The Milk Maid and The Boy Who Cried For the Moon
And now for something completely different.
Several months ago I was intrigued to note a short story competition over at The Archdruid Report, the winners of which will be published in an anthology called After Oil. The entries must be published on a blog, hence today's post. The theme - imagine what life could be like one thousand years from now. After the planet has heated up, after our magical fossil fuels are all gone, well after the disruption and chaos that the next few hundred years will undoubtedly bring. What could those new societies look like? Well, here is my contribution. For what it's worth I think that wherever a society organises so that some of its members have power and privilege, then that elite will continue to indulge in all sorts of questionable activities, up to and including destroying their own society in order to keep that power at all costs..
It has taken months to write - most of that time being taken up with not-writing, and then some pull-yourself-together-girl hours and days of actual writing, and here we are at the moment where I can't stand looking at it any longer, so publish and be damned, I say.
Thanks to The Girl for her thoughtful suggestions, and to my very dear friend Karlin for her excellent editing.
I would love to have you add your comments and critiques as well, and expect you all to move to Tasmania very soon:)
The Milk Maid and the Boy Who Cried For the Moon
Una picked her way up the rocky path toward the headland. When she reached the top she paused a minute to catch her breath and turned and looked down at the roof of the farm house far below. She could see the farm hands going about their evening chores, weaving the centuries' old pattern from house to barn to chickens and pigs and wood pile. Turning back to the headland Una spied her granddaughter at the edge of the cliff, dark hair whipping in the breeze. She was watching entranced as a clipper ship, sails set, left the harbour and headed out to sea. Una had known she would find Gwenn here. For months now the girl had been slipping away to watch every ship as it left The Island. In two month's time Gwenn too would be leaving, sailing into just such a golden evening, a Wayfarer, leaving her island home for a life of study and adventure.
Gwenn had worked for many years for this. Only a very few had the opportunity to sign on to the clipper ships as Wayfarers. The ships' permanent skeleton crews were supplemented at every port by Wayfarers, volunteers who had trained for years in their own disciplines, then also endured gruelling training as ship's crew. They signed on and worked their passage wherever their hearts and minds took them. Every university and library the world over was open to them. They met with fellow students and eminent scholars, and travelled the world seeking knowledge and sharing it. Gwenn's passion was astronomy. The stars teased her with their far-off glittering music and would take her far from home.
“Oh, Grandmother, you shouldn't have come all this way for me. I'm sorry I missed the chores. I was just...” Gwenn looked out to sea where the ship was dwindling like a white bird into the distance.
“Dreaming. Of course you were. I know, darling.” Una stood at the edge of the cliff, facing the ocean. Tall, spare and weathered, her long grey hair pulled back into a knot, her grey eyes followed the white speck that was the departing ship until it disappeared into the golden sunset.
Una herself had been a Wayfarer once. Her discipline was bioalchemy, a study of the deep ways of the natural world. When she left The Island it was to the prospect of a brilliant future at any of the greatest universities of the world. “There's one who won't be back,” sighed her teachers and those who loved her. There were those on The Island who didn't approve of the Wayfarer lifestyle. “Just loses us our brightest young people,” they grumbled, “and most of them never come back.” And yet, The Island life did draw some back. Often many years would pass but then familiar faces would return, beaming at the top of the gangplank, often bringing wives, husbands and children with them. Sometimes single women would return, sheepishly or defiantly according to temperament, bearing what was known as 'a full cargo'. These also were enfolded back into the community, if not without comment, at least without censure, for such a small population needed two things that these returning immigrants brought with them – genetic diversity, and expertise.
For The Island was an anomaly. A jewel at the end of the world, it sat precariously at the base of the huge, mostly uninhabitable, ancient continent of Australia. During the Dark Age, when the atmosphere had heated, much of the population of Australia had fled to The Island. A combination of changing climate and over-population had nearly decimated its abundant forests, and The Island population looked like going the way of many other islands around the world at this chaotic time – into oblivion.
Then, at its darkest hour, the people of The Island began to stir out of their old ways of thinking. A movement arose among them, central to which was an absolute reverence for every material gift of the universe – every leaf, every breath of fresh air, every drop of water. They called this 'The Balance.'
Legions of the voluntarily childless formed communities based on the old monastery system, throwing their energy into preserving the good of the old ways and pursuing every avenue to create a new society where the needs of The Island's humans were constantly balanced against the needs of the very finite piece of land that they relied upon so desperately for survival. And while natural disasters and waves of disease ravaged The Island's population, the light that had been kindled burnt brighter over time.
Eventually the rest of the world began to rediscover this long-disregarded island at the bottom of a burning, uninhabitable continent. As the art of the sailing ship was slowly recovered in those parts of the world which had resources spare to devote to it, ships occasionally visited The Island with a view to plundering what was left of it. To their surprise they found neither a graveyard nor dysfunctional chaos, but a thriving, egalitarian community which had somehow discovered the key to living in the the new age.
The news trickled back to what was left of civilisation, and more ships arrived, full of emissaries eager to learn the secrets of The Island's success. Disciples of The Balance travelled all over the world preaching their message of balance, restraint and reverence. The new religion, for that is what it had become, swept across the world from port to port, sometimes replacing old religions, sometimes sitting side by side with already existing beliefs.
It was to this island community that Una had returned eight years after she had left it, bearing a full cargo of her own. She had settled down on her family's farm and brought up her daughter, refusing to reveal so much as a word about her child's father. She had also refused to practice bioalchemy at The Island's one university, but instead worked with her father to make the family farm exceptionally productive in a land of model farms. By the time of her father's death she had created a Garden of Eden on her seaside land, which had Wayfarers from all over the world beating a path to her door to discover her secret for producing such bounty from a dry, rocky hillside.
Una's daughter Star had loved the land as much as her mother and grandfather and had settled on the farm with her husband to bring up her own daughter. But on her death, when little Gwenn was just a toddler, her husband in his grief had found himself unable to stay on the farm. He took up work as a forester and lived away from the farm for weeks or months at a time. Gwenn loved to see her quiet, gentle father on his infrequent visits, but her grandmother was the sun at the centre of her universe.
Una brought out, like well-polished stones, her stock of stories of her adventures in the wide world. She taught Gwenn older stories too – Greek myths, ancient poetry, stories of The Island from the Dark Age and before, when this hot, dry island was a green and mysterious land of forests and streams and rushing brown rivers. But most of all, Una had taught Gwenn about the stars. Their names, their stories, their history. Gwenn ached to leave The Island and seek her own adventures, seize the stars and make them her own, but she didn't want to leave her grandmother.
She turned from the wide ocean to the quiet old woman next to her, “How can I live without you, Grandmother?” she asked, “I don't know why I want to leave. I don't want to leave you at all, but I must go.”
“I know you do, my honey. It is because you are young, and therefore it is what you must do.” Una sighed and tucked a strand of Gwenn's hair behind her ear.
“But not all the young leave,” Gwenn objected. “Mother never wanted to leave the farm.”
“Star was just like my father,” Una replied. “She was rooted in this land like a young sapling and would have wilted and struggled to survive had she been transplanted. You, though...” and Una turned to Gwenn and looked steadily into her dark eyes, “You, my dear one, are just like your grandfather.”
Gwenn stood stock still. She had never heard a single word about her grandfather from Una. No-one on The Island had ever heard a word about Gwenn's grandfather. And although Una told many stories about her time as a Wayfarer, none of them explained exactly what she had spent her time doing while she was away, or why she had returned. All anyone knew, from the reverent way in which visiting Wayfarers approached her, was that she had been a well-known and eminent scholar of bioalchemy, and that it had not been lack of success that brought her home to a life on the family farm.
Una sat down with her back to the sun-warmed boulder that served as a look-out on the headland, and patted the space next to her. “Come and sit down, Gwenn. It is time that I told you the story of where you come from. I wanted to tell your mother, but I lacked the courage, and then one day it was too late. I want to tell you this story now, before you leave to go and find your own path.”
And yet Una sat silent, gazing out to sea, and holding tightly onto Gwenn's hand with both of her own. Eventually Gwenn gave Una's hand a hesitant squeeze. “Where did you go when you left The Island, Grandmother?” she asked. Una gave Gwenn a quick, grateful smile, and began her tale.
She had travelled up the east coast of Australia, calling in at various settlements on the way. Gwenn had heard these stories before, of the hardy souls who eked out a precarious existence along the coast, mostly living in underground dug-outs to avoid the burning summer sun, growing their crops during the cooler winters.
Una had spent two years travelling and studying. She had endured sea sickness and violent storms and had travelled overland as assistant to a healer for a leg of her journey north, along the coast of Zhong Gua and into Russia, unwilling to face another sea passage. All these stories were familiar to Gwenn, having been the solace and excitement of many a winter evening around the fire.
“And then I met Leonid.” Una sighed and stared out at the horizon. “He had the most extraordinary mind. His star was in the ascendant – one of the brightest minds in one of the greatest universities in the world. Oh, I do hope you get to see it one day. Torn down and rebuilt time and again in the Great Wars between Russia and Zhong Gua to the south, the Eastern City shines like a beacon now, bringing scholars from all over the world. Born to one of the oldest and wealthiest local families, at thirty two Leonid was very young to be a Master of Bioalchemy. The uncharitable attributed this to the generous patronage of his family, but no-one who knew him or his work could doubt his brilliance. His particular passion was for the inner workings of the human mind, and it was as if he could indeed enter in to the labyrinthine chambers that he studied. Truly, the Spirit was great within him.
I was young and unknown, but ambitious and desperately thirsting after knowledge, and there was Leonid, brilliant, confident, sparkling with such compelling ideas. I knew that once in his ambit I could fly to the stars and back. I had only one card to play – I was from The Island. Wayfarers from The Island were always noticed. I played that card well.
Handsome?” asked Una, in reply to Gwenn's question, “No. Tall, gangly even. Pale, with jet black hair, like yours, like Star's. There was never any question of us marrying. His family belonged to a sect which hold themselves apart. They pride themselves on their pure Russian heritage and never marry outsiders. In a polyglot city in a polyglot nation they have kept themselves racially pure for a hundred generations or more. It is now almost the whole of their religion. It is also madness, for they rarely travel between the isolated outposts of their sect, and are almost terminally inbred.
From the first to the last Leonid's family completely ignored me. To them I was just the latest in a long line of racially impure women to whom they turned a blind eye. “One day I will have to marry a stupid woman of impeccable lineage and produce a brace of inbred brats for the honour of the family,” the dutiful son would spit furiously, “But you,” he would say with his face buried in my hair, “You are the wife of my mind and my heart, and this is our true life,” and he would gesture around his room at the university, our room, with its wealth of books and scientific instruments and the glorious light shining in through its large glass windows, “and all the rest is a mirage.”
Indeed, my whole past life felt like a mirage. I remembered our winters on The Island, shutters covering the windows, working by lamplight. To work in Leonid's room with the winter sunlight streaming in through the large glass windows and with the hypocaust heating the floors was like living in a fairytale. And yet, I was unsettled. There was just so much of everything. The precepts of The Balance were respected in the Eastern City as in most of the cities of the world, but here it did not seem as though they were particularly needed. The Eastern City is situated in a fertile valley surrounded by thousands of acres of farmland, much of it owned by Leonid's pompous family. The climate disruption that had followed the Dark Age had been kind to Russia; once a land covered in snow for much of the year, it is now temperate with a largely benevolent climate.
However, it didn't take me long to discover that although the city was wealthy, the countryside was not. The farms that spread out beyond the city as far as the eye could see were mostly owned by wealthy city-dwellers, and worked by a multitude of serfs who were ill-housed and ill-paid for their labour. Leonid's father and his friends had only one topic of conversation according to Leonid - complaining about the laziness, the incompetence and the insolence of the men and women who fed them and made them rich. Even Leonid himself regarded farming as a menial task for peasants.
“But to follow the Way of the Earth is to pursue the Noble Profession,” I reminded him.
Leonid looked at me thoughtfully. “Maybe more so on that Island of yours,” he said eventually.
If I was shocked at his views on farming, he was even more shocked by the revelation that I was actually a farmer, from a long line of farmers. That I grew up milking goats and doing farm chores.
“So everyone on your Island really participates in those bucolic pastimes for the sake of piety?” Leonid asked.
“Not for the sake of piety,” I retorted, “But so that there will always be something to eat.”
Leonid laughed briefly, promised I would never have cause to go near a goat again, and flicking my cheek lazily, remarked that he would call me his little milkmaid from now on.
Another shock occurred when I began to study at the library of the university in the Eastern City. All university libraries are the province of the monasteries. The monasteries of our age were born from necessity on our own Island, when the founders of The Balance adapted the monastery model from ancient times to address the problem of overpopulation. Choosing a communal, childless life devoted to study, preserving the past and searching for solutions for the future is an honourable calling. Indeed, it requires a vocation in the Way of the Spirit. However the monastery in the Eastern City had become a repository for maiden aunts and indigent relatives of wealthy patrons of the University.
Leonid took me to the library at the beginning of my studies at the university, and introduced me to Anna, whom he instructed to show me the intricacies of the library system, a series of vast and sprawling underground vaults which kept books and records at the ideal temperature and humidity, and required encyclopedic knowledge to navigate.
“My great aunt,” explained Leonid later, “A bit mad, but no-one knows their way better through the labyrinth.”
I didn't find Anna mad at all, but shrewd and immensely intelligent. “Ah yes, I have known Leonid since he was a little boy,” said Anna. “Always crying for the moon and aiming for the stars, that one.”
And she was right. He was still at it. While I spent my days studying bodily systems, following healers around the City hospitals and learning the secret arts of the herbalists, trying to find the keys to unlock the mystery of disease of the body, Leonid was closeted in his laboratory painstakingly piecing together the workings of the mind. Painstaking, but not patient. He would burst into our room, and tear books off the shelves, impatiently flinging them behind him as he hunted for an errant article or treatise, or he would bark out the name of a herb and expect a full and instant summary of all its properties.
When he wasn't burning white hot with impatience, he could talk for hours about his vision for humanity, his plan to heal minds and cure disease that impacted the brain. Even change the experience and reality of human beings altogether. “We are just a collection of sense organs,” he declared. “If it is possible to target sensory receptors, we could change the way that the mind experiences reality.”
When Leonid was in this mood I called him Icarus, and warned him not to fly too close to the sun. Leonid frowned. “I never did understand why that fable was thought to be about hubris,” he said. “Surely it is more of a warning against stupidity and technical incompetence.”
Years passed. I was admitted to the College of Bioalchemists and lectured, researched, experimented. On The Island, my mother died, and I mourned her but did not return. Leonid married the girl his family chose, and visited her once a month until she had produced a girl and twin boys. Family honour satisfied, from that point he was only seen with her on public occasions. We still lived in Leonid's university room. I now had an adjoining room of my own which merely meant that we had room to extend our private library. We didn't even add another work table, because Leonid did not work in his room any more, but only in his laboratories. He had stopped holding forth at length about his theories, and had become oddly secretive about his work, but we were both so busy that I hardly noticed.
There had been a great deal of political unrest around the Eastern City for some time; small rebellions in the countryside, quickly put down, but there was an on-going seething and bubbling under the surface of everyday life. Discontent fomented. The city's elite made a great noise about how the populace of the countryside were betraying the ideals of The Balance, and the traditions of Mother Russia, but it was clear that they did not imagine for a moment that they were in any danger from their downtrodden serfs. However I was far from convinced that they were right.
I still walked the wards of The Free Hospital every week. After all those years of study I continued to find much to learn from the healers, whose enormous practical knowledge often sent my research in a new and useful direction. The Free Hospital was run by the monastery for the people of the city and anyone from the countryside who could manage to get there. I heard many angry stories in the wards, of the brutality of the Eastern City Guard, both in the city and the country, and of the resentment against the tax system, and the uncertainty of land tenure.
I was uneasy about these developments, but even more uneasy about Leonid's reaction. Unlike his family and their rich friends, he saw very clearly the direction in which his city was headed, but just like them, he was furious at what he saw as the people's betrayal of a way of life that he felt was ordained by the gods for all time. The wealthy of the city may have substituted comfort for piety in their own lives, but they saw no reason not to invoke The Way of the Spirit insofar as it upheld their very considerable rights and privileges.
That was the beginning of a winter of many bitter arguments. I began to see that the man I had loved and revered had feet of clay. All this time I had been in love with his brilliant mind. I had worshipped the intelligence, the soaring, vaunting intellect of him. I hadn't noticed that while his head rejected the petty conventions of his appalling family, at heart, he was still one of them. To retain his power was paramount to him, and he could not imagine any other life. At this point I would have left him had it not been for one circumstance: I was pregnant.
Leonid desperately wanted to pass on his glorious gifts to a son of his heart and mind. His children by his wife were a disappointment to him, as he knew they would be. Dull, unstimulated, spoiled by their mother who had no-one but her children to fill her life, they were frightened by his rare, tumultuous appearances, and he longed for a child he could mould after his own heart. He was convinced I was carrying a son for him. Poor Leonid, he could not see that he was becoming more and more conventional the older he became. Power and privilege can make a man afraid like that. Afraid to lose what he has not earned. Afraid that without power and privilege he may be not quite a man.
I was bound to him because of the child, and yes, still I loved him. The gods forgive me, I thought I could change him. If only, I thought, I could get him to leave with me and come back to The Island, I could show him that real power consists of balance, reverence, a bending of the intellect to the deep truths of nature and its limits. But Leonid's scathing contempt of both my plans and my ideals formed the backbone of the winter's disagreements.
Again I managed to forget my private woes by plunging myself into my work. For months I had been working with the healers, researching a mysterious virus that had been affecting an increasing number of patients at the Free Hospital. For over a year there had been cases of patients on the mend from a variety of complaints who had suddenly developed a mysterious condition where it seemed that their minds had been completely wiped clean. Some of the earlier cases had slipped into insanity and had died horribly in convulsions; lately they had slowly improved over a matter of months, but none of them had ever regained their former intelligence or personality. Their grieving families would take them home, but the most any of them were capable of was performing simple tasks under close supervision. I was desperate to find the cause of this disease, but was no nearer to resolving the mystery than when I started.
Then one night, Leonid came to me, grave, and triumphant. He was holding a tiny vial of amber liquid. “I have done it,” he breathed, “I have the solution to our situation.”
“What situation?” I asked stupidly, blinking at his air of incandescence.
“This... this stupidity!” Leonid spat, “The uprisings in the countryside, the threat of revolution. It's taken hundreds of years to build this province up to what it is today. This University, the hospitals, the research, the Arts, the culture – all of it painstakingly built by the people of this city – my people – over hundreds of years. And now I am expected to just stand back and let it go up in flames because a mob of unruly peasants wants more bread?”
“Leonid,” I said gently, “their children are going hungry. Not because of a hard winter or a lack of rain, but directly as a result of years of being bled dry by your people.” I could see this discussion returning down the well-worn road of every argument we had ever had, so instead I turned my attention to the vial in his hand.
“So how have you solved the problem?” I asked, “What is that?”
“This,” he breathed, “is what I have been working on for the last three years.” And he launched into a technical discussion which I followed with increasing alarm. It was brilliant, there was no doubt about it. It was a serum which would depress the higher order functions of the brain. It was like a chemical equivalent of a frontal lobotomy, but more subtle in its effects. It was an exquisite instrument of control.
I was shocked to the core, and all I could think of to say was, “How do you mean to use it?”
Leonid drummed his fingers on the table. “I have not quite worked out the details. It will need to be re-administered every six months for maximum efficacy. There is no difficulty about manufacturing the serum in quantity – there is nothing rare in its formulation; it is the process which requires delicate handling – but then we have all the equipment needed for that at the University. We could have a dedicated staff for that. The simplest form of administration would be via the water supply, but of course, that won't work in the countryside where everyone has their own well. Possibly we could spread plague rumours then announce a medical breakthrough and have a public health campaign administering doses to the population periodically. Of course, after the first dose it wouldn't really matter, they will be docile and biddable enough to return whenever we want them to.”
“You are going to drug the whole population?” I asked disbelievingly, “But how can you be talking about manufacture when it is not even tested yet? The Ethics Council will never let this near a human being.”
“You don't think I am going through the Ethics Council with this? That doddering collective of white-beards block every promising avenue of research out of sheer spite. No, I went straight to the executive of the City Council with this, and of course they realised its potential and authorised its immediate release for testing.”
I had a sudden chilling realisation. “You have been testing this on patients at The Free Hospital! I have spent more than a year desperately searching for a clue as to what has been happening in these cases. Some have died in agony. The remainder will spend the rest of their lives in a living death. And it was you all the time!” I was absolutely furious that Leonid had been using me as a pawn in his deadly game.
Leonid chuckled. “Yes, I have been keeping an eye on your research. Didn't even get close, did you? I was almost sure it was undetectable, and you confirmed that. If you couldn't find it, no-one can.”
“But Leonid, this is monstrous! You have ruined those minds forever.” I cast around for some kind of lever with which to appeal to his interests. “Don't you see that what you are proposing won't benefit the city at all? If you use that serum there will be no-one to farm or produce any of the goods you need for export. You haven't solved anything. These are intelligent people Leonid, who only want a secure future for their families. If you can find a fair solution for them and settle for less for the City, you can secure peace and enough for everyone into the future. You know that is the way of The Balance, and the only forward.”
Leonid sighed impatiently. “Unlike the inhabitants of your Island, Una, what we have here are peasants. They are not an extremist religious community dedicated to smug self-righteousness. They are grasping and violent, and out to bring down the City in any way they can. If I don't use the serum, our home, our culture, our lives will be destroyed. If I do use it, we can continue all of the good work we have been doing here at the University. Work and research that the world needs, Una.”
“But they are farmers, Leonid. I know farmers,” I was fighting back panic, “They need to make a hundred decisions every day. The weather, the earth, seasons for planting, the phases of the moon, care of sick animals, breeding for ..”
“Una, they are peasants, they farm by instinct, they are like animals. They feed pigs and plant wheat. None of it involves intellect. We just need them to keep doing what the gods designed them for instead of burning down the city.”
Now I had my arms wrapped around my chest and was rocking and gasping. Waves of nausea and homesickness crashed over me as I remembered my father with his weathered face and his big capable hands, helping a ewe with a difficult birth, calculating exactly the right day to bring in the wheat. This was the man, multiplied by the thousands, that Leonid wanted to destroy.
Leonid squatted down and awkwardly patted my back. “I just want to protect you and my son. I want to protect all of this,” he said, sweeping his hand at the lights of the city spread out before us, “protect our way of life. It is a good way of life, and I want to preserve it into the future.”
Leonid's long, sensitive hands cradled mine, his breath was on my cheek.
“I know,” I moaned, “but don't you see you want to preserve all of the wrong things?”
The next day I went to the University to see Anna. She found me crumpled over her table, head in hands.
“Told you then, has he?” she asked.
I was aghast. Leonid had assured me that apart from three men on the City Council, no-one else had any idea what he had been researching.
“Trouble with extremely clever people. They don't believe that us ordinary people have any intelligence at all. Leonid only ever makes book requests through me. Since he started getting secretive a few years ago I have read every book and research paper he has ordered. I have a pretty good idea what he is up to. Been doing some other research as well.”
She went away and returned with a stack of books and articles bristling with scraps of paper.
“Have a look at what I've marked.”
Anna, it appeared, had been making a meticulous study of every bioalchemist from the last two hundred years who had been researching along the same lines as Leonid. There were about a dozen in all who had made significant progress. But what was remarkable was that most of them had died during the course of their research.
Some by accident, some from natural causes. Two had died in horrible convulsions from a brain infection. Several had not died, but had been struck down by a mysterious malady which affected their memory and personality, and caused them to spend the rest of their lives in a near vegetative state.
I sat, stunned at that table for hours. I felt like my insides had been turned to stone.
“Gods weren't kind to them, were they?” asked Anna grimly, as she stacked up the books again, carefully removed all the bookmarks, and trotted back and forth returning the books unobtrusively to their various homes in the vaults.
For days and nights on end I paced restlessly in the University gardens, trying to come to terms with what the future held. I knew there was not much time. The gods had not allowed any of Leonid's predecessors to bring the serum to full fruition. No-one but Anna had ever seemed to notice that connection. And Leonid planned to use the serum soon. So little time. I lay at night listening to his breathing, as if waiting for it to stop. I memorised the planes of his face, the heaviness of his leg flung over mine in sleep, the long muscle of his forearm, the one tiny curl on the nape of his neck, that in all likelihood he didn't even know was there. This was the man I hated, loved. Despised, revered. The father of my child, the murderer of minds.
During one of my nights of pacing in the gardens Anna came to me, and gently led me to a bench surrounded by white flowers, impossibly sweet-smelling in the moonlight.
“Nothing you can do to change this future, Una,” she said roughly but kindly. “Gods will see it through, no doubt about it. Must just accept.”
I knew she was right, and made my preparations. I asked Anna to bring me one more set of records. She raised her eyebrows.
“This will take a little time,” she said. But eventually they were delivered to me, carefully hidden amongst a set of herbals, and returned the same way. I had done all I could, and now must prepare for the end. Of course I had told Leonid what I had discovered, hoping to divert his intent, and of course, he had just laughed. Leonid had no real belief in the power of the gods.
They found him dead at his desk at the university. Congenital heart failure, a common cause of death in his family. When his heart stopped, it felt like mine had as well. And yet, my limbs leapt into action as though I was being controlled like a puppet. Anna appeared as from nowhere as soon as the healers removed the body. She packed up his research papers and I went into the laboratories and replaced the whole stock of serum with a harmless copy I had manufactured. I made sure enough of his notes were missing that no more serum could be replicated, banking on the fact that Leonid's famously secretive nature would account for their disappearance.
As it happened, three members of the City Council did call on me the next day to question me closely about how much I knew about what Leonid was working on. All they seemed to know was that his plans were still in the testing phase. Apparently he had not yet revealed his triumph to them, which made my job much easier. I informed them dully that whatever it was that Leonid had been working on he had kept it from me, but that from his mood I had judged that it wasn't going well. The Council members left with grave faces.
Leonid's family ignored me in his death just as in his life, and I was not invited to his lavish funeral. I booked a passage on the next ship heading South, and begged Anna to come back with me to The Island.
“Appreciate the gesture,” she said, “but home, you know,” and she waved her hand around the University buildings. “Someone has to try and persuade my foolish family to see sense. Failing that, I'll save the books. Have a plan.” She turned to leave, but then came back and touched her rough old hand to my face.
“Nothing can change the will of the gods, you know. The Balance will always be restored. So sorry, my dear.”
“And so I returned to The Island,” ended Una. “Heartsick and seasick, feeling barely alive. I curled up in a corner of my father's house like a wounded animal for months. It was the birth of your mother that brought me back to life. Star.” Una's eyes softened. “If he had lived, Leonid would not have understood a single thing about his daughter, starting from his disbelief that she was a girl.” Una laughed. “Can you imagine a community that values only its male children? I swear Leonid's family chose only the most perverse customs to cling to from the past. But I named her in honour of him and his glorious mind. Foolish to the end I was, for was ever a child more misnamed? Star was a child of the soil, first and last. She brought the light back into my father's life, and gave him a reason to go on living, to pass down his skill and knowledge of the earth.”
There was silence for a long time as the moon climbed into the sky, full-bellied and orange in the north-east.
“Grandmother,” Gwenn asked carefully, “Why did you not tell your family about Leonid when you returned home to The Island? Wouldn't it have helped?”
“Because we are not at the end of the story yet.” Una said fiercely. “Because it is all my fault. His death, Star's death. All my fault.”
“But Grandmother, how could it be your fault? The gods took Leonid, and The Balance was restored, just as Anna said. And Mother died twenty six years later. None of it could possibly be your fault.”
“No, Gwenn. The gods didn't take Leonid. I did.”
“But Leonid died of an inherited heart condition! You said that yourself!”
“Gwenn, I was one of the world's pre-eminent scholars of bioalchemy. It wouldn't have mattered what condition I needed to mimic; I had all the skill and equipment I needed, right there to hand. Those last records I requested from Anna? The medical history of Leonid's family. She knew exactly what I was doing. Knew, and approved. Also sorrowed. For Leonid, and for all that was to come. Yes, the gods sometimes work mysteriously in their own ways, but more often I find that they point us in the direction of a difficult path.”
Gwenn sat for a moment, stunned and silent, her mind in turmoil. Eventually she asked, “So all those bioalchemists in the past, did they also have someone like... like you, to protect the world from their discoveries?”
“I believe so, Gwenn. People like me who weighed up the balance and made the unthinkable decision.”
“Then,” Gwenn hesitated again, “What did Anna mean then, about The Balance? If she knew that you had... how Leonid had died?”
“Anna knew that there is always a price that must be paid for a death. That The Balance must always be restored, even if the price is exacted from the innocent. And it was. Your mother, my own darling Star. She died of an inherited heart condition. The heart condition that everyone thought killed your grandfather. It was unthinkably fast. There was nothing I could do to save her. She died out in the fields, under the sky that she loved. But she was taken from me and from you and your father. I took a life, and a life was taken from me. The Balance was restored.”
“Is that... Leonid.. why you never practised bioalchemy again?”
“Yes. I had been given a great gift of knowledge and had used it to take a life. I couldn't trust myself with that power, so I decided to forsake it entirely.”
“Grandmother, what happened to Anna? The Eastern City was never destroyed by the revolutionaries, was it?”
Una spoke slowly, “Anna... was the saviour of the city. Do you remember how the monastery was filled with the unwanted members of the families of the city's elite? Never underestimate the quiet power of the marginalised. Anna shared her vision for the city with her colleagues. And they organised. An army of the meek, against two powerful forces, those who wanted to destroy the city, and those who wanted to protect their own privilege. For months they collected information from the members of the City Council. For who would bother to guard their tongue in front of an old aunt, or an insignificant poor cousin on a visit from the monastery?
When they had amassed a comprehensive dossier on the Council plans they went to the revolutionaries with it. As a token of their good faith they presented evidence of Leonid's research, together with the information that he had been... murdered... on behalf of the people of Eastern City Province, at Anna's instigation.”
As Gwenn turned a startled face towards her, Una nodded sadly, “Yes, I had been like clay in her hands. Anna's love for her city had made her desperate. And I was from The Island, young, impressionable, idealistic. The perfect instrument. But all of Anna's actions stemmed from one desire – to preserve what was good in the City. Principally, for Anna, that meant her books.
Her terms to the revolutionaries were simple. If they would enter into a treaty, agreeing that the City be put into the hands of emissaries of The Balance, she would hand over the dossier which would enable them to take the City with minimal losses. The revolutionaries were not happy at the idea of handing over the city but they had no choice. Anna had also outlined the Council's imminent plans to crush the countryside with an iron fist. They must prevent that at all costs. The treaty was signed, and a formal request made for The Island to send a delegation of spiritual emissaries to the Eastern City. I brought those documents back to The Island with me.
As you know, the Eastern City has continued to be a glorious seat of learning and research, and is now also a shining beacon for The Balance. Farming and working the earth are now valued and respected as they are here on The Island. Taxes are fair, and landlords now have responsibilities commensurate with their privilege. Many thousands of lives have been saved. Anna's legacy is no small thing...”
“And yet?” prompted Gwenn.
“Exactly, my dear. And yet. I have asked myself for many years – was it the gods, who are in all things, and who prompt all our ways who led me to do what I did, or was I merely the tool of a desperate woman? Is it even possible to divine an answer to that question? And yet, it haunts me. And Leonid and his extraordinary mind haunts me. So brilliant, and yet so blind. And here you are with your extraordinary mind, and a hunger in you just like Leonid.
But don't worry, dear one. You will not be blind. You have something that Leonid never had – roots that go down deep into the earth. You know the value of the tiny green shoot and every drop of rain.
And so here we are, at the end of the story. It doesn't feel like a moral tale that a grandmother should send with her beloved granddaughter into the wide world. But it is your story.”
Una was silent for some time, and then she smiled.
“Oh, and Gwenn, don't ever forget that you have something else that poor Leonid did not have.”
“What is that, Grandmother?”
“You can milk a goat.”
And laughing, then sighing, they walked together down the hill under the bright stars.