Box of Claws by Jacqueline West


“What do you think?” they ask you.  

They are sitting before their mirror, all the cases and chests and little locked boxes scattered on the surface before them. They test a pair of ears. Pointed and curled up at the tips, almost like lily petals. “Too much?”  

“No,” you answer, but they put them back anyway.  

“I feel like something more substantial tonight. Hirsute.” They grin. Their teeth—their ordinary, smooth, white teeth—are lovely. Everything is lovely. “Isn’t that a strange word for hairy? It’s polite. Almost simpering.” They grin again, wider now. “That’s not me tonight.”  

Good, you think. You don’t need to say it aloud.  

They open another box, a velvet one with a flat lid, and take out a pair of long ears covered in gray-black fur. “Better,” they say, putting them on.  

You smile back. “Yes.”  

They move on to the case of teeth. Carefully sorted teeth in all sizes, needle to knife blade. They bypass the small ones, the peg-like front fangs, the delicate, nipping pearls, and go with a jagged set instead: canines just long enough to cross the bottom lip when they smile, but not so long that they can’t close their mouth and keep them secret. Teeth for tearing. Teeth for flesh.  

“Eye color?” They gesture to the row of bottles, the glass droppers waiting.  

You study the row of hues. You settle on the palest yellow-green, the color of light through a fresh birch leaf, of firefly juice smeared on a palm.  

“Chin up, please,” you say.  

They lean back, and you let one drop fall from the pipette into each eye. Pupils contract. Irises flicker and shift. Brown disappears, firefly green in its place. Your hand comes close to their mouth as you finish, and you step back quickly. Quickly enough.  

“I think…” they say slowly. “I think it will be the woods tonight.”  

“Not the town?” you ask, putting the glass bottle and dropper back into place, straightening the row. “So much easier to find someone in town.”  

“I feel like a little uncertainty.” They stare into the mirror for a moment. Their tongue, already lengthening, always strong, runs along the bottom edge of those ripping teeth. “And fewer questions afterward.”  

You nod. “It should be a good night. No rain. Lots of stars.”  

They open a drawer and lift out the box of claws. It rattles softly. If you didn’t know, you’d think it was a case of ordinary jewelry, or silverware, perhaps, or carved pieces from an elaborate game.  

They lift the lid.  

“I assume you’re staying here.” Their eyes meet yours in the mirror this time. Not face to face.  

“A party, or a market, or a stroll through the city, I can do,” you say. “In the woods…I can never keep up with you.”  

“But isn’t it fun to try?” They smile, eyes burning yours. They don’t wait for any answer. “Get the brush.”  

You do.  

You run it through their dark hair, which grows longer and rougher with each stroke. Soon the brush’s bristles can’t push their way through. Meanwhile, they are digging through the claws, soft clicks and rasps rising from the open box.  

They settle on silver. Broad at the base, straight rather than curved, shearing to a point like the tip of an arrow. They press them to their fingers, one by one.  

Their hands are strong. Breath-stealingly strong. You know this well.  

“Let me help,” you say, putting the brush on its tray. You press the last claws into place.  

And you’re finished.  

They stand. They are taller tonight. Tall enough that you take an instinctive step back. You’ve seen them petite and sylphen, slipping behind trees, running over dewy grass without leaving even a footprint; you’ve seen them lithe and scaled, gilled, with hooked gray teeth; you’ve seen them broad and solid as iron. But you like this version. This balance of hair and muscle and threat. It might be one of your favorites. But change is what you love most.  

They are all your favorites.  

They move toward the door. Powerful shoulders. Soft booted feet.  

“Goodnight,” they say, and the voice is a growl now. They are scenting the air already. Combing it for prey.  

“Goodnight,” you say back. “Good hunting.”  

The door closes.  

You’re alone. Without their infinite selves, you’re as alone as anyone can be.  

But they will come back. Take themself apart. Start anew. You will be here to see it all.  

Turning back to the mirror, ignoring the plain little smudge of your own familiar face, you run your fingers through the open box of claws. You let their tips scratch you softly, their edges almost catch. Then you slide it back into its drawer, for next time.

Jacqueline West’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in Strange Horizons, Mythic Delirium, Mirror Dance, and Abyss & Apex. Her books for younger readers include the New York Times-bestselling dark fantasy series The Books of Elsewhere and the YA horror novel Last Things. She lives in Minnesota with her family.  

Published 2/11/21


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