Eleanor Tolliver’s heels clicked on the sidewalk—click click, click click, like a cantering horse, if a horse could canter in size seven and a half shoes. It was odd, this lopsided step, in a woman whose lavender suit had been bought last week at Lord & Taylor. Really, she admitted to herself as she clicked down Elm Street, she should not have bought the narrows. The left shoe, in particular, pressed against her corn and produced the cantering gait we have noticed.
Dragon brides are notoriously difficult women. We have lived with dragons, after all, those strange and terrible animals with their curiously human eyes, and some of us come back down from the broken mountains with their hisses still in our ears. I was taken by the green dragon of Mahr when I was fifteen, and it was a full year before my lord brought me back down. Forty years would pass before I would come to those steep paths again.
At rest, coiled up, Michael’s mother is about the size of a riding mower. Michael’s living room is not much bigger than her.
With a shudder, she rises. Her little piston feet march, pulling her out of her coil. Lifters above the feet kick out like dancers in a line. She snakes into the kitchen. Julie shrieks in horrified delight. Their mother opens the refrigerator. Julie and Michael watch as she prepares them lunch. She nudges them into chairs at the table. They haven’t eaten at the table in a long time. Maybe she’s getting better.
I knew she was there. Lenet believed she was stealthy, and would perhaps have been correct, had I not been the cat of the Duke’s Theatre for four long years. All the sounds that grand old building could make were known to me . . . including the sound of a barefoot Cait Sidhe girl stalking the rafters like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. The footsteps stopped above my head. “Rand,” Lenet hissed, voice pitched low to keep it from carrying to the audience below.
“There’s a dark side to sloths,” she said, using her straw to plumb the ice at the bottom of her glass, flicking red-blonde hair out of blue-blue eyes. “Sometimes they go to grab a branch, but accidentally grab their own arm, and then fall to their deaths.” “Because of the mossy fur?” I guessed, also guessing at the best way to put my hand onto hers on the bubbled-glass patio table. I could see her suntanned legs underneath and it put sparks under my skin.
Looking up, Matthew saw pictures in the ripples and dimples of satin as if they were layers of clouds over Munson’s Hill. There, in the far corner: That drape looked like one of Mr. Venable’s cantankerous swans. And just overhead was the familiar lumpy profile of Mr. Krohn the wheelwright, mouth yawning wide. Matthew grinned at the thought of fat Mr. Krohn wedged into this narrow space.
On the third day of the sightseeing trip, among walrus-laden icebergs, they run into slurry. At the fore, Skipper sticks a boat hook into the water. “There are plenty of critters here,” he says. “It’s like playing grab bag. You’ll always catch something on the hook.” He thrusts the boat hook up and down a couple of times, stirs it in the slush, and pulls it out again. A transparent little rag is impaled on the tip.
Everyone has secrets. Even me. We carry them with us like contraband, always swaddled in some sort of camouflage we’ve concocted to hide the parts of ourselves the rest of the world is better off not knowing. I’d write what I’m thinking in a diary if I could believe others would stay out of those pages, but in a house like this there’s no such thing as privacy. If you’re going to keep secrets, you have to learn to write them down inside your own heart.
The scent of fresh lilacs and the boom of a cannon shot muffled by distance prefaced the arrival of the rabbit hole. Louisa jerked upright in her seat, and her book fell from her lap to slap against the cold pavement of the station floor. Dropping a book would normally cause her to cringe, but instead she allowed herself a spark of excitement as a metal maintenance door creaked open on rusty hinges. Golden light spilled out onto dazed commuters. Was this it? Was this finally it?
I am ugliness in body and bone, breath and heartbeat. I am muddy rocks and jagged scars snaking across salt-sown fields. I am insect larvae wriggling inside the great dead beasts into which they were born. Too, I am the hanks of dead flesh rotting. I am the ungrateful child’s sneer, the plague sore bursting, the swing of shadow beneath the gallows rope. Ugliness is my hands, my feet, my fingernails. Ugliness is my gaze, boring into you like a worm into rotting fruit.