As the day of the feast approached so our Macaran band launched into increasingly frenetic activity. So much to prepare, and of course it all must be outstanding, remarkable, the bestest-best feast. The bands competed when giving these ‘lesser feasts’ to outdo one another (Zean explained, though it really wasn’t needed so obvious was it). A reputation gained here would hold through the years until another headman knocked it away—or the present holder died. Our headman—Hensit his name—had held his reputation since before his daughter Zean was born. He was not about to let it wane.
The men disappeared off in their hunting parties. Some were gone as long as three days. We women (yes, I now was counted amongst them) scoured the plain, and even into the jungle, to find fruits and roots, and seeds and leaves, all at the very peak of ripeness. We raided nests for the eggs. We clubbed escaping lizards (roasted, they were served as titbits). We netted fish (only the men were allowed the fish-spears). Meanwhile new cloths were dyed and woven, and a whole array of personal ornaments especially reserved for these feasts were unpacked from their boxes. I too had a box. Hean delivered it late on the eve of the feast.
“I thought you’d prefer not to wear what our girls wear,” he said, passing the box to me.
“I washed my shift,” I said when I realised what he’d brought me. In fact I had washed it several times by now, each time hiding out at the women’s place along the river until it had dried.
“No,” he said. “Look into the folds.”
So I eased the new shift out of its box—and it differed not a jot from the one I was wearing except in its smell (it had been inter-layered with fragrant herbs). And there, residing beneath it, was my comb! I cannot say how excited I was. Only then I must be careful not to offend Schola, for she had given me a comb on that first night. But my comb was of ivory, and polished smooth from fourteen years of use. Hers, though perfectly made, was new, and if I wasn’t careful it snagged my hair.
Hean had brought other things too, things that, being snatched so abruptly from our boat, I’d had no time to retrieve. He had brought a belt. It was almost the twin of the one he wore, except his was of brass and mine of gold. Wide metal plates with leather links.
“I thought . . .” he seemed suddenly shy, not at all like him. “It will help define your . . .” I could see he was struggling for the words.
“My hips? My waist? My womanly attributes? To show I’m the same age as Zean and Schola, but without bearing all?”
“I thank you,” I said.
“And there’s this.” He took a thong-threaded pendant from the box and before I’d chance to see it properly he had tied it around my neck. I had to hold it up to see it. An opal, its depth lit by a fierce fire.
“I thank you,” I said though I hardly could speak: I was stunned.
“The men should not—this isn’t that feast, besides you’re a guest—but this will protect you.” He then thought to add, “It’s the usual gift when a man wants a girl. For you to wear it means I have claimed you as mine.”
I think I swallowed at that. At least I remember breaking into a sweat, and felt breathless—
—until he laughed, his hands held up in surrender, “It is just for their eyes. For this feast. I know you have your baby cousin Jon.”
“You do not approve?”
“My ways, your ways.” He shrugged.
“And how would you have it?” I asked. “I’m to be their queen.”
He changed the subject, I thought rather abruptly. “I should warn you, there will be another visit. During the feast. Tomorrow.”
“A . . .?”
“To the Holy Land. Regretful you could not be warned that first time. Yet how it was done was needed. But don’t fret. I shall be with you.”
“Ah, yes, Hean the Holy Man,” I said—at which he pulled such a strange face, I could give it no meaning and before I could ask he had hurried away.
The feast: In its earlier part the feast was no different to those we hold in our halls (simpler, perhaps)—and you, my priests, need no description of this. Even when you’ve no need to attend upon gods still you acquire an invitation as if it’s your right.
The feast rolled along until late in the day, with the day’s heat abating, all pleasantly sated, and the spirit of companionable ease wafting thickly amongst us. It was then that the feast changed—orchestrated by a holy man.
Hean had introduced me to Hensable when first his band had arrived. Older than Hean, he too had been apprenticed to the old man Honapple. He nodded to me. He did not speak. Indeed, I’m not sure once throughout that day I heard him speak. Was he a born mute? I know amongst we Madja many with deformities and disabilities seek out the priesthood. But then, there they might hide. Not so with the Macaran holy men. And nothing of Hensable suggested a man in hiding.
Unlike Hean (who wore a simple though colourful woollen gown of Madja-weave) it was obvious that Hensable liked to dress up. I could imagine him revelling in our pageants; keen to organise them too. From top to toe he was something ‘apart’, something strange, not quite human. He wore—a cloak I supposed it—hung with every coloured strip of cloth, every tail of beast and bird, every claw and talon, every scaled skin of snake and fish and lizard. Beneath the cloak, which mostly enclosed him, were flashes of naked, sun-baked skin striped by a clay-made paint. His head, covered in an explosion of feathers, was crowned by a bare patch. It seemed to me, except for this one spot of humanity, he wore the world!
This Hensable stage-managed a performance in which, it seemed to me, his entire band were involved. Moreover, it wasn’t long before I realised it was performed especially for me. It began with the singers.
I know you have heard them: they have performed several times in my hall. But you, no more than I at that time, would not have known the words. No doubt if Zean had sat beside me she would have translated. But she sat with the girls of her age while I sat in an honoured place beside Hean. And perhaps that was another reason he had marked me with the opal; so he could be there beside me. But Hean was no translator, at least not in that sense.
Without knowing the words yet I knew the song—or maybe I ought to say that I sensed its meaning. Maybe some of you, my priests, have realised the same on hearing it. The rhythm, the sounds . . .: that first time they sucked me in with their familiarity. I thought at once of the sea—though not of that sea I had crossed, battered and bounced till my belly and bones cried for cessation. No, it was the sea as she gently sweeps our own Madjarian shores.
The sea. The Mother. How apt that image. And how—HOW—I ask you, my priests, could you have ever believed the Creator to be your Dark Father? That most honoured, most sacred, most precious of roles belongs to the Sea-Mother. How could it be otherwise? Does not a woman, following the lead of Mother Sea, create from her own person when she creates a baby? That child even resides in ‘the sea’ while in her belly. But what of a man, what does he create from his own person, from his own body? Nothing. He must take clay for his pots, and ore for his iron. He even must plunder the woman’s belly to get him a son.
You do not see it, do you, my priests, even now? Yet I saw it. I saw it that day at the feast, just on hearing that song. And then there, too, were the dancers. But you, too, have seen them. Were you not watching, my priests? Did you not see how they danced that song of the sea? So let me remind you.
Their steps were a mimic of the constant wash of the waves on the shore. Move to the centre, moved out again, move to the centre, move out again. That is life: a perfect facsimile of our souls. See how they repeatedly leave the central spirit. How they venture out to animate our bodies. How thence on the body’s death they return to the centre again. Back and forth, back and forth, like the sea in constant motion. But no, my blind priests, you cannot see it. Have you no story that might tell you of this? Ancient, surviving, Queen-given? Blind, my priests, you are blind—blinded by your dark gods who care only for blood, and for battle, and for wealth and possessions. But Hean says I must forgive you if you don’t understand. For you haven’t yet entered the Holy Land.
Hean had warned me . . . yet even so it was sudden: a puff of Holy Dust and . . .
“Breathe!” he said.
“I am breathing,” I said.
“Breathe deeply,” he said.
And so I breathed deeply. And there were lights before me. And I knew of a certainty only I could see them. Fire-lights they seemed, and yet not. Intensely coloured blobs that rapidly swelled. Only then to retreat (just like the tides). I thought them like fishes trying to escape a net. And next I knew . . . I was there. But where was ‘there’? It was not the same place as before.
Where has Hean taken Mideer this time, with his Holy Dust? To meet the Sea-Mother, perhaps; to dance on her shore? Or maybe to meet her tide-carried self coming back? Anything’s possible . . . in the next episode, A Thousand Fragments Of Mother Sea