But this week's chapter continues, as it has been, in the PoV of Nelyo. The family is preparing to leave for the New Year Festival. The "mystery guest" makes an appearance and plays quite a significant role. I like this chapter because it has a little bit of angst, a little bit of humor, and even a little bit of naughtiness--though nothing graphic--but naturally, I am interested in any thoughts or suggestions that my readers might have and welcome comments of all sorts. Or just read and enjoy!
The day before the eve of the New Year blazes forth with a heat like none we’ve had all year. The clearing where sits our house simmers like a crucible, but I can only wish to become one with it, molten and searing to the eye, rather than doomed—as I am—to be smothered beneath it. Even Atar excuses Vorondil and me from the forge that day, and we all sit in the shade of the largest oak in the garden, with cups of cold water drawn from the frigid depths of the earth, our legs sprawled and our clothing sticking to our skin, making intermittent, reluctant conversation as though not wanting our hot breath to add to the heat of the day.
Findekano departed last night, and I am sorry for him now, for Tirion must be even hotter than here, without the cool shade of the trees, ensconced as it is in white stone. Tyelkormo and Carnistir are splashing in the fountain outside of Macalaurë’s music room, from which comes the reluctant sound of scales forced into the wavering, hot air, and it is not long before the scales cease, and Macalaurë emerges, his tunic half unlaced and his chest damp, to join us in the shade.
“That is tempting,” says Macalaurë, jerking his head in the direction of the fountain. “To be so young to be excused—” and he hasn’t even the chance to finish his thought before Atar is leaping from the ground, tearing his tunic over his head, and racing to tumble into the fountain with his two youngest sons, who shriek with joy and latch onto him like the fat leeches we found in a pond once in Formenos, that Tyelkormo tormented poor Macalaurë with, driving him into a tree for fear of the things. I laugh and consider the stretch between the shade of our tree and the fountain: It quivers with molten, golden light, but like any pain, if endured quickly, the reward of having done with it entirely seems worth it, and so I race too, tearing off my tunic as I go, and splash into the fountain before remembering that I still wear my boots. Atar is laughing very hard at me, and Carnistir is taking the opportunity to see if his fist fits in Atar’s mouth.
“You are both mad!” comes the shout from Macalaurë, across the garden, but it is only a few minutes before he has joined us, and Vorondil is alone beneath the tree, sitting very rigidly now, as though trying to prove his superiority to us in matters of dignity.
“Vorondil!” Atar hollers to him. “For Eru’s sake! You are worse than a cocklebur in the seat of my shorts!” and Vorondil stands slowly and walks stiffly across the lawn, undresses and folds his clothing carefully on the edge of the fountain, and primly dips his foot into the water.
Carnistir—splashing across Atar’s lap on his way to me—knocks poor Vorondil’s trousers into the water, and Atar seizes his wrist and pulls him gracelessly into the fountain between us.
And so we sit—the water is tepid but cooler than the air, at least—with water to our chests, while Carnistir and Tyelkormo play among the forest of our knees, and Amil pokes her head out of her workshop window to see what is causing the commotion and laughs with reckless joy at the sight of us.
I consider the sight, imagining myself as one of the lords from Tirion, rounding the corner, perhaps, with a message, drawn by the sounds of Carnistir’s shrieks and Tyelkormo’s laughter. I imagine the jolt of surprise—as if one’s organs are being jerked out of place—that he would feel at the sight of us: our clothes scattered around the fountain, our feet a tangle at the center. I smile. Macalaurë sees my smile and grins in reply.
It is too hot to cook, and so we eat cold salads and leftover slices of turkey, kept cool in the cellar, with berries picked by Tyelkormo in the forest earlier this week. With Laurelin fading into evening, some of the heat seeps from the day. We all help in the kitchen, to clean up, and have it done in a matter of minutes, and go outside to lie on the cool grass and listen to Macalaurë’s latest composition on the harp.
Laurelin has just faded, and it is the darkest part of the evening. The air smells sweetly alive, of grass and trees, green things that had rejoiced in the intense heat and light of afternoon. We do not even spread blankets between us and the ground but lie directly on the cool grass, letting the blades nip us through our clothes—in chastisement, perhaps, for flattening it—sprawled in a loose ring with Macalaurë and his harp at the top. Tyelkormo is lying on his back, and a large brown moth has landed on his chest and flutters in his loosely cupped hands. Fireflies stream up from the grass—winking gold stars, dabbing light against the darkness—flickering in rapid, complex patterns, hoping for a mate, hoping to be understood. One lands on the tip of Atar’s ear, but he doesn’t seem to notice—Amil’s head is in his lap, and he is idly stroking her hair—and it blinks its signal from there, very bright against his hair that is darker than the night sky overhead.
“Varda made the stars. Yavanna made the fireflies. Much the same they are—but which is superior?” asks Atar. I smile to remember how I used to answer such questions in my youth—so gravely serious! expecting, hoping that he would perceive how deeply I’d considered the question and be proud of my response—and Carnistir says, with the wide-eyed certainty of a small child, “Varda’s stars, for Varda is Queen of the Valar.”
“Fireflies,” Tyelkormo counters, his voice surprisingly faint, his head outside of the circle, “for they are tangible. Stars are not tangible.” I see a deeper darkness quivering against his shadowy hands, as the moth plays its feather-soft wings against his skin.
“Aren’t they?” asks Atar. The firefly on his ear opens its wings and hums away, blinking greenish-gold as it goes. “Who says that—given the right materials—the stars are not obtainable to any of us?”
You especially, I think, for hasn’t he defied possibility already, by placing something as insubstantial and abstract as light within the solid reality of stone?
“Nothing undone is impossible,” says Macalaurë, with a tiny smile, drawing his fingers across the strings of his harp in a glissando so beautiful that my heart squeezes in my chest, perhaps trying to end itself so that it needn’t live without such beauty ever again.
With a rustle of wings, Tyelkormo’s moth takes to the air, fluttering toward the lighted windows of the house.
Tyelkormo sits up, and he hands reach for where the shadow departed, but his stretching, seeking fingers fumble only air. I feel a pang of sympathy for him—my inconsonant little brother with his golden hair and his love for natural things untouched by meddling hands—and move in his direction, beckoning him with my arm. He hesitates—no longer does he come to me, uninvited, on a whim, as he once did. Now, he regards me for a long moment before mirroring my movement and shifting in my direction, moving inside the crescent of my arm. He is a solid child and so large for his age, but the body inside my arm is still small and still a child, something that—at times—I have forgotten of late.
I kiss his temple, at the edge of his golden hair. He sighs and curls on the ground, lying with his head resting on my thigh.
Across from me, Atar holds a dozing Carnistir in his lap and Amil snuggles into Atar’s side. A strand of her hair bows into Carnistir’s mouth.
Macalaurë begins to play. I close my eyes and let the notes fill my head, each as bright and beautiful as a chip of diamond. Macalaurë’s music once ached with a longing I knew he did not fully understand; people would cry at hearing it, without even realizing that there were tears on their faces. Even my grandfather—strong enough to lead the host of the Noldor across the Hither Lands—had to close his eyes against the tears, against the emotions and memories that should not belong to one as young and unworldly as Macalaurë.
Now, his music speaks of hope. It speaks of first love, of the feeling that one’s liquid-heavy essential organs have been replaced with something light and whimsical, like colored feathers, that a puff of wind might bear one to beautiful and mysterious lands. The feeling that, were one to spring into the air with the stars between his fingers, he might never have to return to the ground but might watch the darkness behind his hands subside until he lived among the stars. Macalaurë’s music makes me want to fling myself into the possibility beyond the confines of a cliff and fly; it makes me want to hold back the sea and dance where the waves once played, with a maiden in my arms who has no darkness in her eyes, overwhelmed as they are with light.
Macalaurë’s music makes me ache with longing. I imagine that—when I take my firstborn child into my arms for the first time—I will hear this song, that the happy tears on my cheeks will fall in counterpoint to the wordless melody that he now sings, his voice beginning softly—subservient to the melody that he weaves between the strings of his harp—then rising and swelling until even the stars in the sky seem to dim, bowing to his power, and my tears fall onto my little brother’s face and mix there with his.
He buries his face into my belly, and I rock him, cradling his head in my arms, his hands clenching my tunic in his fists at my back.
The song ends, but I do not hear it at first: The ghost of the melody eddies in my head, and it is not until I feel Tyelkormo shift—and I open eyes that ache with the memory of tears—that I realize that the silver light is very bright, that it is nearly midnight and we have all become adrift in song and so lost in time.
My hand lolls in Atar’s direction and I see Carnistir sleeping—for once at peace, looking as young as the child that he is, without the strange light to darken his eyes with age—and Amil and Atar kiss, with her palm flat at his sternum, now relaxing to cup his chest and slip past his ribs, caressing, to his waist. I am not supposed to see this, I know, and with a flush heating my face, I turn quickly away and meet Macalaurë’s eyes. His cheeks are also pink, and he lays his head on the smooth curve of his harp, and we smile shyly at each other. I gather Tyelkormo into my arms and go to retrieve Carnistir from Atar, keeping my eyes averted from where Amil has her fingers snaked into the ties of his tunic, having half-unlaced them already, and they draw apart for a moment with the abashed glow of two adolescents caught together, exchanging furtive glances and conspiratorial smiles, as Atar kisses his fingers and brushes them against my blushing cheek. “I love you, Nelyo.”
“I love you too,” I say. “Both of you.” With a child on each hip, their sleepy heads lolling against my shoulders, I straighten. “I will put them to bed.”
“We thank you for that,” says Amil, reaching up to squeeze my fingers, those supporting Carnistir’s bottom, and Macalaurë and I turn for the house, and before we are a dozen steps away, I glance back and see that Amil and Atar have merged into a single silhouette against the silvery darkness.
Macalaurë and I tuck the children into his bed—one at each end, since Carnistir claims to be unable to sleep with anyone but Atar—covering them with only a light sheet, for the night is heavily and intimately warm still.
“Do you think we shall embarrass our children like that someday?” he whispers as we wash our faces with cool water in his bathroom. “With our own wives?”
“I hope that, after bearing four sons, my wife—whoever she may be—still wishes to make love with me on warm nights, beneath the stars,” I say, “and take her chances of creating a fifth.”
“Shall there be a fifth of us, do you think?”
“I am nearly certain that there will be many more of us.”
We make pallets on the floor from his spare bedclothes, beside the doors that open onto his balcony, where we will be the coolest. Having left all of his pillows with the little ones and too lazy in the heat to go to my room for more (and not heartless enough to awaken our brothers to steal for ourselves the ones around which their plump little arms are wrapped), we lie with our heads on the floor, head to foot. Macalaurë wears his lightest nightclothes and—lacking anything large enough to fit me—I have stripped to my undershorts and lie, using my upper-arm as a pillow, staring into the night beyond his balcony.
Neither of us covers with a sheet, not with the humidity upon us with the weight of blankets. His bare, slightly grubby feet are crossed and seeking the relief of the bare, cold floorboards. There is a healing gash on his calf, and his thighs are yellowed in places with bruises. I reach to trace the cut but—remembering his odd, evasive reaction the last time I found wounds on his body—suffice to swat his foot instead.
“This is unwise,” I say, laughing as his foot—still as ticklish as it was when he was a child—twitches away from my hand.
“It is better than to have your hot breath on my head all night,” he retorts.
“Your feet smell.”
“Yours are no better.” He pauses, then goes on to say, “You could turn over and face away from my feet.”
“I wish to look outside.”
“Why? It’s not as though you can see it with your eyes closed to sleep.”
I swat his foot again; again, it recoils. Again, I laugh. “You are becoming sardonic, you know,” I say. “You are proving your paternity.” I caress the arch of his foot; he squeals and yanks it from my grip. From his bed, Carnistir moans—a low sound that threatens to roll over into a sob—and we both turn in his direction, holding our breaths and hoping that he does not awaken, erupting, as is his tendency, into hysteria. The mattress creaks as he shifts, and he makes no further sound. We both sigh with relief.
“Shush!” chides Macalaurë. “If you wake him—”
“You are telling me to shush? You are the one who shrieked.” I walk my fingers along the underside of his big toe, and he draws his knees into his chest and sits up, annoyed. “Fine,” he says, turning his body so that our heads lie in the same direction. “Since you will not leave me in peace….” Spotting my arm, which is stretched across his pallet, he grins and continues, “Actually, this is rather convenient,” and lies down, using my arm as a pillow.
I study his face, as an artist might, pondering the planes and angles, realizing—with a sudden clench of fear, the same that seized me in my youth, upon first learning that life could end—that the child is gone from his face: his cheeks are no longer soft, his face no longer round and undefined, easily confused with that of any other child. His cheekbones are defined now and shadowed; his chin is firm; his nose no longer begs to be tweaked but is straight and proud, like Atar’s. Wisdom is beginning to bloom also in his eyes, even at the tender age of forty, for he has learned now the meaning of love; he knows desire and fear of loss in equal measure (for those come with love). I trace my fingers along the line of his jaw, wondering, When did “little” Macalaurë depart? When did his features eclipse the point of immaturity into this new, beautiful countenance that I suddenly feel I have never seen before?
For, this time last year, my brother had been but a boy who’d sworn no desire for females and less a desire for children, spitting the word like a ball of putrid saliva, who’d often been mistaken for being younger than he was by those who had not known better. Not now: Now, I imagine his wedding; I imagine his eyes changing to the wedded contentment of our father and uncles; I imagine him holding his first child in his arms, then herding all of his children with the look of perpetual perturbation that seems to take shape naturally into the faces of parents, sneaking kisses with his wife and making love with cautious care, always listening for the sounds of footsteps coming to him with tears or nightmares or to tell of accidents made in the bedclothes. I smile at this, and he grins back and says, “What is it? Why do you smile so?”
I shake my head and will not say. He takes my fingers from his face and squeezes them in his hand, and our hands lie, entwined, on the floor between us.
His eyelids are drooping. It is exhausting, I know, for him to play music like he played tonight, as though he must remove a part of himself to do so and his body has to sleep to replenish the loss. I caress his fingers in mine, and he smiles. “Do you know how happy I am right now?” he asks in a whisper, his voice slurred by weariness. “I have forgotten the meaning of pain.”
I consider the bitter truth of it: That Macalaurë’s happiness came at a time when mine departed, when the life I loved and had envisioned as my destiny began to disintegrate with the inevitability of crumbling stone. Would I reverse this, to change my fate? Would I have Macalaurë lose Vingarië and revert to insecurity and naïveté, if it promised that tomorrow, my hopes would be realized, that I would walk forward in my own life and into the cottage in the wilds, with my books and my children around me, and my wife beside me in my bed at night? No….
I close my eyes, lulled by the contented rhythm of Macalaurë’s breathing, and wait for dreams to come. I remember his words: I have forgotten the meaning of the pain.
Squeezing his fingers, gently, so not to wake him, I whisper, “May you never remember it.”
I awaken in the first blushes of morning, when the Lights mingle and it is easy to forget strife and pain in favor of that single hour of perfect, beautiful light.
The lower half of my arm is heavy with lost feeling, and Macalaurë is still lying on the upper half; he is snoring lightly, his eyelids twitching as he navigates dreamscapes, and I haven’t the heart to dump his head from my arm and awaken him, so I stare out at the morning. The world is softened by a thin, gauzy mist; the air glows with the mingled Light, captured as it is by the water droplets milling through the air. The morning is warm already, and today will likely be hot, like yesterday. The curtains do not even twitch with a breeze, as though even the winds have subdued themselves in reverence of the Light.
Today is the day when my hopes, at last, balance on my fingertip, where forces beyond my control will decide if they will shatter upon the ground or if gravity will seemingly reverse itself and the impossible will be achieved. I allow myself to think of Annawendë in my arms; I allow myself to imagine her scent of hard work and metal, undercut by the softer smell of her skin, of the woman beneath the deceptively hard veneer; I allow myself even to think of wedding her—a forbidden thought in these long months of her absence—of pushing myself into the softness of her body, of a shared spark of ecstasy engulfing us both, of our spirits united and unable to be sundered. I close my eyes and tears drop softly to the floor, and I haven’t the hands to wipe them away, for Macalaurë sleeps upon my arm, numbing one hand, and still clenches the other in his own.
There is much to be done this day, and I push through it with the grim determination of a wanderer gone long without sustenance who knows that he must cross the last mountain before him—knowing not whether there will be a town on the other side or not—but he must cross it anyway, to know.
Tyelkormo and Carnistir need to be bathed and have their hair braided and dressed in their costumes. Tyelkormo goes always as a deer, complete with antlers nabbed from one of Atar’s quarries (that never fail to worry me, given his tendency to toss his head about, neglectful of eyes or soft tissues that might be in their way), while Carnistir always refuses to wear anything except all black, even a black hooded cloak that he pulls low over his eyes. He calls this costume Invisible.
Macalaurë and I are entrusted to this duty, and I don’t need to see Atar being admitted into the guest room to know why—returning with a struggling, gnashing Carnistir held at arm’s length and screaming of the injustice of two baths in less than a day.
“Ah, yes, Rúmil,” says Macalaurë, when I mention it, once both little ones have been settled into the tub. Macalaurë works on Tyelkormo while I hold onto the much more difficult slippery-wriggly Carnistir, who is moaning as thought tormented and trying to get out of the tub. “Atar told me of him when we went to Tirion to visit my unborn begetting day gift.” He grins. “Why the secrecy, though?”
So Atar has not told all….
“I do not know,” I lie. “Rúmil prefers to live alone, although I know not the reason.” Carnistir stops fussing abruptly and turns his dark eyes on me, and I sense a shocked disappointment behind them.
“He’s pretty,” says Carnistir.
“Who? Rúmil?” asks Macalaurë.
“Yes….” Quixotic, like usual, Carnistir hugs my arms and nuzzles his face into the crook of my elbow, smearing soap across the front of my tunic.
Tyelkormo’s foot flies out from his body and kicks Carnistir hard in the knee. Carnistir shrieks and kicks back, and Macalaurë and I must hold them both and try to subdue them. “I told you to stop calling men ‘pretty!’” Tyelkormo shouts, scrambling to free himself of Macalaurë’s grip.
Carnistir is weeping now, softly, less with anger than injustice. “But he is pretty—silver-bright pretty!” he insists, while Macalaurë scolds Tyelkormo, who is now also crying. Both are subdued now, but the iridescent, soapy water churns with the memory of their outburst. Carnistir turns his quivering, tear-streaked face to me; with his cloud of dark hair slicked to his head, he looks quite pathetic. “He is pretty, Nelyo, don’t you know?”
I shiver, smile, and turn Carnistir’s face from mine to resume rinsing the soap from his hair. “Of course, I know, little one.”
I am glad when Amil comes—dressed in her green costume as Yavanna—to take the little ones and Macalaurë hustles to his room to don his secret costume, and I am left alone, to refill my bathtub with hot water, undress, and plunk myself into it, turning the hourglass first because—lately—I have a tendency to linger overlong in the bath and, twice, even fell asleep. In the past, the New Year Festival has been an occasion of great joy for me: the mystery of the masks and the costumes, the shadowy corners where the fingers of firelight do not probe, the dizzying wines and the feeling of silk on my skin, parted aside to make way for warm lips and fingers to explore the flesh beneath. “Do you even wear undergarments?” Macalaurë had teased—slightly scathing and slightly exasperated—after the Festival last year, and I had laughed and said, “Well, our ancestors did not. I am staying true to history.”
And so, stepping from the bath and going to my armoire—leaving a dripping trail behind me—I ponder my costume, in its blazing reds and gold of nearly sheer silks, layer upon layer, shifting and dancing like the Fire I am supposed to be, and the pile of undershorts in my armoire: bland, graying cotton, worn in both the forge and at my grandfather’s most extravagant feasts, and I snatch the costume from its hanger and let the armoire bang shut on the undergarments.
In my hair, I thread strands of gold, twisting the fiery locks into haphazard braids and leaving some to tumble down my back. Atar once made a mask for me, to match my costume, but when I put it on, he snatched it just as quickly off and broke it beneath his boot and answering my shocked stare by saying, “The shame of disguising beauty as something lesser!” and so I paint a design at my right eye with a mixture of scarlet and gold—the gold made by Atar with actual gold dust in it that ensnares and dazzles the light—and leave the rest of my face bare and my identity undisguised.
And so I am ready.
I squint at myself in the looking glass and wonder, What is your fate?
Well, all fire falls to the same fate, I suppose. It is either snuffed or it burns itself into exhausted nothingness: Regardless, it is ephemeral and destined to die. It is the existence prior to disintegrating to cold cinders that matters. It gives life and warmth and aids productivity—or it consumes and destroys, taking everything, perhaps, in anger of its own eventual demise. I scowl and turn away from the glass, to look for my boots and join my family in the foyer, attempting to ignore my uneasy uncertainty.
What is your fate?
I bound down the stairs noisily, taking them two at a time, hoping that, if I force my body to mimic joviality, then my spirit might become as convinced as an outsider looking upon me—why, look at the joy in his spirit! how happy he must be!—and abandon the petulant gloom in which it lingers.
Amil is there already, dressed in her whimsical green gown done in a motif of leaves—and a crown of leaves and flowers upon her hair—reclining wearily against the wall, fingers at her temples, while Tyelkormo and Carnistir scamper around the room, shrieking, grabbing hold of each other and wrestling, bumping into furniture and sliding the rugs askance. Judging by the long tear in one of the scarlet drapes by the door—and the presence of incriminating threads on one of Tyelkormo’s antlers—the antlers have already proved hazardous. Atar and Macalaurë have not yet appeared, Vorondil left this morning to escort Nimerionë (and Atar made several overt hints about silver rings accompanying Vorondil in his pocket), and Amil’s apprentices have returned to their families for the holiday, still being underage. When she hears my footsteps, she looks up with relief, and I hasten to the task of separating Tyelkormo and Carnistir, dusting off their costumes, and sending them to opposite sides of the room to sit and behave.
“We were just playing, Nelyo,” quips Tyelkormo, primly adjusting his antlers and reminding me so much of our father that I cannot help but laugh.
“Playing or not, today is an important festival, and I cannot have you attend with your clothes in dirty disarray. And you must be cautious of these, Tyelkormo,” I remind him, helping him to straighten the antlers, “before someone loses an eye to your rambunctiousness.”
“Well, he—” he jerks his head in Carnistir’s direction, who is sitting gloomily in his appointed chair, his lower lip puffed out—“bit me on the wrist, see?” Tyelkormo slides away the sleeve of his brown tunic and shows me a bluish ring bearing an uncanny resemblance to the shape of Carnistir’s teeth.
I sigh and send my littlest brother a sharp look, and he wails. “We shall deal with that when we return day-after-tomorrow,” I say, affixing Tyelkormo’s sleeve over the bruise, kissing his rumpled forehead, and sending him in the direction of his chair with a swat to the bottom.
I go to stand beside Amil, who kisses my cheek. “You are so beautiful, Nelyo,” she says, reaching to touch my hair. “Sometimes I wonder if you are mine at all—or if your birth is but a manufactured memory, and really, you are a son of the Valar.”
I laugh. “No, there is too much of Atar in my face,” I say, “and Atar would not suffer the affections of anyone but you, Amil.”
She smiles and embraces me; I have grown such in the last few years that her head presses my chest now. “You are beautiful, Nelyo. And I feel so lucky that you are my son.”
Behind me comes the sound of footsteps moving down the hall. I draw back from Amil’s embrace and watch two pairs of hesitant feet come into view on the steps. One wears Atar’s unmistakable black boots, for he is dressed as a warrior on the Journey, wearing grandfather Finwë’s old armor, adjusted to fit Atar’s thinner, lither body.
My shoulders are drawn tense, and—realizing that I hold my breath—I force myself to inhale, trying to calm my pounding heart, sick with shame for my fear of Rúmil, who hardly deserves what happened to him and, less, my discomfort about it. After all, I was not the one tied to the tables in the Dark Lord’s dungeons and— I shake my head and feel my hair spilling like silk ribbons over my shoulders; I force myself to remember that it is not Rúmil I fear but the truth he represents about the world in which we live, and he is safe now from that, recovered from the hopeless depths of Utumno. I should embrace him and the hope that he embodies. I straighten my shoulders and stand alongside Amil—who is watching me, perhaps sensing my unease—in proud imitation of congeniality. I watch as careful, delicate steps bring Rúmil down the stairs to us—for his body, unused to travel, is doubtlessly frail—clutching Atar’s arm for support, wearing midnight-blue robes spangled with stars and a silver mask that is like looking into the mirror. I feel a bitter pang of relief that he wears a hooded cape over the robes, and it covers his ruined ears, and his mouth is hidden beneath the mask, done in the shape of my own lips.
They reach the last stair and, with his foot outstretched and groping to reach this final obstacle, Rúmil steps with wincing care to the floor and then releases Atar’s arm.
My little brothers, who have been fidgeting in their respective chairs, have both fallen silent. Tyelkormo’s jaw dangles open rudely with his finger hanging from a corner of it.
She is the Lady of the House, and so Amil steps forward first. “Lord Rúmil,” she says, and she curtsies. Amil is stiff and awkward when greeting guests, trying to hold her body in imitation of much smaller, delicate women, but her voice is sincere, and so she is always forgiven for it. “It is an honor to have you in our home. I welcome you….” She laughs nervously, realizing, perhaps, that he has been here for a week now. “Perhaps it is better to say that I hope you have found your accommodations adequate?”
Rúmil turns his body in Atar’s direction, and Atar lifts his hands and makes a series of quick gestures with his fingers, making shapes in the air as though spelling something in silent speech. I feel my brow furrow. Beneath the mask, I can see Rúmil’s glittering gray eyes watching Atar’s hands with an intensity paid to deciphering script. When Atar’s hands fall back to his sides, Rúmil bends and takes Amil’s hand, and he moves the metal lips of his mask—my lips—across her palm. Her shoulders jerk slightly, but her feet stay fixed; with her back turned to me, her expression remains a mystery. Rúmil straightens, turns to Atar, and moves his hands in a series of gestures, and Atar says, “He says that he thanks you for your warm welcome and that he has enjoyed his stay in our home. He says that he envies my luck,” adds Atar, with a wry grin, “to find a wife as beautiful as you.”
It takes Amil a long moment to gather her composure and reply, “I thank you, my Lord,” turning slightly in my direction as though begging for rescue.
I move to stand beside her. Atar is moving his hands again; I find myself watching his twisting fingers, knowing that he makes the shapes of words but unable to distinguish one from the other. I try to figure where words, phrases, sentences end. I wonder about the grammar of this finger-speech, about the intricacy of this language compared to ours. I find myself aching to learn it, to speak with such silent fluidity, weaving hypnotic patterns through the air.
Rúmil turns to face me. He makes a gesture, near to his face. He puts his finger to my chest; he glances at Atar. “Maitimo,” says Atar. “He wishes you to learn your name.”
He makes the gesture again. A nervous laugh slips from my throat before I can stop it: How can I meet kings and queens and speak with them as peers, yet find my heart pounding against my ribcage to be faced with this man, swallowing the sour taste of fear that coats my mouth? A man no different than me, really: We are both scholars; we both make our lives from meaningless symbols upon parchment. We impart that meaning; we have the power of deities to make something from nothing, to look upon black squiggles and smudges and press the parchment to our chests, with tears sprung to our eyes: beautiful.
I make the same gesture that he has made twice now, at my face—my name. The unnatural movement of my hand is awkward. Our people were made to speak, but this? But when we can no longer speak—
Rúmil clicks his fingers and tosses his head, and I sense he is laughing at me. He makes another gesture, cutting the air with his hand. No. I don’t need Atar to translate. I feel my face constrict in confusion; Rúmil notices it: I see his eyes, through the mask, deciphering each of my gestures, breaking the code of my expressions and posture. Rúmil pokes me again in my chest. You. He takes my hand in his. His hand is larger and stronger than I expected; he wears black silk gloves, but the hand inside of them is warm. Living flesh—but not a sliver of it visible. His fingers are very supple and agile, from years of writing calligraphy. He puts my hand to his chest; I feel flesh and ripples of bone beneath; he breathes, and his chest rises to meet my hand; I stiffen at such intimacy with a near-stranger, but he presses my hand with insistence against him. My hand is rigid in his, I realize, but relaxing now. He nods and takes his hand from mine, leaves it resting on his chest. He makes another gesture, one reminiscent of writing. Rúmil.
I take back my hand and confidently imitate his motions. Rúmil. He makes another gesture, three times, swiftly: Yes, yes. Yes!
I smile and feel my body sag, realizing for the first time the depth of my attention. The world slowly swims back into the periphery of my vision, akin to those moments in the library, studying, when all I could see was the page, and I hadn’t heard Macalaurë call me for supper until his hands were on my shoulders, and I’d jumped: “Stop mumbling to yourself like a madman, and come to eat,” he had said, laughing, as though he didn’t know what it was like to wander down that long tunnel of solitary study and emerge, blinking and flinching, back into the broad and very bright world.
Rúmil makes more gestures. Maitimo, I decipher, but the rest are lost in an incomprehensible twisting of fingers, although I can puzzle out where the words begin and feel the rhythm of sentences in my mind with the definitive click of a peg falling into a matching hole. Atar translates: “He says, ‘Maitimo, it is a pleasure to meet your re-acquaintance. I thank you for the honor of wearing your likeness, although no shape in metal—even born from your father’s capable hands—quite does you justice.’” He turns to Atar and signals further, and Atar clicks his fingers in laughter and replies, speaking as he signs: “I take no offense.”
I close my eyes and see the string of signals just made by Rúmil replay in slower detail. I open my eyes and shape, awkwardly, I thank you, and Rúmil’s eyes widen inside the mask, and he signs back to Atar.
Atar says, “He says that you deserve your recent honor in being named Master of Letters, for your comprehension is superb.” Atar then signs back to Rúmil without translating, but I see the gleam in Atar’s eyes and watch the shape of his fingers, and I suspect I know the meaning of one of his signs: proud.
I am proud of him.
And Atar smiles and reaches out to caress my cheek. He makes the sign again: Proud.
And calls my brothers: “Tyelkormo! Carnistir! Come and greet our guest.”
They scurry over, scuffling when they meet, pushing and fighting to be first. Tyelkormo leaps to the front to be introduced, but Carnistir ducks behind my legs, buries his face in my robes, and moans. I turn to bring him around to the front—well accustomed to my little brother’s antisocial nature, at times—but he is already easing around, peering at Rúmil from around my legs, reaching out a small, chubby hand, fingers outstretched as though stroking something soft in the air before him. “Silver…so pretty….” He steps around and takes Rúmil’s black-gloved hand in his; he presses it to his forehead. He sinks to the floor and wraps his arms around Rúmil’s legs in a bizarre embrace that I see him do sometimes with Atar—especially in the mornings, when he doesn’t want Atar to leave for the forge—and nuzzles his face into Rúmil’s robes. Tyelkormo, who has been chattering in introduction while Atar signs fiercely, attempting to translate fast enough to match Tyelkormo’s patter, falls abruptly silent, and we all stare with amazement at little Carnistir, who does not speak, as though he knows that Rúmil cannot hear him.
And Rúmil stoops and unlatches Carnistir from his legs and—with the awkwardness of one who does not often hold small children—lifts him into his arms. Carnistir pushes his face into Rúmil’s shoulder and knocks his hood aside, exposing a ruined ear, but Carnistir—who cries at the slightest provocation—doesn’t make a sound, and his fattish baby-arms lock around Rúmil’s neck. Rúmil holds him close and a low sound leaks from his throat, a mewling cry that speaks of the most basic visceral longing—and the brutal knowledge that it will never be satisfied.