The Totem-Maker: The Recalcitrant One (part six)
I could not miss the eye. Its countenance had formed such that it seemed curled on its side asleep, but this powerful one’s magic sang in the air around it. The song was a thin, moaning whistle, melodious, unearthly…
A mockery of my sarcasm with the peddler. On my mountain the gossip of forest dwellers raised a cacophony; thus, lest I fall betranced, I exercised my mind on discerning of the calls I knew, birds I had given new names to.
For Moth was not in that way educated. As to how Alëenon sages ranked fowl in their compendia, he could impart nothing. I threw out seed. I would not have lured any bird to my bow, but wanted them close for study.
“We call that the redbreast. And that is the yellow-throat,” my servant told me, confident.
“And these small ones?”
“But, do you know, in my country we also have such birds. Yet ours are different in kind. Their breasts are striped.”
Moth watched me, patient to know my point, which I had made.
“There are many things,” I told him, saying an old thing. “Under the sun.”
My Recalcitrant One I kept now in a pouch at my belt, having it a personal totem for the time being. And I spoke to it.
“You have ambitions, I suppose. You count yourself stronger than your lessers, for you cause them to obey you. Yesterday I asked you to wake the faces, and you woke…I dare say you were able to wake…one. I wait, Creature, to see if it’s the sleeping one rules you, after all. And what may happen if I throw you in the fire, now you have your eyes? I will try it in a moment, or if you counsel me to choose that misshapen fellow with the mild face, him I will trial.”
The power is yours. But ask for nothing you will not yourself endure.
I credited this…but feeling a strange temptation to anger.
Rising an hour past, our sun at once had put his face behind a bank of clouds. I wondered how far Cuerpha could carry me if I took the traders’ road, how soon before the skies stormed? How treacherous the climb home, following the descent?
These plans were for solitude.
I hadn’t wanted the totem’s advice to be so duty-bound…
No one—as I weighed magic and meaning, I advised myself so—could be as dull as to miss the moral of Escmar’s tale. A totem, a talisman, a charm for wishing…what was this, really?
With Moth to shoulder half the chores, still each day I had more work than could be done. My work contented me…what more would I ask, but for time? And time, Great Ami himself cannot alter. With a chest of gold and no law but my own on this mountaintop, I might go the place, be the thing I liked—if gold, jewels, silks, were my longing.
I could not return to Monsecchers, where I was known, and be anything but a thief and a failure. Gold would not buy me birth. I considered, even, that Pytta and Cime might prefer the legend of me; I, finished for them, to an end satisfactory. If I came back, a disappointment, a seeming fraud…
And was there duty in that? Towards a story of yourself, a role to play at, fair or not: Fortuneteller, Keeper, Totem-Maker…Omen…
Being to the world what it said you were?
Then, can we wish for, any of us, more than we can imagine? The houses of the gods hold wonders beyond our minds to know, but we cannot ask…
Desire, yearn after…
You see, Reader, wisdom, as might have been sent me by the gods, lay couched where only the plod of my pony’s hooves and isolation…yes, from Moth’s asking me his next directive…would allow me to converse with it.
I rode from the cave where I’d sheltered from the first storm; then had to wait out a second, spent of its bluster too late in the day…
My pony and I were alone; this spreading plain, rich in purple-seeded grasses, quite empty. The road to Balbaec followed a watercourse, and what I’d taken, looking down, for shrubs with blue-grey needles, were fair-grown trees, the stream cutting deep to make a narrow valley.
Its pines, able to grow in thickets here, their sated roots laced below the bed, grew nowhere else within my sight. Cattle grazed the plain, a bearded, short-horned kind, mingled with deer, and I could not guess if the Balbaecans owned one herd, both, or none. I saw no marks but the specklings on the cattle’s flanks. All I met, my height measured now against these mountain walls, was more and greater than pictured. In this discovery, most commonplace of the unseasoned traveler, I gained my first, modest colloquy with wisdom.
The upward slope that reached the caves—and of these was a city street’s worth of dwelling houses, some with the charcoal of fires inside stone rings; some with only bones, no proof the devourer of flesh were man or beast—was rock, tablet-sized shingles of it, like a giant’s roof thrown down by wind. The climb for Cuerpha would have been impossible. My own legs were worn to stiffness, when for curiosity, I’d struggled up to peer inside one cave. But from this vantage I saw that, as with the grass and trees, the stone-field hid things. A road well-trodden ran the perimeter; athwart this, a broad highway of its kind had been patiently fashioned, stones stacked to form two angled walls.
After a rest, I walked down to fetch Cuerpha by the easy way. Constant labor seemed needed, and where I encountered fallen rocks, I lifted and threw them aside, feeling I owed this respect to all who passed this way. It did cause me something of fear, as I laid my camp from night to night, to have so much mountain overhead, such catacombs below.
(2020, Stephanie Foster)