A short story
By Loretta Sylvestre
The Maenad lived in the Knot Peddler’s basement, in a small room with a view of boot soles and soiled hems. There she frittered and frayed at the edges of Knots whose time had come and gone: regretted pasts, deplorable presents, and futures once craved but now feared. Day after day she sat—mad as a London hatter—teasing the Peddler’s masterworks apart thread by thread.
The Knot Peddler could have done the job himself. Easier, with his nimble fingers. Faster still with the sweep of a knife or a snip with the shears. But he couldn’t bear to dismantle his handiwork, and besides he liked to hear the Maenad sing.
When the bell at the back door rang, the Knot Peddler looped his loose ends over a cross pole, turned away, and walked through dusty daylight down the polished hall. His scowl deepened with every step. By the time he swung the door open, he felt and looked murderous.
“Sir,” the customer said, a lady in a floral bonnet. “Sir,” a lord in his waistcoat and wig. “Please, Peddler, this magic does not serve.”
He reached out and gathered from their long, spotless fingers the knots he’d worked with calloused hands. Knots of silk and wool and cloth-of-gold, woven and twisted and rolled into spells of perfection.
His designs, always, had no faults. His Knots performed exactly as specified. He had learned to pluck the Truth, that slender strand that runs through everything and everywhere and every time. He picked it up with every stitch, every bowline, every highwayman’s hitch, and he knew just when and where and how to twist it—just so for greed, thus for lust, here for bitter vengeance. He always performed his task the right way.
Not so his customers.
Rare was the customer who knew their wants and needs, or how to request them. Rarer still, the customer who sought aid for sweeter cause—to restore a child’s health, to comfort a friend, to soothe a broken heart. Those customers never brought the Knots back; they let the spell work as it should, the particles of magic infuse every corner, dark and bright.
Not that the Knot Peddler cared. Comfort or greed, health or vengeance, it all amounted to so many Knots. The Truth he worked into them seemed neither good nor bad, only True. He spent no idle thought on the effects of his spells. He treasured his Knots for their beauty, their symmetry, their grace.
Now the offending customers scurried away. The Peddler tricked the door shut with a knee. He leaned his back for a moment against the warm light waving through the stained door-glass and sighed a dusty and fading breath. Arms laden with condemned spells, he flattened his gaze and shielded his heart like a pallbearer. Half the distance down the cloudy hall, he put a shoulder against the basement door. It creaked, like a crying dog, he thought, like it always did. He laid his orphaned Knot-work, so gently, on the top landing of the basement stair.
Standing for a moment with his hands folded together in front of his rounding belly he listened for notes of comfort in the Maenad’s song, and sighed, and hurried back to his workbench.
“New Knots,” he said. “New spells, new threads, new beauties, new Knots.” Thus he barred all thoughts of the dismemberment being carried out in the basement—madwoman’s sweet song notwithstanding.
Except for the hated returns, the Knot Peddler felt young everyday from the moment dawn spread light over his fibers until twilight’s dim cooled his eyes. But he wasn’t young, a bit of Truth which, of itself, was neither good nor bad, only True.
“Truth can hurt,” he said, on the night of the return.
He stumbled down the dusky hallway, and stopped again by the basement door to savor the Maenad’s trills. Smiling a little, he opened the door. The better to hear, he told himself, as he had uncountable times before. Down three steps, he called her name, a True name that is usually best forgotten.
“Astra,” he called, his voice shady and rough like sand on a rocky beach.
Seven steps down, “Astra!” His summons gained strength and timbre.
Her song diminished.
Ten steps, his body anticipating The Maenad’s touch, he growled from deep in his throat.
But she had already turned to him and stripped her ragged shift. Her song changed to one that circled his ankles and twined up his legs, slithered around him with a touch of silver, silver like the Maenad’s wild kinked tresses soaked in moonlight, moonlight beading over breasts and belly like mercury.
Whispers and thrilled giggles drifted down to the Knot Peddler’s basement, where Astra leaned into the promise of morning that slid through the high window, and squinted to find the tucked end of a strand in the Peddler’s Knot. “The Maenad,” the gigglers called her, “madwoman.” She shook her head, half a smile curling wryly upward on the left.
The basement, grey and dusty-damp, was enough to drive anyone daft, unless they had a very good reason for being there. Which she had—two very good reasons, in fact. The only madness in this aged house belonged to the Peddler. That, of course, is how it happens.
That, of course, is why Time yoked them, as soon as It discovered the propensity of mankind to make. Oh yes, all things living make. Birds and bugs and spiders their nests. Bison their wallows, foxes their trails. A tree makes more of itself—a wise pursuit. But the wild things know where to stop. They make no more than enough.
Not so mankind, who would make and make and make until nothing unmade remained. So Time placed them in every age, maker and opposite.
The Knot Peddler bound simple threads together, formed spells, encased all loose possibilities. Astra sang them apart. Her tweezers plucked the ends of threads, watching their colors unbind, the silks unshine, the golden threads lose their glimmer. Her song turned the fibers from spun to dust.
In the world there must be dust.
Dust hung in the air of the Knot Peddler’s basement—a rainbow of particles when the morning sun sheeted through the Maenad’s window. When the moon slung its glow down into her den, dust waved in a silver tide across the far reach of her room, sequestering her narrow bed.
Not often, but more frequently as this time stretched toward its end, the Knot Peddler crossed that moonlit curtain, leaving a bit of himself in the dust. The Maenad’s song grew stronger, while he dissolved. Thin as a shade, he descended one last time. The curtain thicker, the room nearly full of unmade dust and alive with moonshine like silver-tongued fire. Passing through, he uttered a fading cry and came apart at the cells.
A faint and joyful cry came to Astra’s ears, as she ascended the stairs to the shop above. She forgot her name on the way.
The Spell Weaver thought of a man, not gone. Unmade, but for a single rainbow thread too small yet to see. She remembered him. Saw his face in the veils of dust, felt his fingers in the rustling breeze; in the patter of rain heard a song that must be his. She recalled his calloused hands as they softened, smoothing her flesh, coaxing her dreams.
She remembered burying her strong fingers in his filmy snow-lit hair in passion. Now she forgot where the strands had come from, what they had been. The fibers lay gently across her palm. Flickering dawn teased from them glimpses of color. A chord, no more yet than a whisper of strings, floated from below and the Spell Weaver’s threads began to dance.
Compelled, she brought them to the loom and began to bind them, warp to weft, color through color, picking up a strand of Truth. “Arion,” she smiled, knowing that his True name was neither good nor bad, but better left forgotten. She thought she could let him live in her basement, let him unweave what must not remain.
Besides, she liked to hear Madman’s harp.
Copyright © 2010 Loretta Sylvestre
Photo © Raycat
"Some time ago, I serendipitously ran across the word Maenad—defined there simplistically as ‘madwoman’—and jotted it down on a random page in a notebook. Another time, I happened across a paragraph about knots used in folk magic to fashion spells and magical bindings. What if a wizard sold knots? I wrote down, 'The Knot Peddler,' as luck would have it on the same notebook page. More than a year later, I picked up the notebook, and there they were, side by side. They had become characters, and the story—complete with its own ideas— grew out of the movement in their magical lives."
Loretta Sylvestre hails from Los Angeles County California, but now makes her home on the rainy side of Washington State, where stories push up from the leaf mold at night like mushrooms. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of publications on line and in print, including The Linnet’s Wings, The Battered Suitcase, A Fly in Amber, and Triangulation: Dark Glass—Parsec, Ink’s 2009 anthology. She also works as a book editor—freelance and for a small publisher. She welcomes visitors and participants at her blog, Worlds Well Written. She can be reached at lsylvestre(underline)writing(at) worldswellwritten(dot)com.