Work-In-Progress Excerpt

Posted on March 14, 2015 by


This is the piece I’ll be working on during Disquiet International under the tutelage of my friend and literary hero Alexander Chee. I recently started drafting the second segment of the novel, and thought I’d share a bit of it with you.


She fills the scratches in the bark with dulled fingertips, her face taken away from the cold, held back by the slumping ring of fur that frames it, which creates a wavering membrane where frozen air meets the breath of her body, warmed and fragrant with her.

One gold eye moves sightless with the other that is still human, which flicks its gaze crisply over the marks she made in this tree, seeing how the wound was healed, noting the time encapsulated there and expressed in the colors of the scar tissue.

She takes essential lemon oil ground together with salt, congealed by the temperature to the consistency of lard; she pushes it into the marks with her thumb. It’s a ceremonial mixture and holds no meaning to her but now that she’s extra-human and her gold gaze transfixes her people she keeps herself rigid propped up against their expectations and applies the rules she knows are more visible than they are effective. If someone follows her here they will understand what she intends in the faint waft of lemon rind; she makes herself more with rituals that she suspects are in themselves empty but that form a plinth for her image.

The old world animal is weeks gone, no spoor, no evidence that it was ever real, and she sees no visions in the tree bark—but when she stares into the bright sky ribbed with clouds like the fine bones of fish she feels the strangeness of the world more strongly, here in this marked copse of trees, changes that descended with the years before her birth that fell away from humans like sand from fingers, leaving them to grab hold of what they could to stave away extinction.

The gold irritates her socket despite the expert and meticulous efforts of Wacław, the coven’s blacksmith, a cairn of a man looming with lumpen muscle, quiet, curling dark hair tied up and back except when he works cold and then falling around his fingers which know what to do without telling.

As Calfuray thinks the livid sun lances her working pupil with violent gray and she weeps unconscious water that slinks over her chin and baptises her neck as warm and salted as blood. The boy she found naked and pale by the riverside has attached himself to her with labor: watching her keenly with moonlit stare, repeating her chores before she can, earning himself the space he inhabits in the goods cellar and the food she gives him to supplement his strange diet of boiled potatoes and milk fat. This isn’t as safe as she would like (he contributes to her economy now; he’s truly valuable) but safer than the dead rat she found him roasting once, unplucked, burning fur filling the air with sparks and a heavy smell.

It’s not hard to teach him though his vocabulary is limited to involuntary expression: he isn’t stupid and has confidence that his teachers are trying to help him. The tanner Jehan taught him how to hunt; after the dead rat the tanner realised his mistake and taught the boy how to flay, gut, and debone, portioning the muscle tissue to bait the traps that kept roaches and other carrion beasts away from the compound.

Calfuray tried weaning him from potatoes but he wouldn’t give them up for her—and she relented because they were cheap, plentiful, and would be even cheaper when the ground softened come warmer weather and she could plant a row of them behind the house.

From the compound comes the chestnut smell of roaring logs and the susurrus of drunken storytelling, as far back as this copse—which is out of sight from her house, again a few minutes’ walk from the square and its bonfires. She doesn’t stop to get anything; she has it all under her clothes, close to the skin, where it can warm; she doesn’t fancy holding a frozen knife handle.

At the edge of the fire closest to the back steps of the main house is a slump of dark cloth: long skirts and shirts and scarves, huddling around a bundle of twig bones desperate to stay warm—a slight white hand darts under the pile, having deposited an empty tin cup at its feet—the clothes list further, suggesting drunkenness or exhaustion; the wraiths that care for it, in pale lead makeup, red-lipped, step silently behind to separate the bundle from the crowd, to ensure that it does not topple.

You okay, says Calfuray, you want another beer?

Just tired, says the bundle, and its voice is stronger than Calfuray expects. Cool, thanks, more beer, sure Cal.

A wraith who is very good at her job is already moving toward the kegs.

You’re sweet, says the bundle. Its fingers emerge to caress Calfuray’s cheek; a silver ring glints in the firelight, which seems to strengthen as the sun fades behind the winter cloud cover that blankets the sky like snow.

Quicksilver, trapped in a bubble of blown glass, is this ring’s liquid jewel, moving with the gestures of the wearer, too close to Calfuray’s skin, pulling warmth from it—she shivers, disgust rilling down her spine. She hates Aalis’ ring, hates these dull and heavy clothes, hates the anvil they’ve become, dragging Aalis away from her into some incomprehensible depths.

Posted in: My Books