I love badgers – yes, I know all the arguments against them, the great list of their sins – but I love them all the same. I’ve also always loved transformation stories, but they’re generally run along the same lines: one character must be transformed from animal to human in order for there to be a happily-ever-after. That ending assumes that whatever was threatening the star-crossed lovers has been defeated; but, I wondered, what if it’s not? What if the threat remains, blundering about, looking for its dearest, darkest desire? What might our heroes do in order to escape?
I love Gytha, the feisty copyist/forger of the tale. I love that she seeks answers no matter what the cost; there’s something rather Gothic about her determination, but she’s in no way a fainting, fairly stupid Gothic heroine. I love Adelbert the ex-Abbot and Larcwide the Bibliognost, and I have always, always loved the ideas of monastic libraries and the preservation of knowledge – due in no small part to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, and my Uncle Rod, who’s also a collector of books and no mean bibliognost himself.
And I love the idea that sometimes, just sometimes, though you don’t get what you think you want, you get what you actually want.
The Badger Bride
by Angela Slatter
The tip of the quill scratches its way across the parchment, a sound that sets my teeth on edge.
One might think I’d be used to it by now. The black marks it leaves in its wake make no sense to me – indeed the entire book makes no sense – then again, I am a mere copyist and mine’s not to question why. Although I do.
Much to my father’s despair.
When he brought me this commission, I turned the tome over and over – a difficult enough task, for the thing is heavy, aged and fragile, the ebon cover tacky to the touch, the pages brittle – and a smell rose from the skin of the thing that was quite unpleasant. The name of the author and the title of the book were utterly obscured, a thick stygian gum had been smeared across them and it was hard to perceive whether this application was intentional or the result of mere carelessness. The inner leaves confirmed intent – no extant title page waited within, merely the remnants of a folio torn from the binding, tiny sad folds of paper with ragged edges.
So, an anonymous book.
‘Who is the client?’ I asked my father, Adelbert, once Abbot of the monastery of St-Simeon-in-the-Grove, who rolled his eyes and bid me Just do the job.
‘But, Father, it is very old, very frail, and the ink is faded ? fading as I watch if my eyes don’t deceive me.’ I manoeuvred the article in question so he could better see. ‘Is it the last of its kind? Who is the owner? What does he expect?’
‘He expects, like your father, that you do not ask questions, little prying thing. That you take this volume and copy it as quickly as you might!’ He took a deep breath and roared, ‘Else I’ll put you out in the cold, Gytha!’
I harrumphed, and left his study. He will not put me out; he will do no such thing. I am the only child in Fox Hollow House who earns her keep, after all. Aelfrith spends her days draped across the couch, sighing for a husband, and Edda devotes her time to exercising and grooming the six horses in the stables. I alone understood and adopted the scholarly arts Father had tried to teach us; and I alone adopted the trade he learned at the monastery ? and at which, he freely admits, was terrible. People come from all around, from as far away as Lodellan, to have me copy their books, their precious, unique, failing books; to have me adorn and enhance them, to add vines and flowers and strange animals in the margins; to change the existing illustrations they cannot bear (modestly clothe a naked Eve, paint out grandmother’s warts on her nose, give uncle a chin that does not slope so straight from lower lip to clavicle). Copy, edit, amend, ameliorate, augment and occasionally, if the pay is right, forge.
I will make a book what they want it to be, either more or less itself.