Seems that I’ve finished a spooky short story just in time for Halloween! How about that?
This is a project that I’ve been wanting to do for quite a while. It’s a follow-up, technically a prequel, to my story “White Saffron.” It was loosely inspired by my recent reading of Madeline Miller’s Circe, and it exists in the highly specific and enjoyable subgenre of “a supernatural figure kills the hell out of some Nazis.” And it ups the ante on the weirdness and gruesomeness, if I do say so myself. Enjoy!
Antoinette knew that the war would find its way to her doorstep sooner or later. There was no chance of avoiding it forever, even at the family estate in Normandy: the protective barrier was just as old and crumbling as the manor house itself. Anything of sufficient strength — or sufficient evil — could find a weakness in the magic’s once-thick hide and pierce through.
Still, she had hoped for more time than this.
Through a gap in the closed curtains, she peered down from her bedroom window at the circular gravel drive and the vehicle parked there. A black 1935 Renault, likely stolen from some family that had fled Paris in a hurry. Or, she thought bitterly, from someone who had welcomed the invaders with open arms. On the doors, the new owners had affixed placards bearing their emblem, red and white and twisted black.
The four men inside the car were no less ugly. Three of them looked to be ordinary infantry, dressed in earth-gray tones and worn-down shoes. But the man riding in the front passenger seat was clearly an officer of some sort. His black suit and hat were adorned with silver braiding, and his shiny jackboots gleamed in the late afternoon sun. He wore a totenkampf on the front of his cap and, like his men, a pair of collar patches bearing the jagged white SS.
Antoinette stepped away from the window and walked to her vanity. She had her own uniform to put on.
In the mirror she looked no older than thirty-five, having last performed the Incantation of Youth only a decade ago. A few gray and auburn streak were visible within her blonde victory rolls; she picked up a brush with a rune on the back and ran it through her hair to fix the color. Then she picked a tiny glass bottle full of dark blue liquid, with an eye dropper set into the lid. Tipping her head back, Antoinette squeezed a few drops into both her eyes. They stung like invisible shards of glass, but only for a moment. When she blinked a few times and looked in the mirror again, her eyes had gone from gray to a brilliant shade of azure. She picked out an evening gown and heels to match, dressing herself as though she were one of her own models — not an imperfection in place.
She made for quite the dazzling picture when she was done, if she might say so herself. Under ordinary circumstances, she might have twirled around in front of the mirror, delighting in her own beauty. Instead she stood rigid before her reflection, taking a moment to steel herself before striding out the door. She knew she would catch the men off-guard, and she hoped she could keep them that way. With luck, a few well-placed words of suggestion would compel them to leave her in peace. And if they refused…
But there was no more time for planning. The creak and slam of the front doors echoed through the house — they were already inside.
Angry shouts in a mixture of French and German drifted up from the foyer. Antoinette quickened her pace, and she had to pause for breath when she finally reached the top of the grand staircase. The three soldiers were huddled by the door as the officer argued with her assistant, a short and skinny youth in a business suit. He must have seen or heard the car pull up and gone to confront the men, even though she had told him to be sensible and hide in the library passageway with everyone else. Now he was backed up against a stone pillar by a man who towered over him and had one hand on the pistol hanging from his belt.
“Pierre!” Antoinette snapped at him. “I told you to wait upstairs.”
Any color that Pierre might have had left in his face drained away when he looked up and saw her. Stammering out an inaudible apology, he gathered himself up and hurried away as fast as he could. The soldiers watched him leave, as though wondering where a man could hide in an old house like this one.
Antoinette walked down the last flight of stairs. “You must forgive my assistant,” she said to the officer. “He means well, but he lacks in sense to make up for his excellence in timekeeping.”
The SS officer had the vacant look and lifeless eyes of someone with very little use for the brain inside his skull. His sharp cheekbones gave him a cold, gaunt look. He looked less like a man and more like a flesh-eating fish or reptile wondering where its next meal would come from. He pulled himself up to his full height and attempted a smile as Antoinette approached him. “You speak perfect German, Fräulein Jacquier.”
She forced herself to smile back. “I’ve had years of practice. And a number of trips.”
“Perhaps you would like to visit again someday.”
Her stare flickered from his face to the floor and back again. “You have me at a disadvantage, sir,” she continued. “You seem to know who I am, but I cannot extend the same courtesy to you.”
“My apologies.” The officer gave a single, sharp nod of his head. “Captain Moritz Rohmer, 3rd Panzer Division. I have come to speak to you about an important matter.”
“I am surprised you knew where to find me, Captain,” said Antoinette. Technically it was not a lie: the only people who knew where she was going when she left Paris had traveled with her, and the spells protecting the estate were written to dispel all but the most curious minds. Clearly this man was quite set on following his orders.
“I was told that your family owned an estate here in Normandy,” Rohmer continued.
“So you came to see the crystal chandelier and my grandfather’s hunting trophies.”
A flicker of annoyance passed across Captain Rohmer’s face, but he brushed it away with a smile. “I am sure it would be an amusing diversion, but no. We are on an essential mission from the Fuhrer himself. My men and I are searching the countryside for…individuals of a certain background who were not in the city when we arrived.”
There it was. Antoinette forced herself to laugh so she couldn’t hear the frantic thumping of her own heart. “Captain, you must realize you could be talking about anyone if all you mention is that they possess a certain background.”
“Jews,” one of the infantrymen said. The word echoed around the room, driving a knife into the tension. “It’s Jews we’re looking for.”
Captain Rohmer’s smile twisted into a smirk. “I assume you need no further explanation that that, Fräulein.”
“No, I do not.” She had chosen her next words well before this moment, but now they seemed inadequate. “But what makes you believe that you would find anyone hiding here?”
The captain was unfazed. “One of your colleagues in Paris spoke to us,” he continued with ease. “She indicated that you have connections to some prominent families on our list, and that you may know their whereabouts.”
Chanel, you bitch. A thousand different curses, magical and otherwise, shot through Antoinette’s mind and piled up in her throat. It was a miracle that she managed to maintain her calm smile as she said “I see.”
“And was this information correct?” the captain asked.
“I do business with a great many people, Captain Rohmer. I cannot know which ones you are speaking of if you refuse to tell me.”
The flicker of annoyance passed across Rohmer’s face again. He straightened his posture as he produced a sheet of paper from his coat pocket and began to read a list of names. “Wertheimer, Bloom, Saltzmann, Rabbinowitz…”
“I don’t know any of those names,” she lied.
“We believe they left the city the same night as you.”
“So? It is no business of mine where other people travel.”
The captain’s face tensed. He took a long, leisurely look around the room, resting his eyes on the vaulted ceiling and the elaborate raised carvings in the dark wood walls. His three men gazed at the portraiture and tapestries, their eyes glittering with greed.
“It is unusual for a woman to live in such a spacious house alone,” Rohmer said at last. “You would have difficulty seeking out help if anything unfortunate were to happen.”
“I prefer to live alone,” said Antoinette. “Quite alone. It’s for the best. Now, will that be all?”
The captain stepped forward, and she had to resist the urge to shrink back. His face was only centimeters from hers now, close enough for her to hear the growl in his throat and smell his rancid breath.
“Fräulein Jacquier,” he said, “the people I represent are not patient men. Nor am I. And I know you are not a foolish woman.”
She could tell that he meant for her to crumble at that moment. How many people standing in her place had succumbed to his threats before?
She knew then what she wanted to do to him, to all four of them, and she smiled. I will not be the one crumbling tonight.
“It’s getting late,” Antoinette said, batting her eyelashes at the captain.
He drew back. “What?”
“The sun has nearly set, Captain,” she continued. “It will be dark soon, and the roads in this part of the country are perilous in the dark. I cannot send you on your way in such circumstances. You must stay the night here.”
The three men perked up, but Captain Rohmer frowned. “Our orders are to…”
“Let me guess,” Antoinette said. “You and your men are tired and hungry. You have been traveling all day, no closer to your goal than when you started, and you have received no help from my countrymen.”
He did not respond to her with words, but the way his eyes darted away as his fist clenched was proof enough.
Antoinette slid her hand up his arm and on to his shoulder. “I thought so. Then allow me to make amends, Captain. Let me show you some genuine French hospitality. And in the morning, when you and your men are rested,” she added in a whisper, “we will discuss what you came here to find.”
He raised his eyebrows as he looked at her. She stared back, trying to stab her way into his mind, willing him to fall under her spell. It worked: his eyes turned cloudy for a just a moment, and he raised a hand to his forehead as though struck by a sudden headache.
“Well?” she said. “You must see my reasoning.”
“Yes,” he answered, shaking off the dazedness. He was all business again in the blink of an eye. “Yes, this place will do. You will shelter us for the night, Fräulein.” He spoke as though the whole plan had been his idea. Antoinette was not eager to correct him.
“Very well,” she said, giving the four men a smile that seemed to light up the foyer. “In that case, will you gentlemen join me at dinner?”
Antoinette walked past the oak doors that led to the dining room, even though she knew the place settings arranged by the servants would still be there. Instead, she guided the four men down the main hallway. Crossing the long gallery, they stepped out on to the white marble terrace overlooking the garden.
“My family’s pride and joy,” she said, gesturing across the green expanse.
She had never kept a neatly trimmed garden like those you might find at Versailles, with their straight walking paths and confined flower patches. Some people might even scoff at calling it a proper garden, for there was little rhyme or reason to it at first glance. Gnarled trees and tall bushes wound around the circular courtyard, protecting it like the walls of a chapel around an altar. Color exploded across the ground and up the tree trunks. Purple irises, pink roses and white lilies sprawled out in all directions, mingling with each other and covering the winding narrow path leading deeper into the garden. Amidst the softer colors were more vibrant clusters of yellow or red or blue. The sweet, intoxicating fragrance of the flowers wafted into the cool evening air.
The soldiers’ eyes grew wide with delight. Even Captain Rohmer wore a look on his face that was nothing short of reverence.
A table and some chairs sat on the terrace, but no places were set. Antoinette waved a dismissive hand as she passed by. “No, not there,” she said to the men. “I have a more appropriate place to entertain guests such as yourselves.”
Stepping down from the terrace, she wove through the flower beds and ventured to the far end of the garden. The soldiers followed her, crushing blossoms under their boots with each step.
In the shade of two thick trees, the shadows were so deep that they camouflaged the wrought-iron gate. But there it stood, short and unassuming. No sign hung from its front, and the spike-tipped bars seemed designed to ward off wary visitors. Vines had begun to wrap their tendrils around it, holding it fast.
But none of this seemed to trouble Antoinette. With a light touch from her fingers, the gate swung open as the vines relaxed and fell away. The newly revealed path beyond was narrow and covered with an even denser carpet of foliage. Flowers and tall bushes pushed in on the path from either side, and the tree branches swung down to form an arch. Where they were thickest, only a few slivers of light poked through.
Antoinette took the lead once more. “Watch where you step, gentlemen,” she said. “The plants in this corner of my garden do not take kindly to strangers.”
The soldiers fell in single file behind her, like livestock on their way to slaughter.
She was true to her word about the plants. The scent of these flowers was more cloying, and the thorns were more numerous. Some of the stems were so long that they might have been reaching out to grab at the passing soldiers. Captain Rohmer winced as a thorn sliced across his cheek, and he roughly batted aside the flower which had scratched him. Antoinette, however, seemed to pass through all the foliage without so much as a blemish.
At last there came a light at the end of the green tunnel, and the group stepped out into another clearing.
It was a snug area, like an intimate sitting room. Around and above it stretched a lattice with vines weaving through the holes like a dark green tapestry. But you could hardly see the green beneath the explosions of color from all the flowers. Pale yellow and pink blossoms with translucent petals hung down from the ceiling like bells, or like stars in a night sky. Deep red flowers alternated with rich purple ones as they crawled up the walls and around the inside of the dome. On the ground lay a checkerboard of black and white tiles that looked pristine, as though it had never been walked on. And in the center of the dome sat a square wooden table and four chairs, with a place setting at each seat. There was a feast piled on that table, loaves of bread and bottles of wine and bowls of fruit and a whole roast chicken. A spread fit for royalty, with a tantalizing aroma.
Antoinette smirked as she saw the soldiers’ stunned faces. “What is mine is yours, messieurs,” she said, sitting down at the table. “At least for tonight.”
There was little in the way of conversation during the dinner. The three infantrymen ate like starving dogs, tearing into the meal set before them and continually grasping for more. They tore off chunks of bread in their grimy teeth, bit the apples down to their cores and sucked every last scrap of meat from the chicken bones. Captain Rohmer was just as quiet, but he lacked his companions’ enthusiasm. He took each bite of food and sip of wine with deliberation, as though savoring and judging the tastes. Perhaps he considered himself a discerning fellow in culinary matters, or perhaps he was the sort of man that people kept trying to poison. Antoinette thought the latter option more likely. But it was no concern of hers how fast he ate and drank, as long as he did so.
“Something vexes you, Captain,” she said when she caught him looking at her askance. “Does my choice of wine displease you? I have others.”
His joyless smile sprang back to his lips. “The wine is…unlike any I have tasted before. I was merely wondering how you had something so elaborate prepared with such haste.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You even knew to set three places out for us.” A glint of malice crept into his eyes as he stared at her. “Are you certain you did not plan to entertain guests this evening, Fräulein Jacquier?”
“A proper lady should always be prepared for sudden guests,” she answered, staring back. “And my servants are prompt. You won’t find any better, even at the finest houses in Paris.”
“I saw no servants inside.”
“And aren’t the best servants the ones you don’t see?” She laughed, hoping the captain would be compelled to do the same.
He let out a slight snort, barely more than air rushing out his nose. “Your friends in Paris did not warn me of your quick wit, Fräulein.”
Before he could continue, Antoinette held up her wine glass. “We must have a toast!” she said, much to the delight of the infantrymen. “To the good health of my distinguished guests, especially our dear Captain.”
“To the good health of the Fuhrer, I say,” said Captain Rohmer as he raised his own glass. “My own is of little consequence.”
For a few dreadful seconds, the words she had to say next would not come. But she screwed her courage tight and forced them out all the same.
“Very well, then,” she continued, flashing her false smile. “To the good health of the Fuhrer.”
The soldiers let out joyful, drunken shouts as they shoved their wine glasses against hers, spilling the dark red liquid on to the table. It was a wonder there was any left for them to swallow afterward. Then Captain Rohmer joined the toast, brushing the rims of their glasses together with a gentle tap, and he followed with a deep sip of wine.
Antoinette held the glass to her lips but did not drink. That’s right, she thought, watching the men. It won’t be much longer now.
“We ought to have some entertainment,” Captain Rohmer said when he was finished with his drink. The smile on his face had grown more satisfied and smug since the toast. The wine must have been starting to get to him. “You must have all sorts of diversions in this lovely estate of yours, Fräulein. Come, amuse us!”
“I am afraid I would not be much use to you in that regard,” Antoinette said. “My voice is not made for singing, and I play no instrument.”
“We shall have a game, then. I will teach you to play cards.”
“Oh, you would not wish to play cards against me, sir,” she continued. “I was quite the shark in my youth.”
“Then how do you expect us to pass the time?” the captain asked. His men were staring at Antoinette with hungry, devious looks, as though they were concocting some distasteful ideas of their own.
She shrugged. “I might read a book from my library. I might walk the grounds of the estate. But usually,” she said, “I steal away to hiding places just like this, where I can enjoy the company of my dear flowers.”
The men were not impressed. Their eager looks turned first to confusion and then to disdain. The youngest soldier made a great show of yawning and leaning back in his chair. He twitched a bit, as though his meal had not quite agreed with him.
Captain Rohmer answered with the smile of one who was used to showing politeness out of necessity. “That seems a dull way for a woman of your privilege to spend her evenings.”
“Oh, not at all. If you were as knowledgeable about flowers as I am, you would know they make wonderful company.” Standing up from her chair, she began to circle around the table, running her hands along the surface of the living dome. “Tell me, what do you gentlemen know about the art of gardening? Surely it must interest you, Captain.”
The captain rolled his eyes. “It is women’s work,” he said. “It holds no importance for men of action.”
“You are half correct. Cultivation on a level such as this is not suited for men of your beliefs or temperament. It belongs to the patient and the wise. What you call women’s work, I call the work of a genius. It takes a true master of the craft to nurture and commune with such remarkable living things, you see.”
“Remarkable?” The youngest soldier laughed. “They’re nothing! I can crush them under my boot!”
Antoinette plucked one of the deep red flowers from the lattice. “Perhaps. But the true measure of these flowers is not the resilience of their bodies. It is their intelligence.”
“Intelligence?” Captain Rohmer asked with a frown. There was a touch of discomfort in his face, and he covered his mouth as he abruptly let out a rasping cough.
“My mother preferred the company of plants to that of people,” Antoinette said. “And the longer I live, the more certain I am that she was right. Flowers, trees, even a simple blade of grass — they all live beyond our comprehension. Most of them possess far greater wisdom than a human could ever hope to achieve. And they have invented the most wonderful defense mechanisms.”
As Captain Rohmer tried to stand up, a wave of nausea forced him back into his seat. His trembling hand felt for the pistol he always wore at his belt, the one he had touched to reassure himself only a moment before. But now it had vanished.
Antoinette, meanwhile, smiled as she twirled the stem of the red flower in her hand. “Do you see this fine beauty, Captain? Papaver somniferum. The opium poppy. But not an ordinary specimen, no. A special variant of my family’s own invention.”
She waved it under the youngest soldier’s nose. He jerked back with a shudder, gagging at the thick, invisible fumes rising up from the flower’s center. “You are wise,” said Antoinette. “Just a few seconds of that smell would be enough to put you to sleep, or even stop your heart. But oh, perhaps you simply don’t care for the color red.” Reaching out again, she picked one of the purple flowers from the wall of the dome. “Tell me, what do you think of this deadly nightshade? Don’t the berries make delicious wine?”
The soldiers’ faces turned pale as though they were corpses already. Captain Rohmer lurched up from his chair and launched himself at Antoinette. He pinned her against the wall of plants, his hands grasping at her neck with the brute strength of a constrictor.
“The antidote,” he hissed. “At once. Or I break this pretty little neck of yours before I die.”
What she did next sent a chill down his spine. She did not scream or weep or beg. She did not even appear surprised at this turn of events. Instead, she only smiled. It was the calm, collected smile of someone who knew they were not about to die. And yet it was also the cruel, hateful smile of someone who did not care if they did, so long as their quarry died with them.
“You would not make it back to the house,” she said, sounding so casual that she might have been talking about the Sunday weather. “The garden would rise up and cut you down, just as easily as you would do to me. The air alone is killing you right where you stand.”
The four men looked at the kaleidoscope of color around them in the dome. Their eyes widened in horror as they began to understand.
“That’s right,” said Antoinette, freeing herself of Captain Rohmer’s grip. “They’re poisonous, every last one. Didn’t you see how the path here was sealed off?”
Captain Rohmer’s cheeks flushed with rage, the only color left in his face. “Then you are just as dead as the rest of us, Fräulein,” he said, spitting out the final word with extra venom. He tried to grab Antoinette again but stumbled and nearly fell. He had to grab the edge of the table instead to keep himself upright.
“I suppose it would have been rather fitting that way,” Antoinette said. “But my garden would never strike down its own mistress.” She took a step closer to the captain, reveling in his fear and confusion. “And besides, the plants aren’t going to kill you. I am.”
The potion had needed time to reach its full potency once consumed. Now that time was passed, and the spell awoke.
Captain Rohmer felt a sharp pain in his mouth, followed by the taste of blood and the sensation of a small, hard object moving about. His hand was feeling numb and heavy, but he reached into his mouth to remove the intrusion and see what it was.
One of his teeth had fallen out. But it was not a tooth any longer. It was a single, bloody piece of gravel.
Suddenly, the youngest soldier doubled over and began to sputter. Then he began to cough, loud and wet and violent, like he was coughing up his own lungs. He collapsed to the ground as he vomited. But it was not food or bile that he vomited up, or even blood – it was gravel. Dozens of pieces of tiny, gray gravel.
Captain Rohmer tore his eyes away from the nightmarish scene as the sharp pains from his mouth spread through his fingers. The joints were stiffening, the skin was turning gray and brittle. First it was the tips of his fingers that broke off and fell to the ground. Then it was his fingernails, then his knuckles, then the rest of his hand. When it reached his wrist, it continued spreading up his arm. He didn’t need to see his other hand to know it was happening there as well. He could feel every inch of it.
There was no word in any language he spoke that could adequately describe the pain. It was not a pain of the earthly realm. It was deliberate and paralyzing. It burned like ice against bare flesh on the coldest night of your life. He understood then why Dante had made a frozen lake the final circle of Hell.
Antoinette’s first instinct was to look away, as she always did during the Incantation of Youth. No, she thought. Not this time. She held her head high and watched as the spell ran its course.
The young man who had started vomiting was the first to go. He writhed around on the tiles for a minute, letting out bloodcurdling shrieks as his limbs dissolved and his senses failed him. One more moment, and he was nothing more than a pile of gravel spilling from the holes of an empty suit. Another man was on his knees clawing at his face, only for half of it to come sliding off in his hands as a fistful of rocks. The rest of him followed a second later, falling to the ground and spreading out in all directions. The third soldier had turned from the head down, leaving him as a pair of legs that kicked a few times in vain before breaking apart.
The mass of gray flesh that was still Captain Rohmer groaned and shuddered as it tried to drag itself toward her. Antoinette came to him instead, kneeling down to see his upturned face. By now, he was little more than a neck and a head that were beginning to crumble around the edges. But he still had eyes that could see and a mouth that could speak. His lips spasmed, trying to form words.
“You have brought this upon yourself,” Antoinette said. “You and the monsters that you serve. I promised you French hospitality, and I have not failed. I only regret that there were not more of you here to experience it.”
As the skin around his lips turned gray, the captain finally spoke. “You…bitch…”
She shook her head. “Witch.”
And then he was dead. For a moment it did not seem that he was so, because the gravel did not instantly collapse into a formless mass. It kept its shape, preserving the outlines of his face. His lips were twisted into a snarl, and the hatred still glinted in his eyes.
“Goodbye, Captain,” said Antoinette. Then she lifted her foot and crushed his remains beneath the heel of her satin shoe.
An hour passed, and then another. The light faded from the sky. In the library of the manor house, there was a click from behind the wall, and one of the mahogany bookcases slowly swung outward. Pierre stuck his head out of the hidden passageway and listened. The house was as still as a grave.
He stumbled back out into the room, and a small crowd of people crept after him. Young couples and bearded old men and women clinging to little babies and toddlers. They dared not split apart or make a sound.
They all found Antoinette just outside the house, standing on the front drive. Her makeup was smudged and running, and her forehead glistened with sweat. She swore under her breath as she dumped out the last large bag of gravel and took a rake to it, mixing the pile into the rest of the stones on the ground.
“Don’t worry,” she said when she looked up and saw the group watching her from the front steps. “They’re not here any longer.” Hoisting the rake over her shoulder, she walked back up to the house. “Pierre, take care of the car for me, will you? Drive it over that patch a few times so it looks flat. Then park it in the old barn, we can take it apart there. The rest of you must have dinner. Without me, I’m afraid.”
“Where are you going?” Pierre asked as she pushed past him.
“I need to repair a fence.”
No one saw her for the remainder of the night. But they could hear her pacing back and forth in her study, drawing on the floor and reciting long incantations.
When Antoinette saw the light of sunrise peeking through her closed curtains, she opened the window and stared out over the trees. On the horizon, where the boundaries of the estate lay, the purple glow of the new barrier flickered against the morning sun.
She did not bother to find some breakfast or bathe or even change her dress. She merely kicked off her heels, sank down in the nearest armchair and closed her eyes. When Pierre opened the door a moment later, she was already asleep.