Home > Stardust(14)

Author: Neil Gaiman

The mouse dropped the nut, which fell into the brook and was carried away, to be swallowed by a salmon.

The owl swallowed the mouse in just a couple of gulps, leaving just its tail trailing from her mouth, like a length of bootlace. Something snuffled and grunted as it pushed through the thicket — a badger, thought the owl (herself under a curse, and only able to resume her rightful shape if she consumed a mouse who had eaten the Nut of Wisdom), or perhaps a small bear.

Leaves rustled, water rilled, and then the glade became filled with light shining down from above, a pure white light which grew brighter and brighter. The owl saw it reflected in the pool, a blazing, glaring thing of pure light, so bright that she took to the wing and flew to another part of the forest. The wild things looked about them in terror.

First the light in the sky was no bigger than the moon, then it seemed larger, infinitely larger, and the whole grove trembled and quivered and every creature held its breath and the fireflies glowed brighter than they had ever glowed in their lives, each one convinced that this at last was love, but to no avail And then — There was a cracking sound, sharp as a shot, and the light that had filled the grove was gone.

Or almost gone. There was a dim glow pulsing from the middle of the hazel thicket, as if a tiny cloud of stars were glimmering there.

And there was a voice, a high clear, female voice which said, “Ow,” and then, very quietly, it said “Fuck,” and then it said “Ow,” once more.

And then it said nothing at all, and there was silence in the glade.

Chapter Four

“Can I Get There by Candlelight?”

October moved further away with every step Tristran took; he felt as if he were walking into summer. There was a path through the woods, with a high hedgerow to one side, and he followed the path. High above him the stars glittered and gleamed, and the harvest moon shone golden yellow, the color of ripe corn. In the moonlight he could see briar-roses in the hedge.

He was becoming sleepy now. For a time he fought to stay awake, and then he took off his overcoat, and put down his bag — a large leather bag of the kind that, in twenty years’ time, would become known as a Gladstone bag — and he laid his head on his bag, and covered himself with his coat.

He stared up at the stars: and it seemed to him then that they were dancers, stately and graceful, performing a dance almost infinite in its complexity. He imagined he could see the very faces of the stars; pale, they were, and smiling gently, as if they had spent so much time above the world, watching the scrambling and the joy and the pain of the people below them, that they could not help being amused every time another little human believed itself the center of its world, as each of us does.

And then it came to Tristran that he was dreaming, and he walked into his bedroom, which was also the schoolroom of the village of Wall: and Mrs. Cherry tapped the blackboard and bade them all be silent, and Tristran looked down at his slate to see what the lesson would be about, but he could not read what he had written there. Then Mrs. Cherry, who resembled his mother so much that Tristran found himself astonished he had never before realized that they were the same person, called upon Tristran to tell the class the dates of all the kings and queens of England....

“ ’Scuse me,” said a small and hairy voice in his ear, “but would you mind dreamin’ a bit quieter? Your dreams is spillin’ over into my dreams, and if there’s one thing I’ve never been doin’ with, it’s dates. William the Conker, ten sixty-six, that’s as far as I go, and I’d swap that for a dancing mouse.”

“Mm?” said Tristran.

“Keep it down,” said the voice. “If you don’t mind.”

“Sorry,” said Tristran, and his dreams after that were of the dark.

“Breakfast,” said a voice close to his ear. “It’s mushrumps, fried in butter, with wild garlic.”Tristran opened his eyes: daylight shone through the briar-rose hedge, dappling the grass in gold and green. Something smelled like heaven.

A tin container was placed beside him.

“Poor fare,” said the voice. “Country fare, it is. Nothing like the gentry are used to, but the likes of me treasures a fine mushrump.”Tristran blinked and reached into the tin bowl and took out a large mushroom between finger and thumb. It was hot. He took a careful bite, felt the juices flood his mouth. It was the finest thing he had ever eaten and, after he had chewed and swallowed it, he said so.

“That’s kind of you,” said the small figure who sat on the other side of a little fire which crackled and smoked in the morning air. “Kind of you, I’m sure. But you know, and I know, that it’s just fried field-mushrumps, and never a patch on nothing proper....”

“Is there any more?” asked Tristran, realizing just how hungry he was: sometimes a little food can do that to you.

“Ah now, that’s manners for you,” said the little figure, who wore a large, floppy hat and a large, flappy overcoat. “Is there more? he says, as if it were poached quail’s eggs and smoked gazelle and truffles, not just a mushrump, what tastes more or less like something what’s been dead for a week and a cat wouldn’t touch. Manners.”

“I really, truly would like another mushroom,” said Tristran, “if it’s not too much trouble.”The little man — if man he was, which Tristran found rather unlikely — sighed mournfully and reached into the pan sizzling on the fire, with his knife, and flicked two large mushrooms into Tristran’s tin bowl.

Tristran blew on them, then ate them with his fingers.

“Look at you,” said the little hairy person, his voice a mixture of pride and gloom, “eatin’ those mushrumps as if you liked them, as if they wasn’t sawdust and wormwood and rue in your mouth.” Tristran licked his fingers and assured his benefactor that they had been the very finest mushrooms he had ever had the privilege of eating.

“You says that now,” said his host with gloomy relish, “but you’ll not be sayin’ that in an hour’s time.

They’ll undoubtedly disagree with you, like the fishwife who disagreed with her young man over a mermaid. And that could be heard from Garamond to Stormhold. Such language! It fair turned my ears blue, it did.” The little hairy personage sighed deeply. “Talkin’ about your guts,” he said, “I’m going to attend to mine behind that tree over there.

Would you do me the signal honor of keepin’ an eye on that there pack of mine? I’d be obliged.”

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