From now till December 31st, you can download Tad Williams' Caliban's Hour for 2.99$ worldwide here.
Here's the blurb:
Caliban's Hour is a novella-length (40,000 words) Shakespearian fantasy, and the inspiration for it came from a conversation between Tad Williams and his wife Deborah Beale, where they reimagined The Tempest in the light of colonialism, and saw the suffering of the native Caliban at the heart of it. The story recounts all of Caliban's young life as the wizard Prospero and his child Miranda, shipwrecked on the island, take it all for themselves.
In addition, for the same span of time, you can download The Secrets of Ordinary Farm, sequel to The Dragons of Ordinary Farm, for 2.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
Tyler and Lucinda have been invited for another summer at mysterious, wonderful, scary Ordinary Farm, but this year something sinister is going on with their great-uncle Gideon and his unique animals, the dragons, unicorns, and sea-serpents he has rescued out of the time-rift called the Fault Line. The farm is under threat from Gideon’s billionaire rival Ed Stillman, and Gideon’s security measures include dangerous new creatures like bunyips and manticores.
But all the security in the world can’t protect Lucinda, Tyler, and the farm from dangers closer to home, like the witch Mrs. Needle and her son Colin, who want Ordinary Farm for themselves. The children do everything they can to keep the farm and its fabulous beasts safe, but when Uncle Gideon vanishes things quickly get worse – much worse.
Everything is going wrong. The farm is breaking down around them and the people who live there -- each one a stranded traveler from the past -- are terrified. The stakes have never been higher. Can Tyler and Lucinda find a way to save Ordinary Farm?
Master storytellers Tad Williams and Deborah Beale create a white-knuckle tale for their second book of adventures at Ordinary Farm.
And to give you a taste of the novella Caliban's Hour, here's an exclusive excerpt, courtesy of the author! =)
Caliban’s Hour has great significance to me, both as a book and as a story. It was originally commissioned by my wife Deborah Beale when we were not yet married and she was still my British editor, as a novella in a series she was publishing which included works by fine writers like Greg Bear, Michael Swanwick, Lucius Shepard and many others. By the time I finished my contribution, though, she had left that publishing company and the novella series had been ended, so it was published as a short, standalone novel.
My original dedication of the book to Deborah featured a poem of Emily Dickinson's which was significant to both of us, but somehow by the time it came out in the UK edition the first line had accidentally been changed from "Exultation is the going Of an inland soul to sea," to "Exultation is the going Of an ISLAND soul to sea," which not only screwed up the meaning but made the whole thing sound a bit like it should be accompanied by a ukulele.
Anyway, this book went through many strange twists and turns in its publishing history, including a cover proposal by the American publishers that was so horrifying I actually met with them in New York to complain. (Long story short, it featured romance-novel typography and a woman much younger and more scantily clad than the one in the story being observed by a muscular, shadowy stranger who looked much more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than Shakespeare's Caliban.) The compromise we came up with satisfied nobody, and the book never got much attention either in the UK or the US. Which was too bad.
I'm proud of this story, and not just because it takes the insane risk of trying to create both a prequel and a sequel to one of Shakespeare's greatest and most interesting plays. We finally learn a little bit about the Caliban of the play before he became the monster we all know, and I believe as with most monsters, the full telling of his tale makes him something we can all understand.
Remember, as Caliban himself says in The Tempest, "This was my island once." Like all those other folks in the New World who accepted visitors from Europe only to find that those visitors soon became their masters, Caliban is as much a victim of history as he is of Prospero the magician. In fact the age of exploration Shakespeare saw beginning, and about which he raised some very important questions, still dominates the politics of our world centuries later. In a way we are all Caliban, formed by things and people we don't know or don't understand, and forced to make our way in the brave new world they've given to us.
Tad Williams, Woodside, CA., July 11, 2011
Something slid down the side of the wide-bellied ship and into the water, quiet as the stolen kiss. As the shadow bobbed to the surface it disturbed a flock of gulls, who rose shrieking to circle high above the harbor; the last rays of sun from behind the mountain turned them, for a little while, into streaks of dull fire against the evening sky. At last they drifted back down to the waves, folded their wings, and settled into watchful bird-sleep. They were not disturbed again. Whatever swam there had gone, and the harbor was quiet once more.
Light spilled out of the tavern door onto the muddied stones of the Piazza San Ferdinando as a trio of men stumbled out across the threshold into the more uncertain glare of the piazza torches. Behind them a voice rose in song, a first-night-in-port song, full of drunken hopefulness.
“A lot of slags,” one grunted in dockside Neapolitan. “We’ll do better at Cuvo’s, won’t we?”
“The fat one was pretty enough,” his companion offered, running his finger carefully around the rim of the wine jar before lifting the finger to his mouth. “Well cushioned.”
The first spit. “A bitch. I heard about her from ‘Sandro.” He took a few loose-jointed steps and the man with the wine jar fell in beside him. “But there’s some worth throwing your money at over at Cuvo’s, you’ll see.” He turned. “Sebastiano! What in hell’s name are you doing?!”
“Pissing, “ the third man slurred, propping himself one-handed against the tavern wall. The door had fallen shut again, swallowing most of the light and noise. “A man’s go to piss sometimes, doesn’t he?”
The one with the jar laughed. “Drink it down, piss it out,” he sang, “that’s the way the money goes…”
“We’re going to Cuvo’s,” the first man called back. “Come on, then.” With the wine-bearer in tow, he moved off somewhat unsteadily across the piazza.
Sebastiano, still leaning against the wall for support, contemplated with something like satisfaction the puddle now running down the walkway. As he fumbled himself back into his breeches a dark shape appeared from the shadows beside him, silent and sudden. A callused hand closed on his wrist. He lost his purchase on the wall and stumbled, but the clutching hand held him up until his feet were beneath him.
As Sebastiano yelped and tried to pull away his free hand strayed behind his back, groping for the rope-cutter in his belt, but something lashed out from the shadows and prisoned the other arm. He was held firmly by a large man-shaped shadow whose cloak drizzled water onto the paving stones.
“What do you w-w-want? I’ve no money. My mate – my mate there” – Sebastiano tried to gesture across the piazza, but could only twitch a shoulder – “he’s got my purse.”
The shadow figure said something guttural and urgent that the drunken sailor could not understand. He again tried to tear himself free, but his wrists were held as though manacled. The pressure increased. Sebastiano squealed in pain.
“What do you want? Ah! Santa Maria!” He caught a glimpse of the eyes hidden in the shadowed hood and his legs slowly folded beneath him until he knelt before the dripping shape.
Again the thing questioned him; this time he could almost understand the rough speech, but his heart was beating so fast he was sure it would burst and he could not think properly. At last he heard what seemed to be a name, then heard that name said again. The fumes of drink utterly dispersed by terror, the safety of the tavern and his friends both only a few short steps away but completely, hopelessly out of reach, Sebastiano shuddered, then forced himself to repeat aloud the name he thought he had heard.
For a moment, as the grip on his arms tightened so cruelly that he thought his bones would snap, he was certain he had said the wrong thing; childhood prayers, entreatments saved for storms at sea, whirled in his thoughts. Then the pressure slackened. He looked up to see the eyes in the shadowed face gleam with reflected torchlight, burning steadily as marsh fire. The thing stared at him, head cocked, listening.
“There.” Sebastiano wagged his head toward a blocky shadow on the skyline, a dark mass crowned with spiky towers. “Everybody knows,” he gibbered. “Everybody! There. In the castle.”
The shadow released one of the sailor’s hands and lifted a gnarled, pointing finger toward the Castel Nuovo.
“Yes!” Sebastiano wheezed feeling the thing’s fingerprints still in his flesh. He nodded his head weakly. “There. There.”
A moment later he was alone. Trembling so badly he could not stand unaided, he leaned against the cold stone wall and wept. The torches still fluttered around the piazza. The shadows were empty.
As the tavern door swung inward, his shipmates jeered.
“Thought you went off to Cuvo’s place with old Too-Good-For-Us,” one shouted. “Or did you lose your way?”
Sebastiano staggered toward the fire and took his place on a bench there. Shivering, he stared at the livid finger marks on his sunbaked arms. His fearful, distracted face eventually brought a sort of quiet down on the crowded room.
He looked up from his bruises and into the depth of the flames, as though he were alone in the tavern. The tears on his cheek were drying rapidly in the heat of the fire.
“I have met the Devil tonight,” he rasped. “Heaven save me. His eyes are yellow… and he stinks of fish.”
Night nestled in the crevices between the stones of the castle’s great archway gate. A pair of sentries talked in low tones, pikes sagging, cloaks wrapped tight against the chill. When they finally retreated into the gateway to shelter from the ever-colder wind, a large shadow detached itself from the darkness like a piece of black velvet torn from heavy drapery, then clambered swiftly up the angled corner where the tower met the gate. Within a half dozen heartbeats it was far above the shivering guardsmen, mounting the face of the arch like a spider.
Dark fingers clutched the silent heads of the statues; muscles bunched and extended as the figure drew itself upward, finding handholds and toeholds in the details of the carved reliefs, pawing the dignified stone faces of saints and warriors. At last the climber reached the top of the arch and stood there, cloak billowing and faintly silvered by moonlight.
As it paused, unmoving, to look down on the Casteel Nuovo’s inner keep, there was a trace of the simian in its posture, in the hunched shoulders and the curve of the great, powerful arms. There was something equally animal in the way it leaned forward, rigid and intent as a hunting beast scenting its prey.
The keep’s upper windows glimmered like eyes, but they were blind eyes. No alarm was given as the shadow-shape dipped into a crouch, then began to make its way down into the inner courtyard.
A Domestic Scene
“Giulietta, I will hear no more of it. This is your father’s wish; there is nothing I can do.”
She was attired for sleep in a nightdress of Cathayan silk, but there was nothing of rest in her attitude. Her fine-boned face was drawn into tight planes and creases of worry, and she clutched the blankets with her thin fingers.
Pacing back and forth beside her bed was a girl just on the edge of womanhood, whose swirl of dark hair, unbound for the night, swayed like the tail of an uneasy horse.
“I am the second-to-the-last child, Mother.” The girl’s voice would have been sweet but for the angry, self-sorry tone of her words. “You have married off two daughters already, and Naples has an heir. Why should my life be caught up as well?”
“He is an able young man, and not unhandsome. Oh, merciful Lord, how my head hurts! Please, Giulietta, your father has thought very carefully…”
“My father has thought very carefully about what will suit him, not me! What do I care for young Ursino or any of his family?”
The woman on the bed drew in breath sharply. “Have a care how you speak of your father!” Her voice trembled. “The world has not changed so much that… that daughters may insult their sires without retribution. “ She paused and looked down at her slender hands clutching the coverlet. “From Heaven, I mean. For surely it is a sin to flout the father who loves you and cares for you.“
“Does he? I can scarcely recall what he looks like, he is here so seldom.” She hesitated, but only for an instant. “I am surprised you even remember that you are married.”
“Giulietta! If I had said such things about my … even thought such things…!”
The girl stopped pacing. She clenched her fists and opened her mouth wide as though for another angry denunciation. Instead she shuddered, then flung herself down beside the bed. She pressed her forehead against the quilt, against her mother’s hip, and wept. “I cannot breathe! I have dreams that I am buried alive – terrible nightmares! I do not want to marry Renato Ursino! Oh, Mama, I am so miserable!”
The woman reached out a hand to stroke her daughter’s dark hair. “But what can possibly make you so unhappy, my rabbit? I beg you, tell me. He is said to be sweet-tempered, and his family’s house is very close – you will not be far from all you love.”
“But that’s just it! I have seen nothing! Done nothing! And now I will go to live in the house of the Ursino family, and I will have babies… and then I will grow old, and I will die.”
Her mother laughed in pained surprise. “But darling one! There is far more that will happen to you than that. And having babies is nothing to sniff at. My life would mean little without you, my dear, and all the rest of my brood.”
“You had a life before. I have had nothing, seen nothing. I am smothering!” Giulietta’s anguished words were muffled against her mother’s lap.
“What you know of my childhood is exaggerated, misleading. I was often frightened…”
The girl lifted her tearstained face, eyes suddenly bright. “I would love to be frightened! Grandfather took you across the ocean. You saw a whole new world! I will die here, among the same faces I have seen my entire life, in dreary, gossipy Naples!”
Before her mother could reply they were startled by a knock on the bedchamber door. One of the ladies-in-waiting poked her head in, then quickly stepped back again to admit an old woman carrying a very small boy.
“I beg your pardon, Highness.” The old woman paused to dart a stern, meaningful look at the daughter. “I know you like to be left alone at bedtime, but he can’t sleep for having nightmares. Asked for you over and over.”
“Of course, Francesca.” The mother held out her arms and the boy was delivered, eyes half-closed, fair hair mussed and damp with night sweat. “What is it, little Cesare?” she asked, stroking his red face. “Why are all my chickens so uneasy tonight?”
“Man, man.” Cesare waved his fat little hand.
“He thinks he saw a man at the window,” the nurse said fondly. “Kept pointing and crying.”
“Oh, he has had a bad dream, the poor little thing.” His mother kissed the dried tears on the boy’s cheeks. “Cesare, there is no man outside the window. It’s too high up in the air!” She sang to him for a while, then at last turned to old Francesca. “Look, I think he’s falling asleep again.”
Giulietta had stealthily wiped her face dry, and now she stood. Her angry gaze went from the nurse to her mother. “He would sleep better if he didn’t eat so many sweets.”
“Yes.” Her mother nodded, smiling as though Giulietta’s tone had been less harsh. “He is spoiled indeed, the poor little thing.”
“There,” said the nurse. “You’re right, Highness, he’s dropped off again already. A mother’s touch.” She spoke with the satisfaction of an alchemist whose experiment confirms a great universal truth. “A mother’s touch.”
The lady of the house was about to surrender the sleeping child to his nurse, but abruptly turned instead to her daughter. “Why don’t you take him back and put him to sleep, dear? He is so very fond of you. Besides, it is time for you to be abed yourself, my rabbit.”
Giulietta glared, but took the child. “You mean it is your bedtime,” she grumbled. “It is scarcely an hour past sundown.”
Her mother did not argue. “I have been tired since this last one came. Go on, take him, Giulietta. Help Francesca put him to bed. It would be a kind thing to do.”
The girl made a face, but took the open-mouthed, faintly snoring child with suitable care and followed after the nurse. She turned in the doorway.
“I will not sleep just because you tell me to,” Giulietta said in a loud whisper. “And I will not marry Renato Ursino!”
Her mother waved her out, gently but firmly. “We will talk about that some other time. Please tell Amelia I am going to sleep now.”
When the door was closed and the chamber empty, Giulietta’s mother sand back against the pillows with a deep sigh, then turned and blew out the candle on the bedside table. The dying fire cast a few long shadows. The bone white moon hung framed in the window.
The echoes of the church bells tolling the eleventh hour were fading when the bedchamber door opened on silent hinges. A dark shape moved through, then pushed the heavy door back into place. The smoldering embers in the fireplace painted red along the edges of everything.
The shadow approached the bed and for a long time stood motionless, surveying the sleeping woman. At last, as though the force of such scrutiny had penetrated her dreams, the woman’s eyes fluttered open and wandered for a moment unfixed before widening with alarm.
“What…!” she gasped. “Who…?”
A dark hand sprang from beneath the figure’s cloak and covered her mouth. She struggled, but even with both her own hands she could not push away the clamping fingers.
The shape leaned closer. Her wide eyes became even rounder and her thrashing movements increased. “I will let you go.” The deep voice spoke Milanese, with strange undertones. Astonishingly, the prowler did not whisper, as though he – for no female throat could birth such a chesty rumble – did not fear discovery. “I will let you go,” he continued, “and you may shout until you echo the hurricane. But even if you manage to wake someone to help you – although I am certain there is no one nearby so capable – then you will merely bring yourself a swifter ending.”
His lifted hand vanished into the cloak like a black rabbit going to ground. She pulled herself back against her pillows, as far from the intruder as she could shrink. “You are from … Milan?” She was hardly able to speak for breathlessness.
He laughed, but there was pain in it. “So you recognize your native speech, but you do not remember me, Miranda? I supposed I am not surprised.” He threw back the hood of his cloak to reveal a shaggy-haired head set low and tilted forward on a short neck and broad, muscle-knotted shoulders. His skin was tanned and leathery. Beneath his heavy, bony brows his eyes glinted as shockingly yellow as an owl’s.
Miranda raised her trembling hands to her face. “Caliban…?”
He laughed again, harshly, and slapped his hands together with a crack loud as a musket shot, then bared his long, crooked teeth and did a strange dance, capering like a beggarman’s monkey. “Ha! So you do remember! I have survived – I exist! – at least as a memory.” He stopped and leaned close, curling his lips. “At least as a nightmare.”
Miranda shook her head, dazed. “But what… why are you… after all these years…?”
“Why am I here?” He smirked. “Why, to kill you, of course.” He spread his great arms as if to applaud her terror. “Go to, then. Scream until the rafters shake. It will only hasten your end. But if you love life so that you fear to leave it, then I advise you to stay quiet and thus make full use of what you have left.”
Miranda let out her pent breath; for a moment she had to struggle to take another. “You mean to slay me?”
He crouched. “Nothing so simple or so sudden, little queen. I could have murdered you in your sleep if I chose, snuffed you as easily as you extinguished this taper.” He plucked the candle from her bedside table and backed toward the fire, then held the wick in the embers until it caught. As he returned he held it close, so that it threw the heavy bones of his brow into stark relief. “One pinch, then blackness,” he said, setting it down once more. “But that would be too swift; it would not serve me. I have gone to great effort to come here, Miranda. ‘Heroic’ might not be too bold a word: I have ridden in the damp, fish-perfumed, rat-swarming holds of ships; I have swum miles through cold, shark-sliced water; I have risked the swords of city men. Yes, ‘heroic’ might indeed be the word… if there could ever be a hero as ugly and spiteful as I am. We must be careful with our words, after all – they are very important. In fact, they have brought me here.”
“Words?” Miranda sat up straighter. “I do not understand.”
“Do you not? I… have… words… for you.” He took a step forward and clutched her wrist. “Your father is dead.”
She shook her head at the pain of his grip. “Five years. This is no news.”
“It was to me.” His lips curled in a snarl. “Two decades I roamed that empty island in bleak, abject misery. Twenty black years, and all I could think was that someday I would find your father again and tender him the payment I owed him. At last I escaped – it was not easy, Miranda! – and made my way to Milan. But he is dead! Prospero is dead! Who could have imagined my iron-boned tormentor might grow old and die like an ordinary man? Not all the force of my bitter hatred can bring him back. He has cheated me.” His hand tightened again. “But you have not.”
“Cheated you? Of revenge?”
“Yes. Oh, yes. I have been robbed of a chance to make him hear the words he gave me put to their necessary use. Cheated of an hour in which I could make him hear my grievances, every last one. It is the final betrayal. May his soul twitch in the fires of Hell, if such a place does exist. Of all the things he taught me, that is one I hope does not prove a lie, as so much else did. May his soul burn.”
Miranda traced the sign of the cross. Caliban laughed.
“You should look to your own soul, pretty Miranda.”
“So you will kill me.”
“You do not seem suitably frightened. Is your current life so miserable?” He narrowed his eyes, then smiled. “Ah, I see you stealing glances toward the door. Do you anticipate rescue by the guardsman? Sadly, old Somnambulo – for that must be his name: I could have walked past him whistling had I chosen – is now sleeping even more deeply than is his usual wont. I gave him a goose-egg on the back of his head, but I imagine he will recover his wits by morning. And I know when the guard will change, and who will take his place. I have been watching for three days, Miranda. I know the rhythms of your house almost as well as I know the tides that play along the beaches of my island… our island.”
“Then it was you who Cesare saw!”
His smile grew crooked. “Your pampered child. I wonder what sort of man he would make if he had been given a life like mine, instead of luxury, cosseting, and a fine lady like yourself for a mother.”
“You will not hurt him!” For the first time she struggled, and desperately, but he was far too strong. When exhaustion had at last calmed her, Caliban released her wrist. Faint purple marks spotted the skin.
“It is only you, Miranda, whom I sought.” He spoke as though mildly offended. “Since your father has escaped my justice, it is you who must hear my words.”
“Words. You keep saying..,”
“Because that was the gift your father gave to me. And the curse that ruined me as well, changed my life to wretched misery. There are hours yet before the guard comes – nay, eons. An eternity, in fact. This is my time, Miranda. Now you will have your words back: before I kill you, you will hear my tale… and you will know what you have done.”
“Silence!” His roar was so loud that for a moment, in the echoing stillness that followed it, both waited expectantly. Then Caliban chuckled. “You see? There is no one to interrupt us. Your guard is insensible, the household asleep. Your husband – unremarkably, for what I have heard – is in another city. Parading his rule before some of this most admiring subjects, no doubt.” He showed broad teeth. “In truth, everyone seems to have someone else tonight, Miranda. Your maid Amelia is with her swain, one of the soldiers. I do not doubt you have turned a blind eye to that – young love is a charming thing, is it not? And we are also a pair, we two. So you will hear me, even if I must lay rough hands on you to ensure your attention.”
He stood, a vast and looming shadow but for the gleam of his eyes.
“You will listen now, Miranda. You will hear the sound of my secret heart before I destroy you. And before you travel into darkness, you will know just what you have done. You will listen…”
The Villain’s Tale
A Mouth Full of Words
What should I say, Miranda – now that the time has come, what should I tell you? How? What? Where do I begin? I have been clamp-jawed with silence so long; now it must all rush out. The words inside me can be pent no longer, and it is you who must brave the torrent. I cannot promise you will not be drowned by its raging force.
There – do you see? That is one of the chief crimes with which I charge you and your father… especially your father. You two brought me a gift, or so I thought, a shining object like a bright fruit dangled in front of a starveling: you taught me that all things have names. Your gift to me was words – a language. But it was a poison fruit, that naming-of-things, for with language I learned lies.
Conceits, tricks, prestidigitations – and see! I pe3rform them too! There is no rushing torrent of water, only a story that I will tell. A river is a river, wet, noisy, a home for fish and whirring, winged flies and skimming beetles. It is not made of words – in fact, a great part of its beauty is that it has no words at all. But your father and his spreading canker of a language – there, witness! I am prisoner of his lying comparisons still! – first named, then took the meaning from everything.
Before you came, I lived in a world of certain, solid truths, Miranda. “Bestial” is what your kind calls that world, that way, but I am not so sure. I have now seen your cities, the streets and docksides teeming with pale people hurrying like termites in a split log. With so many crushed together, and each one telling a thousand tiny lies in an hour, lying with every breath, every glance, can you tell me that my isolation and simplicity were worse?
On my island I existed in a world of unquestionable things. The great rock above the beach had no name, but I knew it, and knew what it was: something upon which I could climb to see far out across the ocean’s face. A family of lizards nested there, small, brown, striped with yellow, and though they fled before my approach, skittering into crevices to lie in silent panic until I passed them by, I did not think of them as being more alive than the great stone, or of some higher order of being – no more than I though so of myself. They moved, I moved; the rock did not. And yet, sometimes an entire afternoon passed when both lizards and I were as still as the great shelf of stone – while, for all I knew, perhaps there were times when the stone itself walked, or crawled, or even flew, and I simply had not seen such a moment.
In my mind, that great rock was a thing, just as the lizards were things, each one, and I did not try to compare it with anything else. It simply was. I simply was. The objects I found on my island were food if I could eat them, shade if I could sleep beneath them. The weather itself was not a separate phenomenon that could be discussed, like war in a distant country. Some days the world was wet and windy. Other days the entire universe sweltered in unchanging heat.
In fact, it was on just such a day, a day when the whole of creation seemed a stone baking in the coals of a fire, that I climbed the great rock and saw my doom.
Could I have hidden from what proved to be my fate? The island was not large, but there were enough high places, enough hidden, frond-shaded folds, that perhaps I could have kept my distance, at least for the first year. If I had, I would have thought differently, seen differently. I would have grown a year older and also I would have had the custom of separateness – watching, I would have felt myself a distinct thing; learning, I would have understood differently.
But, like the lizards, I was fearful but ultimately stupid. Just as they always ran, but never any farther than the same shallow crevices, so I watched my doom walk toward me across the white beach and did no more to save myself than to crouch slightly lower behind a jagged cornice of stone. Up until that moment, with my mother dead, I had been the lord of my land, but now my fall from power was before me. How well your exiled father must have understood that sort of agonizing reversal – the rebel hand that strikes by surprise, the fatal mistake perceived too late! But understanding did not make him treat me any better in later days.
Two figures, one large, one small. I cannot say, Miranda, that I saw you and instantly fell in love with you, poignant as that might be. I think I was yet too young. I believe, but I am not sure, that I had been alive perhaps a decade when you landed. Of course, the chance to know the details of my early life, including my birth year, were lost even before I was born, vanished along with my mother’s tongue. Lost with my mother tongue.
It’s true that you fascinated me, with your tired little body, your damp hair, your bright dress all in rags, but it was your great, gaunt father whose aspect set all my hairs standing like the itch of distant lightning.
At first he was just a pillar of black on the sun-whitened beach, standing before a grounded boat. I had a moment of dreamy confusion, for I thought the two of you had stepped from our boat, even though I knew that the craft which had brought my mother into exile had rested on another part of the beach, and had long since been plundered of everything but a few rotted timbers.
Prospero. Could ever your God have appeared to His followers with any greater effect? I had never seen a grown man before of nay sort – had, at that moment, never seen another human creature except my mother and my own reflection in the island’s pools. And there stood your father, far taller than I was, wrapped in a black robe that must have felt like the inner walls of a kiln on that blazing hot day, But as if to confirm his magical, unnatural state, his beard seemed to me a stream of gray-and-black hoarfrost hanging from his jaws, ice such as I sometimes found on the leaves and rocks on the island’s high places during the coldest months. His eyes, too, were frosty as he surveyed the beach, then slowly looked up to the rock where I crouched so poorly hidden: chips of a blue darker and yet brighter than the sky, they glinted from beneath heavy brows. Altogether, he seemed a thing of iron, like the nails we had salvaged from our boat, cold and unyielding, sharp and black. A creature of iron and ice.
But there – I have run ahead of myself, and I see I have confused you. Unstoppable, I have gushed, when all should instead be poured out into careful measures. For each part of this story has a different taste, and if you would know what I know, if you would understand what I feel, even a little, you must be given each draught in its proper turn. But, oh, Miranda, how hard it is to wait. The bung has been in the cask for twenty years; the wine inside has corrupted into swirling fumes and vinegar. But wait I shall, and try to tell the story proper. But wait.
You do not remember Sycorax, my mother. Of course you do not – she died choking on a fish bone, bulge-eyed and empurpled, two years before you came to my island. I remember her unnaturally well. For the largest part of my young life she was the only voice I knew, though she spoke to me only in grunts, the only other creature in any way like myself. She was the bold sun that overhung my landscape as well as the ominous moon whose light made me shiver and hide beneath my blanket of leafy branches. Until your father spun into the heaven of my understanding like a dark lodestone star, she was my only constellation.
I worshiped her, I feared her, I hated her. I loved her until it burned me inside. And she in turn was the only living creature who has ever loved me. She was mad, that woman, swollen like a ram-fed goose on her own contradictions. She could spend an afternoon carefully skinning and pithing a fennel stalk to reveal to me how God’s green children drink, then box my ears until I wept for the crime of curiosity, for annoying her with my needs, for tugging at her elbow to show her some wonder I had discovered. She stared at the sky sometimes and laughed without sound. She drew fantastically intricate pictures in the sand, then rubbed them out with her feet the moment they were finished.
She was a witch, my squint-eyed, sharp-nosed mother. I did not know the word – I did not know any words until your father planted them in me like hard little seeds – but I knew from the dreams she shared with me that she was not like others. To a child, his mother must always be a creature of power, a possessor of arcane knowledge, of healing arts and painful curses, but it was not only her son who saw her thusly. They banished her, you know. They silenced her and drove her away.
She was driven out of Algiers. Not surprising: she was a witch, after all. She was proud of it – of the black lessons she had learned, the scraping and scuffling after obscure knowledge, the nervous, averted eyes of her neighbors that reflected her own dark eminence back to her. But power, eminence, these are dangerous possessions. Your own father found that out, Miranda, did he not? They arouse envy. They inspire whispers. Those who fear and placate you wait only to see you misstep, then they are upon you like wolves on a once-proud stag grown old and infirm.
My mother, for all her cleverness and untutored politics, made such a mistake. The snare pulled tight. She was denounced, rolled through the public square in a tumbril, then sentence was passed by the mayor. The whisperers had overthrown her, but they still feared her – that much at least her dark arts bought her. They were terrified of her dying curse. And well they should have been, the wives who stood beside the husbands my mother had caught for them with night-gathered herbs, the farmers grown fat on the flesh of swine she had cured of the hissing sickness. Even the mayor himself had only been elevated to his post after he had visited my mother’s house under cover of darkness one night: his predecessor pitched over dead the following day. Hypocrites! If I am glad of anything, it is that I did not spend my childhood among such creatures.
So frightened were they of her magical words, her curses, that they scorched out her tongue with a fire-heated iron – but even that was not enough. Afraid that the killing of even a silenced witch would bring a plague of bad luck down on them, they put her in a boat, my pregnant mother, and towed her out to the open sea, where she was set adrift.
Pregnant, yes. Heavy with child, and no man to claim the fathering. The wild, conflicting rumors about my sire’s identity helped spread my mother’s ill-fame far beyond the place where she had lived.
If God would see you preserved, that treacherous imp of a mayor said from the other boat as she drifted away, then He will bring you safe again to some far shore.
How do I know these things, if my mother had no tongue to say them? Because your father told me. He had known of my mother’s banishment, although to him it had been no more than a bit of gossip, some idle chat from a merchant fisherman wintering in Milan. And here again your father put a curse upon me, for now all my memories of my mother, the only creature who truly cared for me, are strained through the sieve of Prospero and his cursed language – just as the words I speak to you now, pouring out my heart! He took my past and he took my future. He drove me into a dark burrow and then stopped it at both ends. May his soul twist and burn forever!
But he did not know all. There are things I had before I had his words. Some of my mother’s story still remains to me, and only now do I corrupt it with the rot of speech. She was put to sea, heavy with me – with Caliban unborn. Our boat drifted and drifted. One kindly woman, a neighbor, had secreted a few small loaves of bread and a jar of water in the boat, and this kept my mother – and me, I supposed – alive as the boat wandered errantly across the ocean. At first my mother employed the singed stub of her tongue to curse – great wordless curses that made the very clouds overhead curl and blacken along their edges. Soon, though, she had too little strength for cursing. By the time a week had passed, she could do little but lie in the boat’s bottom, her shawl draped over her head to shade her from the sun, and wait for death. But she did not die, Miranda, and because of that I came to be. So blame your God, as one always must, for putting a match to the train of events that will now take you from the arms of your family, just as I blame that God – or Whatever might hold His usurped throne – for sending you and your cursed father into my life, to make it a confusion and a misery.
The island… my island, came into view as a muddy blot on the horizon.
My mother washed up at last and crawled out of the boat and a little way onto the beach, finding there as if set by some provident spirit the shade of some trees and a rill of clean rainfall that ran down from the heights. By those two things, shade and water, she was saved. By those two things was I preserved inside her belly, although I was nothing but a sprat, a minnow, a pollywog.
So, you are wondering, if your father did not know these tales, how do I know them now? Much he taught me – some few true things, many lies – but he was not the first to catechize me! I had learning of many sorts at my mother’s knee, and though there were no words, I see still the pictures she put in my head, her own thoughts. She did not speak to me at all, and seldom even grunted – what I remember most of her face was a mouth like a pocket that was almost never opened – but somehow there are pictures. I will tell you of that later.
Until I came, she succored herself in that new world with the fruit and stupidly overconfident fish and crablets – the same with which we continued to feed ourselves throughout my childhood. For the island was well provided in everything we needed: all necessities were given swiftly and for little cost. As soon as I could walk by myself, I could forage for the prickly fruit with the green rind, or the sweet plantain, or those red sacks of juice that your father called “wasp-apples,” finding and plucking them as easily as bending to pick up a pebble. I feasted, then threw aside stones and seeds; by the time a few moons had turned, new fruit bushes and trees would be growing there. I ate when I was hungry, slept when I was tired, and, except for my mother’s whims, lived as free and unthinking as any beast.
I had no name, just as she had not until your father told me – “Sycorax,” he said she was called, and it has ever felt foreign to me. I was not even “Boy,” or “You,” for my mother had no speech. I was a look in her eye that meant “Come here,” a beckoning hand, or at most a grunt, a sound like a sow snuffling in soft earth. That exhalation was my only name until you and your father arrived. It was enough.
I was, and I knew it. Who else could it be who saw the lizards on the rock when my mother was not there? Who else ate the fruit my mother did not eat, or climbed the trees that my leathery but brittle mother could not climb? Who else did Sycorax beckon to? I existed, and I needed no name to prove it – unlike those maggoty multitudes creeping and sleeping in Naples below us like identical bees in the slots of a great hive. I was small, but I was the only thing like me. If my mother was my first god, I was her only worshiper, and thus all-important – for what use is a god without devotees?
I have now seen the huge churches of Naples. Although I heard of them from your father, Miranda, and saw pictures in his books, I could not quite believe any building so tall could exist. Now I believe… but I still do not understand. If your God is everywhere, if He is always watching, why should your people make houses to go to worship Him? Faced with an all-seeing, everywhere-being God, I would think what is needed is a place to hide.
I had to find such a place on my island. For if my mother was my god, she was often a jealous deity. Just as no tie of blood would make her pay notice to me when she did not wish to, so also no complaint or resistance would fend off her attentions when I did not want them. Whether I was eating, sleeping, or moving my bowels, when my mother called for me I was to come, and quickly.
As I grew out of infancy, it seemed that there were countless things I could not do, ways I could not be, faces I could not make. My mother beat me when I annoyed her, although what it was that caused her anger was seldom obvious. Other times she would clutch me and hold me, keening and mumbling in her wordless way, as if I were the only thing that kept her heart from bursting in her breast.
Did I say that I loved her? For I did, helplessly, and no beating ever changed that. Yet still there were times when I could not bear to be with her, as if my very love for her was a hole yawning beneath my feet, threatening to swallow me up.
As I grew older, my need for independence became a strong hunger. If I left in the morning and was gone all day, I would earn a thrashing – but only one. To remain instead by her side was to risk a score of unexpected blows, and just as many equally unexpected – and almost equally disturbing – displays of miserating affection. But she knew the island almost as well as I did. It was not enough to be merely out of reach – if so, any one of dozens of trees or rocks would have sufficed as a shelter. I had to be out of her sight and the sound of her grunting voice as well. It was a strange magic my mother had – perhaps all mothers have it, I do not know – but to be near her was to feel the need to obey.
There was one particular place that tugged at my attention – a valley. Not strenuously distant from the hut in which my mother and I lived, set in the embrace of the nearest rocky foothills, it was nevertheless one of the few places we had not explored, since the only path down into it was choked by brambles, each branch of which carried thorns as long as the first two knuckles of my finger. Effectively barred to us, it was much in my imagination, and I would often loiter at the top of the path beside the thorn hedge, although there were higher places on the island, spots where the view was better and that were harder for my mother to reach.
One day I was crawling along the top of this path on my hands and knees, following the progress of an insect which looked for all the world like an ambulatory stick. In truth, in my open-hearted acceptance of wonders, I assumed it was a stick, just some heretofore unencountered variety that happened to walk. In any case, this particular stick at last turned and blithely strolled into the shelter of the brambles. I stared after it sadly, knowing it was beyond my reach, wishing that I could be so small and disappear so easily. But as I looked at the place it had gone, I saw that although the thorny branches entwined too thickly to allow passage for anything much larger than the now-escaped insect, they did not quite touch the ground. Each bramblebush sprouted from a central trunk, and there were only a half dozen such trunks across the width of the path, although the tangling made it appear one continuous hedge. I lowered myself onto my belly and saw that there was indeed a space beneath the thorns a little less tall than the width of my palm. I sat up again, disappointed. I was still far too big: even lying flat on my back, I would be scraped bloody and raw before I pushed myself a yard in.
Then a sudden thought sent me scrambling back down the hillside. I searched the ground and soon discovered what I needed: a pair of fallen branches from one of the larger trees, each branch nearly as tall as I was, both relatively straight, especially after I had broken off the smaller cross-limbs. I went back to the thorn hedge, pushed the branches under its skirt, and lifted. A slightly wider gap opened. Holding the makeshift staves carefully, I rolled onto my back, then slid headfirst into the space. The brambles hung like storm clouds just above my face, shuddering as the sticks in my hands trembled beneath the weight of the intertwined branches. I gently slid the sticks forward, shutting my eyes in panic for a moment when it seemed as though the suspended bramble might break free and smash down on me, then inched myself farther along. Again the sticks held the thorns just high enough, although one or two now grazed my chest, digging as my mother’s sharp fingernails did when I overslept.
It was a long and dreadful process. The two sticks drew slippery in my sweaty hands; dust, long undisturbed, sifted down from the bushes into my mouth and nose and eyes, and my muscles grew weak. When I had pushed in the entire length of my body, it occurred to me that I was now trapped: it was virtually impossible to turn around, and should the distance ahead prove to be too far – what if the thorns extended all the way down the valley? – my strength would quickly give out, the brambles would sag down, and I would lie hidden and bleeding until I died.
Crying only made it harder to keep moving, so I did my best to restrain my tears. Even were I to scream for my mother, what could she do? She was though as a dried fish, and stronger than I was, but it would take days for her to hack such a weight of thorn branches away with her stone knife.
Creeping forward with slow, agonizing movements of my shoulders, elbows, and heels, I at last began to feel a stronger light falling on my face. The branches were thinning! Renewed hope brought renewed strength; I pushed on until my face finally appeared from beneath the hedge. The sun dried the sweat and dust into a thin mask of mud on my face as I worked the rest of my body out from beneath the brambles. When my feet came free, scratched and bloody, I rolled onto my side and lay panting in the dirt like the wounded, terrified animal I was.
But youth is resilient, Miranda. You obviously believe that, for did you not send your own girl-child off tonight, certain that those things which gall her so today will be forgotten tomorrow? And the young are resilient… when they have not been pushed beyond their capabilities. Thus, it was not long until young Caliban – or young No-Name, as I still was then – was on his feet again, admiring the new lands which his bravery had conquered.
Do you remember that valley, Miranda? I took you there once. Surely you remember that place, that day. Surely.
Beyond the brambles lay a miniature Paradise, an afterlife to which either Christian or pagan would be glad to awaken. A small stream flowed down the slope beside me, its source hidden in the widening of the thorn hedge. Long grass, a wind-combed crest that reached my knees, lined the stream’s path, and spread into a tiny meadow at the bottom of the narrow valley. Around the meadow, like protective spirits, stood a ring of delicate, round-leaved trees. At their center stood the only object taller than the valley’s walls, a huge, ancient pine. I had seen its bristling apex from the high places on the island, but to the extent I had thought of it, I had assumed it grew from some place along the valley’s mounting walls. Now I could see that its trunk stretched a good dozen times my height, that its powerful roots had pushed the rocks aside in their growth as casually as an uneasy sleeper kicks away his cloak.
Although everything in the valley was new to me – the tuneful noise of the water, so much gentler and more friendly than the sea’s constant grumbling, the hum of sparkling dragonflies darting past my ears – it was the old pine that drew my attention. It seemed to have been waiting for me. In my wordless way, I sensed something of its age, something of its mystery. But not all of its mystery. No, not all.
I made my way down the streambank, the grass-stems scraping at my shins, mud sucking at my toes. Despite the small noises all around, a sense of stillness and power hung over the valley. A thrill ran up the back of my neck. The fact that I had found this place made me feel taller, wider – more, somehow: this expansion of my world had caused me to grow as well. It was the first thing in the world that was mine and no one else’s. I felt I had come into an inheritance of sorts. It was my first day of manhood.
The stream dwindled into a series of smaller rivulets and at last disappeared in a delta of matted grass. I squelched across it toward the base of the pine tree and found a place where the sun arrowed down and where the tussocks of grass were dry. Sitting, staring up at the scaly branches, I thought I could feel the life of the great tree beating slowly through it, like the blood I heard in my own ears as I lay waiting for sleep. A dark shape flickered in over the valley walls and lit on a branch above my head. It was a bird, sky blue but touched at neck and wingtips with streaks of sunset red. It eyed me with such calm interest that I almost expected it to communicate with me as my mother did, in grunts or gestures.
We sat and watched each other, the bird and I, and slowly a strange idea began to creep over me: it was not the brightly colored bird that examined me, but the old pine itself. Eyeless, it had summoned something with eyes so it could look at me, a stranger-thing, an intruder in its ancient domain. This odd thought brought another even more frightening: handless, might it not summon something with curling fingers, grasping claws, to hold me until it decided what to do?
I stood up slowly. The bird only tipped its head to keep its bright eyes trained on mine. I backed away until I was out of the sun and the meadow became soft and swampy again beneath my feet, then I turned and clambered up the streambank toward the thorn hedge. The valley had gone quiet – no dragonflies, no wind sawing the grass; even the murmur of the water had grown more hushed. Keeping my pace slow and casual with that sense of something watching my back was the most difficult thing I had ever done. I could feel the bird’s eye on me like a finger against my spine.
When I reached the thorn hedge, I turned. The valley still lay like a jeweled egg in a deep nest. The pine tree still loomed. The bright bird was gone.
As the fear ebbed, a kind of stubborn anger replaced it. This was my valley, I told myself. I had no words for that, but in a world where anything could be snatched from me at a moment’s notice by my mother’s gnarled brown fingers, the concept was as distinct as a single cloud in an empty sky. Mine. Even the tree, whatever it was, whatever it thought of me, was somehow mine. I would not be chased away. I would come back to this place whenever I wished.
I bobbed my head toward the ancient pine, a recognition of an equal rather than homage to a victor, then turned and made my painful, slow way back out beneath the brambles.
Do not speak, Miranda! I see by your look that you remember that place only too well. That you remember your… treachery. What other word is there? Even with all the serried ranks of noun and verb at my command, I can find no other way to describe what you did to me there. Stay! Stay! Here, feel: my hand is upon your neck – you must not struggle. I have not reached that part of the story yet. And you must hear it all.
But again I have raced ahead. There is time yet, more than enough time. Before you and your father came, before my mother’s death, before even I reached the hidden valley, I was alive. If tonight is the only time my story is told, then I shall tell it in full.
The first thing I can remember is my mother bending low over the cook-fire, its glow playing across the sharp-edged face that sun and grime had darkened like old leather. How old was I? I will never know. It was an evening like many, many hundred others.
We lived in a hut of leaning sticks that she had built at the edge of the forest. A wide porch of sand stretched from the door down to the sea. I was amazed when I went back to see it, Miranda, after spending those years in the compound your father built – which I largely built, if the truth be told, acting as slave, laboring at his will. But when I returned to the place I had been born, and lived in, I was astonished to see how small it was – scarcely larger than a shell for a man-sized crab. My mother and I had spent most of our time beneath the sky, and perhaps some idea of that greater and supremely vaulting roof overhead had colored my memories. It was a dark cave, the house of my childhood, with a hole in the top to let some – but never enough – of the smoke float free.
My mother was mad, as I suppose I too am now mad. What else can people be who have seen their entire lives snatched away from them, and for no greater crime than being what they are? The choking, stifling unfairness of it is a permanent sore – one that can be lived with but never forgotten. Left to my mother’s teachings and no other, though, I believe I would have been sane. I the universe that surrounded her, things simply were. To my childish eyes, she was unhappy in the same way that the day was hot or the tide was high. But your father, gagging on the injustices that had been done to him, taught me – along with the words that could describe such an alien thing in the first place – the cursed idea that there was such a thing as justice, as fairness, as right and wrong. Oh, wretched, cruel man!
Yes, in her own way, my mother was certainly mad. She sang to the storms, hunched in the shapeless black garments she had worn on her day of punishment and exile, and which were the only things she ever wore, however tattered and threadbare they became. She would squat outside the hut while I peered anxiously through the low doorway, and as the squall matted her gray-shot hair and soaked her ragged dress, she would bellow and moan to the sky. Only the rhythms – which still betimes float up into my thoughts unbidden – tell me that this was more than bestial anger or fear. As the wind howled and the lightning cracked, she sang. To my childish eyes, all three were equally powerful, equally frightsome.
Other times, such as on the night of my earliest memory, she sat and stared into the fire and dreamed for long, long hours, clucking and gurgling to herself. On some of those nights, her dreams swam into my head, murky visions of things I could not recognize, but which I feel sure were the places of her life before the island – flat, brown earth, mud houses, dry hills. And faces, angry and accusing. Imagine, Miranda: until you and Prospero came, the only human faces I saw, the only faces that peopled my dreams, were the ghosts out of my mother’s bitter reveries.
All men are made by those who raise them, it is true, but was ever a man so crookedly shaped by two people, my mad mother and your cold father? They were the two opposites that swelled to fill my universe. Is it any wonder that I came to love you, Miranda? What else did I have? What else could I hope for?
One storm that I never saw myself, but experienced often in my mother’s brooding dreams, must have happened soon after her landfall, while I was still nestled inside her belly. The vision of it came again and again, although it was only after she died that I came to understand its meaning. On that dreamed-of night the wind blew fiercely; the waves leaped high and sprays of pale foam leaped higher still. The great palm trees of the forest’s edge bent nearly double. Then something fell burning from the sky.
It struck the beach in a mighty gout of flame, a fire bigger than anything my mother could have made if she had stacked dry timber for a week. A moment later, the blaze was only a crackle of red and amber light. Something rose from the pit it had dug into the sand, amorphous as smoke, but fast coalescing. My mother fought with it. I know not how she did, or why, but when her dreams of that night crept into me I could sense her fear, her anger, and even a taste of the cold satisfaction she felt when, after a long and nightmarish struggle, she at last found the chain of thought that would bind the thing. Nothing in her dream told me what had happened after that. Some great battle had been waged and I had been raised upon the empty battlefield, but I would never know its meaning, the truth of its resolution.
Or so I thought for a long time.
I had my own battles. The island was bountiful, but not always kind.
Just as every branch seemed full of fruits so juice-swollen that they almost fell into my hand before I could pick them, life of other kinds thrived in equal measure: for every gaudy-feathered or sweetly singing bird there seemed a stinging insect of some kind – one of the reasons we lived with a hut full of smoke. These tiny armies were particularly vicious when twilight came, but they were always at least a nuisance and sometimes a curse. There were as many different types, it sometimes seemed, as there were grains of sand on the beach: hundred-legged worms, biting flies, green crawlers, jewel-shelled buzzers, flitterwings, scattersands, blanket-burrowers, each with its own determination and skills, each bent on piercing my young flesh. I quickly learned to wash the fruit nectar from my face and hands when I had finished eating, for that drew them faster than anything; I also went about much of the time wearing a second skin of dried mud, which at least kept the shorter-toothed varieties at bay.
There were serpents on the island, too, and in nearly as great variety, from tiny thread-vipers scarcely the length of a finger to a single vast and luckily slow-moving python, which lived in the trees on the island’s far side – a beast ten paces long and as thick around as my waist, covered all over with a pattern of black and white and brown scales as intricate as any carpet in this great house of yours. I never let that old devil close enough to cause me any harm, but I often saw his glittering eye as he hung motionless from a branch, taking the sun and imperiously watching all that passed – especially a plump morselet like myself. He was in no hurry. For all I know he is back there on the island still, waiting. Perhaps he shall still get his chance with me someday.
One particular morning I was wandering on the hillside on the sunward side of the island. You may remember it, since the breadfruit trees grew there. This day was before you came, before my mother went gasping and thrashing to her death. It had been raining and the ground and leaves were damp; even the air was wet. I was swishing along, kicking my feet in the tall grass to see the drops scatter, when I heard a rustling sound.
I dropped to my hands and knees, frightened, for whatever lurked in the undergrowth sounded quite large. I knew it was not my mother, for I had left her grinding roots on a flat stone before our hut only a short time earlier. Except for the great serpent, most of the animals that shared the island were smaller than I. There were a few timid deer and slot-eyed goats who seldom came down from the high places, at least by day. The monkeys who harbored in the deep forest were unafraid to roam by the sun’s light, but they were none of them much taller than my knee, and also spent little time on the ground. Needless to say, I was both fearful of and fascinated by whatever might make such a commotion in the deep grasses.
As I lay peering, my chest and chin pressed against the sodden black earth, the stems leaned apart and a clutch of small pigs pushed out, snouts wrinkling as they whuffled with excitement. They were almost hairless, mottled gray and pink, and they gave no greater sign of alarm on seeing me than to change slightly the sound of their snorting. They inspected me for a long moment, then resumed nosing the earth, shoving and bumping each other when it seemed that one of them might have found something interesting. I watched, entranced. I may even have laughed. Then their mother appeared.
She was huge by any measure, a mountain of muscle and fat and coarse bristles, embellished with a redshot eye. To a child lying on the ground at her feet she appeared an almost indescribable monstrosity. If my mother had been capable of telling me tales of Satan and his demons, I promptly would have granted that sow a high seat in Hell’s pantheon.
The only thing that saved me was sheer, terrified rabbiting. While she stared at me for an instant, then lowered her head, I sprang to my feet, took a step and a half to the nearest tree, and leaped. If the tree had been a pace farther, I would have died; of that I have no doubt. As it was, I caught only a glancing blow from her tusked mouth, but even so it tore a great furrow down my leg, which I did not notice until I had climbed to the highest branch I could reach. When I finally saw the blood rushing out of me I nearly fell. I clutched the edges of ripped skin together and looked down. Grunting indignantly, the sow was circling the tree trunk, pausing from time to time to fix me with her malicious little eyes. The sight of her frightened me so badly that I almost lost my balance and tumbled, and I swear that she knew that. She moved to a spot just below me, waiting, but I only swayed for a moment before regaining my footing on the blood-slicked branch.
Wordless though I was, still I knew that there were certain things I should do – my mother had tied me and patched me after enough mishaps. I went always naked in those days except for armoring mud, so there was nothing from which to make a bandage. The tree itself had not leaves but needles. There was nothing I could do to staunch my bleeding except hold the flaps of my gashed leg together with my fingers.
And the sow would not go. The piglets seemed perfectly content to mill about in the clearing beneath the tree, digging with their tiny snouts and squealing at one another, so there was nothing to draw the mother away. A dragging hour went past and still they would not leave. The small creatures that had so charmed me only a short while earlier now seemed demons tormenting me on purpose. How I cursed them, even as I soaked the ground with tears and blood, but to no avail. The piglets gamboled, then slept in the tree’s shade, bellies puffing in and out. The mother watched me with an eye red as my wound, cold as a river stone. The day wore on and I clung to the branch, dizzy, weak, and increasingly certain that nothing could save me.
I shouted for my own mother, of course – I shrieked until my voice was a ragged wheeze – but here I had invited my own misfortune: Sycorax had become used to my roving, if not reconciled. I might get a beating on my return, but she had long since stopped searching for me, since she knew I had found hiding places she could not reach. I made the clearing echo with my wordless wailing, bellowed until it seemed I must shake the sky off its fundamental pillars, but no one came.
The sun moved higher in the sky overhead, turning the gray sky warm and bright, steaming the last moisture from the earth and vegetation – but not before I had licked up every standing drop of rain within my reach.
As the day grew hotter, I became weaker and more light-headed, until it seemed I might just float off the branch like a scrap of ash and be carried away over the rough hills. Once I thought I felt my spirit slip from my body and fly to the beach where my mother squatted, frying cakes on a hot stone beside the fire; but if I truly went there, she was not aware of my spirit-self, of my need. Her back remained bent, her face turned away from me as she slapped the root paste into sticky balls. In my desperate state I may only have dreamed that my spirit departed my body – certainly the sight of my mother making root cakes was something I knew very well. In any case, she did not come. The day grew stiflingly hot. I dipped in and out of sleep. The pain and fright would become less for a moment, and I would let myself slide down into the feeling as though into cool water. A moment later I would awake in heart-speeding terror as I felt myself beginning to pitch forward. And the sow would still be looking up, staring, waiting…
And then she departed. With no warning, long before the sun touched the western horizon, she suddenly gave an angry grunt and went crashing off into the grass. Her piglets formed an untidy company and bobbled after her, tripping one another in their haste to keep up. She was finally gone… or was she? My horrible thirst and the throbbing, wrenching ache of my leg had nearly overpowered me, but my fear of the beast was greater. I waited no little time before beginning my climb down.
The journey to the bottom was excruciating. Even my good leg was painfully stiff; the agony of the other is something I can only leave you to imagine. And the climb set the wound to pumping again. I tried to run for the first few steps, in case the sow should return, but it was useless – I could barely walk. I fell down several times on my journey back to the beach. On the last occasion I almost did not get up, so powerful was the urge to sleep, to slide into gentle blackness.
I made my way back just after dark. It was one of the few times I saw my mother Sycorax frightened. Even as she raised her hand to slap me, she saw my leg, covered foot to thigh in blood, both dried and sticky-new. Her eyes bulged, and she gave out a gurgling cry of terror that I barely even heard.
She was unusually kind after she had cleaned the wound, covered it with root leaf poultices, and tied my leg tight with a strip of cloth torn from her one and only garment. She took me into the hut and cradled my head in her lap as she poured some hot liquid down my throat, then hummed wordless hums to me as I sank into the dark.
You are wondering why I tell you this story, Miranda – I can see it in your face. And at the same moment you are hoping that I have wandered so far in the field of my memories that I am now babbling, that I do not realize how the time is flying away. Not so, my inconstant friend. I know when the next guards will come, and how long after that until old Somnambulo is missed. And everything I tell you is for a reason. My speech is hot, but my heart and blood are cold, cold, cold.
You see, that was the time I learned about hatred. As I shook with the fever that followed, as I lay retching up the thin broths my mother fed me, as I writhed with the pain of the healing wound, I came to hate the creature that had done this to me.
At first I felt only fear. I thought I saw the sow’s evil little eyes gleaming in the shadows when I could not sleep, and her hot, stinking breath seemed to follow me into my dreams. But after a while, as the horrid event itself was partially covered by the collecting pile of days, I began to concentrate instead on the injury done me, and the fear turned to black hatred. When I could stand at last, and found myself a cripple, barely able to hop from one end of our stretch of beach to another, confined by my infirmity to a stranglingly small patch of land – and to the permanent presence of my mother, whose solicitude had long since vanished – the hatred began to curdle into something cooler and more calculating. I began to ponder revenge.
Long after the sow had surely forgotten me, I thought of her and wished her ill. Perhaps this is an example of what your father told you so many times: that I was and am no better than a beast myself. I wonder. In any case, I had been wronged, and could not forget. I would return pain for pain… at least.
I learned to hate. I learned to take a wrong and treasure it like a tiny spark on a cold, wet evening. Each time that the passage of days or the improvement of my health came near to extinguishing the spark, I held it close and blew on it until it flamed again. I nurtured the heat. I held it close to me, although sometimes it was an exhausting task.
Never underestimate how much work there is in hatred, Miranda.
When I could walk well enough to leave the confines of my mother’s domain again, I made my way back to the hillside where I had been so unfairly attacked. I carried a sharp, fire-hardened stick, which gave me at least a small sense of protection, although in truth I think it would have been of little more use than fingernails and teeth against that huge creature. Nevertheless, in some obscure way I felt better with it grasped in my hand. I had made the spear some seasons before, and had used it from time to time to poke rather uselessly at the bright fish that sheltered among the rocks in the ocean shallows. At least the sow would be a larger and less elusive target.
So, my heart pounding and rattling in my breast, I returned to the place where Death’s wing had brushed me. But for the hoofprints of the sow and her young in the mud, there was no sign of my nemesis. I knelt on the spot where they had first crossed the clearing before me and began to dig. A gob of mud came up in my cupped hands. I tossed it aside and gouged again.
It was not the work of a single day, although I had emptied a great trough in the wet soil by the time the sun began to sink. Muddy and exhausted, my leg aching so that the walk back was only slightly easier than on the day the sow had torn it, I returned to my mother’s silent company. After eating I fell asleep quickly, and was back in my pit before the sun was above the hilltop the next morning.
Toward the middle of that day I stopped to drink some of the water which had collected in a hollow of stone. After I drank, I surveyed what I had made, the gouge in the earth was now deeper than I was tall, a black hole, empty but for the wide tree branch propped against the side to help me climb in and out. Thin tendrils of root protruded from the torn soil, white and shocked. The sight made me uncomfortable.
There was something wrong with the hole; I could feel that, but I could not discern what it was. I puzzled for a long time, so long that the mud that coated me dried to a scaly crust. No matter how I paced about the hole’s rim or squinted at its steep sides, I could see nothing. It was a pit, a place in which to trap a creature which had tried to kill me. It was made exactly as it should be made. Why did the sight of it disturb me so?
Shrugging, I clambered back down into the hole and resumed my labors.
When the sun fell behind the pit’s deepening side, the muddy earth became abruptly colder. I looked up, and although the sky was still the same cloudy blue, the darkness of the hole felt oppressive. I decided that I had dug deep enough.
I had a moment of fear when the branch I used for climbing slipped a little on the pit’s damp wall and I almost fell back down, but enough of my upper body was balanced on the rim to pull myself out. I turned and pulled the branch up after me, then spent the rest of the diminishing afternoon covering the hole, first with a mat woven of long, flexible branches, then with sod and leaves. When I was finished, it was almost impossible to detect that this patch of ground was different than any other part of the hillside. My mother never ventured so far from the hut anymore, and something as light as a monkey or one of the island’s small deer would not break the screen of branches; only my enemy would find herself the victim of my diligent hatred. So why was I still troubled?
My understanding tried beyond its undeveloped powers, I returned to the beach.
I did not sleep well that night, but lay long past moonrise with my hands behind my head, staring up into the dim shadowy corners of the hut, listening with growing unrest to my mother’s harsh snoring. When I did fall asleep I tumbled into a deeper darkness full of staring eyes, squealing, shrieking voices, and the scent of blood.
A curious shakiness was on me when I awoke. I loitered about the camp all morning, strangely unwilling to go and check my trap. But at last my mother cuffed me for some minor irritation and I stamped off into the forest.
It took me no little time to make my way up to that place on the hillside where I had spent so much of the previous days. I found a dozen things to catch my attention: monkeys playing games in the high branches of a fruit tree; a newborn butterfly with wings each as wide as my hand, drying itself in the sun; a new dam of sticks forming in one of the streams birthed in the mountain’s highland – virtually everything I saw seemed more interesting than the pit. But at last I reached the spot where I had labored so long, and saw immediately that my efforts had been successful.
The branches that had screened the trap were shattered ruin. The dirt and leaves that had hidden them had fallen away, so that the hole gaped as nakedly as when I had first finished digging. And something was grunting angrily in the depths of the earth.
I crept to the edge, more than half-convinced that my enemy, if it was indeed she, might be spurred by the sight of me to leap all the way out. I knew little or nothing of pigs, and just enough of her cruel strength to consider anything possible.
She did indeed give a great honking cry when I peered over the rim, and charged the pit’s walls, but the soil only crumbled beneath her flailing trotters. I shied away, but after a few moments regained my courage and moved back to where I could look down on what I had accomplished.
Years later I saw in one of your father’s books a picture of a demon immured in Hell. The artist had done his best to show both the monstrousness of its evil and the hopeless anguish of the damned soul festering within it. Until that moment I had been delighted with the engravings, charmed by the art that could make representations at once so flat and so intricate, but when I saw that demon’s image I went cold and shut the book. I had seen that look before.
The sow was hunkered down at the bottom of the pit, so covered in mud that she seemed almost an excrescence of the troubled earth. Her eyes gleamed wickedly out of the blackness, and when she saw me again she bellowed her anger, her tusked yawp a great vibrating red gouge. Her stinking breath floated up in a cloud.
But she was trapped, and it showed in her every movement, sounded in her cries: all her strength and ferocity could do nothing. She was helpless. What she could reach she could seize and rend and destroy, but she could not fight her own bulk or the unresisting soil which only fell away beneath her scrabbling feet. Because she could not understand, she could not escape.
I was both delighted and horrified to see that in her miserable fury she had rasped at her own legs, so that they were as coated with dirt-caked blood as my own had been. I had won. Still, there was something about the immensity of her suffering that left me feeling curiously empty. I stared for a while at the damned, furious eyes, then stood and walked away down the hillside.
I do not know how long I wandered, but I found myself at last in front of the thorn hedge that guarded my secret valley. I made my way beneath the brambles and walked down through the damp meadow to the base of the great pine tree, which this time gave off no feeling of menace or challenge, but rather seemed somehow welcoming. I sat, leaning against the rough bark, and stared up through the green lacework of needles, dizzying myself with the height of the trunk that stretched up above me.
While I walked my thoughts had been flittering in all directions inside my head, aimless and unhelpful as flies. The hatred that had spurred me was now hard to remember. I had a dim sense of the sow, of her angry fearfulness, and that in turn had reminded me of the look on my mother’s face when I had returned with my wounded leg. Had not the sow been protecting her own children as my mother would have protected me? Should she be punished for that? During the planning of my revenge I had thought once of luring her piglets to me and killing them before her eyes, the worst revenge against a mother I could – or for that matter, can now – imagine. I could no longer bear the thought. What crime could warrant such a terrible, terrible punishment?
What crime, Miranda? Surely nothing so simple as what the sow had done.
Now I could not imagine inflicting any more punishment on her at all. She was terrified and trapped. Surely that was enough. In truth, the taste of my victory was far less sweet than I had imagined.
I considered how I might set her free, should I choose to do so. I was not so foolish as to imagine she would be grateful, so any method of release had to encompass my own safety. Perhaps, I thought, I could balance a large log beside the edge of the pit and then tip it over with my spear from the safety of a tree branch, allowing her to climb out…
But even as I played with these thoughts, and enjoyed the warm sensation of magnanimity that suffused me like a golden mist, something else began to creep into my mind.
At first it was hardly notable, merely a sullen irritation that I should contemplate giving the author of my injuries the reprieve she would never have given to me. But then, as I leaned against the tree and watched its branches blowing back and forth, slowly swaying, the feeling became stronger. I experienced again, as strongly as when it had first happened, the pain of my leg and my terror that I would die. How could I so quickly forget what she had done to me? Again I saw the face of the trapped sow in my mind’s eye, but this time her rage had nothing of fright in it, only pure malignity.
The thoughts of mercy I had been harboring suddenly seemed weak; I pushed back against the tree trunk and felt strength flowing into me, angry strength, as though the vitality of the old pine passed through its bark and into my blood. It was almost as if the ancient tree itself was stiffening my resolve, helping me turn away from my earlier, laughable weakness.
Only a few more moments passed before I leaped to my feet and clambered back up the meadow to the thorn hedge. I hurried back toward my trap.
It did not take me long to find a boulder which, with only a little digging, I could free from the muddy hillside’s embrace. Rolling it down toward the pit, bracing it with sticks to keep it moving in the direction I wished, I felt an almost supernatural control and power. The sow began squealing again as she heard my approach, a terrible ragged sound that made me want to put my fingers in my ears. Instead I leaned my shoulder against the poised stone and pushed with all my might, feet slipping and then finally digging in. The boulder rocked, then the rim collapsed and it toppled over.
There was a terrible wet thump, then a long train of bubbling gasps trailed at last by silence.
Later, I took some of the blood and returned to the valley, where I daubed it on the old pine tree’s trunk. Then, all feelings of victory replaced by exhausted emptiness, I returned to the hut and slept a long, black, and dreamless sleep.
Ah. You did not know about the sow, did you, Miranda? I never told you. I think I was ashamed. But tonight – ah, what is the night your folk wear masks and then take them off again? Midsummer’s Eve? Tonight the hidden faces will be seen.
Human faces can be masks, too, although I did not understand that for most of my young life. The idea of hiding thoughts behind an unrevealing expression was something I learned from Prospero, who showed almost nothing to the world. Even slower to come was the conception of placing a mask over someone else’s face – of seeing in them only what one wishes to see.
I wonder what you first thought when you saw me staring down from the rocks on the day of your arrival. I had eyes mostly for your dreadful, fascinating father, who my alarmed senses told me was by far the greater threat – although now I am not so sure that was true. You were only an appurtenance… then. It was later I would come to understand what your name meant.
But what did you see crouching on the rock before you? A huddled brown thing with yellow eyes that stared, stared, as a baby bird gawps from its nest? An unfurred monkey, lithe and long-armed? Or an ill-made doll, like a poor copy formed from mud of some toy from your lost childhood? Was that your thought when you first saw me, sad Miranda? That all your toys would now be like this, poor and unsatisfactory?
I know what your father thought when he saw me, for as I scuttled back down the rock, seeking shelter from his awful gaze, he told me – or rather, told you. Although I could not then understand his words, he reminded me of them later, when I spoke your tongue. On that day I listened for only a few moments before terror overcame me and I fled.
Look, Miranda, he said. His voice was as coldly interested as if he had found me lying dead and decayed upon the sand. This apparently deserted island seems to have at least a few larger inhabitants. An ape, I think -- no, perhaps something a shade more interesting. A so-called “natural-man” — a savage. A cannibal.
And as I ran, Miranda, I heard your small, puzzled voice.
I was frightened on the day of your coming, and knew it. I was less aware of how lonely I was.
My mother died suddenly, as you know. She was greedy of her food, and, free of the need to speak or even listen, let nothing interrupt her when she was filling her mouth… but as I learned from hard experience, she still could communicate perfectly well in her own way, even while chewing. Many times I was sent away with my ears ringing and my eyes full of tears when I tried to pull a little more flesh from the bone she was holding.
Despite the abundance of fruit and green things on our island, or perhaps because of it, as I grew I craved meat of all kinds. Fish we had, but never in abundance, and my mother’s snares never captured enough birds or other small game to satisfy me. When some small carcass was roasting over the flames, the scent of it drew me like a magical spell. I would drink the odor with my nose, pushing my face all the way into the smoke until I coughed so hard I hurt myself.
It might seem a wonder, then, that I never tried to bring back any of that dead pig, or even tasted its flesh. In fact, one smear of its hot blood on my tongue had set me gagging. I covered the carcass over with dirt and tried not to think about it – with little success, as you might guess. The solitary mind probes at an ugly thought as at a wound, constantly seeing if the pain is less, and by so doing keeps it alive beyond its time.
Flesh to eat was in short supply, so it was no surprise that betimes my mother and I should almost come to blows when there was but one fishy skeleton between us and she insisted on mumbling the last bits of flesh from the bones: as I grew larger than she, I more and more thought it unfair that she should have such a privilege. It was on just such an occasion that she raised a bony hand to cuff me away, then suddenly stopped.
At first I thought that she was trying to conjure up some new noise, a sound so ambitious and unprecedented that its generation required an enormous struggle. She rocked back and forth, waving her flexing fingers as though they were burned, then staggered onto her feet. Her face contorted into an astonishing succession of mask, then began to turn dark, as though some internal light flickered and failed. She reeled, clutching at her throat, and fell.
What did I do? I stood and watched, of course, and remained standing for long moments after she had dropped to the ground. I had no comprehension of what had happened. At first I thought she had fallen asleep, overwhelmed by the attempt to trumpet out this new sound. When after a short time she had not moved again, I went and touched her gently, for on the few occasions of fatigue or illness when she had slept later than I, she had proved rather unpleasantly that she did not enjoy being awakened.
But she did not wake this time, nor did she move again. Slowly, wretchedly, I began to perceive the truth. Just as quickly as that, I was alone. The only other person I knew, the only other human creature in my life, was gone.
No, it was worse than that, if such a thing is possible. Not only my sole companion but my only god had died. That is something no one but me can ever understand – the utter loneliness, the abandonment, the sudden and shatteringly fearful emptiness of my universe. That night, terrified, I dragged my mother’s body to the hut. Already she had grown cold, but I wrapped us both in my mat of soft reeds and held her until dawn, trying to bring back the warmth. Surely, ran my wordless and confused thoughts, it was only a longer sleep, a deeper sleep. Surely in the morning I would feel her bony fingers tugging on my ear to awaken me. It would be just like any other day, and the previous night would pass into my memory as merely one more of my mother’s oddities. I lay trembling, cradling a corpse, and strove to reweave the fabric of reality by force of will.
But when I awoke she was cold and unmoving, though her eyes were still open. When I touched her, searching for the reassuring throb of the vein in her neck, a drumbeat that had lulled me to sleep throughout my infancy, I felt instead the horrid distension of her throat, the fatal shape of the bone lodged there.
Much of what happened next is lost to me. I know that I stumbled up and down the beach keening at the sky, which did not seem to know that the world had ended. I know that I ran in the forest until my feet and hands and face were bloodied by rocks and whipping branches. I seem to remember spending an entire night shivering, submerged to my neck in a steam – but it is all a smear of sound and vision, of alternating light and shadow. It might have been days that I lived in madness.
At last I returned to my home. My mother was still there, although the passage of time had drawn her body into a strange posture, bending her double as though she struggled to sit up; her lips had pulled back from her broken teeth. She might have been crying for me, or laughing at my foolishness. I could not bear to look at her, but neither could I think of what to do. For another few days I lived on the beach and avoided the camp, going through the motions of life – eating, sleeping, fetching water from the stream – circling at a great distance around my mother’s remains, but unable so easily to avoid the gaping emptiness that had been her centrality, her omnipresence, her… mother-ness. But I sensed that I could not go on that way forever: even an animal, which was what I was at that moment, knows when it is injured it must heal itself. Something had to be done so that I could live again.
And even worse, she was beginning to stink.
Hoping for some clarity, some contemplative stillness far from the horror of our camp, I at last made my way to the valley and the shadow of the ancient pine, but this time the presence of the tree brought me no stiffening of my resolution. Instead, I seemed almost to sense the spirit of the thing gloating, as though something long hoped-for had occurred. It made me queasy, and I swiftly quit the valley once more.
The only thing I could think of was the sow, down in the hole, and how it had eased me somewhat to cover her with dirt. Thus, I spent the remainder of that afternoon digging a similar pit for my mother. Experience had taught me that the sea’s relentless fumbling soon exposed any bones of fish or fowl we buried on the beach, so I made Sycorax’s grave at the edge of the forest, digging with my hands until my fingers bled and the sweat drizzled from me like rain. When I had finished, I wrapped her in the mat so could carry her, then tumbled her noisome body down into the depths – the memory makes me shudder even now! – and quickly covered it over.
I knew no prayers, obviously; I did not even know that such things existed. If my mother worshiped Setebos, as your father claimed, she went to him unshriven. I knew nothing of what the dead might want. I was myself just another empty hole. Two Dancing Puppets
How can I make you understand what I felt when my mother died? Your own mother died at your birth; you did not know her. And with all the suffering of your solitude, you always had Prospero your father, the foundation on which your life was erected. Also, even in your island exile you knew there were other people in the world, some who had been kind to you, even loved you. But I had only that mad old woman, and when she was taken from me by a fish bone I had less than nothing, for I could not conceive of there being anything else remotely like me. The island was my world, and I knew as no other person knows that the world was empty of human company.
As if to prove your father’s assertions of my bestiality, I did survive. Despite the howling emptiness, the speechless grief, the madness of my solitude, I lived. I do not know why. Life is a tenacious thing, Miranda. You have seen a fish flopping on stone, an impossible distance from water but still squirming and struggling toward redemption. That irreducible atom of life within us all is fierce. Ah, there is a miracle greater than any other your God is deemed to have performed: that something inside us should live, and living should struggle against the inevitability of death.
So, just as my mother had spent her last moments trying uselessly to disgorge the bone, I strove to keep myself among the living as well. Perhaps if I had received the benefits of civilization I might have conceived the idea that dying myself I might join my mother and end my loneliness. But in truth I did not perceive that the thing that had happened to her might happen to me as well. How could the world end? When I was frightened, as when the sow attacked me, I was afraid of painful injury, of being separated somehow from my mother and the things I knew, but the idea of a final ending did not – could not – occur to me, let alone an ending that I could effect.
And even if such an idea had come, I do not know that I could have accomplished it. As I said, Miranda, the spark of life, that monad or divine breath or whatever it might be, is fierce. It is stubborn even in the face of indescribable horror, and I am the living proof. Has ever a creature been as cruelly deserted as I? And not once, but twice?
Your father considered me little more than an animal, and that is the way he lured me, with food and soft words. It did not take him long to find my hut, and that is where he made your first camp. Even then, in my ignorance, I sensed that there was something dangerous about a creature who would so blithely occupy another’s territory, but I still cannot understand his thought. Could he, who himself had been driven from Milan by a usurper, not see that he did the same? Or was his talk of justice always deceitful? Perhaps he knew on that very first day that he would take me and tame me, then use me. Certainly my mother’s hut was only the first of the many things he stole from Caliban.
I should have run! I should have fled to the far side of the island, or into the hills. Not you or your father, with your city-soft muscles, could have followed me there! I could have stayed free a long time, perhaps forever. But I was lonely, Miranda. Twice since my mother’s death a dusting of snow had come to the high peaks and the days had shrunk to their shortest duration. Two years of solitude had passed before your boat grounded upon my island. I was lonely.
So he lured me. He put sweetmeats on a flat leaf and placed them in the shade at the forest’s edge so that I could take them without needing to approach too closely. There he failed, because those dainty things – concoctions of honey, nuts, and spices carefully packed for you by some snuffling cook, some obedient-in-the-blood house slave – those little civilized trifles which had come so far across the water smelled nothing like food to me at all. They were muskily unfamiliar, as unappetizing as stones dipped in strong perfume would be to you. I would not take them, not even touch them. But even as I grimaced from my leafy retreat at those strange offerings, the smells of fish wafting over from your camp… or once even a roasting deer, crackling in its fat… tormented me.
When he saw I did not accept the sweetmeats, Prospero tried other things. Mangoes and pears and pomegranates, the largest and most succulent he could find, he left for me on a rock in the shade at the edge of the trees. But I could find fruit any time I wished; even in my wretched orphan-hood, I was not ready to sell myself so cheaply.
And even as I played at my disinterest, even as I searched for and discovered a hundred little omens, a thousand unvoiced superstitions against taking your father’s gifts, I was fascinated by the new arrivals. I dimly sensed that you might somehow be creatures like myself – although my total experience of humankind had only swelled from two to four – but I was not entirely sure. Where my mother had perpetually worn her shapeless frock of flapping black, and I myself wore nothing, you and your father seemed to change constantly. When first I saw you, little Miranda, you wore the rags of your castle finery; other days, your father let you run along the edge of the surf wearing little more than a thin shift stuck to your small, cubbish body by the wet spray. And Prospero sometimes doffed his black robes to reveal beneath them breeches and shirt of startingly colorful design. Once I even saw him strip to the waist to dig a trench; the tufts of hair on his chest were as ash gray as his beard. Changing, changing, changing: like birds or snakes, you molted and then renewed yourselves with astonishing frequency.
In the end, a bit of roasted fish proved my undoing.
Gutted and cooked over a low fire, then set out on a platter of leaves, it had a magical lure quite different than the sweets or fruit. I crouched in the greenery and stared at it for a long time, until all the world seemed to drop away and the universe contained only me and that glaze-eyed, black-and-silver-scaled object. My nostrils widened; I could feel them spreading, greedy for the tangy scent.
I looked around, but the trap was far too subtle for my primitive understanding. You and your father were walking on the beach, far away, your backs towards me. I could see you circling around him like a hummingbird visiting and revisiting a flower. If you were there, you could not be here. Therefore, it would be safe to take the fish.
Still I struggled, unable to understand why I resisted, but sensing somehow that if I accepted that gloriously alluring gift, things would… change. Oddly, I thought of the hidden valley and the ancient tree, which I had visited only a few times since my mother’s death. Perhaps because I had kept it secret from my mother, after she died I had come to associate the place with a dim sense of unease – a little like what I felt about the murdered sow. Still, I was drawn there as I was drawn to the fish lying before me, and both things filled me with what in retrospect I see as a sort of shamed desire.
Thinking of the tall old tree and secret valley helped me make up my mind… but not in the right way. The valley had brought me no true harm, I told myself – not in words, Miranda, no: my internal discussions were more like rainstorms of feeling pushed about by contrary winds – and it had brought me much in the way of sanctuary and strange, new, often pleasurable feelings. The valley had not harmed me – was I not still free to go where and do what I chose? So how could a simple piece of fish, from however alien a hand, be anything but what it seemed to be?
I took it, a sudden grab, and retreated into the forest, heart hammering.
It was delicious, of course. Flaky and juicy, with not a bone anywhere between tail and head. How your father managed that – well, he was a sorcerer, was he not? Subtle snares require subtle sorceries. He was capable of greater ones, as I found out before too long.
The next day I found another fish on the shaded rock. Again you and your father were in plain sight, a good distance away. Taking it was much easier the second time.
What did you think, Miranda, as your father slowly drew in the net? Did you think he was finding you a playfellow? Or trapping some oddly human but still particularly toothsome morsel for you to swallow and digest, just as he caught deer and rabbits and fish? Did you glimpse for a moment the fact that he was doing both?
After enough bits of cooked flesh had disappeared down my gullet, I began to loiter around the outskirts of the camp, in plain view, but ready at any moment to bolt. Ah, but your father was sly. I suppose a man who can summon and control demons is well versed in patient manipulation.
He began to look at me – nothing more. From halfway across the beach he would stand and regard me. I would stare into those glacial blue eyes of his for long moments, watching for anything that looked like hostile intent, prepared to spring away at any moment. Though Prospero fascinated me, I thought I was still looking over the walls of my separateness at an invader. I did not realize that he was already inside the citadel. Where once I had seen the faces of my mother’s bitter dreams, now my sleep was haunted by that one face, cold, knowing eyes, thin, half-smiling lips, a brow like the rocks on the headland.
One morning, when the sun was still only a glow behind the eastern hills, he came to the edge of the forest. He sat on the ground with his back to the trees and waited. I ventured closer, soundless as a caterpillar, but he knew I was there.
Slowly, with a calmness meant to soothe my animal fears, he began to move his hands before him. Intrigued, but blocked by the long thin shape of his back, I eased along the forest fringe until I could see what he was doing. With a bowl full of water he was moistening the fine dirt; as I watched, he began to form the mud into small round shapes.
Ah, your father’s hands, his long, capable fingers! I watched them openmouthed as they squeezed and patted, smoothed and shaped with a dexterity I could not understand, so different was it from my mother’s crabbed twitching. Even years later I remained amazed by your father’s hands; that day, the first time I had ever seen their busy capability up close, I was enthralled.
He found a slender stick and began breaking it into pieces. At the first crack I shied, but Prospero did not look up. I held my ground as he began to wrap his rolls of clay around the twigs, his fingers sliding so quickly and gracefully that for long moments I watched them rather than the things they were shaping… but before long it was impossible to ignore what was taking form. He had made a little doll, a manikin which could lie on its back in his cupped hand. He set it down and then made another, slightly smaller. When this was done, your father took a few drops of water from the bowl and flicked them at the two figures with whipcrack fingers, then reached into his robe; when he took his hand out again and fluttered it over the little dolls’ heads, a dusting of brilliant yellow and blue sifted down. Strangely, even to my untutored eye, all the blue dust stuck to one figure’s head, but the yellow adhered to the top of the smaller.
Still not raising his eyes, though I was so fascinated I might not have bolted even had he lurched toward me, your father lifted them up, held them close to his mouth, and breathed on them in turn as he spoke their names.
Arlecchino, he said. Then: Columbina.
As he spoke, first the blue-headed figure, then the golden, squirmed in his hands.
I must have let out a gasp, for he smiled deep in his beard, but still did not turn toward me. Mind you, I was not civilized: to me this trick was no more magical than catching a hidden fish in a deep pool or picking a leaf that made soup taste good. But unlike those other useful things, both of which I had seen my mother do, this was new to me. And even though I did not understand that this was magic – that back in Milan he might have been denounced to the church and burned in public for this harmless display – I was still delighted.
Dance, Arlecchino, he said. Words and names alike meant nothing to me then, but I saw him perform this conjuration on other occasions – and once a similar but unpleasantly different version.
Arlecchino, the faceless mud-man, bowed, then began to dance. Slowly and carefully at first, as though he did not know himself whether his gelid legs could hold him, or whether his tree-twig bones might not snap, the little doll began to caper.
Dance, Columbina, whispered your father, and the golden-headed figure joined her mate.
Prospero then slowly stood, but instead of moving any closer, he turned on his heel and walked away down the slope and onto the beach. The rush of the sea was in my ears and for a moment I forgot the two manikins to watch him go. He did not look back. He seemed impossibly tall.
Arlecchino and his Columbina whirled and cavorted. I crept nearer, lowering myself until my face was at the level of their dance, but they were less frightened of me than I of them. Their sticky, nub-handed arms met and they twirled about each other. Arlecchino lifted Columbina and tossed her in the air, then caught her as she fell, although he stumbled for a moment and one of his legs lost a bit of clay. They went on that way for some time, then gradually slowed. At last, as if by mutual assent, they lay down side by side and stopped moving.
A tear ran down my cheek. I slid closer and carefully lifted the little golden-headed doll in my hand. Her clay was wool to the touch, and there was no sign whatsoever of the force that had animated her. Arlecchino was similarly inert. Respectfully, anxiously, I set them down again. Had I killed them somehow? But I had done nothing but watch. Should they be buried in the ground, even though they were already made of earth? It was all too much for me. I retreated to the forest and walked for some time in its depths, trying to herd my thoughts when they wished to run untrammeled.
It was not long before I would take food from Prospero’s hand. Certainly, I would snatch it and snarl as I backed away, warning him not to presume on my condescension… but I was his. He owned me, as surely as ever a man has owned a dog or his horse. How you giggled, Miranda, to see me growling. Since you were accustomed to your father’s cleverness, I imagine you considered me just one more of his tricks. How entertaining of him, to find you an amusement like this, a little creature almost human, almost animal, and not quite enough of either.
When the glare of your father’s regard did not blind me completely, I could see you, too, Miranda. You were one of the things that had begun to lure me in closer. You were my size, for a start – a little smaller, if anything. And where I stalked and skulked and crept about, hackles a-ruffle, you went boldly. Your confidence dazzled me. Did you have power over snakes, I wondered, since you did not seem to fear their bites? All I could see was that you wandered as you wished with scarcely a look down to see what might lie at your feet.
I cannot say you were beautiful. I am certain that you were, but I had no point of comparison. All I can remember is that I thought you almost as strange as your father, but far less frightening. He was a storm at sea. You were sunlight glancing on the waves.
Even then your hair was long, dangling below your rump as you stood pondering an oddly shaped insect, flying behind you like a lyrebird’s tail when you ran. I cannot quite make out the color now, by candlelight, but where it spreads on your pillow there it seems no different, a luminous brown with coppery streaks. My mother was dark. I was dark – see, even the hair on my arms is as black as a beetle’s case. Your father’s black was shot through with drear gray and white. And there you were, with hair like autumn, like fire, like the color of hope. I did not know what to make of you.
You have always had a somber gaze, Miranda. When I sidled to the edge of the camp, you would regard me solemnly, as though I were something very important. Can you wonder I came to love you? Then, a moment later, your eyes would crease closed and a great whoop of laughter would escape. Later on, I learned to make it happen. Oh, that was a glorious day, the first time I ever purposefully made you laugh!
And what did I look like? I am a monster now – perhaps in part because the hatred that burns within has melted me like candle wax. When I tried to move about Milan in daylight, those who did not simply shrink from me stared and whispered among themselves. But in those long-ago days, before your father’s evil treatment and your betrayal had soured me, what shape did I wear?
Prospero told you that I was fathered on Sycorax by a demon. Perhaps he was right – he mentioned it as offhandedly as when he noted that the day would be cloudy. That was indeed part of the tale told of my mother’s banishment, nor do I know who my father truly was. I never saw him in my mother’s dreams, or at least I saw no generative act that would have separated his face from the rest of that choir of unpleasant ghosts. But whoever or whatever he might have been to my mother, he was not a pretty young suitor. When I first saw that Ferdinand, whose name still sours my mouth when I speak it, it was clear that he and the other shipwrecked mariners shared something with you that I did not. Tall, they all were tall, even the old, bent ones. None of them had my long arms, my low brow. None of them had eyes like mine. I have never seen anyone with eyes like mine.
Your father called me “Cannibal,” but he also called me “Ape,” and “Demonspawn” when he was angry, “Little savage” when he was in a kinder mood. But never “Son.” No one has ever called me that.
And you could never quite decide whether I was “Caniban” or “Calibal,” until the smear of use and your father’s amused endorsement gave me my name.
But what did I look like? Did you see the heart of me, Miranda, the thing that burned inside me that did not know it was a brute? No, say nothing. You are not the child you were then. Time and words have corrupted you as well. You are no longer to be trusted.
A breath, a pause, a thought. For such a long-awaited night, these hours fly fast. So much to tell!
A parent’s love is a strange, strong thing. I am confused about it still; I was even less certain then. The more I was dazzled by the attentions of Prospero, the more I came to pine for the simpler attentions of my mother. Yes, she had smacked at me and then clung to me in irritating alternation, but those times when I was small and she held me in her arms were the only moments of real peace I can remember. When the storms grew frighteningly loud outside our hut, I would crawl through the dark toward her, searching with my hands until I found the bony curve of her breast rising and falling. Half-awakened, she would wrap her arms around me and draw me close, cradling my head in the hollow of her neck. The distinct and unique combination of odors that was my mother’s scent would surround me and I would feel the fear slide away. Sometimes before she fell back into sleep she would even sing to me, so quietly that I could just hear her mumbling croon through the voice of the wind.
Though she was mad, my mother’s wishes seem clear enough. She wanted my love, or at least my companion ship. She wanted my help when she grew old and could not do for herself. I do not think she was without wishes for my happiness, but she had done everything that could be done in that way: she had taught me to survive, she had fed me and raised me. She could not find me companions or a mate, and could only ease my loneliness with her own presence. I wonder whether she would have done anything differently had she known how soon I would be left completely alone?
But Prospero’s goals I still do not understand. He tamed me, yes, like a dog that he needed to guard his campfire. But if all he wanted was a cur, why did he teach me to speak, and even to read a little? If he needed me to understand him so that I could be a better slave, why point out the stars to me? Was he interested in the limits of my half-humanity? Was I another experiment, like the alchemical ponderings that had so captured his interest in Milan that he was oblivious to his brother’s plotting?
By the middle of the first year after your arrival, I was coming to the camp each day as though it were my home again, although I was still too skittish to sleep within reach of what were still frighteningly unknowable strangers. And each day, as Prospero drew me farther into his web with food and small kindnesses, he threw me scraps of learning with the bits of meat.
I had come to understand that “Miranda” was a sound that was particularly you, although the concept of a name was a little longer in coming. I did not know it, but with that first word I learned Latin as well as Milanese, for you were indeed something admirable, something to be wondered at. Although I was shy, I was besieged by a feeling too inchoate to be called love but too all-pervasive to be mere interest. As overwhelmed as I was by Prospero’s attentions, still my interest in what he showed me would wander if you were too far away. I wanted to be with you, and only when you were nearby could I give myself over completely to his lessons.
At first I thought his name was “Father,” since that was what you called him, but when in my earliest attempts I called him that, he laughed – neither kindly or angrily – and corrected me, laying his hand on his own chest. Prospero, he said. Later, when I had grown man-sized and strong, it would be “Master.”
Those were splendid times, those first years. Although I did not know the word, and just barely understood the principle, I felt myself part of a family. I missed my mother, and I was still often frightened to be among creatures so similar and yet so different from myself, but I also felt connected to something I had been missing all my life. My mother had been too close to me, too much a part of me – and I far too much a part of her – to give me real companionship, though the loss of her was horrible. And compared to you and your father, she did nothing; her ever day was a duplicate of the one before. But between Prospero’s odd interests and your far more joyful explorations, Miranda, every day now promised something new.