puddle of wet spreads across his pants. “Just this once,” I tell the wolf, and it tears the man’s head off in a single bite. “We have a bigger kill to claim.” Quietly, it savours the still-warm flesh, and just like that, the forest quells its hunger.
When it’s finished, we move out.
We leave my coat behind, shredded by predator fangs.
Winter mornings come with clarity unrivaled. Snow lays undisturbed along thin paths between the trees. Every breath comes out hushed, every step is cautious. The rising sun plays along the white blanket, shimmers along the pristine forest floor.
The wolf and I walk in rhythm. The fox scurries ahead, scanning the landscape for danger. We rest near a small clearing. Fatigue doesn’t weigh my reanimated form down, but my furry companions do grow tired. The wolf drapes its tail over its snout and drifts off into a shallow slumber. Here, we wait for nightfall.
Are you quite finished? The voice calls for me from the treetop, jubilant and coy.
“No,” I whisper back, “Not yet. Not until the last of them are one with the soil, and then the next company, and then the next.”
From faraway, a faint song pulls my attention. The melody of the soft mezzo-alto carries a tune so old its words are carved in my bones. It is a song from my great-great grandmother’s days, hummed and sung from one generation to another. Who would possibly wander this far into the woods?
The girl enters the clearing from my right, a leather pack strapped to her back. She wears a face familiar enough that she’s no stranger to me, but I can’t recall ever speaking to her back in town. Her dark hair, roped in thick braids, tucks in behind the hood of her coat. She’s out setting rabbit snares. Her deft hands string them together and hide them beneath the snow. Usually, we don’t venture this far from the edge of the forest, but it’s been a tough winter. Desperation runs high when mouths go hungry.
Nostalgia bubbles to the surface as I watch her work with my inferior human eye. Not too long ago I too was setting rabbit snares, picking firewood, starting campfires for that night’s dinner. All before I learned the power of a rifle. All before I called for the forest and the forest answered.
At once, the fox shoots upright from where it rests. Someone’s coming. A low growl leaves the once sleeping wolf. How foolish it was to think that the men wouldn’t follow, that they would yield on the side of caution and forget revenge. The fox takes off, its eyes and nose doing my bidding. The men circle the clearing, taking safety in the bush. Even in the winter it’s thick enough to provide cover.
The girl does not see. The girl does not hear. She sets her traps, oblivious to the danger ensnaring her. I tell the wolf to stay. One palm pressed against the ground I shut my eyes and let the fox do the looking for me. The soldiers take their positions. They think they’ve got their murderer, but they’ve got the wrong girl. “Let the roots flow from my body, like steel would,” I ask the voice and it chuckles through the frozen soil.
The roots retreat from my body, breaking my bones in their wake. They slither into the ground, vanish below the snow locked on to their targets. My body slumps forward, all posture gone. The pain is kept at bay only by the promise of imminent vengeance. I watch the slaughter through the fox’s eyes as the first soldier crumples like rotted wood when the roots squeeze the life from him. His body writhes as he is lifted into the air and then silently slammed back down. His death is too immediate for him to make a sound. Crimson stains the snow.
The roots pull from his corpse and dive beneath the white cover. They race along the outside of the clearing. Silent. Invisible. The second man meets a similar fate. One root resurfaces and wraps itself around his ankles, binding them together. But before his hefty frame hits the ground, another root pierces his heart. He succumbs with a gurgling sound, and the forest is silent again.
The roots make quick work of the third soldier and leave him half buried in the snow, but before they can set off after the last, a scream pierces the morning calm.
Here, the wild isn’t some backdrop for a painting, not some weak little thing you can contain with a wooden fence. It demands worship, demands sacrifice. It demands to be fed. The roots of our trees will pierce you like steel daggers, the waters in our lakes will pull you under and freeze your still-beating heart solid. The animals are out there, waiting for you.
And now their hunger is my hunger too.
All colour drains from the boy’s face as he clutches the girl against himself, the short barrel of a handgun pressed to her chin. He’s too young to keep calm, but old enough to know that he’s not walking away from this clearing. Desperate. He’s desperate, like all men are in the face of death.
The girl mutters something, but he just pulls her close and spins around. Wild eyes scan the bush. “Come out,” he shouts. “Come out or the girl gets it.”
I would if I could. The wolf growls, but I tell it to hush.
He can be dealt with, the voice whispers, somewhere behind me. This is what you wished for, is it not?
“Not with someone else in the crossfire.”
There’s always a price to pay.
“Let me solve this, my way.”
The voice concedes. The roots rush beneath the ground and impale my flesh. Root wraps around bone, replaces muscle. There’s no time to hurt, no time to feel. I’m on my feet in an instant. The wolf and the fox by my side as I break through the bush and enter the clearing.
The boy spins around and his face pales further. He opens his mouth to shout, but his voice strangles in his throat.
“The girl did nothing. Let her go,” I say, and my voice has the winter’s chill in it.
He takes a step back, drags the girl with him. She stares at me in fear, disgust, recognition. My monstrosity is familiar to her, like a distant memory, one she’s packed away to revisit when she is ready. We’ve both seen the consequences of making a bargain with the forest. We both know.
“You’re—you’re the one I killed,” the boy says. His finger trembles on the trigger, far too close for comfort.
I wish to agree with him, but that would be an utter lie. I am not the one he killed, no longer the same woman that tumbled from the tree to her death. I watch him through the fox’s eyes. Saliva fills my mouth, slick with the wolf’s hunger. “I once was,” I say and take a step forward. The ground echoes with the boy’s fear. It pulses through the soil like the leathers of a drum. No heartbeat, no breath, goes unnoticed by me, by the forest, by us. “Step away from the girl.”
“So that I may die?”
“You’ll die anyway, boy.” I pet the wolf. Meanwhile, I send one of the roots into the ground. It slithers from my left ankle and disappears. It knows where to go, where to strike. It senses my urgency.
When the moment comes, it ends in an instant. A cry. A discharged gun.
But before all life bleeds from his body, he squeezes the trigger. The girl falls to the ground beside him, blood rushing from the wound in her neck. She stares into the sky with wide open eyes, her mouth crimson and breathless. The forest feels no guilt, no regret. I do.
The girl opens and closes her lips, struggling for air. There’s nothing to be done for her, nothing that would prolong her life.
Then let her cross over, the voice says.
I trail my fingers down her cheek, her neck, her arm. With a rasp, she grabs my forearm and squeezes it tightly. Brittle nails dig into frozen flesh.
When the men perished, we took to the forests. It’s a place we know well. It’s in our blood.
“Not, not yet,” I beg. I will the vines to move my body. With the girl dying in my arms, I jerk towards the edge of the clearing and towards the home I left behind. At first, each step is a struggle, my naked feet sinking into the ground. But with each new drop of the girl’s blood on my hands my feet move faster, my steps grow longer. One more, one more and then another, and then a few still and I’ll be at the forest’s edge. And then she’ll be in other women’s hands, hands that know how to heal, hands that are clean of strangers’ blood.
“No, not yet, not yet,” I mutter to the wolf trotting behind me.
When my foot hits the threshold between the forest and the snowed-over plain, my leg crumples. A searing pain rushes through my limbs as the vines recede in an instant, slithering back into the cover of the bush. The girl’s body tumbled from my hands and into the snow, leaving a burgundy streak in its wake. “What gives?” I yell into the grey sky.
The forest takes its due.
The girl lays in the crumbled snow and does not stir. Her arm twists below her body, her pale face half-upturned towards the sky. She has a hunter’s eyes—wide open and unyielding, and in them float the reflections of steely clouds.
You’re too late.
And no dead strangers can undo that, no ounce of vengeance.
“Do something,” I whisper. “You must have arms that reach as far as the town. You can command the wolf to carry her. Do something. There’s tales of women returning with eyes like the night and moss in their hair and they take what is theirs. They carry justice with them.”
The winds tickle at my neck. But they do not return as women. They only wish for revenge, and I grant it to them. They are no more human when they walk back to town than the mushrooms sprouting up in spring. Is that what you wish for her?
The only fate before me is that of a marionette at the forest’s bidding. A chilling revelation. I wished for vengeance and the forest granted it. I wished for fangs and the forest obliged.
Every gift comes with a price. It reads my mind. I wished for fangs and now fangs are all I have.
Across the stretch of frosted land, a chimney puffs up a cloud of smoke. The baker has risen early to make the day’s loafs. I’ll never taste the fresh breads again, never warm my hands on the crust, never step foot in the warm bedroom and bury myself under the wool blanket. No, never again. The milkmaid hobbles over to the barn, bucket in hand. She can’t see us, but the fox watches her, I watch her, as she disappears past the threshold.
There’s only the woods left for me now, and violent and careless men to be devoured. I look at the girl, her body frozen against the pale snow. There’s nothing to be done now, no life to stop pouring from her throat. It spread around her, a carpet of red, like a woven blanket to keep her warm through the nights.
It would be mercy to let her go, to let her pass quietly and softly to the other side. But there’ll be more rifles behind us, hiding out in the woods, ready to take our little town. And they will burn the baker’s home, and they will take the milkmaid, and there will be nothing for anyone to return to. But between the town and the violence are the woods, and the woods are filled with vicious things.
Mercy I can’t grant today. “She will need to borrow the voice of a mockingbird and a pair of fangs of her own,” I tell the forest and feel the roots pierce my body once more. They drag me to the safety of the pines and bring the girl with us.
You are in no position to bargain for her, reminds the voice. This comes with a price.
Everything comes with a price, and all debts will be settled. The forest will take what it is owed. But the girl doesn’t care about the cost as she watches me with her unseeing dark eyes. I know the look, forever frozen across her features, sharp and clear. She wants the very thing we all want. One task we’re willing to forego death for.
The forest is always listening. Be mindful when you trek through the woods not to complain of the cold, for your pitiful words will entice winter’s rage. Be careful where you set your rabbit snares, lest you anger the earth. Never ask the forest of anything but show patience and courage, and it will surrender its bounty to you tenfold.
The girl wakes with a gasp, cold fingers claw at the snow. Faint moonlight washes her skin alabaster, her obsidian hair sprawls across naked shoulders. She stands with prideful posture, shaky at first, but quick to catch her footing. Free of fear, her eyes dart over the wolf and the fox, over the vast expanse of the forest. “What do we do now?” she asks and a mockingbird lands on her extended finger.
What will you do now? The voice echoes through the treetops.
What is there to do? Men will come through the forest carrying guns and death with them. Years will pass before the war starves itself. There is death everywhere I search, under every rock, behind every shrub, lodged deep under my nails. It fills the air like winter frost, puffs up into the night with every breath.
In the distance, the lights flicker on in homes we will never return to. People we will never embrace again gather by their fireplaces. Now, we are one with the forest, and it’s only in the forest we can be. The fox takes off, scouting the safest passage. The wolf breaks away, satiated by its last meal. And the voice, the voice melts into the air around us, ever present, ever watchful, what will you do now? I take the girl’s hand and lace our icy fingers together.
“Now, we hunt,” I say.
A.D. Sui is a Ukrainian-born, queer, and disabled science fiction writer. She is a failed academic and retired fencer. Her writing has appeared in Dark Matter Magazine, Augur, and others. Her debut novella THE DRAGONFLY GAMBIT is coming out with Neon Hemlock in 2024. When not wrangling her two dogs, she’s posting away as @thesuiway on every social media platform.