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Exit

Reine de Mémoire
5. La Maison d'Équité

by

Élisabeth Vonarburg

 

 

(Chapter 7, p. 49-63)


Pierrino opens his eyes in the dim light. It is still early, not later than eight o'clock in the morning. He hears someone come in without making noise, recognizes Nèhyé's silhouette.
"I'm awake," he says.
The old Ghât'sin comes to examine him: "Yes, you are no longer sleeping."
He goes to open the curtains and let in the light of day.
The comment, like the intonation, was a little strange, but Pierrino gets up to dress. His body suddenly seems odd to him: bigger, broader, denser. Is that hair on his chest, where it was smooth before? He feels his cheeks: beard and moustache, much too thick. He was beardless the day before.
He asks, "What day is it?" torn between irritation and resignation.
Nèhyé pauses briefly for reflection: "September 24."
He can't help exclaiming, "What?" as he slumps on the edge of the bed. "So I have been in igaôtchènzin almost a month?" he murmurs.
The old man reaches out to pull on his beard: "You would not be so hairy!" he says with a wink. "Only twelve days. Then... You slept. You had given a lot."
The intonation is not at all sardonic. Pierrino remembers. He remembers very well. The Mountain Dragon flying upside down like the Crazy Dragon in Grandmother's set of cards, his aquatic metamorphosis and very specific images of what followed the appearance of the Fire Dragon. But above all, this feeling of perfect fullness, finally...
Nèhyé adds nothing and busies himself laying out on the bed the clothes he had brought in. Pierrino observes him for a moment, his mind a blank.
"Could you shave me?" he asks finally.
"Of course."
The old man disappears with no more noise than when he arrived.
Pierrino goes and leans on the windowsill. Below him shimmers the luminous green of the trees of the park. It has rained, the stones are pinker, clouds race westwards in the well-washed blue sky. He lets these sensations flood over him, with the vague hope that this stimulation will get his brain working again. But the thoughts are slow, very slow in taking shape. He does not feel different. His talent has been opened though, he has undergone the backlash, hasn't he? One month. Igaôtchènzin, then... Coma? Can it last that long? And he does not even have confused memories of it. If he had been plunged into a deep lethargy, wouldn't his psyche have remembered its time in the World-Between?
Nèhyé comes back with hot water, a razor and a small pair of well-sharpened scissors of black metal. After cutting Pierrino's hair as close as possible, he spreads a foamy decoction on Pierrino's cheeks and, using a razor that is very European-looking, starts shaving him closely, with reassuring ease. When he has finished, patting his cheeks with an astringent water perfumed with benzoin, he takes from the chest a silver mirror, which he hands to Pierrino.
Stunned, Pierrino looks at the perfectly flat metal surface, as faithful as a mirror. He has indeed aged - an effect of his igaôtchènzin, he really has to admit it now. The sadness, first of all: he will no longer be able to quite recognize Senso in his own reflection. And then, the whiff of anxiety. He hands back the mirror to the old Ghât'sin, forcing his voice to remain steady: "Will I age this way every time I fall into the trance?"
The Ghât'sin tilts his head a little to the side, then declares, after a moment of reflection: "It will not occur again."
"Are you sure of that?"
The other man gives his usual little chuckle: "Of what can we be certain in the Mansions of the Goddess?" But he almost immediately falls serious again: "It should not occur again," continuing, as if there was a connection: "Hyundpènh and Nomghu wish to meet you in the park."
What do they want now?
And suddenly, the way a change in the wind turns the rooster and the rose of a weathervane on a roof, his thoughts turn towards the west, to Europe, France, Aurepas. Through all his uncertainties there begins to emerge, unexpected, staggering, a consuming nostalgia, a desire, a crazy need for return that brings tears to his eyes.

***

The Natéhsin are in the park, but not gardening. They are sitting on their benches. Barechested, barefoot in his thin sandals, he bows before them. The Ghât'sin greet him, respectfully. After standing up, the woman of the Nomghu triad and the one of Hyundpènh's come and take his hand to sit him down with them on the bench of the Phoenix. And, after a brief stillness - disapproving, or simply surprised? - their Ghât'sin follow them to go and stand behind the bench.
They are still holding his hand when Hyundpènh says calmly: "The continuation of the world, little Dragon."
And she lays Pierrino's hand on her belly.
He looks at her, stunned, looks at Nomghu when she lays his other hand on her belly.
Pregnant? They are pregnant... by him? Both? Aren't their ritual orgies with each other always sterile? Oh, but he was there, him, an ordinary human.
Not ordinary. Talented.
Like Gilles... But no, not like Gilles!
He shakes his head, he wants to stand up, get away from the impossible ideas that are rolling around in his head, but the Natéhsin are still firmly holding his hands on their bellies.
"Two sons of the Dragon," says Hyundpènh.
Pierrino finally emerges from his astonishment: "But I'm not..."
She releases him to quiet him, with a finger on his lips, almost smiling, then brushes the pendant on his chest: "All the Dragons are in you. You come from everywhere."
Everywhere. His mind wraps itself around the word, kneads it to extract a meaning. Is she referring to his talent this way, born of the Atlandies as well as from Europe and from here?
She takes his hand again to lay it on her belly. He really doesn't quite know what he perceives, a small, glowing spark behind a membrane as transparent as glass, but delicate and soft like skin. Is that his child - their child?
Nèhyé's voice says, behind him: "There have never been such children among the Natéhsin." The old man laughs very softly. "You, too, you are the Stranger from the West."
Does he mean that it is the end of the world? The beginning of another world? Hiccups of the Prophecy, or echoes? As if in any case it was seeking to fulfill itself endlessly, obstinately.
"So am I really a talented, now?" he murmurs.
And should he then assume that Senso and Jiliane are too, each in their own way? A tentative feeling of relief is born in him: maybe Jiliane wasn't really kidnapped after all! Perhaps she is hiding, or she is being hidden by Grandmother and the servants - who lied to them, to him and to Senso, about their own talent, but why?
"No, you gave us almost everything," says the Natéhsin of Nomghu.
"You have given us back almost everything," says the Natéhsin of Hyundpènh.
He does not understand at first, then, slowly, in fits and starts, a meaning takes shape. Given back: restored. So, barely opened, his talent was separated from him? He doesn't know if he feels regret or relief. That would better explain his long lethargy, in any case.
He again hears the words of the two Natéhsin, turns to the Natéhsin of Hyundpènh: "Almost everything?"
"You will remember when you need to," she says with a gentle solemnity.
He looks at her, then at the Natéhsin of Nomghu, who has the same indulgent expression. They have expressions. They speak. Have they therefore become constantly more human, generation after generation, the orphan Natéhsin of Phoenix? He can no longer bear that golden gaze, and looks at the ground between his feet, regrown grass, still wet from the night rain. He is unable to apprehend the magnitude of what has happened. She is carrying his child. And the other Natéhsin too. His children. He will have sons. Who will be Natéhsin. Two at once! Should he be emotional, happy, proud? He feels nothing, simply a huge, stunned astonishment. The Fire Dragon has come back. The continuation of the world. Because of him, thanks to him. Or else has he been only a tool, a conduit, everyone's pawn? Grandmother, Gorut and now the Ghât'sin, the Natéhsin themselves? Or the Dragons. Will he believe in Dragons now? But he remembers very precisely the feeling of the Mountain Dragon talons closing around his waist - and everything else. He cannot nor does he want to deny what he knows.
And yet the despondent irritation re-emerges: a toy of humans or magic creatures, he was still only a toy. Worse yet, interchangeable with Senso. Senso could be the one here! No, the dice have been cast... But if the dice have, in fact, decided this way, who really cast them?
He looks once again at the Natéhsin of Hyundpènh and, with a little inner shiver, suddenly becomes aware of her youth. Their solemnity, their serene gestures had misled him. They are all very young! This one seems barely more than sixteen years old! And she is carrying his children?
"Do you have a name?" he asks, suddenly embarrassed and gripped by compassion.
Both Ghât'sin start. After a moment, the girl gives a little smile: "Nandèh'djo."
"Feï'djo," says the Natéhsin of Nomghu.
At first astounded, he remembers Ouraïn's first notebook. These are the same Ancestors who come back, the Mynmaï believe, in each of their ages, in each of their Houses. Kurun, Nandèh'djo, Feï'djo. But these are titles more than names, aren't they?
"Your names," he emphasizes, with a bit of impatience.
The girl raises her eyebrows, her head tilted a little to the side.
"They have no other," says Nèhyé, behind Pierrino.
He turns towards the old Ghât'sin, irritated: "They did when they were born."
"They are born Kurun, Nandèh'djo, Feï'djo," says the old man. "And they have been for a very long time."
Pierrino shrugs: "They're adolescents!"
"They attended the last Sacred Marriage," intercedes one of the Ghât'sin, in a stiff voice.
He grips the arms of his seat, he feels like he's falling.
The same ones. These are the same Natéhsin Gilles Garance met. Stopped at the age of Hyundpènh, in the age of Nomghu, because the cycle of renewal was broken.
And Hétchoÿ...
He sits bewildered for a moment, his heart burning with shame, with sorrow. Then he stands up, and goes to kneel, hands joined in the Mynmaï fashion - the gesture came quite naturally to him - before the bench of the third triad, who was once the fourth, the one who permitted the recurrence of the cycle by offering herself to the Fire Dragon. The bronze eyes look at him with serenity as he kneels before Hétchoÿ. He understands now, he understands their slowness, the scarlet glints of their skin. He forces himself not to lower his head, not to protect himself from their gaze, and hears himself stammer: "Forgive us."
The one in the middle, that young girl who is the oldest of the Kurun, who has been twenty years old for more than two centuries, slowly raises her hands to encircle his. Warm hands, and yet he sees that they are more clearly crystallized on the surface. And there are even crystals that form as he watches them, in minute shifts. The process has accelerated since the night of the Small Marriage, as it is necessary to repair the cycle, he understands in a dazzling flash of horrified compassion.
"You will come back," says the deep voice, with a kind of tenderness. Surprised, he looks up and, yes, there is a slight smile on that gleaming face.
"I will come back where?" he asks, filled with inexplicable gratitude.
She stares back at him still, but she does not see him anymore.
"Come," says Nèhyé, "they are dancing now."
After a moment, Pierrino gently frees his hands from the Natéhsin's, which remain extended around his absence, half prayer, half offering. He stands up, dizzy, glances around him: the other Natéhsin are still too. Their Ghât'sin walk around the benches to come and sit cross-legged in front of them. Nèhyé tugs him by his arm, and he does not resist. After a few steps, he turns around. The Natéhsin have not budged. On the Phoenix bench, Nandèh'djo of Hyundpènh and Feï'djo of Nomghu are still sitting. He wonders dreamily if this is the first time in the whole history of the Natéhsin.
As if that thought had opened a door, an apprehensive curiosity is reborn in him.
"What is going to happen now, Nèhyé?"
"At the next small festival, the children will be born," says the old Ghât'sin quietly. "And Hyundpènh and Nomghu will spread what they can of the divine substance among those of us who succeed in reaching the sacred city. Like every year."
"But the Fire Dragon has returned," says Pierrino, bewildered.
"That doesn't mean it will come back for the Big Festival. There are not always Phoenixes."
"But will there will be none when Hétchoÿ..."
"Nothing is certain. The next Big Festival will take place in two years. L'Aigle des Mers is in Anhkin. Humphong wants to open up the country. Gorut sacrificed a tihyund and anointed himself with its blood. Who knows where the dice will roll?"
They walk past a patch of grass where roosters and hens with extraordinary plumage are pecking, their tail feathers sometimes as long as those of pheasants. Pierrino welcomes a moment of distraction, watching the poultry amusing themselves in front of them: some are jet black, with luxuriant crests of fine white feathers that fall around the head like dishevelled hair, others seem more hairy than feathered, and are an unlikely orange hue; the long coppery feathers that surround their heads are all curved towards the front, like a collar ruff. Senso would love these creatures, mused Pierrino, vaguely amused, they look like dragons of a sort. But Nèhyé's question is turning around in his head. Which dice were cast, actually, when he arrived here? The sacred city is still closed. The Kôdinh are still there barring entry, and they massacre the talented. But the news of the return of the Fire Dragon will in the end spread through the population. The Bôdinh are neither as passive nor as resigned as Gorut claimed. Galvanized by the news, won't they resist more? What will be the consequences for Haizelé's mission, the ambitions of the Monarchy, Grandfather's wily plans?
"Will they try to prevent Humphong from exporting more of the... primordial substances?"
Nèhyé makes a little dismissive gesture: "Oh, that would not be so terrible, the Crazy Dragon would blow again in your land. It blew there for close to two centuries, and that did not disturb it."
"The Crazy Dragon?"
"The ambercite. That is what we call it. Didn't you see the breath, on board the ship that brought you here?"
Pierrino slowly nods his head: "It spreads magic, then, like the Natéhsin."
"Much more slowly, like the white sickness does."
Pierrino does not quite see the relationship, but he stores this information for later - for once Nèhyé seems in a mood to answer his questions!
"But now that the Fire Dragon has returned, are you going to resist, act?"
The old man gives a little chuckle: "Garang Xhévât does not exist for that."
"Gilles Garance believed..."
"It was he who cast the first dice. And the others were carried along in his wake." The little man adds, more softly, with regret, as if to himself: "Yes, even Phoenix has started wanting. And Chéhyé. And me." His goatee trembles, like his voice.
After a surprised silence, Pierrino asks: "And what became of the two others of Phoenix? Are they in Garang Xhévât? They had been stopped at their age too, hadn't they?"
The old man stops right in the middle of the esplanade, so abruptly that Pierrino has to back up a step to come back beside him.
"You knew that?"
"I read Ouraïn's journals. Or at least those from her first ages."
The old man looks at him, his face all creased in the sun.
"Kurun has rejoined the Goddess," he declares, after a long silence.
He has again avoided the question, but Pierrino does not become irritated; he is too dumbfounded: Ouraïn's memoirs indicated, in fact, that her mother had begun to age, but... dead?
"She was a Natéhsin!"
"She chose Gilles and the Crazy Dragon," sighs Nèhyé. He starts walking again.
Pierrino catches up with him: "The ambercite, or Hyundigao?"
The old man glances sideways at him, suddenly sardonic: "Both."
"But ambercite prolongs life!"
"Not necessarily that of the Ancestors."
With him, Pierrino starts up the ramp leading to the tower of Xhaïgao House, barely aware of the greetings addressed to him as he passes. Kurun took part in the fabrication of ambercite, and the other two Phoenix Natéhsin too. Too many backlashes? But didn't Ouraïn write that there are none from the use of magic for the Natéhsin?
"So are they dead too, the two others?"
"No. They chose in time to come back to Garang Xhévât." The old man gives him a sidelong glance: "Isn't there anything about it in Ouraïn's writings?"
"I only read up to the middle the Ten-Year-Old Period."
"Ah." Three more steps. "It was after."
They start up the stairs to the second floor.
"And where are they then, all those writings of Ouraïn?" the old Ghât'sin suddenly asks.
Pierrino laughs for a moment: "In the stomach of Kempo, if Chéhyé is to be believed: he threw them into the sea."
He watches for the old man's reaction out of the corner of his eye. Nèhyé smiles: "He did well."
"Why?"
"She should never have written. She was not destined to remember that way."
"But it's the story of my family," Pierrino can't help saying, suddenly angry.
The old man opens the bedroom door for him: "The memory will come back to you soon enough," he says, stepping aside to let Pierrino enter.
He goes to leave, but Pierrino emerges soon enough from his perplexity to hold the door: "And Nandèh and Feï, where are they?"
The Ghât'sin's face crinkles even more: "They have returned to the estate. I was not told when." He gives his usual little staccato laugh: "Time does not always pass in the same way for everyone, in Garang Xhévât."
And he walks away with his slightly wobbly gait.
Pierrino, resigned, closes the door. Then he examines the bedroom - the eternally embracing sculptures, the bed still unmade. Absent-mindedly, he pulls up the sheets and blanket, fluffs the feather cushions, arranges them on each other.
And now? Feeling suddenly too light, floating, empty, he goes to the window, closes his hands on the solid stone sill as if to anchor himself, while contemplating the tranquil activity of the sacred city. There are boats in the moat, fishermen. Weren't the Garang Xhévât carp sacred? But that was before, in the time of Gilles. The traditions have changed, like the Natéhsin.
What is he supposed to do? Go for a walk in the city? Explore the environs? He looks at the foliage in the park, thinks of the invisible one where the motionless Natéhsin dance everywhere, lost, or found, in igaôtchènzin. With his children in the bellies of Nomghu's Feï'djo, of Hyundpènh's Nandèh'djo.
The children of all of them, not only of him. He remembers well, on the beach, those disturbing frenzies, those repeated metamorphoses. He understands nothing of it, if only that they were necessary and right. He feels bizarrely detached, however, as if it had all happened to another. Too many strange things at once have made him feel numb. Whatever he was then, he did what he had to do, just as the triads obeyed their nature. If he feels something, it is irritation again, persistent resentment at having been manoeuvred this way by forces that are beyond him, tossed about by a course of events triggered by others.
And what could he do now? Wait, maybe for a long time, for the Europeans to perhaps come back to the Hyundzièn following Haizelé's negotiations. Which should be nearing completion in Téh'loc. It is already the last week of September, and Haizelé had said that she would leave again at the beginning of October, at the end of the first week at the latest if the negotiations went on until then. He does not know what the distance is between Garang Xhévât and the Kôdinh capital, but if he remembers the map correctly, it is extremely far, through massive mountains, too, very difficult terrain if he wanted to take the shortest and least dangerous route. But to go by the plains or the coast, with the Kôdinh on alert... It would be possible, of course, if he managed to persuade a Ghât'sin to accompany him, since he is no longer talented. Even that way, it would be a journey of several weeks, even several months. No, L'Aigle des Mers will leave without him. And they must believe he is dead. That is the news they will report in France. To Grandmother. To Senso.
No! They mustn't! He will have to try to get a message to Haizelé! There is, in fact, a resistance to the Kôdinh, with talented ones, it should be possible to go through them. If they left without him, that would be one thing. But if they think he's dead, he will be abandoned here without hope of ever being rescued if the negotiations fail...
Abandoned. Rescued. The words have an odd ring, suddenly. He is in Garang Xhévât, though, which is in a way the cradle of his ancestors. His children will be born there. He should not feel like a captive, nor impatient with the perspective of staying here indefinitely. Unsettled, he watches the comings and goings of the natives on the esplanade, on the alley of the Phoenixes. What has become of his curiosity? He could learn so much here. He could... keep a journal of his discoveries, for when he returns to France.
To France. Home.
Home is not here. In spite of the peace, the beauty, the timeless mystery, he has the intense, insistent feeling that he is not in his place. He cannot do anything here. Everything here will remind him still, and always, that he has been brought here by a destiny that he knows nothing about and that, once that destiny is fulfilled, he will certainly no longer be useful.
He turns away from the window, both furious and bewildered. It is an unbearable thought. Disharmonious. If Senso was here, he would no doubt even tell him that it is sacrilegious. There is no destiny. Thanks to the Gemini, humans are born free. They have perhaps not yet learned it in Garang Xhévât, all entangled as they are in their magic, but he is not a Mynmaï, so does not resign himself so easily. Garang Xhévât is neither the end of his journey nor a prison, is it? And it was not to the sacred city that his journey to the north was supposed to take him, even if Gorut was lying. He wanted to go to the Garance estate. He still wants to go to the estate. He even has more reasons now, if the two other Natéhsin of Phoenix are there. It was there he was going when he came to a fork in his path. He has to carry out this pilgrimage, he can feel it, he knows it...

© 2007 Éditions Alire & Élisabeth Vonarburg


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