Marriages under the eighteen-fingered bush

This is part II of the letter from Dasht.

A young woman came to see me: Tarin’s widow, though I don’t think they ever got married. “You’re of the–” she said, lacking a word, but she meant the Guild of Anshen. “What Tarin was of, too, and you’re going to have a feast, right? Are you going to commemorate him?” I reassured her that we were; would she like to be there? She nodded, relieved, and told me how she’d always been just on the edge of being one with Tarin when they made love– I could see that she was just on the edge of being gifted, too. “I’ve heard from other people that if you’re both like that, like you and Bebakshi, they can really get inside of each other!” And realising what she’d just said, she added hastily, “not that I think you and Bebakshi do that, together I mean, of course.” I couldn’t do anything but grin and tell her “I have someone at home, and yes, that’s the way it is.”

She told me a little more: she’d had her eyes on another Valdyan soldier first, but that one didn’t even look at her, while Tarin had gone out of his way to meet her and claim her for himself. They’d planned to settle down together after the war. “Would you like to come to Valdyas anyway?” I asked and offered her a place at the castle– after all, it can use one more woman who is good at cooking and cleaning, and I did owe her because Tarin had saved my life, several times in fact. Why, yes, she wouldn’t mind that, “and then the baby can be born in Valdyas too”. That didn’t show yet, though I could see it when I looked closely. I resolved to ask Mehili to have the girl assigned to me, but I didn’t get round to it until we were travelling again.

This was a slow and uncomfortable march through the canyon: the Valdyan troops first, then the officers and doctors and such (and me), then the rest of the army, then the camp followers. The worst part was the place where Bebakshi had broken boulders from the rock face that the animals had to scramble over, unless it was the place where the bottom became so narrow that the biggest elephant (not ours) had to squeeze through, or the place where the stream along the bottom was so wide that everybody got their feet wet. Not to speak of the nights, when we on top of our elephant were comfortable enough but the troops had to find a bit of rock where they could lie or sit down– a hundred thousand of them.

It took about five days to get from one end of the canyon to the other –no Khas here, our army had probably got them all– but at the other end we were rewarded: a very green juicy-looking land on gently rolling hills, with trees and flowers and bright-coloured birds (and drab-coloured birds, which seemed to sing more astonishingly beautifully than the others). There was a cool, moist wind from the sea and the smells were overwhelming. The vanguard had put up a pavilion for us to use while the camp was made: very useful, because of the countless bugs that all seemed to have a taste for exotic Valdyan blood. I got close-fitting clothes of thin but dense fabric to wear that nothing could sting through or crawl into by the wrists and ankles, and I was still bitten a lot on hands, feet, ears and face. The pavilion had bug-proof netting and strong-smelling incense burners to keep most of the critters away.

I hadn’t been sitting down in the pavilion for half a moment when a young Valdyan officer came up to me, “excuse me, you seem to be the only Valdyan woman here of the right age…” and then he blushed and faltered, but I knew what he meant: after all, it was the Feast of Anshen. To the day, as it turned out. He wasn’t the only one who wanted to get married– more people came to ask. Obviously, nobody wanted to go into the big battle without being married to the person they loved. Even an Iss-Peranian-looking man who asked “do you also marry two men, or two women?” and I had to explain that while it’s not unusual or indecent in Valdyas that two men or two women set up together, marrying in front of the Mother is to do with having children.

The young officer (looking at his sergeants with a look that said that they, not he, should have done the reconnoitering) led me to a wellspring in a copse, though “the bushes are wrong, leaves like hands with eighteen fingers!” Pretty enough: this particular bush seemed to be growing from a kind of wooden pot that was its root or perhaps its trunk, and the leaves were firm and shiny. There were also vines dangling from the trees, but the Iss-Peranians kept me from touching those: they stung.

By the time I was installed under the hands-with-eighteen-fingers bushes, there were about a hundred couples waiting to be married. At the end of the day there must have been two hundred. Yet I don’t think I said the same words twice– the Mother was at my side, and Anshen too, because most of the people were soldiers. Over half were mixed couples– mostly a Valdyan man with an Iss-Peranian woman, some the other way round, and some Iss-Peranians with a husband or wife from another kingdom than their own. I realised at one point that one of the earlier couples had been not a man and a woman, but a man and a eunuch, but the Mother had given me words for them so it must have been all right.

The very last were two Iss-Peranian girls, one visibly pregnant, who said “you’ve married Arin and” well, a name I couldn’t understand and can’t recall, “could we get married too? She got pregnant, you know, those things happen, and it’s about children anyway, so why not?” I said “this is such a strange day, the gods allow anything,” and indeed, there were words for them too.

It was close to midnight, and Jerna came to get me for the Guild meeting. I let Bebakshi light the fire; formally it was my job but I thought I might be too tired and I knew she’d like to do it. She didn’t use lightning as I’d thought, but dance: she undressed, did a dance that attracted everybody’s attention, especially of the men, and took that anea and turned it into fire to light the wood-pile with; very impressive! Then she got dressed matter-of-factly and sat down, a satisfied grin on her face. We must have done the usual Guild-meeting things, but the only thing I’m sure of was commemorating Tarin. When we were done with the business stuff and got down to eating and drinking, people’s husbands and wives and sweethearts joined us, and later many left in twos and sometimes threes, and I think I went to sleep under the anti-bug netting in the pavilion, because I woke up on the back of the elephant again, having been hauled up fast asleep.

We had to travel fast, Beguyan said, because the rainy season was about to start; in fact it should already have started, but something was very wrong with the weather. I refrained from saying what I thought: that any strangeness or wrongness in the weather was very likely my doing. If you have strange weather in Valdyas, think of me, and remember that I am not doing it on purpose, or at least not for that purpose. And be sure that I’m thinking of you, too: all that marrying makes me long for you more than ever.

Much love,