In front of them all, before the fire, squatted the largest, darkest woman they had ever seen. She had shoulders as broad as a water buffalo's, and sinewy forearms that were folded in front of her chest. The firelight flickered off her russet-colored face, immobile as the stone carvings on the wall, and points of flame were reflected in two black, glassy eyes. Her eyebrows were shaved off, and she wore a red silk scarf twisted turbanlike around her head. Behind her loomed the tall sandstone sculpture of a grimacing creature that looked to be half lion, half dragon.
The smiling man waited a moment longer for stragglers, counted the money, and stowed it away in a hidden pocket. He strode in, arms spread wide, and spoke.
"Mesdames, messieurs! Welcome!" He had a strange hiss in his voice, and Nhi and Vi weren't sure if it was his missing teeth or an accent they could not place. "Thisss night, can you not feel the spiritsss? They are, hmmm . . ." He paused, closed his eyes, and sniffed at the air like an animal. Then he opened his eyes again, winked, and darted sideways into the darkness of the temple recess. There were confused murmurs from the audience, and people looked around, waiting for him to reappear. Then they heard a chuckle coming from above them. He was seated astride the neck of the lion-dragon, leaning his elbows on its stone head with his hands laced under his chin. He leered down at them, flashing his black gums. Then he continued: "They are . . . everywherethey swarm. And perhapsss your own loved one is among them, ah? With a messssage for you, hmmm? Or perhapsss they have something that mussst be finished . . ." He let his words die out slowly and allowed an uncomfortable silence to fill the space before whispering, "Now, the misstressss of the spiritssss; the woman who can crosssss between our world and theirs."
He vaulted from the dragon and into the shadows again as the enormous Red Woman rose. In one fluid motion, she unraveled the scarf from around her head, releasing a curtain of dark hair that fell past her waist. She shook out the red silk in front of her, and there was a curious symmetry in the black shroud of her hair and the scarlet shroud in her hands. Red Woman spoke, her voice low, hoarse, and halting.
"To bring the spirits I must cover myself. They will only speak through the faceless; they will not be seen by our eyes . . ."
She lifted the cloth high, then lowered it over her head, where it draped fluidly down over her torso, turning the woman into a smooth pillar of red that glowed in the light of the flames. For several long minutes everything was still, save for the occasional animal scream from the trees outside the temple and the fidgeting of the audience within. Suddenly Red Woman began to chant in a low drone that echoed off the stone and vibrated deep in the chests of all in the audience: strange, rippling syllables that sounded as if they had three or four pitches at once. Time was twisted with the sound, and no one was sure how many minutes passed before, with a sharp intake of breath, the chanting ended as abruptly as it had begun. Silence descended again. But then a new voice, high and quivering, from beneath the veil:
At the word, Nhi's shoulders immediately hunched up. Vi clenched her teeth and her eyes narrowed.
"Chim con? Chim? Where are you?" The figure in the sheet was now moving toward them with lurching steps.
"Such naughty little girls. You never listened. Tell me you're sorry. Very bad. Very bad girls. Why won't you come here? Chim?" It was right in front of them now, red and rippling and horrible. The villagers in the audience couldn't agree on what happened next. Some said that it was one of the twins who yanked off the veil. Others said that they saw the fabric snag on the stone claws of one of the temple's statues. There even were a few who claimed later that a long, thin shadow crept out of the forest and did it. But they all saw the same thing when the cloth fell away: Red Woman's head was thrown back and her eyes were rolled up into her skull, all whites; her hands twitched and rhythmically clenched and unclenched. A trickle of foam was starting at the corner of her mouth.
Excerpted from The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith. Copyright © 2014 by Violet Kupersmith. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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