Enjoy this excerpt from our friends at Small Beer Press!
A rival of mine once complained that my stories begin awkwardly and end untidily. I am willing to admit to many faults, but I will not burden my conscience with that one. All my tales are true, drawn from life, and a life story is not a tidy thing. It is a half-tamed horse that you seize on the run and ride with knees and teeth clenched, and then you regretfully slip off as gently and safely as you can, always wondering if you could have gone a few metres more.
Thus I seize this tale, starting with a hot afternoon in the town of Erria, a dusty side street near the financial quarter. But I will make one concession to tradition…
…Once upon a time—but whether a time that was, or a time that is, or a time that is to come, I may not tell—there was a man, a tracker by occupation, called Kwame. He had been born in a certain country in a certain year when history had reached that grey twilight in which fables of true love, the power of princes, and deeds of honour are told only to children. He regretted this oversight on the part of Fate, but he managed to curb his restless imagination and do the daily work that brought in the daily bread.
Today’s work will test his self-restraint.
‘How long has she been…absent?’ he asked his clients.
In spite of his tact, they looked uncomfortable, but that was to be expected of a housekeeper and butler tasked by their master to trace his missing wife, a woman named Paama. ‘Nearly two years,’ replied the housekeeper. ‘She said she was going to visit her family, but the entire family has moved away from Erria,’ the butler explained. ‘No forwarding address,’ the housekeeper whispered, as if ashamed. ‘Mister Ansige is distraught.’
Kwame eyed the pair, then glanced down at the papers before him. These were letters from minor chiefs and high-ranking officials politely demanding his assistance. If nothing else, Mister Ansige was well connected. It was a tawdry shadow of the power he had dreamed of—was the true love of this deserted husband similarly tarnished? And what of his own honour? He was very wary of trying to find people who did not wish to be found, but the names on those scraps of paper ensured that any refusal from him would not be quickly forgotten.
Fairy tales and nancy stories, his adult self said, trying to sneer at these scruples before he had time to question whether it was cowardice or prudence that made him cautious. Do the work and stop your dreaming.
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ he sighed with a faint grimace.
He had little choice. The rent of an office, even in a town like Erria, was more than his business could support, and he needed this case to conclude his affairs honestly before he could resume his itinerant ways. He yearned for those days of walking free, with not a townman to pressure him about which case to take and which trail to leave. Leaner days, too, if truth be told, but Kwame had always found liberty more satisfying than comfort.
Poor Paama, his conscience murmured. Do you want to go back, or do you prefer liberty, too?
* * *
While Kwame is sniffing out the trail of Ansige’s wife, let us run ahead of him and meet her for ourselves. She and her family have resettled in Makendha, the village of her childhood. Much is familiar there, little has changed except, of course, for those who return.
Paama’s father, Semwe, had left when a youth, returned, then left again when a man. Now an elder, he will never leave again…at least not the mortal part of him. He had wanted this final return to be a peaceful retirement; he acknowledged with regret that it was a retreat. The townhouse in Erria had lost all peace with regular visits from messengers bearing Ansige’s variously phrased demands for Paama’s return. Semwe refused to argue with such a man, preferring to go to a place of quiet and safety where unwanted company could be more easily avoided. In a town, houses crowd together and everyone is a stranger, but in Makendha, a stranger was anyone who could not claim relation to four generations’ worth of bones in the local churchyard.
Semwe’s wife, Tasi, was coming to Makendha for the second time, no longer the timid young wife, but not yet the matriarch. She needed grandchildren for that, and how, she murmured, blaming herself, could she get those while her daughters stayed husbandless? She had no hope that Paama’s marriage could be salvaged. She had chosen poorly for her first child, and she only prayed that she might choose more wisely for the other. Paama at least had strength and experience to sustain her, but her sister, Neila, ten years younger, had only a combination of beauty and self-centredness that both attracted and repelled. She took the move from Erria as a personal attack on her God-given right to a rich, handsome husband. Tasi deplored such selfishness but silently admitted that prospects in Makendha were certainly limited.
And what of Paama herself? She said little about the husband she had left almost two years ago, barely enough to fend off the village gossips and deflect her sister’s sneers. She didn’t need to. There was something else about Paama that distracted people’s attention from any potentially juicy titbits of her past. She could cook.
An inadequate statement. Anyone can cook, but the true talent belongs to those who are capable of gently ensnaring with their delicacies, winning compliance with the mere suggestion that there might not be any goodies for a caller who persisted in prying. Such was Paama. She had always had a knack, but the promise had come to full flower through constant practice. It was also a way for her to thank her family. Life, even life without grandchildren and a pair of rich, handsome sons-in-law, could be sweet when there was a savoury stew gently bubbling on the stove, rice with a hint of jasmine steaming in the pot, and honey cakes browning in the oven. It almost cured Semwe’s stoically silent worry, Tasi’s guilty fretting, and Neila’s bitter sighs.
Besides, it kept Paama busy enough to ignore the nagging question of how she was going to tell Ansige she was never coming back. She will have to consider that question soon, for efficient Kwame has already traced her whereabouts and, not without a qualm, reported to Ansige.
And Ansige, in his desperation, will not be sending messages or servants this time. He is coming to speak to her, face to face.
* * *
‘Is that the one?’
‘It is. She is.’
‘I don’t see it.’
There was a meaningful silence. It said a lot about what might not be seen by such minor beings as the first speaker. The quiet rebuke was absorbed with equal quietness, and then the first speaker tried again.
‘Ansige is on the way. He is coming to fetch her back.’
‘Delay him. She will be strong enough to deal with him by the time he arrives, and she will only grow stronger from there on. Then, when they meet, watch, and you will see. She alone can safely wield the power that I shall take from our…former colleague.’ The last two words rode on the breath of a regretful sigh.
‘Will you really? I mean, to involve a human! Are you certain?’
‘I am certain that Paama can wield it, and I am equally certain that he must not. Isn’t that enough?’
Another pause, then, ‘He is going to be very angry. He will try his utmost to get it back.’
The reply held a subtle glimmer of a smile. ‘That is indeed my hope.’
These two unknown figures have plans for Paama, fate like plans in which Ansige, if he is not careful, will be brushed aside like a fly. It is the pause point of the wave at its crest, the rumbling of a distant storm, the thrill in the backbone when the eyes of the predator glitter in the moonlight from the darkness of the trees and tall grass. Something is going to change, and it is for you to judge at the end of the tale who has made the best of the change and of their choices.
ansige is delayed on the road to makendha
Why did paama leave ansige?
There are men of violence. There are men who drink. And then there was Ansige, a man with a vice so pathetic as to be laughable. He ate; he lived for his belly. No one would believe that a woman could leave a man for that, but before you scoff, consider this. With his gluttony, he drew in other sins—arrogance complicated by indolent stupidity, lust for comfort, ire when thwarted, avarice in all his business dealings, and a strange conviction that always, somehow, there was some undeserving person who had more food than he did.
I can hear some of you complaining already. ‘A woman who cooks and a man who eats should be a match made in heaven!’ Do you really think so? Then you have not grasped that Ansige was not an epicure, but a gourmand. Paama’s talents were wasted on him.
Whatever his faults, he was not yet so far gone in discourtesy as to try turning up unannounced. Unfortunately, the messenger who brought the tidings to Makendha made sure that everyone knew, and wherever Paama went, she heard this half query:
‘I hear that your husband is coming to Makendha.’
Paama’s usual response to this was to breathe deeply, gather herself, and beam forth a brilliant smile. ‘Isn’t it marvellous? When I visit my family he gets so lonely. He cannot do without me.’
Any gossip thus treated would then tilt her head doubtfully, smile uncertainly, and go away dissatisfied. The village longed for word on just what was the situation with Paama’s marriage, but no-one could break past Paama when she decided to be earnest. She had the talent of speaking many things with little meaning, the gift of red herrings.
Fortunately she did not have to red-herring the gossips about the date of his arrival. Ansige was one week late, turning up all but unexpected, looking around for his welcoming committee. But no, before we describe his arrival, it would be worthwhile to relate the event that caused the delay, for it was rather unusual and makes a good story in itself.
Ansige had set out with an entourage as grand as any minor chief. He had a veritable herd of quadrupeds—eight mules for his baggage and one horse for him to ride. Amid the baggage were bundled sections of wood which, when assembled, would become the light carriage in which he would make his grand entrance into Makendha.
He couldn’t help himself. His mother had been the daughter of a minor chief, and she had carefully instilled in Ansige an understanding of the importance of importance. Dutiful son, he followed this instruction to the letter, for the longer the baggage train, the more of his favourite foods he could carry with him.
This is not to say that Ansige was above living off the land, which was why his two mule drivers were both expert hunters, and one was also a reasonably talented chef. The household of Ansige had many such multiskilled persons—a side effect of Ansige’s curious mingling of parsimony and ostentatiousness.
Experienced in providing for Ansige, they had brought a formidable array of equipment. They carried with them both the long throwing spears needed for swift, running game and the short thrusting spears most effective with ground-crawling game. One was skilled with the bow, the other with a blowpipe, and the points of their arrows and darts had been dipped in poison. There was material for fashioning traps and snares; hooks and a quantity of fishing line for when they travelled alongside the river; assorted scaling, skinning, jointing, dressing, and carving knives; and racks and bags for the hunters to carry their kill to camp.
It is not necessary to discuss the pots, pans, cutlery and crockery. These are not worth commenting on; they were very basic since Ansige was not particularly interested in the presentation once the food was tasty and plentiful. Besides, a little privation was to be expected during travel.
This, as you can appreciate, implied a leisurely trip, for who has time to move quickly while hunting and then cooking so much meat? However, Ansige did not expect the hunters to be out every day. They were his insurance, a safety net in case anything should happen to the food stores.
In fact, the bulk of the baggage was food. Five bags of coarsely ground meal, two bags of finely ground meal, and one bag of sugar covered the backs of one mule pair, while ten packets of dried fruit, twenty dozen eggs (carefully packed in a hay-stuffed crate), and seven sacks of rice weighed down another. Further down, there were three crates of dried, salted fish and two boxes of dried, salted beef. These provided the base for the large pot of highly seasoned pepperpot, which was placed on the campfire at every lunch and dinner, but fresh meat was also used to replenish the stock. Smaller boxes contained assorted sweetmeats and delicacies for Ansige to munch on; packets of spice tree bark to brew Ansige’s favourite drink; and—the pièce de résistance—a bottle of strong sugar brandy, for medicinal purposes.
Now you understand why Ansige had sent messages and servants to Paama. Travel was for him a serious and frightening undertaking which threatened to pinch off the umbilical cord that kept him tethered to his house. His journey to Makendha would take only three days, but he had taken every precaution so as not to arrive haggard and starved out.
Truth to tell, his frame looked as if it would take far more than three days’ worth of racking to pare it down. Ansige was not flabby, no, but he was solid. Layers of muscle braced the fat around his arms, legs, and shoulders. Only his belly betrayed him. He carried a prosperous paunch before him and occasionally stroked it as fondly as any expectant mother cradling her womb.
A prosperous, slightly pompous businessman, then, was the first impression Ansige gave to strangers. Ansige’s outer appearance could be deceptive, but, given enough time, he let everyone know who and what he was.
There are people who inspire others to reach lofty goals. Ansige was one of these. People got to know him, and it came to them in a flash of revelation that whatever it was that they wanted to be, it was not a man like Ansige, and they scrambled to occupy the opposite end of the accomplishment spectrum. People have heroes whom they imitate; Ansige was the perfect anti hero. No-one wanted to turn out like him.
How then, you may ask, and wisely so, were Paama and her parents so thoroughly fooled? They do not appear to be stupid people. There again we must thank Ansige’s mother. She had come to realise that the only way Ansige was going to give her any grandchildren was if she sent him to a place reasonably distant where no-one had heard of him or seen his follies. She had selected Paama in Erria for her famous cooking, and then she had rented a small restaurant nearby so that she could stuff Ansige’s roaring appetite silent before sending him off, sated and sane, to woo Paama and impress her family. I do not doubt that she may have had her more royal relatives speak to the chief of Makendha and the bureaucrats of Erria and encourage them to pass on to Paama’s family a good report of her son. What else could she have done? It is a heavy burden, as Paama’s parents had found out, to find a worthy spouse for one’s offspring, but how much harder the task and heavier the burden when not even love can hide from a doting mother’s eyes the sad fact of her son’s utter ineligibility.
Now that you have seen Ansige and heard something of his background, imagine the temper of a man like that when he finds a wash of landslid mud has covered the road ahead of him, the road leading to Makendha. First the pangs of fear and frustration hit his belly, so in an instant he is fishing in his saddlebags for something to chew on and settle his nervous stomach. Then he feels strong enough to start flinging blame about. He blames his mule-driving hunters for having selected the road. He blames them further for not having known in advance of its condition. He blames the Council of Chiefs for permitting roads to get into such a condition, and then he blames the Parliament of Princes for allowing such ineffectual chiefs to stay in power. He blames Paama’s family for moving to such a distant village, and Paama for staying such a long time with them, and his servants for being so bad at running his household that he has been forced to go fetch his wife. Finally he blames God for the weather, and that, as you know, is the point at which mere pettiness descends into dangerous folly.
Rahid, the mule-driving hunter who was not a chef, grinned. Do not be fooled by his happy face. Rahid is a pure cynic who has long ago concluded that since the world seems set up for men like Ansige to get ahead, the only thing to do is to work for the most amusing one of the breed so that one can at least be entertained by his japes and capers. Of course he is not correct, but it will take a broader experience than his home village and its environs for him to learn otherwise.
‘What do you recommend, Mister Ansige?’ he enquired.
‘I? Recommend?’ Ansige spat fragments of food in his wrath. ‘It is for you to tell me how you plan to get me out of this mess that you have got me into!’
Pei, the mule-driving hunter who was a chef, looked disgusted, an unwise beginning since it only made Ansige think that he must be against him.
Pei said, ‘It is a half day’s trip to Erria in the north. Let us go there and see if anyone knows of a better road, or if they will help us to clear this one.’
Dissatisfied by this suggestion, Ansige turned to Rahid instead and allowed himself to be soothed by that crocodile smile. Rahid was shaking his head. He knew already what Ansige was thinking.
‘Erria is a small town, and we may be waiting there for some time before we can continue our journey. It does not have the kind of lodgings that you would appreciate, and we will soon run through—I mean run out of the food we have brought. Let us go instead to Ahani in the east. The journey will take a day and a half, but it is a large city and there will be good roads directly to Makendha. We can even get provisions while we are there.’
Ansige brightened up. Any disappointment could be overcome by the prospect of a good feed, and after two days on the road, he had been eyeing the stores uneasily. He was almost out of chocolate-covered fire ants, and he would miss their snap and crunch for his evening’s appetiser.
Naturally they headed for Ahani.
For a moment I need to mention our as-yet-anonymous pair who wanted to see Ansige delayed. You do not know who they are, but I would not have you think badly of them out of ignorance, so just bear in mind that the only thing they arranged was the delay. The choice to go to Erria or to Ahani lay in the hands of the travellers, and only the travellers are responsible for what happened next.
When they reached Ahani, Ansige was weary, but not as weary as Rahid and Pei. Ansige’s freshly awakened anxiety meant that they had endured a lifetime of childish, whining complaints until Pei had had the bright idea of leaving in a tiny trace of the poison sac of the bleerfrog when he prepared its legs for Ansige’s breakfast. The result had been a slow, unusually silent Ansige, too tired to be fretful, who struggled to stay awake in the saddle. They quickly found lodgings and rolled him into bed, placing a few covered dishes in the room in case he should revive and remember his stomach before dinner. Then they left him and went to the nearest bar to drink to their shared misery.
First Rahid bought a drink for them both, and they grew more cheerful. Then Pei bought a drink for them both, and on that they grew indignant, telling tale after tale of the madness that was a man’s life in the service of Ansige. Then a third round arrived, and they did not know who was paying for it, but when they looked around, there was a friendly-looking spider of more than average size who raised his glass cheerfully in their direction and indicated with a wave that they should go ahead and drink up on his behalf. Heartened by such a gesture of diplomacy from a representative of the animal kingdom, they toasted him gladly and resumed their tales of woe to each other.
‘I tell you, I do not think I can stand this for one day more,’ confided Rahid.
‘You?’ Pei exclaimed. ‘You are always smiling! You are his favourite, you and your peaceful, happy smile!’
‘I smile so that I do not weep or try to grind his head between my jaws. But now my face is tired and I am thinking to myself, is this really all there is to life, to wait on the Ansiges of the world until they drop dead from the excesses of their addictions? We are in Ahani, friend, a city of many entertainments, and all we can do is snatch a moment in a downtown bar because our boss is lying half-drugged in his bed. Why are we doomed to follow this man like nursemaids of an overgrown baby?’
Pei sipped at his glass and thought. Rahid had never called him ‘friend’ before, but it was a word that went well with the flavour of the spiced alcohol. ‘You surprise me. And yet, even before you spoke, I thought to myself, “We are indeed in Ahani, and there are many roads that lead from here.” Many, many roads.’
He smiled at his glass. It seemed to be in on the joke. It fed daring and plausibility to the tiny flame of rebellion growing in his heart.
Rahid was also staring at his drink as if there were inspiration in its dregs. ‘I am not a thief. We can put the mules in pawn, draw out our last wages, and leave the rest of the money with Ansige.’
‘We are fair men,’ Pei agreed. ‘We can make all the arrangements before we go—for his lodging, his provisioning, and his onward transport. Thus we discharge our duties for this trip.’
‘Gentlemen, pardon me for eavesdropping.’
It was the spider. He was a handsome specimen, standing well over a metre at the shoulder, and he had a slight tendency to gesticulate upward with his front legs that made him appear taller. His eyes were keen and deep, and they radiated sympathy.
‘I could not help overhearing you, and I thought to myself that I might be of some assistance, for I am a pawnbroker.’
Rahid and Pei looked at each other and nodded. This made perfect sense.
‘I will pawn just the second mule pair of the train. It is practically mine anyway,’ said Pei.
‘And I will pawn the hunting gear, which I have made mine through years of use,’ said Rahid.
Thus, with feelings of honesty and honour intact, they made their transactions and agreed to meet the spider in a few minutes for the exchange of goods and cash. They returned to the hotel, where Ansige dreamed on in ignorance, and they settled his bill for three days in advance. After thoughtfully leaving a note of explanation for Ansige, they proceeded to the pawnbroker’s office to get their wages cashed.
I know your complaint already. You are saying, how do two grown men begin to see talking spiders after only three glasses of spice spirit? My answer to that is twofold. First, you have no idea how strong spice spirit is made in that region. Second, you have no idea how talking animals operate. Do you think they would have survived long if they regularly made themselves known? For that matter, do you think an arachnid with mouthparts is capable of articulating the phrase ‘I am a pawnbroker’ in any known human language? Think! These creatures do not truly talk, nor are they truly animals, but they do encounter human folk, and when they do, they carefully take with them all memory of the meeting.
To resume, by evening Pei and Rahid had departed the city, still riding the buzz of the alcohol’s inspiration. Pei went north to the desert, and Rahid south to the sea, and I have no further report of them for the time being. I do know that they never spoke of the spider again, though they did have vague memories of a hairy pawnbroker, very well endowed in the arm department, with keen, deep, sympathetic eyes.
In the meantime, Ansige awoke and found his servants gone. He went to the hotel proprietor and was told there was a note, but then the note could not be found and seemed to have blown away. Ansige, who was not a hard-hearted man, took it into his head that his two servants had stepped out briefly and been waylaid and probably murdered by vicious city thugs. He became so upset at this picture that instead of doing the sensible thing, which would have been to inform the authorities, he shut himself up for two days of constant room service and ran up such a bill that even the generous prepayment arranged by Pei and Rahid could not cover it.
Now you understand how we come at last to this quite different picture of a delayed, distressed Ansige departing for Makendha. He was forced to sell the mules and the majority of the baggage, partly to pay his bill and partly because he could not afford to hire anyone to take care of them on the onward journey. He did not wish to part with the horse, but the hotel proprietor convinced him that he should leave it behind to be rented out so it could pay for its own keep until Ansige returned. Pei and Rahid’s plans for transport had to be scrapped. Now that he lacked a chef, he needed to get to Makendha as quickly as possible so as not to miss any proper meals.
Driven by the mania of his obsession and blinded by the melancholy of loneliness, Ansige made his choices and boarded a five-hour omnibus to Makendha with nothing more than a small suitcase and a packet of antinausea, antacid chews. Then, because he still had quite a large amount of money, he hopped off briefly at the first stop to buy food, just in case his stomach recovered during the trip.
Copyright © 2010 by Karen Lord