THE JEWELS OF APTOR
The waves flung up against the purple glow
of double sleeplessness. Along the piers
the ships return; but sailing I would go
through double rings of fire, double fears.
So therefore let your bright vaults heave the night
about with ropes of wind and points of light
and say, as all the rolling stars go, “I
have stood my feet on rock and seen the sky.”
--The opening lines of the epic of the conflicts between Leptar and Aptor, by the one-armed poet Geo
Afterwards, she was taken down to the sea.
She didn’t feel too well, so she sat on a rock and scrunched her toes in the wet sand. She looked across the water, hunched her shoulders a little. “I think it was pretty awful. I think it was terrible. Why did you show it to me? He was only a boy. What reason could they possibly have had for doing that to him?”
“It was just a film. We showed it to you so that you would learn.”
“But it was a film of something that really happened!”
“It happened several years ago, several hundred miles away.”
“But it did
happen; you used a tight beam to spy on them, and when the image came in on the vision screen, you made a film of it, and—Why did you show it to me?”
“What have we been teaching you?”
But she couldn’t think: only the picture in her mind, vivid movements, scarlets, bright agony. “He was just a child,” she said. “He couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve.”
are a child. You aren’t sixteen yet.”
“What was I supposed to learn?”
“Look around. You should see something.”
But it was still too vivid, too red, too bright. . . .
“You should be able to learn it right here on this beach, in the trees back there, in the rocks down here, in the shells around your feet. You do see it; you don’t recognize it.” His voice brightened. “Actually you’re a very fine student. You learn quickly. Do you remember anything from your study of telepathy a month ago?”
“ ‘By a method similar to radio broadcast and reception,’ ” she recited, “ ‘the synapse patterns of conscious thought are read from one cranial cortex and duplicated in another, resulting in a duplication of sensory impressions experienced—’ But I can’t do it, so it doesn’t help me!”
“What about history, then? You did extremely well in the examination. Does knowing about all the happenings in the world before and after the Great Fire help you?”
“Well. It’s . . . it’s interesting.”
“The film you saw was, in a way, history. That is, it happened in the past.”
“But it was so . . .”—her eyes beat before the flashing waves—“horrible!”
“Does history fascinate you only because it’s interesting? Don’t you ever want to know the reason behind some of the things those people do in your books?”
“Yes, I want to know the reasons! I want to know the reason they nailed that man to the oaken cross. I want to know why they did that to him.”
“A good question . . . Which reminds me: at about the same time they were nailing him to that cross, it was decided in China that the forces of the Universe were to be represented by a circle, half black, half white. To remind themselves, however, that there is no pure force, no single and unique reason, they put a spot of white paint in the black half and a spot of black paint in the white. Interesting?”
She frowned, wondering at the transition. But he was going on:
“And do you remember the goldsmith, the lover, how he recorded in his autobiography that at age four, he and his father saw the Fabulous Salamander on their hearth by the fire; and his father smacked the boy across the room into a rack of kettles, saying something to the effect that little Cellini was too young to remember the incident unless it was accompanied by pain.”
“I remember the story,” she said. “And I remember Cellini said he wasn’t sure if the smack was the reason he remembered the Salamander—or the Salamander the reason he remembered the smack!”
“Yes, yes!” he cried. “That’s it. The reason, the reasons . . .” In his excitement, his hood fell back and she saw his face in the late afternoon’s copper light. “Don’t you see the pattern?”
Scored forehead, the webbing at his eyes: she traced the pattern of age there, and let her eyes drop. “Only I don’t know what a Salamander is.”
“It’s like the blue lizards that sing outside your window,” he explained. “Only it isn’t blue and it doesn’t sing.”
“Then why should anyone want to remember it?” She grinned. But he was not looking at her.
“And the painter,” he was saying, “you remember, in Florence. He was painting a picture of La Gioconda. As a matter of fact, he had to take time from the already crumbling picture of the Last Supper of the man who was nailed to the cross of oak to paint her. And he put a smile on her face of which men asked for centuries, ‘What is the reason she smiles so strangely?’ Yes, the reason, don’t you see? Just look around!”
“What about the Great Fire?” she asked. “When they dropped flames from the skies and the harbors boiled; that was reasonless. That was like what they did to that boy.”
“Oh, no,” he said to her. “Not reasonless. True, when the Great Fire came, people all over the earth screamed, ‘Why? Why? How can man do this to man? What is the reason?’ But just look around you, right here! On the beach!”
“I guess I can’t see it yet,” she said. “I can just see what they did to him; and it was awful.”
“Well.” He pulled together his robe. “Perhaps when you stop seeing what they did so vividly, you will start seeing why they did it. I think it’s time for us to go back now.”
She slid off the rock and started walking beside him, barefoot in the sand. “That boy . . . I wasn’t sure, he was all tied up; but—he had four arms, didn’t he?”
She shuddered again. “You know, I can’t just go around just saying it was awful. I think I’m going to write a poem. Or make something. Or both. I’ve got to get it out of my head.”
“That wouldn’t be a bad idea,” he mumbled as they approached the trees in front of the river. “Not bad at all.”
And several days later, several hundred miles away . . .
Waves flung themselves at the blue evening. Low light burned on the hulks of wet ships that slipped by mossy pilings into the docks as water sloshed at the rotten stone embankments.
Gangplanks, chained to wooden pulleys, scraped into place on concrete blocks; and the crew, after the slow Captain and the tall Mate, loped raffishly along the boards, which sagged with the pounding of bare feet. In bawling groups, pairs, or singly, they howled into the waterfront streets, by the yellow light from inn doors, the purple portals leading to rooms full of smoke and the stench of burnt poppies, laughter, and the sheen on red lips, to the houses of women.
The Captain, with eyes the color of sea under fog, touched his sword hilt with his fist and said quietly, “Well, they’ve gone. We better start collecting new sailors for the ten we lost at Aptor. Ten good men, Jordde. I get ill when I think of the bone and broken meat they became.”
“Ten for the dead,” sneered the Mate, “and twenty for the living we’ll never see again. Any sailor that would want to continue this trip with us is crazy. We’ll do well if we only lose twenty.” He was a wire-bound man, on whom any clothing looked baggy.
“I’ll never forgive her for ordering us to that monstrous Island,” said the Captain.
“I wouldn’t speak too loudly,” mumbled the Mate. “Yours isn’t to forgive her. Besides, she went with them and was in as much danger as they were. It’s only luck she came back.”
Suddenly the Captain asked, “Do you believe the stories of magic they tell of her?”
“Why, sir?” asked the Mate. “Do you?”
“No, I don’t.” The Captain’s certainty came too quickly. “Still, with three survivors out of thirteen, that she should be among them, with hardly a robe torn . . .”
“Perhaps they wouldn’t touch a woman,” suggested Jordde.
“Perhaps,” said the Captain.
“And she’s been strange ever since then. She walks at night. I’ve seen her going by the rails, looking from the seafire to the stars and back.”
“Ten good men,” mused the Captain. “Hacked up, torn in bits. I wouldn’t have believed that much barbarity in the world if I hadn’t seen that arm, floating on the water. It even chills me now, the way the men ran to the rail, pointed at it. And it just raised itself up, like a sign, then sank in a wash of foam and green water.”
“Well,” said the Mate, “we have men to get.”
“I wonder if she’ll come ashore?”
“She’ll come if she wants, Captain. Her doing is no concern of yours. Your job is the ship and to do what she asks.”
“I have more of a job than that,” and he looked back at his still craft.
The Mate touched the Captain’s shoulder. “If you’re going to speak things like that, speak them softly, and only to me.”
“I have more of a job than that,” the Captain repeated. Then suddenly he started away; the Mate followed him down the darkening dockside.
The wharf was still a moment. Then a barrel toppled from a pile of barrels, and a figure moved like a bird’s shadow between two mounds of cargo.
At the same time two men approached down a street filled with the day’s last light. The bigger one threw a great shadow that aped his gesticulating arms on the crowded buildings. His bare feet slapped the cobbles like halved hams. His shins were bound with thongs and pelts. He waved one hand in explanation and rubbed the back of the other on his short mahogany beard. “You’re going to ship out, eh, friend? You think they’ll take your rhymes and jingles instead of muscles and rope pulling?”
The smaller, in a white tunic looped with a leather belt, laughed in spite of his friend’s ranting. “Fifteen minutes ago you thought it was a fine idea, Urson. You said it would make me a man.”
“Oh, it’s a life to make”—Urson’s hand went up—“and it’s a life to break men.” It fell.
The slighter one pushed black hair back from his forehead, stopped, and looked at the boats. “You still haven’t told me why no ship has taken you on in the past three months.” Absently he followed the rigging, like black slashes in blue silk. “A year ago I’d never see you in for more than three days at once.”
The gesticulating arm suddenly encircled the smaller man’s waist and lifted a leather pouch from the belt. “Are you sure, friend Geo,” began the giant, “that we couldn’t use up some of this silver on wine before we go? If you want to do this right, then right is how it should be done. When you sign up on a ship you’re supposed to be broke and tight. It shows you’re capable of getting along without the inconvenience of money and can hold your liquor.”
“Urson, get your paw off!” Geo pulled the purse away.
“Now, here,” countered Urson, reaching for it once more, “you don’t have to grab.”
“Look, I’ve kept you drunk five nights now; it’s time to sober up. Suppose they don’t take us. Who’s going—” But Urson, laughing, made another swipe.
Geo leaped back with the purse. “Now, cut that out—” In leaping, his feet struck the fallen barrel. He fell backward to the wet cobbles. The pouch splattered away, jingling.
Then the bird’s shadow darted between the cargo piles; the slight figure bounded forward, swept the purse up with one hand, pushed himself away from the pile of crates with another; and there were two more pumping at his side as he ran.
“What the devil . . .” began Urson, and then: “What the devil
“Hey, you!” Geo lurched to his feet. “Come back!”
Urson had already loped a couple of steps after the fleeing quadrabrad, now halfway down the dock.
Then, like a wineglass stem snapping, a voice: “Stop, little thief. Stop.”
He stopped as though he had hit a wall.
“Come back, now. Come back.”
He turned and docilely started back, his movements, so lithe a moment ago, mechanical now.
“It’s just a kid,” Urson said.
He was a dark-haired boy, naked except for a ragged breechclout. He was staring fixedly beyond them. And he had four arms.
Now they turned and looked also.
She stood on the ship’s gangplank, dark against what sun still washed the horizon. One hand held something close at her throat, and the wind, snagging a veil, held the purple gauze against the red swath at the world’s edge, then dropped it.
The boy, automaton, approached her.
“Give it to me, little thief.”
He handed her the purse. She took it. Then she dropped her other hand from her neck. The moment she did so, the boy staggered backward, turned, and ran straight into Urson, who said, “Ooof,” and then, “Goddamned spider!”
The boy struggled like a hydra in furious silence. Urson held. “You stick around . . . Owww! . . . to get yourself thrashed . . . there.” Urson locked one arm across the boy’s chest. With his other hand he caught all four wrists; he lifted up, hard. The thin body shook like wires jerked taut, but the boy was still silent.
Now the woman came across the dock. “This belongs to you, gentlemen?” she asked, extending the purse.
“Thank you, ma’am,” grunted Urson, reaching forward.
“I’ll take that, ma’am,” said Geo, intercepting. Then he recited:
“Shadows melt in light of sacred laughter.
Hands and houses shall be one hereafter.
“Thank you,” he added.
Beneath the veil her eyebrows raised. “You have been schooled in courtly rites? Are you perhaps a student at the University?”
Geo smiled. “I was, until a short time ago. But funds are low and I have to get through the summer somehow. I’m going to sea.”
“Honorable, but perhaps foolish.”
“I am a poet, ma’am; they say poets are fools. Besides, my friend here says the sea will make a man of me. To be a good poet, one must be a good man.”
“More honorable, less foolish. What sort of man is your friend?”
“My name is Urson.” The giant stepped up. “And I’ve been the best hand on any ship I’ve sailed on.”
“Urson? The Bear? I thought bears did not like water. Except polar bears. It makes them mad. I believe there was an old spell, in antiquity, for taming angry bears.”
Copyright © 2015 by Samuel R. Delany. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.