The Shadow Behind the Stars
THIS IS A STORY ABOUT the end of the world.
It is a lesson for you, mortal, so listen well to my words. Shiver and become them. When you sleep, dream of them. When you blink, see us sisters spinning, measuring, slicing in the darkness behind your lids.
Know us. Fear us. Heed my warning, mortal: Stay far away from us.
My name is Chloe, and I am the youngest. Mine are the fingers that choose the wool, that shape the thread, that begin it. The sun smiles upon me. Men love me without knowing who I am. I have lived forever and will live forever more.
By the beginning of this story, I had seen everything. Nothing was new to me, not in birth or death or living. There should have been nothing left that could surprise me.
Here is the thing about this world we spin, though: It is full of surprises. Live a thousand years, and you will be surprised on the thousand and first. That is the beauty of it—the impossible riddles, the dark. It is also the danger—how quickly your life twists suddenly inside out.
Even for us it is this way, immortal as we are. We can still be startled by the beauty, and the danger can still take us unaware. Even when we think we are ready for it; even when we know better.
We should have known better that first afternoon, when the girl showed up on our doorstep. We should have realized the danger she brought when we saw the dark pain in her gaze. Maybe then we could have stopped it; maybe then the end of the world never would have come.
Or then again, maybe it wouldnt have made any difference at all. My sister might still have cast her spell; the fish might still have jumped out of the waves before the girl. I dont know when its ever done us good to know whats coming, after all. Mostly, there isnt anything that any of us can do.
This girl was young, only just beyond childhood, but she had already lost her family, her friends, everyone she knew. The raiders had come and killed them all; she had watched as they screamed, as they fell, as they slid from the edge into darkness. She had lain quite still and pretended to be as dead, while the men took what they wanted from her village and smashed to bits everything else. The girl felt, there in the bloody dust of the road, that she was being smashed to bits as well.
When they had gone, nothing was left of the life she had known, and nothing was left of this girl but an unthinking urge, an ancient instinct to pick herself up, to stumble out through her village, not looking, not smelling, not hearing. She walked for days, for weeks. She followed that invisible pull through fields, across streams, not caring where the road went or how rough was the ground. She only walked on, and crawled when she couldnt walk, and at last she was climbing the steep rock slope between our crashing waves, balancing one step after another until she had reached our round green island. And then she stood, feet raw, in our doorway, looking in at us.
Not many make it that far. Im sure youll already know that.
She told us what had happened. Her eyes were flashing with what she had seen; her voice was harsh. When she had finished, she demanded that we tell her what there was to live for now.
She was so insistent that we tried to answer her. I listened to the whir of my whalebone spindle. Serena ran her fingers along the girls gold thread, feeling every bump and twist. Xinot clicked her scissors—click, clack—and sniffed at the empty space where that thread came to an end, staring blankly all the while with her swirling eyes.
We stopped our whirring and fingering and sniffing. We looked at the girl.
There is nothing we can tell you, we said. We know what your life is made of and its length. We can guess at the emptiness beyond. But we are not allowed to tell you what is to come, and we have never been told how a life ought to be used.
Xinot turned back at once to sharpening her scissors on a rough gray rock. I gazed silently at the girl: at her locks, as golden as her long, long thread; at her eyes, blue as a summer sea. She was beautiful, even after that desperate journey. I found myself wondering what she might have looked like before—when she was still happy, when her eyes had flashed with joy.
Serena, though, didnt turn from the girl or watch her silently. Serena could not bear to send her away like that, and she stood from her chair and went over to the girl. She wrapped her arms around her, and the girl almost collapsed into them, closing her eyes and letting out her breath. The lines in her face relaxed as they mustnt have in the last two weeks, since the raiders first were spotted riding toward her town.
We have some magic beyond the spindle, the thread, and the scissors. Serena laid a hand on the girls head and said, Forget it all. Go, and start again. She pressed her lips against the girls forehead, stood her upright, and turned her from our door. The girl walked away, as we knew she would, as she must.
I shook my own dark, silky hair over the front of my shoulders and turned back to my spinning. I wouldnt wish for the girls golden locks. She may have been happy once, but looks like that only ever led to trouble. Consider her—family dead, no reason to live, and decades, by Serenas measure, to steep in her pain, to wake in the middle of the night gasping through her tears.
Serena stood in the doorway two moments more, and then she took up her place in the chair between us again, stretching the newest thread from my spindle over toward Xinots blades. She started a song, a ballad men sing as they board ships to war. I added a descant harmony, and Xinot hummed a low, pulsing undertone.
We returned to our work, and I imagined the girl climbing back along the narrow pathway to the mainland, Serenas words turning her mind into a pleasant fuzzy mush.
I was sure that she wouldnt be coming back. You mortals never did. You came, you made your impossible demands, and then you left again. It had been this way for ages, longer than any bard could remember. With luck it always would be this way.
You would think, being who I am, that I would be wary of making statements like this, even only in my own head. Its a tricky thing, the power we shape and measure and cut.
Get too full of your own cleverness, too certain—youll find yourself marrying your mother, cutting out the heart of your father, eating your childrens fingers for breakfast.
Three minutes after Id mused, so certainly, on how none of our visitors ever came back, the girl with the golden locks showed up in our doorway once again.
That was the first surprise of that day.
My spindle jerked and skittered away over the stones. Serena dropped her thread with a soft cry. And Xinot almost—almost—sliced a mans thread off seven years too short, and it hung there, the half-severed thing, flashing red and silver. Then she drew the scissors wide and held her fingernails just where Serena had handed the thread to her. The blades snapped together with a harsh ring; the mans thread fell to the floor, pooling into an orderly mound just below Xinots feet.
The girl was smiling serenely around at us all. She held up a fat, flapping fish by its tail. “I was climbing over the rocks,” she said, “and this fellow leaped out of the waves, threw himself right down before me. And I thought, you ladies must be so busy, with all your—work.” Something skipped across her face; Serenas spell, Id guess, fighting against the girls doubtful thoughts. Then her olive-smooth brow eased. “And since youve been so helpful to me . . .”
“What is it she thinks weve done?” I whispered, and sent the words tumbling over to Serena.
My sister shrugged, her empty hands still frozen where theyd held the thread. “Whatever the spells set her up to believe,” she sent back.
“. . . I thought I could begin to repay you by bringing you a nice tasty fish and cooking it up for you.” There went that face skip again, as the girl considered our one-room house. We havent much in the way of furniture: just a stool for me, and a plain wooden chair for Serena, and an old stump for Xinot, from a tree that died so long ago it never had a name. Weve a fire pit in the very center sometimes, and sometimes a grill sits over the coals, or a tripod with a cauldron hanging between its legs.
But just now there were no coals, and no fire, and no pit. The girl blinked around, her mouth gaping and closing like the mouth of the fish that was sliding from her hands.
Xinot narrowed her eyes at Serena. “Do something,” she hissed.
Serena jerked her head at that and lowered her hands. She cleared her throat—a comforting, melodious sound.
“Thank you, dear,” she said. The girl stopped gaping, grasped the fish again, and focused on Serenas face as though it was the only thing she remembered.
Possibly it was. Serena was now this girls first real memory, after all.
Serena said, in that gentle murmur only she can manage, “My dear, will you please tell my sisters your name?”
“Your sisters?” She blinked around at us now. “These are your—sisters?”
Serena laughed, low and bubbly. “I call them that, despite the vast difference in age. They are my closest living relations, all I have left in the world. Your name, dear.”
Not many would be capable of defying Serena when shes become insistent, and this girl was no exception. “Aglaia,” she said at once, with a slight bow. “I am Aglaia.”
“Lovely!” Serena clapped her hands and smiled at the girl. I had seen that expression on her face before, that warm softness as she talked with one of you. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Aglaia, and we will happily accept your gift.”
“Oh.” Now the girls face was shining. “Will you?”
“Yes, of course, if you will share it with us.”
“Serena,” I muttered, reminding her, “weve no business eating a meal with a mortal.”
She eyed me and muttered back, “Its only one fish. Its nothing, Chloe.” Then she turned to the girl again, laying a hand on my arm. “My youngest sister will show you where you can get the beast ready for cooking, down by our shore.”
The girl tilted her head at me, so open, so trusting. Her eyes really were the color of our sunlit sea.
“Xinot,” I started, turning toward my eldest sister. “Do you really think—”
She cut me off with a wave of her blades. “Oh, go on, Chloe,” she said. “She wont bite you.”
“Wont she?” But my sisters were looking at me expectantly, and I couldnt win against them both. “Fine,” I said, sighing. “If you want to eat this fish so much, I suppose youll need her out of the house while you start the fire.”
“Exactly,” Serena said.
So I slid my spindle into my basket with the wool. Then I grabbed Aglaias arm, and I pulled the mortal girl from our house.
At the waters edge, we crouched down together, and Aglaia began to wash the fish. My toes curled along the side of a flat rock, my tunic pulled low over my ankles. My hair was whipping around my head; it does that sometimes, especially when I am wary of something or feeling some strong emotion. I watched as she scraped the scales with a sharp piece of shale and then used the stone to slice open the fishs belly. She did not speak; she wasnt paying me any mind. I bent over toward her, looking into her face. Her eyes went sideways, noting I was there, but she only turned up her lips at me and continued easing out the guts. I sat back again.
It isnt fair, the sort of life you mortals lead. Even forgetting death, even forgetting how little time you have to understand anything, there is so much difficulty that I sometimes wonder how you can keep on going. What had happened to Aglaia happens to someone every day. Mothers watch their children starve. Fathers are enslaved.
It is a marvel sometimes that you dont sit right down and give up. It is a marvel you dont scream at the gods for creating the world this way, that you can lift your head still, and smile, and want to live—that you can demand from us a reason to want to live.
I watched this girl; her hair was gleaming in the last of the suns rays. No doubt he was delighted to have such a fresh little beauty to smile upon. “Your hair,” I said at last, wondering at how it could still shine like that after all shed gone through. “Your hair is quite beautiful.”
Aglaia said, “Thank you,” pronouncing each word clearly, with a small space between. Abruptly she turned toward me and reached out a slimy fish hand, as if wanting to show that she held no dangerous thing. “I am Aglaia.”
“Yes,” I said, leaning back, my hair spinning across my nose. “I know.”
But she kept her hand held out, and she had a funny plastered-on smile that hadnt flickered or melted when Id pulled away from her. So I slipped a hand from where Id tucked it in my tunic and gripped hers, quickly. Then I slid it away again. “Im Chloe.”
“It is nice to meet you,” said Aglaia.
I nodded, warily.
She turned back to her cleaning and didnt look at me again.
I waited as she finished, as she pulled the kidney from the fish and made to throw it and the guts into the sea.
“Dont!” I said, coming to my feet and reaching for her hand. We didnt need our shoreline smelling of fish guts, or our toes to squish in them when we visited the waves.
Aglaia stopped and stared at me, her mouth slightly open. She was blinking fast, as if recalculating her world.
I spoke slow, and low. “We have a garden. Lets bring the nasty stuff there and give it to the plants.”
She looked down into her hand, where the guts were beginning to drip between her fingers. “Nasty stuff,” she said.
“Come along.” I gestured to her, and she followed me up the rocks, onto the green cap of our island. We went around to the back of the house, where Serena keeps our garden growing in the lee of our walls, out of the wind.
Its an impossible task, much of the time. The air is so salty, most things choke to death. Come one big storm in the growing season, and our whole crop fails. Its lucky we dont suffer from lack of food, or wed never survive out here on our rock. Or wed survive, but wed be miserable every second, like that idealistic fellow who broke the rules and spent several eternities chained to a stone, watching birds eat out his liver every afternoon for lunch.
This year wed had good fortune with the weather. Several small cabbages were growing in the shade of the house, and wed have a large crop of onions and cucumbers. There were even some lentil pods almost ready for picking. I brought Aglaia over to our grapevines down the slope a bit. There was a doomed endeavor if I ever saw one. Our vines only ever grew tiny bitter fruit, hardly worth eating and certainly not of a quality for making wine. But Serena couldnt help trying. When we had lived on the mainland, many centuries ago, our vines had been the envy of every mortal and several gods as well. Our wine could make the dullest man dance; it could put the saddest old woman to sleep and give her wondrous dreams.
We missed our wine.
Aglaia and I spread the fish guts at the base of the vines, and I whispered to them, a gift-giving rhyme from a lovely altruistic culture that had lived nearby but had died out generations ago.
Then we went back down to the shore and we washed our hands with the help of the sea. I watched as Aglaia lifted the readied fish and started up the path to our house. She had done everything I had asked, simply and without argument. She had been so at ease, sitting by the water with me, and now each step she took was precise and unhurried. I remembered the harsh strength that had been in her voice this afternoon. She had seemed half-wild then, with her raw feet and flashing eyes—a wounded eagle, not a nesting wren.
I called after her, curious, “Aglaia, where do you think we are?”
She stopped and looked back at me, a line between her eyes. “Dont you know?”
I shook my head at her.
The line deepened. “I think . . .” She looked about at the waves, at the rocks, at the orange light we could see now flickering through our door at the top of the hill. “I think Ive come to stay with you. I think this is home.” Her face was smoothing out. “Yes, Chloe. This is where I live. This is our home.” She smiled. It was a big, sparkling smile, the sort that mothers stitch onto their daughters dolls. She said, with a bit of a laugh, “Come on! Theyre waiting for us.” And she took off up the slope again, grasping the fish tight in her hands.
I stood there staring after her. She didnt yet know my sisters names. And . . . home? I wasnt sure even I considered this our home. Home was for babies and growing old. This was a place to live, a place to do our work.
But Aglaia was far ahead now, and the others were shortly in for a second surprise. I couldnt imagine how Xinot was going to react to an addle-brained mortal girl calling this her home. She would have to agree with me now; she would have to throw Aglaia out as soon as she heard. She might even apologize for not arguing with Serena about the meal. I sucked in a breath and started eagerly up the slope after the girl. It wasnt often that my sister admitted she was wrong. I wasnt going to miss this for all the stars and their songs.