The Battle of the Sun, page 1
Also by Jeanette Winterson
Bloomsbury Publishing, London, Berlin and New York
First published in Great Britain in November 2009 Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
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This electronic edition published in December 2009 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
Copyright © Jeanette Winterson 2009
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To my godchildren,
Eleanor and Cara Shearer,
who made this happen,
and to myself, a long time ago.
1 The Clock Strikes Twelve
2 The Fish Without Fins
3 The Dark House
4 The Creature Sawn in Two
5 Mother Midnight
6 The Sunken King
7 Dog Does It
8 The Eyebat
9 Some Useful Information
10 The Dragon
11 Some More Useful Information
12 How to Keep a Promise
13 The Phoenix
14 The Cinnabar Egg
16 The Captive
17 Heart of Stone
18 The Dragon Prepares a Bath
20 Dog Does It Again!
21 The Truth about Sunflowers
22 The Bath of Sulphur
23 The Nigredo
24 Some Light
25 The Knight Summoned
27 More Mother Midnight
28 The Ancestor
29 The Visitor
30 More Visitors
31 The Book of the Phoenix
32 The Keeper of the Tides
33 The Plot Thickens
34 And Twists . . .
35 Eclipse of the Heart
36 The City of Gold
37 A Barrel of Silvers
38 Abel Darkwater
39 The Truth about Gold
40 The Siege of Gold
41 The Battle of the Sun
On the fourteenth of August 1601, the Keeper of the Tides
dropped his net into the River Thames,
and pulled out a golden fish.
THE CLOCK STRIKES
It began as all important things begin – by chance.
It was about twelve o’clock midday. The Thames was busy with boats of every kind; oarboats, sailboats, whelk boats, wherries, tideboats, oyster boats, barges, boats scooped out simple as a saucer – flat and shallow and so small that a cat could ride in one by himself. Great boats gilded, decked, cushioned, studded, crimsoned, velveted, proud, pennants and flags flying. Dragboats towing trees for timber, fishing boats, where a boy leant against the mast, arms waving, out over the waves and slop of the tidal river.
The water-craft came from every side, and down the middle too, so that there was no upriver and downriver, only a stream of boats, a race of boats, hugger-mugger, dodging one another, grazing one another, sometimes so close that a man putting a sausage to his mouth found he had fed the lady at the oars in the whelk boat next to him.
The sun was on the river so that everything seemed brighter and more lit up that day. Even the severed heads of the traitors, pitched on their tall spikes at Temple Bar, had the look of pompom bushes waiting to come into leaf. Jack thought he saw one of the heads look straight at him, but it must have been the sun in his eyes.
Jack. He heard the clock strike midday. To tell the truth Jack was chiming twelve himself, like the clock at midday. It was his birthday and he was twelve years old on the fourteenth of August. He counted the clock, nine, ten, eleven, twelve. Twelve years old in the Year of Our Lord 1601.
Jack ran, pushing and zigging and zagging through the sellers and hawkers on the riverbank. He was tall for his age, and his mother had apprenticed him early to a printer and bookbinder. He would live with half a dozen other boys, and serve his master for seven years. But all that would start tomorrow, and first he was going to be given a spaniel for his birthday. He knew the spaniel, he had seen the spaniel, he had named the spaniel. Max. Max Max Max! The best of a litter of four pups, and Jack’s very own dog.
Jack’s mind that day was all spaniel, there was nothing in it but spaniel. There were no thoughts of food or drink or school or a ball blown out of a pig’s bladder and kicked halfway across London with his friends. Inside Jack’s head was a night-sky-black dog with stars that were his eyes, and ears soft as sleep. Jack was so almost a spaniel himself that day that he nearly ran four-legged the faster to get home.
Home was the big house that sat between the Strand and the River Thames. It was known to everyone as The Level, though no one seemed to know why, and it belonged to Sir Roger Rover, a man with green eyes and a red beard, who some said was a pirate, but if he was a pirate he was a very good pirate, for the Queen herself was fond of him, and often sent him off to sea on her private business.
In this house, Jack’s mother Anne lived as housekeeper, and Jack did jobs around the stable-yard, fetching water, polishing tack, sweeping the courtyards for the many visitors who clattered through the great arch off the Strand.
It was a fine house, a fair house, whose gardens let on to the river itself, and it was to the water-gate, and through those gardens, that Jack was coming home, when . . . When . . . it happened.
Two men, short, hooded, black boots, black cloaks, black hats, were waiting either side of the water-gate. As Jack came through, panting from his run, the men seized his body, pinioned his arms, threw a rough damp torn sack over him and bundled him into a waiting boat.
‘Be this the one?’
‘This be the one, sure as I have a tongue and one ear.’
His accomplice laughed. ‘If he be not the one, you shall have a tongue or one ear but never both on the same head.’
‘Quiet, you water-rat! Give him the drink.’
The man held back Jack’s head and opened his mouth with his fingers, as you would to a dog, then the other fellow poured a thick red liquid down Jack’s throat. Jack spat and coughed and choked, but he had to swallow some of it. It tasted bitter. It was gritty. It was like fire ashes or fine-ground oyster shells mixed up in red vinegar.
The men shoved Jack into a closed coop at the stern of the boat. It was a poultry boat and there was a big slatted wooden hen-coop perched at one end where the fowls were rowed to market. Jack looked out through the torn sack and the slats of the boat; the boat was being rowed rapidly east. Jack wanted to shout out, but
Jack felt a great dullness, like the world spinning to a stop at the end of time. He passed into a dead and dreamless sleep, a black place.
The men in the boat sat still without speaking. One lit a clay pipe.
As the boat reached its mooring place, several servants dressed in grey came to meet it. Jack was carried from the coop, and the boat and the two men rowed on, distant now, towards Limehouse.
The servants took Jack down and down and down. They laid him there and walked away. There was nothing more to do.
At home, his small spaniel could not be quieted, and ran up and down, down and up, stopping and crying in a dark corner of the room. Jack’s mother, standing at the water-gate, had a sense, an instinct, that her son was alive but in danger.
‘He is a boy, he’s fallen over, he’s eating apples, he’s met with a friend,’ said the groom, wondering why women never used good commonsense but fretted and worried over simple foolish things.
‘He was to be here at twelve midday,’ said Jack’s mother, ‘and if he comes not to be here by twelve at midnight, then shall I go to him.’
‘And how shall that be done?’ said the groom, laughing at her, ‘in all the teeming city of London, its lanes, lodgings, highways and byways, inns and dens, how shall you, a woman, find one strayed boy?’
But Jack’s mother knew how she would find her son. She went up to her room and opened the little door in the wall, and took out a small leather bag with something inside.
THE FISH WITHOUT
Jack woke up.
It was dark.
But what was the ‘it’ that was dark?
Jack felt like he was inside a giant animal, and he remembered the Bible story of Jonah and the whale, and he wondered if, on the river, the boat had sunk and he had been swallowed by a great fish?
The darkness was so dark that when Jack put his hand to his nose, he could feel his nose but he couldn’t see his hand.
He lay still. He tried to remember exactly what had happened. Two men . . . the boat . . .
Jack felt underneath under him; he seemed to be on a floor of hard smooth stone. He listened carefully; it was dull and muffled like somebody whispering. He could hear water.
He had no idea what the inside of a whale was like, but it might be like this. If it was a room of some kind it must have walls, and Jack couldn’t find any walls, not even now that he was crawling, blind, hoping to find something that he knew from another life. It felt like another life; everything up to this moment of opening his eyes in the black place felt like another life. His mother – she would worry. His spaniel, his new spaniel that he had seen in a heap of sacks with three brothers and sisters, and been promised for today. Or was it today? How much time had passed?
As Jack crawled, his head straight in front like a dog’s, he brushed against something rough and swinging. He felt it; it was a rope. Jack pulled, first cautiously, then with all his strength, like ringing the great bell in church. The rope held. Jack used it to pull himself upright. Then, making sure of the ground under his feet in case he fell, Jack swung his whole weight on to the rope, hanging just above ground. The rope held.
‘I’ll climb it,’ said Jack, out loud.
He was a good climber, strong and lithe, and up he went, hand over hand, his feet cupping together and pushing off the rope below. He climbed and climbed, and if he was tired, he did not notice it. What he did notice was that the rope was now wet. Not damp. Soaking wet. Then he realised that he himself was wet. Not damp. Soaking wet. He was climbing through water, which was impossible because he was breathing quite normally. It was as though he was a fish in its own element. Have I become a fish? thought Jack. Have I been swallowed by a fish and made into a fish myself?
Then Jack understood something that frightened him very much; as a boy, he was climbing a rope, vertically. As a fish, he was being pulled on a rope, horizontally, through the water. If he was a boy, he was climbing. If he was a fish, this rope was a line, and he was caught.
There was a sudden tug above him, and he was no longer climbing, but holding on, as his body surged upwards through the water, water streaming off him as though he had gills and fins, his hair that had been tied back now loose and flowing like the water-fish he was.
Without warning, Jack came flying over the broad stone rim of a well, gasping for air, flat on his face on the cobbles of a courtyard. He lay panting – his mouth opening and closing. He could see a pair of well-polished leather riding boots and two pairs of cloth shoes.
‘Good day, my young Fish,’ said a voice, and then, ‘Young gentlemen! At last you see before you the beginning of the Opus. Certainly this is the one we were seeking. Here is the Fish without Fins!’
Jack raised his head. He tried to stand up but slipped in his own pool of water. The man clapped his hands. ‘William! Robert!’ Two boys, near his own age, bent down and helped Jack to his feet. He brushed himself off, shaking the water from his hair and wiping his eyes. The back of his hand crossed his forehead, and when he took his hand away he saw it was glistening with scales. He rubbed at them with his other hand, and they fell away, leaving his skin clear and smooth, as it usually was.
The man standing before him looked amused, and gave Jack his handkerchief to dry his face. Jack wiped his face and neck and stuffed the handkerchief into his sodden jacket pocket. The man spoke.
‘Welcome, Adam Kadmon.’
‘I am not Adam,’ said Jack. ‘My name is Jack Snap.’
‘Nevertheless, your name is Adam.’
The man who spoke was tall, dark, bearded, of an age hard to describe, not young, not old, richly dressed, his fingers each with a gold ring. The man made a sign, and a servant wrapped Jack in a grey blanket. Jack pulled it round him, shivering, and looked back at the well.
It was a well, an ordinary courtyard well, but without a bucket or a pulley. The rope that had pulled him out was coiled around a device such as ships use for hauling the anchor. The well was in a courtyard surrounded by high stone walls. There was only one door to the outside.
‘There is no way out,’ said the man, reading Jack’s thoughts, ‘at least not such a way as you seek. You will be set free when your work is done, but it cannot be done before you begin.’
‘I am to be an apprentice to a printer and bookbinder,’ said Jack, ‘and my mother is at home waiting for me. Let me go.’
The man laughed. ‘I came across the sea to find you. I travelled through foreign lands to find you. I cannot let you go quite so soon, my fishboy.’
‘There was no water at the bottom of the well,’ said Jack, ‘and yet there was water at the top of the well. How can that be?’
‘It was no common water in the well,’ answered the man. ‘Things here are not as they seem elsewhere.’
‘What is this place?’ asked Jack, looking up to the lead roof of the building. The house was like a church but not a church. It seemed to be made of stone and lead, which was strange in a city made mostly of wood; its houses wood, its shops and markets, bridges and wharves, theatres and taverns, all wood. London was a wooden city, like a forest remade for people to live in, and sometimes, a house sprouted leaves, where the green oak was still alive. But this house did not feel like a house where anything had ever been alive.
‘This is the Dark House,’ said the man. ‘Come inside . . .’
THE DARK HOUSE
There never was such a house. Jack passed through an ill-lit hall into a long wide room lined with books.
He had never seen so many books, each in its leather binding, most of them with their titles in Latin or a different alphabet, which he guessed must be Greek. Jack had learned some Latin at school, like the other boys, and he could read and write English, but he knew nothing of Greek, though his mother had said he would have to learn his letters for th
The books sat on wide stone shelves. The long stone-mullioned windows had no curtains, and the stone walls of the room had no tapestries or hangings. In the centre of the room was a circular stone table that looked part like an altar in church, and part like a sundial in the garden.
‘A clever observation,’ said the man, and Jack was startled, because the man had read his mind.
There were a few chairs in the room, and each chair was carved out of a massy single stone, the seat scooped out in a curve as though a giant had taken a spoon to a block of snow.
The floor was stone, the fireplace was stone, though no fire burned there, and although it was midsummer the room was cold. No sun fell through the long windows, which was strange, because outside the light was radiant. It was as though the sun himself avoided the Dark House.
Other author's books:
- The World and Other Places: StoriesSexing the CherryThe PassionGut SymmetriesOranges Are Not the Only FruitThe Battle of the SunWritten on the BodyThe Gap of Time
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