First Sunday Short Fiction: Red
Welcome to the OFFICIAL launch of the Hagstone Publishing website, and to the first installment of First Sunday Short Fiction. Enjoy!
Red by Emily Linstrom
My story has been told many times.
There is a huntsman. There is a wolf. There is red.
Interchangeable, all three.
What were faerie tales but the earliest birds and bees talk? Innuendo before biology, let us pray our young learn cause and effect from houses of marchpane and opportunistic frogs,
I wish I could tell you it was a different era, when fathers and uncles and brothers and the like were more prone to and pardoned for such indiscretions. But no, it has been so since time immemorable, and will continue until humankind vanquishes itself. I came of age when gowns were long, and winters too. When books were precious and few could read them. When wise women prescribed tinctures for anything from banishing warts to banishing vampires. When mothers frequently died in childbirth, as did mine.
My sisters and I were raised in our father’s house, his alone. He was a great huntsman who hung the walls with the heads of his kill, and moved silent as death by hall and wood alike. When she came of age he took first my eldest sister, then the second eldest, to his chamber, closed the door, and returned to us women with haunted eyes. When the dial of the moon aligned with and opened my womb, and the first petals of blood appeared on my linens, I knew I too was bound for his chamber.
Our village was nestled at the base of a mountain that was, like all mountains the world over, stuffed like a profiterole with all sorts of folklore and fancy. Grannies warned of wandering too far afield, regaling their miniature kin with deliciously macabre cautionary tales. My sisters and I passed many an eve at the knee of our kitchen crone, who spun for us tales of the grand and gruesome, intended to intrigue as much as deter. My favorite stories were of the beasts that prowled as men by day and on all fours at night, devouring everything from livestock to virgins. After my father, they did not sound so bad.
I decided the day of my first blood to flee that house and brave the mountain rather than suffer the fate of my sisters. I begged them to join me, to link arms and never look back. As it goes with creatures reshaped into submission, they could not abandon their keeper.
I gathered what few and precious belongings I could carry and stole away in the night, pausing only to glance at my mother’s portrait hanging above the banquet hearth. Her eyes, like my sisters’ I realized, were weird and haunted, as if she had been condemned, rather than initiated, into womanhood. Had she, like so many women, meant no more than another man’s kill?
The pains of my bleeding were severe, my stomach balling itself into a fist that clenched and unclenched at intervals. I had no herbs to numb the pain, only a small copper flagon of some of my father’s bitter brew. I nipped from this until my toes went numb, and all else that ached.
The harvest moon was full and bright, and I cannot say I was frightened or forlorn as I followed it like a lantern up into the mountain. Tipsy with drink and giddy with the triumph of my escape, the world in that instant felt rich and receptive. My womanhood was mine, and I guarded it with a ferocity not unlike the wolves that roved in packs and tore intruders to hunks of meat. I could smell my blood. So could they.
As the night deepened I realized I was not alone. Somewhere in the dark many eyes watched, and moved on soft pads through the underbrush. When I paused they paused, whatever path I darted onto they stealthily aligned with. I knew and did not know what they were, only that grannies were not so batty after all.
The cold was dimming the drink’s effect, and the rag between my legs was soaked through. I knew I must stop and rest, but what then? They were there, still there, and I sensed they knew as well as I that I was traveling on borrowed time. I followed the path lit brightest by the moon and, miracle of miracles, came upon a pile of stones that had surely been a well at one time. Beyond the well stood the remains of a cottage: four walls and a roof, and windows with shards of lattice still intact.
The gloomy place was bare, save for a century’s carpet of leaves and a scattering of broken crockery. A pale stream of moonlight passed through one of the windows illuminating the chilly hearth, and it was there I made my bed. I thought of our kitchen gran, fire glow lapping at her withered apple face, her warm spiced words as akin to love as any I’d known.
Deep in the mountain, where even your father and his men cannot venture, the werekind dwell, making their home amongst the natural-born four pawed.
Oh, I knew they were outside. But everyone knows beasts, four pawed or no, are powerless against four walls and a door. I changed the rag between my legs and sipped from my flagon until I fell asleep.
I awoke sometime in the night with a start and saw a figure standing in the moonlight, little more than a shadow in detail, tall and willowy. I felt my mouth open and close but made no sound. I scooted my bottom as far back into the hearth as possible, oblivious to the filth and cold. Had my father found me out? Would he take me there and then? Had my plight been as much in folly as the gran’s tales?
Slowly the figure lowered itself onto its haunches, the way adults often will to speak eye-to-eye with a child. I held my breath as it melted into the moonlight and was gone.
At sunrise I rose and examined the spot where the figure had been. No prints in the dirt or stirring of leaves, nothing to mark its presence. Surely, I thought, I had glimpsed a ghost in my dreams and awakened with it still before my eyes. Surely.
My bleeding was still heavy, and I was reluctant to continue on foot. I went to the well and was able to draw water. I cleared the leaves and debris from the cottage and found it was not so uninhabitable. I was a poor housekeeper, and poorer still at keeping one in the wild, but realized I stood a better chance of making a home here than venturing further out into the world, and encountering devil-knew-what.
From my father I had learned to fashion a snare, and by evening had caught my meal. I built a fire in the hearth and with crudely fashioned cutlery ate. I drew more water from the well and washed myself. I lay down on my cloak and fell asleep.
Oh, the men with furred paws can do a maid grievous harm. They will follow your scent for miles, for days; they will wait in the dark like the devil’s henchmen.
The ghost returned in my dreams and, though I feared it same as I had the night before, I held firm it could not harm me. Again it stood in the moonlight, shying away from the glowing embers of the hearth, dropping to all fours before vanishing. I saw a little more of it and knew it to be a man, a wiry man with dark whiskers and eyes that caught the light and burned topaz. A man who left no trace of himself, and thus belonged to the netherworld.
Days passed and I made my home there in the mountain wood. My blood had ceased and I moved with ease, lean and strong once more. I gathered what I could from the forest, set my snares, taught myself to preserve and ration. I cannot say I was hungry. I was careful to keep my clothes clean and intact, as they were all I had. When I acquired enough pelts from my kills I pieced together a crude but serviceable rug on which to sleep. I cannot say I was uncomfortable. In the absence of books and grannies to tell stories I made up my own, memorized them, recited them aloud to imaginary guests. I cannot say I was lonely.
The days turned into weeks, and my blood returned. I learned to keep time by my cycle. One season passed into the next and I grew more womanly. I began to crave sensations I had not prior, yearnings deep in my belly stroked and beckoned with invisible but persistent fingers. At night I explored myself by the fire, awakened myself, understood. I wondered if my sisters had done the same, or had that luxury been extinguished long before the flame could grow in its own time? Would it ever burn again, be stoked by gentler, loving fingers?
Beware the beasts of the wood, child, for they will bide their time and devour when they know you are ripe.
Some will come on four paws, and you will not know if they were once men.
Some will come on two legs, with deadlier appetites.
Leave nothing of yourself behind, no keepsake, for they will surely seize it, treasure it, take it as a token of your demise.
The companions of my first night’s journey were never far from where I was. I’d grown used to them, took comfort in their nearness even. All the grannies’ tales of big eyes and gnashing teeth fell to ash and blew away. I wondered why such tales were told, what good they served anyone? They seemed to me intended only to keep young daughters indoors with dangerous fathers.
My spectral visitor appeared as well, sporadically and always when I lingered between the dreaming and waking hours. He had grown less wary of the fire, seemed to venture just a little closer - barely an inch if that - and the closing distance became more noticeable each time. I began to make out the details of his features, how his pupils widened and contracted with the firelight, the flare of his nostril and twitching brow. He did not seem much older than myself, a scant few years at most.
His presence, too, I began to take comfort in.
One day I absentmindedly left my little copper flagon by the opening of the well, and returned a few hours later to find it gone. Oh, gran. How delirious with doom was I!
That night I remained awake and waited, watched the moonlight pool under the window, his window. Sure enough he appeared, though not by shapeshifting or demonic vapor, but simply by removing the latticework pane and slipping in. Four paws indeed. I extended a hand to touch him, his whiskered jaw, and he flinched only a little. My finger followed the line of his throat - dear Adam’s apple - down the patch of fur on his chest and into his concave abdomen, lingering above the nest below. A chorus of howls rang out, lycanthropically polite, and he made his exit.
After many years in the wood, cycles and seasons innumerable, I knew myself to be a child no more. I had let out the hems of my gowns as far as they would go, and still they barely skimmed my ankles. My breasts had grown heavy and full, no longer sensitive to touch but firm and permanent. Biology made its proclamation; I wanted a mate.
Like my nightly companion, the wolves had grown less cautious in my presence, began to make themselves known as well. I saw clearly their muzzles and half-moon eyes, heard them padding about at night. I began to suspect he was among them, or of their company, and what pleasure this gave me.
Winter came early that year, and on the anniversary of my flight to the mountain a soft snow fell. I left my place by the hearth to stand in the doorway and marvel at the world transformed before me. I let my cloak fall from my shoulders and stepped naked, except for the cloth between my legs, out into the night. The snow dusted my shoulders and breasts and I realized I was impervious to the chill at last, reveled in it even. The first howl rose up from the dark, followed by another, and another, until I was surrounded by their choir. My neighbors. My love.
I pulled the cloth from between my legs and let it drop. My woman’s blood made rose petals in the snow. My mate emerged from the wood, no more a ghost than I. He stood on two legs before me, naked, unshivering. He set the flagon at my feet. I held out my arms and beckoned him into my house. Mine alone.
I lay myself down by the hearth, the snow on my skin melting away in rivulets. I opened my legs. My mate lowered himself and lingered above my face, our noses tip-to-tip. Forgetting nothing of my village girlhood, I kissed him. He carried the kiss from my lips to my breasts, down to my navel and between my parted legs, where he buried himself and drank from my womb. That night I gave myself to him, and emerged a woman unhaunted.
We lay together, my mate and I, deep in our home in the dark of the wood with our neighbors but a breath away, but farther still from my father’s village. He rests his head on my belly while I tell him stories: stories from my girlhood, old wives’ tales, old gran’s tales, my own stories, spun by the hearth of so many solitary nights.
Oh, beware the weremen of the wood, my child—
These he likes best.
Story ©Emily Linstrom 2016
Photo courtesy of unsplash.com
About the Author:
Emily Linstrom is a writer & artist currently adventuring abroad. Her work has been featured in Three Rooms Press, Nailed Magazine, Rogue Agent Journal, Prick of the Spindle, Queen Mob's Teahouse, Flapperhouse, Homestead Review, Misfit Magazine and Yes, Poetry, as October's featured poet. She was the first prize recipient of Pulp Literature Press's 2015 The Raven short story contest. Upcoming publications include Literary Orphans and Scrutiny Journal.
Learn more at Emily's website.
Author's photo taken by Matthew Logan