CHAPTER XI: NETTLE

A KREAN NOVEL

 
The Child of Spring   
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Introduction. Ker fell down the tree. Winter is summoned before the masters.
 

hen we are young and sensitive, we are also at our most hurtful. When the blood begins to slow, when we feel less sharply, when we have learnt how to bear hurt, we tread more carefully.

"You are a disgrace to the Way!"

"Compliments of the season to you too, Nettle." I am always maddeningly polite with her. I suppose I am still young and sensitive.

"Fine! Be like that. If Torrent is whom you wish to take after, then burn with him you shall!" From the way she said his name, you'd think I was consorting with demons, and sacrificed kittens in my spare time, by hitting them on the head with baby dolfolk.

Nettle and Torrent get along like dreamlice and dronomin, which is to say they get along like wooden houses and fire, screams and all. The long and short of it is that Nettle hates Torrent, and by proximity, Winter. I say this, of course, as a completely disinterested observer.

Yes, nettles are perhaps not the most affable plants of the forest, but you see, there is a way to handle them without getting stung. Once you take the time to look deeply rather than stamp around in wrathful protest (and I speak from experience), it dawns upon you rather quickly: As the needles grow in one direction (upward along the stalk, outward along the leaves), you simply need to make sure not to grasp in a way that rubs against the direction of growth.

Is this not what the Way teaches us, to observe and then follow the flow? I am not going to quote the Book of the Sea at you, but perhaps I may be allowed to paraphrase? If centuries of sailing ought to have taught the Gondolwain anything, it is this: No ship has sailed upwind by fighting the wind.

Torrent has done some observing of his own and has drawn a different conclusion: 'Gently touch a nettle and it'll sting you for your pains; grasp it as a lad of mettle and soft as silk it remains.' According to our resident (read: self-appointed) woodsman, if the nettle plant is clutched firmly rather than brushed against, it does not sting so readily, because the hairs are crushed down flat and cannot penetrate the skin, their zealotry having been quelled. He encourages me to try it some time.

I once explained to Torrent the many medicinal uses of nettles and their contribution to gardening everywhere in the hopes of showing that a blessing might be hidden in the most implacable of places: how the leaf is harvested to treat joint-bind; how some healers recommend the use of nettles to 'consume the phlegmatic superfluities in the body of man, which the coldness and moisture of winter has left behind'; how the dried powder can staunch the flow of blood from small cuts; how, sprayed over foliage, nettle extract deters pests and prevents fungal disease... He listened and took this as confirmation of his long-held conviction that the only way to derive any benefit from the irascible plant was to crush it. Not quite the point I was trying to make, but then that's the problem with metaphors. (Of course the leaves and root can also be boiled for a decidedly nutritious puree, but I believe I neglected to mention this at the time, lest it give him ideas.)

"What were you THINKING, Winter!?" She was now practically screeching, which is never a pleasant sound.

"Did you have a particular time-frame in mind, Nettlesai?"

"Excuse me?"

"I sometimes have more than one thought in a week. It would help if we could narrow the window of review, so I can pinpoint which thought you had in mind."

"Torrent has corrupted you," she said. "How can you jest about this? Shameful!"

Following Cloud's eminent example, I looked at my feet and feigned remorse. I may have shuffled a bit too. Maybe nudged the dirt with my right toe.

"What say you? Have you nothing to say in your defence? Say something!"

"I really couldn't say. I don't know what I'm accused with yet."

"You can't allow them to climb trees! They're children, Winter!"

"Better to climb trees when grey with age then?" I said this with my best Grass-voice. I also made sure to open my eyes wide in surprise, with as much innocence as a white-tailed fawn drinking his first dewdrop. All in all I think it was a sterling imitation, if I do say so myself.

"You think I'm doing this out of spite," she said. "Ah yes, the belligerent Nettle. There she goes again!" She thumbed through her rosary. I wondered what she was reciting. Twelve beads later she said, "Do you think I like being hated? I know the things you all say behind my back."

I paused for a while, my eyes closed, and contemplated. When I opened them again I cupped her hands in mine, "I have never spoken ill of you Nettle, to your face or otherwise."

"No, you have not." This seemed to make her angrier. She shook my hands off and assaulted the prayer beads again. I pitied them for the endless hours of abuse endured in silence. I often wonder, if our possessions could speak of us, what would they say? "You think you're any better? Oh yes, you're always so polite with me." The beads were orbiting at a feverish pace. "Know this: Politeness is not kindness."

I paused again and looked at her, at her face flushed with fury, at her hands, at the thumb flicking through the prayer beads, a part of her mind reciting at running-bird speeds even as she spoke. I instinctively reached for her hands again, but thought better of it and let my arms fall.

"Perhaps I have been unkind." I said. I watched a cloud drift past.

"You're cold, Winter. Distant."

I shrugged. "I don't get attached to one outcome."

"Oh no. This is not about detachment. Your problem is that you don't care about anyone - about anything."

"That is not true."

"Ah yes - the Flow. Winter cares about the Flow, we all know. And that is the only thing he cares about."

I stood, and listened. I once heard someone say of two lovers that they were like damp wood that won't catch fire. That they might shout, they might fight, but they could not stay angry with each other. I liked that phrase a lot.

The Way of Wind and Water. I thought of those lovers. I thought of the Way. I suppose it is true. I cannot stay angry at anything for long. Perhaps all these years following the Way has moulded me into something similar. Damp wood that won't catch fire.

I thought of the Way. The Way of Wind and Water. I thought of those lovers. Perhaps all these years following the Way has moulded me into something similar. I cannot stay angry at anything for long. Damp wood that won't catch fire.

"I'm confused, Nettle. I don't understand what you would have of me. First, you scold me for not taking the Way seriously, then you reproach me for caring too much about Flow."

"Well, let me tell you something: There is much more to the Way than Flow."

"The Way is the way of Flow. And Flow means following the Way."

"You are twisting the words!"

"Am I?" I stared at her hard. She held the stare. I felt the blood rise in my ears. I've had enough of your pig-headedness for one day! The tides of wrath receded. Damp wood.

"Perhaps I am." I conceded to her the possibility. I shrugged and smiled. "Do we not all twist what we see into what we understand? Perhaps it's inevitable. I wonder sometimes: Do we read the lines on the page, or do we each read ourselves into the lines?" I smiled again. "Well, let's just say then this is what I understand from the words and leave it at that."

"What you understand from the words! The arrogance! The question isn't what you understand from the words - it is: what do the words mean?" The rosary changed hands. "Let them hate me. Someone needs to do the right thing. And if I don't - who will?"

Torrent thinks I'm too gentle with her. But how could I not be? I understand. She has devoted herself to the life of the monk. And she works harder at it then the rest of us combined. Credit where credit is due: She is inexhaustible. I think she would have done so well at a more muscular religion. She is practically a one woman army.

How it must madden her, that the Flow comes to me so effortlessly. That in fact, I was born with the Gift. They call us Gifted, those born with natural magical ability. But do our gifts define us, make us who we are?

Once, when we were much younger, at the end of a teaching, as Master Kao was going out the door, Orange asked him what Flow felt like, just as Nettle asked what could be done to open it faster in one. He simply said, "The Flow is like writing in Ancient Krean." He then patted them both on the head and went to the mountain. Two questions with one aphorism, as is often his way. Nettle took this as encouragement to double her efforts. It was hard to open into Flow, she was on the right path, she must just persevere. After all, Ancient Krean calligraphy is known to be difficult. Infamously so.

It is said to be "difficult" to master the art of Krean writing, but this means only that the art must grow on you over many years. Most people use the word "difficult" for tasks which require extreme force or effort, tasks over which we must perspire, grunt, and groan. But the difficulty of writing Krean with the brush is to make the brush write by itself.

"We do what we think is right," I said. "Our interpretation often differs, but I don't resent you for it Nettle. I think that's what the Way teaches - flow with what is."

"What do you know of the Way!" I looked at her face, and wondered why I aroused so much disgust in her. "In truth, I doubt you know anything about the Flow either. No," she said. "You don't know the Flow - you can't know it. Flow comes naturally for you. But to really know something, you must work for it. You must put in the effort to figure it out, to conquer it. Think: Who teaches better? The singer born with perfect pitch, whose voice hits all the right notes without any effort on her part, or one who has worked her way through it - and can therefore pass the craft on? Compare the two skills: The first, like the Gift, is a mindless thing - like the mindless instincts of animals. The second is born from true understanding."

"Does the swimmer know more about swimming than the fish?" I considered my words for a moment. "Perhaps he does. Who knows?" I shrugged again.

"I hate it when you do that. I swear, if you shrug one more time, I'm going to tie your shoulders together with this!" The rosary bobbed up and down menacingly. "Just as I said: Cold. Distant." She exorcised an exasperated mouthful of breath. I watched her cheeks inflate with the rushing air. "In any case, you miss the point. Your fault is not that you care about the Flow - it is that you do not care about anything else." She exorcised another spirit.

"All this -" She swept a hand across the air. The beads rattled against each other. "Us, the monastery, the battle below - they are all ripples in a dream pool to you. You just watch them go by."

"Nettle, let it be all right. This is my last year here. In a few months, I will head south to Nybelmarasa." She jerked her hands away, but I'm faster. I cupped them and patted them on the back a few times. "Soon you won't have the distraction of correcting my crooked ways. Then you can devote yourself entirely to the teachings."

She broke loose. I almost checked my hands for the tell-tale white blisters. But names should not be taken too far. After all, I have not frozen anyone to death. Yet.

Incorrigible Nettle, always following the worst paths for the best reasons in the world! Hers was a strange sort of cowardice: she was ready to risk her life, but not her soul. And it was this pious cowardice which was at the origin of all her petty actions.

"I don't care if it is your last day on the Disk. You have disgraced the Way and you must answer for it." She smiled triumphantly. "I have requested a gathering of the masters."

"Have you lost your mind entirely? You've gone way overboard this time." I shook my head, as if to shake the nonsense I was hearing out of my ears. "This is too much. Even for you, Nettle!"

"Ah, finally something rattles the unshakable Winter!" The prayer beads continued to swirl. "Are you afraid? Good."

"Nettle, there is nothing to fear. No cardinal sin to answer for. That is my point."

"The sacrosanct Winter! The boy who, told not to wet his shoes, lifted the river and crossed under it. That was when you discovered you were Gifted, wasn't it? I remember. You were six." The dance of the spheres carried on. "You know, I always thought you ought to have frozen the river and walked over it. Would have been more fitting." The rosary revolved, faster and faster. I wanted to snatch it out of her hand and hurl it down the mountain. Then it stopped with the finality with which she does everything. The momentum carried the chain and wrapped it around her arm, from wrist to shoulder, like a snake waiting to strike. "Don't think you are untouchable just because you have the Gift, because you can enter Flow."

"Nettle, they haven't slept." The memory of two processions from the morning before came to me. "Master Kao just came back an hour ago. They worked all night - is Master Riversong even back yet?" The tide rose again and receded. When I spoke, my voice was calm, if somewhat cold. A mountain stream in the last days of winter, before spring has broken through. "Nettle, for once in your life, put things in perspective."

Let them rest. I did not understand what she could possibly hope to accomplish. She would be lucky if even three of them showed up. Aunt Winn would be there, to humour her. And maybe Master Kao. Perhaps Master Seastone as well, but I doubted it.

"Have you even visited the boy since?"

"Have you?" I said.

Of the two people here, one of them had not. And it was not me.

"Remember Sunrest?" she asked.

"Yes, what of him?"

"Tell me what you remember."

"He left before he took the vows. I was seven." I recalled times past. "Funny. We used to think he would become the youngest master White Mountain had seen in three centuries, since Mistbringer. I remember Orange and I betting on whether he would overtake her in the monastery's history."

"He did not leave. He was banished."

"I heard the rumours."

"Do you know why he was banished?"

"No one knows, Nettle."

There was a glint in her eyes. The prayer beads resumed their laborious revolution, patiently this time.

"I know."

We went up and went in. I could not believe what I saw.

All the masters were there.
 


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