THE ENCHANTED SLEEPER
… while the beasts of prey,
Come from caverns deep,
Viewed the maid asleep …
• WILLIAM BLAKE •
In a valley shaded with rhododendrons, close to the snow line, where a stream milky with meltwater splashed and where doves and linnets flew among the immense pines, lay a cave, half-hidden by the crag above and the stiff heavy leaves that clustered below.
The woods were full of sound: the stream between the rocks, the wind among the needles of the pine branches, the chitter of insects and the cries of small arboreal mammals, as well as the birdsong; and from time to time a stronger gust of wind would make one of the branches of a cedar or a fir move against another and groan like a cello.
It was a place of brilliant sunlight, never undappled. Shafts of lemon-gold brilliance lanced down to the forest floor between bars and pools of brown-green shade; and the light was never still, never constant, because drifting mist would often float among the treetops, filtering all the sunlight to a pearly sheen and brushing every pine cone with moisture that glistened when the mist lifted. Sometimes the wetness in the clouds condensed into tiny drops half mist and half rain, which floated downward rather than fell, making a soft rustling patter among the millions of needles.
There was a narrow path beside the stream, which led from a village—little more than a cluster of herdsmen’s dwellings—at the foot of the valley to a half-ruined shrine near the glacier at its head, a place where faded silken flags streamed out in the perpetual winds from the high mountains, and offerings of barley cakes and dried tea were placed by pious villagers. An odd effect of the light, the ice, and the vapor enveloped the head of the valley in perpetual rainbows.
The cave lay some way above the path. Many years before, a holy man had lived there, meditating and fasting and praying, and the place was venerated for the sake of his memory. It was thirty feet or so deep, with a dry floor: an ideal den for a bear or a wolf, but the only creatures living in it for years had been birds and bats.
But the form that was crouching inside the entrance, his black eyes watching this way and that, his sharp ears pricked, was neither bird nor bat. The sunlight lay heavy and rich on his lustrous golden fur, and his monkey hands turned a pine cone this way and that, snapping off the scales with sharp fingers and scratching out the sweet nuts.
Behind him, just beyond the point where the sunlight reached, Mrs. Coulter was heating some water in a small pan over a naphtha stove. Her dæmon uttered a warning murmur and Mrs. Coulter looked up.
Coming along the forest path was a young village girl. Mrs. Coulter knew who she was: Ama had been bringing her food for some days now. Mrs. Coulter had let it be known when she first arrived that she was a holy woman engaged in meditation and prayer, and under a vow never to speak to a man. Ama was the only person whose visits she accepted.
This time, though, the girl wasn’t alone. Her father was with her, and while Ama climbed up to the cave, he waited a little way off.
Ama came to the cave entrance and bowed.
“My father sends me with prayers for your goodwill,” she said.
“Greetings, child,” said Mrs. Coulter.
The girl was carrying a bundle wrapped in faded cotton, which she laid at Mrs. Coulter’s feet. Then she held out a little bunch of flowers, a dozen or so anemones bound with a cotton thread, and began to speak in a rapid, nervous voice. Mrs. Coulter understood some of the language of these mountain people, but it would never do to let them know how much. So she smiled and motioned to the girl to close her lips and to watch their two dæmons. The golden monkey was holding out his little black hand, and Ama’s butterfly dæmon was fluttering closer and closer until he settled on a horny forefinger.
The monkey brought him slowly to his ear, and Mrs. Coulter felt a tiny stream of understanding flow into her mind, clarifying the girl’s words. The villagers were happy for a holy woman, such as herself, to take refuge in the cave, but it was rumored that she had a companion with her who was in some way dangerous and powerful.
It was that which made the villagers afraid. Was this other being Mrs. Coulter’s master, or her servant? Did she mean harm? Why was she there in the first place? Were they going to stay long? Ama conveyed these questions with a thousand misgivings.
A novel answer occurred to Mrs. Coulter as the dæmon’s understanding filtered into hers. She could tell the truth. Not all of it, naturally, but some. She felt a little quiver of laughter at the idea, but kept it out of her voice as she explained:
“Yes, there is someone else with me. But there is nothing to be afraid of. She is my daughter, and she is under a spell that made her fall asleep. We have come here to hide from the enchanter who put the spell on her, while I try to cure her and keep her from harm. Come and see her, if you like.”
Ama was half-soothed by Mrs. Coulter’s soft voice, and half-afraid still; and the talk of enchanters and spells added to the awe she felt. But the golden monkey was holding her dæmon so gently, and she was curious, besides, so she followed Mrs. Coulter into the cave.
Her father, on the path below, took a step forward, and his crow dæmon raised her wings once or twice, but he stayed where he was.
Mrs. Coulter lit a candle, because the light was fading rapidly, and led Ama to the back of the cave. Ama’s eyes glittered widely in the gloom, and her hands were moving together in a repetitive gesture of finger on thumb, finger on thumb, to ward off danger by confusing the evil spirits.
“You see?” said Mrs. Coulter. “She can do no harm. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Ama looked at the figure in the sleeping bag. It was a girl older than she was, by three or four years, perhaps; and she had hair of a color Ama had never seen before—a tawny fairness like a lion’s. Her lips were pressed tightly together, and she was deeply asleep, there was no doubt about that, for her dæmon lay coiled and unconscious at her throat. He had the form of some creature like a mongoose, but red-gold in color and smaller. The golden monkey was tenderly smoothing the fur between the sleeping dæmon’s ears, and as Ama looked, the mongoose creature stirred uneasily and uttered a hoarse little mew. Ama’s dæmon, mouse-formed, pressed himself close to Ama’s neck and peered fearfully through her hair.
“So you can tell your father what you’ve seen,” Mrs. Coulter went on. “No evil spirit. Just my daughter, asleep under a spell, and in my care. But, please, Ama, tell your father that this must be a secret. No one but you two must know Lyra is here. If the enchanter knew where she was, he would seek her out and destroy her, and me, and everything nearby. So hush! Tell your father, and no one else.”
She knelt beside Lyra and smoothed the damp hair back from the sleeping face before bending low to kiss her daughter’s cheek. Then she looked up with sad and loving eyes, and smiled at Ama with such brave, wise compassion that the little girl felt tears fill her gaze.
Mrs. Coulter took Ama’s hand as they went back to the cave entrance, and saw the girl’s father watching anxiously from below. The woman put her hands together and bowed to him, and he responded with relief as his daughter, having bowed both to Mrs. Coulter and to the enchanted sleeper, turned and scampered down the slope in the twilight. Father and daughter bowed once more to the cave and then set off, to vanish among the gloom of the heavy rhododendrons.
Mrs. Coulter turned back to the water on her stove, which was nearly at the boil.
Crouching down, she crumbled some dried leaves into it, two pinches from this bag, one from that, and added three drops of a pale yellow oil. She stirred it briskly, counting in her head till five minutes had gone by. Then she took the pan off the stove and sat down to wait for the liquid to cool.
Around her there lay some of the equipment from the camp by the blue lake where Sir Charles Latrom had died: a sleeping bag, a rucksack with changes of clothes and washing equipment, and so on. There was also a case of canvas with a tough wooden frame, lined with kapok, containing various instruments; and there was a pistol in a holster.
The decoction cooled rapidly in the thin air, and as soon as it was at blood heat, she poured it carefully into a metal beaker and carried it to the rear of the cave. The monkey dæmon dropped his pine cone and came with her.
Mrs. Coulter placed the beaker carefully on a low rock and knelt beside the sleeping Lyra. The golden monkey crouched on her other side, ready to seize Pantalaimon if he woke up.