In the apocalyptic wasteland that used to be the United States, warring factions compete for control of the land in strange and dangerous carnivals. A mad cow-like disease called “Bent Head” has killed off millions. Those who remain worship the ruins of NASA’s space shuttles, and Cape Canaveral is their Mecca. Medicine and science have been rejected in favor of magic, prophecy, and blood sacrifice.
When traveling marauders led by the bloodthirsty Mr. Capulatio invade her camp, a young girl named Aurora is taken captive as his bride and forced to join his band on their journey to Cape Canaveral. As war nears, she must decide if she is willing to become her captor’s queen. But then other queens emerge, some grotesque and others aggrieved, and not all are pleased with the girl’s ascent. Politics and survival are at the centre of this ravishing novel.
Wonderblood, Julia Whicker’s fascinating literary debut, is available April 3rd from St Martin’s Press.
When they rode, they took severed heads with them, in canvas sacks, in saddlebags, and set them out wherever they stopped, on rocks, or stuck them on pikes and tied the sticks with red streamers so the ribbon and the dead hair blew together with the wind. O, terrible Heads, gloomy-faced deaths—for the longest time, the girl remained afraid of them, even as she reached into her brother’s canvas sack each night and withdrew one by its crackling hair, even as she gingerly poked it onto a pike and jabbed the pike in the earth outside her tent. She did not have her own magical head yet. But everyone said she should, so her brother made her one, cut it away from its body and powdered and magicked it so it would not go bad, so it would scowl always and forever in defense of her. He was twentynine, her brother. He could not read. He made Heads.
The Head had been a man named Cosmas, a doctor. Not a Walking Doctor, but a miracle healer, who’d once uncrushed an arm and made it work again by magic. He blew air into the arm like it needed breath and it plumped and warmed and worked again like new, but when the executioners saw that Cosmas was a miracle healer, they killed him and took his head. Her brother had fought three men for it—that was what he told her. “And now he’s yours,” he’d said, and presented to her a canvas sack, the kind he gave his customers, when he had customers. She was fourteen. Old enough to ride her own horse, to make her own camp—old enough for a Head. “Go on,” he said. “Take it out.” The skin, tornado-green, false-hard like a manta’s eggsack; her fingers could punch through it if she pressed. She did not press. Eyeless, lashless Cosmas.
That night she put Cosmas in his sack and stuffed the sack into her saddlebag, but her brother banged into her tent with the Head, screaming, “Why isn’t it out?” He was all flapping arms and dark hair, terrifying with his height and drunk eyes. She sat up in her blankets and he pulled her, shivering, outside, where he piked the Head and then made her do it as well, made her slide the sharp wooden pole into the hollowed-out neck, and it crunched and she cringed. “No crying,” he said, when he saw her lip tremble.
“Right, you’re not.” He stepped back and admired the Head. “Looks good. Did you know I make the best Heads in this sorry carnival? Always have. That’s cause I have pride in what I do.”
She nodded. They were camped on a plain, a field wild with weeds and prairie grass. Maybe food had been grown in a great field like this, before the Disease. She wondered who had figured out the field was safe to walk upon, how long ago that had been. It was early May, and the sky was mesh, stippled with stars. She was cold, in her nightclothes without a coat. Her hair, so fine at the ends it nearly winnowed away to nothing, was long and light brown. She was skinny, dirty, and had not seen her own eyes in a pool of water for months. She hated it outside here, and trembled in the chill. Argento saw her shiver but didn’t give her his cloak. He was mean like that. Along the outskirts of camp, fires glowed, ten, fifteen of them, all guarded by sentries— do not cross the line, now, ever, you are not allowed. You are a little girl. The men are gates you cannot pass through.
“Can I go to sleep now?” she asked.
“Fuck no.” He yanked her toward his tent.
“No,” she said, tried digging her bare heels into the ground. “Not that,” he said. “It’s your birthday, right?”
“I think not anymore. I think it was yesterday. That’s why you gave me the Head.”
He shrugged. There was a little upside-down moon, hanging like a backflip in the corner of the sky. “I got something else for you.” He marched her past his own five Heads and their streamers, marooncolored, hazard-orange, caution-yellow, and into the warm mustiness of his tent. She opened her mouth, but closed it when he didn’t bother fastening the tent flaps. The blood in her heart slowed. From beneath a pile of blankets he pulled a square thing wrapped in paper, tied with a streamer and decorated with colored chalk. “I drew on it, lucky sigils,” he said. In the coldish light, the chalk whorls were phosphorescent like plankton at the seashore. She became aware of a curious feeling—not exactly sorrow but something near it, like the lonely cousin of sorrow, and she knew it was homesickness and she missed her old life and her mother. A lump rose in her throat as she sat on her brother’s bedroll and chewed her thumbnail. In her lap, the present felt heavy and she did not want it. The chalk rubbed off on her fingers and sparkled and her brother squatted next to her and punched her gently in the shoulder. “Open it,” he said.
She paused. “You shouldn’t have got anything.”
He laughed. To her it sounded crazy. “I just stole it. Out of some other carnival fuck’s wagon. He was riding around a month ago, five horses pulling this gigantic wagon, it made me mad. Who needs five horses? I would’ve shot his horses, but they were good horses. White and brown.”
“What did you do?” she whispered.
He actually smiled. “I let them go.” He made a motion of running.
“That was a stupid thing to do.”
Then he wasn’t smiling. “Open.”
When she’d untied the streamer and piled it like entrails in a puddle of moonlight, when she’d ripped the paper away, she saw he’d given her a book. A heavy, huge book. And did he know what book it was? No, not at all. He gazed at her face, watching for her reaction— she felt hot and cold, feverish; she knew what he was going to do afterward. “Thank you,” she said slowly.
“Do you not like it? What’s it about?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What’s it say?”
She squinted. Our True King, which meant little enough to the girl. The author was just as strange: An Executionatrix. She did not know what that word meant, but she saw within it another word she did know and fear. “It’s about magic,” she said.
“Well, every book is about magic, what’s it about?”
She ran her hand over the fabric board-cover, curled her fingers around the fraying corners. A Head and a book. And outside an ocean of grass between her and the place she wanted to be, the place she remembered best, the cradle of the panhandle and its powderfine sand, its sky arcing overhead like green glass. Then tears came to her eyes but they were stupid—motion was life, even stupid men like her brother knew that. The word to name how she felt was nostalgia, a beautiful word that her mother had taught her was made of other words, foreign words, from the language of magicians: it meant return-pain. The girl felt sure her brother didn’t know this, had never felt the feeling because he was too dumb, but she did, all the time, and suddenly her heart collapsed and she thought she couldn’t bear it. It seemed her life flowed past her like a stream. All the time she fought this melancholic recognition of her female destiny, which was to be carried farther and farther away, forever.
She looked up at her brother. “It’s about a king, I think.”
“Is it about the Astronauts?”
“Haven’t I taught you anything? They were the Silver Stars, riding up into heavens, the kings of all magic once and for all. What have you been learning in this carnival if not that?” He stared at her goggled-eyed. She only looked at him. Her brother venerated the Astronauts like all the Head Makers in his carnival. Argento said these men had left the earth and now waited beyond the world until the land could be healed. But how do you know? she’d asked. Well, he’d answered. Somewhere, someone has evidence.
The girl knew nothing about other carnivals except that there were many, and they justified making Heads in various ways, because the Primary Law was bloodshed. Her mother had said the carnivals were a thousand factions of one idiocy. There are innumerable ways to make a grave mistake, she’d said, and they are working on discovering all of them.
Her mother was named Gimbal. Two years before, when Gimbal delivered her to Argento in the deathscapes in the center of the continent, Argento had taken her straight into his tent and burned a unicursal hexagram into her thigh. The unicursal hexagram was a sigil with no beginning and no end: the symbol of their carnival, the Silver Star. It meant many things, Argento had said, especially the six great towers in Cape Canaveral where they returned every year to pay tribute to the king. She hadn’t known then this mutilation wasn’t allowed—only those condemned to become Heads were supposed to bear the hexagram. So now she hid the scar, because it shouldn’t be there, and also she knew Argento had done it because he was stupid and crazy and didn’t believe he had to follow rules.
She hated her mother for giving her to him.
Often, when she had nothing to do and she was alone in her tent, she traced her hand over the mark, down the lines that fell inward forever, and thought that if there was magic in this sigil, it was in the spaces bounded by lines, in the blankness between divisions, in the emptiness that held apart borders of the world. She understood this with some core intuition. Magic, like nostalgia, was like a lie; empty and full all at once.
When Gimbal abandoned her to Argento, the girl had cried. They had come to him from their peaceful southern settlement by the seaside, all the way across the continent, through the vast level plains that had once been Arkansas and Oklahoma. Those were the old names, her mother had murmured, though boundaries did not matter now because the land was useless. Sometimes the girl still thought her mother knew everything. Her mother could read the markings that other Walking Doctors left along the saferoads. A language of symbols that meant Sleep Here, Stay Away, Keep Ten Feet Back. Her mother taught her a few. She wished she had paid better attention. She often dreamt now of running away.
To get to Argento in his carnival of the Silver Star, she and her mother had walked across land gray as a storm-sky, through hail the size of fists. They stayed on the saferoads. They rode an old white mule decorated with a faceplate made from a piece of ancient plastic, they carried an old Head in a saddlebag—so they looked like believers on a pilgrimage. Her mother detested the ruse, but said they would be even stupider not to carry the Head. Anyone who stopped them would wonder what business two women had riding alone in the deathscapes. They could fabricate some relic, her mother said—even a shard of glass would do, for the magicians in the carnivals were notorious idiots who could be bespelled by a dung beetle. But having a Head with them would mark them as magicians themselves, and no one would question them much.
They’d traveled for months, from April to July, together on that mule, sometimes one of them walking, one riding, and they passed through fragrant mud and grasses heaving with summer and all the beauty and terror of the middle of the continent. They rode toward the heart of the Disease, where it had begun all those hundreds of years ago. That was what her mother had told her, with a sad laugh. You best hope we don’t encounter a Kansas Cow, she muttered. I for one wouldn’t know how to kill it. If they can even be killed by anything other than the Disease, and believe me I have no idea. How do you kill what’s already dead?
Are the Kansas Cows real? the girl had asked, her eyes on the farthest horizon, a purple bank of clouds that flattened at its top into a deep blue dusk. She still remembered that day, the sky. She remembered so many skies. She had imagined a black Kansas Cow stumbling across the prairie on spider legs, eyes red and unseeing. She had heard of Kansas Cows, of course—everyone had. But she had never thought of them because she had never before left Florida.
Her mother, walking beside her then, shot her a look. How should I know? People say they’re real. People also join stupid carnivals and go around cutting off heads. You shouldn’t believe everything you hear, because even if it’s true, it could be wrong. Gimbal’s hair was long and dirty and she wore a plain dress with no buttons, for buttons were wasteful. She did not look like what she was, which was a dissident. She performed the illegal magic of surgery, during which she physically altered the human body in order to affect its form and function. A Walking Doctor, who went out on the saferoads to heal the sick and mend the wounded.
Gimbal’s occupation had been cause for strife as long as the girl could remember. Once, her mother received a written command from the Hierophant himself in Cape Canaveral to cease and desist her “damnable surgeries and return to the proven methods of magic, astrologics, and bloodshed.” He’d cited the carnivals as beacons of virtue. He’d invoked the doctrine of Wonderblood, the rinsing of the world in blood and pain for one Eon. “It is our collective debt,” the letter said. “It is the Primary Law.” If she did not follow it she would be executed. Her mother had torn up the letter, spat on it, and ground it into the dirt. How’s that for magic? She had no time for the Cape’s hysterics. There were people who could be healed, and she and her husband would heal them.
The reason she was abandoning the girl was: her newest husband was only twenty-five and a surgeon like herself, a true believer, and he had aspirations. They would leave the panhandle eventually, to go about as Walking Doctors on a wider circuit, just as her own parents and grandparents had done. It was true there was no cure for the Disease, but there were many people who would still pay for the old medicine. That is, if they believed it was tempered with a touch of modern theory. So she and her husband ground bird bones and collected thimblefuls of fresh morning dew. But those flourishes were for show; their real magic was that they’d memorized thousands of pages of anatomy diagrams, that they knew the names and formulas for ancient medicines that worked and tried to resynthesize them using molds and magnetic salt. On the saferoads, among the people, they used the incantation “primum non nocere,” since it meant do no harm in the language of their books, and if people thought those were the magic words of a particular sect, so much the better. Though her mother hated to indulge idiots, she did it for what she called the greater good.
The girl had felt safe there in the settlement with Gimbal. Her two brothers, much older, had left years before, Argento off to the carnivals. The other one, William, had become a thief and was run out of the settlement. That was what Gimbal said, anyway. The girl didn’t remember either of them. As she grew up, she even imagined she would become a Walking Doctor like her mother. But a time came when Gimbal explained that the larger world needed her more than any one child could. The girl was twelve then, almost a woman. Her mother had been a mother herself at fifteen, and that was that, her childhood was over. She’d said, The time is coming for you to take care of others. That is the highest calling for any human being.
But then the girl had seen her mother looking at her new husband, at his muscles like round machine parts under his skin and his smile like a fish hook, and then back to the girl, and the girl understood she was jealous. They began the long journey to find Argento’s carnival in the deathscapes. Argento, her oldest brother, was also the most foolish and had turned religious for reasons unknown to any of them. He’d left for the carnivals before the girl was even born. She didn’t remember him. Argento was his nom de guerre. She didn’t know his real name, hadn’t asked, didn’t care. Her mother said the name she’d given him at birth was wasted on a lunatic.
But they went to him because he would be the only one stupid enough to take her. Just a pair of arms. The girl also saw that Gimbal hated Argento, or maybe she hated all religious men, and she meant the girl as a punishment for Argento’s idiocy. The Astronauts, hexagrams, Heads as charms against the Disease—it was all nonsense; weakness and misplaced piety, her mother said. But he was her brother all the same, and if he wouldn’t protect her, no one would. That, her mother told her in a sharpened voice, was life, that was living, get used to it.
When they’d finally arrived in the carnival country, in its cosmic wideness across which the girl sometimes thought she could see the curve of the world, and when her mother rode away home on her white mule, when she vanished across the grasses, when Argento used a hot iron to sizzle that six-pointed star on her upper thigh, where he licked her, when her mother was gone and the girl had nothing and no one to believe in, she traced the star and wished, hoped, wondered. The pain of it all—Wonderblood—made the unreal real and so sometimes magic didn’t seem so much like a lie after all, and that confused her.
She glanced at her brother, now. He waited, his breath in her ear surprisingly soft, odorless. He reached past her and touched the book. She sighed.
“Come on. What’s the book about?”
The pages were damp-heavy, words spidering across them, glaring up at her, but she loved them anyway because she knew she’d read this book again and again in the coming months, until she knew every word in it—she would read sitting under trees, hunched against the continental winds, she’d read it by the ponds where they’d stop to wash out their bedrolls. She’d read it in the timber cabin when they finally reached Manitoba, where the cold would freeze the eggs in her womb (her brother said), where she’d fall asleep thinking of crabs on the summer beach. O, lucidity, leave me, leave me. She turned the pages, full of words she didn’t understand and names she had never heard: Huldah, Lee, and yes, Kansas Cow. “It’s about the True King, I think.” She paused. “It’s written by an Executioner.”
“The True King of what?”
“I don’t know. It just says the True King. And then there are a lot of names and places.” She flipped more pages over gingerly. “It doesn’t look that old. Maybe someone made it.”
Her brother made an expression, not a smile. “Someone makes everything. Read it to me. Why do you think I got it?”
She read to him, a long and incomprehensible genealogy, and he seemed satisfied but she knew he understood not a word of it, because she didn’t. He was acting because he didn’t want her to think he was stupid. Then he leaned back and said, “Do you think the True King is one of the Astronauts? That’s got to be what it means.”
She closed the book. A sadness had begun in her. She wanted to go outside the tent. She wanted to be away from him.
His face bent horribly and he hunched forward. “You do believe that they’re coming back, don’t you? The Astronauts. It’s heresy if you don’t believe that.”
She began to panic. “Yes?”
He snatched the book from her and threw it into the corner, onto a pile of rags, where it sank like a fishing weight. With his other hand he pulled the cord on the tent flap, closed out the night and the glisten of dew on grass.
“No,” she said, and braced her knee in front of her body. “Stop.”
His almond eyes like unpolished metal. “No. Look.” And he took a little box from his pocket. “This too. This is the best thing. Here.”
A white paper box. Inside, sawdust. In the sawdust, a pin, black glass, jet maybe, or obsidian, liquid shiny and faceted. A black so black it was silver. He snatched it from her and rubbed it on his shirt, blew away the last shavings of wood, then needled it to her nightshirt. “Pin’s loose. It’s old,” he frowned. “But I’ll fix it.”
“Where did you get this?”
“Ma. She gave it to me when she brung you here, told me to save it. Well. I saved it two years.”
“I—” She felt numb. He called their mother Ma. The girl had never called her that. She wondered who Argento’s father had been, how he had become this. Her hand on the heavy brooch, pulling the fabric of her nightshirt down toward her nipple. “I don’t know what to do with it.”
“Don’t do nothing with it for all I care. Anyhow some loony crone would kill you for it if you ever wore it for real.” He lowered his voice. “It’s nightrock. Black amber they call it. Fuck if I know how Ma got it, maybe she stole it off the dead. Or out of some sick bastard’s house.” He touched her cheek.
“What’s it for?”
He pinched her. “You wear it when somebody dies.”
She began to cry, finally, big hot tears. “But somebody’s always dying.” In that moment, the girl felt the pain of the entire world and also her smallness in it, and it felt like: hopeless. There was another word. Endless. “I hate it here.”
He seemed surprised she’d said it out loud. He looked at her the way adults look at children, with pity and sweetness and compassion, but then he hardened his face and nodded gravely. “Isn’t anyone alive who wouldn’t.”
* * *
Banded blue and gold sky and no trees and stages everywhere, for the executions. There was an old sign someone had found deep in the ground, mostly rusted away, the rest so buried that it had needed to be physically dug out, which took a long while because the metal had turned to lace, it was so delicate—that was what her brother told her—a gigantic wheel with red letters. That was how they knew this place had been called Iowa. She had no idea when that had been—so long ago.
The carnival was made up of magicians and merchant Head Makers, and they set up booths and sold severed heads and polished bones and all sorts of intimidating talismans, and throughout the summer people came to the carnival country to buy their wares, to watch the executions, to trade horses, and to gamble. Always, this led to more executions. And more Heads, which was good for everyone, one and all. Her brother said so. Her mother had said they were all raving idiots.
Argento never killed people himself—at least, he never killed the people he made into Heads. He bought his Heads from the executioners, who sought out magical humans, captured them, and beheaded them onstage while uttering the standard incantations. In Argento’s carnival, the incantations sounded like, Everymanandwomanisastar! and Silverstarfantasticspeardienow!
Or sometimes the executioners didn’t behead their victims onstage, but hunted them like they’d hunted Cosmas the Uncrusher. Those Heads were harder to get and so more expensive to buy, so Argento charged triple for them. He threaded black quartz beads into burn marks on their foreheads to enhance their beauty. She’d watched him many times, outside at his workbench, squinting while he embedded the beads one by one. His tongue lolled to one side and occasionally he wiped sweat from his forehead. To embroider an entire unicursal hexagram took a day or more. The girl’s own Head, Cosmas, had a glittering forehead star, an always-open eye, lumpy like the cancers her mother used to cut from people. The thought of touching it made the girl shudder. Everything about her brother’s work revolted her, the way he made her sit by the tents while he sawed neckbones and yanked out the cervices of the spine, how he held each vertebra up to the light and inspected it, how he handed the good ones to her and made her polish them with a scratchy cloth until they were smooth, and then how he made her paint them bright black. How she had the feeling he would’ve kept her chained to the ground if he could’ve, if it had been acceptable, how he had chained her to the ground, actually—during her first weeks in the carnival—he’d chained her to the ground! Just so everybody knows, he’d said.
So everybody knows what? It was only a few days before some of the old women—there were never any young women in the camps— arrived to squawk at Argento until he used a huge pair of shears to cut the chain. There? he’d screamed back at them, brandishing the blades. There, are you happy? If somebody grabs her it’s gonna be your fault, you sickdry wrinkle fucks. Stupid women!
One of them, the older one, although it was hard to tell, had taken the girl’s hand and helped her up. She bent close and whispered, You will never be more important than you are right now. The girl had blinked.
Argento’s carnival ran a northerly circuit, all the way up the center of the continent. It was dictated by Law that all carnivals had to winter over in the north, so that the countryland was free of them for some short time. She did not understand why things were this way, or who made the Law or what happened on the land when all the carnivals went north, but she knew she hated the cold. Her brother’s carnival wintered with a small settlement of northern people. These people did not seem to care much about making Heads. They never judged the ways of others, no matter how peculiar. Many of the carnival men kept wives in little timber cabins: during her first winter there, the girl met Argento’s wife, a tiny large-breasted woman who slept odd hours and cooked river-fish in three inches of grease. The girl dreaded that cabin—the fat bodies so close together, the nameless children underfoot, the putrid skins of caribou nailed to the walls. The wife had bright eyes but she never looked at anyone.
But if the cabin was bad, the journey to get there was worse. The merchants struck their booths in late summer and piled their furniture into wagons, repainted the giant skulls on the oilcloth tarps, re-shod their horses, and killed all the sheep and goats they couldn’t bring with them on the journey. By the end of the three-month walk up the center of the continent, they were ragged and half-dead, and their northern wives sometimes could not recognize them. But the women still came joyously out of their timber cabins like they were greeting old friends, bearing gifts they’d stored up all summer—pelts and painted skis and beautiful bowls carved from gypsum, and they brought with them the men’s children, too, now older and wilder. These children spoke a different language, so the girl couldn’t play with them. She never knew what to do in the northcountry, so she prayed for the months to pass quickly and sometimes she prayed for her brother to freeze to death in a snowbank, and sometimes she prayed for the courage to run away. And sometimes she wondered if courage could well up like blood under bruised skin, and if what she needed was just a needle to poke herself with to start the flow. Like freedom might pour out of pain.
Excerpted from Wonderblood, copyright © 2018 by Julia Whicker
Interior art by Esbee Bernice