Today was the day I was supposed to knuckle down and start working on Book 4: Dragonbreath and the Lord of Bats. (Working title "Batbreath.") Really. I have a couple of chapters already, but the book needs to get done this month, and I was gonna put some serious work in on it.
Instead, I found myself noodling around with…well…this.
Some preliminary explanation–I picked up Brom’s The Child Thief t’other day, haven’t read it yet, which is a dark retelling of Peter Pan. This got me thinking about all the dark retellings of kid’s classics out there…Wicked, and The Graveyard Book and so many people have done evil Alice in Wonderland that probably the edgiest thing you could do with it is play it completely straight and cute.* So I started thinking about what classics haven’t been done yet, because I really do like the genre.
My first thought was Wind in the Willows, and I was going interesting places with that–Ratty as a ratspeaker, communing with an army of rodents, and Mole as a young member of a tunnel-dwelling race and the weasels as deranged cannibal cultists and Toad, instead of motorcars and gypsy caravans, having passionate dabblings in bondage and occultism. (I vetoed Kevin’s Marquis de Sade-influenced version of Winnie the Pooh, "One Hundred Twenty Days of the Hundred Acre Wood," on the grounds that if he kept saying creepy things in Piglet’s voice, I couldn’t be held responsible for my actions.)**
And then, it hit me. The sacred cow, if you spend any time in the Upper Midwest. The books that I have frequently wanted to re-write because I was so infuriated by the combination of idiocy and ill-luck they displayed.
And then I spent the morning writing this, because I’m basically a bad person.
It was a cool, moist day in early autumn when Laura learned that she hated her sister.
They had gone down to the spring, a little seep in the rocks that trickled into a small pool ringed with birch trees. The birches had all been nailed years ago, and the nails had rusted in the rain and wept red tears over the white bark. A preacher-stone lay at the bottom of the pool to lay the spirits. The leaves drifted down sometimes and covered it, but Mary carefully cleared it off every time she came to the spring.
She was standing on the stone now, wet and sleek, knee deep in the water. Her shift was hiked up around her hips so that she wouldn’t get it wet, and Laura, crouching on the rocks on the bank, could see gooseflesh on her legs, but Mary didn’t seem to care.
The pool was out of sight of the log house, which was why Mary had dared to take off her dress and wade out in her underclothes. The pool was out of earshot of Ma, which was undoubtedly why Mary had dared to say such terrible things.
“Take it back,” said Laura.
Mary tossed her head, a habit she’d picked up as a small girl, not realizing or not caring that what looked charming on a six-year-old looked ludicrous on a girl past her fourteenth birthday. “I won’t. And anyway, it doesn’t matter.”
“Take it back.”
There was a strange feeling in Laura’s chest, as if a web of muscles under her ribcage, heretofore unsuspected, had suddenly clenched. She had had the wind knocked out of her once, and it was a little like that, except that her lungs kept going, breath hurling itself in and out, while the awful clenching continued, squeezing down on…on what? Was that the soul the preacher talked about, that lump just under her breastbone? She’d expecting something better, something winged and ethereal and lovely, something that could fly to heaven when she died, not a hard aching lump that throbbed so brutally in her chest.
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Harp playing was probably right out. Laura had never been clear on how souls could play the harp when the rest of her had never even seen one, but in any event, the awful lump did not seem musically inclined.
“Even if I take it back, it’ll still be true,” said Mary, tilting her head back and staring up at the sky. “I still won’t look a thing like him. Or you.”
The squeezing in Laura’s chest got worse. She felt as if that spot in her chest was melting, like the lead Pa cast into bullets, turning into something runny and liquid and burning hot.
So this is hate, she thought, half in despair and half in wonder, and wondered that God did not strike her dead on the spot. Hating your sister was Sin, had to be, one of the big sins, not just naughtiness, which God generally didn’t bother with, preferring to delegate that to Ma and Pa.
What Mary had said was wretchedly true. Laura looked nothing like her sister. Laura was short and dark and stocky, and her hips were already wider than Mary’s. Mary was tall and willowy and pale as the birch trees around them. She looked like a sylph, one of the slender unhuman women that danced in the trees, all long hair and grace, at least until you got close enough for them to smell you.
What happened after that depended on whether they’d fed recently, or whether they’d encountered humans before, and learned to fear the touch of iron.
“You’re his,” said Mary contemptuously. “You look like him. You even sniff around like he does.”
She should have gotten up right then and stomped back to the house and told Ma what Mary was saying. Ma would set Mary straight, and Mary would get in trouble for wading in her underclothes, and later Pa would come home, and everything would be normal, everything would be the way it always was. Mary would still be beautiful, and Laura would resent her bitterly for it, but she wouldn’t hate her.
She didn’t do it.
She didn’t do it, because in her heart of hearts, she wasn’t sure that Ma would deny it, or worse, she’d deny it and Laura will smell the lie on her. Ma lied a lot, mostly little lies to reassure them—that Pa was fine, he’d probably just been caught out late, that he’d certainly be home by morning and there was no need to worry. Laura’s life had been a lot easier before her nose had woken up and she’d learned that strange smell of sweat and sharpness that meant that Ma was lying.
Mary couldn’t smell lies, or truth, or hardly anything. Laura’d known Santa Claus was a lie long before Mary, and Mary probably hadn’t ever forgiven her for that.
Somedays, Laura even thought Ma was lying about God, but that was a confusing smell, as if she believed something one day and not another. She’d learned not to ask Ma about God. The preacher believed in God and Sin and all the rest, believed in it with a smell like white iron and burning pitch. Laura couldn’t imagine believing in anything as strongly as the preacher did.
The funny thing was that Ma never lied about believing in Sin. Whether you could believe in Sin without believing in God was a question that made Laura’s head hurt. She spent hours turning it over in her mind, trying to make it fit. It gave her something to do when Mary was in a mood and Ma was exasperated and told them to Go Play Outside (not adding Damnit, although an implied Damnit was understood by all parties.)
Mary didn’t understand about smells. Right now, she smelled like she was telling the truth, but that didn’t mean anything. Mary could believe in things that weren’t true. Mary had believed in Santa Claus, and Mary believed in God almost as strongly as the preacher did.
Mary was remarkably stupid about a lot of things. Maybe this was one of them.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Laura said. “Why would—I mean, Pa wouldn’t have married her, if…”
“Maybe he didn’t know,” said Mary archly. “Maybe she didn’t tell him.”
Laura snorted, loudly. “And being pregnant is so easy to hide? And we were oh-so-surprised when Carrie was born, because we hadn’t had the faintest notion for nine months that anything was going on?” Everybody had known was what going on. The cows had probably known what was going on. Ma had been violently ill for three months and since Mary had spent most of those months patting Ma’s forehead with a damp cloth and playing at being a ministering angel, it was hard to argue otherwise.
As Laura was no one’s idea of a ministering angel, she got to dump sawdust on the sick and shovel it outside. Ma had only been sick in the house a few times, but it wasn’t something you forgot in a hurry.
Mary flushed. Laura felt a sneaking satisfaction, because Mary could not blush prettily. She was too pale, and her skin turned red and splotchy. Ma could blush very well, her cheeks turning delicate rose, but Ma was a beautiful woman, and Mary, however much she took after her mother, was still only a girl.
“Fine,” said Mary, dipping a hand in the water and running her wet fingers over her cheeks to cool them. “Fine, so he must have known. Maybe that’s why she left the city, maybe she’d—maybe she wanted to marry her—her lover—“ she tripped a little over the word, which wasn’t one nice girls like Mary said out loud, “—and her parents wouldn’t let her, and they made her marry Pa instead. And he brought her out here, so she wouldn’t ever see him again.”
Laura folded her arms and slouched back against one of the birch trees. “Uh-huh.”
This earned her a glare from her sister. “Stupid! Do you think anyone would live out here by choice?”
Laura shrugged. She thought the Woods were beautiful. Dangerous, yes, spooky, demon-haunted and full of Other, but beautiful.
Mary thought they were hellish. Mary had visions from books and the houses in town, of places with glittering ballrooms and polished floors, places where you didn’t have to nail the trees to drive out the dryads and there was store-bought sugar on the table and dresses made by a dressmaker instead of Ma. Mary wanted out.
They’d had the argument so many times that there was no point in having it anymore, you could argue it yourself inside your head without having the other person in the room.
Mary stretched her arms up towards the sky. Her blush had faded, and left her looking more like a sylph than ever. Sylphs were Other, fairies or demons, nobody was quite sure, but nobody ever denied that they were beautiful. They didn’t come around towns much, but you saw them often enough in the woods, and even though people knew better, some men were still foolish enough to chase after them. You could tell them by the scars—“fairy-kisses,” people called them, the little oval bite marks down the neck and arms that scarred silver instead of red—if they were lucky enough to get away afterwards.
If they weren’t lucky, you never saw them again, and nobody could say whether sylphs had gotten him, or something else. There were lots of things in the Wightwoods that could get you—bears and panthers and redcaps and wighthounds and probably things nobody knew about because nobody who’d seen them had lived to bring the story back.
On the other hand, Laura had to admit, if you were trying to dissuade your wife’s town lover, the Wightwoods were probably a pretty good place to take her. Pa walked the woods with impunity, but Pa was smart and had certain…advantages…that a man from one of the cities in the east would not. A town man entering the Woods likely wouldn’t last until sunset, and she wouldn’t give a chicken’s spit for his chances after dark.
“My real father is probably a lord,” said Mary, still gazing up at the sky. “He’s probably fabulously wealthy, and so handsome, and one of these days—“
“If he was fabulously wealthy and handsome and a lord, why wouldn’t Ma’s parents have let them get married?”
Mary paused, shifting uncertainly on the preacher-stone.
“Maybe he wasn’t wealthy then,” she said. “He’s wealthy now, though.”
“Sure,” said Laura, in a tone of voice indicating that she thought Mary was an idiot.
“You’ll see,” snapped Mary, folding her arms tightly around her chest. “He’ll come find me, and then you’ll see.”
It was hate that made Laura say it. Hate and the fact that Laura could think of things that Mary couldn’t. Mary was beautiful and good and hardly ever naughty, and Laura had a sneaking suspicion that it was because Mary lacked the imagination to be wicked.
Laura wasn’t beautiful, but she had plenty of imagination.
“More likely Ma was trying to get away from him,” she said. “Maybe she didn’t love him. Maybe he—he hurt her“—there were words that even bad girls like Laura wouldn’t use, not about Ma—“and she was running away, and Pa felt sorry for her, and married her. To make her respectable. So she wouldn’t be a fallen woman.” (Fallen woman was a phrase she was happy to use, and did at every opportunity, ever since Pa had taken her into town two years ago, and she’d seen one outside the store. Ma had been furious at Pa for days after, and slapped Laura when she said it, but she couldn’t stop Laura from saying it inside her head.)
Mary stared at her sister, her blue eyes huge in her face.
Laura realized that she was grinning. She should stop, she knew she should stop, but the words kept coming, and they seemed to make that horrible squeezed place in her chest hurt less when she said them.
It was the hate talking.
“Your father probably didn’t even know she was pregnant. Maybe he didn’t even know who she was. Maybe he just caught her out after dark—you know what Ma’s like about being out after dark now.”
The hate was awfully clever.
“Stop it!” hissed Mary.
“Or maybe—“ Laura was almost enjoying herself now, the relief of that awful pressure was almost like pleasure “—maybe he was a lord. An old, ugly cruel one, who bought Ma like a cow from her parents. Maybe Ma’s never forgiven them, and that’s why we never see Grandma and Grandpa on Ma’s side. Maybe Ma ran away after her wedding night, and Pa met her and felt sorry for her.”
“Shut up!” Mary stamped a foot on the preacher stone, rousing a swirl of silt from the bottom of the pond. “Shut up! You’re making it horrible!”
“Maybe he will come find you some day,” said Laura generously. “It could happen. You’re his heir, and he’s so ugly that he couldn’t find anybody else to marry him. He’ll pull up in a carriage covered in gold. A specially made carriage, since he’s so fat, pulled by very strong horses. If his gout doesn’t keep him at home.”
Mary lunged at her. Unfortunately, she was still knee deep in water, and she lost her balance and fell forward into the water. Laura stood and watched her floundering up onto the bank and still had plenty of time to duck out the way.
“I hate you, Laura Irongall,” Mary snarled. “I hate you and I hope the woods eat you and you die.”
Laura wondered if the hate squeezed the space under Mary’s ribs as badly as it had squeezed her own. She felt better. She felt strangely, hysterically light, as if she were floating.
“I’m going to tell Ma what horrible things you said—“
Laura laughed. It was a hard, humorless sound, and it shocked her almost as much as it shocked Mary. It echoed off the birch trees and hung in the air like a crow cawing.
“No, you won’t. You’d have to tell her what you were saying, first.”
Mary flushed again, blotchily, and stood there, her hair hanging in wet strings over her face. “I hate you,” she whispered. “I hate all of you. I don’t belong here.”
There didn’t seem to be much of anything to say to that.
The breeze shivered the birch leaves, and plucked a few loose, sending them spiraling down into the pond, where the yellow leaves lay like stars across the water. The nails wept rust down the birches. Mary shivered.
Finally Laura stirred. “If you soak your dress, you can tell Ma that you fell in the pond. You’ll get a scold, but not a whupping.”
“That’s lying,” said Mary.
Laura shrugged. “Best do it before Pa gets home, then.” Pa could smell lies better than Laura could. Ma couldn’t. Ma was as nose-blind as Mary, and if you looked earnestly into her eyes and you kept your face relaxed, you could tell her almost anything.
Mary bowed to the logic of this, and swished her dress around in the water. She held it up, letting the water run off the dark calico, and Laura nodded.
They walked back towards the little house in the clearing without saying anything. Laura walked behind, seeing the breeze tease at the little hairs on the back of Mary’s neck, drying them out, tugging the blond strands free of her collar.
Looked like a sylph. Everyone said so. Which was ironic, really, because if Mary was right, then she was the one that was completely human, and it was Pa and Laura who weren’t.
*Someday, I will swear I’ll do Loris in Wonderland, about the adventures of a small wordless primate in a world gone mad.
**As my friend Larry has been known to say, "It’s so nice that you’re keeping two normal people from being miserable."