My wife designs beasts. This is what she does. And every day, I must hunt the beasts through the dark pine forest that surrounds our house, and drag their pelts home through the snow to lay before her fire.
She releases the beasts before dawn, when I am still in bed. She opens the door and sets them loose, the beasts she has designed. Sometimes they are reluctant to go, I hear them rasping and moaning in the cold, and my wife must shoo them away with a broom or pelt them with lumps of coal. And then she brings me hot sugared tea, porridge, thick bread, slabs of butter and cheese, and she makes certain I wolf it all down because she does not want me to stumble, despair or succumb to the freezing wind.
Together we wait for the sky to turn the colour of blood and gold. My wife dresses me for the cold, in my layers of fur and my winter hood and my ropes and my sacks and my snowshoes. She slips leather gauntlets on my hands, and gently wraps my fingers around the slender hunting needle I use to lance the beasts through their tiny hearts and send their bright blood bubbling into the snow.
I set out at a steady pace, following the tracks of the beasts where they leapt, hopped, slithered, crawled, lurched or bounded over the hill, and from there descended into the woods, to merge with the shadows of pines. From their tracks, I make assumptions about the forms their bodies have taken. I note the scrape of a trailing wing, the indentation of a horn, the prints of toes or talons or stumps, the drag-mark of a tongue.
Through the black and threatening firs I plunge, with no thoughts in my head. I must chase the beasts to the end of the earth. That is what I must do. My snowshoes crash through deadwood and crunch deeply in the snow. They slip and slither over frozen streams, and sometimes I trip and go tumbling down, face-first into whiteness. I pick myself off, dust the snow from my clothes, and continue without respite. I do not allow myself to tire. I do not allow myself to pause. There can be no rest until I have the beasts at my needle’s point.
It has been this way for a year and a day. Ever since our wedding night, when my wife designed her first set of beasts. Ever since our honeymoon, when she first sent the beasts out into the snow. Ever since she made it clear that she wanted me to deliver their pelts, soft and warm and wet with gore, to where she sits by the fire at night, toasting her feet before the flames.
The tracks run together for the first few miles, and then they split different ways. They diverge along separate paths, weaving complicated knots through the trees, in an attempt to throw me off and force me to turn back. This means the beasts have heard my pursuit, pressed their misshapen heads to the ground to feel my thudding footsteps. I imagine they imagine I can simply be confused, that I can be made to falter. But the beasts should know I will not be stopped. That the pattern will never be changed.
By noon, I have run the first to ground. Made dizzy and careless with exhaustion, it will have paused to catch its breath, sucking the frosted air through its snout, or its beak or its swollen purple lips. I fall upon it through a mist of powdered snow. The needle slips through matted fur, rainbow scales or casing of bone. I hear the muffled pop of its heart. Steam pours from the tiny hole. Its blood paints a red map on the snow. I gently stroke its head as it fades, wiping away its teardrops of blood, smoothing its crumpled feathers.
Deftly, barely pausing for breath, I remove its pelt with the notched, bone-handled hunting knife that hangs at my side. I loosen the muscle and flesh from the bone, and slip its skin from its skeleton as if I’m tugging a woolly jumper off the body of a sleeping child. I roll the pelt up like a rug and stuff it into one of the sacks that dangle from my shoulders. I clean the needle with a fistful of snow, draw breath, and plunge back into the trees. The others will still be far away. Mindlessly, pointlessly running.
Deeper into the woods I go, where the trees darken and the ground becomes littered with rocks and fallen branches. I stagger uphill, crashing through the thickets of thorns that tangle my path, tearing into my winter furs, whipping across my face. After hours of pursuit, I come upon the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh, scattered at intervals in the trees, foam-flecked, flanks heaving. Sometimes they have injured themselves in a fall, smashed headfirst into the trunk of a tree, or fallen through a thin patch of ice halfway over a frozen river. Sometimes the joints of their limbs have popped. They might attempt to continue like this, dragging useless extremities behind them, and I will find tattered strips of their skin caught on protruding branches. Sometimes their lungs will have given out. They will be too weak to go on. They are not designed to run too far. My wife sees to this.
I dispatch them cleanly, efficiently. I don’t like to shout or make a fuss. By this point I’m as exhausted as them, and I take no pleasure in it. Occasionally they try to fight, flailing, bellowing, kicking up snow, but most of the time they await the needle in silence, even expectantly. Sometimes they seem almost relived. Sometimes I think they understand why their deaths must happen.
It’s dark by the time I get back to the house. My entire body hurts. I see the lights glinting through the trees. I smell the rising wood-smoke. I stamp off snow at the front door, and collapse into the room. My wife unwraps my ropes and sacks, tugs the frozen furs from my body. She drags me over to the fire, rubs my arms and legs with hot towels, and coddles me in blankets. She bathes my wounds. She brings hot spiced wine. She unfreezes the skin of my face with kisses. And then she unrolls the pelts I have brought her, and while I nod off to sleep in my chair she kneels on the wooden floor, examining them meticulously in the flickering orange light.
I see the pleasure on her face. I hear her admiring words. I’ve been doing this for a year and a day, ever since we married. My wife designs beasts. This is what she does. There can be no rest until I have the beasts at my needle’s point.
One day, I am too sick to go out. I moan as my wife pulls away the covers, and cannot swallow the tea she brings, and gag at the sight of porridge. My chest is glistening with sweat. It looks like the underbelly of a fish. I lie there and stare at my chest as it heaves, and my heartbeats boom inside my head.
Perhaps it was something I caught in the cold. Perhaps one of the beasts showered me in poison. Or perhaps I didn’t eat enough thick bread, or drink enough hot sugared tea. When my wife insists I get out of bed, my legs buckle and I fall to the floor. My head feels strange. I don’t know up from down. Sweat pools in the backs of my knees.
All morning my wife tries to bring me back to strength, growing ever more impatient as the sun climbs in the sky. She rushes back and forth from the kitchen, trying to spoon things into my mouth. She brews chicken broth, nettle tea, dark medicinal concoctions steeped with forest herbs. She sticks cones of garlic in my ears. She steams my feet in spearmint tea. She presses hot bowls upon my back. It only makes me sicker.
I swim in and out of nightmares while my wife fusses around me. Beyond the wall, I can hear the beasts. They must have gathered around the front door, huffing the air through the crack where the draft blows in. They want to get out, but she will not let them go. As the day goes by, their anxiety grows. They begin to shriek, pawing at the floorboards. I can hear their nails raking the wood. The next time my wife leans over the bed, adjusting the blankets I have thrown off, I take her shoulders with my clammy hands and tell her I cannot leave the house. I say she must let the beasts go without me, on this one occasion. She presses her fingers to my lips, instructs me to be still.
I cannot move for five days and five nights. It feels like a year. Gravity holds me to the bed, and the sickness spins inside me. My body feels yellow, then black, then green. My fingers have turned into thumbs. My hands feel bloated, full of dense liquid. I imagine them swollen to the size of hams, but when I drag them before my face they appear completely normal. A heavy stench lies over the bed. My skin is leaking like a muslin cloth. My condensation drips down the walls and windows.
My wife continues designing beasts every night while I am sick. I want to tell her that she must stop, that she must wait until I’m well, or there will be too many.
The beasts are filling up the house. They don’t have anywhere to go. They crowd against the windows and doors, desperate for release. The walls shake as they bang into them, the crockery rattles on the shelves. My wife cannot stop. This is what she does. I do not know what will happen.
On the fifth night, my sickness peaks. It plunges me through swirling clouds, clouds of lurid pink and green. The sky is flashing horribly. I am lost in a storm of beasts. I close my eyes to make it dark. Through the darkness, my wife comes. I think it is my wife. A dark shape bending over me, a blackness blacker than the black, devoid of form or features. She watches me through a mist of dreams. She holds me with her eyes. I want to touch her, to speak some words, but I cannot move a muscle. She watches me through the long, black night. She never makes a sound. Later, I find I can move my hand. My body is starting to function again. I attempt to reach out for my wife, but she is no longer there.
I awake to white light streaming through the window. Its brilliance hurts my eyes. I pull myself up to sitting position and wipe frost off the glass. Everything is white outside. The world is clean and cold. Above the boundary of the pines, the sky is turning the colour of blood and gold.
My feet find their way to the floor. My fingers grip the bed-frame. My legs tremble, but support my weight. I stagger from the room.
There is silence throughout the house. The fireplace is cold. A cloud of ash hangs over the hearth, and the embers are dead grey. I cannot remember this happening before. There is no tea, no porridge, no bread. The furniture is disarranged, and the floorboards deeply scored. My wife is nowhere to be seen. A blue and white china plate lies broken on the floor.
The snow is all churned up outside, and a stampede of many tracks, far too many tracks to count, leads towards the forest. They must have had several hours head start. There is no time to lose. I do not allow myself to tire. I do not allow myself to pause. I am stumbling through the snow, following the tracks of the beasts where they leapt, hopped, slithered, crawled, lurched or bounded over the hill, and from there descended into the woods, to merge with the shadows of pines.
Before I have reached the crest of the hill I am bent almost double, staggering for breath. I have to drag myself up the slope with hands already turning blue. It is at this point I remember something. My hunting needle is back in the house, in its rack on the wall. I turn my head, peering back down the hill. There is wood smoke rising from the chimney. The door is standing open. Something moves in the white field, and it is now that I see the man, in his furs and his winter hood and his ropes and his sacks and his snowshoes, hunting needle in gauntleted hands, lift his head from the tracks at his feet and begin to run, in long easy strides, towards me up the hill.