I can’t remember exactly how long it was after granting his petition that I began to notice Tarlui had a son with him, not included in the request. And I can’t remember either how long it was before I began to notice the son – not just as one of Tarlui’s belongings like his medallion or his clasp-knife or the many bags and bundles and bottles that cluttered up his hut, lining it almost to the smoke-hole, but as a person in his own right.
Probably, as regards the first point, it was just under a year. This may have been because Tarlui had told the boy to lie low and not to mix with Miners until it was certain the Fever danger was past, or it may have been that the boy himself was shy and kept out of my way, or it may simply have been because I had other things to think about. Like trying to fulfil our outstanding contracts with only half our former workforce, and cadge new orders for the coming year when most of our clients were too scared of infection to come anywhere near us, and keep the books, and pay for goods, and settle disputes, and generally carry out all the umpteen boring tasks that now fell to my lot as leader. (And a leader, what was worse, without the aid of any advisor at all. Because when in due course I proposed making Tarlui my secretary – as a first, cautious step towards appointing him Counsellor in Tusky’s place, Tusky took such offence and stirred up such a shindig about ‘foreigners’ and ‘pale-eyes’ and ‘nosepokers’ and ‘bloodsuckers’ that I had to change my mind and withdraw the offer. And by then I was so cross with Tusky that I couldn’t work with him either, so in the end I had to keep my own counsel and be content, for copying and checking, with lazy Bruno, my former tutor.)
Anyway it can’t have been more than a year because I clearly recollect seeing the boy with the other children at the commemoration ceremony in honour of the Fever victims, exactly one year later, and feeling a stab of sympathy with him on account of the way he stuck out from the group, with his long bony legs and skimpy hand-me-down clothing and undressable hair, worse than a pony’s forelock. I imagined they had names for him already and wasn’t a bit surprised to discover that they did, and that he was know as Cafusc: a shepherd’s word, very coarse, meaning dark of pelt, and used for those brackish coloured sheep whose wool nobody wants and that are looked on as pretty well worthless, save for chops. If ever I spoke of him, which I suppose I might have done now and then, I think I probably called him that myself – his real name, with its flavour of Lists and Bouts and Combatants, being absurd in one so small and scruffy. How is little… Whatsit… um… Cafusc getting on, Tarlui? Is he growing used to Miner life? Is he working at his singing?
As regards the second point: my seeing him as an individual in his own right, I have no such convenient marker to aid me, but I reckon it was closer to five years than to one, and maybe even closer to seven than to five, and seem to remember that it came about in bits and pieces over a longish period of time – coinciding, I suppose, with his final, amazing burst of growth. Voice; eyes; a foot (yes, definitely a foot if not both: I always notice people’s feet); a sunburnt forearm; a twitch of the plait that he tied his hair in when he was working; a sudden glimpse of his shoulders, stripped bare for washing – separate items like those that gradually, barely denting my awareness, in the way you might hear a whinny one day and see a hoof print the next and a fleck of piebald amongst the trees the next and finally say to yourself, Ah, yes, there’s a horse somewhere about, must have been there for some while – that gradually came together to form the whole person. Although more than person, to tell the pure and unpolished truth, what they really came to form was Man, with a big bold capital M, as written on the milk buckets to stop them getting muddled with the others.
It was awful, it was so shaming. And yet it wasn’t, it was wonderful. I was in my early twenties by the time it came about – an oldish woman by Miner standards, getting on for granny age – and I’d never been courted by anybody or felt as if I wanted to be. The whole business of choosing a partner and fiddling around with them in the dark and then exchanging vows and leaving one household for another and starting a family and all that fuss was a complete mystery to me; I couldn’t think why people bothered. I presided over the marriages because it was my duty, and said all the right words, and handed out the rings to put on the newlyweds’ fingers and sprinkled gold dust over their beds and so forth and entered their names in the register in big curly letters, but the reasons for what I was doing, or, more to the point, for what they were doing, were an unsolved riddle in my mind.
Even when Jet fell in love – as she did, desperately, miserably, with our best splitter, Peres, who was already married – I wasn’t much the wiser. Every night for months on end I used to listen to her wails and try to sound sympathetic and give advice, but really, for all the sense it made to me, she might have been speaking Ampezzani-gabble.
‘Forget about him, silly. Set your cap at someone else who’s free.’
‘I can’t, I can’t. There isn’t anybody else!’
Which besides daft was simply false. The Fever had thinned our numbers maybe, but there were still plenty of spare males in the tribe for the picking, even for someone of Jet’s age. Half a dozen widowers at least, seeing that she liked them weathered, and even one or two tough old boots who’d never married and were always on the lookout, like Willy the Welder and Tusky himself. I would list their names for her, and she would shudder and wail all the harder. Peres! Peres! Peres was the only man in the world she wanted.
‘Then take him,’ I would advise, losing patience. ‘Take him as your lover and keep quiet about it.’
But this wasn’t much help to her either. She wanted that, of course she did, but she wanted other things as well.
‘Like what?’ On this head I was quite interested.
Oh, silly things, she explained, like wanting to take care of him and boil his soup and mend his mitts, and be there to say goodnight to him at the end of the day.
That sounded workable. ‘Then ask his wife. I don’t know about your hanging around in the evenings but I’m sure she’ll be willing to let you give a hand during the day with the cooking and darning.’
At this point Jet would usually break down altogether and accuse me of being unfeeling. Which of course is exactly what I was. Odolghes was so far the only man I had ever wanted to do things for in the way Jet described, but he had been my father and therefore did not count. Then there had been the boys, my little half brothers, but they had been babies and didn’t count either. Otherwise my closest experience to anything resembling what Jet described was my interest – and I’m not sure it was even that because he was dead boring when I got to speak to him – in a young Trusani horseman who used to come as an outrider with the wagon to collect orders, around the time the wall was being built. He was tall, taller than I was by a head at least, even out of the saddle, and despite his height he stood up straight, on widely planted feet as big as snow shoes. It may have been just this – his size and swagger – but I remember thinking him very fine, and running to the gateway, season after season, each time I heard wheels, in the hope of seeing him. And of seeing him see me, too, and stare at me in a way none of my fellow tribesmen ever did: appreciative, hungry, with a sort of smouldering, melty quality in the eye that I associated for some reason with gold parting – perhaps on account of the shiver it sent down my spine.
With Lidsanel all this changed in the space of a dozen or so heartbeats. And what heartbeats! As I said, I don’t remember much about the early flirty stages of our affair, because I was still in my cocoon or shell or husk or whatever it was that sealed me off so tightly from the world of lovers; but I remember clear as rock crystal the moment I emerged from it and knew, beyond doubt and beyond going back and beyond caring what the gossips might say about it, that this was love and that I was in it. Like everybody else (which was a relief: to know that I was normal and not, as I had heard Tusky call me behind my back, a blooming great she-mule), and at the same time like nobody else had ever been before or ever would be.
I was in bed and ill. I remember that too, indeed it would be difficult now to forget. Over the past year I had often been ill. Nothing terrible and sudden like the Brain Fever, but a creeping, nagging, lingering malaise without a name and without a place either, that would come and go and stop and start and rise and fall, as capricious as a mist. Sometimes it would be in my stomach, making me sick and putting me off my food; sometimes in my head, causing the most fearful aches behind my eyes. At other times it seemed to sink right down into my feet, which became all chapped and dark, quite like a Miner’s should be, only in my case the dark would not wash off; and at other times still – and these were the most frequent – it would seep everywhere and I would become tired and listless, and my hair would moult in handfuls, and my heartbeat would thud slower and slower, like the plod, plod, plod of an old pack-dog, until it seemed it must stop altogether.
Tarlui tended me, assisted as a rule by Jet, who was as clever as her mother used to be at measuring out all the powders and potions and stuff that Tarlui insisted I should take. (And clever at getting them down me too. Poor, zealous, well-meaning Jet, how hard she used to plead with me to swallow them!) But on this particular day she must have been resting or busy elsewhere, because Tarlui came into the sickroom accompanied not by her but by this unobtrusive son of his – Lidsanel, known as Cafusc – whom so far I had seen and not seen, in bits and bobs or altogether as maybe, and noticed and not noticed, but who already had the power, when he drew close to the bed, to send the old pack-dog rhythm of my heartbeat racing like a harrier’s.
He told me later he was convinced I was dying, or he never would have had the courage to behave the way he did, being so much younger and the son of a hireling; but I’m not sure this is quite true. My suspicion was, and still is, that he cheated a little, like I did myself, and used the illness as an excuse. As a kind of lovers’ cattle goad, if such a thing can be imagined, designed to chase us without further delay into each other’s arms.
Tarlui was already at work in the far corner of the hut with his weights and scales and spoons, preparing my medicine (or whatever I should call it), but apart from the tinkling of his instruments, which set up a treble to the low boom, boom, boom of my suddenly racing heart, I barely noticed him. I think he may have called out something to Lidsanel by way of instructions – something not very pleasant, something like, ‘Don’t just stand there loafing, boy. Make yourself useful. Put the bed to rights. Empty the squat-pail. Get her to sit up if you can.’ But if he did, Lidsanel didn’t appear to notice him either.
It was weird. So weird that if we’d had any sense we should have stopped to ask the reason. We were separate from one another: he standing by the bed, me lying on it; he male, me female; he young, me not so young; he healthy, me quite the reverse; but in some way it is hard to describe (I think from habit in terms of metal fusion, only it was even queerer and faster than that) we were already as united and indivisible as the two sides of Tarlui’s famous medal.
For what seemed ages we just stayed still in this position, staring at one another: a couple of sun-dazed owls. Stare, stare, stare, all else forgotten, on my side even breathing, until my chest lost patience and did it for me. We said nothing either, but messages seemed to course between us all the same: desire, love, need, astonishment – I don’t know what it was that they contained. ‘Don’t die, don’t leave me. Not now that things are just beginning.’ ‘Who talks of dying? Can’t you see how alive you make me feel?’ ‘What a lot of time we’ve wasted.’ ‘Never mind, time’s our slave, when we are together we can make it stop.’ ‘When we are together we will have other things to do than bother about time.’ ‘When we are together?’ ‘Yes, when we are together. Properly. Just the two of us and nothing in between.’ Then, as if to give me a foretaste of what he meant, Lidsanel bent down and took my hand, which was lying on the covers limp and white as a fish’s underside, and carried it to his mouth where he pressed it to his open lips so that I could feel the heat and wetness and the pressing of his tongue inside.
I also felt my hand change colour instantly as did my whole body, and in my embarrassment I remembered Tarlui. What was he doing? Was he watching us? Had he noticed what had happened between us, or was he still too busy with his mixtures?
He had noticed all right, I could see that the moment I turned my head in his direction and away from Lidsanel. He had noticed, and he was watching us with evident interest, his head cocked to one side and a funny smile on his face, musing and amused. ‘Ho, ho,’ he seemed to be saying to himself. ‘Ho, ho, so that’s the way it is. Well, well, well. My boy has found favour with the hefty Miner maiden, has he? Well, well, well.’
It was unusual for me to be able to read his thoughts in this way. It was unusual for anyone. Although he knew most of our folk inside out by now, from looking down our throats and into our ears and between our toes and places, the opposite did not hold true, and to us Miners he was still in many ways as much of a stranger as he had been when he first arrived. If we had parties, to celebrate a birth or a marriage or the clinching of a good contract or the like, he never came, so we never saw him drink or sing or do anything foolish or what you might call let his hair down at all. (His hair. More about that later.) If you asked him questions about his past, or about his origins, or even about his tastes in food or music – anything that went beyond the strict limits of business – he never answered them. It wasn’t that he refused to answer – he was far too polite for that – but he turned his politeness into a sort of shield with which to fend off the enquiry. ‘I like all the food that is served in Mill Brook, Lady Mara. I like all the music that is played. My home country? My youth? My childhood? Ah, I would not be bothering you with talk of such faraway things, not now when I have so many patients to attend to. Some other day perhaps…’ But that other day never came. His very face, with its fine drawn-back skin that had no give in it, and the thin, beardless mouth and pale-as-silver eyes, seemed made, like caskets are, for holding things in, hiding them from view. Thus I never knew either, not really, not then, whether he was content with his doctoring work or whether Tusky was right to be jealous of him, and all the while he was chafing with impatience, itching to be offered some other more important job and furious because it had been denied him.
And yet now, just for a moment, as I lay there awkwardly on the bed with my raised hand glued to his son’s mouth, the casket had opened and I had seen real interest on his face, and real, fast-moving thoughts behind it.
Or had I? No sooner was Tarlui aware of my movement than his head dropped promptly back over his pounding bowl, and when he looked up again, as he did almost immediately, leaving me just enough time to free my hand from Lidsanel’s clasp and place it demurely back on the covers, his face was smoothed again into a tactful, line-free blank. ‘And how is your Ladyship feeling today? Am I mistaken or is that a little more colour I see in your cheeks?’
I said as loudly as I could that I was feeling a lot better.
‘Good,’ he said, tilting his head as before and showing just the inkling of another smile. ‘Then perhaps it is time for us to pass to another mixture, a lighter one. In fact,’ and he set aside the mortar and gave it a little shove with his toe, upsetting it and spilling its contents on the floor, ‘we might try something quite different altogether. Yes, why not? Lidsanel!’
By my bedside I felt Lidsanel stiffen with resentment: despite having given him such a high-sounding name, Tarlui usually ordered him around like a scullery boy, and newly declared lovers are very anxious about dignity, I know I was. But the older man for once was gentle with him, almost respectful. ‘Lidsanel, my son, lend a hand to your old father, would you, in his work? Nip over to the dairy and see if the cowman can give you a bowl of milk for her Ladyship’s new potion. And mind it be fresh.’
‘A good boy,’ he said to me in a confidential voice when Lidsanel had gone, lowering his head to pillow level and peering at me closely with his keen medicine man’s eyes. ‘Handsome too, wouldn’t your Ladyship say? Or is that just a father’s partiality? Oh, I know by Miner standards a great cuckoo chick like him doesn’t cut much of a figure, but I think myself… well, that swag of hair, those thick dark eyelashes he takes from his mother, those long brown limbs, the muscular torso… My word! I was right, your Ladyship’s colour is definitely improving… Yes, I think myself they are points in his favour rather than defects. But I may be wrong. What is your Ladyship’s opinion?’
My Ladyship’s opinion was too intimate to be voiced. Now I knew exactly what Jet had been on about: mitts and soup wouldn’t have come top of my list perhaps, but I would have loved to do things for Lidsanel – anything, big or small, easy or difficult, to make his life nicer, give him pleasure. I lay outwardly still, inwardly bubbling like dross, until he came back with the milk, and then I think from weakness and excitement I must have fainted clean away.
And then have passed from swoon to sleep with no interruption, because the next thing I remember is waking up with the dark drops of an evening rainstorm seeping through a hole in the roofing and dripping onto my bedcovers, and feeling more comfortable and happy than I had felt in years.
On account of the change of ‘medicine’? Very likely on account of that as well. But mainly because a world than contained Lidsanel was no longer the drear and lonely place it had seemed to me without him, but a place in which everything, even rain, even leaks, seemed packed with promise.
(next chapter sunday july 18 2010)