THE SLOUCHING FIELDS:
The Slouching Fields is not yet published. Here is how it begins.
THE FIRST CHAPTERS
Chapter 1 | Broken Chain
Told by Carver Mora, daughter of Carver Laren and Carver Tarrin
In the tumbling water, I struggled first to reach the bottom with my feet, then to reach the top for air. And when I broke the surface, I heard the chain dragging on the bridge and I saw the green riverbank. Then I knew it was a dream, and I opened my eyes to complete blackness.
Where is the window? The inky squares should show on my left. Where is my brother? Little Tobi’s warmth should be on my right. Then my heart thudded. I knew where I was. I was under Cap’s floor. There was no chain and no bridge, only Cap’s snores, such long snores, twice as long as a person’s, so loud even through the floor.
I tried to return to the nightmare. It had colors, memory, my family. Bits flitted back: the ox also struggling and splashing, the wooden wheel cast apart from the wagon, the yells coming from the other bank. Tobi gripping my hand and yelping my name, “Mora!” Yes, Tobi had been next to me, and it wasn’t me in the water. That was Mother, but Mother lived.
And the chain dragged again, and I writhed and gripped my face through the acorn-cloth and whimpered, but silently, it had to be silently, and I tucked the cloth in at my neck. It was our old acorn-leaching cloth that I’d thrown into my coat pocket, thinking ahead that it would keep small crawling things off me, the sorts of things that would make their home here. Things crawling on me might make me cry out. I must not cry out.
This will end. I had come out the other side of fear before. What mattered was what happened after Cap’s feet hit the floor, sometime before dawn. If I dozed, his steps above would wake me. Then I would creep out of this bad place into the crisp night and follow him, far, very far, each of my steps covering seven leagues. Seven leagues! A distance I had never traveled.
The chain was all right, it was Cap, and Cap was there where I needed him to be for the enchantment to work. Cap was why I was here, and no one else can do this. This is so Pa can come back. So we can all go home. This is for Squirrel, for what Cap did to him. This is so the truth can be spoken again in Mirchena. The truth most of us never heard.
And it happened that fear loosened its hold.
And I thought that I might sleep. My body ached, my eyes were heavy, my mind willed itself to be gone from here. As if falling asleep for the first time, I reached out to touch the dirt floor. But my lips didn’t form the words, “Thanks for shelter.” Giving thanks here did not fit, and I remembered how much I had to be grateful for once.
Chapter 2 | What We Saw, What We Didn’t See
Told by Robb, called Squirrel, son of Wagoner Fennin and Wagoner Dayna
We would know them by their hair. We must think, if we ever met one, whether to fight or run. Children should run, or if that wasn’t safe, pretend to be stupid. Westlanders would be among us for only one reason, to steal, and they would take a Mirchan life without pausing to think. There was no reasoning with them. They would always be our enemy.
We were Mirchans because Mirchena was our Capital. Mirchit was our village, and Mirch was the proper name of our Cap, not that we ever called him that. Cap stood between the Westlanders and us. He patrolled the borderlands as far as the foothills of the Westland Mountains. He had nothing to fear. Cap could crush a Westlander under his heel. Should Westlanders come in numbers, Cap had his arsenal of Tairs, against which our foes had little defense. Most Mirchans knew little about Tairs other than that they were works of sorcery and looked like spiky calf-sized birds. We were comforted knowing about them. Most of us never needed to see them.
The Road Council in far-off Sereda had some kind of agreement with the Caps about protecting us. It didn’t matter what the agreement was. It didn’t matter why the Road Council existed, other than to maintain the roads along which our wagons delivered Lot to it every year. Protecting us served the Road Council by keeping the Lot coming in. Protecting us served Cap because we were his Hands, who repaid him by building, crafting, planting, harvesting. Most of all, the protection served us. We enjoyed a safe and comfortable life, as long as we were willing to work. And after all, we worked for Cap only three seasons out of five, or gave him only three parts out of five, while the rest of our labor was ours. Work might be hard, but every ninth day was Feet-Up, and we had a festival for each season. If you complained, you were ignorant or lazy.
We owed Cap not only our safety, but our homes. Mirchena was his land. It would be easy to forget this, since our families lived undisturbed in our houses for generations. Our Teachers reminded us.
If some among us wished to take Cap’s protection and shelter without giving a Hand’s labor, they might live as they liked, just not in the village. They were sent to the Slouching Fields until they chose to rejoin us. Housing and feeding them, not well but enough, was Cap’s way of keeping them from causing too much trouble. Some said Cap was too generous, especially when you considered that, in the long run, whatever he gave them came from us. But we generally thought a little kindness and a little patience did no harm. A Slouch, after all, was not a Westlander.
It wasn’t the way we thought it was. We trusted what we should have feared, admired what we should have despised, scorned what we should have pitied, boasted of what should have made us ashamed. The things that were ours were real, but what we believed about Cap was a lie from start to finish. Then there were parts of our own lives that were tangled up with Cap, and we had to sort them out for ourselves.
Chapter 3 | The Star Child
Told by Mora, daughter of Carver Laren and Carver Tarrin
“Don’t dig your toes in.”
Squirrel stopped to shift Tobi’s drowsy weight, and I bumped into them in the dim passage. The latch clicked, Squirrel leaned his shoulder into the door, and we walked into chill and starlight, a lake of rumpled blankets spread out at our feet. Squirrel put Tobi down. We kicked our shoes off, crawled toward the far wall, and piled in under the bedclothes. We shivered a bit at first. The season was Lycat, and the cool air through the open window had life in it. Through the door to the room we’d come from, we could still the loom and the flute keeping time together. That was Mother at the loom, and Ooba helping her, playing low and lively.
Squirrel and I reached past the mattress to touch the floor. “Thanks for shelter,” I said, and Squirrel said, the way his family did, “Thanks for this shelter.” I nudged my brother, “Touch the floor, Tobi-bit.” While he was doing that, firm steps came along the passage: Aunt Veera. And the latch lifted and Aunt Veera swung into the room, crossed at the foot of the bed, and sat on the stool between the window and us. She was silent for a moment, looking out at the stars and settling her shawl around her neck.
“Do you see the Star Child?” she asked us. We had to sit up to see, above the Tanners’ roof, the starry figure reclining at the edge of the sky, with her arms reaching upwards and her big head, like a baby’s. Tobi squirmed onto my lap to get a view. “There she is,” he confirmed with authority.
He had seen her only a handful of times. She appeared at this hour for a few weeks early in Lycat. “We seed her yesterday,” he informed Aunt Veera, “before we got in bed. And you came with the lamp. And all the stars goed away.” He looked out the window again. “Tell the Old Once Tale, Aunt Veera. About the Star Child.”
It was two years ago. Squirrel stayed with us every Lycat while his parents were off with their wagons on Rendery, bringing Mirchena’s goods to the Road Council.
“Lie down now and I’ll tell you.” Aunt Veera said in her usual voice, and then her voice shifted. She told the Star Child tale the same way Pa told it, with most of the same words, and in a voice that rose and fell slowly like music. They had learned the story together, from their mother, my dead Oldma.
“Once there was a big, big child who lived in the sky. Far up in the coal-black sky. She floated among the stars and did not have many thoughts, because she didn’t need thoughts in the sky. In the coal-black sky, all alone. She didn’t have a mouth because there was no food. No food in the sky. She didn’t have feet, or hands, or ears, because she didn’t need those in the sky, either. Floating alone in the coal-black sky, with nothing to stand on, and nothing to hold, and nothing to hear. She lived in the sky for a very long time, but she didn’t notice the time because she wasn’t thinking about anything. For so long, she had no thoughts. All alone in the coal-black sky, with nothing to hear and nothing to hold. She didn’t sleep, because there was no night, and she didn’t wake, because there was no day. But after a very long time, she looked down at our world and decided to make her home there. Because the sky was too big to be a home. The sky was too empty to be a home. The sky had no up or down, but a home should have up and down. She thought, ‘To live there, I am going to need feet to walk on,’ and she grew feet. She thought, ‘I will need hands to hold things,’ and she grew hands. She thought, ‘I will need ears to hear things,’ and she grew ears. She thought, ‘I will need a mouth to eat things,’ and she grew a mouth. To give herself a reminder of where she came from, she left her outline in the sky. ‘This is where I was, and if I never return, I must never forget.’
“When she came down through the clouds, something happened to her. She did not come down in one place, but instead she became many children and came down in many places.
“Wherever they landed, the children walked on the ground on their feet, because that is what you do when you live on the ground. Walking on the ground, on the sand, on the rocks, on the grass. They picked things up in their hands, because there were things to pick up. Picking up stones, and flowers, and lumps of snow. There were many things happening around them, and the things that were happening made the children think. All of this work, walking, picking things up, and thinking, made the children hungry, so they began to eat things with their mouths and fill their stomachs. They were walking children, thinking children, holding-things children, tasting-food children.
“Life in the world was so different from life in the sky that the children quickly forgot their old life, when they were the Star Child. The children became men and women and had children of their own. The children of the many children who came from the sky. The new life was sometimes beautiful. When it was beautiful, it brought joy the Star Child had never felt when she was all alone in the sky. There were friends, and there was love, and there was music, and dancing, and making things, and blue skies and white clouds and green fields. Also, sometimes there was pain, which the Star Child had never felt, either.
“Some of the new children were born with a memory of the time when they had all been one, but they forgot as they got older. Some of the children were born, grew up and grew old, and only then remembered the time in the sky. There were a few who knew all their lives, and some who never knew, and many who knew from time to time. The happiest people were the ones who remembered. The unhappiest people were the ones who forgot. And whenever two people met while they were both remembering, they recognized each other and smiled.
“Now, we are those children. We are the Star Child, or the Great Child, as we call her sometimes. When you see her in the sky, think about the time when you were there, and all the other people, too.”
Tobi added softly, because it was what Pa said, “So if you are not happy, you should try to find the Great Child in other people. And in yourself.”
When Aunt Veera started to get up, Tobi said, “Tell us ‘nother one.”
“Only one story,” Aunt Veera said. But she was not on her feet yet.
Squirrel, who knew better than to ask her to change her mind, asked instead, “'Hand' Veera, why is the Star Child a girl?”
Aunt Veera peered at him, her sharp cheekbones outlined in starlight. “What do you want her to be?”
“Her children grew up into men and women, you said. Did they all start out as girls?”
“I don’t imagine so. I imagine they grew the right parts to be men and women, just the same as they grew parts for walking and eating.”
Squirrel said, as calm as a donkey, “I’m going to say the Star Child is a boy.”
“Squirrel!” I protested. “Everyone knows she’s a she. You can’t just change it.”
“I can, too.”
“That doesn’t make it true.”
“Saying it’s a she doesn’t make it true, either.”
“Aunt Veera,” Tobi asked, “what is she really?” But Aunt Veera only eyed us all without answering.
Squirrel accused, “You want it to be a she because you’re a girl.”
“But it is a she!”
“So you say.”
It was more than I could take. I shoved him. “Don’t,” he said, and shoved back.
“Stop it!” Tobi wailed.
Aunt Veera put her strong hands on Squirrel and me and gave us a shake. “What the crump is wrong with you? Boy, girl, what difference does it make?”
Before I could come up with an answer, Squirrel nimbly dropped his question and sprouted a new one.
Did Cap come from the Star Child?”
“Be quiet, Robb,” Aunt Veera said. She was annoyed: she used his real name. “Go to sleep. If you don’t remember your question in the morning, then you didn’t need to know the answer anyway.” Aunt Veera stalked out.
Then I came up with the reason I would have said: It wasn’t right to change an Old Once Tale.
Squirrel was arguing because he loved to argue. Or to taunt me. Or maybe he felt cheated because the Star Child was a girl.
Squirrel reached out with his toe and touched my foot. “Hey, Mora.”
No answer was the same as yes, so I didn’t answer. The loom clacked, clacked, clacked. The music had stopped. The stars I could see were bright. I could not see the Star Child.
I thought suddenly that if the children grew the right parts to be men and women, you could really wonder which parts the Star Child had. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered.
I reached out with my toe and touched his foot.
We didn’t talk after that. The three of us were left alone with the gentle sounds of night: the clack of the loom, the calling of night birds, and the distant voice of Dunit the Crier saying words we couldn’t hear.
Aunt Veera, sitting across from me at morn-sup, had circles under her eyes, and Pa told us it was because she had been up in the middle of the night thrashing a couple of Slouch boys that had tried to steal from our garden. I watched a smug look steal over Aunt Veera’s face as she let her brother tell this story about her. She hadn’t even waked him to help her out, and we’d all slept through the whole thing. Aunt Veera took special pride in dealing with Slouches. We were on the west side of the village and close to the Brackenhill path, which led to the Slouching Fields, so we had to be watchful about our garden. Slouches didn’t try to get into houses, where anything they took could be traced back to its owners, and that meant our tools were safe. Anyhow, as Aunt Veera said, a Slouch wouldn’t know what to do with a tool of any kind, because tools were for work and Slouches didn’t care about work.
Tobi had been watching our aunt closely while Pa spoke. Then he said, “Aunt Veera, can you see the Star Child in Slouches?”
Aunt Veera drank some tea. She answered, “It isn’t easy to when they’re stealing from you.”
“But you still can?”
“I don’t bother myself about it,” Aunt Veera said. “They should have a try at finding the Star Child in themselves. Then they wouldn’t steal, for one thing, and they’d work, for another. And then there wouldn’t even be any Slouches.”
Squirrel and I were already getting up from the table by then. We were hurrying because it was Handyday. And when we got to Handyclass, it was a dull lesson even though it was about weaving.
On the way back, we got a bit of news from Bowyer Hannin when we stopped to fetch milk from him. Bowyer Hannin grazed a cow on the Common. He was at work in his side-yard and was eager to tell us what he’d seen the night before, no doubt between the time we fell asleep and the time Aunt Veera thrashed the Slouches.
“Grand procession on the Straight Road. Agrandhall ball,” Handy Hannin reported, strolling over. I recognized the two-handled tool he hadn’t put down: a drawknife, like the one we used before whittling a branch. And Hannin’s strong arms and hands were like my parents’, and shavings clung to his trousers, the way they clung to us at home.
“The whole Straight Road was headed up there,” he said, gesturing eastward with the knife. “Dresses that fluttered and floated.” His hands, including the knife, did a little dance. “Velvet, that soft stuff, and lace, it looked like little white flowers all sewn together at their wrists and their necks.” The Bowyer’s eyes seemed still filled with the sight. “A score of torchbearers. The colors! Just imagine what it was like inside.”
“How did you find out?” I asked.
“I went over when I heard the music. Handy Tanner was there watching, and Retter Hilpen.
“I wish the Reckoner would put up a notice about these balls,” he added.
“What for?” Squirrel asked. “You can’t go.”
“So we could gawp at the fine people. It’s a treat to see. So much light in the night. The colors,” he repeated, shaking his head.
“Your Teacher was there,” he added. “I didn’t recognize her at first. She was a lady, all right. Yellow gown with little yellow feathers on the hem and the sleeves. The hem kicked up every time she took a step. Over that, she had a blue jacket, light blue, that gleamed in the torchlight. I am telling you, it was like sun on water. She had gold ribbons in her hair. Her husband was wearing a hat as tall as a tree.”
“She was probably dancing all night,” Squirrel scoffed. “No wonder she was half awake for Handyclass.” We nodded to Hand’ Hannin and went to get the milk, the pitcher cooling in the basin on their porch.
“Squirrel,” I said, “you’re the one who was half awake.”
“Because it was dull. Because we had a dull Teacher.”
Teacher Aloot being dull was nothing new. Now, to imagine her dressed the way Handy Hannin had described her, and dancing in her fine clothes amid all the other fine people in their fine clothes, that was new for me. We were used to her in her well-tailored teaching suit. The life of a Teacher had two sides, didn’t it, the everyday one in Handyclass and—
“Squirrel,” I said, “don’t you dare. I am not waiting in the road with the milk.”
I’d seen he was distracted, I’d followed his gaze, and I knew exactly what he was looking at: the wingseed tree up ahead. His eyes had the hungry look that said he was working out which way he’d go up.
“You could go on without me,” Squirrel said.
“I could not. Noon-sup will be ready. You can’t leave it sit.”
Squirrel lit off up the road to the tree, flung himself up and up, swung from a branch, dropped down. He rejoined me when I was alongside the tree. So I never had to wait. I understood completely. Squirrel needed to climb trees the same way I needed to run.
We went along up the road to where the Brackenhill path met it, turned into the path, and from there could see a small figure on our porch. It was Pa, leaning over something clamped to the high bench. “Hand’ Tarrin is carving,” Squirrel said.
“Carvers carve,” I observed.
Anyone could see, looking at our house, that it belonged to Carvers. From far off, you could see the porch workbenches we used when it was warm enough. You could also tell that nearly the whole house was made of wood, and that was a rare thing in stony Mirchena. Only our rear wall on the north side was made of stone against the wind. Then when you got close to our house, you could see that every bit of its wooden posts and trim was carved. Pa had carved the front door, but the frame was the work of Oldpa’s Oldpa and the all the window-frames by Oldpa’s old-aunt. Her hand had shaped morning-glories to climb around the windows, and among the leaves you could find a beetle here, a lizard there. All wood.
My far cousin Bamire, born a Carver, had become a Weaver and used to live with us. I remembered her white hair, her soft hands, and her figure at the loom Mother now used. I remembered when she died and she was laid on a sheet on the table and looked so pale while people walked past her to say goodbye. We called her Bama. “I never was much with a chisel,” Bama confided in me once. She did not use a Simpling, the enchanted thing used by most Weavers and Spinners. “A Simpling is like a ghost in the room,” she’d said. “I’m a Hand and I will use my hands.” Her fine linen cloth sold on the Straight Road. One of her woolen blankets was on our bed during the cold weeks of Wingmouse; lying in on dim mornings, I sometimes stared enthralled at the crossing yarns, sky, rose, moss, and rust.
Mother had not kept up Bama’s dyer’s garden. Our Aunt Firlen had taken many of the plants for herself. A dyer’s garden was one of many things Mother could not be troubled with. Ooba and Oldpa did most of the work around the house and garden, and Mother escaped as quickly as she could to the shop or the porch to carve. We wore ordinary cloth, undyed or nut-brown, like the Wagoners, like most people, but not like Aunt Firlen, who was different.
Bama’s brother had been Bamin, who made for himself and his wife the bed Ooba and Oldpa now slept on, in the front room. Bamin had carved the five seasons into the bed, one season to each fat leg and one on the headboard. One leg showed sheaves of grain, tumbling apples and pears, and baskets of nuts; that was Swan, the harvest season. On another leg, a full moon through bare branches meant Wingmouse, the dark season, with an owl standing watch, not minding the snow. On the third leg, a flight of swallows among leaf-buds showed Panilana. Spiraling up the fourth leg, an ox-train represented Lycat, when the roads became dry enough to travel on Rendelivery. The best season was saved for the headboard: it was Dancer, the season of long days. Bamin had carved a dance on the Common, and here the moon was full again, smiling down on happy people who spun and laughed, on musicians playing and children darting at the edge of the dancing.
But Bamin’s name was tied to a terrible sadness. His four children all died in the Stone Jaw that had raged through Mirchena, through all of Glor. And then the Carver house-guild, like an overworked piece of wood, was whittled down in other ways. Oldpa had a brother who quarreled with the family, married into Millers, and did not carve any more; and a sister who became a Carpenter and was gone now. Oldpa and Ooba had losses of their own, as all families did: of six children, only two lived to see their first birthdays. They were a daughter, Laren, and a son, Jannin.
Laren, of course, was Mother. Uncle Jannin was born blind. Ooba taught him early to play the flute, and then Jannin learned the fiddle. He was the best fiddler in Mirchena now and was married to Aunt Firlen, another flute player.
Tobi sometimes called Aunt Firlen our Beautiful Aunt. The name was his way to say the aunt who wasn’t Aunt Veera. I’d heard Ooba laughing about that with Mother, saying Tobi saw things differently. Aunt Firlen had a crooked nose and a pocked face. And Aunt Firlen glowed with love and fussed over us, and she dressed in colorful things that draped and flowed, and she played music and liked games.
Because music and amusements were their trade, my aunt and uncle were Hoppers. They played for many happy and sad moments in the life of Mirchit. Firlen and my cousins did the puppet shows on festival days, Uncle Jannin fiddling to fit the show. It made you proud to be their family, sitting watching with the rest of the crowd.
When Mother was young, Oldpa was the only master left in all of Mirchena, with only one child to follow him. That worried Oldpa and Ooba. One day a Tiller boy came to the house asking to bring a three-legged stool and watch the work. Stool-sitting was what you did if you wanted to try your hand at something different from your parents’ trade. The boy said there were too many Tillers, and he wanted to use his hands and his mind, too. He sat for one day the first week, two days the next. The third week, he stayed watching Oldpa every day and was allowed to leave the three-leg in the shop. Oldpa gave him work to do, beginning with sweeping, then sawing, planing, and turning, then work with a gouge. Sometimes Oldpa asked Laren to show the boy what to do, and other times, he taught Laren as usual and the boy listened along, trying more things each day and taking to the craft with a skillful hand and eye. So Oldpa apprenticed him.
And Tarrin the Apprentice and Laren the master’s daughter grew to love each other, and Tarrin became our Pa, the man who was now sitting on the porch between the carved posts and who belonged there as much as anyone ever had. Pa and Mother were the master carvers now. Oldpa’s hands had been ruined by the years of work with the chisel and mallet. Pa’s sister, Aunt Veera, remained a Tiller. She had lived with us since a little after Bama died.
Noon-sup turned out to be bread, water, boiled eggs, and heartberries waiting for us on the porch table. Pa was absorbed in his work, tap-tapping behind us. While we ate, I pointed out to Squirrel, not for the first time, Bamin’s bird that perched on ivy carved into a porch post. The bird’s little eye was surely looking at us, its body tilted forward as if it were measuring whether to fly away. I had loved it forever. Squirrel knew that.
Squirrel said, “Bamin was the one with rusty hair, wasn’t he?” He was right. Like me, Bamin had had a fat stripe of rust through his hair. Mine was on the left side next to my face. And my eyebrows, they were streaked with rust, too. People liked to say my hair was outlandish, another way of saying Westlandish. But Westlanders really had red hair, not rusty, and their hair was red all through. People who called my hair red were only poking fun.
“Do you know what my favorite is?” Squirrel asked.
He meant his favorite carving. “The squirrel on the roof?”
“No, it’s the one on the privy, of the flying man.”
“The Sorcerer.” Yes, even our privy was carved, by Oldpa, long ago. There were village jokes about what he had had to endure while doing the work. Oldpa said the jokes weren’t true, because he’d worked the pieces before he made them into the privy to replace the older one. The designs on this little house were the most fanciful of all around our place, with strange beasts, hilarious little people, and depictions of sorcery. If you paid attention to the near wall, you could make out that the large boot in the bottom left corner was one of a pair of seven-league boots. The other was up in the top right corner and was very small, showing that it was seven leagues away.
Seven leagues was a fantastic distance, a full day’s journey. For almost all of us in Mirchit, life was contained, from end to end, within a league or two of the Common, secure and comfortable as long as Cap kept the Westlanders at bay. For Squirrel, though, the limits of the world would stretch far beyond what we all knew, once he became a Hand. Squirrel was a Wagoner, and Wagoners traveled.