Red as Blood and White as Bone by Theodora Goss is a dark fantasy about a kitchen girl obsessed with fairy tales, who upon discovering a ragged woman outside the castle during a storm, takes her in--certain she’s a princess in disguise.
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About the Author
Theodora Goss's publications include the short story collection In the Forest of Forgetting; Interfictions, a short story anthology co-edited with Delia Sherman; Voices from Fairyland, a poetry anthology with critical essays and a selection of her own poems; The Thorn and the Blossom, a novella in a two-sided accordion format; and the poetry collection Songs for Ophelia. She has been a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, Crawford, Seiun, and Mythopoeic Awards, as well as on the Tiptree Award Honor List, and has won the World Fantasy Award. She teaches literature and writing at Boston University and in the Stonecoast MFA Program.
Read an Excerpt
Red as Blood and White as Bone
By Theodora Goss, Anna Balbusso, Elana Balbusso
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Theodora Goss
All rights reserved.
I am an orphan. I was born among these mountains, to a woodcutter and his wife. My mother died in childbirth, and my infant sister died with her. My father felt that he could not keep me, so he sent me to the sisters of St. Margarete, who had a convent farther down the mountain on which we lived, the Karhegy. I was raised by the sisters on brown bread, water, and prayer.
This is a good way to start a fairy tale, is it not?
When I was twelve years old, I was sent to the household of Baron Orso Kalman, whose son was recently executed as a traitor, to train as a servant. I started in the kitchen, scrubbing the pots and pans with a brush, scrubbing the floor on my hands and knees with an even bigger brush. Greta, the German cook, was bad-tempered, as was the first kitchen maid, Agneta. She had come from Karberg, at the bottom of the mountain on which I was born. Karberg was a big city, at least to such a country bumpkin as I was then. I was the second kitchen maid, and slept on a mattress filled with straw in a small room that was probably a pantry originally, with a small window high up. I bathed twice a week, after Agneta, in her bathwater, which had already grown cold. In addition to the plain food we received as servants, I was given the leftovers from the baron's table after Greta and Agneta had picked over them. That is how I first tasted chocolate cake and sausage and beer. And I was given two dresses of my very own. Does this not seem like much? It was more than I had received at the convent. I thought I was a lucky girl!
I had been taught to read by the nuns, and my favorite thing to read was a book of fairy tales. Of course, the nuns had not given me such a thing. A young man who had once stayed in the convent's guesthouse had given it to me, as a gift. I was ten years old, then. One of my duties was herding the goats. The nuns were famous for a goat's milk cheese, and so many of our chores had to do with the goats, their care and feeding. Several times, I met this man up in the mountain pastures. (I say man, but he must have been quite young still, just out of university. To me he seemed dreadfully old.) I was with the goats, he was striding on long legs, with a walking stick in hand and a straw hat on his head. He always stopped and talked to me, very politely, as he might talk to a young lady of quality.
One day, he said, "You remind me of a princess in disguise, Klara, here among your goats." When I told him that I did not know what he meant, he looked at me in astonishment. "Have you never read any fairy tales?" Of course not. I had read only the Bible and my primer. Before he left the convent, he gave me a book of fairy tales, small but beautifully illustrated. "This is small enough to hide under your mattress," he said. "Do not let the nuns see it, or they will take it from you, thinking it will corrupt you. But it will not. Fairy tales are another kind of Bible, for those who know how to read them."
Years later, I saw his name again in a bookstore window and realized that he had become a poet, a famous one. But by then he was dead. He had died in the war, like so many of our young men.
I followed his instructions, hiding the book under my mattress and taking it out only when there was no one to see me. That was difficult at the convent, where I slept in a room with three other girls. It was easier in the baron's house, where I slept alone in a room that no one else wanted, not even to store turnips. And the book did indeed become a Bible to me, a surer guide than that other Bible written by God himself, as the nuns had taught. For I knew nothing of Israelites or the building of pyramids or the parting of seas. But I knew about girls who scrubbed floors and grew sooty sleeping near the hearth, and fish who gave you wishes (although I had never been given one), and was not Greta, our cook, an ogress? I'm sure she was. I regarded fairy tales as infallible guides to life, so I did not complain at the hard work I was given, because perhaps someday I would meet an old woman in the forest, and she would tell me that I was a princess in disguise. Perhaps.
The day on which she came was a cold, dark day. It had been raining for a week. Water poured down from the sky, as though to drown us all, and it simply did not stop. I was in the kitchen, peeling potatoes. Greta and Agneta were meeting with the housekeeper, Frau Hoffman, about a ball that was to take place in three days' time. It would celebrate the engagement of the baron's son, Vadek, to the daughter of a famous general, who had fought for the Austro-Hungarian emperor in the last war. Prince Radomir himself was staying at the castle. He had been hunting with Vadek Kalman in the forest that covered the Karhegy until what Greta called this unholy rain began. They had been at school together, Agneta told me. I found it hard to believe that a prince would go to school, for they never did in my tales. What need had a prince for schooling, when his purpose in life was to rescue fair maidens from the dragons that guarded them, and fight ogres, and ride on carpets that flew through the air like planes? I had never in my life seen either a flying carpet or an airplane: to me, they were equally mythical modes of transportation.
I had caught a glimpse of the general's daughter when she first arrived the day before, with her father and lady's maid. She was golden-haired, and looked like a porcelain doll under her hat, which Agneta later told me was from Paris. The lady's maid had told Frau Hoffman, who had told Greta, and the news had filtered down even to me. But I thought a Paris hat looked much like any other hat, and I had no interest in a general's daughter. She did not have glass slippers, and I was quite certain that she could not spin straw into gold. So what good was she?
I was sitting, as I have said, in the kitchen beside the great stone hearth, peeling potatoes by a fire I was supposed to keep burning so it could later be used for roasting meat. The kitchen was dark, because of the storm outside. I could hear the steady beating of rain on the windows, the crackling of wood in the fire. Suddenly, I heard a thump, thump, thump against the door that led out to the kitchen garden. What could it be? For a moment, my mind conjured images out of my book: a witch with a poisoned apple, or Death himself. But then I realized it must be Josef, the under-gardener. He often knocked on that door when he brought peas or asparagus from the garden and made cow-eyes at Agneta.
"A moment," I cried, putting aside the potatoes I had been peeling, leaving the knife in a potato near the top of the basket so I could find it again easily. Then I went to the door.
When I pulled it open, something that had been leaning against it fell inside. At first I could not tell what it was, but it moaned and turned, and I saw that it was a woman in a long black cloak. She lay crumpled on the kitchen floor. Beneath her cloak she was naked: her white legs gleamed in the firelight. Fallen on the ground beside her was a bundle, and I thought: Beggar woman. She must be sick from hunger.
Greta, despite her harshness toward me, was often compassionate to the beggar women who came to our door — war widows, most of them. She would give them a hunk of bread or a bowl of soup, perhaps even a scrap of meat. But Greta was not here. I had no authority to feed myself, much less a woman who had wandered here in the cold and wet.
Yet there she lay, and I had to do something.
I leaned down and shook her by the shoulders. She fell back so that her head rolled around, and I could see her face for the first time. That was no cloak she wore, but her own black hair, covering her down to her knees, leaving her white arms exposed. And her white face ... well. This was a different situation entirely. It was, after all, within my area of expertise, for although I knew nothing at all about war widows, I knew a great deal about lost princesses, and here at last was one. At last something extraordinary was happening in my life. I had waited a long time for this — an acknowledgment that I was part of the story. Not one of the main characters, of course, but perhaps one of the supporting characters: the squire who holds the prince's horse, the maid who brushes the princess's hair a hundred times each night. And now the story had landed with a thump on the kitchen floor.
But what does one do with a lost princess when she is lying on the kitchen floor? I could not lift her — I was still a child, and she was a grown woman, although not a large one. She had a delicacy that I thought appropriate to princesses. I could not throw water on her — she was already soaking wet. And any moment Greta or Agneta would return to take charge of my princess, for so I already thought of her. Finally, I resorted to slapping her cheeks until she opened her eyes — they were as deep and dark as forest pools.
"Come with me, Your Highness," I said. "I'll help you hide." She stood, stumbling a few times so that I thought she might fall. But she followed me to the only place I knew to hide her — my own small room.
"Where is ..." she said. They were the first words she had said to me. She looked around as though searching: frightened, apprehensive. I went back to the kitchen and fetched her bundle, which was also soaked. When I handed it to her, she clutched it to her chest.
"I know what you are," I said.
"What ... I am? And what is that?" Her voice was low, with an accent. She was not German, like Frau Hoffman, nor French, like Madame Francine, who did the baroness's hair. It was not any accent I had heard in my short life.
"You are a princess in disguise," I said. Her delicate, pale face, her large, dark eyes, her graceful movements proclaimed who she was, despite her nakedness. I, who had read the tales, could see the signs. "Have you come for the ball?" What country did you come from? I wanted to ask. Where does your father rule? But perhaps that would have been rude. Perhaps one did not ask such questions of a princess.
"Yes ... Yes, of course," she said. "What else would I have come for?"
I gave her my nightgown. It came only to her shins, but otherwise fitted her well enough, she was so slender. I brought her supper — my own supper, it was, but I was too excited to be hungry. She ate chicken off the bone, daintily, as I imagined a princess would. She did not eat the potatoes or cabbage — I supposed they were too common for her. I finished them myself.
I could hear Greta and Agneta in the kitchen, so I went out to continue peeling the potatoes. Agneta scolded me for allowing the fire to get low. There was still meat to roast for the baron's supper, while Greta made a cream soup and Agneta dressed the cucumber salad. Then there were pots and pans to clean, and the black range to scrub. All the while, I smiled to myself, for I had a princess in my room.
I finished sweeping the ancient stone floor, which dated back to Roman times, while Greta went on about what we would need to prepare for the ball, how many village women she would hire to help with the cooking and baking for that night. And I smiled because I had a secret: My princess was going to the ball, and neither Greta nor Agneta would know.
When I returned to my room, the princess was fast asleep on my bed, under my old wool blanket that was ragged at the edges. I prepared to sleep on the floor, but she opened her eyes and said, "Come, little one," holding the blanket open for me. I crawled in and lay next to her. She was warm, and she curled up around me with her chin against my shoulder. It was the warmest and most comfortable I had ever been. I slept soundly that night.
The next day, I woke to find that she was already up and wearing my other dress.
"Today, you must show me around the castle, Klara," she said. Had she heard Greta or Agneta using my name the night before? The door was not particularly thick. She had not told me her name, and I did not have the temerity to ask for it.
"But if we are caught," I said, "we will be in a great deal of trouble!"
"Then we must not be caught," she said, and smiled. It was a kind smile, but there was also something shy and wild in it that I did not understand. As though the moon had smiled, or a flower.
"All right," I said. I opened the door of my room carefully. It was dawn, and light was just beginning to fall over the stones of the kitchen, the floor and great hearth. Miraculously, the rain had stopped overnight. Greta and Agneta were — where? Greta was probably still snoring in her nightcap, for she did not rise until an hour after I did, to prepare breakfast. And Agneta, who also rose at dawn, was probably out fetching eggs and vegetables from Josef. She liked to take her time and smoke a cigarette in the garden. None of the female servants were allowed to smoke in the castle. I had morning chores to do, for there were more potatoes to peel for breakfast, and as soon as Agneta returned, I would need to help her make the mayonnaise.
But when would I find such a good opportunity? The baron and his guests would not be rising for hours, and most of the house servants were not yet awake. Only the lowest of us, the kitchen maids and bootblack, were required to be up at dawn.
"This way," I said to my princess, and I led her out of the kitchen, into the hallways of the castle, like a great labyrinth. Frightened that I might be caught, and yet thrilled at the risk we were taking, I showed her the front hall, with the Kalman coat of arms hanging from the ceiling, and then the reception room, where paintings of the Kalmans and their horses stared down at us with disapproval. The horses were as disapproving as their masters. I opened the doors to the library, to me the most magical room in the house — two floors of books I would never be allowed to read, with a spiral staircase going up to a balcony that ran around the second floor. We looked out the windows at the garden arranged in parterres, with regular paths and precisely clipped hedges, in the French style.
"Is it not very grand?" I asked.
"Not as grand as my house," she replied. And then I remembered that she was a princess and likely had her own castle, much grander than a baron's.
Finally, I showed her the ballroom, with its ceiling painted like the sky and heathen gods and goddesses in various states of undress looking down at the dancers below.
"This is where you will dance with Prince Radomir," I said.
"Indeed," she replied. "I have seen enough, Klara. Let us return to the kitchen before you get into trouble."
As we scurried back toward the kitchen, down a long hallway, we heard voices coming from one of the rooms. As soon as she heard them, the princess put out her hand so I would stop. Softly, she stepped closer to the door, which was partly open.
Through the opening, I could see what looked like a comfortable parlor. There was a low fire in the hearth, and a man was sprawled on the sofa, with his feet up. I moved a few inches so I could see his face — it was Vadek Kalman.
"We'll miss you in Karelstad," said another man, sitting beyond where I could see him. "I suppose you won't be returning after the wedding?"
Had they gotten up so early? But no, the baron's son was still in evening dress. They had stayed up all night. Drinking, by the smell. Drinking quite a lot.
"And why should I not?" asked Vadek. "I'm going to be married, not entering a monastery. I intend to maintain a social life. Can you imagine staying here, in this godforsaken place, while the rest of you are living it up without me? I would die of boredom, Radomir." So he was talking to the prince. I shifted a little, trying to see the prince, for I had not yet managed to catch a glimpse of him. After all, I was only a kitchen maid. What did he look like?
"And if your wife objects? You don't know yet — she might have a temper."
"I don't know a damn thing about her. She hasn't said two words to me since she arrived. She's like a frightened mouse, doing whatever her father the general tells her. Just the same as in Vienna. I tell you, the whole thing was put together by her father and mine. It's supposed to be a grand alliance. Grandalliance. Grand ..."
I heard the sound of glass breaking, the words "God damn it all," and then laughter. The princess stood perfectly still beside me. She was barely breathing.
"So he thinks there's going to be another war?" the prince asked.
"Well, don't you? It's going to be with Germany this time, and Father wants to make sure we have contacts on the right side. The winning side."
"The Reich side, eh?" said the prince. I heard laughter again, and did not understand what was so funny. "I wish my father understood that. He doesn't want to do business with the Germans. Karel agrees with him — you know what a sanctimonious ass my brother can be. You have to, I told him. Or they'll do business with you. And to you."
"Well, if you're going to talk politics, I'm going to bed," said Vadek. "I get enough of it from my father. Looks like the rain's finally stopped. Shall we go for a walk through the woods later today? That other wolf is still out there."
"Are you sure you saw it?"
"Of course I'm sure. It was under the trees, in the shadows. I could swear it was watching you. Anyway, the mayor said two wolves had been spotted in the forest, a hunting pair. They're keeping the children in at night in case it comes close to the village. You know what he said to me when I told him you had shot one of them? It's bad luck to kill the black wolves of the Karhegy, he said. I told him he should be grateful, that you had probably saved the life of some miserable village brat. But he just shook his head. Superstitious peasant."
"Next time, remind him that he could be put in prison for criticizing the crown prince. Things will be different in this country when I am king, Vadek. That I can tell you."
Klara heard appreciative laughter.
"And what will you do with the pelt? It's a particularly fine one, now it's tanned."
"It will go on the floor of my study, on one side of my desk. Now I need another, for the other side. Yes, let's go after the other wolf — if it exists, as you say."
The princess pulled me away.
I did not like this prince, who joked about killing the black wolves. I was a child of the Karhegy, and had grown up on stories of the wolves, as black as night, that lived nowhere else in Europe. The nuns had told me they belonged to the Devil, who would come after any man who harmed them. But my friend the poet had told me they were an ancient breed, and had lived on the mountain long before the Romans had come or Morek had driven them out, leading his tribesmen on their small, fierce ponies and claiming Sylvania for his own.
Excerpted from Red as Blood and White as Bone by Theodora Goss, Anna Balbusso, Elana Balbusso. Copyright © 2016 Theodora Goss. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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