Mother’s Footsteps

Danielle pressed her hands into her back, satisfied with the popping that followed. She thanked her hostess for the spare futon; though the straw padding permeated her skin with an earthy odor and gave little relief from the hardwood floor. Her silver-haired hostess had insisted Danielle have two bowls of rice porridge before she let her out into the muggy morning. Danielle bid her another ‘thank you’ before she left. The fishing village had been more than accommodating, and the inhabitants amicable despite her outsider status.  Her stay was brief, and she didn’t worry about wearing out her welcome.

“One more day,” she said to herself, bringing her mother’s pendant to her lips. She kissed the intersecting stars in its center and let it drop back underneath her tank top.

Danielle hefted her pack onto her back. The village woke up far earlier than she did and the temperature had risen well before any of them. The villagers bustled about their morning chores, moving past her without so much as a glance. She closed her eyes, breathing in humid air filled with the smells of steamed rice and salt water from the docks at the far end of the village. The constant murmur and plodding footfalls of the marketplace hummed in her ears. The sounds were unfamiliar, but comforting to hear each waking morning. She would miss the simple, day-to-day tranquility of this place.

She opened her eyes, inspecting for the last time their simple bamboo huts reinforced with stone. The gray speckled wall surrounding the village was made from the same material, and topped with sun-soaked bamboo sharpened into spears. The shoots still held their vibrant green color, looking as if they were grown in place for a defensive purpose. The gate was the only entrance, guarded by a pudgy gatekeeper. Danielle often found him dozing in the mid-afternoon when she returned from her hikes. Despite the village’s laid-back nature, the gatekeeper kept a ancient assault rifle poorly hidden behind his jacket.

The gatekeeper sat on a wooden stool by the door. At Danielle’s approach, he rubbed at his receding hairline, which was streaked with white and pulled his grubby red shirt down to more effectively cover his paunch.

“Leaving us again so soon?” he said in Mandarin, smiling broadly. “Where do you go on these long walks? Do you need company?”

Danielle looked down at him; he was eye-level with her chest when he stood, much like the rest of his people. She chuckled and crossed her arms, and responded in his native language. “No, no. Not today. I’ll have some company.”

He looked defeated, letting his gut hang out again.

“Ah, then where will you be going with this lucky person?”

“I’ve been going to that bamboo forest, down the longest path near the boundary. I’d like to see it one more time before I leave.”

“What?” His smile vanished. “No. That place is dangerous!”

Danielle held up her hand. “I’m sorry. I’ve made up my mind to go. What I’m hunting is out there.”

“What kind of hunter can you be?” He motioned toward her. “You have no equipment. You have no gun.”

She patted the machete at her hip.

His shoulders lowered and he rolled his head back. “Yes, yes. You have a very big knife, but no muscle. You’re a woman, and too thin.”

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

“I think you will still go despite what I say, but listen. The forest is dangerous.”

“As you said.”

“You do not understand!” he shouted, a few drops of spittle flying from his mouth, “We have lost many men in that forest. But, if you’re going to go, listen. Watch for tiger traps. There are many forgetful hunters and their traps are still out there. Stay on the paths for that reason. Also…”

“Yes?” Danielle said, watching discomfort extinguish the last of his humor.

“Don’t talk to any strangers.”

Danielle looked past him toward the worn path outside the village.

The gatekeeper stepped aside for her, muttering too fast for Danielle to catch. She walked past him with a faint, thankful smile.

Past the gate, the valley was filled with vivid greenery unlike anything Danielle had seen in her travels. The valley held a newness that was untarnished by pollution or tourism. The air held a quiet peace with a soft fragrance of the native fauna and lazy, white clouds slept in the sky. The villagers had worn a path into the dense foliage with their trading carts. She followed the path to a fork in the road. One path connected to a sister village. The other was mostly covered by grass and speckled with powder-blue forget-me-nots. It looked forgotten and abandoned, but Danielle had always been fond of the path less traveled.

The path led to the bamboo forest that the gatekeeper had warned of. The bamboo grew in tight bunches, but there was still a navigable way through. Danielle stepped into the forest. The stalks created a claustrophobic tunnel around her, brushing against her arms and leaning on her as if trying to keep her out. It wasn’t long before she heard another set of footsteps coming up from behind. She paused; so did the steps.

“Don’t sneak up on me.”

“I was only trying to surprise you, Danielle. It was meant to be fun.” She recognized her mother’s soft voice, coming from somewhere deeper in the forest behind her. The soft rolling French r’s were tell-tale sign. Her accent never left, even though she traveled abroad so frequently.

“You didn’t,” Danielle said, resuming her deliberate gait through the forest

“I’m happy to see you,” Imogen said, closing the distance on her daughter. “Did you have any problem finding the place?”

“Obviously not.”

“Oh. Well, it is good to see you after so long, even if you’re…tired.”

“You know I’m not tired,” Danielle said, tempted to turn and start a fight. She thought better of it, and kept facing ahead.

“Then I’m not sure why you’re speaking to your mother so sharply.”

Danielle said nothing. The choked path continued a few more paces until it opened up, and Danielle felt as though she could breathe again. She checked their position. She had memorized a few landmarks along the way: a large rock that looked like a hunched old man in the shadows, a cluster of budding white and gold narcissus flowers there, and a freshly cut clump of bamboo stalks to her left. They were on the correct path. She hadn’t expected them to meet up so soon though.

“It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?” Imogen said. Danielle felt the smile in her voice. “You’ve grown so much. But, oh, why did you cut off all of your pretty hair?”

“It makes hunting easier. Doesn’t get grabbed in a fight. Won’t get tangled in anything. You know, stuff that Dad taught me,” Danielle said, wincing and brushing the buzz-cut backside of her head.

“It’s a shame,” Imogen said, creeping up behind Danielle.

“Don’t do that.”

“Don’t do what?”

“Don’t get so close. It makes me feel uncomfortable. We need to keep moving. We have a lot of ground to cover before we’re through.”

“It’s just been so long since I’ve seen you, my petite souris. I thought we could talk.”

“Isn’t that what we’re doing now?”

“And I suppose a hug…?”

“No,” Danielle said. The mere thought of touching the woman behind her made her skin prickle.

Defeated, Imogen said, “Whatever you want. I’m here for you, Danielle.”

Danielle slid her machete out of the sheath and found comfort in the grooved handle that fit her fingers so well. She cut through errant fledging plants along their path.

“How long has it been—” Imogen said, her breath hitching with each chop of the machete. “Since our—oh. Our last meeting?”

“Two years ago, France,” Danielle said quietly. Back when they had stayed in the small cottage just outside of Paris. It was the night Mom had left, changing their family forever.

“Danielle? Did you hear me?”

“I don’t know,” Danielle said loudly, snorting at Imogen’s urgency. “Years.”

“It was out in Ireland. You and I. Your father couldn’t be trusted to deal with the delicacy of that situation. He would have squashed those poor pixies before they had a chance to speak their piece. You know how he is.”

Danielle kept quiet. She knew her father well enough. He did indeed favor the stick to the carrot.

“They were delightful, non?” Imogen laughed, a lyrical sound that Danielle missed sorely. “Their kind are whimsical, but terribly clever.”

“Yeah, and we just refused whatever they wanted to give us or we would have been bound to them. Everyone knows that’s how fairies work,” Danielle said, wiping the machete’s flat edge on her pant leg. “It’s just what they do.”

“This place also holds many fascinating creatures, but I am more interested in the quiet, mysterious one keeping me at arm’s length right now,” Imogen said, reaching out for Danielle.

Danielle lurched forward, moving out of the way of her touch. “Then why didn’t you stay?”

“I had to go. You cannot throw that in my face,” Imogen said. “I’m here now, non? That’s more that I can say for you. You hid in the farthest corner of the world, away from your family. Our family. How can you accuse me of such things?”

Danielle balked at her mother’s barbed words. She stiffened, still trudging through the thicket.

Imogen sighed, “It doesn’t have to be this way, Danielle. This little adventure can be good for us.”

Danielle slashed through the last of the thick brush ahead of them. The path opened up into a glade. In the center sat a lone reflecting pool encircled with rocks. Pink lotuses floated in its waters, but no wind dared move them. The bamboo stalks curved and shaded the area, keeping it cool despite the heat of the day. Danielle’s skin dimpled as she entered. She stepped over the bamboo stumps in her way. She heard Imogen’s footsteps follow behind her.

“I’m sorry,” Danielle said, making her way to the pool. “You can’t expect me to roll out the red carpet for you when you show up out of nowhere.”

“I’m sorry too,” Imogen said, “but that’s all in the past. We are in the now. That’s what is important.”

Danielle reached the edge of the pool and looked down into the black mirror of its surface. Her heart-shaped face reminded her of her mother’s. They shared the same steely blue eyes as well. When she was a child, she laughed at the idea she would be anything like her mother. Now, years later, her own reflection haunted her.

“We can make things right again. If you would stop being so stubborn and give me a chance. I am the only mother you have, Danielle.”

Danielle looked around the pool and breathed in the cool, scented air of the glade. She noticed a small stone with a little x etched into the moss. “Then we should do what we do best.”

“And what’s that, petite souris?”

“We’re hunters, right?”

“I-It is what we do. I, however, followed you, my dear. What is it we’re hunting today?”

“We were in China before, remember?” Danielle positioned herself carefully in front of the marked stone.

“It has been a long time. I barely speak the local language, let alone mine, anymore.”

“We were hunting Jiangshi.” Danielle precisely took a single step backward.

“Oh. Oh, yes, the hopping vampires. I remember those troublesome creatures,” Imogen said, a slight tremor in her voice, “what are you doing?”

Danielle heard Imogen step backward, mirroring her own movement.

“Dad took care of them. Tore them to pieces with a knife made from a peach tree. He usually takes more of a hands-on approach than I do. You know that, though.” Danielle prepared herself, taking another step backward. Imogen did the same. “We’re hunting something more clever than that.”

“Nothing is more clever than the both of us.”

“Do you remember what Xìntú means?” Danielle said. Her reflection disappeared from the pool as she stepped away, but the visage of her mother’s face stayed sharp in her memory.

X-Xìntú? I told you. My Mandarin is not what it once was.” Imogen stepped back again.

“It means ‘follower’, roughly.” Danielle continued her pace as if walking on a balance beam in reverse. Her mother’s footsteps mirrored her own, but without the trembling gait.

“Yes. I-I recall that. You should have told me we were fighting such a clever monster. I could have prepared better.”

“The Xìntú can’t feed unless its prey looks at them voluntarily. That’s their rule, and they never break it. You can’t acknowledge their presence either, or that gives them free reign to act.” She counted her steps carefully. Danielle watched her feet touch toe-to-heel and tried to ignore the soft voice behind her. She had almost forgotten how her mother’s voice sounded. Despite the cool air, she felt nervous sweat gathering at the base of her neck. “They use all sorts of clever tricks to get their prey to notice them though, break the rules.”

“Danielle, we should formulate a plan. I have a spell book and there’s some magic we can use to trap this thing. I can show you the spell and we can work together to stop it,” Imogen said. Her voice was cold and sharp as a tiger trap.

“But, Xìntú are stupid,” Danielle paused, bringing her heels together. For all the times she had visited this place, it seemed darker and felt colder now. Her hands tightened into fists. She wouldn’t miss this glade, despite the still beauty and chilled fragrant smell that clung to the air. She told herself again, reinforcing it – her stay was going to be brief.

“Now, now, Danielle. That’s a cruel thing to say about a creature,” Imogen said. “It’s only acting to its nature. I’m not so sure it’s the Xìntú that is stupid…”

Danielle pursed her lips, cutting off her words before they could form a sharp retort. Her breath shuddered through her nostrils for a small eternity, until she inhaled enough of the crisp air to calm her nerves, her feet firmly planted against the earth. Mom would have loved this secret space, teeming with precious white flowers that dotted the ground like perfumed snow. Danielle listened to the grass drift in the breeze behind her, followed by the soft rustling of crushed vegetation under Imogen’s feet. She could feel the vibration in the ground. The steps were far too heavy for a petite woman like her mother.  It’s mimicry was good, but not perfect.
“Just say the words, Danielle. If you’re so clever.”

“My mother was killed a year ago by something far worse than a miserable creature like you.” Danielle took one more step back, a full thirteen paces from the stone she marked by the pool. She heard the ground give way, as the creature masquerading as her mother fell into the pit trap. The Xìntú shrieked in her mother’s voice, and fell onto the spears below.

Danielle’s body shook, overcome with adrenaline. She sat down limply at the edge of the trap and dangled her legs a few feet out of the creature’s grasp. It swung at her feet weakly, sputtering blood out of its muddy, frog-like maw. Its bald dome was crowned with a ring of wispy, moss-colored hair, now flecked with blood. A spear protruded through its hunched, gray back and another through the front of its throat. It was nude, armored with dark scales that looked like smooth pebbles under the skin.

Danielle pressed her lips to her mother’s pendant and waited. Soon the creature would be dead. She wouldn’t have to wait long to collect proof of her kill. She and her family were hunters, after all. It’s just what they did.

 

by

Irene Elliot

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