She followed me across the dirt yard, turning to glance back at the coat of brown paint I’d completed the day before, using scaffolding I’d improvised on the back of a rollcart. “Ruth, Aaron meant well yesterday. You really oughtn’t to do such reckless things. And I don’t know what they wear on those other worlds, but you’re a woman now and you must dress respectably.”
“I didn’t think Joshua’s old coveralls were ‘showing the shape of my legs like a harlot.’”
She colored faintly, hesitated, then reached up to place my dangling shade-hat on my head. “We wouldn’t want that pretty skin all sunburned for the gathering.”
I walked on to the house and dumped the heavy basket onto the porch, lunging to catch an egg that tumbled off the pile. I stood rolling it from hand to hand, then looked up. “Helen, I hope you’re not getting all built up for a letdown.”
“What do you mean, dear?” Her gaze flickered, then steadied on mine.
I dropped the egg from palm to palm. “Just don’t expect too much at the gathering, okay? I mean, people are going to remember about me. I’m not sure they’ll want a spacer sitting among them.”
“Nonsense, Ruth! You’re resettled now. It will be good for you to meet the young people again.”
“Especially the bachelors?” I caught the egg and held it. “That would solve a lot of problems, wouldn’t it?”
Helen sighed. “Ruth, please be patient with Aaron. If only you could see his loving side, as I do. I’m sure he would respond if you could only be more gentle with—”
“Gentle!” I laughed harshly. “Listen. Mother, if you— Damn!” The thin eggshell cracked in my hand and a yellow mess oozed through my fingers. “Fireblood and—”
I threw the dripping egg onto the ground, muttering in exasperation as I wiped my hand down my skirt.
“Ruth, here now! We can’t leave it like that.” She pulled the fabric straight and dabbed at the mess with her kerchief.
“Damn it, Mother, stop fluttering over me!”
“Ruth!” Her face flushed beneath the bonnet, eyes hurt. Disappointed.
Burnished copper beneath a hot sky. The wind sighed, softly now, and swelled, sweeping through the heart of the land . . .
In the fields of Illyrion,
Over the shining sea.
Over the shining sea,
Between bright Heaven and Earth,
Deep-rooted strong, I stand,
High-reaching, far-seeing, wind-full.
Between bright Heaven and Earth
I lift my arms; Behold!
In the fields of Illyrion,
Wind-rushed wings of light.
. . . and the wheat surged, copper-pink and gleaming beneath the silvery dazzle of the sails. The great tower thrust upward to the sky, wings dipping and rising into the joy of wind and sun.
The last rising chord rang out and lingered between the stifling walls of my room. I let it fade slowly into quiet. My hands soothed the strings as I held the lyre against me, savoring the feel of the smooth, cream-colored wood threaded with darker veins. Of course I regretted my childish outburst in the yard. Maybe when I’d practiced more, I’d surprise her and play my new song for the evening gathering.
“Ruth?” A soft tap on the door.
I stood hastily and set the lyre back on the chest of drawers. As I turned to call, “Come in,” my hand brushed the strings and a faint discord rose into the air to greet Helen.
Her eyes went first to the lyre and her grave face lightened, but she said nothing as I stepped in front of it.
We stood regarding each other in silence. I recalled the mirrors in a certain casino I knew, where the patrons laughed at their grotesque, warped reflections. I was one of them, taking in Helen’s beauty and giving back only ugliness.
“I shouldn’t have come back.”
She didn’t reply, only walked slowly past me to look out the window, over the fields. Her hand reached up to absently stroke the smooth curve of the lyre, as if the act were a habit. The hand trembled, and she drew it back quickly.
A dismaying pity moved me to throw my arms around her. “Mother, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to hurt you.”
She held me tightly. “Ruth. Ruth.” Her voice was muffled against my shoulder. “Don’t run away again. Give yourself a chance to learn the Way once more. Don’t you remember how you used to laugh and sing when you were a girl? You had such a happy smile.”
I held her against me as she cried, disoriented by this reversal, at a loss in the role of comforter. I guided her to sit on the bed and found a grubby handkerchief in my pocket, gave it to her. I sat, arm around her, rocking slightly.
“Don’t be upset, Mother. I won’t leave.” The lie popped out without thought.
She dried her eyes and raised them, still bright green with tears, to mine. “You can be gentle! I’m so glad.”
She spoke to my downturned face. “Ruth, please let me love you. I’ve tried not to push. But it’s been hard, not knowing, fearing I had failed you, that you wouldn’t have gone away if I’d shown you better the joy and fulfillment of becoming a Hearth-Matron and mother. I see now it’s there in you, though you fight it—the need to nurture. You’ve been hurt. But I’m sure now you will find peace.”
I drew back and sighed. “Mother, you’re wrong to feel you could fail me. You can’t be responsible for another person’s life.”
Her hand touched mine again. “I’ll always be your mother, Ruth. Whether you feel you need me or not. That responsibility is a joy to me, not a burden. But you know the meaning of love—things will come right for you.”
She kissed the top of my head and was gone with a sighing of cloth and the soft click of the door.
I sat on the bed, my hands clenched in the blanket. She was just as stubborn as I was.
I paced over to the window and looked out, over to the door, back to the window. I seized the lyre and sank to the floor with it, wrenched a chord from the protesting strings, and stared at my fingers until their focus dissolved in a long, fluid glissando.
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