1 DORA I Well, it's a good question. When I was a squiggly, a little 'un, I wouldn't have thought to ask or seek an answer. But here I be, going on 60 and no more knowledgeable, and I have to have an answer. Now don't you be judging me. I never looked askance at ye nor questioned your ways, strange as they've been at times. I must go and that's all there is. How and afar and away is the edge out there, that I do ask. No one can tell me. Going on two years now I've asked everyone that came my way. How and afar and away, sir? But not an answer that made any sense to me, and the question now is like to drive me mad. I've had answers that sounded as though they came from books, all lengthy on the word and considered in the delivery, but the meaning was lacking. They spoke of angles and angels, straight lines, curvature (I have all these to memory), the bouncing of light, dust clouds, pivots, dendrons and what have you. They did not deliver to my ear, to my heart. Being a country woman as I am, I have looked upon the edge every day, every working hour of my life. Am I going to hearken to a word that does not ring with me right? There have been those would fair pontificate at me, determine the ground right out from under my feet, but I, being a solid sort, have held my own. They have even 2 pointed in books to me, not that I can read, and very solemnly too, declaring to this god and that. But in my gut I can tell you it's going to take going there myself to see. So I've packed. I may as well be plain about it. You may not see me more. The childs are grown and on their own searches. I must be off. And of course I am sad you old one. I shall miss you and your scruffy, gruffy ways. I would you'd come along. But no you say and no it is. And I won't stay. I'm taking only what I can carry easy and the half of the savings we've made for just this--what they call "our old age". You'll readily merit that half is mine. Look after the chickens if you be staying on, the donkey, cow, old dog, and the pigeon coop. If you be going yourself, find them a good keeper. I will send you signs if I can. . . . She was stiff. Not used to sleeping outdoors any more, she rose slowly, holding onto the trunk of the tree she had slept under. "Creaky ain't you, me old dear", she muttered as she gathered up twigs and some small branches to light up the fire built the night before and still smouldering under its blanket of damp leaves. The old tin pot she took out of her raggedy pack was black with soot from other fires. "Just a little cuppa to get us going," 7easuring out a small bit of tea from a rag bag into her cup. She sat down 3 to wait for the water to boil, took out a clay pipe from under her shawl and after poking at it with one finger, lit it up with a twig from the fire. She'd been moving fairly steadily for two or three months. She couldn't remember exactly. Sometimes it seemed more, sometimes less. Days when the light was fair, early mornings, a breeze and shade trees to keep off the sun, good water and some food left, the time went easy. What was it she'd been thinking? There were bees in her brain sometimes. A few puffs on the pipe. "Old one, I do miss you." There were times sitting by a fire in the mornings when she could easily have turned her back on her travels and headed for home were it not for knowing she'd only leave again. "The old man'll be down the barn with Nessa right now." The ache in her breast. Surely she'd been a fool to leave. He'd tried to talk her out of it. She could see the hurt of him. But he'd always known when to stop, when it was no use. And he had stopped. But he wouldn't come along, stubborn as she in the end. They had sat that last night together, silent as they had been for years before the fire, sharing the pot of tea. There was no need of speaking. They had finished that. He had put his hand on her head and stroked the fine bits of wild hair that always escaped the pins. She turned to smile and caught the fear in his eyes and the sadness. He could have had her stay at that but he would clam up and turn away. And Dora had stopped trying to 4 pull him out of his stubborn silences long before. They spent the last night tight in each other's arms, but there was no going back. It was harder than she'd expected, this travelling, and she not young. But it must be, so it must. She could never rest at home now. She'd go mad with wondering. "So I, I am here with you my dear, nearby or no. And I have inklings and I will send you mindnotes of my discoveries." She had walked steadily toward the setting sun ever since leaving home. Her pipe had gone out. The water boiled madly in the little pot. She reached over, hand wrapped in an edge of her skirt, lifted the pot from the fire and poured the bubbling water over the tea in her cup. There was a lump of hard bread somewhere in the pack--lift it out and dip in the tea. Better, much better. After a while she stood up, held out her arms toward her direction and called with all her might as she might have called a lost child at home. In her mind's eye a high bird soaring west, west, toward the mountains there that she knew she must cross in a few days. She stamped her foot, not ever knowing quite why she made these movements, but that they felt right for seeking what she wished. Soaring over the mountain the bird wheeled and wafted on an updraft higher yet, seeking with a keen gaze the shimmering place where the land became dream. Calling again with a wild note, she brought her arms down and the bird to her heart. 5 . . . Later, sitting under a tree in the sunpartial shade, she takes time to bring her vision into focus. Where she sits a meadow slopes gently down to a small river. The sound of water, the sun warm on her, the flickering of the branches, bring her into the center of her body, and she breathes life into what she wants to see. She has to laugh. She'd certainly never been taken for a trance woman in her life at home. "I am not such a one. An old housewife, I, a farmwife. What be this meandering through fogs of visions and dancing out foolish steps on a road I don't know? Am I gone mad altogether?" But what woman, she thinks, who manages the good part of a farm, bearing and raising several children, keeping a home, and dancing the nights away at each moon, is not the most potent magician? So the vision rests within her, and she, in the warm sunshine, sweet water rushings, falls gently asleep on the grass there. . . . It was nothing really, just a tug at the edge of her senses that pulled a little to the right and off again up, a bit like a moth flies. But more like a mosquito in her ears just now when she was trying to concentrate on finding the 6 road again. Bedamn that dark had fallen so fast on her this night. She stumbles over a root, cursing more and sits suddenly in a patch of damp moss. "At least tis soft." And as she sits, not thrashing any more through the brambles and muddy thickets she's fallen into, the mosquito, the high whiner, fine diner, the erratic moth at her senses, comes into focus and tugs more fiercely. "What, what? What do ye want of me now, damn ye? Here I be, stuck in the godawful mud, and ye have to be at me. Leave off!" No change. If anything the pull grows stronger, and she's almost yanked to her feet. "So then, what if I listen, what then? Been at me for days. Can't think, can't sleep, get lost, don't eat. Is it my death ye be wanting? I don't even know at all what ye are or if ye are. Or am I going batty altogether in my wanderings?" Finally she gives in. Head turned to one side, arms reaching up, still grumbling, she rises and turns to her right. Closing her eyes, she listens with her body, the way you listen to the cows at night to see are they all right, the way you listen to the sea if you've ever met the sea. And so she turns, quite slowly now, hands before her in the dark, feeling the vines, the tree branches and trunks, the blackberry thickets, but listening wholebodily and following the pull. Time does not pass in this place. Cold is not cold. Dark not dark. Dora knows the sureness in her body and that 7 is all, stepping quietly around and over the obstacles that she had been stumbling through a few moments before. The ground grows less muddy under her feet, fewer brambles to stumble over, trees thin, and the pull on her loosens its hold. She opens her eyes and sees dimly in the filtered starlight a new path in front of her, one she hasn't been on before, at least as far as she can remember and she's not at all sure these days how much that is. The track still leads west but looks wider and more travelled. She can even see, a few miles further on maybe, thin trails of sparks rising above the trees. That makes her nervous enough. Last few days the folk haven't been the friendliest sorts. Mostly look downtrodden, though, more than outright hostile, just afeard themselves and not wishing to do harm. "Well I'll be. I don't rightly know what to think any more. Time I was abed anyway. Won't do for me to be hanging about out here." A little further on she sees a dark blotch of tall trees in a clump by the road and makes for it over a small grassy mound. Once inside she can see nothing, but the feel of the place is warm and safe. The thickness of the trees blocks out all light, but she finds a fairly level, smooth spot and lays out her blankets on the ground. And freed of that mosquito guide she lies down, covers herself up and falls pretty fast asleep. . . . 8 She tosses and turns, twisting the blanket into knots about her, the dark protective grove she lies in still and calm. Ay, ah. There are fingers pointing, shaking at her, and she runs. "Old woman, old woman, seeker, ha!", from all directions the derision comes. "I am old, I am, and I be seeker too, you little bastards! You shan't frighten me." In the dream she turns and flaps her skirts at them like chickens. They waver and scatter, turning into rags and fallen leaves around her. What a to do and what about? Is there anyone there at all or is it just myself fighting myself as usual? Who would want to frighten her off of doing such a thing? No, it must be herself. When she woke this time, it was still dark and darker yet in the grove where she had chosen to sleep. She pushed off the leaves that had fallen on to her face and suddenly grew very still listening. The voices from her dream sounded again, calling and deriding, pinning her down to the earth like an animal. But how hear them now? Still asleep? No. They were getting closer, and as she cowered down, a body came rolling into the circle of trees, bumping to a stop right at her side. And the voices went on by, with torches she could see now and running feet and curses. She and the body lay very very still side by side, breathing so little they could have been stones. For some reason, and she thought of her dream, no one came to look in the trees. 9 Ay, ay. She could still think at least even if she could not move just yet. She wasn't at all sure the body knew she was there. A strange pass to be sure. The pipe and a bit of tea would mend it. But she could still hear the crashing of feet moving farther and farther off and she lay still a long time more. . . . How and afar and away, and I a seeker be. An old woman. Times I forget, my heart not in it no more, trudging along dusty ways. Miss the home and the old one and the childs, gone though they be. Haven't seen nor heard much of folk since I left. Have to be wary and anyway there's not many about it seems. Just enough to ask for a bite to eat and some to take with me. Old folk I see look beaten down. I mostly pretend as I'm like em, look to the ground, trudge along, don't let nothing show. People do be suspicious if you be too different. Tuck me hair under a scarf to keep it down. I've always been a dancer but now it's best to look baggy. The dancing we've done, the whole village, for days. What a wildness, whirling till we turned into flames ourselves. Or the quiet dances where we vanished into our own breath. Among your own it's different. Out here, you better be an old leaf and no more, show up no more than that. Tis hard to be alone too. You've lived with folk all your days and the chatter all around, someone to sip a cup 10 with, do the clothes with, have a natter, and now nothing but the birds. Mind you, the birds is very fine too, but they b'ain't much for conversation like. Every now and then I'll do a bit of a dance on the road just to keep my spirits up, and it do seem to help me keep direction too. And I have my aim straight as an arrow before me, and downhearted though I be, it pulls me on like the bucket from a well into the strong arms above. Gettin romantic too now I am. Think so much of those that's not here, makes me misty eyed, and I such a hard old one. I think it the lack of solid work myself. All my days I've worked all and every day at good hard, solid, mouth filling, back covering, you see what you done, sort of work. And now this new work I do be not like that at all. Tis afar off and away, no more solid than starlight. Strong as it may be and pulling on me with all its might, tis like a will o the wisp all the same. And what have I to do with will o the wisps? They're no more than spiders' webs to me to be brushed out of corners of a room. And here this spider web has gone and brushed me out of my own corner and all! II 11 The bundle of body beside her stirred among the leaves with a soft rustle. She let it slowly sit up and rub its head and she lay there until she heard small sobs that let on the body was crying. Then in a little tiny most unfrightening voice she could manage she whispered "Be you all right me dear?" The body jumped anyway and made as if to scramble off again into the trees. Dora grabbed what seemed to be an arm and spoke again. "Now I may not be any more safe than you me dear, so why would I speak if I wished ye harm?" Her loneliness sprung up and she found herself crying too like a big old baby, and the two of them quite unabashed, blubbered for a good half hour. Even as she cried, Dora was thinking of the great soggy pool they must be making in the trees and couldn't help a gurgly laugh. They lay a good while more in silence, one arm of the other still clutched in Dora's hand, and gradually dim light began to dilute the blackness of the trees. Little by little as they peered first outward to where the voices and footsteps had vanished who knows how long before and only then toward each other, Dora could make out a fairly little roundish sort of body, certainly no bigger than herself. "Well", said the body, still snuffling a bit, "what are you doing here?" "And I may ask the same," remarked Dora a bit huffed. "Who was you arunning from then? Fair gave me the fright of my life." 12 "They'd be after you too if they knew," said the other, nodding her head sadly. "I was running from a crowd of ugly stupid knownothing thickheaded idiots, that's who. I'm a free woman of the roads, and they're scared of me, that's why. Anything they don't see every day in the cabbage patch they try and kill. That's how it is." The little shape before Dora seemed to grow visibly and to shake with rage and bitterness. "I live the way I have always lived, and my mother before me. I harm no one and I have helped many. But in these parts fear is more ready to hand than food. I have encountered fools before but never such malicious hatred as these folk live with daily. They truly wished to kill me." She sniffled and then grew silent, seemed to shrink down again onto the leafy ground of the grove. Dora patted the arm she held and made sounds of commiseration. "What be your name?" she asked, reaching out in her feelings to this other, the only woman she had met who was searching the roads like her. "What's it to you?" snapped the other, who seemed quite ready to take out her fright and anger on this new stranger in her path. But then Dora could sense her pulling herself up short, as though she realized Dora might be a different sort than the cowed and unreliable folk she had been running into. "Well, I'll tell you, no harm done. It's Sy." "Sy? Never heard of a name like that," said Dora. 13 "So are you going to chase me down too then? It's for less than having an odd name I ended up here with you now." "No, course not," answered Dora, "It's just one I never heard of, that's all. Mine's Dora. Ordinary enough." "Not where I come from," Sy sniffed and poked at the ground with her toe. The light was slowly bringing back the colors all around them. Dora found herself faced with a small, skinny old woman who looked round because of the amount of clothes she wore, layers of them, all somehow spotlessly clean (Dora was sure she wasn't too savory herself) and combined in the most outrageous colors which grew louder as the sun reached into the trees. The toe Sy was poking into the ground was covered in what looked like an old satin slipper, a sort of duckweed green, which didn't appear as though it'd provide much protection for a woman of the roads. And Sy may have been a slightish sort of woman but if the size of the pack she was leaning against was anything to go by, she didn't lack for muscle. . . . Doe (funny she should suddenly think of herself as Doe now, just as if she was at home) thought about lighting up her pipe. She needed the comfort. But remembering the feet gone thundering by she let it lie. She reached under her bedding and pulled out a flask of cold tea, slowly uncorked 14 it looking all the while at Sy who had closed her eyes and could have been asleep, and took a long drink. Thinking "Thank you for tea", she patted the ground and reached the flask to Sy who went on looking asleep. Dora bumped the flask against the little woman's arm, "Have a drop of tea, dear. It'll make ee feel better". Sy jumped. She must have been far away or maybe she could really go to sleep just like that. Sy looked dazed but took the flask. She turned about and rummaged round the back of her pack, eventually brought out a little tin mug and poured herself a drink. Dora felt a bit insulted, wondered if she really looked that dirty and wiping her hands on the front of her skirt, took the flask back and had another drink. As Sy closed her eyes again, Dora took the chance to get a really good look at her. Sy had over her shoulders a shawl such as Dora had never seen in her life. It was made of some material that shimmered and changed its shades of moss green every time the small woman as much as breathed. It had a long fringe of the same thread which fluttered even though there was no breeze. Fantastic beasts and birds wandered over it among huge leaves and flowers. Dora couldn't take her eyes away and looked up suddenly to find Sy staring at her. "Like my shawl, do you," Sy grinned. "Where did you ever get that?" "Found it," muttered Sy and seeming to get wary, turned away, and though Dora thought it might be tricks of the 15 dawning light, the shawl seemed to go dull and limp at the same time. From under the shawl an alarming array of different and often discordant colors appeared and disappeared. A russet arm moved over a purple waist and reached to pull an orange scarf aside. The first layer of skirt Dora could see was bright blue and the apron over it was yellow. Under the first she caught glimpses of other skirts, brown, white, orange and purple. It seemed anyway that Sy hadn't been trying very hard to hide. What a strange one she was, and so wary too. She was looking now at Dora looking at her with a kind of defiance but also, if Dora wasn't much mistaken, a kind of hopefulness. The hope, defiance and wariness flickered across her face like clouds. It didn't seem she was very good at hiding her own self either. Maybe she'd decided that since that was the sort she was, she might as well go the whole hog and shine like a beacon. . . . "Well I never," Dora muttered as she hauled herself to her feet. Couldn't remember when she'd ever met with such an oddbody, man, woman or child. What did she do, this woman of the roads? How did she eat? Had she always been so, always dressed like this? Where was she going, how far come? None of the questions left Dora's mouth. Her last 16 question hadn't met with too much kindness. But, "Where be you headed for?" she asked nonetheless, not to be entirely put off. "I wasn't headed for anywhere," said Sy, quite straight-forwardly this time, "but I was headed away from those mugheads that's for sure. Just because I don't shuffle along like they think is right. Old women have to be widows or wives, grandmothers and kept behind walls in these parts or they're hunted down and done away with. They don't like old women. Don't rightly know why. And certainly they didn't take any great fancy to me." "Did they catch ye on the road?" said Dora. "No, no. I'd set up in the village to read hands, and they were on me like a pack of dogs. I was stupid mind you. Didn't look about me as I should've. And I who know very well where I am and who I am." "Well, where do we be?" As Dora was travelling the roads herself, she hardly thought of the places she was passing through, only of what was behind and what was ahead. Her dowdy clothes and shuffling gait had been like the strange dances she sometimes found herself doing, an instinct that she always listened to. Sy got up off the ground now too and she pointed the way the running feet had come, the same way Dora had been going, and spat. "The land of bastards, that's where. You should keep in the knowledge of where your feet are going. They don't like strangers here in the lowlands before the 17 mountains." Sy turned around slowly and looked at Dora. "Well where were you going yourself? You don't look like a travelling woman to me." Dora thought to herself that she looked more like a travelling woman than Sy did. How did she walk the miles in them silly shoes anyway? And for sure she'd managed to stay out of trouble better than Sy had. "Travelling woman or no, I be seeking. Been out here now two or three months so far as I can tell. And I don't rightly know where I be going if you're asking for names. But I know the direction that feels right. The country herself, t'ain't familiar to me, but there's always an air to her and a feel underfoot that calls me." Dora wondered if she'd be able to keep hold of her knowledge with another body along with her. She tried the air with her arms and could still feel the steady stream of knowledge toward the edge. 18 III There were, she remembered suddenly and with seemingly no reason, three places, three times in her life when she'd been really scared. And they'd all to do with light. Not the kind of softly growing light that brightened around them now nor the calm pale moonlight of the night before. Not even the light of the torches smoking past her as she lay trembling in the grove. Twas the light of death she thought, and tweren't even the death she feared but the light itself, a colorless and mesmerizing noise in the eye. It was always illness brought the light to her before, as a child, young woman and dame. But why did it come to her now? Half blind with memory she reached out and touched the trunk of the tallest tree, leaned her head against it and stopped fighting back the thoughts. Fear came with them in waves and made her feel sick. She tried to shake herself out of it, foolishness with nothing to blame, but felt herself instead sliding slowly down the solid dark trunk of the tree till she lay coiled around it at the bottom. Her body touching the bark, she felt safe to move toward the danger in her mind. Vaguely and with half a wry chuckle she 19 wondered what Sy must be thinking or if she'd noticed at all, odd creature. This was no illness though. And she was not disoriented as she had always been before. Now she let the light take away her mind, not so much confident that she might have it back but willing to let her search take any form it would. So, for a while, there was nothing, no memory and no thought, no wondering, no sight and no hearing, no Dora. The closest she could come to describing it later was how it was to push a child into the world, close to bursting or levitating into a cloud of buzzing air. No room for thought in the great effort and the complete bodily being of it. She was sure as she returned to herself curled about the tree that her head must now have a large hole in it. And she even put up her hands to feel. But no, just the old scarf as she'd left it. So she lay and rested awhile. Funny she'd never thought to question those strange and terrifying flashes till now. She'd been ill and that was that. And anyway there'd been no place for such questions in her life. You were ill or you were well, fed or hungry, awake or asleep, even alive or dead. But who on beloved earth would ever ask if you'd been grabbed away by a wicked light or no? Foolishness! When she tried to sit up she found herself weak as water and had to roll around a bit to get upright. And she kept her eyes closed fairly tight all the while, a little 20 afraid of what she'd see if she opened them and what time might have passed. She rested a while more like that, back leaning against the tree till she felt the warmth of the sun on her face and could sense the flicker of shadow on her eyelids, and only then opened her eyes a bit just to make sure she still was where she'd started out. And so she was. Her pack lay over there, a little messier and bigger than she remembered, but that might be her imagination playing tricks. Some sunlight filtering down from fairly high in the sky by now splashed across her face, fluttering a bit as the leaves shuddered above. She turned her head very slowly. Sy was lying back against her pack, mouth open and practically snoring. Most like she hadn't noticed a thing. Dora closed her eyes again and drifted in the blessed dark. Fancy that! The dark. Imagine if 'twere all soul-blasting light like that and never a corner to hide in. I never! Twould send a body raving for sure. The dark like the shawls old women wear, good for hiding, good for keeping warm. That light, what were that for? Scared her to think of it again. She was sure twas not a state meant for humans at all. It felt like the inside of a mad dog's eye, glaring and obsessed. There weren't no direction, no shadow. Was she supposed to learn something from that terror? When she felt better she'd let it all filter down and examine it. At least, she thought, this time it hadn't whipped her about like a dog-seized rat. This time she'd 21 gone towards it and not run. And every time it changed her somehow, the very cells she was sure, her shape. She poked herself again as though she could feel the change that way. Run towards it, and why, what dummy runs toward that kind of danger? Her own kind of dummy for sure. Next she'd be throwing on armor and out you go Dora for hand-to-hand combat on the field! What nonsense. She tried to get up and was so stiff she had to crawl up the tree trunk, then stood there swaying some and grumbling quite a lot about her knees and her back and several other bits of her. Twas the lack of tea she was sure, and a bit of a smoke wouldn't harm either. "I am old and so it is. It can't be changed. I should never have left me cosy bed. I'm an old dote, losing me mind." She made her way slowly over to Sy holding onto branches all the way and feeling quite sorry for herself. She planned to wake Sy up as gently as possible and find out what the other woman thought they should do. She didn't much fancy another night in the grove herself, and feeling the pulling of the journey in her legs strong as ever, knew that her newly found travelling companion wouldn't have much to say about anything if that mosquito nag of Dora's decided to pull her off on another wild gallivant in the dark, stiff and aching old body or no. Before she got to where Sy was lying, Sy groaned and snorted in her sleep and, seeming to struggle with a horde of enemies, rolled off her pack and landed up on her face in 22 the leafmould. Dora stepped back a bit for you could never be sure quite what mood Sy would be in next. But Sy came up laughing, spitting bits of leaf and twig and brushing the black mould off her clothes. "Well what are you staring at woman dear woman? I must have been hungry in my sleep, needed a solid bit of earth to chew on. Speaking of which, what do we have to eat between us, and that without lighting a fire?" Dora was flummoxed for a second at Sy's speed of recovery. Then she turned to her own pack and bent down to look for the cloth twisted about her bread and a bit of cheese. The pack seemed strange to her and she wondered whether it was just her journey out of time that made it seem so. But no, it was different and she started to worry when she saw that someone or something had been rummaging around untidily in her things and had put them back wrong. Her hand went suddenly to her side where she kept the little pouch with her money. Blessed be, it was still there. . . . Dora decided to keep her mouth shut for a while and give herself time to think. She fished out the food bundle, unwrapped the bit of black bread and hard cheese from the checkered cloth and pulled the flask of tea from under her bedding, keeping her face hidden the while in case she gave away her worry. It couldn't have been anyone but Sy unless 23 some uncommon clever animal was hiding in the woods thereabout. But Sy didn't seem one silly enough to go grubbing into another's belongings and then not put them back aright. Go grubbing into another's things, aye, but put them back all awry, no. Was Sy trying to spin her around now? Dora tried to look at the other woman without being seen and managed only to catch Sy looking at her. She needed time to think, looked away again, walking slowly toward the other woman with the food in her hands. So, was Sy just pretending to be asleep then? Had she seen the whole thing, Dora falling down the tree, and not tried to help, gone and scrounged through Dora's pack while poor old Doe was lying aloony in the grass? A great lash of anger crashed through her and she had to fix her eyes on a tussock of grass at her feet to keep from roaring her outrage at Sy. No joke and no joke indeedy. This was no companion for her travelling if that was so. And find out she must. But how? Sy was now searching out the remains of her last meal in her own pack and had laid out a couple of eggs and a slab of hock on the grass. She looked up, face full of that same wariness and hope as before, but now Dora couldn't help but wonder exactly what the hope was about and what the wariness. She told herself she'd first eat a bit to get her strength up and then take on Sy eye to eye. So they sat amid the tall trees eating a fair amount of good food, not 24 speaking, drinking the cold tea. Dora couldn't look up. She ate her fill staring at her shoes. She could feel in the unspoken breath of them a growing panic and knowing now it was none of her own, she felt it to be Sy. Still not look up. Eat in the silence. And then, finally, without Dora having asked anything at all, Sy burst out. She had gotten up and was bobbing about in the strangest way. Her face was twisted up and she flapped her arms about from side to side. She part sang, part moaned and part shouted at Dora or at least Dora felt it must be at her since no other soul was about. Home is no more home. Sick means nothing. I am turned about and never the same. The ones I knew are gone from me, I am gone from them, never the same. The past is strange and the future unclear. In the present is nothing but a fog. I, like a lighthouse learning to walk. No one is with me. Moving this way I am taken. I am taken afar and not brought home. Egged on by a mad light I dance to a sad song. Go away from me. I carry a plague. You, large, healthy, rosy faced, you make me crazy, more than I am. I am spinning away on a trout beam, spun by a fisher mad with desire and I'll know home no more. I am Sy, a 25 sigh, and you do not know me, can never. Brought to you here, I need you. You are earth. I am wind. I need to know you and I cannot ask. I am outcast. No one will. So I searched for you in yours. I must know you. Deny me not." Sy fluttered like a bird, half hopped away, and fell down again into the leafmould. . . . Dora sat with her mouth open, wordless, looking at Sy who now did not look at her. Suddenly she thought that she seemed to be acquiring a rather elderly child. Could anyone imagine a more roundabout and twisty way of telling a body ye liked them and wanted to be about them? And do I want a child now or don't I? A shifty, unpredictable, scared, defiant, vagabond of a child who just happened to be an old woman too. No, no, definitely no. And how to go about leaving her behind? There was certainly more to this gallivanting about on the roads than met the eye. Dora decided that for some reason it was now upon her to provide for this elderly juvenile, if not by inviting her along, at least by leaving her with some earth of her own to hang onto since it seemed that was what she needed. 26 Again she needed time to think, but Sy didn't give her a chance. She sat up suddenly and looked as straight at Dora as anyone had ever looked. "There's no going back for us now", she said. "You've seen me and I've seen you. Who else is there you know on the whole of this great mother planet that is like us? You seeking and I seeking, you with your godawful holy fits and I with mine. Both of us in danger from the ignorant and the savage. Different from you I certainly am but more like than most you'll meet." Dora was flummoxed for a second time in only the wink of an eye. Could this baggage tell what she was thinking and forestall her just like that? Or was she in and out of strange experiences just as Dora was? Seeking just as Dora was? It was all too much and moving much too fast. She decided, come what may, she would light a fire--just a wee one--boil up some water and have fresh tea and a pipe. Before that not a word would she say. She turned her back on Sy who at least seemed to understand that she needed a little while to think and who said not a word more. As she searched about for twigs and small branches, dried leaves and pine needles to start the fire, she let herself grow as still as she could, without thought, and moved herself almost wholly into her body's simple task. First build a small circle of medium sized stones, the kind unlikely to split in heat. Place leaves so with space for air, and twigs so, broken and piled all dry as can be. 27 She took from her belt the flint and steel she carried always, at home or here, and to strike the sparks. After a goodly while the crumbly leaves began to smoulder and she bent further still to blow gently into the heart of the smoke. A tiny flame flared and died, and another. Twigs caught. Dora broke more quickly and placed them tenderly and some larger ones then. Let it burn hot with little smoke. Fire was set. So she sat back, reached over to her turned about pack and pulled out the battered little pan, filled it from the skin flask of water and set it carefully, ever so, on a stone right by the heart of the fire. While she waited for the water to boil--so fast on open fire--she turned again to look for her pipe. Oh no, twas in her pocket. She tapped it out, scraped it a little with a small stone, and filled it with rich mixture. She'd pulled and dried the herbs herself. So, take a little stick from the fire and light up. Ah, now. The short morning had seen more upendings than Dora could rightly remember in any other short morning of her life. Sitting determinedly with her back to Sy, pulling slowly on the pipe and watching the flames of the small fire, she let herself begin to think. There was, to be sure, no way of knowing the future. Whether the little woman would be more of a help or more of a burden she could not say. First, this body comes rolling in all unannounced and makes herself at home without a by-your-leave. She were 28 brazen. But canny too. And canny be always needed. A body knowledgable of roads and of they that live on them. But the weasel in the woman. What to think of that? The sneaky one that would not ask but waited the chance. I don't know, I'm sure. Dora felt a touch of despair. She needed the company. How could she trust this soul? She'd have to talk. But the water was boiling in the pot, and Dora stopped her thinking to take it off, add the leaves, and place the tea aside on a cool stone to steep. The sweet aroma of tea. She breathed it, smell of home, remembering, that's better me old dear, old dear, old man, look what your old one is doing, sitting here on the ground, in the midst of a carnival, clowns everywhere and I one. Now. Dora turned slowly toward Sy, pipe in her hand and the clear odor of the tea around her. And there was that woman up and shouldering her pack, making ready to leave as though all had been decided already. Sy looked at her and grinned. "I will go. Perhaps it is not time. We are a great pair surely but not yet. You won't lose me I tell you, but I will go now. You are right to do things your way and I mine. Think of me." She bent over under the pack and almost seeming to disappear, pulled a piece of grass from the base of the tree Dora had held onto and put it into a big pocket in her top skirt. "This for the future," she claimed and turned to go. Dora whispered, "Take care of thee, m'dear," and waved feebly as Sy made her way slowly out between the trees, 29 stopped on the edge of the grove to look about up and down the track and then made her way back towards the east. . . . Dora felt dazed and no wonder. She turned once more toward her pot of tea which was well steeped by now. She took the old cup slowly out of the pack, wiped it out on the edge of her skirt and poured a little tea into it. Her mind was blank. She sipped small sips of tea and puffed slowly on the pipe, sitting in the sun and letting all float down through her like the snow in a glass ball. By and by she'd have to up and pack and on her way, but just now this was the needed thing. As the sun moved slowly down the sky, her head dropped and she fell asleep, the pipe gone out in her hand and the cup rolled away into a hollow by the fire. The fire itself crumbled and flared and smouldered down. She roused herself and looked about. It was twilight already, at least among the great trees, and no time to be getting up and about. She piled more dry leaves on the hot ashes of her little fire and broke more twigs, got it going again. She deserved a treat and that's for sure. So out of the pack comes a small rasher of bacon and an egg, so carefully wrapped and put away the week before. She spears the rasher with a stick and puts it to the flame, not too close but a slow burn. The water pot is on the fire again 30 and when it boils, in goes the egg to poach. All gets put on a small wooden platter and the pot on the fire again for more hot tea. Now this was the life, so simple. No crazy old ladies to stir things up and force her to act too fast. She laughed suddenly, a great giggle she couldn't stop for a while, when she thought of the names her kinfolk would throw at her for calling another old woman a crazy old lady. Hah! When she'd eaten and drunk another cup, Dora stood by the fire and looked about her. Her bedding was still in place. She'd tidy the pack and make ready to leave in the morning. She wasn't too sure of a direction at this time for she was not at all keen to pass through the village that had given Sy so much trouble. So she stood awhile and slowly her hands came up before her face, and one of her dances came to her, this one slow and winding about the fire, small steps weaving and her hands shaping the air. As she went she made small moaning sounds that grew until she was crying out without thinking of her loss at being alone again. And she moved on and the movements changed until she was whirling surefooted among the tree roots and came to stop at the great tree she had used for safety before. She knew then she must go toward the village whatever might come of it. That was the direction. The mountains could be seen from the village. Somehow she knew that. Perhaps she might pass through without commotion, well hidden in her bent old 31 woman self. And the "bent" bit was more and more true these days. Too much more sleeping on damp ground and she wouldn't move at all. She put her hands to the tree trunk and lowered her head to the mossy bark. Tree thoughts and her thoughts. She put her hands to the ground and bent her head to the leafmould. Ground thoughts and hers. Stayed so for a time. The fire died again. She got up, crossed to the bedding and lay down. This time, woven well into the grove and rooted in herself, she fell asleep and dreamed no dreams. . . . Dora woke slowly this morning, savored the aloneness she had grieved over the night before, spoke to no one, lay a long while looking up through all the branches as the sunlight grew brighter. I be a happy woman, indeed I do be. She rose slowly, washed her face with a little water, changed her clothes and hung the old ones on bushes to air, brushed out her hair. Slowly she went looking for leaves and twigs and built up the small fire again. As the water boiled she carefully repacked her bundle. It didn't take long. She hadn't much. The bedding she rolled tightly as always and put it under the rest. She quietly sipped her morning tea and chewed thoughtfully on her last piece of tea-dunked bread. When finally she rose and covered the fire with damp soil, scattered the rocks and roughed up the smoothed out spot she'd been sleeping in, she was well ready for a good day's 32 walk. Bless the grove, as she bent to give the ground a last pat. She strapped on her pack, the airing clothes folded around the outside, and walked through the trees to the edge of the track. She peered along the path in both directions just as Sy had done, stepped out and made for the opposite way. 33 IV It was only just after sunrise, a time she loved, everything still and slowly opening to the sun. Dora felt so new that the day brought wonder to her like a child. The morning air was sweet with scents--cow parsley, honeysuckle, damp grass, meadowsweet. Bumblebees tumbled among the flowers, and dragonflies wafted along flashing their satin bodies. And strange to say, she still felt as though Sy were there, connected to her by some long strand of web that pulled just a little from behind her. She was beginning to be more aware of these pulls, not a few of them now. From the way she had come was Sy and her old dear and her village. From before her the strong pull of the edge and her seeking. And there were others she wasn't sure of. As she thought about these things she kept her eyes and ears about her just in case. The track was well used and might be travelled on by unfriendly folk. She hadn't worried much on the other path. It had been little used and she hadn't by then come across Sy and her story. She would have to find herself something to eat as well. She had eaten the last crumb. This far finding food had been easy. She had only a little money but a lot of knowhow and so had 34 helped about the places she stopped at in exchange for a meal. The folk around these parts had little money of their own. It wouldn't have been wise to let on she had some. And anyway, farm folk can always use a helping hand. She decided she would skirt around the village as much as she could, despite her feeling that she must go toward it. No point in inviting trouble. She'd stick to the farms. Farm folk generally mind their own business, so they do. She minded well enough now an old one who came to them when they were first married. Be sure she were older than I be now. She stayed on around a month. Worked hard, said little. No one asked more of her than that she do her share. And she left as she came, without a word. And was she now such an old one? And were there more besides herself and Sy? What brought the old to such madcap travels? It tickled her to think of the old folk, all stick-in-the-muds if you'd believe the young, with passion and desire pursuing an aim no more and no less material than a sunbeam. It made her chortle as she walked. The picture of Sy in all her circus color tumbling about the countryside and of herself crouched in groves of trees like an old bear. The track which had been fairly straight and wide to this point took a sudden turn and grew narrower. Dora stopped and listened, suddenly wary. She felt the village just ahead of her and could hear faint morning sounds of water splashing, children shouting. A donkey brayed somewhere off to the right. Taking time to move quietly she 35 made her way into the trees off the path and to the left. Once she was sure she was fairly well hidden, she sat down with her pack still on her back and listened again, this time for her own guide. And she had a long wait of it. She was getting hungry, and the sounds of the village had become quite familiar when she felt tugged further off to the left. She started to get up but fell down again because her left leg had gone to sleep. She would have laughed if she hadn't been so pothered. Did anything ever go in straight lines? When she wanted the pesky mosquito that pulled her, she could wait until she died of hunger. When she didn't want it there was nothing else. She had to rub her leg and jump up and down to get rid of the pins and needles and that was quite a deed in itself with the pack on her back and all. And a sight to behold she supposed she was. When her leg was back to itself she turned herself inward again, unseeing, and began to walk. The pull was steady and strong. But it didn't last long. She had gone only a hundred yards or so when it faded, and she opened her eyes to see where she might be this time. She knew with a certain horror before she even opened her eyes. There was a bustle in the air, village noises right beside her, the dusty smell of paths walked all day in the sun. Just on the edge of the village itself, she stood in the shade of the trees that overhung the well. It's a hard thing indeed when your own guide that's supposed to 36 lead you right takes you into the midst of danger. Well, she guessed no one had ever said the right path was a safe one. She stood there looking at the place Sy had fled from only a little more than a day before. It seemed ordinary enough. A young woman with two buckets and a child hanging on each was walking towards her. Somebody further away was loading firewood onto a donkey. Children were scurrying about, fighting in the dust, playing hopscotch, chasing each other. But well and good to stay wary. Twas not her own village, not her own kind, and Sy's words stayed in her head, "anything they don't see every day in the cabbage patch . . . ". She couldn't from where she was see any old folk so she didn't know exactly what the cabbage patch looked like. And it was for this reason that she decided to pull back into the trees and take a more careful look before she ventured out into the open. And soon she was glad enough that she had. Out from one of the small houses came a man in his middle years and with him he dragged an old man, dressed as she was in drab, shapeless, dirty homespun. He was pulling on the old man and shaking him and cursing. "Ye know better than to open thy mouth fool", he was saying. "The old must be silent and unseen, not reminding us of our fates--to become dithering, dribbling gas bladders. Ye have broken with your family by your 37 complaining and no more shall ye live with us." He dragged the old man, who was whimpering and half resisting, to the edge of the village opposite from where Dora stood, and threw him on the ground. "Find your own way. I am finished with ye." He turned and walked away without looking back. Dora waited and watched for a long time. She was very afraid, both to remain where she was and to move. But she crept further into the shadows of the blessed trees and watched. She had to know what happened. The old man did not move. After what seemed half a day and just at a time when all activity in the village had seemed to cease, a small grey shadow came creeping out of the underbrush near the old fellow. Dora screwed up her eyes to get a better look. As far as she could see it was another small old person. Whoever it was moved painfully carefully and looked about her or him all the time. And then she saw another small grey shadow move slowly out from under the trees. The two bent over the old man and gently touched him. As they touched him the old man raised his head, and it looked as though they must be talking to him because he nodded and finally rose slowly first to his knees and then, with help, to his feet. The two on either side of him led him away into the trees. Dora let no time slip away. She went as fast as she could, without leaving the circle of trees, around to her right, across the track again, and over to the opposite side. The three figures had disappeared by 38 then but she could see scufflings in the leaves where the first old man had dragged his feet as he was led away. She followed the trail. It was not hard and she wondered why it was that the villagers didn't try to find out where the old man had gone. It would have been easy enough. The thought made her nervous, and she quickened her walking. She noticed then that the land around her began gradually to change. The trees thinned and were smaller. The ground which had been flat for days behind her began to have a chop to it. And she was walking uphill more often than down. She stopped and looked up in front of her. Oh, her breath was took away. Mountains upon mountains, up into the sky, gentle at first down here, but more and more ragged and dangerous, till far away they were black and swirling with cloud. She had to sit down. She'd heard stories of mountains all right but never seen them. So she sat for a while gaping, that's all she could rightly call it, mouth open like a fish. And she'd have to climb they, maybe even cross over. How in the blazes was a body sposed to do that? "But I must, so it do seem. Though by now I never can be sure just how a thing will come to pass. Seems best to think of it as done and not my doing." She had forgotten all--the village, old man, the trail--as she sat and looked at the great wall in front of her. She did not hear the soft rustle of footsteps coming 39 closer and finally standing right by her. The voice made her jump right out of her skin. "Could not be done without ye," said the voice. She turned so sharply that she nearly fell over, looked up at the figure standing beside her. The figure squatted down, and she stared into the face of a man about her age, dressed in the same drab, but what a different look from the beaten ones she'd been seeing on the road. The man's eyes sparkled and laughed and he gazed right at her as though fear had never touched him. He was worn with work and the weather right enough but not cowed. "Ye've been following us," he said. "We did not know until ye stopped. Ye are welcome to come with us." She watched him still without speaking. She knew better since Sy than to be rushed. He turned and waved toward a line of birch fifty feet or so away. A second or two after, the old man from the village, walking still stiffly and bent, and the other one she had seen came out of the small trees towards them. "Aren't ee afraid to be found?" asked Dora who suddenly became aware of how exposed they were. "No one cares", replied the man beside her. "Once we are gone, we are gone. They want as little to do with us as possible. That is why we are forbidden to leave our houses in the village. Death is the fault of the old if you'd believe them. But be sure we do not go out of our way to let them know we are well and alive. 40 "My name is Ham," he added, "I am sixty four." How strange to hear that said with such pride. Where Dora came from age was given small notice. You grow older. That is all. And maybe you grow wiser and maybe you grow weaker, but maybe not. Every person a new story. She said, "I am Dora. Do ee wish my age?" Just then the other two came up. The one was a tall woman, older than Dora. She had a limp and was very dark, both her hair and her skin. "Your age is your business," the woman answered. "We like to say it. It is our pride to have survived. I am Nan. I have 65 years. I was the first to be chased from the village--a troublemaker always." She laughed and turned to the old man with her who was as dark as she, and took his hand. "My father," she said, "Dov, is 80 years old. I would not speak for him were he not very tired." Dora looked up at both of them and bowed slightly as she sat. "I followed ye from the village. I saw ye struck down mister and I was in no mind to be likewise struck. A woman I met on the road just now had been chased for her life from that same place." Ham interrupted, "Ay we saw that. Could do little about it, though we led them astray after she went off the path." Dora nodded, "I tried to avoid the village but could not. I need your help. I am going on into the mountains. Do ye live far?" 41 The others stared as at a mad thing. "Ye'll venture into the mountains?" asked Nan. "A fool ye, then. None we know have done more than climb the first peak. There be no end to they. And there be lions and wild things. If they don't eat thee the cold be enough." Dora laughed. "Get on with ye," she said. "D'ye think I talk lightly? D'ye think I'd go had I the choice? I must so I must and I shall go, like it or not. But I need rest and I need knowledge and I be hungry as a lion myself. Do ye live far?" "Not far," said Ham. "Come." 42 V Dora got herself up, hitched the pack higher on her back, and the four of them started on toward the mountains. Nan and Ham walked on either side of Dov supporting him a little. He still had not spoken. They must have gone a good ways, and the sun was high above them, the ground growing steeper as they walked, when they came up over a small hill and saw below them and tucked into a hollow between three hills a small spiral of houses similar to the village they'd all left behind earlier that morning. It was a quiet place. There were no children for one thing. Any tasks that were being done were carried out slowly and with a minimum of clatter. A group of people were talking by the well, a woman was leading in a donkey piled high with firewood from off to their right, a man was sharpening his tools, and another woman was stoking an outdoor oven at what looked and smelled like the village bakery. "The farms are farther on," Ham said and waved vaguely opposite them and to the right. "Most people will be out working." Then he made a strange call back in his throat, 43 high and wailing like a marsh bird, to warn the folk, Dora guessed, and tell them there was no danger. They made their way down the hillside along a path that looked no more trodden than a goat path. As Dora looked about her she could see no broad track leading to the place, only these same little paths coming in over the tops of the hills. Dov was looking around him as wondering as she. They came down to the first row of small houses, and the ones who had been about the village came to meet them. They were all about Dora's age or older. "Hey Nan, who've we here?" one of them called. "My father, Dov, she replied, "and a woman who followed us. Her name is Dora and she is travelling, wishes to go into the mountains." Nan raised her eyebrows and rolled her eyes, and all of them laughed. "She'll soon change her mind once she sees how good we live," said another woman and patted her stomach. "Don't mind them," said Ham in a loud voice to Dora. "Likely they're jealous. They're such a lazy lot. Come over here. We'll get ye something to eat." The group broke away to lead Nan's father to a house which Dora supposed must be Nan's near the middle of the village. Dora followed Ham over to the oven she'd been watching before. The smell of fresh bread was almost enough to set 44 her into a run. But she held herself back and waited while Ham called to the woman who'd been stoking the fire. "We've a hungry one here Letty. Have you food?" "Have I food? What sort of a question is that? For sure I have food. Tis my business." The woman came out of the darkness of the hut she was working in pulling dough off her hands and wiping them on a big white apron that covered her from neck to knee. "What'll you need?" Ham waved at Dora and told Letty that for now they just wanted some lunch. "We brought in Nan's dad from the village," he added. "And this is Dora. There's four of us will eat I think. Nan and I were out since early." "They seem to be more deadly these days." Letty was taking cheese from an earthenware crock that stood in the shade of the bakery eaves. "I'm always afraid they'll not be satisfied with getting us beyond the boundaries. They'll want to know one of these days what happens to us. Much as they hate the sight of us they're smitten with the idea of death. They surely would have killed that old one the other night had you not led them astray." "Ay, tis true," Ham said as he took the platter of cheese from Letty. "I've thought on it meself. They're drawn to us old ones just equally as much as they hate us. Tis always so with such things." 45 Letty had now put new bread and the remains of a salad together on a board and she handed it to Dora. "We should make a more constant watch," she said over her shoulder to Ham. "We've had four seasons' turn in peace but we can't sit lightly on it." Dora listened and thought maybe the mountains didn't look so bad after all. She didn't fancy getting into a war. "Will ye have to fight?" she asked Ham as they walked a bit away from the houses to a table set out under an old oak tree. "I don't know," he said. Dora put the food down on the table, got out from under her pack, and they sat down on the long bench and started in. It was good. Crumbly white goat's cheese and dark warm bread with the salad's tang. No more questions until they'd finished. Dora had taken her flask of tea out of the pack before she sat down to eat, and they took swigs from it between bites. The other village was only a matter of nine miles or so away. Ham was looking off into that direction chewing a bit of twig. "Why did ye stay so close at all?" Ham looked at her and answered, "We wanted to be here for the ones that were pushed out after us. Some died before we were able to make our own place. And somehow the 46 madness that possesses the young folk makes them blind to certain common sense things. They don't seem to think we could still be alive. They think us unable to live and fend for ourselves." "But they may begin to wonder?" she asked. "Ay, so they may," said Ham. "And don't ye ever miss them, your own kin?" continued Dora, "Even though they be cruel and threw ye out?" "Ay, we do indeed, of course. But we can miss them as we may, tis all the same not safe to go back. There may even be ones among them who are not so ugly toward us, but we've no way of telling. There's no sign, for a great fear goes along with the blindness and that makes each one alike." "I would not be in your shoes," said Dora. Ham got up and pointed back toward the bakery. "I must find ye a place to sleep. Tis not so warm these nights. And then ye can look around and I must go find Nan and plan for tomorrow." As they walked back among the houses Dora asked, "Do the two of ye go out every day?" "Not always we. But someone goes. We and others take turns. But Nan and myself always go together. We're a team." It seemed that new houses were being built for those who might come and Ham led her to one at the end of the 47 outward spiral. It was on the left side opposite from where they had arrived and so had no view of the mountains. Dora was disappointed. She'd wanted to get up in the morning and go straight out to see them. Even see them from where she slept. But it was cosy and dry. There was a straw pallet in the corner and even a low table she could put things on. The floor was covered in rushes. Opposite the door was a pitcher, a cup and a large bowl for water. The little house itself was round, still over from the days when the people believed that having no corners kept demons out. There was a small fireplace and a rounded chimney to the right opposite the bed. It all suited her. There were no corners to catch dust. And there in the rafters already was a resident spider waiting for lunch. When Ham had gone, Dora put her pack down by the one small window that faced away toward the hills and laid herself down on the bed. She stared up at the web. Mother spider I thank you for this shelter, for the food and the welcome. These folk are good folk and I'm right glad of the company. I could stay here were I not atraveling. Do you look after they as ye look after me. I will rest afore going on. Pity they have no knowledge to give me of the mountains. But I shall make my way. Give me dreams little mother that I may journey with some sight. 48 The spider stayed unmoving on her web and Dora, unmoving on her bed, fell asleep. She dreamed she saw her old man at home and talked to him about the farm and the children and what she'd been doing for the last months. They sat in front of the fire as they'd used to do and shared the brown pot of tea. As she got up to leave, the old man got up too and came with her to the door. And there were the mountains very clear and free of clouds to be seen from her own door. She could see the whole of them from one side to the other and the height of them, where there were paths and where there were none, which parts were more clear of snow and which parts thick with it. She saw caves that would offer shelter, clumps of trees, springs of water, rabbit warrens, bird nests. And she saw that from one end to the other there were no folk living at all. The entire landscape was on her mind like a map. She turned to bid her old love goodbye, but he had gone and in his place was Sy who winked and pulled a piece of withered grass from the pocket of her top skirt to wave at Dora. The scarecrow that leaped up in Sy's place rustled its leafy clothes and whipped about, turned upside down and became a broom that swept, swept, in faster circles stirred the ground under Dora's feet faster and faster, everything spinning in a whirlpool until she couldn't stand and falling into the center disappeared. 49 She woke up on the bed in the same position she had fallen asleep. The image of the mountains was still firm and clear within her. She looked up to thank the spider, but the small creature had gone. Dora thanked her anyway. The light had not changed in the room so she must have been asleep only a few moments. She lay back and let her legs swing over the edge of the pallet. Dust was floating in a beam that shone down through the window, and dim noises carried in from the rest of the village. In a few moments she got up and went to unpack. The little blackened pot and her cup came out and sat together on the table. The bedding went down on the bed. Her twist of tea and the pipe and tobacco she set on the window sill. The few clothes that she wasn't wearing and an extra pair of boots she put under the bed. These small chores done, she went out to collect some firewood so she might light a fire and have a bit of tea. She turned away from the village toward the hill her window faced and began to climb keeping to the zigzagging goat paths. She knew very well she'd probably have to go a ways since she was not the only one with a fireplace. And the trees seemed small and far apart here. As she came toward the top of the first hill, she heard voices from over the ridge so she stopped and sat down to listen. She was not above a little eavesdropping when it 50 might put her straight about her standing in this place. She was not sure in this short time whether she recognized anyone's voice or not. They were arguing and it seemed, after a while, that they were talking about her. "Do anyone know who she be?" asked one. "Not a soul here. So how do we know what she be doing? How can we believe she really will go into the mountains? She could take news of us back to the village quick as a wink and we'd never know. Where be she now anyhow?" Another answered that Dora had been given the end hut by Ham and was there. "Well I don't like it I must say," the first voice went on. "If we begin to think like thee we'll all be stoning each other next and half an ear always for the whispers around, just like what we left behind," a third voice cut in. "And that for truth," said another. "And another truth--that ye can never keep out the evil by using it yourself. And if the evil will come so it will. The best way we can be is solid amongst ourselves and not each one peering over her shoulder for fear of the shadows." "And speaking of shadows," said a new voice that Dora recognized as Letty's, "I think we'll have our share before sundown. And I tell ye all I must agree with Ny we've no 51 need of such suspicions here. I've met the woman myself and I like her as much as I've seen. We've been through too much getting away from tyranny to start our own." Dora, sitting on the ground below them, realized that the sun was no longer warming her. Huge black clouds had swarmed up from the mountains and it was getting dark fast. She got up and on the spur of the moment walked up and over the top of the hill to where the small group was standing. She spoke to the startled faces that turned her way. "I heard your words and am glad ye've decided for me. Glad indeed. I've need of your friendship. No worry I'll betray ye. Do ye think they'd treat me any better than they have ye even did I want to go back? But back is not my way and nor is betrayal. What I have need of now is a bundle of firewood to keep me warm the night." One of the men smiled and replied, "We have a pile we all use. Ye're welcome to share it." Dora tried to see among the faces the one who had spoken against her but there was no trace of distrust on any. She turned and walked away down the hill slowly enough that they could catch up if they would. The man who had told her about the firewood came up behind her to show her the way. "I'm sorry for the suspicions," he said. "Some of it is bound to come with us. Tis not from nowhere our young learned their ways." And 52 Dora smiled for there seemed to be no secret darkness here that she should fear. 53 VI It was dark and the rain poured down on the small hut's roof. It sounded good to Dora. There was a fire in the hearth and rain drops hissed into it. She was warm and she felt safe in this dark and this rain. No one in their right senses would be out to attack a bunch of old folks in such weather. Not that anyone could credit the children of these people with much right sense. But she felt cosy and safe. They had all eaten a dinner of stew and more fresh bread in what seemed to be a special house near the bakery. She'd answered questions about her adventures, about her home and family, why she was on the road, about Sy, and finally had to tell them good night and rush away before she lost herself. It had been such a long time since she'd been part of a big gathering, and this one was all pointed at her. Then they had filled a huge bath with hot water and put herbs in it for her, let her soak her dirt and aches away; several of the women had come and rubbed her back and her feet until she nearly fell asleep in the water. So now sitting by her 54 little fire listening to the rain she was more at home than she'd been in months. And she noticed the spider was back. It seemed a lifetime since the night before when she had danced in the grove. Longer yet since Sy had walked away. So strange that for months she had walked mostly alone and even alone at the farms she had stayed and worked at. Then of a sudden there were people, and friendly ones at that, coming out of her ears. The ordinariness that had once been her life was strange to her, the village life, the gossip, the steady work, even in this not so ordinary place. Reaching over to the table she took her pipe already tamped and filled and lit it up at the fire. She leaned back against the bedding she'd rolled up in a pile behind her. I be not a staying woman now. Even were these uns not at war with their own kin I'd not be staying long. And the pull is already on me only a day spent here. She puffed on the pipe and blew the strong herb smoke into the room. The smoke spread a dream around her, memories of home despite her restlessness. Her children's faces, grown and not grown, wafted about her, even the small girl she'd had to give back to the earth so young. Her children, who lived in her heart wherever she walked, wavered in the smoke living their lives, growing their own food in their own homes, raising their own children and wondering about their errant mother. 55 She saw her neighbor Artemy who made more wine from every fruit and flower thereabouts than anyone and drank it all as well. Not that she didn't pour great libations over everyone and everything that came near. Hot medicinal for the children, toasts for all occasions, revivers for the old, just a nip for anyone at all and a drop for the earth every time. And she saw her old dear too, out walking the fields among the frosty clods after the grain was in. She saw him bend down to pick something out of the earth. It was something small and shiny, maybe a coin, but no, it looked more like a mirror as he rubbed it, very old and beaten up but a small round mirror. And dread in her heart when she knew his danger. For a beaten old piece of metal to him was a sightseer to her, and even from here in the smoke she could see clear enough. And she saw his body hung across a fence in the snow and knew life was gone from him. That's all she saw and that was enough. The pipe fell from her hand. Bolt upright on the floor, grey in the face and tears pouring down, she was sure she'd never see her old man in life again. Whether he were still alive or no, even that, she couldn't say. And it came to her like the clout of a mallet how much she could not go back, how completely she had left. What a fool, such a fool, and she beat her head with her hands. For some teenage fancy she'd left 56 behind all her heart's dearest. She could not forgive herself and would never. Dying, sure, was no harm and her own death might come alone in the snow for all that, but the love and companionship she had left was like a wound. She had somehow kept herself heartened by the home behind her and hadn't known it until now there was none. Or at least by the time she had turned herself about and made her way home again, she knew he would be gone. She tried to reach out in her mind to talk to him but all she heard was the lash of the rain on the roof. And that sound, so comforting before, became a voice that wailed with her across the night. She felt like a small lost girl, not the staunch adventurer she'd been making herself out to be. She jumped when the fire collapsed and burnt herself building it up again. And when the flames leaped in the fireplace, she curled up on the floor before it and wept. She had always kept it to herself that she could go back, if all turned out useless and a wild goose chase, if the mountains were too hard or the people too cruel, she could turn about and go back home. She had been playing. She could see it. And now there was no playing, no home to go back to. The comfort of the fire and the round house were a mockery, and she was tempted for the first time just to stay where she was and forget her stupid search, for the search 57 and her madness had ripped away the only value she really knew. Now there was nothing to stand on and the point had gone from it all. By the time the fire died again, the small round body of her on the floor was wrapped about in blankets and had cried itself to sleep. And strange to say, her dreams were clear and light, old dreams of harvest and dancing, the life that was gone, busy, full and unquestioned. They came like the moon's full light and washed her through. When she woke in the morning, she didn't know at first where she was. She lay dazed before the fireplace until she looked up and caught sight of the house spider above her. And with the thin thread of the spider catching her from grief and holding her together, she got slowly up and put the blankets away on the bed. It was all she could do not to lie down again and pass back into the world of her dreams. She didn't want to move or live at all here in this strange place. But she knew, when the moving is pain, keep moving. They are sweet and dull, the strong arms that pull you down into the slough. Once down she'd have no reason to get up again. So between her and the spider the thread wove what was here under her hand and what she knew to be true far away, keeping her together a step at a time to do the ordinary things she would do around the little house. 58 Pick up her pipe, oh dear one, from the floor and put it on the table, sweep the hearth, and the heart's pain, with the small twig broom they'd given her, and set the fire again, open the door, oh mother, to let in the new strong sun and the breeze that smelt of the rain. There were puddles everywhere but she didn't notice as she trod through them to go fetch water from the well. The people up and about said good morning to her but she barely heard and must have seemed strange to them. She could feel them looking after her when she made no reply. There was no one getting water, and she bent over the lip to look deep where a faint reflection glinted from the pool below. She stood just so for a good while, then began to speak into the water's echo. The village folk left her alone. Into the well she could talk to her dear old man dead already or not dead and she must make her love clear, and they could go on to whatever was meant for them next. She was not afraid so long as they went each on their own journey, apart, hand in hand. She knew this time the words went through. She could feel the fullness in her heart that was an answer. And she knew she would go on just so speaking to the dead and the living. To do that and be answered now was the only home she had. She looked up at the bucket hanging on its beam above the water and she slowly turned the handle to let it 59 down, heard the splash as it hit and felt the heaviness of it as it filled. And she slowly wound it back up careful it shouldn't hit the sides and spill. Grab the handle and lift it out over the stone edge, pour from it into the pitcher she had brought with her the water clear and cold and full of her conversation, then wind the bucket back up. She carries the pitcher back to her little house, pours some water into the bowl for washing and some into her pot for boiling. Light the fire that lies ready and hang the pot over it. While the pot heats splash cold water from the bowl onto her face and then stand at the door in the sun and the breeze letting the water dry in its own time. The water in the pot boils, a cup of tea for herself and another in the cup that had been already in the house when she came. Both cups sit on the table and she before them musing. One cup she puts across from her and the other in her hands to drink, nods across the table, sips her tea tasting it carefully and gazes across, sometimes out the window at the yellowed grass of the hills, all this in the utmost silence. The other cup of tea with its amber light is carried out the door and poured gently under a red geranium, the cup washed out and put away. Probably no one will understand, but I don't know myself what I will do afore I do it. Grief takes care of itself. I must tread my own path and that path lies just 60 under the skin, carefully felt and acted upon, the edge within leading to the edge without. What is written with the breath is enough and more than enough, a promise that means more than breath itself and will continue when breath is past. We will listen my dear, together. When you said you would not come I did not believe you first and when I did believe, I nearly did not go. Now we travel together, you in your way and I in mine. I am sad not to feel you warm next to me but glad that you are warm within, love. VI It was dark and the rain poured down on the small hut's roof. It sounded good to Dora. There was a fire in the hearth and rain drops hissed into it. She was warm and she felt safe in this dark and this rain. No one in their right senses would be out to attack a bunch of old folks in such weather. Not that anyone could credit the children of these people with much right sense. But she felt cosy and safe. They had all eaten a dinner of stew and more fresh bread in what seemed to be a special house near the bakery. She'd answered questions about her adventures, about her 61 home and family, why she was on the road, about Sy, and finally had to tell them good night and rush away before she lost herself. It had been such a long time since she'd been part of a big gathering, and this one was all pointed at her. Then they had filled a huge bath with hot water and put herbs in it for her, let her soak her dirt and aches away; several of the women had come and rubbed her back and her feet until she nearly fell asleep in the water. So now sitting by her little fire listening to the rain she was more at home than she'd been in months. And she noticed the spider was back. It seemed a lifetime since the night before when she had danced in the grove. Longer yet since Sy had walked away. So strange that for months she had walked mostly alone and even alone at the farms she had stayed and worked at. Then of a sudden there were people, and friendly ones at that, coming out of her ears. The ordinariness that had once been her life was strange to her, the village life, the gossip, the steady work, even in this not so ordinary place. Reaching over to the table she took her pipe already tamped and filled and lit it up at the fire. She leaned back against the bedding she'd rolled up in a pile behind her. I be not a staying woman now. Even were these uns not at war with their own kin I'd not be staying long. And the pull is already on me only a day spent here. 62 She puffed on the pipe and blew the strong herb smoke into the room. The smoke spread a dream around her, memories of home despite her restlessness. Her children's faces, grown and not grown, wafted about her, even the small girl she'd had to give back to the earth so young. Her children, who lived in her heart wherever she walked, wavered in the smoke living their lives, growing their own food in their own homes, raising their own children and wondering about their errant mother. She saw her neighbor Artemy who made more wine from every fruit and flower thereabouts than anyone and drank it all as well. Not that she didn't pour great libations over everyone and everything that came near. Hot medicinal for the children, toasts for all occasions, revivers for the old, just a nip for anyone at all and a drop for the earth every time. And she saw her old dear too, out walking the fields among the frosty clods after the grain was in. She saw him bend down to pick something out of the earth. It was something small and shiny, maybe a coin, but no, it looked more like a mirror as he rubbed it, very old and beaten up but a small round mirror. And dread in her heart when she knew his danger. For a beaten old piece of metal to him was a sightseer to her, and even from here in the smoke she 63 could see clear enough. And she saw his body hung across a fence in the snow and knew life was gone from him. That's all she saw and that was enough. The pipe fell from her hand. Bolt upright on the floor, grey in the face and tears pouring down, she was sure she'd never see her old man in life again. Whether he were still alive or no, even that, she couldn't say. And it came to her like the clout of a mallet how much she could not go back, how completely she had left. What a fool, such a fool, and she beat her head with her hands. For some teenage fancy she'd left behind all her heart's dearest. She could not forgive herself and would never. Dying, sure, was no harm and her own death might come alone in the snow for all that, but the love and companionship she had left was like a wound. She had somehow kept herself heartened by the home behind her and hadn't known it until now there was none. Or at least by the time she had turned herself about and made her way home again, she knew he would be gone. She tried to reach out in her mind to talk to him but all she heard was the lash of the rain on the roof. And that sound, so comforting before, became a voice that wailed with her across the night. She felt like a small lost girl, not the staunch adventurer she'd been making herself out to be. 64 She jumped when the fire collapsed and burnt herself building it up again. And when the flames leaped in the fireplace, she curled up on the floor before it and wept. She had always kept it to herself that she could go back, if all turned out useless and a wild goose chase, if the mountains were too hard or the people too cruel, she could turn about and go back home. She had been playing. She could see it. And now there was no playing, no home to go back to. The comfort of the fire and the round house were a mockery, and she was tempted for the first time just to stay where she was and forget her stupid search, for the search and her madness had ripped away the only value she really knew. Now there was nothing to stand on and the point had gone from it all. By the time the fire died again, the small round body of her on the floor was wrapped about in blankets and had cried itself to sleep. And strange to say, her dreams were clear and light, old dreams of harvest and dancing, the life that was gone, busy, full and unquestioned. They came like the moon's full light and washed her through. When she woke in the morning, she didn't know at first where she was. She lay dazed before the fireplace until she looked up and caught sight of the house spider above her. And with the thin thread of the spider catching her from grief and holding her together, she got slowly up and put 65 the blankets away on the bed. It was all she could do not to lie down again and pass back into the world of her dreams. She didn't want to move or live at all here in this strange place. But she knew, when the moving is pain, keep moving. They are sweet and dull, the strong arms that pull you down into the slough. Once down she'd have no reason to get up again. So between her and the spider the thread wove what was here under her hand and what she knew to be true far away, keeping her together a step at a time to do the ordinary things she would do around the little house. Pick up her pipe, oh dear one, from the floor and put it on the table, sweep the hearth, and the heart's pain, with the small twig broom they'd given her, and set the fire again, open the door, oh mother, to let in the new strong sun and the breeze that smelt of the rain. There were puddles everywhere but she didn't notice as she trod through them to go fetch water from the well. The people up and about said good morning to her but she barely heard and must have seemed strange to them. She could feel them looking after her when she made no reply. There was no one getting water, and she bent over the lip to look deep where a faint reflection glinted from the pool below. She stood just so for a good while, then began to speak into the water's echo. The village folk left her 66 alone. Into the well she could talk to her dear old man dead already or not dead and she must make her love clear, and they could go on to whatever was meant for them next. She was not afraid so long as they went each on their own journey, apart, hand in hand. She knew this time the words went through. She could feel the fullness in her heart that was an answer. And she knew she would go on just so speaking to the dead and the living. To do that and be answered now was the only home she had. She looked up at the bucket hanging on its beam above the water and she slowly turned the handle to let it down, heard the splash as it hit and felt the heaviness of it as it filled. And she slowly wound it back up careful it shouldn't hit the sides and spill. Grab the handle and lift it out over the stone edge, pour from it into the pitcher she had brought with her the water clear and cold and full of her conversation, then wind the bucket back up. She carries the pitcher back to her little house, pours some water into the bowl for washing and some into her pot for boiling. Light the fire that lies ready and hang the pot over it. While the pot heats splash cold water from the bowl onto her face and then stand at the door in the sun and the breeze letting the water dry in its own time. The water in the pot boils, a cup of tea for herself and another in the cup that had been already in the house 67 when she came. Both cups sit on the table and she before them musing. One cup she puts across from her and the other in her hands to drink, nods across the table, sips her tea tasting it carefully and gazes across, sometimes out the window at the yellowed grass of the hills, all this in the utmost silence. The other cup of tea with its amber light is carried out the door and poured gently under a red geranium, the cup washed out and put away. Probably no one will understand, but I don't know myself what I will do afore I do it. Grief takes care of itself. I must tread my own path and that path lies just under the skin, carefully felt and acted upon, the edge within leading to the edge without. What is written with the breath is enough and more than enough, a promise that means more than breath itself and will continue when breath is past. We will listen my dear, together. When you said you would not come I did not believe you first and when I did believe, I nearly did not go. Now we travel together, you in your way and I in mine. I am sad not to feel you warm next to me but glad that you are warm within, love. 68 VII Dora hadn't spoken to anyone for a day and a night. It wouldn't have been right, would've been a sham. Even at home in her own place would've been the same. There needed time for a settling. She had sat for a long time at the small table in the house she'd been given, part of the time thinking and some of it completely vacant, only sitting, some of it crying again or angry. She hadn't felt the need to eat, but the two cups had been filled again and emptied. She was alive but shifted, and the shift had to be felt and accomplished or she would not be she. More time she spent walking outside up the hills and around the small canyons and creeks that cut down among them. She wasn't out to admire the landscape. It was the caress of it she needed, just to walk there, the real hardness of it, the season changing, small sounds keeping her company without any demand. She didn't look up at the mountains this day. They were too grand. Just walked and noticed small things, sometimes noticed not much at all. 69 When she came back it was evening, the long shadows pointing. She could hear laughter from the dining house across the village. She fetched more wood from the pile, another pitcher of water from the well and turned in through the door of her house, closed the door behind her. There was a plate of hot stew on the table and a cup of broth, and someone had lighted the fire while she was at the well, but not a sign that anything was expected of her. She wasn't used to such tender treatment and it made her afraid. But she knew that somehow they understood and were giving her room to breathe. So she sat herself down at the table and ate the food, tasting every bite as though she'd never eaten solid fare before. It was good and filling, flavored with fresh herbs, and it brought a kind of joy to her, a satisfaction and a sleepiness. So, simply, she went to bed and fell asleep watching the shadows from the fire prance on the ceiling. . . . The early morning light that woke her was grey and it matched her loneliness. There was no relief from either. She lay still a long while getting to know this grief, the aloneness that would not go. It was hers now to live with. She realized she had never been alone before. There had 70 been her family and friends as she grew up from a child. There had been her own family after she married and always the crowd of the village nestling her. All her life was like a kind of sleep, and she was suddenly surprised that she had ever had enough sense of aloneness to leave at all. Now there was pain to it but there was also the clearness. She began to understand a little of the outsider. Being a villager always herself, she had never known what to make of that other part of the world, the part that had no home and that looked in through her windows. They had come through, the peddlers, fair folk with the jugglers, musicians, and acrobats, gypsies, tinkers. And there were those ones who always seemed to move on though they were trying to stay, the ones who meant to settle, who farmed a little and lost the crops, or who just didn't seem able to keep to one place for that long. And the ones who were so different no one knew what to say to them. And she'd always looked with some suspicion and quite a bit of her own satisfaction at their unknown faces. At least she had known who she was. And now here she was with that clarity and the loneliness. She drifted in and out of dreams, lazily waking and sleeping in the warmth of the covers, a thing she could not remember having done before in her life were she not ill. And it wasn't until the hunger drove her that she up and 71 dressed herself. The day was no brighter by that time, and her own spirits were also quiet and low lying. She didn't want to meet with anyone yet, not talk nor disturb her settling. But she went out. The air was warmer than she'd thought and smelled of rain. She could see Letty by the bakehouse and she went over there to find a bite. She didn't have to say a thing. The woman already had a meal in hand by the time she came to the door. As she handed it over she put one hand on Dora's arm just lightly. Even that was nearly too much. Dora looked up and met Letty's eyes for a moment then turned and went back with the food. The people here were friends and protectors of death. They had been driven from their homes for being close to it, for betraying signs of it. They knew the signs and respected them in her. And she knew there was no need for thanks. It was how they lived, that was all. But then she thought it strange that they would give her so much of what she needed in this inner journey but yet scorn her travel into the mountains. But there was always a place of blindness. What was hers she wondered? Hard to see one's own. She stopped before her door a moment before going in and leaned her head against the warm wood of the lintel. She was still hurting, like an animal, and wanted to hide. 72 She was afraid to know how long this healing would have to go on. And how long indeed would the folk of this village support her idle while she found out? She suspected they would suffer her as long as she needed. And she wished they wouldn't. She was left with her own fear that it was forever she would need. But what was she waiting for? She would never be the same old Dora, a village woman all comfortable inside and capable, no room for doubt, gazing at the world from a cosy corner by the fire. Was that what she wanted, to be the same again? Well that was not to be had. This territory was more strange even than the mountains. I be lost in my own self, swimming like a cat and as willing. When I jumped into this I thought I was held to shore by a line. The line broke. Now I bain't sure which direction be where. P'raps tis as much sense to go one direction as t'other. All I can rightly do for now anyway is let the water take me. And I thought I knew, I thought I did. At the least I thought I knew what to listen for. How to find the direction. Where I be now, directions don't have much meaning. Her forehead was still pressed against the warm wood. She looked down at the platter still in her hands. A cold breakfast is certain anyway, never mind no directions. There be always that to keep a hold on. The body will eat, 73 breathe, and shit. The kettle boils on the fire, and the fire goes out untended. If I be not to turn my face to the corner and die like a sick bird, there will be things come to hand that give me direction enough. The cat do hate water right enough but she do swim if she fall in. Dora had to chuckle, and that was the first in a long while. She had a picture of herself dripping wet and skinny like a cat with a terrible miserable expression on her face but swimming away all the while and miaowling mightily. She suddenly had the greatest longing to be comfortable again, only for a minute, just for a moment. Just to be an ignorant old farmwife again, twouldn't be for long, a little rest is all. She was getting too clever by far and it hurt. If she couldn't see she'd be quite fine thankyou dearie. But the line were broke and so it were. No going back now, no cosies, and no cuddling up. Tis the wilds for I. She quite ached to turn about and lay her down in a warm place and go to sleep. Let the muzzies come. But it were no good. She'd gone too far already. She knew too much. And the strong mountain air was calling. No more sleep. 74 VIII It was days before she came round to talking to anyone. And just as she'd thought, her meals were there for her, and no one so much as stared at her unasked. "We saw thee amourning," said Letty when Dora broke her silence to thank her for the food. It was matter of fact. The stillness of those days still swirled inside her, she found it hard to speak. But she could see Letty didn't want any explanation. On the fifth day she had taken the second cup from her house into a canyon of yellow clay farther toward the mountains than she'd yet gone. There she broke the cup against a great green flint that stuck out from the canyon wall, carefully, without losing a piece, and buried the whole under a windbent cedar, a hawk feather next to it pointing the way she would go and haw berries for the winter months to come. The tears she shed ran down without sound, and she bent her head for a long time. She felt older, much older, and more quiet. And strange to say, strong on her own feet, not lonely. 75 That evening she went for supper to the dining hall. Though no one said a word or even looked up when she walked in, she could feel the welcome. Her heart pained her and she knew it would be hard leaving this place. They seemed to understand what she needed before she even breathed it, just like a mother to her babe. She sat down next to Ham and Nan who were talking quietly. They had brought home Letty's sister who was ill and might not live. And, worse for them, one of the other couples on watch was afraid they had been seen. Some noise had gone up from the village, and a small party came out with torches to search but they gave up shortly. Nan said she was worried they had only stopped because it was dark and they could all feel a storm coming up. No one knew whether the young folk "over there" suspected they'd seen more than a couple of strays, whether they'd wait for the light and go on with the search. Dora remembered as she sat how she and Sy had cowered together in the grove of trees while the shouts and torches rushed by, how afraid she'd been and how they'd both cried. She hadn't thought of Sy in days and suddenly wondered what that strange creature might be doing. Sniffing out trouble somewhere else no doubt. She couldn't imagine Sy settling into this old people's village as she had done. Sy would have been out reading 76 hands and sizing up the folk here with her quizzical look, shaking her colored clothes about and snapping at people. You wouldn't want that woman along when you were trying to fade into the crowd that's for sure. There was no one here like her at all. And Dora realized that she missed the old scallywag. Sy had been right. Even though these villagers were the salt of the earth, honest, considerate, mothering folk, they seemed concerned only with guarding what they had. She hadn't met a one that looked for something beyond the village life, even though it was different enough here. But no, that was rubbish. Where did such silly thinking come from? For why had they given her such respect in her need? Hers was not the kind of necessity you recognize by its weight or smell. But they had known in an instant what had happened to her and that she had needed to be alone. They had not questioned the ways in which she had had to speak to her knowledge. In her own village she would have had respect enough, given the presence of a corpse as evidence to the eyes, and there would have followed the traditions for burial and honor for the widow. But here was no corpse, and it was the inner change that had earned the nourishment she was receiving. Dora had been eating without tasting as she wound about in her thoughts. She had come late and when she looked up, 77 she saw that most of the others had got up and gone already. Mat and Nan had left without her noticing. She wished they'd said something. She was too much in herself at this moment. That was a sign to her at least that she was ready to come out and speak and be whoever it turned out she was going to be from now on. But she knew that they would leave the approach up to her and they would expect her to be different. Not, she thought suddenly, that they knew her that well. It was a bitter sudden thought and left her sad again. She turned herself about on the bench to see who was still there with her. Only a couple of folk. Two men were deep in a lively discussion at the other end of her table. They waved their gnarled and dirt pitted hands in the air and slapped the boards for emphasis. It seemed they were talking about the best method of plowing a steep, narrow field they'd been working on that day. She knew the problem and was half tempted to join in. It was solid fare enough to keep her from her darkness. But she sat still instead and watched them, half listening to the argument. She noticed without quite seeing, in a corner behind her and to the left of her an old woman dressed all in black, from the tight scarf covering her hair to the black tips of her toes poking under the table. She was very small, this one, and she was eating 78 slowly and with great pleasure first a bite of the dark bread and then a sup of the thick stew. As Dora turned more to look at her she could have sworn the old one was watching her too though you couldn't be sure the way she would bend way over her bowl almost with her nose into it. Dora had finished her own meal and got up to take the wooden plate and heavy mug to add to the pile near the door. When she'd put them down with the others she turned back, for something about that ancient woman drew her. She was much older than Dora, could have been her mother for age. And she was all darkness. She seemed in the strangest way to absorb the light there was from lanterns about the room and the fire. And that made it hard to see exactly what she looked like. Dora knew that she herself was still in a sort of dream and could not quite trust her sight. But the way the old one devoured her dinner was real enough. Before she moved again, Dora looked around the room completely and saw the only people she hadn't noticed, a man and woman who were eating slowly without speaking and sitting so close together they touched sides. They were both broad and round faced and looked rather careworn but infinitely good natured. She turned back toward the corner where the old woman was wiping her mouth with the edge of a none too clean shawl. 79 The biddy pushed her plate away and fumbled in a big pocket for something, brought out a battered old pipe and tamped it. Then she looked up without hesitating and beckoned Dora toward her. Dora jumped. Somehow she'd felt invisible, maybe because she'd been alone for so many days, but she realized she'd been standing there gawping like a child. She tried to look what she thought a woman her age would look and walked toward the corner where the old one sat back on her bench leaning against the whitewashed wall. As Dora got closer the flickering of light toward the old woman faded and Dora could see better who she was approaching. The old face was crabbed like last year's apple, brown with wind and sun, and small like a bird's. Her eyes were black as Dora's own and unreadable. The woman proferred her pipe and asked in an old crow's voice for Dora to light it. Dora took it in her hand and turned toward the fire. Somehow the weight of this pipe was so familiar to her that she raised it up at the fire to get a better look. It was so like her own, be it more worn and darkened with age, she would have turned on the old one and accused her had the pipe not been so battered. And anyway she felt the lump of her own in the pocket against her leg. So she took a flaming twig and placing the pipe against her lips, puffed away at it until the herb was glowing in the bowl, tossed the twig back into the fire and raised 80 herself up. She turned toward the corner looking down at the pipe in her hands and walked back. Almost there she put out her arm and looked the old woman in the face to give the pipe back. She'd been going to ask her where she had gotten it, thinking the old one might have been at her village at some time and have news for her. But as she raised her eyes in the flickering of the lanterns there was a rush of light toward the corner and the old woman seemed to vanish in a whirl of shadow. Dora closed her eyes. What was this now, a trick? She opened them again. There was no old woman. She turned and saw that the ploughmen were still arguing, their backs turned, the couple had left. Too much, this was too much. She went right up to the bench and bent over, felt it with her finger tips and found it was warm. She had to sit down then herself. She looked at the pipe in her hands and swore. It was her own this time right enough and for sure, not the age darkened one she had held just a few minutes before. She sat there with the mystery burning her and couldn't shake off the feeling that she was dreaming. She had to go talk to someone. Her own pipe that she had felt in her pocket just now was gone and here she was holding it lit in her hand. She must be going mad. But the bench had been warm. She sat still and put her head down on the table, suddenly looked up and there was the plate 81 sitting just as the old woman had left it. She had been there. Dora turned and looked out of the small window in the wall behind her. Just darkness. Put her head down again and decided not to think. Thinking would do no good anyhow. The old woman had been there and now she was not. The pipe had not been hers and now it was. There was no point in cogitating over that. Simple enough. She got up and took the plate the old woman had been eating out of. As she lifted it off the table something fell out from under it and drifted to the floor near the wall. She put the plate down again and bent to look. It was a feather, a hawk's wing feather. She straightened up and sighed. Why not just pen a note or read a proclamation to me, dearie? Not that I could read. The feather of course was pointing through the wall in the direction of the mountains. She would go back to the little house and pack her things. 82 IX The wind was picking up as she went out into the dark, but a warm glow came from the bakehouse door, and she went still unthinking toward it. The smell of breakfast's bread and burning cedar drew her on, and Letty came to the door to throw out a bowlful of water as Dora walked up. She could see that the baker was straining to make out who she was in the darkness so she called out her name. "Be I, Dora." "You're back," said Letty. "Welcome." "I be here," replied Dora, "at least in a manner of speaking I be. There's goings on about me that I must speak of. I be fair flummoxed myself when it comes to understanding." They were standing now in the lighted doorway of the bakehouse, the warm scented air of it breathing about them, and Letty drew Dora in and shut the door behind them. "I know ye are gifted," Letty told her. "That we've all agreed. So anything may happen around ye. No surprise." 83 "Seems tis only I be surprised," said Dora. She described the old woman she had seen in the dining hall and asked if there were any such in the village. Letty shook her head. "I thought as much. She up and vanished on me, and the light were that strange. Asked me to fire her pipe which turned out to be my own and then vanished. I be tired to death of strange happenings I'll tell ye now. I wish I were home in my own bed." Letty laughed. "I dare say ye have no choice woman." She put a sudden compassionate arm round Dora's shoulders. "Ye have the sight and ye cannot give it back." "Easy for you," Dora muttered, feeling like a small sulky girl. Letty laughed again, and strangely Dora felt safe enough to let out her sorrow in company. "My old man be gone," she cried out in the warmth of Letty's arm, and she let herself weep as she only had alone in these last days. "Ah one, tis the way with the old," said Letty and held onto her all the while. "I be changed and a stranger. I have no home," Dora sobbed, and the feeling of it swept her away again, though all the while she could see with that strange clear eye of hers that had she no home indeed, she would not be weeping in this kind woman's arms. And the telling of her sorrow made her feel whole again. 84 After a while, they sat together on stools in the heat of the great ovens. Dora relighted her pipe and told Letty about her beloved home and her family. She told her what her life had been, one village woman to another. There was instant understanding between these two whose lives had not been unalike. Letty too had grown up in the warm arms of village women, danced with her friends at season's turn, known only sorrow that was cushioned by an old and right way to bear it. They had each married young and happily and borne their first child straight away. Then there was the work year in and year out, bearing and raising the children, keeping the woman's side of the farm going, always so close to the ground neither ever thought to look for a horizon. And Dora told Letty what her life had become, how strange it was to her still. She could see when she spoke of the edge and of her need to know, that Letty understood the need at least. A great relief came into her like a sigh that she was known. Tis one thing to be seen by a strange bird like Sy, another altogether to be understood by this village woman, not so different from herself. She didn't feel quite the outcast she had. As she was talking, she remembered the feather lying on the ground pointing toward the mountains and what she'd heard from Mat and Nan. 85 "I've a bad feeling about this night I have to tell 'ee," she said looking over at Letty. "I be sure as I may that I were told to leave this night. I were off to pack my things when I saw your light. Nan and Mat were talking over dinner of someone being seen at t'other village. A party came out for the chase but went back in the dark. My feeling bain't good. Be there some way to prepare?" "If there is and Mat and Nan feel the same way as thee," answered Letty, "it'll happen." "Well, why have we not heard?" asked Dora. "That I don't know." Letty got up then and put on a heavy black shawl that hung by the door. "Come." They headed, as far as Dora could tell in the thick blackness, for Nan's house. There was not a light to be seen except at the bakery behind them. A few fat drops of rain had started to fall, and Dora wished she'd brought her shawl to keep her warmer. She was shivering by the time they reached Nan's place. There were certainly voices to be heard from in front of them. Letty came to a stop, and Dora bumped into her back. Letty knocked and said her name, and the door was opened from inside. The only light in the small room came from the fire, and shadows of the ten or more people who sat there flickered up the walls and vanished across the ceiling. 86 "Come in," Nan spoke low. "We were about to send for ye." There was a silence then which lasted a while after Letty and Dora found places to sit on the earthen floor. Dora huddled as close to the fire as she could but found the press of bodies was enough to send the steam rising off her. Someone handed her a mug of broth, and she sat on her heels with her hands around the mug waiting. She felt more than a little uncomfortable, as though she'd dropped in by mistake on some stranger's funeral and sat with the family around the body at the wake. Nan spoke up at last, and her low voice carried clear enough above the wind outside though she spoke only just above a whisper. "There's no point in waiting for them to arrive," she said. "We've known long enough that we could not stay forever. They have seen us and that is enough." There was no argument, no questions, but someone was crying near the door. "Aye. It is hard enough this new way of living and hard enough to leave so far behind and fearing us the little ones we bore and raised. I do not understand it yet. But we cannot risk that they seek us out before the day. We must go straight away." She turned then to Letty who was still by the door and asked her if she was ready. "Indeed and have been a week or more," the baker replied. "There be only bare necessities left here and 87 those quickly smashed." Dora wondered what they were talking about. She looked at the people near her but couldn't see anyone as puzzled as she, only thoughtful faces, some worried, a lot sad. She was about to speak up when a man she couldn't see told them that all the ill and weak had been taken before sundown and that everyone else was ready to start. "Start what," she asked. Nan looked at her with surprise. "Of course, you don't know and no one has talked to 'ee the week or more. We're leaving. That's been the plan always. Another place is built and waiting further on toward your mountains there. We'll level this before we go and we have ways to make it look long left. Will 'ee come with us?" "The night being well on its way, I will indeed. Though to tell 'ee the truth, I was off to get ready to take my own path when Letty brought me here. I won't stay long with 'ee in the new place. I have a sign to go on." Nan wasn't laughing at her this time she noticed, maybe because no one was in the mood for laughing anyway, but maybe because they knew now what she was. It seemed she was the one who doubted herself the most. . . . 88 "So here I be packing again." The rain was falling in earnest. It beat on the roof as she moved about the little house by candlelight. It was different packing this time, for each thing had become a memory now instead of a practical thing. She began to feel as though she were carrying a memorial with her. Almost she wanted to leave it all behind there and bury it with the house. Twould be no bad idea. Dora looked about for mother spider but couldn't see her. She picked up her shawl, threw it over her head and went out into the pelting dark again. "I'll ask, so I will," she muttered as she closed the door behind her and headed toward the bakery. There was no light from the ovens this time, and she had to go by memory. Letty was there in the rain surrounded by a mass of smashed crockery. The ovens lay in ruins. Dora couldn't tell whether the wet on Letty's face was tears or rain or maybe both. Even in the dark and the rain Dora could see the people carrying dry brush into their houses. It was piled around the walls of the bakery. "I must ask ye," she turned to Letty. Letty nodded. "I would leave my things here behind me, for 'tis too much of a change in me to be carrying them on. If I do so, be 89 there enough in what ye have to provide for me when I go on? 'Tis perhaps too much to ask, being in such hard times as ye are." "No indeed, it is not too much. I believe every one of us is leaving something of ourselves behind. We have enough for your change as well as our own. The hard times are of the heart. Our heads and hands have made a good store." So Dora turned back to the house ready to leave the last of her old hearth behind, only the clothes on her back now, the purse close to her side, the pipe of course and last of the leaf. Her teapot even and the tea she'd leave there. There'd be more. The blankets were folded on the bed, and her spare clothes too. There wasn't much. She went out again to where folk were gathering up brush from a barn and picked up her own load to carry piles of it back to stack about the walls. Then, with all she would carry with her, she returned to find Letty. There was no one at the bakery. It was desolate. And she noticed that by now most of the people were gone. She went to one who was still carrying brush into a house nearby. "'Tis late to be here, and ye're not dressed for the work," he said as Dora came up. "Well I'll have to stay now unless there be still someone going on to show me the way." He scowled, and Dora 90 bristled. What'd he think, she'd be in the way? "What's to do? I'll lend what hand I can." "We've to fire this place now, woman, and then we'll rake what's left and cover the ashes with earth. Nothing was built heavy. It'll disappear. But stay you out of my way. We must hurry this up." He turned his back and bent to push more brush against the wall. Dora felt confused and scared. She'd be lost in the rush, not know her way to the new village and end up in the rainy dark alone with no supplies. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the first flame flush up. Why had Letty gone ahead without her? Had they all forgotten her in their own grief? The few people still around her were too busy to bother with her. She started to walk back to the house she'd just left behind, for good she'd thought. She'd better pick up her things and take them just in case. She was getting wetter and colder as she sloshed through puddles on her way. Flames were beginning to burst up all around her. Suddenly her panic ended. From the top of her head and the tips of her fingers where her own cold flames of fear were burning, a familiar warmth and weight descended until she stood solid on the earth again. Slow and quiet me old dear, no rushing, no terror, slow and quiet, we be here. She stopped and watched as the few left set their torches to the brush. There was time. She would 91 just wait. These all must work as fast as they might. She would watch. No fear now, just watching. What was that, this cold flight into madness? Twas a child crying inside her, needing to be picked up, a child left among strangers. Well she could pick up her own. The great fear of being lost and alone, she who had always been one of many with no need to face disaster by herself. But now there was need. There was need of a steady head, and that she had to be sure. But it was a steady village head she had, one that knew the ways of her own kind. Faced with alone and lostness she was no bigger than a babe and no wiser. So the voices of her travelling speak. And the new habits of listening. "I know I be still a village woman, and I know I never can be again. That life be gone. And this one begun. I be a new creature and strange to myself most of all. Who will I speak to? My own voices are the only ones that know this path. I cannot fall back to the village ways, all tradition and no doubt. Then I be lost." So she watched the flames roar even in the cold rain, sheltering herself under the great tree where she'd eaten the first meal with Ham. She saw them piling on more brush and saw the barn itself go last in a great shout of flame and sparks, and she looked on as the last died away into a glow. Then the people came with their picks and hay rakes 92 to pull wet earth over the embers. The glowing ashes and the village people moving about in clouds of steam that rose as the rain fell were like some dream. And Dora watched as the village she'd spent days in now vanished. All that was left were low mounds of earth still steaming under the rakes. Finally the people stood still, leaning tiredly on their tools, and looked at what they'd done. Some of them moved off and brought back branches and dead grass that they scattered over the ground to hide the barrenness. Dora realised that she could see even though the glow of fire was completely gone. Day was coming round again. And quickly as they saw it too, everyone gathered up the picks and rakes and began walking up the hillside toward the mountains. Dora followed. She was wet and cold but deeply tranquil. Her path and the path of these new friends of hers both led away from the lives they had known. But she could not confuse the two. She was learning to see a country inside herself alone. She would be scared, angry, lonely, sad, maybe. Uncomfortable certainly. But there was no other way. The edge was thrown ahead of her like a carpet, and her own feet knew the journey. 93 X They walked for a long time. The rain had lightened, but still drizzle fell, and it was only the steady walking that kept them warm. And they walked without speaking, well into the morning and longer. Someone passed back hunks of bread and dried fruit which they ate without stopping, and the sun finally dried the last misty rain. Grown hot and bright, it was shining in their eyes when they came to a stop at an outcrop of red rock that sent a cliff jutting up before them. The man Dora had talked to earlier called out with the same bird cry that Ham had given when she'd first arrived. They waited and still no one spoke. The warm rock rose above them. There were swarms of hover flies over the face of it, and plants with strange small greyish leaves growing out of cracks. They waited. A buzzard circled slowly on the updrafts. They were so much closer to the mountains here that the bulk of them was lost in looking at the first slopes. After they had stood a good while by that rock, and no one had appeared to welcome them, 94 they talked together in low voices, and one of the women, Susannah, said she would go quietly and see what was to be seen. She was a small, wiry woman and had her crinkly grey hair tied fiercely down on her head as though it might leap away if not confined. She disappeared back the way they had come with as little commotion as a stalking cat. Dora decided to sit. The warm sun was making her very sleepy, she already so tired from the night of waking. She put her back to the rock and lowered herself carefully down. But there in a moment was that same fellow had been so rude back at the burning. "Don't be sittin‟ down," he whispered fiercely and leaned over to pull her by the arm. "Take yere hands off me," she hissed and slapped at the hand on her sleeve. A woman Dora had seen before came over and squatted down where Dora was. "Go 'way, lout you be. I'll speak to the one." She directed a glare at the grumbling man and then turned to Dora. "Don'ee worry about him dearie. He sat on a stick to drink vinegar." Dora smiled. That was more like it. The woman went on, "But all the same we'll have to credit him. We don't know at all what we'll find here or what we may find. If we be not awake, all may get hurt. Something must 95 have happened for we get no answer to our call. We can't rest yet." So Dora raised herself up again and leaned against the soft warm rock, listened to the hum of the flies there. She almost did fall asleep anyway and jumped when Susannah appeared at the opposite edge she'd left from and as quietly. "They've been here and they've gone on," she whispered. She looked worried and kept glancing up and around at the slopes above them. "They left the sign. I'd say they were seen and knew it. Let some of us stay here for their return and th'others follow to that place. We don't know what they'll do." Dora couldn't imagine walking any more that day so she chose to stay with the three by the rock, even though there might be dangerous folk there. The others set off again, still carrying their picks and rakes, but crouching as they walked and using any cover they could find so as not to be seen from the hills. Dora thought they did very well. Still leaning into the warmth of the cliff she closed her eyes and cast about the space around her. She could sense no sign of human presences other than their own and she said so. She was still surprised when they accepted her word and visibly relaxed. It even worried her. How could they trust 96 her so? She might be making the whole thing up for all she knew. But trust her they did, and the end of it was they decided to walk down into the village itself for here they had built their new place. As they came around the face of the rock and down a narrow path that wound about that side, there was the same spiral form with a great tree at one end, a new bakery and dining hall, and the small neat houses. They climbed carefully, and Susannah, who had stayed, took and showed them where the firstcomers the night before had left an oval mound of ashes under the woodpile. The mound pointed on further into the mountains. Dora knelt by it and took some of the powder, cold and gritty, into her hands. She could feel great trouble in it. But still there was nothing nearby that frightened her, and the trouble was more confusion than danger. She had forgotten the three with her until she felt a hand on her shoulder. Susannah smiled down, her face a shining berry of brown crinkles, and pointed beyond to the ravines at the head of the valley. Squinching up her eyes Dora could see the small figures appearing from behind rocks, stepping out of crevices. She saw Letty at the same moment Susannah did, and as Dora stood up to wave Susannah let out a yell, pulled her fierce hair from its bonds and dashed away. 97 "Oh that we feared ye were lost," muttered Dora a little teary as she stood there waiting for the two of them to come to her. Susannah had leaped at Letty and whirled around her like a puppy. Dora could hear her laughing and scolding and chatting away all at the same time. Dora saw Ham and Nan walking slowly down from the red rock side. They touched the buildings softly as they came to them. When Letty and Susannah reached her, the three of them sat down by the wood pile, and Letty told the story. When they had arrived it had been still dark and hours to go before morning, but none of the ones who had come before, the ill and the very old, were sleeping. Instead they were all sitting before the fire in the dining hall, obviously anxious and whispering among themselves about the possibility they would be discovered even here. Those who had spent their time scouting their children's village and watching every day tried to reassure them. But in their helplessness, the old and lame, fear overcame the rational words. In the end, raining as it was and tired as they all were, Nan decided they should go out again to a cave they had found up among the ravines and overhangs toward the mountains further yet and spend the night there. Amidst a good deal of grumbling from some and a lightening of spirit for others, they picked up their packs and made their way, very slowly indeed since some of 98 the oldest had to be carried, up to the great cavern. And they had finally slept the night away in the dry dust of the floor there, out of the rain at least even if they were not home. In the morning, they had made breakfast there from the rations they had carried, eaten it in that quiet place of dustmote sunbeams and finally made their slow way back. The oldest and the ill had lost their fears with the light of day and the company of their friends. Letty stopped speaking, and they looked up at these people coming into the new village they had made. They watched as the last went or were brought to their houses and began being at home. Letty grabbed Dora's hands and said, "Come and see the things we have for you," pulling and pushing at Dora until they were both standing. Susannah followed as Letty hauled Dora away to the bakery to stop dramatically at a neat bundle stored by the side of the new ovens. She knelt down and lifted the pack out, turned and laid it at Dora's feet, her head bowed and touching the earth floor, one eye sly and glancing up for the reaction, just like a jackdaw thought Dora. Dora giggled. What else could she do? A few minutes past she'd been afraid this woman might be lost and now here she was playing madcap games on the floor. 99 Dora snatched up the bundle and flounced away. What a delight to be sure. The clean smell of the blankets, the soft weave of them. Where had they got these colors? She put the pack down lovingly on the broad table in the middle of the room, the table that was not yet ingrained with flour, and stood awhile, arms akimbo, smiling back at Letty and Susannah, before she turned to open the knot. The cloth fell away and there were new clothes, woollen, felt, and cotton, very simple, very soft, the same village clothes she'd always worn. And the colors were the same earth browns and greys, but here and there hidden among the threads were small patterns in wild reds, blues, and greens that wouldn't be seen unless you knew to look. There was a black shawl, thick and heavy, embroidered with fine wool in designs she hadn't seen before. And among the clothes were a shiny new pot for boiling water, a pouch with flint and steel, a flask, and several bags containing tea, tobacco, salt, and herbs medicinal and otherwise. Dora touched everything in turn soft and lovingly. She hadn't expected anything more than throwaways. Slowly folding the corners of the blankets back together, her face down, savoring the moment. What friends these. More than any at home, however long she'd known them. How loved she felt here. She could take it with her, this love, to keep her as warm as any of the blankets would. 100 Letty and Susannah were sitting by the ovens just looking, not wanting anything, comfortable and at home. Dora had another pang about leaving. Curse my crazy heart, taking me out on wild paths on my own away from the warmth of baking ovens, the friendship. Will I never be easy with what I be? Here I'd be loved, warm, independent, honored, and miserable. I have to go and that's that. And who knows what I be going on into? Could be most terrible, death, disaster, cold, hunger, loneliness. But go I will. There be no helping it. She said none of this aloud, gazing at the other two women from under her eyebrows, still stroking the soft blanket she had folded. She would leave sure enough, but not yet, surely not yet. She didn't even know this new place, had hardly met Susannah, wanted to use her lovely new things in comfort for a while. Well, so she would too. Another week wouldn't hurt any. Her thoughts were broken by Letty's laugh. "What are ye thinking, woman dear? Ye look like a thunder cloud. Are the things so bad then?" Dora shook her head and walked over to them, leaned her arm on Letty's shoulder where she was sitting there. "The things are so, good friend of mine, that they make me feel like staying and staying on, and yet I know I can't do it. I'd so dearly love to be here with ye all for all my 101 life. And I know I must go. No buts and ifs. It's onward for me. And it makes me sad." Letty nodded. "I can see ye clear. Tis not a staying woman ye be. And we'd have a most miserable old un on our hands if we made ye. But ye know where we be. We'll most likely not move again. And we'll keep our own not-so- sharpened ears open for ye. Let no trouble come to ye dear Dora. The things are a gift for going, not for staying. Our love with them." Dora was happy and sad, happy and sad, the two passing like the moods that flew over Sy's face. She drew up a stool and sat there with them, none speaking, musing, the three of them in the warmth for a long time. . . . Dora had a new house. It was almost the same as the old one, even being in the same place in the spiral. The pitcher was set opposite the door, the spider in the roof beams. She had put her blankets on the bed and her new pot on the table. She'd blackened the pot on the fire by now and had added with Letty's blessing a tin mug from the store in the dining hall. The days since they'd all arrived had been the sort that say goodbye to winter, rain and hot sun pouring down together. She'd worked in the fields with a 102 great sweaty crew, breaking sod and throwing out stones. Worked in the kitchen gardens clearing the winter deadgrass and putting out seedlings. She was lying here now after a day of solid work and just as solid a meal. They had bathed in the great tub of hot water, some of them laughing and splashing about, where they got the energy she couldn't imagine. Others just rested and stared at the ceiling drifting with the steam. She'd been among the latter. And here she was set to sleep, her last night among these folk, no more dilly dallying about, no more excuses. The days were warm enough, she felt strong and rested, and she'd been given mounds of supplies, much of it dried for light carrying. They'd made her a thistledown bedroll such as the old ones used on journeys, light as a feather and soft for the old bones. Twas a luxury she'd not known even in her own home. Tomorrow she'd leave. Mother spider, bless the journey. I be set to go. A while now I've looked toward the mountains, readying, learning to give up the old dreams and the old ways. I've been a lowland creature and still be, learning to be a quickfooted in the mountains. And the learning will go on. I've looked from here and that be one thing. I've seen in my dream. And that be one thing. To be there is yet not within me. 103 There be fear. There be uplifting. There be my bed on the rocks, and I've no liking for that. Will I eat, drink, be warm? What beasts be there? Tis like faring into one of those stories from my tiddler days. Giants, dragons, faery creatures, goblins, flying horses, speaking plants. Maybe it'll all be a great nothing after all. I'll turn about and come back here for nothing to see. She wishes, so she do. Well, half wishes. The comfy part and the mad goat leaping. Nan don't laugh no more anyhow. And no more do any other. I be not laughing over much myself. Strange that. Part of me do not believe what she sees and will rather not see more thank ye. Tis too much and too soon. Another part be pulling me, already on the first peaks and yelling. And then another, counselling, thinking it through and through, listening, planning the time right. And I be watching all three between weeping and laughter. Letty do say she'll come part way with me, Suzanne too. Dear hearts. They gentle me like a brood mare and coddle me like an infant. I've never been treated so since I were a littler. I know they do worry. But they trust me too, even if I do never see em more. Spider weaver I am blessed. Tis the stony road. But the jewels among the stones! I could live off the sight o they. There in my heart now the hawk lifts me up with sight and the wings fold down over the nestling brood. 104 Dora closed her eyes, still seeing the shuddering flame leaping from the fire against her eyelids, and she hunched over onto her side. The blankets were warm and soft under her chin, she wore the flannel nightgown Letty had sewn for her. What more could she want? Much more, curses be. Well, the morning would tell. Now sleep. Have to sleep. Slowly the dark overcame her as she huddled round her warm center, and dreams of to come and what were passed through her like water. A screech owl right outside the window drew no more than a sigh. . . . Breakfast was a farewell, and they all knew it might be forever. The food was a feast, Letty's best, the hot bread, sweet butter, fruit, mint tea, eggs, porridge. Dora stuffed herself, regardless of the climbing she'd be doing later. Who knew when she'd see such food again? There was singing and the telling of stories to do with travel and adventures, none of them, strangely enough, about these particular mountains. After they had eaten and sung for a good part of the morning, people she knew and some she didn't began to bring her small presents to take with her, useful things that a travelling woman might need like the section of bamboo with a thimble for a top that Ham had made and filled with 105 needles, thread and a tiny blade. There were a few purely decorative and thus also useful things, the necklace of shell beads that a stranger woman came and laid on her knees almost at the end. Dora looked up startled because of the beauty of them. They shimmered all colors and were warm in her hand, reminded her of Sy's magic shawl. The woman who had given them was already turned and leaving, a large boned strong woman. Dora recognized her as the silent one who had been sitting so close to her fellow that strange night Dora found the hawk feather. She almost called the woman back, for the beads were glimmering at her like water, and she wanted to ask if the other had seen the old biddy in the corner who'd up and vanished like smoke. But the words would not be spoken, and no harm done. Letty was looking puzzled when Dora turned to catch her eye wondering if she'd seen. Letty shrugged, "She be a strange one that, Arvid by name. I never have heard her speak, nor her nor her mate. They be as close as sowbugs to each other and will not share their closeness with a soul else. I think the beads were her mother's. Tis a strangeness beyond me that she's given them or anythin else to ye at all. There must be good reason for't." Dora could feel the beads, and there was no badness in them, only a pulsing warmth that made them a 106 great comfort to hold. She was glad and honored to have them. The crowd was beginning to scatter away, off to work some, off to sleep others who had eaten too much, and others gathering in small groups to talk about this and that. It was so in the middle of their lives that Dora left, and that was right. A continuation it was from breakfast to whatever lay next. The pack was ready and only needed a small adjustment to take in the gifts that she hid here and there in its folds. She hefted it up, lighter than the old one, and more in it too. Letty and Suzannah carried smaller versions since they were only coming a short way with her, no more than a day's journey anyway. They put their arms around each other and looked back down the valley at the bakery where the fires were smoking. They looked at Dora's house, the door ajar as though she might be in there. Several people waved, Nan among them, and the three waved back. So they turned to go, up into the ravines that headed steeply toward the bulk towering beyond. Clouds hid the tops when they tried to see, and it was colder in the shadows cast by the rocky walls. Dora was scared. Should she not be? But there were the backs of her two friends clambering up before her. She'd not be afraid. 107 XI They decided to stay the first night in the cave, the one they had all slept in when they'd arrived, all except Dora and Suzannah and the two with them. Dora wanted to make the first step a short one. She thought the other two might stay with her a little longer if they only went a small distance the first day. Though the cave was a good way up the main ravine, it didn't take them very long to walk to. The mouth of it was hidden completely from view behind a huge rockfall to the right of them, jagged chunks of red stone skidded haphazardly down in a pillar before it. At no time then was the cave ever brightly lit. Sunlight filtered in first thing in the morning and late in the afternoon. Between the landslid gate at the entrance and the walls of the ravine where water dripped and ran in small rivulets, tall ferns grew lush, and moss and small leaved plants covered the ground. Cliff swallows had built their tidy villages over the face of the rock and they were darting out and up, around and back, already bringing food 108 to the sitting hens. The three women stood and listened to the sound the wind makes there as it passes through the dry grass and around the stones. The sound was more quiet than silence. It was the voice of the mountain, and Dora shuddered at the loneliness of it. Letty felt and hugged her closer. "We be here all three for now. Let's make a fire and see what we have." Dora let her take charge, and Letty showed them a woodpile the village folk had made up here when they first had found the place. The three of them decided to build a small fire outside and they could move it inside after. They wanted the warm center. The ground in front of the cave where they built the circle for the fire was dry and stony, sandy colored, good lizard land. The walls of the ravine drew up raggedly against the sky, not high enough on the left to block the sun. When the first wood was burning, they sat around the heating stones and gazed into the young flames. Even sitting in the full sun of the early afternoon, they felt what comfort is in a fire. Dora knew she wouldn't be able to make one after that without feeling the three of them there. And that was the first goal reached. There was the crackling of the flames now to add to the wind sound, and after a while Letty began to hum, some old 109 tune that was like all those you can never forget but still can not quite remember. Dora closed her eyes and followed along, her voice picking up easily where her thinking would not have been able to go. Suzannah joined in. And so there were three voices weaving, the wind whispering, small noises of water dripping and high cries of swallows to the tune. It bound them to each other and to the mountain, the mountain to each and all of them. The great silence and aloneness of the mountain was not so foreign any more, and they did not feel like intruders. They could sense in their bodies the way the mountain moved, its moods. They could feel the way water would run and which way the rocks. There was a likeness of thinking between them and the rocky soil. They sat then, as they often did, in silence round the fire. They were weighty with understanding. There was no need to move nor to speak. They could continue on the small human work of building and eating and telling afterwards. For now it was more than enough to sit and weigh heavy round the fire. Dora was delighted with a joy that rooted her. So simple it was to change fear and misery into discovery. Turn to face the wind and listen. That was all. . . . 110 Dora was the first to move, the move practical as always. Having found her little pot in the pack she was leaning against, she got up from the fire and filled it at one of the streamlets, then wedged it among stones at the edge of the fire. Before she placed her pan under the clear fall she put her mouth there first to the cold, sweet mountain spring. The water tasted of the moss it had run through, of the rock. The fire had died away to a pile of glowing ash, and she fed it slowly as she sat there. Her friends had not moved yet. Without opening her eyes, Suzannah lowered herself back onto the ground and seemed soon to have fallen asleep in the afternoon sun. When the water had boiled, Dora took it off the fire and added in her new tea leaves. The tea here was a little different but just as good. She'd decided that anyway after a wry face or two at first. She looked up to see Letty grinning at her. "Be there some for me there?" "There be of course. And I'll put on more water to make sure. Get out some of that nut bread. Tis time for a bite to eat." Letty fished around and came out with a loaf, divided it into three. The tea cooled, and they sat and sipped, dipped the bread. 111 When Suzannah woke, the water was bubbling for a third time. She didn't know where she was at first and gazed around bewildered. But when she saw the two of them sitting there and the pot on the fire, she sighed and lay back down again. "I'll have a cup," she murmured and fell back asleep immediately. Dora laughed. "Certainly the hardy ones we are. Never catch us off guard." She reached in, skirt around her hand, and pulled the pot off the fire, added tea for a third time. When it was steeped, she poured some in a mug and put it over by Suzannah, not close enough that she might roll on it but close enough that the scent of the tea would waft over her face. The sun was edging down. The two of them decided it was time to move the fire and get ready for the night. They poked gently at Suzannah until she woke up again. She sat there blearily drinking her tea and nibbling at the bread while Dora and Letty tidied up the circle of stones that had already been built inside the cave and brought into it the embers of the fire scooped up inside the pot, then added to them until there was a blaze going again and larger logs to keep it so. They unrolled their packs and laid out the bedding. 112 Just as they'd patted down the last cover, Suzannah brought in whatever had been left outside, a couple of mugs and the packet of tea. She looked around approvingly and sat down on her bed to test it, nodded and then waved the two others outside to watch the sunset. It had come early here, shut in as they were, and the light was fading fast. The red rock turned scarlet and glowed in its last flush before dark. The green of the ferns turned emerald, and the whole land was like a jewel. As the colors faded, quick shadowy forms of bats flashed by overhead, and Dora could hear their tiny squeaks as they whirled about in the air. Some of them probably lived in the cave. Dora, Letty and Suzannah stood there for as long as there was any light left at all. They saw the sky turn pale green at the rim and that color fade till the stars showed themselves one by one at first and then in a blaze on this moonless night. Dora realized that it was three moons' length exactly since she had slept in the grove of trees and met Sy there. What a turn her life had taken in that time. Twas another world entirely and a far more loving one this, though here she was leaving again. But she wouldn't go over that another time. What she was doing was what she wanted to do in the heart of her. When the stars had laid their glittering carpet in the sky, the three turned back into the cave. The fire was 113 leaping still, and the air was warm. They decided to go to sleep at once and get an early start in the morning. As they lay there watching the flames shadowed against these ancient rock walls, Suzannah sang them a soft lullaby, one Dora had never heard, about small creatures going to sleep in the earth. Dora fell fast asleep without even realizing she was dropping over the edge, down into the darkness without a struggle. . . . This sleep in the cave bone of the earth was undisturbed. The pale dusty sunbeams were glancing across them when they woke, the sun already over the top of the rim outside. There was a thrush somewhere nearby bursting with morning song. The three of them lay there listening, making no move to get up yet. It wasn't just the beauty of the song. They lay warm as toast under their blankets but there was frost in the air on their faces. No fire would warm the great spaces of this cave, and they might warm their fronts at it, but their backs would be in the chill. So they lay listening to the thrush music, and there was no reason for hurry. Letty was the first to stretch her arms out above the covers, she the cook who always rose before the others. But 114 this day Dora would have Letty rest. She got quickly out of bed herself and pushed the protesting baker back under the blankets, tucking them firmly under her chin. Wagging one finger, Dora retreated toward the fire and pulled away the damp earth they had piled on the embers the night before. Still hot enough underneath. Suzannah slept on. Without too much of a struggle Letty gave in and snuggled back down into her nest. She watched Dora fill the pot with water at the entrance. Dora looked out through the ferns at this fresh and lonely place. There was frost everywhere sparkling on the bare earth and the rocks. The thrush was still singing from a dying tree across the ravine. She could hear a wren piping loudly, and the swallows had started their erratic insect fishing flights. Her bare toes started to hurt on the coldness of the floor, and she moved back toward the fire with the pot, stood with her feet almost in the ashes clearing the debris away from the few live coals at the bottom. They had brought burned blanket from the village for fire starter, but she didn't want to use that yet, save it for emergencies. From the woodpile where she went to collect up the driest and thinnest of bark and small twigs, she could hear Suzannah gently snoring, and when she looked up she could see Letty had closed her eyes again and seemed 115 to have fallen back to sleep. So it was alone in a small practise sort of way that she started this first morning of fire building. She laid the kindling on the coals and put her head down to blow gently into the center. There was always a spot just right where you could make a furnace with a small breath. The dry bark caught, and the moss, and they laid fire to the small twigs. She put on bigger twigs and when they'd caught, small bits of branch. It didn't take long. She was a good firemaker, always had been from a girl. And she was proud of her skill. The pot now in the flame at the edge of the fire, she fetched some oats from the corner where they'd been soaking overnight and set them by for when the water boiled. She took bread from her pack and sliced it thick ready to make toast. It wasn't long to wait. The oats went into the boiling water, and she covered the pan with a plate and moved the whole thing to a quieter corner of the fire. While it simmered she took up her place again at the entrance to the cave. The thrush had flown away, but she watched the swallows swoop and dive. They almost spun in the air. It was so quiet here, hot and silent, sweet air and a high sky. When she went back to stir the oats, she found Letty sitting up brushing her hair, smiling at Dora through the 116 dark strands. Dora took the brush from her and finished brushing out the long thick braid, remembering all the while her daughters and this ceremony of every morning, brushing the hair. She helped Letty wind up a bun that her friend always laid at the nape of her neck and stuck through with a bone pin. Dora patted the bun, laid her cheek against her friend's head, and then went and found a thickish stick and pushed it through one piece of bread. She held it close to the flames and watched the edges brown and the center grow crisp. The smell made the hunger leap up in her. She put the first piece by and toasted two more pieces. The oats were getting soft, and she dropped in some pieces of dried fruit for sweetness. Letty stretched some more and got herself dressed under all the bedclothes so as to stay warm. Dora laughed. She could remember so many frosty mornings as a child doing the same thing. When the oats were soft enough, Dora added in some pieces of butter and left the pan covered and away from the fire to sit. She put the pieces of bread on top to stay a little warm. They'd have to wait for tea until the pot was empty again. Suzannah began to stir, moved by the breakfast smells and the sounds around her. She sat up, her wild hair sticking out in spikes all over, and twitched her nose like a rabbit's. Dora brought the pan over to Suzannah's bed, 117 and they sat beside her and took turns spooning out the meal between bites of Letty's crusty bread. When the pot was empty, Suzannah scrambled up and took it to wash at the entrance to the cave. She stood there a while as Dora had done before bending down to scoop up sand for scouring out the pan. That done, she filled the pot at one of the streamlets and brought it back to the fire. They sat around then and spoke of what they planned to do. Suzannah and Letty wanted to walk part way with Dora that day but then they'd turn back. They didn't feel comfortable wandering too far into the mountains, and anyway they'd hardly got used to their new home yet. They'd either walk all the way back to the village by that evening or they'd walk back and stay in the cave one night more. The water boiled. They made the tea and went to sit at the entrance of the cave. There behind the cool shadow of the ferns and looking out into the brightness of the day, they sipped from their mugs and looked up the ravine at the peaks. High and floating in lazy circles, so high they could hardly make out the shape, a hawk turned and turned on the air. Dora felt her heart go out and up, surging in the direction she had chosen. Her friends fell behind her, turned and vanished from her senses as she climbed in her vision toward the hawk. Letty and Suzannah could feel her 118 go while their own desire turned them about and sent them seeking the valley. So they sat and so they flew. . . . After a while, the three touched hands in silence and turned back into the cave to pack their bundles ready for starting out. Dora put out the fire with sand, and they hefted their packs and set foot outside the cave to begin the climb up the ravine. As though many feet had climbed the valley smoothing the way only to the cave for years and not beyond, the path after it was far rougher, full of boulders and thickets of thorn bushes. The way was slow and hot. As they climbed, the sides of the canyon grew taller and steeper until they felt they were climbing into the earth. The rock changed from red sandstone. Here it was rough and black as though it had come from the inside of the fire. At about midday, sun high overhead, they stopped their clambering over rocks and squeezing around the edges of rocks to sit a while, eat a bite of lunch, and catch their breaths. There was no view of the lowland from there. All was shut in by the walls of the canyon. The only measure of how far they had come was in the ache of their legs and backs. A scrubby acacia tree at the foot of the canyon 119 wall, growing there out of a bank of thin soil, threw enough shade for them if they sat close together. "Tis a cushy life ye're choosin," said Letty between munches of cheese and bread. "Tis so," answered Dora solemnly nodding her head. "Are ye sure ye can't be persuaded to come along?" "I can't abide that amount of comfort," laughed Letty and screwed up her face in distaste. "And strange to say I'm more for going on up here than I was below," Dora added. "Be hard, this scrambling, but it lightens me. I know b'ain't right for thee. There b'ain't no bakery in these rocks, no folk to tend to. My feet struggle in this place but my heart goes straight up." Suzannah looked thoughtful, and Dora knew the other woman shared more of her feeling than Letty did. Suzannah was a tracker and a guide, not such a stranger to the mountains. She climbed like a goat while the other two clambered and puffed along. But still her face was turned home. It was from the village she could go out and come back. The village was her root. It supported her in any wandering she did. "How much farther will ye come?" Suzannah looked up at Letty who was sitting on a rock on the other side of Dora. 120 "I'd say this is my limit and a little beyond. My head begins to spin up here. I be sad to leave ye friend, but I'd not be myself if I went further." Suzannah nodded. "I'd go further with ye Dora but I'll not leave Letty to go back alone." Dora knew this. Sad, a little frightened, she knew it still and was satisfied. "This be my beginning. Until yere going I could sit on my cushion. Ye are the cushion! I know tis not yere journey. Ye leave me happy dear ones to have come this far." In the middle there, she put an arm around each and her head on Letty's shoulder. "Tis time. The sadness and the gladness of us. Remember me." Dora was crying, and the others too. It was hard to go. But so it must be. They raised each other up and kissed each others' faces. Then Dora turned again and lifted the bundle onto back. She started on the way they had been going, and Letty and Suzannah watched her out of sight before they turned back toward the way they had come. 121 XII When Sy walked away and left Dora in the grove, she didn't go far. The wily one, the little fox, slid off the path again a few hundred yards away and sat down there enclosed among the trees. She took a mirror out of a pouch at her side and scooped a shallow hole for it in the leafmould, making sure the piece of glass was lying level. She scattered drops of water from her flask onto the surface of it, then moved herself around so that the sun was sending shafts down over her shoulder and making rainbows glance off the water. When she'd found the right place she still had to cock her head this way and that, hunching and jutting her neck out like a bird, until she'd found the angle she wanted. Wanted for what, only she knew. She sat in the same awkward position for the next ten minutes or so glaring at the mirror in the dirt, then finally relaxed and let her head drop forward, picked up the mirror and absently rubbed the water off of it onto her skirt. She wrapped it then back into a piece of soft cloth and put it away in the pouch. 122 "She'll be fine, the silly old thing. Good be with you girl." As she muttered these words to herself, she was searching around in her pack. There was that about Sy that was like a small mouse or maybe any small creature, she always seemed to be moving, a little dart here, a twitch there, a scurry to the side. She pulled out of the pack a dirty old blouse and skirt, very much like the ones Dora was wearing but dirtier by a good margin. Sy put them on over her array of colors and finished the costume off with a greasy old scarf on her head. The pouch with the mirror in it she hid well under the rotten cloth of her skirt. She wrinkled her nose the whole time and shook her head when she'd finished. It seemed as though she might gain a permanent look of distaste to go with the outfit. She closed up the pack again, shifted its weight to her back, and walked to the path. There was no sign of Dora or of anyone else so she stepped out and walked quickly back toward the grove. As she came up to the clump of trees she moved more and more carefully, more silently, and when she arrived there she hid herself behind a huge mossy oak and peered around the edge to see what Dora was doing. And there was the woman stretched out against a rotting log as sound asleep as a badger in winter. Snoring too. Sy, with enormous care, lowered her pack to the ground and elaborately tiptoed into the grove right up to Dora. She 123 smiled down at her sleeping friend, for friend she knew she was, then walked around her twice, once one way and once the other. Dora muttered in her sleep and stirred a little but didn't wake. After the sleeping woman had settled down again, Sy made her way over to Dora's pack and knelt there by it thinking for a moment. She shook her head, got slowly up from her knees, and went back to Dora. Hardly breathing then she took the pipe, still warm, from Dora's limp hand. She turned it over gently and on the underside of it, with a pin she'd taken from her blouse, she scratched the form of a tiny bird with its wings outstretched into the clay. She rubbed ash from the fire into the scratch and laid the pipe back into Dora's hand. Dora slept on. Sy got quickly up and walked once more to the edge of the grove, turned to smile at her friend again, then picked up her pack and walked away across the path to the opposite side and into the trees. . . . As she climbed the gently sloping land among these young trees, mostly birch and alder as she'd noticed, Sy hummed a little and poked about in the dead leaves with a thin small stick she was carrying with her. She was happy that she'd found such a trustworthy as Dora. Every now and 124 then as she poked the ground she'd turn up a toadstool with her stick, bend down to look at it and either pull it and put it in a bag she carried round her waist or leave it where it was. Since the day was still young, there were drops of water on the shadowed grass, and the bottoms of Sy's many skirts were well drenched by the time she reached an open glade and lowered her pack to the ground so she might sit herself down in the sun. She didn't build a fire. Sy rarely did. She had been born outdoors this one and lived so always, the nutbrown woman, skirted settled places and settled ways. She would work if she was desperate or if it was part of some other plan, but mostly she picked her way through the gardens of the earth like a squirrel, regarding the open woodland and the farmer's field equally as her own. Sy had never slept under a roof. On the occasions when she did work for village folk she slept out in the field. She would take food that was given her but never had cooked her own. Because she had always lived among them, she knew the wild creatures as though they were her children. She talked to them often. And she had never been lonely. But now she needed Dora, not to quench loneliness but to help her come to that place she couldn't go alone. There were other folk like Sy. She could have called them if she'd wanted or needed to. 125 But the village folk had a different kind of strength. They were sturdy and good natured. They were single-minded and had a determination that Sy's people lacked. To Sy it was rare that anything seemed important enough to go out of her way for, never mind sticking to a path that was not to her taste. It was hard for her to understand anyone walking only on paths let alone one solitary path and never be pulled away by the look of another. Sy walked anywhere. She hardly even noticed paths. But now there was a purpose, and she would have to learn not to be alone. Always a stranger, all her life, even to her own wandering family. It would not come easy to plan anything with another or to plan at all for that matter. As she sat and thought, she pulled the toadstools from her bag and peeled the skin carefully from their fragile tops with her skinny birdbone fingers. She laid them down in grass shaded by her body. They were ready to eat, and she ate them mixed with leaves of sour sorrel some nuts she had picked the while back. Her gaze was far off in the forest. 126 XIII She laughed. It couldn't have been more than a few minutes she'd been alone and already she was ready to turn back. It wasn't a good feeling. Mud stirred in her belly. Still and I won't go back. It will be creeping forward for a day or two with a hanker to crawl back all the way. Maybe then I can take flight. Not over it yet, this lone, lone, this moaning lone. Lone has made Sy mad. Lone will make me so. Not made to be. I be nothing alone. Numb and aching, aching. The ravine she was climbing had gone. It was just stones, rocks under her hands and feet. One by one. This was a trudge, not a wandering, this long climb upwards on the bones of the earth. Dora tried to stay in the shadow cast by the cliff on her left but often she was forced out into the sun. The hot afternoon sizzled on the rocks. No birds sang. She couldn't even hear the grasshoppers that had been rasping under her feet earlier. Every now and then she took tiny sips of water from her flask. Even though she carried several of the skin bottles 127 in her pack, she didn't know when she'd run into water again. When she looked up ahead of her there was nothing to be seen that was different or that showed her she had climbed higher. The same boulders, the same sparse bushes. "What be I doin in this place? Be I mad? I saw in my dream no people here, no company." She was talking to herself as she climbed laboriously, sweating in too many clothes and grumbling. She stopped under an overhanging shelf of rock to remove a layer and walked on in her hat and skirt and blouse, the skirt tucked up into her knickers like bloomers. She turned for a while and looked back the way she had come, much like the way before her. Because the ravine twisted and turned as it headed up into the mountain she could no more see behind her than in front. But as she turned this way, she could see how the land around her had changed, could smell the air. While she was bent on the climb, she had lost her sense of the changing place. Her heart ached. She was moving farther away from anything she knew. She would not look again. So toil on, further up this harsh mountainside. No fields, no animals, no people, no work for her knowing hands, no laughter, no home. This she said like a prayer under her breath as she worked her way up the parched gully. There had been water flowing here only recently she knew. 128 Winter washing down into the valleys. But now there was sand, dust and rock, no sign of the water that had gone underground into the dark, that had poured down the rocks in front of that first night's cave. This was land such as she'd never been in. Her home was all tree filled, high hedges around the fields, green all year with the rain, small pastures and small buildings. She had grown there like a seedling, and the land was kindly to seedlings. There was flesh on the bones. Here, the bones stood above the earth and reminded her of death. Every small plant struggled, surviving in the shade or in cracks in the soil and rock. So and slowly, being herself, Dora, despite her determination not to look around her again, began to examine this strange place she was in. Gritty black rock towered up on either side, but strange to say the soil here was still red as the rocks below. When she looked above her the bulk of the mountain towered into wisps of cloud. She could see no end to the ravine she was travelling through. It twisted and turned behind and before and vanished into the bare rock above. Gradually, as she paid more attention, the ache in her heart eased. There was herself again under the pain. She muttered to herself, "There be no hurry, no hurry at all. Where be I heading? A tea party?" 129 It was still hot, the air vibrated, nothing moved, but she was leisurely. She sat down more than once in some bit of shade and took a nap. She lost the notion that she was going anywhere. What would come would so. And she would greet it. Perhaps she was not moving at all but the landscape coming toward her like a river and she anchored and floating like a lily pad. Each boulder that came was different, each crevice in the rock, each small sticky bush. She touched them. "This one and that one. I'll not see ye again most like." There were small dusty crystals in some of the cracks, on some rock faces carpets of tiny ones. She looked up and could still see the high birds of prey circling on the air above her. While she was asleep one nap, she dreamed the raptor came, burnt brown great feathered body, eyes so fierce she could not meet them. The bird clasped the thick gnarled tree root that wound its way down through the bank above her, pulled on the root, backbeating with her wings, the tree at the top of the cliff shivering. As she pulled, the falcon gave sharp high cries, and the root began to give. She beat back, beat back, and the root swung out, the tree fell. Where it fell there was a black cave mouth. The falcon flew away screaming. She had woken up then, confused, and looked quickly behind her for that black hole. Nothing. The bank, round 130 and dusty, loomed behind her with the handle of a root jutting out well above her head. She was sure she hadn't noticed the root before she went to sleep. But she must have seen it without remembering. The tree was a sorry small affair for such a huge root, and the wood of the root was shiny as though it had been polished or much used. Strange in that dusty place. With some effort in the heat and an imagination buzzing with pictures of secret tunnels, dragon hoards, and the homes of giants, she pushed and pulled a largish boulder over to the foot of the bank where she'd been sitting. She stood up on the top of it, put one foot up onto the wall of the cliff, closed her hands around the root, and pulled as hard as she could without toppling off the boulder. Nothing. The tree above shook just as it had in the dream, but there was not an inch of movement in the root. Dora put so much of her weight into the pulling that she had to stop, afraid that when the root moved she'd go flying off the boulder and no wings to take her up into the air. Then she tried prying away at the root with a dead branch she had found. No. This root was not going to move. Twas just a dream. She climbed up again onto the top of the boulder, having sat for a while thinking about the falcon and the hole it had shown her into the mountain. She put her hands up onto the root and stroked the wood which was 131 warm in the sun and felt like a baby's warm body under her hands. That set her thinking back again to her own family, they that had been babies so many years before. The sweetness of children, and always of your own children above all. Her arms had grown strong carrying them around with her. She wasn't sad thinking about them, all so far away. It was a sweet thinking. Five babies and the one that died. Three girls and two boys, well, some would never call Donal a boy, such a strange between creature he were. So shy he'd run, almost fly from anyone he hadn't seen for above a week, except for me of course. Almost a bird by nature that one. He'd spend hours every day in the thatch on the house top singing little songs to himself, making creatures from bits o straw, just staring into the distance. And his slight little body from the very start winging its way across my heart. I'd thought he'd die at first, so small as he was. But he was strong, stronger than they all I'd say. He'd left home to travel off by himself long before I'd ever thought of it myself. Perhaps he'd put the notion in my head, who knows. He couldn't have been more'n fifteen year when he left, winking his bright black birds' eyes at me and whistling. I could hardly cry for laughing at him out the door. And he'd gone with a pack smaller than mine, but then he'd a young body on him and not much need for 132 gear. I wish I could see him now. What travelling tales we could tell. Th'others all stayed and raised families of their own in the same village. And I were very glad of that. Hadn't wanted to lose another. And there'd been so many grandchilder to carry about with me next, and I glad to do it, the little mites clinging on with their fat legs. I knew my own young uns didn't understand my meandering away like this at my age. They were angry and afraid for I and teased me too. Those beautiful young women my daughters, and the cobbler son Alan who was about as much like his father as a nail is like an apple. Sharper than his own awl that boy. Ash and Berna and Dottie, important in the village they all were now. Ye couldn't make a decision without em. They'd made it hard for I to leave. Trying to mother their own mother. What would she do, was she trying to drive em crazy, how would she live, had she no shame at her age, anything to drive the thought from my mind. I nearly stayed when the three of em brought their little uns to my knee one evening, and all of em crowded round crying and begging me not to go. Too clever they were. But they'd been truly frightened for me too and scared to lose their mother, great creatures though they were. And I knew indeed how that could be. 133 All this time she'd been stroking the warm wood, her body leaned up against the bank, her eyes far distant. She came back to the present as one foot slipped a little, and a pebble rattled down among the stones below. She caught onto the root to save herself, clutching behind it as she did so and when she'd steadied herself, felt what seemed to be a leaf tucked away back there in the crevice between root and cliff wall. She pinched it between two fingers and carefully drew it out into the sun. Well and well and well, what may this be? Not a leaf to be sure. Seems more like a piece of thin bark from some peeling tree, rolled up like and tied, too, in the middle with a bit of twine. Never saw such, like a dead leaf. I fear twill crumble if I touch un more. Dora stepped gingerly back down from the boulder, then sat on it and mused over the fragile thing on the palm of her hand. The parchment glowed slightly in the way ghostly skeletons of leaves do. If there were writing on it twould do no good seeing as she couldn't read, but there might be other things, a drawing maybe, or perhaps it was wrapping for a thing left there by who knows who. So very cautiously and afraid she'd crush the paper before she'd a chance to look, Dora undid the knot in the twine. Being in the shade as it had been, even though it had gotten wet, the fibre was firm and she had some trouble freeing the knot. But it did 134 come free. She set it aside on her pack where she could find it again. Now. The bark paper was another question and had not faired so well. Tenderly she turned back the first fold and could see how close the whole thing was to tearing apart. She decided to wet it a little in the hopes it would get back some of its life. After all it was tree born. Manoeuvering with one hand, she managed to get her flask out of the pack and pour the tiniest amount into the palm of her other hand, the parchment held between finger and thumb. Then she replaced the flask and took the small package, dipped the cracked edge carefully into the pool in her hand and left it there a while. And she'd been right. She could see the material drinking up the moisture. When she tried to unfold it again she could feel the danger less. And so she did, little by little, adding a drop more water when a part threatened to crumble, until she had a sheet of paper spread out on her hand, no bigger than her hand. And look at that will ye. Be nothin upon it at all, not even the smallest line of a drawing, not a letter at all. Then, for some reason she couldn't explain, Dora turned to her pack again and searched out the glowing bead necklace that Arvid at the village had given her when she left. She held the piece of paper on the palm of her left hand and the 135 necklace in her right. She turned to face the bank where the root wound its way through the earth, the sun hot above the tree's branches, and she held both hands out before her. She couldn't reason this, there were tears in her eyes, humming deep in her throat, and she brought the two hands slowly together over her head. So she stood looking up. It was a long time. The sun brought colors from the beads that were like speech. She could hear the colored words. And she knew there were to be no dragons, no giants, no magic caves, no wild adventures. There was to be herself and the mountain. Inside herself, the mountain. Inside the mountain, herself. 136 XIV The heat of the day was drawing back. Dora brought her hands down and carefully wrapped the beads in the paper, which first threatened to fall apart but seemed to gain strength as she put the beads into it. She retied the bundle with the piece of twine that had fallen off the pack onto the ground and put the package by her side in the small pouch with her money. She had a feeling there was to be more use for it in these mountains than she would find for the coins. Light was going into that evening place where objects flicker in and out of being, appearing, disappearing. Her hands faded in and out before her as she arranged the pack and hoisted it to her back. Walking then was no easy matter among the stones and she watched her ankles waver under her. But walk she must. She had to find at least some kind of a shelter even if only a shelf of rock to hide under. And if she could, a small cave where she might light a fire and be protected from whatever it is one is afraid of in mountains. 137 The ravine wound on and seemed to be getting narrower and steeper as it climbed. The black rock of it that had burned in the sun began to call the darkness in, and Dora felt the first spark of panic that she might not find any shelter. Even the scrubby trees that had climbed with her to here were falling behind, and she hadn't seen another cave. Dora climbed carefully, eyeing each rock before her feet and holding onto branches as much as she could. "So must I sleep out like a wild thing, a plover? Make a nest for my bones in the stones? Tis sorry and a pity for an old body like me. I bring tears to my eyes darlin." Her muttering went on with her, rising and falling with her breath. It became a lulling song as the day went. Then there was a silence. Murmuring ended, climbing stopped. For the first time since that afternoon in Letty's village Dora had remembered her dream and the map of the mountain. She must look inside. There she'd find the shelter if there was such. Dora didn't stop walking for long, kept the slow clamber, but she began to use other eyes. Not that she could see any map at all or even a picture but suddenly she knew that if she wanted she could go on walking even in the dark. It wasn't that she would not fall. She might indeed. It wasn't that she would surely find shelter. There might be none. More it was that she 138 could be sure of her feet, that for this they knew more than did. She could be sure that wherever it was she was going, she get there. She was learning. Out with the notion of where she must be next. T'would only stumble and confuse her. That deciding to travel out to find the edge, it was like a call and she a homing bird. She was chosen, not choosing. So Dora let go of the little warm cave and began blindly to follow her feet. In this way she came to know each stone, no more a block keeping her from shelter but a warm stream-worn bone under her foot. Everything she touched turned about, no longer keeping her from her desire but leading her to it. Night was mysterious, a little frightening, as each part of the world turned a new face to her than it had during the day. At home the night was for sitting before the hearth to tell stories. It was for dancing before the great fires that kept the dark at bay. It was for sleeping and for romancing. And on the great harvest moon nights, for working, whole villages together in the fields, never alone as she was now. The air grew cold and she stopped to put on layers of clothes. The dark was complete. No moon, not a star. There was a joy now in her of not caring. She felt wild, no tiredness, only learning like an animal to make her way in the night. Even in such darkness she could see vague shapes 139 and glimmerings. But sight gave way to the whole skin's sense, to hearing sharpened like a cat's, to scents that came to her on the night air. Once as she moved along the canyon wall she came by a small cold stream of water and filled the waterskin again. There were smells she vaguely knew, some kinds of herbs, oily and pungent. She could feel the stickiness as she brushed them by. Finally, as tired as she knew she wanted to be, she found a still warm hollow of dusty ground under the cliff. She sniffed the night air first to make sure no other creature was sleeping there, then laid out her bedding on the ground. A warm place, a good place, murmuring, and she curled up there easily and fell asleep. . . . There were days gone by, each one like this, living close to the ground and easy with the sky. There had been rain and a small cave found, so small she had to crouch in the back to make room for that warming fire, and the smoke as likely to curl in her face as blow out the door. Still thinking of doors. Tis how I think, no more. I may be learning to be a mountain kind but I still be I. She sat there, back to the soft cave wall, and told herself stories, laughed and cried at the memories. No one to listen nor reply. She forgot to seek out caves after that. 140 She would walk often at night, watching as the moon bloomed from fragile crescent to full. It was on one of those nights of silvery light that she came up from the long ravine. It hadn't been a sudden coming even in the darkness. The walls shrunk down bit by bit until they were little more than banks on either side of her. And then she could see stretching away the high tundra of shale and boulders. She had been so long now shut in by the walls of the chasm that the sight of this expanse made her dizzy. In front of her were ranges jutting sharply into the night sky where their cliffs met the slope. They curved round to hold the plateau like a seat in their midst and she an ant standing at the edge of it all. Looking back down the way she had come all she could see was darkness but she knew she must be very high. Thin trails of cloud marked the moon. Dora sat down on a flat boulder and looked about her for a long time. She didn't light a fire, didn't even think of it even though the air was chill. There was no shelter to be seen at all, not even a bush, so when she did decide to sleep she merely put down her roll on the flat space next to the boulder. She lay for a long time more looking up into the sky and into the heights that framed it. Her sleep when it came was full of flying. When she wasn't soaring herself, she was watching birds and butterflies, bats and strange creatures that no one had ever 141 seen on earth as they swept up and down cliff faces, leapt from the tops of them, and careened around the summits of towering peaks. Some of her flying was fearful and full of doubt, and some of it exultant and certain. From dream to dream her body remembered. . . . The sky had hardly paled when she came out of her dreams. She woke frightened that she was falling in this great space that replaced the walls she'd grown used to, and it was a while before she could gather where she was. The stone that stretched around her glowed and glittered with lights of its own, and there was no color to be seen except the pale metallic rock. Not a bush, no grass. Even the sky dawned grey. There were birds singing, must be in imagined trees, rock birds hidden. "Ol Dora me ol dear, this b'ain't no place for human kind. Snakes I'll be bound, lizards, the like. Tis no wonder to me I saw no people in my dream. Un'd be crazy to live yere. An be I? Be I livin yere? Certainly, no place else. And be I crazy? Doubtless." She'd been leaning up on her elbow and now sat up, a good deal less creaky she noticed than when she'd first set out, was it ten years before? Felt like it anyway. 142 First thing was no wood for a fire. And that meant no comfort to sit by, no tea. There was a blow enough to send her back, never mind the hard travelling both ways. Twas too clean this place, too bare, no clutter, not human. With the bareness goes no tea. That made sense at least. Indeed it all made very good sense. It was just that she wasn't sure she liked the sense at all. Dora took her pipe out of her pocket. There would be some fire, at least as long as the herbs lasted. Tamped it down, filled as it already was, and realized that without a fire there'd be no twig to light it from. She looked about her in horror, stripped of the least and last of her Dora ways, and noticed that the greying glimmer of the rocks was not their own color at all but the dense layers of lichen that grew upon them and the frost that lay upon the lichen. She cursed herself for a silly, remembering that all the rocks on her climb had been the red or the black and recalling the grey glow she had woken up to and not thought any more of. At least twas enough for the pipe. She turned to the rock she'd been leaning against and stripped away a path of lichen from the face of it. Then the flint and steel to the tinder. Well, the bother! She'd forgotten the hour and it took her a while to find out that the moss was still damp and would not catch. She'd have to wait until the sun had 143 dried it. Well. What a start. She could see she'd be busy just learning how to breathe in this place. No mercy here for the lowland creature. All this while been sitting on her bedding by the same rock, she now decided it was time enough to rise, tea or no tea, pipe or no pipe. The sun had come up behind her and shimmered over the path of the ravine. She turned when she'd stood up and walked a few steps toward the canyon. "Tis that rocky cut in the mother's body now is my old home. Seems there's that in me will never budge. Always an eye on what's lef be'ind." Chewing on a piece of dried meat she had pulled from her pack, Dora walked slowly about the great plateau, poking her toe among the rocks, which were showing more of their true colors in the sun. There were indeed tiny fragile plants growing in the cracks, flowers with translucent petals, minute ferns hidden away in the shadow. None of them would make a hearty meal for sure but where there were plants there were probably animals too. And at the very least there was some other life here with her that needed sun, water and air, even was it air that would be burning all of them in too short a while. Now the stones were still cold under her feet and a little slippery as the night frost melted. 144 She stood there in the light that was still pale and looked about her. This was surely the strangest place she'd ever been. Nothing that she knew. What was she to do in this barrenness? Only walk on to what was next perhaps. So empty and so huge this that it left her blank and empty too. And robbed of her usual busy tasks, her hands hung by her sides, nothing to do. "Will I get used to this too? Be at home yere like a lizard? For me nothin but to walk to the strangeness that is next. Talk to myzelf I must for there's none other. At least I be good comp'ny." Slowly then she walked back to the rock where her bedding, losing its sheen of melted frost, lay in the cool sun. She began slowly to pack. There was not much more to do. She could prepare at least for the day to come. Twould be hot, no doubt. The hat stays out and the water close to hand. Not much covering else though she'd not want to be burned. Bedding on the outside, make a tent in the midday heat for a nap. Dora was soothed by these preparations. She was still needed, at least by herself. When the pack was done, she turned back to the layer of lichen she had scraped off the rock earlier. She'd turned it over once already, and the sun was getting hot enough now that it was almost dry. She turned it over again and spread the tendrils out more thinly on the rock. While she waited, 145 she set herself down on the pack and looked up toward the peaks she would walk towards this day. They were monstrously high. Even though she'd climbed so long, she still had to crane her neck to see to the tops. And who knew if tops they were. What she was looking for was a way. There was no sign of any path or road, but from this distance, and she knew she was far from them, there was no telling if there might not be some small goat trail winding up. She thought to herself that goats are not well known to trail but more for their leaping, and she would not be a leaping one, pack on her back and all. It was a path she'd want and one that did not stop at a wall and expect her to jump her height or more to the next bit. If she narrowed her gaze and concentrated she could see a point where the peaks seemed to part. Just there she could see further back into the range. And that must be where she would go. As she looked harder still, she imagined she could see a thread of water, black and white and dancing, that fell down from the parting in the mountains toward the plain she was on. She became sure, for as the sun grew stronger she found herself looking at rainbows that shone and shivered and vanished and shone again up and down the length of that waterfall. She couldn't even imagine how high that hair of water must be 146 falling from the sky to this place of stone. That is where she would climb. So now turn back to the lichen and time for a pipe. The grey stuff was bone dry and rustled when she picked it up. She set it down lovingly on a flat rock, bunched it to catch the spark and began her striking with flint and steel. It was a long time catching. Sparks flew and settled and never broke into flame. There was smoking and curling of edges but no bright flame. Still too much juice in the stuff. In the time it would have taken her to walk a mile the tinder finally dried enough with all the sparks and the smoky curlings and there was the small hot heart she'd waited for. She blew so gently. She wouldn't've ruffled a baby's hair. Before the little bundle had time to burst and burn up, she scooped it onto a small piece of shale and into the top of her pipe. She pulled on it. Mossy taste of lichen. But the flame caught and took to the herbs. The herbs caught. So now, here, she could sit this moment and smoke the sweet smoke, lean against the rock in the sun, not yet too hot, and rest before the first day's step out onto the shadowless plain. 147 XV The pipe was too soon done. Dora sat a while longer to let it cool and to give herself courage for this next part of the journey, then picked up the pack and put it on her strengthening back, began walking toward that fall of dancing water. She could hear insects begin their sunlight noises now, and the songs of them kept her company across the stony waste. Swallows began to appear, and for a moment she had a wild hope, thinking they had come from those mountains that seemed so many days distant. But of course they had winged up from the ravine. The long walk would be long. The sun was beginning to burn down, and the distances of shale began to shimmer with the heat. Soon the heights before her were wavering as though they were buried deep under water. She could no longer make out the fall that was her goal. But the gap in the peaks was still there and she headed doggedly in the direction she had chosen, head down 148 most of the time to keep her face under the shade of her hat. She watched the ground pass beneath her feet, watched the tiny plants she had noticed earlier clinging to their spots of shade. Some of them were so well hidden that drops of dew still hung from their leaves and petals even in this unrelenting heat. "Slowly, slowly, dearie my dear. No need for hurry. I'll rest and rest my way across this cookin pot." The birds had gone, and little by little the sounds of the insects died away until all there was around her was the vast glowing furnace of rock, and even the small plants vanished in the shimmering. It was put one foot before the other, over and over, not even stop to take a sip of water but drink as she walked. The sweat ran down and soaked her clothes, which after all was a blessing for it kept her some sort of cool. There came a point then when she lost awareness of what was around her. All she felt was the slow walking, the plodding step after step, no consciousness of distance passed, only foot up after foot down. She had forgotten her plan to build a tent. She knew without thinking that if she stopped the slow moving, the heat would take her, and she would fall and lie on the ground, no tent above her, no shade. Time was not relevant until, how many steps later, 149 she blessed the great mountains that towered up ahead. They had swallowed the sun long before its usual setting. At first, dazed as she was she didn't notice the cooling, the slow relief from the dazzle. And then she realized she could stop. So stopped and half fell, half sat to the top of a flat boulder that pointed like an arrow the way she was going. The pack shook from her shoulders, she started crying with the tiredness and the pain of the daylong burn. Her sobbing was weary, and the thought flickered and laughed at her that here she was now wasting most of the water she'd drunk during the day. Oh, this desert walking. It would not do, no, would not do at all. Never get there. Hadn't eaten all day, no rest. The days might be short but they were still too long. Well, now for another pipe and eating. Dora quickly gathered more lichen before it should get dew damped. She gathered more than she needed for one pipe. Perhaps it would stay dry for the next day. It was easier by a long way to light than it had been in the morning, dry as a bone. She was surprised the stuff could live at all in such a place. While she sat, back against that arrow rock, and enjoyed her pipe more than she could ever remember, the shadow of the mountain reached and reached till the whole plain was covered. The great moon was already rising behind. 150 Now that she could think again, she decided quickly that she would sleep just enough to recover and then walk on in the bright moonshine night. As she went she would have to plan some shelter for the day. She would never reach the waterfall walking in the merciless light of the sun. So it's up and unwrap the bedding from the pack. Spread it out on the cooling stones just by the side of this new reached rock. When the bed was ready, Dora laid aside the coal from her first pipe, filled another and lit it with the coal. She lay back on the blanket, her head propped up on a bundle of clothes, and watched the evening come slowly in. She had searched out some food too and eaten it before this last-before-sleeping pipe. The food, the pipe, the cool of the end of day, gave her more gratefulness than many's the big meal in company that she could remember in her days. She watched the air pale and pale. The swallows returned and chased their dinner around the skies. She put the pipe by and gave herself over to dreams. . . . The night folded in over her, sleeping. So tired Dora was, she was deep, deep before the pipe was cold. There was none of the muttering, murmuring that usually betrayed her dreams. She was suddenly, as though she had gotten up from 151 her bed and flown there, at the foot of those sky high mountains. She knew she had been there before. In the broad daylight, there was a path, recently cleared and much used. She followed it up as it wound itself drenched with spray beside the topless waterfall. There was humor in the climbing, for she knew if she'd just pick up her skirts and think the right thoughts, she could fly to the top of this blessed thing in an eye's wink. But that was not the way. It must be foot after foot. The brilliant green ferns and crowded plants growing beside her, brushing her skirts, nodded their heads and hummed. One yawned cheekily right in her face. The sun hit down as hot as ever, but here in the watered garden of the falls, the earth steamed. Dora steamed, soaked to the skin by the flashing water and the plants brushing by her as she walked. The path was not hard as it had looked when she stared from the plain. It was narrow but very smooth and rising in gentle curves up the improbable cliff. Dora began to sway from side to side in time to the humming of the plants. Everywhere before her eyes were shades of green, from brilliant to more brilliant, some almost blue. She felt herself growing softer, lazy, bigger. Her shoulders felt feathery, her legs were growing like tree trunks, the fingers sprouting from her lengthening hands. Still walking, still moving upwards, swaying, dancing to the 152 hum, slowly like a ship in shallow seas. Rainbows in every drop of water scattered about her head. She was not old any more but a young tree growing here in the bumblebee jungle, flowers in her hair, birds swarming her leaves. No more aches in the joints that were shooting out and greening under her. The plant life called, and Dora answered. Moss hung down from her arms and swung to and fro as she swirled. Beetles in the bark of this tender of gardens. A job she had not foreseen. She was still stepping up the path, looked up and could see the spray and rainbow clouded edge dripping with vines. "Heart, heart, heartly and tempestuously singing. Volumes of volumes and deliciously drenched down." The voice came suddenly, growing from a tiny whine to a soft roar and back again and drifting down beside the path she stood on. "Deleet, defoot, doggerel me no. I am partly. Heart, heart, heartly this stormy descent and denuded." Dora moved no more. She tried to peer into the mist of water. Could see nothing. The voice went on descending, growing louder and softer, then roared up again to right where she was standing. "What? A footed. A dense, wallowing, pachiderm of muttering muddle. You are not of this. Not of." 153 Dora could feel the limbs of her shrinking back in alarm, the leaves withering. Then it was she caught sight of that mote of dust that danced in front of her buzzing like a wasp. The voice continued. "Take thee away slobbedy. Shame, for shame. Not yours this, mine." The dust danced in fury. Dora turned and listened for the hum of the plants around her. Slowly then began to move again, majestic, solid, from the heart. The withered leaves unfurled. This one would not shrivel her. Her learning was to find the heart of anywhere, living there. And so this. Dust mote she might never be, nor Sy would she ever, nor even Letty, but she did feel the place and be in the middle of herself right there. "The plants have invited me. I am rightly yere. Do not ee fuss yereself o'ermuch. The world be more than this." The mote slowed to a long zigzag in front of her, keeping up with her dance. She felt herself measured, outlined, dissected, weighed, and accepted. It was some sort of strange pleasure to be acknowledged by this tiny being. She bowed a long, low bow, brushing the path with her fingertips--and woke up. The moon was a third of the way across the sky. Every boulder sent a long shadow toward the mountain peaks. Dora 154 lay remembering her dream and still enjoying the fullness she had felt in that plantlife place, dancing, dancing. But it must be up she would get. She began to push herself up onto an elbow but then sank back a while more. No hurry. Still she moved with the plants, so she rose slowly, deliberately, rolled up her bedding, and packed it away. The pack felt lighter than it had. She looked around to see if she had missed anything. No. There clear as daylight was the fork in the mountains and the fall shining silver under the moon. Dora began to walk and she sang as she went those romantic old songs she had sung as a young woman. They had all sung them as they worked doing the wash together at the well, looking after the animals or winnowing the year's harvest. They would sing as they sat together darning old clothes and sewing new ones in the evenings. Gossip and sing, gossip and sing. Nothing like it for getting the work done. And there were songs too that did more than make your hands lighter. They brought a baby to the womb, cured illnesses, made the crops heavy, and sent away enemies. There were dances that went with some of them. She would shorten the distance with these songs and call back to her the spirits of her old friends at home. As she sang she covered the miles. There was no meandering and wandering about here. There was a place to 155 get to and as fast as possible thank you my darlin. She began to think about how she would spend the sunlit hours. After the sun was up and before it became so hot that the earth burned, she would find the largest boulder she could and build a tent with her bedding from the top of it to the ground. Under that she would spend her day sleeping, planning, mending, eating, singing. She would not move until the sun had been swallowed again by the mountains she was walking toward. Dora felt content. It was work well done, the dream well dreamed, her plan well planned. As she looked before her it was hard to tell in the moon's light how far she had actually moved toward the great mountains ahead. At times she thought she must almost have reached the foot of them and at others they looked as far or even farther than they had the day before. There was no telling how high they really were, only that the clouds swirled and played about their tops. "And bedamn, the moon will vanish behind they just as the sun, cuttin short the night. Tis like walkin under water for all I know where I be goin or when get there." So it was. After a while, the moon settled herself into the crags, shining full in Dora's face and slowly slipped behind the mountain tops. For a moment she was blinded, had to stand still. She thought she'd have to stop for the night. Then gradually 156 the sight began to return. Everything around her glowed. It wasn't that the moon was sending beams through the rock of the peaks ahead. She couldn't fathom it. The very earth herself was shining, throwing back into the sky the light from all those brilliant days. Dora touched the rock she was standing next to. It was glowing as steadily as all the rest. Where she put her hand to cover it, the light went out except where it crept through her fingers. What she felt was the lichen that covered everything. She broke a bit away and held it up. It shone in her hand. Mystified and a little frightened, she put it back on the rock. Now as she walked, she was stepping on light. There was none coming from the sky. The cliffs ahead of her shone mistily. She couldn't tell where the waterfall was any more but she moved on in the direction she thought was right, not singing now, silenced by this new thing. She was overwhelmed for singing. It was a long while, and she had sunk into a walking trance when she began to hear the small sounds that run before the sun. So gradually she could hardly make out the change, the light began to shift from ground to sky. It happened behind her, and she could see the tiny changes in shape and color flash along the surface of the ground. Unseen creatures stretched and rustled. Day had begun again. No sitting down yet though. Walk on until the edge 157 of heat had crept in. Then she would build her shelter and prepare to wait it out. As the light changed, she could see she had covered a comforting amount of ground in her walking. "Only a night or two more. I'll not even wonder what might be waitin. More mountain and more like as not. More rock, more heat, more dust. But there be right strange and wild beauty yere. Eyes and heart take a while to allow it." She slowed her pace as the light came up and looked for a rock that would make her a shady place. The biggest one was away to the left a good walk still. She turned and went toward it. Reached it. Now she begins building the small tent that will cover her from the sun's madness. Not even the bedding on the ground, make that shelter as thick as she can. So there's the bed and all the covers, light color on top, stiffened with the pack poles. Inside she spreads a layer of clothes and puts food and water handy. There's not much room for turning about. All finished, stand up to bid goodbye to the day. She can see behind her the stretch of the way she has come. No telling how far it is. And then away beyond, the stretch that is still to be trod. But for now down into the cave of this bedding house. More sleep will not harm after a bite to eat. 158 And so passed days and nights of walking and waiting, tall cliffs drawing closer and closer, the waterfall clearer every footstep taken. Came a day she could see the swallows flying about the face and she knew the next night would finish the journey. The next strangeness to learn of and more climbing. She groaned. When would she see a gentle meadow again or an old pathworn woods, sit herself down by a broad shallow stream under the trees? She could wish for the wings of that goshawk now. Clear the mountains in a day and no bother. So Dora settled down among the pile of clothes on the floor of her latest home and fell into sleep in the short time come of necessity. 159 XVI Here, at the foot, she stands looking up at that unthinkable passion of water raging and prancing and wafting down. Here by the pool that disappears again into the ground not far from where it begins. Dora falls into the pool under the fall, she splashes in, dusty clothes and all, just when the day is starting to grow warm. The dark water so icy she can hardly breathe. But she dips and flings her hair under and shakes sparking drops from her until she can bear no more. There is a rock hollowed like a shallow boat a little out from the cliff. So Dora lies on the rock and gazes upside down at the cliff that is the next foothold on her journey. It is not unlike her dream in its brilliant green crazy tangle of plants that climb and hang and jut out from its face as far up as she can see. But there is no path at all. Not even the goats seem to have marked the sheer rock with 160 footholds, let alone the broad and winding path that would suit her feet. "Best thing then will be to sleep, good mother send me dreams, feelin my way like a blind woman. Tis ever yere journey and not my own, mine twined to thine. Tis a wakin dream I be in these past days, and ee the spinner. Spin me on then my darlin, weave me just so, the pattern I need the hawk's eye to see." In the vapor from the falls and the warming sun Dora lies and sleeps, steam rising from her clothes. The sun was midsky up when she awoke hungry and thirsty, curious but none the wiser for a way to climb the next part of her journey. She couldn't remember if there'd been any dreams at all. Her clothes were all wet and warm behind and damp and warm in front, so first thing she took them off, even in this utter solitude looking about her before she did so. She hung them on bushes about the place and went to wash herself properly in the pool. Scrub some of that dusty mountain from her skin, rub herself down with herbs. Then the fresh clothes, at least fresher than the ones she'd had on. It was only then that Dora came to realize that here she could build a fire. There were bushes and small trees growing in abandon, dead branches and twigs scattered everywhere under the cliff. What a joy, unfathomable 161 richness. So the old ritual again, one of the oldest, the gathering, the building, the striking and the breathing, all with such care, with the love given a delicate child. Among the stones, away from the spray, a small flame, curl of smoke, and Dora sits with her chin in her hand, slowly feeding more branches into the fire, gazing in there to the flames, going back again to the home she has left, hunger forgotten. "Be it so long, such a time past? The two of us by our own fire, childer gone and such a peace on the house. No need to talk. So much work, all the years, all the givin and all the gettin back. Now this peace, this peace surroundin us. I had thought surely I would live the rest of my days in it, never be tired of it. And indeed there were years to be gently older. But then I wasn' one o they as keeps alone within my own walls. I'd friends aplenty, never lacked for talk and news. And news and talk do move you on so they do. The ol one was more of a hermit, liked to putter about in his own place." The small twigs sputter and curl at the ends, flare and smoke. The wood of these bushes is oily and burns hot. "So yere I be and yere I be. Creature land, stone land, sun land; a creature, a stone, sun's burn, all of em I. And now shall I fly up by the watervall, climb by rainbow hold, believe myself atop and so be? Ha! It be 162 some lookin now Dora me ol dear, some thinkin, and some castin about. Some how or what or why, every step of this journey I thought my last, and every last become a first. And so the middle the end, the end the middle, folded in together like a cake in a pan, forever. There b'ain't no edge for me 'ceptin the one I walk every step. What a laugh that, my darlin. Each step after each step, wanderin away and comin back to it. Strange though, never would have found it at all but for the leavin. 'Tis the leavin as brought me home. To stay with this country of myself I must leave and leave again, no sleeping." Fire burned hot toward the hot sun. Dora got up and pulled her pack over, brought triumphantly out the new pan and went to fill it at the pool. She knelt down carefully and lowered the pot toward the black still water. Under the pan's edge just before it hit there, a face looking up at her. Dora cried out and dropped the pan in the pool, frantically fished it out again and looked up above her head. Sy was sitting there on the rock Dora had slept on earlier, grinning down at her and looking not a bit abashed. She was holding out a withered handful of yellow grass, waving it gently up and down. "Shall we have a cup of tea?" she asked. Dora shuddered and groaned. Earth take the woman! 163 "Come on down yere then ee ol bat. I should ave known ee'd wait till there was tea water aboilin afore ee'd show yere nose again." As she filled the pan at the pool and set off back toward the fire, "Ee've a great story to tell me I suppose. Well, we've plenty of time. And now ee's yere, ee'll help with findin the path up this precipice." "You and your paths," snorted Sy. They walked together toward the small fire, sat down side by side and set the pot to boil. 164 XVII It was the two of them there drowned in the roaring of the waterfall. Sipped the tea flame gazing and not speak the while. Dora thought about all her walking alone, her leaving Letty and the village, learning to feel her way through earth's body and her own. Sy did not think, but sat like a bird stilling her feathers among the flames. Every now and then they would smile, sharing their thoughts at meeting again. It would not be the same for either, not ever. But now and here, this was not a day for moving on. They lay down in fact where the spray from the fall misted over and kept them just short of baking, looked long at the drapery of the cliff above them. Fire died. Swallows came and went. Dora went to sleep, and Sy sat like a small sharp obelisk focused on far away. Evening found them unmoved. Dora stretched and sat up as the shadows reached her. She rose slowly to her feet and 165 began to walk along the foot of the cliff looking for greenery to add to the dried fare she had carried with her from the village. There was no lack. Chickweed, nettles, shepherd's purse, land cress, dandelion. The fire she built again, and the soup with dried meat, beans and the vegetables bubbled in a warm corner. Sy was still gazing, weaving some web there, bringing the ends together. And Dora didn't disturb her. As easy to make a soup for two as for one. They ate in silence, dark by now, and sipped the tea again as they had in the morning. The sun had gone down leaving the hot earth and cool spray behind, the scent of the undergrowth blowing in their faces. Sy lay down and fell asleep. Arcing a light across Dora's face the moon, drawing the finery of the grasses and plumes of spray up there. Sy curled into the cliff, other side of the fire. And Dora sleepless, staring up, back along the path of the journey, forward over it. No giants, no magic, no sudden cures. Well and so my feet firmly earthen, no escaping that. The edge now, the edge, bringing it fine before me, whiplash to dance upon with these feet that stick deep day by day. Do ye mark me now, tethered like an old cow and flying high. Burning about me the wild sun in this dry land. Sharp stone, thorn, lizard and kin. But tis here I must pass, so I feel and know not why. Be it over these great lumps of 166 rock or through them or to end here, I do not know. Tis no adventure this I would have chosen had I seen it. But even in my dreams now I be here, no running. She turned her face back toward the cliff and looked again, let her mind wander as she sought the way up. The dream out there on the plain had a path, well-worn and clear. No path here. But she'd up and look all the same. Or perhaps not look but feel. The cliff was long, stretching a mile on either side of the fall, and Dora began by walking along to the left, denting the undergrowth with her arms and trailing her hands through the vines. Her body would search now and no more pondering. Every now and then she stopped, sensing the faint line of a way upward but each time it was no more than a crack in the rock. End of the leftward mile, she wandered back and began again to the right. As she walked, she could feel her body grow more keen, a hound of paths, and she pulled back further from the line of the cliff as she followed along. Now the cracks were distinct. Those she could tell and leave behind. And here, what was this? She was pulled in under the curtain of vines just at that place where the spray from the fall no longer reached. She lowered herself slowly down onto her knees and waited until her eyes grew used to the gloom. 167 The rocky face before her laid itself back a little at a time, a smooth surface that stepped itself up slowly, overgrown and tangled but clear to see. Steps, not just a goat path at all, but steps hewn and smoothed by hands and feet. Dora laid her face down against the first ledge and smiled. She backed out through the thicket of plants and twirled around, dancing her joy in the moonlight. Wait till Sy should see this. So much for her curl-lip despising of paths. Dora took hold of the vines and began pulling them away to each side so she could see more clearly. And she wanted to make sure that she wouldn't lose the place come morning or think it a dream. She draped the vines several times around bushes to keep them fast and began then to pull up some of the plants on the path itself. Definite and for sure, worn but well cut the footholds that climbed steadily before her. She was climbing now herself, tying back the vines as best she could and clearing the steps as she went. This was the first time now since she had left her home hearth that she was joyful finding the road forward. It was hard enough work but work she knew well, slashing the way through thickets where old paths had overgrown or clearing stubble from the fields, brush from old fields. Her heart was light, and she began to sing. 168 The sharp whistle behind her made Dora jump. "Well and bless me, look at this." Sy climbed up and put her hand on Dora's shoulder. "You are one right enough. Me snoring away down there and you are the leading lady." What was she on about now? Sometimes the way Sy talked, Dora couldn't understand a word. "Come on darling dear and lend a hand here. I know ye bain't farm handy oermuch but I'll learn ye." Together they bent to the work, ducking under the vines and pushing them up and out of the way, twisting them about the many bushes. A weaving. And the plants that they pulled up from between the stones they pushed in among the twisted vines to make a firmer hold. They worked and didn't think to look back for a good time. When Dora did turn to rest she sat down quite suddenly and pulled Sy's skirt to make her look. They were a good eighty feet up the cliff, too far for Dora's stomach. Their little camp looked to her like a mouse's nest in the moonlight, and she felt the urge to lean forward slowly slowly and fall from this perch where no human should be. Sy's hand grabbed her shoulder and shook it. "Lean back here and don't go doing bird dances on me. This is not even the beginning. You'd best get used to it." She spoke sharply but stroked Dora's hair which was trembling along with Dora under it. 169 They sat there a goodly time, bathing in the silver light, gazing out over that huge plain, shadow and shining back to the gully Dora had labored up in a time that seemed so long ago. Dora had never asked Sy how she had come to be at this place, what ways she had found pathless up the same mountainside to find Dora here as though she knew. Some time she would get to know. "It' be best, sleep aside, to start climbin now, don't ye think? No more marching by day in these parts for I. Do we go down and pack up." Sy nodded. . . . The climbing was harder of course with their packs, but not impossible. More annoying than arduous, the vines would wrap themselves like fingers around anything that stuck out. They had to set themselves down several times and rearrange. They wrapped scarves around their hair for the same reason, Dora muttering and cursing at every viney grasp. At least so far there was nothing thorny or stinging to make them jump and dance. Sy began singing in a high bird voice, and she seemed to have a way of plaiting back the plants like hair, layer upon layer behind her. Dora tried not to look back, but every now and then had to turn to see how far they had come. It frightened her at 170 first to be clinging like a beetle, nothing seeming between her and sky. But as she climbed and looked, climbed and looked, the view from above took her over as strongly as the view from below had when she first saw those peaks at the meeting with Ham. Then the sweet and heavy, pungent smells of the plants she was pulling up and pushing to the sides filled her body and lightened her foot. And she sang too, a different song but one that curtseyed in and out of Sy's like the low hum of bees behind a mistle thrush. When morning came they were still toiling up. The foot of the cliff had disappeared as they curved inward on the climb. Early swallows darted around their heads as the sun came up red and flat behind them, and while it was still cool, they burrowed under the next tier of vines and bushes to make themselves a camp for the heat of the day. The roar of the waterfall was always beside them, and every now and then as they worked their way upward a waft of cold, soft spray had blown over them, dripping down their faces together with the sweat of the climb. The steps were broad enough just here to make a comfortable stopping place. There had been some--mere holes dug in the rocky face--that would have been too precarious even for Sy to perch on for the day. They sat and spread out food. On the step below them clear of the greenery, Dora laid out a small fire, just big enough to boil a pan of 171 water and light her pipe by. They ate and smoked, drank tea and talked. Sy told Dora how she had crept back into the grove while Dora slept and given her protection on her path. Dora looked at the bottom of her pipe and there still, faint but clear, was the bird Sy had carved into it. The same bird, Dora was sure now, that had led her here and was always her eye toward the mountain. "Well, and how be'd ye here so timely woman dear? Did ye know my path and I all unknowing? Twas a dark way for me sure enough. Hardly a step I didn't have to trick myself into." Dora made a face, both rueful and sad, the deep sadness as she remembered the old man and her children she'd never see again. But Sy didn't answer for a long time. She was bent over her pack, reordering it and muttering to herself, picking over this and that in her bird way. Dora thought she wasn't going to answer at all and was getting ready to ask again when Sy held up a finger, slender as a girl's and not workworn like Dora's old stubs. Sy kept her face turned away and lifted up the other hand. Her fingers began to dance, strange and fantastic movements, back and forth, weaving and bending, sometimes slowly and sometimes in a frenzy, clawlike in the air. Sy's head and body moved not at all. She stayed bent over, her face down to the side, her arms raised and fingers dipping 172 and flashing with life of their own. It was a story. Dora could see that. But what it told was nothing clear to her. The journey perhaps. Was Sy trying to answer her question with this cavort of fingers? As the dancing went on, Dora stopped thinking and stilled. Her body followed the movement as her mind could not. Her body drank and understood. Sy's hands fluttered down in a series of falling waves and landed like leaves by her sides. The silence was long then, stretched into the afternoon, lengthened into the sleep and dreams of the two women as they slumped and stirred and lay finally on the wide steps under the tangle of vines and bushes by the waterfall. 173 XVIII Two days later they were still climbing. The huge plain below them had become just one among shelf after dusky shelf of terraces they could see when they turned to look during their daytime stoppings. The lowlands they had left far behind were a green haze that could have been water, mist or just air below them. There was nothing to show that this great range of mountains rested on anything more solid. Dora was amazed to find herself happy, light of heart up here in this thin bright air close to the sun. She thought it partly the greenness of the vegetable crazy cliff, so much more to her heart than the rocky places she'd been walking in. But it was the mountain height as well, the sight farther than her eye could make sense, head touching sky of the world. Even in the dark of the moon when she couldn't see the hand in front of her and had to work by feel, the huge space was hanging behind them like wings. The work of climbing had become almost unthought, 174 plying back the vines and plaiting them in, pulling bushes, plying back more vines, work on this mountainy hairdo that suffered rather than gained from her thinking on it. Sy was a silent worker, not being used Dora thought, to company in her travels. So Dora was alone and not alone. Sy was always there in front of her or behind, a little to one side since they chose a side to work on and kept with it. She was good company when they stopped each morning to rest except when she decided to take one of her grumps and shroud away into herself. But for the most part, the companionship was all in the bodily being there. Even when Dora spoke a thought there'd like enough be no reply. And indeed Dora grew to like it that way. Her thoughts flew about her, shuttles weaving and weaving what they would--intricate brocade shaping the mountain to come rather than tearfully seeking what was gone before. The days and nights were unchanging in their aspect. The plants and earth scattered rock that passed them by unchanging too, but unchanging in their thousands. Dora couldn't count those she'd never seen before and she was well versed in herbs. She luxuriated day and night in this jungle greenness, small insect buzzing. It seemed to her they climbed the side of the womb of the world. And they would go up for ever. "Day after day gone by and still no top to this ladder. Do ye think we'll find an end to it?" One morning they sat 175 on narrow moss soft steps one above the other watching the flames of the small fire. Each night of climbing had brought a cooler day. Sy, wrapping a small narrow leaf round and round her finger, shook her head. "I'm not even thinking on it girl. Where are we going and why and when will we get there? Who are we, why are we, when are we?" She snickered. "Beats me." Dora humphed and shrugged. "The likes of ye can't tease me out o needing to know, no more than the booklearned could ache my ears. How many days of food have we? Oh ay, another thing ye never worry abowt, squirrel woman yereself. Well, feed us both then, little mother nutkin, when we be storeless." Sy was rolling about as much as she could on the step above making terrible faces and pounding the ground in mock agony. Dora steadfastly refused to laugh. After all, it was herself the laughing stock. She sat in humped up thought while Sy fell asleep and snored delicately above her. The day now was hot but not burning, and she could feel they might start climbing in the light. Climbing to what? The pull was still there gentle and steady, and Dora followed it forward and up, winged clear of the vine-cluttered cliff and soared. The great hawk eyes shifted unblinking as she turned and turned in the updrafts. She saw with surprise that they would be atop the cliff within the day. And above, the strangest sight. 176 She floated in the updraft at the edge of a huge meadow that stretched farther even than the keen hawk eye could see. Not a flat meadow, not a mead, but full of flower covered bumps and towers, straight lines and curved, all orderly patterned. Like a village, it came to her sudden. Bigger than any village she could imagine the least use for but the same all the same. She turned down and began to follow one of the broad spaces between the bumps, intending to discover more. Here and there great stones protruded from beneath the grass. The silence was thick. She noticed, as though from far away, birds singing and the usual whirr of insects, but all sound fell into the matted greenery and disappeared. Occasional darker spaces haunted her eye, and, curious, she began to circle down. But as she lowered herself toward the shadow between the rocks, she found herself flown beyond the power of sight. As much as she beat her wings to bring her onto the plateau, she floundered in a vortex that arrowed her straight back into her own body, open mouthed on the steps. . . . And so she sits, tired, dazzled, confused, unable to sleep for the while as she puzzles over that strangeness above them. Sy, dead to the world in her heavy sleep, is a 177 comfort there near her, drawing her down again to the bone rock they lie upon. "Tis a gentle strangeness surely, not a breath of pain in it. An old un. Not lived in for so long I can' think on it. But I do feel it lived in once on a time. And not by the likes of we. Like wisps they feel to me, frail, not so much a rough handed people but mindful. Always thinkin I'd say. And gracious." Dora lay back on the step and drew her blankets around her, from her nest looked up into the clear light of day. She slowly fell asleep then, the forms of small lithe beings bending around her, reaching slender arms to gently brush her hair from her face. It was she who woke first after only a short time, remembering as she opened her eyes that she wanted to finish the climb during daylight. And remembering too what they climbed toward, yearning now to be in that place she had seen. Sy was still sleeping heavy above her, and the sun was not yet directly overhead. She sat up and laid her hand on Sy's arm, but then thought better of it and turned to the dampened fire on the step below her. "One day more," as she carefully cleared away the earth from the top of the pile to find the still warm coals beneath. Turned then to the pile of dry twigs she had collected and stored at dawn and delicately placed them over 178 the embers. She bent to blow into just that crack where she felt the heart to lie, and saw the tender flame curl. From the first memory of time she and her kind had kept the flame alive, hearth and home, heart and bone. By the knowledge of fire. Sy stirred at the crackling of burning branches, smoke shuddering in her direction a few seconds at a time. By now Dora had the pot of water boiling. Sy opened an eye, saw it was still daylight, and grumbled audibly enough about old women who thought they were only young things and needed no sleep. She shut the eye again and settled down into her pile of blankets. Dora chuckled, lit her pipe and leaned back to enjoy the cup of tea. Not the old home tea this, nor even the store from the village which had run out. Now she was blending from the herbs she found along the way-- peppermint, wild raspberry, nettle and the like. Very good it was too. After a while the bird woman opened the eye again and grimaced. "Will you take that silly smile off of your face and tell me what you're doing up at this unholy hour? I've been asleep here only a matter of minutes, and you behave as though it's time to go again already. Shame on you. My bones are aching." Dora just leaned back a bit more and went on smiling into her pipe. Sy sputtered and growled, but sat up. 179 "Pass me a cup of tea at least will you there." Dora passed over Sy's tin cup brimming with hot tea. As Sy took it from her, Dora held up her hand and pointed into the air above. "Not long more now. We be there today if we start soon." "Be where?" mocked Sy, raising her eyebrows over the edge of her cup. "To the top o this cliff and to what waits us there. Ye'll see darlin, just as I did see while ye slept. Hare and tortoise we be, hare and tortoise," chortling away, Dora knew Sy couldn't abide to be run before. Sy snorted and grumpily sipped from her cup. Dora got herself up then and began to gather her things ready to leave. Sy pretended not to notice for a while but it wasn't long before Dora's fever caught her up and she threw away the dregs from her cup and began packing too. And that wasn't long in the doing. They hefted the bundles to their backs and began again the slow twining and weaving upward climb. It was true now that the sun shone less hot and the going was pleasant, small breezes blowing the hair back from their faces. And in the daylight they could look about them as they worked. It made the going slower, for they stopped at every other step to look at some huge bell of a flower or 180 smell the tiny white stars that hung in masses from the vines they were plying. Soon they'd woven flowers for their hair and stuck flowers in at their waists. They went from looking festive to looking like part of the hillside itself. And the slow going was sweet to them. They savored it as they went, knowing it would come to an end and a new adventure begin. They stopped often and sat looking out over the hazy plain, catching sweet spray when the steps led closer to the waterfall. Then as the sun bent down above them near to slipping behind the crag they climbed, the steps ended quite suddenly and left them in a small lip of rock, and they could see what Dora had seen already that day. There were the green mounds just as she knew they would be, the paths between them. Sy caught her breath, looking at Dora who was standing there nodding her head. "What is it?" hissed Sy. "A village I'd say, and an old one, not lived in," Dora turned to her. "I flew above it while ye slept, flew in my mind's eye pulled by whatever it is that brings me. The sweet beings are gone that lived here. Or gone their bodies at least. There be doors, dark spaces tween the rocks, and I know not what do lie within. But I do know, darlin my dear, that tis a gentle and peaceful place and there be nought to fear." 181 The hillocks were now reaching long shadows toward them as the sun fell farther behind the mountainside. Sy turned her ear toward the greying meadow. "I hear bird song or like enough to it. A twittering and laughter here. No malice though, no evil thought." Dora nodded and considered. "We can sleep on the edge the night and see what'll be in front of us the morning. There's shelter in this hollow, and I be not for venturing out in the pitchy dark." So they set down their loads and unpacked enough to feed them and cover them before the sun had gone completely. Then having nibbled the bits and pieces they had left, not hungry for more, they lay back and gazed up at the dark shape of the mountain framed by the star-white sky. 182 XIX Sy woke at first light from a dream of bees, a hollow- tree nest of them and honey dripping down her chin, and she running running for the nearest water to escape their fury. She shook her head, still not quite roused, and opened her eyes a little at a time. First the blur from half shut lids, underwater view of the little hollow, and next a proper peek with the left, shut it again, then the right, shut it. All right, the day is begun. Both eyes will open. And so they do. And there they are. The bees, no dream now, not the common lowland honey bee she knew but great furry orange creatures carrying themselves with unlikely grace and speed as they danced around her head like tiny birds. Sy reached up her own brown bird hand from where she lay and held it steady above her face. She could hear the tinkling song as the little beings settled, light as feathers, on her upturned palm. They looked at her from 183 deep amber ancient eyes such as no insect ever possessed, and Sy was struck with a great love. She glanced above her where Dora lay wrapped and dreaming, then back at the bees that were settled still and feather-light on her palm. Since she prided herself so on her small hard woman wandering, Sy was loath to feel this honey warm sweetness flowing through her bones, and especially at such a cursed hour of the morning. "You don't seem to understand," she began, pulling herself up short as she realized she might look undignified conversing with a group of bees that fitted onto the palm of her hand. And obviously they didn't--understand, that is. They continued to gaze at her unperturbed, and as soon as she met their eyes again, Sy stopped fighting. When had she ever felt this way since she was a small baby? When had she felt she might not have to fend for herself any more, not struggle with ignoramuses, not hide and run, all of her life alone? "What am I thinking? This is crazy. Of course I am alone. That is who I am. Why would I want anything else? This is just temporary, just a helping hand for old Dora there who'd probably be a bundle of bones by the wayside by now if it weren't for me. Well, perhaps that's exaggerating a bit, but no. That's what I'm here for isn't 184 it? Once this is done, I'll be off again just the same thank you very much. It's Dora that needs to change." She hadn't quite convinced even herself this time. The furry little people (for thus she began to think of them) sat waiting for her to end, or so it seemed. They obviously had the patience to wait a very long time. She could feel the sparkling intelligence of them, not cold or watching, but completely involved, pushing her on and waiting at the same time. It drove her crazy. "No one knows better than me what's good for me," she yelled, quickly covering her mouth in case she wake Dora and have to explain all this to her. And wouldn't Dora laugh-- Sy in a real muddle, Sy vulnerable, Sy confused. In her heart if she allowed herself such indulgence, Sy knew Dora wouldn't laugh. Dora herself was more like these beings than Sy liked to think. Between Dora and the bee people, the old Sy would certainly be a goner. Better to run for it now while she had the chance. With a quick movement she turned to get up and pack, but the bees were looking deep into her, and she sank back down on her blankets and let the warmth flow through her until she knew she could not leave. She wouldn't abandon this chance never to be lonely or frightened again, and worse, never to have to be so sharp and hard she couldn't feel it. 185 Perhaps the feeling of having children of one's own would have been like this, the feeling of a family. She was lost in a daydream of pleasant homeyness when she sensed the watcher above. Caught! She couldn't look at Dora for the black shame that enveloped her, so didn't see Dora's delight at the creatures in her palm or her quiet smile of greeting. Sy would have crushed the orange bees in her hand but for the love that still flowed and made her soft and sad instead of angry. All the fight in her was gone. Now she would never survive, and the two old hags of them would rot by the roadside for lack of protection. Sy rolled in a ball on the ground, still careful to keep her hand, where the bee people stayed, gently safe. She lay and let storms of fear, shame and grief shudder through her body, the feelings of them sharp as any pummeling. She was cold and she was hot, aching, then longing to leap up and run. She couldn't cry. The shame was too great. There, when the racking eased, there was a hand on her head, both light and sure, strong and gentle. The hand sent a message that made Sy look slowly up. She realized she had never looked into Dora's eyes before, and now she looked. What she saw made things no better, no better at all. The same as the bees' those eyes, comprehending her pain, offering no solution, just there most surely with her. Sy 186 reached up and took the hand from her head, brought it down against her cheek, and let the tears come. How could she have borne such loneliness? Now she could feel it, the ache would never go away. She had lived with it only by concentrating her energy into a weasel fierceness to survive, no time for feeling, push everything away. She had been constantly alert for danger, watching for food and water, gleaning signs that would make clear the next step. Dora's hand on her cheek was like a mother cord feeding her safety so she could unfold inside. Slowly, oh so slowly, and with fear she urged herself to appear. She felt too small and weak, too unknowing. The light hurt her eyes, the rocks were too sharp. But no going back now. And how sweet she felt, like a flower this Sy, young and sad. She sat up then and moved close to Dora. After a long while sitting she asked, "What was your mother like, Dora?" Dora looked at Sy's hand where the orange bee people still sat and waited, watching Sy with their burning eyes. "Well, darlin, I don't rightly know to tell ye. She died abornin me, and I know only what those who knew her tell me. She were small like me and round, more fair though. They say her hair was like the autumn sun for brightness. I were the fifth of her childer. But I never did know her, no. For that she died I had mothers as many 187 as there were women in the village that loved me. I were a long time agrowin before I could count em, I tell ye. "There were arms about me, kisses, laps to sit on, stories to listen to, songs to sing. I ate and slept where I wished. I were a pet and none told me nay. When I were three or four I took to following my oldest sister Eryl to care for the fowl. We were busy all day keeping them silly birds from harm. I seemed to make Eryl happy, for they said she'd been sad to dyin herself since my mother died. She played mother to me too. I love her dearly still." Sy listened with her head on Dora's arm. She drank in that other way of being, the warmth of it and the easy loving. "I remember my own mother well, Dora. She was alone when she had me and alone we stayed until she left me to fend for myself when I was five." Dora tutted and hummed, stroked the small head on her arm. "I remember her teaching me. She was never cross or sharp but she never held me or kissed me either. The reward would always be the pride I could see in her eyes when I did something right. I would have tried anything for her. We kept away from other folk except when we needed to work for food, and then we'd sleep in the field and work on our own, always avoided hobnobbing. "She never spoke overmuch, only for instruction. Sometimes at the farms we visited I'd see children my own 188 age running about and laughing or screaming, crying and being comforted. It was such a strange world, I couldn't make head or tail of it, and to tell the truth it frightened me not a little. We kept well clear of all of them. She never warned me against folk, my mother, but I could tell just by the wariness in her, the way she looked at them with scorn in their playing. I knew to keep to myself. And so I always have until I met you. "There were times when we'd meet with our own, always silent, shared secrets with no speaking, no touching. I just accepted that was right. One might have been my father, but I never could have known. She would speak with her hands and her body, dancing." Dora nodded at that, remembering the stories Sy had woven for her on the cliff climbing. Sy went on, "I learned that language too. But it was rare that we would cross paths with silent ones like us. Since she left me, and it may be 60 winters agone, I have met even fewer. Perhaps we are dying away or even gone altogether but for me. "She told me we could always call and one would come. She showed me how, high bird signal in the head, no sound. I have used it only once when I was trapped in terror by a brute of a fellow at a farm. From towering over me, he laid to the earth like a fallen tree and no one to see who did it. I ran, and a time later as I sat shivering, a woman, 189 small, and a shadow person like myself, came into where I was hidden and looked deep at me, then turned and went away. That was all." In their small hollow at the top of the cliff, Sy and Dora saw the sun well up, heard swallows piping their morning breakfast song. A mist was rising from the fall and burning from the face of the cliff, and the mingling smells of herbs on the warm earth caressed them as they sat together. Arm in arm they leaned close, shut their eyes. Sy put her hand with the bee people on top of Dora's hand, and so they rested. . . . Dora was the first to rouse herself. Sy had fallen asleep, and Dora carefully moved her hand from under her friend's, made sure Sy would be comfortable, and got up. The bees seemed to have gone to sleep too. Dora was interested to see that, unlike the bees she knew, they had soft downy eyelids and could close their eyes. She stretched luxuriously and moved about picking up small twigs and branches for the morning fire. Circle of stones made, she placed dried bark, smallest twigs, and struck the spark that set them alight, sweet wisps of spicy smoke and tiny flames. She felt like a young girl again herself. 190 The pot of water had boiled and tea was made by the time Sy awoke to see Dora still bustling about with dried fruit and grain. The sweet sadness has not left me, my heart still open. There was fear in Sy now that if she moved and began to live again, the old hardness would come crashing about her like armor. I would rather sit here forever than go back. What will Dora think of that? Another baby for her to rear? Will she leave me? No. I know she will not. There was an emptiness in her hand and she looked down. The bee people were gone. She hadn't seen them fly. It heartened her to know that she still felt the softness of them though they were not there. Dora turned and smiled. "Will ye eat now, darlin. Ye've done a day's work the morning, and I be ready myself." The old rebellion rose in Sy's throat. No one does for me. I'm no one's darling. Half lazy, she watched the feeling rise, looking all the while at Dora who kept her rooted. She opened her mouth and let it keep rising until it disappeared into the morning sky. There would be rebellion. There would be snapping and stiffening. No doubt, no doubt. "I'll eat. What do you have there? Dora, you are such a one. I may be the old woman I was under all this and over all this, but you will fill my belly and keep me warm till I 191 succumb, a colt melted with kindness. You are very dear to me." Sy was surprised she even knew the words to say this last. She had never talked so to anyone in her life. She remembered suddenly the way she had come up the mountain to find Dora again. It had been long and harsh, fits of resentment keeping her awake at night, growling and cursing the day away. When was it she had known she should follow the woman? It was that time Dora lay in a fit at the foot of a tree. Sy hadn't even realized then that she was being sent. She could see now. Very subtle whoever had delivered the message. She had thought it was her own idea. Why, she couldn't imagine since she had been fed up with the whole project from the very beginning. She should at least have suspected. That meant there were others of her kind still about, for who else could have sent a message into her mind? Dora had turned and was bringing over a bowl and a cup, laid them at Sy's side. Sy reached up and grabbed her hand suddenly almost pulling her down on top of the food. "There are more of me," she cried. "Oh aye," Dora responded slowly, not quite seeing the excitement of it. That there should not be more of Dora was so unthinkable, she puzzled over Sy's fervor. Oblivious to Dora's quizzical looks, Sy had gotten up and was climbing out of the hollow where they had slept. She stood on the 192 edge of the green plateau looking back as though she might see, if she squinted hard enough, whoever it was had sent her the message. Seeing nothing, she sat on the grass and closed her eyes, searching for a hint of another mind, any tendril that might give away the existence of a companion. Nothing. There was no speaking there. Sy let her head drop. Even though she knew now that someone still lived who could send such a message to one such as herself, it wasn't enough to know. She wanted to find this someone, find them now. It was Dora's hand, again, on her shoulder that pulled her back into herself and the earth she sat on. "Where were ye goin, bird heartling? Arunnin for all ye're worth and no distance to show for it. Not a sound have ye made though the crying is loud enough to deafen a spirit. Donnee know, tis the way we be goin ye must urge yere mind toward. No use casting over the way back. If anyone has called ye, tis up afront they be." Dora sat down too but facing west, and slowly, reluctantly, Sy turned herself until she was sitting side by side with Dora looking out over the bumpy green plateau that was their next adventure. 193 XX While Sy looked out over the sunny hillocks before them, Dora cast ahead and found herself not flying this time but burrowing down among the mounds and into the dark, loamy earth. She was glad she could still feel Sy's hand in hers for this was a strange business and she was not over comfortable with it. Though tis more of a mole I'd be taken for by many I know than for a bird. She could feel the cool soil, gritty soft, pouring over her as she waded downwards with wide clawing motions of her paws and a writhing of her body, snakelike. There were roots that she chewed on for a moment before passing by and stones that had to be shouldered aside. Once she came on a beetle a good two inches long and was confused for a moment whether to attack and eat it or not. Dora that was in the mole decided roots maybe, but beetle, no. She couldn't see. Darkness was complete. But she'd no need of sight, feeling everything around her with the 194 delicate hair of her fur and whiskers. She only followed the pull of whatever it was she was heading toward and guided her body by feel around the biggest rocks and roots. Without warning she broke into open space and was falling, spread out and flailing panicked in dark air. She landed in a frightened heap on soft dry ground. She still couldn't see but felt with all her mole hairs on end a huge space above her, some sort of a cave. With endless black prickling her every pore, she was sucked back into her body next to Sy where she found herself still holding onto her friend's hand for dear life. "You went away again?" Sy asked and looked concerned when she saw how shaken Dora was, caught herself looking concerned and wrinkled her nose. Neither of them spoke for a time, but Sy gently pried Dora's hand loose from her one, changed hands, and put her arm around her friend's back. "It b'ain't half bad to be a mole, but I'm tellin ye tis more unsuspecting, if ye take what I mean. Birds can see where they fly but poor old mole has to feel all and go inch by inch." Sy laughed. "You've been a bird so long you've forgotten how to see with your skin. What did you find for us now dear moledywarp?" 195 Dora shut her eyes and put her face down into Sy's shoulder, recalling that long fall and the blackness without end. "If we be to go down into that earth--and it do seem we be--there'll be need for light. Tis blacker nor midnight at no moon I can tell ye. And there be places so high I couldn't rightly tell whether they do end or no. I were so afrighted I'd no time to sense whether twere friendly." "So you think we must go down? I do wish I knew what we were going down for exactly. Or why up for that matter." Dora opened her mouth to answer, but Sy kept going. "You won't satisfy me so easily. I know you tell me I must trust that my ones will be ahead and not behind. My voices. I don't trust just like that. I don't feel any pull the way you do. The only thing I know for sure is that I was sent with you. That'll have to be enough for now I guess, but I don't like it." "You guess," laughed Dora. "You nothing of the sort me old heart. You know well as I do there be no going back. What'd we do back there now, the two of us? B'ain't no place for us. We might settle for a bit, but it'd always be off again." "Well," Sy put in primly, "I was never settled anyway. I could always go back to the old life." But she smirked, 196 couldn't look at Dora as she said it, and Dora chortled and patted her friend's hand. "Right you are, darlin. So you say. Well, I'll never come between ye and what ye desire, that be truth now. That be truth. But I do be tended forward myself." Dora got up slowly and began to gather up her things. She packed everything away except for some food left over from supper the night before and she sat to munch that while she contemplated how they were to make their way in the dark underground. "What'll we do about light? There must be something we can take'll cast enough to see and won't burn up so fast we'd be lost down in the middle there. We can't go down without working out that one." Sy had just about cleared her things away too, so she sat next to Dora and held out a piece of the lichen Dora had used to light her pipe when she first arrived on the plateau. "What about this?" "What's that then?" She held out her hand and took the brittle stuff from Sy. "Well, I do think you're right, so. Might do it. Where did ye bring this piece from?" "I've been carrying it for about a week, maybe more. Tonight we can see if it still gives off light." 197 "Or we could do it now if we found a way into the blackness." Dora kept her head down as she spoke, not wanting to look Sy in the face, for she knew very well that if they didn't go soon she would be less and less willing as the day went on. Sy began to hum a slow tune that somehow made Dora think of earthworms moving through crumbly soil. Shuddering only slightly, Dora went to her pack and brought out a fairly large bundle of dried lichen which she tied around with a string into a neat bunch. "Now what'll I do for my pipe lighting in a place that has no more light than a bat's bellybutton?" She was huffing about her pack, grumbling and muttering to herself, trying not let the fear that was already a black cave inside her show on the outside. She didn't want to give Sy any excuse for leaving now. "Be there rocks with this grey stuff on em about here? If not, I'll wend my way back for more. Be bad enough to go underground as tis without forswearing my pipe.” For answer, Sy pointed between the mounds to where several large grey rocks poked up. The women climbed the last few feet onto more level ground and trod the springy turf of the mountain meadow toward the rocks. The way was farther than it had looked. The light angled into the stones strangely, and when Dora and Sy came up close to the, 198 both realized that these were giants. Some of them rose up perhaps three times the height of either woman. Others that lay flat on the ground were even larger, and there were smaller ones scattered among them in what looked to be some kind of pattern, but neither Sy nor Dora could make any sense of it. There was lichen aplenty, and the two began stripping away until each had a bundle of the light brittle stuff almost half as big as herself. On some of the stones, when she tore away the grey covering, Dora could see markings. “Did ye ever learn to read?” “I did not. Not unless you mean cards and palms and tea leaves.” No. Do ye look here at these markings. Be this not writing?” Sy put her bundle down and came over to where Dora was scraping away at the surface of one of the horizontal stones. She ran a finger over the curling designs. Closing her eyes, she kept her finger moving around the loops and spirals, across the face of the grey rock. She began murmuring to herself. Dora could see Sy‟s bird fingers begin dancing again, graceful and quck as swallows over the indentations. 199 After a while, the fingers slowed, and Sy appeared to come back from a journey, opened her eyes and smiled at Dora. “We can leave the lichen behind dear heart. Here is the way.” Dora frowned in disbelief. “What be that now? One made ten lives ago when these rocks were young? I have seen. There be no folk left in these mountains. The way to what?” “Don‟t you fret now, Dora girl. People or no people, the lichen can stay here. Don‟t you remember the bees?” Dora nodded. “I do, but what do bees have to do with light?” “Light bringers, builders, honey farmers, hard workers, queen tenders. They provide light for us, food, medicine, glue. I don‟t know whether we‟ll find wax candles where we go, but we are assured of light.” “There b‟ain‟t no light down where i fell, I tell ye that.” “I believe it only opens for guests. A mole is a mole after all. You saw how we‟ve been welcomed already. They are expecting us.” “Expecting we,” mused Dora. “Now how would that be?” “I don‟t know, of course I don‟t, but it makes sense doesn‟t it?” Sy asked. “Even if they didn‟t know we were 200 coming, they know we are here now. What are you stalling for Dora? I don‟t believe you want to go.” “Ye be right there. That I do not.” Dora was muttering more to herself than to Sy. “Twas hard enough to leave the world behind and clamber up here into nothing. Twill not ease me to go underground into more and blacker nothing.” Sy nodded. “Well, you‟re not alone now anyhow. Isn‟t that something? We can descend into the black nothing together, two moles into the belly of the beast.” Shaking her head, Dora turned back towards where they had left the packs. “Do we go then. If I stay longer pondering ye‟ll have to drag me pack and all.” We must look for the best place to begin,” said Sy. “Better our hands free than stumping around with packs.” “If ye can read where us‟ll have light, can ye not read where us‟re to go down? I‟ll bring the packs.” Sy went back to the pattern she had been tracing already and ran her fingers over it again, but she found nothing new there and nothing to say where an entrance might be. There were other rocks with markings on them, and she was trying each in turn when Dora came back with the first pack. Sy rubbed her forehead in frustration. “I can find nothing. Can‟t even read the patterns here now. Maybe we 201 have to look after all. Come on, you‟re the one who feels the famous pull. You have a try at it.” “It usually do come when I be not expecting it. No use I‟d say in my trying overmuch.” But Dora stood as she had in the forest outside the village and waited. As then, she was a long time waiting. Sy went and brought her pack. Dora was placed there among the grey rocks, her head to one side as though listening. The morning was heating toward noon, so Sy sat down in the shade of a standing stone, the only sound the singing of grasshoppers in the lush greenery and a breeze among the grass. She noticed that the place where they were was indented slightly into the plateau. From where she was sitting, she was just a little above Dora‟s level and could see the shape of the place more clearly. The great stones that were still upright swirled to form an egg shape with the largest toward the fatter end. Dora had chosen to stand almost in the middle among fallen smaller rocks which lapped around her like waves. Narrowing her eyes to get an idea of the pattern, Sy suddenly realized there was another reading she hadn‟t thought of. Keeping her eyes half closed, she began to see wavering heat lines in the air consolidate into a sort of maze above the stones and she got slowly up with one hand on the rock to steady herself. At first she moved carefully, 202 afraid she might hit a rock hidden under long grass and go tumbling headlong. But soon she lost her fear in fascination witht he steps of the dance and let the path of the maze direct her feet as the sun energy in the air seemed to uphold the rest of her body. It was a slow dance and a sweet one, moving toward Dora and then away again. Dora herself was lost in long listening for her guide. Sy felt she was unwinding something, unravelling it, unbinding Dora from the heart of a puzzle. There was something sad to it, and Sy began to cry again as she moved. But there was no storm to this crying, rather it seemed to be bringing Dora and herself closer to a home Sy could see from far off, a place she had longed for without knowing it. Finally she could reach out and touch Dora, first from one side and then from another. She could sense the maze opening like a giant flower above the two of them as Dora opened her eyes and smiled. The two women picked up their packs and walked unerringly toward the great door that had opened in a mound at the narrow end of the egg. 203 XXI It seemed that the inside of the mound was hewn from rock for the doorway was carved straight into it and arched over them smooth, clean and grey inside its twined green cap. Dark breathed out at them from the stairs that led in a broad curve down into the mountain. Dark it was, but the air that wafted up around them was unexpectedly pure. Sy and Dora turned, already shrouded in shadow, and looked out on the still stones and the mounded meadow. Light glittered among the leaves, long curved sheaths of grass, fronded leaves of vine that took light and tossed it back to the sky. They stood for a moment then turned and began to descend the stairs. For a while, because of the gradual turning of the steps into the earth, they could still see by light of day from above. The steps before them were free of dust, clean and glowing as though swept every day. The daylight faded into a twilight and finally disappeared. They moved closer 204 together, Sy below and Dora above, each one keeping a hand on the smooth wall to the right. When they could no longer see anything but were wrapped in the same velvet blackness Dora had known in her mole self, they stopped trying to peer into the darkness ahead and sat down. Dora kept a firm hold of Sy's shoulder as though they might disappear bodily too. "I do be glad ye're with me, Sy, that I do say now. It'd probably've been a month afore I'd even have ventured t'look for myself. I be that afeared of fallin again." Sy's voice came from the darkness on the step below. "Who or whatever has sent us to each other has some sense anyway. But I wonder what will happen about the light. It doesn't look good at the moment!" "Well, what did it say, that stone you read back there? Did it tell us how to bring light here?" "No," said Sy. "It just told me, `There will be light when you have need.'" "Well, us can't look as though us be needing very much right now. Probably thinks we're takin a nap. Let's get up and inch forward." "Yes, we could exude need and see what happens." The darkness felt like a blanket against their eyes. Sy rose first, careful to keep one hand on the wall and to get up slowly so that Dora could keep a hand on her too. 205 "Perhaps we should be tied," she suggested. "I'd feel much easier if I knew without thinking that you were behind me there." "Indeedy yes," said Dora. Sy struggled for a moment to undo the top layer of apron that covered her skirts, tied one end of it by feel to a strap dangling from her pack and handed the other to Dora. "Is that too short?" "No, I think it'll do." Dora knotted her end by feel into a large buttonhole on the front of her skirt. "What be that anyhow?" "My apron," said Sy. "I won't miss it." "To be sure you won't my dear," laughed Dora. "I never saw one so well dressed as ye." "So," said Sy, ignoring the laughter, "are we ready?" "Aye." They began to move, shuffling forward and testing the air to make sure there was a stair to lower onto. The wall continued unbroken and waxy smooth on their right, and the cool breeze blew softly from below. They stroked the wall with their right hands as they moved. Both found themselves closing their eyes to stop the straining into darkness. They proceeded in this way for several minutes when finally Dora blinked her eyes open for a second and gasped. She stopped and pulled Sy up short on her leash. 206 "Well, bless me! Tis there, indeed it is. Are ye seein?" Sy touched the wall beside her with a cautious finger, leaving a little dent in the pearl glow that seemed to seep from the rock. The stair as far down as they could see was illuminated in gentle light. "Well I'll be. The writing told truth. How on earth does it work?" Sy patted the wall and left fading handprints. She stroked it again, then pressed her fingernail into it. Her nail left a small crescent moon in the surface. "Look," she exclaimed, "there's something all over this wall." Dora ran her hand over it. "Tis wax, sure as I'm born. Lighted wax. But lighted how? There be no flame." "I don't know," said Sy, "but I believe it's when we stroke the wall as we go along that it begins. Let's see what happens if we stop." Dora was not keen to return into the inky black, but she took her hand away just the same. As they waited a little while, they could see the light begin to leach from them, the twilight returning. They hurried to put their hands back on the wall and continued to descend, stroking as they went. Sy began making swirls and patterns in the luminescence with her fingers. 207 "We won't know when it's day or night will we?" she said. "Our stomachs and our weary bones will tell us like nough. What be ee doin? Leavin yere own writin for the next who comes along?" "How many people do you think walk this road?" retorted Sy over her shoulder with a grin. "Be strange though if the story would remain where I write it. Are you hungry yet?" Dora shrugged her pack higher on her back and shook her head. "Not overmuch, but I could be persuaded to stop and eat a small bite." "I haven't seen a sign of water yet. I do believe though that we can trust the bees to look after us, for all the mystery of it. Do you feel that?" "I do. But of course ye cannot be sure that the looking after will be to our liking. Ye've already had a taste of the caring they do give, and though it did ye much good, twere not a tidbit ye'd want to snack on every day." Sy nodded. "Well, let's sit down here for a bit and snack on more ordinary stuff. We can untie our rope now too." Dora stopped and undid the knot holding Sy's apron to her skirt. She sat slowly on the broad step with her pack resting against the wall and slipped her arms out of the straps. Sy did the same, and they put their packs in front, 208 keeping contact with the wall behind them. Dora reached some tart dried berries out of her pack and shared them with Sy. "Seems as though we've been down here all day," said Sy, "but we can't have gone more than a few hundred steps. Do you think?" "If that. But now us have the light, twill be faster goin. What I do wonder is where the goin be to at all. There be no openings to either side. The left be smooth as the right. Now, of course, I did wonder „where be I goin to' when I started up the mountain, but tis stranger still dipping into the earth. Tis one thing never to come down from a mountain, another to be buried forever under a pile of stone." Sy nodded again. She rolled a dark red berry between her fingers and looked down into the curving well of the stairs. "But I don't get that kind of feel you know. The buried feel I mean. There's another strangeness, different. I'm not sure whether it's better or worse." "Well that do be comforting I'm sure." Dora grinned and took out her pipe from a deep pocket where she also kept the herbs to fill it. Having tamped it down, she was about to strike a spark when Sy held up a hand. "I don't know that'd be such a good idea down here. Not till we know more about the place. I've heard tell, in 209 my travels, of explosions underground from sparks, though I never learned more than that. Could you wait a while?" Dora groaned and put the pipe back in her pocket. "That do mean no tea as well. I don't know as I shall survive at all at all." She sniffed and waved her hand back and forth. "Bad air. That's what do make it so. I know from hay barns. Too much bad air and all do go aflame." "It doesn't seem bad does it? As clean down here as up above." "Aye, so it do seem. But I'd rather not be the one to prove ye wrong. I'll have to go without is all. Shall us go on?" Dora got up, retied her pack and hefted it to her shoulders. Sy first replaced the apron round her waist, then did the same. * * * It seemed the stair would wind on into the earth as far as the steps beside the waterfall had climbed, and Sy and Dora had slept twice--they were becoming used to sleeping on ledges--waking each time to find themselves returned to pitchy black without the glow of the wax. Then at last the stair grew straight and broad, and they could see below them a large room round as a pot and narrowing toward the bottom 210 like a water jug. The same dim glow illuminated the whole of it, showing the walls a warm earth brown. There was one round opening cut into the smoothness of the wall at the far end, a little up from the floor. The rest was waxy and unbroken. Dora reached the bottom first and set her pack down by the steps on a surface as polished as the walls. The breeze that blew toward them from the door carried with it a faint spicy smell of honey, and they began to hear a far-off low hum. "I told you it was the bees," said Sy, her head on one side as she listened to the drone. "It must be a hive we are in." Dora wasn't paying attention. She had already walked over to the door and was standing still and quiet with her back to Sy. The breeze wisped her wild hair around her face, and her eyes had grown large and dreamy as she faced the direction of the hum. 211 XXII The spring she was first in love, Dora had stood in the birdseye-speckled grass of the orchard, motionless like this for most of a clear morning. She had listened to the hum of bees working the blossoms, watched them bear loads of nectar and pollen to the straw skeps scattered among the trees. Honey smell streamed from the hives. The air wavered with invisible wings, and clouds of bees danced the roads home. Dora's eyes had half closed as she traced the trails of them, each one unerring to her own place, swift flight from the market of flowers to skep and back again. That dream had been of peace. It had given her heart and strength to live a life of hard work in the closeness of the village. It had given her patience with her children and loyalty to her husband. Now, the hum and smell of honey brought back those years. She stood in the orchard in spring watching bees, at harvest watching her children pick up windfalls, in summer 212 leading the sheep through the trees to pasture, in winter picking dead twigs for kindling. The small breeze blowing through the cave carried memories of a life so different, she could only recall the one by letting the other slip. Sy called again from the bottom of the stair and, wondering what Dora saw that she didn't respond, walked over and touched her friend on the shoulder. Dora murmured a name and sat slowly on the small step between the cave and the further passage. Sy looked up to see who it was Dora was talking to and saw, hazy against the glowing wall of the tunnel, the flower-maned trees of an orchard in spring. A young man leaned against a gnarled trunk just to the left of them. Bending, he tucked a small spray of apple blossom, pink and white fragrance, into Dora's hair. "My Do." He smiled as he tucked the wisps of hair in around the flowers. Sy heard him too, quite distinctly. She touched grass with her feet, smelled the blossom, and felt herself an intruder in Dora's memories. She was turning away, frightened by the apparition and easily convinced that Dora was gone beyond reach, when Dora reached up and grasped her hand. Dora kept her eyes on the young man's face. "Dear heart, this be my friend, Sy. I would ye should know her. She be my companion in this new world we travel in. Ye know 213 I told ye we would not be parted, ye and myself. Tis so indeed." Sy pulled a little on the hand that held her. She was panicked by the solid feel of long grass against her ankles and by the warmth of sunlight on her face. She could no longer see the underground walls or feel the cave floor. The young man had come to sit next to Dora on the moss- covered rock. Hedge sparrows were singing, and Sy could hear a lark pouring out its paean from a meadow at the far edge of the village. Dora pulled back against Sy's hand, and said, "Come sit with us, Sy. Be not afraid. Tis a fair magic we be in. I shall use it, so I shall, to be in this dear place of mine just a little while. I have not forgot the rest. Are ye afeard?" Sy, the small, the tough and wandering woman, nodded, "Yes. Yes, I am afraid. This is all too strange, too real. Are you not tempted to stay and be lost? I would be. Am. I am." "Ye're a changed woman, Sy." Dora laughed, leaning back in the sun, and waved her hand toward the blossoming trees. "All this comfort, and ye'd be tempted to stay?" But she saw the sadness in Sy's eyes and held off, pulling her friend down to sit by her on the sun-warmed stone. 214 "Ay. Ye would. But look ee yere, this be a place of memory. This young man, my darlin, were old and stiff as I even before I left my home. When I were on the road, I had a vision that he'd died. I know tis so. But there be yere some mystery that brings him to me, and look ye, young and sweet as when we first met." Dora's face was wistful as she stroked the young man's sleeve. "Tis surely tempting enough to fade into my own dreams, but, Sy, I have lived that life. Now tis this one for me, hard though it be." "I have not lived it," Sy replied. She reached almost to touch the petals of the flowers in Dora's hair. "But ye cannot live through my dreams, woman dear. And what would ye do? Die here underground for a memory not yere own?" Sy shook her head, but her eyes were on the orchard, the peace and sweetness of it, the working bees. As she gazed, the trees shimmered and changed shape, back and forth again, from apple to nut to pine, apple to nut. The young man at Dora's side flickered. Sy reached a hand toward a shape under the hedge, put the other hand to her mouth. "Mother." Sy's anger broke. "Tricks, tricks!" she screamed and battered at the walls behind the trees. She lashed the air 215 with her arms, danced figures of rage with her fingers. "No lies, you little bastards, give me no lies. You can melt me down to love, but no lies. No sickly longing. I've had enough!" As the trees wavered and broke, dark blinked on. Dora felt herself pulling out of some dream, startled out of it like a sleepwalker into cave dark, a banshee woman screaming beside her. She reached for Sy and touched the wall instead, began stroking it to bring back the light. She let Sy go on as she had let her children rage and tear when there was need. She knew Sy was right. There was some trickery here that didn't sit well. Though she had told herself she was in control and able to pull back, she wasn't sure. Light grew slowly. * * * "We were in darkness and seeing." Sy was still shaking, angry. Her fingers streaked patterns in the air. "Anything could have happened." "Aye. But so it did not. We saw the past, tis all. Ye did not wish it. And I do reckn ye were right. Twere not wholesome, though I would have stayed and seen more, 216 myself." Dora shrugged. "P'raps tis good for they, the bees. Twas not made for us after all, whatever tis." Sy scowled. "A trap, that's what it is. As soon as you come down here, there it lies, waiting. And off you go to lalaland. Once you were in there, good and wedged, you'd starve to death and never know it. Or what do they do, come and take you away to feed their grubs?" "They be bees, Sy. They be not wasps. Bees do not eat meat." "Well, maybe they don't. But whatever it is, it's at the bottom of the stairs, right where you'll walk into it. Love, indeed. So much for that!" Sy looked horribly angry but suddenly started to cry again. "Donee give up now, Sy. Tis a strange enough love. Us seed before. But I do know it do be love. I'd feel if there were harm." Sy wrinkled her face up and turned away, but she had listened. "What is this thing then, Dora? Why are we welcomed with lies and hurtful stories?" "They weren' hurtful to I darlin. Twas a past I'd willingly taste another bite of, donee know? I be not afeard to look at it. I think tis only when ye're afeard that it be a sorry thing. Ye were afeard." "Yes I was. I certainly was. They must know I will be trapped by that, by that wanting." 217 "But ye aren' trapped by it, now, are ye? Fact, ye would've been gone much sooner if I hadn't held onto ye. No danger, my old darling, just pain. An that ye can go through and be none the worse." "Thanks a lot. Pain." Sy sat by her pack, her shoulders hunched and her head down. She traced lines on the polished floor with one green toe. "I think there's too much of it. That's the trouble. Once I start, there'll be no end. You don't know what that's like." "Do I not now?" Dora began sharply but she caught herself and turned a gentler face. "Do ye not remember when ye first met I, there in the grove of trees? I had pain enough then and fear of it too. Do ye remember?" "How could I remember, Dora? I didn't really know you then. What do you mean?" "That be right. Ye were too busy going through my pack." Dora chuckled and frowned down at Sy. "Donnee remember I slidin down a tree? Ye said after that we were both loonies. Ye do remember, I know ye do." "Yes, I remember you sliding down the tree. But I don't know why you were doing it." "Well, I'll tell ye. All my life I'd get sick, and right then I realized twere this fear as made me sick, a fear that come to me in a white light. So, right then I decided to go into the light and fear stead of running away, 218 like. And that I did. And twere the first I realized the seeing were mine. Afore that, I had thought twere an illness, a power over me, not mine." "So you think there's power in accepting pain and fear?" "I do not think. I know." Sy still sat hunched but she was looking curiously up at Dora. "It was after I met the bees that I knew my folk had called me." "That be right." "After I had cried." Sy forced the words to come, hard to admit, harder to say. Dora was not laughing. "Aye." Sy looked down again, put her hand on her pack and got up. "I understand. I don't like it, not at all. But I understand. Let's get on then. I don't want to stay here any longer." Dora put out a hand which Sy pretended not to see. So Dora hefted her pack, struggled her arms through the straps and started toward the doorway. She could still hear a faint hum from down the tunnel, and the breeze blew past her bearing its scent of honey. 219 XXIII The light had faded dim while they stood talking. But as they scuffed their feet along the floor, it brightened again to show a curving low tunnel that wound level and unbranching into the mountain beyond the doorway. Sy scrunched her eyes and looked around as she stepped over the sill and entered, but nothing changed. No visions fogged the air, and, each one keeping a hand on the wall, the two women moved forward. It had been a long time since the way had been so easy for either of them, which made Dora relieved and Sy suspicious. The bee hum grew louder as they made their way further into the mountain, but there was still no sign of bees. They could not see far since the tunnel curved regularly every hundred feet or so, but the level smoothness of it continued for more than an hour of walking. The humming they could hear was sometimes close and sometimes farther away, but there was never silence. 220 "I do believe we're going round in circles," grumbled Sy finally. "We've been walking quite a while." "Do we sit down for a while," Dora replied. "I could do with a small bite to eat anyhow. Do seem like a maze for sure. I wonder what it be for." "Probably another human trap," said Sy, but she didn't sound so serious this time. The two sat down against the tunnel wall, making sure to be touching it so their movements would keep some light up. Dora took out dried fruit and meat from her pack and gave some to Sy. "Yere ee go, darlin. Must be a while since us ate." Sy poured water into a cup, took a sip, and handed it to Dora. "Well, what shall we do? Just keep walking and walking? I guess we don't really have much choice, huh? There aren't any tunnels off to the sides or anything, which is probably good. Though it makes me laugh. What are we worrying about getting lost for anyway, since we're about as lost as we can be right now?" "No. Us could always go back the way us came. Us won't, o course. But I dunno if ye can rightly be called lost if ye have no place ye're goin. What do ye think?" "You can bloody well be called lost if you're likely to die if you don't find the right way. There you go. That's the definition for sure. We're not too worried about 221 finding our way back again, since it is ever onward we are tramping, but die in this hole? No thanks." "Mmmm. But die we shall. This way us'd be buried already." Sy gave Dora a look of horror. "I thought it was you that was so terrified of getting stuck down here. You give me the shudders, mole woman." "I can tell ye're not the practical sort I thought ye, bird woman yereself. Twould be a sight more down to earth to die down here if ye see what I mean." Dora couldn't hold back a chuckle at the look on Sy's face. "Dunnee be afeard though. We b'ain't goin to die, not yet any'ow. There be far too much for us to do still." "And what might that be?" "Well, us have to find they bees for one thing, and see if there be more they can teach we. For another, I have a feeling we're s'pposed to find our way through these yere mountains and out to somewhere else. I don't rightly know how, but that be my feeling. P'raps the bees be s'pposed to help us. They might know." "And I have to find my kind again, don't I? Can't even imagine that. What if I don't like them, him, her?" "That be to think about later. Tis here we be right now, anyhow. Tis here we have to think about. All us can do is keep walking the way we be walking and hope we find an 222 end. And we will. I know it well. There be a why and a wherefore to this journey. Tis not for nothing. Ye know that." "Yes, I know. But it's easy to forget sometimes." Dora closed her pack and stood up, shrugged the weight onto her shoulders and set off down the corridor again. Sy followed. The hum had gotten louder, and as they rounded the next bend in the tunnel, it lapped against them with the honey breeze which suddenly grew stronger too. Dora thought she could see movement ahead to one side of the pathway, at the next curve. She began to move more slowly, though she still believed they would not be harmed by anything they met. Perhaps it was Sy's nervousness she was feeling, but it seemed wise to approach quietly. She turned to Sy with a finger to her lips and nodded forward. She could feel Sy hanging back behind her. But Dora kept to her steady pace. She could feel no danger to them that was not helpful danger. She couldn't think of another way to put it, like the light at the tree, something that must be crossed to move to the next place. As she drew closer, she could see more clearly. There was another tunnel crossing into the one they were on, and at the junction were several bees fanning with their wings to keep the air moving. She'd seen the bees at home in the orchard doing the same, time without count. Perhaps there 223 was honey stored in the cross corridor and that was why the smell of it was so strong here. They'd be fanning to dry it out. These bees were bigger than the ones who had come and sat on Sy's hand. From what Dora could see they must reach at least up to her knees. They were orange too, and they had their eyes closed, a strange thing to see in a bee. Dora had slowed down almost to a stop and she felt Sy bump against her. "What is it?" "There be bees here. See they?" Dora stopped, and Sy peered over her shoulder. "They're bigger than the other ones we saw." "Mayhap they didn't want to frighten we up above. I don't see any guard bees with em, anyhow. I think we can just walk straight up to they. No harm." "Well, you go first." Sy prodded Dora lightly on the back and moved a little way off. "Now, donnee worry, Sy. If there were harm I'd feel it. Ye knows that." "Harm to you may not be the same as harm to me. I don't feel like going through another drubbing today, thank you very much. I've had enough for a month. How many of those flashing lights did you have to experience in a day?" 224 "Well, ye're right there I s'ppose. Come on, then. I'll guide yere way, but ye'll have to follow me without question for my guide brooks no arguing." Sy nodded the smallest nod she could muster and came a few steps behind Dora. The bees hadn't moved or shown that they noticed anyone approaching. They had their work to do and they went on with it. Dora stopped next to the entrance. She would have to let her sense tell her which way to go now, so she stood and waited for a while, thought better of it and took off her pack. Then she began the wait again, arms at her sides and eyes closed. Sy decided to sit down and leaned against her pack by the wall. She closed her eyes too, then after a while, Dora could hear her softly snoring. There was no pull from any direction, and Dora too, began to feel sleepy. She thought it must be getting on towards nightfall anyway. But she decided to wait longer to see if the pesky pull would give her a direction. The humming coming loudly from the branch tunnel and the heavy smell of honey lulled her. * * * 225 The two of them woke at the same time to complete blackness. There was no sound, no smell. They could feel rough dirt under them, rocky walls around them. "Dora?" "Sy? Be you all right?" "Yes, I'm fine. But where on earth are we? Did you bring us somewhere?" "Not I. Last I knowed, I were awaitin for a direction. P'raps I fell asleep unbeknownst. But how us got yere I don't know." "This doesn't feel like the bee tunnels anymore. What's happened? Could this be another illusion?" "I dunno darlin. Tis beyond me. P'raps they brought us somewhere while we slept. Doesn' feel the same as the orchard felt afore. Shall us try and get some light?" As Dora said the word "light," a huge rushing and rattling noise filled the space they were in, and a wind roared over them, both sound and wind getting louder and stronger as seconds passed. A hard white light began to grow swiftly so that they could see the small dank room they were sitting in. The walls were broken brick caked with moss and green slime. The damp floor they were sitting on was earth mixed with pieces of mortar and small stones. The increasing light was coming through a jagged opening in one wall. 226 Dora scrambled to her feet and went over to the opening. Just as she did so, a huge black object with a blinding light on the front of it went hurtling past followed by a stream of more rattling and banging lights. The crashings wavered past, and for the moment before she jumped back again, Dora thought she could see the pale shapes of people's faces inside them. The whole noisy, blustery thing was gone in a moment, and Dora and Sy were left in unrelieved dark again. "What on earth were that?" Dora whispered. "Un looked as though 'n had ghosts in un." Sy reached a hand out and found Dora shaking. "I don't know the least thing and I'm not sure I want to. A dragon? Some kind of huge thing that lives in the earth? I've never even heard a tale of such a thing as this. And where have the bees gone and our nice cosy tunnel?" "Ye weren't so fond of it last I heard," said Dora a bit sourly. She was still shaken from the closeness of the raging thing she'd seen, but she clasped onto Sy's hand and sat back down in the darkness. Sy put a rough arm round her shoulders, and they sat so for a few minutes without talking. Sy was just opening her mouth to say something, when the light began to brighten around them again, the roaring and the wind returned, and another monster ground past the 227 hole they were sitting in. This time, both were sure, as they watched it in horror, that they could see faces in the lighted squares along its back. Another one came, going in the opposite direction a few minutes later. This time, Sy took advantage of the light to look about the room they were sitting in, hoping for a way out, and she noticed at the back of it what looked like a door. Before the light had completely gone, she turned Dora's head gently so that she could see it too. When it was pitchy black again, they both got up as quietly as they could and, picking up their packs, crept slowly toward it holding both hands out in front of them so they wouldn't bang into the wall. Sy got there first. The light and noise began to grow again as she reached it, and she was able to see a sort of handle about halfway down the door. She grabbed at it and pulled. Nothing moved, and both women were so afraid of being seen by the rushing creature that they crouched down into the dirt and hid their heads. Sy had kept hold of the handle, and as she dropped down, it turned in her hand. The heavy door fell open inwards, and Sy and Dora were rolled through it onto the ground at the other side. The light was gone again. Dora propped her pack against the door by feel so that they would be able to see around them the next time one of the creatures passed. They 228 didn't want to go tumbling into a hole for lack of seeing. As she thought about what they should do next, she began to run her hands through the pack identifying things that had been given to her by Letty and the villagers. The shawl, the pot, which was about as black as her old one now, the nightgown she hadn't worn since the village, the bedroll, the flint and steel in their pouch. As she found these things she suddenly remembered the shell beads and frowned as she tried to recall where she had put them. Then her hand touched her side and the money pouch. There they were. She drew them out, careful not to tear the paper that had gotten dry again in her walking. In the dark, she untied the twine and with tender hands opened the paper till she could feel the beads lying there. "What's that?" exclaimed Sy in a voice that sounded bubbly as though she were speaking under water. Dora had had her eyes closed but opened them at Sy's cry and found she could see. There was no noise or wind. The creature had not come. But the beads in her hand were shining, letting out a light that made the passageway they were in look submerged, like the sandy bottom of the river at home, reeds waving in it and swirls of light near the rocks. She almost felt she must hold her breath and push against the air to move. 229 A few feet away, or so she thought, for the distances were hard to judge, Sy's figure billowed. Everything that was usually still moved. The stained brick walls swayed, and the dirty floor swam under her feet. It was a dizzying sight which Dora took in with one steadying hand against the door she had left propped open with her pack. As she looked around, the rushing of air and the cold light of another approaching monster began to slice into the sea-light of the beads, so that Dora hurried to move her pack and close the door behind them. "Tis not safe to have they see us. Might see the light in here and come to find us. But look here, Sy, I knew these'd come in handy. Didn't know they could shine like this though. Maybe tis only now. And now it be, I do wonder where us do be. My bones do say we be not under the same mountain as we were. Tis a different feeling altogether. Sort of a grimy feeling if ye do know what I mean." "I don't know what you mean Dora. This light is so strange that I can hardly think. I feel like a fish." "Ye do look some like a fish and all, darlin, and us both do sound like fishes." "Not funny, Dora. Are we safe? You shut that door quick enough. What about walking down this way? How does it feel to you?" 230 "Well, mostly grimy like I said. And rushin too. Lots of rushing and running about. But not danger exactly. Though danger there be to ye and me from the rushing. Us could be parted if us don't watch. There be a world here I can't rightly feel proper." "Let's go on down this tunnel anyway. We can't go back toward the monsters, do you think?" "Ay, ye're right. I don' fancy taking on they. But let we go slowly. There be strangeness here I don' know how to read." 231 XXIV They began walking very slowly not so much because they were afraid, though they were, as because of the watery air they had to swim through. Dora, in front, held the beads in her hand out before her. Whenever she took a step, her hand dipped, and the light swayed around them even more fluid than when she stood still. Gaping cracks in the walls became caves whose black mouths hung with seaweed. Having seen the rushing monsters behind them, both passed the cracks with fearful steps as silent as possible. There was no knowing what to expect. Every now and then, they could hear the rattling and the rush of wind that meant another of the creatures was passing by behind them. Occasional cobwebs floating from the ceiling in the breeze of their passing became shadows of clouds or waterlilies bobbing on the surface. Suddenly Dora stopped and clutched Sy's elbow, pointing ahead of them to where a yellow point of light shone through the wavering of their 232 own. Since it was hard to make out anything by the light of the beads, Dora decided to put them away in her pocket for a moment. The minute she did, the light steadied, and they could see, set into the roof, a small yellow bowl, from which a light was spreading into the tunnel. Calm as the light from the lichen, it didn't flicker at all. But its color was warm like the sun, the color of day deep under the earth. When they came up under it, there were big white markings drawn on the walls underneath and cupboards set into the brick of the walls. There was nothing in them but old rusty pieces of metal and some rotten cloth. Sy ran her fingers over the markings, but there was no message she could read in them. The tunnel stretched on as far as they could see. They realized that their seeing was not stopping. Just where the pool of light from the first yellow bowl began to fade, another pool began. They could just see the point of the next yellow bowl from where they stood. After walking a few hundred yards, they came to an intersection, but the tunnels that led off to the sides were dark and looked even more broken down than the one they were travelling in, so they kept going straight ahead. "What could have happened that we ended up here?" Sy adjusted her pack and stopped to look back down the tunnel 233 behind them. "There we were in a strange place, right enough, but at least still in our own world. This feels like another world altogether. I don't like it, I must say. What do your directions say, Dora? Are they still with you here?" "Oh, they be here, darlin. But I don‟t rightly know where we might be or what could be happening that they brought us here. Twere they that brought us yere all right, but why or wherever I don't have any idea. An ye're right about another world. Tis a strange feeling I'll say that. Tis not like any place I've ever been or'd ever want to go as far as I can tell. Be a place there be no caring, or that be the feeling I get. Tis too busy, too rushing donnee know." "Are you afraid?" "I'd say I am, I'd say so. I just dunno what might be ahead. I didn‟t have any idea before either, but somehow there were familiar things in it. Here, be not familiar at all." "We'll have to be canny, Dora, take it slow. We don't want to run into another village full of crazies." "Feels to I like they be all crazies here. I dunno know at all. I do be right afeard Sy, I do indeed. All feels hard and cruel." 234 "Well maybe my hardness will come in handy here, then. I can put it on and take it off again. But I don't even know why we're talking like this yet. Here we are stuck down in these forsaken tunnels, not a soul in sight. Maybe we'll never even get out." They had been trudging along the narrow corridor for some time, but as Sy spoke, a rush of stale air hit them, and the light ahead changed from yellow to white. The two women stopped instantly. Each one crept close to the wall and peered ahead, but a jutting of broken brick kept them from seeing beyond the pool of light they were in. "Tis a change for sure," muttered Dora. "What do ye feel, Sy? Can ye see a thing?" "I can't at all. But I don't hear anything, no voices, no more of those creatures. Let's go forward very slowly. We can always duck back in here if it's not safe." Dora nodded. The two slipped forward in the dingy light, Sy first, both staying close to the grimy wall on the side of the broken outcropping and being as silent as possible. Sy stopped behind the pile of bricks and raised her head an inch at a time until she was staring into a scene that made no more sense than if she hadn't been able to look at all. She pulled back rubbing her eyes and muttered to Dora, "You look. I can't make head or tail of 235 it. Maybe my sight's going." Sy backed up the passageway and made room for Dora to stand at the broken wall. Instead of peering over the bricks, Dora sank down to the floor, closed her eyes and began to hum. Sy let her be, too weary to wonder what Dora was doing or to worry about being heard anymore. She sat too in the shadow behind the rubble and put her head back against the wall. * * * Dora was flying again. Not a hawk this time, but a good flyer all the same. Heavy body, swift wings. The cool night air smelled of things she could not name. Metallish. Compost. The bird she was swerved down toward the compost smell, and she had to struggle to pull back on the streamlined flight. She noticed that even though it was dark, there were points of orange light that sent out pools, unwavering, just like the ones in the tunnel. She caught an updraft just in time to avoid a huge square box the size of a small house that seemed to be filled to overflowing with rotten things. Must have been where the compost smell was coming from. There was a wall beyond it, and she landed clumsily on the crumbled top looking about her with quick, sharp jerks of her neck because of the danger she felt all around her, a 236 tension she hadn't felt even in the village the old folk had come from. One of her feet hurt and, looking down, she saw that several of the bird's toes were missing. She noticed in flashes that everything seemed to be made of the same rotten brick that had surrounded her in the tunnel. She could make out what seemed to be houses except that they were the wrong shape and much too big. She tilted her head to one side so that she could look up, saw buildings inexplicably angular towering up, one piled upon another like a child's game with stones. There were lights in some of the windows, unflickering like the one that sent its pool toward her on the wall. The ground below her was made of some rock that she didn't know, dark grey and smooth in slabs that sometimes tilted away from each other. Big and small pieces of white stuff were blowing along the wall. She could see what looked like broken crockery lying on the ground as well, and definitely some animal had shat in several places, and no one had cleaned it up. There was no grass growing, no trees. She wondered where this poor bird she was inhabiting roosted and nested, what it ate. From the way it had veered toward the compost smell, she thought it must be a scavenging creature like a dog, needing people to live. But there didn't seem to be any people at all. Perhaps they were asleep. She heard a cat meowling somewhere 237 nearby, another one answering it, so she took to the air again, easily swooping up till she was flying over fields of rooftops, the strangest cold, dark rooftops she had ever seen. There were chimneys stuck up amongst them, from some of which black smoke strayed. Then she was suddenly floating in the breezes over a wide river. Dora stopped humming and opened her eyes. "Be worse even than I thought, Sy," she said. "Huh? What?" Sy shuddered from sleep and sat up straight against the wall. "What did you say?" "Tis worse. I dunno what kind of place it be, but b'ain't home, that be for sure. I've never seen the like and never want to. Tis dark, Sy, very dark. Be no grass, no green, no tree. Tis a sad kind of place indeed, uncared for." "What did you see? What was it? Describe it to me, Dora. I get nothing from your moaning about it." "I have to settle, Sy. Do ye wait one moment. I have to settle. Tis a shock." Dora put her head on her knees and sat there looking for the first time to Sy like an old woman. That was a disturbing thing. Sy put out a hand, drew it back, then put it out again to lay on Dora's shoulder. * * * 238 After a few minutes, Sy took off her pack and got up. She leaned toward the pile of bricks that hid them from whatever was next and peered over it. She ducked down again, drawing a sharp breath. "Dora. There are people out there." Dora went on sitting crouched where she was, so Sy looked back over the rubble. She still couldn't make head nor tail of what she was seeing except that now there were two men in it. One of them was brownish like herself but more so, also small and slight. She wondered for a moment whether he might be one of hers here in this strange place. She was looking down what seemed to be a cave, high ceilinged and broad. There was no rock of any kind she knew in this cave though. There was a smooth greyness over everything except where the grey was covered with what looked like cloth or maybe paper. Parts of the grey were broken by shiny red bricks, and Sy thought she could make out some kind of lettering. The floor of the cave was smooth dirty grey but only took up half the width of it. The other half suddenly dropped away into a pit that Sy couldn't see into, but it was the part of the cave that continued on into the tunnel down at the other end. The men were sweeping the floor with big brushes and talking to each other. They were far enough away that Sy 239 couldn't hear what they were saying or even what language they were speaking. She knew there were other languages than her own in the world as she'd met people who had come by boat from other lands and spoke stumbling with strange accents. It seemed right that in such a foreign place they must be speaking some other language than her own. One of the men waved his hands as he spoke and kept taking something that glowed out of his mouth and then putting it back in. It looked as though there were a few entrances to the cave, all on the side across from the pit. Sy felt instinctively that they should wait until the cave was empty before they tried to find a way out. She turned around to where Dora was sitting at her feet, stepped over her friend and squatted down again beside her. "It's just another cave out there, Dora, my heart. Don't be afraid. I can survive anywhere. You've seen me. I'll take care of you. Being alone doesn't scare me as much, and I will find out what I need to know, wherever we are." She stroked Dora's arm. "We'll be all right. There are some men out there working. We'll wait until they've gone and then we can get up and go. What do you think?" Dora looked up at Sy, and her eyes were lost in the yellow light. She didn't answer for a bit. When she did, her voice was low. "Can't think right now, Sy dear. I'll 240 follow ye, do trust ye, no fear. But I b'aint much good for thinking right now." Sy nodded and held out her hand. When Dora was up, she looked again over the rubbled wall into the cave and saw that the men had finished and were gone. She beckoned to Dora. The two of them stepped slowly out onto the smooth floor. 241 XXV Sy drew Dora immediately into the more shadowed places close to the near wall. She motioned Dora to stay where she was while, setting down her pack, she tiptoed over to the edge of the pit to see what was in it. This was no help. There were two strips of something shining like new metal stretched along side by side coming out of the tunnel behind her and going as far as she could see into the tunnel ahead. This made no sense at all. There were bumps and other twisted objects sticking out at intervals from the walls and beside the metal strips. She stared for a while but then gave up. Sy hurried back to Dora. She didn't want to confuse her friend more with this new mystery, so she said nothing about it. She picked up her pack, and they began to trudge slowly down the platform toward the first doorway. When they got there, Sy found herself looking up some stairs. There was no one about, so beckoning to Dora, she started to 242 climb. It was a long spiral staircase. Neither of them could see a top to it. Beside them as they climbed was a kind of rusty metal cage with long ropes hanging in it. The ropes swayed gently every now and then as though they were vines hanging from trees. There was a noise of wind but no wind they could feel. The yellow lights made the stairway murky, but even in that dim light, they could see how dirty and unkempt the place was. The stairway walls were smeared, their ugly surfaces peeling and here and there splotched with torn pieces of paper. The air smelled as though someone had been using the steps as an outhouse. Dora was right. There was no caring here. As they made their way further up, they began to feel a cold breeze blowing down towards them. It buffeted against the warm stale air that wafted up from below. But there was still no sign of the top, and they had to stop and rest a while, leaning against the wall without speaking. Sy levered herself out onto the stairs again after a short while and motioned her hand upward. Dora followed Sy's hand with her eyes. More filth, more smells, probably people who would chase and kill two old women like them, just as the villagers had chased Sy before. Her guide had somehow led her to this place of death. And that's what it was all right. Why did I have to come here to die? Could 243 have done it at home. Cosy like, with my kin and my darlins. What for this dirty, smelly, harsh place? I feel like lying down and dying right now. If tweren't for Sy, I'd give up that's for sure. Sy was searching the air above them. Sizing up the situation and sniffing for danger, she easily put on again the skin of an outsider. She took to it with zest. This would be the first time she had had anyone else to look after as well. She reached for Dora's hand, took it, and patted it. "Let's go on up, Dora. We'll take it slowly. You know well I can handle all the uncaring in the world. None cared for me since my mother." Sy went on talking quietly as she led Dora up the winding stair toward the cool air, the darkness she felt must be there above. Both of them knew they would need to sleep. The morning behind them was not only a long day away but worlds beyond. Sy noticed as they climbed that some of the lights in the ceiling had gone out. There were unshining white globes where before there had been glowing yellow ones. She wondered aloud what sort of stuff they burned to give such a steady light. Sometimes the place where the globe had been was empty. The end of the stairway was a surprise. They came up around a last swirl of steps to a doorway the top of which 244 was dripping dank with drizzle. Sy fell silent and poked her head around the side of the door. Outside was dark but mistily lighted here and there by glowing orange boxes at the tops of tall poles. As they looked out from the doorway, Sy could see her hands and Dora's face reflecting eery orange. Sy couldn't see anyone nearby, so she pulled Dora's hand gently and stepped down into the street. It was just as Dora had said, and Sy began to feel the shock of it. She could see no color anywhere except for the stained damp drabness of brick and the same smooth grey rock as in the cave below. There was rubbish everywhere being tossed into corners by the wind, and there was not a living thing, plant or animal, to be seen. The most disturbing thing was that the air smelled not of greenery or woodsmoke, but of mouldy bread and rotten cloth. It was cold, and Sy thought to pull Dora back into the doorway so they could put on extra clothes. The beehive in the mountain had been warm enough that they hadn't needed extra layers. "Tis a fair mess out there all right, Dora. You were right. We'd better put on more clothing against the cold and wet." Dora was already rummaging in her pack. She came up with the nightgown Letty had made her and decided to put 245 that on over her skirt. The change made her feel safer too because her small savings were out of sight. She put the embroidered shawl over the top of everything. Sy found an old woollen smock she'd been given for doing some farmwork one time and hid her layered colors under its dinginess. She thought it best not to attract too much attention that way. Dora looked over at Sy, and a bit of lightness came back to her eye. "Well, nobody'll think us're gypsies now," she said. "We'll fade away into the walls." "Not you," giggled Sy. "But maybe we'll find a place to sleep more easy since you're all dressed for sleeping.” As they bent to pick up their packs, the sharp noise of breaking glass very close by sent them hurrying back around the corner to the stairs. They heard shouting, a man and a woman they thought, harsh words and crying, then the sound of thudding feet rushing by the doorway. Then they could still hear the crying somewhere near the entrance to the stairs. Dora and Sy were too frightened to venture out at first. But when the crying went on, and they could tell it was a woman's voice, they decided without speaking to go out and look. The sound was coming from the left not far away down the path they were on. They walked cautiously, afraid that the man they'd heard running by might come back. There 246 were tall buildings, piled one against the other to the left of them, and each building had a paved area below with steps going down to it from an iron fence. At the fifth house, just beyond the light, they could make out a figure huddled at the bottom of the steps. Dora went down first. The woman was still sobbing and didn't seem to notice that anyone else was there. But when Dora put a hand on her shoulder and Sy came down the steps too, the sobbing stopped with a gasp, and a startled pale face turned up to them. "Are ye aright, my dear?" Dora asked. The woman continued to look from Sy to Dora and back again as though she had never seen human beings. Where she had been crying before, now she looked as though she couldn't decide whether to burst out laughing or get up and run away. "What? What is it?" she finally managed, only to put her head down again. Sy sat down on the steps a little above the woman, and Dora moved over to sit by her. They waited in silence for the woman to look up again. Both were too tired to do anything else. The woman had stopped crying and finally she raised her head and stared at them some more. "Are you bag ladies? I mean, do you live on the street?" When neither Sy nor Dora seemed to understand her, each of them looking puzzled at the other, she tried again. 247 "I mean, you are dressed very strangely, though I must say you don't look as dirty as most streetpeople do. If you're wondering what happened to me, I had a fight with my boyfriend. It's the last time, I can tell you. I hit him with a bottle, and he punched me and ran away. I'm sure he won't be back this time." The woman stopped talking and gazed in the dim orange light at the two older women on the step. There was something strange and disturbing about them that she couldn't put her finger on. They weren't frightening to her. That's what made her think they weren't bag ladies. She probably wouldn't have talked to them if they had been because she usually steered a wide berth around anyone odd or crazy looking. They were dressed very strangely but they were clean and looked tired and out of sorts more than crazy or threatening. The two gazed back at her. She was fairly young, maybe in her mid-twenties, old enough Dora thought, to have a family of young uns and a home of her own. What was she doing out in the dark and rain fighting with a man? Was that more of the sadness she could feel everywhere here? Dora noticed that the woman had a black eye coming on or what looked like one in the murky light of the street. But she was clean and felt solid enough, gazing steadily back at them without fear or hostility. She wasn't dressed for an 248 outing into the cold, only a light woolen top and a short skirt the like of which Dora and Sy had never seen before. "Do ye have somewhere to go home too then dearie?" Dora questioned her in a motherly sort of way. "Tis not overly warm out here this time of night and year." "Yes, this is my place right here." "Right where?" asked Sy. She couldn't see anything that looked like a house anywhere nearby and instantly thought the woman might be camping out. The buildings were so big and faceless, she couldn't believe anyone lived in them, though she did see a weak light in the wall they were facing that might be coming from a window with heavy curtains. "In through that door. Do you want to come in and have a cup of tea? You look tired. I can heat up some water in a second." Dora's face lit up. "Feels like I haven't had a cup of tea in years. I do say I'd like one. What about ye Sy?" Sy gave a suspicious glance at the dirty brick front of the building and at the young woman sitting disheveled at the bottom of the steps. "What did you say your name was?" she asked and glared under her eyebrows at the woman. * * * 249 The room she led them into--lanky as she was, she had to duck through the door--was as small as the outside of the building was large. There was barely place for the unmade bed in one corner, a battered table with chairs at the window and an old chair that looked sister to the bed, covered as it was with cloth and stuffed with horsehair that was coming out of the arms in places. Both chair and bed were an ugly faded green, the kind of green found on the scum in stagnant ponds. The chair was piled with scrumpled up clothes. The walls were badly whitewashed, flaking, a dark cream color. There were piles of papers and books on the floor around the table, dirty dishes piled up by a big white stone basin at one side. Objects that neither Sy nor Dora recognized stood on the table and on a small chest by the bed. The light was coming from a small pole with a hat on the top of it that sat on the chest. "I'm Reina." The woman pulled a chair back from the table and swept her hand toward it, pulling Sy at the same time to sit her down in the chair. She pushed some papers out of the way with her foot. "Please rest yourselves. Have you come far? Are you travelling?" She didn't pause to let them answer. "I'm a traveller myself, a travelling woman." Sy put her head straight down on the table and appeared to fall asleep. 250 As she talked, Reina was bustling over some kind of box in a dark corner of the room next to the basin. She turned a knob and placed a shiny kettle on the surface of the box. "There now. That should only take a few minutes." She moved over to the precarious pile of dishes and took out three cups, pushing plates back in to stop the whole thing from falling over. At the basin, she twisted another knob that stuck out from the wall, and water came gushing straight out into the cups she held underneath. Dora strained around to try and get a better look at how the thing worked. The water at home came from a barrel that sat under the eaves outside her cottage. She dipped it with a pitcher and brought it inside to heat for washing dishes and everything else. She couldn't see a fireplace or a hob either and wondered how Reina was going to make the tea she had promised. As she was wondering, the kettle began steaming quite by itself, and Reina took down a big brown china teapot from a shelf over the basin, and poured boiling water from the kettle into it. As she did so, Dora could see a brilliant red circle on the box where the kettle had been. When Reina turned the same knob she had before, the red circle began to fade. She swirled the hot water in the teapot a couple of times then poured it out over some of the dirty dishes. 251 A black tin came down next from a cupboard. Reina opened it and spooned out some dried leaves into the teapot. Then she poured more boiling water in on top of them, set the teapot to one side and came over to the table carrying the three cups. She looked down at Sy with a wry grin. "Well, she didn't last long. I'll pour her one anyway. What are you two doing out on the streets so late? Are you new in from the country? I heard your accent. Sounds like westcountry, but I wouldn't know for sure." "I be from the east, below the mountains," Dora answered, but Reina had already gone back to the teapot and didn't appear to have heard. Reina turned as she reached for the teapot. "Let me come and sit down with you. Then we can talk." She brought the pot over to the table and set it down, then walked to the window, which she opened to pull in a bottle full of what looked like milk. Where on earth would she have room for a cow in a place like this, Dora wondered but she didn't ask aloud. Reina pulled a spoon out of a drawer in the table and sat down in a chair opposite Sy, to the left of Dora. Dora watched her as she poured milk into each of the cups, asked "Do you take sugar?" and put a couple of glittering little square stones from a bowl in the middle of the table into her own cup. Dora only looked puzzled at the question, so 252 Reina took it for a "no" and poured hot reddish liquid into Dora's cup, then into Sy's, pushed the cups toward the other women and took a long swallow from her own. "Oh, that's better. Thirsty work, yelling and screaming." "And crying," added Dora. "Be ye all right now? I'd say ye were fair sad not too long a while back." She took a long drink from her cup and was surprised at how good it was. She hadn't been at all sure this young woman would know what she was doing when it came to tea. She finished her cup and filled herself another. "I was more angry than sad," Reina answered. "Bastard just drives me crazy. Are you married?" "Oh yes." Dora nodded her head. "But my old un died a little while back. I do miss ye. We were together since we were very young. What of ye?" "No I never married. Just a boyfriend. Don't seem to be able to keep them long. What about your friend here?" "I dunno about Sy. I don't think she were ever married. A loner she's been till she met I." "You must be from Cornwall or somewhere in the west aren't you? You definitely aren't from London. And why are you dressed so funny?" 253 "I might ask ye the same," said Dora with a smile. "Not the kind of clothing to be wearing out on a cold night." "Well, yes. I wasn't planning to go out. But no one dresses like you here unless they have nowhere to live. I wouldn't have thought they dressed that way in Cornwall anymore either." "Where be this Corn'll ye talk of? West you said afore. We don't be from the west. From the east we come, or that were where we were from. I don't rightly know how us got here at all. Sudden like, we were here, that be all." "But you can't be from the east. I'm from Norfolk myself, and no one there speaks the way you do. You must have gotten turned around. Did you come by train?" At this, Dora just looked puzzled again. Reina thought maybe the two old birds were from some village they'd never left before. There were such old people still. Maybe come up to visit a relative and got lost. The city must be very strange to them. "Well," she said. "You're welcome to sleep on my floor the night if you want to. I'm sure you don't know your way about here. I have some blankets and stuff." "Well, ye be a fine young un, after all. Us could certainly sleep a month or more given a chance I'm sure. 254 We'll talk more come morning. I can help ye milk the cow." Dora yawned and bent to open her pack so she didn't see the wide eyes and open mouth that followed her offer. She reached over and touched Sy on the arm. "Wake up, now, darlin. We can lie down and sleep proper tonight. There be tea there for you too." Sy groaned and turned her head the other way. But after a minute she struggled out of the old smock she was wearing over her clothes, bent down, pulled bedding out of her pack, and the two women, Sy with her cup of tea firmly in hand, laid their blankets out in the small space on the floor between the table and bed. Reina vanished into what Dora had thought was a cupboard. There was the sound of running water, and after a few minutes, the young woman came out naked as the day she was born and jumped into her rumpled bed. She reached over, pushed something on the pole by the bed, and the light vanished. Dora decided to save her questions for the morning. 255 XXVI Dora lay for a while staring into the dark, thinking over the things she had seen. She had been wrong to think there was no caring at all. Reina proved her wrong. But she knew there was no trusting that anyone else would be like that. Course, when I were walking first from my home, there were those as would not have taken me in either. Twas a dismal place and in my own world. Never can sit still with that. But what do make this here world so sad? Be it lack o green? There be a meanness to it, a despair. I must ask Reina questions the morrow. She be a good heart. A mite unlistening but a good heart all the same. And young for it. She lay and became aware of the noises of the place they had landed in. There was a faraway constant roar joined by an occasional clanking like the monsters they had heard in the tunnels. Once she thought she heard a shout and feet running, a cat meowed close by, then there was a 256 flap of wings somewhere high on the building. Drafts of music, very soft, wafted it seemed to her through the walls, and finally she fell asleep listening to someone humming along. * * * There was dim light in the room when Dora woke to a rustling and murmuring, the music still playing far away. Something crashed outside the window. Dora sat up. Reina was up already, dressed and fussing with something among the dirty dishes. "Do „ee need help?" Dora yawned. "I be a fair hand at milking." Reina turned to her with a grin. "Milking? What can you mean?" "Where do ye keep yere cow? Can't say as I saw any place for a stall." "I don't have a cow. No one in the city has a cow. You are a bumpkin, aren't you! Don't you even have a television at home?" Reina swept her big hands through the air as she talked. "Don't look at me as though you don't know what I'm talking about. You can't be from that far out. Everywhere has electricity nowadays." 257 Dora looked completely blank. What on earth was this woman talking about? What language was it? Words that made no more sense than dog barks. Sy slept on. "I don't rightly know what to make of yere words. They have no meaning for me. No one have milk without a cow where I do come from, and ye have milk." After a pause, she added, "Where be ye going then?" "I have to go to work." Reina came over taking hair pins from her mouth and shoving them into the dark ragged bun at the back of her neck. She squatted next to Dora. "I'm sorry that everything's so strange for you. I can't imagine what's going on that you don't know all these things, where you come from. But I don't have time to talk right now. I'm late as it is, you see. Horrible boss. I'm trying to find a new job, but it's awfully hard at the moment. You two just make yourselves at home, and I'll be back in about four hours for lunch. If you want to go out and wander around, leave the front door key under the mat. But we should probably get you some proper clothes first." She put a beaten up iron key into Dora's hand, stood up, and turned to the door. "You're welcome to crawl into my bed if you want. It's more comfy than the floor. Don't worry. We'll work this out. See you later." She was gone. Dora lay back on her blanket, closed her eyes. It was all going too fast again, like when she first met Sy. No 258 time to breathe. With eyes closed, she could still hear the faint music. She lay and drifted a while, trying to recognize the instruments. A fiddle and maybe a pipe coming in sometimes, a drum. The music organized her doze into memories of dancing at home. Dora slept with the key in her hand. While Reina had been talking to Dora, Sy dreamed of roaming the streets looking for her people. She dreamed Reina's voice into a story of their life in the rock warren, the treeless tunnels. They told her how hard it was to live in a stone box, how they tried to find food still and trade things for a living, but how it was getting harder and harder to do. They told her how people looked down on them and chased them from the places where they used to stay. She began running with them, misted shadows of people flickering in the orange light, through narrow filthy streets, over broken walls and through trash filled overgrown gardens. The air was choking her, weeds grabbed at her feet, the voices of her people faded, faded. She ran alone. Sy woke suddenly and sat right up on the floor. She was pointed like a ferret straight at two realizations. Her people were here somewhere calling her, and this was not a place she wanted to spend any more time at all. She looked over at Dora wondering how they would be able to return to 259 the world they had left. Even the bees would be better than this cold darkness. Her wits could keep them alive here, but it wasn't a kind of work she wanted. The light edging around the corners of the heavy blanket Reina had tacked over the window was strong enough now that Sy could see some of the room. She got up, careful not to wake Dora, and began a tour. In her daze of tiredness the night before, she hadn't seen more than a blur and had taken in less of what happened. Now she saw that there were more things here that she could not even begin to describe. Strange metals she had never come across before and a kind of material that had no place, not metal nor wood nor stone, not glass nor pot. It was warm like wood but had the unyielding surface of metal. There were colors to it. She had begun at the bed, at the little chest by the side of it. There was a small metal thing with a see- through front that made a ticking noise. It almost looked as though it had a face, but Sy decided that was just fancy. Because of the rattling monsters in the tunnel, she wasn't too easy about anything she didn't recognize. But this thing didn't look as though it could do any harm. Next to it on the chest there were little drawings closed up behind glass. They were such exact likenesses of people that Sy couldn't imagine how they had been done. She picked one up and held it where a ray of light from the window would show 260 it up. She could see that this one was of Reina and an older woman who looked like Reina so much that Sy decided she must be her mother. Sy wondered whether the person who had drawn the picture was part of Reina's family too. Beside the pictures was a pole with a hat on the top. There was a black thing sticking through the pole at the top, and when Sy looked up under the hat, it looked as though one of those bowl things that threw out light was sitting under it. She pushed at the black thing, which disappeared into the pole and then came out the other side. Light suddenly shone out from the bowl, startling Sy into jumping away. She started to put her hand to the light but feeling warmth from it, decided to wait and ask Reina. Might be a sort of candle. She pushed the black thing back in through the pole and was satisfied to see the light fade out. She pushed it through back and forth a couple of times just to watch the glow come and go. There was a little bowl on the chest too, and Sy went fishing in that. There were coins in it, strange coppery ones and ones that looked like silver but didn't feel right. No gold ones. There were some old beads off the string, a needle that was all bent out of shape and tucked into itself, and a tiny piece of paper with some writing on it. She put them back and went on round to the bed itself. 261 She had to try lying down on it. It was so outlandish, way off the ground, lumpy and ridiculously soft, piled with too many blankets. She lay back and groaned. No, this was dreadful, completely uncalled for, menacing in fact. A few weeks, a few days on one of these and she'd be ruined for anything else. How would she ever sleep out again? Her bones would turn to jelly. Sy rolled off the bed so quickly, she landed on the floor on all fours. First she looked up to see whether she'd wakened Dora. Her friend slept on. She peered underneath the bed. Shoes, all kinds, almost unrecognizable ones with a long spiked nail or something that looked like one stuck in where the heel should have been. There were some slippers that she fancied, fur all round the edges. She tried one on. Way too big. The only thing else under the bed was a small leather box with clasps, which she would have looked in, but she could tell by pushing it that it was empty. She stood up too fast and had to hold onto the bed for a moment till the dizzyness went away. Next on her way around the walls was the big chair covered with cloth. Sy wanted to try sitting on it but first she had to move the pile of clothing that lay any which way all over the seat. She picked up an armful of clothes. A sheer blouse with lace ruffles down the front fell off the top, draping itself over 262 one arm. Sy put the pile down on the bed, picked the blouse off her arm and held it up against herself. The sleeve came down well over her hand. Intrigued, she began looking through the clothes still left on the chair. She picked out a silky green velvet skirt that draped half way down her calf as she pointed one toe out to the side. With a sudden twist, she flipped the skirt onto the bed, began to undo the layers of color from her body. She carefully took off the shawl that had fascinated Dora when they first met. The colors glowed as they had then. She folded it into a tiny packet and put it in a pocket of her skirt. Then the apron on the top of the first skirt, the skirt itself, and then all the others, five skirts and aprons in all that she took off and laid neatly over the back of the chair. Underneath all was an old ragged slip. Must have been a piece of finery once, small eyelet lace along the bottom, tiny stitches. Sy shrank as she removed each layer till the woman who stood in the worn white cotton was tiny, slender as a bird. Over the slip Sy drew on the green velvet skirt, feeling its softness against her strong brown leg. At first she couldn't work out how to do the skirt up. There was a button, but that left a gaping hole up the side with a strange metal thing crawling round it like a centipede. Then her fingers found the metal tab at the 263 bottom. She pulled on it, and the hole closed its toothy mouth against her side, making her shiver. Off came the blouses, the smocks that she wore one on top of another, color after color, to lie with the skirts on the back of the chair. The top of the slip, torn at one shoulder, exposed her thin back. A ray from the curtained window polished her skin to gold. She picked up the tissue blouse from the bed and put her arms into the sleeves, had to roll them up at the cuff. Each button was a shell hidden behind the lacy folds down the front. Sy turned around herself trying to get a look at the whole. She danced a small dance at the feel of the softness on her skin, ending by pulling the last of the pile of clothes off the chair and plumping herself down on the seat. She threw the clothes on the bed and lay back. The chair was harder than it looked. Bed too soft, chair too hard. "Give me a bed in the leaf litter any day or night." She stroked the velvet and looked over her shoulder at the next place along the wall, the pile of dirty dishes that lay on a board next to a big square washing bowl. She eyed the dishes with disgust. Couldn't understand this living in houses, almost like a hole in the ground, hoarding up possessions more than you could use at a sitting. Having to keep them and clean them and pack them, unpack them, worry 264 over them. Give them all away, that's what she'd do. No bother. Dora must have had her share of such things, though not near so much as this one, if Sy knew anything about country wives. And what would one woman, unmarried, no children, do with all this mess? The answer was obvious from the state of the room. No animal, bar a magpie or a packrat, would live in such a disorderly, dirty place. She herself, unless she was working for some farming family, always slept outdoors, carried the least possible supplies. It didn't make sense to collect and collect when you were only one. Sy leaned forward in the green chair and surveyed the rest of the room. Next to the washing bowl along the adjoining wall was a narrow table with some metal creature on it that she didn't recognize. Then there was the door in the wall that Reina had disappeared into the night before. Then the corner to the next wall, back to the entry door again and the table where they'd sat the night before. Dora still lay on her blankets in the middle between table and dishes. She must have been very tired to sleep this long. She was always up before Sy. Sy got up slowly and went over to the bowl by the dishes. She looked a long time at two metal things coming out of the wall above the bowl. They had spokes coming out of the top of them. She pushed one of them gingerly, but it 265 seemed to be unmovable. She wondered what they were for. One of them, she noticed, was slightly warm to the touch, whereas the other was cold. She took a firm hold of the cold one and tried to turn it since it looked a bit like a wheel. It gave suddenly and, even though she jumped back as fast as she could, splashed a huge gob of water all over the front of the blouse and skirt. She watched the water pouring out of the metal tube and cursed, reaching gingerly back to turn the spokes the other way. The water shrank to a dribble. Sy grumped back to the bed to take off the soaked clothes. They were clinging to her skin, cold and shivery. She wrung them out into the bowl taking care not to disturb the metal tubes this time in case there might be another way to invoke the spout of water that she didn't know about. She hung them over two of the chairs at the table hoping they would dry before Reina came back. Her petticoat was soaking too. She took it off, wrung it out and put it to dry on a third chair. Her old clothes were still draped over the back of the chair by the bed, but Sy didn't want to put them back on. She bent and looked under the bed at more clothes that had slipped down there. There was a rust colored shift and a soft green sweater, another filmy blouse and a dented felt hat. Sy took them over to the chair and laid them down with the clothes that were still there. There was a warm vest 266 which she snuggled into, and next a ruby red silk slip that was too big but felt feathery against her skin. She put on the rust shift and the green sweater. Sy turned and turned in a slow spiral, feeling the soft material move around her body. This was like nothing she had ever known. Movement caught her eye and a glint of light. She stopped to look and saw a small woman dressed in autumn colors, surprise on her brown face. It was herself. She knew it in an instant. Once she had seen a man at a fair drawing people who paid him. He worked with charcoal and produced fair likenesses. But this was colors and all. And as she settled from swirling, she saw the figure startle and settle. More magic. Standing and contemplating her likeness, Sy admired the rough wiriness of herself. Not a spot of grey in her fine dark hair, despite the years and the hard life. A smile came on the face in the mirror, and Sy started spinning again, floating her hands at shoulder height as she drew the room around her. Spinning, she didn‟t see Dora sit up and watch through still sleepy eyes. Dora kept gazing as Sy swirled, spun, moving her feet slowly, eyes closed now, as she made contact with this new world come, feeling for signs of her people outside. Dora got up slowly from the floor and sat on the rumpled bed with the key to outside still clutched in her hand. 267 XXVII A grinding and clanking at the top of the stairs outside the window broke them from the trance. Sy sat down. Dora stood and went to the heavy blanket that served as a curtain, carefully pulled it aside and found herself staring into the face of a man who was putting a glass bottle of something white on the windowsill. “Mornin‟,” he mouthed at her, looking puzzled maybe at seeing a strange face at the window. “Mornin‟,” she mouthed back and let the curtain go. When she turned round, Sy had her head in her hands, still sitting the way she had when the street sounds brought her out of her dance. Dora put the key down on the table, went to her, sat down, and put her arm around the small shoulders. “What be yere trouble darlin?” she murmured, as she would have to one of her children long gone. Sy leaned against her and took her hands away from her face, put her head on Dora‟s shoulder. “Ah, nothing, Dora dear. I can feel them out there, my people. I want to go look. Can we go? We can come back, 268 remember our way through the streets and come back here later. But I‟m feeling them close by. They‟re calling.” Dora knew that kind of pull and the need to follow it. She hugged Sy and stood up. “Let we eat and then go.” She took the key and opened the door, picked up the bottle of white stuff from the windowsill, hefted it in her hand, and nodded. It was cold and covered in water drops in the bright morning. A couple of children ran past, one of them rattling a stick along the railings. Dora put the milk bottle down, climbed the stairs and looked after them and then at the roads that led away from their safe place. All the buildings were brick, smudged dirty by old smoke, the roofs of grey slate. There was no thatch that she could see. And lines of joined houses led away down the hard wide black path to the right and left and along another road that separated off from theirs across the way. Every house was the same. A very few had a pot or two with some flowers on a windowsill, but mostly they were blank, red, blackened, and green with moss. There was smoke curling out of the roofs of some of them. People must be in there then. Except for the children and the milkman, though, she hadn‟t seen or heard a human being. She turned to come back down the steps and there was Sy at her side, looking up the line of houses opposite them. “They‟re that way. Not far I think. Maybe we should just 269 go?” Sy looked hopefully at Dora but knew before she met her eyes that they would eat breakfast first, think about what to wear, and make plans for not losing their way in all the sameness. She turned again and went down the steps, lifting the skirts of the shift and the slip, which were quite a bit too big for her. Dora picked up the bottle of milk, walked through the door and closed it behind her. Putting the bottle down on the table, she walked over to the box where she‟d seen Reina make tea the night before. She stood back a bit till she could see the knobs on the front that the young woman turned to make the red circle come, then, picking up the kettle, Dora shook it to feel how much water was in it--enough--and carried it to the box. She put her fingers on one of the knobs and carefully tried to turn it. One way it would move, the other not. Turned it a little and left it, standing back cautiously to see what would happen. There was no glow. Maybe tis like that old cow we had--would only work for some. Never would let down the least bit of milk for me. Sy came up from behind and gave the knob a good hard turn all the way round. Both of them stepped back a little as red light started to spread around the rings. Dora put her hand out and could feel the heat of it, such a strange thing. And where‟s the skill in that or the pride in having lit it? But she slowly lowered the kettle onto the metal 270 anyway. No wood to be found for a fire here anyway, and not a place to build it unless perhaps outside by the stairway. The kettle began its humming noise of small bubbles, while Dora looked around for something to eat. Reina had said to make themselves at home, so she planned to save the food they had for a time when there was none. Sy had begun rummaging too and came up with the bread, and there by it was butter in a paper wrapper and jam in a glass crock. Dora looked up in the cupboard for the tin box of tea, found it, found the teapot, and put them all on the table by the window. Sad to see such a trash heap of dishes in the sink, she reached gingerly for one of the taps above. Sy laughed and waited. Kettle boiled, singing its song, and Dora stepped back to the table to fetch the teapot, quickly turned the knob back the way it had been, made the tea and took it to the table. Sy was sawing thick slices of bread and spreading butter and jam on them with a knife she‟d found in a drawer, when Dora managed to turn the tap on the left just a little and a spout of water flowed quietly into the basin with the dishes. The water kept flowing and disappearing not filling the sink at all. Dora rummaged under the dishes, surprised to find the water already warm, and found there was a hole in the middle of the basin. Poor young thing, not even time to fix the washing basin, and no wonder there are so many 271 dishes to wash. Taking a rag she found by the side of the sink, Dora stuffed the hole and started doing the best she could to get the old grime off the plates and cups. “What are you doing, Dora? I really want to go. What if they leave and I can‟t feel them anymore? Can you do that when we get back?” Sy‟s voice was as sharp as the old days and she‟d put down the knife and stood by the table, hands on her hips. Dora turned all the way round ready to argue but saw the forlorn look on Sy‟s face and smiled. “I‟ll just do a couple o cups and plates, and we can go then,” she said gently. “Sorry darlin.” “What‟ll we wear, Dora? We have to look the way people look here. What was Reina wearing when she left? None of these things fit me.” “Let we eat first and then we can think better. There‟ll surely be the right thing here. Don‟t ye fuss me old dear. I‟ll take care. Ye keep touch with yere people, and I‟ll take care.” They sat at the table in the filtered light coming round the window blanket, drank good strong tea, and ate their chunks of soft crusty bread with butter and jam. Dora looked at Sy who was still far away, listening, and she cast out to see if she could feel the presences Sy had caught. A flutter she thought, dim and far off, not something she 272 would have stopped for, just a butterfly of a feeling. Sy was absorbed. Finished, Dora got up and put things away, then looked around for something sensible to wear that would more or less fit the two of them. She found the wet clothes Sy had tried on that morning and hung them over the backs of the chairs to dry. There were some thin sweaters in a tangle round one foot of the bed, and she drew those out. Took a grey woolen skirt and a brown flannel one from the green chair back and set them aside. There were socks everywhere, finer knitted than she could imagine making, with fancy feet on them and some of them made of a material she didn‟t know. Now, she had a pile of possible stuff on one of the table chairs already. What else might they need? A cotton thing to wear under the sweaters maybe. There now. She picked through and brought some of them to Sy, held them up to her friend and found ones, amazingly, nearly small enough. First then, she put on her own wardrobe of browny colors and came out of it looking almost like someone‟s granny going to buy onions, if it weren‟t for her brown weathered face and gnarled hands. Sy stood still, unlike Sy, and let Dora dress her in the foreign browns and greys. They stood and looked in the mirror Sy showed Dora, turned around, picked up some food to take with them and put it in a bag Dora had found, unlocked the door again, closed 273 it behind them, put the key under the mat, and went up the stairs. * * * Standing still for what felt long to Dora, Sy had gone out of time. Dora spent those minutes looking around her so that she might find her way again. The sun was in front of them and climbing, so that must be east. There was a sad grey tree to the left of their fence a little, iron grilling all round the bottom of it. One of the houses near it had a box with geranium plants, no flowers, ragged, soot-stained leaves-–how strange in a place without fires--outside the railings. She looked up at Reina‟s building, five levels of it. There were stairs going up to the first door, which was painted dark green. Reina‟s door was brown. She‟d have to keep her mind on the sun. Sy faced the street opposite, face blank. Her fingers moved on Dora‟s shoulder. Then she began to walk. Dora looked quickly side to side to make sure they wouldn‟t be run down by some unknown kind of monster like the ones they‟d seen underground or the clanking milk cart. Sy crossed toward the houses opposite and took an unerring path past the first line of them, keeping to the left. Dora knew her friends‟ eyes were seeing nothing. The 274 way was in her mind‟s ear and eye. Every now and then she stopped and listened. Dora, Sy‟s hand still on her shoulder, couldn‟t see or feel the pull but she kept her eye out for any danger they might be walking into. There were little tufts of grass growing here and there through the blank stone of the path they were taking. Sy in her dream took a turn to the left, a turn to the right, and walked with one hand held out as though blind and feeling her way. There was nobody else on the streets, and Dora was glad of it. She saw occasional cats and the poor lame birds, and every now and then a curtain fluttered at a window as though someone were looking out, watching them. Sy stopped, finally, at a corner where three other pathways stretched away across from them. Her hand clutched Dora‟s shoulder tighter, and Dora heard her muttering, only an occasional word audible. “Far,” “sail,” “bitter,” she said. Strange for Dora to be outside the language of this journey now. She was so used to being in her own. Sy turned slowly till she was facing back the way they had come, backs to the sun. She walked a few steps and faced down an alley Dora hadn‟t noticed as they passed it before. The buildings shaded it, and she couldn‟t see the end. Sy entered it, running her hand along the wall of the house on the left. There were no windows in it. The wall went on to become the wall of a small garden. Dora could 275 see small trees--how welcome!--over it, maybe an apple tree over there with just fallen flowers. There was a garden on the other side too. She wanted to jump up or stand on something to see what was on the other side. But Sy kept walking, more slowly now, still muttering to herself. Another garden backed onto the first one and was followed by the side wall of the house on the next road. Sy stopped before the road at a wooden gate to the garden and leant her head against it, raised a hand as though she was going to knock, and at that moment, the gate creaked slowly ajar and Sy opened her eyes to meet dark eyes peering round the planks. A hand reached around and pulled Sy into the garden, Dora following after. They were all quiet. Stood and looked at each other. Dora said nothing but saw this new person--might be a twin to Sy--another small, dark, quick one. They didn‟t touch. Didn‟t look straight at each other but off to the side like birds. The air glimmered. Tis not a greeting I‟d call so. And she so eager to get here. Now, be they known to each other? There be no sign to my eye, no sign at all. Dora shuffled her feet but stayed quiet, waiting for a sign. Sy pointed to the house, and the three went up the stone path through long grass and under small trees to an open back door. The man led the way into a quiet kitchen and showed them to armchairs around an open fire, the 276 mantlepiece covered in bracken fronds and dried flowers. He brought water in green glasses and a plate of biscuits to put on a small table to one side. There was no one there but the three of them. He sat down across from Sy, folded his hands in front of him and bowed his head. Sy began. “I have come far. Are there many?” He spoke without looking up. “Aye. Many. This place hurts us. Some die. Some become crazed. We don‟t know how to return.” “What happened to bring you here? We‟re not sure how we got here ourselves. It is a nightmare. I wish it were a nightmare.” Dora could only look on. The speech was so strangely formal, so far from what she would have said meeting someone from home. She didn‟t understand, and Sy seemed farther from her than ever she had been. All the coldness had returned. She wanted to be back, even with Reina, for the ordinary comfort of it, wanted to get up and leave. She sat still and watched, listened. “Where are they all? How many?” asked Sy. “A hundred or so, men, women, and children. Scattered.” They still did not look at each other, these two, more odd, thought Dora than all the folks she‟d met so far. She could feel them saying less with their mouths than 277 with their minds. “But we could call them in. They will come if we know the way out. There is a way out.” “Children. Yes.” Sy had become a flint--grey, hard, sharp at the edges. “I can find the beginning but don‟t know how to go on from there. We two fell asleep and landed here. A dream.” “If it‟s a dream, it‟s a long one.” He got up, walked to the door again and looked at the sky, or seemed to. He talked away from them, and his words came slightly blurred. “One I want to wake from. I don‟t know where Mara is now or the child.” Sy was suddenly crying, her shoulders crumpled and shaking, and Dora turned in her chair to reach an arm across. The man was there wordless, one hand above their heads, and she felt the warmth of him, unuttered. Her own tears came then, for all they‟d been through and every loss before, back, she thought to the weave of her family, tears pouring through her for all of them. 278 XVIII Inside Sy‟s head, nothing. Tears, tears. In this touchness, she, with the hundred others, wrapped in darkness, under the one‟s hand. They sit. The light has come to Dora, and she‟s traveling, pulled from behind, bowed forward, arms reaching for Sy. Back to Reina‟s, back through the low doorway, under bricks, down spiral stairs, floating back, through tunnels, sleep, into bee nest, up long wax-lighted honeysmelling stairs, through doorway onto plateau and air, air, air. And they are all there, landed among the hummocks about midday. About midday it was as she drew back into her being at the house, knowing clearly they couldn‟t go back. They‟d be stuck in the dream then. It would have to be forward and that were that. She kept her eyes shut a while, could feel the filtered light from the small garden flickering on her eyelids. Reached out her hand to find Sy‟s and held it. It would be forward, her hand said. Sy squeezed, and both of them opened their eyes. The man was gone. It felt as though his hand was still there over them, and they both reached up to feel that warm energy at the same moment. Dora realized they hadn‟t asked 279 his name. She glanced at Sy with that question in her eyes, and Sy answered, “Sy.” “Sy? No, his name, not yourn.” That were silly. What could she mean? “Be you all called Sy?”--half joking. “No. We are one. I didn‟t know, never met him. He is my...part of me. I don‟t know how to tell you. There are...clans. I could tell back there at Reina‟s, had to come out here, you know, to find him...them. There are more of us from the same.... Sy is not my first name, you know. I can‟t tell you the other name, not yet. I haven‟t the words to tell you what we are. He‟s bringing us food. Are you hungry? We‟re going to find the others. They may be coming now. I know they know we are here. They know you too, Dora. There‟s nothing hidden. You are trusted and loved.” It was an outpouring from Sy, and Dora could feel the heart of it. Warm. Red blood like velvet running the words between them. Dora still held the hand of the other one whose first name she didn‟t know. First name--strange. Dora only had a first name. Anything else was about where she was from, the land. Oak, withy, pasture bottom, creek bed, meadowsweet, and curled brown leaf. Unspeakable maybe. Or no need since everyone knew anyway. There was no one in her old life she didn‟t know as she knew the land. The ones who passed through, as she had passed through farming folks‟ 280 lives when she began her journey, were not quite solid to her in their being, ghosts rather without roots, come from nowhere. And every now and then there‟d be a one more like herself who trailed roots painfully behind. But Sy had no such roots, not like Dora‟s. Hers were with a people even she had never seen, not with her eyes. We be close and I do not know she. Close with my one at home, no question but I knew he, knew my childer, knew all about me as I do know myself. Reach out a hand and find a hand I know. And she have not ever seen these folk, and yet she know they. Tis beyond me, I do say so. But then Dora remembered her own flying before, the burrowing in earth, the mole Dora, the hawk. She had seen without seeing and known without knowing. Silly to judge so, and she saw she had always judged so those who came through. She would have thought nothing of it had they died there, sleeping in the barn or working in the field. A simple ceremony and no one to mourn. It had happened, a reality so other it had not touched her. Dora hadn‟t noticed before the darkness of Sy‟s eyes, hadn‟t fully met the eyes of this companion. Now she looked and the seeing melted a wall she hadn‟t known was there. * * * 281 The man came back, Sy, carrying a tray with hot food that smelled sharp and round at the same time. He put the tray down on a table in the middle of the room. Dora wondered where he was coming from, bringing food to the kitchen rather than from it. He brought heavy white plates piled with grain and vegetables right where they sat, and Dora looked at him and saw the same dark eyes. They said not a word to him and he none to them; there didn‟t seem a need. He brought a plate for himself and sat down. Sy, balancing hers on her lap, reached a hand to him, and the three of them linked, silence settling on Dora through them. The center of the circle dropped and she found herself weightless and without thought in a place as dark as her sightings had been full of light. As quickly, they were back, and Dora bowed her head a thanks to them both. She took up the spoon he‟d brought with the plate and looked at the food. She didn‟t know one thing she was eating. Tendrils of green, curls of yellow, flecks brown and purple, grain that might have been wheat had it not been white and soft. Lovely to look at anyhow. And the smell, good. She dug the spoon in and filled it a quarter full, slowly raised it to her mouth and took a tiny bite. Tastes like flowers, like roses, like the smell of my roses at home. Dora‟s tooth ground into a piece of wood and she 282 stopped to pick it out of her mouth and look at it, a pale brown chip tasting of licorice. She looked to see if the other two had noticed and hoped she wasn‟t being rude. Both were absorbed in their eating, or so it seemed, and Dora looked beyond through the window where apple blossoms drifted from the tree. Had the light shifted? There was a darkness in the air she hadn‟t noticed before. Maybe clouds. She looked up at Sy again and saw the two watching her, quiet, their plates empty. Dora smiled a rueful grin and brought a full spoon towards her mouth. “I be not used to this fare me dears. Do ye be patient with me. Do ee have a mite of bread? I were looking to see would it rain.” Sy laughed suddenly and turned back toward the light. A few drops slapped the window, next a swift torrent, as quickly ended. A gust of wind whisked more petals swirling out and up. “Are you hungry, then, Dora, really? No need to eat it if you don‟t want. I haven‟t had quite this fare myself before. My mother made do with what we had. But my body knows it.” She got up in one movement, came round the table and put her arm round her friend, gave her an unexpected hug. “I think I know what we have to do, and I depend on you to help. We cannot do it without you, I think, and perhaps that is the meaning of our journey together. I‟ve come to think there are doors between 283 worlds, times, places, and to find them, we tune our bee antennas. Perhaps we‟ve been tuning for this all along.” “Ee talk beyond me, darlin. I know nothin of doors, nothin of antenners, whatso they be. Do ee tell me what ee need, and I‟ll do my best to help ee. Shall I tell ee what I saw when we first came into this room? Twere part of an answer mayhap.” “Aye, do tell me, Dora. All that came to me were the faces of the others. How glad I was!” “Well, I journeyed as I do, but this time tweren‟t underground or through the air. I felt myself pulled backwards. And with me were many others. We travelled back over all the path we‟d come and landed on that high mountainy place there, where the bees showed ee the way down into the earth. All were there, but though we‟d arrived safe, I knew in my heart of hearts could not be so. I could see clear we‟d have to go forard and no doubt about it. Backward did not work. Too pulled and bent over. But I know not what forard might be.” “We came through a door to get here,” Sy mused. “There has to be another one so we can go on or back or wherever it is. We‟ll find it, just as we found the other one. Just have to stop thinking about it. Maybe dance some more. But it‟s hard for me to wait.” 284 “Aye. This be a harsh place.” Dora got up and went to look out the window, now bright again. Perhaps there was something else they had to do here before they returned. She couldn‟t bring herself to think they might be going on and on without ever going home. That surely wasn‟t to be her way. But she had to admit she‟d been ready for it when she left. And, to be sure, this be edge enough. Be I satisfied now? Seekin the edge! Humph! The urge to feel her own ground beneath her feet and to see her children suddenly came back as strong as just after she had left. There would no holding the old one bodily close, not now, not anymore, but all else would be there as it always had been. And new little ones, most like. She was glad to be facing the window. They couldn‟t see the sharp desire in her face, but she was borne forward into energy for going on. “„Tis time to press on, indeed,” she nodded at the blossoming tree. “We‟ve much to do then, darlin‟, much to plan and think on. Do ee want to stay here or go back to Reina?” “We must go back and get our packs and we certainly can‟t leave without telling her we‟re leaving. What would she think? She might worry herself sick, dear young thing.” “Aye, ee be right. Be ye sure we can find this place again? My feeling be that tis from here we go on, not from young Reina‟s.” 285 “Yes.” Sy didn‟t need to say the yes. Both knew. Both could feel the pull already, setting them on toward the coming journey. * * * Sy drew the gate in the wall closed behind her, and they turned right down the alley toward the street. The sun was high just behind them now as they turned right again to walk back the way they had come, early afternoon small warmth on their faces. Perhaps Dora could have found her way back to Reina‟s without Sy‟s help, but there was no need. Sy walked unerringly west past the same crumbling brick house fronts, jagged cracks in pavements, withering trees, turning left, turning right. A crowd of shouting children ran past them once, throwing a ball, going the opposite way. The two women didn‟t hurry. They noticed small things at their feet–-a dead baby bird covered in black ants, brown leaves in the gutter, a yellow leaf once, a white flower like a star struggling through a grating on the road. Dora stopped at that and bent to see the flower more close, pulling Sy to her side. The plant was one she knew. Stitchwort, delicate and strong, greygreen soft leaves stunted by the stale air. Dora spoke from her heart, slowly, touching the leaves and murmuring homecoming 286 thoughts to the heart of the flower. Stitchwort would bring them to the door and the path forward, holding them on course, sewing their footsteps homeward. She took the small stem of one leaf between her thumb and forefinger and, asking first, parted it gently from the plant. Wrapping it first in a scrap of cloth, she put it in the bag for tea herbs still at her waist. Sy, patiently waiting, linked her arm in Dora‟s as they continued on their way. “You are finding us the way. I trust you well. I will hold you. Go where you will.” Dora was traveling now. Rough stone walls were around her, dark, wet, and winding downwards into the warm earth. She wanted, immediately, to turn and find out where she had entered so she could know their way in and on, for surely she was being shown, but there was no stopping this journey for the moment. Dora hurt. Her very fur hurt. Her claws scrabbled for a hold on the stones. No thoughts in the fear. Dark was not a problem but no control over where, how fast, how long. Who was pulling her now? Perhaps she would be eaten or crushed in the wet warm darkness. Dora gathered herself. There be no use for it, neither no way to fight. The job be to look around me and remember. Where be I? What be the smell of the place, the feel of the earth, the kind of stones? What be the plants that do grow here? Be I in country or in the streets I left just now? 287 She stopped struggling, relaxed and began watching the walls as she moved. Small tangled roots told her she wasn‟t too far underground. Perhaps the fear had made her feel the falling faster than it was. White roots among red, brambles, she thought. She could smell the tang of them. The stones, now, there was flint poking through, a bit of granite perhaps, slate, all kinds that are not in the same place always. And there was a lump of what looked like rough mortar. So perhaps she was still near the street. Brambles grow among houses too. She wondered now whether she was indeed going down. Maybe it was along under the ground and not downward, for brambles don‟t go as deep as long as she‟d been falling. Maybe tis not falling. That comforted her a little. The smell of the bramble roots as she passed took her home to the farm and she found herself just as suddenly on the street again standing by Sy, Sy‟s arm around her shoulders that still shook a bit from the fear. “That was a hard one. Come here.” Sy put thin arms around Dora and held her friend till the shaking slowed a little. Dora patted with her hand to make sure the pack of herbs was still at her waist and let go a breath of relief to find it there. They began walking again, more slowly now, Sy still with one arm firm around her friend. The 288 street in front of Reina‟s little place was empty, but they still walked warily as they crossed, and the descent to Reina‟s door felt like a homecoming. Dora bent, reached under the mat and found the key. It was then she remembered. Stopped to think a moment. Turned to Sy and laughed. Now she knew. She knew the way. It was Reina‟s. One hand touched the herbs at her belt, the other placed the key in the lock and turned. 289 XXIX As suddenly, Sy realized and put her hand out to grab Dora‟s shoulder. They flew into the dark air together and began falling. Two old birds we, thought Dora, smiling inside, and she touched the hand clutching her arm. Still dark enough to make seeing hard, they could smell the damp earth and the sharp tang of bramble roots strongly about them. It took Dora only a moment to remember--even though she felt herself falling, they were not. She tried to say so to Sy but no words came. A strong wind was keeping her mouth closed. She couldn‟t see Sy‟s face to tell whether she was frightened, but the hand keeping a firm hold on her sweater shook a little, and anyway, Dora could feel the panic clear as though it were her own. Gradually their flight became slower, and the two glided to a stop at a part of the tunnel that widened into a curve to the right, a tiny stream of water crossing their path and glistening in the little light there was. Where do the light come from? Dora tried to look up to see if there might be cracks and found her neck so short and stiff she 290 could only look from side to side. That was alarming enough. The next moment she found herself swivelling her eyes instead and she looked up without moving her head at all. Above them was a grating such as the one she had found the stitchwort growing through. Perhaps tis the very one. She began clawing her way up the stone wall to her left before remembering Sy still standing at the bottom. Scurrying down backwards on short legs, Dora found her friend in the same position they had landed in. Sy was a very still, large greengrey lizard whose small silky scales glimmered in the low light. The lizard‟s eyes were closed, and her breathing came quick and sharp. Dora brushed up against her friend and whispered, “We be together together. I be yere. Don‟t ee fear good friend. I don‟t know what happens when we be yere in this place but tis not harmful, no. Ee „ave seen me come back whole and sound.” The silk smooth side of the lizard shuddered, and slowly Sy turned her head toward Dora not yet opening her eyes. As she turned, they were back in the doorway, Dora‟s hand still on the key. *** Inside Reina‟s house again, Dora sat Sy down at the table near the window and sat herself down next to her. Sy 291 opened her eyes to slits and shook herself a little, like a dog come in from the rain. “So... You do that all the time? Dora?” Sy looked down at the wooden table and pushed her shoulders, no longer lizard shoulders, up under her ears. She still was not sure if she was Sy. Dora moved closer. “Mmmmhmmm.” Silence be right. We found the way now. “Tis time to find ye‟re kin and be gone, Sy. This place has much to do with death, not enough with life. Death weighs life into the ground here and twill not end well. Whatever it do take we to be gone, that be what we must do. There be an ending here that will not like us, not at all, and ye came to bring back ye‟re folk, there being reason for it. Tis that we must do.” Sy sat up, opened her eyes wide, and turned to Dora, took her friend‟s hand and put it against her own face. “Yes, that‟s right. Funny, Dora, how brave I‟ve been. All my life. And the smallest things now seem to make it impossible to go on. What is that? The closer I come to what I‟ve wanted, the weaker I get. If you weren‟t here....” “I be. We be yere. Not a good place, no. We‟ve come back to Reina‟s only to tell the young un, pack our things, and be going on. Perhaps she‟ll want to come with us. But now I do wonder at our going underground at her door. What be the meaning of that?” 292 “Perhaps she has something to tell us, Dora. Maybe she knows something about what‟s under her door? Do you think?” “I know not darlin. Tis a puzzle indeed. Tis growing late though, dear heart, and she‟ll be returning like as not. Do ee want some tea?” Sy nodded her head, and Dora stood up to put the kettle on in this new way of Reina‟s home. She‟d taken a few steps toward the fire when the door handle turned, and Reina came in taking off her coat and throwing it onto the chair. She stopped and let out a laugh, seeing Dora and Sy dressed in her clothes. “Well, you did find some things that fit you, then? You look quite passable for folks around here. I‟ll bet no one questioned you at all, did they?” “We saw no one on those streets, save some children who ran by as though we were invisible” muttered Sy, and Dora added, “Where be the folk who live in this place? Tis as though dead, a graveyard. I did see a man with a milk bottle but could not speak to he through the window. Even the plants and birds are sad. So many wounded birds....” Reina shuddered and touched her hand to the wood of the window frame. Her own thoughts were not so different but it felt dangerous to say so. Perhaps a wishing for the worst that would bring it about... What was she thinking, though? It already was the worst. How much more lonely could her 293 life become? Before these dear old ladies had tumbled into her life, there had been no one to come home to, except sometimes a man who could be violent or not violent as the moon waxed and waned. And she trusted no one at work enough to let them into her heart. No one she could tell the things she wanted to say now. “You‟re right, you know. I wanted to deny it, but I cannot. There‟s death all around. It‟s not supposed to be so. We‟re told we are living the best of all lives--enough food, healing when we‟re ill (if we can afford it), no need to toil to grow our food, a shop around the corner, everything shinily wrapped under bright lights. And bright lights and concrete everywhere. I‟ve been trying to tell myself that I‟m ungrateful to be so gloomy about it but I can‟t help myself. I hate it, you know. The two of you are a breath of fresh air in my tunnel of work, home, eat, sleep, up, work, home.... Everyone knows it but no one will speak up. Perhaps we know there are reasons to fear honesty.” “Know ye not what ye know?” Dora was puzzled and annoyed. Where did these beings learn to be blind? 294 XXX Sy hummed, breathed, hummed, eyes closed, speaking with hummy breaths. “Robed in desire. Robed in cloud. Robed in honey. Robed in rock. Robed in malachite. Robed in feathers. Robed in darkness. Robed in light. Robed in heavy sorrow. Robed in mercy. Robed in fellow feeling.” Her hands rose over her head and she began stepping small steps to the right, to the left, around in a circle, deftly moving past furniture as though she could see through her eyelids. She swayed and hummed, “Robed in delight. Robed in cartilege. Robed in lore. Robed in memory. Robed in gratitude. Robed in horror. Robed in memory. Robed in memory. Robed in memory.” Dora found the beads wrapped still in the paper she had found behind the branch on her way up the mountain. She took out both paper and beads and placed the glimmering necklace around Sy‟s neck as she came to a stop near the window. The paper she put at the waist of her own skirt with the stitchwort leaf picked on their way back from the visit to Sy‟s people. Reina came from where she had been standing half amused and wholly bemused and placed her arms around both small women, holding them to her gentle and strong. “Robed in 295 memory. Robed in memory. Robed in memory.” They took up the chant, Dora and Reina. All three standing by the window began to turn on the spot, each giving her own part of the song. “Robed in darkness. Robed in light. Robed in hollowed hand. Robed in night. Robed in laughter. Robed in sorrow. Robed in thicket. Robed in tomorrow.” Their eyes closed, they circled, held together in Reina‟s arms. The walls thinned about them into mist. “Robed in morning. Robed in earth. Robed in following. Robed in being. Robed in being. Robed in being.” Shapes of others formed around them, a small crowd growing larger, circling with them, chanting with shadow voices. “Robed in language. Robed in delight. Robed in fear. Robed in sight. Robed in going. Robed in green. Robed in water. Robed in water. Robed in water.” Where the walls of Reina‟s home had been grew earth banks, tree roots, boulders rounded by ages of stream, armored beetles scuttling into holes, glinting sparks of mica in the clay. Through a mist almost it seemed the kettle floated, the teapot on the table, the window, as they stepped round and round, more gathering, eyes closed. * * * 296 The few who were on the streets that evening talked about it to their families later and remembered it all their lives. It began as a deep humming that shook the ground under their feet. Just a slight shake, a tremor, a trembling. They couldn‟t quite see it but they felt it there, a mist beginning to form just noticeable at the corners of the eyes. It wasn‟t that the mist rose cold and grey from the grates and gutters of the street, as sometimes happens in London, especially near the river, but it began to become visible in mid-air, appearing like a swarm of gnats on a golden evening. From certain angles you could see them dancing, coming in and out of view as a cloud of small creatures moves, weaving light with their bodies. Or moving like the shadows of leaves at twilight when visible and invisible shift and shatter each other. Anyone who was on the street felt surrounded by the humming, sounds like voices that could not be deciphered, a felt warmth from bodies that blew in and out of sight. It was such a sure thing, that, isolated as the sightings were, each person told another and remembered. They remembered colors forming in whirling mist, forms and shapes of a growing crowd of people, colors of their faces, clothing, even smells wafting swiftly –- apple blossom, honey, sour milk, farmyard, curry, tea, herbs –- passing as swiftly as they came, especially, they 297 remembered, honey. Murmuring voices chanting, the sound grew and grew, the humming swarming up from the ground and down from the dusty trees, whirling with the figures, a soft roar, distant waterfall of mutterings, singings. Each person, not more than several hands full of fingers of them, stood still enough to become part of the landscape, not wanting to disturb the beauty of it. Not one later mentioned being scared. At the time, it seemed as though they might, if they stood still enough, be caught in the edges of the spinning and find themselves whirled away into the song and color and smell of dream. No one who tells these stories knows, but they think about it, whether some who were there actually became part of the shadowy crowd and left London when the humming stopped. * * * Completely dark and still, not a breath of air, no movement, no light. Dora felt more than knew that she was not alone. She touched no one, and none was touching her. But the silence was full of waiting, of soft breathing, tumbled ball of dirt, brushed root hair. She knew Sy was by her, close by. Around them all the others and some she didn‟t know the feeling of, but accepted easily. She knew well within her it must be a moment of waiting for all of 298 them. Nothing could be forced. They were not to be asleep now, not whisked without will into a new place and time. They would go open eyed, even in this blackest dark. They were all connected in thought, in feeling, at heart, in the very center. She was waiting for a pull, as she had waited so long ago in the woods. Sy waited for a note that might tell her how to move. Reina felt completely at peace, waiting for nothing at all. Gradually, as though there was a thread passing through each one of them, each felt a tugging, a prickling of the skin. Their bodies turned--surely there must have been more than a hundred of them–toward air beginning to lighten to palest pink and gold. Dora could smell apple blossoms and hear the buzzing of bees. Do it be spring again? Tis a year, a whole year. The waking sounds of a village came to them before they could properly see. They smelled woodsmoke and heard the clank of buckets. A rooster crowed, another answered. And among the crowd of them, it was a wakening too. Some rubbed their eyes and stretched, leaning into the brightening morning, the sweet smells of countryside. Dora opened her eyes and found herself home. She knelt slowly putting her hands flat down toward the juicy grass, into the crumbly soil beneath, kept lowering down till she lay with her face in leafmould, breathing breathing the 299 smell of home. Not tears enough for this, darlins, oh my darlins. And she jumped, scrambled up fast as she could and turned toward the village. Folk, her folk, were beginning, curious, concerned, to come out into the orchard, wondering at a gathering bigger than any they‟d seen, of strange people. Some carried short sticks and looked worried and fierce. Dora walked forward slowly, small strands of hair curling out from her scarf and the layers of old clothes like leaves around her. She could feel Sy coming up behind her and reached back for a hand. Suddenly one of the village folk broke loose from the others and ran, a big woman, toward them shouting and crying. Dora stopped, and she and Sy waited there under the trees for Berna, who was looking back and then towards them, calling in her big voice, “Mama! It‟s Dora, you fools. Ash, come here quick,” yelling between great sobs. Another woman, slighter but also tall, began to hurry, and a dark young man joined her, both of them running. Dora and Sy disappeared in a swirling crowd of hugging arms, smiles and tears, children running around through the legs of the adults, dogs barking, while the silent crowd from London stayed still under the flowering trees. “Where ave ee been so long?” “Who be this with ee?” 300 “We‟ve been so worried about ee, thought we‟d never see ee again.” “Dot, this be ye‟re grandma, now, give her a kiss.” After long questions and answers, laughing and crying, Dora pulled herself up and stepped back a little, “I‟ll tell ee the story when we can sit down, all of we. Right now, tis another matter I have to give ee.” She turned toward Sy and Reina who had come up quietly, and began to walk back toward the waiting folks among the trees, people she had not even seen yet, whom she did not know herself. There was a great puzzle in her heart where this might be going next. The village gathered behind her, and all walked slowly, sticks left behind them on the ground, calling the shivering dogs to heel. It was a big crowd they walked toward, gathered tightly and waiting, more people than lived in the village itself. Sy stepped out in front lightly and led the way. My people, my own, my dears. Humming again, old tunes, the necklace shimmering round her neck, and the shawl shifting, changing in the new light. When they saw her coming, when they saw the necklace and the shawl, the ones waiting under the trees let out a sigh, all together. Dora could see them relax into acceptance, worry gone in a moment, the small dark people, men and women both who looked so like Sy herself. They knew who Sy was, perhaps more than 301 Dora did herself. The crowd moved forward just a little to bring in their own. First came the other Sy, the man who had fed them in the house they‟d left far behind. He too wore a glimmering shawl whose animals leaped and trees writhed as he came forward. And he wore a necklace the twin of the gift Dora had wrapped in the paper she found behind the tree root on her way up the ravine, before she had met Sy again. He reached and took her by the hand, and she accepted in a formal manner, looking taller suddenly than Dora had seen her before. 302 XXXI Sy reached back and pulled Dora to the front with her, and Dora pulled Reina, who had stayed with them. Dora‟s folk came up around her from behind and clustered around the edges of Sy‟s people. Slow drifts of apple blossoms were wafting, landing on the head of this one here, that one there. All knew something was happening, though no one knew what it was to be. The two Sy‟s, Dora and Reina, held each others‟ hands lightly, and at the same moment, they began again, the chant and the dance. Different this time, a homecoming. And they wove, slowly at first, then a little faster, toward and among the people waiting for what would happen. The people took up the chant and began following, old folks, middle folks, young folks, children, dogs, and all weaving amongst each other and the trees, blessed by falling blossoms and sun glimmering through translucent flowers and new breaking leaves. As they wove, stepped, and sang, blessed by the dreaming trees, small, tall, dark, light, they spiralled amongst each other timeless till they danced with one pulse. The head of the line flowed back into the dancing crowd and disappeared, reappearing here and there, new lines forming 303 in waves, new leaders, hand to hand, and Dora, Sy, Sy, and Reina, weeping for joy, laughing, and holding to each other‟s hands. There would be building to plan, planting to work at, folks to welcome in. And stories to tell.