The house on the edge of the forest was as twisted and malformed as the trees that loomed around it, blocking the sun and the air and anything else that would allow the house or its denizens to grow straight and strong. The house had a slippery, winding iron staircase on the outside rather than the inside, so if someone wanted to venture from kitchen to bed, they risked a dousing in rain or pollen or hoarfrost-edged moonglow. Three people lived in the house; a mother, a father, and a little girl named Ember who was so naïve that she still dreamed at night.
Ember grew up in the shadow of the house in the shadow of the woods and, like most light-stunted things, she was small and sharp and eager. She learned when acorns were in season and that, if she filled a shell with water from the nearby stream and left it on a broad flat rock by the bank, the shell would be dry and rough the next day and a tiny woven crown of aster would be left encircling it. She learned that the wind snatched her name from her lips if she stood on the edge of one of the forested peaks, and that someone on the other side returned it to her in her own voice. She learned that shadows ate fire in the woods and not the other way around as was normal. She learned the names for all the trees that bordered her house but her favorite was the hawthorn, solitary and wind-swept, standing apart from the other trees as though they had retreated from its blood-bright berries and needle-sharp thorns.
And, she learned that she must never open her window at night, not even when she heard the spider-stick tapping of twigs against the glass. Not even if they whispered her name.
Her mother gave her fragile cobwebs of lore, iridescent yet sticky enough to cling to the mind in strings and fragments. One could tie a lock of hair to a rowan tree to overcome grief. If, instead of hair, the same tree was watered with milk, the cows would be protected. Ash could be burned to bring about a rainfall.
“But, whatever you do my little love, you must never make a wish on a hawthorn tree.” Her mother cautioned, glancing skittishly out the window as though the tree was listening.
“Why not?” Ember asked. She asked this question frequently and rarely listened to the answer.
“Because the Hawthorn Queen is listening.” Her mother wouldn’t say any more and wishes were boring subjects anyway. What could Ember want beyond what she already had?
Although their luck was as stunted as Ember’s growth, her parents provided enough for a childhood. In the morning there were warm oats and butter. There was nearly always meat on the table for dinner. If the hearth did not warm the house enough, there were blankets of wolf skin or deer hide that made Ember’s bed a cozy nest. On the solstice, packages wrapped in wood bark and twine rested near that same feeble hearth.
Ember would unwrap them one at a time, savoring the paper-soft bark on her fingertips as she peeled away the mystery. They usually contained found things; a river-polished pebble, a beetle preserved in amber, once a baby raccoon who she raised until it was grown and nipped her mother’s ankle so hard it drew blood. The raccoon disappeared after that and Ember learned that her parent’s indulgence stretched to the point of bloodshed but no further.
No one ever mentioned that raccoons didn’t have kits until spring, yet this one was found alone and squalling near the twisted iron stair in the bleak month of December.
They lived in a borderland, not quite the forest, but not the town either. Strange things happened in liminal places, far stranger than a raccoon found out of season. For a whole year, the cow had produced thin blue water when milked in the day and rich cream at midnight. One autumn, leaves had shed from the trees to the rich, loamy earth in whorls and swirls that looked almost like a language. In the henhouse, they had found a dead martin that looked like it had been stabbed by a thousand tiny swords. It was not a place for the natural and Ember thrived, not unlike the feral creatures of the forest, until she turned fifteen.
Strange things happened at liminal ages, as well.
Ember had grown, if not tall and straight as wheat then at least not as broken and withered as the trees in the forest. She had bright brown eyes, a crow-sharp face, and a thatch of hair that couldn’t decide if it wanted to be brown or red. In the dark, it was a shadowed mystery. In the day, an autumnal blaze. In the between-times, it flickered between the two, a fire dying. Or being born.
She was strong as a vine, hearty as a doe, and wild as a cat. These had been charming traits for a girl. They were less appealing in a woman.
There was a town nearby. A collection of buildings big enough for a bakery, a market, and a store that sold everything from pickled vegetables to garden shovels. There was also a school, which Ember had never attended because, until she was nearly a woman, there had been no need to show her off to boys who were nearly men. Now there was, so Ember was stuffed into the costume of a sweet young girl who knew nothing of the sharp teeth and whispered mysteries of the forest.
She could barely move her arms in the narrow shoulders of the dress her mother made. Her new boots pinched toes that were used to curling in the soil. They tied her wild hair back from her face with a bright pink bow. Her parents dressed her like prey to meet strangers.
Ember didn’t yet understand that this was how people worked. That it was a competition to look the most like prey so that one would be approachable and eventually a protective herd would form. She had been too long among the hawthorn and the beasts. No costume she wore could cover her thorns and splinter-sharp claws.
No herd formed about Ember. She wouldn’t let it.
She had the hawthorn tree, the fleet-footed deer, and the inhalation of the forest as the sun slipped over the horizon. She had the familiar tap tap tap of spindly fingers on her windows. She had dreams of other things that lived beneath the thick leaf canopy. Darker things.
How could children compare to that?
There were no mysteries in other children, their lives unrolled before them like a spool of ribbon, straight, glossy, and unchanging until they ended with a sharp snip of the scissors. There were only ten students in her school, more boys than girls. All the girls would marry and the remaining boys would leave, to find the same future with a different girl somewhere else. Ember looked upon them all with scorn.
Which is why it was so surprising when one tried to find a future with her.
Brone wasn’t a bad boy. It may have been better if he was. He was pale and plain as a potato with dirty blonde hair and skin that always carried a sheen of sweat. Broad and soft with a parsnip nose and eyes like a stagnant-hot summer noon. When he touched something, it was as though he was wearing gloves. It took a moment too long for his flesh to understand what it felt. When he thought about something, it was the same. Those humid eyes did not mask a feverish mind, but rather one that had gone fallow.
His father, however, was as hungry for the forest as Ember was, although for different reasons. His hands always stroked the whittled handle of his hatchet and his gaze covetously catalogued one tree after another. He had decided that Brone and Ember’s union would give him access. Ember’s parents could afford no real dowry for her—had nothing to offer but the trees and the dark spaces between them.
Ignorant of his plotting, Ember climbed trees and the wind filled her up until she returned to the ground smelling of sap and smoke and speckled with downy feathers. She swam in the river searching for the silver-quick dart of the water spirits. She braided vines like hair and flowers bloomed under her short, deft fingers.
The forest loved Ember as much as she loved it, but affection is not the same as protection, and the devotion of a wild thing does not guarantee it will not bite.
One day, Ember returned home, wet from the river and goose-pimpled from the breeze, lips chapped from smiling, to discover a collection of people waiting at the bottom of the winding metal stair. Brone slumped, awkward in new pants and suspenders that wouldn’t stay straight on his rounded shoulders. His father was behind him, eyes on the wood, fingers fondling the ax at his waist. Ember’s mother and father stood on the stairs, a new russet dress and a beaded blindfold in their hands.
Ember was to be married five days hence, eyes shuttered and shoved down an aisle that pretended to lead to mystery but instead led to the same future every woman had. Blinded until her new husband gave her the gift of vision and showed her the world at his whim, on his timing. It was an added insult that the first thing she would see, at his hands, would be Brone’s vacant glassy eyes and wet-soft skin.
“I won’t.” She stomped a foot into the ground.
“You will.” They told her, shaking their heads at their willful daughter.
“You can’t.” She glared.
“We can.” They folded up the dress and the blindfold and tucked it in a trunk for her wedding day.
“You’ll see.” She threatened.
“We won’t.” They shrugged, sitting down across the table now that Brone and his father had left.
No amount of argument helped and it never occurred to Ember to plead. When the moon rose in the sky and the sounds of the forest stilled, she tried to run—packed a bag with a sharp paring knife, five hard pink apples, and a blanket.
Her forest was a different place in the night than under the disdainful gaze of the sun. The branches caught at her, spindly strong fingers snagging her cheeks, her tunic, and her bare feet. They grasped like greedy fingers at a sweet store, ripping fire-spark hair from her head and carrying it away.
The river waters were thick black ink at night, agitated with razor-sharp fins and weed-twined hands with too-long fingers that reached from the shallows, sinking into the mud on the shore up to their knuckles. Ember fled before whatever it was pulled itself completely from the depths but she heard the wet-stumpy sound of a footstep behind her. She tripped and fell over a tree root that she swore hadn’t been there before and, when she looked up, her wide gaze caught that of a deer frozen by a tree. It stared back with the eyes of a human and grinned with predator-sharp teeth.
She returned to her room then, tattered and scared for the first time in her life. The spindly fingers of the trees tapped on her window and whispered her name and Ember pulled a wolf skin over her head and shuddered. The next day, in the butter-safe light of the sun, she sat over her oats and considered her options. Ember was not the sort of girl built for consideration so instead she constructed a wall of “wouldn’t.”
She wouldn’t run. She wouldn’t marry the boy. She probably wouldn’t stay.
The forest was alive and leaking magic but none of it was tailored to her problem. Ember had no grief to get over, nor did she particularly care for the health of the cow. She wanted a lover to spurn her but there was no elder spell for that. The hawthorn tree in the corner of the yard caught her eye, furred in green leaves and speckled with red berries. Her mother’s words whispered through her head.
“The Hawthorn Queen is listening.”
Ember had forgotten the first half of her mother’s warning.
That night, she snuck down the winding iron stair again, but this time she did not venture to the woods. She stood below the sprawling hawthorn tree with a long strip of beech bark in one hand. She’d used the paring knife to carve a single request in the bark.
I want to be free.
She reached up through the snarl of branches to tie the bark to the tree but thorns pierced her flesh until blood flowed down her hand and pooled in the grooves of the carved bark. I want to be free. Now written in blood as well as wood.
She waited under the tree until the moon was high in the sky, blood dripping from her fingers into the earth, but nothing happened, so Ember returned up the iron stair to her room and fell asleep once again.
On the third night, the tapping on her window was different. A scrape of nails, of thorns dragged over glass. The voice that whispered her name was new, and muffled. On the third night, Ember answered the voice, following it down the iron stair until she stood under the hawthorn tree, beneath the note soaked with her blood. A woman waited for her there.
Or, at least, something shaped vaguely like a woman, in the same ways that a tree trunk could be said to have a human form, or a bag filled with vegetables may, at some angles, resemble the structure of a face. The woman was tall, narrow, and awkwardly jointed with arms that were too long and fingers that were gnarled and pointed. Her face was featureless, like burlap wrapped over skin, and a wild crown of thorns and flowers sat atop her head. When she spoke, the skin over her mouth sucked into her face, as though she inhaled through a membrane.
“I am the Hawthorn Queen and you have made a wish.”
“Yes.” Ember said, fervently. It occurred to her that she should be afraid, but it equally occurred to her that it was too late for the emotion.
That membrane sucked in again and the Queen stepped forward one pace, an ungainly motion, like the scuttling of a spider. “You must make three sacrifices and you will receive three gifts. If you use those gifts, your wish will be granted.”
“What do you want?” No one had ever mentioned sacrifices.
The Hawthorn Queen’s head tilted at an unnatural angle and her fingers rattled against each other, almost like skinned bones instead of wood. “The sacrifices must be worthy of your request.”
“What if they aren’t?”
She heard the sound of wood cracking and creaking, snapping and splintering, and realized that the Hawthorn Queen’s face was twisting into something akin to a smile in the same way that a scythe was kin to a butter knife. “See that they are.”
Ember blinked and the Hawthorn Queen was gone, melded back into the trunk or vanished to wherever wish-granting creatures went when they were not granting wishes. She went back to bed, considering her sacrifices.
The fourth night, Ember again climbed down the iron stair and stood beneath the hawthorn tree. She used a paring knife to shear hank after hank of her firelight hair until only an unruly crest stood around her head. She buried her hair in a hole on the east side of the tree. Teeth bared and eyes squinted shut, she cut off the smallest finger on her right hand and buried that in a hole on the west side of the tree. On the north side, she buried an ever-fresh flower chain that had been left for her in the forest in exchange for a rich slice of cake covered in clotted cream. The petals were bathed in the pain-tears that fell from her bark-brown eyes.
Vanity and flesh and magic that she had touched. They seemed like fitting sacrifices for a life with no fences.
She fell asleep with her hand wrapped tight in linen and her blood pounding in her ears. The next morning, her finger and hair were still gone but her skin was healed over and the pain was not so present. Her mother shook her head when Ember came down for breakfast, as though she had cut off her glorious hair in order to make herself unattractive to her husband.
“You’d best get used to the idea.” She warned her daughter. “You’ll be married with or without hair. You should be happy. Brone will take you to town and you’ll live in a nice house. The woods won’t tap on your window or whisper your name anymore.”
Ember ate her oats and simmered in anger, hiding her maimed hand in her skirts.
She stayed out that evening, a twilight girl in a twilight place, watching the sun’s fiery eye sink below the horizon and the forest shift in one instant from fanciful to treacherous. The shadows separated from trees and explored on their own, eating light and sound. The chickens fled into their coop. The night stilled and ground to a halt around her, as though someone had captured the moon in their hand and stopped its inexorable climb.
Under the static starlight, Ember unearthed the holes she’d dug the night before. On the west side of the tree, where she’d buried her hair, she found a crown made of waxy red berries. They smelled sticky sweet and overripe, a tang that coated the inside of her nose. On the east side of the tree, where she had buried her finger, Ember found a dagger made of bone shaped like a needle-sharp thorn. Grasping the hilt felt like razor-sharp fangs digging into her palm. In the final hole, where she’d buried the tear-stained flower chain, there was a mask made of rich red fur. It was soft and smooth to the touch, lined in the back with supple leather and tied with evergreen ribbons.
What a crown, a dagger, and a mask would do for her remained a mystery.
Ember took them to her room and tucked them under her narrow bed, turning her back to the tapping on her windows and ignoring the wind-thin whispers of her name. She had no more answers the next day, which was the day of her marriage. Her mother dressed her in the russet gown. It looked like dried blood. There was nothing to be done for the tattered crest of her hair and, when Ember offered her mother the berry crown, she placed it on her head as though that would hide the damage. The fruit was heavy and soft against her scalp, pregnant with juices.
When her mother wasn’t looking, Ember tucked the mask in her bodice and hid the bone dagger beneath her skirts, reachable through a cut seam. Finally, it was nearly time, and her mother pinched her cheeks to try to bring color to her daughter’s wan flesh.
“Bite your lips. It will make them plump and red.” Her mother instructed, demonstrating on her own narrow mouth.
Ember smacked her lips together and, when that didn’t produce the desired result, reached up and plucked the softest berry from her crown. It burst in her fingers and she painted her lips with the juice, careful to let none of it touch her tongue.
That seemed to please her mother, who led her to the little wooden church that stood in the center of town. It had once been painted white but the wind and the rain and the indifferent gaze of the sun had burned the skin from its bones. The wood-grain was gray and worn now. Inside, there were five rows of pews and a narrow altar covered in a yellow cloth that was supposed to be gold.
Brone waited by the altar, with his mouth hanging slightly ajar. His father glanced over his shoulder and grinned, hungry as a wolf for entry into the woods. Something murky and red rolled behind his eyes. His ax sat beside him, even in the church.
Ember’s mother slapped the blindfold on her face and she sightlessly walked to the altar, penned between her parents. Her hand was placed in another that was warm and damp and felt like day-old bread. It engulfed her fingers like it owned her.
The preacher said something but her blood was rushing to her ears and Ember couldn’t hear him. She couldn’t hear what Brone said when he replied or what he said to her next, words rushing together and jumbled—drowned out by the hectic thunder of her heart.
The wet-bread hand squeezed hers and there was an expectant silence. Ember opened her mouth to say “no” but only a slight wheeze came from between her lips. There were dry masculine chuckles around her and a hand clapped her on the back, as though she were overwhelmed with emotion.
The blindfold was removed from her eyes and she stared up into Brone’s soft potato face. It was too late. She was married. She hadn’t been saved and she wasn’t free. She would have to look at this extra flesh sewn into the shape of a near-man for the rest of her life. Ember opened her lips again, to snarl or swear. To threaten.
Instead Brone covered them with his own. It felt like two leeches wriggling against her mouth, an eel thrusting between her teeth. Like that thing that tried to crawl from the river had its arms wrapped around her. Just before she could bite down on the offending flesh, he staggered away, damp eyes wide and lips stained red with the juice of the berries rubbed on her mouth.
His fingers raised to his mouth. Traced its shape. His tongue crept out and touched his lip. Retreated. His fleshy skin paled until it was like he was lit by moonlight instead of the noon-day sun. His tongue emerged again, this time black and thick and the near-man collapsed on the ground with white froth spilling from between those red-stained lips.
Brone’s father jerked Ember away from the altar and his son. Wrapped a large hand around her throat and squeezed. Her parents were rooted to the floor, staring at Ember’s now-dead husband with glassy eyes. It was like they were a story that someone had stopped reading in the middle of a page. The preacher fled the church screaming of devils.
Ember’s gaze returned to Brone’s father. She studied the shine in the back of his eyes, like an animal’s but not. Animals didn’t have that sick, milky twist. His lips peeled back from his teeth until she could see his gums, wet and red like fat worms plucked from the earth after a storm. Ember grasped the dagger through the rip in her skirt and thrust it between his ribs. The milky red glow was the first thing to go. Whatever spirit had possessed the man fled the body like a rat from fire.
She hadn’t just killed the thing, though, she’d killed the man. Ember stood with two bodies at her feet and her russet dress stained by blood in truth. Her parents were still stuck in place, like that beetle in amber they’d gifted her many solstices ago. Not knowing what else to do, Ember fled the little church. She ran through the town, hands full of skirts, until she entered the forest.
The spring sang a babbling song, the wind danced through the leaves, and the soil was soft and warm under her bare feet when she kicked her shoes off. At some point in her flight, she’d lost the dagger and the crown. Her own tattered crest of hair and blood-stained gown were all that remained to her. Ember considered going home and packing a bag.
It sounded like so much work and she was so tired. She would never have to marry Brone, but she wasn’t free any more than she had been before him. Ember sat at the base of a tree, skirts rucked up around her, and leaned her head against the gnarled bark. It was firm and strong at her back, cradling her like the lover’s hug she’d so recently foresworn.
When she woke, it was night, and the forest had changed. The bark of the tree had nearly engulfed her completely and she had to wrest herself free of its avaricious embrace, skin scraped to bleeding by its refusal to release her. The earth was either cold and hard or wet and slurping under her feet. The buzz of insects sounded like two metal blades scraping together. She wandered until she was on the edge of the dark forest, under the canopy of the hawthorn tree with silver-sharp moonlight scattered on her skin. There she paused, studying a home that no longer felt like it was hers.
A familiar deer approached, gazing at her through a swarm of knife-sharp antlers with blue-green eyes. It smiled with the needle-thin teeth of a pike. A bunny came after, fur matted and red around its mouth, eyes glowing yellow. A wildcat slunk between two trees with paws that ended with fingers like a woman’s—if women grew retractable claws. A monstrosity of creatures assembled under the canopy of the hawthorn and watched her with too-human eyes that were entirely devoid of humanity.
A rustling drew her attention. It was only a squirrel. A normal one that was captured in the fist of the wildcat and squeezed until it squeaked and cracked like ripe fruit. The cat licked blood from its finger-paws but its eyes never left Ember’s.
There were three holes at her feet beneath the hawthorn tree. Three gifts that together granted freedom.
Ember had only used two. She dredged in the bodice of her ruined dress for the mask, sure that it had been lost along the way. Soft fur met her fingers and she pulled it free. It sat in her hands like a promise, gazing up at her with tilted empty eyes. She looked at the hawthorn again. It was still and silent, one step removed from the rest of the forest. The Queen was not among the creatures who gathered around her, either disinterested or asleep. Her work was done, after all. Three gifts for three sacrifices. No guarantee the sacrifices would be good enough.
As the moon rose higher in the sky, Ember tied the mask over her eyes. Only then did she consider that the three sacrifices offered may not have been hair, flesh, and flowers at all.
The mask stuck to her skin. Pierced her like it was covered in a thousand tiny spines. She tried to tear it free but it was too late. It was already fused to her flesh and it was spreading. Red fur flowed over her cheeks, down the sloping curve of her neck, to the hollow of her back. Her legs popped and stretched, rejointing themselves and twisting into clever, clawed paws. Her nose and mouth stretched into a muzzle, lips thinning until they were gone and teeth razoring from sensitive gums.
She grew a tail of fur, lush and red as the mask, and a brindled crest of hair flowed from between her ears down the center line of her back, the exact not-quite-fire color that her hair had once been.
On new fox-feet, Ember pawed the earth beneath the tree, nose filling with a thousand new scents and wind ruffling her fur. When the rabbit thing snarled at her, she pounced on it, quick as lightning, and broke its spine in one clean bite. She licked her muzzle, registering the taste even as her mind lost its grip on other things. Less important things like a family, a home. A name.
She was no longer Ember the girl. She was a creature that hunted, ravenous, in the night and slept through the mellow days. No longer liminal; gloaming transitioned into dark. No delicate flower chains were gifted to her, even if she left the corpse of a bird on the long flat rock by the stream. The silver flash of the water spirits was replaced by a spindly creature of river-weed and mud.
Some nights, she approached the house on the edge of the woods, twisted and familiar with a winding iron stair. She watched as the twig-sharp fingers of the trees tapped on windows and she learned that she had enough voice left to whisper the names of those who lived within the walls.
For years to come, in a town on the edge of a swelling wood, crones would tell the story of the fox-bride and her forest. Every time, the story ended with the same words.
“You must never make a wish on a hawthorn tree because the Hawthorn Queen is listening.”
Constance Fay lives in Colorado, USA and works in R&D for medical devices by day and writes poetry and prose by night. Her work may also be found in 99 Tiny Terrors, a horror anthology. Visit her online at twitter: @constanceefay, or instagram: @constanceefay
photo by Jeremy Vessey and Annie Spratt (via unsplash)