This Fond MadnessMelissa Marr
Table of Contents
The Maiden Thief
Guns for the Dead
The Strength Inside
THIS FOND MADNESS
"Awakened" © 2013 by Melissa Marr; originally published in Rags & Bones by Little Brown.
"Corpse Eaters" © 2013 by Melissa Marr; originally published in Shards & Ashes by HarperTeen.
"Guns For the Dead" © 2011 by Melissa Marr; originally published in Naked City by St. Martin's.
"The Maiden Thief" © 2015 by Melissa Marr; originally published by Tor.com (online exclusive).
"The Strength Inside" © 2011 by Melissa Marr; originally published in Home Improvement: Undead Edition by Ace.
Copyright © 2017 by Melissa Marr
All rights reserved. Kindle Edition. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Table of Contents
The Maiden Thief
Guns for the Dead
The Strength Inside
This collection, like so much that I've written, didn't have a theme intentionally, but my writing always has a theme. It's a phrase I have written in thousands of books this last decade: There is always a choice.
To me, that phrase defines my life. It has for thirty years. It defines my writing. The choices might not seem large, and sometimes, the options are between bad and worse. I believe—as I have for three decades now—that we continue to win as long as we continue to choose.
My past two years have brought me to the hospital six times, a partially collapsed lung, a failing kidney, some less exciting things too (thankfully!). It's led me to slow down, sell my home, give away over seventy percent of my possessions as I embrace minimalism, and begin the journey to conversion that I started and stopped twenty years ago. We are always making choices.
The stories here are drawn from the same places that my first books were drawn—fairy tales, folklore, and feminism. "The Maiden Thief" (never in print until this collection) has its most obvious source in Bluebeard, but there are touches of Beauty and the Beast and Snow White in there too. "Awakened" draws on selchie lore and Kate Chopin. "Sword Sisters" (never before published) owes its existence to Red Riding Hood and Charlotte Perkins-Gilman's Herland. "The Strength Inside" taps folklore about strengthening a building by way of immurement, a tradition associated with vampirism in some lore (but not here) and tied also to Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado." Perhaps, "Guns for the Dead" is the odd sister in this set, but it ties to a tradition of American Western novels as well as the Celtic folklore about the dead, Samhain, and a host of funerary folklore that I read a bit obsessively.
This small collection of stories is going up for initial pre-order on the ten year anniversary of publishing my first novel (Wicked Lovely). In that time, I've published books that have been bestsellers in a dozen nations, translated in more than two dozen languages, and meandered through most of the country (and a few others). I've co-edited, co-written, planned events, and founded a convention. I've written adult romance and picture books, thriller and fantasy, children's and adult books.
A lot has changed in this decade, but a few things have stayed steady. I still love fairy tales, and I still love folklore. I still think people can overcome the challenges they are given. And I am still grateful to those of you who take the time out of your day to read my stories. I've lost track of the count of the lovely letters I've received, but I read them all. Thank you for letting my words be a part of your life.
The Maiden Thief
I don’t remember a time before girls vanished. The first one I heard about was April Shaw. I had just turned ten when she vanished. I was fifteen when the taken was someone I knew. That was the year Jenna Adams didn’t make it home. No one did anything. Autumn meant harvest, a chill in the air—and another girl vanished from Charlestown.
The taken are as young as fifteen and as old as thirty. They are vine-thin, heart-curvy, dark of eye and pale of hair, light-eyed and dark-skinned. There is no true pattern to who will be taken.
But I look for one.
The girls are always taken near my birthday, and I feel a strange kinship for them. Every spring, as the fields are tilled, I watch for bones as if this, at least, will give me some insight into the secret of the Maiden Thief. I walk the long way home, meandering along the roads, peering into freshly turned soil as if I’ll be the one to find the dead girls.
But spring fades in summer yet again this year, and we still have no answers. Months and weeks pass, and the air eventually turns cool. No one seeks the killer. No one searches for the taken. We simply wait, knowing that inevitably autumn will come—and another girl will vanish.
My sixteenth birthday draws near, and I wait and watch like most of my classmates. We know he’s out there, looking at us, thinking about who’s next. We know we’re all secretly whispering, “not me.” We can’t meet each other’s eyes as the leaves start to drift to the ground.
Not ten minutes after I walk into the kitchen door, my sister tells me, “Today was market day. I heard in the stalls that Ella—the girl with the pretty voice and the red shoes—was late on Sunday, and her dad was going round to everyone thinking she was this year’s girl.”
“She twisted her ankle and couldn’t get home. She’s fine.”
“That’s good.” I drop my books on the table and go to the sink to wash my hands. It’s what Bastian used to do after classes, and so I follow his routine. When he was alive, my brother was my closest playmate.
Our sisters were both much older than us, and the two babies after them but before us hadn’t lived past their second years. Karis, who was ten years older, was the “little mother,” while Amina, who was only a two years younger than Karis, was the “big sister.” Bastian, of course, was the future, the one who would increase fortune and ease for our family. I was only the poppet, the plaything they indulged. I read every book Bastian had, and many of Father’s too. Then, they smiled and laughed. Now, though, Bastian is gone. There is little laughter to be found in our home.
The only brightness that remains is from Karis’ determined cheer.
As if she hears my thoughts, my sister takes up the song she was singing when I walked into the house, something about meadows and fields of forever. Her voice is sweet, and the words are familiar. Before Mother’s death, Karis sang more than she spoke.
Both of my sisters would make wonderful wives and mothers, but the money that would have been their dowry is long gone. Mine went first, a peril of being the youngest, but by now all three of us have nothing to offer a groom. Only our household skills and presumed virtues are left to us as enticements to potential spouses.
Karis sets me tasks, and we work in the quiet companionship that always flourishes between us now. We are not petty with each other, not short of temper or ill of manner, not since we lost Mother and Bastian.
We work together, and we are strong for it. Our sister Amina draws forth the food that we sell for our money now. Karis minds our home, cooking and cleaning. Once a week, she goes into town to sell what we can and buy what we need. I go to and from the school, learning so that I can figure a way to a better future. Ours is a quiet life with no friends, no outings, and little contact with the people in town. The quiet moments I have with either of my sisters are my only companionship no
w. Being with them fills me with peace.
But that peace is soon broken. My father comes in with something clutched in his hand. I can’t see the words on the parchment, but I know well enough what’s there. I wrote the words myself, gathered the facts as I know them and called for action.
“Verena!” Father stops and levels me with a glare that makes me want to reach out to Karis. “What have you done?”
“Shared my findings,” I say with barely a quaver in my voice. I know better. Girls are to be seen, to be delicate, to be graceful, to be many things my sisters excel at, things I will never be—things I might not have even been if we’d kept our fortunes.
I straighten my spine and stare at my father. “It’s true. Every word of it is true.”
“It’s shameful to say so.”
“It’s more shameful that no one doing anything to catch the Maiden Thief,” I say, a tremor in my voice as I try to not look away from Father.
I remember being the “littlest gem,” the daughter who drew eyes and smiles. I remember pretty dresses and sweet treats. I remember how strangers commented on my beauty. Now, I am expected to master my studies as my brother once had been. It is a lie we agree to live, to pretend I can replace my brother, but it doesn’t mean that Father has forgotten that I am a girl when I dare cross him.
“So you went courting trouble we don’t need?” Father asks. It’s not a question, though; he makes that quite clear as he thumps past the table and into the sitting room where he’ll stare out at Amina as she toils in the garden, the orchard, and the fields.
Amina is his favorite. Like everything else, he doesn’t say that aloud, but we know it just the same. We always have. Amina looks like Mother, much as Bastian did. Father used to laughingly speak of selling their golden hair should we ever need coins. When I was a small child, I clipped a lock of Bastian’s hair and tried to buy sweets with it. The grocer laughed and gave me candies, but he let me keep that lock of Bastian’s golden hair too. Now, it is all I have of my brother, and Amina is all Father has of his three golden ones.
And so Father watches her every afternoon and much of the morning to be sure that she is not the one taken this year.
Karis and I exchange a look as he passes, but neither of us dare to speak. We see that his bad leg dragging more than last month. It’s getting worse again. We all see it, but no one is so foolish as to comment. Father doesn’t discuss the accident that took my mother and brother, and we’re not to do so either.
In the early weeks of his recovery, he blamed God. He blamed himself. He blamed us—three useless daughters. If Father could’ve bartered with God in those fever-filled days, we would all have been offered in exchange for the return of the two people he’d lost. Bastian was the cherished one, the son who would carry on the family name. His death was worse because Mother was taken too, so he had no wife to carry a replacement son. . . and soon after, we were far too poor for Father to woo a new wife. He couldn’t work, and our fortune had sunk to the bottom of some dark section of the sea.
“What did you do this time?” Karis asks softly.
“I wrote a tract on the Maiden Thief.”
My sister smothers her gasp by slapping her hand to her mouth. It’s such a girlish gesture that I wonder how we’re related. Even as she stirs a pot of what we privately called “stretch soup,” she manages to be feminine in the way of the girls I study at classes. Most of them are excelling at the courses in Household Angels, Art Appreciation, and History for Delicate Minds. They don’t take the courses in the maths or sciences, and they certainly don’t take Literature Unbound. There, I mostly only see boys or the girls who wear trousers out in publics. I wear dresses, as much to remind myself of the girl I once was as to remind the boys that I could be a bride one day.
Karis stirs the soup before coming over to embrace me. It’s the sort of all-encompassing hug that Mother used to offer, but Karis doesn’t smell of lavender and her body is brittle and bony against mine. She may hide it with Mother’s re-made gowns and layers of cloth, but I know she takes the smallest portion of the food. Karis has told me often enough that Father needs to eat for his health, Amina for her strength, and I for my mind.
“I’m not hungry,” I blurt out, as close to a thank you as I can come without embarrassing us both. “Will you eat half of my soup so Father doesn’t notice?”
I’m certain she’ll see through my words, but instead, she squeezes me tighter still and whispers, “I think you’re brave, Verena.”
When Karis vanishes three days later on one of her rare trips into town, Father slaps me. “You did this. Your brazen words made that monster look our way. It should have been you.”
I stand staring at him. There are no words, no argument, no defense I can offer. My sister is dead—or will be soon—and it’s my fault.
I do not resume classes when the new week dawns. I pick out the most worn of my sister’s dresses and let out the seams so it fits my curvier body. Dress held tightly in hand, I go to the garden where Amina is watering the ground with her hidden tears and taking her anger out on the weeds that dared invade her territory.
“I need beets,” I announce.
She glances at the dress in my grasp. “That’s . . .”
“My new work dress,” I finish. “It should be red for the blood on my hands.”
My often-silent sister sighs. “Oh, little gem!”
The childhood name stings, although I know that’s not her intention. I shake my head. “I need beets,” I repeat.
My sister accepts my choice, not speaking to me of shame or guilt, not arguing that I am innocent. She simply pulls the plants.
I take up Karis’ tasks as my own. The soup I make is no better or worse than hers. The stitches I sew in Father’s re-made clothes are no straighter or more crooked. The meals I take are of the portion that I know Karis would ladle into her bowl.
Unlike my now-dead sister, I do not sing in the kitchen.
Father rarely speaks to me, and when he does, it’s only the most necessary of words. I am not sure I’ve heard my name on his lips since the day Karis vanished. He does not need to tell me that he still blames me. It’s obvious in his every unspoken word.
The death of my sister has changed me, but half a year later, spring still comes, and with it, my old habits start to return. I cannot help but look for the bones of the dead in the freshly turned soil.
“Verena, she’s not here.” My remaining sibling catches my eye as I scan the garden. “Wherever she is, it’s not here.”
I’m outside with her, turning the soil by hand. It’s hard work, but like everything else, I aim to fill the hole left by the loss of Karis. It’s harder than I expected, both on my heart and on my body. I was at school in prior years when the bulk of the garden was broken. Sure, I’d helped some, but this was not a few minutes of work. Still, I carried on as if I had strength and experience at the hours of back-breaking work. To do otherwise was to insult the dead.
“Maybe she’s alive,” I say, my gaze steady on the worn blade I force through the ground. “Maybe they all are.”
I want to understand the Maiden Thief. I want to prove my own theories wrong, and so for the first time, I find myself hoping that the reason no bodies are found is because the stolen girls are all alive.
For several moments, Amina says nothing. I hear birds, the calls of spring insects, and the rustle of new leaves on the tree. My remaining sister’s voice is silent.
I risk a glance at the window, and I take small comfort in the fact that my father is not watching. At least he trusts that my sister is safe with me at her side. I have no illusion that I am strong enough to defend her, but he counts my presence as enough to walk away from his post at the window.
Either that, or he cannot bear to watch me overlong. That, too, is a possibility. I no longer have the heart to want to know such answers. I’ve tried to replace Bastian, learning the thi
ngs I could so I could be of use to the family in business. I’ve taken my sister’s role in the kitchen. Nothing I do changes the fact that the most useless of his children seems to be one of the only two remaining.
“You know they’re not alive,” Amina says finally, her words coming so long after mine that I can almost forget the context. I want to forget it. I want to forget so much.
“We don’t know that,” I insist. In that moment, I feel like the girl I once was, back when weaving flowers into crowns and reading tales of fantastical creatures was all that I had to do.
“It isn’t your fault,” Amina tells me. It is far from the first or even the sixteenth time she’s said those words. She and Karis said them when Bastian and Mother died in the accident coming back from picking up my new dress. She and Karis said them when I saw how badly mangled our father’s leg was from that same accident. We all said them when Father risked the rest of our savings on an order of goods that sunk into the ocean. Now, Amina says the words to me again and again since Karis vanished after my tract on the Maiden Thief.
“What if it’s all my fault?” I look at my sister and ask for answers to a question that has plagued me for years now. “They die with my birthdays. Mother and Bastian died fetching my dress. Karis was stolen after my theories on the killer.”
“The sun rose on those days,” Amina begins. She leans on her garden hoe for a moment. “There was a fox in the garden the morning Karis vanished, possibly the day that the accident happened too. I sneezed those days. What ripples we see are not always causes.” She shook her head. “We can look for patterns, and we might even find them. There were a lot of acorns this year, and the snow was heavy. Are they related? There was a fawn died of hunger after I chased it from the garden, and our sister died. Were they related?”
I let out a sound of frustration. “That’s not the same. I wrote the words on the killer, and Karis was taken.”