hunters

The Hunters

by Anna Kaye-Rogers

Her prey was close; she could feel it. Ochre Number 8 had been sold out in the greater Tri-State area her past two weekend shopping runs, but there had been a restock, she was sure of it. The lanyard-wearing woman behind the counter had told her there was a truck every two weeks. It was time. There were other, admittedly cheaper products she could have gotten. But it was no longer about that. It was about fishing the palette out of her bag during a coffee session; a gleeful exhibition of the spoils of calls to a customer service line, driving twenty minutes to the mall she didn’t like going to, friends who knew her questing had been in vain and kept teasing her about finding it. It was no longer about the shade itself, but the victory of discovering it for her own. She dreaded having to approach the counter yet again, probably recognizable by this point, to ask if it was in. She would find it herself; she had to. She steeled herself as she reached the section it would be stocked in, if it was in, a little amused at herself for feeling the need to hold her breath over makeup. There, it glistened, instantly drawing her attention from the silvery crescent moon that sparkled in the store’s bright lights. She began to grin, reached for the plastic, closed her fingers triumphantly around the packaging. She would later place the branded shopping bag on her kitchen counter triumphantly, the prize obtained at last.

The blonde at the end of the aisle smiled a little as she watched the teenager swipe her parents’ credit card for the eyeshadow the blonde had made sure would be there, just for her. It was the thrill of the chase, and Artemis was feeling more like herself already. The girl didn’t know her internal hopes were directing themselves somewhere, but the Goddess of the Hunt had been drawn to receive them anyway.

There was always a moment of stillness before the hunt would begin; a calm for her to collect herself and run over the objectives in her head. She would double and triple check that she was fully stocked and fed before she headed out, but the longer the loading screen took the more time she had to second-guess herself. She was not the best of the players in her team, and the only female, but she never felt left out during the conversations over headsets. She had started gaming later than them and was trying desperately to catch up, learning to button-mash first and translating the frantic thumb motions into strategy later. It had been guesswork but now it was muscle memory, trusting herself that with each combo she would hit the target and bring down the monster. At the video game store now, she ran her thumb along the pre-owned titles, wondering if any of them were as good as her game. Long after the boys would log off for the night she would continue, re-running missions she had already completed, hoping each time that the extra practice would make a difference. Each time she found a new game to try she would balance it in her hand, weighing her options carefully, wondering if the controls would be the same and her skills would transfer over. She would long desperately to return to her own game, not yet at full completion, waiting for her boyfriend to make purchases so she could feel a thrill of satisfaction each time she returned from a hunt, her item box filling with treasures of monsters.

The blonde examining games on the other side of the store picked up a new copy of the same game, wondering idly how it compared to her own hunts of lore. She knew that there was an inhaler next to the girl as she played, a collection of pill bottles for allergy and asthma medication. A little puppy would climb into her lap during missions, demand attention if time lost track. This girl was no real hunter. She had loved archery in school to shoot at bullseye targets, not animals; pretending she was going to go off on an adventure like she read about in books. Video games would have to do. Artemis decided to take a copy for herself. Monsters weren’t what they used to be.

She was an expert at tracing the clues prey left behind, running a trained finger over the evidence. Her hands were smudged in ink, small red cuts from careless paper cuts and smashed fingers. She thumbed through the old-fashioned card catalogue eagerly, preferring to do the work herself. A computer terminal nearby boasted instant access and blue hyperlinks that led, vein-like, to the heart of the paper. The library had painstakingly modernized the whole collection, but the small index cards seemed to call her name. It took more time this way, taking notes in a small pad beside her, tracing over well-worn spines to read the numbers, bringing heavy books over to the table and piling them up like carcasses with a triumphant thunk. She would open each book to the end, eyes scanning indexes for key terms that stood out to her like tracks. Those references led to numbered bibliographies, footnotes that left histories for her like cave paintings.

Artemis had practice with quiet, standing soundlessly nearby. The deer that noticed her in the forest she would leave alive, raising an elegant finger to her lips. Now, she tucked a card into an old tome that caught her eye; a crescent moon decorating the silver-lettered binding. She had done several dissertations herself; she had all the time in the world. The latest of her hunters was only beginning; several theses away from discovering the truths she desperately hoped to find. This card, stamped once or twice from her own investigations, would guide her new charge.

She was overwhelmed, but she didn’t know it yet. Each stone had potential; some smooth, some colorful, some sparkling in the sunlight. She had chosen several of them before, not knowing her mother returned them to the garden after each hunt. Sometimes she would pick the same few rocks. There was a red one, full of little divots, that felt like a brick. Her mother had told her it was sandstone but admitted that was probably wrong. There was one that looked like quartz, white with little silver flecks. A third was almost flat, rounded edges, gray-blue in color and seemingly nondescript. She selected each eagerly, drawing them from hundreds in the garden, placing them in the cupholder of her own little chair. Away from home she would be drawn to the walkways and parking lots that boasted their own rock collections; the beaches and playgrounds that unknowingly left treasures unguarded for children like her to steal. Usually her mother would demand she return any stones that found her way into pockets, but occasionally one would seem so special, so important, that it could be taken home and added to the hunting ground of all her rocks, ready to be found and found again. Her mother had told her once that she had liked to scavenge for rocks as a child too.

Once, Artemis had left her one of her own stones in the park. She could no longer remember where or when she had found it; whether it had been near Athens or in London, driven over by cars or avoided by a horse carefully picking its way through. The child had found it quickly; had not hesitated to pocket the nondescript stone. It was not an extraordinary gem or priceless mineral, but Artemis knew its value was in the finding, that she had been the one to find it and claim it for herself.

The bar was not too crowded; not enough to keep her from hearing the men who bought her drinks if she wanted to carry on a conversation. But not so empty as to make things unfun. She did not want it to be too easy, too obvious and too planned as to be inevitable. He knew she would be there—they had been there several times now, but not enough for him to be sure he was the prize she wished to claim. They saw each other other places too; practice, running errands, out and about town. But this was the place they came together, shared words and drinks and meaningful moments where only their eyes conveyed meaning to each other.

Artemis sipped a drink at the bar, a little ruefully. It was easy to draw out those who hunted here at the bar, when so many were full of energy and vitality. Yet it was a dangerous place; where a successful hunt meant a loss of interest, loss of power, loss of meaning. She had felt the momentum of this particular chase for weeks, the slow and steady build from curiosity to interest, interest to potential, potential to culmination. Things would resolve tonight. It felt like time. She watched him arrive, scan the bar, made herself seem unappealing to him. She could have diverted his attention and spared her acolyte a little longer, kept her for herself for just a little while more, but they would have arrived at this night in this bar eventually. Him crossing the floor to reach her, placing a hand on the small of her back, sliding easily into a seat next her. She had learned to hunt by making herself the bait. Artemis raised a drink to the girl who would leave her behind. She knew that in a few months he would move on and then it would be her turn to be left. Artemis would let her have tonight.

Artemis wandered the aisles, occasionally placing items in her small basket. She preferred to eat simply; a bottle of oil, a loaf of fresh bakery bread, plastic-packaged fruit from fields she occasionally wandered. There she took what she wanted, a handful of berries from each row. Mothers and fathers hunted here, lists vandalized with lines crossed out and last- minute additions. While she appreciated their skill at itemized receipts and coupon codes, they did not interest her, and she could not take much pleasure or worship from their exploits. At night if she came to wander, young people would come in giggling, carts filling with cheap alcohol and boxed mac’n’ cheese. She understood them, but they did not excite her. It was the young girls she liked to watch from a distance, unnoticed despite a floppy hat or thigh-laced boots. Young people dressed like her now, off-the-shoulder rompers in floral patterns and jumpsuits and suit jackets. She had always been able to run and climb in a dress but luxuriated in the sensation of jeans. Sometimes the girls watched her back, a symbol of hope unexpectedly in a supermarket aisle, an aspiration of curled tresses and bohemian headbands that spoke of independence and agency. These girls she smiled at, sensing their preoccupation with a single item. Today, the little girl held her breath around each aisle, hoping against hope her mother would stop at the fruit snacks. Artemis knew they had not been written on the list; were a treat. She wandered through the aisles with a false aimlessness, the way she disarmed her prey into thinking they were safe. She could be quick when she needed to be, arrow knocked to string loosed from bow sunk into flesh with a fluid single motion. Child and goddess met again in the snack aisle, one hopeful, one curious. It was a different kind of hunt, a fixed prey, a combat for supremacy only for a moment, and only internally. The child longed patiently, silently, looking at the fruit snacks with a fixed, unwavering devotion. They passed by the columns of brightly colored sugar and gelatin, child still holding her breath with hope as Artemis watched silently. It was only near the end, when the child’s belief began to waver and morph into disappointment, that mother suggested running back to grab a box. Artemis pulled a seemingly healthier option down from the shelf, winked at the child as she ran back to her cart. Her determination would guide her in hunts later in life.

Occasionally, Artemis would join the hunt herself, longing for the days she could have freely led women through woods in a wild dance. Now, the moonlight whispered of danger to those who would have once followed her. Hunters of a different kind had taken the darkness for their own, predatory in the shadows of the clubs and sidewalks. There were some who used offices and hotel rooms like tree stands, who flung bodies away for the cold satisfaction of the final blow. Artemis took no pleasure in their exhilaration at the hunt. She brought over a single hair wrapped in plastic, fingerprints that no system could identify sheathed in clinical gloves. The detective nodded towards the evidence locker, a grim satisfaction with the traces of crime left behind. This particular hunter would be found; though different gods would oversee his punishment. Artemis murmured a silent blessing over the chalk outline. Lines were long to reach the river Styx and filled with passengers unprepared to pay their way forward, plans cut short before their time. The moon wished it could hide on nights like these, but Artemis had instructed no maiden should ever die alone; that a bright light was needed to watch over drinks and parking lots.

The waiting room smelled of heavy cleaning product and clinical sterility. Meaningless still lifes adorned the walls, watching over Artemis oppressively, just as the worker behind the glass did. She knew the worker eyed her uneasily from her simple clothing; a signifier she would be unable to pay the fees required for entry to this place. Yet behind the door, in a maze of hallways to offices and rooms that seemed to hold no sense of the people who used them, she felt someone searching for the right words. A girl struggled with meaning, with explaining the marks along her arm, thin lines that counted words said and feelings thought the way Artemis used to track kills with notches. The girl searched for a reason for being, and in the lobby Artemis wondered if it would be enough for her own continued being. Her family was fading, each attempt to find a new source of purpose eventually not enough to keep going. Many had asked how these hunts could sustain her; how girls with quick fingers finding unreleased mixtapes could hold the same appeal as the festivals and maidens of the olden days. Virginal young women used to plan her worships in holy places, now they searched the internet for days that boy bands would be in cities close to home, searching for reasons to convince their parents to buy them tickets to attend. The others could not see how these could be the same; but Artemis still believed the same fires burned inside. Girls with hope, courage, determination, dedication, passion… all the things that made them too much, too intense to others, made Artemis love them all the more. They steeled themselves against breakups, they searched eagerly for their futures in inspiration boards and pop culture artifacts. They hunted for imperfections and flaws in mirrors, taking savage pleasure in camouflaging blemishes under contoured highlights they had found for themselves. They spent hours among rabbit holes of fan videos and wiki pages, leaping daringly from one dream to the next, going still when they thought they were seen. Artemis imagined herself holding a finger to her lips to each of them, sparing them today to see if she would find them again in the woods tomorrow.

Some hunts felt more important than others, even to Artemis. Women poured over books, standing still in the aisles, using websites online filled with encouraging messages and horror stories. Lists were everywhere, bullet points and keywords that went through cycles. As the nameless flash of hope and potential grew larger and ever more important inside, meaning needed to be found, syllables selected in careful, perfect order. Greedy fingers hunted for originality, uniqueness, spellings Artemis did not attempt to fathom. Her own name appeared occasionally; a gesture she appreciated as much as she resented. Her name meant something, represented something; a legacy no baby could possibly understand, unable to even lift its head. Babies did not hunt the way she did—they searched without understanding, only instinct and routine. There was no higher purpose in their hunting, not yet. Sometimes she would feel an urge to touch the bellies that contained them, to ask their mothers what they craved and yearned for. Sometimes she knew before they did. But she never touched them after all. It was not a fear that stopped her; a Goddess afraid of humans was no Goddess at all. One day she would meet all their babies, would understand their daughters before they themselves could; perhaps never would be able to. But they were not a part of her world, they could not join in her hunt. It was not regret that kept her from reaching out. She knew that she need only wait, and the ranks of her huntresses would come to her on her own, independent and fierce and ready to seek, even if they were not always prepared for what they would find.

They hunted for white dresses with fantastical attributes; creatures of feathers and sequins and layers of ribbon and lace and tulle. It was a quest many girls equated with her legendary hunts of pure white harts that granted magical wishes and great monsters who traveled whole continents during her brother’s day. Artemis knew the name of each silhouette, each feature to customize. These hunts would become stories told over good wine and feasts, the same devotion and adoration in their voices they had once used for her. These were the hunts she undertook for her girls, for them, not for herself, pausing only a moment at bridesmaid dresses to wonder at her own bridal party. There was no overarching color scheme to her girls, no details that tied them all together or accessories that branded them hers. They came together spiritually, on their own, no reason other than true kinship. There was nothing to be gained in these hunts, where vows were made to someone else, allegiances transferred. Girls who once vowed to never rest until they had met an idol or bested an opponent now promised fidelity, loyalty, satisfaction, and a coming to rest. Arrows would be put away, weapons sheathed and battles ceased—ideally, Artemis knew not all could rest, not all could remain—but they would all leave her for a world she wanted no part in. But now, in this moment, she would sit on elegant couches with the rest and shout in delight at puffy skirts and princess cuts; seeing a version of her own face reflected in the mirror as each woman took a moment to drape herself in her kill and feel the honor had been earned.

She could not explain why it mattered so much that she found it, why it needed to be her victory, alone. Each stone named a person who had come before her, culture and language and century aside; each grave a marker of other lives and other stories. She had asked him to wait for her over there, a little foolishly, a little selfishly. Her degree had qualified her to insist none of this was real—the people had existed and believed, but they were only believing in stories, things that had not happened and never were. Even if they had been real, they were long gone now, and if even if they were not gone, they would have no interest in her. Still, honeymoon aside, she had always wanted to be here, just to see for herself, just to hope and pretend for a moment. It had taken some time to find on sites that were not in English, taken some time to wait and plan, and find discounts on airfare and hotels. He was laughing at her from over there, watching from a distance, knowing her well enough to know the thoughts she had not wanted to express in spoken words. The shrine was small, an ancient location with a modern recreation, more tourist trap than sincere worship. She had wanted to find the perfect representation of everything, love for her stories, adoration for her character traits, wishes to be like her and with her and part of her story, awareness she was not and could never be, disappointment that gods must be just stories after all. But nothing had seemed right. She wished she was not here empty-handed, with nothing that seemed enough to say. The plaque spoke in several languages, explaining the most common interpretation of the powers and abilities vested in the silver-mooned twin, and she wished for a moment that the lady nearby could have been Artemis herself, watching over her own memorial. But it wasn’t; just some blonde, who maybe knew and judged her privately. She returned to her new husband, satisfied at the hunt.

Artemis, watching over her nearby, felt it too.

About the Author

Anna Kaye-Rogers

Facebook Twitter

Anna Kaye-Rogers' previous work has been published in Illinois Valley Community College River Currents, The Feminine Collective, Eastern Iowa Review, Zoetic Press Non-Binary Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Pen 2 Paper, HCE Review, The Stirling Spoon, The Coil, Coffin Bell Journal and Zimbell House Publishing. She received the Editor's Choice Award in Non-Fiction in Northern Illinois University Towers 2017. Upcoming work will be featured in SERIAL, Buddy Lit Zine, and IO Literary Journal. She studies English, Creative Writing, and Professional Communications at Northern Illinois University.