MECHANICA Excerpt

Take the key from behind your grandmother’s portrait. I am certain your father still keeps it in the foyer—no one will have touched it in years, I hope. But you, darling, will be able to find the key.

Walk to the end of the hall and open the cellar door. It has no lock; do not fear closing it behind you. Go inside.

Be careful when you walk down the stairs; the wood is weak and treacherous. Bring a candle. The cellar is very dark.

At the bottom of the stairs, turn left. An old writing desk lurks there, in the shadows. Push it aside. No doubt you’ve grown up a good strong girl, and won’t need help.

Look: there is a door in the wall.

You won’t see a keyhole, but run a finger over the place where one would be. I know no daughter of mine will mind the dust.

Twist the key into the keyhole. You might need to worry it a little.

There, darling. You’ve found it. Use it well.

 

My mother was wrong about one thing: the cellar door did have a lock. Stepmother locked me inside enough times for me to know.

She was right about everything else. I was plenty strong enough to push aside the writing desk; I only cursed myself for never having done so before.

Of course, I’d thought Mother’s workshop was long since destroyed. I’d seen the fire myself.

Besides, that desk had long been my dearest friend. The first time Stepmother locked me in the cellar, a forgotten stack of brown and brittle paper in its top drawer and a cracked quill and green inkbottle underneath provided me with hours of amusement. I drew improbable flying machines and mechanized carriages; I drew scandalous, shoulder-baring gowns with so many flounces and so much lace that their creation would have exhausted a dozen of the Steps’ best seamstresses.

Not that Stepmother hired seamstresses anymore. I provided her with much cheaper, if less cheerful, labor. I sewed all of her and my stepsisters’ dresses, though my fingers were not small or nimble enough for the microscopic stitching they required. I took care not to show how much I preferred fetching water and chopping wood to sewing. Stepmother considered ‘hard labor’ the most punishing of my chores, so she assigned it often.

I never told her how those chores offered me precious, rare glimpses into my memories of Mother. I could see her face, wreathed in a subtle powdering of soot, laughing at my disapproving father as she carried a cord of wood or a sloshing pail of water down to the cellar. Until recently, those memories, and a few of her smallest inventions, were all I had of her.

I had to hide her machines from Stepmother, of course: the whirling contraption that dusted cupboards for me, the suction seals that kept mice out of the drawers, the turn-crank in one closet that polished shoes. Mother had taught me enough to keep her machines in repair. When she was alive, she’d dreamed of my going to Esting City for a real apprenticeship, as she herself had always longed to do. But Father would never hear of it.

Anyway, neither of them were able to help decide my future anymore. Now that they were gone, all I knew was that I could not abandon their house to the Steps.

I digress. Father always told me not to worry over things that can’t be helped, but I never took his instructions to heart.

He died on New Year’s Eve, the year I was ten. I wept noisily over the dispatch letter that announced his death, smearing tears onto the sleeves of what I didn’t know would be my last new dress for years. Stepmother stood silent behind me.

He had taken his new wife, with her two mewling, puny daughters, only a few years earlier. I’d tried to befriend Piety and Chastity at first, to beguile them into joining me for a horseback ride, a walk, or even a simple game of boules on the lawn.

When I finally understood their horror of fresh air, I tried sharing my books with them. These, at best, were met with glazed expressions and simpering giggles behind my back. At worst, their pages were ripped out and replaced them with ladies’ magazines. To improve my taste, my stepsisters said.

At least in those days I had books of my own.

After Father died, the Steps grew so much worse. Within a day of his death they ousted me from my lifelong bedroom, and I was too stunned with grief to argue. My room was next to my stepsisters’, and Stepmother said they needed the additional boudoir space. She liked everyone to think that she would never grant her daughters any excess, but in private she spoiled them as if they were the Heir’s famously beloved horses.

On the night after she dismissed our housekeeper, she told me to wash the supper dishes. Then—the only time I’ve done it—I did rebel. I screamed at her like a child, like the child I still was. My position in the family was all I had left to tie me to my parents’ love. Though I’d felt it slipping away, until that moment I had chosen denial.

Clearing my eyes of tears, I stared my stepmother down. She looked back at me. Though I had only seen coldness and distance in her face before, I saw something else then. I saw challenge. We both knew what she was doing: she was making me a servant. But I began to think she might be testing me, preparing me for some sacred rite of entrance into her true family. Making sure I was a good daughter.

So I nodded, and I looked down, and I retreated to the kitchen. When your heart is broken, it’s easier to follow rules. I kept waiting, too, hoping I might pass her test. I carried that hope with me like a rosary, counting the worn beads each time she assigned me some yet more menial chore.

If it were ever a test, I must have failed.

Despite what she has reduced me to since Father’s death, though, I still cannot believe Stepmother is entirely evil. Do not mistake me: she is cruel, sharp, and she spoils her own children to a fault, while denying me any scrap of affection. She takes a hypocrite’s great pleasure in her own abstinence. She enjoys denying herself more than she would ever relish an indulgence. I could list her flaws for days.

But she gave me my mother’s letter. I didn’t know why she did, or why she didn’t read it first. Perhaps, I’d thought, it was because she loved her own daughters too much to disrespect another mother’s wishes; perhaps I would never know the reason.

It must have been her, I thought, finding the envelope slipped under my doorjamb one autumn morning.

 

for Nicolette

on her sixteenth birthday

 

Stepmother even gave it to me on the correct day.

After dusk, I crept through the hall to the portrait of Grandmother. She cut an imposing figure atop her huge black stallion, Jules. Mother’s family had long been famous for their hunt horses, and Jules was the greatest stallion they ever produced. There were rumors, even, that Fey blood ran in Jules’s veins—but if that were true, the records of it would have been destroyed years ago, after King Corsin’s quarantine on Faerie. No one would admit to the least association with the Fey any more, not after a Fey assassin killed the last Heir.

Our country had to learn how to live without magic, after that. We were still learning.

Still, with his long, powerful legs, streaming mane, and bright-gleaming coat, Jules looked as beautiful as Fey horses were said to be. Mother used to tell me that together, he and Grandmother could put the men to shame at the foxhunt—I always loved hearing that story.

No key hung on the wall when I took down the picture. Annoyed, I squinted at the letter again.

Take the key from behind your grandmother’s portrait.

I puzzled for a moment—then had to laugh at my own stupidity.

I dug a ragged fingernail into the paper at the back of the frame. It exploded in tiny brown fibers that blanketed my hand to the wrist and suffused the air with feathery, antique dust. I grinned, feeling rough metal against my finger. I hooked my fingertip around the key and pulled it from the frame.

It was a skeleton key, quite large. The prongs on its shaft were many and complex.

I pocketed it quickly and rehung the portrait, feeling like the heroine in a two-penny storybook. Grandmother watched me from her gilded frame.

I kept near the wall as I walked to the cellar door. I could hear Piety’s snores and Chastity gibbering in her sleep. Stepmother slept even more deeply than they did. Still, I stayed silent as a huntress, groping toward the secret I could sense just ahead of me. Any false step might wake the Steps and pull it out of my reach.

I double-checked the lock on the door and crept down the stairs. I held my candle high. I had chosen a plain kitchen candlestick—Stepmother would miss the scented beeswax. So it was by a crude and greasy light that I found my mother’s gift.

It was easy enough to push the desk aside; finding the door was harder. The flickering candlelight revealed nothing until I practically had my nose to the seam. I was covered in spider-silk before I saw it.

But there it was, obscured behind seven years of grime . . . and something else. Something not quite a shadow—something I might have thought was magic, before the quarantine. Dark, with a darker shine. But as I put out my finger to touch it, it vanished, and I thought I must not have seen it at all.

I stepped back, relishing this last moment of mystery. I put a fair amount of force behind the key, expecting rust to have diminished its fit.

But it slipped in like a foot into a slipper, and I stumbled against the opening door.

A rattling overhead drew my attention. There were round, spiked shadows in the darkness of the ceiling, rotating at the same rate that the door was pulling open—being pulled. Inside the room, a hissing sound stopped and started in a heartbeat pattern.

I picked up my candle and entered.

The door swung shut behind me, as smoothly and quickly as it had opened. I didn’t feel trapped—I felt welcomed, wrapped in my mother’s love. I surveyed my inheritance with awe.

There were charts on the walls, mapping the inner mechanisms of a thousand wonders. There was a coal-powered loom, a sewing machine—thank goodness, I thought, my finger still stinging from the last time my needle had slipped—and an automated rocking chair and cradle. This last made my heart ache with loneliness for her and for my own childhood, but I could not stop to examine it further; I was too curious about her other designs. I was particularly drawn to an acidic rainbow of dyes painted into a line of circles, next to long notations of their formulas. I could smell the oil lubricating the gears that had swung open the door.

A bookshelf on the far side of the room completely covered the wall. It sagged into a smile under the weight of its leather-bound occupants. Stuck into the wall amid the books, a desk sat draped with reams of paper and half-finished diagrams. A pair of glass and leather goggles rested on top of one blank sheet, still dusted in soot. I recalled the pale rings around Mother’s eyes.

I jumped when the room’s thick silence broke. A small chest on a low shelf thunked once, and again, in a determined beat.

I sighed, relieved that no one had discovered me. But what lay in that dark box?

Years of unhappiness had made me fearless. I expected a family of rats, and when the thing in the chest scurried into shadows as I opened the lid, I assumed I was correct.

Then I heard the soft whirring of gears, and my nervousness dissolved into delight. I had found another of Mother’s creations.

I lowered my palm gently into the box. I found myself cooing and nickering to the thing inside, as if it were a shy cat.

“Come on, now,” I said quietly. “It’s all right. I won’t hurt you.” I turned my gaze politely away.

I felt a delicate nipping at my little finger and had to laugh at the sensation. Something rounded pressed against my palm, and I looked down.

A metal horse nuzzled my finger. No taller than my hand at the shoulder, he was the most delicate little toy I had ever seen . . . and yet more than a toy: he moved of his own volition, and the way he regarded me was more than lifelike—was life itself.

He was made with too much care, too much precision, to be intended only as a plaything. His head and neck were copper, gone a bit green, and his flanks were blown glass. Through it, I could see his clockwork musculature turning back and forth as he pranced beneath my fingers, and even a tiny clock face that looked as if it had been taken from a small pocket watch. He had no mane, but a tail of silver chains that he flicked back and forth and lifted for balance when he moved. Etched into his right flank was the name Jules II. Subtle puffs of steam blew from his nostrils. When I stroked his belly, I felt the heat of some inner furnace.

The chest that held little Jules was, in fact, a sort of stable in miniature. There was a bottle of oil and a rag in one corner. A crinkle of green rust, his outline, blossomed in another; he had clearly lain dormant for years. But how had he known to awaken? And what else could my entrance have aroused, in my mother’s world of mechanical wonders?

I lifted Jules from his confinement and set him gently on the floor. He reared up on his steel haunches and looked at me pointedly. We regarded each other.

Then he set off at a canter toward the far corner of the room. I followed—though I paced him easily, of course, even when he broke into a jingling gallop. I felt as if I’d stumbled into Faerie.

Jules halted in front of yet another door, just as subtly set into the wall as the first had been. This one was wider, and streaked in places with dried grease.

I saw a smudged black handprint among the streaks. When I placed my own hand there, it matched exactly. I knew even before I pushed the door open that here was where Mother kept her workshop, and the first room was simply a designer’s studio, a repository.

I opened the door and more gears sprung to my aid. The hissing was louder in here, and the air was humid with steam.

Jules pranced eagerly at my feet, his metal hooves clacking against the stone floor. Before me lay a world of possibilities.

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VENTURESS: Cover Reveal and Soundtrack

The Venturess cover is finally here! The full HQ reveal plus an interview and giveaway are on Hypable now.

As a special bonus, you can listen to some highlights from my Venturess writing playlist, which has been filling the house incessantly for the last six months. I put a lot of stock in my mood music, and it might give you a few vague hints about the book itself. (No spoilers, though, obviously. It’s just music.)

VENTURESS from cornwelle on 8tracks Radio.

Five Good Things, no. 11

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·Well that, first of all! My editor emailed me the other night with the news and I couldn’t stop laughing long enough to tell my husband what I was laughing about. Mechanica‘s Kirkus star made me cry, but the New York Times list was a crack-up.

·He and I spent the next day touring Connemara with some friends, and of course he told every waiter and cashier we met about my Bestselling Author status while I cringed and blushed and smiled. I told him he’d just better get ready to retire as soon as some actual money comes in from my new celebrity.

·I finished a short secret book project and sent it off to my agent for inspection. I’m proud of this one and it’s kind of a new direction for me, so fingers crossed!

·We milked Nuala and Nell for the first time this week and had enough to put in the tea (Richie’s tea anyway because eugh, black tea for me thanks) plus a small batch of oatmeal soap and a tiny-tiny batch of soft cheese, just enough to mix with the garlic Richie grew last year and spread on three pieces of toast. And devour.

·For Mother’s Day, Jezebel’s toast to the brave kids who broke up with their toxic moms. When I posted this on social media the other day I heard from even more friends who’ve been through that. All of them said it was really hard but the best thing they’d ever done for themselves, which is just how I feel. There are so many of us who’ve ‘broken up with’ our parents. The more we say it, the weaker the stigma gets. We’re all here, and we’re all stronger for something hard that happened to us. Celebrate that today if nothing else. ♥

Sister God

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I recently wrote about my journey from teenage born-again Christian to young adult agnostic witch for the new issue of PARABOLA, The Divine Feminine. That essay, “Sister God,” is now available online at parabola.org. Read an excerpt here:

. . . When I was thirteen, I even became what’s called a born-again Christian. I said a fervent and sincere prayer, acknowledging that I was a sinner (that much had always been obvious, the shame only building after those early nightmares and the nameless memories that inspired them) and accepting the lord Jesus into my heart as my one and only savior. My relationship with Jesus felt very personal. I would often talk to Him in my head as I walked from my boarding school dormitory to morning classes, telling Him my daily worries and thanking Him whenever I saw a particularly beautiful sunset or tree.

But then I got kicked out of boarding school and sent back to the parental home that still held for me that nameless fear. The therapist I’d worked with at school had looked at me piercingly and told me to be careful back there, to try to find school activities and summer jobs that kept me out of the house as much as possible. I couldn’t ask her why, but I didn’t need to; I knew she was right.

I’d never felt more like a bad person, like exactly the kind of sinner that needed a Christian God’s love and redemption, than the year I left boarding school; but that year was also when my faith began to fail me.

At first I thought it must be my fault, that I hadn’t yet been really “born again” after all. So I repeated my saving prayer, the one that was supposed to transform my heart, several times over in the coming months. Every time I searched my soul for some seed of hope, some hint of redemption, and I was convinced that the sameness I felt was all my fault, not God’s. That I simply hadn’t followed the rules closely enough.

But slowly my pact with God dissolved, and I became untethered.

My journey toward a self-styled paganism has been so gradual and fluid that at times it doesn’t seem like a journey at all, and it is still not easily bounded or defined. I feel increasingly drawn toward the kind of intersectional, open-ended spirituality that my mother would call noncommittal, wishy-washy, or even cowardly, as she described our Unitarian neighbors.The path to my current understanding of my faith is much less clear. It is a tidal cycle, an edgeless movement in and out of ideas, traditions, understandings. Sometimes I call myself a pagan, sometimes agnostic, usually a witch. My husband and I were handfasted by a Celtic druid; I loved the ceremony. I say a prayer and light a candle for the triple goddess at each turning point of the year.

A faith that is fluid, boundless, changing, cyclical, open: this is a faith that one might call feminine.

Read the rest

Five Good Things {No. 10}

·I finished writing the Mechanica sequel, and I sent it to my editor a whole hour and seven minutes before my deadline! In the process I suffered a little, wore the same clothes too many days in the row, and took advantage of my spouse’s willingness to do both our shares of housework for a long while. I am hugely relieved to have it done, and hugely excited to get to edits (a way more enjoyable part of the process for me than drafting).

·In related news, and after a lot of brainstorming and debate, that book has a title now: Venturess. I would love to show you the cover (I haven’t seen it yet myself!) but for now, check out my pin board/procrastination central:

Follow Betsy’s board VENTURESS on Pinterest.

·We also had some new arrivals to the house in March: four little goat kids, each of them cuter than the last. Our first-time mothers Nuala and Nell both had healthy twins, and they are already rampaging all over the yard like tiny hellions.

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·Since I’m a twenty-seven-year-old, six-foot-tall little old lady, I’m training to walk a marathon. I hate running, but I love long walks, I want to get a bit stronger, and I have a little more time on my hands now that my book is turned in! Yesterday I walked through the ruins of a grand old Big House that got ransacked during the Rising, and then through the lushest old Irish forest I could imagine, and I fell in love with the place where I live all over again.

·The Parabola Podcast is going swimmingly, and I posted the third episode, “The Divine Feminine,” last Friday. Please give it a listen and subscribe on iTunes!

PARABOLA Podcast: Goodness

Happy March! I have exactly one month from today to get my Mechanica sequel manuscript off to my editor (eek and hurray), so this post will be short. I just wanted to let you know that I’ve started a podcast for Parabola, and a new episode will appear on the first of every month. This month’s episode looks back at Parabola’s “Goodness” issue from 2014, and while I don’t feature my own essay from the issue (not being qui-ite that egotistical, even though it’s close) there are lots of other wonderful things to be found here.

Give us a listen:

You can also subscribe on iTunes, for which I would be eternally grateful.

Back to drafting and procrastinating . . .