THE STORY WEAVER
I first saw him as a black speck on the white plain; a man leading a starving horse; his eyes snow-blind, his cheeks sheened with fever. He came closer as I waited. He staggered and fell at my feet.
I took him into my tent and made him drink the some blood of I had left over from a still-born foal. He drank it without knowing what he drank. He slept for three days. When I told him what saved him, he wept. I do not know why.
When the others first saw him, they wanted to kill him. I stood before them and proclaimed him mine and they would touch him at their peril. Grins were exchanged. For it is known that I have never had a man.
He remains with us still; a man among women. He shrank into the shadows when the others were here but now they are gone. Left behind are the toothless grandmothers, the children who are weaned from the breast and me.
And the man.
We sit with the fire between us. He is always cold although the fire burns hot. I weave and he talks.
He is a strange man. He is tall but has no body hair. His skin is pale gold and his hair is black. He speaks softly. The men of our tribe are stocky with beards and hair of flame. They swagger, bone daggers at their waists. They are hunters and tamers of horses.
‘Your men are savage brutes,’ he says, although he has not yet seen them. ‘We live in cities. We have streets, laws and good government.’
`I do not know those words,’ I say. He stands up and walks to the entrance of the tent and lifts the cloth.
I hear the hobbled horses strike the ground with their hooves. It rings like hammer on metal. The wind whistles through their tangled manes. The dogs by the fire grumble in their sleep. He drops the curtain I wove three summers ago. He returns to hug the fire. Then he laughs and picks a piece of flesh from his teeth. ‘To think I am living thus,’ he says.
Some days later, pounding hooves, jingling harnesses and shrill cries announce the return of the women once again. The raw air is slashed by the heat of fresh blood. A hog, thin but with meat enough upon its bones is dropped at my feet. The dogs that returned with the hunters greet those left behind with furious barks, jumping at each other’s throats, tails thrashing like sword blades. The babies and toddlers wake in their woven cribs and howl. We all share the same hunger. Even the stranger.
As I put pots to heat on the fire. Olgatha enters. She helps me skin the beast and scrape it clean of flesh and fat. We throw the meat into the pots. Beneath her tunic, her new-born son suckles from her swollen breast. We work swiftly. I see the man watching her.
She was once Takalam’s woman. But she is good to me.
Soon the pig-flesh has devoured our hunger. Outside, the wind screams across the plain, kicking up a blizzard. The children ask for the tale of the Raven and the Foal, but I am shy in the presence of a stranger.
He lifts his head at my words. ‘In our land women do not tell tales. It is men who sing their songs to the trill of the lyre.’
‘What do your women do?’
‘They make themselves beautiful,’ he says. ‘For men.’
Does he mock me? Despise my ugliness? I feel his eyes rake my misshapen jaw and twisted back and I want to cry.
He touches my hand. ‘I would like to hear your stories.'
The other women have already left the tent and returned to theirs, scooping up the sleeping children under their arms. We are alone. I reach for my knife I use to sever the yarn and the cord that binds the newborn to their mothers. ‘No stranger steals the stories from our ancestors. I will not tell you.’
The night passes with no word between us. The wind drops and the tent sighs and stiffens with ice. The fire burns low. I concentrate on my loom, keeping count of the warp threads, changing the colours, the twisting of the weft beneath and over the warp. Which is he and which is I?
‘Where are the men?’ he asks the following day.
‘Away.’ I do not wish to think of the men.
‘Why are they not here to take care of their women and children? Provide for them?’
‘Women do not need men.’
Just then, one of Olgatha’s tall daughters enters the tent and shyly hands me a skein of thread she has spun herself. I inspect it thoroughly for knots and burrs. I find none. She goes away, her braided head tilted with pride.
‘If men and women live apart, where do the young come from?’
I have to explain the simplest things. ‘The men come every second full moon. When they come they take away the boys who have grown beards and plant their seed within us, then leave. It is the custom.’
‘But what of love?’ he whispers. He is a strange man.
Now the days and nights stand as equals. Soon the days will begin to nibble the tails of the night and grow longer before the nights exact their revenge, as the old tales tell us. The grass grows again. Today I freed the horses from their ropes. They careered across the plain, rolling over and over, kicking up their back legs and playing the fool. They soon settle, their shaggy necks curved to crop the first sweet shoots of the season. Their tails flick. The flies are waking too and cloud their heads. The whole world is yawning. The sky is the colour of skimmed milk thawing in the bowl.
The moon is full tonight. Tonight the men will come. The children are excited, especially the boys. They squabble and the women cuff them about their ears. Those who will leave with them on the morrow strut like warlords.
I lift the entrance cloth. The sun stabs the floor and slices the body of the stranger who has just risen from his sleep. His back is to me. He lifts a bowl of mare’s milk from the fire and places it on the rug-strewn floor. He takes a piece of foal-skin, swishes it in the steaming liquid, squeezes out the excess moisture and applies it to his body. Then he dips his face in the now cool liquid and splashes it about his face before applying a sharp blade to his cheeks. I have touched this blade. It is sharp and cold beneath my finger. When he has finished he puts the used milk to one side. He has learned that we waste nothing. The children will use it to make supple the saddles and soak the read stems ready to fashion into arrow shafts.
It is strange to me, this desire to remove the signs of manhood. A beard divides the man from the boy. His people must remain as children until they die. And yet he tells me how the call to manhood is strong in his land. He tells me that when the sun blazes fiercely above their heads they engage in vigorous sports, testing each others’ strength to the very limits of endurance: running, wrestling, throwing wooden spears and discs of stone.
And now he stands up and turns to face me. The shaft of sunlight ripples across his nakedness. For a moment we gaze upon each other in wonder. I now see the beauty of the clean, white, male form. He is less thin than he was when he arrived and his muscles are well-formed. I see each sinew beneath the skin. He only shaves his face and head. There is a straggle of hair on his chest and his cock stirs within a nest of black curls.
He is without his beard but a man for all that.
He binds a piece of cloth about his waist and strides from the tent on sturdy legs, passing close to me as he does. He smells of the spring sky and fresh grass. I watch him go. Slowly at first as if testing his muscles, he begins to run, picking up speed, bearing down upon the group of horses. They scatter whinnying in alarm, tossing their heads, their hooves pounding the plain, before regrouping and continuing to graze.
I am used to solitude. But I have never felt lonely until this moment.
The other women are dressing their hair in tight braids, twisting strings of wool around them. They are laughing, showing their fine pointed teeth. They take it in turns to drag bone combs through the tangled flames of their hair.
I take no part in this but continue at my loom, thinking about the stories I will tell during the feast tonight. The stranger is returned. He squats beside me, shooting a quiverful of questions about what happens when the men come.
‘What do you think happens when men meet women?’ I laugh and am surprised by my own bitterness. I stand back and regard the cloth stretched across my loom. That at least is fruitful. The stranger has said much about the strange land in which he lives. There are beasts with skins of leather like the snake but walk on four legs. There are creatures that can live in pools of water. Their skins are featherless but they fly like birds through the water, which he says is wider than the plain, which is impossible. He says horses gallop across these watery plain, wild and snarling, full white tails streaming behind them like clouds presaging a storm. Beneath them fly the water-birds in all the colours of the known world, but more dazzling, more alive.
I recreate these strange beasts and weave them into my cloth. I will tell tales of these creatures that drink nectar from heart of flowers the size of our round tents and the colour of blood. For that is what the stranger tells me. He has made my world wider and brighter. I see beyond the brown plain, further than the edges of my mind. I feel my body stretch and strengthen.
Suddenly the women leap up and the children run screaming towards the horizon.
‘The men are coming,’ I tell him and he too rises and makes his way to the curtain and pushes it aside.
‘I see nothing,’ he says.
‘Look again,’ I command him as I would a child. ‘Do you not see the sky darken beneath the cloud of dust that rolls towards us? How in the name of our ancestors do you defend yourselves? Do you lie down and offer your necks like curs?
I know my words have stung him. I wish they had not but I am sharp because the men have come. I have never heeded their indifference to me nor longed for their fierce embraces, but today I feel bereft, jealous of the rough attention that will be denied me. My thoughts are as tangled as raw yarn and I sense something of the excitement the other women feel and thought would never be a part of me.
The stranger too is as tense as a strained bow before the arrow flies. I see a vein in his neck throb. He is right to be afraid.
The feast is over. The boys have been handed over to the care of the men and they are enjoying their first taste of fermented mare’s milk. It is always a moment for laughter as they splutter and cough and then grow sleepy. The men lie with the women in their arms, slowly stroking their bodies, savouring the pleasures to come. Some couples, the eager ones, have already slipped away to other tents.
But my tent remains full. Someone mouths a tuneless song until kicked into silence. Dogs nose the rugs, seeking discarded bones and licking grease from the children’s faces. Moisture glistens on the skins hanging on the walls and trickles to the floor.
One of the men calls out to me. ‘Old Crone! Tell us the tale of the braggart, Vostik and how his sword was stolen as he fucked his master's wife.’
‘No,’ cries another. ‘I want to hear of the passion of Urmlich for the queen of the Ice.’
I stand up knowing that I will have to tell them both and many more before they will let me rest.
Takalam staggers to his feet. Takalam, my twin. My womb-companion. He sways glowing in the firelight, a giant who fiery head butts against the roof. His green eyes are fixed upon the stranger, my stranger, who is looking elsewhere, gravely regarding two women who are beginning a slow, sinuous dance, weaving between the couples, placing their bare toes in the men’s mouths and snatching them back before they are bitten. I should have warned him. He should not look upon them. They are Takalam’s new women and Takalam is a jealous man.
We dwelled in the womb together for nine months, our bodies twisted so tightly together our mother was cut apart to give us life. Takalam was lifted out as true and strong as a mighty tree. I was peeled from around him, a weak vine, twisted and bent. Yet, we are matched. We are both proud of our skills, but he is as handsome as I am ugly. He is harsh and I am gentle. My mind is true; his is twisted. Say one word to defy him and he cuts your throat. I have seen it.
Takalam has seen. The tent falls silent, but for the snoring of the dogs and the hiss of the fire. He draws his bone-blade from his waist and points it at me.
‘The cripple has not yet told us the tale of this cuckoo in our nest. Why is he here? What does he want of us?’
Sneering laughter crackles around the tent. ‘Does he want to steal a woman?’ he jeers. ‘Does he know what to do with one?’
More laughter - dangerous low laughter.
‘Does he wish for the wild Olgatha?’ Takalam despises Olgatha because she would not give him a son. He aims a boot at her backside, almost knocking her into the fire. She snarls and retreats to the edge of the crowd. ‘Or this one?’ He pulls a woman from the floor by her braids. 'But, remember. If you take her, I will slice the head from your shoulders and feed it to the dogs!’
Thin laughter dribbles from the drunken men like piss from a frightened dog. Takalam speaks again. ‘Perhaps not, eh, stranger?' Then he slaps his leather thighs and the dogs leap up barking until he roars them to silence. ‘Listen. I have a better idea. Let him have my sister. No-one else wants her!
He taunts the stranger. 'Do you have a sword?'
One of his lackeys takes up the cry. ‘It will be but a blade of winter grass, soft and withered!’
‘Show us your reed-pipe and pipe us a tune!’
‘If he can find it!’
I flash a warning glance at the stranger but I am too late. Takalam leaps on him, then his cousin, Gangest and more and more. Even some of the younger, sillier women crawl over him and claw at his garments, giggling over his bare legs, kissing his bare buttocks.
I peer between my fingers. I see Takalam seize the stranger by his ears and haul him to his feet, gasping and spluttering. His nose pours blood and his face is bruised. He is naked. Teeth marks scour his back, his legs, his arms.
He bears his humiliation with dignity.
But I am ashamed. Of my people and that I dwell among them.
I take the knife from my belt. I slice the warp threads from the top and bottom of my loom. I shake the cloth to life. It is the red of blood, woven with the fishes of the blue and green water, the dazzling white mares of the mighty ocean that is wider than the plains. It is strange. It is magnificent and my people gasp.
I take it to the man and with it clothe his naked and wounded body. Carefully, slowly I fasten shoulder and hip buckles from carved bone and take the girdle from my waist and tie it around his. My people watch. They know what it means. It is known that this prize should be Takalam’s and therefore it is known that he is slandered and humiliated. Takalam's mouth hangs open like an old saddle-bag. I approach him boldly and take the sword from his belt and present it to the stranger.
‘Leave us now,’ I say to the stranger. ‘Go home and tell your people about us. Not of Takalam. He is rabid wolf, foaming at the mouth when the moon is full. But of our land and our ways.'
He nods. ‘You have taught me much,’ he says. ‘This garment and the giving of it tell me everything.’
‘Tales are tales. Only this is true.’ I place his hand on my heart.
The next morning when only I am awake, I stand on the plain and watch the sun rise. The dawn wind ripples through the grass and a tiny feather flutters to my feet. I take it back to my loom and weave it into a new story.
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