November 12, 2018


The Aser Stories 06: Judge, Jury, Shaman


Illiteracy is a curable ill. Aser encounters a town in which the malady is preferred to the consequences of the cure.

Industry in the village of Swale is goat. Goat milk, goat cheese, goat hides, ground goat horns, goat, goat, goat. No newspapers, no market (they all trudge farther up the mountain to Crosspasses for everything from flour to soap), no tavern, and no shaman.

They have no shaman because they are stingy as well as boring. I ought to have kept on walking even after the rain started, because one lousy meal a day and sleeping on a wooden front porch is their idea of adequate payment for services. But there were some ailments among them I could alleviate, so I stayed for a couple days. During a break in the rain, I wandered over the hillsides and gathered up some handy herbs for drying and some for eating, since a bowl of boiled grain and scalded goat milk as a main course doesn't go very far.

I asked the owner of my porch, a floppy gray woman named Cabrilla, if she had any string so I could hang the herbs to dry. "String! String is expensive! For weeds? There in't anything that's going to dry in this weather! Haw!"

"They will if we hang them up over your hearth. When they're dry I'll be able to make enough medicine to cure some fevers and ills for your village for a year."

"A year's a long way off and I don't want no weeds nor magics inside my house," the fool said and went inside and shut her door. A low rumble of thunder and the plopping sound of big drops signaled another bout of rain. I put my cup out in the rain to collect some water, and started to pick out the hem of my cloak, unraveling yarn to braid my own damn string. Between showers, people came to the porch with splinters to be pulled and sore eyes to be cleansed. While it rained, I re-read for the hundred and fifty millionth time White's The Once and Future King. Cabrilla came out wiping her hands on her dirty skirt, eyed the herbs hanging from a stick in the rafters, and glared at my book. "That your book of spells to magic them weeds?"

"No, this is just a novel. A story," I continued when she looked puzzled.

"Oh, that. We used to have books, some of us, but we used them for kindling in the winters. They caught fire fast like they was made for that, and more good they did us than takin' up precious space. Nobody left here in Swale who knows what bewitchment was in 'em."

Burned all the village's books? "You mean none of you can read or write?"

Cabrilla's laughter showed her remaining couple teeth. "We don't need books and magics to trade goats. We can count money and tell if coin is silver or gold."

"But if you know how to read, every book shows you something new. About other people, about the world, what the names of the stars are, that's what makes reading important. Your people could learn herblore, or someone could teach the children how to read so you don't lose the knowledge again. You wouldn't have to rely on passers-by for healing, or the news. Cabrilla, even just a couple people knowing how to read and write could earn a living as scribes -- your village would have other income than just goats."

"Aw, no, we don't want that. Long time ago we got tired of those books puttin' ideas into the young folks' heads -- they'd start reading about the other side of the mountain or about elves and kings and next thing you'd know, off they'd be sneakin', like a spell to give them wandering fits. Now they stay and take care of the goats like we needs them." She heaved herself off the bench by the door. "Bread'll be done rising. And here comes that Pip Hiderson, I'll bet he's here to brag again about his great-granddaddy, that old miser. I got better things to do. Read him one of your spells out of that book so's Pip can't talk so much."

You know, it's one thing to be stupid on your own, but to enforce a standard of stupidity on others is downright criminal. What a combination of traits: stingy, stupid, and stinking of goats. Swale was a real loser of a community.

The maligned Pip approached the porch through the drizzle. "Shaman, can you talk to ghosts? Dead people?"

"Sometimes, if they have something to say or want to be seen. I don't make a habit of pestering them."

"Reason I ask," Pip said, tugging at his wet hat, "is my great-granddaddy Clap Hiderson -- you heard of him? -- was going to build hisself a big house but he died before he could, on account of a lion runnin' him and his goats off a cliff. He had a big treasure chest full of gold and jewelry that he was going to use to get stonemasons in, but he kept it buried so the wife wouldn't spend it on fripperies, and didn't tell no one where. Want you to ask 'im where," Pip finished in a whisper.

"Ten gold pieces," I told him, already trying to think where Granddaddy Clap would be hanging around, if he was at all. Would he haunt a gravesite? The cliff where he died? What would have made the biggest impression on him in his life? The treasure itself, if there even was one?

"Ten!" exclaimed the outraged Pip. "To talk to a ghost? They tell you shamans are always talking to ghosts, how about one gold piece if we find out where the treasure is."

"One gold piece, and twenty percent of the value of the treasure."

"Twenty persons in the treasure?" he asked, sputtering in confusion, indicating they not only couldn't read, they didn't have many math skills, either.

"Forget it. One gold piece in advance. Then show me where he wanted to build his castle." The rain had stopped, still early enough to get on the road, and maybe I'd find a hollow tree or even a hedge to sit under. Get this job done, and get gone. "And get me some kindling and a couple small pieces of dry wood."

We splashed and slid on the muddy path winding around the side of the mountain until we came to a nice flat place on the south side with a gorgeous vista of pastures and crags and a waterfall that cascaded on down the cliffs to the river far below. Old Clap picked a fine piece of real estate. I suspected that since he put saving for this house above everything else, I'd find him still sulking here. I stuck my staff into the ground for him to see -- if he was interested. The kindling and the sticks I took from Pip made a nice little fire, warming my cold hands and feet. I added some of the wilted oregano and basil I'd gathered that morning. "Better stand back", I said to Pip. "Smell that?" He nodded, wrinkling his nose. "Magic," I told him, and waited until he was about twenty feet away before I turned to the wispy outline of the ghost. "Your descendant Pip here wants to know where the treasure is."

There were faint bell sounds, and I saw he had a bunch of ghost goats milling around his ghostly legs. "Is he going to build my house, Shaman?"

"How would I know, Clap? I'm just a hedge shaman, not a fortune teller. Decide: are you going to tell him or not?" I reached for my staff as if to take it and leave.

"Ow-oohhh!" he moaned. "I want my howwwwssse! Tell him! TELL him!"

"He wants his house built, Pip," I relayed.

"Tell him I'll build his house, I don't care! What about the gold?" Pip was rubbing his hands together like a happy housefly.

"Pip says he'll build your house," I said, kicking mud over the little embers of the dying fire. Sure he would.

"In a cave, in a jar, with a map, not too far ..." Ol' Granddaddy Clap chanted. Inside every bored ghost is a bad poet, I swear. I recited the rhyme to Pip, who repeated it over and over. Pulling my staff out of the ground, I headed back to collect my herbs.

I was slinging the bunches over my shoulder when Pip came bounding up, waving a handful of papers, shouting. "Wait! You gotta talk to him again and make him tell me where it is! This map don't make sense!"

"Sorry, I'm leaving. Maybe next time I'm here in the neighborhood. I have an urgent appointment up at the Crosspasses Market at seven, see ya around the campus, have a nice life." Cabrilla was already out with a broom to sweep away the stray bits of goldenseal and parsley.

"Uh-oh," she said suspiciously, "more of them book pages?"

"Twas supposed to be a map, but it's all words and lines," he complained. "Look at this!"

After a quick glance, the woman turned her head as if he had showed her a picture of an orc in a thong. "Get your shaman here to conjure it. She knows how to read spells."

Pip spread four crumbly pieces of paper on the porch, scaring Cabrilla back into her house. The "map" was a blueprint for Granddaddy Clap's dream house on three pages, and the fourth was his last will and testament for the distribution of all his goods, with a note concerning the amount and location of his fortune.

I squinted at the layout of the upstairs floor, turned it sideways. "This is going to be hard to read, Pip. My fee is 20 gold pieces up front."

"What? I got no twenty pieces!" he bellowed.

"Borrow from your neighbors, and then share the treasure with them."

"NO! Clap Hiderson was MY great-granddaddy and I ain't sharing nothing!" His face was darkening with anger, eyes slitted, and he put his hand on his belt knife. "Why do you want so much gold for parsing out a map?"

"It's in Elvish," I told him bald-facedly, eyes wide with what was left of my memory of innocence. I'd have to pay an elf to interpret for me."

"Haw, haw, you're pretty stupid, Shaman, and you just lost a job. Now I know it's Elf writing, next time an elf comes by for cheese, I'll have 'em read it to me! Haw, haw, haw!" Pip gathered up his pages, and left. I stepped off the porch, and Cabrilla came out with a pot of steaming water to scald the wood where the pages and my herbs had lain.

I walked along the muddy track to the main road, and turned right toward Crosspasses, where two mountain roads intersect. With one side trip: at a brick catch-basin for a wet weather spring, I stepped into the brush, following the sound of water gurgling under the stones to the hillside. Laurel bushes concealed the mouth of a small cave partially closed by rocks, rainwater still trickling between them. I moved rocks neatly, humming the rhyme Clap's ghost had moaned, the full text of which had been written at the end of his will.

In a cave
In a jar
With a map
Not too far
From a roadside spring
Water wandering

From a cave
With a jar
And a map,
Not too far
These five hundred get
All my stonework set

Not too bad poetry after all. A tall ceramic crock stood inside the little cave, sealed with beeswax. I popped the seal with my knife, and took out a copy of the blueprint Pip had waved at me. I used my knife to cut two large squares from my cloak, and emptied glittering, ringing coins into them, tied them up, resettled the lid of the crock, put it back in the cave, replaced the stones, and grunting with the weight of the makeshift sacks beneath my bundles of herbs, went on my merry way to Crosspasses.

And that's what you get for not learning to read.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-03-26
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.

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In the same series:

The Accursed
The Aser Stories: Sidelong
The Aser Stories 80: Cabin Fever
The Aser Stories 79: Just Don't Say It Before Spring
The Aser Stories 78: Judgment Call
The Aser Stories 77: "Are We There Yet?"
The Aser Stories 76: A Bone to Pick
The Aser Stories 75: Coalition Forces
The Aser Stories 74: Flying Monkeys
The Aser Stories 73: Elspeth, Ad Nauseam
The Aser Stories 072: Starve a Cold
The Aser Stories 071: House Call
The Aser Stories 70: Dinner Dates
The Aser Stories 69: Fire in the Hole
The Aser Stories 68: The Silk Fable
The Aser Stories 67: The Simple Life
The Aser Stories 66: For What You're Worth
The Aser Stories 65: Taking a Shot
The Aser Stories 64: Second Chances
The Aser Stories 63: The Second Step
The Aser Stories 63: Second Thoughts
The Aser Stories 60: Fish Story
The Aser Stories 59: Ace in the Hole
The Aser Stories 58: Knowledge is Power
The Aser Stories 57: Animal Tracks
The Aser Stories 56: Oz Can Keep Them All
The Aser Stories 55: Small Comfort
The Aser Stories 54: Letting Go
The Aser Stories 53: In a Spirit of Healing
The Aser Stories 52: Stinkin' Kids
The Aser Stories 51: No Words For It
The Aser Stories 50: The Friend in Need
The Aser Stories 49: Run for Cover
The Aser Stories 48: On the Fly
The Aser Stories 47: Just Thievery
The Aser Stories 46: Take My Shaman ... Please
The Aser Stories 45: Hot Stuff
The Aser Stories 44: Courtesy Call
The Aser Stories 43: Adding Insult to Injury
The Aser Stories 42: Natural Selection
The Aser Stories 41: Funny Business
The Aser Stories 40: Happy Endings
The Aser Stories 39: Working Dogs
The Aser Stories 38: Taking Sides
The Aser Stories 37: Dumb Animals
The Aser Stories 36: Harsh Words
The Aser Stories 35: Endangered Species
The Aser Stories 34: Common Language
The Aser Stories 33: Legal Torture
The Aser Stories 32: Whose Fault Is It?
The Aser Stories 31: Money Talks
The Aser Stories 30: The Perils of Sympathy
The Aser Stories 29: Raccoons
The Aser Stories 28: The Ghost of Garfer Miller
The Aser Stories 27: Dynamite
The Aser Stories 26: Junk Mail
The Aser Stories 25: Rose-Covered Cottages
The Aser Stories 24: Crime and Punishment
The Aser Stories 23: Image Is Everything
The Aser Stories 22: Is As Does
The Aser Stories 21: Gourmet Dining
The Aser Stories 20: Families and How They Are
The Aser Stories 19: The Difference Between Men and Women
The Aser Stories 18: On a Silver Platter
The Aser Stories 17: Point of View
The Aser Stories 16: Easy Street
The Aser Stories 15: Moguls
The Aser Stories 14: A Mile Toward Change
The Aser Stories 13: The Price of Freedom
The Aser Stories 12: A Question of Nudity
The Aser Stories 11: Rabbit From a Hat
The Aser Stories 10: Awards
The Aser Stories 09: On A Roll
The Aser Stories 08: Raising Children
The Aser Stories 07: Crosspasses Market
The Aser Stories 06: Judge, Jury, Shaman
The Aser Stories 05:Habit and Stubbornness
The Aser Stories 04: The Wrong Question
The Aser Stories 03: The Labor of Love
The Aser Stories 02: Soup du Jour
The Aser Stories 01: Popping the Big Question
The Aser Stories 40a: Customary Behavior
The Aser Stories 36a: Madly In Love
The Aser Stories 03a: Descent to the Underworld

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