She’d always known her lover would come from beyond the forest. This had been foretold when she cast the divination spell. It had been part of a game she played with some of the other village girls, quaint superstitions passed from one generation to the next. The spell involved the finding of a certain object upon one’s doorstep and that May morning when Judith rose she saw a twig upon the steps of her home and she had known it stood for the trees, the forest.
And it had happened a few months later. A stranger stumbled onto their midst. He was a trapper, wearing a black, wide-brimmed hat and a heavy coat, muttering as he walked into their store.
In the summer and the fall a farmer’s market set up every other week, but in the cold of winter her sister’s store was the only place where one could buy supplies. Rachael had married well and when her husband passed away he’d also left her the guest house with its plum-colored door. There was an inn, but it was shuttered until the thaw. Anyone who needed a place to lodge for the night during the winter stayed at the guest house.
The trapper inquired about a room.
She guided the stranger and as they walked together Judith heard the snow crunching beneath her shoes and she thought it is him it is him it is him.
The trapper’s name was Donatien and he stayed that whole winter, hunting in the vicinity of the area, returning with raccoons and foxes which would be skinned for their valuable furs. He was the only guest, though Rachael and Judith and the children lived in the house, too.
Before Rachael had married and birthed two children, the sisters had lived with their grandmother in a much smaller abode. Judith had to help with the washing grandmother took in, her hands rough since she was a very small child. But Rachael never had to rub a cake of soap against the clothes because Rachael was very beautiful and grandmother expected she’d marry a gentleman. She did and they went to live in the guest house, and Judith was seventeen now but she still did the washing, only now she washed for Rachael and the twins and their guests.
Donatien was good looking, with beautiful eyes and a good laugh. He told stories at dinner that made the children squeal with joy – the twins were four – and brought a smile to Rachael’s face. Judith smiled too, and she took care to launder all his clothes so very carefully, to scrub the floor of his room spotless and to dust all around the house.
“Good morning, Judy,” he would say, how lovely her name sounded when he spoke.
“Good morning. What are you hunting today?” she’d ask.
He would tell her whether it was foxes or something else and then he’d wave her goodbye.
Unfortunately, Donatien was not the only one hunting and Judith did not realize this until it was much too late. Rachael had worn her widow’s garb for two years now and in the spring she declared enough was enough, and she reclaimed the colorful dresses she’d left in her armoire.
Shortly after this it became obvious to everyone in town, Judith included, that her sister was thinking of making the guest a permanent fixture of their house. Some tongues wagged but everyone agreed a young widow couldn’t be expected to run a business and a household all by herself. Besides, Rachael was so pretty and the trapper was polite, could read and write and do some sums, and could conduct business in the city that Rachael could not possibly manage. That he was young and good-looking was not remarked upon, though knowing glances were shared by the villagers: Rachael’s first husband had been sickly, ugly, his wealth making up for his physical deficiencies.
Donatien and Rachael were thus married. He moved from his room on the ground floor to Rachael’s room upstairs and everything went as it had before, only now he stepped into the store on certain days to go over the sums and order the boy behind the counter around.
In the fall Judith sat outside the house, on those same steps where she’d once found a twig, and she looked in the direction of the forest, which stretched so close to them.
It was dusk. A wolf howled in the distance.
“It’ll be a bad winter,” Donatien told her, stepping down, to stand next to her.
“How do you know?” she asked.
“I can tell. The skies warn us,” he said.
But she’d lost her taste for omens, so she shrugged.
“Yes, it’ll be a bad winter. You should stop with your mushroom gathering. The wolves, they’ll be eager for a morsel, and it’s too cold now, anyway.”
Then, for a moment, a prickle of something spread across her body, the faint stirring of dread. She shook her head dismissively.
“Wolves never get this close to town,” she said. “I’ve lived here longer than you have.”
She kept swinging her basket back and forth and creeping into the forest, her head bent as she looked for the morels which sprouted around the ash, the elm, the oak. As the fall progressed she had to move deeper into the forest, past the creek, until she reached the old apple orchard full of dead trees.
Next to the orchard there was an abandoned hut. Judith did not know who had owned the orchard or the hut. Vegetation had grown and spread and battered the withered structure but the roof remained solid and Judith sometimes went in, lit a fire and sat on a creaky bed, reading and escaping her chores at the store and the guest house.
One day, when she stood outside the house counting the large, yellow morels in her basket, Donatien strode by.
“The hour is late,” he said. “Your sister said I should find you.”
She was immediately upset for his intrusion, upset at Rachael for telling him where he might find her, and grew even angrier when he told her why he was looking for her.
“It is market day tomorrow,” he said. “Rachael wants you to go home at once and make the beds since there are people who will be arriving to spend the night.”
Yes, the inn and the guest house always accommodated travellers who sold their wares at the market, the more upstanding and wealthier people. The common farmers and the young labourers standing in bunches, like flowers pressed together, arrived very early in the morning instead of journeying the previous evening, or simply lodged with friends. Some even slept in the fields, like common vagrants.
“Can’t she make the beds herself?” Judith asked. She would not normally have voiced her thoughts, but as the season wore itself thin Rachael did the utmost minimum to help around the house. Her sister had always been like this, but for a little while that summer she had attempted to become an industrious bee, perhaps in some show of false domesticity for her new husband. The novelty had clearly worn off.
Donatien did not reply. Having been told he had to shepherd her back home, Judith knew he would not let her go. Irritated she walked with him back to the guest house.
The morning she was up early. The last market day of the season it was. After this the town would shut down like a nocturnal flower, but that day, for a few precious hours, it was a riotous hub of activity. There was livestock to be sold, pork for salting and sacks of potatoes, but also finer goods: chests of tea, dried fruit, chocolate, ribbons and lace, scented soaps, and tobacco. Donatien sold furs and Judith was supposed to help him, but during a lull she went off to look at the other stalls.
How she had loved market day on previous years, but this fall it was unbearable to stand next to Donatien as he spoke to customers, to stand so close to him in their little stall so that she had to invoke a headache each and every market day just to get away from him.
Judith saw Rachael hovering over some fine ivory combs and moved in the other direction, stopping to look at the bookseller’s cart. This bookseller was not the one who normally came to the town, this was a younger man, about her age, a cap on his head.
“Hello, miss, looking for a light read? I have a good stock of women’s books,” he said, patting a pile to his left and he picked up a book of illustrated fairy tales.
Judith might have normally been satisfied with such fare, with the manuals for embroidering flowers he had on display or the light novels with long-suffering heroines who were always blessed with happiness on the last page. That day, however, she was despondent.
“I’d like to see what you have there” she said, pointing to a chest the young man was leaning on.
“Oh, no, those books are not for you, miss,” the young man said, straightening up.
“Well…they are bawdy little volumes for men.”
Judith had known as much, though she’d never gazed upon a “bawdy” book up close. Plenty of village youths, though, would pay for those wares and squirrel them away quickly, marching towards a drinking den.
“How much for one of them?”
“I could not.”
“I have the money,” she insisted.
The young man gave her a long look and finally nodded, leaning down, close to her ear. “Very well, but not now. If you meet me behind the tavern over there at nine I’ll let you pick a book.”
With this business agreed upon, Judith felt much more content, though when she turned around she saw Donatien staring at her, his face serious.
The guest house was busy but Judith escaped around nine and went behind the tavern the bookseller had pointed at. He was there already, a couple of books under his arm, and seemed pleased to see her, though at first he would not sell her the book. Finally he agreed, but on the condition that he let him kiss her.
Judith allowed him to press a quick kiss against her lips, but when he tried to touch her bosom she swatted his hand away. He laughed and she snatched one of the books, rushing back to the house. But she did not dare to read the volume in the guest house. She lay awake most of the night and at one point she had a curious sensation that something brushed by her side in the dark, though it was only the blanket which had fallen to the floor.
When morning broke Judith grabbed her basket, placed the book in it under a red handkerchief, and went out into the forest.
Snow fell, the first of the season, but it was the lightest touch of white upon the ground. When she reached the hut she lit a fire and sat on a battered chair, turning the pages.
The book was indeed bawdy and concerned a young woman in a convent who went to have many amorous adventures in the world. Black and white panels illustrated each of one of her escapades. Judith had only seen the nakedness of men on a page of the Bible depicting Adam and Eve holding hands, the serpent curled around their feet. But those figures were lifeless, two-dimensional, lacking blood, while the etchings reproduced in this book were rendered in all their fleshy reality.
She was so amused by the book that she did not realize someone was at the door until the icy wind ruffled her hair. She had not bothered locking herself in.
She raised her head and quickly placed the book back in the basket, the handkerchief upon it.
“Did you not hear me?” Donatien asked.
Judith shook her head.
“What are you doing?” he told her. “Is he here, with you?”
“Don’t play coy. The boy at the shop said that bookseller came looking for you this morning and then you were nowhere to be found.”
“I’m alone, as ever.”
“Well…then let us go back into town. Did you not hear that howling? There are wolves about.”
He grabbed her basket, probably intended to carry it for her, and in a panic Judith pulled it towards her, managing only to tip it. The book fell upon the floor and Donatien picked it up. He stared at a page, then at her.
Judith blushed at once.
“It’s just a story,” she muttered.
“Did he give this to you?” Donatien replied.
“What else did he give you?”
“What else?” he demanded.
“It’s just a story,” she repeated and would have begun to make a myriad of excuses, but he pulled her towards him and kissed her, not like the bookseller had done, half in jest, but with all the weight of the world.
He pulled her towards the bed and the bed creaked beneath them. She heard a wolf howling in the distance as his hand grasped her thigh through the fabric of her dress, the hem discoloured from dragging it through too many puddles and the mud of the forest.
Judith ought to have shoved him away. But she’d cried the morning of Rachael’s wedding and she never had anything for herself, only the hand-me-downs her elder sister gave her and her hands rough with the soap.
The fire burnt low and the wolf went away. They dressed themselves. Judith had forgotten how to tie her laces, her fingers trembling, so he helped her into her dress and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
“Go home, I’ll see you later,” he said, grabbed his rifle – which he’d left propped by the door – and left.
Judith put out the fire and found her way back to the guest house, more by instinct than by rational thought. When she walked in Rachael was in a tiff, trying to deal with the twins and scolding the cook at the same time.
“Will you hurry and do the washing?” Rachael told her sister. They had a maid and could have taken the laundry to a woman in the village, but Rachael had always assigned Judith this task.
Judith did not balk this time. Secretly she washed the undergarments she’d been wearing, watched the water grow pink with blood, then scrubbed hard until all traces of colour disappeared.
A day passed and then another. She was ready to believe she had imagined everything, possessed by a strange, feverish dream, when Donatien went down the steps, rifle slung over his shoulder.
“Good morning, Judy,” he said.
She nodded at him but kept her eyes on her shoes.
“I’m hunting today. Around noon I think I might rest at that abandoned hut you are so fond of,” he said, his voice very light.
Judith raised her eyes but he was looking at the forest, not at her. She stared at him as he walked off.
Later, after she helped in the store for a bit, Judith slipped into the forest and into the hut. He was not there and Judith found the book she’d left behind upon the floor. She picked it up and sat on the bed, looking out the window which maintained intact its tiny glass panes.
It was a sin, of course, what they’d done. She ought to have confessed to the priest. She might have, too, if he hadn’t come in then, shaking his head, snow sliding off his shoulders.
“I’m freezing. You haven’t started a fire?” he asked.
She watched as he did just this, then turned towards her and smiled. She protested vaguely – God sees everything, that’s what the Bible said – but he smothered her words with his mouth.
By the third time she knew herself wicked and damned, and had forgotten about God, and anyway it was on that occasion that he first said they could run away together.
“Could, we really?” she asked.
“I should not have married Rachael. But then I had not felt like I had a home in such a long time and you were all so kind. And she made it clear if I didn’t wed her I should leave.”
The trees shone, snow caught in their branches. He brought furs for the bed and she braved the woods even though the days grew colder and wolves howled loudly in these parts. It was not cold, not in her heart, her body aflame and her head filled with thoughts of all the places they would go to. The city, south of the town, where they built great cathedrals and palaces; where the cold did not snap the bones.
“We’ll go, in the spring, with the thaw,” he told her.
Judith rushed through the trees, the path that crossed the forest long erased by winter. It was much too cold outside, her breath rising from her pale lips, but she met him anyway.
They had early suppers by candlelight, though she hungered for nothing more than his company. He said he loved her each and every evening they spent together.
“I will have a good stock of pelts come spring,” he told her. “We’ll sell them and use the money to go away.”
One of those pelts was a wolf pelt. The day he brought it in, he wrapped her in its warmth and she cried a little.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’m thinking it might be that wolf that howls near the hut sometimes,” she said.
He looked at her unkindly, with the dismissiveness of an adult towards a child, so she wiped her tears and put the pelt aside, trying to smile.
His teeth bit along her lobe, drifted to her shoulder. Outside it snowed.
In the dead of winter, on a night when the moon was round and surrounded by a frozen halo, Judith’s sister threw her a birthday party. It was, as usual, a grand happening, Rachael sporting a new dress, ivory-colored, while Judith was swathed in her red velvet gown, the one she wore for three years now during the festivities. Judith had been allowed a new velvet ribbon and a choker around her neck, and she stood with a cup of punch between her hands, smiling mildly and mostly glancing in the direction of Donatien, who was attired in a new black suit.
“My darling, how lovely you look, so grown up” the baker’s wife told Judith.
“Not nearly that grown up,” Rachael said, patting her sister’s shoulder.
“Nonsense, dear Rachael, your sister is soon for marriage, look at her. Why young Nathaniel was remarking just on that.”
“I hope not too soon,” Rachael replied. “I need Judith’s help around the house for a little while still, especially now that our family will be growing.”
Judith did not quite hear what the baker’s wife said after that for she was much too busy trying to hold her cup between her hands. She managed to set it down at some point and raised her eyes only to find Rachael was now standing by Donatien’s side, her hand on his arm.
One of the twins went towards Judith and tugged at her skirts, demanding a piece of bread with jam and Judith shushed the child. Then the child began to wail.
In the middle of the night Judith woke up to more wailing. But it was a wolf. A wolf howling in the forest. Judith buried her face in her pillow.
She went to the hut come morning. Up above a raven cawed, shadowing her through the forest until she reached the old place and went in, shaking her head, snowflakes sliding down upon the floor and quickly melting for he had already stoked the fire and lit the candles.
He sat in a chair and smiled at her. “It’s a bit late,” he said. “Near dark.”
“It’s always near dark now,” she muttered.
This was no lie. The sun set so early, scarce few hours of warmth held back the night. Velvet black it stretched above their heads, the stars like diamonds, the moon a silver disc and the snow an ivory mantle.
She looked out the window, at that pretty sight, and considered slipping back into the twilight, into the coming dark. He must have guessed her thoughts. He stood up at once and took hold of her.
“We’ll run away together,” he assured her.
If she had not been certain before, then his words sealed the truth. Or rather, the lies. She realized he had not meant any of the things he’d said. They were not going to run away together. In the spring he’d make some excuse, then another, threading lies upon lies.
She pressed her mouth against his to silence him. He stroked her hair and said he loved her. Yet it did no good and on the bed she remained lost, alone, bone-chilled. She thought she heard a noise outside, a faint scratching. Perhaps it was the wind battering the shutters.
When again he said he loved her, she slapped him and they quarreled, though eventually she stretched out pale and naked on the bed, laughing brokenly at herself. He must have taken this for honest contentment because he fell into a happy and peaceful slumber even though she laid mangled at his side, all her dreams turned into sand.
There were ice flowers on the glass, the frost tracing complex patterns she followed with her fingers. Outside she could see nothing. Not the stars, not the trees proper, just the snow.
Again there came a sound, a scratching, and she sat up.
A wolf howled right by the window.
Judith stretched out a hand, ready to wake up Donatien, but something stilled her.
The sound moved, the howl repeating itself but now a little nearer, a little nearer until she thought the wolf was at the door.
She rose from the bed and moved towards the entrance, the cold nipping at her skin as she tossed aside the furs.
Judith stood still and listened again.
The howl rose, making the wooden boards beneath the soles of her feet vibrate.
She turned her head, looking at Donatien who slept still, bewitched or simply exhausted. The rifle was by the entrance but she did not bother grabbing it. She simply yanked the door open.
In it walked, a cold darkness with gleaming teeth white as the snow, and eyes so very bright. Quicksilver eyes, resembling the edge of the trapper’s hunting knife. A few candles bent and sputtered, as if extending a greeting.
For a second she thought to raise her voice in a shrill, stupid scream, rousing the trapper.
But the darkness grinned at her, a grin as hard as ice and she recognized him now.
She’d always known her lover would come from beyond the forest.
Gently she closed the door behind him.
Image: Flickr CC, gorchakov.artem.