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Blue Horses and The Rain in Portugal

October 21, 2018

Two of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver and Billy Collins, are getting old. They keep trying to do the same things they’ve always done, seemingly effortlessly, and those same things aren’t working as well anymore.

In Blue Horses, Mary Oliver gets right to the heart of the matter in a poem entitled “I don’t want to be demure or respectable” when she tells the reader “listen to me or not, it hardly matters./I’m not trying to be wise, that would be foolish./I’m just chattering.” While that kind of self-deprecation may have worked, years ago, it doesn’t work here, following questions that are hardly even shadows of the kinds of interesting questions Oliver used to be able to raise. The poet who asked “doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon” in “The Summer’s Day” from her 1992 volume House of Light is here reduced to asking “why do I have so many thoughts, they are driving me crazy.”

Perhaps she thinks her previous record allows her to spout inanities now, like
“I don’t care how many angels can
Dance on the head of a pin. It’s
Enough to know that for some people
They exist, and that they dance.”
It’s not enough, Mary. The rest of this poem, entitled “Angels,” reminds me of some of the skeezier inspirational literature my parents read right before my father died, trying to hold onto the hope that there is something beyond death.

It seems like this poet is ready to retire, to take more naps and
“wake up finally
thinking, how wonderful to be who I am,
made out of earth and water,
my own thoughts, my own fingerprints—
all that glorious, temporary stuff.”

Similarly, with The Rain in Portugal, Billy Collins has gone past accessible and charming into trivial and vapid, musing about things like why a cat will never stay where you put it and advising his readers to “never bet against the cat but on the cat/preferably with another human being/who, unlike the cat, is likely to be carrying money.”

He is also musing on what happens after he dies: “Much will continue to occur after I die/Seems to be the message here.”

The kind of moment where Billy would call readers’ attention to something that happens every day and propose a new way of looking at it is missing in this volume, replaced with pointless discursiveness or a return to traditional form as a way to recapture some of his elusive former charm, as in “Predator”:

It takes only a minute
to bury a wren.
Two trowels full of dirt
and he’s in.

The cat at the threshold
sits longer in doubt
deciding whether
to stay in or go out.

Here, the brevity and rhyme are actually quite charming, but the poem leaves me with an image of the speaker as the kind of old man who spends his day watching the antics of his cat and painstakingly taking care of the kind of stuff that a busier and more physically able person would toss off as they turn to do something else.

That’s my advice on reading these later volumes—toss them away, and keep the older ones. Let the aged poets sleep and putter peacefully, and let us remember the days of their glory.

 

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Give the Dark My Love

October 15, 2018

Give the Dark my Love, by Beth Revis, is the newest entry in the growing number of young adult books about a teenage necromancer. Thoroughly conventional in its presentation of necromancy, this book creates suspense about whether the end can justify the means and then answers that question conventionally, with a “no.”

This teenage necromancer is named Nedra and she is from an alternate universe where doctors practice what’s known as “medicinal alchemy,” including being able to take the pain from an injured person and put it into a rat or other animal, or as a last resort even into the alchemist’s own self (which can bring an abrupt end to the treatment if the alchemist loses consciousness). Nedra has come from a remote island to a big city to study medicinal alchemy so she can save her family and neighbors from a plague that has been spreading.

Bad news, though. It’s not a regular plague but a (gasp) necromantic plague. And the only thing that can fight necromancy, it seems, is…more necromancy. Even though it’s forbidden. Nedra’s motives are pure, though, unlike the motives of other necromancers. She is motivated by love rather than ambition. In a history study session, when Nedra is learning about the actions of a historical necromancer, she speaks up to say “if he wanted to rebel before the winter wiped out so many colonists, then he was always a necromancer, just awaiting an opportunity….But if the death of so many colonists was the reason why he wanted to rebel, then he became a necromancer in response to the tragedy around him.” Another student responds by saying “it doesn’t matter. Either way, he crossed a line when he used alchemy to raise corpses to fight his battles….We all know necromancy is wrong.”

Knowing that it’s wrong doesn’t stop Nedra, of course. The first time she tries to bring a dead person back to life, she says “my entire being was repulsed by the feeling of Death taking up residence in my body, gnawing at me….And yet…I craved it. It had infected me with its insatiable hunger. I wanted more.”

Even the horror of her fellow student and boyfriend, Greggori, can’t bring Nedra to her senses, even when he snarls at her “you can’t be learning necromancy! This isn’t just against the rules. This is illegal. And…wrong.” Even her teacher’s revelation that “the necromancer does have to give up something. Health. Blood. Something” doesn’t bring her to her senses.

The necromancy starts, as it almost always does, with the wish to bring back a loved one, Nedra’s identical twin sister. When Greggori asks why she has brought back the dead, mansplaining that “you can’t give them life. Not really,” Nedra retorts that the people she has brought back to life “didn’t ask for life. They asked for more time.”

Even once the evil necromancer who spread the plague is dead, however, Nedra can’t give up her army of revenants. Although Greggori pleads with her, saying “you know it’s not natural to be a necromancer. You know that these….They’re not normal. Let them go back to their graves. Let them be at peace,” Nedra replies “No….They’re mine” and makes a dramatic exit, setting up a sequel. My only question is whether Nedra will be able to fully embrace her beautiful wickedness between this exit and her next entrance, in another book of what is obviously set up as a series.

 

Belief in Magic

October 10, 2018

This past weekend I left the country while my Ohio Senator, Rob Portman, who regularly votes for party over country, voted to put Brett Kavanaugh in a lifetime seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

43436618_10215668696143519_8958177653370650624_nWe had a weekend trip planned, to Niagara-on-the-lake, where we met some friends who live in Toronto for wine tasting, food eating, and play going. We saw The Magician’s Nephew, Grand Hotel, and Oh What a Lovely War. I love it when we’re able to go to several shows because it’s fun to see some of the same actors playing different roles, like the one who played a strong and evil queen in the matinee of The Magician’s Nephew turned into a fragile has-been ballerina in Grand Hotel that same evening. The satire, Oh What a Lovely War, featured music hall songs from the WWI era (including “Oh! It’s a Lovely War” and “Pack Up Your Troubles in your Old Kitbag”) and disturbing historical parallels, especially the war profiteer companies and their attitude towards human cannon fodder.

43399564_10215675075703004_2545355923514195968_nMy friends who now live in Toronto are from Arkansas, and when we headed back across the Canadian border on Sunday evening, it was hard not to think about the people trying desperately to get to Canada in The Handmaid’s Tale and worry a little about the possibility that it’s a mistake to return to a country whose “leaders” should be “representatives” but are not even listening to the people who voted for them. My hope is that more of the young people in this country will use the power of their votes this November.

My other hope is that “belief” will become less important, or at least less talked-about. It doesn’t really matter if I “believe” in climate change, whether a girl was assaulted, or that the Declaration of Independence was written with a feather, as Dean Young puts it in this poem:

Belief in Magic

How could I not?
Have seen a man walk up to a piano
and both survive.
Have turned the exterminator away.
Seen lipstick on a wine glass not shatter the wine.
Seen rainbows in puddles.
Been recognized by stray dogs.
I believe reality is approximately 65% if.
All rivers are full of sky.
Waterfalls are in the mind.
We all come from slime.
Even alpacas.
I believe we’re surrounded by crystals.
Not just Alexander Vvedensky.
Maybe dysentery, maybe a guard’s bullet did him in.
Nonetheless.
Nevertheless
I believe there are many kingdoms left.
The Declaration of Independence was written with a feather.
A single gem has throbbed in my chest my whole life
even though
even though this is my second heart.
Because the first failed,
such was its opportunity.
Was cut out in pieces and incinerated.
I asked.
And so was denied the chance to regard my own heart
in a jar.
Strange tangled imp.
Wee sleekit in red brambles.
You know what it feels like to hold
a burning piece of paper, maybe even
trying to read it as the flames get close
to your fingers until all you’re holding
is a curl of ash by its white ear tip
yet the words still hover in the air?
That’s how I feel now.

So many hard-to-believe things have already happened. What matters now is what we do; the Big Lie or the medium-sized lie only matters if we act on it.

Don’t talk to me about your beliefs or your feelings. Talk to me only about what you are doing.

Exit Strategy

October 4, 2018

Yesterday, after a long day on campus, I came home to find the new Murderbot book waiting for me in the mailbox. This is a fourth one in the series by Martha Wells, entitled Exit Strategy. What a good evening it was.

What a good book it is, from the very first sentence: “when I got back to HaveRatton Station, a bunch of humans tried to kill me. Considering how much I’d been thinking about killing a bunch of humans, it was only fair.” Since we know that it calls itself “Murderbot” in protest at the function humans intended for it, we know that what it’s saying has an ironic twist from the start.

This adventure begins with more action and less about the Murderbot’s personality. Its cyber parts are in control, even of the metaphors: “Since Ship was a minimum capacity bot pilot and had all the brains and personality of a heat shield generator…”

We find that it has not only learned from its previous adventures, but “all this coding and working with different systems on the fly had opened up some new neural pathways and processing space.” Also it has salvaged weapons from the bad guys who were shooting at it in the previous book and learned how to better defend itself: “So now I was not only a rogue unit, I was a rogue unit carrying a weapon designed to shoot armored security. Which is just playing to the humans’ expectations, I guess.”

The Murderbot stays in various hotels in the course of this adventure, and humans might be surprised to learn about all the different ways these hotels accomplish datamining of what the inhabitants say. In one hotel “the mining was only on the conversations in the public areas and corridors” and the Murderbot examines “one of the routines that was processing (it was separating out the boring bits from the juicy business conversations that would need to be sent to a human or bot monitor for review).” In hotels with free wifi in the lobby, the Murderbot discovers that “everywhere but in the lobby, the hotel had its own secured feed, which it charged extra to access. To encourage use, the hotel was choking the public feed.” Although the rooms are not supposed to be monitored, the Murderbot puts on background noise “as chaff for a suspicious monitor that the hotel might be using to record inside the rooms, even though the booking agreement certified complete in-room privacy.” The murderbot also assumes that facial recognition scans are routine in the public areas of the hotels in this near future.

This adventure turns on the intricacies of corporate greed, dishonest negotiations and, eventually, outright warfare. At one point the Murderbot observes that “disinformation, which is the same as lying but for some reason has a different name, is the top tactic in corporate negotiation/warfare.” Murderbot manages to rescue the first team of humans she protected, including Dr. Mensah, and catches them up on her adventures, telling them that she has “successfully impersonated two different groups of humans” and thinking “Impersonated is a weird word….Im-person-ated.”

The personality of the Murderbot—now there’s another weird word—starts to come out in the second half of the adventure, when it’s with Dr. Mensah again. At one point, when they are running for their lives and trying not to look like it (so attempting to have a casual conversation while the Murderbot is busy dealing with security feeds and alerts), Dr. Mensah asks why it likes its favorite serial so much and the Murderbot replies “it’s the first one I saw…it made me feel like a person.” Then it thinks “yeah, that last part shouldn’t have come out, but with all the security-feed monitoring I was doing, I was losing control of my output. I closed my archive. I really needed to get around to setting that one-second delay on my mouth.” But Dr. Mensah persists, asking why watching the serial made the Murderbot feel that way. It thinks “It gave me context for the emotions I was feeling” and then says
“’It kept me company without…’
‘Without making you interact?’ she suggested.
That she understood even that much made me melt. I hate that this happens, it makes me feel vulnerable. Maybe that was why I had been nervous about meeting Mensah again, and not all the other dumb reasons I had come up with. I hadn’t been afraid that she wasn’t my friend, I had been afraid that she was, and what it did to me.”

During a battle, the Murderbot offers to hack another SecUnit’s governor module and set it free, telling it “I hacked mine….You’d be free of them. You could dump your armor, get on a transport. This had started as a way to distract it, but the more I talked the more I wanted it to say yes. I have IDs, a currency card I can give you. Still no response. Diving around hauler bots and dodging projectiles, it was hard to come up with a decent argument for free will.” It does not say yes, however; the Murderbot is unique.

When Dr. Mensah observes that “we tend to think that because a bot or a construct looks human, its ultimate goal would be to become human” the Murderbot replies “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” And after that, when the Murderbot gets to meet Dr. Mensah’s daughter, she says “so, you’re a SecUnit….Is that…weird?” And the Murderbot replies, saying “It was a complicated question with a simple answer. ‘Yes.’”

This last book in the Murderbot series, Exit Strategy, is a deeply satisfying ending to a fascinating and well-written series of adventures.

 

Cordelia’s Honor

October 3, 2018

Previously published separately as Shards of Honor and Barrayar, Cordelia’s Honor, by Lois McMaster Bujold, is the first (or a prequel) novel in the science fiction series known as the Vorkosigan Saga. One morning last week I saw that some of my friends were discussing this series (on Facebook) and asked them which one I should start with. This resulted in one of them delivering a copy of Cordelia’s Honor to me on campus, and my subsequent devouring of the book anytime I had a few minutes.

The meeting of Cordelia and Aran Vorkosigan as enemies on a planetary battlefield while their respective ships play cat and mouse outside the planet’s atmosphere shows that they are equals and have respect for each other. Cordelia is Betan, from a survey ship, while Aran is military, from a Barrayan battleship. As they discuss how they came to be alive on the planet, Cordelia says “I thought I had command troubles just keeping a bunch of Betan intellectual prima donnas working together for months on end. God keep me from politics” and Aran Vorkosigan replies “from what I’ve heard of Betans, that’s no easy task either. I don’t think I should care to trade commands. It would irritate me to have every order argued over.”

Even though they are on different sides, they continue to meet and work together to keep loss of life to a minimum in the conflicts they’re involved in. At their third meeting, after the death of a twisted sadist who Cordelia says “made me feel like I’d met the ultimate in evil,” Aran Vorkosigan confides in her that “the really unforgivable acts are committed by calm men in beautiful green silk rooms, who deal death wholesale, by the shipload, without lust, or anger, or desire, or any redeeming emotion to excuse them but cold fear of some pretended future. But the crimes they hope to prevent in that future are imaginary. The ones they commit in the present—they are real.” That sounds uncomfortably true today, on our own planet, doesn’t it? Later he says something that sounds even more true for us today, on Earth, in the United States of America: “A Caligula…can rule a long time, while the best men hesitate to do what is necessary to stop him, and the worst ones take advantage.”

The Betans offer a neat answer to our still-ongoing abortion debate, using “uterine replicators” to return fetuses resulting from the rape of Betan women by Barrayan soldiers. When Vorkosigan asks what he is supposed to do with them, the medtech replies: “thought you were going to make our women answer that question, did you?….Personally, I’d suggest you hang them around their fathers’ necks. The paternal gene complements are marked on each one, so you should have no trouble telling who they belong to.”

Cordelia’s Betan attitude towards Barrayan customs also seems quite timely, in the wake of the Kavanaugh hearings:
“True Betan, she had always considered a double standard of sexual behavior to be a logical impossibility. Dabbling now on the fringes of Barrayan high society in Vorkosigan’s wake, she began to finally see how it could be done. It all seemed to come down to impeding the free flow of information to certain persons, preselected by an unspoken code somehow known to and agreed upon by all present but her. One could not mention sex to or in front of unmarried women or children. Young men, it appeared, were exempt from all rules when talking to each other, but not if a woman of any age or degree were present.”
That last “but” seems to be disappearing from public life in the U.S. in the last couple of years.

There is adventure, with political intrigue and unrest and fighting, and a culminating rescue, complete with a dramatic delivery of the severed head of the enemy to announce the end of the war.

Near the end there’s a wedding, and a lovely description of how Cordelia and Aral dance together:
“Step, slide, gesture: concentrating, she made an interesting and unexpected discovery. Either partner could lead, and if the dancers were alert and sharp, the watchers couldn’t tell the difference. She tried some dips and slides of her own, and Aral followed smoothly. Back and forth the lead passed like a ball between them, the game growing ever more absorbing, until they ran out of music and breath.”

And at the very end there’s a birth. We meet Cordelia and Aral’s son Miles, whose adventures comprise the rest of the saga. I’ve already found a copy of the book that comes next, The Warrior’s Apprentice.

 

Quick Fire

September 28, 2018

With the weight of the testimony and tantrums going on during the Kavanaugh hearing hanging over our heads, I’m not the only woman in America who hears drums, drums in the deep. Who is thinking how eerily plausible suspending the constitution seems as a next step, when everyone is staying home watching television and feeling afraid. Last night Ron even made a joking comment that was meant to be reassuring but actually echoed what Luke said to June in the same situation, when people didn’t think things would go that far.

What can we do when it feels like the pillars of democracy are being pulled down around us, one by one? And yet life goes on. We still use dishtowels, like the one June–by then called Offred–sees in the kitchen of her Commander’s house. We still have work to do and bills to pay. We still read books, even though much of our formerly free time is taken up with political action. I’m starting to wonder whether it’s almost too late even for that, with the mounting evidence about election interference and voter suppression.

A friend of mine sent me a volume of poetry recently, Quick Fire, by Allyson Horton. When I first read it, I liked the short poems best:
Morning After Aubade
Kiss me good morning
serve me breakfast in bed I
want leftover you

This morning, however, I liked some of the short ones less well because there’s already so much division in public life that squabbling among those who ought to be on the same side is rubbing me the wrong way:
America will
always walk with a limp must
be her Wounded Knee

The anger in the poem about Susan Smith, entitled “S.S.” is even more revealing, though, on a morning like this. The description of the “pin-striped playboy/who made it beyond clear he did not want/any children” is powerful, juxtaposed with the image of the woman who “would call his bluff./Grant his unuttered wish. Eject from her womb/every trace of blood.”

On a morning like this, too, the upset stomach feeling in the poem “Full Moon Morning” is familiar, and reassuring in the way that seeing life does not always go on while you’re feeling a terrible loss can be:

“On the television, a Hispanic
Anchorwoman reports: the death of Trayvon Martin is still

Under investigation. Awaiting further unrest, I pour myself a mug
Of green tea instead of French Roast. Ever cautiously, take a sip.

My stomach becomes a grave reminder of Emmett Till,
Amadou Diallo, Christopher Wallace—all murdered.”

It’s only the anger, in poems like “How to Kill a Cop With Kindness,” that really rings true to me today. The command to “just throw your hands in the air & wave ‘em like you just don’t/want to be too far ahead of schedule for your own/funeral” has more resonance as the numbers of people already killed keep piling up.

IMG_1962And the final poem, “Home,” is a beautiful and defiant one to end with, especially for those of us who call the middle of the country home. This is one of the most beautiful times of year in the midwest. People are still spending time outside, the sun is shining more than it does at other times of year, trees and undergrowth are turning brilliant colors, and everything that can, like this autumn azalea, is getting in a few more weeks of blooming in the last of the warmth.

“Home” is a long poem (double-spaced in Quick Fire), but I’m going to put it here in its entirety because reading it makes me feel a little better and maybe it will work that way for you, too.

Home
is where the wheat is
the sweet is of yellow corn
the vastness of virile plains
plunge & plow of tractors grinding
through thick soil; glacial sands, gravel, clay
producing fertile rows of fragrant harvest
signature as a Midwest skyline.
Home
is where the stretch of long road
smiles & smiles for emerald miles
where an abundance of local crops
choir crisp hymns in the rustic breeze      gently chant
praises of cha-ching      spit tufts of dirt
in the wind all eyes & ears pointing
toward the trough of bastard children
threatening to change the landscape
validating the question—Hoosier Daddy?
Yes, home of the jokes
That aren’t funny like Indiananoplace.
Like a basketball league of Negro
men labeled Indianapolis Clowns.
Like a reservation of sacred mounds
of charred Redskins belonging to Natives & Chiefs
whose roots be thicker than indigenous
lines drawn between wigwams & tepees.
Buried narratives idiomatic as Indian-ah.
Home
is where we have yet to reap all that has been sown
in the scalps of ancient memory
& on tongues of sun-dried bodies
dangling from blood-smudged photos
poloroiding klansmen, women
& owl-eyed offspring
Learning the ropes.
Home
is where cross the tracks my parents
were educating me about ropes.
Today, I travel light when roaming
these historic parts of my beloved state      like Martinsville
where a Black female student en route to IU
can still stand face to face with sundown
signs: warning shots alerting my kind
that I’s gon be need’n to hightail it, after dark
making Indiana
home of the “good lookin out” incentives.
Home of an ongoing campaign
to promote “reading” among minority youth
& home of the introduction on how to decipher
20th century American “sign” language,
but I have since learned how to burrow through
blurred perimeters      small-minded geography
where luminous night star & crossroads burn
clear. Tracking footprints of refugee
sharecroppers has landed me here
where I, too, have decided to plant my feet
in the heart of the capital’s sky-scraping potential
so when one of my girlfriends living in D.C.
asks why I continue to relate to “such a conservative
state like Indiana” as Home
I simply tell her—border for border
it is the only place I trust.

IMG_1964

 

Spinning Silver

September 24, 2018

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik, is set in the same long-ago Russian-flavored world as Uprooted. It’s a fairy tale, part Rumplestiltskin, as the beginning makes clear, telling a cynical version of the tale having to do with getting out of paying your debts. By the end, however, the cynicism is gone. Promises, debts, and thanks are beside the point when true love, the safety of one’s own family, and the welfare of entire countries are on the table. The ending is so lovely that I stayed up much too late to reach it with my eyes leaking. This was just the kind of book I needed, to give me hope in a cynical September.

There are three narrators, all of them girls of a marriageable age, one poor, one in the process of becoming comfortably well off, and one rich. We see the events of the story through their eyes in turn, switching from one to another with no identification except what is in front of us, so we keep finding ourselves looking at something and it takes a few sentences to establish whose eyes we are seeing through.

We begin seeing this world with Miryem, the Jewish daughter of a moneylender who is too soft-hearted to collect on debts from his neighbors, so his wife is sick and his daughter is cold and hungry. When the daughter, Miryem, decides to take over the business, they begin to prosper and her mother gets well. Miryem’s reputation causes a creature from a frozen fairy world, the Staryk, to show up and demand she turn his silver into gold, which she does by taking it to a rich man who pays her for a ring and then a necklace and crown made out of the fairy silver. The rich man gives the silver to his daughter, Irina, so he can marry her to the Tsar.

Miryem demands a price for transforming silver into gold three times, and the Staryk King promises to make her his Queen, which he eventually does, although grudgingly and while continuing to hold her at arm’s length, as one who knows not what kind of bargain she has made. Miryem is nothing if not enterprising, however, and she makes it her business to find out.

Wanda is the daughter of an abusive drunk who is in debt to Miryem’s father and so is allowed to work off his debt in their household. Miryem’s family is kind to Wanda and her brothers, Sergey and Stepon, and eventually, when Wanda and Sergey have to flee the village, Miryem’s parents take in the younger brother.

All of these stories come together as Wanda refuses to marry the oaf her father tries to sell her to, Irina marries the Tsar, Mirnatius, whose secret is that he is inhabited and controlled by a fire demon, and Miryem marries the Staryk, whose secrets she is intent on discovering by asking three questions each evening. Although the Staryk terrifies her, Miryem controls her fear by telling herself:
“But it was all the same choice, every time. The choice between the one death and all the little ones. The Staryk was glaring at me, unearthly and terrifying. But what was the use of being afraid of him? For all his magic and all his strength, he couldn’t kill me any more thoroughly than Oleg would have, crushing the breath from my throat in the snow. And if I made him angry enough to do it, he wouldn’t hold back for all the pleading in the world, any more than Oleg would have stopped because I’d begged for mercy in the woods. I couldn’t buy my life in the last moment, with hands around my throat. I could only buy it by giving in sooner, giving in all the time, like Scheherazade, humbling asking my murderous husband to go on sparing me night after night.”

Irina and Miryem hatch an intricate plot to save their own lives, save the people of their kingdom (called Lithvas) from political machinizations and endless winter, protect all those they love, and by the way let the Tsar’s fire demon have the Staryk King.

Along the way Wanda, who had learned some of the “magic” of numbers and letters in her time at Miryem’s house, learns to knit by way of a magic connection with Irina’s beloved nanny Magreta in a witch’s house:
“It had a pattern in it now, a beautiful design like a raised vine with flowers that I could feel with my fingers….I unraveled some of it to try and see how the picture was made, but each line was so different, the stitches changed so much from one to another, and I couldn’t see how to remember which one was next. Then I thought, of course, it was magic. I took a stick out of the fireplace with one end charred, and I used the magic that Miryem had taught me. I started at the beginning of the vine in the first row, and I counted how many of a stitch there was in a row, and I wrote down that number, and if it was a forward stitch, I put a mark above it, and if it was a backwards stitch, I put a mark below. I had to make some other arks too, when stitches were brought together, or added. I had to make my numbers small as if I were writing in Miryem’s book. There were thirty rows all different before I came back to the first one.
But when I was done, I had the whole picture there on the floor, turned into numbers.”

The witch’s house is one of my favorite parts of this book. The witch is gone, and even the Staryk King doesn’t know where or when. Her house exists on the border of the mortal land where Lithvas is and the frozen Staryk land. Irina’s fairy silver allows her to pass into Staryk land where she hides Magreta in the house for a while, while Wanda and Sergey use the house they find in Lithvas as a shelter, paying it back for the food and warmth it provides them with labor, like chopping firewood and knitting bedclothes. The witch never returns; there is no one to judge whether their labor is adequate recompense for the magic. Everyone just does their best to pay forward the favors they have received.

The Staryk and Miryem gradually come to an agreement about her worth and what they owe each other. Captured, he says ”My lady, I did not think you could answer it, when I took you from your home without your leave, and set value only on your gift. But I am answered truly. You have given fair return for insult thrice over and set your worth: higher than my life and all my kingdom and all who live therein, and though you send my people to the fire, I can claim no debt to repay. It is justly done.”

Wanda, who has captured the Staryk, says “last night I did not know if I was strong enough to stop the Staryk, even with a silver chain, even with Sergey and Stepon, even with Miryem’s mother and father. But I had not known that I was strong enough to do any of those things until they were over and I had done them. I had to do the work first, not knowing.”

Miryem saves everyone in the Staryk’s kingdom and learns the kind of “magic that came only when you made some larger version of yourself with words and promises, and then stepped inside and somehow grew to fill it.” She is even able to stop the fire demon because she “recognized that hunger: a devouring thing that would gulp down lives with pleasure and would only pretend to care about law or justice, unless you had some greater power behind you that it couldn’t find a way to cheat or break, and that would never, never be satisfied.”

I wish I could stop the devouring thing in my country that only pretends to care about law or justice. I guess I’ve just got to keep doing the work to make my wish come true.

 

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