By the Light of Roses
I was aberrant before I even knew the meaning of the word: As young as five years old, being left to play upon the floor with the seven-year-old son of one of my mother’s friends--a designer of stained glass windows, a golden-haired half-Vanyarin man with a wife always away on “commune”--while they disappeared for hours into her workshop, locking the door and forbidding our entry because of the allegedly dangerous materials with which they worked.
I fell in love with the son of my mother’s friend when I was only five years old, for he was as golden as his father and as delicate as a beam of Laurelin’s light and--compared to my strict upbringing--relatively uninhibited. His father did not restrict the amount of candy that he could eat, and he arrived with his pockets bulging with it, and we would share it until our grinning teeth were streaked by color and we couldn’t control our gales of laughter, toys forgotten upon the floor as he held me and I nuzzled my face into his neck.
In the garden, beneath the heavy, fragrant blossoms of my mother’s pear tree, we “married” each other as we’d seen our parents’ friends do, whispering vows to Ilúvatar and squeezing our fingers into “rings” we’d woven each other from blades of grass, rings that yellowed like true gold over time and itched our fingers. But that we did not remove.
While his father and my mother conferred in my mother’s workshop, he took off his clothes and urged me to do the same and we bathed in the reflecting pool that my father had built in the rose garden. His body was like mine and yet not, I learned: skin as golden and silky as cooked sugar, with a regal bearing where my shoulders wanted to crumple and hide my skinny, pale body. His body was like mine perfected, though he insisted upon lifting my chin and looking upon me as though with admiration.
Laurë, I called him. His full name was something like that but with extra syllables tacked on; to me, Laurë was the important part, for he was like the golden light that coaxed my eyes open in the morning.
My father came home early from the work site one day, having developed a headache because of the heat, he said, and he found Laurë and me in the reflecting pool, naked and gazing upon the other’s chubby, babyish bodies (though Laurë was growing quickly and slimming toward maturity), and he hauled us both out by our arms--wrenching my shoulder and making me cry--his face red with shame. He’d interrupted my mother and Laurë’s father at their work, and there was shouting, and Laurë was swept away by his father in haste, without even the chance to say goodbye, although he looked back at me as he was dragged through the doorway, his blue eyes brimming with tears, lost to me with the brutal bang of the door slammed shut.
I was scolded by my father and made to dress in clothes that covered me from throat to ankle in punishment, leaving bare only my hands, despite the heat. Weeping, I brandished my ring woven of grass with childish insolence and found it torn from my finger and crushed beneath my father’s boot. My mother wrung her hands and I waited for her to intercede on my behalf, but she seemed almost relieved for my father’s angry attention being lavished on me, and my trust for her diminished that day, as I cried myself to sleep that night with an empty belly.
Neither Laurë nor his father returned to our house ever again.
I, though, remained aberrant, developing a crush on my historical lore tutor when I was only twenty-two years old: a charismatic young man who’d come on recommendation of one of Prince Nolofinwë’s lords and was prone to acting out the events in the texts with me, casting me in as unlikely of roles as King Finwë or Ulmo or Melian the Maia, making me giggle with his boisterous impersonations while my own playacting remained tentative and hesitant, always stayed by the fear that he would see me as ungainly and silly and no longer worthy of his instruction. (This, though, was accomplished by my father, when he received recommendation of a wizened, cranky old man from Prince Nolofinwë himself; my young tutor with his bright laugh was summarily dismissed and went on to instruct the children of Arafinwë.) Later, I avoided boys my age for my tendency to become infatuated with them, with the violent way that they occupied space, all jostling elbows and boastful voices, so unlike me: pale and bony, called “delicate” by my mother as an excuse why I could not come out to play when the other boys knocked. Soon, they stopped knocking, and I watched them in the street from behind a veil of curtains: flailing limbs practically crackling with energy, leaping and running as though they drew their power from the very air in their lungs and could never be quashed.
They riddled my dreams at night.
I discovered self-love at the age of twenty-six but indulged only once, afterward stricken with guilt so profound that I wept for an hour and scalded my hands in an effort to scrub them clean. After that, even my dreams became sterile, filled with whipping, crackling bodies gyrating austerely in the cold spaces around me, dreams lacking in both sound and color.
After a while, I became not aberrant so much as sexless: proud in my chastity as others my age were in their callow, yearning beauty, my body slumped and twisted from hours of hunching over books and parchments, ugly--I suspected--and eager to admit it, with the pride of one immune to the puerile whims of his peers.
Only, at times--with the same horrific teetering of an acrobat suspended upon a wire high off the ground--I would falter.
As I had at my time of “trouble.”
As I had that afternoon.
When Fëanáro’s six elder sons returned--letting a rush of cold air and noisy chatter into the house--I slipped soundlessly to my chambers as though frightened that they would read guilt in my face and know. For always, I was certain that people knew, that they could tell my aberrance by looking into my face. Certainly, it seemed that my father had always known and my mother--sweetly dismissing the boys on the doorstep--perhaps she had known too.
Pacing my chambers, I considered leaving, going to Fëanáro and pleading an excuse to return to Tirion, for I could not bear the thought of Telvo’s--of Fëanáro’s--eyes upon me after what I’d allowed myself to think that afternoon. This was foolish, coming here, as foolish as the explorer who stumbles for the better part of a day towards the oasis only to discover that it was only a mirage and, by his foolery, he has plunged further into the scorching desert that will take his life.
I opened the door to my armoire and gazed at my trunk at the bottom of it with my robes hung neatly above it. To bend and tug it to the floor with a bang seemed some a monumental effort, and the noise--I feared--would alert Fëanáro to my plans, and then he would know for certain.
I remembered his words--Why, then, are you here?--and suspected that he’d already come close to guessing.
A knock on the door interrupted my ruminations, and I heard a voice emit from my throat and a head poked in my doorway: Maitimo. “Eressetor, Turko and Carnistir have put together a quick meal if you’d like to join us.” And stupidly, I found myself nodding and following him down the steps while he maintained a polite chatter about the success of their hunt that afternoon (and how he wished I’d been able to join them, of course) and the word he’d received lately from his uncles in Tirion that might be of interest to me, as they mentioned my father. I nodded and followed in his wake, grateful for his effortless banter to cover my guilt.
The dining room had been usurped as a staging area for the massive feast day-after-next, and so Curufinwë had set up a table on the patio outside, and Tyelkormo and Carnistir were setting out trays of leftover sliced meats and fruit salad hastily chopped into uneven pieces, while Fëanáro was popping the cork on a bottle of wine and handing it to Finwë to pour into glasses.
Tyelperinquar--who had recently grown from toddling awkwardly about to running in a frightening, headlong manner had pulled free from an exhausted-looking Terentaulë and was circling the table and shrieking. Curufinwë emerged from the house behind his brothers and pressed his hands to his ears. “Terentaulë! For Manwë’s sake!” he shouted, and as though she’d been waiting for that very moment, she whirled on him.
Tyelperinquar’s foot caught one of the flagstones then and he was sent pitching forward, scraping his little hands along the rough face of the rock.
Chaos was abuzz the table like a hive of angry bees: Fëanáro dropped the wine bottle to the table and it fell to its side, chugging wine across the tabletop; Terentaulë tried to push through the throng of Fëanarions gone to comfort their fallen brother-son while she wept and screamed at a livid Curufinwë; Tyelkormo was righting a caterwauling Tyelperinquar while Maitimo was scrabbling about for a napkin to blot the blood from his knees, and Macalaurë was wringing his hands and trying to back out of the mess and only ended up stepping on Carnistir’s toe and inspiring the eruption of another argument.
From amidst the chaos, Finwë emerged and came to me, warm breath whispering in my ear, “The door at the end of the hall to the right, in it is some salve and some bandages and some of Tyelperinquar’s stuffed toys that I picked up out of the parlor. Bring one of each.”
Grateful to let the door fall shut on the ruckus out on the patio, I resisted my urge to tarry and hurried for the sake of poor Tyelperinquar (for even if the afternoon’s events made me doubt that I could muster the resolve to be in love with his mother, the poor boy surely didn’t deserve my dismissal as well) to the end of the hall where three doors stood.
Forgetting Finwë’s exact words, I opened the one at the far end of the hall and something hard and heavy fell and landed on my toe. With a hiss of pain, I stooped to retrieve it.
A statue of a woman: a full-bodied woman, naked and reclining with her hair the only covering of her body, done in copper and so exquisite that I winced at the cold touch of metal, for I’d half-expected her to be of warm flesh.
She looked familiar, and the memory came unbidden of a neck craned to see over the heads of people taller than me, a royal procession and a thick-bodied woman with a long rope of coppery hair: but it had not been she in whom I’d been interested, it had been the man who’d held her hand, a dark-haired resplendent man whose eyes I’d wanted to fall on mine, though he’d remained naïve to the admiring crowd around him.
She was Nerdanel, the wife of Fëanáro.
Blushing, knowing that I should not have seen--much less touched--this intimate item, I straightened with it pinched between my fingers to replace it on the shelf and found myself faced with shelves overflowing with hundreds more of the same: statues done in metal and ceramic, charcoal sketches and paintings; Nerdanel laughing and gazing lustily from beneath a curtain of hair and napping on her worktable and resting with her hand upon her pregnant belly; nude and clothed; bathing and sleeping and working.
She was far from an attractive woman but the artworks--seen through the eyes of Fëanáro--did not show that. One of the sketches was so fresh that charcoal flaked off in my fingers: Nerdanel rocking and nursing the twins. Another was so old that the colors had faded into tinted shades of gray: a painting of Nerdanel lying the grass with the ties of her tunic coming undone, still a girl, not yet a wife or mother, laughing at a rain of pink petals being poured upon her from a source unseen, fingers stretching toward the viewer as though reaching for the source of the petals. I felt that if I reached forth too, I could pull her from the painting and into my embrace. I could almost see the slim, pale hand of Fëanáro moving into the picture--a guilty petal still stuck to his finger--and doing just that.
I wrung the statue in my hands, unsure if I wanted to demolish her … or worship her.
My mother had often been called to illustrate books on the Valar, and her drawings of them were different than her drawings of Elves: whimsically abstract, with hair coursing in a way that the wind would never have allowed and flattering features conveniently emphasized while others were dwarfed. Large eyes and tiny feet. Lips as bright as autumn apples upon a face as pale as snow. Bright eyes, benevolent smiles, peaceful hands turned to the sky. There was a certain reverence also in Fëanáro’s study of his departed wife: an ethereal, otherworldly quality to her, a sort of beauty that was more invention than real. But the reason that I reached to touch her face, certain of her reality--as deluded as a bird that crashes into a window, believing it to be empty sky--was not because of his reverence but his mastery of her, as though every detail had seen studied and memorized and worshipped.
What did I feel for that? A maelstrom of emotions: envy, yes, but hatred also for the woman who had the chance to command such reverent loyalty from one such as Fëanáro--and she was so ugly too! so unworthy!--and she’d cast it aside as though it mattered not.
There I stood, likewise ugly and unworthy, unable to imagine such audacity, turning her statue in my hand, fingers brushing thighs and breasts that Fëanáro had caressed in life, the memory of which had probably been with him in casting this statue. I did not hear the footsteps behind me until a shadow fell over the woman lying in my hands. “Eressetor” came the gently admonishing voice, “the closet to the right.”
The statue was taken from me and replaced on the shelf, securely this time, and the door shut upon the images--hundreds of images--of Nerdanel. Finwë opened the closet to the right and piled my arms high with salve and bandages and a stuffed dog made of rags. “We do not speak of that,” he said, and I knew of what he spoke: the closet. “It hurts him.” A warm, paternal hand pressed in the middle of my back and guided me down the hallway, back to the patio, to announce me as Tyelperinquar’s savior.
Both twins were missing at supper that night, and Telvo’s absence brought me a measure of relief, enough that I even cheerfully volunteered to help with the dishes--usually Telvo’s task--in hopes of dispelling any notion of strangeness that Fëanáro or his sons may have sensed about me.
(Although Fëanáro barely glanced at me through the entire meal, instead remaining in deep, avid conversation with his father at one end of the table, leaving me to feign bright-eyed mirth at the other, pretending to be amused by the dirty jokes that Carnistir and Tyelkormo were telling, each trying to best the other. They didn’t notice me either.)
After the meal, Tyelkormo and Carnistir carried the dishes into the kitchen and piled them on the counters amid the pots and pans the cooks had been using for their work that afternoon. I pushed my sleeves around my elbows and pondered the basin full of sudsy water; in my father’s home, dishwashing had been a chore done by a servant. My mother couldn’t chance “ruining her hands,” she said, and my father hadn’t the time, so there was a constantly changing procession of young women who came to do our laundry and dishes, “retiring” when they were taken as apprentices for more illustrious pursuits or when they married and began keeping their own homes.
Fëanáro’s children had no such luxuries, despite growing up in the home of a High Prince. Their hands were calloused and scarred, though from far more than dishwashing. I felt disoriented--privileged, pampered--beside them. Alone in the kitchen, I had no idea where to begin, so I spent the first minute looking from the basin to the piles of food-smeared dishes and back to the basin, waiting for a logical solution to come upon me. Funny how I’d assumed that these tasks worthy of being done by young girls would be easy.
The kitchen door swung open then and admitted Terentaulë, bouncing a fussy Tyelperinquar on her hip. “I’ll wash if you dry,” she said, depositing Tyelperinquar into a corner, where he immediately hopped up and dashed to play alone beneath the table. She sighed and rubbed at the small of her back, then--glancing up to note my surprise--said, “Two always clean the dishes. I’ve always been the one to help Telvo.”
“Oh,” I said, as she nudged me aside and began plunking plates into the basin. A thin steam rose from the water, and I was grateful that she had volunteered to wash. Her hands--when they emerged--were a bright, painful pink, though she seemed not to notice.
“Tyelperinquar likes the time with his uncle.” I glanced behind me, and Tyelperinquar was peering curiously at me from beneath a chair. When my gaze happened upon him, he jerked back into the shadows. Terentaulë laughed. “Don’t worry, he’s just not accustomed to you yet. But Tyelperinquar takes after me in that. Telvo has always been my favorite of the brothers.”
I noticed that she did not qualify: except for my husband of course. She gave me a secretive smile, as though she’d noticed her error too and did not intend to correct it.
So close! I thought. So close to her at last, and here I’d decided not to be in love with her!
If the brothers’ masculinity was in their ability to rouse noise and uproar wherever they went, so Terentaulë’s femininity--despite her arms muscular from working in the garden, despite her thick-calloused hands--was in her subtle invasion of one’s senses: her scent of the bathing powders that she and Vingarië used; the gentle heat of her body beside mine; the quiet power of her voice, when she spoke, in volume rarely exceeding the splash of dishes dropping into the basin but making me crane over to listen, anticipating that words so selective must be worth hearing. Even in her appearance was subtler than that of the Fëanorians--hands glinting with jewels and angular, hard bodies honed for domination--in the gentle curve of breast, belly, hip, a body created for comfort and nurturance, into which one should wish to bury himself and never emerge.
We worked side by side in a comfortable silence, until I heard a furtive scuttle behind me and would have turned if not for Terentaulë’s whispered admonishment and fingers on my wrist: “Shh, no, he will only run back under the table,” followed by a soft touch on my calf, barely perceptible, of a small bird landing, then tiny arms slipped around my leg. Terentaulë giggled and I glanced down to see Tyelperinquar embracing my leg, cheek pressed to my calf and upturned, plaintive eyes on mine, awaiting reproach.
“It seems that he has grown accustomed to you after all!” she said delightedly. “We will not tell his uncles Tyelkormo and Carnistir, for until two months ago he would not even let them hold him without wailing as though put to torment.”
How I wished that I could force my heart to love her! For I knew that I should love the curve of her cheek, the way her hair was coming unbound and falling over her shoulder. I knew that I should love her way of capturing escaped bubbles upon her hand and blowing gently upon them to let Tyelperinquar watch the swirling colors change. But I could not. What was wrong with me that I could not?
The Valar had explained how one might come to lust after a woman already wed; they’d blamed it on the Marring of Arda, as though the allegiances with which we should have been born in our hearts--a spouse chosen for each Elf who would in turn love that Elf and no other, as at Cuiviénen--had been tangled in the tumult that Melkor had unleashed upon the world until some were given no love and some too much. I wondered at the destination of my own affections. I wondered why they had been cast to others like me--other males--when such love was fruitless. Aberrant. I wondered why the Valar could not explain this to me, why they could not quell the hatred of me festering in my heart.
For I could bear to lust after Terentaulë; such affections were common enough to be trite, the stuff of bad love poetry, a rung to be crossed in ascending to adulthood. For who hasn’t briefly coveted the wife of a friend, a married tutor, a distant cousin with bright eyes and long wed? I would scrawl my heartbroken sonnets and maybe even make my tearful confessions here, amid the stink of discarded food and the pungent aroma of soap. I would endure the scorn--the fists--of her husband. And I would grow past her in the way of a scab growing to cover a wound.
I wished that I could love the silence between us, her gentleness and subtlety, but I longed for the crashing uproar of her husband and his brothers, the musky reek of male bodies. I longed for arrogant beauty that knows it deserves love--and so shall be loved. She glanced at me, and I waited for her to say that she knew my thoughts, for so loud and anguished were they in my head that surely she must hear even just a whisper. But she smiled and said, “Eressetor, you are falling behind on drying your dishes.”
Indeed, the pile of damp dishes had grown quite high, and my hands lay idle, twisting the dishcloth. Nervously, I laughed. “Ai. It seems that I have become lost in thought.”
“Indeed, ‘Thought’ is a treacherous place,” she said, and I waited for her to laugh as with a joke, but her face remained grave as she concentrated on scrubbing dried food from between the tines of a fork. “Oh!” she said suddenly, as though struck. “I saw your friend in town. Ornisso? I told him that you were apprenticed to my father-in-law. He was in Formenos, delivering a message to Lord Merkurya. He sends his greetings.”
She fell into silence to match mine. I wondered if she could hear my pounding heart; I wondered if she noticed how I fumbled and nearly dropped Fëanáro’s favorite drinking mug? Tremulous hands sat it on the counter. Into my palm, she pressed the fork to be dried and returned to her task without a word.