…But Not Too Bold

In the chair to the left of the stove, in the first room of the house under the copse of bare trees at the end of the road, sat the house-holder’s friend. She was still wearing her coat and hat, but she had pulled her arms out of the sleeves so that they dangled vacant at her sides, and stuck both limbs through the open front to hold an enormous mug of very bitter tea. She gulped at the hot liquid, winced, and torqued her head around to crane at the stove.

“Renard,” she said in a high voice that tripped over itself in her throat, “is there anything else I can do?”

The house-holder, who was kneeling in front of the open stove, feeding it scraps of wood and wads of newspaper, shook his head. Renard was not his name, but it was what she called him. He did not call her anything.

She turned again to the tea, blowing on its surface this time before drinking. Renard sat back on his heels, with his eyes closed and face turned towards the belly of the stove. Outside, the sound of the wind grew deeper and more insistent. A branch scraped against the side window, like the fingernails of a bad witch. A draft nosed through a cracked windowpane, whispered against her face. She put both sock feet on the warped wooden floor, felt that it was cold from the other draft coming in under the door. She had never liked the cold. She picked her feet back up.

The branch moved again, rapid-fire jittering scratches this time. Like the fractured rhythm Renard’s first three fingers tapped out on his thigh. Neither of them spoke.

The room warmed and she shed her coat, sitting in jeans and a men’s flannel shirt with her knees drawn up against her chest. Every time she breathed, she was afraid that the motion of her body would crack the chair, rupture the house walls, leave them both exposed to the indifferent night.

She wondered if he wanted her to go. It was very late. Renard said, without opening his eyes, “I’m sorry there wasn’t any sugar. Are you still cold?”

“That’s all right. And no. Thank you for building the fire—I never learned how.” She shifted in her chair, feeling the coldness and the lateness of the night more clearly than she had when they had been walking in it. (Had it been a day already, was this the second night?)

“Ah, yes.” His eyes were still closed. He brushed a forefinger across the bandage wrapped neatly around his left wrist.

This was the way that she had seem him reach, so many times, for the spines of the paperbacks stacked and scattered around the room, the mug she still gripped with both hands, the bright soiled wool of a blanket. Directed at himself, it was a touch as blind as his shuttered eyes.

“That’s okay,” she said, and wondered immediately why she had said it. It was not okay. She remembered the road, lime gravel washed white as paper by the full moon, and the blood that would have been livid in daylight but with her human night vision looked like innocent splotches of ink. And the long silent minutes in the second room when Renard held out his wrist like a child with a skinned knee and she wrapped it and gave wordless thanks that he had not thought of the proper direction to cut. The moon was not full tonight; it would not be full again for weeks.

He said only, “Feed the stove with me.” She left her coat slumped in a pile on the chair, and sat on the floor. Renard opened the stove door and handed her a narrow strip of wood, which she tentatively poked inside. They did not touch.

Then, softly: “Tell me a story.”

“Once,” she said, “there was a little house in the middle of a deep dark forest, at the end of a white road.” She took a crumpled twist of newspaper from the floor and tossed it into the stove. “In the summer,” she continued, wishing that her voice weren’t quite so high, “the house and its road were almost hidden by the great old trees that arched over them like a second house, and by the spreading vines with narrow, sharp-tipped leaves and small white flowers. When the winter came, everything around the house was stark and bare, and then people had reason to shun the road that shone as pure as the blossoms of the vine, for they could see what the greenery had concealed from them—that it was Death’s house.” Then she flushed. Silence would have been better. She glanced at Renard out of the corner of her eye, and saw that his eyes were closed again and that he was hunched forward, listening. With the ruddy light on his face and hands, he was the most fragile thing that she had ever seen.

“Enough,” Renard said, stretching and opening his eyes. “The story is over, and now it is time to get into the stove.” He leaned towards the mouth of the woodstove, sliding his hands in first, as though he were parting branches in a jungle. She did not move or cry out, because it seemed, at this hour, in this place, that it was time to get into the stove. (She had almost forgotten that there was a house around them by now, and the legs of the table beside her, if she had cared to look at them, were like the bare trees outside that reached up into fathomless darkness.) At first, she didn’t think that Renard would fit, but either the stove seemed to grow bigger or he seemed to become smaller, and very soon he had gotten inside without any difficulty at all.

“Come on,” he called out in a voice that echoed oddly against the iron, sounding nearly as tinny as her own.

“I can’t,” she cried back. She knew that she could, but also that she was afraid.

Still Renard beckoned to her, smiling. Flames danced around his feet, and his whole body looked no taller than her hand. And, the longer she peered into the stove, with her face so close it nearly pressed into the edges of the opening, the easier it seemed. So she, too, stretched out her hands, and found that they fit through the door, and that she was not burned. She put her head inside, and though it was warm (so warm that her lips felt dry, and she had to stop herself from licking them), she still did not burn. And, before she knew it, she was inside the stove.

She turned to Renard, who was standing ankle-deep in a mass of coals with his arms thrown wide and his head flung back, staring up the long narrow tunnel of the stove-pipe. Around them, the iron walls curved up and closed in like the walls of a cave, and there was a slight, pleasant taste of smoke in the hazy, red-lit air. The coals underfoot were the texture of loose gravel, and the great chunks of wood with fire streaming from their tops and flickering along their sides jutted upwards like the remains of a sunken ship.

She had not closed the door behind her when she came in, and because it still hung open she went to the edge of the stove and looked out. Though she did not turn around, she heard Renard’s footsteps, and knew that he had come to stand behind her. The house, the whole world beyond the stove, seemed so impossibly enormous to her now that she wondered how she could ever have fit into it. The wind, the tapping branch, the waning moon that still bleached the gravel road, all felt as though someone else had heard and seen and walked over them. As she thought this, she was struck by the desire just to touch the air that she had so recently breathed. Before Renard could move to stop her, she had put one finger, the first finger of her right hand, out of the stove.

It shriveled into ash so quickly that it looked as if a knife had severed her finger at the knuckle. She did not bleed, and when she jerked her hand back to examine the wound, there was only a shining red scar, as red as the coals beneath her feet. She stared at it, not willing to think hard about what it meant, and jumped, startled, when Renard laid a hand on her shoulder and said “Come on” again, more softly. She allowed him to lead her to the very back of the stove, skirting the places where the fire was already starting to die down.

They slithered in between the great logs, Renard first and her after, and burrowed into the bed of coals together until they were completely buried, and lay curled as one creature against the iron. And there they waited, at the heart of this inmost, bloodless chamber of the house.

Morning, and it seemed to her that, although they had not left the stove, the world outside had reassembled itself around them. That they lay, not upon iron, but loose white gravel. Above, when she gathered the courage to lift her head, stretched a sky very nearly the same color as the road. She blinked several times, sniffed the air for traces of smoke, disentangled herself from the still-sleeping Renard and sat up. It was impossible to tell the time; though the curtained sun hung at an angle, she had never in her life been able to make out which way was north. She tilted her head back, craning up at the leafless branches.

Renard knew all the trees, even in winter. He had tried to teach her once, but the only one she could still recognize in all seasons was the poplar, from the way its branches curled in wavefronts out of a straight trunk like a mast. She had felt guilty about this, until the day six months before when she had gone to Renard’s house for tea and he had brought it to her unsweetened, with milk.

“Isn’t that the way you like it?” he asked, when she took a sip and grimaced involuntarily. He looked so sure, wearing that expansive, hungry smile that cut his face open like a wound. She could have told him the truth, or simply reached for the crumpled bag of sugar that sat on the countertop behind her. But either of those actions would have closed up the smile and restored Renard to normal, the bright eyes and grave, still features that had sliced her to the bone the first time she saw them, and still did when she wasn’t careful. With his teeth showing, he couldn’t hurt her.

After a while, she wasn’t certain of how she had liked her tea in the first place.

Now, standing in the road, she looked down at Renard and saw that his bandage was missing, the skin whole and unscarred. Startled, she turned to her own right hand, which now had five fingers again, instead of four. But, on inspection, her left leg was still slightly shorter than her right, and both knees still bore the mottled scars of her early attempts to ride a bicycle. And, when she checked Renard’s hands, her touch tentative and delicate, she found that the many tiny marks of his own life—oil burns, nicks off of kitchen knives, a still-unhealed scrape from a branch or a jagged rock—remained.

But this felt too much like something a lover would do. She released his hands and turned away.

And then she saw that Renard’s eyes were slitted open and that he was waiting, limp, to see what she would do next. How long had he been awake, and watching her?

“I’m going,” she said, startled by the sound of the words made as they came out of her mouth. She turned, intending to follow the road back to its origin, back to the world, and Renard watched but did not stop her. She walked along the curves of the road as it slid between the pines, twisting and turning until Renard was out of sight. As she went, she tried to remember that she had had a life beyond him and his strange, drafty house, a life with other people in it, and work, and a stove with grease-encrusted coils that glowed a brilliant, sick tomato-red but never held fire. But all that she could see as she walked were the places on the road that had been stained with his blood.

She paused and looked up. It was fully dark now, though she still could not tell in what direction the road led. The clouds were dissolving, and the moon was rising.

The moon was full.

She knew, then. Even so, it was not until she rounded the next curve and saw Renard waiting for her in a shaft of cold light that she allowed herself to fully understand.

This time, it was she who put out a hand, and Renard who came forward to take it. When they met, her hand had only four fingers once again. There was blood sliding down his wrist, and when it met their joined hands she tightened her grip. Together they walked back towards the house, leaving a red trail between them, as they pursued the dying fire for this and every other night.