A new episode of Alsalda
Detah, newly apprenticed to Eblan Head Man Erspn, believes she’s discovered the nature of ‘eblan-work’. It’s to inhale deeply of the green-feather herb. Green-feather, an eblan ‘flywort’, is otherwise known as ‘the Opener—it opens the eblan to inspiration. It has opened Eblan Erspn to the call of the Ancestors. “Come. Follow me. They’re saying they’ve something to tell me.” Read on . . .
“Where are we going?” Detah’s legs seemed not to be working. She’d an odd feeling her knees were jointed backward. And the earth threatened to part with each foot she put to it.
“Western Earthen Boat,” Erspn called back to her, his voice as annoyingly vigorous as his legs.
“Why not Lir’s Boat?” Lir’s Boat was just over the river from Sapapsan’s Isle. The Western Earthen Boat was at a much greater distance (beyond Cloud Stone Isle) and the night was dark, muffled in cloud. Then . . . they seemed to be running (at least, it took them a flash to be at Reclamation Walk). The stones showed solidly black against the night-shimmer.
“Lir’s Boat?” Erspn said. “It ferries the wrong ancestors.”
She looked at Demekn. Demekn shrugged. “He’s your eblan-master.”
“But what are we to do once we get to the Boat?”
Demekn shrugged, again. Which unsettled the drum he’d been told to bring with them. “Here. You take it.”
With pride she carried it. It wasn’t a large drum (roughly the size of Haldalda’s stew-pot; clay-made, too, though of a fine temper, probably ground shell). Aye, she mused, shells would be apt—sea-shells; sand, too, if had from a shore. But river-sands and river-shells wouldn’t do. A sudden vision formed around her, of Nod’s Land, his woman, her stew-pot, and Nod’s Daughter rising. She could see all of Life’s clans, each held together as in triangular gores—like the gores grooved deep into the drum she was carrying: Nod’s upthrusting, the Mother’s down-pointing, the two interlinking. “Wow!” she exclaimed.
Demekn looked at her, but she couldn’t explain. That needed for her to link her fingers and she couldn’t because of the drum.
Then Father Jaja wraps His arms round them all.
Was this what it meant to be an eblan? To understand Life’s inner workings? She felt wise beyond measure. Time stretched before her into the far-future while behind her time was chasing, rolling and curling, gathering her memories. Like a snail on a sled in the snow.
“This,” Erspn said as he settled into a comfortable sit on the earthen boat-top—but then said no more.
Without bidding. Demekn laid and struck a fire. Detah wanted to ask whence the sticks. She’d not seen him gather them. He must have brought them along from Sapapsan’s Isle. So that’s why he couldn’t carry the drum?
Erspn positioned—on a square of bleached birch-bark before him—a narrow-necked pot— waxed-tow stoppered—and a dried speckled ‘bone-cake’. The ‘bone-cake’ was fungus, like touchwood, but instead of fire it brought death; she’d been told not to touch it. A flywort, then. Anxiety twisted her belly, stifled her breath. So it was to begin, this speaking with ghosts.
She tried to shrink, to become very small. If small, the ghosts mightn’t see her when Erspn disturbed them. Eblann-work: this is what eblann did; not seeing the Truth behind random-made shapes; not seeing the Nod-connections. Not seeing Life but seeing Death. She didn’t want to partake of it.
Demekn took the drum from her lifeless fingers. She dared not to breathe. If she didn’t breathe then an envious ghost wouldn’t try to steal the life from her. She tried to be pale. The paler she was the less Death would notice her. She’d be part of the bones, part of the soil; she’d be the white chalk that underlay it all. Chalk, aye, the rock of Nod’s Land of the Dead.
Time throbbed. It pulsed, it exhaled, it expanded, it became never-ending. It inspired and contracted, it became a tight thing—suffocating. She gasped, fighting the ghosts for her breath.
Time flowed from the drum beneath Demekn’s white fingers.
“You’ll learn,” Demekn—no, Erspn—no, someone—said. When? Now? No, he said it before, while she was walking, a child without knowledge walking along the spirit-stoned Walk. She wished to return there. “Next time he flies, you’ll do the drumming.”
She watches as Erspn’s severed head drops and his cupping hands catch it. Demekn’s death-fingers drum upon the white dropped head now held like a stone wedged twixt his legs. From the drum’s skin fly squiggles and jags, all brilliant colours. Fascinated, Detah watches . . . She watches.
From the skull-drum’s surface spin a profusion of shapes. Lo! The drum is the Mother; the drum is the sea. The drum is Master Nod’s woman giving birth to the bounds that protect the Boundless from intrusion, from ignorant eyes prying. Fascinated, Detah watches. The lines and swirls and colours and shapes erupt from the skin like vetch dehiscing on a hot summer’s day. They rise. They spiral. They fly. Up they rise into the sky. She knows whence they go; she’s going there too. Rising, now on her feet . . . She’s up on her toes . . . She’s reaching her arms higher, higher, to catch them. They’ll take her, they’ll take her, they’ll . . . Rising now into the sky, wrapped around by the Father’s arms—
No! He’ll stop her from reaching beyond the stars; she must escape Him. He’ll stop her from reaching the unbounded Boundless where she’ll spin and she’ll swirl and become its gate-keeper.
She wonders her colour and holds out her arms. Blue! All the sizzling rare blues of the sky. Saram’s blues, Saram’s eyes . . . But . . . Cold fingers reach out from behind her. Death’s hands! She runs. They’ll not catch her. Death’s cold fingers entangle her ankles, grasp round her toes. They trip her. She falls, such a long way. Death, cold, slams into her, holds her, prevents her from her falling yet farther.
The ground feels hard beneath her, her face feels wet. Her body is hurting, she’s shivering cold. She turns herself over, opens an eye. She opens the other. She sees dawn’s light paling the sky, and struggles to stand. She looks around her. Where is she?
They stopped at the Eblann Freeland, the last safe place before the bridge, though it wasn’t yet evening. Now was Demekn’s last chance to voice his concerns to Eblan Erspn. It had been his own suggestion that Detah came with them (though Erspn had approved it), done to encourage her—he knew how strong her curiosity. But now he regretted it. He’d not been thinking, not seeing it through—and neither had Erspn. This expedition could prove dangerous. Deadly so.
Erspn waved a dismissive hand. “Look at us. We’re eblann, not traders or Saramequai—nor even Alsime come armed. Now hush.” He looked pointedly at Detah now returning, arms laden with sticks for the fire.
Demekn nodded. But his thoughts wouldn’t quieten. What might they find at the bridge? No matter he pushed the images away, still they rotted inside his skull. To find the dead in their bed was one thing, was nothing. But to come upon the battle slain, mutilated, skulls crushed, ragged bone ends thrust through the flesh, guts ripped and spilling. . . And the smell of those innards. He still recalled his one enforced visit to Kelis’s shrine. (Kelis, the sacrificed twin, was named King of the Dead, along with Beli.) But shrine, eh? It was a dark yew-grove. He didn’t want his sister to see . . .
But that had been in the Dal and was Uestin. Here the dead would have been treated by the Kerdolan—and except that he knew of the Kerdolan’s terror of corpses he didn’t know how they treated the dead. Dalys had said of bodies burning. Had they first been hung upon trees, as the Uestin did it in their dark groves? Were they to find each charred body grotesque now in its rigours?
That wasn’t his only concern. Would he recognise the markon in whatever her death-form? Easy to find, so much smaller. Would her hair remain, bright though plaited? Would her fire-blade remain sheathed at her waist? He remembered that waist, so slender. He remembered the feel of his hands spanned around it when he had lifted her up to reach for an apple. As her body slid along his, back down to the ground, he had wanted to kiss her. Aye, the many things he had wanted. He had wanted to wed her.
He’d thought never to see her again. She had told him she’d kill him and had spat in his face. The force she had put into that spit . . . and not yet a markon yet her aim had been faultless.
He had thought to bury himself in being an eblan. He could see now he ought to have returned to the Dal; he ought to have told her he wasn’t a tree, he was Alsime, granary. Aye, and what did she know of the granary? At least in believing him Reumen she believed him the alder. If not a tree then she’d not have looked at him, a bush.
He had thought never to see her again. And then had pleaded to Saram to stop the wedding. Now he never would see her again—unless it be in the Land of the Dead. Aye, and even then she’d spit at him.
He needed to walk, to remove himself from Erspn and Detah. He couldn’t allow them to see. “I’ll be back.” To his own ears his words sounded tear-muffled. “I need to . . . to pee.”
Without Demekn’s unrelenting gloom, the air lifted, became brighter, even though night would soon be upon them. It was as if they could suddenly breathe. Erspn watched until the woods swallowed the Uestuädik eblan.
“He grieves,” he remarked, though he’d no need to say it. Detah nodded. She’d the sense not to speak.
“I’ve a question to ask you,” he said—later while feeding sticks to the fire.
She looked up from pulling the parcels of food from her pack.
“What do you know of the Spinner?”
“You mean as in the granary prayer? Spinner whose spinning turns the day, give me breath to live this night. But you must know it, you lodge at Sapapsan’s.”
“It must be a woman’s prayer; I’ve not heard it before. Spinner whose spinning turns the day? No, that’s not eblan-lore, not in any way.”
“But why are you asking?”
“Only that I brought the name back with me.”
Erspn had already explained, it had not been the usual dream of the dead. Often he’d walk amongst them, their mist-formed bodies scarcely clothing their ancient bones. But not with this dream. Come, we have something to say. But not one of them had come to him, none awaited him, not in this form or another. And yet they had called him, he wasn’t mistaken in that.
It was a name, just the name, yet from it seemed to spin a web. What did it mean? He didn’t understand it. Yet Detah just now had said, Spinner whose spinning turns the day. He didn’t know why, but that smacked of the Uestin. He would ask Demekn when Demekn returned.
In the meantime, he must prepare Detah.
An eblan, now, part of her duties was to treat the dead, and many of the Alsime clung to the old ways of using the wind-hills. It would fall to her to carry the corpse. She alone would open the wrappings. She would slit the dead one’s belly, to spill the guts, to attract the birds. According to season, around her might be the part-picked corpses; they were not always clean. Then come the Send-off it would be her who gathered the bones into a bag and returned them to their rightful families. Before this became her lot to do alone (the first time alone would be at his own death) she must become used to corpses in their every grisly form. And he’d an idea that what was waiting them at the Kerdolak bridge would help ready her to that.
“Time to pull into the bank,” Erspn called ahead to Demekn—though in truth Erspn was guessing (he’d no more been here before than had the Uestuädik-eblan). “Up ahead there. Pull into those willows.”
Ahead, the river’s course changed. He hoped it another loop. He hoped the Kerdolak bridge lay on the far side of it. He’d rather they came upon it on foot, through the trees. Less visible that way to anyone watching. He glanced skyward. They’d be pushed for time to be out of this place before the night caught them. Already midday was rolling past them.
Ahead, along the northern bank, the reeds hissed out a warning. “It’s only the breeze rattling them,” he said at Detah’s alarm.
The heron that had led them (always the same one? or two or three or more?) suddenly lifted, its heavy wings whooping the air. He noticed Detah’s following gaze.
“You’re hoping she’s dropped you more feathers?” She’d already gathered a dozen. And an apt bird for her, the heron. Stories of Eblan Hegrea said she too had the heron. Erspn took it as confirmation that Detah was, as he’d thought, inspired. The heron waited upon the bank, a fair distance away.
They hauled their boats ashore and hid them close by the willows. Then before setting off Erspn insisted they stopped to eat. Himself, he settled on a slanting willow. He bid Detah fish into her bag.
Without a look at it, Demekn waved the offered food away.
“Eat,” Erspn said sternly. “Both of you. Even if later you must lose it. To heave is fine. It’s what we are, a bundle of feelings for others—woe to us were we not. Same for crying. No eblan need hide it. Slime your face, and be proud of it. Not all have such feelings for folk scarcely known. This too is eblan-work.” He remembered his first time of using the blade. It was a child, little older than Dalys. He had sobbed for days.
Demekn still refused the food. Not so Detah. He nodded and smiled at her. Aye, she’d make a fine eblan. She ate as heartily as he of the travel-cake Namha had made for them.
“If it’s corpses we find we must bury them,” he said as they started out through the trees. “It’ll not be possible to ferry them back. But if we’re to bury it’ll have to be shallow and we’ll have to work fast. So little light left to us.” Demekn was carrying the shovels.
In truth, Erspn doubted they’d find much to bury. He knew the stories told of the Kerdolan; it wasn’t only the ‘Murdan’ tales. Fearing the cold corpse, they were swift to cremate them. And that’s what Dalys had seen. A folk used to burning their dead, with ample timber around them, it would have been expertly done. He wasn’t surprised, when sniffing the air, he found no corruption—but instead something other.
“I don’t like it, it’s turning my belly,” Detah said. She had copied his sniff. He could have told her exactly what the offensive stench. It wasn’t the flesh. But the longer she kept the food down, the better.
They came onto the open track unexpected. Demekn looked back at him, querying. Erspn nodded toward where must be the clearing. (Later, if they’d time, they would visit the bridge.) The smell of charred trees and burnt earth was here overpowering, made worse by the drowning the Father had given them. There was no surprise when they came upon it. Around the edges the trees had blackened branches. Buds that ought to have burst now were crisped to cinders. No stumps remained, no chippings strewn. All was level, all was black. Except at the middle were ashes. Erspn was glad it was thus.
“Looks like the fire escaped their control,” Detah remarked looking around at the trees.
“The wind,” said Demekn. “Saram come to claim his own.”
“Aye. So we each take a sack—”
“You knew?” Demekn rounded on him, voice singed with accusation.
“Aye, what did you think we’d find?”
“You said of burial.”
“Being prepared. Now hush. We’ve not the time to talk of it. Fill the sacks. Let’s be gone.”
“But . . .” Demekn’s shoulders slumped, staring at the wide circle of ashes.
Detah leant in close to Erspn, and still she lowered her voice to a breath. “He was hoping to find the markon. How does he grieve without some remains?”
“He’s not alone in it. That’s why these ashes are so important.”