Maps in a Mirror, page 52
And every time her father saw her, he wanted to weep, and often did weep. And sometimes he even thought of killing himself to finally wipe away his guilt. But he knew that this would only injure poor Kiren even more, and she had done nothing to deserve injury.
When his guilt grew too much for him to bear, however, he did escape. He put a bag of fine fruits and clever handwork from the Beautiful Land on his back, and set out for the Rising. He would be gone for months, and no one knew when he would return, or whether the Rising would this time prove too much for him and send him plunging to his death. But when he returned, he always brought something for Kiren. And for a while she would smile, and she would say, “Father, thank you.” And things would go well, for a time, until she again became despondent and her father again suffered from watching the results of his ill-thought curse.
It was late spring in the year Kiren turned eleven when her father came home even happier than he usually was after a trip up the Rising. He rushed to his daughter where she lay wanly on the porch listening to the birds.
“Kiren!” he cried. “Kiren! I’ve brought you a gift!”
And she smiled, though even the muscles for smiling were weak, which made her smile sad. Her father reached into his bag (which was full of all kinds of wonders, which he would, being a careful man, sell to those with money to pay, not just for goods, but for rarity) and he pulled out his gift and handed it to Kiren.
It was a box, and the box lurched violently this way and that.
“There’s something alive in there,” Kiren said.
“No, my dear Kiren, there is not. But there’s something moving, and it’s yours. And before I help you open it, I’ll tell you the story. I came one day in my wanderings to a town I had never visited before, and in the town were many merchants. And I asked a man, ‘Who has the rarest and best merchandise in town?’ He told me that I had to see Irvass. So I found the man in a humble and poor-looking shop. But inside were wonders such as you’ve never seen. I tell you, the man understands the bright magic from over the sky. And he asked, ‘What do you want most in the world?’ and of course I said to him, ‘I want my daughter to be healed.’ ”
“Oh, Father,” said Kiren. “You don’t mean—”
“I do mean. I mean it very much. I told him exactly how you are and exactly how you got that way, and he said, ‘Here is the cure,’ and now let’s open the box so you can see.”
So Kiren opened the box, with more than a little help from her father, but she dared not reach inside. “You get it out, Father,” she suggested, and he reached inside and pulled out a porcelain salamander. It was shiny yet deep with fine enameling, and though it was white—not at all the normal color for salamanders—the shape was unmistakable.
It was, in fact, a perfect model of a salamander. And it moved.
The legs raced madly in the air; the tongue darted in and out of the lips; the head turned; the eyes rolled. And Kiren cried out and laughed and said, “Oh, Father, what did he do to make it move so wonderfully!”
“Well,” said her father, “he told me that he had given it the gift of movement—but not the gift of life. And if it ever stops moving, it will immediately become like any other porcelain. Stiff and hard and cold.”
“How it races,” she said, and it became the delight of her life.
When she awoke in the morning the salamander danced on her bed. At mealtimes it raced around the table. Wherever she lay or sat, the salamander was forever chasing after something or exploring something or trying to get away from something. She watched him constantly, and he in turn never got out of sight. And then at night, while she slept, he raced around and around in her room, the porcelain feet hitting the carpet silently, only occasionally making a slight tinkling sound as it ran lightly across the brick of the hearth.
Her father watched for a cure, and slowly but surely it began to come. For one thing, Kiren was no longer miserable. The salamander was too funny not to laugh at. It never went away. And so she felt better. Feeling better was not all of it, though. She began to walk a bit more often, and stay standing more, and sit when ordinarily she would have lain. She began to go from one room to another by her own choice.
By the end of the summer she even took walks into the woods. Though she often had to stop and rest, she enjoyed the journey, and grew a little stronger.
What she never told anyone (partly because she was afraid that it might be her imagination) was that the salamander could also speak.
“You can speak,” she said in surprise one day, when the salamander ran across her foot and said, “Excuse me.”
“Of course,” he said. “To you.”
“Why not anyone else?”
“Because I’m here for you,” he answered, as he ran along the top of the garden wall, then leaped down near her. “It’s the way I am. Movement and speech. Best I can do, you know. Can’t have life. Doesn’t work that way.”
And so on their long walks in the forest they also talked, and Kiren fancied that the salamander had grown as fond of her as she had grown of him. In fact, she told the salamander one day, “I love you.”
“Love love love love love love love,” he answered, scampering up and down a tree.
“Yes,” Kiren said. “More than life. More than anything at all.”
“More than your father?” asked the salamander.
It was hard. Kiren was not a disloyal child, and really had forgiven her father for the curse years before. Yet she had to be honest to her salamander. “Yes,” she said. “More than Father. More than—more than my dream of my mother. For you love me and can play with me and talk to me all the time.”
“Love love love,” said the salamander. “Unfortunately, I’m porcelain. Love love love love love. It’s a word. Two consonants and a vowel. Like sap sap sap sap sap. Lovely sound.” And he leaped across a small brook in the way.
“Don’t—don’t you love me?”
“I can’t. It’s an emotion, you know. I’m porcelain. Beg your pardon,” and he clambered down her back as she leaned her shoulder on a tree. “Can’t love. So sorry.”
She was terribly, terribly hurt. “Don’t you feel anything toward me at all?”
“Feel? Feel? Don’t confuse things. Emotions come and go. Who can trust them? Isn’t it enough that I spend every moment with you? Isn’t it enough that I talk only to you? Isn’t it enough that I would—that I would—”
“I was about to start making foolish predictions. I was about to say, isn’t it enough that I would die for you? But of course that’s nonsense, because I’m not I’m not alive. Just porcelain. Watch out for the spider.”
She stepped out of the path of a little green hunting spider that could fell a horse with one bite. “Thank you,” she said. “And thank you.” The first was for saving her life, but that was his job. The second was for telling her that, in his own way, he loved her after all. “So I’m not foolish for loving you, am I?”
“Foolish you are. Foolish indeed. Foolish as the moons are foolish, to dance endlessly in the sky and never never never go home together.”
“I love you,” said Kiren, “better than I love the hope of being whole.”
And, you see, it was because she said that that the odd man came to the door of her father’s house the very next day.
“I’m sorry,” said the servant. “You haven’t an appointment.”
“Just tell him,” said the odd man, “that Irvass has come.”
Kiren’s father came running down the stairs. “Oh, you can’t take the salamander back!” he cried. “The cure has only begun!”
“Which I know much better than you do,” said Irvass. “The girl is in the woods?”
“With the salamander. What marvelous changes—but why are you here?”
“To finish the cure,” said Irvass.
“What?” asked Kiren’s father. “Isn’t the salamander itself the cure?”
“What were the words of your cu
Kiren’s father’s face grew dour, but he forced himself to quietly say the very words. “May you never move a muscle in your life, until you lose someone you love as much as I loved her.”
“Well then,” said Irvass. “She now loves the salamander exactly as much as you loved your wife.”
It took only a moment for Kiren’s father to realize. “No!” he cried out. “I can’t let her suffer what I suffered!”
“It’s the only cure. Isn’t it better with a little piece of porcelain than if she had come to love you that much?”
And Kiren’s father shuddered, and then wept, for he alone knew exactly how much pain she would suffer.
Irvass said nothing more, though the look he gave to Kiren’s father might have been a pitying one. All he did was draw a rectangle in the soil of the garden, and place two stones within it, and mumble a few words.
And at that moment, out in the wood, the salamander said, “Very odd. Wasn’t a wall here ever before. Never before. Here’s a wall.” And it was a wall. It was just high enough that when Kiren reached as high as she could, her fingers were one inch short of touching the top.
The salamander tried to climb it, but found it slippery—though he had always been able to climb every other wall he found. “Magic. Must be magic,” The porcelain salamander mumbled.
So they circled the wall, hunting for a gate. There was none. It was all around them, though they had never entered it. And at no point did a tree limb cross the wall. They were trapped.
“I’m afraid,” said Kiren. “There’s good magic and bad magic, but how could such a thing as this be a blessing? It must be a curse.” And the thought of a curse caused too much of the old misery to return, and she fought back the tears.
Fought back the tears until night, and then in the darkness, as the salamander scampered here and there, she could fight no longer.
“No,” wailed the salamander.
“I can’t help crying,” she answered.
“I can’t bear it,” he said. “It makes me cold.”
“I’ll try to stop,” she said, and she tried, and she pretty much stopped except for a few whimpers and sniffles until morning brought the light, and she saw that the wall was exactly where it had been.
No, not exactly. For behind her the wall had crept up in the night, and was only a few feet away. Her prison was now not even a quarter the size it had been the day before.
“Not good,” said the salamander. “Oh, it could be dangerous.”
“I know,” she answered.
“You must get out,” said the salamander.
“And you,” she answered. “But how?”
And throughout the morning the wall played vicious taunting games with them, for whichever way neither of them was looking, the wall would creep up a foot or two. Since the salamander was faster, and moved constantly, he watched three sides. “And you hold the other in place.” But Kiren couldn’t help blinking, and anytime the salamander looked away the wall twitched, and by noon their prison was only ten feet square.
“Getting pretty tight here,” said the salamander.
“Oh, salamander, can’t I throw you over the wall?”
“We could try that, and I could run and get help—”
And so they tried. But though she used every ounce of strength she had, the wall seemed to leap up and catch him and send him sliding back down to the ground. Inside.
Soon she was exhausted, and the salamander said, “No more.” Even as they had been trying, the walls had shrunk, and now the space was only five feet square. “Getting cramped,” said the salamander as he raced around the tiny space remaining. “But I know the only solution.”
“Tell me!” Kiren cried.
“I think,” said the salamander, “that if you had something you could stand on, you could climb out.”
“How could I?” she asked. “The wall won’t let anything out!”
“I think,” said the salamander, “that the wall only won’t let me out. Because the birds are flying back and forth, and the wall doesn’t catch them.” It was true. A bird was singing in a nearby tree; it flew across just afterward, as if to prove the salamander’s point. “I’m not alive, you see,” said the salamander. “I’m moving only by magic. So you could get out.”
“But what would I stand on?”
“Me,” said the salamander.
“You?” she asked. “But you move so quickly—”
“For you,” he said, “I’ll hold still.”
“No!” she cried. “No, no!” she screamed.
But the salamander stood at the edge of the wall, and he was only a statue in porcelain, hard and stiff and cold.
Kiren only wept for a moment, for then the wall behind her began to push at her, and her prison was only three feet square. The salamander had given his life so she could climb out. She ought at least to try.
So she tried. Standing on the salamander, she could reach the top of the wall. By standing tiptoe, she could get a grip on the top. And by using every bit of strength she had in her, she was able to force her body to the top and gradually heave herself over.
She fell in a heap on the ground. And in that moment, that very moment, two things happened. The walls shrank quickly until they were only a pillar, and then they disappeared completely, taking the salamander with them. And all the normal, natural strength of an eleven-year-old child came to Kiren, and she was able to run. She was able to leap. She was able to swing from the tree branches.
The strength was in her as suddenly as strong wine, and she could not lie on the ground. She jumped to her feet, and the movement was so strong she nearly fell over. She ran, leaped over brooks, clambered up into the trees as high as she could climb. The curse had ended. She was free.
But even normal children grow tired. And as she slowed down, she was no longer caught up in her own strength. And she remembered the porcelain salamander, and what he had done for her.
They found her that afternoon, weeping miserably into a pile of last year’s leaves.
“You see,” said Irvass, who had insisted on leading the way in the search—which is why they found her immediately—“You see, she has her strength, and the curse is ended.”
“But her heart is broken,” said her father as he gathered his little girl into his arms.
“Broken?” asked Irvass. “It should not be. For the porcelain salamander was never alive.”
“Yes he was!” she shouted. “He spoke to me! He gave his life for me!”
“He did all that,” said Irvass. “But think. For all the time the magic was on him, he could never, never rest. Do you think he never got tired?”
“Of course he didn’t.”
“Yes he did,” said Irvass. “Now he can rest. But more than rest. For when he stopped moving and froze forever in one position, what was going through his mind?”
Irvass stood up and turned to leave. But only a few steps away, he turned back. “Kiren,” he said.
“I want my salamander,” she answered, her voice an agony of sobs.
“Oh, he would have become boring by and by,” said Irvass. “He would have ceased to amuse you, and you would have avoided him. But now he is a memory. And, speaking of memory, remember that he also has memory, frozen as he is.”
It was scant comfort then, for eleven-year-olds are not very philosophical. But when she grew older, Kiren remembered. And she knew that wherever the porcelain salamander was, he lived in one frozen, perfect moment—the moment when his heart was so full of love—
No, not love. The moment when he decided, without love, that it would be better for his life, such as it was, to end than to have to watch Kiren’s life end.
It is a moment that can be lived with for eternity. And as Kiren grew older, she knew that such moments come rarely to people, and last only a moment, while the porcelain salamander would never lose it.
And as for Kiren—she became known, though she never
And when she talked, her hands always moved, always danced in the air. Never stopped moving at all, it seemed, and they were white and lustrous as deep-enameled porcelain, and her smile was as bright as the moons, and came back to her face as constantly as the sea, and those who knew her well could almost see her gaze keep flickering about the room or about the garden, as if she watched a bright, quick animal scamper by.
Ah-Cheu was a woman of the great kingdom of Ch’in, a land of hills and valleys, a land of great wealth and dire poverty. But Ah-Cheu was a middle person, neither rich nor poor, neither old nor young, and her husband’s farm was half in the valley and half on the hill. Ah-Cheu had a sister older than her, and a sister younger than her, and one lived thirty leagues to the north, and the other thirty leagues to the south. “I am a middle woman,” Ah-Cheu boasted once, but her husband’s mother rebuked her, saying, “Evil comes to the middle, and good goes out to the edges.”
Every year Ah-Cheu put a pack on her back and journeyed for a visit either to the sister to the north or to the sister to the south. It took her three days to make the journey, for she did not hurry. But one year she did not make the journey, for she met a dragon on the road.
The dragon was long and fine and terrible, and Ah-Cheu immediately knelt and touched her forehead to the road and said, “Oh, dragon, spare my life!”
The dragon only chuckled deep in his throat and said, “Woman, what do they call you?”
Not wishing to tell her true name to the dragon, she said, “I am called Middle Woman.”
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