Yellowcake brings together ten short stories from the extraordinarily talented Margo Lanagan--each of them fiercely original and quietly heartbreaking.
The stories range from fantasy and fairy tale to horror and stark reality, and yet what pervades is the sense of humanity. The people of Lanagan's worlds face trials, temptations, and degradations. They swoon and suffer and even kill for love. In a dangerous world, they seek the solace and strength that comes from family and belonging.
These are stories to be savored slowly and pondered deeply because they cut to the very heart of who we are.
“Haunting, gorgeous, and sometimes painful, Lanagan’s stories are unlike anything else in fantasy literature.” --Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Lanagan unravels familiar myths and fairy tales, weaving them into unique, sharply resonant forms in this characteristically stunning collection." --Kirkus, starred review
An Excerpt fromYellowcake
Billy flew into the kitchen. The screen door clapped closed after him.
"You're back," said Nance.
Corin looked up from the dishes, to the world reflected in the window. The boy was wild and clammy-looking from running, his clothes every which way and filthy, his chest going with his panting. Nance admired him as he passed.
"Just for a minute," he said. "I've got to fetch some stuff."
"What stuff? For what?" barked Corin automatically.
"Just stuff. Any old thing. Three things." This last was tossed back from halfway down the hall.
The boy rummaged in his room, and rattled. Then he was back in the doorway.
"You need a haircut," said Corin to the boy's reflection.
"What are you wild lads up to?" said Nance.
"Shai's brother's got psychic powers. We're doing experiments."
"Psychic powers! Well, well," said Nance.
"Maybe he can tell you where you dropped that shed key," said Corin.
"Not that kind of power," said Billy scornfully.
"Of course, not anything useful."
There was a skillful summoning whistle outside.
"I've got to go," said Billy, starting for the door.
"Kiss!" Nance commanded.
He darted back, kissed her cheek quickly and was gone.
Corin was up to his elbows in suds. Nance, at the table in her glasses, went slowly on through the newspaper. She would suck up all the news, but she would never speak to him about it, as if he didn't have ears or something. As if he didn't have a brain to hear with. As if he might not like to hear, because reading it himself was such a labor.
"What's the boy got there?" said Corin, putting his forehead to the window. He brought sudsy hands up to block out the other reflections.
"He's got . . ." Nance looked up and dredged the picture of Billy out of her memory. "He's got Pumfter von Schnitzel, and that ashtray. The one on a stick."
Ah yes, from the old days, when Corin had pleased himself where he smoked. "And he's pinched one of those blessed roses on the way out," Corin said. "The Zephyr ones. Or whatever silly name they've got."
Nance licked her fingertip and caught up a corner of the paper. "Hmm," she said, reading.
Corin looked over his shoulder at her. "You're not bothered?"
"Bothered by the rose? He can have a rose. As long as he's not tearing the petals off every bloom."
"By any of those things. What if he loses that dog thing?"
She looked up at him, dragging her mind back from wherever to hear him. "He doesn't need it as much as he used to."
"You said you'd never find another with quite such a look on its face. You said in the whole basket there were no others with that look. It's an accident, the way his eyes were sewn on."
"What a memory. That was years ago." Nance looked properly at him now. "You just don't want him playing with those Traveller kids."
"My eye, I don't."
"You're not really so bothered about Pumfter."
Nance went back to the paper.
Corin sudsed on; plates clanked in the sink and then clacked into the rack. He heard his breath adjusting itself to every shift of his anxiety.
"It's nearly dark," he said.
"It's summer," said Nance in that patient tone he hated. "It's long evenings. You go out there and let your eyes adjust and see how dark it is."
"Maybe I should. Maybe I should follow the little bugger and see what they're up to."
"Maybe." There she went again. What she meant was, Of course you shouldn't! Leave the boy to his adventures, you clumsy great berk.
Corin heaved a sigh. He sneaked a look at Nance's reflection. Was she smiling? He wouldn't put it past her, to have a smile at his expense. Smug cow.
"Where is he, then?" asked Billy.
"Up on the hill in the reserve," said Shai. "We'll go up and signal when we're near."
"He can't spy down on us and see?"
"It's all bushy. And he doesn't want to cheat, remember. Besides, he'd never guess this. What is it?"
"It's an ashtray."
"Like, for smoking?" Shai looked it up and down. "It's huge."
"You stand it, beside your armchair." Billy stood it in the air as they walked. "Then you tap-tap your ash on the little tray there and push the button, and it spins and all goes in underneath, see?"
"It's a marvel. What a thing. Well, I know Jo's never seen such a one. And a toy, there."
"It's supposed to be a dog." Billy held Pumfter up and watched him do his work on Shai's face.
"That's got a friendly look. Let me hold him a second--ooh, his flower came away."
"That's the third thing. It's a rose. My grandma grows them and they win prizes."
"I thought it were part of the doggy. You were very pretty with your rose, weren't you, doggy? He's a good size. For holding, eh. Or for tucking away here, look. I can carry him?"
"Of course you can. I've got to keep this rose nice. And manage this ashtray, or it'll trip me up. Have we got to go through bushes or anything?"
"We can go around by the walking path. But we've to pick up Castle and Alex first."
"No, you've not." Their two forms bobbed darkly up out of the hedge.
"You must have shoveled that dinner," said Shai.
"We did. Dad said it was disgusting. Alex's made himself sick."
"Don't talk about it," said Alex. "I'll keep it down if I think of something else."
"He wouldn't miss this, not after I told him about last time," said Castle to Shai.
"Hopefully, we won't get into such trouble," said Shai. "Hopefully, we're far enough away."
"In Cottinden's Domain? It's a bloody hike, all right. It'll be dead dark coming home."
"It'll be worth it. And there'll be a moon."
By the time they got to the hilltop, Billy was just about puffed. No one had helped him with the long-stemmed ashtray or the fragile rose, although Pumfter von Schnitzel had been passed from boy to boy all the way. He was now in Alex's shirt, his kind face poking out between buttons. It's all right, he seemed to say to Billy. None of them are clean, but you can wash me, remember? Just throw me in the machine.
Jo was idling on the picnic table at the hilltop. Trees crowded behind him. The pinking light in their upper branches glowed also in the pale, grubby cloth of Jo's shirt.
Shai gave his whistle and Jo came alert and called out, in Travellers' language, and Shai called back.
"And bnah bnah blah blah Billy?" said Jo.
To Billy it was a marvel, that they could switch between one language and another. And a shame and an honor both, that they would stay in his language while he was with them.
"You're set?" Shai called out.
"It's not a matter of me being set." Jo's face moved against the dark trees, searching for some sight of them.
"Well, we've got everything. You can start any time."
"You got three things?"
"Choose one, then. Put it forward of you, and keep the others back. Behind a stone or a big tree or something."
Alex scrabbled Pumfter out of his shirt. The boys all looked to Billy.
"No," said Billy. "Let's put this flower first, before it spoils or gets stepped on or something."
"Here." Shai ushered him toward a boulder covered with picnickers' graffiti. "india 4 storm--remember that. Put the others behind there."
"Why?" Billy laid Pumfter down and propped the ashtray against some stones so that it wouldn't roll. "I mean, why remember? We'll be right here, won't we?"
"Maybe not. There might be a bit of traveling involved. A bit of wandering."
"Oh." Billy had thought it would be more like a show, where they sat and rested and watched.
"So. Put that forward on the ground there. But not anywhere Jo can see it."
"I can't see nothing in those bushes," said Jo. "I'm not even trying."
"It's forward. We're ready," said Shai. "Do your thing."
"Yer, shake yer booty," said Castle.
"Ah, shhh!" said Shai. "You've got to be serious."
"I can't help it. It's funny."
"You spoil this, I'll whack you so hard," hissed Alex.
"Quiet in there, then," said Jo from the clearing. "I can't go with all that racket."
"Can't go? What's he doing, working up a good crap? Ow."
"Shut up, you meelmeek."
"All right, I'm going," Jo sang out.
"Where to, is he going?" Billy murmured to Shai.
"Off away to the inside of his own head," said Shai. "He's got to use the psychic place. It's right in the middle, he says. In his lizard brain."
They waited. For quite some minutes they were four boys crouched in bushes, one boy on a picnic table, and a fragrant rose in between. Evening hung above them, its high, cool note singing on and on over the crickets' pulsing. Birds flew home and put themselves to bed here and there. Some land creature moved, Billy couldn't tell how far away, or what size, shrew or badger or wandering pony.
Then Jo got up and, with fluid movements that were not his own, stepped from table to bench to ground. He groped at the two buttons of his pinkish-whitish shirt, undid them by hauling rather than finger work, dragged the shirt off over his head and stood there frowning, swinging his face blindly.
" 'S around here somewhere," he said in a deep, drugged voice.
He lifted his face to listen. Rose-ness welled up out of the evening and rushed at them. Alex gave a shout. A sweet-scented shock hit Billy, a velvety punch. Down the slope he tumbled, alone in a storm of blooms, streaked and scraped with darker leaves. His lungs struggled, his skin dissolved, his thoughts turned to vapor as the rose essence passed through, roaring.
Corin was at the bins. He felt it coming as you feel a wave in the sea; it sucked stuff away, ahead of itself. Corin gripped the rim of the council wheelie bin, tried to stand firmer on the bumpy ground of the bin yard.
It hit, a powerful buffet of sweet air. It tossed his hair, rocked him, rocked the near-full bin. It must have rocked the roses. It must have stripped Nance's roses from their stems, to carry such a scent.
But there were no petals on the streaming air. Corin ran against the wind, blundered out of the yard and around the house. He must see what had happened.
At the corner of the house, the wind stopped him, like a rose-scented tarpaulin stretched across his path. But only he was blown and bewildered; nothing else moved, not a twig, not a leaf, not a flower. All Nance's garden stood serene in the dying summer evening.
But along the fence the rosebushes were jagged black candelabra. The roses brightened in the bloom wind, the rose wind, big soft rose-lamps propped among the rough leaves and the thorns. They shone and they shed--was it a smoke? It was like dust, or tiny seeds, or tiny, numerous, distant stars gone to milk in the sky, or like the curls of grainy steam from your soup or your tea. This stuff purled and streamered across the lawn to Corin; he breathed it and it filled his brain, which had broken open when the wind first hit him.
Her name is Rose, he thought dizzily, and knew he had hit upon something.
Nostrils flared, mouth wide to keep catching the wind, he stumbled after the strand of thought, back along the house wall.
He saw Nance through the screen. The white tail of her hair was blown forward over one shoulder; hair wisps danced around her face, which was all opened out and smoothed of its lines and thoughts by surprise. The newspaper lay flat on the kitchen table where Nance had pushed it back; it was unmoved by the wind. But the rose catalogue that had been underneath--Nance held some of the catalogue pages down, but others rattled back and forth in the breeze, and the photographed roses were smudged on the pages, and shed sweet crimson, velvet mauve and soft ivory across the kitchen air.
"Rose!" He called her true name through the screen. Because--he would never be able to explain to her!--she was the source of it. It was she who blew the rose coals to brightness, it was she who, in the first place, had had the idea of the roses. It was she--it was the children all over again! He saw that, too! He had fumed and raged against each pregnancy, and snarled and boiled and beat at the children as they grew, and railed at her for enslaving herself to them, instead of to him! But there she'd been, swelling and dreaming and knitting and working and reading to them and making their little foods and fending him off them, all according to the garden plan in her head. She had had the children plotted out just so, as if on sheets of squared paper, and she had kept him out, just as she'd not let him do a spadeful of digging or bring a barrowload of bricks to edge the rose bed--because he snarled and sneered so, because, allowed in, his anger would have thrashed about and damaged the whole project of the roses, of the children, of the garden.
"I'm sorry about the roses!" He felt as if he shouted, but it came out a child's cry, afraid the night would hear and descend on him. The wind softened; the rose colors were fading in the kitchen; Nance's hair settled and she looked about, for herself and for him, the speaker beyond the door screen.
"It just seemed so old-womanish," he said falteringly, trying to get some words out before the wind, the thought, entirely went. "I just wanted you to stay my girl--"
And it was gone. The last colors slid off the catalogue pages and trickled to invisibility across the table.
Nance stood up and scraped the chair back. "Of course!" She came around to the door. She was laughing, but not unkindly. "So that you could stay a boy, and all the girls still want you! Well, what kind of life is that, on and on and on? What is the use of that?"
"I don't know," he said, frightened. "But I didn't know . . . what was the use of roses, either. I couldn't see the point before, you see--"
She pressed her mouth to the screen, and he met it with his. Their warmths warmed the mesh. She put her hand up beside her face, and he matched it with his hand, and they were there for a moment, like reflections of each other, yet quite different. Quite different from each other, yet meeting at the mouth.