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Are You Warm, My Daughter?

Sarah Monette and Katherine Addison are the same person.

She has published more than fifty short stories, eight solo novels, and four collaborations with her friend Elizabeth Bear. Her newest novel is The Grief of Stones (Tor Books, 2022). The Goblin Emperor (Tor, 2014) won the 2015 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel and was a finalist for the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. The Angel of the Crows (Tor, 2020) was also a finalist for the Locus Award.

She is adjunct faculty for Ashland University's low-residency MFA program.

You can find her on Patreon as pennyvixen.

She lives, with spouse, cats, and books, somewhere near Madison, Wisconsin.

Was she a wicked stepmother?
I've asked myself that question a thousand times, and the truth is that I just don't know. My memories of her are a child's memories, and to a child she seemed cruel and all-powerful. But she was neither. She was a young woman who grew up poor, married to a wealthy widower with a child, and she was discovering, as I would discover myself, that my father was not actually a warm-hearted man. He could be charming when he wanted to be, but it was like paint giving the illusion of depth to a flat canvas.
My mother had not been dead a year when the wedding took place. A woman with some natural sense of graciousness would have insisted on waiting, but that was not my stepmother. She was hungry for the wealth and power my father seemed to be offering her, the glittering lifestyle that seemed to be within her grasp.
My father, however, when he traveled, which was most of the time, left her at home to keep the estate running. When he was home, he spent all his time in his study, where he was not to be disturbed. So I suppose she did her best with the management of the estate, the upkeep of the house. But she dealt with me by flatly ignoring me as if that might make me go away.
Then she found a way to make me go away in actuality. She persuaded my father to send me to boarding school, and I was glad to go. The first winter break I was invited to spend with my cousins on my mother's side, an invitation my stepmother was quick to accept for me. That summer, she found a series of camps to send me to. Horseback riding... theater... I'm sure I didn't spend five days in succession at home the whole summer.
Then came winter break again. This time there was no invitation from my aunt, so I was home. Instead of just ignoring me, my stepmother started lashing out, calling me "useless" and "lumpish," and sending me to my room whenever she saw me. Which would have been fine--I would in fact have been spending most of my time in my room--except there was something wrong with the radiator, and my room was consequently the coldest room in the house.
I told my stepmother and she promised to have someone come fix it. And didn't. I told my father and he said, "Can't you see I'm busy? Ask your mother." I was old enough to say, "I wish I could," but not old enough to say it loud enough for him to hear. I told the housekeeper, but she refused to do anything without permission. Which put me back at asking my stepmother again, whereupon I got scolded for "pestering" and sent to my room.
This was certainly spiteful of my stepmother, but was it cruel? That is, was she thinking any further ahead than the momentary petty satisfaction of denying me a request? That, I don't know. As a child, I was certain it was cruelty. As an adult looking back.... She was so young, you see.
I went to bed wrapped in my bathrobe and wearing socks and long underwear under my pajamas, and I was still cold. Not surprisingly I dreamed of the Russian fairy tale about King Frost, the one where the girl who denies she's cold is given wonderful furs and jewels and the girl who's honest about the fact that she's freezing is frozen to death. "Are you warm, my daughter, are you warm?" I was asked over and over again and, remembering the fairy tale in my dream, I answered, "Quite warm, King Frost," each time, except that each time I was asked, the voice sounded less like King Frost and more like my mother, and finally, sometime around dawn, I woke myself up sobbing, "No, Mama, I'm cold, I'm so cold."
Now, let's be clear. There was no apparition of my mother. There was no voice, once I was awake, saying, "There, there, my daughter. I will keep you warm." There was no sense of a spectral presence in my room. It was not, in fact, any warmer. I stayed awake until it was at last breakfast time and I could go downstairs, terrified that if I went back to sleep King Frost would freeze me to death for telling the truth.
At the breakfast table, my father remarked disapprovingly that my stepmother looked haggard, and she shrugged and said, "I didn't sleep well."
That night I had the same dream, and again, near dawn, I broke and told the truth. Again at the breakfast table, my father said, "My dear, you look dreadful," and my stepmother said, "I didn't sleep well."
That day she sought me out and said, "I've called the heating people and they'll have someone out on Tuesday. So you can stop whining about it." But that night I was still terribly cold and the dream returned, "Are you warm, my daughter, are you warm?" over and over again in my dead mother's voice until it battered the truth out of me. "I'm so cold," I said in my dream and woke up shivering.
That morning my stepmother did not come down to breakfast. My father, greatly irritated, sent one of the maids to find her. We were almost done with breakfast when the woman came back, gray-faced and trembling, to say that my stepmother was dead. She had gone out on the balcony in nothing but her nightgown, and the door had locked behind her. She froze to death huddled against the balcony railing, as if there was some reason she could not go near the door.
This time, my father did not remarry. And I admit, it has made it difficult for me to think about marriage myself. For what if my mother disapproved?
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 6th, 2022


Author Comments

"Are You Warm, My Daughter?" is a mash-up of ghost stories and fairy tales. It was inspired partly by Helen Oyeyemi's lovely fairy tale meditation, Boy, Snow, Bird and partly by reading Henry James's ghost stories. The narrator definitely inhabits a Jamesian world of wealth and privilege, but one that operates with fairy tale---or ghost story---emotional logic.

The Russian fairy tale of King Frost was my favorite as a child, because the good daughter is lavishly rewarded for being good and the bad daughter is horribly punished for being bad. I now find it deeply disturbing, with its message for girls that being good means lying and lying and lying and that being honest will get you killed. Or, in my version, that being honest will get someone else killed.

- Sarah Monette
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