The Totem-Maker: A Mother or a Father (part seven)

Collage of wary person looking over shoulder

The Totem-Maker

Chapter Eleven
A Mother or a Father
(part seven)






“What prayers,” I asked my audience, “have you learned from the priest of the temple?”

“All gods of power gather here…” The speaker faltered, and sought encouraging eyes. “All gods of power gather here. All faces of the sun, shine here, in your seasons. All faces of the moon, make light for our guardian spirits to guide us, make darkness for the dead. When the sickle moon returns, let us praise the mystery of the Nightseer, who gives and takes.”

This prayer was chanted as a song, more than my informant had dared. But I, who had borne humiliation, and could not be made shy, led them through it three times. Then I said, “Let only the women sing for the sun, the men sing for the moon.”

I told Egdoah, “Have something be a drum, and keep rhythm while I play my flute.”

Egdoah scuffed a log free of moss. He pried two hand-sized stones to beat it. I had my singers lead and follow, the women in rising notes: “All gods of power gather here,” the men repeating, lowering.

I had wanted to live in the temple myself, to build Bashtat’s cult at her side. Yet Escmar’s hilltop was the choice of my god…and, I need not say, the wiser. The zhatabe were known to be consumed with the Totem-Maker. They had exposed their hand by imprisoning me. How could I matter, unless my mystery vied with that of the Moon?

To him I offered all respect. “Lord of Night, whose people guard your name, I apologize. I dare guess at your will, and act towards its culmination. I beg you smite me, if I err.”

The god, who might also charge me with light mockery, did nothing.

But no, until Bashtat could call an end to war…she must do it, not I… Until she could command the soldiers to lay down their arms, I had not achieved my aim.

“It was so,” I said, “that the daughter prayed, in fervor. She believed the old servant dead, and deadened her mind to thoughts of deliverance. Her prayers were not for self-salvation, but that the universe be set in order, due be given, in this ungodly house, to whom it belonged. And as she prayed, her faith grew. She rejoiced, even when struck and harried by the jealous first wife. The third wife crept in her wake, and soon joined her openly at prayers.

“In the forest they had built a shrine, a simple stacking of stones, a hearth for the burning of oils. What the two wives did was known, but the husband had been riding his borders, collecting his rents. When he returned, the first wife said, destroy that shrine, and lash those women. They will bring a curse on us.

“And think, if you will, said the second wife, how this foreign woman, the wine merchant’s daughter, has brought disquiet beneath your roof. She will not abandon her gods, though they are effigies, cyphers. She has infected the mind of your third wife. Surely our gods, our true gods, are displeased.








“Such things, the husband asked of the first wife, have been allowed? She crouched at his feet, and begged his indulgence; she claimed that the new wife practiced witchcraft, and she had feared to cross her. But her eye was on the second wife, ever her meek follower. Here was ambition! And it was in her heart to punish this woman, more than to punish the wine merchant’s daughter.

“The old servant was not dead. When he had stooped to collect the tiles, and had spoken his words of piety over each, and felt a calmness return to his mind, he saw that he would never rejoin the husband’s party, ridden far beyond sight. His master grieved alone. The old servant had promised to watch upon the daughter’s welfare, so long as breath was in his body. But, he thought, I might return home. I might tell my master the task was too great for me, and that I must take up my old duties…

“Truth came into his heart. His master had mourned already the loss of his most treasured. This wound could not heal. He had suffered his faithful servant’s parting, but had comforted himself in his servant’s promise. ‘My master must not know greater grief; but perhaps one day he will know joy.’ The old servant lifted his face, to rain that had begun to fall. His thirst was quenched, his damp clothing cooled him, and he walked through the night, at peace under the bright stars.”


I stopped. My audience sat, most of them, crosslegged, betranced. But I did not give silence to invite the lesson’s sinking in, but because I saw Castor climb my hill.

“Here is an emissary from the zhatabe,” I called.

“Not a friend, paying a visit of charity to a lonely prisoner?” Castor stepped over the threshold, from unguarded woodland to Escmar’s domain.

“My friend in charity, I am too busy to be lonely. I have news, and am glad to tell it. You will be welcomed today, tomorrow, and the next…I may lay out the warmaker’s game. When I speak of war, I have heard it goes ill for the Prince.”

“Have you? And how is your spying done? That demon stone of yours?”

My laugh made his next line fall sullen. “What does an ordinary man know of magic?’

“I have used my totem before your witness. My totem steers me in the way of wisdom, but by reminding me of wisdom I possess, which my human state disguises from me.” I turned aside from Castor. “Eco, are you privy to the zhatabes’ counsels, being a soldier, and asked to die? Has Chos, or Ami, or Rithrith, or any, come to you, to say, ‘Your thoughts are more material than ours. We will wake another day to eat sweets and play Talents, but our soldiers…’”

It was enough. Castor (embarrassing to me) had agreed to play this role, of trouble-stirrer. He wanted the ignorant alarmed at my totem. He would have them recall the one I’d given Bashtat, then spread against her a sinister repute.






A Mother or a Father

Virtual cover art for The Totem-Maker with volcanic eruptionA Mother or a Father (part one)

















(2022, Stephanie Foster)




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