There was a smell in the streets, past the storefronts with the children in their beds, their limbs barely moving, their eyes closed (it was late). The smell was intoxicating, vanilla, pineapple, butter, cinnamon and some spice, some spice. The smell caught at the tips of open windows, waving like a cat’s tail, just a little, before going in. Then it coiled along the floor, at the corners, under the doorways, sipping at each room, exhaling a puff of it, a tease.
Nina moved her chair back and rose, and Fleur cast her eyes to the side, their whites the only thing visible to Walter, who looked with her, in the same direction.
“I’m restless,” Fleur whispered, her head down but her eyes still to the side. She stood up. “I’m going for a walk.”
“There’s nothing out there,” Walter said. He had a sharp voice. His legs were thin, unmuscled, from the accident. But his voice had gristle in it, fat and sinews and sharp bones, a kneecap, a heel. He held one of the mechanical dolls he’d been working on.
Fleur said, “Do you smell that wind? It reminds me, when I was a child, when it all looked so full of time, when I thought I would see everything there was to see.”
Nina came up beside her. “Oh, I remember that. I thought I would be beautiful forever, that whatever I wanted, I could just laugh and snap my fingers and have it. What a problem it was when I realized that wasn’t true.” She ran her hand through the back of her hair and shrugged.
“You two are spouting nonsense again,” Walter said in disgust. His lined face screwed up against itself. His fingers gripped the arm of the doll; it was meticulously childlike, so his action had an air of brutality.
“You feel it too,” Nina answered. “I can see it in your hands.” And he looked down at his hands, to catch it; she smiled.
So the two women walked down the streets, scattering their footsteps to the walls. It was late but birds still called, sounding bittersweet. The light was low and mottled, pooled at doorways, peeping out from windows. The streets strayed up and down, some tipsy with the peculiar scent.
The children in the window had gone to sleep, puddling together, drooping around each other. “Look at them,” Fleur said, lifting her hand gently and tracing her finger on the glass. “Lovely, no? Delicate, like spun-sugar souls.”
Nina had already lost interest in them. “Do you think we are immortal?” she asked. “I mean, some aspect of us?”
“It feels that way tonight, doesn’t it?”
“The thing about immortal souls,” Nina said, “is that there’s always a reckoning. I don’t know how anyone can live a good life, a truly good life, there’s everything the body wants, and the ego wants, and the terrible hunger of living wants; I don’t see how we could stand the reckoning.”
They walked along the streets in a restless silence. Nina heard that bird again, and it thrilled her. There were lights, and it was a safe town, and the evening was rich and ripe. They took deep breaths and felt young and healthy and turned a corner to a small green triangle at the foot of two intersecting streets, where they saw a man standing under a lamp, gazing at them. They slowed down, trying to place him. The light might have been projecting shadows on his face, because he didn’t seem familiar, and yet he seemed to want them to see him. They paused, almost exactly at the same moment, staring at him, trying to match him up with one of their neighbors.
“Evening, ladies,” he said, and his unfamiliar voice convinced them, finally, that he was a stranger. “I’m looking for a place to stay. Can you recommend something?” His voice was lovely, deep and soothing. If it weren’t for that, Fleur wouldn’t have said, “There’s nothing like a hotel here. We don’t get many visitors. But there’s a kind of boarding house—”
“Sorry. I’m so sorry,” Fleur said hastily. “Please forgive me. It’s not up to me, I’m only a guest myself.”
The stranger nodded his head once and tilted it slightly, as if he were soothing her. “No matter. No matter. Don’t let it worry you, my dear. Good evening.” And he turned quietly and rounded the corner behind them, and was gone.
Both women had heard him call Fleur “dear.” Fleur was pleased; she shivered as if he’d touched her, lightly. When his footsteps had trailed off, Nina said, “Really, Fleur.”
“Oh, I know,” her friend said, apologetic. “It was as if I’d totally forgotten myself. I’ve never done that before.”
They continued their walk, down the cobblestones, turning again at the next corner, and then across the street. Their minds drifted, individually, back to the stranger.
Something ran from the side and then in front of them, and they both started. “What was that?” Fleur cried, and Nina bent slightly, looking past her friend to the shadows. “A rat,” she said. “I think it was a rat.”
Fleur stiffened. “We don’t have rats here.”
“No.” She was not afraid of rats, but there were shadows and a tension in the air, and a strange man they’d just met. She stilled herself and listened and looked and noticed, in the quiet, how the scent on the air had changed. Not so sweet now; the wind had shifted to the east; that was all. “Let’s go,” she said, “or Walter will be wondering.”
But Walter wasn’t wondering; he had fallen asleep in his wheelchair, his tools in his lap. The doll had fallen on the floor, and Nina retrieved it, brushing against Walter’s chair and waking him. His eyes flew open but his body remained immobile.
Fleur said good night and went up to her room; Nina stood up and held the doll gently in her hands. Its mechanical eyes blinked; its clockwork heart ticked.
“So what did you two do?” he asked, carefully straightening out his tools.
“Saw the children. Saw a strange man. Saw a rat.”
He stiffened. His hand moved against his eyes, slowly, slowly. “A rat,” he repeated. He placed his right hand flat against his left. “Are you sure?” His eyes darted at her, evaluating her. She stood steady in the face of that; she wasn’t fanciful.
“All right,” he said. “Rats. And the man? What did he look like?”
“Hard to say, it was so dark. But medium height, thin.” She thought hard. “His hair was long and curled over his ears. He had a beautiful voice.”
Walter brooded, his head cast down. “You know him,” Nina said. “Who is he?”
He took some time before he answered, his brows rolling up for one thought, down for another. At last he sighed and looked at her and said, “He wants the children.”
“The children? Why?”
He waved his hand in the air, as if to wave away a bad notion. “We didn’t pay him for a job he did and he took the children, enticed them, really, and then left them as they are now. Gentle, pliable, little sacks of straw.” He snorted. “Hardly children at all, but they’re my responsibility. I made the decision not to pay him, and when he lured them away, I went after him. I never found him; although wherever I went, I heard about him. And then one day,” he shook his head, wondering, “outside town, on a hilltop, I found them, a herd of them, like sheep. I was staggered.” He laughed contemptuously. “What has he come for? Haven’t I paid enough?” He lowered his head. “No, why would it be the children—after all, he let them go. No,” he said, his great head with its rubbery folds jutting into the air. “We aren’t done with each other. Well, all right then. All right. There’s still something between us.” He stared morosely at his legs. “I admit I’ve been waiting. I have something to settle as well.”
He had never adjusted to his wheelchair; he didn’t know how to channel his energy. He was the kind of man who would have been striding while talking, back and forth across the room, gesturing, flinging his head back. But the accident—a fall down the cliff; half a day till someone found him—and the children of course, who had stood around him, watching—still was in the forefront of his mind; he seemed incapable of finding his way again. She went around the house to help him, searching for things: guns, knives, ropes. She found a long silver cord in his workroom, and placed it around her own neck like a necklace; he nodded, eyeing it.
In the morning, she walked over to the children, sitting up and mostly dressed, their heads all turned the same way, gazing out their storefront window to the street. Their mouths were slightly open—quite usual for them. Their faces were a little slack. They all looked, together, at anything that moved. They had watched her come up the street, and then they watched her as she came inside. One child reached up to touch her as she passed him, and then they all reached up.
Fleur was already there, in the other room, preparing their meals. The trick with them was to place food in their mouths, then chew. They would chew then, too. They sometimes got out, trailing behind a careless attendant who had left the door unlocked. They got out and they followed people or pets, even, drifting together in a group, like a school of fish, moving unpredictably as one of them caught sight of a bird swooping, a squirrel darting, a bumblebee speeding from a garden. Silent, dreamy and indifferent: Walter had found them standing like a group of sheep, by the cliffs. He had fallen in his haste to push them all into town; he had been found when someone else noticed the children, staring down at him, and brought them all home.
“Oh, good, you’re here,” Fleur said. “I fed them already, but I didn’t get them all dressed. Could you finish it for me? It’s my turn to go to the market.” She was wearing a skirt, with her hair piled up; Nina noticed it and made no comment.
“Of course, of course,” she said. She watched—and the children watched, all their eyes on Fleur—as her friend went out the door. Then she moved about, putting on shirts and sweaters and socks and shoes. After a while, she saw that they had all stopped watching her; they were looking toward the window. She turned, and there he was.
He looked little different in daylight: perhaps not so sinister. Perhaps. He was older than she’d thought, his hair a dark gray. His eyebrows were smooth and sleek, emphasizing his eyes, which were on her. She froze, finished what she was doing, then walked steadily to the door and opened it. She stood firmly on the threshold. “Yes? Can I help you?” Her words were breathless.
He studied her kindly, his eyebrows raised slightly when she spoke; his lips parted. He seemed to take a quick step towards her, but held himself back. “What beautiful children,” he said. “And so well behaved.” In fact, that was the thing she liked about the children. Clean and well behaved. He smiled at her and nodded his head politely. “A pleasure to see it. You take good care of them.” His smile was thoroughly engaging and he looked at her with pleasure.
She decided not to answer immediately. She was standing on the vestibule step so she stood slightly above him—it was a pleasure to be a tall woman—and she took a deep breath to stand even taller. “You’re new here?” she said. “I don’t recognize you.”
“You don’t?” he asked. “I saw you the other night. Ah, I see, you’ve forgotten me already.” He sounded genuinely sad. “I haven’t forgotten you. I’ve been thinking about you ever since. What a firm neck, I thought,” and he brought his hand up to gently, ever so gently to touch the hollow above her collarbone. “I’m a connoisseur of necks.” He laughed out loud. “That sounded ridiculous, didn’t it? Even I could hear it.” His eyes crinkled, looking for her to join him, and she did finally—she smiled. “All I meant was that I knew immediately I’d be thinking about you until I saw you again and here I am—lucky that it didn’t take so long.” He made a sort of formal bow, but in the middle of it he looked behind her and said, “What’s this? What have we here?” and she felt disappointed that his attention had wandered so quickly away from her (though she had been trying to think of what to say to discourage his nonsense). Behind her, she felt something brush against her thigh.
“Hello,” a small voice whispered. “We’ve been waiting.”
She felt a quick throb of dizziness, and whirled around. All the children were clustered behind her, and they were smiling and blinking and moving and their lips were getting used to talking again.
All those months—all those months of tending them and wondering what had happened and grieving for them, for the way they’d been altered—she couldn’t think, she really couldn’t think what was happening. But she whirled around again, back to the man, whom all the children were smiling at. She could feel their excitement, their happiness. All for him? “What is it?” she cried. “They haven’t moved the whole time I’ve been here. What did you do to them?”
He shrugged. It was a comical shrug, eyebrows raised, eyes lolling around, lips stretched—and the children laughed. He was doing it for the children, being their clown, their friend, their favorite uncle. How did he get to be that?
“I’m good with children,” he said, and then spoke to them as they ducked under her arm and even pushed her out of the way. “I’ve been everywhere looking for you! Hasn’t been a day I’ve been alive where I haven’t said, Now where is Jonesy and Marsha and Liv, where did I put them and whatever has happened to my memory? And there you are, just as if nothing happened at all!” His voice was soothing and pleasant and entirely wonderful. No trace of anger or impatience at having looked so long and far, no tears of joy, no overwhelming hugging—just the kind of voice that said here we are again and life is good for all of us and see that’s just the way it is and is and is. She felt herself leaning a little bit forward, wavering a little bit. Life is good for all of us and see that’s just the way it is and is and is. She closed her eyes briefly and took a breath.
“What do you want them for?” she asked. The children—or only some of them—looked at her for a second, then turned away, lively and joyous. Her chin rose up, defiant.
That insufferable smile again! “Why, I love them, of course,” he said, and they all began to yell, pointing at him and declaring they were his and no one else would do. No one else loved them as much and they loved no one else and they would die if they couldn’t be with him.
She looked around, raking the streets. Surely someone would hear the commotion and help her? “It’s all right,” he said, surprised at her tension. “I don’t harm children.” She frowned, lowering her head, lifting her eyes to study him surreptitiously. Medium height, slim. His hands were tough, thick, hardened. Her heart beat a little faster. His shoes were scuffed—but what could shoes tell her? His voice sounded musical; a lovely voice, seductive. It made her back tighten. She was being drawn in and she resented it, this fatal, fatal spell. Her heart rose to her ears, listening to the songs of the birds high above. Sweet and accepting, praising all life.
He was still expecting her reply. “I wouldn’t let you hurt them,” she said finally, raising her head to meet his eyes. He was attentive, devoted to her next word; bent only a bit towards her, like a plant reaching for sun. He was one of those people whose glance seemed to penetrate, to demand confidences, intimacies, long before you were ready. Did everyone fall down at his feet?
“Have I said something wrong?” he asked, and his voice sounded sincerely confused; his face puckered a little around his brow. She might have been hasty; she was often hasty.
“Sorry. We’re protective about the children.” It was best to remind him that she was part of a “we.” It was best to let him know she wasn’t alone. There would be someone along soon. Some of the children had swept out past her. They touched him and grabbed his arm or his waist, their faces radiant again, alive and mobile. She found herself disliking this. She would rather they were back the way they were.
He nodded, as if thoughtful, and bent his head to the children. “We can go out together soon, would you like that? To the mountains? To the river? Have a picnic and play in the trees? Like we once did? Would you like that?”
“How do you know them?” she asked. She wanted to hear what he would say—or simply hear his voice, his pleasant voice.
“I go from town to town,” he said easily. “I’m a musician. I play for children.” He put his hand like a cap on one of them, a little girl. “Do you remember how I played for you. Sentimental Shoes and Riding on the Clouds?”
“Yes, yes!” they cried, hopping around him.
“We’ll do it again as soon as she lets us,” he said. “We’ll take her with us, too, won’t that be nice? So no one will be worried?” He cast a sidelong glance at her; he was mischievous. He began to shoo them back into the store and they let him—those silly, silly children, gazing at him with wonder in their eyes, letting him do what he wanted. He got them inside, then stood next to her in the doorway, winking. His eyes were brown, with a dark ring around the iris, clever eyes. She had to look away from him.
He moved past her to the street and then looked back. “You children, now be good and perhaps we’ll all go for a run tomorrow? Down the hill and to the sea? Far away and then back again?” He stepped backwards and backwards until he was almost gone, and then he bowed to Nina. “And if you could come it would delight me.”
The children balled up behind her, trying to break through, and she had to brace herself against the door jam. “Now stop,” she said, trying to be patient, but they kept pushing and crying so she had to grab the door and force it shut and splay herself against it to keep them from pushing through. “No,” she hissed, “no, you can’t go with him. Not today and not tomorrow. Now go back to your beds, go and be quiet again. I don’t like you like this, you want too much and it’s no good. Get back!” She raised her arms up together, sharply, as if she were lifting or throwing something, and they stepped back as a group, cowering a little (not a thing she liked to see, but still). Then one by one, the joy went out of them and they settled down. They stood around her, their heads craned back, just staring. It unnerved her. She sat down on the floor, and they all sat. “That’s better,” she whispered. “Don’t hope for him, don’t hope at all.” She felt as if her heart had lost half its strength. She found herself sagging as they sagged, slowing down. She shook herself to life again and left, locking the door behind her.
Walter’s face looked as if he’d lost a huge amount of weight: hollow-cheeked, with skin that had come unstuck. “He’s after me, not the children,” he said. When she had no answer, he looked up to see her face, perfectly composed, watching him. “What is it?”
“Why would he want you?” She hadn’t meant to be so harsh, but it was an effort to pretend sympathy for such a heaviness of spirit—Walter was always reminding you of his history, of his disappointments. As if no one else had burdens.
“The children are here because of me. I told you that. He took them away because of me, and I followed him for days and days, careful to stay far enough away so that he wouldn’t bedevil me.”
He dropped his voice. “He made me promise something—money—and then, I don’t know how, he made me refuse.” He pulled himself straight. “I am a principled man. I am an honorable man. There’s something about him—I don’t know what it is, but he can grab you.” His eyebrows grew impossibly agitated, wriggling and plunging.
She held her hands together. “He seemed ordinary to me,” she said, wanting to believe it. She saw the red creep up Walter’s neck and realized she had insulted his sense of danger, his carefulness.
“I don’t think he wants you at all,” she said finally, triumphantly, seeing his lips tighten and his eyes grow small.
She made sure to be there early the next day, the whole day, not to miss him. She had told Fleur she would watch the children; she had considered asking someone else to be there with her, but decided against it. She wasn’t afraid to be alone with him; in fact, she welcomed it.
The children were bland again, but she thought she could detect an invisible excitement in the room. From them? From her? She paced restlessly, going to the window again and again, looking out, down the cobbled streets, to the vanishing points at each corner. Where was he?
She opened the door and looked out. A bird sang, that same bird. Pure, hopeful; it made her wrists throb with blood. For a moment it all seemed possible: she could lose herself again, without becoming so hopelessly lost. Besides, he was a different kind of man; he wouldn’t madden her with deceptions, provocations, disloyalty.
“Is he here yet?” Fleur asked breathlessly. Her chest heaved; she had been running. She must have rounded the corner as Nina looked in the other direction. Her face was eager, her eyes wide, the pupils melting into the darkness of her iris. She looked fresh, Nina thought; too fresh. She smelled of spices: cumin, perhaps, and lemongrass.
“Who?”’ she asked coldly.
“You know, Piers. He said to meet him here. I’m a little early.”
“Piers? Is that his name?” Nina snapped. “He already left.”
Taken aback, Fleur looked over her shoulder, and all around, before looking back at her friend. Her eyes had tears in them. “He said he would be here,” she said. “I must have gotten it wrong.” She poised her head on the tip of her neck; she looked fragile. Nina watched her walk away and took note of the triumph in her heart.
Then suddenly he was there and the children stirred and waved and chattered and cried out for him. It put her teeth on edge. They pushed past her; none of them cared for anyone but Piers. If that was his name. A ridiculous name.
And yet he came and all her muscles ached and her heart spread through her head. She felt sewn to him, pulled by threads. The children rushed to him, clamoring, their hands out, wiggling.
He bent down, putting his lips next to a girl’s ear and said, “Pretty, pretty.” He moved to a boy and said the same thing. They were delighted, their arms reaching up to him; some of the children, the smallest ones, were crying with impatience. The sound drove her mad.
“You don’t like children,” he said casually. He made it sound inconsequential, as if he didn’t care either.
“Of course I do,” she answered quickly. “But I’m used to their being… quiet. They were so quiet until you came for them.”
He shook his head, still gazing at her. “I didn’t come for them,” he said, lowering his voice. “I came for you.”
Her heart thudded; she held her breath to calm it down. The moment he said it, his voice drew something from her. Not a remarkable voice, but still there was that great feat of being personal behind it.
“For you,” he repeated sweetly, “didn’t you know? Don’t you feel it? You drew me here, confess it. Tell me the truth. You called me here, didn’t you, sorceress, witch, succubus?” His lips played with the words, and she hung on them, she swayed. What was it—his eyes, his lips, his breath, the rough tips of his fingers?
“It’s you,” she breathed. “Enraptured me.”
“Ah, ah,” he cried to her, running the side of his hand across her chin, down her throat. “I wouldn’t have thought it was possible, to love like this.” He seemed to be talking to himself, helplessly in thrall to her, except for the sneaky way his eyes tracked her every move. “Do you love me?” he asked in a terribly sad voice. “Love me as I love you? Do you feel bound to me, the way I feel bound to you? I dream of you, in the daytime as well, yes, I raise my hand and I imagine touching your hair. I walk and I imagine walking with you. I drink wine, and I feel as intoxicated as I feel with you. Nina, I’m a fool, I know it, no sane person could love as I love you.” He pulled her fists towards him, and she followed her fists. “Come with me? Follow me? We’ll go away to the hills, we’ll make our own town, our own city. Nowhere else on earth will be like it. Just come with me, will you? Please?” And his lips touched her eyelids; when had she closed her eyes?
“Yes,” she breathed, no matter how she wished to say no.
“Promise?” he asked, his breath on her ear. “Give me your word?”
“Yes,” she said again, betrayed.
Fleur was up early, her footsteps tapping gently down the hallway. Nina, awake, listened to it and then got up and dressed quietly. She followed behind her in the hour before dawn. The dark was like a wall; she caught Fleur as she appeared under the streetlamps, one after another, a series of doorways in the night.
She almost stumbled on them; she turned the corner and jerked back at once; they were on a bench in the square. Their knees were almost touching as he held Fleur’s hand and whispered to her. Nina heard the rhythm of his voice, susurrating on the air. Fleur’s head bowed, then reared, then leaned in inch by inch, magnetized. Nina longed to move in closer, closer to him, even as she saw how Fleur was beguiled. She had no ears, no eyes, no hands, except for him. Nina saw it, and she wanted to tear her friend apart, spit at her, curse her, wanted to prove how poor she was and unworthy. She stood there, planning how to hurt her and best her, how to annihilate her and trample her, in front of Piers, with Piers’ eyes watching.
And then a movement caught her and she saw a rat staring at her, its face twitching. They were aware of each other. And it occurred to Nina that the rat was watching her as she had watched Fleur; that this misery had caught them all, heightened and debased them all.
She forced herself to turn, forced herself to inch away from him, and went back to the boarding house. She sat in the parlor, watching the light move across the floor as the sun came up fully. She heard the dull squeak as Walter’s chair approached her, then stopped. She looked at him; she felt wild but she grabbed her nerves and hid them. He surveyed her cautiously. “Is anything wrong?” he whispered. She shook her head. “But there’s something wrong,” he insisted. “Is he here?” He looked around the room.
He pulled his chair up to her. His eyes were bright; she could see his hands squeezing the arms of the chair. “It’s him,” Walter said. “He’s coming for me?”
She kept her voice low. “He doesn’t care about you.” He flinched as if she’d slapped him. “He’s come for me.” She couldn’t keep the satisfaction out of her voice. “And for Fleur.” That was bitter. “There may be others, for all I know. He steals something from us, doesn’t he? You, the children, Fleur. Me.” She couldn’t help how her heart beat; she felt a bliss just in talking about him. “He takes our wishes, doesn’t he? Steals them; keeps them? Or our desires? What does he do to us?” Her voice was exasperated, but she felt the longing coming out, that obsessive need to talk about him.
Walter wheeled his chair back. “He wants to take the children. That’s how he’ll get to me. But I’ve been preparing for this day.” His eyes were glaring at her; his whole face seemed hectic. “I’m ready now. He can’t win.” He grabbed a doll from the box near the doorway. She watched as he wound it up, then placed it on the floor.
It was only about a foot high. It was dressed simply, as the children in the store were dressed. It walked quickly, with short but steady steps. It moved straight ahead, then veered a little to the right. “I put in little turns like that,” Walter said proudly. “Just a slight twist at various places in the wheel that runs it. It will make turns. Each one slightly different.” He leaned down, pulled out another doll, and wound it up. “And I’ve been working at making them almost self-perpetual. When they move their legs another gear is cocked, and it winds the second spring. And so it goes on and on.” He pulled out another one, and another, until the dolls began to collide with each other, or with the walls. They stopped, then turned slightly. “They can go around obstacles,” he said proudly. “Not all obstacles. But they’ll go for a while. And the children will follow them,” he said triumphantly. “If we do it right, they’ll go off one by one. Maybe if they separate they’ll go back to normal. Maybe that will show him—“ He broke off.
“I see,” she said thoughtfully. He was doing it for Piers, not for the children. “Do you want to try it now?” she asked. Her nerves were tingling with the urge to find Piers. “I know he’s on his way to the children. I can help get the dolls started.”
He bent over his box. Was he counting the dolls? Was he reluctant to see them go? He patted them finally, shifting them slightly. Ah yes, she realized, he was preparing himself. He was making sure his weapons were oiled and ready. He gathered up the dolls that were still walking around the room. “Yes,” he said. “Now.” She picked up the box and placed it in his lap and then wheeled him out the door. His hands kept touching the box, tapping it, gentling it, even as she wheeled him up the streets to the storefront where the children sat or stood, waiting.
Fleur was there, looking out the window. Her color was high, her back was straight, she smiled at them and then looked past them. For a moment, Nina had the urge to go and stand beside her, stare with her out the window as they waited for him. She had to force herself to stay on the street with Walter; it was a terrible to force herself this way.
Fleur came out and joined them, her hands adjusting her hair. “He’s coming,” she whispered, and Nina looked down the street. She could almost see the air move in anticipation. It fretted around the corners, peeking for him. Walter wheeled himself over, and they all stared, their brows drawn, and inside the children stood at attention.
“I have a message for you,” Nina said. “I forgot. He said to wait in the square.” She pointed away from them, to the square where they had first seen him. She willed herself to smile, but her eyes felt harsh.
Fleur took a deep, delighted breath. “Of course!” she cried, and she ran away, excited just to be running towards him.
Nina was rigid with anticipation; even her pulse wanted to beat in Piers’ direction. She saw that the children were beginning to stir. “Walter!” she cried. “The box. Take them out. Now.” He grabbed a doll and wound it up, and set it down on the street. It began to totter over to the wall as he pulled out a second one. The children came out and stood in the street. One or two noticed the dolls, but their eyes wandered from them to the street, looking for Piers, as she did too. She watched a child begin to follow and then stop and spin around and she turned and found Piers grinning at her, his eyebrows raised in amusement. She smiled back at him, relieved and hating herself. A doll knocked into her ankle, and she looked down and saw that Walter had stopped winding them; the children were moving towards Piers, their faces opening up with joy.
“What a very nice talent that is,” Piers said, winking at Walter. “Dolls.”
Walter let a doll drop from his hand.
Her body leaned out to him. The children pushed past her, crying, “I’m here! I’m here!” and curled themselves around him. His eyes twinkled at her, she moved towards him, pushing children aside. “I won’t have it,” she said huskily. “I refuse. I don’t care what power you have; I have power too.” She shivered with the effort to save herself, even as she wanted to trace the angle of his cheekbones back into the slightly dented space beside his brows. He was closer and closer, leaning in, and the intoxication of it made her want to cease fighting, to stop caring and let it all go away from her, into him.
He held out his hand. “Come with me, Nina” he said, with a light, lilting, intoxicating murmur. And he drew her along with him, down the street. The children pranced around him, and Walter wheeled his chair, following and crying, “You can’t escape me! You can’t leave!” They reached the street leading up to the hill, which had a short series of steps. Walter halted there, and Nina turned to see him trying to stand, his hand pulling himself up on the railing. The wheelchair slipped back away from him; he fell. She saw it with a kind of reluctance; Walter had fallen; she should go to him. She turned, took a step, then another, until she came within a few feet of him. His eyes blinked, staring at her; his fingers moved. It was enough; he lived. She turned back, relieved, and saw that Piers had gotten far ahead.
She touched the silver cord around her neck, fingering it, and then raced to catch up with them. She followed him, at a distance, catching sight of him among the trees and down along the cliffs. He never looked back for her; not once. Still, she could tell, by the alert way he held his shoulders, that he knew she was there. Along the way, as children scrambled, or laughed, or called out for him, running up to touch his arm or leg, she fell and leapt up again with a feeling of horror, of absolute horror that she might, for an instant, lose sight of him and thereby lose sight of the world. She had to be close enough to hear his voice call on the air, “Keep with me, my dears, keep with me. I can never come back to find you again.” She had to hear his whistle, which sounded like it came from a magic bird whose lungs were made of crystal.
And then he stopped and waited for her, turning his radiant face, his lips barely suppressing a smile. The children spun around him, touching him and then running off to bring him a flower, a stone. She swept up to him, watching his eyes on her, almost out of breath with looking at him, his head framed by the hills, his eyes splendid, and she threw her arms around his neck, clutching at his lips with her teeth. At her bite, he jerked back in surprise and she threw her weight against his and they fell together, entwined.
She took the loop around her neck and pulled it up and over his. His first response to the cord was to grab her wrist and hold firm. The children piled on them, calling out, “Me! Me!” and their tears of longing wet the upper part of Nina’s arm. They were so entangled that Piers could not raise his right hand at all, and the left one, around Nina’s wrist, was locked in that one gesture. Nina thought, I cannot love another man as well. She pressed her lips again, quickly, against his neck.
“My love,” he breathed into her ear. He smelled of rocks and streams and his breath crept into her ears and hung there. She recalled her pursuit of him, and the way he had turned to glance at her at the end, and the look of his eyes—inviting, challenging—as he saw her come to him. She wanted nothing more than to follow him forever, to see that face, that gaze, to hear him say “My dear” to her, and all that longing moved through her heart to her skin and she held the man she desired. “My love,” she whispered back.
And the children squealed and held on tight, and his eyes drifted to them, and he adjusted himself within her grasp—subtle, shifting, his right arm moving to pull another small shoulder into his orbit.
She hated that small treachery. He looked away and she took in a breath and pulled the cord tight and tighter, his head swinging back to watch her, his eyes deepening.
She held him; he seemed to change in her arms: wounded, vengeful, haunting, gentle. His nose brushed her chin; his hair caught in her mouth. She was mad for him; detested him; wanted him gone; wanted him with her forever.
The children kept them both pressed to the ground, kept her weight on top of his, her hand tightening the cord around his throat. She would never feel like this again, so lost in it, and despite the grief her hand pulled the cord, tighter and tighter, as he looked at her and his face flew from scorn to pity to lust. And then death.
The children sobbed, all at once. They crawled off him and stood up, blinking and rubbing their clothes or their hands.
Nina released the cord and stood up. She gazed down at Piers, already beginning to lose his shape, sagging into the ground.
She frowned. It was falling away from her, all of his force, and dulling the world. The children felt it too and stood confused, then began to look around. Their eyes swept over him and failed to recognize him, and one child whispered to another and they moved away in twos and threes, holding hands or running.
Piers looked deflated now, no longer magic. His hair was greasy, his teeth were crooked, he had no beauty, no allure, and it hurt for a moment that whatever he had been was now gone from the world. She bent down over his shape and kissed his forehead and closed his eyes. His skin smelled of earth and sweat, nothing more.
The children were released from their spell and were no happier. Nina had a coffin made, with a glass lid, and they carried Piers to the mountains, and buried him at the foot. She built a cottage next to him and planted herbs and spices at the head and foot of his coffin, starting with lavender, thyme, anise, lemon, and rue. And she became happy.