Once upon a time, the Forest People and the human beings from the town were at war. The Forest People broke into homes at night and stole babies. They turned all the water in the wells to bile. Worst of all, they took the maidenhood of the town’s young women. Once you’d been sullied by a forest man, you were barren for life. You lived out your days crying like a lamb in the clover fields, waiting for a dark lover that would never return.
Except in the case of my grandmother.
She was done in by one of the men from the forest, and he came back. He stole in through her window at night and left her gifts while she slept; a section of wild honeycomb, a necklace carved from bear bone. He wound purple strands of heather through her dark hair. He worshipped her; he would do anything to stay in her favor.
Her father, my great-grandfather, he was a soldier. He noticed something strange hanging about his daughter. He saw that she smiled to herself over the evening dishes, that she was often broken out in a fine mist of sweat when she came downstairs for breakfast.
He waited up one night and listened at her bedroom door. Hearing the sound of fervent whispering, he rushed into her room to find her sheets rumpled and the curtains pulled back. Standing in the middle of the moonlight was a demon with long limbs and silver hair that glowed faintly like the reflection of light on water. His daughter lay limp in the thing’s arms.
“She’s carrying my child,” the forest thing said without speaking. “It is almost time.”
My grandfather went wild with indignation. His daughter was pure. A human woman had never been implanted with a demon baby. He charged at the creature, swinging his sword over his head and demanding that the demon free my grandmother.
“I will not,” the creature said, its black eyes narrowing. “I love her and the baby. She belongs to me, now.”
My grandmother opened her eyes. “It’s true, father,” she said. “I am beginning to labor.”
This was too much for my great-grandfather to bear. He lashed out at the two of them, his heart broken. He plunged his blade into the Forest Man’s belly. Black blood ushered forth from the wound, the creature cried black tears. My grandmother crumpled onto the hardwood.
“I am dying, my love,” the creature gurgled.
“You promised,” my mother cried into the shimmery night air. “You swore to never leave me.”
“I am sorry,” the Forest Man said, clutching at his wound.
“It is time,” my grandmother said. “Your child is almost here.”
My great-grandfather stepped towards them, huddled together on the bare floor, his daughter’s dress pulled up around her waist. Her stomach bulged; her skin was near to ripping. How had he been oblivious to her condition until this moment?
“Not you!” my grandmother screamed. “Stay away from me or I will have you murdered where you stand. It wouldn’t take but a snap of my fingers.”
He was scared and still.
My grandmother grunted and pushed. Her hair was soaking. She held the slender, gray the hand of the creature. “Don’t go,” she said to him. “Don’t leave without me.” She panted and swore. The demon called out in pain and rolled onto his side. A dark puddle of blood grew slippery and wide around him. My grandmother knelt in it like a dog, wiped it across her face, licked it from her fingertips and smeared the front of her nightshirt.
“Here, my darling,” she whispered to the creature, “she is almost here.” She placed the forest man's trembling hand between her legs. “Feel her hair,” she said. “I love you, she is almost here.”
She removed her nightshirt, baring her body to her father who stood mute in the doorway. Her breasts were full and heavy, her thighs covered in smears of black blood. She wrapped the infant in her clothing and placed her on the rapidly rising and falling chest of the creature. Picking up her father’s blade and cleaning the hilt with her hair, she braced herself against the tip and fell purposefully over the body of her dying love.
They say my mother ended the wars.
The Forest People retreated to the land beyond the river and human kind expanded westward, leaving an expanse of barren forest where no one tread willingly, not even animals. The place between worlds was cursed. My mother and I lived in a cottage there on the hillside where my grandparents were buried next to the well. We brought them things, orange pebbles from the river, locks of our hair and the ends of all of our bread.
No one was sure who my father was. My mother had many suitors. Some of them had footfalls like cotton, some of them were men from the town. She had only accepted one of them, she said, and someday he would come for me, to crown me the princess of his people. The rest of them fell ill and doting, drawn in by her beauty, invited into her bed lined with the skin of a black bear she felled in the winter. We ate even its heart.
The rest of the men clawed at the sky, refusing to eat or drink, tortured by having been near enough to smell the honey of her skin. They walked blindly through the forest at midnight to fall at her feet. “There, there,” she said, stroking their hair, squeezing sweet wine onto their tongues with the hem of her dress, "you found me." Many of them came to her bed, but she had only chosen one.
Sometimes I felt him watching me from the forest. Once, I even heard him speaking as I drew water from our well. “Mine,” he said, and all of the hair on my body stood on end. I felt him, a warm breeze on the bareness of my neck, but I kept my face averted. I watched the rippling surface of the water below as I lowered my bucket. Suddenly, his face appeared over my shoulder in the reflection. Silver hair so fine and straight, wide, yellow eyes like gold. I only caught a glimpse of him and my heart stopped beating.
I startled and pitched forward, falling like a stone into the blackness of the well. I plunged head first into the icy water, kicking wildly. I could see a circle of light in the sky. I reached for it, fumbling and panicking for the surface, for air that would never come.
“You are mine,” he said.
He was near to me. I felt his slipperiness in the water. “You have nothing to fear.” I stopped struggling. I knew him before he touched me. Grasping me around my ribcage, he pulled me down like a stone.
For the Indie Ink Writing Challenge this week, Diane challenged me with Tell us a good old-fashioned "Once upon a time" story and I challenged Jules with That's how everybody found out about me.