The Totem-Maker: Use for Use (part one)
The gods that ruled this country, and this strange prison of the tollhouse, said nothing to me. They sent snow, and I could hardly guess whether it were a gift of beauty, or a slow, suffocating torture. It was beauty to the eye and torture to the feet, at any rate. I had not been told their names, or in what way I might supplicate them.
The sheep, this breed, were very white of fleece, and soft. I had a plan to call the old keeper’s possessions mine, to take the meat and milk and wool…profit from it in a gentler season. But I entertained that I might do myself mortal injury if the animals were of rare type, sacred to the gods, kept here only for sacrifice.
“Is my language strange to you?” I spoke aloud, facing the peaks that pinched between them their storm clouds. “I am an obedient servant, and will do those tasks I am given to understand.”
Every morning, chores forced me to wrench free of skins and blankets, where I was content and could have lain all day. But I had basins to fill with snow, so as to have water. The people were rich in ores here, it seemed, those that color metals gold. What in my land would be shaped in clay, or hewn of wood, was here wrought, and with wonderful figuring, too. One of the legends I’d grown up with came to me, of the cat and the rooster, and the sons of fortune.
A prince’s ransom would Elberin call such gifts, if I returned to him bearing what in this new life were my daily vessels.
I dug out my doorstone, and even when I had all the water I and my pony could require, dug further. I felt warm from this exercise, which was something. And on clear days…I had discovered I must tie a scrap of my underlinen over my eyes, to see at all when the sun shone on the snowfields…I was able to note a valley. Or greater than that, a plain, as many leagues below as I and my escort had ridden from the mountain’s foot. Some pines of a crabbed shape overlooked the drop, which I thought must be perilous. But I would not go to the edge; I would keep myself back among the trees.
I carved out channels for an hour or two before I took a midday meal, and an hour or two afterwards. I spread fodder for the sheep. The stable opened into a yard, kept clearer of snow by a double line of pickets, one high, one low, pine branches laid on for a roof.
I noted the chore in this…but I would repair the gaps in time.
Also, the wind swept over some barrier, a hump of rock, and the snow gathered beyond. The house was sited to all the advantage this evil place afforded, so that for sunny days, a thin trail of bare grass showed, a path the sheep followed coming into the yard.
Of days, I had counted seventeen since my abandonment here. (You see that I was a conscientious user, in this way, of words to fuel my grievance.) The corner of my house held three great urns. The traders had carried these in sacks of straw, slung over the flanks of their own sort of horse, a beast great-footed and longhaired. The urns were filled with seeds and nuts. I had honey as well, though less of it.
I did this: mixed a handful from the urns with two fingertips of honey, then cleaned my hands in a bowl of water and drank it.
And by this time, already I thought desperately of meat and bread, of green leaves to chew.
I woke on the eighteenth day, having contemplated in a doze of how I worked ceaselessly, without method. I turned my pony into the yard for his short circling walks, and brought him indoors to his stall and fodder. I tended his coat and hooves. I fed the sheep. I built my fires and heated my pots of water. I wrapped my feet and went outdoors to dig. I forced hunger, the more easily to endure but one food at every meal. I might need to wash myself one day, or my clothing, yet in this cold I felt at peace with it all.
But how wonderful to have had a helper! How wonderful to have had a friend or servant, only to hear me speak. This was my morning revelation, Reader, that if I did not gather firewood soon…
I had probably wasted more of my supply than was wise. I knew, even I, that sticks want seasoning—and how to dry them unless I had built a fire?
And if one matter is most urgent, others must be less so. Yes, I was frustrated.
I saw there was a job, a higher task of ordering and arbitrating. I must play Elberin to myself. Besides this, were all my labors…and so I must play Jute. Then, as to me, the one meant to master some art, or overmaster some malevolent place-spirit; to make myself the key, or prove at last that the tollhouse held none for the Prince’s campaign against the citadel…
I would not solve the puzzle. I feared it. I saw in this equation of chores and time, defeat, demanding some magic or miracle to slot each piece into its proper place. And I would not live unless I solved the puzzle.
But the old woman had taught me also, when mastery of the smallest art was an hours’ long labor: “Do what you can. For now, child, do what you can.”
The gods seemed set to storm again, conjuring clouds, and the low sun himself was cowed, shining pale in colors not his own. First to the yard, to collect all that might be burned.
And out I burst, eager.
I had startled something. Its wings flapped against my face, and I shrank, covering my eyes. All that in an instant, so that when I looked again, the yard was empty of hawk or eagle. I heard its cry, from a place far among the cliffs. The hunter watched my own predation, or among the minor deities of nature, my fair claim of victory…did the rules work so.
The poor prey was like a rabbit, only short-eared, the fur white, the body warm.
Warm, and I dreaded much that it was not dead…again, I doubted I knew these matters well. And that my knife, skinning it, would do cruel harm.
Use for Use
(2019, Stephanie Foster)