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)