A Door to Day’s End
This, I knew at once, was not a real place.
The air tasted strange underneath a heavy fragrance of fresh paper. Every sound I made was a bit off, a bit flat. The flats in our building must have been like this when they were first built, little pockets of otherness only attached to the structure around by a door. I had been in otherwheres before, but not – they had been hideous to me, and this was beautiful.
I walked slowly forward, reaching out to run cautious fingers across the nearest flowers. The little white messengers were nowhere to be seen; here sprawled lush crimson blooms scrawled over in a wild hand, cerise bells frilled at the tips and patterned in fine precise letters – a tangle of trumpets not unlike troubador’s gold were covered in rousing speeches calling for revolution. Dainty blue blossoms made me blush with their ardent and quite explicit love letters. The leaves, it seemed, were the replies.
Where did the words come from? Where, when they faded, did they go?
Regular glances over my shoulder ensured that the door I had come through – on this side painted green with a large brass knocker, floating in midair – remained still, so I ventured further. I could see why a gardener was needed. Some plants grew in such profusion that they were drowning those around them; others required trellises to display their finest work. The dead flowerheads needed trimming. A path, perhaps, could be laid to ensure no blooms were harmed by a passing visitor…Did they have visitors? Well. Just in case.
It was work I could do, if I chose. It felt like choice; a kindly illusion if it was not. I went again to the door like a skittish cat to be sure it would open, and that once open it would lead into the same alley from which I had departed. The flowers rustled, an unhappy sound, but there was the world outside – a world that I did not like but to which I had gradually become accustomed. I could manage out there. Perhaps I could manage in here as well. I turned back to the garden, walked further in.
There was no sun, or phantom thereof, present in the sky but warm honey-gold pools of light dappled the ground anyway. Well into the flower meadow, I came upon a tree. It was an extraordinary thing. The new leaves were bright white; the older ones almost black with ink. My heart lifted as I plucked a leaf and read a sonnet. And there were blossoms. In time, this tree would have fruit. Oh, I had to see that.
The stark colours of the tree were such that I did not immediately notice my observer. In fact, I did not realise I was not alone until the bird chose to reveal itself, turning a glossy head toward me and inclining its sharp beak down. A black bird, of no type I knew. Startled, I took a misjudged step back and tumbled onto my back; rolling quickly onto my side, I groped for the nail, desperate suddenly to ground myself against the fantasy and flee. My other hand reached under my coat and closed around the cool hilt of my sword.
The meadow remained a meadow. The bird remained a bird. It looked at me with a very distinct air of disdain. Black and white leaves tumbled slowly through the air around it but the bird’s steely eye remained fixed upon me.
Then, apparently satisfied, it looked away. I was, it seemed, dismissed.
I did not run away. I did not look behind me.
I did not once let go of the sword.
* * *
Once upon a time there was a man who had friends, and a place to live, and it was less than he had ever had in his life (save for that time when he was someone else, not a someone but a thing, the time he did not think about) but it was good and he was grateful. And it was not enough. He did not want to go home, because that had not been enough either. And it grew to be a consuming loneliness, as wide and deep as fear, because he did not know what it was to feel content. He did not think he ever would.
Perhaps that was why the Gentry took him. They did not know contentment either. Perhaps they saw something inside him that they liked.
* * *
I bumped into the phouka and his cigarette fell to the ground, scattering embers.
“I’m sorry – very sorry,” I breathed out, backing away with my hands spread, walking like I’d been given quite a hard blow to the back of the head and might keel over at any minute. The phouka uttered a fluid, musical profanity and lit a second cigarette, stamping his hoof upon the ashes of the other. He must have come to meet his lover, had it really grown so late? Did time pass swifter in the paper garden or was it simply that I had forgotten myself? I did not know which would be worse.
There was a fearsome restlessness beneath my skin. I could not stand to walk back into the flat, so I kept climbing the stairs, past the aerie flat with its shining walls, up further to landings I’d had no cause to see before. A bright blue door with no knob or lock, from behind which came the sound of running water. Crimson ivy twined around the upper bannisters and I winced at the crunch of dried leaves underfoot, so like the crackle of paper. A man with mottled green skin, heavily wrinkled and quite bald, dressed in a three piece suit, walked past on the stairs with his nose buried in a pamphlet. A baby was crying somewhere. I kept climbing until there were no doors left and I found the roof.
I had never gone so far before, there had never been a need. Or a desire. It was astonishing how close I felt to the sky; I had never been so high in Candlebridge and every horizon pulled at the eye. To the east rose the green haze of Tylwyth, where the ruins of an older part of the city merged with dryad lands and became forest; green lay also to the west, and the swaying colours of the giant’s flowers in Fortune Gardens. I would have liked to see them and never could, because that was where the Gaming Lawns were. My white armour was probably still lying at the bottom of the stream there, covered over by mud and algae.
The wind was unexpectedly strong up here. I closed my eyes, turned my face towards it. The sun was hot on my skin. I felt alive in a way I hadn’t for a long while, truly awake. I had felt like this when Agnes was cursed and Geraldine needed me. Was it only terror that brought me back to life? Or fury?
Over my head the cloud sailers drifted by, trailing ribbons of steam, surrounded by wheeling birds and bigger winged things. They were up very high but my hair was fair like Geraldine’s; it would shine brightly in the sunlight. That sort of thing drew their attention.
I went downstairs, the sword slapping gently against my leg.
* * *
“I went to find the Library.”
I could not look at Geraldine as I spoke and was worried at what I might see on Agnes’ face, so I studied the wooden tabletop under my hands. A trio of teacups sat slowly cooling as no one touched them. “I – there is already a guardian, I think, but the flowers want me there. Nothing bad happened. I might go back.”
Geraldine inhaled deeply, as if about to unleash a storm of words, but only released a shaky breath and pressed a hand over her mouth. Her eyes were wide with the kind of dread we reserved for each other. Agnes was quiet, waiting for more, so I kept talking, describing what I had seen. When I finished, I looked up. Geraldine was trying not to show how upset she was. Agnes was diplomatically trying not to show how excited she was. “They do seem very set on you,” she said at last.
Geraldine let her hand fall. “You can’t go back.”
“I want to.” Those were not words we used any more; it had been a long time since I made an actual decision. “I liked it there. I can help them.”
“Help them,” Geraldine breathed. “Why should you help them?”
“Why,” I said slowly, not sure I meant it, not sure I didn’t, “should I not?”
Geraldine made a choked sound, her eyes flaring with shock and a trace of betrayal. I leaned forward, trying to explain myself to both of us. “I used to be kind. Didn’t I? I want to be kind. I want it to feel easy again.”
“You are kind,” Geraldine whispered. “Oh God, Robert. You are.”
“I would have helped. Then.”
“This is different, it was safe then, there was no risk – “
Geraldine’s eyes were bright and wet. For the third time that night her breath escaped in a helpless rush, words unable to keep pace with her emotions. Agnes watched on with a small frown, as if she had something she wanted to add but knew better than to say it just now. She squeezed my arm instead and left the table with a murmured excuse.
“I don’t know myself any more,” I said. “Maybe this will help.”
“You’re my brother,” Geraldine said fiercely. “I know who you are.”
My eyes were wet now too. “Geraldine. I don’t.”
* * *
In the end they came with me to the garden, Geraldine and Agnes both. This was the closest thing we had to safe now: the three of us, together. I wore the sword under my coat, enduring the sweat trickling down my back, and Geraldine carried an iron wrench in the reticule at her hip. Agnes kept making excited noises as the trail of flowers unfurled at each street corner, like a little girl on Christmas morning, and kept stopping to read them, which slowed us down. The quotes from Jane Eyre did not soften Geraldine’s tight mouth, but she was curious despite herself.
The sun was low on the horizon when we arrived in the lane behind the bakery, the summer evening drawing to a close. When the door opened under my hand and the garden’s scent of paper filled my lungs, Agnes was the first to step over the threshold and Geraldine followed, unable to leave either of us behind, however strong her suspicions. I shut the door in our wake.
“This…is the Library? No shelves. Hm. Smaller than I expected, too.” Agnes in a state of wonderment was still Agnes, hands on hips, looking around. “Lots of libraries, perhaps…I wonder what section this is? How do we find out? Perhaps there’s a sign.”
She looped one arm through mine, one through Geraldine’s, and pulled us off to look. As we passed under the tree, I saw the bird sitting on a branch. Now I looked closer, I saw close-written words turning the wings black and glossy. It rolled an irritable eye down at us, looked away as if we were too insignificant to watch.
It was not safe, in this garden. Nowhere in this world was safe for us. I would not always have the strength to come here – perhaps for days on end, perhaps for too long. But Geraldine was smiling reluctantly as Agnes read aloud from random petals, and there were flowers at my feet, a task I understood. I could learn to do this.
I didn’t really care what the bird thought.