Astrid Vallet


The carpet of leaves crush under my bicycle as I drop it, it won’t get me much farther. I put my hands on my hips and take a moment and a breather. Rich people love a good cabin in the woods. Well. They call it a ‘cottage in the forest’, and while that sounds cozier, that ticks all the boxes of a bad idea. And a bit of a pain in my ass. I look around. The birches are thin but they stand close, and this white, brown and orange curtain runs all around the house. I decide I won’t sweep the leaves, the owners are the type to enjoy the aesthetic.

I look back at the house. The ‘cottage’, whatever. A dead artful thing, this house. It doesn’t look quite right, it doesn’t smell quite right. It looks like a Parisian couple looked at what a longère is supposed to look like and were like, this, but less peasant. Which is exactly what happened, actually. So less authentic, less Normand, the least Normand thing in Normandy. In the middle of a planted birch forest, too. I sigh. There’s a reason why we like thick sturdy trees around here. I stare at the front like it’s a face and the windows stare back at me. I slap the air.

“Ah, you ain’t so bad, it ain’t your fault.”

I should check on the cow first. The missing cow. I should check on the missing cow. That makes no fucking sense. I slap the air again and get going. My boots splish-splash in the mud on the way to the meadows. I look around, I look behind me. I vaguely wonder what made this track among the leaves. Doesn’t look very intentional. I must’ve underestimated the wildlife of this artificial forest.

The fence doesn’t budge as I climb onto it. I stay crouched for a while and wiggle and still it barely creaks, and I laugh and stand. The fence runs around the small meadow – though it’s more than enough for one cow – and it’s intact as far as I can see. Matter of fact, there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t be, but M’sieur Lelaitier said Marguerite hadn’t come for the hay yesterday, and he refused to set one foot on the Parisians’ meadow to go looking. They pay him enough to feed their cow, not to give a fuck. I shake my head and jump on the other side, the grass is a vivid green, it’s mellow. I’m surprised M’sieur Lelaitier doesn’t let his own cows graze here, it’s not like they’d know. I head for the end that’s farthest from M’sieur Lelaitier’s farm. Marguerite’s a pampered darling, she’s got a shelter over there too, so maybe she’s being a diva. Or maybe she hurt her leg. I don’t figure there are predators in the woods, so it’s one of those two. Gotta be.

I see the shelter but not Marguerite. Still no damage to the fence, though, so that’s off. I’m warming up to the idea of a jog. I turn and walk backwards and squint. M’sieur Lelaitier’s farm is not even within screaming distance. Dammit. I settle for speedwalking. I turn back around and the smell hits me. I bring my sleeve up to my mouth. Iron. Blood. I jog up to the shelter, and circle around it, and sure enough, Marguerite’s slumped onto the wall of the shelter, where nobody could’ve seen her without coming to look, and she’s been bled. Maybe eaten in some places, too, or maybe that’s just the way flesh… Decomposes. I gag and spit into the grass and train my eyes away. The fence looks alright, not tempered with, but I’m not about to stick around to find out what did that to Marguerite. Nobody’s here to laugh at me so I sprint back to the house.

Fucking ridiculous. I lean on the wall to tear my boots off, glaring at the mat, the mat that reads Welcome in beautiful calligraphy. Can’t get mud on the mat. Defeats the purpose of a fucking mat. I let myself in and flick the lights on.

“Wake up, ma’am, mommy and daddy are coming back.”

I drop my dirty boots by the door because I’m the one cleaning these floors anyway and shrug off my puffa. I rub my hands together and puff out hot air into them. They should arrive tomorrow morning at best, but there’s much to do. But first…

“Where are you, lil’ stinker…”

He can’t hear me, of course. White cats with blue eyes like him, they’re often deaf. But they thought he was just so cute, so they adopted him. Named him some dumbass posh shit, like Apollo or something. I prefer lil’ stinker. Or Dingy, short for Schrödinger, because had he not been adopted, he would’ve died in the box he had been abandoned in, and the world wouldn’t have seen a difference. Nobody wants a deaf cat around here. Ah, well, he couldn’t have ended up like Marguerite, since he doesn’t leave the house, even if the owners went through the trouble of putting a cat flap in the garage door. He’ll show up. I clap my hands. Much to do, much to do.

M’sieur Lelaitier’s number is on the fridge. A grumpy old overalls-wearing farmer, that man, but a sensible one, and one that doesn’t forget favors. Whole reason he hooked me with the Parisians is because great auntie found him the underground spring to build his well. I fix myself some crap instant coffee while planning out what to say. I don’t touch the fancy Turkish set nor the Nespresso machine. I’m just the housekeeper-ish and they probably wouldn’t like that. I bring my phone to my ear and reach his voicemail. Fuck yeah.

“Hi, hi, it’s me, y’know me, and uh, I found Marguerite, and she’s– pretty weird actually, she’s dead and uh… I don’t know how, maybe a wolf or… Or some weirdo out there, who knows… Could you check it out, or… I dunno… ‘Nyway, yeah, mind your cows. Thanks. I mean– bye.”

I hang up and wrinkle my nose and drink some bitter coffee. Cringe. Better get started, better get started. They pay me.

The lil’ stinker shows up when I’m done opening all the windows and shutters and doors, to air the fake-ass nature smells out, and back down for a second cup. He doesn’t look happy about the sudden drop in temperature, he’s shivering a bit. A lot. I look at him, smug, from inside my puffa, which I’ve put back on. But fair to him, I’ll start a fire. I ache for it, actually, for warmth and for a real smell. I’ll make a fire and a smell and they’ll come back home and be pleased, and slowly replace the real smell with their fake-ass one, and they’ll leave and I’ll tend to the house for a while without living in it and right before they come back again I’ll give the house a real smell again and they’ll come back and that’s how it goes. Depressing. I scratch Dingy’s head, he purrs.

“And you must be tired of your robot-dispensed food, uh…”

Poor thing. They got the cat because no one wanted him and he wouldn’t have survived on its own, and now what? Dingy purrs on and on.

“You ain’t so bad, it ain’t your fault…”

I get the urge to take him home, just like M’sieur Lelaitier should’ve taken Marguerite in. An isolated cow like that, maybe it was a wolf. Poor cow. They must’ve bought her to feel like they belonged in the countryside. Poor cow. I sigh and scoop Dingy up in my arms to carry him to the fireplace. He doesn’t like that, he jumps down, but follows me. Tough love.

He follows me, too, instead of staying by the fire, when I go upstairs to take care of the linen. He’s excited for the change of bedsheets, I bet. No need for much dusting, I do that whenever I come in every couple of days, to refill the cat-feeding robot, check on the outside and tend to the garden. Blinking slow, tail thudding on the sheets, Dingy watches me while I beat the pillows. That’s always fun. Arranging them artistically on the large bed, draping a blanket over it, artistically, too, of course.

He hisses. His claws are deep in the sheets, the hair on his back stands, his tail bristles, he hisses, he hisses at nothing, his eyes bulging and not looking, not looking at anything in the room, looking at the open window. I reach for him and run my fingers through his hair and it’s like he doesn’t feel it. What’s a deaf cat hissing at?

“What’d you see, baby?”

I inhale deeply and walk to the window. I didn’t realize it was getting dark so fast out there. Like a dumbass I look up first, half-expecting to see some big scary bird, but no, just the gutter. I look down. It takes me a moment to understand why I’m not breathing right. I stare at the cow, and I swear it’s Marguerite. Can’t be, can’t be. The cow’s staring at my bike. Behind me, Dingy’s a little less loud, maybe because I’m obstructing the window. I fumble for my phone. Come on, answer, answer.


I breathe, a bit.

“M’sieur, did you, your cows, you got all your cows with you? None of ‘em, none of ‘em got out or…?”

“How the hell would one of them–”

I don’t know, did you listen to your voicemail, I left a message and–”

“I did not. What’s happening, p’tite?”

“Listen, uh, Marguerite, she’s dead, and please please please believe me, but she’s… Standing in front of the house?”

There’s silence. I put conscious effort into breathing. For a second I think he snorts, but no, he spits out his tobacco.

“P’tite, you’re okay, you’re prepping the house because they’re coming back, yeah? Is that the white cat I hear? Just… Where are you? You stay inside, no need to be anywhere else right, you stay inside, you make sure everything’s closed, okay, and locked, cows, cows they can get real aggressive, okay, maybe she’s been bitten, got rabies, okay? So you lock yourself up real good and you spend the night, right, you wait for the Lorfevres? You’re fine, I’ll check on my cows, okay?”

I nod. Yeah. Yeah that makes sense. That makes a lot of sense.

“Okay, makes sense, I can do that.”

“You close and lock everything, okay? Even upstairs.”


“No hurry, okay? You just close and lock, close and lock, it’s just a cow, okay?”


“Yes p’tite?”

“Can you come pick me up if… If I don’t feel well? I don’t think there’s food here and…”

“I’d rather not, p’tite, I’m… Very busy. But I’ll check on my cows and maybe check back in with you in a bit.”

“Okay. B-Bye?”


He hangs up. Just a cow, maybe one that looks like Marguerite. Maybe the one I saw wasn’t Marguerite, I didn’t look closely. I don’t think about the other questions that would raise and I close the window and I don’t look at the cow.

I am meticulous. Every window, every door. He said not to hurry, so I don’t. I find that no hurry also means quietly. That’s fine by me. Every window, every door.

I keep my puffa tight around me. I don’t like standing close to windows. That’s stupid, that was just a cow, and cows don’t charge, I don’t think. I’m clutching my phone. I sit on the floor, by the fireplace. Trying to think about something cheerful. Something happy. How does Santa fit into chimneys? Can he go down if there’s a fire underneath? Can he go down if there’s a fire underneath? Can he go down if there’s a fire underneath?

Wrong thought. Something else.

The lil’ stinker comes curling next to me. He purrs like a motor.

“Did me a real big scare, Dingy.”

I don’t know how long we sit like this. I add a new log when the first one crumbles. It’s warm, it’s nice. I don’t know how long it’s been. I keep checking the time on my phone without reading it. But here it’s warm and nice and everything else can wait. Dingy’s drowsy. I wanna doze off, too. I regret that second cup of coffee.


My eyes snap open. I don’t remember closing them. Dingy doesn’t hiss, he just crawls into my lap.

Ding. Ding.

Is that the bell on my bike? I hug Dingy close. I imagine Marguerite ringing that bell and slap a hand over my mouth not to laugh. That’s not a cow, nor a wolf. What kind of motherfucker with thumbs is tinkering with my bike out there? I close my eyes, open them, check my phone. M’sieur Lelaitier said he’d call. He mustn’t be that worried if he’s not calling. I’m safe anyway, I closed and locked all the windows and doors. I look down at Dingy and smile. Cats don’t care about teary eyes. Dingy stares back at me.

The cat flap.

My heart drops. Surely, that’s fine. No cow… I bite my lip not to cry out loud. But that’s not a cow, that’s not a fucking cow. I push Dingy off my lap and scramble to my feet and to the garage.

It’s dark. I swallow. Light pours in from that tiny, tiny cat flap. A single square of light. I tighten my fists and make a beeline for it.

There’s something outside. For sure. Near but not… Not super close.

This chest of drawers will do. I get behind it. Outside, all is silent. I taste blood, I don’t stop biting.

One big inhale one big push scrambling something scrambling scratching against the garage door another desperate push that obscures the square of light.

I breathe I breathe heavy I get away from the garage door I get to the lightswitch and I switch it on and nothing’s inside. It’s just me and a bunch of useless rich people shit.

I freeze. It’s stupid but I freeze in relief. I’m calming down but from the other side of the house I hear my phone ringing and I rush for it and once I have it in my hands it’s like I don’t know what to do with it and I almost cry when the call stops flashing but M’sieur Lelaitier calls right back and this time I manage to pick up. I slap my hand over my mouth, I feel tears on my fingers and palm.


I sniffle and cough, I lie on my side on the rug and press my forehead down into its burnt-smelling mellowness.

“It’s not a fucking cow–”

Silence. Of course.

“You did what I told you, p’tite?”

“Yes but–”

“You lit a fire? I see smoke.”

“I did, it’s cold–”

“I know, p’tite.”

“I shouldn’t have?”

He chews his tobacco, fabric rustles. A shrug? I can just picture him, sitting at his old table, old as him this table, rubbing a hand down his face because I’m a big fucking idiot, I’m sure I’m a big fucking idiot.

“You’ve seen tracks around the house?” he asks.

“No– I mean, I wasn’t paying attention, I-I guess– There’s this muddy trail that goes to the meadow and… And…”

“And right around the house?”

“I don’t fucking know, I–”

“Sorry, p’tite, I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m asking you all this, I’m… The fire… It’s making smoke, and it’s a tell that the house is inhabited, you understand? It’s fine when it’s the Lorfevres, but you’re alone, you’re an easy p–”

“Should I put it out?” I say, cutting through the word ‘prey’, rejecting it.

“No– No, absolutely not. It’s… You keep warm, okay, you keep that fire going and going good, don’t even worry about wasting their logs, you keep that fire going, that’s important. Okay? Can you do that? You can do that, you’ve been doing great so far. You’ll do that, okay?”

“M’sieur– M’sieur Lelaitier, come pick me up, the cat and me, please–”

There’s silence, and the silence is filled with Dingy’s anxious purring, he comes crawling against my stomach.

“I want to, I want to, p’tite. First thing in the morning, sun’s up, if the ma’am and the sir aren’t here, I’ll come pick you up. In the meantime, you stay put, you stay locked up, you stay warm. Okay?”

I hate him.

“Mhm. Bye, M’sieur…”

I hate him. I hate him and I listen to him. I look at the fireplace, my eyes climb up, guessing at the duct in the walls. A tunnel to my burrow. How does Santa fit into chimneys? Can he go down if there’s a fire underneath?

I set an alarm every ten minutes. I drink coffee, one cup after the other. And if I finish the instant crap I’ll start drinking from the fancy Nespresso machine, I’m all out of fucks.

The alarms ring, one after the other, and sometimes it rings outside, too, the bike bell and the alarm sound I remember picking, thinking that was a nice one to wake up to, it rings back at me, not quite like an echo because echoes fade, but this, this, it rings back at me, mocking.

I stare at my hand hovering over the knob I stare at my hand mid-air right by the fucking knob and I don’t remember getting there and I must have fallen asleep I must have.


My heart swells. It’s been hours hours, hours I’ve been stopping sounds from leaving my throat but now I wanna cry and my hand trembles closer to the knob but it’s night.

It’s night. It’s pitch black. I tear myself away from the door I take several steps back and each one hurts. I check my phone and there’s nothing no missed call no nothing.


I clutch the phone in the hand that almost opened the door and I walk away, backwards, staring at the door. And I sit on the rug again, by the fireplace, I feel its warmth in my back and Dingy starts kneading my thighs.

Sometimes there’s hissing, hissing like Dingy’s but not quite, and mooing and lowing but I know it’s not Marguerite. And M’sieur Lelaitier’s voice and my own and my phone’s alarm, too, and my bike bell.

I think one time I was fixing myself another cup and I stared at the window because perhaps I was half-awake and I think I looked at my reflection and my reflection smiled at me.

That framed picture of the Lorfevres smiles at me, too, they smile at me, flash their pearly whites, holding each other in a side hug, surrounded by reddening birch trees and pumpkins that are not native to Normandy. The picture sits on the kitchen table, they watch over me, they watch me, they watch me making coffee to stay awake if not sane, and they look through the garden, over their artsy and barren garden, awaiting the return of their real-life counterparts. Steps outside. So many pairs of eyes.  What do you see out there, huh? I slam the picture face down. Fuck off.

I should have closed the shutters, too. I shoulda shoulda shoulda shoulda–

I hold my phone in my hand and the poker in the other and Dingy’s on my lap.

I see things in the shadows outside and inside and my eyes hurt from staring at the flames and staring at the dark.

I must’ve slept. Everything’s dying. I’m dying and the fire’s dying and my phone’s dying and night’s dying, too. I see dawn at the windows. Dawn. My phone’s still in my hand and the poker, too. I grasp both and sit up and Dingy barely protests.

There’s banging at the door.




Such an empty voice. Monsieur Lorfevre. I left the key in the lock. I stand, I manage to stand and stay standing. I make it to the door with the lil’ stinker at my heels. I think I’m crying, I don’t care. I open the door and there he is.

He stares at me with a furrow to his brow. Like a wrinkle on glossy paper. Dawn in his back. I stare back. Do you even know my fucking name, asshole?

“You… Okay?” he says.

He looks past me at the lil’ stinker. Creases, wrinkles by the corners of his mouth. Fake pearly whites peeking at us.

“Dingy?” he says.




Astrid Vallet is a queer and very-probably-AuDHD writer from France. She holds an M. A. in Cultural Studies from the University of Tours, and their literary work is featured in Crow & Cross Keys, The Ghastling, and The Lumiere Review, among other places. Find them online @astriddoeswrite.