For the 2005 holiday season, I offered to write a story for any friend who dared challenge me. Tárion, one of my oldest fannish friends, asked for a story with Caranthir and angst.
It should have been a simple request. I write Caranthir all of the time, and most of my stories are dramas, which is the slightly dressed-up cousin of angst. But nothing came to me except ... this.
"When the Stars Smile" does, indeed, involve angst. But it's also a comedy, and this may have been the first story I wrote where my Caranthir muse showed his acerbic wit. It's not quite what Tárion probably expected, but I hope she has forgiven me! Despite being one of my oldest stories, it remains one of my personal favorites, and it is generally reviewed very well also. When I won a bet against my husband with the "prize" being that he had to read the Silmarillion story of my choice, my fandom friends and readers voted that he should read this one. And, some years later, this story would also inspire Kasiopea to ask for the tale that would become The Coveted, and the voice I established for Caranthir here would influence my writing of Discretion, another gift-story for Tárion, even after that. "When the Stars Smile" has never been nominated for any awards and gets very little notice these days, and I like to think of it as a hidden gem among my stories.
When the Stars Smile
I have come to the conclusion, through much research and deliberation, that being in love has the power to make my brothers behave quite oddly.
Well, to be more precise about it: has the power to make my brothers behave quite stupidly.
But of course, things that cause stupid behavior have a tendency to be enjoyable at first--drinking large quantities of wine, for instance--then cause great pain later. At first, when I realized at my coming-of-age ceremony that I had yet to be kissed by a female outside of my family and that it had taken me fifty years to notice, I was a bit perturbed by the notion of having never been in love. After all, by the age of fifty, my father was married, had one son, and was working on the second. I seemed quite delayed in comparison. (Tyelkormo has always preferred "retarded" but I'm not sure that I share in his liking of this particular word.) Still, the level of disturbance that I felt for this fact seemed rather less than it should, and so I tried to force myself to care, to pour my woes into a diary like Maitimo did or to make my eyes well at sad songs like Macalaurë did or to sulk and kick at stones like Tyelkormo did, but all I ended up doing was using the paper to draw swordfighting scenes and giggling at lyrics like "when the wind carries your scent to me" and breaking my little toe and having to hobble around with a bandaged foot for a week.
And slowly, I decided that I didn't really care that I'd never been in love; in fact, I was rather glad.
For I find stupid behavior--in the name of love or not--so unbecoming.
Macalaurë is recently married and so always sighing with the greatness of love for his new wife; Maitimo and Tyelkormo alternate between giddy infatuation and the agony of loneliness, sniffing scented parchments and trying to decipher whether certain inanely small behaviors are indicative of love, lust, or mere friendly affection (they refuse to consider my hypothesis that fluttery eyelashes mean complete despise), debating the merits of various outfits and hairstyles on their "prospects."
"Personally," I say from Tyelkormo's bed, where I am slowly polishing off the last of the almond biscuits that his current paramour gave him, "I think that you both look like overdressed princesses." Maitimo glares at me in the mirror where he is braiding Tyelkormo's hair in a style that looks not only complicated but slightly uncomfortable as well. At least, it makes Tyelkormo's eyes go funny at the corners, stretched like a cat's, and I can't imagine that that's pleasant. Macalaurë, who is perched on the corner of the vanity table and plucking at his lute, falters and says, "You know, Carnistir, with all that we hear from you, when at last you fall in love, you are going to fall so hard that you'll come up crooked."
Tyelkormo laughs at this, but Tyelkormo has a stupid sense of humor to match his equally witless behavior, and Macalaurë goes back to strumming some song that includes a line about the "sweet mead of love": case in point, I think, as my second-eldest brother is revered as the best poet and singer of the Noldor, but if this particular song--and this particular line--were to be exported to a distant civilization, then they would likely come to the reliable conclusion that we are a bunch of blathering idiots.
Maitimo fastens the last of Tyelkormo's plaits into place and Tyelkormo stands up so that he and Maitimo may swap places. He is handsome, I suppose, if I can manage to look past the fact that he is my brother and less than a day ago, we were sprawled beside a campfire in the woods, both reeking worse than two swine, our hair so oily that the water rolled right off of it, and Tyelkormo was making an impressive show with the natural consequences of our baked-bean supper and a torch. (Truthfully, it's a wonder he can sit at all today; although I did see him chasing after Maitimo earlier with a vial of aloe, making promises of some wondrous favor. I'd hidden, lest he get any ideas.) My brothers are all handsome, really, if I look at them as people other than my brothers. In fact, in terms of attractiveness, I think it must have all been doled out early, leaving me to come up a bit short. Tyelkormo ripples with a virile attractiveness like a golden panther in the afternoon light; Macalaurë has the delicate, mournful beauty of a classical painting; and Maitimo...well, I once saw a girl stare so long at Maitimo while trying to walk down the street at the same time that she fell into a gutter and sprained her ankle. I laughed but Maitimo--the perfect gentleman to compliment his fiery looks--had of course carried her to a healer, her pain "so bad that she fainted three times in my arms."
She must have done a lot of fainting after that too because, in the weeks to follow, he found many excuses to loosen her clothing and lay her in his bed.
Now me, when I woke up this morning, my hair was sticking to one side of my head like a sail and I noticed that the few stray hairs that grew between my eyebrows were coming back after Tyelkormo had insisted on holding me down and pulling them out last month. I washed my teeth and noticed that the canine tooth on the left side of my mouth was loose and sitting at an angle after Macalaurë had thwacked me in the face with a tree branch while hunting the other day. I was putting off telling Atar because then he would send me to the healer to have it fixed and those things tend to hurt no matter how fervently the healer swears that they won't. Besides, it made my grin crooked and--I liked to think--a little jaunty. Of course, all of this was overshadowed by the hair-sail, which--when I tried to brush it--began to more resemble a frizzy mushroom, so I resorted to my usual tactic of tying it back with a strip of hide and having done with it.
Once, Tyelkormo joked to me that it would indeed take a special love for someone to consent to wake up beside me each morning. And although I punched him as hard as I could in the stomach and poked fun at the very obvious spot on his nose, I was a little hurt. I even wrote about it in my diary, hastily drawing a few armor designs immediately afterward to console myself that I wasn't turning into a girl.
The Spring Festival draws near and someone had the brilliant idea that Taryindë, daughter of the lord Mirimakú of Formenos, should come to Tirion for the festival. Poor Taryindë: she has it worse than me. At least if a male is ugly, he can extend his other virtues. But a woman--and the daughter of a lord at that--is expected to uphold a certain degree of femininity that poor Taryindë simply cannot approximate.
Still, I am fond of Taryindë. She doesn't try to deny that she can drink just as well as my brothers and her sense of humor is nearly as acerbic and misguided as mine. Indeed, a bit of stolen spirits (from the cabinet that Atar thinks is a secret) and Taryindë at my side (but not so close that people think we fancy each other or anything like that) and the festival should be nearly bearable.
I watch from the window as her carriage draws inside the gate. Maitimo, of course, is there to meet her, to bow neatly and extend his hand to help her down. She jumps gracelessly from the bottom step and plunks both feet into the mud--for we have had heavy rains of late--splattering the bottoms of Maitimo's breeches. Of course, he is diplomatic enough that even I--his brother--detect no tremor in the perfect smile on his face.
Her gown was meant to be off-shoulder, but her shoulders are broad and the sleeves are too tight, and so she keeps hauling at the neckline. She drags her trunk behind her through the mud with one hand, tugging up the neckline of her gown with the other, and when Maitimo offers to take the trunk from her, I see her lips move in the distinctive shape of a very profane word that makes him blush and makes me laugh. She grins and punches him in the arm, and now, even his most dignified smile can't cover his wince.
Of course, I can't run down the stairs to meet her, although I want to desperately, to tell her about my discovery that Tyelkormo steals Atar's chemicals to make his hair more golden. I have thought of replacing the chemicals with black ink but don't quite have the courage to do it alone.
But I've seen my brothers dash to meet women with their tongues hanging around their knees and I refuse to be likewise foolish. So I pace across my bedroom floor, until I realize that my bedroom is directly over the foyer and they can probably hear me. So I leap onto my bed and pace there instead, until Amil shouts from the bottom of the stairs, "Carnistir! Come and greet Taryindë!"
I grumble as I stomp down the stairs and find poor Taryindë ensconced in Macalaurë's embrace, enduring open scrutiny from Tyelkormo, and having to listen to Maitimo blather about some research he's doing with rocks that he thinks might be of interest to her father.
"Carnistir!" She wrenches free from Macalaurë, interrupting Maitimo in mid-sentence and stepping on Tyelkormo's toe. We greet each other as we have since we could both walk: She punches me in the gut and I grab a hank of her hair and twist it until she screams and bites my arm. So I bite her arm back.
There is an uncomfortable silence in the room and Tyelkormo's mouth is hanging open. She releases her grip on my arm and clears her throat. "It's good to see you, Carnistir."
I also release my grip. She tastes powdery, like sand. "Yes. You too."
There is a scorched-tingly feeling in my face, and I have a feeling that my complexion closely resembles a tomato. No mind: hers does too.
"Well, I will show you to your rooms, Taryindë," says Maitimo, and for once, I am grateful for his graciousness--and the fact that he scowls at Tyelkormo until Tyelkormo picks up her trunk--for it allows me to duck from the room and endure my humiliation in solitude and peace.
Less than a day later, Taryindë and I find ourselves in my grandfather's finest ballroom, more resembling the pillars that keep the walls from collapsing than young, unwed Noldor, a goblet of wine each that has been liberally doctored with some of Atar's secret spirits. The wine keeps making us belch and we make a point to always blow it in the other one's face; Taryindë is wearing a very unflattering purple gown with a ruffle around her shoulders--making them appear of insurmountable girth--and her father's crest pasted at the center of her ample chest. Until tonight, I had never noticed that her chest was ample before, and now I find myself having to concentrate on not staring at the tops of the pale orbs of her bosom that are mashed inside her too-tight bodice while actually managing to get quite a decent look at them--a difficult task, I imagine, even for one with far more experience, like one of my brothers.
Well, it seems that I am a normal male. That is a comfort, I suppose.
I am so busy trying to look like I'm not looking at her chest that I fail to notice for some time--or at least, I assume it is some time, as I have failed to actually note its inception--that she is not paying me much heed. Actually, she is slowly shifting so that her back is completely turned to me, and when I belch and blow the rotted-grape stench at her, it brushes her thick shoulder and nothing more. I follow her gaze to a table along the dance floor.
And there, I see the most beautiful creature ever to grace Arda.
All of the stupid metaphors and saccharine lyrics that I have mocked for years now come suddenly flooding back: "the sweet mead of love" and "Your beauty is a fair wind / Winding through the trees / And carrying upon it's back / The sweetest melodies." I find myself humming the latter, and I am so distracted by the thought that I should fall to my knees and worship this being that I lose hold of my goblet and nearly drop it, managing to bobble it but not before liberally sloshing wine across the front of my robes.
She is a Vanya, I suppose, for her hair makes Laurelin look like a pale, withered sapling tied to a stake in uncle Nolofinwë's feeble garden; like a thirsty man wandering the desert pushes his face into the water of an oasis, I want to drown in her hair. I imagine that it smells of flowers crushed beneath the delicate feet of Maiarin maidens dancing beneath the boundless blue sky, the same color as her eyes. She laughs and--if it could--my heart would break in two, for Macalaurë has never crafted a song fairer; the nightingale and the warbling rivers should weep for shame at their inadequacy; I should weep at my inadequacy, for I feel like naught but dust beneath her feet, but gladly would I be crushed upon her delicate shoes if it meant that I might abide with her forever.
So, I realize, this is love.
I find my feet carrying me in her direction; my mind doesn't even realize how foolish I am being, even though I can feel my mouth stretched in a grin so wide that my face hurts and my teeth show top and bottom. There are tables and chairs in my way, but the thought of veering from my path to her is unbearable, and so I push through them, knocking a tray of hors d'oeuvres onto the floor and treading through a pile of crackers smeared with crabmeat. The lady Indis is seated and speaking with one of the lords and his wife, and she is in my way, so I lift her chair, move her aside, and climb over her feet.
From the periphery of my vision, I see a purple shape moving beside me and realize that Taryindë is following beside me.
I am near enough to the beautiful creature that I can almost smell her flower-sweet scent and can see the tendrils of escaped hair lying like golden ribbons on her porcelain-smooth neck that begs to be tasted with the King's finest wine. I am opening my mouth to sing to her the sweetest love song that Macalaurë has ever penned, ready to fall on my knees in reverence of her, when someone steps between us.
That someone is as golden as she and nearly as beautiful, with sapphire-bright eyes and a radiant smile; that someone is holding out his hand and asking her to dance; that someone is calling her by her name--Amarië, a name like the mingled Light of the Trees put into song--that someone is my cousin Findaráto.
And, beside me, Taryindë sighs loudly and collapses into my arms.
Maitimo knows a lot about fainting maidens, and he sends Macalaurë for the smelling salts and borrows Tyelkormo's hunting knife to cut the laces on Taryindë's bodice. He seems to have everything under control, so I slip away while he is accepting a cool rag from Findekáno and pressing it to Taryindë's cheeks.
Findaráto and Amarië are unaware of Taryindë's spell and have continued to the dance floor without looking back. (I have always harbored the secret theory--which I intend to prove with experiments on Tyelkormo--that blondness is somehow associated with flagrant ignorance of anything that is not likewise golden and shiny. My cousin and the lovely Amarië are not helping to disprove this theory.) They are the center of a meager crowd--for many, I see, have run to assist Taryindë--moving with the music as though their bones and blood are made of the same stuff as the gently lilting flute melody. Findaráto holds Amarië closer than he would a normal dance partner and her gaze does not break from his face. Let it not be true, I beg--of whom, I do not know--and even as I entertain thoughts of hope, he lowers his face to hers in a lingering kiss.
I am aware only of the floor pounding beneath my feet, of vision that pulses with the racing rhythm of my blood, and of the unnatural desire to wrest Findaráto to the floor by the hair and slowly use my fists to turn his face a shade of blue to match his eyes.
I am standing right before them, my fingers crunched into fists, ready to seize my treacherous cousin and win the love of Amarië by whatever means necessary, but the song abruptly ends, and they release each other, smile, and turn, colliding directly into me.
Findaráto smiles to see me, his blue eyes sparkling with genuine pleasure at my presence, although I do not know why. He is second nearest in age to me of all of my family, and I see him rarely--usually only at festivals, for I avoid his happy-go-lucky father like I avoid oversweet sugar water laced with honeysuckle--but he has the power to annoy me like no one else in the family. He has Maitimo's air of humble perfection and Macalaurë's saucer-eyed, doting amicability and Tyelkormo's swaggering magnificence with nary a hair ever out of place. At our grandfather's last begetting day feast, he entertained the family by reciting all of my father's lays of Cuiviénen, translated perfectly into Ancient Quendian. At the last Winter Festival, he gave each of his aunts and Lady Indis a rose sculpted of pink marble so fine that one expected it to draw dew; my mother keeps hers on the table in the vestibule, in an exquisite crystal vase made by my father, while the last I saw of the lumpy copper armlet I had made for her, Curufinwë was using it as a discus in the garden. (I keep "bumping" the rose whenever I pass, successfully knocking it to the floor on a few occasions, but it appears that Findaráto has a talent for both the sturdy and the delicate, and the forsaken thing refuses to break.) Findaráto is also fond of sayings such as "The stars smile upon us" and "Fair as the Light of the Trees," and I cringe now as he takes my hand in his soft, ever-warm fingers and says, "The stars smile upon our meeting, Carnistir, as fair as the Light of the Trees," and without breaking the flow of his words, places Amarië's hand in mine. "And may I acquaint you with the fair Amarië of Taniquetil, who has chosen to bring her fair radiance to this joyous celebration."
Now I can either punch Findaráto with my left hand--which isn't nearly as strong--or I can take my right hand from Amarië's and punch him like he deserves, or I can forgo punching him entirely and enjoy the silken feel of Amarië's hand in mine, relishing the sound of my name in her voice as she says, "It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Carnistir," letting her eyes linger on mine just long enough that--even could I muster the fortitude to deprive myself of her touch--my fingers are too weakened to ball into a fist suitable for pounding one's perfect cousin into the dirt where he belongs. So I figure that the world is a long way from ending, leaving many ages yet in which to coax my right hand into a fist that one as perfect as Findaráto truly deserves meeting with his flawless face.
I manage to squeak out, "Hello, Amarië," in a manner just as boorish and juvenile as one would expect of me. But she doesn't seem to notice my churlishness, and when Findaráto invites me to join them at their table, she links her arm in mine and his, and all I can do is allow my body to follow my feet trailing weakly in her wake, doing disservice to the ground on which I tread, which has already known the perfect lightness of her delicate footsteps.
My half-uncle Arafinwë's table is empty but for Artaher, who is nearly of age and fond of acting as though he possesses the wisdom of one of the Unbegotten. He is as radiant as Findaráto but good only at feigning intelligence, making him slightly more bearable--but only slightly. As far as I know, he does not speak Ancient Quendian, nor can he sculpt lifelike roses from stone, nor does he force upon unwilling ears his honeyed, nauseating greetings. In fact, as I approach on Amarië's arm, he grins rather widely at me before controlling his lips again and saying, "Greetings to you, cousin Carnistir."
"Same," I say. Whatever fuss was made of Taryindë has subsided, and I see that she is sitting at our table, her gown drooping and showing more of her ample-but-pasty bosom, having her hands patted by Macalaurë and her tears dabbed by Maitimo and a wine goblet proffered by Tyelkormo.
Findaráto offers Amarië a chair, and too late, I realize that I should have done that. Flushing, I plop down in the chair beside her, nearly miss, and send it screeching across the floor, catching myself from falling just in time by grabbing the table edge. If Amarië notices, she says nothing. Findaráto takes the seat between her and Artaher, and Artaher leans over to whisper in his ear, just loudly enough that I can hear: "That lord's daughter from Formenos--" he snickers with delicate fingers pressed to his perfect, shapely lips--"she fainted at the mere sight of you."
And then it all makes sense. I find the strangest feeling of dismay that Taryindë fancies Findaráto. I've never imagined Taryindë fancying any man before; she is very nearly a man herself, but for the fact that she wears gowns and has a distracting quantity of cleavage. And with all of the time she spends with me, you would think that she might have fainted in my presence. Yes, Findaráto may be golden and perfect, but I have substance, and I know that she likes me.
I feel so hurt by this notion that--for the barest flicker of a moment--I forget about Amarië and pout.
"Ai, Artaher, do not mock the girl. We have all felt the agonizing throes of infatuation." And he looks directly at me when he says the last bit and smirks in such a way that I feel my face grow hot and my right hand is strongly considering mustering itself into punching him. But that quickly, his eyes move to Amarië's face, and he goes on to say, "After all, consider what I endured in thought alone of my fair Amarië." He raises her fingers to his lips and kisses her fingers. "And should she ever leave me, I would spend the rest of my days composing an endless song of solitude."
I might have rolled my eyes but for my bitter dismay. So she is his. Which means that she cannot be mine. And the way that she is looking at him leaves no mistake that no "endless songs of agony" will be composed anytime soon. Anytime ever. All of the liquor that I drank earlier with Taryindë begins churning in my stomach then, and I have to concentrate on not vomiting. For I have a dismal feeling that every last shred of hope that Amarië might fancy me would be drowned in the vomit that I choked out all over her gown.
That is my last thought before the world suddenly develops a strange, dark, glittery border that quickly constricts until my vision is dark, and I feel the solid thud of my body hitting the floor before I feel no more.
When I awaken, Maitimo is cutting the ties of my robes with Tyelkormo's hunting knife and calling for Macalaurë to fetch the smelling salts, Findekáno is mopping my face with a cool rag, and Taryindë is leaning over me in the most provocative way, close enough that when I sit up suddenly, my nose finds itself buried in the drooping front of her gown, and I wonder if that is enough to make me faint again.
"It must have been the liquor," I manage to mumble, extracting myself carefully (and a bit reluctantly) from Taryindë's cleavage, but I see Amarië holding tightly to Findaráto's arm and standing at the periphery of the crowd gathered around me, and our glances intersect for the briefest moment, and I see by the pity in her face that she knows the real reason and regrets it--but not enough to change anything.
When I fell, I must have landed on my right hand because it aches fiercely. A pity, I think, because nothing would rouse me back to my senses than allowing my knuckles to meet the acquaintance of Findaráto's cheekbone. The stars would smile upon that meeting, I am sure.
The crowd is dissipating, convinced that the fourth-born son of Fëanaro is suffering nothing worse than the ill effects of inebriation, until only Taryindë remains, crouching beside me with her gown stretched between the lumps that are her knees, her thick hands helping to pull me to my feet. "Why do you smile so?" she asks, and there are two spots of color on her cheeks, and her hands flutter to rearrange the loosened neckline of her gown over her chest. I realize that I am watching her hands and look quickly away, feeling my face heat up.
Why am I smiling? "I am not exactly sure," I answer. "Probably because all of those insufferable sots are finally gone and--" reaching into my pocket--"I have a bit of spirits left. If you're interested?"
Laughing, she replies, "You know that I am!" and we returned to supporting the far wall, where we can make vehement fun of the ridiculous couples on the dance floor without being overheard, becoming slowly drunk, maybe discovering somewhere in between how we have both come to be so inexplicably happy.