It wasn’t a door, because it didn’t meet the ground. It wasn’t a window, because—no matter how high or low they are on a wall—windows show something, even if it’s just drawn curtains. Or a room previously filled with things, all now gone.
This was just a hole in the wall. It showed… nothing.
Yohaena stared across the cobbles from her splay-legged slump. She was exactly as far from the world’s finest market as a life-long sober woman could stagger after enjoying her first sinful drinks. Bought with her last honest coins.
Until the moment they threw her out, the other drinkers in the tavern had found her entertaining. She could curse the taxman, curse her audience, curse the stars that shone on her birth, curse the King even—though perhaps not quite so loud as the rest—but the minute she insulted the market of all things she was out on her ear, clutching a wooden mug containing only dregs.
The market that had taken everything she had with a smile, and given her nothing back in return.
She swung her bleary gaze away from the hole, trying to orient herself. With greasy rain slicking out of her fringe and down her face, she felt like having a bit of a cry. With the world suddenly spinning around her head, she felt like having a bit of a puke as well.
Her head and shoulders rested against another wall, the wall of… she sneered …of a shop, of course, what else? The urge to cry went away and the urge to shout incomprehensible insults rose again, to rant in tongues, to slur slurs—she giggled.
Her chin hit her chest, and confronted by the nothing in the hole in the wall the giggling died away. That’s what she had: nothing. Only a worthless mug, and nothing to drink from it.
Yohaena had been born and raised at the foot of mountains so distant that from the capital they were barely a shadow on the horizon. But they towered over Wallys, her home, like the stairway of giants, each high plateau overshadowed by those beyond, dawn breaking over their edges like molten gold, pooling and spilling from one to the next.
Only on the highest of those mountain plains grew the stone fruit. The trees were short and sturdy, their roots cracking the rock with their grip, with thick trunks to stand against the hardest wind. Their few leaves were clustered like fists around the fruit itself, more suited to protection than begging the sun for energy.
Late in the year, the fruit fell. In Wallys, tradition said it all dropped in one day, and that (if the festival were only a little less boisterous—it never was) you could hear the echoing of the fruit’s impacts like applause coming down from the peaks.
Much time would pass before the small, stony fruit came to human hands, if it did at all. It dropped from the trees, black and hard as coal, flecks glinting on its impenetrable skin like quartz. Over months, even years, the wind blew the oval fruit over cliffs, down slopes, some vanishing into gulleys and crevasses never to see the light again—or to wash out from the springs and underground streams that fed the waters of the plains. The people of Wallys kept fine nets to pluck fruit from the flow, gifts as strange as the fine fish spawn that spewed forth on irregular autumns only to return years later as blind, translucent giants, fighting upstream in their thousands to disappear back underground, breed, and swim no more.
Those fruit which failed to reach the lowlands would never ripen. The mountain birds and animals knew it, and made seasonal pilgrimages to dig through the shale slides, or picked out their glinting rewards with sharp, circling eyes. They bore them down to warmer ground and hid them away, waiting out the long months until they came good; and enough of the seeds within were carried back to the heights through the ways of nature that the sparse but long-lived forests in the sky would be maintained.
Only once had someone attempted to trade stone fruit with the wider world: Maynehla Paraesei, Yohaena’s own mother, long before her daughter’s birth. Yohaena had grown up hearing the story, lived it in her mind’s eye—how as a young woman they’d thought her mother a fool.
Her old ma, a fool! Young Yohaena had laughed. A fool much respected in every household in Wallys.
As the years passed, she dreamed about doing the same. After Maynehla passed, the dream slowly matured into something more. The following spring she prepared for the journey, secretly planning, buying what she didn’t have and disinterring the old tools of her mother’s trade. Four months of travel, and no time in that to spare. It could be done.
When summer came, she climbed to where the stone fruit could be harvested in numbers—a risky excursion in itself, so much so as to keep the locals satisfied by what good fortune washed their way. The windfall harvest would be sparser this year—let the beasts hunt for whatever remained overlooked from years past, scattered across the mountain’s face still waiting to be discovered.
In the thin air she prised apart those fists of leaves, twisted their cold, hard fruit free. She filled one sack and then another, six in all, struggled with them one by one between the steep-walled plateaux down towards home. On the lowest, she piled cairns of heavy rocks upon each sack, protecting them from foragers, delaying until the last possible moment the beginning of their ripening. Until the day when all six could be carried the final step, loaded up and on their way.
But she told her friends and neighbours none of this, let no-one know until the day she started west. Let them call her a fool as well. Let them wait for her grand return.
She arrived with a cartload, prepared to make a killing.
Drawing it by hand, she had followed the rail lines to save herself the cost of a fare, passing through hamlets, villages and towns. At every one was a market square, or a trading post, or at least someone with an eager eye on her wares.
But no trade was good enough for the clever and cunning Yohaena Paraesei. She was going to the capital, to the marketplace of marketplaces, where her unique goods would make her rich. So she turned down all offers and strode past every trading post with gaze fixed straight ahead.
And her stone fruit slowly turned from the glinting black of night to the swirling grey of the thickest fog.
Miles passed. Soon she stared, half-starved, at the produce which cruelly decorated stalls in every town on the road from the mountains through the plains—fruit and vegetables, greasy pies and skewers of meat, sweets and pastries… but she saved her money, ate only trail bread, drank only water, because unseen in the distance a fortune lay waiting for her.
And the fog-grey skin of the stone fruit paled to that of the even, endless moorland mists.
At journey’s end, in the city’s great shadow, she ran a final gauntlet of roadside merchants hailing from every corner of the world, offering what they had for what she had, inviting her to join them. She couldn’t understand why anyone would travel right to the brink of fortune’s fount and then balk at the last. She refused them all, rejected every offer, and crossed the threshold into the capital without a backward glance.
And, at long last, the stone fruit ripened to a silvered sheen. Their skin grown brittle as eggshells, ready to crack open along their seams at the slightest pressure and release the tender, sun-coloured flesh within, the cool scent of mountain summers.
Perfection. It was time.
Of course, there was a tax to pay to pass through the city gates—higher than her old ma Maynehla had described, from back when she’d made the same trip in her prime. And there were market fees, naturally: official stall rental, for example, because space was at a premium, and non-standard sizes demanded non-standard rates. Plus, of course, uncommon foodstuffs like hers needed to be officially tested and granted a Safe Consumption Seal before they could be sold—can’t risk an epidemic, not again—but testing means providing samples, of everything, and neither tests nor seals come cheap.
Almost all her money was spent just getting in the gate, and to raise the cash for both stall rental and goods testing she was forced to sell the uniquely beautiful stall her old ma once made by hand. A sadness… but it was of little use to her now, and she could always buy it back before she returned home in triumph.
She delivered samples to the Bureau of Testing, paid the fees, took her chit, and waited for their verdict—wasting precious days, precious weeks. She paid the difference between stall rental and stall sale into the pocket of an innkeeper, while her remaining wares aged past their best, and she spent worthless days watching over her cart in case thieves less concerned about epidemics made off with her goods before she had her chance to sell.
And the silvered stone fruit whitened, first snow-like, then ivory. Their crisp skins softened, no more to pop open with a startling crack, but to be punctured by a thumbnail, pried open and peeled, the rich flesh turned amber, the flavour from subtle to sweet.
Finally, they granted her seal. The last of her cash bought it into her hand, and she left the inn to take her place in the world’s greatest market: surrounded by the finest merchants, their glamorous patter luring in wealthy prospects from all sides, their outlandish, non-standard stalls drawing each purchaser’s eye, their unique and perfect goods opening every wallet.
But with her crumpled costume and bland, square stall of wrinkling, fading produce, Yohaena went all but unnoticed amidst all the commerce. She could barely make herself heard over the sound of everyone else’s success. She dropped her prices in desperation; struck woeful deals in the futile hope that the first sale would provoke a flood; stood at attention all night—eyelids fluttering, swaying like the drunk she was shortly to become—in case some cunning buyer would pause and make a clever deal while all the rest were sleeping, oblivious to their foolish loss.
And the stone fruit, over-ripe and quick to bruise, cloyed the air around her, their leathery skins yellowing back to grey.
She sold the last of her stock—almost half what she’d left home with—to one man, who swept it into a hand cart with a broken-off broom head, and in return paid her less than the value of the pathetic rented stall. She sold her cart, because she didn’t have enough money to buy anything big or numerous enough to need one—including old Maynehla’s beautiful, hand-crafted stall, which she next saw in a shop window in a twisty little lane a dozen turns from the market that had ruined her life—priced twice the sum she had taken for it, four times what she now had left.
Every lot in that lane was a shop of some kind, but she didn’t set foot in one of them, clinging to her molehill of cash and only looking in, untrusting of the deals, the trinkets, the welcoming smiles. The exception to both cases was the first property: not a shop but an inn, and this she entered, driven by weariness, thirst and hunger. She’d stay for a night and buy a full stomach while she figured out her next move, how she would snatch a better future from the lifetime of misery that now loomed before her.
They served ale with her meal. She’d never touched alcohol—trader’s betrayer, Maynehla had called it—and looked from innkeeper to drink with equal distrust. But her own inner voice murmured in her other ear: What did she have left to lose? What kind of trader had she proven to be?
In any case, the innkeeper reassured her that the first drink was always free.
The dregs in her mug were watered down with rain, just a puddle at the bottom, with an oily memory of foam on its surface. Yohaena tilted the mug, tipped it into the bigger puddle growing beneath her sodden trousers.
Bile rising in her gorge and spirit, she raised the mug above her head with one shaking arm and hurled it across the lane, aiming for the hole only inasmuch as it was directly before her.
It struck the target—she barked a single laugh at her good aim—and vanished from view. There was no clatter against whatever lay beyond. Silently, absolutely, the mug was gone.
She laughed again, wearily, closed her eyes on the swirling world—and heard a familiar sound, the sound of fallen…
She opened her eyes again. A glint winked at her from the cobbles beyond her boots. She looked up and down the lane but she was alone, no charitable night-walker taking contemptuous pity on her. Yet, there lay a single penny—good for two drinks at that cursed inn, worth more than the old stained mug itself, no doubt.
A different laugh emerged now, low and grudging, that of a woman who knows the joke is on her and waits for the proof to show itself. She pulled off her hat, tossed it dismissively, saw it sail through the hole into nothingness with the certainty of a boat swept along a river current—and this time she saw the coin sail back out, spinning in the air as though tossed from a thumb. Others followed before the first had hit the ground, rolling between the cobbles to strike the sole of her boot.
Yohaena gripped her trousers and pulled herself upright, leaned forward with a long and queasy belch, fumbled the nearest coin into her hand. She held it almost to her nose, eyes crossing… it was real.
She rolled onto all fours, crawling after the others, the rain-slippery stones poking painfully into hands and knees, then sat back on her heels to inspect her haul: two pennies, three crowns. She could buy two hats with this. Or one, but better than the one she’d thrown.
Cradling them to her chest, with a speculative look in her eye she unbuckled and tugged free her belt one-handed, guessed its worth both now and new, and slung it at the hole. The buckle led the way, the cracked leather dragged in over the lip of brick like a tongue—and more coins sprayed from the void. She scrabbled for them, counted her fortune: seven crowns and thrupence.
For a second, she considered.
In a frenzy, she tore at her clothes, one boot, the other, then shirt and breeches, all thrust at the hole, until the tinkling clamour of metal on stone was done. Until she stood in only her smalls, the hem of her undershirt cradling a clinking bundle.
When dawn broke, Yohaena looked up from her compulsive counting to find the wall’s brickwork unbroken and no sign of the hole. Perhaps she had lost her mind along with her goods, her cart and her old ma’s stall. Fine. So be it. She had seventeen crowns and eight pennies, all told.
There may never have been a more unusual trader in the capital than the one who emerged from the lane that day: a woman in her underclothes, who walked on bruised feet to the cheap and ordinary side of town, went from shop to stall there, doling out coins from what looked like an old vest. She bought:
A drawstring bag that opened into a sheet, like those which street-sellers use to display their junk and trinkets, and which real people step over with barely a look;
A smock-shirt, little more than a sheet itself—less, maybe, since it had a hole in the middle for a head to poke through, and just a length of cord to tie at the waist;
A pair of clogs, the worst to be had, cracked along their soles due to poor choice of wood;
And, last but not least—let’s even say most—all the worthless trade goods shameless traders would sell her.
She drove a hard bargain, this clown in a beggar-gown: she rooted through goods shop-worn or flawed, bid on them in bulk, demanding discount rates for what they saw as inconvenient trash. And each shopkeep took her money with a genuine smile, one that widened into a grin as she went out through their doors again. Because—in a place where the best can be found, and so only the best will do—no-one buys the defective, no-one buys the poor. Unless the purchaser is poor and defective herself.
The madwoman bought as much as she could carry, as much as her drawstring bag would hold.
Money spent, Yohaena returned to the lane, loosened the ties of her bulging bag and upturned it onto the cobbles, stuffing it through her cord belt when it was empty. All day she squatted there, arranging her prizes, rearranging them again, ignoring those few passersby who paused to look—because, after all, there was always potentially business to be done, even with the likes of such as this. But whenever one offered a coin, their eye caught by some curio on her sheet, the madwoman turned them down, so they walked on shaking their heads, or laughing at the lunatic playing shopkeeper amongst the shops, her eyes on the plain empty wall opposite.
Quite mad, they told each other.
In the dark at the heart of night, the hole in the wall returned, a blackness on the black. Yohaena was watching for it, and saw its appearance. She was happy not to be mad.
She took the empty sheet from her belt and spread it before the hole. Then, starting with the poorest of her purchases and ending with the clogs, one by one she threw them all in. Only the drawstring sheet remained, coins piling up on it.
When day broke she could hardly pull the strings closed, could hardly lift the bag from the cobbles.
She bought new clothes—nothing fancy, just replacements for the old: a good hat, and shirt, and trousers, sturdy boots to take her home, a thick coat for when the north winds welcomed her back to the mountain’s foot. And still she had enough left over to go to the market that had tried to ruin her, where her clothes and wallet brought every merchant running, eager to strike a deal, not one of them knowing her for the fool whose stall had once stood ignored beside their own.
Finally, she returned to a particular shop where, with great pleasure, she bought back her old ma’s stall: the strong bamboo frame, cleverly tied with oiled leather to collapse flat as a board, its sky-blue canvas binding them together but still proudly boasting name and business—Paraesei, in Trade—stitched and dyed by hand.
She waited out the day in the lane, on the cobbles—on a carpet of intricate weave, surrounded by bolts of fine cloth and silk, by bags of spices, more. And old Maynehla’s stall lay folded and wrapped behind her, because she was not trading, no matter what anyone offered for her wares.
She waited for one last night, and the hole.
She started with the spices, hurling them in, a cascade of currency pouring forth onto her carpet—silver coins and gold, a mound of wealth that grew and grew as the cloth and silk and other goods followed. At last the stream began to ebb, the final spurts of coins emerging—a couple more, a couple more, one more—in a way familiar, but which she couldn’t put her finger on…
Then it was done.
Her carpet was laden with more money than she had ever known. She need never trade again—Maynehla’s beautiful stall might go unopened until after Yohaena went to join her old ma in the beyond, but she would never want.
For a moment she considered throwing it into the hole as well. She wondered what that might earn her. Forget the base material worth, could the hole reward her for its personal value—what the thing meant to her as well?
She shook her head—no amount of money would buy her old ma’s stall from her, not now nor ever again—but her eye fell upon the little shining mountain of coins and a new thought occurred.
Forget the regal profiles and fearsome beasts pressed into their sides, forget their cultural meaning: the metals had material worth too, much of it, and the hole had always given back more value than it consumed. The gold, the silver of the coins—what would the hole give her for all that?
What reward could exceed even money itself?
With great care, Yohaena gathered up the corners of her carpet and drew them together over the pile, bunched two in each fist, and strained. With shaking arms, thighs quivering, she raised the bulging carpet from the cobbles and began to swing it, back and forth between her knees.
Brow furrowed with effort, she swung. Teeth gritted, she swung. Lips pulled back as if fishhooks were caught in the corners of her mouth, she swung. Her gaze only on the hole, fixed deep upon its absent depths… and she released.
The upper corners of the carpet slipped free and it billowed open like a sail, the mass of coins floating—together, each separate—through the air. At the edge of their cloud, five coins struck the bricks and bounced back around her boots. All the rest fell into nothingness and were gone, the carpet flapping in her hands as though waving farewell.
She waited, watching the hole.
There was a tax on traders departing the city. There was always another tax in the capital. Her five coins just covered it.
Yohaena strode out in sturdy boots and good new clothes, winter coat folded over one arm, carpet rolled up beneath the other. On her back, the collapsible stall was wrapped and strapped, swaying above her broad hat like the standard of a warrior from some distant land, trailing her banner in the breeze. Her pockets were as light as her heart.
She walked through the days, slept soundly at night, growing lean on the road across the plains. The capital fell behind her and the mountains slowly rose ahead; and, should she happen across travellers making camp as dusk fell, or see a caravan approach through the midday haze, she would stop, unroll her carpet at the roadside and erect her stall upon it—selling the invaluable to anyone who cared to buy.
She never asked for much, just a coin or two if her customer had it to spare, a bite to eat if not. And though what she offered was not exactly the truth (because no-one pays for a story that can’t be believed) it always had the ring of truth about it.
Wisdom paid her way back home.