By Le Chat Noir
Am I so mad as to renounce the land for which I marred the shores of Paradise?
I kneel on that ground, and my fingers clench around fistfuls of yellow grass. I knew that grass, blade per blade, as it died and grew again with the fleeting years. Now the grass dies in winter and does not grow anew. My fingers clench around fistfuls of yellow grass, and the fields are strange to my touch.
I lower my face, and breathe in the scent of the grass; I knew that scent, season after changing season, fresh and soothing for a restless soul. Now the grass dies in winter and does not grow anew. I breathe in the scent of the grass, and the fields exhale but a sickening smell of iron and rust.
I sit down by the riverside, and let my body slump forwards to see my face mirrored in its unstill surface; I have drunk from the waters of these streams, and let their waters wash my face, and my hands, for long days through. Where do I see now the air of my Father in mine, his eyes like mine? The ice-cold rivers have washed his face away with time, melting his features and taking them away, away to be lost in the Sea.
I stand, and feel the ground under my feet. I knew that ground, had walked every inch of its surface, once, twice, a hundred times. Now the earth sleeps in winter and does not wake anew. I feel the ground under my feet, and it is hard, and cold; and the bosom of the fields have become arid and harsh.
I stand, and lift my eyes towards the sky. I know that sky; I have slept under its shelter for many nights, rainy or calm, taking the clouds for a roof and the land for a bed. Now the storm comes. The frozen stars forget to smile for a desolate world, and the rain itself is acid and dead; even the sun is unforgiving in the pallor of its vanity.
And the folly of Man has drained this Earth of the manure that makes it thrive, and made it wane: Age after Age, the tears from our eyes and the blood from our heart that fell into its hungry soil. For if their tears are true, and their blood is true, who among the sons of Men thinks to weep when he sees tears, or thinks to die when he sees blood?
I sing, and my voice is heard by none, not even borne upon the wind. Am I so mad as to renounce the land for which my heart has bled?
A nauseating stench lingers in the air. Some have not been able to bear the pitching of the ship, the tireless crashing of the waves against its flanks.
I sail West.
It is not a land of Blessing I hope to attain. The wish is in my heart, a foolish thing: but for one whose vow is to live in pain there is no hope allowed. I sail away from the land in which I had hoped and wept. With me I have taken no baggage, only a small pack with some food and water, for the immigrants are asked to provide for their sustenance themselves. It is a cruel law. Many have been driven out of their homeland by poverty and famine: barely had they enough to eat for two weeks, and it has been a month since the boat has left the shores of Europe. I do not know how many more days are to pass till we land at last.
But I am no man, and without bread I can endure longer than they.
At the beginning, there were children to run around, rushing into one's legs or chasing each other around wrinkled grandmothers seated on great packs of luggage. Now the little ones cling to their mother, father, siblings scarcely older than they. I have given my food to the German family that sits at my right; their little boy, a child of three, has fallen asleep on my leg, his tender skin pale with sickly anaemia. I almost do not dare to move for fear of disturbing his quiet.
I am no man, and without sleep I can endure longer than they. But they are right, those who surrender to fatigue and dreams: at least, the brain is thereby tricked away from the thoughts of hunger and thirst.
"Five, I ask you! Five generations sacrificed to the ideals of capitalism and free trade!"
The old man seems to rejoice greatly at the idea, and he turns towards me his wide, rustically honest grin, where still remain five or six yellowed teeth. A strange spark dances in his eyes. I look at his features, like an ancient sculpture: worn by time and hardship, cracked with wrinkles as if ditches in a sunburnt land. Labour had left its seal deeply engraved on that aged face, the face of fifty years of work and toil.
It is strange, that fire in his eyes, small and blue, faded as if time, like a river, had drained away from them all colour and life. It is strange, the pride these men of today draw from their poverty and misfortunes, as if the trials of hunger and fatigue were what made them worthy of a life on this sorry land. It is strange, because I understand.
"And a fine young lad like you, hey? What're ye doing among this one shipload of misery?" An odd, gurgling sound emerges from his throat, and he spits on the wooden boards at his feet.
The gaze with which he now scrutinizes my face looks not entirely benevolent.
"There is no mistaking an aristocrat in those days," he adds with a leer. "No mistaking that look of pity and contempt your lot carries around, always and everywhere, …" Another spurt of spit lands on the floor, greyish and sickly. "Can't let the pride go, hey, as low as you fall, can't forget how great and important you are, can you?"
A small, innocent smile comes to my lips, because the sudden truth of his words have touched me to the heart. But I answer him like I have answered all, like I am bound to answer all: swiftly, discreetly, a gesture of the hand in front of the mouth: dumb.
I am no man, and without words I can endure longer than they.
Vaguely, I hear the voice somewhere near me, and feel more than I see the face hovering above mine. Pulling myself back from my dreams, I curse under my breath at seeing the worried lad's eyes surveying me; I must have been sleeping with my eyes open again. Fortunately, most of the time I can get away with it by calling it a mere daydream.
He does not speak further, only stares at me with the poorly expression of a beaten child, with awe and curiosity and fear and shame all mixed into one, and can only repeat, so low that even my elven ears can barely catch the words, "Kind sir."
I sigh. Have they all seen me share my food with my neighbours that they think I have the means to help them? There is little food left in my bag, so little that it will not even matter whether I am deprived of it or not. However for a child it might just suffice. Yet when I hand the piece of bread to the boy, doing my best to smile, he does not reach out to take it, only shakes his head and does not take his eyes off me.
I extend my hand closer to him so that he may understand my meaning.
He shakes his head again.
I find that I am not exasperated at all, and wonder if this time my trained patience can account for it, or simply weariness.
He must not be stupid. A kind of strange intelligence radiates from his eyes, the raw and unpolished sort that emanates from uneducated persons; those that might have become great and renowned had they only been taught how to spell 'knowledge'. But it is not English he speaks, yet Russian, I notice. It is hard for me sometimes to keep tracks of human languages: I can claim to have mastered a great number of them over the ages, but there are days when even when hearing and speaking a specific tongue I can barely remember from which land I had learnt it.
Eventually, after much hesitation, the youth takes the bread into his hands and an embarrassed flush is on his cheeks.
"Thank you. It is not for me, you see, but my mother is unwell."
And then he is away.
Gratitude. It is something I had not been given in a long time.
But I am no man, and without love I can endure longer than they.
I am an exile like you.
The youth is back to speak with me often, and like the others he thinks that I am mute. So he speaks to me, or simply sits besides me sometimes, leaning against my arm. He does not know my name, and calls me Stranger.
I sail West.
It is a place of hope for many, America, a name full of dreams and illusions; and some have even called it the promised land. A haunting fancy for some, an embodied ideal: I remember this writer Kafka, whose works I have read not so long ago. It is an escape, and probably never then had the hearts of these emigrants been so filled with hope and faith then during these weeks of starvation.
He smiles and laughs a lot, the young boy: it is a silent laughter that makes his shoulders shake and his face flush, but not a sound. It is strange. He is young: seventeen, he said, –though he looks to be no more than fourteen– and has seen much of misery in his short life, and yet he can always find a reason to laugh, to be amused, to find delight in life.
Once he has reached out with his hand –which had been white and graceful once, but now already spoilt by years of labour– and touched my cheek, with his usual smile in his eyes.
"And who are you, stranger," he asked in his beautiful tongue, "who are so beautiful and elegant, who does not starve without food, does not thirst without drink?"
And I was struck with madness then maybe, a foolish idea that could have caused my ruin; but then I seized his hands, leaning close to his ear, and whispered there so that only he could hear, "I am an exile like you."
And the great swarm of men, women, children of all ages, grandparents bent upon a walking stick or the arm of their daughter rush out into the sunlight, piling out onto the deck with a great swelling cry of joy, of freedom, of hope found at last, taking with them their baggage on their back, holding their children high at arms' end so that they too can see the grey city that lies in front of them.
I see. It is the same yellow, dried grass, it is the same acid, caustic rain; it is the same merciless sun and the same inclement Earth.
But I am no man, and without hope…
Notes: An answer to the 'Maglor through History' challenge… Somehow the very first thought that struck me was Maglor emigrating to America.