The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror (Paula Guran) selection, 2014
I cut off her head before I buried her.
I had no tools suitable to the task—only my pocketknife and the shovel—and it was a long, grisly, abhorrent job, but I had to do it, and I did.
I could not leave the chance that she might return.
I had been weeping when I started; by the time it was done, the last tattered string of flesh severed, I had no tears left in me, and my mouth and eyes and sinuses were raw with bile and salt.
I stuffed her mouth with wolfsbane, wrapped a silver chain around her poor hands, placed silver dollars over her staring eyes.
Then, at that most truly God-forsaken crossroads, under a full and leering moon, I began to dig Annette Robillard’s grave.
How, exactly, the Robillards were connected to Blanche Parrington Crowe, I never discovered. Cousins in some degree of her long-dead husband, but whether it was a Crowe daughter who married into the Robillards, or a Robillard daughter who married into the Crowes, the link was many generations in the past—surely not enough to count as kinship except in the genealogical sense. Nevertheless, I was informed, Mrs. Crowe considered the Robillards to fall under the umbrella of her family obligations; thus, when Marcus Justus Robillard asked for a cataloguer to come make sense of his family’s long-neglected library, Mrs. Crowe felt it incumbent upon her to send one.
By which, I was further informed, she meant me.
I tried to argue that one of the junior archivists—all of whom certainly needed the practice more than I did—would be both eminently suited to the task and far less disruptive to the Parrington in his absence, but Dr. Starkweather glared me into silence, and then said, “Mrs. Crowe was very specific, Mr. Booth. It appears that she trusts you.”
The grim incredulity in his tone told me that if Mrs. Crowe could have been talked out of the idea of sending me to Belle Lune, the Robillard estate, he would have done it. He had been heard on more than one occasion to say, publicly and loudly, that I could not be trusted to come in out of the rain.
“Then I suppose I, er, have no choice,” I said. “Does Mrs. Crowe anticipate…er, that is, is it supposed to be a long job?”
“No,” Dr. Starkweather said, even more grimly. “I have been instructed to release you from your duties for a week. That will be sufficient, Mr. Booth. I trust I make myself clear?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and was occupied for the rest of the day in the unsatisfying tedium of preparing my office for a week’s absence.
It would be unwise to specify the location of Belle Lune. I will say only that it was in the mid-Atlantic states, close enough to the coast that the wind, when in the right quarter, would bring the smell of salt. Robillards had lived there since sometime in the seventeenth century, and the house had been expanded and remodeled so many times that nothing of its original character remained. It was more brick than wood, with the columns beloved of the Neoclassical Revival added to the front as a dowager pins a diamond brooch to her bosom, and it stood on the edge of a tarn. I call it a tarn, although there are no mountains in the vicinity of Belle Lune, because I do not know of a word that better conveys the secretive aspect—dark and uninviting—of its waters. The Robillards called it the Mirror, although I never saw it to reflect anything at all.
I was met at the train station on Monday by a young man and a horse-drawn trap. He had apologized as he introduced himself: “Justin Robillard—I’m sorry about the antiquated transport, but my grandfather has an abhorrence of engines and won’t have them at Belle Lune.”
“Kyle Murchison Booth.” His gloved grip was strong, but not punishing; I was glad to be released from it all the same. “And I, er, I have no objection to horses.”
His smile revealed strong white teeth and made his brown eyes glint almost yellow. “That’s good. I appreciate it, Mr. Booth. Is it ‘mister?’ Or ought I to say ‘doctor?’ ”
He swung my suitcase into the back of the trap, and swung himself up just as easily.
“I don’t have a doctorate,” I said, climbing up beside him.
“Good. Don’t want to be rude.” He smiled at me again, and the impression of teeth was so strong that it took an effort to keep from edging away from him. I upbraided myself for being nervy and ridiculous, but I was nevertheless glad when his attention shifted from me.
He clucked the horse into motion and said as we rattled out of the yard, “We’ll have to make one stop. My sister Annette insisted on coming with me. She wanted to go shopping without my mother or any of my aunts.”
He seemed to be waiting for a response, although I could not imagine what he thought I might say. I could hardly insist that he abandon his sister. I mumbled awkward compliance, and that was the end of the conversation until the trap drew up in front of a building with the words FOLKOW BROS. emblazoned in gaudy red and gold script across its windows.
“She promised she’d be waiting,” said Justin Robillard, but he did not sound surprised that she was not. He consulted his watch. “I’ll give her five minutes, then I’ll have to go in after her. We want to get home before dark.”
Again, he seemed to want a response from me. “…Yes,” I said, and was either rewarded or punished with another tooth-baring smile.
At the four-minute mark, Annette Robillard appeared, a young man at her side. She was much younger than Justin; I guessed him to be twenty-five or twenty-six, and she was no more than eighteen. She was slight-boned, brunette, and very pretty, with large dark eyes of the sort referred to in novels as “speaking.” The man with her was close to her own age, little more than a boy, blond where she was dark, and obviously, hopelessly smitten. It was notable that neither of them was carrying any packages.
Justin Robillard jumped down from the trap. “So this is why you wanted to come to town,” he said unpleasantly, and to the younger man, “Clear off, Folkow.”
“Justin!” protested Annette. “Don’t be horrid. Roy was bringing his father a message, and we just happened to bump into each other as I was coming in.”
“Grandfather’s already spoken to you, Annette. There’s no excuse for this.”
“Love doesn’t need an excuse,” Roy Folkow said, and perhaps if he had been even slightly older, it would not have sounded quite so pompous.
Justin laughed, and the sound made me shiver. “Is that the kind of bilge he’s been filling your head with, Annette?”
“It isn’t bilge!” But her voice wavered.
“Get in the trap,” Justin said, his voice a snarl almost like a dog’s, and he turned his head sharply to glare at Roy Folkow. “Come near my sister again, and I’ll tear you to pieces.”
It should have been as much a cliché as Folkow’s platitude, but it was not. Justin sounded not merely as if he meant what he said, but as if it would be no difficulty to him to carry out the threat.
Folkow backed away, one step, two, and then he stopped, his gaze fixed pleadingly on Annette’s face.
“Go on, Roy,” Annette said, and she was trying to make it sound as if her decision had nothing to do with her brother’s threat. She added with clear defiance, “I’ll talk to you later.”
“All right,” said Folkow. “G-good bye, Annette.” He gave Justin a nervous sideways glance and went back into the store like a rabbit into a hole.
Justin watched him go.
Annette turned toward the trap and—visibly—noticed me for the first time. “Oh! I beg your pardon! Are you the man from the museum?”
“This is Mr. Booth,” said Justin, “and I’m sure he found your little melodrama most edifying.”
“I wasn’t the one being melodramatic,” she said. “I don’t know what you have against Roy Folkow, but honestly, Justin—”
“Let’s go home, Annie,” Justin said, and instead of menacing, now he sounded merely tired.
She gave him a quick sidelong look, then hopped up nimbly into the trap, taking the seat back-to-back with her brother and immediately twisting around to keep talking. “I’m sorry you were kept waiting, Mr. Booth,” she said. “I told Justin I’d walk home, but—”
“And I’ve told you, and Grandfather’s told you, and Aunt Olive’s told you, not if you can’t make it home before dark.” The trap lurched into motion like a physical echo of Justin’s hard-edged words.
“Is the area so dangerous?” I said, surprised.
“Oh, there have been stories of wolves for years and years,” Annette said, with a coquette’s toss of her head, “but it’s all nonsense. I think Grandfather’s afraid I’ll elope.”
That made Justin laugh, and again the sound made me cold. “I’d like to see Roy Folkow try. But don’t go out after dark, Mr. Booth. Whether there are wolves or not, the local geography is very treacherous, and frankly, I wouldn’t advise wandering alone even in daylight. People fall into sinkholes every year, and sometimes their bodies can be retrieved and sometimes they can’t.”
“What a horrid way to welcome the poor man!” Annette said, laughing. Her laugh was nothing like her brother’s. “I’m sure we all hope you’ll be very comfortable at Belle Lune, Mr. Booth, and not want to go wandering about regardless. I think Grandfather said you’d be staying a week?”
“I, er…those are my instructions, yes.” I had become rather anxious on the train about what I was supposed to do if, at the end of the week, Belle Lune’s library was still not completely catalogued, and here was a chance to get a little more information. “Is the library, er, very large?”
“Oh, no,” said Annette. “None of the Robillards have ever been great readers.”
“Properly,” said Justin, “it’s Great-Grandmama Josephine’s library. She brought most of the books with her when she married Samuel Justus Robillard in 1846.”
“There’d be more books,” Annette said with a sigh, “but Great-Grandmama Josephine died young.”
“Grandfather kept the books in her memory,” Justin said, “and then that lawyer said they might be valuable.”
I doubted it, but at least, from their description, the task I faced was a manageable one, and might even prove interesting. I was relieved.
I should—I thought drearily Friday night, five purgatorial days later—have known better. The library was, in fact, much as Annette and Justin’s comments had led me to surmise, but what they had not mentioned was that Belle Lune’s library was also the sitting room, and as such, was never free of one or another of Marcus Justus Robillard’s daughters.
Of the four of them, Olive, Sophia, Christina, and Sarah, three spinsters and one widow, I minded Sarah the least. She had been struck deaf by a fever when she was a small child, and she lived a strange silent existence among her family. They never spoke to her, and rarely of her, but her eyes, large and dark, very much like her niece’s, were bright and intelligent. She was the only one of the family who read Josephine Robillard’s books, and she had watched my preliminary examination with great interest, going so far as to fetch for me a handful of books which (I gathered) she felt were particularly worthy of note: Lydia Maria Child’s first novel, Hobomok; all four volumes of The Dial, sadly foxed; and the American Bestiary of Matthias Claybourne Cullen–-not the rare 1839 edition, but the cheap octavo of 1845. It was still an interesting find, with its entries on Seal-Maidens, Thunder-Birds, and Were-Wolves; I thanked Sarah Robillard with a nod, and she smiled as if it were far more than she had expected.
The other three sisters, as if to compensate for Sarah’s silence, never stopped talking, and they had hard, harsh voices that kept jangling in my head for some time after I had escaped their company. They were horribly inquisitive, as well, asking questions about the museum, about the city, about my life (did I have family? was I married? was there a lady I was courting?), even about the books—their own books, which had been in their house their entire lives—and I found that even more offensive than the rest put together.
Marcus Justus Robillard, a stocky white-haired paterfamilias, seemed merely ironically resigned to his daughters’ behavior—and indeed, he did not seem to think me worth rescuing from them. Or perhaps he knew the enterprise was doomed before it began: both Justin and Annette made efforts to distract their aunts, but it was hopeless. Annette might successfully lure Olive and Christina away, but that would be the signal for Sophia to come in. And if Justin, with an apologetic and embarrassed glance at me, contrived a reason to get Sophia out of the room, by then Olive would have returned. The only respite I had, before I pleaded fatigue each night and fled ignominiously to my room, was at dinner. Even that was a precarious haven, for if conversation lagged, one or another of the sisters was sure to turn her attention to me. The only night I was able to eat undisturbed was Wednesday, and that was because Justin and Annette’s widowed mother made what was evidently a very rare appearance.
Patrick Robillard had died when Annette was scarcely old enough to toddle, and Marian Robillard had instantly embarked on an epic career as an invalid. Having been exposed to her sisters-in-law, I could not blame her. She had the look of a woman addicted to opiates, thin and hollow-eyed and languid, as if she moved through water no one else could feel. Her presence at the dinner table meant that the conversation revolved around illnesses rather than me, and I was grateful to her for it, even though it took no exceptional intelligence or sensitivity to see that I was entirely irrelevant to her. Justin must have told her about Roy Folkow, for around and between Olive, Sophia, and Christina’s inexhaustible fund of embarrassing questions and grisly anecdotes, Marian Robillard was exerting herself to try to question her daughter.
She did not have a great deal of success, since she seemed reluctant to ask outright—perhaps, from her glances toward the head of the table, fearing her father-in-law’s reaction—and Annette was adroit at dodging. When Marian rose from the table, kissed her father-in-law’s temple, and murmured that she was returning to her room, I saw guilty triumph on Annette’s face. She had known that all she had to do was outlast her mother’s limited stamina. It was an unpleasant insight, and it did not make the Robillard ménage easier to bear.
At least the best guest bedroom was worthy of its name. It was a large airy room, much less oppressive than the main rooms of Belle Lune, decorated in blue and white and featuring a lovely cherrywood secretary that looked to me like a museum-quality antique, although American decorative arts were not my specialty. The bed was large, the mattress firm, and I only wished I had had any particular success in using it for its intended purpose.
I had, however, on Friday night as on the four nights before, no expectation of sleep—at least not for a good many hours. I went through the motions of preparing for bed; it was much better to make use of the bathroom before the family came upstairs, and I locked the bedroom door on my return with a feeling almost of safety. I turned the covers back and changed into my pajamas, for I had learned long ago that making myself uncomfortable was a useless punishment as far as my insomnia was concerned. I had brought Sascha Fleury-Dubois’s Letters from the Guillotine to keep me company through the long, cold nights, and it had proved worth its iron weight in my suitcase.
I was just buttoning the top button of my pajamas when someone knocked on the door.
I must have looked abjectly ridiculous, had there been anyone to see, trying both to turn around and dive for my dressing gown at the same time, but I am sure I looked even more ridiculous when I opened the door, for it was Marcus Justus Robillard standing in the hallway.
He had paid almost no attention to me all week long, and indeed, I had been glad of it, for if he had asked me, I would have had to tell him that bringing me out here had been a waste of my time and his best guest bedroom. The books Sarah Robillard had showed me on Monday were the only ones worth a second look; the rest, aside from their poor condition, were merely foot soldiers in the army of paper that had marched across mid-nineteenth-century America. There was nothing of interest to a museum, nor even anything valuable, and I had had suspicions all week, which I had tried to quash, that Marcus Justus Robillard knew it.
And now he was standing outside my bedroom, giving me an ironic look that made his eyes glint as yellow as his grandson’s. “May I speak to you a moment, Mr. Booth?”
“Er…ah, that is, certainly, if you wish.” I could see no option; I stood aside and let him in.
He sat on the chair by the secretary, leaving me the choice of floundering in the middle of the room or sitting on the bed, either of which would combine well with my dressing gown and pajamas to set me at a disadvantage. I sat on the bed.
Marcus Justus did not waste time. He said, “Your cousin sends his regards.”
The words made no sense at first, and even when I understood them, they continued to make no sense. “…My…er, my what?”
“Your cousin,” said Marcus Justus distinctly, his eyes glinting at me. “L. M. Ogilvy.”
“You…you know my cousin?” It was not a recommendation if he did. I had met my cousin, Luther Murchison Ogilvy, once, and I never wished to meet him again.
“We have corresponded for many years,” said Marcus Justus. “I suppose you could say we have interests in common.”
He bared his teeth, but it was not a smile. “Family curses.”
“…Oh.” I had learned about the Murchison curse from my cousin Ogilvy. I bore the mark of the curse in my prematurely white hair, and if I ever married, the curse would kill my wife just as it had killed my father. My mother had committed suicide; I was determined never to marry, never to allow myself to become close enough to anyone that the curse might recognize them as a target.
“My family suffers under a curse just as yours does, Mr. Booth, a curse that there seems to be no hope of breaking. But your cousin had a suggestion. He told me of the success the Murchisons had had in marrying each other, that the curse didn’t come into effect when both parties carried it. And while that option is not available to me, as the Robillards have never bred far from Belle Lune, your cousin asked if it was possible that the Murchison curse and the Robillard curse might…” He brought his hands together sharply. “Might cancel each other out.”
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” I said; it was hard to get the words out, for my face felt stiff and numb.
“Oh, I think you do,” Marcus Justus said. “Now, it would be unreasonable to ask you to marry one of my daughters—old maids the lot of them, and I could see you didn’t take to them.”
“I like Sarah,” I said inanely, defiantly.
He waved that aside. “But my granddaughter’s a pretty girl. Well brought up. And we’ve money, of course.” His sneer said he had noticed the threadbare elbows of my dressing gown, the frayed hems of my pajamas.
“You want me to marry Annette,” I said slowly, struggling to keep my voice level.
“It’s a gamble,” said Marcus Justus, “but it seems worth it. It won’t keep the curse from afflicting her, of course, but it should keep you safe. And it may lessen the effects on your children.”
“Or they may be doubly cursed,” I said.
“Ogilvy and I considered that. We don’t think it likely.”
I had no faith in their opinions, and every faith in the Murchison curse’s power to kill Annette if she became my…I had to force myself to finish the thought: my bride.
Something I could never have.
I knew that arguing with Marcus Justus would be useless, or worse than useless, and I very badly wanted him out of my room, but there was one other question first.
That lawyer said they might be valuable, Justin had said. I had assumed that he meant the Robillard family lawyer, but my cousin Ogilvy was a lawyer, and I knew from experience that he was good at fabricating pretexts. “That’s why you contrived to have me sent here. It was never about the books at all.”
“Oh, the books,” Marcus Justus said with a shrug that showed how heavily muscled he was; I guessed he was seventy or more, but he was still formidable. “They can be your wedding present, if you’re interested in them. Ogilvy told me it was the only way to get you here.”
“Yes, of course,” I said. There was no comfort in being right. The numbness seemed to be spreading, and I was beginning to feel light-headed.
Marcus Justus smirked. “He doesn’t think much of you, you know.”
“He can hardly think less of me than I do of him.” I was not even listening to myself, occupied with trying to find some way to get Marcus Justus out of the room before I passed out—or succumbed to hysteria—so that I startled violently when he laughed.
“You may not be such a milksop as you seem,” he said, and to my amazement and relief, got to his feet. “I know I’ve given you a lot to think about, and I don’t expect an answer tonight. Sleep well.” And he let himself out, closing the door tidily behind him.
I scrambled up, locking the door as if it might actually be any protection. But even illusory safety was better than the helplessly exposed feeling with which Marcus Justus had left me.
I took a deep breath, then another. He could not force me to marry Annette; I had only to avoid giving an answer until Sunday, and then I could return to…
What if Marcus Justus would not let me leave?
The thought was nonsense, surely, but the more I thought about the situation—the isolation of Belle Lune; the way that generations of Robillards had been in essence lords of their own bleak fiefdom; the truth I had seen all week, that Marcus Justus’s word was law to his family—the less nonsensical it seemed. He could ban automobiles; why should anyone cavil at imprisoning an archivist? And I could not pretend that there was anyone who would care particularly if I vanished into this desolation. My colleagues would be inconvenienced and Dr. Starkweather would be irritated, but no one would pursue the matter beyond the most perfunctory inquiries.
No one would rescue me.
On Saturday morning, Marcus Justus announced that he thought Annette should take me to see the Robillard burying ground. The speed with which the rest of the family agreed was alarming; it indicated that they were both aware and approving of the plan to marry me to Annette. I could find no excuse not to go, especially after Marcus Justus said outright, “Oh, don’t worry about the books.” Annette herself seemed perfectly happy to have her day disposed of so high-handedly, but it was obvious from her lack of self-consciousness that she did not know her grandfather was trying to dispose of more than an afternoon.
She did not know about the curse.
We took a picnic lunch, provided by Sarah and Christina, both beaming like idiots, and walked the quarter-mile from Belle Lune proper to the burying ground. It was an entirely private cemetery, Annette told me; no one but Robillards had the right to be buried there, and it was exempt from state and county laws about the disposition of the dead. It seemed an all too apt metaphor for Belle Lune itself.
And it seemed even more so when we arrived. The landscape stretched out in cold brown desolation as far as I could see. On three sides, the cemetery was fenced with forbidding iron spikes; on the fourth, it crumbled into one of the sink holes Justin Robillard had mentioned. Annette told me that some graves had been lost when the cave-in occurred almost forty years ago, but they thought the rest of it was stable. I was not reassured.
The gravestones ranged from well-tended modern plaques (Annette’s father; Olive’s husband; Marcus Justus’ elder son, Philip Justus, who had died when he was Annette’s age), to ornate nineteenth century obelisks, to crumbled illegible slabs laid full-length in the ground as if they were the covers of sarcophagi. Annette said no one knew any longer which Robillard ancestor lay beneath which slab, although she pointed out the one said by family legend to memorialize Marie-Marthe de Givère, who had run away from a French convent to join her Robillard lover in the New World.
Annette was a conscientious tour guide. She showed me the Civil War graves—the Robillards had lost a son to each side, Henry Justus to the North and Clarence to the South—and Josephine Robillard’s grave (the most ornate of the ornate obelisks). Over lunch, she told me the stories of as many of the graves as she knew; I noticed that the majority of them were women in their twenties or very early thirties, all of them bearing Robillard as their married name and all of them presented to posterity as “Wife and Mother.” It was indirect proof of Marcus Justus’s claims for a family curse, and I knew I should use it as a way to broach the subject with Annette, but I could not do it.
All the way to the burying ground, I had tried to think of a way to tell her about the curse, but every gambit I imagined foundered on my lack of information. Marcus Justus had been—I realized belatedly—very careful not to provide any details, anything useful. Simply announcing, Your grandfather says your family is cursed, would achieve nothing.
And without that to build on, how could I tell her that her grandfather wanted her to marry me? Every time I opened my mouth to try, I looked at her, lovely and young and vibrant in a flowered dress and a wide-brimmed straw hat, and I thought of the incredulous laughter with which she would surely respond. I did not at all blame her—what other reaction could any rational young woman have?—but the prospect killed my voice in my throat.
All that afternoon, I did not speak.
When we returned, Annette was called into her grandfather’s private study. Someone had told him about Roy Folkow. Over dinner, Annette’s aunts scolded her in relays: “A shopkeeper’s son,” Olive said, her entire face pursing around the words as if they tasted of vulgarity. Or sour milk. “Really, Annette.” Annette broke and fled the table in tears before the coffee was brought out. The atmosphere did not improve; I claimed a migraine rather than face any after-dinner conversation.
No mention was made of Sunday trains.
I lay down on my bed with Letters from the Guillotine, and must have dozed off, for I woke suddenly to the sound of someone tapping on the window. I jolted upright, and for a moment as she stood framed against the night, the light caught Annette Robillard’s eyes and made them glow gold.
I opened the window, and she said at once, “Mr. Booth, please, you have to help me.”
“Er,” I said. She was still red-eyed, and I did not like the grim set of her mouth. “With what?”
“I told Roy I would meet him tonight at the Ussher crossroads, and I can’t, not with everyone snooping. But you could go for a walk.”
“Your brother told me not to,” I said stupidly.
“Please,” she said.
I wondered with a chill if Marcus Justus had confided his plans to her. “What’s wrong?”
She glanced over her shoulder, at the banked violet clouds and fierce pinprick stars of the night sky. The moon was not yet up. “It’s true,” she said. “The full moon is a chancy time in this part of the world. And I know Roy. He’ll wait.”
“Are you going to elope with him?”
“No,” she said. She looked down, pleating the delicate flowered fabric of her dress between her fingers. Then, “Maybe. I don’t know! I don’t want to be stuck here for the rest of my life.”
“Your grandfather,” I started, still not sure what I was going to say, and she interrupted me.
“My grandfather is going hunting tonight.”
“Your grandfather hunts at night?”
“At the full moon. It’s a family tradition.” She burst out suddenly, savagely, “I hate it! My father was killed on a night-hunt, and Grandfather takes Justin out sometimes, and Aunt Olive and Aunt Christina, and sometimes I feel like I’m just waiting for one of them to die, too! And I’m afraid for Roy.”
“You think your grandfather would shoot him?” I said. I only wished I found it unlikely.
“It would be an excuse,” she said, her eyes wide and dark and dreading. “Hunting accidents happen all the time.”
“And what’s to prevent one from happening to me?”
“Grandfather doesn’t make mistakes,” she said, so flatly that I could not doubt the truth of it.
And I knew that Marcus Justus had every reason to view Folkow as, not merely a nuisance, but an impediment. And perhaps…perhaps I could tell Folkow that Marcus Justus proposed a marriage between me and Annette. Remembering his earnestness, the worship of Annette so naked in his face, I thought he would be quicker to believe than Annette would herself. And I could not make myself say it to her face: Your grandfather wants you to marry me. Because of a curse.
“Let me…er, that is, I need to get dressed,” I said.
Annette smiled at me brilliantly, although not quite brilliantly enough to erase the darkness from her eyes, and said, “I’ll get you a flashlight.”
Annette returned with the promised flashlight mere moments after I had knotted my tie—a futile and ludicrous gesture of respectability, but it made me feel better. She showed me down the back stairs and out through the kitchen, where Sarah Robillard was washing the dishes. She did not notice us.
“Does your family not keep servants?” I asked Annette, once she had closed the door of the mudroom behind us. I had been wondering all week.
“No one stays out here who doesn’t have to,” she said and changed the subject briskly. “Now, what you want to do is go around the house and back to the main road. Turn left, and it’s about three miles to the crossroads. There’s a sign there, and it says Ussher, so you’ll know you’re in the right place. And anyway, you’ll see Roy.” She turned the flashlight on and handed it to me.
I opened my mouth to protest, but realized I had no idea of what to say, nor even quite what I wanted to protest—except the general damnable unfairness of the whole situation, and that was not Annette’s fault.
She must have seen something of what I felt in my face, for she said suddenly, “Thank you—thank you so much, Mr. Booth. And here. For your buttonhole.” She caught my lapel before I could evade her and tucked something in my buttonhole, although I could not see it clearly.
“Wolfsbane,” she said; her laugh was uneasy—not the bright ripple of the daylight hours. “Local people grow it to keep away those wolves I mentioned.”
“It’s, er, quite poisonous,” I said dubiously.
“So don’t eat it,” she said. Her laugh sounded better that time. She might have kissed my cheek then, but I turned away before I was sure that was her intention and did not let myself look at her again.
She could never be my bride.
I reached the road without difficulty—and without running into any other Robillards, which was what I had chiefly feared. I turned left, as Annette had directed me, and started walking.
The moon rose shortly thereafter, a vast bright disk. It was, I thought, the Hunter’s Moon, as the autumn equinox was a month gone. I remembered that the Hunter’s Moon was also called the Sanguine Moon, and I walked a little faster.
But I could not walk very fast, even trying to hurry. The road was not in good repair—as I had noticed Monday afternoon, jouncing in Justin Robillard’s trap—and I did not have the aid of familiarity. Even with the flashlight, I fell twice; the second time, I knocked the air out of my lungs, and it was some little while before I was able to continue. I told myself it was ridiculous to be anxious—as the wide white moon rose higher in the sky—but I could not rid myself of a feeling of urgency, a feeling that Annette was right, that Roy Folkow was doomed unless I could get to him in time.
Ridiculous, I said again, more firmly, and tried to walk faster all the same.
Even walking as fast as I could, it took me nearly an hour, but finally, I crested a slight rise and saw a crossroads. I did not see anyone waiting there, but Folkow might have decided to sit down—or he might sensibly have chosen to wait in concealment. I picked my way down the hill as quickly as I could.
The flashlight and moonlight together let me read the sign, which did indeed say USSHER. “Folkow?” I called, not loudly.
There was no response.
Annette had been so certain that Folkow would wait for her—I wondered if perhaps I had somehow reached the crossroads ahead of him. I turned in a circle, slowly, to see if there were any signs of movement on the other branches of the road. There was nothing. I stepped cautiously toward the side of the road, in hopes of finding somewhere to sit; regardless of whether Folkow had not waited or had not yet arrived, I wanted at least to rest for a few moments before I started back to Belle Lune—or perhaps, in defiance of Justin Robillard, struck out for the nearest town or human habitation. But I had not reached the verge when the smell struck me: blood and excrement, both nauseously fresh.
I wished, desperately and pointlessly, to be anywhere other than where I was. Then I took another step, the flashlight leading the way, and I found Roy Folkow.
He was dead, and he had not been shot.
He had been… I leaned closer and then had to turn away and fight not to vomit. He had been disemboweled, and I thought he had been partially eaten, as well. And it had happened very recently.
Annette had laughed at the stories of wolves, but what else could have done this?
The howl came as if in answer, a long rising ululation that sounded like grief. It did not seem close, which was barely any comfort at all. I could not stay out here with Roy Folkow’s corpse and a wandering predator, and there was nothing closer than Belle Lune. I had to go back.
I looked at the Hunter’s Moon, the Blood Moon; I looked at the flashlight Annette had given me. I wondered if I would break my neck trying to run.
I did run, at least part of the way, but I was still a good half-mile from Belle Lune when the horizon began to show blood-red and I smelled smoke.
“No,” I said, barely more than a whisper. “Oh, no.”
But denial made no more difference to the truth than it ever does. Belle Lune was burning.
I ran faster, recklessly, and that I did not break my neck is astonishing. I was limping by the time I came down Belle Lune’s driveway, blisters scraping raw on both feet and my left ankle throbbing from yet another fall.
The house blazed, flames seeming to lean out of every window. There was no possibility of a heroic dash inside, even if I had been capable of it; there was no “inside” left, and the idea of survivors seemed entirely impossible. Either they had already gotten out or they were already dead. And those valueless books were nothing but ashes.
I stood by the dark water of the Mirror, feeling, if I am honest, more bewildered than anything else. There were no neighbors that I knew of, and it was ten miles or more into town. I did not know where the horse was, nor the trap, and even if I had known, I had not the first idea of how one went about putting the two together. I supposed, finally, dimly, that I ought to circle the house and see if any of the Robillards was there—perhaps in the back garden? perhaps the back of the house had not burned as quickly as the front? But I was still standing stone-like when I heard the howl again.
I knew it was the same creature, although I do not know how I knew. And it sounded much closer than it had at the crossroads. I told myself that wild creatures avoided fire, and that Belle Lune was surely a fire that even the most ferocious and bloodthirsty beast would fear, but I did not find myself convincing. If it was closer, and if it was coming this way, I needed either shelter or a weapon. I remembered there was a gardener’s shed in back of the house; if it did not provide one, it might provide the other, and in any event, I had to look for survivors, even if I believed it utterly futile.
I skirted the burning house carefully, trampling through the flowerbeds rather than get too close.
There was no one behind Belle Lune. Unless Marcus Justus had indeed gone out hunting, the entire Robillard family was almost certainly destroyed. I wondered, as I fought the warped door of the shed, how they could all have been trapped. No one had been asleep when I had left; they had all still been on the ground floor. How could it have sprung up so quickly that not one of them made it out? Sarah Robillard had been fewer than twenty feet from the back door, and although she was deaf, she could smell smoke as easily as any hearing person.
The shed provided: a pair of rusty secateurs which I decided dubiously would be even less use as a weapon than my pocket knife; a ladder which did me no good at all; a rake missing half its tines; and a shovel. The shovel at least had a broad iron blade and was sturdily constructed. I felt a fool carrying it as I completed my circle around the house, but I comforted myself with the thought that at least, as a weapon, it was one I could use as well as anyone else.
I had been hoping, mostly without articulating the idea, that by the time I made it to the front of the house, someone would have shown up: a Robillard, or a neighbor, or a police officer. Someone who would know what to do, someone who could take responsibility for this burning house and the dead bodies presumably inside it, not to mention the dead body at the Ussher crossroads. There was no one standing in front of the house—rationally there was no reason to expect otherwise—and I was conscious of a strong desire simply to sit down and weep with exhaustion and fear and uselessness.
But before I either gave into that desire or chose a more constructive course of action, the howl rose for the third time, and it had not died away when something came bounding down the driveway and stopped barely ten feet from me, where it crouched and panted, great heaving breaths like sobs.
It was not, quite, a wolf. It was like a wolf, but it was much too large, and its legs did not bend in the correct directions. Its front feet, where it had braced itself against the gravel, were lumpish and misshapen, but I could not mistake the fingers—the torn fingernails, the bloody knuckles. When it raised its head to howl again, I saw the blood staining its muzzle and throat and chest. I also saw that the muzzle was too short for a wolf, the teeth too flat. And when it lowered its head and looked at me, I saw that its eyes were not a wolf’s eyes.
It opened its mouth, tongue lolling, and said, “Kill me.”
The voice was harsh and unpleasantly thick, as if the creature were on the verge of choking, but the words were unmistakable.
I fell back a step; I could hear my own breathing, too fast and sharp.
“Kill me,” the creature repeated, and I watched as it lurched upright. It seemed almost unable to balance, the grotesque hands flailing against the air.
I realized that it was wearing the remains of Annette Robillard’s flowered dress, and my legs folded under me. My knees hit the ground with a jolt that clacked my teeth together painfully, but I could only stare at the monster in Annette’s dress, the monster that had killed Roy Folkow—the monster that wanted to die.
“Kill me,” it begged again, taking a lurching, staggering step toward me. I scrambled up again, because I was too terrified to stay on the ground. If I did not kill it, it seemed all too likely that it would kill me—I did not think it was approaching me in order to lay its head in my lap like the unicorn of legend. But how I could possibly kill it with only a shovel?
I thought that it tried to say, “Kill me,” again, but the words garbled into a roar even as its legs bunched under it, and it sprang.
I swung the shovel. It was purely instinctual, and I think my eyes were closed, but the shovel-blade connected with some part of the creature’s body, for the blow jarred in my shoulders, and I heard the creature yelp. Moreover, it did not rip my throat out; although I felt the heat and force of its body passing near mine, it did not touch me.
My eyes came open, and I spun to face it. It had its back to the fire now, which I suspected was a bad thing for me, and it had its head lowered, its eyes glinting yellow up at me, the way Justin Robillard’s eyes had glinted. It looked more like a wolf now, and I did not think it would ask me to kill it again.
I wondered—if I could keep my eyes open the next time it leapt, could I land a solid enough blow on its head to knock it unconscious? It seemed my only, though vanishingly unlikely, hope. I tightened my grip on the shovel and tried to watch for the creature to spring.
A voice cried behind me, “Down!”
I am afraid it is not due to any good sense that I obeyed. I was so startled that in trying to turn to see who was behind me, I lost my balance and fell, very nearly ending up in the Mirror.
The shotgun blast sounded utterly like the end of the world.
It was some moments before, ears ringing, winded, I managed to pick myself up. When I did, I saw Marian Robillard, in a nightgown dyed lurid red by the flames, kneeling beside the creature’s body. I edged a little closer and saw that the body, rent and broken and dead, was Annette.
Marian did not turn, although I saw by the way she stiffened that she knew I was there. After a moment, she said, “It was a family curse.”
“Lycanthropy?” No wonder Marcus Justus had been so carefully reticent.
“Yes. As far back as they could trace their genealogy, Robillards have been werewolves. Sometimes only one in a generation, sometimes all of them. It skipped Sophia in my husband’s generation, and I prayed—dear God how I prayed—that it would skip Annette.”
“Sarah was a werewolf?” I said stupidly.
“They were beasts, but they were not loveless,” Marian said. “There is no other reason I can think of that Marcus Justus would not have sent her to a proper school for the deaf. But he could not take the chance—the curse could hit them at any age from nine to twenty-nine—and, of course, it turned out he was right. She started changing when she was barely twelve.”
Marcus Justus’ “night-hunts” took on a dreadful new dimension. “What happened to your husband?” I asked.
“A better question is, what didn’t happen to me?” she said. She stood and turned to face me, and I saw that it was not the fire dyeing her nightgown red. She was covered in blood. “Sooner or later, every werewolf turns against the person he loves. Or she loves.” She glanced down at her daughter’s body. “Marcus Justus’ mother was killed by his father when he was a tiny boy. Marcus Justus killed his wife—none of her children would ever talk about her, do you know that? And Patrick tried to kill me.”
“He failed,” I said; it was half a question.
“He was a strange man,” Marian said. “He armed me—gave me a Bowie knife as a wedding present and told me always to have it by my bed at the full moon. And I did. When the monster broke down my door, I fought it, and I won. And I killed my husband.”
The corners of her mouth lifted in a tiny, distant smile. “Marcus Justus was furious. I begged him to let me take the children away—I have always thought, since I learned of the curse, that it must be something in the situation of Belle Lune that brings it, some poison in the water or the soil. He refused utterly, warned me that if I tried, I would be hunted down—and Marcus Justus and his daughters were a formidable hunting pack, make no mistake, Mr. Booth. I begged him again, when Justin turned, to let me try to save Annette, but he told me it was too risky. He told me he thought Annette might not be a werewolf anyway.”
I remembered Marcus Justus saying calmly, It won’t keep the curse from afflicting her, of course, and I knew he had lied to his daughter-in-law. He had known full well that Annette was a werewolf. It seemed the only one who had not known was Annette herself.
“I told him,” Marian Robillard said grimly, drearily, “that if she were, I would know who to blame. He just smiled. I don’t think he understood what I meant. Until tonight.”
“You killed them,” I said, realizing. “And set the house on fire.”
“There are only two ways to be sure a werewolf is dead, Mr. Booth,” she said. “Burn it to ashes, or cut its head off. Or both. I did both.”
“All of them?” My voice was no stronger than a whisper, but either she heard me or she knew what I was asking.
“All of them. Marcus Justus, Olive, Christina, Sarah, Sophia. Justin. And, in the end, Annette.”
“I thought you said Sophia wasn’t a werewolf,” I said stupidly.
“She was raised among werewolves,” Marian said, with chilly, logical insanity. “And she was still young enough to bear children.”
She had killed her entire family. Even knowing why she had done it, even knowing that she had been right to do so by any standard one cared to name, I found myself shrinking away from her, as if she instead of the dead girl at her feet were the monster.
“I don’t want my daughter to burn,” Marian said. “Will you bury her, Mr. Booth?”
“Yes,” I said in witless reflex. “But wait. Why can’t you—”
“Bury her at the crossroads,” she said. She reached up and unclasped a chain from around her throat. “This is silver. I think you know what to do.”
“Mrs. Robillard,” I said, “I don’t—”
“Don’t bury her with them,” she said and turned away. At the steady drifting pace that was all I had ever seen from her, she walked into the conflagration of Belle Lune. I could not reach her in time to stop her, and in truth, I do not know that I would have if I could.
I listened—I could not keep myself from listening—but Marian Robillard did not make a sound.
If I had known that Annette Robillard was cursed with lycanthropy, I would have told her. Even knowing that she would not have believed me, that she would have thought me insane or gullible or merely cruel, I have to believe that I would have spoken, that I would not have let my cowardice rule me.
I am a weak man, and not a good one, and maybe I am lying to myself to think I am not a monster. But I have to believe that I kept silent only because I did not know.
And then I remember that if I had spoken, and Annette had not died, then her mother would not have murdered the werewolves of Belle Lune. I remember what Annette told me about her grandfather’s night-hunts. I remember what Justin said about bodies unrecovered.
If I had known, should I have spoken? Would saving her life have been a worse sin than letting her die?
I do not know. I have no answers, only grief. Grief for her and for that travesty that is as close as either of us will ever come to a wedding night, when I cut her head off and buried her beneath the gloating Hunter’s Moon.
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