The Hunter by Beate Sigriddaughter
(from the novella “Snow White,” in which the evil queen incidentally prefers to be called “Q’An” for reasons of uniqueness and elegance)
The way to become an effective hunter is, of course, not to identify with foxes, but to start calculating how much gun powder it would take to rid the whole forest of foxes in the cheapest and most efficient way. Which easily translates into knowing where exactly a small girl’s heart beats so that she wouldn’t bleed a lot and make too much of a mess. That way you can keep your mind off the fact that you are about to rob another creature of its life.
You have to admit that these are confusing times we live in. There was a time when a guy would be presented with his wife’s child—or his mistress’s child—and if he accepted it, then the child was allowed to live, and if he didn’t—well, then it wouldn’t. Those were much simpler times.
Still, why should I argue with a queen’s wishes for the death of one that wasn’t even her own child in the first place? Maybe she was just clearing the way for producing an heir of her own? How should I know? Except that I do know that sort of thing is done all the time.
All the same, there’s something foul and heavy about accepting an executioner’s task. Mind you, when I accepted the job of chief hunter for the royal court’s forest service, I wouldn’t have dreamed—not in my worst nightmare—that the job would entail anything like this. I thought I was committing myself to keeping things neat and tidy in the forest, fixing broken birds’ wings while having a loyal dog scamper at my heel, that sort of thing. That’s what I signed up for; not this ridiculous assignment of killing a little princess.
What exactly was I to do, I ask you? Talk back to the queen? You didn’t talk back to that one. She has a very cold streak, very mean. Still, you can’t help but admire her. You’re in awe of her, whether you want to be or not. She’s imperious. And more than that. She’s mesmerizing like a snake. She’s magnetic.
Still, I’m packing my bags as fast as I can. Anyone would have to understand that. When I got back here with the boar’s liver and lungs, she was a notch too cold even for my taste. Sure, I was impressed by her composure. But I didn’t find her very feminine. There she stood in all her finery and frippery—a blue gown of silk and velvet—accepting from me what she thought was her stepdaughter’s liver and lungs.
For my part, I’ve seen plenty of animal entrails. I was a master at skinning them and disemboweling them by the time I was a lad of fourteen. But she? A woman?
She was impressive. Didn’t bat an eyelash as she accepted the parcels of meat wrapped in linen strips into her dainty hands, half the size of mine, and pale and white and creamy.
But despite her amazing calm, in the end I think women are basically weak, even this one. Nice, of course, in a way. I have a good deal of respect for them—but it’s hard to understand most of the time what they’re up to. I mean, you expect them to be motherly and sweet, with milky chests to bury your head in, and aprons smelling of cinnamon buns straight from the oven. Instead, half of the time they turn out controlling and weird, or ice-cold like that Q’An. Oh, she makes me shudder.
I did my duty. I did what I had to. And now I’m packing my bags. I don’t want to be around here and around her.
Yes, women are weak. They ought to be lovely. Yet here’s this Q’An ordering me to kill a little girl for no good reason. I mean, if it were a man killing a child, I could almost understand that, I think. He’d have his reasons. And they would probably be good ones. But a woman? And yet, not too long ago, there was something about a woman who drowned her two babies in a lake because she didn’t want to lose her boyfriend, or God told her to do it because she wasn’t going to be a good enough mother, or something like that. In fact, I’ve once had a beautiful bitch hound who killed all five of her pups by breaking their necks because the water of the well was poisoned, which we human caretakers didn’t know yet. The pups would have died soon anyway. So she saved them from the agony of a poison death by killing them swiftly. She died a little while later, unaided, convulsed by poison. I tried to save her, but I couldn’t.
My point is, I’m certainly not lily-livered. Still, she gives me the creeps. Sort of like a Roman Nero—-I learned about him in history way back in school. He played his fiddle while Rome was burning to the ground. I imagine she’ll have herself quite a candle-light dinner with that boar’s liver and lungs.
I don’t know exactly why I let that little girl go. She was nothing to me. Not really. I guess she was so young, sort of like a pretty pup with all its cute soft features and huge eyes.
Now I am proud that I let her go. Later, as an old man, I’ll get to remember my own moment of kindness. Maybe I’ll have grandchildren of my own, and I’ll tell them this story. Though I’d have to marry first, and I don’t see that happening, not in any near future anyways.
I don’t like women on the whole, and the queen certainly doesn’t do anything to change my mind in that regard. Women have no heart. They’re just animals. Everybody knows they have no souls. I’m happy to keep my distance. That’s why I prefer leaving. I want a quiet place, somewhere in the mountains where no one bothers me. Court life is something I can do without.
I’ll miss the hounds. But I’ll have to leave them behind. Too bad. I’m rather attached to them. They like me, too. Especially the little runt. I call her Mini. She’s my best. Maybe I could sneak her into my knap sack? But no, she’d just make it more difficult for me along the way. I’ll get another one like her one day.
I’m not too worried. I’ll find some sort of employment.
Imagine, a woman wanting her stepchild killed. And such a pretty one! At some point I thought maybe she was pregnant and wanted something, craved something to eat, like they always do in fairytales. Turnips or a special salad from the witch’s garden. It would have made sense, too, if maybe she wanted to have the young girl out of the way so there would be no quibbling over inheritance later. But she doesn’t look pregnant to me. She’s skinny as a rail, though she has all the right curves in the right places. But not in the place where women normally carry their brood.
She doesn’t act pregnant either. No sickness, no looking unusually pale. She looks like one of them models, flat bellied. Not my type at all. But of course I don’t have a type in the first place. I’m not interested. Well, I like to look. But I’d much rather not touch. It’s altogether too complicated to be around women, if you ask me.
It bothers me, though, that someone would have the power to ask me to do something I would never have dreamt of doing on my own—kill another human being, I mean, and kill her at close range, with a knife in my hand. Slit her throat, carve her up, as easy as you’d strangle a puppy or break a hare’s neck or wring a chicken’s neck. The mechanism is basically the same either way.
I’ll never let anyone have so much power over me again, so help me God. When I think of the queen now, I think of how easy it would have been for me to break her own neck. Just clamp my hands around that delicate pale skin. And squeeze. The end. It might have felt very satisfying.
The main reason I didn’t strangle her—these thoughts do run through one’s mind—is that they’d only catch me afterwards and then I’d be sentenced to death for sure. Besides, I’ve never killed a human being. That’s not to say I couldn’t. Obviously with the little girl I came close. It would probably be easy. You just push your humanity aside for a moment and act like an efficient machine. Knife to flesh, like with the boar. Hands twisting neck, as with a chicken. Club over skull, as with a mouse or a fox.
Instead, I’m running away. I’m moving on. I’m pretty certain I’m not important enough for anyone to take a great deal of trouble in royal pursuit.
All women are ever interested in is frippery anyway. Frippery, frappery.
She would have been a nice morsel to crush, though. She’s not that much older than the little girl, either.
From now on I just want to live, put one foot in front of the other, do my stuff. Pick up brambles. Make sure the traps are empty. Make sure the lookouts are all right. That sort of thing.
I don’t know where I’m going yet—preferably somewhere where there aren’t any people at all. It’d be so much easier to just deal with animals. I’d like that. I have no great ambitions to become immortal by spreading my own seed around. In this pathetic place where people kill and maim one another, and the animals as well? Actually, I’m sorrier for the animals than for the people half of the time. They don’t deserve being killed. They haven’t done anything wrong.
I wonder how the little girl is doing in the woods. Not so good, I’m sure. Something has probably eaten her by now. I wash my hands off it. It wasn’t me, that’s the main thing, and now it has nothing to do with me anymore. I left her to God, whoever that’s supposed to be. Maybe she’ll get recycled into a bear cub or a raven chick. Anyway, I don’t want to think about her anymore. Things are bad enough. She’ll probably haunt me for the rest of my days with that thrilled smile on her face, that tearful thank-you-for-letting-me-live smile, as though I had suddenly turned into God. Thank me for what? For leaving her exposed and defenseless out there in the wilderness? She’ll soon enough realize that it’s no picnic. But it’s her own fault for being a girl. If she were a boy, it would be a different story. A boy would figure out what to do. But girls are pretty useless that way.
I’m packing a loaf of bread and a hunk of hard cheese, which is more than she had when I left her to fend for herself. I have to be grateful for that. Of course, she’s smaller and won’t need as much food as I do. Berries will probably do her for a while, unless she gets eaten by something first. Anyway, I have nothing to do with that. I wasn’t there.
And off I am into the big wide world.
If only I didn’t constantly have to carry around the picture of the little one on her knees in front of me, wringing her tiny little hands up into my face, tears streaming down her cheeks. Don’t kill me. Please don’t kill me. Well, damn it, of course I couldn’t. If a deer in hunting season, or a wolf cub in no season at all, were to fall on its knees and beg me for its life, I would let it be, let it live. I sure do think of the absurdest things. But then again, I also live the absurdest of lives right now.
So, off I am with my backpack. Never to be heard of again in these parts.