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I: Hare

Tonight, under a dim and waning moon, I keep watch against the dark and its creatures. My lovers sleep in our threadbare tent, huddled together against the cold of the mountains. Although building stones cast long shadows behind me like reposing giants, we’re a long way still from settling here. Making a home means setting roots, a petrifying thought.

Fear. The first emotion I was expected to shed after I took the Oath. Yet here I am, a man afraid beside the smoldering campfire embers, the leftovers of tonight’s stew. My grip tightens around the shotgun nestled in my lap. Our camp is easy prey; three men against nature, and I the only one awake.

Three—once four—men against the darkness, too. Because I felt it, deep in my heart dressed black in mourning: power thrums in this clearing where our clan fled to safety. Ley lines like claw marks bored into the stone and soil by some entity that was here long before us and will remain extant forever afterward. These mountains are awash with writhing, wrathful shadow-spirits, but the clearing lies still and silent. It felt safe to set up camp, cradled within these natural borders of rock.

My parents, rest their souls, were like that. Fearful. Fearful of raising a girl child, they dressed me in male name and clothing as a toddler. The novelty soon became habit, the habit comfort now, a skin I wear with ease deep into adulthood. Yet, no matter how stalwart I stand against the darkness, guarding my lovers and this holy place, I am always my parents’ child of fear.

Maybe wild animals will devour our flesh, maybe whatever magic keeps the unrested spirits away will cease its hold. Maybe we will be found by our old clan and stoned to death. Because we can be men, act like men, dress like men, but we are never allowed to love like men. When we love one another, the four—now three—of us, it is an act of treason.

That’s when he appears, summoned by my wildling thoughts. The snout of a badger, larger than any I have seen, nosing between two silver shrubs. Striped black and white, the fur long but not unkempt, the eyes like river-shined pebbles, and just as ancient. So uncanny, he is, like a constellation of an animal rather than a being of flesh and blood.

I know the stories about these mountains, how few things are what they seem. Yet for once in my life, I feel the absence of fear, a white noise ringing between the treetops like the silence after a gunshot. Everything I’ve felt about this place, my mourning-black heart tells me, has culminated to this. I know now the ley lines and expanse of rock have been marking the borders of the badger’s holy ground. The life we brought into it, expelling Death from his home.

I reach into the pocket of my rough wool trousers, present this badger—this not-badger—with a handful of blueberries. He snuffles against my fingertips as he accepts my offering for the invitation it is.

With purple-stained snout, the badger regards me while the sky pales with dawn. I walk, and the badger pads after me, his gait changing from that of four paws to two feet.

Death follows me into camp.


 

II: Starling

I have not spoken a word since I watched our lover Fox tumble down a cliff, his body swallowed by the mountain’s sharp-toothed maw. I was the one who tried to retrieve the body. My hands have long stopped weeping red from briar and rock, but sometimes I look down and see blood when there’s none, grooved between the scars.

Today is my turn to hunt for our dinner. I do not enjoy it, aiming my shotgun, steeling my heart for the thud of an animal body hitting the forest floor. Its echo percussing in my ears for days afterward. But we need food to survive, cut off from everything but the mountain’s bounty. If I don’t hunt, my remaining lovers and I will go hungry. I would insist on foraging if not for the frozen ground.

At least the hunt has been more bearable ever since Death joined our clan three full moons ago.

He moves snow-hushed through the underbrush beside me, not a badger now but a man made of bone, clad in a black shepherd’s cloak. A soothing presence. Haunting, too. At least Death doesn’t expect me to talk when I have neither words nor voice left. Death doesn’t mind the invisible blood on my hands.

When my uncoordinated feet catch on an exposed root, Death places a steadying hand on my arm. I flinch. It’s not that his touch—smooth, and dry as sun-bleached bark—isn’t gentle. But ever since I watched Fox slip and fall during our arduous journey here, every hard-won touch has felt like the bite of frost. I try to pantomime that I’m not scared of him; I don’t want Death to abandon our encampment. He only smiles placidly. The emptiness of his eye sockets, nostrils, and mouth hum like the darkness behind heavenly bodies.

“Brother Starling,” says Death. “I understand.”

Brother. It’s how we address each other, those of us who have taken the Oath. But I’ve been thinking, lately, in the quiet of my head. When my village folk—the uncle and aunt who raised me, the baker I apprenticed to—called me a she, a sister, the words, along with my old name, never seemed to fit. But being a brother who has taken the Oath to walk this world as a man fits, at times, just as ill. I wonder if there is some other name or word calling out to me like the wind at night. A song I’m not yet ready to decode.

Death’s hoary finger points toward the meadow ringed by beech and fir, where a fallow deer grazes on grass. Stelliform yellow flowers disappear inside the deer’s velvety mouth.

“There,” he says and keeps his hand on my own over the gun’s warm metal, helping me shoulder the blame. For that, I am grateful. Sometimes my lovers forget that just because we’ve been exiled to this rough terrain, just because we can smoke and drink and swear like our fathers and uncles, wear watches and shoot guns, we don’t have to forsake every last trace of the softness we were once taught.

The gunshot rings out across the clearing. Through it, I weave a sob, lost to the sound of bird flight. Death, by my side, falls on hands and knees, bones cushioned by fern fronds, paws sinking into rich soil. A badger again, he bounds toward the body of the shot deer, and I follow after him. This part always left me numb before. Watching the animal I killed bleed out, beady eyes beseeching before I dragged the carcass to our campsite.

This part—this ritual—has grown easier since we embraced Death into our fold.

I kneel on the other side of the deer while Death’s snout outlines the tawny body, snuffling gently to ease the heartbeats into the cradleland of ghosts. I know Death kissed Fox’s lips at the bottom of the ravine, throes of pain replaced by an embrace of soft, dark fur. This knowledge is what makes me think one day, perhaps soon, I can talk again, if only to give my thanks to Death.

But for now, I offer silent gratitude to the deer, for it will feed my two lovers and I. It will give us the strength we need to build our house of stone. To gather more fruits and nuts for our Death to feast on while he helps us work, watching us guard his holy ground from danger.

I climb back to my feet, ready to thread my fingers through Death’s fur, let him guide me and the deer’s body back to camp when I hear them. Shadows sizzling furiously, twigs snapping, my own shotgun wrenched from my back. Loaded, firing. And Death, surrounded by a darksome swarm of bat-like spirits, roaring from an inhuman mouth.

I look down at my hands, covered in blood again—not my lost lover’s, but my own.

 


III: Lynx

Once, as a child of twelve, I walked into the woods and named myself.

“Don’t you want one?” I ask Death as he and I gather firewood to build the biggest pyre our campsite has ever seen. “A name?”

The birds trill and the air bites, but the sun is there, a weak caress. Death’s wisp-thin voice rumbles through his rubbery badger mouth. “My kind goes by many names. As many names as there are clans.”

Putting down my bundle of firewood, I sit on a scarred tree stump. Roll a cigarette. Not because I enjoy the smoke rattling in my lungs, but because they were part of our late lover’s belongings. Before his Oath, the cigarettes were his rebellion. Now, my comfort.

My penance, too, for being too slow, too shocked to stop Fox’s demise.

“That’s not what I asked,” I reply. The rest of my lovers are content to let Death only share with us what he wants. Food, mostly. Nighttime stories and, occasionally, laughter. But anyone who’s ever known me can tell I don’t back down. A dog with a bone, my parents used to lament. “Don’t you want to choose a name for yourself, like we did? Something that sets you apart from others of your kind as our Death?”

Heat suffuses my cheeks as I realize how that sounded, but he’s smiling. Bone white, soothing-black. I’ve always loved the night sky and its milky mist of stars.

“Perhaps someday,” he says. “I could learn from you all.”

Once, as a child of twelve, I returned from the woods to dive into my father’s oaken crate. I took the clothing that were too small for him, used my mother’s teachings of thread and needle to shorten them further. And in their threadbare embrace, I pranced around the village.

Some of us took the Oath to escape the stories already written for us. Others have always been men. Some, like our lover Fox, to satisfy parents whose dying wishes were for their child to have the freedoms enjoyed by boys—all freedoms, but one. I took control of my narrative, my people’s ancient custom of manhood and celibacy, while my parents could do naught but watch.

And that was the beginning of me. Not at birth, but at the age of twelve.

“What do you really look like?” I ask Death.

I envied his shape-shifting when he and Hare first walked into our campsite. But now, I know better. How he, too, is trapped in skin and bone.

I catch a flash of whitest teeth; a mantle of darkness, greater than the forest itself. He and the unrested spirits are of the same cloth, but where they’re wrathful, Death is stoic. In all his forms, Death never smells of rot or musk, only lightning, rain. The disturbance is there, then gone. Like his body doesn’t know whether to be a badger, a skeletal human, or something else, shadowy and sidereal.

“That’s not what I meant,” I tell Death. The others are scared to ask what he cannot answer lest he abandon our encampment and ourselves. Not I. “What do you want to look like?”

He tilts his dead to the side in confusion. Constrained hope. “I don’t wish to frighten you.”

I tuck my extinguished cigarette behind my ear. “I wish for you to look like yourself.”

His face shifts again, the skin at once too tight and too loose, his four canines lengthening into pikes. The transformation stops just as quickly. He goes back to badger-form, eyes averted in shame at the shift in the facade.

No, I don’t envy Death anymore. He, too, is afraid. Of the shadow-spirits that haunt him, the disgust we might feel toward his monstrous form. The wants he thinks his kind is not allowed to have.

Once, when I had just tiptoed into adulthood, I went against the Oath sworn before twelve of my village’s elders. I took to bed a lover, and he was gentle and rough, bold and coy, and we slid and slapped together in the hayloft upon a scratchy home-spun blanket. I kept our lovemaking silent then for fear of discovery. Years later, when I met my clan, I would learn to love loud enough that birds took flight. I would be banished, flee to the mountains’ safety, camp out in the badger’s holy ground.

I want to ask Death if he’s capable of love, but I don’t. Even a dog with a bone sometimes fears breaking this good but brittle thing that has landed in his lap. And still, despite all my questions, or maybe because of them, Death looks at me with his face a mask of wonder.

Back in our campsite, the haphazard stone building that is almost a house—the place that is nearly home—I drop the firewood onto the pyre we’ve spent weeks assembling. Death joins Hare, heads bent together as they discuss the latest movement of the shadow-spirits along our campsite’s primordial borders. I leave them to it and visit my lover Starling’s bedside. He greets me eagerly as I wrap clean bandages around his leg wound where Death’s claws had removed the bullet.

He’s so much better now, Starling. Death is a tireless nurse. At times, I’d swear our lover Fox was in the room with them, watching over them both. In healing, herb-induced sleep, Starling’s mouth would soundlessly form the shape of Fox’s name. Not with pain for once, but almost like a smile.

“The shadow-spirits wish to hurt me through you,” Death had explained after carrying home our bleeding Starling. His fathomless eyes anciently sad, as though he expected us to banish him from his own holy ground. “I was young once, too. I made mistakes. Thought myself above the souls I was guiding beyond the mountain treetops. I didn’t spare a kind word for the dead. Didn’t kiss their lips to take away the sting. These spirits are just in their anger. I shall pay my penance, but not at your expense.”

We watched Death lick the blood from Starling’s wound, anoint it in viscous, amber honey. Whisper, “Once, I thought loneliness the only oath I could ever take.”

And we saw ourselves in him, and we asked, “How do we help you appease the unrested? How do we guide the spirits to their eternal clan?”

Death stared back at us like he was seeing humanity for the first time.

I hand Starling his crutches that Hare fashioned out of birch wood with his big, calloused hands. Tonight we shall build a pyre. Hare and I will arrange wood and kindling into a tangled nest for fire to roost. Starling will light our lost lover’s cigarette and throw it in the pyre. And Death will watch us, and watch over us while we appease the wrathful spirits, making these mountains a home.


 

IV: Chorus

Tonight, under a full and radiant moon, we dance as creatures in the dark. Around the fire in the clearing of Death’s holy ground, we sway like oaks, all of us together.

Brother Hare, who knew fear before he knew love, who guards our settlement better than the moon, who first felt the festering darkness of this place and underneath it all, the healing light. He, who invited Death into our home.

Brother Starling, who taught himself softness, crying at the sound of gunshots and breath leaving forest cradle; he, who watched Fox fall and rushed after him, who found solace in Death’s presence. Starling, who holds words like birds in his throat, waiting to speak his truth once the bandages come off, once there’s no more blood.

Brother Lynx, who as a young beast walked into the forest and found himself. Walked again as an adult seeking mountain sanctuary for his clan. He, who gathered wood for the biggest fire our campsite has ever seen; a dog with a bone, the first one to ask Death what he wants.

Brother Fox, our Fox. Rock dust and life blood, dearest Fox floating immaterial through flames, between smoke. His dance connects us all like swathes of moonlight over fern fronds. He, whom Death kissed tender on the lips down the cliff’s jagged maw. Who told Death to look after his lovers, and Death complied—curiously at first, then loyally.

And Death, clad in a form we’ve never seen before: badger behemoth walking on his hind legs, gloriously monstrous body towering tall, fur gleaming onyx black and frost white. Patches of bone peek through, teeth falling out of a distorted skull to be replaced by whetted shadows. Eyes like bottomless tunnels yet never once straying from their well-worn gentleness.

The pyre burns, the smoke billows into the black of the sky as we lower magical borders and call the unrested spirits into our home. They accept our invitation, the shadows drawing near, closing in. We feel the spirits against our skin like stagnant rainwater, and though we shiver, we do not stop our dance. When our grief, our guilt, our wounds try to make us stumble, we hold one another up. The spirits don’t harm us this time. They inspect the offerings around the fire, the blueberries we’ve gathered for them, the smoked deer meat.

We remember asking Death what we needed to sacrifice for the ritual to work. Pictured cutting our palms open, bleeding our red hearts over purple berries. He’d only smiled. Said: “You’ve already sacrificed too much in your lifetimes.”

And we thought of the Oath we took, what we had to give up along the way. How we were ravenous—we wanted to love one another openly, the way we deserved. How we were chased away with stones and curses, exiled to the mountains’ wilderness.

Death steps into the fire. We hold our breaths, but he has never lied to us; the flames don’t devour him, only embrace him in their lambent halo. The spirits of the dead follow him as a swarm of wasps eager to sting this badger behemoth made of bone and shadow. Soon, the last of his flesh is gone and only the distorted skeleton remains, dressed in a foggy film of furious spirits.

We are gripped by the need to rush to his side, help him the way he’s been helping us these past few months—not only to survive, but thrive. Still, we made a promise. Despite the quivers wracking our muscles, we do not jump into the flames after him. This part is not for us to intervene.

So we watch. We bear witness as the spirits flit charcoal among the tongues of crimson. Their bat-like bodies batter Death, try to fracture his skull by slithering within his eye sockets, his hollow nostrils. They scream high-pitched, nearly inaudible in their menace. Their righteousness. Hours or seconds must pass until the spirits’ movements grow lethargic, sorrowful. As if they are too weary to keep going.

That’s when Death listens. Although we cannot hear a word through the spitting flames and splintering wood, we know him well enough to know when he tilts his head attentively, when he listens to the words someone has to say to him. The spirits talk. Agitated, erratic, they air their grievances. And then, when it’s his turn, we watch Death reply. Calm, gentle, steadfast like he always is with us. Like he didn’t know how to be, a young and arrogant Death when he first met the unrested.

But this time, the spirits stop and listen.

Time stretches and liquefies, yet the flames never once diminish. Death and spirits, caught in a loop of conversation; emotions wheeling like the stars above until the sky lightens with dawn and the fire goes out like a candle, snuffed.

Death falls to his knobby, rattling knees. Patchwork fur, bones charred ash-gray. The spirits fade with the dying night and a faint, long-held sigh of relief. The veil lifts, then falls back into place, smooth and invisible.

We rush to Death’s side. Kneel around him in a protective circle despite the firewood’s leftover heat.

“It’s over,” our Death says, smiling tiredly. “Thank you.”

We’re happy for him but also worried. Because if the spirits—now appeased—are gone, he no longer needs our help, nor our campsite’s protection. He could go anywhere he wants. There are more exciting places to be than mountains settled by runaway humans.

Death peers into each of our faces. And again, he says, “Thank you, husbands.”

We gasp, we shake. Not brothers. Not even lovers. Husbands.

“No,” we utter, despite the yearning that flares behind our ribs, hope barely bridled. “In our old home, we could be ourselves as long as we never accepted the love of another.”

“You’re not back there,” Death says, ever-patient. “You’re in my deciduous palace now. We break bread every creeping dawn and say our prayers by the dwindling fire each night. Death is the last thing you think before you sleep, but in dreams and in waking, we walk through life as equals, as one.” Death smiles with eyes like embers, full of warmth. “You are not intruders but sworn protectors of my holy ground.”

We understand, now, how everything has been a ritual since we invited Death into our lives. Guarding our encampment, hunting and foraging, building the biggest fire to fumigate the wrath of the spirits, dancing one another into safety. A ritual and a courtship.

We break, we fall. Huddled together as one great and twisting tree, holding each other up against the crushing weight of the lie we were told. We can have this. This land, this life, we’re not just borrowing it, walking numbly through it in fear, guilt. This is all ours to tend to, plant a nourishing garden, honor the memory of the dead, build and baptize this settlement a sanctuary, a home.

Death—beautiful, grotesque—touches each of our tear-wet cheeks with careful claws. His snout sniffs at our trembling hands in invitation—the final part of our courtship. This, here, is a choice. Fingers finding fur, we accept Death’s offering.


Editor: Aigner Loren Wilson

First Reader: Ana Maričić

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Avra Margariti is a queer author, Greek sea monster, and Rhysling-nominated poet with a fondness for the dark and the darling. Avra’s work haunts publications such as Vastarien, Asimov's, and F&SF. The Saint of Witches, Avra’s debut collection of horror poetry, is available from Weasel Press. You can find Avra on twitter (@avramargariti).
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