We should have followed Lidsanel’s urge. We should have run there and then and never looked back. It was our only chance for a life together and we should have taken it.
Instead we stayed, and speeded up the preparations for our wedding. All the while keeping a close watch over Tarlui to make sure he wouldn’t spoil things for us by doing something shameful like stealing the wedding presents. It was absurd of us really, now I come to think of it. I was so sure that that was where the danger lay: in the marriage being hindered, postponed or in some way prevented from taking place. I was sure that that was where Tarlui’s revenge, if we should chance to provoke it, would be directed. The truth of the matter never occurred to me, but why should it have done? How could it? On the contrary, I began to think that Tarlui had been speaking the truth when he told Lidsanel he had no interest any more in thievery. He seemed so genuinely pleased about the wedding. And so helpful. So humble. If there was anything he could do to assist my Ladyship in these busy days? How about the sweetmeats? He had a delicious recipe for walnut cake. Might he also be allowed to pen a few lines of poetry to be read at the service? What if he were to give a hand with the lighting arrangements?
‘My son, alas, comes to you in the clothes he stands up in,’ he said, close to grovelling, on another occasion. ‘And even those are due, in part, to Your Ladyship’s bounty. His mother, poor woman, left him a little trinket on her deathbed, but she instructed me to give it to him after he was married, not before, and I think, if you do not mind, that we should respect her wishes.’
By all means, Tarlui, by all means. I was almost sorry now that I had thought such evil of him, and had to repeat to myself, ‘but he called me an old hen, an old hen’ in order to remember the reason. And as for fear – why, in his present state he seemed about as dangerous as an earthworm. On Lidsanel’s suggestion I laid a trap, wrapping in a cover a stone of the same size and shape as the magic stone and then leaving it, as if by mistake, right under Tarlui’s nose to see if he would pocket it when I was gone. But he didn’t so much as touch the thing. ‘Lady Mara,’ he called out before I was half way to the door, ‘there’s a little packet here I think you must have forgotten.’ And indicated it promptly, dutifully, with a tap of his forefinger.
Even the business of the mask turned out to have an innocent explanation that made you feel sorry for him rather than otherwise. It turned out that Tarlui was old, and what crime was there in that? On the night before the wedding Lidsanel and I were not supposed to see each other, that being the tradition for betrothed couples, but shortly after I had gone to bed he came to fetch me, saying to come quickly: Tarlui was up to his monthly trick behind the curtain, and if one of us could manage to hoist the other onto the roof we might be able to find out what it was he was doing, simply by taking a look down the smoke hole.
Only we soon discovered that looking down the smoke hole was not a thing to be done simply. We didn’t want to be seen, for one thing, and for another we didn’t want to be heard. Particularly not by Tarlui. Lidsanel made several attempts to heave himself up to roof level using my clasped hands as a stirrup, but he was far too noisy, and so heavy that the rafters, which were only cane, threatened to snap under his weight. So then it was my turn. I shot up easily enough, almost too fast for comfort, but once up I found it impossible to move any further, the slope being too steep and the reeds of the roofing too tightly packed for my fingers to get a grip on. Eventually Lidsanel realised where the problem lay and went to get a broom and then a ladder to stand on, and by planting the broom under my feet and pushing hard managed to ease me slowly up the rise until my head was on a level with the smoke hole.
From the hole a few wisps of smoke were still coming out, so I had to hold my breath and force my eyes to stay open while I poked my head rapidly through the opening, hoping that Tarlui would not be looking upwards at this precise moment. As soon as I had seen enough I was then to signal to Lidsanel with three kicks on the broom head to let me down, but the scene that met my eyes was so intriguing that I kept on looking.
There was no need to worry about Tarlui seeing me, no matter how long I stared. His attention was quite elsewhere. He was crouched on the floor of the hut in front of a basin of foul looking, brownish black liquid to which he appeared to be paying homage or confiding secrets, so deeply and closely did he bow down before it. Opposite him, on the far side of the basin, was propped a plate of metal, highly burnished, flanked by several lamps that winked and glittered in the shiny surface of the liquid.
My first thought was that I had surprised him making offering to some private God: he had never shown much respect for out Earth Goddess, so perhaps he had a religion of his own that no one was supposed to know about, not even Lidsanel? But then I realised that it was something much less uplifting: he was washing his hair. Dipping his head into the basin, rubbing the black liquid into his scalp and admiring the result as reflected in the metal. No, not washing, dirtying. No, not dirtying either, dyeing. He was dyeing his hair – to exactly the same colour as before. And why should he want to do that?
Despite the smoke I continued to watch, fascinated, for some time before giving Lidsanel the signal. Noticing two extra things: one, that Tarlui was concentrating more on colouring the roots of his hair than the ends, and two, that he daubed some of the liquid on his eyebrows and eyelashes as well, and was very particular afterwards to wipe away the stain from his skin. Which, incidentally – the skin, I mean – was different from usual now that the ponytail was untied and the hair hung loose: it was saggier, more wrinkled. More yellowish too, though that may only have been due to the effect of the lamps.
‘He’s old,’ I whispered to Lidsanel when I was back on the ground again, having come to this conclusion during my descent. ‘He’s really, really old. He must be. I remember my father telling me once about a person he had known – a magician, I think he was, or perhaps a teacher – so old that his hair had turned completely white. Well, I think that’s what has happened to Tarlui: I think his hair has gone white, and he’s ashamed to wear it that way so he’s dyeing it dark again. You needn’t worry, that’s all he’s doing in there behind the curtain: colouring over the growth of his white hair. For the wedding, I should imagine. So as to look his best.’
Lidsanel seemed disappointed by this news: I think he’d been hoping for us to discover something terrible that would have enabled him to disown Tarlui as a father and cast him off for ever. ‘His best,’ he said, curling his lip in a way that didn’t become him at all. ‘For me he’d look his best from the back, walking out of Mill Brook for good and all, pushing his belongings on a barrow.’
It was a sight neither of us was ever destined to see. Tarlui’s departure was close, already written on the face of the coming moon, had we but known it, but it was not scheduled to happen in such a homely fashion – through a gate, carrying his baggage. Fate had devised for him quite another exit.
But I am getting ahead of myself again in my anxiety to be through. I must tell things as they happened. First there was the wedding, and a very fine wedding it was too. None of the events in my life so far had been marked by pomp or ceremony of any kind. No coming-into-the-world party because I was a girl. No welcome home party because my grandfather had just died. No coming to womanhood party on account of Friska being jealous, just a garnet brooch from Odolghes on the quiet, the colour of the blood I had begun to shed. No coronation party either because of the Fever. The wedding made up for all these missed occasions. Miners seldom if ever dance; not, as the rumour goes, because our feet aren’t up to it, but because we are taught as children that all that jumping and stomping is disrespectful to the Earth Goddess. That night, by common consent, we made an exception and danced until we fell down dizzy. Our craftsmen had made lanterns for us out of wrought iron and precious stones (small wonder Tarlui was so keen to help out with the lighting arrangements), and the shafts of light from these lanterns played over the tables of food and the surface of the dancing floor and the faces of the dancers, giving the impression that we had been invaded by a cloud of multicoloured fireflies. It was like being in Aurora, but the dream Aurona, not the real place. Squabbles were forgotten, weariness was cast off with the shoes, and the entire tribe, with me and Lidsanel in its midst, ate and drank and sang and danced, stamping and jumping for all we were worth, until the great fireball of the next day’s sun appeared in the sky, making our jewel lights look suddenly pale and tawdry and bringing the party to an end.
Most married couples are given a period of pampering, if circumstances allow it, to help them start their life together under the right star. A hut of their own, no sharing; extra large food rations and delicacies such as nuts, sweets, raisins with every meal; light work in the day time, no night work at all, and no housework either. It is known as the Honey Month – a sort of collective wedding gift from the whole tribe. My duties as Chief, however, couldn’t be slid onto other shoulders the same way as mining sacks, and for Lidsanel and me everyday life resumed immediately, the morning after the wedding. And in a sense I am glad about this because otherwise I would never have known what everyday life together with him was like: there would have been no time. Barely a month later, you see, I was already sure of something I had suspected for some time, namely that I was expecting a baby. And a month and four days later I was…
But, no, wait a moment, I’m overreaching again. Loath as I am to do so I must go back to a month and three and a half days later, when we have just announced the good news about the baby to the whole tribe in an assembly, and afterwards Tarlui, in quality of future grandfather, comes to the forge to congratulate Lidsanel and me in private on the happy event. (At least this is what we think he has in mind: his insistence on such an out of the way meeting place has already set us wondering.) Earlier on I managed to spare the reader the details of a tragedy, and spare myself too, but this time I’m afraid they are part of the story and will have to be told.
Deep, deep breath, then, before I go on.
(Next chapter next sunday August 1st 2010)