The Totem-Maker: Use for Use (part five)
I slept a first night with them in my house…slept to excess, the honey drink to blame. Sorry for my hurting arm, and for myself altogether, I’d swallowed two or three strong draughts. That day I woke not having dreamed it or thought it, but with certainty a crafted thing of my own must be puny in magic to the bhekale, its company an insult. I put the orb away.
Bhekale, I said to them, yet naming them evil, I need my axe, which one of you has broken. I went astray yesterday, and gave to him my attention, and never brought in the firewood, a thing I also need.
The air was cold, and only Cuerpha, restless for a jaunt along the road, stirred. The birds seemed silent. Yes, I know the signs, I told them. A storm is coming, and I am very hungry. For I might eat this mouse-fare day long and still feel a lack. My wrist is weak, and that will make a hardship…
Just here, midst this grumble, I saw myself in a play performed before my mind’s eye, toting a sledge, I the beast of burden, the sledge laden with sticks and logs. Yes, that was the answer, the one I’d failed to conceive…for having eight days now posed the question. A sledge there was, in the stable, fastened already with a rope; stacked, though, with sundry baskets and cloths…
And not needing these, I’d let the sledge become disguised to me. The Evil One seemed to answer me this, too.
I let denial float in my head unspoken.
I don’t need you. I am not here to serve you.
I went from my breakfast feeling taunted, to saddle Cuerpha. Then, after all, I turned him into the yard. Firewood above all. The Iron Seed was right…I chose this for a new name, telling myself also, to concede a wrong is reason. What the Prince would have me learn will not make me of use to him, if I am another Mumas, proud and stubborn.
My young pony had never been hitched to a vehicle, and the way to the pines looked to my eye pitched and rocky. I would tie the rope round my waist…my arm less trouble then. I remembered now that needles could be steeped, that the old woman had known of this as a medicine. At Lotoq’s foot no pines were seen, nor no patient wanting potions to ease the pain of childbirth. I had never tasted the brew (all her simples she had taught me the measure of by taste)…but any medicine might feel healing when one’s diet had been so dull for so many days.
Under the pines was snow, the surface ice formed into slickened gouges and jagged teeth. My foot broke crust; from pooling mud my wool wrappings soaked water. I discovered this crystalline stuff shrank both top and bottom, that small green flora sprouted sheltered—the winter world far from dormant. I had been stupid, I supposed, and might have found forage, if I’d known the mountaintop country…
If, my complaining heart said, I had been instructed at all…
I crouched and picked promising leaflets to chew, daring this without much fear. I cut needled branches and tossed them onto my sledge. I made my way closer to the overhang, drawn by the plain I could see so far below, by what at the very edge of distance might be the sea.
I had not gone within what looked twice my height, well back on the modest slope that fell to the precipice, thicker snow here blanketing…earth. Safe ground. My mind had no other thought as I worked round a trunk and spidering roots towards a better view.
The bird of prey’s shriek turned my head over my shoulder, angled my eyes to the sky. Uphill I saw a white hare start from where it sat camouflaged.
Under my feet the ground gave way.
All of it, everything. Only the tree stood anchored. All my salvation was in hearing the cry and spinning to follow the hare’s dash. My legs plunged, but my arms flung forward, my hands seized roots.
If I had not faced the path to my house, for turning, I’d have pitched flying over the cliff, with nothing to catch at. I used my hips to hunch inelegantly ahead, and ahead. My feet were weights; flailing them after footholds, I sensed…I knew, with no words or calculations framed as such…would harm the terrible precariousness of my balance. I wormed my way onto what felt solidity. I hooked toes then, and walked myself on my belly, further. I dug with freezing fingers into the mud and found other roots.
By now I could think a bit. But only when I came to where I’d left the sledge, did I push onto hands and knees.
Then I lay on my back and stared at the sky.
My heart was calm. I watched the clouds mass, and told myself, it doesn’t signify. You have work to do, get to it. You will bear the lesson in mind…you will not die the death of Mumas. Twice today I’d invoked his name. And so I stood.
But when I came to my door, I saw a horse was tethered outside. Another of the traders. I put my head in, and he sat there on my rug, busy at a practical task. Knitting…I knew of this art, but had never tried it. He had brought a dog into my house, that for wanting to growl me from my own threshold, quietened when the man clucked. My guest beckoned me in.
On such occasions, I’d chosen to speak, presuming all that accompanies words: expressions and gestures, friendly cadences, communicates to better advantage than silence.
“I’m sorry I wasn’t here to take the toll. I was loading my sledge with firewood. I see you have started a fire.”
I bent to the hearth in exaggeration.
I patted the dog’s head.
Use for Use
(2020, Stephanie Foster)