Kage Baker was superstitious, in a personal, individual way. That is, she was superstitious about only a few things, and in only a few ways, that were important to her. Common superstitions didn’t quite cut it for her.
She believed that if she told her dreams before breakfast, they would never come true, Since she also believed that dreams could come true, if properly curated; and so Kage always ate something before she would tell her dreams. Sometimes she ate things she didn’t even like, just because she was eager to tell her dreams to me or the computer.
She believed that evil was drawn by speaking its name. She tried not to actually use the name of any bad thing, therefore, and resorted to a lot of You-Know-Who or You-Know-What. In particular, she believed that it was bad luck to name whatever you most feared. It could be done – in good company, in a strong light, with plenty of rum on hand to cushion your system – but she really preferred not to do do. It called the feared evil to you, she always said.
So. Yestreday, I went on at some point about mania versus depression. I talked about how much fun mania was, how much I dreaded the numbing black cold of depression. And sure enough, today I woke up in a profound depression, and the mere sight of my keyboard was enough to turn my stomach.
This was not acceptable. I drank a lot of coffee, took an extra Prozac, ate half a box of Norfolk Manor Wine Gummies, and sat down resolutely to write. Along the way, I watched Captain Marvel. And behold! My tricks worked, my system rebounded, my neurons re-booted, and I wrote.
It was glorious, Dear Readers. Don’t know if it’s any good, but producing it was wonderful. Here are next 1200 words or so of Misses Take and Treat. Recall, our heroine had just been welcomed by the gate keeper at the ghoul convent.
I walked deeper into a vast lovely garden; even with the errand I was on, I couldn’t help feeling my spirits rise as we passed the deep beds and increasingly heavy-fruited trees. Bits of cottage walls showed through the trees now, casements open to the misty air, eaves decorated with morning glory, honeysuckle and roses. Bee hives were set up beside most of the cottages; good old-fashioned woven straw bee skeps, that were illegal for commercial use in California now.
But if these ghouls were selling honey, they would be doing so through a whole labyrinth of go-betweens. They probably even had a model apiary set up somewhere, where they could be checked by the Agricultural Board. And of course, a lot of it would just be for their own use. Ghouls loved honey, and had a long tradition of friendly bee-keeping …
I put up my hand as we passed by one of the skeps, and a little mote of fuzzy gold landed on me. I stood stock still while the worker determined I was neither an enemy nor a flower, then flew off straight into a huge tangle of roses.
“You’re used to the little sisters,” said Petek approvingly.
“I’ve always liked helping with the hives,” I said – again, quite truthfully. I’d been unafraid of bees since I could toddle,when one tickly bee could fill my whole baby palm. Petek, I remembered now, meant honeycomb. No wonder she approved. “Do you sell honey here? Hives are so regulated now.”
“No, but we sell honey cakes. A lot goes into those, they’re very popular,” said Petek readily. “The rest we keep for ourselves, and no one ever worries about our production methods. Does your house sell honey?”
“Not any more. But they did.”
I think Petek would have probed further as to my antecedents, but we reached a tiny porch just then, which was obviously our destination. The house beyond was larger than the others I had glimpsed through the trees, and the bright blue front door was flanked by lead-glass casement windows. Petek gestured to a bench beside the porch, inviting me to sit, and went into the house with a desultory knock.
If I had been anyone – anything – else, I knew I would never have gotten this far. I’d have been stopped at the gate, or fobbed off with a meeting with some lower-echalon female in whatever they used as a guest-house here. Outsiders never got to see the deep interior of the convent grounds. They also didn’t get to see the hanim, the convent leader at all, usually; let alone be taken straight to her house. I knew it was only my eyes and my name that had gotten me this far. I had to sell my story, if I wanted to stay awhile.
I had only a few minutes to rehearse it, though, before I heard Petek’s footsteps coming back. The brevity of her report could mean I was a shoo-in. On the other hand, it could mean I was destined for a very brief tour of the compost heap.
Petek opened the house door again, and beckoned me in.
“Hanim Mugae will be pleased to meet you now,” she said, smiling. “Please come in.”
So I walked into a short hallway, floored with flagstones. Petek waved me at once to the left, into a lovely, dim parlour. A large wing back chair stood by the open windows, facing a comfortably lumpy old sofa. The Hanim Mugae – the Lady Lily of the Valley, her name was – stood tall against the silver morning light, waiting for me.
The other reason I wouldn’t have met Hanim Mugae had there been any doubt about my species, was that the head of a ghoul convent was always an elder. And old lady ghouls no longer look as much like human women.
I advanced across the parlour rug – a nice Persian style one in greys and pinks – and bowed deeply to the Hanim. When I straightened and looked up (and up, Hanim Mugae was tall) I stared into a pair of transparent honey eyes, in a long pale face framed with silver braids. Her cheekbones were as broad and sloping as a Neanderthal’s, with hollowed cheeks below; her nose was arched, with wide winged nostrils. There were only a few wrinkles around her eyes and mouth to indicate her age.
But most telling of all, her lower canines projected from the corners of that mouth in two distinct tusks. They sported elegant silver bands.
There were silver bands around her wrists, as well, when she extended her hands to me in welcome. Her hands were like jointed ivory, from those knobby wrists to the pale, carefully manicured talons that tipped her long, bony fingers.
I stepped forward and put both my hands between hers. Her hands were cool and smooth as wood when they closed around mine. Mine were much smaller.
“Welcome, Neith, called Treat,” said Hanim Mugae. Her voice was husky, deep and sweet. “We welcome you to this House. And from which House do you come to us?”
“Hanim, I come from no house any more,” I said, looking up into her eyes. “I have been on the road for many months. My House, which was the House of the Sea Poppy, is closed and lost. I seek shelter where I may.”
There really was a House of the Sea Poppy, which is what the ghouls called the huge white matilija bush poppies of California. It was down south, in the hills to the east of Orange County, in the Cleveland National Forest. I knew it well, and I cried when it was burned out in a wildfire several years ago; it took most of the females who lived there with it. It was no effort to let tears well up in my eyes now, thinking of it.
The various convents know of one another, but they don’t communicate much. Letters, sometimes, carried by the peripatetic males; but nothing more intimate. Ghouls don’t use phones, except to place or get commercial orders with humans. But the grapevine is pretty good, and everyone on it knew that the House of the Sea Poppy had suffered an especially traumatic demise.
“Do you seek formal shelter here, Neith?” asked Hanim Mugae. Her eyes shimmered, silver over cold honey, and tears spilled down her cheeks as well.
“I have little to offer, Hanim, as dowry for a place in your House,” I said. I looked down at the floor.
Hanim Mugae put on long hand under my chin,and lifted my head up to look into my eyes again.
“Have you, Neith, called Treat,” she asked in her sweet husky voice, “known a man or had a child?”
“No, Hanim,” I whispered.
“Then you have all the dowry we would ever ask,” said Hanim Mugae. She bent low over me, and kissed me on the brow.
I was in.
I love your descriptions of the Hanim. She sounds like she just stepped out of an Egyptian myth – some being that is beautiful, terrifying, life-giving and destructive all at once.
Thank you! That was what I was hoping to portray. I find I like the ghouls …