Monday, May 3, 2010

Father's Lessons

They thought I could not understand, and so they did not shield me.  Or perhaps the moment overcame reason; I am not sure but I do remember.  I remember the passion in Mother's eyes, the hunger there where, for weeks, there had only been hardness.  I remember the gentleness in Father: the strong reed yielding softly to the winter wind. That is how I first learned from Father that even in the midst of great emotion it was calmness that ruled.  He was the wall against which the wild energy of Mother broke until she was satisfied and the calm came to her too.  But not the hardness of before, only peace: returned like spring's rains come from afar to wet the broken brow of the earth; Father was back and all was right.  This was my first memory and my first lesson and I learned it well.  That is why even the men admired me in battle and feared me in the court, I had learned to be calm when all around me had given themselves over to confusion.

Sitting in council I often told that story and the elders would always nod with me.  True, true, true, they'd say, and you are truth's ambassador.  I told that story the year the winter winds brought unrelenting snow from the East.  When the villagers came from out of the plains and begged for food, and the council feared for their own lives and forsook charity in search of salvation.  I told the story and the elders murmured "true" and the villagers went away with sacks of flour and a supply of smoked meat that would bring them through to see the sun finally clear the sky of clouds and their fidelity ours.  I told the story when our cousins to the North thought that their greed gave them power over us and brought their armies to our doorstep demanding our surrender.  Many wished to lay down before them in fear but I told them that the reed bends in the wind and lives through the mightiest gale, but any man that breaks his back will never stand again to face the slightest breeze.  We held out three long weeks, and on the fourth found the army gone, the cousins calling back all that they had sent out that they could now destroy each other in war.

It was then that they asked me to stand with the council: Mother was proud and urged me accept.  "Such honor" she said, "all will admire you."  But Father smiled and said "Honor will come from your wisdom, but you must have the strength to refuse the honor of the people or you should not stand."  Mother chided him endlessly for his warning but I listened to Father and did not stand in council.  When the elders asked me why, I told my second story of Father.

I was still very little, but Father had taken me hunting for boar in the woods to the West of us.  It was not the first time we had gone together, though some considered it dangerous and unwise with me so young.  Others thought it wrong headed with me being a daughter and an only child at that as Mother had not yet brought forth Charlie to be my companion in childhood.  They thought it unwise but Father had thought it wise and we went out West.  This time farther than I had ever traveled away from our little house: deep, deep into the woods.

On the third day we found tracks of a beast not long since passed by.  Father had me prepare my bow and he unsheathed his knife ready to slit the throat of the bore I would pierce.  It was an honor to be given the trust of being the only archer and so I remembered the moment, and relished the thought of taking the beast and of the praise Father would give me when it fell.  It was in this spirit of indulgence that I heard the cry, a man not 200 paces away, lying against the trunk of a great tree, bleeding.  Forgetting the boar we rushed to his side only to discover it was Father's great friend Micilio of the council.  He was wandering in the forest and had tripped and fell on a branch that pierced him through the chest.  Just out looking for a rare flower to cure his wife's illness he said.  Father saw the lie immediately and knew the truth behind it.  Micilio was against our war with the Lathians and had sided with Father in attempt to stop us from marching.  But their voices were not heard and our warriors had set out only a week before to catch the enemy unaware on their return from victories out beyond our borders.

Micilio had gone to warn them, and sell his knowledge of our plans.  Father saw all this and reached gently into Micilio's breast pocket and retrieved the small pouch of gold that lay within.  Having no strength left, Micilio could not stop him and seeing the pouch, ceased trying.  He pleaded that this was for the good of all, that Father was with him surely!  Did not Father remember the countless times they'd stood together in war and in peace?  Father remembered indeed, and so when Micilio had finally ceased his pleas for forgiveness Father placed the knife, still in his hand, gently against his friends throat.  I remember the way the blood came to the surface, drawn up by the edge of that pitiless metal, forming a perfect, red line across soft skin and falling down to the ground, to be drunk up by the tree with the next day's rain and the dew of the morning.  Turning to me Father's face lost it's calm and I saw great tears form at the corners of his eyes.  "All good friends deserve to be mourned at their passing" he told me.  We went home that day and warned the council who sent our rider to alert our troops that their plan was known and to return.

It was then I learned that strength was to love the people more than yourself and so I did not stand, for I feared that I could not find strength enough to sacrifice all when called upon.  It was not until later, after Charlie died in the heat of a terrible illness that claimed the the lives of a fifth of us in one summer that I finally decided to stand.  I was still young, not the youngest to ever stand surely but the youngest woman and so I was honored.  But I was Father's daughter and so I did not preen at their words nor take the proffered gifts but continued quietly to live with Mother and Father in our home across the river from the city.

That fall, a young man had been found climbing out the window of his lover whose parents had forbidden marriage for he had no property and rightly, no ambition.  When taken to us in council they first denied having done anything but soon, weeping, confessed to everything.  The law was clear and there was alternate paths available, so we stood as one and set the punishment proscribed generations ago when first our people settled here.  I stood too, and joined my voice to the elders so that the in the morning the man and woman were killed quietly behind the great sycamore that stands outside the Northern most gates and buried there that afternoon.  I saw the execution, refusing to hide from my decision by taking refuge in the daily labors that would keep from having to watch as the young man tried to remain stoic to the end but broke down crying, pleading for his life before the axe removed his head deftly from his body.  Nor did I miss the scream the young woman uttered when she turned back too quickly and saw what had happened, or the second scream just before the blade came down on her own neck.  I watched it all and knew that it was right, and that though sometimes bloody, it was the law that held our community from tumbling over the edge into dissolution and death of the whole.

The night afterwards I found myself on the hill overlooking the Sycamore tree, staring down at the tree, and the gates, and the distant city on the crown of the horizon.  I watched as Father slowly walked through the gates and up, directly to where I sat: knowing somehow that I would be there on that night, knowing that I was alone and in that moment could not be alone.  He said nothing, but held me tightly and I cast my arms around him and remembered as a child how it had felt, and that though we were both older I was reassured that in all the storms that had beset us, and all that would come some things were solid and would not change.  That is how I learned the lesson of compassion from my Father, that it was given not to those who deserved it, but rather to those who needed it.

Years passed by and Father grew older.  When he was thirty-five years of age he stepped down from the council and I was chosen to lead.  He returned home to be with Mother and to care for her, as she had lain ill for two years, unable to leave our house save to sit in her beloved garden, now encroached upon by weeds without her tender vigilance, for an hour a day.  Over time, I became accustomed to my new role and soon wore it like my own clothes; but I did not forget my Father's lessons.

It was two years later in the midst of the summer heat, that the messenger came to us.  I had come back from a battle to the East, a minor skirmish with a duke who though himself a king and thus owner of our lands and of our people.  The people were jubilant from our victory but I knew that their feelings would not overpower their worry.  There had been a drought that was eating up our crops at an ever increasing rate.  It had begun when little snow fell that Winter, and the spring melt had brought only a trickle where before we had seen a torrent.  All Spring we waited for the rains to come and bring life to the seeds that meant life for us all but they didn't come.  Summer arrived and with it great clouds that promised to drench the land and replenish our supplies, but the storms never came and the clouds finally disappeared: their promises unfulfilled.  Concern turned to worry turned to fear and so the council decided to go send out troops to our borders; resolving conflicts that had long festered the people and would bring confidence back.  But though our victories were celebrated and perhaps the drought forgotten for a time, the fear would always return, always a little greater than before.And so the messenger came out of the South and when he spoke, the fear of the people confirmed his message in their hearts.

He spoke of gods of which we had never heard, but which we all knew intimately.  Gods of anger and vengeance who sent the drought to punish us for our indolence.  We must make a sacrifice, he said, we must placate the Gods, then the rain will come.  One man must die that all may live, this was his message.  The people heard and the people believed, but the council was wiser and cast the messenger out.  The weeks went by and news came from the great cities to the West and the North and the East.  They had also received a messenger and having no council, had each killed their greatest man and burned his body in ritual obedience.  Yet still no rain came and now they wondered and they questioned, and the messengers told them: your sacrifice is great but there remains one city who will not bow to the will of the Gods, they must likewise join you in your humility as they will share with you in the rain that comes from our Gods.  So the cities began to send their ambassadors but still the council stood together as one and refused.  The people on the borders of our city began to demand we give in, yet still the council stood.  The cities sent threats of violence and retribution for our disobedience, but still the council stood.  And then one day we awoke to find the armies of countless kingdoms and fiefdoms and cities and villages gathered at our doorstep.

We were told that we would deliver the body of our greatest man to them that night to be burned in sacrifice or we would all go up in a great flame that could be seen from ocean to mountain top.   We met in council all that morning, many wished still to remain apart from the madness that had spread across the land and refuse give in, and others felt their honor offended that any enemy would dictate to us.  So I told them the story of strength and because they knew me they listened, and they agreed and we had strength together as a council.  It was I that went to my Father to tell him, I would let no other take that burden from me.

When my Father heard the decision of the council I had no need to explain, he understood the task that had been given him.  Mother though, would not understand and on her bed, cried for hours until she was spent while Father and I held her and comforted her.  Together we took the pain of her suffering, together we had calm in the face of the storm.  And when her tears were spent my Father kissed her, took his hunting knife along with his bow and we left, off into the woods.

Through the remainder of the afternoon we hunted and as the night came, we found a boar rutting in the bushes fifty paces off.  Quietly we prepared, and when we were both ready I set loose an arrow that found the great heart of the animal.  It let out a cry and tried to run, but in after only a few steps it had fallen and Father was on top of it, his blade finding the arteries that took the beast's blood to its brain.  We stood over it together and saw death bring calm to the boar's raging body.  A minute passed, then two, and finally Father looked at me and said "Perhaps now is the time.  Wait for me on the hill and watch that you may know when to summon the people."

And so I retreated to the hill above the bushes were we had found the board and watched.  I saw as Father cleaned off the knife, not wishing to mingle his blood with that of a beast.  I saw as he stood, staring silently at the blade gathering strength for his last act.  I saw him prepare his body to receive the telling blow; and though it was dark I saw the moment in which the courage went out of him, and I knew then that this is why he had taught me compassion.  For in this moment he did not deserve it, but he needed it and so it was then that my arrow flew through the air and lodged itself deep in his chest before he had a chance to run, or even think of running.  I went down and replaced my arrow with his knife, for I was my Father's daughter and I had compassion.

His body was burned that night in a great ceremony out in the plains and the next day the armies returned to their homelands.  As the weeks went by and no rain fell the people across the land began to turn on the men from the South and those that did not escape quickly enough were killed and their bodies cast without ceremony out where the fowl could devour them and the rodents pick them clean.  It wasn't until Fall, when many had died from drought and from mobbing and from needless wars with neighbors who had once been friends that the rain finally came to replenish the wells and bring hope to the hearts of the people once more.  There were celebrations through-out the city and grievances that just the previous day had justified murder were forgotten now in the excess of plenty.  The council was overcome with joy and joined with the people in their merry making; but I went to my Mother who was now buried behind her garden, and wept.

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