I Want to tell of our journey down the River. We are five. The eldest is my sister Robin. Next is my brother Gull, and then my brother Hern. I come fourth and I am called Tanaqui, which is a name from the scented rushes that line the River. This makes me the odd one out in names, because my youngest brother is Mallard--only we always call him Duck. We are the children of Closti the Clam, and we lived all our lives in the village of Shelling, where a stream comes down to join the River, giving plentiful fishing and rich pasture.
This makes Shelling sound a good place, but it is not. It is small and lonely, and the people here are dark and unpleasant, not excepting my Aunt Zara. They worship the River as a god. We know that is wrong. The only gods are the Undying.
Last year, just before the autumn floods, strangers came to Shelling from over the hills, carrying bundles and saying that our land had been invaded by strange and savage Heathens, who were driving all our people out. Hern, Duck and I went and stared at them. We had not known that we had any land except the country round Shelling. But Gull says the land is very large, and the River only the centre part of it--there have been times when Gull has said quite reasonable things.
The strangers were not very interesting. They were just like Shelling people, only rather more worried. They hired my father to ferry them over the River, which is wide here, and then went on their way beyond this old mill on the far side. But, a week after them, people arrived on horseback--very stern smart men wrapped in scarlet rugcoats, with steel clothes under that. And these men said they were messengers from the King. They carried a golden stork wearing a crown on a stick to prove it. When my father saw the stork, he said they were indeed from the King.
We stared at these men far longer than at the others. Even Robin, who was very shy then, left the baking and came and stood beside us with her arms all floury. The smart men riding past all smiled at her, and one winked and said, 'Hallo, sweetheart.' Robin went very pink, but she did not go away as she used to when the Shelling boys called such things.
It seemed these messengers had come collecting men to fight the Heathens. They stayed one night, during which time they had all the men and boys walk before them, and told the ones who were fit that they must prepare to come to the wars. It seems they had the right. It seems the King has this right. I was very surprised, because I had not known we had a King over us before. Everyone laughed. Hern pretended to laugh at me with Robin and Gull and my father, but he confessed afterwards that he had thought Kings were of the Undying, and not really of this world at all. We agreed that a King was a better thing to have over us than Zwitt, the Shelling headman. Zwitt is an old misery, and his mouth is all rounded from saying No.
The messengers told Zwitt he must go to war, and for once he could not say No. But they also told Aunt Zara's husband Kestrel that he must go. Kestrel is an old man. My father said this must mean that the King's case was desperate indeed. It made Hern feverishly hopeful. He said if they took Kestrel, they would surely take boys of Hern's age too. Gull said nothing. He just smiled. Altogether Gull was odious that evening.
Hern crept secretly away and prayed to our Undying, in their three niches by the hearth. He prayed to them to make him fit to go to war, and swore that he would free the land from the Heathen if they did. I know this because I heard him. I was coming to pray too. I must say I was surprised at Hern. He usually scoffs at our Undying, because they are not real and reasonable like the rest of life. It shows how much he wanted to go to war.
When Hern had gone, I knelt and implored our Undying to turn me into a boy so that I could fight the Heathen. I am as tall as Hern, and wiry, although Hern beats me when we fight. Robin sighs and calls me boyish, mostly because my hair is a bush. I prayed very deeply to the Undying. I swore, like Hern, that I would free the land from the Heathen, if they made me a boy. They did not answer me. I am still a girl.
Then it was time for my father, Gull and Hern to walk before the King's men. They chose my father at once. And they dismissed Hern at once, saying he was too skinny and young. But Gull has always been tall and sturdy for his age. They told Gull he could go to war if he wished, and if my father agreed, but they would not press him. They were fair men. Of course Gull wished to go to war. My father, now he knew he had a choice, was not altogether willing to let Gull go, but he thought of poor old Uncle Kestrel, and he told Gull he could go provided he staved close to Uncle Kestrel. Gull came home delighted and boasted all evening. I told you he was odious then. Hern came home trying not to cry.
In the morning, the messengers went to the next village to choose men there, giving the men of Shelling a week to prepare themselves. For that week, we were weaving, baking, hammering and mending for dear life, getting Gull and my father ready. Hern was like a broody hen the whole time. He made Duck miserable too. Robin says I was as bad, but I deny it. I had found a way to comfort myself by pretending I was a very fierce and warlike person called Tanaqui the Terror of the Heathen. When the messengers came back to Shelling, I pretended rhey would hear of this person and send Zwitt to fetch her to lead our land to war. I told it to our Undying, to make it seem more true. I wish now that I had not done that. Sometimes I think this is what brought such troubles on us. You should not speak falsehoods to the Undying.
Robin says we all got worse, Hern, Duck and I, every time Aunt Zara came in. She kept coming and thanking my father for taking Gull to look after Kestrel, and she kept promising she would look after us all when they were away. It was all words. She never came near us. But I think my father believed her and it took a weight off his mind.
After a week, the messengers came back, bringing some hundreds of men with them. That night, before they were to leave, my father and Gull naturally prayed to the Undying for safety.
Robin said anxiously, 'I'd be happier if you took one of them with you.'
'They belong by this hearth,' said my father. He would not say any more about it. 'Hern,' he said. 'Come here.'
Hern would not come at first, but my father dragged him by one arm over to the Undying. 'Now put your hand on the One,' he said, 'and swear that you will stay with Duck and the girls and not try to follow us to war.'
Hern was red in the face and I could see he was very angry, but he swore. That is my father all over. He never said much- they called him the Clam with good reason-but he saw what was in people's minds. After Hern had sworn, Father looked at Duck and me. 'Do I need to make you two swear as well?'
We said No. Duck meant it. He had grown scared that week while he was sharpening my father's weapons. I was still fancying to myself that the messengers would send Zwitt in the morning to fetch Tanaqui the Terror.
So much for my fancies! Next morning, all the men from Shelling marched away except Zwitt. Zwitt-would you believe this!--fell ill and could not go. What kind of illness is it that has a man in a fever in the morning and out fishing in the afternoon? Hern says it is a very rare and uncommon disease called cowardice.
We went with the rest of Shelling to wave the army off. I do not think I like armies. They are about five hundred men, which is quite a large crowd of people, dressed in all sorts of old tough rugcoats, and some in fur or leather, so that they look as brown and scaly as River-mud. Each of these people carries bags and weapons and scythes and pitchforks, all in different ways, so that the army looks like an untidy pincushion, or a patch of dead grass. There is a King's man riding at the side, shouting, 'All in line there! Left, right, left right!' The crowd of people do as he says, not willingly, not fast, so that the army flows off like the River, brown, sluggish and all one piece. As if people could become like water, all one thing! We could hardly distinguish Father, or Gull, though we looked hard. They had become all one with the rest. And, as the army flows off, it leaves a dull noise, dust in the air, and a smell of too many men, which is not pleasing. It made me feel sick. Robin was white. Duck said, 'Let's go home.' As for Hern, I truly think he lost all desire to go to war that morning, just as I did.
Zwitt called everyone together and said the war would not last long. He said confidently that the King would soon beat the Heathens. I should not have believed a bad man like Zwitt. It was many months before we had news.
Life in Shelling went on, but it was small, quiet and empty. The autumn floods came late. They were less than usual and smelt bad. Everyone agreed that the River was angry because of the Heathens-and they began saying other things too, that we did not hear until later. The floods did not bring as much driftwood as usual, but they washed up strange fish which nobody liked to eat.
Though Aunt Zara did nothing to help the four of us, we did not go short. We had vegetables from the garden, and the flour was milled from our field. Duck and Hern always catch fish. Duck can find clams by instinct too, I think. The hens were laying well, even in the winter, and we had the cow for milk. Money for other things was scarce, because we had just laid in a great deal of wool when Zwitt's flock was sheared, before the Heathens came. This I combed and spun and dyed in the ways that my mother had taught Robin and my father, and they have taught me. My mother taught Robin to weave. I was too young to learn when she died, but Robin taught me and now I do it better than she does. It is that same wool I am using now to weave our story. We did not find much market for my weaving in Shelling that winter. A number of children needed winter rugcoats. But my main--and my best--work is always for weddings. The girls' families buy my finest rugcoats, with stories and poems in them, to give to the boy they are going to marry. But there were no weddings, with the men all gone. And after we went across the River, no one wanted any of my weaving.
The floods had left us no driftwood to speak of, so we rowed across the River when the leaves started falling to cut wood from the forest on the other side. No one else in Shelling crosses the River. I asked Aunt Zara why once, and she said that the old mill was cursed by the River, and the forest round it, and that they were haunted by a cursed spirit in the shape of a woman. That was why the new mill was built, up along the stream. When I told my father what Aunt Zara said, he laughed and told me not to listen to nonsense. It is quite a pleasure to me to sit weaving in this same old mill, with this same cursed forest round me, at this very moment, and take no harm. There's for you, Aunt Zara!
The day we cut wood, the light was rich with the end of autumn. It was like a holiday. We broke the stillness of the trees by running about shouting, catching falling leaves and playing Tig. I do not think there were any spirits who minded, in spite of what Robin said. And she ran about and shouted with us anyway. She was far more as I remember her, that day, before she grew up and got all shy and responsible. We had lunch sitting on the grass by the old millpool and after that we cut wood. When the River was pale in the dusk, we rowed back over, with wood heaped in such a stack that the boat was right down in the water and we had to sit still for fear of being swamped. My hair was like a real bush, full of twigs and leaves. I was really happy.
Next day, Zwitt and some of the old people came to us with sour faces. They said we were not to pasture our cow with the others in future. 'We do not give grazing rights to godless people,' Zwitt said.
'Who's godless?' Duck said.
'The River has forbidden people to cross to the mill,' Zwitt said. And you were all there all yesterday. The River would punish you worse than this if you were older.'
'It's not the River punishing us. It's you,' said Duck.
Hern said, 'You didn't punish my father for ferrying the strangers over there.'
'Who told you we were there?' I said.
'Zara told me,' said Zwitt. 'And you watch how you speak to me, now your father's away. I won't stand for rudeness.'
Robin wrung her hands when they had gone. It was her latest ladylike habit, but it meant she was really upset. 'Oh dear! Perhaps the spirits over there are angry. Do you think we did offend the River?'
We were not having that. We respect the River, of course, but it is not one of the Undying, and we do not believe in spirits flocking around being angry at everything, the way Zwitt does. I told Robin she was growing up as joyless as Zwitt. Hern said it did not make sense to talk of a river being offended.
'And if it is, it ought to punish us, not Zwitt,' said Duck.
'I only meant that it could be offended,' Robin said.
When we had finished arguing, Hern said, 'It sounds as if Zwitt was afraid of my father.'
'I wish he'd come back!' I said.
But the months passed and no one came back. Meanwhile, we were forced to move our cow to the edge of the River, just beside our house. We think that was why she never caught the cattle- plague all the other cows got. Hern is sure it was. A great deal of mist came off the River that winter and hung about the pasture. Of course our cow was grazing peacefully in the mist most of the time, on the River-bank, but the other people said it was the mist that brought the disease. When some cows died, and ours had never coughed once, they began giving us very black looks.
Hern was furious. He called them narrow-minded fools. Hern believes there are reasons for everything, and that curses and bad luck and spirits and gods do not make real reasons. 'And why is it our fault their wretched cows die?' he demanded. 'Because we offended the River, if you please! In that case, why is our cow all right?'
Robin tried to pacify him. 'Hern dear, don't you think it could be our Undying looking after us?'
'Oh--running river-stinks!' said Hern, and flounced out to the woodshed with such a look of scom that Robin went into the scullery to cry-she cries a lot-and I stood on the hearth wondering whether to cry too. I do not cry much, so I talked to Duck instead. It is no good talking to Robin, and Hern is so reasonable. Duck is young, but he has a lot of sense.
'Hern doesn't believe in the Undying,' Duck said. 'It's because they're not reasonable.'
'Then why didn't he run away after the army?' I said. 'He didn't, because he'd sworn on the Undying.'
'He didn't because he saw the army,' said Duck. 'Anyway, the Undying aren't reasonable.'
'Don't you believe in them either?' I said. I was truly shocked. Hern is one thing, but Duck is younger than me. Besides, we were standing right beside the Undying in their niches, and they must have heard Duck.
Duck turned to look at them. 'You don't have to believe in things because they're reasonable,' he said. 'Anyway, I like them.'
We both looked quite lovingly at our three Undying. Two of them are old. They have been in my father's family for generations. I can remember lying in my cradle by the fire, looking up at them. Hern says I could not possibly remember, but that is Hern all over. I do remember. The Young One has a face that seems to smile in the firelight, though by daylight you can hardly see his face at all. He is carved of a rosy kind of stone that has wom very badly. You can just see that he is playing a flute, but not much else. The One is even older. It is hard to see what he is really like at all, except that he is a head taller than the Young One. The stone he is made of generally looks rather dark, with glistening flecks in it, but he changes every year when he has been in his fire. The Lady is made of hard, grainy wood. When my father first carved her, just after Duck was bom, I remember she was light-coloured like the tops of mushrooms, but she has darkened over the years, and now she is brown as a chestnut. She has a beautiful, kind face.
Duck chuckled. 'They're a lot nicer than Uncle Kestrel's lump of wood.'
I laughed too. Everyone in Shelling has such awful Undying. Most of them are supposed to be the River. Uncle Kestrel has a piece of driftwood that his father caught in his net one day. It looks like a man with one leg and unequal arms-you know how driftwood does-and he never lets it out of his sight. He took it to the war with him.
I remember this particularly. It was in the first part of the year after the shortest day, and there was a hard frost that night. It was the only frost that winter. I was cold. Right in the middle of the night I woke up out of a dream, freezing. In my dream, my father was somewhere in the distance, trying to tell me something. 'Wake up, Tanaqui,' he said, 'and listen carefully.' But that was all he said, because I did wake up. It took hours to get back to sleep. I had to get in beside Robin in the end, I was so cold.
From what Uncle Kestrel said, I think that was the night my father died. It is hard to be sure, but I think so. I do not want to weave of this.
Before that came the terrible illness. Almost everyone in Shelling got it, and some of the smaller children died. The River smelt very bad. Even Hern admitted that this disease might have come from the River. It was much warmer than it should be for the time of year, and the River was very low and stagnant-a queer light-greenish colour-and we could not get the smell out of our house. Robin burnt cloves on the edge of the hearth to hide it. We all had the disease, but not badly. Wben we were better, Robin and I went round to see if Aunt Zara was ill too. We had not seen her in her garden for days.
She was ill, but she would not let us into her house. 'Keep away from me!' she screamed through the door. 'I'm not having either of you near me!'
Robin was very patient, because Aunt Zara was ill. 'Now, Aunt, don't be so silly,' she said. 'Why won't you let us in?'
'Just look at yourselves!' screamed my aunt.
Robin and I stared at one another in great surprise. Robin had been very particular about our appearance, partly because she has grown fussy now she is old, and partly to please Aunt Zara, who is even fussier. We both had our new winter rugcoats on, with bands of scarlet saying Fight for the King, which I had woven to remind us of the King's messengers. The rest was a pattern of good browns and blue, which suit us both. My head was still sore from Robin's combing, so I knew my hair was neat and not the usual white bush. Robin's hair is silkier than mine though just as curly. She had striven with it and put it into neat plaits, like a yellow rope on each shoulder. We could not see what was wrong with us.
While we looked, my aunt kept scresming. 'I'm not going to have anything to do with you! I disown you! You're none of my flesh and blood!'
'Aunt Zara,' Robin said, reasonably, 'our father is your brother.'
'I hate him too!' screamed my aunt. 'He brought you down on us! I'm not having the rest of Shelling saying it's my fault. Get away from my house!'
I saw Robin's face go red, then white. Her chin was a hard shape. 'Come along, Tanaqui, she said. 'We'll go back home.' And she went, with me trotting to keep up . I looked at her as I trotted, expecting her to be crying, but she was not. She did not speak about Aunt Zara again. I spoke, but only a little, when Hern asked me what had happened. 'She's a selfish old hag anyway, ' Hern said.
Aunt Zara recovered from the sickness, but she never came near us, and we did not go near her.
It was a long winter. The Spring floods were late in coming. We were longing for them, to wash away the smell from the River. I was longing for them in a special way. After my dream, I was very anxious for my father, but I hid my worry in a new fancy-- that he would come home in flood-time, before the One had to go in his fire, and everything would be all right. Instead, no floods came, but at last men began to come back to Shelling from the wars. That was a time I do not want to tell about. Only half came back who had set out, weary and thin. My father and Gull were not among them and no one would speak to us. Everyone looked at us grimly.
'What are we supposed to have done now?' Hern demanded.