Greer Gilman is an American author of fantasy stories. Her novel Moonwise won the Crawford Award in 1991. Her triptych of linked stories, Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter’s Tales, won the Tiptree Award in 2009 and was shortlisted for the Mythopoeic Award in 2010. Her story “A Crowd of Bone,” originally published in the anthology Trampoline, won the 2004 World Fantasy Award for Best Novella. All of these stories take place in an invented world of Gilman’s called Cloud, influenced by her love of British lore and landscape, of its rituals and ballads, and of language. According to the author, her stories are “written for the ear, as much as for understanding. Like the earliest stories, they are meant to be sung.” Other work of hers has been published in The Faces of Fantasy, Mythic Delirium, and the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. We’re delighted to reprint the following story, “Down the Wall,” a post-apocalyptic Cloudish story originally published in Salon Fantastique, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. Be sure to read it out loud. - The Editors
Stilt-legs scissoring, snip-snap! the bird gods dance. Old craneycrows, a skulk of powers. How they strut and ogle with their long eyes, knowing. How they serpentine their necks. And stalking, how they flirt their tails, insouciant as Groucho. Fugue and counter-fugue, the music jigs and sneaks. On tiptoe, solemnly, they hop and flap; they whirl and whet their long curved clever bills. A sly dance, a wry dance, miching mallecho. Pavane. They peacock, but their drab is eyeless, black as mourners, black as mutes. They are clownish, they are sinister, in their insatiable invention, their unending. Like the frieze in a Pharaoh’s nursery, like the knotwork in a chthonic gospel. In and out, untiring as wire, they weave a thorny hedge of selves, and in their eddering, enlace their eggs, their moonish precious eggs. They gloat. And they go on. Like viruses, mere self engendering more self, they replicate. They tangle genesis in their inexorable braid.
The birds are phosphor in a box. They sift and sift across the screen; they whisper. They are endless snow or soot, the ashes of the old world burning. Elsewhere fire. The hailbox whispers, whispers. There is no way to turn it off. No other channel but the gods. All day and night it snows grey phosphor, sifting in the corners of the air. The earth is grey with ash.
The children watch the box, they sprawl and gaze. They’re bored, locked in so many endless days. Mewed up. Where’s out? they ask. When’s never? Why? Their mam clouts and pinches, slaps and spells and grumbles, twisting bacca in a screw of paper. She’s a wad of it, torn leaf by leaf away. Time sometime to get another book, ward and spell to steal it. Smoke it. Time enough. See, paper’s upworld. Outwall. Paper swirls about the open streets, abandoned to the gods, all scrawled with stick-dance; paper’s layered, scrap on gaudy scrap, on upworld walls. It’s slagheaps in the towers of the burning world, the Outwith, where the Old Crows breed. And their nests are sticks and souls.
They take souls fool enough to wander outwall, under sky. The sots that stumble from the trances of the underground. The wardless and unwary. Blink, blunder and they’re snatched. Like her awd man. Kids’ father. “Blind drunk,” she tells them, scornful. “Pissing out a window.”
She twitches at the curtains, net on net against the talons of the numinous. Their seine is grey with ashes, hung with toys: green headless army men and dolls’ eyes, wired, blue. The window is brick. “Bad enough here, down t’Wall,” she says. “Living here. Gettin in wi’ this lot.” Mouth snecked and her eyes like iodine.
She takes the girl to dancing class, up Mrs. Mallecho’s. And pays good brass for it. Smoke. Spellcards. Takes her both ways, proper, through the twisting maze of ginnels, and locks to do, undo, at every trance. Quells beggars with a look. In the cloakroom, in among the downy girls, she plucks at her daughter’s bits of swansdown, pluming out her tawdry dress. Tufts at her shoulderblades. Gosslyn. She’ll do. Girl dances lovely, well she’ll give her that. Not like that Dowsa Fligger, silk stockins til her arse, and all them gilty bits ont never never. They says. Off her auntie’s bed, more like. Dancin on her back. Oh, she’s fly, is Mrs. Theek. Gosslyn’s mam clamps down a round comb, fanged and feathery, to crown her daughter’s hair; she screws her handkerchief and spits and scrubs.
The mothers watch from the margins, fierce, aspiring, appraising: their arms crossed, bags clutched, their mouths like paper cuts. They acknowledge haughtily with lifted chins: so much, no more.
The hatchlings dance.
At home, behind the jaded couch, her children whisper. They have doorsteps and dark jam to munch; they have a bulwark of pillows. They have stubs of crayons and the wall. From behind them, they can hear the godbox and the skulking music. Lunar tunes. And rising keening over that, a melancholy roar and drone, a pibroch with the fear note in it. Their mam’s doing Wednesday, she feeds the Oover north-northwest: three fag ends, a catseye marble, tea leaves. Widdershins: a doll’s shoe, a snarl of hairpins. East: a coin. It molochs them all up. West by south: she ties, unties her pinny, back to front, the old one with the faded poppies.
“Black,” the boy says. “They must be black. And shriking.”
The girl is twirling a plastic ball on her palms, full of heavy water, bright plastic fish. The water whorls and rights itself. “Black’s used up.” She thinks. “There’s holes there. Outwall.” She swirls the ball; the fish dither.
“There’s rain,” he says.
The girl’s heard tell of it, old Pudfoot with his bottle, muttering. Like slanting wires, he says: but not a cage, like music someways. Or a dancer in nailed boots, she says: they’ve heard it on the tin-roofed trances, hurried by. Sometimes it sleeks in at the corners, seeking with its slow tongues, twining. And they’re not to touch it, and it chokes on dust.
“There’s turnings,” says the girl.
Slowly their drawing grows, cracked eyries and a maze of faces. The wallpaper’s scrawly like the godbox, but brown: all over and over, all the same. Crawlies and blotches. They’ve turned them into strange things: winged cats, birdheaded women. Owls with horns. Upworld things. A leafgirl by a hedge of bones, tossing up a golden ball. A hurchin boy, astride a cockerel. All pictures from their mother’s stash, all smoke.
Down the wall, down the end shop. The boy waits until the Mrs. sees him, sleeving on the glass case that his breath has clouded. Fly cakes. Bacca. There’s a babby in there, under glass. Goss says. She says it’s Outwith, it can talk and fly. The boy rubs and peers. The black comes off in wrinkles. Ghostly, he can see his own face, in among the things to sell. Tin birds. Cards of hook-and-eyes. Pale buns. The ladies talk.
Her shop smells of sour milk and smoke and bacca, drowsy sweet; of mops and cabbages and fennel-at-the-door. And mice. There’s holes down there. Worn lino, brown like her toffee, on the sour splintery boards. He once found a birdsweet in a crack in a corner. Dusty licorice.
“…down Howly Street…”
“Large white and a tin of Brasso. Snatched?”
“Jumped. One and three.”
The bell rings to make the birds scatter.
Their hair’s done Saturday. Grey snails and gilt snails, criss-cross with iron pins. His mam jabs them in, she’s holy.
“…gone Outwith. In her nightdress…”
Sharp chin quirks at him. “…kid…”
“That one? Hears nowt. Pane shy of a glasshouse.” Fat chin creases, as she leans and whispers. “…far gone, she were. Her mam, she took and…”
Far gone. He sees the lost girl, in among the towers and the sticks of crow’s nests, searching for an urchin bairn.
Mr. Hawkless the trancer got snatched. They hurry by his corner with the slashed spells, with the tins forlornly jangling. They burn fennel. Mr. Snipe is the trancer, and he helps the kids cross.
Marri from dancing’s gone. Her hook is bare, and the mothers silent, their eyes like awls. Stitched mouths. They preen their daughters savagely, as if their frou frou were meringue, to beat. Still whiter and glassier, girls turn in the mirror. Spun fantasies. Pavlovas. None adroop: all stiff as sugar in their tinseled frills. Blackstick Mrs. Mallecho stumps up and down their line. White silence, like a cut before it fills with blood, spills over. But it never bleeds, the girl thinks, posing in the First Ward. Clack! goes the woodbook, and the dancers pirouette. The music thumps and sniggers. The mothers’ will is like a cage of wires, strung with dancers, bright as beads. They tell them like a rosary, an abacus of souls. They were five twos; they will make three threes.
Night. Matins. From her clutched grey bag, the mother takes a soft soft piece of paper, wrinkled, scented, like a cheek held up to kiss. Green coin. She pleats it, snips it – there, a chain of craneycrows, as wick as if their own quick legs had scissored them. Just on time, the tune beginning as she lights the paper, lets it go: a flaring and a lace of ash. She marks her sleeping children: eyelids, palms.
The girl dreams of the stitch witch, putting children in her bag. She prods them as she picks. She’s made of stuffing, grey stuff like the Oover’s belly, and her mouth’s sewn shut. There’s a black thread and a needle dangling from her lip, a tangle like a raven’s beard. She gluts on souls. Behind the railings, there are children crouching – Goss among them, hiding – in a heap of cushions stitched with rain. It twangles as they shift, they burrow. Ah, she’s hunting for her ball, her shining ball, before the witch can take her. Down she gropes, amid the slather, deeper still. Then it’s changed, the dream, she’s riding rantipole with Marri, whirling round and round, and up and down, hold tight! until she breaks away and flies. The air is full of girls like leaves.
The boy wakes in the night. There are Old Ones storming; he can hear the hurl and crackle in the air: not sound but fury. Something that restrings your bones. His mam is standing turning toward it. Tuning. She is blue in the godlight.
Morning. Thin and blue, lit flickering by the box. Their mam’s doing Thursday. She slamps her irons down and grutches; spits and dabs. The air’s full of scorch and muttering. The chairs are hung with ghosts, themselves outspread and suppliant. Vests. Petticoats. Rue’s shirts. There’s rows of eggshells on the sills, all filled with ashes and with milk. Thwick! Thwick! She jabs the milk tops with her nail, pours out a measure to the Old Ones. Milk swirls on the step. She will string the silver, hang it jostling in the doorways.
“Rue.” His sister’s breath, not sound but stirring. Warm in his ear. It tickles. “Rue. I’ve getten keys.”
The girl’s far ahead in the trances, counting turnings. Her thread is words.
“Goss. Wait.” The boy calls after. “Is’t dead?” There’s a black thing in a runnel, stark. The girl turns back and prods it. Bone and wings? It slacks from its bent ribs. Nobbut wire and cloth. She grins. “It’s a dolly god, I think.” She pries it from the drain, awry and sagging, twirls it. Sword falls open into cup.
Rue laughs. “It’s drunk,” he says, and makes it stagger.
“Go on. Yer have it, then.”
It pecks along the tunnels, rattles on the railings, swishes, scything down a host of shadows. It pokes at bins. Now and then, it twirls and wobbles, with a loose-stayed shimmy, like the Widow Twanky in a swoon.
Below them, they hear voices, children calling, running feet.
“Goss?” Tiled and echoing, a trance in a maze of trances.
“Sneck up.” She’s biting at her lip and peering. What way is Out? They’re in a bridge above another passage, grinning with stained tiles. Dank water drips. It sidles over posters, over tilework scrawled with birds. Smashed lamps. Dark arches, cages full of coils and wheels and shards. Ratscuttle and the stench of ancient piss.
Round the bend, a soft voice calls. “Off to yon rant?”
They stiffen. Goss yanks her brother round behind her.
“Hush. Nobbut an awd busker. I’ll fend.”
A beggar sits against the wall, knees up and watchful, idle. In their path. A tin whistle in her dangling hand, a bowl between her feet. Her clothes are like herself, her pelt; her jacket’s hairy on the inside, black, and rustling with paper. And she smells of ashes and of rain. A little penknife of a smile, all bone and flick, her long eyes hidden in her shaggy greyblack hair. “Where’s thou bound?”
“Out,” says Rue, and draws his dolly, which slacks open, gaping foolish; but Goss steps up to her with silver, got groping in the Oover’s belly. “Leave us go.”
The beggar quirks at the bowl. The silver falls among small things, silver. “What’s that to me? Is’t thine?”
Goss lifts her chin. “Is’t yours? All that lot?”
“Nay, all theirs as leave. And not until.”
There’s odd things in the bowl, thinks Goss. Spectacles. A torn-up photograph. A tooth. A torch, all eaten up with rust. A heap of long red hair. The beggar scrabbles in the bowl, hands back the coins. “Owt else?”
A handful of crayons. The beggar finicks through them. Bluegreen. Redviolet. The stub of black. She measures Gosslyn with a glance. “All this? Thou’s overdrawn thysel.” As if the dole were kingdoms.
“What I has.”
They’re taken; then the beggar turns to Rue. He’s got the dolly god hooked over his shoulder, and he’s turning out pocket fluff. Three black birdsweets and a marble on his sticky palm. Blue clouded, with a fleck like a falling leaf. That too. The beggar holds it to her eye, shakes back her hair to squint. And laughs.
No riddles this time. “Put up thy brolly. I’ll not eat thee.”
“Dolly brolly.” Rue’s delighted.
“Gerroff wi’ yer. Left, left, down close and top o’t stairs.”
As they turn, she calls out, mocking, “Did tha want thy change?” And flicks a bit of chalk at Gosslyn. It skitters, spinning on the tiles, and veering, rolling toward abyss. Goss darts for it before it’s lost. They hurry on.
They can see the turnstile now, the lightspill on the stairs.
Amazed at the wind, they stand: high tumult and the ragged moon. “Will’t hatch?” says Rue. Turning round, heads back, they stare. Cloud, red beneath with burning. Wrack and scurry backlit by the scatheless sailing moon. Unfathomed cliffs of tower, sheer and derelict. Unwarded streets. Leaves paper litter rising. Whirl and flacker in a ghostly dance. They’ve not felt wind afore. Goss laughs, whirling widearmed. Rue scuffles and twirls, he surges through the leaftrash in a glorious roar and crackle, swashing with his stick. They spin themselves giddy. They are catseyes, whorled with shadow, wound with moon.
They’ve fallen down. Clouds towers leaves wheel round them.
A voice calls. “Crows!”
Another, “Here’s inwits for yer supper. Crows!”
They are laughing.
There are children in the dark. They run by night: a shifting crew of mortals. Old and young, they’re driven by a fey mood, a sudden quick desire to shake the fear, to dance unwarded under heaven. Back of law. They bring no wards, no form of worship to their tryst, evading death by chance, by offhand magic: a patchwork of tinkering and brilliant dodges, crazy risks. Chancers, they call themselves. Some run a moment, whirled away like moonclocks; others, crazed or clever, live a night, two nights, a week of dancing.
There are shadows in the moon: huge knots of hawklike darkness, sheering. As they turn, they catch the moonlight, glint and vanish, skyblack into sky. They are bright beneath, with women’s bodies; they are cold, with starless wings. No rise and wheeling of the dance in them, no scrawl of stars: all timeless and unstoried night. Cloud coils from them, unsilvering the moon. Their breath is tarnish, is forgetting. And their talons – ah, they rend the soul. They take.
Close now, the running and the calling start, from street to street, from shadow into shadow, in and out of light. Rue and Gosslyn stagger up and after, witch-led, drunk with air. The world swerves sideways, lurches them at walls. The brolly bangs and bruises, tangles in their feet. The voices mock and rally. Tigged last! Telled witch of yer! A twitch, a tug at skirt or sleeve. Whirl round and no one. Whispering. And there, a white face, round a corner? Gone. Phantasmal creatures loom, elude them, dwindling into junk. And all around them tunes the bedlam jazz band of the wind. Scritch and jangle. Howl and hurly. Scrape and clattering and sough. A clang on a skeleton of stair, above; a sheet of paper, burning, falling. See, it’s eyed with cinders, blinded one by one. An ash. It’s nothing in Rue’s hand. Goss feels a soft slap on her cheek. Another. And another. No one, pattering, and all around. They stand, astonished, in the briefest lash of rain.
They’ve come into a wide square, set with shattered baulks of stone: a great cat with a muffled head, a riven owl, a witch in flinders. There are fires here and there, some leaping and some embers, ashes. Some long cold. And some a-building: leaves and boxes, doors and drawers and random trash. Children heap frail crazy towers: sticks stacks crows’ nests, all to burn. Some run with brands, they leap and whirl them in a swarm of sparks. They write great fading loops of spells. Three drag a gnarled branch to the fires, its dry and leafy fingers clagged with tins, as many as the rings on a witch’s hand. And still it scrabbles, rakes for more.
Warily entranced, Rue watches, edges round them, keeping hold of Goss. She stoops for a bit of paper, torn and scattering. No images. All scratches, black as birds. She lets it go.
A dark lad’s hurling dustbins down a flight of steps, with a bang and clangor and a long-drawn rumbling. Whuff! He lights one, lofts it blazing with a trembling hollow roar; and howling, casts it down in ruin. Children rush to kick and scuffle at the spill of embers, stamp them out.
Leaning close in the curl of newel at the broad stair’s foot, two girls play cat’s cradles with red yarn. They pick their crosses carefully, perplex and intricate. Undergo; then overturn.
Children tumble from a carapace of engine, with its soft maw sprung to wires, and its shattered eyes. They’re all in flutterings of rags, torn and knotted, with their coats turned inside out. They’ve ashes on their faces, tins of pebbles in their hands. Mute as ghosts, they prowl and shake their rattles.
All alone, a small child huddles on a step; he rocks and sucks the ragdoll babby at his cheek. But his lullaby’s from elsewhere, voices in the dark. “Lay down, my dear sister…”
Still in shadow, Goss and Rue slip by.
In a sidestreet by a railing, by a tree scant of leaves, a knot of children call and chant. They are whirling clapping in a game.
Tell B for the beast at the ending of the wood
Well, he eat all the children when they wouldn’t be good
Goodnight, Goodnight, Goodnight
And “Good night,” the voices cry in antiphon, like birds; as if there were a greener world indwelling in these streets. A wood. Their city’s crowded, crowned with visionary trees. There’s no way in; they weave themselves a hedge. Goss lingers for a moment, drawn and doubtful; Rue tugs her on.
Still others turn a rope, and leap through it in turn. Brown legs, scratched legs. Jauncing plaits. In turn there is no one jumping, but they call the dark, they bid it in. The rope whips round and round, slapping at the stones.
Not all are children. A man in a soft hat and a muddy suit, unshaven, stands and shouts. At nothing, at the sky. Not angry, thinks Goss. Amazed.
The rope slaps to their chant, his chant.
“Babylon is fallen.”
“Babylon is fallen.”
“To rise no more.”
By a shattered window, by a lamp, a boy kneels, dark amid the glittering. He keeps to the fringes of the light, penumbral; coming closer, they can see he’s thin and fairish, scowling, with bent mended specs. He’s working at something. A cosmos of black wire, all in tension, with a long spiring tail. It glitters blackly; it jangles. He shakes the long coil of it, and leaves rags paper dance.
Goss says, “What’s that for?”
“Catching crows,” he says. “Summat I thought on.”
“Yer must be inwits,” he says, tilting his scarred glasses. “It’s nights here Outwith. All as it comes.” They can see his scabbed knees, his scarry fingers. Stained burned slashed. Soft hair like flocking, whitey-brown. “There’s all sort of chancers runs. Some clever and some mad. There’s ranters and goners – ” He nods at the shabby man. “And guisers – them wi’ ashes. Then there’s howkers and tigs, and there’s ticers. What I is. A niner, come daybreak.”
“Ticers?” (What do they do? Could I?)
“Get by. Call crows. Get round ‘em.” He lights the kite’s tail of his strange device; for a moment now his face is eerie, ambered from below. “Happen talk with them.” He pinches out his spill.
And as the shadow stoops, he cries, “Run, will yer!”
The man falls open-armed, ecstatic.
Behind them comes a whirring and a cry. The shock embrittles them, turns all their blood to branching ice. Blindly they stumble on until Rue falls, tripped up on his brolly. Goss muffles him against her breast, she strokes the black frost from his hair. They crouch, as still as rats. No shadow of the bird strikes, wheels, returning to her prey. After a time, Goss dabbles at his scrapes, then at hers; she wipes his streaked and snotted face. Her own. Then they share what she has left: a scrawny orange. Cradling, she snuffs at it before she breaks it open. Pith and bittersweet and curving.
It was beautiful, the bird.
They wander on, at random, turning down this street, that crescent, past the naked windows and the empty rooms.
A shout. Boys snatch the brolly, toss it high above his sobbing reach, the fury of her nails; they hurly down the street, thwacking it at tins and bottles, quarreling; until the tallest leaps and hooks it to a high bar, where it dangles, all agape and stark.
Rue and Goss gaze up. It’s hanging from a gate of iron, in a wall. They clamber up and flail at it with sticks; at last they knock it down.
Beyond the gate’s another square, but silent, sheeted all with moon. No fire and no games. Stones cracked with weeds. And stony, too, the white girl crowned with leaves, with leaves and flowers in her stony lap. Her fountain’s dry.
Rue slips between the rusted bars, undoes the latch for Gosslyn. They go in.
But there’s someone there, behind the circle of the stony dance, her grove of girls: another girl, a real one, in a nightdress and slippers, squatting on her heels. Quite a grown girl, thin and ginger, with a cat’s curly smile. Her cardigan won’t button round her middle, but her freckly arms and legs are thin. She’s drawing on the paving stones with chalk, white and red. They’ve seen her with her mam’s brood, down the Wall: jerking stragglers howling after, wiping noses, soothing, fratching. Goss glances at her belly.
“Not Mrs.” She chalks another line. “Outwith, I’s Phib.”
“Goss. Yon’s Rue.”
“Know yer. Hey up, brat.”
Scrape goes the ferrule. “What is’t yer drawing?”
“Snakes and ladders.” Nodding at Goss, she holds out a bit of chalk. “Halfs?”
Goss fumbles at her pocket. “Got a bit.”
Laddery as stockings, what Phib’s drawn, with blotches in it, red as poppies, red as blood. As if they’d scattered as she ran.
Kneeling on the pavement, Goss chalks angles, spirals, mazes round and round them. They are holes, doors, houses; they are earth and heaven. White on black. They make a grammar as they go. Halt runes becoming terse and supple, turning to a rime, a rant, a summoning. No more her mother tongue: new heaven and new earth. Her line’s a labyrinth, her thread of moonlight, winding on the spindle of the moon. She draws it down.
Hawklike, darkness knots itself and stoops: not fury but a fall of chance. The air’s like black glass shattering. Rue whirls the umbrella, heavy suddenly with wind. He’s staggered, but he holds it fast with both hands, blown askew. It wrenches at him, bucks and judders on the pavement, scraping stone; it leaps and bellies out. For a breath, its bones are lightning and its web is sky. Its godcrow sister cries to it; she wheels and counters, and the white thread snares her. Goss draws it tighter still, until the jess must snap, the falcon strike. She’s drawing on its dark, she’s drawing on the night itself. The chalk is crumbling. What she writes with it are stars and clouds of stars, ascendancies in nightfall. With the powder of her end, she sets them dancing.
The Mrs. looks about the bare room, the scrubbed wall, with her shrewd embittered eye. The box still flickers with its frieze of birds, still gloating on their eggs. Leave that. There’s another, always. Got her bacca, got her hairpins. Smokebook. Feather dress and comb. She folds away the last wards in her cheap case, snecks the latch. Unhooks the mirror from the wall. Cord’s coiled, Oover’s gutted, nets are drawn. She’ll get herself another place, then. Somewhere further down t’Wall. Deeper in. Then. Long time since she’s had a make. Last man were sackless. Got her brats, but. Thankless. And t’last afore him. Time sometime to get another. Screw him. Time enough.