The Amber Spyglass Chapter 18 The Suburbs Of The Dead

The Amber Spyglass Chapter 18 The Suburbs Of The Dead

Lyra was awake before dawn, with Pantalaimon shivering at her breast, and she got up to walk about and warm herself up as the gray light seeped into the sky. She had never known such silence, not even in the snow-blanketed Arctic; there was not a stir of wind, and the sea was so still that not the tiniest ripple broke on the sand; the world seemed suspended between breathing in and breathing out.

Will lay curled up fast asleep, with his head on the rucksack to protect the knife. The cloak had fallen off his shoulder, and she tucked it around him, pretending that she was taking care to avoid his daemon, and that she had the form of a cat, curled up just as he was. She must be here somewhere, Lyra thought.

Carrying the still sleepy Pantalaimon, she walked away from Will and sat down on the slope of a sand dune a little way off, so their voices wouldn’t wake him.

“Those little people,” Pantalaimon said.

“I don’t like ’em,” said Lyra decisively. “I think we should get away from ’em as soon as we can. I reckon if we trap ’em in a net or something, Will can cut through and close up and that’s it, we’ll be free.”

“We haven’t got a net,” he said, “or something. Anyway, I bet they’re cleverer than that. He’s watching us now.”

Pantalaimon was a hawk as he said that, and his eyes were keener than hers. The darkness of the sky was turning minute by minute into the palest ethereal blue, and as she looked across the sand, the first edge of the sun just cleared the rim of the sea, dazzling her. Because she was on the slope of the dune, the light reached her a few seconds before it touched the beach, and she watched it flow around her and along toward Will; and then she saw the hand-high figure of the Chevalier Tialys, standing by Will’s head, clear and wide awake and watching them.

“The thing is,” said Lyra, “they can’t make us do what they want. They got to follow us. I bet they’re fed up.”

“If they got hold of us,” said Pantalaimon, meaning him and Lyra, “and got their stings ready to stick in us, Will’d have to do what they said.”

Lyra thought about it. She remembered vividly the horrible scream of pain from Mrs. Coulter, the eye-rolling convulsions, the ghastly, lolling drool of the golden monkey as the poison entered her bloodstream… And that was only a scratch, as her mother had recently been reminded elsewhere. Will would have to give in and do what they wanted.

“Suppose they thought he wouldn’t, though,” she said, “suppose they thought he was so coldhearted he’d just watch us die. Maybe he better make ’em think that, if he can.”

She had brought the alethiometer with her, and now that it was light enough to see, she took the beloved instrument out and laid it on its black velvet cloth in her lap. Little by little, Lyra drifted into that trance in which the many layers of meaning were clear to her, and where she could sense intricate webs of connectedness between them all. As her fingers found the symbols, her mind found the words: How can we get rid of the spies?

Then the needle began to dart this way and that, almost too fast to see, and some part of Lyra’s awareness counted the swings and the stops and saw at once the meaning of what the movement said.

It told her: Do not try, because your lives depend on them.

That was a surprise, and not a happy one. But she went on and asked: How can we get to the land of the dead?

The answer came: Go down. Follow the knife. Go onward. Follow the knife.

And finally she asked hesitantly, half-ashamed: Is this the right thing to do?

Yes, said the alethiometer instantly. Yes.

She sighed, coming out of her trance, and tucked the hair behind her ears, feeling the first warmth of the sun on her face and shoulders. There were sounds in the world now, too: insects were stirring, and a very slight breeze was rustling the dry grass stems growing higher up the dune.

She put the alethiometer away and wandered back to Will, with Pantalaimon as large as he could make himself and lion-shaped, in the hope of daunting the Gallivespians.

The man was using his lodestone apparatus, and when he’d finished, Lyra said:

“You been talking to Lord Asriel?”

“To his representative,” said Tialys.

“We en’t going.”

“That’s what I told him.”

“What did he say?”

“That was for my ears, not yours.”

“Suit yourself,” she said. “Are you married to that lady?”

“No. We are colleagues.”

“Have you got any children?”

“No.”

Tialys continued to pack the lodestone resonator away, and as he did so, the Lady Salmakia woke up nearby, sitting up graceful and slow from the little hollow she’d made in the soft sand. The dragonflies were still asleep, tethered with cobweb-thin cord, their wings damp with dew.

“Are there big people on your world, or are they all small like you?” Lyra said.

“We know how to deal with big people,” Tialys replied, not very helpfully, and went to talk quietly to the Lady. They spoke too softly for Lyra to hear, but she enjoyed watching them sip dewdrops from the marram grass to refresh themselves. Water must be different for them, she thought to Pantalaimon: imagine drops the size of your fist! They’d be hard to get into; they’d have a sort of elastic rind, like a balloon.

By this time Will was waking, too, wearily. The first thing he did was to look for the Gallivespians, who looked back at once, fully focused on him.

He looked away and found Lyra.

“I want to tell you something,” she said. “Come over here, away from – “

“If you go away from us,” said Tialys’s clear voice, “you must leave the knife. If you won’t leave the knife, you must talk to each other here.”

“Can’t we be private?” Lyra said indignantly. “We don’t want you listening to what we say!”

“Then go away, but leave the knife.”

There was no one else nearby, after all, and certainly the Gallivespians wouldn’t be able to use it. Will rummaged in the rucksack for the water bottle and a couple of biscuits, and handing one to Lyra, he went with her up the slope of the dune.

“I asked the alethiometer,” she told him, “and it said we shouldn’t try and escape from the little people, because they were going to save our lives. So maybe we’re stuck with ’em.”

“Have you told them what we’re going to do?”

“No! And I won’t, either. ‘Cause they’ll only tell Lord Asriel on that speaking-fiddle and he’d go there and stop us – so we got to just go, and not talk about it in front of them.”

“They are spies, though,” Will pointed out. “They must be good at listening and hiding. So maybe we better not mention it at all. We know where we’re going. So we’ll just go and not talk about it, and they’ll have to put up with it and come along.”

“They can’t hear us now. They’re too far off. Will, I asked how we get there, too. It said to follow the knife, just that.”

“Sounds easy,” he said. “But I bet it isn’t. D’you know what Iorek told me?”

“No. He said – when I went to say good-bye – he said it would be very difficult for you, but he thought you could do it. But he never told me why…”

“The knife broke because I thought of my mother,” he explained. “So I’ve got to put her out of my mind. But… it’s like when someone says don’t think about a crocodile, you do, you can’t help it…”

“Well, you cut through last night all right,” she said.

“Yeah, because I was tired, I think. Well, we’ll see. Just follow the knife?”

“That’s all it said.”

“Might as well go now, then. Except there’s not much food left. We ought to find something to take with us, bread and fruit or something. So first I’ll find a world where we can get food, and then we’ll start looking properly.”

“All right,” said Lyra, quite happy to be moving again, with Pan and Will, alive and awake.

They made their way back to the spies, who were sitting alertly by the knife, packs on their backs.

“We should like to know what you intend,” said Salmakia.

“Well, we’re not coming to Lord Asriel anyway,” said Will. “We’ve got something else to do first.”

“And will you tell us what that is, since it’s clear we can’t stop you from doing it?”

“No,” said Lyra, “because you’d just go and tell them. You’ll have to come along without knowing where we’re going. Of course you could always give up and go back to them.”

“Certainly not,” said Tialys.

“We want some kind of guarantee,” said Will. “You’re spies, so you’re bound to be dishonest, that’s your trade. We need to know we can trust you. Last night we were all too tired and we couldn’t think about it, but there’d be nothing to stop you waiting till we were asleep and then stinging us to make us helpless and calling up Lord Asriel on that lodestone thing. You could do that easily. So we need to have a proper guarantee that you won’t. A promise isn’t enough.”

The two Gallivespians trembled with anger at this slur on their honor.

Tialys, controlling himself, said, “We don’t accept one-sided demands. You must give something in exchange. You must tell us what your intentions are, and then I shall give the lodestone resonator into your care. You must let me have it when I want to send a message, but you will always know when that happens, and we shall not be able to use it without your agreement. That will be our guarantee. And now you tell us where you are going, and why.”

Will and Lyra exchanged a glance to confirm it.

“All right,” Lyra said, “that’s fair. So here’s where we’re going: we’re going to the world of the dead. We don’t know where it is, but the knife’ll find it. That’s what we’re going to do.”

The two spies were looking at her with openmouthed incredulity.

Then Salmakia blinked and said, “What you say doesn’t make sense. The dead are dead, that’s all. There is no world of the dead.”

“I thought that was true, as well,” said Will. “But now I’m not sure. At least with the knife we can find out.”

“But why?”

Lyra looked at Will and saw him nod.

“Well,” she said, “before I met Will, long before I was asleep, I led this friend into danger, and he was killed. I thought I was rescuing him, only I was making things worse. And while I was asleep I dreamed of him and I thought maybe I could make amends if I went where he’s gone and said I was sorry. And Will wants to find his father, who died just when he found him before. See, Lord Asriel wouldn’t think of that. Nor would Mrs. Coulter. If we went to him we’d have to do what he wants, and he wouldn’t think of Roger at all – that’s my friend who died – it wouldn’t matter to him. But it matters to me. To us. So that’s what we want to do.”

“Child,” said Tialys, “when we die, everything is over. There is no other life. You have seen death. You’ve seen dead bodies, and you’ve seen what happens to a daemon when death comes. It vanishes. What else can there be to live on after that?”

“We’re going to go and find out,” said Lyra. “And now we’ve told you, I’ll take your resonator lodestone.”

She held out her hand, and leopard-Pantalaimon stood, tail swinging slowly, to reinforce her demand. Tialys unslung the pack from his back and laid it in her palm. It was surprisingly heavy – no burden for her, of course, but she marveled at his strength.

“And how long do you think this expedition will take?” said the Chevalier.

“We don’t know,” Lyra told him. “We don’t know anything about it, any more than you do. We’ll just go there and see.”

“First thing,” Will said, “we’ve got to get some water and some more food, something easy to carry. So I’m going to find a world where we can do that, and then we’ll set off.”

Tialys and Salmakia mounted their dragonflies and held them quivering on the ground. The great insects were eager for flight, but the command of their riders was absolute, and Lyra, watching them in daylight for the first time, saw the extraordinary fineness of the gray silk reins, the silvery stirrups, the tiny saddles.

Will took the knife, and a powerful temptation made him feel for the touch of his own world: he had the credit card still; he could buy familiar food; he could even telephone Mrs. Cooper and ask for news of his mother –

The knife jarred with a sound like a nail being drawn along rough stone, and his heart nearly stopped. If he broke the blade again, it would be the end.

After a few moments he tried again. Instead of trying not to think of his mother, he said to himself: Yes, I know she’s there, but I’m just going to look away while I do this…

And that time it worked. He found a new world and slid the knife along to make an opening, and a few moments later all of them were standing in what looked like a neat and prosperous farmyard in some northern country like Holland or Denmark, where the stone-flagged yard was swept and clean and a row of stable doors stood open. The sun shone down through a hazy sky, and there was the smell of burning in the air, as well as something less pleasant. There was no sound of human life, though a loud buzzing, so active and vigorous that it sounded like a machine, came from the stables.

Lyra went and looked, and came back at once, looking pale.

“There’s four”?C she gulped, hand to her throat, and recovered – “four dead horses in there. And millions of flies…”

“Look,” said Will, swallowing, “or maybe better not.”

He was pointing at the raspberry canes that edged the kitchen garden. He’d just seen a man’s legs, one with a shoe on and one without, protruding from the thickest part of the bushes.

Lyra didn’t want to look, but Will went to see if the man was still alive and needed help. He came back shaking his head, looking uneasy.

The two spies were already at the farmhouse door, which was ajar.

Tialys darted back and said, “It smells sweeter in there,” and then he flew back over the threshold while Salmakia scouted further around the outbuildings.

Will followed the Chevalier. He found himself in a big square kitchen, an old-fashioned place with white china on a wooden dresser, and a scrubbed pine table, and a hearth where a black kettle stood cold. Next door there was a pantry, with two shelves full of apples that filled the whole room with fragrance. The silence was oppressive.

Lyra said quietly, “Will, is this the world of the dead?”

The same thought had occurred to him. But he said, “No, I don’t think so. It’s one we haven’t been in before. Look, we’ll load up with as much as we can carry. There’s sort of rye bread, that’ll be good – it’s light – and here’s some cheese…”

When they had taken what they could carry, Will dropped a gold coin into the drawer in the big pine table.

“Well?” said Lyra, seeing Tialys raise his eyebrows. “You should always pay for what you take.”

At that moment Salmakia came in through the back door, landing her dragonfly on the table in a shimmer of electric blue.

“There are men coming,” she said, “on foot, with weapons. They’re only a few minutes’ walk away. And there is a village burning beyond the fields.”

And as she spoke, they could hear the sound of boots on gravel, and a voice issuing orders, and the jingle of metal.

“Then we should go,” said Will.

He felt in the air with the knifepoint. And at once he was aware of a new kind of sensation. The blade seemed to be sliding along a very smooth surface, like a mirror, and then it sank through slowly until he was able to cut. But it was resistant, like heavy cloth, and when he made an opening, he blinked with surprise and alarm: because the world he was opening into was the same in every detail as the one they were already standing in.

“What’s happening?” said Lyra.

The spies were looking through, puzzled. But it was more than puzzlement they felt. Just as the air had resisted the knife, so something in this opening resisted their going through. Will had to push against something invisible and then pull Lyra after him, and the Gallivespians could hardly make any headway at all. They had to perch the dragonflies on the children’s hands, and even then it was like pulling them against a pressure in the air; their filmy wings bent and twisted, and the little riders had to stroke their mounts’ heads and whisper to calm their fears.

But after a few seconds of struggle, they were all through, and Will found the edge of the window (though it was impossible to see) and closed it, shutting the sound of the soldiers away in their own world.

“Will,” said Lyra, and he turned to see that there was another figure in the kitchen with them.

His heart jolted. It was the man he’d seen not ten minutes before, stark dead in the bushes with his throat cut.

He was middle-aged, lean, with the look of a man who spent most of the time in the open air. But now he was looking almost crazed, or paralyzed, with shock. His eyes were so wide that the white showed all around the iris, and he was clutching the edge of the table with a trembling hand. His throat, Will was glad to see, was intact.

He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out. All he could do was point at Will and Lyra.

Lyra said, “Excuse us for being in your house, but we had to escape from the men who were coming. I’m sorry if we startled you. I’m Lyra, and this is Will, and these are our friends, the Chevalier Tialys and the Lady Salmakia. Could you tell us your name and where we are?”

This normal-sounding request seemed to bring the man to his senses, and a shudder passed over him, as if he were waking from a dream.

“I’m dead,” he said. “I’m lying out there, dead. I know I am. You ain’t dead. What’s happening? God help me, they cut my throat. What’s happening?”

Lyra stepped closer to Will when the man said I’m dead, and Pantalaimon fled to her breast as a mouse. As for the Gallivespians, they were trying to control their dragonflies, because the great insects seemed to have an aversion for the man and darted here and there in the kitchen, looking for a way out.

But the man didn’t notice them. He was still trying to understand what had happened.

“Are you a ghost?” Will said cautiously.

The man reached out his hand, and Will tried to take it, but his fingers closed on the air. A tingle of cold was all he felt.

When he saw it happen, the man looked at his own hand, appalled. The numbness was beginning to wear off, and he could feel the pity of his state.

“Truly,” he said, “I am dead…I’m dead, and I’m going to Hell…”

“Hush,” said Lyra, “we’ll go together. What’s your name?”

“Dirk Jansen I was,” he said, “but already I… I don’t know what to do…Don’t know where to go…”

Will opened the door. The barnyard looked the same, the kitchen garden was unchanged, the same hazy sun shone down. And there was the man’s body, untouched.

A little groan broke from Dirk Jansen’s throat, as if there were no denying it anymore. The dragonflies darted out of the door and skimmed over the ground and then shot up high, faster than birds. The man was looking around helplessly, raising his hands, lowering them again, uttering little cries.

“I can’t stay here…Can’t stay,” he was saying. “But this ain’t the farm I knew. This is wrong. I got to go…”

“Where are you going, Mr. Jansen?” said Lyra.

“Down the road. Dunno. Got to go. Can’t stay here…”

Salmakia flew down to perch on Lyra’s hand. The dragonfly’s little claws pricked as the Lady said, “There are people walking from the village – people like this man – all walking in the same direction.”

“Then we’ll go with them,” said Will, and swung his rucksack over his shoulder.

Dirk Jansen was already passing his own body, averting his eyes. He looked almost as if he were drunk, stopping, moving on, wandering to left and right, stumbling over little ruts and stones on the path his living feet had known so well.

Lyra came after Will, and Pantalaimon became a kestrel and flew up as high as he could, making Lyra gasp.

“They’re right,” he said when he came down. “There’s lines of people all coming from the village. Dead people…”

And soon they saw them, too: twenty or so men, women, and children, all moving as Dirk Jansen had done, uncertain and shocked. The village was half a mile away, and the people were coming toward them, close together in the middle of the road. When Dirk Jansen saw the other ghosts, he broke into a stumbling run, and they held out their hands to greet him.

“Even if they don’t know where they’re going, they’re all going there together,” Lyra said. “We better just go with them.”

“D’you think they had daemons in this world?” said Will.

“Can’t tell. If you saw one of em in your world, would you know he was a ghost?”

“It’s hard to say. They don’t look normal, exactly… There was a man I used to see in my town, and he used to walk about outside the shops always holding the same old plastic bag, and he never spoke to anyone or went inside. And no one ever looked at him. I used to pretend he was a ghost. They look a bit like him. Maybe my world’s full of ghosts and I never knew.”

“I don’t think mine is,” said Lyra doubtfully.

“Anyway, this must be the world of the dead. These people have just been killed – those soldiers must’ve done it – and here they are, and it’s just like the world they were alive in. I thought it’d be a lot different…”

“Will, it’s fading,” she said. “Look!”

She was clutching his arm. He stopped and looked around, and she was right. Not long before he had found the window in Oxford and stepped through into the other world of Citt?¤gazze, there had been an eclipse of the sun, and like millions of others Will had stood outside at midday and watched as the bright daylight faded and dimmed until a sort of eerie twilight covered the houses, the trees, the park. Everything was just as clear as in full daylight, but there was less light to see it by, as if all the strength were draining out of a dying sun.

What was happening now was like that, but odder, because the edges of things were losing their definition as well and becoming blurred.

“It’s not like going blind, even,” said Lyra, frightened, “because it’s not that we can’t see things, it’s like the things themselves are fading…”

The color was slowly seeping out of the world. A dim green gray for the bright green of the trees and the grass, a dim sand gray for the vivid yellow of a field of corn, a dim blood gray for the red bricks of a neat farmhouse…

The people themselves, closer now, had begun to notice, too, and were pointing and holding one another’s arms for reassurance.

The only bright things in the whole landscape were the brilliant red-and-yellow and electric blue of the dragonflies, and their little riders, and Will and Lyra, and Pantalaimon, who was hovering kestrel-shaped close above.

They were close to the first of the people now, and it was clear: they were all ghosts. Will and Lyra took a step toward each other, but there was nothing to fear, for the ghosts were far more afraid of them and were hanging back, unwilling to approach.

Will called out, “Don’t be afraid. We’re not going to hurt you. Where are you going?” “

They looked at the oldest man among them, as if he were their guide.

“We’re going where all the others go,” he said. “Seems as if I know, but I can’t remember learning it. Seems as if it’s along the road. We’ll know it when we get there.”

“Mama,” said a child, “why’s it getting dark in the daytime?”

“Hush, dear, don’t fret,” the mother said. “Can’t make anything better by fretting. We’re dead, I expect.”

“But where are we going?” the child said. “I don’t want to be dead, Mama!”

“We’re going to see Grandpa,” the mother said desperately.

But the child wouldn’t be consoled and wept bitterly. Others in the group looked at the mother with sympathy or annoyance, but there was nothing they could do to help, and they all walked on disconsolately through the fading landscape as the child’s thin cries went on, and on, and on.

The Chevalier Tialys had spoken to Salmakia before skimming ahead, and Will and Lyra watched the dragonfly with eyes greedy for its brightness and vigor as it got smaller and smaller. The Lady flew down and perched her insect on Will’s hand.

“The Chevalier has gone to see what’s ahead,” she said. “We think the landscape is fading because these people are forgetting it. The farther they go away from their homes, the darker it will get.”

“But why d’you think they’re moving?” Lyra said. “If I was a ghost I’d want to stay in the places I knew, not wander along and get lost.”

“They feel unhappy there,” Will said, guessing. “It’s where they’ve just died. They’re afraid of it.”

“No, they’re pulled onward by something,” said the Lady. “Some instinct is drawing them down the road.”

And indeed the ghosts were moving more purposefully now that they were out of sight of their own village. The sky was as dark as if a mighty storm were threatening, but there was none of the electric tension that comes ahead of a storm. The ghosts walked on steadily, and the road ran straight ahead across a landscape that was almost featureless.

From time to time one of them would glance at Will or Lyra, or at the brilliant dragonfly and its rider, as if they were curious. Finally the oldest man said:

“You, you boy and girl. You ain’t dead. You ain’t ghosts. What you coming along here for?”

“We came through by accident,” Lyra told him before Will could speak. “I don’t know how it happened. We were trying to escape from those men, and we just seemed to find ourselves here.”

“How will you know when you’ve got to the place where you’ve got to go?” said Will.

“I expect we’ll be told,” said the ghost confidently. “They’ll separate out the sinners and the righteous, I dare say. It’s no good praying now. It’s too late for that. You should have done that when you were alive. No use now.”

It was quite clear which group he expected to be in, and quite clear, too, that he thought it wouldn’t be a big one. The other ghosts heard him uneasily, but he was all the guidance they had, so they followed without arguing.

And on they walked, trudging in silence under a sky that had finally darkened to a dull iron gray and remained there without getting any darker. The living ones found themselves looking to their left and right, above and below, for anything that was bright or lively or joyful, and they were always disappointed until a little spark appeared ahead and raced toward them through the air. It was the Chevalier, and Salmakia urged her dragonfly ahead to meet him, with a cry of pleasure.

They conferred and sped back to the children.

“There’s a town ahead,” said Tialys. “It looks like a refugee camp, but it’s obviously been there for centuries or more. And I think there’s a sea or a lake beyond it, but that’s covered in mist. I could hear the cries of birds. And there are hundreds of people arriving every minute, from every direction, people like these – ghosts…”

The ghosts themselves listened as he spoke, though without much curiosity. They seemed to have settled into a dull trance, and Lyra wanted to shake them, to urge them to struggle and wake up and look around for a way out.

“How are we going to help these people, Will?” she said.

He couldn’t even guess. As they moved on, they could see a movement on the horizon to the left and right, and ahead of them a dirty-colored smoke was rising slowly to add its darkness to the dismal air. The movement was people, or ghosts: in lines or pairs or groups or alone, but all empty-handed, hundreds and thousands of men and women and children were drifting over the plain toward the source of the smoke.

The ground was sloping downward now, and becoming more and more like a rubbish dump. The air was heavy and full of smoke, and of other smells besides: acrid chemicals, decaying vegetable matter, sewage. And the farther down they went, the worse it got. There was not a patch of clean soil in sight, and the only plants growing anywhere were rank weeds and coarse grayish grass.

Ahead of them, above the water, was the mist. It rose like a cliff to merge with the gloomy sky, and from somewhere inside it came those bird cries that Tialys had referred to.

Between the waste heaps and the mist, there lay the first town of the dead.