Methven - Day Twenty-one - Part Three
The giant diplomat took a seat in the second row of benches, immediately behind Læ.
I knew from my first experience with the Mothers' assizes that guests of the Clanhome usually occupy those seats. Tonight they were jammed with a collection of Vomisa crones and biddies--and a sprinkling of younger women--many of whose faces were vaguely familiar to me from the ceremony of Greeting and Thanks I'd witnessed the day I learned to See. I couldn't help but notice that, unlike all the other Vomisa women in the throng behind them, most of them wore crowns woven of fresh-cut yellow and orange blossoms.
As Grrawth-h wedged himself into his seat, the crowd that filled the hall suddenly stirred.
I turned back around to see the nine Khasim Clan Mothers entering in single file through the private door to the extreme left of the vast room. Each of them carried a plain, wooden staff and they all wore colorful garlands of wildflowers on their heads--and not much else.
With a measured, deliberate tread, Akavasi led the way, mounting the steps to the massive, elaborately-decorated dais of dark timber set above the equally imposing double doorway into the dining hall. She took her place at the hulking table atop the stage, seating herself in the throne-like central chair, with its towering back sculpted in the form of a rearing tacht.
The other eight Mothers ranged themselves in less imposing chairs along the table, flanking Akavasi.
As soon as her peers were seated, Akavasi struck the butt of her staff against the floor of the stage and--in Vomisa--spoke the ritual injunction for all who had business before the Mothers to make their voices heard.
Mantami immediately stood up and responded--in the Traders' Tongue.
"I am called 'Mantami', Grandmother. I have sinned..and I am here to be Judged. I ask only that you hear my case in the Tongue of the Traders, so that my friends here with me might understand how the Judgement you will render came to be."
Atanami, the Mother who had so grudgingly welcomed us to Mantami's Clanhome that first night, instantly objected.
"You are here to be Judged, child. It is not your place to make demands of us. Nor are you in any position to ask that we grant you favors."
Mantami's reply was measured, polite and immediate.
"I do not ask this favor for myself, Mother Atanami, but as a courtesy to our guests--to whom our customs demand we show hospitality."
Akavasi held up a hand to forestall any further objection.
"The child speaks the truth. We must honor our obligation--and so shall it be."
Score one for Læ's coaching.
"Thank you, Grandmother."
"Proceed with your tale."
. . .
Mantami started by telling the Mothers pretty much the same story he'd told the bunch of us late one Saturday night in Berkeley, less than two months ago and a universe away from here--although it was a lot easier to follow now, in the Traders' Tongue, than it had been then, in his fractured English.
He told them how, while he was on an extended solo journey in preparation for his Ordeal, he found himself tracking a lone stranger--a word that could just as easily be translated as "tourist"--through the mountains for several days. He'd trailed her to a cave high in the flank of a peak not far from the border of S'lynth territory. There, despite mounting fear, he'd followed the stranger into a cave, concerned that she might unknowingly have entered a tacht's lair.
Deep inside the mountain, he'd come to a cavern in the center of which was an array of hexagonal, blue crystal pillars. He found the stranger standing among them, weaving a spell whose powerful emanations nearly paralyzed him with terror. He'd rushed forward in a panicked attempt to interrupt the stranger's conjuration.
Instead, in indescribable agony, he'd gotten trapped in her spell and been transported by it to another universe.
The stranger--Læ--was badly injured in the transition between worlds. While he nursed her back to health, she made Mantami understand his predicament. Earth was merely a way station for Læ, who couldn't spare the time and energy needed to return him to Methven.
Instead, she'd taught him enough English to survive and accompanied him to Berkeley, where she'd used her contacts to set him up with a small stipend in perhaps the one place on Earth where his obvious alienness would be utterly unremarkable. Promising to return--and to return him to Methven--some day, Læ then left Mantami to his own devices for the next four years.
"How did you come to sin, child?"
"I was very lonely, Grandmother."
Sympathetic murmurs ran through the crowd. A child, alone, a world away from his Clan? Left to dwell Motherless among warrens of furless strangers? Surrounded by streets and buildings, instead of mountains and trees? How could it be otherwise?
"In time, I discovered in Berkeley a place of great learning. It is known as 'The University of California at Berkeley'--although most who live there simply call it 'Cal'. Many, many young strangers are drawn there to learn from Cal's wise ones--more young strangers than there are members of our Clan.
"Most of them are were like me: no longer truly children, but not yet truly adults. Like me, most of them were far from their homes and families. Many of them could speak the language of Berkeley no better than I--some of them could not even speak it as well.
"Some of these strangers, these not-yet-adults, became my friends. I was so lonely that, in time, I even came to think of them as my Clan-sibs.."
"Your sin, child."
Mantami held up his open hands, as if pleading.
"Grandmother, I am trying to explain how my sin came to be. Surely that is an important thing for you to know before you pass Judgement on me--is it not?"
Still frowning, Akavasi sat back in her chair and folded her arms across her chest. She spoke without inflection.
"The young strangers who were my friends frequently talked of mating. I thought it very odd that they spoke of it so often, yet they would never actually mate when I was with them. A long time passed before I understood how truly bizzare their mating rituals were, for--strange as it will seem to you, Grandmother--mating is a thing they will do only in private."
Disbelief showed on every Mother's face--and was echoed in the whispered exclamations of the crowd behind us.
"It is true, Grandmother. Stranger still, they think of mating as a shameful thing."
Atanami slammed her palm down on the elevated desk.
"Such nonsense! Do you take us for fools, child?"
Mantami looked hurt.
"I would not lie to you, Mother Atanami. It is a hard thing to understand, but, somehow, for the young strangers at Cal, the shame they felt about mating made them still more eager to mate."
Akavasi leaned forward. Her voice was thoughtful.
"If, as you say, child, these strangers were not yet adults, it is not so hard to understand why they would feel shame, since mating must have been forbidden for them. It is only difficult to understand why they would sin by mating before they passed through their Ordeal."
Mantami shook his head.
"That is the hardest thing of all to understand, Grandmother. By their laws, although my friends among the young strangers were not yet truly adults, still, they were old enough to mate."
"I do not understand, child."
"Nor did I, Grandmother--until I realized that my friends at Cal did not have to survive an Ordeal before they were permitted to mate."
Incredulous gasps greeted Mantami's assertion.
"Are they BARBARIANS?"
"Yo MAMA's a barbarian, bitch!"
Tong subsided, grumbling. Since his outburst had been in English, the Mothers paid it little attention.
After the hubbub died down, Mantami responded to Akavasi's question.
"No, Grandmother. They are strangers who live in a strange land--far, far from here--whose customs and laws are very different from those by which we live."
I looked around at the wild profusion of downright pornographic bas-reliefs that decorated the lower reaches of that vast hall--and at the murals above them that depicted so many dead and dying Vomisa adolescents struggling through mid-Winter snows.
You got that right, Mantami.
"But, how else do they cull the weak and unfit before they can mate and contaminate their bloodline?"
Mantami turned to face his new questioner.
"They do not, Mother Itarani."
"Are they insane?"
"By our standards, perhaps so, Mother. Certainly I thought them mad when I first understood that they do not purge weak strains from their blood--and that they consider it a sin and a crime to do so."
"A sin? A CRIME?"
Mantami nodded, his expression sober.
"Just so, Mother Itarani."
Itarani's features twisted with repugnance. She pointed an accusing finger at us Earthlings.
"And yet you claim these..these..creatures as your friends?"
Again, Mantami nodded.
"Yes, Mother Itarani. They are brave and loyal warriors--and true friends. Although it has cost them much time that they can ill afford to lose--and even though I did not ask them to do so--they have come here to lend me their strength in my time of Judgement. I know, too, that our customs and laws must seem as strange and terrible to them as theirs are to us--yet they do not criticize us."
"Most likely, they merely hold their tongues out of fear, child."
Mantami's query seemed to take Atanami by surprise. She darted a swift glance at Akavasi, who nodded confirmation.
"Mothers, you have all walked that Path. Does it not require great courage?"
The gallery murmured its agreement and gray heads nodded all along the dais.
Atanami's expression soured in reaction, as if she'd just taken a big bite out of a lemon. Glaring, she flung herself back into the depths of her chair, as Akavasi leaned forward.
"It is you whom we are here to Judge, child--not your friends."
"Then, tell us how you came to sin."
"Yes, Grandmother. As I said, I made friends with the young strangers at Cal. We spent much time together. Often, we took wonderful potions and powders together--ones different from any known to our Clan--and drank Earth wines or a drink called 'beer'.
"One night, my friends and I took a powder called 'Ecstasy'. We went to a celebration in a place called 'San Francisco' where there was music and dancing. The celebration was called a 'rave'. It was most enjoyable. I danced for many hours and I took much Ecstasy and drank much wine.
"At dawn, we left the rave. A female friend who was named 'Anais' took my other friends to their sleeping-places in her car.."
"Her 'car', child?"
"It is like a wagon, Grandmother--only it moves by itself."
"Then, these strangers are magic users?"
"No, Grandmother. They have many legends about magic, but I met no one with the Power in all my time in Berkeley."
"But, how..no..never mind. Go on with your story, child."
"Yes, Grandmother. As I was telling you, Anais took the others to their dorm rooms and apartments--which are the names the strangers give their sleeping-places--but, when it came time for her to take me to my apartment, Anais told me that she was lonely and she asked me to come with her to her apartment, instead.
"Grandmother, I was lonely, too, so I agreed to go with her to her apartment.
"I thought that we would talk together--as we had talked many times before--and then we would sleep. That is what I thought would happen.
"When we reached her apartment, my friend led me to her bed, then she went by herself into a little room where the strangers bathe and groom themselves. In a short time, she returned."
Mantami gestured toward the rest of us sitting there on the front benches.
"As you can see, Grandmother, the strangers wear fabrics on their bodies in public, but Anais was naked. I did not think anything of it--although I was curious to see what she looked like beneath them--nor did I think anything of it when she told me to take off my own clothes."
"You, too, wore these fabrics on your body, child?"
"Yes, Grandmother. It is the strangers' custom. They punish those who are naked in public."
Akavasi shook her head in disbelief.
"Perhaps so, Grandmother. Yet, it is the truth."
Akavasi waved her hand, dismissing the subject.
"Go on with your tale, child."
"Yes, Grandmother. When I took off my clothing, Anais put her arms around me and asked that I hold her close--so I did. It made me very happy, for I had not put my arms around another person for more than four Winters and I greatly missed it.
"Then Anais put my hand on her breast. Again, I thought nothing of it--until she put her hand on my male organ. I had never mated before, of course, so I did not understand the feelings that welled up inside me when she did that.
"Before I could think what to say to her, Anais knelt before me and took my male organ into her mouth."
Mantami began to cry.
"Grandmother, I sent my seed into her mouth! I did not mean to--but I could not stop myself!"
The room rumbled with the sound of disapproval from the assembled Vomisa.
Akavasi's voice was stern.
"You sinned, child."
Mantami's reply was barely audible.
"Have you sinned again, since that time?"
Mantami looked up at her, his expression shocked.
"No, Grandmother! As soon as I..as soon as I realized what I had done, I ran from Anais' apartment and I never went back! I knew that I had sinned--but I did not mean to sin, Grandmother! You must believe me!"
Itakami leaned forward, her eyes hard.
"The child has sinned, Grandmother. His own words convict him. There must be a reckoning."
Akavasi's tone, like her expression, was neutral, unreadable.
"So there will be, Mother Itakami--but first there is one present who has claimed the right to speak on this child's behalf."
(Copyright© 1997, 1998, 1999 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)