By Nancy Kress
27 September 2004
Reprinted by permission; originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1988.
When the coach broke for the third time, the second coachman was flung sideways over the shrieking axle and down an embankment. He rolled in the moonless darkness, over and over, brambles tearing at the velvet of his livery and whipping across his face. He uttered no sound. There was water at the bottom, a desultory and dirty little stream: the coachman lay in it quietly, blinking in pain at the stars, blood trickling from one temple.
A rat fell on top of him, squeaked once, and scurried off into the brush.
From far above, the coachman heard a sudden feminine cry. It was not repeated, but after a while there came to his dazed ears a muffled sound, not quite footsteps, as if someone were dragging along the road above. The lady in the coach, or the First Coachman himself— The sound receded and died, and no other took its place.
He lay in the ditch without moving, at first frightened that some bone might have broken in the darkness without, later more frightened by the greater darkness within. No matter how hard he looked, there was nothing there. Not a name, not a place, not a history.
Only the lady in the coach, and the First Coachman: the lady more beautiful than stars, the First Coachman portly and sharp-eyed as he peered back over his shoulder at his apprentice hanging on behind, to make sure he was doing it right. He had been doing it right. He had stood tall and unsmiling on the perch; the jeweled night had flown past the shining sphere of the coach; the horses' hooves had struck sparks from the stone road. They had passed other coaches, each a glow in the darkness growing to an exhilarating rush of beast and metal, and then the thlock-thlock dying away behind, leaving the scent of perfume and oiled leather, with never a word spoken. And finally the destination: leaping from the perch to let down the carriage steps onto cobblestones so polished they reflected perfect rectangles of yellow light from the windows above. Lowered eyes and the lady's hand as she alighted, the rustle of silk glimpsed only at the hem, the small gloved hand briefly in his.
I am a coachman, he thought with relief, and searched for something else in the darkness, something more. There was nothing. He was a coachman, and that was all.
Too frightened to move, he lay in the wet ditch until he began to shiver. Water had soaked from velvet to skin. He sat up slowly, holding his head, and crawled out of the stream and back up the embankment. At first he wasn't sure he had reached the top. Sudden darkness, eclipsing the stars, rolled over him like fog.
He crouched by the road, not knowing where it led to, or from. Neither end reached his memory. Cold, bleeding, frightened, the coachman hunkered down into the long grass. His hand touched something nasty: pulpy and wet. He jerked his fingers away and wiped them on his ruined livery.
When dawn came, he saw that it was a shattered pumpkin, and next to it lay a slipper of glass.
The village lay at one end of the stone road. He reached it after hours of walking in the direction opposite to the long skid of coach wheels, his belly rumbling and the midsummer sun too bright and hot in his eyes. When he tried to shade them with one hand, the hand stopped five inches from his face.
A bulky woman drawing water from a well looked up and burst into laughter.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, it's just . . . your nose. . . ." She went off again, backing a little away from him, her gray eyes wide with mirthful fear.
The coachman touched the end of his preposterous nose and opened his mouth to say—what?—and found that he was mute. There were words in his head, but none left through his lips.
The woman stopped laughing as jerkily as she had begun. Too carefully, she set the bucket on the lip of the well and walked closer. She was not young. There were lines around her eyes, and heaviness in the solid set of each foot on the earth. In her voice he heard again the fear. It was the sound of the breaking axle, the brambles on the embankment.
"They're careless up there, sometimes, with the . . . with that. It doesn't always go cleanly. Bits and pieces get . . . spilled over."
He stared at her, having no idea what she meant, saying nothing.
I am a coachman.
As if he had spoken aloud, she said with sudden brutality, "Not anymore you aren't. Not here."
Picking up her bucket, she started toward the village. The coachman stared after her dumbly, hands dangling loose at his sides, belly rumbling. She had gone nearly beyond hearing before calling roughly over her shoulder, "You can go to the baker's. Last house on the left. He needs a man for rough work, and he doesn't. . . . You can ask, anyway. Before you fall over."
She walked away. The weight of the water bucket made her broad hips roll. Hair straggled from its topknot in wispy hanks. Her back bent as if from more than the bucket, as if in pain.
The baker hired him at two pence a week, with as many stale rolls as he could eat and a pallet in the kitchen. After staring a full minute at the coachman's nose, and at his inept gesture that was supposed to indicate dumbness, the baker hardly ever glanced at him again. Monthly the bakery sank a little deeper into the compost of debt; monthly the baker himself became more nearly as silent as his wretched hireling.
The coachman worked all day within an arm's reach of the sagging kitchen hearth, where no one saw him and he saw no one. There he mixed, scrubbed, kneaded, swept, hauled, mended, and baked. He didn't mind the hard labor; he scarcely noticed it. There was an embankment in his mind.
Again and again he sped through the jeweled night, behind the gleaming coach and the silken lady. Again and again came the thlock-thlock of the horses, the lady's hand in his as she stepped onto the cobblestones, the rectangles of yellow light—until the embankment loomed and he fell.
At night the hearth grew cold, and the coachman lay in darkness and breathed in the powdery tickle of floating ash. Sometimes he wondered why he had left the slipper of glass; why he had not taken it with him away from the embankment. There was no answer.
At the end of a month, the woman from the well bustled through the baker's kitchen door, stooping under the splintered lintel. She wore a clean apron and carried a pile of brown cloth.
"I brought you a shirt. Velvet doesn't wear at all, does it? This was my late husband's; you're of a size, I think. Try it."
The coachman did, torn between gratitude and irritation. The brown wool felt clean and warm against his arms. When he saw the woman staring at his thin chest, he turned his back to do up the laces.
"Good enough," she said briskly. "Tomorrow I can bring the breeches. You look queer enough with wool above and velvet below." She laughed, an unmusical booming straight from the belly, then abruptly fell silent.
The coachman had no choice but to be silent.
Finally the woman said, "I'm called Meloria."
The flowery name made her ridiculous. The coachman nodded and smiled, pantomiming thanks for the shirt. He could not have told his name even had he known it. Meloria regained her briskness as abruptly as she had lost it, and bustled out the door. Even without a bucket full of water, she waddled.
The coachman thought of the small gloved hand, a slim ankle beneath lifted silk.
He kneaded the bread.
Meloria came the next day with the brown wool breeches, on the day after that with stout boots. A hat to keep off rain. A sour-grape pie, a plaid blanket, a pillow stuffed with pine needles, a yellow cheese.
"You look like you need this," she would boom, and the coachman, who did need that, would smile weakly and nod two or three times. He was falling off another embankment, or was being pushed. He saw the edge clearly, but not how to avoid it. The shining boots of his livery had fallen apart. The nights had grown colder. When he looked at the sour-grape pie, after weeks of stale rolls, his mouth filled with a savage juice.
After she had gone, he swept the hearth sullenly, not caring that cinders flew up into the air and floated down again, ashy gray snow, on the cooling rolls.
One night he dreamed. After he had lowered the steps to the cobblestones, he turned around to look toward the yellow light. It came from a fortress, windows blazing with candles, gates thrown wide. As he gazed, he felt a touch on his shoulder. It was the lady's hand; she stood behind him, and he could see just the tips of her gloved fingers, delicate as white moths. He turned, her perfume taking him first, to smile on her face.
Moonlight woke him. It fell through the baker's broken window, full on the coachman's face. Blinking into that cold and colorless light, he saw a rat creep along the hearth. Its fur was matted in mangy patches around an open sore. The coachman leapt up and began flailing at it with the poker, murderous despairing blows he did not understand, nor try to. The rat screamed and escaped between damp stones, but not before the poker struck the last third of its tail and smeared it, hairless and pulpy pink, across the floor. The poker clanged and dented.
The coachman sank to his knees and noiselessly wept.
In midwinter the kingdom held a festival. Even in this mean village, under the hunger moon, there were feasts and fires and the pervasive scent of wine mulled with spices.
"Sundown. At Meloria's," the baker growled at noon on the second day of the festival. The coachman, who was breaking the ice on a pail of water and who had all but forgotten what the baker's voice sounded like, looked up in surprise.
"She says," the baker said, and smirked.
The coachman shook his head.
I am a coachman.
The baker smirked again.
Nonetheless, he went. The night was clear and star-sharp, the ashes in the hearth had gone cold, the whole village smelled of cooking, and in Meloria's cottage window shone a yellow light.
"I'm glad you've come," Meloria said, and handed him a cup of steaming wine, red and hot in his bare hands. "Drink to midwinter's passing!"
He did. They ate, a greedy sating with meat pies, new bread, fruits stewed in wine and honey, gravy and fowl and soup and ripe cheeses and wine, always wine, more wine.
"Drink to midwinter," Meloria said.
While they ate, there was no talk. Juice ran down their chins, rich grease slicked their fingers, succulent skin crackled in their teeth. When they had finished and the table lay stained and bone-strewn as a battlefield, Meloria talked as the coachman could not.
She spoke slowly, in her plain unmusical voice, of growing up a tenth daughter of twelve girls, of marrying her husband, of their childlessness, of his death. He had been struck by lightning from a blue sky. The coachman half listened, his belly tight as a drum, his mind a slow empty whirling of wine-colored sparkles. Only when she spoke of her childlessness did he rouse a little, at something new in her voice, something splintered that made him frown and look across the table with fuddled eyes.
"Drink to midwinter," Meloria said, and the splintered tone, which had reminded him of something, was gone.
Later—how much later, he didn't know—he woke. It was unaccustomed warmth that woke him, as shocking after his hearth and cinders as would have been ice water. Meloria's vast breasts lay against his cheek. Blue lines dribbled across their fatty slackness. He shifted a little, and the breath came to him from her open mouth, heavy and stale with used wine.
His stomach lurched.
He made it out of the bed but not out of the cottage. Vomit spewed onto the hearth, making a paste of cinders. When the racking heaves became too bad, the coachman dropped to his hands and knees, naked on the stone, long nose inches from the floor. Eventually the last of the wine came up, a thin pink trail across the stone.
I am a coachman—
When he could stand, he fetched water, cleaned the hearth, and dressed with trembling fingers. A gray winter dawn had drained all color from the village, and all sound. It was only hours later, well along the road, that he thought it odd that Meloria had not been wakened by his retching, and hours after that before he remembered that she had, and that he had seen in her eyes, staring sightlessly at the roof, that splintered thing: the breaking axle, the brambles on the embankment.
Her dead husband's boots were better than his living ones had been; they kept his feet dry the whole long day.
The fortress stood hard-lined against the gray dusk, spilling no rectangles of light onto the cold cobblestones. But the coachman had no time to ponder this; at almost the moment he trudged in view of the nearest tower, he was seized by two armed soldiers. They dragged him into the fortress. He was taken first before a young captain with close-cropped hair and jawline like an erection, who brought him before. . . .
"A stranger, my prince. Creeping by the edge of the castle road, in cover of the trees. And he will say nothing."
"And of her tracks you found—"
The captain looked at the floor.
"Nothing yet, my prince. But this man—"
The prince made a chopping gesture, and the captain was silent. Everyone stood absolutely still except the coachman, who fearfully raised his eyes for a first look at the prince, and the prince himself, who frowned. The coachman dropped his eyes and shuddered.
"Yes, my prince."
"Yes, my prince."
"I want her found now. And if anything has happened to the child. . . ."
"Yes, my prince."
The prince put out one hand in a useless, unfinished gesture. The hand was strong and brown, with tiny golden hairs at the wrist and a single, square-cut ring carved with a wax seal.
"How does she go? And why?" On the last word his voice splintered, and no one answered.
"Can you talk, man?" the prince said to the coachman, who shook his head.
"Not even sounds?"
The coachman remembered the sounds of his retching, but did nothing.
"Have you come here at anyone else's bidding?"
The captain shifted his weight, not quite impatiently. The prince ignored him. The coachman shook his head.
"Did you see anyone on the road? Anyone or . . . anything? Anything unusual?"
The captain said, "My prince, we don't even know if he lied when he answered the first question. Perhaps he can talk and perhaps he cannot. I can find that out easily enough, if you will but leave him to me. . . ."
The prince raised the coachman's chin with one fist and looked steadily into his eyes, shadowed blue into muddy brown. The coachman stepped back a pace. The inside of his head shouted—I am a coachman!—but no words came.
"No," the prince said finally. "Can't you tell by looking that he is harmless? Because if you cannot, Captain, if you must substitute force for sight, you are not as much use to me as if—"
He did not finish. A great commotion moved through the corridor beyond, and a page ran into the room. "She is found! She is found!"
The prince bolted for the door. Before he could reach it, a second captain entered, older than the first, carrying the limp body of a woman. The first captain bit his lip and scowled. The prince took the lady into his own arms and laid her on a low couch. The coachman saw in a daze that she was heavily pregnant, and dressed in rags. Without volition, he glanced at her ankle, bare now, and dirty under the torn skirt.
When she opened her eyes, they were the same clear blue as the prince's. He said gently, and even the coachman saw how the gentleness could not quite cover the anguish, "Another fit."
"Yes," she said, and then in a rush: "I'm sorry, love! I don't remember!"
"Not anything? Not how you left the castle, or why, or . . . or this?" He touched the rags she wore.
"No," the lady said, and in the sound of her voice the coachman lay again in the wet ditch, blackness without, even more within.
The prince held her tighter. "Are you hurt anywhere?"
"No, I . . . no. Just very tired. I was asleep this time, I think, when it came over me."
"And no one saw? Your women, the men-at-arms—"
"No. Please—it wasn't their fault, don't. . . . I don't know how I went past them all, but I know it was not their fault. It was—"
Her voice faltered. The prince murmured against her hair, his face hidden. The younger captain, who had begun to sweat when the prince said, 'the men-at-arms,' seized the coachman's arm with one hand and the page's with the other and pushed them from the room. The older captain followed, closing the door.
"Where this time?" the younger demanded.
"In the forest. Like before. But she could not have been there more than a few minutes; she would have frozen, in those rags at midwinter."
The other swore. "And she will be queen."
The older man pursed his mouth disapprovingly, an odd look for a soldier, and said nothing. The coachman saw again the tightening of the prince's arm around the lady, the trembling of the square-cut ring.
The first captain said, too hastily, "Not that I would speak any word against such a beautiful and virtuous princess!"
The other man merely smiled.
"Well, you two get out!" the first captain shouted. He shoved the page between the child's shoulder blades, and kicked the coachman with his boot. The blow caught the coachman behind the left knee, which buckled. "You heard me—get out or you'll wish you had!"
The page scurried away. The coachman staggered to his feet and took one step before the knee collapsed for a second time. The captain kicked him again.
"Enough," said the older man. "You know he don't like that. Nor she either."
The other looked sullen. The coachman put both palms flat against the wall, bit his tongue, and heaved himself upright. Through a gray haze, he followed the page down the corridor, onto the cobblestones. The early dark of midwinter had fallen; yellow rectangles of light lay on the cobblestones under the cold moon.
Limping along the road, he nearly froze; not moving he surely would have. He had no tinder to make a fire, no coals, no flint. There was moonlight, this time, enough to see, but by the time he came to the place where the shoulder of the road dropped into a steep embankment, he was beyond seeing. He moaned, when the chattering of his teeth and the shivering of his bones let him, and he kept his feet more or less on the road even when he fell into it. But he saw neither the road nor the embankment, bristling with frozen weeds like little spears. He saw darkness, and a rushing jeweled night, and the shining sphere of the coach . . . and something more.
Presently his moaning grew. It became muttering, and the muttering grew to the frozen shapes of deformed words.
"Spilled over. Bits and pieces of magic . . . spilled over. Bits and pieces and pieces. . . ."
He fell down, and this time could not rise, although he tried. Once he put out his hand and groped on the icy roadway, his fingers splayed and bent as if he expected to touch something softer, nastier.
"I am a coachman!" he shouted to the thing that was not there. Body and mind gave out; laying his cheek against the frost, he closed his eyes.
The coach, and the exhilarating rush of horses in the jeweled night, and the thlock-thlock dying away behind. But the thlock-thlock grew louder, and a shape catapulted out of the darkness.
"Oh, no, no—"
Meloria dismounted, all but falling off the borrowed ass, and lifted the coachman. He was nearly too heavy for even her strength and mass, but somehow—heaving, pushing, cursing, sweating—she wrestled him across the back of the mangy ass. She rubbed his hands and cheeks; she raged at his stupidity; she pried open his mouth and scalded his throat with hot soup. She wept and cursed and waddled along the road, leading the ass, carrying the coachman away from the embankment steep in the frozen moonlight.
"It was you," the coachman said when he finally woke again in the cottage, under piles of stifling blankets. Then he realized: slowly his fingers went to his lips where the words had appeared, and he looked at Meloria in hatred and fear.
She took a step away from him and studied a crack in the hearth.
"I can speak."
She said nothing, watching him from the corner of her eye.
"Then bits and pieces. Spillage. Like the other. 'When they're careless.' That's what you said."
"Yes," Meloria answered, looking suddenly older, suddenly weary. In the one word the coachman heard again the breaking of the axle, the tearing of the brambles on the embankment.
He turned his head away from her, and saw that he lay on the hearth, as close to the fire as possible. It burned too hot. He yanked the blankets down from his chin; under them, he discovered, he was naked.
Suddenly he shouted, as he had on the road, "I am a coachman!"
"Not before me, you were not."
He jerked his head around so quickly that the bones in his neck snapped. Meloria said it again, in a rougher voice:
"Not before me, you were not. No more than she was . . . what she is."
He said, in a perfect rage, "She changes back! Without warning, without help, and then he can't even find her!"
"He always does."
"Would she have been better off without me, without any of it, as she was before? Without him or the child? Without even those dangerous bits and pieces. Just because the magic goes away sometimes—would she have been better off without it entirely?"
He was tired. His knee was in pain, and his neck hurt where it had snapped, and a great listlessness came over him, as if the cold had claimed him on the road after all, as if Meloria had not come. He closed his eyes. After a while he could hear Meloria moving around the cottage preparing food, drawing water, clanking a pot down on a table with clumsy, heavy movements.
She drew the blankets back up to his chin.
The coachman opened his eyes and looked up at her. Meloria set her lips hard together. Her chin quivered.
"None of us is that free of spillage. None. Not even . . . such as I."
The coachman nodded. He raised one hand and touched her cheek. It took all the strength he had, without and within, more strength even than not remembering what had hurled after him down the embankment. Then he closed his eyes, exhausted, and slept.
Reprinted by permission; originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1988.