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the Grey Man – Bad dreams – so Much, left out; so Much takes Shape – her Certainty –

The grey man’s standing in the black-and-white tiled foyer as she makes her way down the wide white-painted steps, his mole-grey shoes, his gravel trousers roughly flecked, his ashen shirt, his rumpled face like old oatmeal.“Tell me you know who Ysabel is,” says Jo, “or I’m blowing right the hell past you.”

“The Queen in her folly,” he says, “who refused her crown. Put the gun away.”

Jo says, “She’s here?”

“One thing at a time. Put the gun away. Put it down. Then open your shirt.”

She’s stopped on the third step up, the gun in her hand at her side. “There’s something there, isn’t there,” she says.

“We must make certain,” he says.

“I can’t touch it,” she says, sitting on the steps. “I can feel it. It’s cold, a little. Numb.” The weighty clink of the gun as she sets it down. “But no matter which way I turn, or the light,” as she undoes a button, and another. “I can’t see anything there.” He hitches up his trousers to squat before her, her bare knees pressed together. “Who are you?” she says.

He looks up, his eyes grey blue a-swim in yellow grey. “My name is John,” he says, his voice lugubrious, “and once I was King of the City of Roses.”

“Oh,” says Jo.

That hand parts her shirt and within what might be a soapy blur. When his fingers press there her eyes go wide head thrown back shoulders hunched and she howls, and falls back, against the steps.

“Quicksmoke,” he’s saying, sitting on the steps beside her. Her elbows on her knees, her head hanging down. “Echoes of the world before, its last foul airs and vapors.”

“There was,” she says, “the sorcerer had a thermos, and the thermos – there were two of them.” A drop of blood from her brow splats between her feet. “One in black, one in white? And one of them had a thermos.”

“Mirrors hold it,” he says, “and certain chambers, far underground. It can be, directed, by lenses, or sound, or, if one is obscenely careful, the breath.”

“Or me,” she says, sitting up.

His grey head slowly, back and forth. “It makes a shell for itself, of what it takes from the world. It makes a shell, of scales, and when it’s done, it plants itself.” He looks down then, from her mudded eyes, to her chest, her shirt hung open. “It will slumber there for months, or even years.”

“I was thinking,” she says, blotting her brow with the heel of her hand, “it was, that maybe it got me, too. That all this was like, my life, flashing, my brain misfiring, just before – like a bad dream.” Her hands, one blooded, one not, folded over her breast. “And when it stops?” she says. “When it wakes up?”

“It will,” he says, “bloom. Things, and people, you’d thought were long since gone, forgot forever, will begin to return to you – ” Her shoulders rise, shuddering, she’s closing her eyes, swallowing a sob. “Ghosts,” he says, and before he lays a rope-veined hand on her knee he closes it in a fist and puts it back in his graveled lap. “Bad dreams,” he says.

“But,” she says, opening her eyes. Looking over at him. “You remember her.”

His grey head lifts, and drops. “She shouldn’t be here,” he says. “Not yet.”

“But, she is,” says Jo, “she’s here.”

His head lifts again, and his shoulders, “An hour ago,” he says, “or a day, a star,” and his fingers draw a line in the air, from his eyes down to his lap, “fell. I can show you where.”

Unsteady she climbs to her feet, “Then what are we waiting for,” she says, and shaking she kneels on the steps, a click and scrape as she picks up the gun.

“You need clothing,” he says, standing beside her. “Shoes.”

“I’ve got,” she says, wincing, wiping a bit of oozing blood away from her eye, “stuff, upstairs,” turning, a gesture with the gun. “Not here,” he says, stepping down, stepping out onto the black-and-white tiled floor.

“Not here?” she says. Slowly, gingerly down the steps, following. “John?”

“It’s cold, outside,” he says, his hand on the crash bar that opens the front door. “If I had a coat.” He pushes it open. “But it’s not far. What I have in mind. Three blocks away.” And he steps through.

Night outside, but not dark. “Jesus,” she says, forcing her bare feet out onto the frost-rimed brick of the porch drifted in the corners with snow. More snow blankets the sidewalk where the grey man waits by the bus shelter, and snow stretches deeply soft unbroken by tire-track or footprint up and down the street, and all of the snow shines with reflected light where it isn’t an eerily luminous blue. Across the street the building on the corner climbs floor by floor up fifty or seventy storeys or more, and the building behind her, and behind them and around them more buildings, the regular, edged trunks of some cyclopean forest, eighty storeys, a hundred, two thousand feet, twenty-five hundred or more, the tops of them lost in the shining bellies of the clouds above. And every storey lined with windows, in every window a lamp, and every lamp is lit.

“Him, I loved,” says the grey man, slowly, wearily, “as my hand; her as my very breath.” His arms folded he leans on a glass-topped counter, the shelves within lit up, laden with piles of dice in lucite and bright chrome, a couple of silvery hip flasks, a hollowed-out book safe whose tattered jacket says Bright Orange for the Shroud, a neat little silver and black crossbow pistol, uncocked, tilted to one side. “He could give her, something I could not,” he says. “That’s all.”

“Is this, what, a son thing?” says Jo, from over there, a line of louvered saloon doors one after another past the racks of clothing. The one there at the end, lit up yellow and red. “Daughters, don’t count?”

“It could as easily have been a daughter,” he says, a crease shifting the rumples of his forehead. “As I understand it.”

“But Ysabel,” says Jo, her head appearing over the top of the saloon doors, red hair dark in that light.

He looks up. “The Bride?” he says. “The mysteries of Bride, and Queen, have nothing at all to do with, birth.” He pushes back from the glass. “Her belly, distended;” his hands shaping a curve before him, “the sweats, the sickness; the changes to her tongue – she could no longer bear the taste of fennel, or of tarragon. The sight of, eggs, revolted her. She, demanded, roasted peppers, in yogurt. And the pain.” That face of his twisting itself into an expression, trying it on, a grimace that falters, into a snarl, and then is smoothed away as he heads down the length of the counter. “The body, feeling what it will; doing, even saying, what it would.” Past a mechanical cash register with an elaborate cameo painted on the back of it, a display of knee socks printed up the sides with slogans that say Whiskey, Bacon, Kosher, Brooklyn. “When she was delivered of the boy,” and he steps around the end of the counter now, to the other side, there by the electric cash register, its dark monitor, the oblong little card swipe, “she could once more stomach eggs. The whites of them, at least. With tarragon.” He’s looking over a set of shelves there in the shadows behind the counter, untidily stuffed with boxes, baskets, redwelds of papers and folders. “But as the boy grew – at first, I thought, perhaps, she’d merely become – subdued? The stress of it all.” He pulls from a shelf a wooden box, shallow and wide, the top of it inlaid with pale ivory and fitful gleaming gold. “But as the years turned themselves about, it became clear: Duenna’s joy. The mischief, that led her once to ask my Huntsman for a dance, so long ago. Echoes of them yet ring in Ysabel – how could they not? – but in my Queen they were not, muffled; they were – not. Gone, and never to return.” He sets the box on the counter, tink of wood against glass. “And then the stories, from the Northeast Marches, of a loathly lady all in black, who entered houses, hurt women, who brought trouble upon children, whose eyes were like stars, whose hands of iron. And her laugh, and the nails of her fingers, like sickles.”

“She has nineteen names,” says Jo, stepping through the doors of her fitting room.

“She has but one name,” says the grey man, “and it is no more her own.”

“But, I mean,” says Jo. She wears a shirtwaist dress, in black and grey, with pink and white dots here and there, over black leggings and black boots. “I’ve seen them both, together. The Queen, and the lady.” Pushing one arm and the other into a heavy black jacket with a wide hood to it that lies back, crumpled about her neck like a scarf. “At the same time.”

“And the Gammer,” says the grey man, and the crease has returned to his forehead. “And the Bride, also.”

She’s come up to the counter opposite him, her hands on either side of the box there on the glass. “They’re,” she says. Then, “She’s.” Under a curl of her wine-dark hair there’s a couple of white butterfly bandages, holding shut the red gash across her brow. “I,” she says, “I didn’t know – ”

Bang his hand comes down on the glass, and she jumps at the sound. “There is so much,” he says, “left out, when one word is chosen, instead of another, over another, but – also, as well, so much I had not,” both hands folded together atop the box, the irregular honeycomb picked out in white and gold on the lid, “considered, takes shape, risks rushing in to overwhelm, the more I speak of this – ” and “John” Jo’s saying, “John. Please. Pull it back. What does it, what does this have to do, with finding Ysabel, with bringing her back – ”

“You must understand,” he says, and he’s taken her hand in his. “I do not know, what it is, to father a child. I could not tell you, what it would have been, to have loved him as he were my own.” He lets go, and she pulls her hand back to herself. “It was to Vincent that he turned, as he grew, to find a father. It was in Vincent, my true friend, that he found a bitterness, to brace the sweetness of his boyhood.”

“John,” she says.

“Vincent,” he says, “my good right hand, who could find no more trace of the Duenna he had loved in my Queen, in her loathly shadow. It was Vincent, my Huntsman, who told him of his mother, that Duenna, so long since gone.”

“Sir,” she says.

“We lost him!” cries the grey man, and Jo takes a step back, blinking. “He left us, to find her!” Those big grey hands hovering uncertain, settling over his face. “He ended,” he says. “He ended. Up. Here.” Lowering, shaking, to press against the glass. “Here. Here. There was no here. Not then.” A breath drawn sharply in through his nose, and, “Then,” he says, a slow stone of a word, “then, in my grief, my towering rage, I dropped a glove at the feet of my bitterest best of friends, and, I lost, myself.”

And when he doesn’t say anything more, Jo says, “John,” and then, “majesty. Where are we?”

He looks up, at the dark ceiling close above. He lifts his hands, spreads them, a benison for the dark racks of clothing, the framed posters unseen on the walls, the windows full of mannequins in outlandish costumes looking out over the snow, the great stuffed tiger lounging on the shelf above the doors. “A place,” he says, “where we might come to rest, when we are done with the world.”

“So I’m,” says Jo, “am I, are we, I’m, I’m not done, I’m not done with anything – ”

“Do you love her, Gallowglas?” says the grey man.

She looks down, leaning against the glass. Looks up, meeting his gelid eyes. “With all my heart,” she says.

“Then there is yet a chance,” he says. “Open the box.”

And Jo lifts the white-gold lid.

The inside lined with yellow velvet here and there worn a darker almost orange, and it’s filled with a jumble of things. She looks up at the grey man, lifting the first of them out, a telephone headset with a single earpiece, the microphone askew, the cord of it only a few inches long, and copper wire peeking from the frayed end. She sets it on the glass. Next a bottle cap, silver, that says Snapple on the top of it, Made From the Best Stuff on Earth. She turns it over. Real Fact no. 95, it says, The red deer inhabits most of Europe, the Caucasus Mountains, Asia Minor, parts of Western Asia, and Central Asia. A slender pack of cigarettes, the label of it orange, Djarum, it says, Sigaret Kretek. A ticket stub that says SECRET SHOW, Sept. 30. “That was,” says Jo, setting it by the bottle cap, “that was a good show. That was the night we killed the boar.”

“Erymathos,” says the grey man.

Jo plucks out a bus transfer, and then a folded page torn from a magazine some time ago, and careful of the delicate creases she opens it up. “The hell,” she says, smoothing it flat against the glass. A photograph fills the page, a woman lying back, her orange jacket opened, dark stocking gartered halfway along her thighs, underwear striped blue and white stretched taut between her knees.

“What’s in the box is yours,” says the grey man. “You’ve seen it before?”

“There was a,” she says, “a satchel. A briefcase. One of the, we were attacked, on the MAX, by some – guys. One of them had it. The Duke ended up with it somehow, and it was full of,” she flicks the page with a fingertip, “this. And I,” and she lays a hand on the glass, a finger on a corner of the page.

“Yes?” says the grey man.

Jo reaches into a pocket of the jacket she’s wearing and pulls from it her gun. Cradles it a moment in both her hands, and then, carefully, sets it snugly in the yellow velvet lining of the box. She closes the lid. She pushes the box back over the glass to him, and gathers up what she’s taken out, the transfer, the ticket, the bottle cap, the headset, into this pocket or that. The page, folding it back up again.

“You’re certain?” says the grey man.

She nods, then stops, the folded page in her hand. “Can I,” she says, “could I, ask for one more thing?” She’s looking down through the glass at something on one of the shelves.

“You might,” he says.

She points. “The gloves?” she says. By one of the flasks a pair of fingerless cycling gloves, grey and black. He stoops to pull them out, then lays them on the glass before her, flat. As she works her hand into one it’s clear they’ve never been worn before.

She tugs them both home, tightens and closes the velcro about her wrists. “Okay,” she says. “Let’s go.” The grey man nods.

“None of this,” he says, lifting a grey hand, “was here when I first came.” His shoes, her boots squeaking in the blue-white unmarked snow that blankets the street. “And now,” he says, “look,” lifting his grey face. The skeletal branches an empty canopy above and up and up beyond them behind the dark trees thronging the sidewalks buildings loom, darkly shadowed blue, pricked with windows lit up weakly white and yellow. “All of them, every one, ready and waiting for someone I might save, someone I’ve caught, kept, held fast.”

“But not,” says Jo, “not Duenna,” the word a tattered fog of breath blown back from her hood.

“When her time comes,” says the grey man. His hands clasped behind his back. He wears no coat, and his ashen shirt’s still open at the throat. “Lymond – is still very much a boy. He is, impatient. He certainly was, when he brought himself here, and when he refused all that I might do to help him home.”

And then, a block or so later, he says, “How he managed that remains a mystery, to me.”

They’re at the top of a ridge now, and at the next intersection the trees thin out, fall back, and the buildings about them drop with the street down and down to the cluster of overpasses there at the edge of the river, and rising over across it towers, more towers, towers climbing a mile or more into the thinning eddied clouds, and the thousand thousand sparks shining gleaming flickering in the windows of them. Coming down the slope of the ridge the view opens even further, swooping arcs and nets of light, the bridges there, and there, marching along the river, each grander and more glorious than the one before. There to the right, where the clouds thicken, stained with color, a smoldering yellow edged with red in all that blue-black and blued white, the buildings below shining reds and oranges and even mirroring silvers, reflections and refractions, and Jo slows, she stops there in the snow, staring at the lone tower a mile or so away, higher than everything about it, the amber glass of it glaring in the too-brilliant light framed by bright pink stone flaring white as the sparks, the drops of yellow-white light, fall and splash and splattering bounce from the top of it gone, the corner of it broken, eaten away, a crater there at the top of the city, a bowl overflowing, too bright to look upon.

“Christ,” says Jo.

“A star, fell,” he says. “See what it’s done.” And then, “I will go no further.”

“But,” she says, looking to him, the buildings about them, “what do I, I just,” the river, the burning tower, him again, “so I walk up there? By myself? And find her? And then we just, what, leave?”

He’s pointing to her breast. “This,” he says. He’s pointing to her but he’s looking away, to the burning tower. “This, and what’s been built here,” and his hand sweeps now, his gaze to encompass the buildings all about, “these were enough perhaps to catch her, to hold her, to keep her from melting away.” The grey of his face unwarmed by the far-off light. “What you found in the box should be enough to bring the both of you home. But. Little enough’s the stock to be put in shoulds.” He’s holding out to her a small silvery coil of a horn, the bell of it oval, and dented, the finish scratched. “Sound it, if you must,” he says. “If you absolutely must, I will come then, and see the both of you home.”

“Why don’t you come with me? Make sure?” she says. “Why don’t you go yourself?”

“It is given that you might see me but three times, only,” he says, still holding out the horn. “You might see me twice more, yet. She’s seen me once already.”

“Oh,” says Jo, and then she takes the horn from his hand.

“Jo Gallowglas,” he says, as she tucks it away in her jacket. “Jo Maguire. You are not what I would have chosen, but.” Looking her up and down, from her hood to her boots and back. “But you are, I think, what is needed.”

“I, ah,” says Jo. She nods. “Okay.”

She turns away, sets off, down the middle of the snow-filled street. Traffic lights click above the next intersection, blinking blue over the street she follows, white over the cross street. As she passes under them she looks back, over her shoulder. He can’t be seen, against the dark trees, the dark ground floors of the buildings left behind.

Table of Contents

Bright Orange for the Shroud, written by John D. MacDonald, ©1965. Romanian fairy tale cited in At the Bottom of the Garden, written by Diane Purkiss, ©2000, from “Two Thousand Years of a Charm Against the Child-Stealing Witch,” by Moses Gaster. SNAPPLE, REAL FACTS, and MADE FROM THE BEST STUFF ON EARTH are registered trademarks of Snapple Beverage Corp.

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