A Lycanthrope in Wolfe’s Clothing: Gene Wolfe’s ‘On Blue’s Waters’


Horn, who wrote the Book of Silk with the aid of his wife, Nettle, is now writing another book, on his own. A year earlier, he agreed to carry out a mission, at which he has failed. He is, in effect, a prisoner, a long way from his home of New Viron. He hopes that, one day, his story will make its way to New Viron, to explain his failure and to advise his wife, and his three sons, Sinew, Hoof and Hide, of his fate.
Twenty years have passed since Horn and Nettle landed on Blue from the Whorl as part of a Vironese party. New Viron has been founded on the coast of the eastern continent. After failing as farmers, Horn and Nettle have set up on Lizard Island as paper manufacturers. Their elder son Sinew is a difficult boy, perpetually at war with his father: the twins are much younger.
Life is hard on Blue and the colonists are going backwards every year. A committee of five, the richest people in New Viron, approach Horn. A letter has been received from the unknown town of Pajarocu, claiming that a lander has been repaired and will return to the Whorl: places are being offered.
The representatives want Horn to go, to obtain new, pure strains of wheat, to prevent crops failing, and they also want Horn to persuade Silk to come to New Viron and become its Calde: none of them trust the others is they become Calde.
Horn, now in his mid-thirties, and almost bald, agrees to take on this task, at which he says he has failed. In a haphazard, rambling manner, full of digressions, he recounts his journey from New Viron to Pajarocu and the lander.
At the same time, he records what is happening to him as he writes. He has been installed as Rajan of Gaon, apparently in a case of mistaken identity for Silk. Gaon is an inland territory many miles north of New Viron: though Horn is the ‘ruler’, he would not be allowed to leave.
Pajarocu’s whereabouts are unknown, but a merchant, Wijzer of Dorp, places it on the western continent, known locally as Shadelow. Horn sets sail in the boat he has built himself. First, he visits the tiny island where Maytera Marble looks after Mucor, hoping to get her to project herself to the Whorl and identify Silk’s whereabouts. Marble is now blind, and, giving Horn one of her failed eyes, asks him to try to find a working one for her. Mucor reports that Silk does not want to be found and that searching for him would put him in danger.
Horn is determined to proceed however, and sails on with Babbie, a young hus, gifted to him by Marble and Mucor.
His account wanders between the story of his voyage, his considerable doubts and fears about the accuracy and honesty of what he is writing, and his attempts to rule Gaon, in the sense of acting as a fair and neutral Judge, as closely as he can to how Silk would act in his place.
Horn gains a travelling companion in the form of a beautiful young woman, naked with long blonde hair, and with only one arm. The young woman’s origins are unknown: she has lost her arm to an attack by Babbie on her first attempt to board, but on her second she is sent aboard by a giant woman, rising from the sea, whom she calls Mother. This latter appears to be some kind of sea-goddess, who has cared for the young woman underwater for some time, and who is now driving her back to her own kind, humans.
Horn names her Seawrack, being the closest he can come to the name he is given for her. He finds her incredibly beautiful and tempting, though he intends to remain loyal to Nettle (even as he hopes she has found herself a new husband, to replace him).
Time passes in Gaon. The Convergence with Green, during which the inhumi attack openly and in greater numbers, passes without any reference to its events.
Horn is asked to extend his ‘rule’ to the downriver community of Skany but refuses to do so because of the distance between the two towns. He sends engineering experts to create a more navigable channel around cataracts below Gaon, improving the town’s commerce. Upriver, there are further cataracts, less susceptible to being by-passed. The upper town of Han asks for the same courtesy and, when this is not extended, they start a war, in which Horn is wounded.
Back on his voyage, Horn repels the attack of an inhumu, who drinks blood from Babbie. Later, however, whilst seeking game and water on an island, he falls into a deep pit and is badly injured. Seawrack abandons him, convinced he is dead. The inhumu offers assistance in escaping, but demands Horn swear not to hurt him, or betray him as an inhumu, and to assist him to join the lander at Pajarocu.
Horn is forced to humiliate himself to gain assistance. He takes Krait, as the inhumu names himself, as not just a travelling companion but also as a son, despite the fact that the two quarrel daily. Seawrack is recovered from the sea and Krait leads Horn to demand she sing, a song that inflames him into raping her brutally: nevertheless, the two become lovers as the voyage progresses.
The war does not go well for Gaon. Horn sees an opportunity to escape but this requires him to disinter buried inhumi. Thanks to Krait, he knows a secret about the inhumi that they do not want revealed: he threatens to make this public unless they act for Gaon in the war. The first inhuma released takes the name Jahlee, meaning false, but she and her fellows keep their word.
Horn finally sees lights on Shadelow. These belong to a family of four, headed by He-pens-sheep. He has some contact with the Vanished People, or Neighbours. These are the seemingly vanished original population of Blue. Horn goes out at night to find them, though they appear in no light, cannot be counted and seem to have twice the number of arms and legs. The Neighbours have left Blue for another form of existence: Horm, in the name of all humans, accepts Blue from them and promises they may visit without molestation perpetually.
Returning, he discovers he can navigate the thickest of thickets and jungle with ease.
Pajarocu is now within reach, but before navigating the river that leads to it, Horn’s boat is overtaken by his son Sinew, who is pursuing him in his usual refusal to accept directions. Sinew is shocked at Seawrack. The party manages to reach the Town where the lander has not yet left. Horn recognises it immediately, the only man who might, because it is different from all the others. It is a crew lander, the one in which Auk and Chenille set off. It will not return to the Whorl but will take its passengers to Green, to be cattle for the inhumi: it is Pajarocu’s price for being left in peace.
In Gaon, Horn is still hindered by his wound. Hari Mau, who brought him back from the Whorl, is now the Gaon War Leader and looks set to win the war with Han. If he loses, Han will execute Horn, if he wins, Hari Mau’s friends will dispose of him to enable Hari Mau to become Rajan.
Horn advances his plans to leave, with the aid of Evensong, his Hannese ‘wife’. His paper supply is running short and he is determined to take his story too the launching of the lander, though in the end the account is scanty. Seawrack is left behind, Krait betrays the humans, Sinew stands with Horn but they cannot persuade enough humans to believe them and prevent the lander travelling to Green. Krait is killed but before dying reveals the inhumi’s great secret to Horn, on oath not to repeat it. His threat to do so is what persuaded Jahlee and the others to work for him and Gaon.
Horn escapes downriver but is forced to abandon his boat under inhumi attack. His last pages are written in the middle of nowhere. He muses about the many omissions from his account. His last recollection is that of Silk, snatching the ball from Horn on the ballcourt.

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