The Totem-Maker: A Mother or a Father (part three)
A Mother or a Father
I thought of a song I had heard Fortesans on the streets singing. To calm my audience until Bashtat could climb to join us, I played this on my flute. For when I’d tucked implements into my belt and pouch that day, I had turned my mind towards pleasant persuasions.
“Come,” I said, “sing the words.”
The priest sat in gloom, but a few at the foot of the steps seized the invitation. I played, helped by clapping hands, pipes, bells, drums, a small strumming board…which one by one chimed in, all things musical carried by initiates (so I optimistically hoped) to our new religion.
I considered why the priest should fear, whom he feared. He claimed himself not master of the temple, while he claimed himself alone here, in performing its rites. Well, I would assign him a master…
And if the state disliked this, at its mercy I sat, open to all the state might wish to teach me. Bashtat moved clutching Egdoah’s sleeve. No ordinary Fortesan resembled her, with her catface paint, her embroidered tunic, the gaudy wrappings of her legs, her many silver charms and rings, bracelets and chains. The crowd stared. Egdoah leaned to her and spoke; she raised him a skittish smile. But reaching the outer circle of dancers, she too began to dance.
Now the song of the crowd was unfamiliar, and I played the rhythm, in simple high notes and low. It mattered that my head be lowered to my work, that I be a colorless worshiper among worshipers, that only Bashtat command eyes.
But I prayed to the totem, keep steadfastness in the heart of Egdoah, let Bashtat feel courage and show them joy, and you, young sister totem, call to Bashtat. Begin what the gods would have you begin.
At that moment, this totem told me its name, Areygna.
I took my own out and placed it to my right, Areygna to my left.
Bashtat danced and the people drew aside, opening a path.
“Here is a story,” I said, “that once I began to tell and never finished. I will tell it again. Good friends, the god of the Moon you know. You are besieged by a people who place him higher than the sun. I, from another land yet, serve my Lotoq who is a mighty mountain, yet less than our mightiest of mountains, which floats above the earth and touches Heaven, our great god Ami. But we speak of Chos.
“Now, the moon once always showed his face, as does the sun. In a land where the night was nearly as the day, lived a princess, whose name was Escmar. From her grandmother, she had received a gift…”
But here, I made Escmar’s totem not a wishing ball of polished rock, moon-shaped. I altered her people and her fate, to spin the tale my totem dictated.
“Her grandmother was a great Pythoness, and into a gem of green she had invested the power of her ruling deity, for she was grandmother to all the Pythonai and this legacy hers to bestow. Once given, the god’s essence passed, tied for all time to the fate of the totem, and could not be restored. Hidden in a dank vault, that with foreboding and a terrible ringing of voices in her ears, aboveground the eldress had carried it, was a coffer. Within the coffer, that she had pried and hammered for a fortnight, and that sprang suddenly free of its hinges, lay the stone. Not a quiet stone, awaiting the artisan’s fingers to draw forth its beauty. This stone glittered and tempted, but its allure spoke of doom. As the snake sheds her skin, she who bore the gem lived in youth and freshness for an instant, then seemed to sicken and fail. Three granddaughters had crawled the temple stairs, to take it in their hands, each unable to rise, and tumbling from the dais, horrid in their throes to look upon. But Escmar seized the totem, raised its fire to the sun, and when her outer form had flayed away, still she stood. Escmar stood, but the green light fading showed its devastation. Bodies of all others come to the trial lay scattered.
The Pythoness was much weakened. She rose, with no hair on her head, and the flesh of her arms wept, and her cheeks were sallow and spotted, and her lips fell from her gums. ‘Go daughter’, she said, a gasp drawn in agony from her throat. ‘You must go. Find a place of exile where none know the evil of this day. In my pride I have chosen an ill thing. I shall die in a moment.’
Escmar and the grandmother locked eyes. The old woman made a great, final effort. ‘All you desire,’ she said, ‘you may have.’
And Escmar understood that her totem would furnish this, every wish. She wished to be well away from stench and sorrow. She came to consciousness on an island, knowing by the saltwater smell, the cries of seabirds, that she was near a shore. No person lived here. In time, Escmar’s wanderings had rounded the coast.
She explored all the island, its peaks and chasms, meadows and forests. She gave names to all the plants and creatures, wishing into being a magnificent palace, heaps of jewels, sumptuous garments. But she found she could not wish human company, however she tried. Unscathed by the ordeal, she could not die or change, and her years were long.
“I wish a servant to dress me. I wish a stablehand to saddle my horse. I wish a cook to make my meals.”
She tried, but she dressed herself…else wished herself dressed. Tame horses Escmar could conjure, saddlery of gold, harness of threaded diamonds, but never a one to lead the horse to her, and help her to mount. She might speak to the horse, ask, “Where shall we ride today?”
But this for Escmar, as for any of us, was pretense.
And if she said, “I wish my horse could speak,” nothing occurred.
A feast of a thousand places, each plate and cup differently ornamented, she could summon, and delicacies beyond knowledge in her old home. But every seat not hers was empty.
Yet came a day, when a ship ran aground on Escmar’s island.
A Mother or a Father
(2022, Stephanie Foster)