[SNEAK PEEK] COEXIST

COEXIST By Anna Tan

The Cottage in the Woods

1954

Jane hurried home. A cool breeze whipped her hair across her face and she brushed it aside.
Beware the dusk. Never stay out in the forest once the sun dips.
Very good advice, she agreed—and yet here she was, the sun dangerously low. There was a faint rumble in the distance. She eyed the sky, noticing the heavy clouds on the horizon for the first time.
Half-forgotten stories of creatures that emerged in the night to eat unsuspecting stragglers raced through her brain. Part of her fifteen-year-old mind rejected them as ridiculous—and yet, she couldn’t help shuddering. What if they were true and not just fanciful stories told to frighten young children? After all, there had to be a reason why their village was enclosed by six-foot walls—and why they barred the gates after sundown. Whether wooden walls would actually be able to protect them against mystical creatures was another thing altogether. Jane couldn’t help feeling sceptical but she didn’t want to get locked out either.
‘Were those herbs worth it, Jane?’ she imagined the village sentry asking as he refused to open the gates. She wondered who would be on duty today—hopefully not Mr. Rowan. He rarely ever took sentry duty these days but when he did, he seemed to delight in making trouble. It didn’t help that he hated her father.
“Yes, they keep my mother alive,” she said aloud to the wind. Her heart skipped a beat. Mother will be so worried. If she doesn’t kill Father first for letting me go. At least Mary’s not here to slow me down. The path seemed to stretch out in front of her and she tried to take longer strides, her basket thumping against her hip. At this rate, she might just make it home before it got dark—if the weather held. That was a big if, she figured, looking up at the sky again.
Thunder rolled, followed by a howl in the distance. The icy wind sent shivers down her spine. Jane picked up her pace. Old enough to go out on your own? Hah! You were stupid enough to forget your watch and even stupider for not keeping track of the sun.
Barely thirty steps later, the rain began to pour in torrents. Jane tried to shield her eyes with her arm as she desperately searched for a place to wait out the storm. A dim light just off the side of the path attracted her attention.
Lightning flashed. She hitched up her skirt and ran.

The light she had seen shone from the windows of an old-fashioned cottage. Jane hurried under the shelter of the covered porch and pushed her blond hair back from her face as she looked around. The bareness of the porch and the lack of the customary lighted lamp by the door caused her a vague disquiet, but she was so grateful to be out of the rain that she soon dismissed the feeling. She set her basket down by the door and bent to squeeze the water out of her skirt.
“Hello?” Jane looked around again, pressing against the rough wood of the cottage walls to stay out of the rain. From her current view point, the cottage seemed unlived in—and yet, there was the light that still streamed past her from the windows.
“Is anyone home?” she called again, knocking hesitantly on the door. No one answered, so she peered through the windows. Through the dirty glass she could see various articles of furniture scattered sparsely across the room—a chair, some rugs, pillows—but other than the occasional flicker of the fire in the grate, nothing stirred. Behind her, something howled again, much closer than before. She looked around uneasily and tried the doorknob.
The door swung open silently.
Standing on the threshold, she looked back and forth between the growing storm behind her and the welcoming fire in front of her. The rain lashed harder, drenching her again. It almost felt as if the wind was trying to blow her into the house. She noticed with dismay a small puddle of water forming at her feet. Taking a deep breath, she stepped in and closed the door behind her.
Still, she stood with her hand on the doorknob, her eyes roving the quiet house, wondering if someone would emerge from the shadows. Minutes passed and Jane slowly relaxed her guard. The warmth of the cottage enveloped her and she soon found herself skirting the low table in the middle of the room and sinking down on the rugs that were piled up by the fireplace. She had almost fallen asleep when the door slammed.
“Who’s that?” Jane’s voice was shrill in her ears as she sat upright, clutching at the rugs.
There was the sound of scuffling before a deep voice answered, “Shouldn’t I be the one asking? This is my house, after all.”
“I didn’t mean to—”
“No, don’t turn around!”
Jane froze mid-turn, her gaze settling on the curtains. She could see faint movement from the edge of her eyes. Her imagination ran wild. She squeezed her eyes shut as she imagined him sneaking up on her, wondering if he would have a monstrous face, if his body would be twisted, if he would cook her first, or if he would eat her alive.
“You can stay. Just don’t look at me.”
Jane tried to speak in measured tones, her heart still pounding. “Why… why not? Is there… is there something wrong with you?” He didn’t sound dangerous. In fact, he could be anybody from her village or the next. She relaxed her body as she turned back toward the fire, squinting her eyes to try to catch a glimpse of him. The fire was casting shadows in the wrong direction for her to see anything.
“No—nothing. You’ll just… Just don’t.”
Jane kept her eyes on the fire, trying not to react to the noises behind her or the growing smell of wet dog. The queasy feeling returned.
“What are you?” she blurted.
There was a sudden silence. “What do you mean?”
Jane gathered up her courage. There wasn’t much to begin with but she didn’t want to be eaten without ever seeing the creature. She took a deep breath and turned around.
She saw his face first and smiled. He was a good-looking man, with soft brown curls framing a pleasant—but slightly worried—face. He was in the midst of rubbing himself down with a tattered towel, which he hurriedly swung to cover the lower part of his body. She stifled a scream as he backed away, his four feet scrabbling against the wooden floor.
“Now, stay calm now…” He held out a hand as if it would hold her back.
“What are—are you a—a monster?” She couldn’t help staring as he slowly lowered the towel and held his hands open in front of him.
“You’re—you’re not going to panic and attack me, are you?” His tail curled worriedly around his hind legs.
Jane shook her head so he took a few cautious steps forward again.
“I’m an adlet. I won’t harm you,” he added quickly. “I don’t eat humans. I mean, there are some who do—but I’m not—I don’t—”
“The howling. You were the one howling,” she said in a near whisper. “I thought there were wolves…”
“You heard me?”
“Were you following me?” she asked.
“No, I was out hunting. I didn’t know you were in the area. The rain washed away your scent.”
“Well, you don’t smell that great yourself.”
He grimaced. “I was caught in the rain. This fur…”
“You’re shivering! You’d better come to the fire and dry out. I—” Jane stopped midsentence. Would she be safe in this cottage alone with this dog-human hybrid? But there was no help for it. The rain made it impossible for her to leave now. Keeping her eyes on him, she got up and divided the rugs into two piles, taking the one that was furthest from where he was standing. It also meant she was farther away from the door. She wasn’t sure if it was the right decision, but to do anything else would seem rather awkward.
The adlet also eyed her warily as he made a wide circle around the room to get to the unoccupied pile of rugs. He sighed as he sank down and wrapped a rug around him, basking in the warmth of the fire. The pounding of the rain on the roof and the slight crackling of the fire were the only sounds to be heard as they sat watching each other.

Jane couldn’t stand it anymore. She hadn’t meant to trespass but she had, and now she felt that she had been rather rude about it. “I–I’m really, really sorry about trespassing into your home and uh… intruding, but I got caught in the rain and well, I’m sorry.”
The adlet shrugged. “It’s okay.”
“I wouldn’t have come in, but the rain was crazy and the door was unlocked.”
“No, really. It’s alright.”
“Well, anyway, I’m Jane,” she said, leaning forward and sticking out her hand. “It’s… it’s nice to meet you.”
“Oh. Ataneq.” He shook her hand awkwardly. They leaned back in their respective seats, avoiding each other’s gaze.
“I suppose you’re from the nearby village,” Ataneq ventured after a while.
“Yes. I was out collecting herbs for my mother.”
“Do you do that often?”
Jane nodded. “But I’m usually not alone. I… I don’t remember ever seeing your cottage before, though.”
Ataneq glanced at her strangely before saying, “It’s quite hard to see wood amongst wood.” He turned and looked nervously out the window at the pouring rain.
“Maybe.” Jane sighed unhappily. “I hope my parents aren’t worried.”
“Will they come looking for you?”
“Probably when the rain stops.”
“It doesn’t look like it’s going to stop anytime soon,” he replied glumly.
Jane felt guilty again when she saw how unhappy Ataneq looked. “If—I mean, if it’s too much trouble, I’ll just take my chances and—”
“No, no. Don’t do that. It’s better that you stay here than get caught in that downpour.”
“Are you sure?”
Ataneq barely hesitated before he nodded. “We’ll work things out, I suppose, depending on when the rain stops.” He seemed reluctant to elaborate any further, so they lapsed into silence again.
Jane tried to remember if she had ever heard any stories of adlets before but could not think of any, not even stories that described dog and human hybrids of any kind. It seemed rather odd to her, especially since her mother seemed to know hundreds of fairy tales and would tell them to her and her younger sister, Mary, every night before bed. Then again, she had never imagined that any of those stories would come true.
“I’m afraid I’ve never heard of adlets before,” she found herself saying.
“No? Well, we’re not common in these parts.”
“Where are you from then?”
“A long way away.” Ataneq smiled. “I come from a land of ice and snow which makes your British winters look like child’s play. But the rain… the rain is something else.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, were you always this way?”
“Once…” Ataneq seemed to be caught up in his own memories. After a long pause, he continued, “Once, a long time ago, I used to be human.”

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