The Totem-Maker: Lore and Lessons (part four)
Lore and Lessons
Go! Finish! This does not concern you.
The headman ordered the halfwit so, but it needed another, armed with a whip, to force him to the task. He held the pretty stone at arm’s length, averted his gaze, and waded into the lake. He waded further…
Bani’s father viewed him with alarm. It was known the lake was hot; that the waters delivered to twisted limbs relief, and that some, weak in the chest, breathed afterwards with strength, if they lay near the edge and covered themselves only to the neck. Attendants would hold them, for the sulphurous smell soon sickened in its own right.
The deeper waters could not be touched. The foreign commander, complacent, stared after the halfwit. The halfwit whimpered, but held himself. Skin began to float to the surface from his body.
“Why!” Bani’s father blurted. No one spoke. Only the Kale Kale understood him. “Why! Why!”
The halfwit gave a cry, and vanished.
“But the god!” Bani’s father shouted. Rathinihama seemed to wake.
“This is a poor thing you have done,” he said to the interpreter. “Why should you? You surely know…”
“A fit, demala.” The man pointed to his temple. “No, true.” He hadn’t words for what he wanted to convey, and showed them in pantomime. The fellow, a demala, or afflicted with the condition of demala, had been meant only to put the rock aside.
“He killed himself!” Bani’s father felt still incredulous and fearful.
“Yes, yes. Demala. The rock was yours. You will choose other you like.” The interpreter turned, to speak to the commander. The commander rode closer to the wagon, and from the height of the saddle, studied the rocks in its bed.
He seemed to say no. He gestured widely, then jabbed a finger at the tunnel.
The interpreter shrugged. He spoke in a low, cunning way. The commander backed his steed then, and shouted. His soldiers withdrew; the workers clustered, with every appearance of nervousness, at the tunnel mouth.
“We have digging. But you are rich. I been to say, you know me…” He lapsed again, at this unsatisfying pass, and returned to pantomime. The round, light shells of these stones might or might not conceal green crystals inside. Only breaking them would give proof. “Rich and beauty,” the man said. “What the emperor will pay, huh?”
“We can’t,” Bani’s father said. “Lotoq…”
It was an error, born of rising panic, but Rathinihama gained from it one spot of certain ground—that Lotoq’s name was not to be spoken. Bani himself, in this telling, gives his opinion that the green had aroused what a coveted thing will, in the heart of the elder. With blame to cast, he had excuse for removing the stones. Otherwise, the act of defiling the god’s stronghold would forbid it. But Rathinihama said, to a Kale Kale trader who outranked Bani’s father, “The harm has been done. We must take these stones and break them, and have the priests’ reading, to know how the god would have us appease him.”
In the village, constructed (as mentioned) on two sides of a deep ravine, Bani’s father, and other cloths weavers and dyers were housed near the stream. The potters, too, needing water in their work, lived low, opposite the clothmakers’ bank. The stone carvers were here, for their heavy craft needed its materials loaded and unloaded from rafts.
Above were the stitcheries, where garments and draperies were made, and the spinning wheels and knitteries. On a level at the height of the road, foodstuffs were vended; in the highest lofts were the fine arts of tile painting and jewelry making.
Three master cutters were summoned to the meetinghouse and offered the crystals unlocked from three of the stones. The others had crumbled under the hammer. Six halves of differing quality lay arrayed on the carpet. Allel, senior of the masters, picked as his eye discerned, not the largest of crystals, but the most varied of hue. One stone cup held yellow with the green; the other, violet red.
Takel’kale chose for herself the longest and most translucent of the crystals. Mafi took what remained. And each resolved to surpass the others, to learn these crystals, splitting the lesser of them this way and that; then to design glorious temptation for the Emperor and his court. So enamored were the elders of this hope, of wealth beyond all knowing, that celebration and feasting followed, igniting spirits from the heights of the village to its depths, where even Bani’s father gave a pig to the spit, telling Bani all sacrifice would be twice returned in the coming time of plenty.
The sickness seemed, in light of so much downing of wine and rich food, an untroubling thing, an inconvenience to the jewelers. They worked with the weight of the village’s expectations, all their people’s receipt of scorn and abuse by the great of the city…
At the hands of these masters, all to be redeemed. And each, secretive, kept cloistered in the workshop, eating less and less for the pains in their stomachs, yet Allel, Takel’kale, and Mafi found in isolation their separate reasons to dismiss the malaise, to count themselves better on this day than on the day before.
Takel’kale worked feverishly (Bani’s term, and I cannot say if his humor was dark), to embed her art into ring and bracelet metals, which must be purchased from the city guilds, for the Kale Kale were allowed no forges. She woke on her mat, ten days from first touching the godstones, in a terrible itch and sweat, and when she went to the roof of the house below, her own terrace perch, she saw her pots of herbs green in the rain that day falling, and saw the veins of her hands and arms spidering, broken under the skin, the skin blotched purple.
Her painful scratching, which yet she could not stop herself doing, had opened these injured spots; they wept and bled. She scratched on, and when the raw wounds flowed, fell to her side. Under her ribcage, the ache was intense. Rain fell, cooling her. Alas, rain enough fell to show Takel-kale her own face, in the mirror of a puddle.
Lore and Lessons
(2021, Stephanie Foster)