The Amber Spyglass Chapter 33 Marzipan

The Amber Spyglass Chapter 33 Marzipan

Next morning Lyra woke up from a dream in which Pantalaimon had come back to her and revealed his final shape; and she had loved it, but now she had no idea what it was.

The sun hadn’t long risen, and the air had a fresh bloom. She could see the sunlight through the open door of the little thatched hut she slept in, Mary’s house. She lay for a while listening. There were birds outside, and some kind of cricket, and Mary was breathing quietly in her sleep nearby.

Lyra sat up and found herself naked. She was indignant for a moment, and then she saw some clean clothes folded beside her on the floor: a shirt of Mary’s, a length of soft, light patterned cloth that she could tie into a skirt. She put them on, feeling swamped in the shirt, but at least decent.

She left the hut. Pantalaimon was nearby; she was sure of it. She could almost hear him talking and laughing. It must mean that he was safe, and they were still connected somehow. And when he forgave her and came back – the hours they’d spend just talking, just telling each other everything…

Will was still asleep under the shelter tree, the lazy thing. Lyra thought of waking him up, but if she was on her own, she could swim in the river. She happily used to swim naked in the river Cherwell with all the other Oxford children, but it would be quite different with Will, and she blushed even to think of it.

So she went down to the water alone in the pearl-colored morning. Among the reeds at the edge there was a tall, slender bird like a heron, standing perfectly still on one leg.

She walked quietly and slowly so as not to disturb it, but the bird took no more notice of her than if she’d been a twig on the water.

“Well,” she said.

She left the clothes on the bank and slipped into the river. It was seawater coming in on the tide, and it was strange to Lyra, who had never swum in salt water before. She swam hard to keep warm, and then came out and huddled on the bank, shivering. Pan would help dry her, normally. Was he a fish, laughing at her from under the water? Or a beetle, creeping into the clothes to tickle her, or a bird? Or was he somewhere else entirely with the other daemon, and with Lyra not on his mind at all?

The sun was warm now, and she was soon dry. She dressed in Mary’s loose shirt again and, seeing some flat stones by the bank, went to fetch her own clothes to wash them. But she found that someone had already done that: hers and Will’s, too, were laid over the springy twigs of a fragrant bush, nearly dry.

Will was stirring. She sat nearby and called him softly.

“Will! Wake up!”

“Where are we?” he said at once, and sat up, reaching for the knife.

“Safe,” she said, looking away. “And they washed our clothes, too, or Dr. Malone did. I’ll get yours. They’re nearly dry…”

She passed them in through the curtain of leaves and sat with her back to him till he was dressed.

“I swam in the river,” she said. “I went to look for Pan, but I think he’s hiding.”

“That’s a good idea. I mean a swim. I feel as if I’ve got years and years of dirt on me… I’ll go down and wash.”

While he was gone, Lyra wandered around the village, not looking too closely at anything in case she broke some code of politeness, but curious about everything she saw. Some of the houses were very old and some quite new, but they were all built in much the same way out of wood and clay and thatch. There was nothing crude about them; each door and window frame and lintel was covered in subtle patterns, but patterns that weren’t carved in the wood: it was as if they’d persuaded the wood to grow in that shape naturally.

The more she looked, the more she saw all kinds of order and carefulness in the village, like the layers of meaning in the alethiometer. Part of her mind was eager to puzzle it all out, to step lightly from similarity to similarity, from one meaning to another as she did with the instrument; but another part was wondering how long they’d be able to stay here before they had to move on.

Well, I’m not going anywhere till Pan comes back, she said to herself.

Presently Will came up from the river, and then Mary came out of her house and offered them breakfast; and soon Atal came along, too, and the village came to life around them. The young mulefa children, without wheels, kept peeping around the edges of their houses to stare, and Lyra would suddenly turn and look at them directly to make them jump and laugh with terror.

“Well, now,” Mary said when they’d eaten some bread and fruit and drunk a scalding infusion of something like mint. “Yesterday you were too tired and all you could do was rest. But you look a lot more lively today, both of you, and I think we need to tell each other everything we’ve found out. And it’ll take us a good long time, and we might as well keep our hands busy while we’re doing it, so we’ll make ourselves useful and mend some nets.”

They carried the pile of stiff tarry netting to the riverbank and spread it out on the grass, and Mary showed them how to knot a new piece of cord where it was worn. She was wary, because Atal had told her that the families farther along the coast had seen large numbers of the tualapi, the white birds, gathering out at sea, and everyone was prepared for a warning to leave at once; but work had to go on in the meantime.

So they sat working in the sun by the placid river, and Lyra told her story, from the moment so long ago when she and Pan decided to look in the Retiring Room at Jordan College.

The tide came in and turned, and still there was no sign of the tualapi. In the late afternoon Mary took Will and Lyra along the riverbank, past the fishing posts where the nets were tied, and through the wide salt marsh toward the sea. It was safe to go there when the tide was out, because the white birds only came inland when the water was high. Mary led the way along a hard path above the mud; like many things the mulefa had made, it was ancient and perfectly maintained, more like a part of nature than something imposed on it.

“Did they make the stone roads?” Will said.

“No. I think the roads made them, in a way,” Mary said. “I mean they’d never have developed the use of the wheels if there hadn’t been plenty of hard, flat surfaces to use them on. I think they’re lava-flows from ancient volcanoes.

“So the roads made it possible for them to use the wheels. And other things came together as well. Like the wheel trees themselves, and the way their bodies are formed – they’re not vertebrates, they don’t have a spine. Some lucky chance in our worlds long ago must have meant that creatures with backbones had it a bit easier, so all kinds of other shapes developed, all based on the central spine. In this world, chance went another way, and the diamond frame was successful. There are vertebrates, to be sure, but not many. There are snakes, for example. Snakes are important here. The people look after them and try not to hurt them.

“Anyway, their shape, and the roads, and the wheel trees coming together all made it possible. A lot of little chances, all coming together. When did your part of the story begin, Will?”

“Lots of little chances for me, too,” he began, thinking of the cat under the hornbeam trees. If he’d arrived there thirty seconds earlier or later, he would never have seen the cat, never have found the window, never have discovered Citt?¤gazze and Lyra; none of this would have happened.

He started from the very beginning, and they listened as they walked. By the time they reached the mudflats, he had reached the point where he and his father were fighting on the mountaintop.

“And then the witch killed him…”

He had never really understood that. He explained what she’d told him before she killed herself: she had loved John Parry, and he had scorned her.

“Witches are fierce, though,” Lyra said.

“But if she loved him…”

“Well,” said Mary, “love is ferocious, too.”

“But he loved my mother,” said Will. “And I can tell her that he was never unfaithful.”

Lyra, looking at Will, thought that if he fell in love, he would be like that.

All around them the quiet noises of the afternoon hung in the warm air: the endless trickling sucking of the marsh, the scraping of insects, the calling of gulls. The tide was fully out, so the whole extent of the beach was clear and glistening under the bright sun. A billion tiny mud creatures lived and ate and died in the top layer of sand, and the little casts and breathing holes and invisible movements showed that the whole landscape was aquiver with life.

Without telling the others why, Mary looked out to the distant sea, scanning the horizon for white sails. But there was only hazy glitter where the blue of the sky paled at the edge of the sea, and the sea took up the pallor and made it sparkle through the shimmering air.

She showed Will and Lyra how to gather a particular kind of mollusk by finding their breathing tubes just above the sand. The mulefa loved them, but it was hard for them to move on the sand and gather them. Whenever Mary came to the shore, she harvested as many as she could, and now with three pairs of hands and eyes at work, there would be a feast.

She gave each of them a cloth bag, and they worked as they listened to the next part of the story. Steadily they filled their bags, and Mary led them unobtrusively back to the edge of the marsh, for the tide was turning.

The story was taking a long time; they wouldn’t get to the world of the dead that day. As they neared the village, Will was telling Mary what he had learned about daemons and ghosts. Mary was particularly interested in the three-part nature of human beings.

“You know,” she said, “the Church – the Catholic Church that I used to belong to – wouldn’t use the word daemon, but St. Paul talks about spirit and soul and body. So the idea of three parts in human nature isn’t so strange.”

“But the best part is the body,” Will said. “That’s what Baruch and Balthamos told me. Angels wish they had bodies. They told me that angels can’t understand why we don’t enjoy the world more. It would be sort of ecstasy for them to have our flesh and our senses. In the world of the dead – “

“Tell it when we get to it,” said Lyra, and she smiled at him, a smile of such sweet knowledge and joy that his senses felt confused. He smiled back, and Mary thought his expression showed more perfect trust than she’d ever seen on a human face.

By this time they had reached the village, and there was the evening meal to prepare. So Mary left the other two by the riverbank, where they sat to watch the tide flooding in, and went to join Atal by the cooking fire. Her friend was overjoyed by the shellfish harvest.

But Mary, she said, the tualapi destroyed a village further up the coast, and then another and another. They’ve never done that before. They usually attack one and then go back to sea. And another tree fell today…

No! Where!

Atal mentioned a grove not far from a hot spring. Mary had been there only three days before, and nothing had seemed wrong. She took the spyglass and looked at the sky; sure enough, the great stream of shadow particles was flowing more strongly, and at incomparably greater speed and volume, than the tide now rising between the riverbanks.

What can you do? said Atal.

Mary felt the weight of responsibility like a heavy hand between her shoulder blades, but made herself sit up lightly.

Tell them stories, she said.

When supper was over, the three humans and Atal sat on rugs outside Mary’s house, under the warm stars. They lay back, well fed and comfortable in the flower-scented night, and listened to Mary tell her story.

She began just before she first met Lyra, telling them about the work she was doing at the Dark Matter Research group, and the funding crisis. How much time she’d had to spend asking for money, and how little time there’d been left for research!

But Lyra’s coming had changed everything, and so quickly: within a matter of days she’d left her world altogether.

“I did as you told me,” she said. “I made a program – that’s a set of instructions – to let the Shadows talk to me through the computer. They told me what to do. They said they were angels, and – well…”

“If you were a scientist,” said Will, “I don’t suppose that was a good thing for them to say. You might not have believed in angels.”

“Ah, but I knew about them. I used to be a nun, you see. I thought physics could be done to the glory of God, till I saw there wasn’t any God at all and that physics was more interesting anyway. The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all.”

“When did you stop being a nun?” said Lyra.

“I remember it exactly,” Mary said, “even to the time of day. Because I was good at physics, they let me keep up my university career, you see, and I finished my doctorate and I was going to teach. It wasn’t one of those orders where they shut you away from the world. In fact, we didn’t even wear the habit; we just had to dress soberly and wear a crucifix. So I was going into university to teach and do research into particle physics.

“And there was a conference on my subject and they asked me to come and read a paper. The conference was in Lisbon, and I’d never been there before; in fact, I’d never been out of England. The whole business – the plane flight, the hotel, the bright sunlight, the foreign languages all around me, the well-known people who were going to speak, and the thought of my own paper and wondering whether anyone would turn up to listen and whether I’d be too nervous to get the words out… Oh, I was keyed up with excitement, I can’t tell you.

“And I was so innocent – you have to remember that. I’d been such a good little girl, I’d gone to Mass regularly, I’d thought I had a vocation for the spiritual life. I wanted to serve God with all my heart. I wanted to take my whole life and offer it up like this,” she said, holding up her hands together, “and place it in front of Jesus to do as he liked with. And I suppose I was pleased with myself. Too much. I was holy and I was clever. Ha! That lasted until, oh, half past nine on the evening of August the tenth, seven years ago.”

Lyra sat up and hugged her knees, listening closely.

“It was the evening after I’d given my paper,” Mary went on, “and it had gone well, and there’d been some well-known people listening, and I’d dealt with the questions without making a mess of it, and altogether I was full of relief and pleasure… And pride, too, no doubt.

“Anyway, some of my colleagues were going to a restaurant a little way down the coast, and they asked if I’d like to go. Normally I’d have made some excuse, but this time I thought, Well, I’m a grown woman, I’ve presented a paper on an important subject and it was well received and I’m among good friends… And it was so warm, and the talk was about all the things I was most interested in, and we were all in high spirits, so I thought I’d loosen up a bit. I was discovering another side of myself, you know, one that liked the taste of wine and grilled sardines and the feeling of warm air on my skin and the beat of music in the background. I relished it.

“So we sat down to eat in the garden. I was at the end of a long table under a lemon tree, and there was a sort of bower next to me with passionflowers, and my neighbor was talking to the person on the other side, and… Well, sitting opposite was a man I’d seen once or twice around the conference. I didn’t know him to speak to; he was Italian, and he’d done some work that people were talking about, and I thought it would be interesting to hear about it.

“Anyway. He was only a little older than me, and he had soft black hair and beautiful olive-colored skin and dark, dark eyes. His hair kept falling across his forehead and he kept pushing it back like that, slowly…”

She showed them. Will thought she looked as if she remembered it very well.

“He wasn’t handsome,” she went on. “He wasn’t a ladies’ man or a charmer. If he had been, I’d have been shy, I wouldn’t have known how to talk to him. But he was nice and clever and funny and it was the easiest thing in the world to sit there in the lantern light under the lemon tree with the scent of the flowers and the grilled food and the wine, and talk and laugh and feel myself hoping that he thought I was pretty. Sister Mary Malone, flirting! What about my vows? What about dedicating my life to Jesus and all that?

“Well, I don’t know if it was the wine or my own silliness or the warm air or the lemon tree, or whatever… But it gradually seemed to me that I’d made myself believe something that wasn’t true. I’d made myself believe that I was fine and happy and fulfilled on my own without the love of anyone else. Being in love was like China: you knew it was there, and no doubt it was very interesting, and some people went there, but I never would. I’d spend all my life without ever going to China, but it wouldn’t matter, because there was all the rest of the world to visit.

“And then someone passed me a bit of some sweet stuff and I suddenly realized I had been to China. So to speak. And I’d forgotten it. It was the taste of the sweet stuff that brought it back – I think it was marzipan. Sweet almond paste,” she explained to Lyra, who was looking confused.

Lyra said, “Ah! Marchpane!” and settled back comfortably to hear what happened next.

“Anyway,” Mary went on. “I remembered the taste, and all at once I was back tasting it for the first time as a young girl.

“I was twelve years old. I was at a party at the house of one of my friends, a birthday party, and there was a disco – that’s where they play music on a kind of recording machine and people dance,” she explained, seeing Lyra’s puzzlement. “Usually girls dance together because the boys are too shy to ask them. But this boy – I didn’t know him – he asked me to dance, and so we had the first dance and then the next, and by that time we were talking… And you know what it is when you like someone, you know it at once; well, I liked him such a lot. And we kept on talking and then there was a birthday cake. And he took a bit of marzipan and he just gently put it in my mouth – I remember trying to smile, and blushing, and feeling so foolish – and I fell in love with him just for that, for the gentle way he touched my lips with the marzipan.”

As Mary said that, Lyra felt something strange happen to her body. She felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, she felt other doors opening deep in the darkness, and lights coming on. She sat trembling as Mary went on:

“And I think it was at that party, or it might have been at another one, that we kissed each other for the first time. It was in a garden, and there was the sound of music from inside, and the quiet and the cool among the trees, and I was aching – all my body was aching for him, and I could tell he felt the same – and we were both almost too shy to move. Almost. But one of us did and then without any interval between – it was like a quantum leap, suddenly – we were kissing each other, and oh, it was more than China, it was paradise.

“We saw each other about half a dozen times, no more. And then his parents moved away and I never saw him again. It was such a sweet time, so short… But there it was. I’d known it. I had been to China.”

It was the strangest thing: Lyra knew exactly what she meant, and half an hour earlier she would have had no idea at all. And inside her, that rich house with all its doors open and all its rooms lit stood waiting, quiet, expectant.

“And at half past nine in the evening at that restaurant table in Portugal,” Mary continued, “someone gave me a piece of marzipan and it all came back. And I thought: am I really going to spend the rest of my life without ever feeling that again? I thought: I want to go to China. It’s full of treasures and strangeness and mystery and joy. I thought, Will anyone be better off if I go straight back to the hotel and say my prayers and confess to the priest and promise never to fall into temptation again? Will anyone be the better for making me miserable?

“And the answer came back – no. No one will. There’s no one to fret, no one to condemn, no one to bless me for being a good girl, no one to punish me for being wicked. Heaven was empty. I didn’t know whether God had died, or whether there never had been a God at all. Either way I felt free and lonely and I didn’t know whether I was happy or unhappy, but something very strange had happened. And all that huge change came about as I had the marzipan in my mouth, before I’d even swallowed it. A taste – a memory – a landslide…

“When I did swallow it and looked at the man across the table, I could tell he knew something had happened. I couldn’t tell him there and then; it was still too strange and private almost for me. But later on we went for a walk along the beach in the dark, and the warm night breeze kept stirring my hair about, and the Atlantic was being very well-behaved – little quiet waves around our feet…

“And I took the crucifix from around my neck and I threw it in the sea. That was it. All over. Gone.

“So that was how I stopped being a nun,” she said.

“Was that man the same one that found out about the skulls?” Lyra said after a moment.

“Oh – no. The skull man was Dr. Payne, Oliver Payne. He came along much later. No, the man at the conference was called Alfredo Montale. He was very different.”

“Did you kiss him?”

“Well,” said Mary, smiling, “yes, but not then.”

“Was it hard to leave the Church?” said Will.

“In one way it was, because everyone was so disappointed. Everyone, from the Mother Superior to the priests to my parents – they were so upset and reproachful… I felt as if something they all passionately believed in depended on me carrying on with something I didn’t.

“But in another way it was easy, because it made sense. For the first time ever I felt I was doing something with all of my nature and not only a part of it. So it was lonely for a while, but then I got used to it.”

“Did you marry him?” said Lyra.

“No. I didn’t marry anyone. I lived with someone – not Alfredo, someone else. I lived with him for four years, nearly. My family was scandalized. But then we decided we’d be happier not living together. So I’m on my own. The man I lived with used to like mountain climbing, and he taught me to climb, and I walk in the mountains and… And I’ve got my work. Well, I had my work. So I’m solitary but happy, if you see what I mean.”

“What was the boy called?” said Lyra. “At the party?”

“Tim.”

“What did he look like?”

“Oh… Nice. That’s all I remember.”

“When I first saw you, in your Oxford,” Lyra said, “you said one of the reasons you became a scientist was that you wouldn’t have to think about good and evil. Did you think about them when you were a nun?”

“Hmm. No. But I knew what I should think: it was whatever the Church taught me to think. And when I did science, I had to think about other things altogether. So I never had to think about them for myself at all.”

“But do you now?” said Will.

“I think I have to,” Mary said, trying to be accurate.

“When you stopped believing in God,” he went on, “did you stop believing in good and evil?”

“No. But I stopped believing there was a power of good and a power of evil that were outside us. And I came to believe that good and evil are names for what people do, not for what they are. All we can say is that this is a good deed, because it helps someone, or that’s an evil one, because it hurts them. People are too complicated to have simple labels.”

“Yes,” said Lyra firmly.

“Did you miss God?” asked Will.

“Yes,” Mary said, “terribly. And I still do. And what I miss most is the sense of being connected to the whole of the universe. I used to feel I was connected to God like that, and because he was there, I was connected to the whole of his creation. But if he’s not there, then…”

Far out on the marshes, a bird called with a long, melancholy series of falling tones. Embers settled in the fire; the grass was stirring faintly with the night breeze. Atal seemed to be dozing like a cat, her wheels flat on the grass beside her, her legs folded under her body, eyes half-closed, attention half-there and half-elsewhere. Will was lying on his back, eyes open to the stars.

As for Lyra, she hadn’t moved a muscle since that strange thing had happened, and she held the memory of the sensation inside her. She didn’t know what it was, or what it meant, or where it had come from; so she sat hugging her knees, and tried to stop herself from trembling. Soon, she thought, soon I’ll know.

Mary was tired; she had run out of stories. No doubt she’d think of more tomorrow.