I still see them there, at the edge of the tree line across the winter-grayed grass. They live outside of my clearing. Their footsteps haunt the leaf litter just beyond my field of view. I hear them moving at night. Their footfall echoes across the hollow. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
The sounds cannot be those of a deer. They are too graceful to step in such a way, and from years of trapping, I know there are no larger animals in these woods. Only powerful creatures make noise in the forest, only those that are unafraid to announce their presence for they know no rival. This is how I know it is them.
This night, I toss and turn. I’m restless and unable to clear the image of these horrible creatures scratching jealously at my window. I wake in a sweat, heart racing as I throw my blankets aside and scour my home for them. There is not much to search in this single roomed cabin. I check the door. I check the dark corners. I check under my bed like a child. Eventually I find it, the source of the noise. A branch rubs against the glass of my only window, pushed back and forward in the windy night. I retreat to my bed and my fitful thoughts.
When morning comes, and I tire of pretending to sleep, I pull myself out of bed and dress for the day’s task. My clothes are stiff with the grime of weeks of work, and I do not know when I can wash them next. The stream that used to run only a stone’s throw away is choked with mud. I dare not venture into the forest to search for another.
I spend all my days chopping down trees in the hope of making the clearing wider. I think to myself that their influence will fade if I can only isolate my home a little further. I have spent months felling wood, but the tree line will not yield. The clearing has not expanded. The forest has a powerful spirit.
I cannot come to grips with the mechanics of it, but certainly what is happening to me does not adhere to the realm of logic. It is magic, or devilry, or some other unnatural force that I do not have a name for. The stack of timber beside my cabin grows in earnest each day. It is a mountain now, after these months spent, and yet each morning when I wake the forest is just as it was the day before. The trees I cut the previous day have returned, regrown identically from their stumps. Their corpses remain in the ever-growing woodpile beside my home, and yet the trees stand defiantly anew at the edge of the clearing, returned to their full majesty. My efforts are erased each night. I have come to know—but not yet accept—that I can affect no change.
It is Tuesday, near mid-day, and that means that she will be approaching my clearing sometime soon. She is cheerful always, even in this constant bitter cold, and I see her now tramping across the dead grass toward me. Her cheeks are vibrant red with a chill. She is happy even at a distance. She comes to collect my pelts—my weekly trappings—and payment is, as always, already arranged with her father. Though I insist that she should not, she brings food with her each time. She leaves me with bits of bread and salted meats and occasionally a very excellent pie or jam. I would have starved a month ago were it not for her gifts. I otherwise subsist on rodents and the few woodland critters that are unfortunate enough to venture into my clearing. My neck and forearms are sinewy and lean. I feel like a skeleton, not the hunter that I am.
There are not many unspoken-for men in this region, at least not many with more than their next meal in their heart, and through our weekly encounters, I see that she has set her mind to win me over. I would not say it, but she won me long ago. She is wonderfully kind and strong. I would be joyed to have her, and so I cannot bring myself to push her away. If I had the strength, I would have banished her the moment this awfulness began. I cannot leave her but nor can I hold her any closer. I fear that she will become ensnared in this dreadful purgatory too. I sense that they desire her every bit as strongly as I desire her myself. They claw and probe at the inside of my heart, and when they find my longing for her, they begin to salivate. I swallow hard.
She is waving at me now. I wear a smile and wave in return, pulling the hood of my overcoat down to my shoulders so she can see my face.
“Good morning Miss Anya,” I call to her. My voice echoes into the distance. Blackbirds caw in complaint of the disturbance and flee their tree to find a more peaceful roost.
“Good morning, it is a fine day isn’t it?” she calls back.
I wait until she is closer—just a pace between us—and bow genially. She curtsies in return. It is our little routine, the opening act each time we meet.
“You have a talent for seeing only fine days,” I say. My voice is hoarse from shouting into the night in the fever of my dreams. I try to smooth it as I speak, but I’m sure she hears the strain.
She shrugs cutely, seeming not to notice. “That’s hardly true.”
“I see you’ve brought something with you. Will you ever listen when I say you shouldn’t?”
I nod to the small reed basket tucked beneath her arm.
“Certainly I will never,” she replies with a wide grin.
I can smell the bread she is carrying and my stomach growls. My arms beg to lash out and snatch it. I will not let them. My stomach rumbles again, protesting my conviction.
I see her eyes wander to the colossal woodpile beside my cabin. I become self-conscious. My mind squirms and my intestines turn on themselves like worms writhing on the end of hooks. I wonder if she notices how much it has grown since her last visit. How could she not? I watch her pupils expand as she examines it, but she says nothing about it.
“I’m afraid I’ve had no luck of late. My traps are barren,” I announce. It is a half-truth. I know why they do not produce and luck has no part in it.
Her smile does not fade. “It is no matter, take this as an advance. I trust you will find a surplus soon.”
She holds the basket of bread out to me. Her thin fingers clutch the handle. I want to yank it free from her and devour it. My hands tremble in anticipation. The grumbling of my insides grows to a roar. Gently, I extend an arm and hook my palm beneath the handle. She uncurls her fingers and mine tighten in a mirrored dance.
I pull the basket in close to my chest. My body throbs. The smell drifts into my nostrils and replaces my conscious thoughts with an animalistic desire.
“Well, go on,” she says almost giggling. “I know you want it.”
Patiently, I tear a chunk free from the loaf, pretending it will not be my only meal in three days. I raise it to mouth, and I chew slowly. The luscious texture of soft bread fills me.
Then, for a moment, the sky darkens and a heavy wind blows through my clearing. The trees howl and it whips at my coat. It cuts through my clothes and chills me. I shudder as it runs through my bones and goosebumps prickle my skin. I look in the basket again, but it is not filled with bread. It crawls with insects, and beneath them, I believe it is flesh. I look at Anya, and she is more bird than woman now. She is thin and hunched, and sickly wings extend from her back like burned spires. Her eyes are a rich yellow and her pupils are vacant. She still smiles though.
I swallow, and as the lump grinds down my dry throat, the world returns to normal. The sun rises into the cold sky and Anya is beautiful again.
I thank her as I rip another chunk of the loaf free and relish in the comfort of a stomach that is no longer empty.