The king is dying.
She admits it.
The king is dying and she should be there with him, attending to him somehow, or comforting the queen, who wouldn’t accept her comfort anyway, but, still. She should be at their sides instead of here in these woods looking for the old Hag. Or, not the Hag specifically, who was chased off the cliffs and fell to her death, or so it’s assumed, since nothing but her rain-soaked robes were found at the bottom of the chasm.
Not the Hag, then, but the Hag’s cottage.
Though let’s be honest. The old Hag’s cottage, after having lived there for sixteen years, is more to her than just the old Hag’s cottage.
She should be with the king, she knows. Weakened and wasting away. Going mad with pain, surrounded by strangers, apothecaries, clerics, magicians, and whatever other assortment of miracle workers sent for by the queen. But she also knows, or feels, or believes she feels, that if she can just find that cottage again, then everything else in her life will be set back to rights.
That she could have spent sixteen formative years of her life living in that cottage, living in these woods, and yet be unable to find it, even after almost a year of sneaking out of the castle to go in search of it, drives her to distraction.
Still, here she is, lost in the Darkening Woods yet again.
For a long time, she tried to get the animals of the Darkening Woods to tell her something about the Hag or the about the Hag’s cottage, but they’d stopped speaking to her. Not just that, but the birds and rabbits and turtles and deer had stopped gathering at her feet, as well. Had stopped bringing her baskets full of flowers or apples, had stopped draping bedsheets over her sleeping form in the middle of the night, had begun to act like birds and rabbits and turtles and deer normally act—frightened, in other words, and distrustful, blank-eyed and without intelligence or voice—which had depressed her, made her feel she had somehow offended or betrayed them, or that they had simply abandoned her, until she realized that the talking animals must have been nothing more than a side-affect of the potion that the Hag had used to drug her and, towards the end, wipe clean her memory.
Which, coming to this realization upset her even more, made her wonder what other memories of those years with the Hag and the cottage had been nothing more than a side-affect of the potions the Hag fed her hidden inside apples and cakes and gingerbreads. It made her wonder if there had been a cottage at all.
Maybe if she sings, she thinks. She lets out a few, croaky, warbly notes. Birds and squirrels overhead scatter and fly away.
She was supposed to be happy, saved from the wicked clutches of the old Hag who had abducted her only weeks after she’d been born. Happy to learn that she was a princess, not a peasant girl living in isolation in the Darkening Woods. Happy to learn the true origin of her birthmark, be reunited with family and friends and the six spirit sisters, who were supposed to watch over and protect her, though she’s become good at slipping out from their watchful eye. And she was happy, at first. The old Hag had become overbearing lately, and unreasonable. When she was a little girl, she and the old Hag had gone deep into the Darkening Woods to pick flowers and mushrooms, to converse with the woodland creatures, to bathe in the cool waters at the base of Forever Falls. But towards the end, she’d become paranoid, asking her where she was going, bolting the doors and windows, sprinkling protective powders around the cottage. Although, in the end, it seemed less like paranoia, with all the palace guards and the six spirit sisters with their powerful spells.
Anyway, she had been happy at first. But then, after a month, after two, the castle began to feel cold and big. Her father, the king, was nice enough, but seemed distracted by kingly affairs, and now, being sick and at death’s door, the sight of him confused her. She should be sad at his imminent death, being her father and the king, but all she can muster for him is pity and an urge to avoid looking at him. It shames her to admit, but when she is at the king’s side and is being watched—she is always being watched—and she feels the weight of expectations pressing down on her, she will think of the old Hag, will bring to mind the image of her falling from the cliffs, and that’s how she will summon tears for the king.
She sighs, or maybe it’s a sob. It’s no use. She is lost, hopelessly so, has been walking in circles for an hour now. She hikes up her dress and sits on the forest floor and waits. She waits for the old Hag’s cottage to magically appear before her, or for the old Hag herself to step mysteriously out of the darkness of the Darkening Woods, or for the king to die. She waits for something to happen to her, for anything to happen at all.
The way it started, well, the way it started was with Ricky, who up and lost his teeth. It was kind of a shock to us when it happened. We were sitting in Kevin’s living room playing Mario-Kart on the Wii when Ricky coughed and then coughed again and then couldn’t stop coughing for a full minute straight, and then, when he was done, he’d coughed every one of his teeth into the palm of his hand.
At first we gave him shit for playing a stupid fucking prank on us and what did he think, that we were still in high school, and then we gave him shit because, well, he looked goddamn funny with all those teeth in his hand and none of them in his mouth, and then he went blubbering home, leaving the teeth in an untidy pile on the carpet, which, at first, no one wanted to touch, not to throw away, because they’d been in Ricky’s mouth, but then, after twenty minutes or so, Joe picked them up and then tried standing them up on the coffee table like he was stacking playing cards into a house.
But that was Joe and Joe was always pulling that weird kind of shit.
And then we got tired of the Wii and so we drove around town busting mailboxes because why the hell not and then we egged Ricky’s apartment, because, again, why the hell not, that toothless fuck, and then we thought we’d spotted this hot chick walking down Palace Lane but when we pulled up to her and rolled down the window she turned out to be old as shit, so we yelled some shit at her and threw the egg carton out the window at her because we’d already run out of eggs, and then we found some old fuck crashed out on the sidewalk and we kicked the shit out of his face and we were going to set his shit on fire—cause it was our civic duty, mind you, to keep the streets clean for the kids and little old ladies and shit—but someone came up on us and started hollering, and so we had to chase his ass for a while, and then we got back to the old fuck but he was gone, so we drove off and crashed out at Kevin’s house and then a couple of hours later woke up—hungover as shit and maybe still a little drunk—to Kevin, screaming his fucking head off on account of how he’d woken up to take a piss and then caught sight of himself in the bathroom mirror and saw there how all the hair on his head had fallen clean out and all the hair on his fucking back and shoulders had grown up like some kind of goddamn crab grass.
And sure we felt bad for him but we were a little drunk still, too, and the look of him was funny as shit, and then we saw more hair start sprouting out of the lower part of his back and maybe that creeped us out a little, because seeing that shit happen is weird, and so we grabbed him and pinned him down and shaved the shit out of him, except for Joe of course who fucking pranced around and giggled like a fucking little girl until we were done, when he started scooping up all that hair off the floor and tried piecing it back onto Kevin’s fucking head.
Which was weird, I’ll grant you, but funny, too.
And then we went back to sleep—all except Kevin who maybe got knocked on the head a couple of times while we shaved him, and so had been asleep, more or less, already—and that’s when shit really went downhill, first with Brandon, who nearly choked on his own fucking tongue as it swelled up inside his own fucking mouth, and then Geoff, whose whole fucking body seized up like a plank and who might’ve in fact died—we weren’t sure—and then Mickey who couldn’t see a damn thing out of his damn eyes, and then Joe, even Joe, laughing his ass off at every new development, Joe sat there on the couch giggling like a fool while he watched his fingernails start to grow and grow and grow, and the skin on his hands become dried and wrinkled, and as we watched—those of us left to watch any goddamn thing—he became an old and frail thing right before our eyes, and he was giggling, still, couldn’t shut his fucking mouth, but his voice had changed, had become an old man’s rasp, and the shape of him had twisted into an old man’s shape, and then he keeled over, dead, too, maybe, I don’t know because I didn’t stick around to find out because then I ran, I ran like holy fuck, and I haven’t stopped running since, and whoever or whatever that was, it will have to do better to catch my fat ass.
Stories by Manuel Gonzales
Photos by Emily Raw
Song by Kelli Rae Powell