“Well?” A voice like boulders grinding together. “When are you going to turn into a goat?”
“Th-that was a joke!” He gasps.
“Oh.” The form slumps. “You really need to make it clearer when you’re serious and when you’re joking. Anyhow, eat up.” And with that she reaches into the still boiling water and withdraws one of the hares and a handful of the wild vegetables, putting this medley in her mouth and crunching a bit before swallowing. A round shape makes its way under the skin of her neck. “Ahhh!” She smacks her lips, long thin teeth peeking out in between slurps. Dim red eyes peer at Eugene’s prone form like unpolished garnets. “Ohh, you need some human tools! How unthinking of me.” She whips around, long rat-like tail curving to avoid the fire and pot and creating a small breeze before Eugene’s face. With another turn he is presented with a wooden bowl and spoon, rough hewn and solid. He takes them with shaking hands, the nails of her fingers lightly touching the backs of his. She then reaches into the pot with her hand, snaps the other hare in half and deposits one half into his bowl, the head and forelegs plopping back into the pot. “Enjoy!”
“Thank you.” He shifts to a sitting position but stays where he fell near the exit, wolf-Marista moving back to where she was sitting before in a blur. Eugene looks down at the steaming stew and then quickly back up at the curved shape now curled up by the fire. It is neither moving nor looking at him, and then there comes the sound of rattling breath and the form expands and contracts with slumber. After he has finished his meal (which is quite tasty in spite of the pre dinner show) he reclines in the fading firelight, a blanket withdrawn from his pack wrapped tight around him.
Eugene awakens in the morning with dark bags under his eyes after a night of sleep punctuated by frequent jerks into consciousness whenever Marista made a move or noise. At some point he passed out from exhaustion, but this must have been in the early morning, giving him only a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. He sits up and looks around, yawning and feeling as though he has dried out overnight. He is alone in the tent, and the satchel that contained Marista’s gatherings is gone. Likewise, the entrails that were strewn about have been stowed elsewhere. Cupping his hands he retrieves some water from the pot in spite of the still stewing ingredients. The water is both stale and rich in flavor, and he gulps it down with a small gag. Putting his belongings back together in his pack, he makes to leave. Upon stepping outside, he sees Marista, her eyes turned toward the sky and one hand shielding them, both hands holding a knife; the jagged one from before and an even longer and skinnier one than that. Her baggy attire has been newly tightened in some places and stitched together again where ripped. She does not turn as he walks up behind her.
“Should be falling any day now…”
“Good morning, Marista!”
She shuffles around to look at him, eyes bleary and mouth open a bit. She does not respond.
“I’m heading on my way, now. Thank you for your hospitality and… well, I guess for not eating me.”
“Of course not! No matter what I look like, I don’t eat humans. And apparently not goats, either. Would’ve liked to have seen that.”
“Haha, indeed. Take care of yourself.” He turns and has taken two steps before stopping at her voice.
“Before you go, there is something you must do for me, though.” There is the small crunch of footsteps through the grass and Eugene looks back. Marista is right behind him, and she scratches the knives together, alternating the two. “Please, before you go, could you spare some skin for my collection? Become a part of my home, my dress, and I’ll never forget you.”
Eugene jumps away, nearly falling but instead just kicking up dirt as he scrambles to run away from the slashing blades of the wolf-witch. They both start to run and, in spite of his long legs and proportionally long strides, Marista not only keeps up with his pace but, when he glances back, seems to be gaining on him, her legs flying beneath her and a screeching cackle spiraling out of her grinning mouth. In his struggle to stay ahead of this whirlwind of sharp edges and flailing limbs behind him, Eugene is quite quickly wheezing and, with a sick feeling in his stomach, slowing down. Up ahead, he sees a long narrow form laying in the grass and hops over it, the impact of his landing only serving to emphasize his fatigued leg muscles. Marista, in her frenzied chase, is not so nimble, or perhaps is just not paying attention, and the shovel over which he hopped proves a more difficult task for her. A bare foot catches upon the edge of the discarded tool and she flies forward through the air before landing face down in the dirt. Eugene hears this impact but does not turn to see what happened, nor does he stop running until he no longer can, loping to a walk and then turning that he might walk backward and keep an eye out for his pursuer. There is no sight of her, and the noonday sun feels warmer than it actually is as it pours over his sweat-drenched form. He takes his pack off and lowers it to the ground, dropping it the last inch or so. He puts his back to a tree and repeats the process with himself, letting out a small ‘ow’ as tailbone hits root. He closes his eyes for a moment and leans back against the pillow of ragged bark and eventually catches his breath. Upon opening them again, he stares into the distance, but there is no sign of pursuit, just a seemingly endless clutter of trees. He takes a deep breath and then lets out a sigh between pursed lips. Looking over at his pack, he reaches for it and starts to reorganize its lumpy contents when he notices the piece of parchment that is stuffed into one of the side compartments. Withdrawing the paper, his eyebrows push together as he flattens out the rough material to examine it further. One side is blank, the other covered in shaky, jagged writing, the end of each sentence trailing off into a scrawl:
He imagines the monstrous form of the wolf writing this and sneaking it into his pack while he slept and shivers. And what could she mean by this odd correspondence? Returning it to its crumpled form, he drops the note on the ground, hefts his pack once again, and continues on his way, putting the warning out of mind and instead focusing on finishing his journey.
( ©2017 Sean Dorsey )