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Unstrung: 1. Unstrung
When I was young, I liked to mimic voices. Sometimes, I would tease my brothers by imitating their friends. I would shout "Come out hunting!" and watch a brother rush to get ready, then stroll out nonchalantly to impress a cousin who was not there. At other times, I would help my brothers, call out their goodnights from behind a closed bedroom door when some arcane rebellion had kept them out too late. When they were very little, I would soothe them using a parent's voice.
Now I am older, and subtler. I mimic opinions, attitudes; I imitate absent people who will not be back by next morning. It is a craft I have mastered.
I come from a family of masterful craftsmen.
Here is one thing we all know: in order to imitate something well, to capture its essence, you have to understand it. When making a glass flower, you have to understand how living petals unfurl; when capturing blazing light, you have to understand both light and fire; and, when playing the role of another, you have to see your subject clearly, to sympathize. You have to achieve a resonance with your subject. I find this easy. I have perfect emotional pitch.
This form of imitation, one based on understanding and truth, is art. I come from a family of talented artists.
Here is another insight, this one all my own: that to understand something is to love it. It is therefore my curse to love, even as I resonate in sympathy.
These are the three things you should keep in mind. That I love, perhaps too much. That I am an artist, and therefore a seeker of truth. And that I am a mimic, and therefore a liar.
Would you like to hear about the sacrifices I have made, for love and for kin?
I have taken a hastily composed oath I did not believe in. I have forsaken paradise. In a dark, marred world, I have risked both body and soul, and I do not doubt that one day I shall lose both, just as I am, even now, losing my mind. For I have seen streets of pearl, ancient trees, and jagged cliffs stained red with the blood of kinsmen, blood I myself had shed.
Such dramatic words. But the artist in me rejects them, for they are not true. The streets of Alqualonde, the trees of Doriath, the cliffs of Sirion: they were never red with blood. Blood-speckled, a bit, perhaps, but even those spots were brownish by the time I looked. As for the rest of it... I believe that sacrifice involves choice. I swore an oath to regain what was ours. How could I have chosen to do anything else?
In fact, as real sacrifices go, there has been only one.
I wrote a song once, a song as full of sweeping statements and absurd metaphors as that speech I have just made. It was my brother's idea, conceived at a time when he had many good ideas. He told me that, to influence people, you have to evoke their fear, their love, or their pity. Fear we could conjure with ease, love -- we could hardly hope for.
"But you could make them pity us," he said. "Make them feel for us, make them see how the glory and pride that are our birthright have trapped us in an impossible dilemma. Make them understand that we have felt our share of pain and sorrow." And he touched my shoulder, to let me know that he realized my own sorrow was the deepest, as it was, back then.
Did you note the technique he used to influence me? He evoked love. Do not suppose I resented this. My brother deserves my love, in full.
So here is my sole sacrifice: I wrote an absurd song for my brother. I mimicked remorse. Alone of all my kin, I betrayed my art for love.
I am not ashamed of my song.
I have owned many instruments in my life. I still own several. Consider this seven-string lyre, made of oak. It is one of my favourites, though it is a simple thing, meant for children. See, it is very easy to play: one hand blocks, the other strums.
Sometimes, on days like today, when I am recalling my life, I give the strings names. Old names. They are no great secret, but I will not list them here. I will pluck the strings instead. See, the middle one is out of tune: that is often its way. The two that surround it are in harmony. The two at that side are faint, rarely heard at all, but the two over here are all but worn out with use. Listen to them. The second one sounds the sweetest to most ears, but my own favourite has always been the first. See how its red metal glitters in the light?
Of course you do not. I am joking. All these strings are made of gut, all new, all perfectly tuned. This is a new instrument. I was thinking of the one it has replaced.
I come from a gifted family. My parents were great creators; I was one of seven talented children. Our skills were varied and complimentary, and we made a fine instrument for our players: my father first, then my brother. I was my brother's right hand. I still am, but my brother is playing with fewer and fewer strings, these days.
The day when the trees were splattered with brown stains was the day when our instrument lost its first strings. My brother and I took it in very different ways, although we both went walking in the woods.
I carried the bad news out among the trees and yelled, forgetting to mind my throat and my voice. I hated my brother because he had said, "Never mind them. They were troublemakers, all." Lost in my own pain, I failed to see his. I failed to see that his defenses were crumbling until hard words were all he had left. I felt angry. I felt complicated, and crafty, and cold. I knew he was nearby, because I came across his trail from time to time. I never heard him yell; I think I do believe that he searched, as he later claimed, for the lost children of those we had slain. He never found anyone. I know I should have gone with him, for I suddenly knew myself to be a skilled hunter with a talent for tracking, but I was too angry over our deaths.
By the time he returned, we were both calm. But he was full of memories.
"The woods here smell different from those behind our house. I had forgotten," he said. "Is that not strange, when our kind can never truly forget? Remember the day the twins wandered off, looking for rabbits? We sought them long, shouting their names, but they would not come until you called them in our mother's voice. They knew it was you, of course. She was gone by then."
All of this was said in the same tone he would use when he discussed our stores of horse-feed. I was terrified. For a few days, I did not understand him at all; and I wondered if my love for him would stop.
We are a talented family, our talents all complimentary. Mine are for music, and for sympathy. I always understand, in the end.
My brother is a gambler who has lost far more than he had ever planned to stake, and now cannot walk away from the game, since it would make all those losses meaningless. As sad stories go, this is a rather common story; however, his version of it is particularly tragic because, when he sat down at the table, it was to play a game of wits, not a game of chance. He has never enjoyed gambling. Several of us do; in earlier, happier days, we would often make huntsmen's wagers, or even play dice for desired possessions. On the few occasions when he joined us, it was only to please us, or perhaps to watch over us. He likes to plan ahead, to organize, to protect. Using us as a gambling stake was never part of his plans.
Yes, I understand my brother completely. He lacks more than just the obvious, and struggles hard to keep this truth from himself. He knows that the moment he realizes just how much he has lost, he will come unstrung. But his task is difficult, for everywhere he looks he sees an absence or a loss. But I help. He wears his shield on his right arm. I, who am his right hand, am also his shield, his defenses. His defender.
Do you hate my brother still? Is it because of what happened in the woods? Let me explain how he ended up there, even though he knew that striking out at the enemies of our Enemy was folly. It will sound as if I am blaming one of those we lost, but I am not. My dead brother was not playing upon my living brother's weaknesses, not intentionally.
"Those accursed dark elves," my dead brother said. "They do not deserve our mercy, let alone our goodwill. Do you not remember how they stood aside while we fought evil? Surely those who stand by while evil does its work are party to it."
He used this argument because his pride would not let him mention the woman who had humiliated him. When we did not contradict him at once, he took it further.
"Those dark elves killed our people. Our people, and those of our cousins. They killed our cousins."
We told him not to exaggerate. We blamed the traitorous humans.
"We were betrayed," my dead brother said, "only because traitors turn from the weak to the strong. I blame those dark elves for making us weaker than we should have been."
Even as he said it, I saw that my living brother was not really listening anymore. He was still hearing the earlier words, thinking about the dead, remembering all he had lost. I knew then that he had been persuaded.
This oak lute is a replacement for the one I learned on, sitting at my window and watching silver light mingle with gold. These days, I use it to teach. I have two students. Yesterday, I taught them a verse of my song.
"Ah, the Replacements." My brother appeared in the doorway, drawn by the familiar tune. Behind him, the light turned blood-red, as if both to honour and to accuse him. "They do not look like our uncle's kin. Perhaps they favour their own uncles."
He says this often. The boys are wary of him. It is not that they fear him; they know their own story, of course, but they have never seen him kill anyone, never heard him plan violence. Around them, he is always gentle, and often strange. He evokes their pity. Children tend to pity strange adults.
I love our little Replacements, as my brother calls them. In his more lucid moments, he teases me gently over my wish to replace lost kin. When he grows subtler, he talks of other lost children. Sometimes he thanks me for bringing him the Replacements as if they were a present. A chance for a minor redemption.
Just because I love one brother best does not mean that I do not love the others. I love and understand them all, dead or alive -- otherwise, I could never imitate them as I do. Yes, my old games have grown serious; I am using my mimic's craft to replace the lost strings on our instrument. It has been much easier since that day out on the sea cliffs.
(Do not ask me how we ended up there. By that point, none of us had any choice.)
We lost two more strings that day. I added them to my repertoire, and now I feel balanced again, gentle again. Younger. Sadder, but more hopeful. My youngest brothers have always had a calming influence on me.
I am quite aware that my behaviour borders on madness. But I persist, because my living brother needs people around him, to give him something to focus on that is not an absence. To give him several opinions to listen to and argue with. To give him people to muster and organize.
This is also why I gather replacements, various homeless, abandoned strangers. He does not object. He likes to save things, in case they come in handy later. Old maps. The armour of the slain. Their children. My careful, clever brother. Always so single-minded. I used to envy him that; but those with a single mind have only one mind to lose.
"I wish Curufinwe were here," my brother said last night, as we watched the sky.
I know what he was thinking: that neither of us has the skill to capture a star. I cannot help him there. I can mimic much, but no one can mimic genius.
I try to help him in other ways. We are everything to each other, my brother and I. My mad, beautiful, blind brother. I can deny him nothing. I have long been my brother's right hand.
"I know you are not him," he said to me once, when the drapes were drawn to block out the starlight.
An unforeseen denial can reveal an unsuspected truth. Perhaps there is one absence that hurts him more than the others. Do I feel jealous? If you ask that, then you do not understand us. We are masters of the fine art of crafting replacements.
If this story disturbs you, you can count it among my lies.
I have been thinking about what I might do if I had no living brother to protect.
I might put an end to my current mimicry. Try to imitate new subjects, things like the sea, rivers, caves, seashells. Dead things that sing. It should be very easy, for I feel a kinship with them.
But no, I can never stop what I started back in the woods. I cannot kill my brothers again, cannot let them dissolve into nothing. You see, sometimes, when I am trying to imitate hope, I begin to believe that I am not going mad after all, but that I am saving us all, keeping our souls from the Darkness Everlasting. The artist in me does not reject the idea: it could well be true.
This is why I have to stay safe. Only my brother could persuade me into danger, now. Left to my own devices, I would turn my back on our enemies, and carry on living for us all. Even for him; especially for him. I would take him in, possess him. Protect and preserve him. I would walk the world, and tell our story to dead things that sing.
The artist in me knows that it is a fine story.
Constructive criticism is always welcome!
Here are chapter-by-chapter explanations of some of the references in the text.
Me: Self explanatory. (Heh.)
The Instrument: 'Glitter of metal' is one of the possible interpretations of the name 'Maedhros'.
Sacrifice: Maglor's song is, of course, the Noldolante. He's probably lying about how bad it is. The three occasions on which he has shed the blood of kinsmen are the kinslayings at Alqualonde, Doriath, and Sirion.
The Woods: Speaking of the sack of Doriath... three of the Feanorian brothers died there, including Celegorm; and Celegorm's servants took young Elured and Elurin into the woods and left them there to die. We are told that Maedhros repented of this, and tried to find them.
Understanding: Maedhros gave up his crown in favour of his uncle Fingolfin, and concentrated on fighting Morgoth. His most ambitious war-related project was the Union of Maedhros, where he gathered together many of the Elves living in Middle-Earth, even some of those not under his rule, in an attempt to strike a decisive blow, and suffered a crushing defeat. He had some really bad luck there, and lost his favourite cousin, Fingon.
This version of Maedhros is quite messed up as a result of Morgoth's torture.
Persuasion: It was Celegorm who talked the Feanorian brothers into attacking Doriath. I am assuming that he was partly motivated by the humiliation he suffered when Luthien rejected him for the mortal Beren, and when Beren stood up to him, but here he is drawing attention to the fact that Doriath did not join the Union of Maedhros. His brothers point out that they were betrayed by some of their mortal allies.
Replacements: Maglor's pupils are Elrond and Elros, who were fostered by him after the Feanorians sacked their home city. They are descendants of Fingolfin, Maglor's uncle. Their own uncles Elured and Elurin were only children when they were lost after the Feanorians sacked Doriath.
Brothers: The youngest two Feanorians died in the sack of Sirion (the sea cliffs, here.) And, um... Maglor is now talking about impersonating all his dead brothers.
Night: I believe Curufinwe is the father-name of Curufin and Feanor both. Your guess as to whom Maedhros means is as good as mine.
Hope: Maglor's eventual fate is to run off alone and spend eternity wandering around on the sea-shore. Whether this Maglor is mad, whether he really is saving his brothers' souls, is left up to the reader.
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