The Totem-Maker: The Recalcitrant One (part two)
The Recalcitrant One
I wanted one. For no reason but that the thought of a tame, fabulous monster in my possession pleased…I began to see myself in a light, become famous for this or that particularity. Ways and wonders about this tollhouse keeper, tales traveling where I could not, inspiring awe…
I was not pleased.
It discontented me much, to feel rivaled by a legendary Other, adventuring forth while its poor shadow lay tethered. I reminded myself of my small list. Fresh-killed game, if they had it. Yarn. More arrows for my bow. (Attempting the use of it, I’d learned arrows were easily lost. As well, they did not go where you’d aimed them, unless the distance were short indeed.)
Elberin…I found I longed to tell the story…to have one of these visitors for a companion, just for hours enough to share something of my life, things I could share with no one… Elberin had taught me to set snares. I found the business heartless. Too often broken creatures lay in them not dead…
I collected my thoughts, spurred to the gate on Cuerpha, my custom…and for the usual reason of ceremony. The traders knew all states and manners in which tollhouse keepers past had greeted them. I hadn’t the language to ask that they teach me. I’d achieved nothing towards dignifying my role.
But this address, while meaningless, was in the tongue of my first country.
Said (by me) with the very least authority.
His hair was the hue of those orange meadow flowers…he was a northerner. But not a Prince’s man; one permitted the pass of the Citadel.
“Can you translate for me, then?” I asked. I had more to say…can you ask them if they’ll spare time to stay the night, now the weather seems gentler. Can they tell me their stories, can you, of sights along the roads and lands beyond the mountains?
I wore my knitted wrap—as by its present size, it served me. He jumped from a wagon. I dismounted. He sauntered close and looked this garment up and down, my question ignored.
How I found myself disliking him!
“Curious patterns. What do you make them for?”
“Because, stranger, I don’t know any better. Call me, if you like, Nur-elom. Why,” I added, “should you call me Totem-Maker?”
“Oh, I expect you’ll make your totems in time. You’ve unearthed the seeds. That’s a rare start.”
He waved the others onwards, half-turned, the gesture lazy. The lead rider whistled. Not to the fellow, unbudging where he stood. My wish granted, praise the gods; my asked-for companion…this arrogant stranger. Aza, can it be you paying me thus? Does your potency journey west with the easterners? Have I blasphemed, am I so rebellious and covetous?
The bag was tossed, and the stranger at his indolent pace stooped for it.
“But,” I said, feinting to left and right. He seemed to shift onto whatever foot put him squarely in my path. “I have purchases!”
“I can’t promise my wagon holds everything. But it holds most things.”
He was taller and making distractions with his hands; I (it was a lesson; in time, I absorbed it) angry with him, my mind rehearsing hard feelings…
I had not observed them leave a wagon off their train, and a beast—not a horse, but a frightening thing with horns—yoked to it.
“It’s springtime, Keeper. The people of Balbaec will be making their way up.”
“But the others, going down, and ahead…”
“Yes, the goods of Taqtan are one sort of thing. Mine are another. Now show me in. I want to see with my own eyes.”
I could hardly play at something devil-may-care, as though I had toured all the world, and chose living here, on a mountain road so lonely the law I enforced had weight only with the honest. I might have looked, to the stranger’s eyes, sadly wasted at the end of this hungry winter. I fumbled with the latch in nerves and eagerness, and promised him with too much chatter I did have a bit of jewelry, one or two stones of value, even if he had brought in his wagon only those plaits of dried, spiced meat the traders chewed.
He followed, to glance at the seeds I’d been working over as I have described, by a variety of tortures. “Now those…they are taking on the proper colors. One or two look nearly done.”
Well. I had no use for it, allowing myself to understand what I was not to be told. “You would like to buy them, all three?”
“No. Have they their faces?”
We looked at each other. I said, “You are my guest? Or do you live in your wagon?”
Why, or how, should they have faces! I hissed this through my teeth, but inaudible, as I went to stir the fire…to turn my back on him.
“If the weather is fine, yes. Tonight I’ll never trouble you. But we’ll take our meal together?”
He laughed. He’d been laughing the while, by the tone of his speech. Oh, I disliked him. I was tired of him.
“And what sort of fowl do you hunt in the treetops?”
“What sort of food can I get from you that you would prefer to eat?”
The Recalcitrant One
(2020, Stephanie Foster)