The Totem-Maker: A Mother or a Father (part two)
A Mother or a Father
I gauged the zhatabe’s hold on the town by the ease of strangers speaking to me. I did not awe them, but I could see that an uncloistered sage among them daunted. They were a courteous people, and would, where two or three in speech blocked the way, draw a friend by a sleeve, or stoop to lift baskets laid aside.
A man in ceremonial dress fell in step with me.
“You are master of the temple, there?” I asked. “Are your gods those of the town, or is it that the town worships the zhatabe? I have not been able to discover,” I said on, as by speaking first I seemed to have stymied this priest, “how it is between the people—the Fortesans, I call them—and their overlords. Living men and women are in places venerated.”
“I am not master. But I keep the nidtus, for the holy days.”
“The miniature temples, on their pedestals, where the votaries dwell.”
He bobbed his chin, the smallest of nods. I was much interested in this reluctance. I noted, too, how many Fortesans had forsaken that ruse of errands, carrying them this direction, and followed as students might a teacher.
“Then be my guide, please, as in sacred places I will not offend. May I offer gold?”
“The Totem-Maker need not,” he said at last.
“May I offer, then, a totem, that will be held as a relic here, to lure pilgrims?”
I said lure, knowing it implied irreverence. But he had not told me gold was never accepted.
“A totem would be…”
“Too great a gift. No, lord priest, I am going to place a totem in your temple. I will have it so. The totem requires nothing of plinths, or caskets, or cloths of silk…or of painted designs, or burning candles, or songs, or of particular days, or particular beasts, dedicated to it. Place it where the people can see it and touch it.”
“Do they steal from the temple?”
No, a voice came from behind us.
Emboldened, I brandished the one I’d ventured to Suma Fortesa purposing to return without. I lifted it to the sun, to show its colors. I turned, from the steepness of the path, to face the valley and the lagoons. I saw one empty, and this, unless I had failed to notice the other, had a vault concealed below the waterline.
Whatever treasure was hid from invaders must lie in a raised coffer under the humped earth forming the lagoon.
“Why do we dig for precious things, only to hide them in the earth again?”
I drew murmurs, saying so. Soon the thunder of the dragon would be heard. Did I dare test my powers? Reader, I did not believe I could command marvels through the totem. Only, I had come to wonder if the magic were not this purple object’s summoning of gods, or even of malignant spirits, but a simple and foolish persuasion, exercised by believers upon themselves.
I thought I could afford a charlatan’s trick. It was not meant to be; it was not the god’s will.
Spare the soldiers of the Prince’s army. Let fire not rain over them. It is a cruelty to impose this test, to call blind obedience the measure of courage, when all the wise know better, and the wise do not go to war. Lotoq, grant me this. I ask nothing on my own behalf.
I spoke this prayer, dazzling enough to my crowd of followers, as none—or a very few—knew my language. But the words were the truth of my feelings, and I meant them as prayer to my patron god.
I repeated them. Nothing occurred, where by the tensing of shoulders I could see everyone had expected the boom, the ground’s shaking. I was like a performer waiting for a partner to come sing with me. A third time I gave my audience the melody, taking the totem in my two hands and thrusting it high above my head.
We who were turned that way, saw a cadre of armed men leave a door at the Citadel’s gate, and hurry down the walled path to the spent lagoon.
“What have you done?” whispered the priest.
I answered: “You will not now refuse the totem.”
I patted him forward, his face unhappy, to the hilltop and the round steps, and at the uppermost I sat, and laid the totem beside me. “Where is your temple curate?”
The priest would not climb, but sank to his knees and in a piteous way told me the worship here was humble, that his were the hands alone by which rites were performed, and that no vessel within was worthy of this thing. He addressed me as Mightiness, in the Fortesan tongue.
No, I said. I am a vessel myself. I put out my arms and made an enfolding gesture. “Come sit with me here on the steps. Tell me your troubles. We will use the totem against them, and where there is unrest shall be peace.”
“Why,” a man in the striped overshirt of a charioteer asked, pushing himself to the fore, “if I have a niece and nephew, and both can manage horses, and both are in my house as my own children, can I not give them this place…? To ride with me or to drive under my name? Why can I not leave the gates and seek custom in Aran? It takes a year and more to petition the zhatabe.”
“Pray with me now,” I answered, thinking this dilemma rather deserved of me. I had not sought to invite municipal complaints, but of course the Fortesans had them. The merchants…the keepers of inns, the drivers of chariots and wagons…lived protected; it was the poorer class who suffered conscription.
But I used what I had.
“Ami, Chos, do the zhatabe treat your holiness in vain? Do they bow before your power, or do they live as despots, deaf to the people and ruling them by whim?”
A number of servants stood with their masters and mistresses, and beggars had gathered to fringe the crowd’s edge. At a distance, I saw Egdoah ushering Bashat, obeying as I’d instructed him that morning.
A Mother or a Father
(2022, Stephanie Foster)