For Vana Tuivana, who asked for a story about Caranthir and the sea. Thank you, Vana, for your support, good cheer, and most of all, for your friendship.
When I was small, my mother made a tiny phial of blown glass, and when I cried, she would use the phial to scoop up my tears. She had four of them around her neck on leather cords, four phials of different hues-red, blue, gold, and mine: dark violet-sealed with tiny stoppers. The red one was nearly full in those days; the blue about halfway. The gold phial was mostly empty, as was the dark-violet. But that was to change.
"Now," she said, pushing the little chunk of cork back into the top of my phial and letting it slip away, between her breasts, "you shall never be sad without me knowing it. And I shall come to you wherever you are and sweep your tears away." The tips of her fingers were callused and rough upon my cheeks, but when they left my skin, the tears and the deep-sad ache behind my eyes were gone, as though with magic.
"And when the phial is filled," she added, "then you are a child no more but a man, and the tears you cry shall erode mountains and change the course of rivers with their power, maybe even fill the sea."
Later, there were five phials, then seven. By then, my phial was nearly filled, perhaps requiring one last tear, but I was stubborn in those days and not wont to cry, and the other three phials came to the same level of mine (even Pityo's, after he drank his once it was half-full while our mother napped...or maybe it was Telvo's that he drank) and then were filled, and they would ring softly against each other whenever our mother moved, crying in their tiny bell-like voices from the secret darkness beneath her clothes, as though her skin itself made music. I always imagined that I could hear mine: Lacking a tear, it rang lower and stranger than the others.
Or I imagined that I could hear it sloshing, sobbing, begging me to fill it with one more tear.
Stubborn-like my father, I liked to believe-I refused.
My brothers became men, their phials were filled and their tears no more. If they did cry, their tears had the power to move mountains and shape rivers, but they had no reason to cry, and so the horizons of Valinor remained steady and unchanged. Instead, they discovered bliss and joy. One by one, they married. One by one, they fathered children-my brother-sons and -daughters-the noise of their laughter drowning the ringing of the phials around my mother's neck. One by one, they earned the renown and acclaim that was their due, as princes. It was my due as well, but I remained unwed and childless, my phial unfilled.
For I was Carnistir the Stoic, Carnistir the Harsh, Carnistir the Dark, and Carnistir the Sullen. People found it hard to look upon my face; my eyes, they said, were like rock. Once, as a child and angered with our father's ideas of impossibility-for Fëanáro maintained until the moment of his death that nothing undone was impossible-Maitimo had taken a rock into his fist and squeezed it until his knuckles went white like bone. "See! Water cannot be wrung from rocks! There is impossibility in the world!"
It was known by the world that rocks did not laugh, did not bleed, and-perhaps most importantly-did not cry. Doubtlessly, if they even noticed or cared, my brothers did not think it strange that my phial was the only one to go unfilled. My eyes were the color of grit and just as dry and just as comforting to contemplate. I heard Tyelkormo remark once to Curufinwë-on the eve of Curufinwë's wedding-when our younger brother lamented that he should know love and union of spirit before I did, that no one would ever contemplate love with me, for it would be like dooming oneself to sleep forevermore in a bed full of gravel.
Or: when Macalaurë's wife had an accident on her horse and their unborn first child was lost to blood, I followed the sound of voices to his chambers, where all of my brothers had gathered to console him, but I was met at the door by Maitimo, his arm spanning the frame as though to bar me. "You are welcome, of course," in his hasty, polite voice, "but I don't think that you would understand." And so I turned away and my brother's tears fell without me, and if they moved mountains...well, I didn't bother to look.
When I laughed, I was called ruthless; when I bled, stoic, for I never flinched, slurped the blood from the wound, bound it in cloth, and went on with what I'd been doing. When I cried, I was called nothing, for I did not cry.
In the depth of night when Telperion's light shimmers like dew upon the night and is wan enough to see the stars, sadness wrenched me, but I did not cry a single tear. While my mother slept in the arms of my father-the phials around her neck tangling, perhaps dropping to lie upon his arms that always held her in their shared dreams-and while my brothers laid beside their wives and dreamt only of joy, I willed myself to weep for my strangeness if not my loneliness, but my eyes may have indeed been made of rock, for water came not of them, and I became a man, begrudging that final tear to my mother's phial.
I wondered if she stirred in her sleep. I shall come to you, wherever you are, and sweep your tears away. But I had no tears. What reason to come to me then?
When I was young and my phial still mostly empty, my parents took me for the first time to the sea. I'd never seen the sea but in pictures, for it was walled off from us by mountains too high to see over the tops of. In paintings, it was a long stretch of blue that dominated the picture, no matter the figures standing in front of it and what they might be doing. Even in the Hall of History-the big round room in Grandfather's palace that was lined by paintings of the most extraordinary events to punctuate the long lives of our people-where the Noldor stepped onto the unmoored island that would carry them oversea to Valinor, even as Grandfather's feet spanned one world and the next, his arm raised and his face graven so that anyone looking at the painting knew the importance of the words that had come from his mouth, words important enough to be confined on other pieces of paper now and bound into books, it was not Grandfather or Oromë or the fur-wrapped Noldor that filled the picture. It was the sea.
It had been the sea that had barred them from a life at the feet of the gods and it was the sea that kept us from our history and those people left behind us. It was an obstacle and protector both, and it was too large to fill any painting.
I first saw the sea at the age of three years, at the festival in Alqualondë. Through the Calcirya we drove-Macalaurë was arguing with our father, I remember, and Tyelkormo was drumming his feet impatiently on the bench and being ignored by Nelyo, whose attention he wanted and was being given to a book of lore-and we crested a hill, and there it was. The light spilled only through the narrow passage in the mountains behind us, but yet it winked on the crest of every wave, as though the sea had taken that meager allotment of light, spread it thin, and made it last. One day, I thought, I will prop myself on my elbows and look into the water, wondering if it had been prudent enough to make the light last over the decades of darkness. A shiver touched me then, and I found my mother's arms around my shoulders and my head pressing her breast, muffling the sounds of Macalaurë arguing and Tyelkormo drumming his feet and Nelyo riffling through pages in his book. Alqualondë was there too, a white city cast orange by the glow of the lamps the outlined its meandering streets, and though it glowed proudly against the cobalt sea behind it-like in Grandfather's paintings-the city was overwhelmed by the sea.
Almost, I could imagine the sea rising, swelling in the same unremarkable manner as a chest filling with breath, and overtaking the city, chuckling as it filled the streets and snuffed out the lamps.
I held out my arms to either side of me, stretched until my bones popped and hurt, and yet I could not embrace the sea. And when the phial is filled, then you are a child no more but a man, and the tears you cry shall maybe even fill the sea.
At the age of three years, with the sea enormous in my sight, I grew disillusioned then of my mother's phial. Perhaps that is why I would later begrudge it my tears.
We were given a house on a precipice for the duration of the festival, a house that might have been carved from the rock itself, and a long stone stairway led down to the beach and the sea. We were given leave to play there in the days before the festival, and my skin could barely contain me in my excitement as my mother dressed me in old clothes suitable, she said, "for bathing," though I knew that this sort of bathing had nothing to do with the ordeal that transpired each evening before being put to bed, where the insides of my ears and the spaces between my toes were exploited by my parents, in search of dirt that I did not believe existed. From the window, I could see the sea as she dressed me: the waves lapping the shore, playful and yet quixotic, becoming wicked in an instant, water grown calm and clear rising as suddenly as a fist from the water, driving back even my tall, strong brother Nelyo, who fell on his backside in the sand and joined Macalaurë and our father in laughter as the water ran back to the sea, tickling the sand with its foam fingers.
So like me, I believed: enamored of joy but becoming perilous without warning, sensing a hurt or a slight before it was delivered in the same way that a deer will scent a predator moving upwind and dash to safety before the branches fracture with a loud report cracking the silence and she has fallen, throat torn. Only no one understood that; no one understood that the tiny fist that had torn a tooth, bloodied, from Tyelkormo's mouth once was in reply to something he'd meant to say. No, they expected the hurt to be delivered before I was permitted a reaction. I wondered why the sea rose and slapped against my father; I wondered what slight he would have to one day make against it that had earned him such vitriol.
On the beach, the sand glinted in the meager light, and I ran for the sea and let it wrap my legs in its grip. My two eldest brothers had found broad planks of wood and were flopped upon them on their bellies, letting the waves carry them back to the shore, borne high above the sand and dropped, left to tumble in tangle of limbs, left upon the beach like bits of laughing detritus. My mother was close behind me; I could hear the ringing of the phials under her dress. They were four notes then, for we were four ages-none of us yet men-still with many tears left to cry.
I could feel her fright for me, only three years old and standing at the edge of the sea surging with such anger that even my strong whip of a father was left to stumble back to the beach in defeat. But a strange thing happened then, and the sea subsided and grew calm. My brothers on their planks merely bobbed in disappointment, and the water swirled around my knees, the foam it had churned making shapes on the top of it that looked a lot like Tengawar. If I was older, perhaps I could read them; perhaps I could learn what fates were spelled upon the surface of the sea.
I crouched and-before my mother could lift a hand to stop me-cupped my hands and lifted the water to my lips to drink, as I had seen my older brothers do when they reached streams in the forest. The sea lifted and cupped my bottom, as strong and sure as my father's hand, and it whispered to me to taste of it, to taste of history and fate alike.
My tongue poked out and lapped at the water, and my cupped hands jerked apart then, and the water tumbled with a laughing splash back to the sea. It tasted of salt, of tears, of pain and grief and regret. In it, I tasted the fates of thousands to come before me, some as small as me or as great as the Valar. I heard their pleas for help that had gone unheard, swallowed by the hungry sea.
I was weeping then too, and the sea grew capricious and surged, lifting me and casting me upon my back, for perhaps it wanted to lick my tears too, but it had not considered my mother, standing so close behind me that I was caught and lifted back to dry land and safety. Was that a ringing sound, coming from beneath her clothes? It was hard to tell in the chaos of shouting voices, sand being kicked in plumes beneath running feet heading for me, Nelyo and Atar circling in the shallows where I'd been kneeling and searching for the urchin or jellyfish that must have caused me such grievous hurt. They did not hear the laughter of the sea, did not feel the way that it dashed against their legs as though trying to ensnare them.
In the warmth of my mother's embrace, there was the soft popping sound of a cork loosed from its tight fit inside the neck of a glass bottle, and the phial kissed cold against my cheeks and thirstily swept away my tears. The ocean muttered behind us, for not a single tear had dropped into the sea.
I discovered that I was strange not long after that. Where normal Elves grew in a manner much like a line being drawn between two points, someone with a cruel sense of humor had bumped the hand drawing my line and sent it skidding across the paper in the wrong direction. Physically, I grew as expected, according to the notches that my father made on one of the beams in the barn on each of our begetting days: smaller than Maitimo had been but taller than Macalaurë and holding pace with Tyelkormo. But where other Elves grew into love-love of learning, love of Arda, love of each other-I did not. Even my parents: my love for them diminished when I caught them looking upon me and thinking that I was strange. Wondering where they had failed with me. No amount of torment could ever have coaxed such thoughts into words, I believed, but they thought about it, and their thoughts reached me and pressed against my mind like an insistent hand upon the door, relentlessly seeking entrance, until I wearied and let them in.
I began to begrudge my mother my tears and cried alone instead. This was itself thought to be strange. Then I stopped crying altogether.
It's like he feels nothing: not pain nor joy.
Fighting the insistent hand, the pressure, until I wearied and my mother's thoughts came to me.
He is strange.
My brothers believed me to be afraid of the sea. As we grew older, we rode on journeys of our own, and they often culminated at the sea, for the sea was believed to be a place of rest and renewal, where tired bodies could stretch upon the sand and be washed by the tireless waves. Whooping and kicking their legs high, my brothers would plunge one after the other into the water, bodies striving against the waves, looking back at me to laugh at my fear of the sea.
I paced upon the sand and would not go near.
"Look Carnistir," said Tyelkormo once, "it has lain down for you. It is inviting you in."
Indeed, the sea grew calm in my presence, the waves flattened and curled like beckoning fingers. Foam rested atop the water, swirled into shapes like Tengwar. I could read it by then, but I never looked. I did not want to know what it said.
Come to me. We are alike, you and I.
In the cold waters of the northern lakes, I did my swimming, cutting the water with a body grown strong as expected. There, I once agreed to race my brother Tyelkormo, for he had grown taller than me, broad in the shoulders and of golden beauty hard to look upon, and proud. His voice rose, tangled with those of our brothers. Poor Carnistir, scared of the sea but swimming for hours in the lake. They laughed at me, but they knew me to be strange by then and did not think much of it. But Tyelkormo wanted a challenge, perhaps sensing defiance in my refusal to answer his taunts. Blue eyes on my grit-colored ones, he asked, and I agreed.
We dove from the cliff and our bodies cut the silver surface of the lake like knives, matching each other stroke for stroke, heading for the gravelly beach where my parents were sitting with the newborn twins. I could hear him breathing beside me. I could feel his exhaustion and knew that I would prevail; it throbbed with his pulse, growing heavier with each pull of his arms. My parents were growing closer, Atar having lifted his eyes to watch us. I felt Tyelkormo's realization that I would best him; already, I was pulling ahead. His exhaustion roared like blood in my ears; his desperation not to lose-to fail to his little brother in front of our brothers and our father-stabbed in me like a knife and twisted.
I clutched my leg as though with a cramp, for I did not want to win so badly. Tyelkormo swam on without me.
I let the dark depths of the lake, frigid below me, take hold of my feet, and I sank beneath the water. Nelyo had tried to reason with me once about my fear of the sea. All of the water was the same, he said, gone up into the clouds and distributed by rain. But this water was not like the sea; even if the logic that drove Nelyo's thoughts considered it the same, this water was indifferent to joy and grief alike; it would smother me in its depths and never raise a wave to answer the grief of those mourning me on the shore. I let myself sink until the pressure squeezed upon my legs and my lungs burned for air; I let myself sink until Tyelkormo descended upon me in a roar of bubbles to catch me under the arms and hoist me to the surface, to return to the shore not only as the winner of our race but also a hero.
I clenched my toes and did a convincing amount of writhing so that the others would believe that I'd been taken by a cramp rather than chancing to drown for the glory of my brother, whose heart was beating so fast that I could see his chest trembling with it, my brother who felt the pang of tragedy averted: but what tragedy? My death or his losing the race?
My mother went to massage the cramp from my leg.
Carnistir the Cold, the Heartless, the Dark, they called me, if they only in thought-later in speech-and believed me without feeling for any but myself.
My skin was icy, my mother's fingers warm upon it, kneading the calf where no knot was to be found.
As Tyelkormo gasped out his heroic tale, her fingers worked my leg from the ankle to the back of my knee. Tyelkormo was clapped on the back and lauded for his deed; I imagined his smile stretching so wide that his face lit up like Laurelin. Up and down my leg, my mother's fingers worked, finding nothing but, at last, making a pantomime of it working a deep and painful knot, her face twisted into a grimace suitable for one dispatching of that which had almost killed her son. Her eyes met mine, and I waited for the pressure of her thought pressing into my awareness-He is strange, beyond comprehension-but it never came, and she silently massaged my leg and did not interrupt the tale that Tyelkormo was so gloriously retelling.