Like many of you in the US, I spent yesterday consuming my weight in red meat, marshmallows, and wine spritzers, then falling asleep in the sun like some kind of large lizard in a striped dress, and as such am behind on many things. Have a story–Tarot will likely return next week, when I’ll be in PA with family and gin.
* * *
There’s not a set date, no regular interval. She doesn’t need to go back every nine years, or every ninety, or even every nine-times-ninety, although she suspects she would run into trouble if she attempted to wait for the last, and she’s only ever approached the second once. That was in Iowa, in America, and she’d been fond of her grandchildren. They’d been fond of her, too, and so they’d overlooked a good deal, but in the end there was only so much she could do before people started asking questions.
It would be easier now, in some ways. Better hair dye; better makeup; better dentistry. Better records, too, is the problem. Not perfect, though. Particularly not during a war. People disappear all the time. As for appearing–well, records stay in buildings, and buildings get bombed frequently enough.
She doesn’t worry that the glade will fall to one of the bombs, no more than she worries about the tanks and men that might be in her way. She did worry, once, but ancient promises hold, old bargains are still good, and things are taken care of. Now she walks forward and knows that the road will open.
Besides, in a way, these men are less worrisome than those before: vile as their superiors are, they’ve been raised in a world where some things are not done, and other things simply are not. The first would offer her some protection, if others didn’t. The second means that a man who encounters a small forest beneath the city streets will probably stare and blink and back away, and that his fellows would laugh at the story.
Others, short horsemen with long mustaches or clean-shaven legionnaires, would have come back with troops and torches. Odds are that they wouldn’t have done any permanent damage, in the end–the glade has its ways, and secrecy is only the first of them–but even so, she feels the threat less now.
She walks down a flight of marble stairs. Her heels don’t click this time, as they had a generation ago; they’re low and sensible, suitable for a woman in her position. They make discreet, muffled sounds that soon become the only sounds around her. The noises of the street fade with a rapidity that would amaze anyone who’d come down the first three steps with her. Someone who could measure depth would be more amazed still.
She is not beyond amazement, but she is used to this.
And she knows that any companion would not fare well.
The forest opens itself before her, glowing with a rose-pink light like summer sunset. Unfamiliar birds sing in gold-leafed trees; the air smells like cinnamon and cloves. It’s beautiful. It’s fantastic. It’s not a lie–as far as anything is real, this is–but it is deceptive.
Turning off the path here would be a very bad idea.
Even when the path disappears ahead; even when everything disappears ahead. She walks over a black void, high above the glinting stars, and she never pauses, nor shakes, nor turns pale. She has made her bargains, and she’s come back to fulfill them once more; it suits nobody’s purpose to let her fall. And yet she knows that this is no illusion. Like the forest, the void is real, and anyone else trying to walk it–or she herself, if she hadn’t kept some kind of faith over the years–would fall, screaming, forever.
They say, now, that there is no wind in the void, but there is wind here. It clutches at her, whipping her hair out of its pins; it pushes her from side to side, hard enough to test and tease but not hard enough to kill; and after it’s tired of that, it becomes a man standing in front of her, a man with something golden about him., though she’s never been able to say precisely what.
Maybe it’s his smile. He smiles easily. He holds out one hand. She doesn’t take it–she has some idea of what would happen if she did, and although it would not be unpleasant, it’s not her path just yet. Instead, she hands him the first of her burdens: the blue flower and the poem.
He eyes her with patience, and amusement, and perhaps a little pity, though not as humans would understand it. Sympathy, maybe, as one student to another during a long and boring assembly: oh, they’re making us do this again.
They know each other, a little. They don’t talk here, though. That is not part of the rite–Standard Operating Procedure, they call it now–and there would be consequences. She smiles back and shrugs one shoulder, what can you do, and he fades back into the wind.
Crossing, her feet bleed. That too is part of things. The blood drips into the void, though if the stars mind they’ve never complained, and then soaks into the earth on the other side, her price of acceptance and her token of admission. It says that she belongs here; the ground would rise up and throw off anyone else, anyone who did manage to get across the void.
Even her, if she’d broken certain oaths.
She hasn’t, though, and so it doesn’t, and she walks onward through a forest that’s slightly greener and smells a little more like forest, sharp pine and damp earth. The trees are still different from any she’s ever seen, though–some silver-tipped and blue-barked, some with feathers for leaves, some heavy with transparent, jewel-like fruit–and the birdsong is nothing she’s ever heard.
Ahead of her, one of the trees parts like the double doors of some grand house, and a man steps out onto the path. He’s darker than the other; his smile is slower; and comparisons are both pointless and an inescapably human tool. We relate to things by way of other things, and so each is connected and bound into the greater whole. He is as he is, as the other is what he is, lords of air and of earth, and whatever else they are is for other times and places.
He, too, holds out a hand, waiting like a conductor at his hundredth sympathy or a priest at his thousandth wedding: knowledge of the rite, and a quiet joy in the familiarity of it. Easy for him to be joyous, of course. His feet aren’t bleeding.
And yet it is a comfort for her to be here, again, to come back from a world in its convulsions of change and to repeat, to reaffirm, to verify and signify that some things remain.
She gives him a red rose, with a bracelet draped around it: copper linked with gold. Hard to find, in these days of rationing, but she’s been saving it for a while. One never knows.
He takes it with a slow and ceremonial bow, and then is gone as quickly as the other.
She goes on. It’s not long, it’s never long, before she sees a glint up ahead: sunlight, from who knows what sun, glinting off something that is almost water except for the moments when it’s fire. By each side of it are her flowers, red and blue; they’re as tall as the trees now, and their petals fall around her as she walks forward.
She, sure of her greater purpose, of the task for which she volunteered with as much will and better knowledge than the lads currently in the trenches, does not know the details. Cannot know–not if she wants it to succeed in the end. She doesn’t know why, precisely, and she gets the feeling she’s not supposed to ask that either.
She does wonder, as the not-water-not-fire closes over her, who she’ll be this time.