The Hungry Ones

Content Note: Violence Against Women and Misogynistic Slurs

 

The Shadow-moon was full and dark and eating a black crescent into the face of the Sun on the day Aey sought the Hungry Ones. It was mid-afternoon when he left his faithless wife tending her hives and stole away towards town, a basket of Elle’s famous honey over his arm in case a curious neighbor saw him and questioned his mission. Much of the village was at worship, congregated in the foot-flattened sunfield for their weekly adulations, and as Aey picked his way through the empty, rain-mudded streets, he could hear strains of song floating up from the field, growing louder as the sky grew darker.

Elle did not concern herself with the Gods—she was, Aey thought bitterly, too proud to prostrate herself—but on a normal day, Aey too would be at the sunfield singing. Though it was true his regular attendance had dropped since he’d been hurt last summer; first because his broken leg had made it difficult to walk, and then, when it had healed, because he found himself averse to crowds, and to the humiliation of being asked, over and over, if his logging crew had found space to bring him back on, or if he’d found another crew to take him, or if he’d finally given in to Elle’s suggestions that he work for her, as her assistant beekeeper. It was this last question that jabbed with a sting sharper than any hornet—bad enough Elle should make the offer, worse that everybody knew. It was as if, in losing his position on the logging crew, he’d lost too his position as her husband, and been demoted to kept boy. From man to child, in one ill-timed crash of branches.

If he had not hurt his leg; if he had not lost his employment; if Elle’s honey weren’t so in demand; if she had not needed an assistant; if she had not hired thick-armed, flower-faced Davy, too young and stupid to recognize the dishonor in taking orders from a woman; if all of this had not occurred, he would not now be at the house of the Hungry Ones, staring down his own damnation.

But here he was. At the very edge of town, where stone-paved roads turned back to dirt and then to forest, and the house of the Hungry Ones stood silhouetted against a backdrop of trees. In the mid-afternoon night of the Shadow-moon’s eclipse, the house looked grey and forbidding as a cliff-face. But as Aey approached, the Shadow-moon began to slip from the brilliant Sun, and in the sudden light the house bloomed vividly blue and almost ordinary. For some reason, it was this calm facade that sent chills down Aey’s spine.

He went around to the back gate, pulse pounding in his ears, but was surprised to find the garden was a colorful and utilitarian layout of vegetables; if he’d allowed himself to wonder, he’d have pictured roses, or dahlias, or some other ripe and heavy-headed flower. Just as he stood on the stone steps wondering if he should knock, the door swung open.

The Hungry One who stood within did not look at all surprised to see him. “Aey,” she said. “You brought honey. How sweet.”

Aey stood, stupidly, as she took the basket from his hands. He had not planned what he would say.

“You need a spell,” she prompted. “Come in and tell me about it.”

He followed her inside, down a hallway and into a kitchen that did not seem so different from his own. It was sunny and clean, with a swept wooden floor and sparkling copper pans hanging above a potbellied stove. The shelves held what looked like flour, sugar, potatoes, jars of beans—no strange herbs or eyeballs floating in a viscous goo. The Hungry One seemed workaday, herself, in such a context, even draped as she was in the telltale blue robe. She was older than he by perhaps fifteen years, her teak-brown curls shot through with silver, her face lined like any woman of forty, and though she was pretty enough, her lips were thin, her jaw heavy. The eyes alone suggested power: they were a deep, unnatural blue, like the night sky reflected in a lake.

“Where are your sisters?” he said.

“Here and there,” she said. “How is your wife?”

“What do you know of my wife?” he said, bristling, and the Hungry One rolled her eyes, such a petty, human gesture that Aey almost relaxed.

“Elle is sleeping with young Davy,” she said, and he tensed up again. “She doesn’t know you saw the two of them together last night. She doesn’t understand the depth of your anger towards her and she doesn’t know you want to kill Davy in cold blood but haven’t got the nerve.” She cocked her head at his stricken expression. “Stop looking so frightened, Aey,” she said. “You’ve come for killing magic, after all.”

Like everybody, Aey had indulged in speculation: what circumstance might lead him to magic? Perhaps a loved one’s illness, he’d thought, but then his mother had sickened and died and still he kept away from the blue house on the edge of town. Maybe poverty—but the first winter of his marriage to Elle had been one of bitter cold privation, and yet Aey had not approached those stone steps. It turned out that only shame itself was worth the shame of seeking out a Hungry One.

Even before he had come home to find Elle and Davy, he’d been having a bad night. The conversation at the tavern had turned on him without warning: one moment Aey was laughing along as his former foreman described the tremulous flirtations of the mayor’s horse-faced daughter, and then suddenly the men’s laughter flipped, and the sharp tip of it was aimed at Aey himself.

“Anyway, some men like being ridden by a mare, and not the other way around,” said his foreman. “Tell us, Aey, does Elle have a special bridle for you?”

“Solid gold, no doubt,” said a former crewmate. “Only the best for her prize gelding.”

Aey could not force a smile. Such jibes would be easier to endure if it was only fibs and teasing, but all the town knew who filled the coffers in Aey’s home. Elle’s honey, thick and antiseptic, brought people flocking from leagues away, and her curative salves were stocked by every peddler who passed through. Meanwhile, Aey took odd jobs and was known by nobody.

“They say the Hungry Ones are born and not made,” added another man, “but if ever a woman were to please herself to power, it’d be Elle. You mind yourself, Aey, and keep her wanting.”

“You’re supposing Aey’s the source!” said another. “I bet she’s got a stableful of stallions, ready to be tapped dry.”

“If any man laid his fingers on my wife, her skin would be the last thing he touched,” Aey had said, unable to hold his tongue. “I would kill him on the spot.”

The response was instantaneous, and raucous.

“Oh, all fear the wrath of Aey!”

“Does Elle know her pretty toy has teeth?”

Aey knew he ought to pay no mind, but their words sawed away at the thin rope that tied him to calm. They could not know how close their jests cut; how he did, indeed, try and keep his wife wanting, how he turned away from her each night in an attempt to curb her power.

“The day you tame your wife is the day the Light-moon returns to her lover’s bed,” said Aey’s foreman, to raucous laughter, which he forced himself to join. But Burning Sunfather, he was sick of being made a joke.

So sick of it that he had left the tavern, and in this way had discovered the truth. He had come home early, had heard Elle’s whimpered gasp of pleasure from behind the North hives, had seen the glint of Davy’s bare backside glowing in the Light-moon, had felt his knees buckle with fury and pain… And then he had proved all the jibes correct by doing absolutely nothing. He’d had his moment, a chance to strike Davy down and prove once and for all that he would not be made a laughingstock, that he was someone to fear, and to respect, but the men at the tavern had been right: he was weak.

But Sunfather help him, he would find strength.

Now, beneath the placid, endless blue gaze of a true Hungry One, Aey swallowed down his accusatory words: demon, witch, eater of souls. Shame curdled his stomach.

“What you say is true,” he said. “I must kill Davy, but I can’t. I tried, but my body won’t obey my mind, I froze, my feet stopped moving. Elle has taken away my manhood and I’m too much of a coward now to even take it back.” He felt himself spitting the last sentence, expelling the bitter taste of his own words.

“We don’t cast spells of death,” the Hungry One said.

“I know that,” Aey said. “I would not ask it if you did. Mine needs to be the hand that ends him; everybody must know it was me. So I ask a spell of strength. Of bravery.”

The Hungry One examined him for a moment, that pool-blue gaze flicking rapidly across his face, then abruptly she stood and swept towards the counter. “My magic can’t invent what isn’t there,” she said, her back to him. He heard the glug of something being poured. “Nor can I enhance you artificially.” She turned towards him, holding two small glasses of clear liquid. “But I can make manifest your Shadow-side. I can externalize the darkness in you, so he can act where you would not.”

“Let it be done,” Aey said immediately. He pictured himself filled with a dark wrath, all conscience put aside, all fear forgotten.

“Think on it,” said the Hungry One. “Our Shadow-sides are not always predictable. You might find him difficult to reason with.”

“It’s my reason I need overruled,” Aey said. “Murder is not reasonable.”

The Hungry One laughed. “True! So you’re not an altogether fool.”

“Able enough to hear a hidden insult,” he said stiffly.

“Yes,” she said. “In fact, I think your hearing is keenest to disparagement.”

“I’m here for magic,” he said. “Not conversation.”

“Naturally,” she said, her tone suddenly brisk. “Here, we drink.” She pushed one of the glasses towards him. “We’ll raise it three times. First, to the Shadow-moon.” Aey followed her lead, taking a mouthful and no more. “To the Light-moon,” she said, and they drank again. “To the day the two shall touch.” Aey winced at the blasphemy, but together they drained their glasses.

The liquor was very strong and cold, sweet like honey. Aey ran his tongue across his lips.

“Let’s talk business,” the Hungry One said. “Are you familiar with the price of magic?”

“Yes,” Aey said, his face reddening.

“Not that price,” the Hungry One said, her thin lips twisting in a half-smile. “That’s not currency, it’s a necessary first step of any spell. Think of me as a match. You must spark me to use my fire. No, I’m talking of gold, like any businesswoman. In this house we ask fifteen orots for the kind of spell you’re seeking.”

“Fifteen orots!” Aey said. He hadn’t been expecting this. “I wouldn’t walk the streets with such a sum in my pockets.”

“We take banker’s notes,” she said. “And we have a boy to cash them, so your name will not be associated with us.”

“Ten,” Aey said.

“Fourteen.”

“Eleven.”

“Thirteen.” She pushed back from the table. “I go no lower.”

“Fine,” he said, and she watched carefully as he wrote a banker’s note and signed his name. When he handed it to her, she held the paper between two fingers, blew on it once, and it disappeared. It was such a natural gesture that Aey had to replay it in his mind to fully realize what he’d seen. Magic. Up close, and casual.

“Sunfather,” he whispered.

“None of that,” the Hungry One said lightly. “In the blue houses, we swear only to the Moons. Now. We have spoken briefly of the fire that sparks a spell, but I will say it more plainly so there can be no mistake: you must bring me pleasure before I can enact magic on your behalf.”

She began to pull her skirts up past her knees.

“Here?” Aey said, nearly choking. “Now?”

“As good a place and time as any,” she said. Her face was calm, unashamed, but Aey’s heart had tripled its pace and his hands were suddenly damp.

“Very well,” he said, and took a deep breath. He had pictured candles, a bed with many pillows, sweet perfume—not a sunny kitchen and a hardbacked wooden chair. But it was not his magic to control. He dropped his shaking fingers to his buckle, and began to unthread his belt.

“No, no,” said the Hungry One, looking alarmed. “That will not be necessary.”

He hadn’t believed his face could grow any hotter. “But I thought—”

“It would take forever if you went about it that way,” she said. “Use your hands.”

“Ah,” he said. He tucked his belt back. He was nearly faint with embarrassment, but he moved his chair towards hers until they were nearly side-by-side, and she drew her skirts higher up her thighs with a practical swish. Aey had entertained plenty of fantasies of the Hungry Ones over the years, yet now he felt no arousal; the Hungry One looked bored, and the scene felt clinical, nothing like the sweat and blood and heat he’d always imagined. Cautiously, he reached between her bare knees, hand moving past the folds of fabric until he hit the soft fur of her, and he fumbled for a moment before parting her at the slit. She slid down in the chair to better accommodate him, and he dipped two fingers into her, gathering the dampness there before beginning to stroke. He was out of practice. He kept losing the rhythm right as her breath began to change, mumbling apologies as she tensed in frustration, and after a while his hand began to cramp and he had to shake it out while she waited, not bothering to hide her impatience.

“Is this why you withhold yourself from Elle?” she said. “To hide your lack of skill?”

“No!” Aey said. “I’m—I used to be good at this, truly. But Elle was, she wanted it too much. I feared she was like you and would grow her power even more if I—and so—” He stopped. The Hungry One had covered her face with both hands.

“Not another word,” she said, “or I’ll never get there. Light-moon, I weep for your women. Please, hurry.”

Aey went back to work. Finally, her breath began to quicken, her hands flexing at her sides, her eyes squeezed tight. As she moaned, Aey felt something move within his core—not painful but not pleasurable either, a writhing like a den of serpents uncoiling, and as the Hungry One’s body was seized in a rictus and she cried out, her thighs clenching around his hand, her head thrown back, so too did Aey’s body begin to shake and he doubled over in his chair, his trunk suddenly too weak to hold him up, his glistening fingers falling helpless to his side. With a curious sucking sound, like a foot come free of mud, another Aey climbed from his body and stood before him on the kitchen’s worn wooden floor.

“I’ve come,” the other Aey said.

Aey found he could move again. The Hungry One was readjusting her skirts, patting her blue cloak back into place over her knees while the Shadow-Aey looked back and forth between them.

“Welcome,” said the Hungry One.

“I thought,” Aey said, and stopped, unable to gather words through the shock of seeing himself from outside himself. The Shadow-Aey was tall and handsome in the same homespun shirt and leather breeches Aey himself wore, and as Aey watched, he brushed a hand through his black hair in a gesture Aey was intimately familiar with, but from inside. He could almost feel his own hairs tickling his palm. “I didn’t think,” he said, “I never thought he would be separate from my body! I thought he’d remain a part of me, acting from within!”

At this, the Shadow-Aey’s face flushed deep red and his brows drew sharply together, a crease drawn vertical between them. Aey knew his own anger well, but he had never seen the ugly expression play out on his otherwise comely face.

“I am my own man!” said Shadow-Aey. “I belong to no one!”

“Do you know why we’ve called you here?” said the Hungry One.

“Yes,” said Shadow-Aey, visibly puffing up his chest. “Because you need a job done well, and only I can do it.” Suddenly, the proud expression on his face fell away, his eyes growing wide, his lips parting like a startled child’s. “But what if I can’t? What if the job remains undone? Sunfather, what if everyone sees me try and my name becomes synonymous with failure, evoked to frighten children, a fable of disaster?”

“I called you here for murder,” Aey said, disturbed by the fast turn, and he was relieved to see Shadow-Aey’s face clear itself of fear.

“Yes,” said Shadow-Aey, and his face hardened with determination, his eyes glinting. “I must kill Davy, and our wife must watch me do it.” But then, to Aey’s discomfort, his face fell again. “What can Elle see in the boy? He is not nearly as handsome as we. He must be smarter than us, he must be stronger, a better man entirely.” His face hardened once more. “I want to hear him scream.”

The Hungry One was standing, now, taking the empty glasses over to the porcelain sink. “Best of luck, Aey,” she said. “When you’re ready to merge again, instinct will guide you.”

Aey stayed in the chair. He felt out of his depth, and obliquely cheated. He’d thought his Shadow-self would act as energy within the conduit of Aey’s own body, suffusing him with bravery and dark purpose—he was not prepared to wrangle a separate, identical version of himself through the streets of the town.

“I will see Davy’s blood run down my palms,” said Shadow-Aey excitedly.

To disguise him, the Hungry One brought forth an oversized brown traveling cloak, which Shadow-Aey refused to wear. “I don’t look good in brown,” he said. “And my face is excellent, I won’t hide it.”

In the end, it was Aey who wore the cloak, skulking behind his double as they wound their way back home. They kept to the narrow alleys on the outskirts of town and then the unmarked footpaths through the meadow, a guarantee against being seen too often, and questioned. Unfortunately, this route took twice as long, and Shadow-Aey filled each spare step with words.

“Elle will mark my every move,” he said. “She will scream like a little girl and so will Davy, and her whole body will be wracked with remorse for every touch she wasted on him. When I strike him down, she will see the actions of a real man, she will look upon us and see the very essence of manhood reflected back at her, for certainly our penises are larger than Davy’s by far.” He looked anxiously at Aey. “Are they, though? Do you think they are? Davy is very tall and has large hands. He’s quick and kind. Do you suppose Elle prefers him to us utterly? He will die a slow and painful death, and people will speak of our bravery forever! Nobody will dare question our manhood then, even if it is smaller than Davy’s. Our wife, the filthy whore, she will not think us weak anymore, she’ll know her place and weep at night for fear of us.”

“Please,” Aey said, smiling nervously at a passing flower-seller. “Speak softly.”

“Is my voice unpleasing?” said Shadow-Aey. “Do you not think it has a faintly squeakish timbre to it?”

Aey found it jarring to hear his innermost thoughts, his pettiest fears, spoken aloud like this. In fact, he heard now that his voice was not squeakish at all, an agitation that had long plagued him.

“Mark how people cannot help but admire us as we pass,” Shadow-Aey said. “Did you see that woman eyeing us like almond cake? Ha! She would eat every crumb if we allowed her, but we won’t, for she was old and skinny and we are very handsome. Aren’t we? Or can she tell we are a cuckold and subservient to Elle? Oh, look at that fellow’s fine thick beard. We will never have a beard so fine. How I miss our wife sometimes! I miss laying our head on her lap and feeling her trace our cheekbones with her clever fingers. I miss how badly she once needed us. Is she not the most beautiful woman you’ve met, in her funny way? I miss the days she thought herself plain. She was so much more pliable back then.”

“You must be quiet,” Aey said desperately. “Soon we’ll be home, and Elle will be there.”

“So too will Davy,” said Shadow-Aey. “He comes today to help our cursed harlot of a wife fill jars. And all this time he’s been filling her jar, the raving trollop, the bastard, I will smear his blood across my face and shout my victory! Yes, why wait? I’ll kill him on sight. And you of us, you watch! Soon the whole town will tell the story, and no man will ever laugh at us again.”

It was a plan no different than what Aey had himself imagined, and yet hearing it on Shadow-Aey’s lips warped it, somehow. It sounded half-mad. Aey had wanted to want to kill Davy, but he felt the same old conflicted hesitation; none of his double’s certainty had spilled over. He himself was no braver, no surer. He still neither wanted to kill Davy nor watch Davy be killed by his hand. But they were coming to the house, now, and Shadow-Aey strode forward with all the determination Aey had wished for himself. He wasn’t talking anymore, his face was all grim intention, and he went around to the kitchen window and beckoned Aey to follow.

The window was wide open, the smell of fresh honey pouring out. Aey and Shadow-Aey crouched in the thick bushes below the sill, bees buzzing languidly around them as they peered through the window, and even before he looked, Aey heard Davy’s voice, and his wife’s answering laugh. Fresh anger rocked him. The two were standing at the kitchen table, their backs to the window, filling empty glass jars with Elle’s thick honey and stacking them in wooden crates, readying them for next week’s market. Elle was giving Davy some instruction, “With a sideways twist of paper, like so,” and Davy was nodding, as if the shame of taking her direction didn’t touch him.

“You of us, wait here and watch,” said Shadow-Aey, and moved towards the door.

“Wait,” Aey hissed. Panic rose suddenly within him, panic and regret. He hated the boy, he did, yet he couldn’t even stand to see a different self of his kill Davy, was too cowardly even for that—but Shadow-Aey had his hand on the doorknob. “Wait!” Aey said again, and Shadow-Aey looked back at him.

“No,” he said, and vanished inside. Aey stood beside the window, frozen. If he followed Shadow-Aey inside, Elle would see the two of him, and know what he had done, that he had gone to a despised Hungry One—everyone would know, know how sad and desperate he’d become, how he was so much under Elle’s thumb that he could not free himself for long enough to fight, and he would never again regain respect. He had set this in motion: he must be man enough at least to watch it play out.

Aey watched himself come into the kitchen. Elle turned to greet him, all smiles, and Aey felt his fury at her breezy deception rise up in him like thunder, and he could see it at the same time burning red hot on Shadow-Aey’s face, contorting his features. Davy took a step back; Elle a step forward.

“Whore,” Shadow-Aey spat.

“Hey now,” Davy said.

“Did you think I wouldn’t know?” said Shadow-Aey. “Did you think I was so feeble I would let you carry on your harlot ways?”

“Davy,” said Elle. “You should go.”

Now, it would happen now. Aey’s pulse trampled in his ears, he felt dizzy and sick with regret, but he was eager, too, eager to see Elle’s face as he knocked her lover to the ground and proved his dominion in his own home once and for all.

But once again, that did not happen. Instead, Davy scuttled towards the door, and Shadow-Aey let him pass without blinking, scarcely seeming to notice he was there. He was staring only at Elle, with such naked longing on his face that Aey felt weak, as if some protective layer had been stripped from him. Dimly, he heard the front door swing open, and he barely managed to duck back into the bushes before Davy stormed out, casting fearful half-glances back towards the house as he hurried away. Aey could hear Shadow-Aey shouting, and when he stood back up he heard Elle, too, pleading with him.

“I’m sorry,” she was saying, “I would never have wished you to find out in such a manner!”

“Sorry I found out, but not sorry to be such a whore?”

“You won’t touch me!” Elle said. She was near tears, just as in all Aey’s fantasies of this moment, yet it gave him almost no satisfaction to watch. “You barely look at me, you won’t speak to me! What am I supposed to do, Aey, what? I’m young still, and hot-blooded, and my husband refuses to lay his hands on me!”

“You want my hands on you?” Shadow-Aey said, and advanced upon her. “So be it.” He reached out and grabbed her arms, pinning them to her sides, and gave her a rough shake.

“Let me go,” she said, trying to wrench away, but Shadow-Aey shook her again and hung on even as they staggered backward and collided with the tabletop. An empty jar waiting to be filled with honey fell to the floor and burst loudly into shards, and Shadow-Aey took advantage of Elle’s lack of balance to bear into her again, pressing her so she was bent back over the tabletop, trapped. Ineffectually, she grappled at his arm. All the while he was talking.

“Do you know what people say about me? Do you know they say you own me, they call me your pet, they say you keep my manhood in a jar of honey and only let it out once a double-moon? They say you’re the Queen and I’m a drone buzzing around your hive, serving you for all eternity, but you don’t care, you act as if you own the town, the world, but I’m here as a reminder that you’re mine. I own you.”

Elle was sobbing now, struggling for breath and kicking and fighting, but she was small and Aey was large and well-muscled from logging, and she couldn’t break free. “Please,” she gasped, “please,” and outside the window Aey felt as if all his bones had turned to lead. He would kill her; he knew he would. How long had he wanted to see her like this, vulnerable and scared beneath his hands? In all his fantasies he’d turned his rage to Davy, but of course Davy was not the real source, it was Elle, it had always been Elle, and now he was going to kill her if he did not stop himself.

He leaped to his feet just as Shadow-Aey crumpled suddenly to his knees.

Aey halted, his hand on the windowsill, confused. In the kitchen, Elle’s ragged sobs caught in her throat as Shadow-Aey reached up and clutched a handful of her yellow skirts, burying his face within their folds.

“What—” Elle gasped, one hand at her shoulder where Shadow-Aey had been squeezing just moments before, the other hand hovering over his head, uncertain. She was still plainly terrified, staring down at him, her cheeks flushed with exertion and her hair in disarray. “Aey, what—”

“Why don’t you love only me?” Shadow-Aey groaned into Elle’s lap. “I want you to adore me, I want your full attention, I want to be your only god. Does Davy have a larger manhood? Is he stronger than I am? His shoulders aren’t as broad but his lips are very full, are my lips too thin for you? Do you think my hair is girlish? I want all your bees to die! I want to be a bee. I want people on the street to see me and say, Now there goes a man who’s in charge of his wife. I want you to sing me to sleep and hold my hand, I want you to re-learn shame, you whore. Will you kiss me, Elle? Kiss me and tell me you love me? Tell me I’m handsome and strong and useful, tell me how lovely my eyes are, tell me—”

“Stop,” Aey croaked. He could take no more. Elle’s eyes snapped up to where he stood framed in the window, and her mouth opened soundlessly, her face suddenly bloodless. Shadow-Aey ignored him, pressing his face deeper into Elle’s legs so his continued voice became muffled, only a few plaintive words coming through: want, touch, kill, love.

“Stop,” Aey repeated, louder, and hoisted himself gracelessly through the window, taking a step into the kitchen on trembling legs. “Please,” he begged himself. “Please, go.”

Then Shadow-Aey did turn, his face wet with tears and his eyes blazing with hatred. “You got us into this,” he spat at Aey. “You called me here. You needed me to do what you could not. It’s you who should go!”

As suddenly as he’d fallen to his knees, Shadow-Aey stood and stalked toward Aey, his mouth twisted in fury.

“What is this?” Elle breathed. “What madness…?”

“We went to the Hungry Ones,” said Shadow-Aey. “We needed strength. We have it now. He can go.”

And he aimed a blow at Aey’s head.

It happened so quickly Aey had no time to duck or deflect, and he fell back into the windowsill, his ears ringing, vision starring. Another blow followed, swift and hard, and another as Aey finally threw up his hands, and then Elle smashed a jar of honey across Shadow-Aey’s head.

Shadow-Aey staggered back, glass and sticky amber clotting his hair, and Aey was on him, throwing an elbow across his jaw, trying to hammer a knee into his groin, his own hands grappling for his throat and clawing at his face and he’d never been this close to himself before, never felt his body move against him or felt his own harsh breath, never seen tears standing out in his own eyes. His fist grazed his cheek and he ducked, but instead of backing away he pushed forward into himself and came up inches away from his face – and suddenly it felt only right, only natural to press his mouth against his Shadow’s mouth and kiss him.

It was a hard kiss: their teeth smashed together, and Aey felt his lip split from the force of it, but after one fierce moment his mouth beneath his began to soften, and Shadow-Aey went still in his arms and let Aey pull him closer. He felt his Shadow’s tears wet on his cheeks, his lips parting as his body softened in his embrace, his sigh passing into Aey’s body and with it a rushing heat, and then Aey’s hands were empty, he was kissing no one, and he opened his eyes to find Elle staring at him as if he were a stranger.

He slept that night in the forest, listening to the hush and sigh of trees, watching the silver of the Light-moon glinting off their leaves. Come morning he would go back to the home he’d built, collect his things, and take a room in town.

“I saw the face of your hate,” Elle had said. This was after he had told her everything. “I can’t soon forget it. You must go.”

“I saw something, too,” Aey reminded her. “I saw you spread your legs for Davy.”

Elle took a deep breath, her cheeks flushing, fists clenching. She looked as if she wanted to shout. But when she spoke, her voice was quiet. She said, “That’s true. It’s all true. I am what you accuse me of: I’m lustful and ambitious and proud.” She looked away from him. “I thought that’s why you chose me.”

“I don’t hate you,” Aey said, his voice thick. “I’ve never hated you.”

She’d glanced back at him, then, and shook her head very slowly.

Now Aey stared up at the Light-moon, and it stared back at him between the branches, golden and alone, forever tracing a path towards its dark beloved counterpart. He thought of kissing his own mouth, that sweet, warm rush of re-entering his body, and he wondered where his Shadow lay within him. He thought he could feel him, gazing up into the sky with his eyes and beating with his heart.

Emma Törzs

Emma Törzs is a writer and teacher based in Minneapolis. Her short fiction has been published in journals such as Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Lightspeed, and honored with a 2020 NEA fellowship, a 2019 World Fantasy Award, and a 2015 O. Henry Prize. She’s grateful to the National Endowment for the Arts, the Loft Literary Center, the Jerome Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the MRAC, the MSAB, and Norwescon for financial support through the years, and she’s an enthusiastic member of the Clarion West class of 2017.

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