What happened the Pied Piper after Hamelin? Where did he come from in the first place?
|Word Count: 8692
He was very old. He remembered it as he walked to the pool, crouched, and let himself start to think.
Odd, very odd, and very difficult, because there was no one desire that he could put his finger on. He had desired roses once, yellow ones. At the age of twelve, he’d made the rosebush in his foster-mother’s house blossom at midnight in the middle of winter. This had given the tree a shock that it did not get over for five years, the people in the village had talked of drowning him like a puppy. Magic did that to people, made them afraid. It had been foolish to do it, and bad for the rose bush.
Still, he did not think that the incident with the rose bush made him worthy of being drowned. Nor did he think the village justified when, upon finding that he apparently couldn’t drown even after an hour under water, it decided to try hanging him. He’d let them try, fairly sure that when suffocation of one type didn’t work, its twin wouldn’t work, either.
He’d felt bad for his foster mother, but then she had only taken him in because when she had found him, one of the first things he’d done had been to call some dinner. She had investigated and found that his talents included calling gold pieces, and had thus been a very rich woman when he’d finally left the village, with the broken noose still around his neck. He looked back at her memory with a mild sort of affection and had gone to her funeral. Nobody had recognized him. Funny, to think of her now.
He hadn’t thought of people in a long time, just mountains and sky and things within his own heart, good enough things to sit and try to puzzle out. He’d tried understanding this thing that was within him, as well, this bounding and pulsing and masterful magic, but that as always was beyond him. Whatever it was, it was something that had come to him without the asking, and if it ever left, its leaving would be just as sudden and complete. He couldn’t remember a time when it had not been there, close as breath and blood, close as the tan skin that moved over the bones in his face. He couldn’t really understand people that didn’t have it, and he knew that he didn’t understand them and so he made allowances. For instance, there was the noose.
It had been supplemented in various towns by stonings, swords, pistols, and stakes with firewood and fuel. He had objected to the stake. He didn’t like fire, didn’t like the smell of it or what it did to things. He didn’t know if he was fireproof or not, but he didn’t want to find out. The stones hadn’t hurt that much, and he ran like a jackrabbit when he wanted to. He knew he was going to die someday, he just didn’t want it to be under a pile of rocks outside some squalid village. They seemed to get upset with him for making their chickens fatter or for mending holes in their roof with a word and a gesture. His usefulness was undeniable, but since he didn’t understand them he had to make allowances.
The other thing he didn’t understand (to him there were only two) was the big grizzly bear who lived in the cave at the base of the mountain. The bear was an old warrior, full of years, battles, and scars, and it was a bear of the old creed that said that all humans were to be hated and killed. It was the only animal that he had not been able to stalk and watch, the only animal that had tried to kill him after he’d sung his gentle hex to it. There were reasons that no people came into his mountains. The animals were bewitched, and went about their business unlike other animals. Except for that old bear, which he didn’t understand.
He thought the bear was probably ordained to kill him. Just at that moment he and
the bear were at a wary truce. The last time he’d seen the bear lying in wait for murder, and warbled a song that had buzzed in the bear’s ears for seven days. He thought bear had likely wakened from the spell confused and hungry, and had gone hunting other things. It hadn’t bothered him since, though he sometimes felt it moving around the edges of his perception.
Long ago he had decided that the magic was not a piece of him, but something of its own that would come and go as it pleased. So far it had not pleased to leave him— so far he had not died. He believed that the two things were connected. The idea recurred to him as he gazed down at his own reflection, but it passed as easily as it had arisen. He did not particularly care about the source of his long life. At the moment he cared about looking at his face, and figuring out if it was the same one that he remembered. A good face, with the nose set squarely in the middle, with everything, so far as he recalled human faces, where it was supposed to be.
There was another face in the pool.
Not the face of a deer, come to drink, or of a rabbit or bird or any other animal that he would have charmed and sat to learn from. It was an animal that he’d never seen before, and upon looking up found himself gravely regarded by a pair of violet eyes. He’d never happened to see violet eyes before and the rareness of novelty in his life might have been what held him standing there, against the impulse to simply bolt.
“Hello,” she said.
He did not answer, taking the sound as he did the stamping and snorting of a doe startled out of her bed on the matted grass. She looked very like a human, but also very different from his recollection of the way humans were. He stood very still and watched her out of the corner of his eye. She was wearing something beside her skin that was not the skin of an animal, which made him glad that he had dressed today and which was puzzling. Her garment was white, and snugged close to her from her shoulders down to her shins, with some sort of black things on her legs and feet. Her skin was the color of the palest creamy tips of a bear’s claws, when they are old and polished in a necklace, and her eyes were the color of the sky when it was neither day nor night. Her hair was the strangest thing, being a color that he could not describe because he had never seen molasses candy.
“What is your name?” she said. This was an overture of some kind and required a response. He could sense that much logically; he could sense a lot more about her in a heady, giddy sort of way that was like smelling too many good smells at once. He knew things about her in a rush, knew what she liked to eat and that she was lost, that her people were looking for her and that she was more than a little afraid of him. That she didn’t understand, yet, who she was looking at. “My name is Nuala O’Rourke,” she continued, determined. “Fionnuala, really, but all my friends call me Nuala. Are you a hunter?”
A probable enough conjecture, given his clothes, and he should turn and run now, and leave her to wander and assume that some rude hunter had left her stranded. Her people would find her sooner or later. They always did, when it was one of their own that was lost. And anyway it would be exceedingly difficult to explain to her people, should they arrive, who and what he was.
He took a step backward because she took a step forward.
“Sir?” said the Nuala-thing. “Are you all right?”
Instead of turning and running, he took another step backward, and found himself without warning somersaulting down the hill that he’d climbed so many thousands of times. And while he knew that the fall wouldn’t kill him, he could see the Nuala-thing running like a bird after him, and began to resign himself to a sharp crack on the head and probably unconsciousness. The rock that he remembered was there, and the crack it gave his skull was everything he’d anticipated.
He could smell wood smoke, and his first thought was of the last great forest fire that he’d seen. Somehow fire had always bothered him, though it was occasionally necessary to survive when you didn’t have a coat like the old bear to protect you from the cold. He’d fled from the forest fire, with the same dogged, senseless instinct that the animals had fled. He didn’t like the smell of smoke, and he opened his eyes warily, wondering if the Nuala-thing had decided to try to burn him.
No. She was sitting on her heels beside a small fire, with her hands stretched out to the warmth. They were not at the foot of the hill where he’d cracked his head, so she must have dragged him somewhere. It was a lot for someone that dainty to accomplish. Now that he could look at her closer, he could see that what he had taken at first to be one garment was really two, a white wool jacket and a skirt, over an emerald-green shirt. Blouse. Whatever it was that women called those things, these days. He hadn’t seen a woman since he’d started walking in these woods, and he didn’t remember how they talked. They had certainly dressed differently last time he’d seen one. This particular woman was wearing some very nonsensical-looking things on her feet, with heels and a lot of buttons and laces. She had also apparently made some attempt to twist her hair together at the nape of her neck, which was more or less unsuccessful. She wasn’t wearing any fur and had no weapons. He thought she was probably freezing.
At that moment her eyes flicked over to him.
“I was worried that you were seriously hurt, sir,” she said. “I hope you don’t mind. I pulled you to a spot where I thought we should be more sheltered from the elements. I apologize for seeming forward, but my father and I are on our way to the Klondike and somehow he and I seem to have been separated. I might have wandered these woods for days without meeting another person. It’s actually rather remarkable that I managed to find you. You never introduced yourself.” Here she paused.
Fine. All very interesting, but what was he supposed to do about it? He wasn’t even sure what a Klondike was. He had his own names for places, when he felt a place deserved a name, and anyway he didn’t walk as far anymore as he once had. He knew she wanted something from him. He could see her getting a little disconcerted when he didn’t move, and his gray eyes stayed steady on her. A long time with animals will teach patience. It will also teach you that a steadily maintained gaze is a threat. She glanced away.
“What is your name?” she said. He still didn’t speak or move. She turned around. “Look, I am not accustomed to gentlemen remaining utterly silent in my presence,” she said. “If there is some physical matter that prevents you from speaking, at least make some sign to signify that you cannot talk. I need your help, and I must invent some way of communicating with you.”
He began to think that she still might not know who he was. It was just possible that the talk about him had died out, or that she had never happened to hear it. He had a passing moment of doubt as to whether his voice still remembered how to speak. It had been so long since he’d spoken. Sure, he’d sung, but that was different somehow. This was a most rare thing in his life. It was a third thing that he didn’t understand, because she wasn’t like the other humans he remembered. He reflected ruefully that his accent might be difficult to explain, but she didn’t seem flustered by anything else about him.
“My name is Dylan,” he said, aware that his words lilted and hoping he wasn’t hexing her. “Dylan Cernach.”
“Oh,” she said. “Irish name?”
“I suppose,” he said. He hadn’t asked for the name. It had just attached itself to him. Long ago, back in the village, they had begun believing that he was attached to Conall Cernach. He hadn’t argued. He’d always been able to sing to animals, and plants and trees. Not that he thought he was Cernach himself, but the connection was not an absurd one.
“Fancy meeting an Irishman out in the middle of nowhere,” said Nuala. “My people are Irish. Gets awkward sometimes. You know how people can be. They assume all Irish are either policemen or horse traders. My father owns hotels and saloons.”
Pubs, his mind corrected her. He remembered that much.
“I don’t know how much I can help you,” he said. “I’m not even sure where Klondike is.”
“I thought it was the one place in Alaska that everyone would know,” said Nuala.
Sing to her, he thought abruptly. This much conversation was tiring, not to mention a little alarming. Sing to her, sing her to sleep, sing her back the way she came, sing the memory of himself out of her mind.
“Perhaps if you described it,” he said, and heard himself saying, to his dismay.
So she took a stick and drew a map in the dirt, tapping on the place where she and her father had stopped to light a campfire and make tea on their way up the river.
“I didn’t go very far,” she said. “Just to find some sticks for the fire. My father hasn’t been too well. We thought the northern climate would help his cough, and he thought that the miners would require a hotel and a place to drink liquor. I came with him because he needs someone to look after him, and because I believe a lady can remain a lady in any situation.”
Some kind of a warning, he thought. Much like getting spit at by a bluejay. What did she think he was going to do to her? He rubbed the back of his head, where the bruise from the fall was, and looked off at the horizon. The sun was sinking toward its rest, and he still had this woman to deal with.
“What do you want me to do?” he said, still looking at the sunset.
“Take me back to the trail,” said Nuala. “Over the pass, if possible, or even all the way up to the gold fields. I’m sure Father would move on. That’s what we agreed to do if we ever got separated.” He didn’t answer right away, staring perplexedly down at the map she’d drawn in the dirt, and she added: “We’d pay you, of course. My father will have quite a bit of money when we get to the gold fields.”
This was to him the least interesting part of the proposition. For a brief time before he’d taken up walking he had been engaged in sailing Templar vessels to and from a place where men sent their sons to fight. He had forgotten the name, but he remembered the treasure that had been in his vessel. It had been easy to be the best ship on the route. When you can sing to your crew about everything they’ve ever wanted, they will serve you in the teeth of a storm or under the flag of any pirate. He’d kept them for a while, until he was satisfied with the money he’d amassed, and then he’d let them go. They had been confused, and would have followed him as he walked, had he not slipped into shadows and left them among their own kind. A great deal of money had been made with the ship, though he’d left most of it for the crew, taking only what he could carry. Money was heavy stuff. It had created problems for him in other times and other places. Just after he’d left the ship he’d walked, and then there had been the German village...
“I’ll take you,” he said. “You don’t have to pay me, though.”
“I insist,” she said. “It wouldn’t be right, otherwise.” He watched her for a moment, trying to see her heart in her eyes.
“Don’t promise unless you mean it,” he said.
“My father will be most grateful to have his daughter back, alive and unharmed,” she said, laying stress on the “unharmed” part. “I’m sure he will make you a just compensation.”
“As you wish, then,” he said, something like a smile sitting on his lips.
“May I ask you something?” said Nuala. He waited, and after a moment she continued. “You’re not crazy, are you?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, look at you.” He did. “Look at your clothes,” she said. “They’re entirely comprised of buckskin and furs. Your hair is such a strange color—so blond it’s almost white. And you’re tanned so dark that at first I thought you might be an elderly Indian.” He stopped looking at himself and looked back at her instead. He found it charming the way the blush crept up her cheek and settled across the bridge of her nose. “Of course, you’re not,” she said. “I don’t know why you’re out here all by yourself. You’re probably quite sane, I suppose; you haven’t been trying to attack me or gibbering or anything. But you must be the only white man in the world who hasn’t heard of the Klondike gold rush.”
“Probably,” he said, and it was a full smile by now.
“I suppose we’ll be starting in the morning,” said Nuala. “Do you have a residence near here or someplace you sleep, or will we be sleeping in the open?”
Residence, he thought. She must mean a den, or something like that. He had several here and there around the valley, but on a night like this he would normally sleep outside.
“We have a campfire,” he said. “I’ll find some fish.”
With that, aching head or not, he rose to his feet and merged easily with the trees.
“I’m not used to having men choose fish over my company, sir!” she said, but to his relief she didn’t follow him.
He had actually been choosing solitude. As he lay on his belly beside the creek, watching the silver bodies of the fish flicker under the water, he tried to sort out what had just happened. After spending years in silence, things had seemed very clear. He’d thought that meant he was closer to understanding. Now he was wondering uneasily if it only meant he had avoided all his problems.
His hand jabbed into the water and came out with a fish, which he flipped up onto the bank. He guarded it with a kind of lazy alertness until it smothered, and then watched the fish again, who had come back to the place where the bugs were in callous disregard for their fallen comrade. He caught four more fish before they stopped coming back, gutted them, strung them on a stick, and then turned back toward the fire and Nuala. He took three steps before he stopped, thinking about whether or not he really wanted to go back to her, to the fire. To his surprise, he found that he wanted a little more conversation. Like sugar, it had not come up much in his life lately.
He saw her sitting primly by the fire when he appeared again, poking it with a stick. It did not occur to him to greet her. She watched in silence as he spitted and roasted the fish. When two of them were done, he gave her one and began to eat the other, including the eyes and head. He watched as she peeled the skin back, using the tips of her fingers, her nose wrinkled. He almost laughed, and put his eyes back down on his food.
“So,” she said. “What do you do out here? Are you a trapper?”
“I live out here,” he said.
“Yes, but why?” she said. “I hope not because you’re wanted. By the law, I mean.”
“Because I didn’t want to live anywhere else,” he said. “I don’t get along with people very well. That is, I get along, but they don’t.”
“For instance, what wouldn’t they get along with?” she asked. He still didn’t look up from his fish. He’d been alone too long, had forgotten which things were invasive and which weren’t. He had never understood easy conversation very well, and for all he knew this was a common line of questioning, along with books and the weather.
“After a while,” he said, “they would usually say I was a witch.”
“What?” she said.
“A witch,” he said. “You know, someone who does magic and has cats and rides around on brooms, someone who has converse with the devil.”
“Why would they say that?” said Nuala. “You may have a slightly intimidating appearance, but you don’t look evil.”
“They thought I did magic,” he said, without any apparent consciousness of the words seeming strange.
“Oh,” said Nuala. There was something in her voice that finally made him look up. She was looking at him, reminding him again of a doe deer. Finally, she said: “Did you?”
“Yes,” he said, wiping some fish scales off his fingers onto the leg of his pants. He was holding himself carefully, hoping she wouldn’t run away. There was something in him that he scarcely recognized. For a moment, he thought he smelled roses.
“Well,” she said, “you’re not a witch, anyway, because you’re a gentleman. You’d be a warlock, I suppose, or maybe you prefer wizard or sorcerer or shaman or...” she trailed off.
“Druid?” he said. He was still watching her, his head cocked to one side, trying to listen to her better. “I don’t know,” he said. “I was never able to categorize myself. But I think mostly I’m a bard, or whatever you call a bard who doesn’t sing to people anymore.”
“What do you sing to, then?” she said. He stared at her for a second before he answered. He had never been asked the question before.
“Everything,” he said. “The trees. The animals. I sing to them about what they want and they tell me their secrets.”
“Animals and trees have secrets?” said Nuala. The firelight soared to life suddenly as the flame hit a pool of pine tar, and reminded him of the food. He lifted the fish off the fire and put them on a stone to cool.
“And rocks and mountains and rivers,” he said. “They all have secrets. They all tell me, if I sing to them about what they want.”
“But you don’t sing to people,” said Nuala. He shook his head.
“It’s too difficult to know what people want,” he said. “Animals all want simple things. Food and warmth and a mate. Men get caught up in things that are too complicated for me. They’ll sacrifice food and warmth and wife for money, or power, or something else that nobody could ever touch or smell or eat. I don’t understand people.”
“Me either,” she said, and she was staring at the fire, and no longer at him. It was the first time in his life that someone had identified with him, and it gave him a cold jolt in the center of his chest. “We had a good hotel back in Chicago,” she said, picking up a little bit of twig and throwing it into the center of the flames. “Why did we have to come all the way out here? Cold climate. It got to twenty-six below in Chicago just last winter. He didn’t want to come out here because of the cold climate. I don’t know why Father wanted to come out here, but it wasn’t because of the cold climate.” She sighed, looked up at him. “Is your name really Dylan?” she said. “That’s Welsh, isn’t it? I thought you said you were Irish.”
How to explain that the monks who had named him had simply given him the most accurate names that they knew? He had been told the story many times, while scrubbing the floor of the little stone hut that served as a kitchen, while weeding the garden. How to explain about the little boat that had wrecked on the shores of the island, with nothing in it but a pregnant girl?
His mother, he thought, with a little more of that same jolt. It had been a long time since he’d remembered he’d had a mother. The monks on the island had done the best that they knew how, had fed her and tried to ease her fever. She had delivered her baby and died, and the fathers had given her last rites and a Christian burial.
The monks had raised him until he reached a rebellious three years old, at which point they rowed him across to the fishing village and had arranged for his care with his foster-mother, with stern injunctions for her to return him when he was twelve and of an age to take vows. The monks had seen his ability to sing to things, to call things, but they had kept quiet about it. Gifts like this could come from many sources, not all of them devilish. They had named him Dylan, for the sea which had spat him up, and Cernach, after the Celtic lord of the animals.
As he remembered, very dimly, they had warned him not to sing in the village. They might as well have warned a horse not to run. He was born for it. No matter how much he had wanted to be accepted, no matter how much he fought it, he sang, to keep away the fear that pressed on him, the fear that brought death. Sooner than be consumed, he sang, and the villagers had known, and sent him away. Just as the monks had known, and sent him away. Just as someday, if she stayed long enough, Nuala would know.
He hadn’t returned to the island to take vows. He’d gone back there for a summer, to learn to read and to learn the story of his name, and then he’d stolen a boat and run away in the night. It was one of two things in his life that he regretted doing, stealing that boat. In doing so he’d injured the monks, and they were almost the only humans that had never hurt him.
“My mother was Welsh,” he said, when he remembered that Nuala had asked him a question.
“And your father was Irish?” said Nuala.
He didn’t answer. That was one thing he’d never forgiven his mother, and he never would forgive her, that shadowy, frustrating woman he’d never seen, that thin, pale creature that had appeared out of the heart of the storm. What was she? A mermaid? A normal woman who had been married to some thing, some magician or ghost? He didn’t normally allow himself to count the years, didn’t allow himself to think about the thing that was deepest within him and drove him to do everything that he did. He was beginning to think about all those things that he normally didn’t allow himself to think of, and he didn’t want to. He didn’t want to be thinking about Nuala, and in some horribly painful dichotomy, he also wanted nothing more than to go on thinking about her. There was something that he was sensing, within her, that did not fit with the rest of her.
“Were you ever in Germany?” he said, making the decision with a click to tell her everything. She shook her head. He had come to his feet with the unconscious, lithe motion of a big cat and he was walking slowly back and forth. He’d walked so many miles to bury everything that he had to walk a little now as he dug it up. He had to know if this would drive her away. If it didn’t—
He broke off the thought. He didn’t want to desire what would happen if she wasn’t driven away. That part of him had been starving his whole life. Just thinking about having anyone who wouldn’t drive him away brought a pain so sharp that it stopped him for a half step.
“I was,” he continued. “A long time ago. I don’t know how long ago now. I haven’t kept track of the years and days very well since I’ve been here. I walked into Germany when I was still young. I can barely remember being young.”
He was aware that she was sitting very still, her eyes following him.
“I had been walking for miles,” he said. “I wasn’t very tired, not in my body. This body never gets tired, but I wanted to stop. I wanted to just live somewhere, just not have to run. I went into this little seaside town and I began to try to earn a few coins. Only it turns out that nobody had any money to spare, because there were rats everywhere. The rats, the Plague, at that point it was the same thing, though they wouldn’t believe that it was the rats that carried the sickness. It was easier for them to think that it came from dead men, or poison wells, or Jews. I knew I could help them. All I wanted was enough money to pay for a place to rest.” He paused, but she didn’t say anything. He felt her watching him, but without fear. He knew he would be able to sense fear. When she was afraid he would run. Until then he would talk. “I went to the burgomaster,” he said, fear jumping in his own chest now, clutching around his throat. “I told him that I could rid him of the rats that were ruining the business and of the Plague, all at once, if he would pay me enough that I could buy a place to stop. He agreed. He was happy to do it. So I began to sing...”
The memory was there, vivid. All the years he had spent pushing the streets of that little town out of his mind were gone, and the trees around him were gone, and all he could see was the village.
“I sang like a pan pipe,” he said, speaking now like a man bemused, his eyes elsewhere. “Like a bagpipe. Any kind of wind instrument. I don’t know why, but rats and mice and rabbits want wind instruments. That’s why they all said later that I was a piper, not that they ever saw a pipe in my hands. I sang to the rats and I promised them everything they ever wanted, and they poured out of the buildings like a tide. They came like I was pulling them along on a string. They came for the song, and they ran into the sea for the song, and they drowned for the song.” He shook his head like a horse trying to get a fly out of its ear and closed his eyes, trying to make the vision of the streets go away.
“So I went back to the burgomaster. I asked him for my pay, the pay for which I had sung lies to the rats, and he told me to leave or he’d throw me in jail.” He drew a ragged, long breath. “I left,” he said. “I sang as I went. It wasn’t wickedness. I promise that it wasn’t. I never knew what I was singing, it just came out. Every now and then it will just pour out, like water, like burning, hot, scalding water. Sometimes I hate it. I know it’s like hating blood, or breath, but sometimes I hate it just the same. I swear I didn’t know what it was.” He stopped, gritted his teeth. He didn't want to look at her.
“I never meant to take the children,” he said.
Nuala had gone white.
“Are you telling me,” she said, “that you’re the Pied Piper of Hamelin?”
He had stopped moving and was standing there, looking at her. He could read animals. He could read her confusion. She wasn’t afraid, though. He could read a lot about her, knew in a blinding flash what it was that hadn’t fit about her, and was suddenly weak with gratitude that she wasn’t afraid.
“Did you ever wonder what ‘pied’ means?” he said. “It means ‘white’ or ‘multicolored’. The White Piper. That’s what they’ve called me, all this time. Wherever I went, the children knew the story. Sooner or later I would have to sing to something, a bird, a dog, something, anything to get the darkness away, to keep the song from scalding me. Wherever I went I was frightened that the children would follow me. So I kept walking, walking, walking across Europe, across Russia, walking up into the land with frozen skies, frozen water, walking across the ice until I came to the coast where there were so few people. I ran away from the towns. I ran into the trees, where I was alone except for the animals and the wind that whispered its little messages to the grass. And here I could sing, without being afraid. Here I sang and they told me their secrets. Here I sang and I was alone.” His hand twitched over his eyes, over his mouth. “Alone until you came,” he said.
“Are you sad that I came?” said Nuala.
“I’m afraid,” he said, slowly. “I haven’t been afraid since I came here. I don’t like it very much.”
“What are you afraid of?” said Nuala.
“That I’ll sing to you.”
“I thought you said that you didn’t sing to people,” said Nuala. He came and sat down again, just a short distance away from her, and sighed. He was weary.
“I said I didn’t sing to them anymore,” he said. “Why do you think that is?”
“Because of the children,” said Nuala. He heard the strain in her voice and regretted it, but he couldn’t stop now. It had all been building for too long.
“As long as I am with people,” he said, with his voice that was low and sweet, his voice that had music pent up in it, even though he wasn’t singing, “I am afraid. I don’t understand them. I don’t know when I’ll sing their music accidentally. I don’t know what I might promise them or make them do. I can sing to a wolf or an otter or a bird. They are simple. People aren’t simple. I don’t want to sing to you.”
“Dylan,” she said. “You won’t hurt me. You’re going to take me to the Klondike. It’s going to be all right.”
He started. No one had called him by his name since he’d left the monks, a full nine centuries ago. No one had ever told him that anything was going to be all right.
“You’re not going to run away?” he said. She shook her head.
“You’re my only option right now, Dylan. I can’t get to the Klondike by myself, and I can’t live out here the way you do. I don’t know enough about it.” She threw another piece of stick into the fire. “I should have known something about it. We both should have, if Patrick O’Rourke, my father who knows everything, was going to move us out here. But do you know what I know?”
“No,” he said. He thought she was talking freely because she believed he was a crazy man, and a harmless crazy man was the most harmless thing in the world. He was not insulted.
“I know how to run a good hotel in Chicago!” she said. Shouted, actually. The sound rang off the trees around them. He was still not insulted. “It was a fine hotel,” she said. “We had the best food and the nicest people in the city. Nice people, not gangsters or drunks, just nice hardworking people. I worked my fingers to the bone for that hotel. We had one chambermaid and one cook, and those two and me did it all. My father is sick. I was making it nice for him, I was trying to make it nice like my mother did. Why did he have to bring us all the way out here?” She dabbled at her eye with one finger impatiently. He recognized tears and looked at them, fascinated. “I don’t know how to make it nice out here,” she said.
“I would help you,” he said.
“With what?” she said. “Getting to the Klondike?”
“With whatever you need,” he said, and in that second he knew. This, then, was what he couldn’t understand, this amazing feeling of finally having found the thing that you were built for, the place that your heart was meant to fill.
Instinctively, he didn’t tell her. It never occurred to him to desire her. That would have been altogether too presumptuous. He merely fell, helplessly, totally, and completely, and did not resent his fall. He sat there and watched her hands move in the firelight.
“I would help you,” he repeated.
“I’m tired,” she said, drawing her knees up and resting her chin on them. “I want to go to sleep.”
He lay down and crossed his arms over his chest, and shortly thereafter she lay down, too. He turned his head and looked at her, with her face turned up to the moonlight. Now he knew he was smelling roses... yellow ones.
“What is it?” she said, opening one eye.
“Do you believe me?” There was a short silence, and he thought about what an absurd question it was. Who was he to ask her to believe such a thing, to believe that a man could be dappled with youth and age, speckled over with time?
“If I know you won’t hurt me,” said Nuala, “does it matter?”
“No,” he said, and lay there smelling her through the soft purple of the dark.
She could walk well, he thought, and they covered miles at a gulp. Every now and then he would pause and help her over a difficult stretch, and when he again moved forward she always told him how un-tired she was. She staunchly denied being afraid, even when he told her matter-of-factly that there was a bear following them. Even when he told her that the bear was his last destiny, she just looked at him, nodded, and smiled.
It didn’t matter, he supposed.
He spent his time singing in low, desperate snatches to trees and grass and birds, and looking at her face, trying to store it up. He had been alive for almost a thousand years, and was unpleasantly surprised to find that time was slipping away from him. He finally had a purpose to fulfill, and to his annoyance he wasn’t sure if he would have time to fulfill it. It wasn’t so much like aging; it was a task that had to be completed in a certain amount of time, time that was not to be extended.
Once she had explained to him where and what the Klondike gold fields were, he began to lead her toward them with the unerring instinct of a salmon heading upstream. On the night when he knew they would reach a town sometime the next day, he built a fire and then sat looking at her. The task was throbbing in the back of his mind. He wrestled with it briefly before yielding to superior strength.
“Nuala,” he said. “Do you know that you’re sick?”
She glanced up from the campfire, her eyes wide and startled.
“What?” she said. “What are you talking about? I feel fine, aside from the thought of having to choke down another fish. I’m trying to get this to roast nicely. It’s been three weeks, nothing but berries and ashy fish. Why do you think I’m sick?”
“There’s something growing inside you,” he said. “Something that shouldn’t be there. If it keeps growing it will kill you. I’ve known it was there almost since I first saw you. I know secrets about things. I sang to an elk once, an elk that had somehow been protected from wolves, that had lived on while it was sick. Whatever was in the elk is in you. I recognize the melody.” He paused, pain sharp and growing in the center of his skull. “You’re sick,” he said.
“Look,” said Nuala. “Thank you for your concern and everything, Dylan, but you’re beginning to make me nervous. I feel fine.”
“You’ve got to talk to the doctor in the next town that we go past,” he said, hoping she wouldn’t say no again and force him into completing the rest of his task.
“No,” said Nuala. “There isn’t anything wrong with me.”
He sighed, dropping his gaze. For some reason it was always easier in the dark, when he didn’t have to look at the eyes of the creature he was enthralling. He didn’t want to do this to Nuala, but if it was the only way to take the sickness out of her, then so be it.
“Why do you think your father wanted you to come out here?” he said. “Why do you think he wanted to take you away from all the hard work at the hotel?”
“Because he was ill,” said Nuala. He sat there silently, staring at the darkness that gathered so strangely beside the light of the fire. The darkness was soft, liquid stuff that you could swim in. He was listening closely to the pattern of her breath, smelling the scent of her--of roses--that came to him in the air. He was trying to hear her melody, and when he finally caught it, it was so beautiful that it almost broke his heart.
When he began to sing, at first she didn’t react. He saw her eyes slowly drop to half-closed, raising again from her cooking to fix on his own eyes. His lips weren’t moving very much, but the song was coming from him. He felt one hot, wet tear slip down his cheek and neck to nestle in the notch of his collar bone.
He sang more than music to her. He sang sight, and smell, and sometimes he could promise touch. He could make the darkness of the forest melt away. He could give her back the hotel, and could let her see everything her heart had yearned for. He sang and made how she saw his face trickle and change. She looked around, eyes wide, and he scented the happiness surging up within her so powerfully that it almost dropped him to his knees. There was only one hex left before she was entirely bound, and that was the song that would make him appear like the person she most longed to see. He took a breath, and sang.
“Mama!” said Nuala.
He nearly screamed.
The song went on, plying its ancient magic, promising her what she wanted, luring her along. He didn’t let her see the forest, or the distance, or the ground under her feet. He guided her, holding her hands and arms, and kept her from falling. Singing, he led her into the little settlement that contained the precious resource of a doctor.
The small group of houses was dark, quiet, sleeping. He stood behind her in front of the doctor’s door for a while, his hands on her shoulders, whispering notes into her ear, trying to pull her back gently from the edge of the song.
“I love you,” he said. “You’ll remember that I love you. You’ll think that the doctor makes you better. You’ll think that you’re lucky that he caught it this fast. You’ll go on to your father and you’ll tell him that the doctor told you how to clean the stuff out of your lungs—”
He coughed. He could feel it entering him.
“I love you,” he said. “You won’t remember much about me, but you’ll remember that I love you.” He kissed the nape of her neck, and he felt the rest of the sickness leave her and pour into his body, his body that had withstood centuries of age, his body that he could change at will. Then he took his hands off her shoulders.
She gasped, and looked around.
“Where...” she said.
He had stepped backward and was calling the shadows around himself. He watched turned slowly in a circle, moving her head from side to side like a deer looking for water. He waited. She turned dazedly back toward the door and knocked. After a while, a woman opened the door and invited her in, after Nuala began to tell about being lost in the woods. When the door shut behind her, he turned on his heel and ran back for the trees.
He wanted roses.
It had taken three days for the tuberculosis that he had removed Nuala’s lungs to ravage him to the point where he was singing almost non-stop, singing in a wild flung voice to the mountains and the sky, singing songs that begged the bear to come and take him. The bear was there but did not extend him that much mercy.
He had never experienced fever before and in some part of his mind was slightly alarmed with his own behavior. He knew that it didn’t always make sense, knew that his thinking wasn’t making sense. He was content with the joy that Nuala wasn’t going to die, that he’d taken her murderer into his own body. He found a spring and sat beside it, staring down the mountain, drinking when he was thirsty, waiting for the bear to find its moment. For Nuala he had been kept alive this long. By saving Nuala, he was repenting of what he had done. Surely this was enough, the years of exile were enough. Surely, this would pay for the children.
On the second day, moving up the creek, he'd found the wild rose bush. It was in its autumn dress, the rosehips spangled across the foliage like rubies on a gown. He sat beside it, cross-legged, and wondered if it was a yellow rose.
There was more wrong with him than the tuberculosis, though that sent icy chills slicing through him. He reached up to touch the rose bush, shivering. The tuberculosis was only part of it. Most of it was the sudden effect of experiencing time again. In order to take the sickness, he had to let his body age. It wasn’t that all the centuries he’d lived at twenty-eight or nine were catching up to him; it was simply that passing from twenty-nine to thirty was something that his body had never done, and it was wrecking him.
He was singing to the bush, in a low hoarse voice, when the old man approached him. He felt the old man coming but was too weary to do anything but turn his head and look. He didn't stop singing. He was not surprised to look into the mouth of the shotgun. He did wonder in passing if it would hurt very much when the bullet went into him, and if the bullet would kill him or not. He’d never been shot before. When he had left Europe, guns had not been in wide favor. Since then he had avoided people.
“Are you hurt?” said the old man. Dylan stopped singing and stared at him for a second before shaking his head.
“No,” he said. “Sick.”
“What were you doing with that bush?” said the old man.
“Hexing it,” said Dylan, who was beyond deceit by now. “It was telling me its secrets.”
“What’s the matter with you?” said the old man.
“Oh, death and loneliness,” said Dylan, getting to his feet and walking a few steps before he realized that he didn’t know where he was going. “Are you going to shoot me?” he said idly, looking down at the stream. It would be easy to stop his body again, to whisper the spell that would halt the sickness. The trouble with that was that he didn’t know what happened to the sickness once he halted it. Did it just disappear? Would it go back to Nuala? Would it just go into whomever he happened to be standing close to at the time?
“I don’t know,” said the old man. “What are you doing on my property?”
“Waiting for the end,” said Dylan, turning to look at the creature with the gun that he could feel so well. “Why do you hunt animals, if you don’t like killing them? Why the bear?”
The old man started. Dylan just stood there, bored and feverish at the same time, and then he coughed, a long squeezing cough that ended him up with his head between his knees. He wanted roses. He could almost smell them, almost...
“How did you know that?” said the old man.
“I can hear your song very clearly,” said Dylan. “But I can’t tell what you’re going to do. There’s a red note in there somewhere.” His voice changed subtly, took on a different quality. “Old bear,” said Dylan, straightening up with his hand on the tree. “Old bear, here I am. So long have you danced away from the song, old bear. Here I am with my throat turned open to you. Here I am weary and sick and waiting for you. Here I am, a meal that would make you fat for the winter. Don’t punish me any more, old bear. Bring mercy, please!”
Dylan heard an answering grunt from the trees across the river, and the big head and ruff of the bear showed briefly.
“Old bear,” said Dylan, persuasively, seductively. “Come to me. Thick honey and warm berries, dripping with dew, fat salmon and round grubs, red bloody meat in soft bellies, and plums, tender and dark and sweet. It’s yours if you come to me, old bear, come to me, come to me...”
The bear’s ears were up, its black eyes glittering and fixed on Dylan.
“Oh, come to me and have mercy,” whispered Dylan. The bear stayed right where it was.
“Who are you?” said the old man.
“Who are you?” said Dylan, turning on his heel.
“My name is Pat O’Rourke,” said the old man. “One last time before I shoot: who are you? This is my claim. You’re not allowed here.”
“Dylan Cernach,” said Dylan. “If I were you I would leave. I can hear your song too clearly and I might hex you without meaning to.”
“Is that a threat?” said O’Rourke.
“No,” said Dylan. “It’s a warning. I think I’m off my head.” He saw O’Rourke’s
eyes moving back and forth between him and the bear, could even see minute shifts in the position of the shotgun.
“Well, since I’ve got the gun and there’s no such thing as hexes,” said O’Rourke, “I think I’ll take you back with me, laddie. We’ll talk to the sheriff about this.”
Dylan shook his head. A solution had occurred to him, a different way of stopping his body. It had been so long. He was so tired.
“Take me instead of the bear,” he said, looking at O’Rourke. “Take me instead of the animals.” He smiled. The bear was beautiful. He could feel the music build in him, could feel it like a waterfall ready to spill out of him. “Take me for the children,” he whispered.
He turned back to the bush and began to sing. The rosehips fell away as the leaves turned from golden to green, buds springing up on the branches with a suddenness that was dizzying.
He heard the frightened voice of the old man and sang louder, opening his arms wide. Always, they found out. Always before, they had tried to end him. The rosebuds were fat, heavy with color, promising perfume. He threw his head back, laughing. They were yellow.
The bear sat on its hind legs, stretching to seven feet tall, and bellowed with its nose in the air.
The shotgun only cracked once.
He could smell roses.