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She was Our Mother, so she cried. She used to sit out there, under that micha tree, all day as we worked cursing in her fields. She sat there during the freezing nights, and we pretended that we could see her through the windows in the house, by the light of the moons and the hard, fast stars. She sat there before most of us were born; she sat there until she died. And all that time she shed her tears. She was Our Mother, so she cried.
She cried often for our yard, and the chairs that had been put there. We had many chairs on the scrubby lawn between the house and the chata fields. Some of the other estates have iron and stone statues placed around, but none of them have chairs. We have quite a few. Our Mother taught us that she got the idea from reading one of the plays that Our Father brought with him from Earth. We still have many of those books. Sometimes we throw them into the River when it looks like it might flood. But we still have most of them.
I've always liked the plays. I know the one Our Mother meant; I read it years ago. It is by Ionesco. We have the plays of Ionesco, of De Ghelderode, and of Büchner. I enjoy also the plays of Dürrenmatt and Jarry. Of the classics I read Aeschylus and Aristophanes, Shakespeare and Jonson with relish. Our Mother always said that I was presumptuous to display my wide knowledge of the drama, but I do not think so. The Theater is life.
The chairs. Some are wooden, straight-backed chairs. These are gray or olive-green,and their paint is peeling and falling on the grass. There are black enameled iron chairs, and these are subject to rust where the paint covering is damaged. There are a few cold, sweaty stone thrones. Our Mother sat on one of these, with two fluted stone columns rising to her left and right. Behind her a once-beautiful embroidered hanging flapped in the winds, rain-spotted and covered with patches of fungus growth.
There are other sorts of chairs--hammocks hanging and swinging, their canvas bodies bloated with spring rains--but I don't think that it is necessary for me to describe them all. Perhaps you are able already to picture our yard. It is only for background, that's all. If I tell you that there are also skins stuffed with rags set out under the white sky, and that they stay wet longest, and smell worst, how much have I added? You see, I must now continue elsewhere.
Behind the house, on the other side from the chata bean fields, was the River. It was the River of Life, which gave us all our lives and our deaths, too. It sprang, we believe, from the endless tears of Our Mother. Now, impossibly, she is gone, but the River remains. This is our chief defense against those of our family who contend that there is no life after death. Our Mother must still continue to weep in her eternal sorrow, somewhere.
The River was called the Allegheny by Our Father, who took the name from another river on Earth, near his ancestral home. We call it the River of Life, or, simply, the River. Many things could be pulled from the River and dried, but most of us do not consider that to be moral. Wherever the River wishes to carry these things (pieces of wood, broken-down machinery, dead animals and people, boats, our books) is their proper destination, and it would be profane to pull them out prematurely. Some of us do not agree, arguing that it then should be equally impious to enter the River unbidden, as we do for purposes of worship, cleanliness, and sport.
My brother Dore was of the latter group. It is his mission that I am describing, although I haven't really gotten into it yet. He did not go near the River during our monthly devotions, but preferred to pray from the small chapel in the house. He did not swim and dig in the River's bottom as some of the rest of us enjoyed doing. He took nothing from the River, and believed it sacrilegious to add to the burden of the strong current. Nevertheless, it was he whom Our Mother sent. Perhaps if he had allowed himself to sail the River in one of our flat-bottomed boats he would have returned. Then this story would have been told by him, and the details that I am forced to make up out of thin air would have the bite of authenticity.
Our Mother sent Dore, and he never returned. He was the first of our second generation to depart, and Our already-mourning Mother died in her guilt and loss.
Dore was the eldest. He was thoughtful; that is why I argued against his being sent. The mission was meant for one of the more impetuous, less rational young men. Dore would never fight without exploring all the ramifications of everything involved. He might have met his death while temporizing with a grass dragon. If that fits later on, perhaps that will be how I will tell it.
My brother Dore was very young when Our Parents came to Home from their home, Earth. He was the firstborn, and the only born, at that time. He was still young and alone when Our Father joined the River. (All the rest of us are the offspring of Our Mother and her most sacred tears. This we are taught.) My brother wore the crown that he made for himself when he was first a man, when he coupled with Melithiel, the princess from down the road. He wore a green cloak, fearing in his peculiar devoutness to wear the blue-green of the River. Rather he celebrated the forests, and their masculine and less holy aspects. On special occasions he took for his own a carved wooden throne which was set up on a stone dais (he did not take the vacated throne of Our Father); he sat only for short periods of time, a staff cut from the forest in his hand. He did not like to be conspicuous but, in his position, it was difficult for him not to be so.
Dore was the friend of the forest. He was well-liked by lizards. Sometimes in the woods at night, when he built his large fires and slept, he took off his boots; in the morning there would be huge slugs leaving their silvery trails like webwork in them. Better he should have laughed with fish in the River.
The idea of the mission was not originally conceived by Our Mother, although it is thought by some of us that she gave the inspiration subliminally to our brother Tere. She used to do that quite a bit. The mission was closely related to the reason that Our Parents left their beautiful red and gray Earth.
Our Parents were nearly superhuman in their powers and in their inestimable resources. Why then did they leave their natural home for the unknown territories off-planet? Was it because their brothers on Earth were jealous and afraid of their control of supernatural forces beyond comprehension? Was it because the Earth people hated Our Parents for their all-encompassing knowledge, their perfect and blessed relationship to all living things, their total and consistent morality? No. They hounded Our Father and Our Mother from their midst because of Our Parents' overwhelming debts.
One day Tere came in from the fields. He works very little in the fields, contenting himself instead to measure the distance between the chata stalks with his eyes and remark on the good fortune that prevented us from planting them too closely together. We laughed behind his wide back, because we knew that he was only shirking. We have always hated the work in the chata bean fields, but we did not hate Tere for making our tasks harder. We do not like him as much as we like others of us, but his laziness is only part of the reason.
Tere thought of the mission, so I will describe him. He was second-eldest, and there is a theory current among a large part of us that the mission was intended as a way to become eldest. He is eldest now, so that theory cannot be totally discounted; but it is uncharitable.
Where Dore was slim and brown, Tere is plump and dappled pink. He wears silly clothes, trying to appear regal. He has made for himself a crown; it is much more ostentatious than Dore's, floppy silk bunches dotted with colored rock and shell, with trailers of red and blue ribbons. He wears a cloak of heavy blue-green material caught at the neck with a plastic brooch in the shape of a fish. Tere is the worrier of fishes, he is not their friend. As Dore was home in the forest, Tere spends his time in the pools and watercourses of our land. But he is not welcome there: He just spends a lot of time. He has built a throne. This in itself is almost inexcusable audacity, for it is the first chair that has been moved into our yard since the original lot. It is a strange throne, made of a slick gray substance that we have been unable to identify. He wears slippers of green, shiny with simulated scales so that we will recognize his alliance with the fish. We do not
Tere came in from the fields on this day. He went past Our Mother, as you must do on the way from the bean fields to the house. He stopped to pray at her feet, and he prayed that her grief might lessen. Her pain was frightening in its intensity. At night we would look out from the windows of the house and watch her. Our Father had built her throne so that she was shaded from the sun by the great tree, and at night the constellation of the Wheel of the Sleeper revolved like a milky halo above her. We could not see her then, but the flashes of light, the shooting stars in the sky fell thickly, like the endless stream of her tears. Though she was obscured by the darkness, her sadness was more palpable. We saw her weeping in the sky and we heard her moans in the groaning of the River. When we slept, we felt her unendurable torment in our dreams, for then our minds were opened completely. We woke several times each night, holding our foreheads and screaming. Now we rest easier, but the moons are still her two red and pleading eyes. It is more than one of us who says that the old days were lighter to bear.
Tere had his inspiration. Someone must make a sacrifice. Would it be Tere? No, we didn't think so. Tere explained his idea to Our Mother: a mission to the end of the River. A mission to the end of existence, to the end of time, to the end of everything that there could be. And, therefore, it could only be entrusted to the leader of us all. Only Dore was capable of making such a sacrifice; perhaps, though, perhaps he might return. Then he would bring back the news that would stop the tears of Our Mother: words from beyond the bar, from Our Father in the belly of the River.
Dore was not a River person, but he accepted the monstrous task without complaint. Our Mother said little, Dore said less. Tere explained it to us all. Meanwhile Dore stood in the house by the great window that overlooked the River. He watched the green water rushing and he smiled. His face was rested and peaceful, his features serene and beautiful. This was to be his sacrifice and he, at least, knew how it was to be made.
Before he left on his journey Dore went down the road to the house of the Fourth family. He went to visit the eldest daughter, Melithiel, who was by that family's bylaws a princess of the blood. She slept with him before he left, and he touched her small, perfect breasts. He knew her three times that evening, but he had known better. In the morning the king of the Fourth family showed him what Dore would miss by going on the quest and probably being killed. He showed Dore the joys of marriage and the joys of family, and he taught him briefly the joys that only the generator of a powerful clan might know. He took Dore out to a hill a few hundred yards from the Fourth house. The hill overlooked the house itself and, beyond, the River. At the bottom of the hill three children played with a doglike animal. After a short while the king of the Fourth family's wife came out from the house. She saw her husband and ran up the hill to his arms. They embraced, and Dore smiled his small, knowing smile.
Dore went on his journey. I believe that I was the last to see him. It was my job, as the tenth-oldest male, to stand on the hill in our yard that overlooked the River and hold the standard of our family. I had to stand there one day out of each eight, and I was there as Dore took his leave of the house of the Fourth family. I thought I could make him out, seeing, I think, his familiar green cloak--the green of the forest, not the flood green of Tere--and the light glinting from his lovely crown. I liked to sing to myself, and as I saw Dore start on his way I sang a song to him, one of his all-time favorites. I dedicated that song to him, and now I dedicate the memory of that song to his memory. At that time I wore a simple cloth cap with a jaunty red feather. My cloak was yellow, the color of various flowers that I find pleasing. I am a meadowman, myself.
As Dore passed out of sight on the forest trail, scorning the broader road that paralleled the River, a chill wind pushed out of the valley and up my hill. The white sky darkened, and in a short while rain fell, several full hours before the regular evening raintime. I did not know then whether the unusual conditions were an omen or the result of Our Mother's increased anguish. We argue still about this very thing. It has not been resolved to our satisfaction.
When I heard that wind, I knew. The pennon snapped on its staff, and the sound frightened me. The crest of our family, embroidered in white and blue and green on the flag, seemed to be crying out for Dore to return. I knew then that I would never see him again. At sunset I left my post, and I carried the staff back to the outbuilding where it is kept. After I had put it back on its shelf I bowed my head and said the short prayer, adding a few words for Dore's sake. Then I walked around the house to the throne of Our Mother. Nearly all of us were gathered there, sitting on the prickly grass at her feet. I knelt and addressed my prayer of greeting to her. She touched me on the shoulder, one of the few times that she had ever touched me since early childhood. I can remember that I began to cry when I felt her rough fingers.
Our Mother spoke to us. She told us again the story of how she met Our Father in the Earth city of Pittsburgh, and of their flight from the debtors' prison there. She told us of the kindly merchant who sponsored their escape to Home, and how she had taken that merchant to bed, fondling him in gratitude and feeling his throbbing manhood within her. She retold the history of the founding of our First family on Home, and the coming of the other and lesser families. Then she addressed herself to the task of Dore, and to his better qualities, so that we should always remember him as a thrifty and worthwhile addition to any family. She told us of his love of the forested lands and his legendary ability to understand the speech of his floral friends, although we knew all this already; she told us of his strong arms. At last she stopped, her holy tears streaming at their constant rate, and we stood before her in silent worship, our arms outstretched. But, of course, she could not leave her throne. Her time had not yet come.
But then we were all made aware that the time was nearer than we had dreamed, and that our lives were to be altered beyond our simple-minded comprehension. It remains to be seen whether or not the changes are of a positive nature. Some of us believe that they are, and some of us disagree.
Dore set out practically unarmed against the dangers of Home's unexplored wildlands. Tere told us about the quasi-religious nature of the quest. He explained that the great and selfless sacrifice of Dore would result in our salvation, at least in the corporal sense; our intentions would be revealed to the River in all their purity, and the innocent body of our brother Dore would serve as substitute for five or six whole shelves of books. Therefore, he must face the Nature of our world (Nature that owes its existence, as do we, to the River) with only the equipment necessary to see him through to the end of his journey. The trip back would be entirely a matter of fortune.
"He will carry, as symbol of our parting with the insane aggressive disposition of the people of Earth, he will carry an empty scabbard. What courage he will require! But our brother Dore is equal to the calling. He is the most qualified among us, and he is, as eldest male, the only one of us whose sacrifice could have any meaning." So Tere put it to us, pausing only now and again to touch his breast and sigh.
I asked Dore about this before he left. He was sitting on his throne, resting his chin on a bridge of his hands. When I spoke he looked up, startled. He seemed embarrassed at being found on his throne again.
"Are you really going out there without even your sword?" I asked.
"No, my brother, I don't think so. If Tere wants someone to go without a sword, let it be he. I'm the one who's going, and I'm taking Battlefriend with me. And I'll take everything else that I can sneak out of the house."
He smiled at me, and I saw the pain hidden behind the smile. He took his crown from his head and studied it for a few seconds; he smiled again, perhaps thinking of the days when he first made it, and first made the princess of the Fourth family. He looked up and saw me. For some reason he sighed; he made a gesture which, I am not certain, but it seemed as though he were offering the crown to me. I cannot interpret this; in any event, he shook his head sadly and put the crown back on.
While I sat at his feet our younger sister Lalichë ran to him and jumped into his lap. The scene was so purely touching that I was surprised when Dore failed to laugh in his usual delighted way. Lalichë noticed it too. She looked up at his face, her own nose wrinkled among the freckles.
"Dore," she said, "why don't you put a pine cone on your stick that you walk with?"
Lalichë was five years old and enjoyed Dore's special favor. But that day his mind was on his journey. He did not answer her.
"Why would he want a pine cone on his staff?" I asked.
"Because Dionysus did," she said. She jumped to the ground again and ran away, laughing and singing and cursing.
"Yes," I said somberly, "you're much more Orphic than anything else."
"It does not matter, Seyt. I have been waiting for a sign. I knew that if I waited here long enough my bird, that tarishawk that rests here each day, I knew that he would come. Our Mother said that if he flew from the right, then I would have good fortune. If he came from the left, my journey would be disastrous for me, and it would bear no positive fruits for you."
"And the hawk? Which way did it come? Did it come from the left?"
Dore smiled once more; his smile was always the most cheerless aspect of him. "The hawk has not come at all," he said. He fell silent, resting his head in his hands. I nodded, though he could not see me; I got to my feet and walked to the house as quietly as I could.
Dore's journey would not become dangerous for two or three days. We all knew that he could stay with the lower families for the first few nights. We had no worries for him until he left the small growth of humanity behind and entered into the healthy, wild skin of the planet that is our Home.
We were wrong. Our Mother told us that he had encountered treachery on his second night away.
Beyond the keep of the Fourth family the estates rapidly fell off in quality. When Dore bid farewell to that king and court he followed the dusty trace leading to his beloved forest. As the sun climbed behind the gritty white clouds he walked to his doom, whistling. In his place I would have sung, and most of the girls would have prayed. But, as Our Mother said on many occasions, it takes all sorts of people to make a world, and that is what made our family great.
The road was unpaved (I have never in my life seen real pavement), rutted deep by the wooden carts of the lower families whose castles and cabins stood to the sides. Roads have played an important role, not only in the entire and majestic history of the human race, but also in the endless procession of literature. Consider the part of the road in Waiting for Godot or in the tales of Chaucer. If the road in this history has a lesser importance, it is only because our road is the shorter.
About suppertime Dore stopped his march under a tall, slender pine tree. He opened his wallet and took out the bread and cheese that he had insisted on bringing. Our sister Vaelluin, who had done kitchen duty on the day of Dore's departure, had prepared a compact kit of dried rations in boilable plastic bags, but Dore said that hard bread and stiff cheddar were more in keeping with his quest. It was a poor meal, but Dore had never been used to luxury. He ate quickly, finishing only part of the day's share and saving the remainder for an extra-large breakfast. He packed his wallet and continued his walking, planning to find a place to spend the night in the hour or so before the evening rains.
About two miles farther down the road he arrived at the elaborate mailbox of the Thirtyfourth family. It was a salute to bad taste, combining Doric columns with bastardized Corinthian ornament, a Greco-Roman frieze and imitation Khmer temple statuary. Art Nouveau lettering, and obscenely ornate French Empire neoclassicism on top of Rococo scrollwork. In all, with portico, porch, piazza, and stoa, it stood over eighteen feet tall.
Dore followed the pebble drive up to the front of the building. The path split and went on in opposite directions, making right angles around a rectangular lawn. In the middle of the grass was a statue; Dore knew that it was actually a fountain, but it was turned off during the day. It rather graphically depicted the rape of Proserpina: when it was activated after the raintime, colored lights played on the spray that emanated from an indelicately situated marble orifice.
A heavy iron door was set into the front of the mailbox. The door was decorated with heads of Cerberus and bulls from the Ishtar Gate of Babylon. Across two panels in the middle was a faded reproduction of The Last Supper by Dali. A little balcony stood over the doorway, shading it. At the foot of one of its supporting columns was a tall urn filled with white sand and a few crushed cigarette butts. At the base of the other was a cast-iron Negro coachboy, holding a lantern and grinning servilely. On the lantern, as in about a dozen other places, was written Mr. & Mrs. Walter G. Thirtyfour. Dore lifted the heavy brass doorknocker and pounded it in place.
The knock was answered immediately by a dirty-faced young woman. Her clothes were soiled and threadbare, and her nose was weeping for attention. "Mom says to tell you we don't want any, thank you," she said.
Dore loved her for that. He never needed more of a reason. "No," he said, chuckling, "I'm not selling anything. This is a real crown. I am Dore First. I would like to beg your hospitality."
The girl stared in amazement. It is likely that she had never seen any of the First family before. Then she looked at his rich clothing, and at the jeweled scabbard of Battlefriend. "How long," she said, stammering, "how long do you plan to be staying on with us?"
"Just this one night, I think."
"Yes, sir. Fine. Please, sir, if you will sign this book. Do you have any luggage? I can get one of the boys to carry it up to the house. We hope you enjoy your stay with us, and if there's anything you need, anything, don't hesitate."
"Thank you," said Dore, "it'll be all right if you just show me the way to the house."
The young woman led Dore back through the trees to the house. The home of the Thirtyfourth family was little, if any, larger than their mailbox. In fact, it later developed that the mailbox, being otherwise without function on our Post Officeless world, served as guest house and part-time brothel. Dore, as an upper-class visitor, would be quartered in the main house itself. But courtesy demanded that he at least visit the mailbox. He hoped that his first fleeting call would suffice.
His arrival put the household in a state of confusion. The head of the Thirtyfourth family (who insisted on being called Walt) ordered a sumptuous feast. This consisted of four courses of hard, dark bread and fine domestic cheese. Dore was unimpressed, of course, but did his best to show his appreciation to his poorer cousins. He explained about his quest, to the amazement of everyone, and begged to be excused so that he might get a good night's sleep. He planned to be on the road again before dawn.
The family sat in stunned silence as he rose from the table. Dore could not understand their reaction until he recalled that a wealthy guest customarily distributed cash gifts after such a dinner. He decided to pretend ignorance, although the conceit was shallow and transparent to everyone. He went up to bed amid the stony silence, embarrassed and unable to bring himself to explain that he carried no money. "Where I go henceforward," he thought, "I shall go incognito." He slipped between the coarse, yellowed sheets and was soon asleep.
In the darkest part of the night, in the most stilly watch, his door opened. The light from the hallway shone in around the silhouette of the formidable and unclad body of Dolksey Thirtyfour, Mr. and Mrs. Walter G's eldest daughter.
Our Mother tutored us carefully in subjects pertaining to morality, both absolute and relative. This is quite obviously a case of the latter. People have intercourse for a variety of reasons, she taught. As a gesture of affection among siblings, as a reward for valiant deeds, as a plighting of troth, for the acquisition of offspring, or to augment the income: These are but a few of the manifold urgings to "make love." Our Mother always took an ambivalent attitude toward sex. We always figured that was because she surely wasn't getting any on that memorial-like throne of hers. Since Our Father joined the spirit of the Home that he built, Our Mother had become a passionate but chaste Penelope-symbol of adequate behavior.
Before coming Home, the story goes, Our Father met Our Mother at a well in Pittsburgh. In that city she was known as a woman of easy virtue, and she had a reputation as an all-around mover. Our Father extended his hand in friendship and invited her to "quit her low-down ways." She was taking various sorts of pills at this time. She recognized in her future husband a person of great personal worth and went with him, abandoning her former loose behavior. Now look at her. Dead as Dekker; where does it get you?
None of these thoughts passed through the mind of my older brother Dore as he watched the voluptuous Dolksey undulating toward his bed. He was still half-asleep. He had enough awareness, though, to shove himself over against the wall, giving the girl room to crawl in with him. He was almost asleep again before she did; she spent a good deal of time trying to arouse him by fondling her pendulous, alabaster globes and running her well-formed hands over her flat, sensuous belly. Finally she gave up in favor of closer and more intimate tactics.
Dore realized that he wasn't going to be allowed to go back to sleep. He sighed; then he reached out and grabbed the moaning woman. She responded instantly. She kissed, and scratched, and rubbed, and tickled, and bit. Dore was so distracted by her ministrations that he was unable to gain entrance. Finally, as she trailed her tongue down the tufted hairs of his stomach and massaged his lower back he shoved her away.
"Look," he said, "knock it off. Why don't you just lie there and we'll get this over with."
Still, he found her pleasant company. Sometime later he was able to get back to sleep, but he was glad that he had made the detour.
She was still there in the morning. She woke him with her elbow. "Come with me," she said.
"We already did that. Let me sleep."
"No, we must away. To my room."
"I was just getting very comfortable here."
"You don't understand," she said, her tongue flicking into his ear between words. "My father mustn't find us here. It would be my head."
"How would he find us here? He wouldn't be looking unless you've been dropping hints."
"Never mind. If he finds us in my room it will look like simple rape, and that's all right. You're a First."
"I see. Why don't you go back by yourself?"
She demonstrated her reasons, and soon she had shown him enough to warrant his accompanying her to her boudoir. Several minutes later, at one of a series of critical points, Dore heard a chamber door slam shut. Then he heard shouts. Someone pounded on Dolksey's door. "Okay, you imposter in there," a voice bellowed, "that's enough. Get out of there before we come in and slice your real identity to ribbons." Then he heard more doors slamming.
Dolksey looked worried. "You must leave. Father mustn't catch us together."
"Yes, I've heard. Let me get my breeches--"
"Wait. No, go. We have no time. You must fly, my love."
Dore stood beside the bed, naked and confused. Dolksey pushed him to the door. She paused before he departed, looking by turns expectant, disappointed, and angry. Finally she grabbed him and kissed him fiercely. "Flee, my lion," she said, breathing warmly and moistly into his ear. Dore grasped the brass dryad knob and opened the door. Dolksey lunged and caught his hand. She brought it to her lips and kissed the fingers.
"You're really weird," he said, and stepped out into the hallway.
The door slammed shut behind him. He heard the click of the lock.
Dore hurried down the hall to his room. The door was locked and no one answered his frantic knocking. He went back to Dolksey. Of course, her door was locked fast. At last she answered his pounding, whispering to him through the heavy micha planks of her door. "Hurry, my heart. All the rooms are secured. No one may hide you. You must go before my father and brothers come again. They will let you escape if you go now. But if you tarry, for my sake, they will find and kill you. Our love is doomed; I know how your heart is breaking, even as is mine. But go, save yourself."
"Wait a minute!" Dore screamed. "You got my clothes in there! And my room's locked, too. I'm not leaving here without that sword!" He got no further answer. In the stillness he heard the tramping of feet on the front stairs. He hurried, undressed and unarmed, to the back stairway. He checked for guards: There were none. He ran down the stairs and out the back way. He did not stop running until he was across the overgrown yard and safely in the trees behind the house.