Those that went beyond the Wall were punished, left in the Wood beyond it to rot. Sometimes, if a person was caught trying to climb over, they were hung on the other side by their ankles overnight. When they were pulled back up, if they were alive, they were indentured to the Mayor. Most of the time when the rope was hauled over, it was frayed and bloodstained and not even a corpse was left dangling from it.
Folk native to Last Rest or to the sliver of long-reaching land following the Wall’s course, were never caught tempting it. It was the travelers, thrill-seekers from the cities near the sea, farthest from the barrier. They thought the villagers funny, screwy, superstitious with their lamb’s blood smeared doors and hanging bone talismans and smoking bay laurels. Stiles overheard one woman, drooping from drink, insist that it was all a ruse and the entire town was behind it to sell trinkets and fill beds at the Inn. She said the Wall probably didn’t even stretch the entirety of the land and likely stopped somewhere in the woods beyond Last Rest’s borders.
Stiles wagered her four pennies she couldn’t find the end of it if she went looking and she took him up on it. She had returned to him as he scrubbed the floors, knuckles and wrists stained red with effort, and told him she wouldn’t pay it. Just because she hadn’t found the end of the Wall, didn’t mean there wasn’t one and he must have known it was farther away than any reasonable person would walk. She spat on him and stormed out of the tavern.
Sometimes travelers would ask why, if the people here believed so wholeheartedly that there was a great evil beyond the Wall, did they live so close to it at all? And Stiles’s father would always tell them that this is where he was born and this was where he would die, there’s fear between those two things no matter where you are and they would snicker when his back was turned.
The village was closed to outsiders, its great stone doors drawn shut, during the winter holidays. There were never many people to turn away in the colder seasons anyhow due to the mountain pass building up with snow. In October, on the last day of the year, Stiles would help his father snuff out the old fires and cleanse the house for winter. This had become his favorite day of the year, though he’d hated it as a child. The tavern was closed, the harvests brought in, no more sticky, spilled ale to scrub or beds to turn over or wheat to thresh. When they cleaned their home for the New Year he could take pride in what he did, could rest in a chair and breathe in the scent of freshly bundled pine boughs on the mantle and revel in the spotlessness of a well-kept kitchen and buffed window panes.
And when the cleaning was done he and his father would bundle up in thick scarves and wool long coats and go to the town square for a feast and lighting of the First Flame of the New Year. At the feast’s end, they would take some coals from the bonfire and bring them home to relight the hearths and talk about old times.
John liked to reminisce more and more as he got older. The cleansing of the house belonged to Stiles, but sitting by the new fire, he suspected, was where his father made peace with the passing of the year.
All able people were required to work shifts each month to bring offerings to the Wall. After the New Year, offerings were abundant and had to be with the approaching winter. Snow laid crisp on the ground already, cunning west winds making banners snap and twist, threatening to come loose from their keeps. Stiles gutted a pig with the butcher’s son in the early morning, he sleeves rolled up despite the bitter chill in the air. Blood spattered his apron and drenched his hands as he yanked out handfuls of organs. The heart would be mounted on the cornucopia of offerings, and the eyeballs and tongue and liver, the rest would be discarded, burned and buried.
There would be other things too, cheeses and caskets of beer, garlands of pine and holly, and cloth. No one ever volunteered to butcher the pigs with Daniel, they all cringed when the Headwoman called their names and eventually, Stiles started offering himself to the task on their behalf. They didn’t understand the point of the Giving and many of them no longer had the excuse of being too young. The offerings were a penance for safety, they should make a person cringe, toss their stomach, make them feel small and scared.
He used to get dizzy at the sight of blood and after five years of volunteering and running behind the woodshed to vomit, he was here, drenched in the dead pig’s still-warm blood and composed. He’d forced himself to learn from the Wall when the others wanted to help Elsie bake loaves of bread and nut cakes, rather than haul lumber and tar for the cornucopia.
“Slow down,” barked Danny, but his face was kind as he took a swig from his waterskin. Stiles felt his mouth thin, as it did whenever there was something polite he should have said. “Father’ll put me out if he sees how fast you can clean a pig.”
Stiles felt around the cavity, ran his fingers over the slick ribs. In the stark late autumn air, his skin and the pig’s was bluish and veined and dry. But not Danny’s, his family reduced balms for dry skin from the leftover fat of their livestock. He was young and dashing, even spattered in the swine’s blood, maybe more so because of it, as if he had fought a great battle and returned home with spoils like in the songs.
“You going to the church after?” Danny asked. If there was a person Stiles had to be friendly with, it was Daniel. He was kind, truly kind and patient. But Stiles didn’t care much for friends.
Stiles nodded in answer. With this new Offering, Last Rest would usher in the three-year reign of the Fox, ending the previous cycle of the Doe. The changing of the reigns this year would be somber and it showed on passing faces already. In the twelve-year cycle, the years of the Fox were the unluckiest. Fox was a beast of tricks and false promises. Harvests were never as vibrant as they were in the years of the Rabbit or Doe and the hunt was fouler than in the years of the Wolf. The mood of the village was dour as the time to haul to the cornucopia over the Wall drew nearer.
Some shut themselves up in their homes rather than attend service in the chapel during the time of the Fox and the Reverend did not punish them for it; he even refused to baptize children born under the Fox’s sign until they reached an age of four or five to be certain they were not changeling kits.
“Mother insists on it,” Danny sighed, cleaving hooves from the animal on his work table, “We’re the least safe she says, especially the little ones.” It was no secret that Danny’s mother had borne her husband six sons all in one time of the Rabbit or the next. She was a favorite of the Reverend and the new sheriff and all those people that mattered in Last Rest, a truly shining example of the Rabbit’s fertility and quickness, something all women should aspire to.
“I’d like to be married and out of that house,” Danny said, “I don’t mind working Father’s trade, but I can’t stand to hear another holy tirade. She’ll be at it the next three years. Every dinner, I swear it, will be ‘O Lord, make safe our burrow, protect our young’ and so on until I drown myself in God-damn Hava’s Pond. Fuck my ass, speak of the Devil and he shall appear, Mother!” he chirruped the last like a good, God-fearing boy.
Stiles didn’t turn but he could feel her approach, feel it in the tingling of his spine. She came between the two tables, skirts lifted in her hands to keep the hem from dragging in the crimson-muddy pools that had formed on the ground.
“Daniel,” she said sweetly, patting his cheek. She had hanging from her arm a woven basket filled with the last flowers of the season, marigolds and cabbage roses. “We will be hosting the mayor and his wife and some of their friends for dinner, go home and wash up. You won’t have time to change between then and the service.”
“There’s still a lot to do,” Danny told her, gesturing to the pigs still waiting to be split. Stiles kept his eyes on his task, knowing better than to watch the two of them. Mrs. Māhealani had had him whipped as a boy for dropping eaves and mouthing off to her when he had been caught.
“John’s boy won’t mind finishing up here. Now run on home.”
Danny shot him a mortified, apologetic look when it became clear his mother wouldn’t ask Stiles if he was busy or pay him any mind at all. Stiles gave him a minute shake of the head; it was a battle not worth fighting and one that Mrs. Māhealani would undoubtedly find a way to win. Danny packed up his knives, kissed his mother’s cheek and dashed off into the throng of bodies toiling away in their preparations.
“You’ll not cause mischief here, I trust,” Mrs. Māhealani said, without turning to face him. It wouldn’t do for a woman like her to be seen speaking to him directly.
Stiles licked his lips and said as neutrally as he could, “No Ma’am.”
“Good. If you finish your work and make yourself presentable for church, I’ll have a rack of lamb sent to your father.”
“Thank you, Ma’am,” he muttered and she continued on her way, brightening when she spotted a friend in the crowd and calling out jovially to them. He kept working, more aggressively than before and chewing on the inside of his cheek until it bled. The pig landed with an undignified thwack onto the pile of halved corpses already piled on the shallow wagon beside the table and Stiles swiped his arm across his brow.
Above him, the sky was cloudless, a bottomless vast blue and the sun beat harshly against his eyes. As he moved to Danny’s unfinished sow, his spine began to shiver again. It might have been the cold at first, his arms were already goose-pimpled where he’d sloppily pushed his sleeves past his elbows, but when it lingered, Stiles stopped what he was doing and touched his fingers to his nape.
He turned sharply and there were eyes in the crowd, watching calculatedly; eyes belonging to a man he did not know. He stared back if only because he knew everyone in the village and they knew him and there should not have been unfamiliar faces here, not now after the barring of the village gates.
The man stood with a few others, all of them alien to Stiles. He muttered something to another in his party and suddenly there were two sets of eyes watching through the crowd; sky-colored eyes. For a moment Stiles thought he was seeing visions no one else could because no one else seemed bothered enough by this intrusion to scowl at them until the Mayor appeared in his fine dark coat and took the weighty looks off of Stiles.
Stiles never stopped observing, though his hands went back to work, gently tugging and snipping and tossing away useless parts of the hog. The Mayor looked to be showing them the cornucopia, introducing them to Robert Martin’s team of builders and laughing heartily and Stiles was disgusted by it. There was a reason outsiders weren’t allowed during this time. They knew nothing of the Wall, of the importance of appeasing what lay beyond it. The Wall took away from those that disobeyed it; took away more than most knew they could lose.
Stiles ran home to scour the blood from his skin and bring his father supper. John was propped up reading in his bed, the candlelight having sunken into a puddle of sugary-smelling beeswax. Stiles laid the tray of stew he had left to simmer by the hearth that morning. Some of the carrots had gone mushy since he had had to drop them into the broth early knowing he wouldn’t have time to check back on it later in the day.
“This damn thing expects me to believe there’s cities on the coast all wired up with bulbs burning light all on their own. Mrs. Tover’s a gullible old fool if she thinks a lick of this is true.”
“Mayor Hubbard has electric lights,” Stiles pointed out, fluffing the pillow under John’s splinted leg.
“That’s one house,” his father snapped, throwing down the book. There weren’t many in town, and Stiles folded it neatly closed and placed in on the nightstand for that reason. It was the rare peddler that would bother to hike the narrow mountain trail loaded down with books to trade in Last Rest. Most of the farmers on the outskirts of the town couldn’t read beyond receipts of payment or debt anyhow. His father and their neighbors all swapped the few books they had, especially now that John was forced to bedrest until his leg mended.
“Where are you off to in your best shirt?” John asked skeptically.
“I’m getting a pint with Danny,” Stiles lied without pause.
“They serve pints in the chapel now?”
“After he’s done with the service.”
John caught his elbow, stopping him from fussing over the blankets. His hands were shaking without something to keep them busy.
“You don’t have to go just ‘cause they expect you to.”
“I’m going to get a drink,” Stiles said, keeping his voice firm.
“You been shaking like a leaf since this morning. Did you drink any of that tea the doctor gave you?”
“I had some, I have to go.”
John sighed and nodded and told him to be safe on the road at night.
Stiles watched them haul the vast offering slab, one as long as a tall man and twice as wide over the Wall. It was a splendid feast in the torchlight; the golden light bathing over the arrangement and flowers and garlands and the rich scent of incense wafting up from the burners mounted all along the rim. It grew shadowed by the time it reached the top until vanishing from sight.
The crowd mumble prayers, their hands clasped together under their whispers, but Stiles wouldn’t join them in this. Prayers were no better than screaming into a deep, dark chasm. The Reverend had told him when he was little that there was always someone to listen to prayers, be it God or angels or the Four. Crouched over his straw-stuffed mattress, his knees aching on the cold floor, he’d never felt surrounded by anything other than the walls of his bedroom.
His work butchering the hogs was his sacrifice to the Wall. The Wall didn’t ask for prayers, it asked for meat.
And as this thought, or farewell to part of the harvest, crossed his mind a horrible snap cracked in the chill night air and then a thud shook the ground. Blood drained from his chest at the sound, his eyes darting for the source of it. A woman cried out and when they came to understand as she did, more wails joined the first. One of the offering’s ropes had broken under the weight of it and all of it had come sliding down half over the village side of the wall, half over the Wood’s side. One of the pig halves grotesquely straddled the barrier, its eye-less face grinning back at them.
Several people threw themselves at the ground, sobbing, trying to gather up what was not completely smashed or soiled and others rushed to help the Wall Men right the swinging offering slab. Before they could rig the pullies to drag it back up the ropes began tearing, one after another until the slab was gone out of sight, having landed fully on the wrong side of the Wall.
Fear paralyzed Stiles and stole all of his breath and made his head whorl. He couldn’t snatch his eyes away from the pig on the wall, from its cruel smirk. He had done everything right, he’d cared for his father when his horse threw him, made dinners, brought whatever food was spare to the McCalls, gone to church every Sunday and precisely cleaned every slaughtered animal Mr. Māhealani had given him that day including the one mocking him now. He’d done as the Wall asked and yet – no, this was not the Wall’s doing.
It was Fox’s.
He lived subserviently to the village, to the Wall, but not to the Fox. The pig wasn’t smiling like a pig, it was Fox, grinning at him, reveling in his punishment, or that punishment that would soon be his. Before he could run away, run home, force himself get away from the others, a woman was upon him, her face tear-streaked and hands caked in dirt. Her palm cracked against his cheek hard enough to put him on the ground, and a sound came out of him, an animal sound of fear that made her eyes bulge with repulsion and she hit him again and again until his nose leaked a trail of blood.
“Please,” he begged her, his fear untying a tongue he’d obediently learned to keep in check, “Please, it’s not my fault,” he sobbed, but she was looking through him, he wasn’t real to her, just some thing, some curse delivered on the village. Fox was turning out lies from him even now, trying to protect its foothold in him. It made him sputter nonsense pleas of his innocence when they weren’t true.
“Have we not allowed you to live?” she screeched, snot running from her nose and tears making her eyes glossy in the low light, “Given you work? Given you to God for His blessing? And yet you curse us, you ruin us!”
People gathered around them but did nothing to stop her and briefly, Stiles saw Melissa McCall among them looking ashamed. He reached out to her, begged her for help, but she just watched him pityingly. She never wanted to believe he was evil when he was younger. He had overheard her put John and Claudia at ease, hiding on the stairs in his night clothes; she told them a child could never be corrupted, that he was a beautiful little boy, had such pretty eyes that would drive girls into a state when he was older.
That was a long time ago and the years since had polluted him in her mind and he stopped trying to cover his face with his arms when he saw that expression betrayed in her face.
“You are a demon!” cried the woman, breathing hard and finally collapsing backward to weep into her hands. He might have been crying as well, but he couldn’t tell from the red wetness making most of his battered face slick. Through the pounding in his skull, the core of his pain was not physical because no one could beat him harder than the Fox could. It had sprung up from the ground somewhere in that wretched Wood, beyond the Wall he tried so hard to appease and had bounded into Last Rest already waging a war of mischief.
Reverend Whittemore materialized from the angry whispers and tears of the mob. He looked down on Stiles’s bloodied face, his eye now swollen half closed, and a muscle in the Reverend’s cheek bounced. Anyone else thinking of raising a hand against him wouldn’t dare do so in the Reverend’s presence.
“Can you stand?” he asked coldly, his voice frozen as the ground.
Stiles nodded immediately without much thought to whether or not he could. Trembling and half-blinded, he got to his feet. His shirt was pinkish and muddied, its collar torn. If only he could sink into the soil and disappear. Every thread of him pulled tight to his body, avoiding the angry faces on all sides.
“Go to confession,” the Reverend ordered and again, a conditioned nodded bobbled his head and he hobbled away from them, holding down the want to sob.
He flung himself down into the first pew. The church was warmed and decorated for the service. Dominating the space, just below the solemn gaze of the Lamb and His cross, was a massive, roaring fireplace, one housing most of the New Year’s bonfire. It made his cuts sting with its billows of heat. He waited for the Reverend to fetch him, to bring him into the confessional for purging for a long time. The crackling, dancing flames, made him heavy, melted the snow in his hair and on his coat and he thought of the last time he had come to confess his sins.
Fox hadn’t allowed it, even during slumber, the creature had twisted his reality, made his thoughts strange even if he thought they were pure at the time. And it had contaminated the Reverend with its blight as well. Even though he was married, had sons, was a pious man of the Lord, he’d bent Stiles over his desk, fucked him like an animal would and he’d – he had wanted it more than anything.
No matter how much he had tried to think of Mrs. Whittemore, of the sins of adultery; Fox had taken over his senses and made him stupid. He remembered Whittemore’s heavy, rough hands on his hips, the ragged sound of his breathing and himself, mewling pushing back into the heat and pressure and pleasurable burn of it. And he remembered being hollowed out by what he had done, lying on his bed at home, alone and feeling nothing. No remorse and no warmth or affections.
And they never spoke of it again.
The empty feeling had him now and, exhausted, he dozed off in the pew, chin slumping to his chest.