The Totem-Maker: Jealousy (part nine)
It was full autumn, when winds blow from seawards, and dells ringing our land at the height of a long, descending pitch from the mountaintops, yield scents of change, mineral exhalations from the chimneys of the earth, the let veins of dying greenery, misted in the morning fogs. Streams here cascade ridged flanks becoming waterfalls, making hollows scooped in the metalworker’s pattern of a gourd. Along this line, colors are glorious, the leaves of trees like linked feathers; trees we called colebot, and gathered sweet pods from, their strong cerise like a sunrise viewed through this same mist.
The withering of green rolled slow in our lowlands, and in the gardens, fern and vine, salt pine and orchid, were never much changed, only less fecund, going out of flower. Lady Nyma had come to her son to order his house. Cime was free of duties, other than sit in the chambers hearing speeches.
Pytta moved from the breakfast table to the garden pavilion, dressed daily in her suirmat, that garment which is one long cloth folded over, sewn from calf to armhole, cut at the head in the shape of a fan. Her friends came for her solace, draping themselves over cushions. From post to post in the women’s pavilion were hung targets: the serpent, the cat, the dove, the sun, and the ship…and when anyone felt moved to do so, small bags of cloth stuffed with the seeds of another podded tree, the bitter rosira, were hurled to strike them.
This game also told fortunes. But it was lightly played, and desultory. Pytta had her feet in a basin of cold water. Lom and I had two ends of a cloth, painted with the story of the young lovers who’d confounded the gods…he, held prisoner to be sacrificed; she, having begged her father allow her a parting word, throwing herself from the tower in his stead. The lover, it is told, seeing this, gave a cry that reached the heavens, then wrested away the bowl of entrails waiting on the altar, for the priests to read in the smoke of their burning, the gods’ continued wrath or appeasement. He dashed this into the flames. He then followed his love.
And the gods gave the sign of transforming them into palmeini, small hawks (who, in truth, hunt the songbirds). Such cloths of fine silk, and fine craftsmanship, moved the air, up and down, side to side, wielded by the hands of slaves such as we.
Vlanna Madla owned a large workshop, its lower hall all looms staffed by weavers, and dyeing vats; its upper story and attic let to drapers, tent-makers, upholsterers; their sewers and embroiderers, their artists of the brush. The counter over which money changed hands was on a half-closed porch at the building’s front. But only servants on behalf of their masters came to pay here, or deliver to Madla the request, as Nyma had sent her own woman to do, to dine, and to bring her samples.
The meal was necessary; it was custom. Important merchants and proprietors made an under-layer of gentry in our land. They were never, unless family, guests at weddings, or at celebrations of appointments; and their guilds honored holy days in ways peculiar to each trade. But the Decima order, for the nursery, for the Emperor’s—he would come mid-winter—entertainment, meant asking a favor…that Madla take this job, occupy her people with it; give, quite possibly to her lasting loss, others to competitors.
I had been at loose ends, while above the great ones sat. As a form of politesse (respecting Madla’s status; pretending for a time there was no business to discuss), they spoke only gossip…billows of which, in those days of the prince, passed from mouth to ear. It was Sente’s affairs were most powerfully interesting; but Madla knew well not to speak of them at the table of Cime Decima.
Lom and I sat on the rim of a water tank (that from which the launderers and scullions drew theirs), in the courtyard under the dining porch. It was cool in this spot, and we were silent, listening.
Madla, her deep voice honed to carry, had just broken off from a gambit…and began again, having reached a topical frontier. She ventured a toe. “Those leelaye…some of them, paid a call on Mumas. I don’t know if they are ignorant.”
(Leelaye was a pale-rooted plant that grew among the heights, crawling over rock where water fell. Step on one, and its thin skin peeled to a slippery gum…treacherous. Yet the very poor would boil them, through changes of water; sugar them and wrap them in leaves to ferment; boil them again, with the poison out, and the taste palatable, for a tea. The hungry ate and drank leelaye in abundance, as no one else wanted it. You see, reader, why the name lent itself, in denigration, to the northern newcomers.)
There were murmurs. Someone said, “Everyone is wise in his own way, dear.” It would not do to make a fault of Madla’s words. Nyma, as elder, answered.
“He will let his house to them. At the time of the wedding…ah, Madla!” Some laughter, and throaty sounds of ruefulness; and Pytta’s friends’ chatter. Some shared Pytta’s circle complete, and would see this princely scheme to its fruition, the bride Darsale and the groom, Sente, joined. Others did not know Sente, but knew the widow-lover. And a harsh, scornful, “Ha!”, above all making itself heard, was Caleyna Treiva’s.
A space of dishes clattering, freighted silence, made Lom and I exchange a sideways look. He, bless him, would not say it, but I would. “Will our lady burst the dam?”
He smiled…and she did.
“Maybe Mumas thinks he will surprise them. Maybe, for all we know, they can be surprised.” Pytta stopped for a moment. She went on. “Are the northern men virgins on their wedding day, do you think?”
We, of course, slaves moving often invisibly, even through bedchambers, could not be surprised…at the vulgarity of the jokes. And to the House of Decima’s advantage, Madla came down pleased with herself.
(2018, Stephanie Foster)