Authors: Gene Wolfe
Tags: #Science Fiction
Nightside the Long Sun
This book is dedicated to Joe Mayhew
for at least a dozen reasons.
THE MANTEION ON SUN STREET
nlightenment came to Patera Silk on the ball court; nothing could ever be the same after that. When he talked about it afterward, whispering to himself in the silent hours of the night as was his custom-and once when he told Maytera Marble, who was also Maytera Rose-he said that it was as though someone who had always been behind him and standing (as it were) at both his shoulders had, after so many years of pregnant silence, begun to whisper into both his ears. The bigger boys had scored again, Patera Silk recalled, and Horn was reaching for an easy catch when those voices began and all that had been hidden was displayed.
Few of these hidden things made sense, nor did they wait upon one another. He, young Patera Silk (that absurd clockwork figure), watched outside a clockwork show whose works had stopped-tall Horn reaching for the ball, his flashing grin frozen in forever.
-dead Patera Pike mumbling prayers as he slit the throat of a speckled rabbit he himself had bought.
-a dead woman in an alley off Silver Street, and the people of the quarter.
-lights beneath everyone's feet, like cities low in the night sky. (And, oh, the rabbit's warm blood drenching Patera Pike's cold hands.)
-proud houses on the Palatine.
-Maytera Marble playing with the girls, and Maytera Mint wishing she dared. (Old Maytera Rose praying alone, praying to Scalding Scylla in her palace under Lake Limna.)
-Feather falling, not so lightly as his name implied, shoved aside by Horn, not yet quite prone on the crumbling shiprock blocks, though shiprock was supposed to last until the end of the whorl.
-Viron and the lake, crops withering in the fields, the dying fig and the open, empty sky. All this and much else besides, lovely and appalling, blood red and living green, yellow, blue, white, and velvet black, with minglings of other colors and of colors he had never known.
YET ALL THESE were as nothing. It was the voices that mattered, only the paired voices (though there were more, he felt sure, if only he had ears for them) and all the rest an empty show, shown to him so that he might know it for what it was, spread for him so that he might know how precious it was, though its shining clockwork had gone some trifle awry and must be set right by him; for this he had been born.
He forgot the rest at times, though at others all these things would reoccur to him, rough truths cloaked in a new certainty; but he never forgot the voices that were in fact but one voice, and what they (who were one) had said; never forgot the bitter lesson, though once or twice he tried to push it away, those fell words heard as Feather fell, poor little Feather, as the rabbit's hot blood spilled from the altar, as the First Settlers took up the homes prepared for them in this familiar Viron, as the dead woman seemed to stir, rags fluttering in the hot wind born halfway 'round the whorl, a wind that blew ever stronger and wilder as clockwork that had never really stopped began to turn again.
"I will not fail," he told the voices, and felt he lied, yet felt the approbation, too.
His left hand moved, snatching the ball from Horn's very fingers.
Patera Silk spun about. The black ball flew like a black bird, straight through the ring at the opposite end of the ball court. It struck the hellstone with a satisfying thump and an eruption of blue sparks, and threaded the ring a second time as it bounced back.
Horn tried to stop him, but Patera Silk knocked him sprawling, caught the ball again, and smoked it in for a second double. The monitor's chimes sang their three-note paean, and its raddled gray face appeared to announce the final score: thirteen to twelve.
Thirteen to twelve was not a bad score, Patera Silk reflected as he took the ball from Feather and stuffed it into a trousers pocket. The bigger boys would not be too downcast, while the smaller boys would be ecstatic.
This last, at least, was already quite apparent He repressed the impulse to hush them and lifted two of the most diminutive onto his shoulders. "Back to class," he announced. "Class for all of you. A little arithmetic will do you good. Feather, throw Villus my towel, please."
Feather, one of the larger small boys, obliged; Villus, the boy perched upon Silk's right shoulder, managed to catch ft, though not deftly.
"Patera," Feather ventured, "you always say there's a lesson in everything."
Silk nodded, mopping his face and rubbing his already disheveled yellow hair. He had been touched by a god! By the Outsider; and although the Outsider was not one of the Nine, he was an undoubted god nevertheless. This, this was enlightenment!
"I'm listening, Feather. What is it you want to ask?" But enlightenment was for theodidacts, and he was no holy theodidact-no gaudily painted gold-crowned figure in the Writings. How could he tell these children that in the middle of their game “Then what's the lesson in our winning, Patera?"
"That you must endure to the end," Silk replied, his mind still upon the Outsider's teaching. One of the hinges of the ball-court gate was broken; two boys had to lift the gate to swing it, creaking, backward. The remaining hinge would surely break too, and soon, unless he did something. Many theodidacts never told, or so he had been taught in the schola. Others told only on their deathbeds; for the first time he felt he understood that
"We endured to the end," Horn reminded him, "but we lost just the same. You're bigger than I am. Bigger than any of us."
Silk nodded and smiled. "I did not say that the only object was to win."
Horn opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again, his eyes thoughtful. Silk took Goldcrest and Villus from his shoulders at the gate and dried his torso, then reclaimed his black tunic from the nail on which he had hung it Sun Street ran parallel to the sun, as its name indicated, and as usual at this hour it was blazing hot Regretfully, he pulled his tunic over his head, smelling his own sweat.
"You lost," he remarked to Villus once the stifling tunic was in place, "when Horn got the ball away from you. But you won when everyone on our team did. What have you learned from that?"
When little Villus said nothing, Feadier answered, "That winning and losing aren't everything."
The loose black robe followed the tunic, seeming to close about him. "Good enough," he told Feather.
As five boys shut the court gate behind them, the faint and much-diffused shadow of a Flier raced down Sun Street. The boys glared up at him, and a few of the smallest reached for stones, though the Flier was diree or four times higher than the loftiest tower in Viron.
Silk halted, raising his head to stare upward with a long-felt envy he struggled to suppress. Had he been shown the Fliers, among his myriad, leaping visions? He felt he had- but he had been shown so much!
The disproportionate, gauzy wings were nearly invisible in the glare of the unshaded sun, so that it seemed that the Flier flew without them, arms outstretched, feet together, an uncanny figure black against the burning gold.
"If the Fliers are human," Silk admonished his charges, "it would surely be evil to stone them. If they are not, you must consider that they may be higher than we are in the spiritual whorl, just as they are in the temporal." As an afterthought he added, "Even if they are spying on us, which I doubt."
Had they, too, achieved enlightenment, and was that why they flew? Did some god or goddess-it would be Hierax, perhaps, or his father, sky-ruling Pas-teach those he favored the art of flight?
The palaestra's warped and weathered door would not open until Horn had wrestled manfully with its latch. As always, Silk delivered the smaller boys to Maytera Marble first "We won a glorious victory," he told her.
She shook her head in mock dismay, her smooth oval face, polished bright by countless dustings, catching the sunlight from the window. "My poor girls were beaten, alas, Patera. It seems to me that Maytera Mint's big girls grow quicker and stronger with each week that passes. Wouldn't you think our Merciful Molpe would make my smaller ones quicker, too? Yet it doesn't seem she does it."
"By the time they're quicker, they'll be the big girls, perhaps."
"That must be it, Patera. While I'm only a small girl myself, snatching at every chance to put off the minuends and subtrahends for as long as possible, always willing to talk, never willing to work." Maytera Marble paused, her work-worn steel fingers flexing the cubit stick while she studied Silk. "You be careful this afternoon, Patera. You must be tired already, after scrambling around up there all morning and playing with the boys. Don't fall off that roof."
He grinned. "I'm finished with my repairs for today, Maytera. I'm going to sacrifice after manteion-a private sacrifice."
The old sib tilted her gleaming head to one side, thus lifting an eyebrow. "Then I regret that my class will not participate. Will your lamb be more pleasing to the Nine, do you think, without us?"
For an instant Silk was tempted to tell her everything there and then. He drew a deep breath instead, smiled, and closed the door.
Most of the larger boys had already gone into Maytera Rose's room. Silk dismissed the rest with a glance, but Horn lingered. "May I speak with you, Patera? It'll just take a minute."
"If it is only a minute." When the boy said nothing, Silk added, "Go ahead, Horn. Did I foul you? If I did, I apologize-it certainly wasn't intentional."
"Is it…" Horn let the question trail away, staring at the splintering floorboards.
"Speak up, please. Or ask your question when I come back. That would be better."
The tall boy's gaze moved to the whitewashed mud-brick walls. "Patera, is it true that they're going to tear down our palaestra and your manteion? That you're going to have to go someplace else, or no place? My father heard that yesterday. Is it true?"
Horn looked up with new hope, though the flat negative had left him speechless.
"Our palaestra and our manteion will be here next year, and the year after that, and the year after that as well." Suddenly conscious of his posture, Silk stood straighter, squaring his shoulders. "Does that put your mind at rest? They may become larger and better known, and I hope that they will. Perhaps some god or goddess may speak to us through our Sacred Window again, as Pas once did when Patera Pike was young-I don't know, though I pray for it every day. But when I'm as old as Patera Pike, the people of this quarter will still have a manteion and a palaestra. Never doubt it."
"I was going to say…"
Silk nodded. "Your eyes have said it for you already. Thank you, Horn. Thank you. I know that whenever I'm in need I can call on you, and that you'll do all that you can without counting the cost. But, Horn-"
"I knew all that before."
The tall boy's head bobbed. "And all the other sprats, too, Patera. There are a couple of dozen that I know we can trust. Maybe more."
Horn was standing as straight as a Guardsman on parade now. With a slight shock of insight, Silk realized that this unaccustomed perpendicularity was in imitation of his own, and that Horn's clear, dark eyes were very nearly level with his.
"And after that," Horn continued, "there will be others, new boys. And men."
Silk nodded again, gravely reflecting that Horn was already a grown man in every way that mattered, and a man far better educated than most
"And I don't want you to think I'm mad about it- knocking me over like that, Patera. You hit me hard, but that's the fun of the game."
Silk shook his head. "That's merely how the game is played. The fun comes when someone small knocks down someone larger."
"You were their best player, Patera. It wouldn't have been fair to them if you hadn't played as well as you can." Horn glanced over his shoulder at Maytera Rose's open door. "I have to go now. Thanks, Patera."
There was a line in the Writings that applied to the game and its lessons-lessons more important, Silk felt, than any Maytera Rose might teach; but Horn was already almost to the doorway. To his back, Silk murmured, " 'Men build scales, but the gods blow upon the lighter pan.' "
He sighed at the final word, knowing that the quotation had come a second too late, and that Horn, too, had been too late; that Horn would tell Maytera Rose that he, Patera Silk, had detained him, and that Maytera Rose would punish him nevertheless without bothering to find out whether it was true.
Silk turned away. There was no point in remaining to listen, and Horn would fare that much worse if he tried to intervene. How could the Outsider have chosen such a bungler? Was it possible that the very gods were ignorant of his weakness and stupidity?