Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold

PART ONE Chapter Seven

The window in that room is so small and high up that men need lights there at noon. That is why it can serve as a prison; it was built as the second story of a tower which my great-grandfather began and never finished.

Psyche sat upon the bed with a lamp burning beside her. Of course I was at once in her arms and saw this only in a flash; but the picture - Psyche, a bed, and a lamp - is everlasting.

Long before I could speak she said, "Sister, what have they done to you? Your face, your eye!

He has been beating you again." Then I realised somewhat slowly that all this time she had been petting and comforting me as if it were I who was the child and the victim. And this, even in the midst of the great anguish, made its own little eddy of pain. It was so unlike the sort of love that used to be between us in our happy times.

She was so quick and tender that she knew at once what I was thinking, and at once she called me Maia, the old baby's name that the Fox had taught her. It was one of the first words she ever learned to say.

"Maia, Maia, tell me. What has he done to you?"

"Oh, Psyche," said I, "what does it matter? If only he had killed me! If only they would take me instead of you!"

But she would not be put off. She forced the whole tale out of me (how could one deny her?) wasting on it the little time we had.

"Sister, no more," I said at last. "What is it to me? What is he to either of us? I'll not shame your mother or mine to say he's not our father. If so, the name father is a curse. I'll believe now that he would hide behind a woman in a battle."

And then (it was a kind of terror to me) she smiled. She had wept very little, and mostly, I think, for love and pity of me. Now she sat tall and queenly and still. There was no sign about her of coming death, except that her hands were very cold.

"Orual," she said, "you make me think I have learned the Fox's lessons better than you.

Have you forgotten what we are to say to ourselves every morning? 'Today I shall meet cruel men, cowards and liars, the envious and the drunken. They will be like that because they do not know what is good from what is bad. This is an evil which has fallen upon them not upon me. They are to be pitied, not - '." She was speaking with a loving mimicry of the Fox's voice; she could do this as well as Batta did it badly.

"Oh child, how can - " but I was choked again. All she was saying seemed to me so light, so far away from our sorrow. I felt we ought not to be talking that way, not now. What I thought it would be better to talk of, I did not know.

"Maia," said Psyche. "You must make me a promise. You'll not do anything outrageous?

You'll not kill yourself? You mustn't, for the Fox's sake. We have been three loving friends." (Why must she say bare friends? ) "Now it's only he and you; you must hold together and stand the closer. No, Maia, you must. Like soldiers in a hard battle."

"Oh, your heart is of iron," I said.

"As for the King, give him my duty - or whatever is proper. Bardia is a prudent and courteous man. He'll tell you what dying girls ought to say to fathers. One would not seem rude or ignorant at the last. But I can send the King no other message. The man is a stranger to me; I know the henwife's baby better than him. And for Redival - "

"Send her your curse. And if the dead can - "

"No, no. She also does what she doesn't know."

"Not even for you, Psyche, will I pity Redival, whatever the Fox says."

"Would you like to be Redival? What? No? Then she's pitiable. If I am allowed to give my jewels as I please, you must keep all the things that you and I have really loved. Let her have all that's big and costly and doesn't matter. You and the Fox take what you please."

I could bear no more for a while, so I laid my head down in her lap and wept. If only she would so have laid her head in mine!

"Look up, Maia," she said presently. "You'll break my heart, and I to be a bride." She could bear to say that, I could not bear to hear it.

"Orual," she said, very softly, "we are the blood of the gods. We must not shame our lineage.

Maia, it was you who taught me not to cry when I fell."

"I believe you are not afraid at all," said I, almost, though I had not meant it to sound so, as if I were rebuking her for it.

"Only of one thing," she said. "There is a cold doubt, a horrid shadow, in some corner of my soul. Supposing - supposing - how if there were no god of the Mountain and even no holy Shadowbrute, and those who are tied to the Tree only die, day by day, from thirst and hunger and wind and sun, or are eaten piecemeal by the crows and catamountains? And it is this - oh, Maia, Maia . . . .

And now she did weep and now she was a child again. What could I do but fondle and weep with her? But this is a great shame to write; there was now (for me) a kind of sweetness in our misery for the first time. This was what I had come to her in her prison to do.

She recovered before I did. She raised her head, queenlike again, and said, "But I'll not believe it. The Priest has been with me. I never knew him before. He is not what the Fox thinks. Do you know, Sister, I have come to feel more and more that the Fox hasn't the whole truth. Oh, he has much of it. It'd be dark as a dungeon within me but for his teaching.

And yet ... I can't say it properly. He calls the whole world a city. But what's a city built on?

There's earth beneath. And outside the wall? Doesn't all the food come from there as well as all the dangers? . . . things growing and rotting, strengthening and poisoning, things shining wet . . . in one way (I don't know which way) more like, yes, even more like the House of - "

"Yes, of Ungit," said I. "Doesn't the whole land smell of her? Do you and I need to flatter gods any more? They're tearing us apart . . . oh, how shall I bear it? . . . and what worse can they do? Of course the Fox is wrong. He knows nothing about her. He thought too well of the world. He thought there were no gods, or else (the fool!) that they were better than men.

It never entered his mind - he was too good - to believe that the gods are real, and viler than the vilest men."

"Or else," said Psyche, "they are real gods but don't really do these things. Or even  - mightn't it be - they do these things and the things are not what they seem to be? How if I am indeed to wed a god?"

She made me, in a way, angry. I would have died for her (this, at least, I know is true) and yet, the night before her death, I could feel anger. She spoke so steadily and thoughtfully, as if we had been disputing with the Fox, up behind the pear trees, with hours and days still before us. The parting between her and me seemed to cost her so little.

"Oh, Psyche," I said, almost in a shriek, "what can these things be except the cowardly murder they seem? To take you - you whom they have worshipped and who never hurt so much as a toad - to make you food for a monster. . . ."

You will say - I have said it many thousand times to myself - that, if I saw in her any readiness to dwell on the better part of the Priest's talk and to think she would be a god's bride more than a Brute's prey, I ought to have fallen in with her and encouraged it. Had I not come to her to give comfort, if I could? Surely not to take it away. But I could not rule myself. Perhaps it was a sort of pride in me, a little like her own, not to blind our eyes, not to hide terrible things; or a bitter impulse in anguish itself to say, and to keep on saying, the worst.

"I see," said Psyche in a low voice. "You think it devours the offering. I mostly think so myself. Anyway, it means death. Orual, you didn't think I was such a child as not to know that? How can I be the ransom for all Glome unless I die? And if I am to go to the god, of course it must be through death. That way, even what is strangest in the holy sayings might be true. To be eaten and to be married to the god might not be so different. We don't understand. There must be so much that neither the Priest nor the Fox knows."

This time I bit my lip and said nothing. Unspeakable foulness seethed in my mind; did she think the Brute's lust better than its hunger? To be mated with a worm, or a giant eft, or a spectre?

"And as for death," she said, "why, Bardia there (I love Bardia) will look on it six times a day and whistle a tune as he goes to find it. We have made little use of the Fox's teaching if we're to be scared by death. And you know, Sister, he has sometimes let out that there were other Greek masters than those he follows himself; masters who have taught that death opens a door out of a little, dark room (that's all the life we have known before it) into a great, real place where the true sun shines and we shall meet - "

"Oh cruel, cruel!" I wailed. "Is it nothing to you that you leave me here alone? Psyche; did you ever love me at all?"

"Love you? Why, Maia, what have I ever had to love save you and our grandfather the Fox?" (But I did not want her to bring even the Fox in now.) "But, Sister, you will follow me soon. You don't think any mortal life seems a long thing to me tonight? And how would it be better if I had lived? I suppose I should have been given to some king in the end - perhaps such another as our father. And there you can see again how little difference there is between dying and being married. To leave your home - to lose you, Maia, and the Fox  - to lose one's maidenhead - to bear a child - they are all deaths. Indeed, indeed, Orual, I am not sure that this which I go to is not the best."

"This!"

"Yes. What had I to look for if I lived? Is the world - this palace, this father - so much to lose? We have already had what would have been the best of our time. I must tell you something, Orual, which I never told to anyone, not even you."

I know now that this must be so even between the lovingest hearts. But her saying it that night was like stabbing me.

"What is it?" said I, looking down at her lap where our four hands were joined.

"This," she said, "I have always - at least, ever since I can remember - had a kind of longing for death."

"Ah, Psyche," I said, "have I made you so little happy as that?"

"No, no, no," she said. "You don't understand. Not that kind of longing. It was when I was happiest that I longed most. It was on happy days when we were up there on the hills, the three of us, with the wind and the sunshine . . . where you couldn't see Glome or the palace.

Do you remember? The colour and the smell, and looking across at the Grey Mountain in the distance? And because it was so beautiful, it set me longing, always longing. Somewhere else there must be more of it. Everything seemed to be saying, Psyche come! But I couldn't (not yet) come and I didn't know where I was to come to. It almost hurt me. I felt like a bird in a cage when the other birds of its kind are flying home."

She kissed both my hands, flung them free, and stood up. She had her father's trick of walking to and fro when she talked of something that moved her. And from now till the end I felt (and this horribly) that I was losing her already, that the sacrifice tomorrow would only finish something that had already begun. She was (how long had she been, and I not to know?) out of my reach, in some place of her own.

Since I write this book against the gods, it is just that I should put into it whatever can be said against myself. So let me set this down: as she spoke I felt, amid all my love, a bitterness. Though the things she was saving gave her (that was plain enough) courage and comfort, I grudged her that courage and comfort. It was as if someone or something else had come in between us. If this grudging is the sin for which the gods hate me, it is one I have committed.

"Orual," she said, her eyes shining, "I am going, you see, to the Mountain. You remember how we used to look and long? And all the stories of my gold and amber house, up there against the sky, where we thought we should never really go? The greatest King of all was going to build it for me. If only you could believe it, Sister! No, listen. Do not let grief shut up your ears and harden your heart - "

"Is it my heart that is hardened?"

"Never to me; nor mine to you at all. But listen. Are these things so evil as they seemed? The gods will have mortal blood. But they say whose. If they had chosen any other in the land, that would have been only terror and cruel misery. But they chose me. And I am the one who has been made ready for it ever since I was a little child in your arms, Maia. The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing - to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from - "

"And that was the sweetest? Oh, cruel, cruel. Your heart is not of iron - stone, rather," I sobbed. I don't think she even heard me.

" - my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing, all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back. All my life the god of the Mountain has been wooing me. Oh, look up once at least before the end and wish me joy. I am going to my lover. Do you not see now - ?"

"I only see that you have never loved me," said I. "It may well be you are going to the gods.

You are becoming cruel like them."

"Oh Maia!" cried Psyche, tears at last coming into her eyes again. "Maia, I - "

Bardia knocked on the door. No time for better words, no time to unsay anything. Bardia knocked again, and louder. My oath on his sword, itself like a sword, was upon us.

So, the last, spoiled embrace. Those are happy who have no such in their memory. For those who have - would they endure that I should write of it?

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