Ian R. MacLeod. Isabel of the Fall.

‘Isabel of the Fall’ originally appeared Interzone 169, July 2001, and is copyright Ian R. MacLeod. It appears here with kind permission of the author.

Once, in the time which was always long ago, there lived a girl. She was called Isabel and — in some versions of this tale, you will hear of the beauty of her eyes, the sigh of her hair, the falling of her gaze which was like the dark glitter of a thousand wells, but Isabel wasn’t like that. In other tellings, you will learn that her mouth stuck out like a seapug’s, that she had a voice like the dawn-shriek of a geelie. But that wasn’t Isabel, either. Isabel was plain. Her hair was brown, and so, probably, were her eyes, although that fact remains forever unrecorded. She was of medium height for the women who then lived. She walked without stoop or any obvious deformity, and she was of less than average wisdom. Isabel was un-beautiful and unintelligent, but she was also un-stupid and un-ugly. Amid all the many faces of the races and species which populate these many universes, hers was one of the last you would ever notice.

Isabel was born and died in Ghezirah, the great City of Islands which lies at the meeting of all the Ten Thousand and One Worlds. Ghezirah was different then, and in the time which was always long ago, it is often said that the animals routinely conversed, gods walked the night and fountains filled with ghosts. But, for Isabel, this was the time of the end of the War of the Lilies.

Her origins are obscure. She may have been a child of one of the beggars who, then as now, seek alms amid the great crystal concourses. She may have been daughter of one of the priestess soldiers who fought for their Church. She may even have been the lost daughter of some great matriarch, as is often the way in these tales. All that is certain is that, when Isabel was born in Ghezirah, the many uneasy alliances which always bind the Churches had boiled into war. There were also more men then, and many of them were warriors, so it is it even possible that Isabel was born as a result of rape rather than conscious decision. Isabel never knew. All that she ever remembered, in the earliest of the fragmentary records which are attributed to her, is the swarming of a vast crowd, things broken underfoot, and the swoop and blast overhead of what might have been some kind of military aircraft. In this atmosphere of panic and danger, she was one moment holding onto a hand. Next, the sky seemed to ignite, and the hand slipped from hers.

Many people died or went mad in the War of the Lilies. Ghezirah itself was badly damaged, although the city measures things by its own times and priorities, and soon set about the process of healing its many islands which lace to form the glittering web which circles the star called Sabil. Life, just as it always must, went on, and light still flashed from minaret to minaret each morning with the cries of the cries of Dawn-Singers, even if many of the beauties of which they sang now lay ruined beneath. The Churches, too, had to heal themselves, and seek new acolytes after many deaths and betrayals. Here, tottering amid the smoking rubble, too young to fend for herself, was plain Isabel. It must have been one of the rare times in her life that she was noticed, that day when she was taken away with many others to join the depleted ranks of the Dawn Church.

The Dawn Church has its own island in Ghezirah, called Jitera, and Isabel may have been trained there in the simpler crafts of bringing light and darkness, although it is more likely that she would have attended a small local academy, and been set to the crude manual tasks of rebuilding one of the many minarets which had been destroyed, perhaps hauling a wheelbarrow or wielding a trowel. Still, amid the destruction which the War of the Lilies had visited on Ghezirah, every Church knew that to destroy the minarets which bore dawn across the skies would have been an act beyond folly. Thus, of all the Churches, that of the Dawn had probably suffered least, and could afford to be generous. Perhaps that was the reason that Isabel, for all her simple looks and lack of gifts, was apprenticed to become a Dawn-Singer as she grew towards womanhood. Or perhaps, as is still sometimes the way, she rose to such heights because no one had thought to notice her.

Always, first and foremost in the Dawn Church, there is the cleaning of mirrors: the great reflectors which gather Sabil’s light far above Ghezirah’s sheltering skies, and those below; the silver dishes of the great minarets which dwarf all but the highest mountains; the many, many lesser ones which bear light across the entire city each morning with the cries of the Dawn-Singers. But there is much else which the apprentices of the Dawn Church must study. There is the behaviour of the light itself, and the effects of lenses; also the many ways in which Sabil’s light must be filtered before it can safely reach flesh and eyes, either alien of human. Then there are the mechanisms which govern the turning of all these mirrors, and the hidden engines which drive them. And there is the study of Sabil herself, who waxes and wanes even though her glare seems unchanging. Ghezirah, even at the recent end of the War of Lilies, was a place of endless summer and tropic warmth, where the flowers never wilted, the trees kept their leaves for a lifetime, and the exact time when day and night would flood over the city with the cries of the Dawn-Bringers was decreed in the chapels of the Dawn Church by the spinning of an atomic clock. But, in the work of the young apprentices who tended the minarets, first and always, there was the cleaning of the mirrors.

Isabel’s lot was a hard one, but not unpleasant. Although she had already risen far in her Church, there were still many others like her. Each evening, after prayers and night-breakfast, and the study of the photon or the prism, Isabel and her fellow apprentices scattered to ascend the spiral stairs of their designated local minaret. Some would oil the many pistons and flywheels within, or perhaps tend to the needs of the Dawn-Singer herself, but most clambered on until they met the windy space where what probably seemed like the whole of Ghezirah lay spread glittering beneath them, curving upwards into the night. There, all through the dark hours until the giant reflectors far above them inched again towards Sabil, Isabel pulled doeskin pouches over her hands and feet, unfolded rags, wrung out sponges, unwound ropes and harnesses, and saw with all the other apprentices to polishing the mirrors. Isabel must have done well, or at least not badly. Some of her friends fell from her minaret, leaving stripes of blood across the sharp edge of the lower planes which she herself had to clean. Others were banished back to their begging bowls. But, for the few remaining, the path ahead was to become a Dawn-Singer.

To this day, the ceremonies of induction of this and every other Church remain mostly secret. But now, if she hadn’t done so before, Isabel would have travelled by tunnel or shuttle to the Dawn Church’s island of Jerita, and touched the small heat of the clock which bore the unchanging day and night of eternal summer to all Ghezirah. There would have been songs of praise and sadness as she was presented to the senior acolytes of her Church. Then, after they had heard the whisper of deeper secrets, Isabel’s fellow apprentices were all ritually blinded. Whatever the Eye of Sabil is, it must filter much of the star’s power until just enough rays of a certain type remain to destroy vision, yet leave the eyes seemingly undamaged. The apprentices of the Dawn Church all actively seek this moment as a glimpse into the gaze of the Almighty, and it is hard to imagine how Isabel managed to avoid it. Perhaps she simply closed her eyes. More likely, she was forgotten in the crowd.

Thus Isabel, whose eyes were of a colour remains forever unrecorded, became a Dawn-Singer, although she was not blind, and — somehow — she was able to survive this new phase of her life undetected. She probably never imagined that she was unique. Being Isabel, and not entirely stupid, but certainly not bright, she probably gave the matter little deep thought. In this new world of the blind, where touch and taste and sound and mouse-like scurryings of new apprentices were all that mattered, Isabel, with all her limited gifts, soon discovered the trick of learning how not to see.

She was given tutelage of a minaret on the island of Nashir, where the Floating Ocean hangs as a blue jewel up on the rising horizon. Nashir is a beautiful island, and a great seat of learning, but it was and is essentially a backwater. Isabel’s minaret was small, too, bringing day and night to a cedar valley of considerable beauty but no particular significance save the fact that to the west it overlooked the rosestone outer walls of the Cathedral of the Word. Before dawn as she lay in her high room, Isabel would hear laughter and the rumble of footsteps as her mirror-polishing apprentices finished their duties, and would allow a few more privileged ones to pretend to imagine they had woken her with their entrance, and then help her with her ablutions and prayers. Always, she gazed through them. Almost always now, she saw literally nothing. She thought of these girls as sounds, names, scents, differing footsteps and touches. Borne up with their help onto her platform where, even atop this small minaret, the sense of air and space swam all around her, Isabel was strapped to her crucifix in solemn darkness, and heard the drip-tick of the modem which received the beat of Jerita’s atomic clock, and sensed the clean, clear waiting of the freshly-polished mirrors around and above her as, with final whispers and blessings, the apprentices departed to their quarters down by the river, where, lulled by birdsong, they would sleep through most of the daylight their mistress would soon bring.

The drip-tick of the modem changed slightly. Isabel tensed herself, and began to sing. Among the mirrors’ many other properties, they amplified her voice, and carried it down the dark valley towards her departing apprentices, and to the farmsteads, and across the walls of the Cathedral of the Word. It was a thrilling, chilling sound, which those who had morning duties were awakened by, and those who did not had long ago learned to sleep though. Far above her, in a rumble like distant thunder, the great mirrors within Ghezirah’s orbit poised themselves to turn to face the sun. Another moment, and the modem’s drip-tick changed again, and with it Isabel’s song, as, in dazzling pillars, Sabil’s light bore down towards every minaret. Isabel tensed in her crucifix and moved her limbs in the ways she had learned; movements which drove the pulleys and pistons that in turn caused the mirrors of her minaret to fan their gathered rays across her valley. Thus, in song and light, each day in Ghezirah is born, and Isabel remained no different to any other Dawn-Singer, but for the one fact that, at the crucial moment when first light flashed down to her, she had learned to screw up her eyes.

A typical day, and her work was almost done then until the time came to sing the different songs which called in the night. Sometimes, if there were technical difficulties, or clouds drifted out over from the Floating Ocean, or there was rain, Isabel would have to re-harness herself to her crucifix and struggle hard to keep her valley alight. Sometimes, there were visitors or school parties, but mostly now her time was her own. It wasn’t unknown for Dawn-Singers to plead with their apprentices to leave some small job undone each night so they could have the pleasure of absorbing themselves in it through the following day. But, for Isabel, inactivity was easy. She had the knack of the near simple-minded of letting time pass through her as easily as the light and the wind.

One morning, Isabel was inspecting some of the outer mirrors. Such minor tasks, essentially checking that her apprentices were performing their duties as they should, were part of her life. Any blind Dawn-Singer worth her salt could tell from the feel of the air coming off a particular mirror whether it had been correctly polished, and then set at the precise necessary angle on its runners and beds. Touching it, the smear of a single bare fingertip, would have be sacrilege, and sight, in this place of dazzling glass, was of little use. Isabel, in the minaret brightness of her lonely days, rarely thought about looking, and when she did, what she saw was a world dimmed by the blotches which now swam before her eyes. In a few more months, years at the most, she would have been blinded by her work. But as it was, on this particular nondescript day, and just as she had suspected from a resistance which she had felt in the left arm of her crucifix, a mirror in the western quadrant was misaligned. Isabel studied it, feeling the wrongness of the air. It was Mirror 28, and the error was a matter of fractions of second of a degree, and thus huge by her standards. The way Mirror 28 was, it scarcely reflected Sabil’s light at all, and made the corner of her minaret where she stood seem relatively dim. Thus, as Isabel wondered whether to try to deal with the problem now or leave it for her apprentices, she regained a little more of her sight.

The valley spread beneath her was already shimmering in those distant times of warm and sudden mornings, and the silver river flashed back the light of her minaret. The few dotted houses were terracotta and white. Another perfect day, but for a slight dullness in the west caused by the particular faulty mirror. The effect, Isabel thought as she strained her aching eyes, was not unpleasing. The outer rosestone walls of the Cathedral of the Word, the main structure of which lay far beyond the hills of this valley, had deep, pleasant glow to them. The shadows seemed fuller. Inside the walls, there were paved gardens, trees and fountains. Dove clattered, flowers bloomed, insects hummed, statues gestured. Here and there, for no obvious reason, were placed slatted white boxes. Nothing and nobody down there seemed to have noticed that she had failed them today in her duties. Isabel smiled and inhaled the rich, pollen-scented air. It was a minor blemish, and she still felt proud of her work. Near the wall, beside a place where its stones dimpled in towards a gateway, there was a pillared space of open paving. This, too, was of rosestone. Isabel was about to shut her eyes so she could concentrate better on the scene when she heard, the sound carrying faint on the breeze, the unmistakable slap of feet on warm stone. She peered down again, leaning forward over Mirror 28, her unmemorable face captured in reflection as she saw a figure moving far below across the open paving. A young girl, by the look of her. Her hair was flashing gold-bands, as were her arms and ankles. She was dancing, circling, in some odd way which made no sense to Isabel, although she looked graceful in a way beyond anything Isabel could explain.

That night, after she had sung in the darkness, Isabel neglected to mention the fault with Mirror 28 to her apprentices. The next morning, breathing the same warm air at the same westerly corner of her minaret, she listened again to shift and slap of feet. It was a long time before she opened her eyes, and when she did, her vision seemed clearer. The girl dancing on the rosestone paving had long black hair, and she was dressed in the flashing silks which Isabel associated with alien lands and temples. Rings flashed from her fingers. A bindi glittered at her forehead. Isabel breathed, and watched, and marvelled.

The next blazing day, the day after, Isabel watched again from the top of her minaret beside faulty Mirror 28. It was plainly some ritual. The girl was probably an apprentice, or perhaps a minor acolyte. She was learning whatever trade it was which was practised in the Cathedral of the Word. Isabel remembered, or tried to remember, her own origins. That swarming crowd. Then hunger, thirst. What would have happened if she had been taken instead to this place beyond the wall? Would she have ever been this graceful? Isabel already knew the answer, but still the question absorbed her. In her dreams, the hand which she held as the fighter plane swooped became the same oiled olive colour as that girl’s flashing skin. And sometimes, before the thundering feet of her apprentices awakened her to another day of duty, Isabel almost felt as if she, too, was dancing.

One day, the air was different. The Floating Ocean which hung on the horizon was a place of which Isabel understood little, although it was nurtured in Sabil’s reflected energies by a specialist Order of her Church. Sometimes, mostly, it was blue. Then it would glitter and grey. Boiling out from it like angry thoughts would come clouds and rain. At these times, as she wrestled on her crucifix, Isabel imagined shipwreck storms, heaving seas. At other times, the clouds which drifted from it would be light and white, although they also interfered with the light in more subtle and often more infuriating ways. But on this particular day, Isabel awoke to feel dampness on her skin, clammy but not unpleasant, and a sense that every sound and creak of this minaret with which she was now so familiar had changed. The voices of her apprentices, even as they clustered around her, were muffled, and their hair and flesh smelled damp and cold. The whole world, what little she glimpsed of it as she ascended the final staircase and was strapped to her crucifix, had turned grey. The wood at her back was slippery. The harnesses which she had cured and sweated and strained into the shapes of her limbs were loose. She knew that most of the minaret’s mirrors were clouding in condensation even before the last of murmuring senior apprentices reported the fact and bowed out of her way.

The sodden air swallowed the first notes of her song. With the mechanisms of the whole minaret all subtly changed, Isabel struggled as she had never struggled before to bring in the day. Sabil’s pillar was feeble, and the mirrors were far below their usual levels of reflectivity. Still, it was for mornings such as this for which she had been trained, and she caught this vague light and fanned it across her valley even though she felt as if she was swimming through oceans of clay. And her song, as she finally managed to achieve balance and the clouding began to dissolve in the morning’s heat, grew more joyous than ever in her triumph, such that people in the valley scratched the sleep from their heads and thought as they rarely thought; Ah, there is the Dawn-Singer, bringing the day! Despite the cold white air, they probably went about their ablutions whistling, confident that some things will never change.

It was several more hours before Isabel was sure that the smaller minds and mechanisms of the minaret had reached their usual equilibrium, and could be trusted to run themselves. But the world, as she climbed down from her crucifix, was still shrouded. Fog — she had learned the word in her apprenticeship, although she had thought of it as one of those mythical aberrations, like a comet-strike. But here it was. She wandered the misted balconies and gantries. The light here was diffuse, but ablaze. Soon, she guessed, the power she had brought from her sun would burn this moist white world away. But in the west, there was a greater dimness, which was amplified today. Here, the air was almost as chill as it had been before daybreak. Isabel bit her lip and ground her palms. She cursed herself, to have allowed this to come about. What would her old training mistress say! Too late now to attempt to rectify the situation at Mirror 28, with the planes beaded wet and the pistons dripping. She would have to speak to her apprentices this evening, and do her best to pretend sternness. It was what teachers generally did, she had noticed: when they had failed to deal with something, they simply blamed their class. Isabel tried to imagine the scene to the invisible west below. That dancing girl beyond the walls of the Cathedral of the Word would surely find this near-darkness a great inconvenience. The simple, the obvious — the innocent — thing seemed to be to go down and apologise to her.

Isabel descended the many stairways of her minaret. Stepping out into the world outside seemed odd to her now — the ground was so low! — but especially today, when, almost mimicking the effects of her fading sight, everything but her minaret which blazed above her was dim and blotched and silvered. She walked between the fields in the direction of the rosestone walls, and heard but didn’t see the animals grazing. Brushing unthinkingly and near-blindly as now habitually did against things, she followed close to the brambled hedges, and, by the time she felt the dim fiery glow of the wall coming up towards her, her hands and arms were scratched and wet. The stones of the wall were soaked, too. The air here was a damp presence. Conscious that she was entering the dim realm which her own inattention had made, Isabel felt her way along the wall until she came to the door. It looked old and little-used; the kind of door you might find in a story. She didn’t know whether to feel surprise when she turned the cold and slippery iron hoop, and felt it give way.

Now, she was in the outer gardens of the Cathedral of the Word, and fully within the shade of faulty Mirror 28. It was darker here, certainly, but her senses and her sight soon adjusted, and Isabel decided that the effect wasn’t unpleasant, in some indefinable and melancholy way. In this diffuse light, the trees were dark clouds. The pavements were black and shining. Some of the flowers hung closed, or were beaded with silver cobwebs. A few bees buzzed by her, but they seemed clumsy and half-asleep in this half-light as well. Then, of all things, there was a flicker of orange light; a glow which Isabel’s half-ruined eyes refused to believe. But, as she walked towards it, it separated itself into several quivering spheres, bearing with them the smell of smoke, and the slap of bare feet on wet stone.

The open courtyard which Isabel had gazed down on from her minaret was impossible to scale as she stood at the edge of it on this dim and foggy day, although the surrounding pillars which marched off and vanished up into the mist seemed huge, lit by the flicker of the smoking braziers placed between them. Isabel moved forward. The dancer, for a long time, was a sound, a disturbance of the mist. Then, sudden as a ghost, she was there before her.

“Ahlan wa sahlan…” She bowed from parted knees, palms pressed together. She smelled sweetly of sweat and sandalwood. Her hair was long and black and glorious. “And who, pray, are you? And what are you doing here?”

Isabel, flustered in a way which she had not felt in ages, stumbled over her answer. The minaret over the wall… She pointed uselessly into the mist. This dimness — no, not the mist itself, but the lack of proper light… The dancer’s kohled and oval eyes regarded her with what seemed like amusement. The bindi on her brow glittered similarly. Although the dancer was standing still, her shoulders rose and fell from her exertions. Her looped earrings tinked.

“So, you bring light from that tower?”

Isabel, who perhaps still hadn’t made the matter as clear as she should have, nodded in dizzy relief that this strange creature was starting to understand her. “I’m so sorry it’s so dark today. I’ve — I’ve heard your dancing from my tower, and I — thought… I thought that this oversight would be difficult for you.”

“Difficult?” The girl cocked her head sideways like a bird to consider. The flames were still dancing. Their light flicked dark and orange across her arms. “No, I don’t think so. In fact, I quite like it. My name’s Genya, by the way. I’m a beekeeper…” She gave a liquid laugh and stepped forward, back, half-fading. “Although, thanks to you, there are few enough bees today need keeping.”

“Beekeeper — but I thought these were the gardens of the Cathedral of the Word? I thought you were — ”

“ — Oh, I’m a Librarian as well. Or at least, a most senior apprentice. But some of us must also learn how to keep bees.”

Isabel nodded. “Of course. For the honey…”

Again, Genya laughed. There seemed to be little Isabel could do which didn’t cause her amusement. “Of no! Never for that! We give the honey away the poor at our main gates on moulid days. We keep bees because they teach us how to find the books. Do you want me to show you?”

Isabel was shown. That first day, the misty gardens were nothing but a puzzle to her. There were flowering bushes which she was told by Genya bore within each their cells whole libraries of information about wars fought and lost. There were stepped crypt-like places beyond creaky iron gates where, through other doors which puffed open once Genya made a gesture, lay bound books of the histories of things which had never happened in this or any other world. They were standing, Genya whispered, reaching up to take down a silvery thing encased in plastic, merely at the furthest shore of the greatest oceans of all possible knowledge. Yet some of these clear, bright, artificially lit catacombs were as big as all but the finest halls of the Dawn Church’s own seats of learning.

“What is that, anyway?”

It was a rainbowed disk. After a small struggle, Genya opened the transparent box which contained it. “I think it contains music.” Isabel had to gasp when Genya placed the fingertips upon the surface, so closely did it resemble a mirror. But Genya’s fingers moved rapidly in a caressing, circling motion. Her eyes closed for a moment. She started humming. “Yes. It is music. An old popular song about fools on hills. It’s lovely. I wish I had the voice like you to sing it.”

“You can hear it from that?”

Genya nodded. “It’s something which is done to us Librarians. To our fingers. See…” She raised them towards Isabel’s gaze. Close to the end, the flesh seemed raw, like fresh scar tissue. “We’re given extra optic nerves. Small magnetic sensors… Processors… Other things…” She snapped the rainbow disk back into its case. “It makes life a lot easier.” She tried to demonstrate the same trick with a brown ribbon of tape, the spool of which instantly took off on its own down the long corridor in which they were standing. She hummed, once they had caught up with it, another tune.

“It’s all part of being a Librarian, having tickly fingers,” Genya announced as she slotted the object back on its shelf. “By the way…” She turned back towards Isabel. “I was under the impression that there was a far worse excruciation for you Dawn-Singers…” Genya leaned forward with a dancer’s gaze, peering as no one ever had into the forgotten shade of Isabel’s eyes. “You’re supposed to be blind, aren’t you? But it’s plain to even the stupidest idiot that you’re not…”

Next dawn, the skies were clear again. Once more, the Floating Ocean was calm and distant and blue. Those in that valley who cared to listen to Isabel’s song might have thought that day that it sounded slightly perfunctory. But ordinary daybreaks such as these were easy sport for Isabel now. She was even getting used to the different feel of the minaret which came from the fault in Mirror 28. Under blue skies which only a connoisseur or an acolyte would have noticed a slight darkening of in the western quadrant, she hurried across the fields towards the rosestone walls of the Cathedral of the Word.

Even though their prosecutors were able to argue the facts convincingly the other way, neither Isabel not Genya ever thought that their acts in those long ago days of Ghezirah’s endless summer amounted to betrayal. They knew that their respective Churches guarded their secrets with all the paranoid dread of the truly powerful, who are left with much to loose and little to gain. They knew, too, of the recent terrors of the War of the Lilies. But their lives had been small. Further up the same rosestone wall, if Isabel had cared to follow it beyond her valley, she would have eventually have found that its fine old blocks was pockmarked with sprays of bullets; further still, the stone itself dissolved into shining heaps of dream-distorted lava, and the gardens still heaved with the burrowing teeth of trapmoles. Yet Nashir had suffered far less in the War of the Lilies than many of Ghezirah’s islands. In the vast lattice of habitation which surrounded Sabil, there were still huge rents and floating swathes of spinning rubble. Seventeen years is little time to recover from a war, but peace and youth and endless summer are heady brews, and lessons doled out in the Church classrooms by the rap of a mistress’s cane sometimes remain forever wrapped in chalkdust and boredom. Day brilliant after day in that backwater of a backwater, Isabel and Genya wandered deeper into the secrets of Cathedral of the Word’s cloisters and gardens. Day after day, they betrayed the secrets of their respective Churches.

The Cathedral and its environs are vast, and the farms and villages and towns and the several cities of Nashir which surround it are mostly there, in one way or another, to serve its needs. Beyond the ridge of the Isabel’s valley, standing at the lip of stepped gardens which went down and down so far that the light grew blue and hazed, they saw a distant sprawl of stone, glass, spires on the rising horizon.

“Is that the Cathedral?”

Not for the first time that day, Genya laughed. “Oh no! It’s just the local Lending Office…” They walked on and down; waterfalls glittering beside them in the distant blaze of, far greater, minaret than Isabel’s. Another day, rising to the surface from the tunnels of a catacomb from which it had seemed they would never escape, Isabel saw yet another great and fine building. Again, she asked the same question. Again, Genya laughed. Still, within those grounds with their wild white follies and statues a shrines to Dewey, Bliss and Ranganathan, there were many compensations.

As their daily journeys grew further, it became necessary to travel by speedier methods if Isabel was to return to her minaret in time to sing in the night. The catacombs of books were too vast for any Librarian to categorise even the most tightly defined subject without access to rapid transport. So, on the silk seats of caleches which buzzed on cushions of buried energy, they swept along corridors. The bookshelves flashed past them, the titles spinning too fast to read, until the spines themselves became indistinguishable and the individual globelights blurred into a single white stripe overhead. Isabel and Genya laughed and whooped as they urged their metal craft into yet greater feats of speed and manoeuvrability. The dusty wisdoms of lost ages cooled their faces.

They rarely saw anyone, and then only as faint figures tending some distant stack of books, or the trails of aircraft like scratches across the blue roof of the Ghezirahan sky. Genya’s training, the dances and the indexing and — for an exercise, the sub-categorising of the lesser tenses of the verb meaning to blink in sixty eight lost languages — came to her through messages even more remote than the tick of Isabel’s modem. Sometimes, the statues spoke to her. Sometimes, the flowers gave off special scents, or the furred leaves of a bush communicated something in their touch to her. But, mostly, Genya learned from her bees.

One day, Isabel succumbed to Genya’s repeated requests and led her to the uppermost reaches of her minaret. Genya laughed as she peered down from the spiralling stairways as they ascended. The drops, she claimed, leaning far across the worn brass handrails, were dizzying. Isabel leaned over as well; she’d never thought to look at her minaret in this way. Seen from the inside, the place was like a huge vertical tunnel, threaded with sunlight and dust and the slow tickings of vast machinery, diminishing down towards seeming infinity.

“Why is it, anyway, that you Dawn-Singers need to be blinded?” Genya asked as they climbed on, her voice by now somewhat breathless.

“I suppose it’s because we become blind soon enough — a kind of mercy. That, and because we have access to such high places. We Dawn-Singers know how to combine lenses…” Isabel paused on a stairs for a moment as a new thought struck her, and Genya bumped into her back. “So perhaps the other Churches are worried about what, looking down, we might see…”

“I’m surprised anyone ever gets to the top of this place without dying of exhaustion. Your apprentices must have legs like trees!” But they did reach the top, and Isabel felt the pride she always felt at her minaret’s gathered heat and power, whilst Genya, when she had recovered, moved quickly from silvery balcony to balcony, exclaiming about the view. Isabel was little used to seeing anything up here, but she saw through her fading eyes many reflected images of her friend, darting mirror to mirror with her pretty silks trailing behind her like flocks of coloured birds. Isabel smiled. She felt happy, and the happiness was different to the happiness she felt each dawn. Chasing the reflections, she finally found the real Genya standing on the gantry above Mirror 28.

“It’s darker here.”

“Yes. This mirror has a fault in it.”

“This must have been where you first saw me…” Genya chuckled. “I thought the light had changed. The colours were suddenly deeper. For a while, it even had the bees confused. Sometimes, the sunlight felt almost cool as I danced though it — more soothing. But I suppose that was your gaze…”

They both stared down at the gardens of the Cathedral of the Word. They looked glorious, although the pillared space where Genya had danced seemed oddly vacant without her. Isabel rubbed her sore eyes as bigger blotches than usual swam before them. She said, “You’ve never told me about that dance.”

“It’s supposed to be a secret.”

“But then, so are many things.”

They stood there for a long time amid the minaret’s shimmering light, far above the green valley and the winding rosestone wall. Today felt different. Perhaps they were growing too old for these trysts. Perhaps things would have to change… The warm wind blew past them. The Floating Ocean glittered. The trees murmured. The river gleamed. Then, with a rising hum like a small machine coming to life, a bee which had risen the thermals to this great height blundered against Isabel’s face. Somehow, it settled there. She felt its spiky legs, then the brush of Genya’s fingers as she lifted the creature away.

“I’ll show you the dance now, if you like.”

“Here? But — ”

“ — just watch.”

From her cupped hands, Genya laid the insect on the gapped wooden boards. It sat there for a moment in the sunlight, slowly shuffling its wings. It looked stunned. “This one’s a white-tail. Of course, she’s a worker — and a she. They do all the work, just like in Ghezirah. Most likely she’s been sent out this morning as a scout. Many of them never come back, but the ones that do, and if they’ve found some fine new source of nectar, tell the hive about it when they return…” Genya stooped. She rubbed her palms, and held them close to the insect and breathed their scent towards it, making a sound as she did so — a deep-centred hum. She stepped back. “Watch…” The bee preened her antennae and quivered her thorax and shuffled her wings. She wiggled back, and then forwards, her small movements describing jerky figures of eight. “They use your minaret as a signpost…” Genya murmured as the bee continued dancing. Isabel squinted; there was something about its movements which reminded of Genya on the rosestone paving. “That, and the pull and spin of all Ghezirah. It’s called the waggly dance. Most kinds of social bees do it, and its sacred to our Church as well.”

Isabel chuckled, delighted. “The waggly dance?!”

“Well, there are many longer and more serious names for it.”

“No, no — it’s lovely… Can you tell where’s she been?”

“Over the wall, of course. And she can’t understand why there’s hard ground up here, up where the sun should be. She thinks we’re probably flowers, but no use for nectar-gathering.”

“You can tell all of that?”

“What would be the point, otherwise, in her dancing? It’s the same with us Librarians. Our dance is a ritual we use for signalling where a particular book is to be found.”

Isabel smiled at her friend. The idea of someone dancing to show where a book lay amid the Cathedral of the Word’s maze of tunnels, buildings and catacombs seemed deliciously impractical, and quite typical of Genya. The way they were both standing now, Isabel could see their two figures clearly reflected in Mirror 28’s useless upper convex. She was struck as she always was by Genya’s effortless beauty — and then by her own plainness. Isabel was dull as a shadow, even down to the greyed leather jerkin and shorts she was wearing, her mosey hair which had been cropped with blind efficiency, and then held mostly back by a cracked rubber band. She could, in fact, almost have been Genya’s shade. It was a pleasant thought — the two of them combined in the light which she brought to this valley each day — but at the same time, the reflection bothered Isabel. For a start, Mirror 28 poured darkness instead of light from her minaret. Even its name felt cold and steely, like a premonition…

Isabel mouthed something. A phrase: the fault in Mirror 28. It was a saying which was to become popular throughout the Ten Thousand and One Worlds, signifying the small thing left undone from which many other larger consequences, often dire, will follow…

“What was that?”

“Oh… Nothing…”

The bee, raised back into the air by Genya’s hands, flew away. The two young women sat talking on the warm decking, exchanging other secrets. There were intelligent devices, Isabel learned, which roamed the aisles of the Cathedral of the Word, searching, scanning, reading, through dusty centuries in pursuit of some minor truth. They were friendly enough when you encountered them, even if they looked like animated coffins. Sometimes, though, if you asked them nicely, they would put aside their duties and let you climb on their backs and take you for a ride…

The modem was ticking. Another day was passing. It was time for Genya to return beyond the walls of the Cathedral of the Word. Usually, the two young women were heedlessly quick with their farewells, but, on this blazing afternoon, Isabel felt herself hesitating, and Genya reached out, tracing with her ravaged and sensitive fingers the unmemorable outlines of her friend’s face. Isabel did so too. Although her flesh then was no more remarkable than she was, she had acquired a blind person’s way of using touch for sight.


“Yes?” They both stepped back from each other, embarrassed by this sudden intimacy.

“Will you dance for me — down on that paving? Now that I know what it’s for, I’d love to watch you dance again.”

Genya smiled. She gave the same formal bow which she had given when they had first met, then turned and began her long descent of the minaret’s stairs. By the time she had reached the bottom, Isabel had already strapped herself into her crucifix and was saying her preliminary prayers as she prepared to sing out another day. Unstarry darkness beautiful as the dawn itself washed across all Ghezirah, and Isabel never saw her friend again.

Of the many secrets attributed to the Dawn Church, Isabel still knew relatively few. She didn’t know for example, that light, modulated in ways beyond anything she could feel with her human senses, can bear immense amounts of data. As well as singing in the dawn each day from her crucifix, she also heedlessly bore floods of information which passed near-instantly across the valley, and finally, flashing minaret to minaret, returned to the place where it had mostly originated, which was the gleaming island of Jerita, where all things pertaining to the Dawn Church must begin and end. Even before Isabel had noticed it herself, some part of the great Intelligence which governed the runnings of her Church had noted, much as a great conductor will notice the off-tuning of a single string in an orchestra, a certain weakness in the returning message from the remote but nevertheless important island of Nashir where the Cathedral of the Word spread it vast roots and boughs. To the Intelligence, this particular dissonance could only be associated with one minaret, and then to a particular mirror, numbered 28. The Intelligence had many other concerns, but it began to monitor the functioning of that minaret more closely, noticing yet more subtle changes which could not be entirely ascribed to the varying weather or the increasing experience of a new acolyte. In due course, certain human members of the Church were also alerted, and various measures were put in hand to establish the cause of this inattention, the simplest of which involved a midday visit to the dormitories beside the river in Isabel’s valley, where apprentices were awoken and quietly interrogated about the behaviour of their new mistress, then asked if they might be prepared to forgo sleep and study their mistress from some hidden spot using delicate instruments with which would, of course, be provided.

The morning after Isabel had watched the bee’s dance dawned bright and sweet as ever. The birds burst into song. The whole valley, to her fading eyes, was a green fire. Still, she was sure that, if she used her gaze cautiously, and looked to the side which was less ravaged, she would be able to watch Genya dance. Her breath quickened as she ascended the last stairway. She felt as if she was translucent, swimming through light. Then, of all things, and amplified by mechanisms which mimicked the human inner ear, the doorway far at the base of her minaret sounded the coded knock which signified the urgent needs of another member of her Church. In fact, there were two people waiting at Isabel’s doorway. One bore a stern and sorrowful demeanour, whilst the other was a new acolyte, freshly blinded. Even before they had touched hands and faces, Isabel knew that this acolyte had come to replace her. Although she was standing on the solid ground of Ghezirah, she felt as if she was falling.

Unlike many other details of Isabel’s life, facts of her trial are relatively well recorded. Strangely, or perhaps not, the Church of the Word is less free in publishing its proceedings, although much can be adduced from secondary sources. The tone of the press reports, for example, is astonishingly fevered. Even before they had had the chance to admit their misdeeds, Isabel and Genya were both labelled as criminals and traitors. They were said to be lovers, too, in every possible sense apart from the true one. They were foolhardy, dangerous — rabid urchins who had been rescued from the begging-bowl gutters of Ghezirah by their respective Churches, and had repaid that kindness with perfidy and deceit. Did people really feel so badly towards them? Did anyone ever really imagine that what they had done was any different to the innocent actions of the young throughout history? The facts may be plain, but such questions, from this distance of time, remain unanswerable. It should be remembered, though, that Ghezirah was still recovering from the War of the Lilies, and that the Churches, in this of all times, needed to reinforce the loyalty of their members. It was time for an example to be made — and for the peace to be shown for what it really was, which was shaky and incomplete and dangerous. For this role, Isabel and Genya were chosen.

As a rule, the Churches do not kill their errant acolytes. Instead, they continue to use them. Isabel, firstly, had her full sight, and then more, returned to her in lidless eyes of crystal which could never blink. Something was also done to her flesh which was akin to the operations which had been performed on Genya’s fingertips. Finally, but this time in a great minaret on the Church’s home island of Jerita, she was returned to her duties as a Dawn-Singer. But dawn for her now became a terrible thing, and the apprentices and clerks and lesser acolytes who lived and worked for their Church around the forested landscapes of the Windfare Hills returned from their night’s labours to agonised screams. Still, Isabel strove to perform her duties, although the light was pure pain to the diamonds of her lidless eyes and the blaze of sunlight was molten lead to flesh which now felt the lightest breeze as a desert gale.

No one’s mind, not even Isabel’s, could sustain such torment indefinitely. As the years passed, it is probable that the portions of her brain which suffered most were slowly destroyed even though the sensors in her scarred and shining flesh continued working. Isabel in her decline became a common sight amid the forests and courtyards of the lesser academies of the Windfare Hills; a stooped figure, wandering and muttering in the painful daylight which she had brought, wrapped in cloths and bandages despite the summer’s endless warmth; an object lesson in betrayal, her glittering eyes always shaded, averted in pain. She was given alms. Everyone knew her story, and felt that they had suffered with her — or at least that she had suffered for them. She was treated mostly with sadness, kindness, sympathy. The nights, though, were Isabel’s blessing. She wandered under the black skies almost at ease, brushing her fingers across the cooling stones of statues, listening to the sigh of the trees.

Perhaps she remembered Mirror 28, or that day of fog when she first met Genya. More likely, being Isabel, there was no conscious decision involved in the process of bringing, slowly, day by day and year by year, a little less light across to the stately rooftops and green hills of this portion of Jerita other than a desire to reduce her own suffering. People, though, noted the new coolness of the air, the difference of the light amid these hills, and, just as Genya and Isabel had once done, they found it pleasantly melancholy. The Church’s Intelligence, too, must have been aware in its own way of these happenings, although this was perhaps what it had always intended. People began to frequent the Windfare Hills because of these deeper shadows, the whisper of leaves from the seemingly dying trees blowing across lawns and down passageways. They lit fires in the afternoons to keep themselves warm, and found thicker clothes. It is likely that few had ever travelled beyond Ghezirah, or were even aware of the many worlds which glory in the phenomena called seasons. Only the plants, despite all the changes which had been wrought on them, understood. As Isabel, who had long had nothing to loose, one day took the final step of letting darkness continue to hang for many incredible moments hang over Windfare whilst all the rest of Jerita ignited with dawn, the trees clicked their branches and shed a few more leaves into the chill mists, and remembered. And waited.

This, mostly, is the story of Isabel of the Fall as it is commonly told. The days grew duller across the Windfare Hills. The nights lengthened. A ragged figure, failing and arthritic, Isabel finally came to discover, by accidentally thrusting her hand into the pillar of Sabil’s light which poured into her minaret, that the blaze which had caused her so much pain could also bring a blissful end to all sensation. She knew by then that she was dying. And she knew that her ruined, blistered flesh — as she came to resemble an animated pile of the charcoal sticks of the leavings of autumnal fires — was the last of the warnings with which her Church had encumbered her. Limping and stinking, she wandered further afield across Dawn Church’s island of Jerita. Almost mythical already, she neglected her duties to the extent that her minaret, probably without her noticing in the continuing flicker of short and rainy days, was taken from her. The desire for these seasons had spread by now across Ghezirah. Soon, as acolytes of the Green Church learned how to reactivate the genes of plants which had once coped with such conditions, spring was to be found in Culgaith, and chill winter in Abuzeid. The spinning islands of Ghezirah were changed forever. And, at long last, in this world of cheerful sadness and melancholy joy which only the passing of seasons can bring, the terrors of the War of the Lilies became a memory.

One day, Isabel of the Fall was dragging herself and what remained of her memories across a place of gardens and fountains. A cool wind blew. The trees here were the colour of flame, but at the same time, she was almost sure that the enormous building which climbed ahead of her could only be the Cathedral of the Word. She looked around for Genya and grunted to herself — she was probably off playing hide and seek. Isabel staggered on, the old wrappings which had stuck to her burnt flesh dragging behind her. She looked, as many how now remarked, like a crumpled leaf; the very spirit of this new season of autumn. She even smelled of decay and things burning. But she still had the sight which had been so ruthlessly given to her, and the building ahead… The building ahead seemed to have no end to its spires…

Cold rains rattled across the lakes. Slowly, day by day, Isabel approached the last great citadel of her Church, which truly did rise all the way to the skies, and then beyond them. The Intelligence which dwelt there had long been expecting her, and opened its gates, and refreshed the airs of its corridors and stairways which Isabel, with the instincts of a Dawn-Singer, had no need to be encouraged to climb. Day and darkness flashed through the arrowslit windows as she ascended. Foods and wines would appear at turns and landings, cool and bland for her wrecked palate. Sometimes, hissing silver things passed her, or paused to enquire if they could carry her, but Isabel remained true to the precepts and vanities of her Church, and disdained such easy ways of ascension. It was a long, hard climb. Sometimes, she heard Genya’s husky breath beside her, her exclamations and laughter as she looked down and down into the huge wells which had opened beneath. Sometimes, she was sure she was alone. Sometimes, although her blackened face had lost all sensation and her eyes were made of crystal, Isabel of the Fall was sure she was crying. But still she climbed.

The roof which covers the islands of Ghezirah is usually accessed, by the rare humans and aliens who do such things, by the use of aircraft and hummingbird caleches. Still, it had seemed right to the forgotten architects of the Dawn Church that there should be one last tower and staircase which ascended all of the several miles to the top of Ghezirah’s skies. By taking the way which always led up, and as the other towers and minarets fell far beneath her, Isabel found that way, that last spire, and followed it. Doorways opened. The Intelligence led her on. She never felt alone now, and even her pain fell behind her. Finally, though, she came to a doorway which would not open. It was a plain thing, round-lipped and with a wheel at its centre which refused to turn. A light flashed above it. Perhaps this was some kind of warning. Isabel considered. She sat there for many days. Food appeared and disappeared. She could go back down again, although she knew she would never survive the journey. She could go on, but that light… Over to her left, she saw eventually, was some sort of suit. A silvered hat, boots, a cape. They looked grand, expensive. Surely not for her? But then she remembered the food, the sense of a presence. She pulled them on over her rags, or rather the things pulled themselves over her when she approached them. Now, the wheel turned easily, even before she had reached out to it. Beyond was disappointing; a tiny space little more than the size of a wardrobe. But then there was a sound of hissing, and a door similar to one which had puzzled her span its wheel, and opened. Isabel stepped out.

The great interior sphere of Ghezirah hung spinning. Everywhere within this glittering ball, there were mirrors wide as oceans. Everywhere, there was darkness and light. And Sabil hung at the centre of it, pluming white; a living fire. Isabel gasped. She had never seen anything so beautiful — not even Genya dancing. She climbed upwards along the gantries through stark shadows. Something of her Dawn-Singer’s knowledge told her that these mirrors were angled for night, and that, even in the unpredictable drift of these new seasons, they would soon bring dawn across Ghezirah. She came to the lip of one vast reflector, and considered it. At this pre-dawn moment, bright though it was, its blaze was a mere ember. Then, leaning over it as she had once leaned over Mirror 28 with Genya, Isabel did something she had never done before. She touched the surface of the mirror. There was no sense left in her ravaged hands, but, even through the gloves of her suit and Sabil’s glare and hard vacuum, it felt smooth, cool, perfect. The mirror was vast — the size of small planet — and it curved in a near endless parabola. Isabel understood that for such an object to move at all, and then in one moment, it could not possibly be made of glass, or any normal human substance. But at the same time, it looked and felt solid. Without quite knowing what she was doing, but sensing that the seconds before dawn were rapidly passing, Isabel climbed onto the edge of the mirror. Instantly, borne by its slippery energies, she was sliding, falling. The seconds passed. The mirror caught her. Held her. She waited. She thought of the insects which she sponged from so many mirrors in her nights as an apprentice, their bodies fried by the day’s heat. But dawn was coming… For the last time, as all the mirrors moved in unison to bear Sabil’s energies towards the sleeping islands of Ghezirah below, Isabel spread her arms to welcome her sun. Joyously, as the light flashed bear on her, she sang in the dawn.

In some versions of this tale, Isabel is said to have fallen towards Sabil, and thus to have gained her name. In others, she is called simply Isabel of the Autumn and her final climb beyond the sky remains unmentioned. In some, she is tragically beautiful, or beautifully ugly. The real truth remains lost, amid much else about her. But in the Dawn Church itself Isabel of the Fall is still revered, and amid of its many mysteries it is said that one of Ghezirah’s great internal reflectors still bears the imprint of her vaporised silhouette, which is the only blemish on all of its mirrors which the Church allows. And somewhere, if you know where to look amid all of Ghezirah’s many islands, and at the right time of day and in the correct season, there is a certain wall in a certain small garden where Isabel’s shape can be seen, pluming down from the minarets far above; traversing the hours brick to mossy brick as a small shadow.

As for Genya, she is often forgotten at the end of this story. She touches Isabel’s face for a last time, smiles, bows and vanishes down the stairways of the minaret towards oblivion. But the fact that she was also punished by her Church remains beyond doubt, and the punishment was as cruel and purposeful in its own way as that which was visited on Isabel. Genya retained all her senses, her special fingertips, even briefly her skills as a dancer; what her Church took from her was the ability to understand. She was then set the task of transcribing many manuscripts from one dead language to another, dictating, recording, endlessly reading and reciting with every input of her eyes and flesh. There were urrearth stories of princess and dragons, equations over which geniuses would have wept, but the meaning of them all passed though Genya unnoticed. Genya became a stupid but useful vessel, and she grew ancient and proficient and fat in a pillowed crypt in the far depths of the Cathedral of the Word, where the windows look out on the turning stars and new acolytes were taken to see her — the famous Genya who had once loved Isabel and betrayed her Church; now white and huge, busy and brainless as a maggot as she rummaged through endless torrents of words. But there are worse fates, and Genya lacked the wisdom to suffer. And she wasn’t soulless — somewhere, deep within the rolls of fat and emptiness, all those spinning words, she was still Genya. When she died, muttering the last sentence of an epic which no other Librarian or machine could possibly have transcribed, that part of her passed on with the manuscript to echo and remain held forever somewhere amid all the vast cliff-faces of books in the Cathedral of the Word. To this day, within pages such as these, Genya can still sometimes be found, beautiful as she once was, dancing barefoot across the warm rosestone paving on an endless summer’s morning in the time which was always long ago.

One thought on “Ian R. MacLeod. Isabel of the Fall.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *