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The Cartographer Tries to Map a Course

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“All of us spin tales about our story on Earth,” writes Huston. “Or to put it more accurately, we are these tales”. She goes on to state that “believing in unreal things helps people to endure real life”. Our stories become our life-lines. We bury our hearts in the places that we love and, through those places, through the stories we tell about those places, we find ways to go on."

- from "Myth, Memory and Distance: the Identity of Location" by A. Karama.

*

 

She decides against becoming a copper, in the end. Peter's Peter and Nightingale's nice and everything, but she'd never have heard the end of it from her Grandad - Babylon the bandit and all that shit - and blue isn't really her colour, anyway. The more she thought about it, the more she thought that maybe there were other ways to get involved - had to be- because there were people (people's as good a word for them as any) who are never ever going to be interested in talking to you if you arrive at their door with a warrant card. And people are what Abigail's interested in, really. What people have got to say.

She wants to talk to everyone.
There's nothing that she doesn't want to know.

*

The Cam is slow and sluggish in summer but there's enough of a breeze to stir her graduation gown around her bare ankles. Scarlet silk catches the light; she's bloody boiling in her long sleeved dress. The degree itself is shoved into her handbag. She's only twenty-five, not twenty-six until August. Not many people in Kentish town can have been expecting this.

"So," says a familiar voice at her elbow. "Dr Kamara. What's next?"

Not everyone had underestimated her, in the end. During Abigail's time at Cambridge, there have been boys that she loved deeply, girls who she wanted desperately; once, a river leaned in and kissed her in the shadow of this very bridge. She's had a pretty brilliant time, never really had time to feel lonely but, since she was thirteen years old, there's been a tiny, wasted corner of her heart reserved for Peter bloody Grant.

He's getting on for forty now, but it suits him - the grey just starting to show in his short hair. Life hasn't always been easy on him: Molly was big surprise; Nightingale keeps on getting younger; Lesley really did break his heart, in the end.

His babies are beautiful though. They swim like fishes.
Abigail links her arm through his.

"I dunno," she says. She's got a doctorate in Anthropology so new that the ink's still wet and, not long ago, a letter on official Folly notepaper arrived in her pigeon hole at St John's. Nightingale had offered her a job which he seems to have kept a secret from Peter. And, if Peter doesn't know, then Abigail's not about to tell him. "I suppose I'll go and see."

That was what he'd said in his letter. Go and see. Meet them. Send word back.
So that's probably what she'll do. Because magic's out there everywhere these days, if you only know where to look.

*
From Berlin, she drove south for nearly three hours until she started to see the signs in the trees. She rented a room in town, strapped on walking boots with her pretty summer dress. She slung a backpack onto her shoulder. She was used to walking, by then.

She wasn't entirely sure what she was looking for; she still isn't, not really .

She knows as much about it as anyone in the end. She's read the history books. She's seen the names carved into the wall. He would never tell her much about it, even as he got easier to talk to, year by year, as the age ran off him like water. Before coming here, she'd had an image of this place as frozen solid, perpetually knee deep in snow. In summer, hazy heat lingers; she finds the shadows of fox holes still sprawled under the trees like half-dug graves. The cotton of her dress is damp, clinging in the small of her back. She hasn't come armed with much - a notebook, a handful of pens, a sleek silver camera given as a fare-thee-well gift from Peter and Bev. She finds a tree she likes the look of and sits down with her back to the bark. She waits. There's a shiver in the ai here. It isn't hard to imagine the Tigers prowling through these trees.

She closes her eyes. It's just for a moment.

"Hello?"

Her eyelids are heavy in a way that means that she must have fallen asleep. There's a girl kneeling in front of her, pretty in a sad, drawn way with thin, delicate limbs and hair the coppery brown of beech leaves in autumn.

"Hi," says Abigail. She stretches both arms over her head - her bangles make soft, musical sounds.

"Are you a soldier?" she says, her eyes wide and lovely, the bright and violent green of leaves in spring or new grass. Blades - it pops into her head that grass grows in blades, that everything in the world has the possibility of violence. Or, at least, the ability to fight when it needs to.

Abigail shakes her head.

"I'm just here to meet you," she says. "I'm not a soldier. Not a wizard, either." She holds out her hand. "My name's Abigail. I've come all this way to meet you."

Ettersberg lets out a breath that Abigail didn't even know that she'd been holding.

*

"It's been a long, long time since any of that," says Ettersberg. "I don't remember any of it clearly." She makes a gesture, a little European shrug of apology.

(Abigail remembers him standing in the kitchen at the Folly with his shirtsleeves rolled up rolled up to his elbows and his beautiful, beautiful hands.

"You may well find nobody home, Miss Kamara. Would you have stayed?"

But she wasn't a good person to ask, because she's not sure she could stay anywhere yet, not when she's built a life around this - walked the world and talked to lesser gods and spirits of the most insignificant places).

But this girl. This girl here. Somehow, all of the others seemed more robust, from Beverly onwards. She had met the Genus Locii of a mountain in the Himalayas, long fingered, sharp featured, barefoot in the cold. His hair was as white as snow. In the Gobi desert, she'd spoken briefly with a slender woman perched atop a camel, her face and hair veiled with night sky and stars. The little god of the Nile had had dark skin and watchful eyes rimmed with gold.

Ettersberg reminds Abigail of the more illusive members of the demi-monde, the gorgons and the sirens and the fey. Naiads and dryads and the nymphs who were always turning into trees. There's something intensely fragile about her, something seemingly lost. Fractured. There's bruising just under the collar of her shirt, like fingerprints on her pale skin, like somebody's grabbed her around the throat. Abigail imagines magic running through here like a wave, the sudden rush of it, the absence that came after. She thinks about Ludd, sunny and teenaged, his hair smelling of nettles and the pebbles in shallow water. She thinks about how long this place must have been empty - for how very long there must have been nobody home.

Magic had started to come back into the world. Omnia mutantur, she remembers from long ago Latin lessons. Shit. Maybe that was a comic book? Somebody wrote it down, anyway.

How everything changes, and nothing can be lost.

"Would you tell me?" asks Abigail. "About what you remember?"

Ettersberg worried her lip with straight white teeth.

"I'll try," she says. "I will.
Abigail notices that finest of fine trembles in Ettersberg's delicate hands.

*

"They knew I was here," she says. "They knew, but there was nothing that they could do."

The room is dim and quiet. Ettersberg's home is furnished in a muddle of furniture and fabrics, all comfortable, all warm, like she's built herself a nest. There's something of the forest about her even here, something fluttering and rabbit-hearted. She cradles her teacup between her hands and stares into the distance. Settled back in her chair in the dim, cool quiet, Abigail's got nothing to do but wait and listen to the clockwork meanderings of the house around her. She remembers hearing about how Beverly flooded Covent Garden. She wonders what Ettersberg could do here, right in the heart of her manor.

"So what did you do?"

There's that European shrug again.

"Anything I could. Little things." She lifts the teacup to the bow of her lips. "The mountain's my heart but the forest was always there, too, so I had more than a touch of that, so I made things grow. Everywhere I could. Life...running riotous in answer to all of the death. They cleared most of the trees, but they kept the oak. Like a heart."

"That must have hurt."

"Yes and know. I did what I could. I made the green leaves come on time."

What Abigail knows is that England is an old country but Germany is older and that the roots of that mountain must run deep, deep, deep. Another thing: Ettersberg can't be as fragile as she looks.

"So as long as that tree was there?"

Ettersberg nods, a smile lifting the corner of her mouth.

"So was I. The wizards came and I helped there, too - lifted fences with roots, rockslides, anything I could." She finishes her tea and sets down the cup. "And then the tree burned. And a part of me burned with it, I suppose. Brightly."

"What then?" asks Abigail. She finds her mouth dry - it's always like this, when their power washes over her. She knows a few rudimentary spells, nothing in Latin or Greek, but things that she pulls out of the heart of her, things that her mom knew and taught her. Muddy magic, but truer, somehow, than the things she's found written down in books. She's always been able to protect herself, when she needs her. It's like this - she pictures her body as wet earth and, in her, things grow when she needs them to.

So perhaps they're not so very different, after all?

"Sleep," says Ettersberg. "For a very very long time. Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde."
"I don't…"
"It was a Goethe oak," she says. "He used to walk in these forests. I was…" She tilts her head lets her hair curtain her eyes for a moment. "I was very, very fond of him. It means 'the birds in the forests are silent'. And they were. For so, so long."

Abigail's heart aches for a moment. She imagines this place empty except for the bodies sprawled in the snow. She imagines how life must have come rushing back in spring.

"But you're still here."

Ettersberg nods.

"So I am. And they are not."

 

*
They walk together, arm and arm under the trees. The birds sing sweetly. Abigail's bangles make music of their own.

"And where will you go next?"
"West," says Abigail. "I've got a friend in New York who's promised to show me a thing or two. And then I think I'll head over to the coast." She's met the Pacific once or twice before, bare breasted, long haired, bells on her heels for dancing.

"When you do see him again, give him my regards," she says. "I remember seeing him, just before the factory went up. Tall in the snow, not a weapon in sight." She turns, leaning in to kiss Abigail's cheek. "Tell him I bear no grudges."

Which is all that Abigail really needs to carry back to Nightingale, in the end, isn't it? That some things matter less than the ways in which you survive them.

*

Above all summits
it is calm.
In all the tree-tops
you feel
scarcely a breath;
The birds in the forest are silent,
just wait, soon
you will rest as well.