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THERE MUST BE an exact moment when you cease to remain real and instead enter someone else’s dream—a point where you turn left along a seemingly normal corridor and lose yourself in a story. The landscape of dreams and stories tricks us, though, so that the moment recedes from us, and when we look back, we can’t remember ever having lived anywhere else.
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But I get ahead of myself: You must believe me when I say that I was happy for my sister when the King announced her engagement. Father had promised Alice to the son of an obscure Count, and his family came to us for an extended visit during the coldest, darkest part of winter. We slept safe in our castle under a deep blanket of snow, but after the announcement, we saw a flurry of wakeful activity as the huntsmen searched the forest for game, the cooks pulled out golden paint to decorate colored feathers for our cooked quail, and the maids boiled water to scrub the floors in rooms we hadn’t used in years. My curious sisters and I collected rumors about the Viscount, but we quickly found that many had an oddly sinister quality: he had offended a Duchess once so badly that his family had to depart her manor in the dead of night; during his summer travels he frightened the children in our northernmost village so that their parents threatened misbehaving children with his return. Yet Father remained undeterred by the rumors, since a dark, red, strawberry-shaped birthmark marred Alice’s eye and cheek, and finding her another suitable match would prove difficult.
I had always been moody, and the tales about the Viscount made me unbearably nervous. To assuage my worry, Father sent me to take comfort in his manuscript of Augustine’s Confessions. The lavish book was crowned by a full-page frontispiece illumination of the great saint at prayer. Augustine bent over a book, his extended index finger pointing decisively to a passage. A small white bird hovered over his head. The artist had made the bird of such thin brushstrokes that you could see the blue sky through its little body. I knew the bird represented the Holy Spirit, but its lack of weight frightened me. I found the great saint’s triumphant conversion in the middle of the book equally terrifying. Would such conversion happen one day to me, too? Would I recognize my new self when it did?
I spent mornings in the grey light of the highest tower practicing my own illuminations, but the bodies I painted remained too solid, too concrete for such spectacular conversions. By the day of the Count’s arrival, I had worked myself into a frenzy. Yet a very ordinary carriage clattered into our courtyard at midday, far too shabby to seem sinister. Mother assembled us on the main castle steps. My sister stood in front, so slight and awkward that her bones poked through the heavy brocade dress meant to hide them. As the servant stumbled down from the front bench and opened the carriage door, I wondered unkindly if unattractive Alice would disappoint her future husband.
The Count and Countess disembarked first, stepping carefully on the frozen ground. He helped her down graciously, and I could see that she walked with a slight limp. Mother smiled and took their hands, welcoming them with the traditional phrases. In a moment of jealousy, I imagined a rakishly handsome Viscount riding in dramatically on a dark black charger, and I felt my skin prickle.
After a few seconds, though, an odd, myopic young man with shaggy, unkempt hair struggled out of the carriage, catching his cloak on the door. He gazed about, blinking in the bright winter sun, smiling at nothing in particular, looking directly at none of us. Although a grown man, he gave an absurd little jump to get out of the carriage, like an eager young child. Rather than bowing or kissing my mother’s hand as custom would dictate, he reached out and patted it gently, as a dowager might.
I stifled a laugh and looked at my sister, who gazed at her new husband serenely. I thought by her smile that he would make her happy, and so I smiled, too, and, having settled the matter of her future happiness in my own mind, I promptly relaxed, chiding myself for my unwarranted fears.
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In truth, I can’t say that he didn’t make my sister happy in those early days. They sat side by side at the table, mostly in silence, and he would lean over from time to time without looking directly at her to ask a question or make a comment. She would smile sweetly and answer him. They seemed unified in their quiet awkwardness, and Father and Mother seemed delighted by the unexpected ease of their connection. Since travel during the late winter was so difficult, the Count’s family would stay for three months to plan the wedding. Father packed the first month with merriment; he hired a troupe of players to deliver a new production every other night, and the nearby nobles attended a fête complete with fireworks and an elaborate puppet show. Our shivering guests lined up on the back lawn one crisp winter’s day for a game of life-sized chess, which my mother won; the Countess walked away with the prize at the next day’s archery tournament. The Viscount and my sister stood slightly outside of the flurry of activity meant to encompass them, watching it curiously. I, on the other hand, felt inundated with so much fun that it wearied me, and I secretly wished that the Count’s family would just take my sister and disappear.
Even now, I spend a bit of each day trying to remember the first night that the Viscount told a story, for that’s the true beginning of my conversion. We had settled deep in our chairs after a meaty dinner, and I think Father requested a tale, but I can’t be sure. I had adopted the Viscount’s attitude towards us and looked through him entirely, as one might look past a familiar chair or a favorite hound. He said so little that I’d ceased to consider him at all and simply thought of my sister as going on a long journey. To be honest, I don’t even remember the story he told, but I do remember the moment I looked at him for the first the time. He stood in front of the hearth, framed in the reddish gold of the fire. He held one hand outstretched, and his fingers twitched strangely, like pained, dying animals. I had never seen anyone so animated by a telling. He grew more excited the more everyday his tale became. His battles provided backdrops for the consumption of toast, not the other way around, and at that moment, he had paused the main narrative about a desperate king negotiating for the lives of everyone in his city to describe a girl within the castle walls picking a flower only because she wanted it. He had one foot up on a chair and it creaked as he rocked forward to mimic her motion. I had to get up and excuse myself, for I felt faint and queer.
The Viscount’s stories fascinated Father, and so the Viscount told stories each night. He intertwined classical and folk tales with strange new twists, all of which had a peculiar near-sightedness in their telling; his narrators saw only the little things. I looked forward to his stories each evening and found myself doodling aimlessly at my windowsill desk, sketching the events he’d recounted the night before. I wondered if he would approve of my renderings. I ate less and slept less, and Mother and Father took time out of their wooing of the Viscount’s family to inquire after my health, but since I said I was fine and they had better things to do, they left me alone to daydream and sulk.
I do clearly remember the night I fell ill. The Viscount was telling the story of Sir Roland, but he had veered off into a tangent about one of Roland’s men, who appeared in no version of the story I had ever heard and must have been the Viscount’s invention. While on the march, Roland’s man carved a flute out of a small stick, and during the final fateful battle, his flute fell from his pouch and landed on the ground. Heartbroken, the soldier reached perilously down from his horse for it, the horse dutifully stepped to the side to help his master keep his balance, and SNAP! the flute broke in half and so did the soldier’s heart. I cried out, covering my mouth with my hands, and the Viscount looked at me—hard, with a piercing glance, as if he had sight for the first time—and I realized that his eyes were such a dark brown that they were almost black. Filled with embarrassment, I fainted.
My nurse drew the heavy curtains around my bed, and I stayed in the pitch black for days. The dark comforted me, and I felt safe. No one could see me as he had, and I could quietly fade and return. I felt as though I might die, and the possibility allowed me to sleep peacefully. Apparently Mother and Father thought I might die, too, so they brought in the doctor with his cold, biting leeches. Yet I welcomed those, for the pain broke up my lazy, comfortable slumber without exciting me enough to make me forget my heavy, encompassing sadness.
I slept and slept for days. My parents and sisters were too busy entertaining and planning to come often, so I had all the rooms in my mind to myself. I kept running my mind over the thought of making a flute out of a tree branch. Was it possible? I vowed that if I ever got up, my first act would be to find a sharp knife from the kitchen and carry it with me in case I found a suitable stick.
Although I didn’t admit it to myself, I wanted the flute because it would be a tangible connection between us.
I did admit that my sanity was slipping. I envisioned myself turning into mist and reappearing elsewhere in the castle as a hollow-eyed, jabbering, restless madwoman, eliciting pity and whispers at the wedding. “What happened to Anne?” they would say behind their hands, and they would look away when I came near. I would enjoy their neglect, I thought, because they wouldn’t notice that I was looking at him.
One night, father came to read to me from his heavy copy of the Confessions. He recited Augustine’s conversion scene—tolle, lege. I asked him not to open the bedcurtains, so I heard his strange, muffled voice as though from afar. He drifted off. I feared he had grown contemplative. Would he tell me to pull myself together? I was mist already; I had no more self to pull together. I heard some shuffling and I closed my eyes tight.
I don’t know if I fell asleep or if they exchanged places, but the next voice I heard was the Viscount’s. My heart stopped and raced at the same time, and I felt both ill and better than I had in weeks.
“I thought,” he said from outside the tapestry, “that since my story made you ill, another story might make you better. But this one you shall help me tell.” He had a voice like a crow’s on a winter morning: piercing and bitter, but with just a hint of humor in it.
He began our story at an unlabeled crossroads, deep in the heavy woods. That first day, we traveled over an icy lake and to a tiny town where we drank cider together in a gypsy’s box-shaped house that hung from ropes in a tall tree. I could feel the warmth of the sweet, thick liquid through the grainy, handleless clay cups. I could see the forest floor thousands of feet below, and my stomach churned as we looked out gingerly and smelled the loamy scent of the forest after a rainstorm. I felt giddy with freedom.
He came back each day for the rest of the week, and we roved underwater and up in the sky, playing alongside the birds and under the ground with the ants. On the third day, I opened the curtains to my bed while we told our story, but neither of us looked directly at the other while we spoke. We instinctively agreed to stare up at the ceiling. He tapped his hands nervously on his legs while he talked and I could stare openly at him without being rude. A lock of hair fell down into his eyes as he leaned forward, which he did whenever a particular point excited him. When it was my turn to add, I looked up at the tapestry canopy on my bed, woven to look like the leaves of trees, and I could feel his eyes on me as I twisted the blankets during my telling. But we never looked at each other at the same time; that was the pact that kept us safe.
Three more days and I ate well enough that the color had returned to my cheeks. I sat up with energy when the Viscount entered and took the chair next to my bed. We filled my chamber with words, but we left unspoken our agreement to draw out my illness. When one of my ladies-in-waiting picked up my tray and noted that I had eaten heartily, the Viscount quickly stepped in and said that he’d finished my meal for me, and I couldn’t help but smile and hide my face in my hands as I laughed.
We could only keep it going so long. Eventually, even mother and father noticed that he stopped by too often. He came for shorter periods of time and at unusual hours, telling me occasionally that they thought he was seeing to his horse, choosing a book, or praying in the chapel. Mostly, though, he remained focused on the storytelling with a fanaticism that pleased us both. We had roved across deserts and frozen wastelands leaving pairs of tracks side by side.
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As life always imitates the best stories, Alice eventually caught us together. On the surface, we were doing nothing wrong; he wasn’t even sitting close to my bed that day, and instead of perching with my legs folded under me, leaning forward to catch his every word as I usually did, I reclined against my pillows as he told the story of rotting cakes dispensed to us by the sailors on a sea voyage. I had my eyes closed, envisioning the ship gently rocking the water in the uneven glass tumbler on the captain’s table, when Alice opened the door quietly and slipped in, watching us. I don’t know how long she stood there, but I heard her slam the door and found out later that Mother and Father got involved. I didn’t see the Viscount for days.
Those were long, heavy days, and I cried and stopped eating again. I imagined him out there, wandering the hall, leaving a trail of energy hovering behind him. My room seemed cold and lifeless without him.
Eventually, though, my curiosity got the better of me. I knew he would leave with my sister soon and I would never see him again. So, with my cheeks burning with both shame and pride, I pressed my feet into the cold stone floor and set out to return to regular life.
I attended supper that evening in a simple purple gown. He sat next to my sister, and I sat at the far end of the table with some powerful merchants from another district. We talked pleasantly about the price of salted fish. I felt the Viscount rather than saw him, for I feared to look in his direction. I knew that my sister’s eye, hidden under her dark birthmark, would rest heavily on me all evening, so I tried hard to seem happy, engaged in the conversation at my table and disinterested in either my sister or in him. Just being in the room with him made me feel better, although I also felt worse, for I so badly wanted to speak with him that I could barely swallow my food.
By the end of dinner, exhaustion overtook me. The strain of caring about things I did not and pretending not to care about the most important thing left me so tired that I could barely keep my head up. I struggled to stay awake in hopes that Father would ask the Viscount to tell a story, but to my disappointment, a foolish troupe of jugglers stood up and sang a song while throwing knives. I pleaded a headache and excused myself, eager to escape to my quiet room.
Without taking his eyes off the jugglers, he inclined his head ever so gently towards me when I got up. I knew that we had eaten together in spite of Father and my sister.
Although I didn’t usually engage the latch, I locked myself into my chamber behind the heavy wooden door. Only a few moments later, I heard a soft rap. Heart racing, I opened to door, only to find a mousy little maid with a tray of sweets and a cup of mulled wine. “Your father thought that missing dessert might have disappointed you,” she said. Fighting back my tears, I thanked her and took the tray, putting it on the table near my bed with a clattering thud and sinking down onto my pillow to cry.
I slept fitfully for a time but kept waking. The cold pale moon outside looked forlorn and sharp against the achy black background of the sky. I can’t go on like this, I thought, and out of sheer boredom and uncertainty, got up to have a biscuit. The wine was cold, but as I moved the cup, I saw a small round piece of paper, cut perfectly to fit underneath the cup’s bottom. On it, in a slanted, jittery, almost childlike hand: But the cage couldn’t hold him, for he prayed to the gods, and since he had always served them well with his storytelling, they turned him into a bright and beautiful water snake. He slipped through the cage bars and swam away.
Our first exchanges were clumsy and unsubtle, but since no one looked for them, they went undetected. We worked the next hiding place into the current piece of the story we told. I roved all over the castle picking up his scraps of paper and he my drawings. We descended into the dank wine cellar, rose up into the creaking storage, galloped into the stables, marched through the barracks, and ventured past the gatehouse.
The winter proved harder than most and the Viscount’s stay extended indefinitely. Our mode of exchanging stories became ever more elaborate. We used doves, cats, ciphers, patterned holes poked in paper, words written in dipping sauce at dinner, notes passed by servants, marginalia in library books, songs sung at entertainments, alterations to plays, mathematical puzzles, hints woven into tapestries, the movement of clockwork machinery. I wandered the day looking for the next addition to the story, yanking up the lid covering the cooked pheasant expecting to find out where we would travel next. Disappointedly lowering the empty lid, I would find the next sentence embroidered on my napkin. We searched each other’s faces across the court, wondering Did you see? Did you see? We never made eye contact, but I knew he had my message when the corners of his mouth turned up ever so slightly, and he knew I had his when I blushed.
As the physical form of our stories grew more malleable, so did our characters. Having transformed into a water snake, he became a gorilla, a hart, a bear, and a fish; I became a cat, a mouse, a dog, and a whole flock of birds that changed appearance at my whim. Our explorations grew more abstract. Instead of traveling, we described the qualities of living impossible lives, the taste of water in our gills or the sight of a village as seen from within a cloud.
Reality was only the medium for expressing our story. I barely heard when real people spoke to me, for I looked always for the next clue, the next event, the next sentence. I neglected my studies, my illuminating, and my religious observances. I grew indifferent to my friends and certainly to my family. What did it matter? That life felt so heavy, so confining.
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Perhaps we should have paid more attention to our own source material, for the doves we lifted from Laustic got us caught. My youngest sister, Isabelle, had brought me a pair of birds to cheer me up during my illness. They stayed in my room in a tiny cage, but our master falconer had taught them to come to me on command. I had found one day, though, that they always alit atop the same tree in the courtyard if I let them go, and so, having made sure to mention it in my previous missive, I let one go with a thin curl of paper attached to its tiny foot. The bright little bird flew down into the tree and sat nuzzling one of the icy bare branches. I watched from my tower window as the Viscount emerged from under the cloistered walkway. “Oh! Isn’t this one of your sister’s birds?” I heard him say, and he called to the groundskeeper for a ladder. I could hear my sister’s annoyed voice from under the walkway, but I couldn’t hear what she said. He waited patiently under the tree for the gardener to return, his hands tapping the sides of his legs nervously as a light snow began to fall.
But when the groundskeeper emerged with a wooden ladder and placed it against the tree, my sister rushed forward and climbed, grabbing the little bird roughly around his body. I heard its startled cry and gave one of my own as she violently yanked the little curl of paper from its leg, tearing its foot in the process. The bird’s red blood fell in drops on the snow. She hurled its twisted body at the Viscount, bloodying his pale blue shirt, and the bird fell at his feet, twitching as she read the paper, her face a mask of fury and confusion. She couldn’t work out the meaning of what she read, of course—there was no context to the description of wine made of leaves brewed in moonlight—but she knew my carefully practiced secretary hand, and she began to scream in fury and rage and beat on the Viscount’s chest and shoulders with her thin, pointed fists.
Refusing to see his reaction, I turned from the window and walked quickly and calmly down the stairs and out to the courtyard. A crowd of servants and guests had gathered and stood staring at the two of them and then at me when I walked past them both and gathered up the warm little bird. Still alive, it blinked at me, its bright little eye now covered with snow. I snapped its neck cleanly with both hands, and, with its blood running down my palms and soaking the cuffs of my dress, walked calmly back into the castle and into my room, where I put it in a box and shut its lid and my door against them all and waited.
Father and Mother weren’t long in coming. They lectured me on embarrassing the family, and Father threatened to send me to a convent in the spring. He told me he had summoned the weather watcher from the village to intuit when the roads would be clearest. My sister and the Viscount would be married with all haste and would depart the moment that the roads allowed it. I think they expected me to cry or rage, but I sat coldly, looking at the floor and at my pale, clenched hands, and eventually they left, telling me I would remain locked in my room until my sister and the Viscount left in his family’s rattling carriage.
I sat all night in the chair where they left me and then, in the morning, I rose and washed my face and looked out the window at the courtyard, which was empty and covered with white snow. The only color outside was the patch of red blood, turned brown and dirty overnight. The ladder still rested against the tree; the space remained empty and quiet.
In the days that followed, I spent my time rearranging the scraps of paper that he had left me. There were sixty-eight pieces in all. I found that I could compound the complexity of our tale by reordering them. I noticed their shape, size, and texture, and I recalled fondly the strange ways in which they had come to me. Since the only visitor I had was the servant who brought me my meals, I let the scraps occupy my entire room, strewing them out over the floor and covering every surface in the room with little groupings of tapestry, clay, parchment, and wax.
At night, I heard cheering and music from the hall below.
I spent the next weeks in my room. At some point, I heard the chapel bells ringing. Eventually, Mother sent word that I was to go on a walk with my sisters one last time before Alice left. I felt numb, but I dressed carefully for the day, putting on a white dress with a black fur collar and cuffs and my pretty pale orange gloves. I wore no hat, but plaited my light hair tight against my head so that it pulled my cheeks back and stretched my forehead tight.
Mother came to collect me within the hour.
It was an unseasonably warm day, and the heavy snow had begun to thaw and melt, leaving mounds of hard, packed ice and puddles everywhere. Quite soon, sludge and water soaked the bottom edge of my dress. I couldn’t tell if the physical activity of walking or the mental activity of meeting the real world exhausted me more quickly, but I felt like I needed sleep almost immediately.
Mother, my two sisters, and I took off across the field at back of the castle through the mud and snow. We did not speak, although I knew immediately where we were going: a small copse where we had happily picnicked as children. A river cut a deep ravine into the rock nearby, and in previous summers, the bubbling sound serenaded our picnics. Mother used to worry constantly when we were children that we would topple over the edge and fall into the rushing river below.
I heard the river well before I saw it; the runoff from the snow had widened and strengthened it, and it roared and gurgled angrily as we approached.
Alice walked grimly in front of me, her lips pressed together. She did not speak to Isabelle, who chattered nervously. Mother put in a gentle word from time to time. Alice and I stayed in back, walking in the tight formation of marching soldiers. I kept my head down, watching her footprints in the snowy mud in front of me. I barely knew her; I barely cared. I was barely present anymore. So when she veered off of the path mother and Isabelle had forged ahead of us and turned sharply towards the creek, I followed her dutifully.
She walked purposefully to the edge of the ravine, and we both bent over side by side, looking down as we had when we were children. I felt the same horrible vertigo that I had then, but this time, I put it into words: heady, I wrote in my imagination, freeing, biting. Icewater. Fall.
Later stories say she pushed, but then again, half of those stories also get our names confused. I suppose she did push, but I was stronger than she, and all her shove did was send a handful of rocks skittering down the ravine and into the rushing water below. Mother and Isabelle had gone on ahead, but turned back now, still chatting, not looking directly at us.
“He’s mine,” Alice said, viciously, hate stretching her thin, bony face and making her eyes sparkle. Her hair had come out of its net and stuck to her moist forehead. She was nose to nose with me, and I could feel her hot breath on my face.
“Take what’s in my room,” I said simply, “and read.” I hadn’t known what I’d meant to do until the moment I did it, but I stepped out over the ravine, and I fell.
It probably did look as though I’d been pushed.
You learn all sorts of things after an unhappy death.
You learn that lyric is the language of the dead.
You learn that you will not get to speak it.
You learn what your body looks like from God’s point of view, both solid and vaporous all at once, like the dove in Father’s illumination.
I hit the water with a hard thud, but I was already dead; I could see myself from up above and I watched Mother and Isabelle throw Alice back from the edge of the ravine and call after me. Isabelle was in shock, inconsolable, screaming and clawing at Alice, who had fallen down into the snow. Once I might have felt vindicated to have Isabelle as an ally, but dead, I saw it all dispassionately. I wanted to hear what they were saying, but my body already pulled me along the river, as the water dragged it across rocks and banged it into the steep sides of the ravine.
The water filled my dress. My skin became black with bruises. I thought I would get stuck at some point, but the current of the water pulled me through tight turn and twisting pass. My hair got caught in the brush and my hand on the ragged rocks. My body began to come apart. A finger, a piece of my cheek, a hunk of hair.
Instead of horrified, I felt relieved: I had already been removing my body for months and months, shedding it like an unwanted skin, and now the physical world began to reflect the reality in my head.
I lost an ear. The front of my dress ripped open. My body bloated and stretched. I passed through a stream near a town where women drew water for their homes in crude buckets in the early morning; only the sheer coincidence of their turning away to look at a singing thrush a few seconds before I floated by kept them from seeing me. Later, I passed by a field, grown fallow during the winter and covered with frost. Three young boys were playing a game with a ball, running and dodging about. One saw me and pointed. “Look! A swan!” His companion, with a keener eye: “That’s a girl!”
They ran towards me and along the river bank for a bit, trying to catch me with sticks, but my body ducked under the dark water until they could not be certain what they had seen. They gave up when the edge of the river turned into a wood, stopping at its edge abruptly as though an invisible wall kept them out.
Onward I went. My flesh bloated and peeled away. Bits of my skeleton showed on all sides.
I knew I would be stopped by the traveler long before my body got to him. My soul was jerked forward, the first time it hadn’t slavishly followed my body, and I hovered over a small campfire in the thawing woods. Early afternoon light reflected off of the blue-green trees. It hadn’t snowed as heavily here, and the grayish light made the whole area seem underwater. The Traveler had with him a simple leather sack of goods. He wore a heavy leather jerkin, a workman’s thick boots, and a cozy rabbit-skin hat. Over the whole outfit, though, he wore a thin, long linen vest covered in small pieces of mirrored glass that glinted in the sun and jangled softly. He looked hilarious, improbable. Out of a story. He could manage to alter my travels.
It took me three more days to get to him. He was whittling a stick into a flute when I floated past, and he stopped, put down the stick and knife, and walked over to the river just as I floated by, as if I had called.
When he saw me, he knelt down, and with careful efficiency, slid a tree branch under my back and hauled my bending body out of the water. I could tell by the way my corpse moved that I must have weighed almost nothing, although I had become monstrously huge. The stick tangled in my shirt and caught under my ribcage, giving him the leverage to haul me out and onto the moist, muddy bank.
He sat back on his heels for a moment, one elbow on his knee, thinking. He stayed perfectly still, his index finger touching the tip of his nose. Then, with a grunt, he pulled himself up and, grabbing my rotting corpse by my one remaining arm, dragged it across the sticks and leaves back to his camp. My arm made a thick, wet snap as he pulled me backwards.
I can’t imagine what it must have smelled like, that body—my body. But he set to work with his knife immediately, moving with purpose and precision, flaying the rotted and tattered skin off my face, my arms, and finally my torso. He moved like I had seen the master of the hunt move when dressing a deer: no emotion, no connection. Just sheer craftsmanship.
I watched, intrigued.
When he had finished removing my flesh, he gathered it in his hands and took it far from his campsite into the forest, dropping the rotting meat under a tree and covering it with leaves. Then he returned to the river where he cleaned his hands and his knife.
I admired his efficiency. He did not want to attract wild animals to his camp.
He spent the rest of the evening eating his dinner, smoking a pipe, and staring at my bones. I was surprised they were so white; I would have thought that they would be blackened, a symbol of my sin against my sister. I felt heartened by their creamy color which glowed softly in the firelight, and, for the first time since I had died, I fell into what might be a kind of slumber, a darkness, an unconsciousness.
As I was slipping away, I had time to think that this might finally be my end, so I was surprised to find that I woke the next morning when the Traveler woke. He had a small tin pot in which he heated water over his fire. I watched as he puttered about, adding this and that to his morning plate. Finally, after he had eaten and smoked again, he turned, contemplative, to my skeleton. First, he reached out and snapped my neck with both hands, removing my skull cleanly. Out of his bag he took a little axe, and he began to hack at me, removing my vertebrae one by one, and carefully removing the tips of my fingers. He set aside each piece in neat rows, arranged by type of bone.
He worked like this for several days, disassembling my skeleton into smaller and smaller parts, then rearranging the pieces into new piles. He took frequent rests to survey his work and puff on his pipe. He would stand over his handiwork with his hands on his hips, pondering. I wondered what particular kind of madness he had and whether he ever killed living people to get his materials.
During the afternoon, he set traps to catch game. The amount of food he caught with his little netted boxes surprised me. He caught as much as the castle’s second-best hunter on a good day, and he always had plenty to eat. Once he gathered enough for himself, he would let the animals caught in his boxes go.
I hovered, watching him eat, sleep, and work.
Seven days later, he began to build. He took my breast and shoulder bones first, making an odd kind of long, cupped container with them. He filled the empty spaces with wood and clay. He had to shape, carve, and worry each piece together. He turned my bones over and over, dusting them with the palm of his rough hand, layering clay on them with his thick fingers. I became a long, narrow box that tapered at the top. My arm bones he cemented in place with hard clay into a gently curving, long line, roughly as tall as the tapering box. My spine he reconstituted into a sinewy wave, one end facing down and the other up.
I watched as he reconstructed me. What would I become?
He paused each night to work on his flute. I could see that it shouldn’t work: the inside wasn’t hollowed properly to conduct air, and the holes on the outside of the branch—off of which he didn’t wholly clean the bark, so ragged bits covered it—couldn’t possibly stop the flow of air precisely enough to make clean notes. I was shocked, then, when he put it to his lips several days later and played a jaunty little tune. Impossible. Yet we both heard not only the tune itself, but the tree’s story: how it had been a sapling in a forest cut down by a lord wanting to make a pasture for his sheep, but the little tree had managed to escape the axe. How it had survived three massive fires. How it had come to die because of a slow, creeping blight that made it unable to see or think or feel. It didn’t speak, exactly, but we could feel its thoughts as the tree expressed its experiences in our heads.
I sensed what would happen to me.
He spent several more days restructuring my body. Finally, he was done, and he stepped back away from his creation, leaving it theatrically in a shaft of sunlight.
He had made my bones into an astoundingly grotesque harp.
When he stepped away, I felt my soul snap downwards, pulled to the ground by a force stronger than gravity. Although I had no physical form, I felt winded. I was grounded again, embodied, physical, not quite alive but definitely and wholly real.
He took a set of strings out of his bag and pulled them up through my breastbone, attaching them by winding them around the pins he had crafted from my finger bones. It felt lovely and gentle, like when my sister ran her fingers through my hair before she braided it.
My spirit had considered my previous life dispassionately, but at that moment, I realized with a shock that I had never once touched the Viscount—not even his hand, not even brushing our arms against one another in a narrow corridor. When I realized it, the strings the Traveler had already strung moved softly, and a tiny, sad sound emerged.
The Traveler sat back on his heels again, looking at me, puzzled. “Just a second, girl. You’ll have all the time in the world to speak your mind.”
I sat patiently while he completed the stringing, thirty-four strings in all. The last few pulled the back of my neck up, and the part of my spine where my head should have been stretched up to the sky. I imagined the sun on my face, and the strings wobbled again, this time with a much clearer, sweeter sound.
“There, now!” he said, pleased. “Now you can tell me your story.”
At first, I didn’t know which story was real enough to tell. I wove them together, my sixty-eight fragments, the months in the castle, and the weeks floating in the water, all in no particular order. We were birds belonging to gypsies and then we were at the Viscount’s introduction dinner; I stepped off into the ravine and I rode horses with my father as a child. It all came out in a jumble, but I expressed every thought with my new body, feeling my thoughts inextricably intertwined with the tense, twitching movement of my strings.
He listened thoughtfully for a few hours, and then sat back and chuckled. “You’ll get used to it. You’ll remember time and order. It always takes awhile, for people.”
I wanted to ask him how many people he had converted into grotesque drolleries like me, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it. So far, I could only recreate the past.
I slept again that night, losing myself in the blissful peace of darkness and oblivion, and awoke the next morning when he threw a leather strap underneath my shoulder and hoisted me onto his back. I could hear rather than feel the sharp little mirrors digging into the soft surfaces of my bones. I twanged in irritation, knowing from the traveling minstrels that had come to our court that one should never carry a strung harp on one’s back.
The Traveler chuckled. “That’s okay,” he said. “You’re not quite made like a mechanical harp. You’ll make the trip just fine.”
He heard me!
I hummed along that day, commenting on the dry wood and the light in the forest, asking him questions about himself, and just hearing and feeling my own expression as the strings moved and jangled and twanged. It felt good to be able to move a thing that I called myself, even if it wasn’t myself in any traditional sense. Each thought expressed felt like a small explosion, a popping of bubbles against a face I no longer had but could vaguely remember.
The Traveler didn’t respond directly to my phrases and riffs, but he did grunt or chuckle from time to time when I asked something particularly absurd.
We walked for days. I lost track of time. Eventually, I found I could call the birds to me, and they would drop down from the treetops to land on the shoulders of the Traveler or on the small ridges in my vertebrae. It didn’t tickle, but the scratching sounds of their hard little feet on my neck evoked my memories of being touched.
As I had once moved with the Viscount through the castle, we now moved across what once had been my kingdom. We came upon villages, and the Traveler would put his hands to my strings and I would speak. He didn’t try terribly hard to disguise the fact that he wasn’t playing harp, but most of our audience was unlearned and superstitious and did not understand or care. They put us up in their inns, bought the Traveler his meals, and told us new stories. Sometimes, I would tell them the Viscount’s stories; other times, I would tell stories I had heard in other inns. It always amazed me that they weren’t afraid of my monstrous self, but for some reason, I elicited more fond curiosity than anything else.
Days or years passed. I never did, as he said, get better with time, although I learned to chain metaphors and images together so that my stories had a kind of bizarre unity that pleased their listeners.
And then, one snowy winter, just as the Traveler told me we were reaching the turn of the new year, we found ourselves freezing and miserable in a deep forest. My strings were stretched tight by the chill. The Traveler was irritable; he grew older, and his joints were pulled as tight as my strings. I felt sympathetically pained and anxious. When we saw a warm light off in the distance, he eagerly made our way to it.
The stone structure was too small to call a castle, but it looked like one on the outside. A cobbled stone walkway led up to the front door. Someone had arranged flowers along the sides of the path, making the castle seem like a homey cottage. With a pang, I remembered the strange houses that the Viscount and I had created together. The softest echo of those stories haunted this familiar place. The wind blew through my strings and I involuntarily found myself letting out a keen wail.
At the thick oaken door, a servant greeted us warmly. He told us that he could not let us into the main house so late at night without permission, but he offered us a warm and dry spot in the stables, for which we were both grateful. The Traveler was soaked through, and my strings, though they only broke when I had a fit of temper, felt dangerously thin against the pins that held them in place.
We spent that night in peace, hearing the soft snorting and stomping of the horses. In the morning, I sang them a song about movement, and they stood stock still, staring at us with glassy eyes as my strings quivered and purred. When alone with animals, we dropped the pretense that the Traveler played me, and I spoke freely.
By mid-morning, the gatekeeper returned and invited us into the main house. The master and mistress of the castle had awoken and asked him to introduce us to them. Given their forced seclusion from society, he told us, they would welcome the small diversion of a storyteller after so many months barren of contact. He looked at us nervously as he said it, as though he expected some terrible reaction from the Traveler.
The Traveler hoisted me onto his shoulder and we went into the tiny castle. Inside it looked even more like a wealthy cottage: tended by a careful hand, small bunches of plants grew on sills even in the dead of winter, and tapestries and paint brightened the narrow hallways. Dogs milled about in every castle in our kingdom, but these wagged their tails happily at the Traveler instead of snarling or skulking about in search of food.
We passed through a charming sitting room, barely large enough for two. Two comfortable chairs with tidy stuffed cushions rested comfortably next to a fireplace. Filled bookshelves, groaning and bowing under the weight of so many tomes, lined the walls, making the room feel both claustrophobic and cozy. I wondered who could afford all these expensive books, yet chose to live in a relatively modest dwelling.
The servant paused for a moment in the sitting room to light the fire that had already been laid earlier in the day. I guessed that the master and mistress would come here after lunch, and I felt, for the first time, a vague sadness in not having finished my human life. What would it be like to sit companionably with someone and read in your own home, with the things you had chosen nestled close around you?
When the Traveler turned to look out a little window and swung me around, I saw it, lying on a low chest in the corner. Badly beaten and scratched up, to be sure, but it was Father’s copy of the Confessions. The front illumination had come loose from the binding and stuck out at an angle from the top of the book so that I could just see the tail of the transparent little bird.
I was so shocked that my high string snapped clean through, smacking the Traveler in the back of the neck. He howled in pain and pulled me off of his back as the servant looked on in dismay and confusion. “Damn it, girl! What’s wrong with you?” But I could not give him a proper answer in front of the servant, so I sat there, stinging, unable even to nurse my own wound.
The Traveler knelt right there on the floor and pulled a new thin string out of his pack, threading it expertly through the soundboard and up around the peg, wrapping it around and under itself until it rested firmly in place. I flexed it gently, and heard a thin, tiny sound emerge.
I hadn’t thought of my family in years, but I wondered how his book had gotten here. Sale? Trade? Perhaps Mother had died and Father had moved here in his mourning? Perhaps they both had died and my sisters had sold the estate?
“I’m sorry, sir.” The servant hovered gloomily over the Traveler as he tightened my other strings. “Trouble always finds us here at the little castle, but I’m sure you know the story.” The Traveler grunted. Gossip wasn’t his type of tale, but my curiosity was piqued.
As usual, the truth seemed obvious the moment it was revealed. After the Traveler had ensured that my string worked properly, we followed the servant through a small dining room and then into a larger receiving room, a size that might have been a private sitting room in the castle in which I grew up. Sitting on the raised dais at the front of the room, side by side, were my sister and the Viscount.
Age had not been kind to her. She was thinner and her skin stretched even more tightly across her face, making her look unhappy and unpleasant. Her dark braid was streaked with untamable gray hair that stuck out at strange, wiry angles. Long, bony fingers stretched from the cuffs of her dress and curled around the arms of the chair like claws; she wore gaudy rings that only made her thin fingers look more unnatural.
He, on the other hand, looked just as I remembered him. Perhaps his hair was a bit lighter. He looked at the Traveler with the same pleasant, bemused half-smile that had rested on his face the first time he alighted from the carriage at my father’s castle. He didn’t quite look directly at the Traveler, instead looking just above his head, yet I knew the Viscount could describe everything about the Traveler’s mirrored vest, his heavy work boots, and his leather satchel if pressed. I could feel his mind at work already, stretching to encompass us both, eager to ask questions and just as ready to receive fictional answers as real ones.
My strings tightened. I wanted to speak, but I didn’t.
Around them played their children, rolling about with the dogs in the light covering of straw and lavender on the floor. There were five in all, and they looked untamed and kindly, like young deer in the spring season, full of life and good tidings.
The Viscount tapped his hands on his legs nervously as the servant introduced the Traveler. He might have failed to look directly at the Traveler, but he looked at me. The Traveler set me on the floor and the Viscount leaned forward eagerly, the same lock of hair falling over his eye. He rested his forearms on his thighs and clasped his hands delightedly. “Tell me about that,” he breathed eagerly, cutting off the servant’s formal introduction.
The servant smiled, bemused. My sister looked at her husband sharply.
Instead of answering, the Traveler knelt on the floor as the children came forward to sit in a heap at their father’s feet. They made a warm, wiggling pile of child and dog that sat with the same barely restrained energy that had always marked the Viscount. Together, they seemed a physical mass of potential intent. Without looking at them, the Traveler asked, “Would you like to see her play?”
“Oh, yes!” the Viscount said, nodding eagerly, and the children mimicked him silently. My sister sighed irritably.
The Traveler knew these folks had an education, so he made some pretense of playing, touching my strings lightly with his hands. Almost before I had begun to speak, the Viscount crawled down on the floor to get a better look, adding himself to the pulsing pile.
I remembered our old pact not to look, and I felt embarrassed. Even back in my room, he had never stared at me quite so openly, and never in front of others. I felt the weight of his gaze on my monstrous body as I began to tell my story.
Usually, I intertwined his tales with the stories from my life and with what I had seen in my time with the Traveler, flowing from one set to the other as the whim took me. This time, though, I restrained myself and told only stories from our travels in the real kingdom. I told about the things the Traveler made, starting with the flute from the tree branch, the cup from the deer hoof, the whistle from the honeycomb, the lyre from the pieces of cartwheel, the dulcimer from the gibbet. Most of these things the Traveler gave away, and I told the story of his exchanges, too: to the pilgrim, the priest, the child, the leper, the bride. He had kept me, and I kept myself at the moment.
My sister seemed pleased by the story. Her huge bony hands beat time against her thighs, and the children playing on the floor stared at the Traveler with wide eyes and slack, open mouths, mesmerized by the sound of my song. But the Viscount sat with a little frown, looking at the Traveler with a clear-sighted focus I had never seen before.
When we finished, my sister and the children burst into genuine applause, but the Viscount got up and walked out of the room, his hands clasped behind his back. For the first time since my death, I felt a sense of deep loss. I had disappointed him. I wanted to call back and tell all of our stories again, which I remembered word for word, but after long custom, I did not have the nerve to speak in front of a human without the Traveler playing my strings.
We stayed for three days, entertaining my sister, the children, and small groups of servants. They enjoyed our performances. But the Viscount never returned to hear me. Instead he begged off, citing stomach ache or headache and bowing politely to the Traveler when he left. I noticed the tiny, sad frown that crept across his face as he departed, and his head always inclined slightly towards me as he escaped.
In the evenings, the servants complained that their house was barren of entertainment because their mistress was rumored to have pushed her own sister into a river and drowned her on account of the Viscount. Society had excluded them both cleanly and neatly, and they stayed out of sight on small stipends from the Count and from my Father. Bad fortune hadn’t affected the Viscount’s mood, since his books contented him, but my sister had turned bitter and sharp-tongued because of her imprisonment.
Eventually the Traveler decided that we must move on, and he announced it to my sister, who paid him handsomely for the days he had joined them. The Traveler agreed to eat the final dinner in state with the family, and the servant prevailed upon him to leave me in the sitting room, warm near the fire, while he ate with them. We sometimes stayed apart like this, and I often enjoyed it, but in this house, I longed for him to return so we could leave and I could hide. I hated these reminders of what might have been my former life. Had I owned this cottage, I would have filled it with people, imaginary and real.
I rested on a chair in the sitting room concentrating on the shadows made by the fire on the floor; usually I knew when someone approached, but somehow, the Viscount managed to sneak up on me. I had been propped in one of the chairs, and he moved forward over the floor and knelt down in front of the chair so that his head was at my height.
Instead of speaking, he reached out and touched the vertebrae that once made up my neck gently, but certainly, with one finger. His fingers were warm—I could still feel that—and if I had still had blood, it would have risen to meet his touch. Instead, the pins in my neck creaked gently. He ran one cupped hand along my front pillar, and I remembered when it had been my arm and when he could have just reached out and touched it when I was still beautiful. Perhaps we could have run away and lived here, and I could have settled into this chair as a human being.
The Traveler appeared in the doorway. “She belongs with you, then. I knew it was someone in this house who needed her. I thought it was one of the children. Well, that’s safe enough.” He was ready for travel, and he adjusted his leather pouch on his back as he spoke. “I’ll miss her. We’ve traveled together for a good bit now.”
The Viscount hadn’t moved, but now he leaned forward and rested his forehead on my shoulder. He put his arms around me, and suddenly I was filled with fury and sadness.
Why didn’t you do this before, when I was beautiful and human? Why did you wait until I was a monster, a freak of metaphysics? Was I not old enough then? Was a dowryless girl who had shamed her family not good enough for you?
He stayed still, his eyes closed, his arms still around me as I was now.
What good can we possibly do each other now?
My lowest string snapped, the heaviest, at the bottom. It whipped across his thick velvet sleeve, and I knew he would have a terrible bruise there later; perhaps I had broken the skin. Still, he did not move, and sat with both arms tightly wrapped around me, his hands clasped and grasping the middle of the front pillar, at the joint in my bones where my elbow would once have been.
All lasting love relies on uncertainty, on miscommunication, on unknowingness. Augustine only converted because what he was supposed to do was so unclear. And now you want me to stay here with you, like this, so that every day what we say to one another can become more banal, more forced, less of the stuff that made us love each other in the beginning? We’ll go from watersnakes roving the jungle to tax collectors bickering over shillings within a month!
A, B, C, and D all went, tearing into his arms, getting closer to his face, but he never moved. My voice got thinner as I lost strings.
The risk is never, ever worth it!
A thundering crash as ten strings went, all at once. I had only seven strings left, and I wanted to snap them all, obliterating my own voice.
You knew all along, which is why you did nothing.
And with that, the top string closest to his face snapped, and the end snaked out and cut through his nose and his cheek, and blood began to run down his face. Still he did not move. He let it run down and drop on my back, coloring the white of my bones for the first time in years.
He waited to see if I was finished, and then, when he saw that I was, with only four strings left, he whispered, “You forget that I began with the tax collectors. I wasn’t interested in Roland, I was interested in his friend. We became birds and snakes because of you.”
And suddenly, again, I was furious: Then why not just stay with my sister and leave me alone?
He sighed, and turned his face so that his forehead rested against my soundboard. He kept his eyes closed.
“Because Augustine isn’t famous for loving God, but for remaking reality. Even the Holy Spirit paled before his will, becoming so inconsequential that man could see through it.”
The Traveler had found his pipe and smoked quietly in the corner, watching us with curious, birdlike eyes. To the right storyteller, it occurred to me, this scene would seem comic.
Finally, the Viscount said, “I would have left with you, but I never quite found a way to tell you. When the decision wasn’t banal, when the battle wasn’t the backdrop, I lost my words, and for that, I am sorry. I can take you apart, make you a girl again, and inter you in the family cemetery, which I suspect will give you peace. You can stay here with me for as long as I live. Or I can give you back to the Traveler.”
We stayed silent for a few minutes. The wind howled outside, and I heard the gritty, cold noise of the snow scraping against the side of the building. I heard the warm, soft sucking noise of the Traveler smoking and the tiny crackles of the fire.
What if I haven’t the willpower? I made barely any sound at all now.
“Men do incredible things for God,” he said, sitting back and looking at me for the first time, blinking the blood out of his eyes. “Why not for each other?”
And so I stayed in the little castle with the Viscount until the end of his life and beyond. Long after I was a curiosity too fragile and too valuable to make music, I still had the power to speak, however faintly, from my glass display case. The castle gradually became a museum, and by the time strangers rather than family curated our years of history, they stuck me into a brightly-lit niche in the wall in front of a huge woodcut of the mirrored traveler carrying me—a picture I had suggested to the man who diligently worked to repair the clay and wood parts of my frame that had disintegrated over time. My display tag said simply, “Bone harp. Origin unknown.” Beside me lay some of those fragments of paper, wax, and clay from so long ago, unlabeled, which the curator had intuited belonged with me but which he could not explain and so did not. For decades, I felt distraught about these fragmented, unrecognizable objects misrepresenting so much of my story. Yet, over time, I realized the power of remaining fragmentary, folkloric, indecipherable. These were my things of majesty and dream. Finally, I speak to you in the lyrics of the dead.
About the Author
LLANWYRE LAISH’s formative years were filled with the fairy tales and myths of Britain and Ireland. As an adult, she spent nine years sandwiched between gargoyles and rare books, racking up degrees while studying the versions of those tales told in the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century. She now teaches academic writing and writes about roleplaying games.