The Totem-Maker: Use for Use (part three)
I weighed Lotoq’s inscrutable will, the caprice or ruthless purpose of my new gods. I wondered if I ought to pursue a different trade. I wondered if I were not free to go as I liked. Perhaps the caravans of the citadel, when met, would carry me off beyond the mountains. In a language I had yet to be taught, I would carve above my lintel: “I am Nur-elom, seller of…”
My little shrine filled with Aeixiea’s coins began to rattle, making a musical noise, until the clay hut itself rocked, and the jangling became a tocking. Afraid of insulting her, to sit and stare while a dedicated object’s sanctity was breached, I caught it up. The fire, stirred by this shaking, shot brown puffs of smoke, my precious wood burning over-quick…smoke the vents of the chimneypiece’s curious construction could not altogether dispel.
Some tool stored in the stable clattered down.
I coughed, and fanned, held the offering box steady on my lap, looked wildly here and there, had a moment’s time to worry the roof might crash upon me and leave me…
And my pony stood at peace in his stall, for Lotoq had expressed himself thus, often in our old home. Fear and despair came to me. How had I offended? With so much I could not do, what thing could I have failed to do? Would the gods not bear with me until spring came, and I had learned?
I went back to the yard in a wandering way, thinking to look at their shrouded faces and discover a sign. The red of the berries caught my eye. My gaze shied willingly enough from the angry mountain to the earth, where the ashes just strewn sat black and grey, softening the yellow soil. But this place I’d meant for my garden was fissured, split down the middle.
I saw some shining thing…and on my knees, peering, three or four others.
Now a wind came, gusting strong. Prudence warned me to go inside and see to the fire…
I held myself to this purpose, stayed picking up this and that. A fear the objects would vanish seized my imagination. If they were not living, it was impossible they should. And yet I felt so tested, that it seemed every choice would prove the misstep which would doom me.
The fire was fine. I had therefore been wrong to worry. I began to see my watcher, my god, as Game Master.
The warm winds blew through the night. In the morning the road from below could be seen streaking the meadow, ramping beyond to the mountain pass.
I thought they were leagues distant yet. I made out the red in their clothing and blankets over the haunches of their plodding horses. I felt braced with an unpleasant tension, awaiting duty…not knowing if all traders were courteous and spare of speech, as those I’d briefly met.
Or of the same nation, however they resembled one another. Part of my mind peddled to me the fear of being robbed, taken again in slavery. Part said in return: Be of faith.
First of my duties was the gate…it needed swinging closed. Once I’d barred them the road, the law of the tollhouse obtained in symbol.
They could of course, armed and strong, pass as they liked.
They could pay as they liked. But only either, for having chosen.
Tugging and shoving, I found my little strength insufficient. I was embarrassed under scrutiny, my struggles well in view. I heard no laughter in the lulls of the wind, only conversation.
I would have to mount Cuerpha, find a rope, fasten it…
Loop it round the top log. I could visualize this, but saw myself also gripping the two ends, trying to ride without reins, with knees, as the soldiers had been able. I saw my performance clownish; I was certain I would fall…that my mind’s engineering of this scheme was faulty.
I did mount Cuerpha, whose hooves were in a state to need this exercise. I rode him to the road, ahead towards the pass a short distance. The travelers hailed me and I heard them call a repeated phrase.
I waved, but called nothing. Of protocols, I knew none. Greetings I might shout would be meaningless to them. And I feared the sound of my voice, that it would ring young and small. I spurred Cuerpha into a tight turn and cantered him past my house. This was not wise…in more promising soil, the thaw would have made a mud-trap. Clown again, I would beg the travelers’ help freeing my pony. Instead, he sprayed a bath of clay over my garb and face, exuberant, almost disobedient to me.
My garb, I will tell you here, was a sight strange enough, no doubt, as all I’d brought was of thin cloth, and all of it I wore at once, with two skins draped over my shoulders and belted at the waist to make an ill-fitting coat. My feet were wrapped in wool that I’d contrived to pin, and that readily worked itself loose.
Use for Use
(2019, Stephanie Foster)