On Blue's Watersis the start of a major new work by Gene Wolfe, the first of three volumes that comprise The Book of the Short Sun, which takes place in the years after Wolfe's four-volume Book of the Long Sun. Horn, the narrator of the earlier work, now tells his own story. Though life is hard on the newly settled planet of Blue, Horn and his family have made a decent life for themselves. But Horn is the only one who can locate the great leader Silk, and convince him to return to Blue and lead them all to prosperity. So Horn sets sail in a small boat, on a long and difficult quest across the planet Blue in search of the now legendary Patera Silk. The story continues in In Green's Jungles and Return to the Whorl. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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September 01, 2000
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Excerpt from On Blue's Waters by Gene Wolfe
It is worthless, this old pen case I brought from Viron. It is nothing. You might go around the market all day and never find a single spirit who would trade you a fresh egg for it. Yet it holds...
Yes, enough. I am sick of fancies.
* * *
At present it holds two quills, for I have taken the third one out. Two were in it when I found it in the ashes of our shop. The third, with which I am writing, was dropped by Oreb not so long ago. I picked it up, put it in this pen case, and forgot both Oreb and his feather.
It also holds a knife for pointing pens and the small bottle of black ink (more than half full) into which I dip mine. See how much darker my writing has become.
* * *
It is facts I need--facts I starve for. To Green with fancies!
My name is Horn.
This is such a pen case as students use in Viron, the city in which I was born, and no doubt in many others--a case of black leather glued over pressboard; it has a brass hinge with a steel spring, and a little brass clamp to keep it shut. We sold them in our shop and asked six cardbits; but my father would accept four if the purchaser bargained awhile, and such purchasers always did.
Three, if they bought something else, a quire of writing paper, say.
* * *
The leather is badly scuffed. More facts later, when I have more time. Rajya Mantri wants to lecture me.
* * *
Reviewing what I wrote yesterday, I see that I have begun without plan or foresight, and in fact without the least notion of what I was trying to do or why I was trying to do it. That is how I have begun everything in life. Perhaps I need to begin before I can think clearly about the task. The chief thing is to begin, after all--after which the chief thing is to finish. I have finished worse than I began, for the most part.
It is all in the pen case. You have to take out the ink and string it together into the right shapes. That is all.
* * *
If I had not picked up this old pen case where my father's shop once stood, it is possible that I might still be searching for Silk.
For the phantom who has eluded me on three whorls.
* * *
Silk may be here on Blue already, after all. I have dispatched letters to Han and some other towns, and we will see. It is convenient, I find, to have messengers at one's beck and call.
So I am searching here, although I am the only person here in Gaon who could not tell you where to find him. Searching does not necessarily imply movement. Thinking it does, or rather assuming it without thought, may have been my first and worst mistake.
Thus I continue to search, true to my oath. I question travelers, and I write new letters subtracting some facts and adding others, composing flatteries and threats I hope will bring this town and that to my assistance; no doubt my scribe thinks I am penning another such letter at this moment, a letter that he, poor fellow, will have to copy out with broad, fair flourishes upon sheepskins scraped thin.
We need a paper mill here, and it is the only thing that I am competent to do.
* * *
I wish Oreb were here.
* * *
Now that I know what I mean to do, I can begin. But not at the beginning. To begin at the beginning would consume far too much time and paper, to say nothing of ink. I am going to begin, when I do, just a day or two before the moment at which I put to sea in the sloop.
Tomorrow then, when I have had time to decide how best to tell the convoluted tale of my long, vain search for Patera Silk--for Silk my ideal, who was the augur of our manteion in the Sun Street Quarter of Our Sacred City of Viron in the belly of the Whorl.
When I was young.
* * *
The mainshaft had split--I remember that. I was taking it out of the journals when one of the twins ran in. I believe it was Hide. "A boat's coming! A big boat's coming!"
I told him that they probably wanted to buy a few bales, and that his mother could sell it to them as well as I could.
"Sinew's here, too."
Just to get rid of Hide, I told him to tell his mother about it. When he had gone, I got my needler from its hiding place and stuck it in my waistband under my greasy tunic.
Sinew was stamping up and down the beach, lovely shells of purple, rose, and purest white snapping beneath his boots. He looked surly when he saw me, so I told him to bring the good telescope out of the sloop. He would have defied me if he had possessed the courage. For half a minute we stood eye to eye; then he turned and went. I thought he was leaving, that he would put out for the mainland in his coracle and stay there for a week or a month, which to tell the truth I wanted much more than my telescope.
The boat they came in was indeed large. I know I counted at least a dozen sails. It carried a couple of jibs, three sails on each of its big masts, and staysails. I had never seen a boat big enough to set staysails between its masts before, so I am sure of those.
Sinew came back with the telescope. I asked whether he wanted the first look, and he sneered at me. It was always a mistake to try to treat him with any courtesy in those days, and I could have kicked myself for it. I put the telescope to my eye, wondering what Sinew was doing the second I could no longer watch him.
It was a good instrument, made in Dorp they said, where they are good sailors and grind good lenses. (We were good sailors in New Viron, too--or thought we were--but did not grind lenses at all.) Through it I could see the faces at the gunwale, all looking toward Tail Bay, for which their boat was plainly making. Its hull was white above and black below--I recall that, too. Here on Blue the sea is silver where it is not so dark a blue that it seems it might dye cloth, not at all like Lake Limna at home where the waves were nearly always green.
I had become used to Blue's blue and silver sea long ago, of course. Perhaps I only think of it now because we are so far from it here in Gaon; but it seems to me, as I sit here to write at this beautifully inlaid table the Gaonese have provided for me, that I saw it then through the glass as though it were new, that there was some magic carried in the big black and white boat that made Blue new to me again. Perhaps there was, for boats are magic--living things that ordinary men like me can shape from wood and iron.
"Probably pirates," Sinew snarled.
I took my eye from the telescope and saw that he had his long, steel-hilted hunting knife out and was testing its edge with his thumb. Sinew could never sharpen a knife properly (Nettle did it for him in those days), although he pretended he could; but for a moment before I returned to my study of the boat, I wondered whether he would not stab me and try to join them if pirates in fact came again. Then I put my eye back to the telescope, and saw that the faces at the gunwale included a woman's, and that one of the men was old Patera Remora. I should make it clear here that he and Marrow were the only ones I knew well.
There were five besides Gyrfalcon's sailors, who had been brought along to work the boat. Perhaps I ought to list all five now and describe them, since Nettle may want to show this to others. You would do everything much better, darling, I know, working in the descriptions cleverly as you did when we wrote The Book of Silk; but it is a skill I have never possessed to the same degree.
No doubt you remember them better than I, as well.
* * *
Gyrfalcon is fat, with busy eyes, a noble face, and a mop of sinknut-brown hair just starting to turn gray. It was his boat, and he let us know that the moment that he came ashore. Do you remember?
* * *
Eschar is tall and stooped, with a long, sad face, slow to speak until his passions are roused. He was on our lander, of course, just as Marrow and Remora were.
* * *
The woman came later, perhaps on Gyrfalcon's lander. Her name is Blazingstar. She has humor, as you do, a rare thing in a woman. I know you liked her, and so did I. She talked about her farms, so she must own at least two in addition to her trading company.
* * *
Marrow is large and solid, not so fat as he was at home, but balder even than I was then. When we were children, he owned a greengrocery as well as his fruit stall in the market. He still deals in vegetables and fruits mostly, I believe. I have never known him to cheat anyone, and he can be generous; but I would like to meet the man who can best him in a bargain. Marrow was the only one of the five who helped me after I was robbed in New Viron.
* * *
His Cognizance Patera Remora is of course the head of the Vironese Faith--quite tall but not muscular, with lank gray hair he wears too long. He was at one time coadjutor in Old Viron (as we say it here). A good and a kind man, not as shrewd as he believes, prone to be too careful.
* * *
They were too many for our little house. Hoof and Hide and I made a rude table on the beach, laying planks across boxes and barrels and bales of paper. Sinew carried out all the chairs, I brought the high and low stools I use in the mill, and you spread the planks with cloths and set what little cheer we had before our uninvited guests. And so we managed to entertain all five, and even Gyrfalcon's sailors, with some show of decency.
Marrow rapped the makeshift table, calling us to order. Our sons and the sailors were sitting on the beach, nudging one another, whispering, and tossing shells and pebbles into the silver waves. I would have sent them all away if I could. It did not seem to be my place to do so, and Marrow let them stay.
"First let me thank you both for your hospitality," he began. "You owe us no favors, since we have come to ask you for a big one--"
Gyrfalcon interrupted, saying, "To grant you a privilege." From the way he spoke, I felt sure that they had argued about this already.
Marrow shrugged. "I should have begun by explaining who we are. You know our names now, and even though you live so far from town, it's likely that you also know we're its five richest citizens."
Remora cleared his throat. "Not, um, so. No--ah--intent to, um, contradict, but not, er, I."
"Your Chapter's got more gelt than any of us," Eschar remarked dryly.
"Not mine, hey? Custodian--um-solely." The sweet salt wind ruffled his hair, making him look at once foolish and blessed.
Blazingstar spoke first to you, Nettle; then to me. "We are the five people who have jockeyed most successfully for money and power, that's all. We wanted them, we five, and we got them. Now here we are, begging you two to keep us from cutting our own throats."
"He'll deny it," she told us, "but it's the gods' own truth just the same. Our money belongs to us, mine to me, Gyrfalcon's to him, and so on. Patera here is going to insist that his isn't really his, that it belongs to the Chapter and he only takes care of it."
"Brava! Quite--um--ah...Precisely the case."
"But he's got it, and as Eschar said he's probably got more than any of us. He's got bravos, too, buckos to break heads for him whenever he wants."
Stubbornly, Remora shook his own. "There are many men of--ah--high heart amongst the faithful. That I, um, concede. However, we--ah--none--"
"He doesn't have to pay his," Blazingstar explained. "We pay ours."
Eschar asked Remora, "If it isn't so, what are you doing here?"
Marrow rapped the table again. "That's who we are. Do you understand now?"
You looked at me then, Nettle darling, inviting me to speak; but all I could think of to say was. "I don't think so."
Marrow said, "You don't know why we're here, naturally. We haven't told you. That will come soon enough."
Gyrfalcon snapped, "New Viron needs a cald?. Anybody can see it."
You nodded then, Nettle darling. "It's become a terrible place."
"Exactly. We came here to escape the Sun Street Quarter, didn't we? The Sun Street Quarter and the Orilla." Gyrfalcon chuckled. "But we carried them with us."
"It isn't just crime," Blazingstar declared, "though there's much too much of that. The wells are polluted and there's filth everywhere."
Gyrfalcon chuckled again. "Just like home."
"Worse. Filth and flies. Rats. It isn't just that the people want a cald?, though they do. We do. We're businesspeople at base, all of us. Traders and merchants. Sharpers, if you like."
"I must--ah," Remora began.
"All right, all except His Cognizance, who never hedges the truth even a finger's width. Or so he says." Blazingstar gave Remora a scornful smile. "But the rest of us need to carry on our businesses, and it's become almost impossible to do that in New Viron."
Marrow added, "And getting worse."
"Getting worse. Exactly."
You asked, "Can't one of you be cald??"
Gyrfalcon laughed aloud at that; he has a good, booming laugh. "Suppose one of us became cald? tomorrow. How about old Marrow there? He wants it."
"I feel sure it would be a wonderful improvement."
Marrow thanked you. "For you and your family it would be, Nettle. What do think it would be for them?" He glanced around at Gyrfalcon, Remora, Eschar, and Blazingstar.
"An improvement, too, I think."
"Not a bit of it." Marrow had rapped the table before; now he struck it with his fist, rattling our mugs and plates. "I would take everything I could get. I would do my best to ruin them, and if you ask me I would succeed." He smiled, and glanced around at the woman and the three men I had believed were his friends. "They know it well, my dear. And, Nettle, they would do the same to me."
Eschar told you, "We need Cald? Silk here. I was the first to suggest it."
"He's still in the Whorl, isn't he? And...I don't like to say this."
"Then I will." Blazingstar reached across the table we had made to cover your hand with her own. "He may be dead. I left sixteen years ago, and by this time it's certainly possible."
"Hem!" Remora cleared his throat. "Theocracy, hey? I have suggested it, but they will, er, won't. Not if--ah--me. But, um, Patera Silk, eh? Yes. Yes, to that. Third party. Still an augur, eh? Indelible--ah--consecration. So, um. Modified? A mitigated theocracy. We, um, two in concert. I concur."
Gryfalcon summed up, "It's that or we fight, and a fight would destroy the town, and all of us, too, in all probability. Show them the letter, Marrow."
* * *
Hari Mau and I have formalized the court. Up until now, it seems, litigants have simply done whatever they could to come before the rajan (as their ruler was called at home) and made their cases. Witnesses were or were not called, and so forth. We have set up a system--tentative, of course, but it is a system--in a situation in which any system at all will surely be an improvement. Unless they choose otherwise, Nauvan will represent all the plaintiffs, and Somvar all the defendants. It will be their duty to see that evidence, witnesses, and so forth are present when I hear the case. In criminal cases, I will assign one or the other to prosecute, depending.
I feel like Vulpes.
They will have to be paid, of course; but demanding fees from both parties should encourage them to come to agreement, so that may work out well. Besides, there will be fines. I wish I knew more about our Vironese law--these people don't seem to have had any.
Back to it.
* * *
I swore an oath, administered by Remora, with my left hand upon the Chrasmologic Writings and my right extended to the Short Sun. That is the part I wish very fervently that I could forget. I cannot recall the exact words--in all honesty, I am tormented more than enough as it is--but I cannot forget what I swore to do, and not one day passes without my conscience reminding me that I have not done it.
No more letters. What farce!
* * *
Gyrfalcon offered to take me to New Viron. While thanking him, I declined for three reasons that I might as well list here to show where my mind was when I left Lizard.
The first was that I wanted to speak to my family privately, and that I did not want to subject them--to subject you, Nettle darling, particularly--to the pressure Marrow, Blazingstar, and Gyrfalcon himself would undoubtedly have brought to bear.
I waited until supper, then longer so that we could dispose of the questions and gossip our five visitors had provoked. As I was carving the roast Sinew had supplied, he asked what had been said when you and I, Remora, and the others, had walked to the tip of the tail.
"You heard us earlier," I told him, and continued to carve. "You know what they wanted."
"I wasn't paying much attention."
You sighed then, Nettle, and I recalled your listening at the door when Silk conferred with the two councilors. I leaped to the conclusion that you had listened while I talked privately with Marrow and the others, and I was ready for you to explain everything to our sons when you said, "They want us to stop writing. Isn't that really it?"
I thought it so ludicrously wrong that I could have laughed aloud. When I denied it, you said, "I was sure that was what it really was. I still am. You look so gloomy now, Horn, and you're
always such a cheerful person."
I have never thought myself one.
Hoof said, "They wanted to get paper on credit. Things are bad in town. Daisy just got back, and she says it's really terrible."
And Hide, "Did you give them credit, Father?"
"No," I told him, "but I would have."
"Those cardcases." Sinew sneered. "You'd have had to."
"You're wrong," I told him, and pointed the carving knife at him. "That's what I have to make clear from the beginning. I don't have to do what they want. They threatened me, or at least Gyrfalcon did. I ought to say he tried to, since I didn't feel threatened. He could bring some pressure to bear on us, perhaps. But in less than a year I'd have him eating out of my hand."
"You think I couldn't? You think it because I've always been gentle with you for your mother's sake. It wasn't like that in my family, believe me. Or in hers either. If you find yourself begging me before shadelow tomorrow," to emphasize my point, I struck the table with the handle of the knife, "will you admit you were wrong? Are you man enough for that?"
He looked surly and said nothing. He is the oldest of our sons, and although I loved him, I did not like him. Not then, although things were different on Green.
Nor did he like me, I feel certain. (Nettle knows these things, naturally.)
She murmured, "This is worse than anything that they said to us."
Hoof asked, "What did they say, anyhow?"
Hide seconded him, as Hide often did. "What did they want, Mother?"
It was then, I feel certain, that I passed the slice I had been cutting to you, darling. I remember what it looked like, which I find very odd tonight. I must have known that something enormously significant was happening, and associated it with our haunch of greenbuck. "In a way," I told you, "you're quite right. It was our book that brought them, though they were very careful not to say it until I got them in a corner. You, Hoof, are right too. Things are getting harder and hungrier for everybody every year. Why do you think that is?"
He shrugged. The twins are handsome, and to my eyes take after your mother more than either one of us, though I know you pretend to think they look like me. "Bad weather and bad crops. Their seed's giving out."
Hide said, "That thin one talked about that. I thought it was kind of interesting."
I gave Sinew, who had always eaten like a fire in good times and bad, a thick slice with plenty of gristle. "Why is the seed yielding a poorer crop each year?"
"Why are you asking me? I didn't say it was."
"What difference does it make whether you asked or not? It happens to be true, and you being older than your brothers ought to be wiser. You think you are, so prove it. Why is the seed weakening? Or were you too busy throwing stones at the waves to listen?"
Hoof began, "I still want to know--"
"What those five people wanted. We're talking about it."
Sinew said slowly, "The good seed is the seed from the landers. That's what everybody says. When the farmers save seed, it isn't as nearly as good. The maize is worse than the others, but none of it's quite as good."
You nodded, Nettle darling. "That's one of the things they said. I knew it already, and I'm sure your father did, too, but Eschar and Blazingstar lectured us about it anyway. Let's talk about maize, for the present. It's the most important, and the clearest example. Back home we had ever so many kinds. Do you remember, Horn?"
I nodded, smiling.
"At least four kinds of yellow maize that I can remember, and it wasn't something I paid much attention to. Then there were black, red, and blue, and several sorts of white. Have any of you boys ever seen maize that wasn't yellow?"
No one replied.
I had cut more slices while you spoke; I gave them to Hoof and Hide, saying, "I never saw any at home to equal the first crop we got on our farm. Ears a cubit long, packed with big kernels. The ears from the next planting weren't any longer than my hand."
You said, "I've been seeing those here lately, in the market and the village gardens."
"Yes, and here's something I hadn't known--something they explained to us. You get the best maize by crossing two strains. Some crosses are better than others, as you'd expect; but the best ones will yield a lot more than either of the original two, fight off blight, and need less water."
I sat down and began to cut up the meat I had just given myself. It was clear from their expressions that neither Hoof nor Hide had understood.
You said, "Like crossing red and black maize. Isn't that right, Horn?"
"Exactly. But according to what we were told, all those good qualities disappear in a year. The crop after the first is liable to be worse than either of the strains you crossed, in fact, and it's always worse than the parent strain, the one from the crossing."
Sinew muttered, "It doesn't come from a pure strain at all. It comes from the good crop, and the good crop was good but it wasn't pure." He tilted his chair until its back struck the wall, something that always annoyed me. "The god that stocked the landers put all that mixed seed in them, didn't he? No pure strains, so we can't make new mixes ourselves."
"Pas," you told him. "Pas prepared the landers for us out of his infinite wisdom. You may not credit him, but Pas is a very great god."
"Back on the Long Sun Whorl, maybe." Sinew shrugged. "Not here."
Hoof said, "All those gods you talk about, they're only back there. Scylla and her sisters."
Your smile was sad then, Nettle darling--it hurt me to see it. "Yet they are beautiful and true," you told him, "as real as my parents and your father's father, who are not here either."
"That's right," I told Hoof, "but what you said wasn't. You implied that Pas was a god only in the Long Sun Whorl." Secretly I agreed with him, although I did not want to say so.
Sinew came to his brother's defense, surprising and pleasing me. "Well, Pas isn't much of a god here, no matter what the old Prolocutor in town says."
"I agree. The point that you're both forgetting...I'm not sure how I can explain. We call this whorl Blue, and call our sun here the Short Sun."
"At home, we called the whorl our ancestors came from the Short Sun Whorl. Your mother will remember that, I'm sure, and I remember talking with Patera Silk about all the wisdom and science that we left behind there."
You said, "We put that in our book." "Yes, we certainly did."
Hide had been waiting for a chance. "I don't see what any of this has to do with maize."
"It has everything to do with it. I was about to say that when Pas stocked the landers it was on that earlier Short Sun Whorl. He was a god there, you see, and I think probably the greatest. Since he was, he's capable of becoming a god here, too, although he hasn't done it, or at least hasn't let us know he's done it yet."
No one contradicted me.
"One evening, when I was being punished for making fun of Patera Silk, he and I talked about the science of the Short Sun Whorl. The wrapping that healed his ankle had been made there. We couldn't make it, we didn't know how. Glasses and the Sacred Windows, and so many other wonderful things we had at home, we had only because they had been made on the Short Sun Whorl
and put into ours by Pas. Chems, for example--living people of metal and sun-fire."
At that, Sinew's chair came down with a thump; but he said nothing.
I ate, and cut another slice for myself. "You used your bow when you killed this greenbuck for us," I said.
"I'm going to offer a prayer. If any of you want to join in, you'll be welcome. If you prefer to continue eating, that's a matter between you and the god."
Hide began, "Father, I--"
I was already making the sign of addition over my plate. I bowed my head and closed my eyes, imploring the Outsider, whom Silk had honored above all the other gods, to help me act wisely.
When I opened them and began to eat again, Hoof said, "You jumped from maize to all the other things you and Mother had in the Whorl."
At the same moment, Hide said, "You promised you'd tell us what those people wanted."
You motioned them to silence, telling Hide, "Your brother knows, I think. What was it, Sinew?"
Sinew shook his head.
Hoof asked him, "Why did he say about your bow?"
"He meant they had better things," Sinew grunted. "Slug guns and needlers. But they're making slug guns now in town. Father's still got his needler. You've seen it. He let me hold it one time."
"I am going to give it to you," I told him. "Tonight or tomorrow, perhaps."
Sinew stared, then shook his head again.
Hoof said, "If we could make those here, we'd have a lot more to eat, I bet."
"The new slug guns aren't nearly as good as the old ones," Sinew told him, "but they're still too expensive for us, and conjunction's coming. It's only a couple years now. You sprats don't remember the last one."
Hide said, "A whole bunch of inhumi came and killed lots of people."
Hoof added, "If we had more needlers and a new slug gun, we could fight them better."
You--I am nearly certain it was you, Nettle darling--said, "The slug gun we've got is just about worn out."
No one spoke after that; the boys ate, and I made a show of eating, although I have never been less hungry than I was then. When a minute and more had passed, Sinew asked, "Why you?"
"Because I built our mill, and because I knew Patera Silk better than almost anyone else in New Viron did."
Shaking his head, Sinew bent over his plate again.
"What's that got to do with anything?" Hide wanted to know.
"A great deal, I'm sure," you told him, Nettle. "May I, Horn? I think I've followed everything."
I suppose I said that you could, or indicated it by some gesture.
"We need new seed, Hide. More than that, we need pure strains that we can cross for ourselves. I imagine it would be possible to develop pure strains from what we have, and it may be that someone's trying to, but it will take a long time. Before the next conjunction--"
Sinew interrupted you, as he invariably did. "We can't even make needles, and they're just little slivers of metal. Most of the slug guns people have can't be used because there aren't any more cartridges for them. Everybody's worried about next conjunction. I think we'll get by like we did before, but what about the one after that? Bows and spears, that's all we'll have. Anybody planning to be dead before then?" When none of us spoke, he added, "Me neither."
I said, "We lost one whole level of knowledge when we left the Short Sun Whorl and went aboard the Whorl. We lived in there for about three hundred years, if the scholars are right, but we never got that knowledge back. Now we're losing another level, as Sinew says."
He made me a mocking bow.
"If it were just the weapons, that would be bad enough, but there are other problems I haven't mentioned."
You said, "We brought knowledge, even if it isn't enough. People from other cities have landed all over this whorl. If all of us pooled what we know...?"
I nodded. (It seemed to me that I scarcely looked at her; yet I can see her face, scrubbed and serious, as I write.) "It might be, as you say. But to pool it we'd have to have glasses, when we don't even have a Window for our Grand Manteion."
Hide put in, "Amberjack says that old Prolocutor's trying to build a Sacred Window."
"Trying," Sinew sneered.
I ignored it. "Or if we cannot make glasses, wings like the Fliers', or vessels like the Trivigaunti airship."
* * *
But now, darling, I have been reconstructing our suppertime conversation for several hours, exactly as you and I used to try to reconstruct Silk's when we were writing our book. The work has rekindled many tender memories of those days; but you recall this conversation better than I, I feel sure, and you can fill in the rest for yourself. I am going to bed.
* * *
Three days in which I have had no chance to write in this sketchy half-book I have begun without Nettle's help. I suppose it is no loss; she will never read it. Or if she does, she will have me at her side, and this account will be superfluous. Yet she may show it to others, as I said. Are not the people of our town entitled to know what became of the emissary they sent for Silk? Why and how he failed? Pig's blindness, and all the rest? I will proceed, if I do, upon the assumption that it will be read by strangers and perhaps even copied and recopied as our own book--the book that ultimately brought me here--has been.
* * *
Our house and our mill stand on Lizard Island, as I should explain. Lizard Island is called by that name because we, seeing it from the lander, at once noted its resemblance to that animal; and not (as some now suppose) because it was first settled by a man named Lizard. No such person exists.
The head is more or less coffin-shaped. All four legs are extended, and their rocky toes splayed. The sandspit that forms the tail curves out to sea, then north, to shelter Tail Bay, which is where we keep our logs. A lengthy ridge of granite gives the lizard a spine. Its highest peak, near the tail, is called the Tor. The spring that turns our mill originates there, giving us a long and very useful fall. Our house is set back some distance from the sea, but the mill stands with its feet in the bay to make it easier to hook and drag out logs.
Let me see. What else?
The Lizard's head looks to the north. Our mill and our house are on the weather side of the island, their site dictated by the stream. On the lee side is a fishing village that is also called Lizard; it consists of six houses, those of our nearest neighbors. Lizard Island lies well north of New Viron, a day's sail in good weather.
* * *
That night, as I walked along the shingle, I recalled the whole island as I had glimpsed it from the lander twenty years before. How small it had appeared then, and how beautiful! A green and black lizard motionless upon the blue and silver sea. It came to me then, with a force that seemed to snatch away my heart, that if only we could build an airship like General Saba's I might see it so again.
And be again, if only for an instant, young. What would I not give to be the boy I was once more, with a young Nettle at my side?
Time for court. More this evening, I hope.
* * *
A difficult case, and I must settle each case that comes before me on the basis of custom and common sense, having no knowledge of the law and no law books--not that Vironese law would have any force here.
I was leading up to my departure, and how Sinew came out to speak with me as I walked back up the Tail, leaping from one floating log to the next with energy and dexterity that I could only envy. When he reached me, panting, he asked whether I was still thinking of going. I told him that I no longer had to think about whether I would go--that I had been thinking of how to go and what to take with me, and when to leave.
He grinned, and actually rubbed his hands together like a shopkeeper. "I thought you would! I was thinking it over in bed. You know how you do? All of a sudden I saw it didn't make sense to wonder, even. You'd already decided, you were just trying to make it easy for Mom and me. Want to know how I knew?"
"Because you saw me take the oath. So did everyone else, I imagine." Promises meant very little to Sinew, as I had reason to know; but I supposed that he understood how seriously I take mine.
"You know I've read your book?"
I told him I knew he said he had.
"When you and Mom were coming here, you were only doing it because Silk had told you to. But when he didn't go, you went anyway. I remembered that, and as soon as I did, I knew you were really leaving."
"This isn't the same thing at all."
"Yes, it is. You were supposed to come here because some god wanted it, that boss god in the Long Sun Whorl. The old Prolocutor and that witchy lady want you to bring him here, and that's really it, not the maize or even needlers. You're just the same here as you were up there, just exactly like Mom is."
I shook my head. "The principal thing is to find Silk and get him to govern New Viron, assuming that he's still alive. The maize, and the kinds of skills necessary to make glasses and needlers, as well as many other things, are very important, though not central. As for bringing Great Pas, no one so much as mentioned it. If anyone had, he would have been laughed at. It would be much more sensible to talk about bringing back Lake Limna."
"But that's what it comes down to." Still grinning, Sinew stepped closer, so close I could feel his breath on my face. "Silk got made a part of this Pas, didn't he? That girlfriend of Pas's invited him to."
"I don't know that, and neither do you."
"Well, he went off with the flying man and wouldn't let you tag along. That's what you and Mom said."
I shrugged. "That's what we wrote, because it was all we knew. I don't know anything more now than I did when we wrote it."
"Of course he did! You know he did. Who wouldn't? So if you bring him, we'll have a boss who's the partner of this very powerful god up there. You say you couldn't bring a god back, and naturally you couldn't. But if this god Pas really is a god he could come here anytime or go anyplace else."
I said nothing.
"You know I'm right. Are you taking the sloop? We'll have to build another one if you do. The old boat never was big enough."
"Yes," I said.
"See, you're going. I knew you were. What are you going to say at breakfast? Raise your hands?"
I sighed, having only a moment before definitely deciding to take the sloop. "I had intended to ask each of you individually what I ought to do, beginning with Hide and ending with your mother. I hoped that all of you would have concluded by that time that I must go as I promised, as I have, no matter how badly I'm needed here." I turned away with a feeling of relief, and resumed my walk along the Tail.
He loped beside me like an ill-bred dog. "What if she said you had to stay?"
"She wouldn't, and I was hoping that none of you would. But if any of you did, I was going to explain myself again to that person and try to persuade him. I say 'him' because it would surely be Hide or Hoof or you. Not Nettle."
I saw his pleasure by starlight. "I like it. Mom can go live with Aunt Hop. Me and the sprats can take care of things here."
"Your mother will stay right here to take care of things, including you. You'll have to run the mill and make any repairs. She'll handle most of the buying and selling, I imagine, if you and she are wise."
For a moment I thought that he would object violently, but he did not.
"You know the machinery and the process," I told him, "or at least you've had ample opportunity to learn them. The bleach we've got should last you six months or more, if you're careful, and I hope to be back before then. Don't waste it. Be careful about extending credit, too, and doubly careful about refusing to extend it. Never buy a log you haven't seen, or rags that you haven't handled." I laughed, pretending a warmth of feeling that I did not feel. "It cost me a lot to learn that, but I'm giving it to you for nothing."
"If there's anything you need to know about the mill or the various papers we make, ask me now. There won't be time in the morning."
Together we walked back to the tip of the Tail, where I had given my oath, until we stood at last at the place where soil and stone vanished altogether and the last of the coarse seagroats with them, and there was only sand and shells, with here and there a stick of driftwood cast up by the unresting waves. At last I took out my needler and offered it to him, telling him that there were only fifty-three needles left in it, and that he would be wise not to waste any.
He would not accept it. "You'll need it yourself, Father, traveling to--to..."
"Pajarocu. It's a town, but nobody seems to know where it is. Inland, perhaps, though I hope not. They say that they've refitted a lander there so they can cross the abyss to the Whorl again, and they've invited New Viron to send a passenger."
"I knew Silk better than anybody else." Honesty compelled me to add, "Except for Maytera Marble, Magnesia as she's called now." I offered him my needler again.
"Keep it, I said. You'll need it."
"And Maytera Marble is unable to make the journey, they say. She was already very old when we came, twenty years ago." For a few seconds I tried to frame an argument; then I recalled that no argument of mine had ever changed his mind, and said, "If you don't take this now, I'm going to throw it into the sea."
I cocked my arm as though to make good my threat, and he was on me like a snow cat, clawing for the needler. I let him take it, stood up, and brushed off sand. "When it isn't on my person, I've kept it in the mill. Since you boys never go in there unless you're made to, it seemed safe. It has been. You might want to do the same thing. You wouldn't want Hoof and Hide to get hold of it."
He frowned. "That's good. I will."
I could have shown him how a needler is loaded and fired, but experience had taught me that trying to teach him anything only made him resentful. Instead, I said, "I may need it, as you say. But I may not, and I'd much rather know that you and your mother and brothers are safe. Besides, a traveler with a weapon like that might be killed for it, as soon as anyone knew he had it."
Sinew nodded thoughtfully.
"Conjunction in two years. You remember the last one, the storms and the tides. Any logs you've got in here then will be a danger to you. And of course there will be--" I searched for a word. "Strangers. Visitors. Very plausible ones, sometimes."
The reality of conjunction seemed to dawn upon him then. "Don't go, Father!"
"I must. Not just because I've sworn to; I wouldn't be the first man to break his oath. And certainly not because of Marrow and the others--I'd hurt them far more than they hurt me before it was over--but because I couldn't live with myself if I didn't. You and your mother can run the mill as well as I could, and nobody else would have anything like as good a chance of persuading Silk to join us. At supper tonight we agreed that we were sinking into savagery here on Blue, that we'd soon be fighting off the inhumi with the bows and spears we use for hunting now. You may be confident that we could survive as savages and even regain what we lost, eventually. No doubt--"
The stubborn head shake I had come to know so well.
"I don't think so either. There were people here before, or something very like people. They had a civilization higher than ours, but something wiped them out. If it wasn't the inhumi, what was it?"
"That's another thing I wanted to talk to you about." There was a pause, perhaps while Sinew collected his thoughts, perhaps only while he moistened his mouth. "You're trying to bring Pas, all the gods from the Long Sun."
"No," I said.
He ignored it, or did not hear it. "That's good, because gods could help us if they would. But they had gods of their own, the Vanished People who were here first. They might help us, too. There's a place on Main, way up on Howling Mountain a little before the trees stop. I found it almost a year ago. Maybe I should have told you."
* * *
I see that I said I had three reasons for not accompanying our five visitors as they proposed. The first (as I indicated) was that I wanted to take leave of my family, and get them to agree to my going, insofar as possible. Nettle would agree because she loved me and Sinew because he hated me, I felt sure; and with their support I had hoped to persuade the twins that it was necessary.
The second was that I wanted to sail my own boat in search of Pajarocu, and not the boat Marrow had offered to let me have, however good it might be. I did not intend to disparage his offer, as he may have thought; it was a generous one, and one that would have resulted in a serious loss if I had accepted it. He showed me that boat, the Sealily, when I spoke with him in town, and I would guess that it was nearly as fast as my own, and rather more capacious and seaworthy.
"I'd never been on the water till we came down here," Marrow told me, "and I haven't been but twice now. If you'd come by the shop or my booth and told me someday I'd be having boats built for me, I'd have thought you was cracked. I thought Auk the Prophet was cracked when I talked to him up there, and it would have been the same with anybody who said someday I'd want boats. You didn't put that in your book, about Auk. That I'd thought he was cracked as old eggs. But I did."
I told Marrow that Auk was, that he had fractured his skull in the tunnels.
"Used to see him at sacrifice," Marrow said, leaning heavily on his big carved stick. "Old Patera Pike's manteion. The wife and I used to go now and then because he traded with us, him and the sibyls. Maytera Rose that was, and young Maytera Mint, only they sent Maytera Marble to do their buying. Shrike wouldn't go, just sent his wife. They traded with him anyhow because she went all the time. Gone now, both of 'em. I guess you remember Pike's manteion?"
I did. I do. The plain shiprock walls, and the painted statue of Lord Pas (from which the paint was peeling) will remain with me until the day I die, always somewhat colored by the wonder I felt as a small boy at seeing a black cock struggling in the old man's hands after he had cut its throat, its wings beating frantically, beating as if they might live after all, live somehow somewhere, if only they could spray the whole place with blood before they failed.
My own bird has flown. Only this lone black feather remains with me, fluttering above this sheet (a sheet that for all I know or all that anyone here knows may have been made in my own mill) spraying the whorl of Blue with the black ink that has done so much good and so much harm. If it had not been for our book, Marrow and the rest would have chosen someone else, beyond argument. As it was, our book--The Book of Silk, or as others would have it, The Book of the Long Sun--spread over this whorl more rapidly than Nettle and I had dared hope. Silk--
* * *
"Silk has become an almost mythic figure," I began to write. The truth is that he has become a mythic figure. I hear rumors of altars and sacrifices. Disciples who have never seen him promulgate his teachings. If it had not been for our book, Hari Mau and the rest would have chosen someone else, or no one.
* * *
Heretofore I have written whatever crossed my mind, I fear. In the future, I will attempt to provide you (whoever you may be) with a connected narrative. Let me say at the outset, however, what readers I hope for.
First of all for Nettle, my wife, whom I have loved from boyhood and will always love.
Second, my sons Hoof and Hide. Should he see it, Sinew will read no further, I suppose, than he must to learn that I am its author; and then, unless he is greatly changed, he will burn it. Burning The Book of Horn will smell foul, but if it is to burn, no whiff has yet reached me. Sinew is on Green in any event, and is unlikely to see it. (For so many years I feared that he would try to murder me, but in the end it was I who would have murdered him. He may burn my book if he chooses).
Third, our descendants, the sons and daughters of our sons and their children. If a dozen generations have passed, be assured that you are one; after a dozen generations it cannot be otherwise.
* * *
How difficult it is to touch the spirits of these people, although I doubt that they are worse than others. Two farmers quarreled over a strip of land. I rode out with them and saw it, and it is of no value save for cutting firewood, and of little for that. Each said he had claimed it since landing, and each said his claim was undisputed until a few months ago. I had each tell me the price he would charge the other to lease it for ten years, then awarded it to the one who would charge the least, and ordered him to lease it, there and then, for the price he had specified. Since the leaseholder's price had been more than twice as much, he was getting a great bargain, and I told him so. He did not appear to agree.
This is a stopgap at best, however. The whole situation regarding the ownership of land is confused or worse. It must be reformed, and a rational system as secure from corruption as we can make it set in place.
That I intend to do. My principles: that possession long unchallenged need only be recorded, but that unused property is the property of the town. Now to begin.
I have already given more than I should of our conversation at supper. I will say nothing more about it, although when I close my eyes and lean back in this chair it seems that I smell the brown rolls, fresh from the oven, see the honey dyeing with dark gold its earthenware dish, and taste a vanished summer in the wine. I cut our meat that night, and ate as I had for years, yet if I had known then what I know now--if I had let my imagination carry me forward beyond the next few days--I would have clasped my wife to me, embracing her until it was time to go.
She will have found another husband by this time, I hope. A good man. She was always a sensible woman. (Which is, now that I come to think of it, what His Cognizance the inhumu used to say of Molybdenum.) I wish both well, and wish him better luck with Hoof and Hide than I had with Sinew.
He was my right hand in the lander, as well as on Green, and he threw me his knife. I see I have not yet written of that.
Before I left he begged me not to go, exactly as I had predicted at dinner. He was shocked, I believe, that I was going to leave that night while Nettle and the twins slept; and to confess the truth, so was I. I had not intended to go until morning.
Have I said how closely Sinew resembled me? Perhaps not. There was something devilish about it. The twins, with their large eyes and too-regular features, resemble Nettle's mother, or so I have always thought, while Nettle herself resembles her father. But Sinew looks as I did when we left Main and built the mill. We lived in a tent on the beach in those days, and he was only a squalling toddler, although he had already taken her from me to a certain extent. The twins had not been born, or even thought of.
* * *
I left that night, not so much when Sinew and I had finished talking as when I was tired of his talking to me. I took little with me; even then I was not under the illusion that I would be welcomed back to the whorl I had left, or provided with any sort of transport. If I had known then how long it would be before I set foot in the whorl in which I was born, I would have taken more, perhaps, although so much was stolen as it was, and I was able to bring precious little beyond my two knives from Pajarocu, and nothing at all from Green, not even Seawrack's ring.
I brought two changes of clothing, and a warm blanket.
A copy of our book, which I meant to read during calms and the like, not so much to relearn the facts we had set down as to gently persuade my memory to dwell upon our conversations, and the conversations I had with Nettle, Moly, and others about him. You that read will not credit it, but I do not believe I have forgotten anything that Nettle and I put into our book, or that I ever will.
Three bales of our best white paper to trade, and some other valuables I hoped might be exchanged for food.
I had been afraid that Sinew would wake up the rest of the family, that he would wake Nettle, particularly, and that seeing her I would lack the resolution to go. He did not, but stood upon our little floating wharf and waved (which rather surprised me) and then, when the distance seemed too great to throw anything and score a hit, flung something that missed my head by half a cubit and dropped rattling into the boat.
That, too, surprised me; but nothing could have been more like him than to try to hurt me in some way when I could not defend myself; and it soon occurred to me that he could have drawn my needier and killed me. It was my humiliation he intended; however much he may have wanted to kill me, he would not have dared to shoot. A stone or a shell (I thought) had served his purpose better.
When I had rounded the Tail and could safely tie the sheet, I groped in the bilgewater to find out what his missile had been; there I found his hunting knife, next to his bow his most prized possession, still in the turtle-skin sheath he had made for it. In his own mind at least he had squared accounts, I felt sure; it is onerous to be indebted to someone you hate.
There would be no point in describing my trip down the coast to New Viron in detail. It had been foolhardy of me to leave when I did, but no harm came of it. Until shadeup, I kept the sloop under short sail and dozed at her tiller, not yet having confidence enough to tie it in position and lie down, as I was later to do almost routinely, though from time to time I toyed with the notion of furling both sails and snatching a few hours of real sleep. Mostly I looked at the stars, just as I had before Sinew joined me on the Tail. The Long Sun Whorl in which Nettle and I were born was only a faint gleam when it could be seen at all. For that faint speck I was bound (as I imagined then) in a lander that had somehow been repaired and resurrected. I could not help thinking how much more I would have liked to sail there. Before shadeup, the Long Sun Whorl would touch the sea in the southwest; why should I not sail to meet it? It was an attractive idea, and when I was sleepy enough seemed almost possible.
Once some monstrous, luminous creature four or five times the size of the sloop glided beneath it, for there are fish in the sea that could swallow the great fish that swallowed Silk's poor friend Mamelta, as everyone knows; but although the loss of boats that fail to return is conventionally laid to them, I think carelessness and weather are the true culprits in almost every instance. I do not deny that they can sink boats much bigger than my old sloop, or that they occasionally do.
At one moment it was night. At the next, day.
That was how it seemed to me. I had slept, leaning on the tiller, and not wakened until the light of our Short Sun struck me full in the face.
There were bottles of water (mixed with a little wine to keep it sweet) in one of the chests, and a box of sand for a fire aft of the mast. I baited a hook with a morsel of dried meat and fished for my breakfast, which was my lunch by the time I caught it. If I had not hung Sinew's hunting knife on my belt, I would have split and gutted it with the worn little pocketknife that came with me from Old Viron. As it was, I used his, vaguely conscious that he might ask if it had been helpful someday and wanting to tell him that it had been; gestures like that had become a habit, however futile. It was a good knife, made here on Blue by Gadwall the smith from a single bar of steel which supplied the blade, the stubby guard, and the grip. I remember noticing how sharp it was, and realizing that the bulbous pommel might be almost as useful for pounding as die blade for cutting. I have Hyacinth's azoth now (locked away and well hidden); but I would almost rather have Sinew's knife back, if he would give it a second time.
Here in landlocked Gaon, people would think it queer that we who came from a city so remote from any sea that we had scarcely heard rumors of them should build our new town on the coast. But Viron had been a lakeshore city in the beginning, and it was Lake Limna that left Viron, and not Viron that had left the lake. When we landed here, it seemed natural to us to direct our lander to the shore of our bay, since we thought the water we saw was potable and might be used for irrigation. We were disappointed, of course. But the sea has given us food in abundance--much more, I believe, than even a large lake could have supplied. Even more important, it has been better than the best road for us, letting us move ourselves and our goods faster and better than pack mules or wagons ever could. Gaon is greatly blessed by its cold, clear River Nadi; but I do not believe New Viron would exchange the sea for it.
When Nettle and I decided to build our mill, after trying farming without much success, it was obvious that we would have to have a location to which logs could be floated. We tramped up and down the coast in search of a suitable spot until at last it occurred to me that we would never find it as long as we searched by land for a place to which logs could be floated by sea. That was when I built our first boat, a sort of pointed box with one ludicrously short mast and a tendency to drift off to leeward that would have been quite funny if it had not been so serious. Eventually Tamarind, whose husband had been a fishmonger and knew something of fishermen and their boats in consequence, showed me how to rig a leeboard that could be dropped when necessary and pulled up for shallows. After that, with a taller mast stepped farther forward, we used that boxy little boat for years.
From it, we first landed on Lizard. There was a fishing village there already (if four very modest cottages make a village) at the back of East Bay, which was far from the best part of the island to our way of thinking. We claimed the Tor and everything west of it, with the Prolocutor's support; and since nobody else wanted it, we made our claim good. The land is sparse and sandy (except for our garden, where the soil has been improved with kitchen waste); but there is the Tor with its spring, which gives us water to drink and turns our mill, and Tail Bay, more than half enclosed by the Tail, to which the woodcutters bring the logs we need.
I can see everything as I write. I believe that I could draw a good map of it on this paper now, showing where the house and mill stand, the Tor, the West Foot, and the rest of it; but what good would such a map be? No matter how accurate, it could not take me there.
* * *
It has been a good place for us, with plenty of space for barking and chipping the logs we haul out with block and tackle, although it is somewhat dangerous because it is so remote. I must not forget that the twins are older now. Between birth and twenty, a year is an immensity.
* * *
Not long after I finished my fish, the sun was squarely overhead. I have never become completely accustomed to a sun that moves across the sky. We speak here of the Long Sun we left and this Short Sun to which we have come; but it seems to me that the difference implied by the change of shape is small, while the difference between this sun which moves and that one which does not is profound. At home, that part of the sun that was directly overhead always appeared brightest; to east and west it was less bright, and the farther you looked the dimmer it became. At noon, the sun here does not look very different; but the Long Sun is fixed, and seems to speak of the immortality of the human spirit. This Short Sun is well named; it speaks daily of the transitory nature of all it sees, drawing for us the pattern of human life, fair at first and growing ever stronger so that we cannot help believing it will continue as it began; but losing strength from the moment it is strongest.
What good are its ascension and domination, when all its heat cannot halt its immutable decline? Augurs here (such augurs as there are) still prattle of an immortal spirit in every human being. No doctrine could be less convincing. Like certain seeds from the landers, it was grown beneath another sun and can scarcely cling to existence in the light of this one. I preach it like the rest, convincing no one less than myself.
When I left home, I had promised myself that by noon I would tie up at the wharf in New Viron, having supposed, or hoped at least, that the west wind would last. It had been weakening since midmorning, and while I washed my fork and little, red-brown plate, it died away altogether. I lay down in the shade beneath the foredeck and slept.
Less than two hours had passed, I believe, when I woke. The shadow of the mainsail was slightly larger and had moved a trifle; otherwise everything was the same. For half a minute, the sloop rose a hand's breadth upon the oily water, and for the next half minute descended again. Halfway to the horizon, one of the snake-necked seabirds skimmed the water hunting fish, a creature capable of soaring almost to the stars that rarely rose higher than a donkey's ears.
It was only then, after I had truly slept, that the full weight of my decision fell upon me. The leaders (self-appointed, you may be sure) who had come to speak to us had believed (or had pretended to believe) that my absence from my family, and the house and mill that Nettle and I had built together, would be merely temporary, like a trip to Three Rivers. I would discover the location of Pajarocu without difficulty, board a lander just as we had boarded the one that had brought us there and revisit the Long Sun Whorl, find Silk (again without difficulty), easily persuade him to accompany me, procure samples of maize and other seeds, learn all I could about the manufacture of this and that--or still better, find someone skilled who would come with us--and return home. They had spoken of it as something that might with a little good luck be accomplished in a few months. On the sloop that day I realized that I might as well have volunteered to fly to Green by flapping my arms and wipe out every inhumu there. One would be no more difficult than the other.
The enormity of the oath I had taken so lightly back on the Tail had not yet sunk in, and would not until Babbie and I were sailing alone, north along the coast. If I had been able to reach New Viron, I would have gone to Marrow and the rest and declared that I had changed my mind, gone back to the sloop, and gone back to Lizard at once. But I could no more give up my errand than I could continue it. The reefs and rocks of the mainland waited immobile to my left. The horizon ducked away from my eyes to starboard. Nothing moved except the white bird, which flew back and forth with a slow, sad motion that seemed so weary that every time two wings rose I felt that it was about to fall into the sea, and the Short Sun, which crept down to the empty horizon as remorselessly as every man creeps toward his grave.