A dirty hog, the limbs amputated, the life butchered, gutted, the meat frozen in bags, then thawed, cut, and thrown into a pot; but Jane cooked it too dry. I looked to her as the powdered sponge of flesh ground between my molars.
“Is it not satisfactory, Miss Moira?” she asked. I noticed she feared her own mouth as she produced saliva. She hesitated to swallow, as if it was an indecent function in the silence.
I waited until she gave in. She gulped, turning white; the awkward block of phlegm in her throat began to suffocate her. She forced an inhale.
“It is decent, Jane,” I soothed her.
She curtsied and left to the kitchen; the door swung behind her. I stabbed down into the meat and turned the patty up from my china, puckering my lips as I kissed the air, letting the sliver fall. Before the fat could stain the carpet, Polly caught it into her jaw, jerking her head backward as she guzzled it down in flapping chews. Once her gnawing of canine etiquette ended, I patted her apple head, her red sheen soft and reflective.
“Time for a walk?” I rewarded her with the remainder of my plate. Only a beautiful beast living on grain and lard could appreciate that pork. The short-haired pointer sat onto her behind and lifted both of her paws, leaning into a posture most ladies cannot manage. I offered her my hand and she cried, released her position, and freed herself from the dining room to the foyer.
“Jane! Take the leftovers to Mr. Grove so that he can feed his family tonight. I have little appetite. I will have chicken tomorrow. Let us only use pork for sausage from now on!”
I heard her voice repeating, ‘yes, Miss,’ as she rustled around the pantry beyond the wall.
“Oh, and Jane?” Her figure managed to emerge from the bustle, and she brushed off her apron, a part of her face stamped with flour. “I am taking the dog to the woods. If she catches something, will you call for Florin? I would like to serve him quail when he calls this week.”
“Yes, Miss Moira,” she curtsied. “Should I send for Tucker to accompany you? It will be dark soon.” She began to turn back to the kitchen, assuming I would like an escort.
“No, your brother should attend to the cellar. It is so dreary. Perhaps he can use his talents to liven it up.” I left Jane standing in her regret, the regret of a maid who cannot say more, but wishes she might without being whipped or let go. I would never whip her, but my mother did before she died, and my father whipped Tucker once when a horse escaped from its stall. It simply wanted to return to an apple tree that I had fed it from, but father did not believe the horse could think that deeply for the delight of a fruit.
Mother died after father, like an indoor purebred who played in the mud once with a hound. The hound does not come home, and the purebred does not like the mud anymore. Mother did not like life much anymore, and even her time in the French countryside gave her no peace. She lasted three months.
A year from her passing Uncle Chester held power over the estate. He rarely visited, and wrote to me himself only once:
Dear Miss Moira Parker,
My niece, please forgive the formality of this letter, but your lawyers have informed me of your contest to my rightful inheritance to the Essex Parker estate. Your sex is a lovely one, Moira, but not fit for more than the maintaining of the home, not ownership. I have considered your talents and intellect in this matter and I will compromise. This will be my only offer: You may look after the estate, live off its splendor, manage its workers, and receive twenty-five percent of the income provided by your fathers trust. In addition, once you marry, and only if you marry, I will sign over all rights to your husband and the eldest son fruited from your union.
Lord Chester Parker
I had sewn the letter into my pillowcase. My head slept upon the words every night in hopes that I would dream up a way to resolve it. His offer, to many women, would have been generous, but not to me. I wanted to control the estate without a filter; an authority; a ghostly voice intangible and inaccessible, ignorant to the evidence attesting to my capabilities.
Uncle Chester had asked if I would marry his son, my cousin Vernon. I spat at his feet, turning to my mother’s casket, her corpse the only witness to his arrogance.
“There is no one else,” he had urged me, reaching for my arm as I placed my hands onto the edge of the yellow velvet, the color I will always remember as lining my mother’s coffin.
“Keep speaking, Uncle. Perhaps then I’ll give myself to God like mother did.”
“Do not threaten things that would please no one but the Devil. You are too proud, Moira. What man would tolerate you, at your age, with that scowl? You press your skin too hard and it is wrinkling, like mine waiting for you to marry.”
I struck him.
My action was a cause for great concern among the on-looking relatives who had traveled days to pay their respects. They saw the wild girl become a wild woman, and their prayers that some lesson, instrument, bible or man would tame me had been for nothing. I was lost to them and none would visit Essex Parker again.
“You should cut down the trees beyond the pond. Evil is too close to you, Moira. It is infecting your sweetness,” Florin told me this during his first call to my estate. He was a wealthy banker with little family, only an old mother who lived far north from Oxfordshire, in the cold air of Scotland.
“And what if the thing that infected me lived inside a person? Should I destroy them too?” I had struck coal in his philosophy. I saw no good in destroying the one place that brought me peace and protection from the outside world.
“Take care, Moira,” he had parted with me. From then, he would insist on visiting every week to keep me company. He knew the fears of the town, about what had infected my family with strange belief, but he still gave me trinkets of his affection. My favorite was a ring that I ignored as a gesture of engagement, which for two months has sat on my finger.
I twisted my gem up toward my knuckle as I walked the mile from the manor to the trees. I wondered, everyone wondered, what dwelled within the woods. The only creatures I saw were God’s, none spawned by hell. But, I had heard things, felt things in the air. When I did, they lifted my feet into a sprint, and the only cure was realizing what chased me was Polly, having taken my speed as an invitation for play. Even the bats that I mistook for birds as a young child while riding the trails had their divine purpose, and once I knew their shape, I invited them to fly freely above me. My father would only take me there until dusk, then we would return home. On trips into the town, or further out to the city, we would ride around the barrier of the pines, keeping close to clear farmland where light touched everything. In the woods, light did not touch all things.
I knew that all of the predators that watched a rabbit in the dark must kill to feed themselves. Nothing had penetrated my goodness, and no evil spirits had risen from it to haunt me. The only spirits that walked with me now were my parents, and they were only silent once I stepped into the overgrown wood with Polly. I had walked the grounds, gone beyond the pond, and reached the forest—the mystery market of fowls and fawns.
The sun was falling below the treetops when we reached the trails. It was customary to wear thick boots in the muck and sludge, but my dresses caught under my heels and clung to the mud of my soles.
I let Polly run in pursuit of a twitch in the brush while I pursued the pathways, matted down by the horses I would bring through before my uncle took most of them. She kept on deeper into the trees until I could no longer differentiate the stir of her paws and the scurrying of what she chased. Eventually she came to a halt, and I could see her tail erect, one paw lifted in preparation. I followed behind her cautiously, not to interfere with her stalking, and as I watched her intently, I stepped forward onto the unmarked brush. A spring trap snapped.
Sharp sparks of pain dulled my sight and I dropped forward onto my palms. The gravel and wet foliage stuck to my hands as I wailed, jerking my torso upward to inspect my ankle. The jagged metal trap had its teeth, a jaw like a piranha, in bloody pockets around both sides of where my ankle met my calf muscle. The farthest tooth dug into my skin only an inch from the curve of my Achilles tendon. The boot had been punctured through from the force meant for an animal four times my weight, and the sheer pressure of the points, some deeper than others, made me numb and nauseated. The bone was split, but I prayed that I could somehow find the release in the panic that consumed me. I could not loosen the grip, my thin fingers too weak, and each moment I attempted an inspection of the trap with a removed strength, I fell back hissing in strain and anxiety.
Polly heard the trap, assumed it to be game, but when she came to inspect the scene, abandoning her smaller prey, she found me with tears streaming down my face. She had listened to my cry many times, just her and I. She knew that now I was losing strength and that we were alone.
“Go, Polly,” I screamed at her, pointing to the direction from where we came. “Get help, girl!” She tucked her tail between her legs and bowed her head to me, curling into me, sniffing the trap and looking up with large questioning eyes.
“Please!” The tears came harder. I did not want her to leave me and to be alone, but I did not want us both to stay and for my wound to become septic, or worse, for Polly to have to defend me against the wolves.
I pushed her, urging her to go, but she froze, leaning into me harder. Everyone told my father she was a bad hunting dog, so he gave her to me as a companion. The other girls had smaller terriers or over-sized breeds intended to lounge sweetly. Polly had the energy for the hunt, but lacked the discipline. I brought her out for years—we became women together—but she was not made to choose the better thing; Polly was made to choose me.
I gave in to lying helpless. We stayed on the cold ground as the night fell, gold eyes watched us, and the sounds of day were traded for the creaking timber of the dark forest. She would not send for help. I moved over my regret for not having brought someone along and for not teaching Polly to part from me. I don’t remember when my eyes shut, forcing away fear. I was too occupied with the pain, with forgetting the pain, with waiting for the daylight.
A warm tongue woke me to a black nothingness, where no shape could be outlined with the aid of starlight. An animal had nuzzled my skirt away from the concealed wound and was pushing its slime inside my boot. It was large, standing over me, and I was paralyzed by the trap fastened inside my flesh. The fear of the huffing beast grew as I heard others, waiting, whimpering, hoping for their leader to take his fill and leave my scraps. I played dead as I prayed to God, to whoever watched Polly and I lie on the forest floor, that the animals would lose interest. I wanted to squeeze Polly to wake her, have her chase the curious animals off, maybe even out of the woods; cause a commotion and lead the search party to my rescue.
The creature began to snarl and grab onto something. It lifted a limb in its mouth and began to thrash, dragging Polly from her slumber. She did not move or squeal; Polly was stiller than I, and I realized that my dog had been dead. I remembered the pork and I felt my stomach churn. I had not eaten enough of the spoiled meat to feel the effects, but she had my entire serving, guzzled it down without concern. I put my hand out to where she had lain on my coat, and it was cold.
As I tried to keep myself calm I felt my stuttering breaths turn to hyperventilated inhales. The pack of scavengers were now feasting on Polly’s corpse and I could hear the tearing as their teeth tore pieces of meat from her bones. I began to gag, wanting to purge the thought I had now visualized in my mind, the sight that the darkness was shielding me from.
A wisp shot through the air, the sound lodged itself into one of the beasts and it moaned. It dropped, whimpered, inhaled, and then died. The others ran off as something beyond approached from within the forest. Light would not find its way to me no matter how I longed for it— I felt regret for how I had once abused my sight.
What saved me was the size of a man. I could sense by the faint passing of a silhouette through the trees that two legs approached the death I laid among within the wood. Weightlessly it knelt before the lifeless leader and shook it, and then it brought down a blade that cut into its neck. It turned to me and began to hum calmly, its hand reaching for the trap.
“Wait,” I bursted. “Please. If you release it, I could bleed out.”
The man waited for a moment, and I inhaled, gritting my teeth in anticipation. Like a root dislodged from the soil, the metal jags plucked from my flesh, popped out of the leather, and my sole filled with blood. My senses inflamed and before I could pause my hissing to scream he had tugged my boot straight from my injury and the hot blood met the chill. I faded away as his hands slid beneath me and my body swung to a nauseating altitude.
Candlelight broke me from death and I awoke to a ceiling of tree roots. A flickering light trailed through the room lined with stone slabs. I was following a shadow when he came to see me, his figure under an arch lined with tangled wooden limbs; not close enough to the burning flame on a table beside me. Whatever he was, he lived alone and underground.
“Sir?” I peered through the space between us. He kept silent, and I considered that he might be afraid to speak, or couldn’t. If he was out here hunting in my land, I knew nothing of him, nor did anyone else, and he would have known my reputation in the town.
“I am frightened,” I admitted, choosing to show my vulnerability, which had before moved him to save my life. My ankle had been wrapped tightly and he had rested me on skins that only a skilled hunter could harvest. The furs draped over the side of the platform I had woken on, which elevated only a foot from the floor, which itself was dirt, leveled and littered with dried flowers along the circumference of the room.
“They will be looking for me.”
“They?” He stepped his lower half into the light.
A man the height of the door stood before me in a thinned stance. He moved and then froze, like he was removed from time. Not even the flicker of light that confused the immobility of inanimate objects could disturb his stillness. And his voice, mounted in the sound of an imagined whisper, had an accent unlike any I had heard.
“Yes, the workers, they will wonder where I am. How long have I been asleep?”
The deep cord strung again as he moved fully into the light, the top of his head still covered in darkness, “Daybreak is coming.”
I saw his face, the muscles that moved in a slow, steady smoothness. His sharp jaw met the angle at his cheekbones, unnaturally high, and his arched brows protruded over long black eyelashes and mossy irises. He was strangely elongated, the bridge of his nose thin, like a bow that met the dimple of his heart-pout upper lip. The hair that rose from the cuticles and dipped down into mahogany locks, longer than my own, shaped the cranium. His ears curved and pointed, they peered through his hair, paler in color than the rest of his skin, which gave off a clay-like glow. I hadn’t seen a creature so curious even in the old fairytale sketches of medieval anthologies of the Others. I was enamored by him, and I studied his face, rudely, forgetting my wound and the tension that was rising within him as my eyes wandered around his angular anatomy.
“Thank you for saving me.”
He bowed his head, gesturing strangely to me. His hands looked like bark. I was so tempted to reach for one. But when I touched his palm, his skin was soft, and he responded by wrapping his fingers around mine. He sat beside me, slid my sleeve up, and began to study my wrist, my forearm, my fingernails and the ring on my right hand.
“Emerald?” He caressed the stone in circles, and I admired his expression as he smiled at it. His teeth were straight, his canines slightly pointed and longer than the others, but he was not animal—he was divine.
“Have it,” I pinched the ring. I slid it off and placed the golden charm into his hand. He closed his hand and lifted his fist to his chest, then to his lips. He kissed it and took my other hand, carefully lining the opening to the trinket with my left ring finger. My heart fluttered violently while I wondered what the gesture meant to him.
“You must go,” he rose and I tore myself away from admiring him. I had forgotten where I was; that I did not know where I was; that Jane would be waking to find that I had never come home. If they had come to look for me at all and given up, she would come looking for me herself. Perhaps, she had poisoned my meat and was prepared for me to disappear into the woods, or come back home to die alone in my bed. I shouldn’t not have thought so horribly, but the creature had healed me, Jane had given me bad meat, and I wanted a reason to stay with him. I would rather continue on with a stranger than return without Polly. I had nowhere else to go, and neither did this spirit it seemed.
“Will you take me?”
“The woods are where I stay,” he turned from me. Sadness hung like a broken ornament in my heart—I wanted to know this loneliness I saw within him. Perhaps he saw it within me too.
“Do you have a name?”
“No,” he bent down to lift me up, and I wrapped my arms around his neck, an excuse to smell him. Autumn acorns and soaked wool filled my nostrils.
He walked me through to a staircase that had been dug through a wide tree, the rot scraped from it. The door was hidden from eyes unfamiliar with the wooden pattern, and opened by a latch—how creative my creature was.
I was weak, and I struggled to follow the route. I doubted, even then, that I would recall it. And when he set me down, we were feet from the forest edge. I looked to his face, illuminated by the morning light, and lifted my cheek to his ear. He allowed me to embrace him, as if he knew that my human heart would somehow find a strange attachment to him, but too soon he released me from his cradle.
“How will I call for you once I am healed?” I urged my soul toward him, wanting him to stay; wanting to know him.
“I will know when you come,” he looked back toward me, his eyes lightened. He knew he could not keep me.
Voices were calling for me—Florin headed the search party. Jane had sent for him, my servants too fearful of the forest to venture in. He approached on horseback, and I called out to him. I saw the towering steed huffing above me, the banker’s silver hair falling into his face, and I remembered the trap snapping, my bone breaking, my skin piercing in agony.
“Where is Polly?” He asked me after lifting me onto his horse. He was keeping his emotion secure, but there was a chill in his eyes as he looked at my right leg.
“She ran off,” I returned blankly, staring back at the shrinking wall of trees.
“I am sure she will find her way back,” he placed his hand gently onto mine, noticing my ring missing from my hand, neglecting to see it upon the other, and bent his stare to his feet.
“She will,” I spun the emerald into orbit around my finger.