Bitterthorn by Kat Dunn: An Extract

Article | Issue: Jun 2023

KAT DUNN grew up in London and has lived in Japan, Australia and France. She has a BA in Japanese and an MA in English. Her latest novel, Bitterthorn, is a gothic tale of love and loneliness. Read on for an extract.

 

ABOUT THE BOOK

Bitterthorn-kat-dunnMina offers herself up as the Witch’s latest companion – yet the fate that awaits her is stranger and more wondrous than she can imagine…

Blumwald is a town overshadowed by an ancient curse: in a sinister castle in the depths of the wild wood lives a monstrous Witch. Once a generation, she comes to claim a companion to return with her – never to be seen again. Now that time is drawing near once more…

Mina, daughter of the duke, is grieving and lonely. She has lost all hope of any future for herself in Blumwald. So when the Witch demands her next companion, Mina offers herself up – though she has no idea what fate awaits her. Stranded with her darkly alluring captor, the mystery of what happened to the previous companions draws Mina into the heart of a terrifying secret that could save her life, or end it.

EXTRACT

Autumn

I

 

I was born from my mother en caul, swaddled in my unbroken amniotic sac like an insect encased in amber, and entirely apart from the world.

I have, in all meaningful ways, been alone ever since.

The doctor grimaced and slit open my cocoon with a knife, spilling fluid and meconium, and like a selkie, I slipped off my first skin to reveal another human one beneath.

My mother was gone in an instant, fainting in shock at this living, squirming thing emerging from inside her.

My father took longer to leave.

I was presented to him, minutes old, in the antechamber to my mother’s room, cleaned off and wrapped in lace. I am told he politely enquired after my birth, and had the good grace not to be visibly disappointed that he had no son. A daughter was perfectly adequate, and I had sensibly arrived healthy and whole. My only crime was arriving at all, into the lives of two people who weren’t quite sure what to do with a child now it was here. I never doubted they loved me in their own way, but I understood clearly and quickly what I was to them: a problem to be solved.

Who should look after me? Where should I be put? How could things be arranged so neither of them had to change their lives in any real way?

I soon learned my job. A series of nannies and governesses shepherded me from nursery to school room and I saw my parents in slivers like the windows of a zoetrope: Mother dandling me on her knee before a dinner party, my father presenting me to guests as I recited Goethe. Every child is beholden to the gods of their parents, and I augured their meanings from careless words and gestures, made rituals to fit around their whims, and inscribed into my heart the rules they unwittingly handed down. I learned who I was through them.

Mina is a good girl. Mina is a sensible girl. Mina is not demanding.

I was well fed, clean, sheltered by all the protections money and status afforded.

I lacked for nothing, except real love.

My mother would visit me occasionally, when her spirits were on the way up. This interest in me – riding together, a trip to Paris, a painting course – flared up rapidly like a match being struck, and then would be dropped as the flame reached her fingertips, the shrivelled, blackened stick tossed aside before any of the heat could touch her. My mother was delicate, and a child was one burden too many for her to bear – not that she was capable of bearing many burdens at all. She struggled with life as though it wasn’t her natural home. The air too thick and syrupy for her to breathe, moving through it like a poor swimmer thrashing amongst the waves.

My mother died the autumn I was 12.

I didn’t understand what it was to need someone, until she was gone.

My father, left with a daughter on the cusp of womanhood, panicked. He did what any prudent man would do and promptly married a respectable widow replete with daughters near enough my age so that someone else could handle female issues. As ruler of the small Duchy of Schwartzstein, his time was all accounted for and raising children was not on his schedule.

My mother was tidied away into her grave and my stepmother unpacked her things into her place. I found myself far from home without having travelled a metre. I was living on the outskirts of someone else’s family and no matter how many mollifying words my father offered, I knew I was not a necessary star in this new constellation.

My stepmother was not a cruel woman, merely a disinterested one. She had three daughters of her own and no desire to take on another. Johanna, the eldest, Else in the middle, and the youngest, Klara, needed education and good matches to be found, and that was a far greater draw on her attention than a grieving girl child confused by monthly courses and a shape-shifting body.

Still, she didn’t throw me into a cellar or make me their servant.

No, she simply turned me into a ghost.

When she and her daughters arrived into our house, in all meaningful ways I ceased to exist. I slipped into my adult woman body in the same way I had been born into the world: cloistered apart from the rest of humanity, shuddering from one skin into a new one, my beating heart a problem to be dealt with.

Already well versed in entertaining myself, in womanhood I never thought to do anything but continue along the same path. If the palace that had been my home was now the domain of my stepmother, I would look beyond for something of my own – and found it in the trees outside each window, the mountains that ringed our capital city of Blumwald, in the pebbly river that churned wild in spring with snowmelt and froze solid enough to skate on in winter. I found home in the crags and branches, in birdsong and my own ragged breath as I walked and walked. I felt power in my independence: far, far safer to be alone than to want and be unwanted.

So I walked, and I walked and walked until my boots were bloody and my face was sunburned, until I became a creature like the foxes and egrets, until I was only motion and pumping heart and nothing human at all. Holding entropy at bay, I heard my father call it once, the constant output of energy to remain in one place. Life was in movement; only dead things were still.

I was a dead thing, in my heart. I knew it like a poison I drank each night and purged each morning. I knew that I was isolated, but I didn’t understand my loneliness until I knew what I would give to escape it. What I would be willing to do.

Until I knew what it was to love, and be loved. It was the Witch who taught me that.

 

 

II

 

The news of Bismarck came the day summer died.

The season had stretched long this year, workers sweating in the fields as they brought in the harvest, the last of the radishes, fennel and beetroot flourishing in the shimmering heat until it burst like a blister and a thunderstorm rolled up the valley, bouncing between the mountains to thrash Blumwald with rain and lightning.

I had gone walking early, as I often did. Finally I had woken to a clear sky so I went to my trees to assess the progress of the seasons. I wrapped apples, butterkäse, a piece of smoked sausage, some dark rye bread and a slice of poppy seed cake in a cloth in my knapsack, and put on a stout pair of boots. Dawn cast long shadows across the cobbles. As I wound through the dense knot of forest at the base of the mountain, past logging stations and huntsmen’s cottages, I came across a deer carcass, torn open by scavengers. From the bullet wound to its haunch I knew it was a hunter’s mistake: a doe targeted then lost. She had come to a quiet hollow to die. Maggots had eaten out the jelly of her eyes and the meat of her swollen tongue. This was the nature of my forest home.

Up on the cleared stubble of the grazing pastures, I sat on a grist outcrop to eat my lunch. Summer: dead and gone. I marked it in the bloom of red smudging the base of the oak leaves, the freckle of gold sweeping the birch. Quercus robur, the monstrous oak trees that planted themselves firm with broad branches sweeping the forest canopy, betula pendula, the silver birches clustering close with their trunks like peeling skin. They marked time better than any clock or candle or bell in the rings of their trunks and the spread of their branches. All around the forest fanned out like a pack of cards, dense and overlapping, arguing for space. It curved around Blumwald like a cupped hand, across valley to climb hillsides and along riverbanks.

From my vantage point above the city, I saw my father’s carriage hurtling along the valley road. At this distance it seemed to move as slowly as an ant, but from the cloud of dust around the wheels and the way the rest of the traffic parted like a ripped seam, I gathered they must have been going at some lick.

I took another bite of my apple and chewed.

He wasn’t due back from Berlin for another week; this was either terrible or excellent news. Schwartzstein was a scrap of land as big as the space between my thumb and forefinger when I held my hand out before me, and my father was its ruler. We had slunk around the edges of history while all around countries merged and split and feuded and warred. A nation of sheep and wool and spinning.

No one noticed us, except the Witch.

My father had different plans now: we were to be noticed by someone else. Chancellor Bismarck was unifying Germany and we were to become part of the new Empire. I wanted to know what the news was, but I also knew the best way to be around my father was not to be there at all. This was one of the first laws I learned: if he was in a rare good mood, I was welcome to provide entertainment; if his attention was turned to his duties, I was to pretend I didn’t exist at all.

Finding a snag of fleece in my pocket, I plucked two thistles to card it in the old way, watching the carriage draw closer. In a sheep-riddled place like Blumwald, fleece was caught on every fence post, oily and ripe with ovine scent. This was a hunk the size of my palm; cream turned grey with dirt and caught up with burrs and spindly leaf stems and grasses. I brushed it rhythmically like passing over the beads of a rosary, my fingertips waxy with lanolin, to work out the knots and detritus until I had a piece of fibre ready to be washed. A scrap like this would be good for nothing but a drop spindle, spun by hand to add twists to the fibre until it became strong enough for weaving and knitting. I had no spindle of my own to do it, only my mother’s, which she had kept more as a toy than a means of creation. I thought of the doe again, her milky teeth bared in a death grin. In a few more years, I would have had a dead mother longer than a living one.

I waited until my father’s carriage reached the Summer Palace, then made my way back. I still had one living parent, and the more he withdrew from me, the more I wanted to find a place by his side.

At the tide line where the wheat fields met the bracken and saplings, a spate of shrines were scattered like a warning. A hollow scooped out at the base of an oak, in it a dish of salt and scraps of iron, a twist of yarn and a saint’s medallion nestled among it – St Anthony of Padua this time, for protection against evil – a bough of ash to one side and a branch of blackthorn on the other with a cluster of dusty purple sloes still attached. A smear of something red across it all. I thought of the old words: by oak, by ash, by bitterthorn. Half prayer, half invocation. An oath for protection, for binding. All of it a plea against the dark.

In the distance, above the golden canopy of the dying forest, about as far as I could see on a clear, bright day, was the Witch’s castle.

The Witch was our curse, the hazy shadow to the bright light of Blumwald. Once a generation, every fifty years or there around, she would descend from her castle to take a companion. One young man plucked out and never seen again. We lived according to the long seasons of her reign: the years directly after her visit like spring, joyous relief and hope. Then, summer as the memory of fear faded. Autumn would come, though, and we could no longer pretend we were safe. Finally, as half a century approached, winter set in, cold and bitter and full of dread.

Dukes rose and fell, wars shifted our borders over centuries, and still we lived tied to the rhythm of her want. It had been a little over fifty years since the Witch had last been seen. We never knew the exact moment she would strike, only that she would, and we lived around the fear of her like a volcano smoking and spitting ash, one eye raised to its fiery summit. An immutable fact that framed the world in salt sprinkled along doorways and windowsills, candles ever-burning on chapel altars, shutters locked tight at the first brush of dusk.

My mother in her worse moods called the Witch a curse on men for their coldness. To be taken from their masterful positions and turned over to the use of a woman. I thought the Witch took them because she could. Because it was a transgression. Who would lose sleep over another woman sacrificed?

I thought she took men because she wanted us to know her power.

A candle had been left burning in one shrine. In a flash of anger, I snuffed it out. Salt and iron couldn’t protect you from loss. The hurtful truth of death was that it was as mundane as a meal uneaten, a cup knocked over. Exquisite pain that meant nothing. All this was nothing but a hopeful lie.

A twig cracked behind me.

I could see no one, but I felt a prickle along the back of my neck as though I was being watched. As though, in extinguishing the flame, I had opened a door, and something was waiting to come through.

I doused the smouldering candlewick with water from my canteen and hurried on, leaving the shrine in disarray behind me.

b

 

Shaking off the darkness of the forest, I made for the palace and my father’s coach. Past the cathedral, the dry market day in the square, dominated by stalls of cloth and yarn, haberdashery, ironmongery, candles and knives and buckets repaired. Past bakeries already emptied to crumbs and the coffee house, tables outside with waiters fetching small cups of steaming black coffee and soft rolls and pats of creamy butter. I would take breakfast there on a warm morning, with my sketchbook propped before me to outline the rooftops and cobbles, the carriages and water troughs and sprays of clematis shivering up the wooden-framed buildings. I plucked a blossom as I passed, tucking it in my belt.

From the window of my bedroom I could see Blumwald in almost its entirety: at one end was the cathedral with its glistening roof of coloured tiles like the side of a grass snake, at the other, our palace, and between them ran a street like a spine. From it spoked side streets, alleys, squares and wells and market places, tided up by the city walls that were only as tall as the rooftops these days and unmanned for many a generation. Downriver were the tanneries and slaughterhouses turning the water a churning brown with run-off, and the new wool mill with its thundering mechanical loom. My father thought only of railways and factories, but wool and spinning had been the lifeblood of our duchy for centuries before us. In the back alleys and attic rooms of houses, a legion of women still worked at their wheels to bring in a little extra money.

And above us always, the mountain, and the Witch’s castle.

My father’s horses were being stabled when I arrived, and an unfamiliar man in expensive but travel-stained clothes was directing the unpacking of a series of briefcases and what looked like equipment I’d seen in my geological journals.

My stepmother and stepsisters were in the drawing room, conversation racing along some thread I couldn’t catch.

I tried to slip past but was stopped by my stepmother’s voice. ‘Mina? Is that you?’

I stepped into the doorway. ‘Yes.’

A series of menu cards and sheets of notepaper were scattered on the tables between her and her daughters.

‘Where were you this morning?’ ‘I went for a walk.’

She looked over my mud-stained appearance with thinned lips. ‘Are you planning to join us once you have made yourself presentable?’

I made a non-committal noise and went to find my father instead.

Soon, I would be the only daughter left at home.

Klara was engaged, Else was already gone to her new husband in Munich, while Johanna had only returned to have her first child. I saw her one day changing muslin squares that she had tucked down the front of her dress. They were stained creamy yellow and smelled strongly of milk. When she spotted me she had shrieked and shooed me from the room with accusations of spying.

I wondered if all my family would change and leave me behind. First my mother had changed into a corpse, now my stepsisters would become wives and mothers, and soon enough my father an old man. It was as though by losing my mother so young, motherhood was a foreign land I had no permission to enter. I had been marked out as different, and the lives my sisters expected for themselves were not available to me.

My father was at his desk in the library, poring over a folder of trade documents he had brought back from Berlin. On a chair beside him was a furl of wool samples, labelled with weight and dye and provenance. The line between his eyes was so deep, it was cast in shadow. One thick groove between his eyebrows, two deep scores either side of his mouth, and a fan of lines across his forehead. My father was not a young man, but I had never seen him look this worn.

I asked after his journey and he waved me into a chair with a dismissive hand. My father would bring me to his side occasionally when he felt like it, and I waited for those moments like drops of rain in a drought. For a moment I would feel like his daughter again, like the loss of my mother hadn’t fractured us.

When several minutes had passed without him looking up, I said, ‘Perhaps I could help you with your papers? I’ve said you need a secretary.’

‘You were quite right.’ He put down a letter and squeezed the bridge of his nose.

I began to gather the mess of papers. I saw a list of names, notes about a railway being built, a conference. ‘You have returned so soon. Is everything well?’ My eyes lingered on a letter signed by Bismarck himself.

‘We are to host a conference for the Chancellor and his cabinet next month. There is much to prepare and little time. If all goes well, I believe we will be looked upon favourably for the location of the new locomotive line.’

A smile broke across my face. ‘I am happy for you. I know you have worked a long time for this.’

‘I have. We must all put our efforts towards the conference’s smooth running.’

‘Of course. You will need help.’

I sorted the documents into groups, arranging my father’s desk, but he stopped me with a confused smile.

The mistake dawned on us both.

He tried to hide his amusement. ‘Oh, no, liebchen. I hired a secretary in Berlin – perhaps you saw him? Klaus Ernhoff, newly graduated from Jena.’ He toyed with his pen for a moment then set it to one side. ‘You don’t want to be stuck in here with me.’

I flushed with humiliation. ‘Father—’

He regarded me softly and that was somehow worse. ‘Mina, you look to me too much. You must think to your own future.’

I was foolish to think he might want me with him.

My father was a man who managed people like the figures in his account books. After my mother died, I would come to him, deep in grief, looking for someone who might understand what I had lost. Instead he had told me that grief was a physiological process that lasted a year. It had comforted me at first to think there would be a neat end to my pain, but when a year arrived I understood what he had really meant: my allotted time was over and now my grief was not welcome at his door.

‘I want you to be happy,’ he continued. ‘Perhaps we can think again of a husband?’

I could not listen to his words. It was as though the rushing sound of water had risen up about me and numbed my senses. I had no easy prospect of a husband. The bloom of my youth had barely flowered before it seemed spent; I cannot say I noticed it passing, until I discovered in the way people looked at me that I had wilted and what small expectations there had been were gone.

‘I don’t think a husband will solve my unhappiness,’ I said. ‘I don’t want to make someone else responsible for that.’

‘I feel like you make me responsible.’

You’re my father, I wanted to say, who else is responsible for me, if not you?

‘I fail to understand you, Mina. You’re a clever girl, capable, but it feels as though you’re waiting for your life to begin.’

‘I see.’

His mouth turned down at the corners. ‘I’ve hurt you.’ ‘No.’ Before he could say anything else, I got up, blood loud in my ears. ‘Good luck with your work.’

I should have gone somewhere. Back outside, hacking along the field boundaries looking for flints in the tilled soil, or into the forest to sink my boots in mulch, soft and loamy from the rain to pick mushrooms; something that took me out of myself. But the blow had come too hard, felled me too thoroughly.

My room was quiet when I reached it. On the mantel, the clock ticked. Outside the window I could hear the wind in the leaves, the call of birds and the voices of servants ferrying crates to and from the icehouse in preparation for the day’s meals. Everything was exactly the same as it had been. And always would be.

I knelt by the ceramic stove that heated my room and folded back my sleeve. The enamel was painted glossy white with gold leaf along the rococo acanthus leaf scrollwork, lifted from the parquet on four ornate legs. It had been recently stoked and the heat rolled off it in waves.

I pressed the milky underbelly of my arm to the surface and felt an exquisite pain cut a line through me like a spike of lightning.

As though you’re waiting for your life to begin.

I turned my father’s words over like a newly acquired geological specimen, some shiny square of pyrite or rough wedge of schist, looking for the grain, the structure, the signs of its origin and nature.

I pulled my arm away and inspected the scalded red flesh. If no one wanted me, then I would make myself disappear.

 

 

III

 

Whispers of a curse filtered through the palace like smoke.

Everything that could go wrong in the preparations for Bismarck, did. Only a matter of weeks separated us from the conference when Cook slipped on a dropped dish towel and put her back out. Then two scullery maids ran off with their gentlemen callers; and due to some poorly labelled bottles, the silverware had been polished with machine oil and all three hundred pieces would need redoing.

It was thought that my father hung us out like bait on the hook. To hold an event like this before the Witch had safely been dispatched with a new companion was considered a terrible risk, an act of hubris. The Witch was a shadow in every room, behind every conversation. Memories were long in Blumwald and people began to shut themselves away; shops closed at dusk, cafe tables fell quiet, spinning wheels stilled. No one wanted to be abroad when she came.

In the cathedral, the cluster of candles at the shrines swelled each day. Not a single companion had ever returned after being chosen by the Witch.

We called them her companions because it was more palatable than her prey.

Perhaps they really did live out a life of service to her – or perhaps she used them for whatever wicked magic she worked. Our ignorance left too much space for horror to harness our imaginations. My father knew his people’s fear, but the date was set and he would not be swayed; the opportunity to gain Bismarck’s favour was too great to let pass.

While townspeople nailed iron to their lintels, my stepmother ordered farms to slaughter animals, gather eggs, churn butter, mill flour, open beer stores and wine cellars. When fresh flowers were brought into the palace, she followed the maids from vase to vase with her secateurs, snipping off each imperfect bloom. I picked up a rose, one side crushed under her shoe, and brought it to my room where I hung it upside down above the stove to dry. I foraged wildflowers and ferns, gathered in fat armfuls to be arranged in jars and glasses around my room, catkins and thistle as the weather changed, and dried lavender sprinkled on my sheets. I tended plant cuttings lined up on my windowsill: aspidistra, philodendron, hedera helix, neanthe bella palm, each sat in a teacup of water to propagate. The only joy I found left to me was in bringing nature inside.

b

 

A few weeks after my father had returned with the news of the conference, I sat outside a coffee house, my sketchbook propped on my knees to work. In my room hung a clumsy drawing I’d made of the forest coiling up the mountainside. Today, I had in mind a different view: the snow-capped peaks cresting over the snakeskin roof of the cathedral. Fingers smudged with charcoal, I worked quietly, taking in the city around me with half an eye. Fewer and fewer men could be seen on the streets of Blumwald; slowly, we had become a colony of only women.

Two passed me now, a broad-shouldered woman of middling age carrying a basket of raw fleece to be spun, and a bent-backed woman well into the twilight of her life. People crossed themselves as they passed and whispered behind cupped hands. I knew them. We all did. Frau Hässler and her daughter Frieda. Mother and sister to the last companion who had been taken fifty years before: Edgar. Oh, we knew all their names, though few dared to speak them aloud, as though mentioning them would draw the Witch down upon them. Like secret saints or the ranks of kings, a history of our curse in seven silent men. Candles were lit to them in every shrine, parcels of food left outside the Hässlers’ front door like offerings. As though their suffering could be warded against.

Frau Hässler, at 90, moved through the world too folded in on herself to notice; Frieda saw all too well. I feared her fate like an omen: a spinster, a left-behind woman society had no use for. Grown steeped in pity and fear, she walked in quiet rage. They were marked by their loss. I thought then of my mother: I was marked too.

The Hässlers turned out of the square and a brief spatter of rain crossed the cobbles, storm clouds rolling slowly down the mountain. A prickle of unease ran through me; I closed my sketchbook and downed the last of my coffee. I would not linger.

At the palace my stepsisters descended into the entrance hall just as I was returning. From their smart hats and freshly brushed jackets it looked as though they meant to take a turn around the estate. I thought they must see me where I sat, tugging off my mud-stained boots, but deep in conversation they swept past me without acknowledgement.

I quieted the pang of humiliation and took myself to my room to tend my plants.

The sash window was open a crack and I heard Klara and Johanna’s voices drift up. Their walk had taken them around the back of the palace.

‘. . . can you imagine her stuck here with Mama. Perhaps she will run away and live in the woods like a wild woman. Like the Witch.’

‘It is a sad truth not all women can marry,’ said Johanna with a hand on her rounded belly.

‘Who would ever want her.’

‘Hush, that is unkind. If she showed any affinity for the Church I would have thought her a natural for the convent.’

‘She’s too heathen for that.’ ‘Klara.’

‘Sorry. What was it Mama said about a lady’s companion?’ ‘I believe she has made enquiries to find a suitable placement . . .’

They turned the corner and I heard nothing more.

Water overflowed the pot of the parlour palm I had been tending, watering can held fixed as I listened until the soil swam and dirty liquid spilled across the floor. I mopped it up with a cloth on my hands and knees.

I thought of Frieda Hässler, her arms and hands rough from spinning and scrubbing floors, her solitary, grief-marked life. My hands were as rough as hers, my arms as muscled. My grief as ever-present.

No amount of carding could smooth my tangled threads.

Who would ever want her?

My stepsisters never meant any cruelty, but they managed it all the same.

Frieda had lost her brother to the Witch fifty 50 ago, and now he lived forever in prayers and nightmares.

I wondered then, what fate was worse. Dead companion – or a living ghost.

b

 

Autumn slipped towards winter and ill omens speckled the city: carefully laid woodpiles rotten through, fires dying in the grate, a litter of kittens born with milky, unseeing eyes, a girl slipped through half-formed ice and drowned.

It was less than a week now until the guests arrived, and all the bedrooms had been aired, fresh linens produced and flowers cut. The kitchens took in deliveries of beer and potatoes and flour and eggs and Riesling and vast wheels of cheese and sides of ham and even the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin sculpted from sugar. There was no safe refuge from the planning anywhere. In the mornings I went walking or put on my old skirts to work the apothecary garden outside the kitchens, tending lavender and sage and sorrel and mint while kitchen maids snipped great handfuls off with sharp scissors. When the weather was too bad, I kept to my room, reading and sorting through my geological collection. I borrowed polish and cloth from downstairs to work at each neglected piece of flint and basalt, limestone, dolomite and iron ore, taking the time to consider each in turn: the beauty in their harshness, the impossible compression of time into the palm of my hand. An infinite history that I could hold, and begin to understand.

Klara found me in my room kneeling amongst my samples, smudged glasses perched on the bridge of my nose.

‘Mother wants to see you,’ she said, casting an eye over my twill skirt and dirty fingernails.

‘Why?’

‘She’s upset. She says you’ve been rude.’ My brows furrowed. ‘When?’

Klara shrugged. ‘You’re always hiding with a book. And when you come in you don’t say hello properly.’

I washed my hands and found my stepmother alone in her solar, a bright room at the back of the house overlooking the lake. It had once been my mother’s, and she had filled it with books and replicas of Wallis and Millais paintings: Chatterton sprawled in death on one wall, Ophelia entwined with flowers as she sunk beneath the water on the other. Now the room had been repainted in a dull olive green and hung with placid pastoral scenes.

My stepmother directed me to a seat.

‘I apologise if I have offended you,’ I said. ‘I did not mean to.’ She folded her hands, lips pursed. ‘I have tried very hard to accommodate you, Mina, but you throw that in my face when you refuse to participate in this family. I suggest you think a little less highly of yourself. If you mean to spend the rest of your life unmarried and under my roof, then you need to change your ideas. Do you understand me?’

I swallowed and nodded. ‘I’m sorry.’

Was there a threat beneath those words? I remembered what Johanna had said. My stepmother had written to try and find me a place as a lady’s companion.

‘Your father has enough to worry about without you adding to it. He is under an immense deal of pressure that I am not sure you fully grasp.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said again.

A spread of menu cards and seating charts covered her desk and I looked to them, feeling as lost as I did at the modiste or with the dancing master.

‘Is there anything I can do to help?’

She knew it was a worthless offer as well as I did.

‘All I ask of you now is that you do not embarrass me or your father when our guests are here.’ She looked at my ink- stained cuffs and dowdy bun. ‘At least try to look presentable.’

My cheeks burned but I nodded.

She turned her shoulder to me, pen scratching across notecard like a sharp-beaked bird pecking away at the bark of a tree.

I was too afraid of my stepmother to ignore her admonishment. I was all too aware that as my stepsisters left, there would be less and less of a bulwark between us. My future lay in her hands and she was little motivated to treat it with care.

My sisters joined us shortly after, and I made a point of standing with Klara at the piano to turn the pages for her, and pouring tea. When Klara tired, I took over; after one sonata, my stepmother held up her hand with a pained expression and said, ‘That’s enough now. My migraine is bad as it is.’

So I found my embroidery and brought it to sit beside Johanna instead and listen to her discuss names for the baby as she knitted miniature clothes. I stitched the conical bonnet of an inkcap mushroom in fawn-grey silk; a cluster nestled in the rotting crook of an alder branch, a plume of ferns framing growth and decay.

Johanna looked over my shoulder and wrinkled her nose. ‘Whatever have you done that for?’

I looked at my delicate stitches, the rough texture of the tree bark and the velvety fungi. ‘I like it.’

Klara and my stepmother had turned to us, all eyes on my embroidery. Johanna’s expression wavered between confusion and concern. ‘But what use is it? What is it for?’

I had no answer.

Johanna lost interest in me and Klara brought a stack of sheet music out from its box. ‘Did you hear about Jenna Vettel?’

‘The poor girl who fell through the ice?’ said my stepmother. I stitched in silence and let the conversation flow around me. ‘Drowning must be such an awful way to go. All silent and alone beneath the surface where no one can hear you.’ Klara picked up a Chopin sonata. ‘Better than the Witch, though, I suppose.’

Johanna stopped, one needle through a stitch purlwise. ‘Don’t say that. Don’t talk about her.’

‘Oh don’t be so superstitious, Jo. It’s not like she’d want any of us. You’re not a man, are you.’ Klara shivered.

Johanna crossed herself. ‘I don’t know why she has to come here. Aren’t there people where she is?’

My stepmother spoke for the first time. ‘And why does the duke bring Bismarck here? This is our capital. She wants to make an impression.’

I thought about this. I had never considered that the Witch could take people from some hamlet near her castle, but of course she wouldn’t. She would have no legend if she didn’t come as she did, to strike where we should feel safest.

She wanted us afraid.

Klara cut in, ‘What do you think happens to them? Does she kill them straight away?’

‘That is quite enough of that.’ My stepmother clapped her hands together. ‘Practise your Schubert, Klara. We will hold a recital for the conference guests.’

I looked to my needlework but my mind was full with thoughts of the Witch. The embroidered mushrooms spread over the rotting log; without realising I had stitched tiny woodlice crawling around the edges, a hundred legs and bodies roiling like a tideline.

b

 

An old woman was found frozen to death in her bed the day Bismarck arrived. The clouds gathered around the mountaintops were dark grey and angry. Winter meant to do us harm.

A phalanx of carriages drove through the city gates and up to the Summer Palace. Wherever I turned there was another minister with his valet and his briefcases, another room with its doors swinging shut on another private conversation. My father moved between them all, smiling and clasping hands in greeting, only the small flicker of the muscle in his jaw betraying any tension, while my stepmother paced the halls and corridors of the palace like a general as she oversaw the installation of an army of staff and visitors.

In his busyness my father had forgotten what else this date meant, and I had not the courage to remind him.

I would commemorate the anniversary of my mother’s death alone.

It was hard to wake the next morning when dawn still washed out the sky; the ceramic stoves kept our apartments warm, but too long sitting still and my fingers would become stiff, my toes numb in their boots. A sharp frost had turned the stony pathways icy slick and the lake had nearly frozen over; each day, men tested the edges to see whether it would bear the weight of skaters.

I dressed slowly, anxious to make the right choice with each garment. The furs had been taken down from storage while I was out one day, my stepsisters shaking off the dust and mothballs and divvying them up without me. I had come home to find myself left with a pine green old-fashioned cloak designed to fit over the bell-like crinolines of my mother’s youth. With only a bustle to fill it out I had been fair drowning in wool, but I liked the way the cloth billowed around me like a cocoon of my own. Klara had nearly made herself sick laughing at the old-fashioned figure I cut. In her sleek mink coat, vented at the back to accommodate her bustle and frogged from neck to ankle, she had looked like something from a fashion plate.

On this day I was pleased to have the old furs, something my mother would have recognised. It made me feel closer to her in some small, meaningless way.

I swapped my elastic-sided Garibaldi boots for a pair of battered Balmorals and was ready to set off, swathed in scarf and hat against the frost.

I had an appointment to keep.

My maid stopped me with a touch at the crook of my elbow. ‘Take care, Your Highness.’

‘What for?’

A knowing look crossed her face and I thought of the huddles of women I passed in the streets exchanging stories of eggs with red yolks, blood being drawn from wells, clocks that stuck at midnight.

‘She is overdue, Your Highness. When she comes, best none of us draw attention to ourselves.’

I shook my arm free in frustration. The Witch had poisoned every mind but my father’s.

The night had been cloudless, dropping the temperature so much my breath clouded before me like mist and the sun crested low over the mountains, a distant pale star in an endless stretch of blue. The town was still cast in shadow from the peaks, but as I made the short journey it retreated like a tideline, uncovering the honey-coloured stone belt of the wall and spires prickling the sky.

Late-autumn forest skirted the flanks of the mountain, bare-branched deciduous lowland and dense pine-prickled upland, before giving way to scrub and grass in the higher reaches where any trees struggled to survive the raw weather, and a rangy herd of winter-hardened sheep grazed on the last grass before they were brought inside for true winter. In the hazy distance, the Witch’s castle rose above it all. I thought about the last leaves falling, the foxes shifting their hunts beneath the earth, the forest floor brittle and frost betraying every move. I wondered what it would be to live in the wild side of the forest. We could see her castle, but it could not be reached. The road would twist like a strand of yarn if ever you set your direction towards her, looping around itself to reach no destination at all. There were stories of grieving parents following after their sons when they were taken, but none ever reached her. Some never made it back to Blumwald at all.

In the far edge of our land was the family chapel. My mother wasn’t in the crypt with my father’s parents; she had a grave of her own, a chest tomb in white limestone, watched over by an angel, head bowed holding a never-wilting bouquet of flowers. It was extravagant and sometimes I wonder if my father did it as penance for what had come next.

I knelt where her name was carved into the lid. She deserved to be remembered more than any of the men the Witch had taken.

She hadn’t been perfect. She hadn’t even been easy. But she had been mine.

I traced my fingers over the letters, picking out the moss that was growing there, then laid flowers from the hothouse, a burst of life amongst the desiccated bracken and heaping brown leaves. A memory came to me: my mother waking me in the middle of the night, wild-eyed, pulling me to the open window of her bedroom, the pale cotton of her nightdress flattened against her breasts and stomach by the wind that flooded in. Above us the clouds had eased apart and between their dusty forms the moon floated as fat and round as a coin. ‘The mother moon,’ she said, wrapping her sinewy arm around my shoulders. ‘The maiden waxes into the mother then wanes to the crone. You and me.’ She kissed the top of my head and I leaned into her warmth. A rare moment where it felt as though we fit together, mother and daughter.

A month later she was dead.

I thought of us there, maiden and mother, waxing and full. And the Witch in her castle, the crone. The waning moon, swallowed by darkness.

b

 

I heard the first whispers of the Witch’s arrival as I walked back.

‘Soured the milk in the pail with a look,’ said a woman carrying a bundle of straw. ‘Has the face of a demon, all crooked. You can see the evil in her, our Albert said.’

Another woman crossed herself. ‘Set all the cows lowing up at Rottenstedt. And when I set about breakfast, all the boiled eggs peeled blood red.’

In the centre of town it was as though midnight had come at midday. Every shop was shut, every window shuttered and barred. I walked alone past abandoned carts, dropped papers. In the market square, a figure cut across at a run, a boy in his early teens on the verge of tears. A door opened, swallowed him up and the bolt rammed home in a scrape of metal against rust. I stopped at the only open door: the cathedral. It was empty and my footsteps echoed around the baroque vaulted ceiling. White marble curlicues frothed around the altarpiece and pale murals flowed across the walls and ceiling. Tucked into both sides of the nave were chapels. The saints glowed rosy with votive candles: patron saints of missing people and protection against evil. Each shrine was decked in twists of yarn, raw fleece, undyed rough spun alongside delicate lace weight skeins. Lights bristled like fireflies, like stars, a hundred tiny points of hope, of desperation. Knelt before one altar was

Frau Hässler, lace mantilla across her hair. I shivered. It was the time of the Witch.

b

 

At the Summer Palace, fear was ripe in the air. The crush of extra servants hired for the conference, the valets the politicians had brought with them, their wives’ maids, who had crowded the palace and its courtyards, had all vanished like dew. Only a few of our own staff remained, exchanging whispers and glancing towards the town beyond the gates. I looked at the girls my age and younger, the older women and the men with white in their hair, and thought so few of us had been alive the last time the Witch visited. For most of us, all we knew was the childhood terror of our parents, passed on to us.

In the kitchens, my father had made a rare appearance below stairs, wild eyed and skin flushed red above his beard.

‘You mean to tell me they’ve all gone?’

The head butler was a squat man who picked habitually at his cuticles. His fingers twitched as he replied. ‘Your Majesty, we cannot force them to work.’

‘How the hell am I meant to hold a dinner for the Chancellor of the German Empire with no damned footmen?’

My father’s voice, the way he bit his words, roused an instinctive fear in me and I slipped back outside.

Rain had begun to fall, so I stepped into the stables instead. It smelled acutely of manure despite being freshly mucked out, the animal scent of horse and oiled leather. I followed the soft sound of whickering, past my father’s Hanoverian stud Gunnar and Klara’s dappled mare Lorelei, and a great number of horses belonging, I presumed, to my father’s guests. At the end of the row the storm lamps had blown out. The horses were agitated, stamping and snorting and huddled to the right of their stalls. I frowned. It was as though they were all leaning away from the very last stall, where the shadows lay deepest. I could see something moving – human or horse, I could not tell – and there came a long, slow rasping sound.

I stepped into the shadows, and found them occupied. A woman moved between two horses, brushing their glossy black coats. She was taller than me, and still in a travelling cloak, hood shadowing her face. Her dress was black, in some style foreign to me, and all I could see of her was glossy black hair that masked her face, falling loose from a sharp centre parting, inky deep and bright as glass.

‘It’s rude to sneak up on people.’ She spoke without looking at me and I startled.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, but I didn’t leave.

‘What do you want?’

She must be the maid of a politician’s wife, who thought little of us backwater people, sent to tend a prize horse. Or a village girl called into to fill a vacancy and unpractised in deference.

‘Somewhere to hide,’ I said.

At that, the woman glanced up and I caught a flash of eyes as jet-dark as her hair. ‘Curious. A princess in hiding.’

‘I’m not a princess.’

I wondered how I could speak so plainly to her. My throat was dry, my stomach hollow, and yet the words left my lips without volition.

‘But you are hiding.’ She took a comb and worked it through the knots in one beast’s mane. She moved through the shadows like she was one of them, like smoke.

‘Yes.’

‘Which begs the question, what are you hiding from?’

My stepmother would punish a servant for speaking like this, even to me. Perhaps I should warn this woman before she fell foul of her.

But my words dried up. I remembered, instead, my mother’s face peering under tables and behind curtains, looking for me. We had been playing a game, but I had hidden too well. I was hungry and ached from folding myself tightly into the gap between a settle and an armoire and the light had turned cold with dusk. I wanted the game to be over, but my mother had not found me yet. I wanted her to find me more.

She never did. I climbed out at dinner time, and she didn’t ask me where I’d been.

 ‘Do I have to have a reason to hide?’ I asked, then looked to her horse. ‘A beautiful creature.’

‘Thank you,’ she replied. I caught the glint in her eye, the corner of a smile, and I blushed.

‘Excuse me for intruding.’

‘Good luck hiding,’ she called after me as I hurried past the mounds of saddles and bridles and tack.

I had the acute sensation of walking past the mouth of a cave, smelling the hot, rotting breath of the monster within.

 

Discover more about author Kat Dunn here

Author: Kat Dunn

Category: New Release - YA

Book Format: Paperback / softback

Publisher: Andersen Press

ISBN: 9781839132957

RRP: $19.99

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