Deep in the woods, where the sun’s light never reaches to break apart the shadows, through a thicket of brambles and stinging shrubs, there stands a house. It is not made of gingerbread, nor does it walk on chicken’s legs. But it is, for want of a better word, home.
My devil trees need feeding. When there’s no flesh to be had my moon-blood will do, and when there’s none of that for months on end they scream and keen and shiver in the night, hungry like wolves. Their branches rat-tat-tat on the roof, wood scraping on wood, and I feel the chills run up my spine and my palms go clammy and I know that I must marry again.
So many husbands. First I must get them here, which isn’t difficult, and then I must keep them here, which barely takes more skill; and then, afterwards—afterwards, they are easily dispatched.
I sell eggs in the village on market day, and if their yolks are tinted green, and if they sometimes hatch into bony chickenlings with red and scaly eyes, that’s no concern of mine. The villagers will tolerate my presence, so long as I deal only with travellers. One approaches me now: a rich man, with deep green eyes that rake across me as I avert my own.
“Eggs?” he asks, by way of an introduction.
“Each a copper penny,” I reply, meeting his eyes properly at last.
“And how much for you?” he asks with a grin, as though he is giving me a present. The attractive ones are all the same: entitled.
I take his arm and lead him into the forest, abandoning the eggs to the crows.
“Whore,” one of the village boys spits as we walk away, arm in arm.
I wish it were that simple.
You remember the stories. Princesses with hair so fine and blonde; woodcutters’ daughters who look after sick mothers, girls with tiny, delicate feet. They prove their worthiness and gain the prize; to end their stories at seventeen, married, their lives concluded.
No one ever asks if they are really, truly, happy ever after.
The boneheap leers at me; my garden stinks of blood. My latest husband-for-the-moment has gone to join the others.
I am pregnant again, and the trees are sated. In time, their spirits will step out from beyond the bark to demand the baby, long nails clawing and scratching at my eyes. I don’t know what the faerie devils want with so many human children. Can they not make babies of their own, and leave me be?
I stamp the feelings down like errant sparks. They only make the sylvan devils happy. It’s better not to care.
The swell of my belly has long since deflated; set back to a virginal, nubile flatness. How many times must I swell, diminish, start the whole process over?
This life is a cyclical nightmare; a millwheel that won’t stop turning, even when the river that powers it has long since dried up. It keeps going, to no end or purpose.
This is what you wanted, I remind myself, this is what every woman wants. Beauty and eternal youth, any man for the asking, a thousand pretty babies. This is the soil in which happiness must grow.
Too bad it’s fertilised with blood and shit and lies.
I am pregnant again, and selling herbs at market. Rosemary, sage, marjoram—not the soporifics and stupefacients the curse bids me use on my husbands. The scents drift up from the table to my nose; a hearth-and-home bouquet, its cosiness tainted by the knowledge that it comes from a garden of bones.
A woman, old by any reckoning but my own, approaches the stall. She’s not anyone I know, must have stepped down from the stagecoach like the husbands.
She smiles a wizened smile at me and I nod, grimly silent.
“Oh! Rosemary!” she says, clutches a handful to her nose. “My mother always said that rosemary smelled like hope.”
She says it confidingly, as though to a child, and of course that’s what she’ll think me; twentyish is close enough to make no difference. How odd that we two crones can look upon each other and see only youth.
“Have you any eggs?” she says. “Nothing like eggs and rosemary for baking a good herb cake. Nutritious, you know.”
And for a moment I see her as she used to be, a young child always underfoot, getting in the way of the baking for the sake of the smell of a few dry leaves. The image leaves me breathless, shaking, suddenly violently nostalgic.
“Not today,” I say.
I can’t go back. It is far, far too late for that. But perhaps there is something else I still have the power to do.
I stop eating. I stay in bed for three days and stare at nothing, biting my fingers red raw. The faint scraping of wood on wood is the musical accompaniment to my nightmares.
The jellied mess that slithers out from between my thighs on the fourth day goes straight on the fire, despite the shaking of my hands. It pops, crackles, falls silent: to me it is the sound of freedom.
I thrust the poker deep into the flames and hold it there until it glows.
And then all it takes is a red-hot skewer driven through the heartwood, right to the core. The trees howl like foxes in heat as I expend all the strength they’ve given me in one final conflagration.
I walk away, throat sore from the smoke, and the years start to pour back on me; an avalanche of stolen time. The world is fuzzing over, its edges creeping black, and the last thing I know is a welcoming, familiar scent—