In my maiden days I came to this village from a faraway city, one whose name you would not recognize. I can barely remember it myself after all these years, just as I cannot quite recall my mother tongue. I can see the outlines of my mother’s face, which I will need to find again when I die, but that is all I remember.
Beauty is powerful. It has currency. It travels. I was to be married off to a wealthy man who lived far away, and so I began the journey that brought me here. The ride took days and days, on a winding road so narrow and overgrown that it felt as though the trees themselves were trying to hold me back, slapping endlessly at the carriage windows with their long, skeletal branches. I thought I would never see sunlight again. I wept, not from homesickness, not for fear of the marriage bed, but because the carriage had tossed and bruised me until I thought I would die from it.
I called out in desperation, cried for someone to rescue me, and that was when the carriage finally stopped, in the woods to the north of this village that I now call my home, this simple place full of ordinary men and women cowed by fear.
Fear, the first thing to greet me. Fear, which appeared in a shroud of icy silence. I wanted to scream but I couldn’t. I heard footsteps approaching the carriage.
The driver disappeared, howling.
I was too afraid to open my eyes, which is why I did not see what my–what shall I call them?–assailants looked like. But there was more to fear than dishonor, or the fact that I would never see my bridegroom.
I was carried away. They took everything from me: my trunks, my clothes, even my headdress. I thought that surely I would freeze to death. I would die and my mother would never know. But by the time the next morning came, I knew that I had survived. I was different, somehow. I no longer felt the cold.
And I was starving.
I came upon a young woman like myself, beautiful and naked, eating something wet and soft. I reached for it and she slapped at my hand hard enough to leave a bruise. “Get your own!”
I stared at her helplessly as she made short work of her meal. She told me, “Watch what we do when the moon rises. Then you do the same if you want to eat. And you will. It will be the only thing you want.”
I waited the length of a very long day. I saw more and more beautiful, naked young women, but they all ignored me. Most of them turned their backs to me and ran off, and I worried that I would never be able to find them at nightfall. I was still thinking that we would share a deer or some other woodland creature, but I did not understand how we were to hunt without a bow and arrow.
Later, when I saw what transpired under the light of the moon, I lost my appetite. The others were elated by the dance of blood, but I was riveted by the dead body of a young woodsman, his heart torn out and devoured. I cursed. I wished that they had killed me instead of leaving me in such a terrible state.
“You’ll get used to it,” one of the beauties told me. “You’ll see. You have to get used to it. There is no other world for you now. You are ruined.”
Ruined. Such a strong word, but apt. Then she tossed the ax belonging to that night’s victim into the nearby stream.
I had seen what can happen to a young woodsman. I had seen the dance of seduction that precedes the death. I knew there was no other way.
My first woodsman was the result of hunger, nothing more. There was no desire, no dance, no coupling. I ate his heart and was grateful to feel his life rush through my veins. Another beauty came up to me and sneered. “Did you forget something?”
I stared, confused, saying nothing. I licked my bloody lips. I waited.
“You need his seed. Trust me. Take his seed first. That makes it so much easier to steal his ax.”
Soon the forest filled with the sound of the other beauties laughing at me. A kindly, quiet one came up to me and laid her hand on my breast. “Try to use your whole body. You need to grow a girl child or two. Ten would be good. Twelve, better.”
“And what about a boy child?”
“We have no use for those.”
I entered into their world.
I danced and coupled. I stole axes. I ate hearts. Once I caught sight of myself in the stream and was fascinated. I had left my parents’ house to become a wife and I had become a beauty instead. I had girl children who remained unnamed, running wild, living the life of the forest. I had boy children who were taken from me and left out in the cold to die: I can still see the auburn hair of the first one.
I no longer marked time. I slept in the day and woke at night. I fed and I made children.
It was a murder that shocked me into remembrance, but not the kind of murder I was accustomed to. Under a full moon a woodsman used his ax to behead one of the beauties. This was very rare, almost unheard of. And in that instant of shock before we descended on him and tore him to bits, I remembered being a woman. Then I remembered being a maiden, being admired, piecing together my trousseau. I remembered the bedroom I had as a child, and how the moon would shine on my pillow at night and wake me up.
Something shifted inside me.
I wanted both worlds.
Now is it becoming clearer? The dead baby boys who are sometimes found in the woods–always and only boys, never ever girls–do you see now who they belong to? The village girls who are beaten and interrogated are innocent. Those babies come from a certain kind of girl, a beautiful girl, the kind of girl that only a young woodsman ever sees. And his seed is the only thing, aside from his heart, that she wants.
And the families of the dead woodsmen? How did we escape their vengeance? Sometimes we would have to leave one village for another. Sometimes we would let ourselves go hungry for a while. Always we had the advantage of darkness and appetite.
But I promise you there is much more to my story. I learned to leave beauty behind.
We didn’t really have a leader but some beauties are bossier than others. Some are very nosy. It was not easy to steal away for long periods of time.
“Why are you returning now, in the daylight? Where have you been?”
I did not answer the question. I merely slipped into the cave that we all shared, our big bed of rock and moss, and I slept.
This time my dreams were those of a woman, not a beauty, filled with visions of a certain young woodsman I had met. I had resisted him in every sense, refusing even to step inside his warm little cottage, refusing his offer of wine and cooked meat.
“Stay outside and talk to me here,” I told him. My own voice sounded strange to me, I used it so rarely.
“But aren’t you cold?” he asked, taking the liberty of touching my hand. “My God, you’re on fire. Are you unwell?”
I smiled as I felt his eyes pass over me. I knew that I did not look like an ordinary woman. I knew that I had not aged. Surely he must have known what I was.
“I have never seen you in the village. Where do you live?”
I looked down at the ground. “So many questions…”
It was painful to tear myself away, but I vaguely remembered that it is better not give a man everything he wants, at least not right away. For the longest time I had moved directly to the dance, and then to the coupling, and finally on to my private meal. I had forgotten all about real seduction.
I had forgotten about comfort.
The inside of his cottage was warm. (Yes, I went inside. At first I could bear only a few minutes at a time. It made my skin burn, calling to mind the shock of lowering myself into hot bath water as a child.) His arms were warm. His mouth was hot and moist, full of life, the full bloom of life, not the urgent, pulsing, end-of-life I had grown accustomed to.
He began to wait for me to appear in the evening. He looked for me, missed me, wanted me. He told me: “You’re not anything like they said you would be.”
He was ashamed. “There are rumors among the woodsmen… tales of a circle of dark-souled women. Beautiful women. Ageless. Dangerous. But you’re not one of them, are you?”
I looked down.
“Why won’t you show me where you live? Why won’t you tell me your name? I don’t care what you’ve done–I love you! I want to marry you.”
We were standing at his threshold, the boundary where all my courage, all my resolve, threatened to abandon me. I turned to run but he caught me by the sleeve of the one dress I always wore to visit him, a rose-colored rag I had found in the woods.
“Stay with me until sunrise! Why will you never stay with me?”
I raised my arm to strike him: it was the first time I had ever wished him harm. Then I saw myself reflected in his pupils and a tremor ran through me.
My run through the woods, formerly such a great joy, now felt laborious, ill-fated. I was shivering by the time I found the other beauties, who flared their nostrils and moved away from me in disgust, much as they had when I first arrived. I was to be alone again.
And I was cold.
“You will never succeed,” a voice said. It does not matter which beauty spoke. All beauties are the same.
I looked over at her. I did not have the strength to protest.
“I see that the shivering has begun. The shaking. You are cold. Your face is changing, too. You are no longer the young bride you once were–this is what love does. You are taking a great risk.”
I tried, hopelessly, to warm myself with my hair. I was now ice-cold.
“And the child you carry inside of you belongs to us.”
My hand flew to my abdomen.
“Whether it is a boy or a girl, it is ours. You will never mother it. You can never be a mother, now that you have lived as a beauty.”
I ran again, frightened and confused, back in the direction of his cottage. It seemed that I would never get there; something was making me feel slow and heavy, some great force that I finally realized was my own body, my true body, so long forgotten. I saw his cottage in the distance, saw the little curl of gray smoke that rose from the chimney, saw the outline of his form through the windows. I stood convulsing at the window, waiting for him to notice me. When he finally turned and saw me, he did not recognize me. Then he opened the window and took my hands in his.
“I thought you were someone else,” he said, laughing. “Your mother, perhaps? You look like yourself, but older. Some trick of the moonlight. Come inside. Now I can feel that you are cold.”
“You must come out and carry me over the threshold,” I said, barely understanding my own words.
“Does that mean you will marry me?” he asked with a smile.
I nodded but would allow him no pleasure. I knew no vow could save us. He came outside, and as he lifted me from the ground, I began my confession:
“There is something I must tell you.”
“We have to protect the child,” he told me after he heard my story. “We have to protect my son at all costs. Or my daughter. What kind of man would allow his daughter to be like you?” He looked down at me. I was sitting by the fire, covered in blankets, but I still shivered. “I did not mean that. I know you had no choice. I’m sure you were forced to do those terrible things you did.”
There would be no marriage. I was no closer to a blessed union than I had been back when I was first torn from that carriage, all those years ago. Nothing sacred for me. A beauty’s life, instead.
And how many years had I lived as a beauty? I could not even begin to count.
The woodsman studied me. “Your face… you look much older, now that you’re indoors. But I will still protect you, don’t you worry.”
I knew I had lost his love. I worried about the baby inside me, the child who was now beginning to grow heavy, so heavy that it hurt my bones. I felt colder and weaker by the minute. I knew I would not be able to rise from my place by the fire. I knew that when my water broke, the beauties would storm the cottage and begin their meal. Perhaps they would kill all three of us.
The months went by and all the life I had not lived caught up with me, marked me, slowly killed my body. “Don’t leave,” I would beg him, even when he went out for firewood or meat. The voice of an old woman came from my mouth, yet every day the baby inside me got bigger and bigger.
I knew it would not be much longer. The woodsman had become a different man. I saw that he wanted to rescue the baby from me. He could separate us. He had many knives. I knew he would try it, when the time came. At first he assured me that his feelings had not changed, but then he grew cold to me, and it was not long before he accused me of outright deceit.
“Now I cannot show my face in my own village. I must skulk about like a thief, an outsider. I may die. My child could die!”
“It was love,” I said but my voice was like that of a toad, croaking out a protest.
Soon he could not look at me.
I stayed by the fire.
When my pains began, I knew my body was not equal to it. I thought I would break but I did not scream. So this is how I will die, I thought, remembering how easily I had been delivered of all the others, how they fell out of me as I squatted and left them behind, to be examined by the beauties. This other birth, in a hot and airless room where I lay flat on my back, sent such pains shooting up my spine that I prayed for death.
I saw him take his knife. He will cut it out of me, I thought, he will cut it out of me and this will all be over. Perhaps the child will survive, and I will know the one comfort left to every dying mother in the world. But the woodsman could not put his blade to my flesh. I do not know why.
And then we were no longer alone.
When it was over, a baby’s cries filled the cottage and my woodsman lay on the floor. He had died like a man, fighting the beauties, but he lasted no more than a few seconds, and then they were upon the child. It must have been a girl, for they carried the baby off, taking possession of her before I could see her. Two of the beauties remained, standing over me, staring down into my ancient face.
“What about her?”
“Let her die in the flames.”
They set the cottage on fire before they left. Perhaps they were not willing to touch me, perhaps they did not care to. Leaving me to burn alive was their cruel way.
Preferring to freeze to death, I crawled out of the cottage. I welcomed death but it did not come for me. When I awoke, near the smoky ruins of the cottage, the day was growing warm. The spring sun was kind to me.
I never rid myself of the filth of mortality. I entered a world of dirt and shit and blood. But nobody will kill an old woman with no money and no family. And sometimes the villagers are generous. There is one meal a day, somehow. There are barns to sleep in.
What the villagers cannot tolerate are my words. My knowledge. For that they would do violence to me, push me facedown in the mud, kick my ribs.
Whenever I see a young bride pass by, I fear for her. Nobody else in this village knows what can happen to a maiden like that. But I know. I remember.
That is why I must return to the forest, over and over again. I can sometimes rouse a woodsman before it is too late for him. My face, my form, is enough to break the spell of any beauty, not because I am so dreadful, but because I am real. I am the story. I am what all women become, except for the devouring beauties.
Before I die, before I see my mother’s face again, I want to see my daughter. I know she is out there. I know I can find her. I do not pretend that I can break her spell–I am not even sure that I want to–but I will make her remember.
I will reach out my hand to her, and she will know her mother.