Singer from the Seaby Sheri S. Tepper
A good and proper aristocrat on the isolated, seemingly backward planet of Haven, Genevieve has been carefully instructed in the Covenants -- the ancient, inflexible laws governing the women of her class. She knows what is expected of her: marriage in her mid-twenties to a groom of her father's choosing, childbirth at age thirty. And then soon afterwards -- as has been the lot of so many noblewomen before her -- perhaps death.
But there is another Genevieve within who longs to heed the call of the sea -- though she has never once seen the vast waters that cover most of her homeworld's surface. For an unheard voice is crying out to her across the centuries, drawing her ever-closer to a terrible truth hidden beneath a smoke screen of rules, tradition, and propriety. And it is Genevieve who must fulfill a forgotten destiny -- something inborn passed for untold generations from daughter to daughter -- or she and the entire civilization of Haven will be swept away on a cosmic wave of oblivion.
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GENEVIEVE'S TOWER WAS SLENDER AND TALL, AN ARCHITECTURAL CONCEIT added at the last moment to the otherwise undistinguished structure of Blessingham School. Gaining access to this afterthought could not be accomplished on the way to or from anywhere in particular. Climbing the hundred steps to the single room at the top was both inconvenient and arduous. Despite the nuisance, Genevieve had chosen the tower room. For the quiet, she said. For the view. For the brightness of the stars at night.
Though these were at best only half reasons, they satisfied Mrs. Blessingham better than the real reason would have donea reason which had to do with the billowing foliage of the surrounding forest, the isolation of the star-splashed night, the silence of the sky. On stormy nights the boughs surged and heaved darkly as a midnight sea, and on such nights Genevieve would throw the casements wide and lean into the wind, the white curtains blowing like flung spray as she imagined herself carried jubilantly through enormous silken waves toward an unknown shore.
The imagined sea, the waves, the inexorable movement of the waters were implicit in the instructions her mother had given her. The jubilance, an emotion she had touched rarely, and only at the edges, was an interpolation of her own which, she feared, might be shaming if anyone knew of it but herself.
As Mrs. Blessingham would have observed: the tower was nowhere near the sea; Genevieve had never seen the sea since she had been no farther from Langmarsh Housethan a single trip to Evermire; Genevieve, like other noble daughters, would not have been allowed to swim. As Genevieve did not wish to explain: her sea was not a planetary wetness, exactly. It was inside her as much as it was out there in the night, and though she wasn't quite sure what her instructions amounted to vis-à-vis swimming or sailing or floating, they meant more than simply disporting herself in the water.
Every evening Genevieve submitted patiently as her hair was braided by the lady's maid traineewho took twice the time Genevieve would have taken to do it herself. Each evening she was courteous as she was helped into her nightgown, though she was perfectly capable of getting into a nightgown without assistance. She waited calmly, without fidgeting, as the bed was turned down, and she smiled her thanks when the trainee departed with a curtsey, shutting the door behind her. The moment the latch clicked, however, Genevieve slipped from her chair and put her ear to the door, hearing the retreating clatter of hard soled shoes down steep stone stairs. Only when that sound had faded did she open the window and lean out into the night to evoke the ocean feeling, the inner quiet that dissolved daytime stiffness and propriety in a fluidity of water and wind, a thrust and swell of restless power.
Though by now, her twentieth year, she did this habitually, even earnestly, it had begun as a requirement. The ritual was among those her mother had taught her, and every night, whether in storm or calm, Genevieve did as she had been taught to do. Standing in the window with closed eyes, she focused outward, cataloging and shutting out all ordinary sounds: rustle of the trees, shut out; murmur of voices from the kitchen wing, shut out; clack of the watchman's heels on the paving of the cloisters, out; whisper of song from the siren-lizards on the roof-tiles, out; bleat of goat in the dairy, out; each day-to-day distraction removed to leave the inner silence that allowed her to listen.
The listening could not be merely passive. Practitioners, so Genevieve's mother had emphasized, must visualize themselves as spiders spinning lines of sticky hearkening outward in the night, past time, past distance or direction, toward something that floated in the far, waiting to be heard. Sometimes she spun and spun, remaining in the window for an hour or more, and nothing happened. Sometimes she heard a murmur, as though some immense far-off thing had swiveled an ear and asked, "Where?" or "Who?" or even, once or twice, frighteningly, "Genevieve?"
And once in a great while the web trembled as though the roots of the mountains and the chasms of the sea were resounding with song. At such times, her body reverberated to the harmonics as she retreated to her bed, and sometimes the singing continued during the night, or so she assumed, for her body still ached with it when she woke in the morning.
Senior girls had their pick of rooms in order of their achievement scores in DDR: discipline, dedication, and religion. Genevieve, ranking first, had chosen the tower room.
"Rapunzel, Rapunzel," her friend Glorieta teased, quoting from a yorelore fairy tale.
"Let down your hair," whooped her twin, Carlotta.
"Better let down her nose," said snide Barbara, a resentful and distant runner-up. "It's longer."
Silence, then a spate of talk to cover embarrassment.
"Your nose is your misfortune," Mrs. Blessingham had said on more than one occasion. "But your talents make up for it."
It was a hawkish nose, one that ran, so said the wags, in Genevieve's family. As for the talents, no one knew of them but Genevieveand Mrs. Blessingham, who was one too many.
"The nose would look better on the Marshal than it does on you," Glorieta had admitted, referring to Genevieve's father. "Pity it had to be on the female side, though even on you it has distinction."
Genevieve often daydreamed herself away from Haven, to a place where her nose was quite normal, even beautiful. In her dream world, the singing she listened for with such effort was simply part of the environment, a song she herself could produce without anyone telling her to hush. The fantasy was pervasive. On occasion Genevieve would come to herself in the middle of a meal, unable for a moment to remember where she was because she had been in a place more vivid than reality. Even when awake and alert, she often longed for that other world, though hopelessly, for even if it were real, she couldn't go there. No one emigrated from Haven. Haven had cut the umbilicus that had tied it to the rest of humanity.
Shortly after settlement the Lord Paramount of Haven had announced to the settled worlds that he and his people were resolved to keep to themselves, eschewing all outsiders or outside thingsexcept, that is, for the Lord Paramount's short list of essential imports. If something was wanted that wasn't on the Lord Paramount's list, if the people of Haven couldn't produce it by traditional methods, approved by God as stated in the covenants, then they had to do without. Thus, even if Genevieve's nose might be normal elsewhere, elsewhere was eliminated as an option. Her nose was her nose, this world was this world, and for noblewomen to sing was counter-covenantal. Genevieve, Marchioness of Wantresse and future Duchess of Langmarsh, would simply have to live with her nose and her silence.
"If mother were alive, she'd let me get it fixed," Genevieve whispered to Glorieta, during afternoon recreation, walking through the gardens on their way to the badminton court, their skirts swishing around their ankles, the long sleeves of their high-necked blouses daringly turned up to expose delicate wrists.
"She would not!" said Glorieta. "Surgery is very dangerous, and that same nose is in your mother's family portraits. I've seen them."
And she had, of course, when she and Carlotta had visited Genevieve over the seasonal holidays. There they hung in the great hall of Langmarsh House: Genevieve's mother, Marnia, Duchess nose of Langmarsh; Genevieve's grandmother, Lydia, Countess nose of Wantresse; Genevieve's great-grandmother, Mercia, Duchess nose of Sealand, and so on and so on. And, in the place of high honor, many times great-great-grandmother; dark skinned, dark haired and mysterious, Stephanie, who had become Queen of Haven by virtue of marrying the Lord Paramount.
"Besides," Glorieta continued, "if the nose was good enough for a queen, it's good enough for you. And since there's no male heir, you'll be Countess Genevieve of Evermire and Wantresse, Duchess of Langmarsh, Mistress of the Marches, so any nose you have will be quite all right."
Which rather summed it up. Genevieve's father, the Marshali.e. Arthur Lord Dustin, Duke of Langmarsh, Earl of Evermire etcetera, Councilor to the Lord Paramount and Marshal of the Royal Armieshad desired a male heir. The Duchess Marnia had become pregnant four times after Genevieve's birth, each pregnancy ending in miscarriage or stillbirth, as had the pregnancies of other wives married into the Dustin clan. The subject of genetic defect (whispered by the physicians) could not, of course, be mentioned to the Marshal and as was her covenantal duty, Marnia tried for a fifth time. Her physicians had strongly advised otherwise, and as they had feared, the baby had been stillborn and Marnia herself had died soon after.
The Marshal should have had sons. He was at his best as a leader of men. At the first sound of an alarm trumpet, his cold intelligence would turn from its mundane aggravations, ubiquitous as the itch, to focus his smoldering angers upon the matter at hand. Even when outnumbered, the Marshal won battles, and facing equal forces, he swept the field. Though malcontents were rare on Haven, though battles were few, the Lord Paramount felt any battle was one too many. Therefore the Lord Paramountthough not fond of many menwas very fond of the Marshal.
A dozen sons might have diverted his attention from Genevieve, giving her some peace. As it was, she fell often beneath his reptilian eye, her dreamy insufficiencies and languishments tabulated and filed away for future reference. Though she was attentive to her duty, she seemed to him insufficiently blithe. Men liked women who were untroubled, and Genevieve too often seemed to be thinking about something. He had, therefore, simplified his life by packing Genevieve (then eleven) off to Mrs. Blessingham's school, which was conveniently located in Avanto, the county seat of alpine Wantresse, only one long day's ride from Langmarsh House.
Subsequently the Marshal, to the surprise of most everyone, had remained a widower, though he had sporadically shopped about for a son-in-law to be the future Duke of Langmarsh. During the summer festivals or when Genevieve was home during the Northerlies, the Marshal made a habit of introducing her to likely sons of the nobility, always without consequence. After one such holiday, the Marshal wrote to Mrs. Blessingham suggesting that his daughter was "too like her mother to be satisfactory," "couldn't something be done to her face?" and she should be "livened up a bit," a message which was received with something very like despair.
"Did you meet any new men? What did you think of them?" Glorieta asked after each interlude, eager for sensation.
Genevieve refused to titillate. "That's what father always asks me. I always say each one is very nice, but mostly they aren't. They always look at my nose."
"How did you like them? I'm not your father, you can tell me the truth!"
"My loins did not twitch," Genevieve replied. It was quite true, though she wasn't at all sure she would know if her loins did twitch. Barbara said twitching was unmistakable, one couldn't miss it, but if one had never experienced any such thing, how would one know? Genevieve had invented a dozen persons that she could imagine being; she had invented a hundred scenarios in which those characters might act; she had never imagined one with twitching loins.
"Lust is not something we wish to dwell on at our stage of life," said Miss Eugenie, the instructress in spiritual health. "The less said or thought about one's loins at this stage of life, the less trouble one will have later on. It is Mrs. Blessingham's view that for covenantal and Godly Noblewomen, sexual feelings and attractions should be avoided as long as possible. The practical applications of sexuality are best dealt with when the necessity presents itself. Now we are more concerned with acquiring resignation and dedication, for the sake of our souls."
The state of one's soul was considered important both for noblewomen and those aspiring to that state: i.e., daughters of the wealthy bourgeoisie whose papas coveted a title in their families. All such women were expected to be pious, to have imperturbable poise, rocklike dedication to the covenants, and a broad background of conversational information covering all the fields of general interest in Haven. Since all aristocratic women were presumed to be future mistresses of establishments, they had also to master the skills of personnel management and training, the economics of a large household and the basics of court etiquette and dress. These were studies enough, all told, to fill all the years before the question of twitching loins would become urgent (one dared hope) at the imminence of marriage.
Though many lower-class women would be married before twenty, covenantal women were "allowed the gift of youth," as it was phrased in the covenants, as compensation for the oath every noblewoman took at marriage: "I vow a covenantal life spent in my husband's service." Thirty was the accepted age of marriage for noblewomen; most bore no more than two or three children; and any extra risk they might encounter by delaying childbearing was supposedly compensated through the services of off-planet physiciansthough some of them perished in childbirth nonetheless. Off-planet physicians and medical suppliesalong with gravsleds, various weapons and "a few other oddments"had always been on the Lord Paramount's "short list" of essentials.
Late marriage was a comforting thought, Genevieve admitted to herself though red-haired, green-eyed Barbara thought otherwise.
"I am sick unto death of Mrs. Blessingham's. I don't know why they are so determined here to delay us, delay us, delay us. No marriage until late twenties. No babies until one is thirty, at least. And no sensible reason for any of it except that the older we are, the better prepared we will be. It's ridiculous! Pray heaven some impecunious but stalwart lord will show up so Papa may impress him with my dowry and I may go elsewhere!"
"Before you could marry a lord, you'd have to be accepted by the Covenant Tribunal," retorted Carlotta. "Probably the Tribunal won't even accept a commoner your age!"
"Oh, pooh! Covenant, covenant, that's all I hear. You nobles certainly like to make life difficult and boring for yourselves."
To which Genevieve silently but wholeheartedly assented. The covenants were like a strict nanny, always saying no or don't or can't. "No singing, Jenny. Singing girls are like crowing hens. Both of them come to the same bad ends." "No running, Jenny. Covenantal girls conduct themselves with decorum." "No dreaming of Prince Charming, Jenny. Don't forget:
"`Covenantal daughters marry who ... ever their papas tell them to!'"
Daughters of the covenants were required to bear their children at home and nurse them for at least a year, thus joining noble nurture to noble nature. Daughters of the covenant were required to rear their daughters as they themselves had been reared, through an untroubled and godly girlhood to a dutiful maturity of gracious submission.
Long ago, when she was much younger and had not learned to display resignation, Genevieve had rebelled against that duty. "Why?" she had cried to her mother. "Why do I have to when I don't want to!"
Her mother had replied, softly as always, "Because our great-great-great-grandmothers assented to it, Jenny. When our forefathers bought Haven, they recruited strong, healthy young women to be the royal and noble mothers of all future generations, and the young women were allowed to choose to come to Haven or not, as they pleased, but if they opted to come to Haven, they agreed to obey the covenants."
"I didn't agree! What right did some woman a thousand years ago have to agree for me?"
"Because that's how it works, love. We all do what our ancestors found to be best. Why learn hard lessons over and over?"
"Nursing babies for a year!" young Genevieve had said scornfully. "Della's sister's baby is only six months, and she's weaning him already!"
"Year-long nursing is in the covenants," Mother had said, little lines of worry between her eyes.
"It wasn't in the original covenants. I read them my very own self!"
"Jenny, I've asked you to stay out of the library. Your father will ..."
"I read them," she had insisted, pouting. She had also read the history of the settlement, and could understand very well why young women might have promised almost anything to get away from the planets they had lived upon. Besides, the covenants back then were not at all like they were now!
Mother sighed, running a pale hand across her brow, as though to sort out the thoughts that lived inside. "The Tribunal has made some amendments from time to time. I'm sure there are good reasons for all the covenants, and we have been taught that women are happiest in gracious submission to the covenants."
If that had been the case, Mother should have been very happy, but she had never seemed so to Genevieve. Of course, what Mother said upstairs in her public voice for the Marshal or the servants to hear, and what mother said down in the cellars when she and Genevieve were alone there, were totally different things. Upstairs was covenant, covenant, covenant, all over everything, like moss, with the visiting scrutator scraping away at it to uncover any hidden notions of disobedience or independence. Despite her private reservations, Genevieve earned a passing grade during each spiritual audit, however, and that was the public side of things.
The secret side of things happened in the lonely hours of the night, when Mother and she went tip-toeing down the stony stairs into the earth-smelling dark, lit only by their candles. It happened when they pushed open the heavy, dusty doors to go beyond the wine cellar, past the coal store, into the deep, moist world of otherness, when they left the covenants behind. Once hidden away they became, so Mother said, separate minds who taught and learned things not of that world. Those teachings would be realized in Genevieve's time, or if not, passed on to Genevieve's daughters to be realized in some later time. Whichever it might be, they could never be practiced or spoken of anywhere else! Never until the time was right. Promise.
Genevieve promised, though she had no idea why she would ever speak of them? Nine-tenths of them, she did not understand at all.
"Mama, what are harbingers?"
"Those who sing the song."
"Mama, what is the song?"
"You'll know it when you hear it."
"Mama, if the scrutator says I have a soul, and the covenants say I have a soul, why ...?"
Though Mother always answered the questions, Genevieve did not always understand the answer, for Mother often seemed to live in a different world. At breakfast times, her eyes sometimes were focused on something far, far away rather than being cast down in holy resignation as they should have been, even while the Marshal ranted over the latest letters and promotion lists, bloody bedamn this, bloody bedamn that.
Though perhaps Mother had chosen to take no notice of the Marshal's ways, for he cultivated angers like garden vegetables until each was well ripened and firmly rooted. These habits served him so well on the battlefield that he had never thought to leave them there, neither the hot fury that led him off on daily rants nor the cold wrath that stirred in him seldom but was more fearsome for its rarity.
Genevieve had felt it first on the night of her eighth birthday. There had been guests invited to dinner, and when the guests departed, one neighbor had stayed behind to play a game of chess with the Marshal. He was an elderly and kindly gentleman, familiar enough that Genevieve did not feel shy around him. That day she had been much indulged by mother and the servants, and when the men sat down in the shadowy room with the firelight glinting from the shelves of leather-bound volumes that stood forever at attention, even the Marshal had not sent her out of the room as he customarily did.
Genevieve was curled on the settle with a new book, though when the two men started playing, she looked at the game board instead of the pages. At first it was only a drowsy watching, but gradually she began to see the why of the moves and her gaze became intent.
The pieces were interesting. She had seen them before, but without really paying attention. Now she had a chance to watch them in action on the board. The little ones, she decided, were like the housemaids. They could not do much or go very far, and they were always in danger of being snatched up, as she had seen the Marshal snatch one up, a pretty one that Genevieve much liked but did not see again after that time. So did the little pieces disappear when they were snatched up, back into the box.
The horsemen were more powerful, able to jump fences this way and that way. Along with the horses, each side had two pieces much like the Marshal, she decided, for they could go all the way across the board on the slant, while the fortresses, which were like her father's battle wagons, had to stick to the roads.
The last two pieces were the Lord Paramount and his Queen. Even if father hadn't said their names, that is all they could be, sitting there quietly, depending upon the marshals and battlewagons and horsemen to protect them while their little serving maids ran this way and that way, screaming, with their aprons over their faces.
In the end, if it was necessary, the Queen would sacrifice herself for the Lord Paramount. Genevieve saw exactly how it happened. The Queen did not show what she could do. She moved only when she had to, never bustling about, but if the Lord Paramount was threatened, she moved to save him. If necessary, she died for the Lord Paramount. As this was in accord with covenantal behavior, Genevieve was not surprised. Lives of service to their lords and masters was the lot of womankind.
The particular night was blustery, but as it was cosy before the fire the two men played for a long time. When father's old friend went home at last, Genevieve climbed down from the settle and eagerly asked her father if he would play the game with her. He, softened by wine and an indolent evening, felt momentarily indulgent. It was her birthday, after all.
"Well, my child, that shouldn't take long, now should it. Shall I help you set up the pieces?"
She shook her head, all eagerness, and set them up herself. He let her move first, and she sent one of her maids out into the world. The Marshal moved, and then she again, letting her horsemen jump where it was right to go, and her marshals move to stop an advance, and so on, until suddenly her father was staring at her with a kind of fire in his eyes. She looked back at the board, not to miss anything. He moved again, slowly, watching her. She moved. "Check," she said, as she had heard him say. "And mate."
And then she really looked up, excited and proud, only to see that fire burning in his eyes. And she knew it for what it was. Cold wrath. She had done something wrong, terribly wrong.
"Who taught you?" he said in his gravest voice, the one that could not be disobeyed.
She thought frantically. Who had taught her but he, himself. "I watched you, Father." And then without thinking she said words that were not quite true, that were not really at all true but would nonetheless save her from those eyes. "It is one of the games you played with your friend, father. I just remembered your moves."
It was true she had remembered the moves, every move either player had made all evening, and though her game had not been the same game as any her father and his friend had played, the claim was the only thing that would help her. The fire in his eyes damped down to a dull glow.
"This game is not for children," he said. "In future when I play it with my friends, you stay with your mother."
Previously, Genevieve had believed she loved her father, for loving and honoring one's father was a Godly duty, something the visiting scrutator covered in detail.
"You would do anything for your father, wouldn't you?"
"Oh, yes, scrutator."
"Your father is the wisest of men, isn't he?"
"Oh, yes, scrutator."
After her birthday, however, she knew she did not love him, and she was careful to cross her fingers whenever the scrutator used the word love. Years later, she came to wonder if her mother had ever loved him, whether her loins had ever twitched for the Marshal.
Barbara said her loins had been twitching since she was eleven. Barbara sometimes leaned from her window and flirted with the commoner boys beyond the wall. Genevieve thought this unseemly behavior might have something to do with Barbara's being a bourgeoise; rich, but a bourgeoise. Barbara sang naughty songs in the showers, even when she was punished for it, and though Genevieve fought against the temptation, she adored Barbara. She envied Barbara's daring attitudes and her highly individual style. She loved Barbara's sense of humor and quick wit and flashes of intimate perception, though she was careful not to let her admiration show. Any hint that a girl might be too fond of one of her friends provoked the scrutator, and the Marshal would be much offended to think she could possibly prefer any other role to the frugal, complex, and thankless one that he, God, and the covenants had bestowed upon her.
Like Genevieve, Viscountess Glorieta and Lady Carlotta were provincial nobility, sister-twins and only children of Lord Ahmenaj, Earl of Bliggen, a county in the province of Barfezi. Glorieta was a bit the taller. Carlotta was a lot curvier. They both had the light brown hair, the hazel eyes, and the creamy skin and curly, laughing mouths shared by all the Ahmenaj family. The twins were destined for the elder sons of the Count's neighbor, Lord Blufeld, Earl of Halfmore. Their weddings would consolidate the two holdings into an enormous estate, which both the Amenaj and the Blufeld families very much desired.
"Though it is troublesome being a dynastic game piece," Carlotta had once said. "Move here, move there, take that piece, jump, jump, take that piece. And at the end, I suppose I get a Viscountess's tiara as a booby prize, and so what!"
"At least you have a foreseeable future," Genevieve remarked. "You've said yourself you rather like Tomas. And Glorieta really likes Willum. And you love your father's estate, and this way you'll remain attached to it."
Carlotta made a face. "The trouble is that we both really like Willum, but Glorieta, being two minutes elder, picked him and left me Tomas, who definitely suffers by comparison, and besides, attached is not a word I would have chosen. It makes me sound like part of the livestock."
Which she was, of course, though everyone forbore saying so. All the students were like livestock, even Barbara, for twitch though she would, her father and the Tribunal would have the last word. Unless she eloped, of course. Eloping was scandalous, but it did happen and, knowing Barbara, she might well do it, no matter how uncovenantly it was.
Until that time came, however, they would continue as they had done since they were children: subduing predispositions toward unseemly behavior; dancing and exercising to acquire posture and grace; practicing manners and conversation, which, since women weren't supposed to have opinions, was mostly how to get other people to talk about themselves while expressing admiration that sounded sincere. Lessons were interspersed with short trips to orchestral concerts or village festivals, to couturiers for new clothes in spring and fall, and by increasingly frequent visits from the scrutators and doctors.
Genevieve could never decide which visits were more embarrassing, the ones devoted to her soul or the ones devoted to her body. Though both the scrutatora man, of courseand the off-worlder doctora woman, of coursetried to be gentle, all that intimate probing was humiliating. Still, one had to be both pure of soul and a certifiably fertile lactator if one was to make a good marriage. Only children born and nursed at home could inherit. With such a well-recognized goal, nothing could be left to chance.
"I think I'll sneak out and get pregnant," said Barbara, angrily. "That'll prove I'm fertile all right."
"That'll prove you right back home." Glorieta grinned. "Locked up in an attic by your papa."
"Spending all your days eating moldy bread and brackish water," said Carlotta reprovingly.
Though Barbara had Genevieve's total sympathy, Genevieve stayed at the fringe of this badinage. Whenever other girls engaged in joking give and take, Genevieve felt herself backing away, pulling a kind of membrane around herself that separated herself from them. Though the other girls never seemed to notice, sometimes Genevieve felt the curtain between her and others was thick as a quilt. They were different somehow. Or she was. Not that she blamed them or herself for being different. Differences were part of existence. Everyone was different in some way, but Genevieve was different in several. She had had a mother who seemed quite unlike other people's mothers. She had a nose which was certainly unlike other people's noses. And, unlike her friends, who were actually quite involved with what they were doing and feeling, Genevieve experienced life as a kind of drama, a play, something staged and unreal, a continuing fantasy.
The usual daily play she called "Mrs. Blessingham's School." The school itself was the setting, and the teachers and other students were the cast. They all knew their lines without any discernable prompting, including silly and playful talk that Genevieve could never think up on her own. Though she was occasionally required to say a few words or perform a brief scene, she was always red with embarrassment, during and after. Even the assignment of a tiny part, a walk-on as it were, made her anxious that her performance would be stilted and unbelievable, or that she would do something that seemed perfectly all right at the moment, which would then turn out to be the wrong thing: like knowing something one wasn't supposed to know; or solving a puzzle too quickly; or saying the absolutely wrong thing! Only as an onlooker did she feel truly easy.
In addition to the "Blessingham's School" play, there were others she watched regularly: "The Ahmenaj Dynasty," which was about Glorieta and Carlotta; the "Chronicles of Barbara," which was naughty; and of course "Langmarsh House, or The Life of Dustin, Lord Marshal." Occasionally episodes of the other plays were played concurrently with "Blessingham's," intermixing confusingly with one another and greatly adding to the cast of characters, the scenery, and the complexity of the plot.
Through it all, Genevieve remained determined not to have a noticeable role, not even when she herself was dragged onto the stage. "Mrs. Blessingham's School" was a play written by others. "Lord Marshal" was no doubt written by himself. She had had no hand in either of them. Nothing she might do could influence the plots in the least. She refused to be responsible for them.
Over the years she had developed a technique for dealing with those occasions when reality threatened to encroach: she would find a corner where she could sit quietly and visualize herself as a siren-lizard, many of which swarmed through the trees around the school. Trees burgeoned, sap flowed from some deep and mysterious source below, life trickled out into every twig, enlivening the entire organism, but the sirens did not know or care. They merely fluttered from branch to branch, flashing their scaled wings in the sun like rainbow mirrors, dependent upon the tree but unconnected to it. Whenever the scrutator came to talk about her soul, Genevieve visualized her soul as a small, invisible siren-lizard, without any dangerous thoughts or emotions, flitting through the tree of life while it waited to be taken away into paradise. She was, so to speak, required to flash her wings, but she was determined to stay unconnected for several reasons, not least of which involved what Mrs. Blessingham called her "talent."
Genevieve could accept her talent as she did her nose: an annoyance, at best, a grief at worst. Sometimes when it did not manifest itself for some time, she hoped desperately that she had lost it or it had left her, though hope was in vain, for the talent always returned. As it did shortly after her conversation with Carlotta and Glorieta, when Mrs. Blessingham invited Genevieve into her office.
"Genevieve, I hate to trouble you, but I am concerned about the marriage plans being made for Carlotta and Glorieta."
Genevieve felt a deep pang, as though a large bell had rung inside her. She stared at the wall, everything else becoming misty and indistinct. She thought of Willum as she had seen him last at an evening soirée, sitting with Glorieta on the terrace. His eyeswhich she had scarcely noticed at the time but now remembered fullyhad been full of desire and pain, fear and resolution. She saw shadows shifting, like the library machines on fast forward, shadows of Glorieta, of Willum, of an older man or men, Willum's father or family perhaps, a shadow of another woman, a young woman whose face she could not see.
Her eyes gradually cleared, focused, and she saw Mrs. Blessingham sitting at her desk, calmly waiting. "Mrs. Blessingham," she murmured, "There will be tragedy connected to Willum. He dreads something that will happen, as if he is determined to do some terrible and irrevocable act. I fear ruin will come ... to someone close to him."
"I've had bad feelings about the whole thing. You're sure?"
Genevieve gave her a reproachful look. "Oh, ma'am, I can't say that. I can only tell what comes to me in these ..."
"This one is not clear enough to be a certainty. Most times whatever this is," she touched her head, flipping her fingers away to show how ephemeral it all was, "this thing in my brain doesn't explain what it is showing me. Most of the time I think it is off somewhere else, letting me see only scraps."
This had been one of the times when she saw bits of scenery, heard bits of conversations, recollected things she had read or overheard or seen that had made no impression at the time. The sound that came with these smatterings was like surf or storm, the undifferentiated noise of hard rain or the crackling of fire, and from this meaningless mosaic an impression emerged, a feeling, a picture, sometimes a voice. Only long practice kept her quiet and passive as this occurred and passed, leaving a sodden exhaustion behind, like a deep drift of autumn leaves wet by rain, icy and clinging, herself buried in them, naked and cold.
"Describe it to me," commanded Mrs. Blessingham, though in a gentler voice.
Genevieve sighed. "I feel that someone dies. I see a body, a young woman. I don't know whether it's Carlotta or Glorieta or someone else, but whatever is happening is connected to them. I know Willum is in it, for I see his face. I hear his voice and a baby crying. I smell blood."
Whenever people came into her certainties, she could only identify those she already knew. Others were indistinct, almost like manikins, stand-ins for real people. She saw someone doing something without being able to see why it was done, or by whom. Sometimes she would see people she did not recognize at all, but this time she knew it was Willum, that same Willum she had recently seen with Glorieta on the terrace, his face full of fear and longing.
"You think he will murder her?" asked Mrs. Blessingham.
"Her, who?" asked Genevieve. "I don't know who dies. A woman, yes. But I don't know who. Of course, Glorieta does prefer Willum."
"That may be the trouble," said Mrs. Blessingham. "They both do. In this case, it seems there's nothing I can do about it. Thank you, Genevieve. We needn't mention this to the scrutators."
"Of course," she murmured. Of course. Even mother had been quite clear that there were certain things one did not mention to the scrutators. About this particular thing, Mrs. Blessingham was the only one who knew, the only one who asked, the only one who used whatever it was Genevieve could do. How Mrs. Blessingham had known about her talent, Genevieve couldn't say. She had never inquired, and Mrs. Blessingham had never told her. This was another of the things Genevieve didn't really want to know. Knowing would mean she had to think about it, plan for it, acknowledge it. She refused to accept it, any of it at all.
During the medical examination, the doctor had taken note of Genevieve's dreamy detachment and had asked many probing questions that Genevieve had tried to answer truthfully while not betraying herself.
"Can you remember being a child? What is your earliest memory?" the doctor asked, head cocked, hands busy taking notes.
"I try not to think about when I was little. It makes me sad."
"You were how old when your mother died? Eleven? You should remember your mother very well."
"I don't think about her," whispered Genevieve. "Really, really, I don't."
This was a lie. She remembered her mother often, but the remembered mother was the cellar mother she couldn't talk about, the mother it was dangerous even to think about! Everything she remembered of the covenantly upstairs mother was implicit in the final scene: the shadowed room, the smell of sickness, though even then it was the cellar mother who had whispered, her voice full of desperate urgency:
"Remember what I have told you, darling girl. It will be hard and perhaps loathsome to you. I am sure the hard road is the one you must take. Yours may be the last generation, the one for whom all the practices were meant. Oh, I hope so. Remember our times together. Follow your talent. And, my love, listen for word from the sea."
Those were her last words to Genevieve. No one else had ever called her darling. She tried to explain to the doctor without explaining. "I'd rather not care about things too much, doctor. When I do, it becomes ... troublesome."
On hearing this, the doctor frowned. The life expectancy among noblewomen was unaccountably short, and the doctor felt many of them died from this lack of involvement, this separation from life. She was sufficiently concerned that she spoke to Mrs. Blessingham about Genevieve's detachment.
"Well, that dreaminess is so typical of dear Genevieve," said Mrs. Blessingham disarmingly. "Her mother was much the same. Thank you, Doctor."
Later she spoke to Genevieve herself. "Is it true you cannot remember your mother?"
Genevieve started to say yes, remembering in time that this was Mrs. Blessingham, who knew almost everything.
"No, ma'am. I remember her perfectly well. I just don't want to talk about her."
"Why is that?"
"Because of what she said when she was dying. She said I was to walk a hard road. She said it might be loathsome."
"I see." Mrs. Blessingham puzzled a moment. "So, since it will be hard and loathsome, you choose to take as little notice of it as possible?"
Genevieve flushed. Perhaps that was true.
Mrs. Blessingham, who almost never showed emotion, actually grimaced, as though with pain. "Genevieve, your mother was here. She was schooled here. I was an assistant here in those days, no older than she, and we were friends. It was her dying request of your father that you be sent here, to me. It was she who told me about your talent, for she had it, also."
Genevieve gaped, hearing this with a shock of realization. "Oh, Mrs. Blessingham, if she saw my future laid out for me, she must have had it, mustn't she?"
Mrs. Blessingham patted Genevieve on the shoulder. "Don't worry about the doctor, my dear. She simply thinks you should be more involved in life. Well, perhaps the upcoming soirées will amuse you. Your father will be attending some of them, surely."
Genevieve's heart sank. Though marriage was deferred until later, girls became betrothable at twenty, and all students over twenty attended the soirées. Elegant suppers were served; there was dancing or entertainment; and the students were paraded before their parents and potential suitors. Oh, no doubt the Marshal would attend, and Genevieve's sagging shoulders betrayed her thoughts as she walked away while Mrs. Blessingham silently berated herself for having mentioned him.
Whether Genevieve loved her father or not, she desperately wanted to please him, as life was infinitely easier when the Marshal was pleased. In this effort she sought Glorieta's help in deciding what she should wear to the first soirée, which her father was sure to attend.
"Wear the blue. It makes you look about thirteen. The younger you look, the more indulgent the papa."
"I don't want him to be indulgent, Glory! I just want him to be ... satisfied. If he's satisfied with me he doesn't ... pick at me, and when he picks at me, it's just ... horrible."
Glorieta put down her book, revealing an unhappy face and eyes that looked swollen from crying. "Is he bringing anyone?"
"The dinner list says he is," Genevieve said, pretending not to notice Glorieta's face, which set off alarms in her mind.
"Well, now that you're twenty, it's probably better if you don't look thirteen. Here he's spent all this money, sending you here for years and years, and if you don't even look grown-up he'll wonder why he bothered. Better wear something very grown-up, show your tits and be Duchessy." Tits, shoulders, and arms which were carefully covered at every other time were shown off at soirées.
"Like the brown satin with the blush ivory roses that just barely cover your nipples. The one that matches your mahogany hair and your nut-brown skin and shows off how nice and round your front is. Tits are important to gentlemen, you can gild them, just a little, and the dress is very regal."
"I do rather like that one."
"Fine. Then you'll be comfortable in it, and life is so much easier when one is comfortable." She said this with a twist of her lips, as though the word meant more to her than she was saying.
The day of a soirée was spent in readying oneself. Bathing. Grooming. Having one's hair done. No liquids after noonone simply couldn't run off and pee while wearing an evening gownbut a little snack late in the afternoon, just a bit, so that one wouldn't collapse from hunger during the presentations. Then, dressing. Makeup. Genevieve's satin brown skin, inherited from that long ago Dark Queen, needed very little makeup; just a gloss on the lips, a touch of blush on the cheekbones and a bit of gilding on the curve of the breast to draw attention to the nipples, barely hidden by her gown. Her complexion, brows and lashes were perfect on their own, and nothing could be done to disguise the Nose.
Gowns and girls (in that order of importance, said Barbara) were assembled in the reception rooms by sunset, and the guests began to arrive shortly thereafter. The girls moved into the reception line when their own families or guests were announced. After joining Mrs. Blessingham in greeting their guests, they moved away so that other girls could take their places. Genevieve saw her father's carriage from the terrace, and she was standing at Mrs. Blessingham's left by the time the butler announced the Marshal, Lord Dustin, and his equerry, Colonel Aufors Leys. She looked up, suddenly aware that virtually every girl in the room had also looked up and was not looking away.
They were not looking at the Marshal, who was his usual impeccably dress-uniformed self, the black of his bemedaled and gold-braided jacket serving as proper setting for his long, vertically grooved face, each set of grooves delineating one small fold beneath his chin. The man everyone was staring at was beside him, and Genevieve was staring too.
"Oh, my," she said to herself. "Oh, my." She almost started to applaud the casting before realizing he was not an actor but a real person. Hair like a sunset and a lot of it, springing up from his forehead in a curly red thicket. Darker brows. Lean, but oh, such shoulders, and what straight, athletic-looking legs! He was obviously the lead character in this scene, and he was coming toward her.
"Mrs. Blessingham," her father intoned, bending over her hand. "Genevieve. May I present my equerry, Colonel Aufors Leys."
Genevieve dropped a curtsey, murmured an acknowledgment, felt her hand drawn into her father's, and was led away with the paradigm close behind, their feet raising little dust puffs of whispers. They sat at a table near the orchestra. They sipped wine and were served hors d'oeuvres. The Marshal excused himself and went to speak to an acquaintance at another table.
"So," said the Colonel without preamble, "How do you think we should handle the Frangian situation, Marchioness?"
If her father had been there, she would have smiled and murmured something about knowing very little about the Frangian situation. If the Colonel had been older, if he had said it in a teasing voice, she could not have replied at all. Colonel Aufors Leys, however, asked the question in a matter-of-fact sort of classroom voice, and she answered without thinking, for in this particular play, which seemed to be a new one, she knew the line.
"I think we ought to leave them completely alone."
The Colonel choked on his wine. "I see," he murmured, around his handkerchief. "The Lord Paramount is related to the displaced Duke of Frangia. He wishes his kinsman to be returned to the ducal palace. I don't think he would care for that advice."
"What the Lord Paramount says may have little to do with reality," she responded, still without thinking. "If he and the Duke were patient and kept any new converts out, the Frangians' very strange religion would wipe them all out before long. Since the Frangians' deity, the Great Whatever, is worshipped by refusing to toil, since the Frangians do not have children because children require toil, their population must be getting elderly. Also, they're not at all militant. They'd be easy to control if the Lord Paramount really wanted to do so."
"If?" murmured Aufors, his brows lifting in wonder.
"Yes. If. I have never heard it alleged that the Lord Paramount is a patient man. So, it must be that he has some good reason for talking about controlling the Frangians while not doing it. Though he fulminates against Frangia a good bit, probably to show support for the duke, he lets the people come and go as they like. He lets them make converts and keep their society alive, so he must have a secret reason for doing so. If he has a secret reason, then the last thing he would want is advice from someone who doesn't know his reasons."
"What would you tell him?"
"I'd tell the Lord Paramount he has a much better grasp of the situation than anyone else, and he must do what his royal wisdom dictates."
The Colonel stared at her, mouth slightly open. Then, "What reason might he have for letting them alone?"
"I've never thought about it," she said honestly, proceeding to think about it for a long, slow moment. Then she nodded, saying, "It is probable the Frangians do something or provide something that the Lord Paramount considers useful."
The Colonel blinked gravely at her as he considered this.
Genevieve returned his look, unaware that they were staring at one another. She enjoyed looking at him, and she was pleased to have been able to answer his questions. She was quite sure what she had told him was correct. It was not one of those visions that arrived suddenly in a hissing radiance, but it was the only answer that took into account everything she knew. It was really only a little more complicated than foreseeing the moves in chess.
The orchestra began playing a waltz.
The Colonel had a very thoughtful expression on his face as he rose, bowed, and asked, "Would you care to dance?"
She didn't care to, really, because she had to fight her tendency to hum along with the music, but seeing daughters dancing was one of the things parents paid for at Blessingham's, and no doubt her father would approve her dancing. She nodded and accompanied him onto the floor, where he held her firmly, never stepped on her feet, and was blessedly silent, which she preferred. Dancing and carrying on conversation at the same time was very trying.
Since the Colonel didn't try to make conversation, whenever he reversed or turned Genevieve could look at the other dancers. Carlotta was dancing with Tomas, the two of them seeming rather bored. Glorieta was with Willum, the same expression on their faces that Genevieve had noticed before. It was a wounded look, with an admixture of fear, revulsion, and pain. It wasn't an expression that belonged in a ballroom, and Genevieve spun away on Aufors's arm, telling herself she had not seen it. During the next dance, Glorieta was with Tomas and Willum was with Carlotta ... no! Willum was with Barbara!
She made a sound, for the Colonel drew her closer and asked, "What did you say?"
"Nothing," she murmured. "I was just surprised to see ... one of my friends dancing with the betrothed of ... another of my friends."
He looked across her shoulder. "The young lady in green?"
She nodded, ever so slightly.
"The girl's a flirt," he said, softly. "She'll get herself into trouble."
Genevieve surprised herself by saying, "I think Barbara would welcome trouble. She is not of the nobility and she gets awfully bored trying to be covenantly." Then she bit her lip, confused by the strange look he gave her.
Two waltzes and a country dance later, Colonel Leys attention was drawn across the room, where the Marshal was preparing to leave. The Colonel bowed his thanks, then, turning so that his face was hidden from the Marshal, who awaited him in obvious impatience, he said:
"I have an apology to make, Most Honorable Marchioness."
"Not at all," she murmured, her eyes on her father, who was beginning to fume.
"Please. I teased you in asking those questions. I expected only the usual, a gush of uninspired coquetry with no thought behind it and no sense in it. I was mistaken. I ask your forgiveness for you are ... a very intelligent ... ah, person, Most Honorable Marchioness. I hope we will meet soon again." He bowed, kissed her hand, turned on his heels and went, leaving her standing quite still against the blue velvet draperies of the terrace arch, her mouth slightly open, and his lips still burning on her hand as though he had somehow left them behind.
Carlotta came over, full of questions, to which Genevieve gave monosyllabic answers. She noticed a sotto voce spat going on between Glorieta and Barbara, so instead of joining her friends for supper, she said her good-nights while the soirée was still going on.
She was curled up in bed with a book when, much later, Carlotta and Glorieta burst in upon her.
"Oooh," cried Glorieta. "Wasn't he something! Wherever did your father find that one, Jenny?"
"He's Father's equerry," said Genevieve.
"What did he say to you? What did you talk about?"
She hesitated a moment before replying. "Ail he did was stare at me and ask strange questions."
"What strange questions?" demanded Carlotta, scenting something juicy.
"Not flirty sorts of questions, silly. No, he wanted to know what I thought about the Frangian situation. So, I told him what I thought."
"Something about just leaving Frangia alone."
"His Majesty, Marwell, Lord Paramount will love hearing that. My father says he's very set on bringing Frangia to heel. He wants no breakaway provinces."
"He didn't ask me what I would say to the Lord Paramount, he asked me what I thought."
"He danced with you!" said Glorieta soberly. "I was watching, and he wasn't asking questions then!"
"He didn't say a word the whole time. With him, words seem to be either a flood or a drought."
"Well, if you didn't like him, you might have introduced him to Barbara." She turned away to the window to hide her face, letting herself out onto the balcony.
"Why did he come?" Carlotta said loudly and hastily. "Just a fill in? Someone for you to dance with?"
Genevieve had not thought about that. On occasion her father did send someone in his place, with or without a possible suitor in tow, but it was usually someone she knew, a family friend from Evermire, or one of the older cousins, always someone solid and respectable and no longer young. "I really don't know," she said.
"For heaven's sake, Genevieve! Don't you care?"
She shook her head, which so infuriated Carlotta that she called Genevieve a long-nosed ice maiden. When Genevieve did not respond, Carlotta leaned close.
"Did you hear Glorieta and Barbara fighting? Willum asked Barbara to dance, and she said yes!"
"Isn't that allowed?" Genevieve asked. "I've seen you dancing with him."
"I'm family," she said. "Barbara definitely isn't! And there's something more to it than just dancing. Glorieta has been crying a lot lately."
Carlotta, it seemed, didn't know the reasons for any of it, for Glorieta refused to talk about it, and though Carlotta and Genevieve whispered about it for some time, Genevieve could not think of anything comforting to say. Finally, Carlotta yawned, collected her sister from the balcony, and they went off to their own beds below.
Genevieve turned out her light and pulled the blankets around her shoulders, but then surprised herself by lying there, worrying about Glorieta. Or Barbara. Or even Carlotta. She couldn't help it, even though she had long ago realized that the characters in her plays were not exempt from tragedy. Characters were sometimes written out. Her own mother, for example, had been written out. Someday Genevieve herself would be written out so her soul could go flitting off into paradise where it would flutter from blossom to blossom, sipping nectar, no longer needing resignation. As for this unexpected plot twist in the Amenaj play, she would watch it, of course, but there was nothing she could do about it. All plays would come to an end eventually.
Nonetheless, she had a difficult time dismissing the quarrel between Glorieta and Barbara. She was also unable to stop thinking about the Colonel. Tonight those three characters had stepped off the stage and engaged her attention at a level that was completely new to her. They had seemed real to her, especially the Colonel, for he had made her want to touch him, even before they had danced, the way she sometimes wanted to hug Barbara, though she never did, for it would be an unpermitted sensuality. The Colonel's arms had felt strong and safe, and his questions had not, truthfully, been all that strange, though he had seemed too casual about the first one and too oddly intense about the others. But then, he was quite young. Thirtyish. And very good looking.
Outside, in the garden, Barbara, still in her ball gown, leaned against the stones of the wall while Willum watched her from four inches away, his hands on the wall on either side of her head, his eyes boring purposefully into hers.
"Glorieta is my friend," she said weakly. "This wouldn't be right."
"If you'd really cared about that, you wouldn't have sneaked out to meet me," said Willum in his slow, slightly arrogant voice.
"Your father won't allow you to marry me, Willum. You're already betrothed."
"Father will allow whatever I want. He thinks two brothers marrying two sisters sounds very nice but may lead to unpleasant complications. He was here tonight; he saw you. He's quite impressed. Besides, Father's getting elderly. He's sixty-four. He doesn't want me to wait ten years to give him a grandson, and Glorieta is set on having her full youth before getting married."
"Well," Barbara said in a teasing voice. "If you're sure ..."
He pulled her to him and put his lips over her own, holding her tightly. Slowly, her arms went around him. When he released her, she was panting, her eyes were softened and glazed looking, as though she had gone blind in the instant.
She murmured drunkenly. "You'll have to break your betrothal to Glorieta first. I won't have her saying that I broke up her betrothal ..."
"Oh, you didn't," he murmured, his lips at her ear. "Believe me, you didn't."
Meet the Author
Sheri S. Tepper is the author of more than thirty resoundingly acclaimed novels, including The Waters Rising, The Margarets, The Companions, The Visitor, The Fresco, Singer from the Sea, Six Moon Dance, The Family Tree, Gibbon's Decline and Fall, Shadow's End, A Plague of Angels, Sideshow, and Beauty; numerous novellas; stories; poems; and essays. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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No human proofread this digital edition. The typos are numerous and glaringly bad. Wonderful story. If you can figure out the real words from the odd characters left in their place by the OCR software, you'll enjoy it.
This book kept my rapt attention from begining to end. Full of twists and turns I was not expecting, it was vivid imagery at its finest.
I found Sherri Tepper by mistake in a London bookstore four years ago, and I have been reading every book I could get my hands on since. She expresses her ideas wonderfully, and gives women the equal chance they deserve in her stories. Singer from the Sea was definitely one of the best I have read by her. Her stories follow logical lines of thought, and you are only given enough information to keep you reading to find out what will happen. Her characters are enchanting, and realistic, and they draw you into the story. I highly recommend this book to anyone who looking for a not-so-well-known author to read. She is science fiction, but she bring everyday truths to life through her tales. I recommend discovering her by mistake in a local bookstore.