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The Subtle Knife Chapter Five

Chapter Five

Airmail Paper

“Will,” said Lyra.

She spoke quietly, but he was startled all the same. She was sitting on the bench beside him and he hadn’t even noticed.

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“Where did you come from?”

“I found my Scholar! She’s called Dr. Malone. And she’s got an engine that can see Dust, and she’s going to make it talk – “

“I didn’t see you coming.”

“You weren’t looking,” she said. “You must’ve been thinking about something else. It’s a good thing I found you. Look, it’s easy to fool people. Watch.”

Two police officers were strolling toward them, a man and a woman on the beat, in their white summer shirtsleeves, with their radios and their batons and their suspicious eyes. Before they reached the bench, Lyra was on her feet and speaking to them.

“Please, could you tell me where the museum is?” she said. “Me and my brother was supposed to meet our parents there and we got lost.”

The policeman looked at Will, and Will, containing his anger, shrugged as if to say, “She’s right, we’re lost, isn’t it silly.” The man smiled. The woman said: “Which museum? The Ashmolean?”

“Yeah, that one,” said Lyra, and pretended to listen carefully as the woman gave her instructions.

Will got up and said, “Thanks,” and he and Lyra moved away together. They didn’t look back, but the police had already lost interest.

“See?” she said. “If they were looking for you, I put ’em off. ‘Cause they won’t be looking for someone with a sister. I better stay with you from now on,” she went on scoldingly once they’d gone around the corner. “You en’t safe on your own.”

He said nothing. His heart was thumping with rage. They walked along toward a round building with a great leaden dome, set in a square bounded by honey-colored stone college buildings and a church and wide-crowned trees above high garden walls. The afternoon sun drew the warmest tones out of it all, and the air felt rich with it, almost the color itself of heavy golden wine. All the leaves were still, and in this little square even the traffic noise was hushed.

She finally became aware of Will’s feelings and said, “What’s the matter?”

“If you speak to people, you just attract their attention,” he said, with a shaking voice. “You should just keep quiet and still and they overlook you. I’ve been doing it all my life. I know how to do it. Your way, you just – you make yourself visible. You shouldn’t do that. You shouldn’t play at it. You’re not being serious.”

“You think so?” she said, and her anger flashed. “You think I don’t know about lying and that? I’m the best liar there ever was. But I en’t lying to you, and I never will, I swear it. You’re in danger, and if I hadn’t done that just then, you’d’ve been caught. Didn’t you see ’em looking at you? ‘Cause they were. You en’t careful enough. If you want my opinion, it’s you that en’t serious.”

“If I’m not serious, what am I doing hanging about waiting for you when I could be miles away? Or hiding out of sight, safe in that other city? I’ve got my own things to do, but I’m hanging about here so I can help you. Don’t tell me I’m not serious.”

“You had to come through,” she said, furious. No one should speak to her like this. She was an aristocrat. She was Lyra. “You had to, else you’d never find out anything about your father. You done it for yourself, not for me.”

They were quarreling passionately, but in subdued voices, because of the quiet in the square and the people who were wandering past nearby. When she said this, though, Will stopped altogether. He had to lean against the college wall beside him. The color had left his face.

“What do you know about my father?” he said very quietly.

She replied in the same tone. “I don’t know anything. All I know is you’re looking for him. That’s all I asked about.”

“Asked who?”

“The alethiometer, of course.”

It took a moment for him to remember what she meant. And then he looked so angry and suspicious that she took it out of her rucksack and said, “All right, I’ll show you.”

And she sat down on the stone curb around the grass in the middle of the square and bent her head over the golden instrument and began to turn the hands, her fingers moving almost too quickly to see, and then pausing for several seconds while the slender needle whipped around the dial, flicking to a stop here and there, and then turning the hands to new positions just as quickly. Will looked around carefully, but there was no one near to see; a group of tourists looked up at the domed building, an ice-cream vendor wheeled his cart along the pavement, but their attention was elsewhere.

Lyra blinked and sighed, as if she were waking after a sleep.

“Your mother’s ill,” she said quietly. “But she’s safe. There’s this lady looking after her. And you took some letters and ran away. And there was a man, I think he was a thief, and you killed him. And you’re looking for your father, and – “

“All right, shut up,” said Will. “That’s enough. You’ve got no right to look into my life like that. Don’t ever do that again. That’s just spying.”

“I know when to stop asking,” she said. “See, the alethiometer’s like a person, almost. I sort of know when it’s going to be cross or when there’s things it doesn’t want me to know. I kind of feel it. But when you come out of nowhere yesterday, I had to ask it who you were, or I might not have been safe. I had to. And it said…” She lowered her voice even more. “It said you was a murderer, and I thought, ‘Good, that’s all right, he’s someone I can trust.’ But I didn’t ask more than that till just now, and if you don’t want me to ask anymore, I promise I won’t. This en’t like a private peep show. If I done nothing but spy on people, it’d stop working. I know that as well as I know my own Oxford.”

“You could have asked me instead of that thing. Did it say whether my father was alive or dead?”

“No, because I didn’t ask.”

They were both sitting by this time. Will put his head in his hands with weariness.

“Well,” he said finally, “I suppose we’ll have to trust each other.”

“That’s all right. I trust you.”

Will nodded grimly. He was so tired, and there was not the slightest possibility of sleep in this world. Lyra wasn’t usually so perceptive, but something in his manner made her think: He’s afraid, but he’s mastering his fear, like Iorek Byrnison said we had to do; like I did by the fish house at the frozen lake.

“And, Will,” she added, “I won’t give you away, not to anyone. I promise.”

“Good.”

“I done that before. I betrayed someone. And it was the worst thing I ever did. I thought I was saving his life actually, only I was taking him right to the most dangerous place there could be. I hated myself for that, for being so stupid. So I’ll try very hard not to be careless or forget and betray you.”

He said nothing. He rubbed his eyes and blinked hard to try and wake himself up.

“We can’t go back through the window till much later,” he said. “We shouldn’t have come through in daylight anyway. We can’t risk anyone seeing. And now we’ve got to hang around for hours…”

“I’m hungry,” Lyra said.

Then he said, “I know! We can go to the cinema!”

“The what?”

“I’ll show you. We can get some food there too.”

There was a cinema near the city center, ten minutes’ walk away. Will paid for both of them to get in, and bought hot dogs and popcorn and Coke, and they carried the food inside and sat down just as the film was beginning.

Lyra was entranced. She had seen projected photograms, but nothing in her world had prepared her for the cinema. She wolfed down the hot dog and the popcorn, gulped the Coca-Cola, and gasped and laughed with delight at the characters on the screen. Luckily it was a noisy audience, full of children, and her excitement wasn’t conspicuous. Will closed his eyes at once and went to sleep.

He woke when he heard the clatter of seats as people moved out, and blinked in the light. His watch showed a quarter past eight. Lyra came away reluctantly.

“That’s the best thing I ever saw in my whole life,” she said. “I dunno why they never invented this in my world. We got some things better than you, but this was better than anything we got.”

Will couldn’t even remember what the film had been. It was still light outside, and the streets were busy.

“D’you want to see another one?”

“Yeah!”

So they went to the next cinema, a few hundred yards away around the corner, and did it again. Lyra settled down with her feet on the seat, hugging her knees, and Will let his mind go blank. When they came out this time, it was nearly eleven o’clock – much better.

Lyra was hungry again, so they bought hamburgers from a cart and ate them as they walked along, something else new to her.

“We always sit down to eat. I never seen people just walking along eating before,” she told him. “There’s so many ways this place is different. The traffic, for one. I don’t like it. I like the cinema, though, and hamburgers. I like them a lot. And that Scholar, Dr. Malone, she’s going to make that engine use words. I just know she is. I’ll go back there tomorrow and see how she’s getting on. I bet I could help her. I could probably get the Scholars to give her the money she wants, too. You know how my father did it? Lord Asriel? He played a trick on them…”

As they walked up the Banbury Road, she told him about the night she hid in the wardrobe and watched Lord Asriel show the Jordan Scholars the severed head of Stanislaus Grumman in the vacuum flask. And since Will was such a good audience, she went on and told him the rest of her story, from the time she escaped from Mrs. Coulter’s flat to the horrible moment when she realized she’d led Roger to his death on the icy cliffs of Svalbard. Will listened without comment, but attentively, with sympathy. Her account of a voyage in a balloon, of armored bears and witches, of a vengeful arm of the Church, seemed all of a piece with his own fantastic dream of a beautiful city on the sea, empty and silent and safe: it couldn’t be true, it was as simple as that.

But eventually they reached the ring road, and the hornbeam trees. There was very little traffic now: a car every minute or so, no more than that. And there was the window. Will felt himself smiling. It was going to be all right.

“Wait till there’s no cars coming,” he said. “I’m going through now.”

And a moment later he was on the grass under the palm trees, and a second or two afterward Lyra followed.

They felt as if they were home again. The wide warm night, and the scent of flowers and the sea, and the silence, bathed them like soothing water.

Lyra stretched and yawned, and Will felt a great weight lift off his shoulders. He had been carrying it all day, and he hadn’t noticed how it had nearly pressed him into the ground; but now he felt light and free and at peace.

And then Lyra gripped his arm. In the same second he heard what had made her do it.

Somewhere in the little streets beyond the caf?¦, something was screaming.

Will set off at once toward the sound, and Lyra followed behind as he plunged down a narrow alley shadowed from the moonlight. After several twists and turns they came out into the square in front of the stone tower they’d seen that morning.

Twenty or so children were facing inward in a semicircle at the base of the tower, and some of them had sticks in their hands, and some were throwing stones at whatever they had trapped against the wall. At first Lyra thought it was another child, but coming from inside the semicircle was a horrible high wailing that wasn’t human at all. And the children were screaming too, in fear as well as hatred.

Will ran up to the children and pulled the first one back. It was a boy of about his own age, a boy in a striped T-shirt. As he turned Lyra saw the wild white rims around his pupils, and then the other children realized what was happening and stopped to look. Angelica and her little brother were there too, stones in hand, and all the children’s eyes glittered fiercely in the moonlight.

They fell silent. Only the high wailing continued, and then both Will and Lyra saw what it was: a tabby cat, cowering against the wall of the tower, its ear torn and its tail bent. It was the cat Will had seen in Sunderland Avenue, the one like Moxie, the one that had led him to the window.

As soon as he saw her, he flung aside the boy he was holding. The boy fell to the ground and was up in a moment, furious, but the others held him back. Will was already kneeling by the cat.

And then she was in his arms. She fled to his breast and he cradled her close and stood to face the children, and Lyra thought for a crazy second that his daemon had appeared at last.

“What are you hurting this cat for?” he demanded, and they couldn’t answer. They stood trembling at Will’s anger, breathing heavily, clutching their sticks and their stones, and they couldn’t speak.

But then Angelica’s voice came clearly: “You ain’ from here! You ain’ from Ci’gazze! You didn’ know about Specters, you don’ know about cats either. You ain’ like us!”

The boy in the striped T-shirt whom Will had thrown down was trembling to fight, and if it hadn’t been for the cat in Will’s arms, he would have flown at Will with fists and teeth and feet, and Will would have gladly joined battle. There was a current of electric hatred between the two of them that only violence could ground. But the boy was afraid of the cat.

“Where you come from?” he said contemptuously.

“Doesn’t matter where we come from. If you’re scared of this cat, I’ll take her away from you. If she’s bad luck to you, she’ll be good luck for us. Now get out of the way.”

For a moment Will thought their hatred would overcome their fear, and he was preparing to put the cat down and fight, but then came a low thunderous growl from behind the children, and they turned to see Lyra standing with her hand on the shoulders of a great spotted leopard whose teeth shone white as he snarled. Even Will, who recognized Pantalaimon, was frightened for a second. Its effect on the children was dramatic: they turned and fled at once. A few seconds later the square was empty.

But before they left, Lyra looked up at the tower. A growl from Pantalaimon prompted her, and just briefly she saw someone there on the very top, looking down over the battlemented rim, and not a child either, but a young man, with curly hair.

Half an hour later they were in the flat above the caf?¦. Will had found a tin of condensed milk, and the cat had lapped it hungrily and then begun to lick her wounds. Pantalaimon had become cat-formed out of curiosity, and at first the tabby cat had bristled with suspicion, but she soon realized that whatever Pantalaimon was, he was neither a true cat nor a threat, and proceeded to ignore him.

Lyra watched Will tending this one with fascination. The only animals she had been close to in her world (apart from the armored bears) were working animals of one sort or another. Cats were for keeping Jordan College clear of mice, not for making pets of.

“I think her tail’s broken,” Will said. “I don’t know what to do about that. Maybe it’ll heal by itself. I’ll put some honey on her ear. I read about that somewhere; it’s antiseptic…”

It was messy, but at least it kept her occupied licking it off, and the wound was getting cleaner all the time.

“You sure this is the one you saw?” she said.

“Oh, yes. And if they’re all so frightened of cats, there wouldn’t be many in this world anyway. She probably couldn’t find her way back.”

“They were just crazy,” Lyra said. “They would have killed her. I never seen kids being like that.”

“I have,” said Will.

But his face had closed; he didn’t want to talk about it, and she knew better than to ask. She knew she wouldn’t even ask the alethiometer.

She was very tired, so presently she went to bed and slept at once.

A little later, when the cat had curled up to sleep, Will took a cup of coffee and the green leather writing case, and sat on the balcony. There was enough light coming through the window for him to read by, and he wanted to look at the papers.

There weren’t many. As he’d thought, they were letters, written on airmail paper in black ink. These very marks were made by the hand of the man he wanted so much to find; he moved his fingers over and over them, and pressed them to his face, trying to get closer to the essence of his father. Then he started to read.

Fairbanks, Alaska

Wednesday, 19 June 1985

My darling – the usual mixture of efficiency and chaos – all the stores are here but the physicist, a genial dimwit called Nelson, hasn’t made any arrangements for carrying his damn balloons up into the mountains – having to twiddle our thumbs while he scrabbles around for transport. But it means I had a chance to talk to an old boy I met last time, a gold miner called Jake Petersen. Tracked him down to a dingy bar and under the sound of the baseball game on the TV I asked him about the anomaly. He wouldn’t talk there – took me back to his apartment. With the help of a bottle of Jack Daniel’s he talked for a long time – hadn’t seen it himself, but he’d met an Eskimo who had, and this chap said it was a doorway into the spirit world. They’d known about it for centuries; part of the initiation of a medicine man involved going through and bringing back a trophy of some kind – though some never came back. However, old Jake did have a map of the area, and he’d marked on it where his pal had told him the thing was. (Just in case: it’s at 69??2′ 11″ N, 157??2′ 19″ W, on a spur of Lookout Ridge a mile or two north of the Colville River.) We then got on to other Arctic legends – the Norwegian ship that’s been drifting unmanned for sixty years, stuff like that. The archaeologists are a decent crew, keen to get to work, containing their impatience with Nelson and his balloons. None of them has ever heard of the anomaly, and believe me I’m going to keep it like that. My fondest love to you both. Johnny.

Umiat, Alaska

Saturday, 22 June 1985

My darling – so much for what did I call him, a genial dimwit – the physicist Nelson is nothing of the sort, and if I’m not mistaken he’s actually looking for the anomaly himself. The holdup in Fairbanks was orchestrated by him, would you believe? Knowing that the rest of the team wouldn’t want to wait for anything less than an unarguable reason like no transport, he personally sent ahead and canceled the vehicles that had been ordered. I found this out by accident, and I was going to ask him what the hell he was playing at when I overheard him talking on the radio to someone – describing the anomaly, no less, except he didn’t know the location. Later on I bought him a drink, played the bluff soldier, old Arctic hand, “more things in heaven and earth ” line. Pretended to tease him with the limitations of science – bet you can’t explain Bigfoot, etc. – watching him closely. Then sprung the anomaly on him – Eskimo legend of a doorway into spirit world – invisible – somewhere near Lookout Ridge, would you believe, where we’re heading for, fancy that. And you know he was jolted rigid. He knew exactly what I meant. I pretended not to notice and went on to witchcraft, told him the Zaire leopard story. So I hope he’s got me down as a superstitious military blockhead. But I’m right, Elaine – he’s looking for it too. The question is, do I tell him or not? Got to work out what his game is. Fondest love to both – Johnny.

Colville Bar,

Alaska Monday, 24 June 1985

Darling – I won’t get a chance to post another letter for a while – this is the last town before we take to the hills, the Brooks Range. The archaeologists are fizzing to get up there. One chap is convinced he’ll find evidence of much earlier habitation than anyone suspected. I said how much earlier, and why was he convinced. He told me of some narwhal-ivory carvings he’d found on a previous dig – carbon 14-dated to some incredible age, way outside the range of what was previously assumed; anomalous, in fact. Wouldn’t it be strange if they’d come through my anomaly, from some other world? Talking of which, the physicist Nelson is my closest buddy now – kids me along, drops hints to imply that he knows that I know that he knows, etc. And I pretend to be bluff Major Parry, stout fellow in a crisis but not too much between the ears, what. But I know he’s after it. For one thing, although he’s a bona fide academic his funding actually comes from the Ministry of Defense – I know the financial codes they use. And for another his so-called weather balloons are nothing of the sort. I looked in the crate – a radiation suit if ever I’ve seen one. A rum do, my darling. I shall stick to my plan: take the archaeologists to their spot and go off by myself for a few days to look for the anomaly. If I bump into Nelson wandering about on Lookout Ridge, I’ll play it by ear.

Later. A real bit of luck. I met Jake Petersen’s pal the Eskimo, Matt Kigalik. Jake had told me where to find him, but I hadn’t dared to hope he’d be there. He told me the Soviets had been looking for the anomaly too; he’d come across a man earlier this year high up in the range and watched him for a couple of days without being seen, because he guessed what he was doing, and he was right, and the man turned out to be Russian, a spy. He didn’t tell me more than that; I got the impression he bumped him off. But he described the thing to me. It’s like a gap in the air, a sort of window. You look through it and you see another world. But it’s not easy to find because that part of the other world looks just like this – rocks and moss and so forth. It’s on the north side of a small creek fifty paces or so to the west of a tall rock shaped like a standing bear, and the position Jake gave me is not quite right – it’s nearer 12″ N than 11.

Wish me luck, my darling. I’ll bring you back a trophy from the spirit world. I love you forever – kiss the boy for me – Johnny.

Will found his head ringing.

His father was describing exactly what he himself had found under the hornbeam trees. He, too, had found a window – he even used the same word for it! So Will must be on the right track. And this knowledge was what the men had been searching for… So it was dangerous, too.

Will had been just a baby when that letter was written. Seven years after that had come the morning in the supermarket when he realized his mother was in terrible danger, and he had to protect her; and then slowly in the months that followed came his growing realization that the danger was in her mind, and he had to protect her all the more.

And then, brutally, the revelation that not all the danger had been in her mind after all. There really was someone after her – after these letters, this information.

He had no idea what it meant. But he felt deeply happy that he had something so important to share with his father; that John Parry and his son Will had each, separately, discovered this extraordinary thing. When they met, they could talk about it, and his father would be proud that Will had followed in his footsteps.

The night was quiet and the sea was still. He folded the letters away and fell asleep.

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