by Liz Williams
If I listen carefully, I can hear everything: fires burning, the drift of snow, secrets whispered into walls and voices calling. I have heard many voices across a thousand years, demanding, pleading and finally falling silent, but that day Lilith said that I was still too young to know sense from nonsense.
Youve got a lot of learning to do, she told me, rattling her brassy feathers. She looked at me out of a fierce golden eye. Not a thought in your head, thats the trouble with you.
But lazy Ishtar from the fire said, Oh, leave the child alone. Let her make her own mistakes.
It was always the same at home. I did not want to listen and so I went down to the shore to dance. The stars burned molten and far away I could see the other dancer: the one who is always there, spinning at the edge of the world. I felt the sun blaze beneath my feet and the furnace heat of the sky against my skin. In dancing, I forgot who I was, but someone had remembered me.
Her name was Shadineth Massaret. She wanted a wild love, bright as the sun and deep as darkness and so she shut the windows, threw a pinch of incense onto the fire and summoned me. She called me by my own name; raised from the depths of some shadowy arcanum, written in blood on the day of my making.
Much later, Lilith said You don't have to answer, you know, just because someone bawls your name in your ear. Youre not a dog. I dont know what got into you.
I dont know either. I suppose I was bored, or perhaps I just wanted to see what it was like; that small grey world, filled with dim mayfly souls. Shadineth called my name three times and on the third I answered. Stars rushed by, the air rang like a bell and I fell like a stone into the body of a girl, on a rainy night in Constantinople, in 1923.
I dont think that Shadineth was expecting quite so spectacular a success. She was no professional necromancer: just a bored girl, at a loose end and excited by the thought of the forbidden. We all like to play with fire, sometimes. I was rather surprised at my sudden incursion into the human. Her body was cold; wet as snow and fragile as a shell. Her heart fluttered against her brittle ribs. I tried to tell her that I did not want to hurt her, but my voice sounded thunderous in the vaults of her head. She cried out and clapped her hands to her ears. Somewhere, beyond her, was warmth and I reached out to it, but she screamed again and plucked her hand from the coals in the brazier. Clearly, this matter of possession was something we would both have to work at. I think she fell; the room span up and I found myself looking out of her eyes at the yellow plaster of the ceiling. Her heels drummed the floor. The door burst open and people swarmed in. They picked her up and carried her across to the bed, where they forced something sour and honeyed down her throat. She swallowed convulsively and dropped into dreaming. I had time to think, then, and to consider the consequences of my position.
Possession is such an ambivalent word. The Churches are unanimous in their disapproval, saying that it is common knowledge that people become possessed by demons. Yet we demons know that humans possess us: beguiling us with their desires and capturing us in the webs of their will. We find ourselves imprisoned in cooler flesh than our own, frightened and bewildered. I thought to find a new friend; instead I found myself securely stuck in the chilly veins of an amateur sorceress, now out for the count. I was cold beyond bearing and I wanted to go home. I think I howled.
I was held in her body, afraid and raging, until the morning. The sun came up in a torrent of light above the city and Shadineth flinched as she opened her eyes. I stirred within her, as gently as I could. She rolled over, trying to escape the lodger in her head, and fell off the side of the bed. Servants came running in and helped her back. Then a man came: dressed in a robe the colour of dawn. From the sleeve of the robe he drew a small bag and from it he took a pinch of a black powder. An attendant lit the brazier and he cast the powder into the coals. It flared up with a hiss. I watched with interest. He raised his arms to the ceiling and cried out a single phrase. After a moments reflection, I recognised it. It was an incantation, predictably enough against demons. It was evidently somewhat past its best. I tried to tell him this but my voice roared out from my hostess stretched throat. A confetti shower of plaster fell from the ceiling and the brazier spat sparks. My voice was too loud; my essence too hot; I was too much altogether for this small, neat world. I gave up, sulking.
The tedious process of exorcism continued throughout the day. Priests and clerics of all descriptions trooped through the House of Lanterns, all bent on becoming the one who liberated its heiress from her besetting succubus. I did my best to co-operate, but nothing seemed to work. Then there was a tapping of heels on the parquet floor and a woman came in. She had dispensed with the customary robes and was wearing a rather modish suit with a rabbit collar. Her title was Luna, and she was a priestess of Cybele: Our Lady of Beasts. She was unwilling to tolerate any nonsense. She threw everyone else out of the room and bolted the door.
Then she turned to the poor prone figure on the bed and said, Right. Enoughs enough. I want you out of there on a count of three.
In the smallest voice I could muster I said I cant.
My voice was a gale. Words billowed through the room. The windows rattled. The priestess clapped her calfskin gloves to her ears.
Dont speak. Just nod your head, yes or no.
I managed a little nod.
Thats good. Now, are you stuck?
Do you know how we might release you?
I shook my hostess head.
Very well. Theres only one thing I can think of, and its a little risky. Not to you, to Shadineth, so I suggest you listen carefully. If she dies, you will not necessarily be free, and it will take a considerably greater effort to disentangle you: one which is beyond my capabilities.
With care, I nodded. I don't know how she persuaded the family to accept her proposal. I was dimly aware of a disconsolate muttering throughout the hallway as the assembled religious were told that their services would no longer be required. Then an attendant came, with a stronger sedative that sent both my tortured hostess and myself into darkness.
When we awoke, we were no longer in the House of Lanterns but somewhere echoing, filled with a watery light. The first thing that met our gaze was a face: vast, malign and upside down. The carving, which bore an uncanny resemblance to myself, was framed with stone coils of serpentine hair. They had brought us to the cisterns beneath the city; the water reservoirs which served Constantinople even in these modern days. They had brought me to this damp dark place away from the dance of the sun, to keep themselves safe from me. The Luna whispered all this into Shadineth's ear. To my chagrin, I discovered that the Luna was not to be the one to lead the exorcism: this was an honour reserved for the high priestess herself.
But Ill be here, the Luna whispered. Ill be beside you.
I tried to ask her what was going to happen, for they had not exorcised any of my kind for a very long time. In the old days, more of us had been young and foolish, but now there was only me. Ghosts may possess and be possessed, it's true; but they have no more tenacity than shadows and a breath or a word can send them shrieking into the wind. I was an altogether different proposition.
They had paid for a sacrifice, which surprised me. This was the 1920s, after all. I did not see who it was: perhaps one of the janissaries, whom the alchemists created in their hidden laboratories beneath Pera. Attendants strapped down my hostess protesting head, so that all we could see was the ceiling.
The Luna whispered in my ear Watch the smoke. Watch it drift and die... over and over until we were both entranced. I began to follow the smoke up into the vault of the cistern and slowly it took me with it, pouring from Shadineth's eyes and mouth. A crimson drop blossomed like an anemone in the water. Someone cried out; a shadow sprang past me into the smoke and I followed, but as my pinions reached free above her head, Shadineth began to fight to keep me in. I wanted only flight and air and sunlight, but she began to reel me down; using the beat of her heart and the pulse of her blood, all the human snares. She was stronger than I; this was not my world. She wanted nothing more, she would have said, than for me to be gone, but the unconscious self is immune to reason. It wants what it wants, and blindly it sucked me back and hooked me in.
The Luna's face was very close; I could smell her narcissus perfume. She was staring into Shadineth's eyes and somewhere she saw mine looking back at her: a spark of gold in an empty head.
It hasnt worked, she pronounced. The high priestess shoved her aside.
Of course its worked. Everyone saw: the demon was cast forth.
No, it went back in. What did you do that for? she demanded of me.
I shook the girls head and, once started, I couldnt stop. It rattled to and fro like a broken puppet.
Stop that! She held Shadineth's head still by sheer force. The girl bit her lip and a drop of blood ran down her chin. I chased it with her tongue.
Oh, I dont know what to do, the Luna said, in despair. Get them back to the house. Well try and think of something else.
They took us home to the House of Lanterns and laid Shadineth on the bed. Then they left her, possessed, to wait out another long night. I lay within her, like a seed, waiting. Somewhere in the depths of the night, Lilith came. I dragged the girls head from her uneasy dreams and opened her eyes. Lilith was leaning against the mantelpiece, examining her taloned nails. Her fiery feathers fluttered in an unknown wind, but in the chamber the candle burned quietly. I opened Shadineth's mouth and spoke, as though through a ventriloquists doll.
Help me, I said.
Cant, Im afraid. Not unless youre willing to see her unmade...not just dead, child, but unsouled. Do you want that? D'you care?
They say that we prey on living souls, that we are beyond compassion, but I was young, with a childs fondness. I did not want to see Shadineth hurt. I said so.
You should have been more careful. If Ive told you once, Ive told you a thousand times...
Her bronze skin shivered and ruffled. She blinked golden eyes. I was beginning to feel very sorry for myself.
Nothing I can do, said heartless Lilith, reaching towards the brazier. Im sure someone will think of something. Bye.
Lilith, wait - I cried, but she was already gone, in a shower of fire.
Life settled down a little after that. Gulan Massaret continued to advertise, covertly, in the esoteric press for the person who might free his daughter. Enough people answered, over the course of the next year: mathematical mystics from Syria; Gnostic clerics from the Maghreb; the drug makers of Ghent and Antwerp. None of them achieved even partial success. Massaret was reluctant to let his daughters condition be generally known, for obvious reasons, but it is impossible to keep a secret in Constantinople. The city absorbs lies and confidences and, as befits the cradle of alchemy, changes what it hears. Some said that Shadineth was mad, or ill, or possessed by the spirit of her grandmother, the formidable Alicien.
A surprising number even knew the truth.
The new sciences of the mind began to take a hold in Vienna and Geneva, and Massaret enticed its principal proponents to Constantinople and the House of Lanterns: anything, he reasoned, was worth a try. Shadineth was analysed for hours. She lay on the couch and stared at the ceiling, and when they asked her to talk about her dreams, she only smiled. At last, despairing, her father had her shut away in the high attics of the House of Lanterns. In the evenings, we would sit behind the filigree bars at the window and watch the lights come on across the city; in all the other gilded cages in which the lost children of Constantinople are kept.
At length, people forgot poor mad Shadineth. Gulan Massaret was given a diplomatic posting to Paris, in an attempt to stop the growing threat of war. He left a handful of retainers to care for his daughter, but it proved to be care in the most minimal sense, for they were afraid. And so, lonely and tormented, Shadineth turned to her constant companion for comfort: to me.
Gradually, over the years, we had achieved a kind of equilibrium. I learned how to be still, and quiet, and gentle. I learned how to speak to her in a small voice, so that she could understand me without pain. Together, we explored the vaults of her mind. She led me through her dreams, and I helped her to
understand the mysteries of number and symbol, which together make the rules of the world. I danced for her, and she watched every move and turn I made, spinning down the pathways of her brain. When at last her father came home, years later, we had danced so much that I had almost forgotten who and what I was, and so had she.
Her father was not the same man, either. They had unmade him in the crucible of the internment camps. His mind wandered and soon he took up permanent residence in the rooms below our own. After a few months he died and shortly after that, we discovered that the door to the stairway had been bolted shut. Occasionally, voices floated up through the floorboards; we recognised none of them. No-one brought food, but Shadineth did not seem to need it. We kept to the bed after that, becoming absorbed in the play of the sun across the plain of the ceiling. We watched the inconstant light: how it shifted and turned and span away. Darkness and sunlight became the same: only a different day, running round. Winter came over and again. Frost hid the window and icicles clustered beneath the sill, but Shadineth and I spent all our days in the hollow places of the head and sleep. If we drifted down, we had the thoughts of the city to choose from and other dreams, too, under the snow: the dreams of the lions in the high hills, the multiple mind of the bees in the hive, honey dreaming, slow and other and endless. Sometimes the voices grew louder, closer, but Shadineth and I no longer cared. We were listening to light and the fall of shadows; to warmth and air and winter.
Years ago now, I had told myself that if I trusted Shadineth, she would find her own answer. If they left her alone, she would work out a way. No dramatic exorcisms; no drugs; no long dissection, only
Shadineth herself, taking her own time. And somewhere on the long roads of the mind, we parted company at last: shook hands and said good-bye. I watched Shadineth as she rose from the bed, unlocked the bolts with ease and walked down the stairs. I listened until her footsteps stopped and the voices below, one by one, fell silent. Then I went on my own way, soaring towards the sun and a brighter day.
What time do you call this? Lilith asked when she saw me, and I laughed at her and ran through the stars to the shores of the world. Just before I reached it I looked back, once, to where Shadineth was singing, and then I was gone, dancing and away.
First appeared in Visionary Tongues.
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