Some writers give us stories that are like keys to the door of our cage. They let us escape out of a world that is mostly mundane, often confusing and troubling, into worlds of light and beauty. Because of them, we learn to hope for a better world. Then there are writers who give us stories that are like looking glasses, through which we can see our world with fresh, strangely clear vision. Because of them, we learn to love the world we have more fiercely. In her fairy tale The Wood Wife, Terri Windling gives us a story that begins like a key, but turns into a looking glass in our hands.
The main character, Maggie Black, is a poet, so perhaps that helps explain it — poets have always had a way of showing us the world through another lens. As the book opens Maggie is shocked to learn that her friend and fellow poet Davis Cooper is dead, murdered by an unknown assailant. She learns, too, that Cooper has left her everything he owned: his home in the Arizona desert, his notes and papers, and a collection of paintings by his also-deceased lover, the famous Surrealist painter Anna Naverra. A city girl by inclination, Maggie reluctantly travels to Cooper’s home in the remote Rincon Mountains just outside of Tucson, to put his affairs in order. The only thing that makes the journey appealing to her is the hopeful suspicion that somewhere in all his papers she will find the evidence that Cooper was writing another book of poems before he died, poems that would equal or surpass his great collection entitled The Wood Wife.
As Maggie begins the process of sorting through Cooper’s notes and journals, the story of his strangely solitary final years begins to unfold. However, it is not only his writing that speaks. Maggie meets Cooper’s neighbors, people who knew him in the years before he died, including handsome young Johnnie Foxxe; taciturn Tomas; John and Lillian Alder, who spend their retirement years rescuing damaged wild animals; and painter Juan del Rio and his sweet wife Dora.
While climbing in the hills surrounding Cooper’s house Maggie also meets a strange and beautiful young man who calls himself Crow. She is shocked to discover a portrait of him in the collection of Anna Naverra’s paintings that Cooper left for her — a portrait that was painted decades ago. Who is Crow, and why has he never aged? Maggie begins to wonder if Naverra’s paintings of half-human, half-animal-plant creatures really are just Surrealist visions, as the art world has always assumed, or if Naverra actually saw the things she painted. Did Cooper see them, as well? Were the poems in his immensely popular collection The Wood Wife based on those visions? And then one morning Maggie wakes up to find a girl with the face and ears of a desert hare asleep in the covers at the foot of her bed ….
The Wood Wife is, on the face of it, a murder mystery. Windling offers a suitably quirky and strong-charactered detective, Maggie Black, as well as a whole cast of suspects with convincing motives and bizarre alibis. The murdered man speaks from beyond the grave through the letters and notes he has left behind. The plot thickens. I rushed through the chapters, enthralled by ever-expanding revelations, and the end in its turn rushed toward me and swirled me up in a thunderous, astonishing conclusion. I sank back in my chair with a sigh and sat for several long moments in satisfied silence, just holding the closed book in my lap.
But The Wood Wife is not only an expertly-crafted tale of suspense. It also stands squarely within the realm of modern fantasy. Windling’s Arizona desert comes alive with fey beings, shapeshifters small and great that are as mysterious and amoral as any European Fair Folk, yet practical and earthy and distinctively Native American in their coloration. Maggie’s search for the answer to the riddle of Cooper’s death dissolves into a mythic quest, with magical laws that must be obeyed and a final treasure of wisdom that must be carried back, as mythic heroes have ever carried it back, to enrich our mortal world.
Good suspense, shimmering magical beings, a mythic hero’s quest, all make a good story, especially when brought to sturdy life by Windling’s craft as a writer. But I think that The Wood Wife is a great story because it is also a profound love story. Maggie Black is a sophisticated, cosmopolitan woman who has lived in cities all over the world, but always in the homes of friends. She has no roots anywhere. When she moves into Cooper’s house, she sees it as simply another stop before she moves on to other experiences. And then the arid wilderness of the Rincon Mountains strikes her like dry lightning and she falls in love. Bit by bit her heart is captured by the rocks, the dust, the sky, the weather, and the people. In the end, her greatest discovery of all is that she has come home.
I fell in love along with Maggie, stunned and enraptured by the welcoming beauty she discovered so paradoxically in a harsh land. How did Windling succeed in catching us both? I can only guess that she has a painter’s eye to see and a poet’s gift to show others what she sees. She lays down description in layer after thin layer like an expert cabinet-maker applying seven coats of lacquer to create a finish that shines and appears bottomless at the same time. In the same way that I cannot resist touching a beautifully finished cabinet, I find my imagination stroking the shape of Windling’s created spaces. Cooper’s old Spanish adobe house is both solidly homey and enchanting. I can feel the grain of the rough, indigo blue doors under my fingers, and I picture with delight the quotations and lines of verse painted on the plastered walls in beautiful brown ink calligraphy. And that deep, almost purple blue of the sky. I sense that I could fall upwards into it, endlessly. I feel the dry, gritty air in the back of my throat and smell the pungent odor of saps and plant juices concentrated by a life with little water.
And Windling’s magical beings, elegant as the Stag Man or delicately awkward as the Spine Witch, a cactus spirit. Yes, they add life to the desert, but only by redrawing, reshaping, retelling the life of the land as it is. They enspirit the Rincon Mountains, and in so doing they remind us that the whole of our world is enspirited, is alive. I left Cooper’s place feeling more able to sense the life in my own place, the world around me. Was it Thoreau who said, “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads”? The Wood Wife shows, wonderfully, the truth of it.
The Wood Wife was originally to be published as part of the “Brian Froud’s Faerielands” series. Two books, Charles de Lint’s The Wild Wood and Patricia McKillip’s Something Rich and Strange, were published in that series before it was discontinued. Both books are excellent and well worth reading. Midori Snyder’s book Hannah’s Garden was recently published (2002)as a Young Adult fantasy novel by Viking.