Miles beyond the castle, beyond this small cabin in the woods, there’s a wall. I’ve been told that on the other side there roam monsters—hideous beasts whose roars make the ground quake, whose fangs can flay the skin from your flesh. They are what I was taught to fear, not small cabins containing too little furniture and too many empty bottles.
It seems that my education had holes in it.
The Queen should be looking for me, sending out soldiers on horseback. I should not be that difficult to find, not for someone with an army under her control.
But every day I look less like the King, and more like him, the Hunter.
He thinks that means something she can no longer deny, but it appears she’d prefer for me to stay hidden.
Once upon a time, I thought of the snow outside as fragile, gentle. Then he took away my shoes after the second time I tried to run back to the castle, and I learned the truth: on bare feet, it’s harsh as knives.
I’ve toyed with the idea of trying to win my shoes back by refusing to eat or drink until he returns them. But I worry he’ll call my bluff and I’ll be betrayed by my own hunger. I’m not even sure if he still has them, or if they are already buried deep in the woods.
He himself owns only a single pair of heavy work boots. He keeps them with him at all times, tucking them under his bed when he sleeps.
He is out hunting when there is a sharp smash against the window, powerful enough to rattle the glass. When I go to the window, I find a raven lying on the sill, its wing twisted, its eyes bright and panicked.
I gather its body into a cardboard box. The raven caws weakly and jerks its head. I try to calm it by singing it an old lullaby, one sung to me a long, long time ago—not by her and not, of course, by him, but by a woman who once held me tight, wiped tears from my cheeks. I wonder where that woman is now. I wonder if I am ever in her thoughts.
I conceal the raven in a small drawer, taking it out to feed it only when the Hunter leaves the cabin. He would not like to have another creature sharing this small space, even one whose presence is intended to be purely temporary.
The raven like oats and raisins, I’ve found. It also likes fatty pieces of meat. It probably likes anything and everything that can be digested—any calories that will help it survive.
It’s smart, this bird, and it stays quiet most of the time—all of the time when the Hunter is inside. Its initial suspicion of me quickly melts away, and it becomes trusting, eating whatever I give it without question, and almost, in its own avian way, affectionate. I wonder if it has seen the monsters beyond the wall, if it has flown low to the ground and swept over their backs as they rest.
One day I wonder this aloud, and then await the raven’s response. It blinks and rustles its wings.
I’ve become someone who talks to birds.
The raven heals quickly, it seems. I want to feel responsible for that, to know that I’ve done the right thing. Possibly I did, or possibly it would have healed on its own and I’ve only been selfish in keeping it here with me as long as I have. It’s easy, I think, to tell yourself that you are doing the right thing. That the ends will justify the means.
I explain to it that I’m setting it free, that it should be more careful of glass, of windows, in the future. That it should not overexert its wing, take it slow. Does it take it in with a solemn expression, or do I detect a hint of a rolled eye? I imagine for myself a drawn-out farewell scene when I open the window, with hesitant glances and some tentative wing flaps with its feet still firmly gripping the windowsill, but as soon as the window is open the raven flies off, without a backward glance. I try not to be jealous of its wings flexing against the air, of how it can soar above the trees and disappear into the sky.
The next morning, when the sun has yet to rise above the horizon, I make coffee for the Hunter. He likes it dark and bitter, untainted by milk or sugar. After I pour it for him, I return to the counter where I begin pocketing granola for the raven before remembering it is gone.
Through a stab of what I’m afraid is disappointment, the Hunter tells me he’ll be out all day, that he hopes to bring back a deer. I imagine a carcass hanging from a nearby tree, its blood pooling on the snow. It will feed us for a long time, a deer, yet the way his mood lifts at the prospect of the hunt, his calm certainty that it will go his way, means that the meat will not rest easily in my stomach.
He tells me to be good while he’s away and then adds that he loves me. I wonder if he really believes that I am something other than a pawn in a game of chess she’s refusing to play.
He’s been gone for less than an hour when there is a sound at the window, a sharp rap—decisive, intentional. From across the room, I see a quick flash of black feathers.
Left on the windowsill are three things: a tuff of golden fur, a long metallic tooth, and a bright blue flower.
I stare at them for a minute before I raise the window and carefully pick them up, one by one. I have never seen an animal that the fur or the tooth might belong to, and I have also never seen a flower like that before. It makes me wonder what else I have not seen, what else there might be to discover.
More snow falls. Inches, then feet. The Hunter doesn’t leave the house for over a week. The deer carcass is coated with snow, and soon the patches of crimson below it are subsumed by the white.
He makes stew, and even after hours, the meat remains tough and stringy. I eat it quietly, without comment, and he talks about her, the Queen.
About how she stole me from him, about how one day the three of us will be a family.
I do not question why he wants us to be a family, what that word means to him. I don’t ask whether he pictures her here, or himself in the castle. Neither of them, I think, care to think too much about what happens next, about the logical consequences of their actions.
Early on the first morning after the snow has stopped falling, he finally leaves. There is still plenty of meat on the deer, but he wants rabbit this time.
Not long after he departs, there is another peck against glass, another flash of feathers.
Left on the windowsill this time are a small red cluster of berries.
Even very small children are taught that consuming unfamiliar fruits is a version of Russian roulette, its outcomes unknown and potentially lethal. Without even pausing to close the window, I place two berries on my tongue and swallow them whole.
When I open my eyes, it’s getting dark outside. There’s a dry tartness at the back of my throat and I’m lying crumpled beneath the open window, the remaining berries glistening on the sill.
I’ve lost almost a full day.
I close the window to stop the wind rushing in, and I tuck the berries into my pocket.
When the Hunter comes back, he asks why the house is so cold.
I say something about burning a slice of bread on the stove and opening the window to clear out the smoke. I say it too quickly and add too much detail. He does not ask again, only looks at me with hard eyes until I have to look away. He has a very good sense of smell and the air does not hold even the faintest trace of smoke.
When he next leaves, I stand at the windowsill and look outside.
I think about boots and fur and berries.
I place a handful of granola on the sill and mouth a wish. I wait all day, but when the dark comes, the granola remains on the sill. I brush it off onto the snow outside so that it doesn’t raise questions I’m not sure if I even know how to answer.
When he returns, it is with a hammer and a box of nails.
He starts with the windows in back, nailing them shut. He says it’s to keep out the draft, that we’ll both be able to sleep better at night that way, stop shivering underneath our respective blankets. It is cold at night, there is a draft that snakes through the small cabin. Still, I can’t help thinking of a friend I once had who captured a butterfly and put it in a jar, forgetting to put airholes in the lid before screwing it on so very, very tight.
A sharp sound heralds the arrival of berries and a soft nest of golden fur, left on the sill of the only window that has not yet been nailed shut. It’s a lot of fur, enough that its original owner might have been displeased to part with it.
This time, when the raven leaves the sill, it lands on the snow only a few yards away. It stares at me, long and hard, its beady eyes asking me a question.
I answer it with a nod.
The next morning, I make the Hunter his coffee, dark and bitter. When he looks away for a moment, I squeeze into it the juice of four berries. He is much larger than I am, after all.
I serve it to him with my left hand, hiding the purpled skin of my right where the juice has sunk in. I try not to watch too closely as he brings the cup to his lips. I worry that four was not enough. I could have, should have, put in more.
After he’s downed half his coffee, seemingly with no effect, I feel a tug of despair, certain I’ve made a mistake and that I won’t get a chance to correct it. Then he suddenly puts down his cup, his hand unsteady. He looks surprised, like a stranger has appeared in the room, like he’s been asked an unexpected question.
Perhaps I should say something as the look of surprise ebbs away and his eyes become unfocused, or as he starts to slide down in his chair.
I find I don’t have anything I want to say.
His bootlaces are double knotted, and it takes time to undo them, and then to ease the boots from his feet. I pause for a moment, and then I take his socks as well—they are coarse wool and still warm from his body.
His boots I carefully pad with the golden fur.
They are still too large, but they’ll stay on my feet. I will not be able to run fast, but I will have plenty of time to get far away from here, and the snow is falling thickly and will cover my tracks.
There is kerosene that the Hunter uses for the lamps. There are matches. I let these facts play in my mind for a moment—perhaps even more than one—before I decide, no, that’s not who I want to be.
Outside, the raven is waiting on a branch.
It flies off, and I take a deep breath—the cold air spiking my lungs—and then I follow.
This time, I walk rather than run. After all, it’s going to be a long day.
A long walk towards other monsters.