apologia and two extracts from the novel by
Apologia: Let Me Tell You About My Shoulder
The songwriter Tom Paxton used often to remark of his song "All Night Long" that he hadn't really written it: it had been fluttering around looking for a shoulder to land on, and he was lucky enough that his happened to be the shoulder it chose. Writers occasionally have the same experience: one moment it's you who's working at the keyboard and the next you realize that something else -- the novel itself, perhaps? -- has taken over.
This was certainly what happened to me soon after I started writing The World: what had started out as a fresh take on heroic fantasy decided of its own accord to become something much more than that. I decided to let the "something else" have its will; all I did was watch as the very complex story evolved on my monitor screen. When the book was finished and I'd read it through, I told my editor that, to my own astonishment, this seemed to be a major new extension of fantasy's territory -- and certainly a much more major book than either of us had anticipated.
My editor was unconvinced ("Well, you would say that" was her response): it was far, far easier for that publisher to sell a conventional, identikit generic fantasy, she reckoned, than something that was aggressively breaking new ground. The net result was that the book was very badly published: it was issued in the dead zone of mid-December alongside three generic fantasies in the hope, I assume, that it would be thought to be a fourth. As such it sold quite well -- especially bearing in mind that December publication date -- and the book's few reviewers with one exception echoed what I had been saying about it. Nevertheless, no effort was put into either home sales or the marketing of foreign rights, and I was happy enough when the book went out of print and I could get it back.
In part because of the internet, the book has actually become far better known since it went out of print than ever it was while still available. Good-condition copies can fetch excellent prices on eBay, and one dedicated enthusiast has even set up a fan website about me called "The World". Accordingly, I was delighted when the opportunity came along for the book to be reissued, and even more so that I was given the chance to revise the text. There had been a few editorial compromises in the original that I'd never been happy with, not to mention some aspects which I felt could be generally improved -- right down to the names of some of the characters.
This new revision is, therefore, the preferred text, and should be regarded as superseding the previous one.
The mythology that came into existence in The World has continued to grow and evolve, and much of the short fiction that I've written since then relates to it in some way, great or small. And there are at least two long novels remaining to be written that are set in the universes that come into existence at the end of the current book. For those, however, I may have to wait until I find a publisher who shares my fascination for what landed on my shoulder.
How I Slept with the Queen of China
There are the five of us down at the Prospect, by the river, and Hump is running a book the way he often does. Each of us puts in a fiver and the winner is the first person to pull a bird, which should not be difficult for someone because it is summer and a Saturday night and so the place is crawling with all these French and Italian nubiles across for the English-as-a-foreign-language schools, only Hump then makes the mistake of chatting up a girl with a small vocabulary and a large boyfriend so we decide suddenly to leave the Prospect. Hump and the others say they want to go down to the Double Locks but I say no, I am tired, I want to get away from noise for a while, and Hump says I can't have my fiver back.
I like the walk back up from the river. The night air is cool and gentle on me, which is nice after the hotness of today, and the receding sound of all the people in the Prospect talking and laughing makes me feel rested, so that by the time I get to Mount Pleasant I am in the mood for sitting down somewhere quiet with a drink.
I go into the Grapes because that is a pub that no one hardly ever goes into except Ben and Cecil, these two old guys who spend all the time there just sitting side by side, not talking, looking at the dartboard opposite that no one ever uses. I guess that when the pub is shut they sit somewhere else, not moving, just waiting for it to open.
There is someone else in there aside from Ben and Cecil tonight, though, a smallish guy with a snake tattooed in blue on the side of his face, and he is talking with the barmaid, who is the Queen of China. She is not Chinese and she is not a queen, but she is the Queen of China because that is the name Hump once gave her when smashed because of the way she looks. Her face is very pale and it never shows what she is feeling at all; you could swear at her and she would not seem to get angry, or you could tell her a joke and she would not smile, but no one bothers because there is not any point. Hump said if she ever really smiled her face would crack up like china, and so that is how she got her name. Dave once said that if anyone ever pulled her we would have to double the stakes, but Hump said no one would want to because it would be like laying something that was not really a human being. I remember him saying this as I look at her tonight and I think he is probably right but it seems very odd because she has got a pretty face and a skinny sexy figure currently dressed in faded blue jeans and a white blouse. Her hair is long and neat and a sort of muddy red-yellow-brown.
She turns away from the wanker--Snakeface--so I get to the bar. Her face does not try to smile at me but the corners of her mouth turn up to show that she is good at her job. I ask her for a pint of Flowers because it is the best they have got, even if not very, and she pours it in silence. I look around the bar and Cecil lights a cigarette. I get the idea that maybe the Queen and Snakeface have been arguing, because his silence tells me so. I give her money and she gives me change and I take my pint and go over to sit in the opposite corner from Ben and Cecil because I do not want to not have a conversation with them.
Snakeface and the Queen start arguing again--or, at least, he does the arguing in a little tight voice and every time he stops she tells him patiently to go away, which he does not. Clearly he is an old friend of hers. They stop for a while when Cecil comes up to buy a pint each for him and Ben, and then they carry on again, which is distressing because I want to think. Not about anything important: just to enjoy the thoughts drifting along across my mind. I realize that I do not like Snakeface very much. I wish he would do what the Queen says and go away. Then his words become like muzak so I do not hear him any longer, and I start wondering who if anyone is going to win the twenty-five quid and I discover how little I care.
It is a while later and I have almost finished my pint when Snakeface starts shouting.
"You cheap shit!" he is yelling at her. "There must be many pounds in the till. You give me some of it or by Christ your face is not going to look too pretty."
I turn to watch him and I see that he has got a razor in his hand. Without the razor he would not be much which I suppose is why he has it. His hair is dirty with grease and it runs down over the back of his collar, which is likewise dirty with grease. He is wearing an old grey suit with a shiny bottom and dandruff on the shoulders, and he has got a little sharp face that looks like a rodent's. I decide I very much do not like him.
"Put the razor away and get out of here," I say and at first he does not hear me.
So I say it again and louder.
This time he hears and he looks at me and he spits on the floor so I stand up. I am pretty big and I know how to look bigger, and he sees the empty glass in my hand, and he sees the way it would be easy for me to hit it against the table so that I would be holding a ring of sharp edges. I am watching his mind working behind those nasty little eyes of his. He thinks for a few moments and then he shuts the razor with a click and he sticks it into his shiny jacket pocket.
"I will be back, you mark my words you bitch," he says in a steaming piss-stream to the Queen of China and then he walks out of the pub very fast, slamming the door behind him as he leaves.
I go to the bar again and I find my breath is a bit heavy but not too heavy and I ask the Queen for another pint before she says thank you to me, because that sort of thing embarrasses me. But I let her not take any money for the drink while Cecil lights another cigarette and does not look at Ben.
"He may hang around out there," I say, "whoever he is. Let me get a bike and I will take you home after the pub closes."
She shakes her head.
"I can take care of him without no difficulty," she says. "Anyway, Nadar, I know where you get your bikes. You borrow them from other people and you forget to take them back afterwards. I do not want to have anything to do with that kind of thing."
I say something about how I always look after the bikes and the people get them back soon because the police find them, but she says nothing about that and says that there is no need anyway, she lives just a walk away, she does not need me with her, and I guess she thinks I might want to go into her home with her when I take her there, so it is end of discussion.
I go back to my ripped seat with my pint and I worry a lot because I do not like Snakeface and he looked as if he really meant to use the razor on her, so I decide that I will follow her when she goes home in case he tries anything on. Besides I have got nothing much else I want to do tonight and it is not worth going home yet because I already know that England lost the cricket and so why should I bother watching the highlights.
The landlord who has never had a name appears and looks newted and tells me and Ben and Cecil that it is nearly time for us to go, so I finish my beer and leave the Grapes and on the other side of the road I find a shadow that I can wrap around my shoulders.
It is nearly midnight when the landlord who has never had a name lets her out and locks the door behind her. She looks around, probably to check that Snakeface is not there but she does not see me, and then she turns away to the left, walking up Mount Pleasant Road. She is wearing a light coat now, and it is easy for me to follow her shape in the orange half-darkness. I stay on the other side of the road and move very quietly, so that she will not hear me. If she turns around I am just another person walking home, but she does not turn around.
We go left again, onto Elmside, and then I see that one of the other shadows is moving just a little too fast, and that is when I run across the road and sure enough it is Snakeface and he has got the razor out and he is waving it in the air.
I knock him sideways with my shoulder and he staggers. He is a bit heavier than he should be for his size, and the muscles inside his clothes are surprisingly hard, but he stumbles away sideways the way I knocked him, losing his balance. He drops the razor and it scuttles away into the gutter and I pick him up and throw him against the wall of somebody's house. I get ready to hit him, but his head hits the bricks hard instead and he just collapses in a heap. I stand there waiting but he does not move.
The Queen is shaking and in the dirty streetlight I see that there are tears running down her porcelain cheeks, and it is fascinating because I had never thought of her as being able to cry.
Some helpful neighbour must have called our friends in blue because in a minute or so which is quick even for them there are flashing lights and sirens wailing and a couple of voices, who come over and look at Snakeface and look at me and look at the Queen, and she tells them what happened and they stop sizing me up. So Snakeface is thrown into an ambulance that turns up and the two policemen go with us to the Queen's place, which is a neat little two-room flat with faded curtains and I have a slash and then they take our statements and by the time it is all over and they have telephoned the hospital to discover that Snakeface will live it is three o'clock in the morning and the Queen looks as if she is going to fall asleep standing up. They offer me a lift home but I see her looking almost frightened at that and anyway what would my neighbours say, so I say no to them.
When they have gone I say as soft as I can: "Does that little bastard with the blue tattoo of a snake on his face know where you live?"
And she says yes, obviously he does, and I say that that is bad because they might not keep him in the hospital all night, and again her face shows something and very certainly this time it is fear. So I say I will sleep on the sofa if she likes and besides it is very late and I am tired, too, and I do not want to walk the rest of the way home now, and other things, and she gets the idea that I really mean it and that she is not in a fire-after-frying-pan situation.
So she fetches a pillow and a couple of blankets while I have another slash because of the beer and rub some toothpaste on my teeth with my finger, and as I get out of my clothes I hear her in the toilet and that surprises me again, because it is news to me that she might have to slash as well.
The minutes pass and I turn out the light and wriggle down under the blankets she has given me while she moves around in the bedroom making small female noises. There is a full moon tonight and a line of silver stretches across the dark carpet from the gap between the curtains. I watch it for a time and then I hear new sounds from the bedroom and after a while I realize that the Queen is crying and I do not know what to do.
So a little later when I cannot stand the sound of it any longer I go and I knock on her door and I ask her if she is all right, and she opens the door and she puts her arms round me and the hair on my chest gets wet for a few minutes as her shoulders jump and shake under my hands and it is then that I remember that I have not got any clothes on and peel her off me for long enough to go and get into my jeans.
When I go back she is sitting on her bed with her face in her hands but she is a lot calmer now, so the tears do not erupt the way they were doing earlier. I sit down beside her and I put an arm around her shoulders and just squeeze her against me, feeling the slithery cloth of her nightdress on the inside of my elbow and still wondering what I should do.
When she stops crying at last she begins to talk, and I let her because the words are just the same as the tears, things she has to get out of her before she can feel all right again. What she tells me makes me glad I did not like Snakeface.
She and him have known each other for quite a while, she says to me. A couple of years ago, she says, she moved in to live with him. Her first love and all that and she thought it was for life but it was only for three weeks because that is how long it took for him to knock her around a second time and for her broken eyes to open to how long life can be. We all make our own messes but some of us make them for other people too, and now she had discovered that Snakeface was a latter. Rapid exit of the Queen of China from his life in search of pastures new--or at least to this little flat which is as tidy as her hair normally is. Since then she has been living on her own and working in the Grapes, and every few weeks he appears to fuck up her life a little more and get some money from her, and tonight is the first time she has decided she has got enough courage not to give him any. And now she is terrified because when they let him out in a few hours or a few days or a few weeks he is going to come and cut her open, she knows that for a fact.
All this time I am just sitting and listening but then she says she wants me to stay beside her for what is left of the night, and for once I do not reach for my flies but instead climb in under the covers in my jeans and I reach out a hand and pull her in beside me and rest her head on my arm, and in the moonlight, which is brighter in this room, I watch her hair on the pillow and the way that her face melts and changes as she falls asleep. She becomes something else from the person she was when she was awake; older, it looks like years older, but it does not bother me. It is a trick that the pale light can play when clouds pass across the front of the bright full moon, I guess. And I lie there for a while wondering why it is that I am lying there in bed with a woman and not unhappy about the fact that we have not screwed, and then I fall asleep too because a few moments later the room is full of yellow and it is the middle of the morning.
I put some water and four eggs in a pan and work out which is the right knob on the cooker to turn while she gets to work with the electrical toaster. She is in a dressing-gown with blue flowers on it and I am still in my jeans, which feel dirty on my thighs. As she squats down in front of a cupboard with her hair all ruffled from sleeping I look at her and see again how pretty she is and so I tell her so.
She says a thankyou very formally and she smiles at me. So the Queen does know how to smile as well. It is not the empty thing I have always seen her use in the Grapes because her whole face changes and I see her smiling with her eyes as well. I ask her her name and she tells me it is Syor, and I say that is a nice name and that I have not heard it before but if it is OK with her I would like to carry on calling her the Queen, and she asks me why and I tell her what Hump said about her face cracking up if ever she really smiled, and I am just beginning to realize this maybe is not too tactful of me when I see that she has started laughing, so that is all right. And I say that her face obviously has not cracked up and she punches me on the shoulder harder than I think she means.
"It seems funny that we did not you know make it last night," I say because now I think I know her well enough not to worry about saying things like that.
"It could have been fun maybe," she says and she says it so easily that I can't believe my ears. She puts a stainless-steel spoon carefully beside each egg-cup. They are white egg-cups with pictures of Peter Rabbit on them.
"It is not too late," I say because I expect it of myself, and she just shakes her head but she does not look angry at all, so we eat our toast and eggs and we talk about other things, and then after a bit things get less happy because the subject of what to do about Snakeface comes up. I say that it is a Sunday, it is her day off and I have got nothing else to do anyway, so if she likes I will stick around with her. She looks reluctant at this so I quickly say that it is a nice day and we could go out together, maybe down to the beach because I have got enough money for the bus fares, and she relaxes again and we finish eating and then get dressed in separate rooms.
She picks up the red plastic telephone and calls the police station and asks about Snakeface, only she calls him Lion or something, and as she listens I see the angles of her body gradually become more rounded and when she puts the telephone down she comes across to me and kisses me hard on the lips for a second or less before she tells me that it seems as if a guy with a blue tattoo of a snake on his face has been a bit too generous with his razor a couple of times before and so the gents in blue are truly delighted to have got their hands on him at last and it could be a long time like months maybe longer before he goes back to the Grapes again.
And so we go down to the beach and eat ice-cream and build a sandcastle.
These days I do not see much of Hump and Dave and the others and no I never did get my fiver back. When I am with the Queen I feel I can talk about anything I want to, and she says the same about me, even those times when she seems to be somewhere else completely. Sometimes we kiss and maybe one day we will sleep together again but that is in the future and I am not very good at thinking about the future. At the moment she is just the best friend I ever had and life is rounded at the edges and I feel like I am a whole lot older than I was then.
The Painter's Eyes
It was in the late weeks of the season the World calls spring--the one among these new things named seasons that we find hardest of them all to understand--when the Painter first came among us. Like the dreamers and the singers who used to wander in the old days--the days we can hardly remember--across the hills and along the trodden paths between the villages, he seemed then and still seems to bear with him nothing but the implements of his trade: brushes broad and narrow, and cloths for spreading; two scooped buckets of wood, their holes chocked with clay, for mixing; and, in a sack slung over his shoulder, a paltry supply of the coarse and gritty pigments he has gathered from the gods know where. Aside from that he has only the fronded clothes on his back, a stick broken from a tree somewhere along his endless road, and a pig (which when he first came to us was only a piglet) that runs in its heavy, laborious, eagerly reluctant way from his walking legs to the terrain in front of him, and back again. The pig, which has a name, but not one that the Painter would share with any but a lover (and he has no lovers), is not only his companion of the road but also his guard animal, his friend, and perhaps also his critic, for as he works it sits on its haunches and watches him, its head tilted and its mouth half open, its small eyes alert on the movements of his arms.
Was there a first village he visited, in that spring? When we initially became conscious of his presence among us we became aware also that he had been on his wanderings for some short while, and that already his paintings decked more than one scarp. Yet we cannot clearly recall the very first of those creations, although those of us who dwell in Embrace-of-the-Forest are very insistent that it was they whom the Painter and his pig first graced with their presence. Let us, for the sake of argument (or, more accurately, for the sake of no argument), agree with them that, yes, it was in Embrace-of-the-Forest that the Painter first appeared.
Already by then the folk of Embrace-of-the-Forest were become suspicious of newcomers, and the Painter was at first not privileged by any greater a welcome than if he'd been one of the many Worldsmen who'd come before him. Some of the people from the World who come to explore our ways are honest enough, and many have settled among us and even taken mates; but often enough they are tricksters or thieves who have fled to the shores of Albion to escape retribution or simply to open up new territories for their maleficent endeavours: we are even now unaccustomed to the idea of possession, and still less to that of covetousness, so we are easy prey. Be that as it may, there were no trumpets sounded or flowers strewn in the narrow streets of Embrace-of-the-Forest the day that the tall, undernourished figure of the Painter teetered on its stick-legs to the door of Halgiad's cottage; Halgiad, an urchin had told him, might take in a lodger because she was all alone with the children these days.
And it was one of her children who answered--that small girl of hers who keeps herself tidier than the others do.
The child saw first the pig, and a grin came to her face. Then she noticed the stranger's trousers, two columns of what had once been soft black velvet with lacings along the seams, now creased and muddied and rent from their travels. Then the girl's gaze travelled upwards to the Painter's face, and she screamed and ran wailing for her mother's skirts. . .
That is what happened in Embrace-of-the-Forest. Maybe it had already happened in much the same way in others of the villages before, and maybe it hadn't. We do not know, and it hardly matters.
But a few days later, when Halgiad's daughter had learned the playfulness of the Painter's smile and the softness of his chapped hand around hers as he told her one of his stories of great people and their doings in faraway places, he found his way--stumbling along, hands outreached ahead of him, rarely cursing when he tripped and fell (although that too was rarely, for his pig usually shouldered him gently aside from any dangerous obstacle)--to a place at the fringes of the village where a long-forgotten caprice of the Wind (of course it was long-forgotten, for now that we can remember it the Wind no longer plagues us) had ripped two slabs of the ground asunder to create a wall of naked rock half as high again as a tall man. Once he discovered this place--so Halgiad's daughter was later to tell her mother--he stood stone-still, as if he himself were of the rock, and then a smile grew on his face that seemed to warm the fields all around them. He told the child to mark the place well, so that she could bring him back to it by a more direct route than the circuitous one they had taken to reach it, and then they returned to Halgiad's house, where the Painter was paying in the soft yellow metal to dwell, and they collected a little clean, fresh water in his buckets and he arranged his sack of pigments on his back and, with the child's questions like birdsong in his ears, they went back, the three of them--man, girl and pig--to the rent in the land.
Halgiad's daughter sat with an arm around the pig for much of the rest of the day, returning home only the once to fetch bread and lard for a meal she and the pig shared. She watched as, for a long time, the Painter left his colours unmixed, instead just running his fingertips and the palms of his hands over the texturing of the crystal-winking rock, allowing its hard sharpnesses to become soft pliant warmths against his flesh. He sang a song to himself as he did so, a song we have often enough heard since the days that the Ellonia ruled and Barra 'ap Rteniadoli Me'gli'minter Rehan the singer himself composed it as a memory:
Even the child was well acquainted with the song, and sometimes her own discordant voice quietly joined his; and then he would smile that deep smile again, and shift his singing so that the notes of his own voice twined themselves around her cracked ones and made the whole seem flawless. The pig, then, seemed to be laughing at the two of them, its head moving easily on its fat neck as it shared its attention between them.
The Sun was looking wistfully towards the horizon when at last the Painter turned and told Halgiad's daughter that she could watch him as he mixed his colours.
He picked up his sack from the ground where he'd tossed it and spilled out onto the grass a cluster of small leather bags, tied at their necks with lengths of torn linen. The pig stayed where it was as she drew closer; this was the first time that she'd been permitted to see the contents of his secret sack, and her thumb absent-mindedly crept towards her mouth as she watched him pick up each of the little bags and heft its weight in his palm, muttering as he did so, until he'd identified each of them. Then he put two of them to one side and packed the rest of them away.
His dirty fingernails made short work of the first of the linen knots, and the girl gasped as the leather drooped aside to reveal a neatly crested pile of an ochreous yellow purer than any she could ever recall seeing (although in truth it was no yellower than the sands of our shores). The second bag opened, and this time the dust was of sparkling green, the brightest colour the sky might show in one of the dawns that Alyss has brought to us.
The child reached out to touch, but behind her the pig grunted a warning and she stilled her hand. The Painter, too, raised a palm in her direction, bidding her stay clear of his mysteries.
He told her to run and fetch some mud from the bank of a nearby stream. When she returned with it, laughing excitedly as it dribbled along the inside of her arms and over the front of her grey woollen dress, he gravely accepted it from her and kneaded it between his fingers, testing its consistency. Then, in one of the buckets, he mixed it with some of the clean water they'd brought until it had the viscosity of a thick lentil broth. Once he was satisfied, he began to pour in some of the ochre, stirring it with fingers that seemed to move quicker than sight, then adding a little more. . .
The girl's mouth pursed as she saw the pure colour clouding dirtily; it was as if he were deliberately destroying its light. But then, as she watched, the colour seemed to grow back into the mixture, still with that same elusive purity but now with a greater strength, as if the pigment and the mud were singing together in harmony (rather as she and the Painter had been singing earlier) and thereby producing a sound of a greater than imaginable richness. Framed by the bucket's irregular rim she saw a pool of a substance that seemed not altogether to be a part of the world she knew; she was gazing through a window into outwithness.
She was at once thrilled and frightened. She drew the hard, skimpy, matted wool of her dress around her shoulders.
"Have I caught the sunlight?" he asked her at last.
"Yes," she said. Yes, now that he'd used the word "sunlight" she realized that that was what he'd created, and why the hue repelled her at the same time as it attracted her. It was everyday yet alien. It was comforting yet it bore the unhidden threat of flames' voracity. And yet it wasn't the same colour as the sunlight at all: it still possessed the yellowness of the solar disc, but it was also more of a brownish colour, like the fine hairs on the backs of Halgiad's arms.
"Then I may begin to bring the goddess into this place," he said gently.
An hour or two later and it was sunset.
The Painter didn't notice the cold springtime shadows, but kept on working, splashing the single colour exuberantly yet carefully against the rock's surface. Finally Halgiad's daughter, shivering but too nervous to interrupt him herself, elbowed the pig sharply; it agreed with her, and snorted imperiously.
The Painter stopped work immediately. He held his dripping hands out to his sides, one squeezing a sodden cloth, and turned to grin in her direction.
"So soon, the end of the day," he said by way of explanation.
Then he was all business and hustle. At his behest, she ran with the bucket he'd used, and a couple of brushes and the cloth, and rinsed them out in the now-dark stream. The ochreous mess seemed to mix reluctantly with the water, clinging to the materials and to her fingers as if she were trying to drown it, but eventually, in trickles, it floated away from her downstream, stretching into drab curves on the water's surface, collecting around a protruding stone for a while before abandoning itself once more to the current.
She ran back to where the Painter stood, waiting.
He'd packed away the two leather bags, one now a little lighter than before, and he had his sack up on his shoulder again. The pig was by his thighs. Both of them seemed to smile at her noisy approach.
As they set off for home she hung back a little at first, giving the rockface a last look in the grey-red light of early evening. The bright yellow-brown was still catching the late rays of the Sun so that it could call out like a clarion across the empty fields, yet it wasn't using any words that she could comprehend. All that the Painter seemed to have created was a tumbling, amorphous form that held no meaning that she could perceive. And yet it was clear from the shape of his body as he picked his way along the path they'd created with their feet earlier in the day that he was satisfied with the work he'd done.
Even the pig seemed satisfied.
They were foreigners, she concluded, just as she turned to run after them. Her mother had been wrong to think that they were, as the Painter had claimed, people of Albion like everyone else in Embrace-of-the-Forest. The reason that the message of the painting was impenetrable to her was that it was being spoken in a foreign language.
Satisfied with her own explanation, on the way home she took his hand and joined him in singing yet again of the seven women.
That night at supper, as Halgiad and her four children sat around the table with the Painter, eating soup with fistfuls of the good gritty bread that Qat the baker baked, the girl prompted him to tell another of his stories of glorious deeds. After an apologetic smile at her mother, he began to tell them about the day when Albion's misty curtains had been dissolved. He himself, he told them, had been there, sitting on a hillside with Anya and Imogen and Rehan and Joli while, in front of them, Alyss had flown across the canvas of the sky like one of his own paintbrushes might do tomorrow.
The girl doubted much of this, of course: she was old enough to accept the convention that every tale-teller will, without in any way marring the truth, claim to have been present at the more dramatic of the scenes described. Yet she knew, too, that what he was telling them must be very close--almost exactly close--to what had really happened, so she said nothing. Her younger sister, more credulous, listened agape; her older sister and her brother displayed the part-patronizing smiles that said they knew they were listening to something that was more embellishment than truth, yet admired the telling. Curiously, however, her mother was accepting it all matter-of-factly, as if their guest were merely recounting some anecdote of a minor adventure in the streets of Ernestrad--excitingly distant from them, yet a part of tangible things.
Then the Painter's voice grew gloomier. He told them of how he had married an imaginary, surely imaginary, woman of gold, uniting himself with her not only in body but also as a support for the peasants of Albion to lean on whenever they grew weary or fearful of the incursions of the World. The girl and her siblings were too young to remember those years themselves, but they'd heard their mother talk about them and knew that they'd been times of great harshness. The children could only vaguely comprehend what it must have been like to face the inhumane might of the torrent of awareness--of self-awareness--that had rushed foaming across the previously barren plains of the people's minds, but they knew that the ecstasy it had brought had been mingled also with a bitter pain whose shocks, often enough, had turned folk into drooling fools or sharp-clawed creatures of night. Their mother sometimes told them that it was like having been locked up in an utterly dark room for all of your life and then, abruptly, being thrust out into the most brilliant of all summer days. Even the Ellonia hadn't been immune to the glare. All of a sudden the world was the World: instead of being measured from side to side in days of riding it was now infinite, stretching out in all directions as far as the human ken could compass.
And the World was full of strangers. Some had come to Albion out of interest or to trade, and they had been possible to accept, with however much difficulty. But others had had motives that the people of Albion had been unable to understand: they hadn't been human beings at all, in the way that the Albionians had understood human beings to be. They had been like the worst of the Ellonia of the old days--no, worse, because at least the Ellonians' cruelties had been predictable.
The golden lady and himself, the Painter was now telling them, had apprehended and anticipated much of this, yet even they hadn't been able to appreciate the true magnitude of the effect--not even while it was happening. Encased in Starveling, they hadn't understood much of what was going on among the people of the rest of Albion. They had seen the World as a physical threat; they had prepared to ward off armies. They hadn't observed it furtively creeping in behind them, hiding behind the curtains of their naïvete.
They had done foolish things. Cruel things.
And the Painter had found that his golden lady had a golden heart, not a fleshly one. And finally she had destroyed an old friend of theirs in a way too bestial for him to speak of (the girl saw Halgiad's lips whiten and tighten), and driven the Painter from Starveling to make his own way as best he could, and he'd been glad of the banishment.
He smiled as he talked of what his golden lady had done to him, even though the room was now silent. And when he'd done--when the set of his cheeks told them tonight's stories were over and that there was an end of it--he smiled again, this time with the deep smile she'd seen out by the rock, and turned his lovely, hideous eyeless face towards her.
She saw the beauty in his clawed, burnt scars, and loved him even though her soup was cold.
The next day Halgiad's daughter and the pig were not alone with the Painter out by the rock. Maybe a dozen children had joined them--for Halgiad's son was an eager talker--and even a couple of the adults had come along, too. . . just to keep an eye on the children, they said. There was quite a festive atmosphere to the gathering, with girls and boys yipping as they played various running and hiding games, pausing every now and then in their merriment to come and spend a few minutes gaping at the stranger as he worked.
The Painter paid little attention to the hubbub surrounding him beyond nodding his thanks to whichever child next volunteered to fetch fresh mud or water from the stream. His pig, too, was unconcerned, sitting with its eyes on the daubed rockface, often enough with the arm of Halgiad's daughter around it. In the way of small children she had insisted on giving the beast a name and then had dubbed it simply Piggy; but it didn't seem to object, turning its head in response every time she tried out the sound.
All day long the painting grew.
About mid-afternoon the Painter was done with the yellow pigment. At his request, Halgiad's daughter, accompanied by the pig, which seemed eager to stretch its legs, led him to the stream, where he carefully rinsed out his cloth, his mixing bucket and, his fingers teasing through their bristles, his brushes. Once he sensed that the last vestiges of yellow had been banished from his implements he carefully washed his hands, continuing to rub them over and over each other long after Halgiad's daughter's eyes told her that the skin was clean. At last he stroked his flattened palms on the grass to dry them.
Halgiad's daughter was puzzled when they returned to the scar. Perhaps one third of its surface was now coloured, and yet still the decoration had no perceptible purpose. She supposed that an embellished rock was better than an unembellished one, but otherwise she could see little point in his labours. She concluded that this must be, like so many other things, an adult mystery; when she grew older she would be able to understand it.
For a short while the Painter didn't go near his sack of pigments. Instead, thoughtfully, he behaved as if his forefinger were a chalk, making invisible lines with it on the stone. First he drew the roll of a slow hill and then, after a few moments' contemplation, directly beneath it he traced its reflection in still water. For a long time he was lost in meditation, cupping his torn chin in his hand, and then, perhaps half a metre to the right, he repeated the simple pattern.
Halgiad's daughter was becoming ever more bemused. She hugged the pig's warmth as if somehow the beast could transmit an explanation to her through their touching skins. Perhaps it did, because she suddenly realized that of course, to a blind man, lines sketched with a finger were every bit as visible as if drawn with a charcoal. Yet that still didn't explain why he should want to make lentil-shapes. . .
The Painter nodded to her (how did he always seem to know where she was?) and she got to her feet and hurried to him. Her movement attracted the attention of some of the other children, and a little group of them clustered around her as the Painter explained to her what he wanted her to do next.
"All the great artists in Ernestrad have assistants to help them prepare their paints," he said, smiling, "and I don't see why I should be any different, just because I choose to work out here in Embrace-of-the-Forest. You saw me mixing the yellow ochre yesterday and again this morning. This time I need some white and--how late is it?"
She told him.
"I thought so. My stomach's been telling me that it's long past midday. Well, just white for today."
As he listened to her movements, she fetched out the leather bags and prised open the fastening of each of them just enough to be able to peek inside. The fourth bag contained a powder of a brilliant white, like the cold stuff called snow that had briefly decked the hills around Embrace-of-the-Forest a few months ago.
"Now," he said, "we don't want to blend in the burn's mud, like we did with the yellow, because that would make the white just look dirty. But we do want to add something from the world to the mixture, because without it the colour would be only a colour--not real. What would you suggest?"
He was smiling again, his face pointed questioningly towards her, as if he were watching for her reactions.
She looked at the pig, but it was watching a couple of the boys wrestling and paid her no attention.
"There's my own spit," she said at last, hesitantly. "That's white. It wouldn't muddy the paint."
"You're a clever child," he said. "That's a better and easier reply than I was expecting. I was going to propose that we squeeze the sap from some dandelions, but that'd take us both a lot of effort."
"And it smells yuk," said Halgiad's daughter, wrinkling her face.
"Quite right. It'd take us forever to wash the stink away before supper tonight."
He knelt down beside her and took a little of the powder into his hand. Once he was satisfied that he had precisely the right quantity he dropped it into the empty mixing bucket.
"Next," he said, "I want you to pretend that you've just come across something really disgusting! OK?"
Halgiad's daughter thought of her elder brother--no, her elder brother's smelliest poo ever--and screwed up her face.
"Now spit!" commanded the Painter.
She spat once, and then again, and then the third time she managed just a few drops and realized that there wouldn't be a fourth time. Her spittle formed bubbly splashes on and around the powder in the bucket.
"Good," he said. "Now there'll be a little of you in the picture for as long as it survives the elements."
Moving easily, he splashed in some water and stirred it up with the powder and her spittle until, as before, the stuff had the consistency of runny mud.
She felt herself dismissed. The children who'd been watching all this dispersed. Halgiad's daughter herself went to sit with the pig, again.
By the time the sun was touching the hills in the distance the Painter had filled with white the two invisible lentil-shapes he'd traced out earlier. Above and to either side of the circles there was a cloud-like tumble of yellow-brown. A natural ridge of the rock ran partway down the centre of the unpainted space, so that Halgiad's daughter began to wonder if the Painter were trying to make the face of the stone look like a human face, in the same way that the Worldly coins that sometimes came to Embrace-of-the-Forest as trinkets had flat shapes on them that looked like people's faces if you caught the light on them aright. It seemed a very strange thing to want to do--to build a face--when if you wanted to look at one all you had to do was to go out into the street and wait for somebody to come by. Besides, people's faces--real people's faces--were capable of moving, of shaping themselves into grins or glowers, which was something that dead stone couldn't do. Maybe, when the picture was complete, the rock would indeed be able to move, so that the Painter's creation would be able to laugh and cry like everybody else.
Halgiad's daughter wasn't sure she wanted a gigantic living face planted permanently on the outskirts of her village, but adults were wilful creatures and she knew that there wouldn't be any point in registering her protest.
The next few days showed her that her guess was at least right in part. The Painter's work had been slow from the start, and it grew even slower as the days passed, for more and more of the adult villagers found excuses to be passing by the rock, and of course they all wanted to stop for a while and ask him what he was doing and how the work was progressing and if he wanted them to take their children away so that he wouldn't be interrupted so often; he got rid of the grown-ups as quickly as he courteously could, but paid no attention to the children's games. Halgiad came sometimes and sat with her daughter and the pig, talking to them a little but never to the painter except to ask him briefly if he wanted some of the food she'd brought, which inevitably he didn't; despite this minor behavioural blemish, her daughter was proud of her for her good sense.
One day a party of grown-ups came from the next village, Streamdance, to twit the madman they'd heard about, but Halgiad's daughter confronted them a few tens of metres from the rockface and, terrifying in her tiny fury, dismissed them.
By now the picture was definitely recognizable as a human face. The yellow-brown which had at first seemed so meaningless was a cascade of hair, bushing out on either side and puffing up above. The lentil-shapes were where the eyes would be, although the Painter had left them still blankly white; they were rather creepy-seeming, so Halgiad's daughter tried not to look at them very often. Combinations of several pigments from the Painter's leather bags had been used to daub in the flesh colours of a firm chin, a smooth forehead and cheeks moulded over a well delineated jaw-structure; the lines of the eyebrows were almost black.
"Tomorrow I'll be done," said the Painter to Halgiad's daughter one evening as the three of them trooped tiredly home together.
"Just the eyes to finish," she said, skipping over a grassy bump.
"That's right," the Painter said. "Just the eyes."
Halgiad's daughter didn't speak for a minute or two. She knew what she wanted to ask him, but wondered if she ought to. Grown-ups could be so enigmatically secretive about the most extraordinary things--like why people's fathers wouldn't be coming back again, and what the meaning was of the word that Halgiad only ever used when talking about one of the Streamdance women--and the child didn't want the Painter to get angry with her and accuse her of prying into things that were none of her concern. Still, the Painter wasn't really like other adults. He wasn't quite a child, either. In the end she decided that he was good enough to be a sort of honorary child, like Piggy was.
"Whose face is it you're painting?" she said at last. "Is it the golden lady you sometimes tell us about?"
"No," he said quietly, not biting her head off like she'd thought he might.
"No," he repeated, "she's not the golden lady at all."
"Then did you just make her up?"
"No, not that either."
He paused where he was, and Halgiad's daughter could see that he was thinking very hard about how he could explain something to her.
"You could say," he mumbled after a little while, "that in a way she's the golden lady's mother. That wouldn't be quite right, but it'd be near enough."
It was getting cold and Halgiad's daughter was hungry, but now her curiosity was fully aroused.
"Why wouldn't that be quite right?" she persisted.
"Because I never saw her mother. Her mother's dead. She died long before I ever met the golden lady. Or, at least, she's not really dead."
Halgiad's daughter stared at him annoyedly. His answers were doing nothing but raise further questions. She wasn't in the mood for riddling games.
"She's either dead or not dead," she said flatly. "I know. Qat the baker's father died last winter, and once he was dead he stayed dead."
"Sit down for a moment," he said, dropping onto the grass.
She joined him, despite the air's coldness. The pig looked up at them briefly, then returned to snuffling among the grasses.
"You're right in a way," said the Painter, patting her on the knee. "Long ago, before Alyss cleared the sky, when I was still one of the Ellonia rather than being just an Albionian like everybody else, I used to half-believe that when people's bodies died there was some fragment of them--a soul--that kept on living, somehow. But I wasn't very happy with that idea then, and I don't accept it at all these days. Maybe I'll be proven wrong, but as far as I'm concerned we all have just the time we spend here in the World and, when it's over, that's it. Done. Finished. Only. . ."
"Only what?" she pressed, her forehead wrinkled.
"Well, it's only that some people seem to keep on living after they're dead, as if everyone else's memories of them were so strong that somehow those memories could knit themselves together to make a living soul. Try shutting your eyes and find out if you can still see. . . who was it?. . . Qat the baker's father."
She did so, and discovered that she was looking at the toothless, almost imbecilic face of an ill tempered old billy-goat. It wasn't the face of Qat the baker's father, quite, but it was the way she'd always seen him in her mind's eye.
"So," said the Painter, sensing something of this, "in a way you could say that Qat the baker's father is still alive, even though you just said that in reality he's very, very dead. Now think of thousands and thousands of people, all having the same moving picture of Qat the baker's father in their minds."
She did her best. It was difficult to conceive why anyone might want to think about the old man, but. . .
"Can you see how all those pictures could sort of come together and join up with each other, so that they became almost as real as a real person? Everyone's ideas about Qat the baker's father mixed up to make one great big idea. A strong idea. An idea that comes to have a life, so that it no longer does exactly what people expect it to do, as if it had a will of its own. Like the characters in stories. You must have heard the tales about Alyss and Imogen and Barra 'ap Rteniadoli Me'gli'minter Rehan and all the other heroes who burst the chains the Ellonia had tied around Albion. Pick your favourite of them."
"Um." A little hard thought. "Barra 'ap Rteniadoli Me'gli'minter Rehan. The singer. I like him the best."
"Right. Let's take Rehan. A very good choice, if I might say so, because I liked him a lot, too, for the short time I knew him. It's sad that I don't know any longer if he's dead or living; let's hope he's alive. But everybody knows about Rehan, because they sing his songs--like we sometimes do--and they know about the music that he and Alyss used to create. Well, if you take all the pictures people have in their heads of Rehan and put them together you get somebody who's quite different from the real Rehan. If you could see the imagined Rehan and the living one standing side by side, you'd notice at once that they weren't at all alike. And as soon as they started talking. . ." He waved his hand, as if brushing away an insect.
"Yes," she said. "I can picture that." It was like Qat the baker's father and the billy-goat's face. They didn't look much like each other but in a way they were both the same thing.
"Would you be prepared to say that the imagined Rehan wasn't just as alive as the other one?"
"Yes. No. It's as if it--he--were living but. . . somewhere else."
"That's the way I think of it, too," said the Painter, gazing at her earnestly. "'Somewhere else.' The only trouble is that I haven't the first notion where that 'somewhere else' might be."
"Neither have I," she said, squeezing his hand reassuringly to let him know that he wasn't alone in his ignorance.
"Never mind," said the Painter, looking a little baffled. "Wherever it is, it's as if there were someone--something--living there that has the name Barra 'ap Rteniadoli Me'gli'minter Rehan and does lots of the things that Rehan himself might do--like play on the flute and the bodhran, or make a fool of itself with women--but isn't altogether the same person as Rehan, because it's made up of lots of other people's ideas."
"And the golden lady's mother's like that?"
"Sort of. Syor--that's her name--died years ago, but the golden lady herself alone believes so strongly that Syor is still alive that the other Syor, the golden lady's imagined Syor, really does exist. You couldn't find her however hard you looked, but she's still there, 'somewhere else', wherever 'somewhere else' is. If you'd ever known her you'd be able to close your eyes and see her, just like you did with Qat the baker's father. Well, you can't do that, of course, and neither can I, because neither of us ever met the real Syor when she was still alive, but if you get close to the golden lady you can begin to be able to see the imagined Syor-being through her eyes. That's how I first saw Syor. Or you can get the same sort of effect by looking at a picture, like the one I'm making, if you look at it hard enough and think about it long enough, until you can see right through the pigments to the realness underneath them."
"That's why you wanted other things in with the paints? Like spit and mud and wee?"
"That's right. They're real things, not just abstracts like hues. They're needed if the picture's going to be able to capture the wholeness of the Syor the golden lady believes in."
Halgiad's daughter chewed all this over for quite a long while as the two of them sat comfortably together, watching the sky cleanse itself of colour. Zoa was above the horizon and glaring at the wakening light of a bright star that was chasing the long-gone Sun into oblivion.
"Why do you want to keep the golden lady's mother alive with your pictures?" she said. "The golden lady's cruel. You've told us what she's done to you, and Mummy gets a funny crimped-up look on her face every time she mentions her name. They say it was the golden lady who sent the soldiers to garotte some of the men in Streamdance last summer. Surely you should want the golden lady to be dead, and her mother to stay even deader?"
"Oh, yes," said the Painter, plucking a blade of grass and then throwing it so that it glided away into the gloom, "my golden lady's cruel, all right, even crueller than people know, but not because she's really evil. She's stubborn and she's ignorant and she's rather stupid, in a way, and most of all she's frightened, and frightened of being frightened. But she's not truly bad. She thinks she's doing all the right things, and that her cruelties are necessary if everyone in Albion's going to have a chance of being happy. And I don't think that, deep down, I really would wish her death. When I was an Ellonian I killed people myself, and I ordered people to be killed--sometimes most painfully."
Halgiad's daughter looked at him in horror. He was telling another of his make-believes. The Painter was a gentle person, a kind man.
He felt her scepticism.
"I've changed since then. I had too much of killing when I was younger. And maybe Alyss changed me a little, too. Nowadays I find it very hard to wish anyone's death--anyone's, even the golden lady's."
"But her mother's already dead! Couldn't you just leave her be?"
The Painter laughed, a little dourly. "When the golden lady was young there was only one person who could curb her," he said, "and that was Imogen. Or so Imogen told me. Part of the reason why the golden lady's mother died was to do with that--she saw the cruelty that was latent in her child and recognized that she herself was powerless to tame it. But the imagined Syor--ah, that's another person. The golden lady does what the other Syor tells her to do. Except, as you'd expect, at the moment that's exactly the same as what the golden lady herself wants to do, because hers is the only idea that's gone to making up the other Syor."
The child was beginning to understand.
"You want to change the other Syor by adding in my ideas and Mummy's ideas and. . . and everybody else's ideas?"
"I've said you were a clever child."
"Well," said Halgiad's daughter, "if I were you I'd keep my brother away from your picture."
"No," the Painter said, grinning. "We want his ideas, too. He's got something good to contribute to the new other Syor we're all creating--everyone has."
They sat for a time longer, saying nothing, thinking a lot, until the night's darkness began to finger them a little too firmly, as if it wished to insinuate itself right into them. Then they got up and went home to supper.
"I'm going to finish the picture tomorrow," the Painter announced after they'd all finished eating, "and then I'm afraid I must be on my way."
Halgiad's head whipped round. Shock and distress were written all over her face. The children looked equally appalled at the prospect of the Painter's departure. And Piggy's.
"You can't do that!" said Halgiad. "I mean, d'you have to?"
"Yes," he said, spreading his hands. Mixed in with his evident unhappiness there was also a trace of pleasure, as if it gratified him that they should be so concerned.
We've come to love you, thought Halgiad's daughter urgently in his direction. We all do. Hadn't you realized that?
"Even if my picture were still only part-done," the Painter was saying to Halgiad, "I'd have to leave your home tomorrow."
"The gold isn't important," she said angrily. "I've only been taking the stuff to keep you happy. I've got little use for it."
"That's kind of you, to say that." A grave nod of the head. "But my. . . duties lie elsewhere, now that my picture is almost done."
"The children! Especially this one! You can't just. . . dump them like this! Me too. We've all got accustomed to having you kicking around the place. And your pig. Even your pig."
"I will be sad to leave," admitted the Painter, "because I've grown fond of all of you. But I meant what I said about my duties. They override any preferences of my own."
Halgiad's daughter understood what he meant. He was like a fisherman, spreading his net as widely as possible in order to catch as many people's ideas as he could. Just as a fisherman couldn't turn for home until he'd caught enough to make sure that his family would be fed and housed, so the Painter couldn't stop here--or anywhere else--until he'd built up a strong enough other Syor to safeguard the future wellbeing of Albion. She was aware enough to recognize that this mission of his was more important, far more important, than any affections or attachments he might develop along the way. But understanding his priorities and the necessity for them didn't make them any easier to accept. She felt as if someone were taking tongs to her insides, pulling away the softnesses of her. Her chest felt tight, like it did when she'd been running too fast for too long. Her eyes stung.
"Must. . .?" she began.
The painter turned his blindness in her direction, and she stifled the words, looking down immediately to where her hands shuffled together in her lap. She knew, too, why her mother was so upset. There'd been nothing spoken or even hinted, but all of the children had observed that Halgiad had enjoyed having a man to speak to and to share opaque, grown-up jokes with. They knew, too, that she yearned to have someone else in her life to replace their father. Never commenting on it, not even among themselves, they'd watched her affection for the Painter build itself up on this pragmatic platform. Her dream hadn't yet been fleshed out, but it had become substantial enough that it was painful for her to watch it being demolished so firmly.
"Well," Halgiad was saying, "if that's the way it is, then that's the way it is. We'll be sorry to see you go, of course, but a woman's got to earn her way in the world, and, if you can't afford to pay for your keep, you can't afford to pay for your keep. If circumstances were otherwise I'd say you could pay for your lodging a little while longer by doing some work around the house, but in your condition. . ."
She let the words hang. Her daughter marvelled for the millionth time at the way her mother could alter her whole perception of affairs so swiftly and so apparently effortlessly. A moment ago her mother had seen the Painter's departure as a disaster inflicted upon her; now it was a natural consequence of her own desire to vacate the spare room for some other traveller whose rent-money might be paid in some more easily exchangeable commodity.
"Please," the child said, not really aware that she'd decided to start speaking. "Please, Mummy, please let him stay just an extra night or two."
Halgiad grunted vexedly and started wiping a soup-stain from the table.
"And please," the girl added to the Painter, "please say that you and Piggy can be with us for a little while longer."
The Painter looked troubled, and said nothing.
"Well," muttered Halgiad grumpily, still wiping, "if he's got anything to pay for his board. . ."
"I haven't," said the Painter drily.
"Not gold," the woman snapped. "I don't need your gold."
"I've nothing else that you might want."
"Your jacket," said Halgiad, making it plain that the matter really wasn't of any interest to her.
The Painter began to laugh.
"If you really needed my jacket, poor forlorn thing that it is, to keep away the cold at night or to protect you from the wind, then you could have it, and with my good will. But you don't. And I'm not going to give it up just so that you can have a few extra dusters that you don't really want."
"I didn't mean the jacket itself," she said impatiently. "It's not even worth dusters. But there's a button on the cuff that's taken my fancy. Let me have it in exchange for a wooden one I'll give you, and we'll count that as an extra couple of nights' lodging."
The Painter looked dubious, but after a little further coaxing from Halgiad's daughter he eventually conceded, and went to fetch the garment from the boxroom where he'd been sleeping. Soon the blackened, hemispherical metal button was lying on the table, shorn threads sprouting from its rear, while Halgiad, having waved aside the Painter's offers of help, was sewing on its replacement. And, while she was about it and just because she didn't like to see a job left half-uncompleted, she was sewing a partner to it onto the other cuff.
Halgiad's daughter picked up the Painter's button and looked at it. The domed surface wasn't nearly as smooth as it looked from the distance. Instead, it was covered with raised, rope-like ridges which were wound together to form a picture. Rubbing the metal with her sleeve and turning it towards one of the sputtering candles so that she could see it better, she made out the simplified, stylized likeness of a wild wolfish dog impaled through its midriff by a sword or a spear. It was a disturbing image, and the impact of its cruelty made her mind recoil.
She put the button back down on the table-top again and looked at the Painter's gentle face, remembering what he'd said earlier about having been an Ellonian and having killed people.
Halgiad's daughter shuddered.
It was a long time before she could sleep that night. In the darkness of the top room, which she shared with her two sisters, she lay awake long after the others were snorting in their sleep, half-expecting to hear Halgiad and the Painter both go to the same room for the night. But, when they finally did go to bed, it was separately.
She was a little sad about that.
The next day, she and Piggy were the only ones to accompany the Painter to the rockface. He was tired and unhappy, as if he'd lain awake worrying all night, and so she didn't disturb him with her conversation more often than was necessary. He seemed almost bitter as he unceremoniously dumped his sack down on the trampled grass in front of the picture of the golden lady's other mother, and his voice was curt as he instructed the child to fetch him two flat stones and a handful of leaves from the trees at the forest's edge.
She scurried to obey, then watch him as he ground the leaves until they were a green smear. She knew the green would be brown by the end of the day, but she said nothing.
Then he asked her to find a dry branch and bring it to him. This took her some while, because most of the dead wood of the forest floor had rotted into moistness. When at last she returned to him she found that he had mixed up the green pigment with the crushed leaves and was already at work on the last stages of his portrait.
On the white lentils of the face's eyes he had scratched circles with the sharp edge of one of the stones, and now he was brushing on a bold block of solid colour. He wasn't taking any of the painstaking care he'd used earlier, yet his strokes were following the circles' circumferences exactly. Looking at him as he worked, Halgiad's daughter got the impression that it wasn't really him at all who was applying the paint; it was more as if somebody else were operating through the medium of his body. Could it be that the presence of the golden lady's other mother was here with them, not just watching but making her will felt? Halgiad's daughter didn't know where that notion had come from, and it filled her with unease. Quietly she put the dry branch down near the Painter's buckets and retreated to seek solace from the pig.
It wasn't long before the luridly green irises were complete, and the Painter took a couple of paces backwards and let his shoulders slump. He had seemed exhausted earlier; now it was as if all the energy had been squeezed right out of him, and then just a little bit more.
He felt around fumblingly until his fingers found the branch Halgiad's daughter had brought. Ignoring her completely, he squatted down with the bough between his knees and pulled from his trouser pocket a pair of flints. After he'd frayed the fibres at the broken end of the branch a little, he began striking the two stones together, leaning forward intently as if he were trying to see more clearly whether or not his efforts were being successful. At last a hesitant spiral of smoke rose.
Halgiad's daughter knew better than to interrupt him to ask what he was doing. If he wanted to have a torch to brighten what was already a very bright day, then it was none of her concern. She whispered as much in Piggy's ear, and as far as she could tell Piggy agreed with her that its master was being, let us say, the merest scrap irrational.
As soon as the wood was well ablaze the Painter began to beat it against the ground in order to douse the flames. This was even odder than making a torch in the first place, but still Halgiad's daughter said nothing.
When the flames were dead, although there were bright embers glowing among the blackness, the Painter got back to his feet and turned for the last time towards the picture, the branch hanging easily in his hand.
Then his grip tightened, and with a forced, pained cry he sprang forward and plunged the charred end of the wood directly at the centre of one of the green circles. The embers hissed and sang as they encountered the still-wet paint. He screwed the wood around, thrusting it against the unyielding surface with such force that Halgiad's daughter was sure the branch was going to break or that the Painter himself would collapse from his exertions.
Then, so suddenly that she jumped, he took a couple of paces to the right and attacked the other green circle in the same way as the first. His breath was coming in ragged gasps now; all at once she realized that he was sobbing, but had no eyes to shed his tears.
A few moments later he was standing half a dozen metres away from the rockface. The expression he turned towards it was of such impossibly intense hatred that Halgiad's daughter cowered away from him in terror.
He snarled a curse that meant nothing to her. Turning, he raised the wood high behind his shoulder and flung it from him as hard as he could, so that it went whooping away end-over-end above the grass until it fell to perform a few crazed dance-steps along the ground before lying still.
Halgiad's daughter looked at him silently.
For a full minute he said nothing. Then: "The painting's finished, LoChi," he mumbled, collapsing to the grass.
The black pupils at the centres of the other Syor's green eyes were like holes ripped out by a clawed instrument.
One morning, perhaps two days later, when Halgiad and her family awoke they found that the Painter was gone. There was nothing left in the house at all to show that he had ever been there. The pig's foul-smelling straw in the yard outside had been removed, and the bed in the boxroom had been stripped and its blankets neatly folded and put on top of the cupboard. Dreading the worst, LoChi ran through the village and out to the outcrop where she had spent so much of the past fortnight or so, but the picture of the golden lady's other mother was exactly as they'd left it. The face was gazing out across the fields with a placidity born of its infinite vision. As she looked at it in her relief, LoChi, who once had been merely Halgiad's daughter, felt that it was the face of someone whom she knew and loved--not someone as close to her heart as the Painter had been and as her mother and her sisters and (if she dredged her conscience) her brother still were, but nevertheless someone integral to her own existence.
She went back again about a week later, after a night when a thunderstorm had drenched the World, and in the sparklingly clean morning light she found that the rain had washed away all the pigments from the rock, but that the picture was still there.
© John Grant 1992, 2001
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