by Hailey Piper
Dark trees closed around Svetlana as she broke another of Father’s rules. “No woods at night. Wild animals will eat you.” As if she was much to eat. Besides, Father would be relieved. One less reminder that Mother, too, had run from him.
Svetlana had wanted to write Mother a letter, but Father had made a new rule. “No Mother.” The punishment was old. “No supper.”
She’d dropped to the floor, refusing to sit at his table and watch him eat again. She hadn’t expected him to kick her sides. He didn’t stop until she scrambled to her feet and ran out the back door.
An oil lantern appeared from the house just as she ducked behind a tree in her torn dress. If he heard her crying, he’d find her. What then? He could do worse than kick her. She covered her mouth against a sob, but she couldn’t hold it forever.
The drumming song snapped her out of crying and then a drumline of children marched past. Several wore snare drums that hung from their necks, while others banged tambourines and cymbals. Smartly dressed below the neck, each donned an animal mask—stags, badgers, ravens. They lit the woods by torchlight that shined in their dead eyes.
The line ended with a tall, baton-wielding boy whose mask was a black hare. Svetlana fell in behind him. Father might hear, but she could hide in their numbers. They marched deeper into the woods to a torchlit open stretch where trees grew gnarled and pale. Children split to either side of a lengthy table that sat dozens.
Svetlana couldn’t see its far end. Her ribs ached, but her stomach grumbled worse. “No supper” had been the rule for many nights now.
The black hare sat at the table’s head and motioned Svetlana to take the seat at his left. The table wasn’t set, but animal-folk chattered excitedly: “Supper’s coming!”
She turned to the black hare. “Are you a boy or a grown man?”
He stared at her. “I’m a hare. Can’t tell?”
A fox-masked girl tittered from his right. “Johnny’s so tall because his Pa once slung him across a drum and beat his hide to stretching.” Other children laughed.
Their noise made Svetlana glance over her shoulder. Beyond the torchlight, the woods were a black sea from which Father might emerge without warning. She smelled his stink, but it was too dark to spot him.
How could she when everyone wore masks? He might be anyone.
She gazed at Johnny the Hare. He seemed too gangly for Father’s blocky woodcutter frame, but firelight was deceiving. She leaned closer. Johnny’s eyes were dead, mouth stiff, but his fur seemed healthy and sinewy muscles worked at his jaw, coming alive the longer she stared.
They were not masks. Like a fairy tale, these were people with animal heads. Svetlana thought up excuses to leave while her stomach demanded she stay.
Johnny caught her gaze. “Looking for someone?”
“Mother rests now. In her honor, we come to the dark at world’s end. And here in darkness, we sup.”
“I’m not looking for Mother,” Svetlana began just as thunderous bells clanged through the woods.
Down the table, torchlight reflected off lidded silver dishes being laid before animal-folk. Cutlery and chalices slid at each place, the woods themselves waiting the table. Svetlana’s face reflected in her dish’s lid, distorted but human. The dish had to be twice her size, far too much for anyone to eat except Johnny.
He was about to lift his lid when the fox-girl smacked his hand. “You forgot to say grace!”
“Silly me.” Johnny reached past his dish for his silver chalice. Red wine droplets splashed as he raised it high.
“Grace or a toast?” Svetlana asked.
“Some traditions be all traditions here at world’s end. That is the law of the wilderness.”
The animal-folk raised their chalices. Svetlana scrabbled at her drink, spilling some across her hands. A copper stink hit her nose. It was not wine.
Johnny cleared his throat and spoke:
‘Twas long the dark dream of men,
To become the beasts once again,
Upon their dream, we shall feast,
Thus men’s children become the beasts.
Svetlana did not drink with the animal-folk, who slammed their chalices down and lifted their dishes’ lids.
Supper was people. Wriggling, bound, mumbling people. The animal-folk sharpened silver knives against their forks, a scraping cacophony that ate at Svetlana’s nerves.
Her dish clattered. When she pried off its lid, she found why she’d smelled Father nearby. He lay bound in twine, a red apple shoved in his mouth. He wasn’t the only familiar face. Down the table, Svetlana recognized neighbors, merchants, teachers, and a man who resembled the king’s portrait.
Torches lit deeper into the woods. The table did not seat dozens, but hundreds—no, thousands of animal-folk, their species stranger the farther they sat from Svetlana. The banquet stretched past the forest, over nighttime horizons and beyond, spanning to the ends of the Earth.
“They’ll eat everyone,” Svetlana whispered.
Johnny’s silverware pounded the table. “A feast for we beasts upon the whole of mankind.”
“But I’m not a beast. I’m a girl.”
The animal-folk quit clacking their silverware. The fox-girl narrowed hungry eyes.
But Johnny laughed hard. His meal whimpered. “Silly me! So forgetful tonight.” He reached under the table and drew out a doe’s mask. It smelled of damp fur. “Yours.”
Svetlana peered inside. Its darkness would fit her head. The other animal-folk had faced this darkness, too. “Do I have a choice?”
“You always have a choice,” Johnny said. “And a consequence.”
Svetlana turned from the mask to Father. He couldn’t say “no Mother” or “no supper,” but his eyes pleaded for help.
Svetlana looked to the mask again and then handed it back to Johnny. “No.”
His tall ears twitched. “No?” The animal-folk’s fur bristled, and Father’s eyes turned glassy, almost grateful.
“Not a deer.” Svetlana smiled at Johnny. “I’d like sharper teeth.”