If you have a worry your heart can’t seem to hold, take your troubles to the trees, my grandmama would say. That was in the Old Time, when I was a small girl with scraped knees and ashy legs, a neck full of sun. Her words would comfort me as I grew older, my baby fat yielding to strong woman curves and hips. Then I would fling my arms around my secret tree and whisper my sorrows into her knotty breast.
Wild Bill “The Buck” Williams rode into town for a drink, but he stayed for the pretty boys. He was as mean as they said but not so tall: a lean, hard man with a rocky face and a broad mustache, slicked at both sides from a tin of fat he kept in a satchel round his waist. That first night he broke a man’s jaw for cheating him at poker. I didn’t just hear the story, I saw it—how Wild Bill clocked the fucker upside the face, emptied the last of his drink, and knocked out half the man’s teeth with his mug.
Isabeau came to Castle Coeurlieu as a girl of twelve, and its lady: She had been married two weeks before to the Comte de Coeurlieu, who was thirty-two and very large, with an always-angry hatchet face slashed and pierced through the left cheek where he had taken a crossbow bolt at the battle of Leprans, full six years ago. She had been excited beforehand: She knew it was a grand match, beyond her family’s deserts, and he was famous.
You’ll see them someplace you’re going when you’re trying to make the most of your time. They’re standing at the top of the steps to the public library (the amazing branch where they do the photoshoots, not the squat concrete one you go to), or they’re on the balcony at a concert you overheard someone talking about. They’ll be at the greatest altitude you can reach while still seeming effortless; they like being able to look down.
The monkeys are white-faced capuchins. Small things, their lean, black-furred bodies stand in stark contrast to the white tufts of their faces and shoulders. The Russians have cannons that can blast an airship apart in ten minutes and armored steam knights called kolotar, but of the many dangers I face on a warship a mile above the Black Sea, I fear the monkeys I tend most.
“Do not tarry,” a man whispers behind me. “They eat meat as well, boy.”
When I was sixteen, I sold my teeth each Thursday, and that is how I first met the doctor. This was before his celebrated school, his fame, his dogged pursuit of bodies for his collection, back when he was very young and took his income as a dentist. While the ladies of society ate cakes until their smiles were the same gappy gray cobblestone as our London streets, my own hungry mouth was full of pearls, and I let the doctor harvest them.
In your version of the story, the girl is a junkie. She is seventeen, standing on the side of the road with a garbage bag at her feet, and in the bag, she has a teddy bear and a box of Girl Scout cookies she stole from her niece. Her arm is outstretched, palm facing the sky. She’s hitchhiking but not with her thumb. It looks like she’s asking the sky for rain. When a car pulls alongside her, it’s the mother’s boyfriend and he says, Hey, sugar. She begins to run.
Octavia was at the last gate when the alarm sounded. A small army of bristling weapons encircled her. The bag shuddered in her grip, panic rippling through its weave. She gripped it tighter, reassuring it. It’s your hair, it sent tremulously. Told you to straighten it and bind it tight; they don’t like big black hair. She squeezed it tight against her side: Hush, hush. “Step aside, ma’am,” said a man in a grey uniform.
The carpenter was alone and living out of his truck. He had been out of work for a long time when he found an envelope in his post office box. The envelope was black and coarse as hair. Instead of a seam, it had a mouth. When the carpenter picked it up, the mouth bared iron teeth and told him that he was hired. It would be his job to go to old houses the bank owned, fix them up, and kill their monsters.
You’re far more likely to have heard of my artist wife Lucille Hrade than of me. Her paintings have a way of communicating directly to people. They’re realistic—you can see the subjects of her portraits breathe, feel the heat of her sun-baked landscapes—but at the same time, like Andrew Wyeth’s work, they have just enough of what I call the askew in them to make you think you’re daringly enjoying experimental art.