The stars were out by the time Tristram was waist-deep in her hole. They were small and high, like the tips of tiny pens ready to sign their names to the earth. The garden-dirt had become very wet and clayey, but she had not yet hit rock, and she took this as a good sign. The yellow squash roots were long past her, their thready fingers relinquishing their hold as if to say: We tried to hold you here. It is not our fault.
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She was sweating into the mud; her shoulders throbbed. She had discovered so far: three antediluvian soda cans, six skeletons of mice or mice-like creatures, one enormous marrow bone buried by some long-dead spaniel, and too many earthworms to count. It did not occur to her that the children she wished to imitate made their assays in daylight, with others about to take shifts on the shovel, and never in secret, never with their parents sleeping in rooms far off, dreaming of lean wolves with second mortgages rolled up in their jaws.
She only dug on, and on. If you or I had asked her, Tristram would not have been able to say what she expected. To dig without resistance all the way through? To hit the wooden floor of the garden and pry up the boards? To dig until it was time for school and then give up, having done her duty by her study of normal children and made an honest attempt? It opened up an hour before dawn, when a bit of pale wind had begun to pick up and blow away the dark like leaves.
Tristram dug carefully around it, first with the now-terribly dull shovel, and then with her fingers. She found no head to match it, but a wide steel shelf with a small hole cut in it for the eye to peek through. The eye rolled several times and strained to its left, and Tristram felt very badly for it: An exceptional child would certainly understand immediately what it meant. She scrabbled in the left-hand dirt, whispering apologies. The eye softened a bit, but kept straining, as if trying to see what she as up to.
Gently, Tristram cleared the soil, trying not to spray it into the unprotected eye. Finally, she found what it must have meant for her to find, and her throat went thick, her breath moth-quick. It could not be real, could not possibly be.
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To find a thing like this, a girl must have great faith already. Faith is rewarded.
She could not even think of what the opposite of faith might be, but that was the thing she had, and that was not rewarded with such prizes as this. It was a handle, ornate and iron, like a great spoon bent by grim hands.
It was carved like a stalk of bamboo with silver peonies blossoming at its tip and its base. She closed both small hands around it and wrenched it open: a little door, not much more than a hatch, just the size, really, of a hole a girl of twelve might manage to dig. There was a staircase with a long banister, and a dark corridor, leading down and down and down. She took a deep breath and looked around her, sure the house was dark and innocent of what she had done to the garden.
The squash roots, being kind and considerate folk, gathered up the displaced soil and spread it beneath them, hiding the hatch once more and smoothing the garden like a bedsheet until no one might tell that it had ever been disturbed. The fat yellow squash themselves lurched onto the place where Tristram had gone, and fell asleep under the morning wind. Tristram blinked. The creature blinked back. The light beneath the steel door was fitful and golden, a few torches blazed lazily. It sat on a high steel chair, not a throne, but a Chair, with long arms and a smooth back, framing the head of the seated soul.
In this case, a woman in a white hood, remarkably white, with the head of an enormous crow. She stretched her feathery eyelid up and down and worried her black beak against her shoulder. Tristram tried to peer through the flickering shadows. The crow-woman cocked her head and leaned forward in her chair.
Five in a century. Any more and one begins to invite archaeologists. You will make two for this phase. Tristram looked down into the dark. It was hot down there; the breezes were warm and scented, like burning stone and honeysuckle. She heard voices and rushes of air, like listening to a subway station through a grating.
The crow extended one of her mammoth hands and wrapped Tristram up in her fingers, gently, with great care. We did not predict the New World and all its squash, all its houses and children and buses and rosebushes. I am very good at Watching, and from my hole in the ceiling of the world I can see as much as any runner in the red streets of Ignis.
If you pay the toll, you will be safe, and the Thoroughfare will keep you and bear wherever you wish, through plains of fur and high silver tundra. A road often-traveled is well-trained and dear, a sweet hound at your feet. Tristram shut her eyes. Her blood beat at her skin. An exceptional child would go—she would never hesitate. She would be brave, she would be resourceful. She would have read very many books to prepare her for this sort of thing. China, all the way to China, where everything would be made of jade, just everything, and there would be no terrible cats at all to smile and smile while they scraped her to the bone.
The crow frowned. Tristram could feel the frown land on her face, the disapproval, the inevitable disappointment.
Digging to China
It was not heavy, but it clung, like a shroud. They expect everything for nothing. The business of psychopomps is exchange. Just because you are cherubic and wee does not mean you are exempt from economy. Not even an earring?
Not even a purely symbolic penny? Tristram shook her head, her eyes full of tears. No work ethic at all, her father said. Why had she not brought her allowance?
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Crows like silver, she seemed to recall. The blades were ornate and engraved with all the things a bird cares for: beetles and high trees, clouds and seeds, fallen fruit and eggs. The scant torchlight of the landing glittered on the handles. Gravity, you know. You can no more miss it than fall out a window and fail to hit the ground. Tristram put the scissors through her belt and hefted her rusted shovel onto her shoulder. When I am through, she thought, I will have passed through so much fire, I will burn so brightly no tiger will be able to look at me without being blinded. She turned and walked down the first stairs, winding around and around.
The crow cawed softly behind her. Tristram counted thirty-six steps before the Thoroughfare opened beneath her—an endless crystalline road flowing on beneath a black sky which was the stony earth above, lit not by torches but by winding glass flowers that grew down from the lowest of all soils, straining like trumpets toward the road, glowing golden as if still molten and searing.
They smelled sweet, like honeysuckle and green woodsmoke. Stumpish, deformed glass trees sprouted blue and black beyond the pearl guardrails. And all along the Thoroughfare folk walked, pilgrims, brass lanterns raised against the dark, their faces turned towards the heart of the world, and on each of their shoulders was a mantle of gold.
Before and behind, the line of brass lanterns extended. Tristram was caught up in the traffic, her feet hardly touching the glowering red road, swept along by a tide of bodies. She snatched breaths whenever the teeming folk swelled and her head crested theirs, only to be driven down again, surrounded by swinging arms and strange scents—women who smelled of nutmeg and cardamom, men who smelled of smoldering newspapers, glossy-coated dogs on their hind legs and horses in prim green vests and Windsor ties, smelling of expensive rose-leaf perfumes. She could hardly breathe for the press of them.
Tristram walked—everyone walked. Around her rose the rumble of a thousand languages at once. The curling glass flowers played a slow, quiet music, something like a department store radio, and something like a sitar of cedar, stuck in a minor key. She strained to hear it, and in her straining nearly collided with the creature before she saw it. Standing far taller than it ought to have and refusing to move, so that the throng was forced to part around it, was a black peacock, its eyes red and hard, its tail aflame, dancing, scarlet and white.
The peacock was taller than Tristram, and its plumage seemed stony, sharp-edged, as though it was a statue of a bird. There are rules here.
Good ones, that took a very long time to think up.