Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

A Hole to China

I: An Exceptional Child

Tristram was certain she would never have made the attempt had she not heard that it was a thing other children often did. She did so want to be like other children—lolling about like great striped cats, batting at moths with oversized paws, snapping at dust-motes with wet pink jaws. If at times they held still long enough for a mockingbird to alight on their teeth, it was only to fool the poor thing into thinking that for a moment she was tolerated, endured by that tribe of violent, bloody beauties. Her mother had been like that, when she was her age. Her father had been, too—all the pictures of them when they were young seem to have far too much sunlight. And Tristram’s mother always looked at her as a tiger might very well if she found that she had birthed an antelope instead. Certainly the antelope is big and graceful and has very fine horns, but it is not quite what was desired, not quite. In order to escape that perplexed gaze, that constant worry: Where are your stripes? Where are your claws? Why do you not invite your friends over to the house? Why do you never go to school dances? Why do you not try out for the cross-country team? Where is your tail, your paws, your sharp teeth?

Tristram did like to watch the big cats of her school, to study them, log their behaviors in the basement library of her heart so that in the evenings when they had all gone, she could take out their manners and learn to imitate them. She was not very good at it yet, but she felt sure that given time she could manage a pantomime of sorts.

If a child carries a shovel, for example, adults will laugh among themselves and say that the little one is digging a hole to China. This is what exceptional children do. Children who are imaginative, charmingly illogical, magical in their thinking if somewhat less than gifted in their understanding of geology. Children who have blonde hair and play soccer, children who eat very little and read less. But they would not think this of her, as Tristram was not a dreamy girl, and had a general idea of the anatomy of the planet she stood on—mainly drawn from textbooks, which labeled each layer with garish primary colors. Blue for the crust, yellow for the mantle, red for the core. She liked the mantle best. Yellow was a friendly color, and besides, though she was surely not one of the exceptional children, she knew another meaning for the word “mantle,” and could not help thinking of the warm earth as a thing she could slowly unwind and drape over her pale shoulders like a coat of gold.

She was doubtful, of course, that she could dig a little highway, just for herself, all the way to China. But if such a thing could be done, she was utterly certain that the vital thing was beginning in the right place. You could not just leap onto the interstate wherever you liked—you needed an on-ramp. And there are only a finite number of on-ramps. Surely someone’s garden opened up into a land of jade and low fog, of red bowls filled with rice, of handwriting like stalks of grass and silent green places. It might be her garden, it might be her neighbor’s. It was all luck, really. Adults laughed because they knew how fantastically unlikely it was that they had purchased such valuable real estate without knowing it. There were signs, always signs, leading to an on-ramp, with arrows and such, but she could not be sure that the leaves in her garden said: This is the way, or if the bluebells marked an entrance, or if the raspberry brambles which looked so like calligraphy secreted away a path to the other side of the world. If she were like other children, Tristram reasoned, she would have at least tried by now.

And so, as if taking an exam that she could not hope to pass, Tristram took her father’s rusty shovel from the garage on a long, violet summer dusk. She went out into the weedy garden, overgrown because she was a lazy girl with no work ethic, and cleared a space under the wide, flat squash leaves which were so very like jade. She worked the blade into the loamy black soil, soft and moist like crumbled chocolate, and turned over a lump of dirt, and then another.

She discovered very quickly that this was tedious work, and only the most exceptional of children would continue past the first few shovelfuls. She wondered how far she would have to go before the mantle seeped up into the soles of her feet, wrapping her up in golden shoes and stockings—surely not very far. The crust was always so thin in her textbooks, hardly strong enough to bear all those people walking on it.

The stars were out by the time Tristram was waist-deep in her hole. They were small and high, like the tips of tiny pens ready to sign their names to the earth. The garden-dirt had become very wet and clayey, but she had not yet hit rock, and she took this as a good sign. The yellow squash roots were long past her, their thready fingers relinquishing their hold as if to say: We tried to hold you here. It is not our fault.

She was sweating into the mud; her shoulders throbbed. She had discovered so far: three antediluvian soda cans, six skeletons of mice or mice-like creatures, one enormous marrow bone buried by some long-dead spaniel, and too many earthworms to count. It did not occur to her that the children she wished to imitate made their assays in daylight, with others about to take shifts on the shovel, and never in secret, never with their parents sleeping in rooms far off, dreaming of lean wolves with second mortgages rolled up in their jaws. She only dug on, and on.

***

If you or I had asked her, Tristram would not have been able to say what she expected. To dig without resistance all the way through? To hit the wooden floor of the garden and pry up the boards? To dig until it was time for school and then give up, having done her duty by her study of normal children and made an honest attempt?

Instead, she found the eye.

It opened up an hour before dawn, when a bit of pale wind had begun to pick up and blow away the dark like leaves. She almost sliced it open with her shovel, but it blinked very quickly, with great alarm, and she saw it in time, just at the bottom of her hole: a large black eye, like a crow’s, round and rheumy.

Tristram dug carefully around it, first with the now-terribly dull shovel, and then with her fingers. She found no head to match it, but a wide steel shelf with a small hole cut in it for the eye to peek through. The eye rolled several times and strained to its left, and Tristram felt very badly for it: An exceptional child would certainly understand immediately what it meant. She scrabbled in the left-hand dirt, whispering apologies. The eye softened a bit, but kept straining, as if trying to see what she as up to.

Gently, Tristram cleared the soil, trying not to spray it into the unprotected eye. Finally, she found what it must have meant for her to find, and her throat went thick, her breath moth-quick. It could not be real, could not possibly be. To find a thing like this, a girl must have great faith already. Faith is rewarded. She could not even think of what the opposite of faith might be, but that was the thing she had, and that was not rewarded with such prizes as this.

It was a handle, ornate and iron, like a great spoon bent by grim hands. It was carved like a stalk of bamboo with silver peonies blossoming at its tip and its base. She closed both small hands around it and wrenched it open: a little door, not much more than a hatch, just the size, really, of a hole a girl of twelve might manage to dig. There was a staircase with a long banister, and a dark corridor, leading down and down and down. She took a deep breath and looked around her, sure the house was dark and innocent of what she had done to the garden.

Tristram stepped onto the staircase, and closed the door behind her.

***

The squash roots, being kind and considerate folk, gathered up the displaced soil and spread it beneath them, hiding the hatch once more and smoothing the garden like a bedsheet until no one might tell that it had ever been disturbed. The fat yellow squash themselves lurched onto the place where Tristram had gone, and fell asleep under the morning wind.

***

“Destination?”

Tristram blinked. The creature blinked back. The light beneath the steel door was fitful and golden, a few torches blazed lazily.

It sat on a high steel chair, not a throne, but a Chair, with long arms and a smooth back, framing the head of the seated soul. In this case, a woman in a white hood, remarkably white, with the head of an enormous crow. She rubbed at one of her eyes with a gargantuan hand, as big as the rest of her body, ponderous fingers as long as Tristram’s legs. She stretched her feathery eyelid up and down and worried her black beak against her shoulder.

“Destination?”

“Um . . . I think . . . China, I think.”

“It’s a bit of a traditional choice, don’t you think?”

“It’s just a figure of speech, you know . . .” Tristram shrugged lamely.

“And where did you think those came from? It’s very hard to push a figure of speech into the world, as hard as a child.”

Tristram tried to peer through the flickering shadows. “Are there very many children here?” If there were, she could not compete, she knew, and ought to go home, give them the chance to get where they were going.

The crow-woman cocked her head and leaned forward in her chair. “We have a quota. Five in a century. Any more and one begins to invite archaeologists. They’re like ants—once you’ve got one, you’ve got a colony. You will make two for this phase.”

Tristram looked down into the dark. It was hot down there; the breezes were warm and scented, like burning stone and honeysuckle. She heard voices and rushes of air, like listening to a subway station through a grating. The crow extended one of her mammoth hands and wrapped Tristram up in her fingers, gently, with great care.

“Don’t be afraid, little one,” she said, bringing her eye very close. “I am here to Watch the door—there are only a few doors, and it is very dangerous to have one so close to a garden, but what can one do? We did not predict the New World and all its squash, all its houses and children and buses and rosebushes. I am very good at Watching, and from my hole in the ceiling of the world I can see as much as any runner in the red streets of Ignis. If you pay the toll, you will be safe, and the Thoroughfare will keep you and bear wherever you wish, through plains of fur and high silver tundra. A road often-traveled is well-trained and dear, a sweet hound at your feet.”

Tristram shut her eyes. Her blood beat at her skin. An exceptional child would go—she would never hesitate. She would be brave, she would be resourceful. She would have read very many books to prepare her for this sort of thing. China, all the way to China, where everything would be made of jade, just everything, and there would be no terrible cats at all to smile and smile while they scraped her to the bone.

“What can I give you?” she whispered, her eyes still shut, dark hair plastered to her forehead. “I have nothing to pay your toll.”

The crow frowned. Tristram could feel the frown land on her face, the disapproval, the inevitable disappointment. It was not heavy, but it clung, like a shroud.

“I do not understand what children think these days. They expect everything for nothing. The business of psychopomps is exchange. Just because you are cherubic and wee does not mean you are exempt from economy. Not even an earring? Not even a purely symbolic penny?”

Tristram shook her head, her eyes full of tears. No work ethic at all, her father said. Why had she not brought her allowance? Crows like silver, she seemed to recall.

“If you have nothing, you must barter.” She set Tristram down on the smooth stair and reached into her robes with her dexterous beak—much more clever and quick than her hands. “Take this to my sister in Ignis and I shall call us fair.”

Into Tristram’s shovel-bloodied hands the crow placed a pair of huge emerald scissors. The blades were ornate and engraved with all the things a bird cares for: beetles and high trees, clouds and seeds, fallen fruit and eggs. The scant torchlight of the landing glittered on the handles. They were warm from the crow’s body.

“How do I get to Ignis?” Tristram marveled.

“All our roads lead there, sooner or later. Gravity, you know. You can no more miss it than fall out a window and fail to hit the ground.”

Tristram put the scissors through her belt and hefted her rusted shovel onto her shoulder. When I am through, she thought, I will have passed through so much fire, I will burn so brightly no tiger will be able to look at me without being blinded.

She turned and walked down the first stairs, winding around and around. The crow cawed softly behind her. Tristram counted thirty-six steps before the Thoroughfare opened beneath her—an endless crystalline road flowing on beneath a black sky which was the stony earth above, lit not by torches but by winding glass flowers that grew down from the lowest of all soils, straining like trumpets toward the road, glowing golden as if still molten and searing. They smelled sweet, like honeysuckle and green woodsmoke. Stumpish, deformed glass trees sprouted blue and black beyond the pearl guardrails.

And all along the Thoroughfare folk walked, pilgrims, brass lanterns raised against the dark, their faces turned towards the heart of the world, and on each of their shoulders was a mantle of gold.

***

II: The Ox of Sorrows

Before and behind, the line of brass lanterns extended. Tristram was caught up in the traffic, her feet hardly touching the glowering red road, swept along by a tide of bodies. She snatched breaths whenever the teeming folk swelled and her head crested theirs, only to be driven down again, surrounded by swinging arms and strange scents—women who smelled of nutmeg and cardamom, men who smelled of smoldering newspapers, glossy-coated dogs on their hind legs and horses in prim green vests and Windsor ties, smelling of expensive rose-leaf perfumes. She could hardly breathe for the press of them.

Tristram walked—everyone walked. Around her rose the rumble of a thousand languages at once. The curling glass flowers played a slow, quiet music, something like a department store radio, and something like a sitar of cedar, stuck in a minor key. She strained to hear it, and in her straining nearly collided with the creature before she saw it.

Standing far taller than it ought to have and refusing to move, so that the throng was forced to part around it, was a black peacock, its eyes red and hard, its tail aflame, dancing, scarlet and white.

“You are traveling far under the speed limit,” it chirruped airily, its tail flicking sparks at a passing monkey, whose shoes were rose-colored silk. The peacock was taller than Tristram, and its plumage seemed stony, sharp-edged, as though it was a statue of a bird.

“I’m going as fast as I can,” said Tristram demurely.

“That really isn’t much of an excuse. There are rules here. Good ones, that took a very long time to think up.”

By now, businessmen in sulfurous yellow suits were shoving angrily by the pair of them, banging Tristram unceremoniously with their suitcases and cursing in trilling tongues.

“Rule Number the FIRST,” announced the peacock, “Any journey on the Thoroughfare from origin point to destination may not last longer than three days without expressed written permission from the Transit Authority (who is a most disagreeable and sour-faced Boar). If you are found in the wild, four days out from anywhere, you will be furnished with rather rough transport to the Bath-House, where you will be fined and questioned most keenly by the Tusks of Transit.”

“Three days? But that will never be long enough!”

“I am still speaking. It is a very important rule, designed to reduce traffic. As you can see, it is highly effective.”

Tristram stared at the crush of creatures, a multitude of determined, rushing faces beyond her ability to count.

“Rule Number the SECOND. No weapons of any kind are allowable on the Thoroughfare, as this is a sacred road, a pilgrim’s road, and pilgrims really ought to be spiritually elevated beyond the need for stabbing, shooting, or lighting anyone on fire.” The peacock glanced meaningfully at the emerald scissors.

“Oh, no, they’re . . . they’re a gift.”

“Rule Number the THIRD. When greeting another pilgrim on the road, one must furnish—immediately if not sooner—a calling card, and a curtsey, if anatomy allows.”

The peacock extended its claw and placed a golden card into Tristram’s wondering hand. It read:

CHIAROSCURO
An Historienne
3 Rue Brûlé
Ignis

 “Historienne? But I thought only boy-peacocks had tails.”

Chiaroscuro glared haughtily and drew herself up. “And I thought human girls wore dresses. Do you never prefer to wear men’s clothes, when they are prettier, and more suited, and more sensible?”

“I rarely wear them if they are on fire,” Tristram said, chagrined.

“Well, as to that, most things are on fire in Ignis. More or less on fire, I daresay. It is so very deep, there is little one can do to avoid combustion. It’s better to embrace it than constantly pour ice over one’s head in a futile effort to stay cool.”

“About . . . about the three days. I am bound for Ignis, but I fear that three days is not nearly enough time.”

“I should say not.”

“Is there another way? A train, or . . . or a cab?”

“A cab? To the center of the earth?”

Tristram blushed furiously. Chiaroscuro tossed her tail-feathers, sending a golden spray of sparks upward towards the earthen ceiling of the world. “It’s only that I have to take these scissors to the Watcher’s sister. I promised I would. It’s my toll, since I hadn’t any money.”

The black peacock’s avian face softened. “Oh, I’m sorry, child. What a very wicked bird she is. Unpleasant, if you ask me, and such a liar! The Watcher—if that’s what you like to call her—she knows her sister, who I suppose you could call the Watched, isn’t what you would call available.”

“Where do you mean? Where is she?”

“The Ox of Sorrows has her, and has for a century. He keeps her in his Manor, and croons to her five times a day, like prayer. He insists they are having tea, and are quite friendly, and the lady has so many fascinating things to say . . . but we all know that isn’t it. You don’t carry off a girl on your back to have tea. You don’t chain her to her chair if you mean to ask her if she prefers cream or lemon.

“Why does he keep her, then?”

“Well! To understand that I think you would need to know a great deal more about the history of Ignis than you do! But simply: He thinks she can tell him why he weeps, and stop up his tears. Of course she can’t, poor thing.”

“Why not?”

Chiaroscuro cocked her head to the side. “Do you know how the city of Ignis was founded? My monograph on the subject was very popular.” She did not wait politely for Tristram to take interest, but hurried on. Tristram felt very much as though she were in class, and resisted the urge to take notes. The peach-vendor smiled behind his hand. “There is a snake at the center of the earth. He is called the Contemplating Serpent. It is wound around the core, so tightly that no one may see what stuff the core might be made of. They keep each other warm, the snake and the core. But after a long while, the snake became hungry, and reached up to eat earth and drink magma, as snakes are inclined to do. The Contemplating Serpent took great bites out of the earth, which then had no lovely flowers hanging from it, and with each bite took whole towns full of folk and animals and haberdasheries and synagogues, and all of these went into the snake’s belly, what do you think of that?”

“It must have been a surprise for the haberdashers.”

“I should think so! Now, then, when a snake eats a large meal, it goes promptly to sleep—and this is a very great snake, who had a very great meal, and thus, went to sleep for a hundred-thousand years. And in his belly, the folk and animals and haberdasheries and synagogues grew extremely cross, and used hatmaking scissors and Torah-scrolls and pickaxes and kitchen spoons to break holes in the skin of the Contemplating Serpent, and climbed out onto his scales.” The peacock slurped the last of her peach-wine with noisy relish. “It seemed the natural thing to do to build a city there, the snake being so very large that there was plenty of room to walk about and buy hats and such. And that is why there is an Ignis, and Ignis is why there is a road, and the road is why you are here, and it all generally works together to create a very nice tableau.”

“But the Ox? And the Watcher’s sister?”

“Oh! Digression is the professorial disease! The Ox used his horns to scramble out of the snake’s belly—he was one of the first. And the Watched is, sadly, neither very old at all nor a historian, so she cannot help him, and so he will keep her on her red chair until the snake wakes up, because he is stubborn, and she is beautiful. Why do no villainous wretches kidnap professors of history when they are in need of arcane knowledge?”

“Then you know why he weeps?”

“No, but I know that he will never stop until he remembers where he came from, and he will never remember, for he is an Ox, and Oxen have their memories removed along with . . . the rest of them. It is a terrible procedure involving scimitars, I’m told.”

“I suppose it doesn’t matter. I swore I would, so even if she is in the care of a malicious ox, I must still give her the green shears. Perhaps you can give me his address?”

“It is much longer than three days. He does not live in the fashionable quarter.”

Tristram straightened her back beneath her battered shovel. She shrugged, in what she hoped was a nonchalant gesture.

“Oh, for pity’s sake, girl! I’ve been waiting for you to ask! How long will you make me wait? I can take you in two days, as the peacock, well, walks.”

“You mean . . . like, a cab? To the center of the earth?”

“Hush it.” She pushed the peach back towards the vintner with her sooty head and shook herself; a single golden, fiery feather drifted down, and the boy caught it with a deft—and heavily gloved—hand. Chiaroscuro aimed herself at the slowly descending road and clucked with impatience.

Tristram climbed onto the back of the peacock with some difficulty, peacocks not being traditional beasts of transit, and the fiery tail being unruly and liable to snap at her shoulders, as if tasting her. She clung to the beast, who strode like an ostrich. The underbelly of the earth was dark and hot and close, but in the dark and the close she smiled, and her smile was bright as a squash-blossom.

“Oh!” Tristram cried suddenly. “But I have already broken the third rule! I haven’t a calling card!”

“I rather think you have,” said the peacock, tossing her plumed head as she barreled through the crowd, tossing traveling salesmen over her muscled shoulders and snapping at the occasional onyx-wheeled rickshaw. “Check your pockets. You’ll find all sorts of things end up in your pockets when you’re hip-deep in a planet.”

Tristram held on with one hand, and with the other scraped in her pocket—and withdrew a small card, red, with black writing on it.

TRISTRAM
An Exceptional Child

***

III: Ignis

3 RUE BRÛLÉ
Un Salon de l’Histoire

 Ignis was on fire.

Chiaroscuro skidded to a stop at a fetching garden apartment, its tall copper door prettily inscribed with a fanned peacock tail featuring eyes at the tip of every quill. Tristram could hardly see for the heat and the light. She clung to the bird’s neck, the emerald scissors blazingly hot against her back, her eyes squeezed shut. Bit by bit, she willed them to open.

It was a city of towers—cupolas, minarets, spires. Every building ended in fantastic whorls of architecture that reached like stalagmites, up and up—and disappeared into the stony earth that formed the ceiling of the world. And every brick glowed ruddy and gold, a banked blaze in the very stones that released itself across the ceiling in a blanket of fire that lit every alley. Firelight flickered over cobblestones, storefronts, door-plates. Everything was scarlet and orange and incredibly hot—sweat tricked down Tristram’s back. Her shoes were turning liquid on the glowing embers of the street—yet passersby ran and danced and walked wolfhounds naked, their bodies as red and gold as the city, barefoot and bare-breasted in the fiery avenues.

“How can they . . . ?”

“Best get inside before you burn, girl!” squawked the black peacock. “They were born here—their skin is like an iron snake’s. They feel nothing. You’ll soon feel like roasted chicken. Come in!”

Tristram slipped gratefully through the door and into blessed darkness and cool air. The Salon had dizzying ceilings, narrowing as they rose and the apartment became a tower. Chiaroscuro’s tail lit a small study, just exactly what you would expect a history professor’s study to look like: emerald green walls washed black by tail-light, overstuffed brown leather chairs, framed diplomas, a desk piled with papers. But the standing globe in the corner was turned inside out—the Thoroughfare gleamed golden across its surface, with a ruby Ignis sticking awkwardly out. On the inside of her globe, Tristram thought, must be the real world. Hoquiam. My mother.

The black peacock deftly flipped open a steamer trunk with her beak and drew out a pair of black opera gloves, shining black boots, a black head-scarf, and a filmy sort of black jumpsuit.

“Outsider gear.” she sniffed. “Soot-skin. Soot is a great fat salamander, just about the size of an elephant, who lives outside of town. He runs the junkyard—chews engines and spits out limousines, the old fool. He shuffles off his skin a few times a year for the sake of visitors.”

Tristram blushed. “I’ll look like a ninja . . . a sort of hooker-y ninja.”

“It breathes. Any more clothes and you’ll just sweat until you melt away. You can touch the fire with the gloves, and walk on the burning street with the boots. Say thank you, and quit griping.”

“Thank you.”

“Now,” clucked Chiaroscuro, “the next thing you’ll need is a Letter of Introduction. No one gets into the Ox’s estate without one.”

Tristram ran her hand along a yellow fern sprouting happily from a brass pot. The red light through the windows made everything eerie, shadowed. “Why are you helping me?” she said shyly.

The peacock cocked her head. “Because you were lost.” She went back to her linen paper, seizing a pen that dripped with red ink in her beak.

Tristram blinked in confusion. Chiaroscuro put her pen down.

“Historians,” she said airily, “are in the business of finding lost things, dusting them off, and bringing them to light. Battles, artistic movements, girls, it hardly matters. You are my business.”

The room was filled with the scratching of nib against paper, and Tristram sank into one of the big, shiny chairs. She began pulling on her new clothes. In her smallest of hearts, she imagined the cool mist on a Chinese river, the smell of bamboo, what the sky might look like, if there still was a sky.

“There!” crowed Chiaroscuro. She flourished the letter in her beak to dry it, and presented it proudly to Tristram.

 

To: My Winsome Friend, O.o.S.

From: Dr. Chiaroscuro Schist, Ph.D, J.D. and Winner of the Carbon Medal in Competitive Historical Arts.

Please find attached to this letter one (1) human female, approximately 13 years of age, mint condition.

In all her years, my dear Sir, she has never cried.

Yrs, etc.

 

“But that’s not true at all,” protested Tristram.

“Of course not. But it will fascinate him. To know a thing’s obsessions, be it man, nation, company or ox, is to own him utterly—that is the secret of the historian’s guild, and I give it to you—but if you babble, we shall punish you soundly.”

Chiaroscuro pecked her cheek—a quick, shy kiss.

A spot of blood welled up, and would not be wiped away.

***

Tristram walked down. It was the main direction in Ignis, as though all the land swirled around a great drain. Most of the folk were naked—naked men playing chess with fiery boards, naked grandmothers toting home their smoldering groceries, naked children hoisting blazing balloons into the dark air. One or two black-clad outsiders strolled along the streets, staring up in wonder. Tristram tried to look sophisticated, as though she didn’t care. But the spires shot golden sparks into the wind, and the cupolas were so red, so very red.

The Ox of Sorrows lived in a church, Chiaroscuro had said. The only dark cupolas in the city, since the beast has wept all over them and put them out.

She could see the space in the city that did not burn—it was enormous, a vast collection of needly towers and thick pillars. It seemed to swallow light. Tristram wound towards it, past flamewatch sellers swinging molten embers on long brass chains, bakeries offering charcoal loaves and cafés serving magma tea, hawkers of newspapers printed on ash-paper, and even a candymaker who extended one glowing ochre toffee to her—she could not help but take it. For later, she thought, and slid it into the lip of her boot. She would have to have something, something to say she was here, something she might say was hers of this place.

The boots held well, and Tristram felt neither the heat nor the shame of her strange costume. The emerald scissors hung lightly on a long black belt, slung over her shoulders like a huge knight’s sword. It was thus she appeared at the great black door of the Ox’s estate.

The bored-looking butler, a bear with fiery fur, glanced at her.

“He is not seeing visitors today,” he gruffed.

“I’m here to see her. The Watched.”

“She is not seeing visitors, either.”

Tristram produced her Letter of Introduction from beneath her scarf. The bear-butler glanced at it, holding it with two claws so as not to set it ablaze.

“Never? Not once? Your mother never scolded you or sent you to bed without dinner; you never stubbed your toe on a stair?”

Tristram took a deep breath. Lies require a lot of breath to propel them; the truth is light.

“I did those things, sir Bear, and so did my mother, but I never shed a tear.”

The bear moved aside, sweeping his arm grandly around her, his red, sparking pelt bristling through her black salamander skin. But once they were inside, the bear demurred and would not show her the way.

“If you are such a stranger to sorrow, you should be able to sniff him out. If you are not a little liar and a cheat. Follow the smell of alien things, and you’ll find him.”

The bear saluted her and fell onto all fours, trotting slowly from the great black hall. There was a long staircase and arching hallways—all the color of a mansion that burned long ago. The great ceiling was charcoal, the polished floor dark glass. The steps were cracked scorched wood. Tristram stood, invisible among the blackness, her scarf covering even her hair. Of course she was a liar, and could never find the Ox this way. But she sniffed all the same: a long, deep breath that pulled in the house, the scarlet street outside, even herself.

She could smell nothing—only burnt wood and sweat and a lingering trace of Bear.

Where, she thought, would I live if I were a great big cow who hated everything?

Her mind supplied the answer before she had finished the thought, leaping over itself to the conclusion.

The stable. I would live in the stable, for I would be sure I was nothing but a stupid beast who deserved to live in the straw.

And so she went, out the front door again and around the cathedral, following a rickety black palisade, until a gargantuan barn reared up before her, with wooden Xs on the doors and a strong, hayey scent flowing from its doors, terribly green among all the red fire and cinders.

***

“Ohhhh,” lowed the voice, deep and brown and earthy. “Ohhhh!”

Tristram peeked into the dark door. A mammoth ox lay on the fresh straw, his hooves spanning the floor, with scraggly hair that hung in his face and a great wet nose. His skin was dark and his flanks were muscled; his horns reached from one side of the barn to the other. He wept grand splashing tears onto the straw.

Beside him sat a woman in a long red cloak, with long pale hands and the head of a snowy owl. She stared at her hands; she made no sound. All around her were piled pamphlets and broadsheets, papers whirling around her in an angry wind. Within it, the owl-woman neither wept nor sighed.

“I have such a Woe,” the Ox wailed. “A Woe in my hoof! In my flank! In my rump! In my horns, oh, the Woe in my horns in keen!”

“Tell me, sir Ox,” Tristram tried to smile. “Tell me the Woe in your hoof.”

The Ox stirred, shook his ponderous head. “I don’t remember!” he bellowed. “But it pains me so!”

“Why have you got that woman all wrapped up in paper?”

“Because! Those are my Sorrows! I wrote them all down, oh, a million years ago. Or last week. So that I could forget them. But it was a very long and delicate process, and if you were to read them, you would never cease crying, even a stoneheart such as you! The recalcitrant slattern won’t read them, though. So I have punished her.”

Tristram frowned. “Her sister sent me here.”

“Her sister is a scavenger and a day laborer,” sniffed the Ox.

“Let her go,” Tristram’s voice was suddenly very small, and soft, heavy with pity.

“Not until she tells me my First Sorrow! She knows I know her mind. She has hidden it from me!”

“How can anyone know it but you, sir Ox?”

The Ox of Sorrows looked sideways at her. “Is it true you have never cried?”

Tristram chewed her lip. It was hot in the barn, and her hands itched in the long gloves. She could lie, she could keep lying, but very soon she felt the Ox would frighten her so much she might cry right there, and so it seemed little use.

“No, it’s not true. I cry all the time.”

The Ox snapped his head around and gnashed his teeth together; he came away with Tristram’s scarf in his jaws.

“What an awful child you are, and how wretched of Dr. Schist to believe in you.”

“I’m sorry. I had to see her.”

“Well, now you’ve seen her. And you must pay your admission price. Tell me your Sorrow. I will eat it up!”

Tristram didn’t have to think, not much. She tried to slow her heart and stepped forward, kneeling between the Ox’s front hooves.

“I had a party once, a birthday. And there were balloons and cake and streamers and music. My mother spent all day icing the cake. It was blue and white, with purple roses. And no one came. Not my uncles, not my grandparents. I hadn’t any friends from school, so it’s not really surprising that they didn’t come. Even my father forgot, and went into the office that day like it was any other day. My mother and I sat at the table, eating the cake, and she didn’t say anything at all, but when she looked at me it was like I wasn’t myself, just a big ugly ball of disappointment. We threw away half the cake and never talked about it. When my father came home, we pretended nothing had happened. It was just a day like any other day.”

“What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you have any friends?”

Tristram shrugged. “I’m small. I’m quiet. It’s easier for everyone to look through me, like a window.”

“No one can look through me,” snorted the Ox. “It’s better to be big.”

“Maybe.”

“I will save your Sorrow and eat it when I am alone. If you like, you can talk to her.”

Tristram crossed to the owl-woman and tried to put her hand through the papers; they slashed at her, slicing her glove to ribbons. The Watched shook her head sadly.

“Why does he think you know his Woe?” Tristram asked, holding her bleeding hand to her chest.

“Because I sit at the other end of the Thoroughfare, and between my sister and I, we see everything that passes, everything that was, everything to come. We came out of the Snake before him, you see. We are the beginning and the end of the earth. She sees what will be needed; I remember what was desired. Between the weight of us, we turn the world. Now that I am out of place, it turns more slowly, and there are strange stars, and grief, and an old age of the world tottering in senility.”

“Then tell him, and you can go!”

“Oh, child, I can never go. He keeps me because he loves me, and though that was not his First Sorrow, it is his longest.”

Tristram stared into the whirling sheets. She felt suddenly very clear and bright, as though she were made of glass, or of fire. She drew the emerald scissors from her back and slid them open. The Ox saw; he screamed, his flat teeth showing. Tristram cut—the scissors sliced through the papers, and they fell to the ground suddenly, a great heap of scribbled refuse. She extended her hand to the lady, who stepped gingerly out of her prison and pulled up her red cloak over her feathers.

“Thank you,” she breathed, tears welling in her avian eyes.

“This was my toll, on the Thoroughfare. Your sister made me bring these to you.”

“She knows what will be needed,” answered the Watched smoothly.

The owl-woman moved to leave. The Ox scrambled to go after her, but his horns stuck in the barn walls. He lowed pitifully.

“I love you,” he whispered. “Don’t leave me.”

“Tell him,” said Tristram. “Tell him why he started crying. Please.” She didn’t know why she cared, only that she did not want him to be alone, without even sadness to keep him company.

The owl-woman knelt as Tristram had done, before the Ox. She took his enormous face in her hands.

“When you were small, and walked and chewed upon the earth, you loved a fisherman’s daughter. You watched her every day, picking flowers, gutting salmon, milking. You laid your head on her lap. But her lands were razed and burned by soldiers, and in the fire her horse was shot. You came to her,” the owl-woman paused, her voice thick, “you came to her out of the flames, and you knelt beside her, until she understood that she was to climb upon your back, and you bore her into the battle, where she swung her father’s sword so many times her shoulders came loose and all the hair of her head burned up. She saw her father and her brothers and her mother dead; only her sister ran alongside, and pulled herself up onto your broad back. All seemed safe—you were fast, so fast, a good steed, and the three of you were coming to the end of their lands, where the fires were cold already. All of you took deep breaths; and in those breaths were swallowed by a great Snake’s mouth, and you plunged into darkness, all of you together.” Tears flowed down her face. “In the belly of the Snake all things mingled, and the sisters became owls and ravens, and you grew by eating the creatures of the belly, until you could chew your way out. But with her face so changed, you did not know the fisherman’s daughter, though she sat in your barn every day for a century. That is why you weep; it is an old hurt, and I bear it too.”

The Ox screamed again, and the owl-woman kissed his wet nose. She rose, took Tristram’s hand, and walked from him, never looking back, though he shrieked at her as though dying.

***

“Do you want to go home?” The Watched said as the pair walked along the Thoroughfare. It was quiet on this end, and though they had no peacock, they seemed to move quickly.

“I . . . I don’t think so. I dug this hole. I want to see where it comes out.”

The Watched climbed up a small rill, where sat a tall stone chair with depressions made for her small hands. She gestured up; there was a handle in the roof of the world.

“The Ox will come and take me again,” she sighed.

“I can stay,” said Tristram brightly. “I can protect you. I have the scissors.”

“No. He will forget again, and I will be cruel again, and refuse to tell him. That is the way of courtship.” She smiled slyly. “But it is good to be free, if only for a little while. To walk on the body of my old friend the Snake again, and touch his scales. The world will turn quickly again, and the sun will come out. He will come back, but it will be a long time, and I will wait once more until someone cuts me loose. It is the way of things.”

“How often does this happen?”

“About every twenty-six thousand years. I think you call it the procession of the equinoxes. We do process. Now there will be new stars, new light, and fast winds. For awhile.” The Watched gripped Tristram’s face tightly, and her voice was like a struck bell: “I see you, Tristram of Hoquiam. You are not a window. You are an axle, and you have moved the world. You are an exceptional child.”

Tristram brushed away tears. She reached up and pulled the handle; the stone fell away. Dirt slid into her face, and roots, and mushrooms, and grasses. She gripped the lip of the hole and pulled herself up into green air, and mist, and the scent of bamboo. Below her, the earth closed itself up, a seamless expanse of reeds. Tristram looked into thick jungled mountains and a slow sliver of rising moon. A farmer looked up from his field and cried: Ni hao!

She pulled the toffee from her boot and placed it on her tongue. It tasted like blue icing and purple roses.

Tristram adjusted the scissors on her back and started walking. Her smile glowed in the moonlight.

© 2010 Catherynne M. Valente.
Originally published as part of the Omikuji Project,
and later published in book form in This is My Letter to the World.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Catherynne M. Valente

Catherynne M. Valente by Ellen Datlow

Catherynne M. Valente is the New York Times bestselling author of over two dozen works of fiction and poetry, including Palimpsest, the Orphan’s Tales series, Deathless, Radiance, and the crowdfunded phenomenon The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. She is the winner of the Andre Norton, Tiptree, Mythopoeic, Rhysling, Lambda, Locus, and Hugo awards. She has been a finalist for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards. She lives on an island off the coast of Maine with a small but growing menagerie of beasts, some of which are human.