Morin in Salvan language means a mill, and deep down under the living quarters there was in fact a grinding apparatus for corn and spelt and other grainstuffs, powered by an underground watercourse. That night I could only hear a faint purring through my pillow as I dropped off to sleep again, but next morning in the eating room, which was one level lower, the sound was unmistakable, almost a roar.
Aunt Lulu, as I had been told to call her for short, said what with noise and low ceilings and lack of light there were days, particularly in the summer, when she thought the place would drive her crazy. She had lived there all her life so she should know, but to me it seemed a perfect home. I loved the clean earthy smell of it, the warmth, the comfort, the well-swept corridors with the bunches of herbs and roots and onions hanging on the walls. I loved the kitchens, where the cooks spoilt me and fed me titbits and told me about my grandmother and how beautiful she was and how she had taught them all their best recipes. ‘Didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her, though,’ they added with great admiration. ‘Oooh, no, no, no!’ I loved the schoolroom and all the funny children who gathered round to say hello and stare: woolly blondies, smooth-skinned darkies, long-eared lankies like my aunt, every sort of mixture of tall blond Fane and small dark furry Salvan that you can imagine.
Especially I loved my grandmother’s sitting room where she had spent the winters while the Salvans slept, and where the traces of her presence were most evident. I said at the beginning I never knew her directly until I read her book, but this is not quite true. Although she had been dead for three years and the room was now used partly for storage, her character was stamped on it as clearly as if it had been burned there with a brand. There were molehills in a corner, for instance, that she had never allowed to be destroyed because the scratchings of the moles kept her company; same thing for cobwebs of which there were festoons. There was a bird perch for the tame owls she kept as pets (that must have been slightly unnerving for the moles), and a hole in the ceiling through which they had used to come and go as they felt inclined – like cats in other houses, Odolghes remarked. There was her old sewing basket – dreadfully untidy, with all the needles missing and the threads rolled into a ball. There were her painting brushes in a jar, heads like teasels, handles chewed to pulp; her carpentry tools, bent and chipped and most of them unserviceable. From these and other signs it was her impatience that came over strongest: her impatience and her solitude and her courage in fighting against both. ‘Boil Nurse!’ she had carved on the tabletop that had served as her writing desk. And a little lower down: ‘No company is better than bad company.’ Only this she had altered various times, switching the No and the Bad until you could hardly tell which was the version she finally settled for. I imagine, cooped up for so many winters with the Nurse and the babies as sole wakeful companions, she was uncertain about it herself.
Aunt Lulu seemed to be suffering from the same problem, although not so severely because she was half Salvan and therefore of a calmer temper. When we had got our strength back and it was time for Odolghes and me to leave, she grew very sad and dreamy for a practical person like her and said, Oh how she wished she was coming with us, to a proper house above ground where daylight shone through the windows all year round. Life was so short, it seemed a crime to spend half of it dozing in the dark, and brothers and nieces like us were so few and so precious, and the Great Battle had been such a long time ago…
‘Then come, for the Sun God’s sake!’ Odolghes interrupted her, speaking sharply and staring into the distance. They had grown thick as thatch during the three days of our stay and I think he was just as upset about their parting as my aunt was, only he showed it in a different way. ‘Don’t just stand there snivelling, round up your people and come. There’s room for everyone in Mill Brook, I’ve already told you. Work too. And if it’s the Cajutes you’re worrying about, don’t: they live too far away and are too busy fighting the Ampezzani now to bother about a warrenload of Salvans and a bunch of intermingled Fanes. You’ll be every bit as safe as you are here, and a darn sight warmer and better fed.’
‘I know, Eaglet,’ my aunt said. It was funny to hear him called by his Fanish name; made him sound like a child. ‘We’ve been over all this before. And I’ve already given you my answer. I can’t, not while so many of the old ones are still alive. It wouldn’t be fair on them, they wouldn’t fit in, wouldn’t adapt to the noise and the bustle. Try to understand. I long to join you myself and so do the youngsters, but it’d be asking too much of the others, poor dears, to change their home and habits at their time of life.’
Odolghes blew through his lips and said that the noise question could easily be dealt with by stowing the Deep-sleepers away for the winter in packing cases in the cellars, the way he remembered his mother used to do with her Salvan companion, Sonia. But he said it without conviction: Aunt Lujanta had left this unsaid, but the older Salvans didn’t take to Miners much, nor the other way round, on account of those years of Alexa’s regency when the two tribes had been enemies. The first day some of them had even wrinkled up their noses at me: a rude way of showing me they didn’t like my smell.
So in the end Odolghes shrugged and gave up, and he and I left Morin de Salvans alone, on foot, with nothing to remind us of Lujanta except the food she gave us for our journey, a copper circlet for me that had belonged to my grandmother, and a few vague promises of a future life together in Mill Brook when the ‘old’ Salavans were dead. Aunt Lulu was getting on for being an old Salvan herself: I didn’t say so to Odolghes but I feared she might be dead too before she could set about keeping her word.
END OF PART ONE (beginning of part 2, LIDSANEL, coming up next sunday June 27th 2010)