I was marked for death the first time I walked in this strange city. I come back because it is so beautiful: towers of standing stone, once melted like so much brittle toffee, now polished glass, agate, obsidian. At dawn the towers burn crimson, toss back fire to the sun, leap with light like jewels in the heart of a fire nestled between the deserted hills and the brassy harbour waters.
During the heat of the day it is not safe to stay there. I take my windskate back along the foreshore, skirting slips and piles of debris; catch the petulant wind and fly. Such skill, such daring (I am athlete, I am dancer) but small tumbles make big bruises now; after a while I choose to be careful. I climb the hill to watch mirror magic: black hills disappear behind the white sun’s glare and the city rises phoenix-like until I narrow my eyes against its flame. Wide white needles dance like shimmering desert wraiths, polished stone impossibly balanced on the substanceless sea.
Once I returned with the wind as the sun sank, expecting quiet, shadowed streets. Instead I ran full-tilt before the wind, helter-skelter through an endless labyrinth. The city is full of phantoms, vengeful ghosts; they chased me screaming into mirrored paradoxes. The stones shimmered and dissolved. I could walk through walls, but every shadow cut me.
My ankle sprained, bruises still bleeding and swelling, my wind-sail torn and the streets a burnished maze on which I could not walk, it took me three days to slide slowly on grazed limbs, dragging myself out of the city and back along the foreshore. The injuries I receive are increasingly slow to heal. The ache of them follows me down into the dark.
My father was the senior tutor. It really wasn’t his fault. With older boys in and out of his house, day and night, studying with him and learning the Arcana, he had little enough time for a girl child under his feet. I adored him. I would have done anything to get his attention, but I was always in the way. He was forever brushing me aside, saying ‘Later, child,’ as if ‘later’ meant anything different than ‘never.’ It wasn’t his fault that I realised at last the one thing that would make him notice me.
Mother was different. My earliest memory is the brush against me of her long hessian apron, the mark of her Mastery, and the yeasty smell of hops and barley fermenting. Those, and a low, calm voice. She didn’t have much to do with the boring business of child-raising. Being in a two-Mastery household meant that we had servants to do much of the work, and the job of changing my dirty small-clothes and drying my baby tears fell to a series of nannies and nursemaids. But I only need to think of Mother and I hear again that low voice, murmuring.
She never raised that voice against my father, never indulged in anger or recrimination. Her long battle with him was like that of the land against the sea, endlessly resisting its ceaseless argument. She was quietly proud of her Mastery and would never give it up, even though Father argued that having a second working parent lowered the status of our household. People were saying he couldn’t afford to keep his wife. That she had to work. He understood that she was a Brewster, but she’d already proved herself. There was no need for her to work any longer. And so on, and so forth. It was his eternal litany.
On high days and holidays she would dress in silks and embroidered kirtle, to attend Teaching sessions or meetings of the Council, demure at my father’s side. I disliked the necessity of sitting still, and the starched collars and itchy stockings I had to wear, but I was proud of my tall, elegant father and his handsome wife. Still, I couldn’t imagine her becoming the kind of woman who sat out her days in the front parlour, weaving a fine thread or embroidering bedclothes. She’d be the first to say that, Mastery aside, she had no skills in the household arts.
Some looked askance at us, walking through the marketplace. I was quite young when I first became aware that it was unusual for a woman of my mother’s status to continue to work after marriage. Although in theory men and women are all workers, all serve apprenticeship, all attempt Mastery, in practice the girl children of wealthy households are not expected to excel. A man is judged by his peers, and perhaps more pointedly by his wife’s peers, by how well he can support his family on his own earnings. The idleness of wealthy women is a mark of status.
Mother had no time for that. She was proud of her Mastery, and frequently stated that the fame of our town’s beer was due to her skill. You need never be ashamed of my work, she would say, laying her hand on his cheek and smiling up at him. We take status from each other.
That wasn’t her only sign of rebellion. The memories I cherish more than any others are the stories she told me – strange products of her imagination, nothing like the reality of our lives. Sometimes she said they were dreams, and sometimes memories – memories of things that have never been nor could ever be. When I pressed her she would laugh and hug me. When the mind is not used, she would say, it feeds itself on stories. When you’re older, you’ll see what I mean. But don’t go sharing them. Imagination is all very well between these four walls, but you’re not to take our stories to the world. They aren’t for sharing. That piece of advice I failed to take to heart. I lived to regret it.
Father said that was where I’d got my stories: from her tellings. That even though I said I didn’t remember her words, they must have all gone into my ears and stuck there, only to make their way out years later when I was supposed to be using the charcoal and precious paper for sums, or catechisms, or reminding myself of the rules of Mastery. I would come home from school with my palm red and stinging from the cane, clutching a crumpled up piece of paper in my other hand – a paper on which were written tens, dozens, hundreds of words working together to make a pattern that linked my mind and my voice and my writing hand and told a story. A story, in a place where only fact had value and imagination was a threat to all. A story, no longer legible for the smudging of a great palm across its centre, and five huge letters in black: WASTE.
For waste my father would paddle me, and I would cry, for form’s sake, although the layers of my skirts protected me from the sting of the paddle and, anyway, I didn’t care if it hurt. The sting of my palm was more painful, and the worst pain of all was the loss of the story.
Then he would sit me down and try to explain, again, why it was so important for me to demonstrate that I knew and understood the catechisms, and the prescribed forms of learning, and why I mustn’t allow my mind to stray into the realms of imagination, or my fingers to wander, clutching the charcoal, across the page, turning the images in my mind into words on the paper that could put images into other people’s minds.
It was very important that I not trespass on the Teacher’s Mastery. If at coming-of-age I was chosen to be a teacher, I could look forward to many more years of apprenticeship, working with my father and with the Teacher until I knew all the Arcana for all the Masteries, and could pass them on as required to the apprentices in my classes. But even after achieving Mastery, a teacher does not look for new stories to tell. It could take a lifetime to learn all the prescribed stories and traditional parables. There was no need for anything new. And certainly no need for a child who has not even come of age to be thinking up new things, when there is so much still to be learned.
I would nod, and snivel, and promise. Anything to stop my father being angry at me. Anything to make the lesson end, so that I could be allowed to go to my bed and ‘think about what you have done.’ And then I would lie in the darkness, free from scrutiny, and close my eyes to see great beasts cavorting in the waters of the sea, great machines grinding up the deep treasures of the earth, great roaring birds larger than houses leaping into the air and crossing oceans. None of which existed, or had ever existed, outside my ridiculous imagination. While all the time the fingers of my writing hand twitched and curled, writing out the stories as I lived them in the tight, red darkness behind my squeezed shut eyes.