My Own Story: The Man with the Black Sword
I know nothing about Grandecitta, nor do I know what other cities you and your mother may have seen before you left the Whorl, Inclito. But I doubt that you have ever seen a city like the City of the Inhumi on Green. Before I describe it, let me say that it is very hot there and rains a great deal. You must bear both those in mind as you hear this.
The buildings of that city were not built by the inhumi themselves, for the inhumi do not like tools or use them skillfully. Its builders were the Vanished People, the same master builders who began this gracious house of yours. It was a beautiful city in their time, I feel certain, a city of wide streets, welcoming courtyards, and noble towers. A certain woman once said that my old city in the Whorl seemed ugly to her, because most of its buildings had only a story or two, although there were some with five and even six, and we were proud of the towers of our Juzgado. I never got to see her own city, which was said to have so many fine buildings, soaring pinnacles that rose above its palm trees like columns of white smoke some god had turned to stone.
That woman would have loved the City of the Inhumi when it was young, I feel sure; but at the time I am speaking of it was no longer beautiful. Think of a lovely woman, proud and wise. Picture to yourself the luminosity of her glance and the grace of her movements. Let yourself hear the music of her voice.
Can you see and hear her, all of you? Now imagine that she has been dead for half a year, and that we are to open her casket. The City of the Inhumi was like that. Its wide streets were littered with rubble and twisted metal, its buildings gray with lichen where they were not green with moss. Great lianas, vines thicker than a strong man's arm, stretched from one tower to another, some so high up that they seemed no more than cobwebs.
The towers of the City of the Inhumi are not of twelve stories, or fifteen, or eighteen, like the towers of the city in which I was born, but of stories beyond counting. Those towers seem to touch the sky even when you are so far from them that they can scarcely be seen. As from the cliffs, trees sprout from their sheer walls and every ledge, and the questing roots of those trees pry out huge blocks of masonry that scar the lower parts of their parent buildings as they crash into the streets. And every insect that spawns in stagnant pools is there, buzzing and stinging.
The man had been given a sword by a man of the Vanished People, a sword that was neither long nor heavy, but very sharp, its blade of a black steel (if it was steel) better than any we know. He ought to have borne it proudly, for it was a much finer sword than the finest he had ever seen, a better sword even than the sword of honor worn by the woman who had disparaged his city. He was too frightened to wear it like that, however; and noble though it was, it did nothing to defend him from the insects. Putting it into its sheath, he contrived to make the sword belt fit him, although it had never been intended for such a body as his, and with the black sword at his side he walked a very long way through the City of the Inhumi in the company of the man of Vanished People who had given him the sword, and the sheath, and the sword belt.
In his company, I said. Yet it often seemed to the man who bore the black sword that he was alone, and sometimes it seemed to him that there was not a single man of the Vanished People beside him but several. There are things that cannot be counted because they are too numerous-the waves of the sea and the leaves in Green's jungles, for example. But there are others that cannot be counted because they cannot be counted, like the ripples in a pond when it rains. The Vanished People are like that at times, a single individual counting as many, and many coalescing into two or three. Or one. At such times it seemed to the man with the black sword that they stood between mirrors that they carried with them.
Or rather, that they had stood so once but had stepped away long ago, and that the doubled and redoubled images they had left behind had taken on lives of their own.
Cruel saw grass and twisted bushes sprouted from every crack in the pavements of the streets they traversed, and these became thicker and thicker, and taller and taller, too, until it seemed almost that the City of the Inhumi had never been, or that it was mere illusion; for its distant towers streaked the cloudy sky with green and gray, but near to hand only the cruel leaves of the saw grass and the contorted limbs met the eye.
They came to a steep stairway after long walking, and the man with the black sword, who had supposed that he trod level ground, was amazed to behold a lower city beneath the City of the Inhumi, a place of slimes and dank caverns dotted with orange and purple fungi, through which a broad river wandered, its black waters as smooth as oil but softly flowing.
"This is the time for wariness, " the man of the Vanished People told him.
And another said, "You would be safe from the inhumi, I assured you, and you were safe. There are things worse than inhumi here."
Yet another told him, "You have been safe, but you are safe no longer."
Even as he stood at his side, he saw the one who had given him his sword descending the stairway before him; and he followed him. There was a walkway beside the river, narrow in places and narrower yet in others. And in some wholly crumbled away, leaving only small stones that rolled beneath the feet of the man with the black sword, threatening to carry him into the water.
"How we deceived ourselves!" the man of the Vanished People who had been his guide said. "We thought we were building here for the ages. Another thousand years, and everything you see will be gone."
"How many of us are there?" the man with the black sword asked. He looked about him as he spoke, and saw no one.
"There are two of you, " the man of the Vanished People said; and as he did, the man with the black sword saw a corpse face down in the water. He halted then, drew the sword, squatted on the crumbling walkway, and tried to pull the corpse to him with the hooked end of the sword; but he succeeded only in laying open its back, a gaping wound without blood and without pain.
At last, by leaning over the water farther than he dared, he was able to catch the hand of the corpse and move it toward him, but a maggot as thick as his thumb emerged from the cut that he had made, and lifting its blind white head struck at him like a serpent. He jerked backward, nearly falling, then slashed at the maggot and contrived to push away the floating corpse, although the point of his sword sank into it to a depth of four fingers.
"What did you want with your brother?" the man of the Vanished People asked him.
And he said that he had hoped to bury the corpse and pray for the dead man's spirit.
"So I feared. I will not go with you into the sewer you are to clear for us. You must go alone, save for such men as he. Come."
They went on, and saw more corpses floating in the quiet water; and as they walked the city closed itself above the river until the strip of daylight that shone upon the dark water was no wider than the man's hand. "This must be a terrible place at night, " he said.
"This is always a terrible place now, " the man of the Vanished People told him, "and you are going into a place where it is always night."
As if the voice of the man of the Vanished People had somehow revealed them, the man with the black sword saw eyes, green eyes and yellow, that studied him unblinking from the shadows and from the water.
At the point at which the strip of daylight vanished altogether, there was an altar of bronze and stone. The image behind it was so worn and battered that the man with the black sword could not tell whether it had originally taken the form of a man or a woman, of a beast, a star, or some other thing.
"This was our goddess of purity, " the man of the Vanished People told him.
"Would it help me to pray to her?"
The man of the Vanished People shook his head.
"I will pray to her just the same, " the man with the black sword decided. He knelt and said many things, most of them very foolish, talking to the Vanished Goddess of purity about his task, his sons, his wife, and his home across the abyss.
When he rose again, the man of the Vanished People had vanished, but a light gleamed on the Vanished Goddess's cold altar. The man with the black sword reached out to touch it; he could not feel it, yet the pressure of his fingers moved it as if it were a pebble or a stick. He closed his hand around it, and all was dark; but when he opened his hand the light shone as before. When he turned toward the water, the green and yellow eyes that had gleamed from it sank beneath it, and when he turned toward the land, the green and yellow eyes that had watched him so hungrily winked out.
How much farther he walked after that, I cannot say. He was tired already and stopped often to rest, the way was hard, and each time he took a hundred strides it seemed to him that he had traveled very far.
At last he came upon a naked old man who was gnawing on a human foot. The old man looked up at the sound of his approach, and the man with the black sword saw that he was blind, his eyes as white and blank as boiled eggs. "Get back!" this old blind man shouted, and he snatched up a rusty knife and flourished it.
"I must go past you, " the man with the black sword told him, "but I will not harm you."
At the sound of his voice, the blind man stopped slashing the air with his knife. "You, you're alive, " he said. And he groped for the man with the black sword, although he was well out of reach.
"I am, " the man with the black sword said. "Are you afraid that I'm an inhumi? I'm not."
"Same thing happened to me, " the blind man told him. "Lost every drop of blood. They thought I was dead and threw me down here."
"Was that long ago?" the man with the black sword asked, and the blind man replied, "I think so."
He no longer knew his name, or the name of the city that had sent him and his companions to Green, only that he had believed someone who had told him that they must go, and that they had fallen into the hands of the inhumi as soon as their lander set down. The man with the black sword ordered him to stand, and when he stood tried to make him straighten up, because he wanted to see how tall he was; but he was no longer able to stand straight.
"I can't help wondering whether you are Auk, " the man with the black sword told him. "Auk, a man I used to know, murdered another man called Galada. I never saw Galada but he was very much like you, except that he was not blind."
"I'm not blind, " the blind man protested.
"The gods do such things. Does the name Auk mean anything to you?"
"No." The blind man seemed to think for a time.
"Chenille. Do you recognize that name?"
"Chenille?" The blind man turned it over and over in his mouth, muttering, "Chenille. Chenille." At last he said, "No."
The man with the black sword explained his task.
"I can show you, " the blind man told him eagerly, and shuffled ahead of him. "It's bad. Very bad." He cackled to himself, and the man with the black sword recalled the mad laughter of certain animals he had known in a similar place, ones." Abruptly he halted. "You want to get at the good ones, "Bad, " the blind man repeated. "You can't get at the good don't you? The nice fresh ones?"
The man with the black sword held the light he had been given so that it shone on the blind man's face then, hoping to read its expression; but it had been gnawed by cancer and evil, and was so hideous that he closed his fist around the light at once.
The bodies of men and women and children filled the waterway to the top, which was much higher than a tall man could have reached. Some were swollen with decay, others rotted almost to skeletons. "They drain them and I take them, " the blind man muttered, "but there's no life in them."
The man with the black sword swung it at the leg of a dead woman, and the black blade severed it cleanly at the knee; leg and foot fell at his feet, and he kicked them into the water. To the blind man he said, "They dropped you into this sewer thinking you were dead. I understand that, but why did you remain here?"
The blind man did not reply, pushing past him to finger the clogged corpses, his rusty knife waving like the feeler of some sightless, boneless water creature.
"Take what you want and go, " the man with the black sword told him. "I have work to do."
"I want to be here when it happens, " the blind man said. "I want to see it."
The man with the black sword made him stand back while he hewed at the corpses, finding that his sword would split the pelvis of a grown man as an axe splits kindling, chopping and slashing until his arm dripped with the reeking fluids of dissolution. At last, when it seemed to him that he had cut to bits at least a hundred corpses, the water that had only seeped and sweated began to trickle and spurt. It was not clean water, yet it seemed clean to him; and laying aside his sword and the light he had been given, he washed his hands in it, and bathed his face.
"It's what's past, " the blind man said. "You see that, don't you? It's the past holding on."
"More water's getting through now, " the man told him as he took up his black sword again. "A little more water, anyway."
"Water always does."
"This is new water-better water, I think." The man with the black sword picked up his light, which seemed to weigh nothing.
The point of his sword pried free a faceless, battered corpse; it fell upon the walkway on which they stood, and he pushed it into the river with his foot. "I believe that I understand what you mean. It may be that I understand it even better than you do. In the past, this whorl we call Green has belonged to the inhumi. These people came here and supplied them with human blood. That must change." He slashed again and again, laying open the rib cages of his human dead, splitting their skulls and severing their limbs. "The future must be set free here."
As he finished speaking, he felt the blind man's fingers on his back, and knew what they portended. He spun around as the rusty blade drove toward him. He tried to counter it with his black sword, and was struck from behind as the tangled dead gave way at last.
Very far he was carried by the boiling surge, and nearly drowned. When he was able to gain the riverbank, it was a bank lined with trees so immense as to defy description, trees to dwarf towers, whose mammoth limbs and innumerable, whispering leaves hid the towers of the City of the Inhumi from his sight, and whose topmost leaves were among the stars.
"That was no story to tell at table, Incanto, " Inclito's mother informed me. "I could scarcely eat a mouthful." She cut a piece from her slice of veal with unnecessary violence, then cut that into two smaller pieces.
I apologized very sincerely.
"Was it just a story?" Mora demanded. "Do you just make it up?"
I was hungry, and until then I had been unable even to taste the food Inclito had heaped onto my plate. I shrugged and began to eat.
"No one said that all the stories tonight had to be true, " his mother told her granddaughter. "It was just that your friend Fava began with a true one."
Fava herself smiled charmingly. "All stories are false, and none are falser than those that are supposed to be true. The lie adds a second lair of falsity."
Mora turned to look at her. "Even yours?"
"Even mine, though I made mine as true as I could. The question somebody ought to ask is why Incanto chose to tell that particular story tonight." Fava raised a fragment of boiled potato to her mouth and put it down again. "I'll ask, if no one else does. But it would be better if your father did it."
Inclito grunted, chewed, and swallowed. "What about yours, Fava? Why'd you tell us about that poor sprat you found in the mountain stream?"
"Because it was the best that I could think of just then, " Fava told him, "and I was first and had to think quickly. Your strego had plenty of time in which to think, and he's much too clever to tell that story merely to win the game."
Inclito's mother said severely, "It's very impolite of you to call Incanto a strego, Fava, when he's denied it. He is our guest."
Mora said, "If Papa won't ask, I will. Why did you tell us that story, Incanto?"
I sipped my wine as I considered my answer. "All the stories tonight have been about duty, or that was how it seemed to me. You were miserable in your palaestra, and Fava thought it her duty to help you, as she did. In her own story, she thought it her duty to rescue the child from his mother, and to look for him when he disappeared."
Inclito nodded. "Mano did his duty, and he was a man who would murder his own brother. There's something I want to ask Fava about that story of hers, though. The boy, Fava. What was it you called him? Bricco. At the end you said he'd never come back to his family?"
"But those other sprats, the ones he used to play with, they saw him every so often. They said the Vanished People had stolen him?"
Fava nodded again.
"Well, when they saw him, did the Vanished People bring him back?"
She laughed-a good, merry laugh that left me feeling entirely certain that she was more mature than she appeared. "I should have asked them that. I don't know. Perhaps he escaped from them every now and then, and tried to return to his family and his old life."
"But he couldn't, " I remarked. By that time I felt certain I had been right about her.
Inclito pursued the topic. "There was one of them with the man in Incanto's story. This Bricco sounds like one himself, like he had joined them, almost."
Fava nodded. "That was why the other children associated him with them, I feel sure."
Mora said, "There aren't any, are there, Papa? That's what you always say."
"There are stories." He helped himself to more veal. "We heard one tonight."
"There are the old houses, " Mora said. "Not like ours, but old houses of theirs that nobody wants." Her slow speech may have given her words more weight than she intended. "People see those, and at night they see travelers camping in them, and they imagine there's a town full of them that we can't find."
"Incanto believes in them, " her father declared.
"What do you know about them, Incanto?"
His mother reached across him to prod my arm. "Do eat something. Why, you've hardly touched your food."
To satisfy her I swallowed another bite. "I've been fasting up until this meal. What I've eaten already is more than enough for me."
"You didn't talk about my story." It was her accusatory tone again. "You said all the stories had been about duty. Mine was about ghosts and witchcraft."
"In that case I was mistaken. I apologize, humbly and contritely."
Mora asked, "Do you believe in witchcraft, Incanto? In stregas and stregos, like my grandmother? In ghosts?"
"I believe in ghosts." I recalled Hyacinth's ghost and its effect upon Pig very vividly, but I chose not to mention that memory. "The best man I've ever known told me once, long ago, that he had seen one, the ghost of an elderly man with whom he had lived and whom he had assisted. He wouldn't have lied to me-or to anybody, if he could help it-and he was a careful observer."
I spoke to Inclito's mother. "It was Turco's ghost who did his duty, or that was how it seemed to me. Turco felt that it was his duty as your husband to protect you from Casco, and from two men whom he feared were like Casco, or might become like him. You didn't see that in either of them?"
She shook her head, and I said, "The dead must look at people differently."
Inclito nodded. "I think so too. Men and women, it's the same. A girl is crazy about some man. Her mother likes him too, but she won't say so. Her father knows he's a loafer and a thief. I see it all the time."
Mora told me, "You haven't answered Papa's question about the Vanished People yet, and you haven't said anything about witches. If you believe in ghosts, you have to believe in witches, too."
"I believe that there are people who are called witches by others, " I said. "Some of them may find it to their advantage to help the belief in witchcraft along."
Mora said, "Then you believe in witches but not in witchcraft, " and Fava tittered.
"You may put it like that if you want. I think it's fair. May I ask you a question about your story, Mora? You said that the giant's daughter did badly in her lessons, I believe-or at least you seemed to imply it. Did she do badly in all her subjects? Or only in some."
"The story's over now, " Mora declared.
Fava put in, "I know a girl who gets the answer before the teacher does."
"In arithmetic? I thought so. There are people who do not know all the good qualities they possess. Mora is one, I believe."
Seeing that Inclito's mother was about to speak again, I added, "The man who warned Casco was a strego, a male witch, if you like. How he got into the orchard I do not know, but from what our hostess said it certainly cannot have been difficult. As for warning a man about to desecrate a grave, no great amount of wisdom is required to know that no good can come of such things. If the adder had not bitten Casco, he would have been ostracized when what he had done became widely known."
There were nods all around the table.
I said, "I've been called wise several times tonight. I know that I am not, but I'm wise enough to know that strong emotions of any kind often make people act very foolishly. I include myself. When the emotion is a good one-love, for example-they are often foolish in admirable ways. Anger, hatred and greed lead to acts of the kind we heard about in our hostess's story."
Inclito nodded again and swallowed. "Greed for foreign cards, you mean."
"That and food, " I told him. "I had resolved to eat very little tonight, and look at this." While we had been talking, I had practically cleaned my plate. "And various other things as well."
He pointed with his table knife. "You believe in the Vanished People."
"Because I put one in my story? It was only a story, as I told you from the beginning."
"Because Mora keeps trying to get you to say you don't, and you won't."
I conceded that he was right. "There's another continent on the other side of the sea. Do you know about it? I realize that we're far from the sea here."
"Must be, " Inclito said, "or the backside of this one." He traced a circle through the gravy on his plate.
"People there call the Vanished People the Neighbors. They are conscious of living beside them, and the name they give them reflects that."
I drew breath, conscious of having eaten too much, and conscious, too, that there was more food to come, although I was resolved not to touch it. "As for me, I have walked with them, and sat with them around their fire. Thus I know that they exist. They have gone elsewhere-found a new home circling another short sun. But they have our permission to revisit this one whenever they choose."
Fava's eyebrows went up. "Who gave them permission?" At that moment I was only too conscious that those full, fair eyebrows were in reality nothing more than smudges of color drawn across her forehead.
"Have you been there?" Mora wanted to know. "To the continent on the other side of the sea?"
Studying her broad, coarse face, so earnest and intent, I realized that she was not nearly so unhandsome as I had at first thought. Her features suffer in comparison to Fava's, and she is more than a trifle over-fleshed even for her not inconsiderable stature; but there is a hint and more of her grandmother's beauty behind the big, hooked nose and the wide mouth. "What difference does it make whether I say that I have or that I have not?" I asked her. "If I've lied to you about sitting with the Neighbors at their fire, I would lie about my travels, too, wouldn't I? Fishermen lie about their fish, and travelers about the foreign towns they have visited-or at least we travelers certainly have that reputation."
Fava burst out, "What were you called before you came here and became Incanto?"
"Rajan, " I told her. "I've had other names, but I think that's the one you're looking for."
She leaned toward me, so intent on impressing me with her sincerity that she actually allowed her blue-green eyes to glitter in the candlelight. "I'm not looking for you, Incanto. I mean that."
"You are a strego!" Inclito's mother exclaimed.
I said, "I am not, madam. But I intend to cure you if I can. If someone will furnish me with paper when this excellent meal is over, I'll write out some instructions for you. They will not be difficult, and if you follow them exactly as I set them down I believe that you will soon notice an improvement in your condition."
What happened next was so farcical that I hesitate to tell it. Oreb darted through an open window, circled the table, and settled on my shoulder, croaking, "Bird back!" and "Bad thing!"