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Authors: Nancy Baker,Nancy Baker

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Blood and Chrysanthemums

BOOK: Blood and Chrysanthemums
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Blood and
Nancy Baker

A ChiZine Publications eBook


You say the word
and lips are chilled
by autumn winds

—Matsuo Basho


For Richard


It’s my pleasure to introduce the republication of two novels by Nancy Baker,
The Night Inside
and its sequel,
Blood and Chrysanthemums
. Both were printed originally in the early nineties. As I recall, that was when editors and other knowledgeable people in publishing were saying, “The vampire vein is played out, it’s been saturated, it’s done.”

Just as they’re always saying, about horror fiction in general and vampire stories in particular. So far, they have always been wrong. Vampires going extinct? They’re not even slowing down! As of this writing, we’ve got pop culture sports vampires in high school all over TV and YA fiction, a Dracula TV series about the count’s efforts to become a steampunk entrepreneur in 19th century London, a boy band called “Vampire Weekend,” vampire “romance” novels coming out of our ears, and many other fangish manifestations.

For those with a streak of dark romanticism—with or without the other side of that coin, a streak of savagery that never sees the light of day except on the printed page or the movie screen—there is nothing as delicious as a dip in the warm and apparently boundless sea of fictional blood and those who take it for their sustenance.

However, that doesn’t mean that readers are such bloody wantons that all it takes to get our pulses pounding is a flash of fang.

For this reader, the particular sub-vein of vampire tales that I don’t read any more is the fictional power struggle within large, complicated vampire societies, secret or open. These societies are modelled on modern notions of feudal authoritarianism, or Freud’s primal horde (both of which tend to produce the brutish structures of the criminal gang), or the nasty-minded hierarchies of Gothicky pop celebs and their worlds of sex, drugs, and drearily unoriginal music (yes, there is good Gothic music, but it’s hard to find; personally, I’m partial to any group with the guts to include a skilled theremin player—at least they make an effort).

None of this sort of world-building takes any imagination. The author can just parcel out titles and territories and oaths of loyalty and hierarchical ambitions among more or less interchangeable vampire characters, and off you go.

Why, they’re just like us at our most childish, but older, more suave, and numbingly dull. Vampire Lineages, Houses, chapters, lodges, battalions, parties, clans, etc. find their plots in a constant jostling for advantage, which to me wears pretty thin pretty fast. I’ve had enough of vampire politics (mostly ruthless infighting with no thought for the population at large) just by living through the past three decades of American history.

So for me, at any rate, the pleasure of vampire stories isn’t politics but evocations of intimacy—the close-in, deeply imagined, mindfully emotional relationships that a writer must stretch herself to create for her semi-supernatural protagonists. I enjoy good stories about individual monsters caught up in and absorbed by their own murkily undead state. What’s the point of being a vampire in a world full of the creatures that you used to be like but upon whom you now prey, if you never give serious thought to what that means—to the staggering psychological displacement from the short, warm, busy life of a human being to a vampiric existence of sharply narrowed concerns but infinitely extended time horizons.

In these two books of Nancy Baker’s you will find just such a story, in the form of a very close study of individual vampires fighting for balance in a chaotic existence that cycles erratically between bestial appetite, coupled with augmented strength, and the tenuous connection to what remains of their original humanity. There is no “vampire society” here. The author places her characters in a situation where vampires are extremely few and far between; the only social structures that matter are human ones, within which they must somehow lead their outsider lives.

The tight focus on character is complemented by a firm grounding of the narratives in Canadian geography—Toronto and Banff, grittily realized to ground the fantastic doings of vampire protagonists in a fresh, realistically evoked setting of Canadian town and city life.

The Night Inside
presents us with a young teacher ripped from her ordinary life and thrown into the ongoing battle between a captured vampire and a gang that uses him for exploitative purposes, with even more nefarious ends in mind. The complex relationship that grows between Ardeth and the vampire Rozokov, their dangerous escape and counterattack, is set against Ardeth’s continued entanglement with humans—like her sister, whose closeness with Ardeth is troubled by the normal frictions of sibling-hood.

It’s worth noting that one of the pleasures of these books is the inclusion of significant female characters who are
the dimensionless evil brides of Dracula but persons in their own right: the Nisei medical tech Lisa Takara, Eleanor the librarian, Sara who sings with a band, and others.

There are active supporting male characters as well, with goals and anxieties of their own, so that the central couple doesn’t breathe up all the oxygen in the book. The sense of ordinary life going on around them, life that must be engaged with on more levels than simply securing a meal, is solid and satisfying.

Ardeth, killed and risen as a vampire herself, is a changed person. A rush of power comes with her newfound state, and a joy in shedding her human identity’s constrictions, assumptions, and hesitations. She savours the excitement of the hunt, of a stealthy outlaw existence, and of the erotic enigma of Rozokov, who made her a vampire.

But she’s also still a person. She doesn’t just walk away from the human network that has both bound and nourished her all her life: it’s not that simple, not for most real, functional people, no matter how peculiar they’ve become. Ardeth joins Rozokov in the quest for freedom from their persecutors, but she pursues another, more complex quest too, for intimacy beyond transitory closeness to a person whose blood you want to drink.

Blood and Chrysanthemums
the story is built out from a loose end from the first book—Lisa Takara and what she knows or imagines she knows about these two strange and dangerous beings.

The sequel begins with a reconnection of the undead lovers to the natural world: Ardeth rock-climbs, Rozokov studies the stars. The couple are living in Banff, a destination for admirers of the majestic outdoors, where self-absorption is challenged by the beauty of vibrant, living nature.

On a more intimate scale, domestic discord inevitably intrudes: jealousy, possessiveness, and disagreement over where and how to live in the human world, together as a couple or alone, as solitary predators. Rozokov has long since been separated from the familiarities of the environment he was born into. Ardeth’s freshly minted shock and confusion is a vivid complement to his more world-weary familiarity with their dilemma: Can you maintain the ruthless pragmatism that ensures the survival of a predator, and also maintain the passionate and vulnerable emotional life that is the essence of the human self? How do you avoid becoming all-monster, all the time, devoted to the stratagems of the hunt and satisfied with them as your central, eternal theme-and-variations—that and nothing more, forever?

Rozokov broods. Well, he is Russian, and he’s had centuries to ruminate over the problem. Ardeth isn’t ready for brooding. She’s young, she’s full of new energy and perceptions, and she wants to find not just answers but solutions. She even tries to return to her old lives—human and vampire—in Toronto, where it all began for her. But nothing is a comfortable fit any more.

So, for company—for the intimacy that any social animal craves—they have each other, in closeness and understanding, but also in anger and mistrust: What can “faithfulness” mean to lovers who live for centuries?

This is a meditative take on vampirism, more exploratory than the first novel. The big questions aren’t scanted while the action of escape, flight, and retribution are foreground.

Big questions like: What am I supposed to
with my long, long life? What gives significance to my isolated existence, running in lonely, secretive parallel to the myriad of brief human lives around me? Do I still have a soul (and so what if I do)? Can I ever find lasting love, peace, and freedom as a bloodsucker chained by necessity to its prey; and is that what I really want?

Becoming a vampire clearly doesn’t let them off the existential hook—far from it.

The plot structure is unusual; a dreamlike quality develops as a new vampire character closes in on the central pair, with their fitful quarrels, joys, and bafflements. Fujiwara, once a Japanese lordling and now a yakuza boss, is much older than even Rozokov, and formed by a very different culture. Does
have some answers?

In Baker’s vampire tale, the melancholy found in so many supernatural protagonists isn’t, really, all that different from the underlying melancholy felt by ordinary humans who think and feel beyond the standard, socially acceptable mores of their day. That’s why it’s so rewarding for a reader to spend time with these characters while they search, through doubt and confusion, for
answers—just like the rest of us.

Finally, the biggest question must be faced: How do I deal with an endless lifetime? What Baker’s vampires come up with in answer is both moving and satisfying.

Suzy McKee Charnas

Albuquerque, New Mexico

January 6, 2014

Chapter 1

Ardeth Alexander hung on the wall, right knee bent to keep her toe balanced on a thin ledge, left toe pressed against the rock. Three fingers of her left hand kept a precarious grip on a tiny ridge, while her right stretched upward in a futile attempt to reach the next hold.

Not quite like the movies, is it? something snickered in the back of her mind. Can’t make like Lee or Langella and crawl face first down the castle wall, can we?

She shifted a little, lifting her right foot along the rock, hunting for some small outcropping that would give her the base she needed for another try. She looked up, but could not see past the point where the wall bent outwards in a sharp overhang.

She could not reach the handhold from the relatively stable position she had assumed. To gain it, she had to get her feet up where her hands were now and use the thrust in her legs to get enough momentum to reach the hold. She’d made it—once. The other times had ended with an undignified dangle from the end of the rope tethered to the harness around her hips.

Ardeth tried not to remember those times as she eased her feet up into the holds. It’s easy, it’s easy, she told herself. Just lunge and grab. You can do it. This body could do it, she knew that. All that was required was that her mind catch up to it, that it forget all the fumbles and failures her old flesh had been heir to.

She sucked in a long breath, felt her muscles bunch and gather. Think about the next hold, up to the right, beyond the curve of the overhang, think about what you can do now, think about the blood and the strength and the night and then GO!

She flung herself up and around, right hand finding the hold, right toe scrabbling on the curve for a shelter that eluded it. Her left hand slapped the rock just below the next hold and began to slip. She felt herself falling, legs tumbling away from the rock and flailing clumsily. The fingers of her right hand clutched at the knob of the rock, spasming with all the strength she had been controlling and she felt the hold shatter.

As it broke, her clawing left hand caught a small hold and she gasped as the weight of her falling body jarred up through her shoulder and wrist.

“Don’t panic,” a voice said from beside her and suddenly everything she had been ignoring swept back into her senses: the voices of the other climbers on the artificial wall, the creak of shoes on the gymnasium floor, the anxious call from her partner on the ground.

Ardeth opened the eyes she hadn’t realized she’d closed and looked to her right. A man rested on his top rope above her, braced against the wall. “Let go. The rope will hold you. You’ll be OK,” he advised. It was true, she knew. The rope from her harness was securely anchored by the weight of the woman who was belaying her. But she shook her head.

“Where’s the next hold?”

“About a foot up, three inches to the right,” he answered automatically. “But . . .”

Let it go, Ardeth told herself. Let it go and fall. But somehow she couldn’t move, not when she was this close, not when she could make it. Even if it took strength she was not supposed to have, strength her unchanging slender arms should not have been able to support. Gritting her teeth, she began to pull herself upward by her left arm. Distantly, she heard the climber’s muttered expletive of disbelief but ignored it, concentrating on bending her elbow. She lifted her right hand and spidered it up the wall, hunting for the promised hold. At last, her fingers found it and curved over the artificial knob of rock set into the wood. Relaxing, the muscles of her left arm screamed in delayed protest.

With her hands secure, she found control of her legs again and lifted her feet to brace them against the holds on the curving wall. Another surge upward and she had cleared the overhang and balanced herself on more secure holds again. As she rested in her harness, she realized that the other climber was still hovering to her right.

“Didn’t think you’d make that last one.” Too elated to be cautious, Ardeth flashed a smile.

“I’m stronger than I look,” she acknowledged. “And I was getting tired of always falling in the same damned place.”

“You’re fighting the curve too much. Let your body go with it and you’ll be fine,” he suggested and she laughed. Like most climbing advice she’d been given on the wall, it was appallingly nebulous, seeming to relate more to some mysterious Zen understanding of the rock than the physics of muscle and gravity.

“I’d have been fine if the bottom hold hadn’t broken.” He twisted to look down and whistled softly.

“First time I’ve ever seen that happen. Peter . . . the manager . . . will have a fit.”

“That isn’t supposed to happen, then? I thought it was just another way of simulating the real world,” Ardeth lied and he shook his head, smiling. “Well, now that I know what it looks like up here, I suppose I’d better head back down. Thanks for the advice.”

“Any time.” He looked as if he wanted to say more but Ardeth returned to studied concentration of her route down and when she glanced to her right again, he was moving towards the ceiling above her.

Fifteen minutes later she was on the floor, thanking the woman who had taken the time to belay her, stowing her harness and gear into her pack and shrugging her black jacket over her T-shirt and leggings. It was the end of September and the nights in Alberta were chilly and edged with the promise of winter. We’ll be gone before the snow comes, she told herself, but wasn’t sure she believed it.

After changing her shoes, she headed down the halls of the high school towards the exit. It was nearly nine-thirty, closing time for the Thursday evening open climb, and she heard the departing climbers discussing where to meet for coffee or beer and sharing plans for rock climbs in California or alpine treks in the Rockies.

For a moment, she felt isolation wrap around her, chilling her the way the night air no longer could. The fragile sense of kinship she sometimes felt in the gym, the promise that her climbing could become something other than amusing therapy always shattered when it ran into the wall of reality. There was a border here that could not be crossed: the line between day and night, the chasm between what she was and what they were. She could not climb out of the shadows of the truth.

Ardeth shrugged angrily, trying to push away those thoughts. She had taken up climbing in part because it was simple, because there was just you and the goal and only one way up. She needed that clarity, that directness—because nothing had been simple for her since her world had changed forever six months ago. She had to take what she could from it—the physical joy of her new body’s power, the pleasure of the illusion of risk without the reality. Wanting more would just complicate things again.

She pushed through the front doors and took a deep breath of the cool night air, blinked up at the scattering of stars. No need to guess where
would be tonight; clear nights seemed rare enough that he didn’t waste them.

“Hello again.” The voice from the shadows at her left spun her around, and she stepped back as her hands lifted in automatic defence. “Did I scare you? I’m sorry.” The climber who had given her advice on the wall was rising from a crouch by the bike rack.

“It’s all right. I was preoccupied . . . you startled me.” He pushed a battered mountain bike into the light as she spoke. With her mind now undistracted by the necessity of conquering the overhang, she truly saw him for the first time. He was bigger than she had thought; over six feet and solid, wide jaw around wide grin, big nose, thick eyebrows over blue eyes. His hair was muddy brown, shot with lingering sun-streaks.

“My name’s Mark, Mark Frye.” He held out his hand and she stared at it for a moment, then shook it hesitantly. His fingers were calloused and dusty with climbing chalk, but the heat of his skin felt as though it might scald her.

“Ardeth Alexander.”

“You new in town?”

“A few weeks.”

“Thought I hadn’t seen you around before.”

“Do you climb on the wall often?”

“Not really . . . but Banff’s a small town. Sooner or later you see most people here on the street at least once. Especially now that tourist season is almost over.”

Ardeth frowned, realizing that he was right. Her Toronto-bred sensibility could not conceive of knowing everyone in your apartment building, let alone everyone in a town. This was a complication she had not foreseen—and another reason to be moving on.

“Besides,” Mark continued, “I work over at Domano Sports, so I see a lot of people buying skis and things. You been climbing long?”

“Just since I got here.”

“You’re pretty good. Have you been out on any real climbs yet?” She shook her head. “There are some good ones outside of town. I could take you, if you’re interested.”

Ardeth looked at him for a moment, knowing the offer could mean more than climbing, feeling the brand of his skin on her hand. She could scent his blood, beneath the sweat and chalk. For a wild moment, she imagined saying yes. To the mad risk of climbing, the madder risk of sex. To the maddest risk of all.

“I can’t,” she said at last. “I’m allergic to the sun. I couldn’t climb in daylight. Thanks anyway . . . it was nice to meet you. . . . Goodnight.” The words tumbled out, to drown his objections. She turned away quickly and walked towards the street. He said nothing but she felt, or thought that she could, the weight of eyes on her retreating back.

Out on the main street, she felt safer. There was still the semblance of a crowd there, though she noticed it had thinned considerably since the first nights of their arrival, a month earlier. Frye was right, the tourist season was almost over. Or at least in a lull that would last until the skiing started in December. Ardeth hitched her pack up onto her shoulder and wished she did not feel so suddenly exposed. They had never intended to stop here; they had been heading for Vancouver. Their car, cheap and barely roadworthy, had finally died just outside the town. They had resigned themselves to a longer stay when it became apparent that fixing it would cost more than they could afford. But as they looked around, it seemed as if Banff was the perfect place to hide. Tourists thronged the streets and young travellers from all over the world came and went, seeking brief employment to subsidize the climbing, hiking, cycling and camping that were the reasons for their trips.

Now, seeing it through new eyes, she no longer felt invisible. In the summer sea of Japanese tourists, her short black hair did not merit a second look; now, compared only to the predominantly long, natural styles of the locals and transient travellers, it looked like the dye job it was. Her dark clothes, so perfectly anonymous in Toronto’s Queen Street bars, seemed suddenly too strong a contrast to the bright outdoor gear favoured by most of the tourists and townspeople alike.

You couldn’t be more conspicuous if you put up a sign, she thought, catching a glimpse of her reflection in the window of a coffee shop, moving past a knot of late-lingering tourists. Pick the one that doesn’t belong in this picture.

Then, thankfully, she was past the bright blaze of the stores and restaurants that lined Banff Avenue and onto the street that led to their rooms. The rounded bulk of Tunnel Mountain rose in front of her and seemed to promise shelter in its shadow.

The natural glory of the place had overwhelmed her from the start. She had never been attracted to the outdoor life but for the first time could understand the allure. Nothing she had seen in photographs or films had prepared her for the encircling embrace of the mountains, the raw beauty of rock and trees, even glimpsed only by moonlight or the long twilights that lingered here as the sun disappeared behind the peaks. She had been frightened setting out on their first hunt, city-bred nerves jumping at every breeze in the tall pines around her, but her night-sight had turned the moonlit woods bright silver. If there were other predators in its depths, they stayed well away.

She was almost home when she heard him call. There were no words, just the sudden knowledge in her heart that he had left the observatory and was on his way across the bridge over the Bow River. It was early for the hunt but she knew that he was going up the mountain, beyond the last line of houses carved from the woods. Hunger twitched into life and the memory of Mark Frye’s hand burning against hers made her throat ache.

Wait for me, she whispered in her mind and felt his assent. She swerved back to the main street, crossed the river and found the trail that would take her to him.

He was waiting at the edge of the small clearing, partway up the mountainside, across from the path she had taken. As he stepped from the shadow of the trees, the moonlight struck him, turning the loose grey hair to silver, revealing a fine-boned face. Ardeth felt something twist deep inside her, something perilously close to pain. But she did not move, simply waited beneath the branches as he stared into the woods to her left.

After a moment, he lifted his hand. She heard the faint rustle of leaves, the crack of a twig. A dark shape moved into the clearing. It tossed its head, the wide rack of antlers seeming to rake the sky, and pawed at the dirt. Ardeth felt the edges of the call that drew it and found her fingers digging into a tree-trunk to keep herself from moving.

At last, the great head dropped. The elk took two steps forward and was still. The hand dropped onto its sharp shoulder.

Ardeth moved from the trees and crossed the clearing to the animal’s side. Across the lowered spikes of its antlers, she met Dimitri Rozokov’s eyes. For a moment, something moved in the grey gaze, a darkness she could not identify, then he smiled. She put her hand over his on the elk’s withers.

In the moonlight, on the mountain, the vampires fed.

BOOK: Blood and Chrysanthemums
6.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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