The first time Lily Carter was accosted by a poem, she was hurrying back across campus to Ericson after a late rehearsal in Chester Hall. Hunched over with her chin tucked into her collar in defense against the chilly February night, she didn't spot the scrap of yellowing paper until a gust of wind sent it flying right under her nose. Instinctively, she clapped it against her chest and looked around for someone who might have dropped it, but the path was empty.
She let herself into her dorm, pulled her mittens off with her teeth, and uncrumpled her bit of litter, just in case it was something important.
It was a sonnet, written in ordinary ballpoint, and unsigned. Lily flipped it over, hoping for some other clue about the poet's identity, and found page three of somebody's treatise on Spenser, apparently judged unsatisfactory, and typed on a slightly old-fashioned typewriter. Lily waffled for a moment in front of the cork board in the lobby, but there was something intimate in the poem that made her unwilling to just scribble, "Is this yours??" on the page and tack it up for all to see. Instead, she rummaged for her own piece of scrap paper and wrote, "LOST SONNET RESCUED FROM PATH IN FRONT OF ERICSON, 02/26/81. IF AUTHOR WOULD LIKE IT BACK, PLEASE INQUIRE RM 420."
She left it there all week, but nobody replied.
"Professor Medeous wants me to apply for the Thessaloniki fellowship," she announced to Andrew and Gael, plopping down next to them in the Taylor dining hall and wringing rainwater from her hair.
"What?" Andrew paused in the middle of moving his food from harm's way. "Oh wow, do it! It's going to be amazing. Why are you wearing that expression on your face? Remove that expression immediately!"
"If you mean the 'confused as hell' expression," said Lily, pilfering her brother's dinner roll off his tray and tearing it in half, "that'd be because I haven't even taken Greek yet. She saw it on my spring schedule and her eyes lit up and I swear her nose twitched like a hunting dog's, and then she started regaling me with tales of Greece's fabulous summer cultural scene."
"The Classics department is notorious for aggressive recruiting," Gael remarked. "'Sign up now and win a free trip to the Mediterranean!' does seem like scaling new heights, but—"
"I'm a declared music major. I'm taking Intro to Greek because it nails my language requirement while supplementing my Ancient Music seminar nicely. Why would she waste one of twelve fellowship spots on me when she's got twenty Classics majors fighting over them like seagulls over a Happy Meal?"
Andrew produced an illustrative seagull-screech, loud enough to turn the heads of nearby diners, and filched his roll back. "You're a declared music major. She wants to stage Alcestis next year and needs musicians who do not suck. Also you're only a sophomore; she's still hopeful of luring you to the dark side."
"How are you so in the loop, firstie?"
"Oh. I'm going. To Thessaloniki."
"What?" Lily produced a shriek of her own.
Andrew just grinned smugly and said, "Also I'm taking Greek with you next term."
"You're a geology major. The bloody fuck, Andrew?"
"Simple: Medeous, internationally renowned and revered hot air balloon that she is, has access to the Derveni papyrus. If I were a phys ed major I'd find a way to get to Greece this summer for the chance to see it. God, wouldn't you?" Lily just stared until Andrew raised his hands in submission. "I was talking to Dr. Beauvais about multispectral imaging, which is the hot new thing in geo right now, and I had this brain-blip about what if you could use it on a micro scale, to study art and historical documents? And she said that was fascinating and would I like to do a real inquiry into the subject, and did I know the Classics department was taking some students to Greece this summer to learn about handling and dating techniques at the Archeological Museum? And I said, 'Oh, that sounds interesting, tell me more,' and she sent me to Medeous." Lily shook her head at him in astonishment. It was Andrew all over, bouncing and twirling his way through life, charming his way into whatever he liked, barely noticing his own luck.
"I'm not the only science student going," he admitted. "You know Ria Greenblatt in chem? Otherwise, yeah, it's mostly Classics majors and a few from art history. You should totally try for it. Interdisciplinary fields are the wave of the future." He batted his eyelashes.
"I'll think about it. You're sure having your big sister playing chaperone wouldn't spoil your fun?"
"You think I can get nothing past you, do you?" He winked. "Anyway, I'll leave that to marinate. The deadline's next Friday. What else is new?"
Lily finally turned her attention to her cooling dinner, taking a big bite of ravioli before she answered. "I'm a poetry magnet."
"Ooh! What sort of poetry? Pangyrical? Satirical? There once was a lassie named Lily?"
"Who was out for a walk on the hilly," she answered automatically, then stopped and grimaced at her brother. Andrew lifted an innocent, well-you-walked-right-into-it eyebrow. "When a sonnet came flying—no," she bent and rummaged in the bag at her feet, so the next line came muffled. "When her path was traversed—for the second time—"
"Points off for passive voice," Andrew interjected, peering down at her.
"What? Why? Fuck off." She smacked her prize down on the table between the dishes and smoothed it flat.
"—by a page full of verse—?" Gael supplied helpfully. See, this was why Lily liked him. Quiet, soft-spoken boy, Gael, until you got him on a stage or needed limerick help. Then he was right there for you. Lily worried for his sanity a bit, spending so much time with Incorrigible Andy, but the two of them had been joined at the hip since frosh week and seemed no worse for wear.
"Yes! Thank you. This literally smacked me in the face just now, coming out of Ericson. There was nobody around who could have dropped it, and no windows open more than a crack—it is pouring out there right now, did I mention?—but this is barely damp, except where I clutched it to my bosom. And the same damned thing happened to me three weeks ago."
She looked up and found two wide pairs of eyes, one deep brown and the other grey as her own, staring at her in urgent expectation. "Oh. Um. And the mystery is driving me silly!"
Two sets of shoulders slumped in relief. Gael applauded. Andrew said, "You are a terrible bard. Abandon music composition and get thee to the Classics department immediately. It's your only hope."
"You're a terrible brother. See if I ever help you finish a limerick. You're not even paying attention to my mystery."
"You think somebody's throwing poems at you."
"Or else I keep walking into poems. They're not, like, romantic secret admirer creepy stalker poems, either, look at this."
"The yarrow's bitter dregs no kindness ken," Andrew read aloud. "Gracious. How gothic."
"Maybe it's someone who heard you play?" Gael guessed. "Too shy to talk to you, but harbors fantasies you'll set their verse to music?"
"Too shy," Lily repeated dubiously.
"Not everyone's as poised and suave as me." Gael had met the Carter siblings at this very table, when he'd looked up at their request to sit and not even finished his mouthful of chocolate pudding before blurting, "Oh sweet baby Jesus, please tell me you're theatre majors," then blushing like a peony and diving for a napkin.
"Geo and music, alas," Andrew had told him, and Lily had followed with, "I'd love nothing more than to read for Viola, but I'm afraid this one couldn't memorize his way out of a paper bag." Gael, taking it for granted that they'd followed his line of thought effortlessly, had blinked up at Andrew and said solemnly, "Sebastian's only in five scenes. I would practice with you daily," and that had been that.
"The Case of the Projectile Poet," Lily said now, in her best Masterpiece Theater voice. Gael slid his glasses down to rest on the tip of his nose, and all three of them put their chins on their fists and frowned.
Spring was rough. Ancient Music was a blast, but Lily's history course was all dead white men and taught by a nincompoop soon to be another one, and her bio lab section met at eight a.m., screwing up late-night band practice. After-dinner orchestra rehearsals were wretched enough.
Intro to Greek was just weird. The work was engaging, and her fellow students shockingly competent, but her brother appeared to be falling in love with the teacher. Andrew, who had never gone googly-eyed over anyone in his life, as far as Lily knew, who had foiled all her perfectly evil adolescent plans to embarrass him by simply blinking in benign perplexity whenever she'd teased him about bringing friends-who-were-girls over for study dates, was now stuttering and blushing and on the brink of embarrassing Lily every time he was called upon to conjugate a verb. Professor Medeous was perfectly nice about it, seeming not even to notice Andrew's affliction, but Lily had started entering the classroom wishing she could just set up her pencils and workbook on the floor, then crawl under her desk and work from there.
Furthermore, Lily had failed to apply for the Thessaloniki trip. She'd intended to, and got so far as to fill out the application at the last minute, and then she'd forgotten it on top of a piano in Chester's basement. Or she assumed she had. By the time she'd gone back to check, the door had been locked for the night, and she hadn't been able to return until the Monday after the deadline. She was less put out about it than she could have been—she'd been looking forward to a couple of summer concerts in Minneapolis, and now those were back on the table—but Professor Medeous was a hard woman to disappoint.
There were no more poetry fly-bys for so long that Lily forgot about them, figuring they'd just been an accident—somebody's lost notebook moldering under a bush and losing pages one by one. So when the crumpled paper flew past her ear she actually yelled, and then when she unfolded it she shivered even before she read the raggedy cursive scrawl. The words themselves did not help.
She read the whole poem right there on the path, looked up and swallowed hard. "Who the hell are you?" It came out too shaky to be a yell, but still loud enough that a couple canoodling on the grass nearby poked their heads up in concern.
Lily didn't think of herself as either romantic or gullible. She didn't share her father and sister's fondness for and fascination with ghost stories, had more to say about post-Beats than Inklings, and had little patience for superstition. But she was now officially creeped out.
"If you're trying to tell me anything in particular," she told the indifferent air, "try harder."
Andrew left for Greece the third week of June. Lily and Gael both stayed on campus, Gael TDing the summer theatre program, Lily next door at band camp, teaching middleschoolers how to hold their newly rented flutes and saxes. For a thespian, Gael didn't seem to like theatre majors much, and took to eating lunch with Lily and the other music coaches. After eating, he would liberate Lily's acoustic guitar from its case, quietly pick his way through John Lennon's back catalog, and listen to the others talk about Sandra Day O'Connor, the pneumonia outbreak in LA, Donkey Kong, and Princess Di, pausing sometimes to ask Lily for fingering advice. After he left, Kendra (percussion) and Dale (horns) invariably spent five minutes cooing about his crush on her. There was no crush; Lily was damned sure of it, but she figured it wasn't hurting anybody to let them talk.
One afternoon, halfway through August, Gael caught up with her on the steps outside the music and drama center and asked, "When was the last time you heard from Andrew?"
Lily blinked at him. "Uh. I got a postcard a few days after he landed? I think he's sent Mom and Dad a couple since then, but he's not really much of a letter-writer, our Andy."
"Oh. Well, um. We've been writing. A bit. But then he stopped. So I wondered."
"Really?" Lily asked, intrigued. "How much is a bit?"
Gael blushed, hard enough that it showed clearly even on his olive skin. She raised her eyebrow and said, "Really?" and he darkened even more. She could see it wasn't entirely fun for him, though; his hands, which had been loose at his sides, were suddenly twisted together with nerves. "Good," Lily said lightly, carefully. "Boy needs the composition practice." Gael's shoulders uncramped.
"The thing is, he stopped," Gael said after a few minutes of walking. "And then I had a really creepy nightmare about him and Med—I don't know, I guess I just freaked myself out. Forget it."
"Are you sure you won't come?" Andrew asked again, mostly to Gael. Whatever epistolary drama he and Gael had weathered over the summer, they'd reconciled as soon as Andrew returned to Blackstock. The only times Lily had seen her brother without Gael in tow was the "welcome back" dinner with their parents at the end of August. Something significant had shifted between them, something Lily hadn't been invited to know.
Lily was spending her Hallowe'en at the Cave, playing an early set, then bartending, theoretically only until midnight, though she wasn't counting on prompt relief when there were so many tempting parties for her colleagues to play hooky at instead.
Gael was not spending this evening with Andrew, apparently. "Me and horses. Nope. Nopity-nope, nie and nunca. Terrible idea, childhood trauma, never recovered, no inclination to. I'm pleading introvert tonight. Have fun and tell me all about it after," he said.
Andrew looked so abandoned-puppy that Lily told him, "But we'll come out for a minute and watch you ride past? I could wave a little flag?"
The bar crowd was raucous and happy, and the set went well, and most of Lily's friends turned up and stayed for at least a couple songs. When she spotted Gael slip in, rarest of rarities, she whooped and pointed and cajoled until he came up and dueted with her on "Army Dreamers" and people swayed in their chairs and wailed along, and damn, she was going to make Andrew keep this one around just so she could have a real tenor at Christmas parties. When he was done, he huddled on a corner barstool with a Dr. Pepper and got flirted at by a succession of either extremely dense or extremely sheltered women and one slightly savvier guy, a cute, if sharp-faced strawberry blond she hadn't seen around before. Lily narrowed her eyes at him when he lingered. With a very impressive bit of underhanded signaling, if she said so herself, she deployed her friend Erika, militant lesbian and keyboard virtuoso, to go talk to Gael sensibly, and shortly thereafter the blond man vanished.
Stunningly, Lily's bartending relief showed up at twelve-thirty sharp. Lily hung up her apron gratefully and ducked into the bathroom to pop a Tylenol before heading outside, scooping up Gael as she went. It was a crisp, pretty night. Windows were open across campus, and music still spilled faintly into the greens. As they passed by the paths leading up into the Arb, she might have heard hoofbeats and the faint, uncanny whoops of riders, but it was hard to tell.
Beside her, Gael was gangly-limbed and uncharacteristically chatty. "I like your friend," he confided to Lily. "She's really brave, don't you think? We were talking about artistic personas and who shapes them, and did you know Kate Bush's managers didn't even want to—"
There was a figure slumped over on the steps of Eliot. Lily recognized him a second before Gael did, but Gael's legs were longer, and he skidded onto his jeans-clad knees in front of Andrew as Lily panted and cursed the awkward weight of her bass.
"I'm okay," Andrew croaked, and promptly belied it by flinging his arms around Gael's slim shoulders and beginning to shake.
"What is it?" Gael wondered, hugging back tight. "Babe, what is it?" And then he froze a little, eyes darting up to Lily.
"It's just me," she muttered, feeling a poignant combination of pain and protectiveness, "but we'd better get him inside."
Lily wondered if they'd separate once they got inside Gael's room, but Andrew clung, and Gael hoisted him up onto the narrow dorm bed, then knelt beside him and grabbed his hands. He eyed Lily again, who busied herself disposing of her instrument and coat.
Andrew said, with tears in his eyes, "I've been lying to you about spending late nights in the imaging lab." Gael's fingers tightened, and Andrew made a small anguished noise and said, "No! Not like that, no, no, you don't understand it's—" He broke off and took a deep breath, trying to collect himself. "I don't know where to begin. You're going to think I'm insane."
"I've convinced myself I'm being stalked by a dead poet," said Lily, pulling Gael's desk chair close to the bed.
"And I'm a theatre major," said Gael. "Try me."
"It—it started in Thessaloniki."
But he was right; his stumbling, disjointed narrative was hard to follow and harder to credit: late nights in the clubbing district of a notorious party town, too many mystery drinks, and suddenly Andrew was describing Dionysian revels full of beautiful creatures who were girls and boys but also not girls and boys—and they did things to him, and told him things he needed to remember, but couldn't, and gave him drinks that made you think you were dying, but they felt too good to stop—
And at the center of the revel was Medeous, who was not Medeous, and that was important, but he forgot that, too, until tonight.
And tonight, on Professor Medeous' ride, he'd learnt the truth of Medeous' revel, and what price she paid, every seven years, to keep it stoked. And he'd found out that, next year, the price would be Andrew himself.
At some point his eyes started to water again; whether or not every part of Andrew's tale was true, it had him badly frightened. And—Lily got up quietly and opened her guitar case, fishing in its inner pocket for a small sheaf of papers.
"You keep those with your bass?"
"I was thinking of trying to set one to music. But listen:
"Beware the queen who rides at night
She rides with those who've cheated death
Her court is an uncanny sight
Beware the queen who rides at night
She'll braid your hair with ribbons bright
She'll speak you fair, then steal your breath
Beware the queen who rides at night
She rides with those who've cheated death."
Lily stopped, and all three of them breathed quietly for a minute. "Doggerel," Andrew said eventually.
"Medieval French; what are you gonna do," Lily shrugged. "Smoke alarms aren't supposed to be subtle."
Gael said, "What about the others?"
"They're... a mix. I've got a creepy meditation on immortality, a valediction to a pregnant girl who committed suicide, this completely batshit riddle poem jammed with wordplay and possibly Cockney rhyming slang that I think might be about Blackstock's Classics department, a list of abortifacients à la Dorothy Parker, and another satirical-melancholy thing about fools who cling to youth, with an erotic love poem scribbled on the back that honestly sounds kind of drunk. And the first one I ever got was written to someone who had survived an ordeal, and it wasn't really a love poem, but more like... a witnessing, and a 'baby, you're not alone anymore, 'cause you're here with me" ... except not actually corny. It was actually a bit harrowing."
"But to someone who survived an ordeal," Gael noted sharply.
"I don't know how those fit together," said Andrew. "Pregnancy and immortality? Sounds like somebody who needs to listen to more Graham Nash."
"They fit together," Lily insisted. "I can feel it. And they're about—this. What's happening to you. It's happened before."
"Well," Andrew said shakily, "whatever pregnancy has to do with it, that's definitely not an issue in my case, because—"
The pause stretched out too long, all the evening's tiredness and confusion and fear creeping round its edges. "Oh my God," Lily finally snapped. "I know, little brother. I've known since you were thirteen. Just say it already."
Andrew opened his eyes to glare. "I'm gay!" And then he blinked rapidly and frowned.
Lily leaned forward to haul him—or what she could get of him, which was mostly his knees—into her arms. "More importantly, you're an idiot," she told him. "And we're not losing you to this, okay? Over my dead body."
It was past three in the morning when Lily left Andrew in Gael's bed and stumbled homeward. She was unsurprised to find a poem waiting for her on her doorstep. Like several of the others, it was handwritten on a couple sheets of foolscap. Unlike them, the paper was thick and unlined, and bore the jester watermark. The fool's cap. The title was written in a strong, archaic, unfamiliar hand: "Tam Lin."
How on earth (an all-too-apt figure of speech, Lily giggled grimly) did one begin to research Fairyland? She stood in front of the card catalog and resisted the urge to beat it into submission with her forehead. Or collapse in a shivering heap beneath it.
She had not told Andrew what she'd discovered in Child Ballad No. 39. It had taken him long enough to come out; like hell she was going to come back the morning after and tell him she'd discovered the only way to save his immortal soul and it was to ditch his sweetheart of a boyfriend and knock up a coed. It couldn't be the only way.
She'd skimmed through all of Francis James Child, Spenser and Sir Walter Scott, and several Anonymouses, looked up every variation of fairies and the Wild Hunt she could think of in Encyclopedia Britannica. It was a fiasco, a crapshoot, and she had one single chance to find the truth. I need better than this, I need live sources, she thought to herself hysterically.
"Or do you let the long drowned nuzzle up to you," submitted a clear, tenor voice not five feet away. With a start, Lily realized she'd been mumbling her woes out loud. She looked up and found a young man with an unfashionable reddish beard standing with his hands steepled atop the other side of the catalog.
"Good thought," she told him. "D'you think the joke shop in town sells ouija boards this time of year?"
The man appeared to consider the question seriously. "Mayhap," he said, "though myself would favor a more classical approach."
His intonation made her lift an annoyed eyebrow and guess, "Classics major?" He seemed amused by this suggestion, but did not contradict it. In lieu of answering, he plucked a card from an open drawer in front of him and flicked it to her. Homer's Odyssey. Chapman translation, she noted absently. Gosh, thanks, buddy.
Lily placed him then. He was the same guy she'd seen chatting with Gael on Hallowe'en, before Erika scared him off. Tapping the card against the metal cabinet, she offered, "I noticed you at the Cave the other night. I'm Lily Carter."
He nodded gravely. "John Singer," he said, and dipped his head in a little bow. "List', if you can, will you tell them—"
"Tell whom, the dead?" Lily snapped, impatient at having her train of thought derailed by this nonsense-talker.
John opened his mouth to reply, but then cocked his head in a listening attitude, slipped Lily a wry smile, and vanished around the corner, into the stacks. A moment later, Professor Medeous glided past with a bundle of leather-bound books under her arm. Following some inexplicable impulse, Lily curled her fist around the call number Eccentric John had given her, but the Classics professor didn't even glance over.
Alone again, Lily let out a breath and shook her head. She opened her hand, guiltily bent the card back into shape as best she could, and trotted around the cabinet to replace it in its slot. Sonnet-flinging spirits, now oracular boys randomly telling her to brush up on her epic verse. The episode had thoroughly addled her. Where was she? P, p for participant-observer. Lily went back to researching her anthropology paper.
Andrew was slipping away from them. Lily dragged him home for Thanksgiving, but Janet and Thomas and the babies were with Thomas's family that year, and her parents both had bad colds, so it was a subdued dinner. Andrew spent most of the night cuddling with Portia, the collie mutt who had succeeded Vincentio.
Then Christmas blizzarded, and her sister couldn't even get out of Boston. It hurt more than Lily expected. Her relationship with Janet had never been terribly close. An awkward number of years separated them; Lily had been a standoffish brat as Janet had just been coming into adulthood, and then Paul and Sylvia had been born and her teenaged self had resented all the attention they demanded, especially from her parents, and then as soon as Lily had started to grow up Janet had left town.
They spoke on the phone a little, over Christmas break, clustered around the receivers, cheek to cheek with the rest of the family, but the call left Lily feeling restless and sad and lonely, like she was carrying a secret she didn't have the words to share. Which she supposed she was.
Time became slippery. She went to class, wrote her papers and compositions, played her music. She could go for weeks at a time without thinking of Andrew's plight at all, then wake in a panic she had no outlet for.
Finally, in spring, she paid a visit to her faculty adviser. What was there to lose? It was her brother Medeous wanted, after all, not her. And perhaps an insider's view would bring her closer to vital information.
"I enjoyed my Greek class so much," she said as earnestly as she could muster. "Tell me what it would take to add Classics as a second major. Something for the summer, maybe?"
Medeous smiled, and pushed the course calendar across her desk.
Now sleep awhile, my dear, for well I ken
How overmuch the year hath taxed thy peace,
How little hope hath lately been thy friend,
Thy numbered days subject to Her caprice.
What should the stoutest soul learn to mistrust
When grim night's terrors stray into the morn
And all thy mortal struggles take for dust,
All laws of Earth and Heaven, smiling, scorn.
Two weeks into December, Janet sat on her bed, rifling through notebooks, when a single, loose sheet of paper fell from one of them, caught a breeze and swooped away, landing sonnet-side-up in the middle of the carpet. Janet peered. It was in her own handwriting. She hauled herself up and retrieved the page, scanned the date at the top and the first line (10/31/75; "The yarrow's bitter dregs no kindness ken"), and sat down very hard. The barely-attained edge of the bed creaked under the impact. She read the rest, then stood and folded it carefully and tucked it in her pocket, where she kept her hand on it as she made her way downstairs to the telephone.
"Meet me for supper in Dunbar—no—off campus. Sheila's. Bring"—she pressed her fingertips to her temple—"bring your journal from freshman year."
"What?" said Thomas.
"Just do it."
"Ugh? It's at the bottom of my foot locker. I think. Give me twenty minutes." He hung up.
She waited till they were seated in a corner booth, onion rings steaming in front of them. Then she pulled out the paper with the poem on it and pushed it toward him. Thomas read, and Janet watched the same revelation bloom across his face that she'd experienced half an hour earlier.
He looked up, wide-eyed. Janet breathed out shakily and nodded. "So I'm not crazy."
"Either that or it's catching," said Thomas. "But let us be methodical: what are we crazy about?"
Janet laughed a little wildly and started ticking points off on her fingers. "In sum? The Classics department is bewitched. Medeous is a queen of Faerie. Robin and Nick and some others are Elizabethan actors she adopted into her court and made immortal. Every seven years she must sacrifice one of them to some kind of hellbeast, and not six weeks ago you were—and I—"
"I was her lamb," said Thomas.
"And her lion and an adder, too, for a minute there. Oh, God. You believe me."
"You saved me."
They stared at each other. Thomas said, "Now I do."
"It's the college that makes us forget. She's got some sort of curse or hold on it that fogs things up. Thomas, she said she'd take two next time. We can't forget about this! But how on earth do we make sure we remember?"
He looked back down at Janet's poem, fingering the paper gently. "The same way people have forever: we write it down."
She learnt to keep a notebook by her bed: she was dreaming poems, now. Like all dreams, they vanished like mist burnt off a lake within minutes of waking. She grew afraid of losing them, and would wake to find herself already muttering and shaking Thomas before her own eyes even opened, so she could try to snare the words in his mind as well as hers. It was like being possessed.
She wrote for Victoria Thompson. She wrote a solemn ballad from the point of view of the bust of Schiller, which made Thomas slide off the couch in the common room and into a dismayed heap on the floor. One night, with her feet kicked up over Thomas's lap, she even wrote one for Nick.
"That thing you said about being wrapped in cotton," she explained, "I can't get it out of my head."
"I don't know if it feels the same for everyone," Thomas qualified.
"Close enough that I knew what you meant, when I got close and felt her. But I'd have said—right after, when she was threatening doom upon our house and all that—it didn't feel like cotton; it felt like vines. Like being trapped and smothered under vines or moss, and—I can understand why struggling might feel hopeless. Why even bother? Have you ever tried to tear apart green ivy with your bare hands? I can understand how it might be easier on the psyche just to convince yourself you liked your prison and wanted to stay there."
Thomas frowned, rubbing idly at Janet's ankle bone. "You know I never liked Nick much, though I did try. I thought him clever, but slippery. Maybe elusive is a better word. Almost like he was vacant from his own house, missing some sort of essential, solid, graspable core."
"Do you know anything about Renaissance theories of selfhood?" Janet asked. "That's essentially one of them. Self as decentered: there is no such thing as a core; you are but the sum of your influences, so you'd better make sure your influences are good. Nick would have been—how old, when Medeous seduced him? A callow youth, with hot and rebellious liquors in his blood."
"And shaped thereafter by his mistress. All right," said Thomas. "You've made me pity him."
"I wonder what existence feels like to Medeous herself," Janet mused. "She's the opposite of Nick; her presence is too overwhelming."
"A solid thing who should not be solid on this plane. The subconscious knows it, and rebels."
"Why is she so obsessed with us as a species, anyway? Is Earth really so awesome that she'd rather grade papers and teach case endings to entitled undergraduates than rule as Queen of Elfland?"
Thomas was silent for a long time. "Earth moves," he finally said slowly. "Elfland stands still. I don't know what it feels like to her, and frankly I don't like spending much time imagining it, but here she can—Have you read Tolkien?"
"Mortal Men alone have the power to change the Song," said Janet.
"Even just—witnessing that: change, changeability, passion and consequence—I am sure, once tasted, it's addictive. And for all she is evil and selfish and a trespasser, I can understand it. Especially," he said, grimacing self-consciously, "after having almost lost it myself."
Janet laced her fingers through his and asked, "Do you suppose Medeous met Tolkien?"
Thomas huffed out a laugh. "If she did, she didn't deign to tell me of it. I think he gets mortality right, but the Fairyland in his essays isn't hers. Make of that what you will."
"I like to think if they ever met, he'd have seen through her like a pane of glass."
"He would never have left his wife."
"And if he did, she'd have commissioned an eagle to smuggle her across the deep and petitioned the very gods to get him back."
The fall is compulsory.
Did he court you with sweet fruits
Expensively out of season,
Or with their blushes painted on,
The apple's bitter pip wrapped up in glistening marzipan?
Or did he court you with sweet words
Sleek-metered and soft-rhymed
All jagged edges sanded down and painted over
No purchase to be found anywhere?
No purchase to be found anywhere
On the white-painted windowsill
Rubicons never turn up where expected
And too late your fingernails scored the wood
And failed to take your weight
As you took his.
Did he score your white skin? Or just your virtue?
You'd have been pushed, sooner or later.
The fall is compulsory.
"Free verse?" Thomas blinked at the page Janet handed him. "Who are you and what have you done with my girlfriend?"
"I know. It's the first one I've written since the stupid sampler chapbook we all had to do in high school. But I tried blank verse, and then I tried villanelles, and I even thought it was going to be a fucking sestina for a minute there, but. I can't make it play nice. I'm too angry. I am too angry to iamb."
Thomas snorted, then offered rhetorically, "Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce, For he tames it, that fetters it in verse...."
"I am feeling horribly confused and have no idea whether it pleases when 'tis read or not. Also I have a headache."
He hauled her up onto the bed next to him and put his hand in her hair, scratching gently as he read.
"How old are the Beauvais sisters?" Janet asked at random, hands curled around her tea mug as she waited for its contents to cool.
"Old enough to know better," said Robin. He was sitting on the bedroom floor with a tackle box full of jeweler's tools, fiddling with some wire and a pair of pliers.
"I think Anne's birthday is in March?" said Tina.
"I was just thinking about Ellman again." Mrs. Simpson had listed "Thinking About Women" as suggested reading for one of her paper topics, and Janet hadn't been able to get the essay out of her head. "All those women, all those people hiding in the canon without any explanation except she was a milkmaid or a temptress or a queen. She had sex or she didn't. Now that I've started looking for the stereotypes, I can't stop! And here I have delusions of being a poet, and what about those women who grew up in times that didn't let them do anything? What would I do, if I had words to say to the world, and nobody would let me publish them?"
Molly and Tina both snorted at Janet's "delusions," but Thomas just looked at her seriously, more interested in hearing the end of her thought than in her self-deprecation, which made Janet feel silly to have fished for praise. He said, "How'd you get from there to Anne Beauvais?"
Janet fishmouthed for a second. There had been a connection in her head a moment ago, she was sure of it, but whatever neurons had fired had gone dark again. "I don't know."
Robin made an irritated noise, but when Janet glanced over he was still bent over the knot of silver in his hand. He glared at it and started unwinding vigorously.
"Are you going to submit your Ellman paper to U. of M.?" asked Molly.
"I think so. It feels weird to give them Am. lit, but that's the tack I've been itching to take with the Romantics all spring, and I can explain that in my statement."
"Champion of all history's neglected damsels, you'll be," said Tina.
Winter term continued apace. Janet had wondered what would happen upon reentering Medeous' classroom, but Medeous was blandly civil, paying her no more attention than any run-of-the-mill freshman.
She wondered, too, about Thomas. Three years concealing such a secret as his could not have but taken a toll; would he even be recognizable once he'd had some time to decompress? But Thomas, thus far, remained the same mild person with occasional oddball bouts of temper. Well. Odd, Janet began to realize, only because she had never previously been privy to their origins. "Incomprehensible to her" did not mean "baseless." Revelation! And there was plenty to fight about. Graduation loomed, job and school applications were stressful, and with Janet's steadily expanding circumference came a host of other troubles, from social to financial.
So they fought. They always had, Molly and Tina reminded her after a bad bout. And they'd stayed friends, and wasn't that pretty telling? And then eventually they learnt to fight better. And then they fought less.
It was interesting, the art of growing up.
The bigger and more cumbersome Jane's body became, the better they got at sex. Thomas's sex drive, which he'd either misplaced or concealed from Janet in the months leading up to Hallowe'en, surfaced with a vengeance. Neither of them was much prone to public display, but the minute they had an empty dorm room he was on her. Or, more precisely, she was on him, as his favorite method of instigating was to kiss and make her chase his lips and urge her into his lap. He couldn't get enough of her weight settling across his hips, holding him down.
"You talk like the most enlightened male on the continent, yet you stare at my middle like a caveman," she pointed out to him one day, while he was doing just that.
"Oh God, do I? I feel entirely illogical about it. I do feel like a caveman, until I remember I'm just a useless humanities undergraduate with no hunting or gathering skills whatsoever, and how will I feed you and our beautiful tadpole? And then I wonder when you'll let me make an honest woman of you, and then I want to beat myself with a shoe for sounding like my Nixon-voting father. I don't know how enlightened I am. I'm doing my best not to be an asshole."
Janet tugged gently on his hair. "No beating with shoes. You've been the opposite of an asshole about all this, on the whole. I'm glad you're here to caveman at me."
"I'm just stupid with gratitude."
"I—" He paused, like the words he wanted kept slipping away the moment he found them. "I guess just for giving me the chance to stick around."
There was nothing to do but kiss him and hold his hands until they warmed sufficiently to guide them to her shirt buttons.
In spring, things went south for Molly and Robin. First, Robin was merely absent, which was not unheard of. Molly, busy herself, put up with it. They'd never been any kind of codependent. But then when he resurfaced after midterms, he was polite. Distant.
Molly and Janet puzzled over him on a walk through the arboretum. "Is he just excessively commitment-phobic? If so, he's doing a nice, obnoxious job of jumping the gun; I've never asked for commitment. I don't want it. I'm not getting married until I've got my PhD."
"Well, does he know that?" asked Janet.
"I should hope so. I know I've said it out loud in his presence, though possibly not recently. Who knows what sticks in the man's memory?"
"What do you want from Robin until you get your PhD?"
"I sent my acceptance letter to the U. of Washington," Molly non sequitured.
"Oh." The abrupt news winded Janet too much for her to call Molly out on the conversational left turn. "Oh, God, Moll, that's... wonderful."
Molly stopped and turned, grabbing Janet's shoulder hard. "I agonized about Minnesota for a long time, I really did. I was looking forward to babysitting. I will miss the hell out of you."
After the hugging and sobbing was done, they returned to the Robin problem. "He doesn't have anywhere in particular to be after he graduates, as far as I know. He's not interested in grad school. I think the plan is to do theatre, which, if it turns out to matter, there's plenty of in Seattle. I'd love to have a friend out there, him more than almost anybody, but, you know, the plan is to do the degree in under five years. I'm not making time for a lot of frolicking in grassy knolls."
Janet lifted an eyebrow, amused, but heartened by her friend's good sense. "Well, then let him know you're around if he wants to have a proper conversation about it. It's not your job to bully him into adulthood."
"That's a little cold, Jan."
"I'm researching daycare facilities. Thomas has two job interviews lined up next week. Move it or lose it."
"Yeah," Molly sighed. "I'd just feel better if I knew for sure what he finds so alarming about the thought of attaining it."
Janet shrugged helplessly.
The day after graduation, Molly reported the last known sighting of Robin Armin: a sudden appearance in her dorm room, an intense bout of lovemaking, and the gift of a silver pennywhistle on a chain. He left while she was asleep, and came no more.
The campus print center was a stubby little stump of a building sticking out from the back of the post office. Janet ambled in (pretty much her top speed these days) and patiently waited her turn while a math professor fussed over the botched alignment of a summer school workbook.
"Senior theses won't be done until July," said the weary girl at the counter, eyeing Janet's tummy.
"Got it," said Janet, smiling. "I'm actually wondering about a short job, just ten pages folded in half, with a cardstock cover? I'd like three copies, though."
The clerk took the neat, typed pages from Janet's hand and flipped through them. "I can squeeze it in," she decided. "It'll be a nice break from poorly researched history papers. Can you come back tomorrow afternoon?"
"Sure," said Janet. "Thanks a lot." She turned to go.
"I've seen you around,' the girl blurted.
Janet sighed inwardly and braced for the nosiness or the moralizing.
"I think you're really brave, for finishing school, uh, like that." She gestured awkwardly at Janet's bump. "My sister," she lowered her voice to a scandal-appropriate hush and leaned forward, bracing fidgety hands on the Formica, "got pregnant in school and just—stopped. Spent the rest of the year at home and then moved in with Calvin as soon as he graduated and got a job. She's a housewife. Which, you know, would be fine if I thought she wanted to be a housewife. But she used to be so excited about being first girl in the family to go for her MBA."
"I'm staying home next year," admitted Janet. "I wasn't going to; I was going to start at U. of M. and commute so Mom could help with the babysitting, but—"
"It's really tough."
"Well, actually," Janet bit her lip, still a little shy with the knowledge, "I got into Harvard."
"No way," squealed the copy clerk. "What will you do?"
"I'm deferring. Living at home to save some money, and my—Thomas is working nearby, and as soon as the kid is good and portable... off we'll go!"
"Oh, my God!" the girl actually bounced up and down a couple times.
"Yeah. It's going to be hard as hell, I expect, but I can't not try, you know?"
"No. No. You have to try."
"Your sister... if she still wants to get her degree later, it's never too late. Harvard even has a nursery school. I hope she figures something out."
"Thanks. Me, too."
"Thank you for printing my poems."
"Are you sure you just want three copies? I'm sure they're amazing. You could probably publish them for real, somewhere."
"Oh, no. Not this set. Just one for me, and one for my parents, and, heh." Janet looked down, momentarily embarrassed. "I actually wanted to stuff the third behind the college's copy of my thesis. So the poems I wrote here would stay here. I know it's sort of silly."
"No it's not. I think it's very fitting." The clerk grinned conspiratorially. "And I can totally make that happen."
"Oh! Well, thank you. Again. I'll see you tomorrow?"
She made her way back out into the sunshine, grunting as the froglets kicked in tandem, though with reasonable cheerfulness. She was sufficiently ambitious to hope her scholarly words might one day find their way into bound books, where they would have an impact on somebody. She thought less often about little transient moments like this. It was good to remember how easily they all connected.
But sleep, my dear; I'll keep thee while I stay,
And fend the gloomy shadows from thy bed
So long hast need—yet sleep not out the day:
Thou hadst thyself alone, now two instead
Do face thy foes, the morrow to invest
With sweeter hopes to call thee from thy rest.
Lily woke to the sound of drumming. No. To pounding feet. No, no, to fists pounding on her door, for God's sake it was Saturday morning, what could possibly be so urgent at this hour? (Was it Saturday morning? She had the mother of all hangovers, so probably.) She dragged herself out of bed and across the room, trailing blankets, arranged her face in a scowl, and opened the door. Nobody was there. She stuck her head all the way out into the corridor, looked right and left, peered suspiciously at the carpet, squinted up to the ceiling. "I'll hunt you down and kill you in your sleep," she informed the absent prankster, and stomped back inside.
She was now quite awake, though, so she propelled herself off to the bathroom and took a shower. It felt good. Only when she returned to her bedroom did she notice that it really was only dawn; the sky outside her window was an eerie violet-grey, just beginning to blush. She opened the window and stuck her head out to see if she could see the sunrise peeking through the trees. She couldn't, but in the distance, somewhere up in the Arb, she heard a lone bagpiper playing faintly, as if to welcome it.
Lily grabbed a sweater and the knapsack that held her notebook and keys, thrust her feet into her boots, and swung out into the dewy morning.
She found no pipers. She hiked over the brook, past the edge of the campus and up through the woods to the crest of the hill, and found her sunrise, and a rock to sit on and watch it. The sky to the east was billowy with high altocumulus, rose-gold light catching on their undersides—a perfect rosy-fingered dawn.
Thoughtfully, Lily reached into her bag and pulled out her reading for her Homer class:
Now when with rosy fingers, th' early born
And thrown through all the air, appear'd the Morn....
She flipped ahead, as Odysseus fell asleep and woke up, became lost, and found himself again, until chapter eleven brought him to the home of the Cimmerians, and his conversation with the dead.
Lily looked at the page, and back up at the big, Minnesotan sky, its very opposite. "That's it," she said aloud. "This tithe. Who the hell owns Medeous? Who—in Hell? Surely that's the key to everything."
She jimmied the lock and crept down into the tunnel, easing the heavy industrial door shut behind her. Halfway between Ericson and Eliot was an unevenness in the concrete—a dip in the floor that made unwary adventurers trip, and a bulge in the wall that could almost conceal a man until you were right on top of him. The long, spidering crack connecting the two was one of the reasons the dorm-connecting tunnel was no longer in use. She dumped her armload next to this ominous disfiguration and looked around. The graffiti, this time of year, was sparse, having been painted over between terms, but Lily spotted a few lines she thought might be Adrienne Rich:
I am the living mind you fail to describe
in your dead language
the lost noun, the verb surviving
only in the infinitive
And a little further down, If you think you can grasp me, think again: my story flows in more than one direction. She suppressed a shiver.
She arranged herself on the floor, flicking open her big pocketknife and balancing it on her knee. Not as fearsome a weapon as Odysseus', but it was what she had. She set to work.
When to the Powers beneath,
The sacred nation that survive with death,
My prayers and vows had done devotions fit,
I took the off'rings, and upon the pit
Bereft their lives. Out gush'd the sable blood,
And round about me fled out of the flood
The souls of the deceas'd....
The light wouldn't turn on. Gael propped the door as wide as it would go, and gasped when the inadequate fluorescent light from the dorm basement hit the tunnel walls. They were black with script. Snaking and writhing across the rough surface, floor to ceiling, in thick, furry, calligraphic strokes, a frantic, overwritten blur of Greek and Roman letters and something else that Gael didn't recognize, something his eyes didn't seem to want to linger on. Then movement, from farther inside. John Singer leapt forward just as Lily staggered into view, swaying and ghostly pale. Her hands and forearms, and the front of her smock, were black and glistening like Lady MacBeth. "Everything's fine, it's just ink," she said, and fainted.
"Hey, Lily-Milly." Lily swam toward consciousness, chasing the sound of her sister's voice and the smell of a maple-pumpkin cinnamon roll. Janet Lane sat on the bed and set the pastry on the dresser, laughing when Lily, eyes still barely slitted open, reached for it with both hands. "Sit up and have some water, then pastry." Lily complied. Then her eyes shot open all the way.
"Janet? What? Where?"
"You're at Mom and Dad's house. Thom and I flew in last night. And Molly and Stephen should be here any minute now, actually."
"Your friend Molly? What?"
"You've been having adventures without us. It made us terribly nostalgic; we had to come." At that point Lily actually reached out for her water glass, and gave a second squeak. Her hands were wrapped up in white gauze as thick as mittens. Her sister picked up her water and helped her drink.
"I have to write papers! And midterms! I have a music practicum in two weeks! What am I going to tell my professors?" Lily wailed as soon as the glass was empty.
"That your iron fell off the ironing board and you absentmindedly caught it."
Lily blinked, realizing her questions were possibly a little scrambled. "I still don't—please explain to me why you're here. What happened?"
Janet studied her sister. "Well, from what I can gather, you channeled a ghost." Lily's jaw dropped. Her sister gave her a quizzical look. "Did you have another goal in mind when you took it upon yourself to sacrifice six quarts of ink, a jar of honey, and a bottle of mediocre cabernet to the unquiet spirits of Blackstock, decorated the walls of the Ericson tunnel with their ravings, and gave our brother and his sweet friend the fright of their lives?" When Lily just gawped, she continued, "I'm impressed by the substitution of ink for sheep's blood. That was inspired."
"You believe me."
Janet reached for something else on the dresser: a slim, cheaply, yet professionally bound chapbook. She flipped it open and tipped it upside-down over the bed, and a dozen loose sheets of paper, all different sizes, fell out onto Lily's lap. "The originals," she said simply.
And so they were. Only the manuscript of "Tam Lin" itself was missing. Janet showed her the chapbook's simple cover: Poems: 1975-76, by Janet Carter. Lily brushed her paw over the polished, typed versions of the poems inside.
"Why—why didn't I recognize your handwriting?" Abruptly she wanted to cry. She'd known that script all her life, from birthday cards and stolen diaries and poems, her sister's other poems, everywhere, always. She felt horribly betrayed, and also as if she had committed some sort of betrayal.
But Janet chuckled. "How about because it was terrible? I didn't get properly legible until I had to teach. But also," she continued soberly, "because of Blackstock. Whatever ghost or ally sent these to you was strong enough that you were able to keep them, but not strong enough to do the puzzle-solving for you, or prevent Blackstock's—mental fog, whatever you want to call it—from making it harder."
Lily stared up at her sister, the squirmy feeling of betrayal overtaken by a dawning horror. "You know what's happening. You've been through it before."
"I have. And then I forgot about it, as thoroughly as had it been a dream. But I wrote it down, and a year ago my record," she waved the chapbook illustratively, "started flinging itself off my shelf like a damsel off a window ledge, and each time it did, one of the loose poems inside disappeared. It was the strangest thing. I blamed a gas explosion, I blamed the cats, I tried to blame Thomas. And then someone sent me a poem—"Tam Lin"—through the post, and I remembered. And I tried to reach you, but before I could, you decided to get all heroic without me. So I came."
Lily insisted on coming downstairs for supper, even though supper was a protein shake she had to drink through a straw. She accepted a warm hug from Thomas, then simultaneous flying tackles from the twins, who were put out at having been prevented from visiting their auntie in the bedroom. Paul and Sylvia were happy, gregarious kids, wiggly and bendy and plump-cheeked, yet even at six, with their wild, red hair and huge, grey eyes, it was beginning to be clear that someday they would grow up into two devastatingly attractive adults. Lily had a sudden, alarming thought of who might interest Medeous if she couldn't get Andrew.
Instead of eating at the table in civilized fashion, everybody carried their soup out to the living room in giant mugs "in solidarity with the convalescent," and sat around the coffee table, tearing hunks off a loaf of crusty bread for dipping. The twins were delighted to be given a plastic picnic blanket to sit on. Lily's mother joined them and the equally delighted Portia on the floor. Thomas and Janet took the couch, where Janet immediately swung her legs up over her husband's lap and tucked her feet under the end cushion—the same position they almost always took when they relaxed together. "Pinning him where I want him," Lily had heard her joke.
Suddenly that posture looked different to Lily. Her sister had saved Thomas's life. She tried to imagine it, solid, comfortable Janet with her mom-sweaters and her mom-luggage and mom-responsibilities and tired grad-student face, thrust into heroism like something out of Ovid or the Bible. Lily thought of chilly, sepia-shaded art gallery murals of humans grappling with beasts, and for the first time tried to really imagine those stories in motion: the clamp of the lion's jaws, the bone-cracking strength of the trapped swan. It was absurd; it felt silly, like dumping the pieces of two different puzzles all over the floor and then trying to force them together.
Thomas, she supposed, looked a little more like he belonged in some outlandish fantasy; God knew she'd suffered half her friends in grade school climbing the stairs to her bedroom after meeting him, swooning against the doorframe and squealing, "Ohmigod, Lily, he's gorgeous!" But he, too, was human, and by now as ordinary to Lily as Janet was: she'd seen him jittering and nonsensical on the day the twins were born, covered in pee as he made the mistake of trying to change two sets of diapers at once, flat on his back and howling with laughter while Vincentio licked him to death. He was her sister's best friend. And she'd walked in on them making out in unlikely locations around the house often enough that she was clear their union wasn't merely an awkward side effect of little Paul and Sylvia.
She stared at them now, and it was impossible to believe what had happened to them, what was happening again, and yet she did. And so, apparently, did everyone in the room. Something is out of joint, Lily thought. Thank God I am surrounded by people whose bones know it too.
"You know what else is creepy?" Gael waved his disposable camera at the wall in front of him. "This stuff goes about a foot higher than the reach of Lily's arm."
Despite the cacophony of languages and scripts adorning the walls, it was easy to tell which contributions were courtesy of Lily. They were black, they were finger-painted, and they smelt faintly, queasily, of wine, sugar and, especially toward the Ericson end of the passageway, of blood.
"Have you any idea whom she might have channeled?"
"I've a couple guesses," said Thomas. "Top of the list is Victoria Thompson, friendly neighborhood book defenest—Robin."
"Who is Robin?"
Thomas laughed lightly, and Gael noticed that his boyfriend's brother-in-law's gaze had slipped past him, over his shoulder. "No ghost of Lily's. For he appears to be very much alive."
Gael turned and saw the man he knew as John Singer ducking under a pipe on his way toward them. He paused, still partly crouched, when he saw he'd been noticed.
"Ave, old friend," called Robin softly. Thomas was silent. Gael glanced at him, startled by the rudeness.
"Are you?" Thomas said finally. "Friend?" Robin's lips parted in—shock? Hurt? Gael didn't know the man well enough to decipher his partly shadowed face, but it was clear that Thomas did and then some. "None of us has seen nor heard one word from you since the day you broke up with Molly. And now you resurface just in time for Medeous to make a grab for Janet's brother and sister? Are you looking forward to your gallery seating this time, or have you been cast into the pit for your various impudences?"
"I—cry you mer—"
"Shove it," said Thomas.
Robin bowed his head, clenched and unclenched his hands, but then strode determinedly forward. "I... am not much with my lady lately, unless she calls for me. She does not release me, for I am too old and fixed a part of her collection, yet nor am I favored.
"I have... been trying to help you. As I may. Which is, I fear, but little."
Thomas eyed him. Then he relented. "Well, then. I expect you'll have met my brother-in-law, Andrew, already? Yes? But possibly not his friend. Robin, Gael Suarez. Gael, this is Robert Armin, actor." The last word was a bit of a hiss.
Robin looked back and forth between Thomas and Gael. "Ah," he murmured. "I do see." Gael raised a sharp eyebrow, but it went unnoticed, or at least uncommented-upon.
"Why are you here?" Thomas demanded.
He got an incredulous stare. "Because the ghost-stink on these walls is strong as vinegar! I came to see what's here, and get it gone before Her Ladyship finds it!"
"We came with brushes. The work will go faster with three." Robin nodded. "We don't have another camera," Thomas told him, "but I remember your powers. Can you memorize the stuff at the far end, there, then help us decipher it?"
"I can learn it," said Robin, "but as for its meaning, it may well all be Greek to me." Thomas rounded on him. "Except of course that I understand Greek," he allowed meekly, and went.
It took them nearly a half hour, punctuated by the flash of the cameras, Robin's mutterings and exclamations, and all of them except for Robin nervously looking over their shoulders and jumping every time they heard a noise beyond the doors.
"How surveilled are you?" Thomas asked Robin, as they gathered again at the center of the tunnel. "Will you at least come back to the house for breakfast and let Molly yell at you?"
Robin winced. "I heard she's married."
"Three years, now. To a tax accountant and amateur bass player. Salt of the earth."
"Is he here?"
"Yes. The kids' favorite babysitter." Robin looked heavenward. Thomas eased off a little, and changed gears. "Come back with us. Don't try any sob stories on Molly; it won't get you anywhere, and you'll just piss her off. But I know she'd like to see you. And, it seems we owe you our thanks."
Lily sat on the stairs of her parents' house and listened to the conversation in progress in the dining room. The table, she knew, would be stacked high with reference books, and the buffet littered with mugs and sandwich crusts. The babies were having a day out with their grandparents, so the atmosphere was energized but calm. This was how the Carters went into battle.
She sat, giving herself another few minutes to pretend that this was how the solution would be found. The voices of her sister and her competent, grown-up friends were comforting.
"How did you even smuggle the cameras off campus?" Janet asked, impressed. "In my day, Melinda Wolfe would have popped out of the bushes, allured me with narcotic tea and pulled a bait-and-switch."
"Medeous' power is weak," Robin answered. "It has been since you rescued Thomas. Her control is inconsistent, too. She depends more on external aids, cheap potions and witches' tricks, than she is accustomed to. You must have guessed how hard she tried to get Lily, too."
"Jan, come over here; this looks like Euripides," called Thomas.
"Death stuff. Look, here's Thanatos, arguing with Apollo about... someone he's come to escort to the underworld. Hell, my Greek is rusty. They've struck a bargain, and it's come due, and Apollo's trying to back out. Janet, this is the beginning of Alcestis." Lily heard the sound of paper tearing, and then some vigorous scribbling.
"I have Alice in Wonderland over here," said Gael.
"Which part, honey, the rabbit hole?"
"'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here.' 'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat."
"Oh, hello, here's Quips Upon Questions," said Molly from the other end of the table. There was a telling pause, in which Lily could almost hear Thomas, Janet and Robin all turning to look at her. "What. You don't think I read every word 'John Singer' published after we broke up in senior year?"
A moment later, Thomas, presumably peering over her shoulder, read in his excellent voice,
"He dreames on death: how sweete his torment is,
How louingly death killes his worldly hart:
And since sweete death thou canst but worke my misse,
Come death I charge thee, end this earthly smart.
At last one waking him, and he startes sore,
Aloude he cryes, out death I do deny thee:
The men by, that beleeud he would before,
Choose rather death, then death so soone to flie thee."
There was another pause. Robin broke it eventually. "Doggerel," he said, sounding a little strained.
"Thus spake the jester," Thomas replied.
"What, pray tell," said Molly lightly, "are your rhymes doing on Ericson's wall, in Lily's handwriting, Robin? Just whom was Jan's sister was channeling?"
"I don't know!" insisted Robin, sounding quite alarmed. "I don't know!"
Lily stood, and padded down the rest of the steps and into the dining room. Clearing her throat, she said, "You might as well stop. I know what it all means. It's just wordplay. Robin, the jester. Jester, Cheshire, Chester. Chester Hall. And I know whom I have to find there."
"Someone other than Medeous," Janet surmised, hustling over and pulling out a chair for her, as though she were an invalid.
Lily nodded briefly. "We live in a mortal world. There are ways to travel between worlds; for mortals to visit other places and other people—creatures—to cross into ours, but the rule is that everyone who calls our world home must die. I guess it might sound grim, to us, but it's actually not. Some people come here to die. And some don't want to die, particularly, but are willing to pay the price if it means they get to live here for a human lifespan."
"But Medeous is cheating," said Janet.
"Yes. She's breaking the law. She is an immortal trespassing in a mortal realm who refuses to subject herself to Death."
Lily shuffled around the table and poked at the photo of the Alcestis graffiti. "Thanatos," she said. "There's a word for him, right? His role in this play, I mean?"
"Psychopomp," Thomas said. "One who comes to escort the dead to the underworld." And then; "Oh."
Janet said, "Medeous has bribed Thanatos? To take others in her stead? Or—not necessarily Thanatos, I suppose. There's a whole posse of psychopomps in the literature...." She filched one of the books off the table and rifled through it.
"I can think of more than one who might be tempted by a promise of a pretty boy every seven years," said Thomas.
Janet paused, then stuck her finger between her book's pages and turned to her partner. "I'm not sure it matters, actually," she said slowly. "Psychopomps are just messengers and guides. If one of them has been corrupted, we could spend many hours trying to discover its identity, its whereabouts, its weaknesses... or... we could go straight to its boss." She looked up and locked eyes with Lily, who found herself smiling.
"The boss of... Hell," said Thomas, nearly as quick.
"I was thinking his wife. Given the whole kidnapping-and-entrapment angle of the case."
"The two of you are contemplating pitting the Queen of Elfland against the Iron Queen."
Janet smiled. "Whom do you suppose will win?"
"How does one pack for a day trip to Hades? Long underwear? Trail mix? Bronze ingots?" Janet stared into her suitcase. The words were mostly directed at Thomas, who was sitting on the bed and looking unhappy, but Lily took them as her cue to stop lurking in the doorway and come inside.
"You can stop packing altogether, Jan. I'm doing this, not you." Janet and Thomas looked up at her in sync.
"No you're not," Janet said matter-of-factly. She gestured at Lily's still-bandaged hands. "You're hurt."
"Not that hurt. How much do you think it'll matter, where I'm going, anyway?"
"Don't be stupid. I'm your big sister, and I got this family into this mess, and it's my job to fix it."
"Technically," Thomas began.
"Oh, get over yourself!" Lily barked. "I am Andrew's big sister, maybe even more than you are! I've certainly got as much right to put myself at risk for him as you have."
"What do you mean," asked Janet, "you're more his sister than I am?"
"I'm the one who's been here. You went haring off to Boston for grad school, and come home twice a year, which I don't blame you for, but the end result is that you hardly know him anymore! Or me, for that matter. And we're not—we're not the kids we've been."
Janet looked down, but not before Lily saw the glassiness in her eyes. "I didn't want that," she said. "I didn't mean for that to happen. And I meant to protect you, back when it first started, but I didn't. I didn't try hard enough, and it didn't work."
Had Lily been more inclined to physical affection, she would have crossed the room to wrap her sister in her arms. Instead, she just said, "Janet, I love you. You're my beloved sister. But I don't need you to come swooping in to be my hero, too. I never have."
Thomas, the man for whom Janet had been, and always would be, a hero, the hero, caught his wife by the hand and kissed her knuckles. "Smart women, Carters," he murmured. "Do you trust them."
Janet shut her eyes, and wrapped her hand tightly around Thomas's. "You're going to have to wait until after September 23rd," she said finally. Lily blinked down at her sister, who smiled, a little scared, and a little proud, and elaborated, "According to rumor, she won't be home yet."
"Hello," said Lily to the building. "Been a while, huh? Sorry I missed piano practice." Chester Hall regarded her sulkily.
"Listen, you did my family a favor once before, even though I didn't know it. I, um. Thank you. Thank you for that. I need an even bigger favor, now, though, one I don't even know if you can help with. I need to go... Elsewhere. To find the source of the law Medeous has been flouting.
"I don't know how much you care about sacrifices. Drams of honey or the best ram in the flock or whatever. I don't have any money, I'm still in college, but I will someday. With my music. And I could, like, endow a chair, get those godawful practice rooms renovated, make sure you never, ever fall into the hands of the Classics department. I could do that. I mean, I will. And I'm sure if there's something else you'd like instead, you'll find a way to let me know. So, I don't really know if you can help, I guess, but, yeah. Okay. Thanks for listening."
Not knowing what else to do, she walked up to the brick and laid her hand on it, feeling for—anything, a crack, a keyhole, a loose brick like a children's story. There was a moon somewhere above her, but its light didn't reach the narrow pathway Lily stood upon, and the streetlamps around Chester were badly placed; she could scarcely see her hand in front of her. She'd forgotten to bring a flashlight.
She stood there for maybe a minute, trying to think about her breathing and not all the silly, ritualistic recitations and gesticulations she had decided to eschew. Chester didn't seem like the sort of place that would require ritual. It would do what it liked. And the silence wasn't flat. She could feel it—something—listening. Or she really was crazy.
Lily was startled out of her concentration by the sound of dry leaves disturbed on the pavement behind her: footsteps, coming at a jog. Tensing, she turned, and recognized Robin's slim silhouette. "Carter the Younger," he greeted, coming up beside her and nodding, first at her, then at Chester. Lily wasn't sure if he meant to greet the building or simply illustrate his next words: "Pretty night for beating heads upon brick walls."
Would this man ever do anything but tick her off? "Unless you have a suggestion better than lie down and do nothing, which I understand has been your MO, historically speaking—"
She watched, skeptically, as Robin raised his hands in supplication. "Mercy. I've been stabbed enough by your sister and Molly's words tonight. I’m coming with you."
"Do you know how?"
A portion of what she suspected was his usual glint returned to his eyes. Robin looked past her at the bulk of the hall, and raised his voice. "What ho, Chester, do we know how?"
A breeze rushed past, making the ivy chitter. This seemed to be all the answer Robin required, for he took Lily by the hand and tugged her sideways, then forward toward a nook she'd never noticed, where the vines grew thick, entirely obscuring the brick beneath, gaining speed as he went. Lily clenched her teeth and didn't dare balk. Through they went, and though the ivy leaves clung and caught in Lily's hair, there was no brick at all, just a coldness all through her bones as if she were indeed passing straight through the stone, and then nothing.
She opened her eyes when she stumbled, and then opened them wider out of sheer wonder. They were in a natural cave, barely lit by moonlight slanting in from somewhere far above, and sloping steeply down toward an underground stream. The cranny was barely fifty paces from side to side, before the walls rippled inward like heavy drapes, forbidding dry-footed passage along the bank.
Idling by that tiny stretch of bank was a boat, and holding the boat in place, with a single, tall oar, was a god. He looked up at them, and if he had any thoughts about their rumpled corporeal selves, he did not share them. He only nodded and asked, "Have you coin?"
Lily shook. Her fingers scrabbled for the backpack on her shoulders, and she called, "Sir, I have coin, and… a donut, and—" Rummaging in her bag, she lit upon a battered, coffee-stained notebook, and finished, "I'm not a real poet like my sister, but I have some song lyrics I wrote, you could have those if you wanted them—?"
The god said, "I'll take one poem for passage."
So Lily stepped down to the shore and carefully tore a leaf from her notebook and offered it. He perused it carefully, taking his time. He nodded again, just once, and turned to Robin. Robin slipped him something glinting on a chain he drew from beneath his shirt, but Lily could not, and did not try, to see what it was. The Ferryman handed her in, and offered his hand courteously to Robin, who jumped lightly into the skiff by himself, and then pushed away. Lily didn't hear the oar scrape the bottom.
Within moments, she understood that this was no crossing to be braved without a guide. They were wending their way through a huge and labyrinthine cave system. Away from the bank, the river swiftly grew deep and deceptively fast. Within moments they left their little landing spot behind around a bend, and thence the river branched and wove through a maze illuminated only by the lantern on their prow. The light, though, seemed to increase or diminish itself at will, now crawling up huge organ-pipe limestone formations, now pooling on the roof mere inches overhead. The shadows were dark, but the walls, where the light touched them, were butter yellow, rose and rust like a National Geographic spread. Still pools, Giotto blue with dissolved calcite, winked at them through stalactite colonnades. It was beautiful and terrifying. A spill overboard would drag you instantly below the smooth surface and down some narrow, crooked lane where there was no air, if it did not first dash you against banks of crystals sharp as knives. There were a thousand places to lose your way and drown. Even if Lily had not known the true name and nature of the river, she would not have dared so much as touch her finger to the water.
Still, she was astonished when Robin, silent as he had been since entering the underworld, found her hand and tucked his own cold fingers around it. She did not think he was doing it to comfort her.
Maybe an hour had passed when the ceiling finally bloomed out into a great arch, and beyond that the Acheron ran broad and placid into a hazy distance. Above was not sky, but a blackness like sky, which felt open and very far away. The Ferryman was taking them to the shore.
Lily left the safety of the boat with trepidation, suddenly feeling very small, very foolish, and underprepared. There was no one to meet them this time, no indifferent, wand'ring souls of the dead, nor even any sign of Kerberos the hound, a departure from the stories that left Lily feeling unsettled and, ridiculously, out of the loop, as if there were a newsletter circulating somewhere that no one had mentioned. They passed a cave that might, once, have provided shelter for a guard beast. Impulsively, Lily extracted the jelly donut from her backpack and left it near the entrance, hoping she wasn't committing some sort of faux pas, like littering.
The way before them began to look more like the picture books: a wide avenue, lined with—tree roots, stretching above Lily's head like trees, burly-limbed and feathery-tipped. The ground was a dense thatch of smaller roots, woven together in some places, breaking free and swaying softly in others. Mushrooms and shiny seedpods glowed. She could not have begun to describe the quality of the light, yet she could see everything perfectly, straight on to the seat of Hades.
She and Robin walked. It took a long time, long enough that Lily felt that she should have regretted parting with her bread, except she was not hungry. She supposed she wasn't surprised that her mind and body were out of sync. She was not at all convinced her mind and body were in the same place, or that the landscape around her was consistent with whatever Robin was seeing, or that their gods, if ever they found them, would be anything alike.
She found them. She was absent, and then She was present, barring the way forward before they ever reached Her throne. Lily understood that this was because only the dead were allowed to see past the gates and palace of the underworld. They had come as far as they might, unless she were to change the nature of her quest very drastically. Lily stuttered out a greeting, and, obeying some muscle memory from childhood dance classes, tried to curtsey in her boots, which must have looked very silly.
Kore did not speak, but merely stared at them out of two wide, wrongly human eyes the color of sun through new leaves. Perhaps She was jetlagged? So, begging Her pardon, Lily described the creature from Elsewhere who lived among humans but would not die, and how she believed Medeous had found a means to break this Earthly law. She said she did not know who the traitorous psychopomp was, but that her own brother was to be its next victim.
Then Kore spoke, and oh, mercy, Her voice made clear there was nothing human about Her, and Her green eyes and fair face were but a courtesy, that Lily might not faint with fear. "If I do cast out this disloyal servant," said Kore, "who will replace him?"
Beside Lily, Robin moved. She started; gawking at the Queen of Hell, she had entirely forgotten he was there.
"Lady," Robin said, "I will." He stood very straight, with his hands open at his sides, a player trained to perfection.
"Robin," Kore said, and if it was strange to hear Her so informal, Lily supposed it was fitting that, here, souls were called by their simplest and truest names. "This is no choice post, but a doom unending. Do you consider well."
"Lady," Robin said again, "I have these four hundred years played proud men to their deaths. I warrant it's time and past for this piper to pay."
"So," said the Queen.
Lily did not breathe until Kore turned back and fixed Her gaze upon her. "Lilian Carter," she said. "What do you ask of me?" All the temptation and all the terror in the world crouched in that question, poised to spring.
"Nothing, ma'am," she said, and was not in the least ashamed to hear her voice shake. "I just want to protect my family, and go home."
She woke curled up under a baby grand in one of Chester's practice rooms. She was stiff and one of her feet was asleep, but both those sensations suggested to Lily that she lived, still, again or whatever. She crawled out from under the piano, poked her head into the hall, which was dark, and made her way upstairs to a bathroom, where she splashed cold water over tear tracks. Hunting in her bag for a Tylenol revealed that she was still in possession of her wallet and a napkin full of crumbs, but her book of song lyrics was gone. She decided the headache was something she could, and perhaps ought to, endure undrugged, so she only sipped a little water from the tap and slipped out a side door into the grey dawn light. "Thank you," she murmured, touching the brick façade with her fingertips. "I'll remember." She set off for her parents' house on foot.
Hallowe'en rolled in on a bank of fog.
When the small party of Lily, Janet, Thomas, Molly and Portia arrived at the bridge where Medeous' court would pass, they found Gael already sitting there by himself, huddled in his coat. Lily jogged up and put her arms around him.
"He made me leave him," said Gael into her shoulder. "He said if it worked, it worked, and if it didn't, then I should get the hell out of harm's way."
"He loves you," Lily soothed. "Of course he wants you out of it."
"I'd have done it. If I could've, I'd have saved him the old-fashioned way."
"I know," said Lily.
"If I can't help him now, then is what we have even real?"
"It would be just wonderful," answered Lily, whispered, but vicious, "if we could stop conflating love with begetting. Medeous' magic has fuck-all to do with love. It only understands bodies, not hearts. She is an alien. Stop."
Gael subsided. Lily heard the sound of pipes. The Unseelie Court was coming.
They crossed the bridge, black horses, brown, then white. Andrew rode in the center of the group, flanked by two tall, pale riders who, though unarmed, had the stern carriage of soldiers. The piper, whom Lily didn't recognize, came last, on foot. He was tuneful at least, but looked tired. At Lily's side, Janet murmured, narrow-eyed, "She has never been able to find Robin's like."
Janet stepped out into the road, Thomas and the others fanning out at her back. The company halted before her, Medeous at their head. The queen neither smiled nor frowned, but merely stared down as if Janet were a sapling in her path to be bent aside or snapped. Janet didn't bother to speak. What could anyone say that would matter? All they could do was block the path, and wait, and see what happened.
They did not have to wait long. Theater, after all, came to him naturally. First came the sound, wailing through the woods. And then a moment later Lily saw him. He was dressed once more as Shakespeare's Fool, save that every stitch from head to toe was black as ink. Even the pipes he carried had a black bag and an ebony chanter, but the three tall, bare drones on his shoulder were white as bone. He was playing Ceol Mohr.
Medeous' piper, hopeless to compete, ground to a wheezy halt. Robin strode down the hill, and without the discordant competition, his pipes were the only sound to be heard. The awful melody cut through the fog as though it could cut through the fabric of the world itself. He stopped only when he reached the center of the bridge, and the mist rose up from the brook and twined about his feet. He ceased.
"Hail, Robin!" spoke Medeous from atop her black mare. Her deep voice was steady, but the horse shifted restlessly, and Medeous jerked the reins too hard in correction. "Comest thou then, after all, to play these children to their fates with fitting pomp?"
"οὐκ ἂν δύναιο πάντ᾽ ἔχειν ἃ μή σε δεῖ," said Robin.
And then he smiled like a child, lifted his instrument once more, and piped.
Medeous slid from her horse. She stepped slowly, lightly, with her chin held high, for all the world as if it were of her own volition. But just before she reached the bridge, she turned back with an enraged cry and lashed at her horse, scoring its flank with—her rings? some hidden weapon?—who knew, but the huge beast reared up and bolted, charging through the queen's company. Horses and riders scattered in panic, several of them crashing to the ground. Gael dashed forward, straight into the gauntlet of flying hooves, and Andrew shouted for him and reached. Together they toppled Andrew from his horse, staggered, and rolled clear.
Nobody changed into an adder or a swan. Instead of dispersing the fog, the rumpus seemed to thicken it. Through it all, Robin's inexorable pipes played on, until they didn't.
When Lily turned back to the bridge, it was without surprise she saw it empty, save for the white mist, churning as if to fill the space where two bodies had lately been.
The queen's courtiers, their ranks broken and their ribbons and buckles all askew, grew still, and slowly their gazes, by ones and twos, came to rest on the little party of humans standing next to the path. Andrew and Gael were still wrapped tight in each other's arms. Molly and Thomas had Lily, just in case, while Janet stood between her siblings, a hand on each. Thomas spoke, his deep voice carrying easily to the edge of the group. "You," he told the pale, stern people, "had better go back through the ivy, before that door closes. Tell your kin their queen is banished and gone to be judged before the thrones of Hades." The riders left. Some of the human company followed after them, uncertainly.
Nick Tooley, one of those who had fallen, sat on the ground, cradling his arm. He was white around the lips, and his eyes didn't seem to be focusing properly. Portia padded over and sniffed him curiously.
"I'll take him," said Molly. "Between me and Stephen and Tina, we'll figure out what to do with him." Lily saw her sister chew her lip, then nod. "We'll talk tomorrow," Molly assured her, touching her arm. "You go have family time." Then, "Come on, Tooley," she called, marching over to him. "My car's this way." Gratefully, Janet turned away.
Andrew and Gael had separated slightly, and Gael was saying uncertainly, "I guess I'll see you guys tomorrow?"
"No, you're staying," Andrew retorted.
"But... family time."
"You," said Janet, waiting until she caught the boy's eye, "just charged a thousand pound gelding for my brother. You'll do."
Lily watched her little brother take a breath, and grab his boyfriend's hand. Gael looked startled, but grabbed back tight. Thomas clapped him on the back.
The fog had cleared. They set off for home.