It took Mary Malone a surprisingly short amount of time to become accustomed to the presence of the Alpine chough in her little flat. Once she’d learned the trick to seeing him-- to feeling his slight but indomitably real weight on her shoulder, to hearing him speak-- it wasn’t as if she could just turn the trick off. So here he was in her home, like a flatmate she’d always had but somehow hadn’t noticed before, easy and comfortable in her living space. It was nice not to feel completely solitary, coming off all the warmly communal time spent with the mulefa.
She even pondered whether it wouldn’t be the polite thing to put up some perches for him, or swings, as one might for a bird kept as a pet. Mary wasn’t sure where the behavioural line was-- to what degree she should expect him to act like a real bird and not… whatever he was. She wasn’t any kind of biologist, but even she knew that corvids engaged in play-- would her dæmon suffer if he didn’t have swings to hang from or toys to amuse himself with? She was in wholly alien territory here. So, having no other resources, she asked the chough himself.
‘Would you like something like that? You know, little perches on the walls or-- I don’t know, some of those twisty rope things they make for pet parrots?’
He cocked his head, eyes glittering, clicked his little yellow beak in thought. ‘I don’t think I need enrichment ’, he said wryly. ‘At least not any more than you do. But a few discreet places to perch here and there wouldn’t go amiss.’
They’d learned quickly that there was a limit to how far they could go from each other-- an unpleasant surprise, the first time it happened, followed swiftly by a period of intent experimentation as they tried to determine the parameters of their apparent physical bond. Mary lamented that she hadn’t had more opportunity to talk to Serafina Pekkala-- or Lyra, or John Faa-- about the technicalities of having a dæmon. She supposed she could ask Will, but he hadn’t spent any time in Lyra’s world, as far as she knew, and so would probably know no more than she.
But she was pleased to have a task, and set about combing the local charity shop for things she might mount on the walls that would function as perches but look merely like decor to anyone else. A productive day spent with the power drill later saw several pieces of variously mismatched chintz bolted to the walls, and in her bedroom a small shelf with a wooden rail where he could nest down in some towels at night.
She stood back with a pleased exhalation once she’d finished securing the brackets and brushed her hands off on her dowdy jeans, feeling satisfyingly accomplished. ‘Go on then; see how it suits you.’
The Alpine chough fluttered over to land on the railing where he bounced experimentally, before hopping onto the main body of the shelf and immediately setting to rolling around in the little heap of tea towels the way Mary had seen crows playing in freshly fallen snow. It felt a little pointed, like his wryness about enrichment the other day, but it was no less genuine for it, and Mary could feel his enjoyment of that little sensory pleasure like a ping and flush of electric heat. It reminded her of the earthiness of the mulefa, the innocently epicurean joy in physicality she had rediscovered in that world.
It was such a small thing, but she suddenly was giddy with it, and she hugged herself impulsively. Her dæmon, over on the shelf, laughed a chirruping laugh as he realised a moment before she did that she didn’t have to settle for hugging herself anymore, and fluttered over to hook claws into her shirt and enthusiastically butt the crown of his head against her cheek.
Mary laughed a little breathlessly. ‘Is it always like this, do you think? Experiencing everything twice over?’
The Alphine chough gave a little trill in his throat. ‘I can’t imagine it’ll stay this intense. It must just be like being a teenager again, experiencing everything in a new way, but once you get used to it--’
‘Yes’, Mary agreed, and then laughed again. ‘God, can you imagine? You’re probably right. Still, it’s--’ she shook her head. She would need some time, she thought, to be able to quantify it in words.
The Alpine chough trilled again, and the realisation settled easy and comfortable under Mary’s breastbone that of course he could feel it too.
In the time since the departure of Mary and the other strangers, the mulefa had planted a grove around the door in the hillside that led to the world of the dead. By nature and by long practice, they were tenders rather than cultivators, but for this, they had carefully uprooted several chveh saplings-- trees used for their sap, but prized also for their beauty-- and planted them around the door. The chveh trees had long blueish leaves with a fuzzy coat of fine hairs, and bloomed in dripping chains of yellow that would, in time, make for a cradling curtain around the doorway. Kachax flowers they had brought also, and sweetgrass to scent the air and blossom tiny and blue in the summers. It felt right to make this place splendid, to give it honour, and to give one last gift of beauty to the dead who passed through.
It brought Atal joy to help plant the grove, and once all was in its place, to tend it.
She recalled the conversation she had had with Mary about what Mary called religion . She had only been able to glean a meagre understanding of what Mary had meant, for Mary’s command of Yalife had yet been imperfect and broken, but now Atal thought that she had a better sense. The spirits of the dead flowed from the doorway in a constant trickle-- a tributary like the currents of sraf around the wheel-trees, imbued with intention and purpose by their tending by the mulefa. They were easier to see at night, glowing pale and lambent under the light of the moon: people like Mary, and people like Atal, and people of sorts and shapes stranger yet, spirits that only ever lasted a moment or two after stepping out into the world before dissolving into sraf that told of boundless, joyous relief.
Atal liked to watch them as she tended the trees and flowers, and she thought that maybe that was what Mary had been trying to convey. If Mary’s people were unable to see sraf, did not have an innate knowledge of the love the stuff of the universe had for them, perhaps it was only natural that they should long for something bigger, higher, something unknown. Even for Atal, who had the knowledge of thirty-three-thousand years of mulefa consciousness behind her, watching the spirits of the dead dissolve and disperse engendered in her a kind of deep and aching calm. It felt like peace, and like privilege, knowing in her heart that all was well and would be well henceforth.
The calm ached as it did in part, she knew, because of a thought that had occurred to her some weeks past whilst watching the procession of the dead. They were the dead of all the worlds, in forms myriad and strange, and so Atal knew that one day Mary’s spirit would also walk through that door, and the ache was the ache of longing.
She had no intention of spending her days grieving the loss of her lover and friend-- it had been the right choice for Mary to return to her world, to her life and her research, and to help care for the child Will who had been through so much-- but for now, while the grief was fresh, it was right to feel it. Even for something she had known would come to an end, the ending still ached. And so it brought Atal comfort, the thought that one day in an unknown future, the spirit of Mary Malone would come through the doorway in the hill to be met with bright garlands of flowers and the smell of sweetgrass and the open air off the plain. Her bright, remarkable consciousness would dissolve into bright motes of sraf, and one day the sraf that had been Atal would join her, and disperse into the universe.
Atal imagined that Mary would feel it fitting, that upon her death, the final sparks of her self would perhaps drift up to the treetops she had (inexplicably, terrifyingly, amazingly) loved and help the flowers there germinate.
But for now, she helped to tend the grove, and put her grief into the ground with the trees and the sweetgrass and the kachax flowers, and knew that it would in time grow into something beautiful and new.
‘You know’, the Alpine chough said one day, in that dry tone that Mary had begun to think of as characteristic to him, ‘I really ought to have a name, don’t you think?’
It was such an obvious thought that Mary immediately felt like an idiot for not having said anything sooner. ‘Oh, goodness, of course you ought! Away with me, I don’t know how I thought that was going to work.’
Her dæmon laughed-- it was a surprisingly sweet sound from a bird that looked like it ought to croak or caw-- and Mary blushed a little. ‘It’s alright; it hadn’t occurred to me until recently either. I don’t know how they do it in Lyra’s world.’
Mary lifted her eyes towards the ceiling with a sigh. ‘Just one more thing we ought to have asked. Well, it’s too late now. You’ve been thinking about it-- did you have anything in mind?’
To her surprise, he shuffled a little on the desk, clacking his beak in what looked for all the world like embarrassment. ‘Mm, not yet. Maybe we should do some research first?’
That was sound enough, so Mary didn’t argue with it, but she gave the chough a cockeyed look. It was a new experience, a part of her keeping secrets from… herself, but she didn’t press it.
So they did some research, such as they could. It was like trying to name a baby, Mary thought, overwhelmed. She had never imagined that she’d be a mother, and so had never engaged in the games of coming up with names for future children that other girls had at school, and now found herself oddly unprepared. The only other dæmons whose names she knew were Lyra’s and Will’s-- Pantalaimon and Kirjava. Kirjava was easy enough to look up after a little effort-- a Finnish word meaning ‘multicoloured’. Serafina Pekkala had named her, Will had told her, so the language made sense, and the cat dæmon certainly was multicoloured. Pantalaimon took a deal more searching, but she eventually unearthed a Greek saint and martyr Pantaleon who was sometimes also referred to as Panteleimon. The name seemed to mean something like all-caring, or all-compassionate.
Well, she thought, sitting back with a little huff, not a lot to work off. One of them was very straightforward, the other very grand, and neither felt right to Mary. It somehow felt very narcissistic, the idea of giving her dæmon a high-flown Classical name, but finding a Gaeilge translation of ‘sweet-voiced’ or ‘black-feathered’ or something similarly descriptive felt like being a child and naming a dog Blacky, or Spot.
‘What if I just call you Lon Dubh?’ she suggested tiredly, and the Alpine chough snorted through his nostrils.
‘I’m not a blackbird, for a start.’
‘You are a black bird, though. I mean, it’s not wrong .’
‘Mmm’, he said, and Mary gave him another look. She could feel that he was hiding something from her. He shuffled his feet again and ruffled his feathers, fluttering up to a bookshelf and picking at a loose thread from a spine. Eventually, he spoke.
‘What about Ignatius?’
Mary blinked. ‘It’s a bit Catholic, isn’t it? Sorry.’
The Alpine chough fluffed his feathers up again, and now Mary understood the embarrassment. ‘I know, I know, I just-- I keep coming back to it. Just because we left the Church doesn’t mean that isn’t there in our background, you know? Our family. We took important things from it, even if it’s just what we don’t want anymore. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to draw from that.’
‘I-- no, you’ve a point, you’re not wrong.’
‘And Mary’s just as Catholic as Ignatius.’
‘Alright, alright!’ She put her hands up in defeat, laughing, but she was thinking about it now, and she couldn’t deny that it seemed to suit him. It had a certain combination of oddity and dignity that fitted his ironic affect. ‘I suppose the Jesuits are all about education; there’s that at least.’
‘Oh, at least , thank you for that, so kind.’
But he was being sarcastic now, Mary could tell, ribbing her good-naturedly like they were a pair of friends down the pub, and she gave him an ironic little bow of the head. ‘Ignatius-- that’ll be Latin, then. What’s it mean, do we know?’
The Alpine chough-- Ignatius-- gave an avian shrug, and Mary turned back to the book she’d found the information about St. Pantaleon in. She was faintly embarrassed to have a book of hagiography in her office, as if someone might catch her reading it and get entirely the wrong impression, but she leafed through it, looking for anything about any of the various St. Ignatiuses. Her dæmon fluttered down to land next to her and peer at the pages as she flipped.
Eventually, she found something other than dubiously accurate biography. ‘Ah! Alright, here we are. Etruscan origin… meaning unclear, presumed relation to Latin ignis --’ And there she stopped and laughed, wry and bittersweet, remembering the mulefa ’s description of her as fast and darting and impetuous, when she had always thought of herself as dogged and plodding. ‘Meaning fiery ’, she finished. ‘Well, I can’t argue with that.’
Though the stranger Mary was the most peculiar person Atal had ever met, she found also that spending time with her gave her greater joy than most anything she had known. As is the way for mulefa, all the joys and sorrows of Atal’s life were spread out for her in her memories to sort through as she might, to reference against the shared cultural memory of all her people. She leafed through them like sheaves of sruft after the harvest, but there was little that shone with the thrill and the peculiar delight of time spent with Mary.
For though she was alien in almost every way and should have been repulsive with her strange, thin, wriggling limbs and the way she moved, she was alive with a passionate curiosity that Atal felt like a flame in her own chest. Mary was desperate to know anything, everything-- how were the children raised, did they marry, what did they know of the natural world, what were their laws, were there mulefa elsewhere in the world?-- and Atal rejoiced in teaching her. She straightaway continued her instruction in Yalife, that they might communicate with more ease, and told her stories of their history as Mary learned how to butcher a grazer, or draw in fishing nets, or harvest basketfuls of wewe roots.
There also was much time spent not in labour, but simply in enjoying their days, and Atal was fascinated by the way even in relaxation, Mary seemed always to be moving. There seemed no end to the things she could do with her astonishingly doubled hands, and she was always creating . The first time she pulled out the little block of white leaves and started making marks in it, Atal watched in fascination for some little while before asking her what she was doing. The little block was alight with sraf, but Atal could interpret little from its currents.
Is it art?
No , Mary said, it is-- like talking? Talking marks.
There was a long conversation, then, before Atal understood what Mary was trying to communicate: that her people did not have memory in the same way the mulefa did, and so they had to make marks, to somehow inscribe their language so it could be remembered later. Atal understood already from Mary that her language did not involve gesture the way Yalife did, but even so, the notion of language without a speaker, silent and motionless, was difficult to fully conceptualise.
She reached out to gently stroke a fingertip over one of the pages of the book -- that was the word Mary used for it. Truly, that is language? And any other of your people might be able to look at that and understand it? Even not knowing you, or what you intended in drawing it?
Mary laughed-- amazed as she was by so many things. Truly. It is-- difficult explaining. It was art once, many time past. Little pictures. Yes? Like-- she stopped and quickly sketched a rough outline of a tree, tilting the book to show Atal. There is another language in my home-- I would draw the word tree like this. And next to the little drawing of the tree she drew four strokes-- one down, one across, and two more descending at angles from the central crux-- a shape in which Atal plainly saw the echo of a tree. See? It is different in English, but all talking-marks start this way in the long past.
I understand , Atal said, wondering. It was clever, and fascinating, and yet it struck her as melancholy, that Mary’s people could not simply tell each other stories as the mulefa did. It seemed lonely, to have to find information long dead and silent in a book rather than recalling when it had been told to you, knowing where it had come from. What are you drawing?
Mary ducked her head and scuffed one hand through her hair-- it was a gesture Atal did not know how to interpret. It is Yalife , she said, seeming perhaps bashful. I draw everything I learn new. To help me learn.
Such a simple thing, and yet Atal felt the hairs all over her lifting in a little wave of delight. Because you want to learn as well as you can.
Yes! said Mary, curling her arm vehemently up. Always .
So that was Mary. She drew in her book, or carved little figures with her astonishingly complex little knife, or braided bits of loose cord into a bracelet which she laughed and slipped onto one of Atal’s tusks.
When she did that, Atal could not restrain herself from pressing her forehead to Mary’s and giving her a little squeeze with her trunk. Surely even among Mary’s people, gift-giving was a sign of affection, and Atal was briefly overwhelmed with the desire to give something back. She felt the warm puff of Mary’s breath against the base of her trunk, an oh! that Atal had learned meant surprise and pleasure, and Atal drew back with one last gentle squeeze.
Apologies; I did not mean to startle you.
No sorry ! Mary said, waving her arms about in a way that seemed completely unrelated to what she was saying. She had gone faintly pink in the face, and Atal found herself fascinated-- what did that mean? Only I was surprise. You like? Is just a small thing.
Mary was not wrong; the doubleness of her hands and the way she was able to braid such a thing on her own was astonishing, but the bracelet was itself otherwise unremarkable. Atal, still flush with that sudden startled affection, did not know how to explain that it was not the bracelet itself that had provoked her reaction.
Once, Atal found Mary engaged in actual drawing in her book-- what any mulefa would recognise as art. Even that, though, was strange and different, everything captured in crisp, static lines with no consideration for the currents of sraf around the people she was drawing. Comprehension slotted into place in Atal’s head like claws into a fresh wheel, and she exhaled a long breath that fluttered the leaves of Mary’s book. Was this what the world looked like to Mary? And yet she understood so much, even while understanding so little.
Atal felt again that pulse of wild, heady affection, and in this moment, understood it for what it was-- not merely the love of a friend for a friend, but adoration, infatuation, desire. Brave Mary, who had risked herself in swimming after the seedpods scattered by the Tualapi, who played with the children, who gladly gave of her strange, alien abilities to help the village, who wanted to learn everything. Even her physical form, which had seemed so strange and horrible to Atal at first, now only provoked fascinated curiosity and the desire to be close.
What are you drawing ? Atal asked, trying to keep the waver out of her gestures.
Mary startled a little, and when she turned, Atal found that she was again pink. She had learned since the last time that that flush meant embarrassment-- or something like it; Mary had had a difficult time explaining. Atal had a sense that it might mean embarrassment or pleasure, or something else entirely: big feelings , Mary had eventually settled on.
It is you , Mary said, tilting the book towards Atal and pointing. With ǂtun. See? Your tusks curl more than hers. And your eyes, um, bend? At the corners.
Atal reached to gently caress the leaf with the drawing of herself and her mother, trumpeting a little softly in admiration. It was them, perfectly recognisable, and her head swum with the thought that Mary had wanted to draw her-- to draw her family.
So many details , she murmured. You see things so finely; it is very different from our art. And yet-- it is a gift, to see myself through your eyes.
The sraf around Mary swirled chaotically, and Atal saw that her face had become pinker yet. She flapped one of her hands, a gesture that seemed as if it could mean many things. Mary tended to forget about her arms in speech when she became excited or flustered, falling instead into gestures that were native to her.
Details is how I am , she said, looking at Atal, and then away again, and then back, laughing a little. Too many details often-- just like a learning-person.
Would you like to see some of our art? I am no artist, but Sawwaxet is a fine painter, and Maǂen does wonderful things with acid and resin dyes. And if you have questions, I am always happy to answer as best I may.
Mary had surely already seen some of the village’s art, for it was integrated into everything they made, but there was art also that they made for its own sake. And what would Mary think of it? Their art must seem as strange and alien to her as hers did to Atal, and Atal found herself desperately curious to know how she would see it.
Yes! Mary remembered her arm this time, and curled her hand up for enthusiasm.
Later, Atal took to the roads for an evening ride, pushing herself fast through the cooling air until it was all she could feel, her ears flapping in the wind of her speed, her senses full of the scent of sweetgrass and the buzz of nighttime insects. It calmed her, and she breathed deeply once she came to a halt at the pond in a little copse of trees that was one of her favourite thinking places. The trees for the most part grew straight upwards and did not overshadow the pond, so that its surface perfectly reflected the dusky sky, cerise-purple-indigo-marigold shreds of cloud interrupted only by the occasional fish surfacing in pursuit of an insect. Atal settled herself under the trees to think.
Mary learned from Will not long after they returned to their world that his mother had not been to see a psychologist-- or any kind of mental health professional-- since his father had left, and she had to restrain a visible reaction. Ah , she thought. Well that sheds some light on things .
It made sense, of course-- both Will and his mother had been terrified that he’d be taken away if she was judged unfit to be a single parent-- but part of Mary wanted to take Will by the shoulders and give him a good shake. From what she could glean from Will, he hadn’t even been willing to admit she was genuinely ill until… now, essentially. And again, she couldn’t blame him, not really; he’d been a child, was still a child in many ways, thrown into something too big and overwhelming for him to understand, and he had done his best to cope. But all the same-- all the love in the world wasn’t going to help treat schizophrenia.
‘May I meet your mother properly?’ she asked Will over the phone one day. She had technically met her when she had accompanied Will to his neighbour’s house to see if she was still there, to fetch her back home, but her presence that day had primarily been to provide support for Will and reassurance to Mrs. Cooper that all was well. ‘Will that be alright with her? If we’re to be friends going forward-- and I would like to help her, Will. Or help you help her, whatever you prefer. Navigating the NHS can be a dreadful hassle, and--’
‘Yeah’, Will said shortly, interrupting the speech she’d planned to try and convince him. ‘Yeah, no, you’re right. She’s the most important thing. Helping her get well.’
There was a pause that sounded like Will was thinking of things he’d like to say but not saying them, like he wanted to explain himself or defend his mother, and Mary didn’t interrupt. She was still getting to know Will, and she didn’t want him to think she was passing judgement on what would have been a very difficult situation.
Eventually he said ‘Yeah’, again, as if he’d come to some conclusion from an internal debate. ‘You’re a family friend, if anyone needs to know. I reckon that’s enough, as long as Mum wants to see someone about it.’
‘Absolutely’, Mary agreed, and said nothing about as long as Mum wants to see someone about it. ‘And I’ve got friends who probably could recommend the best clinic for her and all of that-- that’s usually how it works, I’m given to understand.’ She smiled wryly against the plastic of the phone starting to get humid against her cheek. ‘People recommending people recommending people. But I’d love to meet her properly before we get into any of that.’
And so they arranged a time for Mary to come over for tea.
It was Mary’s understanding, from what Will had told her, that his mother went through cycles. There were times when all was more or less well, and other times when she truly could barely function, and that those psychotic episodes had become more and more frequent in the past few years. She had not done well during her time at Mrs. Cooper’s, but Will’s return had precipitated an upswing. Mary could have said any number of things about medication and therapy and treatment, about how it wasn’t fair either to Mrs. Parry or to Will for him to bear the brunt of caring for her, but she would wait for that.
She had learned the skill Serafina Pekkala had taught her to see others’ dæmons, and had used it mostly as a matter of curiosity, but in this particular instance, she thought it might help give her some insight. Elaine Parry’s dæmon was a small, delicate spider-- a garden orb-weaver of some sort, Mary thought. It would scarcely have been bigger than the top joint of Mary’s thumb, with an oblong body and careful, delicate legs, and it crouched timidly next to Mrs. Parry’s collar, scarcely visible except for the occasional iridescent greenish glint when the light struck it just right. Elaine Parry herself looked very much like her son-- the same wide dark eyes and heavy brows, the same warm mid-brown skin. The biggest difference was in their carriage; where Will sat straight, solid and stubborn, Mrs. Parry seemed like she might blow away in the wind. She was about Mary’s age, but Mary thought she would have looked younger if it weren’t for the shadow of worse times under her eyes.
But she was warm and polite to Mary, even if she didn’t quite meet her gaze. Will helped her make tea; Mary didn’t want to intrude in a space that wasn’t hers, so she stayed out on the settee and listened to the murmur of voices from the kitchen.
They came out with tea and a packet of biscuits, and Mary took the pot from Will to help get everything arranged.
‘Mum’s really glad I met you’, Will said, jutting his chin forward as if Mary might argue that point. ‘And she’s glad to meet you properly, too.’ Will’s cat dæmon, unseen by any but he and Mary, prowled around the floor at their feet like a guard animal.
Mary gave Mrs. Parry a nod as she stirred sugar into her tea, choosing to address her rather than Will. ‘I’m so glad to meet you as well. Will really is a remarkable young man.’
Mrs. Parry’s mouth twitched around a smile that seemed somewhat uncomfortable on her face, and she looked sideways from her mug of tea to Will. ‘He is’, she agreed. ‘The most remarkable. The best thing I’ve done. He deserves friends.’
Will coloured a little at that, and Mary saw his jaw clench. She couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but it was plainly something.
Together with Will, Mary told Mrs. Parry the version of events that she and Will had agreed upon-- not inaccurate, for Will hated the idea of lying to his mother, but greatly edited. That Will had found her seeking help when some men from the government had come looking for letters left by his father, that she was a physicist doing research on similar subjects to the late Colonel, that they had found themselves in events over their heads and had to help each other.
‘And I thought after all that’, Mary finished, ‘how could we simply go our separate ways? Sometimes the world brings people into your life at just the right time. And I admit’, she laughed a little wryly, ‘I haven’t got much in the way of family here in Oxford. It would be nice to have some connections that aren’t just through the university.’
Though Mrs. Parry was apparently focussed on the biscuit she was turning over and over in her fingers, she nodded at that, and reached over to give Will’s knee a little squeeze. ‘More family would be… good. I’m sure Will has told you-- mm.’
‘He has’, Mary said easily. ‘There’s no need to go into anything now; I understand.’
Their tea didn’t go on for too long, just long enough to be social, and when it was time for Mary to go, Will unexpectedly threw himself at her in a fierce hug. Mary paused for a startled moment before hugging back firmly. Will was a boy who had had very little stability in his life; for all he seemed fierce and capable and untrusting, it was little wonder that the promise of a measure of security had him overwhelmed.
‘We’ll talk later, alright? And you can talk to your mum.’
‘Yeah’, said Will, voice just a little raspy. ‘Thanks, Dr. Malone.’
Weekly teas became a tradition, then, and more serious matters were discussed-- prognoses and treatment plans, Will’s education, and the spare room in Mary’s flat that would be available for Will if ever he needed it. Mary thought often about the children of the mulefa, bright bundles of potential cared for by the whole village, by extended family and friends all alike. Mary had never wanted children, had always had other priorities, and never could have imagined a situation such as had brought Will into her life, but filling a role like this was unexpectedly fulfilling. Will deserved care from a community, even if only a small one.
Not too long after their first tea, with Mary’s assistance, Will and his mum moved from their shabby house in the estate to a small flat in Headington. It was a cosy little flat for two, not so haunted by the memory of an absent father and husband as their old house had been. Mary thought that Will and his mother had talked about his father-- an old letter postmarked in red and blue appeared framed on the wall between visits-- but she didn’t ask.
Do mulefa have-- Mary spoke out of a long silence one night in the darkness of Atal's family house, and then paused, her mouth bent down in what Atal had learned was an expression of frustrated thought, and then used a word in her own language.
Leleejhun? Atal repeated curiously. Mary's language-- English, she called it-- was as clipped and swift as Mary herself, full of strange and foreign sounds, curiously flat and difficult to reproduce. Mary exhaled, her hands coming up haltingly to try and explain. The sraf around her swam with passionate, curious, frustrated determination, eddying with each uncertain halt of her gestures.
'Religion'-- that is the word. It is… stories. Great old stories. The world large. About… above-people wise ones. Not-people. Do you understand? Great-not-people who created people. I don't know how to say in Yalife. It is a… think-know, not a truth-know. And ‘religion’ is-- a group of people with one think-know. There are many. They make also rules for people. Things to do or not to because the great not-people make rules. Do you understand?
So impatient, she was; Atal experienced a great welling of fondness, like a tide of sunlight creeping over her. That she should be so impatient with her lack of facility with Yalife after such a short time learning it filled Atal with warmth; it was another quality that was alien to her, that eager curiosity like that of a child desperate to mount its first wheels despite being too small yet.
She flicked her trunk in a gesture of uncertainty. We have stories, of course. The mulefa have a long memory, and as many stories as we have had years. True stories as well as those which are known to be make-likes but believed in spirit. But people who are not people? That I am unsure of. This is what you mean when you say think-know, yes? A belief?
Belief , Mary repeated, and then a word in her own language. Yes, that is what I meant. I think. You do not-- when a zalif dies, what is the belief? Where goes their self after?
Atal allowed herself to pause for an unhurried moment in thought, reaching out with her trunk to card through the strands of Mary’s hair, so much longer and finer than a zalif’s. It was strange, as so many things about Mary were strange and alien, but warm and close and intimate. Mary sighed and shifted back into the touch, and Atal’s two fingers curled amongst the strands in pleasure, making her fingertips as soft as she might, taking care to be gentle.
We do not know what happens after we die. Most people believe that the self-- the soul-- of a zalif simply dissipates like dust into the breeze, and that we are thus returned to the universe-- not as ourselves, but simply as the energy of what we were. Why? Is this a part of your-- ‘releejhun’?
Dust, Mary said quietly, still with that creased expression of thought. And not my religion . I used to have belief. Not now. Many people who have religion have belief-- that they live after they die? That there is a--a gift? A gift-place. For souls. She made a noise, then, a little grunt of frustration, and the sraf around her jittered. There are many religions -- many different beliefs. The one-- the not-mine-anymore-- the belief is that the above-people-wise one made the gift-place. For good people when they are dead.
Atal considered this, still combing through Mary’s hair, and purred in her throat when Mary reached out for a claw to groom and return the favour. It is a make-like?
Mary hummed, a noise to signify thought that she had already adopted from hearing the mulefa around her speak, and lifted her arm to curl her fingers in ambivalence. I think now. But some people think it is true. I thought once is true. Did the mulefa ever have this? Or never?
I... do not think so , said Atal. The people who were before we became mulefa may have had such beliefs, but our memory does not stretch that far. Why do you ask? You are so practical! Why would you care for people who are not people?
Mary cuddled a little further into her, her clever hands slipping over Atal’s claws, dextrous fingers digging into the crease between claw and claw-bed to dig out some dirt. I thought I knew the world, when I was young. And then I knew the then-knowing to be false and found a new knowing. But now I am here and there are many worlds! So there are many questions.
So many questions! Mary never seemed to run out of them, and every one changed the shape of Atal’s world in small ways. Atal nestled down a little further, lipping affectionately at Mary’s cheek with her fingers.
This is a good world , Mary murmured, seeming sleepy. Will you tell me one of your stories? A make-like?
And Atal was happy to, so she did.
Before she left, Atal had given Mary a vial of seedpod oil and a small pouch of the precious seeds-- to remember us , she had said, as if Mary could possibly forget. Mary tucked them into the drawer of her bedside table, but it was some weeks before she could take them out without being overwhelmed by melancholy.
Just the smell of the sweet, dusty oil flung her viscerally back into a sense memory of lounging against Atal’s flank under one of the seed-pod trees, her friend’s trunk stroking through her hair, and Mary found herself suddenly breathless with choked tears. Bittersweet, she knew, was not the same as bitter, but she could not help the desperate yearning that came on her sometimes in waves. It made her little flat feel very small and enclosed. More than once since she had returned, she had slept with all the windows flung open, just for the bite of the fresh air and the smell of the morning damp upon awakening.
More important than that, though, once enough time had passed to give consideration to it, was the question of what to do with them. She had brought her spyglass of sap-lacquer back with her as well and found, to her astonishment, that it worked as well in her world as it had in the mulefa’s. She had half thought that it must be something unique to that world-- or some harmony between the world itself and the trees and their oil-- that had let her see the sraf , but no. She spent nearly a whole week beside herself with rapture, looking at all the familiar trappings of her home through the spyglass and seeing them afresh swarming with flakes of bright Shadow particles.
Through the spyglass, Oxford was transformed. Mary felt dizzy just thinking about what a bigger city might look like. If Oxford, with all its quaint 130,000 people, looked like this, what might the effect be in someplace like London? Nevermind London, what about Mumbai, or Beijing? Did age matter? Would older places, imbued with centuries of intention and human effort, attract different behaviour from the Shadow particles? What about monuments like Stonehenge or the Pyramids at Giza-- places not crowded by population, but the focus of centuries of popular thought? The possibilities-- the implications-- were so suddenly huge and thrilling that Ignatius had to give her a little nip to keep her from spiralling off completely. There were practical considerations first.
It had been startlingly easy to explain away her absence. Her colleagues knew that strange people had been looking into her research, that she’d had a visit from Special Branch, and Oliver had been there himself when she’d refused Charles Latrom’s defence money for their research; when the lab was found trashed and Mary vanished, rumours had apparently immediately started flying. That Dr. Malone had poked her nose into some real shit and Someone had retaliated. There had been, by all accounts, some genuinely revolutionary sentiment fomenting among certain sectors of the college, incensed at what appeared to be bald-faced, authoritarian censorship. Mary thought that somewhat ironic, given how many of those same people had previously sneered at her research as being crackpot, dead-end theorising, but she’d take it. All she’d had to do, upon returning, was quietly not deny the rumours.
‘MI5, if you’d believe it. I’m afraid I can’t say much more.’
She let people draw their own conclusions as to what MI5’s involvement might have been, whether they’d been the ones who’d targeted her, or if they’d protected her from some unknown third party. Whatever narrative people settled on, she had a built-in reason not to be able to talk more about it, which she was very grateful for. Her closer colleagues were appalled, and Oliver Payne in particular went quite white when she told him.
‘My god, Mary, I’m so sorry. If I-- was it Latrom? Is he still a concern? I would never have taken him up on his offer if I’d thought for a moment he might be an actual danger , bloody hell . ’
And then, as he had never done once in the years they’d worked together, he actually hugged her, awkward and impulsive and plainly terrified. She hadn’t actually asked, but he had plainly turned down the job in Geneva after she’d gone missing.
‘Oliver, Oliver.’ Gently, she pushed him back. ‘It’s all alright, I promise. He was the one who reached out, after all; it’s not like you went looking for him.’
‘Alright! Dear god, Mary, if you were-- I don’t know, taken on account of my foolishness, my selfishness, all our research destroyed, if we’re being--’
‘Oliver.’ She said it more firmly this time, reaching out to grip his arms and looking him in the eye. ‘We’re not being watched. Latrom-- I don’t know much about it, but I don’t think we’ll be hearing from him again.’
Oliver stared, then took a deep breath, and then nodded. ‘Of course. Good. Right. Still . Christ. I’m just glad you’re alright, that’s all.’
All of which was to say, despite all odds, Mary still had a lab to work in and funding from the university. Being targeted by ambiguously extra-governmental forces seemed to have been quite enough to convince the funding committee that they were onto something worth continued research. The first step on a larger scale was to rebuild the Cave system so they could recompile their body of data, but that had little to do with Mary personally. She was a physicist, not a computer engineer. While that was happening, Mary had to figure out how to bring the revelation of the spyglass into their experiments.
There was no way she could introduce the actual oil and spyglass into any kind of experiment, for a start; they were alien, untraceable, irreplicable. The obvious question, then: were there any local materials that would produce the same effect?
The sap-lacquer had the same polarising properties as Iceland spar, she had noted that back in the mulefa’s world, so that was a place to start. She found some for cheap at one of those new age-y shops that she usually wrinkled her nose at and set about creating a spyglass 2.0 with a bit of PVC pipe and some hot glue. She was unsurprised but nevertheless vindicated to find that it worked just as well as the sap-lacquer spyglass, when smeared with the wheel-tree oil, and she spent another invigorating afternoon just watching the dance and play of the Shadow particles. Even now, so much more familiar with them and how they worked, the sheer marvel of it gave her a zero-g lurch under her diaphragm. That feeling was what had brought her to physics in the first place.
The real question now was what on earth to substitute for the wheel-tree oil? The oil was the key; everything else was just a delivery system, but Mary couldn’t think of anything that might have the same properties.
She’d also got a sample pack of essential oils at the New Age shop when she’d bought the Iceland spar, in the vague hope that one of them might do the trick, so she started there. It was all nonsense, of course, and she felt vaguely embarrassed even trying it, smearing lemongrass or copaiba or tea tree oil over the Iceland spar lenses of her new spyglass. None of them did anything.
After that, she tried every oil in her kitchen. Nothing.
She went to a herbalist and bought everything off the shelf and tried all of it, and none of that worked either.
The frustration was unique, worse than any of the frustrations she’d dealt with in building the first Dark Matter Research Unit, because then, she hadn’t known whether it was possible to succeed, or what she was looking for. Now she knew precisely the effect she was trying to produce, knew that it was possible to do so, but had no apparent option but to throw metaphorical spaghetti at the wall until something stuck.
‘The thing is ’, she said to Ignatius one day, after more long and fruitless experimentation, ‘It has to be something significant , right? That’s why the seedpod oil works, because it’s maybe the most culturally significant thing the mulefa have. It’s at the heart of everything. And it’s related specifically to the development of self-consciousness, which is what Shadows flock to. There’s no equivalent here! If nothing else, we’re just-- too big, there are too many people on Earth, too many different cultures; what could possibly be significant in that way to everyone, everywhere?
Her dæmon made a thoughtful little trill in his throat. ‘I don’t-- I think we’re being too specific, maybe. Obviously there’s nothing like the seedpod oil here because evolution proceeded along a different path. So maybe focussing on adolescence and self-consciousness and all of that is being too myopic.’
‘Probably’, she sighed, letting her head thud back against the wall. She was about ready to give up, but Ignatius pressed on.
‘So what’s something that’s universally culturally significant? Something that would be attractive to shadow particles because humans have imbued it with meaning? A focus of belief, maybe.’
‘Belief!’ Mary scoffed with bitter irony. ‘I don’t know, Ignatius.’ She closed her eyes, tried to access that state of mind so perfectly described by Keats: Capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. ‘I’m trying too hard, I can’t think anymore.’
And there was the fear under it all, the one she had tried to deny even to herself: what if there was no such thing? What if all the truths she had discovered about Shadow particles-- about sraf -- in the mulefa’s world were to be lost here? What if she truly could never share the gasping discovery of their beauty with anyone else? If all the joys of that world were forever to be something only experienced in memory? Mary squeezed her eyes shut tight, but the tears welled up anyway, prickling in her throat and leaking out through her eyelashes.
‘Damnit’, she muttered. Ignatius hopped over, fluttering up onto her knees to butt his head against her face. She breathed deep, cupping her hands around his solid, warm little shape, and they sat like that for a while until the worst of the fear had abated.
She let the spyglass project be for a little while after that, at Ignatius’s suggestion, focussing on Will and his mother, and her work at the college, and other, less intellectual pursuits. She could imagine what Atal might have said, that sometimes it was wiser to wait than to pursue, even for a creature like Mary.
The thought came when she was idly consulting the I Ching one night, something she’d continued to do almost as a kind of meditation. Across the room, Ignatius cocked his head.
‘What about honey?’
Mary blinked, fumbling the yarrow stalks between her fingers. ‘Sorry, say again?’
‘Honey!’ Mary could feel Ignatius’s budding excitement in her own breast. ‘All evidence suggests humans have been gathering honey for as long as we’ve been human at all-- tens of thousands of years; it’s in cave paintings. And it’s--’
‘Yes, yes’, Mary agreed breathlessly. ‘Medicine, religion, food preservation, all sorts of things. A focus of belief, like you said. And there are honeybees everywhere, all over the world; it’s not overly specific.’
Ignatius was out the door before Mary could even get up, and she yelped, laughing as she stumbled off the bed, breathlessly following him to the kitchen. A peculiar calm had fallen over her, despite the pounding of her heart, as she fished the pot of honey out of the cupboard. Too thick on its own, she could see that in a moment, so she dug out a spoonful and mixed it with a little water in a mug before messily spreading it over the panes of crystal that were the lenses of the new spyglass.
The flat lit up with Shadows as soon as she lifted the spyglass to her eye. A little blurry, from the honey, but indisputably there. Mary slumped back against the countertop and slid to the floor, laughing all the while.
There it was. There it was .
She’d start work on the paper tomorrow.
Atal desired Mary, this much was clear, and it was clear also that Mary desired her, not only because she had told Atal as much, but from the way her soft naked skin turned pink and her speech descended into meaningless gestures, the way Atal found her simply gazing at her. The cloud of sraf around her spoke of it too, of wild affection and frustrated, confused desire. It would be rude ordinarily, to read so much into someone’s feelings and intentions from the sraf around them, but with Mary, with whom communication was rarely simple, Atal felt it was acceptable. Often lately she would simply press herself against Atal’s side and make little noises of frustration, laughing helplessly.
Oh, this is strange!
Surpassingly strange, indeed, and for many reasons, but Atal wished to know what it was specifically that Mary found strange so that she might at least try to assuage those tensions. Mary laughed when she asked, and shook her head.
It is-- I am not young, Atal. Yes? It has been many years since I have not known what to do with-- she gestured between the two of them, and Atal smiled.
Sex , she supplied the word, and Mary laughed again.
Sex, yes. I feel like a child again! It is strange. But not bad.
Atal pressed her forehead against Mary’s, shivering a little in pleasure when Mary brought her hands up to span the sides of her trunk, curling curiously around her tusks. It seems wise to me, then, that we should show each other, and... it will be marvellous and new to us both, and we can see how we might come together.
Atal did not know whether she would have dared speak so frankly to anyone else-- though the mulefa were not by nature given to coyness around such matters, she was not so very experienced in the ways of sex and romance herself-- but Mary made it easy. Bluntness was necessary with her, and so the possibility of shyness seemed simply impractical. It would be marvellous, Atal thought, and wanted Mary to know that she thought so.
Mary exhaled a long and quavery breath against the flat plane of Atal’s forehead above her trunk, and pressed her lips there, soft and warm and damp. She was smiling; Atal could feel it against her skin, and she curled her trunk around the back of Mary’s head to comb through her hair. Even just this contact was good, felt to Atal like bathing in sunlight at the height of summer, and she purred in her throat, rubbing her forehead against Mary’s.
I have a place I like to go to be alone , Atal murmured, pulling back just enough to have the use of her trunk in speech. If you would like to go?
Yes , said Mary, curling her hand against Atal’s cheek so that she could feel the response, and Atal couldn’t hold back a soft hoot of delight.
She took Mary to the little copse of trees, all aglow in the height of the afternoon. There were chveh trees with dripping yellow blooms, the fuzz of their leaves haloed in the bright sunlight, and zaf trees with many-fingered leaves so broad they cast green shadows on the ground, and flowering lichens and mosses of a dozen kinds, a scatter of purple and pink and blue over little hummocks and pillows of green. The water of the pond was clear, save for the reeds that grew around its edges, stalks fading red-to-green as they reached up towards the sky, and one could see the tiny golden fish swarming in the shallows. It was altogether a beautiful place, and Mary, riding on her back, gasped.
Yes , Atal agreed.
Is the water safe for swimming? Mary asked when she dismounted.
The first time Mary dove into the river, it was to chase after their precious seedpod stock, scattered by marauding Tualapi, and Atal had been as amazed as everyone else by her heedless courage. Mulefa had never swum, not as far back as their memory stretched. But she had thought then that it was only something done out of necessity, because being without wheels, she had the capacity. It was not until later that Atal learned that Mary swam also for pleasure , and she nearly hadn’t believed it. Now, she waved her trunk in uncertainty.
It is safe enough for drinking-- it is clean, and only small creatures live in it. I should think it would be, but I do not know truly.
That seemed to be enough for Mary, though, for she pressed a kiss to Atal’s cheek and began to undo the fastenings on her upper garment. At once, Atal saw why she must have asked, and there was a swoop under her breastbone. Because Mary’s people covered themselves entirely with their clothes, not merely for ornamentation as did the mulefa, it would be necessary to remove them for sexual intimacy. The swimming was an excuse, or perhaps a middle ground, and Atal warmed all over, flattered and proud. Settling down against a tree, she unhooked her front foot from its wheel and tucked it under herself, watching Mary curiously.
She stripped off her clothes until she was nothing but pink naked skin, so much softer than she seemed all covered up. In clothes, her limbs seemed strange and thin and branching, but now Atal could see how her arms curved where they met the trunk of her body-- muscle on top and soft hanging fat below that gently squished out when she brought her arms down. Her legs too; her thighs were soft and muscular, spilling together at the centre like a long seam down to her knees, and her torso was a series of fascinating curves. Naked, her body made more sense to Atal; she could see how she was made of mostly the same elements as a zalif’s, just arranged differently. She yearned to touch her, to learn what gave her strange body pleasure, and she laughed. Perhaps that was another reason Mary had wanted to swim first: to give Atal a reason to look, and to desire her, and for that desire to build. The sheer delight of the thought, the audacity of it, made Atal want to sing.
Mary waded in delicately at first, and then, once she had determined it suitable, dove headfirst in with her arms pointed before her like a leaping fish. When she surfaced in a spray of bright droplets reflecting the sunlight, she was spluttering and laughing. She lay back in the water, floating as easily and thoughtlessly as a leaf, though Atal could see her limbs moving beneath the surface.
So , Mary called after she had swum for a while, lifting one dripping arm so she might speak, how do mulefa have sex?
Atal laughed. How am I to show you from over here?
Mary swam a little closer to the shore, grinning to show teeth. Where are your-- um-- your sex organs? Start there.
It felt like a game of discovery, and Atal ducked her head, ears pricking in half-shy pleasure. Here , she said, touching at a spot on her chest above the knot of her frontwards hip. The birth organs are further back, if I were to give birth; on my belly in front of my back leg. Where are yours?
Here, Mary said immediately, putting a hand beneath the water where Atal could just see a wavering, distorted image of it cupping between her legs. It is the same place as the birth organs, with my people .
That seems impractical , Atal remarked, and Mary threw back her head and laughed.
Probably! I think some people would probably like it otherwise. She rolled over in the water, as easy and slippery as a fish to Atal’s eye, fixing her with an expression that Atal had learned meant sharp curiosity. If she could be making notes in her little book, she probably would, and Atal laughed again.
Come out of the water; I will show you. I think you have teased me quite enough.
Mary laughed for a long time at that, and Atal saw with fascination that when she turned pink, it travelled all the way down her chest. She raked a hand through her dripping hair, looking down and away and then back at Atal. Ah. Guilty . But she was smiling, and Atal felt a little twist of vindicated pleasure that she had interpreted her actions correctly.
Mary got out of the pond without ceremony, shaking herself dry before padding over to Atal and settling down next to her, warm and wet against Atal’s flank. She was biting her lip, which Atal did not know how to interpret, so she reached out-- curious and only a little hesitant-- and touched a finger to Mary’s mouth. Her lip was soft and a little cold from the water, and Atal felt all the minute creases of it under her fingertip with fascination. Mary’s eyes went wide, and then dark, and then fluttered closed, and she took a deep breath and seemed to relax into the touch.
Ah , Atal thought, like a spark.
She curled the tip of her trunk, drawing her fingers from Mary’s mouth to the strange flat planes of her face: her jaw, her cheekbones, the ridge over her eyes, her oddly small nose. Her skin was so soft, and Atal discovered now that it was not bald as she’d thought; there were fine, fine hairs like the fuzz of a leaf covering it, and Atal made a little noise of delight at the discovery.
When Mary’s eyes opened, they were still dark, and she rubbed her face against Atal’s trunk a little, plainly enjoying the contact. She spoke again after a moment, seeming to reach for her curiosity under the gentle pleasure.
When mulefa have sex, it is chest-to-chest, then?
She touched her own chest, and then the spot Atal had indicated on her own body, the hidden slit there sealed over her shaft, and Atal waved her trunk in agreement. So we can touch , she said, and leant over to press her forehead to Mary’s, bracketing her head in her tusks and rubbing and curling with her trunk, close and warm and intimate. She felt Mary’s breath stutter, and she said something in her own language, though Atal couldn’t tell if it was one word or several. Heat glowed under her breastbone, her shaft thrumming with her pulse, and though she didn’t wish to draw back, she did.
How do humans have sex? Atal was trying to picture it and coming up entirely short; all she could imagine was a confused jumble of limbs. The placement of the sex organs seemed so inconvenient, all the way down there.
Mary ducked her head again, a gentle headbutt against Atal’s side. Ah-- many ways? We are… flexible.
She attempted to describe it to Atal at first with language, and then with gestures of her fingers, forked to represent a human’s two legs, and finally, pink and laughing at the silliness of it all, by pulling out her book and sketching out a few small drawings of human figures. Atal leaned in, taking the images in with fascination, the way they contorted around and even on top of each other.
That seems very… complicated , she said eventually.
It is , Mary agreed, nuzzling into Atal’s side and pressing another kiss there. Even for humans.
Will you show me? What you do when it is just you? All was the catch of anticipation in her chest, the wonder of wanting to see .
And so Mary showed her. Leaning back against Atal’s side, she reached down between her legs to the thatch of dark hair there and with her clever, nimble fingers she rubbed and circled and pinched and curled until she was pinker than Atal had yet seen her, head thrown back and gasping for breath. One of her legs jerked up as she did something unseen with her fingers, and Mary craned back to try and catch Atal’s gaze, her mouth open and eyes unfocussed.
Touch? Please? My chest. Feels good.
Gladly Atal did as she was bid, stroking and caressing and gripping over the soft folds of Mary’s belly, the roundness of what must be teats, touching and touching and touching until Mary sucked in a sharp breath and convulsed against her, making one sharp noise and then falling into silence.
There was so much about Mary that Atal was amazed by; this was no different.
Once Mary’s chest had stopped heaving, her pulse, tangible against Atal’s skin, slowed, she rolled onto her side and put a hand on Atal’s breast. Show me? You are wonderful. Please, show me.
Her Yalife, which was so improved from even weeks past, seemed to have shrunk only to the most necessary words, and Atal was wildly charmed. She shifted around a little on the spot, ever a little clumsy without her wheels, and drew Mary in close, pressing their heads together and reaching down to touch herself. She was so stirred already that it did not take much before her shaft unfolded from its slit, aching pleasurably as it came to rest against Mary’s chest.
Oh! Mary drew back for a moment in seeming surprise, but it did not occur to Atal for a moment to fear that it was a bad reaction. And indeed, a moment later Mary looked up at her all alight with her expression of fascinated curiosity. With mulefa-- it is the female whose organs are outside? It is the opposite in humans. Mostly. Her expression creased, and then she seemed to wave a thought away, shaking her head. Too complicated.
Even as she spoke, her hands went to explore Atal’s shaft, stroking and curling around it in curiosity. Her palms were warm and her fingers rough, and Atal shuddered a little, drawing in a quavering breath. Of course. If I were trying to conceive a child, I would fuck into my partner and draw out his seed. But when it is not for conception--
Fascinating , Mary breathed, and then pressed forward again, as close to Atal as she could get with her hands still between them, relentlessly exploring, building the heat in Atal’s chest until she could no longer keep her eyes open. Show me?
And so Atal curled her own two fingers around her shaft, pressing and squeezing until the whole sunny afternoon narrowed to that sensation, and the sensation of Mary’s hands curling around the base of her tusks, stroking the base of her trunk, reaching up to caress her ears, warm and close and here, perfectly here. Mary kept murmuring breathless things in her own language, so rapt that she forgot about Yalife altogether, and Atal laughed through the noise of her own grunts and harsh breaths. When she came, her shaft slipping sharply back inside herself, it was in a warm tingling wave that radiated out from her chest like sweetgrass clocks in the wind, tingling all the way down to her claws and the tip of her trunk.
Mary held her for some time after that, pressing kisses all over her face and murmuring words of fascination and praise. She remembered to speak in Yalife this time, and Atal gave her an affectionate squeeze.
I would very much like to do that again , she said, once she had regained the sense of her limbs.
Yes! Mary said. Yes, yes .
Sraf was swimming around them both now, lighting them up in great thrilling loops as they settled back into speech, flakes of light that meant all sorts of things. They felt like the sunlight.
They tried other things in the coming weeks, some of which worked better than others. Mary showed Atal how to touch her with her trunk, which was immensely satisfying. One night Mary tried to wrap her legs around Atal’s neck so that she might fuck her, which was technically successful but mostly resulted in both of them laughing and losing their hold on each other and Mary bumping her head against a tree. Atal grew to love Mary’s body as well as the rest of her, soft and strange and skilful. Often they would doze afterwards, curled around each other under the open sky, Atal idly playing with Mary’s hair until she fell into contented sleep.
As soon as it occurred to her to want it, there was a part of Mary that stridently insisted that the very idea of her going out dancing was absurd. She was very glad that that part of her was not, apparently, Ignatius, so she at least didn’t have to suffer the indignity of hearing it all out loud.
Though she’d gone to the occasional disco with friends as a schoolgirl, she had been primarily far too concerned with being good to dare much more than that. While her friends had giggled and dared each other into short skirts and trendy pale lipstick, Mary had hung back, desperately intrigued but certain she was doing something wrong. In her twenties, of course, she’d been both a nun and a graduate student, too pious and too serious for something so frivolous, and too busy , what’s more. Even once she’d left the convent, left the Church, she’d thought of herself as a somewhat awkward, dumpy physical presence-- chubby in a way that meant plain rather than excitingly curvy, and more comfortable in practical jeans and trainers than in frocks or heels. Clubs were for more glamorous, younger creatures than Mary; and besides, what was she hoping to find there? Not a hook-up, certainly. She wouldn’t know what to do with one if she found it. She had plenty of pleasures and places to meet the sort of people she liked to spend time with; any opportunity she’d had to be the sort of person who went out dancing was long in the past.
And yet now, she found that she wanted to. She had felt so at home in her body in the mulefa’s world, had acquainted-- or reaquainted?-- herself with so many little physical pleasures that she now found herself missing them, chafing at the deprivation of city life for an academic. There were climbing walls over at the Sport Centre at Oxford Brookes that she’d taken back up going to, but that only scratched one itch.
The fact of the matter was that she missed feeling sensual. She had felt sensual with Atal, as if she had waded into a warm sea and every moment was the awareness of gentle currents against her skin. The novelty of Atal’s body had meant that being sexual with her was wholly about figuring out what felt good , since they couldn’t do things in what would have been the typical way for either of them. It had been absurd, of course, the way the best sex was in her experience, but Mary had felt free there, with Atal, in a way that had been really rooted in that kind of confident sensuality.
She was under no illusions that a club would offer a one-to-one equivalent, but she hoped it might offer something. Who’s to say she couldn’t be the sort of person who went out dancing, after all.
Later that night, against all odds, Mary was remembering the sensation she’d had at the top of her wheel-tree, lapped in the world around her, lulled and nurtured. It was something simultaneously deeply peaceful whilst also being joyously, vitally invigorating: a groundedness in her own body and the things it could perceive, what a gift that was. As she had often done then, she closed her eyes, but now she lifted her arms above her head and stretched her neck back and allowed herself to feel . The humidity of the air, the sweat prickling the hairs on her arms, the thud of the music against her skin, the scents of fruity alcohol and cologne and bodily exertion, the occasional bump and brush against other dancers and the sweet little burst of knowledge that they were, perhaps, experiencing the same thing.
In almost every way, the club was the polar opposite of the peaceful savannahs of the mulefa’s world. Mary, in a dressy top and a decent pair of jeans, the barest dab of the wheel-tree oil worn like perfume so she’d be able to smell it, existed in a strange, solitary bubble as she danced through the sweaty, pounding darkness. Groups of people yelled and laughed to each other, too-loud to be heard over the thudding bass, and everything seemed even more synthetic than it was in the strobing neons. And yet, it was its own kind of ecosystem; there was a peace, a silence once you pushed through all the noise. And no-one was looking askance at Mary, wondering what this unglamorous middle-aged woman was doing here. As she had been an alien who had found home in the mulefa’s world, so she might be here.
Ignatius, unseen by all but Mary, was perched above the bar, watching her amongst the crowd, and Mary felt his affection and satisfaction, though never without that edge of wryness. How ridiculous this was! And yet neither of them cared.
She danced until it was hard to catch her breath, and then she retired over to the bar, breathing hard and feeling pleasantly giddy. She ordered a beer to cool down, and then leaned back and breathed deep. Through Ignatius, she was suddenly aware of the other people lounging at the bar; she wasn’t the only middle-aged person here. There were other men and women, handsome but unintimidating now that she didn’t feel that she was somehow intruding in this space, and Mary let that information settle into knowledge.
She wasn’t here to meet someone, not tonight, but the awareness felt like potential. Maybe some other night. Maybe the idea wasn’t absurd, that Dr. Mary Malone should wish to feel sensual, to flirt, to dance, to explore that particular kind of joyful absurdity. She smiled and took another drink of her beer, cold glass sweating against her palm, and Ignatius alit from his perch to do a brief circuit amongst the trusses over the dance floor.
For the first time in three hundred years, the sraf was falling as it was meant to, and it was as if the whole world had suddenly started breathing again.
There was not a zalif still living in Unat or any of the other villages so old that they had been in the world before that time, not even those with more than two hundred years. Even they had only the stories, and Atal discovered now that even all the memory of the people that had been passed down was nothing to the feeling of the world as it ought to be.
Her mother wept with joy the day after all the strangers had left, when it was only them and the sudden truth of the renewal of the world, with her head pressed against Atal’s and their trunks entwined.
I did not think that I would see this day. Whether it would even come! Even after your Mary discovered the current in the sky and we knew why the trees were dying, how could anything be changed? And now!
She breathed a great shuddering breath, tusks sliding softly against the side of Atal’s face, warm, smelling of hay and flowers and mother , a smell that meant comfort even now.
Any children you bear, my daughter, will be the children of a free world! That dread, at least, they will not know, and I am so, so glad of it.
No response was needed, not really, and so Atal and ǂtun held each other and wept for gladness, for the trees, and the children who might be, and for Atal herself, who was yet young and had never known a world without the dread underlying it that things were quietly, privately falling apart.
Now, things were coming together at last. And that meant that the business of tending to the wheel-trees was no longer simply about preservation, but propagation and care. Groves that had been gradually reduced to a few remaining trees could be restored. There was work to be done, and Atal volunteered at once to be among those to do it.
They had hardly dared prune any errant stalk or stem before, lest any sprouting seed be lost, but now they learned again how to trim back a twinned trunk growing in, how to prune low-hanging branches so that the tree might devote all its energy to the flowering limbs far up. Atal thought briefly and wistfully of Mary, who had been able to climb all the way up into the canopy. What care might she might have been able to do, up where no zalif could reach! But the idea of climbing was out of the question; not even a child without wheels could manage that, and so Atal set the thought aside.
They ground up the carcasses of slaughtered grazers, bones and marrow and all, to use as rich, nutritious fertiliser. They mixed the bloody mash with dry grazer dung and laid the lot out in the sun until it turned to powder, which was then scooped up into bags, ready to be mixed into the soil at the roots of any faltering trees.
They planted seeds from their precious store. Where before, perhaps a few in a dozen might germinate, they now saw dozens of little green tendrils unfurling from the dark soil. The little shoots were tender under the careful touch of Atal’s fingers, bursting with delicate life. They grew into saplings surprisingly soon, and those had to be tended with the utmost attention; they needed water in plenty before they put down their roots, and some required stakes to help them grow straight and neither list nor lean. But grow straight they did, and Atal and her companions saw with full hearts how they flourished, taproots delving deep and little filaments spreading out, one day to grow into the great buttresses as tall as a zalif.
It was hard labour, sweating under the sun as they dug and tilled, hauling bags of fertiliser and skins of water along the roadways, but it was sweet still. The muscles in Atal’s legs and trunk and neck ached after the long days, but she was glad of it. The work was worthy, was necessary , and it made Atal think of the future. Most of these trees would be scarcely grown within her lifetime, and that felt wonderful.
The first saplings would not flower for some years yet, but Atal could see where they would when their time came, the little crook between stems where a bud would one day burst and unfurl into a little white flower, upturned to the sky. That made her think of Mary too, and the strange children, Will and Lyra, and she sighed, giving the young tree a little caress.
Chifil, who was another one of those who had given himself to tending the new trees, glanced at her, and then wheeled softly over.
She gave us much , he said without preamble, but I think this is her greatest gift .
Atal laughed a little wistfully. She would say that the gift was not hers.
Chifil gave a snort and a huff, brushing his trunk to the side in stubborn, but good-humoured dismissiveness. That may well be, but she is not here, and I will give credit where I see it due.
That made Mary laugh outright, which was no doubt Chifil’s intention, and she reached over and gave him a gentle cuff with one of her lateral legs. He flicked his ear at her.
You and she will be in stories one day, you know. The mulefa of generations hence will tell tales of the stranger Mary and the brave and knowing zalif Atal who took her in and taught her all she needed to save the world. And what would you say to that?
It was not a thing that had occurred to Atal’s thoughts before this moment, and it drew her up short, realising that he was in all likelihood correct. She imagined she could see the ancient thread of the people’s long memory stretching out before her into some far distant future and how this moment, her life, might look to those people. She shook her head. It was not a bad thought. It was surpassingly strange, a kind of pleasurable embarrassment, but altogether more than Atal knew what to do with just yet. So she flicked her trunk back at him.
I will not be there, so those mulefa may give credit where they see it due .
And Chifil laughed, and went back to gathering up their tools for the ride home.
Mary sat on her bed some days after she had returned to her own world, and spread out the little silk cloth on which she consulted the I Ching. Will had been restored to his own house once they’d fetched his mother and Mary was assured that they would be alright on their own, at least for a few days, and so now she was alone in her flat, just she and her newly-manifested dæmon.
The solitude of the flat had itched at her, her heart aching for the easy community of the mulefa, the warmth and affection of Atal to curl up next to at night, and not knowing what else to do, she pulled out the Book of Changes and the little bundle of yarrow stalks. It felt almost embarrassing to do so now that she’d returned to her world, as if she should discard all the trappings of mysticism she’d inadvertently opened herself up to and return solely to the realm of empiricism, and yet.
And yet. She had seen Shadow particles, had spoken to them, had spoken to Will and to Serafina Pekkala, both of whom had met angels, creatures of pure Shadows, pure consciousness. She was a scientist; it was not in her nature to deny things she knew to be true, even if they felt like they couldn’t be. How could she possibly return to the way she had been before?
She was broken-hearted too, she could admit that. Having to leave Atal had struck somewhere deep inside that the endings of none of her other relationships had. Those had all ended very sensibly, very adultly, having come to a natural conclusion of some sort of another. With Atal-- they had been newly in the flush of infatuation, of excitement, a kind of young love that Mary had not felt in years when she had had to say goodbye. And even though she knew there had been no choice in the matter, she was heartsick with missing her.
So if the I Ching could provide some comfort, some assurance that she had made the right choice, what was the harm in that?
She breathed deeply, sorting the yarrow stalks into a little bundle and beginning to count them out, setting aside groups of four one by one and tucking stalks between her fingers, jotting down the lines as she went. First, second, third, and so on. The lengthiness of casting an I Ching reading was one of the things she’d always liked about it; it was hard to get to the end without having settled into some kind of calm.
Once she’d cast all six lines, she pulled the Book of Changes into her lap, squinting a little in the low light as she flipped through to find the hexagram she’d ended up at. Return , she read, The Turning Point . She exhaled wryly.
‘Well, that’s appropriate.’
Tracing her finger down the page, she read aloud,
Going out and coming in without error.
Friends come without blame.
To and Fro goes the way.
On the seventh day comes return.
It furthers one to have somewhere to go.’
Knowing now that the I Ching was a method of speaking to actual, conscious beings, Mary felt rather as if there was a certain amount of sarcasm in the hexagram she’d cast, like she was being chided for asking a question she already knew the answer to. Her Alpine chough dæmon, perched on the footboard of the bed, gave a little cheep, and Mary read on to the image.
‘Thunder within the earth:
The image of The Turning Point.
Thus the kings of antiquity closed the passes
At the time of solstice.
Merchants and strangers did not go about,
And the ruler
Did not travel through the provinces.
‘Oh, go on!’ she laughed, almost affronted. The Book of Changes was characteristically enigmatic and opaque, but that could hardly be clearer.
She read on further, for the book had much to say by way of interpretation and commentary by different scholars, different readings specified depending on which lines one had marked in one’s hexagram, but it was scarcely necessary.
‘Thank you’, she murmured, gathering the stalks back up into their case. She was thinking of the current of sraf that had nearly swept her out of her body and out to sea, that night up in the trees, and how grateful she had felt to it when it had responded to her distress and her desire to be back in her body. Shadows had responded to her then, and so now, giving her what she needed. A return meant a renewal, even if it was an act of self-mastery. A return meant the arising of a new way of things, a rebirth. Mary certainly hoped so.
She kept the Book of Changes and the little bundle of silk next to her bed that night, and slept much more soundly than she might have feared.
The day the zalif Atal first saw the stranger Mary Malone was a day much like any day in the past three hundred years. The world was wide and golden, pale sky and the breath of the high afternoon caught above the dust kicked up by the wheels of the group on their way back from minding one of the far herds of grazers, on their way to another. Milk sloshed in the jugs slung over their backs, and all was well save for all that was not, and Atal leaned into the fierce speed of their travel, the cool wind against the high sun, taking this joy where she might. They had stopped to tend to the Favgelt herd when Chifil noticed a fallen seedpod lying curiously out in the open instead of under the stand of wheel-trees where it ought to have fallen.
It was immediately evident that something had been changed about the seedpod-- it had a smell about it that neither Atal nor any of the others recognised, and it shimmered with sraf in a way it would not have had it simply fallen from the tree. Someone had picked this seed up, had paid attention to it; the sraf told that clearly. But neither Atal nor Chifil nor any of the others could recall anything like this in all the memory of the people.
The voice from the grove had come as a shock such as Atal had not had since she was young and all the world was strange and wondrous. Her head snapped around, ears pricking in alarm. It was a sound like nothing she had ever heard before-- indeed unrecognisable even as a voice until the creature it belonged to stepped out from the roots. As the sound was like nothing Atal had ever heard, so the creature was unlike anything she had ever seen; a creature built like a fleshy tree with a central trunk and strangely bent limbs branching out from the centre, uncanny and horrible to look at.
What is that?
Is it… speaking?
Is that what tampered with the seedpod?
The murmur rose all around her, and Atal curled her trunk under before flicking it to the side: It can’t be from here.
There was nothing like this creature in their memory either, and something in Atal thrilled at that; this was something new, something no zalif had ever seen or known. What was more, it became apparent after several-several heartbeats of staring that it was not a creature at all; intentional currents of sraf illuminated the shape as they did any adult mulefa. As incomprehensible and grotesque as the shape was, the motes of sraf drifting about it spoke of a piercing curiosity, of a personality that was analytical and kind and determined. This was a person.
The murmur crested around Atal again, shock as the other mulefa reached the same conclusion.
What does this mean?
What did it mean? What could it possibly mean, this alien person unlike anything in thirty-three thousand years of memory? Everything was well with the world save for all that was not, and now an alien stranger had walked out of the woods, awash with the golden beauty of sraf. Atal found that her heart was beating fast. She was not afraid, not of someone to whom sraf reacted in such a way-- she was excited. The person was walking across the grass towards them now, bizarre limbs held up in front of them, and Atal glanced at Chifil next to her. He twisted his trunk; if she had a wish, that was on her.
Atal wheeled forward a pace or two and held out her trunk to the stranger.