A cautionary tale
| She waited until her husband was fast asleep before she put the candle in the window. In the dark forest, its light could be seen from a distance. Within a matter of minutes she heard the strange bird-call that was her cue. Not loud enough to wake the dead, who was sleeping in the next room, and snoring like a badger. Her husband had been out working all day, chopping wood so that they would have something to burn, something to keep them warm; working, so that they could have food on the table. He worked and worked and worked while she stayed home and guarded the hearth.
“My husband is asleep,” she whispered stealthily into the dark. “All he does is work all day when he should be at home taking care of his business!”
“What?! You mean to tell me that your husband is home?”
“Don’t worry,” she said. “A stick of dynamite could go off beside of his head and he wouldn’t hear a thing. Nothing can wake the dead!”
“He hasn’t been paying any attention to me,” she said. “He doesn’t satisfy my needs -- not like you do. You are the one that I want to be with,” she lied. “Not him. He disgusts me.”
“Then why don’t you just go and get a divorce?” the stranger said. “Come and live with me. I’ll take good care of you. I hate sneaking around and meeting like this out in the woods. If he ever found out about us,” he shook his head.
“Just don’t you worry about that,” she said. “He isn’t going to find out. We have to play our cards right. If I try to divorce him now he will kill us both. He’s already hinted that he would kill himself and me if I ever tried to leave him. We just have to hold on a little longer. He’ll be going away soon, and when he does, that’s when I promise that I’ll run away with you, and we can finally be together.”
She kissed his mouth hard and peppered his face with her lips.
“Please trust me,” she whispered, and her voice was smooth as silk, as soft as her body beneath the thin fabric of her nightgown. She was very convincing.
“I trust you,” he said.
All day long her husband worked out in the forest, chopping down trees. He cut the wood into cords which he sold or traded in the village. He also set up traps throughout the forest to catch wild game. This kept him very busy. He was usually gone for many long hours at a time, while in the meantime his wife was at home, alone, by herself.
The woods were thick and dense, and seemed to have no end in sight. He was sure to be able to make a living from selling the wood for many years to come. As of late, however, he started noticing a peculiar thing happening. Something seemed to be eating away at the trees. The leaves had holes in them, and even the trunks had little beak-sized holes. As a result, many of the trees were now considered worthless. He was convinced that it was some kind of bird that was causing the damage.
“It’s them damn cuckolds!” he cursed. “They’ve been known to come in and infest one tree, then the virus spreads to another tree, then another, until pretty soon the whole forest is wiped out!”
“Cuckold birds, you say,” his friend Ned said. “Never heard of them.”
“You’d know one if you heard it,” he said. “They make a strange kind of cooing sound unlike any other bird that I have ever heard before in my life. It’s kind of hard to describe, but it sounds kind of like koo-koo! koo-koo!”
“You mean kind of like a cuckoo bird,” Ned laughed.
“Kind of,” he said. “Only different.”
“Well I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for ‘em,” Ned said. “If I see anything, I’ll give you a holler.”
“If you see one,” he said. “Then kill the damn thing. You’d be doing us both a favor. Them birds have a negative effect not only on the trees, but on the wildlife as well. Game’s been a little light as of late, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Come to think of it,” Ned said. “Ain’t seen much deer around the past couple of days.”
“That’s because the deer feed on the leaves. If the leaves on the trees get infested, then the deer have nothing to eat. They go someplace else for food.”
“Well I’ll be damned,” Ned said. “And I always thought that what you can’t see can’t hurt you. How’d you ever get to be such a fine hunter?”
“I have to give credit to my wife,” he said. “She takes real good care of me. She’s the one who told me about the cuckolds. I’d never heard of them before either.”
“You’re a lucky man Maxwell,” Ned said. “A very lucky man.”
“Yes,” Maxwell laughed. “I know.”
“Do not worry,” she said. “I promise you that we will be together.” She revealed a pendant hanging from a chain around her neck. The pendant opened to reveal a hidden compartment. Inside of the hidden compartment was a dry herb. “This is the deadly nightshade,” she said. “It kills within a matter of minutes. When the time is right, I will slip some of this poison into his food and we will be rid of him once and for all. Then, my love, we can finally be together.”
In a dream the hunter was walking in the forest. He held his rifle with both hands in front of his chest, ready to take aim. He was looking for game, but there was none to be found. Then he saw a praying mantis praying on a tree branch. The mantis said: “Stay your rifle, my friend. It’s no use. All of the animals have gone away because there is no food to be found here. The entire forest has been infested.”
And sure enough, the hunter looked and could see nothing but sick trees for as far as the eye could see.
“That is why I have been praying,” the mantis said. “So that God may deliver us.”
“How can I kill it?” the hunter asked, peering into the woods. “How will I know it when I see it?”
“Oh they’re very hard to see,” the mantis said. “They like to sneak around in the dark of night when everyone else is asleep. They swoop down on big black leathery wings and feed on the leaves, on the bark, the trees’ very skin it devours. You will know it when you hear it, for it makes a strange cooing sound kind of like a cuckoo bird, only different. It is the cry of the cuckold.”
Suddenly off in the distance the hunter could hear the bird call: koo-koo! koo-koo!
“There it is now!” the mantis cried. “That’s the bird!”
It was getting closer.
“There it is again!” the mantis said. “You must go and catch it. No, better yet, don’t catch it,” the mantis prayed. “Kill it!”
And so the hunter darted off in search of the strange bird, determined to find it. But as he marched through the woods, the sound suddenly started coming from behind him, in the opposite direction. So he turned around and went back the other way. Then the bird-call came from his left. So he turned and started heading to his left.
Then the sound came from his right. Then from in front of him. Then from behind him again. The bird seemed to be circling him. He looked up into the sky. “Where are you, you damn bird!” The canopy was bare, all of the leaves had been eaten away. All he saw were leafless branches reaching up into the sky, groping in the dark. But there was nothing there. And every which way he turned he heard the bird calling, as if mocking him. In his frustration, he started firing shots up into the trees, but still the bird sang: koo-koo! koo-koo!
He awoke with a start. He sat up in bed, shaking with rage. Realizing that it was only a dream, he began to calm down. “Oh my,” he sighed. “What a dream!” He reached out for his wife, only to find that the other side of the bed was cold and empty. He felt around in the soft sheets, but she was gone.
“Now what could she possibly be doing at this ungodly hour?” he wondered.
Then he heard the strange bird-call, coming from outside.
“Well I’ll be damned!”
He leapt out of bed and grabbed the shotgun.
The bird was close alright. It sounded like it was coming from right outside his bedroom window.
He leaned out the window and fired a shot in the direction of the strange bird – and was surprised to see his friend Ned leap from out of the bushes.
“Ned!” he cried. “What are you doing out here in the dead of night?”
“Hunting,” he said.
“’Hunting?!’” he repeated. “And just what manner of creature does one hunt by the light of the moon?” he laughed.
“Why cuckolds, of course, sir,” Ned said. “You told me to keep an eye out for them.”
Ned gasped, “You heard it too? I was beginning to think that I was just imagining things. Come on inside, warm yourself by the fire.”
His wife made them something to eat. Three bowls sat upon the table. She had put poison in the bowl intended for her husband, but the bowls got mixed up after her husband offered his bowl to Ned.
“She always gives me too much,” he said. “Here, you take it. You need it more than I do. She always takes good care of me. Don’t you dear?”
His wife stood by, idly nibbling on a piece of cake.
“I’m really not that hungry,” Ned said.
“Nonsense,” he said. “Eat up. I insist.”
“If it’s all the same to you, I should be heading home now. It’s awfully late. I didn’t mean to keep you up.”
“Very well,” he said. “I will see you tomorrow Ned. Be careful out in them woods.”
She was all sweetness and light on the outside. But underneath the surface she was cold and dark. Some say that you cannot judge a book by its cover, nor the heart of a woman from her smile. Suffice it to say, nothing is ever quite what it seems. And if someone seems too good to be true, then they probably are. Still, he could not resist her. Even as she gestured for him to come inside (“Don’t worry,” she said. “My husband has gone hunting. He won’t be back for days”), he felt that there was something not quite right about her. But he ignored the flashing red lights going off in his mind. He proceeded to step across the threshold and into her lair. He wasn’t thinking with his head. He wasn’t thinking at all. His body seemed to have a mind of its own, and he let it carry him to his doom.
He kept telling himself, “No, this isn’t right. This is wrong. She’s married,” and, “What kind of a woman cheats on her own husband?” Not exactly the kind of woman that he would ever want to be caught dead with – but still, he followed her. Her voice was soft and sweet. She had a dove’s eyes. Her body was snow white and voluptuous. He could see her nipples like pink daisies jutting beneath her see-through gown. He tried not to stare, but he couldn’t help it. He felt as if he was being hypnotized. He was under her spell. She was saying something, but he wasn’t listening. Her voice seemed to come from far away. She folded her arms and the spell was momentarily broken. She giggled, like ice cubes in a tall glass of water. “You’re cute.” He didn’t know how to respond. The words didn’t mean anything to him. “Make yourself at home,” she said.
He sat on a couch and cautiously looked around, almost half-expecting her husband to jump out at any second (“I got you now, you bastard!”). The walls were adorned with the severed heads of many animals that, he presumed, her husband had killed. Moose, deer, even a rhinoceros. No humans though. Not yet, anyway.
“Hey,” she cooed, slithering up beside of him, smooth as morning rain. “Relax,” she said, placing a hand on his thigh.
“I’m trying,” he said. He wanted to ask her if she didn’t have a conscience, but figured he had better not. Might upset her.
“Don’t you want me?” she whispered. “Don’t you want to have fun?” And her voice was like the oil that one puts inside of a lamp, the kind of oil that is prone to catch fire and burn.
“Well yeah,” he said. “But –“
“But what?” She leaned closer and let the front of her gown fall open. He did not fail to notice. He thought of pink daisies that he had seen growing out in the wild. He wanted to reach out and pluck them, to bury his face in them, but could not bring himself to do so.
“Just relax. My husband isn’t here,” she said. “And only you can give me what I need.”
“And what might that be?”
He could feel himself falling under her spell again. His reason was trying to tell him, ‘No, this isn’t right, you should run,’ but his body was telling him otherwise. “I,” he began. “I can’t believe that I am saying this but, this just ain’t right. I mean, you’re married and all.” He had to tear his eyes away from her breasts in order to get a grip on himself. “Frankly,” he said, turning away. “I don’t understand how you can do this to your husband. I almost feel sorry for the guy. I mean, how can you even look him in the eyes after being with someone else?”
“Well, I’ve been doing it for so long,” she said. “That it doesn’t even seem to bother me anymore.”
“Well,” he said. “That answers that question.”
“Don’t be afraid of him,” she said. “He’s a total pacifist. He couldn’t hurt a fly. He doesn’t care what I do. I’ve tried to tell him before about all of the times that I’ve cheated on him. He said that I shouldn’t have told him. Told me to ‘take it to the grave.’”
He wanted to say, “It isn’t your husband that I’m afraid of,” but was afraid to tell her.
She led him into her bedroom, and his body followed, like an animal being led to slaughter. “My husband will not be back before the dawn. Come,” she said. “Make love to me.” She lay languishing on the bed. She lay upon fine silks and linens, and a bevy of soft pillows. A lone candlestick glowed on the nightstand, and the air was perfumed with the smell of myrrh, aloe, and cinnamon. “Come,” she said. “You only live once. And life is too short to worry about breaking some stupid vow. Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we’ll die. You’re still young and naïve,” she said. “But you will understand when you’re older. No marriage is perfect, and there is nothing sacred in this world anymore. Nothing, not even love. You have to take your pleasures where you can find them. I used to be just like you,” she said. “I used to believe in love too. I used to have dreams. But this world hardened me. It made me what I am today. I don’t have dreams anymore. Now, when I lay my head down and go to bed, I just sleep, and that is all.”
“Quick, my husband is coming,” she had said. “You have to hide.”
He immediately tried to find a way out of the tiny cottage, a rear exit, but there was none to be found.
“There isn’t enough time,” she said. “Besides, he will find you if you go outside. Even in the dark, he will find you. Trust me,” she said. “Follow me. I’ll show you where to hide. I’ll take you where he can never find you.”
She led him to a vanity mirror in her bedroom. He found it odd that she didn’t appear to cast a reflection, but didn’t have much time to ponder the implications. On the floor she lifted the edge of the carpet to reveal a trapdoor. “Hurry,” she said. He looked down to see a descending staircase, the obverse of Jacob’s ladder, stretching into an unfathomable abyss. “Oh Lord, what have I gotten myself into?” he wondered, hesitating for a moment. But then he heard the sound of the front door open, and the hunter’s burly voice calling, “Honey, I’m home!” He quickly descended into darkness. The last words she said to him were, “Trust me,” and then she closed the door over his head and left him to fend for himself in the black abyss.
From down below he could hear the muffled sounds of their voices, but couldn’t make out what it was that was being said. Then he heard the steady rhythmic creaking of the wooden floorboards and deduced that they were having sex.
“This is what you get,” he said to himself. “For fooling around with another man’s wife. The punishment fits the crime.”
Still, the creaking just seemed to go on and on and on, as if mocking him. He tried to cover his ears all to no avail. He vowed to himself that he would never so much as speak to her ever again, or any other man’s wife for that matter. He had to get away from here, but how? He figured the stairs must lead to something, possibly a secret exit which led out into another part of the forest. Looking down, his eyes were suddenly drawn to a strange orange glow like firelight coming from the bottom of the stairs.
She had led him down, down, down – straight to hell. She lifted the glamourous veil of everything that seems to be, and revealed all of her promises to have been only lies. “Come,” she had said. “Follow me,” and like a fool, he had followed her. “Don’t be afraid,” she had said, but it was hard for him not to be afraid.
She leaned over and whispered into his ear. Just one word: “Run.”
And he did. He was surprised to see just how fast he could go. He couldn’t remember ever being able to run so fast before, almost like he was in a dream. Something wasn’t right. He felt different somehow, changed. And when he looked down he saw that he was running not on two legs, but four. And his legs were covered with a soft downy fur, and in place of his feet he had hooves. When he tried to scream, all he could do was [neigh/ deer sound]. “What did you do to me?” he wanted to cry, but couldn’t. The forest echoed with the sound of the strange woman’s wicked laughter.
“Run,” she had said, and now he knew why: her husband was coming.
He heard a loud boom, like a shotgun blast, and he darted through the foliage, trying to duck for cover. But there was no place to hide. The hunter knew the woodlands better than anyone. Like a master chess player he knew in which direction an animal was going to move in advance. “Now I see what manner of beast it is that one hunts by the light of the moon!” he cried.
There was nothing that the animal could do but try to keep moving. Maybe he’ll miss me, he thought. Even as he leaped in mid-air he could feel something hit him in the ribcage. A second later he heard the gunshot, but by that time he was already down on the ground, unable to move, bleeding to death on the forest floor.
He could hear the sound of approaching footsteps in the leaves. “Don’t worry,” he heard the hunter say. “I’m going to put you out of your misery.”
He tried to beg and plead, “Please, don’t! It’s me, Ned! It’s your friend!” But the only sounds that he could make were animal, guttural. It was all he could do to just lie still and watch helplessly as his old friend, the hunter, reached down and slit his throat.