Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, Legends & Mythology

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Lake Crescent
Excerpt

Chapter One

Dad’s interest in myths, monsters, and cryptozoology had started with episodes of In Search of … when he was a boy growing up in Wyoming in the 1970s. Each week brought a new mysterious phenomenon to explore: Could plants respond to people’s thoughts? Did ancient Phoenicians visit New Hampshire? Were the images carved into the Nazca plains made by or for extraterrestrials? But nothing held Dad’s imagination hostage like the mystery animals — Bigfoot, Nessie, the swamp monster of the Louisiana Bayou. It took years to gestate, but when he came back from the Gulf War, he was obsessed. He started taking road trips with army buddies, visiting dark forests and quiet lakes, looking for creatures that conventional science scoffed at. Sometimes he’d take me along. But as the trips, which usually took place on school days, became more frequent, he usually ended up driving off by himself, leaving Mom and me waving in the driveway.

Eventually, he acted as if he was still travelling even when he was at home. He crashed on the couch or slept on the air mattress in the basement. His relationship with Mom became more that of lodger and host than husband and wife. He gave up looking for substantial employment altogether, opting to make just enough money to pay for his expeditions.

But for all his research, all his hours sleeping on hard ground and cooking over a campfire, the only things he had to show for it were a collection of blurry photographs and overflowing boxes of notebooks. When Dad took off, the notebooks were all that was left of him. Mom couldn’t bear to throw them out.

Every entry in those notebooks began the same. The name of a monster, or cryptid if you’re in that community, was written in capital letters, my dad tracing each letter in blue ink multiple times and underlining it with the same thickness. Then came pages upon pages of background — everything Dad had picked up at the local library or from TV documentaries. Finally, the entry became a journal, marked with the dates and times of his own explorations.

When I was a girl, I had no idea how far he drove on those trips. Only looking back can I compute the distances between Washington State, where we lived, and places like Point Pleasant, West Virginia, and Lake Champlain, Vermont. He even crossed the border into Canada, which seemed to have as many lake monster legends as it had lakes.

Dad’s last complete entry was about a lake monster called Cressie that supposedly lived in Lake Crescent on the island of Newfoundland in eastern Canada. Though Dad had written pages of background information about Cressie, there were almost no notes about his visit there. The only thing he had recorded, in the margins of the notebook, was the location and departure date and time for the ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Port-aux-Basques, Newfoundland. The date he’d jotted down was one week after the last time I ever saw him.

I remember the day he left. Mom tore into him right there as he was packing the station wagon, her voice resounding through the trees that separated our property from the neighbours’. Dad never came back inside the house after that. He didn’t hug me or kiss the top of my head, just gave me his half salute and smiled. Soon, the back of the station wagon disappeared as the road curved around the splayed-finger branches of the evergreens. I never dared to cry in front of him, saving that for later, once I was sure he was long gone and I was in my bed, a pillow muffling my sobs.

I wonder how far he got before realizing he’d left his notebook behind.

___

Our expedition to Crescent Lake would be a wild goose chase. I knew that going in. But the terms of my deal with the TV network stated very clearly that I could pick any cryptid anywhere in the world to cover in our second episode. So, why not Cressie?

You couldn’t tell it was late April when we landed. The Deer Lake airport was thoroughly dusted with snow, and high winds whistled through the automatic doors as the oil patch workers ahead of us went outside to greet their waiting loved ones. We were officially one month into spring, but this part of Newfoundland had apparently missed the memo.

The season, however, seemed to change sometime during the hour-and-a-half drive to Robert’s Arm. The sun was out, and it truly felt like a spring day, though with a definite chill in the air. I was surprised to see the harbour nearly empty, with the fleets of fishing boats already out on the water.

I suppose they had to get out on the water as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Gone were the days when, as Captain John Cabot’s crew remarked, the sea was “full of fish that can be taken not only with nets but with fishing-baskets.” The catch each individual boat can now expect has, in the past few decades, decreased significantly.

Much of the island of Newfoundland is a scar left over from the ice age, the soil having been scraped off into the oceans long ago by the receding glaciers. The harbour at Robert’s Arm was cradled by tree-covered hills that rose up to the rocky cliffs, as if protecting it from the ocean that swept in through a narrow gap. The main road led to the docks and boats; smaller roads criss-crossed up and along the hills, leading to houses, huts, and cabins nestled among the wind-swept trees and lichen-covered rock. Forces of nature left their fingerprints all over this landscape, and though it was weathered and cracked, it refused to break.

This was a beautiful wild place, but I was just too tired to fully appreciate it. I hadn’t had a moment to truly rest since we’d left Silver Spring, Maryland, hours earlier.

___

We dropped off our luggage at the Lake Crescent Inn, had a late breakfast that included lots of coffee, then climbed right back into the two rental vans. Our schedule was tight, and we had to get started.

Robert’s Arm was a picturesque town, with old houses dotting the shore and aluminum boats with outboard motors and other pleasure craft listing gently in the harbour. It was also eerily still, but for the odd sign of life now and then: a car would appear for a moment, then disappear behind an outcropping of trees; a small aluminum boat with an outboard engine would tear through the water, then vanish just as quickly as it had arrived.

After we parked, I got out and stood gazing out over the water, breathing in the cool sea air. I noticed a huge building perched on the hill at the edge of the narrow peninsula that pinched the bay before it flowed out into the ocean. The peaks of its roof and the chimney jutted up over the trees like a castle guarding the entrance to Robert’s Arm. At the bottom of the hill, the trees opened to reveal the entrance to a driveway. The road that curved around the bay ended there, and on the side opposite the driveway was a dock that looked lonely so far from the others.

“Interested in a spot of ghost-hunting?” someone whispered in my ear.

I’d been in a trance and started at the interruption.

It was Duncan Laidlaw, a British paleontologist who’d joined our team for this expedition.

“It does look like a beautiful old place. But look where it is. Like it was built by someone who wanted to lord their wealth and power over everybody else,” I replied.

“I imagine that was precisely the idea. Why it was built up there, lording over all the other houses in town. Probably comes with a dungeon for deformed heirs or something of the like,” he said, laughing.

Duncan and I turned and walked down the dock toward a white-and-blue fishing boat, patches of paint peeling off it like diseased skin. Next to the vessel stood a hunched man. I assumed this was Phil Parsons, known locally as “Captain Phil.” We’d arranged for him to take us out on the waters of Lake Crescent in his boat, the Darling Mae. The purpose being to search for giant eels.

“Captain Phil?”

“That’s me,” he said, removing his Greek-style cotton fisherman’s cap and walking across the dock, hand extended. “How d’you do, my dear?”

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The Doomsday Book of Fairy Tales
Excerpt

Happy Birthday, Jesse Vanderchuck!

It’s been forty years since I’ve seen the ocean. I mark that moment, the one when I first witnessed that infamous vastness, as one of rebirth. Standing on a wet beach, as near the break of day as makes no difference, I felt no larger than a mote. And hanging there, weightless, waiting for the sea to speak, I knew that one day I was going to die.

We were on a rare cross-country trip to visit my mother’s family. A three-hour drive down to Toronto, followed by a four-hour flight to B.C. From our little patch outside of Trout Creek to a commuter town east of Vancouver. My sister, Olivia, having just turned one, spent much of the journey letting us all know her displeasure, her volume turned to eleven.

I remember a lot of tension: my father constantly cracking his loud farmer’s knuckles. My mother’s company laugh — the she did reflexively when burdened with keeping the peace. It was less like fakery and more like camouflage.

There were unfamiliar foods I was expected to try and, more importantly, to like. Big Hungarian-style dishes like cabbage rolls and sour cream and sweet pierogies. I mean, who’d ever heard of a sweet pierogi? I heard a litany of cajoling that trip. There was the try it, you’ll like it; the just a bite, for Grandma; and the final concession, you don’t know what you’re missing. Perhaps I didn’t, but that was for me to decide, wasn’t it?

I did my best — less out of familial obligation and more out of my understanding of social rules. Not to mention the certainty that I’d bear the brunt of my dad’s frustrations should I be too resistant. My father was not a violent man. I don’t want to give that impression. He was a man easily irritated, and he was known to lack discretion when it came to venting his ire. I found it best to keep my head down and avoid catching friendly fire.

Anyway, the trip to the ocean. Dad had bundled us all into the car before sunrise, groggy and confused. Our soundtrack was the warm drone of CBC morning radio, the perfectly smooth diction of trained voices punctuated by interludes of indie rock or Inuit throat singing.

Dad was beaming with excitement, rare enough to begin with and historically fragile. As sleepy as I was, I had a tingle at the back of my mind that signalled caution. Not enthusiastic enough and he’d be disappointed. Too over the top and he’d suss I was faking. Whatever we were up for, I needed to craft an appropriate response, lest the ornament of his enthusiasm be carelessly crushed.

My mother, in many ways, was too honest for my kind of calculated behaviour. As much as she loathed conflict, she just as frequently waded into it as avoided it. Brave faces only took her so far. In any pantomime, she inevitably hit some kind of wall, beyond which there was no room for dishonesty. She was especially vulnerable at times when her guard was naturally low. Like then, as dawn broke wide against the horizon, at the very crack of creation.

When we left the main road to take a rutted dirt track between a pair of high grassy dunes, she muttered something like, “Where are we?”

Innocent enough. Reasonable, certainly. Perhaps her tone was slightly too sharp, or maybe the words hit some particular structural defect in Dad’s buoyant mood. An underlying pessimism kept him expecting negativity, so he might’ve reacted the same way regardless of what was said or by whom. The air in the car seemed to seize up like stricken oobleck. I knew that the calm was over. Time for the storm.

I was in the back seat on the driver’s side. In the rear-view mirror, I could see Dad’s mild smile wrench into a deep frown. From the top of his plaid-flannel collar, a line of sunrise-red crept up the nape of his neck. He bounced his palm off the top of the steering wheel before replying.

“I thought,” he said, voice drawn taut with careful control, “we would all enjoy going for a little drive to the ocean.”

On the radio, DNTO signed off, thanking its producers and contributors. Mum squinted at the dashboard clock. “We’re on vacation. Why so early?”

Now the steering wheel was squeezed, thick fingers squeaking as they rotated over the leatherette. Dad’s habit of intermittently clicking from halfway down his throat intensified, a sure signal he was about to boil over.

“Well, we’re here now, but if you want, we can just turn around and go home.”

Mum sighed, resigning herself to the familiar situation. We passed a sign that told us we were Now Entering Porteau Cove Provincial Park, and that swimming in the ocean was forbidden here. Barely glimpsed small print specified acidification, plastic pollution, and hordes of Humboldt squid as reasons to stay out of the water. As I breathed relief that I wasn’t the one who had set Dad off this time, I wondered if the squid mentioned were the ones that had developed venom sacs filled with liquefied PVC.

“Don’t be like that,” Mum said. “It’s a bad example for the children.”

No, I begged silently. Don’t drag me into this!

I watched Dad’s eyes flash up in the rear-view, their distinct blue hue gone hard and icy, and felt a pang of sorrow. As much as I was in for self-preservation, I felt bad for him. It’s hard for a kid to see a parent unhappy, and my father was rarely happy. The only place that kept him pleased for any length of time was his woodshop. For him, the meticulous tuning of tools, the cleaning and maintaining of machines, were akin to raking a Zen garden. If only he could’ve found that meditative calm at times like this. Maybe I should have carried around a set of oily socket wrenches as a preventative measure, dosing them out as needed.

The car stopped. Outside the sky was a shade paler than the smoked salmon frequently splayed across a long white plate on Grandma’s breakfast table. Gulls wheeled like shreds of paper being juggled on competing breezes, their gurgling laughter bouncing between sea and sky.

Back home, beside the creek formerly laden with trout, early mornings were nearly silent. Silvered snakes of mist coiled out from between trees along the face of the distant forest. Ghosts of blue jay and chickadee calls drifted across hushed fields, and the whole world felt painted onto the inside of a blown-glass bulb: frail and ready to shatter at the first loud sound.

Here there was no shortage of noise. Instead the swelling roar of what turned out to be the ocean itself permeated the stillness of the car. There were the gulls calling down to the fleets of sandpipers, and the sandpipers chirping amongst themselves as they ran stifflegged, weaving in and out of the surf.

The instant the engine went still, I was out the door, so glad to be free of the stifling tension that I nearly leapt into the sky. The sand was wet and dense underfoot, more like semi-set concrete than the gravelly lake beaches I was used to. It slapped beneath my sneakers as I ran toward the great shifting roar, away from what was almost certainly now a full-blown argument between my parents. I imagined I could hear Olivia’s rising cry from her car seat, as much from being woken up as from any situational distress. Given her status as the beloved baby, her upset might well have quelled my parents’ ire, redirecting their energies to sooth her. I couldn’t know, because I was close enough to the waves that their noise was all-consuming.

And the winds — one blew out from across the land, the great bellowing breath of the rising sun, flattening the fields of sea grasses and thrusting fists of warm air into my lower back. Another gust crashed boisterously from the water itself, its clammy, saltcrusted arms wide and sweeping, forcing me to brace against being knocked over.

It really was too bad that Dad didn’t get to see my reaction when I first set eyes on the ocean. He’d have been so pleased to see my ten-year-old mouth gaped in utter wonder. My instinct was to head directly for the water’s edge, to place my feet along the shifting join where it met the land, the way I did at Wolf Lake. Thankfully, I had enough sense to hang back. Even so, about every fifth wave came in so hard I was misted by spray. The smell was overwhelming and alien — fishy and salty and ancient. It assaulted the senses until, just as suddenly, it disappeared. Deep in the oldest part of my brain, it was understood as familiar. Beyond familiar even, if such a thing exists. It was huge and terrifying and unmistakably vital.

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The Centaur's Wife
Excerpt

PROLOGUE

In the beginning, a horse fell in love with a woman. Because magic was strong in the ground there, the horse dug himself a grave on his mountain and slept in it, buried in the dirt, on the one night a year when the stars are at their brightest. In the morning, he climbed out of the dirt as a man and made his way down the mountain. He stole clothes from a line when no one was looking and learned human language by watching men and women in the market square. The mountain’s magic was still with him, so he learned quickly, and by the time he reached the woman’s village you would never have guessed that he still had the heart of a stallion.

He’d been beautiful as a horse—black-maned and black-skinned, a white star in the centre of his forehead—and he was beautiful as a man, black-skinned and tall, a shock of white in his dark hair. The woman fell in love with him almost right away. He seemed wild to her but also familiar—she sensed a power in him that she wanted for herself, a different set of eyes with which to view the world. They courted and were married before the moon changed. The entire village came out to the wedding. After the music and the dancing were over, the villagers left them in the wedding tent—bright-eyed and flushed, two very-nearly strangers who were surprised to find themselves alone.

The woman was so beautiful he was afraid to touch her. She had lilies in her soft blonde hair and designs painted up and down her arms. The designs asked for happiness, health, children, an ever-loving husband—all of the good things anyone might wish a bride. The husband felt the symbols reach out and touch his stallion’s heart for the smallest of instants—felt them know, and pull away. A draft blew through the room, then the air cleared again.

In less than a month, the woman was pregnant. The pregnancy was hard but not unbearable, and the husband was so besotted with his wife, so fearful for her safety, that he carried her almost everywhere they went. In time she grew so big the villagers began to prepare for triplets. A neighbour fashioned a cart like a rickshaw, so when his wife became too big for him to carry, the husband could pull her around like a queen. Sometimes he gave the village children rides when they asked. Sometimes, when his wife was in pain, he did not.

She was pregnant for longer than usual. As her belly grew enormous, the rest of her became a shadow. When her time finally came, the panic in her blue eyes made the village midwives nervous, and so the elders sent for one of the doctors who travelled the countryside. Sometimes women left when children came into the world, and they weren’t about to let that happen. The doctor was also a woman. She was kind and gentle, with hands that were as strong as those of any man in the village, except perhaps the wife’s own husband.

The wife had gone into labour in the morning and struggled all that day and into the next. You could see the babies in her belly, trying to break through this last membrane, their sharp little fists and heels making bumps beneath her skin. But try as she might, she couldn’t push them out. After the second morning, the doctor placed a hand inside the wife and felt legs where a baby’s head needed to be.

“The first is breech,” she said, “and I can’t turn it. I’ll have to operate.”

No one in the village had ever seen an operation of any kind, and people crowded around the door and the windows. Everyone was worried. Would the babies survive? Would the wife? No one could bear to look at the anguish in the husband’s face.

But the doctor was the best, or so they’d been told, and she did not seem worried. She numbed the wife with drugs as best she could, then took her scalpel and made the first incision, quick and clean. Blood beaded up and ran down the wife’s belly.

As she worked, the doctor hummed a wordless song to calm the wife. “Three cuts,” she said, and smiled. “Three doors into the world for three special babies.” Her second incision pierced the fascia. The crowd had gone quiet, the only noise the doctor’s humming and the soft sounds of tissue giving way.

At the third cut, her scalpel gently slit the uterine wall. She did not stop humming. She set down her knife, pressed down and pushed in and scooped out the first baby.

The house went still for the smallest of moments. And then the screaming started.

The babies—and there were three of them—were red and squalling, one darker, two pale, all with the wife’s blue eyes and a perfect, plump little torso atop the body of a tiny horse. Each leg, slick with mucus, ended in a dark little hoof. A tiny girl, two tiny boys. The midwives all ran for the door. Monsters! they cried as they fell outside. They are monsters! Heaven help us. Get them away! When the villagers tried to rush inside, the husband roared with fury and blocked the way.

The doctor—whose hands didn’t shake, even now—laid each baby on the table, one by one. Then she turned back to the wife, still humming, and stitched up her wound as though nothing had happened. The wife, whose eyes were wide with terror, looked from the doctor to the babies and back, over and over. She didn’t look at her husband, who stood silent by the closed door. When she tried to speak, the doctor hushed her.

“You’ve been through so much,” the doctor said. She paused in her stitching and laid a hand against the wife’s cheek. “I think you should sleep now.” Perhaps the words were magic, perhaps it was the touch of her hand, but the wife fell asleep almost right away. When her breathing was untroubled and her stitches were done and the wound bandaged, the doctor moved to the crying babies and checked them over. They had strong lungs, she saw, and two hearts—one above, and one below—beating in sync.

“Lies will always come out,” the doctor said. “Even lies with the best of intentions.” She didn’t look up from the babies.

The husband didn’t say a word.

“You’ll have to leave,” the doctor said, “with the children. They won’t let you stay here.”

The husband swallowed hard. The doctor raised her head and watched him as the things he couldn’t say caught in his throat. “You aren’t from here,” she said. “You should take the children back to your old life.”

“My wife,” he said, finally. “What about my wife?”

The doctor, whose own mother had once been called a witch, knew of ground magic and could guess what had happened. She checked the babies over a last time—they’d all fallen silent—and considered a moment before she spoke. “Your wife won’t come.”

The husband shook his head. “No, she will come.” She loved him. Wasn’t he still a man, despite his stallion’s heart?

The doctor looked at the babies again—they were beautiful, in their strange, ungodly way—and sighed. Life and death went everywhere with her in her travels, hand in bloody hand. “If you do not leave tonight,” she said, “the villagers will kill them.” She’d seen enough of this to know—a deformed limb, a child born without a face. A child with no arms who’d been left outside to die in the snow. “They will kill you, too, if you fight them. If you love your children, you need to take them away.”

She could hear the pounding of his heart now, like a drum announcing its own end. He said, “I won’t leave without her.”

But when the wife woke up and saw the babies, she screamed with rage and hit the husband with her fists. “Kill them,” she told the doctor. “What monsters are these?” Who was he, this man she’d called her husband? He looked like a man but he wasn’t. She’d been deceived. Everything she’d
known was a lie. She had no husband now. “Get them away from me,” she said, and she covered her eyes in terror and disgust. “Get them away.”

When they heard her scream, the villagers began to pummel the house with shovels and sticks. The doctor swaddled the children as best she could, and when she placed them in the husband’s arms, he gathered each child numbly to his chest. He could barely understand what was happening. The doctor put goat’s milk in a couple of bottles, tucked them in her own satchel along with her provisions, and slung it over his shoulder. “It’s not a lot of food,” she said, “enough for a day, maybe two. Protect their heads,” she added, and then she swung open the door and stepped outside.

Such was her power—even now, after delivering these monster children—that the villagers fell quiet.

“They are leaving,” the doctor said, pitching her voice to reach all of the crowd. “They will not bother you anymore. Let them go.”

“They’re monsters!” someone cried. Inside the house, the wife began to wail. “We don’t want them here!”

“They are going and will not come back,” the doctor said, and the husband slipped out into the space that her words made. The villagers looked at the bundles in his arms and shrank back, and they let him walk past them and vanish into the darkness beyond their fires.

The man headed back to the mountain from which he’d come, grief and anger struggling in his heart. He fed the children the goat’s milk and soothed them when they cried, then found and milked more goats. When they reached his mountain, he climbed as far as he could, to where the magic of the mountain was the strongest, and he dug them a grave there, in the reddish-brown dirt beneath three weeping willows. It was not a night bright with stars, but he hoped the magic would still save them. The mountain—his home for so long—would save them. The magic of the trees around them, the roots that they pressed into the soil—all of these things had brought him to his love once, and they would do so again. They would make his children whole and human.

When the night deepened, he lowered the babies into the grave and, when they began to wail, settled himself in beside them and held them close. He pulled enough dirt over them to bury them almost but not quite. The babies, comforted by the closeness of his heartbeat, went silent. When he slept, they slept too. In his dreams, he stood beneath the sky and begged the mountain and the ground: Make them like me. Give them what you gave to me. In the dream he saw them all, two-legged and free, running in the village with the other girls and boys. Their mother smiled at them
as they played—everyone whole now, everyone happy.

In the morning, though, when the father pushed aside some of the dirt, he saw that the babies were unchanged. And when he stood up and looked down at himself, he saw his old black stallion chest and legs, though his arms were still the arms of a man and his human head still ached with
grief. Because, as the mountain knew, he had a stallion’s heart but a man’s love and longing. Like the babies, he belonged neither to one world nor the other, but somewhere in between. He wept then, for the first time. When he was done weeping, he woke the children, who’d grown bigger
overnight, and they crawled out of the hole to him. They stood on spindly legs and looked around at the morning, as though they had new eyes.

So it came to pass that the father and his children spent the rest of their days on the mountain. After a while the father stopped dreaming about his two-legged children running in the village, and eventually—long years later—he dreamed less of his wife. His children grew happy and strong; they’d known no other life. Though sometimes a rage would break in them and the father would be reminded of his wife, his human love, whose anger had erupted like a volcano, whose rage still burned bright at his betrayal. Other times, the fierceness of their anger would remind the father of himself, and the dark things he harboured, the grief that never went away. He tried to be gentle with them when they raged, but the children grew wary of their own anger, the same way they grew wary of their father’s love for them and the way he so jealously guarded their home.

When their father died, after many more years, they buried him beneath the three willows and wept over his grave, then slept there, sprawled beneath the stars. The next morning, when the sun came up, new beings pulled themselves out of the dirt where their father had been, beings that also had
the heads and arms of humans and the strong bodies of horses. When the children looked at all of these new siblings, they saw the mountain’s own glimmering anger in their deep and darkened eyes, and understood that though the mountain had taken their father back and given the children
companions so that they would not be alone, it had also not forgotten their father’s betrayal in leaving the mountain so long ago. It had given them a gift, but also a warning.

And that is how the centaurs came to be.

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Bunny
Excerpt

 1.

We call them Bunnies because that is what they call each other. Seriously. Bunny.

Example:
Hi, Bunny!
Hi, Bunny!
What did you do last night, Bunny?
I hung out with you, Bunny. Remember, Bunny?
That’s right, Bunny, you hung out with me and it was the best time I ever had.
Bunny, I love you. I love you, Bunny.

And then they hug each other so hard I think their chests are going to implode. I would even secretly hope for it from where I sat, stood, leaned, in the opposite corner of the lecture hall, department lounge, auditorium, bearing witness to four grown women—my academic peers—cooingly strangle each other hello. Or good-bye. Or just because you’re so amazing, Bunny.  How  fiercely  they  gripped  each  other’s  pink-and-white  bodies, forming a hot little circle of such rib-crushing love and understanding it took my breath away. And then the nuzzling of ski-jump noses, peach fuzzy cheeks. Temples pressed against temples in a way that made me think of the labial rubbing of the bonobo or the telepathy of beautiful, murderous children in horror films. All eight of their eyes shut tight as if this collective asphyxiation were a kind of religious bliss. All four of their glossy mouths making squealing sounds of monstrous love that hurt my face.

I love you, Bunny.

I quietly prayed for the hug implosion all year last year. That their ardent squeezing might cause the flesh to ooze from the sleeves, neckholes, and A-line hems of their cupcake dresses like so much inane frosting. That they would get tangled in each other’s Game of Thrones hair, choked by the ornate braids they were forever braiding into each other’s heart-shaped little heads. That they would choke on each other’s blandly grassy perfume. Never happened. Not once.

They always came apart from these embraces intact and unwounded despite the ill will that poured forth from my staring eyes like so much comic-book-villain venom. Smiling at one another. Swinging clasped hands. Skins aglow with affection and belonging as though they’d just been hydrated by the purest of mountain streams.

Bunny, I love you.

Completely immune to the disdain of their fellow graduate student. Me. Samantha Heather Mackey. Who is not a Bunny. Who will never be a Bunny.

I pour myself and Ava more free champagne in the far corner of the tented green, where I lean against a white Doric pillar bedecked with billowing tulle. September. Warren University. The Narrative Arts department’s annual welcome back Demitasse, because this school is too Ivy and New England to call a party a party. Behold the tigerlily-heavy centerpieces. Behold the Christmas-lit white gauze floating everywhere like so many ghosts. Behold the pewter trays of salmon pinwheels, duck-liver crostini topped with little sugared orchids. Behold the white people in black discussing grants they earned to translate poets no one reads from the French. Behold the lavish tent under which the overeducated mingle, well versed in every art but the one of conversation. Smilingly oblivious to the fact that they are in the mouth of hell. Or as Ava and I call it, the Lair of Cthulhu. Cthulhu is a giant squid monster invented by a horror writer who went insane and died here. And you know what, it makes sense. Because you can feel it when you’re walking down the streets beyond the Warren Bubble that this town is a wrong town. Something not quite right about the houses, the trees, the light. Bring this up and most people just look at you. But not Ava. Ava says, My god, yes. The town, the houses, the trees, the light—it’s all fucked.
 

I stand here, I sway here, full of tepid sparkling and animal livers and whatever hard alcohol Ava keeps pouring from her Drink Me flask into my plastic cup. “What’s in this again?” I ask.

“Just drink it,” she says.

I observe from behind borrowed sunglasses as the women whom I must call my colleagues reunite after a summer spent apart in various trying locales such as remote tropical islands, the south of France, the Hamptons. I watch their fervent little bodies lunge for each other in something like rapture. Nails the color of natural poisons digging into each other’s forearms with the force of what I keep telling myself is feigned, surely feigned, affection. Shiny lips parting to call each other by their communal pet name.

“Jesus, are they for real?” Ava whispers in my ear now. She has never seen them up close. Didn’t believe me when I first told her about them last year. Said, There is no way grown women act like that. You’re making this up, Smackie. Over the summer, I started to think I had too. It is a relief in some ways to see them now, if only to confirm I am not insane.
“Yes,” I say. “Too real.”

I watch her survey them through her fishnet veil, her David Bowie eyes filled with horror and boredom, her mouth an unimpressed red line.

“Can we go now?”

“I can’t leave yet,” I say, my eyes still on them. They’ve pulled apart from one another at last, their twee dresses not even rumpled. Their shiny heads of hair not even disturbed. Their skins glowing with health insurance as they all crouch down in unison to collectively coo at a professor’s ever jumping shih tzu.

Why?”

“I told you, I have to make an appearance.”

Ava looks at me, slipping drunkenly down the pillar. I have said hello to no one. Not the poets who are their own fresh, grunty hell. Not the new incoming fiction writers who are laughing awkwardly by the shrimp tower. Not even Benjamin, the friendly administrator to whom I usually cling at these sorts of functions, helping him dollop quivering offal onto dried bits of toast. Not my Workshop leader from last spring, Fosco, or any other member of the esteemed faculty. And how was your summer, Sarah? And how’s the thesis coming, Sasha? Asked with polite indifference. Getting my name wrong always. Whatever response I offer—an earnest confession of my own imminent failure, a bald-faced lie that sets my face aflame—will elicit the same knowing nod, the same world-weary smile, a delivery of platitudes about the Process being elusive, the Work being a difficult mistress. Trust, Sasha. Patience, Sarah. Sometimes you have to walk  away, Serena. Sometimes, Stephanie, you have to seize the bull by the horns. This will  be followed by the recounting of a similar creative crisis/breakthrough they experienced while on a now-defunct residency in remote Greece, Brittany, Estonia. During which I will nod and dig my fingernails into my upper-arm flesh.

And obviously I haven’t talked to the Lion. Even though he’s here, of course. Somewhere. I saw him earlier out of the corner of my eye, more maned and tattooed than ever, pouring himself a glass of red wine at the open bar. Though he didn’t look up, I felt him see me. And then I felt him see me see him see me and keep pouring. I haven’t seen him since then so much as sensed him in my nape hair. When we first arrived, Ava felt he must be nearby because look, the sky just darkened out of nowhere.

This evening, all I have done in terms of socializing is half smile at the one the Bunnies call Psycho Jonah, my social equivalent among the poets, who is standing alone by the punch, smiling beatifically in his own antidepressant-fueled fever dream.

Ava sighs and lights a cigarette with one of the many tea lights that dot our table. She looks back at the Bunnies, who are now stroking each other’s arms with their small, small hands. “I miss you, Bunny,” they say to each other in their fake little girl voices, even though they are standing right fucking next to each other, and I can taste the hate in their hearts like iron on my tongue.

“I miss you, Bunny. This summer was so hard without you. I barely wrote a word, I was so, so sad. Let’s never ever part again, please?”

Ava laughs out loud at this. Actually laughs. Throws her feathery head back. Doesn’t bother to cover her mouth with her gloved hand. It’s a delicious, raucous sound. Ringing in the air like the evening’s missing music.

Shhhhh,” I hiss at her. But it’s already done.

The laughter causes the one I call the Duchess to turn her head of long, silver faery-witch locks in our direction. She looks at us. First at Ava. Then at me. Then at Ava again. She is surprised, perhaps, to see that for once I’m not alone, that I have a friend. Ava meets her look with wide-open eyes the way I do in my dream stares. Ava’s gaze is formidable and European. She continues to smoke and sip my champagne without breaking eye contact. She once told me about a staring contest she had with a gypsy she met on a metro in Paris. The woman was staring at her, so Ava stared back—the two of them aiming their gazes at each other like guns—all the way across the City of Lights. Just looking at each other from opposite shores of the rattling train. Eventually Ava took off her earrings, still not taking her eyes off the woman. Why? Because her assumption at that point, of course, was that the two of them would fight to the death. But when the train pulled into the last stop on the line, the woman just stood to exit, and when she did so, she even held back the sliding doors politely, so Ava could go first.

What’s the lesson here, Smackie? Don’t jump to conclusions?
Never lower your gaze first.
 
The Duchess, in turning toward us, causes a ripple effect of turning among the other Bunnies. First Cupcake looks over. Then Creepy Doll with her tiger eyes. Then Vignette with her lovely Victorian skull face, her stoner mouth wide open. They each look at Ava, then at me, in turn, scanning down from our heads to our feet, their eyes taking us in like little mouths sipping strange drinks. As they do, their noses twitch, their eight eyes do not blink, but stare and stare. Then they look back at the Duchess and lean in to each other, their lip-glossed mouths forming whispery words.

Ava squeezes my arm, hard.

The Duchess turns and arches an eyebrow at us. She raises a hand up. Is there an invisible gun in it? No. It’s an empty, open hand. With which she then waves. At me. With something like a smile on her face. Hi, her mouth says.

My hand shoots up of its own accord before I can even stop myself. I’m waving and waving and waving. Hi, I’m saying with my mouth, even though no sound comes out.

Then the rest of the Bunnies hold up a hand and wave too.

We’re all waving at one another from across the great shores of the tented green.

Except Ava. She continues to smoke and stare at them like they’re a four-headed beast. When at last I lower my hand, I turn to her. She’s looking at me like I’m something worse than a stranger.

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