The Totem-Maker (part three)
The Little I Can Tell
I do not mean to dwell on trees, except to say I remember the smell, and the bitter flour ground from the seeds that matured at summer’s end. This flour I knew intimately, as among my chores were all parts of its making: gathering the seeds, culling them, kilning them, grinding them when they were browned and brittle, sieving the powder through a cloth…which also I had to weave, and it was from the leaves of these trees.
I do not mean to dwell on them, but to say they were not native to our land. So I had been told. They were come as a burdensome gift, the gods’ familiar humor…and even the bark stripped from the lower branches was woven into baskets; even a pungent sap with some sweetness about it, was used in feast offerings, fermented into a drink we called sahin, sap-wine.
And so I made the flour. I sealed the flour away in jars. I baked the bread and cakes.
I was most content to be always busy. When I saw the priests at the door with their heads together, I had the chore at hand to excuse myself. But I was meant to come at once to any adult who had not yet instructed me; to give obeisance, to ask, “Vlan (or Vlana, which was our way of calling an elder), what would you have me do?”
She had put me into their hands by stages, the old woman. Never in our time together did we speak but face to face, and so to me she had no name; and for her superstition would give none to me.
With my hands clutching some implement—a broom, a mallet, the stone our bread was baked on—I existed in a state of apology. I exasperated; I ought by now to have prophesied, have manifested…fits, a clouded white eye, any sign with some whiff of holiness.
Elberin decided I would be taught the symbols, and employed when he took notions, to record them. He ushered me from the old woman’s house into his own, to an anxious severing from my usefulness. Now after breakfast I sat, it might be an hour or more, waiting. Fearful that my idleness would be flown at, for a fault.
I was not to touch Elberin’s things, to tidy, to mend. I was to carry a tablet on our walks, soft unfired clay, and to mark down the names of things. Over my shoulder weighed a basket filled with many of these small tablets (that I made myself).
It was his way, when I had scratched down errors, to seize the clay from my hands, send my etchstone flying, smash my work to pieces. He did this with a great dispassion, and rarely a word.
I began to mark the seasons. By my punishments, I could count these as different, one to another, a chronicle in mistake and shortfall. My early years gave only the mildest of joys. Joy I felt when alone working the furrows of my garden, thankful to my god for this secret, whispered in the slow certainty of fruitfulness. You will grow, you will break from these roots, you will be whole unto yourself.
We kept a cat and a dog, as against vermin and vagabond one must, and here too, was joy. I loved them. These innocents showed me none but a welcoming face. And I was never cruel, as the old woman, as Elberin. Never at my hand were the good creatures swatted, never chased with a broom.
The Little I Can Tell
(2018, Stephanie Foster)