The Totem-Maker: The Recalcitrant One (part four)
He stood holding a Seed under the window’s light. Two hollows like eyes seemed to glint aware, each with its dot of white. The totem had woken in itself this visage, by charm or wickedness.
“Tell me your story.”
“They are only things I’ve found. You would rather suppose, what…that I’d dreamt of them, felt them sing through the soles of my feet?”
I was sure he wanted it, and I was sure he would cheat me.
“Found them…lying on the ground?”
“No, they were well buried. The earth is poor here. My duty is to make of it what I can.”
He laid the object down, turned to me from the table, no more of pretense that he half-addressed what he chose to call a totem. His face was oddly still.
With my story then, I cheated him…
I explained how I’d used the fire ash, laid it out warm, that I could dig my little fingertip’s improvement…how every day, I’d done this. I bent to touch the top of my boot, the depth of garden as I’d made it, before the earth split.
An event I let rest unspoken. The traders knew of the rockfall. If my friend were so clever, let him surmise, let him ask.
“You make me think. I doubt anyone’s done a lot of digging up here. How many seeds altogether, eh?”
“Why…? Do you mean to say they are—”
Here was the peddler I knew, lifting an eyebrow at my breaking off. “Fortuneteller, I shan’t supply your answers, to sit amazed while you read them back to me.” Derision colored his voice. “In the tiles…is that your art?”
“Relict. Of earliest times. I only sought the words. Answer me, then, what sort of flower makes them?”
“Perhaps it is in your fate to breach the Citadel. The zhatabe is said to own a great library, scrolls decorated by inspired sons and daughters of those godlings first cast to earth, when the dark of night had been dispelled by the fires of divine warfare that sheeted across the skies until the second darkness. If any mystery is not concealed there, it shall never be revealed. The people of Taqtan have a legend. You have yourself heard the story of the first tree, whose limbs upheld the heavens. And all creatures of earth lived among them, until by that battle of the gods she toppled, thus the waters were born of the firmament fallen, and the land was filled with creeping things of every kind, and only the birds, sheltered in those limbs still high as a mountain, were given the gift of flight.”
He ushered me to the door. He caught his staff, and me by the elbow, and off we went in silence to the road, where in full vista the peaks could be seen. I was of no mind to speak, worried that the peddler, with his lore of varied nations, his sometime majesty, his frequent disdain, was a Princely retainer of power…my Prince, or this zhatabe, emperor or king of the Citadel people.
I stewed inside, in defense of my fortunetelling.
Hadn’t I done good with it, given comfort and hope? I did not make sport…
Never would I have held a seeker in contempt.
He lifted his staff and showed me with a gesture the veins of white running in the shape of a branched tree through the scoured cliffs. Yes, I’d heard the story of the mighty Mother Oak, and I had seen this proof.
But seen it not.
“The seed may sprout one day,” he said.
I don’t know why, when he looked at me, I foresaw my own death in this word.
I made the reacquaintance of an older friend, young Moth. He arrived with the Balbaecans, whom I saw first in pilgrimage, winding afoot in a long column, myself perched at the spot I called Cliff-Head. (Caepfodthe, I give you the word, in my first language.) The road, gentle in descent beyond the gate, doglegged here, once, twice, three times, and a fourth. How did the traders get their wagons round? For curiosity I’d once followed to watch. The answer: they took the wheels off. Between planking on the undersides they gave to their vehicles, even the very tall ones, a host of human legs.
The traders, I began to surmise, would not return until the last of summer. What riches did they find along the coast to carry home to Taqtan?
I sighed with wanderlust.
The peddler, keeping to his place in the meadow, bought and sold. And the Balbaecans, passing the gate in parties of four or six, began to pitch tents in the meadow. They scavenged everywhere, digging my wildflowers’ roots and roasting them over fires. I found a pair of strangers in my back yard, taking wood from my stores.
Raucous, the Balbaecans played and sang much of the night.
I felt the peddler egged them on in their trespass. Yet sensible the house was mine but to tenant, and that I had never been told if the meadow belonged to it, I stifled (in ill-grace, perhaps) my indignation. How could I know if I were not at fault, if I owed better hospitality to travelers from below?
On that ninth day when the peddler was to leave me, though I did not know it, Moth, after a rap at my door, walked in.
“Is it you?” I said.
“Totem-Maker.” Round-eyed, he made signs with his hands, and stared at the Seeds.
Now, to go back…
On that night, before the peddler had discovered the face (which he’d predicted), I’d tried a new thought. No rock or blade could mar them, no fire burn them. If they were the strongest of all things, could it be they marred one another? I climbed on my table and dropped a Seed, striking the victim I’d placed on the floor. Still, I failed. I believed I had.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)