Not Dead!

Not dead! Had a wonderful time at Bubonicon—saving full report for when I get back from Worldcon this weekend, and can knock it all out at once.

I returned to 34 frogs in the pond. This is more frogs, by leaps and hops, than I have ever seen in the pond. I am stunned.  I don’t know if a crop of tadpoles all suddenly grew legs and climbed up on land at once or if the hot dry weather dried up a pond and they all found their way here, but…dude. Frogs. Frogs in extraordinary quantity. I find myself fretting—what will they eat? (Answer: Bugs, worms, each other.) They’re bronze frogs and Southern leopard frogs. The blacksnake has already come by for a meal.

I know it’ll all even itself out in time, and this is probably the boom and bust of a very young population cycle, but man, you walk to the compost heap and suddenly it’s all alarm calls and SPLASH SPLASH SPLOOSH! And when I look out my window, it is Frogtown.

There is also a nearly grown dragonfly nymph in the water barrel, which means no mosquito larvae and only a few enormous tadpoles. He is SOMETHING. I’m a little scared. There’s a stick so he can climb out, but dude.

And I had a facial yesterday, as my buddy Mur decided we were going to something girly before the Hugos, goddamnit. It was a helluva thing. My face is still a little stunned. There were all manner of goops and massaging and more goops and steam and I even had my ears massaged, which is really peculiar and has never happened before. (I assume it’s part of the thing, and that I didn’t just have Horrible Damaged Ears That Required Treatment At Once.)

I am only partly recovered from travel and now I get to do it again tomorrow, but it’ll be fine! I will lose with dignity and go to the Hugo Loser’s party and drink until I fall down. With dignity.

House With Bird Feet 3

Okay, one more short snippet, just because I really had fun with this bit, and because it illustrates a couple of points about writing.

First off, you may note that Sarah’s name has changed. I was not entirely happy with “Sarah.” It wasn’t quite right, and I stumbled over it a little whenever I typed it. It’s still early enough in the story that I can change it if I want, but we were getting to the point where her name would be set in mental stone. (Some characters you can’t rename after five minutes, if they have the right name, but if the name is a generic placeholder, you get some wiggle room. First person narrators can change names like shirts, for me, because their real name is “I.” The most agonizing is if you have to change after the book is nearly written, because it turns out somebody else wrote a book that came out ten minutes ago that has a character with the same damn name.)

“Summer” is better in my head. It may yet shift around, but I think I might have this one nailed down at last.

 

“The Purple Stained Glass Saint”

She looked down at the weasel. It looked back up at her and shrugged, a tiny shrug that rippled through its entire body.

“What do I do?” she whispered.

“I’ve no idea,” the weasel whispered back, “but you might start by watching where you were going.”

Summer was so startled to hear the weasel talking—although after the skull, she didn’t know why she’d be surprised—that she nearly dropped it. It whipped between her fingers, as quick as a skink, and threw its front paws around her thumb.

“Sorry,” whispered Summer. “You surprised me!”

She hadn’t expected the weasel to talk. The skull had talked and the house had been pretty…err…talkative, but the weasel was something else again.

Then again, she hadn’t expected to walk out of the door of the bird-footed house and find herself in a hallway either.

It was ironic—a word that grown-ups used a lot, and which Summer felt she was finally coming to understand—that after all that time wanting to be able to talk to animals, when she finally had a real honest-to-god talking animal in front of her, she could only think of a single question.

“Where are we?” she asked the weasel.

The weasel climbed up to her shoulder. It—he—peered both ways down the hall and said “I haven’t the foggiest idea. If it’s a chicken coop, it’s an awfully big one.”

“I don’t think it’s a chicken coop,” said Summer. “There’s a lot of stained glass.”

“Perhaps they’re very religious chickens.”

Summer thought that this was no help at all, but since talking to the weasel was keeping her from being scared of the fact that she was somewhere very strange, she didn’t say so.

At the end of the hall, a long way away, she could see a door. Since there didn’t seem to be anything else to do, she began to walk towards it.

The stained glass windows were interesting. They were extremely purple. There were saints and angels in them, clad in purple, with purple halos and wings. Only their faces and hands were a different color, and some of the angels even had purple hair.

Summer walked past three or four windows, full of saints smiling and solemn and stern. When she reached a window with an elderly saint with a long white beard, she had to stop and smile.

“He looks nice,” she said.

“I suppose,” said the weasel, who was licking his shoulder. “Humans are the best judge of other humans.”

He did look nice. He was skinny and bony and his wrists stuck out of his robes. His beard fell down to waist, but didn’t quite disguise a grin. Two grim-faced angels flanked him, their enormous purple wings outstretched.

In one hand, the saint held a very large book.

Summer went on to the next window.

It was the same saint again. This time he seemed to be leaning forward, and he was pointing a finger toward the viewer.

She hurried on to the next one, and was delighted to see the same saint again. He was giving her a knowing grin and was pointing at his book.

“They’re almost like a flipbook!” she said, walking more quickly. “Where each page has a drawing and if you flip the pages really fast they move!” She was aware that an actual flipbook made of stained glass would weigh thousands of pounds, and flipping it would probably be very difficult and involve a lot of screaming and crashing and breaking glass, so perhaps this was the best that the window-makers could manage.

In the next window, the saint was making a break for it. He was half out of the frame, his beard flapping behind him, and the two shocked angels were just starting to turn after him.

Summer broke into a run. The weasel clutched at her hair.

Even though he was made of stained glass, she couldn’t escape the feeling that the saint was running alongside her. The next few windows flashed by, and in each one, the saint was running full tilt, book clutched to his chest, with his robes flapping behind him and his bony ankles showing. He was wearing purple stained-glass sneakers with no socks. Summer giggled at the notion of a saint wearing sneakers.

Eventually the angels caught up to him. Not very fair, thought Summer, they have wings!

And indeed the wings were the first things you saw, a few feathers in the left side of the frame, followed by an outstretched hand. The angel had long fingernails, almost like claws.

“Do you think angels really have claws?” she asked the weasel, slowing down a bit.

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” said the weasel. “I have claws, and I eat eggs and mice and rabbits. Sins are probably a lot tougher than eggs or mice.”

“What about rabbits?” asked Summer.

“Don’t mess with rabbits.”

Her side was starting to hurt from running, so she settled for walking quickly. The saint, still grinning, had turned to look over his shoulder at the pursuing angels. You could just see one’s face now, mouth open as if the angel were shouting.

On the far side of the next suit of armor, the angels finally caught him. They grabbed the back of his robes and hauled. The saint’s book went flying through the air.

In the last window but one, the angels hauled the saint away. Their purple wings seemed to quiver with outrage. The saint, still grinning, adjusted his halo with one hand, and with the other, tucked under the edge of his flapping robes, he pointed toward the book.

Summer reached the last window. All that remained of the saint and the angels was a stray feather on the far left and the tip of a purple sneaker. The book lay open at the bottom of the window. Words had been painted across the lavender pages, in a bold, flowing script.

“You know,” said Summer, “it almost looks like you can read it.”

“Maybe you can,” said the weasel. “I can’t read.”

“You can’t?”

“It doesn’t come up much when you’re a weasel.”

Getting close to the stained glass book meant stepping between two suits of armor. That was a little creepy. They were very definitely empty—the visors were up and you could see inside—but it was still all too easy to imagine them waking up, the visors clanking down and those big mailed fists reaching for you.

She was also just a little afraid that she’d knock into one by accident and it would fall over and clatter into dozens of little armored pieces and then she’d have to try and put it back together the right way before the owner of the hallways came back and found it.

Up close, the stained glass book was much bigger than any textbook Summer had ever had for school. When she stood on her tiptoes, she could read the words. She read each line out loud to the weasel.
1. Gods and angels are often busy, but saints are usually well-inclined.

2. Don’t worry about things that you cannot fix.

3. Antelope women are not to be trusted.

4. You cannot change essential nature with magic.

 

“Hmm,” said Summer. “I understand all of them except the last one. What does that mean?”

“It means you can’t change something into something else with magic, not really,” said the weasel. “If you turned me into a human, I’d still be a weasel inside. If we turned you into a rabbit, you’d still be a little girl down deep, where it matters.”

“I’m eleven,” said Summer, a bit indignant. “I’m not that little.”

The weasel flipped his tail across her neck and said nothing.

She took a last long look at the book and read the four statements over again to herself. They seemed important. The saint had run away from the angels in order to show them to her—or to show them to someone, anyway, there was no telling how long the hallway had been here. Obviously the stained glass maker had had a very peculiar sense of humor.

She glanced back down the hallway. If she walked back down, the other direction, would she still see the running saint, or would the windows be full of the angels dragging him back to his original spot?

It was an unsettling thought. Summer found that she didn’t really want to know, and instead went to the door. It stood slightly ajar, and she could smell cool air and leaves through the crack.

She pushed the door open and stepped outside.

Behind her, the stained glass saint stuck his head back in the final window. He picked up his book, grinning, tossed his beard over his shoulder, and danced a jig with a suddenly joyous angel.

 

*****

(And now, your meta-analysis…)

This one section, like most of them, got blurted out on the page mostly in one go, with a couple amendments. The last line wasn’t added until a few days later, when I felt like the reader deserved a bit more and we weren’t going to be quite so limited first-person, since as the narrator, I keep talking to the reader directly anyhow.

The second line of the Saint’s book said, for about three days “(Insert Relevant Plot Point Here.)” Eventually I decided that what it said would be more useful to Summer coming to grips with the bit where she can’t get home and her mother will know she’s gone, and that the bit about antelope women was enough foreshadowing.

That bit may not actually stay. Long-time readers may or may not recognize it as one of those lines that go rattling around in my head occasionally–I think somebody said it to me in a dream, and it stuck with me.. (I’ve painted a couple of antelope women, and there is always something sly about them. I have no idea what to make of that. You hate to be a species essentialist and antelopes are no one’s idea of Always Evil Races, but there you are.)

Whether or not this is the story where antelope women matter, I’ve no idea. I’ll find out. Since I am not doing this as a serial (not really) I can always go back and decide that the line is about being kind to tadpoles or sorrow and sacrifice or the proper proportions of chicken feed. (I suppose other people know their prophecies in advance, I just slap something down and retool it to look omniscient. Unless it’s Digger, in which case I slapped something down and then had to work my story around it so that I looked much more clever than I actually am.)

The next bit has trees whose leaves turn into horned toads and quail chicks, and three sisters named Bearskin, Boarskin, and Donkeyskin (and yes, like you’re thinking.) Things go wrong quickly, though, and as I figure out what is going wrong, I’ll hopefully soon figure out who’s responsible, and how to send Summer off to fix it. Then I might actually be able to write a plot synopsis and send it off to my agent for poking, but it’ll take some writing to get there.

 

Waterwoes

Yesterday the water pressure started acting funky. Today it died. Fortunately our old friend Moses the Plumber managed to come out and check on it.

Nearly five hours have passed. There is still no running water, and he and two assistants are fighting with the well.

The water heater apparently died in spectacular fashion, having sprung a massive leak, forcing the well pump to work around the clock for several months.

This fried the well pump.

Submersible well pumps are not the cheapest piece of equipment in the homeowner’s arsenal. Fortunately the water heater was under warranty, so that wound up being free (and Lowe’s was fabulous about jumping through the hoops on the return.)

While pulling up the MASSIVE length of pipe in the well, (we have, as it happens, a 300 foot well)  they found cracks in the pipe, which was as cheap a model as a builder could possibly install. (“Well, you know,” said Moses, “you really want the black pipe, not the cheap white contractor pipe.” “Honey,” sez I, “I’m a children’s book author. You can tell me that we need pipe made out of diamonds and I will nod and say “Oh, really? Good to know!” )

As I speak, they are still pulling up pipe.

Now, these guys are awesome. I have total faith in them. They fixed the rain of gray water on the porch and the septic pump and all manner of plumbing woes. They will fix this. I have no doubt.

But I am very tired. I have run to Lowe’s more times than I like to count (laying out a shocking sum each time) and it is getting dark out. I have no idea if there will be water tonight or not, or if they are just going to call it a day (and who could blame them?) because they still have to lower a bajillion feet of pipe back DOWN the well and they would need to come back tomorrow morning to do it.

My hair feels gritty.

House With Bird Feet 2

Okay, okay, one more because I love you and because this isn’t a real story yet and I don’t have to crouch protectively over it and wave my hands to keep the internet off until it’s done. (Fairly soon I will hit that stage, but the publishers generally don’t care about the first few chapters of the first draft, or if they do, nobody’s ever complained about it to me. In this day and age, they may not even care about the whole thing, given that we are deep in the throes of New Media and everything is negotiable.)

 

Sarah spent most of that evening trying to decide on her heart’s desire.

For a number of years—at least since she turned nine—she had wanted to be a shape-shifter, or if that wasn’t possible, at least to understand the language of animals. But being a shape-shifter would be best. Imagine being able to turn into any animal that ever lived! She could go anywhere—fly like a bird, see with her ears like a bat, swim in the water like a fish. She could talk to the oozy salamanders along the foundation of the house and the alley cats that strolled along the top of the fence. It would be incredible.

When other girls at school were mean to her, she could turn into a wolf—a bear—a wooly mammoth!—and trample them to pieces, or at least pretend that she was going to, because if it came right down to it, Sarah was not sure that she wanted to trample anybody.

(This may seem an unusual ambition, but Sarah had read a great many books about magic and animals and changing your shape. Sarah’s mother believed that books were safe things that kept you inside, which only shows how little she knew about it, because books are one of the least safe things in the world.)

Sarah had just about decided to ask Baba Yaga to make her a shape-shifter—surely someone with a walking house would not find that difficult!—when it occurred to her that it was all very well to think about trampling the members of the fifth-grade class, if somebody saw her, there would undoubtedly be trouble. Turning into a woolly mammoth was bound to get you detention or suspended or even expelled.

If you were expelled, your parents had to teach you at home. Sarah would never get to leave the house except with her mother. She would never get to be the person she was at school, when her mother wasn’t looking, again. (Sarah’s mother, in addition to being wrong about books, would also have been quite surprised to learn that her daughter was a very different person at school than she was at home. This is a common problem among parents.)

Sarah poked at her dinner with her fork, chasing bits of corn around the plate and teasing a few strays out of the mashed potatoes.

If somebody found out you could turn into animals, what would happen? It would be awesome if they asked you to talk to real animals and find out what was wrong with them—maybe tell endangered species what to do to not be so endangered any more, maybe warn them about cars and people with guns—but Sarah had a gloomy notion that it wouldn’t be like that. She had read enough books to know that she’d probably wind up in a government lab somewhere, with people poking her with needles and hooking her up to big monitors covered in jaggy lines.

This was definitely not her heart’s desire.

“You’re awfully quiet,” said her mother. “What are you thinking about so hard?”

Sarah looked up guiltily. “Nothing.”

“Did something happen at school?”

“No.” Sarah took a hasty mouthful of mashed potatoes.

“So what were you thinking about?”

“Um…”

Sarah knew when she’d taken too long to answer because her mother’s smile got brittle around the edges and the skin under her eyes went funny and tight. “Fine. Don’t tell your mother, then.” She turned away from the table.

I wish I was an orphan, thought Sarah, and was so immediately horrified at her own thoughts that she said out loud “I was thinking about being a shape-shifter and whether people would want to poke you with needles and stuff to find out how you did it.”

“Oh, Sarah,” her mother said, and laughed, and that was all right then.

But the damage was done. Sarah laid in bed that night, staring at the darkened ceiling, and wondered if she’d meant it. What if you didn’t need to tell Baba Yaga what you wanted? What if she could look all the way down into your heart and pull it out without any help?

What if her heart’s desire really was to be an orphan?

She didn’t think it was. She loved her mother. She would have cried for ages if her mother died.

On the other hand, she was eleven years old and her mother still bought safety scissors and had childproof plastic caps on all the electric sockets.  She didn’t want her mother not to love her, she just would have liked things to be…different.

Thinking like this was like trying to walk down a hallway in the dark, feeling around with her foot for each step, except the hallway was inside her chest and she wasn’t sure where she was going at all.

She fell asleep, still wondering what her heart’s desire could be.

 

School dragged on forever, and Sarah didn’t raise her hand once. She was usually a pretty good student so the teacher didn’t call on her or embarrass her in class, but Mrs. Selena did give her a rather thoughtful look when she ran out the door to recess.

She was not allowed to take the bus home because other kids on the bus might try to give her drugs, so she waited by the curb with her bookbag until her mother pulled up with the car to drive her home. Sarah spent the ride home staring out the window and not talking, but fortunately her mother was listening to a radio program and didn’t notice.

Her mother went to work on her computer, and Sarah went out to play in the garden. She looked immediately over the wall and saw the roof of the bird-footed house.

She waited ten minutes, to make sure that her mother wasn’t going to get up from the computer, then went to the gate.

The padlock had locked itself again, and Sarah wasn’t sure what she should do. She didn’t think she could climb over the gate, and if she tried to go back through the house, her mother would probably notice it.

Still, if it had worked for Baba Yaga yesterday, maybe there was still a little magic left on it…

“Open, lock,” she whispered to the padlock, putting her lips right down next to it. “Open, bar! Oh please, please open!”

The lock made a cheerful little click! and slid open.

“Oh, thank you!” said Sarah. “Good lock!” She put it into her pocket and looked around quickly. She was probably going to get in horrible trouble, but if Baba Yaga could grant her heart’s desire—that was worth it, wasn’t it?

She slipped the gate open and pulled it most of the way shut behind her, just enough so the latch wouldn’t catch. Then she pelted down the alleyway to Baba Yaga’s house.

The gate was open. Sarah peered around the edge of the wall, then slipped into the yard.

The house was standing several feet above the ground, scratching idily at the grass. There were deep gouges in the lawn. When it saw Sarah, it clapped all its windows and plopped down onto the ground.

Now that she had to actually walk up to the door, she felt so nervous that she was almost queasy, as if someone had dropped a brick into her stomach.

What if Baba Yaga hadn’t been joking yesterday, and she was in a bad mood and sucked the marrow out of Sarah’s bones?

What if it turned out that Sarah was a horrible person and her heart’s desire was an awful thing that nobody should want?

She halted halfway to the door and pressed her hands to her chest.

She hadn’t noticed yesterday that there was a skull on the front door, right in the middle, where a normal person might hang a wreath.

The house lifted its back end up and inched forward a little, like a dog wanting to play. This must have made the floors tilt inside, because Sarah heard a banging and sliding of furniture and Baba Yaga yelled “Fool house! I’ll trade you in for one with turtle feet and a three car garage!”  The house sank back down, but wiggled forward a little more, until the front door was only a few feet away.

The skull on the door wasn’t human, or at least it wasn’t entirely human. It had big canine teeth like a dog and long spiraling horns like an antelope.

Was it a door knocker? Was she supposed to grab the dangling jawbone and rap it against the door?

Sarah gulped and reached out her hand.

The skull opened its eyes.

Since it had empty eye sockets and no eyelids, Sarah wasn’t quite sure how its eyes had been closed in the first place, but something flipped in the eye sockets and the skull was very definitely looking back at her.

“I shouldn’t go in if I were you,” said the skull.

Sarah squeaked and took a step back.

“I did,” said the skull mournfully. “You can see where I wound up.”

“Did she kill you?” asked Sarah, ready to run away at once.

“Well,” said the skull. “Well. Not exactly. Not as such. I was already dead. Sort of dead. Rather dead. I came in feet first, you might say. But I didn’t ask to be made into a door knocker!”

“I can see how that would be bad,” said Sarah. She put a hand on her neck, in the spot where you could feel your pulse. Her heart was pounding furiously. “Um. Is she—is she in a bad mood?”

The skull clattered its jaw from side to side. “Not today. She’s in a pretty good mood, I’d say. She’s had breakfast and lunch and afternoon tea. I shouldn’t go in if she were waiting on dinner. Baba Yaga gets very impatient if she hasn’t been fed.”

Sarah exhaled. It didn’t sound as if the marrow was going to be sucked out of her bones. Of course, there was the matter of the skull—but it had already been dead, and it was a little wicked to fool around with dead people’s bones, but not nearly so wicked as making them dead in the first place.

“Did you always have horns?” she asked. “When you were alive?”

“No,” said the skull, glancing up at its horns with obvious pride. “I wish I had. They’re the best thing about being a door knocker. At Yuletide she turns them into reindeer antlers. Those would have been marvelous.”

“They’re very good horns,” said Sarah. “Can I go in? She said she’d give me my heart’s desire.”

“Oh, well then,” said the skull. “If that’s what she said. She doesn’t go back on her word, you know, although she could teach the Devil a few things about loopholes.”

The door swung open.

Sarah stepped up into Baba Yaga’s house and went inside.

 

 

The inside of the house was dark and smelled strongly of bleach. That wasn’t the smell that Sarah would have expected inside a magical bird-footed house, but maybe even magic bathtubs needed scrubbing occasionally.

“There you are,” said Baba Yaga. She was sitting in a rocking chair in front of the fire. There were a few coals in the fireplace, giving off a little red light.

“Is now a good time?” asked Sarah. “Only I don’t know if I can get away later, because of my mother—“

“Pick a candle,” said the old woman, ignoring this speech.

“A c-candle?”

“One of the ones on the table, girl! Quick, quick! I may be immortal as makes no odds, but I’m still not getting any younger.”

“Oh,” said Sarah. “Um. Okay.” There was a little round table in the middle of the room, and on it stood a dozen candles. They were all colors and sizes. A few of them had been melted partway down. Several were shaped like animals. Sarah’s hand hovered over a silver unicorn, with the wick coming out of its horn, but then settled on a plain beeswax frog. The wick had been burned down a little way already and beads of honey-colored wax ran down its sides.

“This one,” said Sarah.

“Bring it here.”

The frog candle felt surprisingly heavy in her hands. She walked towards Baba Yaga’s chair but stopped a pace short, a little afraid.

“Scared?” asked the old woman, raising an eyebrow. Her hat with the salamander was sitting on the mantelpiece. The salamander looked to be asleep. Baba Yaga’s hair was long and gray and fell over the back of her chair in a stringy curtain.

Sarah nodded.

“Sensible of you. Hand me the candle.” She stretched out one gloved hand and Sarah dropped the frog into it. Baba Yaga’s fingernails were short and blunt and it looked as if she bit them.

“The frog. Hmm. Plain beeswax. Interesting. Neither here nor there yet. You’re not much more than a tadpole yourself, are you? Already burnt, though. Hmm. Well, that’s something, anyway.”

Sarah wondered what Baba Yaga would have said if she’d picked the unicorn.

The old woman reached into a pocket—she was wearing a shapeless gray housecoat over her shapeless gray dress—and brought out a shiny silver lighter. She snapped it a few times and then lit the wick on the frog’s back. When the flame had caught, she reached up and set it on the mantle next to her hat.

“There. That’s done. Now then, about your heart’s desire…”

Sarah’s stomach turned over again. Maybe she didn’t want to know. She had a sudden mad urge to bolt from the room.

“What would you ask for, if you could ask for anything?” asked Baba Yaga.

“I don’t know,” Sarah confessed. “I was going to ask you to make me a shape-shifter—so I could turn into animals and talk to them, maybe—but I don’t know if that’s my heart’s desire and now I don’t know if I even want that at all.”

“Hmm,” said Baba Yaga, nodding slowly. “A surprisingly good wish, all things considered. Not practical, in this day and age, perhaps, but I’ve heard a lot worse.” She propped up her chin on her hand. Her wrinkles carved deep shadows around her mouth.

“You can tell a lot about people by the things they think they want,” she said. “At least yours is interesting. I’m sick to death of young fools who want wealth and power and the hand of their true love. I started eating them awhile ago, but it still doesn’t keep them away. Everybody thinks they’re special.”

Sarah did not feel at all special. She didn’t think Baba Yaga was joking about eating people. She thought she was telling the exact truth.

For one thing, she didn’t seem to be the type to make jokes.

For another, Sarah had just this very moment noticed that her rocking chair was made out of bones.

She wondered if she could make it to the door.

“Noticed my chair, have you?” asked Baba Yaga, and cackled. She rocked back on the chair’s runners, and the bones creaked and tapped against the wooden floor, like a dozen people cracking their knuckles all at once. “Relax, girl. I’m not hungry—not right at the moment—and anybody who has such interesting wishes is too good to waste on an afternoon snack.”

She rocked again. Those heavy black eyes bored into her, down into the chamber of her heart again. Sarah felt as if there was a small animal inside her guts, clawing her stomach and chewing on her nerves. It was hard to breathe.

“Y-e-e-s-s,” said Baba Yaga after a moment. “Yes, I see. Very sensible. Even more so than being a shape-shifter, and less chance to get caught up in being a deer or a stoat or something and not wanting to turn back.”

“W-what?”

“Very seductive minds, deer. You’d hate to be one otherwise.”

Sarah was having a hard time thinking about deer. Things were shifting around inside her. Baba Yaga was not just reading the words written on her heart, she was moving the furniture around and hammering on the walls.

She held out a hand as if to ward off the old woman’s gaze. “W-what are you doing?”

“Giving you your heart’s desire,” said Baba Yaga. “Here, you’ll probably need this.” She looked away (Sarah gasped for breath) and rummaged around in her housecoat. “Blast! I left it in my other coat. Be a dear and pull it off the coatrack, will you?”

There was a coatrack by the door. Sarah had a brief mad notion of trying to wrench the door open and run away, but the coatrack shuffled forward to meet her. It had carved wooden feet like a crocodile. Its claws clicked on the floor.

Sarah would have liked to think that she was having a nightmare, but she couldn’t bring herself to believe it. Everything was too crisp and clear, from the clicking claws to the smell of bleach and beeswax. She reached a hand out blindly and the coatrack turned so that a large gray coat was in front of her.

“Left front pocket,” said Baba Yaga.

Sarah dipped her hand in obediently and felt…fur.

She tugged. Something in the pocket let out a yawp and a sharp triangular little head poked over the top of the fabric.

She jumped back. Baba Yaga cackled.

“Go on, girl,” she said, “go on. It’s only a weasel.”

“Does it bite?” asked Sarah warily.

“Of course it bites. It’s a weasel. They don’t kill their prey with pretty words and poisoned sweetmeats.”

The weasel rolled its eyes. It was less than a foot long and its eyes were tiny blood-black beads, but Sarah actually saw the eye-roll. She felt obscurely comforted and put out her hand.

The weasel stepped gravely onto her palm and sat down.

“I’ll need a weasel?” asked Sarah.

“Possibly. It gets him out of my coat, anyway, and that’s all to the good.” Baba Yaga leaned back in her rocking chair and closed her eyes. “Close the door behind you on your way out.”

The door swung open. The skull winked at her. Sarah was only too glad to leave, but some perverse instinct made her pause on the threshold.

“But—er—Baba Yaga—ma’am—what about my heart’s desire?”

The old woman on her chair of bones opened one eyes. “What about it?”

“You said—I thought you said—“

“I said I’d give it to you,” said Baba Yaga. “I never said I’d tell you what it was. That’s another sort of gift. Be off with you! The candle won’t burn forever, and I’d get back before the flame goes out, if I were you.” She flapped a hand at Sarah.

The door was under her hand, practically pulling her out of the odd little house. “Go, go!” whispered the skull. “Hurry now, while she’s still in a good mood!”

Sarah stepped out of the house, deeply confused. She’d asked for her heart’s desire and gotten a weasel. What did that mean?

She looked up from her furry handful.

The yard was gone.

The wall and the gate and the alley were gone.

She was standing in a long hallway with a bare wooden floor, lined by empty suits of armor and cut with arching windows of purple glass.

Baba Yaga’s house had vanished.

 

*******

To go meta again for a moment…

At the moment I am not sure where this is going, I am merely writing until I no longer know what happens next. If that points is 15 or 20K along, I’ll pack it up and send it off to my agent with a somewhat squashy plot synopsis and see what she says. (I generally wait until at least 15K before I trouble my agent with it, because I don’t know if a story is “live” until then.)

There are four categories, at least with my agent so far.

“I love this, oh my god, this is fabulous!” (aka “I will push the hell out of this right this minute.”)

“I like what I’ve read so far.” (Give me more and maybe I can sell this/selling this is hit or miss but we may get lucky.)

“I like this but I have no idea how to sell it.” (It’s good, but the length/subject matter/structure is sufficiently unusual that I don’t know where to pitch it. I will keep it around and push it now and again to people who might be interested in taking a chance, but it may have to wait until you’re established enough for publishers to go for something weird.)

“This kinda freaks me out and I just don’t think I can sell it.” (And now we have to have the awkward conversation where I explain that I don’t like this at all and it gives me the creeping horrors and then two or three years later, I will wind up suggesting it to Sofawolf anyway, because I am an agent to my bones, and have sort of come around on the creepiness in the interim.)

Just in case someone asks why I do not immediately consider self-publishing for some of these stories, the answer is a pretty straightforward one—the SMALLEST advance my agent has ever gotten me on a book is $15K. Given the choice between money up front, someone else handling all the costs and publicity and distribution and assigning me a lovely editor to make things better, or going it alone—well, you get the idea. This is not to say that I wouldn’t self-publish something, since there are projects far better suited to it (that fairy tale anthology, say…) or that self-publishing is BAD, it’s just that I am currently in a position where traditional publishing works oh my god so much better for me, and I have no current desire to swim those icy and difficult waters if I’ve got the option of using somebody else’s heated boat. That may change, the world may change, I may change, but that’s the current state of affairs, and anyone who tells you they know exactly where the industry is headed is so full of it that their shoes squelch when they walk.

House With Bird Feet

Once upon a time there was a girl named Sarah, whose mother loved her very very very much.

Her mother loved her so much that she was not allowed to play outside where someone might grab her, nor go away on sleepovers where there might be an accident or suspicious food. She was not allowed to go away to camp, where she might be squashed by a horse or bitten by diseased mosquitos, and she most certainly was not allowed to go on the Ferris Wheel at the carnival because (her mother said) the people who maintain the machinery are lazy and not very educated and might get drunk and forget to put a bolt back on and the entire thing could come loose at any moment and fall down and kill everyone inside, and they should probably leave the carnival immediately before it happened.

Occasionally, when Sarah expressed a desire to do some of these very dangerous things, her mother would get quite upset. She would grab Sarah’s chin and stare deep into her eyes, as if she could see straight down to Sarah’s heart, and say “I’m only saying this because I love you. You’re all I’ve got, and I can’t let anything happen to you. You understand that, right?”

And Sarah would nod and say that she understood, because what else could she do?

It is hardly surprising, given this sort of treatment, that Sarah was very timid (at least at home) and soon learned to stop asking to ride the Ferris Wheel or go on sleepovers. But it is also not very surprising that in the secret depths of her heart, where her mother could not go, she had vowed to make her escape.

She didn’t want to hurt her mother. Her mother baked cookies and sang songs and showed her how to tie her shoes and helped her with her homework when it was hard (and sometimes when it wasn’t, which was a little bit annoying.) She just wanted her mother to love her a little bit less, like a normal person, so that she could go to camp and not have to leave the carnival early.

Sometimes when her mother grabbed her chin and stared into her eyes, Sarah wondered if she could see these traitorous feelings lurking down in the depth. It seemed as if she ought to be able to, because the feelings were so strong, as if they were big rebellious slogans wallpapered around the walls of her heart, saying I THINK I COULD PROBABLY RIDE A HORSE IF IT WAS NICE and I AM NOT AFRAID OF THE FERRIS WHEEL.

But her mother never said anything about it, and so Sarah went on thinking these thoughts, and over time she thought them more and more.

 

One day in spring, when she was playing in the back garden, a house walked into the alley.

The house was very clearly walking, because the roof would go up when it took a step and then sink back down at the bottom of the step, then bob up again. Sarah couldn’t see its feet because there was a high wall around her back garden, but she could not think of any other explanation.

The roof of the house was small and sharply peaked, with a jutting gable over the front door. Sarah stared at it, open-mouthed, then ran to the gate in the wall that led to the alley.

It was a wooden gate, higher than Sarah’s head, and it had a big metal latch with a padlock through it. Sarah’s mother would have bricked up the gate entirely if she could have, so that criminals couldn’t come through it, but she had to leave another exit in case the house burned down and they couldn’t get out of the front door. She had compromised with the padlock, and had also told Sarah seventeen times that she was never, ever to open the door, particularly not if anyone knocked and asked to be let in. Since Sarah had no idea where the key was, she couldn’t have done so anyway, and so was spared being told an eighteenth time.

But even if the gate didn’t open, there was a large crack between the hinges and the wall, and Sarah put her shoulder against the bricks and peered out through it at the house.

The house had gigantic scaly legs like a bird. They went up past Sarah’s shoulders and they ended in clawed feet as big as bathtubs. The round scales on the front of each leg were the size of automobile tires.

As she watched, the house took another step forward. The roof went up and came bobbing down. The house’s foot came down on an old soda can in the alley and it went crink! and was crushed flat.

“Whoa,” said Sarah.

The house heard her. It stopped, and instead of taking another step forward it put its other foot down beside the first one and hunkered down on its heels.

The underside of the house was now about three feet from the ground. The bird legs didn’t seem to attach to the house in any way that Sarah could see. They vanished instead into a tangle of pipes, which were probably plumbing, but which looked suspiciously scaly, as if they had also been made out of chicken feet.

A little faucet, the sort you would attach a hose to, stuck out from the side of the house nearest Sarah. Instead of a knob with spokes, it had a little skull on it, no bigger than Sarah’s palm. The skull’s jaws were open in a huge grin, and it was turned sideways so that it looked rather silly as well as alarming.

It wasn’t a very large house. It couldn’t have more than two rooms in it, one upstairs and one down, and even those wouldn’t be any larger than Sarah’s own bedroom. Even so, the sides of the house came very close to the walls on either side of the alley. If it walked by the gate, Sarah would be been able to fit her hand through the gap at the hinges and touch the faucet as it went past.

She twisted around so that she could look down the alley the other direction. Surely someone was going to come along any moment—a delivery driver or one of the people who parked in the alley sometimes—and get out and complain about the house blocking the road?

But nobody did. Sarah took a quick look behind her at the back porch to make sure that her mother hadn’t come out.

One of the windows of the house flew open and the shutters banged open. “Not here!” said a woman’s voice from inside the house. “The next yard over, fool house!”

The house stamped its feet and settled even lower to the ground.

“Gah!” The woman reached through the window and slapped the house’s outer wall. She was wearing long black gloves with the fingers cut out of them. “The next one! I’ll have you breaded and fried and made into colossal drumsticks!”

The bottom of the house hit the concrete of the alley with a thud.

“Saint Sunday’s bones!” cried the woman, pulling her hand back, and then she said a great many other things, some of which were extremely rude. Sarah paid careful attention to these and committed many of them to memory.

After a moment, the front door opened, and the woman came out.

She was very old and very stout. Her black gloves went up to the elbow and the ends were frayed and unraveling. Her dress was gray and shapeless and she wore a tall purple hat like a top hat, with a live salamander on top of it. Sarah could tell that the salamander was alive because its throat pulsed as its breathed, and it blinked its eyes very slowly in the sunlight.

She was leaning on a cane but could stand without it, because as soon as she stepped out of the door she turned around and whacked the house across the gutters with the cane.

The house rattled its pipes and slammed all its windows shut with a hmmmph! sound.

“Glorified chicken coop! I’ll take you apart and sell you for scrap!” cried the old woman. “You’re not my first house, you know! I had a marvelous cottage that padded about on leopard feet, and I had it shot and stuffed and turned into a storage shed for a much more minor infraction than this!”

Sarah could not help but feel sorry for the leopard-footed house and made a small noise of dismay.

The old woman whipped around, scowling, and Sarah did not pull back nearly quickly enough.

“Aha!” she cried, stomping toward the gate. Sarah backed away hurriedly, but although she could not see the old woman, she could hear the click of her shoes and the tap of her cane. “I see you there! Spying on me, were you?”

“I was not!” said Sarah, indignant. “I was just looking! I’ve never seen a house like that before!”

There was a long pause, during which Sarah remembered that she was never ever ever in ten million years on pain of death supposed to talk to strangers, and the old woman went hmmmph! rather like the house.

“Well,” said the old woman grudgingly, “I suppose that’s true enough. There aren’t any other houses like mine. What’s your name?”

“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers,” said Sarah, and because that felt horribly rude, she added “I’m sorry.” She looked back over her shoulder, but her mother had not come out to demand to know who she was talking to.

“If you’re waiting for someone to come and make introductions, you’ll be waiting a long time,” snapped the old woman. “Besides, it’s not strangers you need to worry about—it’s the ones you know that get you.” She peered through the crack in the gate. Sarah could see one bright black eye and the side of her nose. “I’m Baba Yaga.”

“I’m Sarah,” said Sarah.

“Hmm. Suits you. What do you think of my house?”

“It’s a very interesting house,” said Sarah, “but I don’t think you should hit it. It’s not very nice.”

The house rattled its pipes in a loud, satisfied manner, and Baba Yaga cackled. “Fair enough!” She turned away from the gate to say, over her shoulder, “I see why you stopped.”

The house preened a little.

Baba Yaga put her eye back to the gap in the hinge. “Open the gate, will you?” she said. “Whispering through cracks is all very good for foolish lovers and eloping brides, but you’re too young and I’m too old and have had far too many husbands besides.”

“I can’t,” said Sarah. “I mean, there’s a padlock. And my mother would never let me. And how many husbands have you had?”

“Plenty,” said Baba Yaga. “Good and bad and most points in between, starting when I wasn’t much older than you and had less sense than the gods gave geese. But never mind that. A padlock, eh?”

Sarah heard the crack of her cane against the wooden gate, and Baba Yaga chanted “Open, lock! Open, bar!”

The padlock twisted neatly open and fell off the latch. The gate swung silently open.

Sarah took another step back. Baba Yaga was rather alarming (if quite interesting) and if her mother saw her talking to a strange old woman in the back garden, with the gate open, Sarah was going to be in more trouble than anyone had ever been in in the history of the world.

Baba Yaga stood framed between the walls with her house squatting behind her. The salamander on her hat fixed Sarah with eyes like wet pebbles.

“Are you frightened?” asked the old woman. “You should be, you know. I am as old as sinning and twice as dangerous. I drink my beer from the skulls of heroes.”

Sarah did not know that women drank beer. Her mother never drank beer. She called it nasty, low stuff and said that she’d never allow it in the house.

Sarah said as much to Baba Yaga.

The old woman’s eyes narrowed. “You’re dangerously ignorant, girl,” she said. “It is not your fault at the moment, though if you grow much older it will be.”

Sarah looked back toward the house.

“Hmmm,” said Baba Yaga. “Stand, girl, and let me know you.”

Baba Yaga took two steps forward, digging her cane into the ground. Sarah knew that she should run away, run back to the house and get her mother and call the police immediately, but her feet seemed to be stuck to the ground. She tried to lift one up and it stayed stuck, as if the soles of her sneakers had turned to glue.

Baba Yaga came up right next to her, close enough that Sarah could smell her. She didn’t smell like an old woman, like cold cream and antiseptic, the way Sarah’s grandmother smelled in the home. She smelled like an animal, like a cat’s fur, like sharp herbs and old books.

The salamander on her hat twitched its tail restlessly back and forth.

The old woman stared into Sarah’s eyes, down deep, deeper than her mother ever saw. Sarah could feel Baba Yaga looking all the way down into her, into the chamber with her thoughts written on the walls.

“Well,” said Baba Yaga, taking a step back, and Sarah could move again.

She could have run, but she didn’t. She felt dizzy. She blinked several times and rubbed her forehead. She could hear crows cawing behind her eyes.

“All right!” Baba Yaga called over her shoulder to the house. “You were right, you overgrown lump of yesterday’s architecture!”

She turned back to Sarah and poked her in the chest with the tip of her cane. “Tomorrow. You come to the house tomorrow, and I’ll grant you your heart’s desire, unless I’m in a bad mood, in which case I’ll probably suck the marrow out of your bones. Either way. Tomorrow, you hear?”

And she turned and stumped out of the garden, leaning on her cane. The gate slammed shut behind her and the padlock clambered up the wooden crosspiece on the gate and swung itself out to the latch.

The bird-footed house stood up. It paced down the alley, two yards down, to the house with a FOR SALE sign out front. Then it rose up high on one leg and stepped daintily over the wall.

For a moment it stood there, very tall in the empty yard. An upstairs window sash rose an inch or two, and the house winked at Sarah.

Then the house settled down on its heels, and that was that, at least until tomorrow.

*******

Ahem.

If you’ve ever wondered how I write a thing (and lord, why would you?) the answer is that I sit down and write something like this one afternoon, and then I shove it into a metaphorical drawer and see if it ever bothers me again.

Actually, that’s simplistic. I wrote the first dozen paragraphs, muttered a bit to myself, thought that I probably tackled the whole theme much better in that one other project I was working on and maybe I should just go write a thousand words on that, and so I did so. (I may be overthinking that one, though, but it’s got some great bits.) Then this half page of nothing much nagged at me, and I went back and changed a few things so  it wasn’t quite like the other thing, and then I tried to take a nap and laid there wondering how to drop the Call To Adventure on the poor girl’s head and toyed with a few ideas involving doors opening to mysterious places and then I went “Oh, duh, Baba Yaga!” because that was obviously what happened next and the chicken-footed house came walking down the alley and once you put Baba Yaga in, she more or less handles her own lines, thank you very much, because you are not cool enough to write dialog for Baba Yaga, pathetic mortal with a shamefully low husband count.

No, at this time I have absolutely no idea what happens next. I won’t until I write it, if I ever write it. Once I write it, I will probably know better, but possibly not because sometimes I am very wrong. And you note that that could, at its most generous, be called a “working title.” Things don’t get good titles until much later, if at all.

This is pretty much how it reads when it comes out of the hose. I changed maybe three sentences in what could be called “editing” and took out a paragraph that wasn’t going anywhere. Most of the editing occurs as I am writing, when I stare at a paragraph and go “I am using her name way too many times in succession,” or “I need to mention this sooner so I can mention it again here.” (I assume that’s probably how most people do it, but having only ever been me, I don’t know for sure.)

Things like ‘plot’ do not emerge until much later, unless I am writing a Dragonbreath book, where they rather like to have a plot in advance so that I don’t hand in a manuscript so utterly problematic that they cannot possibly publish it (Danny vs. the Mecha-Pope or Dragonbreath, Reanimator or any of the other ideas I will not bother pitching.)  and which I’ve gotten sufficiently skilled at writing that I can actually plot them in advance and not have my brain seize up like wet chocolate.

My hard drive is littered with dozens of these things and sometimes they suddenly spawn fifteen or twenty thousand words and sometimes they don’t and sometimes I drag them out and finish them in a white-hot burning fury and send them off to my agent (the Beauty & the Beast thing did that, after sitting 1/3rd done for over a year) and sometimes they sit there forever and when I pull them up again, I wonder what the hell I was thinking, and sometimes I go through them and cannibalize them for parts, which is why it doesn’t bother me spending hours  writing things that may be deeply flawed because even if most of it’s useless, I can probably grind it up and use it for mulch.

 

Bluebeard’s Wife

She really hadn’t known.

No one believed her, of course. The more sympathetic among her friends said “Oh, poor Althea, you must have been terrified, of course you couldn’t tell anyone.” Her detractors—her sisters foremost among them—all said “Of course she knew. She just didn’t care. Those poor women.”

No one had actually suggested that she might be involved in the murders, of course. Once the bodies had been identified, it was obvious that she had still been in the nursery for most of them. The youngest of the lot had been dead for several years before Lord Bluebeard moved into the neighborhood, so no one could imply that she was a murderess herself.

Still, she’d kept silent, went the whispers, and that made her an accomplice, didn’t it?

She caught herself wishing that her husband were still alive, so that she could talk to him about it.

“And that is very nearly insane,” Althea told the mirror in her bedroom, “since he was the one who killed all those poor women in the first place.”

She still couldn’t believe it. She knew that it was true, of course, she’d been the one to go into that awful charnel room in the first place.

Still.

Whatever his other faults—ha—he’d been easy to talk to. She had never exactly been in love with him, but they’d been good friends. His offer of marriage had gotten her away from her house and the prying of her sisters.

She set the hairbrush down and went to the window. Trees looked back at her. She was living in the hunting lodge, now, many miles away from the accursed manor house.

She wanted to go home. Even knowing that awful room was there, even knowing what was in it. The manor had been her home for twenty-seven years. She was the mistress of it. She knew every inch of it, except for the room at the top of the tallest tower, and….well.

“Well,” she said aloud. “Well. Here we are.”

They asked the same question, all of them, friends and foes alike. “How could you not look? How could you live with that room there and never look into it?”

The answer was simple enough. She’d never looked because she had believed that she already knew what was inside.

Her father had a room that his daughters were not allowed to look into, and her sisters, prying and spying as they always did, had jimmied the lock one day and snuck in. Althea had peeped around the doorframe, half-curious, half-terrified.

It wasn’t much. A dusty room with big chairs leaking stuffing and taxidermy on the walls. Glassy-eyed deer stared down at her. There was a side table with some etchings of naked nymphs doing improbable things with goat-legged men. Her sisters thought this was hysterical. She just felt sick.

Her sisters had always been like that. She had never been allowed a diary, a corner of the room, even a single box that was not opened and pawed through. Her sisters wanted to make sure that she had no secrets, so she kept them all behind her eyes and committed nothing to paper.

When Bluebeard had brought her home from the honeymoon and handed her the great iron ring of keys, he had singled out the smallest one and said “This opens the door at the top of the tower. That is my room. Never, ever open it.”

Aha, she thought, another room of overstuffed furniture and pornographic etchings. Probably bad taxidermy as well. Well, everyone is allowed their privacy.

She pried the ring off the keys and handed it back to him. “You should keep this, then.”

He stared at her, his eyes absolutely blank. She did not know him well enough yet to read his moods, and so she laughed a little and said “My dear, don’t you think I know how men are? Everyone needs a room to put their feet up. Take the key.”

The key was very small in his large hand, and gleamed as golden as her wedding ring. “But—“

“Really, I can’t think why I’d want the key,” she said. “I’m not giving you the key to my diary. I hope that doesn’t bother you.”

“Ah—no, of course not—I—“ He took a step back. “But—ah—if I should lose my key, I will want to know that there is another one—“

“Oh, well, quite sensible,” she said. She plucked the key from his hands, looked around the room—they were in the library—and saw a bookend on a high shelf, in the shape of a woman holding an urn. “There, that will do.” She pulled out a chair, climbed onto it—Bluebeard hurried to grab the chair back and steady her—and dropped the key into the urn. “There. If you lose yours, you know where it is now, and none of the maids will bother to dust it up there.” She brushed her hands together.

“You are a marvel,” said Bluebeard, lifting her down from the chair, and kissed her forehead.

He had not been a bad husband, truly he hadn’t. He had even been concerned with her relationship with her sisters. When he left on travel, which he sometimes did, he always suggested that she invite her sisters to stay with her.

“Most certainly not,” she said, sitting in the library again, in her favorite chair. Her husband grasped the back of the chair and looked down at her, and she tilted her head back to look up at him. She smiled upside down into his eyes. “My sisters are appalling people, and I have no desire to have them here, prying into everything and telling me how to do everything better and leaving me no scrap of home to call my own.”

“Family is important,” he said, looking down at her. He sounded sad, and she remembered that he had no family of his own.

“We’re each other’s family,” Althea said firmly, putting her hand over his on the back of the chair.

He turned his hand under hers and squeezed her fingers. “Still, your sisters—I hate to think of you isolated—“

She sighed. It was important to him, apparently, and she was determined to be a good wife, since it had already become obvious that there would be no children between them. “If you insist. But I will not have them here, you understand? I will go to the townhouse and receive them there.”

There had been an enormous party at the townhouse. In the middle of it, she had gone to her bedroom to change her shoes—the white ones had always pinched her feet, but they looked so elegant—and found her oldest sister rifling through her jewelry box and her middle sister going through the drawers of her vanity.

“Sister, dear,” said the oldest, leering, expecting her to ignore the intrusion, as she always had.

But she did not ignore it. She was no longer a little girl in a patched frock, but a married woman with a home and husband of her own. She bared her teeth and said “Get out. Go downstairs and leave gracefully, or I’ll have the footmen throw you out. You’re not welcome here any longer.”

“Althea, dear,” said her middle sister, trying to tuck her hand under Althea’s arm. “We’re your sisters. We just want to make sure you’re all right.”

“Then ask me,” she snapped. “You won’t find the answer at the bottom of the jewelry box. No, get out! I am sick to death of both of you.”

They left. Althea left the party in the hands of her aunt and went upstairs, pleading headache.

Thank god for Bluebeard. Otherwise she’d still be at home, dealing with those…those prying harpies. Not a shred of privacy to her name.

Her husband understood. When she said that she was sick of both of them, that they were appalling, that she would have nothing more to do with either of them, he did not argue. When she burst into furious tears at the end of it, he said “Oh, my dear—“ and opened his arms, and she cried into the blue curls of his beard until her nose was red and she looked a fright.

He had apparently been a very evil man, but not actually a bad one. Althea had spent the last few months trying to get her mind around how such a thing was possible.

At the end, he’d tried to spare her. She remembered that, when everyone turned on him, when they’d dug up the bones and thrown them into the river.

Years had passed. Any blue in his beard had long since been replaced by gray. He no longer travelled for business or rode to hounds. Althea herself moved more slowly, and felt the weather in her bones.

They had not shared a bed for many years, but they were friends. Probably there had been other women, but he was always discreet, and Althea never faulted him. There had certainly not been other women for a number of years, nor other men either.

They spent evenings in the library. She would read funny passages aloud to him and he would laugh. They played chess. He usually won, but he was a patient teacher and occasionally she surprised him.

On that last night, he moved restlessly away from the chessboard, rubbing his left arm and gazing out the window.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

He turned toward her and grasped her hands, his eyes fierce. “Althea—my love—promise me something.”

“Anything,” she said. She did not like the pallor of his face, or the way he kept rubbing his arm. “What can I do?”

“When I die—when I am dead—“

“Don’t talk like that!”

“It will happen soon. I was already well-aged when we were wed. I have lasted much longer than I expected, probably because of you, my dear. But it will happen. I can hear Death tapping at the walls. I know him—very well. I owe him this.”

Althea put a hand to her mouth.

“Promise me,” he said, “that when I am dead, you will burn the house down.”

“What?”

“The manor,” he said impatiently. He clasped his wrist to his chest, looking really angry, angrier than she had ever seen him look. “Take the furniture out if you must, take your clothes, whatever you want to keep—but burn it to the ground. Leave the doors unopened. It must burn.”

“You’re mad,” she said unsteadily. “This is my home! I live here too! I can’t just—why?”

“I can’t tell you,” he said. He sank to his knees in front of her. “Please. If you have ever loved me—if we have been friends these last few years—“

“You aren’t well,” she said, standing up. “You’re delirious, that’s all. I’m going to send for the doctor. It will be all right, my love, it’s probably just a touch of the influenza—“

She put a hand on his forehead, and he groaned. He was ice cold, not hot.

“Please,” he said. He fell over on his side, curled in a ball, and she stood helplessly in front of him, not knowing what to do. “Please.”

When the servants found them the next morning, she was staring dry-eyed out the window, and Bluebeard’s body was already cold.

She wished now that she had listened to him.

If the house had been burned—oh, if only! Then she might be a respectable widow. They might whisper that she had gone mad, to burn such a marvelous house as a funeral pyre, but they would not stare at her with such mingled pity and disgust.

But she had not burned it. Instead she had been swept into the usual business of widowhood—papers to sort through and allotments to settle. He had left most of his affairs in good order, but there were a few things missing, and she had to turn the house over looking for them, while the lawyers tapped their feet and sent politely worded notes about how vital it all was that they receive this by such-and-such a time to avoid some unspecified unpleasantness.

At last, with one of the lawyers actually in the house, she had remembered the room at the top of the tower.

“There’s one other place I suppose it could be,” she said dubiously. “My husband’s study—I never went in there. But I suppose it’s possible.”

“Were there papers in there?” asked the lawyer.

“I haven’t the faintest idea,” said Althea. “I still haven’t gone in there. Let me find the key.”

She had to get a chair into the library, and then check three or four bookends—was it the elephant with the saddle, or the woman with the urn, or the dragon clutching the treasure chest?—until she found the key. There were cobwebs in the urn, but nothing more. The key was as brilliantly gold as it had been the day that Bluebeard had handed it to her.

They went up the stairs to the top of the tower—stupid having a tower in a manor house, but the previous earl had been fond of eccentric architecture—and Althea fitted the key to the door.

“The dust is probably appalling,” she said. “Nobody’s been in here in six months, and I doubt my husband kept it up very well. He was a dear thing, but not much of a housekeep—“

She pushed the door open, with the lawyer at her back.

No overstuffed chairs. No etchings. Bare floors, bare walls—and them. The previous wives of Bluebeard.

The irony was that there was bad taxidermy after all. He hadn’t been good at it. Those poor women. Bad enough that he had killed them at all, but their bodies were preserved so badly that they barely looked human. At first she had thought they were festival costumes with poorly-constructed masks, draped over dress-maker’s dummies. Something. Not people.

Cobwebs draped each of the figures. There were seven in all.

“What on earth…” she said, peering more closely. “What are—oh god—“

When Althea realized what they were, she sat down in the middle of the floor and put her hands over her face. The lawyer caught her shoulder. “Miss—miss—“ and then, bless him, he picked her up bodily and carried her out of that terrible room.

She didn’t go back. They had men out—constables and investigators and who knew what. They went into the room and took the pitiful contents out. Althea laid in bed for three days, her mind a great roaring silence, and then her sisters arrived and she rose off her bed long enough to throw them out again.

Once she was up, she figured that she might as well stay up. She packed the entire household up in a week, left most of the furniture to the lawyers to auction off, and went to the hunting lodge in the country. Before the horses were even unloaded, she went into every room, throwing the doors and windows open, letting light shine into every crack of the house.

There were no dead women there. She moved in at once.

It was not a bad place. It was rougher than the manor house, and the cook complained endlessly about the stove, but be damned if she was moving to the townhouse to be the butt of pity and accusation. She walked through the woods every day, wearing mourning black, not entirely sure who she was mourning for.

She still missed her husband sometimes. Every time it felt like a betrayal of those women—those other wives—and yet it was what she felt. Twenty-seven years of living with someone, sharing their bed and crying on their shoulder, were not so easily erased. There was a great deal of guilt and fury as well—enough to fill an ocean, enough to make her pound her fists on the walls and howl—but there was no one she could talk to. No one else had even been in this situation. The one person she could always talk to, the one who would have listened, was dead. And a murderer. But mostly dead.

When the lawyers found her at last, and made their report, she learned that she had a great deal of money. A murderer’s estate was automatically forfeit to the Crown, but apparently her husband had, in the last few months of his life, put everything into a trust in her name—except for the manor house.

Very well. Let it be someone else’s problem now.

She also learned that around the neck of each of his dead wives had been a necklace, and on each necklace hung a brilliant golden key.

“How frustrating that must have been for him,” she said, and laughed a little to herself. Her laughter sounded rusty and disused, but it was a laugh all the same.

She really hadn’t known.

She’d just thought that that the world was a complicated place, and everyone in it deserved a little bit of privacy, and perhaps a room of one’s own.

 

 

Author’s Note: I kept threatening to write this one, and today it seemed to want to come out. I am honestly rather sympathetic to Althea here, because I would be the woman on camera going “No, I had no idea he was a serial killer!” that nobody believes. You get used to things, you don’t have a suspicious mind, and…well. And then how do you feel about it afterwards? People’s feelings are complicated. It started out as a funny story in my head, with a frustrated Bluebeard, but then it kinda went sideways, and I started thinking how she’d feel. Knowing someone has done horribly evil things doesn’t neatly replace all your knowledge of living with someone, does it? What are you supposed to feel, and what do you really wind up feeling instead?

There’s a rather nice version of this in Stephen King’s “Full Dark, No Stars” collection, too.

Yes, someday I will do that fairy tale collection, and I will polish up a few of these and sand off the rough sentences and put them in. I just gotta finish the one novella to be the backbone…

Not My World

So I just got off the phone from a conference call with my agent and somebody else’s agent (you know their stuff) and we discussed the possibility of various options for Dragonbreath, none of which I am going to talk about now, and would ask that y’all refrain from speculation, since I can’t say anything, and in the way of all things, even if somebody DID option it for something, odds are good I would get a nice little check and then Absolutely Nothing Would Happen, and then maybe sometime in the future someone else would be interested and if lucky, I would get a nice little check again.

Such is the dance of options.

I have been on con calls before where the subject under discussion was Digger, or was a story I hadn’t even written yet and I was basically just brainstorming for hire (none of which led to anything with that particular client, but one of which ideas became Bread Wizard, so hey, nothing is ever wasted.) Nothing has ever come of it, but hey, nothing ever comes of these things ’til it does, so you gotta keep taking the calls.

So I listen and occasionally I make an appreciative noise or ask a question.* They talk about budgets and merchandising and quote numbers that would set me up for life if anything actually happened (which it almost certainly won’t.) I make more appreciative noises, because this is sort of like telling me how high the lottery jackpot is today–yes, that IS a great deal of money, but the odds of me taking it home are nearly non-existent, so I don’t get excited.

But it comes home to me now and again that This Is Not My World.

OTHER AGENT: If you’re in front of the computer right now, you can look up this company…

ME: Helen, you’re gonna have to google that, I’m pulling weeds.

MY AGENT: (starts laughing.)

OTHER AGENT: …you’re WHAT?

ME: Pulling weeds. Uh, it’s not that I’m not taking you seriously, I swear, but I only get good reception out in front of the house, and then I’m right there and there are these weeds…

MY AGENT: (still laughing) See? Makes…total…(ahaha)…sense…

OTHER AGENT: (plaintively)  …I have never had anyone say that to me on a con call before.

He seemed nice.

 

 

*Everyone is very kind and answers these questions as if they are not deeply inane or betraying a total ignorance of the industry in question. I am plagued, not by the feeling that I am asking stupid questions—I long ago stopped worrying about THAT—but by the feeling that I don’t know which questions I SHOULD be asking. My agent asks the important ones, or hires the people who then ask the important ones. This is why agents are lovely.

Well, crap.

Apparently I need to submit a hi-rez author photo to the Hugo committee for the ceremony, where I guess they flash all our photos on a wall or something.

This is kind of a problem.

There’s a reason I use the painting my mother did of me as my author bio. I look like a tattooed hippopotamus to the camera. (I am reliably informed that I am rather less so in person, because I am extremely animated most of the time, but you freeze frame that sucker and the results Do Not Flatter.)

The only really good photo of me ever taken was about an inch high and Kevin got it on his cel phone at a Mexican restaurant. There’s an adequate one that a friend took ages past, which is what Penguin uses, which I suppose I will wind up using, as they want it by Saturday and I have no real chance of setting up a pro photo shoot by then.  (And YES, I have been thinking for months I need to find someone to take some pro shots of me and get the bloody thing done so I’ve got something flattering to use for the book jackets, but I didn’t and now I pay the price and Kevin says I’m not allowed to turn down the nomination because they want a photo.)

ARRRGGH.

 

 

ETA: Let me add that this isn’t a body image issue, per se—I gots no problem with mirrors. I pass them and go “Awwwww, yeah!” as often as not.  I’m not a small mammal by any stretch, but large chunks of me are built like the proverbial brick dollhouse, and I’m not complaining.

Sadly lots of things that are fine on a moving, gesticulating individual go really bad if you take a photo under all but the most aggressively controlled lighting.

Bill of Health!

Woohoo! Got back from the doctor yesterday, and for the first time in my life, my cholesterol has gone DOWN.

Also, my triglycerides, which were somewhat elevated last year, plunged down into normal ranges. My ratios of good and bad cholesterol are suddenly really really good for a Caucasian human female in her mid-thirties. Rather unexpectedly, I’m a very healthy person.

I expressed bafflement to my doctor. I have slung a lot of mulch, that’s one explanation. My weight certainly hasn’t gone down at all (it’s actually up a bit these days, since it’s too bloody hot for mulching) but I will pretend that large chunks of it are muscle. The only other two reasons that we can come up with are that going off the pill REALLY helped, and the possible one that since we joined a meat CSA, every chunk of meat I eat at home (or at most of our local restaurants) is free-range organic hormone-free antibiotic-free stupidly-healthy meat. I honestly never have any idea how much importance to assign to such things—I do it because it’s ethical and tastes damn good more than because I expect to live any longer*—but I suppose it’s possible.

On the downside—and there’s always a downside—my heart, while not defective per se, definitely seems to have been a floor model purchased at 20% off. Fortunately it hasn’t repeated the Great Palpitation Experience of 2006, where, right after closing on the house, it began doing some exciting little shimmies and I got to wear a monitor taped to my chest for a month. (Diagnosis: stress. I got a divorce a year later, had a full-on nervous breakdown, and my heart chugged along with nary a twitch. The moral of the story is apparently that buying your first house is way more stressful than a divorce. There are charts that bear this out.)

But it does occasionally do a bit of a SQUIR-thrWOP! thing and I go “Dude! Shit! That was a thing!” and then I’m fine. It seems to all be normal variation of human experience, but it happens often enough—and there’s one position I lay in where things start thudding around pretty enthusiastically—so I get to go in to the cardiologist and get an echo-cardiogram to see if anything has exploded recently.

Also, my nurse practitioner puts up with a lot of crap from me, and has long since joined the list of People Who Understand What Ursula Is Like.

I asked “So, if my heart stops, will it hurt?”

She gave me the look that I usually give the beagle and said “Will it hurt?”

“I’m afraid I won’t notice.”

“You’ll notice. If it’s a heart attack, it’ll keep trying to beat, and it will hurt a LOT.”

“And if it just stops…?”

“Just stops?”

“Like I’m watching TV and Dude! My heart! It’s stopped! Will I notice that? I mean, before I die?”

She rubbed her forehead, probably wondering when she drew the short straw. “You’ll have about twenty seconds to panic and not be able to breathe. It won’t be nearly enough time to do anything about it.”

“Will it be time to hit my boyfriend, clutch my chest, and say “Call 911!?”

She made a grim snorting noise that conveyed exactly how much good that was going to do and said “Like I said…not nearly enough time to do anything about it.”

(I gathered from this that by the time the ambulance crew arrived, I’d be a really awesome organ donor.)

“But I’ll notice?”

“Yes. You’ll notice.”

Strangely, knowing these things makes me feel much better.  (This is the same woman to whom I confessed that I was afraid I’d get cancer and try to pop the tumor because I’d think it was a zit. She looked at me, down at my history, and said “In your case, that’s…actually kind of a concern, yeah…”)

I kinda wonder if stuff like this is why they always send the med students along to observe, or if it’s just that not all that many women are comfortable with standing room only for a pap smear.

 

 

*I am perfectly willing to believe that it is better for me, but there’s people in the organic food movement who I suspect are trying to cut a bargain with an uninterested universe. “If I only eat gluten-free soy-fed meat from cows who have never been exposed to sunlight, Nothing Bad Will Be Allowed To Happen To Me.” I am never quite sure where the line is between enlightened consumer and trying to buy carbon offsets from God, but I do know good bacon when I eat it.