She’s got moonglow tits that bob in night waters, perfect round globes like curled-up white rabbits with black peaks of areola and gray nipples because she’s all poison and ebony eyes and milky skin. She’s curled up in my closet in a nest fit for the Zu bird and sweet seraph curses and she crows and speaks the language of birds that are girls, or girls that are monsters, with scaled legs and owl wings from ancient Sumerian carvings, but she’s not perched on two lions, her thin wan legs are jumping on your bed and you’re throwing pillows at each other and painting her lips and talons with a pop of cherry poison. It’s all fun and games until arsenic kisses and slashed throats of words fly, it’s all spin the bottle with succubi until neon lights at your favorite strip mall get busted to splinters by her rage. She’s wailing, she’s railing, and it’s so fun to terrorize the neighborhood with your monster girl. She smells like mothball and tastes like whiskey but it’s all swell, all is well, because you’re gay, just a little bit, for a lot of your pretty murderesses, like that goddess of death whose bone feet you kissed as you rubbed one out on grave dirt. You’re just a shadow drowning in moonlight, really, just a paper cutout in the shape of curves and gold and blue and you seek a black hole to consume you. Void Mother you toast to past the witching hour with a new best friend, she’s in Gaia training sitting on a hill in armor with a sword and donkey, learning from Valkyries the recipe for hurricanes, and she’s a piece of the Mother, just like you are, just like every girl you know is, and men fear us all. Your monster girl is feral, like pine barrens in a blizzard, or the nothingness at the lip of a night full of pain, and she has fangs sharp as a wolf and toes that end in bruises from kicking too many cans barefoot. She’s dressed in bandages, she’s dressed in a gown, and her hair is ratty black tangles. Oh how you love dressing her and prettying her up and confiding in her your soul, for you were raised to be a doll, but not her – no, she is a hyena, and their women are the kings. When you scissor, it’s to old jazz that switches between Frank Sinatra, and as your hands tangle the curls at her parting later on as you drink white wine, you and her watch the rain and know the sky is crying for its lost moon.
The mundane business of dying.
Shadows. Speech. A dream.
“What the Sam Hill is going on in this court room?”
The businessman summons something. The swirling darkness becomes a court room. The ghost of his assistant warns him:
“The prosecutor, sir- he’s not of this world.”
“But I thought he was the judge!”
“He’s that too, sir, apparently. The celestial court room is rigged, and the prosecuting angel has found you wanting.”
“I always knew the Devil was a lawyer.”
“Shh- he’s reached his ruling!”
A third eye burns on his head. The Left Hand utters his judgement:
“Your soul is piss-ugly and dark as Lucifer’s shit. I can, however, be swayed by vodka.”
“And what? Cough up the Play Bunnies and alcohol and I let you off. There will, however, be a cost. Just a paltry thing. Your get-out-of-Hell-free fee.”
“A cost- I see. You want my soul, I presume?”
“Are you out of your rotting mind? Your soul is hideous. No. Your daughter.”
“My daughter? That, sir, is too far!”
“You summoned me to court. Only I can prevent Michael’s shining sword from being rammed up your sinning ass. Trust me, it’s not pleasurable at all.”
“My- my only child? I could never…”
The Judging Angels smirks.
“Eternal torment, human. Do you know how long eternity is?”
So the father sold his child to the man of many names.
Seven winters pass. She has the face of a starving angel. Her mother dies in labor. The father does not remember.
Each night, she has a visitor.
“Daddy, I saw him again. The Shadow Man. He was standing at my door, watching me- daddy, I can’t sleep.”
His daughter stands before him, clutching her stuffed doll against her trembling chest. He tucks his little angel into bed, urging her to sleep.
“It’s just your imagination, sweetheart. Monsters belong in movies. Now shh,” he whispers, stroking her flaxen hair. “Daddy- daddy’s here for you.” He flips on the TV, unable to shake inexplicable fear. She drifts off to sleep.
He curses under his breath. Above, her room is pristine, with a silky pink bower over her bed. He often marvels at how she plays. She sequesters herself in her room, methodical in the perfectly arranged tea sets. She sits there all day, rearranging the china cups and perfect, porcelain dolls. She holds them like relics, smoothing the pleats in their dresses, calming a stray hair.
Then, she will sit and stare. Humming softly to herself, the strain of a violin. Her father can never complain. She is the perfect child. Quiet and obedient. An angel in the making.
“Daddy, don’t leave. He’s coming.”
She will wake with bruises on her thighs. Acid kisses fester. Hidden under muslin, not allowed to show her dad.
“No, darling,” he whispers, stepping past the threshold. “There’s nothing here.” Gently, he shuts the door. He closes it fast so the shadows cannot catch him. A wind creeps under the door slit. Something ices his bones. He stumbles down the staircase and fall into stupor-ed sleep.
A vicious silhouette slinks from behind tf his daughter’s door. It stands by her bedside. A freezing draft teased the lacy curtains.
“Nothing here?” A chthonic voice echoes. “Oh, but of course there is.”
The shadow brushes her hair back. Kisses the child’s brow. It sings a lullaby, somber, like the wind.
She stirs, rosebud lips opening in question. Her cherub nose tilts upward, as if breathing in the moon. He hushes her silent struggle, kisses her asleep.
“In time. In time. In time.”
Rains come. They flood her soul. The world turns, as it would.
Her father lay sdead in the ground, pale and rigid as crypt. She sits in the shadow of his masoleum, crimson umbrella fending off the rain. It pours from the stone eaves like tears from angels’ eyes.
The funeral procession marched away, a ghost train on the wind. She has imagined it in her head- it is only a flock of crows. Three for a wedding, ten for Old Scratch No one had come to mourn him. Only her, in black lace and a nude taffeta gown.
She curses the corpse below her.
Her mourning veil drifts in the stormy wind. The roses she carries wilted, white as the touch of death. She sips pomegranate tea, paralyzed to her fate. The drink mists like a ghost. She waits at the mausoleum’s steps.
“I know you’re there,” she whispers.
A crow caws in the dripping pine.
She draws a doll from her purse, hands clad in calfskin gloves. The shadow takes it from her, brushing against her skin. His touch is like winter’s bone.
“Such a fragile thing. How charming.” The thick shadows recede. They revealing the pale cold one. Sam Hill grins back at her. He holds the porcelain girl, placed it atop her father’s coffin. “We will bury her, but not yet. It is good to look at your rot.” He traces the doll’s cracks. “These are the dead parts of you. You can be her no more. Go ahead-” he says gently, hands on her shoulder. He guides her to the base of the stone. She stares down at the faded doll. “Make peace, dove.”
“What ties you to this world. Your innocence. It was a thin thread cut by death.”
“You know I won’t go with you. I’m taking my life if you do,” she says calmly. She withdraws a silver blade.
“Antique Venetian? Impressive. Either way, dear angel, you know that I will have you.” His voice rasps like an addict’s. His darkness drown her, suffocating like a black cloud. She recoils, tripping blindly down the steps to falling in an icy puddle. He lifts her off the ground.
“Either way, I have you. I hoped it was alive. But dead- dead can work.”
“So I have no choice?” she demands. “Absolutley none at all.”
“Some claims run deeper than blood. Nothing keeps the moth from her flame.”
“It was made before I was born.”
“There is no birth or death. Just change.”
“Then what are you?”
“An end. A dance. A beginning.”
“Sam Hill, rot in Hell.”
“Gladly. If it’s with you.”
Her cheeks burn with anger. She smashes the doll on the stone.
Thirteen crows caw above. She whispers a broken rhyme. She knows what it means. A curse.
They bury the shattered porcelain,. It is a spiriting away of sorts. Mists rise in their trail. Lilies bloom in their wake. His raiment is death, her bridal train crows. He holds her in the crook of his arm.
“You won’t miss much. I promise. This place is cruel and broken.”
“I never loved this world.”
There’s a blackness that coats Snake’s Hollow, like night left her shawl over the entire town. It is thick, it is alive, and to breathe it in is to choke down smoke and the ripe red cayenne peppers left in rum at the peristyle.
Call the blackness an omen, call it sin. Out of all the humans in my small Louisiana home, only I can see it.
The night is full of haints, the church bells toll on their own, and sometimes, you gotta feed the crossroads. That’s what the blackness brings – loup garou, zombies, the Petro Nation – and they stay away because of Raff and Papa Leggie, always on the town’s edge, but someday, they’ll come marching right on in. That I know for sure, that it’s only a matter of time before your shadows catch up with you
Tonight I’m gonna meet them.
The blackness snakes across the woods like Spanish moss then enter people’s dreams every night, and my God-fearing granmamma makes a sound in her sleep that could curdle milk. When I was younger, barely in elementary school, Raff would cover me with his old white wings and sing me to sleep in the tongue of angels, and the next day in church Papa Leggie would have ten more lines on his bark whorl face. Leggie and God, they’re poker buddies, so Raff tells me.
I wonder if they gamble over which town’s turn it is to vanish into the blackness next.
Winter down here is chill and muggy, and maybe I’m riled up on Maya Angelou’s poetry that sweet momma loves to read to me before our dinner prayers, but I’m brave, and Raff is asleep on the roof, and not a soul is awake in this silly town. They’re all tired out from church where they tried to get slices of salvation just like apple pie, and they’re clearly ain’t enough to go around like at church picnics, or the damn shadows wouldn’t be here watching me.
At the end of Still I Rise tonight, momma said “Be brave May Octavie Laveau, be strong, ‘cause this world will beat stubborn women down, and you ain’t worth anything if you ain’t stubborn as a mule.” I wish I was like Storm in X-Men and could clear this place of the darkness, but it’s more than weather.
The blackness is in the bones of this town, fabled for Calf Springs that will heal and Snakes Springs that will curse. There are so many heroes in my comics and movies – Leia, Nubia, Black Panther, Vixen – and I got a cape and light-up plastic light saber from a few years ago from when I still used to play make believe. I put them on as a shield of sorts, full of sweet childhood memories, then crawl out the window, onto the gutter, and down the widow’s walk –
Wings in my face, strong hands at my waist. I’m hauled from the widow’s walk back into my room like a lil girl picking flowers.
Raff just popped up like a daisy from a grave. Jack’s rabbit if he ain’t fast as a hare. I could have sworn I lulled him to sleep with momma’s chocolate chip cookies. No one can see Raff ‘cept me, and he’s been with me since birth. Love him but he’s a pain in my tush sometimes.
His scarred face is all stern, and he sits me down on my bed and dang it am I in for a talking.
“May! What did I tell you about going out at night? It’s too dangerous for you to even fathom! I didn’t raise you to lose you, girl.” His voice gets all gentle in the end, and he scratches his shaved curls.
I squint at Raff in the darkness of my room. He’s got skin brown as me, and I used to not believe that he was an angel when I was younger. I would say angels were only blonde women that played harps flying round the manger of baby Jesus, but Raff has a flaming sword and ain’t very good with babies. He thinks they’re cute and all, but he’s been a bachelor since Literal Day 1.
“You didn’t raise me to be a scaredy cat either, Raff. I’ve seen the Baron come down at fetes and watched my uncle get ridden by Ogou and swallow fire. There’s a magic to my town, a curse of some kind that only I can see, and I’m going to save it. I won’t let Snake’s Hollow be another of Leggie’s bets.”
“Legba isn’t trying to gamble Snake’s Hollow away, May,” Raff sighs, sitting down next to me. “He’s trying to protect it. We all are.”
The blackness exhales outside my window – it always comes at the stroke of 3:00 AM, the witching hour, then leaves by dawn, and the sun is coming up. The howls of the loup garou on the bayou kept me awake all night. When it breathes, it sounds like the whistle of a ghost train, and when it leaves, it’s like a tea kettle burning.
Raff makes the sign of the cross, only his fingers draw holy fire on the air, and the cross floats to me where it kisses my heart. Blessings from angels never hurt, but I ain’t in needof his protection. I need his answers.
“You’re funny, Raff, you ain’t a proper man, and you ain’t a good angel. Angels don’t lie, after all.”
Raff narrows his sunny yellow eyes, the irises an unearthly amber. “What am I lying about?”
“Bets. The lwa make bets all the time. Leggie’s a trickster, after all.”
“Legba loves you, May. He’s keeping the blackness away. We all are. Now go to bed. You got school tomorrow.” He hugs me then takes off my cape and tries to tuck me in.
“I don’t need you pulling the blankets up Raff, I’m eleven, not seven.”
Raff smiles like river pearls are in his mouth, then laughs. “’Night, May-flower.” He climbs up onto the roof and soon I can hear him snoring like a foghorn.
I watch the blackness until dawn drives it out.
The night is alive in Snake’s Hollow.
In the dark, the Dead have names.
Baba Yaga had seen many chubby cheeked babies with skin like milk and eyes like blueberries in her time. Humans loved their babies, and Baba Yaga loved to eat them, perched atop the food chain like a hoary owl knobbed with age.
There were many predatory birds in Russia, from the mournful Gamayun to the songstress Sirin. Baba Yaga was more woman than bird, and her chicken-legged hut squawked almost as loud as she. Eat like a bird she did not, as her paunch showed, but her eyes were avian, deep and endless. They saw every thread of Russian fate as she flew on her pestle and mortar over hill and harrow, gleaming threads she would spin upon her loom of tendons and bone in due time.
Babies’ soft skin was perfect for basting to brown perfection, their eyes succulent as appetizers. The cheeks were lovely to pinch hard enough to elicit a satisfying cry or angry wail. The single sight of one always made her ancient stomach quiver, great maw that it was.
This baby, however, was different. She was as quiet and perfect as a blooming rose, and her mother was no human, but a goddess. Clearly not designated as the main course for dinner, but a much grander purpose indeed.
The baby girl had a scruff of hair dark as wet ebony, just like Morena, the Slavic goddess of night and death, and latest Russian expat to leave the Soviet Union. Of the immortals, only Baba Yaga remained.
The Revolution had driven out Russian royalty, and atheism had taken root across the Slavic lands. A godless country was no home for any god, old or new, and certainly not for Morena, the queen of witches, where her covens were sent to death camps and her village wise women were starved of supper and secrets. The old ones had stopped telling stories of bogatyrs and Prince Ivan to the children, the land spirits were forgotten, and many a domovoi went hungry.
Baba Yaga had stayed behind because she liked blood, and there was much blood to be had in the Soviet Union. Indeed, Baba Yaga adored chaos, and she was Russian through and through, comrade to peasant or oligarch or KGB be damned.
Morena cradled Anastasia, her only daughter, as if she were a basket of pearls. Baba Yaga and the goddess sat in Morena’s herb garden on the new shores of the land of the free, America, where so many Slavs had come: Poles and Serbians, Russians and Bulgarians. They carried their old Orthodox beliefs and superstitions with them, alongside the dvoeverie double faith, making room for the old gods in their icons and church hymns. The Poles remembered Morena in their spring festivities, drowning her icon in rivers to rejuvenate her for the warming earth. Not many gods were as lucky in this day and age, where man had forgotten who had made them.
For every healing recipe or potion passed down from mother to daughter, for every love spell cast in the bathhouse, Morena was there. She watched the Soviet Union from afar, waiting to return when belief once again seeped from the ground like mist. And Baba Yaga? She was Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the night terrors of children, and shadows that swallowed everything on All Soul’s Eve.
Morena was just another immigrant in the vast melting pot of America, her curiosity and fickle love for a mortal Russian expat the biggest draw to these shining but tarnished shores of liberty. Gods were mercurial in choosing their lovers, and they took human wives and husbands from time to time. That, in fact, was how demigods like Rasputin were born, and Anya was no exception.
“She is beautiful, isn’t she?” Morena cooed, tossing her baby girl Anastasia’s hair. “Eyes like her father, and hair like her mother. I cannot bear to part with her, but I must for the sake of Buyan.”
Morena’s eyes steeled. “The Black God rides, growing stronger as the old beliefs rot and peasants starve, and he will be our doom if Anya cannot master her witch fire.”
Morena rocked her child and stared up at the cratered moon. “She is the light of my brother Jarilo, nothing at all like my darkness. To have birthed the sun is strange indeed.”
Baba Yaga puffed on her pipe and blew smoke snakes that slithered up to the sky. “Dear Morena, was it not I that taught you that all magic has a cost? To birth the light of the gods, you must pay in a million tears. Give Anya to me and I promise she will be protected until the time comes for her reunion with you, along with her intended.”
Morena laughed, and Anya burbled, toying with a lock of Morena’s curls. “This bastard prince of Father Frost seems too immature to love even himself. I wonder how you will work your magic on him to make him see Anya’s light.”
Baba Yaga chuckled. “I have my ways. Frost and fire are the primal elements of the world after all, enough to purify the rot of Chernobog himself. We will be the ones to end this cycle of war between the immortals and Chernobog’s deathless lands. All it takes, in every fairytale, is true love, and I know a prince whose icy heart may yet be melted by Anya’s fire. In the end, it will have all been for him. No daughter of yours would not be selfless, Morena. That has always been your flaw.”
A sapphire of a tear formed in Morena’s dark eyes. She held Anya closed, sang her to sleep, then handed her to Baba Yaga. “Take her then, my witch-mother. May the Zoryas be with you, and deliver my daughter to a life of peace I cannot give her in this, or any, world.”
Baba Yaga’s grin was a crevasse deep as the Marianna Trench. “My dear Morena, so it shall come to pass that Anya will know the best peace Buyan can provide, with the best family beyond you I can give her. My wings will be over her at all times, anyhow. Nothing I do is not without reason.”
Morena bit her ruby red lips. “I know.”
Anya cooed a word like salvation in her sleep, but it was so quiet even a goddess could not hear. Morena’s eternal heart was filled with sadness, but her ineffable will stood strong. She kissed her babe’s forehead and bid her and Baba Yaga goodbye.
Morena watched the chicken hut gateway between worlds spin on its axis and vanish: “Return to me, dear Anastasia. I would wish upon a thousand firebirds that we shall meet again.”
BUYAN, KIEVAN RUS
And in my dreams I see myself on a wolf’s back
Riding along a forest path
To do battle with Kashchei
In that land where a princess sits under lock and key,
Pining behind massive walls.
There gardens surround a palace all of glass;
There Firebirds sing by night
And peck at golden fruit.
– Yakov Polonsky, “A Winter’s Journey”
In a little dale in the heart of Buyan, where Baba Yaga made her home, was an inn for misfits and magicians. It was three stories tall and majestic as a merchant’s house. Tsar Dmitri, its leshy lord, was known for his bookish habits and gentleness. But above all he was famed for his love of his forests, which he tended with utter care.
He was close to the first eldritch witch to enchant Buyan, and Baba Yaga was taking afternoon tea on his porch as they watched the flowers grow. There was no today or tomorrow in Buyan, just seasons to grow, harvest, and lay fields fallow. They had all the time in the world in their wolfskin rocking chairs.
There were snowdrops and daffodils, goldenrod and hibiscus. Leshys had a magic for plants and animals, and whatever flora and fauna Dmitri desired, his kingdom had in abundance. His pampered squirrels darted about as the kitchen maid Elizaveta watered the plants by wringing her wet rusalka hair.
Baba Yaga stirred her tea with her dusty pinky. “So your bannik died. The old dotard drank himself to death. We all love our vodka, but your bannik made the milk of potatoes his wife. Wives always kill their husbands in the end,” Baba Yaga chuckled. “I’ve murdered many a husband in my time, after all. Perhaps I should consider myself through a shot glass, addictive and deadly in large doses.” She picked her teeth with a sparrow spine.
Dmitri was peeling an apple round and round as the rind came off. It fell in spirals onto his porch and he bit into the yellow-white flesh. “Gods curse the man who marries you.” Dmitri gave a forlorn look at his empty bathhouse. “Yes, I am in need of a bannik, but they are often lecherous drunkards and lazy to boot. Where can I find one that is as industrious as I?”
A bit of baby meat dislodged from Baba Yaga’s canines. She chewed it thoughtfully. “I may have an inkling. I will do you a favor, Dima – I will find you the best bannik in all of Buyan. Take it as a token of appreciation for your wonderful willow bark tea. It eases the pains of my eternal old age.”
Dmitri narrowed his emerald eyes. “Your gifts always have a price, dear babushka.”
Baba Yaga chuckled darkly. “Oh dear Dima, let go of your apprehension and revel in my favor. You are a king among tsars, dearest leshy, and it is partially due to my blessing that your lands flourish.”
“Lands that many are jealous of,” Dmitri said slowly, finishing his tea and then picking up a volume of Old Russian epics concerning Prince Vladimir Bright-Sun and his fearless bogatyrs. “They have brought me many enemies, enough to need the largest vila army in all of Buyan.”
“Then let us hope my favor does not falter, bookish nechist! Either that or marry that vila general you’ve been lusting after for centuries, maybe then you will not need my protection much longer. Love fortifies armies, I am told.” Baba Yaga squawked.
Dmitri blushed blue. “I have no interest in a consort, or Liliya. I am married to my land.”
“Pssht. Married to your romantic novels, you are! Yes, you have my favor indeed, enough to read as much as you do and still have your lands flourish. Find you a bannik I will.”
“Yes, but sometimes I wonder at your tastes in company.”
Baba Yaga watched the kitchen maid water a patch of sunflowers with her riverine hair. “Is not Elizaveta a lovely employee? I brought her to you a century ago and she has been nothing but sunshine, pah!”
Dmitri nodded. “I suppose so, though she is a bit… airheaded.”
The rusalka danced and sang then tripped over a squirrel and screamed as the vicious squirrels exacted their revenge, nibbling her scales.
“As rusalka are. You cannot expect a bannik not to love his vodka or a vodyanoi not to smoke his pipe. Nechist rarely go against their natures.”
That night, at home on her loom of past present and future, Baba Yaga wove a tale. Gold for a princess, blue for a prince, red for love, and black for death. The human tendons wove taut and true. Baba Yaga examined the tapestry.
“So that is why the winds told me to settle in dear Dmitri’s realm. Father Mountain and Mother River, that is not at all what I expected – fairytales are rarely practical, and seldom true. But you so often choose the unexpected, Father and Mother, and that shall do, that shall do, that shall do…”
For every princess, a prince. That is how fairytales go.
The lovers can span ages between meeting, many are enchanted, locked in towers, or enchantress’s children, and seldom is their union sweet. There are talking wolves, long arduous quests, arrows and swords, robbers and bandits, witches and black steeds that are the Devil’s own demons.
True love often ends in insults and tears, and many an empty bed, but Russian songs were never sweet, and firebirds do not make their roosts in anything but a king’s garden. Most firebirds in Buyan made their homes in Tsar Dmitri’s royal garden in fact, in a dale just perfect for a couple that might wish for an impossible union on the flames of a fiery tail.
The prince Baba Yaga foresaw was born at the beginning of recorded history, in the northernmost kingdom with the aurora borealis for his bower. His mother was Snegurochka, the Snow Maiden, who once long ago had lost her heart to a village boy. This time she had lost it to a bannik. Perhaps it was the curve of the bathhouse spirit’s strong arms as he chopped wood for the banya that had done Snegurochka in. Perhaps it was his rascal smile. Whatever it was, it had worked. Taking unattainable lovers was a snow maiden habit, after all.
Time tended to move in cycles in Buyan, home to the Slavic spirits. Buyan was a land a bit west of the morning and evening star Zorya goddesses and a bit to the north of dreams. Its residents’ actions were no exception to the mythic circles of their fairytale land. Snegurochka’s heart was notorious for wandering and it too fell victim to Buyan’s ebb and flow.
Just like his mother’s heart the prince, a strange mix of steam and snow, was born a traveler. After birth, he toddled his first steps out of his mother’s womb into the wilds. Snegurochka had to catch him in her snowflake-spun arms before he disappeared for good.
He was named Morozko after Snegurochka’s Father Frost, or Ded Moroz’s present-giving ways. Ded Moroz was the Winter King that wanted little to do with a bastard prince and much less to do with the rabble-rousing bannik that had sired him. Snegurochka melted with bliss at the sight of her newborn boy and in doing so scared away her lover. Banniks were never good fathers anyways. They were too concerned with steaming saunas and overseeing the rituals of the banya to make attentive parents. Banyas were the heart of Russian communities and banniks, overseers of the rituals of the bathhouse, had little care for their offspring. They considered the banya their only children.
So Morozko grew up fatherless save for Ded Moroz’s stern gaze. He was half of frost, half of fire, and nothing at all like his family.
“Mother, why does dedushka hate me?” Morozko asked before Russia was little more than a land fought over by pagans erecting poles the to snakeskin Veles the chthonic god in the underworld below and thundering Perun the king of the gods above. The people still swore on the Earth Mother Mokosh in those days. They still spilled blood on the death goddess Morena’s altar. And Baba Yaga, fabled witch of the mountains, devourer of wandering children, was watching. The hag of the iron teeth was young, though she never remotely looked it.
After asking about his grandfather, Snegurochka had enfolded the sparks in her son’s hands and molded them into a rose of fire encased in ice. “You are a treasure, Kolya. That is why Ded Moroz does not understand you. My father showers treasure down upon girls in need like ice crystals from clouds but never keeps them for himself. He gave me away once to the people and only took me back when I was on Morena’s doorstep. Ded Moroz is known for winter’s barrenness, not summer’s warmth, and you are your father, all heat. My father does not know what to make of such a rare jewel as you, my dearest prince.”
Tsar Vladimirs came and conquered, ambitious princes of Kievan Rus uniting Russia. The capital city was rechristened St. Petersburg in the Eastern Orthodox faith. The rulers burned the wooden idols of the old gods and erected crosses for the new. The kings and magistrates dunked the pagan Slavs in the capital’s river to baptize them in impromptu fashion.
Baba Yaga watched from her chicken hut all the while stroking her chin hairs, smoking her pipe, waiting. The pagans, now Christians, still paid tribute to the old gods as saints and renamed them. The peasants of dvoeverie double faith renamed the gods but never forgot them. Veles and Perun retreated, the Zoryas abandoned their shining star thrones, and Mokosh slept deep below the mountains at the base of the Tree of Life.
And one god with a rotting black heart took another name. He watched, coveting, always waiting. He had a thousand princesses kept under lock and key in his palace of ice and glass. It was lit only by flitting firebirds and jewel fresh diamond fruit. Still, it was missing a crucial light in all the dead magnificence. It was something that would haunt Morozko in due time.
Morozko paid little attention to the rise and fall of immortals. He was too busy growing. He watched cranes fly across the northern wastes and shot arrows of steam at elk to be dried and cured in the smokehouse. His grandfather barely tolerated him, Snegurochka loved him, and that was enough to churn butter for a small while.
Morozko gave little heed to the passage of the gods into history.
One day he would remember his mother’s stories of Chernobog the Black.
Nechist – what the farmers in fields called land spirits – continued life in Buyan unaffected by Christianity, like Snegurochka and Morozko. Peasants still left out kasha for house elf domovois. Humans continued avoiding the rivers in the evening lest they stray upon the drowned human suicides. The dead girls, now siren rusalka, would sing and seduce them to a freezing watery death. The peasants prayed that the Amazonian vila, guardians of the weather, would not drench crops in rain. Once in a blue moon, a wild girl would wander back to her village covered in moss and half-mad having escaped from an ill-fortuned marriage as a wood wife to a forest king leshy.
Thanks to shifting belief, Ded Moroz became something like Santa and rebranded the family business to deliver presents to children across Russia at New Years. Father Frost was nothing if not good at giving away gifts like blizzards. He and Snegurochka worked with the efficiency of a snowstorm.
Still Morozko couldn’t summon a single snowflake, much less command the winds to carry him to merchant’s homes and give their daughters baubles. So he set out with his mother’s blessing and grandfather’s disgrace. He sought his fortune in cities and the wilds when nechist still walked Russia and beyond alongside humanity. Morozko threw his icy crown off the ends of Buyan’s glaciers and renounced Ded Moroz’s heritage. He was fully content to be a bannik, not a prince.
“To hell with princehood,” he muttered, “I’m a bastard through and through, and I would rather have nothing to my name and be free than be bound by convention and a court.”
So Morozko set off past the glaciers, to the land of evergreen and birch, and Snegurochka wept tears of ice.
Baba Yaga was aback her mortar and pestle with her witch-daughter Morena, the wind-wild goddess with a body like a birch. Morena flew aback a broom in a red velvet cloak and black rags of a dress. They were flying as fast as an eagle over the Caucasus Mountains, sending their flocks of crows and owls to harvest ingredients: poisonous herbs and dwarven treasures, alongside a fair amount of children’s first breaths and mother’s last words.
This spell would be one in a long line against Chernobog, the Black God, who longed to unseat Morena and her consort Jarilo from the heavens and spread sterile, cold perfection with the infection of his cursed deathless lands upon Buyan. Nature abhors a vacuum, but vacuums abhor nature, and Chernobog was the void that ate all he drained of blood and left his victims cold and lifeless.
Russia was both light and dark, poison and honey, and black Morena was the queen of immortals. Passionate but feral, she carried madness with her like a worm in her brain. Watching her bare milky-breasted, nipples like pink daggers as she beat at her chest with venik branches to guide the winds, Baba Yaga was proud of Morena’s ferocity. Her witch-daughter was all wolf, all wild, and the best hope at destroying Chernobog for good.
If Morena was a wolf, then Chernobog was a vulture, circling in the sky waiting for a feast. Would this spell or the next seal the coffin in his box? The Zorya’s whispered in their prophetic trills that Morena would birth Bilobog, the remedy to Chernobog’s destruction, but so far her union with the sunlit god Jarilo had proven tempestuous and fruitless.
Baba Yaga had tried spell after spell to make Morena’s inhospitable womb of ice and night a planting ground for Jarilo’s seed, but stillborn embryo after bloody abortion followed. It drove Morena deeper into her madness and desperation, and it drove Jarilo farther from Morena. They failed again and again, Chernobog’s blackness spread, and Buyan was growing darker. The crops failed more, the spirits thirsted, and the deathless maidens haunted the outer boundaries, hunting for ungiven comfort.
It was time for Baba Yaga to tell Morena, her dearest godchild, a heartbreaking truth. They had sent a fetch in the form of a giant to Chernobog’s deathless lands with the fruit of that night’s labor, enchanted to wreak havoc on his palace of glass and ice and tear the oak tree of his heart from its roots. Each egregore and familiar that died at Chernobog’s hands infuriated him more, and drew him further into no man’s land, where they might strike him in earnest with spells and curses, but Chernobog was wily, and deathless to boot. It would take a mortal to kill him, and a mortal man to bring life to the goddess of death, as only humanity tasted of the black cup of destruction and passed on into the great unknown no god or nechist knew.
Baba Yaga told this to Morena, that her marriage to Jarilo would prove fruitless, and that she should seek a mortal’s bed. There were rats on Morena’s shoulders and crows in her black black hair. She gave a ragged sigh, moths leaving her mouth as she exhaled.
“I suppose it is true, witch-mother. Burning day and dark night are never on earth at the same time, and for Bilobog to walk the earth, my child must have mortal blood. All the heroes, from Ilya Muromets to Dobryna Nikitich, were partially human after all. They were the ones to slay dragons, not insipid Jarilo or my stubborn father Perun.” Morena looked out the window of Baba Yaga’s chicken hut and the darkness of the night shuddered under the death goddess’s gaze. “I will travel Russia for however long it takes to find the father of Buyan’s avenger, though my trek may span centuries.”
Baba Yaga gave a weak smile. “This war is tiring for us both, and you have a heavy cross to bear, dear Marzanna.”
Morena plaited her tangled hair. “If I could but have one child, one witch-babe to suckle at my breasts and coddle under the starlight and winds, it will have been worth it.”
Baba Yaga did not want to tell the daydreaming Morena that to keep a half-mortal child in a house of immortals at war would be a death sentence, but for once in her long long life, she kept quiet. Baba Yaga would ensure any child of Morena’s was like a second limb to her, the mistress of the chicken legged hut, and would want for nothing.
But those nothings could not be fed by Bilobog’s birth mother, and so it would come to pass as Baba Yaga had seen during that summer at Tsar Dmitri’s: that a bastard prince and motherless princess would somehow save Buyan.
Morozko became famed for his treatment of guests at banyas and his divination prowess. Word traveled of the tenderness with which he beat bushels of green peeled venik against patron’s backs. He could steam and ice the different pools just so, and his reputation began to precede him. Morozko worked for different leshys in different kingdoms who had carved Buyan up between them in a patchwork thanks to games of chess and war. Leshy tsars sometimes lost half a forest to an ill-thought bet. Winners led their pampered squirrels in great migrations to their new lands.
First Morozko traveled on foot, then on horseback when he had saved enough money. He possessed his mother’s wandering heart, always searching for a place to belong but never finding it. He was camping by the Volga River one night when he heard the click-clack creak of a hut on chicken legs. A hag with iron teeth and a fence of bones sat smoking her pipe in a rocking chair. Her wood-dark eyes were like kindling.
She smiled like a shark.
“You are lost, Prince Morozko,” Baba Yaga observed.
Morozko stood up and dusted off his trousers of snow. “I have no compass to guide me, babushka. Every day that I wander farther into the wilds I find that I am losing my way. I do not know what I am looking for still! After all these godforsaken years, I am alone.”
“Family, a home, a father, love – I can give it all to you if you give me something precious.”
Morozko peered up at the famous witch who Snegurochka had sometimes entertained in his grandfather’s kingdom. “I have nothing of value – I threw my inheritance away, I travel with only a quiver full of cheap arrows and a doddering broken horse. What could you possibly want?”
Baba Yaga took a gigantic pestle from beside her rocking chair, set down her pipe, and pointed the pestle in Morozko’s direction: “Your word, half-blood bannik. One day I will ask you to do me a favor. If you value your life, you will not refuse me. If you accept my offer, I will give your wandering heart a home.”
“Where? I have searched nearly every inch of Buyan and I have found nothing but petty leshys. I know warring vila and seductress rusalka and absolutely nothing that suits me. I have had my heart broken by a vampir with hair like autumn leaves. My money was stolen by leshy tsars that shortchanged me and my services. My name has been lost to the wind. All I know is that a bastard belongs nowhere!”
“Pah, soap shavings! Everyone belongs somewhere, even a down-on-his-luck half-breed. Come, sit on my porch, drink my vodka, eat a pierogi, and stop wallowing in your misery. I will take you to Tsar Dmitri’s emerald forests where I make my home. There is no place kinder or sweet as baby’s bubbling marrow in Buyan.”
Morozko’s eyes widened. “I thought Dmitri was a myth. He is the famous leshy that won his woods from Saint Vladimir the Great when Russia was first formed. The one with an army of a thousand vila and an inn famed for its beauty. Its banya must be splendid…”
“Hah!” Baba Yaga laughed like a crow. “A banya that needs tending. The old bannik died. Climb up my steps, I promise the snakes do not bite.”
“Hut, hut, turn your back from this wintry waste and your face to Dima’s realm!” Baba Yaga commanded, smacking her pestle on the porch.
The chicken-legged hut spun like a drunk duck; their surroundings blurred. Morozko steadied himself on the femur railing. When they landed, they were in a hollow tucked away into autumn woods. Ferns bordered the fence next to an herb garden raked with spines.
Baba Yaga ambled along the porch using her pestle as a cane. “Come come soap shavings! I told Dima he would have a visitor. His staff are excited to meet you – that or scared of what I may bring. They never do like my presents very much, especially the squealing children.”
Morozko followed Baba Yaga – the crone moved faster than her hobbled appearance let on. She mounted her hovering mortar, churned the air with her pestle, and was off. Morozko ran to keep up.
“Hah! The wind in my hair makes me feel young again. Being chased by a pretty boy, why, it’s just as in my youth!”
Morozko frowned. “I cannot imagine you were ever much to look at,” he muttered between breaths.
They came to a wooden three-story inn fronted by a millpond with the most perfect banya Morozko had ever seen. He quaked at the sight of it. His smoky magic reached out and sensed the power and enchantment of the bathhouse. He measured the potency within its wall and suddenly knew how it would bend to his will. It would be his work, bread, and soul.
Tsar Dmitri and his staff waited in the meadow fronting the inn. The smile on the leshy’s face was like sunlight on water:
“Welcome home, my son,” Dmitri said.
“Tsar Dmitri, it is an honor,” Morozko said, kneeling before the forest king.
Dmitri’s blue face crinkled in a smile. The bells on his antlers chimed as he extended his hand to help Morozko up: “No use bowing, dear lad. Here we are all just keepers of the woods, wayward souls in the haven that is my forest. Here you will find lecherous vodyanoi mermen that can outdrink you by ten gallons of vodka. There are witches who will steal your heart away if you are not careful. Here, come, Liliya, help Morozko to his quarters.”
Morozko found himself inside a banya that was built for him. The fire in his belly simmered to a gentle steam. He stretched on his wolfskin bed and looked up at the ceiling, which would look just so studded with trespassing human’s souls. Dmitri’s wolves called to salute the rising moon.
He got up and settled at a rickety desk, dipped a quill into an inkpot, and began a letter to Snegurochka:
“Mother, I am finally home. My wandering heart is now, despite all my dreams, content.”
Centuries passed, but Buyan stayed the same. Morozko settled into tending the banya and thought of Dmitri as his father and the staff as his brothers and sisters. He delighted in Dmitri’s annual councils with his leshy noblemen and the celebrations in the village that followed. He would chase after vila warrior women and flirtatious, dangerous rusalka on St. John’s Eve, searching for fern flowers that would lead to an evening of lovemaking. Many times he sat with Dmitri in the kitchen by the woodstove on rainy evenings and read from Dmitri’s collection of human literature.
Baba Yaga watched, waited, and smoked her perpetual pipe. She took Morozko under her hoary wing to become the babushka he never had.
It could have been today or tomorrow when Morozko got the letter of a present to deliver. Perhaps a package just like Ded Moroz and Snegurochka carried on the winter holidays. He had not forgotten his word, and it was in his blood to fulfill letters requesting parcel delivery.
After so many years and so many moons Morozko had lost track it had come time for Morozko to make good on his promise to Baba Yaga. She summoned him in the dead of night. He was hoping to get some cigarettes from her storage.
What he got was nothing what he expected.
Night played like a worn balalaika, strumming stars across the sky. Firs bent like widows in the wind. It was a familiar scene in Buyan, minus the human visitor.
Morozko unwrapped the so-called present, unfolding bits of tissue paper to reveal swaddling. He was surprised to see that he held an infant in his arms. “A baby?” he asked, thinking it one of babushka’s pranks. “Smells tender. I bet she tastes like chicken. Is this your afternoon palate cleanser?”
“You wish! Hungry for baby soul sashimi, eh?” Baba Yaga’s iron teeth flashed. “Spill a drop of her blood and I’ll cook you in my pot.”
“Yeah right.” Morozko pulled back her swaddling and examined the child’s face. “Her soul is too appetizing to be anything but a snack.”
“Her name is Anya. That is all you need to know.” Baba Yaga laughed. The wrinkles on her skin were like furrows in brown earth. “Take her home to your tsar courtesy of your babushka. Bathe her in the banya and ruddy her flesh with birch bark. Make her a child of the woods. When she has ripened like fruit from the love of your inn, send her to me.”
Morozko looked at Baba Yaga in confusion. “What? Dima will never stand for this. The borders to Earth are all closed save your world-hopping house. It’s unheard of for mortals to come to Buyan anymore.”
“Pfft. Your tsar will see my way, even if I have to pluck his eyes out and wear them so he sees my point of view.” She cackled like a crow as she rested on her hovering mortar.
“No buts! Go, Kolya: back to the banya with you.” Baba Yaga took her pestle, ground it into the air, and flew away.
Morozko looked down at the infant.
“Well, mooncalf. Looks like you won’t end up in my stomach after all.”
“You think this is a joke?” Morozko brought his face close to Anya’s. “I could swallow you in one gulp. Your soul would be all mine to play with. A trinket I could use to light the banya, hung from the rafters with my other meals.”
Anya reached out and touched Morozko’s nose.
“Get your grubby hands off me,” Morozko said, clutching the infant close as snow crunched under his boots. “Forget babushka’s dried up hide. That hag has gone senile.”
He walked through pillars of birch. Scant clouds brought snow. Patches in cirrus allowed the moon to shine through. Morozko’s fur coat sheltered him from the falling white. Snowflakes steamed as they hit his exposed skin.
As a bathhouse spirit Morozko carried the sauna with him. Anya nestled close to his skin and babbled. “Eee?”
“Yes Anya, I see your point.” Morozko softened, peering into her eyes. “So where exactly did you come from? Or is that a secret too?”
Anya cried out in hunger.
Morozko thumbed her lips, and she sucked his finger. Anya nipped the soft flesh under his nail with wet gums.
“I am guessing Baba Yaga did not give you dinner,” Morozko sighed, accidentally jostling the girl as he plucked his finger away. “She does not have a very good track record with children. Neither do most nechist. We either steal them as thralls, eat or drown them – sometimes both – or abduct them to be our brides. I can’t imagine Dmitri would want a wood wife not yet out of diapers.”
Morozko frowned. “I cannot give you milk, but I might just have something better.”
He reached for a flask at his waist, unscrewed the top, and offered her nectar pressed from fern flowers that bloomed on Ivan Kupalo, or St. John’s Eve, the summer festival of love, beauty, and magic. The flowers the fern flower bore were rarer than a five-leaf clover.
“So that is how I get you to shut up, eh?” He rocked Anya as she nursed. “Witch’s brew. There is nothing sweeter, except perhaps your soul,” he teased.
Anya squirmed, burrowed into his coat. Morozko smoothed her coal-dark curls.
“Eating you would be like killing myself. You have drunk half my mixer anyways. Good thing Baba Yaga did not see me steal it from her fridge. How is that for an introduction, mooncalf? Alcoholic baby food, Mother Mokosh have mercy.” Morozko adjusted his collar. He peered into the future, as banniks are wont to do, and got hints of what was to come. This ability did not often work. When it did, his visions were clear as crystal lattice icicles.
“You will call me many things: ‘Bannik,’ ‘bastard,’ ‘terror.’ But however cruel you think me, remember it was I that carried you through the darkness. The banya now runs through your veins. Let it cleanse you of human weakness. I will raise you in the strength of the nechist. I have taken a liking to the girl who survived Baba Yaga’s hut.”
She burbled. Morozko clutched her close.
“Anya, you are mine. I promise to forever protect you, especially from Baba Yaga’s cauldron.”
#DVPit is about halfway over, and I’ve had some AH-MAZING agents make partial requests, putting the agents with my manuscript up to… lucky number 13!
I really wanted to explore my Russian heritage when I wrote this book. I didn’t know I was part Russian until I did genealogy research after college – I’d always felt this inexplicable draw to the culture, and people had always told me I had a Slavic nose, and I kept dreaming about Baba Yaga sending me on delivery routes aback Grey Wolf or making me milk a golden cow with silver udders – but it didn’t really cement until I learned I’m a direct descendant of Vladimir the Great (Saint Vladimir) and Vladimir Monomakh, also this awesome cave prophetess named Malusha.
One of my dying dreams is to go to Russia and visit Gogol and Pushkin’s homes. This novel wouldn’t have been created without Cat Valente’s unbelievably amazing Deathless, which really inspired me at 21 to finally write that Russian novel that had been in my head since age 19. Dreams of Morena, Veles, and Perun would follow, and so would obsessively watching Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky ballets and listening to Mussorgsky on repeat.
I’m obsessed with Russian folklore. Libby and I both took an entire class dedicated to it, and I lifted the name Morozko from our favorite Soviet film. What intrigued me the most were the nechist, or land and house spirits – the domovoi and rusalka, the vila and bannik (why did I try to make a bannik hot!) But above all, it was for the love of leshys that I retold an entire ballet. Also for Baba Yaga, because my babushka is amazing, and crazy af.
Hopefully I’ll have an agent soon – I will probably spontaneously combust if I get an offer, but I’ll keep you all updated accordingly!
Each of the angels, I learn, is a gear in a clock: put them all together and the hours of the universe turn. As the weeks go on, they teach me – to sing in Heaven’s language, to dance the steps Jacob’s family circled in the desert, to revel in the beauty God planted on Earth. My soul thrums with their devotion, and I feel pure as a mountain spring.
I start working in soup kitchens with momma and pa and fill piles of notebooks with prose, imagining words plucked from the Tree of Life. I give back the love the angels pour into me to my small Louisiana town, and it’s hard to notice, but sometimes a flower will creep up through the snow where I step, and jiminy cricket if that ain’t something.
But for all that glory comes darkness. Pain drawn to me, like I’m some candle in the pitch-black gloam. We read a Rilke poem at Sunday school about angels: beauty is but the beginning of terror. I wonder if Rilke walked with angels, too. Who the other Guardians were.
The blackness comes every night now, swirling outside my window, calling me. May, it says, I see you. I hide under the covers in a cold sweat.
Raff takes to sleeping at the foot of my bed, snoring like a foghorn, sword at his side. He doesn’t even bother to cover his scars now, and god dang it if he won’t tell me how the despair knows my name. “Don’t worry about it, May-flower. He won’t hurt you. It’s just like a moth to a flame. After all, you’re bright as the sun. Just stay in and get some rest. You’re safe as long as you don’t go outside.”
Too bad Raff ain’t that smart. He shoulda known by now that giving me orders makes me do the exact opposite. On the coldest night of the year, the darkness thrums, and I just get this feeling that whatever out there is waiting. The only way I can get the darkness to stop taunting me is if I give it a good thwacking. I take my dusty plastic light saber outta my closet for old time’s sake and climb down the gutter when Raff’s comatose. Maybe it was a sin, but I stuffed him full of cookies and milk to get him to pass out. I probably ain’t a Guardian after all: pretty sure Jesus didn’t manipulate angels with desert.
The black is so thick I can’t see. I switch the blue glow of my lightsaber on and use it to illuminate the despair, earning scratches and bruises as I slide down the shingles, over the roof fronting the door, and slip down the gutter.
The Man who for so long has been watching me is there, waiting by a flickering lamppost, puffing on a cigar in a bowler hat like one of those villains in pa’s old films. He sure can pull off a suit. Shadows cling to him like a caul, and I can’t tell if it’s silk or bits of night.
He breathes out a snake of smoke. It squiggles up to the stars. For however dark he is on the outside, there’s fire in the depths of his mouth.
The Man in Black laughs.
Be strong, I think, like Leia or Maya Angelou or Zora Neale Hurston. This is a smart woman’s world, after all, and smart women always win. I point my lightsaber at him. “You lost, mister? This ain’t even a crossroads: it’s a cul-de-sac. I don’t have any deals to make or a soul left to sell. Raff made that pretty clear a while ago: I’m owned, basically Heaven’s property. Not that this Guardian thing doesn’t come with its perks.”
The shadows condense around him, leaving only flickering pitch eyes and a hooked nose that looks like it’s been broken a dozen times. Black fog gone, I can see beyond my lightsaber’s bulb. I turn its electric buzz off.
He chuckles all deep like a gorge, the kind I go swimming in in quarry pools with Raff.
I cross my arms. “Not much of a talker, are ya? You ain’t much fun at parties, I bet.”
The Man in Black takes another drag, then blows smoke in the shape of a beautiful woman at my face. She dances and dissolves at the tip of my nose.
I swat the fumes away, irritated. “Not a gentleman, either. You’re dumb as a doorknob – don’t you know smoking causes cancer? Granpa died that way. You don’t wanna go like him, with sticky needles in your skin, hooked up to rattling machines.”
The Man in Black stamps out his cigarette with the clack of a Cuban heel. “Poison’s in my nature. Anyways, a few cigars never hurt anyone. Say, little dancer, want one?”
I draw back, raising my fists. “I’m not a smoker or a dancer.”
He fixes his cufflinks. They’re shaped like cobras. “Joker, smoker, midnight broker – you will be one day, ballerina, dealing in magic in societes for the sick, broken, and poor. The desperate will flock to your light – someone that burns as bright as you can’t avoid it. And oh, the music of your soul! You’re dancing already: your heart’s a drum. Every movement is a step closer to your grand finale. In the end we bow together, go down together. We’re counterparts, you and me, my dear.”
“I think all the fumes have made your head squiggly. You don’t make a lotta sense, mister… mister…?”
“Mister Carrefour, spirit of the crossroads.”
“This is a cul-de-sac.”
“Close enough. Everything moves in circles anyways – life, songs, psalms, waltzes. We rise and we fall, take new names, play new games. Well, want to make a wager?”
I poke him with my light saber. It doesn’t touch him, just slips through him like a sword through water. “I don’t make deals with strangers, much less bets, Mister Carrefour. Momma raised me to be a lady, after all.”
Mister Carrefour looks up at the sky with finely ground pepper eyes, the irises bloody red. “Your too-many-greats grandma did. Mistress Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. She bet her soul for power – she could bend judges and the jury with a hot hot pepper, stroke Lafayette’s ego, dance with Damballah at the bayou on St. John’s Eve and bring blessings to her people. She struck a deal with me for the betterment of all New Orleans. After all, all magic passes through me and my magic leaves, flower child. You’ve got the same voodoo blood in you, little girl. Walking the line between angels and lwa. Now don’t ask me if it’s gris-gris dust or a fete you’re throwing, but a strange wind’s blowing your way. Kanzo comes, lave tets go, but the song remains the same. Dancer that I am, I hitched a ride in on your tailwind years ago. I like this place: Snake’s Hollow. Little country town outside New Orleans. It’d be a shame to see it go to the dark side. It’d be a shame to see it disappear.”
I stick up my nose in defiance. “What exactly are you saying, sir?”
Mister Carrefour lets the blackness thread through his fingers like a fish. “That the blackness in this town has a taste: my older brother saw to that. Sweet, sweet angel cake, and a little bit of devil’s food from you. Legba built up the wards strong around the people of Snake’s Hollow, nearly taking it off my map. But are they strong enough, I wonder, when my spirits come to play? The Ghede, the Kalfous, the Ogous. Life’s a playground, after all, and my Petro crowd likes nothing better than drums that hum like sin.”
I put the glowing lightsaber under my eyes so my face looks scary. At least, I hope it does. “Snake’s Hollow is my home. Ain’t no magic to it. And you missed Leggie by four years. He’s dust in the wind like that song.”
Mister Carrefour laughs like black coffee and ghost peppers. He takes a drag of his cigar. Pretty gross, but what else to expect from the Man in Black? At least he’s got style. Bet he listens to Satchmo.
“Legba ain’t gone, little girl. All you needed to do was call him. I can show you how.”
I narrow my stubborn eyes. Momma says I look like a mule when I do that. Maybe it will make him go away. “I don’t know about Marie Laveau, and I don’t know about magic. Mess with that stuff and it bites you like a gator. Leggie will come back when he needs to.”
Mister Carrefour chuckles again. It annoys me. “All it takes is some cornmeal and some rum and some candles. Didn’t your mother teach you that?”
“Momma’s a good Christian, not a witch.”
“I bet she is. Too bad you kids forget about us. The lwa are hungry, you know. Why else do you think I eat the blackness in people’s dreams? Don’t get enough offerings these days. Nobody likes Mister Carrefour. Not even little missus mambo.”
He pulls a buffalo nickel out of his pocket and flips it. It lands tails up.
“I just made a bet with myself: whether I should help you or not, little missus. Guess I will. I got some fiery rum and old cornmeal left over from last night’s fete. Even got a St. Peter candle somewhere in my cliff-deep pockets. Gotta pay the piper, I’d wager.”
I step back. “Is it okay to watch magic? Or is that a sin too?”
“Ask dear Raphael. Or don’t. I sent my spirits to his dreams. Ever wonder why he cries out at night? He’s your shield.”
I wince. “I think you’re evil, Mister Carrefour.”
Mister Carrefour draws out the materials to summon Leggie. “I’m a lotta things, child. Angel, devil, lwa, loser. Ain’t nobody likes Mister Carrefour.”
“You said that already.”
He finishes drawing a veve – the kind in those hokey Voodoo shops on Bourbon street. He shrugs. “I’ll admit I’m a bit bitter about my popularity. Humans won’t even look at me when I come down in a fete. Guess I’m lucky. They don’t bother me or my friends unless they want to curse somebody. Now that’s a fun time.”
“It doesn’t sound so kind to me.”
“Guess it isn’t, then. Alright, here’s Legba’s veve. A lot prettier than mine. Legba likes to be fancy. Wonder if he’ll bring that little yappy dog.” Mister Carrefour lights candles and chants in Creole. He pours rum onto the flames and they combust. I take shelter behind a dumpster.
“You sure this’ll work, Mister Carrefour?” I call, half-ready to scale the gutter and go get Raff.
He fans the flames. “As sure as sin, ballerina.”
“I got two left feet.”
“It’s a metaphor, baby mambo.”
“Isn’t a black mamba a kinda venomous snake?”
“You got bite like one, missus. Mambo, mamba, one and the same – you’re a dangerous little thing.”
Snoopy barks, then comes bounding at me. Out of the flames step Leggie in a bathrobe.
“Kalfou, you idiot! Why’d you wake me up?” Leggie looks around, scritching his bald head as he examines my cul-de-sac. His rheumy eyes widen and he smacks his whorled cane on the ground. “You stirring up trouble in my May’s neighborhood, brother? To the depths with you, you crooked, crooked fool.”
I pet Snoopy, who hides from the flames behind me. She’s shivering and yappy. I come back out from behind the dumpster.
“The angels and I got a deal, Legba. You know I like deals. Especially ones at crossroads-
“Cut it out, Kalfou. I’m too old for this. You touch a hair on May’s head and I’ll beat your hide with my cane all the way to Gineh. May, May, child, you there?” Leggie shields his gaze from the flames.
“Over here, Papa,” I call, scooping Snoopy up into my arms. She smells like summer grass and licks my face.
Relief washes over Leggie’s face. “You had me scared to death, May,” Leggie says, pushing Mister Carrefour – or Kalfou, I don’t even know, what a freak! – aside with his cane as he hobbles over to me. Leggie adjusts his straw hat then hugs me, real hard. “Didn’t Raff tell you never to leave your room when the blackness comes?” Leggie’s voice is stern.
“Raff didn’t tell me a lotta things. Like where you went. Or that I’m a Guardian.”
Leggie sighs, then brushes a curl behind my ears. “I like the curls, baby doll. You make me proud. I knew this day would come.” The keys to the Heavenly Gates jangle-jing on Leggie’s cane as he turns to Kalfou. Mister Carrefour? I bet the Man in Black has a lotta names, none of them very savory.
Frosty grass crunches under my feet, but Leggie is hot as jambalaya. “You do this again, brother, and I won’t be so lenient. You’re overstepping your bounds.”
“Boundaries shift, brother. May-flower needs me, now more than ever. Me and my spirits. Just like Laveau did. I taught Laveau her tricks, I’ll teach her too-many-greats granddaughter. To dance with snakes, to summon the lwa. She’s already met half her celestial family. The angels can’t keep her all to themselves. Us lwa, we got our claim. She’ll need all of us, when the time comes.”
“What time?” I interrupt.
Kalfou licks his lips like he’s at a barbecue. “Bondye be calling, little dancer. You gonna fight for him? For us? Us lwa, we in bad shape. Marinette Dry Arms wants you dead. But you’re the key to our survival. Marinette ain’t thinking straight. She’s all fire death and blood. Black swine, black roosters, rougarou amassing in the swamps on her side. She’s setting out for Snake’s Hollow soon. She don’t much like angels and lwa working together. She don’t much like Bondye – our God – at all.”
I sit with Raff at dinner the next day, almost blue from shame. I don’t dare tell Raff I went out into the darkness. I ain’t gonna tell him we summoned Leggie, or that Mister Carrefour gave me his card. I didn’t even know lwa had business cards.
“You hold this card over a candle flame, baby mambo, and I’ll be there.”
It’s monogrammed with a swirly M and C in the shape of two snakes.
I ain’t raring to try it out soon, if ever.
Legba fixed me up with a hug and made his dark horse of a brother go away. “You ain’t gotta worry about Kalfou, baby doll. Tell Raff I said hi. Things be a bit busy up above. Legba’s gotta hobble home and sleep. C’mon, Snoopy. I’ll tell you more about Marinette later, May-flower.”
Who’s this Marinette, I wonder?
That’s the problem with lwa. They leave a lotta things unsaid.
I’m chewing on a green bean that’s real stringy when momma comes into the room, dressed in a paisley skirt and pretty blue top. She’s got high heels on and is singing as she places a steaming bowl of mashed potatoes in front of me and pa. Raff is reading the newspaper, but he looks over the front page at the steaming taters. I better sneak him some later. We all sit down, say grace (I was eating before that, whoops) and dinner begins.
I’m cutting up some barbecue chicken when I catch momma outta the corner of my eyes.
Pa looks up from his taters. Raff closes the paper and adjusts his reading glasses.
“Who’s Marie Laveau?”
Momma and pa share a look like they just stepped on an open grave. I swallow a piece of chicken, one of the good bits without gristle.
“She’s our ancestor, sweetheart, on daddy’s side,” momma says. “It’s where our family name comes from: it’s French. She was a very famous woman in New Orleans back in the day: led the Haitian spiritual community and danced in Congo Square. There’s a lot of fiction about her. Why do you ask?”
“Just wondering,” I mutter, stuffing my mouth with taters so I don’t have to talk anymore.
Raff clears his throat, then elbows me. I ignore him.
My parents give each other another look then go back to talking about pa’s legal practice and how momma’s winter garden is.
“May,” Raff whispers, even though he can’t be heard. “Did you go outside in the black?”
My kitty slinks up and purrs, rubbing against Raff’s leg. I cross my fingers behind my back for old times’ sake and look at the floor. “Uh, no.”
Raff narrows his honey eyes. “May Octavie Laveau, are you lying to your guardian angel?”
The blueness of shame creeps up again. I blush. “Umm.”
Raff rubs his brow all exasperated-like. “You met Kalfou, didn’t you. And he told you. Things. Things about the Petro.”
“Leggie saved me! Snoopy was there too! I was just making sure we were safe, Raff! I even had my light saber.”
“That won’t protect you, May-flower! Kalfou’s a nasty trickster and a smoker to boot. Stay far away from him.”
“Then why does he have all of Snake’s Hollow as his playground? His blackness is like smoke all over the town!”
My kitty purrs. Raff pets her in worry.
“The lwa are strong in Louisiana, May. They’re intercessors like angels, saints by one name, the vestiges of African gods by another. God, Bondye, whatever you call Him – we serve the same Man Upstairs. Some lwa are friends with the angels, like my good man Legba, but some are downright hostile, like Marinette.”
“Who is she?”
“One of the leaders of the lwa. She led Haiti in the revolution against the French masters. She doesn’t think straight half the time, too drunk off black rooster blood, and the same thing she did to the French, she wants to do to the angels. Marinette, and some of her unsavory friends like her husband Ti-Jean and their bloodthirsty Bizango and loup garou servants, think there’s only room enough in Gineh – or Paradise – for one kind of spirit, and it ain’t angels. And any mortals the angels mentor – and who keeps the angels tied to the lwa – well by my Father, Marinette wants them gone.”
I shiver and grab my kitten. Not really a kitty anymore, just a fat calico, but boy does she act like one. She paws my legs and nestles into my lap, so heavy. I gotta stop spoiling her with cream.
“She sounds scary. What can I do?”
“Don’t go out in the blackness, May! Listen to me, please.”
I sigh and try not to roll my eyes. “Alright Raff, I promise.”
Marie Laveau, Marie Laveau… I think to myself, going through pa’s library in his office late at night when my parents – and Raff – are upstairs asleep. The name is like music in my ears, and I sing to myself, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans. I know Zora Neale Hurston did anthropological work in New Orleans during the Great Depression as ma told me – she’s gotta know something about my famous ancestor that gave our family its name!
Just when I’m climbing the rickety shelf behind pa’s desk, my hands grow hot, and the divine energy that flows through me that the angels have been teaching me to master grows piping hot like a tea kettle, leading my fingers to caress a worn paperback. There – an energy zing like an electric socket! I pull the book down and climb off the shelf:
Zora Neale Hurston: Of Mules and Men. I gasp. The pages light with my magic and open to a specific passage, where Zora Neale Hurston had visited Marie Laveau’s supposed nephew, now an ancient hoodoo doctor – he must be long dead now, a vestige of an old age where magic still bubbled under the skin of New Orleans. Now it’s all just hokey shops in French quarter and drunken smelly tourists on Bourbon street. I smooth the page and read from Zora’s journals:
I made three more trips before he would talk to me in any way that I could feel encouraged. He talked about Marie Laveau because I asked. I wanted to know if she was really as great as they told me. So he enligthened my ignorance and taught me. We sat before the soft coal fire in his grate.
“Time went around pointing out what God had already made. Moses had seen the Burning Bush. Solomon by magic knowed all wisdom. And Marie Laveau was a woman in New Orleans.”
“She was born February 2, 1827. Anybody don’t believe I tell the truth can go look at the book in St. Louis Cathedral. Her mama and her papa, they wasn’t married and his name was Christophe Glapion.”
“She was very pretty, one of the Creole Quadroons and many people said she would never be a hoodoo doctor like her mama and her grandma before her. She liked to go to the balls very much where all the young men fell in love with her. But Alexander, the great two-headed doctor felt the power in her and so he tell her she must come to study with him. Marie, she rather dance and make love, but one day a rattlesnake come to her in her bedroom and spoke to her. So she went to Alexander and studied. But soon she could teach her teacher and the snake stayed with her always.”
“She has her house on St. Anne Street and people come from the ends of America to get help from her. Even Queen Victoria ask her help and send her a cashmere shawl with money also.”
“Now, some white people say she hold hoodoo dance on Congo Square every week. But Marie Laveau never hold no hoodoo dance. That was a pleasure dance. They beat the drum with the shin bone of a donkey and everybody dance like they do in Hayti. Hoodoo is private. She give the dance the first Friday night in each month and they have crab gumbo and rice to eat and the people dance. The white people come look on, and think they see all, when they only see a dance.”
“The police hear so much about Marie Leveau that they come to her house in St. Anne Street to put her in jail. First one come, she stretch out her left hand and he turn round and round and never stop until some one come lead him away. Then two come together she put them to running and barking like dogs. Four come and she put them to beating each other with night sticks. The whole station force come. They knock at her door. She know who they are before she ever look. She did work at her altar and they all went to steep on her steps. “
“Out on Lake Pontchartrain at Bayou St. John she hold a great feast every year on the Eve of St. John’s, June 24th. It is Midsummer Eve, and the Sun give special benefits then and need great honor. The special drum be played then. It is a cowhide stretched over a half-barrel. Beat with a jaw-bone. Some say a man but I think they do not know. I think the jawbone of an ass or a cow. She hold the feast of St. John’s partly because she is a Catholic and partly because of hoodoo.”
“The ones around her altar fix everything for the feast. Nobody see Marie Leveau for nine days before the feast. But when the great crowd of people at the feast call upon her, she would rise out of the waters of the lake with a great communion candle burning upon her head and another in each one of her hands. She walked upon the waters to the shore. As a little boy I saw her myself. When the feast was over, she went back into the lake, and nobody saw her for nine days again.”
“On the feast that I saw her open the waters, she looked hard at me and nodded her head so that her tignon shook. Then I knew I was called to take up her work. She was very old and I was a lad of seventeen. Soon I went to wait upon her Altar, both on St. Anne Street and her house on Bayou St. John’s.”
“The rattlesnake that had come to her a little one when she was also young was very huge. He piled great upon his altar and took nothing from the food set before him. One night he sang and Marie Leveau called me from my sleep to look at him and see. ‘Look well, Turner,’ she told me. ‘No one shall hear and see such as this for many centuries.’”
“She went to her Great Altar and made great ceremony. The snake finished his song and seemed to sleep. She drove me back to my bed and went again to her Altar.”
“The next morning, the great snake was not at his altar. His hide was before the Great Altar stuffed with spices and things of power. Never did I know what become of his flesh.”
I flip ahead, anxious but excited by the power Zora spun into the words of this hoodoo doctor and the majesty of Marie Laveau, who seems to have never truly died, but lived on in the minds of her family, of New Orleans, and the lwa she befriended:
By the time that Turner had finished his recitation he wasn’t too conscious of me. In fact he gave me the feeling that he was just speaking, but not for my benefit. He was away off somewhere. He made a final dramatic gesture with open hands and hushed for a minute. Then he sank deeper into himself and went on: “But when she put the last curse on a person, it would be better if that man was dead, yes.”
With an impatient gesture he signaled me not to interrupt him
“She set the altar for a curse with black candles that have been dressed in vinegar. She would write the name of the person to be cursed on the candle with a needle. Then she place fifteen cents in the lap of Death upon the altar to pay the spirit to obey her orders. Then she place her hands flat upon the table and say the curse-prayer.”
“‘To The Man God: Oh great One, I have been sorely tried by my enemies and have been blasphemed and lied against. My good thoughts and my honest actions have been turned to bad actions and dishonest ideas. My home has been disrespected, my children have been cursed and ill-treated. My dear ones have been back-bitten and their virtue questioned. O Man God, I beg that this that I ask for my enemies shall come to pass: “‘That the South wind shall scorch their bodies and make them wither and shall not be tempered to them. That the North wind shall freeze their blood and numb their muscles and that it shall not be tempered to them. That the West wind shall blow away their life’s breath and will not leave their hair grow, and that their finger nails shall fall off and their bones shall crumble.That the East wind shall make their minds grow dark, their sight shall fail and their seed dry up so that they shall not multiply.”
Turner again made that gesture with his hands that meant the end. Then he sat in a dazed silence. My own spirits had been falling all during the terrible curse and he did not have to tell me to be quiet this time. After a long period of waiting I rose to go. “The Spirit say you come back tomorrow,” he breathed as I passed his knees. I nodded that I had heard and went out. The next day he began to prepare me for my initiation ceremony, for rest assured that no one may approach the Altar without the crown, and none may wear the crown of power without preparation. It must be earned.
I nearly cuss. “Zora was initiated?”
Thoughts bubble in my head: that the angels had kept Kalfou, had kept Leggie, had kept half my heritage from me all my life – the Laveau blood that flows through my veins. I want to be ready when Marinette comes, and though I can perform small miracles – parlor tricks the angels have taught me, water into wine slipped into the carafe at dinner for my momma and pa, bread multiplied for the homeless’s soup, spring flowers to bring joy in the harshest winter months to the people of Snake’s Hollow – I suddenly know in my bones that true magic awaited in the peristyle, in what Leggie had told me long ago was the holy house voodoo societes practiced in and drew down the spirits and ancestors.
Legba will never take me. Neither would Raff. But I just might know a dark horse that will.
I go straight to the kitchen. I take fresh cornmeal and pour it into a jar. I grab a matchbox and go to the center of the cul-de-sac, families all asleep now that it’s midnight. I make two intersecting lines with diagonal snakes in a makeshift cornmeal veve. Taking the lighter, with the blackness thick as blood, I turn it on, take Mister Carrefour’s business card, and let it burn.
The smell of Cuban cigars and cayenne pepper washes over me. Florida water, which granmama used to get from the store and sprinkle on the porch threshold to keep out supposed demons. Overwhelming, smoky cologne.
Mister Carrefour spreads his fingers wide like spider webs and waves them by his head like a circus freak. “Didn’t think you’d come calling so soon, baby mambo.”
I square my shoulders and place my hands firm on my hips: “Take me to the other lwa. I want to learn about my heritage: about voodoo. If it’s good enough for Zora, it’s good enough for me. I need to know about Marie Laveau, and what the angels are using me for. I need to be ready for Marinette, whenever that haint comes calling.”
Mister Carrefour twirls a dreadlock between gloved fingers and laughs like gunpowder water. “Alright then, little missus, to Snakes Spring we go.”
“Wait, what? But that’s in the middle of the woods. Billy Morse said it’s haunted – that Indians used to drown people there. That’s not the good spring – the good spring is Calf Spring. That’s where the tourists buy their dinky water from. Snakes Spring is cursed.”
“All the better for me. I do love a biting good bone-rattling curse, and death, though the Baron’s forte, is also my especialty.”
Mister Carrefour claps his hands. A giant black draft horse-drawn carriage appears. The wheels are writhing black snakes biting their own tails, round and smooth like tires. The spokes are femurs. I shiver in fear.
“That thing looks downright awful. Ain’t no way I’m riding in that,” I say, listening to the wheel snakes hiss.
Mister Carrefour adjusts his black top hat and snickers. “Now now now, ain’t well for Bondye’s Chwal to be afraid of anything. Come on, bless your little heart, hop inside, off to the woods we go.”
I climb into the haunted carriage and Mister Carrefour takes the reins and the draft horses gallop off, mouths foaming as they whicker. The wind is wild as a woman shaking dust from a rug.
“What do you mean, Bondye’s Chwal?” I call over the gale. I grip the seat as the steeds’ hooves start crushing velvet night under their keratin and we gallop off into the air. It’s nothing like Raphael’s flying, all shaky, and for once I’m actually afraid of heights.
Kalfou’s eyes flash alizarin crimson. “Vessel, vassal, Vaseline – you’re the Chwal, a balm to the world, a healing force, Bondye made flesh with Voodoo blood to spice things up. All my blackness and darkness, Marinette Dry Arm’s fire, Ti Jean’s iron shavings – you could swallow them all down and spit up spring water and rainbows. It’s a little like being the Messiah, but less Apocalyptic, and more what happens each generation: the angels choose Bondye’s successor, and she brings balance to the spiritual realms. It’s always a young girl that knows too much and speaks too often and is too damn stubborn for her own good. She’s also brave beyond her years, just like you. No doubt about it, baby mambo, you’re Bondye’s Chwal. His spirit rides you. He be your head spirit. You got great magic about you, deep wanga at work.”
The stars are so close I could pull them from the sky like onions after a rainstorm. The femurs rattle and the horses neigh. The moon is a great big steamboat on the Mississippi and Mister Carrefour is the Devil I dance with in the pale moonlight, only the dance is our words, wits clashing.
“Doesn’t Chwal mean horse in Creole? The name for humans ridden by lwa at fetes?” I ask, recalling Leggie’s stories of the rituals of the peristyle.
Mister Carrefour glances back over his shoulder into the open carriage. He smirks, and I wanna wipe that stupid grin from his face, what a jerk. “Yup my girl, that’s right. You’re a quick learner, ain’t you?”
Below, the forest spreads out like hobnobbed toothpicks covered in leaves and Spanish moss. There it is: Snakes Spring, a bubbling hot spring, and a flock of crows fly above. Mister Carrefour whips the reins and we land in a clearing. He holds out a gloved hand to help me down, but I choose to jump instead, landing squarely crouched on my feet.
It’s spring, and there are wild yellow daffodils blooming, with reeds and stone around Snakes Spring. I close my eyes and breath in the mineral water and wildflowers and run my feet through some bluebells by my ankles. Reaching deep inside me, to the magic at my heart, I call up new buds.
Dandelions push through the grass – momma and pa would consider them weeds, but they’re my favorite flower for their strength.
Mister Carrefour laughs: “Nice parlor trick, baby mambo. But Marie Laveau could do much more than that. The snakes are waiting in their hollows, resting from a long winter. Why don’t you wake those slitherers up?”
I know it’s a dare, but I want to show the Man in Black that I ain’t afraid of anything. So I do. I reach deep into the earth, into the crevasses around the spring and shout to the sleeping scaly secret keepers that gave the pure waters their name, and suddenly great hissing and the feeling of coiled muscles come pumping up from holes in the ground along the waterside. A dozen black Eastern hog-nosed snakes dig their way out of the ground, some striped Diamond-backed water snakes dance out from the reeds, even a coral, black, and white milk snake slinks from under a log.
I think of the snake Marie Laveau danced with then cooked up and stuffed with her secrets. The one that called her into her hoodoo power when she was but a girl. The snakes slither over each other, piling up, and they whisper in quivering words into my mind, and I know what to do. I direct them to Mister Carrefour, and soon they are climbing the Man in Black, twining around his suit, circling his limbs, and he laughs so hard I think the sky will fall, his shadow belly rumbling.
“You good, little girl. Choose one, why don’t you: we’ll need a gift for the Erzulie Sisters. Every entrance to Gineh has a price.”
“What’s Gineh?” I ask, eying the milk snake, which unspools from the log towards me.
“Home to the lwa. There’s the Petro Nation, Ghedeland, and of course, Rada Island. That’s where we headed. Freda be having a party, and boy does she love jewelry. A snake will make a nice necklace for Sister Freda. Maybe pick some flowers for Maman Danto while you’re at it. The girls get jealous of each other, one always a mistress, one always a mother. Ogou tries to please both but he ain’t very good at appeasing demanding women, and sisters often hate each other if they are sharing a man.”
Ogou, Erzulie Danto, Erzulie Freda – I’ve heard their names around New Orleans in Voodoo shops and of course from Leggie. Ogou is the lwa of war and strength, Danto the mother of the Petro and hot helm of Haitian revolution, and Freda is the lwa of love and beauty. I’ve always wanted to meet them.
I eye the pretty milk snake. She dances just for me, and I beckon her from the shade of an uprooted tree. She presents herself to me and I drape her over my shoulders like a necklace. I know she won’t bite – as long as I tell her not to. I summon the snakes away from Mister Carrefour, and he looks sad to see them go.
“Au revoir, mon amis,” Mister Carrefour salutes the slitherers. “Well then, May, shall we be going? Grab some flowers for Danto.”
I think Danto would like daffodils, so I grab a handful of stems and pull them from the earth.
Mister Carrefour chants in Creole, spills some cornmeal onto the ground in the shape of a labyrinth, then hops over it. The cornmeal catches on fire, then a great portal to lush Caribbean tropics opens.
“Well, in you go, Chwal.”
I can smell tropical flowers and see manta rays swimming in coral on a beach.
“You sure about this?” I ask, petting my milk snake. “Is it safe?”
“Ain’t nothing safe in Gineh. But nothing’s as powerful as Bondye, and you got His blood. Look at you, with a little Damballah on your shoulders. Come on, before it closes.”
I walk through.
So one of my dream agents emailed me yesterday to say he is reading my manuscript now. Trigger excitement!
This agent was the first to see to the heart of my manuscript, tell me what worked, what didn’t, what needed work, and advised me to revise it into an adult fantasy, beef up the word count, and add more exposition and characterization. He even let me pester him with questions about my novel for revision purposes when most agents will give you form rejects on fulls. To say I am eternally grateful is an understatement.
He was gracious enough to take another look at the revision I did half a year later and has some amazing projects he has worked on from New Adult Sci Fi about virtual reality combat to a really awesome LGBTQA+ story about two competing male love interests for a girl that end up falling in love – with each other!
Crossing my fingers and working on my next novel to distract myself. If anything, I’ll get great feedback, so it’s a win-win situation. 🙂