Everything in the universe is older than it seems. Blame Einstein for that. We see what a thing was when the light left it, and that was long ago. Nothing in the night sky is contemporary, not to us, not to one another. Ancient stars exploded into ruin before their sparkle ever caught our eyes; those glimpsed in glowing "nurseries" were crones before we witnessed their birth. Everything we marvel at is already gone.
Yet, light rays go out forever, so that everything grown old and decayed retains somewhere the appearance of its youth. The universe is full of ghosts.
But images are light, and light is energy, and energy is matter; and matter is real. So image and reality are the same thing, after all. Blame Einstein for that, as well.
The Bar on Jehovah needs no other name, for it is the sole oasis on the entire planet. The Elders do not care for it, and would prefer that the Bar and all its patrons drop into the Black Hole of ancient myth. But chance has conspired to create and maintain this particular Eden.
The chance is that Jehovah sits upon a major interchange of Electric Avenue, that great slipstreamed superhighway that binds the stars. Had it been a small nexus, some bandit chief would have taken it. Had it been a large one, some government would have done so. But it is the Mother of All Nexi, so none dare touch it at all. A hundred hands desire it, and ninety- nine will prevent the one from taking it. Call that peace.
Consequently, it is the one Port in the not- so United League of the Periphery where a ship's captain and crew can rest assured in their transient pleasures that cargo, ship, and selves are safe. The Bar is thus an Eden, of sorts. There, one may take the antidote to the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for a man in his cups seldom knows one from the other. The Elders know a cash cow when they see one, even if the cow looks a lot like a serpent and money is the root of all evil.
She has come to Jehovah because, sooner or later, everyone does. The Spiral Arm is a haystack of considerable size and a particular man a needle surpassingly small, but Jehovah is the one place where such a search might succeed, because it is the one place where such a man might be found.
She is an ollamh, as the harper's case slung across her back announces. She is lean and supple-a cat, and she moves with a cat's assurance, not so much striding as gliding, although there is something of the strider in her, too. The Bartender watches her wend the pit of iniquity with something like approval, for no one carries a harp in quite that way who cannot make it weep and laugh, and frighten.
As she crosses the room, she gathers the eyes of all those conscious, and even a few fallen comatose turn blind gazes in her direction. She has eyes of green, and that is dangerous; for they are not the green of grass and gentle hillsides, but the hard, sharp glass- green of flint. Her hair is the red of flame, complementing the color of her eyes; but her skin is dark gold, for the races of Old Earth have vanished into a score of others, and what one is has become, through science, a projection of what one would be. Yet there is something solitary about her. Her heart is a fortress untaken; though from such a fortress who knows what might sortie?
When she reaches the corner the men sitting there drag the table and their less mobile mates aside and make a place for her. She does not ask permission. None of her kind do. Minstrel and minnesinger; skald, bard, and troubadour. They never ask, they simply appear-and sing for their supper.
She opens her harp case and it is a clairseach, as those watching had known it would be: a lap harp of the old style. She plays the cruel metal strings with her nails, which is the only true way of playing. The truest songs have always a trace of pain in their singing.
In self- mockery, she plays an ancient tune, "A wand'ring minstrel, I," to introduce herself and display the range of her music. When she sings of the spacefarers, the grim jingle of the Interstellar Cargo Company runs underneath the freewheeling melody: mockery in a minor key. When she sings of the Rift, the notes are empty and lost and the melody unremittingly dark. When she sings of Old Earth, there is unrelieved sorrow. When she sings of love-ah, but all her songs are songs of love, for a man may love many things and anything. He may love a woman, or a comrade. He may love his work or the place where he lives. He may love a good drink or a good journey. He might get lost-on the journey, or in the drink, or especially in the woman-but what is love without loss?
Matters are different for women. They generally love one thing, which is why the love of a woman is like a laser while that of a man is like a flood. The one can sweep you away; the other can burn you clean through. There is One Thing that the harper has loved and lost, and the memory of it aches in all her songs, even in the cheerful ones; or especially in the cheerful ones.
For her set piece, she sings "Tristam and Iseult," the cruelest of the songs of love, and with its ferocity she holds her listeners' hearts in her hand. When she plucks out the strokes of war, their hearts gallop with the thundering strings. When she caresses the gentle tones of trysting, they yearn with the lovers in their bower. And when her fingers snap the sudden chords of betrayal, a shiver runs through them and they look at their own comrades through lowered lids. She plays with her audience, too. The music suggests that this time, somehow, it will all end differently, and in the end she leaves them weeping.
Afterward, the Bartender directs her to a dark corner, where a man sits before a bowl of uiscebeatha. The bowl is empty-or not yet refilled, depending on the direction of one's thoughts. He is one of those lost men, and it is in this very bowl that he has become lost. So he stares into it, hoping to find himself. Or at least some fragment of what he was.
He is a man of remnants and shadows. There is a forgotten look about him. His blouse is incompletely fastened; his face concealed by the ill- lit alcove. It is a niche in the wall and he, a saint of sorts, and like a statue'd saint, he makes no move when the ollamh sits across the table from him.
The harper says nothing. She waits.
After a time a man's voice issues from the shadows. "We thought it was a potion that seduced Tristam from his duty. We thought he fell in love unwillingly."
"It's not love unless it is unwilling," the harper answers. "Otherwise, why speak of 'falling'?"
"Your eyes remind us . . ." But of what he doesn't say. It may be that he has forgotten. She might be one of those ghostly images that haunt the berms of Electric Avenue, crawling along at the laggard speed of light, only now arriving from some distant past.
The harper leans forward and says, with unwonted eagerness, "They tell me you know about the Dancer, that you knew those who were in it."
Mockery from the shades. "Am I to be a seanachy, then? A teller of tales?"
"Perhaps, but there is a song in the tale somewhere, and I mean to find it."
"Be careful what you look for. I think you sing too many songs. We think you sing more than you live. It all happened so long ago. I didn't think anyone knew."
"Stories spread. Rumors trickle like winter snowmelt down a mountain's face."
The shadowed man thinks for a time. He looks into his bowl again, but if he intends another as the price of the story, he does not name that price and the harper again waits.
"I can only tell it as it was told to us," the man says. "I can weave you a story, but who knows how true the threads may be?" His fingers play idly with the bowl; then he shoves it to one side and leans his forearms on the table. His face, emerging from the darkened alcove at last, is shrunken, as if he has been suctioned out and all that remains of him is skin and skull. His flesh is sallow, his cheeks hollow. His chin curls like a coat hook, and his mouth sags across the saddle of the hook. His hair is too white, but there are places on his skull, places with scars, where the hair will never grow back. His eyes dart ever sidewise, as if something wicked lurks just past the edge of his vision. "What can it matter now?" he asks of ghosts and shadows. "They've all died, or gone their ways. Who can the memories hurt?"
The Shadows do not answer, yet.
Excerpted from The January Dancer by Michael Flynn
Copyright © 2008 by Michael Flynn