rosemary edghill: Speak Daggers To Her

Speak Daggers To Her


Speak Daggers To Her
by Rosemary Edghill
Tor Books (May 1994, December 1995)
ISBN: 0-312-85604-0 (hardcover), 0-812-53438-7 (paperback)

Chapter 1: Friday, June 15th, 5:20 p. m.

I could say this was any large Eastern city, but you'd know it was New York. I could say my name was Isobel Gowdie, or Janet Kyteler, or even Tam Lin, but what's on my paychecks and phone bills isn't important. My name -- my real name -- is Bast.

I live in New York and I'm a witch.

Put away your pitchforks -- or more likely, here in the nineties, stifle your yawns and stop edging toward the door. It's just my religion, into which I put about as much time and money as you do into whatever you do that isn't for the biweekly paycheck. I'm not inclined to criticize any way a person might have found to waste excess money, and I'm not having as much fun as you probably imagine I'm having. No naked orgies under the moon, for example: the Parks Commission would object and it's no way to have safe sex. When modern witches meet the main concern is usually how to fit eight people and the couch into a room the size of a Manhattan living room and make sure you leave with your own Reeboks. No lubricous fantasy there.

Just one more thing about the "W"-word and then I'll leave it, since it's a subject that either bores you silly or you've got all the wrong ideas and won't change them for anything I say. Personally I'd rather we called ourselves anything else, from Pagans to Earth Religionists to Aquarians. It would fit most of us better: overeducated ex-hippies trying to unscrew the inscrutable, trying to make sense of life through ritual and gnosis. But we got stuck with the "W"-word back in the forties, when a lovely half-mad Brit picked up Dr. Margaret Murray's anthropological dream-mongering about the witch-trials in western Europe and tried to weave a modern religion out of it, patching and piecing from everything that caught his fancy.

By the time Gerald B. Gardner was done, his "wicca-craften" had damn little resemblance to the witches out of history and fairy-tales, and so do we. Now we're stuck with the name and a tag-end of faded glory that some of us spend a lot of time justifying to anyone who shows the least interest.

I don't. What I was trying to justify, this particular Friday, was a left-hand margin the typesetter had accidentally set ragged and the client didn't want to pay to get reset. Since the typesetter didn't want to eat the cost and reset it for free, that left me, a Number 10 single-sided razor blade, and a lot of freelance hours.

The Bookie Joint -- Houston Graphics if I answer the phone before 5:00 -- is one of those places you've never heard of unless you're in the business -- a freelance studio that does layout and pasteup, turning piles of typeset galleys into pages of type. They call the people who do it artists, which is the only glamorous thing about the job. Layout artist is a dead-end job in a dying field. Most books these days are set page-for-page, and desk-top publishing is taking over for the really small presses.

But if you don't mind earning less than ten dollars an hour with no bennies and no guarantees, it's a great job. Everybody who works here is something else -- actors, writers, artists. Your schedule is flexible to fit in around your other jobs. You can get as many or as few hours a week as you need -- except when something like the job in front of me comes up. I'd promised Raymond I'd finish it before I left tonight. He's our art director, and takes it almost as seriously as he does modern dance. Ray's a dancer -- at least he was while he still had his knees. We have some framed stills on the walls. Jazz Ballet of Harlem. Pretty.

Ragged left instead of ragged right. You'd think Letterperfect never typeset a sheaf of poems before.

The phone rang and I was glad to answer it.



This narrowed the caller down to a member of my immediate world.



"Miriam's dead."

It was Lace on the phone, which meant that Miriam was Miriam Seabrook, and Miriam was my age. People in their middle thirties don't just up and die.

"Bast?" Lace sounded half-a-step away from hysteria. "We were going out to dinner and I used my key and she was lying there on the bed and I thought she was asleep--" Lace took a deep breath and started to cry in high weepy yelps.

"Did you call the police?"

I thought I was fine -- after all, I wasn't the one who'd walked in and found my lover dead -- but my jaw muscles ached when I pushed the words out. Not Miriam. Not dead. I didn't even know her very well, I plea-bargained.

"I can't. You know I can't. You know what they'll do to me -- oh, please, please, can't you come over?" Lace started to cry in earnest, a real Irish peening for the healins.

Lace is a dyke radical, which means she has a lot of not-quite-paranoid fantasies about what the Real World will do to her just for breathing. Not quite paranoid, because her mother got a custody order to take her kids away from her and the U.S. Government revoked her passport when she came out of the closet. She used to be some kind of engineer until she joined the lunatic fringe.

"Lace. Listen. Call 911 and tell them. You don't have to tell them who you are. Just do it. I'll be right over."

Muffled breathing. Too late I wondered if Miriam had been murdered and was the murderer still lurking around her apartment waiting to make it two for two.

"Lace? Are you there?" Fear is contagious; I was all alone in the studio and it had seemed a friendly place until the phone rang. I could see late afternoon sunbeams white with dust. Sunshine. Daytime. Normalcy. Right?


"I'm here." A tiny little whisper.

"I'll be there as soon as I can, okay? Okay?"

Lace hung up on me.

I barely remembered to lock all three of the inside locks at Houston Graphics and I was halfway down the block before I remembered I'd forgotten to lock the inside lobby door. By then I had no intention of going back.

New Yorkers are supposed to have this inborn instinct for getting cabs. I don't. Hell, I can't even figure out the bus routes. Fortunately Miriam's is right on the subway. I caught the F at Broadway/Lafayette, changed to the A at 34th Street and headed uptown.

I got off at the 211th street stop, staggered up the stairs (still under construction, as they have been for ever and aye) to the late afternoon howl of sirens and carhorns, and into the building on Park Terrace East.

No answer on the buzzer. I punched buttons at random until somebody who should have known better buzzed me in. The elevator was broken so I took the stairs, and by now I was sure what I was going to find.

Fifth floor. Five flights up. Miriam's door was open.

My mouth tasted like burnt copper. I almost called for Miriam, but Miriam was dead, so I heard, unless it had all been somebody's idea of a sick joke.


I stood in the open doorway. The apartment sounded empty. So I went in and hunted through the whole place real fast. No alien muggers with chainsaws. No Lace, either, and no way of knowing whether she'd called the cops. Her set of keys to Miriam's place was on the livingroom table, right where she'd probably dropped them.

Miriam was in the bedroom on the bed. And she was dead.

I don't know why they always say in books that people weren't sure or couldn't quite believe it. You know -- in the pit of your stomach, instantly, beyond doubt. This is no longer a person.

She didn't look quite real -- like a waxworks almost-not-quite life-size. She had on her underpants and a khaki T-shirt, and she was flopped there just like she'd gone to sleep. There was a wet spot on the sheet -- gritty reality of the relaxed sphincter -- but the sense of peace, and rest, and absence was almost numbing.

Or maybe I was just in shock.

For something to do I went back out and put Lace's keys in my purse. It'd been over an hour since she'd called me, and it was starting to look like a safe bet Lace hadn't phoned 911. I wondered why she'd phoned me.

So I could do it, of course. And I knew I was going to, which irritated me. But first I was going to take another look around the place, which wasn't as stupid at a time like this as it sounds. Miriam was a wannabe-witch, and a Neopagan, and I didn't want a bunch of people who couldn't tell the difference between that and Anton LaVey splashing "Satanist" all over the New York Post.

But all the posters on the walls looked more feminist than anything else, and no one who didn't know what they were looking at would recognize Miriam's altar.

I went back to Miriam. Priestess of the Goddess and Death is all part of the Great Cycle of Rebirth and all that crap, but I still didn't want to touch her. She had an intense perfume, like a cross between pine needles and fresh bread. I couldn't concentrate on anything and all the details except the body on the bed kept slipping away. Finally I made myself hook my fingernail under the silver box-chain around Miriam's neck. It would be just as well if she didn't go to the morgue wearing a pentacle.

Morgue. Miriam was dead. Dammit, she was my age, maybe even a few years younger, and people my age just don't curl up and die.

And now I was stripping the body so no one would know she was a Neopagan.

And I call Lace the paranoid one.

I was more keyed up than I thought, which was why I yelped and jumped and jerked the chain so her head rolled toward me as the pendant slipped out of her shirt.

Because Miriam wasn't wearing a pentacle -- that nice chaste star-in-a-circle that's the badge of office of practically everyone here on the New Aquarian Frontier. What Miriam was wearing on that long silver chain was little and brown and nasty, and eventually my heart slowed down and I saw it was a mummified bird claw of some kind, with the stump wrapped in silver wire so she could string it on the chain. The nails were painted red.

"Oh, fuck . . ." I said, very softly. Then I unhooked the chain and slid it free, because out of civic spirit I did not want Miriam found wearing a dead chicken foot either. And I didn't want it touching her.

I didn't want it touching me, for that matter. I put it in her bedside table drawer. Then I went and called 911, and it wasn't any work at all to sound convincingly rattled.

The books have another thing all wrong too. I'd expected the apartment to be swarming with police just like on Murder She Wrote. I got two EMT's and a bored policeman, none of whom cared about my careful plausible story. We'd had a dinner date. I got here and used my key. I found Miriam.

I lied because even with my limited experience I felt that police do not like to hear about people who find other people dead and just leave, and because if I told the truth they'd probably come down on Lace and Lace already has enough problems. She was going to have some more when I got a hold of her, too.

And if anyone had to pitch an idiot story to the heat, it might as well be me, since I had a number of advantages over Lace. I looked like something I was in most respects: a straight white blue-eyed thirtysomething wage-earner, dressed off the racks of Macy's Herald Square and five foot eight in my stocking feet. Hair the same color I was born with (black), no makeup, no earrings, and no bizarre jewelry out where it could push John Q. Lawdog's buttons. I was highly plausible, in my humble opinion.

But nobody was asking for my opinion this evening, and even the EMT's didn't seem that interested in my story. They zipped Miriam up into a grey plastic mummy bag and wheeled her out, and I got Miriam's phone book for next-of-kin and the policeman copied out her sister Rachel's name and address.

That was it. He made me leave the apartment first and then he took a sign that said "Notice", followed by some type it was too dark in the hallway to read, and put it on the door and told me not to go back in and that was that.

The police probably wouldn't get around to notifying Rachel Seabrook until at least Monday, he said, if I wanted to call first.

He was nice. I guess he was nice. I'd just found someone I knew dead and lied to the police on top of it and my stomach was full of old scrap iron and I was going to ring Lace's chimes but good and something was wrong.

I wanted to cry.

The cop got into his cop car and I went back across the park and down the steps to Broadway. The motorists were still at it -- the only thing more dangerous that the subways in New York are the streets -- and when I went to put the token in the turnstile at the subway platform I found I was still carrying Miriam's address book in my hands.

Miriam was dead.

`You're so together,' Bellflower tells me. Yeah, sure.

I came to New York from the Real World about fifteen years ago. Everybody comes to the Big Apple for something they can't get anywhere else. In my case it was Craft. The One True Polytheism. Wicca.

Unlike a lot of other people I got what I came for.

Miriam was one of the others.

I first met Miriam about five years ago hanging around the Snake -- the largest and most out-of-the-broomcloset occult shop on the East Coast. It's been named, at various times, The Naked Truth and The Serpent's Tooth, and is known to its intimates as The Sneaky Snake, or, more briefly, The Snake.

Most of us in what I laughingly call the New York Occult Community, which includes pagans and witches and ceremonial magicians and Crowleyites and permutations of all of the above too numerous to catalogue, have been through its doors at one time or another, and about half of us have worked there. It's a nice place to spend Saturday, helping Julian-the-manager with the jewelry inventory and watching the tourists gawk.

Miriam stood out like a sore thumb, striking up bright little conversations with the other browsers in the "Witchcraft and Women's Mysteries" section (Tris, the actual owner, is nothing if not conservative), copying the notices of "Covens Forming" off the bulletin board, and earnestly attending every event the shop offered, from "Enochian Invocation, Calls and Chants" to the Sunday afternoon semi-open Neopagan circles.

I avoided her. The new ones are always trouble, looking for god or guru or someone to tell them The True Facts, and ready to latch onto anyone who will hold still long enough and "Yes, My Lady" her to death.

There are some people in the Community who enjoy that, like Trisha the Wonder Witch with her forty-member coven of eternal First Degrees.

I don't. If I had the nerve and the energy to start my own coven, those are the last sort of people I'd pick. They stick forever, they don't learn, and they don't grow. If they wanted to sit in the chorus watching a priest perform, why didn't they stay in the monotheism they came from?

But I digress.

I saw Miriam, and I heard about her (Newbies are an eternal source of gossip. They're so cute when they're dumb.), and I met her at just about every "open" event in the City, and we had some conversations and I suggested some books that would probably settle her head on straighter than the moonshine she was reading. Her eyes bugged out when she realized a Real Live Initiate was willing to talk to her and practically oozed down her face when she found out I was entitled to wear the Third Degree silver bracelet and be called "Lady" in A Real Wiccan Circle. Then she got disappointed because I was still a clayfooted human being and wouldn't tell her that what I had was The Answer. Eventually she worked her way through that too, and forgave me, and we became "sort of" friends.

I even showed her to Bellflower, who is my High Priestess, but Miriam wasn't the kind of person who was comfortable with the kind of coven Belle ran, and I sometimes get the feeling that actual religious passion makes Belle nervous.

It's the same old story. Some people just don't manage to click. Every coven is different, and covens with styles that would suit them are full, or gossip of one sort or another ensures they don't get asked when there is an opening, or they just drift away. Score one for the Goddess's winnowing process.

Miriam was one of the ones who drifted. After a year or so on the fringes she gave up on being what she called a "real witch" when none of the Welsh or Alexandrian or Gardnerian covens would take her, and started trying the evanescent trads that spring up and vanish overnight. She even tried Santeria and the O.T.O. -- in fact after a while every time I saw her she was into something new.

I tried to steer her back toward the safe stuff; that was how she met Lace, shopping the Dianic trads down at Chanters Revel, which was where I was heading now. Lace worked there.

But Miriam hadn't really been "womyn" enough to suit the Dianics. She'd kept looking. Or drifting. And now she was dead. And she had The Answer, if there is a The Answer.

Hard and jagged and unwanted I remembered the chicken claw she'd been wearing around her neck, and I felt a niggling in the part of my brain I reserve for jumping to conclusions. I beat it down because I was not, dammit, a flake like Lace. I'm a charter member of the Conspiracy to Prevent Conspiracy, and I don't look for hidden meanings.

The subway jerked to a stop. The niggle would stay flat for a while. I got off the A at West Fourth Street and started walking toward the Bowery. It was about eight thirty on a Friday night in June.