Lyra Silvertongue sees her Death, for the second time, on a day in late autumn when the wind in the trees sounds like waves breaking on another world’s shores. A world with great lava trails that make for natural roads, along which thunder strangely-jointed creatures on their seed-pods. A world that, Lyra knows, comes after the after.
“There you are,” Lyra says to her Death. She sips from her teacup then sets it down, the very image of a gracious hostess forgiving a tardy visitor she has been expecting. (Forgiveness, after all, is an easy thing between old friends.)
Despite her years at St Sophia’s and later in various esteemed colleges, there is still a strain of the Oxford streets in Lyra’s voice, a brassy trumpet that wins out now over the demure tones of feminine aristocracy. “Better have a seat,” Lyra instructs the shadowy cloaked figure. “You’re going to have a long wait if I’m to say goodbye to all my old friends properly.”
Her Death not so much sits in the chair facing her, as folds awkwardly down into it, complaining, “Sixty-two years on, and just like last time you’re bossing me around.”
Briskly, Lyra stands and begins rifling around the papers on her desk. “Of course. Now, help me find dear Serafina Pekkala’s address.”
By which she means the instructions she has carefully written in her address book, to find a raven with only one eye and sing it your favourite nursery rhyme, then send it off to repeat the song into the ear of someone who will recognise you in the melody. It is a testament to Lyra’s lifelong capacity for strangeness, that these words are written, matter-of-fact, right next to other boring, sensible addresses that are just a number and the name of a road.
Every time her address book gets worn out, she copies her contacts into a new book assiduously, so that she doesn’t miss out a single one. Not even William Parry, who is just a name in pencil, living somewhere she cannot find or even send a letter to.
Nobody in Lyra’s life knows why she goes to the Botanic Gardens every Midsummer’s Day. The groundskeeper there probably has her pegged for a sentimental old fool. Some years, admittedly, there seems to be some truth in that.
Lyra leaves her Death alone in her rooms while she pops down to the kitchens to leave instructions about her dinner. For the last few years the doctors have been fussing about her diet, and she’s complied if only to stop their nagging, but just for tonight she’ll indulge in a small cake, doesn’t matter what kind, just with a little marchpane on, if they have any (in Will’s world, it is called marzipan, she recalls: the mouth forming round shapes that bracket a satisfying buzz.) Oh yes, everything’s alright, feeling quite well indeed. Have a good day.
Odd that it hadn’t felt any different, their last midsummer rendezvous. Pantalaimon panted in the heat, and eventually settled into a doze by her side. Lyra sat with her sketchbook, attempting to render the growth since last year of a sapling opposite her bench. She permitted herself a private smile as her thoughts strayed to what Will would make of her drawing, Will with his strong fingers and keen eye for detail. Only there, with the sun-warmed wood at her back, was she ever so lax in her self-discipline, as to try and conjure his image, his presence.
A little winded from the stairs, Lyra opens the door with her name on it and addresses her Death directly. She isn’t as in control of herself as she was earlier. “Can you tell me if… if he was there this year?”
She doesn’t need to say who she means.
Her Death approximates a shrug. “To what end?”
Lyra bites her lip and closes the door behind her. An electric thrill, alloying youthful impatience and curiosity, runs through her as she crosses the room. While Pantalaimon jumps up onto her chair, she leans against the desk, folding her arms across her chest.
“Surely you know why I’m asking.”
There follows a surprisingly sulky pause for a metaphysical being. “You want to know if you have been alone, sitting on your bench at midsummer. If sometimes, he was forgetful, or indisposed, or running late—”
“—No,” Lyra interrupts, un-crossing her arms and frowning. She gives her Death an astounded look. “How can you have been with me all my life, and still think that’s why I’m asking?”
Her Death looks as unimpressed as possible without the capability of making facial expressions. “The day you turned nineteen, you broke into the Master’s rooms and stole the alethiometer, hoping you had mastered it well enough to ask this same question. Which you hadn’t, of course. But it is only human to need assurance sometimes.”
Pantalaimon emits a low growl at the tone of that last sentence, which verges on patronising. Lyra’s Death shifts uncomfortably in the chair. Lyra shakes her head and looks askance.
The tears that begin welling up then, almost come as a surprise. Oh yes, everything’s alright, feeling quite well indeed. Have a good day.
How many days does she have left?
“I’m going to die,” she says, to know how the words sound in the air. “Which means that next year, he’ll be alone on midsummer. His world has all these technologies, plus he’s strong. He’ll live forever, I bet. So I need to ask. How will he know he can stop going to the Gardens?”
Pantalaimon makes a sort of sad clicking in the back of his throat.
Her Death doesn’t deign to respond.
On Lyra’s nineteenth birthday, she feels a tug, as though the Dust were trying to tell her something. Sometimes when there’s been a new discovery at her college, she knows it’s happened even before the announcement, thanks to the Dust. The darkness of ignorance recedes with an almost particulate rushing. If she holds up her fingers, it would be like sand slipping between them, moving away from shore.
But this is different from that extension of light outwards. Her stomach roils with the thought that something might have happened to Will. And before she even knows she’s made the decision, she’s in the Master’s rooms and the needle on that golden compass is spinning and spinning but her mind is like so much thick treacle, too slow and plodding to keep up.
Her hands are still shaking when the Master finds her in her room, and his stern expression softens when he sees how she has laid the divining instrument aside carefully, resigned to being shut out of its occulted secrets.
(In Lyra’s later years, when she has reattained through discipline what she was once granted through grace, she will be glad that the use of alethiometers is so carefully restricted. It makes it easy to resist the temptation to ask all her questions — to rein in her mind when it strays toward another world.)
Her very worst fears at nineteen are unwarranted, however — even if she doesn’t know it. A world away on that day, Mrs. Cooper is taken off life support, and Will sits with her until she goes, playing her favourite score on repeat from his phone. It is raining all the while.
Will works himself nearly to the bone putting himself through medical school, even with the loans and the mortgage, and all the times Mary Malone insists on helping him out with money they both know she can’t quite spare.
They are long years, composed of long, regimented days. Studying becomes an almost monastic thing. There are entire weeks when he does not think about the other worlds he has known. In fact, for the most part it is just as they agreed: to live apart and to confine even their mental wanderings. Except for one day in every year. Midsummer.
There is a bus that takes Will directly to the Botanic Gardens. There is one year that it is delayed, and there is a heavy, overpriced textbook in his satchel that whacks his thigh — but he runs anyway.
Then, when he clutches it to his chest, the strap gets tangled around his neck and arm, and threatens to strangle him. He runs, anyway.
When he gets there, an elderly lady is resting on the bench Will normally occupies, while her granddaughter skips around her, impatient to be off again. Will hovers, reads the signs identifying various plant species without registering the names. As the hour winds up, an insidious whisper in his mind points out that that Lyra would not have known, anyway, that he wasn’t there.
Kirjava bats at his ankle and he scuffs his shoe at her rebelliously. The little girl blinks and stares at the strange young man giving a pointed look to a patch of empty space about a foot off the ground.
He’s there on time the next year. Just in case, he saves up enough to get a taxi.
The woman Will eventually marries, is persistent.
She has to be, if she wants to catch and then hold his attention in between classes, and training, and work, and going home on the weekends to see his mother. Juggling his priorities, Will only vaguely registers seeing Jane in the dining hall sometimes. It takes his roommate not-so-casually asking if there is someone in his life, for Will to really consider her.
(“Shoot, man, I didn’t know. I’ve never seen you with anyone.”
“We don’t get to meet up much.”
“Oh, like a long distance thing, huh? Video calls. ’S all I’m saying.”)
And he never forgets Lyra, but at some point early on he realises they’ve already been apart longer than they knew each other. Lyra is frozen in time and space for him, locked in his memory — at best a fairytale, at worst a ghost. Meanwhile, here is someone else, someone who complements Will differently: soothing water to Lyra’s fire, an even smile instead of a sly grin. She likes baking because it is precise and steady. She likes Will for much the same reasons.
Will comes to love Jane, and not the way he loves Lyra. There is no contradiction in them both having his whole heart.
At least, there isn’t up until the birth of his daughter. Who is small and pink and wrinkled. Who has a wisp of blonde hair, and promptly takes up residence in his chest. She arrives early, she’s so eager to meet them.
Lyra manages on her own. Whenever she gets that familiar restless feeling, she clears her evening and takes a long bath, with wildflowers strewn around if she’s feeling particularly in need of pampering.
Then she takes her time. After a long week of mental toil, it is rejuvenating to indulge in the rhythms of her body for a spell.
She doesn’t discuss these matters. She doesn’t have anyone to discuss them with, no other woman of her acquaintance being close enough and of appropriate station. Moreover, it occurred to exactly none of her intransigent parental figures to explain any of these things in detail. Fortuitous, then, that she should have fumbled her way — literally — to a strategy for fulfilling her needs.
On some weekends she gets to leave St Sophia’s, so Ma Costa lets her come on the boat to play with the gyptian children and even steer occasionally. When her studies are taking a toll on her, she lays in a bunk below deck and lets the gentle bobbing motion and the soft slaps of water against the hull, lull her into relaxation.
Hale and hearty since birth, Lyra rarely falls ill, but for once in her twenty-first year. The chambermaid under orders to keep her room at Jordan College ready for her, makes up the bed constantly, and brings soup and plain bread. She can keep none of it down. Her cheek is flushed against the pillow, which cannot stay cool. The air presses down on her; when she drifts toward oblivion her duvet becomes smothering.
Finally, when she misses a weekend with them, Ma Costa sends for her. She wraps up warm and just about makes it to the docks, accepting the arm of one of the gyptian boys sent by the matriarch.
And then come long days lolling about the boat, her body heavy with a listlessness it’s never had before. But here, at least, the bracing morning fog numbs it momentarily. Here she might rest. Here she can breathe.
During one lazy afternoon in this period, Lyra stirs from her doze enough to feel the rim of a cup pressed to her lips. The water is sweet and cool. She sucks it through her teeth and murmurs her thanks before her conscious mind can catch up. Then she is slipping back underwater, her fever grown amniotic around her as it finally begins to dissipate into mere warmth.
Ma Costa pauses at the familiar sound of that same old name, then turns to leave and let the girl wake naturally. Bad to wake someone from a nightmare. Worse still in the case of sweet dreams.
By the time she stirs, her forehead is as cool as the evening, and Lyra stumbles back onto land weak but recovering. She will return to her symbols. She will be reunited with that which she once knew intimately.
She needs to. Because she needs.
Twice in her life, Lyra Silvertongue leaves part of herself in another world. The first time round, she searches high and low for Pantalaimon, and when they reunite they are different. They are stronger.
It takes much longer for her to be reunited with Will Parry, and there are times — many times — when she does not feel strong without him.
Often, the feeling is reciprocated.
Sitting on her small bed, Will pulls his daughter onto his lap and uses the corner of his shirt sleeve to wipe away her tears.
“Hey, boo,” he says softly, wrapping his arms around her. “Long day, huh.”
Viola’s chin trembles as she tries to stop crying. It’s the sort of sobbing that hitches the breath and makes it difficult to speak. She tries anyway.
“Why d-didn’t— Grandma— know wh-who I am?”
Will bites his lip and rubs his thumb absently over her tiny shoulder, slowly easing her trembling. He’s seen family members of some of his patients comfort each other like this. He tries to remember how parents explain things to their kids, that they’re still coming to terms with themselves. How they turn cold, technical diagnoses into fuzzy blankets, only a little scratchy, to wrap around themselves.
“You know how Grandma likes to tell you stories sometimes? The ones about a city in the sky, and a bridge that’ll take you up to it. Grandma’s so good at imagining things, isn’t she?”
He lets her pull his hand toward her so she can tweak his thumb and twist around his ring, which has to go on his left middle finger since his ring finger and pinky are missing. The repetitive motion often comforts her when she’s upset. Even after all this time, he’s still a little freaked out by his missing fingers, but she’s always simply accepted how her daddy’s hand looks.
“Well—” his voice shakes dangerously. He clears his throat. “Grandma maybe spends a little too much time imagining. And she needs our help to find her way back to the real world.”
Even as he says the words, even as he closes the door between himself and the person he was when he was with Lyra (oh, Lyra), he can tell he’ll be going to their bench in the Botanic Gardens with a penitential air this year. Like a wayward pilgrim.
“Does th-the counting help?”
Her tentative question gratifies him even as it cements his betrayal.
He presses a kiss into her soft hair. “Yeah, sweetie. We just need to be patient with her. And keep loving her.”
He begins rocking her gently, and her sobs slowly subside. But then she asks, with a sort of wonder, “Daddy, did a cat follow us home?”
Before he even looks up, he already knows he’s going to see Kirjava in the doorway, her feline face somehow conveying surprise that someone in this world can see her, apart from Mary Malone, Will, and Elaine Parry.
“Honey. Are you awake?”
“Mm? …I am now. What is it?”
“…Are we gonna do anything about this imaginary friend? I mean, should she see a specialist?”
“Would you like her to?”
“Do you think she should?”
“Not as her dad. As a doctor. A doctor with good intuition.”
“I think she’s going to be just fine.”
“It’s… it’s not inherited, is it? From my side of the family?”
“No. Hey. I promise you. It isn’t. Nor from my side. This is... This is something else.”
“I wanted kids so badly. But I don’t want her to suffer because of it.”
“She won’t. Not ever.”
One day in the year when Lyra is forty-six, she is giving a lecture at the college while outside, the cobblestone streets reverberate with the pattering of urchins’ feet. There are shouts. There is something distressingly close to pandemonium. For there is a mighty armoured bear padding onto the university campus. His eyes are black and mean. His claws are not as sharp as they were, but there are still sparks where they chink against the ground.
Long before the bear is in sight, Lyra’s students begin whispering among themselves, and she clears her throat meaningfully. She never tolerates an inattentive audience, especially not because of noise from the streets.
But then she finally makes out the name being gasped, chanted, echoed all throughout Oxford. For the first and only time, Lyra dismisses a class early.
Most of her students trail out after her, though. Where else would one go?
Iorek Byrnison is the longest reigning king the armoured bears have ever had. In his later years, he rarely leaves the North, preferring to send ambassadors as necessary.
Just this once, though, he lopes across the arctic landscape and arranges with the gyptians to board their boat. With an overawed crowd watching, Iorek comes to say goodbye to Lyra Silvertongue.
He knows he will not live to see Lyra turn forty-seven.
Will Parry knows how to look after people.
He knows which foods to make them if they’re sick — baked beans on toast for his mother on her bad days; peppermint tea to chase away Mary Malone’s tension headaches.
He’s known how to do these things since he was young. He knows to take the laundry in before it starts to rain, and to call old Moxie home so she doesn’t get stranded in one of her favourite spots for a nap around the neighbourhood. As a child, taking piano lessons from Mrs. Cooper, he knows to pretend he hasn’t heard her sniffle when the piece he is practising reminds her of her late husband.
But at thirty-two, Will Parry does not know how to comfort a crying child, afraid of nightmares and monsters under the bed. Will Parry does not know how to be the invincible, all-knowing parent, the reassuring voice in the dark saying, “Shhh, Daddy’s here now.”
So he lets his daughter hold his pinky finger (on his right hand), like she did in the incubator as a premature newborn, and he begins telling her a story. A story about a girl he once knew who was so clever with her words, she gentled the mighty king of all bears, never mind his hulking muscle and armour made from sky-metal. A girl so brave, she inspired witches and angels and ghosts alike to fight with her on a celestial battlefield.
A girl so wise, she chose the home that needed her most, that would ask a life of her, a whole world in fact, over the other home she found in someone’s open arms.
Will Parry knows how to look after people. But he is not around to do it for very long.
In short: there is ice on the road, and there is another driver who is running on less sleep than he should. And their taxi driver is jolly and chummy, but his vehicle simply does not meet muster for this kind of deceleration in this kind of weather. It happens fast. The only scream comes from the ineffectual brakes.
But Will has excellent reflexes. And Will’s first instinct has always been to protect.
He wraps himself around his wife and hopes the babysitter can stay late, and he doesn’t even mind. He doesn’t feel a thing, not a thing but love.
Lyra doesn’t spring up out of her seat anymore. Her knees creak, complaining rheumatically. There are deep wrinkles lining her face. But when, just after midnight in the height of winter, Serafina Pekkala taps at her window and enters her room accompanied by the cold wind conjured to speed her journey, the witch recognises her immediately. There is a fire in her eyes still. Even though they are bleary with sleep. Even though one has started going cloudy from long hours reading in dim candlelight.
Serafina Pekkala is a beautiful, impossible mother, and she cups her face in both hands and sings her to sleep. She even knows Lyra’s favourite nursery rhyme.
In the after, just outside the gates, two silhouettes find each other and press their foreheads together. They breathe in, out, in again.
Lyra’s eyes are wide when they reluctantly draw apart. “But Will, you look so young!”
He looks right at the crow’s feet arond her eyes, at her grey hair, and replies, “And you haven’t changed a bit.”
But she will not be deterred, and there are tears welling up now, and a lump in her throat. “You must’ve been — you must’ve been waiting for years.”
Will merely says, lightly, “So have you.” And it is true, in a way.
But then his breath catches, and she presses her cheek against his so that their tears intermingle.
They were supposed to hobble along into the next world on their old, arthritic bones, well-stocked with years of anecdotes for each other.
And if anything — if anything she should have been the one waiting. She would have chatted with Gracious Wings and the other harpies. She wouldn’t have been as alone.
Her unspoken Why? hovers over them.
“I couldn’t very well tell our stories alone, could I?” Will murmurs into her hair.
She has, then, only to take his hand. And so they begin.
(It is Lyra who hears the waves first. They walk toward the sound until they too become the water, and the air, and the sunlight.
And so they do not end.)
Mary Malone moves in with Jane Parry. Viola Parry remembers her father, and she misses him for the rest of her life, but she comes to rather like having two mums.
Sometimes, but not quite annually, she even goes to the Botanic Gardens at midsummer, and thinks she can see Kirjava in the corner of her eye. She isn’t right about that, but neither is she wrong.
Oxford collectively mourns the loss of one of its pre-eminent scholars. The weekend after the news hits, students place flowers and light candles. The gyptians strum her favourite tunes from their boats as they drift past.
The academy does not, however, erect a building in her name. Instead, when the world’s seventh alethiometer is finally commissioned and crafted, by unanimous vote (and against tradition), they name it. Silvertongue: for truth. For her.