Nike Sulway is an Australian author who lives and works in Brisbane. In 2000, Nike won the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award for Best Emerging Queensland Author for her novel, The Bone Flute, which was released by UQP in 2001 and subsequently shortlisted in the Commonwealth Writers Awards. Her children’s book, What the Sky Knows, was published in May 2005 and shortlisted for the 2006 Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards. Her next adult novel, The True Green of Hope was released in August 2005. Her short fiction and reviews have appeared in publications such as The Australian, Griffith Review, and Fantasy Magazine. The following is an excerpt from Sulway’s latest novel, Rupetta, published this past February by Tartarus Press and available from Tartarus in both hardback and e‑book form. – The Editors
Languedoc: November 11th, 1619
The first time I opened my eyes I was standing in the centre of the world. There were no clouds or stars. The moon was suspended above me, its silver face reflected in the brass bowl of water at the centre of the world. She was the first thing I saw: Eloise Reni. My mother, my maker, my sister. At first I thought she was the sun.
She reached towards me with one of her slim arms. I knew, then, she was not the sun. Her dappled, uneven skin rippled as she stirred. There were odd protrusions, pores, hairs, an unevenness of texture and tone across her surface I later came to recognise as indicators of an organic, human body. At the time I thought she was the unlucky, imperfectly formed creature. How horrible to have one’s flesh slide, uncontrolled, over muscle and sinew. How ghastly to need the air of the world, to imbibe and extrude, engorge and want. To desire and die. Later, I would learn about the pleasures of human life: laughter, joy, love, uncertainty, faith, hope, belonging, even loneliness. Even despair. But at that moment there were only the two of us in the world and I did not know that within her body there beat an inconstant human heart. To me we were the same; the same neatly-pinned hair, the same plain brown dresses, the same little caps on our heads, the same dark eyes and slim necks. She moved a little differently. She seemed older than I, a little wiser.
Eloise touched my face with her fingertips. I could hear her nails tick over my surface, but I felt nothing. I had not been made to feel. The new leather of my joints was stiff and smooth. My brass ribs gleamed. I wore the frame of a belled skirt, beneath which my mechanisms whirred. I had one arm, and a wooden hand — the fingers hollowed out with an awl — through which she had threaded supple wires. She pulled at them, one by one, and watched my fingers curl. Her name was carved across the sole of my left foot, not because she wished to mark me as her own, but because the material from which it was made had once been her artbox: an oak and ebony chest made for her by her father when she was eight or nine, and out of which she later made some parts of me. The lettering was small and carefully done: I never knew whether she or he had etched it there. In her hand she held the little key: the last thing she had made. A tiny thing, silver, its head a knotted pattern of leaves and cogs that form the first letters of my name and hers.
I closed my eyes, and woke again, and was remade. I did not sleep. I was there and I was not. I had no sense that time passed when I was not in it.
I opened my eyes to find Eloise bent over my prostrate form, my inner workings exposed. I heard the tinks and clicks of my body. She listened attentively to my click, click, click, chirr, and chock. ‘Can you do this?’ she asked, blinking down at me, and I did my best to imitate her. She tipped her head, leaned closer, peering into me as her slim fingers plucked and pushed, as she reached for the instruments that hung from a leather belt at her waist, or wound and rewound fine springs around the girth of her small fingers. ‘Good,’ she sometimes said, and sometimes nothing.
I did not know, then, that Eloise measured time in different ways — that the sun and moon of her wider world, and the circulation of her blood and breath, were organic clocks marking out the passage of her life. I did not know that life, for her, would be such a small and brutal thing. I did not know where Eloise went when I could not see her — only that sometimes when I opened my eyes on our familiar world she would be dressed differently or would have decayed a little more. I could not fathom why she changed, why sometimes she professed tiredness or distraction and at others was buoyed up by her mysterious inner workings. I presumed at the time that it was something to do with her uncanny design. Perhaps she offered me an explanation; my memories of those days have been clipped down to a bare minimum. After so many years, so many hours, my memory is crowded. The many companions I have had over the years, the many Eloises, have had their own logic around what must be kept and what must be lost. Montane did the worst damage — out of fear, perhaps, or greed. Though she would have done more had she known how. The Wynder must constantly tinker with me — deleting things I do not need to recall (though who is to say, really, what detail of history, now lost, could save us), batching and compressing thoughts, records, cells — in order that I might function with some semblance of my former, faultless self.
Eloise and I stayed in our intimate, self-contained world for a long time, until she showed me that what I had believed a mild imperfection —a thin, rectangular fissure in the walls of the world — was a door. Beyond that door was another world with a soft, multi-coloured surface beneath our feet, a flat dark sky, no moon or stars fixed above, but a series of obstacles laid out around us: tables and bookcases, low chairs and cabinets. There were innumerable small objects scattered about, each with a simple function. I learned to read there, to measure time, as well as the use and purpose of a thousand small things — clocks and spoons, latches, buttons and bowls. It was here, too, I first encountered Eloise’s uncle — Tomas Hornbaker — whose skin had folded up on itself and become as mottled as the walls of my former world. I did not know then that it was he who had helped her form me: the stories he had once told to amuse her, stories from the old world, had stirred her imagination, had bred in her a desire to make the statue talk, to make the golem tick.
Pinned to the walls of this larger, darker world were sheets of paper covered in diagrams and notations, graphs and charts and sketches. My first portraits. These Eloise and her uncle had laboured over for many years. At first, he had thought them mere fancies — a girlish game — but as the years progressed he learned to see that her mind was as quick and determined as any he had known. She made small toys to test one theory and another — a clepsydra, a hydraulic beetle, a miniature hippocampus who could swim in circles, and a wyvern whose candled belly, once lit, propelled it about the room. Tomas’s favourite was the blind dryad, her body carved from the trunk of a fallen elm, who sang like a wounded angel.
Slowly, I moved from that world — the world of my miniature companions, my ancestors — into another and another. I learned to call these worlds merely rooms and to understand that the images that adorned the walls of each room were sometimes paintings and sometimes windows; that the paintings were created by men, and the windows — or rather, the strange, shifting landscapes they contained — had been created by a gentleman called God. Would he come to visit us? I once asked. I should like to know his method of creating such things. I should like, some day, to make such things myself. I did not know, then, why my curiosity garnered such earnest and astonished responses in my fellow creatures. Such passionate debate that, for three days, neither of them slept as the world they had known — the universe of God, angels, heaven, hell and death, of sin and retribution, the world of faith, whirled and broke and re-formed within them.
Each hour life unfolded and revealed more nuances, more inconsistencies, and more strangeness. And yet Eloise found nothing to amaze her in these things — nothing alarming in the workings of a butter churn or a fire or her uncle’s bent and failing frame. Nothing strange in the form of the house in which we lived. She never wondered, as I did, whether the house had any end, whether we lived within it or were part of it; cells pulsing through its veins and arteries. Instead, it was I she was amazed by. Though she had created me, she did not know me. When I spoke of God or the sun or the workings of the fire in our hearth she appeared shaken, transformed. My curiosity, my atheistic will, inspired and frightened her in equal measure. Later, the weight of my strangeness, its persistence, would break her, but at first we knew only the vital energy of new knowledge.
There were other people in the house from time to time, but they never spoke to me. I realise now that Tomas or Eloise had enjoined them not to. There was a small woman with rough hands, Marie, whom I saw occasionally, scuttling from room to room. Sometimes she brought a tray, laden with food and drink, to the room where we three were working. She would not raise her head to look at me, and Tomas seemed impatient with her, waving her away with terse utterances. Once, as she was closing the door, she stole a glance at me. I tried to smile, as I had seen Eloise do, moving the parts of my face into the peculiar arrangement, but it only frightened her more. She raised her hand to her forehead, down to her sternum and across from shoulder to shoulder. She muttered some words in a language Eloise and Tomas used only rarely, in their one-sided conversations with God.
Once I came across Marie in the kitchen, where she stood at the large, rough table chopping vegetables and laughing with a man I had sometimes seen in a landscape that hung in one of the back rooms. The two of them fell silent when I entered the room and watched me move around the dogs sleeping near the fire. I heard the man say something — a strange, harsh word Marie shushed with a quick pass of her hand. It’ll tell Tomas, she said, and then we’ll be hauled over the coals.
Can it hear us then? he said.
I think so, Marie replied, with her eyes fixed on the table before her.
No wonder he won’t have anyone to the house anymore. Imagine what Monsieur de Meurre would say? Let alone Father Angerre.
What are these? I inquired, gesturing towards the foodstuffs scattered on the table, although I knew full well they were onions.
Holy Jesu! the man cried out, his voice trembling, as if his bellows were squeezed tight at the tip and the air squeezed through reluctantly. I must go, he said.
And leave me alone here with it? You’ll do no such thing, Master Paul. What am I to say to it?
It I thought then. I tipped my head and gazed down at my plain dress, at the odd, functionless swellings attached to my chest. I am a woman, I said, at which the two became even more agitated and — taking each other by the hand — fled the room.
I did not tell Eloise or Tomas about this incident, though they found it out soon enough. Perhaps Marie went to Tomas’s chamber with her companion still at hand. At any rate, Tomas learned of the encounter and later, in his rooms, asked me to recall the details. Soon after, Marie was dismissed from Tomas’s employ and replaced by a heavier and somewhat more stolid woman and her companion. Hélène Jans and her husband, Guido, took care of the house in a far more efficient manner than Marie had; polishing and twitching, scouring and sweeping the rooms and the objects they contained.
Hélène and Guido were not perturbed by my presence. Indeed, once Hélène discovered my quick ability to learn, my strength and precision of movement, she often enjoined me to assist her in managing the household. We spent long hours in the kitchen chopping vegetables, plucking chickens, churning butter, washing and mending clothes. At first we completed these chores in a tranquil silence but soon she grew more accustomed to my presence and would spend our time together telling stories of her childhood, of her and Guido’s courtship, of her friends and family and all the exotic intricacies of her past. She also talked about her visits to the Village: a strange place I could only presume was another kind of room filled with people; dozens and dozens of them if Hélène was to be believed.
The first time I stepped outside the house it was a simple mistake. I took a wrong turn, distracted as I was in following the movements of a small, six-legged creature as it scurried almost soundlessly across the kitchen floor. The black beetle scuttled beneath the door, which I opened only to discover it was a kind of shuttered window into one of God’s landscapes: an enormous, seemingly endless landscape one could walk into as if it were simply another room. I raced back through the house to find Eloise and drag her through this wooden door, or window — I could not tell which to call it — into the strange, drowned room where an ocean constantly fell from the distant ceiling. Where were its walls? Its doors and windows? I tipped back my head and looked into the falling water but my vision was so obscured by the drops scattering across my eyes I could not determine the height of its ceiling. I took Eloise’s hand and led her onto the threadbare green carpet, with its dusty brown floor beneath, and showed her the endless breadth of this landscape — this room that seemed to have no end at all, but to go on and on until vision and time expired. What a strange thing the world seemed, after all. How incomprehensible, how infinitely unfolding. I longed to find the edges of this room, its windows and doors, and venture further out — into the next world and the next.
A human child comes from a small, drowned world into a wider, drier one. A world filled suddenly with air and distance. Eloise’s granddaughter — Margery — was born in a field as we travelled from Eli to Cauvonne. She squealed and writhed as the cool air hit her skin, screwing up her eyes, clenching her small fists. She seemed to crave the close, embracing cave of her mother’s body. I would remember then the day of the beetle and the drowned world. The kitchen door and the endless impossibility of the world — how breathtaking, how astonishing, how beautiful it had all seemed. I had felt then I was too small — of beetle dimensions myself — too infinitesimal to have meaning in such a vast world. Soon enough, with all that air and water and earth rushing around and through me, I would simply fail to hold myself together and my parts would be scattered to the ends of the grand unfolding earth.
Many people have called me constant; have desired the seeming permanence of my existence. The earth, I have found, has her own kind of constancy; an endless cycling, an incessant repetition of patterns that are almost the same; lives and seasons and days. But despite the way they may appear things are not the same as they once were. Time changes them all. Myself included. Perhaps, after all, the Oikos are right. Perhaps I am Monstrous. But if so then I am no more Monstrous than the chronometer at your waist, or the bicycle you ride to the library each day, or the spectacles that aid your sight. Even the Oikos complement their fleshy bodies with implements: spades and wheels and knives and bowls. Ships and walls, books and doors. They are not as pure — as wild and untrammelled — as the beasts of the forest. They are not like the tortoise, whose body is armour, harvester and hearth. They are not like the shark, whose mouth is a weapon. They are not like the great Tallowwood of home, whose limbs harvest light. Humans are creatures of enterprise. They are made as much as they are born.
Time is different for me. As is memory, the only true measure of time. When I think of Eloise — of Eloise Reni, my first companion — it is not a pale, inconstant, wavering thing that comes to me. I do not have to cast my mind back like a fisherman who throws his line into a mysterious sea and waits for what will come, hoping it will be familiar but always wondering. One day the sea yields boots and buckets, lost oars and seaweed, other day’s mysteries; mermaids, selkies, dragons. When I think of Eloise I see her standing in the room, her head bent over the table beside me as she writes. I see her wipe her ink-stained palms on her overdress before she leaves the room. I see her with her arms wrapped around her chest for warmth as we walk towards town in the middle of winter. The land around seems broad and even under its mantle of snow.
Eloise was near forty and it was Candlemas. She was far too old to be carrying a child, let alone her first, but it had been Tomas’s dying wish to see a child upon her, though he had not lived to see it born.
As she walked her breath formed blue clouds before her face, which she lurched into with each step. Her cheeks were red and chapped. She was not the same young woman I had first encountered, though the shadow of that other Eloise still haunted the corners of her mouth, her sparkling eyes. She was still my Eloise.
Let’s go back, I said.
I can’t miss the mass again.
It’ll make no difference. Likely not a soul will stir from their beds today but Mother Sirani and her sallow daughter.
Eloise glanced at me, some unwonted worry pulling at her forehead. What is it? I asked.
What if I die?
You’ll more likely do so if we stay out in this much longer.
When the child comes, she said, looking down at her red-knuckled hands.
Hélène and I will care for you. Nothing untoward will mar the child’s birth.
But what if it does?
I hadn’t considered the prospect of Eloise’s death. She seemed as constant as I. She had been present at my birth and, I had thought, would be there at my going out of the world. Nothing will happen, I insisted.
Eloise dug about in the sleeve of her gown. Here, she said, thrusting the key into my hand with a bright, chinking sound. I’ve told Hélène how to do it; she’ll care for you if I can’t.
I turned the key over in my hands. You cannot be serious, Eloise. You have told me that only you, or one of your bloodline, should Wynd me. If you … if you pass from this world then I must go, too.
Why? There’s no reason to believe so. Only vanity has made me think it. Not reason, not clear thinking. I am your creator, but I am not God: I am not the life by which you breathe.
There’s nothing about you and your workings I don’t know. I crafted every wheel and bellow, every hoop and thread. You are a creature of wind and wheels: soulless, logical. You are a machine, Rupetta, there’s no reason it can’t be someone else who Wynds you.
What about Alazaïs?
Eloise stopped and looked away, sighing.
You can’t make her like me, can you? She’s just a doll.
Eloise frowned. It was true, of course. Though she had managed to build my doppelgänger, making her identical to me in every way possible, using the same materials, following the track of her own notations and diagrams, Alazaïs stood in the room in which I had first opened my eyes, as still and dull as a stone. When wound she could follow simple commands, if spoken slowly. She could utter a small vocabulary, though sense only emerged from her utterances occasionally and accidentally. She could repeat something told to her, though only once and then it seemed to disappear from her memory altogether. She could write her name. She could walk, though she often stumbled over things placed in her path.
It’s a matter of craftsmanship; I have been vain and God has punished me by refusing to give her life, Eloise said.
You should give up this quest for faith. I know you do not truly believe in any God, no matter how much you try to. Faith comes at its own bidding, and not at yours.
If you die, then I will also stop, and we will be both be nothing.
I don’t believe that. You will never die, as my mother did, and leave my child to make her way in the world the best she can.
Has it been that terrible, your life? Our life?
I have longed for a mother and had none. Tomas educated and housed me, made sure that I was fed and well-clothed. I had everything a growing woman could expect. Far more, perhaps, than many, but I was like a toy to him, an object of study. He wanted to know how a woman’s mind was made; whether a woman could think, could rationalise, as he did. He educated me not because he loved me, but because he wanted to know if it would queer my womb, or addle my brain. He kept notes about me: the notes of a scholar of Nature. He wanted to understand me. I fascinated him, but he could not love me. He never pulled me onto his lap, never smiled at my games or kissed me, never sang me songs or took me walking in the forest just to walk with me. Just to be together.
He gave you the benefit of his education, of his small portion of wealth, of his home. He was very kind to you; he nurtured you. As a falconer is kind to his hawks, by keeping them jessed and hooded. Even their cleverness — their skill at hunting — he sees as his own triumph. He trains them to hunt for him, to fly for him, to live and die and breed for him.
Her face was set and I felt again her fury and shame. Not just at what had been done to her — at the boy Tomas had paid to set a child inside her, or the roughness of the coupling — but at the betrayal she saw in it all. She had thought of herself as his daughter and could not reconcile his gentle paternalism with his husbandry.
He was old, I said, and confused.
Eloise shook her head. He was cruel, and you know it. You may be many things, but you were not made for cruelty, but then, how can I know what you are thinking? I do not know, Rupetta, which is worse; to leave the child with you or to leave her alone — friendless, without family — in a world that will not care whether she lives or dies, whether she is good or happy. Hélène is too old to care for her. There is no one else. You will be her guardian, as you have been mine, and you will love her without reservation because she will put her hand — as I have — in the forecourt of your heart.
The snow had begun to fall again. Eloise took my arm and we turned towards home. Her face was pinched and white beneath her shawl. We had gone barely seven steps when she paused and her face gained a kind of shrouded vacancy. What is it? I asked her.
Well, she said, that’s to be the way of it. I thought I would have more time. She was leaning upon me, her breathing coming in depressed clouds.
It was a quick, though not easy, birth. At the time I wondered whether her God had indeed cursed her, but over the years I have seen many more children come into the world; their births both gentler and more brutal. Hélène hauled herself out of her makeshift bed in the kitchen and we birthed Elisabetta there, by the fire. Eloise slept soon afterwards and I swaddled the baby, as Hélène instructed me. Her own hands were too gnarled and stiff to do so. When the two women were sleeping, side by side in the kitchen bed with the fire well-banked beside them, I took the babe out into the night. It was a foolish thing to do, but the storm had passed and the night, though cool, was thick and quiet. We stood on the kitchen stoop and I pointed out the winter stars, the thin-fingered trees, the shrouded evergreens near the road. She did not cry — she would always be a quiet woman — and as we stood there she gazed calmly into the cool face of the sky.
In the weeks that followed her daughter’s birth Eloise withered. Her face never regained its firm, rose-cheeked composure. She rarely left the kitchen-bed, where she and Hélène spent their days sipping at warm broth and watching the fire. Once I found her in the room with Alazaïs, staring at her with something akin to fury. She pushed her over and straddled her supine form. I do not know how she found the strength to do so when some days she barely had strength enough to lift a spoon. She had a small spindle in her hand, which she scraped over Alazaïs’s face and arms, over the softer metals of her arms and the leather at her joints. It is not true Alazaïs is the same as me. Her features resemble my own, at least in their general form, but all over her silvered surface Eloise had carved intricate vines and flowers and spirals. To remind her, so she said, that Alazaïs was not real, that she was a vain folly. She had done the same to my left hand when it needed repairing, covering my palm, my fingers and my wrist with a delicate, shell-edged pattern of apple-blossoms and dragonflies. At the time this artwork had pleased her a great deal and she had smiled when Hélène and I exclaimed at Alazaïs’s beauty, but now she hacked at my sister with a savageness I had never seen in her before.
She tore aside Alazaïs’s shift and, with some difficulty, slashed and tore at the hinges of the small door that led to her inner compartments until it fell to the floor. Inside, Alazaïs had the same workings as me, only each of her dials and cogs, the thin metal pipes and funnels and braces, were untouched by time or smoke or air. She had never, as had I, been opened to discover a small, dry leaf lodged among her gears. They gleamed coolly in the dark room.
Eloise, I said, and she turned sharply towards me.
What have I done? She opened her fist and let the spindle fall into Alazaïs’s chest. It clinked against some wheel or pipe and Eloise started. Give me the key.
I watched her sink to her knees and retch, the bilious fluid pooling between her fingers. When I offered my hand to help her rise she pulled away, a thread in her sleeve catching on the tip of my finger. Let me help you, I said. I’ll boil some water and you can wash, put on a fresh gown.
She gave me a look I had never seen before; venom and sorrow. Get away from me, she said, rising to her feet, pressing her hands against her skirts and raising her chin.
I called her name again as she moved to leave the room and she hesitated before she turned, her shoulders braced against whatever I might say. I had meant to offer a kindness, give some sign of my affection, but the look she gave could have withered glass.
You’re not to come near me ever again, she said. You can stay in the house, but you must keep to these rooms. Something flickered across her face, some shadow of regret or wretchedness, but it was soon gone, and — if my memory were more like yours — I would have had the mercy of being able to believe it a fancy of my imagination. Give me the key, she repeated, her voice as cool as winter’s breath.
It’s in the study, I said and she turned away, her skirts brushing against the doorframe as she left.
Eloise worked intently, not — as she had for so many hours in her youth — on the making of new things, but on their destruction. She burned her papers, including the books she and Tomas had bought. She tore up the sketches and diagrams of my making, and her notebooks on the process. All the back and forth, the experiments that had failed, the moments of elation, hope, discovery and despair. One by one, each night, she fed them to the kitchen fire. When all this was done she turned to the smaller things. She took apart each toy she had made, sometimes violently, smashing them open on the stone-flagged floor of the kitchen. Once dismantled, she destroyed what could not be reconstituted, made pots and spoons of some other elements, and traded the rest for scrap. What could not be sold or re-used she bundled into cotton sacks. Each night, in the last months of her life, burning with a kind of sleepless fever, she wandered the forests, burying the remains of my kin in the dark. The angel elm she burned — her leather lungs smouldered unhappily as she died.
Finally, there was only Alazaïs, lying half-broken on the floor of the study. Eloise repaired her, roughly, welding her heart closed with a seam that was more violent than the original wound. She spent two days building a large box, lined with oilcloth. She dismantled Alazaïs into eight pieces: two arms, four leg joints, a body and a head, and packed them, in layers of old linen, into the box.
Late that night she loaded the box onto the plough and guided the horse into the wood. I had thought she would bury Alazaïs, but she took no spade. I followed her down into the shallow gully that lay between our house and the river. There was a pond there, visited occasionally by the neighbour’s children, or by their stock. The children’s father had built a jetty from which the children sometimes fished. The water was deep, and muddied, covered with a smattering of pondweed. Eloise grunted with effort as she pushed Alazaïs’s box out onto the jetty. She checked the seal of the box, nailed down the lid and pushed it off the edge, into the water. She waited while it sank, watching until the water settled, and then turned back towards the house.
Elisabetta and I wandered the fields and orchards together, steering clear of the village and the handful of houses that had sprung up closer to our own since Tomas passed away; the Trencavels, with all their airs and pious graces, were not curious neighbours. As she grew a little older I taught her what I knew. She was a bright child and an eager pupil, though she was plainer than her mother, and less solemn. She was seven when Hélène passed and ten when her mother followed. Ten years in which I was wound so infrequently the hinges of my heart’s door grew stiff. Eloise took pleasure in the need, the last time she wound me, to lever the chamber open with a blunt chisel, my hinges squealing an indelicate protest.
Elisabetta was not a heartless child, though she wept more over Hélène’s passing than her mother’s. You could hardly blame her. The Eloise I had known during the early years; the bright, fragile beauty with such quick enthusiasms and wit, such earnest kindness and ready intelligence, had disappeared before Elisabetta was a week old, replaced by a ghost whose calluses grew soft, whose tools — once so carefully oiled — grew thick with dust as she knelt in endless, needless prayer.
A week after her mother’s death we sat in the drawing room; the windows thrown wide open to disperse the heat that flooded the house on summer afternoons. In the days since Eloise’s death I had grown tired. It had been months since the last Wynding, a time of slowness, of quiet blooming within me like a virus as Eloise gathered herself up and moved towards death. Her death, the sudden absence of Eloise, had a far more deadening effect than had the months without Wynding. Her reluctant proximity had been enough to maintain me; her absence made me weak. I could hear the slow clicking of worn parts within me each time I shifted my right thigh, but had neither the wit nor the energy to rise and go to the workroom to repair myself. Elisabetta was seated on the floor, arranging her collection of feathers and stones on the rug. I had never felt such exhaustion. Each limb, each digit, was inordinately heavy. Even watching Elisabetta play was a terrible effort. When she turned her face to me I was struck with wonder at the effortlessness of her movement. Could you do something for me? I asked her. In the study, on your mother’s desk, there’s a small box. Bring it to me?
Elisabetta dashed from the room. I could hear her footfalls, loud as thunder, as she raced through the house. I closed my eyes, wondering if I was going to do this thing and seeing that — yes — I would. The Penitents say all organic things, all natural beings, desire life and grow towards death; that is their tragedy. It is only in perfection, they say, only in me that there is both a desire — a will — to life, and stasis. Deathlessness. All other things — stars, viruses, cells, acids, stones, trees — obey the laws of chemical logic. Perhaps if Eloise had spoken with me of her thoughts, her fears of what this soulless, deathless existence might mean I would have taken a different path. Perhaps I would have sunk myself into the water beside my sister and lain there, looking up through the water, for centuries. I would have become a rumour, a fairytale like Melusine. A woman’s ruined form, wreathed in reeds, rumoured to rise from the darkness to weep, to sing, to woo the hapless when the moon is thin. A fairy in the well; a dragon’s mother keening in the darkness. Perhaps if she had told me what she sensed of the future, the horrors to come … but there is no point in pondering such possibilities. The past has gone, and all the potential it held has been spent.
When Eloise died I found the key easily enough, strung as it was on a sliver of blue ribbon about her neck. I put it in the box and placed it on her desk. I waited until my heart stuttered in my chest. I told myself she had known nothing of what was to come, that her fears were mere fancies.
When Elisabetta returned to the drawing room she clambered onto my lap and pressed her cheek against my shoulder. What is it? she asked me, and for answer I eased the lid from the box and tipped it so she could see the key resting in its bed of raw, white silk. She glanced at me before her fingers reached in and took it. What is it for?
Slowly, because my arm ached with the effort it took, I slid my left hand towards my chest and opened my blouse. There, beneath the layers of rough fabric, was a door identical to the one Eloise had torn from Alazaïs. Elisabetta had seen me open it many times. Occasionally, she had even done so at her own bidding, peering into me with a sparrow’s keen eye, watching my wheels turn and bellows bloom and deflate as I sang to her. As a very young girl she had hidden her secret treasures within me: beetles and bright leaves, a coin, a robin’s egg, a peach-stone, a wish.
I had thought she would need to ask me what to do; I had thought it would be a matter of guiding her fingers to the spot and helping her insert the key, opening the room inside me to reveal my four-chambered heart, but she needed no guidance. She slipped her hand inside me and pressed her fingertips into the chambers, testing their texture and heat and weight. She smiled, tilting her head to look at me, before she pushed her hand home, into my heart. There was a sharp white pain and then silence; apple-green.
Afterwards, she fell asleep in my arms and I carried her to her room. This, then, is the true, the only, real miracle of my life. Not the daily tinkering, not any of the Miracles the Penitents celebrate. Not the grand ceremonies the Obanites revere, or their brutal Transformations. It is not in the Histories, filled with lies and half-truths about the miracles of my tears and dreams, the years of silence and fear, of hope and love. These things are mere technology. The true miracle was only ever this, the twinning of my spirit and that of the Wynder: my heart in her hand, her spirit unravelling into mine.
What did I feel the first time Elisabetta bound her fate to mine, when I knew I would live beyond Eloise’s death, perhaps even beyond Elisabetta? Fear, certainly, at what I had become. The sudden, awful knowledge of what it might mean. Regret that I had betrayed Eloise, perhaps even betrayed Elisabetta, into something I did not understand. A life of vivid, etheric connection, of interdependence. But there was also a great sense of joy and possibility; I was renewed. I was filled with life; with bright, snapping optimism. My body felt light for the first time in years. I was working again, moving, thinking clearly, but there was something more to it than that. My hip still clicked when I moved, but it was not heavy. I sat beside Elisabetta’s narrow bed, watching her sleep. Each breath I took was hers. Her dreams were like a winnowing of the air within me. I knew the fascination of those feathers she had laid out on the rug, the game, the secret pleasures they represented: the delight she felt at their colours, their waxy softness. She dreamed of flight, of being a compact, humming black beetle, hovering over the orchard, darting between the leaves over her mother’s grave, her wings flickering and darkly iridescent.
Do you remember the sudden love you felt when you first held Perdita, Henri? As if your heart had burst like an over-ripe fruit in your chest? The Wynding binds us to each other a little like that, though love is too brittle and human a word for what it makes. A connection is made that cannot be undone. A force of green light drives through each of us, like a root through common soil, like an artery of light. Though the connection waxes and wanes with distance, with time, it is more constant than mere love. More certain, more ineradicable. Perhaps this is a good thing. Human hearts are frail, palpitating muscles hung in a fragile cage of bone. If you were made as I am, made to feel Perdita’s presence and her terrible absence in equal measure at every moment, at every breath, you would not sleep for weeping, would not dream. You would not be able to put down this grief, even for a moment. Eventually, your fragile human heart would exhaust itself in despair.