A gruesome curse. A city in upheaval. A monster with unquenchable appetites.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Juniper & Thorn by Ava Reid, available now from Harper Voyager.
Marlinchen and her two sisters live with their wizard father in a city shifting from magic to industry. As Oblya’s last true witches, she and her sisters are little more than a tourist trap as they treat their clients with archaic remedies and beguile them with nostalgic charm. Marlinchen spends her days divining secrets in exchange for rubles and trying to placate her tyrannical, xenophobic father, who keeps his daughters sequestered from the outside world. But at night, Marlinchen and her sisters sneak out to enjoy the city’s amenities and revel in its thrills, particularly the recently established ballet theater, where Marlinchen meets a dancer who quickly captures her heart.
As Marlinchen’s late-night trysts grow more fervent and frequent, so does the threat of her father’s rage and magic. And while Oblya flourishes with culture and bustles with enterprise, a monster lurks in its midst, borne of intolerance and resentment and suffused with old-world power. Caught between history and progress and blood and desire, Marlinchen must draw upon her own magic to keep her city safe and find her place within it.
Here is what happened to our mother.
You should know, of course, that there are only two kinds of mothers in stories, and if you are a mother, you are either wicked or you are dead. I told myself so many times I was lucky to have the dead kind. Further, when your mother is a witch, it is almost impossible for her not to be wicked, so our father married a pretty blushing woman who was not a witch at all. Most of the wizards in Oblya took mortal women as their brides, due to the fact that witches have a tendency to become wickeder when they become wives. Some, I had heard, even grew a second set of sharp teeth and ate their husbands.
I could hardly imagine having a witch as a mother. It would have been so dangerous! I pictured my sisters and myself cradled above boiling cauldrons, or reaching with our fat infant fingers toward capped vials of precious firebird feathers and bottled sirens’ screams.
But our mother wasn’t a witch. Before she was dead, she was pretty and quick to flush, with skin that reminded me of the inside of a conch shell, it was that smooth and pale. She had Undine’s golden hair, bright as an egg yolk, and Rose’s shining violet eyes. I got nothing from my mother except our identical half-moon nail beds, and maybe the little leap of our brows when we were surprised. I also inherited my mother’s love for the fairy tales in Papa’s codex, which was why she had wed him in the first place. She fell in love with the story more than she fell in love with the man. She told me so when she took me on her knee and used her comb to smooth the knotted coils of my hair, whispering her secrets into my ear.
She wed our father in the early days of gridiron Oblya, municipally planned Oblya, right before the tsar freed the serfs with the slash of his pen. The tsar’s edict hacked up the land of the feudal lords like it was a big dead sow. My father wrapped his land in blood-soaked butcher paper and sold each parcel of it to the highest bidder—mostly Yehuli men, but some Ionik merchants as well. Meanwhile our mother worried in the foyer, her measured footsteps matching the ticks of our grandfather clock. She held me on her hip; Undine and Rose hid in her skirts.
The Yehuli man in the sitting room had a horned devil’s silhouette, Undine said when she peered out. The Ionik man was soaking wet and had silverfish crawling all over his suit, Rose said. They left with Papa’s land in their teeth, or so our mother said, and then she blew her nose into a lace doily. There was a water stain on the chaise longue that never came off.
Then Papa had only the house, and the garden, and half the number of servants that we used to because he had to pay them all the tsar’s wage instead of mortgaging their work in exchange for tilling his squares of land. That was the time when our goblin came to us, weeping out of his one big eye, when the marshes were drained and made into the foundation of a beet refinery.
Our mother’s tears splattered the mahogany floor. She wiped them onto the cheeks of our marble busts.
“My mother warned me not to marry a wizard,” she sobbed. “What will we do now, Zmiy? There is no market for sorcery in Oblya, not anymore. The poor want to smoke narghiles in Merzani coffeehouses and play dominoes in gambling dens, and the rich want to build dachas along the shore and take mud baths at the sanatorium. No one wants to see their cat turned into a cat-vase, or their carriage turned into a gourd. There is already magic lining every road— electric streetlamps!—and inside every newspaper print shop—rotary presses!—and at every booth on the boardwalk where you can get a daguerreotype of your children for two rubles. They only charge two rubles for a photograph, Zmiy. How much do you charge to turn their parasol into a preening swan?”
“Quiet, woman,” Papa said. “If you didn’t want us to starve, you would have given me a son instead of three useless daughters.” He didn’t know, yet, that we were witches.
But he went anyway to one of the copy shops and asked them to print up a hundred notices that all said the same thing: Titka Whiskers asks for the gouged eye of a second-born son as payment for her work. Titka Whiskers has Yehuli blood. Titka Whiskers fornicated with a leshy and gives birth to stick and moss babies, and then they go out and brawl with the day laborers at night.
Soon all her clients fled from her doorstep in fear. Soon the Grand Inspector came and boarded up her shopfront and gave it to a Yehuli couple who opened a pharmacy. Soon Titka Whiskers was outside, pale-faced and dressed in dark rags, rattling our gate. I remembered her yellow eyes opening and closing sideways from behind the bars of the fence, her fingers so thin and white they looked already dead.
“Hear me, Zmiy Vashchenko,” she called in her warbling crow’s voice. “Never again will you feel sated after a fat meal. Never again will you wake refreshed after a long sleep. Never again will you look upon a sunset and marvel at its beauty. Never again will you look upon your daughters and feel your heart swell with vast and mighty affection. From now on your belly will always ache as if it is empty, and your eyelids will always droop as if you have not slept since your cradle days, and every sunset will look drained of its color, and your daughters will always appear to you like nettlesome strangers.”
And then she closed her eyes and fell over and died. Her body turned into a mass of writhing black vipers, which leached into our garden like dark tree roots. It was another year before we finally trapped and killed the last one; our maid fried it in a pan and served it to my father with boiled potatoes.
He was already whittled as thin as a wishbone by then, and our mother had moved up to the third floor of the house, where she combed her hair for hours in front of the mirror that never lies and drank only sour-cherry kvass. I climbed the steps every day to see her, so that she could comb my hair, but I was too big to sit in her lap by then, and I was too afraid to look into the mirror that never lies.
“Don’t marry a wizard, Marlinchen,” she always said. “Your father is a dragon of a man. Even before the curse, he ate up everything his hands could reach. When he was young, he was as handsome as Tsar Koschei, and I was a fool. Wait for your Ivan, dear Marlinchen. He won’t care that you are plain of face.”
Papa guarded his codex on the very top shelf of his study, but by then both my mother and I knew the story by heart. I swallowed her words and let them harden in my belly like a seed.
Indrik came to us soon after, his chest stippled with hack marks from the miners’ pickaxes. Eyeless ravens landed on our mulberry branches and sang in dead languages. Undine discovered her magic, and our father dug her a scrying pool. Rose discovered her magic, and our father planted her a garden. I was nine and still chewed on my knuckles at night.
All around us, Oblya gasped and panted like a woman in a too-small corset. Artisan schools and almshouses burst from between its ivory boning. An eye clinic and an electric station flowered up in two quick exhales. And then, at last, the ballet theater, with a breath that ripped the corset’s seams and exposed Oblya’s pale, heaving chest. Tourists walked from one of her bared nipples to the other, from the Yehuli temple to the onion dome of the oldest church. They gathered at the ballet theater in the valley of her breasts, right above her beating heart.
The tourists were good for our business, too, but it made Papa so angry to listen to them chatter in their foreign tongues, to see the gold-lettered signs that said Welcome! thrice-over in Ionik and Yehuli and Rodinyan. Travel brochures called Oblya the city with no infancy. They said it rose up like a mushroom after a rainstorm. I was ten and just starting to shiver when anyone touched me.
It happened in the middle of the night, the moon outside my window as slim as a lemon rind. There was a clattering over my head, and dirt shook from the ceiling. Voices dripped through the floorboards like water: my father’s, low and rasping, and my mother’s, low and wheedling. Something thumped the ground hard. And then there was only the sound of distant wings beating.
The next morning, our father sat us down at the long ebony table.
“There has been an accident,” he said.
“An accident?” Undine echoed.
“What kind of accident?” Rose asked.
I gnawed on my knuckle.
Papa took us upstairs to the third floor. The mirror that never lies was covered over with pale cloth. Our mother’s silver comb gleamed like melted moonlight. Her gold charm bracelet had the bleary luminance of sunken treasure. And in the center of her room was a great gilded cage, and inside it a white bird.
“One of my transformations went wrong,” Papa said. “This is your mother now.”
“I hate you!” Undine shouted, and beat our father’s chest with her fists. Rose began to cry quietly, one hand over her mouth. I approached the cage and stared at my mother, her body cut into white planks by the golden bars.
Later, I stole Papa’s heavy codex from his shelf, but this time I did not read about Ivan and the tsarevna and the kingdom of winter. I read all the stories about women who became birds, thinking there might be a spell to fix what my father had done. There was, of course, in our mother’s and my favorite story: the tale of the tsarevna who became a bird and who was kissed back into her human skin by the handsome bogatyr who loved her.
Mama had told me to wait for my Ivan, but all the bogatyrs were gone.
In the stories there were helpful finches and hopeful doves, and ravens that cawed bad omens. There were grateful sparrows who thanked you for rescuing them from briar patches, and ruby-breasted robins who offered you their chirped wisdom. There were starlings and blue tits with human voices, and a woman-headed hawk that hatched eggs with thunderstorms inside them. There were, of course, firebirds with magic feathers that could tell the wicked and the good.
But there were no stories about wives whose wizard husbands had turned them into birds by accident; I could not even tell what kind of bird my mother was. I squinted at her as she plucked sunflower seeds from my cupped hand. She had violet eyes and a pure ivory plumage, and feet as yellow as egg yolks.
I was eleven, and I had discovered my magic at last, an uncommon talent that would have made me a darling of the Wizards’ Council, if the Wizards’ Council still existed. It was the closest to happy that I had seen Papa since his curse. He drew up posters advertising my services, and as he did he sang to himself, familiar words, turning the stories I loved into songs. For some reason my ears ached to hear them, like someone had rung a bell too loud and too close. Even for days after, in the silence, my body felt shuddery and weak, the echo of the music living on in my bones.
Men started to come for me. They were freed serfs and the sons of freed serfs, day laborers whose backs were hunched under the weight of their ugly work. They canned beets or washed wool or turned stinking tallow into soap beneath jaundiced factory lights; the happier ones drove trams and carriages or loaded cargo ships in the harbor.
When they came, I hid under my bed or in my wardrobe. I covered myself in the sheet that Papa had thrown over the mirror that never lies. He always found me eventually, and dragged me back down into the sitting room, and held me by the collar of my dress while the men laughed their vodka breath across my face.
Later, in the dark, I blew my shameful secrets through the bars of my mother’s cage as if they were smoke rings, and stroked her soft white feathers. I wondered if she could still think like my mother, or if her mind, too, was a plum that my father’s spell had left out to parch and wrinkle in the sun. I wondered whether her bird-heart still loved me, even if her bird-mind could not. I filled her water dish and cleaned her droppings long after my sisters had lost interest in her, like she was a darling kitten that had grown into an ordinary and ill-tempered cat. I was twelve, and it had been two years since anyone had taken a comb to my hair.
By then, we had no maids or servants left at all. I went up to visit my mother one morning and found her cage empty, the floor of it covered in droppings like banked coals and a layer of white down like new-fallen snow. The door was hanging open.
Despair sank its black teeth into my heart. I cried and cried, so loudly that I woke both my sisters and finally my father, who came lurching up the stairs and told me that my mother had gotten out of her cage and flown away.
“That’s not true,” I said, my nose running. “She wouldn’t have left her mirror or her comb or her bracelet or her daughters.”
“What do you need a bird-mother for? Come downstairs, Marlinchen,” Papa said.
And I did, but first I took the charm bracelet off the boudoir and held it against my chest, cold metal seeping into the valley of my just-budding breasts. A dark red drop on the floor caught my eye; at first I thought it was a button that had come loose from Papa’s coat. But I could see my reflection in it, warped and tiny, a minnow trapped in a dirty gather of rainwater. I felt as if my whole childhood was caught in that drop: my long, matted hair like dust gathering on a bald china doll, my father’s hand around my wrist, my sisters’ beautiful faces, my mother’s shed tail feathers and the seed that her stories had planted in my belly, invisible to everyone but me.
I went downstairs and cooked my father varenyky with a filling that I could not remember making. I was thirteen.
From Juniper & Thorn by Ava Reid. Copyright © 2022 by Ava Reid. Reprinted by permission of Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.