For Aaron Hunter
Children are cruel. No one who has lived in the world need ask for proof of that. So it is nothing for them to beat a living creature—a rare, marvellous creature at that—to death. They do so in order to seize the treasure inside it, but one sees the pleasure they take in this assassination of life, even before the plunder starts. Their laughter bounces from yard-wall to yard-wall and their eyes shine darkly as they beat the animal, which has done nothing to them, with wooden sticks and swords, until holes open in its body and the prizes—caramels, toys, game money printed with pictures of wrestlers and cartoon characters—rain down into their hands.
I am Molimus. I live under the bridge where the day-boats go from wet and wooden Bracklow to the foot of the sweeping stone stair going up the hill to Firmitas and the military school.
I am called Molimus the Great by some here in Bracklow, in recognition of my height and strength. My shirt is made of four men’s shirts sewn together, and an eight-pound cheese wheel fits in the palm of my hand. By profession I trade in flotsam, which I catch under the bridge in these great hands of mine and sell at the Pauper’s Forum up by Shindy Estate.
Because of this occupation, which keeps me under the bridge watching the water from morning until late at night, I oftentimes see the dead animals. If the husks are not burnt, people toss them into the river. I see them on holidays, especially, when the slaughtered numbers are high, but they are killed all year round.
To look at them! Never did dreams supply such a zoo of little spotted and striped horses and chequered gazelles, sky-blue lions, dawn-pink bears, gallant golden beetles, chivalrous silver anteaters! I have even seen elephants amongst them, and star-shaped beasts that must have come from the carved waves of the sea before they were captured and hung up to be put to death.
To see their poor empty bodies makes me cry into the water—sometimes so much that I think the tears of Molimus could turn the river salty.
I can’t even salvage them for trading. The bodies last for very little time after they have yielded up the ghost. The husks are as diaphanous as cellophane, and any part submerged below the water dissolves like bread in soup.
I had never thought to see a live one that wasn’t already hanging in a yard, soon to die. But that is what happened. It was an October night, a while after sundown, when the day-boats were back at their moorings and the water was full of the dark medicinal colour of an overcast sky. I saw the head of a little horse, banded in red, blue, white and gold like the flag of some merry knight, tossing on the river waves—another dead victim of a party, I assumed, until I came to see the striped legs that were churning the water.
Despite his predicament there was nothing frightful about his looks, as I saw when his head turned towards me. Far from showing panic, he gave me a game sort of grin and rolled his eye as if to say, “It’s the world! What can you do?”
It was a simple thing to reach out and carry him into my little hut of boards and bark, where I wrapped him in a blanket and set him in front of the oil stove to get dry and warm.
I had saved a life and that life therefore became my responsibility. I did all I could to nurse the little striped horse, who I named the Gleeful Horse, but I could see my efforts coming to nothing. He was as full of holes as a sieve and his legs were twisted. I bound his wounds with clean rags and tried to feed him, but he had no appetite, despite his steady good cheer.
It became clear to me that I would have to take the bus out to Barrage Cross to get help from near there. I went in the early morning and carried the Gleeful Horse in a string bag. He seemed to enjoy the sight of the green market gardens of Shindy Back through the windows of the bus, and as we drove through the chalk hills that roll away behind the gardens his fiddle-shaped nostrils and his round hindquarters twitched, as if in his own mind he was galloping about out there on the world’s green grass.
From the Barrage Cross shops I walked out of the village, into the trees, and down the little grey weedy paths through the birch and buckthorn, going by the way that leads to the Garth of the Aorist: where trunk and branch turn, by and rumly by, into pillar and vault, and the path passes into the shade of stone arcades forming a four-sided cloister around a garth choked high with enormous brambles.
As you must, I walked around the cloister with the sun a certain number of times, then against the sun another number, then with the sun again, so that the brambles withdrew underground, all the thorny bundles coming apart and slithering below in one rush as if a giant in the earth had them on a rope (the effect on the eye is striking). After this, where all was a wild saw-toothed muddle just a moment or two ago, in another moment the lawn of trefoil and clover grew, which grows no matter the season—as dainty a green spread as you could wish for a picnic or a wedding. Upon the grass, as settled as a hen in the middle of the sweet-smelling lawn, there appeared the dwelling that appears: a round, rose-bosomed hut of dry-stone, having a chimney at the rear and one doorless doorway at the front, facing the coming visitor across the green court.
Entering this shelter, half house, half dovecote, as it were, with the Gleeful Horse in the string bag under my arm, I tugged my cap to the White Ma’at, the last Ma’at.
Whoever first painted the omen-card where she is shown as a figure seated with legs crosswise in front of a painted hearth must have seen her, or been advised by someone who had; at any rate, I have never found her arranged other than in this wise when I come to her house.
The White Ma’at: a woman, or a woman-shaped thing, built in a long and heavy way, with a tall forehead like a white wall and a knotty blue vein labouring up it. What lies on the other side is a great store of irregular, wonderful knowledge; a cellar provisioned with all the vintages of magic. What she doesn’t see through her milky cataracts would fit in a baby’s sock.
She already knows about the Gleeful Horse.
“That is a treasure animal,” she says, even before I’ve finished pulling him out of the bag. He has no fear of her; he gives even the White Ma’at his qualmless grin. Nor does he mind that she doesn’t grin back. When she taps on his bandaged belly with a sharp knuckle he only rolls his eye and winks at me. He makes no fuss even when the Ma’at prises his mouth open and squints inside. Her parsnip-white fingers find something under his tongue. A toy—a plastic ring with a false emerald. She shows it to me and puts it back.
“When all their treasure is gone, they die,” she says simply.
My poor horse, having to hang onto that uncomfortable lump. I suppose that if he swallowed it, it might fall out one of the holes in his side when the bandages I put on come loose, as they not infrequently do.
I take him from the White Ma’at and sit with him in my lap, expecting her to offer me a healing charm or a recipe for physick. But instead, she tells me:
“You mustn’t blame the children. They don’t see that this is a living thing, Molimus.”
“They do see,” I say in reply, uncomfortably, for it isn’t really safe to argue with the White Ma’at. “And they enjoy turning it into a dead thing.”
“Molimus,” she starts, and I know she is going to defend them, and I can’t fathom why—“Molimus, you have a foot in both worlds. And in one world this animal has life, and you see it, and I see it, but in the other world it has no life, it is a thing. You see more than most persons, true, but that’s damning with faint praise. Your eyes have a picture of cruelty on the inside. You see that picture clearly, and because of it, see other things unclearly.”
I think of what I might say and choose silence. When I think of how that picture came to be there on the inside of my eyes, I am certain beyond any possibility of error that children know what is alive, and moreover that they are disposed to do harm with this knowledge. I’m surprised that the Ma’at doesn’t know.
But in any case, I don’t see what this has to do with my horse and his needs.
Then, rare for her, she asks a question: “Why do you want to save that thing?”
I feel like answering that I didn’t come all this way to talk to a town matron with ordinary vulgar ideas. I wish I could hide the thought, but she says, “What do I care about your dull thoughts, Molimus?” Her hands fall at her sides after she speaks. The unstrung gesture is not one that should belong to her. She isn’t like herself at all today, so that I dare to ask:
“Is anything wrong, Ma’at?”
There’s nothing to like about the distracted way she pinches at the folds of her clothing, as if the white wool were full of seeds and burrs, nor the way her jaw goes around like a cow’s chewing cud. Thankfully, both motions cease and she retires her hands to her sides again—they look better hanging than twitching.
There’s no reason why the Ma’at shouldn’t be tired, of course. She was old a long time ago, and her life has certainly had its ups and downs. But it’s too much to believe that she is actually infirm in either body or mind. Or that she is changing. The world changes. The White Ma’at doesn’t.
“The White Ma’at doesn’t,” she echoes me aloud. I can’t tell whether she is agreeing or mocking me.
I try to think of nothing, while her eyes move back and forth under the cataracts, probably following the movements of figures she sees in her head.
It comes to me that she would surely have dismissed me by now if she didn’t have any magic for the Gleeful Horse. So perhaps she wants to bargain, after all, and has a peculiar way of saying so today.
The White Ma’at is a great one for bargaining. When she was young, as they tell it in Bracklow and Shindy, she lost a battle that she shouldn’t have lost. Rather than blame herself she blamed her armies and cursed those of her loyal men who were left alive. She cast a spell that pushed them into the chalk hills like raisins in a pudding, so that they all died in the white dark.
After that she slept, and was captured whilst asleep. She was to have been hung and burnt, but she escaped—by means of a bargain with Prince November himself. That’s why she never leaves her house in the midst of the cloister. Prince November keeps her there. He knows she’d escape from him forever if he let her wander even as far as to the paths in the birch wood, never mind to the bus stop at Barrage Cross. Gossip says he drinks knowledge from the vein on her forehead at night and uses it for his business in the world.
The White Ma’at says she doesn’t care about my dull thoughts. But if I had some thoughts that glimmered a little? Perhaps she wants payment or part-payment in that coin. She is getting fretful, it may be, like a bored child, sick of her boxed-in life, and wants to hear a wonder-tale. I would rather believe that than believe she has changed, or is changing.
But how to give wonder to a creature like her?
“Well, White Ma’at,” I begin at last, “as for why I want to save him, it’s like this. . .”
From the seed of the name I gave him there grows a tale of happiness and delight that was lost to the world even before the long-ago age when the Ma’ats ruled from their halls where Shindy Estate is now. The gist is that my Gleeful Horse will bring this happiness back to us.
Or the beginning of the tale grows, anyway, issuing from me like a run of notes from a whistle. I use my best words—words and devices of speech I have heard during my life and remembered for their decorative and noble effects but have never had occasion to use aloud.
My efforts sound very handsome to me—so handsome that they even sound truthful.
But before I am much past the beginning, the White Ma’at snaps “Enough!” so sharply that I jump. In the glare of her cataracts, my story lies dead. If it had been a treasure animal it would have been not beaten with wooden weapons but dispatched in an instant with one swing of a real sword.
I want to cry out that this is not a game. It’s all I can do to bite my tongue. I can’t make myself not think of putting my huge hands around the neck of the White-Ma’at and shutting her throat for her. Of course, if I tried something so mad, she might drum me into the ground like the biggest raisin of all. I feel sick, not for my sake but for the sake of my horse, whose winking eye shows how little he understands.
But the White Ma’at only twitches her lips, as if she were amused at last.
“Let’s not tell the end of the story,” she says, and her voice is calm. And she, then: “You must fill that sorry thing with treasures again, Molimus.” I don’t like her calling him a sorry thing. But I hearken to what she tells me, now that she is speaking about the Gleeful Horse.
“You don’t know at all why you want to save it. But I know on your behalf. The future will work through you, Molimus. Who would have imagined that? Replenish his treasures—you have your work, Molimus the Great. Replenish them abundantly.”
“And how shall I do that?” I ask gruffly. Her insults and sneering tone have rubbed me up the wrong way, and I can’t hide it—but I think she was telling the truth that she doesn’t care about my thoughts, even if they’re disrespectful. “Should I buy caramels and trinkets and feed them to him?”
“No,” she answers to my words. “The world inside him is yet another world. You can’t see it, Molimus. These things, these nothings that fall out of a treasure animal, are altogether different when they’re inside him. In the world inside him, they are more like stars. It is elements—starlike pieces—of this sort that you must gather and feed to him. He has one left, as you saw. One is not enough.”
I feel a qualm, as if conspiracy sits there with us. The Ma’at sounds more like herself again, but I am suddenly ill with a spasm that feels like shame. I can’t say whether this is the reasonable compunction that belongs properly to the healthy conscience of a man, or an imaginative, fanciful shame. Whatever it is, here in the Garth of the Aorist it has the shape of a real, solid thing stuck in my gullet, making me gag around it. My tongue feels it as it comes up with a mouthful of bile. It is annular, with an embellishment on one side: a sort of ornamented sphincter. I spit the plastic ring out onto the floor, where its stones of pure false red blink sleepily in the weak sun that has placed one foot through the opening in the wall.
The White Ma’at picks it up and makes it vanish between her fingers like a street magician doing a coin trick.
“Was that a starlike piece?” I ask.
She says no, it wasn’t, but it was something I should feel better for having got out of me.
And waits, until I ask where I should find them.
Within every living thing is a starlike piece. Those within human beings are bright, and those within children are the brightest of all. As people age, the starlike parts grow dim as though with distance, except in the cases of certain geniuses and halfwits. At first I didn’t understand how children can be so cruel and their starlike parts so bright, but the White Ma’at, who told me these things when she gave me the Wine of Smoke, said that she knew nothing of stars being kind, only of their being powerful.
She asked me three times if I really wished to drink the Wine of Smoke.
The Wine of Smoke was acquired by her, hundreds of years ago, from a man who combined the talents of wizard and vintner, who had come to the Garth of the Aorist to bargain with her. She intended to use it to escape from the confinement that Prince November had forced on her. But even after drinking a draft and becoming smoke, she found that she still could not penetrate past the cloister. The White Ma’at spent more than a century in sorcerous meditation of the most strenuous kind to turn her body back to flesh.
For someone who is not a sorcerer there is no such possibility of return. And the gift of death is lost. If one who had drunk the Wine of Smoke were captured and, for example, shut within a bottle and the bottle sent deep into the earth, he would be stuck in that bind until the end of time. This, said the White Ma’at, is the penalty I should expect to suffer if I ever break our agreement.
As if I would ever break it—for all is well with the Gleeful Horse. He greets me leaping and grinning when I return home in the early mornings. Even before I get back, I hear him whinny merrily when he smells me coming through the fog on the river.
I think he has forgotten that he was ever hurt. There’s no rancour or fear in him, nothing timorous or furtive. He breathes in the starry motes—they look like sun-kissed thistledown—through his fiddle-shaped nostrils. He capers all around the bridge and the docks, rolling his eyes and winking, brave as a flag, friend to cats and dogs, and that is as it should be. I only wish I could pet him; but in the afternoons I lead him by my scent to Shindy Park, and the old ladies who feed the ducks there make a great fuss of him.
The starlike pieces don’t last very long—this being because they aren’t his own, the White Ma’at taught me—so I must keep putting them inside him, as she told me to do. For each one that I give to him, I must take another to give to her.
Over in Firmitas they shut all their gilded and vermilion windows at night, and in Bracklow and Shindy they hang up charms next to fireplaces. On both sides of the river they talk in whispers about the smoke that sticks to the life of children and pulls it away. The ones the smoke touches sicken and die quickly. Before they die they change, becoming like wax paper figures. You could light candles in them and they would be child-shaped lanterns. Because they become hollow, like treasure animals, the sick ones are euphemistically called Treasure Children.
Bracklow wonders where Molimus the Great has gone, but I’m still around, in the smoke of chimneys and bus exhausts, and in the engine smoke of the day boats ferrying the folk who work as maids and porters in Firmitas. I believe I know what the White Ma’at does with her share of the starlike pieces, for I’ve seen Prince November in his tin-shingled carriage out on the chalk hills more than once, with his retinue in dun and black, driving toward the birch wood. He and she have come to a new agreement, I think, whereby she is paying off her debts.
The vein on her forehead has become a lode of white gold: often swollen, but sometimes flat, so that the gossip about Prince November drinking from her has gained more currency amongst those who go to see her. But not so many do these days. Unthinkable as it is, she has changed. She is nearly always queer now. I never know whether she will be distracted or depressed or silly when I come with the lovely motes for her to inhale. She wears the ring I coughed up, and when she’s in her whimsical mood she steals admiring looks at it, as if it were a real ruby on her finger.
I would not have believed it possible, but since the emptying sickness has been in the world the old game of murdering treasure animals has fallen out of favour. Ball games and swap cards are popular now, and pageant games.
In the pageants, a character called Grinning Horse has for some time been a playground hero. He is the one who saves children by breathing in the smoke before it can reach them. He is also the one who, by the laws of the games, is the bold opponent of a certain Prince No-Never, and his old nurse, the Wheat Mate, and defeats them (as he defeats policemen, schoolmasters, and other vile enemies—often in rough and bloody ways, children being what they are). For months, I could make no pretence to having an explanation for this, but eventually I began to hear things. It seems that the Treasure Children themselves started the invention of Grinning Horse, Prince No-Never and the Wheat Mate. If what I have heard is true, the Treasure Children dream of these characters after the smoke visits them, and they say the smoke gives them the dreams in exchange for their lives. The dreams, and the part played by the smoke, they confide about to friends and siblings before they are seized by the silence that comes with the hollowing effect of the illness, and the accounts are reinforced by others who fall sick.
I remember the White Ma’at’s words concerning the future, and how my never-finished tale of the Gleeful Horse sounded true when I tried to tell it.
So perhaps it will all be just as I imagined.