Awakened: A New Twist on a Timeless TaleMelissa Marr
A short story by Melissa Marr
Excerpted from Rags & Bones: New Twists on
Timeless Tales, edited by Melissa Marr and
Inspired by Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Table of Contents
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For more twenty-first century takes on classic tales, read the entirety of Rags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales, featuring bestselling and award-winning authors’ interpretations of their favorite stories:
Saladin Ahmed—Sir Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene
Kelley Armstrong—W. W. Jacobs’s “The Monkey’s Paw”
Holly Black—Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla
Neil Gaiman—“Sleeping Beauty”
Kami Garcia—The Brothers Grimm’s “Rumpelstiltskin”
Melissa Marr—Kate Chopin’s The Awakening
Garth Nix—Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King”
Tim Pratt—Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”
Carrie Ryan—E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops”
Margaret Stohl—Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto
Gene Wolfe—William B. Seabrook’s “The Caged White Werewolf of the Saraban”
Rick Yancey—Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark”
And illustrations by Charles Vess
Available October 22, 2013, however books are sold.
The editors’ lives had overlaps before we knew each other. Tim studied creative writing in North Carolina and then went on to edit and write; Melissa studied literature at another North Carolina university, and then went on to be a university literature teacher for twelve years before writing. By the time Melissa began to write, she had found Tim’s short stories; he also published her first story. Along the way, they became friends with a mutual love of short stories, literature, and science fiction and fantasy. This anthology was born from that mutual love—and a strange retelling of Heart of Darkness in the form of a children’s cartoon that Tim wrote.
The anthology also sprung from remarks Neil Gaiman made one night in New York about retelling tales, in particular about retelling a specific fairy tale. Whether he remembers that the tale in question was the same one he retold in this collection, we don’t know. One of us sort of hopes it was all a grand coincidence. That’s what happens with writers: the art we encounter swirls and combines and evolves inside our minds. Those of us who love literature, old tales, folk tales, fairy tales, and half-remembered stories keep them all in some strange simmering pot and ladle out bits into our own new stories. We return again and again to old loves and old obsessions, or wrestle with the troubling and problematic aspects of stories we adored when we were young.
The two of us thought it would be fun to ask some of our favorite writers to return to those best-beloved old stories, intentionally this time rather than in the usual subconscious ways. We asked them to choose stories that had moved them, influenced them, and fascinated them, boil those stories down to the rags and bones, and make something new from their fundamental essences. The results are wonderful. You don’t need to be familiar with the original sources of inspiration to appreciate these tales, but if these stories send you in search of their literary ancestors, you aren’t likely to be disappointed by what you find.
In a story that grew far beyond anyone’s expectations, Rick Yancey takes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark” into a distant future where our fear of science and the mystery of love mingle in fabulously disturbing ways. Carrie Ryan leads us into a different future—one where we have gone underground and rely on technology even more than we do in the real world. Kelley Armstrong also takes on the future, but in her hands, it is not technology but magic that drives the story—magic and brotherly love. In all three—both horror and science fiction—human foibles are the true heart of the stories.
But not only do the stories in Rags & Bones reflect the literary influences of the authors, they also reflect personal interests and influence. Margaret Stohl drafted her tale while on the set of the film adaptation of her co-authored series—and tied her tale into an area she visits for her writing. Beautiful Creatures co-author Kami Garcia crafted a story that makes use of her background as a fighter and as a teacher in underfunded areas. Both stories reflect the authors’ stores of knowledge and experience, but develop in delightfully dark and unexpected ways.
The structures and styles chosen for the stories offer interesting variety as well. Garth Nix offers an unreliable narrator who tells his own story—or a version of it—inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s overly ambitious characters. Holly Black imagines the vampire Carmilla from the eponymous story by Sheridan Le Fanu as an immortal, but still modern, teenager fighting her own nature, written in the form of a desperate confessional outpouring. Saladin Ahmed gives a voice to the maligned and caricatured Saracens from The Faerie Queene, harnessing the imagery and rhythms of that proto-epic-fantasy for his own purposes. Gene Wolfe looks beyond the end of a William B. Seabrook tale of savagery and inhumanity to speculate on the disturbing consequences. Several of the other authors tried narrative styles different from their normal approaches, and in every case, the resulting story is one we are thrilled to share with you.
The editors also included stories of their own in the collection. Without telling the other, both turned to the American South in their stories: North Carolina native Tim Pratt adds a touch of Southern lit to a Henry James story and Melissa Marr takes a story from traditional Southern lit and tangles it in a Scottish/Orcadian influence.
We hope you enjoy the results.
—Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt
Tonight, unlike every other night I have walked on the shore, a man stands on the beach near my hiding place. I can’t pass him. He lifts his hands, palms open, and holds them out to his sides to show me that he is harmless. If he weren’t looking at me so fixedly, I might believe him, but I don’t think I should trust this one.
He is young, maybe nineteen, and fit. In the water, I could escape him, but we are standing on the sand. He has dark trousers and a black shirt; the only lightness is his pale blond hair. I hadn’t seen it, hadn’t seen him, until I was almost upon the crevice. Until this moment, until him, I’d been singing along with the steady rising and falling of the waves as they stretched toward the sand and fell short. Now I stand bare under moon and sky on a beach, and this stranger stares at me with a look of hunger.
No, I do not believe he is harmless at all.
“I won’t hurt you,” he lies.
Something in his voice feels like it wants to be truth, but I shiver all the same. I hadn’t expected anyone to be on the beach at this hour, and I’m not sure what to do about the man who stands watching me with such intensity that I want to flee. Men do not look at you like that without wanting something, and in their wanting, they often hurt. My mother told me that truth long before I ever set foot on the shore. It is why I am careful when I come here.
Waves lap around my ankles as I try to think of a solution. I wish I could jump into the water and escape, but I am bound by rules as old as
the ebb and flow of the water at my feet. I cannot leave without the very thing that he is preventing me from reaching. The best I can do is to avoid looking at the shadows of the crevice and hope he has no idea what I am.
“Are you alone?” he asks. His gaze leaves me then, sliding away. The moon is only half full, but it is enough to cast the light he needs. The beach has few barriers, nothing to hide others. It takes only a moment for him to determine that I am isolated, that I am trapped.
As his gaze returns, traveling over the whole of me as if to weigh and measure my flesh, words feel too complicated. Everything feels complicated. He is waiting for my answer, so I nod to indicate that I am alone, confirming what he already has discerned, showing him that I am truthful and good. Maybe that will spare me. Maybe goodness will make him turn away. Still, I tug my hair forward, hiding myself as best I can. Dreadlocks don’t cover me as truly as untangled hair might, but I am in the waters too much to have any other sort of hair. The thick tendrils drape over my shoulders like so many ropes hiding my bareness.
“I’m Leo,” he says, and then he walks over to the shadows and eliminates any chance I had of escape. He pulls the carefully folded skin from the crevice where I had hidden it. He is careful, knowingly handling it as if it were a living thing. It is, of course, but I do not expect land-dwellers to know that. Not now. Not in this country.
Then he walks away, his arms laden with the part of me that I’d hoped he wouldn’t see, and I have no choice but to follow. He who holds it, holds me. It is as an anchor, and I am tethered. The sea would swallow me whole if I tried to return with my other-self still here on land. I’m trapped more truly than if I were in a cage. This man, Leo, has my soul in his hands.
“That’s mine,” I say. “Please give it back.”
“No.” He stops then, turns, and looks at me. “Since I have it, you are mine.” He strokes the skin in his arms as he stares at me. “Tell me your name.”
“Eden,” I say. “I’m called Eden.”
“Let’s go home, Eden.”
I cannot go home. Instead, I have to obey him. It is the order of things, and so I walk away from my home. “Yes, Leo.”
He smiles, trying to appear kind, pretending he means me no harm. Hate ripples through me like the waves during a storm as he leads me farther onto land. It’s not an unfamiliar feeling. I hate many of the humans who spill their refuse into my sea, who leave their rubbish on the sands, who desecrate my world with their noise and filth.
I whimper at the weight of loss, at the freedom that might never be mine again.
His gaze falls to my bare feet. “Would you like me to carry you?”
“No,” I manage to say. He is carrying part of me and that is the reason I am trying not to weep. I cannot say anything to change this: while he keeps my skin in his possession, I, too, am a possession. I am bound to obey the words he speaks, trapped under his whim and will.
Leo is quiet as we walk. I study him and find that he is strangely beautiful in that way that the very assured often are. He’s taller than me, but he looks to be only a bit older. He’s young and handsome. In times long gone, he would’ve been the sort of man a selchie felt lucky to have as a captor, but I never expected to be a captive. I believed that they had forgotten how to ensnare us. When a selchie woman’s skin is found, she has no choice. Many husbands could be unsightly or brutish, but a selchie must follow, must stay, where her skin is kept. Once one of them takes your other-skin, your soul, into his arms, you are his.
I want to weep; I want to run from him. I can’t do either. All I can do is wait and hope that he will slip, that he will do one of the two things that will set me free. If he strikes me three times in anger or if he allows me to have possession of my other-skin, I can return to the sea. I hope that he does not know the truths, that his ignorance will lead to my escape, that I will be whole again one day, that I will not lose myself in captivity. I know my history, but most of the land-dwellers have forgotten that we are here. Their ignorance is our safety.
But I am following a boy who owns me now, and I think that he was watching for me tonight. Those of us who live in the waters look much like the land-dwelling—at least when we are wearing only this skin. He glances at me, and I know that he sees only the part of me that looks like I belong on land. Other men have looked at me that way. I’ve walked on shore, and I’ve known men. None of them knew that there was another shape to me. They saw only this skin.
Leo knows more, and so I am trapped. The sea calls out, beckoning as waves do, but Leo leads me away. There is nothing more I can do.
He says nothing more as he takes me to his home, a house that sits on an otherwise empty stretch of beach. It’s a large squatting thing, a building of so many rooms that I become lost and sit weeping in the darkness until Leo finds me. After he chides me for foolishness, he leads me back to the room that he’s assigned me. He does not want me to share his room. This, I think, is for his own reasons, not as a kindness to me.
As he stands just inside the doorway, he kisses me. It’s a soft peck upon the top of my salt-heavy hair. “Silly girl,” he says, but there is affection in his words.
Perhaps all will be well. Perhaps I will be able to convince him to free me.
Over the next few days, I realize that Leo can be kind. I am grateful for this. There are moments when I don’t feel as if the world around me is too bright, too harsh, too alien. They are few, but they are present. He tries to make me smile, and sometimes I do.
Leo’s home is comfortable in a way that invites silence: the carpets are thick; the counters are polished; the furniture is heavy with age and importance; and the staff is ever present with mute efficiency. I am lonely here, but before I am allowed to be out among Leo’s friends, I must learn the right words—as well as the right forks.
Time passes as I learn all I must in order to be what Leo wants. He has already told me that the two most important qualities—beauty and obedience—are well met. He tells me that he’d watched for me, selected me especially, because of my looks. I understand from the way he stares at me so intently that I am expected to be pleased by his words, and because of what he’s stolen, I cannot disobey him. I murmur, “Thank you.”
“You’ll be perfect, Eden.” He beams at me. “Once you learn, you’ll be the wife I should have, and you’ll never leave me. Everything will be perfect. We’ll be happy, you’ll see.”
I dip my head meekly as he likes. I have already learned quickly that he is happiest when I show him modesty and obedience. “I will try.”
“My father never uses this house,” Leo says. “He’s away in Europe all the time. No one will know about you until we’re ready. You can stay here and keep up your lessons when I go back to university, and then in a couple of years we’ll be married. I’ll come to you on every break.”
I keep my gaze down to hide my fear of such a life. I want passion, true love some day in the distant future with a man who is so overcome with love that he’ll accept me for who and what I am. I want a man who did not trap me, who will not keep me in a cage. There is no happiness inside a cage, no matter how gilded.
The man in front of me breaks my heart as he stares happily at me. When he grows tired of smiling at me, Leo motions to the table. “Which one would you use for the salad?”
I select a fork. I know this answer, have learned these useless things because it is his desire that I do so. His desire rules me now.
“For lobster?” he prompts.
I stare at the utensils arranged in front of me. Nothing seems right, and this question hadn’t been in the last drill. It is a trick. I look at him, hoping my anger is better hidden than it feels. “The staff will bring that… utensil.”
Leo nods, and at first, I think that he hasn’t heard the pause in my words or the fury in my mouth. Then he frowns, and I see that even if he doesn’t know what it was, he has heard something. He gives me a tight smile that already I am coming to understand means
that I will be punished, and he asks, “Did you practice the phrases in the folder?”
He watches me for a moment, and then he sighs and tells me, “I don’t think there will be enough time to walk tonight, Eden. You’ll need to practice more. We can try again when I get back from my swim.”
“Yes, Leo,” I say quietly, careful not to let him see my envy that he still swims in the sea every day while I am trapped on the shore. Even when we walk on the beach, I am not allowed to swim. I am permitted to watch him, but I am not allowed to touch the sea without his hand holding me fast.
And so the days pass. We practice all the things I am to learn. Leo explains my new life, what I should and—more important—should not do. I learn how to appear as if I belong in his world, how to eat at his table and sit at his side. I dress in the clothes he’s brought for me (because I am not yet allowed to go to stores with him), and I try very hard not to cry as he cuts off all of my hair. The thick twisted locks fall to the floor with soft thumps, and I am left with close-shorn hair.
“It’ll grow longer,” Leo assures me. “You’ll brush it every morning and night, so you don’t have nasty dreadlocks. Nice girls have long, shiny hair.”
As I have done from the first moment he lifted my soul in his hands, I again keep my anger in silence. I know that my silences and downcast gazes please him, so too do the words “What do you think?” I have learned already to use these as I have learned to use the right utensils and phrases.
And he rewards me with smiles and soft kisses on my cheek or forehead. He tells me that he loves me, and I smile at him. He wants me to say the words, but he does not demand it. I will say them one day. I will lie to him, and he will trust me then. He is a child in this, wanting love so desperately that he has caged me here and trains me like a pet. I will bide my time.
Already I can find the magic combination of words and gazes that result in walks at the edge of the water. It’s a bittersweet temptation to be so close to the waves, but Leo holds tightly to my hands. I wonder if he knows, too, that there is a third choice for my freedom. I am not yet so desperate that I will ask the sea to consume me, but even if I were, I’d have to escape his grasp to do so, and as the weeks pass, my strength fades. The tight muscles I had from diving and swimming are softer now. I worry that even if I had my other-skin, I wouldn’t have the strength to reach deep enough waters for the current to pull me under.