Miss Tansybaum’s Circus of the Moderately Peculiar

By all accounts, Miss Tansybaum’s Circus of the Moderately Peculiar should not have continued to operate. They were a very small operation as circuses went, they had no rides and their menagerie consisted of a single geriatric lion and a handful of obscure species, such as the Sudanese Crooning Lizards, who were obscure for a reason. Sure, Brendan the Mono-juggler could keep a single ball in the air for hours, but you got tired of watching after the first few minutes.

Lord Maggothaunch’s Carnival of the Un-Ordinary should have crushed them out of existence in the first year–indeed, that was among the lord’s stated goals–and its failure to do so was a source of intense frustration for him. Did he not have scantily clad women and a genuine, if sullen tiger? Did he not have a genuine freakshow, with real live freaks, including a pair of dubious Siamese twins and a two-headed calf in a jar?

Miss Tansybaum did not have a freakshow (at least not in the conventional sense, although the less charitable would argue that the entire operation qualified.) Instead she had Sister Rosemary’s Curious Convent.

The six nuns of the Curious Convent belonged to the Traveling Order of St. Barnaby, patron of sideshows, and they took their work seriously. While Sister Rosemary had retired from performing, claiming that sword swallowing was work for younger women, the Curious Convent still included the World’s Smallest Nun, the Fire-Eating Nun, the Strongnun, the Bearded Nun, and occasionally the Tattooed Nun as well. (Sister Mary Odelia’s tramp stamp was considered rather too racy for some venues, even if it DID portray the martyrdom of St. Sebastian.)

This was all very entertaining in its way, even if Sister Clara hated being billed as "The TRIUMPH of FAITH over FIRE!" and insisted on ending her performance with a short speech about how faith was wonderful for triumphing over adversity and despair, but was less useful against careless handling of flammable oil, and one should never attempt fire-eating at home. Nevertheless, the Curious Convent had difficulty competing with a two-headed calf in a jar and lived in dread of the day that Lord Maggothaunch procured a real live Feejee Mermaid.

No, the success of Miss Tansybaum’s Circus lay in three things.

First of all, she knew her audience.

She knew, for example, that there was no real point to a petting zoo when you mostly toured  rural communities with children who could pet a sheep any time they wanted and anyway knew too much about sheep to want to pet one in the first place, which cut down significantly on overhead.

And there were absolutely no clowns. The Circus of the Moderately Peculiar was a place you could go and be absolutely sure that you would not encounter a clown. They’d had a mime ventriloquist for awhile–at least, he said he was a ventriloquist, although since the dummy was a mime too, it was hard to tell–but he’d moved on to more avant-garde performance art and no one was sad to see him go.* Miss Tansybaum hated clowns and didn’t think someone should be subjected to a sudden clowning just because they wanted to come out to the circus for a day.

Lord Maggothaunch thought clowns were jolly and employed six, at least one of which was rumored to be a Bulgarian hit man attempting to flee from his past.

Secondly, Miss Tansybaum’s roasted peanuts were better.

Third, Miss Tansybaum’s fortune-teller, Mother Radish, could actually tell the future, and was wise enough to know when not to do so.

*Penelope and her Perilous Frog took his trailer.

I Really Ought To Be Working…

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.

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            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."

Ahhhh. An excellent Thanksgiving, lots of friends came over, a pleasant evening–I have introduced Kevin to the joys of God of War–and today was actually fairly productive.

I had an itch to work a little more on my old bread wizard story, and found a minor character that took me a little farther along–ergo:

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Knackering Molly was, to put it bluntly, insane.

She wasn’t dumb, though. There was a sharp, glittering intelligence inside the insanity that had learned early on that it was much easier to get away with being insane if you were also useful and had a little bit of money, and if people were just a little bit scared of you.

Molly was, like me, a very minor wizard, but her talent was even weirder. She could make dead horses walk.

This may not sound like a very good talent, but if you live in a large city with narrow streets, it’s actually quite handy. Horses are useful animals, but they die like everybody else, and when they’re dead, they’re about a thousand pounds of meat and bone that you have to dispose of before it starts to stink. The knackermen who run the big rendering yards at the edge of town will pay money for the dead horse, but they also charge money to come take it away, and they have to roll a cart in, and the cart takes up space and disrupts traffic and blocks people’s doorways. Then the people loading the horse onto the cart want to get paid, and sometimes they have to start butchering the horse right there if they can’t carry it out and it’s just a horrible business with blood and nastiness everywhere, and the neighbors get very put out.

Or you can go get Knackering Molly, and for sixpence, she’ll put her hand on the horse’s head, and it will stand up and walk to the knackers under its own power. It’s still pretty horrible to watch, but it’s a lot less trouble.

Anyway, you can spot Molly pretty easily. She rides around the city on Nag. Nag’s been dead longer than I’ve been alive, and he’s mostly bones now, so she pads him with rags and straw and old flour sacks. He looks like a magpie nest with hooves.

Plenty of people beat dead horses, but Molly is the only person I know who can ride one.

I sort of know what happens next, I just have to figure out how to get there from here…

Oh, what the heck…there’s a lot more to the story, but this is the longest coherent chunk (and no, this is as far as it goes, I don’t know what happens after this. The story never quite settled in my head as to where it wanted to go–it’s got elements of “Mr. Fox” and “Bluebeard” and a couple of the Robber-Bridegroom things in it, but it kept trying to twist around into a sorcerer’s apprentice thing, and I wasn’t sure where to take it after this.) Plus it’s the first appearance of the bird-golems, who later became the major part of my show, so it’s actually kinda timely….

A Chunk Of The One Bluebeard Story With The Hedgehog

(Backstory–our heroine, Rhea, has entered the woods at night on the way to her betrothed’s castle, and is lost, miserable, and mistrustful of the whole weird situation, as any sane person would be.)


            Now, it’s all very well to cry in your room for any number of reasons, including the fact that sometimes you simply need a good cry, damnit. There is often a kind of miserable pleasure to it, like picking at a scab that’s not quite ready to come off.

And since a lot of the reasons for crying occur largely in your head—which is not to say that they’re not real—it actually helps a bit, because after five or ten minutes sobbing into a pillow, the world may not be any better, but at least you don’t feel quite so much like crying, and the red hollow under your breastbone is emptied out, and the world can be faced with a little more resolution. (And a red nose and itchy eyes, of course, but you can’t have everything.)

The problem with crying in the woods, by the side of a white road that leads somewhere terrible, is that the reason for crying isn’t mostly inside your head. You have a perfectly legitimate and pressing reason for crying, and it will still be there in five minutes, except that your throat will be raw and your eyes will itch, and you will still be stuck in the woods halfway to somewhere terrible.

Rhea’s throat was raw and her eyes itched, and she realized that she didn’t have a handkerchief. Her face was wet with tears and all the other unfortunate fluids that show up when you’ve had a really good cry, and the lack of a handkerchief seemed like a whole new reason to cry again.

She put her forehead on her knees and made a low, animal sound of misery.

She was feeling so wretched that it took several minutes before she realized something was touching her leg.

Rhea looked up.

There was a hedgehog sitting next to her, with one small paw pressed against her thigh.

She made the awkward gulping noise of someone trying to stop crying because something completely unexpected has just occurred.

The hedgehog saw that it had her attention and held up something in its paws.

It was a leaf.

 She stared at the leaf. It was rather large and silvery, with a slight fuzziness to it.

The hedgehog bobbed its head and pushed the leaf towards her in an unmistakable gesture.

The smaller part of her brain had stopped crying and was saying No. No, no, no. This is crazy. This is not normal hedgehog behavior!

However, the larger part of her brain, the automatic part, that covered her mouth when she sneezed and said “Excuse me,” when she moved through a crowd, without ever thinking about it, felt that all such concerns were secondary, because she needed a handkerchief right now. Things were happening in her nose that needed to be stopped immediately.

She took the leaf and wiped her face, and blew her nose. It was a very soft, very absorbent leaf. The hedgehog obviously knew what it was doing.

“Thank you,” she said hoarsely.

The hedgehog nodded.

This is not normal.

It was quite an ordinary looking hedgehog. It was six or seven inches long, and prickly. Its face was small and pointed, with large dark eyes.

            “Are you really a hedgehog?” she asked, gulping a bit. “Are you a fairy or under a spell or something?”

            The hedgehog shook its head.

            “No, you’re not a fairy, or no, you’re not a hedgehog?”

            The anatomy of hedgehogs makes it nearly impossible for one to put its paws on its hips, but it managed a fair approximation.

            Rhea tried again. “Are you really a hedgehog?”

            It nodded.

            “You’re not a fairy, or enchanted?”

            It shook its head.

            “Um.” The little voice in her head yelling about normal hedgehog behavior was starting to get very loud. “You seem very smart for a hedgehog.”

            It shrugged.

            “I don’t suppose—and I realize this is completely insane—but you don’t talk, do you?”

            For having such a small face, the hedgehog could manage quite a large look of disgust. Rhea found that she was rather relieved. Children’s stories aside, there would have been something quite horrible about a talking hedgehog.

            She sighed, and rubbed a hand over her face. “I’m sorry. I’m…I have to go along the road. To the castle, you know.”

            The hedgehog frowned. It waved its front paws across each other and shook its head in a clear warning.

            “I know,” Rhea said. “I don’t want to go. I just don’t have any choice.” She could feel a sob lurking in her chest, and squelched it. It’s one thing to cry by yourself, and quite another to cry in front of a stranger, even if the stranger is only a hedgehog.

            The hedgehog dropped to all fours and trundled up to the white road, where it stopped. The moonlight caught in its prickles as it gazed up the length of the road.

            After a moment, it turned and came back. It sat up again, and held up its paws, like a child asking to be picked up.

            “You want me to carry you?”

            It nodded.

            “Err—you want to come with me? To the castle?”

            It nodded again.

            “Oh. Um. Are you sure?”

            It was starting to get impatient. A hedgehog hopping irritably on its hind legs is a tragic sight. Rhea reached down and lifted the animal cautiously in both hands.

            The prickles were indeed prickly, but not sharp enough to break the skin. The hedgehog wriggled a bit, settled its spines like a woman arranging its skirts, and nodded to her.

            “Are we ready to go, then? Um. Okay.”

            She stepped back onto the white road.

            It was still white, and it still glowed under the moon, and the cobbles were still as rounded as old skulls, and the leaves still washed like blood across the stones, but Rhea felt better. She was still going somewhere terrible, but she had a hedgehog, damnit.

            It wasn’t that having a hedgehog was necessarily going to do any good—she couldn’t think of any stories where a wicked wizards had been brought low by hedgehogs, and anyway, she couldn’t even swear that Crevan was a wicked wizard to begin with—but it is somehow easier to face things when someone else is there. Courage still does most of the heavy lifting, but Pride gets its shoulders in there, too, just to keep you from embarrassing yourself in front of the other person.

            Leaves crunched under her feet as she walked.

            After about twenty minutes, her arms started to get tired.

            “Do you suppose I could put you in a pocket?” she asked.

            The hedgehog considered this, then nodded. Rhea opened the pocket in her skirt and slipped the hedgehog into it. There was a prickly shifting against her leg, and then the hedgehog got itself straightened out and poked its nose over the top.

            They kept walking.

            The trees began to close in again. The drifted leaves grew thicker, throwing dark tendrils across the road, and occasionally blowing and skittering in the wind. The blown leaves moved like living things, but the noise was dry and dead.

It was like walking through a crowd of mummified mice that stood up and danced behind your back.

The trees were thick enough now that the white road was more of a deep blue and black road, with occasional white spots, the color of an enormous mottled bruise.

They kept walking.

Then the trees stopped. Rhea saw the moonlight in a blue-white wall in front of her, and stepped nervously out into it. To her eyes, which had gotten used to the dark under the trees, the open road blazed like noon.

There was a kind of cleared corridor around the road, the trees pushed back a good fifty feet on either side. Grass grew along the verge, and weeds spread broad leaves over the ground, or lifted seedheads clear. It was not well-tended, and yet the plants seemed to be avoiding the white stones.

Over the road was an arch of black wrought iron.

Sitting on top of the arch was a bird.

The hedgehog shifted in her apron pocket, and made a mistrustful snorting noise.

Rhea reached down and brushed the prickles of its head with her fingers. “I don’t like this either,” she whispered. It huffed a bit, but settled.

            The bird looked like a crow, or rather, it looked more like a crow than it looked like anything else. Its beak was serrated like a bread knife, and parts of its skin gleamed in the moonlight in a way that wasn’t quite normal for feathers.

            When Rhea and her passenger were almost to the archway, the bird opened its eyes.

            Rhea inhaled sharply. If she had not been being proud for the hedgehog, it might have been a yelp.

            The crow had two round stones for eyes, tied around the middle with cord. The sound of its eyelids sliding over the lumps of cord was a dry scrape, like the sound of the leaves blowing over the road.

            It turned its head, sharp and birdlike, and she saw that the strange gleam was from bare skin. The top of its head was bald and leathery, the color of old jerky, and there was pale stitching running from the edges that vanished under the feathers. The feathers themselves were grey and dull and leaked ragged bits of down.

            The whole bird looked dead, except for the fact it was moving.

            Then it spread its wings, and she gasped.

The wings were crow-like enough, where they beat the air, but down its neck, running the length of the  body, was a Y-shaped panel of bare flesh, held together with rough cord.

It took a moment to recognize the shape. Rhea had helped her mother gut chickens before, but the usual way was to go in through the bottom, so that you had a bird you could stuff later. But the other way to do it, if you didn’t care how you were going to cook it afterwards, was to cut it open from the neck on down.

            The bird had been dead. And somebody had cut it open, and put stone eyes in its head and sewn it back together and notched its beak and made it alive again.

            She had a feeling she knew who that had been.

            The bird-golem’s beak creaked open, like pinking shears, and a voice came out. From her pocket, the hedgehog hissed.

           

            Be…bold…”

 

breathed the thing that wasn’t quite a crow.

            That’s easy for it to say, said the voice inside her head sarcastically, possibly in hopes that she wouldn’t notice how badly her hands were shaking.

            “Do you belong to Crevan?” she asked it, and was quite surprised at how strong her voice sounded. There was a hoarseness down in its depths, but it did not tremble.

            The serrated beak creaked open.

           

            Be…bold…”

 

it said again.

            “You said that already,” she muttered. The bird-golem cocked its head, and then, very slowly, the eyelids slid down over the stone eyes again.

            She wondered if it could fly at all.

            “Be bold, be bold…” she said to herself. What kind of advice was that? Is advice from an animate thing made of cords and stones and dead crow to be trusted anyway?

The hedgehog shifted impatiently in her pocket. She squared her shoulders and walked through the arch.

            The back of her neck prickled, almost expecting the bird-golem to strike at her, but nothing happened.

            She was a dozen steps along, and she turned and looked back at the iron arch. The golem was hunched and dark and looked like nothing alive, as if the maker of the arch had included some irregular bit of decoration that hadn’t quite worked out.

            They kept walking.

 

The wind died. It seemed along this stretch that neither wind nor rain had troubled the road for some time, because white dust puffed up with every step, and hung drifting in the air. When Rhea glanced over her shoulder, her footsteps seemed to smoke behind her.

She could see something in the distance. The hedgehog, who had tucked down into her pocket and seemed to be resting, shifted again, and the pointed face peered over the pocket’s edge again.

It was another arch. There were two more dark lumps on it, huddled together at one end, as if for warmth.

Two sets of cord-wrapped stones opened and watched Rhea’s approach. The hedgehog huffed its annoyance from her pocket.

The one on the left flapped its wings. It had the Y-shaped cut down its belly, but most of its head still had feathers on it. The serrated beak creaked open.

 

“Be bold…be bold…”

 

            The second bird-golem had only one leg. The other ended in a stump wrapped with wire. The wire glittered in the moonlight, and made a thin metallic clink against the iron of the arch. The second bird opened its beak and breathed:

 

            “…but not too bold…”

 

            The hedgehog hissed.

            Rhea found that in addition to being terrified and upset, she was now also rather annoyed. This was stupid. Be bold, but not too bold? Too bold about what? Where was she supposed to be bold? Some specifics would have been nice.

            “That’s not very helpful,” she told them.

            The bird-golems folded up their wings and lapsed back into stony silence.

            She stalked under the arch and down the white road. When she kicked at the stones, the white dust roiled up nearly to her knees, and the hedgehog gave an indignant sneeze from her pocket.

            “Sorry,” she muttered. “But if you’re going to go to all the trouble of setting up dead birds on the road to deliver messages, they should at least say something useful.”

            The annoyance was helpful. It pushed back the fear, and made a clear space in her head where she could think. If she concentrated on the stupidity of re-animating a bird just so that it could deliver a message that didn’t make very much sense, she wasn’t thinking about what lay at the end of the white road.

            She was so determinedly not thinking about the end of the road, in fact, that it came as a shock when she looked up and there it was.

            The road swept up to a high black arch, and on the other side, it opened into a broad white courtyard. A fountain stood in the center, the water glittering so silver in the moonlight that it seemed like it should chime like coins when it fell into the basin. The house on the other side was a huge crouching darkness under the trees.

On the black iron arch, there were three birds. Two sat tightly together, their wings around each other.The third bird sat alone, on the other side of the arch, pointedly not looking at the other two.

Rhea felt her heart quailing at the sight of the dark house, but she shoved it back. She stomped up to the arch and glared at the golems.

“Well?”

The two on the left looked down at her. The third bird pointedly did not.

 

Be bold…be bold…

But not too bold…”

 

whispered the birds on the left, and bent their heads down against each other’s stitched breasts as if in some terrible sorrow.

            The third bird-golem had almost no feathers left, its body hard and waxy-looking in the moonlight. The wings looked like a net of wires with a few tattered primaries stuck in it.

            Without looking at her, its beak creaked open, and it said,

 

            “…or your heart’s blood shall run cold”

 

            “Well, that rhymed at least,” Rhea snapped, “but it still isn’t very useful advice!”

The hedgehog was shaking a tiny fist at the bird and snorting angrily, which fed her courage. She put her hands on her hips. “Is that the best you’ve got?”

The bird-golem’s head snapped around suddenly, and it rocked forward. Rhea jerked back, as the golem crawled over the arch, using its wire wings like claws for purchase. The hedgehog hissed, but the creature ignored it, hanging from the metal of the arch and thrusting its beak towards her face.

She was less than a foot from the bird-golem’s face. She could see a fine hairy haze, like a dust bunny, lying over the whole thing, made of old bits of down and dust and grit.

The beak opened. Its tongue was a small dry nub like a blackened nut.

 

“…this…is a murderer’s…house…”

 

whispered the dead bird.

Rhea stumbled backward. Her foot turned on one of the round stones, and she sat down, hard. In her pocket, the hedgehog squeaked in alarm.

The thing to do at this point, she knew, the sane and sensible thing, would be to get up and turn around and run down the white road until she was home.

She didn’t, for a couple of reasons.

The first one was that nothing had actually changed. Peasants still didn’t disobey nobles, and if she came back to her family with a demented story about sewn-up dead birds with stone eyes talking…well, they might believe her, but then again, they might not. And she would have failed to turn up at the appointed time, and Lord Crevan did not seem like a particularly forgiving man.

The second reason was that the whole situation was just wrong.

It didn’t make any sense.

Crevan had gone to all the trouble of setting up a half-dozen bird-golems guarding the entrance to his house, and given them a bit of rhyming doggerel to memorize, presumably to warn off intruders. Certainly they would have been quite effective against traveling salesmen. But he’d invited her here—ordered her, if they were being honest—and it made no sense to invite her here, just to warn her off with his creepy dead birds.

Either he was mad, or stupid, or this was some kind of test.

Rhea was quite sure he wasn’t stupid. He had handled her father much too efficiently for that.

He didn’t strike her as mad, either. Young Brad, the wheelwright’s son, had been a bit of a fool and walked through a fairy ring one night, and when the fairies threw him back a week later (Rhea suspected they’d found him as boring as everyone else did) he was as mad as the mist and moonlight. He spent most of his time dancing very slowly in the middle of the road, and was generally harmless. Occasionally he’d take it in his head to put his pants on the pig, much to the annoyance of both his mother and the pig.

Lord Crevan was not mad, as she understood it. Pigs probably need not fear trousers in his presence.

That left the possibility that he was testing her.

Perhaps he was trying to see if she was brave.

“On the other hand,” she said to the hedgehog, “this could be a test to see if I’m sensible, since the sensible thing to do is probably to go home.”

What was the worst that could happen? If she turned and fled, maybe he wouldn’t marry her. That wouldn’t be so bad.

If you were a murderer, would you really guard your home with birds saying “Hi, I’m a murderer!” though? It seemed a little unsubtle. But would anyone believe you?

You probably could say “I’m a murderer!” and get just as many houseguests. People wouldn’t believe you’d admit a thing like that. Rhea didn’t quite believe it herself.

She sighed, and ran a hand through her hair. Up on the arch, the bird golem had resumed its post, stone eyes gazing into the distance.

“Do you think I should go on?” she asked the hedgehog, who had climbed out of her pocket to sit on her knee.

The hedgehog nodded, then shook its head, then lifted its front paws in the air and let them drop.

I don’t know why I’m second-guessing Crevan’s sanity—I’m sitting here talking to a hedgehog mime.

“You don’t know? The answer’s complicated?” she guessed.

It nodded.

“Should I go to the house?”

It shifted from foot to foot, and looked over its shoulder at the house. Then it nodded, although not with much enthusiasm.

“Is there some reason I shouldn’t go back?” she tried.

The hedgehog nodded violently, and rippled its quills with a shudder.

“Something bad will happen if I go back.” (More nodding.)

“But it won’t happen if I keep going.” (A shrug.)

“Will something bad happen if I go forward?” (Another shrug.)

Rhea rubbed her forehead. She was getting a serious headache. “Is whatever will happen if I go back worse than whatever will happen if I go forward?” (A definite nod.)

You do realize you’re listening to a hedgehog, her brain said. Just thought I’d mention that.

“How do you know this?” she asked

It tapped its nose and spread its paws.

“Too complicated a question, sorry.” This was worse than when the girls tried to tell the future by throwing pinecones in the fire and watching how they fizzled and popped. You couldn’t get much more than “yes” or “no” out of the pinecones—and even that required some imagination—but the questions were at least frivolous ones like “Will I marry a rich man?” not “Am I about to be horribly murdered?”

“Am I about to be horribly murdered?”

The hedgehog shrugged, but then reached out and put a gentle paw on the back of her hand. It looked at her solemnly. Its eyes were dark and kind, and held hers for a long moment.

Its sympathy was oddly steadying. Rhea squared her shoulders and nodded. “Okay. I can handle this.” She paused. “Are you sure you’re a hedgehog?”

It threw its paws in the air and huffed in evident disgust, before returning to the safety of her pocket.

She stood up and took a step forward, then stopped as if she’d run into an iron bar. A thought had occurred to her, and not a pleasant one. She held the pocket open and looked down at the hedgehog.

“If I did go back—is there something—on the road behind me?”

The hedgehog nodded.

“Something bad.”

The hedgehog made a kind of grabbing, swooping gesture with both paws in front of its chest. Rhea couldn’t quite make out what it was meant to show—there are limits to the expressiveness of hedgehog feet, particularly when they are on their backs in somebody’s pocket—but when the hedgehog then rolled into a tight ball, she got the gist well enough.

“Ah.”

She let the pocket fall closed. She didn’t look over her shoulder, even though the skin between her shoulderblades was crawling. Looking over her shoulder could not possibly help matters.

She walked forward, under the arch. Overhead, the two bird-golems held each other tightly, and the third one stared off into the forest and clicked its dead claws against the iron.

Click…click…click…

She entered the courtyard of Lord Crevan’s house.

Further thoughts on fan fiction…

Yup, I’m still talking about it. And this time we’re talking about sex and the id and freaky stuff, so be warned! Be afraid!

My readership seems to be largely divided between “Oh, god, NO!” and “Come to the dark side, we have cookies!” on the fan fic front. (Reading, writing, doesn’t matter.) I find that funny, but also largely comprehensible. A month ago, I would have rejected fan fic with a wave of the hand–then I actually read some, and now I am…well, I feel somewhat different.

No, I don’t really know why.

And yes. If someone wrote Digger fan fic, I would go “Hmm.” And I’d like to think I wouldn’t read it, because that’s the healthy thing to do, but I might anyway, and presumably they’d find me turned to a pillar of salt at the keyboard later.

But I think now I wouldn’t freak out. No, not about Gearworld fan fic, either, although I really wouldn’t read it. See, what I fear most about Gearworld is somebody else laying claim to it and my having to leave–as long as Gearworld remains my sanctuary, other people loving it or connecting to it don’t bother me. The thought of it getting commandeered makes me psychotic, but homages don’t bother me–except that I wouldn’t read them, because it’s a shaky enough place in my own head that it would be too easy for somebody else to put their stamp on it. But I realize now, I wouldn’t mind. As long as it said “This is Ursula Vernon’s Gearworld, and she owns it”–well, people, mi sandbox su sandbox.

Frankly, I could understand people writing fan fic of Gearworld much more easily than I could a lot of other things. A lot of fan fic, as I’m starting to understand it, is about the stuff that gets in your head and under your skin. And shit, Gearworld gets in my head and under my skin–I can hardly blame other people if they felt the same way.

Pong fan fic, now–that’s just weird.

Okay, that was a digression. Back to…err…my main digression!

I went for a walk the other day. I do this frequently, particularly when writing (which I haven’t been doing since the shit hit the fan–although I was clipping along at a blinding pace right up to that–which is probably another essay for another day.) because for whatever reason, I think best when I’m walking. I can sit down at the keyboard and my fingers will simply not know what to say–but I get up and walk, and the feet apparently know. If I walk around the lake behind the house, a two mile stretch, I simply listen to the characters argue in my head, and that’s good.

So I was walking, and I started remembering when I did this as a kid. I’d wander around the backyard and just daydream for hours. Complicated stories and scenarios, largely inspired by whatever I was reading at the time. It was fantasy, as purely distilled as I imagine I will ever be capable of. I was maybe nine or ten. I actually wore a track in the grass from pacing and dreaming.

This sounds all very sweet and idyllic and creative, but brother, I can remember just the edges of some of those daydreams, and holy shit on a cracker, that was some fucked-up stuff. It was what Teresa Nielsen Hayden once called “all the magic stuff: Sex, power issues, identity issues, physical or emotional violence, revelation, transformation, transcendence, violent catharsis, and whatever else is a high-tension power line for that writer.”

There was definitely a lot of stuff that boiled down to sex. Not explicit sex, since I had only an abstract notion of what was physically involved there, but let’s not kid ourselves. Kids think about sex a great deal. It’s hard-wired in our species, and we’re a little bit scared of it, and of course it’s going to underlay our fantasies. But a lot of other stuff, in there too–power and identity and violence and torture and rape (and now we’re back to sex) and all kinds of weird shit, all wrapped up in what were my metaphors, which were…well, Star Trek and Pern and Swiss Family Robinson and Dragonlance and The Hobbit and Watership Down and all the other stuff that is dumped into the brains of young geeks.

Which made sense. Life was a clam, and those were the tools I had to shuck it with. Of course that was what my fantasies were made up of. But oh man…the things I did with those tools… my adult self cringes back involuntarily, but my nine-year-old self was fearless and went stomping through those black pits of the id with Anne McCaffrey under one arm and Trek novels under the other.

I think it was Stephen King, in Eyes of the Dragon, who said that children’s minds are like deep wells of clear water. And this is probably true on some levels, but oh, man, there are things down at the bottom of the well with lots of eyes and tentacles and squidgy slippery bits, and some of them have teeth as long as your arm.

And here’s the thing.

It is possible that I am weird. Okay, yes, I know, my art is very peculiar, but you may note that it’s not all that scary. The vast majority of my art takes place in a world that is rather oddly kind. If there are laws to my art, it’s that the smaller you are, the tougher you are, and the bigger and scarier you are, the more likely you are to be shy and civilized. (And then there’s Gearworld, which is getting back to this freaky monster stuff, and even I don’t go there lightly or often.) I don’t think anybody thinks I’m a raging pervert–even my delving into furry erotica resulted in some very mild cheesecake at absolute worst, and these days, I’m more like a freaky Beatrix Potter than anything really scary.*

It is possible that I am weird. Maybe I was a sick and demented child, to have these monsters in that well–but I doubt it highly. I’d bet that there are the same monsters in most wells–probably a little different in the number of limbs and teeth, but close relatives. If I’m unusual in any regard, I’ll bet, it’s that I can still remember the edges of some of these daydreams. Not well. There’s so few of them, a half-handful of images, and they’re stuck down like a wet coaster on a table, and I keep trying to pry up the edges and see if I can actually get a grip on them.

Thing is…I read some books, and I get an echo of all those old, dangerous day dreams. All that magic stuff.

And here’s the funny thing–either I love those books and keep them on my shelf forever and re-read them when I’m really depressed–

Or I dismiss them as absolute crap, a load of tripe, cheesy, contrived, usually degrading to women in the process, etc. And part ofthat’s probably because I was nine, and of course it was all dreadfully weird wish-fulfillment that was cheesy and contrived and, had it been written, would have been inconceivably puerile. Mary Sue doesn’t just hail from that country, she owns it. I was a pre-teen girl, and nobody wants to read anything that reads like it was written by a pre-teen girl.

But. (I have a point. I’m gettin’ there. Bear with me a little longer.)

I read fan fiction, and holy crap, I recognize some of those monsters there. I know that one, or at least his cousin. I’ve lived with that one. I’ve–okay, no, that one, you’re on your own. But that one over there? Man, that one and I are like this.  It’s a whole bloody genre–largely, yes, populated by teenage girls, which probably explains it–that has an infinitely higher percentage of…of that stuff…those monsters in the well hauled out thrashing into the light…than published stuff.

There was a really good essay about this– http://ellen-fremedon.livejournal.com/325780.html –coupla years back. She called it the ID vortex, and suggested it was because fan fiction, particularly the freaky and occasionally slashy stuff, has made an agreement with itself to suspend shame. It knows that there are monsters, and it knows that those monsters will be approached–and that a helluva lot of ’em are about sex, frankly, it’s the mommy monster at the bottom of the well, with fifty lazily blinking eyes and muck settling across its back–and out of this agreement, derived a vocabulary to talk about the monsters and rate them and develop a critical structure and a lot of other useful stuff. That the reason some of this is good is because the fandom has agreed that we can talk about it and not be horribly embarassed, within these constraints, and thus writers actually practice and get better at writing about the monsters. (On the other hand, still be desperately ashamed of your grammar. Yes.)

I cannot say that this is untrue. I am not well-versed enough in the genre to make any kind of call. I have gazed into the abyss, and it held up a plate of cookies, but I don’t live down there yet.

I do know that reading fan fiction, much like reading romance novels, is desperately shameful and I am badly embarassed by it because I know that I should not enjoy it. Internal censors scream “The person you are should not like this!”

Unfortunately, the person that I am does like some of it. Rather a lot. Even as I cringe a lot of times, sometimes I recognize old friends. I know those monsters! My inner nine-year-old, who once wore a track in the backyard daydreaming about some rather shocking things, understands some of these things much, much better than I do. I can only approach them obliquely–scare me too bad and I close the window and jump away from the keyboard as if burned…and then generally come back and read more. (If I were Lot’s wife, I’d probably have turned to salt in thirty-second increments over the course of a couple of hours.)

This is a very very strange thing to discover when you’re reading things that are generally about 50% likely to devolve into gay porn, believe me. (And has little to do with it, oddly enough–I did not, at nine, actually comprehend on any kind of level that homosexuality was something real people did. Like every other girl of my generation, I figured that out from Mercedes Lackey books, and at one point put down the book and went, “Um. Whoa.” while the universe carefully re-aligned itself around my newly expanded brain.) 

Maybe what the censors are really screaming is “The person you should be shouldn’t like this!” and in that case, they can get bent.

I don’t know.

I do know that I can’t speak too ill of it. I feel odd about that–what a weird set-up, so much bad writing, and yet…and yet…my inner nine-year-old keeps kicking meand going “Remember that? Remember?”

I don’t know.

It’s interesting to meet some of those monsters again. The waters get murky as we age, and we stop seeing them, except for the occasional flicker of a fin or the flash of an eye. It’s…interesting. And a little alarming. (Okay, very alarming.)

Why was I never meeting these monsters? Where have they been been? Why the hell should I find them, here of all places, sandwiched between–god, Lord of the Rings/Spongebob Squarepants crossovers?** Of all the places for a freakily familiar corner of the soul to be located, why there?

I suppose that’s just one for the ages.

*Yes, okay, the rocks. I am aware of the rocks.

**Yes. And yes. No, I didn’t read it. No, I won’t link to it. No. Stop asking.

Just watched the next episode of “Life of Mammals” which the Discovery Channel has been running on Wild Kingdom this week. It was about rodents, including my favorites, the naked mole rats, and of course, the noble capybara. (Gronk!) Although at one point, as a herd of capybara galloped into the water in slow motion, James shook his head and said “Man, this is like a capybara version of Baywatch” and was entirely correct–had one of the capybaras been carrying one of those bright orange float thingies, it would’ve been a perfect match. And possibly about the same IQ as the original cast.

Writers vs Wordsmiths and a coupla pages of random Ursula prose.

So t’other day, more or less on a whim, I picked “Eyes of the Dragon” by Stephen King off my shelf, and re-read it. (I can re-read books happily, which is a good thing, ‘cos the book budget would otherwise exceed my car payment.) I enjoyed it thoroughly, of course, but after I finished it, and while contemplating whether to try tackling “The Dark Tower” trilogy, or just to go re-read “The Talisman,” I started thinking about the difference between fantasy written by fantasy writers, and fantasy written by horror writers.
Viva la difference!