Of Liminal Places
WHO CAN truly say what the river valley looked like? Its appearance changed depending on one’s perspective, for every soul sees the world differently. A patch of tree moss so apparent to one person might go completely unnoticed by another. The agreed-upons lay few and far between. The essential topography of the valley could be seen from a few specific locations: high on the barren rock of Beggar’s Hill, or from the heights of the Lone Tower, at the foot of which rested an ancient orchard. These and a few other strategic plateaus looked out over the vast waterway to the first rising hills of the Other Side—that land across the great river where very few ventured—where the land fell ever-steeped in a thick, heavy fog.
Alongside the river, sometimes too close to its edge, homes of the valley folk clustered beneath the calm twin siblings of blue water and sky. Past these houses, when the hills did not rise immediately from the beach as they were prone to do, the hinterland spread in long acres of field and fancy—fancy having more than a little power in the valley—stretching out like yawning earth. A couple of lapzine fields had been left to struggle, having survived a swelling of the river; few people remained to tend their blue-tinged flowers or harvest their gel-like resin for lamplight.
Beyond the initial hills and inclines rose greater cliffs, at points almost completely hiding the river valley from the view or acknowledgment of the outside world, such was their height. And finally, before anything “modern” could be reckoned, there spread the Farlands. Still considered of the valley proper by most aside from the college, those of the outside world ignored them as wilderness. Things were changing, though. A new organism called ‘Industry’ was starting to take notice of certain regions of the Farlands. And Industry began to wander about this seemingly unused land, wondering how it might be used for its own industrious progress. This new attention made a few of the valley’s unseen inhabitants very uneasy.
The valley’s liminal quality, linking here to forever or never, did not dawn on Calpurnia Covington. The word ‘liminal’ itself sounded like a redundancy or mistake to her child ears, a stuttering of vowels and syllables. In all likelihood, the word had no meaning for any adult either, merely something they said to make themselves seem smarter, like ‘Corinthian’ or ‘haberdashery.’ She had never heard anyone who lived above the valley—in what she saw as the real world—use the word. And in this, she was correct. Only those who truly understood the valley and its purpose, or the pompous word-lovers of the nearby college, knew the meaning of that particular word.
Neither Calpurnia nor the “real worlders” understood that to be liminal was to slice through reality like a thin stream and then embrace every possibility that ever flowed from consciousness, to offer hidden hope against hidden horror. And that’s what the valley did. Of course, it was only seen in its truest, most naked form to those who would see it. To all others it appeared but a river banked by giant, forested earth. Calpurnia—though a child and certainly able to see the things which adults refused to—took on the mentality of a conditioned adult and forced upon herself the most obvious sight and reasoning of the valley as well. Still, there were times when the truth peeked out at her. She couldn’t walk along the river and not feel its stare. There was a place for her there in the valley, if only she would wake to it. She wanted to scream at the river. She wanted to tell it to stop pestering her, but to do that would be to recognize it. Tricky river!
Calpurnia was an outsider to the valley, orphaned when both parents had died under the hand of tragedy. So it was that she came to live with her aging aunt at the old Walterhouse estate that crowned Black Hill. She was dazzled by the mansion when she first saw it, as was everyone. Indeed, before Calpurnia’s aunt Winifred Walterhouse became too ill to host, elegant parties streamed from the house and out onto the expansive fields of goldenrods and tiger lilies surrounding it, down through the tall, thick forest of Black Hill and onto the beach. Winifred’s was a party invitation not to be turned down. The home shone proud and immaculate, neither a chip of paint missing from its pristine white sides nor a misplaced flower in front of its large front porch.
Calpurnia found the grand rooms easy to hide in; so many corners to enjoy solitude away from Aunt Winifred, whose eyesight was failing anyway. At times Calpurnia felt quite like a queen in her new home, but at others she missed the real world. The people of the valley struck her as strange just as her father had once said, and though she had lived there but a couple of months, she did not think she would ever truly take to them. They reveled too much in their mystery. One in particular, a woman named Minerva True, made her the most uneasy. When Minerva visited, Calpurnia would go outside—not retreat, never retreat—and play among the flowers in the fields. She avoided most of the grownups of the valley this way. The grownups, she thought, were as superstitious as children. The children were as dumb as animals. The animals were bearable because they did not speak.
Then, one day, she met a fox.
The old woman and the valley’s unelected leader, Hamlin Marsh, were in the big house talking nonsense, so her father would say. Calpurnia preferred being out among the flowers. She had torn a red ribbon from her hair, which Winifred had tied there, and was dragging it among the goldenrods and tiger lilies. Each flower bowed as she passed it, brushing through the field. They were nearly as tall as she was and made a very good hiding place indeed.
Less intelligent children her age would run around the fields, claiming to see a fairy here and there, but not Calpurnia. She was a practical girl. As she strolled on, coming to the creek and the well-kept shack behind the house—a keeping-place for firewood and agricultural implements—she did not at first notice the little red fox following her through the flowers. He had been hidden even better than she, for he was three times as small, even when walking on his hind legs.
THE FOX had been watching Calpurnia for some time—from the day she arrived at Walterhouse Manor. He had been told the little girl was important, though he did not know why. Foxes, while cunning, do not think to ask such things. They nose it out for themselves.
Fox was a Passion. Passions were not animals as such. They were beings of nature, of the forest, and they took on whatever animal form they wished, including the instincts that accompanied each particular visage. They did this to look after the species and protect its interests. Passions, it was said, were all around the valley, many born of human emotion. One might come into being from a first kiss beneath a dogwood tree. Another could take form due to a quarrel by a stream. Like echoes, never seen, but always there, they could be the bringers of great delight or playful mischief, but never harm. They were the gleeful spirits of the world. A Passion would only become serious in the direst of circumstances, and Fox knew something dire when he felt it. Somehow the girl was related to the new sense of uneasiness that had begun to manifest in the valley.
The creek was flowing swiftly, too swiftly for Fox to venture across. Calpurnia was not content to remain on one side, however, and stepped into the precarious current, finding a half-submerged stone on which to begin her crossing. She wobbled and balanced. The stone knocked hollow under the stream. She found her footing.
From across the stream she heard: “Help me! Please help me!”
The small, rapid plea drew her attention quickly back to the flowers. She saw the little fox there, settling back down on all four feet. Calpurnia dropped her ribbon into the creek, and it was taken away like a red silk sidewinder. She stared suspiciously at the fox from where she stood on the stone.
“I cannot cross the stream,” the fox continued in a hasty, almost frightened manner. “Might you carry me? It goes much too quickly for Fox. Yes, yes, much too fast.”
“That’s silly,” Calpurnia replied. “Animals don’t talk, and they certainly don’t ask for help from humans.”
“I do, or I can. I don’t talk to people much. No, it’s not a habit. What’s to talk about?”
She watched how his mouth moved. An animal’s mouth looked strange trying to form human words, as if it were chewing something gristly or tough. Its teeth were sharp and clearly needed a good brushing.
“Animals don’t talk,” she repeated, more in an attempt to assure herself of this than in response to the fox.
“I do! I do!” Fox insisted, standing on his hind legs again. “Will you please take me across the creek with you? I must go. I must.”
“I won’t,” Calpurnia said resolutely. “Talking animals are rubbish. My father told me that the only talking animal was an evil snake in an ancient garden. Since then, no other animal has said a word, so you see, you cannot talk. It’s impossible.”
“But you hear me, you do,” the shrill little thing answered.
“A trick.” She shrugged. “A daydream. I just need a nap, and I should take one right now.” Calpurnia pivoted on the stone, stepped broadly, and passed right by the fox, aiming toward the big house, marching once more through the brightly colored fields, her chin high.
“Wait! Wait!” Fox clambered after her, but she did not listen and soon was able to un-hear him completely as adults have the power to do. Fox chased her for a bit, still clamoring for her attention, but he soon saw that she would not be open to him, or any other Passion for that matter.
Fox watched the little girl disappear into the massive white timber structure built from Black Hill’s ancient forest years and years before. He waited among the tiger lilies until he saw she was not going to appear again. He turned, defeated, back into the woods. Passions rarely revealed themselves to people, and when they did it was considered a wonderful thing…but not this time. Fox was saddened not to have brought delight to the girl. How strange it was that he could not reach her.
When Calpurnia had refused aid to the fox, she’d turned her back on the valley. She would never see a Passion again.