Once upon a time a girl named Ysabeau lived with her mother and father in a small village nestled on the edge of a great, green forest. Her mother’s hair was the color of the sun, wound into a figure eight at back of her slender neck, and she sang as she worked in the cottage and the garden. Her father worked hard and came home late every day, but he always had a smile for Ysabeau and her mother. He called them his sun and moon, for his wife’s bright hair and his daughter’s silvery mane, waving and long down her back. He loved them very much, and for a time they were happy.
Working the coal aged her father quickly. Before too many years had passed his back became bowed, and his breath wheezed on its difficult path to his lungs. In the early days of his illness, asking him if he were all right or even appearing solicitous made him impatient. Later on (worse yet), it only made him sad.
Ysabeau fretted over how to help him regain his health. Being young, it never occurred to her that he might not. When she asked her mother what they could do for him, her eyes turned dark and sad. She stared out the window and answered only that there was nothing. The awful stillness in her mother’s face made Ysabeau’s heart clamp down hard and small in her chest, like a rabbit gone to ground.
The fear she felt that day came often enough afterwards that she recognized when it began to feel different. Instead of a cowering hare, Ysabeau likened it to a fist, curled white fingers wrapped tight around her heart. Binding, trapping her family to their fate.
The winter came on cold and hard, and her father grew worse, his coughing and hacking a constant thing in the mornings and evenings. Her mother became quiet. She stopped singing, and the cottage began to feel as if ghosts occupied it. The fist in Ysabeau’s chest clenched itself so tightly that she could feel nothing but the beating of her own heart counting down the days.
Ysabeau’s grandmother came to stay during Christmas. She bustled around the cottage, giving life to it again, cleaning and cooking and chattering, giving hugs that smelled like the warm spices of the gingerbread cookies she baked.
Somehow her father held his own after Christmas passed, and when spring came, he rallied. Ysabeau could see the gratitude in her mother’s eyes, and that she’d never expected him to be up and about again. Ysabeau was happy that her father was better, but she couldn’t believe in it. The beating of her bound heart reminded her always of the passing time.
Grandmother came down unexpectedly ill. “Likely a cold,” her mother assured Ysabeau while packing a basket with cake and wine. “Maybe the spring flowers making her sneeze.” She handed the basket to Ysabeau. “You know the woods are dangerous. Walk carefully and don’t stray from the path.” She wrapped Ysabeau’s red cloak around her, pulling the hood over her long white hair. Her grandmother had made it for her and given it to her for Christmas, and she cherished it.
Ysabeau sighed. “It’s spring, Mother.” But her mother insisted, as the wind was blowing briskly.
The path to Grandmother’s led up the side of the mountain. The trees wore fresh green leaves, and below on the ground grew blue thistle and purple iris, pink orchids and buttercups. The flowers nodded, and her beautiful red hood flew off her head so that her hair tangled in the wind.
“Where are you going, girl?” came a voice off the trail, startling Ysabeau. She nearly dropped her basket.
“Who would like to know?” she asked, peering off into the gloom of the trees. A young man stepped out from behind them, laughing.
“I’m Césaire. I live in these woods.” He stepped closer, still smiling. He was tall and slim, chestnut-colored hair falling nearly to his shoulders. He wore a few days growth of beard, which gave him a bit of a rakish look but did nothing to hide the kindness in his brown eyes.
“I think I’d know you by now if so,” Ysabeau said, frowning a little.
“You’d be surprised how well I hide when I don’t want to be found,” he said. The sun caught a bit of reddish beard on his cheek, turning it to gold. “Would you like some company?”
“Why would you hide if you’ve done nothing wrong?” Ysabeau answered.
“I don’t know anyone, so I can’t have gotten myself in trouble. I promise I haven’t.” He spread his arms and stepped back, waiting, but Ysabeau said nothing. He looked crestfallen. “Shall I leave you alone, then?”
“You can walk where you will, Césaire,” she said, and started up the trail.
“Where I will is with you, then,” he answered behind her, and tugged a lock of her hair so that she stopped on the path. He promptly walked into her back, jostling her basket, so that she sighed in exasperation.
But really, just for a moment, she forgot everything else and instead felt the warmth of Césaire’s hand curling around her waist as he righted himself. She knew he shouldn’t be touching her as if he’d always known her. She just didn’t care.
Grandmother was getting better. Ysabeau walked the trail up the mountain deep into the forest to see her, every day at first, and then every other day as her grandmother’s health improved. Always, Césaire walked with her. He told her he’d lived in the forest all his life, and when she asked where, he only smiled and shrugged. He picked flowers and put them in her hair, made jokes and sang ridiculous songs to her.
On the third day, Césaire stopped on the path as they walked. He leaned over, lowering his face to hers, and clasped her arm beneath the cloak, a little unsure. His eyes were still kind, so she let him kiss her. His lips were hesitant, like the hand on her arm had been, so she kissed him back, mouths sliding together, slow and hot, listening to the sounds of their breath mixing. His nose brushed over her face. She pulled back and opened her eyes. His skin was flushed, and his chest rose and fell. His hand went around her waist again, and she moved closer without thinking.
Only the first drops of rain from an overcast sky brought her to awareness again.
Grandmother insisted on getting out of bed the next day. Ysabeau remembered bouncing and rolling about on the soft, thick mattress when she was younger. The bedposts at each corner were made of dark wood larger than her arm.
“There’s a young man who walks with you. Who is he?” Grandmother stood in front of the window, only a black shape against the light. “Where did you meet him?”
“In the woods.” Ysabeau shuffled her foot against the wooden floor.
“How long have you known him?”
“Not long. Since you’ve been ill. His name is Césaire.” Ysabeau joined her at the window. Looking at Grandmother while she spoke and seeing only a featureless shadow made her uneasy.
“Césaire,” Grandmother mused. “Odd, I’ve never heard of him. I know everyone in these parts.” In the light of the window, the wrinkles in her face were both deeper than Ysabeau had ever noticed and somehow more delicate, a fine webbing that spread over her cheeks and around her eyes. “His last name?”
“I haven’t asked.” Ysabeau looked outside. The porch led to a small grassy clearing before giving way to the forest. Somewhere out there, hidden in the trees, Césaire waited.
“What are his intentions? Do your parents know of him?”
Ysabeau ducked her head. “I don’t know, Grandmother. He walks with me when I come to see you. We’re friends.”
Grandmother smiled unexpectedly, long lines creasing her soft cheeks as she did. “I’m sure that’s all it is. Friends.” She laughed aloud as Ysabeau’s face went crimson. It made her sleep cap shake. “I was young once, Ysabeau. Walk with your young man, but have him meet your mother and father today when you go home. They’ll find out who he is.”
Ysabeau nodded and stepped away from the window. She picked up her empty basket, trying not to appear as if she rushed. Kissing her grandmother on the cheek, she opened the door to the cottage and fled down the steps, following the trail into the woods.
Finally she slowed, breathing deep. A woodpecker knocked on a tree trunk somewhere above. Mushrooms clumped together at the foot of the trees, sprung up from the rains.
“How’s your grandmother today?” came Césaire’s voice behind her. She didn’t answer. “Ysabeau? Is something wrong?”
“She asked about you.”
“She did?” Césaire’s voice was low.
“I couldn’t tell her anything because I don’t know anything.”
“Nothing much to tell. You know the important things.” Césaire’s touched his hand to her waist. “You know I’m a fool and a joker. You know I—I have feelings for you.” He touched her chin to get her to look at him, brown eyes pleading with hers.
She couldn’t think when he looked at her like that. She looked away. Her gaze fell upon a cluster of mushrooms, their caps red, spotted white. “Those are poisonous.” Finally she looked back at Césaire. “I do know. And I know you keep secrets. Do you think I’m simpleminded?”
They’re not,” Césaire replied. He bent and pulled a clump of them up, brushing soil from the bottom of the stems. “Poisonous, I mean. Though they’ll make you sick if you eat lots.”
“What are you doing?” Ysabeau grabbed his arm, but it was too late. He’d put the whole mushroom in his mouth. “Césaire! My father told me never to eat those!”
Césaire chewed and swallowed, grinning at her. “I bet your father told you lots of things you shouldn’t do. Like talking to strangers in the woods, for one.” He popped another mushroom in his mouth, then held one out for Ysabeau.
She shook her head, tightening her lips.
“We’ll wait then.” He leaned against the tree trunk and grinned again up at the sky. “See if I die.”
“Don’t say that!”
“I’ll be all right,” he said softly. “Trust me.”
Ysabeau strode to the tree. She bent over, tore more mushrooms from the earth and stuffed two in her mouth at once. Césaire grabbed her arm as if to stop her, then began to laugh. He sagged against the tree.
Ysabeau swallowed, grimacing. She coughed and cleared her throat. Césaire laughed harder, pounding the flat of his palm against the tree trunk. Ysabeau slapped him smartly on the belly. Cesare made a protesting noise and wiped his eyes. She picked another and chewed slowly this time, considering the taste.
Césaire still couldn’t speak, but he raised a brow at her.
“I think I am a simpleton.”
Césaire stopped laughing. He pulled her to him, then turned her back to the tree trunk. “You could never be.” His warm eyes were soft and unfocused, his eyelids heavy over them.
She reached up and kissed him, opening her mouth against his and pulling him close. He stifled a groan and opened to her, crushing her body against the tree trunk. She explored his mouth with her own, brushing over tongue and teeth. Her hands came up to his cheeks, feeling the rough, ever-present stubble, and she rubbed her fingertips back and forth over it, prickling her skin. She ran her hands beneath his hair at the nape of his neck and he shuddered, thrusting his groin against her. Immediately he pulled away, his mouth swollen and flushed, his eyes desperate. Her insides clenched, a slow roll.
“You’ve poisoned me after all,” she whispered, and he smiled suddenly, delighted.
He pressed his mouth to her ear. “That isn’t quite what I would call it.”
Ysabeau pushed him, so that he fell back a few steps. She sank to the ground, looking all around. The tree leaves were suddenly so green, veined and fresh. She smelled them, their sharp tang, and the sap that oozed from the trunk behind her. When a crow flew from a branch overhead, his wings shimmered in rainbow colors.
“Did you see that?” Ysabeau said, full of awe.
Césaire sat beside her. “I can’t see anything but you.”
She leaned over and kissed him until she couldn’t breathe and her stomach was tight with need. His mouth on hers grew rougher, and he rolled her over beneath him. She opened her eyes.
Césaire held himself on both hands over her, panting. His eyes were bright fire, full of hunger, and when he smiled his teeth were sharp and too white. She couldn’t look away.
Suddenly he reared back on his knees, grabbing the bottom of his coarse shirt and pulling it over his head, flinging it to the ground. His chest was pale, nipples dark against his skin. He was beautiful.
“Can I—can we—?” he asked, then stopped. The need in his eyes flared into wildness. He held himself still, as if to keep it from breaking out in the open. She nodded, not speaking.
He helped her disrobe. To Ysabeau, it happened in flashes, one upon the other, bright and blurred, but none so fast she couldn’t keep up. Césaire’s red mouth on her breasts, his strong hands on her skin. Sometimes she looked into his eyes and saw the wildness again; feral, burning, endless heat. Something he held apart from her. He was afraid of it.
Then his mouth was on her stomach, licking a wet trail. His fingers parted her wet, bare skin, and he touched his tongue to her. Her hips thrust up, off the ground. He petted her thigh. For a moment she thought she saw two of him. It didn’t matter.
“Please,” she said, gasping, reaching for him. He buried his face in her, tasting her slick folds. Her back lifted off the ground of its own accord, pushing closer. She grabbed his head, pulling strands of soft hair between her fingers. He grunted but didn’t look up. His hand found her hip bone and rubbed it soothingly.
The branches above her dipped and swayed as if stretching toward them, and the birds in the trees sang with too-high voices. She cried out, little noises that seemed to echo in her ears, and squeezed her eyes shut for a moment.
When she opened her eyes, a wolf’s head was between her legs. She moved her head and the dark outline of it blurred and glowed. It grinned at her and dipped low, long pink tongue swiping slowly. She made a short, quivering sound, bitten off when the wolf stopped and looked at her, growling, eyes like dark red flame. She froze, and its head lowered again, licking.
His tongue slipped inside her. He fucked her with it, long rough jabs of heat and muscle, curling and lapping. The feeling built inside her until every nerve tingled and her breath shuddered in her chest, breaking her open. The wolf whined. Her thigh jerked beneath its paw, holding her to the ground.
At last she opened her eyes, afraid and not at all, both at the same time. She didn’t know who (what) she’d see.
It was Césaire. Whatever it was he saw in her face, it wasn’t enough, or maybe too much. More than he could stand to see. His face paled. He rose and dressed in silence. His hands shook.
“I’m sorry,” he said. The forest shimmered all around him.
She had no idea how to answer, or what to say. She couldn’t make her mouth move.
He leaned over and kissed her one last time as if he couldn’t help himself. She raised a hand and smoothed it over the curve of his bicep. Then he was gone.
Ysabeau stayed at home for a week, afterwards. Grandmother had been much better during the last visit, and she knew she’d only have to answer more questions the next time she went to see her.
All around the flowers were blooming, the grasses growing. The sky was blue and clear, and the air moved over the earth like a caress. Inside the cottage, her father was failing again. His breath rattled loose in his lungs, and his cough was weak but constant.
Ysabeau’s heart had known, even after he had seemed to get better. She thought her mother had known, as well.
After six days of nothing but the sounds of her father’s illness, her mother insisted that Ysabeau go to check on her grandmother again. Ysabeau still managed to put it off another day before her conscience bothered her so much she couldn’t any more. She helped feed her father thin soup after lunch, then rose from the table to leave.
Mother told her to put her hood on again, but this time Ysabeau ignored her, though the clouds outside were gathering. It didn’t matter. The cloak wouldn’t stop the rain from soaking through her clothes.
The forest was green to bursting, birdsong trilling from the trees. The leaves rattled in the wind. Ysabeau remembered the birds that sang over them, that last time with Césaire. She remembered they’d sounded too high, too shrill.
Césaire didn’t appear. He was gone as if he’d never been.
The clouds grew heavy and rain broke from the sky, wetting her dress through. Though she shivered, she didn’t feel the cold. Even the trees drooped beneath the deluge.
The trip seemed to take too long, and her legs were tired by the time she arrived at her grandmother’s cottage. It was hard to see clearly. Ysabeau climbed onto the porch and knocked, but there was no answer. All around her she heard only the patter of the rain. She opened the door, shivering again as it creaked.
The air smelled stale, something rotten beneath. Grandmother’s crocheted throw on the couch was crooked, and she straightened it. She walked across the floor toward Grandmother’s bedroom, dripping.
Blood smeared the wooden floors just outside the door. Ysabeau ran inside, her heart hammering, breath fast and tight in her lungs. Her grandmother hung half off the bed as if she’d been clutching at it. Her stomach was torn open, her throat a gaping red wound.
Ysabeau screamed and sank onto the bed beside her grandmother. She clutched her to her chest and rocked. She sobbed, heartbroken.
It was almost dark when she came to herself again. Her eyes burned and itched. She stood, tugging her grandmother so that she rested fully on her bed again. The big blue and white quilt was crumpled at the foot, and Ysabeau pulled it up over her. She kissed her on the cheek one last time. Grandmother’s face was slack. No longer her grandmother at all.
She left as if in a trance, forgetting to close the door behind her.
The rain had stopped. The stars were out overhead, the woods a dark, smeared unreality as she walked the path home. She wasn’t afraid. Someone followed her, but she knew who he was. She was almost home when his hand wrapped around her arm.
She stopped. If she faced him, she might never turn away.
“Everyone dies, don’t they, Césaire?” It was as if someone else had spoken the words. She turned, her arms black with her grandmother’s blood. “Or leaves. You can’t stop them.”
“You left me,” he said, his face white and hopeless.
“I hadn’t. You never gave me the chance.”
“She would have told your parents,” he said, his face changing. His eyes burned in the dark.
“Did you do this? Did you hurt my grandmother?”
“No,” he said, looking her clear-eyed. “No. I would never. Maybe the wolf did.”
Her own voice sounded to her as if it came from somewhere far away. “Where is the wolf now? Will he hurt me?”
“Don’t you know?” he asked as if his heart was near breaking.
Ysabeau sighed. “Everyone knows that wolves aren’t safe.” She looked up. The trees were thicker here, but stars still peeked through them. She tapped her chest. “It counts down the days.” He looked at her strangely, so she persisted. “Every beat tells me my grandmother is gone. Each is another step my father takes away from Mother and I.”
Césaire nodded sadly. “Is it all for them? Could it beat for someone else?” His hair looked near black in the darkness. Ysabeau didn’t answer. “What can I do to have you answer me? I’m begging you.”
Ysabeau looked at him a long time. “Nothing,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do.” But she remembered her mother saying the same to her, and her hand gripped his in the dark.
She stood and listened to the beating of her heart as it spoke to her. The bonds were there, but the beating was still hers. All for her. And Césaire.
These were the things she remembered later – the word nothing, and her mother’s suffering eyes. Her father’s black-rimmed nails, coal dust everywhere, and the sounds of his struggling breaths.
Deep in the woods, Ysabeau lay with Césaire. She closed her eyes while he fucked into her, and smiled when she felt his teeth at her throat.