The forest feels different today, more dead than it did before. Perhaps it is because of my tired eyes or perhaps it is because the birds have stopped singing. There are only ravens now, they hop from branch to branch mocking me with their intelligible chatter. The air is cool and the sun is hidden, too shy to peek out from under the blanket of trees surrounding me.
These trees, they look down upon me with weary curiosity. They do not recognize me although I have been here before. I hardly recognize myself, these thoughts are not my own. A stillness has taken occupancy in my chest. My heart was stolen and replaced with one of wood. It does not beat, it cannot feel. These stitches are falling out, blood has stained my shirt and shoes. I do not need the blood. I have no heart that can move it through my veins. My heart was stolen and I must find the creature that has it.
I am going fox hunting, but not for just any fox. I seek the Valeureuse. He is a cunning brute with a silver tongue and the mind of a man. He is drawn to a beating heart like a moth is drawn to a flame, but unlike the moth his desires do not destroy him. They give him life.
I met him here in these woods, I can remember. He looked me in the eyes and gave me pretty words. I know now they are words of poison. I know now that when he looked into my eyes all he saw was my heart and it was only my heart he desired.
I recognize these trees, he found me here in this meadow. It was a day unlike this; the birds were singing and the air was warm. I was drawn here by the daisies, curious like the trees. I can still feel how it did when I was first here. Love is in the air, but I know now that it is a false aphrodisia.
He stood at the edge of the woods just on the other side of the meadow. It was his coast that drew my gaze from the daisies, but it was his eyes that kept me staring. He seemed so dreamlike I thought he was a phantom, a red mirage against the green undergrowth. It was only his eyes that proved him to be real. I could feel how true they were. He looked at me and my heart fluttered not in fear but passion. I knew he was an animal but he instilled upon me a feeling so human I could not help but rejoice in it. That, and the tattered green bow tie he wore round his white neck made me see him as less of a fox and more of a gentleman. So it did not surprise me when he began to speak.
"What a beautiful day it is to run into such a beautiful girl as yourself in these woods," he said. His voice didn't so much as startle me as it did rev my heart further and prove that he was no ordinary creature.
"How do you speak, fox?" I inquired in return.
"Do you not know? These woods are mystic, there are creatures of wonder in here. Some are beautiful, as you, and some are so filled with woe it seems to rot their souls. But it is too beautiful of a day, all the nefarious ones are hidden away."
"These trees are enchanted?"
"Ah yes, but so are the rocks and the flowers and soil. All that dwells within the boundaries of the forest has magic. Even you, I see."
"Why yes, there cannot be a creature as beautiful as you that is not unnatural."
"What do they call you?
"The Valeureuse," he said, taking a bow, "I am the fox of the forest."
He approaches me as if it was custom that he do. I did not stop him, no, I was so entirely consumed in curiosity I would have beckoned him if he hadn't. We sat in the grass together and spoke of one another's philosophies. He accused the daisies of innocence but I claimed that they had most likely seen more than the two of us combined. He retorted, saying that that was no business of the daisies, but of the trees. The trees were all-knowing, he explained to me. "The wind carries the secrets of the dead and the trees are the only ones that listen. They know all of our secrets."
I blame the trees for not warning me, for surely they should have known that this fox was up to no good. Their branches now shake at me like beckoning fingers, telling me to come forth and into their shadows. So up I stand to answer their calls. The Valeureuse is not in the meadow, and so he must be at home.
The woods are so quiet, they are mourning a death. I believe it is mine, but they are mistaken, for I have felt the agony of death without the relief. I do now belong in this forest of the twisted and weird. I have escaped death with some magic bestowed in me and now I wander in what must be my purgatory. I believe I will not have peace until he who has tried to kill me will join me in the grave or return to me the very thing I need to survive.
I know where I am headed, he guided me down this path and under these trees. As we walked he told me of the poems he writes. It was sonnets that he prefers. "They sound like a fair song on a warm spring day if you fill them with words of the heart and the soul. I wish to write one for you, a sonnet you can always recite on those warm spring days. Your voice will be a sweet song with the right words to say."
We didn't end our journey until we could walk no further. A grand tree had fallen in our path, one too large to climb over and one too long to walk around. The fox showed not worry, he simply approached it and told me that it was a tree grown too heavy from all of the secrets it heard and one day a final gust of wind pulled its roots out from under it. There was a door carved in it and it could only be seen by the bright copper doorknob it sported. The fox opened it and then disappeared into the tree. I followed him, amused by how much like a fairy tale it all felt.
The entire inside was hollowed out and illuminated by lanterns that hung up and down the walls. It reminded me of a musty cave, the air was thick and the smell of rotting wood was thicker. A strange ticking noise filled the room and when I looked closer I was shocked to find strange patterns in the walls. It looked like someone has cut miniature tunnels throughout the wood. The first ant that came crawling into my view revealed the rest. There were thousands of them running up and down the small tunnels. Their sleek, black shells lit up like coals against the lantern light.
"Do not mind the ants," he said, "they give me company. It's lonely sometimes being the only fox in the forest."
He lead me down the flickering hallway that soon broke off into a new room. It differed so greatly from the hall I almost believed it to be magic that transported us there. I no longer felt like a prisoner in a dungeon when I stepped into it. I wasn't sure if it was the natural sunlight that was able to stream through the circular windows in the walls or the breath of fresh air I was provided with, either way I was calmed. I thought it might be a study.The furniture grew out of the floor like trees themselves. What remained of the inside of the tree existed within the chairs and desk in the room. Upon the desk sat a leather bound book, a pen resting inside its silver inkwell, and wooden carved heart.
The fox beckoned me inside and insisted that I sit in a chair nearby. He took his place behind the desk, smiled at me and said, "Would you like a drink?" He nodded at the floor and pointed out the silver mug moving across it in my direction. As it got closer I noticed the ants underneath it, carrying it towards me. When as I clasped the handle they scurried away and out of sight.
"Not only am I the only fox but I am the only one who makes the best apple cider in the forest," he said, bending over to lift his own mug off the floor. He gestured with his paws and said, "I insist."
I held the mug to my lips and took a sip of the copper liquid. It was just as delicious as he claimed. The apples he used were sweet and savory, undoubtedly the best apples one could find in the forest. It wasn't the apples, however, that kept me drinking. There was something more in it that I could not name. The fox stared at me with amusement in his eyes, only taking a single sip from his own mug and setting it down upon his desk.
"A poem is the only way to express the heart's true desires. Each word is written with the blood of its poet and each line beats like his heart. You, my darling girl, have captivated my mind and my soul. I wish to write you a poem," he said, his voice sounding more silvery than ever. He waved his paw above the table and the book flipped open on its own to an unmarked page. The then pen lifted from its inkwell and hovered over it, awaiting instruction. It dripped drops of bright red ink onto the pale paper below.
"How is that possible?" I said.
"I told you these woods are mystic, did I not?" He replied, winking.
"Well then, let's get started. Writing a poem is like painting a portrait. All you must do is sit there and be your beautiful self whilst I attempt to put it on paper."
And so that is what I did. I sat there drinking mug after mug of cider and watched him write. He spoke to the pen in a low whisper and it proceeded to scribble words onto the page. I could neither hear nor read what was being created, but it didn't frustrate me much. I was too occupied with the cider to care.
I fell into a daze watching him write. I was entranced by his every move. His lips moved with every word he spoke revealing to me for split seconds what was being written, but I couldn't keep up well enough to translate. His big, bat-like ears twitched back and forth as he thought and his brown eyes would cast a glance at me here and again catching me staring, but I didn't look away. My head felt heavy and my chest felt alive. My heart was making ruckus from within it, pounding on its rib bone cage. A strange euphoria took hold of me and I wished it would never let me go. The last thing I remember before losing consciousness was the Valeureuse's gentle eyes resting a stare upon my face.
They were not, however, the first things I saw when I woke up. I awoke to a darkness darker than that which existed behind my eyes. Several sounds filled my senses, filling the gap the dark brought. I didn't recognize it at first but it was the fox's voice that I heard. He was mumbling to himself just as before, but they were not words of poems that he recited. They were words of a new found aggression. There was no more fluttering in my chest, instead I could hear a piece of paper gently tossing in the air. It smelled like death, the scent of mangled flesh and bloodied wounds.
Confusion drowned my mind. It must have been night time and I had fallen asleep in the fox's study. I was neither tired nor ill however, I felt something different all together. I tried to pull my hand to my face only to find that my wrist was bound and anchored to my side, all my limbs were. I could not move anything but my head, I struggled nonetheless. It must have been that which commanded the fox's attention. I felt a single paw of his rest on my hand and his breath on my face.
"How nice, you've finally awoken," I heard him speak. His eyes appeared above me,
orange instead of brown. They lost their comfort just as his voice had. I thought for a moment that he might be a different creature entirely. A light appeared from below and I could just make out a lantern moving towards us on the ground. I was reminded of the mug and how it was carried in the same fashion.
"You see us foxes are able to see at night just as well as the day, but I figure you'd like to see this just as I do," he picked the lantern off of the floor and held it over me so that I was able to see directly into the hole he had tore in my chest. I was too shocked to scream, my mouth fell open but no sound came out. The smell became more putrid the longer I stared, but I could not look away. He had cut a hole in my chest, fastened back my skin with pins as large as railroad stakes and displaced all of my ribs to reach what was inside. He had taken my heart and all I could see were my lungs desperately trying to catch their breath.
"It is here if you are curious," The Valeureuse said and pulled a jar out of the darkness behind him. Inside rested a single, still-beating heart.
"How am I alive?" I asked in a wavering voice.
"Have I not told you before that these woods are enchanted?" he replied.
"Why would you do this?" I said.
"Oh my dear, you haven't read your poem yet!" he said then returned to the dark to retrieve a piece of paper, "allow me to read it to you."
"Love gives a heart great vulnerability
It fills it up with fake nobility
It strings it up on a wire and then
Dangles it there above the poet's pen
These words, they can't describe my desire
To harvest your heart off of its wire
And keep it with me until time doth end
Your heart I will love, your heart I will tend
So lay down your head, save it of worry
I'll surely be swift, I vow to hurry
When I write this poem and damn it to rest
In the hole your heart will leave in your chest
Since your blood is used within every rhyme
Ever thine, ever mine you'll be for all of time," He read.
Silence ensued, he stared at me as if he expected an applause.
"Well, how do you like it?" he asked, folding the paper up into a tinier square, "that last part is Beethoven. 'Ever thine, ever mine,' of course I added my own flare at the end."
I did not speak. I breathlessly watched him as he walked away with it and returned with a wooden heart identical to the one I saw on his desk earlier. He pulled it in half and enclosed the poem within it again.
"What are you going to do with me?" I said.
"My dearest love, you worry too much," He set the heart aside and took up a cloth in his paw.
"How could you do this to me? I loved you!" I said.
"It is the ones we love the most who prove to be the most cruel," He said and placed the cloth over my mouth and nose so I was unable to breathe. I struggled against his grip until the light began to fade and the world once again became dark and silent.
I awoke again to a darkness but there was a new light in the distance to break it. It didn't flicker like lantern light, it was steady and soft. As soon as I could make out the tree branches bending over me I knew it was the moon. I thought had somehow escaped the Valeureuse, but I noticed the large gathering of ants scurrying away from me and I knew that I hadn't escaped, I had been disposed of. I laid in the dirt for a moment looking at the trees stare back at me with weary curiosity.
My head ached, my chest was numb. I let my fingers wander over my torso before I let my eyes. I felt my shirt cut open, soaked with blood. My ribs were put back into place and either side of my body was tied together with thick stitches. It was a job poorly done, for I could feel wind blowing through me and my fingers were able to venture beyond the skin's surface. They brushed up upon a piece of cold wood right where my heart should have been. I remembered the wooden heart on the desk and the poem he put into it. The poem now lived inside me. Not only did it haunt my thoughts, but my veins as well. I could feel it poisoning the still blood within them, sitting inside its makeshift heart.
Despite my relentlessly shaky knees, I pulled myself to my feet and faced the forest and all its supernatural glory. That euphoria I once felt existed no longer, it was replaced by an even stronger desire. I wanted revenge. I wanted my heart and most of all I wanted his words out of my chest.
I wandered through the trees quite aimlessly, thinking until the sun began to rise in the east, making the trees cast shadows as long as their gaze. I found myself at the edge of the forest and decided then and there that I couldn't go home until my true heart was back in my chest. That meant I had to find the Valeureuse.
I stand here now staring at the shiny copper doorknob on the side of a grand, fallen down tree. My chest is leaking red onto the dead leaves between my feet, but I cannot feel a thing. I reach for the door knob and pull the door open to a hallway so familiar. It's dark now, the lanterns have long been blown out. I can hear the ants running along the walls and I picture them carrying my limp body through the woods.. They, the fox's slaves, unknowing yet so willing.
I can see the study just beyond, the early morning light is just barely shining through the windows. I step into the light and am greeted by a pair of two familiar brown eyes. There he is, sitting where he was before, just on the other side of his desk. He stares at me and I think for a moment that he might be speechless, a talking fox without a word to say.
"You're back from the dead, I see," he says and closes the book he is reading. He sets it down beside the poem book on the desk, separating it from the pen sitting in its inkwell.
"You didn't kill me," I say from the doorway.
"No, that was your job," he says, "why are you here?"
"You know why I have returned. I want my heart back."
"You can't have it."
"I will kill you if I have to!" I say through clenched teeth. He looks me up and down with a curious eye.
"You're a monster," he says, "have you looked at yourself?"
"I am no monster," I say.
"You have horns on your head, your skin is green. Your eyes are so black they devour the light around them. Do you hear what you speak? You are a monster, and I'd advise you disappear before you make yourself any more ugly."
My tongue was stuck between my teeth.
"Do you not believe me? Go ahead, take a look." I pick up a mug off the floor where it slipped from my hand the day before. It sat soaking in a puddle of copper cider. I look into its silver surface and see a creature so hideous it takes my breath away. I am just as he described: black eyes, green, scaled skin and twisted goat horns protruding from my head. I can feel them with my fingers and I know that it is true. These thoughts are not mine, I crave revenge and blood just as a monster does.
"Like a banshee with a silent scream, you're a lady turned monster here to haunt me. Do you now see who is truly corrupt?" he says.
"You made me this monster!" The mug slips and crashes onto the ground. I lunge towards him but he escapes my grip. Instead I grab the pen out of its inkwell and clench it like a knife in my fist. He throws himself at me with bared teeth but I dodge his attack. We stare at one another for a moment before his voice breaks and he begs, "Stop! Stop! Do not break the pen," I realize with this pen I hold power, for the Valeureuse is nothing without his poems. He has nothing if he does not have a pen. His teeth are not sharp enough, his tongue is not quick. He has never prepared himself for when the heartless fight back.
"I will give you your heart back, just do not break the pen," he says. His voice is unsteady, he hasn't felt this way before. He had never been defeated.
"Bring me to it," I say. He hesitantly leads me down another hallways just beyond a hidden door in the study. It is dark like the other one with twice as many ants. It opens up to a room so eerily familiar that I know it must be the one where he took out my heart. A lantern revealed the mechanism to which I was tied. It was medieval in nature: a long, wooden table with leather straps to bind the arms and legs. Against the wall is a wooden counter I couldn't see before. It is there that he kept his empty jars. There are so many of them it made me wonder how many hearts he really had taken. My inquiry is answered when the fox opens a wardrobe on the far side of the room. Within the doors are shelves upon shelves of hearts in jars. The room is suddenly filled with a symphony of a thousand beating hearts.
I walk closer to examine them in hope that I would find my own waiting there for me. They all looked identical drumming in their own, unlabeled containers.
"Which one is mine?" I ask and the fox shrugs.
"I don't know, but you should. It's your heart after all," he says. I look at them again, but my attempts prove fruitless. I am unable to distinguish one from the other.
"How do you not know?"
"I have never had to take inventory, people don't usually come back for their hearts. Look, it's been in your chest, not mine. You should know what it sounds like by now," he says.
I close my eyes and listen, he is right I should know how it sounds. I remember how it felt when I first saw him, when he spoke to me with cool words. I remember how it fluttered in my chest, I remember how it sounded in my head. I can hear it now, the fluttering, it is not in my chest and not in my head. It echoes like it is in a jar.
I open my eyes and see the heart before me. It beats now louder than the others. I know it is mine. When I pick the jar up off the shelf the glass feels warm like the heart had been breathing within it. The fox and his eyes glitter when he sees it. I suddenly understand the attraction, it is a beautiful thing.
"Are you sure that is yours?" he says.
"Yes. Now put it back inside of me," I thrust the jar at him and he shakes his head.
"You have what you came for now give me the pen," he outstretches his paw.
"No. You have to put it back. Take your words out from inside me!" I say.
"I cannot do that, I cannot put your heart back and make it work as it did before."
"Why not? I thought these woods were enchanted."
"What you look for is not magic. I cannot give it to you."
"You have to put this back," tears are now streaming down my face. He looks at them just as he looks at the heart, there is a playful glint in his eye. This is why he took it, not just to have it, but to damn me to an agony greater than death.
"You must disappear," he says, "go into the forest and never come back. Take that heart with you, do with it what you please but never return to me. "
"You have what you came here for, give me the pen," he says because I say nothing to his demand. He bares his teeth at me to ward me away but I do not flinch.
"Leave, you monster," he says.
"You made me this monster," I say back.
"Ha! There you are wrong. You were always this monster, it just took honest hands to pull your mask away," he hisses. He is so close to me now, there is no fear on his face. I think he might attack me, then I remember that he is no wolf. I am the monster, he only has words.
"How dare you fill my heart with your love only to take it out of my chest. How dare you call me pretty only to prove I am hideous. How dare you give me life only to make me feel so much like death," I say. He grins.
"My darling girl, it was never love that I gave you," he says. Before I can think twice I take the pen in my hand and shove it deep into his chest. He gasps and stumbles backwards onto the floor. He looks at the pen protruding from him, then back up at me with his eyes, finally full of fear. He tries to move his lips but no sound comes out. His body then collapses limp to the floor. He is dead.
After a moment I pull the pen out of his chest and from the wound he begins to bleed the ink black blood of a poet. It stains the white fur on his chest. Ants appear out of nowhere and begin to swarm around and lift up his body. I know where they will take it. They've done it before.
I look at my heart in its jar and see it is still beating. I wonder if I would feel any type of remorse if it were in my chest again. I tuck it away into the nook of my arm and stick the pen behind my ear, then I follow the fox's body out of the room and into the forest. I recall how he told me to disappear, I know I cannot. Instead, I take to the trees to begin the search for he who can put my heart back inside of my chest. There must be someone out there who can take this monster's heart and fill it with love. Someone must free me of the poison words of the Valeureuse.