The Shadow Behind the Stars (4 page)

BOOK: The Shadow Behind the Stars
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So we let it go; again we stayed silent. We touched the drifting darkness and we listened to the waves. Aglaia slept. Serena watched the moon.

I shivered, and I hoped the foreboding I felt was only our magic whispering nonsense, some warped game. I hoped, but I could not believe it was that toothless. Since we opened our eyes in the midst of that first eternal night, it has been ours—the darkness, the threads, the sweet beginnings and bitter ends, the whole messy tangle of mortal life. In some ways, there is little difference between us sisters and our art: When I am working my spindle, I am the masses of glittering wool, and the whirring tool, and the edges of my fingers as they coax each fresh thread into existence. Serena is the length, the priceless single strand that slides along her palm, one long golden afternoon. Xinot is a thousand, a million, countless
, only just touching the thread, inevitable nothings.

We are one another, the hands that pass the thread, connecting us to the others, beginning to middle to end.

So we know more than anything how it twists and turns, how one wrong tug undoes it all. There was danger on the wind tonight; there was danger in this wandering girl. It was so close, and I knew just how easily we could fall into it. If Serena would not take her spell away, if Xinot would not turn Aglaia out, then I would have to do something myself to get rid of her, and soon.


as soon as she had awoken, I took her out to sea in our boat.

It was only a little wooden skiff, and my sisters and I hardly used it. Mostly, we never left our island, not to go out to sea, not to visit the mainland. There was enough right where we were to occupy us. The wind would blow until we tasted salt with every breath. Or the sea would calm so still, you'd think you could step across it as across a clear glass floor.

If you've never lived by the sea, you might not understand the way the world shifts so thoroughly at its edge. We didn't leave our rock, but it transformed from day to day, as did the colors of the waves and the texture of the sky. We stayed, unaltered; even our clothes never tore or grew so soiled one dip in the sea couldn't freshen them. But all about us, gulls twisted, and rocks crumbled off and were swept back to shore,
and the whole earth melted and billowed itself into an endless variety of forms.

It reminded us of the limitations of our powers. That was another reason we went outside every night: to feel the galaxies sweeping over us, and to remember anew how very small we were, how unable to alter the threads that wove through each of our days, and how useless—how blasphemous—it would be to wish it otherwise.

We had not always been so isolated. Once, long ago, we had lived among you mortals on the mainland, and we had seen you almost every day. Some of you traveled great distances just to sample our wine. Others thought we would answer questions or even spin new fortunes. We wouldn't, of course, and we soon turned these away, but it didn't keep you from coming. It was too tempting, I suppose—the idea that there might be a shortcut past the harder parts of life.

We hadn't returned your visits; we were solitary, even then. I liked the awe of mortals, the way you cast down your eyes and stood aside to let me pass. Especially the young, muscled men, the ones with calloused hands and life pouring through them. I did not speak to them, but I liked to think that they would have done my bidding, had I asked it. And Xinot didn't engage with you even as much as I did. She slipped by you as a drifting chill. She sat silent on her stump when visitors came, and she stared off into nothing, and the shadows gathered around her.

The human children, though, had been somehow drawn to my middle sister, and she to them. Serena used to play with
them out in their fields—games of chase, dancing rhymes, and braiding hair and flowers. She had favorites, first one child, and then another as that one grew. She spent more time with these, teaching them crafts and the language of trees, bringing them home to feed them sometimes. She loved to watch them grow.

At first, when her children passed into adulthood, and then old age, and finally left her completely, Serena had only smiled sadly and let them go. There were always more children, after all—some of them the daughters and sons of earlier ones. But Serena had always felt herself too much a mother. And mothers aren't meant to watch their children grow old, and older, and then disappear. They aren't meant to go on living after their children have gone.

It ate away at her. Not all at once, but we could see the sadness growing in her eyes. Xinot had worried more than I did. I thought Serena would stop caring so much, once she realized there was nothing to be done. Xinot, though, began to suggest that our sister stop taking in new children, that she give up this game. Every morning she would beg Serena to stay home, not to go out to the fields where the little ones ran after butterflies and one another. Every morning Serena would say, “I'll stay tomorrow. Just give me this one more day, and then I will be content.”

And tomorrow she would say the same, and tomorrow and tomorrow. And the sadness leaked from her eyes and spread across her face, and she didn't smile anymore.

She began to sigh as she measured the thread. Her fingers
moved as flawlessly, and she passed the thread as smoothly. But she didn't join in when we sang our tunes, and she held herself so poised, so tense on her chair that I half expected her to turn to stone, and shatter.

It added a dangerous glint to our art. As the days went on, it became more and more difficult to time our movements, to create a rhythm and flow. There was a thinness to our work, an on-edgeness that made it seem as though our lengths and our
s were limited, as though we would soon be wringing the very air for our bits of fluff.

I stayed away from my sisters, those last weeks on the mainland. I spent my free hours out walking through our vineyards, ripping one leaf after another from the vines. I'd snarl at them, and they'd burst into flames. For days, all I saw when I closed my eyes were those drifting bits of ash.

Xinot's usual irritation also grew as our sister melted into herself. When you mortals dropped by, she'd snap before you'd crossed the threshold, demanding to know what you wanted, glaring with utter malice. You backed away, more times than not, and left without saying a word.

She was ever gentle with Serena, though. I could hardly bear to look at our grieving sister, but I saw Xinot holding her hand, humming a soft, sweet tune—our Xinot, being kind. And when Serena wasn't doing anything but sitting in her chair and staring into the fire, when she had even given up all her sewing projects, her long, fair hands folded listlessly in her lap, it was Xinot who made the decision to leave.

Serena wasn't capable of protest. And I wanted nothing
more to do with mortals. I wanted my sister back; I wanted our work to be simple and full of joy. We agreed one evening that we would go, and we were gone with our wool and threads by morning. We told no one; only Serena's pack of children would have missed us, and we didn't want to see them. Not then, not ever again. We went far out, to the edge of land and beyond; we disappeared from mortal life. It was so pure on our island. There were no children, no visitors, no distractions. Once in a generation a hero made his way to our door, asked a question, and went away again. The rest of the time it was only us, and our threads, and all their glory.

See, the danger in you mortals is that you are so often at odds with your fate. You rail against it; you suffer because of it; you die. Yet in order to work our magic, we must believe in it. We must love the beauty of our threads, shiver at the mystery that lies at either end, catch our breaths at the wonder of our shaping. When we do, the thread runs smooth and the spindle whirs soft and the scissors
clean and fast. When we believe in our work—when it is smooth and soft, clean and fast—we brush up against a power deeper than you could imagine. It is a power deeper than gods, deeper even than us three sisters. It forms our work; it gives our makings breath. It's a hidden pattern, a silent promise, the shadow behind the stars.

We can control this power, in a way. We can use it to form a minor fortune-telling, as Xinot does with her fish bones. We can fill ourselves with it, so that any of you mortals looking us
in the face would feel a great awe rushing through you, like a wind. We can speak words, and they will echo with terrible truths, and it will be we who have chosen to let them free.

The power that we thus use, though, is not merely a slave to our will. It is much more dangerous than that. It is a thing as old as mortals; the gods do not know where it came from. It is a power so great, it is invisible, and it is weightless. It is gravity; it is direction.

We must believe in its rightness. We must believe so thoroughly that when we touch this power, we become it—the spinning and the drawing out and the
. If we don't believe, we sing off-key, we struggle with the thread. And we cannot afford to struggle; we cannot risk mistakes, because mistakes that creatures such as us make are more than deadly. They can be cataclysmic. They can be world ending.

That first morning, as Aglaia and I dragged the skiff from its usual home between two large rocks, we left Xinot muttering riddles and Serena sewing hats in our house. I had told my sisters we were going out to fish, and they had nodded, looking relieved. Aglaia would need much more food than we did, and my sisters had never taken to fishing.

I took the lines and the hooks with us, and I dug in our garden for some grubs. Aglaia slipped the slimy things into a pouch at her waist, without a complaint, not even wrinkling her nose at them. So we were all prepared for a fishing trip, but I had lied to my sisters. I didn't mean to feed the girl. I meant to drown her.

My sisters would be angry, I supposed—even Xinot would not approve of blatant murder. But I had to do something. Never mind that Aglaia's thread was so long it towered above the others on its shelf, never mind how the darkness had gathered around her last night. I thought of Xinot, who would not let her face show as she tidied the threads, for fear that we would see the horror reflected there; I thought of Serena, who was already much too involved with this orphaned girl. I was determined to take Aglaia's destiny into my own hands, to keep my sisters and our work safe.

Along with the fishing gear, I added a sturdy rope to the bottom of our skiff before we pushed off the island. Aglaia saw me shove it under my seat, but she didn't say a word. In fact, all the while I rowed us out into the sea, she sat across from me, looking at me amiably. There were no shadows in her eyes.

When we were far enough out that there was only water and sky in any direction, I took the rope from beneath my seat. I considered the girl.

It would be the simplest thing in the world, to bind Aglaia's hands, to tilt her into the waves. She wouldn't even know it was happening; Serena's spell would ease her suffocation, and she would swallow water easily and go without any struggle.

BOOK: The Shadow Behind the Stars
3.14Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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