THE HEART IS A LONESOME HUNTER
Areti is not a fox, not most of the time. She has the beating heart of a fox hidden in her dowry-chest, under layers of linen, blankets and rugs. Sometimes she wears the heart as she would a necklace and steals to the woods of Arcadia when everyone is asleep. The crisp mountain air fills her nostrils and she dreams of sinking her sharp teeth into sweet, red flesh.
Hunger in this land is a living thing.
The Great War came first. The invaders took their land, their livelihood, left them to fend for themselves with what little was left. The soldiers had hair like sunlight and faces of cast steel. They killed anyone who resisted. She was just a child then, but she remembers. Not all of it. Some images are still vivid—like the dreams where she feasts on raw meat.
Then, Civil War. More killing. Families torn apart, men hanged, children left to die. She and her family ended up on the safe side of the war, the right side. As if there is ever a right side.
Meat is rare.
Ilias, her husband, comes home just before the sun lights up the morning sky. He walks in, dragging his right leg, the toes on his foot missing; a mine exploded during the War. He is usually empty handed, but, sometimes, there's meat. A rabbit, a small bird, a badger.
This time he brings a young fox, barely an adult, a scrawny thing. His big eyes meet hers, dark with bags beneath them and an accusation nestled inside them, not against her, but against the world. Maybe he sees the fear, the questions.
"It doesn't matter, meat is meat," he says.
He rests the kit on the table and sits by the fireplace, his boots soiled with dirt and yellow leaves.
Their boy sits at the table, his legs barely touching the floor. He nibbles bread. He is five years old but very small for his age, a kit himself. Areti brings Ilias a cup of hot coffee and a piece of bread. She glances at the fox and holds her breath. Its fur is scruffy and muddied, but he could probably sell it for something. It's just a fox, she tells herself. Nothing to do with you.
The boy's attention drifts to the dead animal. His piercing blue eyes examine the kit with a placid compassion. Slowly, he places the bread next to the fox's half-open mouth and retreats to join his sister in their makeshift bed.
Ilias gobbles up the bread and gulps the coffee. He must leave again.
Today he carries wood with the mule, for the carpenter. Tomorrow he'll plow a field. Yesterday he helped build a house. He goes where he is wanted, where even a cripple is useful, always living off scraps. His once proud posture has become a hunch, a struggle for composure when the whole world falls on his shoulders.
Ilias rests his hand on her shoulder to help himself up. Areti bends under his weight but holds still. She is a small woman, her head reaching up to his chest, but she is strong as she is swift.
Before he leaves, he seeks the children at the back of the house. Their sleeping faces gaunt and cherubic. The boy and the girl sleep close to each other to keep warm. Ilias stands above them, solid, immovable. It's how Areti wishes the world could be. A sigh escapes her mouth.
"Don't send the children to school today," he says. "The priest has left for a funeral down South."
She nods, and a faint smile appears on his face, almost untraceable. He leaves her behind and only then does she realize she had been twisting a dirty rag in her fists, so hard that her knuckles have turned white.
Until we meet again upon the furrier's stall.
The herder looks at Areti with yellow eyes. A drop of ink splitting each eye in the middle.
He sells milk; he sells cheese and wool and meat that her children should be eating but can't. But what he really sells is blood and freedom and secrets beyond this world. He doesn't sell those to just anybody.
She holds her boy by the hand; her girl is tucked in the scarf wrapped around her torso, too small to walk in the market place, among all the skinny legs (and some plump ones) rushing, searching. Areti falters under the weight of her daughter and struggles to hold the boy's gaunt little hand against the gushing stream of people. But it's the herder's eyes that burden her the most, and she stumbles as she passes his counter. The distant memory of him and knowledge older than herself.
"Greetings," he says as she walks past him. She stops two stalls down in front of the buxom woman with the red face.
Areti opens her fist. A few iron coins have left their mark on her skin, sticky with her palm's sweat. "Milk please," she says, placing an empty kettle on the wooden stall while she tries to keep her girl still in her arms.
The woman hesitates but then goes for the kettle, a frozen smile on her face.
"It's not enough." The loud voice comes from a man dressed in black. He rushes over. As if lightning struck her, the woman drops the kettle at Areti's feet and takes the next woman's kettle to fill. When the man reaches the stall, his mother has moved on to other customers.
"I only want a little—" Areti starts to say.
He leans slowly over the stall and says, "Leave, witch."
She does. The man's mother would have given her some milk if she could, but now that her husband is dead, the son is in charge.
"Come here, dearie."
The herder's voice is sweeter than honey. It makes her stomach ache with hunger and her mouth drool. He holds up a whole jug of milk, which seems impossible to do with his stick-thin arms, and waves at her. Areti sighs, picks up her kettle, and approaches.
"Here, dearie, all yours. No charge." He places the jug on the counter and smiles a toothy smile.
He wants your heart, a voice warns.
Which heart? she means to ask, but the voice falls silent.
The herder's head is oddly shaped. Up front, it appears round and flat like an owl's. But when she looks at him from the side, his nose reminds her of a snout, and his face is angular and long. Areti somehow knows the herder can twist his head all the way around, owl-like.
What is he doing, coming to the village? She doesn't dare ask. She doesn't say anything but a faint thank you before she leaves.
On her way home, Areti feels the yellow eyes on her back.
A folktale, not so old, says that during the Great War a handful of villagers led by the Resistance sabotaged the enemy's headquarters. In retaliation, the invaders came to their villages and shot everybody dead. Men, women, children: they left bones and blood in their wake. When they reached the last village though, the folktale goes, they found no one. Doors and windows hanging open, food still cooking in pots, smoke drifting out of chimneys. No humans to be found.
The villagers had made a pact with the devil. He turned them into wild animals, and they hid in the woods. Furious, the invaders burned their village down and killed more people in other places to make up for it. When the danger was over, the villagers came out of the woods as people once more, marked for life by magic and cowardice.
Later that day she meets with Alexis, one of her countrymen, her friend. He comes out of the woods sometimes to stretch out his human form. But this time he is more watchful. He has the look of someone who braces for the worst.
"People are going crazy in this land," he says. He leans against the stone wall in the back of Areti's house and smokes a makeshift cigarette that smells more of the woods than tobacco. "War does that to people. Let alone war with your neighbor or your brother. It divides people into so many groups you start to lose count, and one day you take a look around and you realize everyone is your enemy."
He looks at Areti sideways. His iris has a weird way of moving all the way to the side. Areti thinks he spends too much time being a wolf.
"Yes, everyone is your enemy," she says, and pats him on the head. He chuckles and his stare grows softer, more puppy than wolf.
His eyes are the color of his fur when he turns, slate. His sister's eyes are like that too, but her fur is a couple of shades darker.
"Is Sonja hunting near the creek again?" The woods are no threat for a wolf in peace time, and Sonja is stealthy as a shadow. But the woods are not what they used to be. Nothing is.
"We're leaving, you know. Sonja and I. Going up North." He breathes out those words. Smoke covers his face but his breaking voice betrays him. "There are places where the soldiers can't reach and the war is a distant echo. You could have come too if—" he starts, but he stops abruptly.
When Areti came to Arcadia from her village in the woods, she looked for a job and then for a husband. She wanted to live among people other than her kin. To see how others lived. And, after all this time, she hasn't regretted it. Even if she had, though, there is little for her to go back to.
"I saw the herder today," she says. "He was at the market. He gave me milk."
Alexis stiffens, his cigarette falls to the ground. He crouches as if trying to hide within himself.
"You think he came for us?" he asks. "All the more reason to leave."
He is here for our hearts, she wants to say, but Alexis is already scared to death of people. Of people who have no ghost hearts, of superstitious people, of the ones that killed his father.
"Maybe he's here to help us," she says instead.
There is a folktale around these parts. It speaks of the daughter of a poor miller and how she saved a fox's life. The girl was kind of heart but useless in the house. One day in the woods, as she lamented her luck, she found a mother-fox chased by hounds. She hid the animal in her undergarments and thus the fox escaped the hunter's knife. Later, when she needed to marry off but had no wealth, the fox came and spun linen for a whole fortnight. The linen and the clothes the fox spun could fill a hundred chests and one. It is said to have been soft as silk, and smooth as the fox's own fur.
Areti doesn't remember if the tale existed before her. She spun her dowry much faster than the fox in the story. In fact, she spun everything with a natural talent that had people talking. She made a fair wage, and just before the Civil War reached them, she met Ilias.
People did not always hate her, but they were cautious of her, of her otherness. Ilias was drawn to it.
She likes helping him get up when he is tired. He seems to like her strength and the stories she tells him by fire when the wolves are howling outside.
"If it wasn't for you, I would've been a drunk," he tells her from time to time. She kisses his forehead and curls up under the covers close to him.
But his face goes pale and sullen every time she tells him about her village - about how she would like to visit those hidden, wild places where she roamed free years ago. "The wilderness is for the animals," he says, and "it's dangerous to tread those places in war time." That's how she knows that she needs to keep her little fox heart hidden deep inside the chest and her night visits to the woods to herself.
The place where the herder lives is a small hut with half its roof collapsed. It stands atop a hill covered with soft moss. When Areti comes close to the clearing it feels as if she entered a cave, the one from which the first human crawled out into the world, escaping the beasts that live in the dark.
The old man sits on a sun-bleached rock and plucks a dead chicken. He seems to her now more canine, like a jackal or a fox.
"You did good to come and see me," he says. He nods his head as if agreeing with himself or as if he'd been expecting her.
"Why'd you come to the village?" she says in one breath, just in case she changes her mind. She comes closer and closer to him, stepping on a carpet of brown, white, and gray feathers. The bleating of the sheep behind a solitary cluster of trees makes her skin crawl.
"War," he says lifting his eyes to meet hers. "Don't like it." He sniffs the air like a hound. "It's coming this way now, fast."
"So... you'll be leaving soon?"
"Not till I get what I am due." He laughs and snorts all at the same time. He spits out a bloody piece of hide.
Shivers travel down Areti's spine.
"Excuse my manners. Here." He offers the chicken to her, its head cocked lifeless to the side, brushing the man's bony fingers.
She shakes her head and pins her eyes on the ground. Deep inside, the hunger she felt when she first saw him is rising again like heat from a slow burning stove.
"I myself enjoy wearing a wolf's heart at times. I prowl through the darkness to taste a sheep." He smacks his lips together as if the taste is still there. "Oh, you have no idea, child, how sweetly the flesh melts on the wolf's tongue. I don't blame them brothers for lurking around my herd, waiting to snatch one. Only now they know, for I have killed one of them and they never stole another."
He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. His eyes cold.
"They are all mine."
Ilias's nose is bleeding and his lips are slit open. He sits hunkered outside their house, his face darkened by rage and veins bulging on his forehead. When she sees him, her legs go limp. The herder was right.
"Where were you?" he asks. He doesn't even raise his head, and his words feel so heavy. Areti doesn't have the strength to pick them up.
"I asked around the village for work," she says. "What happened?" She brings a hand to his cheek.
He doesn't turn to face her.
"They saw you wandering in the woods," he whispers. "They said you are a witch. Or worse."
Who told you? She wants to ask.
The suspicion that Ilias doesn't hunt alone has been gnawing at her. The soldiers are hiding in mountain caves and sometimes they come down to the woods to hunt, or meet people and get supplies. That's why the soldiers are here. To set ambushes.
She doesn't dare ask whose side her husband has chosen. Pain and death is the only outcome, either way. They are only humans after all.
"Trouble is coming this way," the old man had warned her. He said he needed the heart he gave her; he needed all the magic he could gather from these worthless bodies of theirs. When he offered the hearts, the cause was just, he said. But this war, brother against brother, was an abomination and so he wanted his gifts back.
Areti feels the silence between her and Ilias crack, ready to give. Before the words spill out she leaves and goes to the neighbor's house to get their children. Her human nature aching to shed like snakeskin.
She wakes up just before the deep night comes, a feeling of loss nestled in her chest. For a moment she thinks she is dead, but then she hears the howls echoing outside their house. And gunshots. The cries of war. Her hand slides to the other side of the bed in the darkness but finds no one there. She gets up. Instinct guides her to the dowry chest.
She fumbles for her precious heart under the layers of linens but all she finds is a bullet. She clutches the cold metal in her fingers, her whole body trembling. She knows Ilias took the heart. She wonders if he knew about it all this time and was just waiting for her to grow out of it. But how do you grow out of a heart; out of your own hide?
She needs to see the woods. Her breath is short, almost unable to leave her lungs. The walls are closing in. She turns to the window. The moon hovers over the woods so low that the tallest pine tree pierces its sides. And the moon bleeds magic over the trees and the creatures. Eyes appear in the emptiness between the pine trees, countless eyes, half-human, half-beast. Voices echo, she is here, she is here, and the longing makes her sick.
The fox heart was ethereal white. It smelled of incense and smoke permeated every tissue. The herder had purified the hearts that they may never rot and their magic may hold strong. Areti knows the fox heart better than her own, and she misses it.
Ilias never speaks about the heart, nor does he say where he hid it. But what worries her most is that he has become more reclusive, distant. His thoughts are harder to read and he leaves for the woods more often than he stays with her. There the soldiers are hiding, waiting for their kill.
In the village, people become scarce and mistrust reigns. Some leave for the cities, others take sides in the war.
Winter is closing in around them. The woods are emptier; the birds are gone. Except for the soldiers, they linger, eating whatever they can steal from the villagers.
Areti can hear her lost heart's echo sometimes, when the wind blows through the bare branches or when her feet trample the newly fallen snow.
She hasn't seen the two wolves in some time and is worried that something horrible has happened to them. But one day as she kneads flour and water into bread, she hears the light treading of Sonja's paws outside the house. Her gait was always poised, careful but swift as a bullet when needed, unlike her brother's uneasy trot.
"Sonja?" she whispers, raising her head from the table. The children are sleeping in the back of the house, sharing a woolen blanket, hopefully forgetting how hungry they are.
Sonja appears on the door step, her long fur messy and tangled, and her wolf face looks more animal-like than ever. In the past, when Areti regarded her companions, their features seemed to balance between the human and the beast. No matter the state they were in, there was always equilibrium in their dual nature. Now there is very little human left. Sonja's eyes have the wild gleam of the hunt.
Sonja takes a few steps inside the house and sniffs the air. Her head is lowered and she staggers. Areti's mouth is dry. She wants to speak to her, to feel at ease with her like she did not long ago, but she can't find the words. As if their secret language and the codes no longer apply to her since she lost the heart. But she remembers them all as clear as ever.
The wolf takes a couple more shaky steps towards the back of the house, her muscles tense. Areti instinctively gets between Sonja and the children, her arms spread to her sides. Only then does she see the blood dripping from Sonja's hind legs. The wolf whimpers and lies on the floor resigned.
"Help me, help me," she says in that other language.
There is a bullet buried deep in her skin on the right side. Areti was young when her mother was called to treat the wounds of soldiers in the Great War, but she can recall a few things. She goes to her chest and tears a piece of cloth, closing the door in case someone passes outside, and prays that Ilias will stay wherever he is for a bit longer.
The sledge is dragging slowly behind Areti's back. Sonja is heavy both as a wolf and as a human. She is a tall woman. For some reason Areti doesn't like to think of her as a woman anymore. It seems at odds with a feeling that's stirring up inside her. But soon enough they reach the herder's shack and her thoughts scatter like scared geese.
She doesn't see the man right away. Smoke comes out of the hut, and when he appears, Areti sighs in relief.
"You have to help her," she says, her voice filled with urgency. "She was shot. I took out the bullet but I think she has lost too much blood."
He mumbles something about soldiers under his breath. His face looks ancient now, the veil of his transformation fallen.
The wolf's breath has slowed down. The old man kneels over her and rests the back of his hand on her snout.
"You took her heart, didn't you?" Areti asks. Her tone holds an accusation.
"She asked me to," he says plainly. "It was a gift to release her from this burden, of being human."
Areti clenches her fists to forget she too, feels tired. The old man takes the rope and carries the sledge inside his hut with the ease of a young man. Just before he enters, he whispers.
"Her brother is dead. The soldiers killed him. And your husband was with them. But I found your old heart in the woods if you want it. "
Then the smoke swallows his shape.
There are soldiers in the woods. They hunt for food and for fur. Sometimes they hunt for people too.
Areti passes through the woods without the burden of the wolf. "Leave her," the herder commanded. "She is mine now. I will nurse her to health but she must serve me."
Without something in exchange, the old man is powerless to help.
There is always a price.
There are men in the woods, so Areti must be cautious when she slides through the clearing. She hears distant voices getting closer and her heart skips a beat, but she can't let them see her. Ilias is with them.
The door is open just a crack, the way she left it when she started for the hut. Fresh snow has fallen all around the house almost covering her tracks.
She creeps inside the cottage. There is flour spread on the wooden floor along with Sonja's blood, and the dough is drying out on the pantry. Her children still sleep soundly in the back of the house. Their breaths soft and moist; their eyelids fluttering with dreams.
She steps as if walking on water, afraid she will wake them up.
She only wants to smell them one last time. They smell of mother's milk like newborn lambs. She wants to take a good look at them and capture their image in her heart, for she is certain they will meet again. For now, they are safer without her. She must not forget them until that time comes.
Just before she leaves, she whispers in their ears the secret way through the forest, to a place where even the soldiers can't reach, and the war is nothing but a distant echo.
EUGENIA TRIANTAFYLLOU is a Greek author and artist. She writes ghost stories. She currently lives in Northern Sweden with a boy and a dog. Her short fiction has appeared in Black Static and is forthcoming in Apex. You can find her on Twitter @FoxesandRoses or her website https://eugeniatriantafyllou.wordpress.com.