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Another Man's Cage: 3. Chapter Three--Tyelkormo
Even with four children, the dining room is too big for our family. Usually, we eat outside, in my mother's favorite courtyard, at a round, glass-topped table that our father made. On evenings when rain forces our meal indoors, we crowd at one end of the long dining room table, an awkward little family in a room that is too grand in size and decoration for our humble suppers.
But when we have company—even just the apprentices—we eat in the dining room at the long oval mahogany table. The room is big and beautiful in the ornate, glittering ways of the Noldor, but I never feel like it belongs in our house. It would fit in my uncle's house, maybe, or even my grandfather's. Perhaps Manwë had called upon his Eagles to lift it over the city walls and drop it into the middle of our home? All that keeps me from doubting that it was my parents' deliberate decision to build such an oddity is the presence of their work everywhere: The crystals in the chandelier had been made by my father, the carvings on the table are my mother's patient work; even the dishes—frighteningly heavy compared to the light ceramic settings we usually use—are gilded at the edges and painted in proud colors with the family crest in my father's meticulous hand and had been glazed by my mother until they gleamed as though coated with ice.
We usually observe little decorum during mealtimes; sometimes meals feel like an inconvenience for all the harried faces and windswept hair and eager hands reaching and grabbing. Usually, at least one of us—often me—is barefoot; dirty work clothes are not discarded beforehand (sometimes our father even wears his smith's apron, if he has been interrupted in the forge); hair is not combed and fingernails are not scrubbed. Nelyo usually has ink on his lips, and Macalaurë sometimes brings his sheet music to the table, if he has an exam to send to his Telerin tutor. Amil carves the meat, even though it is thought wrong for a woman still able to bear children to handle meat, as it might drain her ability to provide nurturance to her unborn children. (Superstition, our father scoffs, claiming that Amil often hunted with him in their youth, reddening her hands with the blood of prey, and she'd had no trouble bearing four children already, still shy of her hundredth year and still with the strength to add more.) My brothers and I fall into whichever chair is closest; it is a round table, and no seniority is denoted by placement at mealtimes. The only absolute is that Carnistir has to sit beside Atar or Amil, and they alternate days for who will have this chore, because he is sloppy and mischievous in his eating habits.
But mealtimes in the dining room, with guests, are choreographed affairs. Atar sits at one end of the long table and Amil at the other. They sit first and then we—their guests and their sons—carefully take our places in the middle. Nelyo sits at Atar's right hand, the place of honor for the eldest son, and Macalaurë is placed at Amil's right. It is Atar's turn to feed Carnistir, so I sit to the left of our mother and across from Macalaurë. In the middle of the table, the apprentices are seated: Atar's apprentices at his end of the table (Annawendë is next to Nelyo, and they are being careful not to look at each other for too long) and Amil's at hers. Atar carves the meat—a large, roasted pheasant that one of the apprentices killed the day before—and passes the first piece to Nelyo, who defers to the guests, who defer to each other and then to me, and I, in turn, defer to our mother, who accepts with awkward gratitude. I think it an arduous process, when all Atar has to do is slide the plate down the table to Amil, as he would do on the glass table outside.
The guests are served next, then my brothers, in order of age. (Though Nelyo always defers until the very last, saying that he will not eat until his brothers are fed. That concept never impresses Macalaurë, who always eagerly seizes his piece when it comes to him.) That means that I have to wait until nearly last, tempted by the mingling aromas of the various dishes, through much carving and deferring. Not like it matters, for no one eats until everyone is served and Atar leads us through Eruhantale.
I have eaten at other tables—my uncles', my grandfather's—and ours is the only one where Eruhantale is given at every meal. Most families give thanks to the Valar for bringing our people to this blessed land, but Atar skips the Valar and goes straight to Eru. At some festivals, Eruhantale is tradition, but even our haphazard suppers around the round glass table in the courtyard pause for it. It is only later in my life, when I am invited to the Halls of Oromë, to join his table, that I realize that the tradition is more than a family oddity: It is a custom observed by the Valar.
"We would like to thank Eru for that which we have received from Arda this day," Atar says, "and we shall return to her in excess of what we have taken. I give thanks for the iron for my steel, for the branches I have cut to fuel my forge."
Amil speaks next: "I give thanks for the stone I have taken from the earth."
We go around like so: The apprentices also give thanks for iron and wood and stone; Nelyo is thankful for his parchment and ink; Macalaurë, for his various wooden and silver instruments, and the parchment for his sheet music as well, he adds quickly at the end. I don't know what to say, so I am also thankful for parchment, for Nelyo had read to me from books, and for the leather that covered them. Carnistir looks puzzled, sticks the edge of Atar's cloak into his mouth, and says, "Aaahh!"
"And we are all thankful for the life of the pheasant we have taken and for the fruits of Arda that grace our table," Atar says at last. "In excess shall we replant the trees we have cut and nurture the fruits we have taken from their branches; so shall we protect the lives of those creatures whose kin have given their lives for our sustenance." We all mutter our assent, and the thanksgiving is over.
As the dishes are passed, isolated conversations spring up around the table. Nelyo is engaged in careful conversation with Atar—Nelyo is doing most of the talking because Atar is trying to coax the cloak out of Carnistir's mouth and a forkful of pheasant in—with his head turned at too extreme an angle, intentionally turned from Annawendë beside him. She, too, is deliberately turned from him. Amil is politely asking her small questions: What is her parents' trade? Where did she take her training before coming to Tirion? What ever inspired her to pursue Fëanáro's scorching, painful line of work? The last is said in jest because Amil, too, is excellent at the forge—everyone knows this—and Annawendë's tension is broken a bit and she laughs. Amil's apprentices, who know Macalaurë and Nelyo well from their excursions to late-night feasts in Tirion, are discussing another such diversion that is happening in a week's time. "We are all going," says the older of the two, whom I can tell from his younger colleague only by the elaborate braids in his hair, "and so should you and Maitimo, if you can," and Macalaurë commences giving our mother careful sidelong peeks to see if she has noticed the conversation or if he will be forced to make a formal request later.
I look back to the opposite end of the table, where Atar is mashing peas into a small bowl for Carnistir, and Nelyo is talking at him between mouthfuls of pheasant about prisms and colored light and how white light is actually all colors of light and therefore perfect. (Atar's own meal is practically untouched, I notice, and certainly growing cold.) Carnistir is intentionally missing his gaped mouth to rub a piece of sweet potato up and down his face, leaving lumpy orange streaks across his nose and cheeks. At times like these, Carnistir is an embarrassment. He is four years old; surely he knows how to feed himself by now? Surely he doesn't need Atar to mash his peas for him before he can eat them? (This habit was adopted after our parents learned that Carnistir likes to stick peas in his nose and ears and one particular unfortunate instance when one got stuck so far up his nose that Nelyo had to hold him, bound and wriggling in a towel, screaming as though put to torment, while Atar attempted to avoid his gnashing teeth and remove the offending pea with a tiny pair of pliers and Amil paced outside the door, wringing her hands, and weeping almost as hard as Carnistir was.)
Amil stands to pour fresh glasses of wine for Macalaurë and the apprentices. Carnistir and I are each given a half-glass at the start of each meal and told to sip it slowly to make it last, for after it is gone, we have to drink water. (I always gulp mine, usually before I even start eating; Carnistir's mostly ends up—with the rest of his meal—down the front of his tunic.) "Amil, please." I hold my glass out to her in both hands. "It's a special day. Please?"
"Ask your father," she replies.
"Atar!" I yell, and Atar, who is trying to wrap a spoon into Carnistir's hand and get him to eat the mashed peas (Carnistir looks peeved; whole peas are much more fun) and listen to Nelyo's nervous chatter at the same time, glances at me and says, "Have a sip of Macalaurë's," to which Macalaurë begins to protest (Atar shoots him a glance that silences him before he's even spoken a full word, however), and I reach across the table for Macalaurë's glass, and my elbow knocks over my water glass, and water rolls down the table and into Amil's apprentices' laps.
"Tyelkormo!" Amil scolds, and leans across the table and tries to catch the glass before it rolls off the edge of the table and shatters. Too late. It rolls off the edge of the table and shatters.
Carnistir takes a big spoonful of mashed peas and catapults them into the side of Atar's face, where they stick in his hair and make him flinch in surprise.
"…and so if you reverse the magnets, then—" Nelyo is saying when he is hit by flecks of mashed peas that had missed hitting Atar and flown past to hit him. He turns to our baby brother—who wears a manic grin and still holds the offending spoon—with a look of such appalled shock that I have to put my napkin over my face to hide the fact that I am laughing. "Carnistir!"
Macalaurë calmly chews his sweet potatoes, reaches for his glass in front of my plate, and takes a long swig of wine.
The apprentices sit in awkward silence for a beat that is filled only with the sound of Carnistir's laughter and Macalaurë gulping his wine. Atar turns to Carnistir: I know that look; it wasn't so long ago that I was the baby and subjected to looks like that, and I know the consequences. "Carnistir!" Atar's voice when he is angry is terrible, like the rumbling of the earth. "For shame! For shame!" His flint-gray eyes snap with sparks. Carnistir's face crumples into tears, and he pulls Atar's cloak over his face and slides down in his chair until we hear the dull thump of his body hitting the floor beneath the table. Then comes the wailing—muffled some because Atar's cloak is still over his face—and Atar's temper flees like a tempest upon the wind, dissipating as quickly as it came.
He ducks under the table, peas still stuck to the side of his face, and Carnistir's wails escalate into screams. We can hear Atar consoling him, "My little one, do not cry. I was only angry, but the anger is gone now. I know that you meant no harm, but such behavior is wrong, little one, and you know that. But I forgive you, my love, I forgive you." Carnistir's voice rises, then becomes muffled, and I know that his face is buried in Atar's shoulder.
The apprentices are exchanging uneasy glances. Is our master really sitting under the table? I sense them asking in their eyes. Is this really the table of the premier craftsman of all the Noldor, and the high prince of all the Noldor at that?
A towel is thrust into my hands, and I look up into my mother's stormy face. "Here," she says. "Clean the mess you have made."
So I blot the spilled water from the table as best I can, and she offers towels to her apprentices. "I am so sorry. Here we invite you to supper and—" "No, my lady, it is fine. Do not worry about it. What is a little water?" and so on. Macalaurë is staring at the tabletop and chewing a crust of bread; Nelyo looks vaguely upset at the other end of the table and a bit uncomfortable without Atar to distract him from Annawendë at his side. Carnistir's wails from beneath the table are subsiding, and after a moment, Atar emerges with him in his arms, the cloak wrapped about Carnistir's head and his face pushed into Atar's chest. Atar takes his seat at the head of the table, perches Carnistir in his lap, and begins the delicate process of unwrapping Carnistir without spurring another fit of hysterics, using the other hand to wipe the clotted peas from his face with a napkin.
"So who's ready for dessert?" Amil asks cheerfully.~oOo~
Macalaurë always plays music after supper, and the apprentices stay long enough to be polite—for three songs—then plead exhaustion and excuse themselves. My perfect and polite Nelyo only gives them the briefest of farewells, but when the door has closed behind them, the longing in his eyes makes me certain that he wished for the courage to say more. To one of them anyway.
Now we can abandon propriety for comfort. When Atar and Amil return from bidding their apprentices a good evening, Atar sprawls out, half-lying on the couch and holds his arms out to Amil, who trots to him with her face shining like an eager adolescent and settles between his legs with her head lying back on his chest. His arms circle her, and she tilts her face to his for a kiss that lasts long enough for me to jump up from my seat on the floor and fling myself onto her lap.
"Tyelkormo!" Amil says, laughing, while Atar moans and says, "There go the rest of our children."
"Fëanáro!" she scolds, nudging him playfully with her elbow. I curl onto her lap, and her arms clasp me as Atar clasps her. Amil feels different than Atar and Nelyo, like sinking into bed after a tiresome day, softer now than I remember her being before Carnistir was born. She is strong, I know, for I've seen her swing hammers in the forge beside my father, but her strength is wrapped in something softer, like each baby she had given to Atar had blurred her edges a bit.
She strokes my hair, smoothing it back from my face and letting it trickle through her fingers like water. "Where did you ever get such pretty hair and such beautiful blue eyes, Tyelkormo?" she asks me.
"Atar was staring at the blue, blue sky when he begot me," I tell her proudly, and she nudges Atar again and says, "See, I told you not to tell him that! They remember everything that you want them to forget!"
"I don't want him to forget it," he whispers in her ear, so softly that I almost can't hear him, and rests his lips on her temple. She closes her eyes and pulls me closer, as though his love for her makes her love me more.
Across the room, Carnistir rises suddenly from the floor, still trailing Atar's cloak, and runs to Nelyo, who sits in the rocker. He settles into Nelyo's arms as I lay in Amil's and Amil lays in Atar's. Macalaurë is playing a delicate song on his harp, a wordless song that rises to the velvet sky above us, above even Telperion's silver light, to wrap around the stars. I sometimes envy Macalaurë's talent, his ability to command a room with his voice or with the play of his fingers across harp strings, but lying here now, I pity him, for he is the only one of us who is alone, not holding or being held by someone, so it is no surprise to me that when he at last gives word to his song, though it is a song of joy, his voice is raw and trembling as though in lament.~oOo~
Telperion reigns, and Atar plunks Carnistir and me into the bathtub, our last ordeal before we are sent to bed.
Giving us our baths—like feeding Carnistir—is rotated among the family members. Nelyo is my favorite because he kneels next to the tub, even after washing us, and plays, pushing around miniature wooden Telerin ships that he and Macalaurë made when they found out that our parents had conceived me, splashing us and making us giggle. Amil is fussy, scrubbing every bit of dirt from our hair and bodies and becoming irate if we splash too much. Macalaurë is hasty, washing us quickly and lifting us from the water without a chance to play, as though he has an engagement to which he must rush, leaving us damp between our toes and behind our ears.
Atar is none of these things. He washes us thoroughly and with surprising gentleness, then allows us to play until the water grows tepid and we begin to shiver. He always brings parchments with him—sometimes written in Nelyo's hand and sometimes not—and sits in a chair beside the bathtub and reads, looking intent, but I can see his eyes shift in our direction with every few words, as though fearing that we might drown in water that doesn't even reach our ribs.
Tonight, he reads a bound volume that Nelyo has been working on for the last few weeks. Carnistir pushes our little Telerin ships around the tub, every now and then capsizing one and impersonating the Telerin cries for help (in Noldorin, of course). I only half-heartedly join the game, for Carnistir has a disturbing tendency to pee in the bathtub while I am in it with him, and he always gets a distinct little smile while he is doing it. Amil and Nelyo know this smile well enough by now that they lift him from the water before it is too late (although poor Nelyo was right on time once and had his tunic ruined)—and Macalaurë never lets us stay in long enough for me to have to worry—but I never trust that Atar's inconstant vigilance will catch Carnistir in time, so I remain watchful myself.
"Ai! Ai!" Carnistir cries, thrashing his hands about in the water around two overturned Telerin ships. I see Atar glance up at us and back to his parchment in a space of time less than a second. "Ai! Merciful Ulmo! Oh, Uinen Lady of Seas, restrain thou spouse and deliver us to mercy!" I wonder sometimes where Carnistir, who cannot feed himself in a civilized manner and still cannot discern between toilet water and bath water, learns such silliness. Atar's eyes flicker back to us, and I see him smile.
"Atar?" I ask, for he will speak to us if we desire, laying aside his parchments and answering our questions with a frankness that we can't get from our mother or Nelyo. Carnistir, however, isn't interested in conversation, and his splashing and crying intensifies. A third ship joins her unfortunate sisters. "Ai! Ai!"
"What is it, Tyelkormo?" He closes the book, but his finger keeps his place.
"What are you reading?" I feel a little silly, like I am interrupting something important with my petty need to alleviate my loneliness, but my voice trumps my brain and keeps speaking in a small voice that makes me feel younger than I really am. Atar has that power over me. Always, I feel small whenever I think of him, as though he is perpetually sitting over me, clothed where I am naked. "Did Nelyo write it?"
Atar smiles, but it is one of his smiles that turns the corners of his mouth and doesn't reach his eyes. "Yes, he did. Your brother is very learned, you know."
"I know. Do you think I could be as learned as Nelyo some day?"
"If you work very hard, as Nelyo has done, then you could be as learned as Manwë, if you desire."
"Is Macalaurë learned too?"
Atar thinks for a moment before answering. "Yes, he is, in his own way. One day, his songs shall be renowned of all the Eldar, I believe." He looks at the floor and smiles that vague smile again. He almost looks sad.
"Yes, Tyelkormo?" He looks up at me, the fire burning deep in his eyes, and I know I was wrong. Someone like Atar was incapable of sadness. Anger, rage, crippling joy, but never sadness.
"Can I come work with you at the forge soon?"
I don't even know that I am going to ask that until the words are already hanging in the air between us. Carnistir is hooting happily still and splashing, and I feel terrified. He will tell me no. He will tell me that he already has apprentices. I feel my face heat up with shame at my impetuous words.
"Soon, little one, you shall join me. But first we must perfect some of our other work, yes?" I can't keep the disappointment from my face, so I stare down at the water. Telperion winks on the crest of each ripple, and the candlelight makes flickers of flame in the deep. I feel Atar cup the back of my head in his hand and turn my face to his. He doesn't kneel beside the tub as Nelyo does, but he leans forward and I can see every fleck in his brilliant gray eyes. "You have the desire to be a great craftsman, little one, but greatness requires patience, and though I yearn for your presence by my side, as do you," he strokes my hair, my cheek; his fingers are warm and make my flesh that he doesn't touch ache with the clammy cold of the bathwater, "I wish only to do right by you, to be a worthy teacher, and to rush forward now would not be for the best. Do you understand?"
"Yes." I swallow, make my voice brave. "I do." I meet his eyes and know that I will never exceed him. I will try—oh, I will try—but never will I exceed him.
He says no more, and his hand lingers on my face for a moment, then lifts, leaving my skin chilled. I shiver, not because the water is cold, but because I am bereft. He does not notice; he is gazing at the floor again.
"Atar?" He raises his eyes to me and doesn't speak, but I know that I am invited to go on. "Will Nelyo leave us when he gets married?"
From where are these questions coming? I want to stick my head beneath the water, where at least my voice will be lost in incomprehensible bubbles. Atar cocks an eyebrow in puzzled curiosity and asks, "What makes you think that Nelyo will be marrying soon?"
"Didn't you marry Amil when you were his age?"
"I was younger than Nelyo when I wed your mother, too young, some say, although I do not agree."
"But does Nelyo not fancy your apprentice?" His eyebrows raise a bit higher. "Annawendë?" I make myself say.
"Nelyo has courted many maidens in his time. He was nearly engaged to a young lady a few years ago, although it ended unfortunately. His desire for Annawendë may amount to nothing more." He pauses for a moment and considers my original question. "But yes, Tyelkormo, he will leave when he marries. He will leave and beget his own children and start his own household."
I barely hear the last part: It is like a bruise delivered to flesh that is already rent and bleeding. Almost engaged? I had not known that. I had not even known that Nelyo had courted any maidens; although girls had been occasionally brought to the house for supper, I'd seen no reason to believe that they shared anything more with Nelyo than friendship, like the boys who come to go hunting with him and Macalaurë. I feel a hurt puzzlement at the revelation of Nelyo's secret life. His other life, where he became nearly engaged without a word, where Carnistir and I—and maybe even Macalaurë—did not exist, were not substantial enough to influence his plans. Why should we? Was he not preparing for sons of his own, the sons of whom Macalaurë had spoken earlier and Atar spoke of now, the sons he was meant to have? Meant to leave us for? I decide that I will hate his sons, when they come, hate them with sickening bitterness, even though I will be their uncle and share their blood, even though they will only be innocent babies, I will hate them—hate them—for taking Nelyo from me.
When I had been younger, I used to catch butterflies in my hands, and once I'd caught a bee, and the wounded surprise that I'd felt when it stung my innocent palm, already swelling, pulsing aching poison into my blood, had been like what I feel now. My only consolation had come from Atar's assurance that the bee had suffered more for its folly than I: The penalty for the poisonous stinger torn from its body had been death. I sink into the water, becoming cold, and desire conversation no more.
Carnistir's lips tremble, and he shivers.
Atar dips his fingers into the water. "Ilúvatar in Ea, it has become cold fast! Why did you not speak up, Tyelkormo?" He rises and, lifting Carnistir first, then me, wraps us in fluffy towels. I do not answer him and stand with the towel clasped around my shoulders, shivering at the shock of the air on my damp skin, and watch him carefully dry Carnistir, rubbing the water from his hair first and drying inside his ears and between his fingers and toes with more meticulous gentleness than even Amil does. I am dried next, and I relish the warmth of his hands on my body as he soaks the chilly water from my skin with the towel.
He dresses each of us in clean nightclothes and combs the snarls from our damp hair, sitting in his chair while we stand between his knees. Carnistir sways on his feet, his eyes only half-open, his thumb poked into his mouth, and would fall if Atar didn't clasp his legs around him. Carnistir leans on his thigh and whines.
"I need to put him to bed," Atar tells me, smoothing my hair and setting aside the comb. "Go to your room and I shall be in shortly to kiss you goodnight."
He lifts Carnistir, who might have rags for flesh, as limp as he's become. His eyelids are nearly closed; only a smoky glimmer from beneath his heavy lashes tells me that he is awake. "G'night, Turko," he mumbles. "Love you." Atar doesn't correct his sloppy speech.
"Good night, Carnistir," I say. "I love you too," and Carnistir wiggles in Atar's arms and turns his face against his neck.
I watch them go down the hall to Carnistir's room, right next to our parents' bedroom, before I turn and walk to my own room, wincing at the cold kiss of the stone floor against my bare feet. My sheets tightly embrace my mattress; Nelyo helps me to make my bed every morning, and he tucks the sheets so that I can barely pry them free at night. I manage to pull away a corner and wiggle beneath it, shivering where the icy silk slides against my bare skin. Nelyo's bedroom is across from mine, and shards of conversation drift across the hall and a glissando of musical laughter—Macalaurë—and I know that my elder brothers are in one of their private counsels. I wonder if they will be going to their picnic next week. Summer is imminent; we will be leaving for Formenos soon.
Atar drifts into my bedroom without a sound and draws my drapes until only a sliver of Telperion's light can stretch its silver fingers into my room. In the near-darkness, he melts almost perfectly with the shadows; only the hot sparks of his eyes remain. The darkness smothers me, and I close my eyes and feel the mattress beneath my body slowly disappearing. Atar sits on the edge of my bed, and the weight of his body shifts the bed and tugs me awake.
"Atar," I whisper—or think I whisper—and there is a warm flush in the center of my forehead, a kiss like rose petals. Across the hall, Nelyo banters, laughing, with Macalaurë, and I stretch my eyes open to slits.
"Sleep, little one," he breathes in my ear, and I seize him around the neck and hold him beside me.
"Don't leave, don't leave," I whimper, and he gently unlocks my arms from around his neck, folds my hands on my chest, and holds them clasped in his. I feel the mattress sink further, and I know that he is half-lying beside me, waiting for sleep to take me so that he can go to Amil.
Why are you so afraid to be alone? I think I hear him ask—or maybe it is the wind through my window—before oblivion takes me.
Quenya Name Translations
Nelyo/Maitimo -- Maedhros
Macalaurë -- Maglor
Tyelkormo/Turko -- Celegorm
Carnistir -- Caranthir
Fëanáro -- Fëanor
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