this world is as wild as an old wife's tale,
and strange the plain things are,
the earth is enough and the air is enough
for our wonder and our war;
but our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
and our peace is put in impossible things
where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
round an incredible star
I don't think "dedication" is what I want, and "acknowledgement" sounds a little dry, don't you think? But whatever word I want (am I a writer, that I should know these things?) my parents are both responsible for this Chatterbox in their own very different ways. If it weren't for a particular lecture of my father's (and one small, tangential remark which struck me with a very potent mental image), and if it weren't for my mother's dedicated (there, I do want that word) tutelage throughout my wee homeschooling years, I don't believe this story would have come to be. And I am pathetically (in both senses of the word) nostalgic just at present. You will have to forgive me for that. And you'll have to forgive me for the overabundance of parenthetical statements: I've gone well over the recommended limit for a single person.
the headwaters of the himmajol
It was still early morning, and somewhere beneath the humid layers of sunlight there was still a prickling of cold dew; beneath the boy’s palms, the slate slabs that bordered the pool were so chilled as to feel damp. The harlequin nature of summer temperature amused him, quietly—soon enough the last touch of damp would be gone and the harsh bronze sun-disk that was rising out of the heaped-up hills would cut cleanly at any scorn, gentle or otherwise, that the dew-flecked soul of man might harbour. He trilled his bare calves noiselessly in the water at the pool’s verge, his toes tangling with the low-lying hornwort and plucking a little, idly, at the stems of the great blue lotuses which peppered the pool from one long end to the other.
A long blink of yellow body emerged from the black depths: he stilled his legs a moment, flesh sparking with delicious apprehension, and the languid koi, half curious, half ambivalent, brushed its whiskered face against his foot before passing on.
“Of the Arzachel Mountain range, Delepnir is the largest and most prominent peak: its perpetually snow-topped heights can be seen across the steppes for leagues. No one has ascended its height; it is only known that somewhere in its insurmountable slopes are the headwaters of the great Himmajol.”
At his back, seated among a froth of gold-embroidered cushions that masked the presence of a simple wood-slatted chair, the woman read patiently from the browned text of a large dolphin-skinned book, one leg slung over the opposite knee: her suspended foot jigged a little, and the boy could just see its far reflection bobbing silverily in the water. The head was bent, the dark brown hair coiled and hazed with the morning light. The voice hummed on, delightfully husky, as if God had made it out of the same ethereal stuff of this early summer moment.
“The Himmajol’s course, once it cuts its meandering way around the Arzachel’s foothills, has been charted from antiquity. It waters the Five Valleys, and runs beneath the walls of the old, old city Mazadin—named—” the voice suddenly detached from the text “—after the war-lord who founded it.”
The boy nodded absentmindedly, for he remembered that from some other piece of text which he had been privy to: he could not remember where or when, only that the legendary thrill of the character had possessed him with its dragon-faced plates of armour and the springing step of the hunting cat. A long time ago, Mazadin had been. But the name still stood, strong as forever. It still sent shivers through the blood of a southern boy whose civilization had ever been at odds with that of the war-lord.
They had long shadows, he thought pleasantly, and his eyes wandered to the long muted shadow of the white crane which stood motionless among the striped rushes. And their foundations last, even to this day. Man is dreadfully mighty, even without God.
The woman’s voice purred thoughtfully toward the cypresses, as if sharing with them: “I recall something somewhere—I do not remember where—something about a river beneath a city, and the floodwaters dammed back so that an army could invade through the water-ducts… Perhaps Mazadin did not know about that story. Anyway, it does not seem to have come back around to bite him.” And she picked up again where she had left off reading.
“Once the Himmajol leaves behind the Five Valleys—the Telmu, the Bax, the Serro-Vulga, the Jochi, and the Temüge—it skirts the raised, level plain of Batu, upon which stands Mazadin, and at the southern foot of Batu it divides into the three major northern rivers: the Timmin, the Ghir, and the Inganid. Bruin, darling.” She interrupted herself again. “Would you like to see the map?”
A large fluffy cat, dun-coloured with a seal-point face and devilish blue eyes, had slunk from the black taro and sat poised across from the crane: together they watched the koi flickering in the water.
“No, thank you, Mamma.” He began to move his legs again. “I can see it in my head.”
“…The Ghir, running almost directly west, divides what were once the southern Carmarthen ‘gang-lands’ from the high steppe country in the north. The steppes benefit very little from the river valley, nor are they much watered by the Himmajol on its way down, for it passes on the east side of Batu. The nomadic peoples of the steppes are but distant cousins of those settled folk who populated the Five Valleys and who, through the strong House of Mazadin, built up the land of Orzelon-gang in the days before Auxoris.”
With a little involuntary widening of his eyes he could see them very clearly: the long pool became the rigid banks of the Ghir, the crane and cat and sleepy koi became the living icons of past war-lords. The cypress trees that bounded the garden were the far mountains that ringed in the northern world, flashing, not with dew, but with the everlasting snows. Something hurt in his chest, and he did not know why.
“The Inganid diverges eastward, coiling tightly through the countryside until at last it cuts down into the sea. The land is rather mountainous, and steppe-like it is very arid, so that the effects of the Inganid are limited to its own valley. But the landscape of the valley is very lush, and some of the best coffee growing has followed the green ribbon of the Inganid for time out of mind.” The woman chuckled softly to herself, and the boy heard her lift the little bronze-embossed coffee-cup off the table to drink from it. She gave a little cough, as if she had swallowed too fast for herself, and set the cup down hurriedly again. “And here we are, my littlest fox—the Timmin!
“Like the Inganid, the Timmin meanders heavily west and eastward, descending by degrees through the territory of Orzelon-gang. It is the major river of the area, and eventually diverges into the southern rivers of the Glass at the Lookinglass Falls, and the See—which is our own river.”
He was staring at a webbing of lotus plants, sparked in cerulean like the massive cities and castles which had grown up around these rivers, and it was like looking at the veins of a living body, pumped through with the life-blood of the great rivers, descending from the inscrutable slopes of Delepnir and the thunder-charged torrent of the Himmajol. The land was alive with these rivers. He clenched his hands on the cool slate. Could anyone else see that? And if these rivers, slowly, inexorably trickling away into smaller and smaller channels, still spread their peacock-coloured wings over the long-boned, hot-blooded peoples which walked through the midst of his life, what race might live among the headwaters of the Himmajol?
“The Timmin, old and domestic, with its flood-plains well demarcated and its valley known through antiquity for its fertility, continues to enrich the valleys of Orzelon-gang, and has been a source of political contention throughout the years of Orzelon-gang’s existence.”
What must the gardens of the Himmajol be like, if the gardens of the Inganid and the Ghir and the Timmin were so lush? Who tended those cedars, or coaxed the shapes of the cypresses which would, on those slopes, bear no imagery of death? The mists would hang perpetually about the place, watering the plants; the blossoms would flash through the silvered gloom like jewels—the birds would weave the air with their golden wings!
If only I could go there, he thought, and his chest hurt again, horribly. If only I could go.
No reason, no pride or exploitation, only he hurt in a deep, desperate way, and to see the garden slopes of Delepnir would be the only way to dispel the pain.
“If you look out between those two cypresses, darling, at the end of the pool and the little lawn, you can see the steam coming off the Timmin.”
He looked and saw the cypresses like black door posts, and a crystal haze of sky, broken up by distant hills, steamed with the steam of the long river as it coiled through the land… And between the garden door posts, and the trees which had for centuries been the sentinels of the classical barrows, hung a shivering, shimmering, throbbing picture of spirit beauty, sinuous body woven into a kind of star-like knot, and casting down the length of the pond a glow of yellowed firelight that skipped and danced upon the dark surface.
The boy came immediately to his feet, shaking and trying not to show it. “Mamma,” he gasped. He swallowed, trying to steady his voice. “Mamma—look! Do you see the dragon? Look, there is a dragon!”
The woman, robed in blue tabbied silk, as if God had painted the tiger the same colour as the lotus, turned a page and murmured, “It is a long chapter, this chapter on the rivers. I do not know that I can read the whole thing, darling…”
The dragon’s featureless eyes were watching him, piercing through the desire of his heart. He stood with a naked soul beneath its glare, and knew he would never get to see the headwaters of the Himmajol: it would not let him by.
The crane was gone; the cat was gone; the koi had become reflections of the dragon’s light.
It hung its head at the base of its star-knot and began suddenly to thrash it about in wordless warning, as if thrown into an agony of urgency. Its jaws snapped open and shut, and every time its furnace-mouth gaped a blade of flame stabbed outward from among its fangs. It cut across the surface of the pool, lifting the water into a rage of smoke—it shut, quenched, opened again and set the lotus alight into tall blue plumes of flame. The boy clenched his fists against the terror of it and somehow stood his ground. Already the steam was obscuring the sight of it, save for where the shining eyes and the tongue of flame cut through the gloom. A roaring as of the roaring of many waters began mounting in his ears…
The woman heaved the large book shut upon her knees and twisted on the palette of rugs and silken pillows. A single lamp hung suspended from a silver chain overhead, and by its light she could look down into the quenched face of the boy cocooned within the long silk sheath of blankets beside her. His breathing was not yet even, for he was still lingering within the shallow dreaming world, but her voice was tired of reading and he was by all accounts asleep.
Putting aside the book, she leaned upon her hands and bent down through the soft sleeping-breathing and the lamp’s scent of olibanum, to kiss the smooth pale brow. He had a comfortable, indescribable scent, and he was pleasantly cool to the touch of her lips. And the touch must have come through to him wherever he was in his dreams, for his small hand closed lightly but determinedly upon the front of her blue tabbied gown and she could not sit back up without drawing on the clutch. A small, soundless laugh escaped her parted lips.
A panelled door slid open, a square of light flashed upon the tiled floor, and she turned her head to see her husband stepping noiselessly through the deep brown gloom to join them. Putting back the gauze hangings of the bed, he stood looking down at the little tangle—and he laughed huskily at the expense of them both.
“He has only just fallen asleep,” she whispered. “As you can see, he is still a little master of his surroundings.”
“That is my boy,” said the man coolly, and he, too, knelt among the pillows across from her. He put out one long, fine-boned hand to stroke back the dark fluffed forelock of the small sleeping master. His spare hand strayed to the little fist on the woman’s gown and gently detached it, folding it back at the boy’s side. Then he, too, kissed the brow with his own paternal magic and swept back on the balls of his feet, coming upright. “Come away now, darling,” he bade the woman, reaching out for her. “He will sleep now.”
She found her legs somehow in the great tangle of her skirts, surged like an encumbered blue heron to her wings, and stepped over the little body in the bed. The pillows slid beneath her bare feet and her husband’s hand beneath her own became necessary for support. Together they turned within the waterfall of gauze and waited breathlessly as the boy’s small, aristocratic face trembled a moment in sleep, bereft of the accompanying geniuses of his parents, and softened again, finding some inner comfort apart from their presence.
“What do you suppose he dreams about?” his mother whispered.
The harsh profile of the father creased, a thoughtful smile driving back the lines into his cheeks. “Oh—Nimrod,” he whispered back in a precipitate tone; “and loaves and fishes. Come away.”