Don’t make of us
more than we are,
We hold no great secret…
“Arabesque” (Moths and Wasps, 1997)
“I feel as if I should know you,” Saskia Madding says as she approaches my chair.
She’s been darting glances in my direction from across the café for about fifteen minutes now and I was wondering when she’d finally come over.
I saw her when I first came in, sitting to the right of the door at a window table, nursing a tall cup of chai tea. She’d been writing in a small, leather-bound book, fountain pen in one hand, the other holding back the spill of blonde hair that would otherwise fall into her eyes. She looked up when I came in and showed no sign of recognition, but since then she’s been studying me whenever she thinks I’m not paying attention to her.
“You do know me,” I tell her. “I’m pieces of your boyfriend—the ones he didn’t want when he was a kid.”
She gives me a puzzled look, though I can see a kind of understanding start up in the back of those pretty, sea-blue eyes of hers.
“You—are you the woman in his journals?” she asks. “The one he calls Mystery?”
I smile. “That’s me. The shadow of himself.”
“I didn’t… ”
“Know I was real?” I finish for her when her voice trails off.
She shakes her head. “No. I just didn’t expect to ever see you in a place like this.”
“I like coffee.”
“I meant someplace so mundane.”
“Ah. So you’ve made note of all those romantic flights of fancy he puts in those journals of his.” I close my eyes, shuffling through pages of memory until I find one of them. ”‘I can see her standing among the brambles and thorns of some half-forgotten hedgerow in a green bridal dress, her red hair set aflame by the setting sun, her eyes dark with mysteries and stories, a wooden hare’s mask dangling from one languid hand. This is how I always see her. In the hidden and secret places, her business there incomprehensible yet obviously perfectly suited to her curious, evasive nature.’”
I get a smile from Saskia, but I don’t know if it’s from the passage I’ve quoted, or because I’m mimicking Christy’s voice as I repeat the words.
“That’s a new one,” she says. “He hasn’t read it to me yet.”
“You wait for him to read them to you?”
“Of course. I would never go prying…” She pauses and gives me a considering look. “When do you read them?”
I shrug. “Oh, you know. Whenever. I don’t really sleep, so sometimes when I get bored late at night I come by and sit in his study for awhile to read what he’s been thinking about lately.”
“You’re as bad as the crow girls.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
“Mmm.” She studies me for a moment before adding, “You don’t read my journals do you?”
I muster a properly offended look, though it’s not that I wouldn’t. I just haven’t. Yet.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “Of course you wouldn’t. We don’t have the same connection as you and Christy do.”
“Does that connection bother you?”
She shakes her head. “That would be like being bothered by his having Geordie for a brother. You’re more like family—albeit the twin sister who only comes creeping by to visit in the middle of the night when we’re both asleep.”
I shrug, but I don’t apologize.
“I’m only his shadow,” I say.
She studies me again, those sea-blue eyes of hers looking deep into mine.
“I don’t think so,” she says. “You’re real now.”
That makes me smile.
“As real as I am, anyway,” she adds.
My smile fades as I see the troubled look that comes over her. I forget that her own exotic origins are no more than a dream to her most of the time—a dream that makes her uncomfortable, uneasy in her skin. I wish I hadn’t reminded her of it, but she puts it away and brings the conversation back to me.
“Why won’t you tell Christy your name?” she asks.
“Because that would let him put me in a box labeled ‘This is Christiana’ and I don’t want to be locked into who he thinks I am. The way he writes about me is bad enough. If he had a name to go with it he might be able to fix it so that I could never change and grow.”
“He does like his routines,” she says.
I nod. “His picture’s in the dictionary, right beside the word.”
We share a moment’s silence, then she cocks her a head, just a little.
“So your name’s Christiana?” she asks.
“I call myself Christiana Tree.”
That brings back a genuine smile.
“So that would make you Miss Tree,” she says.
I’m impressed at how quickly she got it as I offer her my hand.
“In the flesh,” I tell her. “Pleased to meet you.”
“But that’s only what you call yourself,” she says as she shakes my hand.
“We all have our secrets.”
“Or we wouldn’t be mysteries.”
She’s been sitting on her haunches beside the easy chair I commandeered as soon as I’d picked up my coffee and sticky-bun from the counter, leaning her arms on one of the chair’s fat arms. There’s another chair nearby, occupied by a boy in his late teens with blue hair and razor-thin features. He’s been listening to his Walkman loud enough for me to identify the music as rap, though I can’t make out any words, and flipping through one of the café’s freebie newspapers while he drinks his coffee. He gets up now and I give a vague wave to the vacant chair with my hand.
“Why don’t you get more comfortable,” I say to Saskia.
She nods. “Just let me get my stuff.”
Some office drone in a tailored business suit, tie loose, top shirt button undone, approaches the chair while Saskia collects her things. I put my scuffed brown leather work boots up on its cushions and give him a sugar and icicle smile—you know, it looks sweet, but there’s a chill in it. He’s like a cat as he casually steers himself off through the tables and takes a hard-back chair at one of the small counters that enclose the café’s various rustic wooden support beams, making it look like that’s what he was aiming for all along.
Saskia returns. She drops her jacket on the back of the chair, puts her knapsack on the floor, and settles down, tea in hand.
“So, what were you writing?” I ask.
She shrugs. “This and that. I just like playing with words. Sometimes they become something—a journal entry, a poem. Sometimes I’m just following words to see where they go.”
“And where do they go?”
“Anyplace and everyplace.”
She pauses for a moment and has a sip of her tea, sets the cup down on the low table between us. Later I realize she was just deciding whether to go on and tell me what she now does.
“You know, we’re like words,” she says. “You and me. We’re like ghost words.”
I have to smile. I’m beginning to understand why Christy cares about her the way he does. She’s a sweet, pretty blonde, but she doesn’t fit into any sort of a tidy descriptive package. Her thinking’s all over the place, from serious to whimsical, or even some combination of the two. I think I just might have a poke through her journals the next time I’m in their apartment and they’re both asleep. I’d like to know more about her—not just what she has to say, but what she thinks when there’s nobody supposed to be listening.
“Okay,” I say. “I’ll bite. What are ghost words?”
“They’re words that don’t really exist. They come about through the mistakes of editors and printers and bad proofreaders, and while they seem like they should mean something, they don’t. Like ‘cablin’ for ‘cabin,’ say.”
I see what she means.
“I like that word,” I tell her. “Cablin. Maybe I should appropriate it and give it a meaning.”
Saskia gives a slow nod. “You see? That’s how we’re like ghost words. People can appropriate us and give us meanings, too.”
I know she’s talking about our anomalous origins—how because of them, we could be victim to that sort of thing—but I don’t agree.
“That happens to everybody,” I tell her. “It happens whenever someone decides what someone is like instead of finding out for real.”
“You’re thinking about all of this too much.”
“I can’t seem to stop thinking about it.”
I study her for a long moment. It’s worrying her, this whole idea of what’s real and what isn’t, like how you came into this world is more important than what you do once you’re here.
“What’s the first thing you remember?” I ask.
Copyright © 2003 by Charles de Lint