He heads out into the woods with his axe and wheelbarrow before the storm comes in, breath curling up icy to fog his glasses. His firewood’s muddy tarp is loose and halfway pulled back (iron anchor still attached from where it was torn free from the ground) and the stack is dwindling thanks to an unseasonably cold October; if he doesn’t get more now, he’ll run out a few days in, or else have to go out in the snow to collect twigs in the hope they’ve not gone damp. This late into the year, it’s barely past midday, but the sun is already setting deep red, diffuse and alarming at the back of roiling, dark clouds. He trudges through the decay in between bare-trunked trees, moaning with wind and their hands outstretched, and he prays the storm holds back for another few hours.
There are several old pines fallen from the harsh winds in the past few weeks, and he thinks one or a few might be salvageable; a glance to the open canopy and he doesn’t have time to chop down a healthy tree, so he takes his cold-iron axe to the freshest, and he hacks and hacks and hacks.
“Are you as skilled with that axe in flesh as wood?” a voice at his back asks, politely curious, in a rush of rasping sibilants and awkward half-pauses. “If so,” she says, “I may have need of your service.”
“Christ! ” he cries. He turns to face the speaker, and he says it again, more emphatically.
It’s a girl, or rather, a young woman: stood ankle-deep in the muck of dead leaves, she wears a cloak clasped ‘round her neck with a roach, but not, he thinks, anything else. It shimmers like moonlight and isn’t any color he can name, reaching in tatters to her muddy calves. At her bare breast, a newborn suckles, and she holds it tight, its bloated little infant-arms gray and squirming. Blood streams dark in rivulets down from the child’s mouth at her breast to follow the curve of her ribs. It pools in her navel and continues down the linea alba to disappear into the wiry red hair of her cunt.
“No,” she says: a kindness. “There is no Mashiach here, and I am not clothed in sunlight.” Her mouth is torn and bloodied, hemp thread spiraling loose through her lower lip, and her matron’s smile is hundreds of dirty brown teeth as needles.
He shifts the weight of the axe in his hand. “Do you… need help?” he asks, although he feels very much as though he is the one who needs help, and she laughs at him breathless like wheezing, and the woods laugh along with her, branches snapping off in the hissing wind same as her teeth.
It shouldn’t be that her panic — and that is what it must be — makes her somehow trustworthy, and he is still wary of her (not as wary, he thinks, as he ought to be, but those thoughts are strangled quick in the base of his brain and do not form again), but she is flickering, a shadow by candlelight, and he cannot leave her alone, not in this cold, and not when she is bare and so clearly afraid. “Miss,” he says, like a first step onto ice, and on the other side of that split-second uncertainty he can breathe again. “My name is Johann,” he tells her (knowing better than to ask after hers), and he lets his axe fall so it stands haft-upwards in the muck. He holds his hands in front of him, fingers half-curled loose with his palms out. “You’re safe,” he promises without cause, and, “I—”
(He wonders, briefly, if this is something he will regret.)
A breath, and he continues: “—I live nearby.”
She recoils, and, a moment delayed, her face—a cartography of acid scarring like storm water, disfigured eyeless and with her nose half-gone—shifts into an untrusting sneer. “You offer?”
“I do,” he says.
“Fool,” she admonishes, fricative a buzz with her ruined lip, but when he retrieves his fallen axe, stacks dead logs in the basket of his wheelbarrow, turns to home, she follows soundless at his back.
“It’s not much…” he says, and, really, it isn’t: a little three-room cabin with pine siding in chipped, robin’s egg blue, and a metal pipe of a fireplace near the middle of the steep, gray, saltbox roof. Beside the house, on the far side of the firewood stack, there is an overhang of a garage distended under the weight of old snow, a rusty pickup languishing beneath it. Johann parks the wheelbarrow in the drift beside the rest of his firewood, and sets the axe angled against it. He looks over his shoulder to the woman, and he finds her not at his back where he expected, but stood glacial at the property line. The sky now is all but black, but the bare bulb above his door frame casts yellow light on her as the wind pulls childlike at her glimmering cloak. As she breathes, her chest barely rises, and nothing crystallizes at her mouth.
“Oh,” Johann says: a realization. And then, “You’re welcome here.”
“Such was never in question,” she says, over-quick, but jerks forward half-stumbling over the threshold in the same instant. Johann thinks of the terror of vulnerability, and that, for a thing like her, it must be threefold.
“Of course,” he agrees, carefully mild.
“It wasn’t,” she snarls, and shows him all of her many rotting teeth. “You mock me.”
“No,” he says.
“Then you pity me.” She twitches.
“No,” he says again, and holds out a hand to her. She doesn’t take it, but then, even with the rustle of his sleeve a telegraph, he wasn’t expecting her to. “I think you need help,” he tells her, and the only thing behind the words is belief. “There’s nothing pitiful about that.”
She frowns at him, or he thinks it is a frown. “You offered,” she says.
“I did,” Johann says, and she takes his hand.
Hers is cold: not like hands are cold, but cold like fish under the ice, and a filmy slime coats the spaces between his fingers, sinking through his gloves. A chill crawls up his spine with spider-legs, and he shudders.
Her lip quirks, halfway to a sneer. “You regret now,” she says, and it isn’t a question.
“I—I don’t regret,” Johann says in return, and it is only not a lie because what says it is not quite him. He fumbles with the deadbolt, his fingers stiff, and unhappy to move. Finally, the door (dark, dark red like clotting) swings open, and he warns her of the door frame as he leads her inside.
Thinking of how easily she moved among the pines yet eyeless, he wonders for a moment if she needs the warning at all, but there is an uncertainty clinging weighty to her frame and her hand flits until she finds the wood beneath her fingers.
The cabin is no more impressive on the inside, and a few steps forward has them at the kitchen table. “You,” Johann says, showing her a seat at it (set for two not because he lives with anyone else but because a table set for one is a miserable-looking little table), and stops. Tries again. “In the woods,” he says, “you said you had need of me.”
“Of your service,” she corrects. “Although,” she adds, thoughtful, “that may work just as well.”
Johann does not think (thought scrambling upwards before it can be caught) he much likes the sound of that.
She waves her free hand like shooing away a fly. “For later,” she tells him. And, “In any case, you are an invaluable tool.”
Nor does he like the sound of that.
The baby at the woman’s breast is unnaturally quiet: Johann has not minded this, because when it is quiet he can look to her face and not to the infant’s fetid little arms and the maggots inside of them, crawling white-bellied in the rotting flesh, and beneath what skin still remains. But now that they are inside and warming, the insects squirm with newfound energy and the corpse squirms as well. The baby pulls its head away from its mother’s breast, and wails.
“Oh,” Johann says, on shuddering breath. Something presses down the thought to run, but he thinks he might be ill all the same.
The baby’s cries have no voice behind them, so they sound like hissing wind through the exposed, torn windpipe and through its mouth as well, filled same as its mother’s with hundreds and hundreds of those thin, brown, needle-like teeth, and caught in its anglerfish teeth is a large chunk of its mother’s breast.
“Shh,” she tells it, and runs her fingers comfortingly through the fragile little hairs on its head; they fall out as she does. “It’s all right, darling,” she says. “Everything is all right.”
With her free hand, she tugs at the neck of her cloak, and the roach undoes itself. Johann watches it blankly as it scuttles out of sight beneath his bed.
The shriek of the chair against the floor startles Johann into looking back at the woman; she has swaddled the corpse in the odd, tattered fabric of her cloak (even inside, it glows like moonlight) and she is standing, now, while the baby lies swaddled on the pine table, its decay covered while its mother stands bare entirely: at least, Johann thinks, she is not dead, and then he wishes that wasn’t an apparently valid option.
She puts a hand to her ruined breast so that her fingers are stained with her blood and then rubs them on the baby’s mouth. “Tonight,” she says, without turning, “her father will lie dead, with your aid.”
“What?” says Johann.
The baby suckles its mother’s bloody fingers clean, and only when it has done, she faces him. Like a glitch, he sees another woman overlaid: warm, red hair, braided cleanly down the length of her spine; eyes, deep-set and so dark they look black; aquiline nose; smooth, pale skin, unmarred by scars or other marks; pink cupid’s-bow lips and small, hard nipples the same shade; teeth, hundreds of them, like bone needles. Johann blinks and the image falters and clears, her ruined face and chest before him again. There is a gaping hole in her sternum, he sees now: covered, before, by the baby, and the cloak. It is not a wound and not rot, but something like an emptiness, like her whole body is a mask and he is seeing through the sockets. Something comes loose in him, every bravery and every good intention unfurled, and he is desperately, horribly afraid.
“He took my eyes,” she says, a sneer pulling cruel at her lips, the disfigured, raw flesh tearing open at the old seams, and she is shaking, full of rage and fear and uncountable, nameless, inhuman things. “He took my eyes; he took his own daughter's life. I will have them back.”
“I,” says Johann. And, “Miss…” He doesn’t know how she means to take either of those things back. He doesn’t know how she means to involve him. He doesn’t know why he let her into his house. There’s something caught up around his lungs, it feels like, something pulling tight which doesn’t want to let him free.
“Your axe,” she says. “It’s iron.”
“It is, but—”
“You will cut him down with it. I will take you where you need to go.” She has stepped toward him, put her hand on his shoulder. He can feel the cold and the slime sinking in through his jacket and flannel, and deeper, into his skin.
“I really don't—”
“He is arrogant,” she growls, and she has not yet stopped to breathe. She cups Johann’s face in her hands, her own face angled up and open, expectant. Blood runs down her chin. “He will not see anything to fear from you and so you will not be harmed. He will be dead before he thinks to fight back.”
“No,” says Johann.
There is a silence for a moment, like a hitch of the whole world’s breath. “No?”
“No,” he says again, stronger. He pulls away from her grasp, almost stumbling, and something settles in his gut; the thing in his ribs contracts. “Miss,” Johann says. Begs. “Miss, I’m very sorry. Truly. But you must know that his death won’t give you back your eyes, or your daughter.”
She laughs, sickly-sweet. “I will pluck out his eyes with my fingers and I will make them my own. I will wear them on a string ‘round my neck and they will see for me because I command them to! I will bind his blood to the earth and carve a new body for my daughter from his bones; I will use his spirit to sustain her so she no longer must feed on my blood.” She glowers at him. “And I need your axe, but your arms need not be the ones which swing it.”
“I won’t kill a man for you,” Johann says, and it comes out in a breath like he’s been punched. “I’m sorry. I can’t do that. I can’t.” He heaves, and the thing in his ribs, the thing wrapped around his lungs barely lets him get more air. He collapses to sit on the bed, hands falling to the rough-hewn quilt, and he presses his weight down on them so his arms are taut: no real protection, but an illusion of it. “I wish you wouldn’t either,” he says, fault-line honest. “You don’t need that blood on your hands, nobody does, but. I, I understand,” says Johann. “He hurt you. If you want my axe, you can have it.”
“I will have it, and more,” she says, and she stalks toward him. “How dare you.”
She is above him, curling over him, and the hand scrabbling uncertain for the bed frame does nothing to make her seem less powerful. She is so much greater than him.
The baby is making that same miserable, hissing cry again.
“I will have all you are able to give,” the woman says, curling her fingers in his dark hair and pulling so his head is angled back sharp, swallowing an uncomfortable stretch. And, “You offered.”
Johann can’t get air. The thing in his ribs won’t let him.
She keeps one hand knotted in his hair and the other goes to his neck, one sharp-nailed finger running cold-slimy down the length of his throat, a barely-there pressure, and pausing in the recess at the base of it where it meets his collarbone. He shakes. A cock of her head (tangled red hair jarred and fallen forward past her shoulder with the motion, obscuring the remnants of her face), and she gives a woodpecker tap-tap-tap which rings hollow and draws first blood he barely feels behind the vertigo; smiling, she licks her own from her ruined lips.
“You’re brave,” she says to him, “and forthright.” From something else, he thinks, it might be an apology. “I should like my voice to carry thus.”
She lets go of his hair and takes a step back as he collapses, scrambling backwards and away, and she says to him, “Burnt or willingly given, the offering is all the same. Either way, I need you without your layers.”
The thing in his ribs loosens just enough for him to gasp a breath and he takes it, vision swimming. She is gray at the edges and his hands shake as he pulls off his gloves, as he begins to undo the buttons of his plaid flannel and very carefully does not think of fire. She is impassive. For her, this is a kindness, and undeserved. He offered.
He shoves off his flannel and jacket in one movement so that they’re bunched up underneath him, and she puts a hand on his chest, pushes him down onto his elbows. He is sprawling sideways on the twin bed, his legs beginning to slide, and she climbs on top of him.
Her thighs are shaking-taut and her knees are pulled in tight to the lowest arcs of his ribs, like she’s on horseback. She hovers over him with her hands flat on his chest and curls around him with the curvature of her middle back rather than her neck; she is a parody of human form and her blood is sticky and clotting viscous where it touches his skin. Hers is cold even between her legs, and vitreous-slick as she moves against him.
She scratches down Johann’s chest with her right hand, pulling up thin, bloody lines, and his shuddering inhale brings no air. He arches up into her and her fingers rest at the base of his sternum, mirroring the hole in her own chest. She shifts her weight (he feels the wet slide of her against his skin) and digs her fingernails in and in and in, and they puncture skin and muscle below it and her long fingers curl around the bone.
Johann’s voice catches in his throat and lower in the muscle which tears around her knuckles, and so he does not scream, but it is a burning unlike anything and worse than the fire she offered must be, and he thrashes, his face contorted in a soundless, animal cry. His sternum comes up and out of his chest with a series of methodical snaps from its joining to his ribs like she’s pulling back cardboard perforation, and when it is torn out of him, his ribs fall open loose. She sits back heavy on his pelvis and peels the skin off the bone, discarding it beside her, and she slots the bone into place in the hole in her own chest like a puzzle piece, flesh closing in seamlessly over it, like it was never there at all.
She smiles at him with all of her teeth and there is a lull, the pain dulls and fades until he is aware of the sensation but does not fight. “Thank you for this,” she says, and she curls over him again, burying her hands in his viscera. It is an intimacy like nothing else can ever be, and the fingers of one hand pry at his trachea as the other slips down the flesh of his left lung, a lover’s caress which cradles it in her palm. She rolls her hips and leans into him, mouths at the sensitive skin as his lungs fill, dizzying, and she tightens her hold and she bites down. The flesh of his lung is between her teeth and she tears away the tissue and the hand at his trachea holds him down from inside him and as his hips arch up and stutter, he shudders, weak, because there is little else he can do. She turns her face up towards his and he watches her through film as she uses her tongue to pull the long strip of flesh into her mouth; watches her as she chews slowly, methodically; watches her as she swallows.
His lung is a useless pile of flesh lying in his open chest and his newfound breath is the hissing chatter of wind; she devours what of him remains, and he fades and fades and fades.
She heads out into the woods with her axe and her baby daughter in the storm, dressed in a flannel shirt that reaches to her thighs, and barefoot. She is called Hulðmál, though this is not her name, and as it follows this is not her story, or really anyone’s at all, but there are, after all, rules about this sort of thing.
She holds her daughter close and she walks out into the woods and then out of them again, stepping light through the swarming katydids and in between the dead, moaning like wind and with their gnarled hands outstretched. Among the dead there is a clearing of ash and bone and scuttling things, and there, she waits.
“You came back,” the father of her daughter says, after an indeterminate amount of time, for here, time does not always move how it seems. “I thought you would have gone from this place.”
“Thinking,” she replies, mild, “has never served you well.” She steps toward him, and her fingers curl around the haft of the axe. She counts the burning inconsequential, and the decay around them masks the smell. “We are not made to be thinking things, but feeling.”
There is a chill which radiates and is not from air. “Then you fail in all things,” he says, even-steady, like a revelation which is not, in truth, surprising, “for you do not feel.”
“I feel disgust,” she says, and she shows him her teeth and her axe; both of them glint. Johann’s breath fills her lungs and with the voice she took from him she tells her once-lover, “You are nothing and soon you will be less than nothing. I will have your eyes and your heart. The ground might have the rest of you, to make from you what it will.”
He laughs, but soon (as much as there might be a soon in this world), there is a pine tree stood in the very center of the clearing, and a little girl who plays in it under her mother’s watchful eye, the one she has hung up in the branches. An iron axe leans against the trunk, and burns.