فصل 32-33

مجموعه: نیروی اهریمنی اش / کتاب: دوربین کهربایی / فصل 12

فصل 32-33

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32

The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations …

• WILLIAM BLAKE •

MORNING

The wide golden prairie that Lee Scoresby’s ghost had seen briefly through the window was lying quiet under the first sun of morning.

Golden, but also yellow, brown, green, and every one of the million shades between them; and black, in places, in lines and streaks of bright pitch; and silvery, too, where the sun caught the tops of a particular kind of grass just coming into flower; and blue, where a wide lake some way off and a small pond closer by reflected back the wide blue of the sky.

And quiet, but not silent, for a soft breeze rustled the billions of little stems, and a billion insects and other small creatures scraped and hummed and chirruped in the grass, and a bird too high in the blue to be seen sang little looping falls of bell notes now close by, now far off, and never twice the same.

In all that wide landscape the only living things that were silent and still were the boy and the girl lying asleep, back to back, under the shade of an outcrop of rock at the top of a little bluff.

They were so still, so pale, that they might have been dead. Hunger had drawn the skin over their faces, pain had left lines around their eyes, and they were covered in dust and mud and not a little blood. And from the absolute passivity of their limbs, they seemed in the last stages of exhaustion.

Lyra was the first to wake. As the sun moved up the sky, it came past the rock above and touched her hair, and she began to stir, and when the sunlight reached her eyelids, she found herself pulled up from the depths of sleep like a fish, slow and heavy and resistant.

But there was no arguing with the sun, and presently she moved her head and threw her arm across her eyes and murmured: “Pan—Pan …”

Under the shadow of her arm, she opened her eyes and came properly awake. She didn’t move for some time, because her arms and legs were so sore, and every part of her body felt limp with weariness; but still she was awake, and she felt the little breeze and the sun’s warmth, and she heard the little insect scrapings and the bell song of that bird high above. It was all good. She had forgotten how good the world was.

Presently she rolled over and saw Will, still fast asleep. His hand had bled a lot, his shirt was ripped and filthy, his hair was stiff with dust and sweat. She looked at him for a long time, at the little pulse in his throat, at his chest rising and falling slowly, at the delicate shadows his eyelashes made when the sun finally reached them.

He murmured something and stirred. Not wanting to be caught looking at him, she looked the other way at the little grave they’d dug the night before, just a couple of hand spans wide, where the bodies of the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia now lay at rest. There was a flat stone nearby; she got up and prized it loose from the soil, and set it upright at the head of the grave, and then sat up and shaded her eyes to gaze across the plain.

It seemed to stretch forever and ever. It was nowhere entirely flat; gentle undulations and little ridges and gullies varied the surface wherever she looked, and here and there she saw a stand of trees so tall they seemed to be constructed rather than grown. Their straight trunks and dark green canopy seemed to defy distance, being so clearly visible at what must have been many miles away.

Closer, though—in fact, at the foot of the bluff, not more than a hundred yards away—there was a little pond fed by a spring coming out of the rock, and Lyra realized how thirsty she was.

She got up on shaky legs and walked slowly down toward it. The spring gurgled and trickled through mossy rocks, and she dipped her hands in it again and again, washing them clear of the mud and grime before lifting the water to her mouth. It was teeth-achingly cold, and she swallowed it with delight.

The pond was fringed with reeds, where a frog was croaking. It was shallow and warmer than the spring, as she discovered when she took off her shoes and waded into it. She stood for a long time with the sun on her head and her body, relishing the cool mud under her feet and the cold flow of springwater around her calves.

She bent down to dip her face under the water and wet her hair thoroughly, letting it trail out and flicking it back again, stirring it with her fingers to lift all the dust and grime out.

When she felt a little cleaner and her thirst was satisfied, she looked up the slope again, to see that Will was awake. He was sitting with his knees drawn up and his arms across them, looking out across the plain as she’d done, and marveling at the extent of it. And at the light, and at the warmth, and at the quiet.

She climbed slowly back to join him and found him cutting the names of the Gallivespians on the little headstone, and setting it more firmly in the soil.

“Are they …” he said, and she knew he meant the dæmons.

“Don’t know. I haven’t seen Pan. I got the feeling he’s not far away, but I don’t know. D’you remember what happened?”

He rubbed his eyes and yawned so deeply she heard little cracking noises in his jaw. Then he blinked and shook his head.

“Not much,” he said. “I picked up Pantalaimon and you picked up—the other one and we came through, and it was moonlight everywhere, and I put him down to close the window.”

“And your—the other dæmon just jumped out of my arms,” she said. “And I was trying to see Mr. Scoresby through the window, and Iorek, and to see where Pan had gone, and when I looked around, they just weren’t there.”

“It doesn’t feel like when we went into the world of the dead, though. Like when we were really separated.”

“No,” she agreed. “They’re somewhere near all right. I remember when we were young we used to try and play hide-and-seek, except it never really worked, because I was too big to hide from him and I always used to know exactly where he was, even if he was camouflaged as a moth or something. But this is strange,” she said, passing her hands over her head involuntarily as if she were trying to dispel some enchantment. “He en’t here, but I don’t feel torn apart, I feel safe, and I know he is.”

“They’re together, I think,” Will said.

“Yeah. They must be.”

He stood up suddenly.

“Look,” he said, “over there …”

He was shading his eyes and pointing. She followed his gaze and saw a distant tremor of movement, quite different from the shimmer of the heat haze.

“Animals?” she said doubtfully.

“And listen,” he said, putting his hand behind his ear.

Now he’d pointed it out, she could hear a low, persistent rumble, almost like thunder, a very long way off.

“They’ve disappeared,” Will said, pointing.

The little patch of moving shadows had vanished, but the rumble went on for a few moments. Then it became suddenly quieter, though it had been very quiet already. The two of them were still gazing in the same direction, and shortly afterward they saw the movement start up again. And a few moments later came the sound.

“They went behind a ridge or something,” said Will. “Are they closer?”

“Can’t really see. Yes, they’re turning, look, they’re coming this way.”

“Well, if we have to fight them, I want a drink first,” said Will, and he took the rucksack down to the stream, where he drank deep and washed off most of the dirt. His wound had bled a lot. He was a mess; he longed for a hot shower with plenty of soap, and for some clean clothes.

Lyra was watching the … whatever they were; they were very strange.

“Will,” she called, “they’re riding on wheels …”

But she said it uncertainly. He climbed back a little way up the slope and shaded his eyes to look. It was possible to see individuals now. The group, or herd, or gang, was about a dozen strong, and they were moving, as Lyra said, on wheels. They looked like a cross between antelopes and motorcycles, but they were stranger than that, even: they had trunks like small elephants.

And they were making for Will and Lyra, with an air of intention. Will took out the knife, but Lyra, sitting on the grass beside him, was already turning the hands of the alethiometer.

It responded quickly, while the creatures were still a few hundred yards away. The needle darted swiftly left and right, and left and left, and Lyra felt her mind dart to the meanings and land on them as lightly as a bird.

“They’re friendly,” she said, “it’s all right, Will, they’re looking for us, they knew we were here … And it’s odd, I can’t quite make it out … Dr. Malone?”

She said the name half to herself, because she couldn’t believe Dr. Malone would be in this world. Still, the alethiometer indicated her clearly, although of course it couldn’t give her name. Lyra put it away and stood up slowly beside Will.

“I think we should go down to them,” she said. “They en’t going to hurt us.”

Some of them had stopped, waiting. The leader moved ahead a little, trunk raised, and they could see how he propelled himself with powerful backward strokes of his lateral limbs. Some of the creatures had gone to the pond to drink; the others waited, but not with the mild, passive curiosity of cows gathering at a gate. These were individuals, lively with intelligence and purpose. They were people.

Will and Lyra moved down the slope until they were close enough to speak to them. In spite of what Lyra had said, Will kept his hand on the knife.

“I don’t know if you understand me,” Lyra said cautiously, “but I know you’re friendly. I think we should—”

The leader moved his trunk and said, “Come see Mary. You ride. We carry. Come see Mary.”

“Oh!” she said, and turned to Will, smiling with delight.

Two of the creatures were fitted with bridles and stirrups of braided cord. Not saddles; their diamond-shaped backs turned out to be comfortable enough without them. Lyra had ridden a bear, and Will had ridden a bicycle, but neither had ridden a horse, which was the closest comparison. However, riders of horses are usually in control, and the children soon found that they were not: the reins and the stirrups were there simply to give them something to hold on to and balance with. The creatures themselves made all the decisions.

“Where are—” Will began to say, but had to stop and regain his balance as the creature moved under him.

The group swung around and moved down the slight slope, going slowly through the grass. The movement was bumpy, but not uncomfortable, because the creatures had no spine; Will and Lyra felt that they were sitting on chairs with a well-sprung seat.

Soon they came to what they hadn’t seen clearly from the bluff: one of those patches of black or dark brown ground. And they were as surprised to find roads of smooth rock lacing through the prairie as Mary Malone had been sometime before.

The creatures rolled onto the surface and set off, soon picking up speed. The road was more like a watercourse than a highway. In places it broadened into wide areas like small lakes; and at others it split into narrow channels, only to combine again unpredictably. It was quite unlike the brutal, rational way roads in Will’s world sliced through hillsides and leapt across valleys on bridges of concrete. This was part of the landscape, not an imposition on it.

They were going faster and faster. It took Will and Lyra a while to get used to the living impulse of the muscles and the shuddering thunder of the hard wheels on the hard stone. Lyra found it more difficult than Will at first, because she had never ridden a bicycle, and she didn’t know the trick of leaning into the corner; but she saw how he was doing it, and soon she was finding the speed exhilarating.

The wheels made too much noise for them to speak. Instead, they had to point: at the trees, in amazement at their size and splendor; at a flock of birds, the strangest they had ever seen, their fore and aft wings giving them a twisting, screwing motion through the air; at a fat blue lizard as long as a horse basking in the very middle of the road (the wheeled creatures divided to ride on either side of it, and it took no notice at all).

The sun was high in the sky when they began to slow down. And in the air, unmistakable, was the salt smell of the sea. The road was rising toward a bluff, and presently they were moving no faster than a walk.

Lyra, stiff and sore, said, “Can you stop? I want to get off and walk.”

Her creature felt the tug at the bridle, and whether or not he understood her words, he came to a halt. Will’s did, too, and both children climbed down, finding themselves stiff and shaken after the continued jolting and tensing.

The creatures wheeled around to talk together, their trunks moving elegantly in time with the sounds they made. After a minute they moved on, and Will and Lyra were happy to walk among the hay-scented, grass-warm creatures who trundled beside them. One or two had gone on ahead to the top of the rise, and the children, now that they no longer had to concentrate on hanging on, were able to watch how they moved, and admire the grace and power with which they propelled themselves forward and leaned and turned.

As they came to the top of the rise, they stopped, and Will and Lyra heard the leader say, “Mary close. Mary there.”

They looked down. On the horizon there was the blue gleam of the sea. A broad, slow-moving river wound through rich grassland in the middle distance, and at the foot of the long slope, among copses of small trees and rows of vegetables, stood a village of thatched houses. More creatures like these moved about among the houses, or tended crops, or worked among the trees.

“Now ride again,” said the leader.

There wasn’t far to go. Will and Lyra climbed up once more, and the other creatures looked closely at their balance and checked the stirrups with their trunks, as if to make sure they were safe.

Then they set off, beating the road with their lateral limbs, and urging themselves forward down the slope until they were moving at a terrific pace. Will and Lyra clung tight with hands and knees. They felt the air whip past their faces, flinging their hair back and pressing on their eyeballs. The thundering of the wheels, the rush of the grassland on either side, the sure and powerful lean into the broad curve ahead, the clearheaded rapture of speed—the creatures loved this, and Will and Lyra felt their joy and laughed in happy response.

They stopped in the center of the village, and the others, who had seen them coming, gathered around raising their trunks and speaking words of welcome.

And then Lyra cried, “Dr. Malone!”

Mary had come out of one of the huts, her faded blue shirt, her stocky figure, her warm, ruddy cheeks both strange and familiar.

Lyra ran and embraced her, and the woman hugged her tight, and Will stood back, careful and doubtful.

Mary kissed Lyra warmly and then came forward to welcome Will. And then came a curious little mental dance of sympathy and awkwardness, which took place in a second or less.

Moved by compassion for the state they were in, Mary first meant to embrace him as well as Lyra. But Mary was grown up, and Will was nearly grown, and she could see that that kind of response would have made a child of him, because while she might have embraced a child, she would never have done that to a man she didn’t know; so she drew back mentally, wanting above all to honor this friend of Lyra’s and not cause him to lose face.

So instead she held out her hand and he shook it, and a current of understanding and respect passed between them, so powerful that it became liking at once and each of them felt that they had made a lifelong friend, as indeed they had.

“This is Will,” said Lyra, “he’s from your world—remember, I told you about him—”

“I’m Mary Malone,” she said, “and you’re hungry, the pair of you, you look half-starved.”

She turned to the creature by her side and spoke some of those singing, hooting sounds, moving her arm as she did so.

At once the creatures moved away, and some of them brought cushions and rugs from the nearest house and laid them on the firm soil under a tree nearby, whose dense leaves and low-hanging branches gave a cool and fragrant shade.

And as soon as they were comfortable, their hosts brought smooth wooden bowls brimming with milk, which had a faint lemony astringency and was wonderfully refreshing; and small nuts like hazels, but with a richer buttery taste; and salad plucked fresh from the soil, sharp, peppery leaves mingled with soft, thick ones that oozed a creamy sap, and little cherry-sized roots tasting like sweet carrots.

But they couldn’t eat much. It was too rich. Will wanted to do justice to their generosity, but the only thing he could easily swallow, apart from the drink, was some flat, slightly scorched floury bread like chapatis or tortillas. It was plain and nourishing, and that was all Will could cope with. Lyra tried some of everything, but like Will she soon found that a little was quite enough.

Mary managed to avoid asking any questions. These two had passed through an experience that had marked them deeply; they didn’t want to talk about it yet.

So she answered their questions about the mulefa, and told them briefly how she had arrived in this world; and then she left them under the shade of the tree, because she could see their eyelids drooping and their heads nodding.

“You don’t have to do anything now but sleep,” she said.

The afternoon air was warm and still, and the shade of the tree was drowsy and murmurous with crickets. Less than five minutes after they’d swallowed the last of the drink, both Will and Lyra were fast asleep.

They are of two sexes? said Atal, surprised. But how can you tell?

It’s easy, said Mary. Their bodies are different shapes. They move differently.

They are not much smaller than you. But they have less sraf. When will that come to them?

I don’t know, Mary said. I suppose sometime soon. I don’t know when it happens to us.

No wheels, said Atal sympathetically.

They were weeding the vegetable garden. Mary had made a hoe to save having to bend down; Atal used her trunk, so their conversation was intermittent.

But you knew they were coming, said Atal.

Yes.

Was it the sticks that told you?

No, said Mary, blushing. She was a scientist; it was bad enough to have to admit to consulting the I Ching, but this was even more embarrassing. It was a night picture, she confessed.

The mulefa had no single word for dream. They dreamed vividly, though, and took their dreams very seriously.

You don’t like night pictures, Atal said.

Yes, I do. But I didn’t believe them until now. I saw the boy and the girl so clearly, and a voice told me to prepare for them.

What sort of voice? How did it speak if you couldn’t see it?

It was hard for Atal to imagine speech without the trunk movements that clarified and defined it. She’d stopped in the middle of a row of beans and faced Mary with fascinated curiosity.

Well, I did see it, said Mary. It was a woman, or a female wise one, like us, like my people. But very old and yet not old at all.

Wise one was what the mulefa called their leaders. She saw that Atal was looking intensely interested.

How could she be old and also not old? said

Atal. It is a make-like, said Mary.

Atal swung her trunk, reassured.

Mary went on as best she could: She told me that I should expect the children, and when they would appear, and where. But not why. I must just look after them.

They are hurt and tired, said Atal. Will they stop the sraf leaving?

Mary looked up uneasily. She knew without having to check through the spyglass that the shadow particles were streaming away faster than ever.

I hope so, she said. But I don’t know how.

In the early evening, when the cooking fires were lit and the first stars were coming out, a group of strangers arrived. Mary was washing; she heard the thunder of their wheels and the agitated murmur of their talk, and hurried out of her house, drying herself.

Will and Lyra had been asleep all afternoon, and they were just stirring now, hearing the noise. Lyra sat up groggily to see Mary talking to five or six of the mulefa, who were surrounding her, clearly excited; but whether they were angry or joyful, she couldn’t tell.

Mary saw her and broke away.

“Lyra,” she said, “something’s happened—they’ve found something they can’t explain and it’s … I don’t know what it is … I’ve got to go and look. It’s an hour or so away. I’ll come back as soon as I can. Help yourself to anything you need from my house—I can’t stop, they’re too anxious—”

“All right,” said Lyra, still dazed from her long sleep.

Mary looked under the tree. Will was rubbing his eyes.

“I really won’t be too long,” she said. “Atal will stay with you.”

The leader was impatient. Mary swiftly threw her bridle and stirrups over his back, excusing herself for being clumsy, and mounted at once. They wheeled and turned and drove away into the dusk.

They set off in a new direction, along the ridge above the coast to the north. Mary had never ridden in the dark before, and she found the speed even more alarming than by day. As they climbed, she could see the glitter of the moon on the sea far off to the left, and its silver-sepia light seemed to envelop her in a cool, skeptical wonder. The wonder was in her, and the skepticism was in the world, and the coolness was in both.

She looked up from time to time and touched the spyglass in her pocket, but she couldn’t use it till they’d stopped moving. And these mulefa were moving urgently, with the air of not wanting to stop for anything. After an hour’s hard riding they swung inland, leaving the stone road and moving slowly along a trail of beaten earth that ran between knee-high grass past a stand of wheel trees and up toward a ridge. The landscape glowed under the moon: wide, bare hills with occasional little gullies, where streams trickled down among the trees that clustered there.

It was toward one of these gullies that they led her. She had dismounted when they left the road, and she walked steadily at their pace over the brow of the hill and down into the gully.

She heard the trickling of the spring, and the night wind in the grass. She heard the quiet sound of the wheels crunching over the hard-packed earth, and she heard the mulefa ahead of her murmuring to one another, and then they stopped.

In the side of the hill, just a few yards away, was one of those openings made by the subtle knife. It was like the mouth of a cave, because the moonlight shone into it a little way, just as if inside the opening there were the inside of the hill; but it wasn’t. And out of it was coming a procession of ghosts.

Mary felt as if the ground had given way beneath her mind. She caught herself with a start, seizing the nearest branch for reassurance that there still was a physical world, and she was still part of it.

She moved closer. Old men and women, children, babes in arms, humans and other beings, too, more and more thickly they came out of the dark into the world of solid moonlight—and vanished.

That was the strangest thing. They took a few steps in the world of grass and air and silver light, and looked around, their faces transformed with joy—Mary had never seen such joy—and held out their arms as if they were embracing the whole universe; and then, as if they were made of mist or smoke, they simply drifted away, becoming part of the earth and the dew and the night breeze.

Some of them came toward Mary as if they wanted to tell her something, and reached out their hands, and she felt their touch like little shocks of cold. One of the ghosts—an old woman—beckoned, urging her to come close.

Then she spoke, and Mary heard her say:

“Tell them stories. They need the truth. You must tell them true stories, and everything will be well. Just tell them stories.”

That was all, and then she was gone. It was one of those moments when we suddenly recall a dream that we’ve unaccountably forgotten, and back in a flood comes all the emotion we felt in our sleep. It was the dream she’d tried to describe to Atal, the night picture; but as Mary tried to find it again, it dissolved and drifted apart, just as these presences did in the open air. The dream was gone.

All that was left was the sweetness of that feeling, and the injunction to tell them stories.

She looked into the darkness. As far as she could see into that endless silence, more of these ghosts were coming, thousands upon thousands, like refugees returning to their homeland.

“Tell them stories,” she said to herself.

33

Sweet spring, full of sweet days and roses, A box where sweets compacted lie …

• GEORGE HERBERT •

MARZIPAN

Next morning Lyra woke up from a dream in which Pantalaimon had come back to her and revealed his final shape; and she had loved it, but now she had no idea what it was.

The sun hadn’t long risen, and the air had a fresh bloom. She could see the sunlight through the open door of the little thatched hut she slept in, Mary’s house. She lay for a while listening. There were birds outside, and some kind of cricket, and Mary was breathing quietly in her sleep nearby.

Lyra sat up and found herself naked. She was indignant for a moment, and then she saw some clean clothes folded beside her on the floor: a shirt of Mary’s, a length of soft, light patterned cloth that she could tie into a skirt. She put them on, feeling swamped in the shirt, but at least decent.

She left the hut. Pantalaimon was nearby; she was sure of it. She could almost hear him talking and laughing. It must mean that he was safe, and they were still connected somehow. And when he forgave her and came back—the hours they’d spend just talking, just telling each other everything …

Will was still asleep under the shelter tree, the lazy thing. Lyra thought of waking him up, but if she was on her own, she could swim in the river. She happily used to swim naked in the river Cherwell with all the other Oxford children, but it would be quite different with Will, and she blushed even to think of it.

So she went down to the water alone in the pearl-colored morning. Among the reeds at the edge there was a tall, slender bird like a heron, standing perfectly still on one leg. She walked quietly and slowly so as not to disturb it, but the bird took no more notice of her than if she’d been a twig on the water.

“Well,” she said.

She left the clothes on the bank and slipped into the river. It was seawater coming in on the tide, and it was strange to Lyra, who had never swum in salt water before. She swam hard to keep warm, and then came out and huddled on the bank, shivering. Pan would help dry her, normally. Was he a fish, laughing at her from under the water? Or a beetle, creeping into the clothes to tickle her, or a bird? Or was he somewhere else entirely with the other dæmon, and with Lyra not on his mind at all?

The sun was warm now, and she was soon dry. She dressed in Mary’s loose shirt again and, seeing some flat stones by the bank, went to fetch her own clothes to wash them. But she found that someone had already done that: hers and Will’s, too, were laid over the springy twigs of a fragrant bush, nearly dry.

Will was stirring. She sat nearby and called him softly.

“Will! Wake up!”

“Where are we?” he said at once, and sat up, reaching for the knife.

“Safe,” she said, looking away. “And they washed our clothes, too, or Dr. Malone did. I’ll get yours. They’re nearly dry …”

She passed them in through the curtain of leaves and sat with her back to him till he was dressed.

“I swam in the river,” she said. “I went to look for Pan, but I think he’s hiding.”

“That’s a good idea. I mean a swim. I feel as if I’ve got years and years of dirt on me … I’ll go down and wash.”

While he was gone, Lyra wandered around the village, not looking too closely at anything in case she broke some code of politeness, but curious about everything she saw. Some of the houses were very old and some quite new, but they were all built in much the same way out of wood and clay and thatch. There was nothing crude about them; each door and window frame and lintel was covered in subtle patterns, but patterns that weren’t carved in the wood: it was as if they’d persuaded the wood to grow in that shape naturally.

The more she looked, the more she saw all kinds of order and carefulness in the village, like the layers of meaning in the alethiometer. Part of her mind was eager to puzzle it all out, to step lightly from similarity to similarity, from one meaning to another as she did with the instrument; but another part was wondering how long they’d be able to stay here before they had to move on.

Well, I’m not going anywhere till Pan comes back, she said to herself.

Presently Will came up from the river, and then Mary came out of her house and offered them breakfast; and soon Atal came along, too, and the village came to life around them. The young mulefa children, without wheels, kept peeping around the edges of their houses to stare, and Lyra would suddenly turn and look at them directly to make them jump and laugh with terror.

“Well, now,” Mary said when they’d eaten some bread and fruit and drunk a scalding infusion of something like mint. “Yesterday you were too tired and all you could do was rest. But you look a lot more lively today, both of you, and I think we need to tell each other everything we’ve found out. And it’ll take us a good long time, and we might as well keep our hands busy while we’re doing it, so we’ll make ourselves useful and mend some nets.”

They carried the pile of stiff tarry netting to the riverbank and spread it out on the grass, and Mary showed them how to knot a new piece of cord where it was worn. She was wary, because Atal had told her that the families farther along the coast had seen large numbers of the tualapi, the white birds, gathering out at sea, and everyone was prepared for a warning to leave at once; but work had to go on in the meantime.

So they sat working in the sun by the placid river, and Lyra told her story, from the moment so long ago when she and Pan decided to look in the Retiring Room at Jordan College.

The tide came in and turned, and still there was no sign of the tualapi. In the late afternoon Mary took Will and Lyra along the riverbank, past the fishing posts where the nets were tied, and through the wide salt marsh toward the sea. It was safe to go there when the tide was out, because the white birds only came inland when the water was high. Mary led the way along a hard path above the mud; like many things the mulefa had made, it was ancient and perfectly maintained, more like a part of nature than something imposed on it.

“Did they make the stone roads?” Will said.

“No. I think the roads made them, in a way,” Mary said. “I mean they’d never have developed the use of the wheels if there hadn’t been plenty of hard, flat surfaces to use them on. I think they’re lava-flows from ancient volcanoes.

“So the roads made it possible for them to use the wheels. And other things came together as well. Like the wheel trees themselves, and the way their bodies are formed—they’re not vertebrates, they don’t have a spine. Some lucky chance in our worlds long ago must have meant that creatures with backbones had it a bit easier, so all kinds of other shapes developed, all based on the central spine. In this world, chance went another way, and the diamond frame was successful. There are vertebrates, to be sure, but not many. There are snakes, for example. Snakes are important here. The people look after them and try not to hurt them.

“Anyway, their shape, and the roads, and the wheel trees coming together all made it possible. A lot of little chances, all coming together. When did your part of the story begin, Will?”

“Lots of little chances for me, too,” he began, thinking of the cat under the hornbeam trees. If he’d arrived there thirty seconds earlier or later, he would never have seen the cat, never have found the window, never have discovered Cittàgazze and Lyra; none of this would have happened.

He started from the very beginning, and they listened as they walked. By the time they reached the mudflats, he had reached the point where he and his father were fighting on the mountaintop.

“And then the witch killed him …”

He had never really understood that. He explained what she’d told him before she killed herself: she had loved John Parry, and he had scorned her.

“Witches are fierce, though,” Lyra said.

“But if she loved him …”

“Well,” said Mary, “love is ferocious, too.”

“But he loved my mother,” said Will. “And I can tell her that he was never unfaithful.”

Lyra, looking at Will, thought that if he fell in love, he would be like that.

All around them the quiet noises of the afternoon hung in the warm air: the endless trickling sucking of the marsh, the scraping of insects, the calling of gulls. The tide was fully out, so the whole extent of the beach was clear and glistening under the bright sun. A billion tiny mud creatures lived and ate and died in the top layer of sand, and the little casts and breathing holes and invisible movements showed that the whole landscape was aquiver with life.

Without telling the others why, Mary looked out to the distant sea, scanning the horizon for white sails. But there was only hazy glitter where the blue of the sky paled at the edge of the sea, and the sea took up the pallor and made it sparkle through the shimmering air.

She showed Will and Lyra how to gather a particular kind of mollusk by finding their breathing tubes just above the sand. The mulefa loved them, but it was hard for them to move on the sand and gather them. Whenever Mary came to the shore, she harvested as many as she could, and now with three pairs of hands and eyes at work, there would be a feast.

She gave each of them a cloth bag, and they worked as they listened to the next part of the story. Steadily they filled their bags, and Mary led them unobtrusively back to the edge of the marsh, for the tide was turning.

The story was taking a long time; they wouldn’t get to the world of the dead that day. As they neared the village, Will was telling Mary what he had learned about dæmons and ghosts. Mary was particularly interested in the three-part nature of human beings.

“You know,” she said, “the Church—the Catholic Church that I used to belong to—wouldn’t use the word dæmon, but St. Paul talks about spirit and soul and body. So the idea of three parts in human nature isn’t so strange.”

“But the best part is the body,” Will said. “That’s what Baruch and Balthamos told me. Angels wish they had bodies. They told me that angels can’t understand why we don’t enjoy the world more. It would be sort of ecstasy for them to have our flesh and our senses. In the world of the dead—”

“Tell it when we get to it,” said Lyra, and she smiled at him, a smile of such sweet knowledge and joy that his senses felt confused. He smiled back, and Mary thought his expression showed more perfect trust than she’d ever seen on a human face.

By this time they had reached the village, and there was the evening meal to prepare. So Mary left the other two by the riverbank, where they sat to watch the tide flooding in, and went to join Atal by the cooking fire. Her friend was overjoyed by the shellfish harvest.

But Mary, she said, the tualapi destroyed a village further up the coast, and then another and another. They’ve never done that before. They usually attack one and then go back to sea. And another tree fell today … No! Where?

Atal mentioned a grove not far from a hot spring. Mary had been there only three days before, and nothing had seemed wrong. She took the spyglass and looked at the sky; sure enough, the great stream of shadow particles was flowing more strongly, and at incomparably greater speed and volume, than the tide now rising between the riverbanks.

What can you do? said Atal.

Mary felt the weight of responsibility like a heavy hand between her shoulder blades, but made herself sit up lightly.

Tell them stories, she said.

When supper was over, the three humans and Atal sat on rugs outside Mary’s house, under the warm stars. They lay back, well fed and comfortable in the flower-scented night, and listened to Mary tell her story.

She began just before she first met Lyra, telling them about the work she was doing at the Dark Matter Research group, and the funding crisis. How much time she’d had to spend asking for money, and how little time there’d been left for research!

But Lyra’s coming had changed everything, and so quickly: within a matter of days she’d left her world altogether.

“I did as you told me,” she said. “I made a program—that’s a set of instructions—to let the Shadows talk to me through the computer. They told me what to do. They said they were angels, and—well …”

“If you were a scientist,” said Will, “I don’t suppose that was a good thing for them to say. You might not have believed in angels.”

“Ah, but I knew about them. I used to be a nun, you see. I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw there wasn’t any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.”

“When did you stop being a nun?” said Lyra.

“I remember it exactly,” Mary said, “even to the time of day. Because I was good at physics, they let me keep up my university career, you see, and I finished my doctorate and I was going to teach. It wasn’t one of those orders where they shut you away from the world. In fact, we didn’t even wear the habit; we just had to dress soberly and wear a crucifix. So I was going into university to teach and do research into particle physics.

“And there was a conference on my subject and they asked me to come and read a paper. The conference was in Lisbon, and I’d never been there before; in fact, I’d never been out of England. The whole business—the plane flight, the hotel, the bright sunlight, the foreign languages all around me, the well-known people who were going to speak, and the thought of my own paper and wondering whether anyone would turn up to listen and whether I’d be too nervous to get the words out … Oh, I was keyed up with excitement, I can’t tell you.

“And I was so innocent—you have to remember that. I’d been such a good little girl, I’d gone to Mass regularly, I’d thought I had a vocation for the spiritual life. I wanted to serve God with all my heart. I wanted to take my whole life and offer it up like this,” she said, holding up her hands together, “and place it in front of Jesus to do as he liked with. And I suppose I was pleased with myself. Too much. I was holy and I was clever. Ha! That lasted until, oh, half past nine on the evening of August the tenth, seven years ago.”

Lyra sat up and hugged her knees, listening closely.

“It was the evening after I’d given my paper,” Mary went on, “and it had gone well, and there’d been some well-known people listening, and I’d dealt with the questions without making a mess of it, and altogether I was full of relief and pleasure … And pride, too, no doubt.

“Anyway, some of my colleagues were going to a restaurant a little way down the coast, and they asked if I’d like to go. Normally I’d have made some excuse, but this time I thought, Well, I’m a grown woman, I’ve presented a paper on an important subject and it was well received and I’m among good friends … And it was so warm, and the talk was about all the things I was most interested in, and we were all in high spirits, so I thought I’d loosen up a bit. I was discovering another side of myself, you know, one that liked the taste of wine and grilled sardines and the feeling of warm air on my skin and the beat of music in the background. I relished it.

“So we sat down to eat in the garden. I was at the end of a long table under a lemon tree, and there was a sort of bower next to me with passionflowers, and my neighbor was talking to the person on the other side, and … Well, sitting opposite was a man I’d seen once or twice around the conference. I didn’t know him to speak to; he was Italian, and he’d done some work that people were talking about, and I thought it would be interesting to hear about it.

“Anyway. He was only a little older than me, and he had soft black hair and beautiful olive-colored skin and dark, dark eyes. His hair kept falling across his forehead and he kept pushing it back like that, slowly …”

She showed them. Will thought she looked as if she remembered it very well.

“He wasn’t handsome,” she went on. “He wasn’t a ladies’ man or a charmer. If he had been, I’d have been shy, I wouldn’t have known how to talk to him. But he was nice and clever and funny and it was the easiest thing in the world to sit there in the lantern light under the lemon tree with the scent of the flowers and the grilled food and the wine, and talk and laugh and feel myself hoping that he thought I was pretty. Sister Mary Malone, flirting! What about my vows? What about dedicating my life to Jesus and all that?

“Well, I don’t know if it was the wine or my own silliness or the warm air or the lemon tree, or whatever … But it gradually seemed to me that I’d made myself believe something that wasn’t true. I’d made myself believe that I was fine and happy and fulfilled on my own without the love of anyone else. Being in love was like China: you knew it was there, and no doubt it was very interesting, and some people went there, but I never would. I’d spend all my life without ever going to China, but it wouldn’t matter, because there was all the rest of the world to visit.

“And then someone passed me a bit of some sweet stuff and I suddenly realized I had been to China. So to speak. And I’d forgotten it. It was the taste of the sweet stuff that brought it back—I think it was marzipan. Sweet almond paste,” she explained to Lyra, who was looking confused.

Lyra said, “Ah! Marchpane!” and settled back comfortably to hear what happened next.

“Anyway,” Mary went on. “I remembered the taste, and all at once I was back tasting it for the first time as a young girl.

“I was twelve years old. I was at a party at the house of one of my friends, a birthday party, and there was a disco—that’s where they play music on a kind of recording machine and people dance,” she explained, seeing Lyra’s puzzlement. “Usually girls dance together because the boys are too shy to ask them. But this boy—I didn’t know him—he asked me to dance, and so we had the first dance and then the next, and by that time we were talking … And you know what it is when you like someone, you know it at once; well, I liked him such a lot. And we kept on talking and then there was a birthday cake. And he took a bit of marzipan and he just gently put it in my mouth—I remember trying to smile, and blushing, and feeling so foolish—and I fell in love with him just for that, for the gentle way he touched my lips with the marzipan.”

As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, she felt other doors opening deep in the darkness, and lights coming on. She sat trembling as Mary went on:

“And I think it was at that party, or it might have been at another one, that we kissed each other for the first time. It was in a garden, and there was the sound of music from inside, and the quiet and the cool among the trees, and I was aching—all my body was aching for him, and I could tell he felt the same—and we were both almost too shy to move. Almost. But one of us did and then without any interval between—it was like a quantum leap, suddenly—we were kissing each other, and oh, it was more than China, it was paradise.

“We saw each other about half a dozen times, no more. And then his parents moved away and I never saw him again. It was such a sweet time, so short … But there it was. I’d known it. I had been to China.”

It was the strangest thing: Lyra knew exactly what she meant, and half an hour earlier she would have had no idea at all. And inside her, that rich house with all its doors open and all its rooms lit stood waiting, quiet, expectant.

“And at half past nine in the evening at that restaurant table in Portugal,” Mary continued, “someone gave me a piece of marzipan and it all came back. And I thought: am I really going to spend the rest of my life without ever feeling that again? I thought: I want to go to China. It’s full of treasures and strangeness and mystery and joy. I thought, Will anyone be better off if I go straight back to the hotel and say my prayers and confess to the priest and promise never to fall into temptation again? Will anyone be the better for making me miserable?

“And the answer came back—no. No one will. There’s no one to fret, no one to condemn, no one to bless me for being a good girl, no one to punish me for being wicked. Heaven was empty. I didn’t know whether God had died, or whether there never had been a God at all. Either way I felt free and lonely and I didn’t know whether I was happy or unhappy, but something very strange had happened. And all that huge change came about as I had the marzipan in my mouth, before I’d even swallowed it. A taste—a memory—a landslide …

“When I did swallow it and looked at the man across the table, I could tell he knew something had happened. I couldn’t tell him there and then; it was still too strange and private almost for me. But later on we went for a walk along the beach in the dark, and the warm night breeze kept stirring my hair about, and the Atlantic was being very well-behaved—little quiet waves around our feet …

“And I took the crucifix from around my neck and I threw it in the sea. That was it. All over. Gone.

“So that was how I stopped being a nun,” she said.

“Was that man the same one that found out about the skulls?” Lyra said after a moment.

“Oh—no. The skull man was Dr. Payne, Oliver Payne. He came along much later. No, the man at the conference was called Alfredo Montale. He was very different.”

“Did you kiss him?”

“Well,” said Mary, smiling, “yes, but not then.”

“Was it hard to leave the Church?” said Will.

“In one way it was, because everyone was so disappointed. Everyone, from the Mother Superior to the priests to my parents—they were so upset and reproachful … I felt as if something they all passionately believed in depended on me carrying on with something I didn’t.

“But in another way it was easy, because it made sense. For the first time ever I felt I was doing something with all of my nature and not only a part of it. So it was lonely for a while, but then I got used to it.”

“Did you marry him?” said Lyra.

“No. I didn’t marry anyone. I lived with someone—not Alfredo, someone else. I lived with him for four years, nearly. My family was scandalized. But then we decided we’d be happier not living together. So I’m on my own. The man I lived with used to like mountain climbing, and he taught me to climb, and I walk in the mountains and … And I’ve got my work. Well, I had my work. So I’m solitary but happy, if you see what I mean.”

“What was the boy called?” said Lyra. “At the party?”

“Tim.”

“What did he look like?”

“Oh … Nice. That’s all I remember.”

“When I first saw you, in your Oxford,” Lyra said, “you said one of the reasons you became a scientist was that you wouldn’t have to think about good and evil. Did you think about them when you were a nun?”

“Hmm. No. But I knew what I should think: it was whatever the Church taught me to think. And when I did science, I had to think about other things altogether. So I never had to think about them for myself at all.”

“But do you now?” said Will.

“I think I have to,” Mary said, trying to be accurate.

“When you stopped believing in God,” he went on, “did you stop believing in good and evil?”

“No. But I stopped believing there was a power of good and a power of evil that were outside us. And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are. All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone, or that’s an evil one, because it hurts them. People are too complicated to have simple labels.”

“Yes,” said Lyra firmly.

“Did you miss God?” asked Will.

“Yes,” Mary said, “terribly. And I still do. And what I miss most is the sense of being connected to the whole of the universe. I used to feel I was connected to God like that, and because he was there, I was connected to the whole of his creation. But if he’s not there, then …”

Far out on the marshes, a bird called with a long, melancholy series of falling tones. Embers settled in the fire; the grass was stirring faintly with the night breeze. Atal seemed to be dozing like a cat, her wheels flat on the grass beside her, her legs folded under her body, eyes half-closed, attention half-there and half-elsewhere. Will was lying on his back, eyes open to the stars.

As for Lyra, she hadn’t moved a muscle since that strange thing had happened, and she held the memory of the sensation inside her. She didn’t know what it was, or what it meant, or where it had come from; so she sat hugging her knees, and tried to stop herself from trembling. Soon, she thought, soon I’ll know.

Mary was tired; she had run out of stories. No doubt she’d think of more tomorrow.

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