The Mother's reminiscence: From the Grave
My son has told a story of a war we all remember. This is from an older one, a war under the Long Sun. I myself was scarcely more than a child when it happened.
I was scarcely more than a child, and yet I was courted in those days by two fine young men, Turco and Casco were their names. Turco was my favorite, and to this day I can't forget how we sat under the orange trees and spoke of love and the family we would make together. When I think back on it now, it seems to me that we must have sat and talked like that often. But it cannot be, because the trees I remember are always in bloom. The years were so much longer then!
War came. Casco was rich enough to ride a fine horse, so he became a cavalryman. He rode out to see me one last time before he went away to fight. It was about noon, I think, and I had been lying down in my room. I can hear his knock, even now, and our old servant grumbling to herself as she goes to answer it. I knew who it was without looking and got up and went out to speak to him. "I will come back to you, " he told me, "and I tell you now that if your sneaking, lying Turco is with you, I will lay his body at your feet. You have been warned."
Casco was a strong, brave man, but he was wounded almost at once. He had only just ridden away to fight, that was how it seemed to me, when I got his first letter from the hospital. I do not remember now exactly all that first letter said, but all of his letters were very much alike. He worshipped me, he adored me, and if I so much as looked at any other man he would cut my nose off. And worse. I hope that neither of you girls ever receives letters like those. They are not pleasant, believe me.
As you would expect, he begged me again and again to come to see him in the hospital, and on my wedding day I did. He was unconscious and did not see me, however. You cannot imagine what a relief it was. I sought out the nurse who cared for him and asked if he would recover, and she said that he would not. What joy I felt!
Yet he did. The black wreath was still hanging on our door when he came stamping down the road in his big boots, with the end of his saber trailing in the dust. His cavalry uniform hung on him like the clothes of a scarecrow, yet he was polite when he saw the wreath and my black gown. "Your father?" he asked me.
"My husband, " I told him, and he stared at me, dumbfounded.
I asked him, "Did you think yourself the only trooper to suffer, Casco? The patre united us not twenty beds from the one in which you lay, and after the ceremony they let me bring him here and nurse him myself."
How he glared! I thought he was about to fly at my throat.
"They needed the bed, you see, and they knew that my husband was going to die in spite of all that they or I could do. So they let us bring him here, and when the end came we buried him in our family plot, next to the orchard in which he and I used to sit, and not a day has passed on which I have not knelt weeping on his grave."
I shook my head. "If you want to see it and say a prayer for him, you may. But I won't go there with you."
Casco nodded and went through the house, and I returned to my room and locked the door. It was not until later that I learned what he had done.
He had been raging when he left me, but he was quiet when he returned, quiet and polite. I was watching from my window, and he seemed so weak and sick then that my heart went out to him. He loved me, after all, and that I did not wish to have the only kind of love he had to give was neither my fault nor his. Furthermore, he had gone out bravely to defend Grandecitta, and had suffered a terrible wound.
I went downstairs again and invited him to sit down, and offered to bring him a glass of wine and some fruit so that he might refresh himself before he returned to the city.
He thanked me and sat, and told me that he was feeling unwell, which I had seen for myself already. "A glass of wine, please." (I will never forget how pale he was under his beard, or the skull that grinned behind his face.) "A glass of any wine you have, " he said, "and when I have drunk it I will trouble you no longer."
I did not believe him. I felt sure that as soon as he felt better he would pay court to me as before, and I steeled myself to refuse him. But I hurried away just the same, and filled the little glass that I had used until I was old enough to eat my dinner with Mama and Papa, and brought it back to him.
How long was I gone? I have wondered often. Half a minute, perhaps. Or a minute. Or two. No longer than that, I am sure. And yet it was long enough. He had fallen from his chair and lay dead on the floor. I dropped his wine and screamed, but it seemed a very long time before anyone came. I had gotten over the worst of my fear by then, and was on my knees picking up the pieces of broken glass and wiping up the spilled wine. It was while I was doing it that I noticed that his saber was missing. He was still wearing his sword belt and the empty scabbard.
Now I will tell you what our old servant, Schiamazza, revealed to me the next day. She had been afraid that Casco would dishonor my husband's grave, you see, and had followed him at a distance.
He had gone to the grave and stood staring down at it for a minute or two. The stone had not been erected then, and Schiamazza said he had not been certain then that it was in fact my husband's grave, in spite of the mountain of flowers I had left on it. He had looked all around him, searching everywhere with his eyes, and she was afraid he would see her, though she had hidden herself behind a tree some distance away. She thought that he was looking for another fresh grave. I myself think that he was making certain he was unobserved.
He drew his saber and knelt, and from the way he gripped the hilt she knew what he was about to do, but she did not dare cry out. Kneeling on the grave itself, on my poor Turco's chest as it were, he clasped the hilt in both hands and raised it over his head.
Schiamazza called it miracle, and perhaps it was. Perhaps it was not. You must be the judge of that.
Miracle or not, a tall man with a bird upon his shoulder stood beside Casco. Schiamazza had not seen where he came from. Nor did she see where he went when he left. Casco had raised his saber. Like a knife! And she had closed her eyes in horror. When she opened them again, the tall man was there. He was a witch, a strego, that seems certain. He spoke to Casco, and loudly enough that old Schiamazza overheard him. He said, "Only cowards strike at the dead-the dead cannot defend themselves."
Casco had lowered his saber and replied, too softly for her to hear.
"As you wish, " said the strego. "Only remember that the dead can avenge themselves."
The strego's familiare spoke too. I have heard a good many talking birds, but all they say is nonsense. Schiamazza swore that this one spoke to Casco as one man to another, saying, "Beware! Beware!" It fluttered its wings, and it and the strego vanished together.
Casco raised his saber as before, held it up for a moment when he prayed or cursed, and plunged it to the hilt into the newly dug soil of my husband's grave. After that he rose and stamped and kicked poor Turco's flowers, she said, and seemed almost to dance upon his grave in his fury. It had frightened her so much that she fled.
Let me stop here for a moment or two. I see the questions in your eyes, Incanto. I will try to answer them. There was a wall around our orchard and burial plot, a stone wall about as high as that door, with two gates in it. The gate farther from the house was kept locked when it was not in use. Boys climbed the wall to steal fruit sometimes, however, so it may be that the strego climbed it, too. It is also possible that he had been in our house, and had followed Casco outside just as Schiamazza did. My father, my mother, or my brother may have been consulting him in secret. Who can say? For my own part, I think it likely that he flew into our orchard as the birds did, in a bird's shape or his own. In the Whorl, where we knew nothing of the inhumi, it was known that stregos can fly when they wish. You young people may mock me for saying it, but you have heard many such stories from me, and there is a grain of truth in every one of them. More than a grain, in many.
At first we thought that Casco's family would bury him, but his father and both his brothers had been killed in the same battle in which he had been wounded, and no one remained except a grandmother, an old woman such as I am now, much too foolish and confused for any business more serious than baking a pie. She gave my father money, I believe, and he made all the funeral arrangements. Casco's uniform no longer fit him, as I said, and so he was buried in a good velvet tunic that my brother had outgrown. For months afterward, I did not even know what had become of his clothes and the long saber that my brother had pulled from my husband's grave.
My first husband. That is what I meant to say. I have been married five times, Fava, though you would not think that anyone would have me to look at me now. It is still terribly hard for me to talk about these things, which would only bore you and Mora anyway. I will pass over them as quickly as I can tonight.
I married again the next summer. He was a wonderful man, handsome and kind. Autumn came, and he went hunting with two friends. It was the first time that we had been separated. He fell from his horse, they said, and when they picked him up he was dead.
For months I could not credit it. I used to awaken when the servant knocked and leave my bed, feeling quite certain that he would come back to me in a day or two. As I washed and dressed, his death would close in on me like a fist. It was horrible.
Three years passed before I married again, a good man, quiet, hardworking, and studious. For me, he said, he was willing to dare the curse. By that time many were saying that there was a curse on me, you see. I was not yet twenty, and I had buried two husbands. The worst hinted that I had murdered them.
For seventeen months we lived together very happily. Then my father fell ill. He had workmen ditching a field he owned, a low swampy one that he thought might do to pasture cattle if it could be drained. Because he could not leave his bed and my brother was living in the city, he asked my husband to look at it for him and let him know how the work was going. His name was Solenno. My husband's name, I mean. My third husband. Gioiosio had been my second husband.
Solenno was a trifle taller than Gioiosio, as well as I can remember. Or perhaps it is only that time has made him seem so. His body was still covered with mud when they brought it into the house. I have hated the sight of mud ever since, as my son will tell you. Old Schiamazza had to help my mother wash him. I could not do it. The embalmers washed him again, or so they assured me, but his body smelled of mud until the coffin was closed, even though it had been embalmed and dressed in clean, new clothes.
I talked to my mother one night. I cannot say now how long after Solenno's death it was. A week or two, or a month. Something like that. I was in despair. I did not know what to do. I told her over and over how much I had loved Turco, and I said that for me it was as though Turco had died three times.
She nodded and hugged me and heard me out, and when I had talked and wept until I could weep no more she said, "You have been trying to find him again. I thought so all along, and now I know it. Solenno looked somewhat like him, everybody saw it. And Gioioso always made me think of Turco. Their voices and gestures were just the same."
I sighed, perhaps, and wiped my eyes. I could weep no more, as I have told you.
"Listen to me, my daughter. Turco is dead. You must find someone you can love for himself, not because he reminds you of Turco."
And I did. I found Inclito's father. Do you want to know what he looked like? Look at my son. Big and strong and rough, but good. Such a good man, and he loved me as a deer the plain. He laid his heart at my feet, and we were wed. A month passed. Then two. Then three. A year! I bore a son and lost him, but next year I bore my Inclito. Together we saw him weaned, and watched him learn to walk.
One day my husband showed me a pair of dirty old boots, caked with mud. "Whose are these?" he asked me.
I looked at them. They seemed familiar, but that was all I could tell him.
"These were a trooper's riding boots. Was your brother in the cavalry? Or your father?"
They were Casco's, of course. I don't think that I had so much as mentioned Casco to my husband before that day, but I told him the whole story, exactly as I have told it to you tonight.
"Ah, " he said, and he put the boots on the floor and stood beside them. "Too small for me. I could never get my feet in them, and a good thing, too, because there's something in them already."
He picked up the right boot and showed it to me, a sharp white splinter pushed through the leather at the ankle that looked almost like a sliver of bone. "That is a death adder's fang, " he explained, "or anyway that's what I think it is. If the man these boots belonged to had kept his sword, he wouldn't have had to kill the thing with his feet, and he might be alive today."
From that you already understand what came before it, I feel certain. Gioioso had found the boots and worn them when he went hunting. The dried poison from the fang had entered his foot slowly until there was enough to stop his heart. Poor Solenno had found them too, in the back of the closet that had become his, and had worn them when he went to look at my father's muddy field.
It is all simple and reasonable, you will say. I am older than any of you, and it seems to me that there is more to be said. Turco had avenged himself, as the strego had warned Casco he would. Have you ever seen another person who reminded you of yourself)
No one? What about you, Fava? Incanto?
You shake your heads. We never do, you see. I have been told many times that such-and-such a woman looks exactly like me. And I have visited her and spoken to her, and come away feeling that no one could resemble me less. So it was with Turco. To my mother and me, Gioioso and Solenno seemed very like Turco. But to Turco himself they resembled Casco. Like Casco, they were rivals for my hand. And they wore boots of the same size, after all.
"That was a fine story, " I told her, "one of the best that I've ever heard."
"I had to live it, " she replied, "and it is far better to hear such stories than to live them, I promise you, though it ended so happily. Let us hope that neither of these girls has to endure such things."
A cheerful, round-faced young woman in a dirty apron came in to tell us that dinner was ready, and Inclito jumped from his chair. "Wonderful! I'm starving, Onie. Have you cooked up something special for me?"
She winked at him and said, "We think you'll like it, " and all five of us followed him into a good-sized dining room with a fire blazing in the fireplace at one end and all four quarters of a yearling steer turning on a spit. Inclito complained of the heat at once and opened two windows, and to tell the truth I would not have been sorry if he had opened two more, though Fava exchanged her seat with Mora in order to sit nearer the fire.
Inclito's mother drew her shawl more tightly about her shoulders. "It's your turn, Incanto. We'll try to pass the food around quietly so you can talk."
Inclito handed me the wine bottle as she spoke. I thanked him and refilled my glass. "I'm very glad that our host's mother's story preceded mine, " I began, "because up until then I had been trying to think of one that might win. After hearing it, I realize that I have no chance, and can tell whatever foolish tale I want. That's what I'm going to do, but I have a question for all of you first. I'm not telling my story now, so you can answer me out loud and say anything that you like. Have you ever known anyone who returned alive from Green?"
Mora said, "Nobody can go there. You'd have to have a lander of your own, one that you could make obey you."
Inclito's mother added, "Isn't that where the inhumi come from? That's what everybody says, and the people who went there from the Whorl are all dead."
I looked at Fava, who shook her head.
Inclito rumbled, "How could anybody know where every-body's been?"
"To the best of your knowledge, " I told him.
"I think maybe… No." He shook his head. "Not that I know about."
"This story is about a man on Green, " I told them. "I'm not asking you to accept it. If you enjoy hearing it tonight, that's more than enough for me."
Here I ought to set down my own story, but I have written myself out already. I will leave it for next time-with Oreb's return, which was actually quite funny. But before I shut up this old pen case that my father must surely have left for me to find, I would like to record a very strange dream I had last night in the shop. I would love to know what it means, and If I don't write about it soon, it seems likely I will forget it.
I was back in the pit, sitting in the middle of it as I actually did for so many hours. A copy of the Chrasmologic Writings lay next to me, a student's copy, thick and small, on very thin paper. Thinking that I might as well prepare my mind for Scylsday, I picked it up and opened it. Opposite the printed page was a picture of Scylla in red, and while I studied the facing page she struggled to escape from hers. I thought, "Oh, yes. What seems like a picture to me seems like a membrane to her, a greased skin stretched tight over the Sacred Window." In my dream this peculiar idea struck me as perfectly true and perfectly ordinary, something that I had known all my life but had rather lost sight of.
At the end of each verse I read, I watched her straining against the page with all ten arms. Very faintly I could hear her cry, "Help! Help!" And then, "Beware! Beware!, " like the bird in Inclito's mother's story. I woke up-or thought that I did-but the printed Scylla was still with me, calling out, "Help me! Help me!"
I sat up and stared around at the little stationery shop as though I had never seen paper or ledgers before; and in the precisely the same voice Oreb exclaimed (as he so often does), "Watch out!"