I felt my heart reaching out to Willowwind. And saw in his eyes his heart reaching out to me.
The man who was already Arrowshot’s.
Nothing of ways down country had prepared me for this. My soul felt like one of the streams we’d forded on our journey to Refuge--crashing down its watercourse, turned aside this way by one boulder, that way by another.
From the forecourt, we entered the bathouse. Inside the double doors, shoes were lined up to either side. Baskets on shelves held clothing. Beyond the next doors, water poured from spouts on the wall into two steaming pools. In one, three men lay back, their eyes closed, their arms over the lip of the pool. In the other, two men half-sat, half-floated facing one another, their legs entwined as they talked, laughing, their hands cradling one another’s stands. It was less of a shock for having already seen the tenderness between Bowstring and his cousin. I was beginning, already, to understand that we’d left shame behind on the other side of the gate, as well as our down country kinships.
“We need no fuel for the hot water,” Willowwind said. “It comes as up as a blessing from the hills. In days long past, the pools were here before the building.”
In a room still deeper within, we left the steam and heat behind. A man hesitated on the edge of a pool into which two others encouraged him to plunge. Jumping in, he ducked, came up gasping, then relaxed into a motionless float. While Willowwind and I still stood there, all three emerged together and trotted back to the steaming pools behind us.
The hall on the other side of the forecourt, the building on whose verandah Yarrow had stood, was the great room where the brothers spent most of the waking hours they weren’t engaged in labour.
Cushions lay piled into corners and against side walls, where three men sat talking, and another reading. Stools and trestles were stacked against one wall, and wide boards like the ones I’d seen Yarrow and his friend carry in. A cabinet in one corner overflowed with palmleaf books.
The building opposite the entrance to the compound, with its own gate and its own garden court, and over which I’d first seen the crown of the Great Tree, was the sleeping quarters.
We paused by one of the carved gateposts at the entrance to its garden. Willowwind put out his hand to touch it. An intricate, not quite regular interlace pattern twisted around it. His fingers played over the serpentine ribbons of wood. Between them, tiny human figures played among the complex curves. Men stroked themselves, or lay in long chains with faces pressed to one another's groins, hands laid to chests, or fingers inside each other's bungholes.
Everything our classmasters had taught us we could do to pleasure ourselves, these figures were doing to each other. At the top, men danced around a flame that rose to the crown of the post, their hands joined, the muscles of their backs polished by years of touch from the fingers of men passing the gate. I couldn't take my eyes off the carvings. Willowwind's touch was habitual and unselfconscious, but I was also aware that he noticed my fascination and smiled.
"It's amazing, isn't it? It's over a hundred years old. A man named Hawkflower spent most of his life on the carvings. He died when your kinsman-down-country Firesong was still young. Firesong finished it about twenty years ago." He ran his hand over the men dancing at the crown. "These are his work. And this chain of men sucking each other’s nipples that runs sunwise from here around the back." He put his hand on the small of my back as we leaned over to see the carvings where they twisted up the back of the column. "No one's ever wanted to try matching it on the other post."
"Look at how perfect the hands are here," he said, pointing to a knot of men whose palms cupped one another's balls. He looked sideways at me and grinned. "But it's what they're holding that I admire most."
I felt a sweetly drunken churning in my chest and groin. My lunghi tented out a handbreadth in front of me. Willowwind's angled out a little less obviously below his flat, hard belly. "Aren't you glad you came to visit?"
"It's the best part of coming of age," I blurted out.
"It was for me too," he said. "I hear people still talk about me taking Refuge two New Moons after I became a man." He laughed.
"I think you'll find Yarrow here," he went on, laying hand over heart in the same gesture that all the men had used in greeting and farewell, but then reached his fingertips toward my cheek. "May I?" he asked. I started to stammer, then silently reached my own hand out to his face instead. Our lips brushed each other and opened. Our tongues glided gently together like two otters finding each other in a stream. It carried me away, yet I struggled with anxiety--what if Yarrow emerged from the dormitory to find us like this?--and still with resentment over how tender my uncle had been toward Yellowwood. I was surprised to feel Willowwind gently pulling away from me.
"It's sweet to see you again, Brightsong. I remember you as a little boy , how you followed Yarrow alll over town like a puppy. He's been so happy you were coming to see him."
"He seemed busy with Yellowwood when we got here," I said, and then immediately regretted the pout I could hear in my own voice.
"I know for a fact he's been talking about your visit all week." He paused. "Go look for him. Supper's not for an hour." He brushed my cheek with a final peck and turned back toward the workshops.
Inside the gate, water splashed in a fountain I was surprised to find shaped like a woman's yoni. All around its edge someone had strewn flowers. At the end of the fountain nearer the gate, the water spilled from a lip and then into three channels cut into the paving stones. It trickled from there toward the plants that grew beneath the low brick walls around the forecourt. Behind it, benches of pale grey wood flanked the door, under arbors where wisteria was just coming into bloom. The plain door was made of broad planks and showed no sign of a latch. It swung open silently with a light touch.