31 January 2014 ~ Hyacinth Noir’s Imbolc Literary Issue
Post III ~ Beneath the Dane Hills, by BR Sanders
<part I available previously>
Beneath the Dane Hills [part ii]
I let myself fall for her real quick. It was easy. It was simple. Since it was always the two of out in the hills it was private. When it was me and her in the Dane Hills it felt like it was just me and her in the entire world. All these weights lifted from my shoulders. Everything we did together happened right there in broad daylight on a plaid blanket, plain as day. I loved that because it felt like if we weren’t hiding anything that there was nothing to hide. Agnes was the first person who’d ever made me feel like anything but a freak or an outsider or weird or wrong. Months we were at it, and in that time we built up a closeness and a trust. She was my first and I did that thing baby ducks do to the first person they meet out of the shell. I imprinted. Still, the conversations stayed normal and mindless and about nothing serious. Until they weren’t anymore.
She started asking me about the future. I deflected for awhile, but she pressed it, and then I rolled over and looked her in the eye. “What future, Agnes? I’m poor. I’m Pakistani. I got no education. I’m a dyke. People like me don’t have futures.”
“Yes, they do,” she said.
I flopped over onto my back and stared up at the clouds. “The only futures people like me have are bad ones.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
And we didn’t for awhile, but then she brought it back up. Again and again she brought it up more and more often until we were fighting most times we were together. She kept wanting to help. I kept telling her there was nothing to help. I tried turning the questions back on her, asking her what she wanted, but she’d only ever smile and shrug and stare out at the hills. “Asked you first, Pooja,” she’d say. Meanwhile, my ma’s latest relationship was fraying at the edges. I could read the signs—we’d be running from Leicester in a few months, back to hopping shelters and scrambling by. I just wanted this thing with Agnes to be good until I had to split. I told her as much one day when she kept pressing and pressing and pressing. She let her questions of the future go unasked after that, which was a mercy, but things got…stranger instead of more normal.
She marked my map. I found her perched again beneath that same ancient oak tree where I’d first met her. She looked somber. There was no grin when I approached, no canny smile and offer of a sandwich. I felt a knot in my stomach. We were breaking up; I just knew it. It felt inevitable. I squared my shoulder and held up my chin. No hard feelings.
“Hey, Pooja,” she said.
“Hey, Agnes.” I wanted to reach out and touch her. That knot in my stomach worked it’s way up to my throat and stuck there. “No sandwiches today?”
Agnes cracked a sly sideways smile. “No sandwiches today,” she said. “But there is something I’ve wanted to show you.” She laughed. “You know, it’s funny how a person can come to know you but know so little about you in the process. You don’t know hardly anything about me.”
“Sure I do,” I said. “I know you’re smart. And funny. And you’re favorite color’s blue. And you make a great sandwich. And you’re from around here.”
“I am from around here.”
“See? I know all about you, Agnes.”
“Agnes,” she repeated, her eyes cast down at the roots of the oak tree beside the mouth of the cave. “Not so many call me that anymore. Look, when I show you then you’ll understand. Come into the cave with me. Remember you know me, alright? When I’m telling you about me remember that you know the sort of person I am, alright?”
That knot in my throat twisted, grew spiny and sharp. Ma makes breakups look easy, you know, and this wasn’t. I had a vain and stupid hope that maybe this wasn’t the end after all, that maybe if I listened to her and let her tell me what she wanted to tell me that we would make it through the afternoon still together, in one piece. “Alright,” I said. “Yeah. Of course I’ll remember.”
Agnes smiled a brighter smile, then, a warm and friendly smile. She held out her hand, and I took it. She gave me a candle and a book of matches. I was about to ask her why, but she pressed them into my free hand. “Just trust me,” she said. And I did.
This was a cave I’d been in before. I remembered it as shallow, just maybe ten feet deep. Nothing but a pocket in the side of a hill. It was the kind of place, I thought, that would have just barely enough room for both of us inside it. Agnes went first, tugging me along behind her. I took one step into the cave, another, then five more, like suddenly that pocket had transformed itself into a tunnel. I followed her for a handful of long minutes, walking behind her as the darkness grew around me. The path sloped down, sending us beneath the Dane Hills, beneath Leicester. The air grew cool. Her hand seemed to grow hotter in mine. “Agnes—”
“Wait. Just wait.”
I waited. I let myself be led down into the belly of the hills. The rocky ground beneath my feet levelled out. Agnes dropped my hand. It scared me to be alone beneath the surface of the earth, there where it was so perfectly dark that I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face. I reached for her, sweeping the hand she’d let go in wide arcs, blindly looking for her. “Agnes?”
“I’m here. Right here. Light the candle, Pooja.”
My hands shook as I struck the match. The tiny flame wobbled in the darkness, twitching and trembling until it met the wick of the candle. The light bloomed, sauntered outward. The light fell over Agnes, my Agnes. She looked taller. Her face looked thinner. Something in the shadows, I thought. She leaned closer, and her hair fell in thick black clumps on either side of her face; they looked, now, to be made of feathers. They cast shadows around me like a pair of wide wings which threatened to swallow me whole. Her face stopped an inch from mine, and Agnes was…she was herself and not herself.
Her face had grown long and pointed, sharp as broken glass. Her skin was the deep gray-blue of the hours just before the break of dawn. Her eyes were large black balls set in angled sockets; they reminded me of the impenetrable eyes of birds. She smiled, and her mouth was full of fangs.
“Black Annis,” I whispered. I shook; the light of the candle shook with me.
“Black Agnes,” she said. “It started Black Agnes, anyway, but now it’s become Black Annis.”
“This is your bower.”
“You found it.” She smiled wider and cocked her head to the side with a brisk, staccato movement. “You found me.”
“Fuck, Agnes, are you going to eat me?”
She laughed. She sounded like herself, like my throwback goth girlfriend, when she laughed. While her laughter rang through her bower I could see beneath the new strangeness of her face the old familiar lines of my Agnes. I relaxed ever so slightly. “You wish,” she said.
“Agnes, what’s going on?”
“Pooja, before there was you, there was me and mine. We remain. Some of us, anyway, in the few places still untouched by your…industry.”
I wanted to ask her what she was, but it struck me as rude. It also struck me as irrelevant. Whatever she was, she was stronger and stranger than me. She had a changeling power totally out of my reach. Some little things began to fall into place: the sandwiches she appeared to conjure were, perhaps, actually conjured. I’d never seen her in town. Any question I asked about her she turned around on me. It’s never been all that hard to get me talking about myself, I guess.
“I have a talent, Pooja,” my Agnes, Black Agnes, said. “I’m good at luck. It’s hard to survive without it. I can pull luck, raw luck, from the trees and stones and flowers of these hills. I eat that luck, and that keeps me going year after year after year. Sometimes, to someone who seems worth the effort, I can even take that raw luck and give it to someone else.”
“Are you…you are going to eat me, aren’t you? Pull the luck from my bones and eat it,” I said.
Black Agnes laughed again. Again, I heard my Agnes in her voice. “No, stupid. I’m giving you some luck. I’ve got luck for you to eat, Pooja. It’s just repayment: you stumbling on my bower that first day was a bit of luck, eh? Look, all those stories of girls stumbling into my bower and getting eaten, they’re not true. What happens is a girl stumbles into my bower, like you did. And sometimes we get on, like me and you did. And sometimes I get to really, really liking them, like I did with you. And sometimes I like them so much that it seems worth it to set them free, full of luck, out into the great wide world. I love you, Pooja, and I want you to have a future. Those other girls of mine who’ve disappeared? I didn’t eat them. I gave them futures. I’m giving you one, too. Here.” In her blue-gray claws she clutched a rough bowl hewn from the stones of the Dane Hills. It was filled with a thick, shimmering liquid, something oily that glowed a rainbow of colors when it came into the light.
“What is it?”
“What will it do to me?”
“It’ll cut you a break, Pooja. Finally, something will go your way.”
I frowned at it. I looked into her face. I couldn’t be sure, but it felt like there was a warmth in her bird-black eyes. “How does it work?”
“How does anything work? It just…works. It’s luck, Pooja, and I’ve strained it from the Dane Hills just for you. It’ll be decades, maybe another century or two before I can get this much luck from the land again. And it’s all for you.”
“I…” I wanted to push the bowl away. I still wasn’t entirely sure this was happening, but if it was, if all this was real, then I felt like her gift was a waste on me. Me, who’d done nothing but get myself in trouble time and time again. Me, who’d squandered any chance I’d ever had at an education. Ungainly, unacceptable, underwhelming me. “Agnes, I—”
What she did next happened so fast I couldn’t have stopped it. She thrust the bowl into my hands, and forced my hands to hold the bowl up to my mouth. The luck poured down my throat, thick and cool and smooth. I had to swallow it to keep from drowning in it. I’d swallowed all of it in just two or three seconds. It left me dazed in its wake. I heard the stone bowl clatter to the floor of the cave. I felt Black Agnes’ arms around me, her cool lips against mine. I kissed her, my Agnes, who it turned out was some strange and ancient creature. I kissed her with a bellyful of luck, and I felt a spark of something spring to life. I felt, for the first time in my whole life, maybe, hopeful. “Thank you, Agnes,” I said.
B R Sanders
lives in Denver, CO with their family. By day they work as an analyst in K-12 public education. By night they craft speculative fiction stories with a decidedly queer bent. They blog at brsanderswrites.com.