Cards of Grief

Cards of Grief

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by Jane Yolen

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Jane Yolen’s award-winning story about an alien civilization forever changed by the incursion of human social scientists and a mysterious ancient prophecy
The year is 2132 when members of the Anthropologist’s Guild set down on the planet Henderson’s IV, or L’Lal’lor as it is known to the native population. Charged with theSee more details below


Jane Yolen’s award-winning story about an alien civilization forever changed by the incursion of human social scientists and a mysterious ancient prophecy
The year is 2132 when members of the Anthropologist’s Guild set down on the planet Henderson’s IV, or L’Lal’lor as it is known to the native population. Charged with the nonintrusive study of alien cultures, the crew discovers a society containing no love or laughter. It is, instead, centered around death—a world of aristocratic and common folk in which grieving is an art and the cornerstone of life. But the alien civilization stands on the brink of astonishing change, heralded by the discovery of Linni, the Gray Wanderer, a young woman from the countryside whose arrival has been foretold for centuries. And for Anthropologist First Class Aaron Spenser, L’Lal’lor is a place of destructive temptations, seducing him with its mysterious, sad beauty, and leading him into an unthinkable criminal act. Told from the shifting viewpoints of characters both alien and human, and through records of local lore and transcripts of court martial proceedings, Cards of Grief is a thoughtful, lyrical, and spellbinding tale of first contact. It is a true masterwork of world building from Jane Yolen, a premier crafter of speculative fiction and fantasy.  This ebook features a personal history by Jane Yolen including rare images from the author’s personal collection, as well as a note from the author about the making of the book.

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Cards of Grief

By Jane Yolen


Copyright © 1984 Jane Yolen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-2330-5



Place: Queen's Hall of Grief, Room of Instruction

Time: Queen's Time 23, Thirteenth Matriarchy; labtime 2132.5+ A.D.

Speaker: Queen's Own Griever to the apprentices, including Lina-Lania

Permission: No permission, preset, voice-activated

This Is The Song of the Seven Grievers, the seven great families of L'Lal'lor, from the days and nights of the sky's grieving to the very moment of my tongue's speaking. I have held these dolorous chants in my mind and in my heart against the time when, as the Queen's Own Griever, I may have to wail for the wasting of our land once again.

The first time our land died it was in water; but of water we may speak only at birth when water gushes forth unbidden from the cave of the womb, or at grieving when the waters flow at our bidding from our sorrowing eyes.

The next time the land dies, say the prophesies, will be when we forget to grieve.

It is written in the sky; it is written in the rocks; it is written in the sea; it is written on our hearts. But nowhere is it to be written down in any scripting of our own devising, for such is forbidden lest we then forget how to read it. To hold in the mouth is to remember; to set down is to forget. This sacred knowledge, therefore, must be passed Griever to Griever, Master to Master, mouth to ear, down through all time.

Hear then, listen well. My word is firm, firmer than sleep or the Cup that carries it, firmer than the strength of heroes. My voice makes the telling true. To listen, to remember, is to know.

Before the weeping of the sky, the land was soft and plentiful and there was no grief. Light bathed the land always and there was no division between the day and the night, between the bright and the dark. So there was no cold, no hunger, no hurt, and no dying. The world was called L'Lal'ladia, the Place of Blessing and Rejoicing.

But the People grew tired of such beauty and constant light. They turned to the dark of the caves and to games of chance. They pricked blood from their own arms to count the flow. And so the very skies began to weep blood. For one hundred times one hundred days water fell from the cloudless sky, first red and then clear, until the bowl of the world was filled with it. And all but two who dwelled in L'Lal'ladia and were called the People were drowned. Those two were a man and a woman, and he past the years of seeding. Even the light itself was put out, like a candle between wet fingers, leaving but a gray sooty smudge in the sky.

Then there crept from the caves in the highest mountains a second people called Night-Seers who lit watchfires in the day that lifted smoke into the now darkening sky. They sang their heavy songs and they called to the blackness and there was no rejoicing in their hearts. And for one hundred times one hundred nights the world turned black and was lit only by the softly falling stars.

The one arose from the Night-Seers and said, "Let us cast down great stones into the water that we may frighten it back from the land."

So one by one they rolled down great stones until the water was thrust back, leaving a land that was black as night and rich with the meat of fish and covered with strange bones.

And the smell of that land was strong and hunger called down a few of the Night-Seers onto the plains where they went about, back and forth, through the mud and left the marks of their feet and the prints of their hands as if carved deep into stone. And these few took up their lives on the muddy flats.

And a few of the Night-Seers were called on farther by the salt smell of the sea and followed the receding water to the place where sea and land met and wrestled for the ruling. Here the few Night-Seers stopped and cast their nets far into the water and pulled in their livings from the sea.

But the rest of the Night-Seers still hid in the shadows of the mountains, for they swore they knew the hilly wastes best and there they lived forever.

So the first of the Seven Grievers were these:

Lands, who live on the plains, stockmen and farmers, harrowers and pigkeepers, tillers of soil and grinders of grain.

Waters, who dwell by the sea and harvest with cunningly wrought nets the little finny creatures that swim close to shore.

Rocks, who live in the shadow of the mountains and carve out the face of the stone, crafting jewels and gems, and building blocks.

But from the time of the hundred times a hundred days and the hundred times a hundred nights, and in memory of the time the sky itself wept first blood and then rain, grieving has been the way of remembering and the one great art of our world. And the world is no longer called L'Lal'ladia, the Place of Blessing and Rejoicing'; but is called L'Lal'loria, the Place of the Grievers.




Place: Cave #27

Time: King's Time 1, First Patriarchy; labtime 2137.5+ A.D.

Speaker: Lina-Lania, known as the Gray Wanderer, to her apprentice Grenna

Permission: None, preset, voice-activated

I was thirteen summers, the last turning of childhood, when Great-grandmother became ill. She was exiled upstairs to the windowless room under the thatch to practice lying in darkness. So it is with the very old whose lives are spent in dusk, just as newborns must learn to live in the dawn.

It was not Great-grandmother's illness that made me eligible to enter the Hall of Grief but my own signs of adulthood: the small breasts just beginning to bud, the fine curlings of hair in the cave places of my body, the rush of fresh blood from the untested nest of my womb.

I was ready. Had I not spent many childhood hours playing at the Hall game? Alone or with my brothers I had built our own Halls of willow branch and mallo snappings. We had set the tables, made signs, drawn pictures. Always, always my table was best, though I was not the oldest of us all. My table had more than just an innocent beauty, decked in ribbons and bordered by wildflowers: red trillis for life, blue-black mourning berries for death, and the twining of green boughs for the passage between. No, my table had a character that was both mine and the grieven one's. It had substance and imagination and daring, even from the time I was quite young. Everyone remarked on it. The other children sensed it and a few resented it. But the elders who came and watched us at our play, they knew for sure. I heard one say, "She has a gift for grief, that one. Mark her well." As if my height and the angularity of my body had not marked me already.

But even before that I had known. As a child I had started crafting my own grief poems, childishly lisping them to my dolls. The first poems aped the dirges and threnodies I had been taught, but always with a little twist of my own. One in particular I remember, for my mother shared it with the elders as a sign of my gift. My grandmother argued against that poem and for another, but this quarrel my mother won. The poem began:

I sail out on my dark ship
Toward the unmarked shore
With only the grieving
Of my family to guide me."
The ship breasts the waves ...

The dark ship, the unmarked shore—they were but copies of the usual metaphors of grief. But the wording of the fifth line, the penta—which foreshadowed the central image, that of a carved figurehead of a nude woman, something of which I should have had no knowledge, for we were a people of the Middle Lands, tillers of soil and grinders of grain—that fifth line convinced them. I, the daughter of a miller, gangly and stalk-legged, I was a prodigy. I basked in their praises for weeks and tried to repeat my success, but that time I could not. My subsequent poems were banal; they showed no promise at all. It was years before I realized that, truly, I grieved best when trying for no effect at all, though the critics and the public and the silly men at court did not always know the difference. But the craftswoman knows.

And then the day came when I was old enough to enter the Hall of Grief. I rose early and spent many minutes in front of the glass, the only one in our house not then covered with the gray mourning cloth. I drew dark circles under my eyes and deep shades on my lids as befitted a griever. Of course I overdid it. What new griever does not? I had yet to learn that true grief makes its own hollows in the face, a better sculptor of the body's contours than all our paints and pens. Artifice should only heighten. But I was young, as I have said, and even Great-grandmother in her dusky room was not enough to teach me then.

That first day I tried something daring. Even that first day my gift for invention showed. I painted my nails the color of my eyelids and, on the left hand, on the thumb, I took a penknife and scraped the paint on the thumbnail into a cross to signify the bisecting of life and death.

Yes, I see you understand. It was the beginning of the carvings I would later do on all my nails, the carvings that would become such a passion among young grievers at court and be given my name. I never do it myself anymore. It seemed such a little thing, then: some extra paint, an extra dab of darkness onto light. An instinctual gesture that others took—mistook—for genius. That is, after all, what genius is: a label for instinct.

I plaited my long hair with trillis and mourning berry, too. And that was much less successful. As I recall, the trillis died before half a day was over and the berries left my braids sticky with juice. Yet at the moment of leave taking, when I went upstairs to give Great-grandmother the respect I owed her, I felt the proper griever.

She turned in her bed, the one with the carvings of wreaths on the posters, the one in which all the women of our house have died. The air in the room was close and still. Even I had trouble breathing. Then Great-grandmother looked at me with her luminous half-dead eyes, the signs of pain beginning to stretch her mouth wide. She was ill with something that gnawed inside her.

"You will make them remember me?" she asked.

Knowing my mother and grandmother must have already made the same promise before they left, I nevertheless replied, "Great-grandmother, I will."

"May your lines of grieving be long," she said.

"May your time of dying be short," I answered, and the ritual was complete.

I left at once, not even checking to see if the Cup on the table by the bed was filled. I was far more interested in the Hall of Grief and my part in it than in my Great-grandmother's actual time of death, when the breath leaps from the wide mouth in an upward sigh. That is, after all, a private moment and grieving is a public act. At thirteen I longed to show my grief in public and win the applause and my Great-grandmother's immortality. I know now that all our mourning, all our grieving, all the outward signs of our rituals are nothing compared to that one quick moment of release. Do I startle you with my heresy? Ah, child, heresy is the prerogative of old age.

I did not look back at the dark room, but ran down the stairs and into the welcoming light. My mother and her mother had already gone to the Hall. I marched there to the slow metronome of the funerary drums, which cousins of my cousins were always trained to play, but my heart skipped before.

The Hall was even larger than I had dreamed. Great massive pillars with fluted columns and carved capitols held up the roof. I had seen the building from afar—for who had not; it dominated our small town square. But I had never been allowed close enough to really distinguish the carvings. They were appropriate to a Hall, weeping women with their long hair caught up in fanciful waterfalls. You laugh. Only in the countryside could such banal motifs still be seen. It was a very minor Hall to be sure, but to my eyes then it was magnificent, each marble weeper a monument to grief. I drank it all in, eager to be part.

I told the guard at the gate my name and clan and he sent a runner in. My mother appeared shortly and spoke in quiet undertones to the gatekeeper, assuring him that it was my time. He let me in with a brief smile that slit open between the parenthesis of his mustache.

We walked up stairs that were hollowed by years of marchers and entered the Hall. Inside, the clans had already set up their tables and Mother threaded her way through the chaos to our usual stand with an ease born of long experience. Under the banner proclaiming our colors and the sign of the millstone was a kidney-shaped table. It was littered with the memoria of our dying ones. We had had three diers that year, counting Great-grandmother now in our attic. I can still recite the birth lines of the other two: Cassa-Cania, of Chriss-Cania, of Cassua-Cania, of Camma-Cania was the one. Peri-Pania, of Perri-Pania, of Persa-Pania, of Parsis-Pania was the other. And of course, in my own direct line I can still go back the twenty-one requisite names. We had no gap in that line, the Lania, of which I am still, though it sometimes makes me laugh at myself, inordinately proud. I am really the last of the Lania. No one will grieve for me properly, no sister of the family, no blood child, and sometimes it troubles me that this is so, my own tiny sisters having gone before me when I was too young to grieve for them and my brothers unable to carry on the line.

The daughters of Cassa-Cania and Peri-Pania were already there, having no attic grieven of their own and no new grievers to prepare for their first Hall. They, poor ones, had born only boys. And of course my own little sisters had gone in one of the winter sicknesses, their tiny mouths stretched wide in the smile of death, their eyelids closed under the carved funerary gems. Though I had not officially grieved for them, I had certainly practiced grief in my games with the boys.

Our table was piled high with pictographs of their dyings, for of course that was before the strangers had come down from the sky with their strange cam'ras that captured life impressions on a small page. And since Cassa-Cania's daughters were known for their fine hand, there were many ornately lettered lamentation plaques on the table. But for all its wealth of memoria, the table appeared disordered to me and that disturbed me greatly.

I spoke in an undertone to my mother. "May I be allowed to arrange Great-grandmother's part?"

At first she shook her head and her dark graying hair fell loose of its crown, cascading down over her shoulders like the weeping women of the column. But it was simply that she did not understand my distress at the disorder, taking my request as a display of adolescent eagerness. However, I was still thought to be too young to do more than watch and listen—and learn. I had yet to be apprenticed to a griever, to one of the older cousins. I had, for all my reputed genius, only a meager background, the pretendings of a child with children (and brothers at that). I knew no history, could recite none of the prime tales, and could only mouth a smattering of the lesser songs and stories of the People. So I was sent away while the older women worked; I was sent off to look at the other tables in the Hall, to discover for myself the many stages and presentations of Grief.

Alas, the other tables were as disordered as our own, for as I have said, we were only a very Minor Hall and the grievers there were unsophisticated in their arrangements. One or two had a rough feeling I have since tried to replicate in my own work. Touching the old country grief has, I think, given me my greatest successes.

To think of it, walking in a Hall before the days of the strangers from the sky, walking in it for the very first time. The sound of the mourners lining up in the galleries, waiting for the doors to open. Some of them actually wailed their distress, though in the Major Halls that rarely happens anymore, except on great occasions of state—an exiled princess, the assassination of a prince, a fallen Queen. Most of the time the older princes gossip rather than weep, and the younger ones are too ready to make an impression on the Queen.

But that Minor Hall was not a place of Queens or princes. Grief actually walked there. I could feel it start in my belly and creep up into my throat. Only that I was inside and not beyond the doors kept me from wailing, too, for inside the grievers moved silently, setting up the stalls. I remember one old woman lovingly polishing a hoe, the symbol of the farmer her dying granduncle had been. She stood under the sign of a grainfield and she rocked back and forth beneath it as if the wind that tossed the grain on her sign tossed her as well. There is another I remember: a woman with ten black ribbons in her hair, placing a harp with a broken string beside a lamentation plaque that read: One last song, one final touch. I have always liked the simplicity of that line, though the broken string was a bit overdone.

Then the doors were flung open and the mourners came in. In the first crush I lost sight of our own table and was pushed up against the wall. If I had been smaller, I might have panicked, but the one great gift of body that I had was height. I was at least as tall at thirteen as an adult, as tall as the smallest of the princes even then.


Excerpted from Cards of Grief by Jane Yolen. Copyright © 1984 Jane Yolen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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