Sunday, 4 July 2010

chapter 2

If Tusky meant good in the sense of useful (and there’s no point measuring the other sort of good yet, not until I know for sure the final outcome), then he was wrong. Tarlui was still there all right, in his hut by the gate, and Tarlui came, and did more, much more than make suggestions.

My first sight of him was off-putting, indeed off-scaring. He was slight and bent and ragged and filthy looking and wore a mask over his face which left only the eyes showing. Strange, pale coloured eyes like those of the mixed-blood Fanes I had met at my Aunt Lujanta’s, but with darker lashes, darker brows. I thought he must have the bone-rot and covered his face for that reason, but when he heard my gasp he was quick to reassure me. It was protection, he said, a measure for keeping diseases out, not in. We must all start wearing masks now; would I please get the housekeeper to start tearing up some linen strips with no delay.

His voice was quiet, lilting, no edge to it at all. I wasn’t expecting to be given such a strange order at such short notice by a total stranger, and a beggar at that, but I found myself rushing to the linen chests to do as I was bid. We had no real housekeeper because Friska never trusted anyone but herself with housework, so I just grabbed an armful of cloths and carried them back to Tarlui like a well-trained hunting dog. If I’d had a tail I’d probably have wagged it to show willing.

‘Excellent, my Lady,’ he said, making me wonder for a moment who he was talking to, and began dividing the cloths into strips himself with the aid of a dainty little clasp-knife which he pulled out from somewhere under the rags, measuring each strip carefully so that all were exactly the same size.

Appearances can be misleading because, dirty though he appeared on the outside, the man had a deep, almost religious regard for cleanliness. The next thing he did, after lining everyone up and handing out the masks, was to issue each of us with a personal chunk of soap from the stores. This chunk, he instructed, was to be kept knotted in a handkerchief tied at the waist, so as to be always readily available, and must be used every time the owner’s hands were in the least bit grubby. Fingernails would not pose much of a problem because Miners scarcely had any, but those who were in the habit of keeping one long nail for head scratching and teeth picking and whatnot must cut it short immediately. And the same went for toes. Bedding must be aired daily: taken out into the yard and shaken and beaten; garments must be washed; every healthy person must bathe every single day in the river no matter how cold the water, breaking a hole in the ice if need be. Food must be washed too. Spitting must cease. Noses must be blown into handkerchiefs.

Oh, and a hundred other fussy little rules of this kind. I remember getting more and more fidgety and finally interrupting him: he was here for sick, I reminded him, not for the healthy. My father was lying on his bed in agony, so were his sons, so were dozens of my kinsfolk; surely lessons on nail clipping and nose blowing could come later?

Tarlui, I was soon to discover, set nearly as much store by politeness as he did cleanliness, but on this occasion he was downright rude. If the lessons came later, he said, almost barked, they would come too late. Did I want him to fight the disease or didn’t I? Because if I did, I must let him go about it his way. The sick? Forgive his bluntness but there was nothing to be done for the sick, save, as an extreme remedy, the boring of a hole into their skulls to take the pressure off. And since very few ever recovered from that treatment, the longer we could wait before resorting to it, the better. Now, if I would please order the return of the shift workers and anyone else who happened to be outside the settlement for whatever reason, he would go through the drill a second time for their benefit.

If there had been anyone else to turn to, anyone else with the shadow of an idea of what to do, even if it had been only an old Tchicuta woman with poultices, or an Aguana with a dowsing twig, I think I would have sent Tarlui packing after this speech. (Or tried to: given the scale of his preparations it would not have been easy.) But there was no one. Friska was with her children, and she was already feeling ill herself. Jet was ailing too. Tusky was hopeless in emergencies, and for all I knew had already carried out his threat and jumped into the river with his pockets full of slag. Not such a bad idea either, I was beginning to think. After all, what was this newcomer offering us? Nothing but soap and masks and scrubbing brushes. And now a suggestion so horrific it made me want to strike him. Oh, how glad I am I never allowed him to go near Odolghes or any of the others with his disgusting skull-saw. I shouldn’t really have let him into Odolghes’ chamber at all, with or without saw, but there was no knowing that at the time so it’s useless to blame myself. Luckily Tarlui kept his mask on, but even so I’m not sure that Odolghes didn’t… just for a moment… before his wits went entirely, that is…

But better not to think about that. Better not to think about anything connected to those dreadful last days of the Great Ravage, as it is now called in our ballads. At the time, we survivors plodded on with our everyday business, heads down like beasts at the treadmill, and this still seems to me the only way forward out of any fix, be it a mine accident or a wet harvest or simply, like the one that threatens me now, a whirlpool of horrors in the head. Let me just say that together with Odolghes and my stepmother and brothers the Fever carried away in all a hundred and forty six members of our tribe: slightly under half the total population. The elderly and the young were the worst affected, although about twenty victims of my own age group were stricken also, among them most of my old school mates. Only one sick person recovered, and that – thank the niggardly Goddess for a scrap of mercy – was Jet. She trailed her foot a bit afterwards but otherwise was quite her old self.

More than this – the facts, the numbers – I am not able to give. My grandmother in her book writes at length about her parents’ deaths: what noises they made and who heard them and who found them afterwards and in what positions, but she never loved them like I did mine, and never behaved badly towards them either. After the Friska business I had always meant to draw close to Odolghes again, confess I was jealous, ask his forgiveness for being so standoffish and cold and assure him that I had loved him always; but the Fever robbed me of my chance, and this is probably what causes my silence now. Regret. Sadness. Guilt sitting on my heart like garlic on the stomach, going neither up nor down.

And even if I could – force myself, I mean, to dig down into the muddy depths of memory where the pictures lie and bring them to the surface and clean them up and take a proper look at them and then set down what I see – it would make miserable reading. With Alexa it is different, she can sort of laugh and cry about things at the same time and make the person reading do the same, but I don’t have this gift, I have too much gloomy Miners’ blood in my veins. Better from everyone’s point of view therefore if I simply skip the medical details entirely, forget the funerals, and take up my story a fortnight or so later when the Fever has stolen its last victim and we have said the last prayers and felled the last tree, and are trying – without much success in my case – to pick up the fragments of our shattered world and stick them together again so that life can continue.

Here I am in the throne room. True daughter of the Floor-mop, I have never felt so limp, so wrung, so wretched. Not even in the final rages of the snowstorm did I feel as bad as this, because then there was Odolghes’ shoulder to lean on and hide my face in, and now there is no one’s. I am sitting by myself, hunkers, on the floor, staring at the empty throne, trying to accustom myself to the idea of having to occupy it and dreading the moment – next morning probably, when families will have to be re-grouped and questions of inheritance gone into and all sorts of tricky things like that – when I will have to do so for the first time in full view of the whole tribe. Or what is left of it. Odolghes never used the throne willingly either, and although he went to great pains to have it smartened up and regilded, that was just for show, and he much preferred sitting cross-legged on a simple low wooden stool. Must have been his musician’s training.

This morning Tusky, with no ceremony at all, just a quick shove and an ill-tempered mutter, ‘All yours now, kiddo,’ has passed on to me the feathered headdress, the magic stone in its little leather bag, and Odolghes’ unset golden crown. The full apparatus of Chieftainship. I know it isn’t time for frills but all the same I would have appreciated a gesture of some sort to mark the occasion of what I suppose was in effect my coronation, even if it had only been a clearing of his throat and an ‘Erm…’ before he spoke.

I am holding the headdress in my hand now: it feels like a dead crow. Miserably embarrassed even though there is no one here to see, I place it gingerly on my head and creep up to the throne to see my reflection in the smooth part on one of the legs. It looks like a dead crow. I look like an outsize female of uncertain age and race, neither girl nor woman, Miner nor Fane, pretty nor ugly, with a dead crow on her head. How under earth am I going to get people to take me seriously, accept me as their leader, listen to what I say? And what am I going to say? I have sat through dozens of meetings chaired by Odolghes, but now I can’t even remember how he opened the sessions. There is a rigmarole of some sort, full of g’s: Guide us Goddess, good as gold, Grant us… And there like a ninny I get stuck.

As I crouch there worrying and peering into the shiny metal surface, a tiny sickle-shaped image appears behind mine, like a black moon rising behind a tree, and then grows and stretches as whatever it is draws near. I whip round, expecting to see a wraith or something worse, but it is only Tarlui, curved to this shape by the metal of the throne leg. (That ‘only’ looks woefully out of place beside his name now, as it would beside ‘earthquake’ or ‘end of the world’, but stories have to be told in an orderly fashion, and that was the word I would have used then: ‘only’.) He makes a little bow and then straight away, no probing, no questions, dips into those mysteriously well-stocked garments of his and draws out a medallion on a chain, gold on one side, some other dark material on the other, and begins turning it over and over in his hand. ‘See?’ he says slowly. ‘Same medal, two faces. Now if you always looked on the shiny side you would think this was a very precious trinket I had here, no? Solid gold through and through. And if you always kept the dull side uppermost you’d think to the contrary it was just a worthless bit of old lead. Well, life’s much the same: there’s always a black side but there’s nothing to be gained by staring at it to the exclusion of the other. What I am saying, Lady Mara,’ he goes one still more slowly, bending closer so that I can no longer see the distracting swinging motion of the medal, only his dark-rimmed eyes with their pale, pale centres looking deep into mine, ‘what I am saying is, put the past behind you. Think only of the people who are left, not those who are gone. Think of the good times you had with your father, not the bad. Whenever your mind serves you up a helping of something sad, clamp a dish-cover on it and send it back to the kitchen, so to speak, and order something cheerful instead. It shouldn’t be difficult, not for a brave-hearted Miner princess like yourself.’

Now there is nothing particularly new or special about this advice, which when you look at it closely is merely a long way of saying, the way everyone does, Look on the bright side, but in my present state I find it so comforting I am moved almost to tears. I have learnt from Odolghes that a leader should never show weakness, but Tarlui seems to have seen so deep into me already that it hardly matters; and so, slowly at first, and then faster and faster until the words tumble out like stones from a chute, I confess to him all my troubles, all my fears. From the biggest, like my hating to give orders and not knowing the first thing about government, to the smallest, like forgetting my lines for tomorrow and feeling such a fright under all these feathers.

Tarlui listens in silence, smiling slightly and wagging his neat little ponytail of hair from side to side, and when I have finished he rummages in his clothes again and takes out his clasp-knife and does something to the headdress, nicking off a few feathers here and there and parting others. It is not much, but when I look at my reflection in the chair leg there is a mysterious difference: the cap, so unbecoming before, almost suits me. ‘There,’ he says, and from behind the cap the blade flicks forward and takes another snip. ‘There. Chickens have feathers but so do swans, it’s just a question of placing.’ Then he gently turns me round to face him, tells me to take a deep breath and to run through the ‘Goddess’ rhyme for him – as far as I can remember it, no bother if I can’t – just to give him an idea of how it goes. And to my surprise I recite it perfectly from start to finish.

‘See?’ he says again in that comforting, friendly way, tapping his finger on my forehead. ‘Your Ladyship needn’t worry. It’s all here. All here for when you need it.’

But I do worry, still, quite badly. ‘And what if it isn’t?’ I ask. ‘What if my head goes all empty like it did a while back?’

‘Ah,’ he replies easily. ‘In that case you have your advisor to fall back on. That’s what he’s there for.’

‘My advisor?’ My voice ends on a high, slightly uncertain note: I don’t think I have an advisor, I only wish I did.

But, ‘Yes,’ Tarlui confirms, ‘your advisor, your father’s Counsellor and your grandfather’s before him, the faithful and resolute Master Tusky. Who else? He’ll always be at hand for you to lean on in a crisis.’

Oh, for sure: Tusky. Who else indeed? So faithful he once attempted to thrust Odolghes aside and rule in his place. And as for resolution and support in a crisis – well, I might as well lean on a pile of puffballs. But before I can begin to explain as much to Tarlui, he taps his toes together, makes another little bow and departs, as rapidly and glidingly as he came.

I watch his retreat in the gilded metal, the same way I did his appearance, but I see differently this time: not a black moon or anything menacing like that, but the dwindling reflection of a small, trim, kindly man who has risked his life to help us and asked nothing in return. How hard and generously he has worked. How good he is at solving problems. Unlike Tusky, what a perfect Counsellor he would make.

Just imagine how pleased I am, therefore, when a few days later Tarlui approaches the throne at petition time, all meek and dejected, dressed in his travelling gear already, and begs to be allowed to stay on with us in Mill Brook, working in whatever capacity I see fit. Not only do I grant his request immediately but feel, more fool I, as if something really joyful has happened, like the coming of the swallows or a sudden burst of sunshine.

Tusky stands behind me grinding his teeth harder than a millwheel. But this only makes me smile the wider. Serve him right, I think, the jealous old fool.

(Part 2 chap 3 next sunday, july 11th 2010)