Mar 14 2013 4:00pm
Enjoy this excerpt from A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar, out on April 16 from Small Beer Press:
Jevick, the pepper merchant's son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick's life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. But just as he revels in Olondria's Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl.
In desperation, Jevick seeks the aid of Olondrian priests and quickly becomes a pawn in the struggle between the empire's two most powerful cults. Yet even as the country shimmers on the cusp of war, he must face his ghost and learn her story before he has any chance of becoming free by setting her free: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that seductive necromancy, reading.
Childhood in Tyom
As I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses. I did not know the vastness of the spice markets of Bain, where the merchants are delirious with scents, I had never seen the morning mists adrift above the surface of the green Illoun, of which the poets sing; I had never seen a woman with gems in her hair, nor observed the copper glinting of the domes, nor stood upon the melancholy beaches of the south while the wind brought in the sadness from the sea. Deep within the Fayaleith, the Country of the Wines, the clarity of light can stop the heart: it is the light the local people call “the breath of angels” and is said to cure heartsickness and bad lungs. Beyond this is the Balinfeil, where, in the winter months, the people wear caps of white squirrel fur, and in the summer months the goddess Love is said to walk and the earth is carpeted with almond blossom. But of all this I knew nothing. I knew only of the island where my mother oiled her hair in the glow of a rush candle, and terrified me with stories of the Ghost with No Liver, whose sandals slap when he walks because he has his feet on backwards.
My name is Jevick. I come from the blue and hazy village of Tyom, on the western side of Tinimavet in the Tea Islands. From Tyom, high on the cliffs, one can sometimes see the green coast of Jiev, if the sky is very clear; but when it rains, and all the light is drowned in heavy clouds, it is the loneliest village in the world. It is a three-day journey to Pitot, the nearest village, riding on one of the donkeys of the islands, and to travel to the port of Dinivolim in the north requires at least a fortnight in the draining heat. In Tyom, in an open court, stands my father’s house, a lofty building made of yellow stone, with a great arched entryway adorned with hanging plants, a flat roof, and nine shuttered rooms. And nearby, outside the village, in a valley drenched with rain, where the brown donkeys weep with exhaustion, where the flowers melt away and are lost in the heat, my father had his spacious pepper farm.
This farm was the source of my father’s wealth and enabled him to keep the stately house, to maintain his position on the village council, and carry a staff decorated with red dye. The pepper bushes, voluptuous and green under the haze, spoke of riches with their moist and pungent breath; my father used to rub the dried corns between his fingers to give his fingertips the smell of gold. But if he was wealthy in some respects, he was poor in others: there were only two children in our house, and the years after my birth passed without hope of another, a misfortune generally blamed on the god of elephants. My mother said the elephant god was jealous and resented our father’s splendid house and fertile lands; but I knew that it was whispered in the village that my father had sold his unborn children to the god. I had seen people passing the house nudge one another and say, “He paid seven babies for that palace”; and sometimes our laborers sang a vicious work song: “Here the earth is full of little bones.” Whatever the reason, my father’s first wife had never conceived at all, while the second wife, my mother, bore only two children: my elder brother Jom, and myself. Because the first wife had no child, it was she whom we always addressed as Mother, or else with the term of respect, eti-donvati, “My Father’s Wife”; it was she who accompanied us to festivals, prim and disdainful, her hair in two black coils above her ears. Our real mother lived in our room with us, and my father and his wife called her “Nursemaid,” and we children called her simply by the name she had borne from girlhood: Kiavet, which means Needle. She was round-faced and lovely, and wore no shoes. Her hair hung loose down her back. At night she told us stories while she oiled her hair and tickled us with a gull’s feather.
Our father’s wife reserved for herself the duty of inspecting us before we were sent to our father each morning. She had merciless fingers and pried into our ears and mouths in her search for imperfections; she pulled the drawstrings of our trousers cruelly tight and slicked our hair down with her saliva. Her long face wore an expression of controlled rage, her body had an air of defeat, she was bitter out of habit, and her spittle in our hair smelled sour, like the bottom of the cistern. I only saw her look happy once: when it became clear that Jom, my meek, smiling elder brother, would never be a man, but would spend his life among the orange trees, imitating the finches.
My earliest memories of the meetings with my father come from the troubled time of this discovery. Released from the proddings of the rancorous first wife, Jom and I would walk into the fragrant courtyard, hand in hand and wearing our identical light trousers, our identical short vests with blue embroidery. The courtyard was cool, crowded with plants in clay pots and shaded by trees. Water stood in a trough by the wall to draw the songbirds. My father sat in a cane chair with his legs stretched out before him, his bare heels turned up like a pair of moons.
We knelt. “Good morning father whom we love with all our hearts, your devoted children greet you,” I mumbled.
“And all our hearts, and all our hearts, and all our hearts,” said Jom, fumbling with the drawstring on his trousers.
My father was silent. We heard the swift flutter of a bird alighting somewhere in the shade trees. Then he said in his bland, heavy voice: “Elder son, your greeting is not correct.”
“And we love him,” Jom said uncertainly. He had knotted one end of the drawstring about his finger. There rose from him, as always, an odor of sleep, greasy hair, and ancient urine.
My father sighed. His chair groaned under him as he leaned forward. He blessed us by touching the tops of our heads, which meant that we could stand and look at him. “Younger son,” he said quietly, “what day is today? And which prayers will be repeated after sundown?”
“It is Tavit, and the prayers are the prayers of maize-meal, passion fruit, and the new moon.”
My father admonished me not to speak so quickly, or people would think I was dishonest; but I saw that he was pleased and felt a swelling of relief in my heart, for my brother and myself. He went on to question me on a variety of subjects: the winds, the attributes of the gods, simple arithmetic, the peoples of the islands, and the delicate art of pepper-growing. I stood tall, threw my shoulders back, and strove to answer promptly, tempering my nervous desire to blurt my words, imitating the slow enunciation of my father, his stern air of a great landowner. He did not ask my brother any questions. Jom stood unnoticed, scuffing his sandals on the flagstones—only sometimes, if there happened to be doves in the courtyard, he would say very softly: “Oo-ooh.” At length my father blessed us again, and we escaped, hand in hand, into the back rooms of the house; and I carried in my mind the image of my father’s narrow eyes: shrewd, cynical, and filled with sadness.
At first, when he saw that Jom could not answer his questions and could not even greet him properly, my father responded with the studied and ponderous rage of a bull elephant. He threatened my brother, and, when threats failed to cure his stubborn incompetence, had him flogged behind the house on a patch of sandy ground by two dull-eyed workers from the pepper fields. During the flogging I stayed in our darkened bedroom, sitting on my mother’s lap while she pressed her hands over my ears to shut out my brother’s loud, uncomprehending screams. I pictured him rolling on the ground, throwing up his arms to protect his dusty head while the blows of the stout sticks descended on him and my father watched blankly from his chair. . . . Afterward Jom was given back to us, bruised and bloodied, with wide staring eyes, and my mother went to and fro with poultices for him, tears running freely down her cheeks. “It is a mistake,” she sobbed. “It is clear that he is a child of the wild pig.” Her face in the candlelight was warped and gleaming with tears, her movements distracted. That night she did not tell me stories but sat on the edge of my bed and gripped my shoulder, explaining in hushed and passionate tones that the wild pig god was Jom’s father; that the souls of the children of that god were more beautiful, more tender, than ordinary souls, and that our duty on earth was to care for them with the humility we showed the sacred beasts. “But your father will kill him,” she said, looking into the darkness with desolate eyes. “There is flint in his bowels. He has no religion. He is a Tyomish barbarian.”
My mother was from Pitot, where the women wore anklets of shell and plucked their eyebrows, and her strong religious views were seen in Tyom as ignorant Pitoti superstition. My father’s wife laughed at her because she burned dried fenugreek in little clay bowls, a thing which, my father’s wife said with contempt, we had not done in Tyom for a hundred years. And she laughed at me, too, when I told her one morning at breakfast, in a fit of temper, that Jom was the son of the wild pig god and possessed an untarnished soul: “He may have the soul of a pig,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean he’s not an idiot.” This piece of blasphemy, and the lines around her mouth, proved that she was in a good humor. She remained in this mood, her movements energetic and her nostrils clenched slightly with mirth, as long as my father sought for a means to cure Jom of his extraordinary soul. When the doctors came up from the south, with their terrible eyes and long hats of monkey skin, she served them hot date juice in bright glazed cups herself, smiling down at the ground. But the dreadful ministrations of the doctors, which left my brother blistered, drugged, and weeping in his sleep, did not affect his luminescent soul and only put a shade of terror in his gentle pig’s eyes. A medicinal stench filled the house, and my bed was moved out into another room; from dusk until dawn I could hear the low moaning of my brother, punctuated with shrieks. In the evenings my mother knelt praying in the little room where the family janut, in whose power only she truly believed, stood in a row on an old-fashioned altar.
The jut is an external soul. I had never liked the look of mine: it had a vast forehead, claw feet, and a twist of dried hemp around its neck. The other janut were similar. Jom’s, I recall, wore a little coat of red leather. The room where they lived, little more than a closet, smelled of burnt herbs and mold. Like most children I had at one period been frightened of the janut, for it was said that if your jut spoke to you your death was not far off, but the casual attitudes of Tyom had seeped into me and diluted my fear, and I no longer ran past the altar room with held breath and pounding heart. Still, a strange chill came over me when I glanced in and saw my mother’s bare feet in the gloom, her body in shadow, kneeling, praying. I knew that she prayed for Jom and perhaps stroked the little figure in the red jacket, soothing her son from the outside.
At last those unhappy days ended in victory for my brother’s soul. The doctors went away and took their ghastly odor with them; my father’s wife reverted to her usual bitterness, and my bed was moved back into my room. The only difference now was that Jom no longer sat in the schoolroom and listened to our tutor, but wandered in the courtyard underneath the orange trees, exchanging pleasantries with the birds.
After this my father took a profound and anxious interest in me, his only son in this world; for there was no longer any doubt that I would be his sole heir and continue his trade with Olondria.
Once a year, when the pepper harvest was gathered and dried and stored in great, coarse sacks, my father, with his steward, Sten, and a company of servants, made a journey to Olondria and the spice markets of Bain. On the night before they left we would gather in the courtyard to pray for the success of their venture and to ask my father’s god, the black-and-white monkey, to protect them in that far and foreign land. My mother was very much affected by these prayers, for she called Olondria the Ghost Country and only restrained herself from weeping out of fear that her tears would cause the ship to go down. Early the next day, after breakfasting as usual on a chicken baked with honey and fruit, my father would bless us and walk slowly, leaning on his staff, into the blue mists of the dawn. The family and house servants followed him outside to see him off from the gateway of the house, where he mounted his fat mule with its saddle of white leather, aided by the dark and silent Sten. My father, with Sten on foot leading the mule, formed the head of an impressive caravan: a team of servants followed him, bearing wooden litters piled high with sacks of pepper on their shoulders, and behind them marched a company of stout field hands armed with short knives, bows, and poisoned arrows. Behind these a young boy led a pair of donkeys laden with provisions and my father’s tent, and last of all a third donkey bore a sack of wooden blocks on which my father would record his transactions. My father’s bright clothes, wide-brimmed hat, and straw umbrella remained visible for a long time, as the caravan made its way between the houses shaded by mango trees and descended solemnly into the valley. My father never turned to look back at us, never moved, only swayed very gently on the mule. He glided through the morning with the grace of a whale: impassive, imponderable.
When he returned we would strew the courtyard with the island’s most festive flowers, the tediet blossoms which crackle underfoot like sparks, giving off a tart odor of limes. The house was filled with visitors, and the old men sat in the courtyard at night, wrapped in thin blankets against the damp air and drinking coconut liquor. My father’s first wife wept in the kitchen, overseeing the servants, my mother wore her hair twisted up on top of her head and fastened with pins, and my father, proud and formidably rich after four months in a strange land, drank with such greed that the servants had to carry him into his bedroom. At these times his mood was expansive. He pulled my ears and called me “brown monkey.” He sat up all night by the brazier regaling the old men with tales of the north; he laughed with abandon, throwing his head back, the tears squeezing from his eyes, and one evening I saw him kiss the back of my mother’s neck in the courtyard. And, of course, he was laden with gifts: saddles and leather boots for the old men, silks and perfumes for his wives, and marvelous toys for Jom and me. There were musical boxes and painted wooden birds that could hop on the ground and were worked by turning a bit of brass which protruded from under their wings; there were beautiful toy animals and toy ships astonishing in their detail, equipped with lifelike rigging and oars and cunning miniature sailors. He even brought us a finely painted set of omi, or “Hands,” the complex and ancient card game of the Olondrian aristocracy, which neither he nor we had any notion of how to play, though we loved the painted cards: the Gaunt Horse, the Tower of Brass. In the evenings I crept to sit behind a certain potted orchid in the hall which led from the east wing of the house into the courtyard, listening to my father’s tales, more wonderful than gifts, of terraced gardens, opium, and the barefoot girls of the pleasure houses.
One night he found me there. He walked past me, shuffling heavily, and the moonlight from the garden allowed him to spot my hiding place. He grunted, paused, and reached down to pull me upright. “Ah—Father—” I gasped, wincing.
“What are you doing there?” he demanded. “What? Speak!”
“I was—I thought—”
“Yes, the gods hate me. They’ve given me two backward sons.” The slap he dealt me was soft; it was terror that made me flinch.
“I was only listening. I wanted to hear you. To hear about Olondria. I’ll go to bed now. I’m sorry. I wanted to hear what you were saying.”
“To hear what I was saying.”
He nodded slowly, his hands on his hips, the dome of his head shifting against the moonlight in the yard. His face was in darkness, his breathing forced and deliberate, as if he were fighting. Each exhalation, fiery with liquor, made my eyes water.
“I’ll go to bed,” I whispered.
“No. No. You wanted to hear. Very good. The farm is your birthright. You must hear of Olondria. You must learn.”
Relief shot through me; my knees trembled.
“Yes,” he went on, musing. “You must hear. But first, younger son, you must taste.”
My muscles, newly relaxed, tensed again with alarm. “Taste?”
“Taste.” He gripped my shirt at the shoulder and thrust me before him through the hall. “Taste the truth,” he muttered, stumbling. “Taste it. No, outside. Into the garden. That way. Yes. Here you will learn.”
The garden was bright. Moonlight bounced from every leaf. There was no light in the kitchen: all the servants had gone to bed. Only Sten would be awake, and he would be on the other side of the house, seated discreetly in an alcove off the courtyard. There he could see when the old men wanted something, but he could not hear me cry, and if he did he would let me be when he saw I was with my father. A shove in my back sent me sprawling among the tomato plants. My father bent over me, enveloping me in his shadow. “Who are you?”
“Jevick of Tyom.”
A burst of cackling rose to the sky from the other side of the house: one of the old men had made a joke.
“Good,” said my father. He crouched low, swaying so that I feared he would fall on me. Then he brought his hand to my lips. “Taste. Eat.”
Something was smeared on my mouth. A flavor of bitterness, suffocation. It was earth. I jerked back, shaking my head, and he grasped the back of my neck. His fingers tough and insistent between my teeth. “Oh, no. You will eat. This is your life. This earth. This country. Tyom.”
I struggled but at last swallowed, weeping and gagging. All the time he went on speaking in a low growl. “You hide, you crawl, to hear of Olondria. A country of ghosts and devils. For this you spy on your father, your blood. Now you will taste your own land, know it. Who are you?”
“Jevick of Tyom.”
“Don’t spit. Who are you?”
“Jevick of Tyom!”
A light shone out behind him; someone called to him from the house. He stood, and I shielded my eyes from the light with my hand. One of the old men stood in the doorway holding a lantern on a chain.
“What’s the matter?” he called out in a cracked and drunken voice.
“Nothing. The boy couldn’t sleep,” my father answered, hauling me up by the elbow.
“Yes. He’s all right now.”
He patted my shoulder, tousled my hair. Shadows moved over us, clouds across the moon.
A Stranger in Olondria © Sofia Samatar 2013