Skip to contents
SunLit

In this excerpt from “Creatures of Charm and Hunger,” astral projection yields heartbreaking results

After escaping the Nazis to England in the waning days of World War II, Miriam Cantor employs special powers to determine her parents' fate. Her nocturnal adventure reveals a startling truth.

Miriam locked herself into her room that night, which was not her custom. She also set up diabolic wards similar to those that protected the farmhouse, some to alert her if she were to be observed physically or diabolically—and others that would hopefully prevent any observation to begin with.

She was ready. She had the mirror-frame Sam had made waiting for her on her desk, and she’d gotten good at not just inhabiting but controlling the ducks and geese of Nancy’s flock. Though she knew success might mean getting bad news as easily as good, she was excited to finally learn something of what had happened to her parents.

Finalist in Historical Fiction

Modern Mirror Methods had been an invaluable find, no matter how she’d found it. The author’s method of creating a scrying glass had been easily done, save for requiring a bit of something belonging to the person one wished to scry.

Her only real option had been her father’s devil-trap. The book promised that the item would be “returned unharmed,” which begged the question of why it needed to be “returned” to begin with—but that was just the way of diablerie.

Whatever Miriam might think of Sam now, he had done a good job with the mirror. It was exactly what Miriam needed, almost uncannily so. It wasn’t beautiful, but it was appropriate for its task—and the handle of the mirror fit in her hand as if he’d measured her for it. The well he’d left for her “glass” was unpolished, and the metal grabbed light like a predator. Though Sam could not have known it, he had made an implement destined to be used for the Art.

Miriam startled at the sound of thunder. The storm had picked up a bit; she’d been too occupied to notice. She listened to the howling wind for a moment and then startled again when a piercing shriek reached her ears.

Molly Tanzer is the author of the Diabolist’s Library trilogy: “Creatures of Will and Temper,” the Locus Award-nominated “Creatures of Want and Ruin,” and the Colorado Book Award finalist“Creatures of Charm and Hunger.” She is also the author of the weird western “Vermilion,” an io9 and NPR “Best Book” of 2015and the British Fantasy Award-nominated collection, “A Pretty Mouth.” Her critically acclaimed short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Lightspeed Magazine, Transcendent: The Year’s Best Trans and Nonbinary Speculative Fiction, and elsewhere. Follow her on Instagram @molly_tanzer or @wickedmilkhotel on Twitter. She lives outside of Boulder, CO with her cat, Toad. 

Dashing from her desk, Miriam stuck her head out into the hallway, listening, but nothing more sinister than withering gusts of wind reached her ears. Sometimes the winter wind did seem to scream—it was just that for a moment Miriam thought it had sounded a bit like an animal. Or maybe Jane.

After once again locking the door behind her and resetting her wards, Miriam squared her shoulders, took a deep breath, and popped a tablet into her mouth. Then she poured the potion she’d prepared into the mirror-well. It fizzed as it struck the metal only to become smooth and flowing, almost mercury-like. Quickly but carefully, Miriam set aside the phial and picked up her father’s devil-trap.

The clay bowl sat momentarily atop the glassy surface of the potion, reflected in it, before sinking in. Another sizzle, like bacon fat, and it was gone. Miriam hoped it really would be returned unharmed.

Miriam picked up the mirror. If she’d done it right, the liquid would hold its shape.

It undulated slightly but did not spill no matter which way she turned it. She played with it for a moment or two before admonishing herself for acting like a child. This wasn’t a toy, and it was hardly the time for play.

“Show me my father,” said Miriam, adding, “Egon Cantor,” before polishing off a bottle of liquid diabolic essence. 

By the time she started to feel that sensation of double-presence, something was beginning to resolve in the rippling surface of the mirror. At first she couldn’t understand what she was seeing. The description of the process in Modern Mirror Methods had said she would see the person, but all Miriam saw was a quiet forest floor. This year’s fragile new grass and last year’s leaves were silvered by what moonlight spilled through the pine boughs. It was night, or maybe very early morning—but it was a clear night, though very cold given the frost on the ground.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

This was wrong. It was supposed to show Miriam her father, not wherever this was. Was this bit of grass, windswept and lonely and cold, where her poor father had been laid to rest? Did that mean whatever had happened had happened so long ago that the earth no longer looked as though it had ever been disturbed?

She noticed a shape in the grass, white as the moon above and similarly curved. She couldn’t quite make sense of it.

The tablet was really hitting her now; her soul had peeled away from her body like a scab. While her body’s hand held the mirror, her spirit’s hand grabbed the veil knife. A strip of spirit-skin and spirit-flesh came away when she used it on her arm—more than she had yet taken, but now was the time. And anyway, while her previous spiritual wounds weren’t healed yet, she had observed some spiritual regrowth and thus wasn’t particularly worried about it.

Miriam watched her flesh turn to vapor. She emptied her lungs, then inhaled it all.

A passing night-flying insect winged into her line of sight through the mirror, and quick as the blink of an eye she was inside of it.

It worked.

Miriam had to keep her elation in check as she felt the whir of her own wings and the night air sliding along her carapace; saw through eyes that were distinct from her own, compound, both more and less accurate to a purpose.

She’d done it. She was inside another living creature somewhere—she assumed—within Germany.

Now, to find her father.

Miriam’s wings moved impossibly fast as she asserted her will, forcing the insect to spiral down to where the mysterious pale object waited to be identified. She glided along the length of the white crescent, still wondering what on earth it might be and why the mirror had shown her this. Then she swerved out of the way to avoid a protuberance and almost lost her hold on her host when she realized what it was.

It was a tooth. A jawbone.

Her father’s jawbone.

Miriam was back in her room but not her body. She screamed with lungs that had no air, through a throat that could issue forth no sound. She had thought herself prepared; she hadn’t been.

Her father was dead in a forest.

Miriam reeled, but she was isolated from the physical sensations of shock. Her spirit’s palms did not sweat, could not sweat; her spirit’s heart could not pound; she could not cry. There was only the terrible knowledge that she would never hear her father’s voice again. She would never see his slow, uncertain smile, nor smell his shaving soap.

How had Egon Cantor gone from a living man reading in his shabby wingback chair in their house in Weimar to a corpse lying silent upon the loam of this frost-rimed forest?

Where was that forest?

Who had left him there?

She’d lost the insect, but not her need for answers.

Miriam knew from experience that she wouldn’t return to her body until she had processed the armamentaria. The grief would be there for the rest of her life; for now, she might as well make effective use of her time. She had to get control of herself, push her pain down to that dark and secret place within her. Miriam ruefully considered how this process of cleaving to another being was yet another aspect of her life requiring absolute composure, but it was ever her fate to be restrained in situations utterly beyond her control.

She could manage it, though. Rage was a resource, just like diabolic essence.

She turned her spirit’s eyes back to the mirror, waiting for another insect. But what she saw, instead, was a surprisingly plump fox, loping out from behind a tree on some urgent errand. Miriam drew on the power still coursing within her, and then it was her loping over the fields.

She’d never cleaved to such a large, complex creature. At first, she couldn’t control it and was merely along for the ride as it found another corpse in the forest and began to make a ghastly meal of it. That had explained how sleek and well-fed it had looked . . .

It took all of Miriam’s strength to compel the fox to do as she wished. It wanted its dinner, whereas Miriam wanted to explore.

When she finally asserted control, first Miriam explored the rest of her father’s remains. With the fox’s keener eyes, she was able to see some white bone flashing through where winter’s mud had slithered over him. They had left his tattered shirt and pants on him, and what hadn’t rotted away clung but loosely to his remains.

That was all her father could tell her. Miriam looked around through the fox’s eyes. The question now was where had he—and the other bodies—come from?

Miriam tested the fox’s own feelings, and then made it run toward the place it wanted least to go. She assumed that would be man’s habitat instead of its own. In the end, after a brief struggle of wills, the fox broke through the tree line to lope toward a large brick structure. Walls erupted from the earth, bleak and foreboding; Miriam’s host had good enough vision for her to see barbed wire lining the top and a man walking the perimeter.

The guard hadn’t spotted her. His attention was not on what small creatures might be creeping through the shadows. Miriam took a deep breath through the animal’s lungs and trotted forward. She could see the iron bars of the gate had been twisted into something—a stylized, angular blossom.

“Ey!” The guard on the high wall had noticed her staring. He was pointing his rifle at her. “Verzieh dich!”

The fox wanted nothing more than to “bugger off.” Part of Miriam did too, until the Nazi guard lowered his rifle and laughed.

The sound of his merry chuckling only served to stoke Miriam’s dangerous fury. How dare he laugh while standing guard at this terrible place!

The fox’s hair bristled and its tail puffed. On instinct Miriam leaned forward into an angry stance and issued a high—and truth be told a rather silly-sounding—bark. This just made the guard laugh more, which in turn robbed her of yet more precious control.

Her animal’s senses noticed an owl winging its way close. Badgerskin had been unclear about whether a diabolist could cleave from one host to another. Miriam had inferred that the author was saying that it was inadvisable, but not impossible.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

But desperate times and all that.

Miriam sent herself into the bird. The connection was weaker—she herself was weaker, she could feel it—but she still managed to steer it toward the guard as she felt the exhilaration of flight. She was vaguely aware of the fox dashing back into the shadows, but Miriam kept her focus on the guard. He hadn’t yet noticed her as she flew toward him on silent wings.

Heedless of her safety, Miriam dived, drawing on the bird’s muscle memory. Extending her talons at the last moment, she hit the back of the guard’s head, raking it with her claws.

“Scheiße!” The guard staggered away from the unexpected attack, dropping his rifle as Miriam wheeled around. The rifle went off when it hit his beetle-black boot, a crack that echoed her scream as she swooped a second time.

He saw her, and his eyes were wide as she caught him in the face, digging her claws into his flesh and eyes. He screamed now, and swatted at her with his hands as she beat his head with her wings. Back and back he stumbled, and then it felt to Miriam like they were flying again—but really they were hurtling several stories to the earth below. She braced for impact and then realized she and the owl both stood a better chance of surviving if she left this body and returned to her own.

The mirror clattered to her desk from her trembling hand as Miriam gasped her way back into her body. Every muscle hurt, every bone and inch of skin felt tired and worn out. She was pleased to see her father’s devil-trap emerge safely—“unharmed”—from the mirror like a pirate ship though mist, but otherwise Miriam was wholly occupied by just getting to her bed and falling upon it. There, she gazed limply up at her ceiling, thinking about what she’d done.

If the guard had died, that meant she’d killed him.

She’d let her feelings get the better of her when she’d been spiritually abroad, and the consequence had been a man’s life. Not only that, but she’d jumped two more times than the book had informed her was safe. Now here she was, lying on the floor, exhausted and sick to her stomach.

Very sick to her stomach, it turned out—Miriam didn’t think she’d make it to the bathroom, so she scrambled for the wastebasket. She vomited copiously, choking on half-digested rotten meat that Miriam knew had been the fox’s dinner.

That thought made her throw up again. It was a long time before the heaving stopped, and longer still before she felt strong enough to crawl shakily into bed.

Daylight on her face woke her the next morning. She’d slept late. She was too exhausted to be horrified over missing her chore of feeding the poultry, too woozy to be more than passively confused that no one had woken her.

Her vomit had turned rank in the night, so she scurried to the bathroom to pour it down the upstairs loo. She thoroughly rinsed out the bin afterward to rid it of the smell of sick. Eventually she found her way downstairs, an apology for failing to wake up on time on her lips, but it died there when she found mother and daughter sitting quietly at the kitchen table together, hands clasped. Jane especially looked upset. Her eyes were red and she bit at her lower lip. Nancy just looked dazed.

“What’s wrong?” asked Miriam.

“Last night something got into the barn,” said Nancy. “I heard it, and I got up to go look. It didn’t get all of them, but it got some.”

It what? Some what?”

“Some ducks,” said Jane. “As to whatever it was, we don’t know.”

Miriam felt a chill that she suspected was not from a draft. Odd, that this should happen the very night of her first attempt to send her spirit so far beyond her body. She didn’t think it could be possible that her shadow-soul had already grown strong enough to incur those “unintended consequences” hinted about in Badgerskin . . .

This was just a strange occurrence, a coincidence.

Miriam enjoyed caring for the birds as an act of service to the family that had taken her in, but, really, these dead fowl meant little to her, not with her father’s pale tooth and jawbone fresh in her mind—not to mention the yet-unknown fate of her mother. Regardless, she was grateful that the ducks had provided her with an acceptable cover story for seeming upset.

However long ago her father had died, the loss was fresh to Miriam, and it was a loss she and the shadow-self within her had to endure in silence, alone. Sadness battled with Miriam’s exhaustion and won; she sat down with the Blackwoods as they stared into the middle distance together, each alone with her own thoughts.


Published by HMH Books & Media, 2020


Read an interview with the author.

To find this book:
Prospector: Search the combined catalogs of 23 Colorado libraries
Statewide list of independent bookstores
Searchable database of bookstores nationwide

The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.

This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.