I Want More
Thea checked the box trap behind her cabin and found a massive timber rattlesnake coiled and ready to strike. Without hesitation, she grabbed the metal rod resting near the trap and flipped open the lid. She used the rod to disorient the snake, catching onto the length of its body and knocking it back and forth against the sides of the box. The moment its attention wavered, Thea darted her hand inside the trap and secured the animal, pinching tightly just below its diamond head, her thumb pressed into the vertebrae that connected to its skull. She pulled the snake from the box, held it out in front of her, looked it in the eyes. The snake hinged open its jaw and bared its fangs. It flickered its forked tongue, hissed. Thea hissed back, and then ran her own tongue over the flat, even row of her top teeth. It lashed its powerful body at her torso, thrashed up between her legs, wrapped around her arm. The snake’s efforts were useless, of course; Thea had all the power. She caught hold of the snake’s tail, let go of its head, and in one swift motion cracked it like a whip, snapping its neck. With a hook, she pierced the space just behind its head and hung it from the cord that draped between two longleaf pines behind the cabin near the woodpile. The snake accompanied a dozen other recent kills that hung in a perfect row, where they’d stay for a couple of days while their skins loosened, making them easier to peel and flatten into pelts.
On her way to check another trap deeper in the woods, a pinecone struck the top of her head. Thea looked up. Through the tangle of branches and needles, she noticed beyond the treetops the sky shone blue, the day was brilliant and clear. Lately, her home, a cabin nestled in a dense pine forest—one of many in Kisatchie National Forest in a land called Louisiana, according to her husband, Frederick—had become stifling to her, with its ever-present dampness, its bug-teeming undergrowth, and its vegetal stench of decaying leaves. The fact of the sky, the blue sky, made the air around her feel damper and more shadowed. She felt the disparity that existed between the narrow world she inhabited and the vast one above.
Instead of continuing on to the trap, Thea located the tallest pine and ran her fingers across the slippery lichen-covered bark at the base of its trunk. With her powerful legs and calloused hands, she inched her way up to the lowest branches and then climbed up further, not to the top, but as high as she could go without the tree snapping. And for one blissful moment, everything was perfect: the whoosh of air around her—free of sap scent and pollen dust—the unadulterated view of distant hills and billowing clouds. Perhaps, Thea thought, what she really wanted was to live in the trees.
Then she saw the hawk. He was perched one tree over on a slender, high branch too delicate to carry Thea’s weight. The bird of prey, compact in body and regal in the tilt of his head, wore feathers in every shade of rich brown. He regarded Thea coolly as she stretched her arm toward him—overwhelmed by the need to touch—until she lost her balance, barely grasping the trunk in time to prevent her fall. He looked away, dropped from his perch, and darted toward the earth. Thea’s breath caught in her chest as she watched his plummet, broken only at the last possible instant when he swooped inches from the ground to sink his talons into the body of a rabbit, and carried it right back to the branch.
When his sharp beak tore into the neck of the thrashing rabbit, that was it. Thea knew nothing else in the world would ever matter. She knew love.
From that moment, Thea spent much of her time in the pine. She caught squirrels and rats as offerings to the hawk. He spurned her efforts, cocked his head, and narrowed his eye at whatever limp animal Thea held by the scruff of its neck. But she persevered. Every once in a while, if her offering was sufficiently plump, he would seize it from her hands without the slightest show of appreciation and fly in the direction of the morning sun, to a tree far off in the distance she assumed was his home.
She cultivated a taste for raw meat. She was tentative at first, but then ravenous, devouring the still-warm flesh from the snakes she trapped. She no longer made pelts from their skins, which she’d sold through Frederick to various leatherworkers, but instead left them in a heap around the woodpile. Though she still descended from her tree when the stars emerged and went inside the cabin to Frederick, she stopped sleeping in their bed. His featherless, pink skin now revolted her, his awkward arms and long stick-legs pathetic. She stopped chopping the wood and tending the house and making their dinners. She stopped speaking to him almost entirely.
One night, Frederick coaxed her down from the tree and into their cabin, which sparkled with roaring fire and candlelight. He pulled from behind his back a bouquet of tiger lilies. Thea understood that these had been her favorites but felt so removed from the version of herself who cared about flowers. When she didn’t take the bouquet, Frederick arranged them into a vase. On the table was a feast of roasted mushrooms and stewed rabbit made from what Frederick foraged and hunted for her pleasure. Not so very long ago, she would have cherished this gesture.
Frederick worked as a park ranger for Kisatchie National Forest. When they sat down to dinner, he tried to revive their old routine by telling her about his day.
“There’s a group staying at the lodge for some corporate teambuilding retreat,” he said. “I took them on a hike down the main trail. There was this guy and, I swear Thea, he was wearing Italian leather shoes that cost more than my annual salary.”
Here he chuckled and looked at her as if he expected something. She picked at the too-dead meat but couldn’t ignore the nausea she felt from the earthy reek of the fungi. She stood to scrape them from her bowl into the fireplace. When she sat back down, Frederick flickered his eyes between her and the fire, and then resumed his story.
“And this guy, once we get to that beautiful clearing by the lake where you and I first met, he goes, ‘How do you tend this entire forest? The manpower it would take to landscape this much space, I can’t imagine.’ As if he’d never been in nature before. My god, some of these people!”
Still, Thea said nothing. Frederick hesitated a moment but then got up and walked around the table, kneeling beside her to take her hand. His clammy touch was so repulsive that she jerked back, grating the legs of her chair against the wooden floor.
“Please,” he said. “Sweetheart. What can I do? What can I possibly do? We have so much. Nature, trees, labor, love. Every single thing you’ve ever said you wanted.”
She looked up at the wooden beams that supported the ceiling, the ceiling that hindered access to the sky, and said the last words she would ever speak: “I want more.”
Thea left the house and entered the nighttime forest. Frederick tried to follow, but she stopped him, placed both of her palms flat on his chest, and shoved. He stumbled and fell, and Thea heard a crack, followed by silence. But there was no looking back. She trudged far into the wood, through the understory that grew beneath the pines, saplings and thorny shrubs that tore at her skin, in the direction that her beloved flew when he took her offerings. And though it took all night and she had to climb dozens of trees, just before dawn, she found what she was looking for: the nest where he slept with his mate atop a cluster of eggs.
Long ago, before Thea was Thea, her form had been that of a snake. Lowly slitherer. Full of nothing but venom. Burrowed with her then-mate into a woodpile behind a ranger’s cabin. He found their den, showed kindness, left them in peace. From the time she first saw the man, first flickered her tongue and caught his scent, she knew love. Forest king, strong arms, legs that gave power to come and go as he wished.
She knew her fate, though not the how. No matter what it took to be with this man. Sure of success, as love left no doubt. Her mate she once prized for threat and cunning, now only beady eyes, scaled hide. Hideous. The long muscle of her body shuddered.
She stalked the ranger while he patrolled woods and visited camps. One day the man found a tent pitched on a clearing by a lake. Next to it stood a lone woman. Long, black hair, powerful legs. She saw that the woman pleased the man. He smiled, spoke, listened, lingered. When at last he left, she stayed near the woman’s tent, sensed what needed doing. She waited for night. Slithered into the tent. Coiled at the foot of the bag until the woman climbed in for sleep. Ever so slow, once sure of slumber, she slid up the body, explored. Up between the legs, onto the torso, skin on skin, warmth. She lifted her head to look at the woman’s strange, oval face reflecting moonlight. Her tongue flickered. She sensed that she had dwelt in other forms, lower forms, sub awareness, since the beginning. She sensed her power, owned, innate, born into every being willing to use it. The power to create supreme ideal. To become what she wanted. More. But not without loss, sacrifice. Not without cruelty. The eyes of the woman opened, snap, and she sank her fangs into the neck, on a fat vein locked her jaws. She held through struggle and thrashing. She felt life drain from the woman’s body and into her own.
Once it was over, she slunk home. Endured the agony of the shift. The end of her long tail tore apart to form legs, flesh slashed from her sides for arms, her body expanding and her scales shedding in one horrible slough. By the time she reached the woodpile, she was no longer slithering but crawling, weak and cold, suddenly aware of cold, ecstatic. Overexcited, she heard her throat make a ha noise. A haha, her jaw hinged open and air pushed out from her chest, making a ha! Her voice, first hoarse and then strong, a loud HA! Her hand on the step leading to the cabin—HA!—open palm slapping the wood of the step—HAHA!—and a light came on, and then there was the man.
He shone a flashlight on her naked form. “Thea?” he said and scooped her up into his strong, capable arms, carried her inside, and nursed her to health.
Beneath the hawk’s nest, Thea hid in the tree under a branch thick with plump, green needles. As the sun broke the horizon, her beloved flew off, leaving his family unprotected. Thea climbed, ever so slowly, up to the nest, careful not to wake his mate. Thea regarded the female, her feathers more black than brown, her razor-sharp beak, and her wings that gave her freedom to break free of the trees and roam the sky. She touched the warm body, so lightly, enjoying one last time the pleasurable sensation of soft texture on fingertips. When the hawk’s deep brown eyes opened, Thea didn’t hesitate. She grasped the bird’s neck with one hand and squeezed with all her strength, enduring the talons that slashed her arms to shreds. She snatched the eggs one by one and let them sail to the ground so far below that they didn’t even make a sound as they spilled atop the forest floor. The nest cleared of the unwanted offspring, at last, she felt the departing life fill her up.
The transition was more painful than before; the horror of the last time had settled into her frame and magnified the effect. She wasn’t securely in the nest when her arms failed her, and she could no longer hold on, snapping branches and bones on her way down to the earth where she landed in the ooze of the underdeveloped embryos. Eggshell lodged into the tender skin of her neck. She tore at the ground, uprooted saplings, fighting the agony of bony wings sprouting from shoulder blades, of legs contracting, of talons pushing up underneath fingernails. What started as a scream turned to a harsh, high-pitched cry that came from her newly forming cartilaginous beak.
Yet she was everything. She was almighty. As soon as she could bear it, she hopped and staggered on her new bird legs and stretched out one wing, then both, then called out as strongly as she could, a sharp call that she repeated over and over until her beloved swooped down from the treetops and landed at her side.
In their nest, her one true love tended her to health. Though she felt no remorse—confident in the necessity of violence to secure her perfect life—she was honest in mourning with him the loss of their hatchlings. He brought her nourishment until she was back to full strength. She conveyed her taste for snake-meat, and soon, the smooth, papery skins outfitted their nest.
It wasn’t long before she was delighting in her sleek new wings that lifted her higher than she’d ever been, in her crisp eyesight that put the world into focus for the very first time, in her sharp beak and talons, in the overwhelming bloodlust for stalking prey. She lived enough seasons flying high above the treetops to learn that spring was her favorite. Spring, with the relentless rains that kept the lake water fresh. Spring, with the proliferation of new life to hunt.
Until one spring night, after another flawless day flying and hunting with her mate, soaring ever-higher until she touched the clouds, she felt that familiar and oh-so-unwelcome sense of void when they settled down in their nest. Maybe because the day wasn’t truly perfect. All she’d done was trade in her days walking inside the forest for days flying above. But she was no closer to breaking free. Or maybe emptiness and disappointment were just part of being alive, the burden of possessing a soul.
Her mate assumed their usual sleep position, nestling his head into the feathers of her neck, making space for her to do the same. Before closing her eyes, Thea tilted her head and looked up into the heavens that surrounded them, to the glittering stars that pierced through the dark. Her focus turned to one star that shone brighter than all the rest, and even from this distance, she could feel its warmth, its all-encompassing light that radiated the promise of perfection, the promise of obliterating all sense of futility. How stupid she’d been, looking for heaven on earth—earth, a place defined by limitation and decay—when it could only exist beyond anything she had ever known.
When the coming dawn obscured the star from her sight, she knew she would think of nothing else all day until they were able to meet again in darkness. She turned her attention to her mate and found that his coat of feathers, full of dander and lice, disgusted her. She pulled away from him and burrowed into the pile of snake skins on the other side of the nest, ignoring his inquiring look. Because from the moment she’d seen that brightest star, that was it. She knew love.