Montreal, Quebec 1917:
Magali’s father drew down strange shades over the windows. They were curious things woven from strips of black and white fur, making it look something like a chess board. She couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of them.
“Pierre, what are those for?” She giggled, dancing with her shadow in the golden casts of day which spilled across the floor. His name had been her first word. He had never been Pappou, or even Père, though he was most assuredly her father. She’d never said so outright, but it was almost as if being made to call him such a thing were too demeaning to one of her kind, so he’d indulged the habit.
“To keep the Lutins away ma bichette.” He smiled down at the golden haired tot, twirling about at his feet. How she lived up to that name, ma bichette, my little doe. It seemed there was not a moment in the day that she wasn’t leaping and gamboling about in play. Like the does that pranced lithe through the surrounding woods, there were those who waited, guised in shadow, eager to claim this young fawn as their prize.
He’d known she was different the day she was born, the very moment he looked into the dark miasma of those eyes, black and endless from the very moment she opened them. She had spoken her first words before she was even three months old, and he was certain she understood his. This wasn’t the hopeful way he’d seen father’s insist upon their child’s understanding as they cooed and babbled nonsense, but she truly listened, nodding in acknowledgment and offering the few words she had conquered in reply. The men in the village had smiled gently at his claims, believing them to be the grief stricken ramblings of a lonely man, whose young wife had died in childbirth. He and his bichette knew different.
In truth, he’d been the subject of their whispers and sideways glances for years. His insistence upon living as a relic of the past, a recluse, setting traps to make his way in an era when the fur trade was an ever dimming memory had won him both infamy and ridicule. Did those pretty girls, who flooded the bars with their wicked laughter never wonder where their fur stoles had come from? No matter, the forests spoke to him in ways that no human mistress could. What was more, the forest would provide. It needn’t be coaxed or cajoled to, it simply did.
“Lutins, lutins. What are Lutins?” His daughter laughed, wrenching him from his self pity as she tumbled over her feet, finding seat upon the bare dirt floors of the cottage.
“Fae folk, creatures who cause mischief and snatch up naughty little girls like you!” He laughed, scooping her up into his arms and summoning a peal of her quizzically beautiful laughter. It was only here, nestled against his chest, that he could be certain she was safe.
He’d been gifted the window shades years ago, when he’d first married Magali’s mother, but he never dreamed he’d honestly put the things up. Then he’d seen their foot prints, too long and narrow to be human, too deliberate to be an animal. It was the lutins. The other men laughed when he’d told them, but he knew he was right. He’d been a trapper for years and never seen their like.The prints circled the house, stopping before the windows where they watched her, his bichette.
For the past several months he’d kept watch over her, never letting the girl from his site, even bringing her atop his shoulders to check his traps. He’d die before he’d let them take her. Then it occurred to him that these lutins might be just like any other quarry and just as they watched him, he watched them. Though he’d not yet caught glimpse of the interlopers in the flesh, he saw their tracks, their fingerprints on the windowsills, even the greasy little slicks where they unknowingly brushed up against the wall of the cottage. He was learning their habits.
His Bichette reached out with chubby, dimpled hands, exploring the peculiar window dressings. “What are they made of?” She mused, her cheeks made round by the pull of her grin.
“Cat skin.” Her father answered. Immediately he regretted the words, for they struck the smile from the child’s face. With teary eyes she searched the floor for her dandelion tuffet of a kitten Chouette, calling for the tiny white creature in tear strangled sobs. The cat was a stray, that in the past weeks had adopted the girl and had become her most cherished companion.
“No, no. Chouette is fine.” Her father assured her. “Out stalking mice and terrorizing birds.” He offered, kissing the tears from her cheeks. “The cats that made those curtains have been dead for many, many years. Those window shades were my father’s and his before that. Do you understand?”
She nodded, that sage sort of nod one expects from an old wizened widow, or a life-weary hermit, but never a child of three. After some moments a ponderous look overtook her face. “Why would the cat’s skins stop them?” She wondered.
Her father shrugged. “Who knows why Lutins do what they do.” He pandered.
“Lutins do.” The girl retorted as if it were the simplest thing in the world. How he wished those men who offered pitying smiles could hear her when she spoke so.
With the girl clutched tight in his arms, he made his way to the pantry, which was near bare save for a tin of exorcised salt. The priest he’d whispered his troubles to in confession had neither laughed nor twisted his face into the mock smile of lenity. Instead, he’d offered the tin of sacred salt and a paper on which he’d written a quick benediction to be performed. Each day the old trapper had scattered a ring of it around the house, and across the doorways of his home as the priest had instructed. He’d gone beyond that and laid a trail down around the path’s the lutins trod, every day forcing their feet an inch or so closer to the traps he’d lain. It was slow, meticulous work. Too heavy a trail, and they might suspect he was corralling them. He was counting on their fae conceit to keep them creeping ever nearer, to lull them into false confidence so they might mock him with their continued advance.
He’d had the blacksmith forge traps from iron. He recalled from the stories of his boyhood that this metal held power over the fae, rendering them helpless should they touch it. The smith had laughingly turned him away, unwilling to benefit from the new madness his old friend had fallen victim to these past years.
“It’s not the lutins who will take her away if you keep talking like that!” He’d warned.
The madman’s insistence had finally compelled the smith’s hammer, and had cost the trapper most of his savings. Robbed of the freedom to move without his daughter in tow it was unlikely he would earn the money back. Still, it would be well worth it when he finally ensnared his prey.
“Do you see that old house beyond the trees?” He asked of the babe in his arms, all the while sprinkling salt upon Winter’s sprawl.
She buried her face in his shoulder, “It’s ugly.” She mumbled to the folds of his shirt. In the time she had lived in these woods, she had come to know the slatternly shape of that once proud home well. It rose above the trees, a jagged skeleton, barnacled with rot, that refused to crumble away into the past.
“It used to be very beautiful.” He spoke gently, lifting her chin to meet his eyes. “They say there were once three children who lived there.”
“How do you know?” She insisted, her does eyes drawn to slits.
“I met the eldest one night when I was out chopping wood. Napoleon they called him. Strange boy… but as I was saying, there were three children and one lutin who their parents had been tricked into raising as one of their own.”
“How did it do that?” The girl asked, eyes wide with wonderment.
“Well, they can make themselves look like whatever they please you know. I imagine it made itself look like another child, and the family adopted it. Lutins are very tricky.” He assured her. The girl nodded in her sapient way.
“They grew up together, as brothers and sisters, and the lutin was very fond of it’s adopted family. So fond that one day, when their parents had spanked and scolded them, the lutin lead the children off into the woods and back to the fae world where they would never be punished again. Their parents were so heartbroken, they sailed back to live with family in France, and were never heard from on these shores again.”
“Why?” She asked. The question was elegant, as always it was, in it’s simplicity. Why indeed?
“Lutins are fickle things. They might give you years of prosperity, bringing health and happiness to your home. Then one day, without knowing it, one curse spoken, one cup of tea left half full, or a sneeze that disturbs their sleep might so offend them they they are driven into a rage.
The words were only half true. The trapper had dealt with Lutins before and he knew it wasn’t they who were fickle, but the men with whom they dealt. It had been a lutin who before his daughter was born had healed him in the woods when, like a fool, he’d stepped in one of his own traps. His leg had been all but devoured by the famished steel, and he’d lay down on the snow blanketed forest floor, weak from loss of blood, to greet his death. He’d watched with a peculiar pleasure as the garnet wine of his blood painted over the glittering white of winter. It was somehow beautiful.
“I can fix you boy.” A voice had spoken to him within his head. He’d opened his eyes to see a grim white face, aglow in the moonlight, and two glittering onyx stones set within as eyes. In his mind, the thing looked like some odd make of owl. As his eyes rested longer upon it, he could make out the thin trail of a nose, and the parting of lips. Around it’s head, a crown of feathery, white hair floated every which way, as if the thing was forever suspended in water.
“I can give you your step back, give you your livelihood, but it will cost you.” The thing spoke again, it’s lips never once parting, its voice winding about his very brains.
He had stared up, dizzied by the sight of his own grizzled reflection in the things immense, black eyes. “Cost what?” He had finally managed, though the words never crossed his lips. Instead, he’d mustered them from what was left of his mind, and the creature had understood completely.
“Two lives, young ones, souls who hardly yet know the world as you do. You must promise to give them up willingly when the time comes. This is the price I ask to save yours.”
He hadn’t fully comprehended the bargain he’d made and in weariness and desperation he’d given his word. He’d watched as the lutin lay it’s hand upon his leg, watched as the broken bone jut forth in spires to mended itself. His tendons and arteries slithered along this newly wholed ivory stair, weaving and winding about the paths they had known so well. Then, threads of flesh rose up to join the convulsions, knitting upon one another till once again his leg was restored. He’d stood upon it, not fully trusting the fae’s handiwork he ventured a few bounding stomps, nearly slipping upon the ruby splatter of the death he had escaped. His blood still marred the snow, trickles and droplets pooling in to one another to form the shape of a crimson owl, wings outstretched in an endless sky of white. The image sent shivering fingers acrawl along his spine..
“You can’t do anything about the cold now can you?” He’d jested, but Lutins of course have no mind for jibes.
The thing smiled, and placed an impossibly slender hand upon his chest. Suddenly, he felt the chill in his bones wicked away. Never again, while he wore this mortal husk, would he know the brutish algor of winter.
For a time, his resilience to the the frost and rime had proved a blessing. When other men entered the woods in search of hunt or timber, winter’s ire inevitably forced them to retreat into the warmth of their beds. While they curled up in defeat, he trudged on, ever stalwart. His talent had won him the moniker Pierre Fendre, as in “geler à pierre fendre”, to freeze so hard as to split rock. Modest wealth and acclaim had followed, as his skills proved valuable time and again. He’d fall trees in blizzards or employ his tracking skills to search out children, who enchanted by winter’s newness, had wandered into the woods alone.
In his burgeoning celebrity he had found the boldness to make a pretty bar maid his wife. The girl was barely sixteen, but a doting creature who brought comfort to his bed on lonely nights. In time the thin bindings of lust had spun to love, and he found himself tangled within. They’d sit together in his cottage, warmed by one another’s ardor. Some nights, he’d serenade her with songs played on bow and saw and she’d dance, the way Magali did, in twirling, blissful gyres.
The town had rejoiced at the news that Madame Fendre had fallen pregnant. Women watched with eager eyes and clamoring hands as her belly grew round with child, and men were glad to buy Pierre a celebratory libation. Had they been there for his daughter’s entrance to this world in a shimmering of blood and tattered flesh, they might have recognized the birth as the aberrant thing that it was.
Until that moment, as he held his dying wife in his arms, he’d forgotten the promise made so long ago. Her blood spilt upon white linen sheets, leaving the familiar mark of that mocking owl. As he took the baby girl from the midwife, he had looked into the inky strangeness of her eyes. She was forever marked by his doings, cursed with the burden of never fully being human, but then, she was all he had left. Every time he gazed lovingly into his daughter’s eyes he was reminded that the promise had only been half kept. There had not been one day since her birth that this thought had not preyed upon his every happiness, ferrying in and out of his dreams, haunting him, calling him to make ready for the day his promise would finally be fulfilled.
He was torn from these tarrying thoughts by the sound of iron jaws latching hungrily upon bone. This was followed by an inhuman cry of pain. The sound was like that of the wind which serves harbinger to a storm, syphoned through a throat of living flesh.
“The Lutins” His bichette whispered, and together they ran to greet their prize.
When they arrived at the trap, he turned, hoping to spare the girls eyes the ugliness ensnared there in. Despite his efforts, she had twisted about in his arms, and her screams tore through the still of the woods. There, lying broken between two iron fangs was her kitten Chouette. Her father set her down to inspect the trap, and she crumpled to her knees, crippled by tears.
What the girl hadn’t seen was that the blood which spilt from the trap was not the sanguine red of mortal things, but a tarry black pool, which bubbled and boiled as life seeped from the mangled corpse. Oil slick rainbows spun within the churning sludge as it spilled with a sentient tumble into the familiar shape of that swooping owl. The lutins had indeed come for his daughter, would have spirited her away to their realm in time, death was not the only way to take a life. He stood, gently lifting the child into his arms and enveloping her. His promise had been fulfilled, perhaps not in the way the lutin had imagined, but two lives had been taken in place of his own. He smiled despite the girl’s weeping, knowing they had nothing to fear from the lutin any longer.