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Sharpe – The Books of Ressor Fanion

Book One ~ Chapter Two

Ressor Fanion said ::

I suppose if it is a hearthtale I’m telling, I should begin it properly. Gather

‘round children for the hour grows late ~ this story shall lead you to sweet slumber’s

gate. Protocol demands its due.

I have no earlier memories than the scene I am about to relate. Which is

not entirely true. If I try, I can recollect earlier fragments—a soft blanket at my

cheek—the taste of milk in my mouth—the chance discovery of my hands and

feet—Mother and Father laughing—Mother crying—her head on his shoulder,

his arms around her arms around me. But these sensations are singular and too

dim and disconnected to contribute much to the story. I do not consider these

memories as such.

So let us pass over these things—like the unnumbered endpapers in the

front of a book—to the place where the story begins. To the little boy naked and

knee-deep in a tub of bathwater before the fire on the hearth.

I shivered and rotated like a cog work, turning each knobby limb to the

scourge of the washrag. Mother scrubbed every scrap of skin, scrubbed until I

glowed with a ruddy radiance that could bring tears to your eyes. I was taking

my bath, or rather, getting my bath a day early and before bedtime because it

would be one less thing to tend to in the morning and it would take no time at all

if I did not squirm.

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“Is shivering the same as squirming?” I asked her best I could through the

chattering of my teeth.

“For me, yes, but not for you, poor thing.” Mother dipped down and

kissed the nearest ear. “You are being good. Almost done, Ressor.”

Gentle words. Remarkable that such a small voice still carries so clearly.

Perhaps it was the way she sustained her S’s. A hush though, not a hiss. Or

maybe it was how she rolled her R’s which gave her voice its unique impetus to

ride the outward ripple of time undiminished. I still hear it.

Mother plunged the rag into the bathwater and, with renewed warmth,

resumed her scouring. For she was seemingly on a crusade to take cleanliness to

a subcutaneous plane. I wondered if she thought herself capable of inventing a

better kind of bath. A bath that could transcend mere cleanliness. A preemptive

type of bath that could fend off future filth. I wondered as I winced.

“Done and done.” Mother held the rag over my head and wrung out one

last cascade. It was a ritual. “Rinse.”

I squatted in the tub and began tossing double handfuls of water over my

shoulders and down my back when I heard the wooden stutter of hinges and the

stamping of boots behind me. I braced for the gust of outside air that I knew was

coming and come it did. The fire jumped up and I hunkered down.

“Smells like summer in here,” Father said, sniffing at the air just above his

nose. “What is it, little brother?”

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“Shadow moss soap.” Mother answered for me as she picked up the little

clay pot and peered in. “Nearly gone but enough for our baths. Door please,

Roburn.”

Whereas Mother cradled her R’s, Father’s were too restless and ran off his

tongue before he could stop them. His S’s scraped across his teeth. If Father said

my name, it was Rezza and it was incorrect. So Father simply fell back on

convention and called me little brother which Mother allowed.

Father latched the door and shrugged off his long busklor-skin coat.

“Special soap, is it?” He shook his coat by the scruff of its collar until it went limp

then draped it on the empty peg. “What’s the occasion?”

“Such wit.” But only her eyes seemed to think so.

Father joined us at the tub. “Just having a bit of fun,” Father said to me, in

case I didn’t know that he was teasing us. But I did. “What are you looking at,

little brother?”

“Bubbles.”

Fascinating little things. Have you ever examined them? The way the

winds of every color storm around their globes. I have yet to find a more perfect

example of the spherical form. Transparent mysteries that empty their emptiness

the instant you try to probe them. Useful really only in a metaphorical sense.

Where was I? Oh yes—crouched down in a tub, nose to nose with my own

reflection in the surface of the soapy bathwater. I saw myself. But I saw myself

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squatting—not in a wooden tub—but submerged in tall green grasses awash in

the sunslight. Mother is there. She crouches beside me and, with the backs of her

hands, parts the blades of grass to reveal the miniature forests of grey moss

hidden below. With a tug that rocks her back on her heels, she harvests a double

handful of moss. She cups the clump to my nose before tossing it into the rush

basket slung over her shoulder. The clean herbal scent of shadow moss fills the

hollows of my head.

“The cart is all packed,” Father was saying, “but her axle wanted a slap of

grease and I had to oblige, because when I pulled her around front, she asked as

sweetly as Mother. Was it the three baskets in back corner of the shed—about

so—” Father made a hoop of his arms as if to illustrate the circumference of the

baskets in question. But it’s a trap. The hoop slipped over Mother’s head and

tightened into a hug around her shoulders. “—are those the baskets you so

sweetly ordered me to bring?”

“Those and the sacks. And the crocks too.”

“Gotten, gotten, and got them too.”

Mother acknowledged his hug with a quick squeeze and a pat on his back.

Father acknowledged that she had things to do and set her free.

“I’ll fish him out, Minna.” Father grabbed the nearest towel, the green one,

off the table and held it outspread like a net as he knelt on the hearth. “In you go,

little brother.”

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I started to step out but my foot went clumsy and stumbled on the rim of

the washtub, pitching me sideways and headways toward fire in what could be

called an ill-boding trajectory. But nothing happened. Nothing happened

because Father caught me up. Unless of course you happened to be my smallest

toe, then something happened because you had the pain to prove it. But if you

happened to be Father, nothing happened because I did not let it show. And he

did not notice.

Father steadied me until I found a firm footing among the slick contours

of the creekstone hearth. Bathwater trickled down the backs of my legs and ran

off my heels, branching into a wee landscape of streams and ponds between the

hearthstones—enough of a distraction that I was unaware that Mother had gone

about her business. So it was without warning when another chill wind whirled

in and startled a thrash of sparks from the fire’s tail. At the open door—not a

whisper from the hinges when the door was opened from the inside—Mother

swung the washtub off her hip and slung the first batch of bathwater into the

darkening end of the late winter day.

And I was getting scaled at my own Father’s hands.

“Is that the blue towel?” I asked.

“Oh, this’ll serve just as good,” Father claimed. Then with a twinkle of

inspiration in his eyes, Father bent over and put his ear near my mouth. The

black whiskers of his beard brushed my chin up and down as he nodded to

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words that I don’t hear and I don’t make. But when he straightened up, he was

obviously well pleased with what he heard. “Why, I hadn’t thought of that, little

brother! This one serves even better, as you say, because the soft one will be

sweet and dry for Mother.”

There was nothing I can say to that. So nothing is what I said.

“That’s very thoughtful of you—Ressor.” She smiled because the blue

towel was better. I knew because I used to use it. “Stand away you two.”

Mother hoisted the iron kettle off the hook that hung from the chain on

the iron arm that swung back and forth over the fire. She wore the big mittens

that Father made from heavy hide because the kettle was not to be touched

without them. The mittens sometimes but not always turned her hands into

hungry paws that chased you around and even under the table. But not that

night. There were too many things to do.

As Mother refilled the washtub, a bit of sloshed water dampened the fire’s

spirit. Father picked up a burl of firewood and knocked the grey blanket of ash

off the bed of coals and then tossed the burl onto it. It is this kind of treatment

that riles up a fire. The fire leapt up and fell upon the knob of wood with a snarl

of flame.

“Couldn’t the fire dry me instead?” I asked.

“Aye, it could. But it’s a colder way to go,” Father replied matter-of-factly.

“The fire is hot.”

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“It only feels hot because you’re mostly dry already.”

I had my doubts and I let them show.

“Need to know for yourself, do you, little brother?”

I nodded before I could stop myself and, before I could stop him, Father

flipped the towel over his shoulder and dunked the washrag in the tub. In two

swipes, I was drenched front and back, naked and shivering once more. Father

squared my shoulders to the fire and sat back on his heels.

“Your belly is the windward side and your backside is the leeward. Now

you tell me, little brother, which is warmer?”

Which was the wrong way of asking which was colder. But he was right.

It was the wet flesh facing the fire and the draught from the chimney that caused

me to shiver. From the parts turned away, I felt nothing, neither hot nor cold.

“Backside,” I admitted, “leeward, I mean.”

“Now—“ Father picked up the green towel and, after another buffeting, I

was completely dry front and back and little breathless. “—which is warmer?”

“Windward.”

“It’s strange what happens when you mix fire and water, isn’t it, little

brother?”

“If you are quite done with him—” but Mother was too busy to finish her

thought. In far less time than it takes to describe, I was inserted into my

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nightshirt and stockings, wrapped in a blanket as tightly as maternally possible,

and then deposited in Father’s chair by the window which is out-of-the-way.

Mother and Father, more practiced than I, made quick and mostly quiet

work of their baths. The only extended conversation was prompted by the

appearance of the small copper mirror and shears. Father expressed his concern

that the shears would wear out if used so frequently, citing a trim as recently as

one almost within memory. When Mother pressed him for a date not based on

the approximate phase of either moon, Father made the mistake of scratching his

beard to help him count back the days. When his fingers became entangled,

nothing more needed to be said.

Having carried this argument with relative ease, Mother took up the

greater challenge of arguing with herself. The satchel slumped on the end of the

table was an object of pity as it was made to swallow and disgorge “only things

we require” in rapid succession. The bigger jug was swapped out for the smaller

one because there were a number clear fresh springs all along the way. Belberry

jam was a better gift than pickled drell even though it left none at home for us.

Another smock for Ressor wouldn’t take up much room and you never know.

For that matter, the pickled drell wouldn’t take much room and pickled drell and

belberry jam would make a better gift than belberry jam alone. Another smock

for Father because you never know. And so on.

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Sharpe – The Books of Ressor Fanion

When Mother could lay her finger on the tops of the sailors-knots without

leaving a dent in the crusts, the pan was slid off the coals and the satchel was

untied one last time, ready to receive the rolls once they cooled.

With this interesting flurry of activity winding down and still proud of

myself for not objecting to the sacrifice of the last of the belberry jam, I worked

my arms free from the blanket to stamp two black handprints into the silver

fronds that frosted the round windowpane. Through cupped hands, I watched

the synchronized wheeling and lighting of swists in the grey dusk. The remnants

of the last snowfall we would see that year—although you never know—

reversed the landscape, making the shadowed places white while the areas

exposed to the sunslight during the day were dark with mud.

“The rolls will be on top for when we stop for breakfast,” Mother said,

tying up the satchel one last time.

“If we even need to stop.” Father stood at the end of the mantelpiece and

pressed the wingtip of a carved swist in just the right spot, springing a concealed

latch that held a small panel in place. Father removed the tin box from its nook

and replaced the panel. Father was a masterful woodcarver.

“May I ask how you eat a sailors-knot while pulling the handcart?”

“If I still had a respectable beard, I could tuck a handful of rolls right in

like so many jackapples in a feedbag.” The contents of the box spilled musically

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onto the tabletop with a few wobbling coins accelerating into a vibration that

rang long after coming to rest.

Outside my window, the darkness deepened and the road disappeared by

degrees until the last patch of sky faded into the fabric of the forest canopy that

creaked and luffed over top the cottage. I finally gave up and turned away from

the window without getting a single glimpse of tomorrow.

Mother and Father were in their nightshirts and stockings, sharing the

light of a lamp and a corner of the table. Mother’s pen fussed over her list as

Father sorted out our winter crop of coins by specie.

“Of course as handsome as I turn out to be,” Father was saying as he

rubbed his shorn whiskers, “it should be simple enough to hunt up a maid-of-

the-wood who would be willing, aye, who would deem it an honor to skip along

backward to feed me all sorts of dainty victuals without me ever breaking

stride.”

“I see,” Mother said. “Well, Ressor and I are going to stop to have our

breakfast. We’ll catch up with you and your wood wench when we’re finished.”

“Father?” I slid off my chair and dragged my blanket over. Father pushed

back from the table to make a lap for me. “What if friends come?”

Friends, you see, are what Mother had taught us to call the knocks on the

door that woke us up. The yawns and apologies for not being able to go one step

further. The bowls of soup or whatever isn’t too much trouble. The mutterings

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and the snores from the bed in the back room we never used ourselves even

during the daytime because you never know. But if friends came, they came in

the middle of the night. If there was any light at all in the tops of the trees, they

didn’t become friends—they remained simply travelers who pressed on and

tossed off a gesture that served as both greeting and farewell before rounding the

bend in the road and disappearing into the forest.

“Your mother can leave a note on the table.”

“Can I write it?”

“Help me count these up first.”

Friends gave us coins. Or a knife that only needed a whetstone to give it a

fine edge. Or a sack of seeds. Or some lamp oil and kindlestone. Or one time a

perfectly good and tattered copy of Tabra Tal’s Book of Children. Or a sprung

clockwork that would probably run well enough if a fellow had a knack for that

sort of thing. Or whatever our friends would otherwise be peddling or would

lighten their load or could do without whenever they got to wherever they were

going.

Father stacked the coins into four towers of graduated height. The tallest

tower of twenty-four copper coins were stamped on the one side with Pirsa and

Mirlu in a cloudless sky and, on the other, with Firsa and Sirlu in crescent

surrounded by a halo of stars. The adjacent tower was silver, constructed from

nine coins engraved with the four linked circles of the Orphans on the front and

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on the obverse with the mark of the Teacher. The third tower also silver

comprised only three coins. But they were the smallest and prettiest kind. The

faces of these coins circumscribed an opened book, its pages listing the four

elements. But the calligraphic deftness of the engraver made the words all but

unreadable. The obverse side of these coins displayed a panorama of a finely-

wrought desert city, dominated by a gleaming dome. In an arc over the dome, a

scroll announced the name of the silver city in the same coiling script. The last

tower was no tower at all but only a single ill-made coin, the largest and least

circular of the four sorts, gold but without shine. The face of the gold coin had

been struck with a glancing blow leaving an off-kilter scar in the shape of the

crest of the Barago. The sheaf of arrows and swords along the crown of his

insignia broke off at the edge of the coin—a pointless show of arms if I may say

so. On the reverse face of the coin, a tall ship at sea—under full sail and storm

clouds—was captured in telescopic view. The foresail bore a minute version of

the insignia on its wind-swelled chest. Convinced that the coin-maker never saw

a Baragon brigantine in his life, Father named off the sheets the way they should

be rigged, from the flying jib to the top gallant.

“Thirty-seven.”

“That’s what I come up with too, little brother. Now then—” working

right to left, Father pointed to each stack in turn, “—four coppers make one of

these silver ones. And three of those are worth, or nearly so, one of these little

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silver ones. And two of those are worth this gold one, more or less. So how many

coppers—,” with his thumb, Father began tracing an invisible column of

numbers on the tabletop.

“One hundred and twenty coppers. Or six gold ships. Can I write the note

now?”

Father leaned back so I could scramble over to Mother’s lap. Mother

folded her list below the last item—16 wt. milled huckseed—and carefully tore off

the blank end. Mother handed me the pen and I pecked its beak in the inkpot the

proper way.

“What are you going to write?” Mother asked as she smoothed the curl

out of the paper.

“Hundred and twenty, or—” Father tapped his thumb and nodded to no

one in particular, “—aye, six.”

It was obvious to me that the note should inform the reader that we were

not at home. And why we were not at home. And where we were instead and

what we were going to do when we got there and where we would sleep instead

of here in our own beds. And when we would be back.

“I see.” Mother said. She took a pinch of kindlestone from the sliding bin

in the lamp’s base and sprinkled it into the globe. The dull oil sputtered and

flared before it settled into a steady amber glow.

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Mother suggested that I hone my message a bit. My final offer was

welcome to the berth of good happenstance but not here. But Mother countered with

the nonnegotiable fact that—except for the addition of but not here— that very

message was already carved into the lintel of the door to our cottage. We agreed

that the word welcome was good and bore repeating. And we both agreed that

welcome but not here narrowly missed the mark. We finally decided to drop the

but not because what was left fit better given the size of the paper. Then, as well

was I am able, I wrote the way they write in Athalan where ink is plentiful one

assumes.

Father toppled the towers of coins into the mouth of the leather pouch

that he wore on his belt. After returning the empty tin box to its hiding place,

Father stirred the fire then wandered over to the chair by the window and sat.

After a while, he asked, “How many silver coins would there be, little brother?”

I turned and saw him holding his hands up to the prints I had made

earlier, still visible in the frost. I turned back to my writing and asked, “The big

silver ones or the little ones?”

“Big,” he said.

“Thirty.”

“And how many little silver ones?”

“Ten.”

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I finished my note and fanned it by a top corner and hoped that it looked

more like I wanted it to when it dried. But Mother liked it just fine and laid it

next to the lamp in the center of the table. Welcome here.

“We should get as much sleep as we can,” Mother said. It was advice as

sound as it was impractical. “We should drink some redstem tea.” She returned

the pen and inkpot to the mantel and saw to the tea.

It was a curious boredom, to have nothing to do until there would be so

many things to do. So I looked at the dark knot in the tabletop that looks like a

laughing face. I counted the wooden taps of the clockwork. I looked up at the

peak of ceiling where the curved beams met and radiated out and down the sides

of the walls. Up where it was high and dry and where, from atop Father’s

shoulders, I had hung our little sacks of seeds by their string loops.

“When we get back, will it be time to take down the seeds?”

“I believe it will, little brother.”

“Can I do it?”

“I’m counting on it.”

“And then we’ll plant them?”

“I believe we will.”

Father, as I said, was a masterful carver and the curved ceiling beams

were crawling with good places to hang seed sacks—on the talons of the

nighthoods, on the wingtips of kippins, on the beaks of swists, on the leaf tips of

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blackvines, on the petals of meadowstars, on the tails of muckmice, on the fangs

of bristleboar—everywhere that Father had carved a tail feather or a tooth or a

twig, I hung a seed sack from the yellow tuskwood beams.

“Father?”

“Aye, little brother?”

“Will you tell me the story?”

“I believe I will.”

It is a good story. It was a good story on the grey days when rain raps on

the upturned hull of the roof and rills down the bowed walls. It was a good story

on dull aching nights when it’s hard to get to sleep. It was a good story to ask for

when Father sits quiet and apart, looking down at his hands in his lap as if

dumbfounded to find them empty of things to sharpen or shape, to set right or

make whole again. I slid off my chair and dragged my blanket over. Father lifted

me up and settled me in his lap.

“All set?”

I nodded.

“Gather ‘round little brother for the hour grows late, my story shall lead

us to sweet slumber’s gate.”

“First you have to say what the story is called.”

“Oh yes, I forgot. This is the story of the Curiously True Tale of the

Chance Discovery of the Berth of Good Happenstance. All set?”

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I nodded.

“Gather ‘round—“

“You said that part.”

“Oh yes, I forgot. Well, then little brother, can you imagine finding a

cottage as fine as this sitting all empty and lonesome in the middle of the forest?”

I shook my head as Father put a thumb and a forefinger about each of my

wrists and swept my arms up and around to illustrate amazement.

“Why, I dropped the cart handle when I saw it and very nearly quashed

my toes!” Father squeezed and rolled each of my toes through my stockings to

make certain that they too have escaped the quashing.

“‘Look here, Minna!’ I said to your mother, ‘here at last is a bit of luck!

Have you ever seen a cottage as fair and fortunate as this one?’—Minna?”

At the hearth, Mother was banking the coals around the tea kettle and

whistling a song to herself or perhaps to the kettle to coax it to join in and boil.

“—Minna?” Father repeated.

Mother looked up. “Where are we at, Roburn?” she asked.

“Trees.”

“So I said to your father, ‘I don’t see a cottage. I only see trees.’”

“Trees?” Father put a puzzled look on his face. “I hadn’t noticed until

your mother said so, but there was a great stand of tuskwood where a clearing

for the cottage should clearly be. What should I do, little brother?”

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“Chop them down!”

“So I pull my axe out of the cart—” Father made my hands rummage

around unseen bundles in the unseen cart until we laid hold of an invisible but

obviously very heavy axe, “—and I chop and I chop—” and we swung the

imaginary axe at imaginary tree trunks with all of our combined might until each

and every tree was gone. “There and done!” Father said wiping my forehead

with the back of my hand. “Now do you see the cottage, Minna?”

“I don’t see a cottage. I see rocks,” Mother said.

“Well, it seems that whoever left those trees in the clearing also left a

confounded mess of corrock sticking out of the ground. What should I do?”

“Bash them up!”

The axe in my hands in Father’s hands transmogrified into a mattock

which we wielded in overhead arcs that worked my shoulders and ended in

guttural thuds provided by Father. “I broke them up and I pried them up and I

stacked the rocks like this, around and up and around and up.” There was

enough stone to make a hollow tower once as wide as and more than twice as tall

as Father could reach, as he demonstrated by spreading my arms out wide and

stretching my arms up tall. “Now what do you see?”

“I see a chimney.” As Mother strained the tea into two stone mugs, Father

and I stripped the scales of bark from the trunks of the felled trees. We chiseled

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and joined and pegged and raised an elliptical vault of curved rafters around the

cobbled-up hub of the chimney.

“I see something that looks like a picked-over roast kippin but no

cottage,” Mother said as she brought the large mug for Father and me to share.

And so the story builds. Father and I went through the motions of

unearthing the Berth in stages before Mother’s very eyes while she played her

part of the seer without vision. Strangely enough, it was Mother’s somewhat

removed and rather shortsighted role that first aroused my suspicions that the

drama of the discovery of the Berth of Good Happenstance was not historically

accurate in certain details.

Be that as it may, the story faithfully portrayed the rather astonishing

amount of work and materials that go into stumbling upon a ready-made home

while wandering in the woods. There were fireleaf vines to bend and braid

before Father and I could frame out the arch for the front door and the rounds for

the windows. There was the inner bark of tuskwood that Father and I soaked in

the shallows of the near pond until long pliant sheets sloughed off and floated

which we gathered up and stretched and stitched over the bare wooden ribs.

There was blue clay to haul in buckets from the marl pit between the ponds to be

slathered by the handful over the bark walls. Father made my hands go over

every seam twice so that when the walls dried, they were hard and tight enough

to bounce chutternut shells all the way back to your hand from ten paces back.

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“I see holes where a door and windows should be,” Mother said.

Father and I traded sips of our tea as we tramped off to the far pond and

waded in up to our chests to slice armfuls of slippery rondepont leaves from

their anchoring stalks. With the back edge of Father’s outdoor knife, we scraped

the greasy green nap from both sides of each leaf to expose the cartilaginous

disk, less opaque but with more flex to it than a fingernail. We trimmed the disks

to fit the round frames of the windows and halved one to fit the crescent cutout

in the door.

When Mother saw dirt where there should be a floor and sky where there

should be a roof, Father used my hands to pick through the piles of scales from

the outer bark of the tuskwood. With the broader, dark yellow scales from the

lower trunks, we shingled the roof over our heads and, with the light yellow

scales from the tapered tops of the trunks, we tiled the floor under our feet. The

concave sides of the tiles and shingles have shallow grooves where the tuskwood

seed pods grow. That is why Father and I made sure that we turned that side

down or they would collect more than their share of dirt and water.

“Like greedy kings,” Father interrupted our hammering to laugh. “Did

you hear that, Minna?”

Father liked his joke so well he waited for Mother to finish the prayers she

said at the hearth for all of us that night so he could tell it again. Her laughter

ensured that the joke would have a permanent paragraph in the future editions

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of The Curiously True Tale of the Chance Discovery of the Berth of Good

Happenstance.

My limbs and joints are loose and warm with redstem tea and storytelling.

Father picked me up and carried me to the bedroom as Mother pulled my

trundle out from under the big bed and turned down my quilt.

“We didn’t finish finding our home,” I said as Father as he laid me down

to sleep.

“We never do. Go to sleep, little brother. We’re coming to bed soon.”

Father closed the door softly behind him.

So I fell asleep to the original lullaby—the latching of doors, the drawing

of shutters, the banking of fires on hearths, and the wordless murmurings of

mothers and fathers in next rooms securing the bridges that link days to nights—

a song too ancient to have been heard for a first time.

But I cannot remember if I did, or if I did not, dream of the road to

Harona.

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