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Another Man's Cage: 19. Chapter Nineteen--Nerdanel
Yavanna is just beginning to come alive beneath my hands. Her body curves as she looks over her shoulder at the flowering vines pouring from her basket and taking root in the earth, and she is just beginning to wear the look of serene peace that should belong to the creator of all plant and animal life on earth. If I take my eyes from her marble face, though, I will lose concentration on that singular piece of cheek that is too rounded, too soft. I hate to admit it, but it is momentarily a dilemma: Do I turn and acknowledge my child? Or do I seize the inspiration that has evaded me until this day, this very moment in time, and perhaps might never deign to grace me again?
I sigh and turn. Macalaurë stands in the doorway, his hand resting on the frame, his fingers curling and uncurling nervously. "Amil, I'm sorry," he says. Macalaurë, I suppose, understands the fleeting gift that is inspiration better than his brothers, although he is also blessed with the ability to tuck the songs that come upon him into a corner of his memory for later use, a gift I do not have but envy.
I force myself to smile. "No mind, Macalaurë. What is it?"
"Well, Findekáno…." He looks down at the floor and begins twisting one of his braids between his fingers. Today is washing day, and Macalaurë is supposed to be doing the week's washing with the help of his brother Tyelkormo and his cousin Findekáno. His hair is bedraggled and damp; his gray tunic is frumpy and speckled with water. I wait for him to continue, and finally, he looks up with eyes like pools of water and says, "Can Findekáno have a lesson with you instead of doing the washing?"
"Who will help you then, Macalaurë? You and Tyelkormo cannot finish it all alone."
"Nelyo is gone into town with your father. And before you name Carnistir," I say quickly, "then he is too little and I just put him down for a nap besides."
"What is the matter, Macalaurë?"
He sighs. "Well, it is just that Findekáno doesn't know how to do the washing."
"Yes, I mean, I guess we take it for granted because it is easy, but he doesn't know the right combinations of soaps or when to use hot or cold water—"
"You cannot teach him, Macalaurë?"
Like a careless foot upon a twig, my question snaps the frail composure that my second son has maintained. His voice rises; his slender fingers clench into frustrated fists. "I've been trying, but Amil, we haven't gotten a bit done yet! All he does is get in the way! Tyelkormo is getting annoyed and he said something to Findekáno that made him cry…." He trails off and half-turns back to the doorway. "No mind. You are busy. We will carry on."
I am tugged again between my second son and the lump of silky green-veined marble behind me. I turn and allow my eyes to drift over Yavanna's face. She looks wrong—her cheeks are too rounded and cherubic to give her the look of serenity I had tried to capture with my hands—but I no longer know how to fix her. I reach back to untie my apron. "Macalaurë, wait. I will help you."
I follow him and find the back garden in disarray.
Our family accumulates intimidating volumes of washing each week. Not only do our sheer numbers alone make it a formidable task but the kind of work we do results in soils that are baffling to clean. Fëanáro's forge tunics stopped coming clean years ago and are now permanently dingy; Nelyo acquires ink spots in alarming volumes; Tyelkormo could grow vegetables on some of his clothes by the amount of dirt and mud caked on them. And Carnistir presents laundry dilemmas beyond even my many years of experience. Last week, he climbed into Fëanáro's workshop through an open window and dumped an entire bucket of blue paint over his head. I had been still picking blue paint chips out of his hair during his bath last night.
Macalaurë had filled the washtubs and started sorting the clothes into piles, but they have since been strewn about the yard. I pick up a pair of my husband's trousers and find a muddy footprint roughly the size of our third son's boot smeared onto the seat. Currently, Tyelkormo is leaping at a tree branch just beyond the reach of his outstretched fingertips, and I see one of his older brother's underwear ensnared among the nascent blossoms. Findekáno is sitting with his back against one of the washtubs and sobbing.
Tyelkormo gives a monstrous lunge and closes his fist on the underwear. For a moment, it holds his weight, and he dangles from the tree branch, his slender little body twisting gently. Then there is a loud ripping noise and he lands hard on his backside beneath the tree, and I have two little ones in tears.
I nudge Macalaurë in the direction of his brother while I go to Findekáno. Upon taking his tense, trembling body into my arms, he immediately sobs, "But I don't know how, Aunt Nerdanel!" in that tiny voice that annoys me and awakens my urge to mother him at the same time.
"Hush, hush," I say, stroking his silky hair. "No one is asking you to do anything."
Evening is slowly sapping the gold light from the afternoon. It is growing late. Soon, Fëanáro and Nelyo will ride through the gate, weary from a long morning of studying and an afternoon out riding, and Macalaurë and I will need to heat up the supper while they wash up. Fëanáro will be in no mood to hear of another afternoon wasted because of the shortcomings of his brother-son.
How can a child know so little? I wonder, as I cuddle Findekáno and try to soothe his tears. Across the garden, Macalaurë has found much greater success with his little brother, and Tyelkormo is already running around again—his bruised backside quickly forgotten—and plunging through Macalaurë's neatly sorted piles of laundry in pursuit of a grasshopper that buzzes across the grass.
When Finwë had told me that Findekáno lacked the practical education of my own sons, I figured that he would need a bit more coaching in craft, perhaps a few lessons in the more intricate of chores, such as the cooking tasks that are appointed to him and Tyelkormo. I had assumed that he would know how to sweep out the kitchen, that he would be capable of setting a table for supper, that he could do the washing. I never figured that each simple task I would appoint to him would be answered with his wide, clueless stare. "But Aunt Nerdanel, I don't know how."
Because it had been my idea that he should come along with us, Fëanáro does nothing to help me in the instruction of his brother-son in such tasks. He sits with him for lore lessons; he holds his hand and guides him in forming his letters, just as he did our sons; he explains with his usual meticulous precision about setting gemstones and chiseling designs on jewelry, but when it comes time for chores, his eyes go to me and his eyebrows twitch upward. You wanted him along are his unspoken words.
There is no time for explanation now. Macalaurë and I hasten to finish the washing and hand the clean clothes to the young ones to be hung and dried, and I wonder, in an irksome little voice that I try hard to suppress, why it is considered virtuous for a child of royal blood to grow up inept in all practical matters.
When Fëanáro expects to be away with Nelyo for an afternoon, he cooks supper the night before and leaves it in the coldest corner of the cellar to be reheated the next day.
He does so because Macalaurë—who is easily distracted and more apt to sketch musical passages in a spill of flour than he is to pay attention to what might be boiling on the stove—is a notoriously terrible cook. In my years of traveling, both alone and with Fëanáro, necessity taught me to cook, but Fëanáro refuses to have me do so now, saying that with a husband and two nearly-grown sons, there is no reason why I should have to do their duty for them. So Macalaurë and I haul pots and cauldrons of cooked supper up from the cellar and I place it over the stove to reheat, and within just a few minutes, the enticing aromas of a supper that should have taken hours to prepare are filling the kitchen.
The front door slams, and I hear Fëanáro and Nelyo laughing over something, a joke only the two of them would understand, likely delved from the depths of books into which I and my other sons do not venture. Their heavy footsteps bring them into the kitchen in a swirl of light cloaks, still in their riding boots, their windblown hair in disarray around faces colored by the brisk air. Nelyo beams when he sees me, and I kiss his cool cheeks and smooth his unruly hair. "Really, Fëanáro, Nelyafinwë. Must you wear your boots in the house?"
They cast identical looks over their right shoulders at the trail of dirt they have left across the clean kitchen floor. Fëanáro shrugs. "No mind. Carnistir is cleaning the floors tomorrow anyway as part of his punishment."
I sigh. Carnistir bit his father on the ear last week, hard enough to make him bleed. Still, scrubbing the floors seems a bit much for a child only four years old. Sensing the protests I am about to make, Fëanáro steps close to me and draws me into an embrace. His cheek presses against mine; like Nelyo's, the brisk evening air has cooled his skin, but beneath, I can feel the burning in his flesh that is never quenched nor subsides. He smells of the outdoors, of fresh winds and the infant leaves of spring. His breathe is warm in my ear as he whispers, "Now what kind of greeting is that, Nerdanel, to your husband who loves you more with every beat of his heart, to chide him for the mud he tracked upon the floor in his eagerness to see you?"
I slip my arms beneath his cloak and circle his narrow waist, seeking the feel of his body beneath two frustrating layers of tunics. I prepare a smart-aleck reply to his excuse, but as my lips open to speak, he kisses me and slips his tongue into my mouth.
My feet take a step back and my arms jerk his body harder against mine, appalled at his forthrightness when Nelyo is only a few paces away, peering into a pot of stew and sampling it with his fingers, even as a tingle of pleasure starts in my mouth and travels down the length of my body. He knocks my arms from his waist and steps away, teasing me with the intensity of his stare as he widens the space between us.
"Atar!" Carnistir crashes into the backs of his legs, and the spell between us is broken. The feeling I get in my body when I know that I am desired by him—the feeling that wine flows through my veins instead of blood, that I am a perfect image upon a tapestry and not the imperfect rock of a woman who does not deserve his lust—flops aside to make way for my real body, the awkward one with hips and waist and breasts too soft from bearing and nursing four children, the weary one. Fëanáro twists to lift Carnistir into his arms—still rumpled from his nap, with sleepy pink warmth in his cheeks—before he can claw his way up Fëanáro's cloak. It was Macalaurë whom I'd sent to awaken his littlest brother, and he comes into the room now and surprises me by going right to his father to kiss him hello.
"Greetings, Atar," he says, his voice, even in mere speech, as beautiful as a song. Once, my husband and our second son seemed destined to always miss each other in their attempts to find the relationship that Fëanáro established so easily with Macalaurë's brothers. Like arrows between camps, each time one reached out, it only wounded the other. But at last, it seems, the arrows have collided in midair, hurting neither party and resulting in a truce after thirty-nine years of conflict.
"How do you fare, Macalaurë?" Fëanáro asks, and I stand tense for a moment, wondering if their newfound camaraderie will entail Macalaurë telling his father about his cousin's continued ineptitude. But Macalaurë suffices to say, "I am well," and ducks free of Fëanáro's one-armed embrace to explore a tray of lumpy brown hors d'oeuvres that Nelyo has just removed from the oven. I have no idea what they are, only that Fëanáro left them with instructions to bake them for fifteen minutes. Knowing Fëanáro's tastes, I had been afraid to even sniff at one.
"What about you, little one?" Fëanáro says to Carnistir. "How do you fare on this lovely day?"
Carnistir bares his teeth and prepares to bite Fëanáro on the neck, but Fëanáro quickly says, "What did I say about biting?" and Carnistir pauses with his lips skinned back from his teeth like a rabid dog and his eyes crinkled into a pout.
"But Atar, I love you. I won't make blood come this time, I promise."
"How about a kiss instead? Kisses don't hurt."
Macalaurë pops one of the brown lumps into his mouth, even though it is still so hot that his face pinches with the heat and he has to bounce it between his teeth to keep from burning his mouth. "These are good, Atar? What are they?" he asks around the lump of hot food rolling around in his mouth.
Carnistir pecks Fëanáro on the lips, then bites into one of his braids when he turns to acknowledge Macalaurë. "They're snails," he says, setting Carnistir on the floor to help Nelyo remove them from the baking sheet. "A Telerin delicacy."
Macalaurë retches and spits the half-chewed snail onto the floor. Carnistir scrambles over to it, and before I can say, "Ah no, Carnistir, don't!" pops it into his mouth and chews with a contemplative look on his face.
"Maybe we've found the secret to getting him to eat," Fëanáro says, scraping the snails from the sheet and into a big ceramic bowl. "Maybe we have to half-chew his food for him."
"This is good, Atar," Carnistir tells him earnestly, chomping the snail in his back teeth. "They taste better cooked."
"Have you eaten them raw?" Fëanáro asks casually, without looking at Carnistir.
"Yes, Turko told me he'd give me a gold necklace if I ate one. It was slimy except for the shell. That was crunchy, like eating a bug."
Macalaurë gags so hard that I have to pat him on the back. "Carnistir, please," he moans.
"He never gave me the gold necklace either."
"Well, we'll have to ask him about that, won't we?" With a towel, he lifts the bowl of snails and starts toward the dining room. "Is the table set?" he asks me, to which I can only nod and pat poor Macalaurë harder on the back.
After supper, Fëanáro and the children play handball in the back garden, while I watch them from the lounge chair that Fëanáro built for me after Carnistir was born, so that I could be outside with them without growing weary. My long day is nipping at my heels, bidding me to sleep, but I like too much the image of my husband playing games with our sons and his brother-son in the fading light of evening to slip voluntarily into sleep.
Macalaurë and Nelyo play against Fëanáro, Tyelkormo, and Findekáno. Carnistir, who is too little to understand all of the rules, is allowed to play for both teams as long as he doesn't bite. If he bites, he knows he will have to sit on the lounge with me. Fëanáro and Nelyo are quick and jovial as they play, making deliberate mistakes to give the little ones an advantage. Macalaurë plays only because his brother does, but he is more confident than he was last summer, and when he scores his first point, there is a look of naked shock beneath his smile. Tyelkormo is intense, taking seriously the small nuances of the game and throwing a fit whenever someone strays even slightly outside of the rules. Findekáno is hesitant—reminding me a lot of Macalaurë at his age—but so obviously happy to be running around in the grass with his cousins that my spirit sings with joy for him.
When Nelyo and Macalaurë had still been little—long before Tyelkormo had been conceived—I'd played with them, teaming up with Macalaurë against Fëanáro and Nelyo. It had been after one of these games, early one summer, and after tucking our exhausted sons into their bed, that we'd retired to our own bedroom and peeled the sweat-soaked clothes from each other, laid in our bed beneath the stars, and tasted the salt of the other's body, and I'd pushed Fëanáro deep inside me and vowed never to let him go.
Not knowing that horrors sat on our threshold and watched our love with hungry, jealous eyes; not knowing that I would not touch him in love again until we begot Tyelkormo, nearly two decades later.
Sensing my thoughts, Fëanáro meets my eyes across the garden, taking his eye from the ball so that Tyelkormo can roll it between his feet and score. Don't…. His voice is inside me, in the place where only my deepest hopes and fears live.
I close my eyes.
Telperion has deepened into night. Nelyo is wiping the sweat from his face with a handkerchief and laughing with Macalaurë. Before me stands my little Tyelkormo and my brother-son. "Findekáno and I made up a poem for lessons with Atar. May we speak it for you?" Tyelkormo asks. In the dim light of evening, their eyes might be gray, like the rest of ours.
"Of course, my loves." I lift myself onto my elbow and try to fortify my voice against the lingering traces of sleep still foggy in my throat. They exchange glances and Tyelkormo begins. Fëanáro drifts behind them and sits behind me on the lounge, cradling my head against his chest.
Tyelkormo speaks with a bold voice, doing the dialogue in made-up voices like Nelyo does when reading stories to them. He relishes the attention, bending his voice toward our laughter. Findekáno is a bit more timid, but weeks with his cousin have taught him to at least impersonate boldness. I make sure to laugh just as loudly for his lines as I do for Tyelkormo's.
Fëanáro bathes our children and tucks them into bed after the game, allowing me to retreat again to my workshop.
Telperion's silver light casts Yavanna's face in a delicate frost, the faint light settling only on the deepest curves, bringing my errors harshly to my attention. I open all of the drapes and sit on a workbench across the room from the statue, done now in stark monochromes of silver and shadow, all distractions of green marble and golden light removed. My fingers bury themselves in my hair and tug in frustration: I can see the existence of errors but only in a broad, general sense. My keen perceptions from earlier gone, I cannot isolate the points within the statue's features where I have erred.
In frustration, I blame the lack of light and, standing so abruptly that the workbench is knocked backwards with a strident bark, circle the room and tear the drapes from the window, allowing a bit of extra light to come through each window.
Still, it is not enough.
I close my eyes and ruminate upon the memory of the statue, playing my inner eye over each grain of each feature, but the mistakes will not reveal themselves to me.
I imagine myself throwing a drape over the statue and hiding it from view—perhaps forever—flawed and unfinished.
Hands come to rest on my shoulders. So intent was I upon the image of the drape going over the statue, falling to fill her imperfect curves, blanketing the worst of my shame, that I did not feel Fëanáro approach. My shoulders twitch, but I restrain myself from jumping in alarm or crying out, and his warm hands cup me where my neck meets my shoulders, working at the stiff, sore muscles of my upper back with his thumbs, coaxing from my body tension that I hadn't even realized was there. He works his hands up my neck and into my hair, and I lean into his touch. My eyes have fallen closed again, but even the warm bliss of his hands cannot distract me from the image impressed behind them.
"I wish that you would sleep in bed with me and not sitting on your workbench," he says in my ear.
"You know that's not it, Fëanáro."
Of course he knows. I can feel his thoughts beside mine in a swirl of heat. He sees the flawed statue just as I do. Only he perceives the error that I cannot. Gently, I prod into his mind, wishing to find even a shred of a clue, but he is preoccupied with the touch of my skin beneath his hands and distracted by trying to push my tunic from my shoulders to massage the bare flesh beneath. His hands flit to my chest and loosen the laces on my tunic. Cloth slips from my shoulders, but I stop it from falling beneath my breasts, and I feel his hands hesitate before cupping my shoulders and resuming their blissful work on my tired muscles. I know where he wants such pleasing touches to lead, but I am wearied by the shame of having my imperfect sculpture revealed before his critical eyes, as I might be to have my naked body scrutinized while in disgusting disarray.
This, also, he perceives. He kisses my hair and arranges my tunic back over my shoulders, although the front still hangs open. I half-turn to contemplate him—wondering why he has so quickly abandoned his desire—but he sits beside me and covers my eyes with his hand. His lips he places against mine but it is less a kiss than simple and pure contact, flesh against flesh
Go back. I hear his words less than I sense them in the feeling of his breath against my mouth and the movement of his lips—and the gentle meandering of his thoughts into mine.
I feel my eyebrows scrape against his palm as they are raised in confusion. "Go b—" I begin, but in that moment—as he deepens the contact between our lips into a kiss—the memory flies into my brain and shatters the image of the imperfect statue before me.
I hear Macalaurë's voice, but here in the place of memory, I need not acknowledge him, and my sight focuses upon a sliver of cheek that is too rounded, imperfect. My fingers caress it in memory, marking the places where the chisel will gently slice away stone, where I will sand it to blend with the rest of the statue. I lay the length of my finger over the imperfection; without it, the statue is perfect.
I gasp, knock Fëanáro's hands from my eyes, and fly from the workbench. In my mind now is Yavanna's perfect peace as I remember it from childhood, when she would stand in Aulë's workshop to survey Fëanáro's work and mine. "You have taught them well," she'd said to Aulë, her face calm and resigned to the fact that we'd torn the earth in order to acquire the stones with which we sculpted. I'd asked her once how she could bear the differences between her and Aulë, and she'd told me that love made any odds surmountable, all the while wearing the perfect look of peace that I approached now with steady, excited nips of my chisel as Telperion deepened into night.
I stand back to admire the changes and turn to ask Fëanáro, but he is gone. I am aware of a tugging ache in my shoulder, as though they have bricks tied to them, and I turn to the windows, from which I'd torn the drapes, and see the silvery trees being gilded by the first blushes of morning. I brush the dust from my tunic and trousers and discover also that I'd never tightened the laces that Fëanáro had opened hours earlier. My skin is cold beneath; only my hands, which have been busy at task for the last several hours, retain any warmth. With weariness rolling like a leaden ball around my head, I leave the workshop and climb the stairs to the second floor to make the very long trek down the hallway to our bedroom suite.
Fëanáro sits in the rocker in the front room, holding Carnistir in his arms. Neither stirs as I softly close the door behind me. In this rocker, he used to hold Carnistir as a newborn, feeding him from a bottle and rocking him to sleep many times throughout the day and night; often, I would find them as such then, sleeping deeply even as Fëanáro's feet still pushed against the floor to keep the chair rocking. The Carnistir of now is much bigger and sleeps with one of Fëanáro's braids tucked between his lips, but Fëanáro cradles him like he might've an infant, and his feet still push against the floor.
Carnistir sleeps willingly with neither his brothers nor with me, claiming that our presence disrupts his dreams, but with Fëanáro he raises no protest. Our youngest son is bizarre, and I feel a tickle of guilt that it is my doing, for I'd refused to nurse him after the tiny teeth with which he'd been born had drawn drops of blood from the tender skin of my breast. The healer had remarked that it is rare but not unknown for babies to be born with teeth and had assured me that both parents can feed a child from a bottle just as successfully as a mother can nurse him at her own bosom.
Still, there are times when, upon awaking him, he screams and recoils from me. "You left us! You left! Don't come back!" he screamed once, and I ran from the room in tears, for how could he remember my absence during that first year after his birth when none of his brothers had their own memories of that age?
My littlest one mumbles now in his sleep, and his father's braid falls from his mouth. Fëanáro twitches and awakens. He sees me leaning against the closed door and smiles. My love…. He stands and, without shifting Carnistir, carries him to his cot, lays him down, and draws the blanket over his small, sleeping body. He comes to me next, and I sag into his arms, and as though he knows my weariness as heavily in his bones as it is in mine, he lifts me and carries me into our bedroom.
Our bed is raised on a dais and encased in one-way glass so that we lie always beneath the stars, as did our ancestors upon their awakening. He carries me up the three steps and lies me atop the blankets and, with much-practiced hands, undresses me before standing to undress himself. The early morning light twines his raven hair with silver and gold; like the statue, the hollows of his body are pooled with shadow; the planes of his alabaster skin are gilded with the faint gold of morning. I expect him to lie atop me and coax me with kisses into making love—and I would submit now to him, to feel my weariness washed away by waves of pleasure—but he pulls back the blankets instead and lies beside me, taking me into his arms and kissing my lips gently before guiding my head to his chest.
I push my face against the silken warmth of his skin with my ear over his heart, listening to his heartbeat, a sound eternal until the world's ending. I think sometimes of pendulums, drawn back to swing in cycles that will last for days, years, ages. But with each swing, a bit of height is shaved from the cycle—less than the width of a hair split a million times—but those shavings accumulate like snowflakes upon the ground until the pendulum stops. Not our heartbeats, I think. These are eternal, destined to continue until the ending of the world. How? I think, as I drift off to sleep with Fëanáro's hands warm against my back. What makes us so different from the pendulum?
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