Caliban’s Hour: Excerpt

He found a slender stick and began breaking it into pieces. At the first crack I shied, but Prospero did not look up. I held my ground as he began to wrap his rolls of clay around the twigs, his fingers sliding so quickly and gracefully that for long moments I watched them rather than the things they were shaping… but before long it was impossible to ignore what was taking form. He had made a little doll, a manikin which could lie on its back in his cupped hand. He set it down and then made another, slightly smaller. When this was done, your father took a few drops of water from the bowl and flicked them at the two figures with whipcrack fingers, then reached into his robe; when he took his hand out again and fluttered it over the little dolls’ heads, a dusting of brilliant yellow and blue sifted down. Strangely, even to my untutored eye, all the blue dust stuck to one figure’s head, but the yellow adhered to the top of the smaller.

Still not raising his eyes, though I was so fascinated I might not have bolted even had he lurched toward me, your father lifted them up, held them close to his mouth, and breathed on them in turn as he spoke their names.

Arlecchino, he said. Then: Columbina.

As he spoke, first the blue-headed figure, then the golden, squirmed in his hands.

I must have let out a gasp, for he smiled deep in his beard, but still did not turn toward me. Mind you, I was not civilized: to me this trick was no more magical than catching a hidden fish in a deep pool or picking a leaf that made soup taste good. But unlike those other useful things, both of which I had seen my mother do, this was new to me. And even though I did not understand that this was magic — that back in Milan he might have been denounced to the church and burned in public for this harmless display — I was still delighted.

Dance, Arlecchino, he said. Words and names alike meant nothing to me then, but I saw him perform this conjuration on other occasions — and once a similar but unpleasantly different version.

Arlecchino, the faceless mud-man, bowed, then began to dance. Slowly and carefully at first, as though he did not know himself whether his gelid legs could hold him, or whether his tree-twig bones might not snap, the little doll began to caper.

Dance, Columbina, whispered your father, and the golden-headed figure joined her mate.

Prospero then slowly stood, but instead of moving any closer, he turned on his heel and walked away down the slope and onto the beach. The rush of the sea was in my ears and for a moment I forgot the two manikins to watch him go. He did not look back. He seemed impossibly tall.

Arlecchino and his Columbina whirled and cavorted. I crept nearer, lowering myself until my face was at the level of their dance, but they were less frightened of me than I of them. Their sticky, nub-handed arms met and they twirled about each other. Arlecchino lifted Columbina and tossed her in the air, then caught her as she fell, although he stumbled for a moment and one of his legs lost a bit of clay. They went on that way for some time, then gradually slowed. At last, as if by mutual assent, they lay down side by side and stopped moving.

© 1994 by Tad Williams

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