The forest feels different today. More dead. Perhaps it’s because of my tired eyes or because the birds have stopped singing. There are only ravens now. They hop from branch to branch mocking me with their unintelligible chatter. The air is cool, and the sun is too shy to peek out from under the blanket of trees.
These trees look down on 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 occupies 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 to move it through my veins. My heart was stolen, and I must find the creature who has it.
I am hunting a fox, but not 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 beating hearts like moths to flames. Unlike the moth, his desires do not destroy him – they give him life. He looked me in the eyes and gave me pretty words that masked their poison. I know now that when he looked at me, all he saw and desired was my heart.
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, lured by a delicate scent of love. I know now that is a false aphrodisiac. It was his coat 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 brilliant orange mirage against the green undergrowth. He looked at me, and my heart fluttered with passion. Despite his animal form, he instilled in me a feeling so human I could not help but rejoice in it. That, and the tattered green bow tie he wore round his 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 meet a beautiful girl in the woods,” he said. His velvety voice proved he was no ordinary creature.
“How do you speak, fox?” I inquired.
“Do you not know? These woods are mystical; there are creatures of wonder here. Some are beautiful, like you, and some are so filled with woe it seems to rot their souls. But it is a beautiful day, so all the nefarious ones are hidden away.”
“These trees are enchanted?”
“Oh yes – as 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.
He approached, and I did not stop him. 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 that it was the trees that were all-knowing. “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.
The woods are so quiet; they are mourning a death. I believe it is mine. Now I do belong in this forest of the twisted and the strange. Somehow, I am still half alive and forced to wander in this purgatory. I will not have peace until he who has tried to kill me joins me in the grave or returns 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 his poems. He prefers sonnets. “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 recite on warm spring days. Your voice will be a sweet song with the right words to say.”
Our journey ended at a grand tree that had fallen in our path. There was a door carved in it; the fox opened it and disappeared inside. I followed, amused by how like a fairy tale it felt.
The inside was hollow and illuminated by lanterns. The air smelled of rotting wood. Upon closer inspection, I found small pathways in the walls. There were thousands of ants running up and down the tunnels. Their sleek, black shells lit up like coals in the lantern light.
“Don’t mind the ants,” he said. “They keep me company. It’s lonely being the only fox.”
He led me into a room. Sunlight streamed through the circular windows, and a cool breeze calmed my nerves. On the desk in the corner sat a leather-bound book, a pen resting in its silver inkwell, and a carved wooden heart.
The fox beckoned for me to sit. He took his place behind the desk and asked, “Would you like a drink?” He nodded to the silver mug moving across the floor. As it got closer, I noticed ants were carrying it.
“Not only am I the only fox; I also make the best apple cider in the forest.”
I took a sip of the copper liquid. It was as delicious as he claimed. The fox stared at me with amused eyes.
“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 in his silvery voice. He waved a paw, and the book flipped open to a blank page. Then the pen lifted from the inkwell and hovered over the book, awaiting instruction, dripping drops of red ink onto the paper.
“I told you these woods are mystical, did I not?” he said, winking. “Writing a poem is like painting a portrait. All you must do is sit and be your beautiful self whilst I attempt to put it on paper.” In a whisper, he spoke to the pen, and it scribbled the words.
I fell into a daze, entranced. His lips moved with intention, big, bat-like ears twitching as he glanced at me occasionally. I couldn’t look away. My head felt heavy, but my heart beat with determined strength. A strange euphoria took hold of me. The last thing I remember before losing consciousness was the Valeureuse’s gentle eyes on my face.
I awoke to a darkness darker than my unconsciousness. The fox was mumbling just as before, but these weren’t words of love. The room smelled like death. Confusion drowned my mind. I was neither tired nor ill, however, I felt different. There was no more fluttering in my chest. I tried to rub my eyes, only to find that my wrists were bound and anchored to my sides. I struggled against the restraints.
“How nice, you’ve finally awoken,” he purred. His eyes appeared above me, orange instead of brown. They had lost their comfort, just as his voice had. I thought for a moment that he might be a different creature entirely.
“Foxes can see equally well in day and night, but I think you’ll want to take a look.”
He held a lantern over me. With horror, I saw the hole he had torn in my chest. A scream lodged in my throat. The smell became more putrid the longer I stared, but I could not look away. He had cut a hole in my chest and taken my heart. I could clearly see the empty space and 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 was my still-beating heart.
“How am I alive?” I asked in a wavering voice.
“Did I not tell you that these woods are enchanted?”
“Why would you do this?”.
“Oh, my dear, you haven’t read your poem yet!” He turned to retrieve a paper and cleared his throat:
“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’s burning fire
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 time.”
Finishing, he stared as if expecting applause.
“Well, how do you like it?” he asked. “That last part is Beethoven, but I added my own flare.”
When I did not answer, he walked away and returned with a wooden heart identical to the one I had seen on his desk. He opened it and put the poem within.
“What are you going to do with me?” I asked.
“My dearest love, you worry too much.” He set the heart aside and took up a cloth.
“How could you do this? I trusted you. I loved you!”
“It is the ones we love the most who prove to be the most cruel,” he said, placing the cloth over my mouth and nose. I struggled against his grip until the world darkened.
I awoke again to a soft glow in the distance. As soon as I could make out the tree branches bending over me, I knew it was the moon. I thought I had somehow escaped the Valeureuse, but when I noticed the crowd of ants scurrying away, I knew I hadn’t escaped – I had been disposed of.
My head ached, my chest was numb. I let my fingers wander over my torso before I let my eyes. My shirt was cut open and soaked with blood. My ribs had been put back into place, my body stitched together. It was a job poorly done; I could feel the wind blowing through me. My fingers brushed up against a piece of wood 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 my still blood.
Despite my shaky knees, I pulled myself to my feet. The euphoria I had felt was replaced by an even stronger desire for revenge. I wanted my heart back, and most of all I wanted his words out of me. I couldn’t go home until my true heart was back in my chest. That meant I had to find the Valeureuse.
So here I stand, staring at the shiny copper doorknob in the grand, toppled tree. My chest leaks red onto the leaves at my feet, but I can’t feel a thing. Stepping into the dark hallway, I sense the ants running along the walls. I picture them carrying my limp body through the woods and shudder.
I enter the study and am greeted by a pair of familiar brown eyes. There he is, sitting at his desk. He stares, and for a moment, I think he might be speechless.
“You’re back from the dead, I see,” he says, closing the book he is reading.
“You didn’t kill me,” I reply from the doorway.
“No, that was your job. Why are you here?”
“You know why. I want my heart back.”
“You can’t have it.”
“I will kill you if I have to,” I say through clenched teeth. He frowns.
“You’re a monster. Have you seen 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 to disappear before you make yourself any more ugly.”
My tongue is stuck between my teeth.
“Do you not believe me? Go ahead, take a look.” I pick up a mug. Looking into its silver surface, I see a creature so hideous it takes my breath away. I am just as he described: black eyes, green, scaly skin, and twisted goat horns protruding from my head. 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?”
The mug crashes to the ground. I lunge toward him, but he escapes my grip. I grab the pen out of the 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 that this pen holds power; the Valeureuse is nothing without his poems. He has nothing without his pen. He has never prepared for the heartless to fight back.
“I will give you your heart back, just do not break the pen,” he pleads. His voice is unsteady. He has never faced defeat before.
“Bring me to it,” I say. He hesitantly leads me down a hallways just beyond a hidden door in the study. It is dark too, and teeming with ants. A lantern reveals the mechanism to which I was tied. It is medieval looking: 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 keeps his empty jars. There are so many of them, I wonder how many hearts he has taken. I get my answer when the fox opens a wardrobe on the far side of the room. Inside are shelves upon shelves of jars, each containing a heart. The room is suddenly filled with a symphony of a thousand beating hearts.
I approach to examine them, desperately hoping to find my own. They all looked identical, drumming in their unlabeled containers. I am unable to distinguish one from the other. “Which one is mine?”
The fox shrugs. “I don’t know. No one has come back for their heart,” he says. “It has been in your chest. You should know what it sounds like. It’s your heart after all.”
I close my eyes and listen. I remember how I felt when I first saw the Valeureuse, when he spoke to me with tantalizing words. I remember how my heart fluttered in my chest, how it sounded in my head. I can hear it now, the fluttering, but it is not in my chest and not in my head. It echoes within a jar.
I open my eyes and see the heart before me. It beats louder than the others. I know it is mine. When I pick the jar up off the shelf the glass feels warm. The fox’s eyes glitter, and I suddenly understand the attraction – it is a beautiful thing.
“Are you sure?” he asks.
“Yes. Put it back inside me,” I thrust the jar at him, but he shakes his head.
“You have what you came for. Now give me the pen.”
“No. You have to put it back. Take your words out of me!” I say.
“I can’t do that. I can’t put your heart back and make it work like it did before.”
“Why? I thought these woods were enchanted.”
“What you look for isn’t magic. I can’t help you.”
“You have to put it back.” Tears are streaming down my face. He looks at them just as he looks at the heart, with 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 leave,” he says. “Go into the forest and never come back. Take the heart with you. Do with it what you please, but never return. You have what you came for. Now give me the pen.”
He bares his teeth at me, but I don’t flinch.
“You made me a monster!”
“Ha! There you are wrong. You were always a monster. It just took honest hands to pull your mask off,” he hisses. He is mere inches away, with no fear in 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 take my life?” I scream.
He grins. “My darling girl, it was never love that I gave you.”
Before I can think twice, I take the pen and drive it deep into his chest. He gasps and stumbles backwards. His eyes are finally full of fear. He moves his lips soundlessly before crumpling to the floor.
I pull the pen out of his chest. Inky black blood flows from the wound, staining the orange fur of his chest. Ants swarm out of nowhere and lift the 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 remorse if it were in my chest. I tuck it into the crook of my arm and stick the pen behind my ear, then follow the fox’s body out of the fallen tree den and into the forest.
He told me to disappear, but I know I cannot. Instead, I take to the trees, beginning my search for someone who can put my heart back into 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 poisonous words of the Valeureuse.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.