The Little I Can Tell: The Totem-Maker (continued)
The Little I Can Tell
Here was our strange condition. Other deluges had come, kinder rains, rolling pebbles into channels with the relentlessness of falling water. They had carried off the ash.
The ash was insubstantial, and the new streams, that became rivers, grew fast. The land found its depth again, and waxed fertile, spreading outwards from the banksides, still in the years before I knew myself a being, in a place—this place.
The old woman spoke to me only to correct, to give orders. I had nothing then to teach me that adults feared at all, or what they might fear. This doing for myself, doing chores, perfecting them that I not be punished, was all the world held in my knowledge of it.
I hadn’t known it, but learned, how this village from that day of my birth had withered on the vine. Nearly all had survived, but none wished to stay. Under such a vastness of devastation it seemed odd, but it was true…only a day’s march and one came upon green fields, wells that yielded pure water.
They had had to go bind themselves to the land, and do labor, as the holdings skirting Lotoq belonged to three lords. One overseer who kept the vineyards and the cornfields in his master’s stead, was called a fair-minded tyrant; another called brute. The third had refused to welcome any of the refugees.
So they had worked off the price of their keep, and one by one began to return. Why had the old woman and the priests remained, and why did messengers in those years bring food, kindling wood, jugs of water for our sustenance?
It was the foundling.
On a hot afternoon, I followed Elberin, who, the old woman had said, was now my master, through one of these forests…slim-trunked trees, that within a decade’s time had thickened in their numbers.
They were of a type, where to dig one for the sake of moving it (which for the shade, the builders of new houses did), meant safeguarding the trailing root that tangled with those of the next tree, and the next. It must be severed at an arm’s length measure, or the tree would die. They had all reached perhaps twice my own height. Their shade was a thin grey veil over gritty earth; the sun beating on their leaves drew out a green, brothy smell.
I do not mean to dwell on trees, but to say I remember the smell, and the bitter flour ground from the seedballs that came to maturity at the end of summer. The flour I knew intimately, as among my chores had been all parts of the cycle: gathering them, culling them, kilning them, grinding them when they were very dry and brittle, sieving the powder through a cloth—this also I had to weave…and it was made 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’d been told. They came, as a burdensome gift, the gods’ familiar humor…even the bark stripped from the lower branches was woven into baskets; even a piney-flavored sap that had some sweetness about it, we used in feast offerings, and the fermented drink we called sap-wine.
And so I made the flour. I put the flour away in jars. I made the bread and the cakes.
I was most content to be always busy at something. Thus when I saw the priests at the door with their heads together, I would have the chore at hand to excuse myself. I was meant to come at once to any adult who had not yet instructed me; to give obeisance, and to ask, “Vlan (which was our way of calling an elder), what would you have me do?”
She had put me over into their hands by stages, the old woman, and never in our time together had we spoken but face to face; and so to me she had no name, and I no name to her.
With my hands, then, clutching some implement—a broom, a mallet, the palette of clay our bread was baked on—I was in a ready state of apology. But their rebukes were always a sort of scorn. I ought by now to have prophesied, or to have manifested something…fits, a clouded white eye…any sign that had some whiff of holiness.
Elberin decided I would be taught to write letters. He’d taken me from the old woman’s house into his own…and an anxious severing from my usefulness. Now I sat after breakfast, an hour or more, and waited.
I was to carry a tablet on our walks, soft unfired clay, and mark down the names of things he pointed to along the way. Over my shoulder was slung a heavy basket, with many of these small tablets (that I made myself).
It was his way, when I’d scratched down mistakes, to seize the clay from my hands, send my flint flying, and smash my work to pieces. He did this with a great dispassion, and rarely a word.
(copyright 2018 Stephanie Foster)