Excerpt from 'A Whistling Woman'
A Whistling Woman
By A. S. Byatt
KnopfCopyright © 2002
... "This is the last tree," said the thrush. The last tree was a dwarf thorn, its black branches shaped one way by the wind, pointing back the way they had come. "Formerly," said the thrush, "there was a last tree further out. And in earlier times there was a stunted wood, the Krumholz. The waste is advancing."
They looked into iron twilight. They could barely make out the bluff where the wood had once been rooted.
"No one goes out there," said the thrush. "In former days, there were travellers, until winter set in. But now they are afraid of the Whistlers. The winters have lengthened. And in the light days the land is infested by the Whistlers."
"The place we seek is on the other side," said Artegall. "According to the maps and the histories. We must go, and quickly, before winter sets in."
"And before the hunters catch up with us," said Mark.
"No one has set out, or come from there, in my life-time," said the thrush, fluffing out his spotted feathers. His life-time was not very long, and his territory was small. He was a wiry, thick-quilted thrush.
"What is the land like?" asked Artegall.
"Scrub and stones, mosses, and lichens, deep pools with ice-covers, frozen rivers. There are white creatures there, I've been told, that scutter in the snow and hide in holes. And slick, grey efts, in the pools. They used to say the lichens were edible, if not palatable. All hearsay. I haven't been there."
"And the Whistlers?"
"No one has seen them and lived," said the thrush. "Indeed, to hear them is mostly fatal. They fly or glide like grey shadows and make a sound-a sound-"
"So it is said, a high, whistling sound, at the extreme edge of what any creature can hear, yet all must hear it. A dog can hear whistles that you hear as disturbed silence. But these creatures have the power to pierce any ear-bird and man, bear and snowcock, even your sleeping stone reptile who appears to be lifeless."
Artegall looked at Dracosilex, who had shown no sign of life since the Bale Fires of the last village.
"I could do with his counsel," said Artegall. "If he could be wakened."
"If the Whistlers woke him," said the thrush, "you would not live to hear his counsel. And your bones would be picked in an instant."
They built a shelter near the last tree, and set up their tents, before night fell. Noises howled and hummed round them, fine, glassy sounds and a regular quavering boom, and the icy blasts of the wind, blowing and flowing over the dry rattling twigs of the last tree. There were also shrill notes that could have been whistling, human or inhuman. Mark said that he had heard that the porpoises and the dolphins sang to each other in the blue summer waters of the south, from which they had come. "There is needles and knives in this wind," said Dol Throstle. "And talons and claws." They chewed dried meat, and sweet dried grapes, too few, gone too quickly.
In the morning a fine dry snow fell, gusting and eddying in the wind. They could not see very far. They discussed who should scout and who should stay. Mark asked if Artegall's geography books had contained maps of this land. There were a few maps of the Northern Empire, he said, vague shapeless spaces with a few rivers and many drawings of fabulous beasts, with twenty legs, or curving claws. It was written, White Waste. I remember one or two trails without issue, and arrows pointing out of the page, To the North. The pages were very richly decorated, bordered with golden apples and crimson cherries and emerald vine-leaves. And iron axes, and flakes of fire.
Dol Throstle remembered how Mark the page-boy had mocked the young prince at the outset, with his stories of the books of venery, history, geography, dutifully committed to memory in the study-prison of his white tower in the south. And how Artegall's knowledge had led them through forests, and his languages had made it possible to speak to strangers, and his books of tracking and stalking had found food in hard places. And Mark for his part had taught Artegall the knack of tickling trout, and stealing from bees, and chattering like a naif lad to soldiers in inns. And now they were no longer prince and whipping-boy and nursemaid, but three leathery, weathered creatures, all muscle and quickened eyes, bundled in borrowed skins. A snake had taught Artegall the language of the beasts, but they were all, Dol thought, part of the animal kingdom now, they could melt into woodland like foxes, lie lost in grassland like hares, they could flow along hillsides like wolves.
Mark said they could not travel at night, using the stars, because of the cold.
And then they heard, for the first time, in the noises of the wind and the clack of the twigs, the whistle, that rose and fell and then rose and rose, out of pitch, so they knew they were still hearing it though the sound disturbed only their brains. And Dol's courage failed, and she thought she was a fool and a madwoman to bring two mere boys so far, in search of a kingdom that was perhaps only a fantasy out of legend. And Mark thought, numbed, that this time maybe there was no way forward, only snow-blindness and frost-bite, and behind were the steady hunters, beating them out of cover like fowls. And Artegall thought that the voices were terrible, and would destroy the brain in the skull. And then the sound died down, and released them. Artegall had the idea of making little balls of lambswool to put in their ears, under their skin hoods.
In the morning the two boys set out, leaving Dol under the thorn. "If we do not come back within three days," said Artegall, "you must turn back. The soldiers may not harm you if I am not there."
"Nonsense," said Dol. "I will come after you, whatever may befall. I am no mean tracker, by now."
They found, after a mile or two of careful advance over characterless scrub and crackling frost, that they needed their ears in the ice-gloom, both to test brittle crusts over deep crevices and to listen to the land, for footfalls, for the snap of branches, for the beat of wings. They found a kind of goat-path, among the little junipers and ling, which widened into a track. They stumped steadily on; Mark singled out prominent stones along the track which might be pointers, put there by human hands. The cloud-cover was lowering and thickening. They examined the stones, and found scratches-an arrow perhaps, a bird's-foot, three-toed, on one, and then on another. They decided if they found a third to turn back, and fetch Dol, and their provisions, and try this road. A little wind got up, and blew ice in their faces, in sharp splinters. They could hear singing in this wind. At first they did not speak of it, taking it for an interior humming, that kept time with their footsteps and the beat of blood. Mark said, in the end,
"Do you hear sweet voices in the wind?"
"So you hear them too. Voices, thin and high, and a kind of flute, or maybe another voice."
"Maybe an ice equivalent of a mirage in a desert."
"Maybe the voices of the Whistlers."
"Or the spirits of their victims."
They struggled on, and the track became less definite. There were no more markers. The wind pelted them with frozen snow. Mark said
"The singing is unbearably sad, unbearably-" and fell over in the snow behind Artegall. As Artegall turned, the perfectly-pitched music in his head turned to an undulating whistle. He reached to put the bulb of wool in his ears, fumbling with his fur-gloved fingers, before he knelt by his friend. The wool did not wholly exclude the whistling, but reduced it to a whisper of a shriek. And he saw them coming at him through the gloom, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen of them, sailing on outstretched grey wings, almost indistinguishable from the cloud, their long, slender necks held out before them like swans', their thin legs trailing like herons', their bright beaks like curving scimitars, pale red-gold. They landed in a circle round the two, and Mark saw with horror that their faces above their beaks were human, that they had dark, human, forward-looking eyes under arched eyebrows, that their feather-hoods covered, or flowed into, long hair, which they shook out over their shoulders, that the legs above the bird-talons that struck and gripped the icy stones were human above the feathered ankles, that the bodies inside the great cloaks of grey pinioned wings were human, female, with high breasts and slender waists, but covered in white down. Artegall found that he could not move, though he could see and hear.
The Whistlers began a kind of strutting dance, moving stiffly on their claws, winding their long necks gracefully like charming serpents, bowing and pointing and singing at the two humans, on the white earth in the gathering darkness. Artegall understood that they were singing, over and under the terrible whistle, but he could make no sense of the words. He tried to listen as he listened to the speech of birds, and heard cackle and hiss; he tried to listen as he would listen to women, and heard meaningless babble of airy syllables. He saw then that their song was somehow spinning a cocoon of icy threads round and over his friend's body, like a glassy shroud hardening into a coffin. His own hands and feet were threaded with filaments which he was powerless to cast off. It came numbly to him, he must understand their language, or speak to them, or he must die. He listened as he had never listened in his life, and began to make out that their language, like their bodies, was a dreadful hybrid, feather-words and skin-words grown into each other, beak-words and tongue- and teeth-words fused. He could hear it, he could even construct it, by some terrible operation inside his own skull of simultaneous separation and stitching, so that he was, as it were, dividing the two fronts of a leather jerkin and then, between the two parts of his brain, threading them together with a thong of thought. "Pity," he said, in this strange new speech, his tongue like leather. "Pity, women-birds, bird-women-kind-creatures-this-man-too-is-kind." No hurt, he cried, small, promising and asking, no hurt. And one Whistler said
"He hears us."
"I hear you."
"He hears words in whistling."
"I hear your words, Whistlers. I hear, I speak."
He said, in bird speech, "The King of the snakes taught me this speech." He said, in human speech, "Do not hurt us, we are lost, we mean good." He repeated, in their speech, "I hear you, you hear me." It was like a blade in the brain, dividing and touching both divided parts.
They stopped singing, then, and moved together in a circle, whistling to each other with bowed heads. They came back, and one, whistling hesitant and low, said
"We will carry you to a safe place for the night. We will not harm you. Do you hear me?"
"I can hear you."
"We will carry your friend, too. He is not harmed. He will wake."
They snatched up Mark, three pairs of claws, and flew away. Then Artegall felt the scaled grip, through all his furs, and the cold air inside his hood as they rose, and wheeled north, into the gathering dark and the blast of the wind. He knew no more.
He woke by a glowing fire, deep in a cave. Mark slept beside him, the ice-cocoon melted. The bird-women roosted on rocky ledges, preening grey wings with wicked beaks. They brought him soup, grey, bitter, gluey, in a tall jar. They gathered round and asked who he was, where he was going? He told them, for he saw no help in concealing it, who he was-Artegall, prince of Harena-and of his escape from the South when the black ships poured into the harbour, and of his companions, Dol Throstle, who was his nurse, and Mark, and some others, who had not survived. And he spoke of Hamraskir Kveld-Ulf, his father's legendary northern cousin, whom Dol had told him might provide a sure refuge from the spies and assassins sent out from Mormorea by Barbasangue. He said doubtfully that maybe the Northern Kingdom was only legend. Dol had spoken of it with certainty when she hid him in the laundry-cart, but the certainty had diminished with the rough journey. Maybe there was nothing north of the wasteland except ice-floes, and cold dancing lights.
"It is there," said one of the Whistlers. Her name was Hvanvit. "In a valley in the ice-mountains, beyond this land. It goes by many names. Hofgarden, Harreby, Veralden. We call it Veralden. The kings of Veralden have always been powerful wizards. They are shape-shifters, who can become wolves, or bears, at will, and travel out into the badlands, watching the borders, talking to the wind-spirits, listening to the advances and retreats of the ice. In Veralden, only men were shape-shifters. Women stayed in the valley, spinning and teaching, tending fruit-trees and flowers. They never left the valley. We wanted to go out, we wanted the speed and the danger of the wind and the snow and the dark. We charmed a young student into parting with his knowledge, and we made feather-coats, as you see, and rode the storm-winds at night. We flew in, over the mountain-wall, before dawn, plaited our wild hair, put on gown and slippers, and went to sing sweetly to the fruit-trees. But we were spied on, by a traitress, and shamed. And an angry crowd burned our women's clothes outside the gates of Veralden, and almost burned us. But we put a little fear into them, and whistled in their minds, so that they merely drove us away like a flock of geese, calling us evil, and unclean. So we have lived here, where nothing lives, riding the winds, evading hunters and snow-eagles. We have grown angry because no one could hear our speech. Until you came."
They talked into the night. Artegall listened courteously to their tales of grief and exile, and only then did he return to his own quest, and ask whether the king in Veralden was his kinsman, Hamraskir Kveld-Ulf. They said they believed so. They dared not approach the city. "But we will set you on your way," said Hvanvit, "we will carry you over the wasteland and bring food for you. For we are not the most terrible danger you will meet on this journey-more terrible still are the ancient enemies, cold and dark and hunger. In all the time we have circled and swept over this land we have seen no one come across safely. We could show you bones, and men preserved in ice as though they slept, and proud horses, and sledge-dogs. When we tried to speak to them, our song proved mortal to their ears, until you came. Maybe you will speak of us, and our wanderings, to Hamraskir Kveld-Ulf when you come to him, if indeed you come there."