Nalatachet wakes from a dream of turtles.
My dear Bexeletl,
I thought of you this morning as I watched the moon set. It comes so clearly to me still, the cold winter nights and the taste of terrible wine sold hot from those little carts with their purple umbrellas, the ones that used to set up just the other side of the university wall. They knew how many students would sneak out after dark, no matter the weather. I see us huddled in the front room of some crowded sharehouse with our winejars at our chests, listening to imported musicians and dreadfully earnest poets, arguing with each other to drown them out, and afterwards walking home by late moonlight and early sun, tiptoeing past porters who (I feel certain) knew quite well what we were about and smiled benevolently on us.
I find myself wondering today if those houses are still there, Bexeletl, and those winesellers, and those students, and that music, and everything that made up that time. The same moon shines on us now, but oh! how everything else has changed!
Nalatachet puts down his pen, pausing for thought, and sips his cooling tea. The days are growing shorter and colder, and it seems as though he scarcely sets his tea on the table before the steam whisks away into the air and vanishes. The warmth of the mug barely penetrates his skin. He should build up the fire, make breakfast, begin his day, but everything feels unsettled this morning, disjointed, and he can’t get started.
It’s the cold making his movements slow and syrupy, he thinks, dull gaze settling on the wrinkled skin of his hands. Turtle skin, that can’t get warm. The turtles in his pond have been moving around less and less, spending more of their time basking on rocks to catch the wan sunlight. He watches them for a long while, some mornings, wondering if they can sense the oncoming winter or remember winters past. There must be something that tells them when it’s time to leave.
Today it’s the moon that has him thinking of long ago, but lately anything might do it: leaves blowing over the river, the goosegirl driving her angry geese along the road, the clatter of hooves on the bridge. The turtles. He built the turtle pond in the first month of his exile, partially damming the river and laying the retaining wall, even before repairing the roof of his new home; a gesture of defiance: you will not make me other than I am! As though anyone in this district would understand the pond’s significance to an alchemist, or care. The only reaction was a painfully scratched-out letter of diffident concern from the farmer downstream regarding whether the pond would pollute the watercourse, and a few requests for turtles for soup from the owner of the village hot-shop, which Nalatachet denied. She still asks occasionally, but as a joke now. After thirty years they can bring themselves to joke politely with him without fearing the Empire’s wrath.
I continue my work, my friend, as ever, and draw closer to my goal. I know I’ve said so many times, but all this year I have been finding answers that eluded me before: new illuminations from old texts and new fruits from my own research. Things fall into place where once they fell apart, and they carry me along with them into new and uncharted terrain.
You will ask whether I should go so heedlessly forward, whether these paths remain untrodden for a reason; I can only give the answer I always give, the answer I gave in our arguments long ago: my life has purpose yet, and I will not abandon that purpose now. I am an alchemist still, despite everything, and to abandon the search for the deeper secrets would be to betray myself—and to betray you, whether you agree with me or no.
After breakfast Nalatachet goes outside and walks briskly around the perimeter of his given land. It isn’t the border of his freedom; he’s allowed to go down to the village, and as far on the northward road as he can walk in a day, and as far southward as he likes. It’s been years, a dozen at least, since he’s tested the strength of his cage and been politely returned to his house by a squadron of Imperial soldiers. New faces, young faces, in shiny armour; faces he’s never seen before, but they know him anyway. He imagines a painting of himself tacked up in some barracks office, reminding the district’s soldiers of their charge; some lieutenant assigned to eye him discreetly in the hot-shop every year or so, some fellow with a keen eye who can go back to the painting and add wrinkles and scratch out hair, to keep the representation true.
That was northwest he went, that time. There’s a road to some town there, with one of these jaw-cracking local names. He’d thought he might like to see it, and see if they’d let him. But the boundaries of his world don’t change just because the names of soldiers do.
He could go south, but there would be no point. This is the edge of Empire, the edge of the world. There’s geography to the south, be it admitted, a sweep of long low hills brown with dust; and if he walks out into the plain and up one of their sheep-beaten tracks, a thing he hasn’t done since the hinge of autumn, and if the curtain of the sky then lifts a little, he can see the peaks of distant marching mountains, none of which have names. They are not part of the world as the mapmakers draw it but stand brooding somewhere off the edge of the page, unnecessary.
Today he doesn’t go nearly so far, only up to the orchard fence and back again, and then downhill to the road and back up. Nothing is different since yesterday. Then he picks his way across the muddy ground to his workshed, built well away from the house in case of explosions. His legs have grown perceptibly shorter this past month, and he hobbles up the three steps into the shed and leans against the wall inside.
Flickering on the hearth is the other fire, the blue-white one, that never needs to be tended. From the other kettle Nalatachet pours the other tea, the grey one, from which there’s no returning. He doesn’t wince as he drinks it anymore. His lips feel leathery, impervious, and the sensation of the liquid in his throat is a distant warmth today instead of the miserable burning of weeks past. He wipes a droplet from the rim of the cup as he sets it down, watching with vague interest as the liquid fades into the skin of his thumb.
On the way out he locks the door, with a good lock he brought with him from the capital in one of the three trunks he was allowed. He assumes the district soldiers have a copy of the key or else they couldn’t be so tidy when they break in and copy his notes. But it keeps out the crows and the children, who dare each other every year to risk his supposed wrath. He leaves his ledger open on the worktable for the spies’ convenience, the day’s observations recorded in his careful cipher, which he changes at whim. He doesn’t want it to be too easy for them.
I am reminded, dear Bexeletl, of how confidently we expected to be famous one day. In the service of the Empire, of course, but even so. Instead I write you from the Empire’s furthest outpost, and whether my work counts as service is not for me to determine.
And you: do you serve, do you think?
He writes Bexeletl faithfully, every month. Bexeletl his dearest friend, Bexeletl who escaped exile. There’s no-one else to whom he can confide his thoughts. He used to receive letters from his brother, and later his brother’s sons, until he manufactured a quarrel to drive them away so that they no longer needed to feel tethered by blood ties to an Imperial embarrassment. It was the best service he could do them, young men pursuing advancement in the capital. Four years later there was an awkwardly formal announcement of his brother’s funeral and a remembrance ribbon wrapped in stiff paper. Since then, nothing. Nalatachet assumes that if either of his nephews died, he would receive an equally stiff notice from the other; so he imagines them alive, and happy, and successful in the service of the Empire.
When he’s made the long trudge back across his property, Nalatachet opens all the doors of his house and sweeps the dust out into the cold morning. He tried to hire a servant from the village the first year he arrived, but while most of the villagers will take Imperial coin for fish and fruit and flour at the market, and soup and beer at the hot-shop, they refuse to be paid for time or service, and laugh behind their hands at the foolish old man, and clean their own houses and those of their mothers-in-law.
So he cleans, and makes his lunch, and sets the afternoon bread under a bowl to rise, and sits out in the pale sunlight to eat, where he can watch the pond. It’s really too cold for eating outside, and he has to keep blowing on his fingers to warm them, but he wants to make sure the turtles are still here. After a few minutes of anxious waiting, he sees them poke their heads up, open-mouthed, as though laughing. He chews thoughtfully, phlegmatically, paying full attention to the way his jaws grind together. Everything about his body seems strange today, burdensome, and he hunches under it, a weight on his shoulders. Eating is tiresome, and he scatters the last third of his meal on the rocks for the sparrows and shuffles back indoors.
Forgive me, dear friend, I ramble. Today of all days, though, I think I can be forgiven indeed. I am certain now of what I do.
Looking out the window at the slope of the grass down toward the pond, Nalatachet wonders where the turtles go each winter. He used to think they burrowed into the bottom of the pond to wait out the cold, but when he rebuilt his garden the last time he paved all the watercourses through the length of his property with tightly fitted stones to try to mimic a painting he’d seen once, and the turtles seemed entirely unbothered. Maybe they migrated southward somehow, like birds, but he’d never seen them leave, or arrive. One day each autumn there would be turtles everywhere, lying about on the rocks and making round humped wakes on the pond’s surface as they swam here and there. The next day, which might be just as bright and warm, no turtles; then, without fuss, sometime in the spring, turtles again.
He has no particular need to do anything today, and so he wanders around his house, picking things up, moving them over, rubbing them with his thumbs as though to check for dust. You will work in the service of the Empire or not at all, the judges told him when they sentenced him, and he chose exile; so either what he does these days is not work or it serves the Empire somehow, after all. He takes a short nap and wakes to find the sun wholly down, the night well advanced. He thinks about dinner but decides he isn’t hungry, and he takes up his letter again instead.
I find it difficult to hold the pen this evening, Bexeletl. It comes on so quickly. After so many years, to be a success at last—I do not know how I feel about this, after all. I did want to be famous, you know. Not in the way that we managed, our brief little flare of rebellion, so swiftly quenched, but something else, something noble. Well, that at least I have done. If not the alchemist’s ultimate goal, the union with the undying gods that we all seek and that we frightened the powers above us with claiming we were close to—then, at least, a lesser transformation, and one that in the end has come to matter to me more. I wonder if you can st—
The pen drops from his hand. He tries to pick it up again, but it’s beyond him now. In the lamplight he eyes the writing desk, the letter with its trailing final blot, his crabbed hands with their short square nails and stubby fingers. Well.
Time grows short now. Nalatachet feels a small pang of regret for not finishing, but it was never really going to matter. Clumsily he picks the letter up two-handed, pressing it between his palms, and carries it to the woodbin. It takes precious minutes to move the firewood, and five tries to lift the bin’s false bottom and raise the little carved box from inside.
This the spies have never found; he would know. Inside are letters on his precious thin paper, grouped in bundles of thirteen. He writes Bexeletl faithfully, every month. Thirty bundles, one for each year of his exile. Nalatachet drops the last, unfinished letter in atop the last bundle, shuts the lid, and lifts the whole box carefully and sets it in the fire.
In his mind’s eye he sees Bexeletl, the brightest of them all, dark shining eyes and laughter, forever young. In the service of the Empire or not at all, they told him, and Bexeletl stood defiant and said—what did he say? It hurts Nalatachet’s heart, a little, that he can’t remember his friend’s words now. But he burned brightly.
The letters are ash. Nalatachet upends the kettle over the hearth, cooling the remains. When everything is safe, he heaves open the door and drags a chunk of firewood against it to keep it open. Let the house be obviously empty, let people see at a glance that there’s nothing left inside.
The night air is cold, biting. Nalatachet shuffles out into the dark, his open mouth tasting water on the wind. Halfway to the pond he drops to four limbs, easily, naturally. The weight resting on his shoulders eases, redistributed. He can feel it still, but now it’s not burden but armour.
At the water’s edge he scents them: others of his kind. No hesitation now as he moves forward. The pond embraces him, mud and water and rippling reeds. He knows, now. Not with the shock of revelation but with the effortless certainty of remembering something long forgotten. This is the night for leaving, just before the weather turns; this is why the transformation came now. The turtles, laughing silently, agree. How could it ever have been otherwise?
Looking upward through the water, with eyes no longer dimmed by age or tears, he sees the stars. Always he’s seen them shimmer in the distortions of the upper air; now the rippling of the water begins to match those changes, to brush them away, like waves crossing each other and smoothing each other away, to leave stillness behind. He knows, now, where the turtles go.
The first among them, the oldest and largest, begin to drift with easy strokes of their webbed feet toward the lower edge of the pond. Beyond the wall Nalatachet can see the river flowing downward toward the village, toward the Empire, but it’s a pale thing, a mere tracery, beside the path he sees overlaid on it now, marked out in the shining of the stars. The current draws him, jostling him against the others, who brush his flanks kindly in welcome. His home beckons, where no fire burns and no-one is lost. Nalatachet wakes from a dream of people.
The moon rises. The water ripples across the cracked stones. Nalatachet slips into the river and starts swimming strongly, silently toward the sky.