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A Clockwork Phoenix featured story

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From the pages of Clockwork Phoenix 3
 

Braiding the Ghosts

 

C.S.E. Cooney

 

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That first year, when Nin was eight, she wanted her mother so desperately. But Noir was dead, she was dead, and would always be dead, thanks to Reshka.

Reshka liked to say, “I’m not above keeping ghosts in the house for handmaids and men-of-all-work. There must be ghosts for sweeping, for scrubbing, ghosts for plunging the toilets or repairing the roof, ghosts to fix the swamp cooler and to wash and dry the dishes. But,” said Reshka, “but I will be damned—I will be damned and in hell and dancing for the Devil—before I summon any daughter of mine from the grave.”

So Reshka had Noir cremated three days after her death. Afterward, she prepared the funeral feast in Noir and Nin’s small apartment kitchen.

“This is a family affair,” she told Nin, who sat numb at the table, feet dangling above the floor. “This is a meal no ghost may touch.”

Instead of salt or herbs, Reshka scattered ashes over the meat. The buttered bread and the broccoli she dusted with Noir’s remains. Ash in Reshka’s wineglass, and in Nin’s chocolate milk.

The taste never left Nin’s mouth. Everything she ate or drank after that was death and dust—but it was also Noir. So Nin ate and drank and did not complain.

When they drove away from the apartment where Noir had quietly died, Nin did not cry. She sat with the black cat Behemoth purring on her lap, and she looked out the window, her thoughts a great buzzing silence.

Behemoth was warm and indolent, matted at the back, soft at the belly. A large cat at full stretch, he possessed the ability to curl up into improbably kittenish proportions. Now, though he seemed asleep, his tail danced. Like most cats, Behemoth was a very good liar.

Nin stroked her mother’s cat, playing catch with his clever tail. She had nothing else of Noir’s. Reshka had sold it all, or given it to Goodwill.

The sunlight glinted off a crack in the windshield, lancing her dry, dry eyes. Ahead, the road sign read, Lake Argentine, 2 miles.

Nin was pretty sure they had hundreds of miles to drive. Reshka said at the outset that they wouldn’t arrive at Stix Haunt ’til midnight. But at the Lake Argentine exit, they swerved off the freeway and jounced down the narrow lake road. Reshka offered no explanations. Nin did not ask. Something in her grandmother’s tight, pink, unpleasant smile put a padlock to Nin’s curiosity.

Noir used to tease her daughter about her constant questioning, saying, “Nin, my love, you live in the Age of Information—just Google it!” This, even if all Nin asked was, “What’s for dinner?”

But Reshka was not Noir. Noir who had died with wrinkles on her brow and bruises under her eyes. Reshka’s face was perfectly made up, in peaches and corals and cream. Her complexion had neither the flush nor pliancy of flesh, but seemed to ring like pure hard porcelain. Her hair, plaited into two dozen tiny braids, was golden in color, but of a bright and brittle gold, like autumn oak leaves that rattle juicelessly from jaded stems. Nin could not understand how a woman with no wrinkles or gray hairs could be the mother of Noir.

Noir’s last words?

“Nin—my love. Have I. Told you. About your . . . grandmother?”

If tissue paper had a heartbeat, that was Noir’s heart-beat. When cobwebs breathed, they exhaled more vigorously than she. Nin touched the hem of Noir’s nightgown. Contact with any part of Noir’s skin made her cry out.

“Her name is Reshka.” For comic effect, to make her mother’s eyes smile, Nin rolled her own, the way Noir did whenever mentioning Reshka’s name. “She lives in a place called Haunt and you two do not get on.”

“No—we never . . . did.” Noir’s voice was shy of a whisper. Still it laughed. “Nin. Come. Close. Hand . . . shears?”

Nin brought the shears. Noir could not close her fingers over the handle.

“I’ll do it,” Nin said. “What do you want cut?”

Noir told her, and Nin performed the small, bloodless surgery.

“Keep,” Noir said. “Hide it. Don’t . . . Reshka.”

“I won’t tell her.”

Nin did not ask why Reshka must come; of course she must. Under her mother’s bright, fading gaze, she put the curl of gray hair away, in an envelope, in a plastic bag, in a metal box. Which rode in the truck with Nin now, in her ratty old Superman backpack.

Reshka’s truck humped along the lumpy lake road. The sun shone on gentle hills and flashed on the rumps of small wild things running. Reshka drove her truck right up to the gravelly shore, her tires rolling over the bravest waves. Then she turned off the ignition.

Without looking at Nin, Reshka said, “Give me the cat.”

Bemused, a little sleepy, Nin did so. Reshka opened the driver’s side door. “Stay here.”

Nin stayed. She watched her grandmother walk, straight-legged in her high heels and stockings, into Lake Argentine. Reshka walked into the lake as if she did not see it, stopping only when the hem of her tea-length linen skirt began to drag the waters. Nin stayed, watching, as Reshka squatted suddenly, and with one violent thrust slammed the black cat Behemoth into the lake water and held him under.

The world whited out. Nin clawed her seat belt. She heard herself breathing in ragged gasps. Her thoughts raced ahead of her body, already diving down beneath the lake.

“No!” she shouted. But she was sealed in the truck, and Reshka did not hear. “No!” she shouted anyway, scrabbling for the lock on her door. Finding it, she flicked it up and spilled out onto the shore. The stony ground cut her bare feet. Nin ignored the stones, her feet, the blood, everything but running, dashing into the water.

“No!” she screamed, dividing air and water in a breast-stroke. “No, you can’t!

Reshka was not a large woman and Nin was tall for her age. She leapt onto her grandmother’s back, pummeling and kicking and scratching and shrieking.

“Stop it! Stop! Please! Give him back! Give him back!”

But her grandmother remained solid in her squat, both arms straight down and rigid, showing no strain though surely the black cat Behemoth struggled. No sign of the writhing thing in her hands or on her back fretted Reshka’s artful and implacable face.

When the deed was done—Nin still screaming—Reshka stood up, abrupt and smooth, the way she had gone down. This overset Nin, who fell backwards into the lake. Green water closed over her, cool and silent.

Nin thought, Just let me stay.

One-armed, Reshka hauled her out. One-armed, Reshka forced Nin upright, her polished yellow claws sunk into her shoulder.

“Hey, you!” Reshka said, shaking her. “You!”

She slapped Nin on one cheek, then the other.

“None of that from you!” she said, slapping her mouth. Until the blow fell, Nin had not realized she was still screaming. Had been, even underwater. Even choking.

“Listen!” ordered Reshka, sounding more exasperated than angry. “Listen to me, you.” Her voice, like her fin-gernails, was older than her face and hair. It was old and dry and it shook.

“Cats can’t abide ghosts,” she said. “Nor do ghosts bide well with cats. I’d keep a crazy household if I kept a live cat at Stix Haunt. Here.” And Reshka thrust something soggy and awful and dead into Nin’s arms. “Put it in the truck bed. If it bothers you so much, I’ll give it a raising up when we get home. It’ll be just the same, only you won’t have to feed it.”

Nin clutched the sodden black drowned dead thing close to her chest.

“He won’t be just the same!” Her raw voice carried weirdly across the water. “He’ll be dead! He’s dead! And you killed him! I won’t let you touch him! I’ll burn him first! I’ll burn him myself!”

“Suit yourself, Little Miss Nin It’s My Whim,” said Reshka coolly.

Nin turned her head and spat.

Later, she came to wonder if burning was what her grandmother had intended all along. She was to discover that Reshka considered it beneath her dignity to bind and braid the ghosts of dumb animals.

* * *

Life before Reshka had been quiet. Life after Noir was silent.

Noir used to say, “Let’s have an hour of quiet time, Nin, my love. Read if you want, or draw. Mama’s just going to lie down and shut her eyes.”

But at Stix Haunt, all hours were quiet. The house was a sprawling shamble of gray stone and stucco, with peeling columns, peaked roof and dark cupola, its rotten porches and balconies webbed all about with decrepit scrollwork. It could not have been more different from that cozy, shabby apartment in the city. Woodland and wetland bordered the property on all sides. Only one dark road under dark trees led to a small town that did not like to remember it had a Haunt at all.

Nin never saw Reshka sleep, never caught her still or off her guard. Reshka prowled the house and grounds day and night. Making her rounds. Check the saltshakers for sugar and the shampoo bottles for honey. Was there superglue in the conditioner? Was there sawdust in the Quaker Oats? Sometimes the ice cube trays were full of flies. Sometimes the meat crawled with maggots.

Because sometimes the ghosts got things wrong.

“Death doesn’t cure stupidity,” Reshka was fond of saying. She did not talk to Nin much, and tended to repeat herself when she did. “Death makes a dumbie dumber. So keep your eyes open!”

Nin did not think the ghosts were stupid. She thought maybe they were angry. Or, scarier still, that they had a sly, prankish sense of humor. Or both.

Many nights Nin went to bed short-sheeted or with crickets in her pillowcase. She was careful not to gasp or laugh or do anything to draw attention. She did not want the ghosts to notice her at all.

Reshka depended on them for everything. They drew her bath and chose her clothes, groomed her, perfumed her, prepared her meals. They did what they were told, silent and unseen, slight freezing breezes in Reshka’s great grey house.

The first year was the hardest. Nin was always cold, and her skin—especially her face—was chapped. Asleep or awake, she wept. And she was not awake often.

The second year, she started reading again. The few books she owned palled quickly, so Nin stole Reshka’s, who had hundreds but never touched them. Reshka did not own a TV. She had a dinosaur of a computer that she kept unplugged most of the time. It had a dial-up connection that she used when ordering food or clothes online. Delivery vans dropped the boxes at the gate and never ventured an inch beyond it.

The mistress of Stix Haunt had little contact with the outside world. Nin had none.

When Nin was not reading, she wrote letters to Noir. She drew pictures of live cats and dead grandmothers. She never spoke. Most days she slept. Not in her bed, which, due to the ghosts, was not to be trusted, but out under the willow tree. This was where Nin had buried the little curl of Noir’s hair, safe in its white envelope, the envelope sealed in a plastic bag, and the plastic bag placed in a metal box. A small grave. Nin’s special place.

The willow tree marked the boundary between Reshka’s ghost-kept gardens and the wild Heron Marsh that ruffled and rippled and sprawled beyond. It was not quiet beneath that green umbrella. There were flies and mosquitoes and curious bees. Bird chatter and squirrel quarrels drifted down like leaves, and the marsh grass hissed under a constant low wind.

This was where Nin slept, dreaming through those first sad years. She dreamed of Noir.

* * *

“Nin, my love,” said her mother, the day after Nin’s birthday.

“Yes, Noir, my love?” Nin replied.

Noir sighed. Immediately, Nin crawled straight onto her mother’s lap, even though she was thirteen now and tall for her age.

“Nin,” said Noir, “Reshka’s going to begin teaching you soon.”

Nin grimaced. “Teach me what? She can barely stand to hear me breathe.” She paused. “But she doesn’t have much practice with people who can breathe, does she?”

“No!” Noir laughed. “She’s useless with the living. Always was.”

When Noir laughed, she threw back her head, giving her full throat to the sky. They sat on a large boulder in the middle of Lake Argentine, the waters flat as ink and cobalt blue, the sky glowing like a dome of jade above them. There was never any sun that Nin could see—only her mother, who sometimes seemed to glow.

“Listen.” Noir stroked the nape of Nin’s neck. “Reshka will teach you the four winds. Piccolo, flute, oboe, bass recorder. She will teach you songs of luring, of binding and braiding. She will teach you how to break a gravestone and make a grave-ring. She will teach you about silver, about lilies and bitter red myrrh, for you are the last of her line, now that I am gone.”

“You’re not gone,” replied Nin in a soft voice, hugging her mother. “You’re right here.”

She bent her head and took a deep whiff of Noir’s hair. Noir wore it short and dark and curly, never long enough to braid. Her mother smelled sweet and slightly messy, like baby oil.

“My darling,” murmured Noir, tightening her arms around Nin. “How’s school?”

Nin’s laughter was rusty, like a lawnmower left out in the rain.

“I don’t go,” she said. “Reshka says school is for morons, and the bus won’t stop at the Haunt, and she won’t drive me. Everyone’s afraid of her. Reshka says sorcerers like her are revered as gods among men.”

Noir snorted.

“Sorcerers!” she said scornfully. “Reshka talks of sorcerers as if there were others like her. There aren’t, Nin. There aren’t! Before I had you, I traveled—well—I traveled everywhere, wherever I could, searching for others. Reshka was always whispering warnings about them: to beware, to guard my tongue, to learn everything and grow strong. A day will come, she said, when my powers would be pitted against another like me, only far more puissant and merciless. There were nights I couldn’t sleep for terror.”

“I’m sorry, Mama.”

But Noir merely patted her head. “There are no sorcerers in the real world, Nin. There are used car salesmen. And lawyers. Boys in black overcoats who pretend to be wizards. Pregnant teenagers working at McDonalds who call themselves High Priestesses of Discord. Peyote-swallowers and acid-tasters—even true shamans. But there is no one like Reshka Stix of Stix Haunt, or like her mother before her. There was no one like me, born of a sorcerer and a ghost on Dark Eve. And no one like you, my Nin, although I chose for you a living father, that you might be more alive than dead when you came into this world.”

By now both Noir and Nin were sitting upright, arms locked wrist to forearm. Two pairs of gray eyes gazed at each other.

“Noir?” Nin’s voice was very small.

Noir’s grip on her daughter relaxed.

“Reshka has no equal,” she said. “She has no living friends and her enemies are not alive. The house she lives in was built by the dead. That’s why people are afraid. Reshka is unnatural.”

“Are you unnatural?” Nin asked. She wanted to ask, “Am I?” but knew better, even dreaming.

Her mother pinched Nin’s chin and smiled, and her smile was like a lilac blooming in the snow. All she said was, “Reshka will start teaching you soon.”

Nin cocked her head to one side. “And should I learn?”

“Oh, yes,” breathed Noir. “Learn everything. Grow bold and strong. And stay awake!”

Nin woke.

* * *

Learning the instruments took the better part of the next two years. There were only four songs, one for each wind, but Nin had to learn them pitch perfect, note perfect. She had to be able to play them dancing, or lying down, or walking barefoot on the ridge of the roof. Four songs for the four winds: lure with the piccolo, bind with the flute, braid with the oboe, and with the bass recorder break the stone.

But songs were not all she learned. When Nin turned fourteen, Reshka taught her how to make grave-rings out of silver clay, a substance made of fine silver powder, water, and organic binder. Nin learned to etch the entire alphabet on the inner band of a ring, in tiny, precise letters so small they could only be read by magnifying glass. She learned how to fire the rings in a kiln until they were hard, how to tumble them and finish them until they shone like mirrors, smooth as satin.

“Why silver?” Nin asked her grandmother. “Why not gold?”

“Silver’s a repellent,” Reshka said. “Like salt. Some say running water—but they lie.”

They worked in the Ring Room, as Nin called the small chamber off Reshka’s bedroom. Illuminated by dazzling electric lights, it was the brightest, harshest room in the house. Reshka had installed salt trenches along threshold and windowsills. Silver wire ran all around the room at the baseboards so that no ghosts could enter. An enormous worktable and two long wooden benches took up most of the space. Supply shelves crowded the walls.

In that room, Nin fashioned hundreds of silver rings, and Reshka destroyed them all. The work of hours, weeks, months gone in an instant, slapped to the floor, and the worker slapped too, for good measure. Nothing satisfied her grandmother.

“No!” she would croak. “Another! Again! They must be beautiful. They must be perfect.”

“Why?” asked Nin.

“Because, Nin the Dim—” dry, dry, Reshka was dry as an old well with bones at the bottom “—they are each to become a tombstone.” 

* * *

As Nin’s fifteenth birthday neared, the new difficulty became  choosing her first ghost.

Pieta Cemetery lay between the town and its woodland like a farm that grew only corpses. Nin sat beside her grandmother in the parked truck, staring out over the desolate miscellany. Mausoleums and monuments, tablets and tombs, vaults, angels, cherubs, reapers, veiled Madonnas, all spread out before them in orderly serenity. Like a country girl come to the big city for the first time, Nin felt flushed and giddy. She was used to the dead outnumbering the living—but not on this scale!

Smiling to herself, she muttered, “Pick a gravestone, any gravestone.”

“Not any gravestone!” Reshka shouted. “Stupid girl!”

Nin smoothed out her smile.

“You must choose your ghost with care,” Reshka explained in her raspy, exasperated way. “It must not be an infant. Infants are fractious, unformed. Nothing appeases them. They teethe on the furniture. They break things. They’re always underfoot. Nor do you want an old ghost—imagine!” And here Reshka laughed, a skeletal sound. “Imagine! Raising me as your ghost! You couldn’t boss her around. She’d boss you! She’d own you! Never let a ghost own you, Little Miss Nin the Grim. You own it. You got that? You own your ghost! Or she’ll eat you up, all but your teeth.”

Nin nodded. The cab of the truck, she decided, smelled like mildew. She was surprised the engine had coughed to life in the first place. Probably Reshka kept a ghost as a mechanic.

“No,” concluded Reshka, “you do not want the very old, or the very young. You do not want a teenager—don’t I know? How tiresome they are, moping around and popping pimples. Choose a ghost in the full strength of its youth, a beautiful ghost in its prime, who will do as you bid or be whipped for it. Go.”

Nin slipped out of the truck and entered the deserted cemetery. The grass underfoot was warm and wet. Nin, who never went shod at Stix Haunt, had gotten out of the habit of shoes. The grass tickled her ankles and the sun pounded on her scalp. She began perusing the stones.

1896-1909. A boy. An adolescent. Timothy Hearn. No.

1890-1915. A soldier. Robert John Henehan. Nin did not want a soldier.

1856-1934. Mary Pritchett had outlived all of her children and her husband. Too sad. Too sad and too old.

At Reshka’s step behind her, Nin asked carefully, “How do you whip a ghost?”

“Ah!” cried Reshka. “Ha! Why, you have his name! With the song of breaking, you destroy his gravestone. He can’t remember who he is. Nobody alive knows or cares. This site,” she gestured around with her manicured claws, “is a historical landmark. No one uses it anymore. But you—you’ve got his name, his birth and death, etched in silver on a ring. You wear it against your flesh, and he must return to you. You’re his gravestone. You’re his home. Your power over him is complete. With the songs of binding and braiding, you’ve trapped his soul; you’ve twisted his spirit into your hair, until he’s so tangled in the strands, he’ll never come loose. Say he mis-behaves. All you have to do is this.”

She pinched one of her skinny blonde braids between her fingers. From the very tip of it, she plucked a single hair. Then she dug around awhile in her large suede purse, at last drawing out a lighter.

Flick of the wheel—flame. It made nothing of that little hair in an acrid instant.

Howling filled the steamy August afternoon. A great coldness rushed over Nin, followed by sobbing. One of her grandmother’s ghosts was near, she knew. Must have followed them from Stix Haunt.

Even with her hands clapped over her ears, Nin could hear the ghost crying.

Reshka held out one hand to the air, like a queen to her vassal. The silver rings she wore, two for each finger and three on her thumbs, glinted smugly. The sobbing quieted, replaced by a whispering unwet suction, like fervent kisses.

If she squinted at the air around Reshka’s hand, Nin could almost make out the ghost. It was more difficult in daylight. But, yes, there was a haze—a disturbance, colorless, like a mirage, not of heat but of deep and biting cold.

Reshka waved the ghost away.

“Do you see?” she asked.

Nin nodded.

“They must be disciplined.” Reshka’s pursed pink mouth smiled. “When you have a ghost of your own,” her outthrust fingernail caught Nin squarely on the nose, “I expect your bed to be made every morning. I don’t understand why you’ve salted my ghosts from your room, but your slovenliness is intolerable. Of course, what else is to be expected of Noir’s daughter? She was a slob too, and ungrateful. But come your first raising, you’ll have no excuse for your messes. Either in your room or on your person. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, Reshka.”

But Nin was no longer paying attention. She had found what she was looking for.

The gravestone read:

Mason Ezekiel Gont

1901-1924

Son, Brother, Friend

Mason Ezekiel Gont.

The words rang like bells. The sweetest, most clangorous, most dangerous clamor. Mason. Ezekiel. Gont. Mason Ezekiel Gont.

Son. Brother. Friend.

* * *

The night of the raising, Nin dressed with care.

She had grown up wearing Reshka’s castoffs, or ancient garments rifled from attic and cupola. But for this special occasion, which marked her fifteenth birthday and her very first ghost, Nin ordered a new wardrobe from online catalogues like Gypsy Moon and the Tudor Shoppe. She used Reshka’s credit card.

Most of what Nin bought came in some shade of red.

Her poppy-petal skirt fell to her ankles, embroidered and deeply flounced. Her shirt was dyed a vibrant arterial red, with scarlet ribbons running through the collar and cuffs. Around her waist she tied a golden scarf with firebird patterns and a beaded fringe. She wore bells on her ankles. Her hair, black and rough and loose, covered her bare arms. Her skin, scrubbed with salted water, shone pink as hope.

She did not want her ghost to mistake her for a mere shade. She wanted to be seen.

Reshka had commissioned Nin a carrying case for the four winds. It was ebony, lined in blue velvet, with separate compartments for the instruments. Flute, piccolo, oboe, bass recorder, each fit cunningly in its own place.

“It’s better than you deserve,” Reshka said.

Nin did not argue. Neither did she say thank you.

They accomplished the drive to Pieta Cemetery in their customary silence, arriving at an hour so late it was technically morning. There was no telling sky from tomb, everything was so black and still. Pulling up outside the gates, Reshka let the truck idle. Old Stix and young Stix stared straight ahead, neither looking at the other.

“Tonight,” said Reshka, “we’ll see if the sorcery runs true in you. I’ll never know why Noir insisted on diluting your bloodline with a living sire. You favor your bag boy father in everything but the eyes.”

Nin sprang out of the truck. Before slamming the door, she leaned in and stared Reshka dead in the eye.

“I look like Noir, except I’m taller and my hair is black. I look like Noir Stix, you old bitch. Don’t wait up.”

And she turned and stalked away.

But no sooner did Nin step through the gates than she felt the ire slipping from her shoulders. To be alone at last, and a year older, and dressed to tryst! All around the graveyard sang, in cricket song, frog-throb, and the call of night birds from hundred-year-old trees. Moss fell from low branches like silver veils.

The dead are close, Nin thought, but not awake. The dead are underfoot.

She knew the way to his grave by heart. Since discovering him, Nin had visited often, sneaking off early from Stix Haunt to tramp those five miles down the dark road on foot, just to bring him wildflowers. Wooing him, she hoped.

Mason Ezekiel Gont. 1901-1924. She wished there had been room to etch, “Son, Brother, Friend,” on the inner band of the grave-ring, but she carried the words hard in her heart, that they would not be destroyed when his headstone fell.

And there it was, his quiet resting place.

Nin laid a shallow bowl of alabaster before his headstone, lighting the coals inside it. Then, sifting resin of red myrrh over the smolder, she knelt and placed a circle of white lilies in her hair. Bitter smoke snaked skyward, leaving a pale echo of vanilla in the air. She opened the ebony carrying case.

First, the luring song.

Pipe it on the piccolo, high and sweet and blithe. Pipe it playful on your tiptoes, and dance you ’round his grave. Three times three, you dance—and trill and tease and coax:

Come out to me!

Come dance and leap!

Rise up, rise out!

Come play!

Nin played the lure perfectly. But it was very, very hard.

Reshka never told her that it would hurt. Or of the horrors.

Her lips burned. Her tongue burst into blisters, which burst into vile juices that ran down her throat. The sky ripped open and a bleak wind dove down from the stars, beating black wings and shrieking. Reshka never said how a greater darkness would fall over the night like a hand smothering heaven, how every note she played would cost her a heartbeat, how the earth shuddered away from her naked, dancing feet as though it could not bear her touch.

And then Mason Ezekiel Gont appeared in the smoke of the burning myrrh.

“Ghosts can’t take flesh,” Reshka had said. “But they can take form. In water, in windows, in smoke and mirror, in steam and flame. If you are lucky and if they’re strong, they can shape a shadow you can almost touch.”

He was there. The lure was over. Nin stopped playing and stood still and looked her fill.

The ghost rose uncertainly from the burning coals, upright and blinking, but not quite awake. His hands, which were vague, which were vapor, moved to touch his face, before falling to his sides again, in fists. A look of terrible confusion made his whole body waver, shred apart, form again. He could not feel himself.

Remembering just in time, Nin snatched the crown of lilies from her hair and tossed it over his head. The flowers fell through him, landing in a perfect circle around the alabaster bowl. She had practiced that toss a hundred thousand times.

The ghost glanced down at the lilies, then back up at Nin. She was not supposed to speak until he was hers for sure, but she smiled, hoping to reassure him.

Don’t worry, she wanted to say. They’re to keep you safe. Keep you from straying.

She put the piccolo away and picked up the flute.

The binding song was a lightning series of notes, arpeggios and scales both wild and shrill (Nin had never really mastered the flute; Reshka kept telling her she played like a flock of slaughtered turkeys), and even the ghost winced to hear them.

The flute screamed, and then it seemed the ghost screamed, and frost settled over Pieta Cemetery. It came from nowhere and everywhere. The graves began to glisten. The trees were draped in diamonds. Nin’s lips froze to the lip of the flute. Her fingers slowed on the notes, turned blue, stiffened and stuck. It was like she played an instrument made of angry ice.

It was not music anymore. Nothing like music. Only one long, sustained, horrible noise, like a stake hammered into frozen ground, making a claim.

You are mine

You will stay with me

For all eternity

And then the binding was over. The flute fell from Nin’s nerveless hands.

The ghost stared at her. His eyes were the color of burning myrrh. The trees were white and still beneath a sheen of frost, and he was still too, trapped within the chain of lilies.

Nin began to braid a single lock of her hair. It was no simple braid, but a sturdy rope of many strands, with a series of intricate knots at the end. She had spent a year practicing this braid, first with embroidery thread, then with spiderwebs, then on a doll with human hair that had been from the head of her great-grandmother’s grandmother.

“The hair of a madwoman,” Reshka had said. “So you know what lunacy feels like.”

Nin had practiced the braid in her own hair too, but it had not been like this. There was a song of braiding. She hummed it now, and would later seal the braid with the same tune on the oboe, after the last knot was tied.

The song filled her mouth with wasps. She kept humming, though the wasps stung her tongue and crawled over her teeth. She hummed and braided, even though her hair was suddenly tough as steel, sharp as needles, poisonous as nettles. Already burnt and frozen, now her hands stung, now they trembled and bled, until her hair was wet with her own blood.

And still she braided and hummed, and the ghost watched.

Bind and wind and knot and weave

A labyrinth of grief and need

Way and wall and maze and path

A labyrinth of want and wrath

Mason Ezekiel Gont—I braid thee, my ghost

I braid thee in my hair

She tied the end of the braid with silver thread, coughing out a mouthful of crawling white wasps as she did so, and took up the oboe, and sealed the braid with a song. When it was over, Nin wept.

The ghost looked on her tears with curiosity, maybe even pity, but his fists did not relax.

The bass recorder was a lean length of polished ivory, ending in a gentle bell. It shook in her hands.

Break, she played

Break, stone, and be forgotten

Nothing but bones beneath, and those are dust

Break stone, break name, break birth and death

Break old, forgotten words and go to dust

I will keep him, I will hold him

My flesh shall be his gravestone

I alone shall name him

Break, break, stone—and be forgotten . . .

Nin did not know how long she played. She played until “Son, Brother, Friend,” collapsed to pebbly rubble. Until the day her ghost was born and the day he died turned to gravel, and his name, his beautiful name, decayed to dirt and fell to dirt, indistinguishable from the rest of the earth.

When the song was done, she packed up the lilies and the alabaster bowl so that nothing would mark the place. She slung the strap of her carrying case over her shoulder.

From her pocket, she drew the silver grave-ring and slipped it over her finger.

“Mason Ezekiel Gont,” said Nin Stix. “Follow me home.”

* * *

Even the silence changed after that. Everything was music.

When the last of her wounds healed, the frostbite and heat blisters and wasp stings leaving numb spots and small scars, Nin started reading to her ghost. All her old favorites, Pushkin to Pratchett, Yourcenar to Yolen, J.M. Barrie to Gene Wolfe: dog-eared and thumbed-through as these books were, she took them out and began them again, this time out loud. She read the ghost her old letters to Noir, showed him her sketchbooks, and led him to her secret place beneath the willow tree. She even vacuumed the salt from her threshold and windowsill that the ghost might come and go as he pleased.

Because he shared it with her, Nin straightened her room every day. She made her bed with what Noir had called “Marine Corps precision”—hoping that Reshka would never suspect it was Nin’s work and none of the ghost’s. She began to wear perfume and dressed in her new clothes every day. For the first time in seven years, Nin was happy.

And she was beginning to see the ghost more clearly.

* * *

One night, several weeks after the raising, Nin sat at the edge of her bed and lit a candle. Like magic, the ghost’s shadow sprang to the wall, man-sized, as though he were standing right in front of her, with her flame shining bright upon him. Nin smiled. The shadow stepped off the wall and sat down at the foot of the bed.

“Mason,” she whispered.

He turned towards her, rayless, faceless, dense. She could not see through him.

“I’m sorry you can’t sleep,” she said. “You must miss dreaming.”

The ghost gave a small shrug, out of courtesy or despair. It might have meant a thousand things.

“Rest, please, you must rest—if you can,” said Nin. “On the bed, if you want. I’ll sleep on the floor. If you want.”

In answer, the ghost drew back her covers, his shadow hands deliberate and careful, and then gestured Nin beneath the sheets. The moment her bare feet brushed the footboard, he pulled the blankets up to her chin, smoothed them, and lay down beside her, on top of the white eyelet lace. Nin turned onto her side, facing away from him, barely breathing. The ghost gathered her against him, one arm tucked snug against her stomach. For a long time, wrapped in his shadow, Nin stared at the candle and did not sleep.

She awoke with dark blue bruises on the places he had pressed against all night. Her stomach, the back of her neck, all along her spine. Frost hung in her black hair where he had breathed on her, a mist of crystals everywhere but on a single braid.

Soon after this, she took him to meet her mother.

* * *

Beneath the willow tree, Nin dreamed her willow dreams.

It was September, and the Heron Marsh was restless. Greens bled to gold, gold grew dense and dry. Insects chafed. Long-legged birds took wing. The ghost followed Nin into dreaming.

“Oh, my,” said Noir the first time she saw him.

They were curled on the boulder, out in the middle of Lake Argentine. A warm green breeze moved down from the languid sky.

Mother and daughter regarded the ghost as he treaded the too-blue water, splashing about, sometimes diving under to swim with the black fish-cat who lived beneath, a sleekly furred beast with the head of a panther and the body of an eel.

Once or twice, it twined with the ghost’s feet as he swam, trying to pull him under.

Mason dodged the fish-cat and swam up to rest against Nin’s legs where they dangled in the water. His dark, wet head nudged her knobbly knees. Nin stroked his hair.

“I can see him so clearly here,” Nin said. “He’s like a silhouette that grew dimensions. And he’s not cold at all!”

Her mother ran her fingers through her own short curls, her smile rueful, and glanced from Nin’s face to the ghost.

“Well,” said Noir. “Nice to meet you finally. What’s your name?”

The ghost glanced at Nin, radiating inquiry.

“Mason Ezekiel Gont,” Nin replied with a proud smile. She could never say his name without smiling. She said it whenever she could. “Mason Gont. The Gont of Haunt. Mason. His name is Mason.”

“Mason,” Noir repeated, never taking her eyes from the ghost’s face. “Mason.”

“Mason,” said the ghost. Then, “I won’t remember it.”

Nin clapped a hand to her mouth in shock. Her ghost had never spoken before. Her mother did not look surprised, only compassionate. And a little angry.

“I know you won’t remember, Mason. But while you’re here, we’ll do what we can.”

The ghost spread his hands, palms up, treading water. Noir leaned down to touch his shoulder.

“Is my daughter kind to you?”

“Is she kind?” He lifted his head from Nin’s knees to stare at her. His eyes were darker than the rest of him, a deep and glossy black beaming like volcano glass from the chiseled planes and contours of his face. Every eyelash showed in spiky, sharp relief.

Nin and her ghost watched each other, forgetting to breathe. Both remembered the shower they had shared that morning. How he had spilled into shape, hot spray and viscid steam, touching her with hands that were rivulets, that were waterfalls, soaping her body and washing the suds from her hair. Nin had not asked him into the bathroom with her. But he had entered anyway, uninvited, and she did not order him away.

After the shower, when she was clean and sweet smelling, when his icy and invisible arms wrapped the towel around her flushed body, she had wiped the steam from the mirror with the heel of her hand and saw them both inside it. The ghost stood behind her, vivid as any man.

Mason’s nose was too large for his face. His eyebrows grew straight and ferocious, very dark. Most of his skin was luminous with spectral pallor, wet and bare, steaming from the shower, but his cheekbones were hectic, as though fever-eaten. His hair was shaggy, almost as curly as Noir’s, almost as black as Nin’s—a warm black, with hints of brown and glints of red. His lips were thin and seemed naturally pensive.

Nin wondered if she could ever make him laugh.

Even as she thought this, he began to smile, matching the thoroughness of her inspection with the intensity of his own.

And then he bent his head. And placed his mouth on her neck.

Soft as lilies, sore as stinging nettles. The shock went through her like a bitter wind. And when he lifted his head again, they stared at each other in the glass, stunned, and she knew that he had felt what she had felt, on his side of the mirror.

 “Yes,” Mason Ezekiel Gont told her mother, in the water of Nin’s willow dream. “Nin has been very kind.”

“My name is Noir,” said Noir, with a terrible pity in her eyes. “You are welcome beneath my tree any time.”

* * *

In the second week of October, Reshka summoned Nin to the Ring Room. The ghost accompanied Nin up to the door but no further; the salt trenches on the thresholdstopped him.

When she stepped through the doorway, Nin could no longer see him, or even sense his presence. The braid in her hair hung listless, but the silver grave-ring burned against her finger. By this alone she knew the ghost was disturbed. He could not find her. He could not follow her. He could not even know the room existed.

“What do you want?” Nin asked, not patiently.

Reshka hunched like a harpy on one of the benches. Mockery whetted her round blue eyes.

“All Souls’ soon,” she said.

Nin never paid attention to the holidays. Mostly, she slept through them.

“So?”

“So?” Reshka sneered. Her voice was like taking ice cubes to a cheese grater, always at odds with her varnished face. “So? You’ve not lived through a Souls’ Day yet, girl. Or the Eve of it, either.”

Nin sighed.

“Every Dark Eve,” Reshka went on, “I’ve drugged your food and drink to make you sleep. I’ve circled your bed with salt and locked your door with a silver key. I’ve kept you safe from the ghosts of Stix Haunt—and so, you ask? So! You have no idea, do you, girl, what happens when the dead walk? When the dead take flesh and come walking!”

That parched old voice, never less than awful, >now cracked under the strain of something more. Nin had never seen Reshka’s fear. She did not know how to respond to it.

“They come walking?” she asked. “In the flesh? But you said . . . ”

Reshka ignored her. “I won’t drug you this year. You’re grown—got a ghost of your own now, don’t you, girl? I’ve seen. You’re careless, treat him like a pet, let him walk all over you. Let him take liberties. You’ll deserve what happens when he walks. He’ll destroy everything you own, searching for that little ring you wear. Might be he’ll gobble you in your bed. But I don’t know.” Reshka’s pink lips curled. “Might be you want that, to die as ghoul food? Noir’s daughter is fool enough for such, I guess.”

Nin clenched her hands. “Leave Noir out of this, Reshka! If you have something to teach me, teach me!”

Her grandmother’s immaculate claws shot out, quick and callous as they had been seven years ago at Lake Argentine, when they drowned the black cat Behemoth. Now they closed around Nin’s wrist and sunk deep, drawing blood.

Nin’s grave-ring flared—agony! agony!—and her knees gave out. She fell hard at Reshka’s feet, her arm twisted in her grandmother’s grip, seized fast.

“The dead will come walking.” Reshka’s voice shook, but her talons never faltered. “They come looking for their names. You stay in your salt circle, with a silver veil cast over your braid, and you keep still. You don’t move. You barely breathe. They’ll take the house apart searching. That’s of no matter—I make them put it to rights again the next day. They’ll do it, or I’ll hurt them as only the dead can be hurt, I’ll burn little bits of them to dust.

“But that’s for morning. At night, on Dark Eve, so long as they walk, you stay still, you never leave the circle. And you never, ever remove your silver veil. Or else they’ll see. The salt might stop them—maybe, maybe not—but best not test it. Do this and don’t stray, Noir’s daughter, or I’ll hang you from that willow tree you love. Then I’ll raise you up again by the four winds, and you’ll be scrubbing my back and brushing my teeth for all eternity. You got that, Nin the Necrophilian? Am I clear enough, Miss Nin?”

“Clear!” Nin gasped, hating herself. She might as well have cried mercy. Reshka flung her wrist away with a disgusted hiss.

“Then get out,” said her grandmother. “And prepare while you still can.”

* * *

It rained all day on the Dark Eve.

No trick-or-treaters came skipping down the road from town, plastic pumpkin heads in hand. No teens dressed in black T-shirts and glow-in-the-dark bones came to teepee the lawns and throw stones at the windows of Stix Haunt.

Nin stayed at her window all day, pretending to watch the rain. But it was Mason she watched, following his rest-lessness as he paced wall to wall in the reflection of her room.

“It’s all right,” she told him. “You’ll walk tonight.”

He paused long enough to give her a single, unfathom-able look.

“I wish I could go to the willow tree,” Nin said. “But on a day like this I’d drown.”

The ghost drifted towards her in the window. Nin felt him at her back. But before he touched her, before his arctic breath sent chills down her neck, he turned away. He walked through one of her walls, and he did not return.

Nin tried not to cry. She’d wanted him out anyway. Now she could begin her preparations. The first part was easy. All she needed was scissors.

* * *

The hour before midnight, Nin lit a line of red pillar candles. Hot cinnamon wax scented the air. She had covered her windows with shawls and scarves, so that no one outside—alive or dead—could look in.

By candlelight, Nin laid her circle of salt, three thick lines of it. Sea salt, then road salt, then perfumed bath salts that smelled like lavender. When the circle met itself, when even Nin forgot where it began and ended, she stepped out of her clothes and shoes, folded them neatly and put them away, and flung a dark gray veil, heavy with silver embroidery and longer than she was tall, over her head. Then she moved over the lines of salt into the heart of the circle, and sat on the floor to wait.

Reshka’s grandfather clock struck midnight. Dark Eve was over, and All Souls’ began. So did the noises.

Downstairs, down the hall, starting in the kitchen, a great clashing started up. Glass broke. Drawers pulled out and upended. Knives hurled at the walls. A huge, frightening crash—perhaps the refrigerator tipping over. Bookcases toppled. Books ripped apart. Curtain rods torn down. Someone singing an awful song. Someone flushing and flushing the toilet. (Nin wondered what they were flushing.) Cabinet doors ripped off. Doors slamming. Outside, shrubs uprooted, banged against the house, tossed through the windows. Someone pounding holes in the porch with something blunt. A furious gibbering. People who had forgotten how to speak. Whistlings and whispers and wet slobbering sobs sliding through the cracks in the plaster.

The ghosts walked in flesh. The search was on.

Below, Nin knew, Reshka was in hiding, sealed in the Ring Room behind salt and silver. The ghosts could not harrow her from that secret place, to reclaim what she wore on her fingers, in her hair. Thwarted, they grew restless. Further and further out they ranged, into the woods and the marshes, maybe as far as the town, knocking on doors, rapping on windows, searching for their names. The calamity of their passing faded to a distant wailing.

Nin’s door opened and Mason Ezekiel Gont stepped inside.

He did not see Nin, invisible behind her barrier of salt, with the gray veil over her. He walked to her bed and stared at it for some time, then stroked the white eyelet lace. He could feel what he touched. He did not, precisely, smile.

Mason moved through the candlelight, a ghost in the flesh, casting no shadow. He ran his fingers over everything, the fringes of her scarves, the beads hanging from her ceiling fan, the cotton underwear in her drawer. Always with that expression that was not entirely sweet or bitter, but concentrated. Perhaps hungry.

Three times he passed the mirror before he dared look at himself. When he did, he stepped right up to the glass, pressed his nose to it. Forehead to reflected forehead, he studied himself. His left palm flattened to his breastbone, where no heart beat. Mason and Mason-in-the-mirror stayed that way for a long time.

While he stared, Nin stood up in her circle. Almost carelessly, almost by accident, she stretched one bare big toe towards him. The toe smudged a few grains of salt out of place. It took only that, and Mason Ezekiel Gont turned to look at her.

Two strides, and he reached through the circle, pulling the veil from her face.

He said, “Your hair.”

“Yes,” said Nin. “Now I know why Noir kept it so short.”

He shook his head, wordlessly reaching out again. But Nin sidestepped his grasp and backed away, until the back of her knees met the edge of her bed and she sank down. She rubbed the stubble on her head, more acutely aware of its unpredictable tufts than of her nakedness.

Frowning down at her feet, Nin could not see him coming, but she heard his tread. And then he was there, standing knee to knee with her.

“Will you sit?” she invited him.

“Do you command it?”

“No.”

“I will not sit.”

Nin glanced up. For the first time since he had entered her room, she recognized the expression on his face as anger. He was so angry, heat simmered off his skin. He looked not into her eyes, but at her skull, her scalp, the absence of her hair—the absence of the braid where his soul was bound. Once she saw his gaze flicker to her ring finger, which was bare.

“It—it—was never right to call you,” she stammered. “Or, having called you, to keep you. But I was so . . . ” She shrugged. She could not say the words she had practiced a hundred times.

“Where is it?” asked Mason in his soft way. “You still have it somewhere. You have not released me. It’s here. Very near. My soul, braided and bound in you. Do you think I can’t feel it? Is this a trick? What did you do with your hair?”

“I was going to give it to you . . . ”

“Do it now,” he said. “Do it, please, before the others come back and pull me into their madness. I am that close to going over . . . I am so close, Nin.”

Nin, he said, and his rage broke a little.

Nin began to weep. The ghost placed his hands on her naked shoulders. His hands, heavy with borrowed life, were smooth and lineless, without fingerprints or scars or calluses. They bore her against the mattress, and she did not fight, knowing that he was no more relentless than she had been.

“Nin,” he said, “I need my name. I need it. I need it back. Where did you put it? Where is your hair?”

Her nose was clogged from crying. “You are my only friend.”

“And I’m here, Nin,” he whispered. His breath was white waste and winter night. “I’m right here. And I am your friend. But I have neither eaten nor drunk for one hundred years. I have not felt flesh beneath my fingers in one hundred years. Nin, I am hungry—and I have no name to recall me to myself, or the honor I once believed in!”

His hands were warm, and his breath was cold, and her own breath was coming too fast.

“Please,” said Nin.

“Stop me,” begged the ghost. “Nin, stop me.”

“I can’t.”

“Please.” His voice grew ragged. His hands moved down her body, fingers hard on her thighs. His mouth suckled at her skin, not so much kissing as tasting raised flesh, heartbeat, the pulse of the artery running through her belly. She grasped his curls and his head slid lower. Even his hair was alive, twining around her fingers like damp, sleepy ferns.

Nin reached one hand beneath her pillow to draw out a silver-embroidered sack ungainly with salt. The knot that bound it was simple, but Mason’s mouth complicated everything. When her trembling fingers finally undid the knot, salt spilled everywhere, along with a single black braid, which she had bound on both ends in silver, and looped through a little silver ring. The inner band of the ring was engraved with a name and two dates.

Mason raised his head and saw the braid.

“It’s for you,” Nin said. “It’s yours.”

His hand shot out so fast she did not see it move. The braid and the silver ring disappeared into his clenched fist.

“I am Nin Stix,” Nin said. “What’s your name?”

“I am Mason Ezekiel Gont,” said the ghost, and then he laughed. The sound seemed to surprise him. Then, surprising Nin, he dipped his head and brushed her belly with a kiss.

“And I am pleased,” he said, “I am most pleased to meet you, Nin Stix.” He kissed her belly again, the spot between her breasts, the side of her throat.

Then, in a whisper she almost missed: “Stop me, Nin.”

“No,” she said. “You’re free. You’re my friend. You’re the only one I want.”

His tongue licked a few grains of salt from the spill across her belly. His exhale moved, frozen, across her skin. Nin felt a thin ice crust her stomach.

“Mason,” she began.

“Nin Stix.”

“Mason Ezekiel Gont.”

“Nin Stix, sorceress.” His tongue worked on her, his lips, his teeth. The hunger of a hundred years. “Nin, gentle mistress. Nin of the Four Winds . . . ”

“Mason . . . ”

“Nin, do not stop me now . . . ”

“Mason—finish it!”

And he did.

* * *

All Souls’ day passed in a dream, and then night came.

Nin and Mason lay together, foreheads touching, and Nin wept to realize that Mason’s kiss had driven the taste of ash from her mouth. She burrowed against him, driving her flesh to his, knowing she would not be able to touch him again after midnight.

“Nin.” His breath was warm now, warm on her scalp, and it smelled of lily and of myrrh. “Nin, my Nin, what will you do now?”

She knew what he was asking. He was asking, “What are you going to do without me?” He was asking, “How will you live, when I leave you alone—more alone than anyone has ever been alone?”

Nin shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does,” he insisted. “I know it does. What will you do?”

The answer came to her then, like a bruise behind the eyes, or a freezer-burn of the marrow bone, and she put both her hands over her face and stayed that way for some time.

“Nin?”

“This can’t continue.”

“What can’t?” the ghost asked carefully.

Nin rolled onto her back, her neck cradled in the crook of his arm. “Any of it.”

* * *

Reshka Stix waited out the day in her Ring Room.

She had lived through one hundred eight All Souls’, midnight to midnight; she knew what to do. For twenty-three hours, she had been supine upon her worktable, covered in a net of silver that glittered under the bright electric lights. She barely breathed, keeping a light trance that let her listen for the ghosts. Even when they left the Haunt, she could hear them. Reshka Stix could always hear them, screaming through the marshes, baying in the woods, frightening the water moccasins and the foxes and the owls to stony deaths. Searching for their names.

She could name them all.

No one in the house now but Noir’s mouse, mooning for her ghost boy. That girl would end up gobbled. Or she’d end up too weepy and weak for the sorcery, and abandon the Haunt as Noir had done, salting her footsteps so the ghosts could not bring her back . . .

Shimmering under silver and memory, Reshka did not hear her granddaughter creep up to the Ring Room door. Reshka never heard the living so well as the dead. So when Nin poured water into the salt trenches at the Ring Room’s threshold, Reshka did not know it.

Only when the ghosts came back did she know. She knew, and they knew, and they poured back into the Haunt so fast they blew the front door off its hinges and left it for splinters on the floor. A horde of ghosts descended upon her, twenty-two shrieking things, crowding the bright-lit chamber where silver rings were made. Reshka Stix could name them all.

The oldest saw her first. Perhaps her foot twitched beneath the net of silver. Or her breathing gave her away. In a flash, in a blink, moving as only a ghost could move—he was upon her, ripping off the silver veil with one hand, while the other lunged for her braided hair.

Each ghost who could reach one seized a braid, and those who could not started chewing, chomping, gnawing the rings off her fingers with their teeth, gnawing off her fingers one by one.

Reshka Stix did not scream. Even when they tore the braids out of her scalp, taking chunks of skin and clots of blood, she kept her tight pink lips compressed. And when they sucked the flesh from her severed fingers to get to the grave-rings, even then, proud Reshka made no sound. Of course, by that time, she was dead.

So there was no one alive at Stix Haunt that night to stop the ghosts from setting it ablaze.

* * *

“Nin, my love?”

“Yes, Noir, my love?”

“Is it over?”

“Yes. It’s over and he is gone.”

“It’s morning, Nin. It’s very late, in fact. I think you should wake.”

“Did I really . . . Is Reshka . . . ?”

Wake . . . ”

* * *

The morning smelled like a funeral feast. Ashy air filled Nin’s mouth, and she coughed, then turned onto her side and retched.

She had no recollection of leaving Stix Haunt after Reshka’s ghosts came ravening back through. Mason must have done something, put her to sleep somehow and carried her to the willow tree—but she remembered nothing of that. Nin rubbed her head. She missed her hair, but not as much as she missed the braid and what it had bound. On hands and knees, she crawled from her damp shelter. It was in this genuflection that she had her first sight of the Haunt—what it had become.

Smoke filtered the sweet colors from the air. Reshka’s house was a charred shell, clung about with trembling curtains of heat. A few piles of rubble smoldered yet. Nin made a sound between a cough and a cry.

“Oh, Noir! Oh, Mason—what have I done?”

The distance from willow to ruin might have been the distance between stars. She could not bear to go any closer. Palms pressed to eyes, she dropped until her forehead rested on the ground. Something cold kissed her forehead.

Nin did not have to see the ring to recognize it. His ring, his name, his birth and death—his broken and stolen tombstone—the ring she had returned to him, encircled her finger once again. Mason had put it there, he must have done, had bequeathed it to her, making her his resting place.

“Nin, my Nin,” the ghost had asked, “what will you do now?”

Nin pushed to her knees and wiped her face.

 
 
 
 

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Cooney_blondeC.S.E. Cooney lives and writes across the street from a Victorian Strolling Park. She is the author of How To Flirt in Faerieland and Other Wild Rhymes and Jack o’ the Hills, both available on Amazon.com. Her most recent novellas, “Martyr’s Gem” and “How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One” may be found online at GigaNotoSaurus. With her fellow artists in the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours, she appears at conventions and other venues, dramatizing excerpts from her fiction, singing songs, and performing such story-poems as “The Sea King’s Second Bride,” for which she won the Rhysling Award in 2011. Her website can be found at http://csecooney.com.

Claire writes that “Braiding the Ghosts” was “one of those rare stories that shot out of my brain fully formed, like Athena in her brazen greaves, or maybe like a baby chicken. It has since been extensively rewritten. I also want everyone to know that I have a Mima, a Nana, and a Grandma, and they are all the loveliest grandmothers ever, and this story is no reflection on them.”

 

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