READING: From Peter S. Beagle: Þe Folk of þe Air

She disrespected an African emperor of the 1300s!

I have been thinking for a while about why I nearly lost it at the “Decolonizing the Syllabus” zoom seminar <>.

I nearly lost it when the facilitator said, of the inhabitants of the medieval African city of Timbuktu, something like: they held learning so dear that, when attacked by a neighboring village, they would bury and hide their books before they went out to arm themselves. And I was outraged. I found myself, for the first time, understanding the person who was struck from the Martin Skrelli jury pool for saying that he could not give Skrelli a fair trial because he had “disrespected the Wu-Tang Clan”.

Medieval Timbuktu—it was not attacked by any “neighboring village”.

Its great Djinguereber Mosque is about the size of the Great Mosque of Cordoba, which had a six-figure population during at least some of the Middle Ages. Timbuktu’s population may also have reached, at some times, well into the six figures, supported by its great trades across the Sahara, up and down the Niger River, and down to the kingdoms of the Guinea coast: trades in gold and salt and ivory and wood and cottons and slaves and other commodities. And supported by its status as a center of learning and education as well: its libraries of hundreds of thousands of volumes, and its students in what were perhaps their tens of thousands. And its rulers may have been the richest princes in the world back before the industrial revolution.

Exactly how rich Kankan Musa 1280-1337, Emperor of Mali, was is unclear. His hajj to Mecca became the stuff of legend for centuries. He was certainly very, very rich in gold, and very very rich in his ability to command labor and craftwork. But, then, gold was worth little compared to, say, salt, at the southern edge of the Sahara. And—gold aside—the territories around the Niger River valley that he ruled are not overwhelmingly rich with natural resources.


But I have now, after some months, recognized and realized that it was not the disrespect to the medieval city of Timbuktu, the city of trade and learning; and it was not the disrespect of the Mali Empire, or of its emperor, Kankan Musa the historical personage, that caused me to almost lose it.

It was, after all, the disrespect I felt on behalf of the literary character Kankan Musa. For Kankan Musa is a character in a fantasy novel of Berkeley and of the Society for Creative Anachronism, Peter S. Beagle’s The Folk of the Air <>.

In the book, Musa—Moses—has been ensorcelled, brought from the 1300s to the late 1900s, and trapped in the body of contemporary Berkeley resident Rodney Micah Willows. The novel’s viewpoint character Joe Farrell, his SO Julie, and Sia who is… Sia… first encounter and then attempt to free him, and in the process summon the thousand-handed Japanese great kami of mercy Cannon, for “human beings everywhere need mercy most of all”. Here are the “Mansa Musa” pages from The Folk of the Air:

They heard the hoofbeats first, scraping deliberately on the courtyard stones, and then the voice…. Beside him Julie made a little sound like Sir Mordred when he bit himself for the first time. The black horseman was leaning over the hedge, looking straight down at them. When he smiled, the faint parallel ridges rose on his cheeks, like gill slits.

“My kingdom is four months’ journeying long and four months wide,” he said. “In my city, Timbuktu, which is the City of Wisdom, I have as many scribes and scholars as warriors and as many books as I have bars of gold. The throne where I give audience is of ebony, and great elephant tusks arch above my head. Three hundred slaves stand behind my throne. Before me and to my right there stands a giant holding a two-handed sword as big as a man, and to my left my spokesman waits with his mace of office to give my answers and my commands. To the end of my eyesight, the sun blazes off spears and trumpets, armor and jeweled trappings. And I sit in the center of the center of the world and I am not touched. Glorify the Compassionate, the Merciful. I am not touched.”

As far as could be seen, he was completely naked. “And that’s the other one,” Farrell managed to say. “Prester John.”

But Julie whispered another name and ran out of the maze, leaving him to trail after her once again. The big horse danced heavily away from her quickness, and the black man on his back seemed to be dancing with him as he brought the animal to an easy halt just out of Julie’s reach. Farrell heard her call the name again—“Micah”—but only the California surfing bird responded.

“Mansa Musa is not touched,” the black man chanted. Farrell saw now that he was wearing a pair of dark trousers, glinting and sliding with the moonlight, and nothing more. “In Cairo the Sultan called me his brother and desired to embrace me, as the men do there, but Allah put him away. I handle neither ivory nor gold nor salt, that they may not handle me. My wives come to me in darkness, that not so much as their shadows in the moon may touch my body. Only Allah touches Mansa Kankan Musa.”

“It’s me,” Julie said hopelessly. “Micah, it’s me.” A tower door opened and closed, sounding very far away, but the courtyard was suddenly crowded with the laughter of people starting home from a party. For a moment, the black man’s immense eyes were upon Farrell, brown as old rivers, deepmuddy with decaying secrets, and streaked by thin, luminous currents and the slow backs of crocodiles. Then he kicked bare heels into his mount’s thick sides, and the horse lumbered through a judicious U-turn and trotted away past the fishpond, under the spiteful faces of the entryway, and on out into the expensively quiet streets beyond. The clopping echoes bounced back and forth between the condominiums long after the man and the horse were out of sight.

Farrell drew Julie back into the maze, for privacy’s sake, and let her cry...


Farrell and Julie came home later than they had planned, singing old rhythm-and-blues songs together for the first time in a long while.

Parnell Street seemed curiously still, a night beach at low tide. The tall black man, swaying in the crosswalk where Farrell had first seen him, looked like a winter-whipped beach umbrella in his dirty striped djellaba. He would undoubtedly have fallen, even without the aid of the two shadows who were dragging him down, one almost swinging from his neck, the other kicking viciously at his legs. A car passed from the opposite direction, pulling carefully wide so as not to hit anyone.

Farrell stopped Madame Schumann-Heink where she was, and he and Julie grabbed whatever seemed appropriate on the way out of the bus. Micah Willows’ attackers looked up to see two improbable figures charging down upon them, cloaks flying, high boots rattling and snapping on the pavement, plumed hats half hiding lunatic faces, gauntleted hands waving tire irons and crescent wrenches. They had been having enough trouble with their victim’s African caftan, which tangled their own hands like seaweed, and it was all suddenly more than they cared to handle, just at the moment. Julie fired Farrell’s best lug wrench into the darkness after them, and he never found it again.

Micah Willows’ left cheek was scratched and bleeding, but he appeared unhurt otherwise. He lay on his back, not trying to get up, slapping the street with both hands in a slow, measured rhythm. Farrell assumed he was drunk as easily as the muggers had, but there was no smell of liquor on him. When Julie tried to lift his head, he rose suddenly on one elbow, grinning with terrible triumph, as if she had stumbled helplessly into his trap. “The hand that touches Mansa Musa,” he intoned ominously. Laughter kept him from completing the sentence. Waving his hand with a leisured, heedless regality, he flopped back on the sidewalk and lay snickering. “You are fucking doomed.” Julie said his name hopelessly, over and over.

“Can you stand up?” Farrell asked him. “See if you can get up, all right?” But he was a giggling dead weight, unresistingly impossible to lift and no more likely to stay upright than warm yogurt. Julie coaxed him and wept, and Farrell swore at them both, jealous of her concern and furious at his own jealousy. At one point, after the black man had collapsed for a third time, bringing Julie down hard enough to daze her momentarily, Farrell simply let go of him and walked away. He turned when Julie called to him, anticipating her protest. “I know, I know, we can’t just leave him. But he doesn’t want our help, the hell with him. I’m going to go call Triple-A or somebody.”

“Micah,” Julie urged, “is there someone you want us to call? Do you want a doctor, is there someone who’ll come and help you? Rodney Micah, damn it, tell us whom to call.”

Micah Willows lay on his side with his eyes closed, and Farrell thought that he had fallen asleep. But when Julie pushed his shoulder gently, he twisted and came to his feet in a movement like the slow flexing of water or the deep ripple of a hunting cat. The river-brown eyes had become windows onto a suffering that Farrell knew he had no words for, nor any right to see.

“Yoro Keita,” the black man whispered. “Yoro Keita, who commanded my horsemen. Samory, Askia al-Kati, Modibo Toure, who spoke for me and knew a little of my heart. Al-Haji Umar, who was not even of my people, but a Tukulor—oh, Al-Haji Umar!” The blank voice grew stronger, a thin, old, burning wind, shaking down the lost names. “Alf a Hassan ibn Mahmud, much learned in the law—Moussa the singer, Moussa the fool—Sheik Uthman ed-Dukkali, he who spoke to me of Mecca when I could not sleep—Sekou Diakite, Okoro my steward, who was a slave once and could play on the guimbri—Bakary of Walata, my good captain—Hamani, Kango, Sangoule the Mossi—” The names fell down around Farrell until he fancied that Julie and he stood halfburied in a ruffling drift of the carved and gleaming syllables, disappearing slowly into a king’s grief.

“These are my friends,” Micah Willows said. “These will come for me.”

Farrell thought he was going to fall again, but he stood still, eyes and mouth closed, his face entirely sealed shut, the ribbon-thin body in its torn robe swaying slightly from the waist up. Farrell said quietly, “Mansa Kankan Musa, sir. We’ll take you home if we can. Tell us where you want to go.”

At that, Micah Willows’ locked throat roiled and clicked for a moment; then there lunged out of it the sound that a tree makes, beginning to break in two—a fathomless, shuddering no. The black man began to cry out a single phrase, clenching his fists and laying his head further and further back, until Farrell could see the howl clawing through him, trying to tear out at elbow joints, arteries, collarbones. “Lady help me, Lady help me, Lady help me!” The words were drowned so deep in rage and anguish that Farrell took them at first for Arabic. Micah Willows turned away from him and wandered slowly up the street, still calling and crying dreadfully, and now beating the heavy rhythm of his words out on his robed body, like any other haunted and helpless prophet.

Julie said, “Please.” Farrell went after Micah Willows and took him by the arm, turning him back toward Madame Schumann-Heink. With Julie’s help, he half towed, half carried him to the bus, shoved him into the passenger seat and locked the door. Julie climbed into the back and kneeled on the jump seat, holding Micah Willows’ shoulders. She asked, “Where are we going?”

“I only know one Lady,” Farrell said.

So they drove up through the low hills to Sia’s house with Micah Willows dozing between them, dreaming in Arabic, to judge by his occasional murmurings.

Farrell told Julie what he knew of Mansa Kankan Musa. “Emperor of Mali, early fourteenth century. It was the richest kingdom in Africa then, and Timbuktu was the greatest city. Poets, philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, they came from all over to study at Mansa Musa’s court. When he made his pilgrimage to Mecca, he brought along so much gold the market was depressed for a generation.

“Some people think the whole Prester John legend started right there—the black Christian emperor, perfect ally against the Turks, if you could just find him. Except he was a Muslim, and long dead by then, and his kid had already let the country go to hell. But they kept on sending out expeditions to look for him.”

Julie said, “Micah’s League name was Prester John. He was one of the founders.”

Micah Willows opened his eyes, smiled at them both, whispered, “Fucking doomed,” and snuggled back down into extinct dreams.

“Yeah, I know that part,” Farrell said. “And I’m guessing that Aiffe was fooling around one pleasant afternoon, trying to call somebody through time, anybody, and she locked onto Mansa Musa, pure chance. But she only got the spirit, the soul, whatever, and it lodged in Micah’s body, pure dumb chance again. Am I right so far?”

He could barely hear Julie’s reply. “It was at the Whalemas Tourney two years ago. When Garth was still king. Micah challenged him, and Garth fouled every way he could, but Micah was winning. And then she did it. She wasn’t just fooling around.” Farrell reached back to touch her hand, but it flinched under his, clutching Micah Willows’ shoulder tighter.

“You saw it happen,” he said.

Julie made a sound like heavy cloth tearing. “It was a tilt for the crown, everybody saw it. Everybody in the League knows what happened.

“And nobody wants to know. My specialty.” Julie made no response.

Farrell said, “By now it never happened at all.”

“Oh, by now he was always crazy. Ask anyone.” The bitterness in her voice dried Farrell’s own throat and nipped at his breath. She said, “He was never crazy, not ever; he’s not crazy now. He took risks, he was—he is—curious about everything, and sometimes he’d dance right on the edge of something really dumb, and I’d get scared and yell at him, and we’d have a huge fight, the kind you and I never have.”

Farrell started to interrupt, but changed his mind. Julie was crying now. “But he is not crazy. In this whole town full of crazies, he might be the only one who isn’t.”

When they pulled up in front of the shaggy house on Scotia Street, Micah Willows descended to the curb without assistance, sniffing the midnight air delicately and smiling with a curious drowsy serenity. “Oh, here,” he said softly and moved toward the house, floating over the grass like a giraffe, which is a creature made entirely of shadows. Following with Julie, Farrell thought that the door began to open just before he knocked.

She wore a brown dress, as shapeless as Farrell’s zoo uniform had been, and less becoming: it made her look thicker and shorter-legged than she actually was and slumped her breasts and belly into one bolster-roll of mashed potatoes. But Farrell saw that she stood in the doorway with the still acceptance of her body that he had only known in a few women who had never in all their lives imagined themselves not beautiful, not even for a single bad moment, in pain, despairing. Micah Willows knelt at her feet and spoke to her in medieval Arabic, and she answered him in the same tongue, soothing and reassuring.

But there was something astonishingly close to fear in her voice as she asked, “Why have you brought him to me?”

The question was addressed to Farrell, but it was Julie who answered. “You’re supposed to be a healer. He needs to be healed.”

Sia said, “He may be beyond my healing. Many things are.” She stooped over Micah Willows, and something about her creased bent neck stung Farrell’s heart. The twinge lasted until she lifted the black man effortlessly in her arms and carried him through the doorway into her house. Without turning, she said to Farrell, “Joe, call Briseis. You, if you care for him, come inside.” Julie looked at Farrell and followed her, and Farrell went off around the birdhouses to winkle the dog out of her favorite nest behind Ben’s compost pile.

When he returned with a more than usually apprehensive Briseis skulking behind him, Sia and Julie had already settled Micah Willows on a frayed rag rug before the fireplace. Julie moved around the living room as Sia directed her, lighting incense in some burners and not in others. Sia herself squatted beside Micah Willows, touching his face and chest and his sweaty hair, while he held her free left hand, smiling at her with his eyes wide open. She said, “Start the fire, Joe.”

The room felt stuffy and overheated, but Farrell arranged logs, newspaper, and kindling without question, tossing on equally obediently the strange spiky bundles that Sia gave him. Most of them smelled bad when he held them, and worse when he added them to the fire—and at least one wriggled in his hand—but each changed the color of the flames, from yellow to blue, blue to blood-red, red to sunset-green, and from green to various shades of purple and gray and slug-white, such as had no business on any hearth in any home. The last packet, and the word she spoke, made the flames turn black and answer her, and Sia, still crouching, turned heavily to face Farrell and Julie.

“None of this circus will help him,” she said. “None of this has the least bearing on whether or not I can free him and the one trapped within him from each other. All this is witch-rubbish, this is what that foolish little girl would do, but I am no witch and it will not help.” She looked very tired, her cheeks glistening damply and her upper lip showing thin white lines, but she chuckled suddenly—a whispering, fiery sound itself, like hair being brushed. She said, “This is all to comfort me and play for time, because I am afraid. Once I could have healed him by imagining it—indeed, once this thing that has happened to him would never have been allowed, no more than a leaf is allowed to jump back up to its tree. But now I am afraid and I am delaying the moment when I must learn why I should be afraid. So if either of you knows some small spell of your own, we can try that one, too. I need friends, and I have no pride.”

She was looking straight at Julie as she spoke.

Farrell asked, “Where’s Ben? How come you’re still up this late? Did you know we were coming?” Sia ignored him completely.

Julie bridled, surprisingly flustered, fumbling sullenly for words. “If I knew any damn magic that could make him well, he wouldn’t have been like this for five minutes.” She looked away from Sia, rubbing her swollen eyes.

The old woman said impatiently, “Oh, more people than not have some magic, they just forget about it. Children use it all the time—what do you think jump-rope rhymes are, or ball-bouncing games, or cat’s cradles? Where do you think that girl, that Aiffe, draws her power? Because she refuses to forget, that’s all it is.” Abruptly she sighed and slapped her thighs, pushing herself upright. “But this is not a matter for magic anymore. A vain, silly child played a jump-rope trick on your friend, and now nothing but a miracle will help him. And that is exactly the bloody trouble with amateurs.”

She beckoned Briseis to her, commanding the reluctant dog step by step until they stood on either side of the silent, smiling Micah Willows. Sia said, “Well, perhaps Briseis can work a miracle. Perhaps we can all work one together. Let’s get on with it.” She began to unbraid her hair.

The task seemed to take forever, as if she were unraveling mountains, towers, not hair; but with each strand freed and brushed out, the living room seemed to grow larger, the walls paling and receding, the ceiling dissolving into starlight. The black flames crouched low, all but extinguished, but Sia loosened and loosened her hair, and the strange starlight filled the room, silvering faces, sparking blue in Briseis’ fur, making everything heartbreakingly bright and nothing truly clear. It clung thickly around Sia, until she glittered like a snow-woman, and it filled Micah Willows’ wide eyes with dawn.

Farrell had been raised in church but without religion, a compromise pleasing enough to everyone involved. He had never missed God or the hope of heaven, but he had dearly wanted confession to rest his mind, Communion to let him touch something beyond Father Krone’s dry, shaky hand, and holy water to taste like starlight. Now, with the room brightening toward some sure wonder, exaltingly unbearable, he managed to think, or say, or neither, oh, how kind, after all, how kind. Then Sia shook her hair free upon her shoulders, and Micah Willows screamed.

Even at the moment, Farrell realized that the cry was one of fear, not pain, and that it came through Micah Willows, but not out of him. For all that, it raked right down all his bones, and he started forward as impulsively as Julie. But they would have had to pass Sia, and they could not do that. She stood between them and Micah Willows with her back to them, an immense, shining silence, distorted with strength, no one they knew, no friend of theirs. Briseis rose up on her hind legs, huge as a tiger, and they embraced over Micah Willows’ body, crowding into each other so that Sia appeared to have Briseis’ pointed, white-laughing head in place of her own. Farrell remembered then the reflection he had seen within the first hour of his first meeting with Sia, and he held Julie tightly and waited for the wonderful thing to happen, as he had always known it must.

But nothing did happen. Sia made no sorcerous gestures, voiced no incantations, called down no lightning, but stood still in one place with her dog’s paws propped on her shoulders and a black man threshing on her hearth, each howl arching his back more dreadfully. The starlight in the room began to ebb, and what returned was not good darkness but hot, bustling shadows that chittered like hamsters. A mask over the fireplace was rattling its bronze jaws.

“Ah, well, there, you see?” Sia pushed Briseis down and turned to face Farrell and Julie. “For every action, an equal and opposite reaction—this is true for gods and demons as well as rocket ships. If you bend the universe the wrong way, even for the smallest instant—which is what you would call a miracle—and you lose your hold, the universe snaps back at you, you get something you did not ask for. I was punished so once before.” Her voice remained as placidly amused as ever.

Farrell could not remember how to speak. Micah Willows’ cries were clawing the inside of his head bloody, and Sia was dwindling as he stared, not merely to her usual size and self, but seeming to lessen in texture as well, so that he thought he could see the black flames and the yammering bronze mask through her body. She hushed the whimpering Briseis with a touch and knelt by Micah Willows once more, murmuring words that were neither English nor the old Arabic. He grew frighteningly still, his breath scrambling and slipping in his chest. Sia whispered to him, “Forgive me.”

“McManus,” Farrell said. A shadow the size of a pig slid between his legs, then circled back, nuzzling him. He said, “McManus, when he came to the house with a gun. I remember what you did. I saw you.”

Sia’s surprised laughter sounded like Micah Willows’ breathing. “That was no miracle, that was only fear. It is the easiest thing in the world to make human beings afraid—none of us could ever resist it. They do all the work for you, and then they call you a god. But no one can make the universe afraid.”

A second mask, her favorite, from New Guinea, began to clatter its tusks and sharks’ teeth together; she waved it silent, and it spat at her contemptuously.

“Forgive me,” she said to Farrell and Julie. “I should never have let you in, never have pretended that I could do anything for your friend. That was vanity, not pity, and I am very sorry for it. Go now. I think you still can.”

The pig-shadow had been joined by others, larger, with too many legs. They pressed close around Farrell, pushing against him like Briseis, thick as blankets, smelling like dog food. Far away, on the other side of the shadows, he could hear Julie saying, “Joe, help me get Micah on his feet. We are getting out of here.”

“No,” he said, as loudly as he could. “He was calling for her, he knew she was the only one who could help him. You love him—” His mouth tasted as rancid as the shadows. “You want him to be like this forever? Even in Avicenna, they’ll put him away and give him stuff to keep him quiet, and he’ll die. She has to try again, that’s all.”

“You don’t understand.” Sia was shaking her head violently, her hair scattering the last remnants of starlight that clung there. “You don’t understand. I cheated you because I was afraid, because I knew I would fail, and I know what it means to fail at a miracle. My strength is no more than a wish of what it was, but I did not dare to use even half of it just now, I did not dare. Take him and go, go quickly.”

Julie had bent over Micah Willows, working her hands under his shoulders. She straightened slowly, regarding Sia with resentful respect. She said in a low voice, “Because the universe snaps back.”

“Exactly as hard as you bend it.” Sia gestured around her at the swarming shadows and the hanging masks, all but one of which were clacking and whining hungrily, lunging toward her on their hooks. “This is nothing, because I tried nothing. If I put forth all the strength I have, it would still not be enough to free Mansa Kankan Musa from this time, but the rebound, if you like, the rebound could shake all of us into the middle of next week.” Her smile parted the darkness like a sudden sail. “You would not like the middle of next week. I have spent some time there.”

Micah Willows sat up, crying softly, “Al-Haji. Umar! Al-Haji Umar, I am here! Okoro, Bakary, Yoro Keita, here I am waiting in this place, come and find me!”

Julie crouched beside him, holding him as he slumped back, but he struggled weakly in her arms, giggling and muttering, “The hand that touches Mansa Musa.”

She looked silently up at Sia. The shadows made their faces dim and small; but even so, Farrell saw the long glance that passed between them, deeper than complicity, more candid than easy sisterhood, almost shy. Julie said, “Please, will you try again? I’ll help you.”

“You help me?” Sia’s answer came so briskly and decisively that Farrell believed forever that she had had it ready before Micah Willows ever knocked on her door. “Child, no one can help me, no one except Briseis, and she can only do what she can do, You are incredibly stupid and selfish—and very brave—and you should go home now, this minute. For some things there is no help, you just go home.”

Julie’s voice trembled slightly when she replied, but her words were quick and clear. “You said that most people have at least a little magic. Mine comes from my grandmother, if I have any. She was born on an island called Hachijojima and she never learned English, but I spoke Japanese with her when I was small. I didn’t know it was Japanese, it was just the way Grandma and I talked. I remember she used to drive my parents crazy, because she’d tell me really scary stories about the different kinds of ghosts—shirei and muen-botoke and the hungry ghosts, the gaki. And ikiryo, they’re the worst, they’re the spirits of the living, and you can send them out to kill people if you’re wicked enough. I loved the ikiryo stories. They gave me such great nightmares.”

Sia was nodding, a drowsy old woman before a guttering fir. “And the goddesses—Marishiten, Sengen of Fujiyama. Did she tell you about Sengen, your grandmother?”

“Ko-no-hana-saku-ya-hime,” Julie chanted softly. “She said it meant that Sengen was radiant, like the flowers of the trees. And Yuki-Onna, the Lady of the Snow. I thought she was wonderful, even if she was Death.” She paused, but Sia said nothing, and Julie took a deep breath and added, “And Kannon. Especially Kannon.”

“Kuan-Yin,” Sia murmured. “Avalokitesvara. Elevenfaced, horse-headed, thousand-handed, Kannon the Merciful.”

“Yes,” Julie said. Briseis plopped her heavy head on Farrell’s knee, and he petted her, taking a sad, spiteful comfort in her need of him. Julie said, “I don’t remember this at all, any of it, but somehow my grandmother consecrated me to Kannon. A little private ceremony, just the two of us. My father walked in on it, and I guess he hit the roof. I don’t know. I couldn’t have been more than five or six.”

The black flames had gone out almost completely; the only light in the shadow-choked room seemed to emanate from the angry masks and, strangely, from Micah Willows’ wracked and scarred face. Julie went on, “All I’m sure about is that I didn’t get to be with Grandma so much after that age. I lost all my Japanese pretty fast; and I lost Grandma too. She died when I was eight. She’s buried on Hachijojima.”

Two shadows nipped Farrell’s ankles at once with icy little teeth that left no marks. He flailed them away, but others were moving in, shapelessly aggressive as Julie’s Japanese ghosts. Sia asked “Did you ever wonder why she did that, joining you and Kannon?”

“I don’t know. Maybe she was hoping I’d be a Buddhist nun.”

Sia was shaking her head again before Julie had finished. “Your grandmother was very wise. She had no idea what gift to give you for your life in this country that was already snatching you away from her, but she knew that human beings everywhere need mercy most of all.”

She turned to look down at Micah Willows for a long moment, then said something almost inaudible to him in Arabic. Farrell had no doubt that she was repeating her last few words, mercy most of all.

“Well,” she said. In one remarkable movement she stood up, clapped her hands to drive the shadows back, snapped, “Oh, just be quiet!” to the masks—who paid her no attention whatsoever—and turned solemnly around three times, like Briseis bedding down. Farrell and Julie gaped, and she laughed at them.

“No magic, no miracle,” she said. “Only an old person trying to get her doddering self balanced properly. What we are going to do now is absolutely insane and insanely dangerous, and I think we should all get our feet well under us.”

Julie said, “Joe, you’d better go. You don’t have to be here.”

“Piss off, Jewel,” he answered, hurt and furious. His voice silenced the masks briefly, and Julie touched him and said, “I’m sorry.”

“Understand me,” the old woman said, and her own hoarse voice was suddenly so terrible that the room cleared of shadows instantly and Farrell glimpsed the distant, blessed outlines of chairs and chess pieces. Sia said, “I am not doing this for either of you, or even really for him—them—nor out of vanity, as I told you before. I am doing this out of shame, because I knew what had happened the moment it happened, and I did nothing. I did not dare to leave my house. I could have called him here to me, but I feared being destroyed if I tried and failed to free him. So I have done nothing at all for two years, until tonight.”

Farrell was never sure whether he had actually voiced his mild protest before she cut him off savagely. “Of course it was my responsibility! My responsibility is to see that certain laws are kept, certain gates are only allowed to swing one way. However tired or weak or frightened I am, this is still what I am for. If you insist on trying to help me, you do it out of ignorance, because you cannot possibly imagine what you risk. But I do this out of shame.”

Julie asked, “Do you think Kannon will come? What should I do? How should I call her?”

“Never mind Kannon,” Sia said. “Try calling your grandmother.”

She meant what she had said about balance, ordering Julie and Farrell to brace themselves in the dark room as carefully as if it were a moving subway car. She even propped Micah Willows against the fireplace as best she could before she turned and said, “Well,” a second time. The three of them ranged themselves around Micah Willows, with Briseis trembling next to him and Sia keeping one hand in the dog’s neck fur.

Micah Willows hugged Briseis’s leg, looked up at them all and said, “Fucking doomed. Prester John knows.” Nothing else happened for a long time.

The starlight came back first, to Farrell’s great joy. He had intended to watch very closely this time, to see whether it was truly bound up in Sia’s hair or emanated from somewhere outside the room. But when it was there, it was simply there, making the room float on its foundation, and Farrell too happy to do anything but whisper a welcome and hold Julie’s hand. The scent of flowers grew warmer around them as the light spread—plumeria, the gods smell like Hawaiian plumeria—making him think of Sengen, beautiful as blossoming trees.

Micah Willows, or the king within him, began to moan softly again with inconceivably fearful anticipation, and Farrell had a moment to wonder, is this how it is for Egil Eyvindsson, each time? Far above them all, Sia’s face was rising like the moon: golden and weary, battered into human beauty by endless stoning. Farrell could not bear to look to her.

Then she said something in a language like soap bubbles that could only have meant, no, damn it, damn it to hell, and, as if some celestial wrecking crew had gone to work, jagged pieces of night came plunging through the walls and ceiling of the living room. What Aiffe and Nicholas Bonner together had failed to accomplish seemed to happen in seconds now, as the room ripped itself to pieces like a torn kite in a gale. But the solid old houses and libertine gardens of Scotia Street and the Avicenna lights below had disappeared as well, leaving nothing beyond the shattered suggestion of Sia’s home but a sky fanged with strange, hurrying stars and a darkness that was also moving and that went on forever, past any hope of morning. It was the only vision Farrell was ever to have of raw, random space, and he could not keep his feet under him. He crouched down among the tumbling stars, covered his eyes and vomited, thinking absurdly, I’ll never finish sanding that old Essex now, never get home to finish that.

In a detached way, he was aware that Julie was crying out, somewhere nearby, “Kannon! Sho-Kannon, ju-ichi-men Kannon! Senju Kannon, ba-to Kannon, nyo-i-rin Kannon! Oh, Kannon, please be, Kannon, please! Sho-Kannon, senju Kannon!” She went on and on like that, and Farrell wanted to tell her to shut up because she was giving him a headache. But just then the goddess Kannon came to them, so he never did.

Julie said later that she had simply stepped through a hole in space, pulling the endless, meaningless night apart with a hundred of her five hundred pairs of arms and letting it close behind her, but not before Julie had glimpsed the bluegreen shores of heaven and the dragons.

But to Farrell, it seemed that she came slowly from a long way off and that she entered that place where they were through the one of Sia’s masks that had never sprung to nasty life, but was somehow hanging in perfect serenity on no wall, over no fireplace. It was a Kabuki mask, white as plaster; and as Farrell watched, it began gradually to stream with Kannon, dissolving over and over to flow into her round brown face, her flowering arms, cloudy robes, and long amber eyes. Her appearance pulsed and surged constantly, bordering always on forms and sizes and sexes beyond Farrell’s imagining or containing. Farrell saw her bow slightly to Julie, saluting and acknowledging her.

When she looked at him, he wiped his mouth weakly, ashamed that she should see him so, but Kannon smiled. Farrell wept—not then, but later—because Kannon’s smile allowed him to, as it allowed him to forgive himself for several quite terrible things.

He always insisted that he had heard them talking together, Kannon and Sia, in the soap-bubble language, and that he had understood every word.

—Old friend—.

—Old friend—.

—I cannot help him. I am too tired—.

—I will help him—.

—You are younger than I and more powerful. You have many worshipers, I have none—.

—Illusion. We do not exist—.

—Perhaps. But the child called you, and you came—.

—Of course. How not? I know her grandmother—.

—Yes. Thank you, old friend—.

But Sia swore that they had never spoken at all, that there could be no need for speech between them; and Julie drove him wild by describing how Kannon had leaned down to Micah Willows and touched his eyes, actually touched them, and how he blinked and said, “Julie,” in a voice she remembered, and promptly fainted. Farrell missed that part altogether, having realized that Ben was hanging far off in the night like Sia’s Kabuki mask, peering drowsily across unhealed space at the scene below.

Then Kannon bowed again to Julie—who was too busy with the still-unconscious Micah Willows to notice—and bowed low to Sia like the Northern Lights, and went away with the starlight, and Ben came on down restored stairs and crossed the creaky living room floor to Sia. He put his arms around her and held her as tightly as he could.

Micah Willows opened his eyes and said, “Julie? Man, who are these people?”

Farrell stood quietly where he was, listening to the first birds, and to the sprinklers coming on at the house next door, and thinking entirely about Kannon’s smile…

And, of course, I do not believe the facilitator intended any disrespect. I do not think she had ever heard of Peter Beagle, or The Folk of the Air, or its literary character, the ruler of Mali Mansa Kankan Musa…

Share Grasping Reality Newsletter, by Brad DeLong

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