The Totem-Maker: Lore and Lessons (part six)
Lore and Lessons
They were faced with the problem of loyalties. How to secure them, when no persuasion could be breathed. The council’s reasons were strong, but secret; what they proposed wanted utter abandonment, utter embracing. All that the people knew and were comforted by, they must leave behind. They must obey in faith, and only after, be told why they had. They could carry their artisans’ tools, their packed provisions, a blanket, warm clothes, a second pair of shoes, hardly more. Nothing of weight, no musical instrument for joy, save a reed pipe, no animal too slow or skittish to walk, no small finery such as the villagers treasured, having little such…
At length the plotters came to admit it, that none of the infirm could go, none of the frail elderly. Children of a certain age could not go, unable to walk at an adult’s pace, too big to be carried. It struck the council this plan must be too harsh, and that some, confronted with it, might betray them. A second plan was arrived at, a second means of escape, into the thick forests on the western flanks of Lotoq, where the seawinds dropped their burden of rain.
I will not, for Bani does not, expand on all the Kale Kale did in preparation. Whether they did right, or ought to have turned aside, buried the crystals and suborned themselves forever to the Emperor, I would count a false conundrum. Some few hundred years ahead, Lotoq, on the day of my birth, would have altered the fate of Toboro, the city so known to the Kale Kale; the city built on their backs, on their labor.
I do not believe our Emperor of my day was of the same lineage as theirs. Fortune, thus, had intervened, though the plague of the crystals did not kill all the citizens of Toboro. It did not confer the holiness of martyrdom on the ruler of that day’s house. His heirs’ failure to enrich the nation or to guard it well, was their downfall…
Chance, in the fullness of time, chance to escape, would have come to the Kale Kale. They might, for grasping at freedom, have found they could feel entitled to freedom. They might have sought it, in the steady way of small works and small footholds, and in the passing centuries have gained it.
Reader, I feel that Curiosity, which we take lightly, is our true besetting sin, and a grave one. Zetihama and the men of the council had postulated this chain of events, this dramatic break, this flight. They could not return their minds to a long patience, leave their mission a legacy for the generation to come, the one after, and the next. They wanted the knowledge, now, of what would happen.
Bani’s father was charged with leading the villagers who could not or would not take the road, and Bani parted with him on that night of the festival.
“But won’t the soldiers scour the forest? And the demon-men, the white-faced ones? Where have they come from? What if they live there?”
“They don’t,” Bani’s father sighed. He was heavy-hearted with misgiving, but his misgivings were not the fancies of a boy. “Those demons were no other than the strangers at the lake. They had decorated their faces. What did the sage tell you? You must always remember what you know, for soon I can tell you nothing.”
Bani’s father and the villagers he trusted made tracks into the forest for days, carrying food and skins, and other things by which a new village might rise—rolled mats to wall thin shelters, basins for catching rainwater, stores of goods that might be sold, if the exiles found a home over the mountains, and returned to lead away their brothers and sisters.
In Noakale’s book (I may say so today, though it took me many years to fully translate), Bani does not recount the fate of the second tribe. Yet I was not wrong to feel my kinship to Noakale sing in the blood. I knew it, and she knew it. The destroyed city of my birth had been the lost ones’ home, so I guess. Whence my mother fled, and Lom’s grandmother had been sold. The disaster would have been a great winnowing, of a people born into slavery. For the Emperor’s soldiers, or the next Emperor’s, must, as Bani feared, have scoured the forest, but they would not have slaughtered the very young.
Yet I reasoned the matter poorly. Or too well, too closely.
I spoke to you of thoughtful things, godly things. I raised the question of a God, an all-powerful god; or of a minor god, a local one. I spoke of legends, miracles of great ages past, the diminished magic of our present days.
Stones that hatched crystals…yes, at times I had seen them. And what the jewel-makers did with such was to crush the pretty gems, then with that glue made from boiled skins, lay the shards into recesses of metalwork, shaped as flowers or heavenly stars. The gems were of no better worth, lovelier left alone, to enchant a child.
I had touched them, these crystals. In the desolate place of my early years, often I gathered rocks to build small fortresses; or pebbles, speckled, striped, smooth to caress in my fingers. I was taught the usefulness of those airy and sulphur-scented rocks that polish wood, or lighten clay. And far later, I dug my totems…these, I call seeds. While stones, in our mythology, also were seeds from which the gods grew mountains.
You see that the poisoned green gems of the strangers, which brought the plague of Lotoq, left me no awestruck believer. Bani wrote in the language of symbol and puzzle. He called the sickness a punishment, for meddling with the holy, for greed unbecoming to the Kale Kale fathers.
Now, a story is told of a terrible time, when the earth shook; when the seas departed. When the people, frightened by strange night auras that danced at the farthest horizon, made a caravan, they and their beasts, and all their possessions. The caravan after many months’ travel crossed the barren place where the sea had been. The people arrived (though the story is a long one, full of sorrows and strangeness, and I tell the least of it) at the ruins of a submerged city, where idols peered, their faces clustered with bleached shells, and bleached trunks of trees, grown centuries old, stood among staircases rising to empty air. Where myriad columns, carved with the history of these unknowns, lay like a felled forest…
And the mightiest of noises rent the air, and the sea returned.
The story is invented; else, some lived to tell it. I accept that it may have been. The barren city held coffers of treasures, never after to be seen on earth, and the people…so the story says…knew them evil and would not touch them. For those who dared, who would have carried away the shining gems, were struck with fire.
Lore and Lessons
(2021, Stephanie Foster)