Totem: The Little I Can Tell (part three)
The Little I Can Tell
I was as tall, at length, as the elders. By now our town had doubled in size, from the enclave in which I’d lived alone with the priests, and the woman once my mistress; it had doubled again and again. And now, from that prince who never had deigned to shelter refugees, came sent a snaking throng, seen all along the road into the distance, towards haze and his border.
A mammoth beast of work came, shod hooves clapping the old pavement laid by the forgotten race of Lotoq’s plain, a long-maned beast of such girth, that one must be harnessed before another; and they drew their burden in train, catching all eyes. Iron bells tolled from the collars that circled their necks. The wagon bore a statue. The second wagon its massive plinth.
Two days’ labor with trunks of trees, and wheels and ropes…and the prince’s slaves had raised the monument. That we would know our land had been claimed, and know our prince by his visage. The skin of the face was done in gilt; the robes enameled in brilliant blue…a hue stronger than the sky, such as I’d seen at the heart of a small flower.
By this time I’d supposed that I also would be a priest. I had copied out all of the scrolls, and so my histories—my genealogies and my miracles—were established in memory. Any Father or Mother I met would speak a name to me, and I could recite the lineage. I had been set to work particularly on signs. I knew the size of spring leaves…when this boded ill; or when it boded over-bounteous…when mortifying sacrifice was needed, as envious gods demand. I knew the meaning of a grasshopper, a double-yolked egg, a blood-red moon. The types and colors of clouds. I clipped the wing of a moth, drew the divining circle in ash, and read the pattern, that in dying it scattered there.
They hoped…they had invested pride in the hope, and held to it…that my gift would show itself in this. And so the prince’s seizure of our city, and the fertile fields outlying, proved a portent indeed—for me. The puniness of my oracular talents was made plain in failure.
A host of strangely dressed men, testified to by sentries of the night watch, seen in moonlight swarming like insects, in and out of the thin trees that covered the flanks of Lotoq, had been the culminating sign.
“What does it mean?”
I answered her, the priest Burda, “That our borders are crossed, that ones foreign to us passed in the night, that they are gone now.”
She smiled, and looked at Elberin. I knew I’d said nothing, really. Nor had I foreseen the next day’s news, or I might have invented a wild prediction, one that could hardly be proved or disproved.
But you will note that preserving my place meant caring for my place. I had not come, then, to care for anything so worldly. Or it may be fairer to say, to feel that anything might care for me.
The Little I Can Tell
(2018, Stephanie Foster)