PodCastle 350: Who Binds and Looses the World With Her Hands
Who Binds and Looses the World With Her Hands
by Rachael K. Jones
On days when Selene locked me in the lighthouse, an old familiar darkness would well up within me, itching my skin like it had shrunk too tight to contain my anger any longer. I had grown accustomed to the rage’s ebb and flow, sometimes bubbling near the surface, sometimes dormant as a seed awaiting the right time to break open. But it always rose to high tide on my days of confinement.
I knew better than to complain to Selene. I often watched from the windows of the lanthorn, the little room which housed the lighthouse’s beacon, when the merchants made landfall. From my distant perch, I could just make out Selene, resplendent in dyed blue wool, hands spinning impossibly fast in the bewildered men’s faces. Out beyond the dock, two green arms of land reached toward our island home in an incomplete embrace. That was the Mainland, where sorcerers lived. Long ago, it was sorcerers who built our lighthouse in the stone branches of the ancient petrified tree.
Do not talk to the Mainlanders, Selene always warned, hurrying me up the stone steps which spiraled inside the tree’s heart. She would repeat the warning later at night, when we watched the beacon flash round and round through the window over our bed. I would nestle against her chest, and her hands would dance out tales about sailors, how their days at sea would drive them so mad with lust they would seize any woman when they made landfall. I am sorry to hide you, she would say. I do not want to lose you. The apology mollified the darkness inside me, but never quelled it completely.
I first found the stranger by blind luck, while herding my sheep along the shoreline at dusk. He had washed up on the leaf-shaped stones which littered the island, his sloop dashed to splinters on the rocks. We never expected visitors this late in the season. The shipping traffic had already dried up before the winter storms, and anyway, except for the rare merchant, no-one visited Corail Island on purpose.
He stank of kelp and wet wool. He looked so ugly I almost left him for the gulls. It had been years since I had seen a man up close, not since the old lighthouse keeper died. His beard revolted me. His chest rose and fell unsteadily, but he did not respond to my signs or prodding. I supposed he was a hearing man.
Selene found me crouched on the rocks beside my catch, trying to wake him. What is this? she said, her signs formed around the jar of oil in her left hand. Why did you not fetch me immediately? She knelt and checked his breath, and her expression soured. Give me your shears.
I hesitated. She had an evil look in her eye. Why?
So I can finish what the ocean failed to do.
Selene! Horrified, I touched the shears in my apron pocket and took a step back.
She flashed a devilish grin, the dangerous spark subsumed by playfulness. My Love, she signed, stroking my chin, I am only teasing. I just want to cut off his beard.
I questioned whether it had been a joke. I could never be sure with Selene. You might offend him, I said.
We cannot read lips through all that hair. The shears, please.
She set to work shaving him, mounding hair like limp, gray seaweed on the rocks for the gulls like limp. I worried what the stranger might think when he awoke, but then again, I had never seen Selene ask permission for anything.
I do not remember a time in my life before Selene.
This is my history as she told it: for her tenth birthday, her father the lighthouse keeper bade her name a present. She asked for a playmate, a girl, Deaf like herself, so the old man went ashore and found me.
I don’t recall the Mainland, not mother nor sibling nor beast nor town. I remember only the island, the great petrified lighthouse-tree, and Selene. In my earliest impression, I see her climbing barefoot on the twisting stone roots that flowed skirt-like downhill to the island’s every part, her long dark hair floating, hair I brushed each morning with a golden comb, picking through the knots with patient fingers. When she brushed my hair in turn, she would yank the comb downward, oblivious to tangles, until my scalp stung and my eyes watered.
On that first day, Selene said, she seized my hand and claimed me for her own, naming me Girl, which looks like this: thumb stroking the cheek downward from ear to chin, which resembles the sign for long-suffering.
My name, though, is Doriane. I know it, just as I know the pulsing tide of darkness in my heart. It is the only memory left of the time before Selene.
I couldn’t help but love Selene. Her name-sign was a closed fist for S against the chest. When swung like a punch, this sign also means rebellious. When she reached the age to marry, her father again told her to name her heart’s desire, and instead of a man, she demanded me, running her own thumb down my jaw so tenderly it made me shiver. For I couldn’t help but love her. I had no one else. No one on the island but her, me, and the old man until his death. No one to speak to but Selene, my all, my world, my lover, my wife.
And my captor.
Thump, thump, thump went the treadle on the floor when I did my spinning. I did not hear it so much as feel it in my skull. Thump, thump, thump–and our little cabin’s petrified walls pulsed like a heartbeat. Heart, said my hands to the tuft of wool, finger pinched to thumb in a sign that could also mean lucky. As I spun, I pictured warm things. My sheep tearing at the coarse shrubs growing in the petrified roots. The golden beacon refracting from the lens in the lanthorn. Selene curled against me in the winter, gentled by sleep, soft and strong like new yarn wound round and round the bobbin.
I was spinning when the stranger awoke and raked fingers through the stubble on his face. If he swore about his missing beard or attempted to question me, I did not catch it. My eyes focused on the fibrous cloud thinning and stretching into yarn Selene would use to run lines between the cabin and lighthouse, a web to guide her through the winter storms.
From the bed, the stranger stared at me with hungry dark eyes beneath heavy lids. He stared when I rose for water. He stared when I wound the new yarn on the bobbin. He stared like a heron hovering over waters pregnant with fish. His lips moved, but I did not catch the words.
He is a sorcerer, Selene announced as we polished smoke from the lantern panels the next morning. Wicked beasts, sorcerers. My father and I used to see them on the Mainland, always with an ensnared slave in tow. They can do that, you know: enslave you, bind your mind, if you let them talk.
How do you know he is a sorcerer? I asked.
Selene draped her polishing cloth over the window sill, where the wind off the sea set it aflutter. I saw him pull water from the air today. His cup was empty, and then I saw him drink from it moments later. He thinks we don’t notice, but Deaf people see everything. She cut her eyes toward me on the last word.
I suppressed a shiver and smoothed the worry from my features. He is our guest, I reminded her. Sorcerer or no, we cannot harm someone we have taken into our care.
Just don’t speak to him, she said, and because she was mostly in a good mood today, she pulled me close and kissed me, combed fingers through my long black hair, teasing out the tangles, only pulling a little.
Later, in the cabin, I found a folded paper beneath my basket of carded wool. From the bed, the stranger lifted an imperious eyebrow at me. He cocked his head toward Selene. I read a word on his lips: Secret. I slipped the paper beneath the batting and, remembering my sheep, made my face dumb.
Since the season for storms drew near, Selene departed the next morning to string the web which served as a guide up the path to the lighthouse all winter. The moment she left, I sat down at the spindle and read the stranger’s note: We are in great danger. The other woman is a powerful sorcerer. Help me, and together we will escape to the Mainland.
I caught the man’s eye, and he struggled to stand. We have to go at once, he mouthed, and with a finger he forced my chin upwards so I gazed into his fearful eyes. Now, quickly, while the sorcerer– Words tumbled from his lips so fast I lost the speech’s thread, though not the tenor. I had never seen such terror before.
I waved for him to stop. I covered my ears and my mouth, and shook my head. The stranger paused, nodded. From a fold in his sweater, he produced a black-streaked glass pen and a bottle of black ink, objects I did not recognize. They certainly had not been in his possession when we carried him from the shore.
I accepted the pen and wrote, Where did you get these?
His neck craned to watch the door so his scrawl went crooked down the page. I made them. He pointed toward the fireplace. Paper drawn from wood. Ink drawn from soot. Glass drawn from the sand that blows from the shore.
Surprised, I threw down the sorcerous pen as if it were a viper. It shattered into three pieces against the stone floor. The stranger collected them, held them close to moving lips, and they became whole again.
You really are a sorcerer, I wrote, my script shaky.
So is the other woman, the one who has enslaved you. I will explain it on the way, but we should go. Now! He yanked my arm, stepping toward the doorway. I planted my feet and threw my weight against him, and my leverage sent the frail old man tumbling to his knees.
I grabbed the pen and wrote. She hasn’t enslaved me. She is my wife.
The old man stole another glance toward the door. His shoulders sagged. He wrote until he covered half the sheet with fine scrawl. Think about it. You know the truth. I have watched you both. She gives orders, and you obey. She is cruel to you, and you accept her abuse. I saw you last night preparing dinner. I could not follow your hand-language, but she pressed your arm against the hot kettle. And you smiled. You smiled at her, though you were in pain. You fear her.
I rubbed the pink weal on my wrist. It had already begun to heal, but the sight made the darkness surge inside me. With an effort, I forced it down again. She just has a temper, I wrote. But she loves me. She doesn’t mean to be cruel.
He appraised me, a lean and hungry look. He scrawled again, Did you know the sailors have a superstition about this place? That they avoid it at all costs? This island was built as a prison, and that woman is the prisoner. She has enthralled you too. I will free you, if you will help me.
You’re wrong, I answered. I have known her my whole life. I would know.
Have you ever been off the island? he asked.
Of course. I was born on the Mainland.
But do you remember it?
I bit my lip. I recalled the long days locked inside the lighthouse at her insistence. Selene said it was for my own protection. You’re wrong, I wrote again. I slammed the pen on the stone floor, nevermind the shards, and stormed out of the cabin to find my wife.
On the twisting path that climbed up to the lighthouse, Selene navigated the gray petrified tree roots, winding the yarn between them. From a distance she resembled a spider in a huge blue web. I rubbed the pink burn on my wrist. How I loved her and feared her. She paused from her labor, wiped her face, and cast a look downhill, caught me staring. Grinned, waved, and name-signed, Girl!
I returned the wave. I could not recall the last time she had called me by my real name, Doriane. Perhaps she never had.
Overhead a seagull wheeled and flew off toward the bay, toward Mainland, and all at once my skin felt constricting, the air thick and oppressive.
Perhaps I really was enslaved.
The sorcerer waited for me at the cabin’s door, lips drawn in a wolfish sneer. He had already repaired the glass pen. I stretched out my hand for it and wrote. What must we do to escape?
I will teach you sorcery so you may cast the spell to break her hold.
Fine, I said, but you mustn’t harm Selene. I still loved her, after all.
Fair enough. But you may feel differently when your soul is free. Now pay close attention.
The sorcerer snapped the glass pen in half.
Sorcery is a force that gives form to substances, he said. It presses meat into bone, squeezes rain from the air and stone from wood. All these things have a bound state, and a loose state. He indicated the petrified walls. Sorcery binds these wooden walls into a state of stone. Speak to the element to bind it. He whispered to the pen’s shards. The glass ran together like water, rejoining into one smooth piece. This can be reversed too, he said, and his lips moved again near the glass. At once it crumbled into black sand. He spoke a third time, drawing out the sand between long fingers, and it fused into the form of the pen. Binding and loosing. You try. He passed me the pen.
I don’t speak, I reminded him, touching my ear and mouth.
He pressed lips together, and his eyes darted toward the door again. He fetched a pillow from the bed and teased out a gray feather. Watch me, he said, then held the feather to his chin. Before his puckered lips, the down vibrated and swayed. He passed it to me. As you breathe out, shape the air with your lips.
I practiced under his instruction for a few minutes, and then he said, Next, you add vibration. He placed my hand on his throat, and it buzzed beneath my fingertips. I touched my own neck and imitated him until I felt my throat buzz. He reached for the pen, but before he could write, his eyes snapped toward the door, wrinkles flattening into a mask of terror.
Selene stood in the doorway, face flushed and chest heaving.
She beat me, of course, her cheerful mood evaporated. Do not talk to the Mainlanders, she said, and her fists resembled her name-sign. Selene said the blow to my jaw. Selene, Selene on each ear. Selene, I tried to sign back, but she would have none of it in her rage. She pulled my hair and kicked at my ribs when I knelt at her feet. She beat my ears the worst, and when I cast myself toward the sorcerer, he turned away, brushing black sand from his palms.
She locked me in the lanthorn as punishment. I tried not to touch my raw, swollen face as I curled on the floor, doubly imprisoned, as if I could run anywhere but home. I fought with the darkness inside me, struggled to master it, but with each hour of my confinement it swelled, gained momentum.
That night, she had pity enough to bring me my drop-spindle and distaff so I might occupy myself with spinning. I watched the lantern rotate and the lens flash its warning from my small prison. The spindle whirled like the lantern in miniature. The fibers stretched between my fingers. Heart, they groaned, for my knuckles were scratched and swollen from defending my face. I touched my bruised throat and it vibrated with sobs that shook my shoulders.
What is the distance between love and hate? No more than a finger’s width.
The darkness flared. My hands on the yarn shifted. Now, index finger to thumb, they said puppet, which with a different movement can also mean detach. Sorcery is binding and loosing.
Sustained by darkness, I spun late into the night, fingers shuddering, mind afire. The wind from the window made me shake and gutter like a flame with no glass to protect it.
By the time Selene forgave me, the storms were upon us. Winter on Corail Island is like this: the sea rises and grabs the rocks. It rolls all the way up to our doorstep, and Selene must wade up the path to the lighthouse, clinging to the webbing between the great petrified roots so that she will not be swept out to sea. The sheep we gather into their fold, and feed them from stocks stored against the lean months. Selene occasionally slaughters one for the fresh mutton. She always makes me select the one to die.
When I returned to the cabin, the sorcerer had been relegated to a mat near the fire, feet and hands hobbled by ropes. Selene wanted to kill him, but there were things even she feared, and the laws of hospitality did not yield lightly. Once taken under our roof, we were beholden to him until Spring. It did not mean, though, that Selene would permit him to leave the island alive.
I forgive you, Selene said when she brought me down from the lighthouse. You are too trusting, my Love. He tried to enslave you, to turn you against me. Do you believe me now? You cannot trust sorcerers.
I wanted to believe her, but my half-healed cuts ached, and I no longer knew who to trust. I wanted to speak to the sorcerer about it. I often caught him picking through the woodpile and the sand on the floor. In the mornings I sometimes awoke to his eyes fixed upon my face, his lips moving, and I felt the hateful old darkness stirring within like a slumbering dragon rousing in its hoard. The sensation thrilled me, but I distrusted it. Perhaps the enthralled always experienced their binding as a sense of freedom.
Do not talk to him, Selene warned me whenever my gaze strayed toward the fire. Now that her temper had passed, she wrapped me in her arms at night, and I did my best to ignore the old yellow bruises on her hands that bore witness to her violence. When she fell asleep, I would roll toward the wall, and in the darkness make my throat vibrate under my fingers and watch wisps of my hair flutter in the unheard sounds.
Be careful, I told Selene, wrapping her in a heavy blue mantle as she prepared to brave the storm.
She stroked my cheek with a thumb–Girl, it said–and kissed me. I will be back in an hour. Storms meant shipwrecks. Storms meant Selene must tend the lighthouse all night long, following the ropes laid like highways from the cabin to the tree, through black ice and bracing cold and beating rains that blinded her.
Selene pushed against the wind, a hand on the guiding rope anchored to the front door as the dark swallowed up her steady, retreating steps. The frozen air assaulted me, and the heat pulled me from behind, and then the sorcerer appeared at my elbow, wearing his broken bindings slung over one shoulder. Sorcery is binding and loosing, I remembered. Selene’s knots had never really restrained him.
Now is the time, he mouthed. Cut the rope and lock the door and be rid of her. He reached for the anchor line, a black glass knife in hand.
No! I shouldered my way between him and the door. It was not supposed to be like this. He had promised. The sorcerer seized my shoulders. He had gained weight during imprisonment, and I could no longer tip him to the floor with a little leverage. We struggled for dominance, and the wind from the open door fought for possession of my body. He slashed at the anchor rope. I threw my shoulder into his stomach. The glass knife sunk into my arm, and pain exploded in my brain. Suddenly woozy, I went limp. He dragged me inside. I scrabbled at the floor, punched at him, kicked. Selene! screamed my fists. Selene! Selene!
He wound my hands with cord from my spindle, knocking over the wheel without bothering to detach the distaff. Hands bound, I was muted. The wind beat the cabin, and answering from within my breast, shuddering sobs tumbled from my throat. The storm drummed against the stone like a woman’s fists against a locked door.
Pain kept me lucid. I forced myself to hold to the pain, and reviewed my predicament. The wound in my upper arm shrieked. My hands were bound together in a sign that meant slave. I twisted my wrists against the biting cord until I could touch my fingers to it. I signed to the strand, pressing it hard between cold fingers. Detach, I reminded it, shifting motions, detach. Sorcery is binding and loosing. Detach, detach! The ropes severed and slackened. Blood rushed into my aching hands. I lay still and scanned the cabin.
The fire had died to red embers, and shadows blanketed the corners. The severed bobbin lay by the door. My captor hunched by the fire, running his fingers through a sand-heap, shaping it into an enormous glass plate. Selene had not returned; perhaps she’d reached the lighthouse. I wanted her. I needed her. If I found her, I swore I would never disobey her again. Against my back, the storm’s vibrations faded from the stone wall. I commanded my throat silent.
Occasionally he sneered at me, each tooth gleaming in the yellow light. I remembered my sheep and made my face dumb like theirs. Passive, stoic, unthinking, like a good slave. Between my fingers, I pressed the cord’s broken ends together and signed heart, and then lucky. The ends joined, whole again. Slowly, so very slowly, I tied a loop, a lasso, a noose. Puppet, my fingers screamed for eyes that could read it, puppet, puppet, puppet!
Quickly now, before he could understand, before he could suspect, I rolled to my feet and charged. His head snapped toward me and he raised the glass thing at my approach–it resembled a great lens with keen edges. I flung my lasso over his neck, and hit the mark, and he was caught like a sheep. He sank to his knees, eyes wide with terror, hands clutching at the glass sheet so hard it sliced open his palms. Blood ran down his wrists. He couldn’t move. Puppet, I signed, victorious. My puppet! I laughed and laughed in his helpless face, the dark swelling up around me like great black wings.
Then I remembered Selene.
I found her frozen between the lighthouse and cabin when the dawn touched the horizon. The sorcerer had cut all the guidelines behind her while I lay bound. Around her shoulders she still wore the blue wool mantle I had woven for her. In death, she looked peaceful. I hated it. I wanted her mouth, her eyes, and most of all her hands. I wanted her hands around my waist at night. I wanted her fists to beat me. Mostly I wanted them to speak to me, but they were silenced now. I had no one left to speak with in the whole world. In her death, my hands too were muted, useless as shears missing a blade.
I turned to my Puppet, who trailed behind me up the path. Why? I demanded, grief-stricken. Why did you do this?
His elbows jerked upward, and before his horrified eyes, his hands danced out an answer. The lighthouse was built to warn people away from this place. Something older and more powerful than sorcery was imprisoned here, stripped of its power and bound into a different form, like the stone tree.
I know that already. You told me Selene was a sorcerer.
No. She was only your keeper, just like the lighthouse keepers before her. His eyes flashed and his hands danced faster. Any sorcerer who could control you would soon be the greatest of all sorcerers. He would have anything he wanted. None would dare oppose him, for fear of you.
No. This is a lie, I said, trembling, but the darkness inside my heart stirred again, lifted its head, sniffed the winds. I knew in my gut my Puppet could not lie to me. Why did you kill Selene? You could have just enslaved me and fled.
You and the lighthouse are bound with one spell, and you cannot leave until the spell breaks. The keeper was part of it. Her death is another broken link in the chain. Now you need only speak the right words, amplified with a lens, and you will be free.
I made my Puppet carry Selene back to the cabin and lay her by the fire while I began weaving her shroud. My heart contracted within me. I was being pinched, drawn out, twisted like fleece into something hard. All my fear had died with my Selene. Now all I had left was rage.
We wrapped her in the shroud in the morning. I hadn’t slept while weaving it. I needed no rest anymore. A darkness I could no longer master sustained me. Puppet tended the sheep and cooked the food, body obedient and eyes terrified. I knew what must be done next.
At dusk I placed her body on a great twisted root thrown up like an arch between the lighthouse and cabin. Two stone leaves held her eyelids closed. I placed the lens in her folded arms, pinning it to her breast.
Speech is sorcery, he had said. Sorcery is binding, and sorcery is loosing. I brought my hands down in a sign that meant fury doubled, and the glass shuddered, amplifying the magic like the lanthorn amplified light. A great wind kicked up beneath Selene’s body and shook the island down to its foundations. A cloud of dry brown leaves kicked up from the ground, flew out to sea where they crashed into the waves like the bodies of dead birds. Puppet sat down in surprise on the tree root, which rippled with colors as it crackled and unpetrified all along its length, running up the slopes to the lighthouse, where the great old tree unstiffened and swayed in the wind again. Free.
But it was still a dead tree. Sorcery could not bring it back, nor could it bring back Selene.
She looked so fragile in death. I wondered how I ever feared her. Only Selene ever restrained me, and she was gone.
I gave Puppet an axe and set him to chop the roots while I packed the things we would need from the cabin: some clothes, my drop-spindle and distaff, and Selene’s golden comb, which I wore in my hair. I released the sheep from their pen. Free, I signed to them, and for good measure, lucky.
Puppet waited for me at the dock in a boat he had magicked from a tree-root. I gave him the oars. I would see the world at last–the world Selene had shielded from me.
As I stepped into the boat, the darkness bloomed within me, my body a seed from which uncurled the first tentative shoot of a ravenous, strangling weed. I raised a hand and signed, Doriane. In the dusk, a thin line of smoke trailed from the lighthouse, and then suddenly the whole tree ignited.
Tonight, the Mainlanders would see a different beacon from Corail Island. Let them wonder. Let them fear.
My Puppet has gotten what he always wanted, although not in the way he wished. He is known far and wide as the greatest of sorcerers, who holds the Siren of Corail Island in thrall. Her voice, they say, drives men mad. Her singing, they say, lures sailors to their death on the rocks. Only the mighty sorcerer, the greatest of sorcerers, stands between the world and her fury.
Kings daren’t turn us away. Emperors hurry to appease us. When Puppet stands before the mighty, I sit on a stool beside him and work the drop-spindle and distaff. When he speaks, they listen, but always their eyes are upon me and my fingers, which flick and twist in weird patterns they do not comprehend. They cannot understand the words, but my spells work all the same.
They think they are safe because I do not speak. They think, in my silence, I do not control each and every one of them like so many puppets dangling on so many nooses cinched about their throats.
Oh, but they are wrong. They are so wrong about me. It is not my voice they should fear, but my name, which they will read at last on my dancing fingers when all the threads go taut.
Rated R. Contains some violence and disturbing imagery.
About the Author
Rachael K. Jones
Rachael K. Jones grew up in various cities across Europe and North America, picked up (and mostly forgot) six languages, and acquired several degrees in the arts and sciences. Now she writes speculative fiction in Portland, Oregon. Her debut novella, Every River Runs to Salt, is available from Fireside Fiction. Contrary to the rumors, she is probably not a secret android. Rachael is a World Fantasy Award nominee and Tiptree Award honoree. Her fiction has appeared in dozens of venues worldwide, including Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and all four Escape Artists podcasts. Follow her on Twitter @RachaelKJones.
About the Narrator
Marguerite Croft lives by the ocean just south of San Francisco. She has read stories for Podcastle and Escape Pod, and provided the audio narration for Tim Pratt’s The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl. She makes regular appearances on the Point Mystic podcast where she is also a story developer and script editor.