THE FIRST INVENTION
Imagine the time of my grandfather's grandfather, when the darkness was newly separated from the light. Society was only a shadowy image of what it would soon become. This was Mandragora before my invention and all that it set in motion. People spoke to one another, but their habits of thought were coarse. People lived in fear. Our forefathers farmed, but with great difficulty; a man used a sharp stick to dig a hole for each seed, and furrowed his fields by dragging his fingernails through them and picking out each small stone. Often a whole spring passed in preparing the ground, and families went hungry or died come winter. They had fire, but they had no candles, nor did they have proper loomswhen a woman made cloth for her household, she wound the woof through each strand of warp, and tamped down each row of weaving with her fingers. It took so long to make a bolt of cloth that growing children went about in tatters because their mothers could not keep pace. Men knew how to count and keep tally, but they had no numbers bigger than twenty. Twenty acres was the size of Mandragora's largest farm (my grandfather's, which I cultivate still), and twenty sheep the size of its largest flock; what need had they to reckon the infinite? Men's faculties may have been as well developed as ours, but they spent so much effort scratching their existence from the soil that they had no time for ideas or contemplation. What sufficed sufficed; and however much men might have profited from introspection, their days were full of drudgery that kept it at bay.
Such darkness persisted nigh unto the present day, and might nearly have persisted ever, had not a glimmering seed of an idea taken root in my mind and beckoned me out of the night. I wish it had been an idea of philosophical profundity, one that could explain to men where God resides or what happens to our essence after death, but it was only a workaday idea, the kind a farmer such as myself might have about his farming. Of all the events to set the process of history in motion, mine was a realization about my horse. Had I known then what terrors my invention would bring us along with its joys, perhaps I would have allowed the idea to drift off like a thousand other daydreams. I could not have envisioned myself, two winters later, spending these long nights writing in my barn, writing against what seems the inevitable outcome: that I, and all that I have wrought, will be forgotten utterly as the future gallops forth to devour us. At the time I knew nothing but the perfect beauty of what I imagined.
I have already gone ahead of myself, however, for you do not yet even know what I accomplished. Perhaps you will best come to understand the deed's magnitude by its first outward sign: because of my invention, I was able to name my horse. I called her Hammadi. My neighbor Ydlbert yon Iggislau named his horse Thea. These names had weight for us beyond their intrinsic beauty, because these two work-weary horses were the first anyone had ever named. No horse before Hammadi lived long enough to need a name. It was enough that God had given us the beasts to serve us; we had never spent enough time with a single one to come to know its soul. We named our other animalssheep and billy goats, for example, performed no labor and had fair chances of survival. My cow, who had provided me milk even before I married Adelaïda, had always been called Sophronia, and seemed worthy of such a name. We loved our horses nonetheless, as we loved our crops and loved the gentle spring. In their infancy we patted their soft ears and watched their first, faltering steps with the same fear and pride we felt in watching our own growing babes. We had little to spare, but the horses performed important duties, and we thanked them when we could with windfall apples or carrots that had gone early to rot. And in times of trouble, we prayed for our horses, sure.
But we could not risk giving a horse a name. They were subject to all manner of plagues, maladies of the tooth, hoof, and digestion, sometimes a dread illness that turned a healthy horse to a deranged beast, choking on its own frothy spittle, spewing blood from every orifice. Because God is merciful, such a horse rarely lived longer than a day. Horses died young, as all creatures die younglike hatchlings in the nest or children yet unable to speak, foals were delicate, without sense, and held always in a balance that desired to tip against them. Sometimes God spared a foal its childhood torments, and it grew to be a strong adult, suitable for work. The seasons could not turn round upon a workhorse, however; they often died in their first few months of service. Even the smallest human error could bring a horse to its knees. I hitched my third horse, a beautiful chestnut mare whose white socks I brushed down of mud each night, to a full cart of grain one August morninga cart only slightly more full than that she had pulled the week beforeand she strained too hard under the load. Before I could loose the choking strap from her neck, she stood quite dead at the edge of my farthest field, her eyes popping and her tongue aloll. Her pained and frozen visage struck terror into my heart, and I let much of the shocked wheat go to rot in the field because I dreaded to approach the dead horse. After a few days I enlisted the help of my closest companionsmy brother, Mandrik le Chouchou, and my neighbor Ydlbert yon Iggislauto drag the stinking, stiffened carcass away. "Fear not," Mandrik told me, bowing his head of fine brown curls before the sight. "The multitudes depart our presence thus, but the few escape intact." Ydlbert set his hat on the ground, revealing his balding pate to the hot sun, spat in his two strong hands, and set to hacking off the edible sections and the horse's skin. I could neither think long on the commentary nor bear to watch the flaying, so I returned to our house, where we wintered in poverty and want, except for copious lots of salted horse meat.
I am not certain I have conveyed the direness of our situation. We could not produce horses fast enough to make use of themthe chances of bringing both a male and a female to healthy adulthood were few, and when they mated, the spirit often left the foal before it left its mother's womb. Horseslike even the bravest of women, my first wife, Elynour, among them, may she rest in peaceoften died in giving birth, and a foal would languish on the diet of sugar and water it suckled in its mother's absence. A foal that persevered to its adulthood was prone to the aforementioned afflictions of the body; those beasts we acquired from Andras Drck, the dealer, were healthier, but often dearer than their short lives made worthwhile. Watching a horse in my barn at night, I sometimes saw in its trusting downcast eyes a premonition of the death that the weight of its suffering would surely and eventually bring. Our ancestors dreamed up a thousand spells to save them, but though a man might studiously recite his
Day be bright, Load be light, Bring this horse safely Back home tonight
it only worked when the spirits were willing. When the horses did not die of their sundry natural maladies, they strangled pulling loads.
I and my countrymen desired the plight of the horses to be otherwise, but we knew no way to bring about the change except through ardent prayer, in which we engaged together each Sabbath, and in which many of us engaged alone in the dreary hours before sleep. It is by such meditation, as well as by luck, that eventually I came upon the solution, a solution so simple yet so unknown that we did not have a name by which to call it. Though human vanity convinced me that the invention was the product of my mind, I soon came to realize that I had received both a vision and a blessing; only much later did I begin to see the terrors such a blessing can wreak. That first night I gave the longest prayer of thanks I have ever found it within me to offer, and thus, with a heart full of devotion, did I learn the thing's Heaven-given name: Harness.
Before we had the harness, we would tie a piece of flaxen rope or leather thong around the neck of the beast, secure the two traces to the swingletree of the cart (which at that time had but one wheel, square in the center of the load), and hope for successful drayage. If the horse was strong and the cart half laden, the burden arrived with its bearer intact, but the more weight we placed on the cart, the more likely it would strangle the horse. God is merciful, but he does not remove weights from around the necks of beasts, and we lost many horses in this manner. We gambled accordingly on each load; if it arrived safely, then we could eat, and if ill befell it or the horse, we couldn't. The material loss was, however, only part of the grief when our horses died. Even before we dared name them, we grew accustomed to their wants and ways. When we saw their dear lips, black as night or pink as a newborn babe, grimace in pain, it cut our hearts, as it would cut your heart, in two.
One morning when the sun had not yet lifted his chin above the mountains to the east, I dreamed I was a horse dragging a cart heavy with sacks of flour. In the dream the hands of a black devil pulled the rope taut about my neck, and I knew the terrible truth of how cursed our horses felt. I awoke with a start and sat gasping for breath in my bed, holding my hand over my chest to see that my heart was still beating. I felt it working its miracle behind the bone. My wife, Adelaïda, quickly awoke beside me, her yellow braid brushing across my cheek.
"Yves," she asked, "what's wrong?"
"I dreamed the devil was choking me. I dreamed I couldn't breathe."
Adelaïda settled back into the bedclothes. "It'll be a bad season for goldenrod, then. We'll have to keep Elizaveta indoors."
But I knew in my aching heart that the dream had been a prophecy of a different kind, though none of my deceased kin had come to herald it in the usual fashion. Of a sudden it seemed quite natural that a rope should choke a horse's throat, just as the devil's hands choked mine. But, like me, the horse had a hard place above her heart, a shell to protect the most sacred part of her, and if I could bind her to the cart across that place, it would make use of that strength instead of aggravating a weakness.
The next morning, after briefly watering the near pasture and dumping the night's slops out besides, I brought my horsenameless stillout into the yard, tethered her to the stake, and took strips of cured leather and pieces of flaxen rope from the barn. The chickens clucked in the yard, and my dog, Yoshu, bit fleas off her yellow backside, annoyed that I should pay more attention to the horse than to her. Elizaveta, a year-old infant then whose eyes had but recently gone brown, rolled into the yard behind me. Adelaïda had tied the child's left ankle to the kitchen bench with a length of twine, so that she could roll only a short distance from the door. My wife stood in the doorway with her distaff, spinning and watching the child play with her doll. They were the picture of beauty in the early-morning light, both fair-haired and sturdy, Adelaïda's round face ruddy with health around her gap-toothed grin. Her long braid shone, and she rocked her round hips slightly as she spun; Elizaveta fixed her gaze on her doll with a grown woman's intensity. Thus to observe their morning activitiesso different, yet so intimately tiedbrought me great pleasure and renewed dedication to my project.
I watched the horse as I worked, wondering if she would give me a sign how my invention should progress. I had acquired her from the dealer three years since, and she was the best, most intelligent horse I had yet ownednot the most delicately featured, but a solid work beast, bay of hue, with a silky black mane, beautiful white feathering over her hooves, and a white star between her brown eyes that gave her a thoughtful air. She switched her tail, and wagged her head expectantly, but she could give me no advice.
With all the combined efforts of my intellect and soul, I could imagine no way to secure a strap around the horse's breastplate. Every position, it seemed, caused the thong to slip back up to her windpipe. In any position she would choke.
Adelaïda spun her flax into a long thread as fair as her heavy plait. "That doesn't seem to be working," she offered.
"I can see that."
"It's too bad the horse doesn't wear an apron, because you could tie the ends of the straps to it and that'd be that."
"A fine point, but one which I must qualify," I said, mindful that my wife's tutelage was among my duties upon this earth, "by reminding you that horses, who do no women's work, require no aprons."
"I was only remarking how much easier for you it would be if they did," she replied. "I've more wit about me than a suckling child."
I was chastened by her saying, for, either by accident or by God's grace, Adelaïda had solved the problem as she spun. The horse had no need for an apron, true, but if I provided her a tight-fitting girdle, then I could attach a strap to it across the breastbone; from this, in turn, would emanate the traces that bound it to the cart, thus distributing the weight of the load over a more solid area of the horse's body. I measured the horse's girth with a length of twine, and with another the distance about her breastplate, and retired to the barn to cut leather to those lengths. This leather I sewed to its own edge, so that it made a long, hollow shape, like entrails; and this I stuffed with straw, so that the straps could cushion the horse even further against the blow of labor. Elizaveta continued to roll about the front garden, gurgling her native song of praise. Although I shut the barn door to ensure the stillness necessary for work, I could faintly hear Adelaïda singing a song she oft sings as she works:
Well, I love Yves Gundron, Tell you, Lord, I do. Yes, I love my old man Yves, Yes, indeed, it's true. But the fact that he don't listen, Lord, it makes this woman sad and blue.
Yves, he leaves me 'lone And plows his fields all day. Yes, he leaves me 'lone While he plows all day. But I wouldn't feel so lonesome If he'd just listen to what I say.
Though she intended her music as a reproach, it reminded me of my mother, who had ever a song upon her lips; it aided me in my thinking, and spurred me to complete my work. I stitched the breast strap firmly to the girding strap, so it would hold tight, and furnished the girding piece with an old iron buckle and multiple holes, so I could adjust it. The two ends of the breast strap I left long, that I might tie them to the cart. Fashioning the device, a labor of love unlike any I had yet known, took the better part of the day, but the sun sped past in what seemed an hour.
He had not yet reached the western edge of the horizon when I brought my work out and showed it to the puzzled horse, who was nibbling the scant grass of the near pasture. The shyness of her usually forthright gaze told me that she knew her life was about to change irrevocably. When I slipped the strap around her breastbone she hung her head, anticipating the drudgery of all the many workdays that had come before. She kicked when I fastened the belt about her midsection, and again when I tightened it and adjusted the breast strap. The fit, even on that first attempt, was nearly perfectevidence, it seemed, of God's desire for man to have this invention. Sophronia, the cow, kept chewing nonchalantly on her cud, but I knew she was watching with something more than her ordinary interest. I fitted the horse's lead about her head, and she burred in annoyance.
"Adelaïda!" I called. She appeared in the doorway, now in shadow, with the child on one hip and her distaff in the other hand. "Look at the horse!"
"What in Heaven's name have you done to her?"
"I've made an invention."
"It doesn't look kindly."
"Never mind its outward formwill you help me bring the cart?" It was not so heavy that I could not have moved it alone, but I wanted her nigh when the great event took place. She tied the child back up to the bench and rested her spindle against the door frame. Together we maneuvered the awkward cart out of the barn, and pulled it up behind the bewildered horse. I fastened the ends of the contraption to the cart, and tested their hold. The horse hung her head and looked at me askance, but when I clicked my tongue and urged her to follow me by tugging gently upon her lead, she knew the moment of reckoning had arrived, and began, hesitantly, to walk. For what seemed an eternity the traces pulled taut, and then the cart began to roll at a stately pace behind her. The horse, who still believed disaster was imminent, continued to regard me. But nothing went amiss. The cart's solid iron-clad wheel whined, bumped, and turned as it always had, but nothing pulled at the horse's throat. I put my hand upon the horse's neck to stop her.
"Adelaïda," I said. "Climb up on the cart."
She pursed her lips. "This much seems miracle enough."
"But another is about out to unfold," I said, uncertain though I was. "Climb on." I prayed silently as Adelaïda hitched her skirt up, revealing her pale underskirt, and climbed up to the bed. I saw her lips moving, if not in prayer, then in a song of private devotion. Once more I clicked my tongue at the horse, and though she strained to set the cart in motion, she soon lifted her white feet high, and carried Adelaïda without apparent effort toward the southern fields. Adelaïda whooped with glee, for she had never before moved so quickly. No one had ever moved with such speed, and had I not known the cause of her rapid motion, I would surely have thought her an Arab upon a magic carpet or a witch in the Devil's thrall.
Adelaïda is by no means as heavy as a load of turnips, but she has weight enough, if not to strangle a horse, then to make her struggle in her labors. The horse, however, pulled my fair wife with ease. When at last she tired of her sport, I returned to the barn and brought forth a bale of last year's hay, Yoshu nipping at my heels. As I hoisted the hay and the dog onto the cart, both the horse and Adelaïda winced, but the added weight, nearly equal to my wife's, did not cause the horse more than a moment's pause. Finally I stopped the cart again and climbed aboard.
"Yves!" my wife cried. "You'll surely kill her." Yoshu, ready for adventure, voiced her approval of my scheme.
But I persevered. The horse looked round, wondering where her master had gone. I stood at the forward end of the cart and yelled at her to go, but she did not understand, as I was behind her. I had left her lead dangling before her, as it always had before, so I had no way to signal her to start. I reached over the edge of the cart and slapped her croup, shouting. She turned her head to recognize me, and showed by the gleam in her eye that she understood. She pulled all of usmyself, Adelaïda, the dog, and a dry bale of hayuntil the sun went down. That evening I rewarded her with oats from my own provender, and with the previous year's dried apples, and scrubbed her down until she gleamed from crest to tail. Elizaveta, when we returned to the house, was completely bound up in her string, and lay with her arms pinned to her sides, blinking.
That was the night the device's Heaven-given name appeared to my inward ear. Harness would be its name henceforth until the generations expired. I was still speaking the name to myself when I rose before dawn to bring wood for Adelaïda's fire, and as I spoke it, I realized that this one simple word meant that our horse, with God's grace, would survive into her dotage. She would become a member of the family. She, too, would require a name. Again the voice spoke in my inward ear: Call the horse Hammadi. Its beautiful sound rang throughout my body and mind. Although the wood was heavy in my wood sling, I stopped at the barn. All the animals stood wide awake and expectant, and the horse looked at me skeptically, her white star shining, as she hoped for a breakfast as fine as last night's meal.
I said, "Hello, Hammadi."
She flared her nostrils and flattened her fine brown ears against her head. Perhaps this form of greeting had, in the intervening night, attained an almost human eloquence. I could practically hear her whisper, "Hello."
That day was a Saturday, one among the many. On Sundays God decreed a day of rest, but after we went dutifully to worship, and ate a solemn meal, we would return to our everyday work. We dared not tell our priest, Stanislaus, that we worked on the Sabbathhe was too young to have real experience of the world and its ways, and such an admission might have shaken his confidence. Our old priest, Father Icthyus, had fed us full up on the fear of God; but Stanislaus, thin as a reed in his dun-colored cassock, looked down his hooked nose at whatever he studied, his Adam's apple bobbing ever in confusion, and could not inspire us to the same frenzy of worship and dread. Though he was a young enough fellow, he held to his doctrines with an old man's fervor; and his unwillingness to grant pardon for our workaday follies made us hesitate to admit to him our real sins. The truth was that, whatever God had decreed, survival required a great deal of labor, and to take more than half a day of rest would have meant our demise. And as for spending one day in contemplation, for the multitudes there is nothing to contemplate beyond work; we think about it while we do it. Clerics or no, it is better to bring in the hay on a sunny Sunday than to meditate upon God's goodness and allow the hay to be ruined by an evening rain.
Sunday morning Adelaïda and I put on our good clothes, tied Elizaveta to a clean string to keep her from running wild in our lovely sanctuary of St. Perpetua, and walked to the village for services. The air was crisp and the sun bright, and I was humbled by the beauty of the mountains that lifted their heads to Heaven all around us. That day our church, with its jewel-hued murals, its clear morning light, and its great congregation of farmers, seemed truly the house of the Lord. Stanislaus's sermon was a dreary injunction against drunkenness and profanity, but all the same was I ardent in my devotions. Adelaïda looked especially beautiful that day, and when we joined together in silent prayer, I thanked God for her as well as for my new invention and my horse. My friend Ydlbert must have noticed the happiness on my face, for as we left the sanctuary he regarded me with a look of some curiosity. I held my silence as we began the walk homeYdlbert and I together, followed by our strong wives carrying our infants, followed by four of Ydlbert's sons, who walked in a row, each holding the previous child's string. The front-most son, whose name I could not recall, held to the back of their mother s apron, which she kept tied in a scrupulous knot. The eldest, Dirk and Bartholomew, scuffed at the dust behind them all, their dark hair hanging forward over their eyes as if they were brigands.
Ydlbert said, "Has something happened, Yves? You look different." His gray eyes were bright with expectation.
I believe I blushed from pride. I told him, "I think I invented something."
"I hope it's better than that damned thing you made with iron filings."
"Indeed," Dirk said. "That was a foolish invention."
"Ydlbert," his pinch-faced Anya said, as her sons guffawed. "Not on the Sabbath."
"I call it the harness. It allows me to attach my cart to my horse without strangling her."
Ydlbert laughed, as he does, with all his soul, and with his great, firm belly heaving. "Oh, well, if that's it, congratulations."
"Ydlbert," I said, "I'm serious. When I used it to tether them together, the horse dragged me, Adelaïda, a bale of hay, and the dog without the slightest strain."