On this evening, she wonders again if he will return.
It has become harder and harder to find comfort so deep in the woods, their home so hidden from the travelers’ paths. She wonders if he’s rock-a-byed a buck tonight, how the fight of antler, bone, and blade must’ve made quite the sound out there. Days have gone by, and after all her hours of fretting and bathing she’s found herself hearing footsteps near and far, hears echoed howling as the wind chimes gossip with autumn on the porch. Any sound outdoors or creak of wood within has her heartbeat tripping and catching on itself. Excitement and concern. He should be home by now.
Home is hanging herbs, is a bed meant for one but shared by two, is simple warmth, is hand-me-down curtains. The sun has been gone for some time but she leaves the curtains open and busies herself at the crackle and murmur of the fireplace. It is a meager fire, only warm enough to maintain a face to face heat, like sharing a pillow. A fire is a poor substitute for a husband, like the blankets that she has been wearing to and from their bed like a makeshift robe.
While crouching to tend the heat she lets the covers slip from her shoulders, bare-breasted and unblinking as she shifts the kindling. She rearranges the logs and they tumble and collapse, little snaps of amber light breaking open in the hearth. She tracks the flickers as minutes pass, listens to the embers until her drying eyes become heavy, until they burn and water from sitting too long and too near the flame. Her attention wanes until she curls up naked on the floor, dragging the blankets back up around her.
A dream begins to begin when the front door thuds closed.
Her mind wakes before her body. Before her limbs rouse she can tell by the drag of his footsteps that his journey back to her has not been interrupted by rest. He is usually more cautious than that. The hunter waits for her there at the room’s edge, lets her untangle herself from the covers.
He fills the doorway like a living shadow, his features lit by the fire the same faint way that clouds appear in the afterglow of lightning. From what she can see, his hair looks as if the wind and night fog had fought over it, and the hair on his face is new since a few days past across his cheeks and over his chin. His time away has roughened him, and yet relief flutters behind her lips, forcing her to smile. Her husband is home, and with her face half hidden by her hair, hanging like moss, her eyes fasten to his in the dark.
“Wait,” he says, voice crawling, grizzled and hushed and solid as he stays at the door. “Wait,” he says, because he sees, can tell from where he stands that her heart is beating in her like a jarred bee and her legs aren’t quite untangled yet. She ignores the warning and tries to stand anyway, would skip the step of standing and just run to him if she could. She needs him to know that she’s been home, just waiting.
Needles sting and race throughout her waking legs the moment she teeters. It happens faster than she can comprehend, not the tingling pain, but the fact that he is there, hands spread and bound to her bare waist like bark to a tree. The exhale of his hitched breath strokes itself warm across her scalp. Her name had never been so delicate before. She doesn’t even wait until she’s steady before she tiptoes onto his boots, slipping only once on the leather as she fits to him like flame, lips smiling onto the stubble of his jaw, fingers finding crevices to burn awake. Her fingers crawl into the collar of his cold coat searching their way up the soft spine stairs of his nape, seeking solace there.
Her stomach snatches back with a chill when she is pressed so close that his coat’s buttons push into her skin in a skipping line. It’s a temporary withdrawal. With her fingers embedded in his hair the hunter’s wife is not sure if she is trying to hold him, or trying to hold herself up. She starts to say so, but chest to chest she can tell that their hearts don’t match. His rhythm is amiss.
Refusing to let go, she simply leans just enough away to see if she can find something foreign in his face since the last time they were together. Which troubles have ridden him home? He was always such a tranquil thing in her arms, so docile and grave. But now, now he’s looking at her the way a doe does, eyes wet and slow to blink. There’s bad news.
He gently lowers her from standing on his feet. She starts to grant him space but the hunter keeps his hold and leans in so close that temple to temple she knows his words before he speaks, saying, “Last night I buried a girl and an old woman.”
His voice came against her neck, the words catching in her thick hair like weak-winged flies. She can feel it through his skull when he clenches his jaw. His breathing short as his arms stay wrapped around her like an apron.
The hunter’s wife releases her held breath and draws her grasp from his nape forward to cradle his face. It takes soft work, but he allows her to guide him into looking at her. She keeps her movements obvious and unhurried, lightly smooths her thumbs over handfuls of coarse cheek.
Together, within the flicker of the fireplace, her mouth can’t help but curtsey into a fond smile. It isn’t pity. It’s just that this close she can feel the heat from his mournful mouth. She takes his with her own, only slightly less hungry than she’d like. More softly than she’d like. The hunter’s wife slips her eyes closed and consumes what she can of his lips in the way that grass is grazed, slowly taken in piece by nuzzled piece.
She continues until she’s successfully lured a sigh from him then lifts her chin and rises again onto her toes so that she can sow a whisper into the wrinkle of the bridge of his nose, saying, “Give me your hands.”
He stiffens, winces when his wife reaches down to take his wrists so reverently. Her grip is loose and patient, thumbs making tender traces as she waits. The hunter’s wife knows better than to rush him when she can feel the desperate way his fingers are searching for safety, for shelter around her waist, and her heart aches at the way that they knead frantically into the muscle and bone of her sides. There is heartbreak in his eyes, yet through this she keeps herself compassionately composed as she awaits his consent.
His nod is slight and his hands go limp as she eases them up between and nestles them to her face like a rough bouquet. He cringes, but she kisses his hands anyway.
“We fought,” he says, and won’t look at her. She doesn’t ask, but he answers, “The wolf. I chased it around the house,” he leans away from her touch and swallows, “around the bodies.”
She could smell it then, the blood-muddied earth soaked into his skin. Her husband’s hands, cold and filthy shovels with five fingers each. She can almost taste the flesh of what he’d been left to bury, can smell the girl’s sweat from walking so long, can smell the grandmother’s jams just beneath that.
The fire crackles behind them and the hunter’s wife says nothing. Instead, she lays her forehead to their clasped fingers as if praying for the both of them. She has never prayed though. With her eyes lowered, she becomes aware of her nakedness. She ought to be cold, usually is when she is standing like this. The next crackle from the fire makes her flinch. She doesn’t mean to take a step backward, but she does. He averts his eyes and lets her go, trudges around her to retrieve the covers on the floor, shakes them out before he swathes them around her shoulders. His lips are brief on her brow.
He then steps away to remove his coat, so much like a weary animal leaving its den. She follows him and takes the coat from his hands so that she can hang it. She has been waiting to do this.
“Let’s go to bed,” she says. And she can’t see it, but she’s sure he nods.
She follows him into the room. The moment he is seated she wordlessly kneels before him, ignoring the rolling ache of bone on solid ground as her knees come to the floor. He starts to protest but she is already undoing the laces of his boots, methodically loosening each row of string before she disassembles the knot. The leaf litter and mud catching under her nails does not even distract her, and the mess not caught on her fingertips is brushed underneath the bed. She can sweep in the morning; there is other work to do.
With one hand taking an ankle and the other cradling his heel, she slides the boot from his foot, does the same with the other. His eyes are on her but she does not raise her gaze. She peels off each sock. They roll away slow and clinging. He curls his toes the moment they hit the open air and she smiles to herself, keeps it small enough for him not to notice. When she looks up, the hunter’s hurting eyes surprise her, “I wasn’t fast enough, but I heard them yelling.”
There is a wavering toward the end, a breaking of the last syllables. He chews his lip and she finds his expression admirable and dreadful all at once. The quiet smear of her thumbs to his kneecaps seems to do nothing to soothe him, to hush him. The shine of dampness easing slow as sap into the vague wrinkles near his eyes is hard to watch.
Hesitating only somewhat with the burden, she hoists both his legs up onto the mattress and the covers fall off of her. He does not refuse how he handles her, has barely enough time to bounce as she arrives atop the bed as well. She is wordless when she sits astride him, settles her thighs on either side of him and leans back against his raised knees, sinking like a queen into a throne atop his stomach. Upon straightening her back her hair brushes his kneecaps and the breath he takes is fresh and uncertain. She tucks away a pinch of her dark hair behind her ears the better to hear him with.
From this new vantage she still sees the shine of his eyes in the dark and there is something humid in them. Her hands feel less steady on his chest as he stares at her face letting the look wander heavily downwards. She can feel it like water rolling over her cheeks, then her chin, then down her neck all the way to her navel where it thickens then roams. His head tilts to the precise angle as her hips when he reaches them, his eyes poring back and forth over her sprawled legs.
And she should have been pleased under the worship of his regard, should feel eager when he reaches out and dapples his fingers into the hollow of her throat. He almost distracts her when he drags the heavy dry weight of his hand down from her neck and rests it between her breasts, lets it settle there like a stone to a riverbed. He is tempting when he applies pressure loaded enough that she can feel the echo of her heart through the center of his palm. She could have easily permitted herself to be pleased with him, but she knows him too well.
It is the restrained line of his mouth that damns her delight. She can tell that he isn’t thinking of her, and the neglect settles harsh in her gut. She cannot hide it in her expression and he must notice because he closes his eyes. The rumble of his voice buzzes in her fingertips, “It had me like this, pinned beneath its paws.”
His heart has hastened its pace. It beats like a hammer swinging on a string, knocking back and forth between his spine and her hands on his chest. She considers her touch and can feel the scraped lines through his shirt. The claw marks will certainly scar.
Her head falls forward with her hair drenching his abdomen in black as she presses a kiss to him between her thumbs, just over his knocking heart. Her lips fail to leave his chest as they move. “Does it hurt?” she asks.
“Not severely,” he answers, eyes still closed. The hunter sighs and the inhale afterward brings in the pine scent of her hair with the hint of something floral or citrus clinging to her tresses even though the two of them own no garden.
“I’m sorry,” she says, lays her forehead where her mouth had been and lifts her hands from his wounds, pulls the pads of her fingers down along his sides. She slips them down and traces where the pommels of their hips meet.
Her fingers are on the verge of reaching down to take him away from his own mind. She wants to watch as he relinquishes himself with the tilting of his head, the bearing of his neck. Luscious, demanding, and graceful, her lips polish the corner of his jaw. His words pause her, “There were silver scissors on the dresser. They were sharp.” She stills atop him, listening, “Before it flew out the back door I-”
She pulls back, supports herself with hands sinking into the pillow on either side of his neck. Her arms are pale pillars leading to the crown of her bent head, hair sinking heavy and draped across his chest, but he can see through a chance sliver that her eyes have fastened to the bedroom door. Her thighs are coiled.
“I’m tired,” she mumbles and begins disentangling their legs, working not to meet his eyes. But he knows her almost as well as she knows him and dislikes believing that she would have something to hide, not after …
“Then lie down,” he says.
He reaches up with knuckles grazing her neck as he sweeps the black mass of her hair over and behind her shoulders. She turns her head then from the direction of the door, not shrugging him off, but skips appraising his face to frown toward the window. The moonlight makes a perfect glowing square on the wood floor and she wants so badly to be under that light again.
His voice shudders in her ribs like a rumble of thunder. “My grip wasn’t as tight as it should have been on the scissors.”
She is not altogether sure if he is talking to her anymore, but as if to avenge his failure with the beast his hands come up too close to her throat. With fingers on the taut skin bridging her shoulders and her neck he pulls her down. And she knows better than to fear her husband, but there is a pause. There is a shaking resistance yet eventual bend as she tucks her face into his pillow, careful not to let their cheeks touch.
“Before it bolted I nicked it just between its shoulder blades, just too lightly.”
A sound comes from her not at all delayed from when he uses his blunt nails to trail a path down the knobs of her spine. By now they both have noticed that the hunter’s touch is not as gentle as when he had first come home. When he hears her though, hears the nervous sound she makes, he lightens the bitter press his fingernail, is so close to apologizing but is struck speechless. His regret curdles up and dries because of the texture that he finds square in the middle of the flesh of his wife’s back.
A new scab, near the size of his thumb, clean and straight, freshly healed over. The hardened crumbs of it roll grainy then grow wet towards the middle. A sickening tumble crawls inside his veins, leaves only a metallic ringing in his ears that makes his own voice sound foreign.
“How did this happen?”
Instead of running like he can tell she wants to, she collapses into him concealing her face. Bit by bit she seeps into him like a stain. Like a jar of preserves breaking on a cottage floor from a careless wag of a black tail. Like the warm flesh of fruit being flattened into a rug by the thoughtless weight of dirty paws.
“I love you.”
The words come out of her boldly out of turn, out of fear because she was out of time. The hunter says nothing, is still trying to find his breath. “I love you,” she says again, words he has taught her, this time looking up at him. And my, what big eyes she has.
They track his shaking hand, a finger still wet with the residue of her wound, as he reaches for her and moves the hair from her face. She sits stock still wondering where he’d cut if he wanted to make her easier to carry out of their home. In pieces or emptied as a pelt. He’s looked at elk and rabbit and boar this way. Pleading seems like her only chance. “Love, I never meant to,” her stare holds as she presses a kiss to his wrist, “They’ve been bringing the livestock inside, and you were taking so long.”
She should be ready for the tug to her hair and the bite in his tone when he tells her, “You swore to me that you were above those beasts. You swore to me you were better than your brothers.”
The pain stings her eyes but she can’t cry because then her vision will be blurred, so she blinks away the tears in her eyes, the better see him with, as they finish what they started in that grandmother’s cabin.
Cover Art by Kelsey Baker