There are monsters in the forest.
Chiyoh can’t remember who first told her that. She knows she’d been very, very young at the time, a tiny slip of a girl. Had it been the grand lady whom she had served so proudly? Had it been the gentle, bookish boy her age whom she had befriended so eagerly?
She knows it couldn’t have been her mother. She has no memory of her mother. Sometimes, she is almost convinced that she never had one. Or perhaps she was abandoned at birth. She used to imagine a woman, fearful and ashamed, slipping into the forest at night and leaving her newborn at the foot of a tree, swaddled in blankets and screaming. The woman in her mind’s eye hopes the monsters will take the baby and rid her of her troubles for good. But instead, a huntsman plying his trade in the forest after dark finds her, and come sunrise, he carries her to the Big House.
It’s silly. She’s Japanese, and this is Lithuania. She probably wasn’t even born on this continent.
After finishing her chores, she used to sneak into the forest to delight in the twisted shapes of the tree branches and bracken, the earthy scents of the mosses and lichens, the chittering cacophony of the animals and insects. She was unafraid, but she never stayed long. Tarry too long and the monsters may eat you, they said. Tarry too long and you may never return to the Big House.
The Big House represented safety, continuity, and certainty. For this reason, she always returned.
After the passing of the grand lady whom she had served, she started spending more time in the forest. She’d already come to know it intimately.
The monsters of the forest are tricky, or so it was said. Although normally they take the forms of animals such as foxes or badgers, they can also use their magic to make themselves look human. This outward appearance of ordinary humanity makes them exceedingly dangerous.
Chiyoh taught herself how to hunt. Maybe she was influenced by the huntsman rescuer of her childhood fantasies. Maybe she liked the quiet, the waiting, the stalk, and the kill.
Or maybe she just wanted an excuse to spend more time alone in the forest.
She has become very, very good at hunting.
She never, ever takes more than she needs. Animals mean warm furs to wear in winter. They mean nourishing food to fill the belly. And she always remembers to give thanks to the spirit of the animal which had given its life up to her. She doesn’t know why she started doing that. Maybe she thought to appease the monsters in the forest. Maybe she worried that she might inadvertently kill one of their number while in animal form and feared their wrath.
Animals are not sport, in any case, not to Chiyoh, and the hunt is not meant for the base pleasure of vengeance.
That is why she would not allow Hannibal to eat the man who ate Hannibal’s sister.
And so, she protects the man who ate Hannibal’s sister from the monster who would devour him in turn.
But she cannot just let the man roam free. He too is a monster, after all.
And so, she imprisons the man who ate Hannibal’s sister. He may not have his freedom, no, but for as long as Chiyoh lives, he shall at least keep his life.
Because its master has fled, the Big House stands empty. Its high walls and grand rooms belong exclusively to Chiyoh now, and she paces the floors and wanders the corridors with soft, slippered feet. There are no people around to keep to their ordinary routines anymore, to mark the passage of time. There are no people around who might occasionally decide not to keep to their ordinary routines, either, or to serve as a reminder that, in the lands beyond the forest, the world continues spinning relentlessly forward.
Days, months, years—they are all start to feel the same. Days, months, years—what’s the difference? Chiyoh still goes into the forest to hunt, but her needs and the needs of her prisoner are few, and the forest provides. She spends most of her time in the Big House, and in the Big House, time seems to stand still.
The Big House is safety, and there is stasis in safety.
She is not vain, so she rarely bothers to look in the mirror. When she does, though, during the course of her wanderings through lonely, uninhabited rooms, she glimpses the visage of a beautiful young woman. She never pauses to wonder why that visage never seems to change, to grey, to diminish, or to shrivel.
A stranger arrives at the Big House. He is American, and he claims to know Hannibal. Chiyoh doesn’t care what he claims to know; it is a day, a month, a year, like any of the many, many others which came before it. Nothing matters; nothing will change.
But the stranger proceeds to do something unexpected: He frees the man who ate Hannibal’s sister.
He frees the monster.
Chiyoh does not kill for the pleasure of vengeance, but she will take action to protect herself. All life is precious, and that includes her own.
It is only after she kills the man who ate Hannibal’s sister that she realizes that she, too, had been imprisoned. The Big House had been a cage, a cage of her own choosing, yes, it’s true, but a cage nonetheless. It was a place outside of time, eternal, and she had chosen that eternity.
Now, though, time begins spinning forward for Chiyoh again. In time, she knows, she will age. She will change and grey and diminish and shrivel. Someday, she will die. That is the natural order of things. It is only right. No one, not even her, ought to be exempt from fate.
But as she leaves the Big House for good and walks for the last time through the forest and ventures into the lands beyond the forest in order to hunt the ultimate prey, she experiences one final, terrible realization:
She’d been told a terrible lie as a child. There aren’t monsters in the forest. There has only ever been one monster . . .
. . . and she is it.
~ The End ~