The unnerving third volume of the Secret Books of Paradys begins with a fable of two doomed weddings. In “The Weasel Bride,” a white weasel transforms into a fair maiden under the light of a full moon. A local trapper releases the animal from its curse by marrying it, but on their wedding day, the weasel inflicts the groom with a fatal wound. This tale flows into the story of a bride who is brutally strangled in the nuptial bed after giving her husband a small nibble on the hand. Decades later, his motive comes to light when the woman’s unearthed tomb reveals a ghastly truth.
In the second narrative, “The Nightmare’s Tale,” Jean de St. Jean is an orphan of the Revolution who grows up with a deep yearning for revenge. Determined to kill the man responsible for his parents’ death, he sets off for the colonial island of Black Haissa. But he arrives on distant shores only to find that his adversary is already dead and that the isle is a country of wild nightmares, supernatural possession, and petrifying beasts. And in “Beautiful Lady,” small, shabby Julie d’Is lives in a tiny apartment near Temple Church that no one ever visits. Some refer to Julie as Bella Donna, but she has other nicknames—for wherever she goes, the Grim Reaper follows close behind.
Five additional fantasies entrance the reader with the gothic and tortured plights of the citizens of Paradys—a mythic city where vampire owls, occult conjurors, and femmes fatales abound.
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The Book of the Dead
By Tanith Lee
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1991 Tanith Lee
All rights reserved.
Le Livre Blanc et noir
Paradys too has its cemeteries, its little graveyards tucked out of sight, its greater yards of death that hug the churches, the cathedral that is called a Temple. It has its places of graves, between the houses in sudden alleys. Between the paving stones, here and there you may look down and see a name that paves the way, a date of beginning and the other of surcease. Even under the house floors now and then they will raise a carpet and a board and point you a grave: Sylvie sleeps here, or Marcelin. Paradys is a city of the dead as she is a city of the live, the half-live, the undead, and perhaps the deathless.
And here, on this hill, shrouded by the pretty park they have made where once the scholars bored out their eyes (but shells have burst there since), overlooking the coils of the river, is a great necropolis of Paradys.
And here I have brought you, on this windy, colorless gravegray afternoon. To walk about, to look and see. If you wish.
We have come at an opportune moment, too. For over there, where you note that line of carriages going up, the funeral is taking place of Baubon the clown.
Baubon was immensely popular. To him of an evening, after their fancy suppers, went the women in spangles and pointed heels and the men in their capes, and white shirt fronts, like cats.
The hearse is huge, scrolled like an urn and hung with black drapes. The black horses labor beneath the black plumes and blacker tassels. No motor cars spoil the effect. Even the mourners have had to hire chariots.
Surprisingly, there are very few mourners (and no crowds rim the ground, held off by policemen). The chief mourner is a thin and white-haired man with the face of an elderly imp, enough like the mask of Baubon, publicly always seen in garish paint, to imply a brother or close cousin.
The black coffin, ebony with silver handles, is unloaded – an enormous wreath of flowers balances white upon it – and the service begins.
Everyone stands in silence as the priest speaks over the black (blacker even than the horses) hole in the ground. He has a pompous theatrical look, and the boy swinging the censer so adroitly, why he might even be that favorite of Baubon's among the acrobats.
A few women weep a few crystal tears. They are the ones able to cry without help in the theater. The men stand solemn. There are three eulogies spoken perfectly over the hole. We are not near enough to catch all the words – Genius, Unique, Mourned, Never-to-Be-Emulated. Then the coffin is lowered into the space. Earth and flowers rain down. A white rose ...
The celebrants shift from the grave in an exact ring, like circling black moths.
The chief mourner shakes the priest by the hand.
"Bravo, Jacques. It couldn't have been bettered. No, not at The Tragedy herself."
And the old imp strokes the censer boy.
A woman laughs.
"Take off the lid, then," says the brother of Baubon the clown.
Two men scramble carelessly into the grave and haul off the coffin top, flinging away the exquisite floral tributes.
In the coffin lies Baubon, in his patchwork and all his paint. As so many have seen him, laughing then, or crying, turning enormous cartwheels, falling from high towers.
"Lid back on," cries the brother of Baubon gaily. "That's enough. No respect."
And there is much amusement, back goes the lid, and the flowers are slung on any how.
Two gravediggers approach, and start to shovel in the black, moist soil.
"Are you satisfied, Baubon?"
"When we do it in reality, will you be watching then, Baubon?"
"Who knows? That's why I had my funeral now, to be sure."
Baubon is the imp. The priest an actor from the Comedy Theatre. The boy is ... the boy.
Staged, the funeral. And now the grave almost filled in. The black chariots roister away to some great restaurant where they will hold the wake of Baubon the clown and chief mourner.
In five years, or ten, or more (or less), they will come again to do this thing. Then the crowds will press at the fences and the policemen hold them off. Then perhaps some of the tears will be real, and the single white rose, if it falls, will not give its life for nothing, only a game. Or is it a game? Is the real funeral not to be a game?
And will Baubon watch then, as today?
Perhaps the dead are always watching, and we should tread carefully and speak low.
There will be no skulls in the grass. Though the recent storm shifted a tomb or two from its moorings, the staff of the necropolis came out like beetles in the rain and tidied everything. Even the shell that burst here was tidied. The necropolis has stood some while, two or three centuries. Always neat, even during the days of Liberty and Revolution.
(The last carriages career down into the park. There an old gentleman and his lady are shocked to behold the hearse go by filled with laughing actresses.)
In places there are great houses of death, you see. And in other places tiny markers half hidden in the grass and ivy, commemorative plaques for those who have gone down elsewhere into the dark that lies below, if not exactly beneath, everything.
Are they truly there, under our feet? Walk softly, talk quietly.
I will show you their shadows.
Here is a grave, now....CHAPTER 2
The Weasel Bride
In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is carried to the bridegroom's chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.
There are stories in the country told today as though they happened only a week ago. In many ways customs have not altered very much, and every village is its own empire. It is possible to imagine such things still occur, in lonely woods, under the stare of a silver moon.
A young trapper, walking home one evening across the water meadows, stopped in startlement, seeing a girl dancing on a hill in the moonlight. She was very beautiful, with long pale hair, but as she danced she wept and lamented. Pausing to watch, he also overheard her complaint. "Alas," said she, "that I may only keep this human form in the full ray of the moon. No sooner does she set, than I must return to my loathsome other shape, from which only the true love of a man can rescue me, although that forever. But what hope is there of it, seeing he must court and wed me in my other form, before his kin, and in the church. I am lost." Fascinated, the young man continued to spy on this strange maiden until at length the moon began to go down. The sky lightened, then grew black. The stars stung bright as the lunar orb sank under the hill. It was gone. At that moment, the maiden disappeared like the moon, as if into the ground. The young man ran up the hill and searched about, and as he did so he glimpsed something that flashed away into the bushes. It was a white weasel.
Now the trapper had made up his mind that he would be the one to have this girl, no matter what the cost. Therefore he laid his most cunning trap, and baited it, and went down to his village. Here he started hasty arrangements for a wedding, telling all sorts of lies, and bribing the priest and the mayor to obtain consent. The following night, which happened to be a night of no moon, he hurried to the spot where he had left his trap. And sure enough, what should he find in it but the white weasel, caught fast and crying piteously. "Fear nothing," said the suitor, "I shall befriend you, poor creature. Come, be my sweetheart, love me a little, and I shall wed you, before my kin and in the church, tomorrow morning."
Then he carried the weasel in a cage down to the village, ignoring her cheeps and struggles, which he guessed to be a part of the spell on her.
In his father's house, he had his mother and sisters put on the weasel a veil made from a lace handkerchief, and a garland made from a baby's pearl bracelet. He was the head of his own household, his father being dead, and the three women were obliged to obey him, but they did so in terror, thinking he had gone mad. The weasel, however, was most gentle now, and bore with everything that was done. Only at her lover did she hiss and bare her sharp teeth.
At sunrise, out they went, the trapper, his mother and sisters, and the bridal weasel in her cage. The whole village was about and crowding to the church, and the priest was there in his habit, with his prayerbook, waiting. But when they all saw what went on, there was a great to-do.
"Holy father," said the trapper, "you must humor me in this. For I insist this creature shall be my wife, and nobody will gainsay me. Remember," he added in a low voice to the priest, "my father's coins which I have given you."
"God moves in His own way," said the priest, and brought the young man and the weasel into the church and up to the altar. There, in the sight of the village and of the trapper's sobbing womenfolk, the priest wed the young man to the weasel.
Thereafter they repaired home for the wedding breakfast, and about noon, the young man took his bride away to the nuptial chamber, above.
The husband removed his wife from her cage and placed her on the pillows. "Dear wife," said he, "I will be patient." And there he sat quietly, as the daylight streamed in at the casement and the weasel ran about the bed and climbed the curtains, and below the wedding guests, in fear and amazement, grew drunk on his father's wine.
At length, the afternoon waned, the dusk came, and at long last, the moon rose in the east and pointed her white finger straight through the window.
"Now let us see," said the young man, and he put his hand on the weasel and stroked her snowy back. But as soon as the moon's ray touched her, she turned and bit him, under the base of the thumb, so his blood poured.
No sooner was this done than her coat of fur peeled off her, she sprang upright on the bed, and there before him in the moonlight was the lovely girl from the hill, clad only in her long, pale hair.
"You have freed me," she exclaimed.
"But at great cost," he answered.
And this was so, for despite her tender care of him, and the equally tender care of his astounded mother and sisters, the young man sickened of the bite. Within seven days he was dead and put to rest in the churchyard. And as for the weasel widow, she slunk away in the sunrise, and none saw her again, in any shape, although in those parts it was the tradition ever after to kill any weasel that they came on, if it should be a female.
The two families, the Covilles and the Desbouchamps, had ruled together over their great sprawling village for a pair of hundred years. And as each century turned, the village grew larger, fair set on being a town. The Covilles' tailored house at least had business connections with the City. Theirs was the trade of wool. The Desbouchamps' low-beamed manor, its milk churns and dove-cotes, stables and wild orchards, drowsed comfortably in the meadows. The Days of Liberty had not yet swept through Paradys, changing all the world. There seemed no need to hurry, or to provision for any future that did not resemble the past.
It was to be a country wedding then, between Roland Coville and Marie-Mai Desbouchamps. It started at sunup, with the banging of lucky pots and pans down the village streets, and went on with the girls and their autumn roses taken to the manor, and the silver coin given to each as she bore her flowers into the cavern of the kitchen.
Then out came the lint-haired bride, crowned with the roses, in the embroidered bodice her grandmother had worn, and the little pearly shoes that just fitted her. She was piped and drummed to the church and met her bridegroom in the gate, a dark northern youth, and who did not know or could not see how eager he was? For it was not only a marriage arranged but a marriage arranged from desires. They had played together as children, Roland and Marie. He had pretended to wed her in the pear orchard when she was ten and he thirteen years of age. Seven years had passed. He had been sent to school in the City, and was no longer pure; he had known philosophy, mathematics, Latin, and three harlots. But unscathed he still was. And the girl, she was like a ripe, sweet fruit misleading in its paleness: She was quite ready.
And how he loved her. It was obvious to all. Not only lust, as was proper, but veneration. He will treat her too well, they said, she will get the upper hand. But she was docile, was she not, Marie-Mai? Never had anyone heard of anything but her tractability, her gentleness. She will make a good wife.
For Roland himself, it might be said that he had always known she must be his. At first she had reminded him of the Virgin, so fresh and white, so clean. But then the stirrings of adult want had found in her the other virgin, the goddess of the pastoral earth that was his in the holidays, the smooth curving forms of hills and breasts, shining of pools and eyes, after the chapped walls and hands, the hard brisk hearts of Paradys. She allowed him little lapses. To kiss her fingers, then her lips, to touch fleetingly the swansdown upper swell above her bodice. When he said to his father, "I will have Marie-Mai," his father smiled and said, "Of course. We'll drink to it." So easy. And why not, why must all love be fraught and tragic, gurning and yearning, unfulfilled or snatched on the wing of the storm?
And for Marie-Mai, what could be said for her? She had answered correctly all the searching lover's questions. Her responses were perfect, and if she offered nothing unasked, that was surely her modesty, her womanly decorum. Could anyone say they knew her? Of course. They all did. She was biddable, and loving in mild, undisturbing ways. She was not complex or rebellious. There was nothing to know. Who probes the flawless lily? It is the blighted bloom that gets attention.
A country wedding, then, and in the church Roland thought his bride like an angel, except he would not have planned for an angel what he planned to do to her. And the church over, outside in the viny afternoon, they had their feast on the square, under the sky. These were the days once sacred to the wine god. The girls had wreathed the clay jugs with myrtle; the great sunny roses crowded the tables like the guests. And when the humped western clouds banked up, and the faint daylight moon appeared in a dimming glow, they bore the bride and groom to the smart stone house behind the wall and the iron gate decorated with peacocks. They let them in with laughter and rough sorties. They let them go to the laundered bedroom whose windows were shuttered, whose candles were lit. They closed the doors and shouted a word or two, and left the lovers alone for their night. And in the square a band played and Madame Coville danced with Monsieur Desbouchamps, and Madame Desbouchamps was too shy to do more than flirt with Monsieur Coville. The moon rose high, and owls called from the woods. The roses bloomed in the dark over the old walls, as if winter would never come.
In the morning, an autumn country morning that began about half past six, Roland's manservant knocked on the bedroom door, and the maid waited behind him with the pot of chocolate. In the old days – not twenty years before – the elderly women of the house would have arrived, to strip the bed and view the blood of the maidenhead. This was no longer done in such sophisticated villages. When the first knock went unanswered, the manservant knocked again, and grinned at the maid, and called out, "Shall I return a little later, "sieur Roland?"
Then, and what follows now comes directly from the evidence given later in the courtrooms of Paradys, the voice of Roland was raised clearly behind the door. It was not an embarrassed or pleasured voice. It cried in terrible despair: "Oh God, what shall I do?" And then, very loudly and without any expression, "Come in and see. But leave the girl outside."
The young manservant raised his brows. More sympathetic than he, the maid was already trembling and biting her lip. The man opened to door and went into his master's bedroom. There he beheld at once, as he said, some vestiges of a slight tussle, but perhaps these might not have been unnatural. Then he saw that the bride lay half out of the bed, in her ribboned nightgown. There were bruises on her throat, her face was engorged and nearly black, and her eyes had extruded from their sockets. She had been strangled, had been dead some while. The manservant exclaimed something like, "My God, who has done this?" To which the young husband replied quietly, "I did it. I killed her." And at this point it was noticed how two of the fingers of his right hand were very savagely bitten, doubtless by the dying girl in her struggle for life.
Excerpted from The Book of the Dead by Tanith Lee. Copyright © 1991 Tanith Lee. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsLe Livre Blanc et Noir,
The Weasel Bride,
The Nightmare's Tale,
The Marble Web,
Lost in the World,
The Glass Dagger,
The Moon is a Mask,
Preview: The Book of the Mad,
About the Author,