West of the Sun
Abro Pakriaa motioned her guests to be seated before a large building; the fibers of this structure were dyed the blue of her skirt. The soldiers stalked about in a show of nonchalance. Young men and naked children had come timidly from the houses. The youngest children were disproportionately tiny, large-headed but no bigger than house cats. Perhaps childbirth for this race was no more than a passing inconvenience. There were many pairs of obviously identical twins. The children stayed near the protective men, all but the older girls, who ventured somewhat closer.
It was a village without laughter. No scampering, no horseplay, no evidence of any tenderness except between the men and the smallest children. Curiosity burned in all of them, but its overt expression was limited to the dead-pan stare.
Pakriaa entered her blue building alone, greeted by a flutter of voices from within, and she was gone several minutes. When Pakriaa had seated her guests, most of the ancient painted males had shuffled across the clearing--even the fat horror whose walking must have been pain--to settle in the shadows on the other side and continue their baleful watching. Paul noticed that even the spear-carrying women skipped clear to give them elbow-room and never looked directly at them. The fat witch found a place to squat that gave him a clear view of all three visitors; as he gazed he sucked toothlessly at the knob of his thighbone club.
The houses were lightly framed of wood, with walls of interwoven fiber two thirds of the way to the eaves, joints bound and roofs thatched with the same material, a design similar to what Paul remembered from a year spent in the Republic of Oceania. The modern citizens of that many-islanded republic, Paul recollected, still preferred the ancestral savage building pattern to stone or plastic; it suited the climate and the friendly, unpretentious way of life. But none of the buildings here was raised on supports: snakes and vicious insects were evidently no problem. There were no domestic animals, apparently no parasites nor self-evident diseases; except for wounds and the dirt of the old men, the pygmy skins looked clear and healthy. There were not even any bad smells except the mildly disagreeable oil the males used to anoint their bodies.
Pakriaa returned, with her make-up on. She had flowers behind both ears, and one tied by its stem to Dorothy’s locket. Heavy white circles were drawn about the lady’s eyes and breasts and navel; blue bracelets dangled at her wrists; her skirt had been replaced by an innocently unconcealing fringe of shells--similar to snail shells, Paul thought. Pakriaa’s anklets of wooden beads were orange. The top of her bald head was robin’s-egg blue. Two males, with the brand marks that must mean slavery, followed her with a seat--a block of wood, cleverly carved with stylized animal figures. It brought her face on a level with Ann’s. Ann said politely, “Why the hell can’t I be handsome too?” And Pakriaa inclined her head. A boy without the slave brand came with a wooden bowl; Pakriaa sipped the greenish liquid and offered the bowl to Ann. Spearman rumbled. Paul said, “Protocol. You gotta, Nan, but don’t offer us any--we’re meek males.”
Ann swallowed some; her eyes watered; she repressed choking. “Alcoholic, I do mean...”
Feasting followed--a laborious hour of it, as food arrived without pause in the hands of branded men from the other side of the sheltering trees. Wood smoke drifted from that direction, and a hum of voices. All the dishes included meat cut in tiny cubes--stewed, fried, boiled, or smothered in unknown vegetables. Only one course was aggressively horrid, carrion swimming in peppery sauce, clearly a favorite of Pakriaa’s, for she belched wonderfully and patted her stomach in self-applause. Ann remarked, “Another go at that and I start looking for another planet.”
In time even Pakriaa had had enough. She clapped her broad hands. Greasy-mouthed and bulging, the soldiers formed a swaying, stamping line. Spearman burped helplessly. “All that inside, and they can dance?”
Ann suggested: “Maybe it helps...”
It was an hour-long narrative dance, vastly monotonous, a picture of war. Some of those most cruelly wounded pranced into solo pantomimes bragging of how the injuries had been received. In climax, a straw figure of a woman was dragged to the center of the clearing: an image carefully made, brightly painted, the face hideous, the sexual features grossly exaggerated. Shrilling what seemed to be a name (“Lantis! Lantis!”), the soldiers swarmed on this effigy, squealing, stabbing, defiling, tearing it into shreds, which they carried away as treasures or mementos.
When the soldier women had finished in yawning exhaustion, a crowd of dainty men performed another sort of dance, purely an erotic show, indicating that the role of the male was seductive, half infantile, submissive all the way. Occasionally a soldier pulled a dancer out of the line, slapping his face until he stopped the squealing that was evidently required of him, and wandered away with him; but most of the soldiers were too tired, gorged, or wounded to be interested. Later, some twenty soldiers formed a group, and men brought them babies to be nursed, morsels of humanity, quite silent, far smaller in proportion than Earth’s newborn. The mothers’ arms were careful and competent, without tenderness; they held the infants two at a time, examining them shrewdly, often exchanging them with other soldiers. There were a few cooing demonstrations of affection by the men toward these infants, demonstrations which the soldiers ignored. Ann whispered, “I could spend a lot of time hating these little devils.”
“Try not to.”
“I know, Paul, but--”
“At least they have a civilization.” Spearman was arguing with himself. “A potential technology. That’s good gardening. Good tools, weapons.”
“Nan, see if you can ask Mrs. President to show us the town.”
Pakriaa caught on swiftly and was delighted...
The first of the tree-sheltered areas contained all the dwelling houses, dulled by the splendor of Pakriaa’s. Ann was invited to enter this blue palace, Pakriaa making it clear that the men must not follow. Ann emerged, red-faced. Later, when it would not be so patent that she was talking of Pakriaa’s house, Ann said, “Couldn’t make out much detail. Dim, and no lamps burning, though I think I saw some clay things like old Roman lamps. Clean, funny perfume smells. I met--her mother maybe. Incredibly old anyway, and almost black. Their skin must change color with age.”
“Dirt more likely,” Spearman said.
“Not a bit of it. Very clean. Just a dry little ghost in a fancy room of her own, with a--a male slave manicuring her toenails. We haven’t seen any old women out in the open.”
“Sheltered and reverenced, maybe,” Paul said. “Natural.”
“Her Highness has a--I suppose you’d have to call it a harem. Ten little husbands, or maybe eleven.”
“What a girl!” said Spearman.
Ann was amused, though her cheeks were flaming. “I was offered one.”
“Hope you explained the rejection implied no lack of merit.”
“Tried to, Paul. I think I got over the idea that there was a taboo involved--something like that. Her Majesty didn’t insist...”
The ditch enclosed the village. One side of its square paralleled the river, not more than thirty feet from it but making no connection. It would have been easy to flood the ditch, but that was evidently not the intention. When Ann conveyed curiosity, Pakriaa was astonished that anyone could be ignorant of its function. “Kaksma!“ she said, and pointed west. “Kaksma... !” Convinced at last that Ann’s puzzlement was genuine, she drew a picture on the earth, with such vigorous art that she herself feared the image and drew back. It was a profile view of an animal larger than a rat, long-headed with a hump on the back. She had given it a tiny eye and a forward-thrusting tooth nothing like a rodent’s; the forefoot was broad and flattened, a digger’s foot. Giving Ann only a brief time to study it, Pakriaa spat on the image and wiped it out with a violent heel. She muttered an angry incantation and pointed to the dry wood heaped by the ditch, while her dancing fingers told of flames that would defend the village...
In the second tree-sheltered area were the industries. Men, not slaves, glanced up from the shaping of earthenware vessels. They had no potter’s wheel, only their hands, but there was a kiln of baked earth. Pakriaa called a favorite over, hugged him, and sent him back with a pat on the rump. He was quite old, toothless, and giggling. They passed a row of dye pots, three women braiding fiber into flat sheets, a square of ground with part-finished spearheads, arrow points, other devices, a rack where deerlike hides were stretched in some curing process. “They sleep on those,” Ann said, “and use ‘em for rugs. The palace was full of ‘em...”
In the rear of the village was a stockade of stripped logs, guarded by two soldier women. In the space before it, but facing away from it so that the painted eyes brooded over the village, stood a monstrous wooden idol, eight feet tall, raised on a low platform. Pakriaa led her guests before the image and knelt. It was necessary to do the same, and Ann imitated her gracefully enough. As he knelt himself, Paul saw in a backward glance that three gangling male witches had followed and were observing every motion with a rigid malevolence. It was difficult to kneel with his back to them; Spearman, he hoped, had not seen them.
The idol was exaggeratedly female, with huge carnivorous teeth indicated in white paint. A slot representing the left hand carried a nine-foot spear upright. The right arm, a natural branch of the log, reached forward and spread into a rugged table; more wood had been neatly joined to make the table five feet long, but the whole gave the effect of a swollen accepting hand, and it was foul with bloodstains old and new. Pakriaa’s long murmured prayer repeated the name Ismar many times. At the end she seemed satisfied; her glance at Ann was almost a smile. Paul saw that the witches had drifted away, but the pressure of their watching remained.
Pakriaa now took them into the stockade. It seemed to Paul that the guards were scarcely needed...
These naked men, women, and children had no danger in them. No life. They moved and functioned as if in life: walked, spat, scratched, yawned; a woman nursed a baby mechanically; a man strolled to a trough in the center of the compound and ate a handful of damp stuff like poultry mash, then rubbed his side against the wooden edge as a pig might. Beyond such elemental motions there was no life. A woman followed a man for several paces; both flight and pursuit were dull, unfinished, a fumbling response to a sluggish stimulus. They paid no attention to Pakriaa and the strangers. The slack emptiness of their faces denied the possibility of any thought more than a flurry in response to physical need. They were all over-plump; some of the females were scarred, but the wounds were old and healed. Paul could see no anatomical differences between them and their lively free kindred. A drug... ?
Pakriaa walked among them like a farmer in a flock of chickens. She lifted a young girl, who made no effort to escape, and showed her to Ann with contented pride, pinching a fat thigh and middle. The child was limp, unexcited, mumbling a mouthful of the mash. Fighting back a retching, Ann muttered, “Paul, when can we get out of here?”
Abro Pakriaa caught the tone. She tossed the little girl away and led them out of the stockade. She seemed hurt rather than angry--disappointed that her important friends had shown no admiration at this thriving industry...