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Once upon a time there lived a boy-girl named Cynae. After a series of difficulties, she came to live in a small house in the woods.

Here, our first challenge. Do we address Cynae as she or he? Really, both or neither would be more accurate. More accurate still: it doesn't matter. More accurate still: why does it matter?

And yet, the impasse remains. It would be too inelegant to avoid pronouns altogether, as in Cynae came to live in a small house in the woods. The option to adopt zie is tempting, but will draw attention, and in certain contexts there remains something uncomfortable in addressing a single person as they. After some anxiety, we come to a reasoned decision. There are enough stories where the principal character is a he; thus we will use she.

In the woods there is a house. An old house, a broken-down house, a quiet house. Fine-leaved creepers snarl over the crumbling walls, their waxy fingers tangling, pressing against the window panes and inching down the chimney. This old house in the deep green woods was where she lived. She lived in the shades and the silences and in the old green places beneath the tumbled-down roof. In the house, she lived.

Was she lonely, cold, angry? We cannot say. Sometimes, in the bare, alien air of the dawn, she looked toward the sky and an expression crossed her face, the reflection of a feeling complex and delicate and powerful, but we cannot determine what it meant.

That is not to say that Cynae lived alone in the woods.

In the woods there is a house. An old house, a broken-down house, a quiet house. Fine-leaved creepers snarl over the crumbling walls, their waxy fingers tangling, pressing against the window panes and inching down the chimney. This old house in the deep green woods was where it lived. It lived in the shades and the silences and in the old green places beneath the tumbled-down roof. In the house, it lived. At certain times of the day, it cast a shadow.

A village bordered the woods, a small hamlet holed into the side of the valley, where perhaps a hundred people dwelled. From the house, we can see their chimney smoke rising above the treetops.

And sometimes the women of the village would see it in the woods, but the men never did, for they feared the deep green places and their shades and their silences.

You should stop reading.

While Cynae managed to survive in the woods, possessing knowledge of edible plants and no sentimentality with regards to the lives of animals, certain commodities could not be foraged. To earn money, she spun. Hundreds (thousands?) of silkworms squirmed blindly in the ramshackle shed behind her house. Cynae raised them from tiny grey eggs, fattened them with leaves harvested from the secret copse of mulberry trees beyond the stream. They grew plump and ripe (soft, white, and helpless), before winding themselves into cocoons and falling asleep. One by one, Cynae dropped the dreamers into a cast-iron pot of boiling water, one by one, they died. She dredged them out, let them cool, then sat and unreeled the cocoons, coiling long strands of pale yellow (yes, yellow) silk around her fingers. The swollen corpses she tossed aside. Once she had finished a batch of cocoons, she moved to her spinning wheel and twined the raw silk into reels of smooth gold.  These, she sold to the village tailor.

Even when food was scarce, Cynae never ate the mulberries.

At this juncture, questions arise, perhaps about Cynae's character and how she arrived at the house in the woods. We might question who (what?) lives in the house with her. We might ask what it wants.

Let's address the question of Cynae first.

Say she is a lost royal heir. She grew up kind and gentle and beloved by all, in a shining crystal palace beside a lake. Silver lilies grew all along the edge of the water, their green pads as large as manta rays, and bright fish darted in the shallows. Every day, new suitors would arrive from faraway lands, bearing opulent gifts and dressed in strange, fantastical clothing. They begged for Cynae's hand in marriage. To each, she offered friendship, but rejected their proposals.

A new suitor arrived and gifted Cynae with a marvellous device that allowed her to predict the weather. She beamed, knowing that the people of her country would always be prepared in the face of disaster, able to anticipate drought and safeguard against floods.

"Does your heart now belong to me?" asked the suitor, sure of their success.

But Cynae shook her head and said no.

In unadulterated fury, the scorned suitor laid a hex upon her, cursing the young heir to speak to others only in lies. The next day, another reception was held in the shining crystal palace.

The suitor knelt before the throne once again and asked, "Does your heart now belong to me?"

"Forever and always," Cynae replied.

The more Cynae tried to protest, the greater the declarations of love that spilled from her lips, till all were convinced of her ardour. In desperation, she fled, escaping the marriage and finding refuge in the most remote house in the most remote woods in all the world.

Say she is a fugitive. She grew up in a tyrannical household, beneath the unassailable rule of her pastor mother.

In the household, Cynae's boy-girl spirit was abhorred. It was an unnatural, two-faced, duplicitous spirit, and Cynae should have been drowned the day of her birth. Her mother explained this while trying to beat out the problem with an iron poker, snapping a bone or two, putting her back into it. Yet no matter how she swung, or with what intentions, her daughter could not be cured of her nature.

In her brokenness, Cynae befriended a three-legged dog. The stray frequented the alley behind the household, and accepted scraps of food with a gratitude that transformed into love. The dog became her sole companion; it licked her cuts and scrapes, it slept atop her feet at night.

When the iron poker caved in that dog's skull, and just for the barest moment, Cynae saw the pinkish gleam of its brain, her spirit finally splintered. What happened next should have been impossible, yet it happened. Perhaps the dead, mangled creature granted her a supernatural strength. When she left the town of her birth, the only creatures still living were insects and dogs. To the anonymity of the woods, she retired.

Say she is dreaming. She lives alone in a one-bedroom flat in a nameless grey city where it rains all the time and no one knows her name. Roaches have infested the apartment next to hers and scrabble along the thin, bare walls at night. Once, she worked at a fast-food franchise, scraping grease from the fryers to be recycled for tomorrow's servings of extra-large fries. But, over time, she found it more and more difficult to make her way down the wet street, to the packed train, to the oil-sticky kitchen. And, after a time, she stopped going to work. No one called.

The world beyond her apartment is rancid, the world inside is grey. Some days, she only gets as far as her couch before the feeling (absence of feeling?) cripples her and she curls into herself amidst the lurid blare of reality television. Bills gather in her unchecked mailbox. They seem irrelevant.

She contracts an illness and now scarcely wakes at all.

Did that help? Certainly, we are sure that Cynae had her reasons to be

stop reading now

in the woods, in the house, and these reasons must be tragic. We cannot know the specifics. We know she lived in the house.

The questions about it, on the other hands, are better left unasked and should never be answered. Little more can be said. Do not ask. Do not think.

The winter that year was dry and cold. The stream slowed, ice appeared in fine white beads on the lips of leaves, hundreds (thousands?) of silk worms died stillborn, never to leave their eggs. In the village, people bundled up and locked their doors tight, for wolves were on the prowl and hunger was its own law. A simple girl strayed, disappeared. The farm dogs howled all through the nights and their ears and noses streamed with blood and no one knew why.

In the deep green woods, in the broken-down-tumble-down house, in a mossy kitchen, before a flickering hearth, Cynae sat at her wheel and spun. While she fed the silk to the bobbin, her foot working the treadle, her hands guiding the loose strands, she sang. Her voice was no louder than the crackling of the fire or the low rumbling of the wheel. Her voice was not beautiful, but it filled up some of the quietness of the house so that other sounds could not fit. She sang:

Speak not of the devil, or so he shall appear.

Speak not of the devil, or so he shall appear.

The knock on the door stilled her voice. For a long moment, Cynae sat perfectly still. The wheel slowed, clack-clack-clacking to a halt, and the silence of the house thickened. A second knock. She stood, walked to the door.

"Please let me in!" a voice cried. "Please, quickly!"

Here, another moment of hesitation. Then Cynae unlatched the door and the freezing wind rushed in, sending the flames of the hearth guttering.

"Thank goodness stop reading now you are here," said the man outside. "The wolves are closing in. I beg you, let me stay the night."

The man is not a villager; we can tell from the set of his features. Although the cold air rakes across his clothing and skin, he does not shiver. He carries nothing, no weapons, no pack. There is nothing memorable about his appearance.

We don't wish to leave you out in the cold, truly, we don't. And we won't ask much. We will expect a demonstration of your loyalty, that is all. When the time is right. Keep reading, by all means. There is nothing to fear.stop

Do you ever notice the light flickering? Say you are outside in broad daylight, surrounded by a great number of people. Enough people that it is beyond the bounds of possibility for all of them to blink simultaneously. For a fraction of a second, a shadow is cast over the world. On-off-on, just like that. Yet when you look around, see the faces of the people, there is no reaction. Not a single one of them saw the darkness. And you dismiss it—probably a bird, probably something in my eye—and go on with your life. A word of caution, that is all.

"Is there any room for me in your home?" the man asked.

"I am alone," Cynae replied.

The man took this as assent and entered, rubbing his arms vigorously. Cynae did not stop him and bolted the door once he was inside.

The house was not an inviting place. It consisted of three rooms: the kitchen, where our characters sat, the room where Cynae slept, and a third room of unclear purpose. The rooms were all connected, the kitchen to the bedroom to the other room to the kitchen again; no matter where you stand, we can see you. Mould and fungus bred in the walls, black and oily in the kitchen, pale grey elsewhere, and moss grew in damp recesses, green fingers creeping up cracks in doorframes, sprouting in the sink. The furniture, what little there was, smelt damp and groaned under the lightest of touches.

She said: "I am alone." That is what she said. But what she meant we do not know, only we are quite sure the statement is untrue, at least within the walls of the broken-down-tumble-down house in the deep green woods. Why she said "I am alone," we leave up to you.

"I have travelled for fifty days and fifty nights," said the man before the fire. He held his hands out to the flames for warmth, but still, he had not given the faintest shiver in all the time he had spent in Cynae's company. We note the omission and highlight it. "I am bone-weary and can offer nothing to you except my company and a story."

Cynae resumed her seat. The silence was pressing near and brought with it a faint smell of old metal.

"Stories are not worth much," she said.

"I suppose not," he sighed. "But at least they make the room less quiet."

And so he began his tale of peril and adventure. The room seemed to grow warmer and brighter as he spoke. He spoke a long time and he spoke of many things, and so long and so varied was his discourse that five more logs were set in the hearth before he finished. Gold-teethed pirates, dancing bears, great mountains made of porcelain, fish that spoke eight languages, cities ruled by benevolent plants, the man wove them, twined them, spun them all together.

And in the glow of the story, the sickly pallor of Cynae's cheeks eased, the gaunt lines of her face softened and she started to appear much younger. Her head lolled every now and again, as the story blended with dreaming, taking on new colours.

"And so that's how I ended up here," said the man.

Cynae stirred. Her eyes darted from the man to the doorway of the room of unclear purpose. Her lips parted, but she did not speak.

The man stretched. "I don't wish to cause you any further trouble, so I will sleep here by the fire. I need no blanket or pillow and I shall leave first thing in the morning."

Cynae's mouth moved, yet still she did not speak. A strange light gleamed in her eyes, desperation or avarice or fear. How quickly the silence slipped in! In the doorway to the room of unclear purpose, a shadow was cast upon the floor, it made no stop reading now

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You have gone too far.

Are you ever alone in a familiar room, watching TV or, as now, reading, and you look up, maybe because you hear a creak or groan in the ceiling, and something moves? Not an object, not exactly, you cannot put a colour or a shape to it. You blink, there is nothing there, but now the whole room seems strange and has acquired a terrible kind of symmetry, you realise that you are alone and defenceless, yet you know that you are not alone, it is here, somewhere, just out of your line of sight, stupid, you think, but still you know, it is here. It has always been here but you forget. A word of caution. Make sure the shadows line up.

In the morning, the frost was crisp and glittering and the man was dead. His mouth, once rich with story, was covered with a thick, sticky gag of yellow silk that stretched from the bridge of his nose to the point of his forgettable chin. The silk formed a solid mass that crushed his swollen purple tongue and clotted inside his gullet, as if a worm had crawled between his lips and spun in a wild frenzy. A passionate, corrupted kiss. The man's eyes were open and glassy and fixed on the swirling soot stains on the ceiling above.

Sweat gathered on Cynae's forehead as she dug the grave in the secret mulberry grove beyond the stream. The earth was hard as metal in the cold, but she worked ceaselessly. Clank, shuck, thunk. Again. Clank, shuck, thunk. Again. Her warm breath billowed, her throat ached. By midday, the hole sunk to little more than a foot. Wolves would dig that up in minutes and leave pieces of the stranger all over the woods, pollinating the land with bones.

The frosted ground grew a little softer and yielded to the spade. Cynae appeared to find new energy; her rhythmic work rattled the quiet woods, and she sang to herself. When the pit reached five feet deep, she set down the shovel and wiped her brow.  At the bottom of the grave, a white object gleamed. It might have been a root or a stone.

Cynae awkwardly manoeuvred the corpse into the pit and clambered out. The night approached, gathering at the base of the trees. She did not rush. She repacked the grave with methodical, precise movements. But before the man's face disappeared beneath a shower of dark brown dirt, Cynae paused. She leaned down and pulled the tangle of suffocating silk from his face. Then she carried on with the burial.

The dogs started howling in the village and, the grave filled, Cynae headed for the house. She dragged the shovel behind her; it clipped and clanked on stones and roots, providing a jaunty accompaniment to the distant wailing. Her shoulders were slumped; she trudged onwards with eyes fixed on the path.

She checked on the last of the season's silkworms, floundering inside the dark shed. There was plenty to spin, a fortune to be made from shining saliva.

A single worm had escaped from one of the boxes. It inched towards the open door. Cynae’s face expressed neither anger nor satisfaction as she stepped on it, grinding down the heel of her boot.

Pronouns are funny, aren't they? We get so caught up in the he's and she's that others slip right by. Take it, for example. It is our favourite pronoun. In the most common instance, the word it can be used to refer to an entity whose gender is nonexistent or disregarded.

However, most people wouldn't dream of calling Cynae it. That would be disrespectful. We might call an infant it, at a push. Or a corpse. In wrinkled beginnings and endings, the impetus of politeness has less force.

It was old, oh yes. So old that dust had been mountains at the moment of its birth and longer shadows stalked the trees.

Another use for the word it: to refer to a group, as in "The wolf pack met a one-legged stranger on the road, after which it was never seen again," or “The silkworm brood shared a common mind, an ancient mind, it waited, it hungered.”

And yet another use for this elusive, dangerous pronoun? Well, some call it a dummy pronoun. If you're a linguist, a placeholder subject. The word serves when you can't identify the actor, when you are uncertain of who is leading you along, who is telling you to stop, or carry on, who has been here all this time and a long time before that.

The house reeked of iron. Cynae took off her boots and left them beside the front door. The fire would not start in the hearth; she could not seem to lay the coals correctly, she fumbled with the flint and sparks skittered across the stone floor. This clumsiness was unusual. She muttered a curse, restacked the tinder, and tried again. This time the cold coals caught and, with some coaxing, steadied. Flames cautiously expanded and Cynae left the hearth, dusting off her knees.

The day's labour appeared to have exhausted her. She performed small chores, made a modest meal from dried vegetables and meat, tended to the fire so that the house grew warmer.

The thought may have occurred to you—why doesn't Cynae leave the house? She must be capable of eking out an easier life elsewhere. But what would you know? People have their reasons. Here are three:

  1. She felt she deserved the life of occupant of the broken-down-tumble-down house.1
  2. She had no choice.2
  3. The house enabled her to achieve certain ends.3

1Do not underestimate a person's capacity for self-loathing.
2There are parts we cannot know.
3How did the man die?

All or none of these reasons may have applied to Cynae.

Does the uncertainty make you feel uncomfortable? From the start, every fact has been a battle, a pulling of teeth (fangs?) and what treacherous ground you have gained. Have you gained ground? Let us tell you a secret. The dead man was a woman.

Where are you now? All you can say with certainty is that these words exist on the page before you, yet now the words themselves gain altered connotations, they change. You find that you must recalibrate—a woman makes a better dead body, of course, but what of his (her?) demeanour? What of the stories of adventure and peril? What of his (her?) solitude in the deep, dark woods in the heart of winter? The picture in your mind slips, slips, and then shatters.

And Cynae? Oh, the "she" has conditioned you, we have conditioned you, and did you never think to wonder, to what end?

Where are you now?

We could share more secrets. Cynae did not sing the word "devil" in her song, she used another name. At the dead man's (woman's?) grave, certain words were spoken and actions were taken that we neglected to describe. We know the purpose of the room of unclear purpose.

Certainty, you demand, a clear, cold, hard, and unassailable statement of fact. And now you have a chance, a rare chance, to pin one down. Strip the silk worm of its cocoon, so to speak. Do unto her as she has done unto . . . but we digress.

Cynae, tired and cold, had crawled into her bed. Her heavy eyelids fluttered, although even in her weariness she had a restless body, muscles tight and wound and bunched defensively. Cynae's bed was as far from the door to the room of unclear purpose as it could be. Black marks scoured the stone slabs of that threshold.

At length, the coiled muscles relaxed and her eyes stayed shut.

Draw closer, draw closer. This is as far as we can go, but you, well, different rules apply. Watch her breathe. It is slow, she is dreaming; see how her eyes move beneath their lids. Her sleep deepens, deepens, deepens. Do you see it? Her chest moves only so often, almost not at all. Her face is blank. She will not wake, you cannot stir her.

The blanket that covers her is old and patched. Feel the warmth of the worn fabric beneath your fingertips. Raise it slowly, one centimetre at a time, to reveal the sleeping body underneath.

Cynae shivered and a frown appeared just above her eyebrows.

Easy now. Hold it in your mind that she will not wake. Again, pay attention to her breathing, see how calm and sedate. Add snoring, if you want. Good.

In the depths of the winter months, Cynae wore a faded shirt and threadbare woollen pants. The clothes were shapeless but functional, serving to keep her from freezing in the draughty house.

The shirt is hitched up and you can see her bare hip. Or his bare hip. At last, you have a means to ascertain. Anatomy might give us grounds for presumptions at the meeting of two legs. Perhaps not? Would you like to see? Take the scratchy fabric of her woollen pants in your hands, like that, feel the roughness of the fibres in your grasp. Now gently ease the pants down, past her hips, do not hesitate, you wanted to know, didn't you? Prove yourself. Keep going, slowly, slowly.

There was a knock on the door.

Cynae jolted awake and sat straight up in her bed. Her blanket lay on the floor in a crumpled heap and her pants sat low on her hips. She pulled them back up.

The knock came again.

Cynae picked up the blanket and wrapped it around her shoulders like a cloak. The quietness of the house oozed. From the doorway of the room of unclear purpose, a shadow was cast on the floor. It made no sense—the shadow did not seem to connect to any object. It was there. It is here. Little more can be said. Do not ask. Do not think. A word of caution. Make sure the shadows line up.

The knock came again.

"Speak not of the devil, or so he shall appear," Cynae sang. Her voice had the wavering, raspy quality of the recently awakened. "Speak not of the devil, or so he shall appear."

A voice from outside the house responded, "The devil is already here."

Cynae did not look towards the doorway of the room of unclear purpose. Instead, she retrieved a pair of sheepskin slippers from beneath her bed and put them on. She stamped her feet twice and exchanged the blanket for a brown coat. Nothing about her posture or actions suggested hurry, or indeed much feeling at all. Whoever was outside did not knock again, or speak. They seemed to know it was unnecessary.

Cynae padded into the kitchen, still without once looking towards the room of unclear purpose. Even now, the slow-dying hearth glowed orange and warm, and the dark mould dripping down the walls resembled blood. The house had been wounded. Cynae lit a beeswax candle and set it on the rough-hewn kitchen table, pushing back the shadows. It is possible she was stalling. Maybe she hoped the person outside would give up and leave. This is possible.

Yet the person (person?) outside did not leave; their (our choice of pronoun, indefinite singular antecedent, signifying unknown, signifying ungendered, signifying multiple) presence permeated through the cracks around the doorframe. And so Cynae unlatched the door and peered through the gap.

Standing on the hard-packed earth before the entrance was an adolescent girl in tattered clothing. She had a bright, starved appearance; her eyes contained a sort of preternatural wideness and depth. Chasm eyes. Eyes that saw colours outside the usual spectrum. Her left leg was missing, and she walked with a crutch.

"We are the simple girl who disappeared," she said. "You probably forgot about us. Let us in, for we are chilled to these bones."

Cynae did not budge. Chasm Eyes stared and waited.

"You will leave this house colder than you are now," Cynae said at last.

"A prophecy or a threat or a warning or a lie? Regardless, the warmth of your hearth is not untrue and it is this warmth that we seek."

Beneath the weight of those eyes, further resistance, for whatever Cynae's reasons, proved too heavy. The door swung open wider and admitted the stranger into the rosy heart of the broken-down-tumble-down house. Without asking permission, Chasm Eyes set about making herself a meal, clanking and clanging around the kitchen with pots and spoons and knives and plates. The noise made Cynae wince.

"We have wandered for fifty days and fifty nights," said Chasm Eyes, rummaging through the stocks of dried meat and maize. "And now we are here."

"I am glad for your company," said Cynae.

"Perhaps it is better that you do not speak," Chasm Eyes said, not unkindly. "Your words are too uncertain to hold value."

Do you begin to feel safer, in the presence of this newcomer and the warm light and the bluster of the kitchen? Does the presence of the room of unclear purpose seem to recede? Then we invite you to consider.

Consider: her missing leg, fifty days and fifty nights of winter in the deep green woods, wolves, the human need for nourishment, the law of hunger.

Consider: she does not speak like a lost village girl, the use of plurals, her smell.

Consider: she is now in the house, Cynae is now in the house, teeth, the knives in the kitchen, the law of hunger.

Chasm Eyes hummed to herself as she wielded the shining cleaver. Cynae sat before the hearth and prodded the embers with an iron poker.

"We're sorry," said Chasm Eyes, to no one in particular. Thunk, thunk, thunk, the cleaver hit the cutting board. Her small body possessed unexpected power.

Cynae brushed her spinning wheel with one hand. It rotated, the sound a warning. Or a reminder.

"Yes, noise is wise," said Chasm Eyes. "Why, we could create our own symphony." She ran the edge of the cleaver across a smaller knife so that it produced a whistling hiss. “We could howl.”

Cynae brought the wheel’s rotation to a halt.

"Tell us, old one, do you let anyone who knocks into the house?" said Chasm Eyes, but she was not talking to Cynae anymore. One by one, she dropped pieces of meat into a cast-iron pot. "Princes and thieves, murderers and saints, men, women, anything in between? Voyeurs?"

No response.

"There is no one to speak to but me," said Cynae. "I live alone."

"Hush, hush. But not too much."

Consider: her riddles, her eyes, her late appearance here, the fact that she does not seem simple, not the slightest bit.

Oh, we do not like her.

"What does it want, do you think?" Chasm Eyes pivoted on the spot, reached for the jar of coarse salt. "It is not driven by hunger, unless its appetite is pitiful or its diet is immaterial. It is not driven by feeling, unless its feelings are alien to our understanding. It is not driven by power, unless its kingdom is no larger than the tenant's mind and the space between these walls. We've been watching and watching and still, we are at a loss."

Cynae pressed her lips together, so tight that they turned bloodless and merged with the skin of her face. Note her knuckles, standing clear and pale, as her hands clenched around the poker. She uttered a low hiss, like words were pent up in her mouth but dissolved into esses around her tongue.

"We overstep," Chasm Eyes bowed her head to Cynae. "Forgive us. We are just a hungry girl and our words go in all directions."

"I do not understand you," said Cynae.

Chasm Eyes swung the laden black pot over to the fireplace and hung it above the flames. "Pronouns are funny, aren't they? There are four here: we, she, it, and you. Or maybe three. That concerns us. Allegiances concern us."

"You are alone," said Cynae.

"We are never alone," Chasm Eyes had a gaze that glittered. "You were drawn to the broken-down-tumble-down house in the deep green woods, with its shades and its silences and its old green places. And then, before you knew it, you had gone too far and become too involved and could not escape. Is that not the case?"

Perhaps it was the heat of the kitchen or the flickering of the candle, but the mould on the walls appeared to move, gleaming wet and raw.

"This will take some time to soften." Chasm Eyes stirred the flesh within the pot with a wooden spoon. She lowered your voice. "Do you know why you are scared?"

"I am not afraid. There is nothing to fear."

"Because you don't know," said Chasm Eyes in a manic whisper. "And that, in turn, is your defence. And ours. It doesn't know what we might be hiding. It doesn't know if there is another predator here. One who may stop reading."

"Your words are meaningless."

"Its interest shifts. It has not settled on which of us it would pursue. Who is the threat? The voyeur, the tenant, or us? Round and round it circles. For a brief while, you have a chance, a rare chance, to leave. Perhaps it is too tightly bound to you, but perhaps it will follow another."

Cynae blinked and an expression crossed her face, complex and delicate and powerful. She half rose from her seat beside the hearth, her eyes darted to the abandoned cleaver.

"Are you in league with it, we wonder? Sit, sit," Chasm Eyes said. Her gaze shifted. “Are you?

Cynae hesitated. The quietness stirred.

For the barest fraction of a second, Cynae saw (was allowed to see?) something else sitting in Chasm Eyes's place, predatory, blood streaming from nostrils. She sat down again very swiftly.

"You said you were not afraid, tenant," murmured Chasm Eyes. "Of what, we wonder."

The air was charged and, even through the sweaty odour of boiling meat, a faint metallic smell roiled. A reel of finespun silk gleamed in the candlelight.

"The morning would be the best time to go, if that's what you want," said Chasm Eyes. "Tell us a story, tenant."

"Stories are not worth much," Cynae said, with a steady voice.

The light flickered.

"Yours had better be," Chasm Eyes replied.

Cynae began in the beginning. She spoke about where she had grown up and how, about small tragedies and losses, small joys and gains. She spoke a long time and she spoke of many things, and during her varied and lengthy discourse the darkness in the room grew darker and the quietness of the room grew quieter, and blind white worms inched along and the bloodstained walls began to reek of iron. Yet still she spoke, she poured out the story, or she poured out the lies, and who is to say the difference; as long as the yarn is twisted, twined, and spun together right, the thread will hold true. The hearth dipped and burned out and the house grew icy and Cynae's story was accompanied by clouds of white drifting from her mouth. She did not stop at any point and her voice grew strained and dry as winter. At last, the tale drew to a close.

"And so that's how I ended up here," she said.

One breath, two. A third.

Chasm Eyes smiled. "I do believe it's time for breakfast."

Say in that moment the curse was broken and Cynae's tongue was freed. Say in that moment she finally grieved for the death of a friend. Say in that moment she woke up in a one-bedroom flat and the world appeared just a little less grey.

Say in that moment, that breakfast was not to be found in a heavy pot above a cold fire. Say in that moment that it was not dawn at all. Say that we warned you, and now, well. . . .

Say anything you like. The quietness must be filled. Cynae was no longer tenant of the house in the deep green woods. Chasm Eyes stayed a little longer, cleaned up the kitchen and locked up the house. What a strange figure she cuts, with her depthless gaze and her one-legged gait and the faint smell of dog (wolf?) that clings to her skin. She departed toward the secret copse of mulberries beyond the stream.

In the woods there is a house. It is an old house, a broken-down house, a quiet house. Fine-leaved creepers snarl over the crumbling walls, their waxy fingers tangling, pressing against the window panes and inching down the chimney. This old house in the deep green woods was where no one lived. No one lived in the shades and the silences and in the old green places beneath the tumbled-down roof. In the house, no one lived.

Kerstin Hall is a writer from South Africa, with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. She is a 2016 Mandela Rhodes Scholar, currently pursuing a Masters degree at the University of Cape Town.
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13 May 2024

This variation on the elixir of life pairs the flavour of roasted roc with the medicinal potency of the philosopher’s stone. But buyer beware: this dish isn’t for everyone.
mourn and lament while mixing, then cut down a tree
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