Friday, July 6, 2018

The Woilin Player's Confession by Greg Szulgit

A Pilgrim wanders through a rustic land and shelters with a local outcast in Greg Szulgit's characterful fantasy.

Pilgrim had spent the previous three nights sleeping outdoors in the chill autumn air, since the people thereabouts seemed unfamiliar with, or suspicious of, his robes and his role. And so, when a young girl skipped up alongside him at sunset and said that he was invited to spend the evening at her family's house, he smiled broadly and bowed his head low to her; lower than was fitting to a child who looked to be no older than seven or eight.

She led him along the main road in the direction from which he had come, turning down a footpath after several hundred yards to arrive at a small cottage nestled among a stand of spruce pines.

"My mother is making squirrel and potato keffles," the child said as she approached the porch. "We saw you go by and thought that you might like to join us for dinner. Mati said that you could probably use some meat on your bones."

Pilgrim smiled at the accuracy of the assumption; maybe it was time to start travelling among the dairy farmers again, a trick he had learned from a worldly comrade who always seemed to put on a healthy layer of fat as winter approached.

"Mati," the girl called out as she opened the door, "I brought the pilgrim, and he's really nice, and he's skinny too, like you said."

The pilgrim stepped into the warm interior, allowing the heat and the rich smell of gravy and spices to envelop him. A dark-haired woman turned from her preparations with eyes full of surprise and embarrassment.

"Oh, Ariena! That's not polite! I'm so sorry, Pilgrim."

"Don't worry," Pilgrim assured her with a grin, "it's the truth! And if I thought that such an appearance would lead me regularly to a meal like the one I smell, then I would wear my summer robes in winter to show my ribs to the world."

She laughed and relieved the pilgrim of his pack, oar, and over-robe, apologizing for the state of the house even though the room was well tended. He responded that it was lovely; a truly welcoming home and, removing his shoes, looked among the slippers to find a pair that might fit him. The woman introduced herself as Cativa and brought him a pair from a box at the far side of the room.

The foyer opened into a kitchen and, beyond that, an open living space adorned with musical instruments in various states of creation and repair. Jars of honey-brown liquid sat on benches, and the aromas of lacquer and glue joined those already in the room.

"Please, come in and sit down. Dinner will be ready in an hour or so; I don't want to rush the meat or it will toughen up on us. Can I get you some hot cider?"

"Thank you; that would be wonderful."

After savouring the drink for a few moments, he nestled the steaming mug in his hands and spoke. "I noticed that your daughter called you 'Mati' when we came in. I haven't heard that name since I used to visit my great-mother in the Hinters. Are you of the line?"

It was a safe way to phrase the question. To open his inquiry by pointing out the woman's dark hair and complexion, which was distinct in this land, might be taken badly. To point out one of her idioms, however, showed that Pilgrim was familiar with Hinter culture, and was less likely to harbour prejudices. To let her know he had similar blood in his own veins, of course, removed any chance of offense.

"Mostly. My parents were real Hinter folk. When I was fourteen, I saw my first performance of a major orchestra, the Magistrate Orchestra, at Harvest Tithe. I got big-city eyes and felt trapped in the Hinters after that. I guess I became a brat of sorts, never appreciating what my parents gave me. We fought a lot. Two years later, when they wanted me to marry a friend of the family's, a cabbager, I stole my pony from the barn and rode off to Roan City. I was full of stupidity and optimism, thinking I would find work there and attend the scholary for music. It should have amounted to a young girl's failed rebellion, except for ridiculous luck; I found an apprenticeship with a luthier that allowed me to attend the scholary three days a week. I started to picture myself joining the Orchestra, eventually, and touring the kingdom wearing a silk sash."

"But you didn't?"

"Almost." Her eyes fell a bit. "I learned more about woilin playing than I ever would have in the Hinters. And I also learned how to build them, which explains all of this," she waved her hands to indicate any number of luthier's items that hung not only from her wall, but her ceiling as well: instruments with cracked bodies and missing bridges, spools wound with gut strings, a barrel full of short and long woilin necks. "I had other interests as well; everything about the scholary seemed impressive and cosmopolitan, especially the observatory. Whenever I could find the time, I would go there and share tea with the mathematicians and astrologers."

Pilgrim chuckled, "Then we're more alike than I thought. I had dreams of being a naver for the cathedral at Markina, and even passed the mathematics exams."

"Which explains the robes." She managed to keep a straight face for a few moments before a wry smirk showed at the edges of her mouth.

"No. They stopped building the cathedral when the war began. Most of the navers were conscripted as trebuchunds and tunnelers. I decided that farming didn't sound like such a bad life. When the Peoples' Cause moved into the region and wrecked everything, I needed to find some clarity in life; wayfaring seemed a promising route."

While Pilgrim tried to enjoy every new meeting, he often found that he had trouble identifying with people. They usually had simple ideas about the world, with strong opinions about places that were much farther away than their experiences would ever take them. As a wanderer, he would bring news of nearby lands and tales of far-off ones, but he knew that he would not change deeply entrenched beliefs in one or two evenings.

Long before he had started wayfaring, immediately after leaving the scholary, he often found himself trying to educate others only to find that far more people would enter discussions to proselytize than to learn. The Pilgrim's Creed taught that one should give only what was asked for and take only what was offered. He learned that he could be most effective by presenting the truth only when an audience was open to it, without the need for convincing. They would change their beliefs if they were ready to do so. If they were not, then his position was to be a sympathetic, patient listener. He was good at this, and fervently believed in the spiritual value of such interactions, but it was a rare pleasure to spend time conversing with someone who was as educated as himself.

Cativa told him about the wonders of Roan City: the teahouses, the art museum, the municipal astrolabe, and the architecture. The last subject was of great interest to Pilgrim, and it took him back to earlier days. She described a citywide system for the delivery of clean water to every public building, and the huge stonecutting tools at the quarry. Every topic led naturally onto others: grand ideas punctuated with personal anecdotes of young lives in big cities. Time passed quickly and, by the end of the meal, Pilgrim had become more roused and enthusiastic than was common for him.

"But you can't cut a single granite slab at that angle; it will focus too much weight at the elbow." He drew a diagram on the stove top with a piece of charcoal from the cooking fire to illustrate his point.

She assured him, "I'm telling you, they did it! And it eliminates the need for a keystone in the arch."

"Sure, but the whole groin will collapse before the buttress can be erected to stabilize it."

"Think that all you want," she said, "but the chapel has been there for eighty years, and it's still just as groin-y as ever!"

The daughter, Ariena, sat rapt with attention, imagining a city even greater than the one that they were actually describing, building castles in the clouds that she would someday go in search of. She interjected occasional questions and demands for details, especially regarding the menagerie, which housed beasts that sounded fantastic and dangerous. Pilgrim added his own stories about creatures he had either encountered first-hand or knew of from other travellers, although he was careful to preface those with caveats on the nature of travellers' tales.

After a dessert of fresh apples and honey, Cativa put Ariena to bed in the loft above the kitchen. The child moaned, but acquiesced when her mother told her she would see Pilgrim in the morning. When she came down the stairs, Pilgrim had already started washing dishes. She protested, but he bargained with her, proposing that if he took care of all of the cleaning duties, she would play the woilin for him afterward. She told him that he drove a beggar's bargain, but agreed to his terms and, then, proceeded to clear the table and tidy up anyway.

When they had finished, she suggested they put a stonewell of spirits on the stove.

"A perfect end to a perfect meal," he said. "I wish I had some taboda seeds to offer, but I traded the last of them yesterday for a loaf of bread and some jerked grouse."

"You shouldn't be required to trade anything away, Pilgrim, but folks around here ain't too bright," she said, mimicking the drawl of the locals. "I'll bet you've come across some who've never even seen a pilgrim."

"That seems to be the case," he agreed. "That doesn't make them bad, just not very worldly."

"Hah! Try living with them - fucking hicks!" The anger stung the mood. Then she took a deep breath and composed herself, "Sorry."

"Not a lot of regional support for lone, dark-haired mothers who are self-taught in mathematics?"

"You're on-key with that one," she said, and went to the back of the room to gather several candles, placing them about the room before returning to offer the explanation for her outburst.

"We came here because Taka, Ariena's dah, grew up in this house. I met him at the scholary - he was in the Orchestra, actually - and we fell-in pretty quickly. I had to leave when I couldn't hide my pregnancy from my teachers any longer."

Pilgrim was reluctant to ask for more details just yet, assuming she would offer them as her comfort dictated. He simply maintained eye contact and pursed his lips a bit; his way of letting her know she had been heard.

She continued, "They don't allow unwed mothers to play at the scholary, let alone in the Orchestra. The sad part is that Taka and I wanted to get married, but nobody would marry a Wosen to a Baalist. They allowed Baalists at the scholary because the deans claimed to respect the "sanctity of all citizens" but, if you wanted to actually marry a Baalist, well, that type of sanctity had a different set of rules."

"So you never got your sash."

"And Taka never got his compass. We decided to move back here to fix up this house as his parents had died that year and his sisters had married away."

Pilgrim did not bother to ask if Cativa's parents had asked her to return to the Hinters. He assumed they had looked forward to bouncing a great-child on their knees - but not one from an unwed couple, and certainly not one that was a half-blood.

"Taka was always a bit of an odd bird; too much so for the folks around here," she said, "but when he returned with the likes of me, he became a pariah. They didn't like me because I was a Wosen, but they hated him because he was... I don't know... a traitor? A threat? A 'Wosen-lover'. That was their favourite name, and they used to call him that when he went into town, which was rarely. When he cut his leg building the wheel for Ariena's fourth solstice, the doctor couldn't make it out to see him - that's what they told us. He was tending to some 'important cases'. At Taka's funeral there were only four people: the priest, Ariena, me, and Taka's younger sister. She was there to respect her brother, but she was also certain to let me know that Taka died because Baal did not tolerate 'the sins of mixing,' and that Ariena and I would be the next to face 'His just and mighty wrath; Praise the Love.'"

Pilgrim offered the only condolence that he ever did, when he offered them, "That's hard," he said. For all of its obviousness, the phrase was never taken badly.

"Yes. Life is like that, I guess." She went to the stove, turning her back to compose herself as she poured the drinks. When she brought the cups of warmed barley spirit to the table she raised a toast: "To life."

"To life."

They drank their cups down in one quick motion and then sat in silence, enjoying the burn.

She then went to a recess below the staircase and took out a wooden case that had a sturdy, well-travelled look to it. "Let's get you another cup before I start," she said. "The more you drink, the better I sound."

He smiled and refilled their cups, setting hers on the table. She handed him a pillow, which he put behind his back. He settled against the wall and sipped his drink with his eyes closed, letting the recent miles of road melt from his muscles while she tuned the strings.

"Shall I start with one of the Magistrate pieces?" she asked, and launched into it without waiting for an answer.

Pilgrim had not heard imperial music since the spring, and had forgotten how inspiring it could be. A grand, powerful melody rushed at him, prompting him to sit up and open his eyes. He watched the bow as it danced over the strings, seeming to hit all of them at once. An orderly theme carried the music for the first few minutes before mostly disappearing under a flourish of complications and occasional discordance, only to re-emerge later, dominant and encompassing. The next piece sounded much more serene, as if paying tribute to a summer day that held no changes or surprises, although it still maintained a sense of lavish grandeur.

Pilgrim was impressed by Cativa's skill and could imagine her sitting among a bevy of musicians, participating in epic symphonies that reflected the glory of Roan.

"Beautiful," said Pilgrim, when she had finished. "I don't know the pieces, but I suspect you played them flawlessly."

"Thank you," she said, and bent slightly at the waist in a half-hearted bow. "I would play you some of the cathedral pieces, but I need the written scores for those and they're up in the loft. Ariena sleeps like a stone, but I don't think I can rummage around the bed without waking her up."

"How about some Hinter songs?" Pilgrim asked.

She paused. "Well, I remember the children's rhymes from hay jumps, and a few of my uncle's digging songs, but..." She made a face that dismissed these songs, suggesting that they were simplistic and ridiculous. "Of course, there are the old Woses stories that we used to sing, but those were never set to instruments."

"Yes!" Pilgrim said, "A bit out of season to be sure, but I haven't heard any of them since I was a child, and I remember them as being... how to describe them? Heartening."

"I don't know. You'd need to have my dah and my great-dah here to set the drone. And then you'd need a bunch of people," she smiled. "By Baal, you need a big drunken family to do the proclamations and the responses."

"So do it on the woilin; you certainly have the ability."

She considered. The transpositions were simple enough. The drone, which would normally come from deep within the two eldest males' throats, could be mimicked if she loosened the Ra and Set strings, and the rest was mostly improvisation, changing as the spirit moved the singers. Still, she was hesitant.

"I haven't sung the Woses stories in twelve years. I left them behind."

Pilgrim understood. It was not a matter of technique, but of melancholy. Her past could be left for another day, some day in the future, when the time was right. He felt a bit sorry for pushing her and was about to nod to her in a way that would suggest that she both forgive and forget his request - to "plow it under," as Hinters would say - when she suddenly cranked two of the tuning pins, picked up the bow, and pulled it across the bass strings in one long draw. The low hum of the instrument resonated deeply within him, causing him to catch his breath and to sit completely still for a second. She repeated the motion again and he leaned back and shut his eyes, absorbing the sound as it enveloped him and blocked out the rest of the world. Now she kept the bow to the strings and began a steady back and forth motion that created a rhythmic droning for what seemed to be several minutes. The sound appeared to come from everywhere at once, and a long, nearly imperceptible beat pulled at the standard notions of musical time, and, it seemed, at time itself. Pilgrim could feel the vibrations through his feet, as if their origins were deep below the floorboards; deep below and from a place ancient and solid.

He had never put much credence in the idea of chakras, but he began to question that now, as he imagined points in his chest and head pulsing with the hypnotic chanting of the strings. Then, new notes began to appear; higher notes that piled on top of the bass chords, marking them like punctuation at times and seeming to openly comment on them at others. As if prompted to respond, a third set of tones joined in, completing a conversation told in song.

Pilgrim remembered the verses from his youth, but they took on new meaning now. They spoke of Woses and his deeds; his struggle against the wealthy and powerful, and his compassion for the humble. But hearing the music without the words made him realize that the song must have been older still. That it told the same story, but one that started long before Woses; perhaps even before the partition of the Babels. The depth of the resonance suggested that the song was somehow tied in to what it meant to be alive.

After a long while, the multiple sets of notes began to drop out and their interplay became simpler until, once again, all that remained was the drone and, then, this too faded into silence. How long this silence lasted, Pilgrim had no idea. He left his eyes closed for a minute, allowing his thoughts and senses to come back at their own pace. When he opened them, he found that Cativa sat completely still, with her eyes closed, much as he had been. A few of the candles had gone out, but his eyes had adjusted to the dark, and he looked around the room with a feeling of great peace. His oar stood near the doorway, reminding him that he would leave this place soon, and his pack rested below it, holding the trappings of his station. He thought of the life bowl within and wondered if it had rung during the woilin playing, mostly for her, but maybe for him as well. He looked down at his feet and saw the slippers he knew had belonged to Taka, but had been offered to him. They felt comfortable.

Cativa opened her eyes and stared at him. They sat for a long time, looking at each other without any need to look away or speak. Then Cativa smiled widely and lifted the instrument off of her lap, readying it for its case. Pilgrim got up, put the cups in the wash bin near the stove and gathered his bed-roll from the foyer. As he brought it to the common room, Cativa approached him and put her hand on his shoulder. It was the same spot on which the oar usually rested, and he considered that for a moment before they fell into each other.

At some point during their love-making, the life bowl in Pilgrim's satchel rang softly. It rang for both of them.

3 comments:

  1. Fine writing drawn with a vocabulary that includes gorgeously constructed, idiosyncratic words that are expressive and congruent with the tone of the story and its imagined location. Many thanks, Ceinwen

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  2. Gentle world-building, constructed mainly through imaginative use of language, and well-crafted characters combine to make for a very enjoyable read.

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