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Another Man's Cage: 42. Chapter Forty-Two--Carnistir
My mind is yanked from the depths of sleep, and I awaken in Atar’s arms. I have been conscious, all night, of sleeping with Atar for he is like no other: Lying beside anyone else, their thoughts leak into mine; their emotions color my dreams unnaturally, but Atar does not. Indeed, I do not even dream in Atar’s arms; I cannot. My dreams are lost and distant, the way a star that is bright in the sky will disappear in Ezellohar, beneath the Light of the Trees.
We are in his study, sleeping in the rocker in which I imagine he rocked each of my brothers in turn before me, when they interrupted his work with their troubles. Do I have troubles? I do not completely remember how I ended up here. I remember slipping from bed and creeping down the stairs on soundless feet for a glass of water, crouching at the bottom to watch Nelyo pass—unseen—crimson hair against a sepulchral face, clutching the banister for balance, smelling of the stuff that Atar uses to clean our wounds that burns and that he drinks while in reverie. And when I looked up again, I was looking up at Atar, sitting behind his desk with his quill pressed to the parchment and leaving a big blot of ink, his eyes empty as the sky. I mewed and he looked up and walked around the desk to lift me into his arms as though he’d been waiting all night for me to arrive to do just that.
And then … now. Here I am, with his cheek pressing against my hair and my head resting against his chest, his arms wrapped around me just tightly enough to keep me from toppling onto the floor. He has removed his boots, and the thick socks that he wears to the forge are dingy with sweat there is a hole in the toe of the left one. I can see his hands where he holds me in place, and there is a dark scratch of ink on his thumb. He doesn’t move or twitch but I know that he’s alive by the delicate whisper of his breath in my hair.
And the light: white light, so bright that I cannot look upon it for long and it seems to rend the very air, revealing that which existed before the beginning of the world, as though this room, this world, this life is naught but a thin fabric stretched over the secret Fire about which Eru whispered to the Valar. To be surrounded in such light for too long is to go mad, to lose one’s sense of direction, unable to tell up from down or left from right, senselessly turning in every direction at once and reaching for what cannot possibly be there. But it is. I shake my head and hear myself whimper, but Atar doesn’t stir, and I shift—trying not to awaken him—until I can slip out of his arms and to the floor.
His arms remain clasped in a circle, as though I am still there, and his head lolls and his hair falls upon his wrists. But I do not stay long to ponder. I scamper from the room and into the corridor that is pale with early-morning light.
My feet slide on the slippery hardwood floors that Atar and Amil polished to a bright sheen yesterday, working from one end of the hallway to meet in the middle, pressed back-to-back and shooting furtive, angry whispers from the corners of their mouths at each other. They did not see me as I crouched in the doorway to Atar’s study, watching them and listening to their words: all of their words. Atar spoke of my begetting day—which is next week—and said something of Nolofinwë and not needing Nolofinwë’s blessing upon the begetting of his son, and beneath it, a thought had crackled; if words written on a parchment crumpled in a fist could speak, they would sound like that, and I sensed a thought of Nelyo, who remained in Tirion with our uncle and grandfather, connections made with the same senseless fury as lightning joining the sky to the ground.
It seems that Uncle Arafinwë, Aunt Eärwen, and the King and Queen of the Teleri will be coming to a supper tonight in my honor. The road between our house and Tirion rang with hoofbeats yesterday, Atar scribbling notes to Uncle Nolofinwë while standing in the forge and shoving them back into the hands of the tired messenger who refused to meet his eyes. There was a feast scheduled next week in Tirion, for my begetting day, but there was strife between Atar and Nolofinwë, and sparks riddled the white light that is my father’s spirit, painful to behold, and I looked away.
Sparks … jealousy? Images flickered like pages riffled by one’s thumb, becoming blurred: a golden woman; two bright, interlocked rings; a brown-haired boy on a robe-clad knee; a sketch of a pale-faced, raven-haired woman with her eyes closed in charcoal smudges, never to open … Atar’s voice to my mother later, though, cracked the air like a whip: “cannot bear him,” words sketched over an image of Nelyo.
I wonder if there will be a feast next week; if I will see Grandfather Finwë and my cousin Findekáno. The road between our house and Tirion is silent.
There is much to do in preparation for the arrival of my aunt, uncle, and the Telerin royalty, and I do not have long to wander the hallways—pressing my hands to doors and tasting the dreams of the ones sleeping within—before I hear footsteps in the hallway. Atar. I am standing in the kitchen, and I scramble beneath the wooden table and crouch there, watching Atar’s feet enter through the doorway—clad again in his boots, although they are untied and he keeps treading on the laces and cursing—and hear them walk to the sink where the pump squeaks, and I know that he is putting on a kettle of tea.
Softer footsteps, almost shuffling, enter a few seconds later. I press my cheek to the floor to watch them. It is cold and dusty; Macalaurë was last appointed to dust the floors, and it is like him to neglect the spaces under the furniture. I suppress a sneeze.
Amil’s feet in tattered slippers join Atar’s in boots at the sink; one slips between his, pressing toes to arch. “You did not come to bed last night.” Her voice is soft, regretful. He traps her foot between his and there is a long silence during which I close my eyes and watch them with my other eyes. Amil’s delicate purple threads weave into the white light that is Atar; he should overpower her, but he seems almost to dim instead, as soft as Telperion, and I feel my body sag as though relaxing towards sleep.
“I had all intentions,” he says at last.
The ankle of her free foot wraps his. “I wanted you.”
“As I wanted you. But our little one had other ideas.” His whisper barely reaches my ears but trickles into my mind instead, loud and cold like water, and I shake my head at the surprise of it. “It is early. Macalaurë sleeps late and Nelyo was late getting in last night—”
“But you neglect to remember your Tyelkormo, who insisted that he could comb his own hair and dress himself for breakfast.” Her foot tugs from between his, and she walks away, but their colors are separating only with reluctance, and I imagine their arms stretched between them, fingertips pressed together until the last possible moment. “And Carnistir is still afoot,” she adds.
The kettle whistles, and they come to the table, sitting side by side on one of the benches. I smell the strong aroma of the bitter tea that Atar likes to drink in the mornings. “It is like a spark on a fuse,” he is fond of saying, laughing. “The leap that propels me into the day.”
Their feet—slippers and boots—come beneath the table. Amil’s foot is only inches from my face; I could bite her toe through the worn slipper and watch the splash of surprised colors at her reaction. But I do not. I listen with one ear pressed to the floor and the other opened to the air—thought and sound—and I sense the movement of words between them, but it travels deeper than that which I can detect, although I feel my whole body tense with the effort, and my legs—stretched behind me—curl to my chest, my clothing making a faint rustle against the floor.
A moment later, Atar’s face peers beneath the table. “Little one!”
I open my eyes wide in feigned innocence and pop my thumb into my mouth: Of course I was not thinking of biting my mother’s toe. It works—he longs to believe the best of us, his sons—and he reaches beneath the table and carefully extricates me and sits me on his lap. Amil laughs and picks clumps of dust from my hair. Now I feel the thought quite clearly, zipping between them: It is well that I resisted you after all.
Atar kisses the crown of my head and ruffles my hair with his laughter, even as he circles Amil’s shoulders with his arm.
It is not long before Turko is leaping onto the bench beside us, clasping Atar around the neck with his arms and asking, “Can you guess from which step I jumped today?” and Atar guesses—voice tentative with hope: “The … third?”
“No! The fifth! And I landed on my feet!” and Amil gasps and pinches her eyes shut. “Tyelkormo, no! You will break a leg.”
Macalaurë is next, yawning and scratching in his uncombed hair. His eyes are puffy and narrowed grumpily as he pours himself a glass of juice without so much as a greeting. There is music in the air about him like a swarm of gnats, and he cannot bat them away. Nelyo arrives no more than a half-minute after him. He looks composed—his clothes are tidy, his hair neatly plaited—but there is an expectant pause when he arrives, as though we are waiting for him to crack in half and planning how we shall repair him.
Macalaurë passes the half-finished juice to him without a word.
“Well,” says Atar, his voice exploding in the silence, making Macalaurë wince and the music swirl faster, “if we all work together, we need not prolong these ordeals of breakfast and tidying the house.” In the next moment, my feet are on the floor, and I am so surprised that my legs collapse beneath me and spill me onto my backside, but Atar is already striding to the stove, empty teacup in hand, and Nelyo must set his juice aside to come and lift me back to my feet, planting a kiss upon my wobbling lip.
"I do not understand why the house must be impeccable for guests who only announced their arrival at the last moment.”
Macalaurë is grumpy and distressed today. It is much later—Laurelin is bright in the windows—and we four brothers have been sent to the kitchen to prepare the ingredients that Atar will need to cook supper. A cart driven by a silver-haired Elf arrived this morning shortly after breakfast, and Atar proudly set the crate of fish upon the table. Macalaurë and Nelyo are cleaning them now, and the kitchen reeks of the garbagey odor of fish.
“And family, nonetheless.”
“King Olwë and Queen Birildis are not family,” Nelyo says, and Macalaurë rolls his eyes.
Nelyo and Macalaurë had been charged with cleaning the fish; Turko and I are supposed to be shredding lettuce for salads. King Olwë has a preference for iceberg lettuce, and Turko and I have found that the outer leaves fit perfectly on our heads like green caps. Turko punches holes in another leaf and puts it over his face like a mask, moaning like a wraith and pressing his cold, green-fleshed “face” to mine.
Nelyo should be minding us and chastising us for playing with the food and neglecting our work, but he is knuckle-deep into a filet of fish, brow rumpled, extracting tiny bones that he leaves in a little pile. Macalaurë is also rooting around for bones, but he is yanking them out and slapping the de-boned filets into a precarious pile twice the size of Nelyo’s. “Why do we have to have fish?” he gripes, his opportunity to complain about the familial nature of our guests and the subsequent excessive cleaning thwarted by Nelyo. “Picking out these tiny bones is ridiculous.”
“Seventy-five percent of our guests are Telerin … would you suggest serving venison steak?”
“Then Atar should hire servants like a normal person.”
Nelyo ignores him and plucks the topmost filet from Macalaurë’s impressive pile, pokes into it, and immediately comes out with a fingerful of threadlike bones. “I would be more careful with these filets,” he says, giving Macalaurë a stern look and poking the bones in front of his face. “You’re going to choke someone.”
“Hmph,” says Macalaurë, but he goes back to his “finished” piles and scours more carefully.
Turko has punched a mouth-hole in his lettuce mask, and he pokes his tongue through it and licks me, so I slap his ear and make him yowl. This makes Nelyo look up, at last, his face wearied. “Tyelkormo … Carnistir …”
“Why do you always say my name first? Why is it never ‘Carnistir … Tyelkormo …’?” Turko’s impersonation of Nelyo’s sweet-patient voice is skilled enough to be insulting, and Nelyo quickly retorts, “Because you are the oldest and should therefore know better.”
I try to view my brothers through my outside eyes only, but that is becoming harder as I get older. I must wrest the inner eyes shut, like pressing shut a lid rigged with heavy springs, and simultaneously widen my outer eyes. It is a good thing that Turko and I have already been acting silly because, otherwise, I might look odd. As it is, he sucks in his cheeks and makes fish-lips against my cheek, trying to provoke me to slap him again. But I will not succumb. I stare intently at Nelyo and Macalaurë instead: one of them noble and patient and the other childish in his impertinence. Or are they? Macalaurë’s face is set into a frown; he received a letter yesterday from the girl he fancies saying that she would be returning to Alqualondë before his punishment expires. (This I know because I sneaked into his room and read it under his bed while he was weeping into and punching his pillows.) He rips the bones from the fish as though they are guilty of provoking his pain. I wish to cringe at the sight of him because his temper needles me in a way that is most atypical of Macalaurë.
Nelyo sits with shoulders rigid and scarlet hair secured neatly back from his face so that it doesn’t drop into the food; his face is placid and wiped smooth of concern, but when he looks up, his eyes are shadowed and bleary. He blinks several times at the piece of lettuce on my head before smiling with what might be patience or might be weariness (with my inner eyes closed, I cannot know) and reaching across the table at me, while I watch with eyes stretched open wide—expecting him to pluck away my “cap”—and instead pats my head and goes back to delving his fish filets.
It is beginning to hurt watching him like this; my eyes are becoming dry from not blinking, the muscles of my forehead tense and sore. He is a master of facades; I could almost be convinced but my strength fails then and my inner eyes pop open, and his color washes me: silver streaked with blood-red pain, and I find my lips tremulous and no longer under my control. I can smell it—his pain—like hot copper, and my throat closes in disgust, and it hurts me. A sob escapes past my lips, and Nelyo lets his head drop into his hand in frustration, ignorant of the fact that he has smeared his brow with fish parts.
Turko’s mask drops from his face and he is pondering me with wide, guilty eyes. He smothers me in a hasty embrace, whispering in my ear, “Don’t cry, Carnistir. I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have put fish-lips on you or licked your face, just don’t cry and make Nelyo more sad.”
That quickly, the tears are gone from my eyes, washed away in the cool relief of green, and from the safety of my brother’s arms, I again ponder Nelyo with all eyes wide open. He is smiling sadly at us, and I know that he has heard Turko’s apology and that he is surprised—yet not dismayed—that we have perceived his pain, even through the peaceful mask he wears. And Macalaurë is wiping the fish parts from Nelyo’s forehead with a tea towel and griping about how clumsy and senseless he can be, but his annoyance is clearly contrived, and his hands are gentle on Nelyo’s face.
There is peace between the four of us now, and Turko and I even set to our appointed work on the salads, although we leave our green caps on our head. Macalaurë stops complaining so much. It is difficult, I understand, to muster complaints in the face of someone far less fortunate than you.
In the new peace, I can detect all of their thoughts, although they remain only vague scratchings, a clear word here or there. Macalaurë is counting days; his mind is a string of numbers repeated over and over again, hoping for a different result: days left of his punishment, days left until his girl’s leaving, and the space between. He sighs. Turko’s thoughts are a target and an easy shot that he should not have missed. He replays his failure over and over. And Nelyo is reciting bits of lore, which should not surprise me, as he is apt to spend his idle hours in such pursuits, and he does have recitations coming up in two-month's time. Only I am not fooled into believing that he is studying and not simply distracting himself, for his repetition is feeble, and the facts he recites are simple lists that I am beginning to learn now. I pry deeper, trying to find the thought that underlies the string of names—the Unbegotten Elves—that makes him wish for distraction, but he looks up sharply, and I withdraw before he senses me.
Still, his eyes happen upon mine, our fingers moving in a place beyond our perception, shredding lettuce and prodding for bones. I blink, not liking the intensity of his stare, and a voice as subtle as a shiver ripples through my mind: Little one?
Lettuce falls from fingers suddenly numb, and I cannot break his gaze even if I wished. Never before has anyone “spoken” directly to me like that, in acknowledgment of my prying into his thoughts.
I test it with the same wincing curiosity as I imagine I might have once spoken my first word, uncertain of the results: Nelyo? I do not remember my first word because I spoke long before I discovered that only by giving voice to one’s words, others listened and responded. Only Grandfather Finwë was different: I remember him looking my way and smiling, then wrapping me with his cloak while Atar said, puzzled, “It is sweltering!” and Grandfather Finwë replied, “Nonetheless, he is cold.”
Nelyo smiles at me, and I feel the connection between us renewed, humming in the same way that a wire will transmit vibrations even at the slightest touch—so the lightest thought enlivens that which is between us. I imagine lips parting to speak, a breath drawn, giving life to the words waiting on the tongue, but Atar pushes into the kitchen then to check our progress—grimacing and poking into Macalaurë’s filets to see that the bones are all removed—and Nelyo’s attention is snapped elsewhere and the frail connection between us is severed.
I wonder at what has occurred between us: only three words, but my heart is pounding with an excitement I rarely feel and I am enveloped in a feeling that looks like the sparklers that Olórin gives us at the Winter Festival, when we write our names against the velvet-dark shadows, the feeling that crackles around Atar when the pieces of his research come together into a solution. I have wondered at these “gifts” of mine, testing them as of late and wondering to what extent—if any—others experience the same. Could they also pry open my secret thoughts with the ease of opening a jewel box, revealing that which lies glittering within? Jealously, I guard my thoughts, wrapping them in darkness, just in case. Lately, I have discovered a perverse joy in concentrating as hard as I can in Turko’s direction and willing him to do something innocuous, to see if he responds: Put your hair behind your ear! His fingers slipped his hair behind his ear, and he did not look up from his lessonbook.
I like to listen also to thoughts beneath speech, at the supper table, for instance, where Atar often chucks me under the chin, grinning, and saying, “Why so quiet, little one? You are worrying me to Lórien!” It amuses me, what people will reveal in thought that they will not put into words, like the time that Atar gave Amil highest praises on the new grain blend she was using for our breakfast bread—making her blush at the lavishness of his praise—while secretly planning to eat the bread first and in as large of bites as possible to get it swallowed before his throat thought to be offended by its dryness and gag it back up. Or the way that Macalaurë will compose song lyrics while Atar is instructing him or how often Turko thinks of the endless forests outside our doors while his eyes are unerringly intent upon his books.
But then, there are the thoughts that I cannot bear to hear, and I turn away and imagine hands over my ears, shutting them out: Amil looking at Atar, his face livid with temper, and wondering, Can I bear him until the ending of the world? Yet, just as hands cannot bar the sounds of shouts and screams, so I cannot always help but to hear the secret thoughts in people’s heads, once I am listening for them.
When did this start? Although I have only recently taken to honing my skill, it has always been there, and it was long before I realized that I was odd in it. Atar once asked me, when I was first learning to write, to recount my first memory. He'd tucked the quill into my hand and smiled at me to begin, and I scratched away about a weightless world full of gentle, violet light, and a bright hand reaching for me, palm pressing the space before me, and I’d stretched with arms weighed as though mired in mud to press my own hand against it (although I have no memory of the hand, only of wanting to touch the light), yet I could never quite reach, and eventually the light had gone away, the handprint fading in the rushing blood that never left my ears. But I knew that the hand wanted to touch me as much as I wanted to touch it, and it had also been disappointed.
Atar puzzled over those words and even took them to Amil to be discussed behind closed doors. “He has invented it.” Amil’s voice was reassuring, and my memory again returned to that gentle, violet light. “Either that or recounted a dream. You know where his dreams take him.”
Atar was not convinced, and Amil knew it, yet they spoke of it no more.
Feeling brave, I reach out for Atar’s mind, wincing at the light, and try to speak into his thoughts, but he is busy showing Macalaurë the proper way to filet a fish, and he does not hear me.
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