I, Amata of Telraum, write what I have seen that others may know it. Let them make of it what they will, but I think it was not given for me alone. It seems only a dream, yet it must have been more than a dream, for things are different now than when I lay down last night.
I am nineteen years old, crippled in my legs, but able with my hands. I live by sewing, and stay in the upper room of the innkeeper at Telraum. I came here on my own many years ago, and have survived on my own through most of my life. But last night I learned what I could not do on my own. That was the price of joy.
It was the night that ended the great fast. I was coming back from a villa outside the town, where I had been delivering fine clothes to a client. I had been paid little enough, and that after much wrangling. Such is my life. I was on the road back, riding on my ass, Erbi, but had not yet reached Telraum. The full moon shone clear on the road.
As I was riding, I thought about the wealthy family that I had just seen. They had made a great fuss about how the clothes they had requested should be. They were planning many celebrations, a great bustle of food and music and adornments, and people to crowd their large home. For me it was different. I had no such burden of plans or people. I had worked hard for many days, and so could spend the next day—that is today now—in peace; that was all I wanted. I thought about that, and was pleased to have done it. Weariness and sweetness mixed together in me.
It was the end of a long day of hard work. Growing exhausted, I stopped Erbi, slipped to the ground, tethered him to a tree and lay down at its roots. I have become able to sleep on anything. Slumber came to me quickly.
When I opened my eyes, still in the dark, the first thing I noticed was that Erbi was gone. At first all my thoughts were for him, wondering in dismay where he had gone, thinking someone must have stolen him. But then I saw another thing, something even stranger and more alarming. From all the ditches and dips of the land, a blackness was rising—something like water, but a sort of dark water of nothingness. I understood that if it reached me, it would swallow me, and I would be consumed by the void.
Somehow, at first, this thought inspired urgency but not panic. I looked around and saw that one of the hills was not far. It seemed to me that if I could only get to the top of that hill, I would be safe. I pulled myself upright, leaning on my crutches, and began my hopping walk toward the hill, careful to avoid the low places from which the void-water was rising. Except for the steady taps of the crutches, the night was utterly silent. Even the sounds of wind, insects and night birds had disappeared.
I came to the beginnings of the slopes soon enough. I have used crutches long enough that I can be something like quick when I must. The hill proved to be a rough place to climb—barren, rocky and steep. But one glance back showed that the dark water was coming across the ground now.
I set myself to climb on, looked up toward the hill’s peak, and saw something there, something like a small pillar of glowing white. I couldn’t tell at first glance what it was, but it attracted me—more than that, it seemed to draw me, in a way I didn’t understand, urging me quietly but irresistibly to come up to the top.
When I had made my way up a little farther, as quickly as I could while being careful of my footing, I looked harder and saw that it was a lady, robed and veiled in shining white. I could not clearly discern her features from there, but she was looking at me, and spreading out her arms as if in invitation.
Staring in wonder and fascination, I began to be more eager to reach her. I tried to make myself climb faster, but slipped and nearly fell on the steep, uneven slopes. The ground was becoming gravelly now as well, so that I had to watch—in the dimness of moonlight—for treacherous loose rocks that would try to throw down my foot or crutch. Frustrated at my slow progress, I glanced back again, and was alarmed to see that the dark water had now risen to about a stone’s throw behind me—or the distance that would be a stone’s throw on flat ground.
“Why do you toil on, little wretch? You know the water will catch you in the end.”
I would have jumped with fright if I had had good feet. A dry, crackling voice had clearly spoken, but I could see no one anywhere, and nothing on all the hillside except rocks and a dead tree.
Wherever the voice had come from, it somehow changed everything. In an instant the feel of my journey had gone from frustration to horror. I began frantically plying the hillside with my crutches, but it seemed that the harder I worked, the less I got anywhere. Not only was the hillside hostile, but my arms and legs were growing unsteady with haste and weariness, so that at each step I could hardly tell whether I was moving up or only slipping again.
I looked up again at the lady. She remained as she had been. I felt I desperately needed to reach her, but now began to wonder whether I could.
Then the voice came again. “What good is life to one such as you?”
I blinked. This voice seemed to be coming from a short distance behind me and to the left—where nothing was, except the tree. Was the tree speaking to me? I should have been astonished, but in my state of mind then, as in a dream, surprise was dulled.
“What do you mean by that?” I demanded.
The twisted, dead branches quavered wildly for a moment, releasing a short but hideous cackle. “A withered scrap of human flesh,” it answered, “wriggling about, day after day, for what? to gain one more scrap of bread. What is it to you or anyone if that ends now?”
“Shut up!” I barked, struggling to get up again and to hide the deep, burning sting I knew so well. For I had heard things hardly less cruel over the years. Those who have little learn to expect hard words.
During all this, many obvious questions never entered my mind. I had hardly questioned how the tree was speaking, and didn’t wonder now how it knew about my life. Nor did I worry what was becoming of Telraum and all the surrounding countryside, with this all-consuming water rising over everything. It was as if the whole world had been reduced to this one hill and the fields around it.
At length, with great effort, I managed to get up a short distance higher. But once I had done that, I saw that it would be no good. The land rose more steeply than ever from here on, and a gaping crack in it slanted in front of me, running up and to the right. I would have had to climb up and sideways. Perhaps a skilled climber with gear could have made it further up in daylight, but not a crippled girl at night.
Amid anguish and rising panic, I struck the stony ground with a crutch and struggled to think what I would do. I glanced from the rising water below to the shining lady above, and wondered now if she was really a promise of saving or merely a deceitful vision, sent to torment me with a seeming chance, so that I would fight in vain before I died.
“Who is she, this lady?” I murmured aloud. “Why does she call me up the hill? What is there?”
Then came the abominable tree-voice again: “Nothing . . . nothing is coming for you . . . you are nothing . . .”
I listened in bewilderment and horrified fascination as the words came on, like a drift of poisonous fume: “All your life, all have forsaken you . . . your parents, your peers, the folk of your home region . . . you were nothing to them . . . Nothing . . .”
At those words it seemed to me that the void had already bored holes in me, that I could never escape the water. Tears filled my eyes, as grief and rage began to spill out from my heart like pent-up waters or fires. How my parents had been ashamed of me, and abandoned me, because of my deformity, how the other children had shunned my company, how the neighbors had avoided me as something troublesome . . . I had tried to ignore or forget. I had thought that I had buried it away in my heart, but it was there all these years, burning me, like coals in the earth. I had felt it for a long time, but never recognized it for what it was—until last night.
Then another voice was calling me, this one from above. “Amata! Amata!” I jerked up in surprise, for I knew this voice. My sister Adjuta, my one friend from the early years, was running down the hill toward me. I wondered how she could be walking, never mind running, down such a steep slope, but there she was, scrambling as nimbly as a goat down the rough rocks.
In a moment she was as near me as she could come—on the other side of the great crack. She leaned as far across it as she could and stretched her hand out. “Can you reach?” she called.
I strained up toward her, but nearly the length of an arm still remained between our hands.
“Come up around the crack!” she urged me. “I’ll meet you where it ends, and help you up the rest of the way!”
The tree merely hissed, as if to show its contempt.
“Do you hear that voice tormenting me?” I moaned to Adjuta.
She frowned. “What voice?”
I looked quickly about. I had been sure that I could climb no further, but might I try again? Seeing my sister so near, I almost felt it was impossible that I could not reach her from here. I began to take some cautious steps up and to the right. Almost immediately my crutch slipped, I tumbled to one knee, and if I had not grabbed hold of a jutting stone I might have fallen down the hillside.
“I can’t!” I cried, my tears rising again. “This ground is too steep, and the rocks give way under me!”
Adjuta’s face was pinched in thought. “Perhaps I could take off my dress and throw it to you for a rope?” That was like her, to make such a suggestion so simply.
I said nothing. I did not know whether her garment would hold me up, whether I would catch it if she did throw me an end, whether she would have the strength to pull me to her side. Thinking about it now, I understand that I should have tried it anyway, but it seemed to me then, in that state, that there was not much use in it.
“Amata, are you listening to me? Can you stand up?” Adjuta called, beginning to look distressed. “Are you hurt?” But I could not respond. My thoughts would not work as they ordinarily do. I felt frozen in my helplessness. Besides, I could not think, for the tree was laughing at me. Its voice was quiet, but impossible to stop from my ears—the horrible, crackling sound of its hateful joy at my plight.
So it came that I stared into the dark, not moving, not speaking, tears trapped in my eyes, with Adjuta calling, “Sister! Hear me!” and the tree spitting, “Refuse!” between its cackles.
Then two things happened in one moment. The first was that the tree’s voice stopped, or rather, died into a meaningless choking noise. I turned in time to see it dropping back into the black water. The tide had risen around the foul plant’s base, and now, unnaturally, swallowed it without even a splash.
The other was that Adjuta now looked away from me. She dropped down on her knees and stared away at the sky. Even she was giving up now, I thought in misery. I looked down again at the rising flood of emptiness, now only a few paces behind me. I could not look up at the bright lady on top of the hill; my eyes were too blurred with tears to see anything where she stood.
I closed my eyes. Somewhere inside me, thoughts began to flow again, like a little trickling stream inside a block of ice. So it was to be the end of me? Clearly I could ascend no further. Adjuta could not reach me, nor I her. Yet somehow, I could not quite think that I had been entirely deceived when I put confidence in the top of that hill and the lady standing there.
Something moved inside me then that I still do not understand. “Please help me,” I whispered, not knowing to whom I spoke. “I have nothing left. I can do no more. Don’t let me be lost. Please . . . save me!”
For a moment, nothing happened, except that inside I began to feel a little spot of still and quiet, down beneath the pain. A breeze began to blow, the first wind that had stirred since all the strange things began, a cool and gentle current drying the sweat that had formed on my face as I struggled. Even there, somehow, the tenseness lost its hold on me.
Then I heard a new sound, not a voice, but a sound like rapid footsteps. It was coming along the hillside from somewhere up above. I heard it coming much closer, and looked up. Running towards me, on my side of the crack, was something that glowed golden and ran on four feet. As it approached, I saw that it was a ram, large but impossibly nimble, racing along the hill that I had found so hopeless as if it were flat ground.
Now the ram came to a stop beside me. Its eyes were like embers or little star-fires. It knelt down and looked intently at me, waiting. Then I understood I was to climb onto it.
Carefully I pushed upward, heaved one misshapen leg over the creature’s back, and, gripping the luminous wool, pulled myself on. I still held my crutches, one under each arm, but clung to the ram with hands and knees. With that done, it rose and raced up again, seeming no less surefooted with its burden. As if by enchantment, I found myself borne with marvelous speed up the slopes that had been impassable to me moments earlier.
Then, of a sudden, we were coming to the top of the hill, and the ram was halting before the lady in the shining white. She was wondrously beautiful, but with a beauty of more than the body. I regret that I cannot explain this better. It was something subtle but more moving for that, like a light shining through her from another world. I might say, it was not of a sort that would make men desire her or women envy her, but that moved the heart to reverence. She was smiling warmly at me, and said, “At last, Amata, we can welcome you.”
Someone else was there with her as well, and now I had another surprise, for it was Adjuta. How had she come up so quickly? Had someone helped her also? I never asked. But now I understood what she had done before. She had never given up on me; she had been pleading for help for me, before I had thought to do so. Now she smiled at me, and I returned it. She took my hand and helped me to climb off the ram, and I saw a seat there for me. It was a rock, but sculpted with pleasant curves and softened with moss. I noticed now that this spot on top of the hill, unlike all the rest, was covered with thick grass.
All this took only a few moments. When I was seated, I looked up again at the lady. My curiosity returned. “Who are you?”
“My name is Speranza,” she answered. “I meet those who wander and seek, to draw them on and guide them. I am often a torment to men, for I compel them to battle and labor when they might wish to cease striving. But they always arrive who call for aid with a true heart. This much you have found.”
This left me with hardly more knowledge than before. Where had she really come from, and why had she come to me? She and Adjuta seemed to be together . . . “Do you know my sister?” I asked at last.
“She knows me,” Speranza replied. “As do you, though many things have drawn you away from me, and at times caused you to forget me. He who begot me gave me to you both, long ago.”
Now I was more confused than ever. I opened my mouth to ask something, but then closed it again, my thoughts too tangled to work out any more questions.
As she watched my bewildered expression, Speranza’s face grew solemn. “I am one of the daughters of the King,” she declared quietly. “It is he who gives me to men. He knows their need for me. He has gone into every dark place where they are, that they might all come to light.”
As she spoke, something above us caught my eye. Looking up, I thought for a moment that somehow the sun was emerging from the middle of the heavens rather than the horizon. The round, red-golden glow looked like nothing so much as the sun. But no . . . there were other lights like it. Five warmly-colored lights were penetrating the black sky and steadily growing, pouring a torrent of golden light down around our barren hill.
Adjuta declared, “The water’s stopped rising.” Surprised, I glanced down for the first time since arriving atop the hill. The flood of blackness looked to be about where it had been when I was rescued, perhaps slightly higher. I could not tell from looking only once that it had stopped, but to be sure, it seemed completely still.
For several minutes no one spoke. The glow around us became brighter, like a sunrise coming from overhead. Soon I could see every detail of my companions and the hilltop in the warm light. Though I didn’t understand, I was amazed and delighted as I watched.
Then Speranza said softly, “Behold, Amata, what has been done for you!”
I wondered, considering these words and this strange sight. As I gazed intently at the lights, it seemed to me that they were not five fires but five holes, openings revealing a brightness on the other side of the sky. Suddenly I remembered how I had felt when I was tormented on the hillside, as if the void had bored holes in me. Now, somehow I understood that such holes had been bored in another, and that it was through these holes that this light was coming to us now, stopping the onrush that would have destroyed me.
I still cannot explain how I came to perceive this, only that in that moment it was clear to me. The best I can say is this. What Speranza told me seems to show, though I could not think all this clearly then, that her father the King became one of those who are like me, those who feel the void making holes in their hearts, who are made to feel that they are nothing. Yet he chose that freely, for by doing this, he was able to make the holes in himself into openings for the rest of us, to open up light that was closed off.
Then I spoke again, speaking into the air, as if half to myself. “Where is he now? Is he nearby? Can I see him?”
At that moment, so suddenly that it sent a shock through me, the lights became white, whiter than lightning or a noonday sun, so pure and strong that I cried out and for a moment could not look on them. When I did look again, I was silent and still.
The clarity of the light shining around now was almost strange. I had thought that I saw every detail before, but as my eyes adjusted, I found that colors were brighter, lines sharper, and textures more vivid than they had been before. Then, too, something seemed different beyond the edge of the hilltop. Looking out, I saw the true wonder. The flood of black void-water had been transformed. Now it was a sea of pure, glass-clear, utterly wholesome water, rippling and glittering in the white radiance. Green plants were waving under it, and fish and other animals were swimming about in it; some were climbing in and out of it. Grass was even coming up the slopes of the hill now, rapidly, visibly, so that the ground that had been rocky and dead was now being clothed in soft green life.
I could not speak. I could not think. There was no need. Nor did I have any more questions.
A strong wind blew around me, and a voice spoke, strong as thunder, calm as sunlight, resonant as a great bell: “Because I live, my beloved, you will live also.”
I closed my eyes, carefully holding each word.
Then the voice said, “Rise now, come to me. Come to my house in the town.”
Surprised, I quickly opened my eyes. Above me were the long branches of an ordinary tree, putting forth the first tiny leaves of spring, reaching across a pale, early morning sky. There was Erbi, my ass, hawing over me. I was lying right where I had lain down on my way back to Telraum. There was no water of any sort, and no sign of the hill I had climbed—of course, I remembered, no hill stood in that spot—though the familiar hills were there.
Then, from those hills, a soft sound came with the wind—the steady chiming of a bell, ringing from the monastery. Moments later, another answered it, from Telraum down the road—that would be from the church. As the bells pealed and the light grew, I remembered that it was Easter morning.