The Bone-Stag walks at midwinter, sharp-antlered, hard-hoofed. Deep white snow spreads under deep black sky. Cold air slices lungs; rivers stand as stone.
Over cresting drifts comes the Bone-Stag, leaving no mark of his passing. Down in the village, they draw their curtains fast against him. They bolt tight their doors. Garlic at the lintels and holly upon the sills.
The Bone-Stag comes like driving snow. His hooves tap upon the rooves. They tap once upon the door. His voice rasps like a shroud dragged over frozen ground. “Oxen in boxen and hooves on the rooves. Bring flesh and wine for the starveling deer.”
• • • •
The winter I first lived with Grandmother, I lay alone in a strange narrow bed not yet mine. Moonlight silvered the unfamiliar room; shadows opened in the corners like mouths.
In the belly of the night, his hooves cracked overhead. “Oxen in boxen and hooves on the rooves. Bring flesh and wine for the starveling deer.”
Through a gap in the curtains, his long skull gleamed. Within the perfect rings of his sockets pooled hungering darkness.
“Flesh and wine for the starveling deer.”
His teeth clicked like knitting needles, a stag with the fangs of a wolf.
In the morning, the snow beneath my window shone untouched. Even then, Grandmother met fancy with a switch, so I told her nothing. But as the winters fell one upon the next, I could not help but yearn for the heralding tap of his hooves overhead.
• • • •
The first winter Liese lived with me, I told her:
Never answer the Bone-Stag. If you answer him, his dry weathered voice will rasp again and again, until your hand opens the door of its own accord.
Stay silent. Be still. Outwait him until the night is far spent, and his bones crumble to dust in the new year’s dawning.
She gawked. “Isn’t he hungry? He can share my bread.”
Such foolishness cannot be left to thrive. It must be starved out before winter comes. She wept through those first nights, her supper freezing on the snow outside her window.
Down in the village, their mutterings follow me from butcher to church to general store. “Pity about the child. Stuck in that old cabin. Stuck with that old woman. It’s like growing a rose in ice.”
Let them murmur. Better my switch than the Bone-Stag’s teeth.
• • • •
Midwinter’s day. Another one, long after childhood’s close. Grandmother and I trudged to the churchyard; souls draw nearest at the year’s turning. We carried oatcakes to feed the dead, whisky to slake the frozen ground’s thirst.
“Step quickly,” Grandmother barked. “Evening comes.”
My parents’ graves first, grief blunt as a worn-out tooth. Grandmother stood aside while I shivered and stammered. Always, I wanted to say something—and always, the words froze fast.
“Come along, Liese.”
Set on the graves, the oatcakes looked small. Speckled with ash, already hard in the cold. My hands balled in my mittens; I vowed not to cry.
Between the graves’ wandering rows opened a stretch of snow where no headstone stood. Without looking at me, Grandmother grunted. Cold-clumsy, I unstopped the whisky.
Grandmother poured it herself. When they were children, she’d told me, she and her brother went into the woods.
They’d never found his body, the village whispered. Eaten away, clean to the bone.
For a long time, Grandmother watched the whisky gleam copper on the snow. I shifted behind her, not daring to stamp my numb feet. But sudden as a bird taking flight, she spoke. “Promise me you will do nothing foolish tonight. Answer him once, and you are his.”
I kept my voice mild. “Yes, Grandmother.”
Pulling her fur hat low, she turned away. “This flesh is too old to feed the stag now.”
• • • •
It was snowing in the heights.
Unhurried, the Bone-Stag walked. Where the village lane ended, the trees fell away and the fields unfolded spotless white. In the gleaming expanse stood a single dark speck. A cottage, rude and low, brick chimney and windows of rippled glass.
Two hunched shapes struggled through the snow. The Bone-Stag watched, flurries eddying over his spine. His mouth opened; the wind sang through his teeth. And how his hunger cut deep.
• • • •
Flesh and wine.
We had little enough of either. The last oatcake and whisky flask remained in the deep pockets of Grandmother’s coat. She hadn’t offered them to me. Instead, she huddled by the fire while I flitted about the cottage, latching the windows and hanging the garlic. As I sliced bread and sausages for her supper, she stirred. “Leave that. My shoulders ache.”
Her bones jutted like knobs of wood, her skin whitened and flecked as though with frostbite. Hard strings of muscle met my tired fingers. My stomach pinched harder and I looked towards the table, but Grandmother snorted.
“Selfish girl. You’d eat while I suffer?”
Something tapped upon the roof.
I glanced upwards. Only for a moment, only a flicker of the eyes. Even so, Grandmother’s shoulders tensed under my hands all over again.
“It is a night for stories,” she said narrowly. “Sit, Liese. Rest your head in my lap. Let us while away the hours while the stag stalks the night.”
Smoky and cramped, the cottage closed around me like jaws. But I gathered my skirts, I took my place upon the floor, and I stared into the fire as Grandmother began:
• • • •
We were only children, then. Little brother and maiden sister. Harsh winters and cruel mothers; privation in the pantry and famine in the pits of our hearts. As children will do—when hungry enough—we stole away into the woods.
They enfolded us like a true mother’s arms. Scarce enough light reached us through the branches. They curved overhead like ribs; we might as well have been inside a beast.
Through branch and needle, we came across a river. You’ve seen them, Liese. Mountain rivers: voracious. Rushing down the peaks, slavering over their banks.
At my side, Mats whimpered for a drink. But in their roaring, such rivers nearly speak: Whoever drinks of me shall surely die.
I pleaded. I raged. Even then, I had a temper—quiet, Liese. Do not speak, do not lie. I hear them in the village. Weathered and withered, that cool, cruel crone. Fools, the lot. They have not starved like me.
The story wanders. Lay your head down again. There.
Mats whimpered, just like you. Then he knelt to the water and it carried him away.
• • • •
Another tap sounded on the roof. Feeling sick, I dared not move.
“Check the locks, Liese.”
The deadbolt bit my palm with cold. Outside the crackling flames and Grandmother’s heavy breath, the night lay silent. No prowling hooves, no creaking jaw. The hairs at my neck prickled anyway. Shivering, I cast about for a blanket, but it lay already folded in Grandmother’s lap.
“Are you settled, Grandmother? Shall I bid you goodnight?”
“Stay with me, while the Bone-Stag passes by. My story does not end with my brother in the river.”
• • • •
“Whoever drinks of me shall surely die,” thundered the waters. But Mats knelt and the river took him—
And spat him shivering upon the riverbank, drenched to the bone. I have never seen anything so delicate; he seemed carved of glass. Staggering upright, he trembled—alive. I sank to my knees and flung my arms around his neck. Soaked through, wide-eyed and snuffling—but alive.
He spoke no more as we continued through the woods.
The next stream was nothing more than a smear of mud. Every time I reached for Mats, he was there, plodding dutifully over the rain-bloated earth. Then through the dead leaves’ hush, a miraculous sight—
A cottage in the wood. Shutters broken like biscuits; a smokeless chimney.
What else to do, but walk trustingly, wearily up the path? What else could I have done, but push open the door, and lead my brother inside?
• • • •
Silence. Perhaps there was more. There usually was. I held myself small and still, a morsel easily forgotten. Grandmother’s wool blanket scratched my cheek, her cloying warmth tightened my throat.
Had I earned my supper? My head spun as I staggered upright. Best not to risk it. Perhaps the oatcake in her coat pocket—she would scarcely miss that.
But before I could stoke my courage, a shaft of moonlight fell through the curtains. My breath caught. When had they fallen open?
Beyond the window, the fields rolled away spotless and bracing.
The first step felt like betrayal. The second like defiance. The third like hunger.
And then I stood before the window, the holly leaves prickling my palms.
Moonlight gleamed on the snow. Far away, charcoal woods scratched against the white. I inhaled the winter’s breath, my lungs hurting deliciously.
Tap, tap, tap across the roof.
Tap, tap, tap down the walls.
Familiar black sockets gripped me like the bitter cold.
“Bring flesh and wine, my dearest.” His whispering voice fell softly, gently. I leaned forward, almost without realizing—
By the fire, Grandmother stirred. The blanket slithered from her lap. She peered over the chair’s back, her tortoise-mouth pinched.
My heart thudded. Had she seen the Bone-Stag? No—nothing swirled behind me but flurries. I opened my mouth, wanting to defend myself, but too many rebukes already rang in my ears.
With a crooked finger, Grandmother beckoned.
• • • •
What could I do, but lead my brother inside? The cottage held dust, a cobwebbed hearth, a narrow wood-framed bed. Over the fireplace hung a rusted pot; the rickety table groaned under mouse droppings. A hunter’s lodge, I told Mats. A hermitage.
He tilted his head, thoughtful.
For a time we lived well. With a broom of dried branches, I swept out the cottage and drove away the spiders. Mats found another stream—milder, ordinary—and at its banks I scrubbed out the pot every night. When the first snows fell, we curled into each other against the winter.
As the seasons rolled one after the next, our larder fattened. Walnuts and blueberries; dandelion greens and wild rosehips. Occasionally, a fish or rabbit for me, as Mats shied away.
I thought the warmth would last forever.
• • • •
Grandmother’s breathing deepened and slowed. This time, I waited only a beat before turning my head. The Bone-Stag watched at the window. He was the bite in the wind and the sting of the whirling snow; the crack of trees in the cold and the deepest point of this longest night.
“Flesh and wine for the starveling deer . . .”
I must keep silent.
“Dear one, I hunger.”
Not one answer.
“Poor Liese, do you famish too?”
Too late. His smile cut.
“Flesh and wine.”
“Good Gentleman Deer,” I said, my voice high as snowflakes flung by the wind. “We’ve nothing to your taste.”
“Surely not, good maiden so fair. Do let me in, and I may see.”
He hadn’t called me a child. My back straightened. “What manner of stag seeks flesh and wine? Is the woodland not bounty enough for you?”
“My flesh I lost, so long ago . . .”
“And the wine?”
His teeth flashed. “I enjoyed it once, when I was a boy . . .”
This is the trap of the Bone-Stag. Nonsense words, to lower your guard. Behind my back, I locked my fingers tight together.
“Would you care for a story, this long, bitter night?”
But—I hesitated. Enfolded in her chair, Grandmother mumbled thick and ponderous. The cottage walls pressed too close; the smoked air pressed on my chest. Through the glass, I smelled the snow’s cleanness. “You cannot come in,” I murmured.
He bowed, his antlers sweeping the white, white ground.
“As you wish,” he said, and began:
• • • •
When I was a boy, my sister brought me into the woods, for sorely we starved at home. Wet blew the autumn wind upon my face; the last yellowed leaves fell from the trees to die like hope in the mud.
Though I hungered, and bawled with tiredness, still more bitterly I thirsted. My tongue dried in my mouth like leather, and my eyes burned for lack of tears.
There was a river, winding through grey trees.
Whoever drinks of me shall surely die.
Though my sister shouted and snatched at my collar, I knelt before it. Frigid mountain water seared my throat in the drinking.
The water reached for me; it held me as our mother never had; it bore me lovingly away to its cold green depths. And when it released me again, I stood on four hooves, my hide spiked with the water’s chill.
• • • •
“Liar,” I said, the word cracking.
“You care not for my tale?”
“It isn’t true.” I pushed away from the window. The Bone-Stag stood silent as the year’s turning hinge. “It isn’t,” I repeated.
“Were you there, little maiden?”
My gaze drifted to Grandmother. When I turned back to the Stag, his empty sockets burned with cold. “Ask her,” he said. “If you dare.”
“So easily swallowed, little maiden.”
“It’s not that, I—”
The silence stretched between us, the Bone-Stag’s perfect stillness more contemptuous than any sneer.
“Fine.” Jaw clenched, I strode to Grandmother. Laying my hand upon her knee, I shook her gently. “Grandmother,” I whispered. “What happened next?”
For a long moment, I thought she would not answer. But then her gnarled fingers wrapped around my wrist, so sharp, so sudden I nearly screamed.
• • • •
He grew too thin.
After a meagre autumn, early snows blanketed the forest. Hunger curved under my heart like an extra rib. I could not sleep at night for the chill, not even with Mats pressed close beside me, his legs tucked beneath. Slowly, our bones began to show.
One morning, the wind froze to stopping. In silence, I woke to find him cold and still.
• • • •
Her nails bit deeper into my skin. “Is that story enough?”
I gulped and tugged, but her grasp only tightened. My wrist ached. “Please,” I said, “you’re hurting me.”
“He wouldn’t have lasted, no matter what I did.”
Over the moaning wind, the Bone-Stag spoke with winter’s voice. “And you called my story untrue.”
• • • •
On the bleakest winter night, my sister came to me with knife unsheathed and tears streaking her hollow cheeks.
“Only a little,” she said. “Only a bite.”
A sliver of flesh, carved from my haunch. I could not move for shock. She wept all the while she sliced and cut, but her quick clever knife sought me again and again.
My shanks went next, disrobed of their flesh. My ribs, she sucked clean one by one. The tough meat of my flanks, she dressed with wintergreen; she boiled my shoulders and roasted my rump. My twitching ears, she fried to crisps.
Venison, mere venison. The smell of her blood richened as she drank mine. Her tears dried; roses bloomed in her cheeks.
At the last, she cut out my heart. It stained her mouth to the chin.
My bones, she threw to the snow.
• • • •
“My sister, she cooked me; my sister, she ate me,” the Bone-Stag intoned. “Oxen in boxen and hooves on the rooves, bring flesh and wine for the starveling deer.”
Grandmother sat regal upon her chair. “Close the curtains, Liese.”
“My sister, she cooked me; my sister, she ate me.”
“He was so small,” Grandmother murmured. “So small.”
“Anything could have happened. One bitter cold night to freeze him solid; one long fever to carry him off; one wolf to strike on a moonless night.”
“He might have lived,” I whispered.
Grandmother’s eyes narrowed. “Close the curtains, Liese.”
“If you hadn’t—”
“The curtains, Liese.”
“Did my mother ever know?”
Ashen, Grandmother pushed herself upright. The shifting shadows caught her cheekbones too clearly; her eyes sparked with hunger. “It was only a deer,” she said.
And suddenly, I saw myself as she must—too small, too thin. Venison, mere venison, standing on two feet before her.
The first step felt like despair. The second like freezing.
But at the third step, I turned aside. The curtains shivered in the draught, and I walked straight past the window to the door. Though my fingers trembled on the lock, it yielded silently. A rush of winter air sliced the cottage open, honing me sharp and clean.
The Bone-Stag picked his way inside. The night smelled of smoke and blades, snowflakes clinging to his bones like diamonds. “Oxen in boxen and hooves on the rooves . . .”
“There is no feast here,” Grandmother snapped. “Our barrels are empty.”
“Bring flesh and wine . . .”
• • • •
You’ve never starved like me, Liese.
By morning, the snows had buried the little deer bones. Everything wiped away, everything wiped clean. Each year, I pour out my whisky upon his grave, and I have no regrets.
• • • •
When I was a boy, my sister brought me into the woods . . .
My bones, they were tossed; my bones, they were lost.
On the year’s longest night, when the shadow of the turning year lies deep upon the snow, they knit together again. Iced bone to iced bone, my poor ribs gleaming and bare sockets dreaming.
My sister’s shanks went first.
• • • •
Grabbing Grandmother’s coat, I fled into the midwinter night. Snapping bones and splitting flesh rang in my ears. When the wind finally swallowed them, I sank to my knees, my nose running and freezing, my eyelashes heavy with frost.
“And still the deer is starveling . . .”
His blowing voice chilled worse than the wind.
“My sister, I ate her, and the barrels were empty still.”
My cheeks stung with the night, a thousand needles.
“Dear Liese, what of you?”
Wiping my nose, I turned at last. The drifts lay undisturbed around his hooves. A faint reddish stain marred his naked snout. His jaws opened as though to sing—or howl—his teeth pointed and fine.
But then he sagged. “My sister, I ate her, and it filled me not at all.”
For a long time, we stared at each other. Snow had caught in his sockets; it glistened like tears. The wind sobbed through his ribs and joints. The brilliance of his bones lit the darkness, bright as the hills.
I could go anywhere I wanted, now.
“Flesh and wine,” the Stag said, dully, as though the drifts smothered his voice.
I thought. For a long time, I thought. The wind gusted again, and I thrust my hands in the coat’s pockets. My fingers brushed the oatcake, the flask. Instinctively, my grip tightened on both.
For so long, I had been so hungry. Eaten bit by bit, as surely as the stag.
Perhaps it was time we made our own feast. I pulled out the oatcake, unstopped the whisky. Warm now, the wind dying around us, I stepped towards the Bone-Stag.
The year balanced on its turning: holy, silent, still. For one moment, calmness. The moon’s pale light embraced us both; snow lay quiet upon snow.
I snapped the oatcake in two, offering half to him. After taking a spiced gulp, I held out the whisky. At last, the Stag ate. At last, he drank.
His flesh returned like springtime. Fur spread grassy across his flanks; rich brown eyes blossomed in the empty skull. In the midst of his ribs, a heart bloomed like a rose.
“Come away,” he said, with the richness of seeds taking root. “Come wander with me.”
We could go anywhere.
And so I climbed upon his back, his fur warm even through my leggings. Leaning forward, I twined my fingers in his thick ruff, whispered into the twitching ears. “As fast as you can.”
• • • •
Down in the village, they open their windows for us. They unbolt their doors as the spring breezes blow and bees hum across the meadows. Bluebells at the lintels and cakes upon the sills. The stag gallops like the unbound rivers: laughing, stepping lightly down the hills. His hooves sink deep in the softened earth. The snows are spent; wildflowers bend in his passing.
We feast, we are full.