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Return to the Whorl

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Return to the Whorl

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Author: Gene Wolfe
Publisher: Tor, 2001
Series: The Book of the Short Sun: Book 3

1. On Blue's Waters
2. In Green's Jungles
3. Return to the Whorl

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction / Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Colonization
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(23 reads / 10 ratings)


Gene Wolfe's Return to the Whorl is the third volume, after On Blue's Waters and In Green's Jungles, of his ambitious SF trilogy The Book of the Short Sun . . . It is again narrated by Horn, who has embarked on a quest in search of the heroic leader Patera Silk. Horn has traveled from his home on the planet Blue, reached the mysterious planet Green, and visited the great starship, the Whorl and even, somehow, the distant planet Urth. But Horn's identity has become ambiguous, a complex question embedded in the story, whose telling is itself complex, shifting from place to place, present to past. Perhaps Horn and Silk are now one being. Return to the Whorl brings Wolfe's major new fiction, The Book of the Short Sun, to a strange and seductive climax.



The Bloodstained Men

We have been journeying by guess, and it is high time we admitted it. Thus I admit it here. All things considered, we have been fortunate; but unless we are favored by the Vanished Gods of Blue far above most, it cannot continue.

In this third book, which will surely be the last, I will begin by saying that, and telling you who we are; but first I should mention that the bandits are all dead, and that I, rummaging through their loot, have discovered this paper - an entire bale - and am making haste to use it.

* * *

His thoughts seemed to have nothing to do with the dead woman, her coffin, or the hot sunshine streaming through the open door into the poor little room. There was a pattering, as of rain; moisture splashed his ankles, and he looked down and saw blood trickling from his fingers to splash into a small pool at his feet.

His son had deserted him.

He was wounded. (No doubt the blood was from that wound?)

He lay in the medical compartment of a lander, though he was standing now, his blood dripping on worn floorboards. The bier was for another, it seemed, and the other was a middle-aged woman, and was already dead.

A knife with a worn blade and a cracked wooden handle lay at his feet. Reflexively, he bent to pick it up, and recoiled from it as if from a coiled snake. Something screamed in the emptiness, something deeper than resentment and thoughts of water, food, and healing.

He backed away from the knife and stumbled through the open door into the darkest night ever known.

* * *

We are four, a number that includes Oreb but excludes our four horses and Jahlee's white mule. Oreb is my bird and often a nuisance, as he is at this moment, trying to wrest one of his old quills from my fingers. "It's no use, Oreb," I say. "I want to write-have just started a new book-and I won't play with you at all unless you behave yourself."

"Good bird!" He means himself.

Have I mentioned Hide? Looking over this sheet, I see I have not. Hide is the fourth member of our party and my son, one of three. He is of medium height, not bad-looking, solid, muscular, and rising sixteen. He wears a sheepskin coat shorter than mine, a sheepskin hat, and sheepskin boots that are very well greased now, he having found a pot of mutton fat. No doubt the bandits used it for the same purpose.

The bandits, I should say, are all dead. Even the last. I would like to inter them with some decency, but the ground is frozen. Jahlee suggested burning their bodies, but it would take a great deal of wood, I am sure, to consume the bodies of nine men.

I must have been present when Patera Silk, Patera Quetzal, and Maytera Marble burned Maytera Rose. If someone had asked me about it yesterday, I would have said that I was not, that Nettle and I went away to fight for Maytera Mint after Echidna ordered her to destroy the Alambrera; yet I find that I can very clearly visualize the skull peering from the flames. It seems likely that I am confusing that occasion with some other on which a body was burned.

In any event I am certain they used a great deal of good, dry cedar. Our wood here will be green, and that which is not green will be wet with snow. Hide and I, working hard, might cut that much wood in a week, perhaps. (I in half an hour if I used Hyacinth's azoth - but what folly it would be to let them know I have it now!)

Anything else about Hide? A lot, although I will not try to set it all down. Hide has a twin, his brother Hoof, who looks exactly like him. Hoof is in the south, or at least Hide believes he is. We were tempted turn to south around the marsh in the hope of finding him. It would have been farther, but I wish we had.

I am telling you all this in case the first two books in my saddlebag are lost or destroyed, which is surely likely enough. If you have them, they will tell you much more about me and my sons than I possibly can.

What else should I say? As a traveling companion he is inclined to gloom and pessimism. (He may well think the same of me.) He is not talkative, and is seldom entertaining when he does talk. But he is courageous and resourceful, and has a smile I can warm my hands at.

I see I have already begun on Oreb, so let us take him next. He is smaller than a hen, though his wings are much longer. His feathers shine. His head, bill, and feet are red. He has a most disconcerting habit of leaving me suddenly, when he may be gone for a day, an hour, or (once) the better part of a year. I got him in the Long Sun Whorl before Hari Mau got me and put me on his lander.

To be more accurate, Oreb got me as they did, adopting me as his master and sometime confidant. If I did not feed him more than he feeds me, it might be difficult to say who owns whom.

* * *

He thought he had gone blind, then that it was death. He had failed to reach the Aureate Path - he would wander in this darkness forever, beset by devils.

Devils worse than the inhumi? Worse than men? He laughed aloud - madness. Madness; and to be mad was to be dead, as to be dead was to be mad, and to be dead and mad was to be blind.

His fingers met the rough bark of a tree, and he discovered for the second time that they were slippery with blood. There were oozing cuts in both his arms and both his wrists. Rummaging unfamiliar pockets he found prayer beads, spectacles, two cards, and at last a handkerchief still folded in a way that seemed to promise it was clean. He started a tear with his teeth, ripped the handkerchief in two, and bandaged his deepest cuts, making himself work slowly and carefully, tightening the clumsy knots with his free hand and his teeth.

Far off, a faint light shone. He stood up, blinked at it, and stared again. A light, a faint point of golden light. When Aster's house had been haunted by her dead child, Remora had laid the ghost with candles and sacred waters, and many long readings from the Writings, urging it between times to go the Short Sun.

So it was said in town, at least; and when he had asked about it, Remora had explained that ghosts, for the most part, did not realize they had died: "An, um, understandable? An innocent confusion, eh? They have never been dead before, hey? The, ah, we religious know. Generally. Informed, eh? Expected. No ghosts of, um, holy augurs, hey? Or, er, sibyls. Not - ah - unheard of. But few. Very few."

Remora walked beside him, speaking into his ear.

"We - ah - anticipate it. Some even pray that it may be hastened, so, er, desirous of the blessed companionship of the Nine. But the, um, ah..."


"Skeptics have assumed - no evidence, eh? Do you follow me here, Horn? Um, theorize that, er, dissolution? The kind embrace of High Hierax is an - ah - mere sleep. But without dreams. There is in, er, simple fact. No such thing."

Yes, Patera.

"They will not, um, credit it. Because they do not, eh? In every case - ah - recollect their dreams. The, um, goddess of sleep, eh? Morphia. Aspect of Thelxiepeia. She has, um, sagaciously arranged that we - ah - dream? That we shall be subject, eh? Yes, subject. Subject to phantoms -"

He had stepped on something hard and round. He picked it up, and felt dry, dead bark drop off under the pressure of his questing fingers. A fallen branch.

"You see?"

No, Patera, he thought. No. I do not.

"No, um, slumber without dreams, so we may know that sleep is not the end. We who've given over countless, um, delightful hours to prayer are prepared. Know Hierax when he comes, eh? You are a, um, boatman? Sailor?"

Its twigs were weak and brittle, but the branch itself seemed stout enough.

"Steer by the stars, hey? Do you take my meaning, Horn? By the stars by, er, at the midnight hour, and by the sun, um, daylight. Just so. Not, um, myself. Not seaworthy, eh? But so I've been told. Sun, and stars."

He waved the stick before him, discovering a tree that might perhaps have been the same tree to his left and something spongy that was probably a bush to his right. The pinpoint of yellow light called out to him like the driftwood fires the fishermen's wives lit on the beach by night.

"Landmarks. This is, um, crucial, eh? Landmarks. We, um, I spoke of faith. Of hours spent at prayer. Not - ah - natural to a child, eh? You agree? Run about shouting. Play. Perfectly normal. Fidget in manteion, seen them scores of times. You likewise, doubtless."

Yes, Patera. Certainly.

The stick made it easier to walk, and he told himself that he was walking toward the Aureate Path, toward the spiritual reality of which the mere material Long Sun was a sort of bright shadow. He would go to Mainframe (although he had already been there) and meet gods.

"A child, therefore, clings? A child adheres to landmarks, places familial and familiar."

Hello, Molpe. My name is Horn, Marvelous Molpe, and to tell you the truth I ever paid much attention to you. I'm sorry for that now, Molpe, but I suppose it is too late. You were Musk's goddess. Musk liked birds, loved hawks and eagles and all such, and I didn't like Musk, or at least didn't like what others told me about him.

"Hug the shore, eh? These, um, departed? These children who have, um, attained to life's culmination early. The - ah - familiar house, um, rooms. Toy, eh? Even toys. We, er, prattle that they have lost their lives, hey? Said it myself. We all have, eh? Possibly they hope to find them again, like a lost doll. Sad, though. Tragic. Not like, um, exorcising devil, eh? Calde Silk, eh? Performed the-ah - exorcised. Wrote an, um, report. Some old place on Music Street. I - ah - saw it. His, um, report, that is."

You were the goddess of music too, Molpe. I ought to have remembered that. I could use a cheering song. And I have sung, Molpe. I really have, although I was...

Copyright © 2001 by Gene Wolfe


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