The following is an excerpt from Gene Wolfe’s contribution to Conjunctions:39.
The Ruined Town
The sun woke me. I still remember how warm it felt, and how good it was to be warm like that, and away from the sound of other people’s voices and all the work and worry of other people’s lives, the things the string kept telling me about; I must have lain in the sun for an hour before I got up.
I was hungry and thirsty when I did. Rainwater caught by a broken fountain tasted wonderful. I drank and drank; and when I straightened up, there was a knight watching me, a tall, big-shouldered man in chain mail. His helm kept me from seeing his face, but there was a black dragon on top of his helm that glared at me, and black dragons on his shield and surcoat. He began to fade as soon as I saw him, and in a couple of seconds the wind blew away what was left. It was a long time before I found out who he was, so I am not going to say anything about that here; but I do want to say something else and it will go here as well as anywhere.
That world is called Mythgarthr. I did not learn it till later, but there is no reason you should not know it now. Parka’s cave was not completely there, but between Mythgarthr and Aelfrice. Bluestone Island is entirely in Mythgarthr, but before I drank the water I was not. Or to write down the exact truth, I was not securely there. That is why the knight came when he did; he wanted to watch me drinking that water. “Good lord!” I said, but there was no one to hear me.
He had scared me. Not because I thought I might be seeing things, but because I had thought I was alone. I kept looking behind me. It is no bad habit, Ben, but there was nobody there.
On the east side of the island the cliffs were not so steep. I found a few mussels and ate them raw. The sun was overhead when two fishermen came close enough to yell at. I did, and they rowed over. They wanted to know if I would help with the nets if they took me onboard; I promised I would, and climbed over the gunwale. “How’d you get out there alone?” the old one wanted to know.
I wanted to know that myself, and how come they talked funny, but I said, “How would anybody get out there?” and they seemed willing to leave it at that. They split their bread and cheese with me, and a fish we cooked over a fire in a box of sand. I did not know, but that was when I started loving the sea.
At sunset, they offered me my choice of the fish we had caught for my help. I told the young one (not a lot older than me) that I would take it and share with his family if his wife would cook it, because I had no place to stay. That was okay, and when our catch had been sold, we carried the best fish and some others that had not sold into a crowded little house maybe twenty steps from the water.
After dinner we told stories, and when it was my turn I said, “I’ve never seen a ghost, unless what I saw today was one. So I’ll tell you about that, even if it won’t scare anybody like the ghost in Scaur’s story. Because it’s all I’ve got.”
Everyone seemed agreeable; I think they had heard each other’s stories more than once.
“Yesterday I found myself on a certain rocky island not far from here where there used to be a tower—”
“It was Duke Indign’s,” said Scaur; and his wife, Sha, “Bluestone Castle.”
“I spent the night in the garden,” I continued, “because I had something to do there, a seed I had to plant. You see, somebody important had told me to plant a seed, and I hadn’t known what she meant until I found seeds in here.” I showed them the pouch.
“You chopped down a spiny orange,” Sha’s grandfather wheezed; he pointed to my bow. “You cut a spiny orange, and you got to plant three seeds, young man. If you don’t the Mossmen’ll get you.”
I said I had not known that.
He spat in the fire. “Folks don’t, not now, and that’s why there’s not hardly no spiny oranges left. Best wood there is. You rub flax oil in it, hear? That’ll protect it from the weather.”
He held out his hand for my bow, and I passed it to him. He gave it to Scaur. “You break her, son. Break her ‘cross your knee.”
Scaur tried. He was strong and bent my bow nearly double but it did not break.
“See? You can’t. Can’t be broke.” Sha’s grandfather cackled as Scaur returned my bow to me. “There’s not but one fruit on a spiny orange most times, and not but three seeds in it. You chop down the tree and you got to plant them in three places, else the Mossmen’ll come for you.”
“Go on, Able,” Sha said, “tell us about the ghost.”
“This morning I decided to plant the first seed in the garden of Bluestone Castle,” I told them. “There was a stone bowl there that held water, and I decided I would plant the seed first and scoop up water for it. When it seemed to me I had watered it enough, I would drink what was left.”
“I dug a little hole with my knife, dropped a seed into it, replaced the earth—which was pretty damp already—and carried water for the seed in my hands. When there was standing water in the hole, I drank and drank from the bowl, and when I looked up I saw a knight standing there watching me. I couldn’t see his face, but he had a big green shield with a dragon on it.”
“That wasn’t Duke Indign,” Scaur remarked, “his badge was the blue boar.”
“Did you speak to him?” Sha wanted to know. “What did he say?”
“I didn’t. It happened so fast and I was too surprised. “He-he turned into a sort of cloud, then he disappeared altogether.”
“Clouds are the breath of the lady,” Sha’s grandfather remarked. I asked who that was, but he only shook his head and looked into the fire.
She said, “Don’t you know her name can’t be spoken?”
In the morning I asked the way to Griffinsford, but Scaur said there was no town of that name thereabout.
“Then what’s the name of this one?” I asked. “Irringsmouth,” said Scaur.
“I think there’s an Irringsmouth near where I live,” I told him. Really I was not sure, but I thought it was something like that. “It’s a big city, though. The only really big city I’ve been to.”
“Well, this is the only Irringsmouth around here,” Scaur said. A passerby who heard us said, “Griffinsford is on the Griffin,” and walked away before I could ask him anything.
“That’s a stream that flows into our river,” Scaur told me. “Go south ‘til you come to the river, and take the River Road and you’ll find it.”
So I set out with a few bites of salt fish wrapped in a clean cloth, south along the little street behind the wattle house where Scaur and Sha lived, south some more on the big street it led to, and east on the high road by the river. It went through a gap without a gate in the wrecked city wall, and out into the countryside, through woods of young trees where patches of snow were hanging on in the shadows and square pools of rainwater waited for somebody to come back.
After that, the road wound among hills, where two boys older than I was said they were going to rob me. One had a staff and the other one an arrow ready—“at the nock” is how we say it here. The nock is the cut for the string. I said they could have anything I had except my bow. As I ought to have expected, they tried to take it. I held on, and got hit with the staff. After that I fought, taking my bow away from them and beating them with it. Maybe I should have been afraid, but I was not. I was angry with them for thinking they could hit me without being hit back. The one with the staff dropped it and ran; and I beat the other until he fell down, then sat on his chest and told him I was going to cut his throat.
He begged for mercy, and when I let him up he ran too, leaving his bow and quiver behind. The bow looked nice, but when I bent it over my knee it snapped. I saved the string, and slung the quiver on my back. That night I scraped away at my own bow until it needed nothing but a bath in flax oil, and put his string on it.
After that I walked with an arrow at the nock myself. I saw rabbits and squirrels, and even deer, more than once; I shot, but all I did was lose a couple of arrows until the last day. That morning, so hungry I was weak, I shot a grouse and went looking for a fire. I had a long search and almost gave up on finding any that day and ate it raw; but as evening came, I saw wisps of smoke above the treetops, white as specters against the sky. When the first stars were out, I found a hut half buried in wild violets. It was of sticks covered with hides; and its door was the skin of a deer. Since I could not knock on that, I coughed; and when coughing brought nobody, I knocked on the sticks of the frame.
“Who’s there!” rang out in a way that sounded like the man who said it was ready to fight.
“A fat grouse,” I said. A fight was the last thing I wanted.
The hide was drawn back, and a stooped and shaking man with a long beard looked out. His hand trembled; so did his head, but there was no tremor in his voice when he boomed, “Who are you?”
“Just a traveler who’ll share his bird for your fire,” I said.
“Nothing here to steal,” the bearded man said, and held up a cudgel.
“I haven’t come to rob you, only to roast my grouse. I shot and plucked it this morning, but I had no fire to cook it and I’m starved.”
“Come in then.” He stepped out of the doorway. “You can cook it if you’ll save a piece for me.”
“I’ll give you more than that,” I told him, and I was as good as my word: I gave him both wings and both thighs. He asked no more questions but looked at me so closely, staring and turning away, that I told him my name and age, explained that I was a stranger in his state, and asked him how to get to Griffinsford.
“Ah, the curse of it! That was my village, stripling, and sometimes I go there still to see it. But nobody lives in Griffinsford these days.”
I felt that could not be true. “My brother and I do.”
The bearded man shook his trembling head. “Nobody at all. Nobody’s left.”
I knew then that the name of our town had not been Griffinsford. Perhaps it was Griffin—or Griffinsburg or something like that. But I could not remember.
“They looked up to me,” the bearded man muttered. “Some wanted to run, but I said no. Stay and fight, I said. If there’s too many giants, we’ll run, but we’ve got to try their mettle first.”
I had noticed the word giants, and wondered what might come next.
“Schildstarr was their leader. I had my father’s tall house in those days. Not like this. A big house with a half loft under the high roof and little rooms behind the big one. A big stone fireplace, too, and a table big enough to feed my friends.”
“I nodded, thinking of houses I had seen in Irringsmouth.
“Schildstarr wasn’t my friend, but he could’ve got into my house. Inside, he’d have had to stand like I do now.”
“You fought them?”
“Aye. For my house? My fields and Gerda? Aye! I fought, though I half run when we saw them comin’ down the road. Killed one with my spear and two with my axe. They fall like trees, stripling.” For a moment his eyes blazed.
“A stone …” He fingered the side of his head, and looked much older. “Don’t know who struck me, or what it was. A stone? Don’t know. Put your hand there, stripling. Feel under my hair.”
His hair was thick, dark gray hair that was just about black. I felt and jerked my hand away.
“Tormented after. Water and fire. Know it? It’s what they like best. Took us to a pond and built fires all round it. Drove us into the water like cattle. Threw brands at us till we drowned. All but me. What’s your name, stripling?”
I told him again.
“Able? Able. That was my brother’s name. Years and years ago, that was.”
I knew it was not my real name, but Parka had said to use it. I asked his name.
“Found a water rat’s hole,” he said. “Duck and dig, come up to breathe, and the brands, burnin’ and hissin’. Lost count of the duckins and the burns, but didn’t drown. Got my head up into the water rat’s house and breathed in there. Waited till the Angrborn thought we was all dead and went away.”
I nodded, feeling like I had seen it.
“Tried to climb out, but my shadow slipped. Fell back into the pond. Still there.” The bearded man shook his head. “Dreams? Not dreams. In that pond still, and the brands whizzing at me. Tryin’ to climb out. Slippery, and ... and fire in my face.”
“If I slept here tonight,” I suggested, “I could wake you if you had a bad dream.”
“Schildstarr,” the bearded man muttered. “Tall as a tree, Schildstarr is. Skin like snow. Eyes like a owl. Seen him pick up Baldig and rip his arms off. Could show you where. You really going to Griffinsford, Able?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll go tomorrow, if you’ll tell me the way.”
“Go too,” the bearded man promised. “Haven’t been this year. Used to go all the time. Used to live there.”
“That’ll be great,” I said. “I’ll have somebody to talk to, somebody who knows the way. My brother will have been mad at me, I’m pretty sure, but he’ll be over that by now.”
“No, no,” the bearded man mumbled. “No, no. Bold Berthold’s never worried about you, brother. You’re no bandit.”
That was how I started living with Bold Berthold. He was sort of crazy and sometimes he fell down. But he was as brave as any man I have ever known, and there was not one mean bone in his body. I tried to take care of him and help him, and he tried to take care of me and teach me. I owed him a lot for years, Ben, but in the end I was able to pay him back and that might have been the best thing I ever did.
Sometimes I wonder if that was not why Parka told me I was Able. All this was on the northern reaches of Celidon. I ought to say that somewhere.