A Tale of the Glass Singers of Albermarle
A fantasy novel by Lynette Hill
Half note knew very well she wasn’t supposed to see Octavia’s test. Only those who had already passed the singer’s test – glass singers and masters of a glassmaking house – could attend. That meant, as strange as it seemed, that Mama stood among the crowd of witnesses and Grandma did not. It also meant that Half note should be in the kitchen with the other Verre House apprentices helping Alma prepare the food for Octavia’s victory celebration.
But I have to be here, Half note thought. The mental picture of Alma and her fellow apprentices hard at work in the kitchen gave her a guilty pang. She tugged nervously on an auburn braid. What if someone came looking for her?
I’ll just make sure they don’t find me, Half note thought, pressing her lips together firmly the way Octavia did when she made up her mind about something. And no one would dare disturb Octavia’s test, Half note told herself. Not even Alma. Nevertheless, Half note held herself very still in her hiding place under the black marble stairs. She’d made a spot for herself between some worn out bellows and an old supply cart with a broken wheel. From here, she could keep her head hidden and still see the making platform where Octavia waited to begin.
Octavia stood ready – back straight, hands clasped – on the making platform, also built out of black marble. The freshly scrubbed hard stone still showed signs of the wear left by its use by generations of glass singers. A leather work scarf, meant as protection against errant sparks, covered her carefully braided black hair. Bright sunlight from three clear glass windows set into the rounded limestone ceiling above filtered down onto the raised forming dais just behind her. She doesn’t even look worried, Half note thought, feeling her own jittery stomach clench. Of course Octavia isn’t nervous, Half note thought, but … how could she not be? Octavia had to pass this test to become a glass singer. If she failed, she would have to find another trade.
Of course she won’t fail. Half note shoved that thought aside with an internal snort. Octavia never failed at anything.
Octavia took a breath and considered the wrinkles around the knuckles of her tightly clasped hands. She felt the indrawn air pressing out against the wall of her lungs. Balance … she told herself, slowly pushing the air out again. Harmony. I have completed these tasks a thousand times. I only need to stay calm and do what I already know how to do.
Would the test never begin?
Half note took a breath and peered out at the twenty or so witnesses lined around one side of the former cavern that now held Verre House’s main creation room. By sheer chance (or the designs of dragons, depending on who told the story) the walls of this rounded, underground space naturally caught and amplified any sounds voiced from the center point of the forming dais. No other glass house could boast such a wonder, Half note knew.
By looking carefully through the forest of legs in front of her hiding place she could just find Mama at the front of the crowd of witnesses, among the cluster of Verre House staff. For once Mama wore her light brown hair in the tight braids of a glass worker instead of her usual decorative shells and loose Khelani bun. Tiny motes of light flashed off the clear crystal of Mama’s dragon’s head charm, sign of her membership in the guild of glass singers. But the strangest thing, to Half note, was Mama’s clothing. For perhaps the first time in Half note’s experience, Mama wore the full red and green robes of a Verre House singer. Mama had earned her robes, and her dragon’s head charm, in those hard-to-imagine years that Half note could only think of as before. Before you were born, Mama would say with a smile as she began some story. Or, even more impossible to consider, before I met your father …. As Half note watched, Mama’s river green eyes sought out and found Octavia’s own black orbs. Octavia flinched and looked away, quickly suppressing a grimace. A thrill of nerves scurried up Half note’s back. The nest of crow’s feet around Mama’s eyes deepened and her mouth half-twisted into an expression both proud and concerned. Half note crinkled her own eyes, chestnut brown like Papa’s, in dismay. Could ever confident Octavia truly feel afraid on this most important of days?
Grandpa, resplendent as always in the full red and gold robes that declared him Grand Master of Verre House, stepped forward into the center of the room. He nodded to the trio of solemn-faced judges who stood to one side. They nodded back. Besides the colorful robes of their respective houses, Grandpa and each of the judges wore the heavy gold charms that declared them grand masters. The senior judge, a white haired woman bent with age, gestured with one shaking hand. The witnesses fell silent. Grandpa, his coal black eyes bright with pride, smiled at Octavia. So did Mama and most of the others in the audience. So did Half note, forgetting for the moment that she couldn’t – or at least, shouldn’t – be seen. Octavia swallowed and nodded.
“The test begins,” Grandpa said quietly. His practiced tones reverberated off the rounded walls as he stepped quickly back out of the way. “The test begins … begins … begins ….”
First, Octavia builds up the fire under the cooling bath, bringing the coals to a steady, moderate burn. She wants the water warm, not hot. It must be just cool enough that the glass solidifies instantly when it drops into the bath. If the water is too hot, the creation remains liquid and loses its shape. Too cool and the piece shatters on impact. Octavia’s test drop – a single, molten tear – hits the water and forms a perfect ball. Despite the strict rule of absolute silence during a test, Half note hears the slightest hum of a group exhalation. Octavia easily passed the first challenge.
Half note sees Octavia sigh as well. The tightness in her sister’s shoulders eases ever so slightly. Sweat drips from the edges of her brown hair covering. The sweat darkens the back of her cream-colored work dress (made new for the occasion, of course, and of a shade that naturally sets off Octavia’s raven hair and eyes). Half note allows her own shoulders to relax a bit. Next, Octavia fills the granite melting box with yellow sand – one, two, three scoops and an extra sprinkle for luck. She works the foot-bellows until fierce flames surround the granite container evenly on all sides. Half note doesn’t have to see the sand to know what happens next. Actually, for one unending moment it will seem as if nothing happens. The yellow grains of sand sit there as the air around the melting box grows hotter and hotter. Suddenly, just as an inattentive maker might grow bored and look away, golden liquid bubbles up around the edges of the box, swallowing the dry grains from below. Soon even the last stubborn bits in the middle vanish into clear liquid.
Octavia starts to sway and hum. The sand’s transformation is complete. Half note bites her lip in anticipation as Octavia produces a deep, toneless vibrato from the center of her diaphragm. Her clear soprano, caught and magnified by the swirling grooves in the forming chamber’s spiral granite columns, swells until the vibrations shake the dust free from the limestone floor. Half note claps both hands over her mouth and nose to keep from sneezing. Any unexpected sound at this point would be disastrous.
The forming process begins.
Breathing in a deep, rhythmic fashion, Octavia focuses her tones on the molten glass. Carefully, ever so carefully, she wraps the sound of her voice around the swirling ball of liquid. By the response of the vibrations holding that globe Octavia can tell its weight and size. By subtly changing pitch and frequency, Octavia can shrink or expand the ball, or divide it into pieces.
Time seems to all but stop. Half note watches the sphere coalesce. Half note shifts impatiently. She knows Octavia won’t settle for anything less than a perfect globe. Half note sighs. Sometimes she wishes Octavia could stand a little less perfection.
The pitch of Octavia’s song rises and the whirling, glowing ball rises with it. Carried by rhythmic pulses of voice the ball moves up from the melting box to hover in the center of the granite forming chamber, directly above the cooling bath. Octavia’s song changes again, its vibrations intensifying. The ball, hot and swirling, elongates as Octavia quickens her rhythm. Now the pulsing sound begins to push the liquid glass into the creation’s basic shape.
Most apprentices choose a fairly simple object for their test – a many-petaled stalk of lavender or aconite, for instance, with the leaves and petals easily spinning out from the center; or an ornate, twisting representation of a dragon, again with the exterior decorations spinning out from the fast-moving center. As usual, however, Octavia wants to impress. Half note knows, of course, Octavia’s plans. The two sisters discussed little else in the preceding weeks. Octavia intends to create not one dragon, but three. She means to make a representation of Mother Piasa from a central clockwise swirl. At the same time she plans to create Mother Piasa’s two surviving children. And, just to show she can, she’ll make them simultaneously, with a counterclockwise swirl.
“But that’s master’s level work,” Half note gasped when Octavia first told her.
“I know,” Octavia smirked. “That’s the point.”
That day they had been assigned to do Verre House’s monthly mending. They settled comfortably onto one of the double beds in the apprentice girls’ room to talk and sew. Half note replaced buttons and straightened sagging hems while Octavia tackled ripped sleeves, burnt cuffs and more complicated issues.
“Grandfather doesn’t think I can do the counterclockwise swirl.” She glared at her needle and thread as if they had somehow insulted her as well. “I want to add some color, too. Just a hint of green along the edges but he won’t let me.”
“Why not? I’ve seen you do it lots of times.”
The sound of a throat clearing made them both jump. Half note looked up to see Grandma standing, arms folded, in the doorway. Grandma, lead actress at Albermarle’s Viridian Theatre, wore a simple blue house dress, her bright red hair freshly curled and wrapped in protective cotton cloths in preparation for the evening’s performance.
“The exam is meant only as a test of basic skills, dear heart,” Grandma said. Her curls bounced as she spoke. Octavia squirmed and looked down at her sewing. “A simple melody clearly sung will pass,” Grandma continued. “A complicated chorus performed poorly will not. We all know you have great talent. Why make things more difficult for yourself?”
Octavia’s lips thinned and her nostrils flared but she didn’t say anything. Half note wondered if now might be a good time to drop a button onto the floor and crawl under the bed to retrieve it. Grandma considered Octavia a moment longer with the river-green eyes she’d bequeathed to Mama, then sighed.
“Anyway,” she added before leaving, “hurry up with the mending. Once it’s finished you’re needed in the smaller making room.”
“I’m still doing the counterclockwise swirl,” Octavia muttered into her sewing, but only when she knew for certain that Grandma couldn’t hear her.
With this image in mind, Half note simply smiles expectantly when, under the quickening vibrations of Octavia’s song, two smaller balls separate from the central sphere of molten glass. Some of the witnesses look worried. They think Octavia is losing control.
She’ll show them, Half note thinks. The making energy sets her thick braids to trembling.
Half note feels the energy and smiles. Her smile broadens as Octavia begins a double vibrato. The main pulse of her voice shapes the central sphere while the counterpulse carefully slows and separates the courses of the two smaller balls. Slowly, carefully, the three whirling pieces lengthen into their final shapes. Half note hears the in-drawing of breath around the room as Octavia’s plan becomes apparent to everyone. Octavia’s song deepens triumphantly as she adds the final touches to all three pieces. Not just a rendering of Mother Piasa and her children, Half note realizes, but a very detailed creation, including perked ears, hooked tails, individual scales, grasping claws.
She’s done it, Half note thinks, barely suppressing a cheer.
I’ve done it, Octavia thinks. Arms extended, she draws in the deep breath necessary for her notes of completion.
A shrill screaming fills the room. What?
What? Half note jumps, banging her head painfully against the thick beam above her.
The glass is screaming. But why? Half note stuffs her hands into her mouth to keep from crying out as she watches Octavia, white with shock, falter.
For the space of three thudding heartbeats every piece of finished glass in Verre House cries out in shrill, teeth-rattling tones. Octavia’s song and liquid creations all but collapse. Half note, brown eyes wide, watches in terror and amazement as somehow, by sheer force of will and voice, Octavia smoothes out both. Then, as suddenly as it began, the screaming stops. Octavia’s black eyes – and Half note’s brown ones – dart toward Grandpa. He looks as shocked as everyone else.
What’s my key? Octavia thinks desperately, and then finds it in the echo of her own tones.
She sings out forcefully, pushing the tones from the very base of her diaphragm. Somehow she manages to restore the smooth current of the making energy before her pieces collapse. Octavia draws a deep breath and forces herself to focus only on her voice and the three bits of molten glass floating before her.
Deliberate interference isn’t allowed, is it? Octavia takes another calming breath and shoves those thoughts away. It doesn’t matter. Hold the maintaining tones. That’s what matters. Hold the note. Hold the note until the image is clear in your mind. Hold the image clear in your mind and it can’t help but come out in the music. That’s what Grandfather says.
Just on the periphery of her vision, Octavia sees the astonished witnesses, Mother among them, staring around for an explanation. She forces her concentration back to her creations. She holds her forming notes until all seems ready, then takes a breath to begin completion.
The glass screams again.
Octavia, slightly less surprised this time, returns to her holding tones.
This can’t be part of the test. That’s the warning cry. But warning of what? Is something wrong with my piece? How can that be? This is just a craft test.
Hold, Octavia tells herself as the glasses scream a third time. There is a pattern, she realizes. The glass cries for three beats, holds for five then screams again. What does it mean?
Hold the note. Stay on pitch. I’ve worked too hard, she tells herself, to let this stop me. Whatever the problem is, it will have to wait. I know what to do. The image is clear in my mind.
The witnesses mutter to each other despite the rules. Mother, her face pale, clutches the arm of the woman next to her, a master from Tulum. Grandfather steps into the center of the room. Octavia’s heart skips a beat when she realizes that he intends to stop the test. She refuses to acknowledge him. The glass screams again. A completed piece of glassware shatters.
Octavia changes pitch and waits. The glass screams. She begins the completion tones. She works much more quickly than she ever practiced but her images take and hold their shapes: Mother dragon and her two surviving children in intricate detail – Mother Piasa help me now, Octavia thinks. Falafel, father of all glass singers, I call to you!
She holds her pitch as the finished glass screams again. Jagged spikes ripple across her unfinished images in response. Octavia waits out the scream and moves into a smoothing tone, quickly polishing her images. She planned a more intricate representation, complete with a tiny, bearded Father Bartholomew in Mother Piasa’s claw, but her control is slipping. She can’t wait any longer. One thudding heartbeat, two beats, she barks the command of completion. Her works drop into the cooling bath just as the finished glass screams again.
Octavia drops her arms. She is now a glass singer. Or not. The judges will decide.
But why did the glass scream? That couldn’t be part of the test, could it?
Half note, completely forgetting that she wasn’t supposed to be in the room, scrambled out from under the stairs and ran to embrace Octavia. Mama and Grandpa quickly joined them. Octavia, her hair and dress dripping with sweat, accepted a tight hug from Mama. Grandpa gave Octavia a rough embrace as well, then turned his attention to her creations. Martin, currently Verre House’s youngest glass singer, carefully netted the three dragons and placed them on the display table. Martin alone among the glass singers of Verre House refused to braid his hair or wear a beard. His freshly shaven scalp gleamed in the sunlight shining down from the overhead windows. The judges, although clearly unsettled by the screaming of the finished glass, began their inspection. The room, momentarily abuzz with excited voices, fell silent. Even the glass stopped shrieking. The senior judge stepped forward.
Everyone in the room took a breath of anticipation.
“These pieces,” the judge said. “They are wonderful. Absolutely perfect. Master Verre,” she said, “Your granddaughter is truly a credit to you.” She started to say more but the loud cheers of the witnesses drowned her out. Everyone rushed forward to congratulate Octavia. Grandpa gave Octavia another hug and then whisked Half note from the sudden crush of adults.
“Now,” Grandpa said, taking Half note by the hand and leading her out of the crowded room, “let’s go see what all the noise is about.”