‘What on earth for? We have “talent”, father, and the primitives who wrote all that stuffy nonsense didn’t. What can they have possibly scribbled down that’d be of any use to us?’
He sighed and rolled his eyes upward. ‘Why me?’ he demanded, and he obviously wasn’t talking to me when he said it. ‘All right, Pol,’ he said then, ‘if you’re so intelligent that you don’t need to know how to read, maybe you can answer a few questions that’ve been nagging at me for quite some time now.’
‘Of course, father,’ I replied. ‘I’d be happy to.’ Notice that I walked right into the trap he’d set for me.
‘If you have two apples here and two apples over there, how many do you have altogether?’ When my father’s trying to teach some prospective pupil humility, he always starts there.
‘Four apples, of course,’ I replied quickly – too quickly, as it turned out.
‘What do you mean, “Why?” It just is. Two apples and two apples are four apples. Any idiot knows that.’
‘Since you’re not an idiot, you shouldn’t have any trouble explaining it to me, should you?’
I stared at him helplessly.
‘We can come back to that one later. Now then, when a tree falls way back in the forest, it makes a noise, right?’
‘Of course it does, father.’
‘Very good, Pol. What is noise?’
‘Something we hear.’
‘Excellent. You’re really very perceptive, my daughter.’ He frowned then, a bit spuriously, I thought. There’s a problem, though. What if there’s nobody around to hear the noise? Is it really there, then?’
‘Certainly it is.’
‘Because – ’ I floundered to a stop at that point.
‘Let’s set that one aside as well and move on. Do you think the sun is going to come up tomorrow morning?’
‘Well, naturally it will.’
I should have expected that ‘why’ by now, but I was exasperated by his seemingly simple-minded questions, so I hadn’t even thought before I answered. ‘Well,’ I said lamely, ‘it always has, hasn’t it?’
I got a very quick and very humiliating lesson in probability theory at that point.
‘Pressing right along then,’ he said urbanely. ‘Why does the moon change her shape during the course of a month?’
I stared at him helplessly.
‘Why does water bubble when it gets hot?’
I couldn’t even answer that one, and I did all the cooking. He went on – and on, and on.
‘Why can’t we see color in the dark?’
‘Why do tree leaves change color in the autumn?’
‘Why does water get hard when it’s cold? And why does it turn to steam when it gets hot?’
‘If it’s noon here, why is it midnight in Mallorea?’
‘Does the sun go around the world, or does the world go around the sun?’
‘Where do mountains come from?’
‘What makes things grow?’
‘All right, father!’ I exclaimed. ‘Enough! Teach me how to read!’
‘Why, of course, Pol,’ he said. ‘If you wanted to learn so badly, why didn’t you say so in the first place?’
And so we got down to work. My father’s a disciple, a sorcerer, a statesman, and sometimes a general, but more than anything else he’s a teacher – probably the best one in the world. He taught me how to read and write in a surprisingly short period of time – perhaps because the first thing he wrote down for me was my own name. I thought it looked rather pretty on the page. Before long I began dipping into his books and scrolls with an increasing thirst for knowledge. I’ve got a tendency to want to argue with books, though, and that gave father a bit of trouble, probably because I argued out loud. I couldn’t seem to help it. Idiocy, whether spoken or written, offends me, and I feel obliged to correct it. This habit of mine wouldn’t have caused any trouble if I’d been alone, but father was in the tower with me, and he was intent on his own studies. We talked about that at some length, as I recall.
The reading was stimulating, but even more stimulating were our evening discussions of various points that had come up in the course of my studies during the day. It all started one evening when father rather innocently asked, ‘Well, Pol, what did you learn today?’
I told him. Then I told him about my objections to what I’d read – firmly, even challengingly.
Father never passes up an opportunity for a good argument, so he automatically defended the texts while I attacked them. After a few evenings so enjoyably spent, these disputes became almost ritualistic. It’s a pleasant way to end the day.
Our arguments weren’t all intellectual. Our visit to the Isle of the Winds had made me more aware of my personal appearance, so I started paying attention to it. Father chose to call it vanity, and that also started an ongoing argument.
Then, early one morning in the spring, mother’s voice came to me before I’d even started making breakfast. This is all very nice, Pol,’ she said, ‘but there are other things you need to learn as well. Put your books aside for today and come to the Tree. We’ll let him teach you how to use your mind. I’ll teach you how to use your will.’
So after breakfast I rose from the table and said, ‘I think I’ll walk around a bit today, father. I’m starting to feel a little cooped-up here in the tower. I need some air. I’ll go look for herbs and spices for tonight’s supper.’
‘Probably not a bad idea,’ he agreed. ‘Your arguments are getting a little dusty. Maybe a good breeze will clear your head.’
‘Maybe,’ I replied, resisting the impulse to retort to that veiled insult. Then I descended the spiral stairs and ventured out into the morning sun.
It was a glorious day, and the Vale’s one of the loveliest places in the world, so I took my time as I drifted through the bright green knee-high grass down to that sacred hollow where the Tree spreads forth his immensity. As I drew closer, my birds welcomed me with song, hovering over me in the lucid morning.
‘What took you so long, Pol?’ mother’s voice asked.
‘I was enjoying the morning,’ I replied aloud. No one else was around, so there was no need to do it the other way. ‘What shall we do today, mother?’