October 31, 2012

EARTH AND AIR by Peter Dickinson


I was told 30 October is the OFFICIAL pub day at Small Beer Press.


In today’s modern ebook and internet world publication days aren’t what they used to be, but I wanted to make more noise about Peter’s new book anyway so today will do fine.  I’ve already posted a few excerpts, stand by for a few more.  This is from RIDIKI:


. . . “Horned viper,” said Papa Alexi, when he showed him. “Got her on the tongue, see? Vicious bite he’s got. Much worse than the common one. Kill a strong man. Bad luck, Steff, very bad luck. Nice dog.”

He carried her on and laid her down beside the fig-tree, covering her body with the old sack she used to sleep on in the corner by the mule-shed. He tied the fig branches out of his way, fetched a crowbar and spade and sweated the rest of the afternoon away prodding and scooping and chopping through roots, picking out the larger rocks from the spoil and setting them aside. When the farm woke and people started to come and go, some of them asked what he was up to. He just grunted and worked on.

By sunset the hole was as deep as the reach of his arm. He changed her everyday collar for her smart red Sunday one with the brass studs, wrapped her in the sack and lowered her into the grave. Gently he covered her with the larger rocks he’d kept, fitting them together according to their shapes and then ramming earth between them in a double layer, proof against any possible scavenger.

Finally he filled in the hole and spread what was left of the spoil back under the fig. The stars were bright by the time he fetched a small flask of oil from the barrel in the larder and poured it slowly over her grave.

“Good-bye, Ridiki.” he said. “Good-bye.”

He scattered the remaining handful of earth over the grave, let the fig-branches back to hide and shelter it, and turned away.

The evening meal was long over, but he couldn’t have eaten. He sat until almost midnight on the boulder beside the vegetable patch with her old collar spread between his hands and his thumbs endlessly caressing the wrinkled leather. The constellations wheeled westward and the lights of the fishing-boats moved quietly around Thasos. When he was sure that there’d be no one about to speak to him he coiled the collar tightly in on itself, put it in his shirt pocket, went up to his cot in the loft over the store room and lay down, knowing he wouldn’t sleep.

But he did, and dreamed. He was following Ridiki along a track at the bottom of an unfamiliar valley, narrow and rocky. She was trotting ahead with the curious prancing gait her bent leg gave her, her whole attitude full of amused interest, ears pricked up and cupped forward, tail waving above her back, as if she expected something new and fascinating to appear round the next corner, some odour she could nose into, some little rustler she could pounce on in a tussock beside the path—pure Ridiki, Ridiki electric with life.

The track turned, climbed steeply. Ridiki danced up it. He scrambled panting after her. The cave seemed to appear out of nowhere. She trotted weightless towards it, while he toiled up, heavier and heavier. At the entrance she paused and looked back at him over her shoulder. He tried to call to her to wait, but no breath would come. She turned away and danced into the dark. When he reached the cave the darkness seemed to begin like a wall at the entrance. He called again and again. Not a whisper of an echo returned. He had to go, he couldn’t remember why.

“I’m coming back,” he told himself. “I’ll make sure I remember the way.”

But as he trudged sick-hearted along the valley everything kept shifting and changing. A twisted tree beside the track was no longer there when he looked back to fix its shape in his mind, and the whole landscape beyond where it should have been was utterly unlike any he had seen before.

At first light the two cocks crowed, as always, in raucous competition. He had grown used to sleeping through the racket almost since he’d first come to live on the farm, but this morning he shot fully awake and lay in the dim light of early dawn knowing he’d never see Ridiki again. . . .

All day that one moment of the dream—Ridiki vanishing into the dark, as sudden as a lamp going out—stayed like a shadow at the side of his mind. It didn’t change. He had a feeling both of knowing the place and of never having been there before. But if he tried to fix anything outside the single instant it was like grasping loose sand. The details trickled away before he could look at them.

He fetched his midday meal from the kitchen and ate it in the shade of the fig-tree, and then, while the farm settled down to its regular afternoon stillness, went to look for Papa Alexi.

Papa Alexi was Steff’s great-uncle, his grandfather’s brother. Being a younger son he’d had to leave the farm, and look for a life elsewhere. He wasn’t anyone’s father, but people called him Papa because he’d trained as a priest, but he’d stopped doing that to fight in the resistance, and then in the terrible civil wars that had followed. That was when he’d stopped believing what the priests had been teaching him, so he’d spent all his working life as a schoolmaster in Thessaloniki. He’d never married, but his sister, Aunt Nix, had housekept for him after her own husband had died. When he’d retired they’d both come back to live on the farm, in the old cottage where generations of other returning wanderers had come to end their days in the place where they’d been born.

The farm could afford to house them. There were other farms in the valley, as well as twenty or thirty peasant holdings, but Deniakis was much the largest, with Nikos and three other farm hands, and several women, on the pay-roll, working a large section of the fertile land along the river, orchards and vineyards, and a great stretch of the rough pasture above them running all the way up to the ridge.

Steff found papa Alexi as usual under the vine, reading and drowsing and waking to read again. To-day Aunt Nix was sitting opposite him with her cat on her lap and her lace-making kit beside her.

“You poor boy,” she said. “I know how it feels. It’s no use anyone saying anything, is it?”

Steff shook his head. He didn’t know how to begin. Papa Alexi marked his page with a vine-leaf and closed the book.

“But you wanted something from us all the same?” he said.

“Well . . . are there any caves up in the mountains near here? Big ones, I mean. Not like that one on the way to Crow’s Castle—you can see right to the back of that without going in.”

“Not that I know of,” said Papa Alexi.

“What about Tartaros?” said Aunt Nix. “That’s a really big, deep cave, Steff. It’s on the far side of Sunion. . . . Nanna Tasoula told me it used to be one of the entrances to the underworld. There was this nymph Zeus had his eye on, only his brother Dis got to her first and made off with her, but before he could get back into the underworld through one of his regular entrances Zeus threw a thunderbolt at him. Only he missed and split the mountain apart and made an opening and Dis escaped down there. That’s why it’s called Tartaros. . . .”



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