Science Fiction & Fantasy

Hawk by Steven Brust

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Fiction

The Huntsman

Had I but known, Tamlin, Tamlin,

Before we came from home,

I’d hae ta’en out thy heart o’ flesh,

Put in a heart of stone.

 

1.

“It’s the best bargain you’ll get in this town,” the faery woman says. She’s standing by a cracked kitchen sink with mold between the tiles, rinsing diced tomatoes and crooked green jalapeño rings. “A heart for a heart. And my heart’s more than what she’s used to, I’ll tell you that. You couldn’t find better if you went door-to-door from every house in the tithe-projects.”

She tips the plastic mixing bowl onto the counter. Dark wet tomatoes and thin peppers and pungent wisps of cilantro spill across the gray-green Formica. A little flower has sprouted among them spontaneously: a tiny white chrysanthemum, browned by the acid. She plucks it out with annoyance and shoves it under her tongue.

“So?” she asks, chewing. “What do you say?”

 

2.

It’s a hot night, dry as bone, and the stink of a garbage fire drifts like smoke over the deserted street: coffee grounds and greasy sausage wrappers, damp rags and melting plastic, spoiled lettuce and something bitterly metallic. The huntsman moistens his lips, tasting the cheap paper and tobacco of a discarded cigarette. He doesn’t smoke anymore, not really, not for the taste or the nicotine. He just wishes he had something to steady his hands.

A rhythmic, tuneless chanting plays somewhere in the projects. He hears a door slam on a fire escape two streets over and a boy or young woman shouting rapidly in two foreign languages. But there’s only one lighted window on Hawthorne Street, a tiny yellow flickering in a second story kitchen. He rounds the back of the house and tries the door. The lock is faulty. A dank, loamy smell fills the stairwell. He closes the door silently behind him and makes his way up the uncarpeted linoleum stairs.

A tithe-government vehicle whooshes in the distance, sirens barking, carrying the men and women who have disappeared in the night. The city is a forest full of wolves. They used to say that when he lived in the projects, and they were right. They hunt in packs, consume every trace of their prey. Even skin and bone.

 

3.

He leans against the bathroom wall, listening to the sirens and wishing for a cigarette.

“Hey,” Queenie murmurs. She rolls onto her side, sloshing dark purple over the bone-like sides of the tub. It sizzles when it hits the snow-dusted floor. The whole room stinks of chemical snow, and of fairy blood—a warm, spicy odor, part saffron, part mace. “What happened to you?”

“Nothing. Couldn’t sleep.” He scratches the backs of his forearms, where the skin prickles with gooseflesh. “Bad dreams again.”

“Dreams don’t mean nothing, my sweet. They’re just dreams.”

“I know.” He nods his head. But his have never been just dreams.

 

4.

The narrow kitchen is the first door on the left. Pale green wallpaper, stained brown over the gas range. A dingy ivory refrigerator. The floor rustles with a thick blanket of leaves, three inches deep, all autumn-red and russet. He almost misses the woman sitting at the table. Her back is to him, her dark tangled hair falling to the floor, nested with twigs and the feathers of black, black birds.

It’s no good trying to muffle the crunch of his footsteps on the dry leaves. The woman must hear him approaching, but she does not turn her head. She’s bigger than he expected—so many are like Queenie, skinny as the ubiquitous drought-lizards that cling to bathroom walls, all curved ribs and fragile vertebrae. So dry they bleed rust. But the woman at the table comes up to his shoulder while seated, her broad, thick-fingered hands spread flat on the vinyl tablecloth. She wears a green floral-printed wrap with nothing underneath. Her skin’s a uniform terra-cotta brown, even the wide nipples, and the hair on her body grows curly and black.

“Stop,” she says. “I have an offer for you.” Her eyes are closed, the broad lids sparkling with lime-colored shadow.

“I’m not interested,” he says, drawing the knife.

 

5.

“I’m hungry. You know what I need?” Queenie’s looking at herself in the mirror behind his head, looking through him like he’s invisible, or like he isn’t even there. He used to find her pretty, with her smooth black skin and weird electric-violet eyes, the mauve-streaked weave that flows halfway down her back—pretty, before he knew what she was.

“What?” he asks dutifully.

Her eyes shift. Now she’s looking at him.

Something cold licks at his feet; the faery blood is running across the grimy linoleum tile. It stains the clothing she’s discarded—her violet lace bra and panties, his white undershirt.

“A heart,” she says, her breath catching around the final consonant. A brittle sound, like cracking bone.

 

6.

He takes up a cube of tomato. It tastes moldy, like cilantro. Like chrysanthemum.

“A heart for a heart,” he says. “It’s a deal.”

 

7.

The faery woman smiles, her hands still flat on the table. She smells like the stairwell, musky and organic, with an undercurrent of cheap gin and stale tobacco. “I know who you are,” she says. “You’re that changeling boy our sister is fucking. She dreams about you, you know. She says she has to shove a pillow in your mouth so the neighbors don’t hear.”

He stands behind her. The long steel knife is in his hand, the edge close enough to caress the warm skin of her throat. The smell of her, the salty line of sweat between her heavy breasts, the smoothness of her bare feet against the dead leaves tangle in his thoughts like rough grasping fingers. The knife’s point nips at an artery, drawing a trickle of dark purple blood.

A door slams somewhere in the apartment, a heavy body thuds and curses and knocks something off a bedside table. The huntsman hesitates, only a second, and suddenly he is on his back in the moldering leaves, his knife spinning across the floor, the faery woman standing over him, nursing a clenched hand. She threw the punch wrong—for a moment, he thinks she’s broken her thumb—but then she moans and spreads her fingers, the small bones shifting, and everything looks as it should.

“He’ll join us in a moment,” she says, nodding toward the bedroom door, as though nothing has happened, as though the only interruption to their conversation was the fumbling sound of the man in the next room. “But listen, my sweet. I have an offer for you.”

 

8.

He pins her to the leaf-strewn floor with a knee between her breasts. Normally, this is the point where the ribcage cracks, but she’s smiling up at him, as though she barely registers his weight. He stabs quickly, deeply, an inch or two above the navel, and rips her open from below. She grunts. The heart is a smooth muscled globe, like a fleshy apple, pumping, pumping dark blood over his hands.

A blade slides against his own throat. He tips his head back, as if for a kiss, and sees his own face staring down at him. The man from the next room is completely naked, his scar-crossed chest mottled with purple bruises, his broad shoulders scoured with the white tracks of fingernails. The body is the huntsman’s own body, only this body is dead and beginning to rot.

Always, this is the moment when the huntsman wakes up.

 

9.

Except this time, he doesn’t.

 

10.

“Do you remember when I found you?” Queenie purrs.

They’re in his bed. The springs creek slightly, the thin sheets beneath him crackle with static. The electricity’s been turned off—even in the better neighborhoods, utilities are unreliable so close to the border. She’s on top of him, rocking gently, her violet eyes glowing in the jaundice-colored moonlight.

“They sent you out with the tithe,” she says. “You were sitting on the big white bus with all the other little boys and girls, in your little starched shirts and your little black ties that some tithe-officer must have tied for you. And all your eyes, your little black eyes, were so sad and deep and beautiful.”

He cups his hands around her tiny waist, caresses her soft belly with his thumbs.

“The bus was parked on the side of the road, waiting for some sign from the officers. You had your tiny faces pressed against the windows. It was the first time you’d ever left the tithe-projects, I’ll bet. And as I walked past, you looked up at me and smiled. Do you remember why you smiled?”

“I liked your eyes,” he pants.

“And when you smiled, a tiny chrysanthemum sprouted in my box of cigarettes.”

He remembers the delighted surprise on her face, the sparkle in her pretty eyes as she plucked the pale flower from the crushed box and stuck its stem between her teeth.

She leans forward, nibbling a line of kisses up his neck, and her words spill into his ear. “So I asked for you myself. I went to the tithe-officer and I said, ‘Give me that little boy, the one with the coal-black eyes and lips as red as blood.’ And he was so shocked, he hardly knew what to do. Do you remember what he asked me?”

“He asked if you were one of them,” he says.

“He asked,” she says, “if I could still dream their dreams. And I couldn’t, my sweet, my changeling. I couldn’t dream with them anymore, not until you came to me. Not until you learned to bring me what I needed.”

From the window of his apartment, they can see it—once their home, now his hunting ground. The square small-windowed faces and dark lampless streets of tithe-government housing projects, the flimsy walls, the doors with faulty locks. They can hear the polyglot cursing, the tuneless chanting, the slam of rubber balls against crumbling cement all hours of the day and night. They can smell the garbage fires and the astringent licorice smell of disinfectant, the spicy blood, the warm loamy stink of Faery.

But only she can dream its dreams.

It’s the best bargain you’ll get in this town: a heart for a heart. Her heart for his.

 

11.

“Not all of you left with the tithe,” the faery woman says. She pushes him off of her, and he falls back against his own rotting body. The smell of faery blood—hers, his—mixes with the leaves and the loam and the cilantro, makes him want to vomit.

“All these years, we’ve kept you safe. The part of you that still dreams our dreams. The part of you that’s still faery.”

“That part of me is dead.”

That part of him pins his wrists as the faery woman takes up his knife. She carves him open, slowly, tenderly, each touch a caress, while his own hand covers his mouth, muffling his screams. He bleeds and bleeds. Warm and spicy, saffron and mace.

She lifts his heart out and sets it in the plastic bowl on the counter. Blood makes her fingers sticky, and she licks up a clinging fleck of tomato and jalapeño. Then she kneels beside him, holding out her hands. “Eat,” she says.

When he has licked the last of the blood and fruit away, she turns, reaches up into her ribcage, and puts the muscled apple of her own heart into the empty space inside him.

“Come back to us,” she says. She pounds her fist against his chest.

Her heart beats inside him. Once. Twice.

 

12.

On the third beat, he wakes up.

 

13.

Queenie is shaking him, one hand over his mouth, the other pounding against his chest. Her eyes look wild in the moonlight, her hair tangled and crackling with static.

“Don’t be frightened, my sweet, don’t be frightened,” she’s murmuring, clutching him to her like a drowning woman, holding on for dear life. “It’s just bad dreams. Just dreams, my changeling. They don’t mean nothing, they’re just dreams.”

But the blood from his bitten lip tastes of saffron, and where a drop of it has fallen on the pillowcase, a tiny chrysanthemum is sprouting.

His have never been just dreams.

© 2013 by Megan Arkenberg.

Megan Arkenberg

Megan ArkenbergMegan Arkenberg is a student in Wisconsin. In the name of story research, she racks up late fees at the college library, gets dizzyingly lost along the shores of Lake Michigan, consumes a steady diet of M.R. James, and lusts quietly after the architecture and costume of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her work has appeared in Asimov’s, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and dozens of other places. She procrastinates by editing the fantasy e-zine Mirror Dance and the historical fiction e-zine Lacuna.

 

1 Responses »

  1. “The Huntsman” typifies what I jokingly call the Mobius strip story. Whatever the main character does to escape an absolutely bad situation, he (it’s usually a “he” nine times out of ten) always ends up in the same spot where he started from. Of course, the story works better if the main character is some kind of anti-hero, an outright villain, or even just someone with overweening pride. A character like the huntsman with a past history as victim makes his oft-repeated, nightmarish journey from Point A to Point A seem like so much abuse rather than justified punishment. Megan Arkenberg’s “How Many Miles to Babylon?” is so much better than “The Huntsman” in plot and character development, and overall story quality.

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