Milla knows two things to be true: Demons are real, and fear will keep her safe.
Milla’s whole world is her family’s farm. She is never allowed to travel to the village and her only friend is her beloved older brother, Niklas. When a bright-eyed girl named Iris comes to stay, Milla hopes her loneliness might finally be coming to an end. But Iris has a secret she’s forbidden to share: The village is cursed by a demon who possesses girls at random, and the townspeople live in terror of who it will come for next.
Now, it seems, the demon has come for Iris. When Iris is captured and imprisoned with other possessed girls, Milla leaves home to rescue her and break the curse forever. Her only company on the journey is a terrible new secret of her own: Milla is changing, too, and may soon be a demon herself.
Suspenseful and vividly imagined, Peternelle van Arsdale’s The Cold Is in Her Bones is a novel about the dark, reverberating power of pain, the yearning to be seen and understood, and the fragile optimism of love. Available January 22nd from Margaret K. McElderry Books.
Milla refused her mother’s supper and sobbed herself to sleep that night. Niklas had gone with Jakob and Stig to take Iris to The Place.
Milla would never forgive Niklas for that. It was just as Iris had said. He was a liar. He wasn’t Iris’s friend, and he couldn’t possibly love her. He’d betrayed both of them.
The only person who understood her, who’d never lied to her, was Iris. And Iris was being taken away from her, brought to somewhere horrible that Milla couldn’t imagine. So horrible that Iris had said she’d rather die than go there.
When Milla rose the next morning, the sun was bright and cheery, and the green leaves danced on the tree outside her window, and it was all terrible to Milla’s eyes. Each green leaf was an accusation. Milla could wake up in her soft bed and drink hot tea at her parents’ table. Iris was bound and dragged off in her nightdress and called a demon. All because . . . why? She’d called Trude a monster? Trude was a monster, Milla thought. A monster in the skin of a grandmother.
The memory of the fire that burned in Iris’s eyes, and her laughing that became crying that became laughing, flashed across Milla’s mind. She shoved the thoughts away.
She would have stayed in her room, avoiding her mother forever, but her bladder was full and painful. She didn’t bother combing her hair. There were no men in the house to try to please. Milla never wished to please another.
She walked through the kitchen in nothing but her nightdress and bare feet, hair streaming. She felt Gitta’s eyes, but she didn’t speak to her mother, nor did Gitta speak to her. After she’d relieved herself in the outhouse, Milla came back into the kitchen, where Mamma had poured her tea and set out bread, butter, and preserves. Milla ate silently, hungry and disgusted with herself for being hungry. When she’d finished, Mamma reached out her hand and placed it over Milla’s. Milla felt a tremor in her chest and willed herself not to cry. Not to seek comfort from anyone who would send Iris away.
Milla looked up at Mamma. Pretty Mamma, with her golden hair shot with silver, perfectly braided around her head. She saw the fine lines at the corners of Mamma’s eyes and crossing her forehead. She looked into Mamma’s cornflower-blue eyes and saw the same fear there that she always had. Milla looked away.
“I know you don’t understand,” Gitta said.
“I don’t understand because no one will explain anything to me. All I know is that Pappa and Niklas dragged Iris away like they didn’t even know her. Like she was a monster. Would you do that to me, Mamma?”
Gitta didn’t take her hand away from Milla’s, but Milla could see her recoil, the muscles in her face shrinking. “You mustn’t talk like that, Milla.”
Milla pulled her hand away. “I mustn’t talk like that. I mustn’t act like that. I mustn’t think like that. Is there anything I may do, other than wash, and cook, and clean? I’m not you, Mamma. I’m not pretty. I’m not good.”
“You’re just fine, Milla. Don’t carry on so. You’ll forget about this soon enough.” Gitta stood up and cleared the table, not meeting Milla’s eyes now. “You don’t know how lucky you are.”
“Niklas says the same.”
“Niklas is a good boy. You should listen to him. He knows we’re safe here.”
“But you don’t know that, Mamma. Do you? That’s why you’re always so afraid when you look at me, isn’t it?”
Gitta busied her hands while Milla spoke, then glanced at Milla as if she’d been too distracted to hear her questions. “Look at you, your hair all undone. What will Pappa think when he gets home?”
“I don’t care.”
“Nonsense,” Gitta said. “Let me brush it for you. Would you like that?”
Milla felt the tremor in her chest, the one that threatened to fill her eyes and make them spill over. She couldn’t speak.
“I’ll just get my comb,” Gitta said.
Milla sat at the table, willing herself to move, to resist her mother’s attention. But she couldn’t move, and the thought of her mother’s hands in her hair, of that little bit of comfort, kept her in her chair, tracing the wood grains on the table with one short fingernail. It was weak to want such comfort, but she couldn’t help herself. It had been so long.
Gitta returned with her comb and stood behind Milla’s chair, pulling it through Milla’s dense, nearly black coils of hair. Milla closed her eyes, lulled by the light pressure of Mamma’s finger- tips holding her head in place while the comb gently tugged on the roots of her hair, then traveled down, sometimes pausing on a tangle. Mamma worked each tangle, ever so gently. Milla struggled against the desire to rest her head back on her mother’s stomach.
Milla felt Gitta’s fingertips searching her scalp just above her left ear. Then a sharp—a very sharp—pinch. “Ouch, Mamma!” Milla clapped her hand to the spot where it felt that Mamma had pulled her hair out by the roots.
Gitta sucked in her breath. “Lord protect us from demons Lord protect us from demons Lord protect us from demons.”
Milla turned around in her chair. Gitta held something that squirmed between her two fingers. A tiny, emerald green snake, the length of her pinky, with a brilliant dot of crimson blood on its tail end. Milla said, “That was in my hair?”
Gitta shook her head. “No. No. Lord protect us from demons Lord protect us from demons Lord protect us from demons.” Gitta dropped the snake to the floor and crushed it beneath her heel. “It was growing from your head. It was . . . Lord protect us from demons Lord protect us from demons Lord protect us from demons.” Gitta backed away from the snake, still shaking her head. “Mamma?” Milla said. She looked at the bloody pulp on the floor that was once a tiny, brilliant green snake growing from her head. Her own head. That wasn’t possible. “Mamma?” Milla began to cry. She didn’t want to be taken over by a demon. She didn’t want to laugh and cry and laugh and cry like Iris. She didn’t.
Gitta grasped Milla by both shoulders. “Listen to me, Milla. You must not speak a word of this. You must not. Not to Pappa. Not even to Niklas.” Milla felt her mother’s nails carving crescents into her skin. “You must behave. Be a good girl. A very good girl. It’s the only way to keep you safe. To keep you here. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Mamma. I understand.”
Milla awakened the next morning just as night was paling into dawn. She touched the spot on her head, just above her left ear, where Mamma had ripped out the snake. She remembered the way the tail end of the snake had dripped blood. Was it hers or the snake’s? Or did their blood flow together—was it one and the same?
She expected to find a sore spot there. A break in the skin. A tender place. Instead, she sensed movement that wasn’t her own, and something smooth and cool and dry wrapped itself around her finger.
The snake had grown back.
Excerpted from The Cold Is in Her Bones, copyright © 2018 by Peternelle van Arsdale