The Totem-Maker: Winter Alone (part twelve)
If I peered from under my ceiling, I saw only the swell, its rushing lacework of white foam. And sometimes failed to see forewarning, of the slap of saltwater in my eyes. Also a dizziness would upset my stomach, and only the sinking back into my little darkness restored equilibrium. But I made it one of my tasks, to stand and acclimate my feet…
For one thing, the view opposite held interest.
Our way was not straight, but we followed the coast, keeping both in sight of it and well out, for (as Egdoah had me to understand) currents made by the jutting rocks and the little coves between, and by the sea-devils whose cities were on the ocean bed, had strength to draw even a large ship abeam, her rowers and sails helpless to right her.
Having the coast within reach was in the Prince’s scheme; he in name admiral of this fleet…and nor was he virgin to such farings. We rocked upon a sea by which his legions had arrived at the great city of Hezhnia, a place far east from Monsecchers.
Never until my lessons known to me. The Hezhnians were another sort of people, Egdoah said. They had been conquered and gave tribute to the Emperor. They had wide beaches of sand; their harbor on the map curved like an implement our orchard-keepers used to snap twigs hung with fruit. My knowledge of things pictured it so, and I gave the name to Egdoah.
“Cimbel. There is a bird…that lives only among the gods, above the great mountain Ami, that dwarfs Lotoq. But Ami is quiet and kind, as no human sets foot there. We have a story how this came to be.”
I spoke too much, too quickly, as I would. But these two sayings, there is a bird, we have a story, were not difficult, given him at an easy pace. The northerners’ word for bird was juta, and so it seemed to me I had got the meaning of my servant’s name. You will know, Reader, that this pleased her ill.
“And what do you say for moon, Egdoah? You’ve told me, and I can’t remember.”
I made a gesture near my ear, two fingers flitting away, not unlike a bird, and this he understood.
Chos was the name, and he bowed his head, saying so once more.
“And is Chos a powerful or a vengeful god?” I asked Jute.
“You will never make a journey in your life if Chos despises you.”
Make, at all, or succeed at…I could not pursue this…I had promised Egdoah a story.
“The moon, Egdoah, once always showed his face, as does the sun. In a very green land, where the night was nearly as the day, lived a princess, whose name was Escmar, who had a gift from her grandmother…”
From my basket, while I held up a finger asking Egdoah’s patience; that also of Jute, and one of the young soldiers who had come to give his offering, I drew forth an orb of milky stone, which as I spun it for them showed its blues and yellows.
It was a luck totem. One made these…Elberin had taught me how. I’d spent hours happy enough wading in streambeds, searching out this soft rock that betrayed its translucence. From coarse stone a rounded bowl must be chiseled, smoothed, the perfection a matter of eye.
My eye was good in such finenesses, and my totems, turned and turned, and polished in sand, were round as the moon. “A gift like this,” I told them. “But mine is a poor thing, and grants me only hints. The grandmother of Escmar was a Seeress of the ancients, and said spells over hers…it had a power of wishing, and the girl, they say, lived in the forest alone. She was heedless of any hardship, for she need only wish into being those things she wanted.”
My northern friend sat absorbed. And I, not heedless, but teaching myself at every moment, saw that a comradeship could grow between strangers in this way. The soldier met Egdoah’s eye…his face said, yes, I know that, or, ah, wait and see. Even Jute took the fate of Escmar with a generous suspension of scorn, her smile merely arch.
A prince—a Hezhnian or Siankan, I might suppose, for having learned of them (though the Siankans seemed ruled by rough chieftains)—had set off to hunt on the Island of Birds, but his ship was blown to that where Escmar lived.
I won’t trouble my reader with their adventures. On a sea voyage, waiting dinner, such long tales don’t come amiss…
Suffice it say, Escmar grew angered at length, for she’d pledged herself, and for her prince’s admiration had wished a bounty of game teem her forest, and every day he hunted, and put the marriage off, and would not carry her home on his boat, to meet his father the King. She wished herself into a bird of surpassing loveliness. And in the wanton way of the ancients, she led her love a chase to a great waterfall, and there, leaping to net her, he plunged to his death.
She wished herself a woman again, and said, over her totem, “Now restore him.”
“Ha,” said Jute. “And he lay dead.”
“But,” Egdoah said, with a worried face.
Well, I hoped I had not erred, trodden on a word forbidden. I recalled I had no reason to tell this story, only I had wanted to explain why a moon-shaped implement was called for a bird. “No, friend, there is redemption.”
The soldier said: “She ran mad over all the world. She flew into the face of the sun, and the plumes of her tail caught fire. And then, blinded by the smoke, she crashed into the face of the moon. And then…”
This, while animated, was all too speedy for Egdoah’s grasping. Jute pushed in and spoke in a slow, condescending way—for after all, she spoke to him in his own language. What my pride would have borne with a grudge, Egdoah took as rare honor. Here the famous touch that confers virtue, that royal persons of high houses are gifted to bestow; the healing touch, as the northerners were said to avow…an attention uplifting to their poor hearts. Egdoah with downcast eyes thanked her, and called her Princess. I believe so.
Ami, the father of all gods, in wrath cast Escmar into the sea, and the waters doused her flames. The moon, so wounded, was not looked for to live. That, to the people in those times, seemed unendurable, their nights forever dark. A terrible age of cold and famine passed over the land. The people threw their dead into the sea, and prayed the god surrender up to them Escmar.
Among the dead Escmar met her grandmother.
“If it is the will of the people, then send me to them! Why should I live? I do not wish it.”
These words Jute spoke as though they were her own.
(2019, Stephanie Foster)