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Moonlight and Vines
A Newford Collection
By Charles de Lint, Terri Windling
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 1999 Charles de Lint
All rights reserved.
Sweetgrass & City Streets
Bushes and briar,
thunder and fire.
In the ceremony
that is night,
the concrete forest
can be anywhere,
In the wail of a siren
rising up from the distance,
I hear a heartbeat,
a drumbeat, a dancebeat.
I hear my own
I hear chanting.
Eagle feather, crow's caw
Coyote song, cat's paw
Ya-ha-hey, hip hop rapping
Fiddle jig, drumbeat tapping
Once upon a time
I smell the sweet smoke
of smudge sticks,
of sweetgrass on the corner
where cultures collide
and wisdoms meet.
And in that moment of grace,
where tales branch,
bud to leaf,
mingles with streetlight,
I see old spirits in new skins,
carrying spare change and charms,
They whisper to each other
with the sound of talking drums,
finger pads brushing taut hides.
their voices carrying,
like distant thunder,
Bushes and briar ...
The music in my heart I bore Long after it was heard
I envy the music lovers hear.
I see them walking hand in hand, standing close to each other in a queue at a theater or subway station, heads touching while they sit on a park bench, and I ache to hear the song that plays between them: The stirring chords of romance's first bloom, the stately airs that whisper between a couple long in love. You can see it in the way they look at each other, the shared glances, the touch of a hand on an elbow, the smile that can only be so sweet for the one you love. You can almost hear it, if you listen close. Almost, but not quite, because the music belongs to them and all you can have of it is a vague echo that rises up from the bittersweet murmur and shuffle of your own memories, ragged shadows stirring restlessly, called to mind by some forgotten incident, remembered only in the late night, the early morning. Or in the happiness of others.
My own happinesses have been few and short-lived, through no choice of my own. That lack of a lasting relationship is the only thing I share with my brother besides a childhood neither of us cares to dwell upon. We always seem to fall in love with women that circumstance steals from us, we chase after ghosts and spirits and are left holding only memories and dreams. It's not that we want what we can't have; it's that we've held all we could want and then had to watch it slip away.
"The only thing exotic about Saskia," Aaran tells me, "is her name."
But there's more going on behind those sea-blue eyes of hers than he can see. What no one seems to realize is that she's always paying attention. She listens to you when you talk instead of waiting impatiently for her own turn to hold forth. She sees what's going on at the periphery of things, the whispers and shadows and pale might-bes that most of us only come upon in dreams.
The first time I see her, I can't look away from her.
The first time I see her, she won't even look at me — probably because of the company I'm keeping. I stand at the far end of the club, wineglass in hand, no longer paying attention to the retro-Beat standing on the stage declaiming her verses in a voice that's suddenly strident where earlier I thought it was bold. I'm not the only one Saskia distracts from the reading. She's pretty and blonde with a figure that holds your gaze even when you're trying to be polite and look away.
"Silicone," Jenny informs me. "Even her lips. And besides, her forehead's way too high. Or maybe it's just that her head's too long."
Aaran nods in agreement.
Nobody seems to like her. Men look at her, but they keep their distance. Women arch their eyebrows cattily and smile behind their hands as they whisper to each other about her. No one engages her in conversation. They treat her so strangely that I find myself studying her even more closely, wondering what it is that I'm missing. She seems so normal. Attractive, yes, but then there are any number of attractive women in the room and none of them is being ostracized. If she's had implants, she's not the first to do so, and neither that nor the size of her forehead — which I don't think is too large at all — seems to have any bearing on the reaction she seems to garner.
"She's a poseur," Aaran tries to explain. "A pretender."
"Of what?" I ask.
"Of everything. Nothing about her is the way it seems. She's supposed to be a poet. Supposed to be published, but have you ever heard of her?"
I shake my head, but what Aaran is saying doesn't mean much in this context. There are any number of fine writers that I've never heard of and — judging from what I know of Aaran's actual reading habits — the figure is even more dramatic for him.
"And then there's the way she leads you on," he goes on. "Leaning close like you're the most important person in the world, but turning a cold shoulder the moment any sort of intimacy arises."
So she turned you down? I want to ask, but I keep the question to myself, waiting for him to explain what he means.
"She's just so full of herself," Jenny says when Aaran falls silent. "The way she dresses, the way she looks down at everybody."
Saskia is wearing faded jeans, black combat boots, a short white cotton blouse that leaves a few inches of her midriff bare, and a plaid vest. Her only jewelry is a small silver Celtic cross that hangs from a chain at the base of her throat. I look at my companions, both of them overdressed in comparison. Jenny in silk blouse and skirt, heels, a clutch purse, hair piled up at the back of her head in a loose bun. Nose ring, bracelets, two earrings per ear, a ring for almost every finger. Aaran in chinos and a dark sports jacket over a white shirt, goatee, hair short on top and sides, pulled into a tiny ponytail in back. One ear double-pierced like Jenny's, the other virgin. Pinky ring on each hand.
I didn't come with either of them. Aaran's the book editor for The Daily Journal and Jenny's a feature writer for In the City, Newford's little too-cool-to-not-be-hip weekly arts-and-entertainment paper. They have many of the personality traits they attribute to Saskia and the only reason I'm standing here with them is that it's impolitic for a writer to make enemies with the press. I don't seek out their company — frankly, I don't care at all for their company — but I try to make nice when it's unavoidable. It drives my brother Geordie crazy that I can do this. But maybe that's why I can make a comfortable living, following my muse, while all too often he still has to busk on the streets to make his rent. It's not that I don't have convictions, or that I won't defend them. I save my battles for things that have meaning instead of tilting at every mild irritation that comes my way. You can fritter away your whole life with those kinds of windmills.
"So no one likes her?" I ask my companions.
"Why should they?" Jenny replies. "I mean, beyond the obvious, and that's got to wear thin once she opens her mouth."
I don't know what to reply to that, so I say, "I wonder why she comes around, then."
"Why don't you ask her yourself?" Aaran says with the same little smirk I see in too many of his reviews.
I'm thinking of doing just that, but when I look back across the club, she's no longer there. So I return my attention to the woman on the stage. She's onto a new poem now, one in which she dreams about a butcher's shop and I'm not sure if she really does, or if it's supposed to be a metaphor. Truth is, I'm not really listening to her anymore. Instead I'm thinking of Saskia and the way Aaran and Jenny have been sneering at her — physically and verbally — from the moment she walked in. I'm thinking that anyone who can call up such animosity from these two has got to have something going for her.
The poet on stage dreams of cleavers and government-approved steaks. That night I dream of Saskia and when I wake up in the morning the events of last night's reading in the club and my dream are all mixed up together. It takes the first coffee of the morning for me to sort them all out.
I have a friend who owns a bookstore just outside of the city and knows everything you'd ever want to know about literature, high- brow and low. She's the one who first turned me onto Michael Hannan and Jeanette Winterson. The first time I read Barry Lopez was because Holly sent me a copy of River Notes. We don't get together as much as either of us would like, but we've been corresponding for years — most lately by e-mail — and talk on the phone at least once a week. She's in love with books, and knows how to share that love so that when she tells you about a certain writer or book's merit, you immediately want to read it for yourself. More importantly, she's usually dead on the money. Holly's the only reason I still look at the Saturday book pages in The Daily Journal since Aaran took them over.
With her expertise in mind, I call Holly up after breakfast to see if she knows anything about Saskia and her poetry.
"What's her last name?" Holly asks.
I can picture her sitting at the big old rolltop desk that doubles as a sales counter in her store, a small figure in jeans and a sweater, long, dark red hair pulled back from her forehead with a pair of bobby pins, hazel eyes always bright with interest. You could come in looking for Les Misérables or a nurse romance and she'd treat you with the same courtesy and respect. The store is crammed with books, literally, floor to ceiling. They gather like driftwood in tall stacks at the ends of bookcases, all around and upon her desk, in boxes and bags, filling the front window display except for the small cleared area where her Jack Russell terrier, Snippet, lies watching the street when she's not ensconced on Holly's lap. The sign painted onto the window, Gothic lettering, paint flaking, simply reads, HOLLY RUE, USED BOOKS.
I think about what she's just asked me and realize I don't know.
"Well, Saskia's unusual enough," Holly tells me. "Hang on while I go online."
Holly and some friends have been creating this huge database they call the Wordwood somewhere out in the Net, assuring themselves that the Information Highway will remember the old technologies — books and printing presses were marvels of technological import in their day, after all — at the same time as it embraces the new. I don't know how many of them are involved in the project, but they've been working on it for years. The Net connects them from every part of the world, each participant adding book titles, authors, bios, publishing histories, reviews, cross-references and whatever else they might think is pertinent to this amazing forest of information they've cultivated.
I tried logging on once when I was out visiting Holly and lost an afternoon glued to the screen, following some arcane trail that started with a short story by Sherman Alexie that I was trying to track down and ended up in a thicket of dissertations on Shakespeare's identity. Holly laughed at me when I finally came up for air. "The Wordwood's like that," she tells me. "One of these days I'm going to go in there and forget to come back." The way she talks about the place it's as though she actually visits it.
"Got something," she tells me. "Her last name's Madding, but she only uses her given name for a byline. We've got three titles listed — hey, wait a minute. I think I have one of these." I hear her get up from her chair and go looking for it, roam-phone in hand, because she's still talking to me. "Yeah, here it is. It's called Mirrors and it's her, let me see, second collection." More shuffling noises as she makes her way back to the desk and looks through the book. "You want me to read one to you? They're all pretty short."
"Okay. Here, I'll just do the first one, 'Tarot.'"
What she said:
You turn from me
as I turn
from the cards
refusing to face
what we see.
Holly's got this amazing speaking voice, rough and resonant, like it's been strained through years of whiskey and cigarettes, though she doesn't smoke or drink. It gives the poem an edge that I'm not sure would be there if I'd just taken the words from the page.
"Nice," I say. "It sneaks up on you, doesn't it?"
"Mmm. There's a lot of sadness in those few lines. Oh, this is cool."
The word's just come back in fashion, but Holly never gave it up. She's been known to say "far out" as well.
"What's that?" I ask.
"I was looking back at the Wordwood and I see she's involved with Street Times. She does some editorial work for them."
That is interesting. Street Times is a thin little paper produced for street people to sell in lieu of asking for spare change. You see them selling it on half the corners downtown. The vendors pay something like fifty cents an issue and whatever you give them above that is what they earn. Most of the material is produced by the street people themselves — little articles, cartoons, photographs, free classifieds. Every issue they run a profile of one of the vendors, seriously heartbreaking stories. Jilly and some of her friends do free art for it occasionally and I remember Geordie played at a benefit to raise the money to set the whole thing up a couple of years ago.
"I wonder who entered this stuff on her," Holly asks.
The question's rhetorical. Considering how many people are involved in building and maintaining the Wordwood, it could be anybody.
"So you want me to keep this book for you?" she goes on.
I'm too intrigued to even ask the price.
"Should I put it in the mail or are you actually going to visit me for a change? It's been months."
"Five weeks, if you're counting," I say.
"I'll be by later today if I can catch a ride with someone."
"There are buses that come out this far," she says with a smile in her voice.
"If you don't mind walking the last couple of miles."
"That's right, I forgot. You're an artiste and need to be chauffeured. So is she cute?"
Sometimes Holly's abrupt changes of topic throw me. You'd think I'd get used to it, hanging around with Jilly who can be worse, but I never do. Conversations between her and Holly are bewildering for common folk to follow.
"What do you mean, cute?" I ask.
"Oh, come on. You're calling up, looking for books by someone whose last name you don't even know and then — and this is the real giveaway — you don't even ask how much the book is. She's got to be cute."
"Maybe I'm just stimulated by her, intellectually."
I can almost see her shake her head. "Uh-uh. It's a guy thing, Christy. I know I've called you an honorary woman in the past, but you're still a guy. A single guy, yet."
So I tell her about last night.
It starts with a heartbeat, rhythm laid down, one-two, one-two, deep in your chest. It's not the pulse of everyday life but something that runs more profound, a dreaming cadence, a secret drumming that you can't share at first, not with anyone and especially not with her. The melody and chordal patterns might come later, when you've first made contact, when you discover that you haven't made an utter fool of yourself and she might actually reciprocate what you feel, adding her own harmonies to the score tattooed across your heart.
For now, all you can do is repeat her name like a mantra.
Saskia Madding. Saskia Madding. Saskia ...
For now, it's all unrequited. New Age washes of sound when you think of her, great swelling chords if you happen to catch her going about her business. There, across the street, walking briskly in a light rain, skin glistening, hair feathered with moisture. There, squeezing melons at a fruit vendor's stall, laughing at something the man's said, standing with one hip jutted out, leaning over the front of the stall. There, leafing through a magazine in a smoke shop, a brief glimpse of her on the other side of the glass before you force yourself to walk by.
The music thunders in your chest. Nothing with structure. Nothing that can be transcribed or scored. But it leaves you helpless before its tumultuous presence, desperate to breathe.
I've read Mirrors a half-dozen times since Sue drove me by Holly's to pick it up. I've got Holly doing book searches for the other two collections. I've been by Angel's walk-in on Grasso Street and gone through her back issues of Street Times. I've even got my own modem hooked up — the one the professor gave me that's been languishing unused in a drawer of my desk for the past few months — entering the Wordwood myself to see if I can find some trace of her that Holly might have missed. A bio. A review. Anything.
In short, I've become obsessed with Saskia Madding.
Excerpted from Moonlight and Vines by Charles de Lint, Terri Windling. Copyright © 1999 Charles de Lint. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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