Gingerbread – Hannu Rajaniemi

He found her charred remains in the oven.

There were deep scratch marks on the cast iron shutter: she had clawed at it in agony, with long fingernails that he knew were sharp as knives – the passion scars on his back still ached in cold weather, sometimes. The oven was full of a thick, greasy stench that nearly made him retch. Her flesh was almost completely gone, apart from some tendons and dried muscle clinging to the sticklike bones. Not even a single lock of her luxurious hair remained. He could imagine it being the first thing to catch fire, could see her trashing about trying to extinguish her burning crown with her hands, and he had to turn away and breathe deeply until the image went away.

He ran his fingers through the ashes and closed his eyes: soft and cool, like her skin when they had lain together in one of his hiding places in the forest through a cold knife-blade of a night. The smell of black, wet earth had mingled with her scent: sweet, alluring and full, like fresh gingerbread.

You should come with me to hunt, he told her once. Come with me to the deep old woods where the great beasts still dwell. I’ll teach you the wolf-form, and you will show me how to be a red-eyed white bird. There is nothing like running through the forest when the first snow has fallen, the way it nibbles your paws and makes you feel alive. Come! We’ll ambush the swan-maidens when they come to bathe in the silver lake, and feast on their flesh. I’ll show you places where time does not move, a castle behind rosebushes where we could sleep for centuries and awaken in a new world. If you’d only leave your house, and follow me.

But I can’t leave my house, she said. I am my house. We are one. I can’t leave it any more than you could leave your fur and fangs behind.

She kissed him then, small teeth sharp and teasing behind moist lips.

Be silent, lover, and be with me here and now, she said, her slanted yellow eyes holding his. You are the one who hunts, who chases the prey and lives in the song of its blood: I am the one who waits, who whispers and summons, and leads astray. And they do come to me, the children, to this old place where I make my home. It is a strong place. I am strong here. I brought you here, did I not?

And indeed she had: he remembered the treacherous paths that flowed under his paws like rivers; the white bird that mocked him with its red, red eyes. He chased it through the woods into an old place where the grey stones stood, spirit spirals flickering on their rough surfaces. And she waited for him there, skin pale against her feathered cloak, her hair a great mane of spun silver. He peeled his wolf-skin away there for the first time, his man-flesh raw and tender beneath, like a baby’s. She let her cloak fall, and they coupled in the place where the spirit world kissed the earth, her body thin but strong as hunger or death.

And now: ashes and bones and burnt gingerbread.

The house was falling apart around him. The walls were starting to crumble as they soaked up moisture. The rain had melted all the sugar coating long ago, like so much snow in the spring. But he could still see the little toothmarks in one corner, two rows of small even teeth impressed in the sweet brown dough.

It did not take him long to find the trail of crumbs leading into the woods.