By A.L. Kersel
In the mid-winter half-light, I crawl on my belly through a courtyard of statues. The snow is claggy and sticks to the fur on my chest. I sniff the air—pine, cinders, wet earth. Not much else. Not these days. The musk of a fox. Fucker’s trespassing. I raise my hackles, and my back bristles, fluffed-up in anger. Since the towns have disappeared, the foxes have been spreading back into the forest. Stinking bin raiders.
The other day, I thought I heard the yowl of a wild cat creeping between my pines. I don’t mind the cats so much; they keep to themselves and so do I. A bit aloof, but I can live with that. If I were an ordinary pine marten, they would be a danger, but I’m not.
Foxes, though. Foxes get right under my skin. Ransackers. Bandit-brained rubbish munchers.
I sniff for it. Where is it? The pungent scent is everywhere, masking the fresh smell of pine and snow. Where is the bastard?
A rough bark echoes from behind a statue and I smell another squirt of stinking musk. Disgusting. My size increases in response and my claws extend. My muscles coil, ready to spring forwards and break the bastard’s smug red neck. Trespassing crawler. Maggot-chewed dog.
Now the size of a large wildcat, I claw up the torso of the statue. Schick-schick, sharp claws. Scratch its pissing eyes out.
I catch the scent of something else—a red squirrel, cold, musty, dead. The fucker has got one of my squirrels. Look at him! There it is, hanging from his mouth like a useless skin. He’s been at my squirrels!
I think not.
I creep over the statue’s shoulder. You can barely smell the man beneath the lichen anymore. He’s as dry as a lizard skin now. I watch the fox, wait for my moment, and pounce, growing fluidly to the size of a wolf mid-leap.
The fox doesn’t stand a chance. I savage him; a bite to the jugular and a quick snap right through the spinal cord. The blood is rancid. I’d never eat a fox. I’d sooner starve to death.
Once the fox is dead, I shrink down to the size of an ordinary marten and nip the squirrel’s corpse in my own mouth. It’s still fresh, hardly stiff at all and, as the stars glitter down from the clear indigo sky, I flounce through the snow, my paws sending up powdery clouds of ice.
Think you can hunt my squirrels and get away with it? Fuck off, you orange concrete weasel. Even your corpse is unappealing.
A safe distance away from the putrid remains of the fox, I roll onto my back in a flurry of snow, batting the russet squirrel between my paws, before settling down. It’s a big one—juicy. I suck on it until the sunrise begins to rim the hilltops, then I drag the limp carcass back to my den where I will devour the heart and marrow in peace among the tree roots.
Night pales, seeping into day. I pause at the edge of the forest, beneath the overgrown wire fence. I glance back over my shoulder, discarding my squirrel for a moment, loping forwards for a better look. On the rooftop of the furthest tenement, moss edges over the guttering, spreading from a small mound of winter flowers on the slate tiles. A burnt splash of witch hazel tangles among yellow fronds of winter jasmine. Tiny, green spikes of new snowdrops poke their frail heads above the snow. The shadow of a hooded crow staggers down onto the spine of the roof. I draw my lips back over my teeth and hiss before I remember that there is nothing left of her to defend.
The lichen man had scarcely moved for days. On Tuesday, Lucy saw him leave from his basement flat, trailing his dank, lichen fur and begin a slow shuffle to the shadiest corner of the courtyard. The other tenants, leaning from open windows or peering out from behind their doors, watched his progress and whispered.
Lucy caught the words, “fungal infection”, sporing upwards from the mouths of the downstairs neighbours, followed by a flurry of anxious contradictions.
Lucy herself peeked out from behind the curtains of the top floor flat until her mother snapped that it was rude to stare and to leave the poor man alone.
By the end of the day, even her mother was staring.
He stood, motionless, against the cinderblock wall, head bowed and arms outstretched, allowing the tangled mess of lichen growing from his skin to dangle like a pair of ragged, grey wings.
Several of the neighbours tried without success to usher the man back indoors. Others offered him food, which he refused. Once, during the afternoon, he permitted Mrs Hamilton from the flat opposite to tip a cup of water to his lips. He drank with a sigh and a shudder. Then his head, heavy with growth, nodded against his chest. He hadn’t spoken since.
“He can’t stay there all night!” Lucy heard her mother exclaiming down the phone to Mrs Hamilton. “It’s supposed to rain! Someone will have to persuade him to go back inside—should we call someone, do you think? Mm. Mm hm. Alright, goodnight, May. We’ll chat tomorrow.” She hung up the phone. “That was May Hamilton,” she said unnecessarily to Lucy, who had been listening the whole time. “She doesn’t know what to do about Mr—goodness, I can’t even remember his name—that man. He’s right outside her sitting room window.”
Lucy looked up from her book and went out onto the balcony to see him. He was standing exactly where he had been all day, only now the evening light cast ghoulish shadows over his face. His outstretched arms looked more wing-like than ever, silhouetted against the bricks. He looked old, worn, and intricate, as though sculpted from grey wood. Lucy saw the velvet flurry of a moth beating around his head.
“Perhaps he’s happy where he is,” she suggested. Her mother ignored her and dumped a pile of clean socks in her lap to be folded.
The next morning, the lichen man was still there. From her bedroom window, Lucy could see the gentle rise and fall of his chest and the flutter of the breeze through his trailing lichen wings. Apart from that, he might as well have been made of stone.
When she went through for breakfast, her mother was on the phone to Mrs Hamilton again, brow furrowed, lips tucked against her teeth.
“Yes, May, but why? That’s what I want to know. Why is he growing this…stuff…in the first place? D’you think he wasn’t able to wash himself or something? I know, I know. We never saw much of him after his wife died, but I really wish he’d have said if he couldn’t manage. We’d have helped him…”
Mr Beckett. That was the lichen man’s name. Lucy had never spoken to him, but he used to go out walking every day with his wife, arm in arm. They would nod and smile at everyone who passed but that was about it. They never said much.
Then Mrs Beckett had died and now, months later, Mr Beckett was growing lichen.
Lucy thought about the forest, fenced off around the edges of the tenement block. They were all alone out here, a council scheme twenty miles from the nearest village. Every year, people from the council came to saw back the trees that crept their way over the fence. Last year, they hadn’t come at all and, now that it was spring, the trees were trying to sneak over the line.
The residents of the scheme were not happy, but Lucy liked the forest, with its twisting, grey trees and plethora of dark-eyed, wicked creatures. She liked the way it smelled like pine and earth and the way the leaves and needles whispered together, lulling her to sleep every night. She always kept her bedroom window open. Her mother, who hated the dust that blew in, scolded her and told her she would catch “pine sickness”, whatever that was, but she never listened. “Pine sickness” was just a story to scare children.
After breakfast, she watched Mr Beckett from the balcony, wondering if pine sickness was real after all. Maybe he was going to turn into a tree, like the grey larches that bowed over the barbed wire fence.
She put this to her mother, following her around the flat as she tried to hoover and tidy.
“Pine sickness?” her mother scowled, stacking magazines behind a little clay pot full of cacti, the only plants allowed in the house. “No, don’t be silly, Lucy.”
“He’s got something,” Lucy insisted. “He’s got lichen.”
“Will you wheesht?” her mother snapped. “He’s just a poor old man who doesn’t have anyone to look after him.”
“Can I go out and talk to him? Maybe he would like company.”
“Yes, yes. Just get out from under my feet,” her mother muttered, poking the hoover under the kitchen table. Lucy got the feeling that she wasn’t really paying attention. “Be back by lunchtime.”
It was the first week of April, and the air was still cool with the taste of snow coming down the glen, damp with the constant threat of rain. Everything was starting to turn green, the russet hillside not yet overtaken by the growth of new bracken or the purple sweep of heather.
Lucy clattered out of the front door and walked up to Mr Beckett, growing more hesitant with every step. By the time she reached him, she was almost afraid. She told herself not to be silly. Mr Beckett was a nice old man. It wasn’t his fault he was growing lichen.
“Mr Beckett?” The paving stones were uneven beneath her feet, cracked and tilted by the tangle of tree roots snaking underneath. “I just wanted to see if you were okay.”
From a distance, he almost looked like he was wearing a shaggy coat and had grown a long beard, but the closer she stepped, the more grotesque he became. Translucent skin stretched tight over a web of veins. It did not take Lucy long to realise that the “veins” were actually a mesh of tiny, twisted roots straining for purchase underneath his papery skin.
Mr Beckett was not covered in lichen.
It was growing from him, roots sucking to his bone as though clinging to a stone wall.
“Mr Beckett?” Lucy whispered. She was unable to look away. The sight was horrifying, and yet there was something grimly beautiful about it; as beautiful as the splintered, rotten trunk of a dying tree.
She had read about a woman whose tumour had turned out to be a tiny tree growing inside her lung—the article said she must have inhaled it as a seed—and about minuscule squids erupting from people’s gums after they had consumed improperly cooked seafood. The internet was full of horrifying things that could happen to a human body—sores that bubbled like pools of quicksand; rashes that caused skin to flake like gauzy petals; growths springing up overnight like a mushroom. But never anything like this.
Mr Beckett’s eyes were pale blue, hidden by a ragged fringe of lichen, and when the sunlight caught them, it was like gazing into reflections on the surface of a pond. Beneath the fragile, watery membrane, Lucy could see the imprint of delicate fronds curling across his irises.
She stumbled back in horror, barely able to stammer out an excuse before bolting back to the safety of her flat.
“You weren’t out there long,” her mother commented, wrestling the hoover back into the cupboard.
“Mum,” Lucy said in a small voice, “Did you see inside Mr Beckett’s eyes?”
“His eyes?” Her mother frowned. “No, I didn’t look that closely. It wouldn’t have been polite. Why?”
“They have plants growing inside them. Like grandma’s brooch—the agate one with the moss running through it.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” her mother scoffed. “Moss inside his eyes? It was just a reflection, love.”
Lucy knew it wasn’t a reflection. She also knew that the sharpness of her mother’s tone meant she did not want to believe her.
“What’s going to happen to him?” she asked.
“Oh, I don’t know.” Her mother pulled a bag of sliced bread out of the freezer. “Someone from social services will probably come and see him soon. D’you want cheese on toast for lunch?”
But no one came, and the lichen spread from Mr Beckett’s body up the wall of Mrs Hamilton’s ground floor flat, binding him to the cinderblock. He scarcely moved anymore, only the briefest flicker of his tongue when it rained, lapping moisture into his mouth.
After a couple of weeks, two tears of honeysuckle emerged from his eyes, the vines weeping down to his feet, a frothy whirlpool of sweet scented flowers.
On May the First, Mr Jones from the second floor tried to give Mrs Hamilton a hand cutting back the growth from around her sitting room window and made the discovery that the lichen man was dead.
Fox taints the fresh smell of snow. Foul creature. Even in death, its stench saturates the earth and air for miles. Urine and musk. Old blood. Rank fur. Horrible. I should have buried it last night. It bothered me all day as I was trying to sleep. I grow to the size of a dog and scratch a deep hole, dragging the fetid corpse into it and covering it with snow. Even the carrion birds don’t want to eat a dead fox.
The hooded crow from last night winks at me from the rooftop. I bound forward, snarling, and the bird wings away with an indignant croak. Hanging out for more tender prey, are you? Well, you won’t find it here, my beauty. No sense swirling about like bad luck, waiting for your chance at a sweet and easy meal. Those days are gone.
Ah, it’s a changed world right enough. At my original size, light and small, I scuff easily over the surface of the snow, leaving a trail of star-shaped tracks behind me. I snuffle here and there, curious to see what has passed through the old human settlement in my absence. No more foxes. A jack hare some time ago. I don’t often chase hares, not since I caught one in my jaws in the distant past and she turned out to be a shifter like me. That was enough to warn me off. A couple of deer. I can bring down a deer easily at wolf-size, though I have no real need to. It’s almost too easy these days. The deer have forgotten what it is like to have a real predator. The wolves have long since disappeared. So long ago that even I scarcely remember them.
What a time that was though! Ancient times when I was revered by humans, offered cream and fish and reddest berries; sometimes the blood of a fawn; in the darkest times—the blood of a child. I used to watch them from the tree tops as they padded down below. I never fought with the wolves and they never sought conflict with me.
Not like the foxes. Quarrelsome fuckers, yipping and yowling all night, poking their greasy snouts into my business. They’ve got used to the concrete and raiding bins and have no respect for my territory.
I skitter up a rusted drain pipe and gain the rooftop. My claws clack on the tiles where the snow has slid away. I sniff around. Nothing has been up here all day but that crow and a number of harmless birds. Good, good. That’s as it should be.
No one knew what to do about the late Mr Beckett. Lucy’s mum forbade her from going outside, but she could see him from her bedroom window, dead and motionless, with dog roses poking from his ribcage. His gaping mouth was carpeted with moss, teeth poking out like boulders in a fairy glade.
No one wanted to touch him. No one wanted to find out what he looked like underneath the plants.
Mr Jones, always officious, tried without success to contact the council.
“Bloody phones are down again,” Lucy heard him grumbling, his voice floating on a guff of warm air up from the courtyard.
“Someone could go to the village,” May Hamilton suggested.
The residents glanced at each other and shuffled their feet. No one had been to the village in years. The council sent supplies to the scheme in lorries once a week.
The residents took to clustering in a tight-lipped huddle. When Lucy asked her mum what they were doing, her mum told her that they were having a committee meeting.
“What kind of committee?”
“Just a residents’ committee. For upkeep, maintenance, that sort of thing, seeing as the council is being useless.”
“Can I come to a meeting?”
“No. I don’t want you going outside if you don’t have to.”
This summer was unusually hot and humid and the air was thick and stagnant, smelling of loam and rotten pine. If Lucy breathed in too deeply, it stuck in her throat and made her cough like damp, resinous smoke. The residents took to wearing masks when they went outside for their meetings.
The weekly truck from the village started only coming every month. Lucy was getting sick of tinned food. She had never liked vegetables, but on the rare occasions that they received something fresh, her mother would ruin it by boiling it up and putting it in a jar with vinegar and salt.
“Why can’t we just eat it?” Lucy demanded, as her mother was boiling up a cabbage, making the entire flat stink.
“Because we might need it for winter,” her mother replied and turned the kitchen fan on.
Even in the height of summer, winter seemed to be all anyone talked about. One day, Mr Jones brought a ladder and a chainsaw up from the basement. He set about trimming back all the branches and brambles that had strayed over the wire fence, loudly declaring to anyone who would listen that they were to be stacked up and used for firewood when the weather turned cold.
Lucy wasn’t sure where exactly they were supposed to be having these fires. All of the flats had gas heaters.
One morning, Lucy woke up to a shriek from the courtyard. She sat up and dashed to the window, pressing her face against the glass in horror.
Mr Jones was standing in the middle of the courtyard, arms outstretched, screaming at the thorned bramble shoots emerging from his wrists, frilling his hands like a cuff. Berry-red blood dripped from the tips of his fingers and fell in juicy splashes onto the paving stones.
It took Mr Jones far less time to die than Mr Beckett. Mr Beckett had shrunk and faded; Mr Jones bled, and when he had finished, a sticky puddle spidered out across the courtyard from beneath his feet. Bloody footprints stained the paving stones where people had stepped in the mess and not realised in time. Paw prints too, clusters of four, tiny like stars, where some moonlit creature had snuck over the fence at night.
This ensured a kind of rigid panic that carried the residents through to autumn. The adults flurried into meeting after meeting, hushed whispers, shivers, and over-the-shoulder glances at the awful statues that used to be Mr Jones and Mr Beckett. Some families even did the unthinkable and packed up and left, taking their chances outside the scheme. Lucy watched all of this from her bedroom window, scratching absently at a patch of dry skin just above her left elbow. Her nails dug in beneath the flakes of skin, drawing blood, doing nothing to soothe the itch. She put some cream on it and tried to ignore the sickening, clawing sensation, but even in her sleep, her fingernails would just dig deeper.
At the end of summer, the council sent soldiers.
“Finally!” Mrs Hamilton exclaimed, ivy trailing from her scalp like a long, dark green mane. “About time!”
Lucy’s mother nodded, and Lucy herself pressed her nose against her bedroom window, cracked open to allow the conversation to float up from down below. Her breath fogged the glass, and her right hand scratched at her left elbow.
Mrs Hamilton pointed at a fresh set of bloody prints skirting the edge of the courtyard.
“Something’s been at them,” she commented, referring to the more recent statues that lined the walls of the tenements. “A nasty, wee creature from the forest. Look, see? He’s been nibbling at them.” She gestured towards Mrs Thompson, whose grass-backed fingers had been gnawed down to gory stubs. “A fox or a cat or something. Someone should do something. It isn’t right.”
Lucy’s mother murmured her agreement, arms folded over her chest, but made no move to do anything.
“Well, Joyce,” Mrs Hamilton huffed, tossing her strands of ivy. “If no one else will, I suppose I’ll go and have a word with them.”
“May, don’t—” Lucy’s mother began, but Mrs Hamilton stepped determinedly forwards, nose in the air.
A crackle of gunfire, and Mrs Hamilton fell to the ground. Lucy jumped back from her window and huddled down beside her bed, hands over her ears. She didn’t understand why no one screamed, why no one protested.
Why no one did anything.
Lucy heard somebody retch, a thick, liquid sound splattering stone. Someone else gave a shuddering moan. Stunned silence rolled around the courtyard like thunder.
As that long, hot summer drew to a close, I followed the scent of carrion to the edge of the forest. I had been asleep, dormant along with most of my kind, until the meaty strands made my whiskers twitch. Hunger stirred me as it had not done for centuries. The forest had changed a good deal during the years of my long sleep, reeking of strange smoke, rusted metal, and dead, man-made stone that I later learned was the concrete so beloved of foxes. And everywhere, everywhere, the ripe smell of humans dying.
My nostrils quivered and my stomach rumbled. Little by little, cautious at first, then bolder, I twined my way through the treetops to the strange, new human settlement that smelled so richly of death.
I slipped over the barbed wire fence under the cover of night and crept through the shadows cast by the buildings until I reached the courtyard. I sniffed around, spying the standing shapes of the dead, entwined in thick plants, coming upon one—a male, recently demised—shrouded in thorned brambles. I lapped at the puddle of blood at his feet, tart on my tongue, unspeakably delicious, before shimmying up his torso to nibble the soft flesh of his cheek and the crunchy cartilage of his ear.
Very satisfying, human ears. I ate the lobes first, sweet and tender, before gnawing at the shell. Chewy in just the right way; no thick skin or hair to get stuck in my teeth. Moist with just the right amount of congealing blood, which I licked from my muzzle with a deft sweep of my tongue.
I crouched upon the bramble man’s shoulders, chewing contentedly, until I heard the occupants beginning to stir. Knowing I had little time, I set to work upon the hands of a neighbouring female, removing the fingers at the knuckle, and made off over the fence with my spoils. I settled down among the roots of a dry old pine tree, watching the humans point out my tracks in horror.
Well, if you will leave your dead in the open. I know exactly why humans took to burial. Not from any innate sense of respect or mourning. It was to keep us from getting at their scraps. Oh, they’d lay a child out for sacrifice when times got rough, but as for letting us pick through their leavings—forget about it. Somehow, they found that distasteful.
As the season waned, the humans began to disappear, either succumbing to death or fleeing with their families. Fleeing, it appeared, was not the easy choice that you might think for a predator that had recently become prey. Humans are not used to being at the bottom of the food chain. Being fed upon by something previously as harmless as plants, well, I can understand how that wounded their pride. In addition, a separate band of humans, wielding guns and the intent to use them, materialised one day at the gate and consequently, the body count rose.
After centuries of sleep, I watched this from among my tree roots with great curiosity, sneaking out at night and picking over the choicest remains, chasing off any other scavenger who dared to get too close. Bramble man was a favourite. By the end of summer, he was producing fat, delicious berries in addition to his succulent meat.
I am what I am. And what I was then was hungry. So hungry that it took me a long time to notice the sad, grey eyes watching me from a window above.
Lucy had been alone for weeks. The other residents of the scheme were all dead or simply gone. The dead lined the walls of the courtyard outside, frozen in the early frost, or grew lush tendrils of spider plants and peace lilies inside their houses. One day, as she ventured fearfully outside in search of fresh food, Lucy had passed by a window and happened to glance inside. She caught sight of an elderly woman lying spread-eagled on the floor with the cylindrical trunk of a yucca protruding from her belly. After that, she never explored the scheme so thoroughly, only stepping outside when she absolutely had to.
Her own illness was a slow-growing one. She had worried at her elbow, sure that it was just eczema until one day she had uncovered a faint green curl, like a baby fern or pea shoot. It stayed like that for a long time, an innocent, greenish tuft, so innocuous that Lucy sometimes found herself forgetting about it. In any case, she had worse things to worry about. After the shooting of May Hamilton, things had escalated fast and the council had taken measures. Anyone who did not appear to be infected had been examined and bundled into a truck. Lucy’s mother had been among those that had been taken. Lucy had watched it all from the bedroom window, peeping over the sill, terrified of being spotted as her mother screamed and scratched and swore.
Anyone who had symptoms who was stupid enough to approach the soldiers received a bullet through their head. Lucy’s mother knew about the tiny, pale thing that had taken root above Lucy’s elbow and, following May Hamilton’s death, had made her daughter swear that she wouldn’t leave the flat, no matter what.
The gates had been locked and the trucks had departed, whisking away her mother and the few others who remained symptomless in a guttural scream of wheels on mud and a greasy cloud of exhaust fumes. Lucy had pressed her face to the grimy window and silently cried as the skin on her arm split and bled and tiny roots wormed their way beneath her skin.
Now, weeks later, she lay on her bed staring up at the ceiling, one arm laced with fresh growth, trying to pluck up the courage either to go outside and find food or to commit to staying where she was and starving to death. Her stomach rumbled and hunger gnawed her insides. Starving to death took guts. She lay on her bed all day, wondering how long it would take her to die, until dusk fell and a hellish yowling rent the air.
Snarling, spitting, hisses like a cat fight. The bark and yip of a fox. Lucy pulled her pillow over her ears. Screaming, yelping, and, beneath it all, swearing? Was somebody else down there? Perhaps she wasn’t the only one left. She stood up, new shoots trailing from her hand, and looked cautiously around the curtains.
Just a fox fighting with that creepy pine marten again. The little one who skulked about and stole pieces of flesh when he thought no one was watching. She must have imagined the swearing. She must finally be going mad.
Still, if she was going to starve to death, she wasn’t going to do it listening to this racket. Suddenly, she wasn’t afraid at all, only angry, and she stormed from her bedroom, grabbing a pot from the stove on the way past.
I’m dying already, she thought recklessly as she marched outside and, with a furious yell, hurled the pot at the squabbling creatures. The fox shot off with a yelp and the pine marten paced back and forth, limping and muttering to himself.
“Shut up shut up shut up!” Lucy screamed, balling her fists, voice cracking as she used it for the first time since her mother had been taken. “Will the pair of you just shut up and let me die!” The pine marten growled insolently and licked at his paw. “Go away!” Lucy yelled. She shouted. She raged and she cried and, when she had finished, she felt much better and was surprised to see the pine marten sitting in front of her, head cocked in curiosity.
“Feel better, little girl?” he sneered, in a voice that sounded almost human, yet somehow venomous, as soft and dark as the thick fur coating his body.
Lucy could have screamed again, either in fear or wonder. She could have exclaimed, “You can talk!” She could have done a lot of things, but instead, she ignored the marten and walked straight over to the corpse of Mr Jones the bramble man, picking the berries and cramming them in handfuls into her mouth.
“Lonely girl! Lonely girl!” the marten jeered, trotting around her ankles, his injured paw held up off the ground. “What d’you think you’re doing? At my brambles?” He hissed at her, showing needle-point teeth, and Lucy aimed a solid kick into his side. The marten arched his back and made a pathetic, whining sound.
“Cruel girl! Rude girl! Kicking me … evil, thieving creature … at my brambles.”
“My brambles,” Lucy corrected, her mouth full, purple juice dribbling down her chin. “You’ve been at my neighbours.” She could see the teeth marks on Mr Jones’s cheek and the remnants of an ear that looked as though it had been nibbled away. “You’re a horrible, evil creature yourself.”
“Evil? Evil!” The marten performed a sort of dance of indignation, skittering around in a pile of dead leaves. “I’m many things, girl, but I’m not evil. I’m just an animal eating other dead animals.”
“And I’m just an animal eating fruit,” Lucy retorted. The marten gave an angry snarl and stamped down his injured paw. The snarl turned into a whimper. “You’re injured,” Lucy commented.
“And you’re dying,” the marten countered viciously. “You’re growing things, girlie. Not long now, and you’ll be out here with the rest of them.”
“How long can a pine marten live in the wild with a useless foot? Maybe the fox will come back.”
The marten grinned at this and chuckled, a low, chittering sound. He pulled back his hackles, exposing his little fangs. He arched his back again, spiked up his fur and, to Lucy’s amazement, he started to grow. He grew and grew to the size of a small dog before giving a funny sort of quiver and flopping back down onto the ground, small and trembling, exhausted.
“That wasn’t very impressive,” Lucy said, filling her pockets with brambles. “Look at you. You’re a tiny, wee skinny thing. I’ve seen bigger rats.”
“Because I’m weakened after centuries of sleep!” the marten snarled, black eyes flashing. “I need to feed! You should see me at the height of my power! I am fearsome, little girl. I am ancient! If that fucking fox dares crawl back here, I will ruin him!”
Lucy, being a young girl who hadn’t spoken to another living soul in weeks, thought that the pine marten, incandescent with rage at her feet, was rather sweet. And, knowing with the instinct possessed only by young girls that it would certainly annoy him, she stooped and picked him up, tucking him snugly inside her jacket.
“What!” the marten howled, furious. He squirmed and thrashed but Lucy held tight.
“Don’t be silly,” she chided. “I’m going to fix your foot. You’re bleeding and you can’t grow any bigger. If I leave you down here, that fox will come back and you’ll get eaten.”
“I will not,” groused the marten.
“Yes, you will. I’m Lucy. Do you have a name?”
“Slink,” the marten muttered, and suffered the girl to carry him up to the flat and tend his wounds, which were deeper and more numerous than he let on. He slept that night balled on her feet like a cat and, though he would never ever admit it, he grew fond of the girl and she, in turn, grew fond of him.
Fucking foxes. Ruinous scum, I knew they had it out for me. Orange bastards. Stinking flea-bait.
So I curled up on the girl’s feet and slept there all night like a house cat. I won’t apologise for it. It may hurt my pride to admit it, but I was weak then, starving, and that fox damn near shredded me.
I wasn’t there because it was soft or because it was warm or because the little girl was kind to me.
I was only there to recover my strength after that fucking fox humiliated me and bit my foot.
“Do you really want to die?” Slink asked her curiously as the first grey flakes of snow spiralled down from a menacing drove of steel-grey clouds.
“Why do you think I want to die?” Lucy mumbled, flicking through one of her mum’s old magazines and chewing on a piece of dried apple. Her plants were growing heavier every day. Slink had told her what they all were—witch hazel, winter jasmine, even some tiny larch saplings. They cascaded over the arm of her chair and down her back and, when she made Slink hold up a mirror so she could look at herself, she liked to imagine herself as a faerie or a wood nymph. Better that than a slowly dying human.
Slink stretched out on the rug. He appeared humanoid today, the size and shape of a teenage boy but still covered in soft fur and indisputably a pine marten. His hands, at the moment, were human hands, with opposable thumbs, and he too was reading a magazine.
“You said so the first time we met.” He yawned and licked his whiskers, tongue quick and pink. “I believe your exact words were, “shut up and let me die”.”
“Because you and that fox were making a hellish racket. Besides, I am dying.”
“You are,” the marten agreed. He sucked contemplatively on a wizened finger that he had brought in from outside. Lucy pulled a face.
“Do you have to eat that in here?”
“What happened to being fearsome? What happened to being ancient and powerful? Eat your scraps outside, Slink. That’s disgusting.”
“It’s the best bit. The muscles under the knuckle bones.”
“You’ve become domesticated.”
“You’re growing wild.” Slink, diminishing to the size of a house cat, twined up onto her shoulder, teasing a web of spiders from behind her ear with his teeth. Lucy scratched him on the back of his neck, and Slink made a humming sound that he would have died rather than admit was anything like a purr.
Lucy’s cloak of witch hazel and jasmine began to bloom and, as winter went on, it grew heavier and heavier. Slink brought her food and water, but one day, as the cold, weak sun slipped silently into early dusk, she realised what her body truly craved. Step by faltering step, she made her way up to the roof, with Slink helping her bear the weight and the pain of the plants that grew from beneath her skin. She settled down upon the tiles with a sigh of relief, soaking up the sunlight, and Slink wrapped her tightly in blankets, curling himself around her neck every night to keep her from dying of cold.
Winter deepened and darkened. Witch hazel blazed an umber river from Lucy’s arm, along the rusted guttering; blood-beaded holly spiked a coronet around her head. Her eyes grew tired and her breath grew quiet. She knew that it wouldn’t be long.
“Slink,” she said one day, as they watched a lone deer nibble larch tips on the other side of the fence. “When I die, will you eat me, too?” It was a question she had been meaning to ask for a long time, but had always dreaded hearing the answer. Things were different now though. She was different.
Slink thought about this, before replying, “Yes.”
“I thought so,” Lucy sighed, and Slink curled up in her lap.
“It’s nothing personal,” he yawned, closing his eyes. “It is simply nature and how it must be.”
“I know. It used to scare me, but it doesn’t anymore.” She looked out over the forest, at the deer lipping bark from the trees and the pale, golden light that flowed down the russet mountainside to pool among the frosted roots. “It’s beautiful. I’ve thought about it a lot. About dying—dying like this. And…it could be worse. At least I will always be part of something beautiful.”
“So you will, girl,” Slink agreed, raising hackles at an errant crow perched on an old satellite dish. “Bones buried under moss and wreathed with flowers. Life and death and beauty—it’s all one in the end, no matter who or what you are. We will all turn to worm-eaten forest loam one day.”
“Even me, though not until the very end.”
Lucy leaned back against the seat of woven branches that grew about her shoulders, one hand, laced with frail roots, resting upon Slink’s warm fur. As the rising moon touched upon frost-glittered rooftops, she thought about winter and the cold-blooming plants that surrounded her. She thought about living; she thought about dying; about the warmth that would kiss her bones with the coming of spring. She thought about the change that new seasons would bring to her plants and whether she might somehow feel it, even after the last of her flesh had been stripped away.
I slip around her folded legs, stepping carefully over the twining witch hazel, making sure not to dislodge the snowdrops that I planted around her feet. Rooting around the remains of a mouldering blanket, I pick the moss away from a cluster of early crocuses and a patch of daffodil bulbs, ready to erupt come spring. I scuffle around for a bit and tidy up, clearing dead leaves and snow tainted with bird droppings. I nibble spools of spider eggs from among the strands of her hair and clean the worst of the lichen from her eye sockets. Once I’m satisfied, I tuck myself into the nook of her elbow and curl up to watch the night.
Soft snow whispers onto the rooftop. I taste the bite of silver in the air, nestled in between her radius and her ribcage. Every now and then, I shake a dust of snowflakes from my fur. The night before dawn is silent and still, not a sound save the violet breath of the wind through the larches. My tracks across the ground below have almost disappeared.
Lucy’s golden hair stirs, bleached pale with the coming of morning. I close my eyes, dozing as the pink of dawn licks the treetops, content to keep her company until night falls once again.