Ri-Khrm was not particularly like the majority of the forest people in shape: though slim and not overly tall, she was not broad at the hips and shoulders as most were. Her hair was fine, white, and reached most way down her back – though she usually wore it braided or up; her skin was a deep brown, and her eyes ran pale blue-grey. All of this Qhey had noticed on first sighting her, but saw it as if new – each and every time – he gazed at her in endlessly increasing depth.
Khrm did not talk much at first, but as she got to know Qhey words began to flow from her in a warm and modulating voice.
She told of her childhood, which had been a happy one, like most of the frith children’s, but felt there was not much in particular to relate; she had not travelled far except once – of which she said little. She had met her husband while still young, he had been only a touch older, and she talked at length about this.
It had been love at first sight; she had glimpsed him strolling by, laughing with his friends, head held tall, and full of confidence. This all attracted her: she set out to catch him. And with all the charms she was able to exert it did not take long for her and Ru-Yarl to get married.
But he had died. Soon; for reasons she still did not know. She had gone to bed, he said he would follower her shortly, but when she woke in the middle of the night the bed beside her was empty. She had gone into the main room, where he had been sitting, but that was empty also, so she had gone out to the veranda. And there she found him. Sitting on the steps, dead, with no mark on him and no sign of anyone having come near. They had only been married for four years.
He was cremated – not the usual way – but Khrm feared lest he be trapped or encaged in a grey eternity – dry: dusty – just beyond her reach. By being cremated he was released to drift free, even to visit the Castle of the Air and find tranquillity – an obscure and almost forgotten belief, now, though Khrm found it helped, it being beyond the normal cares of the world.
And for years, whenever she saw a wisp of cloud that could be mistaken for smoke – or noticed the smoke from chimneys, campfires, bonfires – she thought of Yarl flying among the long-white-cloud of the sky-children.
She said little about the next half-dozen years, except that she kept teaching, hoping it would help, but would often find herself crying at any hour of the day or night, and could not see any end to her misery. It had not, indeed, ever really gone, though it faded away from her day-to-day life, interfering less as the years wound on, but always remaining potent and impossible to forget. Which she did not want.
It was during this period that Khrm said she went away. For most of a year. Autumn to autumn. Scarcely noticed, except by her parents, who said nothing. Qhey suspected she had gone in search of a place of sonorous healing, and she had occasionally said her belief in the Castle of the Air sustained her hope.
I’ve never had a loss so intimate. I have some idea from the loss of Ainé and my uncle Cuthburt. But I’m sure I was not as close to them as Khrm was to Ru-Yarl. And my relationships with Cuthburt and Ainé were the two situations in my life which made me feel most human – most real. Most connected.
They courted for a year. Moving closer and closer; yet Qhey could not bring himself to take that final step. To cement their relationship. All his life he had wanted that one person who would link with him, and with whom he could live out his remaining years, and here was the opportunity. Which he could not take.
I’ve always wanted to be that special someone to somebody, to come first for them. With my mother, it seemed to be my father, perhaps the only adult she ever saw as fully human like her, and with Khrm surely it must always be Ru-Yarl – perhaps more likely since he’s dead and their relationship has never deteriorated or collapsed. So could any partnership with Khrm be ideal? Yet haven’t I learnt that there is no earthly ideal? And that seeking to create one only causes harm?
Khrm would visit her parents’ house twice each moon, only missing the trip if she was very ill, and even then her mother would visit her, even though she was too elderly to make the journey easily, albeit that it was only a few miles and the ground level. She was not particularly close to her father, though they got on reasonably well, but she had remained very close to her mother, even while married. Khrm would talk everything over with her and, though her mother rarely gave advice, when she did it was worth listening to. And as the first anniversary of her having become entangled with Qhey approached, her frustration that he seemed unable to move beyond a certain point became more frequently mentioned.
“I know he loves me, and he must know I love him …”
“You do tell him?”
“O yes. Frequently. And he me. But there is something, I don’t know what, that puts a break on him talking too much about a future together. I know I was hesitant at first, because of Yarl, and I think Qhey understands that. But it’s not the case anymore. I’m ready and he doesn’t appear to understand that.”
“Has he told you why he’s hesitant?”
“No. And I can’t work it out. Perhaps he doesn’t know himself.”
“Will you wait? Have perhaps both of you lose this chance?”
“Both of us?”
“I can’t claim to know Qhey very well, he is as he is, and maybe he will always hesitate before that final step. But yes, both of you.”
Maybe I don’t ken what that final step is – it always having eluded me: that real closeness – my world not really having included other people like me.
“And perhaps the answer is not as complicated as you think. A partial, workable answer.”
“You ask him to marry you.”
“Will he say yes?”
And she did.
They were married in the late summer, beneath the stunning panoply of the forest canopy. Under the upheld and lofty boughs of the living cathedral that Khrm allowed Qhey to hold as his own special place.
It was a simple ceremony, an affirmation of their commitment made with heartfelt vows.
All the friends they had came, including those made during the previous year together: Qhey was surprised at how many there were. They feasted long towards the light. Beneath the clean stars: in the clear air. Food rolled and drink flowed and music rustled the leaves.
Ri-Khrm’s song became one of green, though always with a touch of autumn.