Sing, muse, of Melanie, beloved of the gods, and how she came at last, and with her army, to Elm Hill. Tell us how she led unto that place a tattered host of women and of men; of humans, and of gods; and among that host a black dog and a flying god and the Keeper of the Wheel; and Threnody, who held the thunderbolt in this degenerate and broken age; and, for now, and for the shortest time to come, the grangler. Tell us how the footfalls of her soldiers beat down on the asphalt way. Tell us how the wind blew all around them and grey the storm clouds came. Tell us of the laughing joy that filled her, despite the darkness of that day; and tell us of the grangler, that old ghost, and how it died.
At Elm Hill there is a building old and rank, and in its basement many cages, and it is abandoned now, but once—not so many years ago—it was a place of suffering for Liril and for Jane.
At Elm Hill is a facility.
As Cunning Melanie leads her army to that place, she sees an omen, and it comes upon her thus. From a copse of trees by the building’s gates there flies a bird, and the bird flies out over her host, and the number of its wings is four, and it is growing larger as it comes, and it holds the grangler in its claws, and the grangler holds it, and the bird—to all appearances—is dead.
She stares at it as it flies.
The omen is elaborate. It takes her a long moment’s stare to decide that she is seeing a real thing and not a vision sent her by the gods.
“Threnody,” she says.
Threnody looks up. Her eyes seethe with the whiteness of the storm. The bird is struck by lightning, from clear sky.
It does not fall.
Threnody’s expression grows tight with anger. “Dead things ought not shriek,” she says.
She stands in a javelin-thrower’s stance. Her hand begins to burn with light. Then it is as if the sky has hurled the fire of the sun directly to her hand; the thunder roars across the hill; and the bird is shattering, splaying out and sundering into bits, falling like a gross and gobbet rain, and the metal chains with which Threnody weights down her hair do her no longer any good, for it has fluffed out like a cloud.
A chunk of bird hits the ground between them, rolls like the debris from an explosion, bounces from a rock, and jumps past Melanie’s right leg.
A drop of filth would have touched her cheek, but doesn’t.
Before the end of its trajectory it decides to swerve, instead. For she is Melanie, cunning Melanie, beloved of the gods.
The sands dripped through the hourglass
And the hour of the wolf closed in at last
And life is sweet and the sun is high
But the flesh and the fire are born to die
They gather around the ruin.
The creature’s heart is beating. It’s stuttering in its fear. It will continue to beat—this is Melanie’s guess—for three more darknesses and three dawns.
Where the chunks of the bird have struck the ground the earth is bursting forth in life—grass and grains and trees are exploding upwards, and new elms are already building-height.
As for the grangler, he’s broken.
He oughtn’t really be able to be broken, since he’s a ghost and all, but the thunderbolt passed too close to him before he fell.
She squats down beside it.
“So,” she says.
It reaches for her leg. She shakes her head, and its hand falls back.
“Now it came to pass,” Melanie says, “after the death of Moses, that the Lord spake unto Joshua, the son of Nun, saying, ‘Now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give them, even to the children of Israel.’”
“It’s so,” the grangler concedes.
“And to Jericho he sent two men to spy secretly, and determine the nature of its readiness; and they took shelter with the harlot Rahab; and when the King of Jericho learned of the spies’ presence and their purpose, she preserved them, kept them safe, if only they would promise that Israel would spare her family and their possessions when Jericho’s walls came tumbling down.”
And the story is a pleasantry amidst the grangler’s great pain, a coolth inside its fire, and it says, “It’s so.”
“And they said: tie a scarlet cord, a grangler, to the window when we come; and by that bond of blood shall we be held to you and yours, and you to we, and never to let go.”
It occurs to the grangler that it is dying.
It is impossible to imagine it—to die, and after so very many years.
“And it tangled you up in that red, red cord, and bound to a sacred trust; but—oh, grangler. Oh, grangler. Look upon you now.”
He is a very old ghost, is the grangler. He’s a god of hanging on. But the edges of the world are fraying for him, just like the untwisting of a rope, and her words have loosened a string wound round his heart.
She lets him touch her, then, though he cannot hold her.
He rests his claw upon her hand.
“It was a no-good bird,” the grangler says.
It is struggling to rise, but it cannot rise. It is struggling to look at her, but her eyes are far too kind. It is desperate with a sudden need of justification, and it pulls its claw back to its chest and hugs it there and says, “It was a Liril-bird, milady, it was a bird-god made by Liril, oh, milady, she is there, she unleashed a growing god.”
Melanie blinks at the grangler.
Its words confound her. She cannot quite grasp them.
“Liril,” she says.
“She is encamped there, I could smell it, I could taste it on the bird.”
“Liril,” Melanie says again.
There is no reason for it that Melanie can possibly imagine. She knows where Liril is. Liril is in Santa Ynez, guarded by her brother Micah, protected by him from humans and gods alike.
Liril is not in the cages beneath Elm Hill.
That was before, Melanie thinks, clearly. That was back then. The facility is abandoned. The cages are empty. Liril cannot possibly be there.
She looks up.
She stares blankly at the facility at Elm Hill.
She is not here for Liril. She is here for a temporary base of operations. She is here because she has no other place to go, her and her ragged army, driven from their homes—
“More valuable than frankincense,” she says.
It’s from a song the monster sang to her, a long, long time ago.
“More valuable than gold.”
Children like Liril are the source of granglers and thunderbolts, of flying carpets, angels, fiends, and killing gods, after all.
[The Frog and the Thorn – CHAPTER ONE]
May 28, 2004
“Does she know we’re here?” Melanie asks.
She is angry at herself.
The question is wasteful. She discards it. She asks the only question that has relevance.
“Is she afraid?”
But the grangler is dead.