Sequestered, and safe from Murdan. Seduced by rich food, with intriguing company. But which comes first, the intellect or the carnal? For there are questions that Julia wants answered.
Episode 38 PRIORY PROJECT A Sci-fi Fantasy
We feast on the barbequed bustard—a kind of turkeyish taste—and dip into a bowl of small-foods, produced by Dannyn as if out of nowhere (probably fetched from inside his ‘roof without my notice). They’re not so crisp as before; probably two or three days old. And while I chew and crunch my thoughts are churning. Question: when to fetch out the dried, sticky figs and the apricots. If now, as desert, we can wash our hands after in the glittering water of the moat. Yet if we wait till we’ve retreated into his roof . . . The mosquitoes decide it for us. Subjected to their increasingly determined attacks, even Dannyn surrenders.
“The midges tell us it is time.” He nods to the ‘roof.
The packets won’t open just with the pulling and Dannyn, fascinated with the exotic transparent wrapping that rattles, is slow to realise my need. Doubtless he’s not seen these particular fruits, yet he does know they are fruits. Like a child, he turns expectant eyes upon me. I give in and resort to my penknife (O weakling me).
I offer, first, the figs. He hesitates. Please don’t let him be like a toddler at Christmas who prefers to play with the wrappings. But no, he dips in his fingers and pulls out a fig, glistening in its syrupy juice. He licks it, and makes yummy-appreciative noises. I laugh, he laughs. He leans towards me and kisses me, lips all sticky. Finally, he deems to eat it, his eyes wide in delight. Relief! He likes it. He looks at me, then at the pack. He wants to ask, but politeness forbids it.
“Enjoy yourself,” I say. “Have as many as you like. I brought them for you.”
I’m a little concerned of their ‘morning-after’ effect. Ought I to warn him? Yet they’re that sweet, and he’s unused to them, I doubt he’ll eat many. I’m oddly amused: I see us slipping into ‘mother and child’ (and he’s so young he almost could be my son—if I’d been a child-bride). I leave him with the packet of figs while I open the apricots—a little milder in their after-effects.
After three of the figs he looks instead at these. But he’s undecided. To take or to not. He decides, apparently, not. He holds up his fingers, a quick waggle to show me how sticky. Then gestures towards the door. “Three moments, I’ll be back.”
He takes a tad longer than that—so much longer I start to worry. What if Murdan saw us at Alsaldhelm Tumun? What if he followed us here and has been waiting to catch Dannyn alone? It’s a crazy imagining. I mean, to what effect? So he can kill Dannyn and—I don’t know—take me as his own? Now that truly is crazy. I laugh.
When Dannyn returns he’s absent his shirt and trousers. Not naked, he still wears that wrap-around skirt, reminiscent of the one I had for P.E. at school. Yet suddenly bashful, I try not to look though I’ve seen his body before—when he was a not-such-an-old forty-six year old (he didn’t look it; I was shocked when first I calculated it). His legs aren’t as muscled as later they’ll be. Yet they’re strong legs, and well-formed. His shoulders, too, are those of a lad; his chest not so broad. But I’m not complaining. I bite back a grin: he’s my toy-boy—I’ve worked with several women who’d be envious of me. Though—perhaps it’s because he’s so fair—he seems less hirsute than a woman. I noticed that before.
He sits with me on the floor, beside the fire—which, despite its brief crackle and roar when first we came in, is but a heap of red ashes.
“You show me now your magic black slab?” he asks, just like a kid at Christmas. I guess we can forget about bed till Santa has sated his curiosity. But he won’t get it that easily.
“Trade,” I remind him. “First you tell me which spirits the eblann appease at Alsaldhelm Tumun.”
Though it’s not my area of expertise, I do know, generally, the Neolithic religion has been labelled as ‘animistic’, with shamans that serve as pre-priestly mediators. Thus, here the Ancestors’ spirits are likely deemed as active as the less personal spirits of nature. It’s highly unlikely they have actual deities.
“Appease?” Dannyn repeats the word as, apparently, he ponders its meaning.
It’s easy to forget that my C21st English isn’t his first language, he’s so fluent. Technically, I suppose Alisime isn’t his first language either. If we mean ‘that learned at his mother’s knee’ then his first must be Ormalish. He’d even learned Tuädik and Ulishvregan before he encountered the local Alisime. As for what language he uses when muttering away to himself in these Eblan Wilds . . . who knows.
“Oblige,” he says at last, and breaks my reverie. “We oblige the spirits, we do not appease. Not at Alsaldhelm Tumun. Now, what I am to tell you, you do not repeat. Not to the Alsime. Not to any who dwells in this world.”
“Sure,” I say, “I’ll swear to that.” Forbidden knowledge. The anticipation . . . I’m excited.
“I know you swear it,” he says, almost flippant, “else I would not answer. But everything of it is not so easy to say. Not without first I say of our eblann-numbers.”
“You hold seven to be sacred,” I quickly say. “I know that from Alsvregn. Though with the Alsime it’s five.”
He laughs. “Your every word shows me: You do not lie when you say you have walked here before. So you have been to Hegrea’s Isle?”
“You took me there—you will take me there.”
He nods and chuckles. “In six-and-twenty seasons?”
He reaches across for my hand. His touch is electric, the same as before, countless streams zinging and arousing every part of my body. Moreover, there’s something about it akin to magnetism. One touch, and I find myself irresistibly drawn to him, to be closer, closer. I don’t want even a centimetre empty between us. Yet he holds me away. It’s agony. I want to wrap myself round him.
“So, my eblan-apprentice . . .” His eyes, I swear, sparkle ten times brighter. “Here is the first eblan-knowledge.” He then doesn’t say but chews on his lip. “Yet you are Ledhe Shakreshulm. Then why should I not tell you.”
“I am a scholar. Scholar, eblan. Two words, two worlds, one meaning.” We’ve already agreed. Though I know it’s untrue.
Both eblan and scholar might crave knowledge, yet an eblan is also a shaman. And the shaman entrances to the spirit worlds, there to effect a cure in this world. That’s not exactly the standard definition of a scholar. Yet I remember reading of the druids (it might have been in Caesar’s report) that they studied the natural sciences, and from their studies they formed what we’d call a thesis. In effect, they were an early equivalent of a Doctor of Philosophy. Moreover—and this is the shamanic element—in understanding the underlying workings of the world, the druid was able to best advise and guide his client—i.e. he pulled knowledge from one world help heal another. And if he had a Ph.D, he was a scholar, the same as me (not that I’ve got the Ph.D.)
“Two,” says Dannyn. “Two words, two worlds: this is apt. Two, see, is the second of the eblan-numbers. The first is One, the One of the beginning, the Whole. You understand? But, yes, I can see that you do. One encompasses everything.” He holds up his hands to form a circle. “It is the Alisime isle, yes? While yet it is One, it contains everything. But Two is the Division of Creation.”
He again uses his hands to form a circle. But this time he rotates them so his right hand is above, his left below.
“The two parts of a cracked egg, yes? It is the Father Above, the Mother Below. Because this is the way of coupling—man, woman, above, below—every animal but for the snail and the snake, and both they display the Spiral.”
Snails and snakes, I hadn’t thought of that. I want to mull on it but now that he’s started I’ve a feeling he won’t be easily stopped.
“But this is not all,” he says. “Everything contained in the One has its opposite. Day, night. Light, dark. Hot, cold. Dry, wet. Summer, winter. It is so. And of each pair, one part belongs to the Father, and one to the Mother. Yes? It is so. But then comes Three. The sea.”
Whoa there, I don’t get that. I frown.
“You puzzle on this? But: the Father, the Sky; the Mother, the Earth. So what of the sea?”
“But isn’t it the opposite of the Earth? Wet, dry?” But no, I immediately see that’s wrong. No, it’s the Sky that’s opposite of the Earth. Father, Mother.
This time he holds out just the one hand—the right—flat, with palm-down. He then points to the back of his hand. “Above.” He points to his palm. “Below.”
Yep, there’s no disputing that.
He runs his finger along the down-facing palm. “The Down-Father,” he says. “Though we say ‘Dark’ Father.”
“And opposite the Dark Father would be Judlamhe Upsulm? The Dark Mother of the Underworld.” I’m chuffed that I’ve worked it out.
“There are . . . constellations,” he says. “So, one part of all opposites belong to the Father:—Sky, Day, Light, Hot, Dry, Summer, Men, Cattle, Weapons. And the other part belongs to the Mother:—Earth, Night, Cold, Winter, Women, Goats, Pots—And for how long do I have you?” he suddenly asks.
“Two days. And please don’t ask me that again. The first is already almost gone.”
“It is as I thought. An eblan-apprentice, see, seven winters-seen, must learn all the Opposites before he learns more. But you have not the time with me.”
He glances with obvious meaning at the bed, his hand again seeking mine. He gently squeezes. I’m so tempted to say to forget the lessons, let’s get naked and zetim, but . . .
“So, there is Father’s constellation, and Mother’s constellation,” he says. “But then where belongs those of Underworld, the Underneath?”
“With the Mother?” I’m thinking here of the Celtic Hag of Winter. And how the end-days of summer mark a momentary release of the Underworld spirits. Though, I confess, it’s not really my thing.
“The Underneath is a third constellation. So here is Three: all things ‘Underneath’. But everything in this Underneath-world also have opposites. So, our next number is Four.”
I’m thinking that maybe Carl Jung would have followed this better than me. Still, I dare to anticipate and say of the cardinal points, and the four winds.
“Four defines the year,” he says—which isn’t exactly what I’d expected.
“How so? You say Summer-half, winter-half.”
“What is a year?” he asks and leans in closer. Now how can I breathe? How can I think.
I’m about to answer: 365 days. But I know that’s not what he wants. Then, bingo! The cog slips into place. “It’s one sun-cycle.”
How could it be anything else? That’s the one thing we know for certain about the Neolithic: they were obsessed with the sun.
“Is good,” he says. “You are best eblan-apprentice I yet have.”
I laugh. “I’m the first.”
“Yet I doubt any other will be so troublesome. Inviting me with their eyes to become my own bull. But, you don’t yet know of the eblan-bull.”
“Oh but I do. You told me a story.”
“You mean I will tell it to you when you visit again, twenty-six years from this day?”
“So what is this story? I must remember to tell it.”
“The Eldliks Bukfesen’s bull.”
He laughs. “I am to tell you of that? But it is a good story I’ve always enjoyed. So, you know the eblan must have his bull.”
“But you didn’t finish the story. You didn’t say why he must have one—why Eblan Hegrea must have one.”
“So I tell you now. The eblan serves his birth-family—the people all born to his birth-isle. This is right, this is proper, for his birth-family provides for his needs with food, and clothes, and a ‘roof to cover his head—though often the eblan needs none of this. In return for this, the eblan serves his family. He seeks out the spirits that make them sick. He promotes their interests in the holding of feasts. He—oh, so many ways. He protects their bounds. He ensures the increase of his family. Most times this means interceding with spirits. But sometimes this means taking an isle-sister to his bed—never he to hers, that would be wrong. But above all, he ensures the increase of their cattle, and for this he needs a bull. Now you look at me with those eyes and I am the bull.”
“We could postpone the rest of this lesson.” It’s only a suggestion. I’m not begging.
“You say it’s to happen, it is to happen. Yet . . . it goes against eblan-law. You know this?”
“But it doesn’t,” I say. “Tell me how it prevents you from performing your duties. It was agreed for Eblan Hegrea when she wanted to bed with Arith.”
He laughs. “I wonder why I answer your questions when already you know so much of us.”
“There are whopping holes in my understanding. And I know nothing of the spirits. That’s why I need you to tell me.”
With a glance at his empty bed, he nods, he sighs.
“So we proceed. Four defines and divides the year. There are two Sun-Standings. Opposites. There are two mid-places, when Night and Day are equal. These, the aldliks say, are the best times for making babies.”
“And are they?” I ask with feminist glee. Will an eblan allow the aldliks a greater knowledge?
“Perhaps it is so at the harvest mid-place. Then the infant is born to the warmth of summer. But an infant made at the spring mid-place must survive a cold winter. So, no, not all are the best. Five—”
“The Alsime’s sacred number,” I say.
“Ah, but why is it so?” he asks. “You answer now for interrupting. Old Boney never would have allowed it.”
“The directions,” I say. “Before me, behind me, to my right, to my left. And here, the fifth, is me.”
He snorts derision. “No, you are wrong—though it’s why also the Tuätin hold Five as their number—but, then, the Tuätin are obsessed with ‘place’. No, Five are the societies:—Ulmkem, Drukem, Murkem, Skakem and Eblan. You, who are learning to use Alisime speech, you tell me now the element of each.”
“The element of each society?”
He smirks and nods.
“Um.” It’s not so easy, considering how little vocabulary I’ve learned. Yet I’ll give it a try. “Ulmkem is Earth.”
“Therefore the Mother,” he says.
“Drukem is . . . Trees?” I wouldn’t normally consider ‘trees’ as an element, even though the Chinese, who also have five elements, name both Wood and Metal.
“And Tree is?”
I’m not sure his intent. Does he want me to opt for either the Mother or the Father?
“Father?” That’s an educated guess, part-inspired by the Welsh deity Bilé who was also a tree.
“And Murkem?” he asks.
This is beginning to feel like a catechism. And I have to admit I don’t know. “I haven’t learned that word yet.”
“No, because you learn the word ‘als’. But ‘als’ isn’t water. Water is what runs in the ‘als’.”
“So Murkem is Water? And it’s the Mother, yea? So the next one, Skakem, must be the Father—though I don’t what it means.”
“But why not Eblan next?” he asks without first telling me what the ‘ska’ of Skakem might mean.
“I’d say the Eblan society numbers Three. It’s the Underworld.”
“Despite also it’s the society responsible for keeping the traditional ways?”
I don’t know why I’m so sure, yet I answer ‘yes’ with a certainty.
“So now you can answer your own question,” he says with an aggravating satisfied smile. “What spirits do we eblann oblige at Alsaldhelm Tumun?”
I answer negligently, it now is obvious. “The spirits of the Underworld. But you haven’t answered me yet of the Skakem—what element?”
“The Skakem are hunters,” he says, as if that’s an answer. Yet, how can it be? A Hunter isn’t an element.Perhaps the problem lies with me and my C21st English preconceptions.
The Western system, originating in Classical Greece, accounted only four elements: Earth, Water, Fire and Air. From these the world and everything in it was supposedly constructed. Yet these Western elements didn’t exist in an either/or state but were taken, all four together, and subtly blended. Yet always one element remained the dominant.
That’s clearly not as it is with the Alisime elements. Though their world is comprised of five elements, every entity has but the one. Here, it’s the entities that exist in opposition, rather than their component elements. So best I forget about the Classical system and stop trying to squeeze one into the other’s mould.
Yet it is ultra bizarre, to say the least, to have the (Upper) world supposedly comprised of Earth, Water, Trees, Hunters and Eblann. Especially when the Eblann-element represents the Under-world, itself in opposition to the Upper, and thus to all four other elements. Yet—I grunt—it has a certain neatness to it. I kinda like it. It’s kinda Yin and Yang.
But I’m still puzzled. “The eblann mediate with the spirits of the Lower World, yea? But what of the spirits of the land, and of the trees, and the animals, the sky, the rain, the hills, the rivers?”
Dannyn laughs. I do like his laugh. It’s soft, and gentle, and seldom mocking (at least not of me). But, hells, it’s distracting—especially when he again takes my hand. I glance at the bed. He seems not to notice.
“Spirits of land? But the Ulmkem aldliks—what’d you say it? mediates?—with the land-spirits. As, too, the spirits of trees—”
“Yea, it’s okay, I’ve got it. The Drukem eldliks mediate, yea?”
“So.” He nods affirmative.
“And the Murkem aldliks mediate with the spirits of water. And the Skakem eldliks with spirits of animals. Which leaves the Eblan eldliks—”
“The Eblan Society eblann,” he corrects me. “Now, the black slab.”
As I reach across for it the silk wrap I’m wearing falls away to leave exposed a good length of leg. It proves tempting beyond his enduring. His hand is surprisingly soft for the life he’s been living as he wraps it around my ankle. He holds for just a moment. Then he runs his hand slowly the length of my calf. I don’t need to hold my position: I have the camera already in hand. Yet I remain at full stretch while he runs his hand over the back of my knee, and along the back of my thigh. Jeez, I hardly can breathe. I want to turn round and to rip off his skirt and . . . I have to remember to breathe. And what will he do when he reaches the top? Yet that requires him to lie nigh atop of me. Alas—though maybe not—he withdraws before then. Camera in hand, I turn around—to see his face glistening, his chest rising high with each breath.
He says, earnest and yet with a smile, “While I serve these seven seasons in the Wilds, I do not serve my birth-family. Neither my birth-society, the River Alsime, nor all Alsime everywhere. I serve only Ledhe Shakreshulm. And we have said, have we not, that you are Ledhe Shakreshulm—though I know also that you are not. But, I break with no law. You agree?”
I agree. What’s good enough for Eblan Hegrea, is good enough for me.
“But first,” he says, “this black slab. You must explain it to me.”