‘Phoenix,’ said her father’s friend the smith, Aldrich, ‘you have an extra room in your house, don’t you?’
Phoenix looked up from her perusal of the selection of ironware the smith was selling in front of his smithy, everything from pots and cauldrons to shining steel cutlery in neat rows. ‘Why, yes.’
‘Well, I have a family staying with me who came into the valley last night, late. Refugees, poor creatures. But I don’t have any room to spare, not to speak of, anyway.’
Phoenix knew he didn’t; he and his wife shared their small house with nine children. She smiled into his uneasy face. ‘Of course we’ll put them up. My father will be delighted, I’m sure.’
He smiled, smoothing away lines of worry and revealing large white teeth, as neat as his cutlery. ‘I knew you would say yes,’ he said. ‘I’ll send them over after lunch, if that’s all right with you.’
Phoenix nodded, said she would be happy to see them, purchased a new skillet, and left the smithy. The cool wind had brought even cooler weather, and low grey clouds touched the ground only a couple of miles out of town, threatening the autumn rains but hesitating to deliver. The farmers worked feverishly to gather the crops before it poured, binding the hay into bundles, scything short the corn stalks so the fields lay bare but for the lonely golden stubble and cows turned out to graze, their coats already thick against winter. Black birds flocked in huge masses against the grey sky, screeching as they drew pictures, uneasily defined and always just out of comprehension, flickering away too fast to be seen clearly. The older townsfolk spoke with grim satisfaction of the various warnings they’d seen, besides the flocking birds and cows’ heavy coats, which foretold a harsh winter. The stripes on the fuzzy caterpillars were wider than they’d ever been in living memory; turtles and frogs were already vanishing into underground mud holes to hibernate; and the squirrels seemed desperate, dragging their plump bellies over the leaf-littered ground faster and faster as they searched for precious nuts to feed them through the winter. Phoenix listened to the warnings, aware that every year the winter was foretold to be more dire and deadly than the one before, but half-convinced despite herself by the elders’ knowing manners and keen old eyes as they pointed out the thick bark of trees or listened to the crickets chirp, their song slow and sluggish.
Whether or not the forecasts of harsh weather were correct, she thought, the fall was going to be a wet one. She cast a glance at the lowering sky and wrapped her woolen shawl more tightly about her shoulders, watching her step as she crossed the road, rutted and puddled from last night’s rain, a downpour that had lasted no more than ten minutes, like the sounding of a bell of doom. Intent on her steps, she almost ran into the man who stood in front of the general store, idly smoking a corncob pipe.
‘Oh!’ she said, catching her balance as he hurriedly stepped back to avoid her. ‘I’m sorry,’ she added with a confused smile. ‘I didn’t see you, sir.’
It was easy to see why she looked confused. It would have been hard to miss that man at any time, but now in the cold weather he’d wrapped a brilliant red scarf around his neck and would have been visible in a blizzard. Standing over six feet tall, he was nevertheless as skinny as a rake, his bony wrists and ankles dark where they stuck out of the cuffs of his worn clothes. With short-cropped greying hair and dark, weather-beaten skin, he reminded Phoenix irresistibly of a spider, thin and long-limbed. But his eyes were the most striking. Pure yellow, they gave her the chills, staring right through her with the unblinking gaze of an owl.
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ she repeated, her smile growing uneasy under that stare.
But he smiled, and the smile transformed his face into a mask of delight and kindness, smile lines radiating like mouse tracks from his crinkled eyes and wide mouth, white teeth with only a few missing. He reached out a hand to steady her. ‘No harm done, miss,’ he said, in a deep voice more suited to a man like the smith than a skinny beanpole. ‘The ground is a little rough today.’
Phoenix was more relieved by the transformation than she would have admitted, and smiled back as sweetly as she could, taking his hand and shaking it. ‘My name is Phoenix, sir. And what is yours?’
‘You can call me Josef, Josef Faa,’ he said. ‘I am a bookbinder. What an unusual name. Why were you named that?’
Phoenix shrugged carelessly. ‘Oh, my mother liked the sound of it. She read it in a book somewhere. I think it was the name of a princess.’
Josef cocked his head like a bird studying something curious, but before he could speak again the clouds let loose over their heads with almost no warning, so that one moment a few drops scattered down, cold as ice, and the next the rain plummeted down in sheets, instantly soaking through their clothes. Together they ran into the general store, Phoenix shielding her head with her new skillet. Inside the air was warm and smelled of tallow candles, spice, and tobacco smoke. A few men played gimi in the back, drinking strong corn whiskey from wooden tankards; two women argued over plaid cottons along the wall, while their children whispered in a huddle near the candy displayed on the counter. The owner of the store, Mrs. Sarian, polished the counter with a spotless cloth; she was an imposing woman, as large as the smith, a woman who kept her store as clean as a ship captain and with similar force, with the help of her two slim, pretty daughters and her nearly invisible mouse-like husband.
Phoenix stifled her giggles and Josef smoothed his face into a ludicrously long, sorrowful expression, patting his shoulders as if to dry them with fussy, ineffectual movements. Phoenix bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud and hurriedly looked away, aware of the disapproving silence emanating almost visibly from Mrs. Sarian, and the covert stares from the shopping women. She tidied her hair, smoothed her dress, lowered the skillet, and looked around to nudge her memory as to why she’d come here. A glance around the room showed her a bewildering variety of choices to someone unaccustomed to it: everything from bolts of cloth, expensive fur-lined coats from outside the valley, and worn out boots for little more than a cen a pair, to five- or twenty-pound bags of salt, sugar, and flour, to knick-knacks like toys and spare spectacle lenses. From the ceiling hung little bags of dried herbs, fruit leather, or strips of jerky; along the walls small brass or even silver mirrors hung from nails; brooms of sweet-smelling straw and rusty old rakes leaned in the cobweb-free corners. There was even an antique sword, rusting away in its leather scabbard, hanging above the door.
However, Phoenix was used to the eye-shattering jumble and soon her gaze fell upon the sought for item, jogging her memory of the errand: candles of sweet beeswax, lying in golden bundles along the shelves to her left. They were more expensive than the tallow candles, but Phoenix felt that freedom from the guttering smoke and stench of the tallow was worth the extra five cens anytime. She chose the bundle that seemed to have the most candles in it for the price, and began to wander through the shelves idly, waiting for the rain to end, or at least let up, so she could dash home.
While she shopped, Josef stood with his hands clasped behind his back studying a shelf of iron trinkets of indeterminate purpose. As she passed him, heading for the rack of jewelry from outside the valley, he caught her sleeve with two fingers. ‘Look at this,’ he said.
She was surprised to be addressed so by someone who was after all little more than a complete stranger, but when she obediently looked where he indicated all doubts fled from her mind, to be replaced by astonishment. Though she had never seen a real gun before, she instantly knew it from the descriptions she’d heard from her father, who’d seen one years ago, before the war. Small enough to fit in one hand, this one was different than she imagined, but nevertheless she felt her breath catch and she drew back a step. Memories of her father’s terse but vivid descriptions of its use- he’d seen a man kill a deer with one- flooded through her.
Josef seemed oblivious to her reaction. He picked it up, handling it carefully but not overly so, and studied the still shining barrel and grip engraved with swirling designs. ‘It’s not loaded,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘But it’s been used. Mrs.,’ he addressed Mrs. Sarian. ‘How much for the pistol?’
She eyed him. ‘I don’t have any bullets for that. Nor powder. It’s a curiosity only, mind.’
‘Of course,’ he said. He put it back on the shelf with a touch of reluctance. As if to himself, he murmured, ‘Don’t you wish someone may not buy it who has bullets and powder in plenty.’
‘But who would have those around here?’ Phoenix asked him, forgetting that she wasn’t supposed to have heard.
He looked at her gravely. ‘Count yourself lucky you can still ask that question,’ he said. ‘Those who live outside this valley cannot.’
Phoenix evaded his direct golden stare, cleared her throat in embarrassed confusion, and went to the counter to purchase the candles. After handing over the cens, she was reaching for the sack that held the candles, when Mrs. Sarian, glancing around, leaned closed and said very low, ‘I wouldn’t trust that gypsy if I were you. They’re known to be right scoundrels, and I thought him far too interested in that old gun. Don’t find yourself alone in an alley with him, or you may regret it, Miss Phoenix.’
Phoenix, embarrassed by the direct words, felt a blush rising up her face. ‘Thank-you, Mrs. Sarian,’ she said in a normal voice, rather cold. ‘I hope you enjoy your evening.’
‘Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you,’ said Mrs. Sarian with a look of suppressed satisfaction. ‘Good day.’
Josef looked at Phoenix quizzically as she passed him, heading for the door. Her face still felt warm and she gave him no more than a glance, shrugging, and went to the door, looking out to see if the rain had let up. He joined her, and when she decided to brave the steady but light drizzle, he followed her out.
‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘I don’t mean to be overly familiar but I have to ask you where is the Kalian house? My family and I might stay the night there, I believe.’
Suprised but delighted- she already liked this funny gypsy, despite Mrs. Sarian’s words- Phoenix turned with a smile on her face. ‘Oh, what a coincidence, are you that family who was staying at Aldrich’s place? I had no idea. I’m Phoenix Kalian and certainly you can stay with me and my father.’
An answering smile spread over his long face. ‘Indeed? I’m deeply grateful. And if you’ll forgive me a moment I will run and fetch my wife and children.’
‘Take your time,’ she said, waving her hand dismissively.
Nevertheless he hurried across the street, dodging puddles and raindrops with an odd grace for someone his height. He vanished into the smith’s house and Phoenix let her gaze stray up the street idly. Mostly empty because of the rain, it held only a single brown mare, Farmer Jesse’s, if she was not mistaken, tied to the railing of the post office; a wet cat picking its way down an alley with a dead snake dragging from its triumphant jaws; and a single small figure, boy or girl she couldn’t tell under all the layers of shawl and cloak and patched coat. He -or she- sat on the doorstep of the baker’s house, tearing hungrily into a loaf of warm bread. Seemingly unaware of Phoenix’s gaze, the person finished the bread in a few swift bites and leaned over to rinse their hands in a puddle, only making their hands muddier, and hitching up their sleeves to reveal skinny dirty arms with, to Phoenix’s horror, reddish spots like a rash. She unconsciously took a step backward; she’d heard rumors of an illness going around, spread by some refugees from beyond the valley, and dreaded catching it.
‘Miss Phoenix?’ piped a sweet child’s voice and she looked down to see a girl no older than six or seven standing before her, clutching a bedraggled kitten in her plump hands, a wide gap-toothed smile splitting a pretty face as dark as Josef’s. Her white dress was relatively clean but her bare feet were soaking wet and muddy to her knees from running across the street.
‘Hello,’ said Phoenix, smiling. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Esmeralda,’ said the child. ‘And this is my kitten. His name is Brownie.’
‘He is a very nice kitten,’ said Phoenix, stroking the kitten’s head with a finger. He growled and swiped at the air with a tiny paw.
‘I have a brother too,’ said Esmeralda. ‘His name is George. But sometimes he’s not so fun to play with,’ she confided with a smile and a whisper.
Phoenix looked beyond the girl and saw Josef walking across the street, a heavily pregnant woman clinging to his arm and a small boy, a year or two older than Esmeralda, holding his other hand. They moved slowly but Josef never seemed impatient, quietly balancing his wife when she stumbled on a wagon rut, answering the boy’s increasingly demanding whines without a trace of anger. When they reached the porch of the general store Josef smiled down at Phoenix. His wife did the same- or rather she smiled up, for she was tiny next to her husband, shorter than Phoenix. She had a gentle heart-shaped face, wavy brown hair escaping in tendrils across her face and neck from its loose bun, and small delicate hands. She was breathing hard from the walk but cheerful, sweeping the small boy into her arms despite his size- he had to be at leats eight- and kissing him, which quieted his whines.
‘Miss Phoenix,’ said Josef, ‘may I present my wife, Briya, and my son George? I’m sure you already know my daughter. She’s not shy about introducing herself.’
‘I am very pleased to meet you all,’ said Phoenix, kissing Briya’s dark cheek and shaking George’s little hand. He looked at her solemnly with big eyes the very image of his father’s, though without the same intense stare; rather his eyes were as soft as sunlight on autumn leaves. ‘If you’ll come with me,’ she continued, smiling at him, ‘I think we can go back home and get you settled in your room.’
By suppertime Phoenix and Briya were fast friends. Despite Josef’s greying hair, his wife was only a few years older than Phoenix. She’d been only seventeen when George was born, she said. Phoenix tried to imagine having a boy of her own running around the house and failed utterly. ‘I can’t see how you do it,’ she said. ‘I don’t think I would ever have the patience.’ She was watching Briya scold George in a gentle voice for spilling his water on the floor; though crying at first, soon he was giggling again, and wiped it up himself with a rag before running off to play. Briya straightened, a hand on her back, sore from carrying the baby these long months, and smiled. ‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘You’d be a wonderful mother, I’m sure of it. You’re so kind. Try not to lose that. It’s so easy to get bitter when you’ve seen what I have.’ Briefly, her face darkened, falling under a shadow of her memories, and Phoenix recalled once more that Briya and her family were refugees from the war-stricken country outside the valley. Though burning with curiosity about what it had been like, and frankly unable to imagine what sights had put such a stain on Briya, Phoenix held her tongue and only said, ‘Would you rather have chicken or lamb for supper? I have both.’
Briya asked her children, who both yelled for chicken, dashing around the kitchen taking turns pretending to be the chicken or the pursuing fox until their mother shooed them away, laughing. She and Phoenix prepared the chicken with sweet jam and berries, honey, butter, and wild onion With the extra onion, greens, chopped carrots, and crumbled goat’s cheese they made a salad, and they baked sweet yams for dessert. By the time the food was done Phoenix’s father had returned and was talking in an animated voice to Josef about the harvest.
Dinner was a cheerful affair, the children having lost what shyness they’d had and eagerly asking for more food before they’d even finished their first servings. Briya and Phoenix talked about gardens, and occasionally Josef and Phoenix’s father joined in. George’s tendency towards spilling things kept it from growing dull: near the end of the meal he reached over to steal a yam from his sister’s plate and knocked the sugar bowl clean off the table.
Tears, scoldings, cleaning up; and finally the children were sent away with unbreakable mugs of hot milk and told to stay quiet until bed, while the adults sat down by the fire and sipped at their own version of the children’s hot milk, a drink Phoenix had invented for cold weather with honey and spices and fruit juice, heated to scalding, with a dash of ale.
Phoenix was tired after the exciting day and soon found her attention drifting from the quiet words of Josef, who was describing to her father some of their journey into the valley. She had the feeling he was holding something back from her, choosing his words very carefully, but was too comfortable in her chair and too full to really care, or to strain to hear him better. Briya absently mended one of George’s shirts with a needle and thread borrowed from Phoenix’s basket, not adding much to her husband’s account; but after a while in which Phoenix drifted off Briya spoke, and Phoenix woke up enough to listen, though she didn’t open her eyes.
‘I just hope no one finds this valley. It’s so perfect here: a safe haven from the horrors outside.’
‘That pass is pretty well hidden,’ said Phoenix's father.
‘Yes,’ agreed Briya. ‘But we found it, and so have others. Anyone desperate enough to try the mountains stands a good chance of finding it, all the more so the more merchants trade through it. I’m not sure risking your haven is worth a few amenities like sugar.’
‘It’s a risk some of us are willing to take, and as long as there’s at least one person buying, the merchants will come.’
Josef said after a moment’s hesitation, ‘How much does your daughter know?’
‘About the war? Not much.’ Her father sighed. ‘I’m afraid I kept her rather sheltered since her mother died.’
Phoenix was fully awake now, but kept still, breathing slowly. Her father never talked this way when they were alone and she wondered what else she might hear. It was true she knew very little about the war or why it had begun, but nor had she ever wanted to know. Safe here in the valley that no one knew of, the war seemed a vague dark cloud too far away to bother anyone and not worth fussing about.
‘May I ask how she died?’ Briya said. In anyone else it might have been rude but Briya was the sort of sweet, kind person who could ask anyone any question and receive a civil answer.
‘A fever took her when Phoenix was three,’ her father said heavily. ‘I don’t know if I’ve raised her well. Sometimes I consider hiring a housewife or even marrying again; I feel uneasy she has no mother.’
‘Don’t,’ said Briya. ‘She’s a lovely young woman with many skills I didn’t have at her age- and I’d been married a year by then with my own son. But she needs to know what’s going on.’
There was a silence so long that Phoenix could hardly keep from opening her eyes, in which her father only sighed, and then Josef spoke again. ‘But enough of that. How about a story?’
Phoenix had never heard stories like those Josef told. His deep quiet voice skipped from one to the next with scarcely a pause, changing to suit the characters he voiced- everything from kings to beggars, rich men to poor men, crows, foxes, rabbits, and deer. Many of his stories were fables, with lessons to be learned from them, some serious and others humorous. Others were not. He told of rivers and lakes; mountains and hills and grasslands; great cities and tiny villages. He spoke of the desert far south where the rain fell but once a year, or even less; the frozen tundras in the north where a single night lasted half the year; of the histories of people and animals. It was impossible not to be drawn into his stories, to live out the adventures of the characters- wise old Vainamo, clever but funny Atti, tragic Kellurvo, the cruel northern witches; the fast-talking fox and his friend the kind badger. Phoenix and the others heard how the world was created when the sea-daughter grew lonely and bore a son; and while she was pregnant a bird made a nest on her knees and laid six golden eggs and one of iron. And the eggs grew so warm that the sea-daughter felt that she was burning and rolled over; and the eggs shattered to bits, creating the sky, the moon, the sun, the stars, and the land.
When Josef was done with the creation of the world his listeners sat as if under a spell his words had woven around them, like a golden net. Only the fire made a sound, crackling sullenly around the wood Josef had just added; in the other room they could hear the soft snores of the children. Outside the sky was black, black tinged with cream of coming rain. Quietly they went off to bed, not saying much, hesitant to disturb the silence filled with Josef’s knowledge.