October 25, 2013

Spooky Times: A Halloween Excerpt

The lovely Ida Lupino

by C. Margery Kempe

We all had hoped to have a Halloween-themed anthology of novellas out this year, but we’re still in the process. I thought the spookiness of the season would give me a reason to give you a little taste of “The Lying, The Witch and The Wardrobe” my sexy seasonal offering, just to whet your appetite:

We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits,
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry, thirsty roots?

~ Christina Rossetti, The Goblin Market

[Our heroine Jeanie just lost her job and has temporarily moved in with her mother]

Jeanie sighed. Look at this room! If she hadn’t taken down the now-embarrassing posters of her teen pop star crushes, the room would look little different from when she was in high school.

Maybe even junior high, Jeanie realised with a sinking feeling. Oh, stop feeling sorry for yourself and do something useful, she scolded. Rubbing her eyes to dry them, she hopped up and went over to her altar. Clearly her mother had dusted it, but the half-burned candles had a neglected air, so she stuck them in the cabinet below and got some fresh ones out. Crossing the room she opened her red bag to remove the figures that had graced the altar in her flat in Springfield. Freya, Kali, Brigit and Bast looked much more at home here in her old room, circling around the Ganesh statue her father had bought for her birth. The elephant-headed god always remained here, a spiritual anchor to her home.

With a lifetime of practice, Jeanie cleared her mind and focused. I am here, I am present, the magic is in me. She lit a candle of welcome and thankfulness and prepared to set her intentions. For a moment, she faltered, then fell back on her standard mantra: I am ready for the opportunities the fates bring my way. Let me be open to the possibilities.

That simple act of faith made Jeanie feel immensely better. She set about putting away the rest of her clothes and things with a pleasant song humming in her head. After all, she was home, the apples were ripening in the orchard, summer still held its golden sway. In fact as the morning wore on, the room was beginning to feel a bit too warm.

Jeanie stepped out into the hall to open the door to the ‘jumble room’ as they always called it. Getting the stubborn window open in there would get a cross breeze going and cool things down much faster.

It took a few tries to get the sash up. The wood had swollen in the summer heat. Chances are no one had tried to open it yet this year. Her mother and grandmother both had rooms on the lower floors. Jeanie propped the window open with the little stick kept on the sill for that purpose and then looked around the jumble room. It hadn’t changed much either. For years it had accumulated anything out of season or unused and on its way to being discarded.

Yet even here, the neatness of the house continued. Snow boots were lined up on racks. The various seasonal decorations were carefully stowed in neatly labeled boxes. Jeanie smiled. In any other house, this room would be an overstuffed chaos. The only discordant note came from the seemingly ancient mystery of her childhood: the antique wardrobe that stood like a sentinel between the two windows.

Jeanie approached it, feeling the anticipatory thrill of intrigue work its way up her spine. She knew the story well: it had belonged to her grandmother’s grandmother, Lizzie. It was made from the oak of a single tree. In their family, oak and apple had always been intertwined with family legends. Their orchards were watched over by mighty oaks hundreds of years old. Jeanie had wandered among them since she could first walk.

But this wardrobe retained its eerie appeal. It had belonged to her grandmother’s grandmother, but it had been sealed by that woman’s best friend and sister, Laura. Jeanie traced the red wax seal that bound the ribbon around it. Although wax, it did not give way to knife or nail, which Jeanie and her friends had all tried at various times.

The blood red wax bore a hand print, Laura’s she had been told. Jeanie traced it now. It very nearly matched her own hand’s size. As familiar as the shape of it had been all her life, the mystery of it pricked her curiosity as much as ever. Not least because Laura had disappeared without a trace.

Old magic, powerful magic: what took her away? They only knew what Beatrice’s grandmother had told her family, that the young woman had been taken by the goblin men. Jeanie shuddered. The goblin men had been part of her childish nightmares after she had begged to know the story. The animal-headed grotesques in Arthur Rackham’s illustrations Jeanie memorized with a delighted horror then regretted as they tromped through her bedroom in the dark.

She looked up at the top of the wardrobe where the legend was carved. There is no friend like a sister, the carved letters announced, in calm or stormy weather. What secrets did the enchanted box hold? Why had the goblin men stolen Laura away? Even back in the nineteenth century such news would have brought out the doctors and skeptics. Goblins indeed! If Jeanie hadn’t grown up in a family of witches, she supposed that it would be very hard to believe indeed.

Not that she had seen any goblin men: her mother was of the opinion that the worlds that contained other beings like goblins and the fae no longer intersected with their own. “Technology and the hustle bustle of modern life,” Gabriella said, when Jeanie had quizzed her for the umpteenth time. “Why, I expect that’s what drove them away. Though now and then I almost think I can hear the bells of that other land in the distance.”

“Do you ever seek it out?” Jeanie had asked, full of the boldness of the very young.

Her mother had laughed. “No, child. What would I find there that I don’t already have here?” Then she enveloped her in a fierce hug until Jeanie wriggled free with a child’s thoughtless impatience. My father’s death was still a raw wound then, Jeanie realised with a start. Poor mama.

Maybe that’s why Jeanie dreamed of goblins that night despite the comfort of her familiar old bed. The unsettling images woke her just as the first light of dawn approached, startled and at first uncertain of her location. Jeanie rolled away from the sunlight’s persistence and tried to organize her thoughts…

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