Celia Townsend’s mother brought up the subject of debutante balls for the first time in June. It was the day after graduation, and they were discussing when Celia would have to be home from Maine at the end of the summer to get ready for her freshman year at Vassar.
“There’s more to do than you think,” Mrs. Townsend warned her. “For one thing, there’s your dress. We’ll have to order it and find shoes before you go. It doesn’t do to leave everything to the last minute.”
Celia looked blank. “What dress?”
“Your coming-out dress, dear. For the Snow Ball. We need to talk about an escort, too, but that can wait until you’ve been at college a while. It’s a pity you don’t know any boys.”
Celia didn’t point out that this wasn’t her fault, since her parents had sent her to an all-girls school so she wouldn’t have any distractions from her schoolwork. But she did roll her eyes.
“You’re not going to be difficult about this, are you, CeCee?” her mother said anxiously. “I know some of your friends find coming out horribly old-fashioned and irrelevant, but I honestly fail to see what difference it’s going to make in Vietnam whether you go to the Snow Ball or not.”
Celia shrugged. “I said I’d do it, didn’t I?”
It would have been very uncool to admit it, but secretly Celia was looking forward to the Snow Ball Debutante Cotillion. Sure, coming out was old-fashioned. That was the attraction. Celia liked the past—or at least selected bits of it, like long dresses, long hair, castles, anything with lutes or implying lutes. She loved Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet and Tom Jones and old stories and folk music, the traditional kind: ballads with magic in them and star-crossed lovers. The past was romantic. You could have adventures in it, the clothes were cool, and exciting things happened, like abductions and falling in love. Celia, who had never had an adventure or been in love, had high hopes for the Snow Ball.
The reality, however, turned out to be about as romantic as a school assembly. She liked her dress, which had organza petals at the hem that rippled when she moved. But her mother wouldn’t let her bind up her honey-colored hair with ropes of pearls as she’d wanted to. And there’d been a lot of boring standing around in a drafty hall with thirty other girls and their parents while her mother poked at her hair and told her to stand up straight before her name had been called, and she’d swept into the ballroom on her father’s arm for her Big Moment.
Some Big Moment. The lights had made her squint and she’d wobbled coming up out of her curtsy and her father had stepped on one of the organza petals and ripped it off. Afterwards, she was officially Out. Big deal. Except for the fact that her mother was happy with her for once, she would have preferred to stay In.
Celia extracted a cigarette from her white beaded bag, lit it, and leaned her elbows on the pink tablecloth. Smoking was one of the evil habits she’d taken up in the heady freedom of living away from her mother for the first time in her life. Another was her date, who she’d met at a Yale mixer in the fall. His name was Guy Duvivier, and he was lounging on a gilt bamboo chair with his feet up on the rail of one of the private boxes ringing the ballroom. He had a long, bony face, heavy-lidded tiger’s eyes, and long sandy hair pulled back with a rubber band. There was ash on his silk lapel and a slightly foolish expression on his face, both courtesy of the joint he was palming under the table.
Celia exhaled a disgusted stream of smoke and turned her eyes to the dance floor. Lester Brown and his Band of Renown were playing a foxtrot. The floor was a chiaroscuro swirl of white dresses and black tail-coats, punctuated by the golds and scarlets and royal blues of the mothers’ gowns. Celia caught sight of her best friend Helen and her date swaying at the edge of the mass, gazing into each others’ eyes and obviously having a wonderful time.
Celia shifted restlessly on the hard, narrow chair. “Let’s dance,” she said.
“Why?” Guy released a thin haze of sharp-sweet smoke, raised his hand for another toke.
“It’s a ball, Guy. You’re supposed to dance at a ball.”
“It’s a mating ritual left over from before the Flood.” He leered at her. “We don’t need no stinking ritual to mate, eh, C?”
Celia had no intention of mating with Guy at all. When she’d first started to go out with him, she’d thought he was a romantic, but it hadn’t taken her long to find out that he just dressed like one. Unfortunately, she’d already asked him to this stupid ball, and he’d accepted. One more crack like that, and she’d break up with him tonight, even if it left her dateless for the rest of the season. There was only so much she was willing to do to make her mother happy.
The number ended to a patter of well-bred applause. Couples milled about the floor, greeting friends, changing partners. The band left time for everyone to settle into the new configurations, then struck up again: a raucous cha-cha-cha. The curtains to the box stirred and someone said, “Carmen Miranda in white gloves. The mind boggles.”
Celia didn’t recognize the voice. It was vaguely English, a resonant tenor like a clarinet, full of overtones and harmonies. Looking around, she saw a tall figure in a tail coat holding aside the box’s curtain with one hand.
“I thought I was alone,” the figure said. “My apologies.”
“No, no, come in,” said Celia.
“Yeah,” said Guy. “Come in. Bring your friends. We can have a party.”
The stranger released the curtain and moved forward into the light. Celia’s first thought was that he looked as cool and dangerous as Guy would have liked to look. He had long, flat cheeks and a faintly Roman nose, thin lips and a pointed chin. His skin was very pale and his black hair was pulled back with a black ribbon. There was a pearl dangling from his left ear.
“Guy Duvivier,” said Guy, without getting up.
“Enchanted,” said the stranger, and bowed. “Valentine Carter.” He turned to Celia. “And you are Celia Townsend.”
Celia felt herself blushing. “How did you know that?”
“You were formally presented to the whole room not an hour ago.” He smiled at her. “I liked your curtsey. It had character.”
There was an awkward pause while Celia tried to decide whether he was laughing at her. She didn’t think so. His eyes were dark, deeply set, intense as a searchlight, and fixed unwaveringly on hers. It made her feel uncharacteristically shy.
The band slid from the cha-cha into a waltz. Still holding her gaze, Valentine said, “Miss Townsend, may I have the honor?”
“Nice earring,” sneered Guy. “Your boyfriend give it to you?”
“You’re stoned,” said Celia coldly.
“Out of my gourd,” Guy agreed. “Only way to fly.” He held out a sweaty hand. “Let’s make out.”
Mortified, Celia glanced at Valentine, who was politely watching the dancers. “I apologize for Guy,” she said. “He’s not a total jerk unless he’s stoned. I’d love to dance.”
Valentine bowed—she’d never before seen a man bow without looking like a dork—and offered her his arm. She laid her fingers on it and swept out of the box, followed by Guy’s plaintive, “Oh, man! Celia? Shit!”
The waltz as performed by Valentine Carter was nothing like the waltz Celia had learned at Miss Corcoran’s Dancing School. He skimmed her around the floor like a top, his hand on her spine forcing her to turn and turn, swooping like a swallow to the syrupy strains of Strauss.
Valentine squeezed her hand. “You are a delicious dancer, Celia Townsend.”
Celia looked up warily. His deep eyes caught hers, held them in a long, teasing look. “If I were to kiss you,” he said. “Would your boyfriend call me out?” His hand moved on her back, drawing her nearer.
Celia was fascinated—and suspicious. Valentine was so much like someone she’d make up, it was hard to believe he was actually for real. Rather breathlessly, she said, “Pistols at dawn? Guy? Not likely. I’d stay out of dark alleys, though.”
“Forewarned is forearmed.” He swept her into a twirl that made the organza petals on her gown flutter and flare. Laughing, Celia followed his lead. Who cared if he was for real or not? He had brought enchantment to the Snow Ball. And for the moment, at least, he was hers.
Celia stepped out of the bright lobby into the cold night air. Her breath ghosted back to her as she cuddled her coat up to her chin.
Valentine folded her hand in his and drew her down the steps of the Plaza Hotel towards the fountain, heading across town.
“Let’s walk,” he said. “The fresh air will revive you.”
“There is no fresh air in New York,” Celia complained, but it was only reflex. She was feeling indecently cheerful, considering that she’d just broken up with Guy—if you could even break up with someone who was nearly too stoned to speak. When Valentine brought her back to the box after the waltz, Guy had let her know that he didn’t like her dancing with foreign fags, and she had let him know that she never wanted to see him again. He’d tried to kiss her. Stoned as he was, it was easy to push him away. Valentine had caught him, and a moment later, Guy was in a chair in the corner of the box with his head on the pink linen tablecloth, snoring peacefully.
“Damn,” Celia said, disgusted. “Now there’s going to be the most incredible scene.” Her cigarettes and silver lighter were lying by Guy’s hand. She picked up the pack and pulled one out. Valentine took it from her hand and tucked back it into her purse.
“Let’s not make a big deal out of this,” he said. “Someone might notice that I don’t actually have an invitation to this affair. Perhaps one of his friends would be willing to perform a discreet rescue? I’ll see you home, if you like.”
Celia was momentarily side-tracked from the problem of what to do with Guy. “You crashed the ball? Why?”
Valentine’s smile broadened just a little. “To find you,” he said.
Everything went smoothly. Helen’s date had good-naturedly agreed to convey Guy’s snoring body home and Celia danced with Valentine until midnight, then left a note at her parents’ table to say she was walking home with a friend and not to worry. Now she was running past the Plaza fountain with her hair blowing back in the wind, hand in hand with the most romantic man she’d ever met in her life.
“That boy,” said Valentine. “Do you love him?”
Startled, Celia looked up at him, met an interested gaze, and quickly looked away again. “Guy? No way,” she said. “He thinks Herman’s Hermits are the pinnacle of musical achievement.”
“Does he love you?”
“God, no,” said Celia. “He’s far too in love with himself. This is a little weird, you know? I mean, we just met. We’re supposed to be talking about where we go to school or something.”
“Are we? Why?”
The question seemed genuine. “So we can get to know each other better.”
“And talking about love does not lead to us knowing each other better?” He smiled down at her. “Never mind. We’ll talk about something else. Not school—I don’t go to school.”
“You don’t go to school?” Celia had never met anybody of her generation who wasn’t in school. “Are you a drop-out?”
“I am a lutenist,” he said. “I play with the consort called the Booke of Ayres. A consort is . . .”
“A kind of Renaissance band,” Celia interrupted him. “I’m not a complete ignoramus. The Book of Ayres—that sounds Renaissance too.”
“It is. Have you heard of John Dowland?”
“Of course I have. He was the greatest composer of madrigals and lute music in Elizabeth’s court.”
“Close enough.” Valentine sounded impressed. “You’re full of surprises, Celia.”
She laughed. “It’s just about my favorite music in the whole world. I don’t know all that much about it, really—there’s not a lot of records or anything. But I’m in the Madrigal group at school, and I know tons of ballads.”
“What do you know?”
Celia’s mind went blank. “Um. Let’s see. Stuff from Joan Baez, mostly, and Steeleye Span. They’re an English group. Do you know them?”
“No,” he said. “Sing me something.”
“What, here, in the middle of Park Avenue? I can’t. What if someone hears?”
He had his arm around her shoulders, so when he turned to look up and down the street, he turned her too. Apart from the colored lights on the Christmas trees, the giant cross of lighted windows on Grand Central Station, and the headlights of a few late taxis, it was dark, and as quiet as Park Avenue ever gets. “There’s no one to hear you. And if there were, what’s the harm? Who would not want to hear a girl singing on a winter’s night, high and pure through the cold air?”
It was an appealing image. Celia said shyly, “I don’t know what to sing.”
He thought a moment. “Sing ‘Greensleeves.’ Everyone knows ‘Greensleeves.’”
She began very softly, almost under her breath. But once she got through the first verse without some doorman leaping out to tell her she was disturbing the peace, she got into it, and sang more confidently. Her voice did sound nice, purling away into the night. On the third verse, Valentine joined her, winding a supple tenor up and down through the melody. Singing with him was even more fun than dancing with him.
“Greensleeves” was followed, after some discussion, by “The Silver Swan,” with Valentine taking the alto part, and “Tam Lin.” Valentine bet she didn’t know all the verses. Celia bet she did, and launched recklessly into the Steeleye Span version. There are twenty verses to “Tam Lin,” and Celia remembered them all. But Valentine won anyway, because he knew a different version, with forty verses. By the time he’d finished singing it, they were on 83rd Street, a block away from Celia’s apartment.
Valentine stopped walking. “I don’t want to leave you. But even the longest night of the year must end. And this is not the longest night; not yet.”
Celia, who had been floating up the blocks from 59th Street on a cloud of music, came to earth with a painful thump. The night hadn’t seemed very long to her, and she didn’t want it to end. But she couldn’t think of anything to say except, “When will I see you again?” which was supposed to be what he said next.
“I am playing tomorrow night,” he said. “In the Village. It’s a rehearsal, not a performance, and the music is mostly instrumental. You could come if you wanted.”
It wasn’t exactly getting down on one knee, and Celia found herself thinking of all the reasons she shouldn’t say yes. She didn’t want to look too eager, and when it came down to it, Valentine frightened her a little. He was so very good-looking.
He folded her hands in his and kissed them. “Please say you will come.”
His dark eyes glittered, holding her gaze until the blood fizzed in her ears. If she said “No,” she suspected that he would not ask twice. And she did want to see him again. So, “Okay,” she said. “I guess so.”
Surprisingly, he laughed. Not so surprisingly, he bent his head and put his lips to hers. His kiss was soft and teasing, very unlike Guy’s business-like probing. When he released her, she was trembling.
“Eight o’clock,” he said. “I’ll wait for you on this corner. Good night.”
The next morning was depressingly ordinary. Celia rose late, but not late enough to escape her mother’s inquisition about the strange young man she’d been seen dancing with.
“Valentine? What kind of a name is Valentine? Who’s his father?”
“Mr. Carter, I guess, unless his mother’s remarried.”
Mrs. Townsend shut her eyes briefly, as if praying for patience. “Did you meet his parents, then?”
“I’m not planning to marry him, Mother, just date him.”
“How old is he?”
“I don’t know,” answered Celia truthfully. “Does it matter? He’s a perfect gentleman and he’s taking me to a concert tonight. A lute concert, not a rock concert.”
“The kind of concert is not the point, CeCee.”
“The point”—Celia was beginning to lose her temper—“the point is that I’m almost twenty and you’re still treating me like a baby. If I’d met him at college, I would have gone out with him and you wouldn’t even know.”
Her mother ignored this as irrelevant. “Where is this lute concert, dear? Lincoln Center? Carnegie Hall?”
“It’s in the Village.”
“No. Absolutely not. You can’t go down to the Village, not at night, not with some strange young man your father and I have never met. The subject is closed.”
Celia knew that tone of voice. It meant her mother had made up her mind, and nothing short of an act of Congress would make her change it. When she was in high school, Celia had wasted many hours and tears trying to break down that tone. But she was in college now, and she’d sung “Greensleeves” in the middle of Park Avenue. She knew the taste of romance, and she wasn’t about to let her mother take it away because it might not be good for her.
In a tone precisely matching her mother’s, she said, “How strange could he be? I met him at the Snow Ball Debutante Cotillion. Look. I’m sorry you don’t like it, but I’m going out with him anyway.”
What do you wear to a rehearsal of Elizabethan music in the Village? Knowing nothing about actual musicians, and not much about the Village except that it was full of Hippies, Celia couldn’t decide. Not nice-girl dress-up clothes, that was for sure. In the end, she settled for a short green and purple paisley print dress with a high waist and wide sleeves. She wore fishnet stockings and high, lace-up boots with it, and her honey-brown hair brushed loose down her back. She was trying for a kind of mod-medieval effect, and when she looked in the mirror, she thought she’d succeeded.
At the apartment door, Celia’s mother approached her with a $20 bill and instructions to take a taxi home.
“This doesn’t mean I approve of your decision, Celia. I just want to be sure you can leave the minute you feel you’re in over your head. I wish I had more faith in your judgment, but I suppose I should be grateful you’re not lying to me about where you’re going. I just hope this young man is worth it.”
So did Celia. All day, while her mother had tried every trick in her repertoire to make her change her mind, she’d been dreaming about Valentine—his fine musician’s hands, his dark poet’s eyes, his earring, replaying his kiss like a favorite record until she’d worn out the grooves. Now, about to meet the reality at the corner of 83rd Street, she wondered whether she’d still like him, whether he’d still like her.
He was waiting where he’d said, dressed in black jeans, boots, and a black leather jacket, with a gold ring in his ear. He looked impossibly handsome and dangerous, a pirate king or a highwayman. “Celia,” he said, lifted her hand, turned it palm-up, and kissed her wrist, just above the edge of her glove. Celia felt herself going scarlet.
“Very nice,” he said. “Fair Janet, circa 1969, with her skirt more than a little above the knee.” He picked up a large-bellied guitar case from the sidewalk at his feet. “Shall we take the subway?”
When they emerged from the subway at Astor Place, it became very clear to Celia that going to the Village to see The Fantasticks with her parents was nothing at all like walking down St. Mark’s Place with someone who belonged there. The street was full of men with beards and dirty hair straggling over their shoulders and girls wearing Indian blankets and beaded head-bands across their foreheads. The stores were full of fringed leather vests and bongs and rolling-papers laid out in colorful rows. Street stands sold strings of love beads and huge, dangly earrings and pewter Peace signs hung on leather thongs. Celia clung to Valentine’s hand like a child, staring at the shifting, colorful scene, sniffing the sweet ghosts of incense and pot. Anything could happen here. Anything at all.
A couple of blocks east, Valentine opened a cast-iron gate, mounted the steps of a brownstone, pushed a paint-caked button. A buzzer screeched and he opened the door on a long hall with a worn wooden stair at the end. Celia sucked in a deep breath tinted with pot and cabbage and wondered if her floaty, slightly panicked feeling might be a contact high.
The apartment was on the third floor. As Celia and Valentine climbed the last steps a door opened, releasing a stream of warm, golden light like honey. An enormous guy with a beard and a furry vest took her coat and hung it up in the branches of a tree growing up inside the door. Curious, Celia touched its trunk. It was cold and hard—metal of some kind. There was another tree by the stove—the front door opened into the kitchen—with pots and pans hanging from its graceful branches, and a third shaded the bathtub (the bathtub?) occupying an alcove by the sink. Groovy.
The bear-like man herded Valentine through a curtained door, leaving Celia to follow if she felt like it. He hadn’t even asked her name. Celia squelched a sudden desire to use her mother’s twenty: If she knew exactly what the rules were and what was going to happen next, it wouldn’t be an adventure, right? If she ran away now, it would mean she was just the snotty little Upper East Side deb her mother wanted her to be. So she’d hang loose and keep her cool.
She could always run away later.
The room behind the curtain was as strange and beautiful as something from a fairy-tale. There were no sofas, but only large, soft cushions covered with richly printed fabrics, blue and green and rust and yellow like a blooming meadow. The walls were covered with more of the silver metal trees, hung with musical instruments—lutes, violins, a small harp carved with leaves—and little lanterns with candles in them. Clustered at the far end were five low stools, three of them occupied by a girl and two men. Valentine was standing in front of them, holding his instrument case across his chest like a shield.
“We missed you last night,” said the girl accusingly. She was easily as strange as the room: a pale, angular face, black eyes, eyebrows like accent marks, arms as long and skinny as branches, fingers like white twigs. Her hair was dark, too, but it glimmered in the candlelight. Feeling as if she’d come in half-way through a play, Celia edged through the door and let the curtain fall.
Valentine shrugged. “There was no rehearsal called—I thought I’d take a night off.”
“Nobody has a night off at Midwinter,” said one of the men. He was fat, or maybe it was only that he looked fat sitting next to the skinny girl. He had a clever, craggy face and bright little eyes that twinkled out through his wildly curly hair like an animal peering through leaves.
The remaining man was relatively normal-looking, except for a glassy blue glare that made Celia think of basilisks. The air shimmered with tension and unspoken words.
“I’m here now.” Valentine put down his case, unclasped it, lifted out a round-bellied lute, and took his place on a vacant stool. The twiggy girl picked up a lute with a neck nearly as long as she was tall and propped it in her lap, Blue Eyes tucked a violin into the hollow of his shoulder, Curly straddled something that looked like a miniature cello, and Big Bear screwed a recorder together. They all started tuning, their heads bent over their instruments as if in worship. The tension eased a notch or two. Celia wondered if anyone even knew she was there.
“And one,” said Twiggy.
As they plunged into the first piece, Celia forgot about leaving. She dove into the music and let it carry her with it as its notes tumbled over one another in a barely ordered chaos, like water over a dam. When the piece was over, Celia found herself breathing as though she’d been swimming in cold water. She was so happy she could hardly bear it.
The musicians exchanged satisfied looks.
“Far out,” said Twiggy. She stretched her arms, long and thin as spider’s legs. “That was good. Didn’t you think so?”
By the time Celia realized that she was being addressed, Twiggy had turned to Valentine. “Nice of you to bring an audience for us. It would have been better if you’d told us first, but now she’s here, you’d better ask her to sit down and offer her a beer or something. Otherwise, she might think you’re an insensitive jerk.”
Valentine put his chin up and tightened his mouth. “Apologies all around,” he said stiffly. “Pull up a cushion, C. Make yourself comfortable.”
“What about some wine?” Twiggy suggested. “We’ve got some rotgut in the fridge. Or some cheese, maybe? I don’t want to be inhospitable.”
Celia was about to say that wine sounded good when Valentine broke in. “Later, okay? I mean, this is a rehearsal, isn’t it? So let’s rehearse.”
He sounded so angry—at Twiggy? At Celia?—that Celia wished that she’d listened to her mother. Except for the music, the evening was a total disaster. But the music rang in the silence it had left behind. She couldn’t possibly leave until she’d heard more. And she was damned if she was going to let them know they’d spooked her. As gracefully as she could, she sank into the nearest pile of cushions.
“Don’t mind me,” she said in her best Miss Debutante 1969 voice. “I can wait until you’ve done. I wanted to ask, though—what’s that instrument you’re playing?”
The woman ran her twiggy fingers up the long, slender neck. “It’s an arch-lute,” she said, in the patient tone of someone explaining the obvious. “Anything else you want to ask?”
Okay, Celia thought, be like that. I can be like that too. “Yes, as a matter of fact,” she said, and pointed to Curly’s miniature cello. “What’s that?”
“A viol da gamba,” Twiggy said. “Possibly the only one in New York.”
“Cool.” For Valentine’s benefit, Celia arranged a look of bright interest on her face. But Valentine was retuning his lute. Lutes, Celia soon learned, take a lot of tuning.
The next set of tunes sounded like dance music, and included an instrumental setting of a song Celia had sung in Madrigals. She sang the lyrics under her breath until the melody lost itself in a series of increasingly complex variations and sent her into an enchanted place. It was as if the music drew her soul into her ears, pouring into it those glorious phrases, those trilling runs and intricate harmonies, each more marvelous than the last. Even the inevitable retuning couldn’t break the spell. Celia just ran the last tune through her head until the next one came along and displaced it.
Eventually, Twiggy said, “I think it’s time for something a little more challenging. What about that new thing? The Midwinter Pavane?”
Excited murmurs from Curly and Blue Eyes, silence from Big Bear. Valentine frowned, caught Twiggy’s eye, shrugged, and retuned.
The Midwinter Pavane was dark and stately and full of repeating phrases tossed from strings to recorder and back again, turning on themselves like coiling snakes. After a few phrases, the recorder dropped out and the stringed instruments played on alone in a plangent scurry of notes and chords. Celia closed her eyes blissfully. Behind her lids, shadows spun and leaped like dancers dressed in burgundy and gold and chestnut, then twirled vertiginously down towards a single, silent, lightless point.
Celia gasped and jerked upright, hoping no one had noticed her falling asleep. She needn’t have worried. The consort were all watching Valentine, who was playing a solo. He sat with one ankle cocked up on the opposite knee, the lute held in his open lap with its long neck canted up past his head. The fingers of his left hand pranced along the frets, backing and bowing to his right hand, which skipped lightly across the strings. Watching him, all Celia wanted in the world was to come closer so that she could study the subtle play of the music over his face, like light over water. Blindly, she struggled out of her nest of cushions and knocked into a thing like an extra-large violin.
It made a small wooden complaint as it fell over, followed by an ominous twang. The music faltered to a halt.
“Shit!” Blue Eyes leapt from his stool. “Clumsy girl,” he snarled. “Can’t you watch where you put your feet? This is a delicate instrument, a rare instrument—you have no idea how rare. If you’ve broken it, I’ll . . .” He cradled the violin as if it were a cat Celia had just run over.
Tears of mortification pricked the back of Celia’s nose. “Don’t worry,” she said. “If it’s broken, I’ll pay for it.” The musicians stared at her, eyes blank. “I’ll write down my address so you can send me the bill,” Celia finished up awkwardly. “I guess I’ll be going now. I’m really sorry. The music was wonderful.”
She managed to keep back her tears until she was in the little kitchen, looking for her coat. It was pitch black, and she couldn’t find the light switch among the tree branches, or her coat, or the door. She swore tearfully and felt around the walls again. The sharp edges of the metal leaves nicked her fingers painfully. From the next room came the sound of voices, murmuring urgently.
The lights came up. Valentine was standing by the stove. “Don’t go,” he said.
Celia fished a handkerchief out of her purse and blew her nose with defiant force. “So now you want me to stay? Why should I? You left me standing in the middle of the floor like an idiot. You didn’t introduce me to anybody or explain anything to me. You didn’t even ask me if I wanted a glass of water.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, sounding as if he really was.
Celia was not mollified. “So you’re sorry. And I tell you it’s okay. Then what?”
He took her hand. His eyes were bright on hers and she felt the phantom pressure of last night’s kiss against her lips. She lowered her eyes to his loose white shirt and stared at it blindly.
“Stay,” he said softly. “We’re taking a break. I need to talk to you. Alone.”
He reached behind her and swept open a curtain Celia hadn’t noticed before. Behind it was a polished wooden door, and behind that was another room. Celia tried to pretend she was calm while Valentine found a match and lit a candle. The small flame illuminated a wide platform bed with—surprise!—metal trees at the four corners of it, and a moss-green bedspread. Celia swallowed. This is it, she thought. See Celia jump off the Empire State Building into a bucket of water. Her heart went into a brisk drum-roll.
Valentine sat down on the bed and focused his gaze on her. “I’m in trouble,” he said.
It wasn’t anything like what she’d expected him to say. She took a deep breath and tried to pull herself together. “What kind of trouble?”
“You won’t believe me. Or maybe you will. I don’t know. I thought you were the right one, but what do I know about you, after all?” He raked his hands through his hair and stared at her. “How do I know I can trust you?”
“You’re worried about trusting me?”
His voice was rough with desperation. “I have to trust someone. I need your help. You’re my only chance, and you hardly know me. It’s probably a stupid idea, but I’m out of time and I’m out of options.”
Things were moving a little fast, although not in the direction she’d feared. Or maybe this was his idea of a seduction. If so, she didn’t think much of his technique. On the other hand, he was so obviously bummed out, she couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. She needed time to think. She dredged around in her purse for her cigarettes and her lighter, pulled one out, and lit up.
Valentine jerked upright, wild-eyed as a frightened dog. “You can’t smoke that here,” he said. “They hate cigarettes.”
“Who hates cigarettes? What’s the story here? Hey!” He had leaned towards her, snatched the cigarette from her fingers and stubbed it out on the sole of his boot.
“That’s the catch,” he said. “I can’t tell you the story—not all of it. There’s a spell . . .” His mouth worked, his long hand waved the unlit cigarette helplessly. “Anyway, I can’t.”
The room was just big enough for the bed. No chair, no desk, no chest to sit on. Too curious to be self-conscious, Celia perched on the bed. “A spell? You’re putting me on.”
Valentine started to shred the cigarette. “Tonight,” he said carefully, “is the longest night of the year. There’s a dance. At the end of the dance, there’s a ceremony”—his mouth worked—“of . . . payment. This year, I play the starring role.” He looked up from the mess of filter and tobacco on the polished floor, to her face, searching for understanding.
“That doesn’t give me a lot to go on,” Celia said.
Running his hands through his hair, he’d pulled it loose. Dark, curly strands hung over his eyes. “Last night, we sang together. Do you remember?”
“‘The Silver Swan,’” she said. “‘Tam Lin.’”
He stared at her unblinking.
“Tam Lin,” she said slowly, “is an earthly knight living in the fairie court. Every seventh year, the fairies have to give a soul to the Devil as tribute—that’s the tithe to Hell. Now, it’s Tam Lin’s turn. On Halloween night, Fair Janet rescues him by holding him in her arms while he turns into freaky stuff like bears and burning brands.” She stopped; he nodded encouragement. She said, “Are you trying to tell me you’re like Tam Lin? Are you the tithe to . . .”
“Shut up. Just shut up.”
His voice was ragged with pain. Celia wanted to put her arms around him; possibly to comfort him, possibly to comfort herself. She wasn’t sure whether the turmoil in her stomach was fear or excitement. She wanted to believe him—she did believe him—but a couple of things bothered her.
“It’s not Halloween,” she said.
“Midwinter Night is the longest night of the year.”
“Janet got instructions.”
“So she did.”
“Which is why you can’t tell me what to do.”
For the first time, he smiled at her. “I knew you were bright,” he said.
It was excitement. Definitely excitement. This was, no kidding, the best thing that had ever happened to her. “Do I get hints?”
He turned serious again. “Trust your ears, not your eyes.”
He nodded silently. His face was very still. Celia edged closer and put her hand on his. “I’ll do my best,” she said.
“I know you will, Celia.”
In his mouth, her name was an invocation, a declaration, a caress. She’d never heard anyone speak her name like that before. She made the only response she could think of. She kissed him.
It went further than that, of course. Quite a bit further, in fact, but not as far as Janet had gone with Tam Lin. Part of Celia really wanted to go all the way, more than she’d ever wanted anything, and the hell with the consequences. Another part, however, spoke to her in her mother’s voice, more sorrowful than angry, of pregnancy and disease and lost self-respect. She tried to ignore it, but it took enough of the enthusiasm out of her kissing that Valentine noticed and drew his mouth away from hers.
Celia felt relieved, frustrated, humiliated, and several other emotions she couldn’t put a name to. “Sorry,” she muttered.
“No,” he said unexpectedly. “It would not be right, not tonight.” He sighed and sat up against the pillows. “Your kisses are very sweet, Celia. And so are you.”
Celia smiled at him. She wanted to say something suitably wise and flirtatious, but the bed was incredibly soft and cozy and her eyes heavy.
“One more thing,” his voice said, warm and low in her ear. “Things are not as they seem.”
“Not as they seem,” she murmured. “Got it.” And then she was asleep.
Celia woke shivering with cold. The candle had either burned or been blown out. The bed beside her was empty. Her feet were freezing.
She couldn’t find the matches or the candle or her boots. She was a little fuzzy on where she was and what she had to do, but she remembered that it had something to do with Valentine, and it was important, so she hauled herself out of the bed and groped through the darkness, looking for a door.
She didn’t find a door, but eventually, she found herself in a long, paneled corridor, with a rumor of torchlight and lutesong at the far end. Celia padded forward. Golden light and heat swelled towards her and a rhythmical pounding below the music’s cheerful havoc.
Six steps short of the corridor’s end, Celia stopped dead. It was all coming back to her: the rehearsal, the music, the sweetness of kissing Valentine, the pain of stopping. And she remembered that he’d asked her to reclaim him to the human world just as Janet had reclaimed Tam Lin.
But it wasn’t just the same, was it? This wasn’t like the ballad, not at all. Celia hadn’t plucked a forbidden rose as Janet had, or gone looking for a thrill in a forbidden castle. Valentine had come to the ball looking for her. And he hadn’t claimed her virginity as Tam Lin had Janet’s—he’d been a perfect gentleman. So how could Celia trust that what had worked for Janet—desperate, pregnant, madly (presumably) in love—would work for Celia? And what would happen to her if it didn’t?
That was the question, wasn’t it? Why should she risk being turned into a frog or worse for a man she barely knew? Well, Celia answered herself, because she might love him, if she got the chance. And because she’d promised she would, and promises meant something to her. But most of all because she’d regret it the rest of her life if she turned back now. What was the good of dreaming of adventure if you turned your back on the first one that came your way?
Feeling a lot more nervous than she had before her curtsy to Society, Celia Townsend wiped her sweating palms down the purple paisley skirt of her minidress and stepped out of the dark corridor into the soft blaze of torches.
Standing just inside the door, she tried to make sense of the kaleidoscope of colors and shapes unfolding before her. It was a dance, of course, a dance as enchanted as the Snow Ball was dull. Hundreds of brightly-dressed figures leapt, bowed, and pranced in perfect time to the music of two lutes, a violin, a viol da gamba and a recorder. Every gesture was graceful, every step was light and self-assured. And the clothes! Celia had an impression of velvet and chiffon in rich colors—gold and burgundy and deep blue—and long hair piled high or braided with beads and flowers and shells. The men were as showy as the women, with lacy cuffs and beaded vests and ribbons plaited into their beards and hair.
The music was familiar—a dance-tune the Book of Ayres had been rehearsing. Celia took a timid step forward to try and get a look at the band. A dark figure stepped out of the dance, put a fist over its heart, and bowed. Celia looked up at Valentine. He had combed his hair, she noticed, and put on a dark Nehru jacket. “Are we in Elfland?” she asked.
He seemed amused. “We’re not in Poughkeepsie,” he said, and held out his hand to her, just as he had at the Snow Ball. “Come now, and dance.”
Celia hung back. Thinking about him and seeing him were two different things. Just now, she was mostly aware that she was on the verge of a desperate and probably dangerous adventure. She expected him to act at least as if he was aware of what she was going to do for him. Instead, here he was, cool as a Sno-Cone, asking her to dance as if nothing had happened.
“Don’t be shy, sweet heart,” he said impatiently.
Remembering how desperate he’d been, in the little room with the bed and the trees, how frightened, and then how tender, Celia couldn’t help wondering whether he’d been faking her out. Then she noticed that his outstretched hand was trembling. Of course. He was afraid, and he wasn’t going to show it, or anything else, in front of his enemies. He knew the rules here; she didn’t. If he wanted her to dance, she’d dance.
Celia laid her fingers on his, and allowed herself to be drawn onto the floor.
They’d hardly taken a step before a new partner claimed her. To her dismay, Celia found herself moving lightly through the complex pattern, changing partners with each measure. Close up, the dancers were even more beautiful than she’d realized, and far stranger. Celia was passed from a boy whose hair clustered like grapes beneath a wreath of leaves to a little dark woman with surprised, golden eyes. As they spun together in the center of a weaving circle, little stars and moons poured from the skirts of her dress to surround them in a coruscating cloud that dispersed when the woman handed her off.
If Celia could have stopped dancing, she would have. Like a girl’s in a fairy tale, her feet seemed to have taken on a life of their own, moving her flawlessly through the complex measures of a dance she’d never seen before. Whether she wanted to or not, she had to dance. Even if she was frightened, even if her feet hurt, even if she’d lost sight of Valentine, she had to dance.
Celia’s feet skipped her through a winding chain of dancers—left hand, right hand, left hand, right hand—round to Valentine again. She clamped her fingers around his wrist.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ve got you now. And I won’t let go.”
Valentine laughed and changed into a woman with a silver-gilt fall of hair and eyes like golden coins. “You can save him,” the woman said happily, “if you can find him.”
There were Valentines, suddenly, everywhere Celia looked—bowing, prancing, tossing their partners in the air or spinning them by the waist. Each was dressed differently: velvet jacket, torn denim, ruffled shirt, jeans, turtleneck. One wore nothing at all but his own tossing curls.
Celia had hardly had time to register the sudden excess of Valentines when a tiny man with a single horn growing from his forehead grabbed her hand and forced her through a complicated set of twirls and turns that left her dizzy and panting. Her feet, still enthusiastically tripping the measure, were bruised and tender. Maybe if she just gave up, she thought, they’d let her stop dancing and go home. Valentine wasn’t really her boyfriend, was he? Where did he get off, expecting her to rescue him just because he was cute and needed her to? Serve him right if she just let him go to Hell.
A woman made of flowers passed Celia to one of the Valentines, this one with a ruby swinging from his ear. Unlike the first Valentine, this one did not look as if he were enjoying himself. He looked like a whipped dog, and his dark eyes begged Celia to save him. It was impossible to be mad when he looked at her like that, impossible to condemn him just because he’d taken advantage of her. Which he hadn’t even done, because she’d kissed him first. She’d come here to rescue him, and she would.
If only she could figure out which of him to rescue.
Someone was riffing on the lute, chasing up and down through the scales, leaving a shimmer like gold on the air. “Trust your ears, not your eyes.” Okay. Think. All the dancing Valentines looked like Valentine. But they couldn’t be. Why not? Because if Valentine was dancing, who was playing the lute?
The movement of the dance hadn’t brought Celia to the front of the room, where the musicians were—or if it had, she’d been too busy being passed around like a basketball to notice. Now she focused her attention towards the music, peering through the shifting mass of dancers, leaving her feet and her partners to look after her place in the pattern. It was the Book of Ayres, just as she’d thought: Twiggy, Curly, Blue Eyes, and Big Bear. And Valentine. So simple, really, now she’d figured it out. All she had to do was dance her way to the front, jump on Valentine and hold on no matter what happened. Piece of cake.
Choosing her own path through the dance was all but impossible. Since basketballs have very little choice about what part of the court they’re in, finally, it was more chance than intention that brought her close to the raised platform where Valentine sat, fingers dancing frantically over the long neck of his lute.
With the desperate sense that it was now or never, Celia tore herself out of her partner’s arms and ran for the platform. No one looked at her or tried to stop her. Valentine’s dark head was bent over his lute’s round body. Its exaggeratedly long neck towered over him, threatening Blue Eyes’ bow arm.
Celia veered towards the other lutenist. Twiggy’s lute was short-necked. No time to look carefully, no time to work out the possible layers and levels of illusion. Praying she had guessed right, Celia leaped onto the stage and threw her arms around Twiggy, lute and all.
Nothing happened. Celia had time to wonder if she’d blown it, chosen someone who didn’t need saving, and what would happen to her if she had? Would she be stuck dancing here forever? Get turned into a metal tree, or maybe get sent to Hell herself the next time the fairy folk needed a substitute?
Then the air shivered, and Celia was holding a dog, a German Shepherd. Its hackles were up, its teeth were bared, and it was growling.
Celia liked dogs, even big dogs, but she preferred to make friends with them gradually, and at a distance. The German Shepherd was pressed tight against her chest. It twisted back its neck and snapped at her. Sobbing with fear, Celia fought the instinct that would have snatched her hands away from its teeth and held on. Incredibly, the white teeth bit air. Celia buried her face in the dog’s fur. Things are not what they seem. This dog was really Valentine, wasn’t it? And Valentine wouldn’t hurt her. All she had to do was hold on, and everything would come out okay.
But snakes aren’t easy to hold on to. There’s a lot of them to hold, and they’re very muscular. One end keeps slashing at your back, and the other threatens you with a gaping mouth furnished with foot-long fangs. They were dripping venom, too. Celia screamed, but she didn’t let go. If the dog hadn’t bitten her, the snake wouldn’t either. She hoped. How many transformations had Janet endured? Three, in the version she knew. In Valentine’s version, the dog had been followed by a snake, a lion, a bear, and a burning brand.
She was almost looking forward to the lion.
There was no lion. What there was instead was a huge rat, with incisors the color of butter, a tail like a whip, scratching pink paws, and a slick coat of coarse fur. It stank like a sewer, and its eyes were red and mad.
Celia closed her eyes again, gritted her teeth, and hung on. Three. Her version, or Valentine’s?
For a second, she thought she was done, because there was a man in her arms. But the eyes she encountered when she opened her own were rheumy and red-rimmed, with yellowish whites. The skin around them was gray with ground-in dirt, the hair matted, the cheeks unshaved. The man she embraced smelled worse than the rat, of old sweat and old drink and new vomit. Celia came very near to adding to that smell, and nearer still to opening her arms and getting away from him as fast as she could scramble.
It’s just an illusion, she told herself. It’s really Valentine. After the first shock, it’s not so bad. Only one more to go. Maybe.
Her arms were full of leaves and twigs. And thorns, sharp ones, pricking deep into her wrists, face, and breasts. Pain, Celia found, was harder to resist than fear or disgust. It was all she could do to keep her arms firm around the slippery, prickly mass. She couldn’t tighten her grip; it hurt too much.
Something wet trickled down from her temple to the corner of her eye: sweat, maybe, or blood. It stung. Celia blinked furiously and hung on. She didn’t even know what she was holding any more, or why. She was just holding, and waiting for it to be over.
A familiar voice said, “Celia.”
She had her face against his chest and her arms were pinning his arms to his side. He was naked and shivering. She loosened her hold just enough to get a good look at him. Valentine. He looked as sick as she felt, pale as a dead fish, and his dark curls very nearly as matted as the bum’s. His face was wet with tears.
Celia raised her hand to wipe them away. “I don’t have a cloak to cover you,” she said, her voice shaking.
“I don’t mind,” he said.
At that point, Twiggy, back in her own shape again, began to swear a blue streak.
It was pretty imaginative, as swearing goes, sexual and scatological and highly insulting to humans in general and musicians in particular. Listening, Celia realized just how sheltered her life had been. She’d never imagined that simple bad language could be so absolutely ugly. But ugly was all it was. There was nothing worse Twiggy could do to them, now, than hurl nasty words at them. She was beaten.
Finally, she ran dry. She shook back her glimmering hair and drew herself upright, like a slender tree. “Very well,” she said to Valentine. “You win. I knew you’d find some way out of it. I should have guessed you hadn’t lured her here to take your place. Now one of us will have to. We don’t get out of the deal, you know, when the designated fall-guy gets rescued.”
Valentine shrugged. “It’s your deal. You honor it.”
Twiggy looked as if she was going to start swearing again. Instead she said, “If I’d known what your promises were worth, Valentine Carter, I’d never have taught you to play the lute.”
“But you didn’t know,” Valentine said. “And the promise was forced from me.”
“I’d like to cut off your hands,” said Twiggy coldly. “But I’ve got more pressing things to do. Now, get out.”
It’s hard to make a dignified exit when your feet are killing you and your companion is stark naked. Celia didn’t care much about dignity at this point. She was willing to crawl from the room if her swollen feet and aching legs wouldn’t carry her. But Valentine picked her up, staggering a little, and walked stolidly through the crowd with her in his arms. They must have looked ridiculous, but nobody was laughing.
It wasn’t over at all, Celia realized, not for the dancers. The little one-horned man caught her eye and bowed to her. The little woman with the stars in her dress gave her a sad smile. Tears rose to Celia’s eyes.
“I know,” Valentine said. “I’m sorry for them, too—but not enough to burn in Hell for them.”
It seemed like a long walk back to the bedroom. Celia clung to Valentine’s neck and tried not to cry. She might be a heroine, but she didn’t feel like one. She hurt all over and was tired beyond belief. And when she got home, her mother would kill her.
The bedroom looked different—dirty and bare except for a mattress and a pile of clothes: Valentine’s white shirt and black jeans; Celia’s boots and fishnet stockings. Valentine lowered Celia onto the mattress with a groan. Their eyes caught and shied away from one another. Celia felt her face heat. She decided against putting on the stockings, and grimly began to work her feet into the boots. Miraculously, they weren’t too swollen to fit. In fact, they were fine. The scratches from the thorns were gone, too.
“Celia?” Valentine had dressed and pulled back his hair, but he still looked pretty grotty. Celia suspected she didn’t look a whole lot better. And it didn’t matter anyway, did it, how they looked? Trust your ears, not your eyes. Yeah.
“What?” It came out sharp and impatient.
Valentine lifted his chin in a familiar gesture. “I just wanted to tell you that I love you. You’re smart and you’re brave and you’re beautiful. You saved me.” He took her unresisting hands in his. “I want to marry you.”
The end of the fairy tale indeed, as pat and easy as “And they lived happily ever after.” Celia felt a huge, warm emotion rise in her, swelling from the pit of her stomach to her throat and head, so that she was sick and dizzy with it. It might have been love and joy and surrender. If it was, Celia wasn’t at all sure she liked it. “I hardly know you,” she objected.
“I don’t understand,” Valentine said. “You saved me. You risked you didn’t even know what danger to save me. How could you not love me?”
“I did it because it wasn’t fair for you to go to Hell when it wasn’t even your bargain. And it was an adventure.”
“I thought you loved me.”
“I might. I just met you. I don’t know.”
She’d left her hands in his, which might be significant, but was likely to be just inertia. He looked hurt and bewildered and exhausted.
“Look,” she said. “I really can’t talk about this right now. Do you have someplace to go?”
He shrugged. “This is where I’ve been staying. Here, and that other place.”
“Not a good idea. What if Twiggy gets second thoughts?”
“Twiggy?” That astonished a laugh out of him. “You think of her as Twiggy?” He threw his arms around her. “I do love you, Celia. You’re—I don’t even know what you are. I’ve never met anyone like you.”
She hugged him back, kissed him on his cheek (he needed a shave) and disengaged herself. “Believe me, I’ve never met anyone like you either. This isn’t ballad-land, Valentine. It’s New York, December 1969. And it’s really late and I’ve got to go home and face my parents. They didn’t want me to come tonight. It’s not going to be pretty.” She opened her purse, took out all her money, including her mother’s twenty, and gave it to him, all but a subway token and a dime for a phone call. “Here,” she said. “It might be enough for a room at the Y. I don’t really know. Call me around noon, and I’ll meet you somewhere. Down here. I think I might like the Village—the human part of it, that is. The same with you. I need to see you both in the light of day.”
His chin was up again. “I’m not used to begging.”
“Fine.” She was at the end of her tether. “So don’t call me.” She crumpled up the slip of paper on which she’d scribbled her phone number and dropped it on the floor. He picked it up.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m not used to being human. It’s been a while.”
“How long? Never mind, you can tell me tomorrow. I can’t take any more wonders.”
He kissed her when they parted, a shy, courting kind of kiss. Celia was too tired to care what kind of kiss it was. The crowds were just as thick as they had been earlier, and it was late—very late indeed. Whatever was going to happen at the ball had probably happened by now, and Twiggy, a.k.a. the Fairy Queen, was plucking away on her arch-lute while her subjects danced their sorrow and fear away. And Celia was on her way home to get reamed out by her parents. It didn’t seem nearly as scary as it ought to. Maybe it was being tired. Maybe it was knowing that her parents were human, and cared for her. Or perhaps it was knowing that she’d followed her heart and her instincts and had brought Valentine back to the human world. Whatever happened next, she had a good chance, she thought, of living happily ever after.
© 2003 by Delia Sherman.
Originally published in Firebirds,
edited by Sharyn November.
Reprinted by permission of the author.