Strange. In the turmoil of the past few days, with everything so upside down we can’t even find our cooking gear and have to heat up our food in buckets and stir it with sticks, my grandmother Alexa’s book, which Aunt Lulu has been looking for in vain for months, has suddenly come to light.
Not all of it unfortunately – the second volume is still missing – but the most interesting part, the part that goes from Alexa’s twelfth birthday at the castle of Fànes to that terrible night, fourteen years later, when she escaped from the same castle through an underground passage in the company of her daughter Lujanta (Aunt Lulu to me) and a small band of survivors, never more to surface. Or not permanently, that is, not to settle, not to live.
I have been reading it: there’s not much else for me to do in my present condition, I certainly can’t help with the unloading. And I have been thinking, why shouldn’t I write my story too? Alexa wrote at a time of great distress, alone save for snoring Salvans, hidden in a burrow, betrayed, bereaved, defeated in all her aims, and seems to have drawn great comfort from her scribblings. The story gets grimmer, I mean, as it goes on but the actual hand gets perkier and perkier, and so does the tone. Why shouldn’t I do the same, with the same results?
Because your story is untellable, says a voice (I think it must be my own, coming from deep inside). Your story, you know quite well, if it is not to end in disaster for everyone, must remain a secret.
Yes, I know this. I have fought for this and paid for this and I am not likely to forget it. But Alexa’s book has shown me, amongst other things, that it’s not the keeping or telling of secrets that is important, so much as a clear setting out of the facts. Secrets lose their punch, like beer does, with the passing of time; go all flat and watery (and please the Gods my own will do the same). Who gives an apple pip now about the workings of the mysterious twin-swapping pact that caused Alexa such anguish, or about who sired her three children, or who they took after – the dirty Duke or the sleepy Salvan – or whether they had fingers or paws or hair or fur? Not even my father and Aunt Lulu, who were directly concerned in the matter, were much interested when they discussed it, that I recall.
But the facts, no, they keep their value. So much so that I am tempted as I read and come across certain descriptions to bite at my hands in typical Miner fashion and say to myself, if only I had know this before, perhaps I would have realised in time and wouldn’t have…
Which is silly and leads nowhere: what is done is done, and it is the future I must worry about, not the past. So I will write, because if I don’t I think I will go mad, waiting to know the worst; and then I will either tear up what I have written or else (if the worst turns out to be the best and my untellable crime goes unpunished) I will do as Alexa did and hide the manuscript in a clever place for some great-great-great-grandchild to find during a spring turnout.
What follows I dedicate to her, the grandmother I never met, save now, in her writings. I wonder what she would have thought of me? In her book she is often rude about Miners, unfeelingly likens my poor great-grandparents’ lopped-off heads to ‘a couple of undersized pumpkins, badly rotted’, mocks their stature, calls my mother ‘the Floor-mop’ on account of her ugliness and grubby clothes. What would she have said, I wonder, had she known it would be me, half Miner myself, the one to carry on her story – and perhaps (a big perhaps) her line?
My mother the Floor-mop was a princess, and Odolghes my father was a prince (even if he had forgotten he was one for the time being), so I must have been a princess too, like Alexa, but I was known from as far back as I can remember as Mara the Mongrel.
My parents’ was not a popular marriage. My grandfather probably thought he was doing a very cunning thing in luring the heir of Fànes to his court and wedding him, still a child, to his only daughter Sommavida, but as things turned out it was a great mistake in policy. Only a short while after the wedding, Fànes fell to its enemies in the great battle described at the end of Alexa’s book, its inhabitants were slaughtered (all of them, it was thought at the time), its timbers burned, its walls flattened, and instead of the heir to a rich and powerful kingdom he had set his hopes on, my grandfather found himself landed with a one-armed son in law who had no prospects and no connections and no memory, and nothing to recommend him at all except a sweet singing voice and a pretty pair of dark blue eyes.
The Miners were furious with my grandfather and I think quite rightly: as their Chief it was his duty to see clearer into the future. But the marriage knot had been tied and there was no untying it, so the Miner people just had to accept the fact that their beloved baby princess was spliced for life to this large, strange, moony, malformed pauper boy who could do nothing to earn his keep but sing songs in a language they hardly knew. When his voice started breaking they wanted to castrate him, so I’m told, in order that the voice at least would keep, but my mother, who could evidently see further into the future than her father, wouldn’t allow this. She couldn’t have been more that seven at the time but apparently she flew into a great temper and said that her husband’s body was incomplete enough as it was, thank you very much, and she would stand for no more missing bits.
Good for her. If left to himself, I doubt my father would have raised a finger in protest, because at that time – before his memory came back, and with it all the rest – he was still in what the Fanes call ‘visidàja’, or waking sleep, and what the Miners called, much more simply, the clouds. The voice kept anyway; got even better when it changed.
He was a terrible embarrassment to me. It was bad enough being Mara the Mongrel, twice as tall as the other children and with great big sturdy feet and floppy hair, without being the daughter of the Loon, the Crooner, the Empty-Head and all the other rude names they called him by. Sometimes I even used to think I hated him, but I didn’t because you couldn’t hate him, he was so gentle, so patient, so good-natured. And of course the memory trouble made him so easy to hurt. ‘Where d’ya come from, Woad-eyes?’ the young men used to taunt. ‘Why don’t ya go back there? Lost yer way? Lost yer wits? Or did you never have none?’ And instead of answering back my father would blink at them, worried, and his brow would go all wrinkly as he tried to jolt his sleeping memory back to life.
Who was he? Where did he come from? Who gave him this strange name Ododghes, which meant eagle, or baby eagle, in Miner language, and made everyone laugh and flap their arms at him when they said it? Who taught him the songs that only he, among this race of little dark hireling metal-grubbers, appeared to know? Why was he such a misfit? Why could he never do anything useful to please people? Why was his own daughter ashamed of him, to the point of hiding her feet in shoes by day and bed socks by night and chopping off her lovely rippley hair? They told him he was a Fane, but what was a Fane? Was it a disease? It certainly felt like it. These are the thoughts that I now imagine used to go through my father’s poor misty head in the days of his visidàja, but at the time I didn’t imagine anything, I just turned my back on him like everyone else and laughed.
My mother was the only person who seemed to care for him, but even she did so in an offhand, jokey way. He had come to her as a playfellow, and a playfellow he had remained, even if their games had changed a bit in the meantime. She used to plait his hair for him, I remember, in the evenings, twisting his head from side to side as if he were a doll, and dress him up nicely and play the zither for him while he sang his songs. ‘Odolghes,’ she used to say, ‘Honeycake, Sweetiepud, who do you belong to?’ And then, not waiting for a reply (because questions of this kind always puzzled him), ‘To me, that’s who. To Sommavida. You are Sommavida’s pet eagle.’ Only she treated him, of course, like we all did, more as a pet duck.
I have already said how pointless it is to ponder over the past with it ifs and might-have-beens, but all the same I can’t help wondering what would have happened if those Wanderers with their strange package had never arrived that evening in our camp. Or if they had never unwrapped the package, the way they did, in order to try and sell its contents to us. Would my father have gone on always the way he was: a harmless, dreamy creature, bumbling about in uncomplaining idleness on the fringes of our lives, singing on command, smiling always, holding pins in his mouth for my mother while she sewed and smiling even then? Or would something inside of him have stirred at some point and eventually led him to rebel?
And what about our Miners’ way of life? Would we have continued our perilous hoppings from place to place in search of work that was less and less easy to come by? Carried on with our ill-paid scrabblings for metal that was harder and harder to find? We were like Wanderers ourselves in those days. Worse, we were like bears: used, like them, to sniff out the honeycombs and then hunted for our skins. I was born to such a life so I saw no hardship in it, but the elders, round the dampened embers of our fires at night, used to moan and grumble and speak of happier times when the Miner folk had been rich and respected. ‘Aurona,’ they used to sigh. It was a good sighing word. ‘Those were the days, before the wars, when we lived in Aurona. Remember? Didn’t have to douse the fires then. Used to let them burn into the night like beacons.’ And someone else, always an oldie, would grunt and say sadly, Yer, yer, how could they ever forget?
And me too? What about me? Would I have gone on despising my father, who I loved? Or would I have got over my shame and become friends with him, accepting his differences? I like to think I would have discovered him for myself, later on, and perhaps helped him to discover his past as well, which was part of mine. But anyway it wasn’t necessary because the object inside the Wanderers’ package did the work for both of us.
It was the oddest thing. It was latish when it happened, almost the time for drowsing, not for awakening. Work was over for the day and we younger ones were scurrying around doing all the usual things that needed doing every evening – fetching water for cooking and for the diggers to wash their hands in, stoking up the fires, putting away the tools and so forth – when suddenly the pack-dogs set up a great noise, and a group of four straggly Wanderers appeared out of the dusk, carrying something the size of a smallish piglet, wrapped in a blanket.
Not that there was anything so strange in this. The Wanderers always came by in the evenings, when they knew the camp was full. They always brought goods for sale too – mostly food, mostly stolen, mostly pretty stale. But this time you could tell from their faces and the care with which they handled the package, not letting any of us touch it or peek under the folds of the blanket, that they had come by something special.
‘Where’s Chief?’ they asked, pinching at us rudely the way they always did. ‘Where’s all your mummies and daddies? Go and fetch ’em, truffle pups, we’ve got something they might like to see.’
Truffle pups! Normally I wouldn’t have bothered about fetching my father, but he and my mother were together that evening, in one of their giggly plaiting sessions, so as chance would have it he came along too, together with everyone else. In fact he was one of the first to arrive and had a very close view.
When we were all gathered in a circle around them, the Wanderers, who have a great sense of occasion and are good about puffing up their wares, leaned forward in concord and took a corner of the blanket each between thumb and finger, ready to uncover whatever it was they lay underneath. ‘Oohoo!’ said their leader, ‘Wait for it, wait for it!’ Then with a loud, trumpety ‘Ta-ta-ra-ta’, he gave the signal to his companions to twitch away the cover.
Without Odolghes and his curious behaviour the object would have come to all of us, I think, as a disappointment. It was just another piece of blond iron – curiously fashioned, yes, very finely wrought and well decorated, but basically just another metal corselet of the kind worn by our one-time allies and now sworn enemies the Cajutes. Of which we had already seen more than enough.
The head Wanderer, sensing the letdown, had begun to add a bit more patter. ‘Small,’ he was saying. ‘See? Miner size. Just the job. Lovely bit of work. Don’t get this quality often, not on the market. Only one armhole, ’course, but that can soon be fixed. Must have been made for…’
But he never finished, because at that point, like a drunkard or a rabid dog, my father Odolghes reeled forward into the circle and began spinning round in circles of his own, his hands clasped to his head as if fearful it would burst open at the seams. ‘It’s my suit!’ he screamed, to everyone’s amusement and delight, and then consternation. ‘It’s my suit they stole from me! My birthday present that the traitors stole the night they left Fànes. Arrgh! Take it away! Cover it up!’ Then, twisting and snapping, still more dog-like (because the Wanderers, alarmed by the mention of stealing, had begun to replace the blanket), ‘No, don’t! Leave it there! Let me look. It’s coming back to me now. The suit of armour… The fittings with Nurse… My room in the turret… My cloth bear… Fànes, Alexa, Dolasilla… Everything… Arrgh!’ And he screamed that throaty scream again and began hitting his head with his hands instead of holding it. ‘What have they done to me? Where have they gone? Where have I been living all this time?’
The Wanderers, quite sure by now that they were being accused of theft, or would be in a moment, began protesting, and one of them tried to catch my father by his arm to stop him spinning, but everyone else seemed to understand that something important was happening inside his fuddled head. My mother most of all.
‘Let him be, you silly pedlars!’ she shouted. ‘Leave the armour where it is! No one’s blaming you for anything. Can’t you see it’s his memory coming back to him?’
And so it was. It must have been a terrible moment for my father. I sometimes try to put myself in his position and think what it must be like to have your mother and your sister and your father and your nurse, and your friends and your toys and your pets and your games, all whooshing into your head together like the waters of a blocked stream that has just come unblocked; churning and swirling and jostling for space, and shouting out, Here I am! Look at me, look at me, look at me! I’m your ma, remember? I’m your pa. (And what a pa!) Whooshing in and then – which I suppose must have been even worse – whooshing out again when you learn that they are all dead and gone and vanished for ever. No wonder Odolghes had to hold his headbones. No wonder, after we had bought the suit of armour off the Wanderers for him to keep, he spent the best part of the next fortnight crouched over it on all fours, murmuring to himself and tracing patters on the metal with his finger. He was travelling, you see. Backwards in time. Meeting people. Talking to them. Saying hello and goodbye. Forgiving them perhaps in some cases; in others not; in others still, just marking up the loss.
Our kinsfolk found him funnier than usual, and on their way to work would stop and ask him questions: ‘How’s it going, Odolghes? Found that cloth bear yet? Gonna wear that armour on your next birthday? Fit you a treat, it will.’ Silly things like that, no harm meant. But I could already see a change in him, a look in his eye I had never seen before, and for once I played no part in the teasing but sat by him instead and tried to help him on his journey.
He didn’t seem to notice me much but I think he was grateful, and, like the first stones of a wall that go underground but nevertheless keep the structure standing, I think this was when the foundations of my love for him were planted. Or perhaps they had been there all along. What is sure is that by the end of the fortnight, when my father finished his travelling in time and came to join us in the present as a proper thinking, feeling, remembering person, I was for the first time in my life, not proud exactly – that would come later – but unashamed to be his daughter.
I had learnt so much about him, you see, during this interval. Not from the story he told - which came out in bits and remained confused in my mind: just a jumble of treachery and bloodshed and poison and magic weapons and huge fat Dukes and wicked tutors and I know not what - but from certain incidents in the story that came across so clear they painted themselves inside my head like pictures. The day he received the suit of armour for his birthday, for example, and got such a wigging from his mother Alexa because he used the sword to chop up the toy bear that had been her present to him. I could just see him standing there in the huge castle bedroom, red-faced, puzzled, protesting, ‘But it was a fair fight, Mother. I cut off its arm to make us equal!’ Poor little Eagle Prince, caught up in things so much more complicated than he was, how could he understand the way Alexa felt about warfare, and why?
I could see him, too, on the dangerous day he came across the tutor, Mulebones, trafficking with the magic stone, and could hear the wobble in his voice (which luckily Mulebones missed) as he replied to the man’s angry questioning. ‘Notice? No, Muley. Why? What? I didn’t notice anything, I swear, I just wanted us to play chequers.’
I could see him in the forge, watching the making of the deadly blond iron that had made his people so powerful and so detested; see him trotting along in the wake of his bossy elder sister Dolasilla as she trained for battle, copying her movements, trying in spite of his drawback to cut the same dash. But clearest of all I could see him, six years old and still a little lost in the grownups’ world, as he climbed onto the Miners’ sledge that was to carry him away from his homestead for ever. How much had Alexa told him? Did he know the peril that hung over Fànes and everyone who remained there? Did he know he was being taken to safety? Or did he think, as children often do when they are caught up in tragedy, that he was being punished for something he had done wrong? And, if so, was that why the clouds came down and blanketed his memory: to protect him from things that were too sad to dwell on?
Yes, I think that is the way it must have been. Anyway, a bit late in the day maybe, but now the clouds had lifted. That evening, almost as if he had forgotten his usual place by my mother’s knee and took his new one for granted, he sat himself down in the middle of the ring of tired workers and asked for their attention. He got it too, more or less straight away, which shows how much he had altered in the interval. ‘You have been good to me, Miners,’ he began, quelling the titters of laughter with a flash of his new wide-awake eyes – still blue and kind but now not half so smiley. ‘And you have been patient with me. It is time I did something for you in return. Until now I have eaten your food and sung songs for you, much like the linnets you keep in cages and take down the mines with you to warn you of the vapours. But now that I have more to offer than just my voice, I intend to show my thanks.’
Such a flow of words, so well strung together, seemed to act on my kinsmen like a biff on the head, half stunning them. Miners are gruff talkers themselves and have a great, if grudging, respect for fine speaking.
‘You have always reminded me that I am a Fane,’ my father went on in the silence. ‘But in your kindness you have never reminded me what I owe you as a Fane. I was sent here by my mother as a guest, I remember that now, as part of an agreement. But I also remember – correct me if I am wrong – that another part of the agreement concerned the recovery of your most prized possession: your magic iron-finding stone. The Fanes, unless I am mistaken, undertook to find this stone for you and to return it to you at the earliest opportunity; and this, so far, has not been done.’
Nobody corrected him, although my grandfather, who was probably feeling a bit uneasy at this sudden and detailed awakening of his son in law’s memory, down to the very terms of the agreement (which had said nothing about marriage), started to cough and mumble something about not keeping people to impossible promises and letting bygones be bygones.
‘Ah,’ my father intervened, pulling himself up to his full sitting height. He had always been large compared to the Miners but now he looked like a giant. ‘That’s just it. The promise is not impossible and I intend to keep it. Mulebones the Traitor stole the stone, I know this beyond a doubt. Just as I know what he did with it later: he sold it to the Cajutes along with the secret of the blond iron, in exchange for the gold.’
This last word broke the silence that up till now, apart from my grandfather’s mutterings, had been almost total. ‘Our gold! Miners’ gold!’ everyone shouted, rattling their knives on their bowls so loud that my father had to wait a while before he could go on again. ‘Our stuff! Our pretty yellow treasure!’
‘Indeed,’ Odolghes said when his voice could be heard again. Which I thought was a very dignified way of half-agreeing: it was true, the gold had belonged to us Miners once, but my grandfather had spent it all in the wars, paying the Cajutes to fight on our side, and the expense still rankled. ‘So who has the magic stone now, eh? The Cajutes, of course. And it is from them that I propose to rescue it and bring it back to its rightful owners.’
If there had been silence before, now there was a hush as deep as the one you get down a mine shaft on a rest day. Was this a joke, I could sense my kinsfolk thinking? Was this the Loon up to another of his fooleries, wasting everyone’s time? Or was the fellow serious?
My mother was the first to find an answer to this question, but then she had been watching her playfellow-husband for days now, seeing him grow into something different and unpredictable under her troubled eyes. ‘No, Odol, please!’ she begged, breaking into the circle and rushing up to him and putting her arms round his shoulders. Protecting him like she always did. ‘You’re tired, you’re confused, you don’t know what you’re saying! He doesn’t know what he’s saying!’ she repeated loudly for everyone else’s benefit. ‘No one can enter the Cajutes’ stronghold. How can he recover our stone for us?’ This she repeated too, but quietly, in the other direction, towards my father. ‘No one, sweetest, can enter the Cajutes’ stronghold. How can you recover our stone for us? Be sensible, how can you?’
My father had always welcomed this way of hers of cushioning him against the world, acting as his mouthpiece and his interpreter, but this evening he seemed to resent it. He shook her hands off his shoulders almost rudely and addressed himself again directly to the Miners. ‘Think of me what you like, Miner people,’ he said, ‘call me what names you like, but do not call me a braggart. I know I haven’t done much so far to earn your trust, but, by the womb of the Earth Goddess whom you fear so greatly, I swear to you that from today onwards I will not rest until I have returned to you your magic stone.’
I think he added, ‘And much else besides,’ but it was lost in the hooha that followed. Cheers, clapping, footstamping, yells of ‘Good old Cuckoo-pate, at last he’s waking up!’ more clattering of knives and banging of bowls, and above it all, on a thinner, higher note, the sound of my mother’s wailing. ‘No-oooo, Odol, no-ooo!’ like a mother who has lost a child, or fears she is about to lose one. Which she was, of course, although nobody realised this yet, myself least of all.
(Chapter 2 will be posted on Sunday, April 26th 2010)