The first time you see L, she is climbing a dying pitch pine, brown needles falling into the shadows between her curls.
You don’t catch sight of her immediately. Your calves ache from forcing your way through the encrusted landscape, and only a skinny rabbit hangs from your belt. Snow has crept into your boots and streaked your shins white. You can barely feel your face.
You shift your rifle to your other shoulder, tucking your hands into your armpits. There is a hole in the left elbow of your coat, wool chewed away in the darkness of your closet. You thought it was moths, until you found a gift in the left pocket: a pile of tiny seeds, stowed carefully away in the lining.
Everywhere, you are followed by mice.
On the day you see L, something is wedged in your right boot, rolling between your toes and poking through your sock. When you get home, you’ll tug your boot free and cast the intruder out onto the rug in front of the woodstove. Lying among ash and melting snow will be a single sunflower seed.
In the woods, you modify your steps, trying to keep the thing from rubbing under your foot. Cold, stiff, exhausted, you crest the hill. Between the branches of the far trees, smoke smudges the sky. You are almost home, your rambling empty house promising warmth the forest refuses. You think about shedding your wet clothes, propping your gun against the cabinet and liberating your frozen feet from your boots. You will put them next to your grandmother’s, by the kitchen door. You will turn on the kettle and as the water boils, you’ll thaw.
You’re already planning what happens next, skinning the rabbit and grating ginger for stew. It’s not as much as you’d hoped from today, but it’s enough. You grunt as your foot breaks through ice-coated snow, jarring the thing in your boot back under your toes. You can’t wait to be free of it.
And that’s when you see her.
Her white Docs are scuffed and streaked with lilac paint. These are the first things to catch your eye, scraping at the pitch pine’s trunk. Slowing, you follow ripped black jeans up over a branch to a torso in a white leather jacket. Above that, black eyes stare down, silver mascara like frost against her dark brown skin.
“Shh,” she hisses from her perch. There are needles lodged in her thick hair, white fishnets stretched over her knees. “You’ll scare the birds.”
She glares down at you.
“Who the fuck are you?” you ask, tugging your rifle from your shoulder, though your fingers have lost their feeling. You know you won’t shoot her, or even aim at her. You’ve been around guns your whole life. You understand them, like a candle understands a match.
She grips the pitch pine. Her acrylic nails glitter baby blue. “I’m a birdwatcher. Who are you?”
“You’re on my land,” you say. You are nowhere near believing her. A birdwatcher, dressed like that? A birdwatcher with no supplies, no blind, nothing to keep her warm for hours of patient observation?
A gust weaves through the trees and you angle your left arm against it, wincing as the cold finds the hole the mice left you.
The girl in the tree leans out from the pitch pine, her hair casting a dense shadow over her face. Only her mascara shimmers within, twin silver streaks flashing as she blinks. “Trees belong to no one.”
“These trees belong to me.” You tighten your grip on your rifle, trying and failing to feel it through your gloves. “And you’re no birdwatcher. You don’t even have binoculars.”
She smiles, teeth shining under the half-moons of her mascara. Cheshire Cat, you can’t help thinking. “I don’t need ‘em. I use my eyes, and my ears.”
“I want you off of my land,” you say. You don’t like her attitude, or her smile. She straightens, leaning back against the pitch pine’s trunk. Her hands must be cold.
She looks over towards your house, then back at you. Her breath forms a cloud in front of her face, veiling her expression. “That your house down there?”
“You live there alone?”
You nod. She looks back towards the smoke. You think of your woodstove, and tugging your boots off, thawing your feet, banishing the thing that won’t stop poking between your toes each time you start walking.
“Big house for a small girl,” she says. Even up in the tree, you can tell she’s at least five feet eight inches, maybe taller.
You inherited your grandmother’s stature: four feet ten inches in the morning, shrinking to four feet nine inches and three quarters in the evening. You bristle at her tone.
“I’ve got a lot of guns to keep me company.”
She laughs then, a rough, full sound that reminds you of a cat’s meow. She swings her leg over the branch and suddenly she’s in the snow, walking away, past you. Dead needles dust the snow between her footprints.
“See you later,” she says, nearly brushing your shoulder with her broad upper arm. Between the crunches of her steps, you hear her say, “L. That’s who I am.”
You stand and watch her until the thickness of her hair has vanished between the trees and dusk is filling her footprints with shadow. You turn then, walking towards the promising warmth of the 19th century farmhouse your grandmother left you, along with her height.
The rabbit drips blood on the snow, leaving pink in your wake.
◊ ◊ ◊
The second time you meet M, she shoots the crow you were watching, your camera capturing the moment its soul bursts away in an arc of orphaned feathers. You lower the frame, documenting its spiraling descent to the broken snow at the dogwood’s base.
You want to yell at her, small and armed as she crosses the broken landscape, but something compels you to turn the camera on her, tracking her steps over the snow to the crow’s fresh corpse. Her hair, a dynamic black, frames her light brown face in two French braids. Locks poke from the braids too high for layers. You guess they’re the grown-out remains of a once-undercut.
You snap pictures of her walking, stooping, binding the crow to her belt. She is wearing a plaid wool jacket, the kind a boy might wear in the ‘40s. Looking at it, you wonder if that’s exactly what it is, passed down over decades, touched by hands and moths and mice.
When she has threaded the crow to her belt, blood soaking into her Carhartts, you untangle yourself from the boughs of the old apple tree and drop onto the snow. She jerks, turning with her rifle held high. Not aimed, but ready.
“You,” she says. You smile at her, despite the cold in your limbs. So long in waiting, just for this.
“L,” you remind her. She lowers her rifle, the butt sinking into the snow.
“I told you to stay off my land.”
“I told you. I’m a birdwatcher.” You hold up your camera. There’s nothing special about it. Vintage, but not the best model, and it’s seen better days. Before leaving your car, you checked your bag and found just one film canister. You don’t intend to get more. Your phone takes better pictures now anyway. But you like the feel of a camera. You like the softness of the images as you develop them, never knowing what will result.
She glares at you and your camera. “There’s nothing exotic in these woods. I’ve lived here for ten years.”
You watch her face, the words misting across her lips as she talks. There’s something about her mouth. Small, but powerful.
“I’ve always hated that word,” you say, shifting your gaze to her eyes. Dark, dark brown. “Exotic.”
Her lips twist to the side. “Honestly, me too.” She studies you. “You said your name’s L?”
You nod. She walks forward through the snow, tugging her hand out of her glove. When she reaches you, she holds it out. Her nails are short, carefully trimmed and surprisingly clean. You take her hand, warmth spreading through your chapped palm. Her callouses are smooth and hard.
“M,” she says, meeting your eyes. Then she twists her hand, studying your fingers. She smiles. “Don’t get lost on your way out. The sun sets fast here.”
Before you can push the conversation forward, she’s dropped your hand and started walking, shoving her glove back on. You stow your hand back into your pocket, running your thumb across the sharp edges of your acrylics, pausing at the smoothness of your index and middle fingers, trimmed and tame.
As you trudge back to the woods’ edge and your car, you think about your eight claws, and that weak spot M found when she turned your hand in hers and saw what those other two nails meant.
You wanted her to…to what? Hold on. Ask you what you were really doing in her woods. But she dropped your hand and walked away, and now all you feel is cold.
◊ ◊ ◊
She could watch other birds in other woods. But every Saturday you see L draped over a branch like a large cat, her nail polish winking blue in the dappled light.
Each day you scan the woods, searching for anomalies in the bare forest. If you see her, you turn in the other direction, hunting far away from her perch. Hours pass and cold creeps through you and eventually you find yourself circling back, a mouse sneaking along under the watchful gaze of a lion.
She becomes part of your routine. Part of your woods. You don’t understand it, but she makes you nervous, sitting up in a tree, camera clutched in clawed hands. It’s all she ever has, save the occasional thermos of something hot. When you see her, you tell yourself she’s just a girl from town—unarmed, unprepared for the weather. You are the one with the gun. You are the owner of the woods. You should feel in control.
But you don’t.
The weeks pass and your discomfort grows. You find yourself hoping for that gaze to cut through the February air, find you where you scratch the snow, searching for tracks. Almost always, you exchange a few words. L brings her camera, but you barely see her raise it, stealing glimpses as you check your traps and mark the maples for tapping in the thaw. She is always there, huddled on a branch too small for her, regarding you, tracking your progress.
You have no reason to engage her. No reason to tolerate her presence at all. A few times more, when your discomfort is a trembling, angry thing, you tell her to get off your land. She obliges, slinking away towards the distant road where her car must be parked. But the next Saturday she is always back, sipping from her thermos and watching the trees.
Today the temperature chews at you, your fingers numb and your face hardened into a grimace. You make your rounds as quickly as you can, toes curling in your boots. When you finish, the sun is cowering behind the clouds and a stiff wind cuts through the trees. You sling your rifle over your shoulder and make towards home.
You don’t see L. You think that finally the weather has forced her to stay home. As you head towards your own home, you imagine what L’s must be like. An apartment in town, filled with pastel furniture and decorations from Urban Outfitters. She’s the type of person who has leggings—or anything, really—patterned with astrological signs. You picture her sitting at the window right now, watching town birds: sparrows, pigeons, finches.
You almost miss the shape slumped at the base of an oak by the forest’s edge. The white leather jacket blends with the snow, too-long legs tucked tight against a still chest. What attracts your attention as you glance up again, cringing in the wind, is a weak reflection off a silver thermos, wedged in a drift of blood-flecked snow.
You slow, trying to understand the lump beside it, detaching limbs from ice and bark. When you recognize her, your breath catches behind your chattering teeth. “L?”
Her frosted eyelashes are still. Her lips, painted in silver lipstick, have a tinge of blue. You struggle through the snow, knocking her leg with your own numbed foot. “L!”
No breath mists before her face.
You drop your gun and the raccoon you’ve been carrying. Wrenching your gloves away you smack her cheeks, take her by her stiff lapels and shake her, your breath ragged with fear. Leaning close, you can hear—something. She’s breathing. She’s alive.
“You stupid city bitch,” you gasp, choking on your voice. You tug her arms. Heavy as a deer. You haven’t hauled a deer home in months.
As you struggle to pull her up against the tree, you see the source of the frozen drops of blood. One palm is gashed, cut on ice or pine needles or rough tree bark. It’s no longer bleeding, coagulated and cold.
You tug and shove and manage at last to get her across your shoulders. You stay squatting, L a Gravity Blanket you don’t think you can lift. When you finally screw up your effort and stand, your balance is off. Together you fall back into the snow.
When you finally manage to lift her, the sun has settled into the horizon. You find your door in the dark, stumble through in the dark, collapse in front of a dead fire in the dark, dark, dark.
You want to sleep, but the house is cold and your gun and raccoon are out in the snow.
Ashes, paper, kindling. When you’re certain the fire won’t die, you leave L on the floor and return to the night.
◊ ◊ ◊
You wake to the hissing of pine needles. Snapsnapsnap.
You can’t move, at first. But as consciousness returns, you gasp. Searing pain curls your fingers and toes, wrenching you into full awareness.
Faint light guides you as you roll over, staring into the flames. You’re not sure where you are when you raise your trembling hands, stare at the sharp lines of your broken acrylics.
Trying to open your thermos. That’s how they broke. When you were so cold you thought you could pour some coffee on your fingers, warm them up. You should’ve brought gloves, but they never fit right over your acrylics, and you liked the way the nail polish echoed the landscape. You liked the way M looked at your hands.
You shrink away from the pain as your hands thaw, all your claws—but two—brittle and broken. Is this M’s house? M’s fire? It must be. In the faint light you look around, work your chapped lips into a letter.
The house is silent under the fire’s hisses. You think you can hear distant creaking a floor or more above, centuries-old beams shrinking like your fingers from the cold.
Your palm. You don’t recognize the cut as it begins weeping sluggish drops of blood. Did you fall out of the tree? Your back aches and you think you must have, breaking the frozen crust of snow with your body. You might have grabbed onto the branch, scraped yourself on the way down.
Your fingers have thawed. You sigh in relief, bending them and tangling them in the wet laces of your Docs, wincing as your palm reopens, bleeding more. You bite your cheek and tug the boots from your frozen feet, your toes shifting from numbness to agony before the fire.
You want to scream but you don’t, afraid to disturb the silence of this place you’ve only glimpsed from the trees. Between the floorboards you sense generations settled like dust. You’ve never been anywhere this old. You’ve never been anywhere that’s seen so much life.
Slowly, slowly, your toes warm, blood returning to your feet. You distract yourself from what you might find under your socks by peeling fragments of blue acrylic nails from your hands, dropping the pieces onto the balding Oriental rug in M’s living room.
Despite your fears, you retain all your toes. You exhale as you drop your socks next to your Docs. Warmth climbs up your legs and down your arms. You cradle your injured hands and close your eyes, exhaustion chewing at the edge of your mind.
What does a lion do after the hunt?
She sleeps, and sleeps, and sleeps.
You are just sinking back onto the rug when the door slams.
“L?” The voice is panicked, a shriek you don’t recognize. You stutter up, turning away from the fire, your face cooling in the shadows that fill the rest of this unfamiliar house.
M emerges from a darkened hallway borne on a frigid draft. Snow covers her plaid jacket, Carhartts, and boots. She drops what she is carrying—a dead raccoon and your silver thermos. She unslings her gun and leans it against the wall.
You stare at her, reading panic in her dark, dark brown eyes. This scares you, makes you wonder what else has gone wrong, what other catastrophe you’ve somehow caused. As you watch, her panic twists into something you recognize.
“You fucking bitch.” She is shaking—with cold, with fury. But you can’t stop looking at the thermos, resting where it rolled against her boot.
“You didn’t need to bring that,” you say, your throat raw, tightness creeping up from your chest. Your mind is clouded, but you remember the cold. Searing, burning cold. Wind like claws in your lungs. But here is M, outside much longer than you, fighting and winning against the winter. And here you are, aching and torn and weak.
You don’t know how to thank her. Instead, you stare at your thermos. “The coffee’s probably cold, now.”
You brace yourself for a retort, skin prickling with warmth, but she says nothing. She tugs her gloves off with her teeth and throws them to the floor. You watch as she struggles out of her coat, kicks away her boots. She swears her way out of soaked Carhartts and peels wool socks from her feet. Her voice is muffled when she pulls her sweater over her head, the swears fading and then returning when she faces you in a sports bra and cheeky underwear. You didn’t notice before, covered as she was. Her light brown skin crawls with tattoos.
Trees, birds, animals you’d been hoping to spot in the woods, and hadn’t. Her body is a tapestry of life, and it reminds you strangely of this house. Across her heart, a coyote bares its teeth.
“Move the fuck over,” she mutters. Still staring, you scoot sideways. She joins you by the fire. A low murmuring in her throat tells you she’s still swearing internally.
She’s much smaller than you, compact and stronger than you realized. You want to thank her again, or trace her tattoos, or help unbraid her jagged hair. You don’t know how to do any of that.
“I’m sorry,” you say after her shoulders have started to relax, her fingertips bright pink before the flames. Her nose twitches irritably. It, too, is pink as a baby mouse.
She doesn’t meet your eyes, but her gaze finds your ruined hands. You curl your fingers to hide your nails too late.
“Not so useful, are they?” She chuckles, flexing her toes. You marvel at the way her feet move, wonder if she climbed trees barefoot as a child—or still does. “Why do you wear those stupid things, anyway?”
“I…” You unfold your hands, stare at the ragged edges of your acrylics, on every finger except the index and middle of your right hand. “They make me feel confident. Powerful.”
M snorts. “That’s what guns are for.”
“Never held one. I’d get arrested…or worse.”
She looks at you then, the pink fading from her face. “Oh. Yeah, I guess.” Her nose twitches again, as though thinking its own thoughts. “Not here, though.”
She glances up at the thick-beam ceiling, taking in the rambling house you glimpsed through the trees. How many times did you hope she’d invite you in? How many times did you peer at it from tree branches, imagine what it was like to live away from things, away from people?
You flinch as her fingers touch yours, peel them back to reveal the gash in your palm. You hear her teeth grind together.
“When my tits have thawed, I’ll get some stuff to clean this up.” She meets your eyes, firelight reflected in her gaze.
Your face grows warm. “You mean…I can stay?”
Her gaze stiffens, the old guardedness from your forest meetings pressed between her lips. “Not much point in you leaving now. It’s dark as shit. You’d get lost two steps out the door.” She lets go of your hand, stands up. “You hungry?”
Your stomach growls, and growls, and growls.
◊ ◊ ◊
You grew used to your life alone with the house, and the mice. You knew where you were likely to find holes; they came and went as they pleased. You offered them crumbs, positioned gifts before their shadowy domains just as your grandmother taught you.
“If there are spirits,” she had said, “if there are sprites or pixies or natural forces that impact the world, start with the littlest creatures, and offer respect.”
So you did. You loaded your gun and darned your socks and laced your boots. And before you left for the woods, you broke a cracker into pieces and scattered it before the mouse holes. Hunter’s superstition, maybe.
But in ten years, you’ve always had enough. In ten years, you’ve never gone hungry.
And if the mice decide a few crumbs aren’t enough for them, they make it known by nibbling at your clothes. They have stomachs to fill too, and futures to craft. In your mind you see them skittering like you across the snow, scraping out a living in solitude. Enduring the winter and waiting for spring.
It’s hard, but you can do it, just like the mice. Your grandmother managed the place on her own. You wanted to prove you could do the same.
But then L came. Talking to her, searching the trees for her…another piece was added to your routine. Another face entered your solitude, and despite everything, you’ve gotten used to it.
After last night, there is no question of sending her away.
You find her a nightdress, too long for you, which falls just past her knees. She looks good in it, despite the ‘80s style of ruffles and millefleur.
Last night, you laughed at her, too large and awkward in your bedroom. But you needed to keep her warm. You didn’t trust any other room in the house.
You thought she’d leave today. After breakfast.
After dinner it is too dark.
When you watch her pull on the nightdress a second time, you don’t laugh.
◊ ◊ ◊
M’s bed is small, made for someone like her. You think you’ll fall out, roll across the uneven floor and get wedged in a cold corner, alone and shivering until morning. You think that would be the worst thing in the world—not feeling her body next to you, her breathing soft and quick as a mouse.
Somehow, you find a way to fit, your arm tucked under her head, your shoulder aching through the night. The pain is worth it all.
Each night you sleep together, curled in the tiny bed, down leaking from the pillows to tangle in your hair. This house is large. She could have sent you to another room.
She didn’t. She doesn’t.
She insults you when she’s awake, but in three nights she hasn’t told you to leave. So you don’t. You don’t think you could coax your car to start now.
On the fourth night you lie awake and listen to the mice in the walls. Tiny feet rushing from one end of the house to the other. You close your eyes, tugging your arm from under M’s head, sighing with relief. She stirs, another mouse in the dark.
“Bitch,” she murmurs. You smile.
“Send me to the couch, then,” you whisper, your voice low, purring. You are filled with heat, wild energy that’s been waiting nearly a week to be released. She shifts, turns to look at you. In the dark her eyes are black.
“Then do it.”
Her fingers wander up and down your arm like tiny mouse feet. Her tattoos blot her skin like bruises. After a while, she says, “I don’t want to.”
You only have time to draw a sharp breath before she is against you. Her lips are fast, covering yours and peppering your cheeks. You try to turn to face her, your legs slipping from under the covers, the bed sinking in all the wrong places. She is on top of you and then you are on her and pawing at her shirt, hooking your broken claws in the waistband of her pajama pants.
Flannel crumples to the floor and you lose track of time, tied to her under a heap of mouse-nibbled quilts.
◊ ◊ ◊
L’s hand is a canvas. Holding her, you paint between the layers of her skin. She flinches at first, but settles into the rhythm of the needle, watching the tattoo take shape in her scabbed palm.
“It looks like a thorn,” she says. Then, “Or a tooth.”
You are sitting with her at your kitchen table, surrounded by wood and tile—a kitchen built by your grandmother, whose walls still remember her touch. Behind: mice. Endless mice.
L has no tattoos, but your skin is covered—meanings crossing your arms and legs, coating your torso. In bed, she traced the images. After a week, she asked for her own.
You finish and set the needle down. L looks at you, then at her hand. Your creation circles the cut the forest gave her, echoing its shape. She smiles. “It’s a claw.”
This morning you helped her take her ruined acrylics off one by one, trim and buff her nails back until your hands matched. Without her claws, L is nervous.
She’s so tall, but inexperienced, you find out. What lies on the other side of her attitude is something that’s not like a lion at all. Seeing her like this, hand in yours, you think she is more like a mouse.
Maybe you are the lion.
Still, L is strong. You know she is. You wouldn’t keep her if she wasn’t. What she needs is a reminder of that strength. You give her that now: a claw that will never break. A cut that will never bleed.
That night, you move to a new bedroom, one with a large bed and a fireplace of its own. You don’t discuss L’s car, if it’s even still where she left it, on the other side of the woods. She wears your clothes, too tight and too short. Leggings stand in for pants. You ordered Carhartts in her size, but they’ve yet to arrive.
In the meantime, you check your traps, teach L how to skin an animal, and offer what you can to the mice in the walls.
Your grandmother left them to you, along with your size.
◊ ◊ ◊
Your hand is M’s now. Without it, you feel lighter.
M picks the tree, deep enough into her woods that the house is out of sight. You climb together this time, pitch thick in the spaces between your breaths. Partway up, you settle onto a branch, M curled against the trunk, half on your lap. She weighs more than you guessed, a month ago. Her clothes hide more than tattoos.
You unscrew the thermos and pour coffee, handing the cap to M. She takes a sip, staring out at her woods.
“We can put up the buckets tomorrow,” she says, her pale pink lipstick leaving a smudged crescent on the thermos cap. You didn’t know she owned makeup, but she wears it occasionally, warming to your compliments.
You love to help remove it, sliding your tongue between her lips.
As you sit together, needles dropping into your hair, you hear something approaching between the trees.
You catch your breath, M mouse-quiet beside you. A solitary coyote makes its way across the snow, head low and tongue lolling. It’s made a kill, red staining the fur around its jaws.
You let out a thin gasp as it slinks beneath the pitch pine. Between your Docs you watch its mottled back, holding all the colors winter locked away.
It pauses, then moves on, trotting through the snow without a backward glance at you or M or the tree you share.
The trail it leaves is streaked pink, blood cooling on the crust of the broken snow.
Marisca Pichette is a bisexual creator of monsters and magic. Her work has appeared and is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Fireside Magazine, Fusion Fragment, Daily Science Fiction, Uncharted Magazine, PseudoPod, and PodCastle, among others. She lives in western Massachusetts, surrounded by bones and whispering trees.