The Recalcitrant One: The Totem-Maker
excerpt from “The Recalcitrant One”
One, that for so long had refused to be shaped, kept its eyes closed. I knew the totems well now, and knew it contrary. At last, it had woken itself when I’d decided to leave it outdoors.
You dislike the cold, perhaps, I’d said to it. Cold may kill you, for all I know.
For all I knew, since nothing I’d done had yet angered or troubled them. The seeds were malleable only when struck one against the other. I had learned that long since, and never found an exception, though my friend the peddler sold me useful tools, and my spending had become…not reckless, neither profligate…but comfortable.
I bought with an eye to the future, a great luxury for me, this idea that I might have possessions for the enjoyment of them; that I might use a thing one day. It was fair, and enough. I need not defend the purchase of it now.
The seeds were stubborn. At times, often at times, I feared them malignant, the totems by instinct resentful towards their maker. But that same expansion within me, the ease of having some sense of my own importance, had made me bold in throwing this one out into the garden. I wondered if it might not take root in the springtime.
“No one has ever seen what it is they come from. You have heard the story of the first tree, that reached to the heavens, and all creatures of earth lived in her branches, until that battle among the gods that toppled her, thus the land was filled with creeping things of every kind, and only the birds, sheltered in her branches that reached still high as a mountain, were given the gift of flight.”
He lifted his staff and showed me with a gesture the veins of white running in the shape of limbs from a trunk through the scoured cliffs. Yes, I’d heard this story and seen this proof.
“But the seed may sprout one day,” he said.
I don’t know why, when he looked at me, I foresaw my own death in this word.
Morning I went out, as every sunrise brought change to my garden. Good overall, there being few ruminants, or any other sort of beast, in this mountain clearing. And I had for a year, raking patient layers of scant leaf mould into grudging inches of loosed soil, made food grow. I had enough from the selling of totems, enough boldness now from the peddler’s kind promptings, to say to passersby: “I won’t take your money…but I will take your labor.”
No, I was not unscrupulous. I put money of my own in the till. This was bargaining, as my friend had taught me, and by this means I’d cleared more land and raised an outbuilding.
I could not miss the eye. Its countenance had formed such that it seemed curled on its side asleep, but always a powerful one’s magic sang in the air around it. The song was a thin, moaning whistle, melodious, unearthly. I tended Cuerpha, let him run free to graze the scrubbish meadow, with its gravelly soil and smattering of orange flowers. I mucked out the stall, topped the hayrack, and his trough with a bucket from the spring. I came back to the garden and said to it:
“Yes, I fear you. Yes, you are right to suppose it. Any comer who desires you will have you…and I’ll be rid of you. I will be rid of you at the very soonest, even if it earns me nothing.”
(2017, Stephanie Foster)