Gearing into a big writing blitz so I don’t know if I’ll have lots of time for articling. So here’s something new, a sneak peek on what I’m working!
At the Gates of Zheng He Ho
“I don’t like this captain.”
“I ain’t paying you to.”
“We really shouldn’t be here. They’re a lordless lot with nothing but trouble and hedonism to their name.”
“You announced our arrival?”
“Then go watch the sides, I ain’t looking for any extra dints on her that I can avoid.”
S.J’s boots beat his misgivings against the stairs as he climbed down. Felicity didn’t regard his departure, adjusting a few valves to ignite the gas lanterns adorning the front. The flickering lights danced over rough hewed stone. Ancient timbers crossed the uneven roof like elderly arms trying to hold up the heavens. The engine crawled at a snail’s pace through the tight quarters, giving the passengers plenty of time to regard the pock marked walls around them.
It was easy to feel like they were squeezing through the very bones of the earth herself. The passage was crooked and uneven. It followed a madman’s course, banking on hairpin turns and wide corners as if they were looping around upon themselves. Truth of the matter was that they weren’t originally designed for vessels but for miners. The routes were plotted along long emptied seams then a straight trajectory conducive to piloting. And with so many ancient tunnels, stretching out in long forgotten directions, it was easy to think the integrity of the mountain itself was undermined. Any amount of explosion could possibly bring it down upon itself like a paper tower.
“This kind of approach and you’d think they didn’t want visitors,” Schroeder said.
“I reckon that’s the exact impression.”
“Then why build it in the first place?”
“Why we build ours?”
He leaned back on his chair as the engine shrieked like a distempered ghost as it took a rough turn. The entire carriage shook as Felicity reached and applied more brake to control their momentum. But there was a noticeable change in elevation. But instead of rising up, they were descending deeper.
“Heard lots of stories about these mines.”
“Any that don’t involve untamed or spirits of the deceased?”
“Figure there might be one or two.”
“Then so be it. I don’t be needing a reminder of this place’s other reputation.”
“They say this place was once called Katahmin and that it was the tallest mountain in the entire range. Glorious was its head wreathed in a crown of pure white clouds. At its feet was a beautiful lake full of various fowl, fish and delectable weed. It was fed by the purest spring that flowed from the very head of Katahmin.”
“A savage’s story?”
“You want to hear the rest or not?”
When Felicity’s objections remained silent, Schroeder continued.
“There came a time that a young and beautiful native woman gathered upon the lake’s shore. She was out collecting the grass for her people. For she was the daughter of their chief and only she was to granted sight of the beauty of Katahmin. Her name was Patoma and celebrated was she amongst her people for never had a more radiant girl been seen. But she was still unwed and did languish at the shores of the lake, bemoaning her fate.
“’Oh great Katahmin!’ she cried, staring at its reflection in the crystal pool. ‘If but I could have a man as grand, handsome and charitable as you. For truly do you give of our tribe the bounty of your bosom and glories are you to the eye that there are none greater.’
“And on that day, pretty Patoma did remark at how the waters shook with her words. The reflection distorted and rippled. Within its ebbing folds, she could have sworn she saw a man’s face look back at her. Handsome was it more than any face she had seen. For it was strong like her fathers but full of youth, vigour and a hint of something supernaturally divine. Patoma at once recognized it for the mighty spirit of Katahmin. His voiceless mouth surely called to her and she dropped her reeds and took to the ancient forbidden trails up his side. For it was forbidden for any to set foot on sacred Katahmin as her people did fear spoiling his virgin skin and bringing ruin to the gifts he bestowed.
“Poor Patoma disappeared for three years and her tribe did grieve. Her father assumed she was taken by a neighbouring rival and did war with him. Many were killed in the conflict but no amount of blood or sacrifice could ease the pain of her passing. But then, at the end of the third year of her disappearance, she did return with child in tow. Her people were astonished and the sight of her lifted the heart of her morose father. A feast was thrown in her honour and all came to marvel upon the babe in her arms. It was a handsome child, strong of features like their people but with small eyes that gleamed like none they had seen before.
“They pestered celebrated Patoma, enquiring over the identity of the child’s father but Patoma was reticent to share the information. She claimed the child was a gift from the spirits, bestowed to them so that they may protect themselves from a coming danger. But none would stop marvelling over the curious blend of the child’s features with the round face, small eyes and brows that looked as though they were carved of stone.
“Her father, the chief, did forbade discussion of the matter further seeing how it bothered his sweet daughter. So they feasted and celebrated and made great sacrifices to their ancestor spirits. All was well with the tribe and Patoma went about raising her child amongst her people. But despite her father’s forbiddance, her people pestered her about the identity of the child’s father. Patoma remained tight lipped, saying only that the child was a gift and would protect them as long as Patoma kept her word. Her people asked what threat he would defeat but Patoma didn’t know.
“As the child grew, however, he did display remarkable traits. He was quick to learn their language, speaking eloquently like an adult when most were babbling their parents names. He was eager to learn the ways of his people, following hunters on their hunts and immediately learning their ways. Soon he was bringing home as much venison as the greatest amongst them. He seemed to have a preternatural knowledge of the surrounding area, leading his people to groves of annua nuts previously unknown. Delightful were these, more sumptuous and filling than any other they had discovered. Patoma’s child did show them how to harvest the nuts and to grow the plant closer to their homes.
“But despite these blessings it did not ease Patoma’s people. Many whispered that the child was possessed of the treacherous spirit Coyote and was only here to lure them into danger. They demanded Patoma to divulge the identity of the child’s father. Thus, the chief called all his people to him and did command Patoma before all his people to name her child’s father.
“Patoma looked at the chief. ‘Do you trust my word?’ she asked.
“’Of course, my child.’
“’Do you doubt when I say a trouble will come and destroy our tribe?’
“’I do not, my child.’
“’Do you think I would come and try to bring ruin upon my people?’
“’Most certainly not, my child.’
“’Then I say it is of no importance who fathered the child. Only that he will be a great warrior and will save our tribe so long as we respect his father’s desires.’
“But this did not satisfy the chief.
“’I ask of you, sweet Patoma, am I not both your father and your chief?’
“’You are, my chief.’
“’And do I not look after the safety of my people as if they were my children?’
“’Yes you do, my chief.’
“’Then I ask, if I am chief and I must honour my people what I should do if not quell their fears by demanding the name of your child’s father.’
“Brave Patoma would not give in however and finally her father issued his edict. ‘Either you disclose the patronage of your child or you and he must leave the tribe immediately.
“Patoma, to the surprise of her father gathered up her babe in her arms and turned to her people.
“’Know the decision made was by you. I shall do both so that you may learn the folly of your fear. Great Katahmin did give you this gift and you turned it away. Know that you shall see neither him nor I ever again!’
“Her people did protest and prostrate, crying out apologies and begging forgiveness. But mighty Katahmin did shake and shudder in rage. The river that filled their sacred lake shrank and dried up. The birds took flight and the fish died and rotted upon the salty sands that remained. The clouds about Katahmin turned black with his anger and in the chaos and ruin, Patoma and her babe disappeared forever.”
Felicity regarded the fop.
“Well what of the threat to the tribe?”
“Oh. I believe they were conquered or something. Yeah, the final ruination was they were conquered a few years later.”
“Then where did the story come from if these people were destroyed?”
“I could call back S.J and you could listen to more of his condemnations if you’d prefer.”
Felicity waved away the suggestion.
“I think wrestling with the details misses the point, anyway,” Schroeder continued. “These people, they pass their history on in story. It’s not like these things are meant to be taken literally. There’s themes and lessons all wrapped in there.”
“Never trust a woman who marries a mountain?”
“I think they were aiming for tolerance and respect.”
“She married a mountain, Schroeder.”
The train’s wheels screeched against a particularly sharp bend and the engine’s cabin shook. The pair could hear the steel hall clank against the pressing stone walls. Felicity reached for the brakes, slowing the lumbering beast as fast as she could. The very passage seemed to rumble with its deceleration and the patter of loose stone and gravel echoed above them like the gentle rap of an evening downpour.