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The Wood Wife

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The Wood Wife

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Author: Terri Windling
Publisher: Orb Books, 2003
Tor, 1996

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Contemporary Fantasy
Mythic Fiction (Fantasy)
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(22 reads / 11 ratings)


Leaving behind her fashionable West Coast life, Maggie Black comes to the Southwestern desert to pursue her passion and her dream. Her mentor, the acclaimed poet Davis Cooper, has mysteriously died in the canyons east of Tucson, bequeathing her his estate and the mystery of his life--and death.

Maggie is astonish by the power of this harsh but beautiful land and captivated by the uncommon people who call it home--especially Fox, a man unlike any she has ever known, who understands the desert's special power.

As she reads Cooper's letters and learns the secrets of his life, Maggie comes face-to-face withe the wild, ancient spirits of the desert--and discovers the hidden power at its heart, a power that will take her on a journey like no other.


Chapter One

The hills call in a tongue
only the language-haunted hear,
and lead us back again
into the place where we have started.

- The Wood Wife, Davis Cooper

Nigel came down the street toward her, his face shadowed with annoyance. Her heart, that traitorous organ, still leapt when she saw her ex-husband through the window glass. She knew then why she'd run back to Los Angeles, away from the nice man up north who said he loved her; Nigel was a hard act to follow. He entered the cafe, his irritation and his energy like a cloud that entered with him, changing the weather of the entire room. And reminding her of why she'd once run away form Nigel, too.

He looked around the cafe with displeasure. Maggie and picked the place, a little Czech bakery popular with film students and would-be poets half her age. She imagined that he would have preferred some trendy new restaurant where he could make a point of paying the extravagant bill. But this was her turf, not his, for once in their lives. She needed every advantage she could get. And he'd be mollified once he tasted the pastry. Good food, in Nigel's book, always won out over ambiance.

"For god's sake, there you are." Nigel threaded his way through the students to her table in the corner. She stood for his embrace. In her boots with the heels she was even taller than he was. He kissed her on both cheeks, the European way, and said, "You're looking well. Fantastic, in fact."

Maggie shrugged off the compliment as lightly as it was given. Unbidden came the image of Nigel's current wife, a skinny young Parisian fashion model.

"How are you, Nige? You look... tired," she said.

He sighed as he sat, rested his chin on his hand, and gave the grin that had won her heart years ago. "What day is this? Thursday? Still Wednesday for me. I never got home to bed last night. We play Toronto this weekend, Chicago on Tuesday, my alto is sick and my percussionist has just discovered his wife is sleeping with the soundman. So what's good here?"

"The coffee. The strudel. Any of the unpronounceable Czech pastries. The French ones will disappoint you."

He signaled the waitress, a young woman with hair dyed an alarming shade of magenta wearing a "Kafka in Prague" T-shirt covered with paint. Nigel ordered for both of them without consulting Maggie, a habit she'd never been able to get him to break. He remembered this too late, and gave her a guilty smile. "Is there something else you wanted? I'll call her back."

Maggie shoot her head. "So long as there's coffee and lots of it. Look, Nige, I can't stay that long. I've got a plane to catch at four."

"Today?" he said, genuinely taken aback. "I thought you'd be in L.A. a while."

"This is just a stopover. To pick up a few things. And see you." She rolled a fork across the table nervously. "Actually, I'm headed for Tucson."

"Tucson? As in Arizona? Whatever for?" He leaned back in the chair and asked the question casually, but she knew that she had rattled him. His transatlantic accent shifted back to his native British whenever he was feeling out of sorts.

Despite her nervousness, she took a certain malicious pleasure in telling him, "I'm going to live there for a while. I found another tenant for the house here; I told that piano player of yours he could have it. He's made an offer to buy it, and I think we should consider it. I can't honestly imagine coming back to Los Angeles."

Nigel sat still, with the ominous quiet he sunk into whenever something displeased him. She envied him that. She always spoke first and thought after--and usually regretted it.

The waitress brought their order as Maggie waited for the inevitable barrage of questions. She picked up the coffee cup gratefully, letting its warmth dispel her anxiety. She didn't need Nigel's permission or blessing. She needn't have told Nigel any of this at all. So why did she feel nervous as a cat on a griddle, as her granddaddy in West Virginia used to say?

For all Nigel's attempts at cool British reserve, his emotions were as tangible in the static field around him as if the air had changed color. Surprise shaded into suspicion and anger. It was not that he needed her here in L.A. But he didn't like things happening outside of his control. They still co-owned the little house by Venice Beach where she'd lived for several years after the divorce, and it was his plan that she should come back to it. They prided themselves on a "friendly divorce." She went to his concerts and he went to her book signings, the former considerably more frequent and star-studded than the latter; she was seen in the better L.A. restaurants in the company of Nigel and his current wife Nicole.

But for the last two years she'd been renting out the beach house, determined to stay away from L.A. and the circle of friends who still thought of her as half of the Nigel-and-Maggie Show. First she'd gone up to San Francisco, living on a boat owned by an actor friend of Nigel's who was filming abroad for the winter. Then farther up the coast to Inverness, and then even farther to Mendocino. Each time, although the destination and been her choice, the way had been comfortably paved by Nigel. Accommodations and miraculously appeared which she never could have afforded on her own--always "on loan" from some friend of his but subsidized, she suspected, by Nigel's wealth.

It was still odd to think of her ex-husband as wealthy, although he had always assumed he would be. The popular and financial success of the medieval music group he directed had taken everyone but arrogant Nigel by surprise; whereas the fact that she was barely making it on a writer's income came as a surprise to no one. It was not that she worked less hard than he did, or that she was any less well known in her field; but sales on poetry and essay collections, along with the occasional teaching gig, rarely earned enough to pay all the bills. Too often it was Nigel who paid them.

Nigel picked up his pastry and took a bite. His expression was bland, but there was thunder in the air. Then he pinned her with those lovely blue eyes that she'd never been able to withstand. "Why on earth Tucson, Arizona? I played a concert there once. There's nothing in that city but two-stepping cowboys and retired old dears from Long Island. Have you looked at the map? There's no ocean in Tucson. It's the desert, and hotter than bloody hell."

"Do you remember Davis Cooper?"

He nodded. "The cranky old dodger whose poetry you're so enamored of. I know he's dead. I saw it in the papers--what was it, last spring?"

"Yes. Six months ago."

"Awfully sorry about that, Puck. You were still corresponding with him, weren't you? You know, I hadn't realized he'd won the Pulitzer till I read it in the obit."

"I've inherited his house. In Tucson."

For the second time that day she had the sweet pleasure of startling her ex-husband. He choked down his pastry and said, "Good lord, why? I thought you'd never actually met him."

She shrugged. "I hadn't. To be honest, it was just as much a shock to me. We've been writing for years now, but he always put me off when I suggested a visit. I wanted to write a book on him, remember? No one's done a definitive biography of Davis Cooper. He said 'no' flat out, but then he kept writing and we got to be friends. Of a sort. He's left me his house, and his papers. I assume this is his way of letting me do the book now that he's gone."

"What about his family? Wife? Children?"

She shook her head. "His ex-wife is dead; his lover is dead; neither had any children. There's just an elderly housekeeper, and he's left the rest of what he had to her. Not that there's much. The royalties on his books, some of which are still in print. A small life-insurance policy. Some other bits of property in Tucson."

"Arizona is a damned odd place for an Englishman like Cooper to have ended up," Nigel said testily. "It's a long way from Dartmoor to the desert."

"His lover was Mexican, remember? Anna Naverra--the painter. He met her down in Mexico, then they moved over the border to Tucson. Naverra died a few years later, but he never left the desert again."

"As I recall," Nigel said, interest warring with his anger and interest winning, "there was some mystery surrounding Naverra's death. And now your Cooper has died under mysterious circumstances as well, hasn't he?"

"He drowned. Isn't that strange? In the middle of the desert, with no water anywhere nearby. Murder, definitely. But no one knows why. His house was ransacked, and yet everything of value seemed to be untouched. The police never found out who did it. Poor old Davis. What an awful way to go."

She stared down at her coffee cup, swallowing her anger. Death had touched her life before, but nothing so brutal as murder. It maddened her that Davis had died when the streets outside were full of people who would never give anything half so fine back to the world they lived in. Why on earth would anyone want to murder an elderly poet?

"Hey Puck," Nigel said, leaning forward and encircling her wrist with his hand. "I'm real sorry. I know you admired old Cooper. I still remember when you did your master's thesis on The Wood Wife. You had a copy of the book under your arm the day we met."

"You remember that?" She looked up and smiled. It was a detail Maggie had forgotten herself. She remembered the scene, in an artist's studio in a bad but trendy part of London. The artist had been her good friend, Tat. Nigel had been her good friend's lover. The electricity between them had been immediate although it was two years, two lovers, and two cites later before they finally got together.

"I remember everything about you," Nigel said, giving her a look calculated to melt bones.

"You're married. Stop it." She smiled as she said it, but she withdrew her hand and picked up her cup.

"And whose fault is that?" he countered.

Whose fault? His as much as hers, surely. She might have been the one to end the marriage over his protestations, but the Pa...

Copyright © 1996 by Terri Windling


The Wood Wife

- spoltz


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