WE PAY A TITHE TO HELL
"and pleasant is the fairy land,
but an eerie tale to tell,
and at the end of seven years,
we pay a tithe to hell,
I am so fair and full of flesh,
I fear it be myself."
- Tam Lin
i. – and out then came the fair janet
It is a very long time ago, and she is telling him about stories. He is sitting on the edge of his desk, amidst the papers, which don't seem to matter very terribly any more. He thinks vaguely that it's gotten dark and he's forgotten to turn on the lights, but he doesn't get up. (Something is going to break, he thinks, if the lights go on.) He watches her hands. They are thin and pale in the long shadows of the hotel, and the way they move, the rhythm of them as she speaks: he thinks this girl is stitching the world together.
When I was in Pylea, she tells him, I used to play music in my head. Trying to stay, you know, human.
Yes, he says. He wants to touch her, to take hold of her hand.
Bach, she says. And the Beatles. And, um. She looks at him sideways. Kate Bush.
He raises his eyebrows, and she laughs, and he watches the corners of her laughing mouth, her eyes.
And I liked ballads, she says, when they've sobered. Because they're stories. And they end the way they ought to, even when it's sad. But I didn't remember a lot, really. And they got blanks in them where I forgot things. Tam Lin was my favourite, though. You know, because of Janet.
Girl hero saves the man she loves, she says, and grins suddenly. She holds onto him and doesn't let go until he's safe.
He tells her, You're safe now, Fred.
She says, I know.
There, in the dim hallway of the Hyperion, sitting on the desk, he wants to kiss her eyes, her long hands, her mouth. He watches her a long, long time, but he does not kiss her.
He wonders, later, how the world might have flowed differently if he had.
ii. – he's taken her by the milk-white hand
It is two years later, and she kisses him. Yes, he thinks, oh yes, this girl is stitching the world together with her capable hands. In his head rings the night he nearly kissed her, when she spoke of Tam Lin, and his Janet who held him until he was human again.
iii. and at the end of seven years we pay a tithe to hell
It is now, and she is dying.
This death is too soon; this death is much too soon; and it is forbidden, and it is not real, and the ones you love are always immortal, Wesley thinks as though he is gasping for air, even in this, their world of interminable peril.
He has only been given a week in which to love her as he has longed to do.
When he touches her skin it is hard as bone.
Every time he walks past a clock he can hear it ticking ticking ticking. He wants to wrench them from the walls and onto the floor until they are quiet. His books won't tell him how to stop time. His books won't tell him how to stop time for her.
(Ticking ticking ticking.)
They have gone to the end of the world to fetch a cure, but his bones are telling him that it is much too late. Wind howls in his ears. Somewhere a thousand clocks are ticking like ritual drums. Her hands are cold as granite. Her mouth trembles when he kisses her. He does not want her to see that his hands tremble too. Stop time stop time stop time –
They are in her bedroom. The air tingles like the onset of a thunderstorm. Read to me, she says.
Can that be any book in the world?
Name one, he says.
He reads until his voice closes in on itself. In every word hums a tiny eternity. Oh stay stay stay; stop time stop time stop time stop stop hush –
When he can no longer read, he gathers her in his arms (she fits just so against him as though they are hands clasping) and sings. His voice is not steady.
just at the mirk and midnight hour
the fairy folk will ride
and they that would their true love win
at Miles Cross they must bide
Tears are hot on his skin and he does not know whose they are. She is turning to stone in his arms and no matter how tightly he holds her he cannot save her.
and then I'll be your ain true love
I'll turn a naked knight
then cover me in your mantle of green
and keep me out of sight
(time stop stop stop stop oh stop time)
He kisses her mouth as though by this he can hold her together.
(ticking ticking ticking.
but hold me fast and fear not.)
And the Faerie Queen rises from her skin with a thundering blue stillness. Every clock inside of him stalls and stops. The tithe is paid, and his love is gone.
out then spoke the queen of faeries
and an angry queen was she
"woe betide her ill-fared face
and an ill death may she die
for she's taken away the bonniest knight
in all my company."