Once again, my father’s persistence had overcome my mother’s anxieties, as well as my own ten-year-old objections. I had objected primarily because I did not want to be moved; as even slight movements pained my leg’s infected wound, I did not relish the prospect of a bumping wagon trip of at least a day and a half each way. My mother, too, was concerned about my condition; she also feared that the reputed healer of Lake Iumena, where Father wanted to take me, would prove an ignorant quack, and the trip only do me harm. “Miracle cures are always some sort of trick!” she had maintained. “Especially when one person claims to possess some unique power. Why won’t you just take him to a house of healing in the city, where he can get real treatment?”
But Father had been adamant. “You know what Tamona”—our village’s healer-woman—“told us about that. Their skill can do no more for this wound than hers could. If we take him to a house of healing, they’ll only cut off his leg, and he will spend the rest of his life with only one leg. Think about what that will mean for him.” Then he described at length all the sufferings of a one-legged man’s life, until I was so wracked with anxiety that I wanted to yell. I was relieved when he reached his conclusion: “Taking Anthan to Lake Iumena at least offers him a chance of recovery. Isn’t it worth a bit more effort, even risk, for the life and wholeness of our son?”
At this, I knew instinctively that he had won. Mother would not be proof against this appeal to her feelings. Her sigh and reluctant, “Well . . .” only confirmed my intuition.
By the next afternoon, all necessary arrangements were made. Leaving the household in the care of my oldest sister, my parents gathered such things as would be necessary for three days of traveling and set out with me in the wagon. That was how it came about that we went to Lake Iumena, where I found so much more than a cure that I have since come to consider it worth the wounded leg to have been there.
The trip was and remains a blur in my mind. It seemed to me extremely long, and was, as I had feared, most uncomfortable. All the way, Mother thought of nothing but easing my pain; she adjusted blankets and pillows as I wished, applied a poultice that Tamona had given us, and told me every story she knew. Luckily, spring was then just edging toward summer, sparing us severe weather of any sort.
Dusk had fallen on the second day when we finally reached Lake Iumena. It was set at the bottom of a sprawling valley, steeped in a deeper shadow as the last of the sun’s light slipped down behind the remote hills. Even the lake seemed tremendous to me, a vast field of dark, still water; my mind readily filled its mysterious depths with every sea monster I had heard described or seen drawn. In its center stood a dark, lumpy shape, small with distance but large in reality—an island, the healer’s dwelling.
“Here we are,” Father proclaimed, a note of triumph piercing the weariness of his voice, as we began to drive down the hill’s gentle slope. “You managing all right, Anthan?” I replied with an affirmative grunt, pleased that the journey was nearly over.
Now that we had arrived, I wondered if Mother would voice any of her previous concerns. The possibility that this healer would do something other than help me now seemed very vivid and disturbing in my mind. Presently she did speak, but only to say, “Ieddan, how are we to cross? Surely there must be a bridge, or ferry, or some such?”
Father, up in the driver’s seat, tilted his head in a way that told me he had not yet considered this problem. “How are we to cross?” he said at last, glancing about. Surely we had seen nothing of that sort from the top of the slope, which we had now about halfway descended.
Then something caught my eye. “Look!” I shouted, pointing. Along the lake’s shore, not far from where we were approaching, a small, warm light like a torch had just appeared. My parents had seen it too; Father exclaimed, “There! That must be a signal light.” Mother looked as if she thought this a bit odd, but said nothing.
We could see only dimly by now, but when we came to the light, we saw that it was a lantern hanging in a willow near the water’s edge. Beside the lantern was a wooden board with letters scorched on it: Ring to cross. This message puzzled me until I noticed that an adjacent branch was decorated with many little silver bells.
“Hm. Perhaps it’s a signal to a ferryman . . .” Father speculated aloud. Briskly he clambered down from the wagon, reached up and shook the branch vigorously, as if to make very sure that he was heard.
For a few moments, nothing seemed to be happening. We three waited in silence. Then I heard a soft sloshing sound, and saw, in the lingering twilight, ripples moving in many places on the lake. Something was moving in there, or many somethings were doing so. I stared with fascination and a slight nervousness.
Suddenly I caught my breath. Something had just emerged from the water. When I looked harder, it resembled a wide gray-green rock. It hadn’t been there a moment before, but it didn’t seem to be moving now. The next moment, another, identical rock rose up right beside the first. Another appeared just behind them, and another, and another. In mute amazement, my parents and I watched as these apparent rocks lined themselves up to form a path extending from us toward the distant shadowy shape of the island.
“What in the name of wonder . . .” breathed Father.
For a while, no one seemed to know what to do next. It seemed that we were meant to cross on this path, but was it really safe? What were these things? Mother clutched me and stared, while Father stepped closer, peering at the strange shapes.
Then I noticed something smaller peering out from under one of the shapes—a head. “Turtles!” I cried, pointing again.
“Oh!” exclaimed Mother. “They—they are turtles! Ieddan, wha . . . can we do this? Should . . . should we go on?”
Father turned back to us, his wide eyes shining. “Of course! Meris, don’t you see? The power here is real. One who can direct these reptiles can surely help Anthan.”
Mother gazed away toward the island, looking bewildered and anxious. “But will they? Can we trust his safety to this . . . strange sorcerer, or what have you?”
“There, now, we’ll be right with him all the time,” Father countered reassuringly. “We’ll not let him out of our sight; and if the healer does aught suspicious, why, we’ll not allow it. But we’ll at least have done all we could for our boy.”
Mother sighed again and moved aside, allowing Father to climb up and lift me down, while she detached our lantern from the wagon. Fresh pain stabbed my leg as Father scooped me up, but I clenched my teeth and tried to think about what he had said—surely this person could help, at least. Glancing again toward the island, I saw another small, hot lamp-glow, this one swaying back and forth in a small arc. Someone on the shore was waving to us. Mother waved our lantern in reply.
Now, though, something distressing evidently occurred to her. She turned back to Father and said urgently, “The horses—the wagon! We can’t leave them here unguarded, in the dark!”
Father shrugged. “We can’t bring them over a pathway like this. We may not be over there long. Or perhaps the healer will know what to do about them.”
Then, slowly, gingerly, my parents began the crossing. Mother went first, carrying the light, while Father came behind with me. Step by careful step, from shell to shell, in our little bubble of burning light, we were traversing the living pathway over the black waters. Gradually, the light on the island grew closer, larger, clearer, though I could not make out any better the person who held it. The thought that filled my mind, though I could not articulate it so at the time, was something like, The world of the stories is here, and we are entering it.
We were only a few steps from the shore when I first saw the person’s features, lit up by the lantern. It was a woman, small and slender, clad in white under her dark cloak. Her long black hair seemed like a cloak around her pale face, so that my first thought—in more or less these words—was, Her head and body match. I conjectured that she must be very young, because she was so small and her hair fell loose in the way of young girls, not tied up like Mother’s. As we stepped off the last turtle onto land, though, I reconsidered; though her face was smooth and fresh, it had the maturity of many full years.
This thought flashed by in hardly a moment. Almost as soon as we were on the shore, she smiled graciously at us and said, “Welcome! Blessed evening to you.” Her smile and her voice were both soft and muted, as if she were feeling very quiet, perhaps a little tired, but still resolved to give us her best greetings.
“Ah, yes, good evening,” said Father, sounding still slightly confused, despite the excitement he had shown a minute ago. “Are you the healer of Lake Iumena?”
“I am,” she replied. “My name is Nioel. You seek healing for your child?” she added, glancing at me with my bandaged leg.
The three of us all nodded fervently. “Will you help me?” I blurted out, voicing the question that had been burning on my mind the whole way.
“Of course.” Nioel’s gentle voice took on a note of tenderness. “Come in; the water is hot even now.”
My parents exchanged looks, pondering the apparent randomness of this statement. Assuming the questioning face, polite but tinged with a subtle sharpness, that had so often drawn out my confessions of mischief, Mother queried, “You work your cures with hot water?”
“The iumen works them,” answered Nioel, with calm assurance, as if this remark were entirely self-explanatory. With this, she turned and began leading the way toward a nearby cottage, nestled among tall trees, which I had not noticed until then.
I opened my mouth to ask, “The what?” but then remembered something and said instead, “Father, what about the horses?”
“Oh! Yes. Ah, excuse me,” Father called after the mysterious healer. “We left our horses and wagon unattended on the other shore.” At this, Nioel stopped and gave a long, low whistle. At once two large animals came bounding toward us from the direction of the cottage—two big sheepdogs, as I saw when they came near the lamplight. They stopped before Nioel, who bent over and said softly to them, “We have guests tonight, and their horse is alone on the far side. Will you go look after him?” Barking brightly, the dogs sprinted away toward the water and across the path of turtles, which still hadn’t moved. Turning to the latter, Nioel declared, “You may go after they have crossed.”
This done, she again began making for the cottage. My parents and I followed in complete silence. I was increasingly amazed and delighted at this woman’s talents, as simple as they were surprising. I realized then that my fears were now fading away, giving place to excitement and wonder.
Once at the cottage, Nioel opened a narrow little door and stood back, holding it for us. The interior shone with warm golden light. Mother entered first, looking moderately pleased thus far but still alert, with Father and I following and our hostess coming last. Inside, lamps hanging from the ceiling filled the place with light; a feeble glow also came from a fire, mostly dwindled to embers, in a fireplace, over which hung a steaming pot. The walls and floor were wooden, likely accounting for the pleasant woodish smell, as were the three chairs, one small table, and couch. What most struck me, though, were the countless odds and ends hanging on the walls: a bow, a scrap of parchment, a leather cap, a water-skin, many figures carved in stone or wood, and more things arranged with little evident pattern or purpose.
“Set him down on the couch,” Nioel directed Father. “I will go quickly and fetch the iumen.”
“What is iumen?” Father asked, laying me down with utmost gentleness.
“Healing leaves,” she replied with a smile, slipping out again into the dark.
Mother and Father looked at each other, silent questions in their faces. I glanced about at the oddly decorated inside of the cottage. Examining the things on the walls, I noticed that nearly all of them were covered in intricate swirling or crisscrossing patterns. In fact, detailed patterns of one sort or another adorned almost everything in the little house: the iron-work of the lamps, the carving of the wooden chairs and table, the bright cushioning of the one couch, and the white rug, embroidered with green vines, that covered the floor.
Suddenly Father’s eyes popped and he smacked his forehead. “Iumen! Of course!!” He might have said no more if not for Mother’s startled expression, at which he went on, “Meris, why is this lake called Iumena? That’s been a forgotten bit of knowledge—but not for her! This is a lake where iumen grows—it’s the lake of healing leaves!” His face was radiant. “I knew this was the place to go!” Strictly speaking, I reflected, he had not known that, but I was glad that he had hoped so strongly.
Then a movement caught my eye, and I jumped. A porcupine twitched as it lay between the couch and the wall. Father’s shouting seemed to have disturbed its sleep. As Mother and I gave a unanimous cry of alarm, the door opened and Nioel returned.
“Did Seso frighten you?” Looking half sympathetic and half amused, she hastened over to the spiny creature, bent down and informed it, “Seso, we have guests tonight. Go sleep where they cannot see you, lest you trouble them.” Immediately, if slowly, the porcupine got to its feet and waddled away to a corner behind the table.
“You keep that thing in the house?!” Mother exclaimed, with evident distress.
“He comes and goes as he will,” Nioel explained, a note of apology in her voice. “But he will not harm any whom I have invited here.” That was when I glimpsed in her hand a bunch of large leaves. At first I thought they were covered with frost, and wondered how that could be at the end of spring, but then I saw that they were a sort of silvery green color. Nioel now went to the pot and slipped these leaves into the water.
Mother, still staring at the porcupine, didn’t seem to have noticed. “It’s not safe to let such things indoors,” she insisted.
Nioel paused for a moment, thinking, then shook her head. “No, not for you . . . no longer,” she mused, seeming sad.
Mother looked about to say something more, but then paused and sniffed. Her face lit up, with interest and almost excitement, as she asked, “Is that—is that the, er, iumen?” I had noticed the smell too, a sweet, spice-like smell rapidly filling the room.
“It is.” The healer smiled. “The queen of all earth’s plants, heaven’s blessing given for every wound and ill. Men once knew how to cultivate it.”
At this, I frowned and spoke up. “So why can only women grow it now?”
Nioel’s pale, thoughtful face broke into a smile and almost a laugh. “The children of men have lost the knowledge,” she explained. “Only the Myruhoi retained the art. Few of us linger here now.”
My parents’ reactions to this remark startled me. Both grew wide-eyed; Mother caught her breath, while Father gaped and stammered excitedly. “You . . . wha . . . Meris, did . . . Madam, you are one of the Myruhoi?! Why, I had thought all the Elderfolk had left this part of the world!”
“Nearly, but not all,” Nioel replied, that note of sadness in her voice again. “A few remained to care for such spots as this. But I have seen none of my kindred in many long years.” With that, she took a ladle and began stirring the water in the pot.
I blinked in confusion. The word Myruhoi sounded vaguely familiar, and I was pleasantly intrigued to learn that our hostess was something other than a “child of men.” Now, however, I was more curious to know what about this revelation made my parents so excited. Tugging at Father’s sleeve, I whispered, “What are the Myruhoi?”
Wild delight shone in my father’s face as he answered, “They are the oldest guardians of this earth, older than men, longer-lived and wiser. They understand the ways of every kind of thing—people, animals, the earth and anything that grows on it, even strange creatures of magic, the sort that went away long ago, along with Nioel’s people—or most of them. Anthan . . . it’s a special luck that is yours today.” I stared in fascination at the quiet, unassuming little woman stirring the pot. She looked far from exciting, but if Father thought her so amazing, she was interesting to me. Further increasing the wonder, Mother was smiling now. Her suspicions seemed to be gone.
Now Nioel was ladling the steaming water into a wide, shallow basin, which had been hanging on the wall but now rested on a little iron frame with short legs. When this was half full, she took a pitcher from the mantel and began pouring more water, presumably to cool the basin. The whole cottage now smelled strongly of the fragrant iumen. Stirring the water some more, she looked up at Mother and said, “Will you unbind his leg? The water will soon be ready.” Mother nodded and, with perfect gentleness, slowly unwrapped my bandages. I winced and clenched my teeth.
When she finished, my wound was uncovered, a discolored, running sore spot. As many times as I had seen it, I always had to look away. This time, though, was different; instead of looking in anguish at the ceiling, I looked up hopefully at the gentle healer, she of the wondrous Myruhoi, and her basin full of the healing iumen-water.
Now Nioel was carefully pushing the basin, on its little iron stand, over to the couch. When it stood next to me, she lifted my leg over the water, took a small pitcher from the iron stand, and began scooping the water and pouring it over my leg. Of course, I thought, she would wash it first. Then I realized that something more was happening. The wound was indeed being cleansed, but the pain was also fading.
When Nioel had rinsed my leg three times, she set down the pitcher and immersed the wounded spot in the water. She simply held it there, and for moments that felt endless, no one moved or spoke. With mounting curiosity and excitement, I wondered what she was doing. I could not see into the water, which had turned a sort of silver-white with the iumen. Now, though, I began to feel something—the pain that had plagued me for so long was rapidly disappearing. My leg felt a wonderful rush of relief, the feeling of soundness at long last taking the place of torment.
Still Nioel, her eyes nearly closed, held my leg under the water, until any trace of hurting had entirely disappeared. Then she seemed to awaken, smiled, and lifted it up, with the simple comment, “See, you are well!”
Now it was my turn to blink and gape. The horrible wound was gone, leaving whole flesh covered with fresh, clean skin. I gave a yell of ecstatic joy, leaped from the couch and began running like mad around the cottage. Oh, how good it felt to run again, after so many days of not even being able to stand. I knocked over a chair and scattered a family of startled squirrels that I hadn’t seen, but I could not have cared less.
When I finally calmed down enough to pay attention to my surroundings, I saw that Mother’s smile was running with tears and Father was clasping Nioel’s hand in a profoundly excited handshake. From the bag in his other hand, I knew that he was offering her a payment, a handsome sum for my family to give.
“Your generosity does you credit,” Nioel was saying, “but I neither seek nor desire any pay. Iumen was given as a gift to the peoples of earth, to provide them with healing at need. I do no more than distribute its power, now that men can no longer procure it for themselves.”
“Well, that’s as may be,” Father replied, “but I don’t know that you understand all the anguish we’ve had all this time, with Anthan in such pain and we not knowing if he would ever be well or whole. We must do something to thank you.”
The quiet smile shone like a small, still candle flame in Nioel’s face. “Remember that you too are entrusted with the care of the world, such as you find it, and all things that live therein—the growing things, the beasts, and your fellow men. Do that, and I will be well thanked. As for your gold, give it to one who has need of it.”
Though I usually did not listen when adults were having serious conversations, not directly concerning me, I paid close attention to Nioel’s words; it seemed to me that she was entrusting my parents with a great secret. As if she knew I was watching, she now turned her smile toward me, and suddenly I remembered something else. “Thank you!” I shouted, and—again, contrary to my typical behavior—I ran over and threw my arms around her waist, without the least embarrassment.
We stayed that night in the cottage, at Nioel’s warm invitation; she insisted, if her mild courtesy could be called insistence, that we must be tired, we should not try to travel in the dark, and her dogs would take good care of our horses. We had had a bit of dinner on the way, but now our hostess served us bread like honey-cakes, bright fruits that I could not name, and a drink that I thought at first was tea but then decided was something fresher and sweeter.
As we sat and ate, Father asked questions about the Myruhoi, and Nioel told us stories of them, of how they lived and worked before they went away. The artifacts on the walls, we learned, had been of their making. I listened in silent fascination to her tales of another age, a time when her people were guides and guardians to both men and wild things, healing their ills, defending them from evils, protecting peace and preserving what was good and beautiful. The world she described was like that I knew from some tales, but more vivid and life-like, from one who had seen it—a world of great hopes and sorrows, adventures and wonders, where magical things were everywhere.
At length I asked, “Why did they have to go? I wish they would come back.”
Nioel smiled sadly. “The world is not disposed to receive what we would give. If my people returned now, it would be to little purpose. But, Anthan,” she added, in an encouraging tone, “it will not be so always. The day will come for the Myruhoi to return.” A muted joy crept into her eyes, as if she saw something beautiful far away.
“When? Will it be soon?” I asked eagerly.
“None knows,” she answered, shaking her head.
I frowned thoughtfully, trying to think of another question; I felt that I wanted to know so much more. “You must miss them a lot,” I ventured at last.
Nioel’s sorrow tinged her face only mildly, her control secure. “I am content to wait in my place until the day of their return,” she said simply.
I scowled. I hated waiting. “How long have you had to wait?”
“Hundreds of lives of men.”
At this I gaped in horror, and to my bewilderment, my parents chuckled.
We slept that night in a little guest room, where Nioel laid out blankets for us. These were simple in design but very comfortable. I fell asleep quickly and slept more soundly than I had in a long time.
It seemed only a minute later that I awoke and heard soft footsteps. The dim light of early morning trickled through the window. I sat up at once, full of energy, and scampered out of the room. Peering around, I saw Nioel making for the door.
“Where are you going?” I inquired.
She halted, though without turning, and answered, “I have a task to attend to.”
“Can I come with you?” I wanted to see what she might be doing so early.
Nioel hesitated a moment, then nodded. I hurried after her out the door.
The sun had not yet risen, but the muted hints of its glow were seeping up from the east. The grass and the lake’s waters were a soft gray, still thinly veiled with mist. About a stone’s throw from shore, the broad lump of a turtle’s shell floated through the water. The feeling of eeriness that had seemed last night to surround this place, and Nioel, seemed a strange thought now. I followed her away behind the cottage, through the dew-beaded grass, not caring that it soaked my feet.
After crossing a small lawn covered with the silvery iumen plants, we came to a stand of trees and a dense tangle of shrubbery. Strangely, this apparent mess did not strike me as messy or ugly, but as an intricately woven complexity of vines, bushes and branches, myriad patterns of green and brown turned gray in the dimness. At a murmured word from Nioel—her tone suggested “excuse us please”—the plants drew back, lifting to reveal a clear path between them. I reflected how right I had been to be curious about Nioel’s task; surely, I thought excitedly, it must be something special.
The path was dark but short, and we soon emerged in a large clearing. I looked around, I blinked, and I thought. Something felt . . . different here—what was it? Of course everything had felt somewhat different since we came to Lake Iumena, but here the different feeling was intensified, unavoidable.
The scene before us, like that on the other side, was a soft gray in the faint light and the mists. This space of open land sloped gently down, split down the middle by a small stream, clear as well-water, which rippled and burbled from beside where we stood to the clearing’s far end. On either side, near the trees, stood many large, round gray things, which I initially took for great boulders but then saw were houses of unusual and graceful shape, with scenes carved in intricate relief all over their outsides. Smaller trees, with thin branches and tiny leaves, stood around the houses, and here and there leaned over the stream. Scattered through the dewy grass were more iumen and different kinds of flowers, their tiny petals like soft little stars of varying shapes.
No doubt, it was all very nice; but I couldn’t understand the queer feeling it gave me. All the things here, stream and dew, trees and flowers and grass, were ordinary enough; yet was also strange and fascinating, almost as if I had never seen any such things before, and looked on them as on a new world. It felt like something from a story . . . but that wasn’t quite it. It was a very peaceful place . . . that was closer, if still not quite all. It seemed almost like the place itself was at peace, and everything in it, as if the things here were, if not quite joyful, yet serene and content.
Then I noticed that, while I was staring, Nioel had walked some paces ahead. I hurried after her, alongside the stream. She was making for what I had initially taken for a tree, without looking hard, but now saw was a pillar of some pale stone, with carved branches blossoming around the top.
“What are those gray things?” I asked, whispering, though I didn’t know why.
“Those were the dwellings of my people,” Nioel replied, still not turning to me.
I caught my breath and glanced around with fresh amazement. Though I had never doubted Nioel’s tales, I now felt more keenly that the Myruhoi really had been here—these were their homes, right before me. Small wonder this place felt so different.
Now we were coming to the pillar. I could see little steps winding around it, which Nioel began ascending. I climbed slowly, leaning toward the pillar, lest I slip off.
At the top, we slipped in between the stone branches. In their midst lay a little flat space, a small platform of stone, and at its center a large horn, a gleaming, dark-red horn with golden leaves wrapping around it. Nioel picked up the horn, took a breath and blew one long, low note, solemn and deep as if a hundred great, weighty thoughts were contained in that blast.
As she did, I felt a shaking under my feet. A faint tremor was running through the ground. I saw all the treetops quiver and startled birds fly out of them like a cloud of dust. I stared wildly in all directions, wondering if an earthquake would follow, but presently the horn’s note ended.
Nioel paused, took another breath, and blew again into the horn. This note, though still low, was lighter than the first, streaming forth ardently like some bosom-bursting longing, that would rush on without hesitation or exhaustion until it found rest in its fulfillment. This time, the dewdrops on the stone branches trembled and fell, the sound of the stream below grew quicker and louder, and I even heard a shaking, gurgling noise from the farther waters of the lake.
Then the second note ended, and Nioel breathed again and blew a third note. This one had nothing somber or sad in it. It rang out strong and glorious and glad, like a trumpet of victory; it seemed to summon any who heard to be brave and free and joyful. Now a breeze began to stir, then grew quickly until a lively gust was rushing across the treetops and swirling around our pillar. My heart seemed to be jumping within me, and I almost felt that I could leap into that wind and fly.
All too soon the noble sound faded into silence; but before I had time to miss it, I saw the golden sunlight breaking forth into the now-blue sky, turning the treetops a warm, bright amber. The veil of gray over the field below was lifted, revealing a scene of fresh, radiant colors.
I looked in amazement at Nioel. “What was that for? Was it magic?”
“Of a sort,” she answered, looking at me at last, and smiling. “The music of this horn helps this place to remember the Myruhoi and retain their influence.”
We had to hasten back then, of course, lest my parents awaken and wonder where we were. I regretted that I could not linger there longer, look more at the homes of the Myruhoi, hear more stories about them. Even when my parents woke, we could not stay long at Lake Iumena; we had to hurry back to our house and my siblings.
Still, even though our stay was so brief, I knew as we departed that what I had seen and heard there would remain in me for ever. I could not explain, even to myself, why that experience had such power for me. For the past twenty years and more I have been wondering, trying to understand what precisely about that visit moved me so. Now, at last, I think I understand.
From glimpsing the world of the Myruhoi, I received a vision, however fleeting, of what life could be. I saw and understood that our lives could be more, that this world could be better. From the age of ten, without putting my thoughts so, I have judged all human decisions and creations by what I found at Lake Iumena, and describing what that has meant for my life would mean telling many more stories. I only hope that the day of the Myruhoi’s return may not be too long delayed.