کتاب 03 - فصل 05

مجموعه: چهارگانه بخشنده / کتاب: پسر / فصل 37

کتاب 03 - فصل 05

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دانلود اپلیکیشن «زیبوک»

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Five

Her back ached badly. It had ached for a long time now, for several years, but it was getting worse, and Claire had difficulty straightening herself. She walked bent.

She had gone to see Herbalist, the man who dispensed medicines to villagers. But it was clear that his remedies were the same that she had learned in her years with Alys. The drinking of birch and willow tea would ease the pain a bit but could not take it away.

Herbalist had asked her the obvious question: “What is your age?”

“I don’t know,” she replied to him. That was true. She had been a young girl when she was washed from the sea to the place where she had lived for years. She had grown up there and become a young woman. She had left there and become, overnight, old. It was not a question of years.

Herbalist was not surprised by her answer. Many people who had found their way to the village had little memory of their own past. He prescribed the bark infusions for her aches but said to her, “Such pain comes for us all, in great age.” “I know,” Claire said. She had no wish to explain what had befallen her.

Herbalist lifted her arm gently and felt the thin, sagging skin. Carefully he examined the dark spots on the backs of her hands. “Do you still have teeth?” he asked.

“Some,” she said, and showed him.

“And your eyes? Ears?”

She could still see and hear.

“So,” Herbalist said with a smile, “you can’t dance or chew meat. But if you can hear the birds sing and watch the wind in the leaves, then you still have much pleasure left.

“Your time is limited now, though,” he told her, “so you should enjoy everything you can. That’s what I do. I think I must be as old as you. I have the same aches.” He wrapped the dried barks for her, and she placed them in her carrying basket.

“I’ll see you at the feast,” he said as she turned to go. “We can watch the dancing and remember our young years. There is pleasure in that.”

Claire thanked him, leaned on her cane, and continued down the path to her small cottage. In the distance she could hear some young boys shouting as they played some sort of game with a ball. Perhaps one was Gabe. She rarely found him at games, lately, though; most often he was alone in the clearing near the river, hammering away on the misshapen vessel that he called his boat. Claire often stood hidden in the trees and watched him at work. In a way she admired his dedication to the odd project. But it saddened and puzzled her, his wish to be gone.

When she had entered the village for the first time, like so many others, she had been welcomed, years before. The fragility of old age was new to her then, and it had still startled her when she rose in the morning with her bones aching and stiff. The memory of running, climbing, even dancing, was alive and throbbing within her, but frailty made her hobble and limp.

She had seen her son for the first time, in this place, when he was a child of eight or nine. She remembered that day. He ran along the path near the cottage to which she had been assigned, calling to his friends, laughing, his unkempt hair bright in the sunlight. “Gabe!” she heard a boy call; but she would have known him without hearing it. It was the same smile she remembered, the same silvery laugh.

She had moved forward in that moment, intending to rush to him, to greet and embrace him. Perhaps she would make the silly face, the one with which they had once mimicked each other. But when she started eagerly toward him, she forgot her own weakness; her dragging foot caught on a stone and she stumbled clumsily. Quickly she righted herself, but in that moment she saw him glance toward her, then look away in disinterest. As if looking through his eyes, she perceived her own withered skin, her sparse gray hair, the awkward gait with which she moved. She stayed silent, and turned away, thinking.

Did he need to know, after all? He appeared to be a happy child. If she were to make herself known, to tell her unbelievable story, he would be stunned, uncomprehending. His friends might taunt him. Perhaps he would reject her. Or worse—perhaps he would feel obligated to tend her in her remaining days. His carefree life would be interrupted. She would be a burden, an embarrassment.

In the end she decided that it was enough that she had found him. She would let him be. But she realized then the magnitude of the cruel exchange Trademaster had offered her.

Through the years she had watched Gabe grow from a mischievous boy into this quiet young man who now seemed to have a mission she didn’t understand. Why a boat? The river was a dangerous thing. The village children could swim and play in the one protected section where the water was shallow and slow. But farther out, and farther along, the water rushed furiously over sharp rocks. She had heard that there was a steep waterfall someplace, and fallen trees here and there that could easily smash the thin boards he was so carefully tying together with strips of bamboo.

Claire was very frightened of swift-moving water. She had reason to be. She had once lived beside a river, once beside a sea. Both had brought her heartbreak and loss.

She did not want her son to be lost to water.

The crisp-skinned pork, sliced from the roasted pig on the spit, smelled delicious, but she knew it was not for her, not with her remaining teeth loose and her gums sore. Claire filled her plate from a large bowl of soft beans that had been baking all day in a sauce of tomatoes and herbs, and added a piece of soft bread. She would leave room, though, she thought, for a slice of blackberry pie.

She set her plate on a table and eased herself onto a bench next to several others. A pregnant woman smiled at her and moved slightly, making room; Claire recognized her as Jean, the wife of one of the fiddlers who were tuning their instruments and preparing to play for the dancing. Kira was there too, keeping an eye on her toddlers as they played near the table. From time to time she spooned food into their mouths, as if they were baby birds.

Eating slowly, watching the young women at her table, Claire realized that she might have been one of them. She looked down at her own gnarled hand holding a fork. An old woman’s hand. Herbalist had told her she was nearing her last days, and she sensed that it was true. But inside herself? She was a young woman still. If she had not made the trade that had brought her here (Youth! In her memory Claire could hear still how Trademaster had breathed the word into her ear, had spat against her cheek with it, how she had nodded in assent and whispered to him: Trade) she would perhaps be back with Einar now, helping him tend his lambs, cooking a stew they would share in their hillside hut, talking together by the fire in the evenings.

But she would not have found her son. She would never have seen Gabe again, would not have watched him grow into the lively young man he had become. She knew it was a trade she would make again, given the chance.

She rose to return her emptied plate, to get herself a piece of pie, and looked over to the table where the boisterous young boys were sitting together. He was there. She saw him glance sideways at her as she passed; then his attention returned to his plate, heaped as it was with food, and to a lengthy joke one of his friends was telling. In adolescence Gabe was gangly and tall, and as she watched, his elbow knocked over the mug holding his drink; the other boys chortled as he sheepishly mopped up the mess with his napkin.

His hair was curly, as hers—now a sparse bun at the back of her head—had once been. His blue eyes were surprisingly pale. Jonas had the same eyes. So did his wife, Kira. Claire remembered now that she had noticed the unusual eyes when Gabe was an infant. Those early days had come back to her very slowly, and with pain attached to each memory.

The feel of the mask clamped over her face during his birth. She had shuddered when that memory returned.

How, later, she had held him for the first time, and had noticed the startling pale eyes. When she recalled it, she was suffused with a feeling of loss.

Then she remembered a dream she had had, of a hidden light-eyed baby. How, in the dream, she had kept him concealed in a drawer. Thinking of it after all this time, she almost wept at the sadness of all it implied.

She did weep when the next memory came back: of how he had grinned and wiggled his chubby fingers at her. He had learned by then to say her name. Claire, he had said in his high voice. And: Bye-bye.

She did not regret the trade she had made in order to find him. But she was desperately sad to realize that her time was short now. Instead of the strong and vibrant young woman she should be, the mother Gabe deserved, she was now an ancient hag waiting for death. It was a hideous joke that Trademaster had played on them both seven years before.

The sky darkened as night fell and the music began in earnest. Soon it would be the time for the young people, the time for dancing and flirtation. Claire saw Gabe rise from his seat and make his way over to the pretty freckle-faced girl named Deirdre. He stood self-consciously talking to her as she helped to clean the tables. She could see that Deirdre was self-conscious too, but that she purposely walked in a way that made her striped skirt twirl and flutter.

Women gathered their dishes and babies in order to take them home. Claire watched Kira with the children. Annabelle was half asleep in her arms, but Matthew was dashing about wildly. Finally Jonas scooped him up and laughed as the overtired two-year-old kicked and cried. Together they gathered their things and called good night, then started down the path from the Pavilion toward their home. Jonas had set Matthew on his shoulders and the couple became silhouettes against the sky as the moon rose and Claire watched.

Although Jonas had no awareness of who she had once been, that once she and he had been contemporaries in the same community, Claire remembered Jonas as a boy. He was too young for fatherhood then; nonetheless, it had been he who had saved a baby sentenced to die because the little one was eager, and curious, and lively. Because he didn’t sleep. He was—what was the word?—disruptive. Didn’t fit in. Jonas had risked his own life, sacrificed his future, to bring him here. She wondered if he worried about Gabe now, about the frailty of the little boat he was striving to build and the dangers he would face if somehow he launched it into the river.

When she rose from her seat in order to start down the path to her own cottage, her hip had stiffened and she stood for a moment massaging it with her hand before she was able to walk. Finally she started down the gentle hill, carefully feeling her way in the moonlight. How soon she would be gone, Claire thought, and sighed. How little Gabe would ever know about his own past.

Then she stopped, suddenly, and stood still. Of course, she thought. She knew what she would do.

She decided she would tell her story, her own history that she had kept so secret until now, to Jonas. Someday, after she was gone, if the time was ever right, when the boy was old enough and ready, he could pass it on to her son.

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