The river began far up in the mountains. Water was pushed from deep in the ground into springs and streams by ancient geological forces. It cascaded down in waterfalls into the valley tucked into the great, jutting rocks. Thousands of years of torrential abuse had carved a deep river that bisected the land. It fell from high up in the ranges and clawed at the hard land, tearing furrows into the rocks and dirt. Time passed and earth shifted to accommodate angry torrents marching towards the ocean thousands of miles away. Against this river, which no-one had named, at the foot of the mountain range, a small cabin had been erected in defiance of nature. A vast canopy of trees hid the valley from prying eyes. The woods were thick as tar, as just as easily traversed.
Travelling to this place was a chore. The only way in was down an old dirt road in disrepair that snaked past the valley and ran scared from the mountains. Raw material for the cabin had been dropped off as far as the trucks would allow and were pulled manually to where they were installed. The cabin had been built by one man, Alexi, as a gift to his wife. They had always dreamed of retiring away from the city - this was as far away from the city as it was possible to get these days.
He had started it while he was still young and full of vigour. It had taken years of weekends away to drag the huge logs up the river bank. Some days it would rain so hard that the ground beneath him turned to slush and ate his feet as he worked at hauling lumber and erecting scaffolds. In the summer months, animals could be found scavenging at the supplies he had brought with him. Most often, squirrels and shrews would chew into the supplies of bread and grain he had brought along. Occasionally a deer would be caught nosing around alien smells of the industrial world in his bags before scuttling away into the brush when it was discovered. Alexi had once had a run-in with a bear, which he left to its own devices as it tossed cans of food aside to find some dried fish he kept in his belongings. It had torn open his water-bladder when it left, forcing Alexi to drink from the murky river water.
Construction was finished in the middle of a hard, dark winter. The tilt of the Earth cut the days short; Alexi could only work for a few hours each day before the sun dipped below the mountains submerging him in still darkness. Most nights clouds gathered over the range, obscuring the moon and stars. But on the rare clear nights, the sky would dance with myriad dazzling points and the moon was bright enough to read by. Working in the winter was unforgiving. Temperatures would frequently drop below freezing and Alexi's fingers burned purple as he sawed and hammered his home together.
The cabin was modest; it had only one room. More impressive structures had been built by a single person, but Alexi was not an architect or engineer. He was proud of his work. The room was cosy; the ceiling barely cleared Alexi's head (he was not a tall man), and it was spacious enough to fit a small dining table with two chairs, their double bed, and a wood-burning stove. The fireplace was Alexi's crowning achievement. He had taught himself the proper method of laying bricks and mixing cement. Carefully balanced on thin scaffold beams, he piled heat-proof blocks, slathering each layer with sticky cement in the months where the warm air would dry everything in place. He had taken special care when building the fireplace. When comparing it to the almost haphazard nature of the rest of the house, you would be forgiven for thinking that it had been stolen from some other, grander place and the rest of the cabin built around it. Nothing had any finishing touches: the wood was all raw and splinters were common. There were places in the floorboards where the wood had not been joined evenly, leaving drafty gaps beneath the house. When the wind blew, it whistled through spaces in the wall. Sometimes, when he lay there alone, Alexi could pick out tunes that nature tried to mimic. During those long, lonely days, the wind was his only conversation. It was his therapist and confidant.
It was completed two years - to the day - before his and his wife's retirement. Once it was done, it was ignored until the day the couple moved in, dusting off the old cobwebs and chasing away vagrant rodents, eager to fill the space with new memories.
While her husband worked, tucked away in the woods under the obscuring canopy of trees, Nina minded their small flat. Their block of apartments was as ugly as any other in the city. It towered high above the paved ground below. The view from the solitary window inside pointed to lifeless shades of brown and grey of the adjacent flat-block. Had she been able to see over the city, her view wouldn't have been any better. A constant, bitter smog had enveloped the city for as long as she could remember. Aging machines driven by tired workers pumped plumes of smoke into the sky. With age she developed a wet cough that would rattle her awake at night, her lungs rumbling like an engine.
The apartment was stoic and uncomfortable. Most of the furniture within had been inherited from friends who had moved away or relatives who had died. Other than the grimy window in the kitchen, the only sources of light were strips of fluorescent light fixed to the vaulted ceiling. The lights buzzed when the gasses inside illuminated from industrial voltage. Because the fluorescents gave her a headache, when she was alone, Nina often sat in darkness once the sun had set. She would sit and gaze out of the window, willing that the tower obstructing her view would crumble; or she would listen to her neighbours above and below her. The flats on either side of hers stood vacant, they had been for as long as she'd lived there, which was longer than she could remember. No-one ever seemed to move in or out of the building, faces simply morphed. Sometimes they were young, sometimes they were old and withered like she was, but they all shared the same baggy eyes and half-present gait.
The room above hers had a single occupant: a gravestone carver. At all hours of the day he could be heard dragging hunks of granite and marble to his workbench where he would carve the names of the deceased into rock. Nina had surely seen his work whenever she had passed a cemetery, though she would have been hard pressed to identify exactly which stones were his. As he worked, Nina could hear chips and stones fall onto the floor. They sounded like birds scratching at her roof, or rats scuttling through the gutters. She remembered thinking that there was a strange artistry to his work, how the neat lines surrounded perfectly texted letters of the names of the dead. Nina doubted that the people beneath had died in such an orderly, pretty manner.
The room below her housed a young family. Nina would cup her ears to the floor when she felt the door to the apartment below close. From what she could make out through the flimsy floorboards, the parents often argued about money. Their child, still an infant, would scream, uninterrupted, ignored by everyone but Nina, for hours on end. Nina had never met any of her fellow tenants; if she had passed them in the halls she wouldn't have known that they were her fellows. Other than the doorman who she greeted daily on her way to work, the faces in her building were completely interchangeable.
She worked in an office where few people knew her name - she doubted anyone would even notice when she had gone. It was a short walk across town from her home to the offices. It took her longer to descend the hundreds of stairs each morning to leave her apartment block than it did to walk from her block to the office. The company she worked for shipped large amounts of fertilizer to-and-from farms all across the country. She knew nothing about farming or fertilizer.
When she was younger, Nina had been enthusiastically athletic. In school, she had volunteered for any sports that allowed girls, which were few. With age she had withered away to a shadow of herself. Arthritis had come to her early, she felt the first aches in her joints shortly after she turned fifty. She was convinced that it was her mother's fault; or the fault of her poor genes. Each day it seemed to get more tiresome to climb the stairs to her flat. She was eagerly awaiting the day that her house would be firmly planted on the ground. Nina had found herself waking up earlier every morning to make up for her slowing movement.
On her last day of work, Nina made her way down the stairs to the street as gingerly as ever. It was a bitterly cold winter day which exacerbated the pain in her joints. Alexi was staying inside, double- and triple-checking that everything was properly packed for their journey into the mountains. Whatever they were going to take with them had to fit into the solitary suitcase they had in their possession. The furniture would have to stay behind, but they had what they would need at the cabin.
Nina nodded at the doorman as she passed him without response. He appeared to be asleep. Nina couldn't blame him for that: the streets outside were still dark. The sun was illuminating some other, luckier part of the globe. By the time she had finished her last shift, it would have come and gone without her. She pulled her jacket tight across her chest to brace against the cold and trotted as fast as she could, taking special care not to slip on the icy pavement.
The only other activity on the street came from truck drivers transporting wares, and fishmongers packing out their shops. They paid her no mind as she made her way down the road. Between trying to escape the frosty wind and avoiding pitfalls in the uneven paving, her journey was laborious. She lumbered down the cobbled streets like an injured deer toward her last day of employment.
She arrived at the doors to her office and made her way inside after struggling in the cold with the keys. She switched on the lights and started the old oil radiators. They always took far too long to warm up. It would be a good few hours before her breath would stop misting in the air.
The day carried on like any other. As she suspected, there was no fanfare over her departure. Nina tried to convince herself that she preferred it that way. The last, lonely hours of her employment dragged on slower than any other she could remember. The last twenty minutes were uniquely tortuous, staring at the clock, willing it to skip straight ahead to 6 o'clock. Despite her best efforts, maybe even because of them, it crawled from second to second. Eventually, finally, the clock struck and Nina stood from her desk. She followed the same procedure she had that morning in reverse. She locked the door behind her and tossed the keys deftly through an open window to one of the bathrooms.
By the time she had made her way back to her flat, she felt like her knees were going to explode. She reached out to knock at the door before catching herself. She returned her hand to her coat pocket and called for her husband. There was muffled scuttling on the other side of the door before it opened.
"You're home." Alexi's voice was raspy, like a chain-smoker's. He stood aside, allowing his wife to enter. A tattered tan suitcase lay on the bed behind him. Nina took note of the piles of dust on the floor. Surely they had drifted through the ceiling from the room above.
The couple's last night in the city was unusually quiet. Aside from the occasional squeak from the child downstairs, there was little to interrupt their sleep. In the morning, they shared a meagre breakfast of cheese and stale bread.
"Did you remember my jewellery box?" Nina asked as she dusted crumbs from the table into her palm. Alexi pushed himself upwards and scratched under their bed. He turned and presented the box to his wife. It was no bigger than a baby bird, stained ruby red. The thin silver filigree on its edges made the box, if not its contents, the most valuable thing the couple owned. Nina snatched it from her husband's fingers and held it to her chest. She slipped it into the brown paper bag that had stored their bread and stowed it away in her old coat. You could never be too careful these days.
Their rickety bus arrived before the sun had made its way above the horizon. Blue paint peeled off and exposed the raw, rusty metal beneath. No doubt the corrosive fumes that blanketed the city had eaten away at the cheap paint. Passengers inside determinedly gazed out of the windows as Nina and Alexi made their way to their seats at the back of the bus. Cursing and swearing followed them like a wake as they battered the other travellers with their heavy luggage. Sitting down, the couple noted how thin and uncomfortable the seats were. Every dip and bump in the road bounced passengers and cargo around the caboose. The further they got from the city, the worse the roads got. One of the passengers - a man with a cane and a dog - muttered in a language Nina hadn't heard before. She wasn't sure if he was talking to the dog or the bus driver, but he was clearly unhappy about something. The roster of passengers changed as they arrived at various stations, but their countenances remained the same. Everyone stared blankly, at the landscape that rolled past them. For hours they saw nothing but grey concrete columns interspersed with barren farmland. The land was so featureless they may as well have been driving across the surface of the moon.
By the time they turned onto the dirt road that led to the valley, Nina and Alexi made up half of the remaining passengers. The sun had begun its descent, there would only be a few more hours of light. Alexi stumbled his way up the aisle of the wobbling bus to the driver, and directed him to stop at the bridge where the road crossed the river. It took some explaining to get his message across; no-one had asked to stop there before. Nina checked her pockets. The driver grumbled something about his schedule when the couple departed. Nina took longer than she would have liked navigating the stairs off of the bus.
Thanks to the frigid weather, the ground on the banks of the river were hard. Alexi shuddered to think of what a nightmare it would have been to make the trek from the road in the rain. He slung the suitcase over his shoulder and carried it onward like a sherpa. Nina doubled up her long socks and tucked them into the tips of her shoes to protect her toes from the cold. Holes in her heels permitted entry to frozen earth that melted into a slurry. Within minutes, she could feel the bones in her feet contracting in pain. She sensed the beginnings of a migraine. After several stops to rest against the trees, they made it to their destination. The sun had set in earnest and the valley was illuminated by the light of the stars. The only beneficial aspect of the winter cold was that the skies were more often clear.
Alexi lit a fire in the hearth and expelled the layers of frost that clung to the walls like pitch. While her husband worked at the fire and cleaned away the dust that had settled in the years since the cabin had been occupied, Nina emptied what few belongings they had from the tattered suitcase. Their clothes were packed into an open shelf where moths could get to them. Nina removed her jewellery box from the paper bag and placed it back into the empty suitcase which she zipped up and placed at the top of their only shelf.
The couple collapsed into bed without dinner; they were too tired to be hungry. In the morning they would have to sate their appetites on a can of vegetables. Drained from a long day's travel and the taxes of age, they enjoyed a deeper sleep than either had experienced in decades.
The first days at the cabin by the river passed mostly without incident. Alexi worked setting up nets in the river to dredge out fish trying to escape further down current. He had taken measures to educate himself on the fundamentals of hunting and trapping in anticipation of their move, but no amount of books and studying would prepare him for real-life application of the practice.
Nina often wandered through the forest foraging for food; lifting rocks and dispersing rotting clumps of leaves searching for what few berries and nuts hadn't already been hidden away by smaller creatures.
The trees made Nina feel safe. Next to their towering height, she felt like a child. She hoped to one day become one of these great trees. The chemicals that made her up - her fuel - would be leached into the ground and she would be fed on by worms and plants. She would become a tree, or a bird, or a rock, and grow and shrink and live a thousand times. Each life would be more satisfying than the one she had now - or the one she had had until now. Rocks never felt guilty; no trees had regrets. But she was not a tree, Nina had to remind herself. She was herself and her feet hurt and her belly growled and her head was full of treacherous memories. The further she delved into the forest, the more distance she put between herself and her cabin, the more these thoughts encroached on her.
There were many days when Alexi's nets remained empty. On these days the couple would go hungry, or they would have to survive on what little Nina had managed to scavenge out of the woods. She gathered pinecones in the folds of her dress and hauled them home like they were great treasures. The few pine nuts hidden in the creases of the cones were often stolen by the woods' other inhabitants before Nina was able to pluck them from the ground. The couple would sit and comb through heaps of pinecones, sucking out the precious nuts between their teeth with a hissing sound like a vent of steam.
On a hungry, desperate night when the couple's stomachs growled like monsters, Nina said to her husband: "We have to find more food, Alexi. We cannot survive on nothing but pine nuts and fish bones."
Alexi eyed her cautiously. He spat out pinecone splinters onto the table before him. "When this winter ends, when the animals come out to graze, we'll have more to eat," he said.
"We won't survive this winter if we don't find more food."
"Well, what choice do we have but to wait?" Alexi tried to educate his wife. She was hungry, he knew that; surely her hunger was behind her rash behaviour.
"That's all you ever do: you wait," she snapped. "You'll wait for seasons to change while we freeze with our bellies empty."
Alexi threw his cone onto the floor where it bounced around unevenly. He had finished picking through it, but he enjoyed the affected air it gave him to appear to discard such a hearty meal. "Did I wait for you while I built this place? Was I waiting while I stood in the mud up to my knees and sawed lumber and nailed boards and worked for you until I bled from my fingertips? I took charge. If it wasn't for me this place, our dream, your dream, would be nothing more than that. A dream." He kicked his chair out behind him and made to leave the cabin.
"Where are you going?" Nina asked him.
"I'm going to check the nets."
"It's too dark. You won't be able to see anything."
"I'll use my hands and feel for them."
The nets were never bountiful. They rarely caught anything. The few fish Alexi was able to pull from the river were no bigger than slugs. Once they were gutted and cleaned they were barely big enough to tip a scale.
One day, after he had risen from his bed and washed his face in the river, Alexi thought it felt warmer than it had on previous mornings. It was far from comfortable, but the chill in the air seemed less intense than it had previously. He hoped that this was the first sign that winter was coming to an end. He remembered reading somewhere that people dying of hypothermia stop feeling cold.
It was on that morning, while Nina was still asleep and the sun barely peeked over the tips of the high mountains, that he went down to the river to examine the nets. They were most successful at trapping in the evening, when fish would dart through the slow current and pick at any unfortunate bugs that had drowned during the day. Even so, he made sure that the traps were always set to catch even the smallest haul. On that morning, three small, silver sprats swam against the fine mesh that was secured to the rocks.
"Silly fish," Alexi thought out loud. "how easily you could escape if only you thought to swim backwards." He grabbed the open end of the net and lifted it from the stream. Water drained quickly through the fine mesh and the imprisoned fish writhed and flipped helplessly in the net. A flash of red and silver shot across the far side of the riverbed and caught Alexi's attention. He stopped, net in hand, and peered at the murky water. His eyes twitched as they tried to adjust to the refractions of light in the waves and ripples. He saw it - at least, he thought he saw it - hiding among some grey-blue stones at the opposite end of the bank. Alexi kept his gaze fixed on that point, too scared to look away for even a second. An idea came to him, but he knew it would be risky.
He studied the spot where the creature hid intently. He took in every detail about the rocks, how many there were and how they were stacked atop one another, until he was sure he had it committed to memory. He slung the almost-empty net over his shoulder, like he had done to his suitcase when they had first arrived here, and went off into the forest. It didn't take him long to find what he was looking for: a stick - as long as his arm and straight enough.
He rushed back into the cabin, swinging the door open hard enough to rouse his lazy wife from her sleep, and began rummaging through their kitchen supplies.
"What are you doing?" Nina asked, rubbing last night's dreams from her eyes.
"Getting us breakfast," he answered without looking up. Alexi didn't see Nina roll her eyes at him as she fell back into bed, pulling the sheets over her head.
Back by the banks of the river, Alexi worked quickly, using a sharp knife he had found to whittle the end of the stick into a point. He took his crude spear and pierced one of the sprats he had pulled from the river. They had long stopped squirming in the net, suffocating in an abundance of air. He worked the small fish down the shaft of the spear. Guts popped out of its mouth and stained his fingers. He pulled the fish's meagre entrails loose with his teeth and spat them into the river, near the rocks he was focussing on intently. Whipping around in the slow current, like a red cloth blowing in the wind, the organs snagged and got caught on one of the rocks nearby.
Alexi got on his belly and crawled towards the edge of the river. He found the point in the rocks where he was sure he had seen the creature earlier. Whatever it was that he'd seen, it wasn't there now. He lay still and fixed his gaze between the pile of rocks and the flag of entrails that waved in the current. Slowly, barely stirring the water, he pushed the befished spear into the river and wiggled it around as convincingly as he could.
The water bed stirred again. Alexi tracked his prey by following the clouds of silt that the thing threw up behind it as it moved. It edged slowly at first, scuttling indirectly, but definitely, across the floor of smooth pebbles towards the trap set for it. The first strike took Alexi by surprise. Plumes of mud and grit obscured the water in an instant and he felt a hard tug against the stick in his hands. He didn't dare remove his bait. Once the brown clouds in the water settled, he saw that the sprat's head had been bitten clean off. Red tendrils dispersed into invisible eddies. He agitated the bait again, pretending the small fish had somehow survived this brutal attack. There were more clouds in the water, but this time he was ready. At the last moment, before the trail got too close, he stabbed violently. He felt the spear hit resistance and it twisted violently in his hands.
He pulled the spear from the water. On the end of it, a large silver fish wriggled and snapped powerfully against its captivity. Its muscles writhed and contorted and Alexi couldn't keep his grip. The spear was pulled from his hands and fell back into the river. He plunged forward, searching the murky waters desperately with his hands. The icy water was up to his elbows when he managed to clasp onto the fish's scaly body. A searing bolt shot up his left arm. He refused to let go. He pulled his prey out of the river. The spear had dislodged itself and it floated to the surface, bobbing away downstream. In his grip, the silver-pink fish had bitten his ring and pinky finger. The fish was larger than his forearm. He tore the creature from his mangled digits and dashed it against a nearby rock. Blood poured down his arm. He could hear it pooling on the ground. The sodden earth drank it up eagerly. The force of his attack had dislodged one of the fish's eyes, but it continued writhing and snapping and gasping for air. Alexi collapsed. Using his good hand, he grabbed at a rock and pounded the fish again. There was a loud crunch. He could feel its skull give way. The broken bones and cartilage contorted its face into a sick smile. Alexi's pinky finger hung out of its mouth. His ring finger stuck to his hand by a flap on bloodied skin. Alexi pulled the useless finger until the skin tore. Another wave of pain rocked him. He collapsed. Squeezing the injury tightly he begged for the pain to cease. Mercifully, consciousness left him. Blood pooled up underneath him while the fish stared on, smiling. His finger, like a tongue in the fish's mouth, mocked him.
Nina found her husband when she went out for her morning wander. It had taken all her strength to drag his limp body the short distance from the riverbank to their cabin. She didn't have the power to haul him up into bed, so she lay on the rough wood floors with a pillow supporting his head.
Nina was worried about the bleeding. Her best efforts at bandaging the wound with strips of torn bedding did little to quell the flow. The blood from his fingers slipped between the spaces in the floorboards. After trying and retrying to tie the bandages, Nina lost hope. She knew what she had to do.
She stirred the coals from the previous night's fire, cracking white-hot embers free from their ashy casings. Adding more kindling and a few large logs, the fire was roaring once again. She placed an iron poker in the blaze and carefully removed the sodden rags wrapped around his stumps.
"I'm so sorry," she whispered to the unconscious body.
The smell of searing meat filled the room. She wished it didn't make her as hungry as it did. Alexi sat up in an instant, teaing his hand away from the poker. He screamed, then he started crying.
"It's all right, it's all right," she tried to soothe him. She sat behind him and pulled his head to her chest and combed through his hair with her fingers as he cradled in her arms.
"Did you bring in the fish?" he asked her in between choking on tears.
"I did," she said. "It's there on the stove."
"And my finger? Did you get it out of its mouth?"
"I didn't see any finger."
"That's impossible. It was right there. In that thing's mouth."
"I didn't see any finger."
The following days Alexi spent in bed, nursing his hand and crying. Nina tended to him as best she could. Within two days they had eaten the fish down to bones. They sucked the meat off of every inch of it. Under instruction from her bed-ridden husband, Nina kept the fish's gizzards on a silver tray and dried them in the sun. He told her that it was to make more bait, but she suspected that he wanted to search through them for his lost finger. The floorboards where Alexi had laid bleeding were stained red. The unholy nutrients attracted flies, who moved in under the floorboards and fed off the juices. At night they buzzed eagerly in the space beneath the cabin and kept Nina awake while Alexi slept through.
By the time he was strong enough to stand, the chill of winter began to recede from the valley. Clouds had been gathering around the peaks of the mountains that beset them, threatening to bring the first rains of the new season. Even the dirt around them was livelier now. Shoots of green and yellow weeds pushed their way through thick loam to reveal themselves. Loose earth around the cabin was littered tufts of new life.
Everything around them was more alive. When Nina walked through the forest, deep in meditation, she would encounter birds and squirrels peeking their heads out of their homes and shaking of the frost of long hibernation. She took progressively longer walks, deeper into the woods. Alexi would chide her for disappearing for too long; outwardly he said he was worried that she would lose her way in the thick vegetation. Truthfully, he resented the time she wasn't there to tend to him. She defended herself. She said she needed to delve deeper into the trees to scavenge for food. The fish were few and far between, and Alexi had not been brave enough yet to repeat his experiment at spear-fishing.
She came back from her walks with pocketfuls of hard, red fruit, no larger than a marble. They had to be shaken from high tree branches, or picked off the forest floor after a couple days' rot began to soften them. The softer ones were easier to eat, but tougher on the stomach. Each meal of unidentified fruit left Nina in writhing pain. Her belly turned like something was trying to escape it, like her organs had grown hands, and claws, and teeth, and they were biting and scratching and tearing at her from inside. The first time she felt this she wretched her dinner onto the floor, but that only made her aches worse. The poison mixed with renewed twangs of hunger and left her weak and quivering under her sheets. Nina taught herself how to eat the berries: to slug them all back with as little chewing as you could manage. They would knot up in her gut and would always come out half-digested the next day, but she could manage the pain better.
Alexi never seemed to struggle keeping down his food. To Nina, he seemed to do it just to spite her. He would illustrate to her how dramatic she was being, how it was all in her head. He scarfed them down and talked and laughed with his mouth full. Masticated shards flew from his mouth, down his shirt and onto the table or floor over where he was eating.
'He must be dying inside,' she would tell herself. 'He's eating those things like he likes them. He's eating them like they taste better than the fish.'
But Alexi never said anything about the food. When she brought home her modest collection in the evening he would thank her and start shoveling them greedily onto his plate.
Nina left before the sun had crawled above the peaks of the mountain. Swathes of yellow dawn soaking into the landscape were visible further down-river, but the cabin was still covered in the shadow of the mountain. She slipped out of bed while her husband was still asleep next to her. The flies hummed unusually loudly and their thousand-strong choir seemed to cry out with each step she took across the room. They rumbled under the floorboards like a crew of unruly builders; or an earthquake. She could almost feel the floor wobble from their constant clamouring under the house. Surely they would run out of food down there eventually?
The forest had been awake for some time before she started trekking through it. Rodents scuttled away from her under her feet as she ambled past shrubs and bushes. She could make out their little tracks in the soft soil. They swept apart needles and leaves on the forest floor, leaving trails to and from their little homes. She trudged through thick growth, swatting away insects that had taken to the warm air to begin their mating season. Dead and dried plants collapsed under her feet with a satisfying crunch.
She moved as if she was floating, not heading in any particular direction, but rather being pushed around by the motion of the wind. There were no landmarks this deep in the woods. Tree trunks stood tall, each column made a great, brown bar across her vision. As the sun rose higher, light pushed into even the furthest reaches of the light danced around the vast trunks and made her eyes twitch. Fresh light illuminated the little red pips of berries that shone out like beacons. She customarily gathered what she could find on the floor and stuffed them into the pockets of her dress. The soft fruit pushed out their sour juices into two red patches that leaked into either side of Nina's dress.
A set of fresh tracks in soft loam caught Nina's eye and she stopped, pulled from her meandering meditation. She crouched creakingly over the tracks to examine them. Crescent furrows had been dug into the land, the sign of some hooved creature. From where she stopped, Nina could just pick out the sound of the rushing river. The tracks seemed to come from that direction, making their way deeper into the forest. Nina measured the tracks with her finger, dipping it all the way up to her knuckle. Whatever it was that had left these prints must have been heavy.
A wave of curious energy overcame her; it wormed through her ears and wrapped around her brain. Not wanting to alert her quarry, she crept behind the tracks on her knees, using her knuckles to balance. Low branches and bushes swatted at her face and left stinging bright marks across her pale skin.
Like this she trundled through thickly grown brush. She remarked at how warm the ground beneath her was. It squelched between her fingers like pudding batter. A large green leaf in the shape of an elephant's ear stuck to her face and blinded her. She pulled it away and it revealed an open grove among the trees. If she had not known better, she would have thought it had been cut away. Sunlight broke through the open canopy, it left streaks of golden air in the opening. Motes of dust glittered in the bright rays of the morning sun, dancing around in their own miniscule universe, pushed around by fundamental forces entirely alien to the observer.
The tree-clearing was small, it struck Nina that they could have fit their cabin here, in the beautiful light in the trees rather than by the cold, hateful river. Birds flitted around the outskirts of the clearing but did not fly inside. They darted into knots and holes in the great trunks that surrounded them. Nina couldn't identify their species, but she thought they were pretty. Their heads were crested with bright blue plumage - or maybe it was green. On the birds' bellies were brilliant red feathers, the shade of ruby, or aged meat. Nina watched as the tiny creatures gathered twigs and worms and seeds in their sharp, hard beaks, and hopped back into their homes to store their well-gotten gains. Nina wondered how much they had stored for the winter, that they were only now refurbishing their shelves. How deep were their stores that it would get them through such an unforgiving season? How well did these tiny critters live in those harsh months?
A rustling in the trees on the other end of the clearing grabbed Nina's attention. At first, nothing moved. Eerie, uncomfortable stillness gripped the secluded grove. All living things seemed, at once, to freeze in place. Their attention had been pulled to the middle of that place in the woods; that singular, intense spot that demanded complete attention and complete being.
The brush parted, wafting apart like it was pushed by a divine hand. First two, then four - four long legs, sleek and covered in soft fur stepped through mosaic foliage. The animal walked, almost trotted, into Nina's view in the centre of the clearing. It was a deer with light brown fur dappled with flecks of white, as if it was caught in the snow. Its belly was swollen, burgeoning with incipient life. Nina watched as the soon-to-be parent trotted around the clear land bowing its head occasionally, pulling at the short grass beneath it with its teeth which ripped loudly. Nina laughed. The berries which her and her husband had been surviving off of were surreptitiously ignored by the native deer. She felt at her pockets intending to turn the shunned berries onto the floor, but thought better of it.
Prolonged squatting combined with old-age took its toll on Nina. Still transfixed on the beautiful animal, her knees gave up and she crashed to the ground. Her fall was cushioned by decomposing leaves that made up the forest floor but her fright caused her to shriek.
The deer started. It took two quick leaps and was almost immediately at the edge of the clearing. Nina's heart sank, but the creature paused its retreat. It had picked her out among the thick overgrowth, locking eyes with her like it understood her. Gently, almost lovingly, it trotted towards Nina, daintily folding its slender legs up under its swollen girth. It stood above her where she had fallen, its belly wobbled level to her eyes. It was close enough that she could smell it. It smelled sweet and fresh, like freshly washed linen. She could hear it breathing. Nostrils flared and its lips reverberated with each breath. Heartbeats, two of them, distinct but unified emanated from the deer that was brimming with life. Slowly, meaningfully, the deer lowered its head to hers. It rested its chin on her head and breathed in so deeply that her hair was pulled around its nose. Nina reached a hand up to caress the thing's face. She ran her fingers through the velveteen fur. It was the softest thing she had ever felt, so comfortable she felt the first waves of sleep lapping at her conscious. The deer brayed appreciatively. Nina twisted her face and kissed the deer behind the ears, taking in the rich, comforting scent greedily. It washed through her sinuses and into her lungs. The aroma made her feel lighter, like she might float off at any moment and waft high above the canopy of trees. She wanted to imbibe its essence. She wanted it to slosh around inside her and make her forget. At that moment she would have given anything to crawl inside its belly; to become one with the foal brewing in its womb. She knew the deer understood and, if nature had allowed it, the deer would have allowed it too.
Nestled in each other's being they held position like tragic statues - Nina half-sitting, half-lying with her legs folded behind her and the magnificent deer standing powerfully above her. Time passed and the deer grew restless, turning from her and making for the other end of the clearing. Before disappearing into the brush it turned to face her once more.
"I can't follow you. We belong to different worlds."
we're the same
"I know. But my place is here, with Alexi and with the cabin."
you have no place anywhere
"Then I must make one where I am."
The deer turned back and with a single bounce forward became invisible among the trees. Nina's face was wet with tears. The glimmer in the clearing died away. In its place was a sickly grey light the colour of concrete. Nina started to cry and the sky started with her. Clouds as thick as mud wept over the near-crippled woman and everything she had lost. She lay in the downpour hoping the deluge would drown her; or that it would wash her and the cabin and the woods away and leave nothing but that deer. For hours she lay there. The soil around her turned to mud; the mud turned into slurry and the slurry threatened to swallow her whole. She wouldn't have fought it.
By the time the rain had ceased, Nina had no tears left to cry. She had emptied herself and felt nothing but a low throb in the pit of her stomach and an ache in her dried up joints. She tried to stand but found herself too weak to hold herself upright in the jellied earth. So she crawled. She pulled herself back the way she had come using her elbows to push swathes of grey-brown mud behind her. By inches she clawed her way back to her home, to shelter. She could feel her pockets fill with mud, weighing her down, pushing her further into the ground. It dragged her back, like the earth itself was trying to keep her from moving forward.
It felt like an eternity had passed before the view of the cabin broke through the woods. The sun was still obscured behind grey clouds and yellow light had dimmed to a fluorescent silver glow. Using what little strength she had left, Nina pushed open the door to her home and pulled herself onto the floor, trying her best to ignore the splinters that pushed in under her fingernails.
Alexi sat at the table with his back to the door. He was hunched over, fiddling with long strands of cloth. The banging door roused him from his work and he turned with a jolt, hurriedly tucking his work into his lap.
Nina lay on her belly against the hard wood, panting. Alexi stood from his chair. He spat out a seed from one of the red fruits he had been chewing. He lifted his wife's arms over her head. She did not resist him. Grabbing her mud-drenched dress by the skirt, he tugged it over her head. Wet fabric clung to her skin, sucking and pulling as it was wrenched off of her. As the dress was pulled over her shoulders, her head banged against the floor and her nose started to bleed. The wrinkles on her naked skin were exaggerated from the prolonged soak. Brown stains streaked her body and the colour of the mud concealed the fact that she had soiled herself from exertion.
Alexi fetched a bucket from a cupboard by the stove and went to the river to gather fresh water. Nina heard him return and made out the sound of sloshing liquid moments before the icy water was poured over her. The bracing cold made her gasp. Alexi knelt over her and rolled her onto her back. Using his hands, he wiped the mud and filth off her body. It sloughed off, oozing through the cracks in the floor.
"Where did you go?" he asked "You were gone for so long."
She tried to speak but her chattering jaw imprisoned any sentence she may have formed.
"Lie still. You're weak." He kept his eyes locked on her as he ran his hands over her legs, between her thighs. Nina couldn't help but notice that his hands were as cold as the river water. "My dear," he carried on, "these berries are robbing you. They are making you weak. This place is so full of life yet we're so hungry, I can't stand it. Tomorrow, when the weather clears, I will get us some food - some real food. I will provide for you, like I always have. But now you must rest. Come, get to bed and I'll light a fire"
He stood once more and made for the fireplace where dusty coals from the night before hummed. Nina lay on the floor, shivering and groaning. Alexi lifted her from her armpits. She was too weak to support herself so he dragged her half-suspended from the floor to bed. The bed had been stripped - the dirty mattress was as naked as she was. He placed a grimy, discoloured blanket over her and left her staring at the ceiling.
He returned to the table and resumed his work in silence. Logs in the fireplace had begun to cackle and soon the sound of conflagration was all that could be heard. Alexi worked in the smothering heat - tying, sowing, stitching. Nina lolled her head to look at him. She shuddered. The missing bed covers had been stripped and torn and reshaped into a large cloth sack.
The next morning, Nina woke in bed alone. She did not remember if Alexi had come to bed and he was nowhere in the cabin. Despite the heat from last night's fire and the fresh warmth of the morning sun, she still felt chilled to the bone. Her ruined dress was hung over the fireplace. It had dried caked in mud and was stiff as a board. She slipped on a nightdress and left the cabin, searching for her husband.
She found him in the river. He was standing naked in the thigh-deep water, bent over rinsing out his hair. She watched from the doorway as he washed and stepped out onto the riverbank. He stood in the sun, drying himself. Muscles rippled like blowing sand dunes as he moved and she watched, transfixed on the writhing masses of tissue. When he lifted his arms she could see the rise and fall of masculine strength in his shoulders. Those same shoulders had built their home. They had dragged timber across miles of land and fixed bricks into their place. She watched him the way she would a dangerous animal; a predator creeping through long grass.
He made Nina out where she was standing but said nothing to her. He gathered his clothes which had been neatly folded and placed on a nearby rock. He dressed. Clothes clung to his still clammy skin, holding tight against his body, accentuating every crook and ripple. In his hands he held the bag he had been working on yesterday, clumped into a tight ball. Into the forest he walked, casting a single glance in Nina's direction before disappearing behind the green veil. Violent determination burned in his pupils that shook Nina. That gaze made her feel tiny, it made her feel like a helpless child, like she could barely hold her head up. She could feel the blood draining from her head like falling bricks and stumbled back into bed. Yesterday's trauma came crashing through her with the weight of a lifetime full of regret.
Floorboards squealed under her weight as she toppled over them. The stained spot from Alexi's mutilated hand and Nina's filth had swollen and gone soft. It buckled from her weight as she moved over it, rending twisted, rusty nails from damp poured out of the gap between the floor and the earth beneath it. Hundreds of thousands of hideous, buzzing spots filled the tight room and whirred all over. It blurred Nina's vision like a radio tuned to static.
She lay on the mattress feeling every spring push mercilessly into her aching back. She stuck her fingers tightly in her ears to try and drown out the chorus of pests, but the sound burrowed effortlessly through her fingers and through her ears and into her skull. Try as she might, she couldn't ignore what those flies meant. They had come for a reason. They had moved in with the unfortunate couple. The flies lived off of them, feeding off of their misery like a tapeworm. Nina's place in the natural order was clear: she was less than the flies, less than mud. The forest put everything right. The forest was neat, it was orderly, and no amount of human strength or begging with divinity could rearrange its hierarchy.
"Please, no more," she asked.
The forest was clear. The flies would get what they wanted.
"Anything but that," she pleaded again. Again, it was no use. Fighting against every hair on her head, every bone in her body, every aged fibre of nervous muscle, she rose from the bed. The flies parted around her. A shroud of black swarm cloaked her, it kept her obscure from any god that might have cared to look for her. The suitcase they had brought here was kept at the top of the only cupboard in the room. No-one had touched it since the day they had arrived. It felt like it was years ago, like they had lived and died a thousand times since the day the bus and the rest of the world had forgotten them at the place that wasn't a bus stop.
Standing on the tips of her toes, held aloft by the will of the swarm, she pulled the tattered case from where it lay, chasing out ghosts of dust at it moved. She unzipped it. Each link in the zip fought against her, urging her to reconsider. But there was nothing to consider; her mind had been made up for her. The zip was unstitched. The rusted clips could do no more to slow her down. Flecks of iron wafted off like burnt skin.
Red light glowed and precious silver glinted from the antique jewellery box. It illuminated the claustrophobic chamber in cascading neon shades. Nina picked it out of its place in the dark case. The flies buzzed louder. They bounded around her with childish eagerness. She flicked open the clasp that held it closed with her thumb. For the first time in decades she peered inside.
"I can't let go! Don't make me let go!" She held the box tight against her chest. If she could have had the strength she would have pushed it through her ribs. She would have emptied out her chest and kept it in the remaining cavity. But she wasn't strong enough, and the forest and the flies would not buckle to her meagre will.
Verging on tears, she crawled across the floor. She came to where the floorboards had lifted, from where the flies had escaped. She lay on her belly, holding the box in her hand. The nails ripped open her skin as she pushed the box and her arm into the gaping maw. She searched desperately for the ground with her fingers, but could not find it. Every possibility had been explored, they had all been exhausted. Fate and the forest had brought her to this point, whatever happened now was destined to happen. She had become a vessel.
Nina let go of the red and silver jewellery box.
She waited to hear it hit the ground below. There was no sound. As quickly as they had escaped, the flies clamoured back through the opening. They piled into one another and forced their way back under the cabin. Nina could feel them rush past her arm. Not daring to move, she felt as though the swarm would force her through the opening to live with them in the hole under the floor.
And then they were gone. For the first time since Alexi had lost his fingers the place was quiet. She had sated their hunger. Pinned to the floor by the nails in the floorboard, Nina knew that just inches below her fingers the floor writhed thickly with winged, black, putrid life. She used her free hand to pull the board up and release herself. She fell backwards and scrambled to the door and outside.
The sun was once again obscured by clouds. They were the colour of lead and just as heavy. Rain came sure as clockwork this time of spring. A storm was coming.
When night came, Nina was still alone. Somewhere out in the forest her husband was being smothered by rain. Lying on her back she listened as the storm warred on the roof above her. Raindrops slammed into the cabin. Torrential waters tried to wash away any evidence of what had happened that day. It sounded like a thousand birds were pecking at the roof, or like the house was being buried in gravel. It sounded like the gravestone carver furiously chipping away at massive slabs of granite.
Nina was almost comforted by the noise of the rain. With the flies gone silent, she grew scared of what the voices in her head - the voices in the forest - might say to her. She was desperately tired, still exhausted from the previous day and ravenously hungry. On the table was a pile of softening berries, but she dared not touch them.
Finally, once the sun had buried itself over the horizon as far away from Nina as it ever would be, the rain ceased. Any sense of time that Nina had had smeared in the confusion of hunger, and pain, and grief. Surely it had gone on for hours, and Alexi must have borne the full wrath of it. Where would he be now? Had he lost himself in the labyrinth of trees? She thought of her husband's undulating muscles, and how they would have twitched and tensed to keep him alive in the downpour. He was so much stronger than her, she reckoned, he could have kept his will in the face of the forest.
Nina thought about leaving. She thought about what their life would have been if they'd never moved away from their home, their real home. How would everything have changed if they'd not been so desperate to run.
Her eyelids grew heavy but she fought the urge to sleep. Whatever nightmares awaited her scared Nina too much to rest peacefully. Instead, she waited and listened to the pour of the rain and, when the rain died away, she listened to the rustle in the trees. She refused to let herself think, so she focussed on the changes in the tones of nature. When lifeless whispers turned to pleasant chirping she knew that morning had come, and with it had come her husband.
The door to the cabin crashed open and shook dust from the rafters. Nina had heard Alexi dragging himself from the edge of the woods. She could hear that he was tired before he even entered their home. He was panting heavily, stopping every few paces to catch his breath.
Still too weak to stand, she raised her head to look at him. Alexi stood tall by the entrance of the cabin, the open door letting in spirits of cool mist. He held onto the bag he had taken with him. It swelled full of some strange creature. Blood stained the threads. It gathered and dripped in an irritating monotony. Whatever he had caught was large. Limbs splayed against the fabric and gave the impression that some misshapen horror was trapped inside. Alexi stood staring, gasping, at Nina. His eyes burned like the last embers in their fireplace.
"My love," Nina said meekly, her voice barely audible over the breath in the wind, "I missed you so much. I'm so scared and so hungry."
"Don't worry Nina," he said, "I'm back now. And I got us food! We'll eat so well, better than we ever have before. I found us a feast." He dropped the burgeoning bag. The limbs inside shuddered. Alexi turned the contents onto the floor. Nina's head spun.
First one, then two. Two deer lay on the floor before her, one large and one small. Soft brown fur speckled with snow-white patches were matted with blood. The large one's belly had been torn apart. Amniotic juice was still slick on the young one's body. A sickly sweet tang wafted from the thing's fur.
The mother's head had been caved in. A heavy rock or stake of wood had crushed the bone. Eyes lolled out of their sockets and pointed at the floor. Its tongue hung from its mouth like a joke.
The foal appeared to gasp. Its mouth opened and closed with the cadence of broken machinery. Fighting suffocation, the foal pulled at the air but its lungs were useless outside of their mother's warmth. The foal's eyes darted around in its skull. They locked onto Nina's and pleaded for mercy. She still couldn't move. She watched as its ribs rolled up and down jaggedly, and a gurgling sound like water percolating through marbles issued from its soft lips. Without being born the creature died, hopelessly gasping for air that it couldn't breathe. The eyes that had fixed on hers turned hateful.
Once the ordeal was done with, Alexi turned to fetch a knife so he could prepare the animals to skin and dry. Nina was locked in her place on the mattress. Her head rolled tumultuously. She could still feel the gentle brush of the dead deer's fur. She could smell rich cinnamon tufts mixing with the drying juices of pregnancy. Beneath the floorboards the flies began to drone once more.
Fury took over. It grabbed hold of Nina's emaciated legs and propelled her forward. She moved, almost floated, to the patch of stained floor. Hunger would not stop her now. Alexi rifled through his belongings searching for his tools, his back turned on his vengeful wife. Nina stomped down hard. She felt the skin on her heel split open. She stomped again, ignoring the pain shooting through her shins. The floorboard popped loose, the flies beneath stayed hidden in darkness. Not even they would risk venturing into the cabin that had become full of oppressive energy. Crouching down, Nina grabbed at the warped board and pulled. Splinters gnarled her hands. Her fingernails groaned against the tension keeping the board in place. One of her nails gave way before the floorboard did. Still she pulled until the board cracked and buckled where it had warped and gone soft. Jagged wood rendered from the rotten plank. She held the board in her hands. Twisted nails like teeth jutted from the far end of it. She stepped towards Alexi.
"Darling, what are you -" was all he could manage in the brief moments before the contempt on his face turned to fear. She struck him down.
Nails tore through Alexi's clothes and into his shoulder. A hand shot up to grab at the wound as he fell.
"My darling!" he cried, "My love!" She ripped the board away and delivered another blow. It caught him in the leg and he screamed out.
"How could you!" Nina spat at him, her voice rattled the cabin around them. She struck again. "First us and now them!" Again she brought the crude weapon crashing down. Alexi put his good arm up in protest, but it was no use, it buckled and broke against the blow of the heavy board. "You won't be happy until every living thing is dead! You won't sleep until the earth is black and dead around you!" Again and again she hit him. Her arms swung furiously and each time she raised the plank it clobbered into the low ceiling, producing a rhythmic throng like a crew of workers pulling at oars in a galley. Each beat punched more holes into Alexi. They drained him onto the floor with the deer.
"I'm sorry," he barely whimpered, "I'm so sorry." He withered into the floor. He pulled into himself, his knees tucked under his chin, hands cradling his feet.
"Why don't you die! Why couldn't you die instead! Why did it have to be me!" Another flurry of blows tore into the newly helpless victim. She cracked the board between the blades of his shoulder. The nails bit into his spine with a sickening knock. Nina let loose her grasp on the instrument of death. It stood erect from where it held fast into Alexi's back. He wheezed unevenly. His eyes darted around in their sockets. They had been freed from the pain in his body. The nails had separated him from his body - his skeleton was his prison. The flies below droned louder.
"Hrrgn - hhrk - fgggh!" a gurgled sound came from his limp lips. The sound made Nina sick. Every grunt and groan brought with it a flurry of wretched, involuntary spasms. She wandered to the place where the innocent doe lay and crouched to kiss its mangled head. Nina picked the bloodied white-turn-pink bag from the floor. She rose and turned back to her husband. His eyes fixed on hers. They blinked quickly and desperately, as if trying to communicate through morse code. Nina walked, bag in hand, stepping carefully towards her prey on the floor. His eyes rolled around like they were trying to escape from their place in his skull. She stood above him, letting the sack unfurl. She grabbed onto the board that held onto his spine like a lever, and pulled him up with unhuman strength. Terrible, pathetic noisen fell from his mouth as Nina lifted his limp body. She placed the opening of the sack beneath him and dropped him on top of it. The weight of his body crashed into his face and chest. Nina placed a foot on his back and struggled to pull the plank from its place. It relinquished its hold with a horrifying sucking sound. The wound it left was surprisingly bloodless. Alexi's body twitched vigorously as Nina gathered the mouth of the bag and pulled it over him. She knotted the opening shut. The bag kept shifting.
She dragged the bag from the cabin. Wind had left the valley and all around the cabin seemed still. Life had abandoned the forest, only Nina, and her half-dead husband, and the flies stayed to see a lifetime play itself out in minutes. Mist hung motionless, lazily parting as Nina stepped through it, dragging her bag behind her through the mud. Somewhere far up in the mountains, in a place Nina had never even thought about, water defied gravity and gathered in pools at the edge of a cliff.
Towards the banks of the river, Nina pulled the dirty sack that she had filled with violence. It squirmed and tried to kick free, but was too weak and brutalised to be a real obstacle. Nina came to the currentless water in the river and waded in up to her knees. The bag behind her bounced and tumbled over loose rocks. It became heavy as it soaked up water. Nina gathered all her strength in her failing legs. She twisted, yanking hard at the bag under her grasp. It launched through the air and into the river barely a body's length from her. The top of the bag, where the knot had been tied, lay just above the level of the water jutting out like a tombstone in a faraway field.
Nina turned back towards the cabin. Her task completed, the remnants of the anger which had propelled her forward were draining from her soul. She could feel the last of her life letting go its tenuous grasp on the physical world. Gleefully she stumbled back into the cabin - the wooden mausoleum - and shut the door behind her.
Flies whirred beneath the house in sporadic bursts. They were excited. They had questions only she could answer. She stepped over the corpses of the beautiful creatures that lay maimed at the entrance. Bleary-eyed and full of joy, she walked over to the hearth where she lifted her mud-caked, berry-filled dress from its drying place and slipped it over her head. Sheaves of dry earth fell from her as she dressed.
Then she dropped to her knees, letting out a pained yelp as her bones cracked against the floor. She slunk down to her belly and crawled. Louder still the flies sang. She inched forward, her face to the ground, sweeping all the blood and mud and dust - every sign of inhabitation - with her dress trailing behind her. She came to the hole in the floor. It took an effort of contorting and squeezing to force her head through the narrow opening, but the rest of her body fell through easily. She fell through the hole, into the space beneath the house, the space full of flies and carrion and the roots of trees.
Nina sank further still. She lay her head on the ground that was carpeted with writhing bodies. She would let the soil take her. She would let the worms pull her apart and turn her into food for trees. Thousands of conscious bodies climbed and swarmed over her, carpeting her in an unearthly warmth. They crawled into her ears and up her nose and burrowed into her eyes. They wriggled over every inch of her and broke her down into fundamental parts, tearing away all her memories and regrets, feeding on everything that she cherished and hated with equal fervour.
For the first time in a lifetime, Nina lay in peace, not fearing how the past may dog her or what the future might beset on her. Myriad creatures, like a firmament of black stars, crawled over and into her lifeless body wherever they could find an opening, cracking open her jaws and choking down her oesophagus. Her mind wandered and she wandered with it, sinking further and further into the black loam until she felt she could descend no lower. She felt the crushing weight of the entire earth around her from all directions. The heat of iron dissolved her, it dispersed her into particles so small they would spend thousands of years trapped below the earth's mantle where nothing could get to them.