When You Love Someone
by Laura DeHaan
Sweeter than corn
More precious than water
Would that I could have
A sweet, precious daughter.
So prayed the farmer. He lived in a small village with his wife and their three sons. It was a good life, and a happy one, but the farmer still wished for a daughter.
Each morning he would walk the long walk to the well in the woods and there he would sink to his knees and ask the forest fairies to grant him a baby girl. No fairy ever came by, and the farmer would rise and return home with only a bucket of water.
One day on his way to the well, he met an old woman out walking her dog. Her dog was small and scraggly and sometimes she pulled it forward and sometimes she had to yank it back.
“Good morning, Groβmutter,” the farmer said politely.
“And what are you doing out here, away from the world and its worries?” the old woman said.
The farmer was about to say he was on his usual path to the well, but this morning the forest looked darker, the trees thicker. “I came here to ask the forest fairies to give me a daughter.”
The old woman snorted. “Forest fairies?” she said. “You’re wasting your time. Most of them have been eaten, and those that still live are hiding so deep a thousand pickaxes wouldn’t chip them out.”
The farmer’s shoulders drooped. “Then I suppose no one can help me.”
“I didn’t say that.” The old woman picked up her puppy, and the farmer saw how the dirty length of string had cut into its neck. A raw redness slunk under the fur. “You can try asking a witch, although they’re not much inclined to be helpful, since they traded their hearts for magic and only stones thud in their breasts. Or—and I don’t recommend this—you can ask the wolves.”
“Wolves!” said the farmer. “One of those beasts? What have they ever done?”
“Well,” said the old woman, and she smiled with iron teeth, “they’re the ones who ate the fairies.”
The farmer reared back at the sight of her teeth. The old woman clacked her jaws and laughed when sparks flew out of her mouth.
“Never ask a wolf for help,” she said and set down her puppy. The farmer saw how its fur was not its own, merely the skinned hide of some small animal thrown atop it. The old woman climbed on and drove her knees together, making the creature expand and belch; it was not a puppy at all, but a partially-filled stomach with a string tied around its esophagus. “Of course, you’ll never have a daughter elsewise. But you mustn’t ask a wolf for help.” She leaned into the farmer and ground her metal teeth and laughed in his frightened face. “Ask the wolves.”
The stomach contracted and took off, flying the old woman away with it. The farmer dropped to his knees, trembling.
A witch! Surely that had been a witch, telling him to talk to a wolf! The farmer didn’t know which was the more untrustworthy ally, or even if either could be called so benign a word. As for the fairies, was it true? Were they dead?
“Forest fairies,” the farmer whimpered, “are you there? Can you help me?”
There was a whuff behind him. The farmer turned his head and nearly fainted. A giant wolf watched him, its hot breath steaming in the morning air, smelling like old meat and dried blood.
They cannot help you. The heavy voice sounded in the farmer’s head and he knew the voice was the wolf’s.
“The… the witch… she said to ask you to bring me a daughter,” the farmer whispered.
“She also said I shouldn’t ask you.”
“What can I do?”
The farmer choked back a sob. He felt unbalanced, unsure; the very ground seemed to heave beneath him. “I already regret that I have no daughter,” he managed to say. “Should I exchange one regret for another?”
They are yours to do with as you please. The wolf stood, shook itself and turned away.
The farmer raised his hands, dropped them. “At least tell me if we’ve struck a bargain!”
The wolf glanced over its shaggy shoulder.
The wolf disappeared into the forest. The farmer felt the path grow familiar again. Wearily, he threaded his way to the well, resigning himself to return home with only a bucket of water.
His wife and children greeted him when he came home. “Such a strange morning,” he said, but would tell them no more.
That night, the farmer lay in bed with his wife. In halfish dream state, he walked the forest path.
Will you love her? said a voice. The farmer couldn’t tell if it belonged to the witch or the wolf, though he thought he smelled fur and corpse-breath.
“Of course,” said the farmer, knowing they spoke of his daughter-to-be.
Will you love her? the voice asked again.
“Of course,” the farmer repeated.
Will you love her?
The farmer stamped his foot. “Even if she were a monster born from your flesh, I would love her as my own!” he cried.
There was a pause.
She will be found.
The farmer woke well before dawn and ended the night holding his wife very close.
The next morning the farmer fetched water from the well as usual. His wife was waiting for him when he came home.
“Good morning,” he started to say, but she held her fingers to his lips.
“Don’t speak,” she said. “Don’t question. Not yet. But I think it will be a girl.”
And she dropped her hand to her belly and smiled.
The farmer dreamed again that night.
Ten years, said the voice from the forest. You must know what she is, and hold her secret close, and love her, for ten unbroken years.
“I would do so for a thousand!” the farmer declared.
There was a chuckle, and sparks flickered between the trees.
Nine months passed. The children cuddled around the farmer’s wife as she sat in the most comfortable chair in the cottage.
“When do we get to see her, Vati?” asked Kristian, the eldest son.
“I want to hold her!” said Luca, the youngest.
“You’d drop her,” said Felix, the middle child.
Their father laughed and stroked his wife’s hair. “Soon,” he promised. “Wait only a little longer.”
Luca placed his head against his mother’s swollen belly. “Hello, kleine Schwester,” he said, and jerked away. “Ah!”
“What is it?” said the farmer.
His wife clutched her abdomen. “She kicked, that’s all,” she smiled. “I think I should be off to bed.”
The farmer kissed her forehead. “So should you boys,” he said to his sons. “Off you go now.” He tucked them snugly into their bed and went to cradle himself to his wife.
He nodded off, though he couldn’t remember when, and awoke to hear a voice he hadn’t heard in almost a year. It was low, and heavy, and smelled of corpses.
Will you love her?
“Yes, yes,” muttered the farmer, and rolled over to hold his wife. It had become his custom to rest his arm across her grandly outsized belly, but this time his arm fell into a peculiar hollow.
The hollow was wet, and smelled of corpses.
With a low cry, the farmer pushed himself upright and his hand sank into something squishy and still. In the dim light of morning, all colors were one color, and no shape looked natural.
One small shape shifted away from the larger bulk and crawled to him on all fours across the meat-sodden bed. It did not crawl the way a baby crawled, with the awkwardness of something new, but with the deliberate prowl of a predator.
Bits of the mother hung from the baby’s mouth.
She stopped at his knee and they looked at each other. The sun crept cautiously into the window and slipped its light into their eyes. The baby winced, and the farmer saw how fragile she was—just like any baby.
With a shaking hand, he wiped bile from his daughter’s lips and she took a playful bite at him. She had no teeth, but her gums were as sharp and bony as an eel’s.
“I love you,” he whispered. He said it as he bundled up what remained of his wife and took her out into the forest. He said it as he dug her grave and lowered her in. He said it as his baby girl patted the newly turned earth with plump, eager hands, and he said it as he held the shovel and thought about burying the daughter with the mother. His thoughts said,She wouldn’t starve, for awhile, while his lips said, “I love you.”
“I love you,” he said to his sons when they awoke, but by then the words had lost all meaning.
Rotblut was a beautiful girl.
Her brothers were naturally grieved by the unexpected loss of their mother (who died, their father told them, quite truthfully, in childbirth), but the presence of their new baby sister helped ease their sorrows. They doted on her, including her in all their games and wanderings, and if she kept up remarkably well for a child her age, well, “She’s our sister,” they would say.
All was well and peaceful for the first six years, until the farmer’s chickens started to die.
“There must be a wolf around,” said the villagers, and the farmer agreed, though what wolf would eat only the soft, chewy organs and leave honest flesh behind? He spoke none of his thoughts, and it was his eldest, Kristian, who offered to watch the coop one night.
“Let such things be,” said the farmer. “Even wolves have to eat.”
Kristian, by now, was a lad of eighteen, and not about to be frightened off by the beasts of the forest. “It’s all right, Vati,” he said. “I’ll hide in the loft, just to see what’s to blame.”
The farmer couldn’t talk him out of it, and that night Kristian climbed the ladder and lay straw over himself to watch their flock in secret.
The next morning, the farmer asked him privately, “And what did you see?”
The young man was pale. “Vati, I swear I saw none other than my own dear sister take a chicken from its nest and open its belly with her teeth!”
“Lies!” cried the farmer. “To say that about your own sister! Get out of my house! You’re no longer welcome at my table!” And he threw his son out, to fend for himself in the forest.
His brothers were saddened when their father told them that Kristian had left, “But he’s a man grown and in charge of his own regrets,” said the farmer.
The chickens still died. One month later, the middle son, Felix, asked to stay in the chicken coop overnight.
The farmer tried to talk him out of it, but like his brother, Felix was not to be discouraged. “I’ll hide in the loft, just to see what’s to blame,” he said, and that night he climbed the ladder.
The next morning, the farmer asked him privately, “And what did you see?”
Felix sobbed, “Vati, I swear on our mother’s soul I saw darling Rotblut take a chicken from its nest and open its belly with her teeth!”
“Shame!” cried the farmer. “To curse your mother with your lying tongue! Get out of my house! You’re not welcome at my fire!”
Luca was saddened when his father told him that Felix had decided to follow Kristian into the forest, “But he’s old enough to care for his own regrets, and live with what his knows,” said the farmer.
The chickens still died. One month later, Luca, the youngest son, asked to stay in the chicken coop overnight.
At that, the farmer could no longer hide his tears. “For the love of God, Luca,” he said, “don’t stay in that chicken coop. There is nothing to see. Forget this foolishness and let things be.”
“I’ll be in no danger,” said Luca. “I’ll just watch, that’s all.”
The farmer knelt to place his hands on the boy’s shoulders. Luca was only twelve, and small for his age. “It’s not your safety I fear for,” he said. “To my shame, I threw your brothers out when they could not keep a secret. I will have to send you away if you cannot keep the secret either, and you are too young to wander the world.”
“You said you didn’t fear for my safety,” said Luca. He was small, but his mind was sharp.
“Rotblut,” whispered the farmer. “Your sister. If you hide in the chicken coop, you will see what your sister is, and when you tell me it is her tooth marks on the chicken’s carcass I will have to call you a liar and send you away, for you cannot know—I mustn’t tell you—my God! ten years of secrets to keep safe a monstrous, bloodthirsty bitch!”
Luca gasped. The farmer shook the boy’s shoulders and continued. “Ten years of silence and she will become human. Ten years! It is not so long, is it? If you love someone?”
But Luca’s gasp was not for his father. The boy stared over his father’s shoulder until the farmer was forced to follow his gaze.
In the doorway stood little Rotblut.
“Hello, Tochter,” said the farmer and turned back to Luca with bright, fevered eyes. “Lie to me,” he begged. “When you come back. Lie to me that you saw nothing. You love your sister, don’t you?”
He straightened and walked to Rotblut. “Who’s daddy’s best girl!” he said and scooped her up in a hug. They walked out the door, and after a minute Luca went to the chicken coop.
Luca stayed in the loft all night, and the chickens remained unmolested. In the morning, he went back inside the house.
He saw his father’s feet first, and then his legs, and then the wet mess of his torso. Rotblut sat splay-legged on his still-intact ribs and licked her fingers with a too-long tongue.
Luca held the doorframe, unable to wrench himself away from the sight. A breeze stirred Rotblut’s dark hair and she looked up.
“Good morning, Bruder,” she smiled.
The farmer’s organs glistened. Incredibly, the ribs rose and fell as he took a breath. His head lolled to the side and he saw Luca in the doorway.
“And what did you see?” the farmer breathed.
Luca shook his head and his legs gave out, sending him plumping to the ground. “Nothing,” said Luca, and Rotblut reached into her father’s body and tore off a piece of lung.
She stood, sometimes seeming to be balanced on her feet, sometimes on toes ending in claws. The farmer stretched his lips in a rictus grin as Rotblut advanced on her brother.
Luca closed his eyes. “Nothing,” he repeated softly. “I see nothing.”
It took nearly ten years of wandering the woods for the brothers Kristian and Felix to find each other. When they did, it took no time at all to learn why the other had been sent away from home.
“She’s a monster,” said Kristian. “Why couldn’t our father see that?”
“We didn’t see it either,” said Felix. “She was a good sister, aside from the chickens. Besides, it was years ago. We were children—well, she was a child. Imagine how she’s grown!”
“Her growing is what I fear,” said Kristian. “I think of her and smell death.”
Felix tried to laugh. “We’re finally reunited, and still you think of sorrows? What shall we do, then, go back to our village and see what horrible fate has surely befallen our family?”
“Of course not,” said Kristian. Felix breathed a sigh of relief, until Kristian added, “Not until we know how to kill her.”
“You can’t be serious!”
Kristian smiled, and it chilled Felix’s heart. “We tried to unmask her by ourselves, and were separated for our troubles. Now we’ve found each other, and against both of us, what can she do?”
“This is crazy,” Felix muttered.
Kristian grabbed him by his shoulders. “No,” he said quietly. “For almost ten years, I thought I was crazy, that I had dreamed her face burrowed into that chicken’s breast. We’re not the crazy ones after all. You know that?”
And Felix had no argument for that.
They went on their way, and shortly an old woman appeared in the middle of their path. A small, tatty dog rested beside her, a dirty string around its neck serving as a leash.
“Hello, Groβmutter,” Kristian said politely.
“And what are you two skinny young things doing out in the forest, with nothing on your backs but tatters and sorrows?” she said.
Felix shivered, though the sky was bright and the air untroubled. Kristian said, “There is a monster in our village. We must find a way to destroy it.”
“Must you?” said the old woman. “How do you plan to do that?”
Kristian shook his head. “We have no plan. We were hoping to find someone who could help.”
“Someone?” said the old woman archly.
“Not the wolves,” said Felix. Kristian glared at him and Felix clapped his hands over his mouth. “Our father told us, never ask a wolf for help,” he mumbled through his fingers.
“Nor forest fairies,” Kristian added grudgingly. “He said they’d all gone away.”
The old woman smiled without showing her teeth. Her little dog shuffled away and she yanked it back to her feet. “That narrows your choices, doesn’t it?”
“We thought maybe a prince, or a questing knight…”
“Are you beautiful maidens, then, to get their attention?” The old woman laughed and Felix felt his knees turn to water. “Have you considered asking a witch?”
The puppy at the old woman’s feet was shaped very strangely. Felix tugged at his brother’s arm, but Kristian only said, “If we found one, we would.”
“Then ask,” said the old woman.
Felix let out a low moan. Kristian said boldly, “Are you a witch?”
The sunlight disappeared like a coin from a blind man’s purse. The woods were plunged into darkness, and all around them was the sound of metal clashing on metal. Sparks flew about, burning where they landed.
“That question was stupid,” came the old woman’s voice, but louder and closer and smelling of fire. “Do better with your next one.”
The sun came back. Kristian said, much more meekly, “Will you help us, Groβmutter?”
“Why should I?”
Felix gnawed on his knuckles. “We don’t have any money,” he said softly.
“Obviously,” snapped the witch. “You’ve no money in your pockets and no meat on your bones. Even your eyeballs wouldn’t be worth the spoon I’d use to dig them out. Nothing you carry is worth my interest; why should I help you at all?”
Kristian said, even softer than Felix, “Do you remember what happiness feels like?”
The dirty string fell out of the old woman’s hand. The little dog belched and began lumping away, its fur sliding off its rounded sides. The old woman, still staring at Kristian, wagged a finger and the dog-thing squashed to the ground. She clicked her teeth together and finally smiled. “Fair trade,” she said.
“Kristian, no!” Felix reached out to his brother, but stayed his hand short of contact. “Happiness is greater than vengeance!”
The old woman laughed loudly at that, throwing her head back so the brothers could see past her tongue to the wet, throbbing tunnel of her throat. “There!” she said. “Your brother has spelled it out plainly for you. Happiness or vengeance, which do you think will rid you of the monster?”
Without looking at his brother, Kristian said, “Give me vengeance.”
“Done!” The old woman drove her hands into his chest. Kristian bucked and flailed, but the old woman clung to him. “Settle yourself, you’re only making it worse,” she grinned. One arm straightened, appearing to grab hold of something solid. “There’s your spine, then, and if you’ll stop thrashing for a moment…” Her other arm worked busily and at length she released the youth.
Kristian fell forward with a gasp. The old woman hugged something close to her bosom. “Here’s your vengeance,” she said, and spat three times. Three bottles fell at Kristian’s feet. She leaned down to his ear and whispered to him for a time. After that, she picked up the length of string and hauled her dog-thing to her. “Here’s something for you,” she said to Felix. “Your brother gave up happiness for vengeance, while you believe happy memories will save you.” She patted him on the cheek with a hand whose skin burned like acid. “You’re both right, though only one of you will prove it.”
The old woman turned away from them and hobbled off into the forest, tugging her dog-thing along behind her. Felix touched his face and shuddered at the ripples left in his skin from the old woman’s touch.
Kristian scooped up the bottles. “Let’s go home.”
It had been many years since either of them had walked the path to their childhood village, but their feet found the way. As they grew closer, a smell grew stronger, one which brought to mind small animals left too long unfed in their burrows. It was a dry smell, and it choked them.
Their village was empty.
“Where is everyone?” Felix whispered. Kristian shook his head stubbornly and hurried along.
The smell grew stronger as they neared the shut door of their old house. “I don’t like this,” Felix said, his voice rising.
“Be silent!” snapped Kristian.
The door opened and Rotblut stepped outside.
She was a young woman now, and very lovely. As the brothers stumbled to look upon her, the air became sweeter, then savory. The village no longer seemed so alone, and birds, previously silent, trilled in the forest around them.
“Bruder,” said Rotblut warmly. “You’ve come back.”
Kristian had his hand in his pocket to take out a bottle, but Felix threw his arm around his brother and pinned the offending limb to his side. “It’s been too long, Schwester. How have you been?” Felix replied, and managed to get in a kick at Kristian’s calf.
“Keeping well. Won’t you both come in and have some dinner? You look so hungry.”
Kristian jerked himself from Felix’s grasp. “We’re fine,” he said shortly.
“We’re not fine and we’d love some dinner,” Felix said. Rotblut’s smile was so open and friendly that Felix wondered how he could have ever accused her of devouring a live chicken.
Rotblut took them both in hand and led them inside. “I hope you’ll enjoy it,” she said. “I do love cooking.”
A feast awaited them inside the house. Felix immediately dove into the plates and platters of delicacies—warm bread and sausages, rice pudding and custards—but Kristian held back and kept his hands inside his pockets.
“Won’t you have some?” Rotblut asked him politely. He shook his head. “Not even some water from the well?”
Kristian grudgingly admitted that water would not go amiss. While Rotblut skipped out to fetch it, Kristian cuffed his brother about the head.
“You’re eating like an animal,” Kristian snapped.
Felix swallowed and said, “But it’s been so long since we’ve had decent food… she can cook, you know.”
“A fine skill for a monster,” Kristian said, but his voice held less conviction than before. “It’s all so strange, though…”
“That’s your hunger talking,” said Felix, and returned to the feast. Rotblut returned and though Kristian accepted the water, he couldn’t bring himself to sample the savory dishes. To ease his hunger, he drank buckets and buckets of water instead.
After Felix had eaten his fill, Rotblut said, “You’re both tired. Why don’t you sleep the rest of the night, and we can talk in the morning.”
“Good idea,” Felix yawned. “Your cooking has put me right to sleep!”
Rotblut busied herself making up their pallets in their old bedroom. When she was finished, the brothers went in and bade her good night.
“Sleep well, Kristian,” said Felix.
“Felix,” said Kristian, but his brother was already fast asleep.
It was well into night when Kristian woke up, his sloshing bladder demanding immediate reprieve. From the next room came the sounds of chewing and slurping. Kristian reached out to the next pallet and found it empty. Felix must be finishing off the leftovers, Kristian thought disgustedly. Couldn’t even wait ‘til morning! He stumbled, still sleep-heavy, to the next room. “You’re making a fine pig of yourself,” he complained, and then his bleary eyes focused on what lay inside the dining room.
The platters which previously held the soft mounds of warm bread were piled high instead with graying brains, the rice pudding a composite of bile and eyes, the remnants of soft custard in reality a heap of tongues, decayed and befouled. The sausages remained sausages, which was no consolation, and the bucket of water which once slaked his thirst had clearly held liquid too red to be water. Kristian felt his bladder release, and the sounds of chewing continued.
“You’re up early.”
The voice was Rotblut’s. She stood behind the table of gore and smiled as easily as a flower blooms.
Now Kristian noticed how the walls of the house were yellow-stained and moldering, how roaches scurried along the floor and winked in and out of the rushes. “Evil magic,” he croaked. “Where’s Felix?”
Grinning ruefully, Rotblut reached down and lifted something from the floor. The chewing sounds stopped, replaced with an angry snapping of teeth.
Rotblut heaved Felix across the laden table, scattering plates and organs. “He died happy,” she said defensively. “I didn’t do it. I know that made him happy.”
“You didn’t do it?” Kristian felt lightheaded from the sickening stench of the room. “I suppose he saw what he’d been eating and cut open his own belly to get rid of the taint?”
A figure, stringy-limbed and snarling, leapt onto Felix’s body sprawled across the table. It buried its head in the open cavity of his abdomen and Rotblut stroked its head.
“You remember Luca?” said Rotblut. “He was twelve when you left, I think.”
The figure raised its blood-streaked head and glared at Kristian. Its eyes were black, its teeth longer than its face, and the tongue which scraped over its chin had barbs on the end.
“I saw what she did,” said the thing in Luca’s voice. “Our Vater couldn’t keep her secret, but I did. She just needed someone to keep her secret for ten years, and then she’d be a real girl.”
“And you?” Kristian said, while thinking, This is not a real conversation, this is happening somewhere inside my mind, how can I think of such things? “Did she steal your humanity for her own?”
The Luca-thing scrubbed at its face with a horny hand. “It’s easier to keep a secret if you share it,” it said. “She could have killed me—”
“You could have told on me,” Rotblut added, and hugged it.
“This is better, isn’t it?” The Luca-thing blinked up at Kristian, almost pleading. “If you love someone?”
“You murdered Felix!”
The Luca-thing nodded, shrugged, worried Felix’s neck with its teeth. “He came out for seconds,” it said. “What was I supposed to do, when he saw what the feast really was?”
Kristian, still reeling, still disbelieving the reality of the macabre scene, appealed to Rotblut. “Felix loved you!” he shouted. “After all these years, he still spoke of you fondly!”
“And in the morning I shall be very sorry,” said Rotblut. “There’s still a little monster in me yet, I’m afraid. A little one. Very tiny. You know, I don’t even know if Luca will be able to keep from eating me, once the dawn comes and I become human! But I’ve been waiting for so long. Would you deny me this now?”
Without waiting for an answer, she brushed past him out the door. “The sun will rise soon,” she called. “Don’t you want to see it?”
Kristian stared at a fleck of Felix on the Luca-thing’s chin. He backed away and reached into his pocket.
“Oh, it’s so cold!” Rotblut giggled. “I don’t think I noticed before!” She wrinkled her nose and squinted into the false dawn. Inside the house, the Luca-thing snuffled its snout deeper into Felix.
With a sudden pivot, Kristian turned away from the Luca-thing. His hand came free from his pocket and he hurled a bottle at Rotblut’s happy face.
The bottle broke into dust. Rotblut yipped and sneezed and found herself in a tangle of briars. She batted at the prickly thorns, but her skin caught in the nettles and she made a low, sad sound in her throat.
The briars gathered thickly around Rotblut and clogged the door of the house. Kristian heard the Luca-thing yowling inside, but the brambles were too thick to see through. Kristian himself stood in a small clearing, free from the briars. He took a step away, towards the forest, and the clearing moved with him.
“Enjoy your humanity,” Kristian muttered, but the brambles shook and a shape came closer. The shape was not human.
“When it comes.” The voice was Rotblut’s and it started near the ground. Yellow eyes winked up at Kristian and a long, bewhiskered snout eased through the thorns by his feet. “Until then, I am very much content to be myself.” As her paw touched the clearing, the briars disappeared.
“Rotblut!” howled the Luca-thing. Kristian wasted no time in throwing a second bottle at his sister.
An ocean erupted around them. Kristian stood on the only dry land in sight. The water was still, uninterrupted by waves or ripples or bubbles from beneath.
Something stirred under his feet. He shifted his weight and the tremor passed from one side of the little island to the other. A patch of dirt began to hump up from below and he stomped on it.
The tremors stopped. Kristian felt a moment’s relief before the realization hit him: to find dry land, Rotblut needed to find him first.
A fountain of dirt spewed up beside him. Kristian scrambled to get away from the badger-like claws. If it’s like last time, he thought, the water will disappear when she’s safely on dry land; but the island follows me, I wonder which of us is faster? I wonder if she breathes?
With inhuman swiftness, Rotblut’s monstrous body sprang from the earth. The water around them immediately vanished, leaving everything dry and bewildered. Rotblut, her badger-like claws shriveling, her snout flattening, was only a few feet away, blinking at the sunlight creeping through the trees.
It would be impossible to miss from so short a distance. Kristian flung the last bottle at his sister.
A column of fire burst in front of him. A scream rose from it and Kristian shrank back from both the noise and the heat.
The fire died down and the figure it covered died with it, shrinking and crinkling and crackling and crying. Kristian watched it until it stopped twitching. He nodded once and looked up.
Rotblut stared at him, terror on her human face.
“He saved me,” she said faintly. “Luca jumped in front of me.” She trembled and backed away from Kristian. “You monster. You murderer. You’re not human.”
Kristian’s lips twisted, a thousand conflicting words crumpling the corners of his mouth. “He just ate Felix!”
“And you just set him on fire.” Tears trickled down her cheeks. “Luca became bloodthirsty out of love. He became what he feared to save me.” She shook her head. “What’s your excuse for butchery?”
He could only gape at her as she smudged her tears with her fingertips. She pressed them briefly to her lips and, incredibly, smiled. “Still, it’s a new day for all of us. I can’t expect we’ll part ways as friends, but we are still family, aren’t we?”
The thousand conflicting words immobilized his mouth and started tremors down his arms.
Rotblut clucked her tongue and chuckled. “I’m all at ends with myself! I thought I’d know how to behave around humans once I became one, but I still have no idea! I don’t know whether to shout or laugh or cry or jump or—”
Her throat choked on itself.
Kristian didn’t let go of the length of charred bone he’d picked up from the Luca-thing’s corpse, not even when Rotblut pawed at his hand clenched firmly around it. The bone was wedged deeply into her neck, bringing her and Kristian kissing-close.
No air could push past the bone in her throat, and Kristian wondered what it was she was trying to say. Her expression when she died was confused, a child denied its toy.
He let her fall. The air crawled thickly, damply over his skin, leaving behind the whiff of corpse-stink.
He’d delivered vengeance, and derived no joy from it. That was the bargain. Now, there was no vengeance, and he was without happiness.
The corpse-smell grew stronger. From out of the woods, a huge gray wolf appeared, its sides mossy and snaggled with tiny bird bones.
“I have nothing,” said Kristian, and he was startled to hear himself speak, thinking his words were still crumpled inside him.
“Rotblut was turning human while Luca was turning… monstrous. Would you have taken him in, then? Were you trading your children with my family’s?”
He shut his eyes and took a deep breath. “Would you take me?”
His eyes flew open and the breath came out violent. “Then what am I to do?”
Kristian ground his teeth. “Then why did you bother coming, if you’re not going to help me?”
I came for myself.
The wolf drew no closer, but Kristian smelled the rot on its teeth and the musk of its fur, felt the damp air slide across his face and knew the wolf was tasting him without touching him. He knew then why the wolf would come on its own behalf. After all, Kristian had killed its daughter.
“End it, then,” Kristian whispered.
Die Schadenfruede, said the wolf. You are miserable. It is good. It shook itself, bird bones rattling, and faded into the forest. Unlike you, it added as it disappeared, I chose happiness.
“Wait!” Kristian called and cried, but there was no response, and no response, and no response.
Issue #3 Contents
ART & PHOTOGRAPHY
Kirsten Imani Kasai
A Heart So Pure
Slips of Yew
The Anointed One
The Flustered Husband’s Guide to Spices
The Gallows Tree
The Gardener Estate
When You Love Someone
Laura DeHaan is a healthcare practitioner in her hometown of Toronto. Personally, she’d choose happiness. You can find her other stories scattered across print, web and ether in Postscripts to Darkness 4, Allegory, The Colored Lens, Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine, and Mocha Memoir Press’s In the Bloodstream. Those with a great deal of patience will find her in the forthcoming Redwing eBook by Grace & Victory Publications and in One Eye Press’s The Big Adios. Sometimes she tweets nonsense @WritInRooster.