They waited for her on the outskirts of town, smiling wanly at her approach, waving as she came down out of the hinterland. She saw them and waved back, before wiping away the sweat that had run onto her brow, blinking it out of her eyes. She walked slowly, picking her way through the rubble, the broken scab of the black and steaming road, hidden in places by thickweed and lantana. Her steps were careful yet confident. The sun sat heavy in the sky and shadows had become mean little things incapable of solace - drought shadows, dead shadows.
But she was prepared, had travelled so many roads, and the failure of shade was not enough to bring her pause.
The wide-brimmed leather hat she wore was brittle and old, the face beneath it weathered, though young. Young as anything was these days.
"Hello, Threnodist." One of the townspeople called, when she was near enough to hear with ease. He was a man, tall and bulky, his wide face shadowed beneath his hat, his belly encased in taut flannelette.
She smiled and it was a weary thing.
"My name is Sal; please call me that," she said and the man grinned back at her.
"As you wish, Threnodist. You heard our call and we are pleased."
"I hear all calls. I come when I can. What is this place named?"
"Alst, this place is... A tidy town, please wear your seat-belt."
"Alst, yes, I have heard of it." She smiled a little vaguely and glanced eastward.
The man was pleased, his head nodding, eyes flicking to the others. She knows of us, see. Others know of this place.
"Come now, out of this sun. We have lodgings for you and food and drink. And talk, you must hear our story. Know our lives and..."
"I know my job, man." She snapped. The man's eyes widened, a little stupidly, then he grinned. He grinned a lot; his face was creased with smiles.
"Of course, of course. I have a name too, " he said and reached out a hand. "William, I am the Speaker and the Caller. I called you here. We all have our roles, eh? All of us." She took his hand, her grip sure and strong, her dry hand surrounded by a sweaty palm and thick, sweaty fingers.
"That we do, William. That we do."
The little group walked down into the village and the day moved on.
Threnodists sing sad songs; sing for the dead, sing of the times before. They are the Travellers, those few who journey from village to village, that risk the bitter sun and their tenuous place upon the earth and learn and live beyond the outskirts.
They wait for the Call, then come.
A young one had died at this village; she felt the grief. The child had been much loved. Now he was no more. She would sing his song and he would be remembered. Perhaps the grief would be lessened then; not gone but made less bad. The ache softened. That was her role.
They left her alone to eat. Well almost alone; a woman sat with her, young and sad and nervous. Sal found her pleasing to the eye and did not mind the company. Her name was Tine; she was William's woman, something Sal could see embarrassed her.
"There are too few men in this world," she had said to Sal, not moments after William had left the room, her face sullen and perhaps a little scornful. "Too few that I would have to settle for him."
Sal merely nodded and continued eating, sitting on the bed, hat off, resting now away from the sun; enjoying the fresh sandwiches that they had made for her. The mattress was firm and the sheets clean. Such comfort was rare.
A Traveller's life is hard; the road chews flesh, slow and steady. It makes you old. Sal felt old today, next to this sullen, pink cheeked woman. Older than she had felt in a long time. She laughed, softly, mockingly, at her self pity. She was still strong, not yet past her thirtieth summer. There were many years ahead. The laughter died then... many years.
"They say the sea is near here. Is that true?" Sal asked.
"It is not far away; a day's easy walk, down the hills. The road has worn well that way."
"I like the sea," Sal said. "I have not been this close to Mother Water for so long."
Their eyes met, locked electric. Sal looked away. Tine's skin was pale, perfectly fair, her hair long and ginger. She would rarely travel outside unless clothed completely, face covered, skin covered. The sun ruined alabaster, tore at it with malign teeth.
"The sea wasps are in season now. It is not a good time for swimming."
"That is how the child died, wasn't it? Wasp sting?" Sal asked.
"He should have known better. It was a hot day. He had gone to the sea with the other boys. They all swam, only he was stung. When the body reached here it was a swollen thing long dead. The poison, the heat. All he had wanted was a swim, a little adventure and... but that is not my task. Others must tell you this.
"No," Sal said. "A Threnodist collects tales from all, draws all sadness. When the young die it is sorrow. There are so few, so few of any to fill the Long Wide Lands. Silence is the new dream now."
"Who draws the Threnodist's sorrow?" Tone asked and gently stroked her hair. She had come up close; Sal could feel her breath, warm and soft, against her cheek. Gently, she pushed her away, her pulse quickening, her face forced grim.
"No one. We cry alone."
"And why do you cry?"
Sal smiled, though her eyes were sad.
"We see the larger picture."
The boy's father saw her first. His face creased with a grief made hard, his hands rolled to balls, to spring open and shut, open and shut.
"He was a fool. Stupid, stupid child. This is wasp season. It has always been so." No not always; nothing is always, they all know that. "He should not have gone down there. I should have known he would - I should have...stupid, stupid boy." his voice cracked with bitterness. His jaw moved tight and straight. One eyelid flickered. His hands kept their steady rhythm of clenching and release. "Who is there to help in the fields now? My other sons are lazy things. They laugh at me, sometimes, think I am a fool old man, set in his ways. The soil is a gift, see. A blessing thing; from the earth comes life. But it must be nurtured, must be loved.
"They don't understand. They just don't understand. You've got to work to grow good crops; the sun is a cruel and jealous creature: burns the skin, burns the soil. You've got to work. Who is there now to help? Stupid..."
He stopped, embarrassed by his grief, eyes flicking away from this stranger.
"Threnodist, my son is dead. Sing of that. My son is dead."
He turned and walked away.
So they all came, one by one, spoke of the boy, of themselves, of their pain. Said what they would, said what they needed to say. What perhaps they couldn't have said to anyone but a stranger.
I didn't like him, never liked him, thought he was too brash. Too happy with his own thoughts. A trouble-maker, that's what he was, a trouble-maker. But I didn't want him to die. Never wanted him to die. You understand, I never wanted him to die. Never.
It took a day, long and hot and full of sad talk and happy memories. And when that day was over, and all had come who had wanted to come or were willing to come, she supped of their sadness, drew it into her, held it softly in her core until she knew that half her job was done. Now would come the song, but first she went to William, found him out in his modest little home, reading a book.
Tine her blue eyes wild, greeted her at the door. Somehow she knew what Sal would request. Tine's grin was open and warm, she said nothing, did not need to. Sal felt her pleasure.
William looked up from his book and smiled obsequiously.
"What is it that you need?" he asked her.
"Tomorrow, I want to go to the sea, I shall return the next day and that evening sing."
"Why not sing now? Most Threnodists-"
"I am not, "Most Threnodists". I will sing for this boy and his song will do what it must, but I need time. I will go to the sea, listen to its song, listen to what it has to say on the matter."
"Then you shall need a guide."
"I will take her," Tine said and smiled an almost hungry smile. Sal nodded, suppressing a shiver.
"She will do well."
"Yes," William reluctantly agreed. "Yes she will."
The day moved slowly as they followed the road to the sea. This road, reasonably well travelled, had been cared for. Vegetation did not press too close on either side and there were signs of lantana having been cut back and cleared. Still, none had the old skills with tar and stone, and in places huge swathes of road had slipped away the hollows filled with grass.
They left in the early morning, the sun still a dim promise in the east, the villagers stirring or preparing to work. Occasionally an echidna would scurry before them, or a roo, surprised by this early morning human presence, would bound away into the trees that lined the road. Magpies made deliquescent morning song and watched with beady, curious eyes these travellers passing by.
Not far along the road, just beyond the next valley where two massive ridged and reaching fig trees grew, Tine stopped and motioned Sal to do so.
"Why are we stopping?" Sal asked, noticing Tine's eyes alive with excitement.
"We are near the spider place. Their webs are beautiful; it would be a pity to disturb them," she laughed. "They used to frighten me as a child. The webs are strong and sticky and apt to cling to your face, with a spider scurrying on your shoulder to send you screaming with fright. Now I see them for what they are."
"And what is that?" Sal asked.
"Beauty," Tine answered. "Unless, that is, you're an insect. And even then, even then... "
They walked on and came to a narrowing in the road, lined on either side by thick bushes, and there, dew-dropped golden, were the webs. Spiders, long legged with narrow, white-crossed bodies hung, still amongst the gleaming jewel-nested webs, or scurried to snare some insect stopped sudden in gold.
"Saint Andrew's cross," Sal said, as they ducked and weaved to avoid breaking the webs.
"What?" Tine asked.
"They are called Saint Andrew's Cross spiders."
"That's in the old tongue isn't it?" Tine said, and Sal nodded.
"A clumsy language for speaking."
"Things were clumsy then, or so I have been told. The world was smaller; too much racing too little thinking. Clumsy languages suited such a place," she sighed. "The greatest irony, of course, is that now the opposite has happened. The world is bigger; slow thoughts are drowned in vastness. Our minds touch but we can grow lonely finding someone to reach."
"Are you lonely?" Tine asked. Sal eyed the webs thoughtfully then looked to her friend.
"Yes, I suppose I am. I have travelled far, Tine. Very far. I have been a traveller as long as I can remember, with my father first; a teacher he was, then a Threnodist, who took me on as an apprentice, said I had a lovely voice. But more, he said I sang from the gut," she laughed softly. "All Threnodists must do that, Tine. The gut is the truth and the strength of it all. Sing the truth and sing it strong and it willtouch others."
"Sing for me," Tine said.
And Sal sang.
It was almost evening by the time they made it to the beach, waves singing their steady song and roar, patient devourers of land. An empty village ran right into the sea. It waited, weary and broken, for time and nature's rage to tear it ungentle from the face of the earth. And slowly, undeniably, that was happening. It was less a village now than a suggestion of a village that once had been.
They stopped for a while in the thickening shadows to gather wood for a fire.
Sal saw old cars, rust withered and twisted but still recognizable as what they had once been. Out on the dry plains she had come across such things, by the roadside and in far better condition; still, she marvelled at them. Around her neck she wore a large bead of glass that enclosed a single H. All Travellers wore such things as charms; hers, she knew, was particularly powerful. Cars had once made travelling much, much easier; still, there had been too many of them. The road to The Changing had been an easy one, ridden in the bellies of such vehicles; a swift and reckless drive in a world grown too small. They all knew that.
The cars were broken, though they made good trinkets for travellers and the like, and the world was once more huge.
Tine, who knew which houses still had good, salvageable wood and weren't too overgrown with grumblegrass and lantana to reach, led the way. She talked as she went, speaking quick and warm of things past and things yet to come.
"No one lives here now. This place is lonely; ghosts haunt it. Sad things they are, flitting things, fearful and cold. There is no rest here anymore, just the wind to fill the mind and deny it sleep. We will not stay here." She snatched up pieces of wood, dry and perfect for burning, and handed them to Sal. When Sal's hands were full, as were her own, they moved from the village out across the beach, being careful to watch for any wasps that might have drifted ashore on the tide. Flaccid now and withered but still deadly if touched.
They found a hollow in the dunes, a little away from the high tide. It had obviously been used many times before. Large, well worn rocks for sitting on circled a fire pit.
Sal stretched a blanket on the sand and watched Tine set the fire. She moved with lithe precision, her face twisted in concentration, laying the wood carefully, then lighting the tinder with quick, sure strokes. Her movements practised, Sal was sure: both economical and erotic, her hips swaying smooth.
The fire was blazing quickly, more a vanity than a need on this warm summer's night. Shadows danced and flared trails over their faces, softening hard lines, melting time, bringing out beauty.
Sal stared out at the black mass of the sea, delighting in the soft bite of its breath; its constant, soothing rumble. A wind blowing in from the north tangled and played with her hair. It's been so long, she thought, so very long. For a while at least, the excitement, the knowing, the nearness to Tine's pale beauty slipped from her, her soul flooded in static, insistent waves of night and seaside roar.
"This place relaxes me," she said. "I feel at home here."
"We all do," she said. "The sea calls us, doesn't she: Return to me, return."
"Did he hear her cry?" Sal mused aloud. "Or was it just his blood that called, fiercest echo of the sea, crying, pulsing in his veins. Tine, oh Tine why do we do such foolish things?"
Tine looked thoughtful and Sal found herself loving her for it, loving the strength of her face in the shadows, loving the way she held her head and hands.
"Sometimes it's because we must and sometimes because we can't return."
Sal thought then of the boy and the sea, the indifferent, empty sea. The pleasure of it all faded away, slipped out her grasp till only darkness remained.
"I have no home," she said and wept. "I am tired and lonely. Too much grief; there is too much grief."
Tine came then and held her. The tears stopped at last, ran themselves dry into the evening, brushed away by Tine's soft lips, the warm touch of her breath.
They made love.
They awoke to light rain and slate grey sky. They nuzzled and kissed, wanting no end to it all but knowing that it would. All things end. Some things last but a single evening and dawn; held then released.
They ate a quick breakfast, dried meat and fruit, detachment already building between them, reality a gulf to widen with each passing moment. The Threnodist felt sad, her belly tight. She laughed bitterly and Tine watched her, seeming to understand but distant all the same. She was sated, had had her fill without the lonely miles between. Sal resented her that.
Threnodists are sadness: incarnations of grief, to draw and sing, black strands in the ragged web that is humanity. It is their job. They are called, they come. And what happens after...
Tine reached out and gripped Sal's shoulders. As always the touch was gentle, yet electric.
"It was nice," she said.
Sal pulled away, thinking:Is that all you can say? Nice; just nice.
"Yes it was," she said.
And they walked back to the Village of Alst.
At the outskirts of the village lands, alone and in the darkening shadows, Tine held her.
Sal smiled, enjoying this last, true display of affection before speaking.
"I am leaving tonight," she said. "It is my way. After the song I must leave: I cannot stay and spoil what little magic the song will hold. Threnodists are travellers: we do our job then go."
Tine nodded her head.
"I will meet you tonight, then, once you have sung. I willsay goodbye," she said. "Wait for me."
Sal sang her song, his song, their song, the song of pain and past, and they listened and wept or stood silent and sad in the hall where most times there were (and would be) dances and jauntier music but now there was only grief and the single, pale thread of her threnody. Her voice was beautiful, the song was beautiful, words and feelings traced it, danced within each other, rose above the still summer night and echoed amongst the stars.
Afterwards, she packed her meagre belongings and made to leave, despite their wishes that she stay, another day, another night. The boy's mother clung to her; she was their daughter now, would always be their daughter. Stay, stay. But Sal remained resolute in her leaving. The boy was gone, the song sung. Both were memories.
William led her from the village.
"You sang well," he said. "You sang very well, perhaps the best Threnodist that we have ever had. I am pleased you heard our call. Well pleased."
Sal merely nodded. Then William said something that surprised her.
"My wife, she slept with you, did she not? She does it with all travellers." William, seeing her stiffen, did not wait for any other answer. "It is her way. I am not enough, I have never been enough. She has always needed more. There, that is my grief. Take it please.
"We all have our needs, Threnodist. All of us. All have that which must be released. You realise this of course, you who are well travelled."
His face was a shadow in the soft wall of night, impenetrable. Still, she thought she detected a smile.
"You sang well."
He turned, then was gone, back to the light and people and the tears now shed. Sal waited some time but no one came. After a while she sighed, chuckled softly, bitterness scarcely detectable in the sound, and threaded her way into the night.
Walked alone, a shadow amongst shadows, waiting for the call; and when it came it was far away and nowhere near the sea.
Walked alone; and when the call came she answered with her song, as was the way in the Long Wide Lands.
A Traveller, she walked alone.
This story originally appeared in Eidolon 15.