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  • Published: 28 May 2024
  • ISBN: 9780143776918
  • Imprint: Vintage Australia
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $34.99

Psykhe

Extract

I was born blue, strangled by my own cord.

Everyone thought I was dead. My mother’s midwife blew air into my lungs until I gasped and breathed on my own, alive once more. So I was named Psykhe, which means breath and soul and butterfly, words having many meanings.

Only gods die and return to this world alive. So as I grew into girlhood, many people began to think I too must be divine. They bowed low as I passed by and kissed their fingertips to the sky. Some even thrust gifts into my hands – flowers, fruit, or carved charms against harm. I did not like it. I clung to Brid’s hand and hid my face against her robe which smelt of meadowsweet, mugwort and rue. Brid had been my mother’s nurse, then her midwife, and now my handmaid. Sometimes I walked through the whole town with my face buried against her, too afraid to look up and see the curious eyes staring at me.

My mother had died when I was born. Her absence was the greatest presence in my life. I knew I looked like her because I was so very different from anyone else. The people of Rasenna were brown and sturdy, with dark eyes and thick curls, while my skin was pale as moth wings, my hair as fine and white as an old woman’s. My sisters could run and play in the sunshine, and their arms and legs only became more golden. I burned and blistered and grew feverish, so Brid kept me inside, singing me songs and telling me stories as she crushed herbs between grindstones.

My sisters did not love me. Their mother had died of the plague when Khrysanthe was still a baby, and our father had married my mother soon after. I think they thought that was wrong. Certainly, Alektrona rarely spoke to me except to say something unkind. She once told me that a white-haired boy like me had been sacrificed and buried under the stones of the square. I did not like to walk there after that. I imagined the boy’s empty eye sockets gazing up at me, his finger bones stretched in desperate appeal.

Alektrona scarcely spoke to Khrysanthe either. She loved only her milk-sister, a slave girl named Fatima. Alektrona and Fatima had suckled together and grown up together. The two girls spent all their time with each other, whispering, laughing, gilding their eyelids and twirling about with gauzy scarves as the slaves played their cymbals and flutes. I used to crouch on a cushion and watch them dance. My eyesight was blurry, and so often the two girls were just whirling shapes in the dim room, a susurration of silk.

Fatima’s mother, Nasrin, wore her black hair cropped in a straight line across her forehead to hide her slave tattoo. Lord Cassius, my father, summoned her to his bed whenever he was at home, which was not often. He spent a great deal of time away, sailing on one of his ships in search of new treasures, or examining sacks of spices and strings of amber at one of his many warehouses. He was one of the richest lords in Tarchna, the walled town in which we lived, and had recently been chosen to represent it in the League of Twelve, the annual meeting of leaders from each of the dozen hill towns of Rasenna.

My life was constrained by the walls of the garden, where Brid and I gathered herbs in the cool of the dawn and the twilight, when the bright sword of the sun would not hurt my eyes. She made healing potions for the women of the town and taught me to do the same. Many times I heard her wish we had a bigger garden so she could grow more plants.

‘We had a grand garden, your mother and I,’ she told me.

‘On the shore of the lake of the magic mirror in the pale moun­tains,’ I chanted. Even the name of my mother’s homeland seemed full of wonder and mystery to me.

‘Yes, indeed,’ Brid said. ‘You should see the herbs and flowers that grow wild there in the spring! The air so sweet and clean, no-one could help being well. Not like here, with the evil air of the marshes.’

Brid had come to Tarchna with my mother, to serve her and guard her, when she came down from the pale mountains to marry my father. After my mother died, Brid stayed to care for me, even though she was a free woman who could have returned to her homeland if she had pleased.

‘Why, Brid? Why did you stay?’ I asked her once, when I was still just a little girl and as full of questions as a pomegranate is full of seeds.

She crouched by the fire, stripping thyme leaves to make a tincture for a racking cough. The answer was a long time coming, which was Brid’s way. ‘I should have saved her,’ she said at last.

‘Like you saved me?’

She nodded her head slowly. ‘I could save only one,’ she said after another long pause. ‘And so I chose you.’

‘Why, Brid? Why did you choose me? Did you not love my mother?’

‘I loved her with all my being, with the very marrow of my bones. But I knew I loved you more.’

‘But why?’

She smiled, her face as creased as old leather. ‘Because I chose you.’

Brid often spoke in circles like that. Perhaps it was just a way to silence me. For I wanted to know everything. Why does the moon follow us home? What is smoke? Why do leaves fall in autumn? How does a caterpillar become a butterfly?

‘How did you save me?’ I asked her.

‘I unwound the cord from about your neck. It still pulsed with life, but you were pale and unbreathing. I could not rouse you. I remembered the story of Isis, the goddess who resurrected her brother Osiris by fanning breath into his body with her wings. So I bent over you, and blew breath into your mouth. Your little chest rose under my fingers. When I stopped blowing, your chest fell. So I kept breathing into you until you gasped and cried out. I lifted you then to your mother’s breast, but while I had been trying to save you, she had slipped away.’

‘Where did she go?’ I asked.

‘Your mother’s body was returned to the earth, as is fitting, but her spirit would have travelled to the underworld.’

‘The underworld? Where is that? Can I go there? Would I see her there?’

‘One day you will go there,’ she answered.

‘When? When might I go?

‘That is beyond my ken.’

I was silent. I knew it was no use questioning Brid anymore once she said that.

I was still only a little girl then, but I remember it well. It was the first time I ever heard of the underworld.

*

Because I had been saved, I tried to save others. I rescued drowning bees from the fountain, broke spiderwebs to free struggling butter­flies, and crumbled the last of my bread for the ants to eat. When I was twelve, I saved the life of a dove. I did not know it was wrong, or how cruel my punishment would be.

It was summer, a time when I spent most of the day in the cool of my dark room. I could not bear the season when Sol drove his chariot too close to the earth. My skin burned, my temples throbbed, and the fierce light hurt my eyes. Alektrona was of an age to be married, though, and so I had to brave the heat to go to the shrine of Venus, the goddess whom the people of Rasenna used to called Vei, both names meaning ‘desire’.

Tarchna was built on a high hill above the marshes and the saltpans, and the shrine to honour the goddess born of seafoam was down on the shore, so that sailors could pray to her for safe passage over the ocean. Venus was the goddess of love and marriage as well as smooth sailing, and every summer there was a festival in her honour in which all the young women of the town participated.

Richly dressed, adorned with jewels, they walked into the sanc­tuary, carrying little cakes made of honey and saffron that they had baked with their own hands. Alektrona’s gown was lavishly trimmed with purple. Few could afford the dye, made from the crushed shells of twelve thousand sea snails. The festival was as much a chance to flaunt our wealth as Alektrona’s marriageability. I followed along behind, my hand clasped in Brid’s, shrinking in shyness from the stares of the crowd. My father frowned when he saw me, and turned aside.

‘She looks too much like her mother,’ someone said. ‘As if she has frost on her eyelashes.’

The shrine had to be purified with the blood of a sacrificed dove, and so a flock of white-winged birds was released into the air.

I watched them soar into the sky, so transfixed by their beauty that I did not see the hawk being released. I saw only the shadow of wings, the sudden frantic attempt to escape. The hawk dropped like a stone, wings flaring, talons outstretched, and seized one of the birds. The rest of the flock soared away, and the hawk circled down to the shrine.

Overcome with pity for the poor bird, I let go of Brid’s hand and ran forward, startling the hawk who released its cruel grip. The dove tumbled down to the ground. I dropped to my knees beside it and picked the bird up. Drops of blood glowed like rubies on its snowy breast. Its eyelids were shut, but I could feel the frantic beating of its heart against my palms. I bent my head and whispered a little healing charm Brid had taught me:

Mend what is broken,
heal what is ill,
by this word spoken,
and the strength of my will.

The dove opened its bright eyes, spread its white wings, and soared away.

I only realised I had saved a bird marked out for sacrifice when I heard the frightened murmuring of the crowd. They thought I had resurrected it from death. Nobody knew what to do. Miserably, I crouched in the shade as everyone shouted and argued. The shrine could not be sanctified now, the priests said. The festival was ruined, Venus would be greatly insulted, and it was all my fault.

Only a boy my own age seemed not to care. He sat on a wall nearby, singing to a small bird perched on his finger. The bird cocked its head, and trilled in response, its golden-red breast glowing like a sunset sky. I watched, entranced. The boy put the bird on his shoulder, then rose and came towards me, crouching beside me.

His curls were black, and his eyes merry and golden, almost the same colour as the breast of the little bird on his shoulder.

‘It is not wise,’ he said, ‘to anger the gods.’

His voice was musical and sweet, but his words were terrifying. I was struck dumb, unable to respond or even move. He smiled at me, then rose and slipped away. I could have sworn a nimbus of light shimmered about him, like folded golden wings. But it must have been the all-too-familiar blur of my eyes.

A few days later, Brid died of a burning fever.


Psykhe Kate Forsyth

'Psykhe is the perfect winter read.'GUARDIAN'This romance is lush and forbidden, pushing and folding the peaks and troughs of the narrative to its final conclusion.'ARTSHUB

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