But that wasn’t exactly right, either, really.
Over and over again, the iron prongs raked at the straw, piling and shuffling, piling and shuffling. The soggy strands would stand quietly, the topmost fingers climbing into the oily light, then slowly collapse to one side or another in a faceless heap. No, it was iron fingers that tugged arthritically at the straw, rescuing some by chance–didn’t they know they would be impressions in mud unless?–and the rest slipped coldly back. The rake snatched at them this time, lifting them and shreds of earth simultaneously, pitching all into the air so that they would land again, the ruins of Parni. The iron made great, deep furrows across the shadowy wastes, snapping the drier straws and twisting the others. The jaws of a great bear–count the teeth: eight, eight again, eight again. The bear stopped. The teeth waited. It was a rake once more. This was artist work.
The rake, the handle, ensorcelled by stubby and calloused fingers, moved. The teeth of an iron rictus were raised up into the dim lamplight, casting dark visions, grins, against the living stable wall. Moments. The head of iron revolved, crusts of dirt shedding its scaly jaws. Then, like the tempered hand of The Worker (Oh, how could it ever be!), it descended again, plying single strands into patterns, the patterns into forms, the forms. . . . The rake caressed the straw, but that wasn’t exactly right, either. The straw rose again, fingers stretched, floes in air, yet still, fragrant, bound. The whole construction remained within the confines of shadow.
“What we create, we create in darkness.”
It was the only teaching he thought he understood. The others (admit it, admit it!) had escaped him entirely. Furenthe was what he would always be. Apprentice. Lata the Furenthe. Furenthe Imagemaker.
Lata set down the rake and stepped cautiously over to the lamp suspended deliberately upon a nail on the far side of the post. Removing it, he held it close, masking its light as much as his thin body would permit. As quietly as he might, he took three small steps backward toward the new straw pile and crouched. This next was the trickiest part. Still holding the lamp in his hands, he slowly turned in such a way that his body remained between the lamp and the straw pile. No, now it is strawpile, he corrected himself. The lamp jangled as his fingers touched something hot and he inhaled, hissing. His other hand grasped the handle firmly, though, and the lamp neither fell nor shed light the wrong way. Lata now crouched before strawpile, the lamp behind him, and strawpile was still in shadow.
Lata felt his breath grow hard, rattling as it often did on nights this cool. Strawpile sat meaningless before him. . . straws of Radigh ice, clashing alone in violence unremembered, still for all–(No! Stop it! You’re no good at it!) And he knew also what he would see when he moved the lantern, created a false dawn for strawpile. All this time he had spent, wasting. His uncle had told him, “Forever furenthe.” Yet now the ruins of thirty straw piles dotted the stable floor like so many boils–the boils. He had not been sent to the stable for this, but for a job that should have been completed hours before. The work I attempt here is artist work, he thought heatedly, but then cursed himself. One and thirty. This is strawpile. It must be.
And once again Lata let the lamp free with his right hand and eased it toward the left, his great vague silhouette overlooking strawpile sharpening and moving away. The light revealed flecks in the wet earth and pockmarks in the stable wall. . . and so fell at last upon his work.
There was nothing. It was a straw pile. Lata almost cried aloud, though he did not even know what he wished to see. That teaching, too, he had forgotten.
And when the iron spears of the rake smashed straw boil as it had the others, Lata did cry, unable to forget that, not far away, his uncle lay in his house dying of boils, refusing to bequeath his years of Images to a feeble nephew.
The house was no warmer than the stable had been, and though his lungs protested, Lata himself no longer heeded the cold. Beneath the lamplight lay his uncle, wide awake still. Lata could see that the man was uncomfortable, but was cautious to offer assistance lest the old Imagemaker grow angry at his own helplessness. Instead Lata stood quietly and waited, shifting from foot to foot.
His uncle said nothing, staring remotely as the blisters on his body burned him slowly away. Lata was silently grateful that several blankets hid most of the old man’s sores. Even so, the stains and smell of the blankets told as much as any sight of the diseased body ever would. Lata forced his mind away from it.
The lamplight is cool–no, cold–in the room, whispering its sharp rays between floorboards and around bedposts. It is almost as if, if one let them work, they might pry the very nails from—
“Cease with that noise.”
Lata half-jumped at the deep resonance of his uncle’s command. “Uh, yes, uncle. I’m sorry.” Nothing save the man’s mouth had moved at all. His eyes still remained distantly focused. “Uncle? I’m sorry, but what noise do you mean?”
“That noise you make with your mouth. Your tongue clucking and lips smacking. It is distressing, inappropriate even for furenthe.”
Lata forced his lips shut and his tongue to be still. And as he did so, his sense of smell awoke again. Lata’s lips curled downward and his eyes squeezed shut. He wondered if he would tell his uncle about his failure at the stable to complete even such a simple chore. He certainly could never tell him about the straw piles.
“Uncle, I want to be an Imagemaker.” His own outburst surprised him. He found himself suddenly holding his breath.
But the old man said nothing for some time. Soon Lata could imagine hearing soft breathing coming from the beddings themselves. He watched his uncle’s eyes to see how often they blinked.
Lata was still waiting when the response came. “In oldest glen of frosted morn. . . . Your attention, furenthe. Listen.”
Lata nearly gasped with excitement and stooped to listen.
His uncle’s voice gathered strength yet matched the distant quality of his eyes. It was as if he spoke from–(No, listen!):
“In oldest glen of frosted morn
Lay two men–one lithe, one worn.
Of each must be a story borne.”
Lata’s breath faltered as he inhaled through crisp lungs, but began to repeat the words. “In oldest glen of trusted morn lay–“
“No.” Though quiet, his uncle’s reprimand cut him fiercely and with all too much familiarity. “It must be `frosted morn’. . . though I admit that `trusted’ has an unusual charm to it.” But before Lata could smile proudly at the compliment, his uncle continued. “Do not be happy at this. Any fool may stumble upon Images accidentally if he attempts them often enough. For now and for always in this tale, it is `frosted.’ You must know it, every word. And your pitch, your temper, is not remotely near mine. Every inflection. Hear it again.
In oldest glen of frosted morn
Lay two men–one lithe, one worn.
Of each must be a story borne.”
Lata repeated what he heard, but he knew he was too slow, too ponderous, that he could not match what his uncle recited. Even so, he was reasonably certain he had the words right this time.
“The word is `borne,’ not `born.’ Do you hear the difference? No, clearly you do not, yet the meanings are quite distinct as the shades of articulation must also be. For a listener to misunderstand. . . .” Now the eyes blinked and Lata heard his uncle’s breath released dryly and painfully.
“Would you like some water, uncle?”
“Of what use is water, Lata, to me? Drink it yourself. There are few words left for me to say.”
Lata knew too well where his uncle was leading. Lata’s tongue moved about his mouth experimentally, attempting to replicate the final sound in `borne.’ He could not do it. It was impossible.
Why did he have to say that? Why did he always repeat that? It almost seemed that the old man said it to torment Lata, to hurt him, as if his own frustrations were not enough. Stop it, uncle! Just stop!
“I–I know I will forget, uncle, and I am sorry. Please. (Please quit hurting me!) Please tell me the stories so that I may enjoy them at least.”
“Again you speak the hollow purpose. Have you truly learned nothing? It pains me to believe so. Lata, what is the Outer Shade of Imagemaking?”
Lata the Furenthe responded immediately. “To re-create the past for those who have forgotten, Meigos.”
“And within the Outer Shade are eight Primary Teachings. Which teachings have you learned?”
“The first two, Meigos.”
“Nonsense, Lata! What is the first of the Primary Teachings?”
“`What we create, we create in darkness.'”
Lata had been feeling more tense as his uncle’s drill continued, and now he faltered completely. “I confess that I cannot speak it. . . and I am sorry, uncle.” But the straw piles! Wasn’t he right? Wasn’t he on the verge of creating something—
His uncle’s voice was softer now. “And what is the second of the Primary Teachings of the Outer Shade?”
“`Learn the past,’ uncle.”
“Oh, Lata, how can you learn the Images when you cannot recite even one line correctly? Do you understand me?”
Lata sank the remaining distance to the floor. And how many times had his uncle explained this very thing to him? Around and around and Lata still could not understand why his uncle would no longer even share the stories except that, somehow, he was himself to blame. Suddenly Lata felt as sorry for his uncle as he did for himself. “I am sorry, uncle.”
“Lata, you must not be sorry for what is not your doing. Image-making is my purpose, but it need not be your own. You cannot create what you do not understand. Listen. I will tell you something if you swear not to speak it to anyone ever. Do you?”
“Oh, no, uncle! I mean, I swear I will not tell anyone.”
Lata, there are many Shades in the study of Imagemaking. It is not your place to know how many, and there are those who have mastered more than I, but I will tell you I am Meigos of seven Shades.”
“Seven?” Lata looked up in amazement. And he had not mastered even a portion of the Outer Shade!
“It is important that you understand why this has happened. You must undestand why you will not be an Imagemaker and why I must not teach you. I will tell you the Second Shade of Imagemaking not in the hope that you will learn from it, but that you will understand why what you wish cannot be. To the Imagemaker goes great responsibility–”
“Yes, uncle, I know that, but–”
“No, you do not.” For the first time the old man’s eyes shifted to fall upon Lata. Lata was silent. The eyes shifted back but were no longer as distant. Lata thought he could see moisture in them.
“Lata, as the Outer Shade teaches that we must re-create the past for those who have forgotten, the Second Shade teaches that we must create the forgotten from the Past. It is the first real creating an Imagemaker does. Consider it.”
Lata did. But its meaning escaped him utterly. It seemed at first a mere changing of words, but Lata heard, too, a difference in how the Meigos said the word `past’ in the Second Shade. And the word `those’ was missing. Did that mean that the listeners no longer mattered? Now Lata was completely lost. How could one create Images for no one?
“Uncle, I don’t understand.”
“Of course you do not. How can you learn the Second Shade if you do not understand the First? Remember this confusion and know that this is why you will not be the Imagemaker you wish. And it is because I love you that I will not teach you.”
Was that because his uncle did not need a listener, especially an inept nephew, to work Images? Lata felt a hollowness in him, a futility that defied his own limited ability to grasp. Its elusiveness itched at him and he could not decide what hurt him more: his sorrow for his uncle, his shame as a failed furenthe, his embarrassment before his Meigos, or this intangible thing that now gnawed at him, demanded he understand.
Lata realized that for some time now neither he nor his uncle had spoken. Was his uncle finished? A sound escaped Lata’s throat then and he reached for his uncle, grabbed his arms that lay beneath the blankets, but cringed away at the old man’s hiss of pain. Lata crawled away from the bed, horrified by what he had done, and his uncle lay rigid, his face taut in an effort to contain another cry. What use was a failed furenthe to a dying Meigos? None but to cause the Meigos as much pain before his end as possible.
Lata huddled against a chair and bit into his lip hard, drawing blood which he let drop to stain his coat. Then Lata wept silently and bitterly until he slept.
A cascade of dark colorless curtains swept before his eyes and icicles of grey light crawled through them, confusing Lata’s perception, making him wonder whether his eyes were open or closed, if the icicles were before his eyes or within them.
“Lata, I am cold.”
Lata, too, was cold. The lamp had gone out and he could not decide if it was day or night. His lip felt tough and numb. The voice was his uncle’s, he knew. How long had Lata slept? How long had his uncle lain awake because of the pain his nephew had caused him? How much could the furenthe bear without killing himself as well? Lata’s grief swept through him anew and only his uncle’s voice kept him focused.
“Lata, I am cold. Please, bring another blanket.”
“Uncle, I am sorry. You have all the blankets we have now. Do you wish my coat?” Lata wondered briefly if his uncle would object to the blood stain that surely must be on the sleeve.
“No, Lata. You have been good to me.”
Was his uncle mocking him? Lata didn’t know. He moved to where he guessed the lamp was so that he might relight it.
“No, let it be dark, Lata. It does not matter.” The old voice (much of its sonorance weakened, Lata thought with dismay) laughed shortly. “I suspect that light would not make either of us very happy right now.”
“Uncle, I can’t tell you how ashamed I am.”
“And I cannot tell you how much you should not be. Come. One final tale for you, so that you can live when I cannot. I will tell it shortly, stripped of Image, for it is for its guidance you must listen, not for its opportunity for furenthe study.”
“I will listen, uncle.”
His uncle was silent for what seemed to Lata a very long time, and Lata worried for a moment that the man had finally passed away. But then, with more strength than Lata thought possible, the tale began.
“Once there was a man who died at a very young age both happy and grieved: happy for having achieved his life’s ambition; grieved that he had achieved it so early. And so he died.”
There was silence and Lata wondered if the story was over. “Uncle, I do not understand. Is that the entire story?”
“Yes, Lata, it is.”
“But how did the young man die? Did he kill himself for his grief?”
“Was he murdered, then?”
“Was he. . . was he killed by sickness, uncle?”
“No, Lata, he was not. Lata, what more reason had he to live? The priests of Kogol tell us that no man dies unfulfilled. Once a man’s purpose is achieved, once his ambition realized. . . . The young man simply died, Lata.”
Lata sat in the darkness thinking. Are we never to achieve anything, then? If we achieve nothing, will we live forever, unfulfilled? How horrible! And if a man has no ambition? This story was too cruel! Lata became certain that he had again missed the point.
“What is your ambition?”
Again there was silence while the grey icicles merged into one, floes in air. There was a creaking of the bedframe while the dark curtains parted and Lata sensed that his uncle had sat up in the bed and was smiling at him.
“The Second Shade says we must create the forgotten from the Past. I will soon be the Past, Lata, so many piles of straw.”
Lata felt his jaw drop in wonder. “Uncle, I want to be an Imagemaker!”
Gradually, the dark form eased back onto the bed, smiling, and Lata saw his uncle’s eyes in the slim light that fingered its way through the walls.
“Once there was a man who could bend iron. . . .”
They would be the last words Lata’s uncle would speak.