The Woods, Their Hearts, My Blood

by Mari Ness

I ate my daugh­ter’s heart in the place where the woods formed a per­fect cir­cle, their great branch­es shut­ting out the sky.

“Enough?” I asked, flinch­ing from the blood drip­ping upon my skin.

From around me, some­thing that might have been laugh­ter. “One,” came the whis­per, car­ried through the leaves, and I fell to my knees and wept and wept, still care­ful to keep my daugh­ter’s heart inside me, to not return it to the dark­en­ing woods.

My moth­er nev­er warned me about witches.

She warned me about oth­er things, about being the youngest daugh­ter of twelve. “It is no fairy tale,” she told me, as she brushed my hair. “The twelfth sis­ter — no mat­ter what hap­pens, she is no princess.” She would know such things; she had been born in a palace, she said, although she nev­er told me to whom. Some­times I imag­ined that my grand­moth­er was a queen, and my moth­er her twelfth daugh­ter. More often, I believed that my grand­moth­er was one of the palace cooks, or one of the women scrub­bing the floors. I might still be a king’s grand­daugh­ter, at that. I knew enough of roy­al­ty to know that.

She warned me too, of music and songs, of poet­ry and tales, of lust and men. But nev­er of witch­es, of kings and queens.

I lis­tened to her about the daugh­ters. I did not lis­ten to her about the oth­er things.

The sec­ond heart was no eas­i­er to con­sume. I had to hold my bel­ly and throat to keep from retch­ing, had to keep my eyes turned from the small body I had placed at the base of the tree, my thoughts on the end of the tale, on the music I played for gold when I was not con­sumed by magic.

When the trees said “Two,” I fell to my knees and wept, my tears rush­ing to their roots.

I buried my daugh­ters near, but not in, the cir­cle of trees, under small mounds of earth and leaves, plant­i­ng flow­ers on top of the mounds, water­ing the flow­ers with my tears.

But no mat­ter what I plant­ed, or how much I wept, noth­ing would grow on those mounds.

Sev­en hearts. Sev­en hearts.

It did not seem too much, at first.

My third preg­nan­cy result­ed in a son.

I left him on the doorstep of a tav­ern, wrapped in two blan­kets, with a fist­ful of coin. Sure­ly some­one would want a small boy to help with the work. Or at least the coin would per­suade them.

This is a fairy tale, I told myself. A tale I had sum­moned and made myself, to com­bat the evil I saw.

In fairy tales, it is easy enough to have sev­en daughters.

In fairy tales, it is easy enough to kill them.

I made my way through the world through music. Less prof­itable than the mag­ic I could spin, but less obvi­ous, less dan­ger­ous. Min­strels may be killed, but not as read­i­ly or quick­ly as witch­es, or even those mere­ly sus­pect­ed of witch­craft. And faster. I know of no spells that may be done swift­ly, save those that last only a minute or so, no more than sparks against a wind.

And beyond that, it is eas­i­er to lure men into my bed with song, and some­one must father these daughters.

I kept my coin in three places: in a pouch against my thighs, in the toes of my shoes, and in a third pouch, against my heart, where it min­gled with the hair of my daughters.

I can­not tell you all of this tale, you understand.

Only the parts that are safe.

My moth­er trained me to go three days with­out food, walk six miles with­out stop­ping, walk in irony shoes that blis­tered my feet.

“You will have the strength I nev­er did,” she whis­pered, as she cut lines into my arms and legs, dab­bing del­i­cate­ly at the ris­ing points of blood.

Then again, what tales are ever tru­ly safe? What true tales?

And so I will not tell you where or how I met the witch, or what she told me, or why I cried at her words, or how I learned of the dan­ger. Or what will hap­pen if I do not com­plete my task. Or what will hap­pen if I do.

As I was preg­nant with my third daugh­ter, I sought out an alchemist, who told me of an engi­neer, who told me of anoth­er, who told me of yet a third, a mas­ter of automa­ta, who lived some coun­tries away. 

By the time I learned where to find him, my daugh­ter had been born, with a small tuff of black hair, and eyes already dark­en­ing to black. It was a long, weary road to his home, filled with my daugh­ter’s cries, and I thought with ter­ror of the wood wait­ing for me, and the jour­ney back to it.

“Can you replace a child’s heart?” I asked him.

My daugh­ter was just begin­ning to bab­ble, although her words made sense to no one but me. She could sit up and look around, which she did now, with wide and bright eyes.

He gave me a sharp look. “No one can do that.”

I dug in my pouch for my scant coin for one of his lit­tlest automa­ta, a small doll that could blink its eyes and move its head from side to side. I let my daugh­ter play with it before I ate her heart. 

I have to keep you safe.

I meant to take the lit­tle doll with me, but some­how I for­got, and left it in the woods.

Does that not tell you that I am not the evil you may think?

The fifth preg­nan­cy was anoth­er son. 

I cried as he came out between my legs. “No need for tears,” said the mid­wife briskly, wash­ing him off before bring­ing him to me. “A fine young son this one, a son any moth­er can be proud of.” She gave me an expe­ri­enced look. “A son to make up for all of those chil­dren you have lost.”

I could not stop cry­ing, even as he suck­led at my breast.

Some­times I won­der if I have dreamed this, if this is only a tale I am telling myself, to com­fort myself for the loss of a child, or to ease the ill­ness of pregnancy.(Although to tell the truth, I have car­ried my chil­dren well; only a few of them have made me ill.) 

Some­times I feel the tiny hands of my daugh­ters on my breasts and throat. They are not real, I tell myself, and indeed they are not, no more real than this spell which has not yet been ful­ly woven.

That son I made arrange­ments for, leav­ing him with a cou­ple who had no chil­dren, though they want­ed some, very much, a cou­ple with a thriv­ing busi­ness in weav­ing and cloth. I could not say that my son would thrive there, but he would be bet­ter there than with me.

I know, I know, how you are hear­ing this tale, how you are regard­ing me as the worst of mon­sters, the most wretched of all crea­tures, who would be kind­ly served with eter­nal hell­fire. In your shoes, I would think the same.

But you do not know. You do not know. If you did, you would know how nec­es­sary this all is. 

We all, after all, must stay alive.

I almost missed eat­ing the heart of my fourth daugh­ter. That preg­nan­cy had not gone well, and I was sick dur­ing and after, so sick I had trou­bles mov­ing, and had to give my daugh­ter to the care of oth­ers for her first few weeks. That wor­ried me; more than wor­ried me. Would my daugh­ter know she was my daugh­ter? Would her heart have the same strength?

I wor­ried, wor­ried, as I tried to will strength to my legs, tried to have the woman who cared for me, more or less, brew up potions for rapid heal­ing. But she did not have my skill, and in any case, I had nev­er tak­en the time to learn enough of that side of the art. Per­haps if—

No. I can­not afford those regrets.

Though I can­not say I have no regrets.

Neces­si­ty.

Neces­si­ty.

I wait­ed until my fifth daugh­ter had hair on her head. Then I plucked it, as soft­ly as I could, over her tears, and sewed the hair onto a tiny doll.

That doll I kept in yet anoth­er pouch, held against my skin, a pouch I nev­er removed, even when I bed­ded yet anoth­er man.

“It does not make sense!” I cried out in fury.

“It does not have to make sense,” replied the calm voice. “It is life and mag­ic and blood. It does not have to make sense.”

I bury my daugh­ters in small mounds around the cir­cle of trees, plac­ing dried flow­ers on each mound each time I come.

Each time I return, the flow­ers are gone, and the mounds seem a lit­tle bigger.

I will not tell you where or how I learned to hear that voice.

I do not think you tru­ly wish to know.

When I enter the woods, they are silent, silent. I have trav­elled in oth­er forests, oth­er lands, and I know the sounds trees should have: the buzz of insects, the calls of birds, the occa­sion­al rustling of old leaves.

None of that here. Only silence, silence, and my unheard foot­steps on the ancient path.

I once drew pic­tures of my daugh­ters, but the first two were so much alike, I could not tell which was which, and soon enough, I let the pic­tures drift into the wind.

It has become hard­er and hard­er to become preg­nant. With my first two, it seemed I had only to glance at, or sit by, a man to find his seed inside me, quick­en­ing, but now I must bed many men, or the same man many times, to become preg­nant, and this, too, is hard­er to do. I am, for­tu­nate­ly, still beau­ti­ful, and I know, how I know, to sat­is­fy a man. But not all of my skill can erase cer­tain years, nor—I feel it, no mat­ter how much I try to mask it—a cer­tain des­per­a­tion in my voice.

And I am tired, beyond tired, of this dance that I must do with every new man, over and over. If I could—if I only could risk it—I would hap­pi­ly bind myself to just one man and allow him to father all of my daughters.

But even the most ami­able of men, my moth­er warned me, can grow sus­pi­cious. Per­haps espe­cial­ly the most ami­able of men.

And so I wan­der, and wan­der, and play my dul­cimer in front of men, mak­ing it clear I can play oth­er things for them, until I feel my bel­ly swelling again.

It is worth it, I tell myself. It is all worth it. 

My voice is hoarse from singing.

Some of the men com­ment on my scars. Most do not.

My sixth daugh­ter fought me all the way into the woods.

She was small, ter­ri­bly small, so small I had feared los­ing her at first, until I sensed her fierce­ness. When she nursed, she would begin and end by bit­ing oth­er parts of my skin, so harsh­ly that I bruised even before she had teeth. She wailed and fussed and pound­ed me with tiny fists. I could not remem­ber any of my oth­er daugh­ters being like this.

I almost aban­doned her. But it had tak­en me five years to quick­en with her, five years for my eighth child, and I did not dare. I did not know how long it might take me to become preg­nant again, or worse, what might hap­pen if I had anoth­er son. I was get­ting old­er, and I had nev­er tak­en the time to learn the spells that could keep a woman fer­tile as she aged. I did not know how much time I had left.

Once with­in the woods, she bit me, and her blood min­gled with my own.

I am no longer bleed­ing each month.

I hard­ly noticed, at first. I have become so used to preg­nan­cies, to trav­el, that I hard­ly remem­ber a time when my bleed­ing was regular.

It is gone now.

I can­not pan­ic. I can­not. I know of women who have quick­ened well past the time of all hope. I know I can still sing men into bed, even if the last four men I seduced swift­ly left my bed, even if none of them could give me a child. Even if it has been six years since my last child. Six years. No. It could not have been so long. Even if my heart will not slow its rapid beat.

I can feel the pow­er, just out­side the reach of my hands. Feel it wait­ing for me, wait­ing, behind that one last, frag­ile barrier.

That last small daugh­ter could not have been the last.

I will not let this all be for nothing.

I take up my knife, and begin to cut.

When I come into my pow­er, when I have the earth and trees and rains in my com­mand, then I shall bring them back, all of them, my sev­en daugh­ters, with new hearts made of water and wind, encased in puls­ing dia­mond. Sev­en per­fect daugh­ters. And I shall gath­er them in my arms one by one, and teach them the ways of mag­ic and of song.

I swear it.

Once I have eat­en the sev­enth heart.

Once I begin to bleed again.


Mari Ness is not a veg­e­tar­i­an, but she draws the line at con­sum­ing hearts. Her work has pre­vi­ous­ly appeared in numer­ous print and online pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Clarkesworld, Fan­ta­sy Mag­a­zine, Ideo­mancer, Dai­ly Sci­ence Fic­tion, and Shine: An Anthol­o­gy of Opti­mistic Sci­ence Fic­tion. She blogs about clas­sic chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, includ­ing Oz books, at Tor.com, and about var­i­ous unre­lat­ed things at mariness.livejournal.com. Or you can fol­low her on Twit­ter at mari_ness. She lives in cen­tral Florida.


One Response to "The Woods, Their Hearts, My Blood"

  • This sto­ry made me late for work.

    1 The Black-Eyed Cat said this (February 7, 2012 at 6:52 pm)