“Bertram?” the vicar peeked around the door, scanning each hospital bed for his quarry. “Bertram?” Three beds were empty; the fourth held a sleeping figure. Bertram was laid out on his back, angled by the cruelty of hospital beds, and propped into that unnatural sleep by a drip of some sort and hot pillows. A third time the vicar called, venturing nearer the bed, “Betram?”
Bertram’s eyes came open, looking upward into the white of the ceiling. He scanned. The vicar drew near to him and sat down. The rustle of the vicar’s jacket pulled Bertram’s eyes away from the ceiling and toward the vicar. “Vicar!” he tried to exclaim, but phlegm blocked the greeting so that the vicar was greeted by an exuberant, thick cough.
“Lois told me you broke your hip.”
“Darnedest thing, Vicar,” laughed Bertram. “I was walking to turn off the lamp—you know where the lamp is—we run the cord for the lamp under the carpet there. Well, I tripped over the cord, fell down, and I heard my hip go ‘snap.’”
The vicar nodded. The nurse came tumbling in, saying, “His hip broke, then he fell.” The vicar nodded again.
“Lily,” the beer made me say, “is making things happen to me.”
“Lily,” said her uncle, “Lily is a catalyst.”
“A catalyst,” he said. “Your character is responding to her, and you are unfamiliar with the response because it is visceral and you cannot control it; it must feel similar to that day of the battle for your city.”
“Yes,” I said, pondering. “Come to think of it, it does.” I pulled my feet up under my chair. “It is a thrill to look at her—to put my eyes upon her—to imagine her figure—”
“Tut!” he interrupted, laughing. “Speak carefully, O Nathet! You have a habit of speaking too colorfully.”
“Surely,” I said, shaking my head, looking directly at him from under my own brow, “surely we must be able to speak to each other colorfully if we are to be companions upon the highways.”
He laughed, saying, “Indeed, and we must be able to speak colorfully upon the wilderness roads and when we are lost, as well! Do continue.”
“It is a thrill, as I was saying, to imagine her figure; it is not as though she hides her figure, even though the outward effort is there, using the dark clothing as a cloud, but her figure is so clearly evident,” I said, “that the imagination is forced to work in that particular direction.”
He said nothing, but he fingered his cup.
“And she’s such a mystery,” I continued. “A mystery. She has treasured up knowledge in music, especially, but she is able to speak music. Speak music. When she talks, it is the same as a song—not the music, as in the melody—it is the artistry, the wisdom, the poetry—the words, and she walks those words. I see those words in her figure, and it is music when she moves it.”
He continued looking at his cup without a comment.
“When I left my home that day, I had decided to leave for the sake of leaving. Now I desire to leave, even more earnestly, not to leave but to find something.”
“Then to return?” he asked.
“Then to return,” I said.
“For her?” he asked.
“It is a mystery,” I returned. “I don’t know what I will find.”
An army had broken through from the east two years ago. They did not destroy crops or buildings. They did murder people. They murdered brutally the leaders of the people. I had never heard this. Perhaps it was said to me, but I could not hear. Now I could hear because I was going into this country. Was it not the King’s country? Certainly! No?
An army returns through the same country, wounded. Both are wounded, both the country and the army. The people are wounded to the point of survival. They have no leaders. Ordered leadership, no. Natural leadership, perhaps. Natural leadership brings envy and unrest. Hordes follow natural leadership. The people are not merely a horde; they are a bloodthirsty horde. A natural leader gives them a sharp point. No, not a sharp point. A natural leader gives them a blunt weapon. No, not a blunt weapon. What is a weapon that tears with a powerful grip, tears flesh? Teeth. A people wounded to the point of survival sees their attacker with his back turned, unsuspecting. A natural leader gives the people a taste of blood, and they drink their own death. This is a people dead. This is a people which did not survive its wounding. For two years this people has torn at itself, tasting blood, having now an insatiable hunger for blood, and more than blood, for fire, for everything destructive. These people have become barbarians. They had ample property, treasuries of wealth, ample stores of food; crops and buildings had been spared by this king from the east, with a far smaller population to support. They had no need for ordered leadership to live easily. And so each to his own, without allegiance to anyone or any principles. Their wrath certainly had spread beyond the countryside beneath the mountains.
These people were the King’s own people; these people are my people. These people swarm the roads and passes of all the land between the city and the North country.
“I was more struck,” Lily’s uncle resumed, “that he calls them the Brother and the Sister.”
“Why does that strike you?” Lily’s father asked.
“Because it’s latterly nonsense,” Lily’s uncle said, “Foisted upon this population by insubstantiality which has marked the decline of this last generation.”
The names of the rivers was a recent indication that our civilization was doomed?
“These state religions,” cried out an exasperated Lily’s uncle, “one right after another! They receive assiduously, but they are idle in bequeathal. They redesignate so that one young man rises up with one set of surface beliefs, then the next young man rises up with an entirely different set of surface beliefs; they’re nothing but lily pads in a shallow pond, these beliefs.”
Then he returned from his raving to me, and he demanded, “Why do you call the rivers Brother and Sister?”
“Well,” I began, “not that I believe in myths, but I thought that it was a quaint way to add character to muddy water.”
“You don’t believe in myths?” asked Lily’s uncle.
“Not really. We’re just mud, anyway; what difference does it make?” I said, half-believing what was saying.
“How does the myth of Brother and Sister come to you?” he asked.
I said, “My father taught me that the son and daughter of the Almighty God provoked him to anger by not glorifying the lesser beings, that is, us men, so he cast them out of his palace onto the earth. They assumed the form of dragons of fire, intent on destroying the lesser beings, but their father trapped their heads, one of them with his right hand, and the other of them with his left foot. With his left hand, he tied together their tails, right here in the city, in fact. He raised up his hand to smite them, and they begged for mercy. He agreed not to kill them if they were to forever quench their fires.
“So here they are to this day, squirming in their beds until the end of the world, the Brother and the Sister.”
Lily’s uncle looked at me intently, asking, “Where do you think the palace of the Almighty God is?”
I thought for a moment, then said, “I suppose it must be somewhere that is not known as earth.”
“And you don’t think that this myth makes any difference?” he asked.
“Brother,” interrupted Lily’s father. “That is not a fair question. He did not say that the myth makes any difference; he said that believing in the myth does not make any difference.”
“I did say that,” I said, “but the myth doesn’t make any difference if believing in the myth does not make any difference.”
There was a stunned look on the face of Lily’s uncle.
Lily asked, “But does a myth not teach even if it is not true?”
“Many things teach,” I replied. “Where does teaching come from? Why would I believe that the palace of this myth teaches that there is a transcendental existence beyond what I can see and perceive if there really isn’t one?”
“In your mind,” asked Lily’s mother, “is there a palace?”
I looked at Occuri. I remarked to myself that this was the first time that she had spoken to me in a day or so; I couldn’t remember hearing her participate in any conversation that involved me. Then I thought to myself that this was the most extraordinary family, not for the questions, not necessarily, but for the earnestness of their relationships.
“There is a palace,” I said. “There must be.”
“Do you believe in a palace because of this myth?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“But you do not believe in the myth,” she propositioned for me.
“No,” I said. “The myth is utter nonsense.”
A smile crept across the face of Lily’s father. His eyebrows hung low over his eyes.
As for me, I was neither happy nor unhappy to leave Market Makers. The patronage was all fixed, and I was an outsider: they were there to socialize; I was there to not socialize. What’s more, that fourth beer was laying a heavy load on my body in more than one way. An uphill climb with a heavy leather roll—probably, I figured, the outside of that stew we just ingested—along with those five pears, which had grown into melons while I was sitting there, not to mention the desire of at least one of those beers to escape my body. This was a cause for unhappiness. I began my journey up the hill to my house.
My house? No. To the house of the goddess; my house was sold, whose new owners had not made themselves known. What had he put in that fourth beer: a fifth beer? I knew from experience that this path was graded uniformly uphill, but this afternoon it seemed to pitch every now and again, straight down, then up. It was one thing to catch the earth coming toward me, or to try to find the earth as it sped away from me, but worst of all, the path suddenly pitched side to side, as though the path itself were trying to throw me into the ditches on either side. I was on my own adventure upon the ocean.
“Next time,” I reminded myself. “Pale does not mean light.”
“What does it mean?” a nearby stranger prodded.
“Drunk,” I said. “On my way to see a great big man with great big hands that go, that go, that go…” and I gesticulated despite the sack of pears and the roll of hide.
“Oh, I gather,” he said, grinning. “Crush your skull.”
I thought about it for a second: “Yes. Crush my skull. Why, oh why, did I have that fifth beer?”
“Brother,” he said, “that’s not my problem. But don’t worry about the next time.”
“There won’t be one,” he said.
“Oh, no…” I groaned. “Don’t say that. This man, with his eyes, can make a glare so that the sun smites your brain, setting it on fire from the inside, and while you’re writhing in pain, he uses his hands to go smash!”
“You need to get home,” said the stranger, “before you cannot.”
“No home,” I said. “No home I sold it to drink beer for the rest of my life somewhere on the highways.”
All the twelves saw their mighty enemy for the first time under the light of day without the distance of the heights of mountains intervening. They were a host, truly, a horde. They were like flies, swarming, without sense or order, but they were a swarm, indefatigable, with one man upon another man. Each man of the son of the King of the Mountain Kingdom looked and saw that this horde was of men who could be his brothers. Their faces were painted with the dust of the plains, and their war-clothes were sewn from cloth of the plains, but pigments and threads were not distinct under the probing eye of the spear. When they saw this to be true, a kind of fear came over the twelves, and the commanders were sore pressed to maintain the twelves in their ranks.
The prince, the true son of a man, a savior of men, perceived this trouble, as perceiving a storm rising up just before battle, drew his sword, and pointed it at the sky. He took his station before his men, and said these few words: “These men are your brothers, your cousins, your very own flesh and blood, but war is upon them because we must take the secret paths in and out of our land. They themselves offer their swords to our daughters in our land, sneaking through the passes into and out again. My father, the king, once offered them tribute to leave us in peace. Now he has given me a command to recover his tribute from the belly of my brother, Il-neth-ta, his very own son, the son of treachery!”