Learning to sing

In which Ailin learns things.

This starts in medias res because the main story is Ferin’s, but Ailin has to tell the parts that men aren’t let in on. Come to think of it, it also ends in medias res, there’s little that Ailin can tell apart from her learning that Ferin hasn’t told already.

Ferin says that some of the story is mine, and he’s right of course but I don’t really know how to tell it. Or where to start for that matter. But I’ll tell the women’s things because Khas men and women are really so different, you can’t imagine even if you were brought up in Aumen Síth where there are enough different people to see that not everybody thinks the same way. Not even if they’re of the same people, the Síthi for instance, the old trade families keep their daughters inside much more than my family did, when I still had a family. And of course the Valdyans don’t seem to care if someone is a man or a woman, not for most things anyway.

So we got the boys and the little girl Fikmet to take us to the village. It wasn’t as far as we’d thought, perhaps less than an hour, and it wasn’t as big as I’d thought either, seven big tents each of a different colour and a stone building which is the water-house. The water comes in at one end and collects in a trough and flows out again so the camels can drink it. You wash inside or outside, the camels don’t seem to mind drinking water that someone has washed themself in. It’s not as if they’ve got soap or anything, perhaps they wash with herbs. Come to think of it they don’t wash themselves much at all, not by far as much as Ferin and I and the Síthi do.

The village headman turns out to be only about twelve years old, and a nasty piece of work if you ask me, I think he actually likes treating all the women like dirt, he’s all as if he deserves it! There’s also his uncle, who has a wooden leg, and though he’s a lot older he doesn’t seem to be the boss. But the really real boss is the headman’s grandmother, Mina. She’s gifted but hides herself as well as the mage’s mother did, and she has time to teach me because she’s not about to kill herself! But what she taught me wasn’t to hide, but to sing.

It was like this: we’d arrived, and Ferin spent most of the evening telling stories, he’s better at that than I am, I think sailors get good at that being at sea all the time having adventures. Then he had to go and take a piss, so he asked me if I could sing. I don’t have much of a voice but I know lots of songs, so I sang the one about the maid and the soldier that I love the tune of, nobody understood it anyway so it didn’t matter that it’s a bit bawdy. I’d barely finished when Mina asked me “why do you only sing half?” I’d sung the whole song, and I don’t understand that much Khas, but I thought she didn’t mean half the song, but half of whatever singing is, as if you’re only half dressed, or half washed, or something that’s cooking is half done. “I can’t sing all that well,” I said, “my voice isn’t so good.” “No, it’s not your voice, you’re singing only with your voice, not with your spirit!” At least I think she meant spirit, or mind, that’s the same word in Khas as far as I know.

She saw that I didn’t really understand, so she asked “Why do you sing?” That was a hard question, obviously she didn’t mean because Ferin had asked me or why I sang that song but why I sing at all. “Because I like the sound it makes,” I said, “and the words, the story, that too. Do you always sing with your mind?” “Always,” Mina said. It sounded like they never sang just like that, it always had to be useful! But I did want to learn. “Can you teach me that?” I asked, and she looked hard at me and said “Yes, I think so.”

Then she taught me a Khas song because she couldn’t do it with a song I knew, either because it wasn’t serious or useful enough or because she didn’t understand all the words. “This is a song for making the people of your household happy,” she said. “You sing it in the tent.” I made a seal around us, saying “Our tent usually looks like this when we travel,” and she could see it but thought it was very strange. Then she took me into her own tent and told me to repeat words after her, that I didn’t understand either. But it was to greet the huge snake that guarded the tent! Every tent has one, and they’re harmless as long as you’re polite to them. I can now say “Hi snake!” in Khas. (You don’t say “Bye snake!” when you go out; I asked.)

Then Mina made me sing in the tent, to wrap the song round everybody inside. I had to know if the snake was also somebody, because it made the singing harder if I didn’t know. I looked hard at it with my mind and the snake had anea all right, so I included it. I think MIna approved of that. I sang until I ran out of words, then looked around and saw that it had worked a little but not as much as I’d intended. “You’ll learn,” Mina said, and she also said that this didn’t mean that the people in this tent were now my people, so I could go to sleep with Ferin and the rest of my own people.

I remembered to say “Hi snake!” to the snake in the tent where Ferin was! This one was longer and thicker than Mina’s, with a pretty pattern on its head. The children were all inside, and so was Ferin, but he was behind a curtain making love with the girl he’d been chatting up earlier. (This made Fikmet giggle a lot, and she set me off giggling too.)