We played the storytelling game again at dinner. This time Mora's grandmother went first.
Salica's Second Story: Stuck in the Chimney.
This is a true story, something that actually took place in Grandecitta when I was a little girl. There was a terrible Strega living among us then. She was old and ugly, but she knew so much magic that everyone was afraid of her. When I was about old enough to walk, she fell in love. The unlucky young man's name was Dentro, and he was a quiet, handsome fellow you'd think would be frightened to death if you so much as told him that a strega wanted to speak to him. But the strega could change her appearance whenever she wished, and whenever Dentro was around her, which was more and more often as the weeks passed, she became a beautiful young woman with a ravishing smile and a voluptuous figure. It did no good to tell Dentro that the fascinating young woman he saw was a wicked hag. The people in our district, who liked him and felt sorry for him, were at their wit's end.
After goodness knows how much dithering and arguing among themselves, they resolved to lock him up, thinking that if he couldn't see her he'd cease to love her, and hoping that she'd go away in search of him. Some men his own age went to his house pretending they were on a friendly visit, overpowered him, tied him up, and carried him to a room that had been made ready to receive him. It was comfortable enough, but herbs and spells had been hung on every wall to keep the Strega from finding him as long as he was in it.
She didn't, but she very quickly found out what they had done. Soon the luck of the whole district turned bad. If a man fell down, he broke both his arms. No woman could make a stew without burning it. If one child threw a stone at another, he put out his eye. Houses caught fire for no reason at all, and fires that had been doused with four cisterns sprang up again by magic. Things got so bad that they had to produce Dentro again and let thestrega marry him. As you can imagine, they liked her less than ever after that.
Well, one evening a man who lived in a house near ours happened to ride past hers. He was in a hurry, but he could not help noticing Dentro, as black as any printer, standing on her roof and poking a broom down her chimney. She had him cleaning her chimney himself, you see, instead of hiring a sweep to do it.
Such parsimony made our neighbor angry, and he clapped his spurs to his horse, as angry people always do, and fairly flew down the road until he came to a graveyard. Then out popped the Strega from behind a gravestone and into the road, where she stood like this and stopped his horse so abruptly that he was nearly thrown, calling, "What's your hurry, loafer?"
It made our neighbor angrier than ever. "I'm going for the doctor, " he told her. "Your Dentro's fallen into the chimney and can't get out. If you ask me, he's dead."
She turned as white as boiled icing and limped out of his way, and when he met his friends at the tavern, they had a good laugh about the trick he'd played on her.
Now up there in the Whorl, as Incanto here will tell you, the wild storms we had were the work of devils, who mixed and served them up to us in the same exact fashion that Green does down here. Stregas can make devils do their bidding, and this strega waited until our neighbor was called out of the city on business, and then had them make one for him that flattened half the houses in Grandecitta. It did so much damage, in fact, that he heard about it in the foreign city where he was and hurried home to see if his own house still stood.
He had nearly reached it, when who should he meet trudging down the road but the strega. She stepped into his path and stopped him as she had before. "Hurry home, loafer, your wife's stuck in the chimney."
He laughed, because his wife was a great, heavy woman, exceedingly fond of her plate and not at all inclined to move from her chair for any reason, and he thought that there was no chimney in all of Grandecitta big enough for her to get stuck in. But when he got home, he found his house half demolished and no wife. It was about this time of the year, when nights are liable to be chilly, so as night drew on he picked up some sticks of broken furniture and built a little fire in the fireplace of what was left of their bedroom. The chimney wouldn't draw, and I think you can guess what came out of it the next day, when he and my father climbed up to the top and dropped a broken timber down it to clear it.
And how much damage the devils had done to her, pulling her up into there.
"Violent storms can do surprising things, " Inclito said.
"I've seen splinters driven into trees like nails."
Fava nodded. "I've seen that, too, and worse. Why don't you arrange for a storm to flatten Soldo, Incanto?"
"If I could, I'd consider it. Unfortunately I can't do anything more to harm the Duko than you can-which may be harm enough. We'll see."
"Good thing?" Oreb inquired.
"No. But she may become one."
Mora addressed her grandmother. "You've told us over and over that Incanto's a strego. Are you saying that he's wicked? That's impossible!"
The old lady flushed, and the faint touch of pink that rose to her cheeks gladdened my heart. "No, not at all. Not all stregas are wicked. You mustn't read such meanings into every old story you hear."
To me she said, "I didn't intend to offend you, Incanto, really I didn't. I would never treat a guest like that, and I've felt ever so much better since I've been sleeping with a fire in my little fireplace and bolting my door and both the windows as you told me."
I picked up a dish of dumplings that chanced to be near my place and passed it to Fava, saying, "Have some. They're tender and savory, and you must be hungry." She gave me a murderous look.
"I went first tonight just as I promised I would, " the old lady told us. "Who'll go next? How about you, Mora darling?"
Mora's Second Story: The False Friend and the True Friend.
Once very long ago, there were two little girls whose houses were only a few steps apart, but were far from any other houses at all. This was soon after the first landers, I suppose, when there were only a few people here and everything was unsettled. One little girl was very good and very kind, but the other little girl was a liar, a cheat, and a thief. Just the same, the two played together neatly every day. They had to, because there was nobody else for either of them to play with.
More people came, but the girls were used to each other by that time. They played together as before, no longer as little as they had been, and seemed closer than ever. No one could understand it, because the one was so very nice and the other was so very, very bad.
But they did it just the same.
A little settlement that was nowhere near them grew to a town and broke out in politics, as it seems towns always do. The good little girl's father got involved in it, and when the other side won, the town took his land and told him that he and his family had to move away. The good little girl was so brave and strong then that even people who hated her father admired her and talked about her "noble spirit."
But the bad little girl wept bitterly and would not be consoled. She helped her friend's family pack, working harder than anybody, and showered everyone in it with presents. Some of the pretty things she gave them she was really giving back, because they were things she had taken from them to begin with. But many others were her own dearest possessions. When they left, she walked beside their wagon crying, and when night came, and they got ready to camp next to the road, she embraced her little friend for the last time and started back home.
She was already tired, so she walked slowly. The night passed and the sun came up again, and she was not home yet. An old woman who knew both families was going out to milk her cow just then. She saw the bad girl, and how terribly tired she was, and got her to come inside and sit down, and shared her breakfast.
"I've known you all your life, Mora, " the old woman said after they had talked a bit, "and you're as mean and selfish a child as ever I saw. What's gotten into you?"
"I'm very, very selfish, exactly as you say, " the bad little girl replied, "and she was the only friend I had."
"I've heard that story before, " Fava told Mora firmly.
"But it was the other way 'round. You've got the parts mixed up."
Mora shook her head. "I've told the truth. Even liars like me tell the truth sometimes." She has a mole or wart in the middle of her left cheek; unless I am vigilant I find myself looking at it instead of her expression, and that can be a serious mistake.
My host's mother said, "I like it the way Mora told it. So often the people in stories are either completely bad or completely good. Mora's saying that even bad people can be good sometimes, and I agree." It was clear that she had no idea what her granddaughter had been talking about.
Inclito asked, "How about you next, Fava?" Seeing her reluctance he shrugged. "Or I will, if you rather do it that way."
She nodded eagerly.
Inclito's Second Story: The Mercenary's Employer.
There are lots of stories I could tell, but Mama and Mora have heard them. Fava has heard a lot of my stories too by now. Even you, Incanto. I told stories when I drove you that I should have saved. So what I'm going to tell tonight is one I just heard from somebody else today. Not even Mama has heard it.
These days there's all this war talk. I wouldn't want to scare Mora and Fava, but they know it already. Even if nobody said anything out here, they'd hear it in town.
In a war there's no such thing as too many men. Too many to feed, maybe, but never too many to fight. You got enough, maybe you won't have to fight at all. The Duko's been hiring mercenaries to fight for him and to scare us, we think we should get some too. For us there's never enough cards, but we got a few.
So today I'm in town to talk to some and look them over for us. One of them tells me this.
The last time he fights, it's for this big town down south. When a lander comes here, mostly it sets down in just the one place. Everybody knows that. And the people, they take out all the old supplies that were in it. Then they say, "I'm here, what do I need with this lander now?" So pretty soon the cards are all gone out of it, and lots of the wiring. Sometimes I go into other people's houses and sit down, and it is a couch out of a lander. There's steel and titanium, all that stuff, and the people it brought think they need it.
This town down south is different. A god tells them they got to leave their lander like it is, just take supplies and nothing else. That's what they all say, he says. Maybe somebody just says a god said it. Who knows about that stuff? Anyway, they take the supplies and leave the rest. This is all years ago.
So after a while it goes back up. Wonderful. It goes back to the Long Sun Whorl and gets more people from their city up there and comes back. It keeps on doing that.
Things are bad there, like in Mora's story. People fight and steal. There's no justice. You want to win your case, you pay a big bribe. The biggest bribe wins. So pretty soon they say, "This's no good. Let's some of us go back with the lander next time. We'll find somebody real honest and wise up there and make him come back here and straighten everything out." This mercenary never heard of anybody doing it before and neither did I. But he says that's what they said they did.
So they went and got the wise man they needed, a real tall man. His beard is white like new snow, he's only got one eye and it's the color of deep water. He's still there when the mercenary comes, and this is the man that hires him when he gets to that big town down south. Before, another man that was working for this wise man had talked to them and put them on a boat that took them there.
This is a real good man, the mercenary says. Soon as he talks to him he knows he can trust him. He's living in a house the town gave him, a big one with floors up above each other, maybe three or maybe four. I remember houses like that in Grandecitta and so does Mama, she lived in one like that a long time ago. But this mercenary was born here. He never seen a house with more than two before. He's younger than I am, younger than anybody here but Mora and Fava.
This big house is full of carpets and all kinds of furniture and pictures, the kind of things Duko Rigoglio has in his house. But when he talks to them, this wise man, the mercenary knows none of it means anything to him. He has silk clothes and jewels, and gold cloth around his head, but they don't mean anything to him. Walking on carpet or grass is all the same to him. After he has talked to all of them a little, he asks each one what he wants the cards he's going to pay them for. This mercenary says he got to know the others on the boat, and there are some real good liars there, but when they try to lie to the wise man they only say, "I-I-I… "
Some want the money for good things and some for bad. He talks to all of them, no matter what they want his money for.
This mercenary I talked to, he wants to buy a little piece of good land. All the good land where he was born, somebody owns already. So he wants to get hold of some cards and buy enough that he can build him a little house and get married. He's got a girl back there he hopes will wait for him.
When this wise man is through talking to them he hires them all, and this mercenary goes away to fight for him. Pretty soon they win, and he goes to the enemy town to hold it. The wise man, he sends his own people back to their farms and uses his mercenaries for that. Then he's gone, and nobody knows what happened to him. They got this young general, he loves him like his father, and he searches everyplace. He thinks somebody killed him and hid the body.
Then somebody in the enemy town where the mercenary is sees the wise man's wife. He tells the officer taking care of things there, and this mercenary is one of the ones they send to bring her in. They ask lots of questions, and he gets to hear some of it.
She and the wise man are going to go away and never come back, she says. They get a boat and go down a river that they got down there. Not our river. There's inhumi after him that want to kill him, and his wife is real scared. He tells her not to worry, they only want him, not her. They stop on a island and cook and eat, and there's inhumi all over. Then they get back in their boat and go to sleep. The wise man has this pet bird-
Oreb interrupted Inclito's story here, exclaiming, "Good bird!"
It talks, and the wise man says it will wake them up if the inhumi get too close. She's very scared, but he holds her and after a while she gets to sleep.
When she wakes up, it's still night. This wise man is gone, and the inhumi too. The boat's still tied to a tree or something on the little island, but she sees him over on the bank. He's taken off the head cloth he used to wear, and she sees his white hair shining in the dark. He's going away, and pretty soon she can't see him anymore, so next day she takes their boat and sails it back up the river to the enemy town and sells it.
This mercenary I talked to is one of the men that took her from the enemy town to the big town where this wise man was so the young general can talk to her. But when he gets her there, the young general pays him off and lets him go because they're cutting back now. That's when he comes here. So this is the end of his story, or anyhow it's the end for right now.
Mora gave her father a quizzical look. "Why did the wise man want to go away when they had won the war?"
Inclito's big shoulders rose and fell. "Somebody like Incanto could tell you, maybe. I'm just a farmer. You want to know about pigs and cows, ask me."
I shook my head, and Inclito sighed. "All right, I asked the mercenary the same thing, why did he go? He didn't know either. Then I asked about the big town that hired them, and he said things were good there. I said, they don't fight each other anymore? Or steal? And he said no, it was a nice town with honest people, only big. As big as a city inside the Long Sun Whorl is what he said, but how would he know? As big as Grandecitta? I don't believe it!"
Inclito turned to me. "My whole family has told, Mama and Mora, and now me. There's only you and Fava."
I said I would prefer that Fava precede me, and his mother thrust a platter of fresh pork at me. "You haven't eaten anything tonight, you or Fava. How about some bread? Decina baked this morning, and it's our own butter."
I took meat and a slice of bread to satisfy her.
"I'm leaving tomorrow morning, " Fava told Inclito's mother. "Mora knows, and so does Incanto now. I'd like to tell a long story tonight, since I won't be doing this anymore, and I want to make up a specially good one. Anyway, Incanto got to go last when he was here before."
She turned to me. "May I go last this time, Incanto? And will you tell us another one about Green? I'm going to lay mine there too, I think."