Under a fathomless blue sky, a cacophony of raucous rooks gyred over the tiny figures of a boy and ox as they drew a plough across a highland field. Above and around them, the ten thousand Greenmen heaved upwards, a legion of rounded, forest-caped giants carved out over long ages by glacial melt. Most days, ever-shifting vaporous scarves made those mountains seem like marchers on the mist, but today they towered stark and stony over the boy and his companion in their spring-time labor.
His name was Arryn Dunlan. They called him Wren, though apart from his size he had little in common with that euphonious little gray visitor. He began speaking late and then more or less stopped, despite diligent propitiations to the lugh made by his mother Lorca and sister Boinn. Perhaps the boy had too much of the north country in him to trap the world in words. His father Rufus joked that his eldest sons, Cuillin and Dillan, had already made Durness the most boisterous farm in Twill. Probably, he’d have been glad to admit this was no great feat, considering Twill was hardly more than a loose knot of unsociable folk bent on living as far as possible from the royal court in Ganalon. Unless one craved useful acquaintance with the wild kin - the bane and balm of green things such as k’ne’k’ne, bífís, luibeagna, gwelediad, crannabeatha, wybodaeth - or the deep ways of the wild creatures such as the copper bear, golden eagle, and red deer - or the dangerous lore of the Sían and Fiáin, it was a lonely, uneventful place. His sister took such interests, but not his brothers.
Cole had been first to leave. Eldest by five years, he could not tame his spirit to the bit. Dillan, though, would have shouldered the work a while longer, had Rufus not sent for him soon after he left. So, the men were gone. At first Boinn had done the ploughing, but she preferred tasks that let her range a bit. This year, they’d worked things out so that she could fish, hunt, herd, and forage, while Lorca tended to the household chores, including the cooking, washing, and gardening, and Wren worked with Horn all by himself. He was small for it yet, but in many ways it was the simplest of tasks. The old ox needed little coaxing, plodding along, scoring tenuous lines in a landscape too vast for human concerns.
As for the Dunlan home, it was a modest crannog in the bog lake, prone to damp and vapors, but nothing a peat fire couldn’t remedy. Bulrushes and marsh trees shielded it from the wind that came moaning down the hills. The wind could be violent. Out in the plough fields, where Wren and the Ox had paused at the end of a furlong, his father’s windbreak - poplars, lindens, ash, and spruce - formed a ragged line of pikemen, braced against the shapeless onslaught of mountain winds. Now and again, they would bend and shake and splinter so violently that it seemed like some unseen host was bearing down on them. Wisps of peat smoke were rising now from the round thatched crannog, nestled below amid willows and reeds. If one looked carefully, one could see where Rufus had added stone and soil and sod and moss around the islet, which looked like some runic key jutting into the water, ringed by stout poles and connected to the bog-land by a wooden causeway.
Across the causeway, a footpath cut through dense bulrushes, through a wood, to a bridge that crossed a purling brook, out into pastures, and into those fields where Wren was unhitching the ox. At a twisted cottonwood, dark limbed and green-tipped, he tethered her, patting her wooly curls. A mystery before words glistened in the animal’s dark eyes, reminding him of the Radda, which Lorca had made him begin translating last winter.
It had been grandmother’s book, she said. The ink for the letters was made of crushed gems and metals. The leather cover and binding were dark and supple, but held vellum pages that must have been brittle around the edges even in his grandmother’s day, ancient, heavy, and precious, a hundred and eighty pages of neat black ciphers and extravagant illuminations. A thousand times Lorca had told him how a book such as this one belonged to future generations, not some common household like theirs. He must treat it like something sacred. He must read it again and again until it became part of his mind. Looking now into Horn’s eyes, it vexed him, that one verse he could never quite get right:
Ask of the owl in the moonless dark
What riddles in the old Oak’s knot
What hides under root, leaf, rock
What, warp and weft, is perning
In the hollow horn’s turnings.
Open the eye of the heart.
A brook passed through Durness, one of many rivulets that fed the Turquoise and the Ololon, but large enough to merit a bridge of sorts. One path from the bridge led to the fields. Another was marked by a cuneiform of wedged hoof prints leading upstream to a white-braided waterfall, where a herd of podgy sheep nibbled meticulously at damp rock herbage. Their shepherdess, a lanky girl with dreaded hair, waded under the mist-spray with a long spear. This morning, metal trout flashed gold and silver in the pool, which roiled with tiny whorls. In this way, the world spoke, in signatures of living beauty.
But something had upset the hounds. They were jogging up and down along the river bank, frightening the sheep into charging back and forth along the bank in disordered sallies. “Shite-between-the-shaggy-ears!” Boinn upbraided them, but they yelped on, nipping at the sheep’s flanks, too stupid to know they’d caused the whole commotion in the first place. She wondered what had set them off.
“Sridean! Taibreamh!” They looked at her meekly, drooping their sorrowful ears, and ran to the river’s edge, jowly masses with lolling tongues. Both took a few steps into the current to lap the water, alert to the gleams of darting fish. Taib crouched low, as if to catch one, but then lifted his ears and turned toward the crannog, whining. What was it?
A hope that father was back, if only for a visit, leapt into her heart. He’d be saddle-tired but smiling, wrapped all in fur, red beard all tousled. He’d say Cole was coming home soon. Or, Cole might be with him. Curse them both. The line in the middle of her palm sloped downward, but she wasn’t a dreamer, not anymore. For a few months after father left, she’d allowed herself to be an idiot. That was long over. She hated him. She was the one, not her brothers, who’d seen him in the riastrad. She’d seen him scare off a ten foot tall copper bear. She was his only daughter, but he preferred his two sons, let them do whatsoever they will, because Orroch boys were good for one thing, troubling the borders between Galloway and Ochre.
No, it wouldn’t be father today. Someone had come, though, the way Tai and Srid were acting. She ran along, barefoot, with the dogs and the flock, down the steep trail to the river bridge, which Rufus had hewn when she was seven years old, letting her ride Horn’s back as the old ox hauled the trees. Now, the sheep’s hooves clattered over the planks like drumming rain, eyes bulging, necks leaning forward, eager for their pen. They put great stock in the two big dogs’ noses and ears, and would gladly go without food rather than be food. Even after they were penned and nervously huddled in the shed, though, the dogs were restive, insisting she follow - running ahead, looking back, barking. They were heading toward Wren in the twin brook field.
He left them five years ago. There’d been high tension over sending Bóinn to Anve, the minor spiral to La Verai, the Green Lady. One could learn and serve at Anve with little binding obligation. The greens were unceremonious and nonchalant, and Anve, at the southern edge of La Tierra Rosa, was a place of subtle beauty, where ochre desert met a slow wave of blue and green. Lorca introduced it as a possibility, a practical issue. Boinn had no sisters and needed to learn from other women what it could mean to enter training, she said. Her tone was calm and considerate, and Rufus made no reply, but something felt wrong, even dangerous, in the house, as if some secret agreement between them was being violated. There had been no need to decide the issue, because the worst came to pass. Rufus left.
Wren did not see his father again until mother sent him to Twill. Cole had come from Wisp, for a bhuachtain between Aegle Klaast and Luch Klaast. He looked leaner and harder, tattoos covering half his torso and part of his jawline. They’d had a lively time around the dinner table. Lorca teased Cole about being a ladykiller not a man killer, and he’d still acted the boy, making Boinn blue-faced with anger, and razzing Wren about the cwlwm aer.
“Make a run for it, wee bro’, before ma and da send you to the Bedes.”
“Shut up!” Boinn scowled. “They’d never.”
“Boring and corpulent and flatulent,” Cole said, “and they use young boys for favors.”
“And you know that how?” Boinn inquired.
“Just ask Keene,” he pursed his lips, widened his eyes, and nodded knowingly. “Am I right, ma?” When Lorca smiled benignly, he went on, “Listen, you just get word to me, if ma and da try to make a girl of you. I’ll come and take you up into the Greenmen myself, and we’ll see if those floating holy men exist.”
“Well they don’t,” Boinn informed him. “Men are clods who can’t feel the wind, let alone untie its knots! And when have you ever really even been in the Greenmen? You’d pee your pants. There’s feral marks, strange things they carve, all over the place, in trees and rocks. Everywhere.”
“You’d know about feral marks,” he grinned, winking at her matted hair. “Me and Wren, we don’t plan on joining your hairy folk, though. We’ll just go have a look-see.”
“They’ll cook Cole in a pot and make you watch them eat him.” She told Wren, knowingly. But no sooner had the words come from her mouth than Cole had her in a nasty headlock. “Now this one,” he said, rapping his knuckles on her knatty head, “is the one you should have sent to Cogan, not Dill.”
After dinner, Lorca had Cole ride him up to the Bol Braster, the only real inn in Twill, grown popular as people moved closer to Dalach, the nearest thing the Orroch had to a big city like Rune or Welen. More people meant more trouble on the roads, and Cole was tense during the ride. He did speak until they neared the town’s lights.
“The old man’ll be bringing you to the klaast tonight. Do you miss him?”
“Yeah,” Wren breathed.
“Well, you don’t talk much, but you speak no ill of anyone, do you, Wren?” Cole mussed his hair. “He’s a bitter old bastard, you know. And he left you and Boinn on the farm with ma. That’s just shitty. I’d come back if I could, and so’d Dillan. We can’t, I hope you understand. You’ve got to keep working hard like you’re doing. Fug the old fugger, but we’re not learning to fight for his good. Let him rot in his rotten in old world. If he had his way, he’d have everything back the old way, and he’s angry he can’t. I hear things about him, how he’s hanging around with Dagda, the two of them leaning heads together trying to convince each other they’re not all washed up. Those two already lost everything that matters and what they want now isn’t even revenge. It’s nothing but some salve to put on their wounded pride, even if it kills them and does no one any good. But there’s a bigger vision than that. We may be his sons, but what’s more important is, we three are brothers. One day, all men will be brothers. We’ll be free. There’ll be no more war.”
He left him outside the inn. The main thing Wren remembered now, three years later, was his father’s big weathered hands. He’d been running his fingers over a high-wrought cup, where a fleet of copper ships sailed a silver sea through an inlaid turquoise map of the hundred isles between Old Epona and Aina Livia. With his left hand, he rubbed his red-wooled cheek. He’d managed to lose two fingers on that hand, but didn’t offer to explain.
The inn was dark, with quiet black tables where men could murmur in silence, and a strong smell of oil lamps and meat and beer. Outside, in the oak trees, a great horned owl hooted mournfully. His father set a tankard in front of him.
“We’ll go see Cole,” he muttered. “Drink up.”
The owl hooted again. To the terrified mice in the marsh grass it must have sounded like the hollow voice of a death god. Wren imagined being that mouse, searching for some hole to hide in. Rufus refilled his cup. “Your mother wants to send you to the Aurum. To let you be with books, lad. Half the knowledge of the world’s in books, aye. You’ve a cousin in the Aurum, too. And maybe that’s the way.” He took a long draught and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. His voice dropped lower, “The Aurum’s one way to learn more about the Blakes and Bedes. You weren’t born a big bairn, Wren, nor a loud one, but that doesn’t make you weak. No, it’s how a man uses his head.”
Wren watched the men stooped over the bar and over their tables. They all had that same look his father had, of brooding violence, of demoralization. Their eyes lingered too long on the barmaids that served them.
“Your brother Dill’s with Uncle Cogan. When he’s ready, he’ll join Aegle Band. Cole gave your mother so much grief in her labor it took five years for the rest of you, and then Dill comes, twice Cole’s size and half the pain. Boinn was born with the cord wrapped seven times around her neck, blue as a bird. You, now, you were born in the worst lightning I’ve ever seen, forest fires down in the Ynon, we heard later. Aye, Thoirni was in his cups and in a rage. I went to fetch a midwife, and by the time we got back, Lorca had you swaddled and asleep. Didn’t even feel it. Looked down, there you were. Still the quiet one. The scholar of the family. Won’t talk, but writes like a poet!” He thumped his three-fingered hand on the black table. “She had you reading and writing before you could pull on your own boots.”
Rufus always grew voluble when he was troubled. Probably he hated the idea of the Aurum. Did he know how many chores had fallen on the three of them, since he took Dillan and left them the work of the crannog? Did he want him to leave sister and mother on their own? It all made no sense to him, but he knew it came down to the Sei Sí. Men who saw those times joined the Patroí and sat drinking in taverns. But it was the men who needed to do the farming, not the women and children. If you touched the ground enough, it made your hands sane, and then the rest of you could become sane again, too.
Wren realized he was playing a part. Rufus probably sent word to Lorca that he wanted to talk things over with him about the Aurum, but really he wanted him there tonight, to play the part of a father in front of Cole. If anyone had troubled to ask, he’d have told them he wanted his bed, and was allowing himself a tiny modicum of hope that all the beer and talk would make Rufus too lazy to march him out to Luch Klaast. But Rufus stood up and told him to throw on his coat. It was a long way along the south road, which, depending on how one looked at it, was either one of the worst roads in Aina Liva, or one of the best. They walked in silence. Low clouds sealed the sky, and the forest and marsh bogs crowded in, so he couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead of them, but Rufus knew the way.
From outside, the rough-hewn roundhouse was squat and wide. At the door, a gap-toothed, gray-pated man, eyes lost in a maze of crowsfeet, patted Wren’s head, muttering, “Essger on you, Essger on you.” As he entered, a wave of stale warmth washed over him, smells of beer, arachuan, a strange meld of mellowness and aggression, sharper, more electric, and more fraternal than in the bar. In the torchlight, shirtless men leaned over a low balcony above the earthen ring, shouting softly and intensely at the challengers circling one another in the klaast, striking out like the lightning god Thintri with fist-metals, blocking like the thunder god Thoirni with forearm disc-shields.
Almost right away, he spotted Cole, who was nineteen, neither tall nor brawny, with laughing blue eyes and a blondish-brown beard. He was sitting by a fire, playing a cittan, the restless, thrumming chords leaping under his hands. He and father didn’t seem to see each other. Rufus made Wren keep his eye on the matches, as if Cole wasn’t even there, telling him the names for particular moves, sometimes scoffing at a blunder, but mostly deeply attentive, as if there were always something to learn, something important, something valuable. It all looked the same to Wren. Same moves. Same strategies. Same flow. But once a young bunder named Sieval, who hadn’t even made slag yet, moved in a way that seemed slightly out of joint. Wren thought he could see it, how time slowed down for the boy in the ring, and how, if you could look into the syrupy ripples where time slowed, he took many shapes, many possible forms. When the maor reached into a copper-colored bowl and picked Cole and Fergal, a grim, look came into Rufus’s eyes. Fergal was seasoned, maybe twenty-six, bald, lean, with thintris scored into his long arms. Like father, he’d been standing along the rails, with a keen eye on Sieval. But Cole, well he wasn’t even in the klaast house.
“Go and fetch your brother,” Rufus pushed him toward the door. “He’ll be by the firepit with his fool cittan singing his love songs. Be quick.”
The Eye gave Wren a wink as he hurried out into the misty night air. The fire was just out to the right of the building, with several men, and a few women and girls, sitting around, smoking arachuan and listening to Cole. The heat glowed bright and golden on his impassioned face, so that you didn’t even notice his hands on the strings, from which the clear notes rippled like water in the desert. His voice was plangent and sweet, and as Wren came closer he began to make out the words:
Where may she be,
My spiraling lady
Deep in the fires of the dark
I’ll lay my head down
In the lap of the Lady
And bathe in this river of sparks.
For, there’s life in death
And there’s death in life
And a black wound in every heart,
Like ashes she poured,
When the sweet night was over,
Out of my cumbersome arms.
She went down to the edge
And downward she wandered
To bath in the spiral in the stars.
She went down to the end
Down my girl waded into
The river of sparks.
When the song finished, Wren tapped Cole’s shoulder. “Time,” he said. Cole handed off the instrument, stood, stretched, and took a last drag of arachuan. He put his arm around Wren’s neck, and they sauntered in past the Eye together.
“Go back to the old man,” he said. “But trust him no more than the maor’s bowl.”
Wren hurried back up to the railing with Rufus, and then Cole entered the ring grinning sheepishly, a half-hand shorter than Fergal, and half as convincing. There were whorls of thornis around his biceps and forearms, announcing his victories in klaast matches, and thintris to show his speed, but Rufus stroked his red beard. “Half the world’s knowledge, lad, is in getting your ass kicked,” he said. “This won’t be thintri-thoirni. See their empty hands? It’s a boxing bout.”
The maor shouted out the match and, for a moment while the two men were circling each other, Cole looked quick and limber. He threw shadow jabs and kept his feet moving, so that Fergal had to focus on tracking him, though once or twice he shot out an arm and landed a test punch from a fraction beyond Cole’s reach. Rufus said, “He’ll wait for Cole’s misstep.” Anyone could see that, but Cole took the bait, with a crisp jab that didn’t land, which opened him to a flurry of blows. Though a few men in the crowd groaned, more likely because they considered the match over than because they’d been rash enough to bet on the young clown, Cole managed to use his loss of balance to land a few wheel kicks. A good feint against someone less skilled, but wheel kicks were weak when they were telegraphed. Some of the men in the balcony shouted for more acrobatics. But Fergal had longer legs, and faster ones. One exchange after another, without excess, he gave more than he got. When the maor stopped the match, Cole was bleeding from mouth, nose, and arms. He limped away, and winked up at Wren.
First field was planted in barley already a hand tall, second field in potatoes. A small stream, a plank bridge, and a gentle slope separated second field from twin brook field. Amid the windbreak trees at the top of the slope, Horn was tethered. And there was Wren, standing next to a horse black as tar. For a moment, she guessed it was the horse that had pulled those tortured sounds from Tai and Srid’s throats. But there was something on the ground between Wren and the horse. The dogs cleaved to her as she stepped closer, worried.
“She fell off,” Wren said. “The horse came out of the woods. She fell off its back.” His eyes were like mother’s, only diffident. That was a lot of words, for him. Lately she’d seen the effort in his face. He’d been trying harder, with her and with mother, to be the man of the house.
“Did you touch her?” she tried to keep contact with his eyes.
When he looked down at the ground that way, it was hard to hear him. Boinn had to ask him again. “Did you touch her, Wren?”
“No,” he shook his head.
She was remembering her village, the thatched cottages and slate gray clouds of Yssera, the cry of gulls and smell of rain and salt. It hurt. Words like home, childhood, family might have thrown themselves forward to explain the hurt, but the truth was more elemental. What hurt was the memory of the sound of the pounding surf. Each time a wave struck the sand, one cascade of indeterminacies passed across and through another. Time itself was the hurt. They were poor, in the north, near the sea. Once, she had seen a monster eel washed up on the rocks, curled along the shoreline for a hundred yards, its granite gray, mottled body heaving and falling with the somber swell of the waves. Its dread eye had filmed over, and its long, white, fleshy whiskers moved about, limp, in the ebb and flow of tide. Its image came back to her, its eel flesh, its blind milky eye – the beaching of a sea serpent. That creature, drowned in air, was herself. It had taken twenty years for time to show her that.
She was a dark ray passed back into the spectrum of light. It hurt to be one and many. It hurt to live. A woman was singing over her, a highlander. In the periphery, a quick, sensitive face hovered. A boy with hazel eyes like the mother’s. The slow melody moved into words.
In darkness, whole.
In wholeness, dark.
She was lulled asleep, for a few heartbeats or a few hours. The boy – no, a girl now, with deft hands and smoldering eyes – held a pungent infusion to her lips. Thick-tongued, she drank, as the girl stirred smudge in the air. She turned onto her side. Her head and heart were pounding. The world was nothing but pounding. It was meaningless to ask if the pounding had a purpose. She woke in the night on a firm bed, to the fragrance of sweetgrass. The quiet house spoke of cleanliness, of early rising and honest sleep, of life obedient to the cycle of day and dark. Were the two not one? Her bed was across from the hearth. Embers gleamed red in an intricate slate chimney. Instead of a second floor, the builder had made shallow lofts and left the conical ceiling high and open. Her mind was not ready to cling to details. It hurt, in a physical way, to be impinged upon by the world. Too much, too soon. When she closed her eyes, her mind swam, her ray fractured; the only relief was to succumb to the oblivion, the rhythmic waves. In darkness, whole. In wholeness, dark.
It was daylight. The girl brought her tea and curd. She forced her eyes to focus. The girl’s eyes blazed impossibly bright, opals in the sun, silver-green infernos.
“How do you feel?” The highlands were in her accent.
The question seemed to have several meanings, but she forced her mind to limit itself. Even the stirring of the intention to speak increased the time-compression. She could almost see how the act of speech divided new time particles in the world. How it subtly diminished one’s vital energy. Streams of time particles attracted to streams of time particles. She felt nauseous. The other one she’d glimpsed, the boy, and this girl also, remained curiously real; neither dissolved in the qassig, but instead appeared even more substantial as the world-unweaving pattern patternless ebbed and flowed around them, a burning rainbow, a dance of paradox that made her dizzy.
Ill, highland girl.
The mother came, and touched her forehead.
“You’re past the worst, gre’m’cy.” Her hair was tightly braided, not wild like the night before. “Boinn,” she nodded toward the door. “I’ll tend our guest.”
As the daughter left the room, tension melted from the mother’s body.
She knows me. She remembers.
“Rest,” the woman said, stroking her head. “You’re the third. You’re the last.”
They were on the causeway in the moonlight, a bit away from the house. Mist curled around the edges of the stone and railing, rolling slowly on the bog as frogs croaked the alien night-rhythm that hummed from the earth. It was worrisome, mother asking her to ride to Tarn, the tiny hamlet near Twill. Mihala was in Tarn. Best the family avoid ties to that woman, who everyone knew was an open adherent of Tel Atael. Out here, in the high country, a person could think and do whatever she wanted, so long as she kept it to herself, but for years Mihala had been trying to build a cove to worship the Dark Lady. If secret sisterhoods were going to crop up, the area around Twill was just the place for it. Enough of the men had been in the cora, and were skulking now, close to Dalach but also far enough away. Like so many of the Cora old timers, father kept his own counsel and raised his family far enough out to steer clear of Guild tax collectors. Far enough out to pretend to be free. But people said bitterness brewed up north of the Turquoise, and that some of the women kept icons of the forbidden aspects of the Lady. Anyone who associated with Mihala inevitably got marked as a wrach.
Some knew who Lorca was, and more of her story than she’d ever told Boinn, too. She’d just repeat the same old yarn, about being in the Spiral but losing her mind, and then meeting father and joining the Sei Sí rebellion. She never said anything about the rebellion, but Boinn wasn’t an idiot. She’d heard. Lorca had done things in the rebellion that a Spiral sister wasn’t allowed to do. Why hadn’t the Calyx come for her? And why was she helping crossers now? The woman in their house was one of Tel’s daughters, a shade of the Entuthon Benython, an adept of the rites of the Telesterion. Boinn had the evidence of her own eyes.
“Someone will see me going in her house.”
Lorca looked tired. In recent years, her hair had been changing sun for moon, gold for silver. “It won’t matter.” She looked at her in that clean unreachable silence. It hurt.
“Why won’t you tell me anything?”
“I could teach you,” she said, “but I don’t think that’s what you want.”
“There are rules to follow.”
“You broke them all.”
“That’s how I know.”
“Teach me without the rules.”
“You don’t trust me.”
“You’d lose your mind. I did.”
She was right. Of course she was right. It was better to stay out of it, be a nobody. Boinn wanted to live on Durness forever and have eight children. But the problem was, she already felt the world. She couldn’t just shrug it off and pretend she didn’t.
“Then teach me what I can handle.”
Lorca looked resigned. “Once you start on the path, you can’t turn back. That’s why I’ve waited, Boinn. Don’t be angry with me.”
“I’m not angry.”
“Whatever choice you make will be the wrong choice until you have no choice,” she said, matter of factly. “Look now.”
The frogs croaked loudly around them, their strange voices pulsing. A faint white glow surrounded Lorca’s form, grew suddenly stronger, then waned. Even as it waned, it grew twice a strong. Again it waned, but her mother seemed to flow toward her, though she was only steps away, flow and grow larger, the whiteness all around face. Even as she saw it, it blotted out the moment, blotted the memory, and appeared again, stronger than before, and twice again, and twice twice, the whiteness, her mother, the whiteness, until she felt free. It came with a sound thousands of times louder than the frogs, a sound in the silence like the singing of infinite particles. The sound dissolved all things and created all things, an intense driving bliss.
Boinn stood, uncertain. Her voice shook. “Is it Urra or Arru?”
“Forget Arru and Urra.” Lorca looked patiently into the dark water. “In the world, divisions exist, illusion-like yet not illusory. To call them mere illusion would be foolish. All are provisional, temporary, dependent on names and conventions, yet they exist in such consequential dependence. Creatures have groups, identities, territories, instincts, to be ignored at your peril. No law makes it so, if what one means by law is some absolute name or rule. No law makes a bear a bear, and indeed the bounds and relations of all things is ever changing, and yet if you call a bear sister, shall you reproach it as it mauls you? So it is with the Arru and Urra and Irri. Respect them. Know the limits. But inwardly division is deadly. Inwardly, the rules of this world are all false.” She looked at her. “Doubt, deceit, and scorn will keep you in the clutches of the world. Come into the sweetness, and be the antidote to doubt, deceit, and scorn.”
The chorale of tiny green marsh frogs was loud around them, and the backdrop of silence even louder, the presence of the planet, vast, indifferent, and patient.
On his way back from the well, the sound of hooves heading for south road nearly made Wren slosh icy water onto his shoes. Perle’s gait. It had to be Boinn riding toward Tarn. That meant he was the only one there to protect Lorca. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw the crosser. Its horse must still be standing there out in the field in the darkness. Or maybe it had gone back to wherever it had come from. Its eyes had no irises and no whites. It had stood there, eerie, unmoving, watching with those black eyes as Boinn rigged a stretcher, and rolled the crosser into it with two staves. When Horn began to pull the crude stretcher bearing its rider across the deep, rich, newly ploughed furrows, it made no move to follow them. Though they went slowly enough, the queer shadow-body was jounced around badly, and he was beginning to wonder what they would do about the rough beams of the causeway when Lorca met them and without hesitation gathered the crosser into her arms. She said a crosser couldn’t pull you into the Entuthon because it was well and truly in the Erwon, and that they shouldn’t call it an it because it was a woman even though it weighed less than a woman would weigh. He knew it was a woman, but it was also not a woman. Though he could not distinctly see its eyes, mouth, ears, nose, or any of its features, it was beautiful. Lorca made a bed for it, near the hearth, and Wren felt uneasy with it in the room. He felt pulled to look at it, and when he looked away, at his mother or sister, or at the fire, the things of flesh and substance seemed unreal, tinged with extra colors.
“Go and fetch water,” Lorca had told him.
“Is it true that it can cross back, mother?”
“If she lives.” He could hear it in Lorca’s voice, the distance. The woman sitting in the chair was not his mother; he’d accepted it long ago. When he saw her in the whiteness, his thoughts, words, and deeds must be impeccable or he might pollute the blessing.
Now he’d fetched the water, but he would not go in. He’d just go out into the marsh a ways, into the woods. He’d go to the woods, and then to the bridge near the fields; higher ground, where stars seemed to well into the world and where heavy-winged owls slouched between perches. He’d go to the bridge, to watch the stream, rippling in the moonlight. It flowed cold and swift, without yesterday or tomorrow.
He’d been standing on the bridge, oblivious to time, in the trill of the stream, and the sighs of needle-laden boughs, and the crystalline dissonance of the stars. The music was in him. He forgot comparisons and judgments. He was not even afraid to see them coming, the three plasmic specters gliding over the furrows, barely disturbing the soil. He knew he should run, but he was too interested. Their bodies were almost void. No hair, no eyes, no ears, no nose, no mouth. They were beautiful. He could not look away.
As in a dream, they quivered forward, as if welling through, into this world, so that he could feel the pull of that other world, the way a tired mind feels drawn to deep sleep. The one in the middle came forward and stroked his face, the others rippling at her side. At her touch, he felt freed of bodily burdens, all that held the heart to flesh, as though a weight came off him heavy as the pressures at the bottom of the sea. A shimmering face emerged from the plasma of her form: every detail, each individual silk strand of hair, each mottle of color was startled onto her flesh by the cold night air. He could see every raised pore of her skin. Softly she leaned to his mouth and kissed him, so that he shuddered, unmoored as if by potent liquor.
“Ah, who’s sealed your throat?” she breathed.
His breath came in shivers, at the smell of her hair and the brush of her breasts. At her side, the wraiths quivered, their abdomens a dark triptych where endless pairs of lovers joined in every form of union, in the single gelatinous pulse of life and death and endless interpenetration. There was a hush, a wind, a moment of oblivion. They must have flowed past him or through him. His mind could not think beyond the nonhuman presence welling all around him so forcefully: the porous old wood, the sponge, pulp, and pith of assimilative trees, moss, fungi, microbial soil. Existence welled forth as non-existence. There was only the crenellated bark of fir, spruce, and arborvitae, the rust and copper of needles on the dank forest floor, the distant, mindless, mechanical chorale of marsh frogs. For an unknown lapse of time, there was awareness with no person. It was not terrible, non-existence. It was naked and extraordinary, but he could not hold in its ground. Light-headed, he found his way to the bridge’s other end, scrambled down the bank to the pebble wash, and plunged his head in the bracing current – once, twice, three times.
He knelt by the stream, permeable, as though space flowed through and through, from itself to itself. He was too borderless to try to go home. Above the stream’s pure ebullience, silence expanded from an incorruptible source. It bubbled through him, original, from the origin, which was not in time. Whether or not one was there to experience it, it was. He knelt, and the stream was a bottomless pool. A luminous ground began to arise, like a full moon, everywhere and nowhere, without shelter. The smooth stones beneath the ribbon of current were faintly aglow, as were the trunks of trees, the lineaments of his body.
He looked at the bridge, then, and an animal sound forced itself from his core. There, on the coarse planks, his body was still kneeling, as it had been kneeling when the lady kissed him. He understood. He was a mental body. He stretched out his arms and looked at his numinous hands. He stepped forward and set foot on the water. It supported him. The current passed beneath his feet. Cedar branches loomed over him, heavy limbs draped in soft, fanning needles, welling with the alien.