by Esther Kao
Art by Wendy Hsu
Issue: Mirage (Summer 2014)
The knife in her hand flashes silver amidst the dark of the forest as she hacks at the branches in front of her, carving her way through the inextricable mass of wood in the forest. The shadow cast on the ground reveals light to her—but whether it be day or night, she will not relent.
Leaves crumple beneath her heavily-laced boots. Her knuckles are red and raw, and yet she throws her knife again and again at the branch in front of her. The wind whips at her face, hair lashing her cheeks, her ears stinging from the cold.
The branch in front of her is thick, with cuts running up and down its arm, but like her, it refuses to give way. Letting out a cry, she throws herself at the branch, only to collapse backwards. She glances down at the white scarf around her neck, running a swollen finger along the soft yarn.
It belonged to him, and now he is gone, eaten by the monster that roams the woods. Her village warned her, telling her that the monster that killed him will likely kill her too, that she needed to live on, for his memory. But she knows better. The Apati must pay, for what it did to him. She must make it pay.
She pushes herself up, and begins hacking at the branch again. A wordless scream is torn from her throat as she strikes again and again. Slowing her breath, she closes her eyes.
The thuds echoing throughout the dim forest match the dull throbbing of her gasping heart.
The Apati sits. Its body is partly submerged into dry soil, its face hooded by a dark cowl, and its yellow eyes blink as it watches the woman pound away at the tree. It stares at the white scarf wrapped around the woman. The furry hands go up to its neck, and it is startled at their warmth, the odd familiarity of the sensation.
It inhales; the scent of the woman clouds its nostrils. All thoughts gone, the hands drop, and saliva begins forming in the Apati’s mouth. But it knows the rules. Only after the glowing ball in the sky has already disappeared can it feast.
So the Apati sinks deeper into the ground as the woman falls to her knees, making strange gasping noises. It watches as the woman lifts her now-red face, wiping her eyes.
The yellow eyes flicker to the sky, embossed with spectral trees. The glowing ball in the sky is sure to disappear soon, and the woman remains still in the forest, the shadows outlining her skin slowly fading into darkness.
The Apati’s stomach grumbles. A small smile curves its lips. Soon, it will be time.
She falls to her knees, her skin scraping against the dirt. The white scarf slips from her neck.
She scrabbles for it, and her grubby fingers streak dirt stains across its snowy surface. She hugs it close, breathing in its woodsy scent—his scent. When the others in her village went scrounging in the forest, they found it, brought it to her.
Scrubbing a tear from her cheek, she takes a shuddering breath. The knife in her hand trembles. For him. She will avenge his memory.
Forcing herself once again to her feet, she wraps a hand around the branch in front of her. She grits her teeth, twisting her arm. Her vision flashes red, black; dots swirl before her eyes.
The branch snaps off with a crack. She storms through the forest, the white scarf trailing through the dirt after her.
“Apati!” she bellows. “Show yourself!” She leaps forward, then begins turning in slow circles, her gaze piercing through the wall of branches.
She can hear her blood pounding in her temples. The knife is sharp, stinging her palm, and she wipes her trickling blood on the scarf. She bites her tongue, tightens her grip.
She nearly trips on the scarf, stretching it out. Catching her balance, she shakes the scarf out, allowing it to billow in the wind. “Apati!” she screams. “Stop hiding from me!”
She will have her revenge, even if it kills her.
A twig snaps. A hooded figure, yellow eyes blinking, emerges, fitting through the web of branches.
She pauses. Her breath catches in her throat.
The Apati emerges from nowhere, dirt specks flying as it leaps out of the ground. Its eyes are big, wide. It lumbers towards her, a low guttural sound emanating from its chest.
The knife slides from her grasp—she has no use for it. She walks towards the Apati.
It tilts its head at her. It leans forward. She feels its whiskers as a whisper on her cheek, like the touch of a delicate newborn. She lets it come close and take a good sniff.
Carefully, she raises the scarf, slowly, tentatively. The Apati’s eyes are still fixated on her.
And then she brings the scarf down around its neck, leaning forward and pressing her knees into the creature’s chest. The Apati twists and squirms in her grasp, snarling and hissing and thrashing. A shriek escapes her lips as a claw lashes at her leg, and she bites down hard, only to open her mouth, gasping in pain, spewing blood out.
And yet she holds on, kicking the Apati repeatedly in the chest, screaming and shrieking and—
The body goes limp. The hood collapses to the ground in empty folds.
She drops down on all fours, next to the body.
It is oddly human-like, with arms and legs and fingers, albeit obscured by reddish fur. She leans over—the eyes are unseeing and cloudy blue. Something in her tenses, then she is jerking up, backing away. Wind ruffles the longish hairs on the body, and she realizes with horror that they are rising from the body, swirling, spiraling, lit by a strange yellow glow. The ground beneath her gives way, her feet making indents in the dirt. She tries to jerk her foot up, but to no avail. The mass of fur comes towards her, spinning slow circles around her and the body.
Her eyes go to the body. The skin is smooth and pale, mouth and nose clearly distinguishable on the face. Her heart spasms as she cries out, agony swelling throughout her body. It’s him, he is the one lying there, strangled to death. He is the one behind the fur, the cloak, the hood—a whimper escapes from her throat. She killed him. And then she is sinking, falling into the earth, her legs stiff and frozen.
The cloud of fur rustles around her, circling quicker and quicker. She tries to breath, but fur enters her mouth, her throat, cutting off airflow. Her pulse is racing, pulsing against her surroundings, and she raises her arms, waving at the fur. The dirt is up to her waist now. She chokes on fur, on her breath. Dirt fills her mouth, and she sinks lower and lower, the fur amassing on her skin, her vision flashing with hues of red.
Hands scrabble desperately at the ground before sinking into the shadows of the forest.
The sun gives up its vigil, slipping away, shrouding the world in dark night.
A creature peers out from between the crevice of a branch, its yellow eyes unblinking. The glowing sky ball has set, and it is time to hunt. It sniffs the air, before releasing a low moan and lumbering off.
Around its neck is a once-white scarf, eternally stained scarlet with blood.