I Sing of a Maiden

Nativity_200As has become somewhat of a tradition over the years, the Horseblog is taking a winter break. It will be back in the new year, with more horse stories and rants and reflections and odd bits of equine lore.

As has also become an intermittent tradition, in its stead and in honor of the Solstice, here is a gift for the season: a story about music and magic, and living both in and out of time.

 

I Sing of a Maiden

Quiet.

A cold that not quite touched the bone.

Light soft through the fretwork of stone so old and so worn with the touch of hand and body and the moving air that they seemed as fragile as carvings in snow. Stars on the vaulting within the chapel, in a sky faded to dusk from midnight, but the gilding bright still, each star in its ring of fallow gold, close enough, almost, for one to touch; almost to hold in the hand.

Somewhere a child was singing, high and impossibly sweet.

I sing of a maiden that is makeless:

 King of all kings to her son she ches. . . .

oOo

I sat just out of the light, listening. I was alone, but not lonely. I had myself for company, and a pad on which I had been sketching the pillars that surrounded the chapel: each different, each with its own character, but all together holding up the enormous weight of the cathedral. It was solid over me. Comforting.

The thread of singing faded. The quiet was deeper after, so deep that I heard my own heart beating. My feet were cold. I was hungry. Elizabeth would have tea when I came back, scones and jam and cream and chatter. She never understood what I saw in quiet, least of all in the Undercroft—the crypt, she called it, with a shudder for effect.

Not that it was quiet I loved, so much as timelessness. If I could be alone, and feet and voices and clatter and trampling shut away above, I could just be, and be out of time. No questions. No histories. I had enough of both where I came from. Here I wanted to be still.

One of the shadows moved. I frowned at it. This was hardly my place, let alone my cathedral, but I had been happy with my solitude.

It was only one of the priests. I was on nodding terms with most of them, but this one I hadn’t seen before. He seemed startled to see me. I nodded, a bit frostily. He didn’t nod back. I looked pointedly down at my sketchpad. When I looked up he was gone.

He had spoiled my mood. I gathered my things together and braced to face the world above, and Elizabeth.

oOo

“Shortish man?” she asked me round a mouthful of scone. “Fairish? Going bald on top? And not Father Dunstan? But you know him, you met when you first came, and he wanted to talk about transubstantiation, and you were really rather rude.”

“I don’t discuss theology with strangers,” I said. She knew that perfectly well. “No, I know who that is. This was someone else. Maybe he’s new; or here for the season.”

“Perhaps,” said Elizabeth, but darkly. Elizabeth knows everything and everyone, in and out of Canterbury. I expected that she would have his entire life’s history by morning, with references, and signed by the archbishop himself. Elizabeth is a far better historian than I. Thorough; and completely without scruples.

I told her so. She sniffed. “And what would I do, tramping about and digging up old bones? I’ve enough to do here with looking after you.”

Like a hen with one chick, I was careful not to say. Elizabeth takes in guests and makes them family, will they or nill they, but they were thin on the ground this year and this season: the grey shank of December and every sensible pilgrim safe at home where he belonged, waiting for April and its famous showers. In April I would be home again, writing the book I was supposed to be researching here—though germinating was a better word for it. Burying it deep and refusing to think about it, and letting it grow on its own.

“Have another scone, do,” said Elizabeth, used by now to my silences. “You know they don’t keep.”

Elizabeth had told me that they were thinking of building a new altar in the cathedral: in the corner everyone comes to and pauses at, where Thomas Becket was murdered. It was just itself now, a stretch of pavement worn smooth, a few words set in the wall, the name and the date and what was done there, and if you turned one way you went out into the cloister, but if you turned the other you found the steps leading up, and the tombs that flanked the choir. Someone was always shrieking at the old bishop in his finery on top and the rotting corpse carved so carefully below; or calling to someone else to see Henry IV, and was it Part One or Part Two; or galloping off across the cathedral to see the dead prince with his armor hung above his tomb. Thomas, of course, was gone, tomb and bones and gold and jewels and pilgrims and all. Cromwell saw to that. Cromwell is the Devil in English cathedrals; everything lost or broken is Cromwell’s fault.

Thomas at least was someone else’s fault. Four knights, and a king who wanted him got rid of. A clot of people had just gone through with one of the guides, and I’d had the story all over again, Murder in the Cathedral, but here, and—if I tilted my mind just so—now.

Shut out the here-and-now with its noises and sillinesses, postcards on sale in the nave and schoolchildren running wild in the chapels. Forget the cathedral that they built on top of the cathedral, turn Bell Harry Tower, all the exuberant height of him, to air and nothing, go back before High Gothic into low rounded Romanesque; and then, for broad daylight, make it night, set knights in the shadows, the gleam of a sword, the chink of mail under the surcoat; a monk cowering, just there, and milord archbishop coming out to his prayers, no suspicion of murder or mayhem—a sword rising—a voice—

The wall was cold against my back, even through my coat. This time I’d seen it almost clear. Almost, even, smelled it: unwashed bodies, blood, iron, and something cold, that maybe was murder.

He was there again. Staring again. Jolting me out of my mood. Standing up, I was almost as tall as he was. He was younger than I’d thought, and he seemed to be trying to grow a beard, or else he’d forgotten to shave that morning. He looked less startled than he had before. I half expected him to ask me if I was ill.

He didn’t say anything. Without really knowing why, I tried a smile. After a bit he smiled back.

The voice was singing as it had before, from everywhere and nowhere.

He came all so still where his mother was,

As dew in April that falleth on the grass. . . .

I turned to see where it was coming from. There was no one in sight. One of the children must have got into the choir, and his keeper gone running to stop him. I was sorry. He had a better voice than most of the choristers.

The priest, when I turned back, was gone. Shy, I thought. Or glad of an excuse to escape. People never properly understood why I had to do my time-traveling in broad daylight, let alone in public. Not that it was anything I could help, sometimes, when I was in the throes of something new; even something so new it had no name yet, just was.

oOo

I came out of the cathedral into sunlight that was surprising, even knowing it had been there, turning all the windows to floods of jeweled light. It was cold for England, like the New England I came from, and everyone was out in it, jostling one another along the walks and clumping under the gate of the close.

The streets beyond were full of them. The shops were all lit with lights, a bit wan in the sun, and twinings of holly and ivy, balsam and fir, round the edges of windows and doors. When the doors opened I heard snatches of music, tinny with distance.

The holly and the ivy,

When they are both full grown:

Of all the trees that are in the wood,

The holly bears the crown.

Pagan enough for a Christian holiday. It made me smile. Elizabeth had put up holly on the mantel, and had brought out the box of ornaments for the tree she insisted we would have, and the Pudding—just so she said it: the Pudding, with a capital—was made and wrapped away in the pantry to age, and she had ordered the goose for a proper Dickensian feast.

I wondered if I would have dreams the night before Christmas, Past and Present and To Come, and a rebuke for having my holiday alone on the other side of the water, and not in my family’s bosom. Being alone and happy was a much worse sin than time-traveling in public. Time-traveling was merely eccentric. Happy solitude was unthinkable.

Old Canterbury is big as medieval towns go, but that’s small still inside the newer city. Even now I was surprised to see how soon I came to the wall.

I stopped as I always did, to lay a hand on it: rounded flints, translucent blue-grey and chalky white. They were cold today in spite of the sun, with winter in them, but if I had had steel, I could have struck fire.

I went up into a shock of sudden wind. Cars roared on the road below, where the moat was once, whipping round and past the station.

I leaned on a crenel. A dog ran past me, with a child in yelling pursuit. Over beyond them the ruined castle stood on its mound. Precious little of it was left; it had been little enough when it stood.

It was all one. Cars and railroads, children and dogs, old castle and old walls and young-old cathedral standing over them all. Like the song of the Maiden: the words were ancient, but the music was a hundred years old, if that; and yet they went together.

“The Worm Ouroboros,” I said, “that biteth his own tail.”

I would get a book out of this, one way and another. Lectures, too. Classes. Wherewithal for traveling in time. Scientists were going about it all wrong, putting numbers on it, measuring it. They would do better to ask a Zen Master. Or a dotty American writer lady on the wall in Canterbury, grinning at the wind.

oOo

He came all so still where his mother lay,

As dew in April that falleth on the spray.

“Why April?” I asked.

There was no one to answer. And no one to sing, either; not out here, not so clear.

St. Augustine’s abbey lay in ruins around me. I stood by the grave of a Saxon king, though maybe his bones were long gone; his ghost was gone, too, for all I knew, but if I closed my eyes I could hear the monks moving in the cloister and chanting in the choir.

This was too clear to be imagination, even as vivid as mine was, but too odd to be anything but a trick of the ear.

“April for spring,” said someone behind me. Or I thought he said. His accent was very strange; thick as any Yorkshireman’s, but crisper, with something almost familiar about the vowels. “April for the green things growing, and the new world springing. “

“But we sing it in December,” I said.

“Holly is green beneath the snow,” he said, “and ivy.”

I turned to see the priest from the cathedral. He was wrapped in a dark cape, with what looked like fur around the edges, and he was smiling at me. But when he looked around, his smile died. “It’s all gone,” he said.

I shouldn’t have laughed. It was too much like the scholar seeing Athens for the first time in his old age, and appalled because it was in ruins.

“Henry did that,” I said to the priest, “though sometimes they blame it on Cromwell.”

“Henry?” the priest asked. “But—” He closed his eyes. I thought he was going to faint; I reached to catch if he went over.

He slipped away before I could touch him. I was dizzy myself. Seeing for a moment, hearing, feeling the walls around me, the monks in their day’s round, the ordered commotion of a great abbey.

“Our Henry would never break this place,” said the priest.

I stared at him. If I made my eyes wide, the dizziness stopped, for a while. “Who are you?” I asked suddenly.

“My father named me Thomas,” he said, “but they call me Mad Tom, and Thomas the Alchemist, though what I would want with Hermes when I have Aristotle and Aquinas, none of them can say.”

“My mother named me Madeleine,” I said, “and that’s cross enough to bear, if I hadn’t been an oddity, too.” I squinted. It made me dizzier, but he barely blurred. “You are a figment of my imagination.”

He looked down at himself. He was not, after all, bald on top. He was tonsured. I had known it, of course. I was even giving him a properly antique accent, though my ingenuity failed when it came to giving him the vocabulary.

“I’m only what I am,” he said.

“You’re not there,” I said. “You didn’t walk out of—what? Fifteen-something? I imagined every bit of you.”

“I dreamed you, I think,” he said, “and ruins—There’s a black dream for a black winter.”

“You don’t exist,” I said. And swung out my hand to prove it.

It met air. He was gone. It was cold in the ruined abbey by the old king’s grave. From the look of the sky, it was going to rain.

oOo

I knew I should tell Elizabeth that there was no such priest as I’d described; she hated to hunt and find no quarry, and here I’d sent her after a ghost. But when it came time to tell her, over the chop and the nice bit of sweet, as she put it, that constituted supper, I said nothing after all. It was embarrassing, for one thing. For another, I was not quite willing to let him go. I’d never had a hallucination so real before, real enough to talk to.

Writers will tell you that their characters talk to them. And so they do. Incessantly. But even the most insistent of characters seldom stands up in front of his author, as solid as herself, and real right down to the razor’s nick on his chin. I hadn’t been glad when my hand passed through air. I’d been bitterly sorry.

And suppose, I thought. Suppose . . .

oOo

I should have known what good it would do to try calling him up. Characters haunt you without mercy, or they shut themselves up in a hard cold block and refuse to come out for any bribery.

When I tried to write this one down, he fell flat as cardboard. When I drew him, he stretched into a cartoon. When I stood in the ruined abbey and imagined him with every vein a-pop, he didn’t even flicker into being. He was not my character. I had no story in which he fit, except the one I lived in.

Suppose he was, then. Suppose he was real.

If time were as fluid as that—if I could imagine, but what I imagined could be—why shouldn’t he have walked out of it? He dreamed, he’d all but said. He was dreaming me.

In Chartres there is a circle on the floor, a maze set in the stone. They say that if you walk in on the solstice day, and come to the middle, time stops. Now and then are one. And where the sun’s ray falls through the rose window’s center, just there, you can reach through. You can touch.

Canterbury is a maze of its own. The city is a circle, and the streets tangle in it, and the cathedral sits in the center. I, sitting under it, under the stars in Our Lady’s chapel, had no sun to show me the way, but the candles were bright enough. I hadn’t thought till I came there, that it was the solstice. I wasn’t thinking that anything would come of it. I wanted the quiet, that was all.

He came all so still to his mother’s bower,

As dew in April that falleth on the flower.

I looked at the figure by the altar. “Were you trying to call me up?” I asked.

At the same time he said, “Did you summon me ?”

I shook my head. He shook his. I didn’t leave my chair, though it was a beastly thing: one of those wooden folding monstrosities that churches issue as a penance. He didn’t leave the altar. He might have been taking sanctuary on it.

“It’s the song,” I said. “It’s the key. But if you aren’t singing it . . .”

“I wished to see,” he said. “But I’ve spoken no spells. I’m no magus; no alchemist, either. I read, you see. And think. Thinking’s a sin, I’m told.”

“So it is.” I shifted in the chair. My tailbone was aching. “Maybe you thought yourself right into ghosthood. “

He crossed himself. He was hundreds of years dead, if he’d ever lived at all, but I couldn’t help it; I thought of him as young, and younger every time I saw him. “I am no dead man,” he said sharply, almost angrily. “Are you a dead woman?”

“Not that I’ve noticed,” I said.

“So,” he said. He sat down on the altar step. His shoes, I noticed, were quite in period. Fifteenth century, the historian in me said. They needed mending. He had lice, very likely, and bathed in summer if at all. His teeth were dreadful.

He was quite beautiful, if he was real, and sitting there, and talking to me.

I should be asking him questions. Discovering truths scholars dreamed of. Finding answers to questions, solving mysteries, being the historian I pretended to be.

I said, “I read a story once. Of lonely people, and traveling in time, and finding a place where everyone can be content. It was France, I think. Villon was dead.” He didn’t ask me who that was. “I’m not lonely. I like to be alone. It’s peaceful. It lets me work.”

“It gives me leave to pray,” he said, “and think. I’m made for the cloister, maybe; but I do love to walk the roads, and go on journeys for my lord archbishop, and be a pilgrim. One day I’ll go to Jerusalem.”

“I’ve been,” I said.

His eyes lit up. His breath came out in a long sigh. “Tell me!”

I told him. Then he told me of walking from Canterbury to Dover, and taking ship across the Channel, and walking down through France to Chartres. He shivered. “That is no Christian place,” he said, “however holy the church that stands on it.”

“Did you walk the labyrinth?” I asked.

His answer was slow. “Yes. I saw nothing. I was mazed, no more, from walking round and round.”

“I was sick and had to leave,” I said. “Maybe it worked after all, and I never knew it.”

“Maybe God willed that we meet, however strange the meeting.” He wrapped his arms about his knees. “Need there be a reason in it?”

“Well,” I said. “No.” I stood up. He didn’t move as I came closer. He looked as solid as the cathedral, and as real. “Do you know when I am?” I asked him.

“Not past,” he said, “but to be.” He wasn’t afraid. He wasn’t an innocent; either. People grew up faster where he was, and grew up harder. “You could be a demon,” he said, “but were you that, this place would never hold you.”

“You’re very calm about it.”

“I’ve thought on it,” he said, “and prayed. I’d talk to my confessor, but he’d not understand. He’s a good man, Father Dickon. But narrow. He’d say that we were never meant to see but what our eyes can see, or know but what the simplest man can know.”

“So much for theology,” I said.

He laughed. “So women dispute in the schools. And do stags swim in the sea, and fish fly?”

“Men fly,” I said, “and women, too. We’ve walked on the moon.”

He didn’t believe me. “And my abbey is a ruin,” he said when he’d finished laughing at me. “That’s grief. But this still stands. This is the same.” His eyes took in the chapel, and the crypt beyond it. “The world is still as it was, and as it always shall be.”

“It does change,” I said. “Some things are worse. Some are much better.”

“It’s the world still,” he said, “and God is king of it.”

Who was I to question faith? Or, for that matter, to touch a ghost. This time it was I who left him.

I wasn’t thinking while I did it, or wondering why. I wanted to be away, alone. I wanted to think. Prayer wasn’t in me; we’d lost that. Or I had.

oOo

Elizabeth had the radio on, turned up high and bellowing out choruses. I came in in a thunder of Hallelujahs, through a fog of cloves and cinnamon: she’d been doing the pies, and singing with the choir. We’d have a dozen for dinner, come Christmas Day, and the weather was turning cold; snow, maybe, the radio said when the last Hallelujah was over.

“Snow at Christmas,” said Elizabeth. “Imagine that.”

I captured a bowl and a knife, and started to peel apples. “We have snow most years at home,” I said. “It doesn’t feel like Christmas without it.”

The radio was singing in German.

Es ist ein’ Ros entsprungen,

Auf einer Wurzel zart . . . .

“‘Lo, how a rose e’er blooming, From tender stem hath sprung.’” Elizabeth had a lovely voice, thin but clear. A little like the voice that sang me out of time. She attacked a round of dough with the roller, odd punctuation to so tender a song.

“Christmas songs are always about spring,” I said, “and flowers.”

“There are winter ones, too,” said Elizabeth. “All the Noels. And ‘Silent Night.’”

“And ‘Good King Wenceslas.’” I cut an apple in half and then in quarters, and cored it. “He wasn’t good at all, you know. He was an appalling despot.”

“It’s a lovely song,” Elizabeth said.

I cut the apple in careful slices. One tempted me. I ate it. It was sweet: English apples are, not like American apples, which are more sour than not. “That’s it, isn’t it? It’s not what he was, but how he’s remembered. Would it be different if you could talk to him?”

“He’s dead,” said Elizabeth. “And good riddance if he was a bad king.”

“Somewhere he’s not dead. Somewhere he’s alive.”

“In hell, no doubt,” Elizabeth said. She scooped up apples and began to fill the crust.

“Still,” I said. “What if he were?”

“Are you going to write a book about him?”

I looked at the apple in my fingers, and at Elizabeth. I sighed. “I don’t suppose I could talk you into putting cinnamon in this?”

“That’s heretical,” she said.

“American,” I said.

“Didn’t I just say so?”

I peeled the apple. She made the pie without cinnamon, but then she made another one with: orthodoxy and heresy, side by side. She didn’t ask me again about the book. I didn’t know that I was writing one. Living one, maybe. And trying too hard. Forgetting how to be, and be quiet, and let it come as it would.

The best gifts are the ones that came unasked for. Real or imagined, Thomas was that: a gift. A reward for my silence, or a rebuke for my solitude—did it matter which? I wanted to see him again. I didn’t want to ask him anything, or to know anything but that he was there. A serious failing in a scholar, but I couldn’t help it. It wasn’t what he knew that mattered. It was that he was.

oOo

Nights are long in England, in the dark of the year. They fall early, and they fall deep. The night before Christmas was grey and raw, with an iron tang that promised snow. By the time we’d brought in the tree and set it up, the first flakes were falling.

When the lights were on and lit, it was falling hard, and yet it fell in silence except for the whining of the wind. The radio was excited, and scared, too. England has grown out of the habit of snow. I was glad that our dozen guests would come in by train, come morning, or could walk in from the town. The roads wouldn’t be passable, I didn’t think, if the snow went on as it had begun.

All that evening the carolers came and went, making the rounds of the town. We had sweets for them, and hot rum, and mulled wine—hippocras, I called it, and Elizabeth wanted to know what was hypocritical about good burgundy. She forgave me for laughing, eventually.

Near midnight we wrapped ourselves up and put on our wellies in proper English style, and went to the cathedral. The snow blinded us; the wind whipped us raw. We pressed through it, laughing at it. This night of all nights, it was right and proper.

The cathedral blazed with light, throbbed with music. The choir was in the .stalls, the nave full almost to bursting. We found a place well to the side, near Becket’s deathplace. I felt no death there tonight. We were a little out of the light, but the singing was clear, filling the high vaulted space.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Elizabeth leaned away from me, exchanging greetings with a woman whom I vaguely recognized. I, on the end, could be by myself and simply listen.

I was warm, even with snow melting on my hat and trying to run down my neck. The light was soft here, pale gold. All the crowds of people were only, like the snow and the wind, as they ought to be.

So had they been for a thousand years and half a thousand more, more or less, since this faith came to Britain. And maybe before in this holy place, but for another child, and for another Lady, maiden-mother-crone, woman and goddess. Her chapel was under my feet. They were singing of her now. Nova, nova, Ave fit ex Eva! And, softer:

Mother and maiden, was never none but she;

Well might such a Lady God’s mother be.

The light was no dimmer, the air no colder, but the walls around me were narrower, the tower lower, the press of people closer. I was on my feet. I’m not tall, but I was tall here, as women went.

I was here, and I was there in the higher, brighter, newer-older place; I was in both worlds at once, both times. Sitting next to Elizabeth, hearing the mass as the Church of England sang it. Standing among faces I did not know, hearing the older chants, the music of Rome as yet unchallenged. And standing, sitting, kneeling through a whirl of memory-made-real, back and back and back, down to the beginning, and cold earth underfoot and cold sky overhead and the priestess singing of another faith altogether.

Someone stirred on my left hand. Someone breathed, drawn in sharp. I reeled dizzily in one time of the many, steadying my eyes on Thomas’s face. I was still aware, as dim as the edge of a dream, that I sat beside Elizabeth. And stood beside him, close enough to touch.

And knowing. That was the last of the song, the hymn of the Maiden. Its round was done. Its magic was ended.

The woman next to me, who wore a stranger’s face, shifted her weight. She jostled me. I almost fell.

She had touched me. I was here. It was real. My nose told me. We had forgotten what the human animal was like, we fanatics of soap and the bath.

It didn’t matter. I was here. The light was all candlelight. The faces were faces out of a book of hours, or from a tapestry.

Thomas stared at me. His face was full of wonder; but full of sadness, too. Was he sorry he had dreamed me into being?

“No,” he said when I said it. Stretching out his hand. I stretched mine to meet it. The closer they came, the slower they moved.

I was not thinking of realities. There were times for that. For recalling when this was, what plagues were in it, what hope there could be for a woman out of time, or for a priest with, it seemed, a gift for calling up demons. I was here. I had done what I had always dreamed of doing: made all times one, and stepped out of my own, and seen another world.

Our hands met. His was warm and strong, and rougher than I had expected. Maybe mine was as odd to him, and yet as familiar. Would he have expected claws after all, or a cloven hoof?

“Stay,” he said suddenly. “Stay with me.”

I looked at him. “What would I do here?”

“Be,” he said.

“Is it so simple?”

He shrugged. It was an eloquent gesture; hardly English at all. English as I knew it. “God sent you to me. Surely He wills you to stay.”

“Or,” I said, “maybe not God, but another Lady altogether.”

“Aye,” he said, “well. And doesn’t He always listen to His mother?”

The procession was coming down the aisle in a cloud of light and frankincense, the prelates in their vestments, the acolytes in their lace and sackcloth, the princes in their finery. I should crane, I should stare; I should struggle to see faces that no one living had seen.

No one living when I was born.

My eyes stayed on Thomas, seeing the rest around the edges. There was no blurring in it, no shadow of a world that would be. I was here entirely, body and mind.

And yet.

My fingers tightened on his; then pulled free. “You were a gift,” I said, “and welcome beyond measure. But you belong here, and I belong there. This time can’t hold us both, except for this hour, on this night when all times meet.”

“If you will not stay here, then I shall go there,” he said. “I should like to see what the world is, so far away from this.”

“What would you do there?”

“Be.” He laughed at my expression. “Will you take me to Jerusalem?”

“I can’t—”

He had my hand again, holding fast. The heat of his wanting was fierce enough to burn.

“Why?” I asked him.

“For that it is a gift. For that I prayed, and you answered my prayer. For that it can be, and I would have it.”

“You’ll hate it,” I said. “You’ll be all out of time.”

He shook his head. Wise, innocent, stubborn boy.

I was dizzy. Slipping. Struggling to pull free. Or maybe to hold fast.

The choir—his choir—raised bright voices up to heaven.

Dum puella fecundatur, O, O:

Eia! Eia! Nova gaudia!

Their singing blurred and shrank and faded, and flooded back in a measure wholly new.

Joy to the world! The Lord is come.

 Let earth receive her king. . . .

I was not thinking of kings. I was thinking of explanations. I couldn’t say that I cared, much. The hand in mine was as warm and strong as ever, and barely a tremor in it. His eyes were enormous, taking it all in, drinking it deep.

oOo

There were explanations, of course. And complications. We got around them, one way and another, Elizabeth and Thomas and I.

Elizabeth never did need to know how the poor man had lost his passport, or why he came in fancy dress, and not a penny to his name. Sometimes I thought she knew everything, and only pretended to believe the story we told. She was happy enough, God knew, to see me with a friend, as she put it, however odd he was.

But all of that came later. First there was Christmas day, and snow if not quite up to the rafters then deep enough to wonder at, and a dozen of us to dinner, and one for whom all this world was new. True Thomas, I thought, Thomas out of world and time, secure in his Lady’s hand.

“Don’t question,” he said, precisely when I forget: the wine had been good, the wassail plentiful, and we were all singing between tree and fire, and the snow still falling outside.

I glared at him. “I was happy,” I said, “alone.”

“So was I,” he said. “Before.”

“You’re a priest,” I said.

He shook his head, tonsure and all; and we’d spun a wild tale to explain that, and they’d believed it, because we dared them to. “Minor orders only, and at my family’s bidding. My true love was a book and a dream. Now look!” His hand swept the room. “More books here than I’ve seen in my lord archbishop’s own library, and you call them few, and paltry. More world than I could have imagined, and more wonders in it, and all for my tasting.”

“Some, you won’t like,” I said. But it was hard to stay sour with him grinning at me. The bath had been a battle and a half. The dentist next. And a doctor. And . . .

He didn’t care. Why should I? Gifts were for giving, I’d always been taught. And for accepting.

oOo

The snow fell, soft and deep. The guests left by ones and twos, except the one who would stay, tucked up in the second-best room.

Quiet fell. No voice sang in it. No voice needed to. That song was done, that silence filled; that gift given, in the end and in the beginning, out of life and out of time, and into both again.

Worm that biteth its own tail.

Et in saecula saeculorum.

So mote it be.

 

Copyright © 1992 by Judith Tarr

First published: The Magic of Christmas: Holiday Stories of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed, John Silbersack and Christopher Schelling (Roc)

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I Sing of a Maiden — 29 Comments

  1. Great story, Judith.

    And having just finished Alamut, I found that Farouk the swordsmith to be uncannily much like my father. A craftsman who knew steel, and many other metals, ancient and modern. I inherited much of his knowledge by osmosis, and none of his skills, despite his best efforts to pass on his skills, too.

    And while your wonderful story concerns two time travelers who bump into each other while traveling the timeways, I just finished matching wits with a steel object, designed and built by masters, from nearly a century ago. It suffered from a trivial flaw that even an apprentice in those days could quickly fix, if looking for it.

    Instead, everyone just set it aside for almost 90 years while attending to more pressing business. After cleaning the dust of decades off it, I noticed something “not right”. It took me three days of off-and-on detective work, but I found the trivial but seldom-encountered flaw yesterday. My modest skills, accompanied by the prodigious patience and scrupulous attention to details that my father never did acquire, allowed me to turn this “problem child” into the functional object it always should have been. It was like a fine sword forged by Farouk, that his apprentice Maimoun overlooked one finishing detail that hibernated for nearly 90 years, until my “fresh” set of eyes noticed something was “not quite right”.

    I didn’t consult with the other men, and was only puttering in my basement, but the object was real, and a product of many hands and minds. I even know the names of two of the principals, and I’m trying to get enough information to see if they left any images behind.

    As with other machinery, including computers and software, this is a game of wits, and sometimes half-wits. We’re dealing with ideas expressed as objects, so while the “thing” was never alive, it is the repository of ideas and skills many people impressed upon it. I talk to things when I get engrossed in the task, because I really know I’m talking to the other people that had a hand in my current labor.

    Murphy’s Laws adds to the challenge of the game, due to my favorite corollary, “Nature sides with the hidden flaw”. Sometimes I see it as a blinding flash of insight, other times it has to fall and hit me on the head. It keeps things always interesting.

    But the strangest part of this trivial story is that parts of Alamut, this short story involving people from different times, and my own experiences all just converged yesterday in a way I would have otherwise denied could ever be possible.

    Thanks for unintentionally giving me the greatest Christmas “stocking” stuffer beyond even my most erratic imagination.

  2. I never fail to fall under the spell of the wordsmith named Juditah Tarr. You spin a spell that transports me to another world and time. I never fail to enjoy your words. Just remember when the world seems to be crashing around you that the joy you bring to people’s lives is priceless.

  3. Lovely, wonderful story, although now I’m going crazy trying to remember who wrote that story about 3 people in Paris, France, from 3 different centuries, in a place to be happy. Was it U.K. LeGuin? Please let me know.

  4. No place I would rather spend a few hours… or days… than in one of Judy Tarr’s amazing worlds. Thanks for this one!