The Totem-Maker: A Mother or a Father (part six)
A Mother or a Father
The Prince’s siege prolonged itself. Ami did not, nor any emissary of his, appear to claim me. On days I had good morning light, I extended my translation of Noakale’s book, knitting it into my blanket, in the way I have told. Afternoons, I weeded her garden beds, brushed away Escmar’s cobwebs, dusted and neatened. I and Egdoah together, after our late meal, ranged in the woods, building Escmar’s winter stores of kindling and logs. We gathered mushrooms, ripening fruits, stones we would lay for a trough to collect water, birds my arrows felled, deer Egdoah’s had.
“Some don’t eat meat,” I said. “These things, my friend and I can prepare outdoors, for ourselves, if to shed blood in your kitchen would foul it.”
She frowned at me. “I have never heard of such a scruple.”
“Haven’t you? But you keep an altar on your hearth. And you name yourself Escmar.”
“The altar is to the god of the spring.”
“I would like to make an offering, so I do not displease this god, when I take from his woods…perhaps he counts them his.”
“Gods of water are not made offerings. The shrine is to keep the welcome. We forget and complain, of deluge and drought.”
“Ah! How we do!”
I left her with the mildest smile on her face. Escmar chose to be resigned to this life, having two busy helpers, two prisoners in her custody who could not be downhearted.
My people of Monsecchers, I told my listeners, would tell this tale. The daughter of a rich man, a seller of wines, was given by him in marriage. Demand me all you would carry away to your new home, he had said to her, for I shall never see you there. The new son lived over the mountains, and the daughter was the vintner’s only child, the parting more a sorrow for that the mother had died. And though he was rich, the vintner lived in humility, pious to his gods, tended by one servant alone, an elderly man and faithful.
The girl said, “I want nothing of yours, Father.”
She wept, while her husband walked the rooms of her father’s house, commanded his men to take this piece of furniture, that hanging cloth, this gold chalice, that carven coffer…
And the father said, each time, “Lotoq spare, I can be without it.”
This prayer angered the son, as in full it was said, “Lotoq spare his wrath.”
He pointed at last to the servant, “That, too.”
“But servants we have, and he is old, and will die by the way,” the girl dared.
The husband said, “If he dies by the way, I will order him buried. With all ceremony, and with offerings. What will your father do, if he wakes one day and finds the old man dead? Vlan, I show you a mercy, do I not?”
The father said, “Daughter, he does. My heart would break to find the old man dead.”
The horses were laden; others were yoked to the bridal cart, and the girl handed up. She carried comforts for her journey in a sack. Her husband said, what do you have in there? Her needlework she showed him, a few sweets, an elixir her father had brewed, a smaller sack of tiles. These tiles were much like mine for fortunes, but were used to prompt good prayer. A tree might be drawn, or a sign for bread, and the supplicant be reminded: these are blessings, and I have not thanked Lotoq, I have not thanked his father Ami, or the ancient mother Aza, for the protection of trees, the nourishment of bread.
The husband picked up the elixir, sniffed at it, drank it down. He said, I do not want you praying so much. He allowed her the sweets; he told her the needlework would make a gift for the chief of his wives. He scattered the tiles. He then mounted his horse, and ordered the boy driving the cart, “Forward!” The tiles were crushed in the mud, under the feet of the husband’s beasts and bearers.
The old servant came last. Leaning on his stick, he stooped, collected the tiles, dropping them into a pocket of his robe. But each he studied, and spoke aloud his thanks.
One day, Reader, I had noticed a figure, then another, climb the hill. The soldiers stopped them. I strolled to the edge of my purview, interested to hear what was said.
“It was a story about a princess, and awful fires and magic, and never ended. Eco, you want to hear it, too, don’t you?”
Eco—plainly, for her apparent age—had been taken into the soldiery to fill a role, one not to be occupied by a man. The army of the Citadel followed tradition.
“Eco,” I said, “I am under guard if I remain where I sit. My voice may carry…but I have never heard of guarding a voice.”
Eco, and Suz, my guards by day, and sisters, sisters also of the young one who wanted the story, became my audience. Soon, when the time for stories arrived, as many as a dozen did also…soon, twenty or thirty. I had not drawn my opponent to the match, but the zhatabe would not ignore me.
My Escmar tale was not yet composed to my purpose. I offered others, blameless lessons like the Old Servant’s. But piety to our gods of Monsecchers, their vengeance against the outsider’s blasphemy, were subversion to the rulers of Suma Fortesa.
The wine merchant’s daughter had felt herself warned. The chief of wives laid her new rival’s embroidered cloth on a table, discovering by sunlight its imperfect threads. Saying she could make nothing better of it, she used it on her lap while she ate. The second wife proved no more than acolyte to the first. The third was a sad little creature, stepsister once to her husband, remembering him in a kinder light—and her love for him was true, and desperate.
For you, the wine merchant’s daughter said, I will pray his heart changes.
From her own heart no prayer could be stolen; she knew the tiles and pictured them well, and spoke to her gods in silence.
A Mother or a Father
(2022, Stephanie Foster)