A Warmth in the Forest (Pt 1)
A Very Long Time Ago, Before The Elders Were Old
The town’s tale began with something long and warm in the forest.
Young men in town, the brawniest and the roundest, and the most foolhardy, were going missing. The first, the clockmaker’s son, was taken from Witches’ Well behind the squash fields where he’d been waiting for the baker’s niece. The cuckoos and grandfathers in the clock shop all cawed and gonged in unified cacophony with his screams miles away.
Dozens disappeared. The grandson of the innkeeper. The boy who just moved to town on the skirt tails of the tailor’s daughter. Theodore, the older brother of Lilian Butcher. The only men spared were those scrawny or elderly. Sturdy women, fat women, and hulking women were speculated to have gone next, being the right shapes and sizes, but not a single one was lost.
“Something in the woods is snatching them up,” graying elders whispered to each other. The oldest folks in the town, porch dwellers, remembered when the forest was given proper respect, proper suspicion. But times had changed, as they always do, and so did the collective courage of the townspeople. Children traipsed the woods all the time—parents who wanted their loud, talkative kids out of kitchen or shop, shooed them off to the woodland without concern.
Until, that is, three-year-old Margaux Poulter, littlest of the chicken farming family, who often strayed into the trees crawling into their backyard, walked out of the woods two days after the clocker’s son went missing with red on her hands. Her older sister, Lucie, thought it was wild blackberry juice, until Margaux shakily signed about a large worm burrow in the earth. In her small pockets were nuts and rocks she’d collected and, at the entrance of the dirt hole she’d also found small, blood-rubbed gears. They sent word to the clockmaker, who knew his work from anywhere, so a party of adults followed the toddler to the site. A handful of copper sevens, nines, and sixes laid just inside the gaping hole.
Soon, a group gathered to track down the beast, but it was unclear whether the task was a hunting party or a rescue mission, so they rounded up both fighters and nurturers. They split at daybreak, one half entering the woods by Witches’ Well and the other through little Margaux’s backyard.
When the two halves converged again for another forum, one of the searchers was missing. Even in such bright daylight, the only descriptions of the snatch were, “Everything got hot suddenly,” and “Whatever it is, is lightning quick and long as Witches’ Well is deep.” They tell the people, “The Beast is not afraid of us, and we’re definitely it’s dinner. After following its hole awhile, it seems to be a giant snakelike creature. Look out for slithering, hissing, sneaking, and creeping on the ground and in the trees. Also, beware of sudden spikes of heat.”
Later, when the townsfolk returned to their homes, Margaux asked Lucie what was going on. She signed to the toddler the warning conditions of the monster, and that the woods were now forbidden. Margaux frowned and asked again about the heat, claw-shaping her fingers from her mouth then turning them outward and forward, and how she felt a warmth in the forest. Lucie froze, clutched Margaux’s chin with one hand and fingerspelled with the other: No more forest.
As children are wont to do, Margaux broke the rules the moment she was unproperly supervised. Not an hour after Lucie’s stern cautioning, as the family prepared dinner and didn’t hear the backdoor slip open and shut, Margaux waddled through their cluster of grazing chickens and into the trees behind their house. It’d been some weeks since she last explored the woods, so her fear from first finding the massive worm burrow had faded. She plucked acorns and pebbles from the underbrush and stuffed them into her smock pockets, as well as a couple previously undiscovered silver threes.
The humidity stuck to her fine, almond-colored hair. It was normal-warm, not monster-warm, so she followed her usual path northward. Squirrels and dragonflies passed her by every once in a while, but otherwise the forest looked still.
She could not hear the rustling above. When the temperature rose, however, she slowed to a halt. Lucie had said about the heat: danger. Margaux startled into an unperfected run. Thrice she stumbled, soft knees rashing against the earth. One of the metal numbers and some nuts fell from her pockets, beading a wobbly trail behind her. Sweat bloomed across her skin.
Margaux couldn’t scream, she had no voice to do so. The monster dropped in front of her, stopping her in her tracks. Wailing silently, she crouched low with her arms over her face. The massive thing untangled between the trees, sinewy and serpentine, all grey scales and brown feathers and ivory horns. It had a doglike face, long snouted and sharp teethed, but the claws digging into dirt looked more like the lizards in the eastern mountain rocks.
The beast leaned down, long neck arching, and sniffed the back of Margaux’s head. Its whiskers brushed her elbows, tickling her, terrifying her. She squinted her eyes shut, trembled. The beast’s sweltering breath stunk of rust and oranges. With one arm still covering her, Margaux rubbed her other shaking palm in a circle against her chest, then moved it to her side then front with open fingers on both hands: please, scared.
Just as silently, the monster took a step away, its slinking body rolling backward. It exhaled with purpose right at Margaux, and she felt the change in the airflow’s distance. The beast repeated, a step and a breath. She opened one hazel eye and peeked over her forearm. Her tears still streamed but she couldn’t help looking fully up at the thing, mouth falling open. Its parabolic neck reached the bottom of the canopies, and its long body curled along the ground for even farther. As if bracing breeze, its mixtures of skins rippled constantly.
Pulling into a stand, Margaux stuck her thumb in her mouth and the two just watched each other until her crying subsided. From the end of its winding tail forward, the beast slowly bristled its muscles. In the setting light, feathers and scales shimmered oily pink. When the movement finally reached its head, the beast slipped its thin tongue through bearded lips and let something fall to the ground. A little gold four. Margaux took a step to pick it up.
Long Ago, Before Your Mother Was Grown
After the disappearance of Margaux Poulter, nothing mysterious or tragic happened in town for nearly a decade. Townspeople searched for the missing boys and toddler for a year until finally giving up. Thirteen white headstones were added to the graveyard behind the old stone church, and the forest was again regarded with caution. The elders croaked abduction stories to the children who still strayed from bed, as their parents tried to move on with their modest provincial lives. As the years grew, however, relaxation settled back in, and families felt safe.
Lucie Poulter married Lilian Butcher, bonded over their losses. Soon after, the couple began planning their family, agreeing that each would carry and name one child. Their firstborn was a boy named Theo, after his lost uncle, was four. Their second child was sixteen hours old. This new addition, also a baby boy, would also be named for one of the mothers’ lost siblings. Now that Lucie and the baby had both been sufficiently cleaned from labor, the little family gathered in the warm midwives’ home for the new child’s naming.
“Marco,” Lucie declared, fingerspelling the name over her son’s awed face. Theo crawled up his mother’s lap to gawk at his tiny brother. He laid a wet kiss to the baby’s brown furry head. Lilian too bent to kiss her wife’s own brow and whisper her pride.
Lucie and Marco stayed in the midwives’ care for a few more days to ensure they both recovered healthily. Every time the baby fussed, Lucie whispered stories to him. Fairytales, family and town history, what she imagined his future would hold. He gurgled to sleep against the vibrations of her love-warm chest.
Once they were cleared to leave, Lilian and Theo picked them up and Theo rambled stories at his baby brother too, about his day and what their home was like and his favorite things to do like baking and hugging the fresh litter of puppies on the squash farm down the road.
When they arrived at their little house, the door was ajar. Lucie froze and pulled their boys closer to her and shushed Theo. Lilian stepped quietly toward the axe propped on the freshly split firewood against the outside wall and picked it up. Holding it out in front of her, she approached the front door and creaked it further open. From her view in the doorframe, nothing looked out of place, but she advanced with caution. She circled the single-room home, inspected their bed and fireplace and cabinets. She lowered the axe and beckoned her wife.
A warm sensation crept across Lucie’s skin as she stepped inside. Goosebumps spread over her arms and she drew her children close again. Lilian began to ask what gave her pause but got cut off by a mass whizzing down from the rafters. The family all squealed, Lucie turning her baby away from the intruder and Theo running behind her legs. Lilian swiped the axe hard, the blade connecting with the stranger. It splintered upon contact with the shimmering pink-grey shoulder armor they wore. Lilian’s jaw flopped.
The person raised her bony hands up and lowered to her knees. Her dark hair was long and untamed, braided with small gems. The diamond-strong armor on her torso was made of large scales, woven with tawny feathers. She had no shoes, and her dirty dress was a contrasting menagerie of other dresses, mismatched patterns and colors and aged fabrics sewn crudely together. Around her neck she wore a cord of small golden numbers.
The girl’s eyes demanded Lucie’s. She slowly moved her hands down, making L shapes with her fingers, lowering one over the other: sister. Lucie’s legs quivered, and Lilian rushed to steady her. Lucie handed the baby over to her and knelt to the girl’s height, inspecting her face. “Margaux?”
The girl watched Lucie’s lips form the name, tearing up. She nodded, fingerspelling it back, then Lucie’s name. The sisters wept as they embraced. Lilian covered her mouth with her free hand, her own eyes watering. Theo whimpered at the sight of his mothers’ crying, and clutched his mom’s leg. Lucie let go of Margaux to wipe her face and smiled at him in reassurance.
“Honey, this is your aunt, Margaux.”
The little boy squinted at the wild girl, trying to match her features with the three-year-old he’d heard about. Margaux introduced herself and he fingerspelled his name back. Lilian crouched with them, hugging Margaux to her. Her nostrils scrunched at the earth-stench the girl carried. When she pulled back, she looked nervous.
Is…is Theodore alive too? she asked with her free hand. Margaux’s lips turned, and she just shook her head. No elaboration was offered nor asked for. Lilian could only nod back, her last glimmer of hope rolling down her face and dropping on Marco’s forehead.
Lucie grabbed her sister’s attention again. Where have you been? What happened to you?
Deep in the wood. Mother Dragon needs a princess to hoard. Her scales glinted with the movement of her arms as she signed.
The wives’ eyes saucered as they looked to each other. A dragon had been snatching their people. They took each other’s hand.
Theo did not share their fear. “Whoa! A dragon!”
How did you escape? Lucie asked.
Margaux pointed at Marco, startling her sister and sister-in-law. Had to. Mother Dragon eats knights.
Lucie and Lilian recoiled toward their boys, huddling over them like a human hood. Margaux tilted her head. The mothers’ protection of their young looked both familiar and foreign to her. The Mother Dragon had curled over her similarly before, but it felt more like being buried than cradled.
I don’t understand, Lucie stuttered with shaking hands.
A few moments passed as Margaux tried to find the signs to explain. The Mother Dragon could communicate without physical words, and as such had not taught her much more human language than she’d started with. This was the most she’s talked since she was abducted. She lifted her hands when she thought she was ready. Knights kill dragons to save princesses, so Mother Dragon eats them first. I am her princess. Mother Dragon smells him, she gestured to Marco again, more than others. I had to tell you before Mother Dragon comes to eat him.
No one knew how to respond. Theo was enraptured, eyes twinkling, not understanding how real this was, how dangerous. Looking down at her new baby son, Lilian drew her jaw to argue that this could not possibly be, he was just a baby, but her voice stayed still. The swell and ebb of Lucie’s lungs rose to hyperventilation. Seeing her wife’s distress, Lilian sprung up to put on tea. She laid their baby in the manger she built weeks prior and, attempting to distract him, asked Theo to help her stoke a fire for the kettle.
While Lucie composed herself, Margaux watched Lilian and Theo together. His limbs were thick and soft and clean, and Lilian touched him so gently. The dragon armor sat heavier on Margaux’s bony shoulders. Heavier still, when Lucie put her hands on top of them to regain her little sister’s focus.
When is it coming? Does it know you’re gone?
Margaux didn’t know. Lucie raked her hands through her hair before repeating, How did you escape it?
Hunkering, eyes down, Margaux fingered the golden numbers around her neck. It took a long time. Our nest is far away. The trees are hard to learn. I made a trail in secret. Then I told Mother Dragon I found a prince to love in the forest. She went to eat him, and I came here. Her face pinkened. It took Lucie a moment to realize that Margaux’s chagrin was because she had lied to the monstrous mother. There was another layer to her little sister’s tale: the dragon was Margaux’s family now.
The absence of Marco from her body hit Lucie and she left to the cradle. Her meager body heat—meager in comparison to Mother Dragon—drifted from Margaux like the fog of waking from her nightly dreams of a human home.
Lilian and Theo finished preparing the tea and, after he handed it to his mother, she turned him towards Margaux and gave him a little push. He scurried to the girl to ask questions and prod her outfit, as Lilian turned to her wife.
“So how are we going to kill it?”
Lucie spat her drink, barely missing Marco with the spray. “Lilian!”
She frowned. “We have to kill it, Luce. What else we going do? Beg? Run? Don’t you think that’s what Theodore and all those other boys did? It’s going to eat our son, Lucie, and I won’t let that happen.” She wrapped her fingers around Lucie’s, steadying her mug from quivering.
“How are we going to kill a dragon, Lili?” Her eyes tilted towards her younger sister and eldest son. Theo was showing off, doing a somersault and signing the biggest words he knew. Margaux looked just as interested in him as he was in her, eyes wide and focused. She flipped on her back and lifted up, crawling upside-down around the child. Quieter, Lucie said, “Can we? It’s just like us: a mother protecting her young.”
Hands retracted, and Lucie’s mug shook again. A lavender-water bead spilt over its clay rim. Lucie nipped her tongue in her rush to speak, so nothing came out and Lilian stepped backward from her. “Let’s—let’s just talk to Margaux first, Lili. See what she thinks—she’ll know how to stop it.”
Lilian’s jaw clenched and unclenched, but finally she nodded and approached her sister-in-law. Theo was showing his aunt the hole where his tooth used to grow, his first to fall out. He wagged his wet finger at his mother. As Lilian sat on the floor with them, Margaux’s expression neutralized. She was uneasy with the woman she barely knew, a discomfort that only grew when Lilian asked how to stop the beast.
I don’t know. Mother Dragon has never been stopped.
An ache throbbed behind Lilian’s eye sockets, and she pressed further, You said it hoards princesses. How did the others get rescued? How did their knights get past it?
Margaux grabbed the bottom of her dress and pressed it into Lilian’s hands. An aged velvet scratched next to frayed silk next to sun-dyed cotton, forced together with sloppy stitches. Confused, she looked back up to Margaux, who pointed out with one finger, sliding horizontally in front of her torso, then brought it to a fist under her chin and pulled down with thumb up. They didn’t.
Lilian dropped the dead princesses’ fabrics, paling. She reached to stroke Theo’s long curls, pulling him onto her lap. Lifting her eyes to Lucie, who had Marco back in her arms, the wives stared at each other, at their children, unable to speak.
The room sweltered. Margaux leapt over Lilian and tackled Lucie to the ground, Marco crying out between them. Lilian tucked Theo under her and crawled below the dining table—Margaux shoved her sister towards them so that the family was huddled together, then climbed on top of the table above them. Both little boys’ faces burned scarlet as they screamed.
A boiling wind burst through the door as it blew off the hinges, extinguishing the kettle’s fire and smashing the baby crib. Lustrous scales scraped paint from the walls; slithering torso crushed Theo’s bookshelf. Neck elongating and curving up the steepled roof, the dragon’s whole body filled the house, coiling like a snake, jowls hovering over Margaux’s head in a dripping growl.
Stop! Please! Margaux signed over and over in sweeping gestures. Mother Dragon snarled deeper, vibrating the floor. The table legs shivered but the girl tensed rigid and bared her own teeth as she signed again and again.
Lucie and Lilian tried to quiet their sons to no avail. The Mother Dragon heaved a thunderous breath at Margaux, hot like a sunray through a magnifying glass, that knocked her and the table across the room and into the beast’s rib rings. Exposed to the monster, Theo wailed harder and Lucie nearly fainted. The women held tighter.
It leaned closer. The air melted around them as it breathed in and out, lifting their hairs with each inhale. It opened its dark mouth, thick liquid strings pulling from daggered yellow teeth. Margaux kicked the broken table off of herself from behind them and started to crawl their way, when suddenly a ripple waved through the long body of the dragon. Margaux halted in her tracks, unsure what was about to happen. Mother Dragon never hesitated a kill.
A thin, flat tongue slid down over its black lip and dangled over the family, nostrils dilating. It crept over them, slipping between shoulders and waists to get a taste of each human. They trembled against the grainy organ and the putrid film it left behind on their skin.
Its pupils retracted into slits and its tongue pulled back in. Margaux could see the clipped trills of Mother Dragon’s throat as it screeched, the feathers on its face and neck bristling. In terror, Margaux whipped one of the halved table legs at it, stabbing directly in its eye. Its scream scalded the room.
With only time to throw her hands up in self-defense, Margaux was swept into Mother Dragon’s mouth by the wrists, tearing into the thin ligaments. Its bleeding head broke through the doorframe into the afternoon sun with her still dangling from it, and its claws dragged and cracked the walls as it unfurled its body out of the house. The residents were jostled and whiplashed by the tail zipping out of home, out into the woods, out of sight.
Home left broken and family battered, none of the townspeople knew what to make of Lucie and Lilian’s traumatic encounter. Fear and suspicion blossomed in the town once again. Whispers of the dragon in the woods wound through ears of elders, mothers, and children. A hunting party turned up nothing in the forest. The only trace of the monster or recaptured girl was her pair of torn bony hands and a handful of metal numbers in the Witches’ Well.
To be continued in next month’s issue!
Kylie Ayn Yockey (she/her) is a queer southern creative with a BA in Creative Writing & Literature. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Glyph Magazine, Meow Meow Pow Pow Lit, Night Music Journal, Gravitas, Ordinary Madness, Stray Branch, and Not Very Quiet. She has edited for Glyph, The Louisville Review, Ink & Voices, and is poetry editor for Blood Tree Literature.