Edition 11: The Poet and the Lily by Julia August
A foreigner in the Isles, returning. They leave her to herself, in the place where there was plague, except the young poet. She is happy in her solitude but he seeks her out. There is a value to politeness and leaving well enough alone. SY
She came back to the Isles in the spring mist. She was left on a pebble beach by a ship from the south, which sailed off without even stopping to resupply. A nearby fishing village took her in for a week, after which she went quietly away and the next anyone heard was that she had made a home in what remained of a hamlet abandoned a hundred years ago or more. And there had been plague there, so no one cared to visit, although she did come back to barter southern coins for food.
Eventually people stopped caring. Foreigners were all mad anyway. Who knew why any of them did anything?
The stream was the same, clear water spilling foam-flecked between brown stepping stones. There were foxgloves still, and green hollows below undercut banks, and here and there the bronze of dead leaves shed by the beech trees coming into their spring growth. Mist crept like a white ghost over the grass.
It clung to her, the mist. She had been so long in the south, so long in those hot, sunny countries where the sky burned blue and the land burned yellow. In the Isles, water hung in the air.
Beneath the grass and the rich dark earth lay sandstone. She could hear it singing.
She remembered the ruins as less weathered, the paths as mud rather than grass and brambles. The beams of collapsed roofs had jutted up like bones from broken limbs. Now the wood was rotten and knotted with ivy, and moss grew thick over heaps of old thatch.
Nobody had come to bury the dead. They lay where they had fallen, hidden by weeds and toppled walls.
The villagers’ interest never vanished entirely, although over time it faded. Meeting with curious looks and questions when she went to buy food did not trouble her. She would have been more annoyed if they had dared come near her ruins. There was one young man she sometimes saw walking in the woods across the stream. He never crossed over, though. She didn’t wonder why.
She was leaving the village one day when the young man from the woods came up to her. “Excuse me,” he said. His accent was thick, not that of the Isles at all. He must be Alban, or maybe some Raider abandoned by his crewmates on a raid gone wrong. “What is your name?”
She remembered to smile at him. “Ann,” she said.
He said something she couldn’t quite catch. Then something about being a poet and writing in the Isles dialect for the first time. Then something else incomprehensible.
“… addressed to you,” he said. “Would you like to see it?”
She agreed. It seemed easiest.
A few days later, she found a leather pouch lying by the stream. The strap trailed in the water, as though someone had thrown it there, and a strip of birch bark was tucked inside. Above a couple of four-line stanzas was written, ‘To Ann’, followed by, ‘Kind regards, Nikolay’.
Sweet Nymph! the poem began. Fairest Lily of the Valley!
It was all like that. Ann had met nymphs and poets before and was not flattered. On the back she wrote, ‘Thank you’, and added, after a moment’s thought, ‘Charming’, because she had learned the value of politeness. Then she slid it back into the pouch and tossed it back across the stream. It caught on a branch and hung trembling in the breeze.
It was gone when she next walked there. She put it out of her mind.
Every time she passed through the ruins, she saw the riot of brambles pale with blossom and thought of vines. In the south she had seen the discipline of vineyards, green acres lined up in orderly rows and tended as carefully as gardens. She had eaten grapes on which the glow of sunlight still lingered and afterwards drunk wine made from those grapes as well. She had taken seeds when she left.
The islanders brewed beer from barley and hops. It was good beer. Ann preferred wine.
The vine-growers she had met in the south would say the Isles were too damp for good grapes. Ann listened to the sandstone singing beneath her feet. She thought she could do something about that.
She thought the islanders would prefer wine too.
Another letter from the poet:
I have here writ more verse for you, O Muse, because I felt it wrong to ask you to meet with me without any pretext. Is there a reason we should not have a walk by the riverside? And as we do that, I will tell you everything I know. Pray, say yes or just nod!
The mist had paled and the stream ran clear. Ann’s reflection flickered in the water. She could see the blue of her long-lashed eyes and her hair curling fair on her shoulders. The current broke up the line of her chin and her mouth pale above it. Already she looked older than when she had sailed out of the south. Twenty, perhaps, instead of eighteen.
She remembered the first time she had realised she was aging. It had surprised her and she had reacted without thinking, as she did in those days. She remembered the mirror and reaching for stone and the man startled from bed by the noise. She remembered the taste of his life on her lips. She did not remember his name.
Her hair was whiter than before. Every time, she seemed to lose more colour.
I am flattered, she wrote, but I doubt it would be a good idea. Thank you.
And now she stood before sandstone, looking up at the red heart of a hillside cracked open long ago. Water tumbled from the sky. It was untidy and beautiful and she would make it tidy and more beautiful. She would make a basin for the waterfall and a channel for the stream. She would hollow out the cliff and delve workrooms and bury those ruined houses and the bones of the dead beneath vines.
She placed her hands flat against the stone and listened until she could sing the sandstone’s song without dropping a grain. And then she sang.
Not alive, but living: singing without breathing, dreaming without sleeping, waking without moving, enduring without aging: stone beneath earth, beneath grass, beneath sky. Stone crushing stone, layered on stone, supporting stone. Stone shifting and reshaping around her. She would have pillars, she would have hallways, she would have stairs…
In moments between sleeping and eating and singing the stone’s song, she went down to the stream to wash the sand from her arms, where it clung like red gloves. It reddened her hair as well, but she didn’t mind the colour there. The stone’s song hummed in her ears and the palms of her hands.
At some point, the poet left her a third note, with the same invitation and even worse poetry. Ann watched the water running red with sand. She would decline another time.
When she next went there, the note had been replaced. She didn’t read this one.
It was summer and the mist was gone. Young vines whispered in the ruins. Ann walked through the skeletons of homes and saw them vine-clad, as they would be. There would be grapes and there would be wine.
She had been young when she first came here. A stranger and alone.
The villagers had been kind. So had the family of the young man who took her in. She had struggled with the language and she had been angry and upset and she had been young. Their kindness had vanished when they saw the young man’s flesh rotting on his bones. Plague. Witch. Those words Ann learned fast.
She remembered the hill cracking open and the houses collapsing. She remembered their faces. She had walked among them and breathed the death out of the dying and the life out of the living. The young man had watched blankly, dead on his feet. She had taken his life before she even heard his name.
She had been thoughtless. It had taken a long time to learn not to act without thinking. Almost as long as it took to learn to be polite.
The poet’s last letter was angry. She should not cast her beautiful eyes, brimming with poisonous promise, on strangers unless her intentions were serious. He had thrown his peace after a careless smile and seen his best words neglected by its young mistress. Undoubtedly she bestowed her favours upon a thousand men daily. There was no verse, which was some improvement. Ann dropped the letter in the stream and watched it sail away.
She had her tower now, and her vines. She knew about stone. She was still learning how to use people, but people were easily come by. A smile was enough for a young man here.
When she met the poet again, she would smile at him. And he would come.
Julia August is a harmless internet denizen with an interest in history, especially the fantastical sort.