The Mary Sue is pleased to present strange, beautiful new fiction from Apex Magazine each month. This month’s story, from Apex Magazine’s current issue, is “To Die for Moonlight” by Sarah Monette. Take a look…
“To Die for Moonlight”
by Sarah Monette
I cut off her head before I buried her.
I had no tools suitable to the task–only my pocketknife and the shovel–and it was a long, grisly, abhorrent job, but I had to do it, and I did.
I could not leave the chance that she might return.
I had been weeping when I started; by the time it was done, the last tattered string of flesh severed, I had no tears left in me, and my mouth and eyes and sinuses were raw with bile and salt.
I stuffed her mouth with wolfsbane, wrapped a silver chain around her poor hands, placed silver dollars over her staring eyes.
Then, at that most truly God-forsaken crossroads, under a full and leering moon, I began to dig Annette Robillard’s grave.
How, exactly, the Robillards were connected to Blanche Parrington Crowe, I never discovered. Cousins in some degree of her long-dead husband, but whether it was a Crowe daughter who married into the Robillards, or a Robillard daughter who married into the Crowes, the link was many generations in the past–surely not enough to count as kinship except in the genealogical sense. Nevertheless, I was informed, Mrs. Crowe considered the Robillards to fall under the umbrella of her family obligations; thus, when Marcus Justus Robillard asked for a cataloguer to come make sense of his family’s long-neglected library, Mrs. Crowe felt it incumbent upon her to send one.
By which, I was further informed, she meant me.
I tried to argue that one of the junior archivists–all of whom certainly needed the practice more than I did–would be both eminently suited to the task and far less disruptive to the Parrington in his absence, but Dr. Starkweather glared me into silence, and then said, “Mrs. Crowe was very specific, Mr. Booth. It appears that she trusts you.”
The grim incredulity in his tone told me that if Mrs. Crowe could have been talked out of the idea of sending me to Belle Lune, the Robillard estate, he would have done it. He had been heard on more than one occasion to say, publicly and loudly, that I could not be trusted to come in out of the rain.
“Then I suppose I, er, have no choice,” I said. “Does Mrs. Crowe anticipate…er, that is, is it supposed to be a long job?”
“No,” Dr. Starkweather said, even more grimly. “I have been instructed to release you from your duties for a week. That will be sufficient, Mr. Booth. I trust I make myself clear?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and was occupied for the rest of the day in the unsatisfying tedium of preparing my office for a week’s absence.
It would be unwise to specify the location of Belle Lune. I will say only that it was in the mid-Atlantic states, close enough to the coast that the wind, when in the right quarter, would bring the smell of salt. Robillards had lived there since sometime in the seventeenth century, and the house had been expanded and remodeled so many times that nothing of its original character remained. It was more brick than wood, with the columns beloved of the Neoclassical Revival added to the front as a dowager pins a diamond brooch to her bosom, and it stood on the edge of a tarn. I call it a tarn, although there are no mountains in the vicinity of Belle Lune, because I do not know of a word that better conveys the secretive aspect–dark and uninviting–of its waters. The Robillards called it the Mirror, although I never saw it to reflect anything at all.
I was met at the train station on Monday by a young man and a horse-drawn trap. He had apologized as he introduced himself: “Justin Robillard–I’m sorry about the antiquated transport, but my grandfather has an abhorrence of engines and won’t have them at Belle Lune.”
“Kyle Murchison Booth.” His gloved grip was strong, but not punishing; I was glad to be released from it all the same. “And I, er, I have no objection to horses.”
His smile revealed strong white teeth and made his brown eyes glint almost yellow. “That’s good. I appreciate it, Mr. Booth. Is it ‘mister?’ Or ought I to say ‘doctor?’ ”
He swung my suitcase into the back of the trap, and swung himself up just as easily.
“I don’t have a doctorate,” I said, climbing up beside him.
“Good. Don’t want to be rude.” He smiled at me again, and the impression of teeth was so strong that it took an effort to keep from edging away from him. I upbraided myself for being nervy and ridiculous, but I was nevertheless glad when his attention shifted from me.
He clucked the horse into motion and said as we rattled out of the yard, “We’ll have to make one stop. My sister Annette insisted on coming with me. She wanted to go shopping without my mother or any of my aunts.”
He seemed to be waiting for a response, although I could not imagine what he thought I might say. I could hardly insist that he abandon his sister. I mumbled awkward compliance, and that was the end of the conversation until the trap drew up in front of a building with the words FOLKOW BROS. emblazoned in gaudy red and gold script across its windows.
“She promised she’d be waiting,” said Justin Robillard, but he did not sound surprised that she was not. He consulted his watch. “I’ll give her five minutes, then I’ll have to go in after her. We want to get home before dark.”
Again, he seemed to want a response from me. “…Yes,” I said, and was either rewarded or punished with another tooth-baring smile.
At the four-minute mark, Annette Robillard appeared, a young man at her side. She was much younger than Justin; I guessed him to be twenty-five or twenty-six, and she was no more than eighteen. She was slight-boned, brunette, and very pretty, with large dark eyes of the sort referred to in novels as “speaking.” The man with her was close to her own age, little more than a boy, blond where she was dark, and obviously, hopelessly smitten. It was notable that neither of them was carrying any packages.
Justin Robillard jumped down from the trap. “So this is why you wanted to come to town,” he said unpleasantly, and to the younger man, “Clear off, Folkow.”
“Justin!” protested Annette. “Don’t be horrid. Roy was bringing his father a message, and we just happened to bump into each other as I was coming in.”
“Grandfather’s already spoken to you, Annette. There’s no excuse for this.”
“Love doesn’t need an excuse,” Roy Folkow said, and perhaps if he had been even slightly older, it would not have sounded quite so pompous.
Justin laughed, and the sound made me shiver. “Is that the kind of bilge he’s been filling your head with, Annette?”
“It isn’t bilge!” But her voice wavered.
“Get in the trap,” Justin said, his voice a snarl almost like a dog’s, and he turned his head sharply to glare at Roy Folkow. “Come near my sister again, and I’ll tear you to pieces.”
It should have been as much a cliché as Folkow’s platitude, but it was not. Justin sounded not merely as if he meant what he said, but as if it would be no difficulty to him to carry out the threat.
Folkow backed away, one step, two, and then he stopped, his gaze fixed pleadingly on Annette’s face.
“Go on, Roy,” Annette said, and she was trying to make it sound as if her decision had nothing to do with her brother’s threat. She added with clear defiance, “I’ll talk to you later.”
“All right,” said Folkow. “G-good bye, Annette.” He gave Justin a nervous sideways glance and went back into the store like a rabbit into a hole.
Justin watched him go.
Annette turned toward the trap and–visibly–noticed me for the first time. “Oh! I beg your pardon! Are you the man from the museum?”
“This is Mr. Booth,” said Justin, “and I’m sure he found your little melodrama most edifying.”
“I wasn’t the one being melodramatic,” she said. “I don’t know what you have against Roy Folkow, but honestly, Justin–”
“Let’s go home, Annie,” Justin said, and instead of menacing, now he sounded merely tired.
She gave him a quick sidelong look, then hopped up nimbly into the trap, taking the seat back-to-back with her brother and immediately twisting around to keep talking. “I’m sorry you were kept waiting, Mr. Booth,” she said. “I told Justin I’d walk home, but–”
“And I’ve told you, and Grandfather’s told you, and Aunt Olive’s told you, not if you can’t make it home before dark.” The trap lurched into motion like a physical echo of Justin’s hard-edged words.
“Is the area so dangerous?” I said, surprised.
“Oh, there have been stories of wolves for years and years,” Annette said, with a coquette’s toss of her head, “but it’s all nonsense. I think Grandfather’s afraid I’ll elope.”
That made Justin laugh, and again the sound made me cold. “I’d like to see Roy Folkow try. But don’t go out after dark, Mr. Booth. Whether there are wolves or not, the local geography is very treacherous, and frankly, I wouldn’t advise wandering alone even in daylight. People fall into sinkholes every year, and sometimes their bodies can be retrieved and sometimes they can’t.”
“What a horrid way to welcome the poor man!” Annette said, laughing. Her laugh was nothing like her brother’s. “I’m sure we all hope you’ll be very comfortable at Belle Lune, Mr. Booth, and not want to go wandering about regardless. I think Grandfather said you’d be staying a week?”
“I, er…those are my instructions, yes.” I had become rather anxious on the train about what I was supposed to do if, at the end of the week, Belle Lune’s library was still not completely catalogued, and here was a chance to get a little more information. “Is the library, er, very large?”
“Oh, no,” said Annette. “None of the Robillards have ever been great readers.”
“Properly,” said Justin, “it’s Great-Grandmama Josephine’s library. She brought most of the books with her when she married Samuel Justus Robillard in 1846.”
“There’d be more books,” Annette said with a sigh, “but Great-Grandmama Josephine died young.”
“Grandfather kept the books in her memory,” Justin said, “and then that lawyer said they might be valuable.”
I doubted it, but at least, from their description, the task I faced was a manageable one, and might even prove interesting. I was relieved.
I should–I thought drearily Friday night, five purgatorial days later–have known better. The library was, in fact, much as Annette and Justin’s comments had led me to surmise, but what they had not mentioned was that Belle Lune’s library was also the sitting room, and as such, was never free of one or another of Marcus Justus Robillard’s daughters.
Of the four of them, Olive, Sophia, Christina, and Sarah, three spinsters and one widow, I minded Sarah the least. She had been struck deaf by a fever when she was a small child, and she lived a strange silent existence among her family. They never spoke to her, and rarely of her, but her eyes, large and dark, very much like her niece’s, were bright and intelligent. She was the only one of the family who read Josephine Robillard’s books, and she had watched my preliminary examination with great interest, going so far as to fetch for me a handful of books which (I gathered) she felt were particularly worthy of note: Lydia Maria Child’s first novel, Hobomok; all four volumes of The Dial, sadly foxed; and the American Bestiary of Matthias Claybourne Cullen—not the rare 1839 edition, but the cheap octavo of 1845. It was still an interesting find, with its entries on Seal-Maidens, Thunder-Birds, and Were-Wolves; I thanked Sarah Robillard with a nod, and she smiled as if it were far more than she had expected.
The other three sisters, as if to compensate for Sarah’s silence, never stopped talking, and they had hard, harsh voices that kept jangling in my head for some time after I had escaped their company. They were horribly inquisitive, as well, asking questions about the museum, about the city, about my life (did I have family? was I married? was there a lady I was courting?), even about the books–their own books, which had been in their house their entire lives–and I found that even more offensive than the rest put together.
Marcus Justus Robillard, a stocky white-haired paterfamilias, seemed merely ironically resigned to his daughters’ behavior–and indeed, he did not seem to think me worth rescuing from them. Or perhaps he knew the enterprise was doomed before it began: both Justin and Annette made efforts to distract their aunts, but it was hopeless. Annette might successfully lure Olive and Christina away, but that would be the signal for Sophia to come in. And if Justin, with an apologetic and embarrassed glance at me, contrived a reason to get Sophia out of the room, by then Olive would have returned. The only respite I had, before I pleaded fatigue each night and fled ignominiously to my room, was at dinner. Even that was a precarious haven, for if conversation lagged, one or another of the sisters was sure to turn her attention to me. The only night I was able to eat undisturbed was Wednesday, and that was because Justin and Annette’s widowed mother made what was evidently a very rare appearance.
Patrick Robillard had died when Annette was scarcely old enough to toddle, and Marian Robillard had instantly embarked on an epic career as an invalid. Having been exposed to her sisters-in-law, I could not blame her. She had the look of a woman addicted to opiates, thin and hollow-eyed and languid, as if she moved through water no one else could feel. Her presence at the dinner table meant that the conversation revolved around illnesses rather than me, and I was grateful to her for it, even though it took no exceptional intelligence or sensitivity to see that I was entirely irrelevant to her. Justin must have told her about Roy Folkow, for around and between Olive, Sophia, and Christina’s inexhaustible fund of embarrassing questions and grisly anecdotes, Marian Robillard was exerting herself to try to question her daughter.
She did not have a great deal of success, since she seemed reluctant to ask outright–perhaps, from her glances toward the head of the table, fearing her father-in-law’s reaction–and Annette was adroit at dodging. When Marian rose from the table, kissed her father-in-law’s temple, and murmured that she was returning to her room, I saw guilty triumph on Annette’s face. She had known that all she had to do was outlast her mother’s limited stamina. It was an unpleasant insight, and it did not make the Robillard ménage easier to bear.
At least the best guest bedroom was worthy of its name. It was a large airy room, much less oppressive than the main rooms of Belle Lune, decorated in blue and white and featuring a lovely cherrywood secretary that looked to me like a museum-quality antique, although American decorative arts were not my specialty. The bed was large, the mattress firm, and I only wished I had had any particular success in using it for its intended purpose.
I had, however, on Friday night as on the four nights before, no expectation of sleep–at least not for a good many hours. I went through the motions of preparing for bed; it was much better to make use of the bathroom before the family came upstairs, and I locked the bedroom door on my return with a feeling almost of safety. I turned the covers back and changed into my pajamas, for I had learned long ago that making myself uncomfortable was a useless punishment as far as my insomnia was concerned. I had brought Sascha Fleury-Dubois’s Letters from the Guillotine to keep me company through the long, cold nights, and it had proved worth its iron weight in my suitcase.
I was just buttoning the top button of my pajamas when someone knocked on the door.
I must have looked abjectly ridiculous, had there been anyone to see, trying both to turn around and dive for my dressing gown at the same time, but I am sure I looked even more ridiculous when I opened the door, for it was Marcus Justus Robillard standing in the hallway.
He had paid almost no attention to me all week long, and indeed, I had been glad of it, for if he had asked me, I would have had to tell him that bringing me out here had been a waste of my time and his best guest bedroom. The books Sarah Robillard had showed me on Monday were the only ones worth a second look; the rest, aside from their poor condition, were merely foot soldiers in the army of paper that had marched across mid-nineteenth-century America. There was nothing of interest to a museum, nor even anything valuable, and I had had suspicions all week, which I had tried to quash, that Marcus Justus Robillard knew it.
And now he was standing outside my bedroom, giving me an ironic look that made his eyes glint as yellow as his grandson’s. “May I speak to you a moment, Mr. Booth?”
“Er…ah, that is, certainly, if you wish.” I could see no option; I stood aside and let him in.
He sat on the chair by the secretary, leaving me the choice of floundering in the middle of the room or sitting on the bed, either of which would combine well with my dressing gown and pajamas to set me at a disadvantage. I sat on the bed.
Marcus Justus did not waste time. He said, “Your cousin sends his regards.”
The words made no sense at first, and even when I understood them, they continued to make no sense. “…My…er, my what?”
“Your cousin,” said Marcus Justus distinctly, his eyes glinting at me. “L. M. Ogilvy.”
“You…you know my cousin?” It was not a recommendation if he did. I had met my cousin, Luther Murchison Ogilvy, once, and I never wished to meet him again.
“We have corresponded for many years,” said Marcus Justus. “I suppose you could say we have interests in common.”
He bared his teeth, but it was not a smile. “Family curses.”
“…Oh.” I had learned about the Murchison curse from my cousin Ogilvy. I bore the mark of the curse in my prematurely white hair, and if I ever married, the curse would kill my wife just as it had killed my father. My mother had committed suicide; I was determined never to marry, never to allow myself to become close enough to anyone that the curse might recognize them as a target.
“My family suffers under a curse just as yours does, Mr. Booth, a curse that there seems to be no hope of breaking. But your cousin had a suggestion. He told me of the success the Murchisons had had in marrying each other, that the curse didn’t come into effect when both parties carried it. And while that option is not available to me, as the Robillards have never bred far from Belle Lune, your cousin asked if it was possible that the Murchison curse and the Robillard curse might…” He brought his hands together sharply. “Might cancel each other out.”
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” I said; it was hard to get the words out, for my face felt stiff and numb.
“Oh, I think you do,” Marcus Justus said. “Now, it would be unreasonable to ask you to marry one of my daughters–old maids the lot of them, and I could see you didn’t take to them.”
“I like Sarah,” I said inanely, defiantly.
He waved that aside. “But my granddaughter’s a pretty girl. Well brought up. And we’ve money, of course.” His sneer said he had noticed the threadbare elbows of my dressing gown, the frayed hems of my pajamas.
“You want me to marry Annette,” I said slowly, struggling to keep my voice level.
“It’s a gamble,” said Marcus Justus, “but it seems worth it. It won’t keep the curse from afflicting her, of course, but it should keep you safe. And it may lessen the effects on your children.”
“Or they may be doubly cursed,” I said.
“Ogilvy and I considered that. We don’t think it likely.”
I had no faith in their opinions, and every faith in the Murchison curse’s power to kill Annette if she became my…I had to force myself to finish the thought: my bride.
Something I could never have.
I knew that arguing with Marcus Justus would be useless, or worse than useless, and I very badly wanted him out of my room, but there was one other question first.
That lawyer said they might be valuable, Justin had said. I had assumed that he meant the Robillard family lawyer, but my cousin Ogilvy was a lawyer, and I knew from experience that he was good at fabricating pretexts. “That’s why you contrived to have me sent here. It was never about the books at all.”
“Oh, the books,” Marcus Justus said with a shrug that showed how heavily muscled he was; I guessed he was seventy or more, but he was still formidable. “They can be your wedding present, if you’re interested in them. Ogilvy told me it was the only way to get you here.”
“Yes, of course,” I said. There was no comfort in being right. The numbness seemed to be spreading, and I was beginning to feel light-headed.
Marcus Justus smirked. “He doesn’t think much of you, you know.”
“He can hardly think less of me than I do of him.” I was not even listening to myself, occupied with trying to find some way to get Marcus Justus out of the room before I passed out–or succumbed to hysteria–so that I startled violently when he laughed.
“You may not be such a milksop as you seem,” he said, and to my amazement and relief, got to his feet. “I know I’ve given you a lot to think about, and I don’t expect an answer tonight. Sleep well.” And he let himself out, closing the door tidily behind him.
I scrambled up, locking the door as if it might actually be any protection. But even illusory safety was better than the helplessly exposed feeling with which Marcus Justus had left me.
I took a deep breath, then another. He could not force me to marry Annette; I had only to avoid giving an answer until Sunday, and then I could return to…
What if Marcus Justus would not let me leave?
The thought was nonsense, surely, but the more I thought about the situation–the isolation of Belle Lune; the way that generations of Robillards had been in essence lords of their own bleak fiefdom; the truth I had seen all week, that Marcus Justus’s word was law to his family–the less nonsensical it seemed. He could ban automobiles; why should anyone cavil at imprisoning an archivist? And I could not pretend that there was anyone who would care particularly if I vanished into this desolation. My colleagues would be inconvenienced and Dr. Starkweather would be irritated, but no one would pursue the matter beyond the most perfunctory inquiries.
No one would rescue me.
On Saturday morning, Marcus Justus announced that he thought Annette should take me to see the Robillard burying ground. The speed with which the rest of the family agreed was alarming; it indicated that they were both aware and approving of the plan to marry me to Annette. I could find no excuse not to go, especially after Marcus Justus said outright, “Oh, don’t worry about the books.” Annette herself seemed perfectly happy to have her day disposed of so high-handedly, but it was obvious from her lack of self-consciousness that she did not know her grandfather was trying to dispose of more than an afternoon.
She did not know about the curse.
We took a picnic lunch, provided by Sarah and Christina, both beaming like idiots, and walked the quarter-mile from Belle Lune proper to the burying ground. It was an entirely private cemetery, Annette told me; no one but Robillards had the right to be buried there, and it was exempt from state and county laws about the disposition of the dead. It seemed an all too apt metaphor for Belle Lune itself.
And it seemed even more so when we arrived. The landscape stretched out in cold brown desolation as far as I could see. On three sides, the cemetery was fenced with forbidding iron spikes; on the fourth, it crumbled into one of the sink holes Justin Robillard had mentioned. Annette told me that some graves had been lost when the cave-in occurred almost forty years ago, but they thought the rest of it was stable. I was not reassured.
The gravestones ranged from well-tended modern plaques (Annette’s father; Olive’s husband; Marcus Justus’ elder son, Philip Justus, who had died when he was Annette’s age), to ornate nineteenth century obelisks, to crumbled illegible slabs laid full-length in the ground as if they were the covers of sarcophagi. Annette said no one knew any longer which Robillard ancestor lay beneath which slab, although she pointed out the one said by family legend to memorialize Marie-Marthe de Givère, who had run away from a French convent to join her Robillard lover in the New World.
Annette was a conscientious tour guide. She showed me the Civil War graves–the Robillards had lost a son to each side, Henry Justus to the North and Clarence to the South–and Josephine Robillard’s grave (the most ornate of the ornate obelisks). Over lunch, she told me the stories of as many of the graves as she knew; I noticed that the majority of them were women in their twenties or very early thirties, all of them bearing Robillard as their married name and all of them presented to posterity as “Wife and Mother.” It was indirect proof of Marcus Justus’s claims for a family curse, and I knew I should use it as a way to broach the subject with Annette, but I could not do it.
All the way to the burying ground, I had tried to think of a way to tell her about the curse, but every gambit I imagined foundered on my lack of information. Marcus Justus had been–I realized belatedly–very careful not to provide any details, anything useful. Simply announcing, Your grandfather says your family is cursed, would achieve nothing.
And without that to build on, how could I tell her that her grandfather wanted her to marry me? Every time I opened my mouth to try, I looked at her, lovely and young and vibrant in a flowered dress and a wide-brimmed straw hat, and I thought of the incredulous laughter with which she would surely respond. I did not at all blame her–what other reaction could any rational young woman have?–but the prospect killed my voice in my throat.
All that afternoon, I did not speak.
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