A/N: Second part of this chapter will be uploaded soon.
If you read this before 19/11/2012, there has been an extra scene added at the end.
Col had been snugly wrapped in the throes of sleep when the gongs woke him. First instinct beseeched him to sit up with haste, but when his eyes flew open upon the perception of stiffness and dregs of pain snaking through his limbs his mind managed to register the abnormality of the situation.
The first day of summer always began later than any other. And yet, judging from the darkness that poured through the open window, the sun had barely peeked over the horizon as the gongs in the village square called them to awaken and gather under the naked sky.
And he did not recall the gongs being rung with such ferocity in his lifetime.
Rubbing his eyes to rid them from the stubborn blurriness that persisted, he slid out from under his mattress of leaves and his lightly woven blanket. The thicker Gus-skinned one hung on a chair; summer may have arrived buts its heat began assaulting them from midway Spring. The blanket that slid off his legs was made from the cotton plant, something that had once grown in abundance but had sadly dwindled from his grandparents' time, or so they said. His grandfather claimed to sneak into the dense produce and hide himself when the time came for his lessons as a small child, and then be caned by the bamboo that stood at the front of the teaching room as punishment.
But as their stocks dwindled, they were forced to rely on the trades between themselves and the town across the river. And worse it was because the trades themselves were sparse, for reasons unknown to them.
But for the time being they had enough to live as they had always lived, if with a little more effort, and so Col slipped the tunic over his bare chest and tightened the cords around his waist. The sheath and blade he was normally required to carry during the day lay upon his chair, as did a rickety old reed basket, just large enough to hold a fully filled water bag and maybe a few herbs. At that point in time though his water bag was not with the basket; rather it lay beside, and the small alcove of honour was instead filled with the two fragments of a broken fishing hook. It was also something that had once come from across the river; their land had no metal or mineral, but they had poisons and healing herbs that grew no-where else – or so the traders claimed. And so it must have been, for why else would they trade such things if they received nothing in return.
But that was less important. After the traders had brought them over, the hook had belonged to his grandfather. And when he had no son to pass it along to, it went to his father, and with him it had broken, around the mouth of a ferocious fish. Col had received the fragments, and he treasured them along with the reed basket that had been his mother's last remaining work. All else had been replaced, but his grandmother had taken that one to give to him to safeguard in memory of his parents. And he kept them in the hut, safe from further wear and tear in the hands of nature.
That early morning though Col barely spared the contents of his chair a glance, simply rolling up the blanket to be aired when the sun was further up in the sky and met his grandparents at the door. Together, they made their way into the crowd that flocked from the other huts scattered about, pooling into the village square that was their heart in more ways than one.
And there, bundled together in the open space, they heard the news. News they had never thought to hear, for while the Elder had seemed ancient there had been a sort of strength in him. Something unfaltering, unwavering. He had lived while those, both older and younger, had succumbed to the sickness that had plagued their village. He had lived beyond what most others accomplished in good health. The more fanciful of them would have believed, should such people exist in their village, might have believed the Elder to be blessed by a higher power, or by the magic the traders sometimes whispered of. Of those stories, only that of the Necromancer's accursed marshes persisted, however while all believed the place to their west to be a death trap, few really considered it was one brought about by magic. After all, their own land was riddled with plants that smiled in the sun but held poison within their leaves, and animals that could devour them deep in the forest. So, for them, the marshes were simply the end of the line. They did not go deeper than the outer forest, so the mystery of the marshes was not unexpected.
No, they had simply not waited for the end, and now that it had come the feeling was as though it had snuck upon them unawares. The old man that led them would never walk amongst them again, and the boats that sailed on the night of the Spring Harvest would carry another, dyed with the perfumed scent in honour as the new head of the procession. He had no child to send the boat off for him. That did not matter; not everyone did after all. The healer would send the boat off by her hands instead, for she was the mother and the child of all.
But before that would be the first farewell that night, and in the shadow of the Spring Harvest it would be an even more sombre scene.
The gongs ran on and on, and the crowd remained in a hushed silence, paying their respects to the air as the sun slowly rose. It was only when light had fully descended that the adults began to spread to their usual duties and the children followed.
Col sat silently in the teaching room. The morning's breakfast had been painfully subdued but the teaching room screamed of it. Perhaps it was because the Elder's presence had always been a constant in it; it was he who told them all about their village's history and the history of their land. The one they called Teacher only taught them more solidified things: writing: runes, arithmetic and how to read the land; skills of hunting, fishing and many other things besides. Everyone in the village knew how to do all tasks that needed to be completed, even if they were usually designated to specific people. That was so that, in the instance someone, for example Father Ole, was unable to work, somebody else could pick up the slack. It was a very important part of their community and fundamental in keeping it together. Not all villagers liked every task, but they were all adequately skilled should such needs arise. And it was more important in the past few years when their numbers had drastically declined.
That day it was only the teacher, as a new Elder would not be decided till the afternoon council and not announced until the sun set on the funeral flame. And that day's practical lessons while energy filled the children surrounded the lotus flowers, traditionally the burial plant.
They'd had the lesson before; it was repeated every few years and brought up in the light of calamity. The last time Col had sat through it was during the sickness that claimed his parents along with countless others. That same night he had been tasked to throw a handful into the shallow water and pray upon them, watching the slightly fragranced petals slowly drift away until they were no longer visible.
That day's lesson told him nothing new, nor did it, he imagined, teach anything new to the rest of the children in the teaching room. Except perhaps bring back the darker memories of the sickness, and how there had once been two sessions because the number of children did not fit in one go within the teaching room. It seemed that impacted the teacher as well as his voice was far less stern as it droned on about the lotus plants.
'Three types grow in our river. The Blue Lotuses open their flowers at dawn and sink beneath the water's surface at dusk, sleeping the night under the closed canopy. Their perfume alters our sense of the world as we know it. The petals are also used in some of our medications: sleeping agents and mind-alertedness, and also used in some brews of herbal tea.'
The teacher pointed to each of the items on his desk in turn as he spoke, starting with the fresh Blue Lotus, the only beaming face in the room, and ending with a cup of three a third of the way up the desk. He lifted the cup and tipped it so they could all see the translucent liquid within, before returning it and pointing to the middle section instead.
'The White Lotuses are found in the lake in the forest, but are said to be more common around the marsh area. Perfume is also extracted from them, particularly on wedding and funeral bathing. Their medicinal properties are far less well defined right now; because it was discovered so recently we know very little about it.'
He moved to the last portion of the table, to the lotuses that were also white but of a different appearance.
'These, what we have named Fragrance Lotus to distinguish from the newly discovered White Lotus, have waterproof properties that go into our creams and balms and winter clothing. Like the Blue Lotus they open during the day and lay closed during the night. Their fragrance however is far stronger and they sprout fruit as well which grow under the water until mature. It stifles the growth of other plants in the water. They are also amongst the most beautiful of our plants, but as beyond that they are also used as a preservative and in…' He paused, picking up a small container at the end. 'Special oil. The oil we use to after washing the dead and before the funeral fire.'
The room was silent as they watched the clear liquid slop at the edges. The funeral oil: they spread the body with it before the burning. It smoothed the wrinkles that appeared after the stiffness that came with immediate passing fled. It carried the flame swiftly across the body and hastened the burning process. It also lessened the stench, mixing it instead with the sweet fragrance that emitted.
Col knew its scent well. So did most of the students in that room. They'd spread the oil on their parents' bodies, or assisted at the very least. He had had his grandparents' assistance; some had not been so fortunate. Those with no-one lived under the same roof, like siblings without a parent. But things were inevitably harder for them, even if no-one went out of their way to participate in discrimination.
'All three forms of lotus are used in the funeral preparation. The White Lotuses 'perfume is used above the Fragrance Lotuses because of its subtler and therefore more meaningful smell. The Blue Lotus is placed over the person's heart, as a symbol of its power to awaken the sleeping and bestow sleep upon the wakeful.'
The teacher stepped away from his desk, moving between the rows of seated students. 'In a larger sense such power also speaks of life and death, for the dead rest in eternal sleep and sleep is but a step away from death. Despite that we, unlike our brothers and sisters across the river, do not believe dreams to be ties to worlds beyond our own – the land gives us sleep just as we give our bodies, in the form of labour in life, and in death the physical form, to it – sleep is a sacred thing. Too much sleep speaks of illness, as does too little. Like many other things in our universe sleep is a force of balance in nature, but more so in ourselves for we can only function with the right balance of sleep. And it is a reward.'
He stopped at the back of the classroom, continuing on without turning. 'For the old, eternal sleep is not something of pain or disaster but rather another gift that nature provides; like the trees, plants and animals, we people too begin to lose our function and worth as we grow old.'
Col felt his eyelids drooping. The tale of sleep was one that was told to them even more frequently than the rituals that go into funeral preparation: he was glad it was the lotuses though and not the process of bathing the body. While it was disturbing for a majority of the girls he found the explanation boring. He would rather do something himself, or see it if the former event was impossible.
Luckily the teacher did not notice, or perhaps he chose to be lenient. In any case, Col's palms remained unscathed as the man droned on. Once he finished with the topic of sleep it was a brief recess for the midday meal and then arithmetic.
Col had been dearly wishing for runes; writing appealed far better than doing sums mentally, and he found an interest in translation even if the history it told of was not as appealing. But that day was not an ordinary one, and the routine calculations let the stifling nature of the room slip by.
He had a job keeping himself awake though. Less so than he expected though; he respected the Elder, like everybody else in the village, and to fall asleep in the teaching room on the day of his funeral would be a sign of disrespect. And so he did his best to focus, reigning in his mind as it threatened to drift into the scent of the perfumes that drifted about the room, courtesy of the lotus flowers drying slowly on the desk.
That afternoon saw the majority of villagers abandoning their usual jobs in lieu of the Elder's passing. The men were in the meeting room, discussing several matters: the most important of them would be election the new Elder. The women divided themselves between cleaning up from the Spring Harvest the previous night and the produce that had been reaped by their husbands that morning before the summer's sun rained upon them. And the children split themselves as well; some went about preparing dinner: fishing, preparing vegetables. Others assisted with cleaning up or the funeral.
The three eldest boys, Col included, went as close to the forest as they were allowed without adult supervision and collected twigs to build up a fire. It would not be as neat as the bonfire the previous night; there was only a little of the large wood left and they would be needed for the flat platform. The twigs would instead be infested with reed shavings and tied into bundles to be stacked around the platform, propped up by the plethora of rocks that centred the village square. Petals from the White Lotus would be added to the bundles of twigs so the perfume would infuse with the burning smell and that of ash.
It was a strange company of sorts: the three boys, for they would have once used the opportunity to explore a little and be adventurous, but somehow the sombre mood of funerals always reigned them in. It was well orchestrated too, on the part of discipline, for the only time they were in such positions was when the preparations of a funeral were underway. It was an interesting way things were tied together, but such was their village life and the restlessness that stirred in children were usually quenched soon enough within the bounds of their rules that any desire not to conform to them were soon quenched.
It helped too that the teacher was sharp enough to see when his students, particularly in potentially dangerous areas, were becoming restless and therefore liven up proceedings a little.
But there was no need for that as summer's sun shone upon discarded twigs and the three boys gathered them for the funeral pyre.
While numerous preparations and cleanups were happing about the village, the men were inside the dimly lit meeting room. The mood was particularly sombre where the sun could not reach; it had been designed specifically with no windows in sight and a single door, over which a reed-screen was placed to show it was currently in use. It was perhaps incorrect to say that men only collected inside, but the only woman was the healer and her role would give no sway to a decision made.
There was a round table in the centre of the room, and chairs around it. A dish of oil sat in the centre – not the oil that was used in the funeral bathing but rather a different sort, and a slowly burning flame drifted about the middle. The fuel was actually a reed from the Fragrant Lotus, amidst other things, but the waterproof property gave the flickering fire longer life and made it an ideal light in darker scenes.
And somehow it seemed more fitting than the natural light to illuminate the faces that sat around the seamless circle. Earlier that month another seat had been added for Kieran after the marking of his eighteenth year, and now he awkwardly sat between his father and grandfather in his first major meeting.
Young as he was though, his opinion would lend little weight. Not that, on the offset, his opinion played any sort of a role in the discussion because the silence that descended upon the table pre-empted proposals towards a new Elder. And it was a tense moment, because to come close and lose meant that, by tradition, they would not be welcomed into the new fold. From the time their village had been formed such rivalries were eliminated; in the olden days it was a fight to the death between the contestants that came closest by virtue of popularity to the title, but the tradition as of later generations was less direct: simple banishment. A cruel fate, particularly when their numbers had so drastically dwindled, and many of them wondered at that exact moment whether their neighbours would consent to, for better or worse, changing such traditions.
The healer alone stood; as a woman she had no formal part in the council. She was there simply to report, and that she did. No nervousness seeped into her voice. It was her trade after all, to concoct potions and creams and diagnose ailments and heal what she could. So she knew best the details behind the Elder's death, and even in such a case as this wherein there was little to be said – for a natural death it was – it was required of her to speak. To confirm of no foul play before elections for a new Elder began.
And she did so, although her words were short and inconsequential. Her voice did no change; the professional monotone spread through the dark room and her report was carefully accepted by each present.
There was very little to say; it didn't take many words to summarise a natural death. And she stopped, all too soon.
The silence, as such, was a heavy symphony indeed. Faces flickered in the dull light, impassive while gears stirred beneath. Each thought deeply; to put oneself or another up for nomination was no light matter. If one lost the burden that was to bear…
Kieran stayed still with great effort when his grandfather spoke. 'I put myself forward.'
The exclamation died on the newly-wed's tongue under his father's sharp look. Several others stirred as well. Some were undoubtedly relieved; with one name placed on the table there would be no need for the timid to step forth. Others were less amiable, for as small as their society was not all relationships were crafted to perfection. Not everybody could agree on a single man to lead them. If they could, there would never be a need for conflict.
Such conflicts only came to light when such power lay at the balance.
'Are you sure?' another spoke. 'Do you put your name forward, knowing you may be banished as a consequence?'
'Yes.' The speaker bowed his head.
Murmurs continued around the table. Some were content; others were not. And eventually, one of them spoke. 'You have a son and a newlywed grandson. Do you risk abandoning them?'
'I have seen my son married twenty years ago and my grandson married yesterday,' the man replied. 'I have fulfilled my life, and should the village decide I am not to lead them and a dangerous challenge to the new Elder, then I have nothing to lose.'
Silence permeated again.
'I would like to nominate Karl for the position,' the man, hair grey but still clinging to a few black strands, said just as the single nomination appeared to be conclusive.
Karl, the grandfather of Col, started a little but nodded when his approval was asked. No questions were raised as to his surety; to deny a nomination from another had never happened in the history of their village. After all, it was an honour – in its own way. To be cast out of the village was also an honour, for it meant almost half the male adult population trusted the man in question with the responsibility that came with being Elder. Despite the undisputed fact that such burdens had greatly decreased as their little haven separated from the world and became a bubble of confined peace, the weight was still one that many wished to have no part of.
Karl, for his part, was flattered, apprehensive, and somewhat surprised; the lattermost came partially from the fact that he was, by means of marriage, more closely related to the previous Elder than any other in presence. The former was the easiest to understand and explain to himself. The apprehensiveness was slightly less well-explored however. In essence, it was a simple fear that could never be fully understood.
Maybe, if he could know how votes would sway, it would be a different story. And he knew that, should the result have been made clear to them beforehand, the chances of it ending in a banishment were non-existent. For enmities so deep did not exist in their village, but the close-knit communal village had disadvantages in the foundations it had wrought about itself as well, and one of those were the deeper feelings that remained hidden from the collective under an agreeable guise. With how little things changed, even as their numbers dwindled, it was important to remain outwardly connected and therefore the inner segregations remained obscured until such moments.
In an election, only the small things were important.
(continued in Part 2)