Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter's Tales
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by Greer Gilman
Category: Fantasy Nebula Award(R) Finalist, World Fantasy Award Winner
Description: "I am wind and memory who spells this ... " In the eighteen years since her Crawford Award-winning debut novel Moonwise, Greer Gilman's writing has only grown more complex and entrancing, more beguiling and inventive. Gilman's second novel, Cloud & Ashes, is a slow whirlwind of language, a button box of words, a mythic Joycean fable that will invite immersion, study, revisitation, and delight. To step into her world is to witness the bright flashes, witty turns, and shadowy corners of the human imagination, limned with all the detail and humor of a master stylist. In Gilman's intricate prose, myth and fable live, breathe, and dance as they do nowhere else. Cloud & Ashes collects three Winter's Tales ("Jack Daw's Pack," "A Crowd of Bone," and the longest, "Unleaving") centering on folk traditions, harvest rites, the seasons, gods, and trickster figures. In "Unleaving," Margaret, granddaughter of a goddess, escapes from the underworld into the human realm, Cloud. She is pursued, and, in escaping, brings about an epochal change, separating the kingdom of myth from the human world. Cloud & Ashes is a work that reaches back to the riches of Shakespeare--Gilman understands that the depth of Shakespeare's work lies in his range--and the reader will rejoice in her counterplay of high myth and bawdry even while being drawn into the world of Cloud. Inventive, immersive, playful, and erudite, Gilman is an archeolexicologist rewriting langauge itself in these long-awaited tales.
eBook Publisher: Small Beer Press/Small Beer Press, 2009 2009
eBookwise Release Date: June 2009
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [812 KB]
Reading time: 487-682 min.
"Sublimely lyrical ... an unforgettable realm."--Publisher's Weekly
"A work that reads like language stripped bare, myth tracked to its origins. Seasons, weather, lust, pain, sacrifice ... the stuff of old ballads becomes intensely real, with the natural contradictions of a cold wind that both chafes and dances.... And the payoff is immense. I finished Cloud & Ashes almost tempted to write a thesis that compares it favorably to what James Joyce did in Ulysses and tried in Finnegan's Wake, yet feeling like I'd lived through it all."--Locus
"'Green quince and bletted medlar, quiddany and musk': Greer Gilman fills your mouth with wincing tastes, your ears with crowcalls, knockings and old, old rhythms, your eyes with beautiful and battered creatures, sly-eyed, luminous or cackling as they twine and involute their stories. Gilman writes like no one else. To read her is to travel back, well back, in time; to wander in thrall through mist on moor and fell; to sink up to the nostrils in a glorious bog of legend and language, riddled with bones and iron, sodden with witches' blood."--Margo Lanagan (Tender Morsels)
"A triumphant, heart-rending triptych, a mosaic of folklore, intellectual pyrotechnics, and marvelous, motley characters that takes the breath and makes the blood beat faster."--Catherynne M. Valente (In the Night Garden)
"If you want to see what language can do, the heart-stopping beauty it can achieve, read Cloud & Ashes."--Theodora Goss (In the Night Garden)
one: jack daw's pack
He is met at a crossroads on a windy night, the moon in tatters and the mist unclothing stars, the way from Ask to Owlerdale: a man in black, whiteheaded, with a three-string fiddle in his pack. Or in a corner of an ale house, querulous among the cups, untallied; somehow never there for the reckoning, though you, or Hodge, or any traveller has drunk the night with him. A marish man: he speaks with a reedy lowland wauling, through his beak, as they say. He calls Cloud crowland. How you squall, he says, you moorland ravens; how you peck and pilfer. He speaks like a hoodie crow himself, all hoarse with rain, with bawling ballads in the street. Jack Daw, they call him. A witty angry man, a bitter melancholy man. He will barter; he will gull. In his pack are bacca pipes, new ones, white as bones, and snuff and coney-skins and cards. He plays for nothing, or for gold; packs, shuffles. In a game, triumphant, he plucks out the Crowd of Bone, or Brock with her leathern cap and anvil, hammering at a fiery heart, a fallen star. (It brock, but I mended it.) Death's doxy, he calls her, thief and tinker, for she walks the moon's road with her bag, between the hedges white with souls; she takes. Here's a lap, he says, in his shawm's voice, sharp with yelling out for ale. Here's a blaze needs no bellows. Here's a bush catches birds. He mocks at fortune. The traveller in the inn forgets what cards he held, face down, discarded in the rings of ale; he forgets what gold he lost. He'd none in his pockets, yet he played it away, laid it round and shining on the sanded board, a bright array. On each is stamped a sun.
And elsewhere on that very night, late travelling the road between Cold Law and Soulsgrave Hag, no road at all but white stones glimmering, the sold sheep heavy in his purse, another Tib or Tom or Bartlemy will meet Jack Daw. He will stand at the crossroads, bawling in his windy voice, a broadside in his hand. There'll be a woodcut at the head: a hanged man on the gallantry, crows rising from the corn. Or this: a pretty drummer boy, sword drawn against the wood, and flaunting in her plumy cap. Two lovers' graves, entwined. A shipwreck, and no grave at all. You must take what he gives. Yet he will barter for his wares, and leave the heavy purse still crammed with coppers, for his fee is light. He takes only silver, the clipped coin of the moon: an hour of the night, a dream of owls. Afterwards, the traveller remembers that the three-string fiddle had a carven head, the face his own. With a cold touch at his heart, he knows that Jack Daw's fiddle wakes the dead; he sees their bones, unclad and rising, clothing with the tune. They dance. He sees his girl, left sleeping as he thought; Joan's Jack, gone for a soldier; his youngest child. Himself. They call him to the dance. He sees the sinews of the music string them, the old tunes, "Cross the Water to Babylon," "The Crowd of Bone." Longways, for as many as will, as must, they dance: clad in music, in the flowers and the flesh.
* * * *
What The Crowd Of Bone Sang
She is silent, Ashes, and she dances, odd one out. In the guisers' play, she bears a bag of ashes of the old year's crown to sain the hearths of the living, the hallows of the earth. The children hide from her, behind the door and in the shadow of the kist; not laughing, as they fear the Sun. Click! Clack! He knocks the old man dead, that headed him before. And tumbled by the knot of swords, he rises, flaunting in their gaze. The girl who put on Ashes with her coat of skins, who stalks them, bites her cheek and grimaces so not to laugh; she feels her power. She looks sidelong at the Sun.
They say that Ashes' mother got her gazing in her glass. Undo, the raven said, and so she did, undid, and saw her likeness in the stony mirror, naked as a branch of thorn. The old witch took it for herself; she cracked the glass, she broke the tree. They bled. Devouring, she bore her daughter, as the old moon bears the new, itself again; yet left hand to its right. And they do say the old one, Annis, locks her daughter in the dark of moon, winterlong and waning, and that Ashes' birth, rebirth, is spring. They say the sun is Ashes' lightborn brat. She is the shadow of the candle, the old moon's daughter and her mirror; she is tarnished with our breath and death. She's winter's runaway.
They are old who tell this.
But the girl who put on Ashes with her tattered coat walks silent, flown with night and firelight and masking. She is giddy with the wheel of stars. She sees the brands whirled upward, sees the flash of teeth, of eyes. The guisers shout and jostle. They are sharp as foxes in her nostrils: smoke and ale and eager sweat. She moves among them, nameless; she wears her silence like a cloak of night. Ah, but she can feel the power in her marrow, like a vein of stars. Her feet are nightfall. She could tuck a sleeping hare within her jacket, take a hawk's eggs from its breast. Her hand could beckon like the moon and bid a crone come dancing from the chimneynook to sweep about her and about; could call the sun to hawk at shadows, or a young man to her lap, and what he will.
And in the morning, she will lay by Ashes with her rags, and wash her face, and comb the witchknots from her hair; but Ashes in the tale goes on.
In spring, she rises from her mother Annis' dark; they call the snowdrops Ashes' Steps. The rainbow is her scarf. She dances, whirling in the April storm; she fills her hands with hailstones, green as souls. And there are some have met her, walking backward on the Lyke Road, that they call the white hare's trod, away from death; she leaps within the cold spring, falling, filling up the traveller's hands. She is drunken and she eats.
At May, the riddlecake, as round as the wheeling sun, is broken into shards, one marked with ashes; he that draws her share is Sun. But he was sown long since, and he's forgotten harrowing. He rises and he lies. Light work. He breaks the hallows knot of thorn; he eats the old year's bones for bread. Sun calls the stalk from the seeded earth, draws forth the green blade and the beard to swell his train. He gives the meadows green gowns. And flowers falling to his scythe lie tossed and tumbled, ah, they wither at his fiery kiss. They fall in swathes, in sweet confusion, to his company of rakes, his rade of scythesmen all in green. The hay's his dance. Vaunting, he calls the witchstone, Annis, to the dance, for mastery of the year, and wagers all his reckless gold. But he has spent his glory and must die. The barley is himself.
Ashes reaps him. By harvesting, she's sunburnt, big with light. She wears a wreath of poppyheads; her palms are gashed, they're red with garnering. They open like a cry. Her sickle fells the standing corn, the hare's last hallows, and he's gathered in her sheaf. She's three then, each and all the moon, his end: her sickle shearing and her millstone trundling round, her old black cauldron gaping for his bones.