How did my mother know the change in Odolghes was so serious? How did she know what it would lead to? Do wives have a secret way of finding out these things? Do mothers? Or was it that she had always known in her heart of hearts that her misfit husband was lent to her by Fortune, not given for keeps? ‘Who do you belong to, Honeycake? To me, to Sommavida.’ Was that why she had to repeat this phrase so often: because she knew it wasn’t really true and never would be? Poor Mother, so drab, so plain, like a little brown she-sparrow, with her beautiful captive eagle that was now spreading its wings and preparing to fly. What could she do to stop him?
In fact she could do quite a lot, and did. Although her strongest weapon she was too generous, and perhaps too proud, to use. For a start she persuaded her father (not that that was very difficult) to give Odolghes no help in his task. He wanted to forge an iron arm for himself, did he, to wear under his cloak so as to hide his deformity? Very well, let him forge it himself if he was able. He wanted a companion to take with him and play the zither? Let him whistle for one: no Miner, male or female, young or old, would have the Chief’s permission to leave the camp. Then, when these threats failed, and Odolghes could be seen busy at the anvil every day, pounding away with his one good arm, using toes and teeth and the little red stump of a hand that grew on his right shoulder, she refused to pack his bags for him, or plait his hair or tie his laces, or do any of the two-handed tasks she had always done for him so willingly before. And when it was clear not even this would thwart him, she began secretly, as a last resort, to add poppy juice to his evening meal, hoping in this way to bring the clouds back. Which it might well have done, had not one of the cooks eaten some of the food on the sly and gone all dopey, exposing the trick.
I don’t know about my father, whether the shock helped him speed up his decision to leave, or whether he was ready in any case, but as far as I was concerned it was this business of the poppy juice that made up my mind for me. I had been wondering for days, Whom should I side with? Which parent should I choose? Loyalty told me, my mother, who needed me and worked so hard for me. Pity told me, my mother, who would miss me terribly. Caution told me, my mother; comfort told me, my mother; even greed told me, my mother (because what would I get to eat if I had to rely on Odolghes’ cooking?). But pity also told me, my father, for having treated him so badly in the past and paid so little heed to him. Loyalty also told me, my father, who’d never had any from me yet. And another thing – I don’t know what it was: curiosity, daring, sense of adventure – told me my father too. My father, and new places and new people, and the court of the Cajutes with the riddle of how to get in and how to get out again, and the thrill of coming back with the famous stone that everyone set such store by, and hearing them say (instead of Mara the Mongrel), Mara the Marvellous did this with her brave and clever dad!
The two pulls remained about equal though, so I really didn’t know which way to go. Not until I saw the cook lying by the fire with his upturned belly and his squiffy, dreamy eyes, and then anger at my mother for wanting to reduce Odolghes to this state in order to keep him, got the better of me and I made my choice.
Or, as Alexa would say, I cast my die, whatever a die is. Quickly, stealthily, without saying anything to anybody, I collected a few useful things like clothes and nuts and cheese and toothpicks (I hate having bits of nuts in my teeth) and tied them into a bundle, of a size I could easily carry. I put on my strongest shoes too, the ones I used for ore-crushing, and my leather hat and jacket and my thickest fur-lined breeches. Then, fat as a thrush, with the bundle on my back, I went and sat in the shadows, a good distance from the fire where all the fuss was going on, and waited for my father to finish his leave-taking. He was so furious I knew he wouldn’t be long.
From where I was, it was difficult to hear what he was saying, but words reached me like ‘trap’ and ‘cage’ and ‘smother’ and ‘apron strings’, and I guessed he was accusing my mother – perhaps my grandfather too – of treating him as a sort of prisoner all these years. Which I suppose in their different ways they had.
My mother’s voice was shriller and carried better. ‘Go then, you antwit,’ she shrieked at him, ‘if that is what you want! Go and play the hero! Walk right into the ogre’s den! Show everyone how brave you are! Nice satisfaction it’ll bring you when you’re roasting on the Cajutes’ gridiron, to know that everyone thinks you’re brave!’
Odolghes must have said something soothing at this point about performing his task in a twinkling and coming back soon, but it didn’t seem to soothe my mother. Her voice went down a notch but remained just as loud. ‘If you do ever come back I shan’t be here!’ she shouted, biting at her hands until it looked as if she must wound them. ‘Remember that. If you leave me now it is for ever!’
It was her last desperate attempt to keep him, but my father was unmoved. I don’t think he believed her really, any more than I did: she was always threatening to do drastic things if she didn’t get her own way, it was something to do with being the Chief’s daughter and an only child. And even if he had believed her I don’t think it would have made much difference. Not that he wasn’t fond of Sommavida, but in his new state he needed to prove so many thing to himself, not least that he could manage without her help. It’s sad isn’t it, between couples, how the needs on one sometimes go flat against the needs of the other?
I saw him turn from her curtly, shrugging his shoulders so that the new false arm swayed and looked for a moment as if it might come off. He was so keen to be going, I’m not certain he even said goodbye. And then, as I got up and prepared to follow him, I saw my mother (and will always see her so, whenever I think of her) sink to her knees and take her hands from her mouth and cross them over her belly, as if all the wrangling had given her the tummyache. Only it wasn’t that, I know that now.
It was almost dark by this time, and I am not at ease in darkness, being only half a Miner, but I didn’t catch up with my father to let him know I was there until we were miles away from the camp: I was afraid he wouldn’t want me and would send me back.
It was hard going. Odolghes had good ears, and I had to keep a fair distance between us, so I was in constant danger of losing him. He didn’t know the country either, or even where he was going, and instead of sticking to the paths he wove around all over the place, stomping through woods and slopping into streams, climbing and descending all the steep places, walking, in short, like a blind man.
The Salvans say that with animals nerve is everything, and perhaps his stumbly, noisy progress was not such a bad idea because we had no trouble from the night prowlers, I didn’t even hear a growl. Eventually we hit on a track of some kind, man-made and widish, and it was here, when he reached the first clearing and tripped over a tree stump, that Odolghes took a breather and I made my presence known.
As I feared, his first reaction was to tell me, pretty sharply, to beat it back to the camp. He couldn’t possibly take me from my mother, he said, she was unhappy enough as it was, and he couldn’t possibly take me where he was going because it was far too dangerous.
Now I am not wily and I am not particularly clever at getting round people, but in this case I was so anxious to share Odolghes’ adventure that I did just the right thing to persuade him: instead of pleading or wheedling or indeed saying anything at all, I tied up his trailing laces for him that had been part of the reason for his tripping, fixed his plaits and his undone cloak-strap and ran my hands over the strings of the zither hung round his neck, making a loud Ploing! noise in the darkness and conveying my message for me: I can be you right hand for you, Odolghes, I can be your music-girl, take me along and you will not regret it. Then, still without saying anything, I opened my bundle and took out some nuts and began to crack them. Because I knew unpractical Odolghes would have forgotten about food.
A proper grownup father wouldn’t have been won round so easily maybe, but mine was not a proper grownup father, not yet, and he laughed and squeezed my hand and took some nuts from me and said, hardly bothering to think the matter over at all, ‘Very well then, Miss Mongrel, so be it, we will go into the ogre’s den together. You’re not afraid, are you?’
‘Ttt,’ I shook my head. If we went as music makers I reckoned I wasn’t afraid. Nobody kills singers; at worst they push them out into the cold if they don’t like the song.
‘Good,’ my father said. ‘No more am I.’
‘You mustn’t call me Mongrel though,’ I warned him, ‘or the Cajutes may begin to wonder who we are. Not Mara either. And I mustn’t call you Odolghes. We mustn’t use any Miner words when we are together; we must be new, mysterious people from a far off place nobody has heard of. I know! I could pretend to be dumb and you could talk to me in sign language – like that we can be sure we won’t make any blunders.’
‘Ye-es,’ said Odolghes doubtfully, and then ‘Yes’ again as he warmed to the idea. ‘But what about my songs? I can’t very well sing them in sign language, can I? What do I do about my songs?’
Of course, I was forgetting, the songs were in Fanish, and Fanish was more dangerous for us than Miner-speak. ‘You make up new words for them,’ I said after a moment’s thought. ‘Or else you sing the old words backwards.’ I nearly added, ‘And then, when you have picked up enough of the Cajutes’ language, you sing to them in that,’ but I didn’t, because the thought of a long stay with such horrible people as the Cajutes made me shiver.
My father laughed again and kissed my fingertips and said he was glad to have me with him. Then in a different voice, hesitant, slightly uncomfortable, he said, Sorry to ask such a question, but how old was I?
I tried not to sound surprised. In fact I wasn’t really surprised: the years without memory must have passed for him in a muddling, stretchy way, sometimes long, sometimes short. ‘I’m six and a half, Father. The age you were when you came to the camp.’
‘Six and a half.’ He cracked a nut with his iron hand, picking it up with the other and letting it fall hard on the tree stump. (He mustn’t do that in front of the Cajutes.) ‘Six and a half. Well, well, well. How time gallops.’ And then, still more uncomfortable, ‘And I? Do you know how old I am?’
Poor Odolghes, so he didn’t know this either. I wondered whether to lie to him but decided truth was better. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘You are twenty-two.’
The iron hand jerked again, but from the shoulder this time, unaided. ‘Twenty-two!’ he echoed. ‘Twenty-thundering-two! Trust me: backward in everything! That makes - what is it? Sixteen, sixteen lost years. Gone. Wasted. Chucked out with the slag.’
There was little I could say to this because at twenty-two Odolghes was one of the oldest fathers in the camp, and this had used to embarrass me about him too. Old a babyish together, what could be worse in a parent? However the ‘visidàja’ and the easy life must have kept him fresh, because luckily he didn’t look his age at all. ‘Don’t worry,’ I comforted him, reminding him of all the excitement in store once we got inside the Cajutes’ castle. ‘We’ll make up for lost time now.’
(next chapter next wednesday, may 5th 2010