The Grey City VI

Tuesday June 08, 2004 @ 12:18 PM (UTC)

The Grey City I
The Grey City II
The Grey City III
The Grey City IV
The Grey City V

Hucklebush Street led them away from the high (to their eyes) brick and half-timbered houses, and wound between small, humble houses in various shades of light-starved grey, shabby or lovingly kept by turns. They were in a district now which was too hilly, too poor, or too far from the water to have been much noticed by the hungry city, and it retained its small houses and little gardens as if it were still the meager partition between city and country, instead of a mote of land forgotten or scorned by the buyers, builders, and businessmen of the City.

Eirian liked it, Carys could tell. She held less tightly to her sister’s arm, and occasionally made a dart at a closing flower, before dutifully taking her place at Carys’s side and leaving the gardens unmolested. No one was out in such a sleepy place at night — or almost no one. As they turned a broad curve in the cobbled road and struggled upwards on the slick stones, they saw a very small, upright figure pacing towards them. By the skirts, it was a woman, though her face was too shadowed to tell much more, and Carys hastened to smooth down her light brown hair and compose herself to ask directions.

The figure came forward, taking no notice of the girls as yet, with an even, brisk pace that the questing, frisking, sniffing terrier she walked was hard put to match. She wore narrow, grey skirts of a simple cut, and an old but well-kept greatcoat made for a short man. Her curious ensemble was finished off with a knit tam of an almost shocking turquoise, which was centered on her grey head and cast her wrinkled face into darkness when she passed under the occasional streetlamp.

She drew near, the terrier in ecstasies over the excitement of new people and its driver oblivious to ecstasies and people alike. Carys cleared her throat to greet the old woman, but as a flash of lamplight sketched the tight, forbidding lines of her mouth, she shrank back, and passed her without a sound, pulling Eirian along despite her murmurs of admiration for the dog. She shivered, and shook her head at Eirian’s questions and protests. They walked on, and a clock in one of the sprucer houses rang a tinny and faltering ten.

Carys looked ahead and saw, as the shreds of fog blew in the mounting wind, another figure on the verge of the cobbles ahead. This area had no sidewalks, and the person moved back and forth, onto the road and back off of it, rushing and pausing and wandering in a most alarming manner. Carys hesitated, but it was this side of the street that boasted the occasional lamp, and so she continued cautiously.

As they neared the shape, Carys saw it was an old woman, hunched and muttering, pulling a shabby greatcoat ’round her. A bright wool cap hung loosely from her head, and she listed in one way, then another like a bit of cottonwood fluff on the wind. Carys was startled and frightened. What could have transformed the harsh old woman she had seen into this pathetic figure? And how could she be before them when she had passed so briskly in the other direction? Motioning Eirian to stay, she crept forward.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” she murmured, “may I —”

The old woman shrieked in alarm, cloudy blue eyes focusing on her. “Oh no! I mustn’t, I mustn’t, go away!”

“Ma’am,” said Carys in very real concern, “I mean you no harm, but you appear to be in some distress. What has befallen you?”

“Oooooh, nothing, nothing,” shook the woman, glancing from side to side, “I just thought to sought Ferdie, only little Ferdie, that I took away. He was mine before, you know! But I mustn’t talk to you, I mustn’t talk to anyone,” she stared at Carys with fear fading her whimsical, twisted smile, “or I’ll know, and I won’t have it! It’s never happened, I’ve never dared, and I don’t know what I’ll do if I talk — oh no! I’m doing it, aren’t I! We’re having a conversation, and I’ll be sure to find out!”

Carys, shaken, assured the terrified old woman that they were having no conversation at all. “I am only seeking help in interpreting this direction,” she said, producing the envelope with some trepidation. “Does this read, ‘Hucklebush’?”

The old woman frowned and snatched, and drew the paper close to and far from her eyes, as if all her motions naturally assumed the oscillations of some inner tide. “It’s…hmmm. There’s a number here, and some letters, and I would know, I’m much better at all this, I know everything,” she said with an odd gulp, looking away from the paper.

Carys complimented her on this extraordinary feat of knowledge, and asked about the envelope.

“Oh! Yes, er, uh, no, it’s not Hucklebush — this is Hucklebush Hill, you know, was long ago, before it was City. There were huckleberries when I was small, before I came, and they were tart and — oh yes, the letters. They’re very faint, aren’t they, and they swim — Ferdie can swim, he’s very clever, though not so clever as me, but much more comfortable. Oh, yes,” she said, her focus following the swaying scrap, “Hardock. Hardock Street.” She returned the envelope to Carys’s hand with an air of accomplishment. “Haven’t you a place to sleep, little ones? I’d let you, but I wouldn’t have it, and though there is a very nice lilac that I slept under when I was your age, I would know about it and I wouldn’t know what I’d do. I’d know perhaps, if I didn’t know Ferdie can’t be set on anything but squirrels.” She shuddered, and her eyes rolled around again, searching the edges of vision. “Now go, you little squirrels, go and hide, find somewhere, I’m coming, I’m sure, I feel it, now run! Run! Or I’ll see you, and I’ll pay for it!”

Her wild manner quite alarmed the children, and Carys leapt for Eirian’s hand, pulling her into a clumsy half-trot up the slick street almost as quickly as the old woman ran for her own tidy picket gate and galloped up the stairs of the little violet-grey house. As they ran, Eirian looked over her shoulder and saw a straight, dark figure hastening up the hill towards the house, breaking the last remnants of fog as if she were a night wind.

The Grey City VII


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