The Totem-Maker: Use for Use (part four)
They were laughing, as they reached the open gate, and I reined my skittish mount, dancing my way to them. Two leapt to the ground…the traders did not saddle their horses. Their clothing was red wool, stitched everywhere in vines, rosettes, patterns like flakes of snow or stars. They wore leather helmets with plates of metal; over their wool, an apron-like covering fashioned the same.
Their weapons were hatchets, spears, bows and quivers of arrows. Their teams drew six wagons, two cabined, curved-roofed, painted in the designs of their clothing, showing a fondness in pigments as in dyes, for that rich, brownish red.
They spoke; they pointed…their fingers played the air with a trotting motion, so nothing but that I amused them could I conclude—a frantic, mudstained ragamuffin. And, I knew this of all peoples I’d met, it would be impolitic not to alight myself, to meet them with my face at their level…
I scrambled from Cuerpha’s back. The dismounted ones seized the gate, worked it to and fro. Whatever rust had frozen the hinges impeded no more, but the logs top and bottom swung at odds, threatening to torque apart.
Another thing to find time for, to figure the means of fixing.
There were women, too…one opened a shutter and put her head out, shouting. Her hand came next, bunching a circle of red stuff. A trader went to her, they bantered and scolded…he approached to stand toe to toe with me, bearing this he’d taken from her. Rough and good-humored, he caught my bare head in it.
I suppose I amused further, struggling free, pushing my gift hat from my eyes. But behind the laughing tail of the caravan, as the traders passed down the road, was dropped a sack. The sack had coins; it had also an earthen jug.
What was it meant for? Did I drink it?
I had not made up my mind the next morning. This fine weather meant my work table might be put to use…and were I to create a useful thing, I must think of what. By the rules, I had firewood yet to gather. I’d pulled from the earth two of the shapes…they were of a size to fit in the palm of my hand…my fist, I mean to say, might close on one comfortably, as on a clay flute. They were smooth to the touch, rumpled in contour. Their color was purple, they shined like burnished metal, the two ends were formed as seeds—here I mean the top carried a buff circular mark, and the bottom a nub, a filament, as though it would root.
I’d left the others part-buried, thinking they would sprout into some marvelous thing in the spring…but the leaving them left me uneasy. In some way these seeds made me uneasy altogether, and the thought growing in my mind, that as I had four, I could split one and discover what was inside, made me feel ill-counselled, as though the seed itself dared me, knowing better than I what malignity I might unleash.
I brought my orb from my basket and set it between the two.
Nothing moved or glimmered until I turned my back. Then I heard something…a knife blade pulled from a sheath. Not, I tell you quickly, a noise, much less any part of my real surroundings, only the sense of such a noise. I’d turned, deciding I would taste whatever was in the traders’ jug. I would at home have made a tea, the steam of which the orb was passed through. When this cleared in retreating patterns, a seer truly ordained, as Escmar’s grandmother, might read her answers there.
The heat perhaps awakened godly powers within the orb.
I did not attempt a tea from the berries. I did, with great caution, sip from the jug. And laughed a bit…the liquor was flavored entirely of honey.
Bhe! Bhe, I said, addressing any or all of them, seeds and orb. To speak the word against evil comforted me. It had always comforted the old woman, and even Elberin, who scoffed at my frequent terrors, who used his stick on snake and dog alike, saying to me, “I am old, and I will die when the gods run out of uses for me…”
Even he, at times, made the warding sign and spoke the dispelling word.
Bhe, I said, and went to my garden. I lay on my stomach and reached deep. The seeds had a certain tug to them, as with pulling-stones, those found on hillsides where sand has been rendered glass by lightning. I worried out the third, but lost the fourth, fingers slipping, the seed rolling deeper into its crevice.
And that, I told myself, is fair answer. Three will come out and one will not.
The orb was off the table.
I’d felt nothing, no tremor lying in closest contact with earth. The table had nothing in appearance out of level.
“Here,” I said to the seeds, “is your companion.”
No noise at this reunion, or movement.
“Bhekale, I am going to cut one of you open.”
I turned my back to enter the stable, listening with ears most sharply pricked. I heard the scree of the hawk somewhere above my house. I heard wind, and felt it billow through the shutters, fresh, heartening, fearful…
The weather would turn, of course. With my hand-axe, I came back to the table. I took the baking stone from the hearth. (A bitter thought at this, as so many good dishes might be made, had I only the makings of them.)
I placed a seed. I brought the axe down with all the strength my labors had built in me. My wrist jarred, pain shot through my arm and the blade flew from the shaft. But I drew myself up, did not flinch for the ache, decided neither would I stoop to search the floor. I touched the seed, I picked it up, I carried it to the window’s light, and turned it every which way. Not the least mark was on it.
Use for Use
(2020, Stephanie Foster)