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Trading Polaris

a short story, and standalone extract from the novel Green Music
by Ursula Pflug

I'd always lived alone until you came, Alia. cover scanWe hadn't just been lovers, companions; you led me beyond time. With you I was able to watch its comings and goings from the tops of invisible ladders, of trees, its messengers little ghostly animals we'd given birth to while dreaming there, while making love. We spent three summer months together, in my white clapboard house facing the sea. Before you came it was just an empty ballroom where I danced with sea winds.

September came; you had to be home. You lived an eight day walk above our seaside valley; you asked me to take you part way. On the fourth evening we camped by a rocky waterfall; in the morning our campsite was enveloped in a golden mist. You were gone, our fire dead. I was afraid I'd never see you again, for you'd disappeared into that yellow fog as though into a cloud that might carry you away, to rain you down in a place where you might find smarter lovers.

I left the fire pit and began to walk in the direction I believed your village lay. The flat land swelled into shallow wooded hills, reminiscent of a woman's body, but it wasn't yours. It was Sonia's, but I didn't know that then.


When I made camp that night I tried to climb the spirit ladder as you'd taught me, up to the starry place we'd gone together. At the top of that ladder it's possible to see into the past and future, to retrieve from the sky what is necessary to the life of Earth dwellers -- the trick is to keep your brains intact on your way back down -- such as they are. I'd so willingly shucked the husk of self to fly -- a husk that seemed, while visioning, irrelevant, but a necessary cloak, you reminded me, for navigating this world, its people. On the way down, my first time with you, I was still so borderless I could understand the speech of trees, the secrets of rivers. I consumed this wealth of new knowledge gluttonously, never thought how there's no use in wisdom if it can't be shared. I understood so many new languages but could no longer speak; is that why you left me? You said you'd go, part way, but I'd always thought we'd say good-bye first. It was when we descended together I learned how much stronger you were than me, how much more treasure you could carry down the ladder and still remain intact. Did you vanish because I proved too weak to carry knowledge?

Alone, I tried to climb again, the way you'd shown me. Hoped that, could I climb high enough, I'd be able to signal you, call you to return, but four of the ladder's incorporeal steps were missing -- I thought perhaps I'd broken them our last time. Who had we left up there, unable to descend? What nameless beasts had we spawned -- dream pigs or fishes running amok in a world I couldn't see? The part I could see it with was still up there, perched on a broken rung. I would have to find my own way to knowledge now; the path you'd given me was barred. I'd have to go into the woods alone.

At the forest's edge I camped beneath an enormous rock, standing sentinel, a single child in a short grassed open place, interspersed with flowering bushes, grazed by goats. I thought of our town park, its monuments and manicured lawns, its planted shrubbery, but this was landscaping by four-footeds; they had planted even the bushes, shitting out guava seeds in the fall. It was places like this, I thought, tamed by wildness, that we'd modelled our first parks after.

I looked at the stars before I fell asleep. For a brief moment it seemed they were falling from the sky, like pieces of quartz singing into my brain. My grandfather spoke to me that night. Long dead, he spoke from the past, but the stars, who had heard him, gave his words to me repackaged in the present, for to stellar beings, who live so long, not a moment had passed between his time and mine.


My grandfather wakes from sleep and shakes off his dream of being an unborn me. He stands up, sees the blinking distant lamps of ships at sea disguised as fireflies. He wakes to a cold wind and maybe bears in the not so far off woods that might come out to eat him. My grandfather feels safer in the open places, imitating his mind which, like mine likes to travel unencumbered, far searching. He turns and looks at the stone, and at its mouth, into which all the time has gone. All the time in the mouth of the stone. The stone in the shape of a head; it speaks so slowly that to hear it say one sentence would take a lifetime. "Ah," says my grandfather, "It is you I've been listening to all my life; you have eaten up all my time."

My grandfather goes back to our town to find that everyone he knows has died. He waits for his own death, but it does not come. In the café he drinks lemonade and casts shadows in the late afternoon sunlight. His old body, still casting shadows. So many things we can't do in old age but there is a skill that follows us past the grave.


So he hadn't died camping alone as we'd always thought, even when too old for it. He had returned, but first passed through a stone's mouth, and so came back too late, after even I had passed away. How lonely for him, and, it suddenly felt, for me. The one person in my family who knew what it was to learn alien languages, who sought that knowledge as eagerly and foolishly as me, caught now forever on time's opposite side.

Of course all his words didn't follow me out of my dream, but I woke with that searing insight nonetheless, a comet trail if not the comet itself. I looked at myself to see whether I'd turned into my grandfather as I slept. It seemed possible; I'd come closer to him than I ever had when he'd lived.

It was only then, because I'd seen it in my dream, that I noticed how the stone resembled a rough human head, whether by chance or by human carving it was hard to say. I imagined my grandfather chipping away at the rock as though it was only its lack of human shape that prevented it from being more loquacious. I scratched under the grass until I found the remains of an old fire pit. Among them, a knife blade of his I remembered from childhood, its carved wooden handle rotted away. I broke it, angry he'd disappeared twenty years before, couldn't share what he'd learned on his own strange journey except in dream fragments. Yet I felt my journey really did cross his, if only in a timeless time.


I was grateful for the woods. There at last I found streams to wash in. There I dwelt on memories of my days spent with you, Alia.

Oh Stone, give me back our time.

But the stone I'd left behind hadn't said a thing to me. Like you, the stone thought I didn't quite rate. I thought of going back and smashing it; but I had no sledgehammer with me, no words strong enough to break a stone already so old. And wasn't that what grandfather tried, chipping away at it -- as though to give it a human face would make its speech quicker, easier to understand? Perhaps that's when it swallowed him, for having the audacity to try.

Oh, Stone, tell me where Alia went.


A half day's walk past the first forest stream I saw the house. Small, dark, barely windowed, its roof like tree bark for bears to scratch on. A house so odd I didn't know it for what it was till I saw the door and chimney just like in my own white house. The breezes tangoed there partnerless now, had been dancing without me for how long? I longed to be home. This strange little doorway made me miss my own with a sharper pain than I'd yet known. I was afraid of the house and the others that followed in its wake; I slunk through their gardens at night, sleeping under their hedges when the sunlight fought its way through all those leaves.

I'd come all this way hoping to find your village, Alia, but I'd been lost so long human habitation frightened me. I followed hoof prints to streams, afraid of what I'd find on human footpaths. I wandered by moonlight through this up and down country, hoping to find the larger down that might lead me to the coast and home, thinking to forget you after all, or to wait for your possible return. Who could live here -- in such peculiar houses? I never thought my own people would be as strange to me, that I'd grown too accustomed to visions, to mouthy stones.


I made camp one night above a small waterfall, spilling into a pool on either side of which gardens lay. It was chilly and I wanted a fire but was afraid of discovery.

A story came to me then, of a hero returning from his visit with gods. At night he reaches the edge of a town, but decides to wait till morning before making his entrance. It's a cold night, and he freezes in his little camp, too scared of the fire he's stolen to use it. There was no proud homecoming for him like in those other stories, the ones they made up. His people were skittish of foreigners, and so, when the hero arrived in the morning, and breakfasted with the table manners of gods, they ran him right back out of town. Or so I thought before I fell asleep.

That night brought a different dream: I was being slowly eaten by a little she bear. The bear took a bite from my ribs, chewed methodically, took another from my neck. When the bear started eating faster I woke up, afraid of finding myself only half there if I put it off any longer. I woke to the half light of dawn, an absence of bears, the sharp point of a stick descending. When they'd beaten me long enough I lost consciousness.

Just once I woke to see their faces, glowing moons exalted by greed. I forgot to fear for my life, screaming questions, wanting only to know what they were after. Someone else came then, and by the sudden respite in their violence, I knew it was one the others feared. A woman bent over me and I could see her face, luminous like a moon, her skin pale like yours. She sent the others away; already I was calling her by your name. "They'll never tell you why they hate you," she said harshly, and took me to her home, dragging my bleeding body over stones.


She gave me herb tea to make me go back to sleep. In my brief moments of wakefulness she fed me; days of fish broth were followed at last by dried salmon. I chewed on its saltiness as though I was chewing on life. I was: I'd been starving myself as mourners do, my half rotten mind forgetting to eat except for stones.

She moved me outside to the porch and I sat there for days, not moving except to make myself horizontal for sleep on the swing. When the sun shafted through the trees in the afternoons I'd examine my hair for stray greys, pulling them out methodically one by one.

Even after my body healed I was still hearing the trees talk; the mangoes and banyans, respectively proud and full of vanity. She would come home from fishing and I'd babble at her, talking about our summer by the sea. You see, Alia, for the first weeks I mistook her for you, even though she corrected me often enough, telling me her name was Sonia.

Now I think she was your shadow, your reflection. Perhaps if I'd constellated with my own twin I wouldn't have drowned so easily in hers. Discouraged by my name calling, she locked me up in the pig barn, as though the sight of me disturbed her. I scratched at the walls, worried she'd change her mind, return with the villagers, with sharpened sticks.

She let me out a few days later to take me fishing, cheerful and chatty as though nothing unusual had happened. She said she knew secret ponds, hers alone, and blithely added that if anyone were to follow us I'd have to kill them. She armed me with an old fish knife, dull and rusty with neglect; of course it reminded me of grandfather's. On the path to her pool she showed me where she'd marked the grave of an intruder. I didn't ask her if it was real; it did my job for me, keeping them away. I knew well enough her people feared her, and not only because she caught more fish than anyone else in her village. It was one of the reasons she lived apart, to protect the locations of her pools.

I felt sometimes as though she kept me as an object for her profanities, her cruelty, yet while she was often unkind, it was still true she'd saved my life. She thought her people suspicious idiots, but kept me in the pig pens just in case. Or was I more amusing there? Poor woman. Her daughter, ashamed of her, had gone to live with relatives in the village proper. "With a mother like you -- " she'd said, "I'll never get married." True enough. A mother like Sonia might eat the bridegroom for breakfast on the big day. There were other days I thought she'd saved me just to upset the villagers.


Willows swept the shores; the musty smell of dead leaves seeped into our clothing. It was a nice change from the pig shed. Sonia's little boat slept on the pool, its stern sinking slowly with the sun as it grew heavier with the day's catch. She'd tell me stories those afternoons, about magic salmon, capable of returning the eater to his own true, lost path. We never caught any, and once I asked her why. You could only find them, she said, in pools more secret, more enchanted still than this one. She did go fishing alone sometimes, but never showed me what she'd caught. Sometimes I was even brave enough to laugh at her. Still, I believe it was true, that she really did; her mistake was to guard her catch too jealously, as though it might protect her from harm. I thought if she'd shared what she knew with her people they'd have been kinder, less hateful of outsiders. She was the only one who'd ever travelled.

But when we fished together a yellow dream fell over us and Sonia would smile. For those hours on the pond I could let my old heart out for a swim and pretend she was my lover as you had been. I wanted her, too, but she seemed so old. In truth she wasn't much older than me, but there was something in her eyes you couldn't go near without hurting yourself. My dreams fell into those eyes, and I was imprisoned again, by a woman who knew too much. It never occurred to me how those eyes must cut the other way, must hurt her also.


She traded fish for silver. She beat the silver into the shapes of little pigs, wearing them on a string around her neck. Fish into pigs, an act of transformation: silver between. Sometimes she'd count them. When there were enough she bought a piglet. I spent a lot of time with the little sow, trying to learn her language, as I'd lost hope for people. I called her Polaris, after the star which is at once the source and absence of all motion, the end of a little bear's tail and the apex of the centre pole around which our sky slowly spins. A big name for a pig, who was after all a pig and not a bear. As I got better I hoped to have someone friendlier than Sonia to talk to in Polaris, but she never spoke to me. I thought it was her revenge for having been given the wrong name, but I knew of no pig stars to name her after. Still, I never stopped believing she was our lost dream child, Alia, that she'd found her way down the broken ladder at last to be with me.

We bred Polaris and when my second spring came she had six babies. I was as proud of them as she herself. Sonia moved me into the house right after that. Maybe she was jealous, or just afraid I'd turn into a pig. I moved up from the pig pens without ever having learned their language.

Sonia taught me how to be a human being again. She made me eat with a knife and fork, seated across the table from her. I'd eaten out of slop buckets so long I accidentally poked the fork into my cheek until it bled. "See what you've made me!" I yelled, but she just laughed, told me to do the dishes. I cleaned the house, wondering how many pigs she'd had before me, but when I was finished she opened a bottle of banana wine. After we'd drunk it she made me come to bed with her. It seemed I was still a human being in at least one respect, but I wasn't quite sure I'd passed the test, as it never happened again.

I tried to run away one night but Polaris woke up and made such a noise before I'd cleared the garden. Sonia tied me to the bed that night and for a week after. I counted pigs to fall asleep.


After two years she told me I could go.

"Where?" I asked, really not knowing.

She laughed and said, "It's not the ladder that broke your mind, but the villagers' beatings. Still, you'll survive, even heal. In three weeks you'll go home."

"The ladder?" I asked. "I never told you about the ladder. You've been up there too?"

"Of course. Once you've been up it shows, others can see it."

She asked me to tell her my story. Night after night we drank guava wine and talked. I told her about life in our village, a coastal fishing village as hers was a mountain one; my months with you; the secrets you'd taught me; the yellow mist that enshrouded our camp the last night we spent together, and into which you vanished.

"Be careful of ignorant villagers," she said. "They ruined your memory, but I'll give it back." She blew into my mouth and I said, "I remember the wind too, that peculiar wind on the plateau that sucks the spirit out and then blows it back in. I remember my grandfather. When I go home, will everyone I know have died too?"

"You mean like this?" she asked, and sucked in her cheeks, her eyes suddenly black and shiny, irisless.

"Stop," I yelled, before she could inhale the whole room, myself included. She laughed and blew me out again. I ran to my room to pack, bolting the door. She knocked, but I wouldn't let her in.


Sonia bought me a horse to make the trip.

"Can you talk horse too?" she asked, making fun of me.

"Horse? I didn't think horses could talk." Yet it was true, in spite of my failure with Polaris, after trees and stones and stars anything still seemed possible.

"Don't say that around him or he'll be insulted." She whispered something in the horse's ear in a low guttural voice and the horse turned and looked at me, his eyes too that shiny dangerous black, like haematite, like obsidian.

"Sonia, please." I turned away, hiding my face.

"Animals aren't slaves," Sonia said. "They're working for us for awhile. They can quit anytime they want. We have to pay them for their work, just as we pay anyone."

"You don't seem to have the same respect for people," I grumbled, but Sonia rolled her black eyes at me, said, "You pay animals by listening. Pay attention to what they say."

"I wanted it over, all this listening. I'm frightened of madness."

"You'll hear the voices all your life; they'll never be gone. Don't throw away gifts; very few can hear animals, plants, stones."

"It's not insanity?"

"Can be," she said, weighing me with her eyes. "Doesn't have to be. A choice." Her eyes weighed and weighed. "There's something I've been meaning to show you." She gave me a hand mirror she'd made herself, framed in silver. "Look at your eyes, and tell me if you still fear me, your horse."

I took the mirror and looked, already knowing what I would see.

Black. Shiny. Irisless.

That was the moment I knew I'd forever be among those who know too much.


I took the horse and bags full of goods for trading. For my two years of indentured semi-slavery Sonia gave me a present she'd made in secret: a set of silver cutlery with stars on the handles for my house in town. She was as good a silversmith as a fisher woman. Stars, in memory of Polaris.

Sonia told me my horse was called Slipstream. "What's it mean?" I asked.

"A little joke about time. Remember what happened to your grandfather? Be nice to Slipstream or he will, and then where will you be?"

"Rather, when?"

"Good question. Be nice to him if you want your friends still alive when you get home," she laughed. "It's not only your grandfather's stone who knows how to play cat's cradle with time."

With this warning, bursting saddlebags and food for the trip I was ready. Sonia said she'd take me part way down the valley and as we passed through the village proper people came out to watch us. They bowed and called me Mr. Salmon Woman, but I saw them snicker behind their cloaks. I'd earned a new name for my stay but not much more in the way of their respect. At least they didn't drool at me, their eyes brimming with violence any more, wanting to take me home and beat the magic out of me. Perhaps they thought they'd made a mistake about me. I'd never spoken to one of them.

Strange how the leaves fell in that village, red and yellow, piles of them. It was nearing the end of the dry season; we'd planned our trip to avoid the coming rains. The old men came out, wearing hoods against the damp, to rake the leaves into piles where they were burned. In the market we bought a donkey to carry some of Slipstream's load; Sonia had asked me to return, after the rains were over, with goods from my seaside village, said she'd pay me in silver, in secrets. The coastal villages had never traded with the mountain people before; Sonia said it was time to begin, and I thought perhaps she'd learned something from me after all.

Children ran under our feet, through the little yards that faced the square. Under those red trees Sonia and I were married. I have never felt sadder than at that moment. "Alia was your heart," Sonia said by way of marriage vows, "but I am your mind."

Before we left the village we saw a little girl, drawing designs with chalk in the cracking pavement near the bonfire. She seemed different than all the others, playing with an ardent freedom I'd sensed in no one else. She didn't seem tight and narrow, closed against strangeness, against hope. Like Sonia she too brimmed with secret knowledge but it was innocent; she hadn't been hurt by it and their was no concomitant cruelty in it yet. I left Sonia's side to go and speak with her, but without warning, one of the hooded old men seized her and threw her into the bonfire. I ran forward to pull the child from the flames but it was already too late; she'd burnt quickly, and silently, making no cries, not struggling, and not smelling of burnt flesh either. I cried but hid my tears in the hood that I too now wore. The men stared, and began to encircle us, their brooms and rakes, cluttered with red and yellow leaves, raised menacingly. Sonia drew me towards her, throwing half her cloak around my shoulders to show I had her protection. It wasn't enough, however, and it was only when my wife made that trick with her eyes and threatened to breathe them all in, only to exhale them forever changed that they let us pass, whispering and rustling like leaves as we left them behind. I half imagined they said they wanted to come with us after all, see the outside. We walked very slowly out of the square, and onto the one road that led out, to safety. Bears, wild pigs, what could frighten me now?

We began the slow trek down the mountain to a town I no longer believed existed. The pig pens had burned away the memory of my white house, of that sea wind blowing through. So much for my wife being the restorer of memory, but perhaps it was only certain forgotten moments she could bring back, and not the forgettings she'd occasioned herself. We are all fallible.

We camped together above a waterfall that night, just as you and I had, listening while Slipstream and the donkey ate. Sonia had brought along the remaining bottle of last year's fruit wine, a sweet mango; we finished it after our fish, as our little fire burned down. "We have to make sure it's out before we sleep," she said. "Too dry this time of year, before the rains come."

"Sonia, who was the child?"

"Spirit child, witch child. They hate them almost as much as they hate outsiders."

"But she was so good. I could feel it in her, good in a way they know nothing about."

"Good in a way they're afraid of, because it threatens everything they believe in, their whole way of life."

"She was like you, a bit. Only not so hard."

"Hard is what life among them's done to me; I never wanted to be this way." Sonia reached out and laid her hand on my knee, and as always, I didn't know whether to recoil or embrace her. She had that effect on me. "I'm the only witch they've ever allowed to grow to adulthood."


"They thought they needed one witch to protect them from the eyes of outsiders."

"You were a spirit child then too, like that one? What are they, spirit children? She didn't smell like burning flesh."

"We only harden as we age. If I was to burn now I'm afraid I'd smell just like bacon," she said ironically. "If I answer all your questions now you'll never come back next year, and I need you to. It's the only way to stop the burnings."

"We don't have witches," I said.

"I know, but you are one now, and you're returning. I'm sorry, husband. I hadn't intended for you to see a thing like that; it's why I kept you hidden."


When I woke in the morning Sonia was gone, as she'd said she'd go. I went home down the hills without my wife, wondering what lay ahead of me, and whether, by having married her, I'd given up my right to you forever. But my night's dream came to me as I walked the leafy trail, saw at last the sea, the town. A seemingly prophetic dream that filled me with exhilaration and dread. You'd be back, Alia, and I'd marry you as I'd hoped, keeping my other marriage secret. I'd never go back to the mountains to my first bride, never begin the trading that she and I had hoped for so fervently. But you and I would have a child, and it would be a spirit child, the first one ever born by the sea. Sonia's legacy after all, having changed me so irrevocably. Which would be better? To give you up, Alia, my one true love, or to father a child that might be destroyed by a fear, by a hate that had never existed in our town before, that its birth might elicit? Sonia had awakened me to my own witchery, both terrifying and promising. The full saddlebags had been a cover. It was my new fearsome eyes, the child I'd father, that were my real trading goods. But what would I have to bring back to her mountain village to end the cycle, allow people to see the gift and not just the difference, the gentleness as well as the fearsome power?

I prayed to my grandfather, but he didn't hear. He too had tried to open a trade route between the mountains and the sea, had been catapulted for his arrogance into the future time when such things might be possible, destined to end his years in the loneliness of those who can travel forwards, but not back to their home time.

And you, Alia?

You live in the middle, in a secret forest village in the foot hills. You retain a measure of Sonia's wisdom, and teach it where you can, as you taught me. Still, your eyes are human. You haven't lost the innocence of the sea people, and are thus protected from the fear and ignorance of those who need the protection of witches but fear and hate their power.

You wait, wondering whether I'll ever find the path home to you.

© Ursula Pflug 2002, 2004
This story is a standalone version of a chapter in the novel Green Music, different in several ways. It appears at infinity plus in this form for the first time.
Green Music by Ursula Pflug
Ursula Pflug's novel, Green Music, was published by Tesseract Books in March 2002.

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