The Totem-Maker: The Recalcitrant One (part five)
Bright sun through the shutters made obscure what might have terrified, the slow-blinking eyes, like those of a basking lizard. Moth took a stool in the corner and set his bag at his feet, still speechless. I had not myself studied the Seeds, stared at them as though to meet their gaze…with command. The impressions of glimpses I’d received, afraid to do more. But I understood—for the peddler’s visit, I was too well informed—that I would be expected to command them.
I had slept with them in my house, woken to them in the mornings; I had that much courage. Duty serves, where liberty shirks. For my visitor’s sake, I said:
“Don’t trouble over them if you can help it.”
And what do I know of Moth? Asking myself this (though the answer was, next to nothing), I decided on: “Are your mother and father at peace?”
Of the Balbaecans I recalled that cousinly link to my own people, and the question was always asked at home. Whether one’s parents had become protectors in the next world, or whether they dwelt in this, peace was most desirable.
Moth fingered a chain at his neck, and nodded to me, yes.
“Please. You have my assurance this work of mine is harmless to you. Are you sent to live in my house and be of help?”
Just then the thought occurred. I’d spoken this wish to the peddler; in saying the words aloud, as well to the Seeds. And before the gods. But I began to suspect what sort of vehicle these totems were.
“Are you a great magician, then?” Moth said at last.
“Well, Moth, are you? I mean no disrespect. But let us suppose you have within you any sort of greatness…and why think otherwise? You can’t name, you can’t feel, what you will do when the hour comes, when you achieve that deed above all, that destiny. And neither, for myself, can I. I do not know myself to be a magician of even small powers.”
Our similar languages, I doubted enough for him to grasp all this. His face was believing, though. He hugged his bag and tiptoed past the table, out to bed in the stall opposite Cuerpha’s. In the warm weather, I supposed I could allow it. I did not want Moth’s place to be so lowly. But if he dreaded the Seeds, neither could I force him near them.
The peddler, come to amuse himself, to laugh that I’d put Moth to work gathering my arrows, confided to me he would take his leave under that night’s moon. I urged on him two of the totems. He accepted one, and gave me a number of things from his wagon, not sold. I sent Moth to the loft for baskets, loaded them helter-skelter. I did not appreciate the chore.
Then the peddler sat to dine with me, and when the bowls were cleared, drew a carved box from the pouch of his tunic, having my fingers be those that touched the totem, to place it inside. These charms were nothing of value to me. I disliked their watchfulness, expected evil from it. But the peddler said even kings would barter for them, bestow titles and estates, if the return proved worthy, if the totem were the right sort.
“And I am going to leave you with your reward, though you don’t like receiving it.”
He dropped, one by one, a handful of bright gold on my table. “When I am back this way, you may like to buy of me something that catches your eye…something more than a sack of meal and a skein of wool.”
This idea of coins, though I knew they were exchanged in the coastal town, where foreign ships put in; and where such things were of great use, and yet of no immediate use…seemed to me a dubious magic. The world’s insistence on money confused me. That another would give a thing, a marker in a game…that at length I would give it back, and by this means have enriched us both…
He rummaged among the baskets, laughing aloud. He’d frustrated me; he was pleased to have done it. He drew out a cap, and like that early trader, placed this on my head.
“Now that’s no use, you not having a mirror. But see!”
Again he bent, found a round disk on a handle…of some white material, this, that flashed a glorious rainbow in the firelight. I saw a thing I never had, being somewhat shamed to study my reflection in pools of water. The hat was red, gold braid trimming its upfolded flaps. The face beneath was strained and dirty.
“It’s what you lack, and why you collect your tolls from pity, and not authority. A proper cap of office.”
Leaving me, then, with advice to make clothes that fit and wear them, he strode across the now-empty meadow. Under jeweled blue beams strong as dusk, I saw him busy himself at once with the harnessing of his creature.
The last of the Seeds, that for so long had refused to be shaped, kept its eyes closed. I knew the totems now, and knew it contrary. It formed itself, finally, when I decided to leave it outdoors.
You dislike the damp, perhaps. Cold dew may be your death, for all I know. For all I knew, since nothing I’d done yet angered or troubled them.
I bought through that season, spring becoming summer, with an eye to the future. A great luxury for me, this having of possessions for the enjoyment of them; this notion I might put a thing by, shelved in its new-made state, for one day. I need not defend my choices. As payment for service, this was fair, and enough.
And that same expansion within me, that growing faith in my own importance, made me bold in tossing my Recalcitrant One into the garden.
Draw up your fellows, I said to it. That much you can do.
Mornings I went out, as every sunrise brought change. Moth had been badly frightened by the emergence of two new Seeds, and left the patch to my tending. But skilled…at lying in wait, knife in hand, pouncing like a cat…he proved himself. I let him hunt for me. I let him have all care of the sheep. I bought chickens from the Balbaecans, having Moth, and a dog now, to keep guard.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)