Authors: Suzette Haden Elgin
It strained the limits of my imagination somewhat more than somewhat, and there was no way of keeping it quiet. They’d be having picnics under the tree where that baby hung in his pretty bubble and beaming the festivities out on the comsets before suppertime, or my name wasn’t Responsible of Brightwater
In the excitement we left the Solemn Service unfinished, and it took three Spells and a Charm to clear that up later on, not to mention the poor Reverend going through the service again to an empty church reeking mightily of garlic and asafetida. But the clear imperative right then was a family meeting; and we moved in as orderly a fashion as was possible (given the behavior of Vine of Motley) back to the Castle, where I turned all the out-family over to the staff to feed and cosset and called everyone else at once to the Meetingroom.
The table in the Meetingroom was dusty, and I distinctly saw a spiderweb in a far window, giving me yet another clue to the competency of my staff and strongly tempting me to waste a Housekeeping Spell or two—which would of been
unbecoming, but I never could abide dirt, even loose dirt—and I waved everybody to their chairs.
they took after brushing more dust with great ostentation off the chair seats, drat them all for their eagerness to dot every “i” and cross every “t” when it was my competence in question, and I called the roll.
My mother was there, Thom of Guthrie, forty-four years old and not looking more than thirty of those, which wasn’t even decent; I do not approve of my mother. I said “Thom of Guthrie” and she said “Here” and we left it at that. My uncles, Donald Patrick Brightwater the 133
—time we dropped that name awhile, we’d wear it out—and Jubal Brooks Brightwater the 31
Jubal’s wife, Emmalyn of Clark, poor puny thing, she was there; and Donald’s wife. Patience of Clark, Emmalyn’s sister. And my grandmother, Ruth of Motley, not yet a Granny, since Jonathan Cardwell Brightwater the 12
showed no signs of leaving this world for all he was 109 years old ... and it was said that he still troubled Ruth of Motley in the nights and scandalized the servingmaids in the chamber next to theirs. And I could believe it. We could of used him that day, since his head was as clear as his body was said to be hearty, but he was off somewhere trying to trade a set of Charms he’d worked out for a single Spell he’d been wanting to get hold of at least the last five years ... and the lady that Spell belonged to not about to pass it on to him, if he spent five more.
As it was, that meant only seven of us in Meeting, not nearly enough for proper discussion or voting, and you would of thought that on a Solemn Day, and with guests in the Castle, there’d of been more of us in our proper places. I was put out about the whole thing, and my mother did not scruple to point that out.
“Mighty nervy of you. Responsible,” she said, in that voice of hers, “being cross with everybody else for what is plainly your own fault.” I could of said Yes-Mother; since she despises that, but I had more pressing matters to think of than annoying my mother. She’d never make a Granny; she was too quick with that tongue and not able to put it under rein when the circumstances called for it, and at her age she had no excuse. She’d be a flippant wench at eighty-five, still stuck in her magic at Common Sense Level, like a child. Lucky she was that she was beautiful, since men have no more sense than to be distracted by such things, and Thorn was that. She had the Guthrie hair; masses of it, exactly the color of bittersweet chocolate and so alive it clung to your fingers (and to everything else, so that you spent half your life picking Guthrie hair off of any surface you cared to examine, but we’ll let that pass). And she had the Guthrie bones ... a face shaped like a heart, and great green eyes in it over cheekbones high arched like the curve of a bird’s wing flying, and the long throat that melted into perfect shoulders ... And oh, those breasts of hers! Three children she’d suckled till they walked, and those breasts looked as maiden as mine. She was well named, was Thorn of Guthrie, and many of us had felt the sharp point of her since she stepped under the doorbeam of Castle Brightwater thirty-one years ago. I have always suspected that those Guthrie bones made her womb an uncomfortable place to lie, giving her a way to poke at you even before you first breathed the air of the world, but that’s a speculation I’ve kept to myself. I hope.
“Well, now that we’re thoroughly disgraced in front of the whole world,” sighed my grandmother, “what do we propose to do about it?”
the first manifestation of something cockeyed,” said Jubal Brooks. “You
“There was the milk,” my grandmother agreed. “Four Mundy’s in a row now it’s been sour straight from the goat. I assume you don’t find that normal, granddaughter.”
“And there was the thing with the mirrors,” said Emmalyn. “It
me, my mirror shattering in my hand like that.”
I expect it did frighten her, too; everything else did. I was hoping she wouldn’t notice the spiderweb. She was a sorry excuse for a woman; on the other hand, we couldn’t of gotten Patience of Clark without taking the sister, too, and all in all it had been a bargain worth making.
Patience was sitting with her left little finger tapping her bottom lip, a gesture she made when she was waiting for a hole to come by in the conversation, and I turned to her and made the hole.
“Patience, you wanted to say something?”
“I was thinking of the streetsigns,” she said.
“Echo in here,” said my mother, always useful.
“I’m sorry. Patience,” I said. “I hadn’t heard that there was anything happening with streetsigns.”
“All over the city,” said my uncle Donald Patrick. “Don’t you pay any attention to anything?”
“Well? What’s been happening to them? Floating in the air? Whirling around? Exploding? What?”
Patience laughed softly, and the sun shone in through the windows and made the spattering of freckles over the bridge of her nose look like sprinkled brown sugar. I was very fond of Patience of Clark.
“They read backwards,” she said. “The sign that should say ‘River Street’ ... it says’Teerts Revir’” She spelled it out for me to make that deal; though the tongue does not bend too badly to “Teerts Revir”
.” I said, “is downright silly.”
“It’s all silly,” said Patience, “and that is why I was laughing. It’s all ridiculous.”
Emmalyn, whose freckles just ran together and looked like she hadn’t bothered to wash, allowed as how she might very well have been cut when her mirror shattered, and that was not silly.
I looked at them all, and I waited. My uncles, pulling at their short black beards the way men always do in meetings. My mother, trying to keep her mind—such as it was—on the discussion. My grandmother, just biding her time till she could get back to her embroidery. And the sisters—Emmalyn watching Patience, and Patience watching some inner source of we-know-not-what that had served us very well in many a crisis.
Not a one of them mentioned the Mules, though I gave them two full minutes. And that meant one of three things: they had not noticed the phenomenon, or they did not realize that it was of any importance, or they had some reason for behaving as if one of the first two were the case. I wondered, but I didn’t have time for finding out in any roundabout fashion.
“I agree,” I said at once the two minutes were up, “it’s all silly. Even the minors. Not a soul was harmed by any one of the mirrors that broke—including you, Emmalyn. Anybody can smell soured milk quick enough not to drink it, and the other six days of the week it’s been fine. And as for the streetsigns, which I’m embarrassed I didn’t know about them but there it is—I didn’t—that’s silliest of all.”
“Just mischief,” said Jubal, putting on the period. “Until today.”
My mother flared her perfect nostrils, like a high-bred Mule but a lot more attractive. “What makes you think, Jubal Brooks,” she demanded, “that today’s kidnapping—which is a matter of major importance—is connected in any way with all these baby tricks of milk and mirrors?”
streetsigns,” said Emmalyn of Clark. Naturally.
“Jubal’s quite right,” I said, before Thorn of Guthrie could turn on Emmalyn. “And I call for Council.”
There was a silence that told me I’d reached them, and Emmalyn looked thoroughly put out. Council meant there’d be no jokes, and no family bickering, and no pause in deliberation for coffee or cakes or ak or anything else till a conclusion was come to and a course agreed upon.
“Do you think that’s really called for, Responsible?” asked my grandmother. She was doing a large panel at that time, mourningdoves in a field of violets, as I recall. Not that she’d ever seen a moumingdove. “As Jubal said, it’s been mischief only so far. And pretty piddling mischief at that. And there’s no evidence
see of a connection between what happened in church today and all that other foolishness.”
“Responsible sees a connection,” said Patience, “or she would not have called Council. And the calling is her privilege by rule; I suggest we get on with it.”
I told them about the Mules then, and both the uncles left off their beard-pulling and gave me their attention. Tampering with goats was one thing, tampering with Mules was quite another: Not that they knew what it meant in terms of magic, of course—that would not of been suitable, since neither had ever shown the slightest talent for the profession, and I suppose they took flying Mules for granted as they did flying birds. But they had the male fondness for Mules, and they had anyone’s dislike for the idea of suddenly falling out of the air like a stone, which is where they could see it might well lead.
“It has to do, I believe,” said Patience slowly, “with the Jubilee. That’s coming up fast now, and anybody with the idea of putting it in bad odor would have to get at it fairly soon and move with some dispatch. I do believe that’s what this is all about.”
She was right, but they’d listen better if she was doing the talking, so I left it to her.
“Go on,” I said. “Please.”
“I’m telling you nothing you don’t know already,” she said. “The Confederation of Continents is not popular, nor likely to be, especially with the Kingdoms of Purdy, Guthrie, and Farson. And Tinaseeh is in worse state. The Travellers hate
kind of government; they are still so busy just hacking back the Wilderness that they don’t feel they can spare time for anything else, and they for sure don’t want the Jubilee. A Jubilee would give a kind of
to the Confederation, and they are dead set against that. And then there’re all the wishy-washy ones waiting around to see which way the wind blows.”
“ ‘A thing celebrated is a thing vindicated,’” quoted Ruth of Motley. “They all know that as well as anybody.”
“The idea,” Patience went on, “would be to make it appear that there’s so much trouble on the continent of Marktwain ... so much trouble in the Kingdom of Brightwater specifically ... that it would not really be safe for the other Families to send their delegations to the Jubilee.”
My conscience jabbed me, for she was right; and it had been niggling at the back of my mind for some time. Though I’d managed to ignore it up to now by worrying about dust on the banisters and coffee for deliveries for Mizzurah.
Donald Patrick scooted his chair back and stared at me, and then scooted it up again, and said damnation to boot, and my grandmother went “Ttch,” with the tip of her tongue.
“Five years of work it’s cost us,” he said, glaring around the table. “Five years to convince them even to let us
the Jubilee! Surely all that work can’t be set aside by some spoiled milk and a few smashed mirrors!”
cisely,” I said, flat as pondwater. “And that is just the point. You see, youall, how it will look? First, parlor tricks. Then, a kind of tinkering—nothing serious, just tinkering— with the Mules. And then, to show that what goes four steps can go twelve, the baby-snatching. Again, you notice, without any
“Aw,” said Jubal, “it’s just showing off. A display of power. Like throwing a dead goat into your well.”
“That it is,” I said. “ ‘See what we can do?’ it says ... ‘And think what we
do, if we cared to.’
the message being spread here. Think the Wommacks will fly here from the coast knowing their Mules may drop out from under them any moment, to come to the support of our so-called Confederation?”
“Disfederation,” murmured Patience of Clark. “A more accurate term at this point.”
“Patience,” I said, “you hurt me.”
“Howsomever and nevertheless,” she said, “it’s true. And anything but a sure hand now will wreck it all.”
We sat there silent, though Emmalyn fidgeted some, because it wasn’t anything to be serene about. Marktwain, Oklahomah, and probably Mizzurah, agreed on the need for the Confederation of Continents; and their Kingdoms were willing to back it as best they could. But the whole bulk of Aricansaw lay between Marktwain and Mizzurah, and the Ocean of Storms between all of us and either Kintucky or Tinaseeh; and the three loyal continents all put together were not the size of Tinaseeh. Since the day the Twelve Families first landed on this planet in 2021, since the moment foot was set on this land and it was named Ozark in the hope it would prove a homeworld to our people, those of us who preferred not to remain trapped forever in the twenty-first century had been in the minority.