The Totem-Maker (part five)
The Little I Can Tell
And so I sat on a cold evening, a spring evening that promised frost, at work by hearthlight. If no one wanted me, I liked this hour between dusk and dark for repairing my few garments, my blanket and rug, my shoes and tools. I had never in my life asked that any new thing be given me. The old woman had treated my outgrowing of clothes as a willful act, vaguely embarrassing—as though I might by stealthy trading aim for a rise in status.
I sewed, and paid no mind to voices at the door.
I heard one say what I was called, the foundling. Joking of tone; expectations I would become a prophet to inspire pilgrimage, to make the locals rich, had long been a joke to Elberin.
I raised my head at a rustle of fabric, a young man peering at me round the curtain of Elberin’s chamber. He withdrew his face.
“Yes, tonight is better,” he said.
He then stepped into the room, reached to snag my basket, to lift and drop it. “Is this yours to take away? Will your things fit?”
They would, I told him…because I would make do with whatever did fit, and yes, the basket was mine. This was my station, not to protest, never to query. My confusion would waste his time, and I saw already in these evidences, that he was my master now.
My new place was a sleeping porch where all the slaves had their pallets. I had traveled for a day, then half another, forced to do this blindfolded; allowed to see my bread and leg of fowl by the campfire, but in the morning before full day, blinded again.
The kinder of my companions told me this was because slaves try to escape. “And truly, a master who has had the bargain of selling one, may take him back…to have both money and man.”
I thought about my questions, how to catch out what I hoped to know; how I must be stupid to them, here at the start. “Did you belong to a good house? Was your work pleasant to you?”
Another, sun-scorched and older than we, whose brow bore a bowl-shaped indentation, had warning in all his speech (of which there was little). He listened, and the third listened, a woman, whose tasks I longed to shadow, the kitchen being my native place.
But it was my writing that made me desirable to this man, Cime Decima. His family held the right of tax collection, in this quarter of this city unknown to me, and he did not himself make records on tablets. By which you may suppose he could not, or could not make the numbers come to account, but I had been servant enough, in my years, to ask no more.
“No, I belong to the family,” my friend said. “I was born in Gueddus Treiva’s mother’s house, and Cime was made a present of me. There is a ceremony, you may not have this in your old city, where the mother of the groom chooses gifts the bride will bring to the altar. Nyma Decima collected from Gueddus Treiva a slave, an altar-bowl of alabaster, a team and chariot.”
I understood I might do well to note these names, remember them if I were able, and that demurely, my companion suggested it. He had not told me what I wanted to know, whether the Decima were just in temper…or mercurial. But he had told they were a family of rank, and followed tradition.
It was my lady Pytta I attended at first. I was given a livery to wear. I was given a broom as my staff of office, and when she strolled her garden I walked ahead, to swipe at spiders’ webs and clear away fallen leaves, droppings of birds…
But these made patterns that were signs; I had read them in my old life, and found it tempting to pause for a divination.
“You see what an odd creature it is,” Lady Pytta remarked to her waiting-woman. “It will stomp and sing at a serpent, but the dung of a blackbird balks it…”
I bent to one knee, and rose at the tap of her fan.
“Cime’s wife, the gods favor enterprise just now…as I interpret, may you forgive me. There is a change of fortune on the horizon.”
(2018, Stephanie Foster)