The Wolf and the Woodsman – Part II

Hey, I wasn’t gonna leave you hanging THAT long…

 

“Perhaps it would be best if Turtle hid in the outhouse for this,” said her grandmother.

Turtle wanted to protest—if somebody was going to get killed, she certainly didn’t want to be hiding in the privy and wondering what was going on!—but the wolf beat her to it.

“Your children are cubs too long already,” he said. “You do them no kindness by teaching them to be fools.” He yawned. “And if she stays out there, what is to stop him from finding her there first? It is better that she stay here. If she is here, we are close enough to help her.”

“The wardrobe, then,” said Grandmother, and bowed her head.

“How do you know he’s going to try and kill you?” asked Turtle, whose eyes were so wide that she thought she might never blink again.

“He killed the goat,” said Grandmother. She swiped the back of her hand over her eyes. “That makes me the angriest. That poor goat. She never did anything to anybody. She was a nice goat.”

“He killed your goat?” Turtle had listened to the description of the woodsman with the general ambivalence of children, but this was something else again.

Like many people who live close to the land, Turtle’s family divided animals into two camps. There were those animals that created food—milk cows and laying hens and and plow horses and the better sort of nanny goat—and there were animals that were food. And while the latter went unnamed (unless it was “Dinner”) the former fell somewhere between employees and family. They had names. They had personalities.

Even Turtle’s mother had to wipe at her eyes when the black-speckled hen had died last year.

So far as Turtle was concerned, killing a goat—particularly that rarest of breeds, a nice goat—put the woodsman in a camp of villains that included the devil, her father’s mother, and Attila the Hun.

“And the worst of it,” said Grandmother, getting up to pace and gesture with the sloshing tea cup, “the worst of it was that he somehow expected that to make it better! Like chopping the poor goat’s head off was going to make me glad to see him again!”

“What did you do with the goat?” asked Turtle, who was a practical child. There was a lot of meat on a goat.

“I couldn’t deal with it,” admitted Grandmother. “I was too angry. My friend here took it.”

The wolf grinned and dragged his tongue across the white fringe of his teeth. “We are not sentimental about our meat. To keep live prey about the house is a strange foolishness of humans. But I accept that this is a human thing, and to kill another’s house-prey is a great crime.”

He stood up and stretched, and the cottage got a great deal smaller again. “Soon, now. The woods are quieting in the wrong sort of way. Someone is coming.”

Grandmother checked the blue bottle again, stuck her little finger in the neck, and licked the thin film of moisture again. “Very well,” she said, tossing it down. “Turtle, get into the wardrobe. If things go badly—if—well—if something happens—“

Something is going to happen,” said the wolf, amused. “Perhaps we will all sit around like cubs in a den, and frighten each other with what we imagine to be outside, but even that is something.”

“I shall kick you,” said Grandmother with dignity.

“I shall bite off your leg,” said the wolf, grinning.

“Very well, then,” said Grandmother. “Turtle, if I am—killed—then go with the wolf. He will see that you get home safe. And if we are both killed, then stay in the wardrobe and do not make a sound until he has left, then run home as fast as you can.”

“That is better,” said the wolf.

Turtle climbed into the wardrobe. It was a few inches off the ground and creaked a little. There were winter blankets piled on the bottom, under the hanging clothes, and she was flexible enough in the boneless way of girl-children to curl herself up inside.

The keyhole let a little shaft of light inside, and there were gaps under both hinges. By shifting ever so quietly inside, Turtle could see both the door and the bed, though not both at the same time.

She pressed her eye to the keyhole.

The wolf lay down on the bed again, and Grandmother draped the orange crazy-quilt over him. “Loosely,” he said. “It will do no good to draw him near if I cannot escape the blankets in time.”
“I hate this,” muttered Grandmother. She picked up her faded mobcap—Turtle could not remember ever seeing her wear it, but it had lived on the bedpost as long as she could remember—and set it over the back of the wolf’s head. “Don’t wag your tail, no matter how much this amuses you. No, that won’t do. Your ears are too big.”

“The better to hear with,” said the wolf, still sounding amused. “And I hear now that the birds outside the clearing have fallen silent. Truly, if you would let me tear his throat out at the door, this would be much easier.”

“I don’t want to kill him,” growled Grandmother, sounding almost like a wolf herself.  “If he would simply go away…” She stuffed the wolf’s enormous ears under the mobcap, and draped it across the side of his face. With the quilt pulled up high and the fire burning down, Turtle thought that perhaps it was not completely unconvincing.

“He will not go away,” said the wolf, very softly. “He is coming even now.”

“I know,” said Grandmother, and dropped with grace that belied her age and slid underneath the bed.

The steps creaked.

“Amelia?” called a voice from outside the door. “Amelia?”

It was a male voice. It did not sound strange or monstrous. It didn’t sound the like the voice of a goat-killer, but who knew what they sounded like? Turtle wiggled in the blankets and peered out the narrow notch underneath the hinges.

“Go away!” yelled Grandmother. “I don’t want company!”

“Now Amelia…” said the woodsman, opening the door. “Don’t be like that.”

Grandmother groaned. She might have been acting, but Turtle thought that it was a particularly heartfelt sound. “I don’t feel well. I just want to sleep. I don’t have anything to say to you. Go away.”

He stood framed in the door. He was tall and rawboned and his face was lined, except for the skin around his eyes, which was smooth. He carried an axe in one hand, a wicked looking thing with a curved blade, and Turtle’s heart clenched at the sight of it.

“Don’t be like that, Amelia,” he said again. “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. Can I make you some tea?”

“Just go away,” said Grandmother (whose name, yes, was Amelia).  “I have plenty of tea. I told you I didn’t want you here. I will feel better if you leave.”

The woodsman took a few steps closer.  “I came to say that I forgive you for the things you said earlier,” he said.

“For the love of god, will you just go?”

It was his death she was warning him away from, Turtle thought, and he didn’t seem to be listening.

In fact, he was staring at something by the foot of the bed.

“What is that?”

Turtle slithered around to the keyhole. Had the wolf’s tail popped out? What was he seeing?

“What?” asked Grandmother, and for the first time, Turtle could hear the fear in her voice. She craned her neck to one side, trying to see what the woodsman was looking at. Her left eye ached from not blinking.

It was the basket of muffins.

“Someone’s been here,” said the woodsman.  His voice was thick and choked. “Someone else came here. We talked about this…”

“It was one of my grandchildren,” said Grandmother wearily. “And you are a fool. I will see whoever I wish in my own house. Leave now, and don’t bother me again.”

She knows he won’t do it, Turtle thought. She wouldn’t sound so tired if she didn’t.

The woodsman stepped toward the bed. His face had gone red and blotchy. The straw mattress rustled a little as the wolf shifted his weight.

“We talked about this,” the woodsman said again, sounding almost plaintive, standing beside the bed.  Turtle thought that surely he must see through the disguise, surely the shape of the ears must be wrong or a tuft of gray fur would show through, something.

He lifted his axe over his head.

“Fool,” said Grandmother under the bed, with the finality of a death sentence.

The wolf erupted from the quilt.

For Turtle, watching through the keyhole, there was only a blur of grey and a flash of the orange quilt and a horrible yell that turned into a gurgle that turned into nothing at all. The woodsman’s body came crashing down. The wolf gave a muffled yelp and a snarl and the metal axe-blade clattered across the floor.

And then there was no sound at all.

Turtle flung the wardrobe door open, heedless of the very strict orders, and saw the wolf crouched atop the woodsman’s chest, his teeth still buried in the man’s throat. The orange quilt was splashed with blood, sodden with it, a color that matched the orange rather regrettably well.

“Well,” said Grandmother, surveying the scene, “that quilt’s had it.”

Turtle nodded.

The wolf let go. Turtle very deliberately did not look at what he had done to the woodsman’s neck.

“Are you hurt, my friend?” asked Grandmother.

The wolf licked at his shoulder briefly. “Hardly at all. He dropped his axe on me. It will heal.”

Grandmother pulled the quilt the rest of the way off the bed. “Well. I suppose…I suppose we should…”

She put her hand to her forehead and closed her eyes. “I am sorry, my friend,” she said. “I do not seem to be able to think right now.”

The wolf nodded. “Help me roll him onto the quilt,” he said. “The cub and I will see to the body. You should rest.”

“And have more tea,” said Turtle firmly.

“Yes,” said Grandmother after a moment. “Yes. You are both right.” She spread the quilt next to the dead man and grabbed his shoulder. Her eyes were averted and stared at a blank spot on the wall.

The wolf, with dexterous teeth, grabbed the woodsman’s clothing, and they rolled him face down onto the quilt. Grandmother pulled the far end over the top of him.

“I think that is all that I can do,” she said. Her lips were very white.

“It is all that needs to be done,” said the wolf. “Rest. When you are done resting, clean your den.”

“You’ll have to stain the boards,” said Turtle practically. “With walnut juice or something. You’ll never get all this blood up. When Father killed the white rooster and it got inside the back door without its head, we had to stain with walnut.”

The wolf made a noise that in a human might have been a cough.

“Thank you, Turtle,” said Grandmother dryly. “I will take that under advisement.” A little bit of color crept back into her face, and she swung the tea kettle back over the fire.

“Come with me, cub,” said the wolf. He grabbed the end of the quilt and lifted it, and proceeded to drag the body toward the door.

Turtle felt odd. She felt a bit like crying, but there did not seem to be any time to do so, and the wolf was clearly expecting her to open the door.

The body went down the steps in a series of damp thuds. Turtle wasn’t quite sure that she wanted to go with the wolf, but while she stood on the porch, undecided, he reached the gate in the fence, and Turtle had to run to open it, and after that, it seemed that the time when she might protest was gone.

It was an odd journey. The wolf hauled the dead man, wrapped in his crazy-quilt shroud, and Turtle held low tree branches aside and shoved the woodsman’s arm back into the cocoon when it flopped out. She wrapped the end of her hooded cloak around her hand so she didn’t have to actually touch him.

They followed some kind of deer path. The wolf set his burden down occasionally to turn his head and look up it.

They did not speak. They travelled in silence, the three of them, the wolf, the girl, and the dead man. There was only the girl’s footsteps and the wolf’s breathing and the scrape of the body over the ground.

Once, across a rough patch of knobbled tree roots, the dead man was jarred partway out of the quilt. The wolf stopped, and Turtle had to grab the woodsman’s pant leg and help roll him back into the quilt.

The wolf pushed his nose briefly against her arm. His nose was cold. Blood had dried in stiff red spikes across his muzzle, but Turtle felt better for it anyway.

“Here,” said the wolf, what seemed like a long time later. “This is far enough.”

It was twilight. Turtle was amazed that it was only twilight. It seemed like several ages must have passed, like it should be twilight of the day after.

They stood in a little clearing. Turtle shook herself and looked around. Night was gathering under the trees, and there were eyes in it, and a suggestion of teeth.

A growling began somewhere behind Turtle, and ran around the ring of trees. It was very soft and very hungry.

“It would be wise,” said the wolf, “if you would lay your hand on my shoulder now. And I will see you home.”

Turtle set her hand on the wolf’s shoulder. He was hot as fire under his fur, and his ribs heaved as he panted.

They walked away from the clearing. The wolves under the trees slunk out of their way, heads low, their eyes gleaming like frozen moons.

She thought about looking back, but the wolf said “I wouldn’t,” so she didn’t.

It was not a long walk. She cried a little. There seemed to be time now. The wolf didn’t say anything. When she stopped, she tangled her fingers in the wolf’s fur, and felt better.

They reached the path home twenty minutes later. Turtle expected it to take longer, but then again, it went much faster when one of you was not walking backward and hauling a dead man’s weight in his jaws.

They stood on the edge of the path, where the spurge grew thick and choked out the ferns and daggers of grass stabbed up through them.

“Well?” said the wolf finally.

Turtle thought about it, scuffing her foot in the dry pine needles of the path. “I’m sorry he had to be killed. But he shouldn’t have killed the goat.”

The wolf bowed his head, accepting this judgment.

“Will Grandmother be okay?”

The wolf shrugged. His fur rippled under Turtle’s hand when he did so. “She is strong. She would not be a friend to wolves if she were not. Give her a day or two to re-make her den around her and howl, and then visit her again.”

“Will you be here?” asked Turtle. “I mean…if I come into the woods, some time…”

“It is very likely,” the wolf said.

“Would you talk to me?”

“Quite possibly,” said the wolf. “If you are not too foolish, and will be silent sometimes. You do not smell like a foolish child, but there is often no way to be sure.”

“I promise to be silent sometimes,” said Turtle solemnly.

“Then I will be here,” said the wolf, and turned like a cat on the path and vanished into the wood.

 

No, that’s not the end of the story. Hush. I’ll tell you the rest. There isn’t much.

Turtle went home. The yelling was mostly over, although Turtle’s mother said a few things about the state of her clothes and the stained hood.

“Grandma’s goat got killed,” said Turtle, and that was enough explanation for everything, although Turtle’s mother then muttered a few more things, mostly related to letting a child gad out in the woods so late.

“It wasn’t late when I started,” said Turtle, much aggrieved, and that, too, was enough explanation for everything.

Nobody asked about the woodsman, then or ever. He probably had a name, but Turtle never learned it and did not ask. Her grandmother continued on the same as ever, except that she stopped hiring anyone to cut her firewood, and Turtle’s brother came home sweaty and full of splinters and complaints.

Her next batch of brownies came out chewy and if they were overly wet in the middle and burnt to a brick-like crust around the edges, everyone agreed that it was still a great improvement.

The Wolf and the Woodsman

Here. Listen.

I’ll tell you a story.

Listen.

Once upon a time there was a girl. She was probably about twelve or thirteen, but that was an age when children were older than their years and expected to do real work and help with the harvest, so perhaps she was only nine or ten.

Her hood wasn’t red. Red dye is expensive and doesn’t hold well, and nobody who had to dye it themselves would make a red cloak for a child who could be expected to outgrow it by autumn. That was added later because it alliterated. It wasn’t a riding hood, either—the only horse she ever rode was the broad-backed giant that drew her father’s plow.

Still, we make do.

Her name was Turtle. Probably that wasn’t her name, probably she had a perfectly normal name, like other girls, but everyone in the village called her Turtle. There is undoubtedly an amusing story about this, possibly involving a pudgy five-year-old and a suspiciously good-natured snapping turtle, but time is short and dawn comes earlier every year.

Turtle loved to bake.  I am sorry to say that she wasn’t very much good at it. Her scones were like rocks and her cinnamon rolls weighed more than the crookback iron stove they were cooked in.

Children are odd creatures. If they are thwarted, they tend to do one of two things—they refuse to ever do whatever-it-is again as long as they live, or they grit their teeth and throw hours and days and weeks at it, like a general throwing soldiers at a wall until they can stand atop their piled dead.

Turtle was one of the piled-dead variety, at least with baking. She brutalized flour and butter, she visited wartime atrocities to milk and yeast. She committed acts of crumpet. She developed the sturdy forearms that come from punching dough, but since all the other children had the muscle that comes from milking cows and wrangling goats and digging potatoes, no one noticed.

One day Turtle had savaged an innocent bowl of batter into something that almost (but not quite) resembled muffins. Her mother, who had a great deal to bear on other fronts which do not enter the scope of this story, except to say that Turtle had three older brothers, each more reprehensible then the last, opened the back door and told Turtle to take herself and her regrettable muffins to her grandmother, and if she had to stay the night, so much the better, as there was going to be a great deal of screaming presently, and Turtle was a bit young to be hearing all the words that Turtle’s mother planned to be using.

Turtle, not being a stupid child, swept her muffins into a basket. They went glop, which is not an appropriate sound for muffins to make upon contacting wicker, but Turtle was pleased by this, because the last batch had gone clonk and glop was progress of a sort.

She set out of the backyard and into the woods. Why did her grandmother live a good half-hour’s walk into the deep dark woods, and not in the village? An excellent question. Very likely it had a lot to do with the aforementioned brothers, and the fact that her grandmother loved her mother very much and would chew her own leg off at the hip before she lived in the same house with her. Families are complicated that way.

Turtle set out on the forest path, with her hood thrown back and her basket swinging and the muffins jostling and sloshing inside.

She had gone only a little way—just far enough for the bustle and frolic of a woodland edge to give way to the deeper quiet of a wood—and a wolf stepped out on the path and said “Where are you going, my child?”

He was not standing on his hind legs, as he may be in some illustrations you have seen. Wolves are more dexterous with their paws and mouths than you would believe, but walking on their hind legs hurts their hips. He was not wearing clothes or jewelry or anything else. He was just a wolf, a big, rangy grey-furred beast with a deep chest and narrow hips, and that meant that he was leaner and taller and longer-legged than Turtle, who was used to dogs, would have imagined.

Also he talked.

Turtle was not as surprised by this as you or I would be. In that part of the world at that time, talking animals were not completely unheard of. The problem was figuring out if they were a wicked fairy or a cursed prince—royalty was very bad about being turned into animals, and there were quite a few noble houses who still kept Great-Grandfather’s hide nailed up over the fireplace for a conversation piece—or just an ordinary talking animal. Fairies and princes tended to get you mixed up in unfortunate doings, but there was nothing wrong with a talking animal, who were usually more polite than most people you would meet.

That it was a wolf was somewhat comforting. Wolves talked occasionally. So did bears. Foxes talked all the time, particularly if you caught them in the hen house, where they would do their best to addle you with fine nonsense until they could slip out the door, and it was generally believed that all cats could talk and simply refused to do so for inscrutable reasons of their own.

Talking stags, on the other hand, were nearly always bespelled royalty, and fairies, who could theoretically choose to look like anything, nearly always picked white cats or black horses. Fairies are very beautiful and very vain and they haven’t got the imagination to fill a thimble. And they never learn from their mistakes.

So Turtle was not terribly frightened of the wolf, but she was wary. She gripped her basket in both hands and bobbed a curtsey to the wolf and said “I am going to my grandmother’s house, Master Wolf.”

The wolf looked at her for a little while. He had big gold eyes and he smelled strong, like a lathered horse or a cat in heat, one of those rough animal smells that humans do not like and cannot drive out with soap or candles.

“Be careful,” said the wolf finally. “There are unkind things in the woods today.”

“Oh,” said Turtle. “Um. I will. Thank you?”

The wolf nodded once, and turned like a cat in a tight space, nose over tail, and trotted into the woods. She saw him slip into a run, and the thick green ferns closed over his trail.

She realized that she was gripping her basket very tightly, and pried her fingers loose. There were red marks in her palm and across the pads of her fingers where the wicker handle had bit into the skin.

Still, she was young, and it did not occur to her to turn around and go home. There might be unkind things in the woods, but there were very definitely brothers and yelling at home.

So Turtle kept walking down the path, and because she was a little nervous, she began to sing to herself. She did not have a very good voice, and she could not remember most of the words, but that didn’t matter, because the point was to make noise and reassure herself that she was not scared, not one little bit.

Eventually she fell back into a lot of “hey fiddle dee and hidey ho,” with the occasional “hey nonny” thrown in. “Hey nonny” is a parasite that attaches itself to folk music, and left unchecked can suck an unsuspecting song completely dry.  The infestation of this particular song was not far advanced, but did not bode well for future generations.

So Turtle went on, singing badly and occasionally remembering a line or two about crows in the corn and the wee yowes amongst the heather. (It is worth noting that Turtle had a vague image of a wee yowe as some kind of miniature monster, possibly an elephant.) And in such a state, she arrived at the clearing that held Grandmother’s house.

Her grandmother kept the house tidy, and flowers grew all around the front porch. Hollyhocks rose in great columns against the wattle walls and a climbing rose had invaded the thatched roof. Turtle walked under the thorny archway and tapped the door.

It was slightly ajar and swung open at her touch. She took a step inside, holding her basket in front of her with both hands.

“Grandma?” she asked, in her wavering child’s voice.

And stopped.

And stared.

There was a wolf in her grandmother’s bed.

Turtle was not a stupid child. The wolf was clearly a wolf, even across the room, not anything else. He lay stretched across the blankets, as long as a human was tall, and he raised his great head and looked at her.

It was the same wolf from earlier. She was almost sure of it.

She did not scream. She did not run away. She most certainly did not say anything foolish about her grandmother having very large teeth, because she was not a sarcastic child by nature, and even if she had been, her heart was pounding very loudly in her ears and making it very hard to think.

“Oh,” she said, in a very small voice, and clutched the basket handle so hard that the wicker cut into her fingers.

“Turtle?” asked her grandmother. “Child, what are you doing here?”

Her grandmother sat up in bed. She had been lying next to the wolf, with her arms wrapped around his neck and her fact buried in his shoulder. Her voice was thick and raw and it did not occur to Turtle until much later that her grandmother had been crying.

“Mother told me to come and stay with you tonight,” said Turtle. “Um.” More explanation seemed to be needed, so she flapped her hand in the direction of the village. “My brothers…”

“Ah,” said her grandmother, with all the comprehension that one can pack into a single syllable. She pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers. “It would have to be tonight, wouldn’t it?”

Turtle’s grandmother was not an old woman, not in the sense of being ancient and crooked down by the weight of years. They had children early in that part of the world, early and often. I would say that she was about sixty-five. The oldest part of her was her hands. Her hair had gone the color of iron. She was still handsome in a tall, haggard way, and there was never any problem with living alone. She hired men to chop her firewood, or dragged her grandsons out to do it, but that was her only concession to age, and the broad vegetable garden she weeded herself.

Grandmother swung her feet over the edge of the bed and said “Perhaps it would be better if you went home.”

Turtle fidgeted. She did not want to go home. The woods had frightened her a little, and the best thing she could hope for at the end of the return journey was yelling and brothers.

“If she goes now, she may meet him coming here,” said the wolf.

Grandmother inhaled sharply.

“Who?” asked Turtle.

Her grandmother fidgeted a patch of quilt between her fingers.

“The woodsman,” said the wolf, when it became obvious that the older woman would not answer.

“The woodsman?” asked Turtle, puzzled. “Which one?”

For there were woodsmen all through the land in that time, and none of them were precisely alike. They carried axes and cut down trees for houses, most of them, but they were also hunters and trappers and brought fur and pelts to trade, or wild mushrooms, or strange herbs. There was one woodsman who lived up in the hills—no one knew exactly where—who panned for gold in the streams and brought tiny vials of glittering dust to trade.

They were odd people. They were welcome in town, of course, and if land needed clearing, you sent out word and a half-dozen would show up with their great pitted axes, but they had territories rather than homes, and they wore furs instead of homespun.

“His name isn’t important,” said Grandmother. “I’d rather not…that is…oh, surely she can go home!”

The wolf, who had no name (wolves never do) said “She may do as she wishes, but I would not let a cub of mine go down that path tonight.”

“Perhaps he won’t come,” said Grandmother wretchedly.

“Then he will come tomorrow,” said the wolf, “or the next day. But I believe it will be tonight.” He heaved himself off the bed and paced toward the fire.

Turtle set down her basket, which was growing heavy, and put her hands on her hips, and said, in her very best grown-up voice, “I want to know what is going on!”

“Oh…oh, my dear…” Her grandmother fidgeted again. This was unusual. Her grandmother was not a fidgeter by nature, and she generally had little patience with maundering.

The wolf lay down. He did it all at once, with a great hwwuffff! and he took up a great deal of the cottage doing so.

Grandmother sighed. “Let us have tea. This will be easier with tea.” She got up, stepped around the wolf, and poured herself a very small drink from a small blue bottle on the mantle. She drank it.

Turtle tapped her foot. This did not look very much like tea.

“The woodsman came here earlier in the season,” said Grandmother, coughing a little on the contents of the bottle. She took down the kettle, shook it a little—water sloshed inside—and she set it on the pot-bellied stove to heat. “He offered to cut firewood for me, and I accepted. He would take no payment, but he seemed lonely, so when he stayed to talk to me, and came back sometimes for tea and to talk, I thought it was the least I could do.”

The wolf set his head on his paws. Turtle sat down on a little three-legged stool and hugged her knees.

“He seemed lonely,” Grandmother repeated. She got out two mugs for tea, gazed at the little blue bottle for a moment, then took a slug directly from it. “And odd, but many of the woodsmen are. They live such isolated lives. I thought—perhaps he had simply forgotten some of the social graces. And he said that people had been unkind to him. I felt sorry for him…”

Sarcasm is largely foreign to wolves, and completely unknown in dogs (although coyotes have a well-developed sense of it), but the sound the wolf made was very close.

“Yes, well,” said Grandmother. “I should have listened to you.”

“Yes, you should have,” said the wolf. It was a statement of fact that held no censure in it. “But you did not, and now we are here. Perhaps if you had listened, we would also be here. There is no counting the rabbits you did not catch.”

“He came more and more often,” said Grandmother, as the tea kettle began to wail.  “He wanted to talk more and more. It was not so strange, perhaps. But I was tired of listening to him, because he told all the same stories of people being unkind. It was exhausting to listen to. And he would do things around the house—little things, things I do not mind doing or do not want a stranger doing—and then would be angry when I asked him not to.”

“That’s odd,” said Turtle, hugging her knees. Chores were something you did, but getting mad because you didn’t have to do them was completely incomprehensible behavior.

Her grandmother shook her head and ran a hand through her iron gray hair. “He would act hurt. He said he didn’t want to be paid, that he was doing it because I was alone out here, and hadn’t he chopped my wood? And asked for nothing in return? It was all very tiring. It was easier to just let him patch the wall or hoe the vegetables than to listen to him complain about it.”

Turtle accepted her cup of tea and chalked this up to one more example of grown-ups being strange.

Her grandmother shrugged. “It is a long story, and it doesn’t reflect too well on me. I should have told him not to come here then. My friend here told me as much. But I felt sorry for him. And some of the things were so odd, it was hard to know how to react—he would get angry over such odd things—do you remember when you brought me those scones last week, dear?”

“They were cookies,” said Turtle.

“—and they were lovely,” said Grandmother, who was an accomplished liar about the important things. She investigated the blue bottle again, found it nearly empty, and grumbled. The wolf huffed a laugh.

“Well, never mind all that. It was too much. He had been here three days running, and the cucumbers needed pickling and I did not want him in the house again dredging up all those tales of past hurts. I told him to go away, that I was busy and needed time to myself to work. There is something very satisfying about pickling, isn’t there? You get the neat little rows of jars and wax seals and the house smells like dill and vinegar, and I know it’s not supposed to be a nice smell, but I rather like it.”

Turtle nodded vigorously. She loved pickles. Pickles were one of the great unrelenting good things in life, and the highest state that a cucumber, which was otherwise a rather wet and insipid vegetable, could aspire to.

“And he…well, he said a lot of things. Not nice things. I don’t know what he was expecting, but I wouldn’t take that kind of talk from your grandfather, so damned if I was taking it from some crazy woodsman who hung around the place like a puppy waiting for a kick. “ She gave an awkward little laugh into her tea. “I am old enough that I should have known better. If I had driven him off early on—well, maybe it wouldn’t have come to this. But I felt sorry for him. Stupid of me, but there you are.”

“Pity is a poor kin to mercy,” said the wolf.

“And what do wolves know of either?” snapped Grandmother, nudging the wolf with her foot.

“Of pity, very little,” said the wolf agreeably. “But of mercy we know much, particularly when it comes with teeth. That is what we are doing here tonight, is it not?”

Grandmother sighed. “I suppose.”

“What happens tonight?” asked Turtle, leaning forward on the stool.

Grandmother gazed into her tea.

“Tonight,” said the wolf, “I believe the woodsman is going to come to kill her. And we will kill him first, or not, as may be.”

 

——–

Yes, yes, there will be more. This is just first…err…chunk. There will be a part two at some point, and yes, it’s mostly written, don’t worry. But as I currently have no place to put short stories except to toss ’em up here, enjoy!

More Excerpts from the Regency Novel That Seriously, No, I Will Never Write, I’m Not Kidding

The ball was that greatest of social triumphs, a sad crush. Bodies packed the ballroom as tightly as salted herring in a barrel, leaving little room for air. Reputations were made, compromised, destroyed and on at least one occasion, became inexplicably intertwined with a silver salt cellar shaped like a whimsical goat.

Viscount Blackfarthing was thinking seriously about fresh air and had just attempted to maneuver between a dowager in a purple turban and a knot of macaronis, their high starched shirt points sadly wilted in the heat, when he saw his hostess bearing down on him.

The widowed Lady Rothingham was a slender blonde woman with the haggard remains of beauty. It was generally agreed that the responsibility for launching four daughters and one stepdaughter creditably into society would have faded greater beauties than hers, particularly when none of them had more than a modest dowry and the family name had suffered a severe, if murky blow on account of Lord Rothingham’s first wife, who had been poor or mad or common or possibly even foreign.

Lady Rothingham had borne up well under adversity, however, and her parties were very well attended. She had a regrettable tendency to begin sentences with “If my poor dear Lord Rothingham were here, I am certain he would say…”* but her manners were otherwise very nice and her cook had an undoubted way with a canape.

“My dear Blackfarthing!” cried Lady Rothingham.

Seeing that escape was impossible, the Viscount abandoned the notion with good grace. “Lady Rothingham!” He bowed over her hand. “Truly a triumph. You must be very pleased.”

She fluttered her fan at him. “Oh, well, I fancy it is not a completely despicable evening’s entertainment. But come, sir, have you made the acquaintance of my dear little Augusta? I most earnestly wish that you might!”

Blackfarthing could no more keep track of Rothingham’s numerous offspring than he could keep track of his own quizzing glass, and murmured something noncommittal. Was Augusta the older one with the straight dark hair, or the latest one out of the schoolroom, who would undoubtedly be a beauty once she had overcome her regrettable tendency towards spots?

Following the track cut for him by Lady Rothingham’s fan, he soon realized that it was neither.

“August, my darling!” His hostess descended on a dark-skinned young woman wearing a dress of striped green crepe. “I have brought Viscount Blackfarthing for you to meet. Viscount, my dear little Augusta. Poor Lord Rothingham’s first, you know, and a dear support to me in my affliction.” She held her fan to her breast and gazed heavenward, presumably toward her late husband.

The stepdaughter. Ah. Yes. “Your servant, Miss Rothingham,” said Blackfarthing, bowing over her hand.

However much of a support she might be in affliction, dear little Augusta could not be said to be little in any sense except the vertical. The top of her head did not reach Blackfarthing’s collarbone, and Blackfarthing was by no means the tallest of men. Possibly to make up for her deficiency of height, fate had heaped upon the unfortunate Augusta a generosity of hip and bosom. Her figure would have been impressively Amazonian if it had been bestowed on a taller frame, but no amount of corseting could disguise an extremely short waist. Her hair was fashionably dark, but was set against skin so dark as to be almost swarthy and a positively grim expression.

Combined with an over-generous lower lip, Miss Augusta’s countenance put Blackfarthing suddenly in mind of a brindle bulldog of his acquaintance. This resemblance was not in any way lessened when he straightened up and saw a glint in her eye as if she was wondering whether it would be worth the trouble to go about tearing his throat out.

“I know you young people will have so much to talk about,” gushed Lady Rothingham, her desperation only barely showing. “I believe you are acquainted with Augusta’s cousin Hubert!”

Having bestowed this dubious gem, their hostess flipped her fan, bid Augusta to be a good girl, and swept into the crowd.

“I detest my cousin Hubert,” said Augusta, by way of conversational opening.

“It is fortunate, then, that I have only the vaguest notion who he might be,” said the Viscount pleasantly. “I am sure he is exceptionally detestable! Tell me, what is this pattern card of horror’s last name?”

Augusta gave a crack of laughter that Blackfarthing suspected was both genuine and involuntary and put her hand over her mouth. “Oh dear. Stepmama tries so hard, you understand. His name is Hubert Stacklepole. He treats his horses very badly and fancies himself a Corinthian.”

“Then I am well warned, and will be certain to cut him dead upon our next meeting,” said Blackfarthing. And then, because he knew his duty to his hostess, “Come, will you be so kind as to stand up with me for the next dance?”

She sighed. “Stepmama has only cornered you to do this because she is positively Byzantine in her notions and does not feel that my younger sisters may dance with propriety if I do not.”

Blackfarthing knew perfectly well that she was correct, but he was a gentleman, and would have stood up with a ninety-year-old dowager or an actual bulldog, had his hostess required it of him. He would also have procured a sword and fallen on it before saying any such thing to a lady’s face.

“I will step on your feet,” Augusta warned.

“I am persuaded that you will do no such thing.”

“I will soon convince you otherwise.”

“I am wearing very excellent boots.” He lead her onto the dancing floor, and such was the address of the Viscount Blackfarthing that despite stepping on his boots several times, when the dance had finished, several other gentlemen, more chivalrous than eligible, approached the eldest Miss Rothingham and solicited her favor in standing up with them.

She shot him a look that mingled both reproach and reluctant gratitude and went off with the most stately of them, a retired general pinned with so many medals as to resemble a jeweler’s case. The Viscount slipped out to find some fresh air, with a pleasant sense of having done his duty in the face of daunting odds. It was a pity that she had chosen green crepe, which turned her olive skin so unfortunately sallow. She had not been such a bad dancer. He would almost suspect her of having stepped on his feet deliberately.

He passed Deptford on his way to the gardens. “Blackfarthing!” his friend cried, slapping a hand against the elegant wallpaper of the hallway. “Dear me, where have you been hiding? Did you hear about Ellerby and the silver salt-shaker shaped like a whimsical goat?”

“I must have some air,” said the Viscount.  “I cannot possibly do justice to an ancedote of this magnitude without some air!”

“Oh, very well. Tell me, have you seen my beautiful Corinna?” Deptford had, for the last few months, been nursing a passion for a flirtatious young woman endowed with financial charms far in excess of her physical ones.

“Dancing with the Earl of Foxmoor,” said Blackfarthing heartlessly. Deptford clasped a hand to his brow and let out a wrenching moan, like a man in love or a water ox in the last throes of consumption.

“That poppinjay! He is not worthy to kiss her feet!”

“How fortunate that he does not seem particularly interested in her feet, then,” murmured Blackfarthing, and stepped aside as Deptford hurtled down the hallway in the direction of the ball room.

*  *  *

It was some hours, several country dances, and one daring waltz later. At least one beauty had been compromised to the point of requiring immediate engagement, another had fled weeping from the ballroom, a duel of honor had been scheduled for the following dawn between two fools who should have known better, and Lady Rothingham had sunk into a chair in an ecstasy of hostessly gratification.

Blackfarthing had busied himself ferrying ratafia to wilting young beauties and flirtation to more elderly ones. He was thinking of calling for his carriage, but he had not seen Deptford again, and suspected that his lovelorn friend might require rescue, either from the depths of despair or perhaps from some even more unimaginable incident involving a silver salt-shaker shaped like a whimsical goat.

He passed through several large galleries—Rothingham House, however many economies had been forced upon it by so many unmarried daughters, was still an imposing edifice—in search of a garden that did not have an illicit tryst going on under every rose bush. He would have settled for a balcony, or even an empty hallway with fewer mirrors.  Even his modest shirt points were beginning to resemble an unwatered plant at high noon, and the sight of his own reflection depressed him.

A tight knot of ladies barely glanced up as he passed, deep in the latest scandalbroth. “You heard about poor Lady Milverly, of course?” said one, in tones of satisfied horror. “I was never more shocked in my life!”

“Lost her youngest to typhus, did she?” said another. “My heart positively breaks for her. It is not be thought, dear Eleanor, not being a mother yourself, that you could understand the depth of remorse, the maternal anguish one must feel at the thought of one’s own child—”

“Yes, yes, very sad,” hissed Eleanor. “But it wasn’t typhus!”

“Pneumonia?” asked a third.

“No!” Eleanor gave a delighted shiver. “I heard that it was urchin-plague!”

“No!”

“Most certainly, yes! He tore the nursemaid up something awful. I shouldn’t think she’ll recover…”

“But how was any child of Milverly’s ever exposed?”

“Well, I heard…”

Blackfarthing passed out of earshot before the mystery could be unraveled. There was another corridor before him—blast, where were the gardens? What did they expect to do if the house ever burned down, wander around until the roof fell in on someone’s head?

The lighting was dimmer here, with only a few candles burning. Clearly Lady Rothingham did not feel that her duties as a hostess extended to an extravagance of candles in back hallways. The shadows cast by a japanned cabinet could have concealed an entire pack of urchins.

Blackfarthing’s imagination did not extend beyond an appreciation of the occasional Gothic novel, and he was unable to concoct any likely scenario wherein such creatures could have invaded the house. To be sure, Rotherham’s only son was—seven? eight? still within the range of such a childhood ailment, at any rate—but he was certainly not allowed out of the school room without an armed escort as a result. He passed the shadows of the cabinet without a qualm.

What did cause him a pang was the voice that reached him down the hallway, and the feminine laughter that rose up in its wake—for the voice most certainly belonged to Deptford, and he would have laid odds that the laugh belonged to the well-endowed Corinna—and they were coming down the hallway toward him.

Blackfarthing was a gentleman, as has been remarked before, and would have felt it his duty to jump in front of a runaway carriage before contributing to anything that might compromise a well-bred young female. Deptford and Corinna were far from the main party and quite possibly alone together. If he was seen to bear witness to this, Corinna would be ruined. Deptford would be forced to marry her immediately. Deptford might desire this consequence, but—although Blackfarthing would have sooner jumped in front of that hypothetical carriage than allow a hint of it to pass his lips—Deptford deserved better. Corinna had not the slightest notion of economy and would run through the remains of Deptford’s fortune with neither comprehension nor gratitude and Deptford’s impoverished estates in Yorkshire, far from being improved by Corinna’s dowry, would bear the burden.

Therefore Corinna must not be compromised. Therefore Blackfarthing must wrench open the nearest door and fling himself through it. The sound of the door shutting might instill a sense of caution in the young lovers, and at any rate, Blackfarthing himself would not have a hand in bringing his friend to ruin.

This plan was no sooner concieved of than acted upon. The Viscount plunged into the unlit library beyond, shut the door hastily behind him and set his back against it.

His sigh of relief died on his lips.

Standing in a swath of moonlight, with an expression more bulldog-like than ever, was the eldest Miss Rothingham. She had traded in her ill-chosen dress of green crepe for tightly wrapped black, and was frozen in the act of pulling a hood down over her dark curls.

His first irrational thought was that he had somehow startled her in her underclothes and that she was still in mourning for her father, for surely these were widow’s weeds she must be wearing.

He dismissed this immediately, as he was fairly sure that even the most sincere mourning did not require black underthings. What would be the point of wearing black in such a fashion, where Society could not comment approvingly on it? And furthermore, he was actually looking at Augusta’s lower limbs—the heart quailed! Every thought and feeling must be offended! And furthermore she was not as squat as the green dress had made her look!—and the black cloth was doing its very best to flatten a bosom that was not at all conducive to being flattened, and Blackfarthing was left with one single inescapable conclusion.

“Great Scott!” he cried, not caring who heard him. “You’re a ninja!”

 

*The late Lord Rothingham would have been quite surprised to find how many of his posthumous opinions agreed with those of his wife, a happy circumstance that had not persisted at any point in life.

 

(Blame you all. Hate. Promise nothing. Etc.)

Damnit.

It was a beautiful day in London. The sun was shining through the haze, a brief rain had lent a freshness to the air, and the Thames had not yet acquired the epic stench of summer. Pigeons circled overhead, and the black-clad ninja clans fought their endless wars across the roofs of the city. The Viscount Blackfarthing drove his curricle through the streets of London and felt that all was right with the world.

He was an understated man, not sporting the starched collar points or padded shoulders of the dandy, but most of Society were willing to agree that his quiet elegance was very much the thing for a man of his respectable but not immodest fortune. Hostesses liked him for his willingness to stand up with even the most tongue-tied chit, without going so far over the line as to actually flirt, and his card was accepted in all the best drawing rooms of the city. His clothing was of fine, if not extravagant cut, he spent no more than twenty minutes tying his cravat—much to his valet’s despair—and he was forever losing his quizzing glass.

He had stopped to take up his friend Deptford, who had been strolling near the park, and was skirting the edges of a traffic jam when a stray shuriken slammed into the seat between them.

Deptford, who hailed from Yorkshire, jumped a bit. Blackfarthing merely pulled up the horses a little and waited until a tabi-footed figure dropped from a nearby awning onto the back of the curricle. The ninja plucked the shuriken from seat, murmured something apologetic-sounding in his own language, and was gone across the top of a nearby carriage.

“Well, really,” said Deptford, clutching his hat. “That ninja had blue eyes. And freckles.”

“One of the Irish clans,” said Blackfarthing. He watched as the ninja, agile as a squirrel, bounded up the side of a nearby shop and onto the roofs, where several other black-clad figures waited. “They went there first—must be third or fourth generation by now. They say Dublin’s completely overrun.”

“My father was over there a few years back—one of Mother’s endless Lady’s Aid projects. Said the corned beef and sashimi was interesting, but they did things to an honest potato that no Englishman could countenance.” Deptford started to relax his grip on his hat, and then gripped it tighter as Blackfarthing feathered a corner with reckless skill. Any money he failed to spend on his wardrobe, Blackfarthing was more than willing to lavish on his horses, and the chestnuts between the posts of the curricle were regular fire-eaters.

The Viscount grinned, swinging wide around a cart in a manner designed to give his groom apoplexy. “It’s supposed to be good luck if they nest on your roof.”

“Pretty sure that’s storks, old chap,” said Deptford, relaxing as they approached Hyde Park and Blackfarthing was forced to a more decorous pace.

“No, it’s ninjas. My sister Eugenia—you remember Eugenia—went up to her attic looking for something and what should she find but those little woven mats everywhere and a whole pack of them settled in under the eaves?”

“Dear me!” Deptford gazed across the park at a pair of giggling young women. “Barely out of the schoolroom, by the look of them…sorry, what was that, Blackfarthing?”

The Viscount cast a tolerant look over his friend. “Ninjas in the attic. M’brother-in-law wanted to get someone in to clear it out, but Eugenia wouldn’t hear of it. Said they’d tidied up the place like you wouldn’t believe, and anyone who could make a cup of tea like that was welcome to stay as long they liked.”

“Your sister’s a great gun,” said Deptford, “but if she wasn’t your sister, I’d say she was dicked in the knob.”

“Good thing she’s my sister, then,” said Blackfarthing dryly, although privately he thought Deptford was probably correct. “Still, if you’ve got ninjas, at least you know you don’t have urchins.”

“Urchins! Gad!” Deptford threw up his hands. “Did you hear about Hallingworth?”

“Rusticating, isn’t he? Heard he went down to the country for a bit.”

“Yes, yes.” Deptford tipped his hat to a pretty young thing as they passed, and tried not to flinch under the basilisk-glare of her escort. “Badly dipped. But he was leaving some hell or other and like a fool wouldn’t call for a chair, and what should happen but he was pulled into an alleyway and set on by an urchin-pack?”

“Dear me!”

“Tore up his knees something fierce,” Deptford said earnestly. “Bitemarks all over his boot leather. Hallingworth swears that if hadn’t been wearing his riding boots, the little devils would have hamstrung him on the spot.”

 

(I blame all of you. No, I have no idea where I’d go with this, but at least I can stop thinking about it now.)

Excerpt From The Regency Novel I Will Never Write

“Do you know why I am going to kill you?”

The Prince Regent was foxed. He knew he was foxed. He was pretty sure that someone had just threatened him, but here was the Duke of Foxmoor on his right, and Warthington on his left, and there was the young man with the gun in front of him…oh. Hmm.

He should have stuck to port. He wouldn’t have been nearly so badly off with port. But that odious little Marquis from…where was he from? Somewhere out in the unfashionable end of Yorkshire…had brought in a bottle of some vile Greek concoction called “oozey” or “ohzey” or something, and now the world was spinning gently, and also there was a young fellow pointing a gun at him.

“Eh?” said the Regent.

“I say,” said Foxmoor, “that’s quite a neckcloth you’ve got, lad. Oriental, is it?”

“You’re foxed. It’s a Mathematical,” said Warthington. “Never could tie them, myself.”

It was a very good neckcloth. It hung in immaculately crisp folds, despite the bit where its owner had climbed in through a second story window, crouched on top of a mother-of-pearl inlaid armoire for two hours, and then leapt to the ground and brandished a pistol at the Prince Regent.

“Do you know why I am going to kill you?” demanded the young man again, his hand shaking slightly, which imparted an alarming wobble to the end of the gun.

“Says he’s going to kill you, Prinny,” said the Duke of Foxmoor helpfully.

“Ah, you’re foxed,” said Warthington. “Why would anybody want to kill Prinny?”

There was a brief, awkward silence. Even drunk, the Prince Regent could think of at least a half-dozen reasons, and it was clear from his expression that Foxmoor could think of a couple more. Guards, thought the Regent gloomily, why were there no guards? Always around when you wanted a moment of privacy, and never when somebody was trying to kill you. Also, he had an itch up under his corset, where there was no possibility of scratching it. What an awful evening.

“Do you know who my father is?” asked the young man.

“It isn’t me, is it?” asked the Regent anxiously. The young fellow looked to be about seventeen, and Lord knows, seventeen years ago he’d had a lot more energy for chasing petticoats than he did now. “Because I tried my best to provide for all my by-blows, I’m sure I did, but some of the chambermaids…” He stopped. The young man had turned an alarming shade of red, apparently from rage.

“Ah, chambermaids,” said Foxmoor nostalgically. Seventeen years ago, he’d had a lot more energy too. “Parlor maids, too.”

“Milkmaids…” said Warthington.

Foxmoor peered around the tightly corseted bulk of the Prince Regent. “Milkmaids?”

“There was one on m’father’s estate,” said Warthington, with a vague, sappy expression. “Molly her name was. She had the most wonderful—”

“I say, Warthington, there’s a child present!”

“Giggle,” said Warthington stiffly.”She had a perfectly marvelous giggle.”

“I am not a child!” snarled the young man with the gun. “And I am certainly no child of yours, you revolting hulk!”

The Prince Regent lifted a eyebrow. He knew he’d put on a few pounds, certainly, although the corset and the ruffs did hide a multitude of sins, but he was still the nominal ruler of England, and no amount of artillery gave anyone the right to speak to him like that.

“Giggle?” asked Foxmoor, who was clearly lagging behind the conversation a ways. “Never thought the giggle was the most attractive part of a female, old fellow.”

“You hadn’t heard Molly’s, then.”

“Enough about milkmaids!” the young man practically screamed. “I am the son of Brummell!”

Three sets of eyes riveted on him immediately.

“Brummell?” said the Regent.

“Beau Brummell?” said Foxmoor.

“The Beau Brummell?” said Warthington.

“The very same!” snarled the young man. “Because of you, he was forced to flee to the Continent! Because of you, he is living nearly penniless, unable to afford new waistcoats! Do you know what a blow that is to a man like him?”

“Shocking!” murmured Foxmoor.

“Indeed!” Their assailant forgot himself so far as to wave the pistol for emphasis. “Last year’s fashions! He dare not show his face!”

“Not that,” said Foxmoor. “Lots of people completely done up. It happens. It’s just…Brummell? Really?”

“Never thought he was one for the petticoat line,” mused the Prince Regent.

“Not to say he was one for the lads, either,” said Warthington. And when both Prinny and Foxmoor stared at him, “What? He wasn’t.”

“No,” Prinny admitted, “he wasn’t. Said to me once that the whole thing was too much like riding to hounds—lot of exertion and bother and trouble keeping your boots clean.”

“Always had very clean boots, that fellow,” Foxmoor allowed. They looked back to the gunman.

“He was my father!” the young man said angrily. “My mother said so!”

The three of them studied him with interest. He turned red again.

“Well, he’s got Brummell’s way with a neckcloth…” Warthington allowed.

“Doesn’t look much like him, though,” the Prince Regent said. He squinted, trying to bring the youth into better focus. “Mm. And are those canary inexpressibles with a biscuit coat?”

“Beau wouldn’t have dreamed of wearing canary,” Foxmoor said. “Would have had the most shocking set-down for anyone who did. Recall I once wore the most elegant patterned green waistcoat, and the things he said to me! ‘Foxmoor,’ he said ‘are you hunting ducks?’ ‘No,’ I said, and he said—”

“Just impossible to imagine Brummell doing anything you couldn’t get dressed up for,” mused Warthington.

“–he said, ‘Why are you wearing that duck blind around your waist, then?'” Foxmoor concluded triumphantly.”I took it home and had m’valet burn it, of course. Still regret it.” He sighed. “Not that it’d fit me now anyway…”

“I am!” cried the young man passionately. “I am!”

“Do you have any proof?” asked the Regent kindly. “Not that I’m accusing your sainted mother of lying, but we knew Brummell, you see, and if you had something…a signet ring, perhaps…a love letter…something?”

“Can’t imagine the Beau writing love letters,” said Foxmoor. “Unless it was to his valet.” Warthington snickered.

The young man fell back a step and lowered the gun. “I—I have to go. But I’ll be back! You’ll see!” He turned and dashed toward the wall, launched himself off a wingback chair to the top of the armoire, and was out the window before anyone could move to stop him (although it must be said that none of them tried, and in fact Warthington was only standing upright by leaning heavily on the Regent’s arm.)

“Well,” said Prinny. He supposed he should send for the guards to try to arrest the boy, but it seemed like a lot of effort. All he wanted was for his valet to unlace his corset and then he could have a good scratch.

“Seemed a likely lad,” said Warthington. “Wonder who his father was?”

“Doubt it was Brummell.”

“Mmmm.”

————

This is probably of no interest to anyone, but I’ve been reading too much Heyer lately, and I attempt to convince my buddy Deb that her next book should involve the illegitimate son of Beau Brummell. When she pointed out that he was apparently completely uninterested in either sex, the following scene sort of spilled out. Odds are good I will never write a Regency, as much as the notion amuses me, but you never know, although I would rapidly get bored and have ninjas abduct the heroine, and that would be awkward and probably not historically accurate.

The Wombat Has Left The Building

I had vague thoughts of doing some kind of useful wrap post here—maybe talk about how far I’ve come since Digger started, although honestly, I mostly find myself thinking of the difference in the view from my desk, between that tiny little rat-hole apartment in St. Paul, with my back wedged against a dying radiator and a view of the basement through a hole in the floor, to this spacious room half a continent away with the sun streaming through the window.

I am a little sad, but not as crushingly as I expected. Digger has been over in my head for awhile now, and all the various voices had quieted down awhile ago. They’d offer dialog if I poked them, but I was no longer taking dictation in the shower.  So it’s a good time to end.

Last night Kevin and I had cheap sushi and cheesecake and gin, and I didn’t wake up with any deep black gulf of despair in my head screaming “OH GOD, WHAT DO I DO WITH MY LIFE NOW?!” And then a truck pulled up with my mountain of mulch being delivered. And now I figure that probably the best way to celebrate the end of something like Digger is to move dirt around.

And in answer to all the readers who said “But–what happened to THIS character?!” the answer is that they went on and lived their lives as they saw fit, and if they have not since died, they are living there still.

Nearly Ended

My buddy Mur Lafferty and I have a ritual. Every few months or so, one of us calls the other and says gloomily “I finished the book.”

The other one says “Oh, no, I’m so sorry,” and offers to bring cake, gin, or anything else that will soften the blow.

Kevin used to think this was weird. After a few years of living with me, and of seeing Mur do the exact same thing, he may still think it’s weird, but he has adapted to the point where when I announce “So I finished the book,” he takes off from work early so that he can pick up a German Chocolate Cake on the way home. (On one epic occasion, the store was out of German Chocolate Cake, so he baked me one, thus cementing his  position forever in the Boyfriend Hall of Fame.)

Thing is…when the book is done, it is DONE. All the things you thought you’d work in somewhere and didn’t? Not gonna happen now. The book is over. The characters may be going on about their lives, but they are no longer telling you about it. (If they are, then you A) need to write a sequel, or B) need to learn to let go. It is up to you which it is, although I’ll offer the caveat that far more people need to learn to let go than need to write sequels, particularly if your current book is already in excess of six hundred pages.) The book is over. It is as good as it is going to get. Editing can make it tighter, cleaner, crisper, clearer, but it will not carry the book to dizzying new heights.

Or, as my buddy Deb says upon finishing a novel, “Well, ruined another one.” Deb, aka Sabrina Jeffries, hits the bestseller list every time and gets advances with quite an astonishing number of zeros for her “ruined” books, but apparently this does not change the gloom upon finishing one.

I finished the script for Digger today.

I knew how it ended for quite a while, I even knew more-or-less what the final bits of dialogue would look like, I just hadn’t written them down. But now I actually need them, as I wrap the story in the next few pages, so I had to write them down.

The script for Digger is one endless Word doc of minimal punctuation and no dialog tags. (I know who’s talking, and that’s the important bit!) There are fifteen or twenty pages worth of dialog that didn’t actually get into the comic—snippets I wrote long ago and thought would go somewhere, and then it didn’t go like that, or I never got around to it. And today I hit “SAVE” and that’s the end of it–this is as good as it gets, this is the end, there ain’t no more.

And when you’ve been working on something for SO LONG, you are The Person That Works On This Thing, and then when you are no longer doing that, what are you? Finishing a long-term project always results in a kind of feeling of creative unemployment for me. I wander around going “But what do I do with my life now?” (Fortunately something generally fills that gap within hours…)

I don’t feel quite the crushing melancholy of finishing some other stuff—the end of Ninjabreath’s script had me curled on the sofa wondering if crab rangoon and the love of a good man was actually sufficient reason to continue living—but I did feel a definite pang. (The Dragonbreath books have gotten better, because they are both extensively edited and then there’s art and then there’s art edits, so that the “end” is now a kind of stuttering juddering thing, and as soon as I finish one I need to be starting the next, so I don’t get quite so smacked down. The end of the series may require a long vacation, but I don’t know yet.)

There are still a couple more comics to draw. I don’t know how it’s going to work—if I draw the final comic and suddenly burst into tears and drive weeping to the grocery at 5 miles an hour for cake and crab rangoon (thank god for the Chinese restaurant next to Food Lion!) or if I will simply upload it as I have done twice a week for years on end and then the next Monday, when the comic suddenly Does Not Need To Be Drawn…I don’t know.

Fortunately the week after I will (probably) finish Digger, I’m driving to Florida with Kevin for a thingy that will involve Disneyworld for a day or two and perhaps alligators, and that should help immensely.

You’ve finished your webcomic! What are you going to do now? I’M GOING TO DISNEYWORLD!

Could be worse.

ETA: YOU SEE WHAT I MEAN? I finished the blog post, checked my e-mail, and there’s the note saying that the script for Campbreath is pretty much approved, pending a few minor twitches, and now I have to start on the art. Either I live a charmed life or there is no longer such a thing as down-time in my world, take your pick.

Tired.

It was an insanely productive week, but I kinda feel like I carved the productivity out of my belly with a knife. But lots and lots got done! This is important! The art edits are almost finished, and now I just have to finalize the cover, write another scene on Book 6, and get cracking on the art for the Platypus Files sample. (There is a vague spy element to this, which led to Kevin tossing out potential titles like “Platypi Are Forever” “Webfinger” and “Platypussy.” There is no chance in hell that they will ever let me title a book “Platypussy.” This makes me sad. I hold out a hope that I can get away with “Enter the Platypus” for the first book though, and I would write an entire plotline of dubious worth just to be able to call a book “The Manatee With The Golden Gun.”)

So, y’know. Hardly anything left to do! Could be wrapped up by Tuesday! I could take the rest of the week off and finally work my way through Abe’s Exoddus!

…yeah, that’s not gonna happen.

Breaking the Promise

So I found myself at the used bookstore this week–I had a few dregs of credit left from the last time I sold ’em books–and decided that I was in the mood for a thriller. They had both In the Woods and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I bought them both, I read them both, and now I am going to say a few words, which may count as spoilers, so if you’re still planning on reading these, now would be a good time to go water the begonias.

Still here?

Right.

Here’s the thing.  When you set out to write a crime novel or a mystery novel or whatever, you have made a covenant with the reader, and that covenant says “The crime will be solved by the end of the book.”

This is not the only genre that makes you a promise when you pick it up–if you’re writing a romance, then you promise that the hero and heroine will have fallen in love with the book, probably with each other. (You are occasionally allowed to have them fall in love with other people–Heyer’s Sprig Muslin does this very charmingly–but you usually have to introduce those other people early on and make them very sympathetic. Big age gap also helps.)  Write hard sci-fi and you will not make the alien fleet vanish because of voodoo or casting Fireball. Write historical fiction and you must make at least a token nod to researching said history and not have Alexander the Great conquer Hawaii, unless it’s alternate history, in which case, eh, Aloha, knock yourself out.

Heck, it’s not just promising to stick somewhat to your genre–if you write a sequel, you promise to hold true to the first book and not ret-con stuff because you’ve decided that it would be much cooler if your hardened atheist worshipped Anubis so that you can have giant black dog ghosts roaming around in Book Two, Dan Simmons, I am looking in your direction.

And if you’re writing a whodunnit, you gotta tell us whodidit.

Now, if you wish to write a story of a terrible crime and not tell us who did it at the end, because your heroine has grown and matured and decided that she doesn’t need to know, she just prefers to put it all behind her and get on with her life and ditch this unhealthy obsession and perhaps build a better relationship with her sister/mother/therapist/estranged offspring, this is fine. Write it. Just shelve it in Literature, because that’s where it belongs.

If you are writing a classic mystery, you have in fact TWO promises to fulfill–first of all, you must solve the mystery, and second of all, you are required under the Poirot Act of 1934 to provide enough clues that the reader can potentially figure it out in advance and feel smart.

You don’t have to do this with a thriller, because of course sometimes you won’t actually meet your killer until you flush him out through smart detective work–Caleb Carr’s The Alienist does this just fine and I have no complaints, because there’s not really a way we COULD have met him, and at the end of the day, all is solved and there are tea and crumpets with leading industrialists.

But you have to solve the mystery. Failure to solve the mystery = Novel Fail.

In the Woods is beautifully written. It is lyrical. The heroine is genuinely likable and the tormented narrator, while he does occasionally get carried away on his own purple prose, is still sympathetic. I read it in line at the post office and on the exercise bike and in the tub with a glass of crappy red wine. I was hooked. And there were two linked mysteries, one current, one in the past, and they solved the current one and I cheered and I turned the page and the book was over.

And they never solved the first mystery. The one they started the book with, the one about what horrible thing happened to the detective’s two childhood friends and the shoes full of blood, the one that looked like the linchpin to the second mystery, except it wasn’t, and then the book was over and you never found out why there was a twelve year old with shoes that looked like someone had poured his friend’s blood into them and then made him put the shoes back on and what the hell, man?

It broke the promise. It violated the contract. You can wave things about ambiguity and the reader’s imagination around all you want, but those are pretty damn flimsy threads–as far as I’m concerned, if you write a murder mystery and detail the heck out’ve the murder and then go “And the murderer is….THE END” then your readers will come by and egg your house and furthermore you will deserve it.

Now, your murderer doesn’t have to get punished. You can have him walk away a free man, grinning at your hero, and the hero can grit his teeth and take it because it is often a dark and cynical and gritty world out there and this is fully within your authorly rights. But you still have to solve the mystery, or else you didn’t write a mystery, you committed literature and your books should not be shelved anywhere where an innocent bystander might happen upon them.

Ahem.

This made me sad, because it was really a wonderfully written book. But that’s not enough.

And then there was Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Writing was piss-poor, as far as I was concerned. I don’t think the author ever met a sentence fragment he didn’t like. However, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt–it might have been positively lyrical in Swedish, and the translation just didn’t do it justice. Parts of it bored me, parts of it were somewhat predictable, the heroine was sympathetic in that you felt sorry for her but you still didn’t want to get within a hundred yards of her, her computer skills were improbable and the hero slept with most of Sweden.

Nevertheless, it was ALSO about two crimes, one past, one present, (with a little vaguely gratuitous horrible rape-and-revenge thrown in as a minor plot point) and despite every complaint I have made, a writing level about on par with Da Vinci Code and my sorrow of the state of the American reading public that both of those were on the bestseller list for a thousand years, I will give it full and complete marks–it kept the promise.

We found out whodunnit (and what was in fact dun) and god help me, I may not read any of the rest of the books in the series–if I want to watch a horribly abused heroine make good, I’ll re-read De Lint’s early work, which will at least involve fewer tedious Swedish business transactions–but I cannot argue that it worked as a crime novel.

Whew. Okay. I feel a bit better now, except that now I am sad because I have read both thrillers and one wasn’t great and one was brilliant but failed and I want to read one that really works but I’m kinda burnt out on the lovechild of Batman and Hannibal Lector Detective Pendergast so if you have any other suggestions, I would love to hear them.