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.”