Billie had bought a bag of nuts: she was on a health food kick and wouldn't touch anything sweetened or fried. Amy suspected Dionne had bought fried dough dripping with honey just to be contrary. (The honey got everywhere, and Dionne kept licking it off her fingers, posing a little, like she knew it made people watch her. If she caught Amy looking, she'd flash her a quick grin, like she was laughing at herself as much as anyone else. Amy's parents didn't like Dionne much.)
Amy was too excited to be hungry, high on her first real taste of independence, and on the brilliant chaos around her: a new and unfamiliar world hers to explore. Maybe the last sick echoes of fading adrenalin, the aftermath of her first real fight with her parents, contributed their part to the butterflies, but she was determined not to think of that. Besides, she'd got her way, why spoil it now with regrets and doubts?
Maybe it wasn't that great, as carnivals went, but it seemed a wonderland to Amy, home of undreamt marvels: here was a float, rigged out like a ship, with dancing girls twirling white streamers, spinning and stamping their feet, cheeks flushed and their skin glowing with sweat in the muggy heat (so much skin, too, but nobody seemed to pay it any mind, like it was just normal). Billie said it was an advertisement for the big show later, which you had to pay extra to see. They followed it for a while, until they got distracted by all the things for sale, and the things you were supposed to be able to win for just a dollar, a dollar a turn! Most people weren't winning anything though, or just cheap tat they could have bought perfectly well at the dollar store, without needing three or five goes. Someone did win a stuffed toy, quite big, and laughed and gave it to Dionne, who insisted on carrying it around like she'd won it herself. It wasn't very good though – probably it was meant to be a cuddly lamb, but in all honesty it looked more like a goat. Amy would have liked to win her something better, maybe a lion or that teddybear in the cute dress, but she didn't want to waste her money, and also didn't want to look like a fool losing repeatedly, so Dionne kept the goat.
It didn't really seem all that scandalous (probably most of the things she'd been warned about weren't really that scandalous). A few people looked like they might be drunk, and girls and boys were holding hands or even kissing like it was nothing, but what was wrong with that? She was going off to college now, and people would do things like that all the time. Well, not where she was going, but at other, less strict colleges, and in the city, which she'd be able to explore all on her own, without anyone to tattle on her. Maybe she'd even … She quickly put the thought aside. She wasn't going to so much as think about it until she left home, until she didn't have to worry people might somehow read her thoughts in her eyes, and stop her.
She didn't mean to get lost, but there was so much to see, and the crowds were so thick, it was easy to get separated. Some of the stuff was just tacky (and a bit embarrassing, though she refused to be shocked), like the cups shaped like breasts, but some of it was incredible: there was a whole diorama with birds and fish instead of people – miniature fish picnicking in a tiny wood; little sparrows building a church (complete with steeple) instead of a nest; a wood-dove, perfectly painted, sharpening a knife shorter than her littlest fingernail. It was about then she realised she was lost: she wanted to show Dionne how sharp and fierce the artist had managed to make the ridiculous little thorn of a knife, and how soft and innocent the little bird holding it seemed, but neither Dionne nor Billie were anywhere in sight. Probably she should go look for them, but then again, it wasn't as though anything really bad could happen at a crowded carnival, and she never got to do anything adventurous by her herself.
Someone was singing discordantly, maybe a folksong or maybe country – it was too out of tune to tell – but it seemed to fit the fair, and she could look it up later, find out what it was. Alright, she wasn't playing a song about some woman's mouth being as sweet as liquor at home, not if she didn't want to be grounded for the rest of her life, but she thought perhaps it was the sort of thing she might play later, when she was living in the city.
The shadows were pooling together now, the darkness rising steadily, and all the lights were coming on, flashing a multitude of colours: here were lotuses picked out in pink neon; cherries in flashing red; a giant parakeet in blue and green and red, done to look like it was flapping its wings. The tents and booths seemed to glow, and Amy could almost imagine the carnival was an entire world of its own, stretching on forever, the mundane world forgotten. For that moment, fear of losing her familiar footing hung in perfect balance with an excited hunger for novelty and freedom, and she could have wandered for hours.
The tent was small and nondescript, dyed a dull blue that didn't reflect the light like the white and candy stripes of its neighbours, but looking closer there were subtle patterns inked into the fabric, which was thin and delicate, something she had never seen before. There were no lights and no sign, and it didn't seem to be selling anything. Maybe it was a changing room for some of the performers? Or maybe they'd be a magic show here later – that seemed more likely: it looked like a magician's tent. Perhaps she could just peek inside, just for a moment?
“It's just a tent, you know. It's not going to bite you.”
Amy jerked her hand back guiltily from where it had been hovering by the tent flap, and tried to force herself to turn round. She really didn't want to. If only the earth could open up right that moment, a giant chasm under her feet, and swallow her up – better than admitting she'd been prying, going where she had no right to be. And she was blushing, definitely, she always did, her conscience written plain across her face. Unfortunately, the ground showed no sign of splitting open, and it was rude not to look at people who were talking to you, so she had no choice but to make herself turn, at which point she was blushing for an entirely different reason.
She'd never seen anyone look quite like that, not in real life, not exuding such confidence, as though it was alright to be beautiful even with cropped hair and no makeup and tattoos, as though you didn't have to choose – conform or rebel – but could just be yourself, however you pleased, and still be perfect. There was a unicorn on her left shoulder, surrounded by a riot of flowers: it seemed like it was important somehow – symbolic – and Amy would have liked to have asked about it, but you shouldn't ask personal questions, so she asked about the tent instead, and the designs on it, just like tattoos themselves, though obviously you couldn't tattoo fabric.
The woman had a gorgeous smile, mysterious and private, like she knew things you didn't and was laughing about them (a little like Dionne, really, but more so, and a proper adult, who probably did know all sorts of things). Her fingers as she ran them softly over the markings on the tent were long and slim: Amy would have expected her nails to be cut blunt and practical, but they were long and painted a brownish red, the colour of henna or old blood.
The stitching was so small and good she hadn't noticed at first, but the tent was made of many small sections of fabric or parchment or whatever it was, sown neatly together, and some of the pieces were obviously much older than others when you examined them close-up. The woman touched the designs gently, caressing them like they were alive, and naming each one.
“I like to remember,” she said. “You meet people, and then they're gone. This way I have a reminder I can take with me, a keepsake so I don't forget anyone I've known. I've been making it for years now.”
What would it be like, Amy wondered, if a bit of you went on forever, part of someone else's story, never forgotten? It couldn't be literally everyone the woman had ever met: that would be too much work, and the tent wasn't big enough. How long did you have to know her, then, or how well? Were they friends, or lovers, or just people she wanted to remember talking to? Could Amy herself … she shut that thought down fast, not just because she wasn't thinking about that yet, not till she'd left home, but because it seemed too presumptuous. She was far too ordinary and uninteresting.
But the woman was smiling at her, almost as though she could read her mind, almost as if she liked what she saw, and offering her one of the sweets she'd been eating. It was licorice, black and bittersweet, and that must be what her mouth tasted like too, if she'd been eating them. And damn it all, she was definitely blushing again now, but they were still smiling at each other, so maybe it didn't matter.
So it was said, in uneasy whispers late at night, or when men were drunk enough to be brave, and Daw had not believed it. Why, he had been to Coll many a time, for it was a market town, and no different than any other, whatever stories might be told about it. If its church wall had collapsed, it was poor construction, no more, and if at times someone went missing, well, such things had many explanations: a robber lurking in wait outside the town gates, a drunken argument, a rival for some pretty girl, a man who mislaid the way in the dark and fell or drowned. He had laughed, and twitted his friends for credulous dupes, and now he was alone in the dark wood with only the wind for company. He would have welcomed a robber with knife and cosh, or a violent drunkard looking to pick a fight, rather than this irrational, consuming dread that had no cause but half-remembered stories and that damned and never silent wind.
How far had he walked? Why had Coll not come into view? From the bridge by the stream it was the shortest of short cuts through a small wood – hardly even a wood, no more than a largish grove – to reach Coll, and yet he had walked for what seemed hours. The moon, he told himself sternly, the moon through the branches was still in the same position, and his legs were not tired, nor had the cold seeped through his thin jacket: clearly he had not walked for hours, and it was only his shameful fear and too vivid imagination that made him think otherwise.
And indeed, there quite suddenly before him, as though it had been summoned by his longing for its bright warmth and noisy, reassuring gaiety, was Coll itself, solidly mundane and human, bustling with its yearly fair, and all his senseless fears behind him, left in the darkness where they belonged.
The main business of the fair was over, and now the town rang with the cries of jugglers and mountebanks, sudden shouts and curses from huddled groups playing at dice or cards, sweet vendors and sellers of tawdry lace and ribbons still touting their wares, coarse songs bellowed out of tune from the taverns, the excited barking of the town dogs … all was as the sweetest music to Daw's ears, not only the promise of an evening's entertainment, but the reassertion of a solid, human reality he had never before had cause to doubt. Solid and real, too, were his friends who, leaving earlier, had come by the longer, safer road, and were now drinking heartily at the Goat and Ivy, where he had arranged to meet them. There sat handsome young Tenney, half drunk already and waving gaily for him to join them, and stolid, dependable Wilky, who could certainly be relied upon not to be led astray by idle fears or fancies, already moving over to make space for him on the bench.
But though the time passed quickly and pleasantly, Daw found himself still unreasonably ill at ease. In the flickering torch light, Tenney's flushed face seemed almost inhuman, a god made flesh, and then a moment later the fancy would pass and he would be the same familiar friend again, laughing and ordinary, good looking enough to catch a farm girl's eye but no more. In the same light, the cheap ale glowed red as wine, and the mangy dogs growling over a gnawed bone could have been a lord's fine hounds disputing over a fresh kill. From somewhere came a skirl of organ music, and not from the church either, for he recognised the air, and As True Turtill that sits on a Tree was never written for religious service.
Once and again he rose to follow the sound, but each time Wilky stopped him, a hand on his arm and some question about the morrow, so that he lost the thread of the music, letting it be swallowed up and lost among the sounds of the tavern. But each time it came gradually back to his awareness, and at last he rose a third time, making his excuses, and left amid the ribald jests of his friends, who teased him that for once it was him and not Tenney off in search of a woman. He let the joke stand, for they would surely have mocked him more had he told the truth. And indeed, what was the truth? Why should he wander the town in search of one musician out of so many, for the sake of a familiar and hackneyed tune?
The fair had attracted its share of itinerant performers, and by now such locals who could play or sing were entertaining their friends, so that songs and music rang out on all sides, but nowhere could he find anyone playing a portatif, and the high, fluting notes of the song seemed to dance teasingly always ahead of him, so that it seemed he must find the player always around the next corner. He came at last to the very edge of the fair, which had spilled out past the edge of town, where those who could not find, or couldn't afford, other accommodation slept in their carts or rigged up tents.
Tents was, perhaps, an overly generous word: for the most part they were lengths of sacking hung from branches, but here and there one approximated an actual structure, and the very farthest was even dyed a muddy blue. Daw approached it warily, half certain the music would again play him false and remain a step ahead of him, always out of reach even to the very edge of the woods: he did not know himself if he would dare follow it back into the darkness. But there was no need. As he rounded the blue tent he came upon his organist at last, and he found himself singing under his breath as he approached: 'For of all women I love her beste / Her lippes are like unto cherye / With teethe as white …'. And in truth the song she was playing might have been written for her, for he had never seen a woman to compare with her. Surely it was for her sake he had turned again and again from the pretty country girls and complaisant town matrons his friends desired? The sudden revulsion that would come upon him for no reason he could ever explain, keeping him more surely chaste than any vow; the moment all his eager lust sickened into a profound disgust for the actual, fleshy body … somehow his soul had known some better, finer love awaited him, and kept watch upon his body for her sake, he was convinced of it.
Now he found he could hardly raise his eyes to look upon her, as a man may not look too long at the sun, or drink strong wine after fasting upon water. He took her in by starts and glimpses: a curl of her golden hair, and then his eyes slid back to the hem of her golden robe, trailing in the grass. Her little red mouth; and her white fingers touching the bone keys of the portatif. Her eyes, as darkly blue as the night sky; the odd, twisted pipes of hollowed horn through which the music fluted so strangely, its notes as unlike any he had heard before as she herself stood outside the common run of women.
Her fingers came to rest upon the keys, the song dying away with a final sighing breath, and she turned to speak to him, a smile in her voice, as though it were no surprise to her he should have come at last.
How did one talk with a lady so fair and so otherworldly? He had no practice even with the most prosaic local woman, and surely she deserved a courtier or a poet … a poet courtier, master of the silver phrases her loveliness deserved: but there was only Daw, tongue tied and uncertain. And yet, she was a gracious as she was beautiful, for she neither mocked his shyness nor turned from him in disdain, but spoke instead herself, telling him of wonderful things beyond the edges of his world, things he had only heard of from books, and had longed to believe were real.
She told him of towering, icy mountains, where horned beasts ranged, their horns hollow pipes that played melodies to entice their proper prey. She told him how those same creatures were hunted in turn across the Chorasmian plains for the sake of their horns, from which the Persians carve ornate knife handles and amulets. She told him of the softly cooing ring-doves, whose nests are guarded by the otherwise ungovernable karkadann: he knew the stories already, from bestiaries, where the fierce monster is tamed by the gentle dove as sin is tamed by religious truth, or the shadhavar's melody attracts other animals just as the teachings of the sweet Saviour attract sinners, but never before had they come to such vivid life, so that he could almost hear the roaring beast, the murmuring dove.
She poured him wine in a carved goblet, as richly worked as any Persian blade, and he ran his finger in wonderment along its twisting design: such convoluted curves, knotting back around themselves as much as around the central stem, made it impossible to tell if it had been carved into a single serpent or a pair, an asklepian or a caduceus. “Drink,” she said, her voice impossibly musical, as gentle and as implacable as the fall of night. “Drink,” she said, and he raised the cup obediently to his lips.
She sees herself at times. A barren meadow beneath the icy wind grows only a winter crop of nettles, and she walks among them, bare legged, red welts rising on white skin like a rash, like the first sign of swift approaching death: from among the stinging nettles she plucks a single rose, perfect as a single drop of blood. A twisted tree, storm blasted, grows thorns like little daggers, stained dark along their length, but not by blood: she sits in the upper branches, eating figs, and the purple juice drips down like wine. Her teeth flash white, sinking into the soft flesh, tasting everything before it can rot, before it decays back into the fertile soil.
Her dream turns, and the heavy scent of carnation fills the air: a garland crown of flowers, quickly woven, and longer lengths, a chain of flowers, wound laughing round her lover's wrists, her lover's neck. A basket full of flowers, white carnations and clove pinks, kicked over to spill out across the meadow, and the girl who picked them, her panicked struggles slowing, growing aimless and heavy as she droops into the arms of death. Just so torn prey after a successful hunt twitches and lies still, the smell of blood and guts thick in the air, stifling its final breaths.
A little flower, a single small carnation. The sharp tang of metal cuts through the smell of antiseptic soap, and she is there, helping pick out the tattoo, holding Amy's hand. 'Caro', she says, tapping her finger on a design. 'No, not caro, darling. Caro, carnis, for flesh, like carnival. The Romans thought carnations had the colour of a woman's skin. But it symbolises divinity too: the flower of god, body and soul in one. Nowadays it's supposed to be God made flesh, the incarnation, but it used to be a rapture, the body seized and borne off by a god. That was the old conception of love, you know: a rape, but a willing one, where you see something so beautiful, so divine, it just seizes you, and you have nothing you wouldn't willing give up for it, not your body, not life itself.'
And Amy looks up at her and blushes, her hand caught trustingly in hers.
The dream shifts again, into the long ago, things ages past and long forgotten: rough, homespun cloth that chafes and itches; the ever present dirt; working the fields in the full sun, mouth parched. At night they'd huddle close together, body pressed to body, smoke from the fire stinging their eyes, telling stories, the same stories told the world over: dangerous creatures that preyed on man; harmless creatures that should have been man's prey, but weren't; the perfidy and violence of strangers welcomed to the hearth. Only the details changed. She'd had stories of her own to tell, of armed ogres who haunted the forests with baying packs of monstrous hounds (a delicious shiver ran through the assembly as she described their teeth); of soft, shy creatures, easy to catch and good to eat, who were only the decoy of malevolent magicians, eager to enslave the unwary hunter ('yes, yes', the murmur went round, 'just like the white doe or the golden bird that leads the huntsman away in our stories, never to be seen again'); of the two wicked blacksmiths, who would invite a stranger to feast upon roast mutton, meaning to string up their guest upon red hot meat hooks. And they'd told their stories in turn, of deceptive water spirits and lurking dangers, of supernatural creatures vanquished by skill and courage and put to useful work or killed, as occasion demanded.
Their favourite story was of their own folk hero, the first man to come to the area, who had found that the lake that now provided water for crops and fish in summer was in those days rank poison. It had lain before him, cool and inviting, so that he longed to taste its sweet waters, and to wash himself clean in its depths, but he had been abandoned in the forest as a child, where the trees had taken pity on him, so that he had grown to manhood nourished on the nuts of wisdom: he had known the lake for what it was. Searching round its shores he had found the stream that fed it and followed it back into the mountains, clambering over the sharp stones, his hands sliced open as by knives, the loose scree slipping beneath his feet. Coming at last to the spring itself, he saw that in the rocky cleft there dwelt a serpent, from whose mouth the water flowed. So the hero by divers stratagems overcame a unicorn, and taking from its body the supernatural alicorn, he purified the water, making it safe for all to drink, for the touch of a unicorn's horn is a universal antidote.
Not that the lake was entirely safe, even so, for there were other stories, more recent, of water spirits that lurked still in its muddy depths, shape-shifters who seemed now human, now animal. A stranger on the shore was not to be trusted, however fair of face, and there were stories, too, of water-horses, handsome and docile, who would make fleet steeds and willing workers, so long as they were far from the water, but who, catching the glint of sun on the lake, or hearing the gurgling laughter of the stream, or being given from charity a draught of water for their labours, would rush headlong away, plunging into the depths, and dragging their former master to certain death; nor was it possible to escape this fate, for wherever the human touched the horse, he or she would be stuck fast and unable to pull free. (These stories are still told today, in learned books, where it is said they are allegories in which passion – lust or sometimes ambition – is calmed only by death. A warning, in fact, not to let unsanctioned sex or the desire to do better than your neighbour disturb the fixed structure of a primitive society. But that is not how they were meant at the time.)
The lake water was cold and welcoming. Dive deep enough and the world fell away, dark and silenced, and only the icy caress of the lake currents remained, safe home and haven, an end to labour. No doubt she had once known the young girl's name, or maybe that time round a man … there had been so many, and it was so very long ago. It may be the gods mark every fallen sparrow, but no hunter can recall the individual details of their every victim.
She wakes reluctantly, unwilling to abandon the peaceful darkness of her dreams, but the clatter and bustle as the carnival is dismantled is too much to sleep through. It's time for her to be going in any case, packing everything neatly away, ready to move on. The world is full of borders, lines drawn between known and unknown, real and unreal, and she is a creature of the margins: there is always someone, somewhere, who strays a little too close to the edge, wanders a little too far from safety. It is the nature of people to want things too much, to dream of things they know are impossible: sometimes they dream just a little too strongly, and she is there waiting, because that is her nature. Tomorrow, she will sow another patch on her tent, and set it up anew; today she stands in its door, half in sun and half in shade, contented and in no hurry to leave. She can afford to be patient, after all.