The crossroads at midnight. Or at least a crossroads, and while it was long past midnight, it still had the feel of the witching hour about it.
If Lizzie Mahone had been superstitious, she might have been more nervous about her car breaking down as it had, here where two county roads crossed in the middle of nowhere with nothing to mark the spot but an enormous old elm tree, half dead from a lightning strike. And the thought still crossed her mind as she got out of the car and popped the hood, her flashlight beam playing over the Chevy’s V-6 engine. You couldn’t be a musician and not know the story, how the old bluesman Robert Johnson once met the devil himself at the crossroads. But that had been in the Delta, deep south. This was just the dusty meeting place of a couple of dirt roads, surrounded by farmers’ fields and bush. Nothing mysterious here, though that big old moon lent an eerie light to the elm tree and there was something in the wind. . . .
Yes, Lizzie thought. Her imagination. Better it should concentrate instead on what was wrong with the car.
She jiggled the wires going to the distributor cap and battery, but that was about the extent of her mechanical knowledge when it came to cars, and she only tried it because it was something that others had done when the car broke down in the past. Sometimes it had even worked. She didn’t really have a clue what she was doing, or what she should be looking for. Cars started when you turned the key, or they didn’t. The world between the two was as mysterious as where the tunes she made up came from, though with the latter, at least, she had the faith that if she needed a piece of music, it would come. Maybe not right away. It could be late, sneaking up on her while she was in the shower, or down at the grocery store, walking down the aisles, hours or even days after she first started looking for the melody to go with a title or a feeling or the first couple of bars she already had. But it would come.
That wouldn’t happen trying to figure out what was wrong with this confusing mess of wires, pipes, and engine parts. She didn’t have faith, for one thing. And she certainly didn’t have the mechanical background the way she had such an easy familiarity with her fiddle.
So a spontaneous solution to her problem was pretty much out of the question.
And, of course, she’d let her cell phone go dead when she could have easily had it charging while they were up on stage this evening. But she hadn’t thought of that until she was in the parking lot after the show, getting into her car.
She looked up and down the dirt road she was standing on. There were no headlights visible in either direction. She hadn’t seen another car or a farmhouse or pretty much anything since leaving Sweetwater and the bar where the band had played tonight. In retrospect, she should have stayed over as the others were doing. Right now they’d be hanging around in the bar, or in one of the rooms that the bar had provided for them upstairs, playing some tunes or just sharing a drink and some chat. But wishful thinking was always easier in retrospect, wasn’t it? And if she had stayed, there probably would have been problems with Con, who couldn’t seem to get it through that thick head of his that they weren’t an item, never had been, never would be.
There was nothing really wrong with him. He was charming and good looking, easy to get along with, and while he might be just a touch too fond of the drink, he was a wonderful guitar player. She simply had her rules.
“What do you have against dating musicians?” he’d asked the last time the subject came up.
“Absolutely nothing—so long as I’m not playing in the same band as they are.”
“Oh, I know. What could be more perfect? Working and playing and loving together. Except, my somewhat drunk and certainly randy friend, when it all comes apart, then you’re still stuck playing together. Or more likely, one of you has to leave, and I want neither to start a new band nor to break in yet another guitarist.”
“It didn’t take that long for me to come up to speed with your repertoire.”
“Exactly. You’re a great guitarist, so I don’t want to lose you.”
“Maybe this rejection will hurt so much that I’ll have to leave.”
She’d smiled. “And maybe when you sober up in the morning, you’ll realize that this is a great gig you have with us and isn’t it lucky you didn’t let your libido screw it up.”
That conversation had taken place last weekend when they were in Champion, north of Tyson and on the other side of the mountains. Sweetwater, being as close to home as it was—only an hour and a half if you went by the back roads as she’d been doing—made it much easier to come up with some excuse about having stuff to do in the city tomorrow morning and get in the car, rather than have to go through it all again with him.
Except now she was stuck in the middle of nowhere at—she checked her watch—three a.m. She’d probably have to sleep in the car, because there certainly didn’t seem to be anybody else on the road, which might actually be a good thing, considering. But she’d be more nervous breaking down on her own in some parts of the city than she was here. Country folk could get as rambunctious and rowdy as their more cosmopolitan cousins—more so, if some of the gigs they played were any barometer—but they usually didn’t have the meanness you could sometimes find in urban centers. She felt safer watching a bar fight from the relative safety of the stage in a country bar than walking alone at night down, say, any of the streets running off Palm back in the city.
And even if some cowboy got out of hand . . . well, it never came to much. She knew how to take care of herself, as more than one big strapping lug who wouldn’t hear the word no had found out. While she might look like “just a wee lass with too much hair,” as Pappy liked to describe her—though still standing six-foot-six at eighty-two years of age, pretty much everybody was smaller than her grandfather—she was stronger than she looked. She could box and wrestle, not to mention fight as dirty as most men half again her size. It wasn’t how big or small you were—Johnny, her sparring partner at the gym was forever saying—but what you did with what you had.
At least the night was balmy. There were still patches of snow to be seen in some of the fields and in the bottoms of the ditches, but the temperature was well above freezing. Typical spring weather for these parts, really: spring one day, the trees filled with the welcome calls of migratory songbirds, and the next it could snow again. But tonight was mild and the air smelled expectant, ready for spring.
She left the hood up so that if anybody did come by they’d know she was having car trouble and not just drive by while she was fast sleep in the backseat. She had a blanket, and a candle in case it got colder, though she doubted she’d need the latter. In the trunk there was also an umbrella, a collapsible shovel, a jug of water, a box of crackers, and a couple of chocolate bars. The other band members teased her sometimes about always being so prepared, though if she was really the Girl Scout they thought she was, she’d have at least charged her phone before leaving the bar.
Still, what was done, was done. She’d make her bed in the backseat and she’d get some sleep in it, too. Tomorrow morning was soon enough to worry about how she was going to get the car up and running again.
But first she had to have a pee.
She could have just gone beside the car—it wasn’t as though there was any traffic, or even much chance of it—but she still felt better pushing through the old dead weeds in the ditch and going behind the elm tree.
It was when she was pulling her jeans up that she heard the voices.
She zipped up quickly, then hesitated about showing herself. There were too many voices, low and rumbling, joking and laughing. She made out four, maybe five different ones. Peeking around the elm, she looked either way down the road.
At first she didn’t see anyone. Then she realized she was looking too high. Approaching from the direction she’d been heading in, before the car up and died on her, was a gang of boys, almost hidden from her sight by the weeds. She’d been looking for men, because the voices were men’s voices.
As they drew nearer, she readjusted her thinking yet again. The bright moonlight showed a group of little men tramping down the road toward her. She was five-foot-six, but not one of them would come up to her shoulder. Their heads seemed large for their bodies, and they were dressed as though they were returning from some medieval reenactment—a Renaissance Faire, perhaps—with old-fashioned leather trousers and jerkins, and short swords or long knives sheathed at their belts. They all had quivers and carried bows, and three of them were carrying the bloodied remains of some kind of large animal. A deer, perhaps.
About the same time as she was able to make them out better, they became aware of her car, though why they hadn’t noticed it sooner, she couldn’t say. Probably they’d been too busy with joking and congratulating each other on a good hunt. But they had noticed it now.
They stopped, the two not carrying meat immediately nocking arrows to bowstrings as they all looked around.
Lizzie ducked back behind the elm.
“What’s this?” she heard one of them say.
“Someone’s bad luck.”
That brought a round of laughter.
“Maybe good luck for us. Anything inside worth nicking?”
Oh, no, Lizzie thought. Her fiddle case was lying right there on the backseat.
“Anybody inside worth eating?” someone added to more laughter.
Lizzie had been about to step out from behind the tree and take the chance that they were more wind than bite, but at that last comment she stayed hidden, pressed herself tightly against the bark, and tried not to breathe.
“There’s food in the boot,” one of them said.
“Chokky bars and biscuits . . . oh, and a jug.”
“’Cept it’s just bloody water.”
“Now who’d waste a good jug on carrying about water?”
Lizzie had left the trunk open while she went to have her pee. Maybe they’d be satisfied with what they found in it. Maybe they wouldn’t look in the car itself.
But then she heard one of the car doors open.
“Looks to be our fool’s a musician. There’s a fiddle case just a-lying here.”
“That can’t be right. Where’s the fiddler who doesn’t drink?”
“Better question still, where’s the fiddler?”
All of Lizzie’s bravery had long since fled. There was something not right about these little men.
She’d thought they were midgets or dwarves.
She’d thought they’d come from some Faire.
She’d thought that she wasn’t really in any danger.
But there were no Faires at this time of year—not around here. If there was, she’d know, because her band would probably be playing at it.
And these little men . . . there was a nasty undercurrent to the jovial delivery of their conversation. She could sense it as clearly as she could on those nights when the band just couldn’t connect with a crowd, when nothing you did up there on the stage was right.
“Hiding on us, do you suppose?”
“Unless some green-brees had him for a late-night snack.”
“Don’t even joke about that.”
“Unless he’s not a he.”
“What’ve you got there?”
Lizzie already knew. Whoever was rummaging around in the back of the car must have found her little knapsack with its toiletry bag and change of clothing and underwear in it.
“I’d like a soiled pair better.”
“Where do you think she’s got to?”
“Prob’bly went looking for help.”
“And left her fiddle behind? Not likely.”
“She carries water around instead of poteen, so she’s not much of a fiddler, is she?”
“I say she’s hiding.”
Lizzie heard a series of wet thumps and realized that they’d dropped their loads of meat in the trunk of the car.
“Let’s have a look-see, shall we?”
Oh god, oh god, oh god.
“Hello, hello, wee fiddler,” one of them called out in a loud voice. “Why don’t you come out and play?”
“Whisht—not so loud.”
“Why not? I want her to hear us.”
Lizzie heard the whack of someone being slapped on the head.
“Ow. What’d you do that for?”
“If you’re that loud, something else might hear us, hey?”
They all fell silent. Lizzie pressed her face against the elm, wishing she had something—anything—in her hand to defend herself with.
But she didn’t.
She had only herself.
Best defense is offense, Johnny would say. If you know you’re in trouble, don’t try talk. Just come out swinging.
She swallowed, her throat and chest tight, and readied herself. She’d slip from behind the tree and charge them, take them by surprise. If she was lucky, maybe they’d run off. If she wasn’t, she’d hurt as many of them as she could. She had good leather boots on and the toes were hard. She made fists with either hand.
But while the little men had been silent, they hadn’t been still.
“What have we here?” a gruff voice asked.
And just like that, the element of surprise was taken from her. She’d never heard them moving through the dry weeds, but here they were, all five of the little men, arrows nocked in bowstrings and aimed in her direction. They stood around her in a half circle. With the elm at her back, there was no avenue of escape.
“Pretty thing,” one of them said with a grin.
She caught only a glimpse, and it was hard to tell with no more than the moonlight behind him to see by, but it seemed that all his teeth had been sharpened to points.
“Ah, they’re all big, her kind.”
They were lowering their bows, one by one, letting the strings go slack. Sure they had her. Sure of themselves.
“I like ’em big,” the smallest of them said.
The others laughed. Perhaps it was the way he’d said it—as though he was trying to impress his companions, more than her. One of the others gave him a light cuff across the back of the head.
“You wouldn’t know what to do with her,” he said.
“Bit of a laugh that hair of hers.”
She’d dyed her normally black hair a brilliant scarlet a month or so ago, but the black roots had grown out now.
Go ahead, she thought. Have a good look. Get all stupid and confident.
“Only hair I’ll be looking at is down below.”
“’Less she’s the kind that shaves.”
“Are you that kind, girl?” the one closest to her asked.
He moved toward her and she took her chance. Before any of them could react, she took a step forward. Using the momentum of her forward motion to add even more force to the blow, she drove the toe of her boot into his groin.
“How’s that for between the legs?” she cried above his shriek of pain.
She didn’t wait to see the result. Turning, she hit the one on her right square in the face with a cross blow. Felt his nose collapse. Turned again toward the next, right arm cocked, only to find herself staring straight at three arrowheads, bowstrings pulled taut behind them.
“Shouldn’t have done that,” the little man in the center said. “We were only going to play a little with you.”
“Were,” the one on the right said.
The one on the left nodded. “But now you’re meat, girl.”
“We’re all meat, you little freaks,” a new voice said.
Lizzie had no idea where he’d come from, a tall Native man in jeans and a checkered shirt, with long black hair and coppery skin. One moment she was alone with her attackers, the next he was standing behind the center one. But she didn’t stop to work it out.
With the little men distracted, their bows lowering as they turned to the newcomer, she charged the one on her right and drove him to the ground, pounding him with her fist. She heard cries, the sound of punches. When she looked up from her own foe, the other two men were also down, the stranger standing above them. The one she’d kicked earlier was still lying in the dirt, moaning, legs pulled up, hands on his groin. The one whose nose she’d broken was pulling the long knife from his belt. Before he could get it free, the stranger stepped in and knocked him to the ground with a flurry of blows.
“The thing is,” he said as his assailant dropped, “some meat fights back.”
One of the men he’d knocked down earlier lifted himself from the ground by straightening his arms under himself. He spat on the ground, blood and a tooth, small eyes dark with fury.
“Eat my shite, you grand pluiker,” he muttered.
And then he disappeared.
Lizzie’s eyes widened, not sure she’d seen what she’d seen. But then the little man she was still sitting on vanished as well. She scrambled to her feet as though she’d had an electric shock. As she watched, the other three disappeared, one by one.
“How . . . ?” Lizzie turned in a slow circle, trying to understand.
“It wasn’t magic,” her rescuer said. “They just moved between.”
“Between? Between what?”
“This world and the other.”
Lizzie slowly shook her head. “This isn’t happening.”
“’Course it’s not. That your car?”
She nodded, her attention on one of the abandoned bows. It wasn’t much longer than her own fiddle bow, but sturdier, and certainly deadlier. She toed it with her boot. It seemed real.
“What’s wrong with it?” the stranger asked.
She looked up, confused. The bow seemed intact. What was wrong was that it was even here in the first place. It, and all those little men, and this mysterious stranger . . .
“Your car,” he said. “What’s wrong with your car?”
“I don’t know,” she finally managed.
“Let me have a look.”
She trailed along behind him, stepping over the ditch and onto the road.
“Who were those . . .”
She reached for a word, still feeling lost and stupid. She had to grip her hands and hold them against her chest to try to stop them from shaking.
“Those dwarves?” she finally said.
“They were bogans, not dwarves,” the stranger said. He was looking under the hood of her car without apparently needing a flashlight. “There aren’t many dwarves around here and, anyway, they’ve much better manners. And they don’t poach.”
Poach? Lizzie thought. But then she remembered what the little men had been carrying when they first showed up.
“Looks like your alternator’s crapped out on you, so your battery hasn’t been getting any juice.”
“Can you fix it?”
He lifted his head from where the was studying the engine to look at her.
“Not permanently,” he said.
He put his hand on the manifold and the engine coughed, then started up. Lizzie stared at the car. The motor seemed to be running more smoothly than it had in years.
“What did you just do?” she asked as he closed the hood.
He gave her a thin smile. “Now that was magic. It’ll hold until you get to wherever you’re going so long as you don’t turn the engine off.”
“Where were you headed?”
“I was on my way to Newford from Sweetwater, but maybe I should go back if the car’s not really fixed.”
No, it had been magicked and what did that mean, anyway? Hopefully, she’d already fallen asleep in the back of the car and was dreaming all of this. Maybe she’d never left the bar. Maybe she was actually sleeping upstairs in the room she was supposed to be sharing with her cousin Siobhan. Except, could you know you were dreaming if you were dreaming?
“What’s in Sweetwater?” the stranger asked.
“A gig. We played at the Custom House tonight, and we’re supposed to play again tomorrow night and Sunday.”
He nodded. “I’d take your car to the garage at the corner of Willis and the highway, just after you’ve come into town. They’re cheap and they do good work.”
“So you’re a musician? What kind of music do you play?”
“Celtic stuff—you know, jigs and reels, a few songs. We also do some original material.”
Although the moon was bright enough to see by, she couldn’t read much on his face. His features were too still. But she got the sense he disapproved. Or maybe it was just that he didn’t like her.
“Get into a fix like this again,” he said, “and you should try whistling some of that music. Even bogans are suckers for anything that reminds them of their homeland.”
“You called them that before. What are bogans?”
“A kind of fairy. You people brought them with you when you came in your big ships. Bogans and every kind of fairy freak.”
Lizzie knew that a lot of Native Americans harboured a grudge against Europeans, and rightly so, she supposed, all things considered. So she thought she understood his anger. But all this talk of fairies didn’t make any kind of sense.
“Fairies,” she said.
“Oh, yeah. And as you can see, they’re not all tiny little things living in flowers and sipping nectar from acorn cups.”
“I’ve got to go. Your car’ll get you back to Sweetwater. Just remember: don’t turn it off until you’re actually at the garage because it won’t start again until they fix it.”
She nodded. “I won’t. Wait,” she added as he started to walk away. “I didn’t get a chance to thank you.”
“You don’t need to.”
“I’d probably be dead if you hadn’t come along.”
Because you can die in a dream, right?
“Maybe, maybe not,” he said. “You were handling yourself pretty well.”
He started to turn again.
“Wait,” she repeated. “At least tell me your name.”
“You don’t need my name.”
“You want my advice, you get in that car. You go home or wherever else it is that you need to be, and you forget about all of this.”
“God, how am I supposed to do that?”
“Not my problem.”
But she was talking to an empty road. As suddenly as the mysterious stranger had appeared, he was now gone. He’d vanished, just like the little men had—the bogans, as he’d called them. Here, then, poof. Gone. Not even poof. Just . . . not here anymore.
She looked around herself. Everything seemed so damned normal.
But it had happened.
The soft murmur of her car engine proved it. She walked slowly around to the back of the car. The car’s engine running, and the meat the little men had dumped in her trunk, because it was still there, raw and bloody.
Enough, she told herself. Wake up already.
But the dream wasn’t going to let her go that easily.
Fine. She’d play it out, the way you did with a tune that you couldn’t get out of your head. She’d get back in the car and return to Sweetwater. And maybe then she’d finally wake up.
Except, dream or no dream, she couldn’t drive with that meat in her trunk.
Her first impulse was to simply dump it on the side of the road. She actually had a piece in her hands, meaning to do just that. It felt horrible, slick and bloody, hard to hold. A dead weight.
She let it fall back into the trunk and picked up her collapsible shovel. Unfolding it, she locked the two halves of the shovel in place, then crossed the road and went back over the ditch until she was standing under the naked boughs of the elm tree once more. She pushed around in the dirt until she found a spot that didn’t have a big root and started to dig.
Ten minutes later she was ready to start hauling the deer parts from her trunk to the hole she had dug. When all three pieces were in the ground, she shovelled the loose dirt back on top, patting the rounded mound with the flat of the blade to tamp it down. It didn’t seem right to stomp on the loose dirt with her boots.
She stood for a few moments when she was done, holding the shovel. The night was so quiet. A breeze rustled the twigs on the branches above her, and whispered through the dry weeds. There was a scatter of cloud, but mostly the sky was clear, the stars bright, the moon lowering to the horizon. She wasn’t shaking anymore. The aftereffects of her adrenaline rush had completely gone, leaving her only tired.
Finally she went back to the car, collapsed the shovel, and dropped it into the trunk. It was a mess in there, pooled blood and dirt, but she wasn’t about to try to clean it now. She got out a rag and the water bottle and washed off her hands, drying them on the rag.
The car still purred, the engine running smoothly. She had a momentary worry that it might run out of gas, but then she realized it probably wasn’t running on gas anyway. She remembered her rescuer putting his hand on the engine to start it up, then saying to her, Now that was magic.
The car would run until she woke up.
She looked at the elm, but knew she couldn’t go yet. There was still something unfinished. It took her a moment to decide what.
She took her fiddlecase out of the back of the car and laid it on the hood, opening it. Got the bow from the lid, used the frog to tighten the hairs. Ran her fingers across the strings to check the tuning. Finally, she went back across the road to the elm and stood over the little mound of earth with her fiddle under her chin, bow in hand.
What to play?
The first thing that came to mind was a song that the band did. It was about a hare that lost its life in a hunt, not a deer, but maybe that was close enough. She started to play, slowing the tune down so that it was like an air. A lament.
Closing her eyes, she played it through three times, the notes of her fiddle weeping for the dead flesh she’d buried, for the live creature it had been, cut down by the little men’s arrows. The breeze caught the music and took it away, across the fields to where a dark smudge of forest came down from the hills to meet the expanse of dried weeds and leafless bushes that lay between their trees and the road.
She held the last note, lightening the pressure of her bow on the strings until the note whispered away into silence. She tucked the fiddle under her arm and let the bow dangle from her forefinger. Opening her eyes, she regarded the little mound of dirt.
There, she thought. Now that felt right. Nothing should have to die, hard and alone, with no one to mourn their going. Not even in a dream.
She started to walk back to the car, then paused, realizing that, once again, she was no longer alone. Her pulse quickened as she turned. The moon was almost gone now, the night much darker than when her car had first broken down. At first she thought it was a huge deer standing behind her. Then she realized it was a man. Or at least the shape of a man, dressed in tunic and trousers of some kind of light-coloured cloth that made his skin appear to be very dark. On his shoulders he wore a headdress of a deer’s head, the tines of his antlers rising up into the starry sky like a smaller version of the elm at her back.
There was just enough light for her to see the glisten of tears on his cheeks.
“That was kindly done,” he said.
When she saw the lips move, she realized it wasn’t a mask, but for some reason that didn’t trouble her.
His voice was soft and warm, husky with emotion. She wondered if her dream had now conjured up the ghostly spirit of the dead animal for whom she’d played her funereal air. It didn’t matter. This was far better than the horrible little bogan men, or the brusque Indian, even if he had rescued her and used his magic to fix her car.
This was like the time that she and Siobhan had gone camping with her grandfather. Pappy always went to bed late, but he was an early riser, too. “Don’t need the sleep like I used to,” he’d say, “and I never needed much then.” The two of them were up and sitting on a log by the lake where the campsite touched the water when they heard a rustle behind them. Turning slowly, they saw a doe and her fawn stepping out across the dew-laden grass.
She’d never seen eyes so warm and deep and brown. Something rose up from deep in her chest, and she’d gripped Pappy’s hand as they sat there for a good fifteen minutes, watching the two creatures feed. And long after they were gone, that feeling stayed inside her, the same deep warmth that she’d seen in the eyes of the deer. Years later, that memory could put her in a dreamy trance that helped wash away hurts or sorrows or simply the feeling that the world was all the same, one day blurring into the next.
This moment was like that, a great wash of awe that didn’t make her feel small, but rather, made her feel connected to everything.
“I . . . thought he needed some kind of a send-off,” she said.
The deer man nodded, antlers dipping.
“Her name was Anwatan—‘calm water’ in your tongue. She was my daughter and I give you the knowledge of her name as a gift for the music you played to send her spirit on its way.”
“Thank you,” she said, not quite sure what else to say. She’d always been bad at condolences. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
His sigh of response held a world of sorrow and hurt.
“A father should not outlive his child,” he said.
“I can’t imagine what that must feel like.”
He dipped his antlers again. “I hope you never do. It . . . there’s an emptiness in me where she once was, and moment by moment it seems to only become larger.” His gaze found hers. “Sharing the gift of her true name with another helps only a little.”
That made Lizzie think of her rescuer.
You don’t need my name.
“Is there something special about names?” she asked.
She saw a quick flash of teeth—a smile, she realized, but it never reached his eyes. It was the smile that you saw at a funeral, when everyone’s trying to be normal, but you know it never will be. Or won’t for a very, very long time.
“Names are everything,” he said. “If you know the full, true name of a thing, it is at your mercy.”
“So it’s rude to ask someone their name.”
That got her another attempt at a smile. “It depends on who’s asking and why. If it’s someone who doesn’t know better . . .”
“So that’s why he wouldn’t tell me his name,” she said.
She was speaking more to herself, but the deer man lifted his head, his nostrils working.
“I see,” he said. “There were others here—aganesha and a cousin of mine.”
“I guess I mean the cousin. Was he another deer man? He didn’t have antlers.”
The deer man shook his head. “He’d look strange with them, a bird with antlers.”
“A bird . . . ?”
“He’s corbae. My people are cerva. We’re cousins, but not close.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They’re just tribes,” he said. “His people usually sleep through the moon’s rise and set. Mine wander under her stillness because her light feeds our spirits, as food does our bodies. But we’re still cousins. If you need a speaking name for him, he’s been known to answer to Whiskey Grey—or just Grey.”
Lizzie smiled. “You make him sound like a bootlegger.”
“Well, I’ve heard that old jay does like his drink. He has his own sorrows, they say. Old ones. I don’t know the details.”
Neither spoke for a moment. Lizzie looked past the deer man for a moment to see the last part of the moon slip under the horizon.
“I’m dreaming, aren’t I?” she said.
“No. This is Kakagi-aki—your world. The dreamlands lie on the other side of the between.”
“It still feels like dreaming.”
The deer man nodded. “Perhaps it’s better if you see it that way.”
“That’s what Grey said. He told me to forget about all of this. To go on with my life like it had never happened. But how can I do that if it’s real?”
“I’m told forgetting can be easy, if it’s what you wish. But . . .”
When he didn’t finish, Lizzie prompted him. “But what?”
“You might not be allowed to forget. Or it might be better if you didn’t. Not if the aganesha have marked you. It would be better to be prepared, should they decide that you owe them for your intrusion into their business tonight.”
Lizzie looked nervously around them. “Do you mean the bogans? Is that what you call those little men?”
“A bogan is a kind of aganesha, yes.”
“So aganesha is your word for fairies.”
The deer man nodded. “It’s what we call all the beings that came with your ancestors to our world.”
“But you’re not aganesha yourselves?”
He made an angry sound that rose from deep in his chest and spat on the ground.
“We are the spirits of this land,” he said. “We don’t steal from others.”
Lizzie took a step back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t . . .”
“No,” the deer man said. “I should apologize. How could you know? Until tonight, it seems you knew nothing about any of us.”
“So these aganesha are trying to steal your lands from you? I guess the way Europeans did from the native people?”
“Not all of them. Most are content to keep to the territories spoiled by your people. But the green and the wild, these are still ours. Until you build upon it, the aganesha have no claim to the wild places.”
Lizzie gave a slow nod. “So your people stay in the forests and the aganesha stay in the cities.”
“We go where we please,” the deer man said. “We can live in your cities—it is still our land under the concrete and steel. But most of us don’t choose to.”
He looked to the sky, reading something in the position of the stars, Lizzie assumed from what he said next.
“I must go. I have still the sad tale of my daughter to tell my family, and the hour grows late.”
“I really am so sorry about what happened to her.”
“I know. I heard that in the lament you played for her. I saw it in the reverence with which you laid her flesh in the ground. I—my family—we are in your debt.”
Lizzie shook her head. “No, I just did what anybody would have done.”
“Then you don’t know many people. Most would have left what they found of her alongside the road like so much refuse.”
“But I don’t want anything from you.”
“I know that, too. But you could still have brought more trouble upon yourself from those aganesha. If they come after you, call for me and I will come. My speaking name is Walks-with-Dreams. My friends call me Walker and I hope you will, too.”
“I . . . do I really have to worry about those bogans?”
“Probably not. But it’s better to be careful. My daughter wasn’t.”
“Grey said to play music—that it would stop them.”
“It might give them pause. But you’d do better to call for me.”
“I travel a lot.”
“Distance doesn’t mean the same thing to my people as it does to yours. If you call for Walker, I will hear you, no matter where you are.”
“Okay. My name’s Lizzie—”
“Careful,” he said before she could finish. “The night has ears, and we are too newly met for you to entrust me with your true name.”
“But among my people we use them all the time.”
He gave a slow nod. “And so squander the power of it. Unless the names you use are speaking names, and you simply don’t know your true names.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
The deer man nodded. “Neither would I. That’s a puzzle for the shaman to worry over, not common folk like you and me.” He lifted his hand. “Keep your strength, Lizzie. And thank you once more.”
And then he, too, like Grey and the bogans before him, was simply gone.
Lizzie stood for a long moment, listening to the quiet night around her. Finally, she turned and walked back to the car, her head brimming with all she’d been through since her car broke down. The first part had been scary, and handling the deer meat had been kind of gross, but talking with Walker, just being in his presence, had woken a song in her heart that she didn’t want to lose.
Maybe this wasn’t a dream. And if it was, she wasn’t sure she wanted to wake up from it.
Because for the first time in longer than she could remember, the world seemed to have weight to it. Everything seemed to have importance and meaning, and she felt connected to it in a way that never happened unless she was deep in a tune, lost in her music.
She made it back to Sweetwater without further incident and found the garage that Grey had recommended. There was an old and battered sign above the door to the work bay that read Tommy & Joe’s. The whole place seemed sort of run-down and nothing about it really instilled much confidence in her, but she decided to leave her car all the same. Grey had saved her life. And he’d gotten her back on the road. What reason would he have for steering her wrong now?
She wrote out a note describing the problem and where she was staying. Hesitating a moment, she turned off the ignition. The engine went quiet. She tried to start it again, just to see, but nothing happened. The car was as dead as it had been back at the crossroads.
She wrapped the key in her note and slipped it through the mail slot in the front door. Collecting her fiddle and knapsack from the car, she set off the few blocks down the road to the Custom House and hoped that Siobhan hadn’t taken in a guy for the night because, until Lizzie had decided to drive back to Newford, they were supposed to share a room. That’s about all these places would spring for: separate rooms for the boys and girls. Con and Andy would be sharing the other room, and she wasn’t about to go knocking on their door.
The front door of the hotel/bar was unlocked, but there was no one at the desk. Lizzie stepped behind the counter, took the extra key for the room from its hook and went up the stairs. Inside the room she was as quiet as she could be undressing and using the toilet, and then finally she was lying down in her bed. In the other twin bed, Siobhan slept soundly and moments later, Lizzie was, too.
Copyright © 2006 by Charles de Lint