One had never seen the beast. Its howls bounced through the trees as though there were hundreds. Maybe so, but One hoped it was but a simple trick. Her ears couldn’t be trusted.
Run, my child. Mother had said. Run, for the beast will bite your feet if you slow.
One’s feet bled, but she had never felt the jaws of the beast. Over rock and water; through the dull husks of leaves. One ran.
Never stop, my child. Mother had said. For the beast will devour every bit of bone if you rest.
One listened and had never stopped. Not since Mother sent her into the wood as a child. Not since she first heard their yips and the cries of those who ceased. No, One would never stop running.
Never lose your wit, my child. Mother had warned. Be wary of the trees, of the boulders and caves. They will take your cloak. Your basket. Your bread.
One stumbled and fell. The basket held tight to her breast as the corpse children of the trees gave way to a jagged ravine. The howls of the beast grew near. One scrambled to her feet, her red cloak torn and smeared with mud. She could hear their claws now, their growls and whimpers.
Mother had left Two in the cabin with a promise to return.
Wait, my child. Mother had said. Wait until the beast comes to you. You need not do much tracking.
Two stood in the middle of the cabin, her frail hands cupping a warm ceramic mug of tea. The leaves were overused; every bit of flavor had long since been sucked out.
Be safe, my child. Mother had said. You mustn’t ever unlock the door, for those putrid beasts will be just outside, waiting. Waiting, as you must.
Two would never let them in. She checked the locks every time the clock struck the hour. Ever since she smelt the first to find her. Musty and damp. As sour as milk left in the sun. The scent always lingered as the beasts would test the strength of the door, the walls, the windows. It made Two’s sunken form shake.
Never let the fire burn out, my child. Mother had instructed. Always keep it stoked. The warmth will keep you whole. The smoke of burning logs will mask your own new musk.
But the fire was getting low. Two had used up the logs inside. The smoke was thinning and Two’s bowed legs moved to find more she could burn. Plants that had long since died, books she had read thrice over, clothing that was now far too large. The flames were tired though and begged to be released.
The beasts began to sniff under the door; pawing and whimpering. The smoke hiding her all but gone. Two covered her mouth, the odor was repulsive. A metal chair was all that remained, its cushion tied with ribbon. Two threw the cushion into the fire. The flames muted under its weight, but thick smoke enveloped the room. It was full and heady; the flames began to creep out from underneath it. Two breathed it in.
Three had found the deer the day prior. The flesh was rotting but Three was taking her time. It was a large deer, a fat deer, that had been left unstripped of all it could offer.
Devour, my child. Mother had said. If the beasts think you as voracious as they are, they will believe you one of the pack.
Three didn’t bother with a fire. The beasts never used a fire, they filled their bellies with raucous grunts and clashing teeth. She had viewed them before as she snuck among the trees. A single beast or a pack of hundreds, they always ate the same.
Perform, my child. Mother had said. You must be an exhibition. Present yourself. Be seen by the beasts. Let them see the blood on your lips.
Three ate and ate. The clotted, rotted blood of the deer painted her chin, her mouth, her cheeks, her neck. She saw them approach from above matted fur. They crept from the tree line, their paws delicately creasing the grass. Three saw the saliva dripping from their mouth as a piece of fat snapped off muscle.
Be ready, my child. Mother had counseled. The beasts are more than they seem.
The beasts encircled her, their fur ashen, dusty with rock and leaves buried like lice. Three growled through a large mass of meat as a beast stepped closer. They wouldn’t have her feast.
A week had passed since Four had last savored the gag. She kept it hung from her neck by its leather band, but its taste lingered. Amorous and musky, it was a fresh truffle cooked slowly atop garlic and butter.
Seek, my child. Mother had said. You may find them first. Seek and select. The beasts are abundant but be wary. Some are quietly unrestrained.
Four strode amongst the trees, catching the smoky dew on her tongue. Deciding for whom she would relish the age of the gag. A beast appeared before her, strong and shameless and elegant. Four allowed the beast to circle her. But the beast was ignorant to the gag, so Four took her leave.
Pleasure, my child. Mother had said. Learn the art so you may never be famished. Try the sweet, the savory, the sour, and the salt. Don’t forget the bitter for it is often overlooked.
There were others in the forest. Others without trinkets round their neck who simply wished to pass through. The beasts frenzied, snarled, and snapped save the few who wandered the outer trees. One of the others, young and distressed flashed her lantern to scare them off. The vicious beasts were far too confident.
Four reached out and placed her hand on the other’s shoulder. The other was tense; unsure of what course to take against the beasts who crept and lingered. Four walked with the other, unencumbered by the nips and yelps. Four walked the girl to the edge of the frenzy, wary of the beasts with foam drenched teeth.
Allow me. Said The Witch. Never let them bare their teeth.
Four looked around, holding the other close. The Witch was nowhere in sight, but her throat soon burned with a thickening ash. The forward beasts scattered but those at the edge stayed silent and still. The forest floor shook and ruptured around those of voracious intent; their legs encased in muddied rock. The Witch cackled from all around and Four reveled in the warmth of hot smoke.
The scavengers at the tree line waited til the flames fell to lunge at Four and the other. Four waited for their jaws to close but the beasts became dust. As the flecks settled, all Four could taste was damp wax and freshly birthed moss. The Witch inhaled from their backs and the girl with the lantern ran off into the woods. Four turned and The Witch picked the gag from her neck and licked. The Witch placed the gag between Four’s lips and vanished, leaving only the rotten spice of over-fermented, mulled wine.
Five couldn’t stop tearing at the skin around her nails. She’d chew at the hardened, hanging, dead skin at their edges and bore deeper into the holes she’d already made.
Go out, my child. Mother had said. Venture until you find what it is you need.
Five was unsure if she had. She had found many a thing in many a land but it was the beasts that were plentiful. They wandered along her path and brushed against her legs. Some as soft as satin. Others rigid and rough; their spines hidden under dense fur.
It started with the full, flat surface of her hand. Every time a strand would graze her, Five would rub her skin pink. Soon it was the heel of her palm, there were so many beasts so many incidents. Maybe the pressure would crush any terrors they left? It wasn’t enough. Water was too soft. Fabric couldn’t get deep enough. Bark left creases untouched. Five found the steel wool in the remnants of a tool shed.
Cease, my love. Said The Witch. There is no need for that.
Five didn’t listen to The Witch. She’d heard stories of her magic, of her treasons and transgressions. Five started with her feet; the coiled puff, raking and scraping and grazing her tired flesh.
Do you fear them? Asked The Witch.
Should I? Asked Five.
The Witch placed her hand, clad in ribbon bound red, on the fraying monster. Five kept her grip on it firm and unyielding but The Witch gently bared her teeth.
Danielle Dunagan is currently seeking her Master’s in English – Creative Writing from the University of Northern Iowa. Her writing tends to exist in a space between the real and the fantastic, though it does often veer into one or the other. Her work can be found in Junto Magazine and The Woven Tale Press.
Artwork: Laura Makabresku