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a lonely hunter

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The huntsman is kind to Snow White, in the forest. When she's too tired to pick any more flowers, he lets her lie down for a little while, lets her fall asleep. He's kind, she thinks, smiling sleepily up at the leaves; and she drifts off.

She wakes up screaming, already cut half open—and then there's nothing.




When she wakes up again, it's dark, and she feels strange. It's night and she's alone in the middle of the woods, lost; she looks up at the black sky, the ragged branches of the trees, but she's not afraid. She's not afraid, she doesn't start to weep. Everything seems thin and far away.

There's a castle, somewhere. She remembers that. A man and a woman, their faces—but they, too, seem far away, and she can't decide why they ought to matter.

Probably they don't, she thinks, and stands.


*


She walks a little way, and then a little way further, and as she walks, she becomes aware of a kind of gnawing dissatisfaction, growing stronger every moment. Something isn't right, she thinks. She's restless with it; she needs to—go somewhere, do something, find something. Something isn't right.

She keeps walking, because maybe that will help, and in the end it does. She climbs over a pair of downed trees and crosses a narrow brook, and there's a clearing; in the middle of the clearing is a little house, and there's light coming from the windows, the sound of voices, laughter.

The door is small, but so is Snow White. She knocks once, and the people inside the little house go quiet. She knocks again, and someone calls out: "Who's there?"

"Snow White," she says.

The door opens. Seven little men, none higher than her elbow, are crowded round the inside of the doorway, all of them staring at her.

"And what do you want, Snow White?" one of them says sourly.

"I want to come in," she says, and as she says it, it becomes the truth. Something isn't right; it's even clearer to her now, standing here, looking at the light spilling from the windows of the little house, the faces of the dwarves as they glance at one another. Something isn't right, and she needs to know what it is. She needs to understand it, and this is the closest she's come all day.

"I don't think we should—"

"What is she even doing in the woods—"

"I don't like the look of this—"

"She's hurt," the one with spectacles says, louder than the rest, and Snow White glances at him and then down at herself. There's a long clean tear like a cut in the bodice of her dress, just under the line of her ribs; funny she hadn't noticed it before. There's blood, too. Quite a bit. But she isn't bleeding.

"I don't think I am," she says.

The one with spectacles doesn't seem appeased. "You'd better let me look at that anyway," he says, and the rest of them mutter and grumble, but they move out of the way so she can go inside.




She's not hurt, not at all; the skin beneath her bodice is white and whole, unmarked. The dwarf looks at her sharply over his spectacles, and she looks back and wonders why.

The dwarves decide it's much too late at night to send her back out into the dark, and that's how it starts—that's why they let her stay.

It takes her a few days to notice, and a few more days to wonder. The trees seem taller, she thinks once, idly—darker, the bark strange and wet even though it hasn't rained. She looks at them the next day and tries to decide whether their branches have always been so crooked. She takes a walk, while the dwarves are gone, and crosses the narrow brook; the water looks different. It's faster, not so clear as it was, and when she cups some in her hand and drinks it, it tastes bitter. She drinks a little more.

The dwarves are gone a lot—they leave every day. She doesn't ask where they're going, and they don't tell her. They leave stew cooking over a banked fire, most days. One day, she touches the ladle, stirs absently, and that evening half the dwarves find maggots in their stew—they spit it out, grimacing, and throw their bowls out the window.


*


The night of the maggots, she hears them talking—shouting, really, which is what draws her attention.

"We have to!"

Six dwarves make urgent shushing sounds, but by then Snow White is listening.

"We have to," the same dwarf says again, much more quietly. "This is my home, too, but I'm telling you, we can't stay here anymore—"

"We all have to agree," says another dwarf—the spectacled one.

There are murmurs of assent: some immediate, some more reluctant, but it sounds as though all the dwarves do indeed agree.

Snow White listens long after they've gone quiet, and considers. Something isn't right, that hasn't changed; it's as though something's been moved when she wasn't looking, something's gone away or fallen just out of her reach. She's—she's lacking something, and the dwarves haven't brought it back to her but maybe they still could.

Except they can't if they leave her, she thinks.


*


There's rope among their things—they use it, take it with them when they leave in the mornings and bring it back with them in the evenings, and all of them have some. She gathers the ropes together, and once she's found all seven, the rest isn't hard at all. The door to their seven-bed bedroom has a latch but not a lock; and maybe they're tired or maybe they just don't hear her, but they sleep soundly through it all.

When they wake up, they're leashed. She's tied the knots as tightly as she knows how, spaced them widely enough so the dwarves won't strangle but narrowly enough that they can't pull the loops off over their little heads, and she's got the seven rope-ends wound securely round her wrist. They're confused at first, and then they start to shout at her—to shout, to plead—to weep, even, when she shows no signs of bending.

She sits on the floor and looks at them, and waits for them to stop.




They do stop, eventually. Some of them keep trying to talk to her for a few days; but now they're spending all day around her, and something's different about them, too. The next time she touches the stew, there's spiders, fat and bloated with drowning—and the dwarves hesitate, make faces at their bowls and at each other, but this time they don't stop eating.

They stop talking to her, in time; and then they stop talking to each other, too. The walls of the house turn damp, the sills of the little windows start to rot. Rats come and go as they please through the cracks, and beetles, and scorpions—the dwarves shoo them with harsh words, and then with snarls, and then start eating them instead. Snow White doesn't mind. It means she doesn't have to keep helping them make stew.

But then they start feeling far away, as far away and thin as everything else. Keeping the dwarves with her was supposed to help, but they're twisting up like the trees, like the brook: their teeth are turning sharp, their eyes flat and fire-yellow, and she doesn't think they could talk anymore even if they wanted to. She has them, and their house, and their clearing; but something is still missing. Something isn't right.


*


The dwarves aren't going to fix it, but maybe they could find her someone who can. She thinks about that for a day or two, watching them scrabble on the floor and fight over squirming beetles, and decides it's worth a try.

She takes them out into the woods. It's easy to tell, from out here, how much the little clearing has changed; out here the light is yellow, not red, and it smells more like trees and less like rot. It's a little hard to get used to.

The dwarves snap and snarl and tug at their leash-ropes, and she lets their tugging guide her steps for a while, until—yes, there it is. Surely that's a voice.

She stops, and makes the dwarves stop, too. They hear the voice and whine, high and reedy, until she shushes them.

A voice, and she can hear footsteps, too, now that she and the dwarves are still. A girl, Snow White thinks, calling out—a little shepherdess, searching in the woods for a lost sheep. She doesn't have her sheep, but maybe—just maybe—she does have what Snow White is looking for.

Snow White leans down. "Get her," she says to the dwarves. "Go and get her for me," and then she lets them loose.




The shepherdess does have what Snow White is looking for, as it turns out, except that the one she has doesn't fit. It takes a little while for Snow White to realize it, because it's close; but a little too snug, in the end, pinching up under her ribs on one side, pressing flat against her breastbone on the other. She leaves it there for a little longer just because it feels good to have the hole filled, to have that lacking go away. Then she pulls it back out and throws it to the dwarves.

When it's over, everything's just the same. The skin just under Snow White's ribs is pale and perfect, underneath the blood; and something is still missing.

But it's all right. That just means she has to keep looking.