Authors: Kirsty Logan
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 2015 by Kirsty Logan
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
CROWN is a registered trademark and the Crown colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Published in Great Britain by Harvill Secker, a division of Random House Group Limited, a Penguin Random House Company.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The gracekeepers : a novel / Kirsty Logan.âFirst United States edition.
PR6112.O32G73Â Â 2015
823'. 92âdc32Â Â Â Â Â Â 2014041691
eBook design adapted from printed book design by Barbara Sturman
Cover design by Christopher Brand
Cover illustration: Jonathan Bartlett
my first and last reader
I'm not afraid of storms, for I'm learning how to sail my ship.
The first Callanish knew of the Circus Excalibur was the striped silk of their sails against the gray sky. They approached her tiny island in convoy: the main boat with its bobbing trail of canvas-covered coracles following like ducklings, chained in an obedient line. Ships arrived a dozen a day in the archipelagos, and Callanish knew that the circus folk would have to fight for their place on her island. Tomorrow the dock would be needed for a messenger boat, or a crime crew, or a medic. In a world that is almost entirely sea, placing your feet on land was a privilege that must be earned.
As dusk fell, Callanish loitered at the blackshore, her slippered feet restless on the wooden slats. She watched as the circus crew spilled ashore: a red-faced barrel of a man, trailed by a bird-delicate boy; a trio of tattooed ladies, hair bright as petals; two gleaming horses left to gum at the seaweed. To a chorus of shoutsâ
hoist! hoist! hoist!
âthe crew pulled ropes in unison, their limbs slick with saltwater.
Callanish tugged at her white gloves as she watched the circus unfold. She saw how the boat's sails would become the striped ceiling of the big top; how the wide, flat deck would be the stage. With each billow of sail or tightening of ropes, she inched further off the dock and on to the shore. It was only when the sun dipped below the horizon that she felt the damp chill in her toes and saw how her slippers had darkened with seawater. Oh, she would be in trouble now.
She ran home doing giant steps, leaping high into the air like a circus acrobat, hoping the wind would dry her slippers before her mother saw.
That night Callanish huddled under the striped canopy, mouth open as she gazed up, gloved hands gripped between her knees. Not all the landlockers on her island found the circus a glad sight: there were enough people on the island to crowd out the big top twice over, but it was only half full. Still, Callanish was excited enough for every single landlocker in the whole archipelago.
Her mother had scrubbed and scrubbed at the white silk slippers, muttering that Callanish would have to skip the performance. Callanish had shut herself in the wooden chest, hiding among the sealskins, until her mother relented. She promised that she would not fiddle with her gloves and slippers, and she would be silent and good and unnoticed, and it would all be worth it for the circus.
“We shouldn't welcome damplings like this,” murmured Callanish's mother, folding her bare hands on her lap. “And at nighttime too, when good people should be tucked up safe in their houses! What are those circus folk hiding in the dark, hmm?” She patted Callanish's hands, making sure the gloves were on. “Some islands don't even let damplings come above the blackshore. If they want to perform, they can do it in the daytime with waves lapping at their ankles like they're meant. Those people belong in the water. They're dirtying the land.”
But Callanish knew that would never work. The circus would not look good in the bland, bright day: its colors would fade against the clouds, spitty rain would threaten the fire-breather, the acrobats' sodden feet would make them shiver so much they missed their catches. What would be the point of an imperfect circus?
The red-faced barrel-man strode onstage, dressed in a ringmaster's costume of an elaborate hat, black trousers, and a shirt covered in rows of paper ruffles. Even Callanish's mother gasped at that: so much paper must have cost a fortune.
At the ringmaster's urging the circus burst into colors, lights, the death-mocking glory of twists and catches and bright gleams of skin. To Callanish it felt more daring than secrets, more vivid than memory, and her eyes opened wide as eggs. After each actâacrobats! horses! fire-breathers!âthe landlockers rushed to fill the ringmaster's hat with lumps of gold and coal and quartz and
copper. By the time he was introducing the final act, he had to drag his treasure-filled hat offstage.
On to the stage stepped a family: a man and a woman with a girl of about Callanish's age. They were all dark-haired and draped in fabric, pure white and shimmering. The woman held one end of a golden chain, the other end hidden behind a curtain. They bowed to the crowd, then the woman tugged the chain. An enormous shadow lumbered toward her.
“A bear!” cried out Callanish. “From the storybook! A bear and a baby bear!” And sure enough, padding unsteadily in the big bear's wake, came a bear no bigger than Callanish.
Offstage, a needle whined on to a record. Violins swooped around the big top. The man and woman began to dance. They waltzed around the golden-chained bear as it reached its heavy paws out for them, at first in play, then in frustration. The song eased into another rhythm, and the woman slipped away from the man and into the bear's grasp. The crowd gasped, shrieked, stood as if to runâbut the bear was turning and stepping gracefully, its paws clasping the woman's hands. They were dancing. After a moment, the little girl and the little bear joined hands and danced too, a mirror in miniature. Callanish clapped with glee, and even her mother seemed charmed.
In the years that followed, Callanish tried many times to remember exactly what happened next. It did not help that as soon as the big bear roared, her mother wrapped her arms around
Callanish's head and pulled her close, the world instantly reduced to the earthy, floral smell of her mother's skin and the scratchy wool of her dress. But Callanish could still hear the screams, the roars, the chaos of running feet. She felt herself lifted as her mother hefted her on to her hip and ran.
Jolting with movement, Callanish fought to peer back over her mother's shoulder. She saw landlockers scrambling to the exits. She saw the dropped bodies of the man and woman, their white clothing stained dark, their skin sheened red. She saw the bright gleam of a blade in the woman's motionless hand. She saw the big bear, belly sliced open, a shadow heaving its final breaths.
And in the center of it all she saw two figures: one draped in white, one furred black; both with eyes open moon-round and empty. A small girl and a small bear, hands and paws still linked.
ehindcurtains, North and her bear waited. Their cue wouldn't come for a while yet. The air back here was still chilly, though the smell of sweat and soil was getting stronger. North never felt comfortable with her feet touching land. She didn't trust its steadiness, its refusal to move or change in the honest way of the sea. The landlockers hadn't given the circus much room on their islandâit was small, north-west, not a capitalâand behindcurtains was a narrow space.
The damp hem of the curtains huddled around her ankles as she pressed her face to her bear's chest, breathing in his musty smell, hearing the beginnings of a growl within him. She reached her hand to his nose and tapped it, as a warning for him to stay silent. Their show today would be uncomplicated: North and her bear would dance, they would kiss, they would bow to the crowd. Simple. Or as simple as anything can be in a circus.
Out on stage, the rest of the circus folk were performing the maypole, everything wrapped in ribbons: the pole, their hair, their bodies, all wrapped tight so the crowd couldn't tell which were girls and which were boys, so they were all girlboygirls. The ribbons were dyed bright with ground-up shells and seaweed, streaking color on to their bare skin.
North's bear was not bright. He was brown as wood and he was patterned a little like wood too, whorls of lighter fur among the dark. To match his fur, North's dark hair was tied up in loops and her pale body was draped in brown fabric. She had to match his golden chains too, so she had dyed strands of her hair gold and woven them into braids. North stroked her hands along her bear's broad neck in swoops, keeping rhythm with his breath. It was important to calm him before a performance, to show him that she was on his side, to get him used to his chains all over again. Bears are harder to train than dogs or horses or any other animals, because they're vicious and have faulty memories. North was like that too, or at least that's what Avalon, the ringmaster's wife, said.
As if summoned by the thought, Avalon slid out from behind a wedge of curtain. She had a sprig of apple blossom tucked behind her ear, its petals velvety as her cheek. North had never seen fresh flowers before Avalon started wearing them in her hair.
“Darling urchin,” she purred. She tossed an object from hand to hand as she spoke, smooth as juggling. “Is your mangy beast ready to terrify the children?”
But North did not hear a word. She stared, hypnotized, at the object passing between Avalon's hands. The apple was a perfect sphere, green speckled with red, shiny as a bird's eye. Avalon pulled a silver knife from her dress pocket and cut the apple's softening flesh into quarters, exposing the pips tenderly. Its scent exploded in the air: sweetly souring, past its best but still with a
sheen of juice. She didn't know how much apples cost, but it was certainly worth weeks of the circus crew's dinners. North inhaled as deeply as she could.
Avalon ate a slice from the knife's blade, pips and stem and all. Then another. Then she raised a third to her mouth, and, noticing North's gaze, paused.
“Oh, little wraith. You only have to ask, you know. Would you like a piece?”
North tried to speak, but she'd spent all afternoon murmuring to the bear and her throat had tightened. She coughed.
“What was that?”
“Yes.” North had to clench her jaw and swallow hard before she could force herself to addâ“Please.”
Avalon sighed, and someone who didn't know her might think that her regret was genuine. North knew better, and wished she hadn't said
“I am sorry, urchin. It's for the baby.” Avalon cupped her belly maternally and chewed the third quarter of the apple. For the baby, for the baby. In the few months since Avalon had announced her pregnancy, everything that happened in the circus was for the baby. North couldn't wait for the damned thing to be bornâthough Red Gold already had one pampered son, and he certainly didn't need another.
As Avalon swallowed, she smiled. With a flick of her little silver knife, she tossed the last quarter of the apple under the curtain, where it disappeared in the dust and shadow. North bit down a mewl of dismay. As if sensing her mood, North's bear began growling, low and thick.
Avalon narrowed her eyes at the bear as if he had offended her, but North could see that his growls made her nervous. She wanted to command her bear, to anger him, to prod him into
swiping his half-moon claws through the air in front of Avalon's smug face. Perhaps the threat of the bear was enough for a moment's peace. Instead North swooped her hand down her bear's neck, soothing his growl to silence.
From the stage, the ringmaster was announcing
THE CLIMAX OF THE MAYPOLE, MORE SENSUAL AND DRAMATIC THAN ANYTHING YOU HAVE EVER SEEN
, and without a backward glance Avalon stalked away, tucking her silver knife back into her dress pocket,
BUT WAIT, DO NOT LEAVE YOUR SEATS, FOR OUR SEDUCTIVE PERFORMERS WILL ENTER YOUR RANKS
, and left North still gaping at the shadow that hid the tiny, perfect quarter of apple, an item she had not tasted or even seen for months,
FOR NOW YOU CAN BUY YOUR OWN RIBBON AND LEARN THE MYSTIC ART OF MAYPOLE TO THE DELIGHT OF YOUR LOVER
She was still motionless, the bear's fur growing hot under her hand, when the maypole dancers paraded offstage. The
's crew numbered thirteen, including North, and their faces were more familiar to her than her own. Even in the gloom she recognized the angular jaws of Melia and Whitby, the acrobats, though bandaged in their ribbons it was tricky to tell which was which. Sometimes they said they were siblings, sometimes a long-married couple. North didn't know the truth about their lives before they bought their way on to the
: of all the tales they'd told, one must be true, but it was impossible to pick it out of the made-up ones. The acrobats both had monkey-small feet and hips, with shoulders as big as a bull's: perfect for rolling up ropes and swinging out over the heads of the crowd. Their ribbons covered the shining remnants of old injuries criss-crossing their limbs. All the circus crew bore their scars, but the acrobats' were enough to make even North flinch. Whichever circus they'd been in before, it couldn't have had safety nets either.
Melia and Whitby sniffed the air, dragging their faces into sneers in imitation of Avalon, then pressed North into the embrace of the curtain so the other performers could file past. They huddled together, placing their wide hands on the bear's back as if to bring him into the conversation. The curtains and overhead of the big top were made of the schooner's four sails, and the fabric felt rough with saltwater.
“I hear,” stage-whispered one acrobat, “that Avalon, our beloved ringmaster's wife, has had quite enough of circus life. She wishes to abandon us all to the jaws of the sea.”
“But how could she ever tire of us, pray tell?” said the other in mock shock.
“It's sad news indeed, sweet sister,” said Whitby. “Avalon scorns the sea and wishes only for land. A house, a garden, a piece of ground that doesn't move.”
“Just think on it! All that gold, taken straight from our ringmaster's pockets and funneled into a teensy piece of land, without any of it touching our dinner table. For shame, my darling husband.”
North hunched her shoulders, sure that if she looked up she'd see the ringmaster's reddened, glittered cheeks looming toward her. The stage makeup irritated his skin so he plastered on more to cover it, which irritated it more until it cracked and bled. North had seen the pinkish gleam of the bowl after Red Gold had washed; his veins must hold as much glitter as blood.
“Land? How very dull, brother! What a yawnful sort of life!”
“So trueâthe exact same sky and the exact same ground, every single day! You'd barely be able to breathe for all the yawning!”
“Hush now,” said North, as from the stage came the boom of Red Gold introducing
THE WONDROUS BEAR-GIRL, FEARLESS AND
. She shrugged her shoulders out from under the acrobats' arms, then made a show of fussing with her bear's collar until she felt them leave. Her bear always went onstage shackled, though if he decided to use his strength, the fine gold chains would snap like strands of hair. The chains were decorative, meant only for the eyes of the crowd. Spectacle is grounded in the illusion of control. The crowd think they want safety, but what they really crave is the trick gone wrong: the fall from a trapeze, the uncovering of bone.
Earlier, when the
had docked, North had spied on the landlockers from under the canvas top of her coracle. They all seemed haggard and hunched in their hard-won finery, as if even the crust of soil they'd allowed the circus was too much. It didn't matter that damplings outnumbered landlockers ten to one; they had land, and land meant food, and food meant power, and no one was allowed to forget that.
For their act, North and her bear would mime a courtship: her kisses on his sharp teeth, the two of them in a clumsy waltz, then a musty-furred swoon in his arms and the slight lifting of her dress as the applause swept them offstage. It was always a crowd-pleaser: the female side of the big top loved the romance, the male side appreciated the reveal of flesh, and everyone was thrilled by the danger of the bear. North could still do her act. She would let out her costume when she needed to.
From the stage Red Gold's voice grew even louder,
HERE TO TAME THE TERRIFYING BEAST WITH TEETH SHARPER THAN RAZOR-SHELLS, CHILDREN AVERT YOUR INNOCENT EYES
, and North darted her hand under the curtain and groped around in the dust for the apple slice. She ate it in one bite, sucking her lips inward so she wouldn't miss any of its juice. As she wrapped her bear's chain around her fist and stepped out from behind the curtain,
she let her tongue prod at the shreds of appleskin between her teeth, and swallowed them too. She had to. For the baby.
ith the crowd's shouts and claps still echoing in her ears, North settled the bear in the shell of their boat. After a performance he needed to be groomed, fed, soothed. She'd worked hard to get him used to the golden chains, but he knew they weren't natural and shuddered back from them every time. North had never hurt him, and never would. Other animals could learn by cruelty: jeweled whips for ponies, kicks and slaps for dogs. But that would not work on bears. They learned steadily, through rapport, a dialogue built up over years. The problem was that her bear seemed hardly to remember her from day to day. She believed that he loved her, but he sometimes looked at her as if she were a stranger.
Faulty memory, like everyone said, and that's why North's job was so hard, but also why she had a place in the circus at all. There were many circus boatsâall of them less decrepit than the
âbut none of the others had a bear-girl. In a world with so little land, mammals were rare outside the landlocker farms. Because North's bear was a rarity, that meant that North was a rarity too.
Before she could begin his grooming, he would have to eat. There was no point in grooming him first, as bears are not known for being tidy eaters.
The main circus boat had been pulled ashore, as with various unfurlings the mast became the center of the big top, the striped sails became the canvas, the deck the stage. Some circuses left their ships in the water and performed up on the dock. North
shuddered at the thought. She found it hard enough to walk on the islands. She could never find the balance and concentration to perform there.
Luckily, the brightly painted coracles where the crew lived didn't need to touch land. They had only to tighten the chains between them and the convoy became one long, snaking raft. North used the salt-crusty chains as a handhold to giant-step between the coracles. The swaying chains and bobbing decks felt steadier to her than walking on ground.
She managed to collect dinner from the mess boat without getting dragged into conversation with any of the
's crew. She brought the food back to her boat and ate with her bear: stewed hock, baked potatoes, a cup of milk. Neither of them had drunk milk for weeks, so the crowd must have paid well. North hoped there would be eggs for the morning. Their bowls were not quite full enough for their bellies, but it took the edge off their gnaw of hunger.
After they had licked their bowls clean, North drained the water from the filter into a washbucket. She ensured that her bear was watching, then put the gold chains in a box and tucked them under her berth. He grumbled a roar, but it seemed involuntary, like indigestion, and he settled to his grooming without fuss. It took a long time: many of the women landlockers seemed to have taken a fancy to him, and had thrown perfumed leaves that caught in his fur. The perfume was waxy and ratted the fur into clumps, resisting North's damp fingers. She was probably supposed to do something noble with the leaves, like burn them or bury them, but she didn't care about the landlockers' superstitions. She pulled back the coracle's canvas top and threw the leaves into the water. She hoped that their waxy coating
would make them float back to shore, so those fancy ladies could see what she thought of their gifts.
By the time she was finished, she could barely muster the energy to comb her own hair. All circus folk kept their hair long, dyed bright with whatever colored things they could scavenge. It helped with the illusion of their performance; their tightrope-walk between the genders. Once a preacher from a revival boat had picketed the circus show with signs proclaiming
THE SINS OF GLAMOUR
, shouting about how the words glamour and grammar meant the same, and every word spoken by a beautiful woman was a spell cast over the god-fearing man. Red Gold loved the publicity; the performance that night was packed. And ever since, the three crewmembers on the beauty boat had been called the glamours.