The itch

by Sam Kriss

The universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes.
An old French lai

It doesn’t take much to be exiled from this village, which sprawls in timber and straw by the mouth of the river. A limp is enough. A child born with fingers scrunched, a hare lip, or his knees pointed in. This one had an itchy eye. Most eyes want to look; for whatever reason, her eye wanted to be touched – and not gently. Better a rubbing knuckle than a stroke, better still a fingernail to dig and tear. It satisfied nothing, but once she’d started it was so hard to stop. The more you rub, the more it hurts, the more you keep on rubbing. Dig into the pain, deeper; claw through into the ugly and endless pleasure of an itch.

She might have been beautiful, but soon the skin around her left eye became thin and raw and shed small white flakes. Something other eyes couldn’t bear to see. When she scratched too hard there was blood, and afterwards the wound crusted over. Where the dirt got in, it bubbled and seeped. An eye set in a ring of boiling flesh. Nobody ever threw her out of the town, and no door was ever barred to her, but she never married, and eventually she went away to live in the hills. Higher than the trees will grow or the herds will graze, in the great blistered interior of the land, where winter winds scrape against the naked rock. There, in a little sheltered crevasse, she built her shack with yellowing moss on the roof, cultivated her garden, enjoyed the secret joys of her eye, and at long last she grew old there, alone.

This is the story of how the itch finally cost her the eye.

It wasn’t only the lame or the harelipped that vanished from this town. There was the girl whose footsteps led down across a meadow to the banks of a bright cold spring; there were no footsteps leading out. Another girl became a voice singing to herself in the forest, which you can still hear on moonless nights, when the sheep on their hillsides twitch worried noses and the insects fear to creak. Her high brave voice in the hollow of the woods. One girl, they say, was offered a ride out of town by a strange carter whose wheels left no ruts in the road. He kept his promise: she was never seen again.

Where did they go? On its outcrop, just over the river from the town with its streets dug through tight-packed dung, the English earl had his castle. Like an enormous gemstone: its high sheer curtain walls, its turrets. At low tide, the river was shallow enough to wade clear across. The brownish silt would suck at your shoes, and when it gave them up it released the smell of sulphur. When the people went across to pay their taxes, they would track mud over the smooth clean flagstones. This felt like part of the design: a reminder that you are a stain on the world. A generation ago, when Madog ap Llywelyn rose up to reclaim this land, the English knights fanned out from that castle over the countryside, burning fields and houses, killing fathers and taking away girls. Eventually they stopped burning the fields, but they still rode out for the girls. Everyone knew they kidnapped any young woman who went wandering the paths at night. She would be bundled up and carried away, off to that cold sheer castle to cook and clean and sew. And because everyone knew this, they never had to mention all the girls whose own families had sent them over the river. In a little stone room, the earl’s reeve would look a girl up and down, put a hand on her thigh or her forearm, squeeze. Smack his wet lips, nod, and pay her father with a handful of silver coins. There were many families ashamed and close to starving with a stash of silver coins buried in the soot of the hearth.

But there was also the girl on the rocks. She had been a crofter’s daughter; betrothed to a slight young man who crabbed along the shores of the bay, who knew the pools where scuttling things went to hide. This crabber was the one who found her there one morning, her back arched over the curve of a great boulder jutting out into the sea. Her body hung with seaweed and slime: a funeral robe. Her eyes still open: hard staring icy blue. They buried that girl in the black of the ground, but the crabber wouldn’t go. Around the same time, he started to drink. Outside the wake he leaned on a yew-tree and laughed in the mourners’ faces: that’s only a thing you’re burying, shit-brains, go on, go weep for your wooden doll. The family had to throw rocks until he left. In the night, he’d wander drunk over the rocks by the shore, calling her name. Because the girl he loved was still alive. Because the real girl’s eyes were green.

One night, many years later, this crabber wandered too far, until he found himself in a part of the country he’d never seen before. Lost and hungry, with frost forming in the grey of his beard, he ranged over the hillsides until the forests fell away and the grass became hard scratchy scrub. He thought he might die of cold. But finally, he reached the crest of a hill and saw beneath him a large stone house, with flowers growing up the walls and a warm light in every window. As he came closer, he could hear the lively music and the chatter of guests, spilling out of the doors, lounging around the scented gardens. The smell of roasting meat, and a sudden warmth in the air, like those close clammy summer nights when even at midnight the birds announce the dawn. When the guests noticed him, they crowded around; they told him how wonderful it was to see him and how glad they were he’d finally come. We have a place for you, they said, we’ve been waiting so long. What was this party? A wake, they said. These people were tall and beautiful and dressed like gentlemen, but they spoke to him in his own language. They offered him wine and meat. Starving, he accepted. One of them took him by the hand and led him inside, but just as he was about to pass through the door a young servant-girl grabbed his arm. Leave, she hissed, do not eat their food or drink their wine; it will turn to soil in your mouth, and this funeral is yours. He was almost at the doorway before he turned. The house was so warm and inviting, with its hundreds of candles and its mingling of perfumed skin. It felt, in a way he couldn’t describe, like sleep. But when he turned he saw the side of the servant-girl’s face, and her eye as green as pond-weed or the fields after rain.

The crabber woke on that rock, his back arched over the curve of the boulder, strewn with seaweed and slime. Overnight, banks of ice had built up by the foot of the stone. But in the scratchy scrub-hills high above the bay, he found a circle of ash burned into the earth, and a few singed petals still drifting on the wind.

The people in the village knew better than to disbelieve him, but they kept their distance all the same. The man was elf-touched; he had lingered by the gates of that other kingdom. Everyone knew it was there. The place of the invisible people who live underground, more ancient than the treeless hills, as deep in this country as its slate or its coal. They were here before the Normans and the Saxons both, and before the name of Jesus Christ. They speak the language of rustling leaves, or a knock from underneath the hearthstone on a winter’s night. Sometimes a ring of mushrooms might appear in the middle of a grassy field: a fairy-circle. There are places in the forests where people know not to go, where the trees warp in elderly coils, marking the drift of invisible forces in the slow vastness of time. Where the dawn always comes a little later; where boughs carry heavy wolfmoss robes. Where you might find a single human toe, twitching, sprouting from out of the muck.

Sometimes, in the night, they will join a pile of planks into a boat or sew leather into jerkins. If a house is untidy, they will scamper through every room and clean. Our drudgery is play for them; they are lighter and happier than we are. They are the the tylwyth teg, the Fair Family, and they do not know sin or sadness or jealousy or toil. They do not bear the curse of Eve. But because they aren’t serious about it, their work is poor: the boots the fairy-folk stitch tend to fall apart, and most of the thread they spin is useless.

Sometimes they steal human children, and leave one of their own in its place. Spiky-faced infants with rough skin or goat teeth; loud upsetting wails. You can send away a changeling by putting it in the oven or over an open fire; this is how many mothers quietly removed a troublesome or sickly child. But the best way is simply to show the fairy something it hasn’t seen. In view of the cradle, brew beer or boil stew in an empty eggshell. Your baby will exclaim: I am old, so very old; I lived when the oak was an acorn, before the forests grew – but I never saw beer brewed in an eggshell before! Then, discovered, it will vanish, leaving your real child in its place. The changeling is not really a baby.  It’s one of their elders, one whose time has come. For the tylwyth teg, the upper world is where the dead go. We are like shades and spectres to them: so heavy and mournful, bent down in our sadness, diligent in our monasteries, obedient to the law, and regretful when we die.

But for all their lightness, the tylwyth teg must live underground, and they cannot bear the sun. Their lives are in laughter, but they pay their tithes to Hell. They love spinning-wheels, needles, fine clothes, good meat, and good wine; they love music, tiaras, courtly dance, flowers, and golden coins – but the doorway to their other kingdom is far away from all those softer artificial things, high up in the hills where the wind howls against naked rock, where nobody lives except an old woman with red weeping welts all around her eye.

Without much else to do, this old woman became wise. She knew how to make a poultice to treat a broken leg; she knew what herbs to feed a sickly calf and how to tell tomorrow’s weather from the wriggling of the worms. A few times a year she’d be called down to the village to attend a difficult birth. Sometimes the mother would live, and sometimes she did what she could to make her dying easier. She was like the charcoal-burner in his hut or the lonely crabber who still pined among the rocks at night: someone necessary, but best kept far away. Paid in a few sacks of oats come harvest, firewood or fish.  Once, the call went out not from the village but the castle: two riders in chain-mail appeared outside her door, and while she spoke no English they made her understand that she was needed. She had never been on the back of a horse before. Inside the castle, she walked smooth flagstones and peered into its hundreds of halls. She saw girls she might have delivered, twelve or thirteen years old, scurrying around. Sometimes a bowed face to hide the bruise. She delivered the Countess’s child safely, and while the lady kept her head under a silk veil, she still left with the secret that the Earl’s wife kept her cunt in the French manner, without hair. Also a single gold dinar, which dented when she bit it. A line of writing around the edge of the coin testified that there is no god but God.

The only thing she didn’t learn was a cure for her itching eye. She could soothe a nettle-sting or the last gasps of death, but nothing could fix her eye. It wanted to be touched. It wanted to bleed.

Later, her legs grew weak and the hair started thinning on her head. Worst of all, her fingers stiffened. Harder to spin her thread or cook her meals. Eventually she went down to the village again. Crossed the mud-flats to the castle fair, where she might find a servant-girl to help her in her age. It was Christmas: a lean time; much to hoard and little to sell. In shivering tents the villagers displayed their last skinny parsnips, their young skinny daughters, their old skinny mules. Red-faced girls, roughened in the fields – but nobody wanted to hire themselves out to the old woman with the blistered eye. Nobody wanted to live out in the wilderness and the hills, a day’s heavy slog from their cousins and friends. At last, she found a girl who was standing all by herself. She was maybe seventeen years old. Lanky; gormless. An upturned nose; a triangular mouth half-open, showing a pair of rodenty teeth. Wide passive eyes, the eyes of the cows in their marshes. Hair like hay. Skin like sea-scum, or wet uncooked dough. She said her name was Eilian, which is a boy’s name, the name of the Roman saint who built his church on Ynys Môn. But the old woman shrugged. Everything is wrong in the world, so why not a name? She showed Eilian the gold coin, and offered it for a year’s work in her cottage. The girl readily agreed. They walked back together, not speaking, into the high barren hills.

Eilian was impossible to understand. In the mornings she would clean the shack, chop wood, light the fire, milk the goat, and set a pot of llymru bubbling over the hearth. In the afternoons she would churn butter or weed the vegetable garden, in the evenings she would spin, and at night she bedded down with the old woman in her heavy woollen coat. She did everything she was ordered to, but she needed orders. Eilian, chop some firewood. Eilian, light the fire. If she wasn’t told what to do, Eilian would simply sit and stare, her mouth hung open, with that little nub of a chin dangling in the middle of her neck. The old woman had a crwth: one evening, she asked Eilian if she could play. The girl took the thing and plucked a few strings like a child would, grabbing them at random. Pling plang plong. The old woman handed her the bow, and Eilian looked at it without much understanding, before suddenly breaking into a tune of dark rasping beauty, a song that sang with the winds in the black night of the moor. Slow and broken: the heartbreak of the land. It lasted a single minute, and then she handed back the box and continued staring at the wall. That song, whatever it was, had no meaning for her.

When she span in the gloaming, Eilian would take her work outside. Squatting in the snow, she looked like an old half-buried stone. Her curving back, wrapped in a lumpy coat – that was the silhouette of the boulder. The thin hair that snapped about in the furious January winds – that was the last clump, clinging, of summer straw. The silence of the mineral world. Especially since, even though it was hard to make everything out in the yellowy gloom, it looked to the old woman that when she sat outside Eilian’s long listless limbs never actually moved. Still, the work was done; Eilian spun all the wool that could be sheared, more than the old woman could possibly need. And if she forgot to tell Eilian to carry the wool back inside, half a dozen spindles would be left to rot in the snow until morning.

On the first day of spring, Eilian disappeared. After a long day shearing sheep, and a night of unwholesome dreams, the old woman woke to find the place cold and empty. On the hearth, she found a gold coin with Arabic letters stamped around the edge. The girl must have wandered down the hills again, following the goat-paths home with her mouth open and her arms drooping empty by her side. Well, at least she’d returned the coin.

The old woman spent her summer alone, eating little things, mushrooms. When the new year approached again, she only noticed from the stars. A year is like a life is like a day: you come into it bleary and slog through the long dark early reaches, waiting for something to get better, but when it ends it ends all at once.

The call came on the night of the solstice, the longest night of the year. This man looked like he had come up from the castle again: a short man, with a beardless and pretty little face, dressed in fine silks embroidered with golden thread. He asked if she was the midwife, and she said that she was. The man was in a panic, but there was still a kind of laughter swelling out in his cheeks; he was the kind of man who’d smile in his sleep. Not to be trusted. He led her to his horse: the biggest animal the old woman had ever encountered, a snorting monster heavier than a bull, with bright madness foaming from every hole in its face. They did not ride through the hills to the castle. Instead, the master gave a vicious crack of the whip, and the creature bolted higher up into the wilderness. They stopped, finally, by a place the old woman knew well, a patch of high moorland crowned with old stones. But this place was not how she remembered, because between the boulders gaped the mouth of a cave where there had never been a cave before.

The master lit a lantern and led her inside, and when the passage narrowed they crawled. Icicles of stone there, damp grit underfoot. And deeper: marks on the wall, flashes of surging antlers in the lamplight, or huge crude tusks. Once, something had lived here. Greasy scorches of soot, fragments of bone. The old woman knew a tale about a cave like this: a boy had found a gap in the rocks hidden by a scrap of turf, and inside a vast hall of stone where thousands of men in ugly spiked armour lay as if they had died in a heap, each clasping a switch of hazel. Frightened, the boy started to run for daylight, but he hit his head on a large bell suspended from the roof of the cavern. It clanged loud enough to shake the earth, and at once the men jumped up and started to shout: is this the day? Has it dawned? Is this the day? No, the boy managed, not today. Then the warriors went back to sleep. Not long after he emerged from underground, the boy pined away and died; nobody learned what day those men were waiting for. If we are lucky, we might never know.

Here, said the master. Here, in the foggiest depths of the cave, someone had cut a square hole through the rock and placed a heavy golden door. The old woman pushed, and the hinges were as smooth as butter. Inside was the most sumptuous place she’d seen, grander by far than the castle on the strait, maybe grander than the courts of France she’d heard described in ballads. The floor was heavy with richly coloured Persian carpets. The walls were decked in tapestries and furs. A huge fire crackled from its hearth, and everything glowed in its light. The brass baubles, the fine wooden furniture heaped with rare foods. Peaches, cherries, sides of salmon: summer delicacies in December. And a bed. Carefully, the old woman removed her boots so as not to spoil the carpets, and walked on suddenly aching feet over to that bed. The girl there had passed out in her labour, and the sweat was high on her forehead. The master hovered by her side. Save my child, he said, if you can only save one of them, then bring me my son.

She saved both. The boy, when he came, was fat and healthy, bellowing. The mother, pale, exhausted, mostly slept. When she looked at the old woman her face was clouded, only barely aware that someone else was in the room with her. She would take a few days to recover, and in that time the master invited the old woman to stay. She could warm herself by his fire, take whatever she wanted from his table, and tend to the mother and the child. She accepted. Finally, just before he left, the father passed a glass bottle into her hands. This oil, he said, is to be rubbed into my son’s eyes, only gently, but twice every day. And be warned: you must not touch your own eyes with it, not even a drop, or your fate will be terrible indeed.

The baby cried every time she poured the oil over his eyes. The fits would last for hours, each one worse than the last. She did her best to soothe him, bouncing him in her stiff skinny arms. She ate from the table: a few ripe apricots. They were soft and juicy, but not at all sweet. A salty-bitter taste, and something slimy between her teeth. These fruits were barren: without a stone. She looked at the tapestries on the walls, which all depicted hunts. The gentlemen on fine black horses were shown surrounding a bear; they thrust stone-tipped lances and split open the animal’s brains. She examined herself in the large polished bronze mirror, the wreckage of her face. The fire burned high. So why was she so cold? And why did it prick her feet so much to walk on that smooth, well-carpeted floor?

After maybe a night and a day – the place had no windows – the mother started to stir a little. She nursed the child and kissed his angry little scalp. She didn’t speak. She was beautiful, but something about her face troubled the old woman. Maybe she looked a little too much like the old woman herself might have looked, if she’d led a softer life. Once the baby was vomiting little glugs of milk, his mother gave him over to be anointed. The old woman shook a drop of the oil onto her left finger, and rubbed the baby’s eyes; he bawled, she handed him back. Now her eye itched again, so she sat on a chair and scratched. Pulse over the skin of the eyelid, push until the eye bruises the back of its socket. She had been scratching for quite a while until she noticed the slight greasiness between her finger and her eye, and realised that she had rubbed the oil into her own eye. Slowly, she withdrew her hand and opened her eyes.

This is what her right eye saw. There was the well-furnished room, the carpets, the tapestries, the fire, the table, the bed, the food, the baby, and his mother. But the left eye saw something else. It was only a matter of perspective, the slight distance between one eye and another, the world seen from a slightly different angle. Like peering behind a stage to see the ropes and the sawdust. Like peering around the back of a stately manor, where the pigs eat kitchen scraps and shit in the same mire. The left eye saw that this room was not a room, but a wet cavern. That there was no carpet, but the rough rocky floor that had shredded the soles of her feet. That there were no tapestries, but an array of skulls staring with empty sockets from every cranny: the skulls of deer, foxes, bears, and yes, human skulls, fractured, pierced with a stone-tipped lance. That there was no fire, but a fissure in the vault of the cave through which the drizzle came down. Not a table: a moss-furred rock. Not a bed: a stagnant pool of fronds and slime. No summertime fruit, but fat white feasting slugs. The left eye saw that the baby was a monstrous imp, covered in thick dark fur, that grinned through sharpened teeth. And his mother, naked in the slime, bleeding from the dozens of tiny deep gashes all over her breast, was Eilian.

Eilian, said the old woman. The girl looked up, still dazed. He said you wouldn’t see me, she said. Tell me what happened, said the old woman, and she told. The tylwyth teg had come to her on the moor, she said, and offered to lighten her labours. They would spin for her and chop the firewood; they even taught her their music. In return, she agreed to marry their elf-king before the first day of spring. The days between the winter solstice and the spring equinox are the season of the fairies, when the world slips away from the sun, given over to the unhomely powers of bog and heath; these are the dark rotting days in which fairies roam. In Elfland, it is always winter. Every night, Eilian had resisted the tylwyth teg; she slept with a belt of braided rowan-twigs across her waist, which the fairies cannot touch. But on the last day of winter she was so tired from her work that she forgot to wear her belt, and the elf-king came in the night to take what was his. Fairy weddings have no ceremony. In a minute the brutal business was done, all while the old woman slept next to them, dreaming goatish dreams. As soon as it was over he took Eilian away with him, under the hills to the sunless kingdom he ruled.

The old woman told Eilian that she would help them escape, but the girl shook her head. Wait a little longer, she said, and go when my husband returns; he will pay you well, but he must never know that you can see through his charms. Again and again the old woman tried to convince Eilian to abandon her monstrous child and leave, but every time the girl refused. Eventually her face took on a hard glinting set; there was a vein of cruelty there that the old woman would have never expected from the gormless girl at the castle fair. Eilian no longer left her mouth hanging open. How can you understand? she said. You are still a maid.

Her husband paid as well as was promised. Four gold coins, each identical to the dinar in her home. Down to the Arabic around the edge; down to the bite-mark. But later, when she’d returned to her shack and she looked at the coins again with her right eye closed, what she held was a brown handful of human teeth.

Much of the world stayed the same. The hills were the hills, the rain was only rain. These things had not been glamoured. But animals seemed larger through her new eye, and wilder too, shining primitive. The nanny-goat that munched behind her shack was no longer a goat, but Goatness itself. Maybe Adam had named something like this in the garden: a goat with a beard that kings could only imitate, a pair of horns finer than the Devil’s.

She learned things. She discovered that Elfland is not a different place under a different sky, but the world in its hiddenness. Every dark secret place is theirs; the empire reaches through the caves and the burrows, the dungeons, the cracks of the earth, and into your home. It’s under your bed and up in the rafters, in all the places that frighten children. Imagine a ball, and cup your hands around it tight: you’ve built a doorway to that other realm. Still there were secrets she couldn’t penetrate. They had to do with death, but also the savagery of the elves on their wedding-nights, and the way thick spears of grass throb towards the sky, and raw antlers shedding blood with the velvet, and the fact that Christ was born in the fairy-season, and Eilian’s mocking smile when she said you are still a maid.

The sky was one place to begin. She discovered, when she looked through her left eye, that the night sky was black and empty and there were no stars.  And when she steeled herself on a winter noon and stared directly at the sun, she wept for a week. The vastness of that dead thing, that carcass. She saw that what lights our days is a funeral pyre.

Once several weeks had passed, she noticed that her eye had stopped itching. She felt the skin with a cautious fingertip: it was healed.

Eventually, the old woman wandered into town for the market, to see if it was possible to spend one of her teeth. It was funny how the banners streaming from the castle were really only drab and white, with plain black letters that said SLEEP and CONFORM and OBEY. The market was busier now; the first daffodils were blooming, the first lambs were tottering bravely in the fields. She walked the stalls and felt invisible. Everyone in town had known her by her hideous eye, and now it was gone she could be anyone: a grandmother, maybe, from the next village over the hills. As she wandered, she noticed another figure always ahead of her, tripping from bench to bench, grabbing a loaf of bread, a measure of barley, a pot of herrings, throwing them in a black velvet sack. Thief, she cried. The vendors all looked up, but nobody stopped him. The old woman strode forward and grabbed the criminal by the scruff of his neck. Thief, she said again, but when he spun around she saw that this thief was none other the man who had come to her door on the longest night of the year, the man who married Eilian.

You can see me, said the elf-king, clearly delighted. Well, I did tell you that your fate would be terrible indeed. You must have been so confused by the things you saw! And how could you possibly understand them? You know how fond we are of our little tricks and our little games. Tell me, did you imagine that it was the truth? Now the elf-king drew himself very close to the old woman so she could smell the carrion on his breath, and whispered in her ear, like someone telling a juicy secret to a friend: there isn’t one. And although the fairy was still standing there, still smiling, still in his fine silks and perfumed hair, for an instant she saw that he was a mask. Something churned beneath his surface: the serpent that strangles and is the world.

Now, said the elf-king, which eye is it that you see me with? By your squint I know that it’s only the one. The old woman didn’t have a moment to answer; he was already peering close at her left eye, the one that had lost its halo of livid skin. In an instant, he flicked a bulrush and pulled out her eye. The eyeball glistened on the spear of his stick, dangling its bloodied wormy trail. Jelly ran out from where it had been pierced. An eye is only a ball of wet matter, invisible to the one that uses it. So is a brain. The elf-king flicked the eyeball to the ground, stamped on it once with the heel of his shoe, and then he went on his mischievous way to steal a round of good yellow cheese.