04 July 2012

82. shadowplay

    Here he came, tumble-dum, tumble-dum, crooked as lightning, but slow as the earth rolling over, all restless in her sleep. He limped, do you see? Though just a child then, he came through the great long war fighting at his father's side, and were struck a great blow near the end of it by the Sky Man, so that ever after, when it healed, one pin he had longer than the other. Was even captured, then, by Stone Man and his brothers, and they took away from him summat which they shouldn't have, but still he would not tell them where his father's secret house was hid.
    Later on, when his father and his mother was both taken away from him, and all his cousins and brothers and sisters were sent away to the sky lands, still he lived on in the world's lands because none of the three great brothers feared him. They mocked him, calling him Crooked, and that was his name always after.
    Still, here he came through the world, tumble-dum, tumble-dum, one leg the shorter, and everywhere he went was mocked by those that had won, the brothers and their kin, although they were glad enough to have the things he made, the clever things he made.
    So clever he was that when he lost his left hand in the forge fire he made another from ivory, more nimble even than the one he'd been born with, and when he touched pizen with his right hand and it withered away, he made himself a new one from bronze, strong as any hand could ever be. Still they mocked him, called him not just Crooked but also No-Man because of what they themselves had taken from him, but, aye, they did covet the things he could make. For Sky Man, he made a great iron hammer, heavier and grander than even his war hammer of old, and it could smash a mountain flat or knock a hole in the great gates of Stone Man's house, as it did once when the two brothers quarreled. He also made the great shield of the moon for her what had took his father's place, and for Night her necklace of stars, Water Man's spear what could split a mighty whalefish like a knife splits an apple, and a spear for Stone Man, too, and many other wonderful things, swords and cups and mirrors what had the Old Strength in them, the might of the earliest days.
    But he did not always know the very greatest secrets, and in fact when first he was become the servant of the brothers whom had vanquished his people, though he was clever beyond saying, still he had much to learn. And this is how he learned some of it.
    So here he came on this day, tumble-dum, tumble-dum, one leg shorter, walking like a ship in a rolling sea, wandering far from the city of the brothers because it plagued him and pained him to have to speak always respectfully to his family's conquerors. As he walked down the road through a narrow, shadowed valley, the which was fenced with high mountains on either side, he came upon a little old woman sitting in the middle of the path, an ancient widow woman such as could be seen in any village of the people, dry and gnarled as a stick. He paused, did Crooked, and then he says to her, "Move, please, old woman. I would pass." But the old woman did not move and did not reply, neither.
    "Move," he says again, without so much courtesy this time. "I am strong and angry inside myself like a great storm, but I would rather not do you harm." Still she did not speak, nor even look at him.
    "Old woman," he says, and his voice was now loud enough to make the valley rumble, so that stones broke loose from walls and rolled down to the bottom, breaking trees as a person would break broomstraws, "I tell you for the last time. Move! I wish to pass."
    At last she looked up at him and says, "I am old and weary and the day is hot. If you will bring me water to slake my thirst, I will move out of your way, great lord."
    Crooked was not pleased, but he wasn't mannerless, and the woman was in truth very, very old, so he went to the stream beside the road and filled his hands and brought it back to her. When she had drunk it down, she shook her head.
    "It does not touch my thirst. I must have more."
    Crooked took a great boulder and with his hand of bronze he hollowed it into a mighty cup. When he had filled it in the stream he brought it back to her, and it was so heavy, when he set it down it made the ground jump. Still, the old woman lifted it with one hand and drained it, then shook her head. "More," she says. "My mouth is still as dry as the fields of dust before the Stone Man's palace."
    Marveling, but angry, too, at how his journey had been halted and bollixed, Crooked went to the stream and tore up its bed, pointing it so that all the water flowed toward the old woman. But she only opened her mouth and swallowed it all down, so that within a short time the stream itself ran dry, and all the trees of the valley went dry and lifeless.
    "More," she says. "Are you so useless that you cannot even help an old woman to slake her thirst?"
    "I do not know how you do those tricks," he says, and he was so angry that his banished uncle's fire was a-dancing in his eyes, turning them bright as suns, pushing back the very shadows that covered the valley, "but I will not be courteous any more. Already I must carry the load of shame from my family's defeat, must I also be thwarted by an old peasant woman? Get out of my way or I will pick you up and hurl you out of the road."
    "I go nowhere until I have finished what I am doing," the crone says.
    Crooked sprang forward and grabbed the old woman with his hand of ivory, but as hard as he pulled he could not lift her. Then he grabbed her with his other hand as well, the mighty hand of bronze which its strength was beyond strength, but still he could not move her. He threw both his arms around her and heaved until he thought his heart would burst in his chest but he could not move her one inch.
    Down he threw himself in the road beside her and said, "Old woman, you have defeated me where a hundred strong men could not. I give myself into your power, to be killed, enslaved, or ransomed as you see fit."
    At this the old woman threw back her head and laughed. "Still you do not know me!" she says. "Still you do not recognize your own great-grandmother!"
    He looked at her in amazement. "What does this mean?"
    "Just as I said. I am Emptiness, and your father was one of my grandchildren. You could pour all the oceans of the world into me and still not fill me, because Emptiness cannot be filled. You could bring every creature of the world and still not lift me, because Emptiness cannot be moved. Why did you not go around me?"
    Crooked got to his knees but bowed low, touching his forehead to the ground in the sign of the Dying Flower. "Honored Grandmother, you sit in the middle of a narrow road. There was no way to go around you and I did not wish to turn back."
    "There is always a way to go around, if you only pass through my sovereign lands," she told him. "Come, child, and I will teach you how to travel in the lands of Emptiness, which stand beside everything and are in every place, as close as a thought, as invisible as a prayer."
    And so she did. When Crooked was finished he again bowed his head low to his great-grandmother and promised her a mighty gift someday in return, then he went on his way, thinking of his new knowledge, and of revenge on those whom had wronged him.

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