Fiction, Georgia Howe
Tilde was nine years old when the Devil first visited her. It was winter, and breath and woodfire smoke clouded in the air. The sharp black branches of the forest were encased in ice, scraping the gray sky like the knotted fingers of the hags that spun wool in the village further down. The snow that always slumbered at the top of the mountain unraveled; a blanket, smothering Tilde’s home and the forest that lay at the base. The great white drifts didn’t melt for many cycles. When Tilde peered out the window during a cold season night, no light but the full-bellied moon and her star-speck companions, the woods around her little house looked dangerous and bled of color. She would press her pink nose against the frosted glass and wonder what faeries and demons danced under those skeleton trees.
That particular day, when Tilde first brushed with evil embodied, she was in the forest checking her father’s traps for rabbits. Her father was in some deeper, northern part of the woods she wasn’t allowed to go to, felling trees to ax and sell. Normally a son would be checking the traps and skinning the rabbits, but her family hadn’t got one, not yet. There was a child on the way in her mother’s stomach, swelling like a blood leech every day, but there was no way to know whether a son or another daughter would be born. A thin, religious woman from the village had told her mother it was surely a son, but her mother only scoffed at the holy insight. She warned Tilde not to trust women like that, for they were looking for any excuse to soften the hard world around them with hymnals and prayer. So that day it was just Tilde, checking the snares, and hoping there were enough to appease the appetite of her mother and the babe inside her.
There was only one rabbit to be found so far, and Tilde had to snap its little neck with her pale little fingers before she placed it in her sack. She hated having to kill the creatures herself, but even more so hated dirtying her frock with blood. She had only two dresses to switch between, and both were threadbare and dotted with stains, so soiling them further was always a shame. The brumal wind still got under the hide she wore for a cloak, biting through every small hole it could find and peppering her skin with gooseflesh.
As Tilde hefted the sack back over her shoulder, a bleating sound cut through the snow-dampened air. She squinted to where it had come from and wondered what it could be. The call was similar to that of the young deer she often spied in the spring, but it was the cold season and Tilde was certain no fawns were being birthed. Though she knew not to follow strange sounds in the woods, Tilde was not far from her house and the bleating was not far from her. She was certainly quick enough to run back to the safety of her warm hearth’s glow if something ominous was waiting for her. As most children are, Tilde was more curious than she was disciplined, so she set off deeper into the woods.
When she at last came to the source of the blat, a strange sight indeed waited for her. Under the shelter of a fallen husk of a birch trunk lay a large doe. Its fur was a beautiful acorn color that reminded Tilde of the molasses her father once bought after a particularly good year selling lumber at the market. A little baby, a fawn, that looked as if it had been born but a week ago, was curled up by its mother’s side. Its face was turned from Tilde as it suckled the doe’s teat with an insatiable hunger. It was a charming, tender image; parent and child nestled so gently together as snow melted on their pelt.
But then Tilde drew closer and noticed something. The doe was not moving. Her chest was not rising and falling in telltale breath. The snow under her neck, which was twisted in just too unnatural a position, was slowly becoming red and hot. A deep revulsion gutted Tilde as she realized the fawn was trying to drink from its dead mother’s breast. She reached out with her hand to scare the little creature away from the corse, fingers brushing its dappled fur. The fawn turned– not with the jerk of a surprised animal, but like the slow twist of a poisonous snake. It looked up at Tilde and the girl recoiled.
The fawn was not a fawn. It had a human face set with watery blue eyes and a hungry tongue that lolled out between thin lips. Tilde wailed and stumbled away from the creature, struggling against the terror that stilled her heart. The Devil grinned with too-sharp teeth and bleated at Tilde as she dropped her sack and began to run away. Tilde ran hard, tears streaming down her frost-nipped cheeks and bile building in her throat. She fell twice over logs that were hidden under snowdrifts, barely discerning the fading bleating over her own hysterical breaths. When she at last burst from the treeline and into the safety of her little yard, she dropped to her hands and knees and vomited.
Rising onto trembling legs and wiping her mouth with her sleeve, Tilde felt with a deep, disgusted certainty that she had met the Devil. She knew she was young, and knew when one was young it was hard to know anything with absolute certainty. But every hair on her scalp and convulsion of her soul told her that she was right. Her fingers prickled and burned where she had touched the Devil. She felt blackened, tainted, and sure to die. Dusk gathered in the sky over the mountain.
When Tilde was able to breathe again, she entered her home. The first room was empty and warm, but she found her mother in the back room where they all slept. She laid on the single hay-stuffed mattress, her face and stomach swollen. Tilde went to her side and kneeled, pressing her face into her chest. Her mother stroked Tilde’s hair idly and asked in a faint, strained voice how many rabbits she had brought back. Tilde said none. Her mother asked why. Tilde said there hadn’t been any. Her mother closed her eyes and sighed, a tired, sad sound.
That night the baby tried to come early, but Tilde’s mother was not ready for it to.
That night Tilde’s mother died.
Tilde’s father cried over his lost son. Tilde cried over her lost mother. She cried because it was cold and she was scared. She cried because the red gore between her mother’s legs reminded her of the red snow under the doe’s neck. She cried because she was hungry.
And ever since then, Tilde stayed hungry. As her bones stretched and cracked and her childish flesh became supple, she stayed hungry. She began eating just as many rabbits as her father, though the man was nearly twice as large. She baked bread furiously, only to scarf it all down in a single night. Soon she started stealing eggs from the nests of ducks and grebes, sucking them dry through the shell and lapping up the golden yolk with her pink tongue. In the cold season, when the ducks and grebes and wheat were gone, she ate the snow. She’d swallow the cold, wet stuff while completing her chores, filling her insides with ice.
When Tilde’s father would return from his day of cutting trees, he began to look at her with anxiety. She could see it in the way his eyes would fix upon her and tighten, wary, as she devoured her large share of whatever meal she had prepared for them. It was not normal for women to want so much, to take so much, to eat so much. And a woman she was now. Tilde had no mother, and what motherless person could still truly be a child? She had womanly breasts, thick hips, and pale fingers that were no longer little. She shed years and childhood fat and ate and ate and ate.
When it was winter again and Tilde was seventeen, her father made her leave. He told her he feared she’d eat the walls of the home if she would stay there any longer; lick the sawdust from the hearth and the marrow from his bones. He watched her as she folded her two frocks, a water skein, and a small bone knife into a pouch. Nothing more he’d give her. This was his home, after all, and she had consumed enough of it.
Tilde was brimming with a strange mix of unease and passion. She had not yet broadened her mind to think of her life beyond her little home, and while the world suddenly seemed terribly vast, it also seemed plump with opportunities. So Tilde left her home and began to walk down the little dirt path to the village she had only visited a few times during warmer months. Behind her the silhouette of her home loomed like a great guardian of the twilight sky. The moon hung heavy in the heavens as the sun began its descent, and Tilde wanted to devour them both. A cold wind from the mountains blew down her back and nipped at her heels, pushing her to walk faster.
The sun had completely vanished when she reached the village, leaving behind a faint haze of amber below the stars. There wasn’t a single person out in the village, either out of fear of the creatures the night carries or the approaching snowstorm Tilde could taste in the air. Most of the shops were shut up for the night, but Tilde spied one building with a candle lit in its window. It was rough-hewn like the other lodgings in the village, made of pine and rugged stone. The wooden parts on this one, however, were painted white and seemed to glow in the moonlight. Paint was a fine rarity in as small a village as this, so perhaps the people staying there would have the means to host a derelict like Tilde.
Tilde followed the candlelight like a beacon and knocked on the thick door. After a moment of rustling from within, the door drew open. The woman who opened it seemed familiar to Tilde, though from where she couldn’t quite place. As she bade Tilde to enter, the light from a hot fireplace within illuminated her. The woman was thin and wide-eyed and wrapped in white furs. She wore an odd sort of hat, another piece of white fur that rested on her head like an
upright log. Tilde shed her coat and the smell of burning herbs assaulted her nostrils. The woman introduced herself as Dagrun and apologized for her odd state of dress. As she explained that she bore these robes to complete a holy ceremony, Tilde recognized her as the religious woman who her mother had once laughed at. Dagrun did not recognize Tilde, though, and graciously bade her to stay for the night. Tilde would have to sleep on the stone floor next to the hearth, but it was far better than finding shelter somewhere in the forest.
Dagrun excused herself to the back room to go finish her ritual. Tilde laid down on the floor and wrapped her cloak right around her. She imagined the hide was the arms of her mother, cradling her against her warm body. Shadows danced in rhythm with flames on the ceiling. Bulbs of garlic and strands of dried ivy were hung along the rafters. A thin shaft of moonlight split through the room from the singular window. It landed on a table piled with great dusty tomes, pages filled with ink and characters that Tilde would never understand. She had never been taught to read, but found herself transfixed by the symbols engraved in the leather covers. Placed at intervals throughout the books and the room were small wood-carved idols of what looked like a man with a star behind him. As Tilde drifted to sleep, she thought she saw the effigies transform into goblins, their little eyes boring into her with a fire.
Tilde jolted awake from a sleep she didn’t know she had fallen into. The strangest feeling drove her from her drowsiness and she wrenched open her eyes. Biting and tonguing sensation covered her body. In the dim glow of the fire’s dying embers she could make out a dozen small figures on her, digging at her skin. Something was licking her breast, her neck, her thigh. Tilde cried out and scrambled to her feet, swatting at the creatures on her. They fell to the floor with the telltale clatter of wood. She realized, with a deep twist of horror, that the little idols had been accosting her. At her feet they squirmed and wriggled, like pill bugs in tilled soil. Tilde let loose another cry, this time strangled by a sob, and ran to the door. She tugged on her boots and cloak with shaking hands and rushed out the door. She looked back once as she ran into the night and saw Dagrun standing in the doorway. Her face was sallow in the moonlight and her blue eyes turned pale as silver.
Dagrun called after her, inviting her to come back to consume the mysteries of gods and texts. Tilde did not answer as she rushed for the treeline. She felt the Devil watch her run away, white ceremony robes swirling like winter winds.
Tilde ran for days and slept in tree hollows and overhangs along the dirt road as she went. Her skin felt pricked and burned where the effigies had tasted her. She didn’t stop until she reached the next village. She stayed there for a few cycles, begging for scraps and doing housework for food whenever she could. Then, driven by the anxiety that Dagrun was following her, she moved on to the next village. This pattern repeated itself several times, and soon Tilde found that some years had passed. She had grown thin and hollow as a petrified trunk. She did not know in what direction she traveled, but the climate grew cooler and the cold seasons longer. When she had been to as many villages as she had protruding ribs, she at last found a haven.
A young man, poor, like her, but with a small house inherited from his father, took a liking to Tilde. He came to visit her each snowy morning as she sat out to beg for work and gave her his thick fur cloak to wear. These small acts of kindness were beyond anything Tilde had been given for years. She found herself pulled to him and began entertaining him with conversation. His parents were long dead and he tended to travelers’ horses to make money. His home had one room but was tidy and warm. He had gentle eyes that crinkled around the edges when he smiled, a blue that reminded Tilde of the sky during warmer months. Soon she began following him back to his home, and soon she began to stay there.
His name was Jörmun, and every day he brought home coin and food. The hollowness of Tilde’s cheeks slowly began to fill and the infinite emptiness in her stomach began to ease. The two of them slept on a bed of hay and washed in the same nearby creek. Jörmun said they ought to marry for doing such intimate things together, but Tilde said she was scared of religious officials. Jörmun said that was alright and he would marry them himself. He tied a bit of twine around both of their fingers and declared them married. Tilde was flushed, excited, and warmer than she’d ever been.
That very night, Jörmun introduced her to the pleasures of the flesh. He kissed her untouched skin and grabbed her in places she had never thought to explore. Each night he drove into her, and though she often bled, Tilde enjoyed it deeply. She became filled with a new hunger the likes of which she had never felt. Yearning for closeness, for becoming intertwined, for tasting the skin of another until she did not know where she ended and he began. Jörmun happily obliged, filling that famine every night with rugged skill.
They did this for many cycles until Tilde realized there was a child in her. She knew it from the swelling of her ankles and stomach. Her veins and her heart began to feel strained by the intruder, and her gut tried to reject it every morning by making her vomit up blood. Every time she tried to sleep she kept finding pinecones under her blankets. Tilde finally felt full— that ever-present pit inside her satiated and sleeping. But now that she was full, she wanted to be hungry again. She wanted to burn with desire and appetency. She wanted to go back to devouring books and bread and snow. She wanted to be driven by a bareness in her bones. She didn’t feel any of that. She felt bloated, stuffed, and drained of vitality.
It was winter again. Snowflakes fell fat from the sky, like feathers raining down from white birds overhead. Jörmun kept cooing over Tilde. She thought he kissed her swollen stomach more than her lips now. She thought he licked his lips, savoring, drooling, thinking about the son that was surely on the way. Tilde wanted to vomit.
There was a full moon on the night it finally happened. Despite all her efforts, despite the herbs she snuck into her mouth and the prayers she sent to whoever may be watching, she could not rid herself of the parasite inside her. That night she could feel it coming as pain tore through her like the mauling of wolves. Her heart seized in terror because she did not want this, she did not want a child, she did not want to be a mother. Mothers died in fairy tales and mothers rotted away to nothing but a wavering shadow of the child they bore.
When the child ripped out of Tilde, she felt her core tremble then snap. Jörmun held the child closely, murmuring sweet words of joy as Tilde bled between her legs. Her blood pooled by the hearth, sizzling, but the sound seemed far away to her. She looked at the child. It had thin lips, blue eyes that looked watery and sick, and antlers protruding from its head. Tilde gave one last cry; terror, fatigue, and sadness. The Devil had come back for her at last. Her heart stopped and her blood stilled.
Georgia Howe (she/her) is a student in Boston studying creative writing and gender studies. She loves exploring folklore and tales from the woods through a queer and gendered perspective. She finds peace in the outdoors, home-cooked meals, and sleeping in sunspots. Find her on Instagram @_georgia_howe