This forest, like all forests, is made of green and wood and dampness. It’s autumn time and the deer walks between the trees. The forest is in Brittany, so of course it’s rained recently. As it comes out into the clearing, the tangle of blackberry brambles on the ground twists round the deer’s hooves.
From somewhere upwind, it catches the feral scent of the sea. It doesn’t recognise it as such, but the brackishness of the air makes it widen its eyes and its instinct is to run back into the canopy of the trees. But it’s stood in the clearing now in the surety of sunshine after rain, risking safety for new grazing. For that and the pile of acorns it knows it will find under the large oak tree.
Last night, there had been a heavy storm and the water is still dripping from the high branches, so the deer shakes its head to avoid getting too wet. It’s alert, listening to every sound, eyes darting, catching every movement. It can feel the heat of the day spreading gloriously on its back.
When the huntsman’s arrow shoots into its side, the deer feels its own pain and the rapidity of the arrow. Next, it senses the huntsman coming towards it as it stumbles, then falls onto its side in the clearing. It feels the huntsman’s hot breath on its face, the touch of his hand as he strokes its ears. The deer is oddly comforted by the motion.
As its breath becomes shallower and quicker, the deer senses life and it senses death. It remembers being young and its mother’s milk. It pictures the fall of raindrops on leaves and the sun glinting on the raindrops. And so it goes, thinks the deer.
Its last thoughts are of its mother and of the woman it sees every day in the forest. The woman, Cateline, who brings him acorns. Thinking about her makes it sad. Finally, the deer feels its light leaving it and it accepts this.
For his part, the huntsman binds the deer’s legs and drapes it on the back of his horse. The horse instantly feels the weight of the dead animal and its heat slowly leaving it. Deep in its horse brain, it feels it's dishonoured the deer, that it's been deeply disloyal for carrying it at all.
Then the horse and the huntsman ride out of the forest, re-treading the sharp, precise tracks of the deer.
Cateline rests by the oak tree and realises she’s being watched. She’s known she has been the last few times she’s been into the forest. Her father would be horrified if he knew she walked alone, but she’s come to an arrangement with her servant, Aalis, that she can walk for an hour in the morning undisturbed. Aalis then meets her on the forest’s outskirts to go back to the house.
What Cateline loves is the freedom of being alone in the trees, the freedom of no expectations; but now she’s feeling frightened. She wonders what she can do and here in the green, beginning to fade to brown, she’s not sure there is anything.
She stands very still and close by, she hears the huff and snort of a horse breathing. She can smell its earthy sweetness and over the top of this, carried by the wind, she can smell the sea.
Estienne watches her. He has for days and he wonders what her legs will look like under her dress. As white and chaste as the moon, he speculates. Estienne wants to touch them with his hunt-rough hands, he wants to nuzzle his face into the green velvet of her dress, to take the gold circlet off her hair and put it on his.
As Estienne steps from behind the tree, it’s not him Cateline is watching. She doesn’t know him -he’s just a man, as odd and unknowable as any other man she’s seen. It’s his horse she’s looking at and the body of the deer tethered on its back. Blood from its side is dripping on the horse’s haunches, and the thought of the gentle horse having to endure the blood-seep of an animal it hasn’t harmed makes her sad.
The man approaches her and the hungry, savage look in his eyes she does know. It’s the same one her father has when he’s goes out hunting. On his horse, falcon gripping on to the gauntlet on his wrist.
As the man pushes her against the oak tree, Cateline wonders what her virtue is really worth. She smells the damp, rotting wood underfoot and the earthy complexity of the truffles, hidden by the bracken. Growing where no one can see them.
Now Estienne has his prey in sight, he’s no longer interested in it. It’s not the inevitable outcome that ever interests him - it’s always the thrill of the chase. It’s not this woman, Cateline, he’s thinking of, but of Dahut. Beautiful, cruel Dahut who rejected him. Who certainly bewitched him.
Dahut opens the gates
Dahut is bored. In her bedroom in the city of Ys, she’s waiting for nightfall, but she knows the pattern of night and she wants something different. After all, you’ve seen one penis, you’ve seen them all. Always functional, longer, shorter, fatter, thinner. But that’s local detail only. They’re all faintly ridiculous. Laughable even. And one orgy is very much like another. A series of orifices and things to fill them. Yes, Dahut has really had enough.
And Ys is so wet, so dull. A city by the sea, blah, blah, blah. Her father tells her she should be grateful. That the sea air and salt preserves her complexion, that the eating of fish prolongs her life. But in her turret bedroom on this rainy, October afternoon, she’s not sure she wants it prolonging.
Her father has been getting it in the neck about her behaviour too. She’d heard Abbot Winwaloe chastising him only this morning. “Most gracious King Gradlon. You must consider doing something about your daughter. She’s out of control. Her behaviour is unseemly, ungodly.”
Her father had listened to the pious, old windbag and had looked to bring things up with her. But when she’d met his eye, he’d chickened out. She knew he wouldn’t be able to discuss the orgies with her – he just wouldn’t have the words. And she knew he also at least half-believed the witchcraft rumours and he wasn’t going to risk messing with that.
Her father knows Dahut is very discrete too and he respects her discretion. Each young man she orgies with ends up in the sea the next morning and she often does it herself. Knife to the neck, while they’re still in her bedroom, sleeping off the night before. And then a chuck in the sea, never to be found. Occasionally, she’s eaten them and sometimes she thinks the morning throat slit is the most satisfying part of the whole, damn orgy.
Every so often, she relents and lets them go. Take silly Estienne, for instance, who was sure he was in love with her. Estienne, who wrote her all the ghastly poetry and even sang to her. In the end she turned him out. In fact, she’d not even let him fuck her – she couldn’t bear it, he’d have been too grateful. So she’d let him lick her feet and then sent him on his way. Back to his hunting, or whatever hideous thing it was he did.
No, Dahut is terminally bored and she needs something to break it. It’s easy for her father – he’s got the power. The key to the city. To the gate that keeps the sea out of Ys.
What Dahut wishes is that she had the key. So she could flood the whole, damn city, so she could drown every last one of the land-lubbing, fish eating mongrels.
In her rainy, late afternoon, October daydream, Dahut wishes for her own lover. Not one she’s chosen or hunted. One who hunts her, one she can respect… not the usual, fawning, weak types she orgies with.
Her lover would be dressed in red. In fact, she thinks, he might even be the devil himself. She’d ride on the back of his fiery eyed steed through the streets of Ys, though a raging storm in the middle of the night. Her father would be sleeping soundly and she would creep in to his bedroom and she’d steal the key to the city gate and she and her lover would open it.
The water would crash into Ys and overwhelm it. The whole city would be flooded and fall. Ys would be swallowed by the sea and Dahut and the devil would dance on its rooves as is it slid into the water.
Yes, that’s what Dahut wishes as she contemplates the deathly boredom of another orgy. She imagines Ys being no more and then she thinks of the calm after the storm and she wonders if she’d still hear the church bells ringing out from under the sea, in tranquil waters in the stillness of morning.