From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Promise

The story is an old one. Old as dirt, shit, blood, sleep, fire. Old before anyone set voice to it, set pen to it, aimed wanderers’ tongues and toes toward its reconnaissance. It digs deep, sinks its roots deep, drinks deep. It goes back and back and back.

You say you know it already. True, the stage, set by now, seems familiar. The archetypes are all in attendance. Girl, mother, basket, greenwood, cape. Yes, yes. But do you know the story?

* * *

Of a summer’s afternoon, a girl walked in a wood. Blackberry brambles hedged her way, and the trees breathed down her neck; but she had gone this way before, and so her feet knew the thick roots wrestling in the moss, the stony spots where the drywalls came down, the warrens that opened for her ankles. By practice or by happenstance, she never stumbled, never faltered, and with the bounce of the insouciant or the cocky in her step she danced laughing round these hazards. Never once did she stray from the path. She’d been better raised than that.

The girl was headed somewhere: she was sent. She was dressed in red. Her feet were bare. Between both hands she bore an empty basket, which she swung, canting sidewise like a churchman’s censer, skinning the light in long pale strips from the green earth. She tilted between trees.

She walked until her eye was caught. Then she glanced down, and saw an apple fetched against a rotten log. It was the size and shape of her own heart, but gold — less the gold of apples than the gold of ingots, and shrivelled leathery. To take it, she must step full off the path.

After the briefest of deliberations — her mother’d taught her chary, but her soul exacted marvel — her feet went off the tamped way, the apple went in the basket, and the girl walked on, her back to the path, into the trackless green.

She almost tripped over the second apple. Like the first it was withered and shining as if bound in the skin of a gilded corpse.

Taking it, this time she dared a bite. The apple tasted of nothing, and it had no core. Where the core should be she thought she saw a dark wet welling which might have been red ink. This gave her a little shudder, which for her pride’s benefit she guised with a great show of stretching out her arms. Then she crossed herself and cursed — there was no mother there to hear! — and pitched the apple off into the trees. And swaggered off, playing to no eyes but her own.

Twenty further paces brought her to the margin of a clearing, strewn with silver leaves and golden apples in various gradations of decay. In a perfect circle (so it seemed to her) not a thing grew — nothing save one lonesome tree, standing in the clearing’s exact hub, around which the array of windfalls and of trodden sodden leaves was ranged. The tree stood and threw wide tossing shadows. It was thrice the size of any apple tree she’d ever seen, black-branched and silver-leafed, with apples still swaying unnumbered from its arms. These apples, swollen golden with the crouching sun, bobbed against the leaden welter of the sky.

The girl cast about, determining the tree’s owner was either nonexistent or away; then she bent at the waist and scooped her basket full. Straightening, the blood rushed from her head and she must pause a moment, reeling, asquint toward the thick cool shadow just beneath the tree, the dark space where no leaves, no apples, lay. She was half-convinced she’d seen somebody, something, there, half-hidden in the gloom — and wholly convinced that he, that she, that it had not been there before.

Then, as the sparks dimmed from her eyes she saw that there was no-one there at all: only a handful of crows startled up and scattered from the branches. To her eyes they seemed as flakes of charred paper in an updraft, funnelling. She watched them glint blue as they peeled away.

When she looked back down, midway lightblind, she thought the figure had returned; she thought it grinned and beckoned from beneath the tree. She shivered, for she thought she saw its eyes.

To her credit she did hesitate, but to her pride she did approach, leaving applesauce footprints the whole way from the treeline to the shadow of the canopy. There she stopped short, unspeaking, unmoving, as wasps the size of hand grenades droned fatly round her head.

Come nearer, the shadow said. You may trust I am a gentleman.

And she took one step forward, out of the weaving lilac light, into the ring-pass-not beneath the tree.

That’s better. I’m not angling to eat you. Cross my heart.

She sneered at him — she had her child’s pointless arrogance — and sniffed: What heart is that?

His mouth smiled. Not his eyes.

Sit, he said, and gestured toward the moss.

She made a show of choosing. Then she sat.

He nodded at the basket, saying:

I see you’ve been admiring my apples.

They have a queer skin, she said. Like dead faces. And when I bit one it was red inside —

As red as that? he asked, with one eye on her little cape, the one her mother’d woven with her songs and iron charms and witchknots, when she’d thought the girl had been asleep.

She considered, then said, No.

Then, he smiled, it posed no threat to you.

She heaved a shrug and affected indifference.

What did the tree grow from, she asked eventually, if the apples haven’t any seeds?

I planted it, he said. I live here. I eat the apples exclusively. But you, you cannot eat them. They will drive you mad.

She thought this concept did not wholly lack appeal.

Still, something about him spooked her, and she shied a little, averting her eyes, her heart, her mind, from that sudden half-formed cognizance. I didn’t know the apples were yours or anyone’s, she said. I didn’t know you lived here. I never came this far before. Take them back, she added, toeing at the basket. They were never mine to gather.

True, he said, and curled his lip at her. But what do I care for them? Your precious pail of wasp-maggots and rot. What trash. Leave it for the creatures, so they won’t eat you up instead.

Despite herself, her eyes flew wide. Creatures?

He nodded, all solemnity, and said: There’s a monster in this wood, you know — a great black wolf with teeth like steak-knives; one must bribe it in good faith. Besides, I tire of these apples, he concluded, and pulled a sulkish face. Keep them yourself.

With that, he launched a sigh toward the canopy high above his head and hers. The girl’s gaze could only follow. Up there, the tree’s underbelly vaulted out like an empty-skulled cathedral, its branches’ radii ranged out like any crown of thorns, studded with the gold of hypocrites. The sky stood ankle-deep. But there —

As she jumped up to her feet, the dizziness returned, and so again she was not sure she’d seen what she had seen. She thought, however, that amid that shining sea of apples, there was one that was not gold, but red, as red as the golden apples’ cores. As if one had been turned inside out like apron-pockets, and beneath the skin was goldenness, or mystery, or nothing. It throbbed against the sky. She reached.

She stopped when she thought she heard him laugh.

Reluctantly she paused in her stretching and turned to face him. Her back was to the crimson apple now. As she looked on, he took an apple from her basket and raised it to his mouth. Once he had punctured it with his teeth (remarkably sharp, these specimens, in that light) he held it up for her inspection.

The apple did not drip juice from its wounds. It dripped blood. Blood rained lightly down to sheen the tumbled leaves with a sound like muffled weeping.

A space of silence, then her eyes climbed back up into his.

Whose is it, then? she asked. The blood.

Oh — he shrugged — everyone’s.

And — pointing at the one red apple on its branch — that one?

But he only shrugged again and looked away.

Annoyed by his strange coyness — but too ill at ease to dare complain — she only turned from him, resumed her straining toward that one high branch. Finally she managed to swat her apple down. She stooped swiftly to retrieve it, as if it were poised, like fairies’ dowries, for sudden total dissolution. She polished it on her red sleeve — but the apple was redder. It was the black red of clotted blood, burnished with dark silver. And unlike the golden apples it was not mummy-skinned; it glistened like water over stones. It twitched, or else her hand shook.

But she was not so afraid.

Armed with it she whirled on him.

Yes? he said.

Try this one, she demanded. This one’s something new.

He stared straight through the apple and through her with unadulterated indifference.

Whose is it, he said. Whose blood.

Why — she said, for suddenly she knew — it’s mine.

And, as a landslide sloughs rock from a scarp, the boredom in his face all fell away. His mouth became a maw, and gaped; in his eyes shone lights she did not like. This time, she was afraid.

Still, she did not turn and flee. No. She took the apple in both hands and gave it him, fed it to him herself, watched him bolt it in one go. And then she kissed him, though she did not know quite why, or quite how. His mouth was thorns and nails, ungiving. She felt her mother’s witched cape fall away.

How still the day, with its smashed sun and its amethystine sky, and the gore on his unearthly teeth and the honey of her blood shifting its continents, in the terminus of all ways beneath the tree where her soul knelt begging and was answered: he came to her and took her in his arms and lowered his mouth on her and with infinite tenderness tore out her throat.

Such an offering.

* * *

A girl lay on a bed. The bed was made of wet grass, slick and viscous as a snail’s path, gleaming in the failing light. The sun rode low in the sky, skimming along like a skipped stone on higher hills. Dusk was dropping fast. In what greenish twilight sieved down through the leaves, one might see the girl was girl no longer: just a corpse, a husk, a shell, gently oozing like a ravaged poppy in the moss.

Beyond the tree a shadow paced, a cutout on the night. Back and forth it went, forth and back, its circuit describing the precise boundary between the gold-strewn clearing and the inner, purer dark. It would not, it seemed, cross this line. The shadow’s shadow had the walk of a caged cat. Its teeth were like steak-knives. At a guess, it was not receptive to bribery.

It appeared to be waiting. Let it.

The girl, for her part, was dreaming.

Her dreams were like doors she opened, halls she walked, arches without keystones under which she passed only with hesitation. Dreaming, she went from room to room, following the sound of voices; she stalked ghosts she could never catch. She dreamed a city interred in a meringue of snow, a city burning as it sank into the sea. She dreamed dresses she was made to wear, and which all stank of graves, were plotched with spreading stains. In a dream she put one on and felt herself change underneath, as though the dress were her new skin, and she’d no need of any other. She swirled skirts and sashayed.

On the far side of the veil, there was no question but the girl was dying, was in fact nearly dead. The pain was excruciating, like being flayed and re-pieced over and again. But she was beyond it. She had not claimed that pain, and so it was not hers. Hers instead was the blackgreen moist plush of the forest, where the shotgun wound of the midday sun flared down on her through purple attics, and she, she was reassembled. Beneath the gold fruit of the black tree she spun in giddy circles, singing.

And that was all she had.

* * *

Approach her softly, witness, with the light. Fret not: she will not wake, not now, not anymore; and the fire just might keep the creeping beast at bay. Raise it up. Ah. There.

The girl (for such she seems to you) lies dead, or near enough. The great wound at her throat is near-deleted in the flattery of night, but all around her spreads the telltale stain.

On one side, however: another, different stain.

The thrown light of the lamp is such that the girl’s shadow tapers out against the mosses, crisp and dark, a kirigami twin. Once your eyes adjust to the dimness, the line’s clarity must no longer be squinted at in order to divine. It is perfectly described. And so you knuckle at your eyes, stare sidelong, blink and blink, but you cannot see other than what you see.

The shadow the girl casts is not in a girl’s shape. No twin, this light-fetch, or if it is, it is no twin of her body, but maybe it is of her heart. And for some minutes now you’ve been watching as this shadow — you know not what else to call it — twitches its four legs in sleep, chasing flittish dappled things through the other forests of its dreams.

In hindsight, though, how could you say for sure?

* * *

The girl woke, reaching — but he was long since gone. Her basket still sat full beside her, though, and all around the place where she had lain she found the grasses dampened with a darkness resembling red ink, like the golden apples’ hearts. Beyond the shadow of the tree, another mystery: strange new footprints in the rotting fruit. These were like the footprints of a tethered dog that pacing sounds its boundaries, but they belonged to a creature rather larger than any dog she knew: each print was the size of both of hers, and pressed thrice as deeply in.

For a time she waited, leaning as he’d leaned against the black trunk of the tree. She hazarded an apple. It tasted of lonely roads and nightmares. Another: reminiscent of lost children, fast asleep in snow. Another: drowned ghosts, seaweed-strung. The blood ran singing down her chin. She blotted at it with her hair.

She waited further, as time passed. Out of boredom she tried numbering the apples in her high breeze-jostled ceiling; she tried to daisy-chain a fistful of the silver leaves; she watched wasps; she attempted sleep. She emptied out her basket fruit by fruit, to see how far they’d throw. When one made the treeline, she decided, she would leave. But none of them quite did.

Basket emptied and in hand, then, she resumed her errand of the day before. Already she had bound her throat and eaten of the golden apples: what more remained to do?

So she stepped out from the underbelly of the tree. The last light stitched her shadow to the soles of her feet. This shadow was the shadow of a wolf, a blood-colored wolf, a wolf boxed, for now, in the pink betrinketed skin of a girl. What sweet promises slept behind its eyes.

She was going to see her grandmother.

* * *

The grandmother lived at the wood’s edge, between which point and the house of the girl’s mother, the black-branched apple tree was equidistant. In no time at all the girl had reached the hem of that property. She unlatched the gate, crossed the walk, knocked at the front door, stood unanswered, let herself inside.

There was not a soul at all at home. Perhaps the mother had not foreseen this, sending her child out into the wood on such a trivial task, but grandmother’s fabled hypochondriasis had always kept her tucked up snug indoors, the summer notwithstanding, barricaded with teas and compresses and quilts against all the lures and pitfalls of the wide-winged universe. She must be brought food and firewood, her linens must be washed and changed, her bed-pots would want emptying. She loathed the sun and feared the air. And now, now she had vanished altogether.

Gingerly the girl disburdened herself of the empty basket and made the cottage’s rounds, full knowing what she’d find: grandmother’s table stacked to toppling with tidemarked teacups, plates of toast-crumbs, knives streaked with butter and ambery marmalade; her porch heels-deep in bramble suckers; her cupboards nearly bare. In one corner lurked a heap of soiled petticoats, and in another was the chamber-pot, the girl’s decided enemy.

On the bed itself she discovered grandmother’s nightie, as well as the bed-jacket and bonnet which were grandmother’s arsenal against the summer evening breeze. These garments were all laid out on the bed, beneath the coverlet, above the sheet, in an attitude of meticulous arrangement: the bonnet on the pillow like a dreaming head, the jacket’s sleeves folded piously over the coverlet’s greyed hem, as if unseen fingers grasped at it in sleep. Even the stockings were in place, disappearing long and woolen into the nightie’s skirt. But no legs or feet were in them.

Half-afraid, unknowing why, the girl lifted up these articles each by each, folding them crisply and stacking them with more haste than decision at the headboard, as though she worked a warding charm against she knew not what. (Her mother’d taught her well, and so she patted pockets, cast about, but found no iron, no silver, and no string. A hope would have to do.) Perhaps grandmother had gone mad, left her clothes inside to slumber in her stead while at present she ran naked through hyacinths and twilight. Or perhaps she was there now, only the girl could not see her. She shuddered under eyes that might be there. But no: the girl passed a wary hand above the folded bed-jacket, poked the nightie, crumpled the bonnet in her fist. Nothing.

She draped the nightie back over one arm and reached out for a stocking.

And stopped dead.

There was a single spot of blood on the linens where the nightie had lain. To her eye it could be menstrual blood, such as she had recently grown used to scrubbing out of linens with flat stones. But — at grandmother’s age — ?

Behind her a faint rattling reached her, moved her to spin round.

As she watched, transfixed, the wardrobe door edged open, and the dying firelight and the dying sun disclosed a figure standing there inside, a figure looking back at her, a figure smiling as it kicked grandmother’s bones out of the closet and stepped out among their scattering. In the manner of a child with its fingers up a puppet’s back, he wore grandmother’s skull on one hand. His fingers uncurled, and grandmother’s mouth came open, saying:

Child.

The girl flattened herself on the wall.

You did not wait for me, he said. You did not trust me to return. Well, maybe you trust me now.

What is it, she said, you want of me?

The dead mouth clacketed around his laugh.

All change is constant, he said. The only constant is change.

What?

He said: The walls flicker when pointed at. The mirror is a window. The window is a door. Long live, he said, the dead.

She said: You killed her. You’ll kill me. So — kill me, and have done.

And she shut her eyes up tight, counted to ten. When she opened them, he had not disappeared at all. Rather, he was saying:

I found this bag of rot burying tumors in the root-cellar. She would not be ravished by the world. But you — you are lost and fearless. You are the same as me.

Come with me, he said, and I will show you such wonderful things.

And he glided forward, out of the circle of unspeaking bones, into the azure square where the moon bled down through the window. He reached out. She set her hand in his, where it fit like a glove. She stepped into the blue.

The moon called to her there, called quiet and fierce, whispered her name into her mouth, walked its fingers up her bones. Deep down she itched, her heart itched: deeper still: her soul: from scalp to guts to heels. Her quiddity. She tore at herself with tooth and nail — and she began to peel away. She ripped and gnawed and flayed, she unravelled, she undid herself in patches and in sheets: red cloth, white skin, red blood, white bone. And in the showman’s light of the moon her nails stretched into claws, her jaw yawned on teeth like steak-knives, and she howled in the voice of all the stories all the aching dead would tell, and ate herself alive.

* * *

Such tales you could tell of the space haunted at the corner of the eye, the stomping-ground of every terror of every threshold, where every creature born of every fever-dream resides. Still you can find, there, if you are lucky, occasional new beasties going bump in the archetypal night — for instance, a black wolf of unnatural size and aspect; and another: redder, smaller than the first. Strangely, the shadow following this second animal seems dissimilar to a wolf’s: instead it is like nothing so much as the shadow of a barefoot girl, swinging a basket through an endless summer’s afternoon.

By night, they run together. By day, their secrets are their own.


Nicole Kornher-Stace was born in Philadelphia in 1983, moved from the East Coast to the West Coast and back again by the time she was five, and currently lives in New Paltz, NY, with one husband, three ferrets, a brand-new baby boy, and many many books. Her short fiction has appeared in Best American Fantasy, Zahir and Rhapsoidia, is forthcoming in Ideomancer and a yet-to-be-named anthology from Prime Books, and was nominated for the 2007 Pushcart Prize. Her first novel is due out in 2008 from Prime Books. She can be found online at www.nicolekornherstace.com.

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