58. Heaven’s Just a Block Away

Musical Score: Adam Ant, Shake Your Hips

The last episode of Man Raised by Spiders, the coming-of-age story of Valentine Shelawn.

In late November, gray elves hold a 10-day festival for Corellon Larithian. Every spare corner — porches, street corners, bow windows, even vacant lots — becomes an impromptu shrine ablaze with votives, heaped with dried flowers and draped with crape paper cut in elaborate patterns. It’s traditional to polish chandeliers and to turn up gaslights until the flames form hot, blue-yellow pennants. During the last two nights, fire breathers and linkmen dance in the streets, and young elves menace themselves and everyone else with homemade sparklers and fireworks. Last year at this time, Valentine being nursed back to health by the wood elves, so he’s never seen this before. He thinks of it as the Festival of Flammability, and takes a naive, almost feverish pleasure in its beauty.

Valentine comes home late one evening, just as the festival is reaching its peak. He’s just left a meeting with Marcus and two agents about estate matters — something to do with a set of servants’ pensions, which are apparently funded by rents collected from a vineyard which has been stricken with grape blight. To Valentine, the obvious answer is to pay the pensions out of other estate funds until the grapes recover; however, Marcus encourages the agents to walk through a mind-numbing range of possibilities, and to provide detailed projections based on scenarios ranging from total loss of the vineyard to spectacular recovery. Valentine pastes a respectful look on his face, and allows his thoughts to wander.

It’s well after dark when he leaves, but the streets are brilliant. Couples are strolling arm in-arm, and families wheel by in flocks. An elderly woman walks an elegant, vicious-looking poodle. The advancing tide of holiday cheer lifts Valentine’s spirits, and the grubby concerns of wealth and estate recede.

He rounds a corner, enters the square where he lives. His spirits soar when he sees that his house is ablaze with light. The steps leading up to the door are lined with luminaria. Gold light pours from the fanlight and bow window. At night, Liamelia is a dim world of torches, campfires and candles; it’s rare and wonderful to see so many candles, fires and gaslights ablaze at once.

As he crosses the square, he remembers the way the sunset flared and died the night he and Ariadne first made love. To Valentine, the memory of their lovemaking is indelibly linked to that beautiful night sky, to all nocturnal beauty. His stride slows. He stops, covers his face with his hands, takes a deep, shuddering breath. For a moment he stands alone, surrounded by the marble facades and glowing windows of stately townhomes. He thinks, I don’t want to be alone with this beauty.

He’s conscious of trying to conjure up an interested feminine presence, a woman who cares for him tenderly, who would feel the same piercing, irrational joy and nostalgia. Missing Ariadne has an almost pleasurable edge, while the thought of Valykria fills him with shame and confusion. He wonders, Why am I alone on this day? What am I doing wrong? For a moment, he’s bathed in sorrow and regret.

After a time, the edge of his sadness fades. It’s cold and windy, so he climbs the steps, enters the foyer.

His servants have polished the grand chandelier in the foyer, and lovingly cleaned and lit all the mirrored sconces. The housekeeper is lingering within, pretending to clean something, eager to show him what they’ve done: the chandelier, the sconces. This is part of his new life: Dismissing his own thoughts in favor of her very real pride. He schools his face into a smile as she points out that she’s kindled fires in all the fireplaces, which, she grandly informs him, will be kept alight until the festival ends two days later. In each room, she’s polished and strategically placed a set of mirrors to capture and reflect the candelabras and gaslights. His smile quickly becomes genuine as he sees her excitement at the beauty she’s created — branch after branch of candles, the work of countless diligent bees.

He exclaims, “Thank you so much! It’s beautiful! I didn’t know what to do — I’m so glad you did it.”

“It’s an honor, sir. We were glad to do it.” She adds, “Master Inglorion is in the library.”

Valentine groans, “Oh, God, he must hate this — I didn’t think of it.” 

The housekeeper shakes her head, says, “For all his foreign looks and ways, Master Inglorion is a decent young elf, and very devoted to the Bringer of Light.”

“Oh, certainly,” Valentine murmurs. He’s learned during his cousin’s brief stay that Inglorion’s loveliness causes people of all ages and both sexes to dress him with every fine quality, from decency to aesthetic taste to deep religious devotion. Valentine is prone to do the same. And, to be fair, though Inglorion is colorblind, volatile, absent-minded and a tireless skirt-chaser, he has good qualities beyond charm and beauty.

In this case, the housekeeper is right about Inglorion’s devotion. Valentine enters the library to find him singing softly to himself and putting the final touches on an elaborate shrine. He’s transformed one of the built-in wall niches into a tiny stage, complete with gold brocade curtains. It’s filled with dried flowers of yellow, orange and red — marigolds, pink rosebuds, a deep drift of crimson rose petals, all forming a backdrop for a statuette of the stiff, pale god himself. Inglorion has positioned a spare lectern in front of the niche and filled it with row after row of votives flickering in gold, red and orange glass holders. As Valentine approaches, Inglorion is carefully adding a handful of dried strawflowers, while singing softly in a fine, soulful tenor, “Heaven’s just a block away / Always just a block away / It just ain’t right / So pray it loose / Looking for the right line…”

He feels Valentine’s gaze, breaks off naturally and unselfconsciously, and says, “I found I really wanted a shrine this year. If you don’t like it, you can let the candles burn out.”

“No, I’ve missed having one.” Valentine cocks his head curiously. “I’m surprised you mark the Celebration of Light.”

Inglorion smiles almost shyly, shakes his head. “I can’t explain it. Of course, it’s hard for me to look at. But I was very devout when I was younger, and some of that has stayed with me. I still love the ritual. I always have a shrine when I’m aboveground.” He looks down at the stage with its ornate proscenium, adjusts the curtains minutely, touches a spray of dried tea roses. 

“You were devout? I didn’t know.”

“Oh, yes. I spent my teens longing to be martyred in some picturesque way, took my oath precociously, when I was just 22. That’s how I ended up with such a preposterous first name.” He smiles ruefully. “I was given to fasting and prayer and exotic devotions for decades after that. I don’t know why I thought that would please the gods. If anything, you’d think they would have begged me to cut out the continuous prayer, and settle down with a mortgage, wife and kids.”

Valentine laughs. “I’m sure you would have if they’d written it on a wall in flames.” His voice softens. “This really is beautiful — it must have taken you a long time.”

“If you like, you can add to it. It’s meant to change, and to be tended by more than one person.”

Valentine studies Inglorion’s graceful profile as he makes final adjustments to the draperies and flowers, and re-groups the front rank of candles. Seeing him like this — calm, gentle — makes Valentine realize how guarded and composed his expressions usually are.

Inglorion says to himself, continuing an earlier train of thought, “That’s the classic error of youth — to take things too seriously. And the classic error of adulthood is not to take them seriously enough.” 

“Albertus would say that you’re still young.”

“Oh, yes — and probably making both errors at once. Of course, one’s 100s are different.”

“How?”

“Much, much happier.” He sits back, lets his unfocused gaze play over the flowers and flames. “I got the idea of making this because I was walking along the street and I saw a distant building, maybe two or three blocks over. It was under construction, and 20 or 30 guys in headlamps were crawling all over it. It was dark, and they looked — I don’t know — like a flight of luminous insects. It was this incredible, unexpected beauty. And I thought, you know, everything will be OK. I’ve survived so much already. I’ve figured some things out, and I’ll get the rest eventually. It made me so happy — the sudden beauty, the lights winking in and out, moving slowly across the sky. There’s so much joy now.”

“So you made the shrine.”

“Yeah. Kind of a non sequitur, but faith always is.” He smiles up at Valentine, and his expression is so sweet and guileless that it’s hard to square with the Inglorion that Valentine knows: spymaster, womanizer, marquis from the Underdark. This is Inglorion as Sieia knows him: pure, sweet, unbearably earnest.

This is where Valentine’s coming-of-age story ends, and our larger tale begins: in a blaze of candlelight and quiet joy, almost too bright for either cousin to bear.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s