Your Christmas Promise, fulfilled.
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THE GLORIOUS DEAD;
An Old Tale, Retold
Snow White, Rose Red, will you beat your suitor dead?
“I’m not the one that can be helping you,” the old woman said, drawing on her pipe. Her wrinkles were deep enough to hide a dime in, and her smile revealed teeth as crooked as a row of headstones, and yellowed besides. The cold rain streamed into the brim of her leather hat and guttered down in a heavy stream past her chin. How she managed to keep that pipe lit in the pouring rain, the soldier had no idea.
He’d come across her peddler’s cart pulled to the side of the red dirt road, hoping he could last out the storm there. He couldn’t remember the last time he was dry or warm.
“I’m no deserter,” he said. “War’s over. Besides. Got my release papers right here.”
She waved them away with her pipe.
“Seems to be desertion’s about the only sane thing a person could do, if you asked me. But it don’t make a difference if you’re a traitorous deserter or a war hero. It don’t change the fact that Addie Jane got no shelter of her own. Much less for the likes of some Yankee soldier. And there’s only room for one under here and it ain’t you. No. No sir.”
She leaned on a cane and humped to the other side of her cart, setting the tin cups and spoons to chiming. She took another pull on her pipe and then gestured with it to the hill.
“That’s the place you want.”
Through the sheets of rain, the soldier made out the white glow of a building in the distance.
“That’s Sangreneige. The McNair girls live up there.” She clucked her tongue. “Poor mites. So young to be up there all on their own. How they’ve survived all this time since their Mama’s gone beggars belief. They’re a bit…free-spirited, mind. But kind-hearted kittens, just the same. They might not have much, but at least they’ll let you wait out the weather.” She took the pipe from her mouth and squinted at him. “Of course you wouldn’t be thinking of taking advantage of their position, now would you soldier?”
She laughed shrilly as he humped down the road. A crow settled on the edge of her cart. She whispered something to it and flew on, out past the soldier, up to Sangreneige.
The house had seemed much closer from the peddler’s cart. He saw it on the hill, a white smudge through the rain, but the road wound endlessly on and on, until it finally wound up toward the house. The drive was lined with wet and twisting trees, and seemed even longer than the road was. The soldier felt he’d walked for hours up this drive and gotten no closer to the house.
Until he was upon it.
Lightning brightened the sky, and in a long moment he saw the circular drive, a marble fountain at its center. Just behind that, Sangreneige loomed up like a dream.
The house was a white sprawling thing, all columns and porticos. It filled the soldier’s wet and tired heart. It had been so long, he thought, almost breaking into a run, making for that lovely verandah. So long since he’d seen anything beautiful, seen anything whole. Sangreneige gleamed like a beacon, and he was suddenly sure that everything he had ever wanted, everything in the world would be inside that house.
Then he saw with grief that the entire back half was…gone. Sheared away, amputated like a bad leg in an Army hospital, and it lay in heaps of burned rubble in the back of the house, where the wild Georgia wood crept close.
The soldier got a whiff of something sweet and rotting coming from the forest, the sound of a heavy step. But he could see nothing through the sheets of rain. He choked down a sob, for everything beautiful that had been lost. At least the verandah was still beautiful, he thought, stepping up onto it.
He tugged the bell pull and wondered if it could even be heard through the torrent of rain. He leaned over to the narrow window next to the door, rubbed the grime away from his sleeve. Through the sliver of glass he saw humps of furniture, and further in, the flicker of firelight.
A face appeared with a thump on the other side of glass, and startled him enough that he stepped back. A girl’s face, slightly distorted from the warped glass. Her skin was dark, and her hair was a halo of white gold. She smiled toothily and waved her hand, then pointed to the door.
The door, swollen by the rain, jerked inward once, twice, then swung free. The McNair girls stood in the doorway, a fevered dream, a hallucination. They looked so beautiful to the soldier, and so strange, he would have thought they hovered a few inches above the ground.
It was like looking at a negative image. One sister had inky red hair, straight as a pin and twice as sharp. Her fair complexion had a greenish undertone. The dark skinned sister bristled with electricity, her smile wide and bright as her halo of pale hair. And while the white haired sister vibrated on the balls of her feet, the dark haired one stood with perfect chilly stillness, one dirty bare foot flat, the other heel pressed against her ankle like a bird.
“Well, well,” said the dark haired sister. “What do have here? A cold and lonesome Yankee soldier all on his own? Why whatever shall we do with him?”
The soldier raised his hands. “I mean you no threat, ladies. I’m only asking for some shelter from the storm.”
“Hear that, Calla?” she said. “He means no threat to us.” Here the dark haired sister smiled slowly, revealing perfect rows of tiny teeth, like pearls. “Well Sir. If you say you’re no threat, who are we to question you?” She stepped aside, made a sweeping gesture into the foyer. “You best come in out the rain, then or you’ll catch your death of dampness. Our mother, rest her soul, would weep from shame if we didn’t show you some hospitality. I’m Poppy. This is my sister, Calla. McNair. Welcome to Sangreneige, sir.”
He removed his hat, and stepped through the door into the swampy air of the yawning foyer. The place had once been beautiful, but now curtains hung limp and dusty, some stripped away entirely leaving behind only grimy windows.
They led him toward what she called the Little Parlour, Calla fairly dancing a circle back and forth behind him. Poppy gestured to a cracked wingback chair next to a smoky fire.
“We spend most of our time in here now.” She sat prettily on the chaise, smoothing her worn dirty dress as if it had been made of green silk. “The fire makes it quite cozy, don’t you think? Calla, do be a dear and get us some tea. You’ll excuse us Sir, it’s been so long since we’ve had regular callers, you must forgive us our rusty manners.”
Calla nodded and bounded out, and Poppy leaned back against the worn nap of the chaise, spread her arms along the carved wooden back. She smiled again slowly, revealing those perfect tiny teeth.
“I wouldn’t want to impose,” he said.
“It’s no imposition at all, Sir.” Her black eyes held his gaze. Her accent was like honey, like the soft crumb of pastry. “It gets awful lonesome up here sometimes. Nobody comes to see us anymore. I mean, I do have my sister and she is great company, but you do understand. We must be very wary out here on own. Not all soldiers are as … gentlemanly as you are, sir. Ah. And here’s Calla with our tea.”
Calla set down a tarnished silver tray with an equally tarnished silver tea service. Small porcelain cups with sprays of red and white flowers, tiny spoons, a creamer, a sugar bowl – both empty. But small enough to fit in his rucksack.
The soldier did not want tea. He wanted to sleep for a hundred years. He wanted hot food. And he wanted something he could sell to make his way back to Pennsylvania a little easier. He wasn’t sure what was left back there for him, but there was nowhere else for him to be. And he knew at least it wouldn’t be choked with smoke and blood and the sounds of dying men.
But it looked like he wasn’t the first one to pass through this house. Rugs were gone, pale circles on tables showed where candlesticks used to be. He eyed the silver creamer again. But he would have to wait. If he bided his time and played his hand right he might just get something for his trouble.
“You’ll excuse us I’m sure, Mr.…I don’t think I got your name, Sir?”
“It’s Jacob. Sergeant Jacob Hadley, Ma’am.” It was not. But it was the name on the release papers he took from the dead man who laid next to him on the bloody field. It was who he was now.
“Sgt. Hadley. Of course. You’ll excuse us serving ourselves. The war has been hard on help as it has been on everything else. I’ll be mother, Calla, and pour out.”
The tea was a weak greenish yellow concoction that smelled grassy and wild. He took a sip and almost spat it back into the cup.
“It’s wild nettle,” Poppy said, sitting her cup daintily in its saucer. “It’s an acquired taste, but it’s all we can come up with these days.”
“It’s not,” she said firmly. “But aren’t you sweet for saying so.”
He smiled and wondered how much longer he could remain upright, he was so exhausted. “Well, I thank you for the tea, Miss McNair.” He set his cup on the tray.
Poppy leaned up. “You’re not thinking of leaving us, Sgt. Hadley? The weather doesn’t seem to want to let up any time soon. And it’s been a long time since we’ve had… any kind of protection.”
“And it’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything as pretty as you and your sister.”
“Did you hear that, Calla?” Poppy set her cup on the tray. She did not take her eyes of Sgt. Hadley. “Pretty things. Isn’t that sweet? He thinks we’re teacups.”
Calla covered her mouth with her hand and rocked in silent laughter.
“You don’t say much, do you Calla?” Sgt. Hadley asked.
“No,” replied Poppy. “She doesn’t. Not since the Home Guard took her tongue.”
“The Home Guard. Took her tongue. For lying. She was telling people how the Captain of the Home Guard was coming up to Sangreneige and taking our chickens and getting himself up under her skirt.”
Sgt. Hadley choked back a cough. “What was that?”
“You heard me. But we’re not scared of him anymore, are we Calla?” Her sister shook her head of angel hair and smiled.
“What happened to him?”
“Oh, who knows, Sgt. Hadley, what happens to anyone.”
“Was she lying?”
“What do you think?” She rose and strode to the door.
He didn’t know what to think, or even really how to think anymore. The sheer scale of what he’d endured to arrive at this point, in this little parlour, with these two girls – well, it was about to crumble him to bits. But this home guard news set him on edge, like something had just broken, like a twig or a teacup.
“I’ll show you to the Blue Room, Sgt. Hadley. You look like you could use a rest.”
Poppy’s voice reverberated in his head, a singing soothing bell. And he knew there was no cause for worry. That these girls were fine, just fine.
Now the solder who both was and was not Jacob Hadley should have had some inkling of what was to come. He should have felt the sinister nature of what was at work when he arrived at Sangreneige. And perhaps part of him did. But he was cold, and vaguely feverish, his hand still wrapped in a rotting bandage, a dead man’s release papers in his coat, stolen just days before the War was over and he could have just walked out on his own. So if there was something wrong in that house, it might not have seemed more wrong than anything he’d seen up to that point. Sometimes it’s hard to tell one flavor of sinister from another.
Besides it was all he could do to put one leaden foot in front of another as Poppy led him up the sweeping staircase, her candle flickering on the walls.
“Just a little further, Sgt. Hadley,” she said. “And then you can have a nice rest while Calla and I get supper.”
They reached the top of the stairs and she turned down a dark corridor. The candlelight flickered, illuminating great dark shapes that looked almost human. One reached for them.
He let out a cry and pulled Poppy behind him “Look out!” he shouted.
Poppy chuckled. “Nothing to fear, Sir.” She lifted her candle up, illuminated a huge stuffed bear, its eyes glittering black, claws outstretched. “Been nothing to fear from old Arthur here in quite some time.”
The corridor was lined with the mounted heads of stuffed bears after bear after bear.
“Your father must have been quite the hunter.”
“You could say that,” she said. “Right here, Sgt. Hadley. The Blue Room.” She pushed open the door. “I’m sorry it hasn’t been aired. We weren’t expecting company.” She set the candle on the mantle. “You rest. We’ll call you for supper.”
The door shut with a click.
It’s true that it must have been a blue room once, but it had eroded away to a dingy gray. A four poster bed stood in front of a cold fireplace, and the mattress sagged when he sat down to pull off his boots. And when he laid back, the bed released a puff of dust and mold that set him to coughing.
Above his head the posts of the bed were carved with faces of something, something not human. He struggled through his fog to make the connection between what he was seeing and the word for it. Bear. That’s what it was, he though. Bears. Do they even get bears this far down in Georgia? And what about that stuffed one in the hallway? And something about Calla’s smile and Poppy’s voice…
But exhaustion overcame him and he rolled over, pulling the top blanket around him and slept.
The man who both was and was not Jacob Hadley did not hear the snick of key in the lock.
He slept hard and deep like a dense rock falling and then jerked awake when he hit the bottom. He passed his hand over his brow, remembering a dream. Something about a great hump of an animal and a dull wet roar. Probably just the rain.
The rain had slowed from a torrent to a steady mist, and the sun was lower in the sky. From deep in the house he heard the chime of a clock.
He swung his legs over the high bed and stood, a bit unsteadily on his feet. No sound came from the house, no human sounds. From the tall window he saw the figure of Poppy headed toward the tree line with a basket. Probably out to gather something for their supper. He felt a little pang and how sweet the girls were, how tender.
But he felt no tug regret as he rifled through the highboy looking for something to take. He comforted himself with thoughts of his own self-control. How these two young girls were out here all alone, how he could have taken more than a silver salt cellar and would never have to answer for it. For God’s sake, he thought, one of them’s a mute. And he thought about how nice that would be, moving around the Blue Room, finding nothing but empty tables, drawers with nothing in them but a few matches rattling around. How nice, he thought. A sweet pliant girl like that. Her silence a constant and eternal Yes. He thought of Calla in the Little Parlour, Calla sleeping on the chaise, her skin as brown as a berry.
He tried every drawer and closet and trunk in the gray and molding blue room, and found nothing but three matches and a stained handkerchief. Places like these always have a hiding place, he thought. A loose floorboard, a false bottomed drawer. He heard one of the floorboards creak with a hollow sound, and he knelt to pry it up.
Yes. A padded top box, the kind ladies kept their jewelry in.
He didn’t think about the girls’ dead mother. He didn’t think about how these jewels might be the only thing standing between them and starvation. No. He didn’t think about that at all. He only thought of his own trip to Pennsylvania, getting as far away from the blood and the smoke as he could get. He lifted the top layer out, to see what goodies were hidden inside. No more jewels, but something wrapped in a handkerchief. He reached for it, and it felt soft, strangely warm.
“I would do that if I were you, Sgt. Hadley.”
Poppy appeared in the Blue Room as if by magic. “That’s no way to repay our hospitality.”
He dropped the box and the object in the handkerchief thumped to the floor. He scurried to gather it up. “Sorry, Ma’am. I was just curious.” He felt suddenly cowed, ashamed. But why? She was 16 maybe 17 years old? And maybe 100 pounds soaking wet. He could have her on the floor and squealing in a skinny minute. So why, instead, did he feel afraid?
“I’ll just bet.” She set put the jewelry box in her basket and stripped off a pair of riding gloves. “I’ll tell you what. You go downstairs and I’ll have Calla rewrap that hand for you. Maybe that’ll keep you out of mischief while I finish supper.”
She called for her sister, but kept her eyes on his face. “Calla! Bring the nursing kit. Take yourself downstairs, Sgt. Hadley. I’m sure you know the way by now.” Poppy said, with a governess’ disdain. “Then clean yourself up. There might be a war on, but at Sangreneige we still dress for dinner.”
“Ma’am. The war’s over. Hadn’t you heard?”
She held her gloves in her bare hand. “Over or not, I still have a house crawling with Yankee thieves. So you tell me, what’s the difference?”
The air in the Dining Room was damp and clinging as the rest of the house. The man who both was and was not Jacob Hadley pulled at his borrowed collar. He’d found it lain out for him on the bed in the Blue Room. It was a decent suit, or had been once, but for a smaller man than he was. The linen was limp and yellowed, frayed at the cuffs and collar. The jacket strained across his back, and the sleeves were short enough to show his forearms. He tried not to think about who it belonged to.
The room’s shape was swallowed by shadows, lit only by a small smoky fire and silver candelabras stuffed with the sputtering stumps of candles. The wallpaper pulled away in red strips, as fat as bandages. .The candelabras held 8, 10, 12 candles at a time. Too large to go in a rucksack, which is probably why they remained.
And as much as he wanted to sleep and eat indoors, as much as he had broken into a run only hours earlier at the very sight of the house, the last few hours had made him want to put some distance between himself and these McNair girls, between himself and Sangreneige.
But then he saw them standing in front of the fireplace, in the sooty glow of the sputtering flames. “Good evening, Sgt. Hadley.”
Her voice rolled around in his mind, like fingers soothing away a tired muscle, and he wondered why he ever thought about being anywhere else but right here.
The girls stood by the fireplace, their heads pressed together in a low intense conversation. As they’d promised, they had indeed dressed for dinner. Poppy wore faded red taffeta overlaid with black lace, sponged as clean as she could make it. One of the ruffles had come clean away, leaving a gaping hole in the front of her dress. Calla wore a dress of sprigged lawn, gone dim and yellowed with age, like an old tooth. The hem had been let out over and over until there was none left at all, just the ragged edge of the raw fabric, dangling above her ankles.
Their conversation halted the moment he set foot in the room, and for a moment it was like they didn’t recognize him.
“Sgt. Hadley. So good of you to join us,” Poppy said finally, her voice was smooth and even, but it was keeping something trapped inside. “It’s not like you had much of choice. But still. It is a kindness. How do you find the suit of clothes? I’m sure it’s a nice change from that uniform.”
“I’m just grateful it wasn’t a Confederate Uniform.” He laughed weakly, realizing the inappropriateness of his joke a moment too late.
Calla looked down at her hands. Poppy drew a short hissing breath before she answered. “Well. We find those in pretty short supply around here. Meanwhile Yankees seem to be dropping uniforms left and right. Won’t you sit down?” She gestured to the head of the table. “You be Father tonight, won’t you?”
“I’d be honored.” He took his place. “Ladies.”
In unison they swept their tattered skirts aside and took their high-backed seats, Poppy at the other end, Calla in between.
The table was laid with chipped china serving bowls, a soup tureen.
“Sorry for the informal setting, but all our silver seems to have gotten mislaid. This evening we have sorrel soup, some rice, and some lovely wood mushrooms with celery. You don’t mind serving yourself?”
“Not at all.”
They passed around the dishes, and there were the small smiles and the small talk of a regular dinner party. The man who both was and was not Jacob Hadley struggled for something to say.
“Thank you again for the clothes,” he said, spooning the gray green soup up from the shallow bowl. It tasted somehow dull and grassy at the same time. Like something a child would make from weeds while playing house. He ate it anyway. “You’re right. It was nice to get out of the uniform. What did you do with it, might I ask?”
Poppy swirled her soup with her spoon. “It was crawling with lice, Sgt. Hadley. Had to be burned. Pass the mushrooms, Calla. Do have some more. I picked them myself.”
The last hot meal he’d eaten was a memory he used to get to sleep at night, so no matter the sour grassy soup, no matter the weevil-y rice. The mushrooms at least were fresh and tasted almost like meat.
“Don’t mind if I do.”
“I’m glad you like the suit. It belonged to someone very dear to me.”
“Well, I’m pleased that you think so highly of me.”
“It doesn’t fit well, but Vaughn wasn’t quite as big a man as you are. Have some more wine. Last of the old vineyard. We must drink it before it turns to vinegar.”
She poured the wine from a dusty bottle, and it looked black and oily in the firelight.
He drank and it was sour and almost chewy on his palate. He drained the glass, and thought about how strange it was that he wasn’t worried about his burned uniform. His papers, his money. Were these all burned as well? He thought dimly of these things as if they belonged to someone else, as Poppy and Calla glowed like two moons before him.
“Have you ever loved someone, Sgt. Hadley? I mean, really, really loved someone?” Poppy said suddenly.
He did not at that moment believe he ever had. He remained silent.
“Well I have,” she continued. Vaughn was…Vaughn is … someone I’ve known all my life. A musician before he was a soldier, but then he went off to fight and left me and Calla here alone with Mama.”
She lifted her glass, swirled the dark liquid, but did not drink.
“Folks in town always said me and Calla had different daddies and that Mama had spelled old man McNair for this house. Which was mostly true. But what folks didn’t know is how who my daddy is means nothing. Not compared with who my Mama was.”
What was she talking about? It was like listening to someone underwater. He thought he saw her hair float above her shoulders like weeds.
“When Mama was alive nobody dared come up to Sangreneige uninvited. Nobody dared interfere with us. But even powerful witches can die of fever and that left us all alone. Vulnerable to dangerous people. Like the Captain of the Home Guard. Like you.”
She had said something that shocked him, but he wasn’t sure what it was. He felt his limbs getting heavier and heavier.
“That’s when Vaughn deserted and came back to us. Now folks always said that Vaughn was different. He is. But so am I. We can both be more than one thing at a time. Something I’m sure you can understand, isn’t it? Being more than one thing at a time?”
Poppy stirred the soup with a tarnished spoon. “Yes, my Vaughan is a boy, a man now really. But something else as well. Say it. Say it, Sgt. Hadley.”
Through a thick fog, he spoke the word. “Bear.”
“That’s right. But something’s gone wrong. He’s sick, Sgt. Hadley. And unless we help him, he can’t help us anymore.”
Calla covered her mouth with her hand. Was she smiling? The soldier could not tell. He could not stop looking at her. The curve of her neck in the firelight. How thin her muslin dress.
“I do hope you liked the mushrooms, Sir. I picked them myself. It won’t kill you. It’ll just make you a little more … pliant.”
It was all coming to him now. The suit, the mushrooms, the wine. The soldier shook his head, murmured a muffled “No” through this thick mossy tongue.
Poppy stood and slammed her hand against the polished oak table. The candles flickers and the dishes clinked. “Take. Take-take-take-take-take TAKE! You think because my sister’s got no tongue she hasn’t got any “No” left in her? That she’s just a girl made out of Yes for you? Yes sir. No sir. Anything you say Sir.”
Calla removed her hand from her mouth, revealing a row sharp and glittering teeth. She opened her mouth in a roar or a laugh.
“Like I said. We need your help, Sgt. Hadley. And you’re no help to us at all if you’re dead. We need you to help us to help Vaughn. And you wouldn’t deny two ladies asking for help, now would you?”
She made a gesture with her hand and spoke a word in no language of this earth. And everything went black.
Later that night, screams filled the swampy air of Sangreneige, acrid smoke and chanting and something between a human cry and a deep ursine roar.
Anyone who dared approach Sangreneige would have heard great howling, seen the girls drenched in blood. But no one ever would have dared. Anybody who knew better never approached Sangreneige. It was only strangers that made their way up that drive. Addie Jane saw to that.
In the corner of the Little Parlour hunched the figure of a young man, who was at once part boy – part gangling limbs and too smooth skin – and part rough fur and claws and teeth.
In front of the fire, the solder was staked out, and his bones and sinews cracked as he went from being one thing to being another.
Once he was changed, Poppy and Calla stood over him slick with blood, hunting knives in hand, stripping him of every bit of fur, then wrapping the gory masses around Vaughn’s shivering figure piece by gruesome piece. Poppy’s heart broke and she wept as she did this work, as she had done every single time. It grueling, shattering, brutal work. But a girl in love – a girl in trouble? A girl like that can do anything at all.
“There my love,” she said, patting the last piece in place, and the man who both was and was not Jacob Hadley twitched, slick and shining, on the floor. “Are you warm enough?”
The boy was a boy no longer. He nuzzled Poppy’s neck with his furry snout.