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Another Man's Cage: 43. Chapter Forty-Three--Carnistir
The guests arrive an hour before the Mingling of the Lights, and by this time, the meal is cooking and the stink of fish has been washed from our hands. We have been stuffed into our best robes, and Atar has braided my hair as I sat in his lap on his bed, listening to him chatter to Amil, trying to hear their thoughts beneath their words but suddenly too weary and dropping to sleep to the soothing feel of his fingers twining through my hair.
The next that I know, I am on Nelyo’s hip in the vestibule with a strand of his hair that I hope tastes like cinnamon (again, I am disappointed: it tastes like hair) tucked between my lips. I am dreaming, and I am much older and love a woman, only she had ridden away and will not come back. No matter how I search—beneath fallen horses and scraps of metal with the stink of smoke clinging in my hair—she does not come back to me, and on the brink of tears, I awaken.
Nelyo is speaking to Uncle Arafinwë. Their carriage must have arrived while I slept, and as soon as I jerk from sleep, Arafinwë turns in my direction and says, “Look who has decided to join us!”
I decide that this should offend me and that I should cry, so I do, but Nelyo doesn’t seem very convinced and gives me two half-hearted bounces before resuming his discussion with Arafinwë about the variety of uses of spinach in cooking.
I wriggle, wanting to be put down so that I may scurry about the legs of the Telerin king and sample his thoughts to see how different they are from others—not to mention touch the shimmering robes and see if they feel like water, as they appear to be—and Nelyo obliges by letting me slip to the ground. My flight across the room to where Olwë speaks with my father, though, is cut short by a collision with Aunt Eärwen’s knees, and I am hoisted once more into the air.
“Oh, precious little one!” she exclaims, her laughter as bright as bells pealing through the still air of morning, holding me beneath my arms and spinning me around, her unbound hair fanning silver behind her. I can feel her belly against my legs, and her silver color is mixed with something else, subtly, at its center: something golden and yet not as bright as Uncle Arafinwë but softened, soothed, the way the mingled Light of the Trees has the tendency to make me forget that I ever found Laurelin’s light alone beautiful. I reach to touch her belly, to touch the source of the light, and the memory is upon me again of the bright hand that I could never reach, and I wonder how he—her child—sees my hand. What is my color? Just as without a mirror, one does not know the look of his face except by the warped reflection grudgingly given by a pool of water, I cannot judge my own color. I shall ask him when he is born, I decide, how he perceives me.
As though in assent, something flutters beneath my hand, and Aunt Eärwen laughs again and holds me closer, more like my mother than my aunt, if I am to judge Aunt Anairë as the example by which all aunts ever after shall be judged. “To think that in a matter of a few months, I shall have one just like you of my own!” she whispers to me, but Arafinwë overhears her and teases, “Not just like him, dear, but a good deal smaller. Or I should hope, else you are likely to be split in twain.”
“You know what I mean, Arafinwë,” she quips back, and they kiss as though I have ceased to exist, and there it is again: that little flutter, like a butterfly loosed beneath my hand. Arafinwë caresses her cheek, and I am tempted to bite his knuckle but—having bitten Atar’s knuckles before—I know how quickly a jerk of surprise can catch my lip against my teeth, drawing blood, and so I resist.
I never make my way to the Telerin king because I am passed into a new pair of arms, arms strong around my body and hard with muscle; I take a deep breath and smell something like ozone, lightning: Atar.
Aunt Eärwen is linking her fingers through the fingers of my father’s free hand and tugging him in her direction, trying to press his hand to her belly to feel his brother-son kick. He is laughing in my ear even as I watch the muscles in his forearm tense and resist. Aunt Eärwen is allowed liberties with Atar that other people are not by virtue of the fact that they have known each other for the wholes of their lives. Still, there is a limit, and I sense his unease at the intimacy, laughing to cover it even as he lets her win: “Come now, Fëanáro, it is not as though you do not have experience in such matters. And you should know your brother-son, for he will rightfully adore you.” Her tiny fingers are threaded with his much larger ones; he is trapped now. I reach for their linked hands and wrap my fist around his thumb and try to pull him free. “Well, it seems you have an obligation to your little one,” she says, laughing and releasing him.
We slowly make our way to the dining room. Amil is entertaining the Telerin king and queen. Atar braided her hair for her, extra-tight at her bequest, and she looks remarkably neat and collected except for the tiny threads of hair at her temples that curl on their own accord, no matter how she or Atar might try to intimidate them into behavior. Still, there is splotchy color in her cheeks at the top of her bosom, and there is a bit of sheen to her forehead. She is nervous, unaccustomed—unlike Atar—to entertaining such illustrious company, and I feel him watching her sidelong, not wishing to embarrass her or attract attention to her unease, even as his elbow is caught by my Aunt Eärwen.
It is Amil who will have to entertain our guests while Atar and Nelyo prepare to serve the meals. I am whisked into the kitchen on Atar’s hip, and the door has barely swung shut behind him and he is loosening the collar of the high-necked tunic that he wears beneath his robes. “This embroidery is atrocious,” he says to an amused Nelyo, scratching at his reddened, irritated neck. “Well, do not scratch it,” says Nelyo over his shoulder, already going to stir the gravy and pour it into the ceramic dish that is shaped like a miniature swan ship with perfect, intricate detail. “You will only make it worse.” Nelyo wears the same style of dress as Atar, but he does not tug at his even though it must itch at least as much. Macalaurë insists that Noldorin robes are only permitted to be called Noldorin if they are adequately constraining or itchy.
Atar stands me on the rough wooden bench at the table at the center of the room. He kneels in front of me so that I am taller than him. I put my hand atop his head: warm hair and cool, silver circlet. “Carnistir,” he says, attempting to look serious but with a smile teasing his lips, as he catches my hand and kisses my fingers. “Can I trust you to behave and not play with your meal? No spilling your wine or splashing your gravy? No tearing your roll into tiny bits and scattering the crumbs upon yourself?” He pinches my chin, and I bite his fingers, and he lets me. “I would not like to present you to the King and Queen in your brother’s old, stained tunics, but neither do I wish to ruin your best robes.” His fingers taste like soap, so I bite harder and taste Atar. “So can I trust you? You are nearly five years old, love.”
Yes, and this supper is in my honor—although I like none of the dishes that Atar has prepared with the exception of the crusty rolls that are fond of disintegrating into crumbs and therefore easily swept to the floor—and so a reminder of this landmark age: fives years, an age where most young Elves are expected to have refined, proper manners and not have to wear their brothers’ old, stained tunics to supper.
So I nod, and Atar extracts his fingers now damp with spittle, clasps my head in his hands, and kisses my forehead. “That’s my precious little one. I knew that you would not be a disappointment.”
Amil looks mildly interested when I emerge from the kitchen in my good robes, but she doesn’t dare question Atar in front of the King and Queen, even to lift an eyebrow in surprise. I will be fed by Atar, even though he fed me also last night, because I am less likely to fuss under his scrutiny than with my mother, who is easily flustered and distracted. Nelyo will sit across from me, and Uncle Arafinwë is beside him, looking at me with bright blue eyes over the top of his wineglass. “The guest of honor,” he says, bowing to me as he might to one much older and respectable. Amil laughs and Uncle Arafinwë’s eyes are sparkling with mirth, but I cannot laugh.
Uncle Arafinwë unsettles me.
His eyes are too intense, and I sense my thoughts being stolen before I have even realized them myself, without my knowing it, the way a strong, sudden breeze might whip a parchment across the room before a hand can be put down to stop it. I look away and shut my mind, imagining a walnut shell shut tightly against prying fingers. (I like to think of minds as walnuts because Nelyo’s books on anatomy show the mind to look silly and wrinkled, like a walnut. To think that my thoughts come out of a walnut!) I let the shell peek open a crack: Stop! I hiss. Uncle Arafinwë looks away and prattles in his quick, musical voice to my aunt.
The Telerin King and Queen are exclaiming over the platter of fish that Atar is setting on the table. The platter is also shaped like a fish, its green scales glazed as bright as emeralds. I wonder how the King and Queen can eat fish while looking at the likeness of what it once was; even if I could make it past the odor of garbage, I think that being reminded that my meal was a wriggling creature beneath the waves, whisked to the surface to die in pain for my sustenance, would steal my appetite.
Still, Atar puts a piece of fish on my plate—a small piece, but fish nonetheless. Turko is at the other end of the table, and so I cannot slide it onto his plate when no one is looking. Nelyo—with his shoulders stiff, picking over the carefully arranged silverware—does not look like he would tolerate it. I sigh. I would sooner eat venison or pheasant or turkey or anything but this.
The Teleri do not eat their meals organized into courses like we do, and so everything is served at once, and the Telerin King puts a bite of lettuce into his mouth before he is fully finished chewing the fish. I grimace. Atar sets a bowl of salad in front of me—granted, it is smaller than everyone else’s, but it is still salad—and I prod the tomatoes lurking blood-bright and wet among the greens. There is vinegar on it, and vinegar makes me drool in a way that is not pleasant and has a tendency to dribble past my lips and make trouble with Atar and Amil. I take my fork and poke around. There are walnuts in there! I can’t eat walnuts; what if they have thoughts like mine and start screaming at me when I close my teeth?
I look at Atar to see if he might excuse me from the walnuts at least, but he is crunching one between his teeth, so I guessing he won’t have much sympathy for my situation. I listen for screaming but it’s hard to hear anything. The volume of the room rises as the level of the wine decanters drops. Soon, it is impossible to detect individual voices, and when Nelyo throws his head back to laugh at something Uncle Arafinwë has said—leaning, elbows on the table, close to his ear—it is King Olwë’s voice that I hear coming out of his mouth, then Amil’s answering him, then Turko begging Atar for more wine. Beneath that are thoughts; I listen for them: The fish is actually quite good … I could steal Carnistir’s wine … I hope no one requests to hear the harp tonight because I have a blister from that forsaken sword …
I hear everyone’s voice but Arafinwë’s, even Atar’s, wondering why we are well into supper and I have only nibbled two bites of salad. Should I draw attention to him? he wonders, pondering my hypothetical punishment. I send a thought back—No—and he seems convinced because he takes another helping of fish and says nothing.
But Arafinwë can hear me; I become suddenly aware of that. He knows that I am listening around the table like a spying, naughty kid putting a water glass against doors and hearing the secret conversations within. He is plucking my thoughts from the air like raisins from a bowl, and I cannot stop him; even when I shut my mind, he hears me.
Yet I do not hear him.
I look at him and expect him to smile, but his face is grave, and in that moment, he more resembles Nolofinwë than Arafinwë, and I scream.
Above the din of conversation, no one notices but Atar and Nelyo. Nelyo gives me a concerned look and Atar prods my knee hard beneath the table. “Little one! For Manwë’s sake, behave!”
I watch the resentful thoughts toward my father unravel like a spool of dark thread and watch Arafinwë draw a slow breath, the threads slipping into his nostrils and his being, as though he thought them and not me. He smiles at me in understanding, and when Atar rises to bring a new bottle of wine and no one is looking, he slips my piece of fish from my plate to his.
There is music after supper of course—no mercy for the blister on Macalaurë’s thumb—the light kind that people dance and drink to. (There is no dancing but extra drinking, perhaps to make up for it.) We are in the parlor with Atar’s best trinkets all around, aglow in the light of Telperion—brightening toward His zenith—scrambling it around, and casting it forth in pale, many-hued halos. There is a small blue bauble on the table near my hand, and I hold it for the way it fills my hands with light. I am curled in Nelyo’s lap, allowing myself to look sleepy if only to go unbothered, pressing into his chest and trying to detect the warmth of his body beneath the stiff, heavy robes.
His arms wrap me and hold me close. He sighs, and I look up into his face, and he smiles down at me, almost conspiring, as though we share some secret, some kinship besides the blood pounding through our veins. But, of course, we do: We are the two least understood people in the room perhaps. Macalaurë is understood in his song, and Turko never hesitates to make his opinion plain in his braying voice, but Nelyo is thought of as collected and happy while I am regarded as impish and devious: Yet we are none of those things. I imagine us, two pariahs, striking out across Valinor, leaving our brothers behind and Amil and, yes, even Atar.
But my heart won’t let me dwell on that too long before it begins to miss Atar (and he is only just across the room from me, speaking with the Telerin King) and pounds in a way that it seems like it is trying to wriggle into my throat and make it hurt like crying. Nelyo—his arms tight around me—must feel it, for he holds me closer to his own relatively steady heart and whispers in my hair, words that I do not understand but an emotion that I feel like cold water, comforting me and sending my limbs into a flurry of tingles. It is like water wrung from a stone, though, and takes great effort on his part, and so I choke back the whimper that wants to tumble into the air and take deep breaths until I feel my body relax and his arms relax in turn.
His color, silver like Telperion, is all around me, marred by threads of crimson, yes, but mostly silver, like the Nelyo I met (and loved) on the day that I was born. How like Telperion he is: We all revere the Mingled Lights and many worship Laurelin also, but in Telperion’s hours, we hide in our houses and close our drapes against the light to sleep. In the hours of the day, no one wants to remember Telperion except when we need comfort and reprieve from Laurelin’s heat. Across the room, Atar gestures with his wine glass and speaks to the Telerin King of gemcraft, and Nelyo watches him, and I know—although my exhausted mind cannot perceive his thoughts—that he sets himself beside Atar and comes up lacking; Telperion forgotten in Laurelin’s splendor.
Perhaps he perceives also that I would rather be in Atar’s arms than his, although I am enduring him and hope that he does not know this.
Turko is sitting on Nelyo’s feet with his head against his knees, and I know that Nelyo’s feet must be numb, but he doesn’t move or complain. Turko’s braids are loosening because he’s been tugging at them, and he is hiding yawns behind his hand, knowing that if Amil catches sight of one, then she will send us both to bed. Telperion is brightening, and the breeze bearing the curtains into the parlor is scented with honeysuckle; the silvery darkness beyond is thick with the sound of a symphony of night insects. I feel my eyes getting heavy and make up my mind to stay awake, to learn what adults do at the zenith that makes it worth forestalling sleep, and deciding that the best way to do this is by letting my eyes rest. Just for a moment.
It is a moment later when Amil’s voice forces me to jerk awake. Telperion is many degrees brighter than when my eyes closed the moment before, and I feel Nelyo lurch beneath me and to his feet. I whimper and he shushes me and stoops to lift Turko in his other arm.
We are carried to Atar, who kisses our cheeks and wipes a rivulet of drool from my chin with the ornately embroidered cuff of his robes. I catch one of his braids in my fist, and he tickles my knuckles with kisses until I do not notice that he has extricated himself from my grip.
“Sleep well and I shall see you in the morning,” he whispers into the space between us, his breath sweetened by wine. I breathe deep and draw it—him—into me.
Nelyo takes us to his room, insisting that I will not be bothered by Turko if we sleep on opposite edges and do not roll into the middle. “My bed is big enough for the both of you. You sleep closer than this when we are traveling, and you are not bothered.” I moan a low protest, and Turko ponders me from Nelyo’s other shoulder with sleepy blue eyes.
Nelyo undresses us and puts us into our nightclothes. Turko is asleep as Nelyo tucks his arms into the sleeves of his nightshirt, sitting up with his head lolling onto his chest, drooling on the coverlet. Sleep sits like a rock inside my head, but it is shrinking, becoming insignificant. Night is a time for wandering, and with the adults distracted in the parlor, I can wander the house with nothing between my bare feet and the icy floors, stealing as silently as a breeze into the places forbidden me by day.
Turko is tucked into one side of the bed, turning on his side and shriveling into a little ball. Nelyo turns his attention to me, and draws the cool, satiny nightclothes over me. I could cooperate, but I like the feeling of him moving my body for me, as though his presence eliminates the need for thought. “Now sleep, little one. None of your antics.”
Nelyo is often kept awake at night too, though not out of hunger for secrets. He covers his insomnia with a ruse of “studying,” but hours will pass during which he will never turn a page, and sometimes, he will stare at a book upside down or at a blank page for just as long. I imagine that he sees written there what he wants to see … or maybe he is waiting for words to appear, imparting knowledge so far elusive. Knowledge of what lies in the future, perhaps?
Sometimes, I see that, although it is hard to tell where the future ends and the dark dreams of him begin. I cannot—will not—believe that he is in our future.
I could tell Nelyo if his beloved will ride around the corner and through the gates of our property one day; I could tell him if he will be alone at the New Year Festival. But maybe he already knows.
Sometimes I dream of wonderful things—of marriage and love and new life—and sometimes I dream of strange things that cannot be real, of a wild land beneath a fierce light like Laurelin but crueler, merciless, scented like dust and rousing our skin into burns. Other times, I dream of darkness, and those dreams I forget, for they cannot be real. Not here.
So says Atar, when I wander to him and night and sleep in his arms, in the rocker where he has held each of my brothers and now me, soothing our troubles with a blaze of white light. The dreams of darkness … those are naught but stories. Myths. His voice in my ear might be my own thoughts. It is hard to say where his voice ends and my thoughts begin. It is hard to say, he says, where myth ends and dreams begin.
Nelyo kisses my forehead with cool lips and draws the covers to my chin. I was wrong: I am still tired, and I might sleep. Turko curls on the other side of the bed from me, dreaming of playful winds running across a meadow as wide as the sea. I might sleep if only to sample his dreams. Nelyo leaves us to close the drapes—saving us from Telperion’s brightening light—and in the secret darkness, I slide across the wide bed and press against my brother’s back, ever closer, until his golden hair is silk against my cheek and I can smell the sweet scent of the grasses and the air comes alive with birdsong.
It is a place underground, yet not dark; a place where the rocks in the walls seem alight, where candles twist and dance in senseless rhythm, bowing at me as I pass. Yet I am not me; my thoughts are strange: Turko. My limbs are heavy and clad in metal; even my head is clad in metal, although a swatch of golden hair lies upon my shoulder with the splendor of a banner. With a screech of metal on metal, there is a sword in my hand, and I am walking forward, cutting away shapes like Elves as the arrows hit me one by one—chest, leg, shoulder—there must be a hundred of them, a thousand. Elves fall away in front of me with the same passivity as grass fronds bending and twisting in the wind. There are screams and the cacophony of steel on steel, but it is whispers that I hear loudest of all: the sound of arrows cutting the air and imbedding themselves in me, but I do not feel it. I will not allow it to hurt until he is before me, the King. I will not allow it to hurt until he is dead.
When I awaken, I expect pain, and my frantic hands inspect my body for wounds, for protruding arrows, but there is nothing: I am wearing the nightclothes into which Nelyo tucked me an indeterminate time ago and my flesh is unbroken, although it tingles in places with the same sensation as a scar might remember the pain that created it. With the drapes fastidiously closed, I cannot tell the time. Turko’s arm is tossed over me in the dead weight of sleep, and he moans in his sleep as though in pain.
I duck free of his arm, and his pinched expression loosens, becomes peaceful again. My feet are on the floor, and before I take a step, I cock my head and listen. Laughter like music: the party must be going on still. I roll my foot onto the floor, refusing to wince at the cold floorboards, avoiding those that will creak and announce my presence.
Once downstairs, I slip into the shadows and crouch to watch the party: Macalaurë’s harp has been abandoned, and Nelyo is lost in earnest conversation with Uncle Arafinwë; their faces are inches apart. The Telerin Queen laughs at something my father has said, and Amil smiles and puts her hand on his knee in an involuntary declaration of possession. His hand covers hers, holds it there.
It is not long before I am bored by it and slipping through the front door and into the dew-damp garden. The grass tickles the bottoms of my feet, and I have to concentrate to keep from leaving silver tracks that will be easily followed. I imagine my body as light as the wind, moving over the ground, and the grass stands stern beneath me. Telperion has exceeded His zenith and is dimming; I allow my imagination to drift where it will and the trees and shrubs becoming hunkering shadow monsters. There is a stick beneath one of Atar’s cherry trees, and it will work as a sword, and silently we battle—the shadow monsters and I—and I become so fearful that I allow my weight to drop and my feet to trample the grass into a hollow. Thwack! Thwack! One by one, I imagine them falling; my feet are stained red on the bottoms by cherry juice, and I run my finger through it to taste it, preferring to taste it as metallic—not sweet—like blood. The wind stirs the shadow monsters into action, and I fight until my arms ache and my heart is pounding so hard that I can feel my pulse throughout my entire body.
The path beckons me, and I toss my sword aside, content to leave the remaining monsters for another time. My bare feet leave red prints along the flagstones; I imagine myself limping and wounded, trailing blood … but I am triumphant; I am a hero; he curses my name from the depths of his dungeons.
The apprentices’ cottages loom before me, and I visit them one by one, pressing my palms to the door, breathing the air that comes through the cracks, but no one is awake. Annawendë’s is empty; has been empty since the day we left for Formenos. I breathe the tiny bit of stale air, unstirred for months, that is allowed to escape from the crack between the door and the doorframe, but I detect nothing of her, only a confused array of memories involving my brother Nelyo and my father and an endless, orange-hued land steeped in heat, where music is harsh with the tones of hammer striking anvil.
And, then, I am at the forge.
I do not remember seeking it, but I am there, tugging at the heavy door and opening it with great effort. The place smells of memory, of both passion and fear, and my mind creates a shower of sparks where one should be, for a place like this should not be lost in darkness.
Atar has his workshop here, the place where he comes with Nelyo to make things that are forbidden for us to see and handle, supposedly for our safety, although I detect a thrill of defiance in them sometimes, of doing that which is illicit, of sating curiosity as strong as thirst. The door locks; doors are not locked in Valinor, but this one is rarely anything but, and as I tug the handle—expecting resistance of steel that can be subordinated only by a slender brass key—I wait to be disappointed yet again, but the door falls open so easily that I tumble onto my backside and crash into a worktable, knocking something fragile and glass to the floor, where it explodes in a spray of silver slivers.
Whimpering, rubbing my head that struck the merciless solidity of a table leg, I sit up. The door had swung closed again, and it is easy to imagine that it never opened at all. Surely Atar would not be so careless. His mismatched clothes and slovenly, careless appearance do not confer a similar negligence of his work. He will forget meals or to tie his boots but never to lock his laboratory or to close his secret volumes when someone enters the room.
I crunch through the broken glass—leaving footprints now red with real blood—able to ignore the pain because of the singular focus of the featureless gray door with its heavy knob punctured by a keyhole that always reminds me of a mouth stretched in surprise. Glass pops beneath my feet, slipping gracefully to latch into my skin, and I reach out for the door and gently tug it open and slip inside.
It is not that I have not been in here before; I have lessons in here, sometimes, and other times, am permitted to watch Atar work, moving between open volumes strewn across the tabletop, making notes that I often cannot decipher, written in a shorthand that even Nelyo does not know. Now, the books are shut and stacked on a table; the worktables are mostly swept clear of debris. Curtains have been drawn over all of the windows, and the sole source of light in the room, at the moment, is a single lamp in the corner neglected and left open—or perhaps this was intentional?—and casting the room in pale, blue light.
I go to the worktable and kneel on the bench, exposing my bloody feet to the cool relief of the air. I open a book; it is written in a language that I do not know. The foreign syllables writhe in my mouth, twining around my tongue, reluctantly holding on and not wanting to fall forth into the air. I spit and force them in an awkward, halting voice, but the words are ugly and remind me of how Turko will scrape his fingernails against metal when he is upset with Atar, knowing that Atar hates the sound and that it frenzies him to senseless rage, banishing a tearful, triumphant Turko from the room. Such are these words, and I clap my hands over my ears even as the words continue tumble from my mouth, hideous sounds without meaning except a ghost of a thought—Atar? Nelyo?—perhaps the memory of he who read them last.
Still, it is dull work, and I close the book and sigh loudly. I do not know why I have come here, but then, I do not know why I do many things. Sometimes, my actions and words seem to precede any sort of thought during which thoughts and actions are supposed to be planned. Mine are not planned; it is as though I am being led by something beyond me, and even as I’ve seen Nelyo’s skin raise in welts where I've scratched him in my rage, I've regretted it.
My feet are beginning to hurt, and I whimper into the silence before realizing that there is no one to hear me, and what is the point of sad sounds if not to elicit sympathy? I turn on the bench until I can examine the bottoms of my feet. They are smudged with a thin sheen of blood mixed with dust from the floor; I can see the glimmer of glass still caught in my flesh. I tug at the largest piece—the size of a fingernail torn off in a fit of nervousness—but it hurts, and so I yelp and leave it.
That is when I see it, in the corner, something shrouded beneath the dark cloths that Atar uses to protect his works in progress from dust and prying eyes.
Even as I see it, it is growing larger, and I realize that it is because I am walking toward it, and I realize that I am walking toward it because the glass is stabbing the bottoms of my feet with each step and hurting me. Still, I walk, leaving evidence of myself in the shape of bloody footprints across the floor. The object grows ever-larger, and I see that it is quite perfectly spherical, beneath the cloth, like the boars’ bladders that Atar fills with air after a successful hunting trip (which is also followed by glorious, crispy bacon so salty that my mouth shrivels for want of water, so good that I will eat it scalding hot--grease still popping--and raise blisters in my mouth) and lets Turko and me bat around. Turko punches them high into the air and watches them drift slowly back to us while the wind plays with them; I cry, for I’d rather play alone than share with the wind, and Turko and I usually fight over this.
So when I reach out my hands to touch the object, I expect it to be soft and pliant, and I am prepared to be delighted, to seize it and play alone with it, leaving patterns tracing my delight across the workshop floor and printed in blood. But it is hard, harder than any stone or steel that I have ever touched, and cold—even beneath the shroud—so that I draw my hands back, convinced that I have been burned, only realizing the frigidity of the sphere when my body dissolves into a shiver.
I tug at the edges of the shroud, wanting it to fall away but not to bear Atar’s wrath when it does. This thing is meant to be a secret. Even if it was not hidden, it is bathed in a penumbra of secrecy, of cautious elation, a thrill of creation coupled with a fear of discovery. This emotion known to all of us but most of all to Atar, who will answer a knock at his workshop door with his face a bleary mask of boredom as a euphoric pulse hops at his throat.
I tug at the shroud; the thing beneath is smooth, and it is not hard to start the cloth slipping, and I leap back and watch gravity do its work. The bulk of the shroud—with my assistance—has fallen to one side; the remainder slowly cascades after it, tumbling and folding upon itself until it is a pool of cloth on the floor and the thing is revealed.
I step over the shroud and carefully survey the black sphere. It is like a giant marble, about a foot in diameter, and as dark as the velvet sky of rumor, in the Outer Lands, away from the Light of the Trees. It is featureless black … and yet not. I lean forward until my nose is almost touching it. Is there something moving within it? In layers deep inside, shifting, conspiring? Tentative hands have lifted without my knowledge, and wincing, waiting for the bite of cold, the pads of my fingers press lightly against it.
There is something moving inside; there is no mistake about that. The sphere is as profound as the sea, which can appear colorless and flat on the surface even while—beneath—the waters ebb and eddy, convoluting upon themselves in whorls like a fingerprint, lifting and moving an insubstantial grain of sand or guiding the leviathans that we once watched surfacing—silver backs as slick as glass beneath Laurelin’s light—off the coast in the north. I cried and Atar thought that I feared that the beast might rear up beneath our tiny boat—for it was just Atar, Turko, and me, casting nets into the water and playing at being “Teleri,” as Atar teased—and capsize us, but I’d feared for Turko, leaning far over the side with his splayed fingers stretched and reaching: “Their world! There is a whole other world under there—they speak of it to me—and I want to know it!” the sea spray misting his face and his hips a tenuous fulcrum between keeping him as my brother in our boat and pitching him over the side to become one of them in the mysterious depths of the sea.
Like the sea, this thing, this sphere hides another world beneath it surface: a world operating alongside mine but separate and—until now—unknown to me. And like the sea, it takes only a deep breath and a bit of courage to tip the balance of my body and spill forth into this other world. I might not be pulled again to the surface, but I cannot fear that. Not if I wish to plunge hands-wrist-being into the dark swirls beneath the surface of the sphere.
Temptation whispers to me.
With my cry, Atar at last turned and seized Turko by the back of his trousers, dragging him back to the bottom of the boat. “You fool! Do you wish to drown?” But Turko—palms wet with seawater and lip quivering—had not thought of that.
As I cannot. I place my hands on the sphere. And plunge.
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