Kage Baker loved summer fruit. Plums were her favourite, Santa Rosa plums, but she also loved the huge big golden peaches that come into season in June. She claimed to be indifferent to grapes, but she would sit beside a bowl of Red Flame or Concord and eat them with the reflexive enjoyment of a cinephile with a box of popcorn.
Various East Coast friends have informed me that Concord grapes are junk, fit only for Welch’s juice boxes. But they were the grapes that grew in Kage’s mother’s enormous garden, and she loved them. She would go into an absolute frenzy over some grape she could never find or identify, that she had eaten once in childhood. A bunch had been sent from her mother’s family in North Carolina, I think – the Jeffreys still run a seed company out of Goldsboro there.
Kage described the grapes as translucent amber, long, somewhat rectangular, tasting strongly of honey: with her eyes unfocused in ecstasy, usually, as she recalled the wonder of them. She thought at one point they might be Catawba, but looking up pictures on the Internet makes it obvious they weren’t. Catawbas are conspicuously spherical, a lovely bright burgundy in colour, with an opaque bloom on them. Kage sought those damned grapes from childhood on, and never found out what they were; I searched frantically in her last year, but could never locate them for her either. They had some typically peculiar Eastern Seaboard name – Nangpoolie? Finsprocket? Cawlahippick? If anyone can figure it out, do let me know – I still grieve over not finding them for Kage.
Anyway, cogitating on summer fruit and comfortably disheveled gardens led me into working on The Misses Take and Trick. I finally figured out what the title meant. Therefore, before any of you, Dear Readers, join my historically futile quest for the Great Unknown Amber Grape, here is another few page of the ghoul story.
It picks up just as our PI heroine sights the walls of her goal. Oh, and I corrected the name of the convent slightly: I’m not good at plurals in Turkish …
The path I was following left the trees and sort of dribbled out in a fan of loose gravel on the edges of a broad, wild lawn. It was a lawn only in that it had been mowed short and was presently green. In another month it would be arid gold. Right now it was a bowl of mixed greens – wild radish, miners lettuce, mustard; fescue, rye and California bunch grass growing in rough lumpy circles like squashed cupcake wrappers.
On the other side of the meadow, walls rose at least 8 feet tall and swept across about 40 feet before curving back into the trees. They looked to be rough stone, plastered heavily and painted white. I could see red tile and grey shake roofs rising beyond the walls – no other features here where it fronted the access road, except for a small wooden door set into a recess. Bougainvillea dripped thinly over the uneven top of the wall, scarlet and orange and wine-coloured, glowing in the thin grey light.
It was typical ghoul architecture, really. It was also pretty typical California architecture, of the sort built on the edges of things by amateurs before the housing code really caught on. The gardens would be further back, further in. Tops of fruit trees were just barely visible off where the walls curved out of sight. The combination of the two styles always made me giggle a little inside, and spoke clearly to me of childhood – both before and after Mom had kidnapped us back to human society. I lived in a lot of places that looked like this.
There was another sign for the Rahibeler Organization beside the wooden door, a nice little plaque of silvered wood, carved with elegant floral motifs. verdigrised bronze bell hung beside the door, with molded oak leaves and morning glory blossoms – it was a nice one;I had one like it at my house in Hollywood. I got it from the Signals catalog. Recalling the mail box out on Highway 1, I guessed the ghouls had, too.
I grabbed the rope hanging from the bell, and rang it repeatedly. Yep, same sound.
I could hear soft footsteps approach, then the door swung inward. A female ghoul stood in the short tunnel that ran through the wall to hold the gate, looking at me in mild inquiry.
“I’m sorry, are you lost? We don’t usually have – ” she started to say. Then she stopped abruptly, and we stared at one another for a moment.
She was tall, and slender in the way that Western writers like to call “raw boned”. Her skin was pale and smooth, though; ghouls were always nearly hairless. She had a permanent flush of sunburn on her sharp cheekbones, and her long hands were big-knuckled and rough. Her hair was a pretty silver-gilt mix, though, bound back in a complicated wreath of braids that was incongruous above the jeans and plaid shirt she was wearing.
Her eyes, now, her eyes I knew. Crystal pale and warm, like stream water over golden granite. I had taken out my coloured contact lenses before I started hiking up from Highway I, and I knew she was seeing the same eyes in my round human face.
“I am named Petek,” she said. “What is your name? And what did your mother call you?”
“My name is Neith. But my mother called me Treat,” I answered her.
Call and response, as formal and as cryptic as a secret handshake. If I wasn’t a homecoming orphan, I’d just have thought it was a weird way of asking me my business. But those names are traditional among the children born of the
kidnapped human girls the ghouls steal away; the girls born of human women in the convents of ghouls.
The girls who never, ever leave; or if they do, they never, ever come back. My mother left – but I came back. That was my secret weapon.
Memories just about drowned me as we walked through the convent gardens, where the air filled with the perfumes of grass, flowers and fruit blossoms. I couldn’t help drawing in deep breaths of the scents in the morning mist, and I could see Petek smiling as she caught me at it. Her teeth were jagged, especially the canines.
“Sweet air, isn’t it?” she said.
“It smells like home,” I said truthfully.
She nodded, but didn’t ask me anything else about my origins. As far as she was concerned, she already knew everything about me that mattered.
A brief digression is needed here, about the culture and physiology of ghouls. As I said, they live in gendered isolation. The females, who are many, live in groups. The males, who are few, live alone in wilderness areas. They are usually loosely attached to certain convents, which they supply with meat – when requested. And with sperm – also when requested.
The females are mostly vegetarian, growing what they need and patronizing farmers’ markets. They earn money with a variety of hand-crafted objects: jams, yarns, herbs, jewelry. They can usually pass for human, but these days they conduct a lot of their commerce online – Amazon sells everything to anyone, and the USPS isn’t kidding when they claim they will deliver no matter what.
The males are largely carnivorous. The females supply them with preserved fruit and vegetables, and with bread: bread is worth it’s weight in the precious metal of your choice, to a ghoul. I don’t know why, although it is really good bread … The males can most definitely not pass for human – too tall, too craggy, too stooped. They have the long arms and corpse-pale skin of the stories, and their canine teeth project beyond their lips. But their eyes are the same as the females, crystalline and bright.
They only bring meat to the convents at ritual times, for mating; human meat, maybe once or twice a year. There are females who have never even tasted human flesh.
And here’s the pivotal matter of ghoul reproduction; when the males breed with their own females, the babies are overwhelmingly male. This must have been fine, once upon a time: but now, too many males can no longer hide from the humans, who are everywhere – so they have to practice birth control. This is easy for them, because female ghouls who have never copulated with a male can conceive parthenogenetically.
That’s right, virgin birth; but the result, as with most animals who can pull off this difficult trick, is always female. Babies on demand, only when wanted, who can be slotted right into the convent culture. The males born of sexual reproduction are rare, because the act is seldom practiced; they are raised and educated to about 6 years old, and then handed over to their fathers. They may never see their mothers again. But the convents go on, full of healthy, happy mothers and babies.
The big problem, of course, is biodiversity. Those little girls born to virgin females are essentially fertile clones of their mothers. Fresh blood is needed, new lines of descent, once every thirty years or so. The ghoul who figured out the answer is revered by all ghouls, male and female, as Malike Valide – the Queen Mother.
And here is the answer. If a human female breeds with a male ghoul, she too may have either a girl or a boy; but usually a girl. That girl, who is a hybrid, will be able to reproduce parthenogenetically, just like a full-bred ghoul. But she will pass on entirely new genes to her children, which will be expressed no matter how they in turn reproduce. She will found a new blood line. And the gene pool is periodically refreshed.
So ghouls steal little girls, whom they raise lovingly in their own culture. Ultimately they breed them to male ghouls, until at least one baby girl results. And everyone lives happily ever after. Unless, and sometimes it is a huge “unless”, the stolen girl remembers or discovers her human origins and doesn’t want to breed with a male ghoul.
I don’t how my mother discovered her own roots. But I know she found the process by which I was produced … unpleasant. I was her third pregnancy, and the previous two had been boys. She always said she had loved them. They were both given away when they were 6 years old. So, when I reached that magic age, she took me and ran.
So, yeah, I’m half ghoul. The convent where I was born named me “Neith”, which is the name for an Egyptian mother goddess. But my mother never called me “Treat”, though it’s the traditional baby nickname for girls like me. She called me “Trick”, for her bitterness at the circumstances of my birth.
I have my father’s eyes. I know the answers to the secret questions. I have no really bad memories of my life before I was 6, and no really happy ones afterward. But I was going to save Bree Millard from from my unhappy mother’s fate.