“I am in love,” Bekrao announced to me one day not long ago. My readers may recall that Bekrao was the inebriated friend whose ring I recovered. My readers will be pleased to read that at no point in this account do I search for a ring of any kind. (A ring is, alas, involved, but it is not lost: it is firmly on my finger as I write.) Up to this point I had not known Bekrao to be particularly amorously inclined, as absorbed as he was in his drinking, so it was with skepticism that I received this announcement. “I am in love,” he said again, though the repetition did not make his statement any more persuasive
“All right, you are in love,” I said. “Who is the unfortunate girl? Your father will be pleased if it is Sāletinai.”
“You speak our language very well for a foreigner, but the proper word to use in this case is ‘fortunate,’ not ‘unfortunate.’ Her name is Ripāti.”
“Not Sāletinai, then.”
“My father governs many things on my life, but not my love. Ripāti is the most beautiful thing between earth and sky.” Bekrao went on in this vein for some time, describing her eyes (sweet raisins), her nose (as gracefully curved as a tower, yet as precious as a pearl), her lips (red as coral), and so on and so forth through a litany of analogies that showed greater enthusiasm than originality or taste.
“Yes, yes,” I said at last. “But who is she? Have I ever met her? Whose daughter is she?”
“If you had met her, you would never have forgotten her. She is a nymph in human flesh. I don’t know who her father is, but does it really matter? Her voice is the voice of the pure stream running down to the sea, and all her words are full of wisdom and insight beyond any bard.”
“All right. But where did you meet her?”
“It was at one of Agamnu’s dinners.” He sank into a reverie, staring off into the distance, or possibly at a piece of dirt on my left shoulder.
“Was she a kinswoman of Agamnu? Someone’s daughter or maiden sister? A courtesan?”
“I don’t know,” he said softly.
“But you know her name, and what she looks like. That is something, at least. You spoke with her?”
“Yes! Well, no, not personally. I saw her on the other side of the room, and I heard her talking to someone else, an older man, who called her Ripāti.”
“Not her husband, I hope.”
“No, no. Some of us in this room are not fools.” Since I hadn’t been aware that there were any fools in that room, this remark puzzled me, but I let it pass without comment. “I am not sure what he was to her, exactly, but he was asking her questions about the nature of the world that she answered without hesitation. She must be a remarkable woman. She is a remarkable woman. I am in love with her.”
“If you want me to find out who she is, you only have to ask.”
“Thank you,” said Bekrao with a certain edge to his voice. “But I am quite capable of finding out who she is on my own.”
“By which you mean you will ask Yaretzamu.” Yaretzamu is Bekrao’s faithful and knowledgeable manservant.
“I only wanted to tell you about her. Love is like a fountain, as the poets say, overflowing with its abundance. If I hadn’t told anyone, my heart and kidneys would have burst with bottled-up passion.”
This sounded unpleasant, if not obscene. “All right,” I said again, and lay back on the couch to listen to him praise Ripāti for some considerable time. I did not actually fall asleep as he spoke, but I did decide to shut my eyes and ponder other things. It was while I was pondering a three-headed ogre that asked me if I knew the way to the southern ocean that Bekrao shook my shoulder and told me to pay attention.
“I am paying attention,” I told him. “You were saying that Ripāti is beautiful.”
“So I was. She is like,” he began to say, but any further metaphors were interrupted by the arrival of Yaretzamu, who was staggering under the weight of a lidded basket. He dropped it, not entirely intentionally I think, on the ground in front of Bekrao.
“There,” said Yaretzamu. “Did you need anything else? A griffin’s egg from the lands of the far east? The scepter of the Father Above? A drink from one of the rivers of the underworld?”
“No, no, my friend, this is enough.” Ripāti, it seemed, was completely forgotten as Bekrao crouched by the basket and took the lid away. He took out a tablet and gave it to me. “Read this,” he said.
Reading is always something of a gamble for me, at least in this part of the world. With my Bird to help me, I do not truly understand the languages here, so if they were written in an alphabet like those used in my home, I doubt I would be able to read anything at all. But happily many of the symbols represent words or suffixes rather than sounds, so fairly often I find myself able to piece together the meaning.
As for the tablet that Bekrao gave me, I was able to tell immediately that it described a group of craftsmen and their attempt to create a masterwork of some kind. After further perusal, I discovered that the craftsmen were in fact fashioning from gold and silver and jewels the figure of a woman. In fact, the account seemed to be a version of the story of Letellusi, the first woman the gods made, and I told Bekrao so.
“A version? My dear friend, it is the version. You know the new temple they’re building on that hill in the north?” I didn’t, but it seemed easier to nod and pretend I did. “While they were doing some digging, they found these tablets buried. Do you understand what that means?”
“I don’t understand how you got them.”
Bekrao waved his arm vaguely. “I have connections.”
“I still don’t understand how you got them.”
He waved his arm vaguely again. “My connections were able to make these copies for me to look over and see what insight I could offer with my vast learning.”
“Your connections are menial workers, and you bribed them to let Yaretzamu make copies for you.”
Bekrao waved his arm, but this time in a somewhat more specific fashion. “I have always been interested in the beginning of things. You should know that. The womb from which all things were born. You know that is why I always try to, shall we say, forget myself.”
“I understand,” I said, though I didn’t. It sounded vaguely religious, but I hadn’t been aware that Bekrao was involved with any of the mysteries. His father was a priest of Adāi, but Bekrao was a disappointment to him in many ways. I think I saw Bekrao talking to an unrelated priest once, but that was about some money that was owed to one party by the other party.
“Well, these tablets are the beginning. Once I read them, I will know.”
Bekrao was admittedly on the inebriated side during most of my conversations with him, but I had never known him to be this nonspecific before. I suspected then that my Bird was beginning to fail me. It will be a gloomy day when that comes to pass, and I hope that it never will. I can only trust that the craftsmanship of the fair folk will last for a very long time yet. “What will you know?” I asked him, prodding his shoulder.
“Pay attention! I always knew your mind was an earthbound one, but you are being amazingly obtuse. Here, give that tablet to me. In your hands it’s not doing anyone any good.”
I shrugged and gave him the tablet. As he brought it to his table to examine it, I took the second tablet from the basket. This one appeared to describe a war between two groups of deities. I provide my best rendering of its meaning below, for anyone who may be interested. Names or words I did not recognize are indicated with alternative readings of characters, my best guesses, or simply dashes when the character was completely foreign to me.
When the Spear Gods had finished building their stronghold, they took council with one another as to how they should pay the Earth Men who had laid the foundations. It was agreed that because of the – – they would not be able to pay the Earth Men with gold or silver, nor were any of the Spear Gods willing to go among the Earth Men as a hostage. Burning spoke and told them that he knew a way to trick the Earth Men. Agreement was made.
Burning went among the Earth Men disguised as a – – and offered them a golden apple taken from the West Garden as payment. [I do not understand why this Burning character needed to be in disguise. I rather think I made an error in translation here.]
He gave them the apple; Burning gave them the golden apple.
He repaid the debt of the Spear Gods; the debt for the building.
But the apple was – – truly – – from the orchards of the Bowl Gods.
When the Earth Men knew they had been cheated, they were angry, but their vow bound them, and so they left for another part of the cosmos. They will – – when the day of – – comes. The Spear Gods sat down to feast, and Burning received the – –, but the Bowl Gods came to the stronghold of the Spear Gods in a storm and demanded that Burning be handed over to them for punishment. Sea Beard chief of the Bowl Gods proclaimed that Burning had stolen the – – from their orchard, but Burning denied it. Old Bark chief of the Spear Gods demanded that the Bowl Gods leave, and with a thunder blow he struck Sea Beard in one of the Great Blows of – –.
This was the extent of the second tablet, and I set it aside to pick up the third. But before I could begin to read it, I heard the noise of a faint conversation right outside Bekrao’s gate. Yaretzamu entered again and said in a low voice, “A woman is here to see you.”
Yaretzamu coughed like a trodden frog. “To see my master.”
“I have no time for women!” Bekrao cried, his hand flying up above his head, where it froze. “Wait. Would this particular woman be Ripāti?”
“That was the name she gave.”
I have seen men move quickly in times of peril, fleeing from the enemy or from a wild animal, but I don’t recall having seen anyone move faster than Bekrao did at that moment. He returned from the gate accompanied by a woman whom I deduced to be Ripāti herself. She was indeed very pretty, though I didn’t think she quite lived up to Bekrao’s description. In particular I did not find that her nose reminded me either of a tower or a pearl. Nor had she mentioned that she was rather on the short side.
“Ah,” Bekrao was saying, sounding something like a trodden frog himself. “This is a friend of mine, who was just leaving.”
“Oh, but there’s no need for that. I only wanted to say one little thing,” Ripāti said, smiling pleasantly at both of us. I smiled back, wanting to be polite, but something seemed to be bothering Bekrao, and he kept looking from me to the entrance and giving me nods that were probably meant to be significant, though it was beyond my powers to tell what he wanted. My Bird does not bother translating pantomime.
“Give back those tablets.”
“But they’re only copies,” Bekrao explained. “The originals are still in the keeping of the man in charge of the new temple. His name actually escapes me at the moment.”
“Phumalluo. And he is my father.” Bekrao began speaking very quickly, and in fact I believe he was trying to say multiple things at once. He stopped when Ripāti held up her hand. “My father is also a learned man, an initiate of the oldest mysteries, and when he says that you should not keep these texts, it would be wise to listen.”
“I read one and it seemed harmless enough,” I said.
“And what do you know about the mysteries? Have you ever been to the caves beneath Edazzo? Have you ever seen what is hidden under Teleko’s lamp? Have you heard the words that Adāi mutters?”
“Very little, no, no, and no.”
“Then you shouldn’t talk. You are half-blind, at best. As for you, you thief whose name escapes me at the moment. I will be taking those tablets now.”
Bekrao’s courtship of Ripāti did not seem to me to be getting off to a prosperous start, but I am an optimist. There have been happy marriages that began under worse circumstances.
“My father is a priest of Adāi,” said Bekrao. “I know what I am getting into by reading these tablets, and I welcome it.”
“Do you really? I doubt it. This is something that lies behind Teleko and Adāi.”
Ripāti’s eyebrows rose. She sounded impressed as she said, “You are bold.” As I remarked, I am an optimist.
Bekrao snatched the third tablet out of my hand and put it back in the basket. “I can assure you that I will be the only one to read these tablets, if you think they are dangerous.”
“No one reads these. Not even you.”
“Then I’ll go with you and speak to your father. He’ll see that I am not such an ignoramus as you think me to be.”
She smiled and shook her head. In her smile I could glimpse something of why Bekrao was so enraptured with her. If I may turn to poetry for a moment, it seemed to me to offer a mountaintop from which I could see whole rivers and fields of beauty in the distance. (You see, Bekrao, that is how you write a poetic metaphor. Not that you will ever read this, I trust.) “I wasn’t sent here to bring the tablets and a fool, only the tablets.”
“In that case I refuse. They belong to me and I will read them as I wish. Tell your father that.”
She reddened. “Tell my father? You can tell your father, that old priest of Adāi, that Phumalluo father of Ripāti demands his texts back. Else a thousand curses will fall on all your heads, but it will not be he who casts them.”
“It will be you?” I wondered. The imprudence of this was demonstrated when she turned her fury on me.
“Do I look like a witch?” she demanded.
I was not entirely sure what a witch looked like. To be honest, I had never met one, but because Ripāti bore no distinctive signs such as preternatural ugliness or spiders crawling in her hair, and because she was glaring especially fiercely at me, I said no.
Immediately she picked up the basket and, struggling somewhat with its weight, went out into the street. Bekrao and I looked at one another, no doubt thinking much the same thing. Why hadn’t she brought someone with her to help her carry the basket, and to protect her in the streets?
“She is wonderful, isn’t she?” asked Bekrao. Maybe we hadn’t been thinking the same thing after all. “And now that I know she has those amazing texts, it is as if everything I desire in the world has been set in one place for me.” I thought to myself that this would only be true if Ripāti was also a brewer.
“What now? I assume you’ll try to see her again, not to mention those tablets.”
He nodded solemnly, but before he could expound on whatever plan he had in mind, Yaretzamu spoke up. “I do know a little something about Phumalluo, if you would like to hear it.”
“I would,” said Bekrao, and began pouring wine for himself in a large cup and for me in a smaller.
“He is, as I’m sure you know, the most powerful man in the upper section of the city. His wife died some years ago, and Ripāti is their only child. This is what everyone knows, but fewer know of Phumalluo’s interest in the gray lords.”
“The who now?” asked Bekrao. I searched my memory, wondering like Bekrao if I had ever heard that phrase before.
“There are fewer still who know who the gray lords are, sir. I am not among them. All I know is that they are said by the wise to be the true rulers of Edazzo, and by the rulers to be a rumor spread by seditious plotters. But Phumalluo’s interest is on a more esoteric plane.”
“A more what?”
“A more esoteric plane.”
“A beggar’s scraper?” One of the unfortunate effects of relying on my Bird is that I have no awareness of when two phrases in the Parako language sound similar to one another. I therefore miss puns and lose much of the effect of poetry.
Yaretzamu wisely ignored Bekrao. “The details are beyond my knowledge. But it does not surprise me that Phumalluo would be interested in texts such as these. It would not surprise me if he made those excavations for the purpose of acquiring them.”
“My curiosity is piqued,” said Bekrao. The Bird’s rendition of this sentence was halting enough that I suspect Bekrao was beginning to feel the effects of the unmixed wine he had been pouring into his mouth whenever Yaretzamu was speaking. “I think I’ll have to pay Phumalluo a visit.”
Yaretzamu and I exchanged glances. Our thoughts were as one: it would be disastrous imprudence for Bekrao to call on Phumalluo at any other time, but now that he had been drinking it would be especially disastrous. “I’ll see what I can do to arrange a meeting, but I wouldn’t be optimistic. He is a very private man.”
“That’s all right. He’ll know who I am. He’ll want to talk to me. I want to love Ripāti. I want to die.” I heard these words with alarm and saw that Bekrao was staring into the distance over my shoulder. Generally Bekrao was not the kind of man who became melancholy when he drank.
“You’re talking nonsense,” I told him.
“Do you want to know what the story I was reading was about?”
“It was about the first woman, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, but it’s not the version you typically hear, either from men or women. It’s darker, sadder, better.” He rested his chin on his hand, suddenly sounding much more sober than he had a moment earlier. “It’s the story of how destruction came over the first world, and how mankind utterly failed to save themselves from the wrath of the gods.”
I raised my hand in protest. “Perhaps this is not the best time for such a gloomy story.” I am honestly not sure what the best time for a gloomy story is, myself preferring those stories that end in triumph, reconciliation, weddings, and general happiness.
“There is no better time. And if I wait any longer I’ll forget the story.” He made a clicking sound with his tongue and a motion with his hand, both of which I found utterly incomprehensible, but which I suspect to have represented the story falling out of his memory. “This is how it went, I think.
“The gods met in their council above to decide what should be done about humanity, which had grown to be something of a plague on the earth. Their sins were without number. Name a sin, and they committed it.”
“Wait a moment,” I said. “Is this before the first woman was made? How did humanity grow without women?”
He considered this question. “I think I got the order of things mixed around. Let me see. No, that’s right. I think this was before the gods made the first man too.”
“That makes even less sense. I think the wine you drank has muddled your story.”
“No, no. These are old stories! They’re meant to be strange! Humanity, which was around before the first man or the first woman, had grown to be something of a plague on the earth.” He paused here and thought for a moment. I myself was trying very hard to imagine what this primeval mankind was like.
“I believe you may have misread one of the pertinent symbols,” said Yaretzamu.
“Maybe, maybe, maybe. I’m starting to forget the story already, so please, no more interruptions. Something of a plague on the earth, sins beyond number. The gods met in their council above to debate and decide and argue. Some gods said one thing, some gods said another thing. The text was kind of confusing here and I’m not entirely sure who took what position, but in the end they all decided to create the first man.”
It was at this point that it became clear to me that Bekrao was mangling the story out of all sense and order, but I kept listening in order to humor him.
“This first man was not like you or me, but his skin shone like gold and his eyes gleamed with fire. Or maybe it was the other way around, his eyes shining like gold and his skin burning like fire. In any case, he was given precious gifts and sent down to his descendants on earth. He led them to a sacred tree atop a sacred hill, where he proclaimed himself their king, and was accepted.”
“How exactly did this solve the problem of humanity being a plague on the earth?” I asked.
“I forget that part. Anyway, this first man was very lonely.”
“With all the other people around?”
“They were a plague, remember. You should pay more attention. He was lonely, so he implored the gods and they granted him a companion, the first woman.”
“Generous of them.”
“The text didn’t say, but I assume she had gold and fire skin and eyes like the first man. So he took her as his wife and they were happy for a time.”
“I’m still waiting for the disaster.”
“The people grew tired of the first man’s rule, and they banished him into the wilderness with his wife. Then they built a thing that I don’t have the slightest idea how to translate, but it apparently brought the wrath of the gods down on them. Each god did something to punish mankind. It’s like that old joke about the gallant who gets beaten by a whole series of outraged fathers, brothers, and husbands, until at the end there’s nothing left of him.” Bekrao began to laugh, which delayed the continuation of his story for some time until he was able to recall what he was doing and where he was. “So all that was left was the first man and the first woman. A new beginning for us all!”
“I’m not sure I see the point of the story,” I commented, assuming he was done.
“The point is very simple. The man, for reasons the story does not bother to explain, promptly goes and gets drunk and dances around making a fool of himself until the woman uses the arts of love with him. And so we are all cursed by our fools of ancestors, who squandered the gift the gods had given them. And that is the world.” Bekrao looked around in triumph, his story finished, and fell asleep.
I left him, bidding farewell to Yaretzamu, and returned to my own home. I said before that I am an optimist, but even so I was doubtful that Bekrao would have much success in his pursuit of either Ripāti or the tablets.
It was a few days before I saw Bekrao again, passing him in the street outside his house. He was no longer drunk, fortunately, but he might as well have been, the way he was calling out for alms. In fact, I assumed at first that he was drunk, and approached him to chastise him. “What are you doing, Bekrao?” I asked. Better to begin one’s chastisement with soft words.
“I am looking for Ripāti. What else does it look like I’m doing?” was his answer. I had to admit it was a good one, but there remained problems with his method, and I pointed these out to him.
“How exactly are you doing that by begging on the street? You haven’t lost all your fortune in the past two days, have you?”
He sighed and shook his head, and only then did I notice that he was wearing the simple garments of a laborer. “I am in disguise,” he explained slowly, as if I were a foolish child.
“Listen. Yaretzamu informed me that Lord Phumalluo is hosting a great feast to celebrate the festival of Madopolōi. Ripāti is sure to be there, but unfortunately, if any invitation was sent to me, the messenger fell into difficulties on the way.”
“But if Bekrao can’t go to the feast, why would the guards permit some random beggar to pass?”
“Yaretzamu suggested it, and his advice has never steered me wrong. Except for that incident with the, you will recall this, the theomachy.”
I did recall it, and the memory made me somber for moment. How poor Bekrao had ended up fleeing from those crazed dancers is a thing that will always puzzle me and distress me at the same time. Still, the affair had had a comic side to it, if one thinks about it in those terms. So long as one is not being chased by them oneself, there is not much more comic than a mob of Anu’s dancers all running in one direction with their arms flailing, like a stampede of cattle who happen to overhear someone insult their god while dressed in the outfit of some rival order of cows. I do not know if this happens with cattle much, but it certainly happens with Anu’s dancers.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t understand what exactly Yaretzamu had been thinking with this particular suggestion. “You’re sure you heard him correctly?” I asked.
“I’m not deaf,” he told me. “Go ask him yourself, if you don’t trust me. He’s inside doing something, Adāi only knows what.”
So I went inside and found Yaretzamu bent over a tablet, pressing his pen into the clay carefully, pausing between characters to consider. I cleared my throat, which had the unfortunate effect of him marring his writing as he jerked in surprise. “Ah,” he said. “I should have known it would be you who did this.”
This comment did not seem entirely fair, since I am hardly the only man who could have startled him, but I let it pass. “Is there a particular reason,” I wondered out loud, “why Bekrao is begging for alms outside?”
Yaretzamu sighed. From various hints he has dropped in the past, I believe him to have an erroneously low view of my intelligence, placing it somewhat below even Bekrao’s. “What did he tell you?”
“He said it was your scheme to get him into Phumalluo’s feast.”
“He is mistaken. I suggested that he should disguise himself as a servant, but it would appear that my master has very little idea of the distinctions between the classes. What I am doing here is, as usual, much more useful. I’m preparing the pass that will actually let him into the feast to help with the food.”
“Oh. Should I tell Bekrao he’s wasting his time and spoiling his dignity?”
“No, it’s better that he stay there and not bother me, or go looking for a drink either.”
I put my head around the gate and saw that Bekrao was missing. “I believe he has gone looking.”
“I suppose I should bring him back, then,” said Yaretzamu with another sigh. But I told him that I would go find Bekrao instead, so Yaretzamu could finish his current task. I thought I had a good idea of where to find Bekrao, and I set out right away.
As it happened, my first idea of where to find Bekrao was not such a good one, and I found my steps taking me down towards the unsavory parts of Edazzo that I believe I have mentioned in an earlier account. Fortunately, before I had gone too far, I heard Bekrao singing the infamous song about Madopolōi and the farmer. I ducked into the side alley from where his voice came, and found him leaning against a wall, still dressed like a beggar, waving one arm as he entertained an audience of other beggars. They all gave me unfriendly looks when they saw me, even Bekrao, and I began to feel quite nervous. “Excuse me,” I said with an inoffensive smile. “I was wondering if I might speak with my friend here a moment?”
“Once the song is over,” a member of the audience said, or rather grunted.
So I was forced to stand and listen to Bekrao’s not especially pleasant voice for some time. Finally he reached the conclusion of the song, to cheers and applause. Then Bekrao turned my way and asked me if I wanted to hear another song. Politely I refused and added that Yaretzamu had something to tell him. “About Ripāti,” I added, which was perhaps true only in the broadest sense. I had the feeling a certain amount of broad interpretation was called for at the moment.
“Ripāti!” exclaimed Bekrao, his eyes lighting up. “You will pardon me, gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen. I have somewhere that I must be.”
There was grumbling, but to my relief it remained as grumbling and did not take fire. As I led Bekrao back to his home, he lectured me about whatever came into his head, from the nature of the clouds above to some ridiculous story about a hunter running through the sky. He said more loudly once this story had trailed off into incoherent mumbling, “This is the end for me.”
“What?” I said, confused.
“It is my last chance. If I do not escape myself through Ripāti, I will die. It is the only way out.” He laughed and asked me if I had ever been in love.
It was a question that caused me to think the matter over for some minutes, not entirely happily. Certainly there have been many woman in my life I have admired greatly, but before I came to this part of the world I was prevented by my duties from ever truly pursuing one or another of them. My readers will perhaps recall that there is one woman in this part of the world I have described in terms that could be viewed as somewhat lovestruck, but at the time I thought I had little hope of meeting her again.
In any case, Bekrao had by this time forgotten that he asked the question. “It’s like I’m trapped in here,” he said. His voice was quiet enough that I wasn’t sure if he was addressing me or not, but I answered anyway.
“In this world?” I am, you will understand, familiar with some of the more esoteric schools of philosophy.
“In myself,” he replied, which was a bit beyond the limits of my aforementioned familiarity. So I simply made a noise of understanding while Bekrao continued to speak. “When I saw Ripāti, I was allowed out of my prison for a brief time, and I would give anything to be let out again. It is not like the madness of drink. Lagulai is a kinder deity than Anu: she at least gives me the pleasure of enjoying my freedom.”
By this time we had returned to his house, and I delivered him to Yaretzamu. I was about to leave when Yaretzamu raised his arm and said, rather rudely, “Wait here a moment.”
So I did, exchanging meaningful glances with Bekrao. What I meant by my glances was roughly, “Are you sober enough for whatever Yaretzamu has planned?” What he meant was, I believe, “Where am I?”
There is no need for me to go into great detail about Yaretzamu’s plan to get Bekrao into the feast. I myself would be there on my own accord, and Yaretzamu wanted to make sure that I did not inadvertently reveal him, as if I would be such a fool. With that settled, I left at last.
The festival of Madopolōi was a few days later, and although I have no particular reverence for Madopolōi, I do enjoy the prospect of a table full of food. Even in a port city like Edazzo, the Parako have never struck me as a people who are especially gifted in culinary matters. Olive oil and barley are very well in their way, but a certain martial austerity stands gloomily over Edazzo. Nevertheless, Phumalluo is reputed to have a very fine table indeed, and I was looking forward not only to the feast itself, but to seeing how things would turn out with Bekrao and Ripāti.
I did not see Bekrao at first among the servants who were offering perfume to and washing the feet of the guests, but Ripāti was sitting at her father’s side. It was strange that she was not with the ladies in the other room, I thought. Surely Phumalluo wouldn’t put his daughter at risk of Madopolōi’s wrath? My neighbors, whom I did not know and who must have been from some other part of the city, seemed similarly confused. One of them even asked me if I didn’t think that Ripāti was a man made up in a feminine manner. This seemed unfair to Ripāti’s figure, which was not generous but was still clearly that of a woman.
In Edazzo it is the custom to celebrate the reunion of Madopolōi and her children by hiring a bard to sing some portion of the sacred hymns, yet I saw no bard, which made me wonder even more than Ripāti’s presence did. I even considered whether Phumalluo didn’t plan to have Ripāti sing, but dismissed this as absurd. More likely he planned to have us all join in song together, which would be an interesting innovation, though I feared I would face difficulties both in my philosophical convictions and lack of musical ability.
To my immense surprise, when the appropriate time came in the evening, Ripāti stood and produced a lyre. I heard someone drop a plate somewhere behind me, but didn’t pay it much mind at first, being more interested in what Ripāti was doing. But Bekrao startled me by whispering in my ear, “She’s going to sing?”
“Impudent knave,” I declared, enjoying this opportunity to play the tyrannical master. It was alarming how much I enjoyed it, in fact. Edazzo is in many ways a crueler part of the world than where I came from, and I try to avoid letting it change me into something I would prefer not to be. “What are you babbling about? Leave me alone! Does Phumalluo hires lunatics now?”
This seemed to remind Bekrao of the part he himself was playing, and muttering something that I presume was an apology, he left me. I knew he was not such a fool as to approach Ripāti in his disguise, so I sat back again and permitted myself to enjoy the song. As I have mentioned, I cannot always appreciate songs in the way I would like, thanks to the Bird’s interference, but the best of these songs tell stories whose power is undiminished by the loss of artistry in their telling.
It was a new song that Ripāti sang that afternoon: its melody was a familiar one but the story spoke of the gods and their affairs in a strange way. It must have been from the old tablets, though I was never able to find a chance to confirm this theory of mine.
In the story that is usually told concerning Madopolōi and her children, the goddess watches her children with a watchful eye until she is drawn away by a strange bird that the Bountiful Lord created (different stories give different names to this bird). Servants of the Bountiful Lord than rise up from the underworld to drag her children down into the pit. He marries her daughter and makes her son his vizier. Through various forms of trickery he prevents Madopolōi from recovering them, though some say she is permitted to visit them for part of the year: this is a convenient explanation for the seasons. Bereft of her children, Madopolōi waters the earth with her tears and wanders from land to land looking for something to please her again: this is a convenient explanation for the festivals that are held in Edazzo and the rest of the Parako cities.
The story Ripāti told went like this. The Father Above was in love with Madopolōi and in the normal course of things he begot upon her a son and a daughter. The Bountiful Lord saw and seethed with jealousy (in this story he also was in love with Madopolōi, who seemed very popular), so he took a heap of dust and created children for himself from it. These children were of a violent nature and did all kinds of terrible things until finally they seized Madopolōi’s children and served them to the kings of men at a feast. It was this detail that put an end to my appetite, and I would suspect that of my fellow guests also. I maintain that Phumalluo showed an extraordinary lack of consideration for all of us by choosing this song. But I have lost the thread of the story.
The kings of men were outraged and appalled, with good reason, and called upon the Father Above to avenge his children. So the Father Above stirred up the heavy clouds and the deep springs and drowned the earth, which seemed excessive, and I couldn’t help wondering how this story connected with the one Bekrao had drunkenly recounted about the wrath of the gods.
Ripāti concluded her song with a beautiful description of the new world after the flood. It is possible that she had more poetry in store for us, but if she did she was interrupted by Bekrao, who chose that moment to run up to her, fall on his knees, and proclaim his immortal love. I have my doubts as to whether this was part of Yaretzamu’s plan. When I brought it up with Yaretzamu later, he only looked pained.
As my readers can imagine, this caused a great deal of confusion and uproar in Pullamuo’s hall. I expected Phumalluo himself to find his ax and cut off Bekrao’s head, which would have been a distressing end to his story and the feast. Instead Ripāti laughed and said, “Father, someone has fallen into your trap already.”
“What’s that? What did she say?” my neighbor asked.
“I don’t know,” another neighbor replied. “What language was that?”
My Bird does have its advantages, I admit. I considered whether I should have a work with Bekrao, who was standing in the center of the hall looking remarkably pathetic, but was forestalled by Phumalluo’s next words. “He is not such a one as we want, daughter. Release him at once.”
Ripāti knelt and whispered in Bekrao’s ear. He jerked back, as if her words were a stinging fly, and with a bow returned to his supposed work of clearing away our dishes. For the first time I noticed that he was doing a remarkably clumsy job of it. No doubt he would lose his position before the evening was over. I was exceedingly curious to know what Ripāti had said to him to send him away like that, but found no opportunity to speak with him until the end of the feast. Little else of note happened during the feast itself, and even Ripāti withdrew into the other room.
The conversation during the remainder of the dinner was somewhat subdued. We were all bewildered by Ripāti’s song, and Pullamuo did nothing to make the mood more convivial. In fact, he sat watching us all like a cat watching mice until one by one we began to leave, somewhat earlier, I think, than any of us had attended. On my way out, Bekrao caught me by the shoulder and told me that he wanted to talk with me.
“So?” I asked him. “What did she say to you?”
“She said that I wasn’t who she was looking for, and she wasn’t what I was looking for. For some reason I believed her entirely at the time, but I’m not so sure anymore. You heard her sing, didn’t you?”
“Yes, and I didn’t know what to make of it,” I said. “I don’t think I liked it.”
He looked at me as if I had just admitted that I dined on minced infant every evening. “It was beautiful,” he insisted.
“Very well, it was beautiful. But what are you going to do now? Clearly she’s rejected you.”
“I was foolish in my first approach. Why, after all, should she love a random man who interrupts such a beautiful performance as she gave, only to babble nonsense? If I want to win Ripāti, I’ll have to be cleverer than that. Or rather, Yaretzamu will have be cleverer than that.”
Here I took my leave of Bekrao, feeling rather over-stuffed with food and drink as I was. It was no surprise that my dreams were strange and dark, but I do not remember them and doubt it would be necessary to report them if I did. Dreams are often significant portents, but these signified nothing except a heavy meal the preceding evening.
It was with some dread that I anticipated what Bekrao’s plans for his further wooing of Ripāti might be. Dressing up as a servant had already been absurd enough, and my mind was filled with fairly distressing images of Bekrao masquerading as a priest of Adāi, as a woman with beard shaved off, as a clown.
My guests the next day did nothing to relieve my mind. I had barely finished my morning bread when I was accosted by a priest who demanded to know what his son was thinking. I had met Bekrao’s father once or twice, but even though I like to think I have an excellent memory for faces, it took me a moment to recall who he was. “I don’t know,” I said politely and honestly.
“I am a fool to ask you. You don’t even know what you’re thinking most of the time. Come in here, Sāletinai.” And Sāletinai entered, looking meekly down at the ground. I had met her once or twice also, and had rather more pleasant memories of her than of Bekrao’s father. “Look at this poor girl, abandoned by my son.”
This was awkwardly phrased, I thought, and suggested rather indelicate things about Bekrao’s treatment of her. I was pondering how to ask the inevitable question when he asked me if I would spy on Bekrao for him.
“Bekrao is my friend,” I said. “I will not.”
“Just keep him away from Ripāti. That’s all I ask. Remember that I am a priest of Adāi. I know her mantras in my heart. If I ask, I can bring her wrath down upon you.”
“I am not afraid of Adāi.”
“No, I suppose not. In time you will learn better. For now maybe Sāletinai can convince you.”
Sāletinai bowed her head even further than she already had, but she didn’t say anything. I felt sufficiently awkward that it was almost a relief when yet another visitor appeared, a young man who genuflected to us all, to me, to Sāletinai, and to Bekrao’s father, but with a sort of tension in his movements that I admit made me flinch. I couldn’t be sure whether he was going to kneel or strike me.
“Get out of my sight,” said Bekrao’s father. I was impressed by his tone, which struck me as the appropriate one to use when addressing a worm or some such vermin. I wondered if he addressed worms often.
“My uncle wouldn’t be pleased to hear you say that,” the young man said.
“This is not Lord Phumalluo’s affair.”
“But it is mine.” This was very dramatically said. I generally try to avoid paying attention to gossip and who is in love with whom, but all this had piqued my curiosity.
“Adarzamu, no,” whispered Sāletinai. I don’t think Bekrao’s father heard her, which was probably for the best.
“Your son is a drunkard and a wastrel,” said the young man, whose name was Adarzamu if I interpreted Sāletinai’s whisper correctly. “Sāletinai deserves better.”
“Oh?” said Bekrao’s father. “I suppose you think she deserves you? Let her say so, then.” At this he turned his face on Sāletinai. She trembled, understandably so given the expression on his face.
“No,” she said quietly.
“What was that? I didn’t hear you.”
“No,” she repeated. “I will marry your son.”
At this, Adarzamu undid one of his sandals and threw it on the ground in front of Bekrao’s father. “That is what I think of you!” he said. Bekrao’s father only smiled and took Sāletinai by the shoulder.
“And here’s a good daughter-in-law,” he said. This was all very uncomfortable for me, a stranger, and I could only imagine how Sāletinai and Adarzamu felt. I wondered whether it would be good manners to return Adarzamu’s sandal, but he left before I could make up my mind. “As I was saying. Keep Bekrao away from Ripāti. He already has Sāletinai waiting for him.”
It should go without saying that I was not persuaded by these arguments, and indeed inclined to do the opposite. I have my honor and my compassion, and I was not about to watch as three young hopes, or rather, the hopes of three young people, were ruined. (Ripāti’s hopes were and are a mystery to me.)
My worries about Bekrao’s plans returned to me, so I was relieved when I paid him a visit and discovered that Yaretzamu had talked him out of any further schemes involving disguises. “Based on the outcome of her father’s feast, I don’t think it would be prudent to trust Bekrao to govern his passion to the necessary extent,” Yaretzamu said, or something to that effect. I was too busy trying to catch the olives that Bekrao kept throwing at me for some unfathomable reason to listen properly.
“So what do you two have planned?” I asked.
I did not like the looks that the two of them gave me then. I am no fool, so I wished them both a good day and turned to leave.
“Ripāti will of course not allow Bekrao near her, so a substitute must take his place.”
I sighed and explained to them that I was not the man they wanted to plead Bekrao’s cause.
“But your words are always so poetic,” said Bekrao. This was new to me, and I suppose it has to be counted to the Bird’s credit, not mine. “I’m sure that Ripāti will listen to you if you tell her all my good points.” I considered making a joke here, but restrained myself. There are times to joke with a friend and times to help him.
“Indeed, I have often admired the speed of your thoughts,” said Yaretzamu.
While it is true that I can be eloquent and quick-witted on most occasions, this was obvious flattery concocted to convince me to do something I had no intention of doing. I wasn’t sure what Phumalluo and his daughter were up to with those tablets and her song, but I wanted to stay as far away from it as I possibly could. I said this, and although the two of them were obviously disappointed, they accepted my decision. I turned and was about to leave when I almost bumped into a woman with striking yellow hair.
I stammered for several minutes before I was able to put my thoughts into words. “It’s you!” I said.
“Yes, it is,” she replied. “Are you a friend of Bekrao’s? It seems you are everywhere in this city.”
“Not everywhere,” I said wittily.
“What does that mean?” This question of hers puzzled me, as I wasn’t sure what exactly I had meant, only that I had meant it wittily.
“I hate to interrupt this reunion,” said Bekrao, spreading out his arms as if to embrace us both. “I hadn’t realized the two of you knew one another! And I had thought Edazzo was a large city.”
“I never mentioned her to you? I could have sworn I did at least once,” I said. I was, I admit, somewhat displeased by the apparent fact that Bekrao had developed a close acquaintanceship with this woman while she remained almost a stranger to me.
“Probably I was inebriated at the time. In any case, do you have that ring for me, Rosédan?”
“I do,” she said, and slipping one of the rings off her fingers handed it to him.
“If you intend to woo Ripāti by hiding your face, I commend your humility,” I said, bewildered. “If you intend to woo Ripāti as an invisible thief, I condemn your deviousness.”
“Nothing like that!” Bekrao said, and dropped the ring so that Yaretzamu had to pick it up and give it to me for examination. “What do you think this ring does? Explain it to him, Rosédan.”
“It is not a disappearing ring,” she said.
“Or an appearing ring,” I added.
“I made this ring at Bekrao’s request so that he could read the tablets Ripāti took from him,” said Rosédan mildly. It was wonderful to have learned her name at last, and I repeated it silently to myself several times. “You mark the seal on the top?” I did: it was a flat oval with the image of an open eye. “With this ring, Bekrao will be able to see something far away. In this case, those tablets.”
I scratched my chin. It did not seem the most straightforward way for Bekrao to accomplish his aims, but I was not about to criticize any strategy that had brought me to see Rosédan again. “Ingenious,” I said, and returned the ring to Bekrao.
He slipped it on his finger and peered at it intently for a long time before he lifted his gaze and said, “How do I get it to work?”
“Patience,” said Rosédan in a way that I found thrilling. To avoid wearying my readers, I will try to abstain from rapturous accounts of her charms, but they can be assured that said charms were plentiful. “You must concentrate on the tablets and be patient.”
But Bekrao’s patience didn’t last long before he threw his hands up into the air. “No, I must find another way. This makes my head hurt worse than drink.”
“I am sorry it didn’t work right away. You should keep trying with the ring.”
He gave the ring to me instead and asked me to find out if I could see anything in it. “If it works for him, I’ll give you the rest of your payment, Rosédan. But I don’t intend to throw away money on a useless trinket.”
Her eyes flashed. (I am tempted to break the promise I just made to you.) “I do not sell useless trinkets, and I demand my payment.”
“I will give you what he owes,” I said as I examined the ring. “I, at least, trust you.” I stared very hard at the seal on the ring and thought about the tablet I had read before Ripāti took it. For a moment I thought I saw a line of characters in place of the eye, but there is an excellent chance I was deceiving myself. Nevertheless, I doubted Rosédan was a liar, and I resolved to keep trying as often as I found opportunity.
“Thank you,” she said, frowning at Bekrao. As soon as she had left I realized I hadn’t asked her where I could find her, but was cheered by the notion that I could simply ask Bekrao or better, Yaretzamu.
“There,” Bekrao said. “Two plans drowned in the water. I think it’s time for a drink.”
“I think not,” said Yaretzamu. “I have yet a third plan waiting, if you would care to hear it, sir.”
“Oh, go ahead. Let’s see if it stands up any better.”
“It is a sort of combination of the first and the second, using the failures of both to accomplish its aims.”
“Yes, yes, go on.”
Yaretzamu turned to me, and with my keen intuition I felt a shadow fall over me. He was, I could tell, about to say something that I would not like. “You would like to meet the beautiful Rosédan again, wouldn’t you?”
“I would,” I said, though I had the feeling of having stepped into a trap.
“I can tell you where you can meet her.”
“Oh, that’s good.”
“On one condition. You must go to Ripāti and do your best to persuade her to allow Bekrao to court her.”
“All right,” I said. The trap had caught my feet fast. “I’ll do it.”
Bekrao clapped his hands. “That was clever, Yaretzamu!” I found it hard to share his enthusiasm.
I spent some time trying to work out what I would say to Ripāti, but wasn’t completely pleased with any of my ideas. After all, Ripāti knew Bekrao as a thief and as a pathetic lover overcome by song. I considered telling her that he had been drunk on these occasions, but doubted whether that would make anything better. Finally an acceptable notion came to me, and with some muttered complaints, directed at no one in particular (I was alone; there was no one to hear), I went to call on Lord Phumalluo.
To the servant who greeted me at the door, I introduced myself and said, “I have news of some ancient texts that your master may be interested in obtaining.” This was not a lie, as it happens. Back in my homeland I had knowledge of many ancient texts unknown to the people of Edazzo. Most of them have not yet been written.
“Is he expecting you?”
“Not as such, no, but I’m sure he’ll be pleased to hear what I have to say.” Of course I dreaded more than anything else actually having to speak to Phumalluo, who was reputed to be rather fearsome in person. But for a chance to see Rosédan again, it was worth it.
The servant looked skeptical, which was fair. I would have been skeptical myself. He did tell me to wait a moment, and when he came back to the gate he was followed by Ripāti herself. When she saw me, she rolled her eyes in what I thought was a remarkably rude gesture. “I suppose you’re here because of Bekrao. Will that fool never leave us alone?”
“He was remarkably affected by your song the other night,” I said. “As was I.”
“That was the point of it. Not that we care about either of you, but there are others who will be drawn by it.”
“Not you.” A fair response, but I felt compelled to dig deeper.
“Someone else you invited to the feast, then. But what do you want with them, I wonder?”
“You can keep wondering that until the end of the world. You are a foreigner, and although your simplicity and smooth empty words may have bought you entrance into many noble circles, there are things going on in Edazzo of which you have not the slightest glimpse. My father brought me into this world so that we we might be allowed to see them more clearly.”
“I think I understand.”
“I would be very surprised if you did. Have you ever heard of the gray lords?” I hadn’t, and my hesitation betrayed me. “Then you are a bigger fool than Bekrao.” She reddened in obvious anger. “And no, I am not going to let you in to talk to my father, though I doubt you really want to. Go back to your friend and tell him that Ripāti never wants to see him again.”
That did seem to be that, so I left Ripāti with some courteous words and reported what she had said to Bekrao. He listened, but half his attention seemed to be elsewhere. Possibly he was thinking about dinner.
“Have you heard of the gray lords?” I asked him. Actually I asked Yaretzamu, who was more likely to know such things.
“It is a rumor, sir, nothing more. According to those who credit such things, the city of Edazzo is ruled in fact not by the noble families, but by a secretive group of outlaws called the gray lords for no reason that I have ever been able to discover, but which may have to do with a fanciful association between their own invisibility and omnipresence and that of the sea mists.”
“Phumalluo would seem to credit it.”
“Yes. I am surprised. I would not have described him as a fanciful man.”
“Perhaps there are more things in Edazzo than you would imagine,” said Bekrao. “Thank you for all your help and advice, Yaretzamu, but I have a plan of my own now which I believe will finally get what I want.” I wondered whether he meant the tablets or Ripāti in this remark. Perhaps he meant both, though it was beyond my imagination to come up with a way for him to do that. If I had been in his place, I thought that I would simply abandon both as lost causes, but then an image of Rosédan came into my mind and I doubted my own thoughts. Perhaps, after all, I would risk everything.
“Do you, sir?” Yaretzamu asked. “What is your plan, if I may be so bold?”
“You’ve used the right word. It is bold. I am going to go to Phumalluo’s house and ask Ripāti to marry me.”
“That strategy was something of a failure the last time you tried it.”
“I remember. But this time it’s going to be different. This time I won’t be in disguise, and I won’t be drunk.”
“You were drunk before?” I asked him.
“I may have been helping myself to the wine. It wasn’t as if I was going to be paid for my service in any other way. Never mind that. Will you come with me, my friend, to witness my triumph?”
I agreed, though I suspected it would not be his triumph I witnessed. We went back to that place from which I had so recently withdrawn in shame, where I watched with great interest as Bekrao demanded to see Ripāti. The baffled manservant who came to the gate left and returned soon afterwards with a taller and more authoritative-looking man, who upbraided Bekrao. “Get out of here, you dog!”
“If I am a dog,” Bekrao began, then scratched his head and hesitated. He had been more quick-witted and fluent in his drunken proposal than he was now that he was sober.
“I see that you have fleas like a dog, at least.”
“That was well said! A good answer, quickly thought of. I wish I could think of things that quickly. But where was I?”
“You are drunk,” said the authoritative-looking man, lifting his nose as if he smelled something unpleasant.
“No! That I am definitely not. Not with wine, anyway. I am drunk with love. I love Ripāti with all my heart and I might as well die without her.”
Bekrao seemed stumped by this, as was I. When it came down to first principles like this, it was hard to know what to argue. We exchanged glances. Bekrao was, I think, about to say something bold and clever when a high voice rang out behind us like a bell. “Let him speak to her.” It was Sāletinai.
I was sufficiently surprised by this turn of events that I could only stand and watch as Sāletinai and Bekrao entered. When I finally made a move to follow, the authoritative-looking man stepped in front of me, and I thought it wiser not to argue with him. I must therefore rely on Bekrao’s account to explain what happened afterwards.
He was fairly jubilant when he returned, and Sāletinai wore a smile of satisfaction, so I assumed that things had gone well. “I will have to remember to reward Yaretzamu especially well for his service today. Finding Sāletinai and sending her after me was divine inspiration.”
“But what happened?” I asked.
“Oh, Ripāti was surprised to see us both. I think she was happy to see Sāletinai but not so happy to see me. Couldn’t be helped. I had things to say to her, and I said them.” Knowing both him and Sāletinai as I did, I suspect that Sāletinai did a great deal of interpreting for him.
“And she accepted you then?”
“Yes,” Bekrao said, but not before we both saw Sāletinai shake her head. “Well, not right away. She was still fairly angry with me.”
“She admired you, you know,” said Sāletinai softly. “You weren’t part of the plan her father had made, but you put yourself into the middle of it anyway.”
“Anyway, she told me I was a fool. She then proceeded to tell me several things that I don’t think she would have if she hadn’t been angry. I’m not sure I should tell you.”
“About the gray lords?”
“Yes, and some other things. About herself. The circumstances of her birth weren’t usual ones. I must have been inspired by Lagulai to say the things I did after, that, but it must have softened her heart. She didn’t agree to marry me, not right away, but she said I could visit her.”
“And what did Phumalluo have to say about all this?”
Bekrao glanced over his shoulder nervously, then laughed and said, “I don’t know what Phumalluo has to say, and I don’t care either.”
It seemed to me that it would be prudent of Bekrao to care about Phumalluo, but now did not seem to be the time to correct him. Instead I asked Sāletinai about Adarzamu.
“He was there too,” she said, blushing. “We made arrangements of our own.”
“Good,” I said. I was happy for them all. Phumalluo would have to be dealt with, but that was not an insurmountable obstacle. All would be well, I was sure of it. There was only one thing that was missing. “Now, about Rosédan,” I added and trailed off, hoping Bekrao would catch the hint. He continued to smile at no one in particular and showed no sign of catching anything, so I explained myself. “I would like to meet Rosédan very much.” My voice may have caught in my throat as I said this, and I wonder whether the Bird imitated my emotion in its words.
“Oh, that? You’ll have to talk to Yaretzamu about that. I don’t remember where she spends her time, myself. Good luck, by the way. I’ll make a sacrifice to Lagulai for you.”
“Thank you, but you don’t have to go to the trouble. I will pray to my own god.” I went to find Yaretzamu then, and he told me where I could find Rosédan. Our ensuing conversation is not, I think, of interest to my readers, who would perhaps rather know more about Ripāti and the gray lords. So would I. That is to say, I wouldn’t rather know more about Ripāti than I would talk to Rosédan, but her mystery is still on my mind as I write this. Perhaps soon I shall convince Bekrao to confide in me. For now let my readers be content in the knowledge that Bekrao, Ripāti, Sāletinai, Adarzamu, Rosédan, and I will all be attending the festival of the dead in a few days, and that we are happy. I pray that we will remain so, and that this story will end in triumph, reconciliation, weddings, and general happiness.