The Totem-Maker: The Recalcitrant One (part one)
The Recalcitrant One
Twice more before the spring, the winds came and thawed my garden. They had a name, these amiable winds, but my guest had not made me know it. As Balbaec to him, the sound of the word conjured nothing memorable in my own tongue, and I hadn’t yet hit on what I prided myself was a clever device.
I’d searched by now all corners of the small house, crawled the loft, wherein like the stable sat basins, bowls, and baskets, empty. As though some harvest, aided by servants—some to carry from the field, some to wash, some to pit or peel—had been the old keeper’s business. I puzzled on it, but this was not my object. Any sign he tallied his coins, I searched for, any formula he’d used to portion his share from that owed the collectors…
And this was to assume a share.
Perhaps my duty was to make my own living. I found it unfair; however, the Prince was not just in his dealings. He had favorites…I had hoped to be one of them.
But, as I’ve confessed to you, Reader, I was stealing his money. I called this a temporary state; I meant to replace what sums I must divine I had spent. I had not even the cost of things at home to compare, in Cime’s care having bought nothing for myself. Almost, I thought, I would need to make use of money to learn its value, and I came near deciding to steal openly on such a day I could afford a journey to the city below, to buy a few things with the coins I acquired more and more of—that, to my bemusement, no one would take from me.
But, cleverness. Noting how the knit stitches made wedge-shapes, like characters of writing, I tried the experiment of knitting figures in rows, to serve me for record-keeping. I hadn’t risked marking on my tablets, having so few. I’d tested a slurry of mud on the stable wall, but dampness dwelt in its blocks of stone; I feared my reminders in a months’ time would vanish. Evenings now I made my squares, forming a sort of cloak or blanket, each square a diary of my day.
When for twenty in a row (and I could say this with certainty, having memorialized it) the air was warm, and it had not rained, a large caravan passed the tollhouse. Now there were flowers, white spilling the meadow’s edges like seafoam, islands of orange and eddies of blue. I hoped this spell was of the goddess’s will, that the dry was not drought.
And, as for Her, she was of my imagination. Where I’d lived she was Trifesse, born of morning mist, under whose light tread the fields bloomed. These contemplations recalled to me a question I’d half-entertained on my travels.
Can there be but one grandsire, Ami; one mighty father-son, Lotoq; one great goddess, the wife who lives far, far, in a frozen land on the sea, its snows flat as desert, blackened by the ashes of her red fire? We call the mother of our race Aza. But legend has our faithless ancestors driven by the wrath of Aza on a long, terrible wandering. We had come, shrunken in numbers, from the east, to the gentler western lands of Ami.
Always, I’d taken these stories for truth. We were not like the northern people. Through all memory told in their songs, they had lived in their one place. They found us unbeautiful, or colored in ways that marked us for subservience. We were, of course, greater in wisdom, greater in our music and our arts. So great as to have crafted what they of the north could not, our stone sentinels, towering with the flame behind their eyes, guiding ships to the walls of our port cities, walls that defied the sea and made safe harbor where nature made none. Our skill with the flow of water, our fountains and pools, ours alone.
All this forged a pride I’d shared. I from an unknown parentage, not honored with a name. I had been feared at times, been sold, freed, raised to a height… If I counted this office a rise in status.
But I’d believed in the mightiness of our gods. I had not seen the boundaries of a god fade, a new god rise, one almost my equal, Salo-Ami, Aeantahah, spare me vanity. A border-god, who guards a patch of earth. To give way, a hundred miles hence, to some other.
And a lesser god ought be appeased with lesser sacrifice. The gods of these mountains had favored me greatly in sparing my life, sending the hare and the hawk. In Balbaec, though, could one defy them altogether? I calculated the rock could not crush and bury such a plain. It would roll so far and cease, and that place it ceased was the limit to which below the anger of these gods mattered. My cautious piety…I wondered. Could I take more on myself, choose more boldly?
Now, my friends, at odd moments, passing in from the yard, I had been trying rocks on the Iron Seeds. If I struck them as they lay on the table, not a thing altered. If I placed one on the floor, stood on the table myself and dropped the rock, it was this split or crumbled. (My guest the trader had repaired my axe…but never again did I think of using it on a Seed.)
Bold as I’d resolved to be, I had put one in the fire. Its purple deepened. I held it with tongs, turned it in the light. A rainbow danced. I put its fellows in the fire and left them baking in hot embers overnight. These too grew beautiful, even more so.
The caravan showed me evidences of a society among the trading families. I saw yellow wagons and green precede the red. I saw a roof of copper, windows framed into squares of thin horn. And this tallish house had an attic porch…up among pillows, a woman lay at her ease. Under her perch were openwork panels, every flowered join of them painted white, red-centered, the wood waxed to a gloss, exotic birds caged behind. Feathered in armor of shining green metal, so they looked to me, working peevish bills at their confinement, shrieking now and then like demons…
The Recalcitrant One
(2020, Stephanie Foster)