The Totem-Maker: Lore and Lessons (part two)
Lore and Lessons
I return to the story of Bani. Those two of our party who were the Citadel’s, the traders’ people, came to me for nightly studies by firelight. They told me the zhatabe knew my book’s symbols, the strange lines of pictographs; that the learned lady (Noakale) knew them, and that writing, they knew, was the work of spellcasters. It must be so, for only such things as rare occasion demands could be forgotten.
“All this road, we could not know our own hands better. I can draw you any part of it.” The woman, Ba’ahn, whose furs and knitted overshoes were no different from the man’s, Diira, nor were her labors, with a wedge of stone on the cave’s floor showed me this. The map of her travels she carried all in her head. How to spot a hare against the snow, how a hawk differed from an eagle, were taught in furrows of sand. And these swift strokes were faultlessly observed. “Yes, I can tell you the signs…that place there, where the poor guardians sleep. I warn you not to pass unless you would leave bread for heaven.”
We had, made our due sacrifice, and of impiety, I could mention Castor’s contained mirth, feinting that he would restore the bread to his pack. He had not. To Ba’ahn and Diira, the guardians lived in twilight, and visited the gods they could not join. Our kindness ensured our luck…they would intercede and beg the mountain hold her temper, let us pass.
I spoke to our guides in the language I knew I must learn well. I framed questions; I accepted words as they pronounced them, begged their patience in speaking slowly to me. The zhatabe must have at least doubts I could be lied to. He must guess, from my having learned a little, that I had means to learn a lot, and that the Prince who had sent my embassy cared that it succeed.
Yet Castor had the truth of it; the Prince could not be at ease with his superstitions. He wanted me to be wholly magic, but having only me in whom to invest this wish—not a comfortable stone idol, but a small person—he would far rather see my plan fail. But see it…that was essential. He could not feel right unless certain I was wrong.
And that my reader see, I mention again the story of the flood. My Totem’s deeper meaning I had no power to discern just then. I had not passed those signposts along the way, which belatedly, I did interpret.
Not to meddle with powers too great for ourselves is ever the warning of the gods. But in our human taking notice of things, we intuit…more so as we age and remember, that many events of legend are not possible.
In ancient times miracles had been; in foreign places, they might be still. But a horse’s hoof cannot strike a spring to inundate the land. We do not witness this occur. And Escmar, of whom I’d told you, changed to a bird and wounding the moon in her frantic flight of grief…
Well, if the gods were greater in knowledge than those they had animated (in my first country, humans were risen from the insects; to the northerners, we were created by Chos in his own image); if indeed they were foreknowledged of all things, why permit the world to suffer, or why punish foolish Escmar for a vanity she had not the worldliness to master in herself?
Bani’s father, and the men of the shantytown, putting skins on their feet, wrapping themselves in windings of tattered grey cloth, ventured to the mountain…ventured there when dawn had just lightened the sky. They knew that this, not midnight, was the hour of stealth. The strangers were not to be seen by the lake; at the other end of their tunnel, the Kale-Kale believed, lay their camp. And there they retreated after a day’s work.
The men saw wains piled with stone. They eased along the approach to the lake, apart from one another and crouched low to the cindered path. Spiny trees and thistly herbs grew on Lotoq’s toothed terrain, and creatures mouselike, so far as could be judged of them, scurried, leaving nested patterns of tiny jumping feet. Their camouflage the men trusted; light grew steadily and still, at their distance, and behind the many teeth of the god, they could not spot their fellows.
Sudden was the appearance from the tunnel mouth of a troop of laborers. Bani’s father thought these came in wariness, and yet thought it was Lotoq that frightened them. They fanned, to begin a curious action of toeing rounded stones that lay near the lake’s shore. Learning a thing by this, they would bend, lift, and weigh the rocks in their hands.
From the tension of their arms, Bani’s father deemed it the lighter, not the heavier, they sought. Each Kale-Kale was now islanded and helpless to confer or plan. Each had a skin of water. The sun, with the hours, poured a greater misery on the father of Bani; but not a stitch of the covering that disguised him could he remove. To take a drink must be a slow, cautious business.
Then, bringing his skin to his lips at last, he was startled by an outcry among the laborers. Their shouts to his ears were a jabber of staccato noise…
But one keened and moaned, and held a hand as though he would shake it free from his body. The others clearly said, no. No. They pointed to the bed of the cart. No, no. The man peered, and let himself be comforted. He went back to his work, but managed himself now in a feckless, timid way.
And why? Bani’s father wondered. Some stones of the mountain were airy; it was said among the Kale-Kale that these were birds caught in the wrath of Lotoq, diminished to a vague shape of what they’d been…
But birds valued for bearing away heat when laid in embers, good to dig into the soil of one’s garden. He told himself the troubled fellow was a halfwit.
Lore and Lessons
(2021, Stephanie Foster)