Death Comes for the Trophy Wife and Other Stories
Karen M. Vaughn
Release Date: October 26, 2021
Print ISBN: 978-1-948559-69-0 • EPUB ISBN: 978-1-948559-72-0 • Kindle ISBN: 978-1-948559-70-6 • PDF ISBN: 978-1-948559-71-3
Brain Mill Press offers Death Comes for the Trophy Wife in ebook and paperback editions. Ebook buyers receive access to MOBI (Kindle), EPUB, and PDF files, offered without DRM restrictions. Print book buyers receive a physical copy of the book and access to the ebook files in all formats.
Fans of writers like Karen Russell and George Saunders will especially enjoy A Kiss for a Dead Film Star, but there’s something here for everyone in this artfully written collection of uncanny and human tales.
—Lawrence Journal-World on A Kiss for a Dead Film Star
The weight of these stories is much heavier than this slight volume should allow, and each of them packs an emotional punch. They are also compellingly readable. I tried to ration myself to one a day and failed; I had to go back and reread to make sure that each one got the attention it deserves. ... Highly recommended.
—The Future Fire Reviews on A Kiss for a Dead Film Star
Months after reading, [the stories] still haunt me.
—Stephanie Alford, 7Stillwell SF/F Feminism Reviews on A Kiss for a Dead Film Star
Vaughn weaves vivid tales filled with equal amounts of love, eroticism, beauty and fear.
No one can strip down love to its primordial fertility and minerals like Karen M. Vaughn, and in this immersive follow-up to her debut collection, love is stripped so we can watch it haunt, seduce, whisper, rage, and slink.
Good horror—and Vaughn’s is the best—looks lingeringly on what we’d rather only glance at over our shoulders. With Technicolor magical realism, Vaughn pulls and worries at every kind of love that humans feel (especially secretly feel) and how it might save us even as we let it consume us. As is so often the case with Vaughn’s scary/witty/delicious stories, Death Comes for the Trophy Wife gloriously muralizes our most private fears until we feel more human than we did before we read it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karen M. Vaughn loves reading and writing uncanny fiction. Her first collection of short stories, A Kiss for a Dead Film Star, was published by Brain Mill Press in 2016 and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her work has also appeared in A cappella Zoo, Whiskey Island Magazine, Illya’s Honey, and REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters. For many years she edited for a medical journal, which might explain her fascination with evolutionary biology and the workings of the body. She loves horror and will drunkenly defend it at any dinner party you care to invite her to. In her off hours, she can often be found running long distances toward or away from things. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas, with her husband, daughter, and a highly energetic Schnoodle, who is probably a pooka.
AN EXCERPT from Death Comes for the Trophy Wife and Other Stories by Karen M. Vaughn
For the second time in eight years, Kabir and Ismael found themselves in the heart of the Florida Panhandle, camped beside the murky Choctawhatchee River. Their binoculars were trained on the branches above them. With great care they examined the crown spread of blushing red maple; of river birch with its curls of peeling bark, exposing nerve-soft membranes beneath; of pond cypress draped with a funereal fringe of Spanish moss. Just as before, they sought something elusive, something thought to have vanished entirely from the modern world—the ivory-billed woodpecker, believed by most ornithologists to be extinct. And they had found it, oh yes. They had found it and they had lost it. Still, its appearance had been the consummate moment of their careers, the moment every scientist dreams of. And what it had led them to was even rarer.
“God, I hate the swamp,” Kabir said.
Ismael flinched. For him, everything about this place was etched in lines of gold. He had lobbied hard for this return expedition. “I know it’s still there,” he had told Dr. Carver, their department head. “I know it as sure as I am standing here. If we could just obtain proof this time, think what a coup it would be for the university.” In the intervening years, Dr. Carver had sent four different teams to the Choctawhatchee to investigate, and when each of those came up short, she had at last agreed to dispatch the original pairing, in the hope that lightning might strike a second time. But four days in, Ismael and Kabir had no more to show for this trip than the first one. The swamp was positively swarming with life—scrub jays, egrets, wood ducks, flora of every variety—just not the variety they were looking for.
If only they hadn’t been so reckless the first time. If only they hadn’t been so caught up in the exhilaration of discovery that they dropped their compass while running and then didn’t stop to retrieve it. How would they ever find the place now?
But then, they had been about to give up that time, too. They had been conducting their final sweep of the southern bank when the woodpecker at last materialized on a branch just beside them, taking sudden shape where there had been nothing, at least nothing that they had seen, as if conjured from the matter of the swamp itself. They had gazed at it in stunned silence. Truly, the bird was the very emblem of evolved beauty. It was huge, for starters. Its slender body was nearly twenty inches long, with a wingspan that was probably double that. It boasted jet-black plumage veined with stark ribbons of white. Its eyes were wild, yellow, prehistoric-looking. The signature beak was a gleaming prong of ivory, while the scarlet crest bobbed in concert with its movements, at times seeming to flicker in midair like a flame. The woodpecker was like a watcher out of time, like a great bird from myth.
“Beautiful,” murmured Ismael.
“It’s just like the photographs,” Kabir said. “Better even.”
The last undisputed photograph of an ivory-billed woodpecker was from the 1940s. For decades, the American Birding Association had deemed it a class 6 species, meaning ‘definitely or probably extinct.’ As such, their trip had been framed as more of a postmortem. They were to conduct a last-ditch survey, purely to confirm the bird’s absence, while also searching for clues to what might have led to its extinction. But now here was the specimen itself, alive and well, tossing its fiery head in chastisement of their presumption. This discovery would change everything.
“Get your camera,” said Ismael, holding perfectly still so as not to startle it.
Oh-so-slowly, Kabir reached into his backpack and withdrew the camera.
It was then that the woodpecker took off, winging swiftly away from the river and toward the interior of the swamp. In horror they watched it disappear behind a cypress, slipping into the green as if into an envelope, and without a thought they had plunged into the woods after it, running at full speed through tangles of vines and pools of standing water. Kabir had always had a slight limp, arising from an untreated childhood infection, but here he raced as if his life depended on it, his imbalance not slowing him down at all.
The men ran side by side for what felt like hours, forging on even when their lungs ached from the exertion. Several times the bird seemed to evaporate and then re-emerge behind them, so that they felt they must be retracing their steps, though they couldn’t have said for certain because of the uniformity of the terrain. Before long, they were hopelessly lost. With no time to orient themselves, they clung to the spider-silk thread of the bird’s trail. Indeed, the woodpecker seemed to know precisely how fast it could fly and still be pursued. It remained just near enough for them to catch the occasional glimpse of it, a seductive blur of ivory and black, or hear the faint tattoo of its drumming, as if summoning them to some ancient war council.
Siren song, Ismael thought, with a tiny, wary part of his mind. He watched the compass tumble from Kabir’s backpack, along with their protein bars and half of the batteries, and again there was that pang of concern, a flare sent up by his amygdala. But it was quickly extinguished. The only thing that mattered in the short term, he assured himself, was capturing proof of the bird’s existence. If they could do that, the world as they knew it would be remade. They could always retrace their muddy footprints later, or even navigate by the stars, if needed.
When the woodpecker finally halted its flight, Kabir and Ismael had found themselves in a particularly dense part of the swamp. They pushed aside a heavy curtain of vines and entered a small clearing, where they found the bird perched on an enormous plant, consisting of two broad leaves and a fringe of feathery cilia. In this setting the bird looked even larger. More primitive. Its yellow eyes peered at them without blinking, its avian thoughts pondering god only knew what, though Ismael theorized that it was cross-checking them with images in its archives, that knife-sharp mind leafing through a taxonomy of ghosts.
Throughout his life, Ismael had formed many such conjectures about the thoughts of birds. As a boy in working-class Cardiff, peering over the stonework wall to watch blackbirds in his neighbor’s garden, he had tried to imagine what they might dream about. Flying? Hunting for bugs and worms? Being enfolded once more in their mother’s wings, and hearing the rapid flutter of her heartbeat? Later, after a dissertation’s worth of research, he had had to broaden his suppositions. Here, after all, were creatures capable of complex communication, of tool-making, of play for its own sake, of deception and even empathy, all while displaying a host of other qualities that were entirely foreign to humans, chief among them a faultless sense of geolocation. They were literally never lost. They could be sedated and carried on a plane to the farthest reaches of the planet, and somehow, with the pull of magnetic fields like an ache in their bones, they would always, always, find their way home. Still, the same question kept returning that had haunted him under that gray dome of sky, the stone wall cool against his chin. If he could peek into the brain of a bird, what would he see? Would it be in some way familiar—if not akin to, then at least adjacent to human thought? Or would he be sent reeling by the strangeness of it, his senses adrift in an alien landscape?
As Kabir readied the camera, snapping countless photographs, Ismael began to furiously scribble notes in his field journal. He tried to detail every aspect of the bird and its environs—precise shape, colors, behavior, flight pattern, preferred tree species, etc.—making several sketches for later reference. Soon, though, an additional data point seemed to creep into his awareness.
“What is that smell?” he whispered.
“I don’t know. Must be decaying organic matter from the bog.”
“It’s making me feel a little unfocused.”
“Yes, me too.”
After a few minutes, the bird hopped to a branch slightly farther away, and the men took a step closer. By then Ismael’s fingers had started to tingle. He flexed his hand several times, trying to restore circulation, and kept writing. Once they drew nearer, the woodpecker again flitted away a short distance. Several times this process was repeated: the men would take a step forward, while the bird retreated a commensurate interval. Soon they had reached the gigantic plant where the bird had been sitting when they first entered the clearing. It was directly in their path, and Ismael was just about to thread a course between the leaves, straining to observe the precise pattern of the plumage, when something by his feet happened to catch his eye.
A jumble of white objects lay before them. Some short and stubby, some elongated and delicate-seeming. Among them was an array of curved planks, as well as what looked like a pair of tapered bottles, deeply pitted and lined with small, blunt protrusions. Because Ismael’s mental acuity had been impaired by the mysterious odor, it took him a moment to understand that what he was seeing was not the remains of one large creature, but two. Here were the skeletons of what had probably been deer—white-tailed deer, if his memory of the indigenous wildlife was correct. Their rib cages were so close as to be conjoined, intersecting really, as if the animals had been caught in the act of mating. There was no hint of skin or muscle tissue anywhere. Only the bones themselves, bare and elegant and gleaming.