The Totem-Maker: A Mother or a Father (part five)
A Mother or a Father
“Escmar. What will you do, if you live in these woods, when the Emperor’s men reach Suma Fortesa by another way, and in their vengeance bring floods and fire?”
“Await them,” she said.
She had taken the pause I expected. A small one; she was a wisewoman, after all. But she had not told me that her name was Escmar, and I did not believe it. I felt disappointment…whether my face in turn had shown her, I cannot say.
The zhatabe employed a trickery commonplace. Oh, I will call you as the princess in my story, when a short time past I was rousing the rabble? Shall my conscience be surprised? Shall I be superstitious and amazed? Not I.
“At my age,” she said, “I bear all that comes.”
“Sensible. At mine, the same. But truly, because I’m curious…”
Egdoah topped the hill, jogging, not much winded. Over his shoulder was the sack of useful things he carried everywhere.
“I am through,” he said. “But you will not go back.”
I stretched my neck, and saw movement below, a green-clad figure pacing tree to tree. A longer look, and I picked out two or three others. “Escmar, have you hospitality to offer?”
“When night falls, you may rest at my home.”
“With my friend.”
She sighed. “Meret, you are untroubled. You know yourself to be a prisoner.”
“Yes, and I know those things a prisoner knows. That I attend the pleasure of a judge. But you, who are my counsel, I think? You may tell me who that judge must be. Chos?”
“You have not met Ami.”
Her answer implied both that Chos was kind and Ami cruel, and that Ami would dispose of me. When I knew Escmar better, I would have plain terms from her. If it needed sitting hours in patience, prompting her to explain until she wearied of the game, let those hours be her penance.
This moment, I thought that for Egdoah’s sake, and to test the zhatabe’s soldiery, we would eat our late meal for the day. “How can I help you with supper? Are there any fruits in our circle of the woods I might pick, any roots to dig?”
“You may scour the pot, fetch the water, and your friend may build the fire.”
I bowed…yes, mocking. She turned her back, in climbing down. Egdoah put himself behind me, and I kept only the pace that allowed me to study the woods, to locate markers. But my friend saw my studious eyes explore, drew his knife and notched trees as we passed, first to our right, then to our left.
The way circled a wall of boulders, exposed as rains will do, falling through centuries. We crept between a natural pillar and a winding tree, pinched at this spot in its reach for the sky.
I stayed Egdoah’s hand. “This is a tree she knows by heart.”
The path we emerged on was worn by Escmar’s feet, that trod it daily. We ducked under an arch of cedar, branches limbed to this effect, and were at her door. The house was part cave, part stacked stone, part woven thatch.
“I envy you, Escmar. What a pleasant life! If I were at my tollhouse, I would do as you, and gather in the woods every day…”
She had changed her mind, I discovered, unwilling any longer to play the kindly sage. She thrust me the pot, and a brush made of tough stems. As I worked them, they gave a spicy aroma. I thought it clever to clean the pot and flavor it too.
I had even decided to say so, and to go on making cheery conversation. But Escmar bustled off, to return arms heaped, by a flight of chiseled steps from the chamber to a rooftop escape. Logs and kindling she dumped at Egdoah’s feet.
Egdoah said nothing, only crouched and began to sort.
“Vlana, where is my vessel, that I will carry the water in?”
“Why, use the pot!”
“Vlana, may I trade my task with Egdoah’s? You see I am small to carry such a weight.”
“I will have the fire. You tend it.” Egdoah meant that soon the fire would be ablaze, and it was. He took the pot, to exit without ceremony, not asking where he might find water.
I addressed Escmar as Vlana once more, and she snorted this away. “I am not one of your ladies from Monsecchers.”
“Escmar, I can peel and chop. Won’t you have me help to speed our meal along?”
I tonged the wood from the fire’s center, to stop it burning overhot, spending its fuel before the pot had been laid on. Escmar, at her paring, watched me over a shoulder. “And so you know some practical thing, or you have some common sense. You have a knife of your own, I suppose?”
“Yes, on my person. Very kindly you allow me to obey you, and have not accused me of dishonor. Nor Egdoah, who carries several weapons.”
“Dishonor! And you with your totems!”
“Take them,” I said. She would not.
“They are not green crystals, poisonous to the touch. Here, here, let me bring one out! Escmar, you are a sage. Will you not tell the Mother or Father of the zhatabe to accept this gift, tell them that harmlessly you have held a totem in your hands? Bashtat has held hers…”
She cut me short, her speech more like a jailer’s. “I allow you to obey me, you say. Obey my command that you be silent. Take these to the stream and rinse them.”
As I held the tail of it, she filled my shirt with mud-caked roots.
A Mother or a Father
(2022, Stephanie Foster)