Expendable Selves: Suicide Attackers Are Sexual Self-Haters

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                                                                                                                       Flickr Creative Commons/Nicole Beaulac

One thing I can tell you from personal experience about sexual orientation is that it’s very easy to go for years telling NO ONE about your deviant nature.

I realized with vivid clarity that I was gay at the age of 12. I didn’t make contact with another gay person until I was 21, and I didn’t tell any of my friends or family until I was 23.  At age 15, I was given a medical questionnaire that inquired about my sexual orientation; I lied.  Even though I was bold enough never openly to profess interest in the opposite sex, I dated a few girls whom friends had arranged for me, and had a seemingly typical boy-girl relationship with the girl I took out to prom.  I knew she was planning to leave the region and move far away after she graduated, but no one else perceived this as a factor that made it possible for me to date her.

My mainstream Christian religious background held homosexual acts to be sinful, but such matters weren’t among its high priorities. My local community was also uniformly anti-gay, but we were exposed to print media where gay liberation was discussed.  I had hope for a future where I could live with myself.  But what if I hadn’t had that hope?  What if I’d come from a society that was very clear that my impulses were entirely sinful, a society where I’d never, realistically, be able to tell anyone about myself?  What would my life, then, seem to be worth?

All societies based on religions condemning deviant sexualities have to have some place to dispose of the people they alienate from self-acceptance.

In Christian societies with a tradition of priestly or monastic celibacy, clearly the place to go if you were queer was into the clergy.  You’d be preserved from sinful sex, in theory, by the celibacy rules; and you’d be doing religious service to offset the damage done to the creation by the your sinful existence.  Given a little creativity or corruption in the ranks of the religious, you might even be able to have a sex life, especially if you could find some way to portray your actions as controlling sin.  Think of Milwaukee priest Lawrence Murphy, who caught boys at a deaf school doing sexual actions with each other, and then punished them by engaging them in masturbation involving himself, supposedly to show them how private masturbation was done ‘properly.’

Sunni Islam, diverse as it is, is mostly anti-monastic, and it promotes marriage rather than life-long celibacy.  Though Muslim countries tend to have an underground tradition of same-sex sex among unmarried young males – one boy playing the available hole and the others playing the ‘real men’ making use of it – there is no long-term place in that world for anyone who knows he is purely homosexual.  All he can do is hoax a woman into marriage and do his best to pretend to be heterosexual.

And then there are deviants who are, let’s say, ‘more deviant’ than gays.  There are diverse fetishists, who may or may not be able to have sexual relations outside their fetish.  There are pedophiles, who may, if attracted to females, be able to marry a 9-year-old girl in Yemen, but who won’t be loved for it and won’t rise in her esteem as she ages out of attraction range. There are pedophiles and pederasts attracted to males who are absolutely beyond the borders of accepted life.

Warlike sects within Sunni society have long offered a position of honour for these deviants, who are given every incentive to rate themselves as worthless and unfitting for normal family life.  They can become martyrs.  People imagine that martyrs in Islam are horny heterosexual males who find the promised virgins of paradise a strong come-on.  We are led to suppose that the availability, in real life, of up to four wives who may be divorced and replaced isn’t sufficient variety for these randy al-dudes.  Actually, the idea that one may become attracted to such virgins may be real the come-on.  In any event, from the viewpoint of the deviant, one certainly has no place remaining on the world below.  It’s far better to consummate one’s religion and die a martyr than it is to carry on as a sneaking pervert, loved only by those who don’t yet know you well enough to hate you.  Martyrdom is the only consummation you will know, the only release to infinite spiritual union.

Suicide bombers are deviants.  I guarantee you that.  Whether they’ve been married, whether they’ve had children, whether they’ve complained that girls ignore them, whether they’ve seemed to be ironclad religious fanatics – these are people who are convinced they are expendable.  They have no place on Earth, even though the armies they support need plenty of children who can become the soldiers of the future.  These people can’t be of child-raising service, except at the cost of hypocrisy and personal psychosexual agony.  Their only value lies in the capital raised for their religious mentors by their deaths.

I don’t subscribe to any view that supposes that the general population of gays, or of any other sexual minority, has more callous, venal or self-serving people in it than does the general population of ‘normal’ people.  There is no inherent tendency of gays or voyeurs or zoophiles or pedophiles to engage in killing of the innocent. But when one’s life is valueless except as a living bomb, then one can only be tempted to explode. If religion tells you that those who you’re blowing up are only kaffirs anyway, degraded and dehumanized by their lack of true religion, then your niche in heroism becomes clear.

The best part of blowing yourself up is that you never have to tell anyone about your deviancy.  Your intolerable urge to make contact with the human race and plead for yourself is ended.  You can take your secret to your Earthly grave, and then be rewarded with acceptability in paradise.  For surely, you wouldn’t arrive there in all Allah’s honour and still be a pervert. Eternal life is eternal secrecy.

Therefore, I believe anyone wishing to combat Islamic suicide attacks should begin to take the liberation of sexual minorities in Muslim countries very seriously. The key to this effort, with regard to gays, is to understand that traditional Islam, like traditional Christianity, confused gay relations with opportunistic same-sex sex among horny and frustrated heterosexual males.  Notice that the problem of what you should do if you find you are ONLY attracted to your own sex is NEVER discussed in scriptures.  Only stray acts of craven lust by people who are assumed to be essentially heterosexual are discussed.  Real homosexuals are completely off the hook for this condemnation. They are not perverting their natural heterosexuality with unbounded lust. They don’t have a heterosexuality to pervert.  If male, they are what the Quran calls, kindly, ‘men who have no natural power with women.’ What such men should do with their lives is not fleshed out, except to say that they may legally look upon the nakedness of women to whom they are not married, and thus be personal servants.

For extensive discussion of all surrounding details and queries, and reconciliation of homosexuality with all relevant quotations from the Quran and hadiths, read through the three-part illustrative story starting here.

As for non-gay deviants, the western combination of tolerance for those who may safely practice their paraphilias, and helpful therapy for those who may not, are great improvements upon the existing funnel into destructive martyrdom.

We must take sexual politics in Islamic societies as a top priority.  Give hope to the legions of expendable selves who are created by conservative religious traditions.  Solicit LGBT refugees and treat them as prizes for human rights.  Let every deviant from Marrakesh to Mecca to Maluku know that life has more to offer than having his or her sinful flesh blown to pieces.

And repeat the basic understanding as often and as prominently as you can:  we know that suicide bombers are all sexual deviants. To engage in suicide combat is a confession of self-perceived unfitness to live.  We will all know you were a pervert if you explode.  Your secrecy is over.  You’ve not only been blown up – you’ve been outed.

 

 

 

 

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Part 3: Truth and Reconciliation Hearing in the Sharia Zone

Before reading this, please see Part 1 and Part 2.

 

**A couple of months later.

 

Our heroes at this point have gone through several completely different adventures in the polytheistic part of Qodra.  On the way, they’ve been spotted and ordered to an audience by the Emperor of Qodra.  His intelligence services have told him about the strange things Yith and Eleya have done, stunning people and making thunder sounds (with a gun which is an unknown device here).  Also, he has found out that Yith claimed to be from the sky.  He understands Yith as a minor polytheistic god who has come to visit his country, and Yith has not been able to talk him out of this idea.  The Emperor has had Yith bow down to him, and now has a vested interest in Yith’s godhood, since only he, among all rulers, has been bowed down to by a god.  In exchange for the bow, Yith has asked to be allowed to free some slaves, and they are now travelling with our party.  One of the slaves is a young girl who was about to be sold as a sex slave (important in the story to follow).  Some of the slaves worship Yith in secret as a god, even though they know he doesn’t approve at all.  They just think he’s modest – and after all, he did free them, so they worship him as the god of manumission (liberating of slaves).  Right now, the Emperor is sending our heroes, along with the freed slaves, two royal princes and some officials, including the Governor (khalzukhli) of the Sharia Zone, back to the law courts of the Sharia Zone for a sort of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, looking into how our heroes were mistreated on their first time through (as seen in Part 2). **

 

 

 

Story begins

 

 

After four more days of travel, we came out onto the coastal lowlands again, and on the fifth day, the northwest border checkpoint of Daa’if came right up on a curve in the road.  No place for little Tekhub-shenni’s here, I thought.  I suddenly had the strongest wish to see my young buddy again, but we were heading for the opposite side of the bay, back to the law courts and grand buildings that, in my case, only seemed to presage pain and punishment.

As it happens, though I had no way of knowing it, I’d be seeing him very soon, so I didn’t need to feel frustrated.  But what the heck – frustration is a poignant reminder of ongoing vitality.  Enjoy it while you can’t.

There was, needless to say, no problem going through the checkpoint, though in retrospect, we could have worked a little harder to get the girls and women past the initial shock of having to cover their heads with a head-scarf.  It isn’t easy to get ex-slaves to accept a new restriction, and there’s no reasonable way to argue that an item that covers so much of the head, including a major sensory system – the ears – isn’t restrictive.  Perhaps with a specific cultural perspective, you could imagine that the relative modesty of the scarf was more liberating than the natural clarity of being uncovered from the neck up, but this idea didn’t work for any of our double-X-chromosome people.  They did see, though, as passersby reminded us with dappled and calicoed hijabs, that you could make the item look stylish.  Tuni {one of the freed slaves, a young woman} was the most reluctant of our group to go with the look, but when Yith and I told her about my prison adventures, she bit her lip and strapped on the modesty saddle.  The one she chose from the box offered by our soldiers was magenta.  Yes, the half-colour of creative exuberance – as far from modesty as a person can get in a flutter of pigmentation.

A ceremonial guard corps from the district government was ready to receive us on the other side of the line, and the governor himself was there, in full splendour, at the head of their formation.  Faisul ben Muhhammad ad-Dtaa’ifi, the khalzukhli, as he was officially titled, wore a green tunic robe that extended to his ankles.  The tunic had woven-in quranic inscriptions in white on the upper half – he looked like he was swathed in an elaborate version of our Earthly Saudi flag.  The inscriptions were partially obscured by a broad, fringed, ivory coloured sash, with braided white fringe tassels, that went over one shoulder and draped down to his hemline on the opposite side.  He also wore a green version of the peaked cap of high sQodravtse authority.  His beard was an unusual auburn shade, and I wondered if he’d been having a go with some henna, but I later decided that it was natural.  He was a sQodravtse chestnut redhead – part-Kurdish by descent, as I later found out.   His most unusual feature, though, was that he had braided the bottom two-thirds of his beard in cross-hatching braids, in the style of an ancient Assyrian king.  This gave him a remarkable look of civility.  By contrast, the emperor, whose beard was au-naturel, would have seemed like a wild hunter by comparison.  No doubt ‘the eagle’ preferred to look ready for the hunt.

“In the name God, the merciful, the compassionate, we bid you peace,” the khalzukhli began.   “In the name of his majesty, Kelum-arssibi, the Emperor of the Central Qodra, the Eagle, it is my privilege to welcome all of you here to our Daa’if Autonomous City.  We bow to their royal highnesses Prince Khashib-arssibi, the ushriannei (heir to the throne), and prince Talbush-arssibi, visiting our City for the first time.  It is our deepest honour to have you in our home, and all that we have is yours.”

The assembled delegation all bowed deeply, as did our own soldiers.   Not wanting to breach protocol, Yith, Xus, Eleya and I did so as well, after a brief exchange of looks among ourselves.  Talbush gave us a comical “O” face and a cutely modest little grin.  The khalzukhlu continued his welcome speech.

“We extend a special welcome to the emperor’s distinguished guests from outside this nation and even outside this world, and we wish to assure you that your safety here is under unbreachable imperial guarantee.  We’re aware of how you left this region when you were last here, and we hope you will be gratified by our attempts to rectify the injustice that was done to you.  Please follow me now, and you will be received in our visiting diplomatic and military quarters as valued guests of our City and our nation.”

I still had to take a deep breath as I crossed the border.  My first impulse was to hold onto Yith’s hand, but I caught myself.  Even though boys not uncommonly walked hand-in-hand here, the context we arrived in tended to make it controversial.  Darn.

Holding that supersmooth hand would have been like a drink of water on a very hot day.  Speaking of weather, it was distinctly warmer here than it had been in the interior, and the sun was brilliant, off-and-on, as patches of cloud trooped across the heavens.

We rode across the line on our horses and glanced around at the gazes of the small crowd that had assembled to see what was going on.  A great deal of whispering was going on amongst the robed, hijabed and otherwise curtained people.  A few people shouted ‘salaam’ – peace! – and I wasn’t sure if they meant it or if they were being ironic.  I did hear one boy excitedly say ‘luti’ to his little friend – meaning sodomizer or arsenocoit – but then a woman, probably his mom, shushed him up.

(‘Arsenocoit’ is a sDiyyanantse English word that basically means ‘sodomite,’ but undoes the disputed link of that concept to the Sodom story in the Bible – it’s derived from Saint Paul’s use of the word αρσενοκοίτης – arsenokoites – in 1st Corinthians 6:9 and can be translated, if you don’t want to use four-letter sex words, as male-doer.  In our culture, it means the ‘top’ in a relationship of same-sex surrogacy.  You can see the word ‘coitus,’ meaning penetrative sex, in the word roots.)

We filed down long avenues on our horses.  The markets we passed still looked sumptuous, and I had to repress my long-standing urge to go on a Daa’if shopping spree.  This probably wasn’t the best time for me to buy a carpet, in any case – but maybe with all my connections here now, I could leave it with someone until Tashei {a trader} could come and ship it back for me.  Of course, this meant I’d somehow have to get back home myself.  Easier fantasized than done.  Best to simplify things and just plot my own trajectory.

The reasonably palatial military compound had its own set of walls.  They were devoid of the usual array of divinities and creatures.  Just the mushkhushshu, the birdfoot dragon, prowled on the stonework, and only in relief, not in colour.  His snappy jaws looked ready to blow out fire or eat whatever it is that such creatures eat – military captives, perhaps.  His girlfriend or boyfriend on the other side of the gateway looked just as hungry.

We deposited our materials in our living quarters and were immediately ushered to a large dining hall.  There, we had a meal of whole roasted lambs that was the equal of anything we’d had from the garbage pits of Qodra City {our heroes were reduced to scavenging garbage for a few weeks}.  It was much better when the previous day’s purulent chicken bones and date pits didn’t need to be shaved away from the meat.  Coming back to the coast automatically reminded me of our last trip here, and I found that my friends had the same thoughts on their minds.  Only Kheshmi {a dog} seemed to be able to ignore reminiscence and just concentrate on the meat of the moment.   We humans pay dogs for that exact clairvoyance, that steadfast alluminance, so I gratefully gave him lamb bits and reminded myself that the world is forever new.  Only a surfeit of brains causes you to think otherwise.  Alas, I possessed – and possess – that surfeit.

After dinner, we had a chance to mingle with the other diners and lounge around on divans.  Those who wished could go into the outdoor plaza and smoke apple-flavoured tobacco from the qaliyan pipe, or shisha.  I was actually persuaded to try one toke by a friendly soldier, bravely trying to make contact despite the language barrier, and it gave me a mild buzz reminiscent of a barely missed hangover.  I declined to amplify the sensation, but I made my refusal as friendly as I could.  I hope the man thought he’d made my day in one puff of smoke.

Kirib-tareshei {a tradesman and friend of our heroes} and his prince dropped by to ask if they could borrow our dog for the evening – they’d become hooked on the joys of dogwalking by torchlight, and the evening was gorgeous – so Yith and I found ourselves keeping purely human company.

“What’s the word on tomorrow?” I asked Yith after he’d been talking to the Captain and other officials for awhile.

“They say there’s going to be a moderated open tribunal about what happened to us here, and everyone they can round up who was involved will be there.  You might get to see some of your friends again.  Maybe even our closet-stalker.”

“Nightmare.  I don’t want to lay eyes on those people ever again.”

“I’m not eager to see them, either, but maybe we can get some satisfaction.”

“Hah.  Or ‘closure’ as they always used to say on the news back on Earth – reassurance for the weak-kneed that their futile anguish has been leavened by a minor illusion of being in control … most often derived from obtaining a nibble of revenge.”

“Oh, we are in an angsty mood tonight!”

“True, true.  And what good does it do?  Maybe ‘we’ think too much, in between bouts of not thinking enough.”

“I think you’ve just written out the recipe for being human.”

“Don’t go post-ironic on me – life is complicated enough.”

We gladly took the next escort over to our dormitory corridor, bringing Xus and Eleya along and leaving them at their door with a prayer for a safe night.  In our own room, with the door locked, after checking every space big enough to hide a human, we ducked under the blankets and did something very simple and pointedly straightforward with each other.  It was cathartically pleasurable and changed my mood completely.  Perhaps forever.

Daa’if, a place for lovers.

***************  ********************  *********************

“In the name of God, the compassionate, the beneficent and the merciful, peace be with you.  We open this tribunal in the name of God’s compassionate justice; we act today directly under the auspices of his imperial majesty, Kelum-arssibi, our emperor, who we praise for fostering our holy justice system in this region.”

Faisul ben Muhhammad ad-Dtaa’ifi sat behind a broad oaken bench at its central podium; we had just filed in to take our seats in a special side gallery in the progressively elevated, semicircular rows of wooden seats that were arranged opposite the bench.   I sat at the end of a row, overlooking my dog, who was doing well holding a ‘stay’ position on a square of deep carpet placed beside me.  He was looking very pleased with himself, as dogs do when they understand they’re at work and have a respectable place in the human sphere.

We were surrounded by our freed-slave friends, the princes, and Kirib-tareshei.  Kelu-Shawushka {a middle-aged woman who is a state financial official} sat with little Keli {a young girl, one of the freed slaves}, who seemed very serious, as if she was worried about the outcome of the proceedings.  Perhaps we should all be, I thought.  We’re not out of the juridical woods yet.

“Today we are assembled to inquire into the matter of how visitors representing the messenger peoples who traverse between worlds, as well as unannounced emissaries of the benign emperor Deiyah in the country called Diyyanah in the east, were treated in this autonomous region.  This is a fair tribunal and its results are not pre-ordained – with the exception of one imperial directive that will be disclosed in due time.  Everyone will be heard and may speak their mind freely.  No one will be criminally prosecuted unless they confess a crime in a spirit of searching for further justice.  If they do that, their case will be handled with a recommendation for mercy.  This tribunal is for purposes of elucidation, reconciliation and learning.  If our justice system is found to need refinement, then we will begin to study the changes that are needed.

“We do not prejudge whether our extra-territorial visitors were right or wrong in anything they did here; however, their safety has been guaranteed, and whether their actions in retrospect appear to be good or regrettable, holy or sinful, they will be escorted under military protection to their destination, the border point of our Tsaga neighbour.  This tribunal is not to benefit them; it is for our benefit.”

“We will begin with witnesses who can establish the nature and general character of these guests.  As our first witness, we’ll call the first person who met these individuals upon their entry into our territory.  Tekhub-shenni, son of Agib-attili of Daa’if Khemzikhei, can you come forward to our witness chair here?

And there he was, rising out of a seat at the back, our little mentor.  I noticed a familiar face beside him, as well – his elderly friend Miikha.  We exchanged waves of greeting.  Tekhub-shenni gave us a broad smile that would have melted the frozen space travellers on a passing Communicator vessel.

“You may bring your father with you if you want to, young man,” Faisul ad-Dtaa’ifi suggested in solicitous tones.

“My father isn’t here,” the boy responded.  “I asked, but, as always, he has no time for me.  My friend Miikha came with me – and your soldiers.”

The independent tone of voice seemed to settle the matter of whether Shenakka – his mom’s nickname for him, as you recall – needed adult hand-holding to ease the strain of testifying.

“Since this is an imperial tribunal, you may swear to tell the truth on a holy book or on a statue of your dedication god.  What is your choice?”

“Um… I was dedicated to Kumarbi but … I don’t know … let me swear on the book of my friends.”

“What book is that?”

“The holy book of Miikha and Marrik and Yit’.”

“It’s not possible if you’re not a member of the religion of Isa (Jesus), son.  And my understanding is that that can only be accomplished with consecrated water.  Did anyone happen to bring any?”

There were chuckles around the room.  No one raised their hand.

“You can say our shahada and accept Islam right here, and swear on the Quran,” Faisul suggested.  “Same god.”

“I respect your religion, lord,” the little stalwart answered, “but I would rather go in with these friends who’ve helped me so much.”

Yith, as usual, was translating to us.

“May I speak, Lord?”  I asked.  Yith echoed me in the usual strange syllables, like sound breaking up on a cliff face.

“Marrik Rajjarsoun, you are recognized to speak.”

“There is a sort of shahada from our church Tekhub-shenni can say if he wishes.  The baptism can be left until later.”

“We don’t know your church, but I accept this.  Tell us.”

“It’s our ‘Baptism in the holy spirit,’ Lord: ‘I accept Yeshua the Anointed into my heart as my basis-of-power in understanding God’s love, and as my revivalist and the preserver of my spirit; and I accept the holy spirit into fellowship with my spirit as the provider of the adherent of God’s grace; so be with me, God.’”

Yith later said he was forced to translate ‘adherent’ as either ‘gripping-surface’ or ‘handholds,’ and he went with the latter because his language-chip found it in the Quran: ‘And whoever submits his face to God, while he is a muhsin (doer of good), then he has grasped the most trustworthy handhold.’

“If you would like to repeat that saying after our messenger friend, Tekhub-shenni, then you may,” Faisul said.

“Abi?”  Tekhub-shenni bleated, meaning ‘who?’  Yith put up his hand and waved it slightly.  “Oh!” The boy smiled crosswise.  He could now see who was being indicated by ‘our messenger friend,’ but clearly, he had no idea why Yith was being called that.  It must have sounded like ‘courier’ to his practical ears.  Yith as tablet-postman?

Yith quoted the saying to him and the boy repeated it, with a smorgasbord of nuance-motions flitting over his subtle face.  He seemed satisfied.  Then an official brought him another tattered antique cuneiform bible.  That was what I would have liked to buy around here.  I wondered if we’d have time to cruise the antique shops.  Of course, I still had no money.  Oh well.  Meanwhile, as this bit of bible-covetousness was zapping across my mind, Shennaka was swearing to tell the truth.  Then Faisul started right in, using a more formal sort of nickname.

“Tekhubshe, where did you meet the four travellers.”

“Mm…at the border.”

“Why were you at the border?”

“I was … mm … helping people.”

“Guiding them?  Helping them find their way?”

“Mm well … do I really need to say?”

“You don’t need to worry here, we’re just interested in finding out how these travellers behaved with you.”

“Lord,” a bushy-black-bearded man broke in from the left front benches.  He was an armed official, seemingly associated with the tribunal since he spoke without introduction.  “The boy was probably involved in a little smuggling operation that was broken up recently.  He wasn’t with the ones we found, though.”

“Smuggling!  Is that right, young man?”

“Um …”  Tekhub-shenni crossed and uncrossed his legs as he sat, and puckered up the side of his mouth in boyish vexation and hesitation.

“Son, you just swore on a holy book of the God who created you and the world that you would tell the truth, and he recognizes the truth without fail, because he knows all.”

“OK (sigh) … yes.  I did that because I was too hungry but later I stopped after these four friends helped me.”

“How did it become possible for you to stop if you were hungry?”

“They gave my mother a lot of money and paid for my school, so I learned to write and do arithmetic so now I scribe for my neighbours and I help the shopkeepers with their tax.”

“In such a short time you learned all that?”

“I had to because my family has no money and my mother is too good to be let down.”

“Did you smuggle something into our zone for them?”

“Mmm (wince), yes, Lord.”

“What was it?”

“A spice grinder, Lord, very heavy, made of iron.”

“Ah, we have a description of an object people saw later – black with a thin end, straight, and also a thick end, curved.  Was it like that?”

“Yes, lord!”

“Pardon me, I’m going to ask your friend a question.  Yithythyth, what was this object Tekhubshe had?  Not a spice grinder, I take it.”

“No, lord, as you’ve guessed, it was a piece of the thunder mechanism.  But we had no way of explaining that to Tekhub-shenni, so I made up that description.  It was as harmless as a spice grinder by itself.”

“And where is that mechanism now?”

“When put together, it was a dangerous device.  We dreaded having it fall into the wrong hands, or having it copied by artisans in this country.  So, after leaving Daa’if, we disposed of it piece by piece as we went along.  And it was a good thing, since we were later robbed by a freed slave who tried to become a bandit.  It would have been terrible if he had had that device and taken it to Gashru {a bandit chief}.”

“As curious as I am about it, I can’t say you did wrong in destroying it.  Now back to our young man here.  Tekhubshe, it seems some good was done for you.  I wonder how profound it was.  Did meeting these strangers allow you to give up any other bad things you felt you had to do, besides smuggling?”

“I …”  The voice dropped off; the eyes were downcast.

At this point Xus urgently asked to speak.

“We recognize Qesassaroun Zouiatkouitch,” the khalzukhlu said – obviously reading Xus’s name from Arabic-Persian script, according to Yith.  The correct pronunciation of Yith’s name earlier, complete with its ‘th’ sound, showed that Faisul ben Muhhammad ad-Dtaa’ifi was well educated in classical Arabic diction.  Unfortunately, Xus’s name wasn’t really friendly with Arabic script or sQodravtse phonics.

Xus quickly said, “I ask for the sake of Tekhub-shenni’s dignity that he not be asked to talk about something we think he only tried once.  We spoke to him against it, but I don’t think our persuasion was necessary.”

Even with this, the boy turned red and squirmed.

“This is a merciful tribunal.  You need not say anything about this misadventure, young man.”

The boy closed his eyelids and raised his forehead in relief.

“How are you liking school?”

“Lord,” the boy answered, swinging his dusty sandal-clad feet in the chair, “it’s a blessing to me – one that’s so high above us that … my words can’t reach it.  I feel like a lizard who’s been turned into a falcon.  I want to run over and hug my friends for all the good things they’ve brought into my life.”

“I see no reason why you shouldn’t do that.  You may leave the chair.”

There was a discreet but clearly audible groan of disapproval from somewhere behind us.  I looked and, as chillings shot through my shoulder muscles, I saw that it was the man from the morality watch, Mr. Fancy Dress.   Next to him was the judge who convicted me.  I closed my eyes for a moment in dismay, but there was no time to cringe – a love-seeking missile hit me and exploded its arms around me.  And my arms exploded back.  It was so good to see him again!  “Tadav!” he whispered. “I love you,” Yith translated this in the same sort of whisper it was said in.  Then the boy was on the move again, and Yith, Eleya and Xus got their hugs.  To Xus, the boy said “Shawushi!” – colloquially, ‘fantastic.’  He was pleased to have been bailed out of his embarrassing moment on the stand.  The word he used was edgy, because it almost took the name of Shawushka, the goddess, in vain – but clearly, he wasn’t worried about offending her.

“Let’s carry on,” said Faisul from his bench.

There were three complex seconds of eye contact and other non-verbal subtlety as all of us, including Shennaka, thought about whether he was too big to be offered a place on someone’s lap.  There were no empty seats nearby.  Then we saw a face-set of decision – he looked up at Miikha and gave him a wave that seemed to say, “coming in a moment” – sure, he couldn’t just desert the recruited granddad who’d brought him here.  But then a surprise intervened.

“We call Miikha ben Butrus of Daa’if Khemzikhei to the stand.”

Oh – the little face registered the new situation.  There was a look at the empty seat where he’d have to sit alone among complete strangers if he went back right away to where he’d been.  Then a look at us and a calculation of whether or not he was just overall too big and manly to sit on someone’s knee.  Then a slight inclining of the eyebrow from me, indicating knee-ish availability.  Then a release in the face from manhood to boyhood, a mini-flush of slight embarrassment and/or excitement, and he took the invitation.  I hoisted him up and put one arm around him.  “Tadav,” I said.  It’s awfully strange loving someone who you can’t talk to at all, so since we now had one good word, I was darn well going to use it.  He smiled up at me.

Yith later explained the grammar of that word to me, and that pretty much discouraged me from trying to learn a second one any time soon.  Oi vey.  A first person antipassive in absolutive form with implied object, used in order to give an imperfective sense to what would otherwise be an ergative transitive form (thank you, notebook).  I think I’ll study French instead.  {The language is ancient Hurrian; qv Google}

We must try to find a cuneiform “Conversational English in 3 Months” for the little guy, I thought.  He could probably do it in three months.  And, as I’m sure you know, reader, the ‘in 3 months’ part of such titles is more comedic than realistic for most people.

Meanwhile Miikha was being sworn in on the tattered sheets of cuneiform.  His arthritic limp on the way over to the stand had made it clear that he was well on in years.  Faisul began very respectfully.

“Grandfather, how did you meet these travellers?”

“The boy brought them to me.  I’m not sure why – supposedly because we had the same religion.”

Reading between the lines, I would say Tekhub-shenni had wanted to show Miikha off to us as a ‘find’ in his search for missing fatherhood.  But I’m glad Miikha didn’t come out and say anything like that.

“Did you see anything good, bad, or unusual about them when they stayed with you?”

“They struck me as good people, and they’d been very kind to the lad.  I appreciated that, because he’d been running a little wild there and he was hungry a lot of the time.  But the young woman, Eleya, did an amazing thing for me – she gave me some seed-shaped things made of bitter material, and every time I ate one, all the pain in my bones lifted out of me like steam from a kettle, and only came back hours later.  I used them very sparingly, and I was able to take one for the ride here, and I have another ready for the ride back.  Otherwise, I’m in too much pain to ride so far.

“And one other thing happened.  The boy Marrik, or Marqos as we would call him, mentioned a woman over in the border lands who was looking for a partner.  One day I took one of those bitter seeds and came to central Daa’if to see my kids and grandchildren – first time I’d made the trip in a long time.  I remembered this woman and dropped the word about her, describing her as I’d had her described to me.  One of my cousin’s sons had been widowed and he was in a bind with four kids and a poor estate.  He was adventurous enough to check the story out.  The angels were on his side and the two of them liked each other – they’ll marry next month and his family will move out there with some capital from our family.  Perhaps it’s an ordinary story, Lord, but I don’t regret the day I served some mint tea and dates to these travellers.”

And Shrug Sheep Cheese, I thought.  The expert always remembers.

“Yes, our thorough investigation of the route and history of these travellers disclosed Tisha-dimmuzi to us, and we have a deposition from her.  She’s very happy indeed to meet your cousin’s son.  Now let me ask you – did the travellers make any claims to be gods or to have god-like powers?”

“Not at all, Lord, they were ordinary people and they share one of our religions of the book – they wouldn’t claim to be pagan gods, I’m sure.”

“They testified in court here that Marrik and Yithythyth are married – what does your religion make of that?  Can they be genuine members of your religion?”

“In traditional times, we found all such relations to be sinful, but we laboured under a misapprehension.  We thought that no one was really a eunuch unless they’d been cut that way with a knife, so to speak, or born with visible parts of both sexes.  But then we had to discuss this matter with those from our own community who felt they were true eunuchs driven against their will into the pagan community, even though they loved our Lord and our God.  I am of the group that believes that the love within their relationships is evidence that they are of a common spirit with our Lord, insofar as any of us is, through his grace.  As the bible says, “the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”  We don’t ask more than that.

“We know that there are forms of love that are to be avoided.  In our scripture Polous the Apostle says, ‘It’s said that there is sexual immorality among you of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has married his father’s wife. And you are arrogant about it! Shouldn’t you mourn instead? Let the one who has done this be removed from among you.’  But in these cases, in our view, the people involved are not making the most ideal use of their true natures, whereas in the case of a marriage among eunuchs, they are doing this.  We cannot visit upon a woman that she should have a eunuch as a husband, except in the remarkable case that such a pair wishes each other.  A man and wife become ‘one body,’ as our scripture says, through an experience of mutual desire for the body of the other, not just through contact alone.  To be blunt, if you could become ‘one body’ through contact alone, then some farm boys would be half goat, like the Roman fauns.

“We accept that the sincere marriages of eunuchs are not a cloak for exploitation by people pressed under a frenzy of sin.  I find the kindly actions of these travellers consistent with their natures, and many of those who share my religion agree.  Not all, I admit.  But some people put fear before ahava, real love, in their priorities, and I am one of the ones who feels obliged to put love first.  Perhaps, Lord, you know the saying of Isa (Jesus) to a young man: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your understanding, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself – on these two directions all of the law and the prophets do hang.’  There is no room there for strange extra laws against the true natures of other loving human beings.  That’s all.”

I had no idea.  I thought he’d be completely traditional.  I was very moved to know that little Shennaka wouldn’t be raised by his adopted granddad to think me a monster of sin.  Not that I claim to be anything better than error-prone, but surely my love is my good side.

“Thank you, grandfather, that’s all I wish to ask you now.  You may return to your seat.”

Tekhub-shenni glanced up at me tentatively.  I remember very well from my childhood days that a lap feels great for ten minutes and then the bones come out and you start to squirm.  “Okay, go and keep that wonderful man company; we’ll see you at the break,” I said, with Yith doing the usual strange echo.  The boy gave us both another hug, and couldn’t resist Xus and Eleya as well; then he rocketed off towards his previous seat and, after helping Miikha up the stairs, gladly accepted an arm draped over his shoulder.

“As another character witness, we call Kirib-tareshei of Qodra City, whose patronymic we don’t know, to the stand.”

Under questioning, Kiir again recounted the story, as he’d done for the emperor, of all the things Yith disclosed to him as we walked along together in that pivotal evening in Qodra City.   He also gave an overview of the conditions in that city that drove hundreds a year into slavery, and all the things desperate people did to try to ward off the permanent loss of their freedom.  My story of desperation was included.  Finally, he recounted the history of how our close brush with slavery had led us to our efforts to free slaves later on.

“As a representative of the emperor,” Faisul said, shaking his head, “I must reserve comment on the moral condition of Qodra City.  But let us thank God that our own regional autonomy allows us to substitute the zakat, holy charity, for forced prostitution, and lets us honour the principle that freeing a slave is a generous act recognized by God, may his name be praised.  Now, Kirib-tareshei, do you find that these travellers claim to be gods or to have gods among them?”

“No, lord, but we were all put in a difficult situation when the emperor felt that he had proven Yiffiffei {Yith as named by the Emperor and other Qodra people unable to pronounce ‘th’} and his fellow messengers were minor gods in the sQodravtse pantheon.  Myself, I still wonder if he was not right about that, because we saw a strange, miraculous act where two men were rendered pleasantly mindless, to remain that way for a week.  Later, too, there was another unworldly event in the slave market, where a soldier beat himself into a revelation of kindness.  Whatever the true nature of these events were, my friends attempted to use their influence to free slaves, and this led my wonderful new friend, the prince Talbush-arssibi, to hope that Yiffiffei could be recognized as the god of manumission.  We – the prince and I – hate slavery, you see, and it would be to our advantage to have an extraordinarily likeable god on our side.  Recently, the matter has been a topic of strange tension, with Yiffiffei insisting that he isn’t a god, and many of our party of freed slaves – and I reveal this in the hope of eventual harmony among us all – worshipping him in secret as a very modest and reticent god.   For how else can he do what he does?   He’s a wonderful boy, but he’s not like any other boy.”

“Yes, we of the eagle have documented many witnesses of the events you mention.  There was also a similar event involving a guard in our prison here in Daa’if.  You may stand down, Kirib-tareshei.  While your story is fresh in our ears, we will have one more witness before the break.   I call his honour, Qadi Muhammed ben Uthman al-Khourrikhi; lord, will you please take the stand?”

“If I’m compelled to participate in this pagan spectacle, I suppose I will,” the judge groused.

“Let me mildly warn you, your honour, that you, like me, are a subject of the Emperor Kelum-arssibi, and he is famous among all emperors for the respect and latitude he proffers to our religious integrity.  Do you accuse his tribunal, held under my jurisdiction as Governor, of unfairness?  Do you aver that our Islamic standards are inferior to yours?”

“I do not make this accusation – though you must know that for a pagan truly to be rightly guided is unlikely.  You have heard how he decided this youth was a god.”

“We’ll come to that presently, sir.  I agree, of course, that this can only be a misunderstanding.  But what is he?  Do you find that the history recounted by Kirib-tareshei is consistent with the history the youth Yithythyth told you in your court?”

“Yes, the ‘youth’ [quotation marks were added a flick of the eyebrows] has his story well memorized, it would seem.”

“Are you aware, your honour, of the tale of Maryam Sipkamari, one of the founders of west Daa’if?”

“I have heard of this fairy tale, yes.”

“She recounts a family of six, including three men and a boy, being awakened in the skies over this world, and being instructed in her own Khoeini language by six creatures she describes as ‘like siege engines the size of a pony, with legs, always changing in form.’  She mentions being told that she was frozen like ice for many thousands of years, and had been revived.”

“A woman can have many imaginings.  Djinns [genies – earth spirits] and devils can inspire people with their tales.”

“Perhaps there is another explanation, your honour.  Yithythyth, does the description given by Maryam Sipkamari sound familiar to you?

“Certainly, Lord; these are our Communicators as we normally are.  If I had access to our information library, I could easily find you the number of the ship and the names of the messengers involved, as well as all the names of the people who were with Maryam.  To do that, though, I would have to go back to the plague land and send a message in a sort of lightning bolt to Communicators who are now flying away from our world.”

“Respected Khalzukhlu,” said the judge, “how much of this ungodly prattle will you listen to in our presence?  Aren’t you worried about demonic influence on us and yourself?”

“Judging requires not pre-judging, your honour.  [The judge frowned like a fleshy thundercloud when he heard this.]  The insincerity of this speech is nowhere in evidence.  You heard the character witnesses, and we can add in many more, based on our investigations.  These people never acted in a way suggesting they served an evil cause, and they often worked for good.  Do you know something about them that we don’t?”

“You know that the one male admitted being married to the other and they were apprehended in the act of kissing in the manner of husband and wife.  Our guideline is the hadith of Abu Daoud: ‘The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said, “Whoever you find doing the action of the people of Lut, execute the one who does it and the one to whom it is done.”’ We didn’t catch them fully in the act, but if you ask them, I expect they will confess it.  They may even have done it under your roof last night, here in our zone of supposed purity from evil.”

“We do know about the history of the case you judged; to that topic we will return as well.  My current concern is the true and correct nature of Yithythyth; he cannot be judged by our law until we know how it applies to him as a being, man, djinn or other.  The laws are given to men, but they apply to others created by God, subhanahah wa taÿala (the most glorified, the highest).  We know that djinns may be Muslims; as one of them stated in our holy Quran: “And of us some are Muslims, and of us some are al-qasitun (disbelievers). And whoever has embraced Islam, then such have sought the Right Path.”  If there are men and also djinns who have free will and may embrace Islam or disbelieve, is it not possible that in this broad universe, full of stars, where we know of at least two separate worlds, there may be other intelligent beings endowed by God with choice?”

“If such beings are not mentioned in the Quran, which was written before the worlds were made, how can they exist?”

“Let me recite to you, respected Muhammed ben Uthman [switch to Arabic for the quotes]:

“‘Praise be to God, unto whom belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth. His is the praise in the hereafter, and he is the wise, the aware.  He knows all that goes into the earth and all that comes forth from it, and everything that descends from the heaven and everything that that ascends into it. He is the merciful, the forgiving.’

“Now, as you recognize, here is our Quran as brought to us by our Prophet, on whom be peace.  I ask you now – who descends from the heaven and ascends into it?  More than once, I mean.”

“The Ruhh Jibril [the spirit/angel Gabriel], certainly.”

“How can you be certain that in this wide universe, there are not many other creatures who can descend from the above and ascend back into it?  Even birds can do this to some extent, and creatures as lowly as vultures can ascend above our sight.  We can shoot arrows and stones high into the sky; who is to say how much further a thing could be shot with better propulsion?   Some have assumed that God placed us here on this world, but no one has received a valid revelation from an angel to this effect.  Perhaps even our ancestors ascended into the heaven and then descended from it.”

“This comes near to blasphemy, your lordship.”

“Not when only the use of mechanism and mathematics are involved, as you see with our engineers finding better ways to hurl rocks against city walls.  Have you seen everything that exists?   Let me continue my recitation where I left off.

“‘Those who disbelieve say: the hour will never come unto us. Say: no, by my Lord, but it is coming unto you surely – the Knower of the Unseen. Not an atom’s weight, or less than that or greater, escapes him in the heavens or in the Earth, but it is in a clear record, so that he may reward those who believe and do good works. For them is pardon and a rich provision, but those who strive against our revelations, challenging, theirs will be a painful doom of wrath.  Those who have been given knowledge see that what is revealed unto you from your Lord is the truth and leads to the path of the Mighty, the Owner of Praise.’

“Respected Judge, you will tell me there are many scriptures concerning the ghaib, the Unseen.  Sometimes this word refers to things that humans cannot see, known only to God, but other times it refers to what is revealed to us through our Prophet and earlier prophets; and at times it even refers to mundane matters like the histories of nations for which we have lost the records.  I submit to you that you, who are determined not to be a knower of what you have not seen, are striving against a revelation of truth of this kind – that there is a type of creature apart from men and djinns with God’s endowment of choice, and this species can descend from the heavens and ascend to it.”

The judge leaned back and breathed in as he took in this grave accusation of bias against divine reality.  This left an opening, and as a keener-student from away back, I just had to break in.

“Your lordship, there is something I can add here.”

“You may speak, Marrik.”

“During the time I was on Earth, people often ascended into the heavens using a sort of flying ship, shaped like a tube with a pointed end, and before I was born, two men had even walked on the surface of the moon.”

“I have read much about this moon.  Men did that?”

“Yes, shielded by special clothing and carrying tanks of their own air along with them, since there is no air to breathe on the moon.”

“Astonishing, but I can’t call it impossible.”

“Respected Governor,” the judge interjected testily, “you almost had me changing my mind there, but this addition to the fairy tale has tipped the balance.  There is nothing in the Quran that suggests in any way that a man could walk on an object in the heavens, whether moon, planet or star.”

“Respected judge, it is not ijtihad to assume that the Quran, holy as it is, leaves many natural phenomena out of its discourse.  Otherwise, it would be as big as the universe itself.

“There is that which is seen in the worlds, and that which is seen in the Quran, and then also the Unseen, and our god is the Knower of the Unseen. The unseen divides, as I said, into what is unseeable by humans and what is seeable by us, if it is revealed or disclosed.  Yet you seem to be insisting that the whole of the Unseen – unseen by you, that is – does not exist, even though God is repeatedly stated to know much that lies in this domain.”

“Anything can be said to exist.  Fantasy is prolific.  The Unseen that is mentioned in the Quran mostly stays that way – it remains beyond us.”

“Nonetheless, I take it from your ‘mostly’ that we agree on this much: the Unseen does exist and is known by God, and God has been known to allow portions of it to be revealed.  Shall we accept a small revelation of it in the nature of ordinary phenomenal knowledge that is new to us? – nothing involving spirits, but merely beings with choice, and the mechanisms they devise.”

“The possibility you refer to can’t be denied, but you must exercise utmost caution and not be misled.”

“I promise you my best effort in this regard; I am not a naïf, and I treasure the integrity of our religion and customs.  Nonetheless, we have a history of friendliness to true natural knowledge, and our astronomers have progressed far beyond the knowledge of the pagans because they accept God’s truth, as disclosed by instruments made of metal and glass.  But I must clarify one other subtle point with you, judge, related to the matter of visibility.   I think that if Yithythyth were standing before you in his messenger form, as described by Maryam, not looking like a human and yet speaking any language you wish, you wouldn’t question that he is another sort of being, neither human nor djinn.  That is, unless you insist on calling everything intelligent that isn’t a human a djinn – for this exclusive logic, I see no support.

“You have the problem that his nature is currently unseen.  I apologize for grinding at this rhetorical point, but are you truly willing to let yourself, in the name of caution, be limited to knowing things that you can see, when you serve a god who expressly states that he knows the Unseen and sometimes discloses a fraction of it?”

“Even in an ordinary human, there’s much that is unseen.  But clearly we stand on firmer ground when we recognize things mentioned in our holy scripture.”

“That only means that we can’t always stand on firmer ground.  You mention that there is nothing in the Quran to suggest a human can travel to a planet or stand on one, and yet, our astronomers have suggested that this is a planet we are standing on – and moreover, the Earth is another planet of the same kind.  So here we stand, and there they stand, across the heavens, or at least what we took to be the heavens, on two planets, one without a moon, and one in possession of one.  The firm ground that we stand on, here, is not mentioned in the Quran.”

“All right.  I concede the unsophisticated point that there might be reality God can see that I can’t see, even in what appears to be a person.”

“Yithythyth, are you a human?”

“Lord, this body is a human body, grown by me and my friends out of the material of Marrik’s body.   It looks different because we made some changes to its constitutive information and its development in order to make another individual.  But the information that animates it – the spirit or soul – is from my original person.  For many tens of thousands of years, I was a mechanism as described by Maryam Sipkamari, and before that I was something that looked like an animal.  But nothing djinn-like or god-like was done by our crew.  My spirit was all transferred as information, like stitches on an embroidery cloth, not as something from the classical spirit world like the movements of a djinn.  In principle, everything about me that was transferred could be written into a book, though that book would be almost impossibly long.

“So what this means is that much of the threadwork in the upper and forward parts of my brain is in patterns that carry memories and motivations of another kind of creature entirely, not a human – a form of existence that showed a parallel sort of genesis to the one that gave rise to the human species.  In terms of biology, the knowledge of living things, we were not humans at all; we had four feet and were covered in ooze.   Spiritually, though, we are much like humans, but cast, as the plague people would say, ‘in an arbitrat’ – which means, in a series of differences that scarcely relate to the opportunities we address as an intelligent species.

“Think of a tribe that always makes carpets with a different kind of stitching from that used by most tribes.  The carpet is still a carpet and it functions normally as one, but the stitchwork is completely different throughout – it seems very strange to anyone who knows carpets well.  This is how we are in relation to humans.  That’s why I was so similar to humans that I could fall in love with one, to my great surprise.   So I became as human as I could for him.  That’s why my non-human part is invisible.  My body is entirely human other than the tiny mechanism, someplace inside, that gives me the languages of this planet – and yes, it is a planet.”

“Respected governor!” the judge said impatiently, “regardless of the truth of this, isn’t it enough to turn your gut?  An animal of some kind turned human who now uses material severed from the body of his partner-in-sin to become a boy who is the perfect match for him in the act of Lut?  I once thought that the older had seduced the younger in this crime; but in what we have heard now, the seemingly younger may have seduced the older.  Nonetheless, the crime is just as heinous; in fact, now there is something akin to bestiality involved, so it may be much worse.”

“Respected judge, folk-sayings aside, is anything that takes place between these two an act of Lut?  Now that we have conceded the possibility of an invisible nature outside of humanity to Yithythyth, let us look at other possible invisible natures.  I find that the holy Quran offers us two kinds of interpretation for people of the nature of Marrik, and, in his human form, Yithythyth.  One interpretation casts them in with the wild and aggressive rapists and robbers of Lut, who had wives but nonetheless also enjoyed sexual pillaging directed against their own sex.  In our regular civil life, we see men who leave their wives at home and go to one sort of prostitution or another, whether with girls or with boys, whether in exchange for money or purely for mutual expression of lusts of the flesh.  Although some such people retain civil and humane behaviour even in such circumstances, this is still zina, extramarital sex, as is clearly called wrong in our Quran.  And many are indeed aggressive, as the Lutis were, and merely use others as objects of their will.

“So then we come to the alternate group mentioned in the Quran, men who have no natural power with women.   Here, there is a group of males for whom marriage to women is surely not recommended.   The Quran says to men of the ordinary kind, ‘your wives are a ploughable field for you, so go into your field when you like.’  Now if your ploughshare droops like a flag on that day, then you cannot raise much of a crop.  I find it highly questionable that if such men prove to be fit to marry each other, the aggressions of the Lutis should be predicated upon them.  Likewise, they are hardly like married men or unmarried, marriageable men, going to prostitutes or other diversions.   We pride ourselves on being the religion that is compatible with science, with the continuous learning of realities, and yet we impose such a ridiculous classification error on these people, lumping the gentle and kindly ones who lack power with women in with the rapists of Lut.  What is this but superstition?  Now you can see why I brought our character witnesses forward before we had this discussion.  How can we divest ourselves of this grotesque error that causes us to see evil in people of love and kindness, to imprison people who, in their relations with each other, cannot have extramarital sex in the usual sense because they are not created for man-woman marriage in the first place?

“Marrik and Yithythyth brought education and hope to the near-orphan, a good husband to a woman needing one, relief from pain to a grandfather, freedom to many slaves, and even a revelation of kindness to a military officer who was using child slaves for sexual purposes.  As we have not yet heard but may hear later, they freed a child from such usage and also cured the congenital binding of her tongue with deft surgery that involved almost no bleeding.  How many testimonies do we need to hear about them before we concede that they cannot be of the people of Lut, even in their marriage?”

“Even if we conceded that, governor, we couldn’t allow them to do the act of concupiscence.  As the sura ‘The Believers’ says, ‘Successful indeed are the believers who are humble in their prayers and who shun vain conversation; and who are payers of the zakat poor-tax; and who guard their modesty save from their wives or those that their right hands possess [their slaves], for then they are not blameworthy, but whoever craves beyond that, such are transgressors.’  How can you say that a craving of one boy for another isn’t ‘beyond that?’”

“In the following way.  Firstly, you know that we traditionally take ‘the believers,’ ‘l’muuminuuna,’ in this passage, as referring to men, since the masculine form of the word is used.  Consistently with that, then, we take the later word ‘azouajim,’ as ‘their wives.’ In fact, though, this is also a masculine noun meaning ‘their partners’ or ‘their paired ones’ – it doesn’t specifically refer to females in itself.  If we take ‘believers’ as a generic referring to all believers, male and female, then they are simply advised to stay with their partners, or alternatively, their slaves.  If we take the word as referring strictly to men, then our previous topic about visibility returns.  In what is seen, Marrik and Yithythyth look to be men no different from any others except in their individual form, but in what is unseen, they are clearly different in the ways we’ve discussed.  In that case, how can we say that their ‘paired one’ is a wife, given that they can’t serve as typical men with a wife?  According to all our evidence, they do not crave beyond each other as partners, and to me, even if I use the most cautious and conservative logic, that fulfills the verse.”

“Preposterous.  Wicked.   In sura al-Najm [‘the star’], it clearly states ‘(is the apostate not informed that) it is he (Allah) who causes death and gives life, and that he creates the pairs, male and female, from nutfah [semen and female reproductive materials] when it is emitted…?’  Here you can see that the same ‘pairs,’ in the grammatical form ‘l’zaoujaini,’ are specified as male and female.  With all respect, how can you even think of monkeying with that?  My brother, I apologize for speaking so frankly from this inferior position, but I must preserve you from this error.”

“Hear, hear,” said the Fancy Dress man from the audience, or sQodravtse words to that effect.

“My brother, you are among our most respected judges and I deem that frank conversation between us is permitted here.  Let it not be said that I intimidated you into silence when you believed you should have spoken.  I bring your attention to sura Adth-Dthariyat [‘the winnowing winds,’ ‘dth’ being pronounced like ‘th’ in ‘then’]: ‘and of everything we [God] have created pairs, so that you may remember.’  And sura ‘Ya Siin’ where we have the saying ‘Glory be to him who has created in pairs all of what grows on the earth, as well as themselves [humans], and that of which they know nothing.’  Now, if there is an apparent man who finds himself, as created by God, to be an impossible match for a pair involving a woman, because of an unseen difference from typical maleness, and yet a perfect pairing partner appears to him in the form of another of the same kind, is that not a sign of God’s glory?  Even if such things, for many of us, come under the banner of ‘things of which we know nothing,’ the pairs are still there, as evidence of God’s mercy, even if reproduction doesn’t follow from them.  To recognize this doesn’t in any way allow the aggressive and degrading sin of Lut, any more than our love of our wives allows pillaging random women on the roadways.

“I had such reflections privately before this case came along, having shared the company of many God-created eunuchs throughout this empire, but this case and the interest of the emperor has brought the matter to a head.   Do you find, respected judge, that my reasoning about God’s mercy towards the unseen in different men – the unseen that he in his glory can see perfectly well – is admissible?   And do you see that to compare any method of sharing love among God-granted eunuchs to the sexual lootings of Lutis is simply an error?”

“Governor, one of these boys claims to have made himself this way, so ‘God-granted’ hardly seems to apply – though I concede that he was constrained by the nature of the other.  To extend from this to more typical cases, Lord, I simply find it incautious in the extreme to extend God’s concept of ‘pairs’ outside of reproductive pairs.  I understand your reasoning, but I don’t accept it.”

“May I say something, Lord,” I asked, and got a nod.

“When we studied reproduction in school, we found that it doesn’t always involve pairs of strictly opposite sex – for example, the split-gill mushroom that grows on wood has over 20,000 sexes of equal importance, and most of them can mate with most of the others.  Meanwhile, the Parisian cave mushroom that we grow to eat [or the ‘store-bought mushroom’ as we called it in my home town] reproduces without mating.  You just need one strain and all reproduction occurs, and the kind of tiny seed that is produced is like the seed produced by sexual reproduction in related mushrooms.  And when there are pairs, sometimes they aren’t male and female.  The little sad-voiced gecko [Lepidodactylus lugubris], a lizard that lives in some of our tropical areas, has only females, no males, but they come together in pairs to stimulate each other to lay eggs.”

“Respected governor!” the judge expostulated.  “This person neither helps his own case nor yours.  We are trying to discuss moral issues of importance to our Creator, and here he is prating about mushrooms and lizards, talking of things we can’t possibly verify.  And he even says that his people grow mushrooms to eat, as if they lived on rot!  Let’s resist the urge to hear any more of this outlandish, fantastical stuff.  If anyone wants this sort of unbridled imaginings, let them read Abu Bakr ibn Tufail’s book” [‘Haiy ibn Yaqzan,’ ‘Alive, son of Awake,’ an early 12th century fantasy novel from Andalusia, about a boy raised by a gazelle on a desert island, and his ascent to philosophical reason].

“Not so fast, judge, your reflex of rejecting the unfamiliar is something that must be moderated here.  What he says is perfectly sensible – God in his wisdom has made some pairs that differ from obligatory male-female pairs, whether there are more than two kinds or fewer than two, and yet reproduction continues.  This illustrates the vast diversity of our Creator’s inventions in nature.  We need not take every mushroom as an example for our own families, but surely it is logical for Marrik, and us, to be interested in pairs created by God that are not male-female.  We can only read the Quran perfectly if we test each word with the reality it betokens.  The word in this case is ‘pairs.’  Our own literature describes the mating of this lizard, which we also have, since people have tried to raise it as a house animal.  The idea that everywhere throughout nature the ‘pairs’ that God has implanted are all male-female pairs can be rejected.  Thus the word is slightly prised ajar of the male-female concept, even though most pairs are of that nature.

“I have no doubt that you will not be comfortable in agreeing with me, at least not for some time, but I have a suggestion that was discussed with our emperor, that I will herewith proclaim as implemented.  I do not have the jurisdiction to order you to judge our holy scripture this way or that, nor do I wish to subsume the role for which you have studied so diligently.  I am only a governor, not a final arbiter of our scripture.  My jurisdiction, however, does extend to the range of persons you may apply our laws to.  I hereby proclaim that pairs of men who claim reduced natural power with women are not to be prosecuted for their marriage-like loving relationships under our Luti or zina laws if they are of any religion other than our own.  The same applies to pairs of women who make the same sort of proclamation.  Furthermore, if those claiming to be same-sex pairs espouse what we have long called the Siwi heresy, the Hanafi code from that Siwa oasis where same-sex pairs long lived in peace under the fold of Islam, then they will not be prosecuted, though you may deport them from our zone if you feel you must.

“I hope that in time, this confusion of invisibly eunuch-made persons with plundering Lutis will end, and our culture will purify itself of this embarrassingly primitive association, which ignores all reality of people’s love, motivations, and nature.  Frankly, I hope that if you study the issue in detail, you’ll formally adopt the Siwi point of view. Until that time, though, there will be no more imprisonment or whipping of the flesh for those who undertake such relations in good conscience with their religion.  So proclaimed in the name of the emperor Kelum-arssibi, may he be favoured and enlightened by God, subhanahah wa taÿala.”

“This is an infringement on our autonomy.  I record myself as having objected to it, but I will comply with the emperor’s jurisdictional changes as I must.”

“I am glad to hear that.   For the sake of any others who may feel more resistant, I am forced by my position to proclaim this addendum:  all must know that any fomenting of rebellion or mob scenes about this matter will be dealt with.  If such unwanted confrontations occur, the emperor decrees that subsequent funerals for the dead, if any, will be held purely in private.  He adds that if anyone lights fires to kill large numbers of random people and then kills himself, in defiance of Islamic law, the severe empire-wide principle of lineal suicide will be used in retribution – the perpetrator’s entire family line, including parents, children, wives, brothers and sisters, and their wives, husbands and children, will all be eliminated.  This scripturally unlawful and hideous measure I do not condone in any way, but the emperor has warned that anyone committing such a mass-murdering atrocity against the innocent, as was done in a previous time of trouble, will be answered by an equal atrocity against the innocents in the family line they came from.  ‘If anyone commits such an act of suicide warfare, thinking to devastate and then evade their due shame by killing themself,’ he says, ‘let the entire line that bred and nurtured that soulless creature be forever eliminated from the face of Ullikummi {Vweialer}.’  Subsequent to my negotiation, we’re entitled to make certain exemptions, such as for family members who try to give authorities advance warning of such a plan, but I wish this proclamation to serve as a deterrent so that I never have to see the implementation of this kind of measure.

“In general, as we wish to protect ourselves against the encroachment of such a barbarous civilization into our autonomous zone, it is best to comply with the emperor’s jurisdictional wishes without militant complaint.  Well-considered quranic argument may still be used to build a case against this measure over time if you wish to reasonably apply for revision.  I urge you, however, to consider the merits of the case I have made.  You may stand down.  The tribunal will recess until after the mid-afternoon prayer.”

The release initiated a melée.  There were a lot of emotional people in the room.  The freed-people were astonished at the goings-on – none of them had ever heard any Islamic discourse before. Also, they hadn’t heard much of our back-story.  Talbush knew about how I’d met Kirib-tareshei, but he hadn’t spread the tale of my venture into prostitution around {Marrik was nearly forced into it, but was bailed out by Kirib-tareshei}.  Still, the story only won me sympathy and admiration for my courage; Talbush would be forced to re-tell the tale several times to different people.  I got congratulations from Tuni about speaking so well in the midst of the complicated discourse, and for holding my own.  Yith clearly hadn’t lost any of his godly status and was deferred to with barely concealed reverence.  Tekhub-shenni led Miikha down (the exit could only be attained by going downstairs anyways) as quickly as he could, and he received rapturously good reviews and congratulations from the crowd while we four were giving Miikha our embrace of peace.

“A true friend of Yiffiffei, and so clever!” was how Lelwani {a freed slave, mature woman) put it as she gave the youngster a motherly hug twice the size of any he’d ever had before.  He resisted excessive congratulation, however, because he wanted to keep helping Miikha walk along.  He did take a moment to grab Yith’s sleeve and say, “now I know why your ‘spice grinder’ seemed so stupid.”  He grinned in great satisfaction.  He’d known all along there was something fishy about that story.

There was something else on his mind, too.

“Are you and Marrik really from the sky?” he asked.

“Yep,” Yith answered, “and getting to know you made it worth the trip.”

“You’re crazy but I’m glad you guys came.”

“Thanks, buddy, so are we.”

“Can I learn some magical stuff from you?”

“Nope, there are just five things and they’re things only I can do.  But anyway, your smarts [he pointed at the boy’s head] and your good character are all the magic you need.  And your learning.”

“True, people already say I’m magical when I read them stuff.”

“There you go, see?”

The army had arranged lunch for us all, and that was our next destination, give or take a washroom trip.

The judge and Mr. Fancy Dress left, along with some supporters, in a disgruntled sweep of robes, and their beards thorned into the air as they discussed the unprecedented assault on their traditions.  Yith had the impression, though, that their discussion was more scholarly than personal, and they weren’t merely reacting to the power plays inherent in the recent drama.

Xus, Eleya, Keli and Kelu-Shawushka walked along arm in arm in an almost familial way – their conversation was halting but clearly enjoyable.  I speculated that they could all have happily have moved in with Kelu-Shawushka in Damosun and settled down to be civil servants in sword-land.  Alas, though, that was impossible.  We still had to move on, assuming we really could get out of this city alive.

Lunch was served for all the travellers, and to our surprise, it was not in the military compound, but rather across the street from the tribunal hall in a restaurant.  The establishment had domes on its roof and looked almost like a flattened concept of a Turkish mosque.  Inside, it was the sort of place I’d only seen, and coveted, the garbage of – all red- and gold- and black-patterned carpets, with quartz-inlaid tables bearing ornamental teapots and coffeepots with long handles and necks, some in brass polished so bright that it looked like gold that had swallowed the sun.  I got to sit at a polished oaken table with Yith on one side of me and Shennaka on the other, and Miikha beside him sat with Talbush.  We were all soon engrossed in lively chat and, wherever imaginably appropriate, lively hugs, pats and love-punches.  Between courses – roast doves, saffron rice, spitted meatballs, tabbouleh salad – everyone got up and talked to everyone else.  It was glorious, memorable, affectionate, and very tiring.

Luckily, the time just after lunch in Daa’if was normally a two-hour rest break, and as my friends had noted in their times of freedom here, most people had a nap.  I’d spent my whole sojourn in prison, so I hadn’t seen this.  Today, I actually got to participate in the community rhythm and go lay my head on the pillow to sleep off my sumptuous lunch.  I’m afraid to say Yith and I warded off sleep for awhile with activities that I presume the judge would think about only with reluctance.  I hoped, as I hit that bodily stratosphere that’s so far up into feelings that it can’t go into memory, that his own meditations, whatever their subject, were going well.

I did, of course, check the closets again before lying down.  This had become part of my routine.

Coming out of the closet had become a whole different concept for me.

The call of the muezzin for the mid-afternoon ÿasr prayer was as pleasant a wake-up call as I’ve ever had.  I looked out our unglazed windows and saw jackdaws wheeling around in the sky, circling some old chimney they’d taken over as their colonial roost.  The air was warm and the smell of the sea came to my nostrils – we weren’t far from the harbour.  It almost made me feel like swimming – but then again, it didn’t.  Funny about that.

I wanna go home.  My palace, my kingdom for my palace.

I did say an afternoon prayer for everyone involved in our tribunal, including the judge and the embroidered morality man.  As I gave my thanks at the end, I looked outward.  The blue of the sky there was so much like home, so much like hope.

Yith took me around the shoulder and pulled me away from the window.  One kiss and then we robed up and readied ourselves for part two of the tribunal.  I wondered if I’d be asked to take the stand.

We’d once again loaned our dog to Kirib-tareshei and Talbush, but happily met up with the doughty quadruped as the group of us assembled in the courtyard in front of our barracks.  We walked the five-minute walk to the hall where the tribunal was held.  Kheshmi found it a fascinating excursion – the food stands along the way must have reminded him of his glory days as chief food wolf in Qodra.  At least two sausages that for some reason had hit the dirt took on a second life as comestibles when his iron digestive tract incorporated them.  It was good to have a dog who was insensitive to the tricks and traps of trashivory.

The only reason he was allowed in the hall was that we were attending an imperial tribunal, which was multicultural in nature.  In a purely Islamic tribunal, he would have been barred – several hadiths had noted the prophet, on whom be peace, stating that the angel of God had refused to enter a building that contained a dog or an image.  I was glad that the great liberality of Christianity, laid out in no uncertain terms for saints Peter and Paul, allowed us both pics and puppies in our dwellings.  Call me sentimental, but I’m sure that if the angel Gabriel were ever to drop by my tent, he would take a moment to pat my dog.  Everyone else does.

Miikha and Tekhub-shenni rejoined our party just before we went into the hall.  The older of the pair had asked the younger if he’d rather not skip the rest of the hearing, but the younger was far too curious to miss anything.  In any case, soldiers weren’t available for an escort until the tribunal was over, and the little guy wanted to spend more time with us before heading back to help his mother out with regular life.  “I told Pashshib-Kumarbi he had to take over all my chores, including the scribing,” he said with precise efficiency.  “He was really nervous because no one’s ever corrected his writing except me, but I told him if he’s not sure about something, Sharum-elli can help him.”

Aha, firm evidence of a girl getting an education – we were ‘in the know’ with a hard crowd of borderlands desperados.

Our tribunal had no published agenda, and when we were all back and assembled – other than the judge, who didn’t reappear – we got a surprise.  Faisul ben Muhhammad ad-Dtaa’ifi, his beard freshly braided and coppery in the windowlight, made just one announcement.

“In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful, peace be upon you.  I begin this session by inviting a special guest to take my place to administer a matter that came up in our investigation but that took place well beyond this jurisdiction.  My lord, the heir to the throne, his imperial highness, Prince Khashib-arssibi will take this seat to inquire into the matter of the border official Ar-ewri.”

{A legal case related to another story line is edited out here.  Then we return to the matter of Marrik and Yith.}

The regular program of the tribunal was now back in session.

“It has been our most special honour to have you in our chair, and your leadership and mercy are an education and a beneficence to us all,” Faisul ben Muhhammad ad-Dtaa’ifi intoned.   Khashib moved with leopard-like grace back to the discreet seat of the judge-in-waiting, while the burning-haired Faisul resumed the podium.

“We have now dealt with two matters out of three.  We have dealt with the interaction of the four travellers with our judicial system.  We have dealt with official extortion.  Now we will deal with the interaction of the travellers and our Morality Watch.  Will Ahhmed ben Ahhmed ben Ahhmed al-Quwaini please come to the witness chair.”

Oh oh oh my ghosh.  Mr. Embroidery.  He scowled openly in our direction as he rose to go to the chair.  His raiment was especially fine – a pale gold tunic with two black vertical bands on the front embroidered in gold abstractions, almost like diamonds in shape but looping and swooping with each other so that they looked like descending columns of diamond birds.  He had his peaked hat of high office on, and seemed confident he wouldn’t be asked to remove it.

With energy and reverence, he held a velvet-bound copy of the Quran and swore to be truthful.  I had no doubt he would be.  It’s a pity there’s no swearing against selective truth or bias, I thought.  But then again, could anyone swear such a thing in complete self-candour?  I probably have a few biases myself.  Perhaps many.  I may be too biased to know it.  And too biased at the next level to know that I’m too biased.  Could I possibly be unbiased at the 677th  level of regress and then work down to fairness from there? {the 677th level of ‘decision regress’ is explained elsewhere in the book}

I didn’t think the embroidered man – Ahhmed ben Ahhmed, since I finally knew his name – was troubled by such questions.

“Sir,” Faisul said.  “Once these travellers came to your attention, you and your service made a special effort to prosecute them, investigate them, and to invigilate against their escape.  Ordinarily, such energy devoted to the upkeep of the law and the public morals would be highly commendable.  On the other hand, their initial offense was seen by no members of our society except those who were watching with special instruments, and a strong case could be made that, given the naiveté of this group in our society, the offense was worthy only of a warning.  Furthermore, in light of our conversation earlier today, the second group of offenses they were charged for has now been stricken from the jurisdiction of your service.  This is something you had no way of anticipating, but I still find it poignant that if just one well-concealed kiss among these people had been ignored by your service, the travellers would have left your jurisdiction that day and gone to where their affectionate acts were unquestionably legal.  Yet, for that kiss, you wished to detain Marrik Rajjarsoun for many years, and mark him with many stripes.  I have reviewed the transcripts of both proceedings, and I speculate that Marrik and Yithythyth became pawns for you in what amounts to an attempt to one-up Qadi al-Khourrikhi [the judge].  Our holy book says, “Worship Allah and join none with him; and do good to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, the poor, the neighbour who is near of kin, the neighbour who is a stranger, the companion by your side, the traveller, and those (slaves) whom your right hands possess.”  Do you wish to render an apology for this twofold episode of apparent overzealousness against our travellers, and perhaps also for distortion of justice for the sake of personal rhetorical advantage?”

“Your lordship, may I speak frankly?”

“Yes – that’s the nature of this tribunal.  You may speak with frankness and I will respond the same way.”

“I have no idea why you would defend these horrible people or any of their acts.  I appreciate it that you have been placed in a bind, having to serve a pagan emperor, but in my service, we are privileged to deal not with local or compromised standards, but with absolute standards that are handed down from God himself, subhanahah wa taÿala.  You, as a Muslim, ultimately must serve the same standards we do or prepare to be cast down to flames and thorns by a far greater Emperor than the one you serve in your temporal position.

“Let’s review the facts.  These people were first seen interfering with a pagan family.  They admit that they smuggled something, seemingly a frightful object of evil power, past our beneficent border control, in the hands of an impressionable young boy.  They have now lured that boy into the arms of their self-gratifying mimic of Christianity, where immorality may run rampant, with things permitted that no Christians ever allowed.  Furthermore, our diligent investigations in the neighbourhood around that house have shown that one of the girls has learned to cipher mathematics, as if she is being clandestinely taught by her brother – we cannot catch them at it, as yet, but note this breach of the purity of the female.   And compare, incidentally, the virago, the amazon, who represents the female sex among these four.  Are you raising your daughters to be thunder-wielding, swordfighting monsters like this?  I think not.”

Eleya, hearing this on a delay, merely smiled wanly.  Xus gave her a proud ‘that’s my girl’ hug that drew a lot of notice around the room.  It seemed thunder-wielding females might have a fan base here after all.  Meanwhile –

“The list of offenses committed by these people goes on and on.  They flouted their nakedness on our beaches in front of women and children.  They committed immorality with each other, but of that, enough has been spoken.  Although let me just say the word ‘marriage’ to you.  Remember what it has meant to you so far in your life.  Hasn’t it now changed to an amalgam of gold and pig dung if the coupling of these two is included in it?”

Guess who he pointed to.  My heart doubled its beats per minute.

“They twice bribed one of our court officials with their foreign riches, the second time with items of colossal value that they failed to declare at the border.  The Marrik one screamed incomprehensible curses in unknown tongues during his punishment.  The young one cast a satanic witch spell on two members of our prison system – your lordship, regardless of what he was reacting to, if you had the power of witchery at your fingertips, knowing that God abominates and condemns such practices, would you use it?

“Then they took part in a violent escape from lawful custody after corrupting our officials with their wealth, and the female put a sword cut into one of my men that is taking unusually long to heal, and has left a swollen type scar [keloid] that threatens to rupture whenever he thrusts his sword.  He had to be given a job where he doesn’t bear arms.  During the prison break, these kaffirs and their mercenaries appropriated the cry of God himself destroying the infidel strongholds, as if they could supplant the power of God.

“And speaking of supplanting God!  The glib-tongued boy, to my mind, has a demon whether he is from the heavens, hell or both.  How has he convinced the emperor, that benighted heathen, that he is a god?  A few acts of witchcraft do not qualify a person for appropriating the corner of God’s throne in a bold move to establish shirk!  [That’s the cardinal sin of attributing divinity to lesser beings, in case you’ve forgotten.]  Call some more of your so-called character witnesses and see if they don’t call him a god – see if they are not planning a ghastly new religion based on the worship of this filthy, male-kissing, snake-tongued monstrosity.

“Respected Faisul ben Muhhammad, you must serve your position in a way that also serves your Creator.  I suggest that instead of accusing me and the respected judge of wrongdoing, you disassemble this tribunal and expel these emissaries of plague from our region and our empire with no further ado.  Our prison is too good for them.  Let them wander until they come to some land where devils walk in the place of men, as I’m told is the case in the nation to the north.  If they wish, they may apologize to me, to our nation, and to God, if indeed our God is the God they serve.”

There was a moment of silence as rhetorical chips fell where they may.

Faisul spoke.

“Your disquisition, respected Ahhmed, is like something learned from a philosopher, a student of how to compile small stones of bias together until a mountain is made that can sweep away all thought with a landslide.

“You have already heard that their caution about their thunder object was partly based on fears of what this frightful object could do if it got into malevolent hands.  I don’t condone smuggling in any way, but in this case, the item was of no known value or interest to our system, and the effort to conceal it, arguably, was meant to protect us.  Is that correct, Yithythyth?”

“Yes, lord, the thunder object has caused the deaths of millions upon millions of people.  We made a point of never using it lethally, and I wish not to say too much about it for fear of exciting people here about such objects. If you wish to have peace and good order, you do not want them here.  I myself have been the witness of whole worlds where all the inhabitants destroyed themselves to rubble, like Thamuud and Ÿa’aad, by the use of these objects and their conceptual descendents.  If we had left such a thing intact here, perhaps seized by a border guard for examination, we could rightly be accused of bringing eternal bloodshed and destruction to your society.  All inhabitants of Qodra should thank God, as we do, that this instrument has not become a part of your society.  I regret that we brought it here at all, but it did save us from calamity twice.”

“Yes, respected Ahhmed,” Faisul rejoined, “you don’t know that the thunder object was again used, further east, to dissuade brigands who held these travellers at swordpoint, and were on the verge of committing rape.”

“And did the travellers use it as men, or as supposed gods?”

“They used the imitation of a descent of Teshshupp {a major Hurrian god}.  That terrorized the brigands into flight.  The chief thug was so moved that he renounced crime.”

“Odious – wherever they go, they attempt to simulate God’s own divinity in vulgar pagan forms.”

“Far from it.  They merely used the imaginations of criminal minds to deliver a needed shock.  In times of combat, tactics must be effective.”

“And,” Yith added in, “the motive was humane, because with the yell of ‘Teshshupp,’ Xusxerron avoided the other example he could have used – to kill or severely wound some of those present by means of the thunder object.  His use of imagination was purely an act of mercy.”

“As for the possible education of a girl,” Faisul said, “you know that making such efforts a crime has no scriptural basis, and it’s completely uncontroversial in West Daa’if in the Shiite fiqh.”

“We are not comfortable with the practices of these human-worshipping …”

“Silence.  Partisan slandering of one of our communities by the other is not permitted in this tribunal in any way.  I’m sorry if you thought my permission for frank speech could allow this intolerable breach of our civil treaties.  The Shiites are to be tolerated and treated with respect, without backbiting.”

“As you wish, your Lordship, though what goes under a carpet is still…”

“Shut your animal mouth now.”

Silence.

Fury.

Contempt.

“In any case, look what you’ve done.  You’ve taken an effort to educate a boy and raise the level of the rest of the family, and twisted it into a whispery rumour of an assault on God.  The boy has stopped smuggling, he has renounced the vice we chose not to name, and now he has become a person of the Book.  Yet everywhere, your narrowed eyes see only wickedness.

“About the nakedness, you know full well that this was explained as customary in these people’s homeland, and our investigation with plaguish friends of the emperor has confirmed that this assertion is true.  They believed they had privacy, and you invaded it with instruments they had no means of knowing you had.  The law against what they did was broken off the sign at the border point where they crossed – and in any case, it was only by the most extraordinary circumstance – having a heavenly messenger present – that they could read the parts of the sign that still existed.  A warning would have sufficed, once the circumstances became known.  The judge was correct in his mildness.  Yet you wished to teach him a lesson, and maximized the opportunity provided by the kiss.  If not for your surfeit of vigilance, no one in our zone would ever have seen such a thing from these frightened travellers who were planning to leave the zone before sundown.  To win an egotistical bureaucratic argument, you would send a kind and loving boy, a guest in our zone, to prison for ten years, and have him heavily beaten.  And you say you serve a God who has ‘the merciful’ among his sacred names.  If you thought goodness had a sand-grain’s weight of importance compared to transgression, you would burst into flames of shame, but instead you vibrate in self-justification, biting your hand in your mouth because your urge to vanquish all mercies with your opinions is so obsessive.

“The actions of the bailiff, relieving our prisons of inmates through transfers of wealth into various pockets including his own, was not a secret, was it?  It was done routinely and openly in a special room.  I have no way of knowing who got a percentage of this industry, but it’s odd that you don’t either, as a supposed guardian of our morality.  Who had you ever arrested who was involved in this monkey business?”

More silence.

“Personally, I would be glad to prosecute this bailiff and to trace down all the trails of his financings, even to the last stitch of embroidery they paid for [a comment that received a start, followed by a furious scowl] but alas, someone, someone living well outside this zone at the moment, has had the perspicacity to donate an emerald to the temple of Ullikummi – perhaps someone who heard rumours of an imperial investigation that might touch on these matters.   The priests use the green stones arranged around obsidian to compose the eyes of Ullikummi in their most prized idols, and this extraordinary donation has helped to convince the emperor that the man should not be prosecuted.  He also feels the man saved a visiting god and important emissaries from injustice and abuse in our system, and that the man is something of an underhanded hero.  Without the central figure of this graft scheme to examine, we are at a disadvantage, and we may focus more on prevention of future occurrences.   I hope you and your service will be diligent in helping us.  I myself will be watching you Watchers, as will the Eagle.”

More silence.

“Now about your other charges.  Yithythyth, what is the nature of the strange occurrences you can bring on with your hand gestures.  Is this witchcraft?”

“No, but its nature as a mechanism is very hard to explain, lord.  I’ll try.

“You know that our friend Kirib-tareshei here has invented a way to put large, flat pieces of glass into doors that fit into window frames.  In the plague lands, such windows with glass have been standard in all houses and other buildings for over a hundred and fifty years.  On Earth, they were widespread over 400,000 years ago.  On our home planet, they were in use so long ago that the number words for the time span seem almost meaningless – long before any human, man or woman, ever existed anywhere.  Every year that goes by, some new mechanism or technical improvement is added to society.  In hundreds of years, great changes occur, especially if competition among societies forces development to move quickly.  Here on this planet, the population has been sparse, the nationalities have been few, and the isolation between countries has been great, so, in Qodra, development has slowed.  Everything here is at least 500 years behind the stage of development in the plague lands – though, the case of the thunder object shows, this may not be a bad thing.  Meanwhile, our civilization is advanced over this by thousands of tens-of-thousands of years.  We have had some time to invent things.

“The actions that a human carries out are normally initiated when the brain has one of two experiences.  Sometimes it receives a stimulus, external or internal, that it is predetermined to react to – if an object flies toward the eyes, the body will duck and raise its hand, ‘without thinking,’ people say; and if a body is hungry, the eye will turn to food.  These actions address the needs of what the plague people call ‘vegetal paralection’ [‘vegetal paralection’ came out in sQodravtse as ‘bodily pseudo-choice;’ in ordinary English, I would have to shift over to the alectical ‘evolutionary differentiation’].  This refers to the responses that have been built into the human species addressing the opportunity that nature offers for the basic human modes of life and reproduction.  But sometimes the mind, in its ability to manipulate images and processes, foresees upcoming opportunities that only its decisions can address.  Then, it uses mechanisms it possesses, both intuitively fast and deliberately slow, to evaluate these decision points and arbitrate among them.  Even if the alternatives seem to be equal in desirability or fearfulness, it can still choose among them.  And why not?  What’s to stop it?

“This second capability gives people free will and makes them essentially uncontrollable.  The majority can be controlled, more or less, through persuasive rhetoric and their own social need for sympathetic and imitative solidarity, but some always escape into their own ways, even if those ways are self-destructive.  We just saw a tragically good example of that in our travels, when a young man was killed because his unquenchable craving for freedom made him a brigand.  When our messenger civilization began to deal with humans, some of us were concerned about that sort of thing, so in humans that we transported to this planet and elsewhere, we sometimes embedded some vegetal-paralection material into the brain meat of their minds, so that their free will could be overwhelmed in specific ways by a few distinctive gestures or sounds.  These gestures and sounds were designed to be produced either by someone in normal messenger form or by someone in human form.  We slightly altered the process of childbirth in a way that caused the children of everyone here to have the same changes hidden in their brains.  It so happens that we didn’t invent these mechanisms entirely newly, but instead borrowed their elements from a group of animals from the same home planet with minds made of similar brain substance, namely insects.  Thus, to make a very long story short, we embedded a series of insect-like reactions to visual and sound cues into the build of every human who was born on this planet.  Not every one of us agrees that this was a good or a right thing to do, but we did it.  I hope that your world will never again see the use of these signs, and that knowledge of them will be lost.  Perhaps I should have allowed myself to be raped in order to avoid disclosing them, but my human vulnerability encouraged me to defend myself.”

“I scarcely understand what you said, young man, though I followed it diligently.  But I don’t argue with your defending yourself against rape with this exotic mechanism.  No man should attempt what was about to be done to you, and if he does, let him be humanely stopped if he can be.  You did him no harm, and that is extraordinarily merciful.  Ahhmed, do you not agree?”

“Governor, with respect, you are letting a talkative devil infest your judgment with fantasy.”

“What’s more fanciful, his account or the suggestion of witchcraft?”

“Witchcraft is mentioned in the Quran; infesting our minds with locust souls through ‘brain meat’ is not accepted by the wisdom of God.  In any case, our human decisions are not made by a part of the body, but rather the spirit, which is later evaluated by God.  God does not put ‘brain meat’ onto the scales of good and evil.”

“The spirit is information nested in the brain,” Yith said.  “A human whose brain is injured no longer has full access to this information.”

Faisul tilted his head slightly at Yith.  He pulled at his beard.

“I don’t think we have time, young man, to discuss exactly where the spirit is located and what it is.  But yes, in military and accident casualties, we have noticed that head injuries may greatly affect the ability to make decisions.  The brain appears to be involved.  Respected Ahhmed, about your religious rejection of Yithythyth’s explanation, you presume that God has not granted the messengers revelations and information that differ in some technical details from what we have been offered.  But you know your Quran.  ‘And for every ummah [a community or a nation] there is a messenger; when their messenger comes, the matter will be judged between them with justice, and they will not be wronged.’  ‘In truth, we [God] have sent you [Muhammad] with the truth, a bearer of glad tidings and a warner. And there never was a nation but a warner had passed among them.’  Scholars have noted that the Earth’s moon is mentioned over thirty times in the Quran.  Is it not perhaps a book written expressly for humans?”

“Do these so-called messengers claim to have a Quran written for their own kind?”

“No,” Yith interjected.

“It doesn’t matter,” Faisul noted.  “There’s no implication in the scripture that every isolated nation who has been sent a messenger will produce a different Quran or, anomalously, the same one.  We don’t know how God will work to send his message to those who come from other planets.  This messenger, we’ve been told, is the first of his ummah ever to convert to a religion of the book.  Perhaps God is using him, not as a prophet, but as a preparer of the way.”

“Blasphemy, deviltry – your logic turns me around inside my soul, but I don’t believe it.”

“That is sheer stubbornness.  You have no corroborating evidence of witchcraft – no spells, no pits, no divination, no curses, no blessings, no evidence of a soul disposed to malevolence or magical grandiosity.  The only evidence you have is your label.  That, I reject as unsupported.  I accept that the hand gestures used could have been a sort of highly developed mechanism rather than witchcraft, and I am glad that I don’t understand such things further.  I would not want our people to have their own hands on such devices.

“I also don’t take seriously, in light of the miscarriage of justice that was perpetrated on the travellers, that they were entirely in the wrong to cooperate with our corrupt bailiff and to aid him in Marrik’s prison break.  After all, the matter at hand was ten years’ imprisonment and 150 lashes for a private kiss among brief sojourners from a country where the act is unquestionably legal.  And their use of loud warnings, even words abstracted from our scripture, in lieu of injuring and killing, has to be recognized as humane.  Your best officers might not be alive today, sir, if these travellers were inclined in any way to violence.  I fully support our legal system and our penal system, but here it malfunctioned badly and only desperate measures could be used to correct the wrong that had been done.  Our emperor, incidentally, more than agrees.  The justice system itself does not function with impunity.  If it commits horrors for no good reason, God himself will arrange for justice to be done to it.  Here the judge, understandably but somewhat recklessly, didn’t believe scripturally sworn testimony and dismissed it as demonic ravings.  Well, the universe is sometimes more nuanced than we are in the habit of believing it is.  If we think everything we don’t understand belongs to witchcraft, djinns and demons, then we don’t have a religion any more – we have a superstition, and Allah has been replaced by a shirk figurehead who gapes in menace as he sways under the weight of sacred names he lacks the strength to bear – merciful, beneficent, compassionate.  For all of those names entail a willingness to work with absolutely everything that is true and real.”

“Well, speaking of shirk, your lordship, isn’t that exactly what we see here?  This minor god whose story you accept so graciously is entering the pagan pantheon of your country.  What kind of a creature would do this?  And all the worse if he claims to accept God as his creator.  Tell me this is not a rebel djinn if you dare, pulling the wool over your eyes.  The emperor, I understand, made him prove he was a god.  Can you make him prove he is not claiming to be a god?”

Yith interrupted.

“Even the people who are most tempted to call me a god can testify that I’ve insisted over and over that I was not one.”

“Very well,” Faisul said, “that’s a good start.  Let’s call upon the most innocent and the least likely to dissemble.  What’s the name of the young girl amongst your freed people?”

There was a very quiet moment.

“Kelib-Yiffiffei,” Kelu-Shawushka announced.

Even my hair stood up.

The embroidered man actually laughed.

“’Yiffiffei healed me.’  With his name in the god’s place in these heathen phrase-names.  And he has permitted this.  If he were not under the protection of that carrion-feeding mountain bird, he should be tried before a death sentence in this city, and with God’s pleasure, dispatched from the universe of the living.”

Your head will roll off this mountain and down into the mire it belongs to!” Khashib shouted, standing fully upright in front of his chair and glowering.  That someone should be killed for publicly denouncing the emperor in such terms, in this country, was thought to be so obvious that there wasn’t even a law against it.  It was an obvious act of war.

“I am not afraid to be a martyr for truth.”

“My friend,” Faisul said, “I believe that, since you’re not even afraid to be a martyr for your own folly.  Shall we hear the facts before you judge?”

“Your majesty,” the governor continued, looking piercingly at the crowd and then back at his master’s boy, “I have been given special powers of mercy in this tribunal, and if that was a death charge you just uttered against this man, I would ask you to withdraw it.  Would that he see your father’s mercy as an example.”

“As you wish, governor.  My father’s example should be an emblem of the just.  But note that the sword of death was withdrawn by my clemency.”

“It is credited to you, your majesty, and speaks well for your rule.  Now, will Kelib-Yiffiffei please come to the chair.”

“Must she?”  Kelu-Shawushka spoke up.  “This is a terrible new trauma for a girl who has had a deeply painful life.”

“I have daughters myself,” Faisul answered gently.  “I’ll be kind.”

Keli slowly disengaged herself from Kelu’s protective arm and made her way up towards the chair, more warily than timidly.  She pulled at her hair and tilted her head a little to one side.

“Daughter,” said Faisul, “how would you like to swear that you will tell the truth – on a book or on a statue?”

“I will tell the truth.”

“I believe you, but the procedures of our courts require swearing on a holy book or a god.”

Keli looked around.  She caught Talbush’s eye.

“I only know one god,” she said.

Talbush suddenly seemed to have a mild headache.  “Whwww!” I could see him saying inaudibly, with air blowing out through his pursed lips. Then he reached into the chest folds of his robe, along the side, and pulled out, you guessed it, the statue of Yith.  He rose tentatively, and Faisul gave him a semicircular nod indicating ‘if that’s how it’s going to be, get on with it.’

The prince rose and took the statue down to the girl, and held it before her.

It was fully finished and resplendent.  I looked behind me and Tekhub-shenni, sitting one row back, widened his eyes to the size of owl eyes as he gave it the once-over.  I almost expected him to turn his head 270 degrees and take it from another angle.  He pressed his upper lip over his lower in a ‘hmph’ of astonishment, gave me a puzzled shrug and mini-headshake, and looked at Yith.

Yith, meanwhile, was wincing with one eye.  Talbush looked around, and he and Yith exchanged a neutral look. Talbush seemed to shrug slightly, but I couldn’t be sure.

“I swear by Lord Yiffiffei that I will tell the truth,” Keli said, in a voice as clear as a tuned, rim-rubbed wineglass.  She held Talbush by the hand, and he stayed with her, with the statue in his other hand.

“Thank you, daughter.  I’m going to ask you some questions and you needn’t worry about anything – just say the truth and you’ll go back to your friends in peace.  How did you come to know Yithythyth, or Yiffiffei as you call him?”

“He and Marrik and his majesty came to buy me from a man who … was touching me.  And the man refused to sell, and the Lord smote him with magic so that he let me go.  I was the first to fall and worship him.  He is my god.”

“Do you need to hear more?” Ahhmed ben Ahhmed said ominously.

“Of course,” the governor replied, giving an eagle-ish frown.  “This is a tribunal where truth is welcome.  Reality is not a barking dog.”

Hearing the word ‘dog’ made me look to see if Kheshmi was taking this all in, but he was asleep with his chin on his forepaws.  Bliss anywhere.  Or at least patience.  Gotta love dogs.

“Daughter, did Yiffiffei do any other magical things that you saw?”

“Saw?  Well, no.  But.  He could understand me talking when my tongue was stuck to my jaw, and no one else could – and then he freed my tongue.  {Keli was born tongue-tied, and Yith, with help from his friends and an emergency medical kit, did field surgery to free her tongue.} And they say he put magic stems in my mouth so the cut couldn’t bleed {He had some surgical styptic pads, unknown in the early iron age culture Keli comes from}.  He gave me speech, your honour.  I bless him forever.  And his friends who helped him.”

Aww, you’re worth it, love, we’re lucky we found you, I wanted to say.  She was turning out to be quite the sweetheart.  I hoped her loving attitude wasn’t going to get Yith into trouble.  Or embarrassment, I suppose I should say, since we’d been guaranteed we’d get out of here in one piece.  By an apparently trustworthy source.  This line of thought made me start to sweat.

“Did he ever say that he was a god?”

The girl looked over at Yith with eyes full of wan appeal.

“He’s very shy,” she said.

“You can tell the governor the truth, love,” Yith said softly.

“Ever since then he’s said he’s not a god.  But when he freed me, he told the man he was Yiffiffei Enni Kirenzivi [the god of manumission].”

“You see?”  Ahhmed ben Ahhmed demanded of the governor, with a sideways toss of his head in Yith’s direction.  “And here are you and your infidel employer, challenging our jurisprudence for the sake of this blasphemer!  How many verses are there in the Quran, and how many hadiths in Bukhari [Sunan Bukhari, one of the main books of sayings of the prophet] about the interest of Allah, the one and only true god, in the virtue of freeing slaves?!  And here is this alien idol of flesh simulating God’s mercy, openly, as a would-be alternative god!”

“I really didn’t want to do it,” Yith explained, “but I could see this general was going to make Keli very, very unhappy, and he wouldn’t sell her or be outbid.  He refused the emperor’s own writ of expropriation and threatened a rebellion of his military unit if the writ were enforced.  And this was right in the presence of Prince Talbush-arssibi, who had already been threatened at spearpoint by his father for making trouble about manumission.  I didn’t want to get him in trouble, either.  The only chance I had to make sure the imperial house didn’t get the blame and become the target of the general’s fury was to claim I outranked the emperor.  And even then, I had to use a hand gesture to make the man know the pain he was going to cause.  Maybe I could have done it differently – maybe I could have used the sign without saying I was a god – but then that would have made my actions nothing but an alien assault, because he wouldn’t have had the last chance to change his mind freely.  It seems to have been a sin – yes, really – [Yith was reacting to several onlookers shaking their heads ‘no’] but one that was needed to do the right thing.  It was a lie, if nothing else.”

Ahhmed cleared his throat.  “Blaspheming for the sake of an opportunity is still blaspheming.  A grave sin against God can’t ever be the right thing to do.  Your lordship, the dangerous confusion emanating from this group of weird Christian heretics is obvious.  This incident happened far out of our jurisdiction, but when it comes to judging whether our Watch was mistaken in keeping the sword point close against this group of travellers, I think this proves that we had it right.”

“Respected Ahhmed ben Ahhmed, I find some mitigating factors in the situation.  Firstly, the man was already a heathen and this approach just used his own belief system to show him his true deviation from the path of kindness and mercy.  Secondly, through the use of the manumission idea, you’ve managed to represent the impersonation of a nonexistent pagan god as if it were an attempt to simulate being Allah, the Creator of the Worlds.   I am sorry, but that’s ridiculous.  Yes, the impersonation may mislead some gullible pagans into believing in more strongly in their pagan gods, but it is still merely play-acting about a fictional subject.  You could just as easily accuse someone of blasphemy for imitating the mushkhushshu {dragon symbol carved onto buildings}.  And if the play-actor advocates a good quality like mercy, that doesn’t make him more deeply implicated as a blasphemous mimic of the true God.

“In this case, the general was stubbornly determined to do what was harmful.  When blocked, he threatened to turn the loyalty of his forces against the emperor.  What happened next, according to the most recent news from our investigation, was that he became a changed man.  He has already freed two female slaves from his household in Damosun, with substantial monies.  The emperor is satisfied that he remains completely loyal.”

“Your lordship, you justify or ‘mitigate’ this blasphemy based on talking about the harm the general planned to do, but what harm was this? And moreover, what about the harm that was done to him?   He bought a slave to do what was legal in his law and in ours, even if he intended to take her as a concubine.  You know that what is legal to a man in his time of desire is his wife or ‘maa malakat aymaankum’ [ما ملكت أيمانکم , Arabic for ‘what your right hand possesses,’ i.e., ‘your slaves’].  Since he had bought the girl as his slave, she was already legal for that purpose.  Yes, she was young, but not prohibited – you know the many hadiths about Ÿa,,isha [Aisha], the second new wife of the prophet, peace be upon him, after he became a widower.   ‘Narrated Ÿa,,isha – the Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, and then she remained with him for nine years [that is, until his death, when she was 18].’ And she had already been betrothed to Jubayr ben Mut’im prior to being reassigned to the Prophet.”

“How can you say ‘what harm was this’??”  Talbush broke in incredulously.  “If you’d seen the look in Keli’s eye, you’d have known she was revolted and really scared.”

“His majesty, Prince Talbush-arssibi,” Faisul noted by way of general introduction.

“Your majesty,” Ahhmed replied with a hooded gaze, “it’s not uncommon for someone that age to balk at changes in their life, but firm and merciful discipline will set them on the right path.”

Talbush sighed and raised his eyes up.  “This wasn’t just a ‘change in her life:’ while she was in the auction line, the general had already touched her where girls have privacy.”

“That was wanton of him and if he did it in my jurisdiction, he would be arrested for it – he wasn’t married to the girl, nor did he possess her.  Even after he bought her, to do it openly would be indecency.  On the other hand, where he did it, in your city, such actions are not uncommon, or so I’m told.  Now that I’m under pressure to tolerate heedless foreigners displaying themselves nakedly on our beaches, I suppose I mustn’t condemn the general in his naiveté either.   If he became a believer, I promise you that he wouldn’t do such ignorant things.”

“This was just the beginning, though,” Talbush replied.  “The real horror was that he clearly was going to take her to concubinage and make her his sexual partner, and obviously against her will.”

“Two sons of my old owner did things to me I hated,” Keli said, “and the general did the same as they did in the beginning.  I would rather die.”

“In our law,” the embroidered man said with his jaw set, “assuming you were a virgin, he would have to ask you for your consent and you would say yes by remaining silent.  Here is the saying from the life of our Prophet:  ‘Narrated Abu Haraira: Allah’s apostle said, ‘A female slave should not be given in marriage until she is consulted, and a virgin should not be given in marriage until her permission is granted.’ The people said, ‘How will she express her permission?’ The Prophet said, ‘By keeping silent.’”

“Oh yes, I was that thing – virgin.  The family told the boys not to ‘ruin her market value.’  They kept telling me I was just lucky they were good boys.  But then they did disgusting things that … ,,hmhh [throat catch and release] … got around that.  But I always kept silent.  My tongue was attached, I couldn’t really talk, and I was beaten up or played with if I tried to say ‘no’ with sounds.  What kind of a ‘yes’ is staying silent?  My heart refused and the Lord and his majesty and Marrik saw that and they did everything for me.”

“Daughter,” said Faisul, “my daughters would feel the same as you.  None of them was ready for men at your age.  In fact, the reason the Prophet uttered the hadith that my colleague Ahhmed ben Ahhmed just quoted was to stop a scam designed to allow men to marry young girls who refused.  I will quote part of a related hadith that has all the information about the scam:  “Some people had said, ‘If a man falls in love with an orphan slave girl or a virgin and she refuses him, and then he pulls a trick by bringing two false witnesses to testify that he has married her, and then she attains the age of puberty and agrees to marry him and the judge accepts the false witness and the husband knows that the witnesses were false ones, he may consummate his marriage.”  To this, the Prophet responded by giving the orphan slave girl or virgin the unquestioned right to refuse the marriage.  I can only hope he merely overlooked the case of the pre-pubescent girl who for whatever reason is not a virgin.  And you see that the age of puberty is mentioned in the hadith as a time when the girl is more likely to agree to marry and the marriage to be consummated.  So I hold you to have been within your rights, in our moral code, to refuse the General, and I hold that Yithythyth was benevolently motivated to try to secure your refusal for you.  I can see he went into the situation with no intention of proclaiming himself a god, and felt driven to it by circumstances.  I don’t say it was right, but I like the result – hearing you here today as a free young woman, speaking your thoughts with dignity and modesty.  I commend those who freed you.

“Your forced silence due to your tied tongue and your history of slave-beatings is the third example in these hearings of something that is real but is unanticipated, or insufficiently adumbrated, in our laws.  In these cases, we are forced to appear to bend the laws to make an exception, even though the reality is that the central justice within the law makes the apparent bend a hidden straight path.  The person who is partially not a person, the male who is opposite to typical males with regard to women, and the virgin whose refusal of consent must be made silently – these are matters that we can deal with as long as we understand the justice of our law instead of picking at phrases.  This is not of interest to you, daughter, since you have not been under our law so far, but it’s of interest to us, since we must deal well with situations like yours if they arise in our own city.

“Ahhmed ben Ahhmed, if you said, ‘I’ll continue to arrest anyone who says in the market “I’m a god” and tries to use this assertion to get his way in something,’ I wouldn’t disagree with you.  The person would be a swindler using spirit impersonation, or perhaps a lost soul, out of contact with reality.  But I don’t think we will ever see a case like this one again – a person not quite a person, who really does have some abilities we traditionally ascribe to gods and spirits, making one such statement in desperation, as a last resort, to save a young girl from a lot she perceives as horrible.  Why don’t we agree to let God himself decide this one, and derive some satisfaction from recognizing the good in the outcome?  Kelib-Yiffiffei, you may go back to your seat, and I thank you very much for your truthfulness in speaking with us.  May God be with you always.”

“OK,” Keli said simply, and she allowed Talbush to lead her to her seat.  We could see she was trembling a little, but she gave us a slight smile.  It seems we were always getting to see her being brave.  Perhaps she was the bravest of us all.

“Do you wish to respond?” the governor asked Ahhmed ben Ahhmed, who was sitting and stroking his beard with his lip curled as if he wasn’t satisfied at all.

“Governor, you might say it is not our business, but here in this courtroom we have a person [he gave Yith a little nod] who was formerly an inmate in our prison system, who watches the ignorant and the innocent, and also some respected royal persons whom I must not seem to slander, worship him in the form of an idol and says next to nothing against it.  He purports to be a person of the book, and yet he facilitates a virtual new religion dedicated to his false godhood.  If the question for our Watch is ‘should we have treated such a person and his accomplices as prime suspects for immorality?’ I would say that the answer is ‘yes.’  This very tolerance of false worship abundantly proves the moral looseness of the person and the group.  Is there something in the injil (the gospels) that permits a Christian to become the object of idolatrous worship when it suits his convenience?  I think not.

“But we can give the young man one good chance to clear his name, and reconcile himself to the greatest extent he can with our Morality Watch.  Yithythyth, from the moral point of view, you must either say that you will allow them to treat you as a god, or that you will not allow this.  If you say you will allow it, you will be chargeable with blasphemy in our jurisdiction, even if your imperial protection prevents the charge from being laid.  If you say that you will not allow this, then I will set my suspicions aside and acclaim you as a person of the Book, even in the light of everything you have done.  God can judge the rest.”

There was a moment of complete silence.  Yith nodded his head back and forth, deep in thought.  I put my right hand over the back of his left hand.

“That,” he said, “is a brilliant solution.  I haven’t had any leverage so far, but now I do.  I’m not a god.  I don’t wish to be seen or treated as a god.  And I don’t think it will help anyone if this illusion replaces reality.  I am so far from godhood – I couldn’t even decide if I should use my powers or even my authority to save the life of our confused friend Shekhi {refers to a storyline that isn’t in these excerpts}.  I cried out ‘no’ to the soldiers when I saw that he was about to be shot, but I didn’t say it with real force, or try to stop them with signs – maybe partly because Shekhi had stolen the manuscript our emperor told us to carry – but does losing a priceless manuscript come close to the cost of erasing an existence and denying the person all their future chances to make good?  I don’t know – I still don’t hear a clear answer in my mind about this. So governor, I make zero claim on godhood.  BUT if his majesty, Prince Talbush-arssibi, or any one of these people here, even Keli, wants to insist that I am their god, then I will state for their sake that I am the god Yiffiffei, created as such by God the creator.  This will be a formal blasphemy and I waive my protection.  You can punish me according to your law.”

“You’re not able to waive your protection,” Faisul said with the faintest curl of a smile.  “But so that your plan isn’t thwarted, I’ll allow you to be sentenced to up to fifty lashes if you make this statement.”

“Yith, you have no idea!” I said with my heart in my mouth.  I could feel it beating against my lips.  I gripped his hand and he gripped me back with the force of resolution.  Now it was my turn, I thought, to weakly protest ‘no’ and watch in horror as things went out of control.  I couldn’t really think of how I could stop Yith now.

The uniformly blanched faces of the Yiffiffei cult gave a tone of Hallowe’en to the right central front benches of the tribunal.

“May we have a few moments outside to discuss this matter?” Talbush asked the governor.

“By all means,” Faisul said, expanding his left hand toward the ornately carved doorframe of the entranceway.

The freed people and their prince exited, as did their sponsoring tradesman.  Talbush also beckoned to Miikha, and he went painfully with them, with the stick-like arm of Tekhub-shenni under his elbow.

After five minutes, they returned, like a jury, and they had the colour back in their faces.

“I’ll speak for us all,” Talbush announced.

“Go ahead, your majesty,” Faisul said.

“This will make me an outcast forever from my father’s religion,” Talbush said, raising his eyebrows to the look of alarm his brother cast his way, “and maybe he’ll kill me – but there’s no other way.  We’ll all follow the lead of the little guy here, Tekhub-shenni, and join the religion our Yiffiffei belongs to.  We like the sound of the church that Miikha belongs to because they have lots of images of saints and founders, but we don’t speak their language of worship [Syriac Aramaic] and so we’ll start a church of our own in Qodra, dedicated to freeing slaves and bringing Yiffiffei’s kind of love to the people of that city.  Miikha tells us that we should wait for completely unexplained miracles done in his name before we called him a saint, but we will honour him anyways in some way.  Wise people from Miikha’s church and maybe the church from the plagues can come and help us start up, if they will be so kind.  We’ll call Yiffiffei the founder of our church.”

“Then there’ll be no lashes after all!”  Faisul said with a smile.  His coppery beard exchanged scintillations with his teeth as a beam of sunlight struck him from an open window.

Khashib, sitting behind him, was still shaking his head in disbelief.  He clearly wasn’t inclined to co-found the Church of Qodra and risk his father’s spearpoint.

“You’re completely mad, brother,” he announced, “but your motives are good.  I’ll make one heartfelt request to our father to tolerate you if he becomes alarmed.  If he decides against you, though, my loyalty is to him.”

“I understand, brother,” Talbush answered.  “But think of the freed slaves who are loyal to you and would remain so.”

Brilliant.  I’d never before met a kid who was a born politician – he just whipped these things out effortlessly.  Amazing.

Yith, meanwhile, had gathered his thoughts, and stood up to speak to the group of freed people.  Some of them were still looking at Khashib, and Kirib-tareshei called them around with “let’s hear what Yiffiffei has to say.”  They all turned to face their former god.

“I really want to thank you very much, you guys,” Yith said, and then added hesitantly.  “I think… though … you might want to credit Marrik as the original founder of the church.”

I heard my name and said “heh?”

He translated what he’d said for me.  Everyone waited for him to do it.

“Me?” I said.  “I haven’t done anything.”

“This whole thing happened because of your wild idea to trade the freeing of slaves for my bow to the emperor,” Yith said.  “And that idea made Talbush and Kiir see each other in a new light.  If not for that, we would have just bowed to the emperor and been brought back here as a foursome.”

He explained to the others what he’d said.

“My brain just pops out ideas all the time,” I said.  “Gee, if you shouldn’t blame yourself for minor things you did or didn’t do when someone dies, how can you start giving yourself credit for tiny things you did when something really good happens?”

“It was an inspired idea, buddy,” Xus commented, reaching across to punch my shoulder.  “Maybe it came from beyond you someplace, or maybe it came from you yourself.  Maybe you should take personal credit for it so we don’t have to make you Saint Marrik.”  He grinned at me.  He knows me too well.  To be called a saint is even more embarrassing than taking credit for a good thing.

“Oh no,” I said, “that’s crazy, and there’s already been enough of Saint Marriks.  I don’t qualify to be in that crowd.  Not that I’m against the holy spirit passing on some tips to me or you or whoever, but I just feel like my normal self, and after what I’ve done in my life, I’m very sure I’m no saint.  Ask my late mother.  OK, for what it’s worth, I take credit for having had that idea.  But just thank God I had it.”

Yith translated.

The freed people gave all four of us a cheer, with the governor nodding his indulgence up above:  “Yiffiffei!  Marrik!  Eleya!  Xusxerron!”

“May we take another few moments?”  Talbush asked the governor.

“It’s close to our break time, but go ahead.”

“Miikha?  As we planned… ”

Miikha spoke.

“To formalize our friends’ decision, they’ve asked me to recite our special prayer, the one Yeshua the messiah gave to us, as spoken in our sacred language of worship.  This is the language that he originally said it in – he whom you Muslims call Isa.  Talbush assures me that Yithythyth can translate it, even though he’s probably never heard our language before.  He’s so sure about this that I guess I’ll just have to believe it.”

And so he recited this direct, rhyming quote out of religious history, line by line, with Yith following up in sQodravtse.  Tekhub-shenni, his spiritual son, took his hand and looked up at him with pride.

“Aboon dbashmayo,”

“Our father who exists in heaven,”

“nethqadash shmokh.”

“honoured be your name.”

“Teethe malkoothokh,”

“Your kingdom come,”

“nehwe sebyonokh,”

“your will be done,”

“aykano dbashmayo off bar’o.”

“as in heaven, so on Earth.” [yes, the church here left it as ‘Earth’]

“Hab lan lahmo dsoonqonan yawmono”

“Give us our needful bread this day”

“washbooq lan khowbain wahtohain,”

“and forgive us our shortcomings,”

“aykano doff khnan shbaqan il hayobain”

“as we also have forgiven those who’ve come up short with us.”

“Lo thaalan il nessyoono elo fasson men beesho”

“And bring us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”

“metool dedeelokhee malkootho,”

“for yours is the kingdom”

“ou haylo ou teshbohto,”

“and the power, and the glory”

“loalam olmen Amen.”

“for ever and ever. Amen.”

 

Miikha added, “I pledge that we’ll baptise these people into the Church and give them a firm footing in the love and salvation of our Lord.  You too, Shennaka.”

The boy gave one of his lopsided, supple smiles.  He looked around and ended up exchanging some eyebrow movements with Kheshmi, who had woken up and was beaming good dog vibes at the crowd of friends gathered in front of him.

Yith then spoke up for himself.

“I have something else to say now.  I want to thank you again, Ahhmed ben Ahhmed, for your stringent correctness that led to solving this problem.  You’ve rescued me from the worst kind of knowledge-bending political falsehood – the type that’s intended to do good.  Now we can all do our best without the falsehood, and I can be remembered for what I am.”

“Whatever that may be,” Ahhmed commented.  “I acknowledge your thanks with gratitude.  I am not comfortable that every issue that troubles me has been reconciled in God’s best light, but we have brought many people here over from symbolic wandering to the Book, and I can go home with that much satisfaction.”

Faisul decided it was time for the moderator to retake the helm.

“May the peoples of the Book, Muslim, Christian, Jewish and Sabaean, always fulfill God’s mission for them, to correct and improve one another when they have strayed from their assigned path in God’s service.  I believe that with that, this tribunal has fulfilled its purpose.

“Thank you to everyone who contributed to this search for truth and understanding.  We will follow up with the matters I pledged myself to earlier.   Now, though, there is another excellent meal prepared, this time at the military compound so that all of us can be present.  I declare this tribunal discharged, in the name of our Emperor, and in the sight of God, the beneficent.  To each one of you, salaam [‘peace’ in Arabic].”

I was bold enough to give the newly secularized Yith a huge hug, and then we were surrounded by freed people, who partially hid our next act – a full kiss on the lips.  Tekhub-shenni clambered up over the front rail of the seating and squeezed in between Yith and me as we reached over to hug everyone in our group, starting with Tuni and Keli.  It was an amazingly celebratory time, like a fireworks display made of hugging arms and broad smiles.

As our mutual well-wishing began to taper, at last, Ahhmed ben Ahhmed came over.  To my shock, he spoke to me with one of the two words in his lexicon that I could understand.

‘Salaam,’ he said, and he held out his right arm in an arc, with the embroidered gold band on his arm glowing in the light.

My throat caught.  ‘Salaam,’ I said back, and then, yes, we did it – exchanged the kiss of peace on each other’s cheek.

And then Yith got the same.  After he broke off the embrace and Ahhmed turned away towards the door, Yith looked at me and I looked at him.  His all-coloured eyes were as round as Tekhub-shenni’s, which were also gazing at me from below.

Ahhmed ben Ahhmed gave a nominal bow to Talbush and Khashib on the way by – they were deep in conversation at this point – and left the hall.

 

**We then go on to other things*

— END —

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Part 2. Arrest and Judgment in the Sharia Zone

 

First, if you haven’t already done so, read part one . If you’re too impatient to do that, most of this will still make sense, but go back and read it some time.

 

**A couple of weeks later.  The characters have now crossed the border into Qodra, the first foreign country on their journey, and have made their way through an area that is mostly inhabited by polytheistic people.  On the way, they were extorted by a border official for some semi-precious stones they were carrying, and later on, they were robbed at sword-point, though they managed to hide a few valuable stones.  The first part of the story here, about gun-smuggling and the smuggler’s family, is important to the developing Islamic-zone theme. **

Story begins 

We clopped smartly along to the border, since the day was getting late.  It was a controlled border, as Arumkhashari had said, and we could see the border posts looming from half a kilometre away.  They were the usual roadside shacks with bearded, robed gentlemen tapping their hands on the hilts of their swords and gazing at the black vultures circling overhead.  All they could do was stand there, and the traffic level was low today.  It turned out that today had been designated jumaa, the Friday day of Muslim prayer, even though it was Tuesday in our system.  We could see, though, that the guards put considerable effort into searching wagons and saddlebags, sometimes even piling materials beside the road.  We already had enough information to know why.  Besides the items that were banned in the Sharia law areas, there was also whatever the emperor had decided to tax as it went into the area.  Arumkhashari had mentioned gold, which is something that can be smuggled in small pieces.  You’re not going to find someone hauling a wagonload of ingots.

“I’m concerned about the Khashakhr,” Eleya said.  “If they decided to take an interest in that, I can’t begin to predict where it would lead.”  She had the gun on her garter holster under her robe, but as we drew closer, we could see people being patted down.  There was even a female guard on hand to prevent women from serving as smuggling-mules.

“Possibly they wouldn’t recognize it,” I ventured.

“They might demand an explanation.  What would we say it was?  A candleholder?  We might even get a bright one who could look it over and see it was a mechanism.  Or in theory we could get someone who knew exactly what it was.  Not good.”

We stopped along the roadside and made a little fire out of stray twigs to cook some afternoon tea while we thought about it.  In no time, we found ourselves with company – a very dirty, very skinny boy about the size and age of Xerri Semet.

“Want something smuggled over the border, lords?  I can do it for you, just two emanzallis apiece.”  An emanzalli was the smallest denomination of coin in this area – a tenth part of the full imperial coin, the ishukhnidi.

The boy had moved rapidly from the shrubs bordering the next farm in order to reach us and was now squatting between our fire and Xus, making himself as small as possible and using Xus’s body as a visual shield from the border post.  I suppose a lot of people stop to contemplate the border and take mental inventory, so he had a good location here.

“I’m Yithythyth,” Yith said.  “What’s your name?”

The boy frowned deeply.  “I was just joking, I’m only here to ask for a cup of tea,” he said.  “Your name is … weird.”

We gave him a cup of tea.

“My name is from another area, but we are friends of this area” Yith explained vaguely.  “Too bad you were only joking.  It was an interesting joke.  More interesting than funny.”

The boy forgot his ruse instantly.

“There’s an irrigation system two fields away that’s a qanat – it’s built underground to shield the water from the sun.  The water is low now; we can wade in it.  I’m small enough to go through without crawling.  The guards don’t see us.  One knows and he makes sure the others don’t see.  On the other side, I give you your belonging.  You give me one emanzalli first and on the other side I take the other.  The guard we know takes one of the two at the end of the day.  Yes?”

“We’ll discuss,” Yith said.  “Have some dried apricots.”

The boy ate ravenously for four or five apricots, then slowed down.

“Have ten more,” Yith said, in case he was being polite.  The ten disappeared as if a ray gun had vaporized them.

“I suppose he ought not to eat all of them or he’d have a little attack later,” Yith said to us in our language.  He gave the boy a good-sized hunk of our breakfast bread from the last town.  It was clearly much appreciated.

“Lords, you are too good,” the boy said.  “I wish your good health forever.”

He munched awhile and didn’t leave himself any speaking capacity.  When the bread pulp cleared out of his cheeks, he had a brilliant idea.

“Lords, you can give me four emanzallis, two for Shawushka {a goddess in the local polytheistic religion – a hermaphroditic goddess associated with fertility, sex and intersexuality. Known by the same name on Earth – qv Google.}.”

Yith translated this and said, “I think he’s pegged us as religious, rich, or both.”

“OK, four,” Yith told him, “three for you.”

“Oh no,” said the boy, with his eyes wide.  “I have to give half to the guard!  He might check!”

I didn’t want to know what would happen if the guard found the accounting had been jigged.

Just around then, another little boy face appeared in the shrubs beside our fire.

“I’m here!” our boy hissed territorially.  The face disappeared again.

“You haven’t told me your name yet,” Yith said.  “We should do this as friends.”

The boy was clearly reluctant, but he mumbled it out: “Tekhub-shenni.”

“How many sibs do you have,” Yith inquired.

“Seven,” the boy said.  “I’m number four of eight.”  It seemed like he’d said this many times before.

“His name means “a brother has arrived,” our translator told us.  “A brother, I would say, who’s scratching to survive.”

We talked a little.

“Give him the gun without the clip,” Eleya suggested.  “If we never get it back, at least we’ll know it’s non-functional, and probably uninterpretable.”

We discussed how we could explain the various parts of the disassembled gun if we were challenged about them.  Eleya pulled the black object out of her holster and put the holster in her saddlebag.  She conspicuously took the box magazine out and gave Yith only the main body.

“Smuggle this for us,” Yith said quietly, “two coins before and two after.”  He paid out the two before.  “It mustn’t get wet.”

“What is it?  It’s heavy!” the boy whispered.

“A kind of spice grinder,” Yith told him.  He clicked the trigger and showed the boy the movement of the hammer.  “It’s a secret new invention.  I don’t want to explain how the whole thing works.  We will sell many before anyone discovers the secret.  It only works when it has the seed canister we just took out, so it’s useless the way you have it.  But this is the part we don’t want to explain to the guards.”

The boy clicked the trigger again and moved the top slider back and forth.

“Wow,” he said, “I never saw anything like that!”  He cogitated away.

“I think he’s very bright,” Yith said.  “He’d grow up to be an engineer if he were with us.”

“Or maybe a Communicator,” I joked.

“Anything is possible,” Yith responded.  He patted my waist, and I responded by patting his butt – which also caused the boy’s eyes to widen remarkably.  But the boy refrained from commenting.

“OK,” said the boy.  “When are you crossing?”

“Right now,” we said.   We extinguished the fire with a little water and a lot of stomping.

“Shawushka be with you,” the boy said.

“And you,” Yith responded.  The boy scampered through shrubs into the nearby ditch, and hunkered along out of sight.  His robe was in tatters from all the bush-crawling.  Somewhere in its folds was our Khashakhr.

“That’s the boy your crewmates wanted us to adopt,” I said to Yith.  “But you know how it is.  He probably loves his family heart and soul.  Poor as he is, he wouldn’t go anywhere without them.”

“My heart goes with him,” Yith said.

We trotted casually up to the border and were very thoroughly searched.

“What are these?” the guard asked us about our bag of ammunition.

“Jewelry,” Yith told him.  “We pierce them and make them into necklaces, like giant teeth.  They look fierce.  But the market where they are popular is further up the coast.  Not here.”

The guard even flipped through our colour photocopy of the Jeiuyng Yeddtloi manuscript.

“Religious?” he asked.

“No, poetry,” Yith said on our behalf.

The guard snorted and quoted us a hadith, a saying of the Prophet.

“Ibn Umar tells us the Prophet said, ‘It is better for a man to fill the inside of his body with pus than to fill it with poetry.’  But it is not forbidden.  I am sorry I touched it,” he said, handing it back.  He poured some water from a canister over his hands and shook the water off into the dust.

“What religion are you?” he asked.  “Idol-worshipper?”

“Christian,” Yith answered.

“Surtax four ishukhnidis,” the guard said.  It was steep, but we paid up.

And in we went.  Eleya had pulled up her hood and had received firm instruction not to take it off in public.  As we went into the Sharia zone, there was a billboard painted in cuneiform and classical Arabic with a long list of regulations.  The bottom was broken off the sign and some regulations were missing, but we read the ones that were there.

“Women must not sell items in the market without being accompanied by a male relative,” Eleya repeated, shaking her head.  Yith had just given her the translation.

“That’s somewhat liberal,” I told her.  “On Earth there were places where women weren’t even allowed to appear in any public place without a male relative.”

“Unbelievable,” she said.  “Not that I don’t believe you.  The mind balks.”

“Doesn’t it just.  But not everywhere,” I said.  “Obviously, they’re going for that sort of thing around here.”

“I see the point of this whole ‘perspective’ exercise way too clearly.  I love Diyyana!  Yaaay, Diyyana!   Just get me back there a.s.a.p.!  Right, Xussi’k!?”

“I’m ashamed of myself,” he said.  “What a whiny kid I was.   But I’ve known that a long time.  This is really overkill.”

Deiyah, it’s inexplicable you could be so tough on this boy {Deiyah is the official who ordered Xus out of the country temporarily}.  Though, realistically, all that’s happened so far is that he’s had to scare some guys and his khandsh {partner} has had to wear a hood.   Maybe it’s not so bad.  Let’s be a little flexible here.  My cheek was healing nicely.  It would have a scar, though.

We had no sooner trotted past the first good-sized clump of bushes when our little courier appeared by the roadside, out of breath.  He handed us the gun.  We paid the ishukhnidi cents.

“We like you,” Yith told him, “we see you’re very intelligent.  I hope you go to school.”

“Maybe I can if we get rich,” the boy said wistfully.  “We’re not Ishmÿailokhei [Ishmaelite = Arab or Muslim] so we can’t go to their free schools and learn their vine writing.  We have to pay for our own schools.  But my family has no money.”

He looked us over and pointed at me.  His thin, curiously leathery, tanned face went through a series of subtle grimaces.

“He can worship Shawushka with me for twenty silver,” he said, twisting one leg over the other as he stood.

The goddess of sexuality.  It didn’t take us forever to figure that one out.  I guess patting Yith’s friendly bits made me seem like a potentially devout person, so to speak.

“Despite what we said about Dodge City back there, something tells me we’re not in Kansas any more,” Eleya said, with a mighty headshake that rocked her shoulders.

“We serve another God, and that one wants you to preserve your closeness for the one you most want to share it with,” I told the boy, and Yith faithfully translated that for me.

And then, though it was a big sacrifice given the size of our reserves, but I counted out twenty ishukhnidis for him anyways.

“These are in honour of the god Yahwveih and his son Yeshuÿa, who both want you to guard your pride and your honour for yourself, no matter how poor you are,” I said.

And yes, I used the ‘real’ pronunciation of Jesus’s name there.  As it was in the days when people talked to him at home in Nazareth.  That’s right, believe it or not: it’s a word that’s completely unpronounceable to English-speaking people, lol.  It has that strangulated ‘a’ sound in it, which I already told you the Arabic for.  In Hebrew, it’s the ‘ayin,’ ע.  Good thing for us that the Greeks renamed the lad.  Anyways, there was no reason to be inaccurate here in the Sharia zone.  Maybe the Communicator language was over my head, or over my tongue, but I took pride in pronouncing the name of my saviour in the most kosher way.  Silly, means nothing, he doesn’t care, but I guess I’ve developed a taste for cultural diversity.  I’m a convert to being non-English.

There were tears in the eyes of little Tekhub-shenni.  “You are very strange people,” he said, shaking his head, “but my heart soars to know you.  Will you stay here long?”

“We have a long way to go and we travel every day,” I said, “I wish we could take you along, but I know you love your family, and you must be a treasure to them.”

“My father cares very little for us,” the boy said, “but my mother is like a rose inlaid in rubies on a cup of gold.”

“And you’ll share this with her,” I pointed to the coins.

“She will have all!” the boy said fiercely.  “Hold them for me and I will pay my guard, since it’s the end of the day anyways.”  He handed back the coins and ran off into the preliminary dusky shadows along the road.  We chilled and chatted, and in due course, he was back.

“You are Christian,” he said.  “I recognized the name of your god.  Tomorrow early I’ll take you to one of your own.  Come to my house tonight!”

That would certainly solve the problem of where on non-Earth we would go for the evening.  We needed a place a little more friendly than the Ravine of Robbery last night.  But really.

“We couldn’t impose on your mother!  We have only a bit of bread and we can’t deprive your sibs of their dinner,” Eleya dictated.  Yith put the word through.

“With one of these twenty, we can all feast for a week.  A neighbour will loan us some food for sojourners.”

The boy had used a term from formal politeness, and I thought we should stick to the formulas ourselves.

“We’re sure it’s too much trouble for your hardworking parents.”

“Come,” the boy said, “you know I wouldn’t give my mom trouble.  She will be happy to serve our gods by giving you our hospitality.  And maybe yours too.”

“Tekhub-shenni, because of your virtue, we will come,” Yith said.  His chip {his built-in language hardware} seemed to be full of local formulas of politeness, not just raw words.   The flowery wording in this case was more appropriate than anything natural any of us would have come up with.

Tekhub-shenni’s house was a one-roomer, reminiscent of a large square igloo or yurt in general layout, but built with pine wood all around and thatched above with bundles of streamside reed.  Everyone clearly slept in the one room.  There was a small hearth on one side made of brickwork – it had the luxury of an iron rod for hanging cooking pots over the fire.  There was also an outdoor fireplace where a lot of the cooking was probably done, given the semi-dry mediterranean climate, and an outhouse that was in indescribably deplorable condition even for a place that featured only a floor hole and no seat.  If Eleya ever writes her memoir, I’m sure you’ll see a description of it, but it’s indescribable here.

As we came into the house, the whole deuheiktan {array} of youngsters was there – and I’ve never used that word to describe a family before, but they seemed to flesh out most of the range of imaginable possibilities.

“Mom, mom, I brought some travelers with me because they’re very good people and they gave me twenty in honour of their god.”

“What?  Tekhub-shenni, you didn’t!”  She glowered at us with her eyes popping.  “You didn’t do that again, did you?”

“No, no, no!” he exclaimed, tearing up slightly.  “They just talked about me going to school and then they said their god wanted me to have twenty.”

It wasn’t a completely accurate story, but it would do.

“Can we invite them for dinner?  I can take one and go to Iftikhar to get some lamb.  And Agib-shenni would give us some eggplant from her garden and … and, I think I could get some oil.”

His mother turned to us.  “We have very little to offer but this is a hospitable house and I want my children to know the traditions of generosity.  I trust that you will honour this and not take advantage; apologies that I must ask, because it seems you’ve already been very generous to me.”

She was looking at Xus and Eleya and was startled when Yith piped up as our spokesperson.  “My friends don’t speak the Khurrokhei language and I’ll translate for them.  We’re from far to the east [he didn’t want to mention our ‘land of plagues’ by name], here to trade some goods, though many of them were stolen from us yesterday.”

“Alas,” she sympathised as Yith went on speaking.

“We were just planning to stay in this area for one evening and it was a surprise to us that your son invited us to sojourn here.  We have heard about the hospitality traditions of your people, though, so we can accept his invitation and contribute to our upkeep with the coins we gave him.  That is, we can do it provided there is someplace we can exchange an emanzalli or two for feed for our horses, and a place they can drink and stay safely.  That is our only request, except that you must inform us if anything we do offends you or seems discourteous.”

“Pashshib-Kumarbi my eldest can go with you to get horse fodder in the next street, and help with the other things your animals need,” the woman said.  A tall, dark-haired boy of about 18 nodded neutrally.  “He’s very shy so don’t worry if he says very little.”  The boy turned disproportionately red.

“Shyness can be the gift of sheltering new perfections,” Yith said, catching the boy by surprise and getting a look that traced a slight sketch of amazement over the beginnings of a smile.  It was as neat a disinjunction as I’ve ever heard, and I wondered if Yith had come up with it on the spot or if it was some sort of a Communicator saying.  I never did find out.

“Maybe so,” said the woman with a half-smile of her own.  You could see she was a little weary with the effort of perfecting such a large troop.

“I hope you have bed-roll of your own, because we lack extra bedding for so many.  But we can find space on the floor, especially since I expect my husband won’t be here.  Go, go, Shennakka, buy the lamb before it gets too dark.”

This was addressed to little Tekhub-shenni, obviously by his nickname.  He scooted out of the house after depositing nineteen of the coins in his mother’s hand.  She had an apron-like protector over her homespun, off-white robe and she stashed the coins in a pocket on its underside.

Yith, meanwhile, had brought us up to speed.

“I’ll go with the shy one to get the feed,” Xus offered.  “He won’t have to talk to me, and I’ll enjoy the excursion.”

“Ask her if I can help out in some way,” Eleya said.

Yith arranged all that and Xus went off.  Eleya was given some olives to chop up into slices for the eggplant recipe, which also involved a few small dried fish and some plum tomatoes from Tekhub-shenni’s mom’s little garden patch just outside.

Yith finally introduced himself and myself.  Tekhub-shenni’s mom introduced herself as Zilib-Shawushka.  She repeated our names carefully but didn’t make an issue of their strangeness.  Mind you, this must be a diverse neighbourhood.  The butcher had an Arabic name, Iftikhar, and he clearly lived or worked very close by.

“I am sorry, lords, but may I ask you.  I love my son and he is hard to take care of.  Did he say anything to you about worshipping Shawushka?”

“I don’t want to get our kind host into trouble,” Yith said gently.  That communicated the essential information right there.

“I will just have a talk with him in general, don’t worry.  Ach!!  It was one of those guards that put that idea in his mind, I think, though there may be other people.  That’s the problem with kids – you have to let them out into the world and then they can get into all kinds of things that you can’t do anything about – except you can punish them or have a talk with them.  But that’s only if you can catch them or find a good clue – and how often does that happen?  I don’t know how any of us survive, but we do.”

You should have seen the big cities near my home town, I thought.  Kids there didn’t get out into the world at all – they just got put in the SUV and shunted from one mousecage to another.  The automobile allowed the formation of the perfect child police state – albeit a benevolent one in most cases.  Imagine being able to bottle up a force of nature like the roaming boy.

“There’s nothing in the worship of our Shawushka that allows such a thing.  Yes, in cities outside this Sharia zone, our goddess can be worshipped with sacred acts of sexual ecstasy in her temple, but she has her own consecrated angels for that.  Here they are banned.  And that ban is partly because her temples always have a riff-raff of people trying to work as unofficial angels of worship, including people who are starving, or children who are being exploited by some beast, or people who are possessed by disturbed spirits [which we gleaned meant people with mental problems or extreme eccentricity], or people who have no self-respect, or people who truly wish to be angels of sex but who can’t take the discipline of the temples.  I don’t want my son to be one of those.  If he was touched already by Shawushka to become an angel, we would have known it by now and he would be studying under her priests.  But he’s a practical boy who can build and invent and make schemes – he’s a shopkeeper or a wagon maker.  He feels so responsible for feeding us that he tried this terrible thing – then at first he said ‘it only tickles’ but later he said ‘it put a shadow against my heart,’ and he almost promised not to do it again.  I tried to get a full vow from him but he ran out.  That was many days ago now.  It is really the fault of … oh well, listen to me talk on and on.  I’m being a bad hostess, please, relax on that cushion there, I will bring you tea.”

“He’s a good boy,” Yith said, as we took up her offer.  “Maybe his thinking gets a little ahead of his knowledge.  His father must be proud of him.”

This was deliberately provocative, because we knew what he’d said about his father.  The father’s absence hung heavily over the room, which was almost nostalgically empty.  The kids had mostly gone into the yard, where it was cooler, to sit on logs and slapped-together benches and chatter with each other.  Yith tells me they had some word-games they liked to play, including one where they simply conjugated words in their own language through a series of situations.  Apparently putting something together like “studs for the collars of the dogs of the king’s wives” was a formidable challenge.  You wonder how people invented these elegantly complicated languages like sQodravtse, Latin, Russian and Hungarian in the first place:  it was bored families sitting around with nothing else to do, in my opinion.  The original scholars.  Cultural enrichment through having neurons that refuse to quit.  Human creativity just keeps on embroidering the language until it’s an abstract starburst of amazing grammar, a game that has enough difficulty levels to last a lifetime.

The above digression didn’t drown out Zilib-Shawushka, who spent the whole time pondering while cleaning off a chopping block.

Finally she came right out with it, even though a young girl remained in the room, dressing a makeshift doll carved in wood.  “His father hardly bothers.  He prefers his half-sister to me and has another family there.  There, there is much more money.  But he can’t marry her in this Sharia zone, and anyways, she is officially married to an old man who has no potency.  So I and my family are my husband’s cover, you could say, and his neglected hobby that became too much work.  His kennel of underfed dogs when he is bored with his racehorses.  If the authorities found out, he would be arrested, but no one in our community would give the Sharia authorities the satisfaction of beating one of us for a thing like this.   Anyways, as little use as he is to Tekhub-shenni and his sibs, he is more useful with his skin on than with it whipped off.”

“Tekhub-shenni adores you,” Yith said, tangentially.  “He said, ‘my mother is like a rose inlaid in rubies on a cup of gold.’”

“Did he?” she said, and gave out a smile that looked like it was surprised to be born in this world.  “I can work for two years on the pay of that compliment, and very likely longer.  He’s my boy.”

“He certainly is.”

The boy in question pitty-patted back in with the extra food supplies, well out of breath and reddened from his high-speed courier service.

The dinner was absolutely delicious, and we heard many times from one kid or another that there hadn’t been a meal like that in the house for a long time.  After dinner, many of them felt compelled to help out their overeating with some digestion-abetting sleep, and very soon there was a whole room full of dozing forms, variously sized.  Tekhub-shenni gamely stayed awake to be a good host, and showed Yith his favourite constructions on the cat’s cradle, a game that’s played by making designs in string held up between the fingers of both hands.

“Scientists on Earth found that this game relies on math skills,” Yith said to me in an aside, “because you have to imagine constructing things going through different geometric positions in three dimensions.  Let’s try our boy out.”

“I’ll show you something that’s like magic, only better,” Yith said to Tekhub-shenni.  Then he drew a triangle on the earthen floor with his finger, and explained Pythagoras’s theorem to him.  It turned out the boy had learned Arabic numerals from local shop signs – not the numerals that English speaking people call Arabic, but the slightly different ones used in countries that write in Arabic-style scripts.  This made the explanation easy, but the boy was still very intrigued.

“You see that?” Yith said to me, “a lot of boys his age would be asleep or looking for something to jump up and down on by now.”

“I found it moderately interesting when I learned it at the ripe old age of thirteen or whatever it was,” I said.  “But you wouldn’t have become my favourite uncle by showing it to me at age nine.”

Maybe this was a just a mathematical family, though, somewhere under the unwashed grime – because an 11-year-old sister came along and demanded to have the figure re-explained.  After that, she joined in rather competitively and made sure she saw everything else Yith’s magic finger could unspool from the coil of underlying realities.  Yith got into pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, and the formulas involved in calculating the circumference and the area of a circle.  Then he taught the square root of two, just to show there was another irrational number.  Tekhub-shenni was thrilled.  The universe had opened up its vault of secrets to him, and he had seen the gold-flakes of numerical madness that could be sifted out of simple things like circles and pairs.  By this time, Xus and Eleya had long since spread out their sleeping sheets and threaded in among the kids to have a night’s sleep.  Zilib-Shawushka sewed something by the light of one of the two oil lamps illuminating small areas of the room.  The dim, yellow lighting reminded me of the gaslamp in Magritte’s ‘The Empire of the Lights.’

“I need to think a moment,” Tekhub-shenni said with a yawn.  He leaned against Yith’s torso and then just popped into deep sleep like a light bulb burning out.  His sister Sharum-elli thanked Yith very formally as ‘lord,’ and went off to her own bed, via the unmentionable outdoor facility.  Finally we thought we ought to take Tekhub-shenni on a tour there too before we all crashed for the night, so we suspended the hypnotized little boy out to the creaky door.  Yith managed to spark just enough consciousness to get him to lift his robe and do the performance, and then I carried him back in my arms and put him on the sheet that his mother pointed at.  She mouthed a silent ‘thank you’ and ‘good sleep’ to us.  When we hit the floor ourselves, Yith gave me a little kiss on the lips.  Then we exchanged smiles that faded away more slowly than the rest of us into unconscious nothingness, like a mirrored version of Charles Dodgson’s Cheshire cat.

********************************

In the morning there was enough wheat groats, a.k.a. bulgur, to go around for everyone.

“I have to talk to you for a moment,” Zilib-Shawushka said to Yith after most of the kids had gone out to do whatever they did on Saturday mornings.  “I saw you and your friend kissing each other last night, and – maybe you already know this – but you could be arrested for that here if anyone saw you or made a complaint.  Those from our religion don’t have a problem because it’s sacred to Shawushka, but the monotheists are very strict.  They go far beyond the letter of their law here because they know that there’s a lot of restlessness.”

“Thanks,” Yith told her. “We do know they’re against it, but I never even thought about it.  It’s just too normal for us.”

“With respect, you need to worry more.”

“We will,” I broke in (Yith was more or less simultaneously translating).

Tekhub-shenni was still around.

“I hope you do,” he said.  I could see that with all his entrepreneurship and bold invitations, he was one of the more fatherly types in the family.  He was looking after us.

“Hey, guy,” I said, “I have an idea.  Where would you go to school if you went to school?”

“An old man, Kelum-Ullikummi, schools people from our religion around here,” the boy said,  “but we could never afford to go there.”

“Let’s go talk to him,” I suggested.  “We had some of our stolen property brought back yesterday and we were already used to it being gone.  Maybe our god sent it back to us for a purpose.”

I knew Tekhub-shenni would decline outright charity, but I was hoping to outflank him with the idea of divinely ordained charity.  It might be so anyways.

The balance tipped slightly.  Hope got the better of his dignity.  “Okay, I’ll take you,” he said.  He looked at his mother.

“I can’t refuse that,” she said.

Xus and Eleya appeared at the door, having made the horses ready for further venturings, and I explained what I had in mind.  They approved and said they’d do some more packing and rearranging while we were out.

Yith and I walked with Tekhub-shenni through his neighbourhood.  It was a ramshackle border town across a wide bay from the closest large city, Dtaa’if Jadeed (the ‘dt’ in front is an Arabic emphatic ‘t’).  Tekhub-shenni explained that the city was named after a town on “the old world” that was also in a famous grape-growing area where wine was forbidden.  I eventually looked it up – it’s in Hejaz, in the hills southeast of Mecca.  Yith added the info that the Jadeed in the name was Arabic for ‘new.’  Later, I learned that the city was usually just called Daa’if by its mostly sQodravtse-speaking inhabitants; no one actually spoke Arabic as a day-to-day language.

Insofar as Tekhub-shenni’s town had a name, it was called Daa’if Border (Daa’if Khemzikhei). It had wooden buildings up to three storeys tall, sometimes whitewashed, and, to someone from our part of the world, it screamed ‘fire hazard’ at the top of its lungs.  Notwithstanding, it was still withstanding.  Nonetheless, it was nonetheless.  Amazing.  Dust and stray chickens were its main themes; tethered donkeys also added to the ambience.  The luckier donkeys were eating a breakfast of bright green trefoil clover, which looked pretty tasty to me, when I looked with a donkey’s-eye view. I often do that.

We walked up to the second floor of a creaky, signless building on the closest local equivalent to a main street, and knocked on the door.  School wasn’t in session on a Saturday, but since the school was the schoolmaster’s apartment, the door was opened for us.  The ‘old man’ in the taqiyah cap who greeted us was no more than fifty years old, and he seemed surprised to see Tekhub-shenni there.

“What are you selling today, young man?” he asked.  “Or are you bringing me a new student?”  He looked hopefully at Yith.  I was probably a little old for his class.

Tekhub-shenni simply replied by introducing us.  Kelum-Ullikummi did a full-scale double-take when he heard Yith’s first name, which was all Tekhub-shenni knew.

“I’m honoured to meet you, my lords and friends; clearly you come from afar.  How can I help you?”

I had my props ready.  I took a garnet out of a rag I’d been carrying it in.  “How much education for this young man” – I indicated the young man – “would I be able to buy with this garnet stone?”

It’s hard to know whether my language or the stone startled him more.  In any case, Yith rapidly did the translation, and the ‘old man’ courteously focused on the matter at hand.

“Hmmm…” he peered at the stone and thought.  “Ordinarily just a few months.  But I love to have a bright student; it cheers everyone up.  If he brings his own food, one year, that is, nine months including Arni (the 22-day tail end month of our year).  As a favour to such distinguished guests.  Is it good?”

“Wonderful,” I said when Yith did the translation.  The schoolmaster decided it was time to inquire about our language.

“What tongue is that?  I’ve never heard it.”

“It suffers from a bad name in your language,” Yith responded.  “Don’t worry, it’s a benevolent language!  You’d know it as ‘the tongue of plagues.’  We call it sDiyyanantse.  The next country to the east.”

“Ah!  The land of plagues.  I’ve met a man from there.  Sells a sort of broom for the teeth – I use it and it’s a great comfort.  You don’t happen to have some of those, do you?  I’d teach this rascal another year for a new one.  If he keeps coming to class and behaves himself, that is.”

Tekhub-shenni frowned.  Of course he would.  What a thing to say.

“Alas, no, we just have our own instruments, soiled with our own mouths,” Yith answered.

A year’s education for a toothbrush.  ‘A bargain like this comes once in a lifetime, sometimes never,’ to quote a sign my dad once saw on a shop, somewhere in his travels.

“Speaking of more teaching, though,” I said to Kelu-Ullikummi, “we do have another garnet.  We wonder if you’d throw in his sister Sharum-elli as well.  She was really enjoying learning things with him last night.”

The man’s eyes widened and raised up in the interplanetary symbol of distressed resignation.

“If I were to take a girl into my school, it would be two sets of a hundred lashes for me; that’s been made very clear by our local police.  It used to be allowed many years ago, but there was a change in the College of Imams of the Sunnah, who rule us here.  Now it’s banned.  The Shiites in West Daa’if still allow it, but that’s much too far for her to go.  I’m sorry.  You can extend this young man to two years if you wish, inshallah that I should live that long.”

You can see that he’d picked up the irresistible Arabic ‘inshallah,’ ‘if God wills it,’ that is the mainstay of Muslim discourse wherever that discourse is found, according to books I’ve looked it up in.  Since everyone is nervous about making assumptions about the future, it satisfies a profound need and surely does great service in propagating the religion.  Who wouldn’t want to say it?

“Tekhub-shenni,” I said, “if you went to school here, would you be willing to spend some time later teaching your family members what you learned?”

“Of course,” he said, then he smiled.  “My sister would break my arm if I didn’t, anyways.  And my big brother doesn’t say anything, but he would die to know everything.  He’s like an ocean trapped inside a well.”

“This boy mustn’t be caught teaching girls, even as young as he is,” said the master.  “To tell you the truth, I’m even nervous about having this conversation on my doorstep, but I believe the suggestion is good, so I stand my ground.  But please, discuss the details someplace else, and, young man, never mention it in my class, do you understand?  Just a word that my teachings were being communicated to girls, and I would have to close and everyone would do with nothing.  For us even to have a school of our own is on the borderline of tolerance.  Beyond that, though, you are most welcome.  Come tomorrow an hour after the fajr (Muslim pre-dawn prayer).  Bring your lunch and a bucket or a skin for water.”

“What’s the water for?” Yith asked.  “Drinking water?”

“No, it’s to keep his writing clay damp.  I don’t want to have to haul all the water from the main well myself.  We just re-use the same clay over and over – write in it with the styli, then erase with the hand.   No money for paper and ink with most of these students.  Can you read, young man?”

“No,” the boy admitted, “but I know how to write my name.”

“Hm, that’s six letters, only 82 to go.”

“He knows his numbers, and now he knows pi and the square root of two!” Yith said proudly.

“An Arkhimeideis (Archimedes) in the bud!  Wonderful.”

Student and master glowed at each other for a moment.

“Good!  See you tomorrow!”  Kelum-Ullikummi said enthusiastically, “and remember what I said about re-teaching.”

“I’ll remember,” the boy promised.

The door closed.

“We’re used to breaking the law around here,” Tekhub-shenni told us.  “But so is everyone else.”  By that, I think he meant the Muslims as well as the polytheists.

Two garnets poorer, but pleased with our efforts to improve the cosmos, we went back to the house, held our breaths one last time in the awful place of offal, and then thanked Zilib-Shawushka, plus as many of her troops as were assembled, for the great hospitality.

“You’ve repaid us more than ten-thousandfold already and I’ll always keep you in my heart and my prayers,” she said.  She beamed at us.

Even Pashshib-Kumarbi, the shy one, came up and gave each of us a hug, except Eleya.  “Sorry, it’s forbidden to hug you,” he told her, “and we’re in the yard.”

I looked around, wondering who might be watching from nearby windows.  The neighbourhood seemed free of spies – although, in another world, the syrphid flies humming over a ragged hollyhock next door might be high-tech drones.

Chickens clucked softly nearby.  One of our horses whuffed and shook.  Zilib-Shawushka did a final adjustment of Eleya’s head covering and then we were off.  I took Tekhub-shenni with me on my horse; he sat in front of me with his torso between my arms.  “Turn here,” he said, “now here.”

He had an ambition to lead us to the only Christian he knew of in his neighbourhood.  I wasn’t sure why, but I thought it must be a generous impulse, so I encouraged him.  I didn’t want to get us lost, but he assured us that the main road was in sight from where the servant of the god Yahwveih lived.  A policeman distinguished only by an unusually broad sword and a fierce look stopped us once to inquire about Eleya’s marital status, but on being assured that she and Xus were husband and wife, he let us pass on.  The fact that both of them had a strange language in common seemed to confirm the assertion.

“You’re lucky,” Tekhub-shenni said, “that one’s very strict, but he doesn’t crave extra money.”

“I wish you had a cousin who lived over in the big city and could guide us there,” I told him.  “You’re great.  But don’t offer anything – now you need to go to school.”

“When will you guys come back to test me?” he asked.

“I guess in two years, inshallah,” I said.  “I hope we’ll have another garnet by then to keep you going.  Right, Yith?”

“It’s not all that far from home – we can take the bus to the border,” he answered.   He didn’t even think about translating that, he told me later: the sQodravtse language had no word for ‘bus,’ anyways.

Well, what do you know.  In for a penny, in for a pound.   I hoped the in-laws would be proud of our adopted family.

I felt obliged to do one bit of troubleshooting with our young student. “Will you be able to do without the money you make from smuggling?”

“I’ll learn to write as fast as I can and then I can be a scribe for our neighbours.  And I can still smuggle on jumaa and Saturday.”

“I must be getting old, because when I hear you say that, I have to say ‘be careful,’ I said.

“I will, dad,” he grinned.

Awwww.

The Christian turned out to be a widower named Miikha (Micah) in his 70s who lived mainly by growing mint in some small garden plots at the edge of the town.  Mint tea was the maté of this area.

“I have pretty bad arthritis and I can’t exactly grow cotton,” he told us as he served us the boiled-up version of his crop along with plenty of sugar.  Tekhub-shenni hung in with us and had his share of the potion.  Miikha turned out to belong to a branch of Christianity I’d never heard of, the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch.  “If you hear someone reading the 23d psalm and getting you to lie down in green pastures just before communion, then you’re in our church,” he joked.  “We take being sheep very seriously.”

They used something called the Rite of St. James, or Yaÿakov as we called him, written by the man who was called the brother of Jesus.

It occurred to me that I was learning more about the planet Earth here than I probably would have if I’d stayed there.  I’d probably still be learning my processed cheese snacks.  Perhaps I would have moved on to the menus of fast food restaurants.  Wonder if Wendy’s still exists after almost half a million years.  I could use a Junior Bacon Cheeseburger right now, I thought.

As if he’d read my mind in cuneiform, Miikha brought out a sprig of dried dates, a slab of white cheese and some soft unleavened bread.  I guess that’ll have to do for fast food, I thought.  It was actually very tasty.  To be true to myself, I asked him what kind of cheese we were having. {Marrik’s only expertise as a kid on Earth was knowing all the processed cheeses in the supermarket.}

“Sheep, of course,” he said with a shrug.  Hm… try to put that on a snazzy plastic label.  Shrug Sheep Cheese – meh, not too baa-aad.

Kids would go for it, but would their parents?

Eventually, it crossed my mind that I had some business here after all.  I asked Miikha if he might have a descendant or a relative in their 30s or so who was short a wife and would be willing to consider a polytheist businesswoman and small-farmer in the badlands.

“She thought Yith was a god, mostly just because he spoke your language well,” I said, “and when he explained that he was really a servant of Yahwveih, I think it made a big impression on her.  Maybe she’d consider being a Christian spouse.  If not, she’s kind and industrious.”

“No one I know of is short a wife,” he answered, “though our Christian community is small, and it can be hard to find someone suitable who’s in our church or could join.  There are lots of nice Muslim girls, but they’d be executed if they converted and, if they married one of us without converting, they’d usually be cut off by their families.  Anyways, who knows?   My kids and my other relatives are all over in the city now, and I’m too sore these days to get there even on the donkey.  I’ll ask, next time I have the chance.  Whenever there’s a moon in the sky, someone comes to visit me.”

It didn’t have to be blue to be exceptional around here.

“Hm,” Eleya said.  She went out to the horses and rummaged in a saddle bag.

“Wonder what she’s up to,” Xus mused.

She came back with a satisfied look, holding plastic strips with some pop-out pills in them.  She popped one out and gave it to Miikha.

“Try this,” she suggested.  “It’s good against pain sometimes.”  It was an acetylsalicylic acid tablet, or Aspirin as we called them at home on Earth.

Miikha followed her instructions and had one with a sip of tea.  “Nothing happened,” he reported.  He flexed his swollen knuckles.  Tekhub-shenni winced just looking at them.  He looked at me and I shrugged.  Old age, it’s coming to us all.  Playing soon in a ligament near you.

“Oh well,” Eleya said, “maybe you’ll feel something later.”  There seemed to be no point explaining that it wasn’t like magic.

We lingered around and took up Miikha’s precious farming time just enough to see if something would, indeed, happen.  Sure enough, after twenty minutes, he got up to re-stoke his fire, and his mouth opened and closed twice, wordlessly.

“What has happened to me?” he asked.  “I feel like a young horse that needs a run!”

“It’s just a powder from a dried herb,” Eleya explained – which was true, salicylic acid being from willow.  We couldn’t exactly add that the powder from the herb was esterified (huh?) with acetic anhydride (huh?) in a lab to stick on the 2-acetoxy substituent (huh?) that really made it the good stuff.  On the other hand, we couldn’t have explained that to any of my middle school classmates either, except the redoubtable Ryan Smallwood, gangly brainiac of the school, peace be upon his fossils.

“I’m sorry to say it will wear off in an hour or two and your pain will come back,” Eleya added.  “I only wish there was something like this that was permanent.”

“But this is a miracle whether it lasts a minute, a day, or into God’s eternity,” Miikha exclaimed.  “I never thought I would have this feeling again!”

“Well guys,” Eleya said to me, “plan not to get any headaches, because I think his need is greater than ours.”  She gave him the whole little wad of 40 from our first aid kit.  “Don’t take more than one a day or you’ll injure your stomach,” she said.  “Promise me.”

“Yes, daughter, I promise you.”

Needless to say, we departed on excellent terms, and we thanked Tekhub-shenni for the introduction.

“You guys are amazing,” he enthused.  “I wish you could stay!”

“If we could split ourselves in half, we surely would,” Yith assured him.  “But we’re just people and regular travellers, and we must travel on.”  There was another big round of hugs, and this time, because Tekhub-shenni was such a small boy, Eleya was able to get a legal embrace and even a kiss.  And then he stood in the dust waving to us, with his old friend at his side.  At our last glance, he was running for home with energy I hadn’t seen since the lander took off from Regntum Beach.

It’s fun to be a thrill, don’t you think?

********************  ****************************

We then made the mistake of thinking this beatific interlude would continue.

As we trotted around the bay towards Daa’if, we came across some very tantalizing beaches inhabited only by a few roaming goats.  The day was stifling hot and even the dust clouds at our feet seemed to flop back down on the road like exhausted dogs.  Finally, we came upon a beach that was irresistible, barely visible down at the end of a path, sheltered by trees and, once you were around the corner from the entrance, completely isolated from view.  It looked out over a magnificent vista featuring the squarish muezzin towers and peaked temple porticoes of the city far across the bay.  Eleya protested that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, and we had no idea what would happen if someone came along and discovered us in a naked state, but Xus, our daredevil and scofflaw, was rarin’ to go in.   He threw his robes off and crashed into the surf like a battering ram breaking down a castle.  It must have been windy out there somewhere across the water, because the waves were high, somewhere between playful and challenging.

“Come on, come on!” he shouted at us, “this is sweet!!  Get the dust off!”

I was reminded what a good looking young man he was.  And what an appealing friend.  The good luck of having a friend like that had to be treated reverently.  You couldn’t just sit and scowl over your vague dreads.

So I succumbed to his charms, and it was glorious.  The sun and the waves competed for who could splash me more, and Xus also came in to give me a splash or two.  Yith decided to keep Eleya company on the beach, and they made a sober-looking pair of watchers, like people watching a comedy show that they’re just not getting.

“All right,” Xus conceded.  “We’ve had our fun.  We’re done, right, Marrik?”

“I could stay all day, but not with these guys sitting shiva like that,” I said, referring to the Jewish custom of sitting in mourning seven days for a recently deceased relative.

Within twenty-five minutes of reaching the beach, we were back on the dusty road again, plodding through the seaside vineyards and wheat fields.  It took us nearly two hours to make our way around through increasingly heavy donkey traffic to the adashshi, the lower city walls.  We’d been told by our hosts last night that the police-check at the walls was desultory, not at all like the workover everyone was given at the border.  We didn’t take any special precautions.  The gun hung around Eleya’s leg as always.

Several guards were hanging out over empty teacups at the guard post, and I could see all eyes turn our way as we trotted up and joined the loose queue of travellers at the gates.  A conversation occurred among the guards.

“I don’t like this,” Eleya said with a chill.  But it was too late.  Five guards detached from the post and strode rapidly toward us.  One was wearing an embroidered robe and seemed to be especially important.

“Is that them?” said one of the black-bearded regular guards.

“The two older males,” said the embroidered one.

“The young one is speaking in a foreign language.” (Yith was translating).

“Dog foreigners, that explains it.”

Xus and I were flanked on either side by a guard, and two swords were pointed at each of our chests.

“You were seen in a state of obscenity by the Morality Watch from the tower of our great mosque.  Do you have the honesty to confess, you dog?”

This was addressed to Xus.  I got a supplementary poke with a sword to show it applied to me, too.   Both guards were startled to hear Yith translate the accusation in a tone not unlike the original, but they quickly realized what was happening.

Would there be any chance we could lie our way out of it?  They seemed pretty sure of themselves.  Might as well confess and hope for clemency, I thought.

Xus must have had the same thought.

“My lords, we were sure we couldn’t offend anyone and that we wouldn’t be seen, so we did as we commonly do in our country.  I don’t know how your watch was able to see us.”

“It’s a crime whether anyone sees you or not.  The watcher in the tower has a mqraab [“approximating apparatus,” probably a telescope].  Immorality can’t just laugh in the distance here.  Look, there was a woman with you, and a boy, which makes it even worse.  Is this woman married to one of you?”

“Yes, she’s my wife.”

“Lucky for you.  Without the obscenity, forty lashes and four months in prison for khilwa [crime of being with a member the opposite sex in the absence of one of her male relatives].  With it, you might lose your head.  You idiotic foreigners, who knows what you’ll get up to?   The qadi [religious judge] will decide if you’ll see mercy or justice in this case.  You two must come with us.  Are the woman and the boy related?”

“They’re brother and sister,” Xus said quickly before any of us could signal otherwise.  Yith translated faithfully.

It seemed prudent to be as related as possible.

“Stop translating,” the embroidered guard told Yith.  Then he said to his companions, “We have to take all of them.  Clearly only the boy speaks our language, which makes me doubt he’s the brother of the girl, but we’ll let that go.  We need him as a translator unless we can find someone else who speaks that tongue – to my ear, it sounds like the tongue of plagues.  We’ve had a few of those in our court.  The girl can’t be separated from her husband and brother until we can put her with other women.  If the judge will hear the filth donkey’s case today, she can remain, but if they have to wait overnight, she can be put in the women’s prison temporarily.”

Eleya knew she was being pointed at, and she could see Yith wincing.

“Xus, whatever they do to you, I’m doing it to you twice,” she glowered.

“Sorry, very sorry, beloved one, I’m in shock.”

“Will you shut the devil up?  Translate that!” commanded one of the lesser guards.

Yith snuck in the last sentence from the embroidered man, the one about women’s prison.  It was conspicuously too long, so he received a smack on the shoulder with the flat of a sword.

“Watch it, you idiot,” said the guard who’d taken the action.  “We’re not fools like you people.”

Eleya, meanwhile, was on the third of a series of deep sighs.

Xus’s face was a greyish-greenish pink colour that had to be seen to be believed.

I suspect I was looking a little drab myself.

“Confiscate their swords.  Translate:  we’re taking your weapons.  You may have them back after justice has been served, in the name of God the compassionate, the merciful.”

The swords were removed.

“All of you, step down off the horses.  Ÿali [Ali, one of the guards], you and your slaves can lead the animals to the stable of the court of justice in Al-Makkah square.

“We are honest people and your materials will not be disturbed other than an inspection for gross abominations and heretical tracts.”  Yith was allowed to translate these remarks and wasn’t told to stop translating again after that.

“If you have any criminal objects you’d like to confess in advance, say so now, for the sake of mercy.”

“We don’t,” Yith said, “and everything was looked over in detail at the border.”

“Yes, your friends appear more foolish than sinister, I believe you on that.  What religion are you?”

“Christian”

“As people of the book, they should know better.  Doesn’t the Torah [first five books of the biblical Old Testament] speak against flaunting your nakedness?   Still, it would be worse for them if they were pagan.”

Yith, alas, decided to answer his question about the Torah. “Ham, the son of Noah, was criticised for looking at his drunkenly naked father and being disrespectful about it.  Other than that, the references to people’s nakedness in the Torah are really about, um, marital-type relations,” he said.

“What??  Are you insane?”

The embroidered man grabbed Yith by the throat and stared him in the eye, breathing heavily.  I jerked automatically and a sword beside me came up to rest with its scratchy blade against my neck.

“Are you proselytizing to me from this filth?  The prophet Noah, drunk?  ‘Marital-type relations?’ Any more of this blasphemy from you and that glib tongue of yours will come out!  Do you understand?”  He shook Yith vigorously.

Yith nodded respectfully.  He didn’t look especially worried.  I hoped he was going to smarten up.  That’s the problem with people who have no bully experience.  They don’t know when to keep their mouths shut.  I could have given him the master’s level course on being bullied, and yet here he was, defenceless.  I hoped he was a quick study.

I know you’re obliged to look fearful in such circumstances; calm appears defiant.

I started to get very worried about him.  Was there any chance that he could comprehend everything except mortality?  Had he been a machine for so long that he’d lost the ability to pay attention to his own peril?  Was he the lectical {lectics = philosophy of opportunity} equivalent of one of those people with congenital analgesia, who can’t feel any pain and therefore accumulate injuries?  I sure hoped not.  Yith, for heaven’s sake, you’re human now, buddy.  Human.

Actually, maybe that was the worst possibility.  Maybe he’d succumbed to human teenhood, and now had that characteristic mindset that nothing really bad could happen to him. Maybe, like some of my schoolmates, he’d inchoately feel that the cosmos ought to love him, and ought to provide a safe matrix for the use of his magical powers.  He had a language chip; he was pretty cool.

He got away with it this time.  The man let go of his throat and we marched in silence along narrow streets towards the court.  There were innumerable small shops and stalls selling bananas, trinkets, scarves, bags of flour and so on.  A few heavily clad, scarved and sometimes veiled women moved around amongst the well-robed men and boys.  There was a pervasive odour of roasting lamb and oregano, with occasional infusions of subtle perfume from the hair oil of men and women alike.  I almost walked into a stall with brilliantly designed taqiyah caps and I wished I was shopping rather than under arrest.

Reality is just too much sometimes.  The whole thing is like being ‘sent for perspective.’  {The legal punishment Xus received at home that sent him out of the country was called being ‘sent for perspective.’} When can I bloody well come home?

I was not happy.

Daa’if clearly wasn’t a den of crime.  When we came into the judge’s chambers, there were only two cases ahead of ours.  A pagan boy who’d been caught having mint tea with his girlfriend.  Would have been maybe 20 lashes but it was his second offense.  One hundred lashes and a month in prison for defiance.  The boy sweated and looked confused and pimply.  I hoped his relatives would have the mercy to marry him to the girl in question, if she’d still have him when he got out.  Yes, he was only 19, a little young to start a family (no birth control here), but it beats getting fire and brimstone from a very irritated judge.  Yith couldn’t translate word for word – it would have been too noisy – but he did tell me that the same youth had seen the same judge before.  That was a real ‘oh oh.’

Then there was a Muslim man and a woman who’d been caught rolling on the bed together by the woman’s estranged husband.  The avenging, undivorced ex had broken into the woman’s house to see why there was a low light on so late, and then when he’d seen the incipient carnality before his eyes, he’d run to make a complaint.  If he’d brought three other male witnesses with him in his moment of discovery, he could possibly have had both parties stoned to death, but as it was, the case rested on his own oath.  The woman looked distraught as she stood in court, and she wavered like a weeping birch tree in a windstorm.  Her emotions were clearly more for the accused man than for herself.  The latter was as taciturn and unmoving as a tsKorabaatse {traditional north-African} circumcision candidate, but the looks he gave her were guardedly sympathetic. The accused couple denied at first, but when they were asked to swear an oath on the Quran, their denials ceased and they minimally confessed: “we didn’t get far enough into the act to commit zina [extramarital sex], but he’s not lying, only jumping to conclusions.  May God forgive us.”

Four hundred lashes for each participant in the act, in batches of 50 per week.  Severe warnings about recurrence.

It was all amazingly swift – no lawyers, no appeals, no preliminary or discovery hearings, and certainly no juries.

Xusxerron’s name was haltingly read out, and then mine came out smoothly.  Yith tells me it sounds Arabic if you change the pronunciation just slightly.  I hoped they’d give me a brownie point for having an easy name.  The embroidered man, representing the Morality Watch, gave his testimony about what he’d seen – these distant, defiantly naked forms cavorting in the waves in front of a cowed woman and lad.  Another guard from the watchtower was brought in to confirm that he, too, had looked through the spyglass and seen the disgusting scene.

“Did they try to conceal this crime?” the qadi asked from his judicial bench.

“No, lord, they admitted it.  They are foreigners new to this area and said they thought it was excusable if it was unseen by our people.”

“God sees all people equally,” said the judge.  “Do you believe in God, you people, supposedly of the book?”  Yith was signalled by a guard to forward us the question.

“Yes, sir,” Xus and I answered in turn.

“Do you believe God sees you through human eyes or his own?” asked the judge.

“His own,” Xus said.  I nodded.

“We don’t want to offend your lordship by describing the customs of our country, but they explain our actions, lord.  But it was our folly to follow those ways here.”

“If this is a plea of ignorance of the law, it’s not an excuse, because the law is posted at the border.”

“We read the sign in full, lord, but some parts are broken away,” I offered.  The judge gave me a steady look.

“This is still a matter of displaying your most private attributes before a woman who is not even related, young man.  At least the others are her blood relatives.  That’s very serious for you.”

I wondered if I should take a chance.  Too much information, perhaps.  Blatherskite that I am, I went for it anyways.

“I’m a male who has no natural powers with women, lord.”

Yith helpfully added “He has heard about the Surah “Light,” my lord, and it appears to apply to him.”

“What?  Oh, I see.  You’re hardly the picture one has in mind of this, but I know it is possible.  I’m glad such abominations are confined to foreign places,” the judge said.  “Are you whole?” he asked me.  I understood what he was driving at.

“Yes, lord, I am not missing any parts.  But nonetheless, I have never had a feeling of that kind for a woman.”

“I can hardly test you.  Swear it on your holy book, at least.”

A ragged copy was brought to me and I did so.  I’d never seen a bible in cuneiform before.  From torn bits of page that flopped out, I could see it had been printed by hand with styli dipped in ink.  Must have taken forever.  On Earth, it would have been a top-ranking treasure in any museum.  Here, it was just the holy token for infidels to perform their vows upon.

“Your sad condition doesn’t excuse you offending the woman’s eyes, but I believe you that it wasn’t a display meant to incite zina with her.  May God have pity on you that you can never have a family.

“You foreigners are an ongoing freak show, and I sometimes weary of it, but God is just and merciful, and I cannot be influenced by my emotion.   Are you planning to stay in our halal [kosher] zone?”

“No, lord,” Xus testified.  “We’re travelling on directly to the northwest along the coast in order to trade.  But we don’t plan to return this way.  Eventually, we’ll go home by boat.”

“Inshallah,” returned the judge.  “Please never return unless it be as men of true religion.  I will show you the mercy of our law, and I hope you learn from it and gain respect for the right path.  Your twenty to forty lashes each are suspended and you will only receive them if you misbehave.  You each have ten days in prison in order to show that the law is not flouted by anyone.  God is beneficent and wise.  God is great.  Are there any more cases?”

We were led out while the next case was being introduced.

“You were blessed with good luck,” our bailiff said as he marched us out the majestic carved door of the room, with Yith and Eleya still trailing.  “That fellow will have it hard.  An old man late with rent, so his landlord goes to look around and finds a bottle of strong alcohol in the kitchen drawer.  Now he’d gladly relive his whole life backward just to undo his birth, the crazy donkey.  He’ll feel some pain.”  The man smirked knowledgeably.

We walked down a whitewashed, wood-panelled corridor overlaid with carpets in intricate abstract patterns.  Dark brown and white, in this case – slightly stark, but not right at all for a place of severe punishment, I thought.  Fertile and accepting.  Maybe the half-colours {a kind of astrology based on interpreting colours} don’t apply here.

We were diverted into a side chamber, a small boardroom.  It held a low table with eight ornately embroidered, red and yellow cushions around it.

“Sit,” the bailiff commanded us.  All four of us did so.  The bailiff also squatted down and then sat back into a cushion.  He looked relaxed.  Two guards who’d been following us posted themselves at the door.  The man in the embroidery wasn’t with us: he’d been left behind in the courtroom, and was presumably heading back towards his successful watchtower.  He hadn’t looked at all pleased by our light penalty, but his momentary glower and sigh were directed well away from the judge’s line of vision.  No doubt he and the judge saw quite a lot of each other.

“You will taste prison,” the bailiff said, “but as long as you do, you’ll be a burden on the courts and the people, and why should the people keep you foreigners in luxury here?”

“We don’t wish to impose ourselves on your people,” Xus answered quickly, with a Communicatoresque tone of perfectly sincere irony.

“Discreet men have been known to save themselves and our taxpayers unnecessary suffering,” the bailiff said, folding his hands together.

“We’re discreet,” Xus assured him.

All of us nodded.

“A woman is perhaps not discreet, but you’ll watch over her,” the bailiff said.

“She is, but I will,” Xus said.

Eleya gave a steady look that showed just a trace of longsuffering.

“Eighty per person would satisfy the needs of justice and expediency,” said the bailiff.  “One night in prison so your name is written in the book, and release after the morning prayer – you can walk through the horns of Satan and take your transgression with you.”

We didn’t know what this meant, but I later found it refers to some hadiths, sayings of the prophet, that say the sun rises between the horns of the devil.  The prophet seems to have wanted to deter people from sun-worship; hence also the pre-sunrise call for morning prayer.

“One sixty – I wonder if we have so much?” Xus mused, looking at Eleya.

“How about forty for this one and I’ll sleep on my own for a month,” Eleya offered sardonically.

“We’re not here to amuse ourselves, young woman,” the bailiff said, and then he took on a proclamatory tone:  “‘Your lawful women are your prepared fields, so go to your tillage as you wish, and invest in advance for your souls, and fear God, and know that you’ll someday meet him.’

“Al-Baqara,” he added, naming the second surah of the Quran, the source of the quote.

Eleya took a deep breath, intake only.  As she later noted, it’s a unique occasion when you first see yourself as a plot of land prepared for penile planting.

“Eighty apiece,” the bailiff declared.  “We’re not bargaining over donkeys.  Unless you wish to prove we are, by being obdurate.”

“Do you take credit cards?” I said in English.  Yith looked at me quizzically, strongly curling one of his lip corners.  I shouldn’t have risked making him laugh, but relief was making me giddy.  I knew Yith now had to translate something from me, so I got to business.

“I’m not sure if we have 160 ishukhnidis, but we have coins of some other imperia and duchies inside Qodra.  Can we exchange some if we need to?”

“The money changer will take ten percent, but yes, no problem.”

We should have brought an extra donkey loaded with coins, I thought.  This, we hadn’t calculated on at all.  But ten days in prison – that was probably best avoided.  Even in a planet without rats, mice, lice or roaches.  We still have humans here, and they’ve been known to be a problem in prison.  Our less presentable passions tend to infest such dark places.  Roaches may be preferable.

“The money’s mostly in our saddlebags,” Xus explained.  “We’ll have to get it.”

“You two can have some private accommodation together in our famous prison for the evening while your brother-in-law obtains the money and exchanges it,” the bailiff said, with a satisfied half-smile and nod.

As an extra income source, this clearly beat working overtime.

Xus and I had to bid heart-rending ‘see you soons’ to our misty-eyed sweethearts and we were taken off, still followed by swordsmen, to a side-building where the walls were made of thick, yellow sandstone.  Xus had to hunch over to get down the hallway, finally, as we went through three or four corridors to get to our spa of justice.  Heavily bearded prisoners in small cells, most not high enough to stand up in, uttered things that we couldn’t understand at all.  The tone, however, was probably universal for such situations, and I’m sure you know it as well as I do.  Plaintive pleas, darkly humorous taunts, anomalous ravings, expressions of rage, prayers, threats, catcalls – the symphony, the opera of prison.  I looked at Xus.  What an expression he had on.  I’d forgotten for a moment that sDiyyanantse only know about these things from books and movies from another planet.  He was shocked and dumbfounded.

Without having ever had mice or hamsters around, he’d never seen any creature at all caged up this way.  Not even an insect.  The few people in Diyyana who kept parrots tended to have backyard conservatories for them.  They were usually birds that had been found injured in the wild.

“And these people were all skinny-dippers,” he joked bravely while stooping his way along into the increasingly chilly humidity.

Thank God, when we got into that cell of ours, that we were together.  As someone who was a loner as a child, I can be very self-reliant.  Psychological deprivation torture, however, is one of those things that appreciates company.  Most of the people we’d gone by had been in barred stonework caves of four to six people, but we’d also seen some straggly solitary wildmen on the way by.  Some had had lots to say as we went along; others were silent.  Those ones were the scary ones.

Our guards motioned and half-shoved us in, and the gate closed behind us.  The lock that was put on was another item that should have been a valuable antique:  five centimetres long, with a lateral bolt, all made of hand-forged iron parts.  It attached to iron rings on our door.

Xus was still joking.

“Nice quiet place to recover from forty lashes,” he observed.  The beds, or benches, were two long, flat stones.  There were two very coarse woollen blankets and a bucket in the corner.  One of the guards had pointed at it, and had said several words, one of which was vaguely familiar: “khashari.”  I finally realized it was the second half of the name of our thief, Arumkhashari.  I guess he’d only used that one on naïve-looking foreigners.  ‘Gift of crap,’ indeed.

Light in this part of the prison was only supplied by a few torches in the hallways.  Evening was coming on anyways, and even the areas that got light from openings and shafts would soon be dim.  We weren’t going to get to the level of the ‘empire of the lights’ around here.  The strip mall of the dim, more like.

Xus’s bravado wore off.  He became reflective, sitting on his slab.

“You know, all these incidents we’ve been involved in here in Qodra seemed to come out well in some way, so we’re all giddy with ourselves – got to be gods for a day, escaped that gracefully; got robbed without injury, got some of the loot back; saved a boy who was going to seed; got a lucky break from a judge and practically got off the hook for a charge of not-so-public indecency.  Maybe you haven’t noticed that we’ve dug ourselves deeper into a hole every time.  We’ve got to get out of this country.  Those stories about god-like things happening around us are lurking in wait back there.  You think no one’s paying attention, but yes, it turns out, they are.  Our money is haemorrhaging out in buckets.  That’s not a criticism of your helping the little guy, Marrik, no, you did well there.  But we’re getting to the end of our rope.  Now we have a criminal record here.  We have to quickly and quietly get out of this place and try to move along without any more adventures.  Do you agree?”

“I can already write my novel,” I joked.  “That’s truly enough.”

“Is it your novel that’s been bringing all this crap on?” he asked.  “I hope you’re not praying for drama every night.”

“Not me,” I said.  “I thank God for Yith, you and Eleya, pray for our herders, the boss, the crew, our big and small friends, the spirits of my folks – I hope they’re out there – and then last but not least, I thank God you’ll never own a car.”

“That’s not fair,” Xus answered, clenching his lower lip and grabbing the collar zone of my robe, “but thanks for the thought, anyways.”  He made a playful snarl with his teeth.

We looked at each other.  I think we might have wrestled just for the fun of it if there weren’t guards around.  Boys’ night out.

Boys’ night in, I guess I should say.

I hoped Yith and Eleya weren’t having too grim a time of it out there.

A muezzin sang out a call for the sundown prayer.  It rang and echoed through the corridors.  We could hear motion as if the call was being widely responded to.  No other prisoners were actually visible from our cell.

Presently, a kitchen crew appeared, featuring a man – clearly a slave from his wrist shackles – carrying two buckets of soup on the ends of a stick.  He was naked from the diaphragm up, which surprised me, but I later learned that obscenity for slave men began at the navel around here.

We were each handed a wooden bowl and a ladle of the soup was hastily splashed into it.  Xus had to do a minor juggling act to catch most of his before it fell on the floor.  It wasn’t all water as I expected from reading bits of Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn in the Diversity of Earth Cultures 2 text.  There was a goodly chunk of fatty chicken skin, still scabrous from poor plucking of the smaller featherlets, at least seven beans, and several segments of cabbage leaf.  We also got a skin full of fresh water, which was tepid but without adverse odours.  The bailiff was right; it was the luxury suite.

I taught Xus how to play the game of hangman and we scrawled in the dust on the floor below our slabs.  It’s an old Earth game – you think of a word and your friend tries to guess which letters are in it, one at a time.  He only knows the number of letters and maybe the type of word.  Every time he guesses a letter right, you add it into the correct space or spaces in a series of blanks you’ve drawn to represent the word.  Every time he guesses a letter that’s wrong, you add one more segment to a diagram showing a man being hanged on a gallows.  If the gallows and victim are complete before your friend has guessed the whole word, you win the round.

Clearly the game isn’t destined to be a sDiyyanantse hit, but we had to do something.  You’d better learn that one in case you’re ever in a sQodravtse prison yourself.  It’s oddly appropriate, in context, to see the little hanged man appearing on the floor over and over.

Then there was another loud muezzin call and then some time allotted for the night prayer.  Xus and I stayed still; I did a quiet prayer of my own.  Afterwards, the guards retreated out of the halls, snuffing the torches as they went.

I’ve never seen black any pitcher than that.

I crawled over to the bucket after announcing my intention to Xus.  Privacy wasn’t a problem, at least, not visual privacy.  Any later trips would have to be made with extreme caution.  You wouldn’t want to spill that thing and try to guess where everything went.

Xus came back from the bucket apologizing profusely for his contribution to our ambience.  I told him not to worry about it.  We’re friends, aren’t we?

The sounds we heard around us were the scariest part of the whole experience.  Cellmates were given severe beatings in at least two cells nearby, and there were sounds that sure sounded like surreptitious sex.  Lots of talking, all sotto voce.  Vomiting.  Coughing.  The singing of a few bits of the Quran, clearly.  Not understandable, but Arabic sounds much different from sQodravtse.  Snoring.  Something that could have been a strange cough or someone being strangled.  Fa … well, you get the picture.

I should have counted how many times I woke up while sleeping in that blanket on that slab.  But there’s no Guinness Book of Otherworld Records here, so it was pointless.

I was never so glad to see dimness again as I was the next morning.  Gorgeous.  Thank God for photons, however diluted they may be.  That’s one elementary particle I truly love to hang out with. I could just kiss the little guys.

The call for morning prayer was sounded, which meant we were very near liberation.  I felt hope leaping up inside me like a kid who just had to do a handstand.  Xus shook his head and said, “I hope they don’t run into a hitch.”

Guards lit the torches back up, and a small amount of extra light filtered in from an opening somewhere.  Another muscular and oily-surfaced kitchen slave came around bearing buckets of food.  Two relatively scrawny helpers worked the ladles.  Our stiff and already mostly-cooled bulgur was much easier to catch in the bowl than the soup had been, though not as easy to eat.  Still, hope breeds hunger, and I would have eaten double the quantity.  Maybe triple.

Just after the next prayer, the one after full sunrise, our semi-smiling bailiff reappeared, along with a guard.  He was nodding at us even as he came down the corridor – there was no suspense, no tease.  Thank heavens.

The guard pulled out the key, the lock came off, and we were sprung.  I walked up the corridor with great relief, and also feeling guilty and wishing I could pick out a few sympathetic cases to take with us into freedom.  We got some hard and hungry stares as we walked out, and also some jeers and, from one young man in a solitary cell, even a cheer.  The guard stopped to have a staring contest with him for a moment, but then we carried on out the door connecting the prison to the judicial buildings.  A side portal led directly to sunlight, and there were our two saviours.  Their faces went from distraught to jubilant instantly, but we were all afraid to touch each other.  You’d have to spend a lifetime here to know what was permitted and what was not quite permitted, but possible, I thought.

“Bismillahi arrahhmani arraheemi,” said the bailiff in Arabic: “In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful.”  He nodded his head to us and turned back into the building, along with the guard.

We let silence reign for a prudent few moments and enjoyed being near each other.  Then Xus spoke.

“We have to get out of here,” he said.  That was our official prison lesson, and I nodded my agreement with it.

“The horses moved from the state stables over to the guesthouse last night,” Eleya said, “and we had to take the saddlebags up to our rooms.  The guesthouse was perfect and our hosts were very kind, so we didn’t mind leaving our stuff until we finished collecting you – our dearly beloved reprobates.  But now we need to go back, get everything together, and saddle up.  That’ll give you a few minutes to have a wash, which you look like you could use.”

“I hardly dare take the luxury,” I said, “but yes, cleanliness can be a great disguise.  Then we can leave.  I’m not panicking, probably we’d be OK here now, but we need to make some progress anyways, and Xus and I agreed we’d had enough adventures.”

That, of course, is a decision that has very little influence on where the marble of a life rolls as it traverses the mighty rills of the deuheiktan.

The guesthouse was partway across town.  We still got to see the squarish Moroccan-style mosaic-tiled towers of the main Sunni mosque, the one that had the gyroscopic prayer capsules inside it and the side-towers bristling with telescopes, some trained towards the heavens, and others trained towards the moral universe twinkling below on the streets, fields and beaches.  We even had to turn a corner at the central Shiite mosque, which had spectacular blue-tiled towers outlined in white, yellow and black patterns, plus a vast central dome.   Quotations from the Quran in Arabic were tiled into bands around the tops of the towers, and small slogans like ‘God is great’ were tiled above the windowframes.  A signboard beside the Shiite mosque proclaimed that non-Muslim visitors were welcome to visit for just one emanzalli, in between prayer times, and in spite of everything, we succumbed to the magnificence and made a visit.  The vista was unforgettable, a sea and sky of turquoise and indigo, inexhaustible in beauty and perfection of proportion.  Inside the dome, we saw a stunning star of symmetry, a floor in concentric, zigzagging black-and-white rings.  Prayer rugs were rolled up around the edges.  The mosque had its mihrab niche set to the east-southeast, where, as Yith reminded us, Muhhammad ibn Bakr al-Qazvini, the first Muslim of our planet, was placed on the surface from a Communicator lander.  As I’ve later found out, he was still asleep at the time and thought he’d been transported miraculously.

I had no idea how privileged I’d been to hang out with my transporters.  Not to mention, um, the peculiar triumph of managing to recruit one of them as my note-perfect boyfriend.

I think I did pretty well.

Still, Muhhammad the son of Bakr from Qazvin, Persia, founded a qiblah, a direction of common prayer, and that’s something to write home about.  Even when you can’t.

We didn’t linger long and hoofed energetically off to our guest house, where we made our way through the front entrance up to the second floor where Eleya and Yith had spent the night.

“Something weird is going on,” Eleya said suspiciously as we went up the stairs.  “I saw Samah in the kitchen and she had a pinched look on her face.  Last night she was all laughs and welcome.  Be careful, guys.”

“OK,” I said.  I didn’t want any more trouble with anyone.

Yith and I closed ourselves firmly into the room he’d slept in.  His share of the saddlebags lay on the table beside the window opening.  The shutters were open just a crack to let some light in.  There were unlit candles in the candleholders around the room, but the day was bright and the sliver of light was enough to let us see the bags and pack them out of there.

“I’m so glad you’re back, I love you so much,” Yith said.

“Oh gosh, I am ecstatic to be with you, beloved one, that was unbearable,” I sighed.  We hugged and had a long kiss.  An embrace with him was always something beyond any dream of heaven, but this one was particularly beatific, angelic and revelatory.  What a universe he was.  I watched his eyelids open for a moment and close in bliss – the straw colour of his eyelashes was so delicate that it was an infinite fascination in its own right.

“Mustn’t delay the guys,” I said, with supreme self-control, and dropped my arms, gave him a smile and another little kiss, and went over to start hauling saddlebags.

The door of the walk-in closet beside us burst open and I jumped – a black-robed man surged out and poked a sword-point into my throat.

“The commander was right about you,” he said (not that I could understand him at the time).  “You’re the source of stench in this cesspit.  In the name of God, you’re under arrest for aggravated indecency and ‘luring towards luti’ with this youth.”

Luti being sodomy, the sin of the people of Lot, you recall.

“You,” he said to Yith, “you’re also under arrest for indecency.   Don’t try to run.  There are more of our men in this house.”

“I have them!”  he shouted.  Yith softly translated the proceedings so far, despite the scowl of our arresting officer.

We waited in stasis.  There were heavy footsteps on the stairs. Then three men walked through the door – two swordsmen and our friend in the embroidered robe.  The room was now crowded, and the odour of hair oil and garlic was powerful.

I was … I can’t even tell you how I was.

I just was.  There was no avoiding it.  I bloody well was.  There I was.  Oh hell.

Poor Yith.

I think he’d finally learned anxiety.  He looked as stricken as a prune.

It seems I taught him something.  Something useful.  Oh, hell.

The sword point had left me some breathing room,

“Sorry!” I said.  The point jumped back and pressed my skin.

“Silence!” said the guard.

Which Yith, of course, was again obliged to translate.  The Morality Watch knew our system well by this point.

“I suppose you felt very smart when the judge went overboard sympathizing with your deviance,” the embroidered man said to me in a professorial tone.  “It isn’t easy to teach a judge a lesson, and I have to thank you for helping me do that.  This time you’ll get what you deserve, a good foretaste of the Last Day and the abyss of flame.  Let’s go,” he commanded the guards.

As we were led out into the corridor, I saw the distraught face of Eleya and a lividly furious Xusxerron.  Both friends were caught behind a human wall of three guards.  One guard spoke to them gruffly.  Yith shouted a final translation as we were led off to the stairwell.

“You’re not going anywhere.”

Right.  If only someone in authority had told us that before we ever crossed the sQodravtse border.  Damn.

If I ever get out of here, I thought, I’ve got to stop wandering around.

Take me home, Etennem, for heaven’s sake, take me home somewhere.  I’ve been alien long enough.

Ahh well.

That’s enough of that.

One thing I’ve learned:  if you’re a stranger in a strange land, you might as well get on with it.  Life, eh?  Happiness or horror – it’s yours to live, if never to fully know.  Your life is bigger than you are.  What can you do but embrace your existential otherself?

Yith and I exchanged glances, almost post-ironic.  The left corner of his mouth pulled back wryly.  Oi (my eyes closed for a moment) – so – argh – cute.  I wished – with an ache – that I could kiss him right there.  One last time?

We let the guards lead us out.

****************

Back down the streets at swordpoint, then, surrounded by seven officers of the morality squad and their fancy commander, their very satisfied-looking commander.  I should have bought that taqiyah cap souvenir during our two hours of freedom.  Hadn’t even had lunch as a free man!  Oh my gosh, poor Yith.  This has to be high on the list of things not to become human for.  Though I suppose it was an adventure from a certain point of view.  But not one I’d wish on you, love.

Pigeons ran before us, trying to avoid flying.  The land of ostriches was long gone.  Kids followed along, questioning, pointing, and in one case, spitting.  The guards shooed that one off, but he left his mark on me.

Then we were left to cool our heels in a guardroom at the judicial buildings for a couple of hours.  The washroom had running water, and even though you could see the overhead cisterns it issued from, I still stared like a hunter-gatherer seeing his first airplane.

Yith managed to mutter to me, despite threatening looks, that we were waiting because our embroidered prosecutor had demanded to have the same judge.  He wanted to rub his nose in us.  At that point, I began to yearn for the invention of lawyers.  But no chance here.  Ah well.  Our net wealth of two emeralds, some wampum strips, and some funny money from various sub-empires probably wouldn’t go very far with them.  You had to be a small nation to afford one on Earth.

Though I did have wealth in cows back home.  I mustn’t overlook that.  I wondered if our calves had been born yet.  I should have asked for the predicted day so I could have raised a toast to them on their birthday.  In mint tea.

We were given a handful of dried dates for subsistence.  There was no place to put the pits and I became worried like in a nightmare, one of those anxiety dreams.  What was I going to do with the things that wouldn’t cause my throat to have a trip to the barber?  But finally a slave not much older than Yith came along with a discard tray.  He was slender, beautiful, and sheathed in hidden emotions.  He gave me a look that made me think he’d consider taking my place.  At that point, I think I would have turned him down.

After my fourth trip to the washroom, the big moment finally came along and we were led into the court.  The judge looked highly displeased.

“In the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate, this court is in session.  The defendants, though foreign, are already familiar with our courts and we need not explain our system to them.  God’s mercy and justice prevail here over all mortal considerations.  Ahhmed ben Ahhmed, you may state the charges against the older one, eh [reading], Marrik Rajjarsoun.”

“This young man was witnessed by my officer dressed and standing but fully in the act of fondling and caressing the other boy like husband and wife, with sexual areas pressed against hard into the boy’s, and kissing with vile insertion of his tongue, like an oral rape.”

“Do you confess to this crime, young man?”

“I hugged and kissed him, but it was completely mutual.”

“You are the older one by far; you must be deemed to be influencing him.  In the view of this court, the responsibility is mainly yours.  Were you intending to proceed to an act of sodomy with the boy?”

“No, lord, we were just about to load our horses and leave the area.  When your officer seized me I was picking up saddle bags.”

“I am going to ask you some questions about matters that were not witnessed.  First you must take an oath on your holy book that you will tell the truth.  Faisul, bring him the book.”

The priceless cuneiform bible was brought back out and I put my hand on it and swore before God to tell the truth.  I was actually hoping not to have to, if deception seemed to favour escape.  This was a situation I’d never been in before.  I grew up feeling it was fairly safe to lie when it was truly expedient.  What now?  Take this oath seriously?  Allow my flexibility to be blackmailed away by putting my arm behind my back for God to twist?  I felt conscience-bound, even if I was under duress.  God and I had a relationship based on love and truth.  I couldn’t lie any more.  Damn.

“Do you confess to committing previous crimes of luti with the boy?”

“Not in this jurisdiction, lord.”

“A clever answer.  Is he truly the brother of the woman you travelled with?”

“No, lord.”

“Is he related to you?”

“Yes, lord.”

“In what way?”

“We are married to each other.”

Beards dropped all over the courtroom.  There were noises of outrage.  One guard horked a big one up in his throat.

“Blasphemy!!  Even to speak such a thing.  Blasphemy against Islamic custom and the customs of all people of the book, right in this court.  The charge is added to your list.”

“I wasn’t trying to make a moral statement, lord.  It’s simply the plain truth.  We were married in a Christian ceremony in our home nation, Diyyana.  Our travelling companions were married to each other the same day.  They can be our witnesses.”

“O God.  Keep those who believe on the right path.  That won’t be necessary, boy.  What you describe is an abomination, but it happened out of my jurisdiction in a land well known to be associated with foulness and death.  I concede that you may have answered the question truthfully and, however grotesque your utterance was, I will withdraw the blasphemy charge.  In any case, you have already confessed to a serious crime that was witnessed.  Now I’m going to interview your victim and co-offender.  You may sit down.”

I did.  I was shaking all over.  I’m not cut out for being a major criminal.  Especially not a sex criminal.  There’s something weirdly invasive about arrest for a supposed crime that’s composed entirely of loving sexual acts.  It’s like the law itself has decided to burst into your gesture of love, grab you, and rape you.  First, it wants to know exactly where your tongue was and what state your penis was in.  Then it wants to classify what it sees according to a tiny, inadequate list of categories.  It’s a combination voyeur and mental zombie that’s filled with unquenchable aggression.  Nothing could be creepier.

Everyone – or at least everyone who grew up on my part of the Earth – is already mortally embarrassed about sex and probably feels deep guilt and shame at even being seen in a sex act.  It’s an undying scorch of terror if your mom ever walks in and catches you masturbating.  To have your unguarded sexuality seized upon by hostile legal forces is soul-shattering.

Yith was told to stand up.

“We don’t have your full name,” the judge said.  “Please state it.”

“Yes, lord, it’s Yithythyth Aa’w’w’wz Fthsste’eh Awdw’am’q’am.”

“That sounds like a joke.  Are you also Christian?”

“Yes I am, lord.”

“Swear, then, on the bible that you’ll tell the complete truth.”

Yith did it.

“That was really your name that you said?”

“Yes, lord.”

“Where does a name like that come from?”

“It is a name from the Stcho’s’s’s ‘a’sh’sh, lord.”

“Where do they live?”

“We don’t live on this world, lord.”

“Bailiff!  Strike this idiot and let him know he can’t play games with court.”

The man struck Yith a powerful cuff just below the back of his neck.

“I am only telling the truth, lord,” said Yith, sounding out of breath.

“Where does your nation live?”

“It isn’t easy to express in this language, lord.  We live on vessels, like ships, that fly from one world to another.”

“I perceive that you may not be of sound mind, young one.  Can you at least tell me how old you are.”

“Yes, lord, but you won’t like the answer.”

“Tell me anyways.”

“I’m over 70 million years old in the years of this world, but this body you see, though it appears much older, is less than seven years old, because it was made in a hurry.”

“Bailiff, he’s completely insane.  Make him sit down again and treat him gently.  Marrik Rajjarsoun, stand again.”

I stood again.  I felt numb all over.

“Have you seen the evidence now that you were taking advantage of a boy who’s mentally incompetent?”

“What he says is true, lord, and there is evidence for it.”

“Ridiculous.  What evidence?”

“He has only been in this country for a few days, yet he speaks its language perfectly.  You will also find that he speaks Arabic well, possibly better than your scholars.  That’s because he has a very small mechanism in his body that can produce dozens of languages perfectly.  The same science that did that can also make ships that fly from world to world.”

“His ability is unusual but we also have many insane people here who God has compensated with rare gifts.  No man alive has so-called mechanisms that can produce speech in many languages.  That’s unbelievable.  If it exists, let me see it.”

“It’s buried in his body and we don’t know where it is.”

“Of course.  And who or what would have put such a mechanism in place.  A djinn? [elemental spirit, genie]”

“His shipmates installed it.”

“What sort of men are they?”

“Ah…  they aren’t men.”

“Horns of Satan, I think this is my last question.  If they are not men, what are they?  Women?  Demons?”

“No, lord.  They’re … intelligent constructions made of metal and other things with moving parts [sQodravtse has no word exactly meaning ‘machine,’ so Yith, still working away despite being declared insane, gave this phrasing as a translation].”

“This is sickening.  The law will not be mocked.  Sit down.  I will consider the sentence for ten minutes in my library.”

Yith and I looked at each other.  He had tears in his eyes.  I knew they weren’t for himself.

Stop that, the tears are making you look human, I thought.  Then it sank into me just how irrelevant that thought was.  Nothing in the law here could accommodate a defendant who wasn’t entirely a human being.

Law, by nature, is constructed not to perceive too much.  It can’t be set up to allow every conceivable extenuation and excuse, so that everyone could wiggle their way off the hook for just about everything.  It is built blunt and crude to sweep the approximately guilty well back into guilt, and clear the approximately innocent out of the system.  Here, we happened to have an extreme case where our reality was completely out of the legal ballpark, but I suppose that there’s a graded series of ever less flagrantly divergent cases where the facts cross over into something the law is not designed to understand.  Even very ordinary cases can have an aspect that flies just beyond the legal compass. That will introduce a mote of perfect, self-blinded injustice into what looks like a straightforward decision.

How did our benign love get to be illegal in so many cultures in the first place?  Wasn’t the illegality always predicated on the unevidenced idée-fixe that every adult human had an equal potential for heterosexuality? And wasn’t that idea itself predicated on the notion that the number of ideal forms people should strive to imitate must be reduced to the minimal number, for the sake of social cohesion and the convenience of moral regulation?   Men and women were clearly different, and different ideals had to be drawn up for the right-living man and the right-living woman.  People from different age groups also unquestionably differed to a degree, and ideals had to be adjusted by age.  But for people to be able to come along and claim invisible differences that authorised changing their ideals – surely that was an open door to chaos and crime.  What’s to stop someone from saying that, by nature, they have to rape babies and kill their wealthy grandmother?  Minimizing the number of permissible ideals was one of the founding projects of civilization (even in India, where the whole project was handled very differently).  The problem, though, with this streamlining of the laudable was that invisible differences among people are sometimes as real as visible differences.  It’s simply an error of hypostasis to assume that every real difference among people will have a visible, audible or palpable token that everyone with five senses can perceive.  Mind you, such things may be visible to Communicators who can map every neuron and its chemical links, but they aren’t yet visible to any humans.  Conattainable, I mean.  If there are still humans on Earth, they may be able to see these things by now.

There are, of course, laws designed to recognize some invisible but real differences among people.  In some cases, the differences are clearly opportune.  Distinctive talents can be recognized, and people can be judged against ideals of skill.  In other cases, the differences are inopportune: there is no point treating amoral, homicidal sociopaths as remediable citizens, or treating people with other mental incapacitations as potentially fully competent.  The differences that societies become flustered by, and that laws are often awkward around, are those that are opportunistically neutral.  To proclaim a seemingly unnecessary difference, one that doesn’t serve a unique role necessary to the common good, is something that looks like pure eccentric rejection of society’s norms – in other words, its ideals.  “Majority,” the self-proclaimed different person seems to say, “your ways are simply not good enough for me.  I have to be distinct.”

The social offense committed by this inferred statement is also charged to those who choose to follow different religions; hence the virulence of anti-Semitism.

Now, if there is a war or another social crisis, can those who are wilfully distinct for no good reason be counted on?  Organizing social cohesion and common thrust is a nightmare at the best of times, as anyone knows who’s ever tried to administer a club or a volunteer organization.  Add in a license for people to insist they’re different for no apparent or serviceable reason, and you have a society that, for all you can tell, is going to fall apart like overly flaky pastry.  The glue of the social pastry lies in conformity, in seeing your neighbour as a person like yourself, someone you can identify with, someone just as valid as you, and someone you’re competent to understand and help out.  This is the underlying assumption of the ‘everyone’s just gotta be heterosexual’ philosophy.  It’s like a uniform on a sports team.  What do you make of the guy or girl who insists on wearing another set of colours?

Historically, same-sex sex outside of an ongoing relationship could easily be seen as a misuse of native heterosexuality, a sort of ad-hoc bestiality with humans.  You remember us talking that over with our friends Ÿabdullah and Nuureiddiin way back in Sirriet.  Going beyond that, at least in western Europe and its colonial extensions, committed same sex love was occasionally recognized as a possibility – ganymedic love as opposed to venusian love.  When that happened, though, same-sex love tended to be placed under the banner of – and here’s a good old word – frowardness, the eccentricity of difference for its own sake.  That’s fro as in ‘to and fro,’ going away from other people rather than towards them as you should.  Not only did the love itself seem froward, but also, its refusal to directly sanction childbearing seemed froward.  But those judgments of frowardness about our love are simply in error – the pattern of our loving emotions has nothing to do with being froward.  It’s just as the Book of Power says it is, a biological imprint – or, as the philosophical vocabulary of the Standard English Edition puts it, a ‘vegetal samskara.’  A sexual orientation is an indelible formation in one of the many parts of the brain not amenable to reform through consciousness; its fluidity lies only in how much of its complexity is expressed at any given time.  Only in the most recent times, conattainable, did any legal system on Earth manage to recognize this patently obvious reality that so many people had testified to for so many centuries.  All other justice had to live without that realistic underlying model of sexuality; hence, it was obliged to mete out regular injustice.

I suppose I can’t be too offended at what happened to me here in the Qodra: the problem is simply endemic to law.  The Book of Power illustrates the limitations of law with the traditional story of Jesus refusing to sanction the stoning of a woman who’d been caught in adultery.

“Even as a reduced form, the law served as a guard against those things it proscribed and was thus a thing of value and a possible framework underlying graceful behaviour.  But like all stated forms it entrapped images into meaning too much, mistook the particular for the universal, and encoded temporally plausible tactics as immortal mandates.  When our qaauma [very good friend] contradicted the stoning of the woman accused of adultery, he broke away from an ancient retribution to a timeless love.”

As you can see there, the problem of crude filtering isn’t unique to law, but runs through many other reduced concepts as well.  Words are also part of the problem – in the matter of same-sex love, for example, the reduction of all adults with male genitalia to one prototype word ‘man’ is significant bulldozer flattening truthful diversity.  In our culture, we hold that no verbal construction, even a scripture, can be sufficient to fully represent God or God’s creation.  For all their power, words are limited tools, and limiting tools as well.

After Yeshua, Paul the Apostle further shook the grate of law with sayings like, “But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.”

Popular culture where I came from was ambivalent at best about religious talk and preferred to quote Mr. Bumble from Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.  When Bumble was told, “the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction,” he sagely replied, “If the law supposes that … the law is a ass – a idiot. If that’s the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is that his eye may be opened by experience – by experience.”  ‘The law is an ass,’ people always said, correcting Bumble’s grammar.

Alas, there’s no ‘worst to be wished’ upon the clumsy law by making it experience the reality of same-sex love.  Unless you really think childbirth is obligatory for every couple – something that’s biologically impossible in any case – our love has no downside.

Our judge, however, was by no means ready to take this viewpoint.

He came back into the room carrying nothing but a committed look.  He spoke in Arabic rather than sQodravtse.

“In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful,” he said.

Everyone went to their place.  Court was in session.  The Arabic recitation continued.

“He it is who gives death and gives life; and he creates the two spouses, the male and the female.

“Say: Travel in the land, and see the nature of the consequence for the rejecters!

“And whoever turns away blindly from the remembrance of the Most Gracious, we appoint for him Satan to be a companion to him.  And truly, they [Satan pluralized] hinder them [the sinner pluralized] from the path, but they think that they are rightly guided!  Until, when such a one comes to us [God pluralized], he says to the devil, “I wish that between me and you lay the distance of the two easts” [= from the east horizon all the way east to the west horizon] – a worst companion!

“It will not profit you on this day, because you did wrong; you will be sharers in the punishment.”

A sQodravtse interpolation.  “And then God addressed these comments to Muhhammad, peace be upon him” (return to Arabic):

“Can you make the deaf to hear, or can you guide the blind or him who is in manifest error?   And even if we take you away, we shall indeed take vengeance on them. Or we show you the threats we issue them: then truly we have perfect command over them.  So you, hold fast to that which is revealed to you.  You are truly on the straight path.”

The judge permitted Yith to translate this to me.  Then he switched back to sQodravtse.

“The distinctive feature of this case is that you can see God’s words in the Quran illustrated right before your eyes.  The deplorable defendant [oh oh] has rejected God’s ordination of the two spouses.  He has tried, with his impious conspirators in a distant land, to assume the role of divinity and create another kind of spouse from a boy, in this case, a boy who seems to be mad.  Yet, listen to the holy book, and you will understand that what we all heard was not merely madness.  Because of his lust as a partaker of the sin of Lot, Marrik Rajjarsoun has a devil as a companion, whispering in his ear.  You heard that devil speak.  You heard it rant about inhuman constructions that can turn boys into magical translators, and make them fit subjects for the lust of Lot.  No human has ever come up with such talk.

“These youths are not culpable for the direct utterances of the devils that walk beside them.  But they are culpable, one as a mature initiator and the other as an immature follower, for permitting the lusts that allowed those devils access to their ears and lips.  Given the correction of God’s punishment, they may become minded to return to the straight path, repent their lust, and thus drive away the devils that speak to them.

“Marrik Rajjarsoun, you are sentenced to 150 lashes in groups of fifty per week, to be followed by ten years in prison to ensure you can have no further access to this boy until he is fully mature and can turn away evil.

“Yithythyth, as someone who is very young and under adverse influence, you are sentenced to six days in prison in the hopes it will bring you to consciousness of good and evil.  God willing, the relief of contact from this companion of Satan will cause the demons to depart you.

“God is just, and merciful.  Take them away.”

Yith translated this to the last.  He had no tears on his face but he looked very odd.

Suddenly he vomited across the rail that divided the seating area from the gallery in front of the judge’s bench.

“I’m sorry, lords, very sorry, there was nothing I could do,” he said, frantically wiping his face.  “This body just did it as if it was someone else.”

How could I tell him that that happens to some boys who are very frightened and upset?  I gazed at him with all the sympathy my eyes could communicate, and I opened my hands out vertically as if in a hug.

“I hope it’s the demon leaving him,” the judge said.  “Now get them out!  Court adjourned.”

We were both rushed from the courtroom by the elbows, with just one hasty guard per person.  The embroidered man gave me a beardy half-smile couched in steady-eyed satisfaction, as if he’d achieved nobility through my downfall.  I’m sure my look back was not unlike Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

He was probably up for promotion, the ….

I find it very hard to think ill of anyone, no matter what the situation.  I can’t usually tell how much a person is a product of their circumstances.

We were hustled along the corridor and back into the room where we’d negotiated our release the last time around.  My hopes started to rise.

We were hustled in and the guards stood just outside the door.  This time, we knew they were there to keep unwanted ears away.

I managed to squeeze Yith’s hand for a second, unseen, just as we went in the door.

We sat on the cushions that our bailiff pointed out to us, on opposite sides of the low table.

“You’re very stupid,” the bailiff said to me.  “You deserve every bit of that sentence.  I can hardly imagine what could compensate any part of such a wrong.  Nonetheless, those of us who work in the service of making government possible are willing to hear how you would propose to offset the extraordinary costs of paying for your folly.  Make it quick.”

“Thank you.   We have an emerald,” I answered hastily.

He momentarily looked startled.  Then he closed up.

“An emerald!  Do you mean that green stone?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm … just one?”

I considered my bluff to be called.  Maybe it wasn’t, but this was no time to practice my poker skills.

“Actually we have two.”

“Two!”

“Yes.”

“Let me see them.”

“They’re with our companions.”

The bailiff clearly decided there was no further advantage in being cagey.

“Only the emperors have those here.”  Tiny sweat beads formed on his forehead.

I inferred that the value here was staggering.  Maybe I should have kept bargaining with one stone for awhile longer.  But then again, this wasn’t just me we were negotiating about.  It was my – the pop songs have it right – it was my baby as well.  The well of innocence in your beloved one’s eyes looks right back to the beginning of their life.  As a human baby, he had just been an unconscious version of me, if I understand the process right, but somewhere inside those eyes was a baby of a species I’d never even seen an image of, and I loved that little baby with all my heart.  I could only save him.

“Hmm … this is a difficult problem.  Your sentence is very severe, and it was made long and harsh for a reason.  I don’t see how I can justify your release.”

My heart dropped like an antique elevator, taking my stomach with it.

“You’ll have to escape,” he said, stroking his beard.

The elevator went back up to the top floor.

“Our prison is all but impossible to escape from.  How could a scene be created that would explain your escape?  You people are very strange.  Maybe you have something, something that could … explain an odd event.  A magic trick like the translation this boy does, even with Arabic I could scarcely translate myself, though I understand it.  My hand-picked men can react quickly when they need to.”

I thought about that for a few moments, weighing pros and cons.

“We have a thing,” I said cautiously, “that can make a noise like thunder does when the boom is right over your head.  It can do it several times.”

It was his turn to think.

“Yes, yes.  That’s sufficient to allow a plan to be formed.  I’ll organize something.  Your friend here has to be put in prison within the hour and we can’t talk to your other friends without him.  But he’ll be released in a few days.  That will give us time.  We’ll keep the other friends in their guest house until then.  I’m sorry to say you’ll have to take the first fifty of your lashes, but you deserve them anyways.  And I’m sure you’ll still be glad to escape the others, inshallah.”

“Inshallah,” I said, shaking my head and closing my eyes.  “God have mercy on me.”

“Viyaadstamet {thank God},” Yith said.

Thanking God seems rather odd in context, but that’s how our custom works.  Feel free to ignore this if it seems to go beyond explanation (though that’s not my intention – your religion or lack of it, reader, is your own affair) but in this usage, God is considered to be with you in any hardship, and gets a thank-you for it.  Thing is, though, seir preservation of human freedom – actually lectont freedom, the freedom of any beings with free will to choose among options – may win out over any intervention you might wish them to make.  As it did in a hellish crucifixion story at the beginning of Christianity.

“Do you understand everything, young one?” the bailiff asked Yith.  He brushed a few hairs off his immaculately white tunic.  “When you’re released, one or more of my men will go with you to where your friends are, and you will tell them our proposition about the emeralds.  They will then discuss how the thunder trick can be used in the escape of this one.”

“Yes, lord, I understand everything and I’ll work with you.  I can only thank you for your trust.”

“Ha, good lad.  I should live to hear my wife or my children ever say a thing like that.  Heh, if I had …”  He stopped himself.

‘If I had…the proceeds of those emeralds, it might just happen,’ I inferred.  Everyone has their confinements.

We were swept off down the long, tiled and carpeted corridors and taken across into the prison.  Yith looked impassively at the zoo of our prisonmates as we went by their noisy cages.

“What a way to exist,” he muttered in my direction, and was whacked back into silence by the back of a guard’s hand.  In compliance with the judge’s wish that we be separated, he was placed into a moderate-sized cell by himself.

“This is a luxury based on your cooperation with the bailiff,” the guard warned him as he closed him in.  “If you misbehave, you will lose it and be placed in with the other short-term prisoners.”

I held my hand over my heart to say goodbye, and he did the same.  Under his eye, a tear sparkled like a garnet in the dim light, and my face was also … bejewelled.

How could we have come this?  What unspeakable spinning top of fate had I climbed onto?  I had rated Deiyah as kind, benevolent and loving, and this was what he had sent me to.  To be fair, there was a lot of bad luck involved and maybe some carelessness of my own.  But why would anyone send a loved one into such a dangerous place?  Then again, it was just a country, millions lived here, and they weren’t being arrested twice a week.  Maybe he thought we’d pass through like those people.  As, indeed, we should have.  And come think of it, I did volunteer for this mission.  Sort of.

As Eleya tried to explain to Sambah earlier on, nothing is more necessary to the human psyche than to have someone to blame for catastrophe.  Bad luck is an idea that we easily acknowledge; but in the crunch we can barely stand it, especially when something unlucky happens to us.  My situation, though, wasn’t entirely bad luck.  It was a huge butterfly-wing-effect of cataclysm that was fluttered into existence by an insect-sized error in judgment – in this case, my decision to take an illegal swim in a seemingly secluded place.  A chain of events like that is a natural for confusion about culpability.  I have heard, though, that Aristotle thought that the quintessence of tragic drama was the avalanche of bad fate unleashed by a wrongly-deposited snowflake of judgement.  If so, I’m both honoured and chagrined to be taking part in such a classical torque of fate.  I guess I really can’t blame Deiyah for it.

It’s that damn Aristotle’s fault.

(Well, Marrik, it seems to me that you’re still trying to get out of responsibility for your own choices … your heart wasn’t in it when you let Deiyah off the hook.   But you did make the choice, free and clear.  OK, I guess I did, but…but…he set me up with his ‘you can take two friends’ thing – I was under suasion!   Suasion!?  What’s that but an externalization of your own gutlessness?  Gutlessness, eh?  I’d say the suasion detected my gutlessness and took advantage of it.  Well, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem for you – which came first, the gutlessness or the suasion?  Yes, well, I suppose when I turned sixteen, my gullibility instantly changed from innocence to gutlessness, and the responsibility switched from the persuader to me.  Well, that’s fair, isn’t it?  You have to take responsibility sometime.  OK, I take responsibility.  I do.  Now, listen, I have enough legal cases going on – let’s leave this one for now.  Sigh, agreed.)

I was slammed and locked in a cell of my own, glad to be alone with my thoughts, however querulous, if I couldn’t be with Yith or my friends.  “Got a bucket of my own tonight,” I enthused.  It was the Ritz-Carlton executive club of Daa’if Central Prison and I made a note to collect the frequent guest points when I checked out.

If only.

I wondered for the third of over a thousand times that evening what was going on with Yith.  Xus and Eleya also collected several wonders from me, and so did the folks back home.  A real wonderland this is.

Supper came and went.  This time the place of lobster and huile arôme truffe was supplanted not by chicken skin but by a lump of mutton fat.  No point turning my nose up at good calories, I thought.  I’m sure millions of my fellow North Americans would have loved to have had that thought.

I mentally sang as many favourite pop tunes as I could think as the evening went on.  Of course, Jailhouse Rock tried to go for a spin on the turntable, but I didn’t know it well enough and could easily shoo it away.  House of the Rising Sun was a much bigger problem; as an occasional guitar player, I’d played and sung all the verses back on Earth.  It was in the elementary ‘Teach yourself guitar chords’ website I’d been consulting.  I am a loyal person, and I had to let it go all the way through.  Luckily, this prison was no House of the Rising Sun – more like the House of the Rising Damp.  The song didn’t make me cry, but it was wrenching in some way.  People often assume it’s about a bawdy house, but some of its recording artists thought it was a prison song, and, as I sat there neurosinging it with my head in my hands, I had to agree with them.

“I’m goin’ back to New Orleans

To wear that ball and chain.”

At least my feet were free.

As a true Olympian, I broke my record that night for most wakeups due to discomfort and fear.  The bucket was my friend.  In my dreams the ongoing neurody (mental song) fetched up Xeekhu singing Trouble in Mind at the inn east of Regntum.  The lyrics were strangely comforting:

“Trouble in mind, I’m blue

But I won’t be blue always

‘Cause I know the sun’s gonna shine

in my back door someday.”

 

It wasn’t just the line about the sun that cheered me; in my half-colour chromomancy, you could see that the basic blue of the law was going to let me go.  Very auspicious to have it pop up in a dream.   Maybe.

They didn’t bring me breakfast in the morning.  That didn’t bode well.  Just after the second prayer, two guards showed up.  They beckoned me out and took me up the corridor to Yith.  He was looking both patient and distraught.

“You OK?” I dared to ask him.

“Not terrible,” he said.  “I’m OK. You?”

“So far so … mm … alive.”

The big, brown-bearded guard on my right said something stern in sQodravtse.

I’d been taken to Yith for translator services, not chitchat.

“You’re to be taken up to the main square in front of the courthouse to receive your fifty lashes right away.  The Commander of the Morality Watch himself has come to see you.”

“I’m honoured,” I said, “but don’t translate that, Yith.  Um, may God have mercy.”

“You’ve drawn a good crowd,” said the guard with a smirk.  “Your story has made the rounds in the qaliyan [hookah pipe] teahouses all night.  Might as well provide a warning to others and use your punishment for the profit of your soul.”

Don’t bother to thank me.

“Love you,” I said to Yith.  I said it in English both from paranoia and because my native wording was the closest to my heart.

“N,,w,,n’t!’qhshmeshesh ,,eiowhkh,” he said, doing the same thing.

As I was taken along the corridor, I looked back and saw his white face disappear like the moon from the sky.

To have such brilliance in orbit should never be taken lightly.  My poor boy.

Earth is missing you already.

We walked up the sweating stone corridor to the entranceway and took that right turn out through the massive wooden doors into the sunshine.  My retinue of guards, now four strong, marched me in a dignified way around to the front of the courthouse, in front of a portico that looked more classical Greek than anything else.  There was a crowd of several dozen people gathered to watch the show, half of them kids in robes ranging from immaculate to filthy.  Everyone seemed to be in a very good mood, and I interrupted some excited chats by making my appearance.  I was glad they didn’t have television to get the whole city together.  The Marrik’s Butt Whacking Show – the hit of the season.  If only they’d let me work the “applause” sign for the audience instead of gratifying them with actual pain.

I saw my nemesis, in different embroidery this time, sitting on a pillow on a divan.  There was a small VIP area, and he had the best seat in it, with a few other officials on either side of him.  They looked impassive and serene.  There were no smiles. This was going to be more satisfaction than pleasure.

I was taken up to a wooden pillar planted in the stone paving, and things were said to me and to the crowd.  Without Yith there, I can only guess at what they were.  I did detect some Arabic at one point.  A particularly burly man appeared whose chest hair squirrelled up his neck and fused into his beard, which then catapulted down from his chin like a black waterfall.  His head hair was all on the underside; up above he was bald, except for a tattered fringe.  He looked like a ship that had been left in the water to collect algae too long; strands of sideburn swayed in the air currents.  His moustache was thick and protruded so far forward that a finger placed on it would disappear to the first knuckle.  Not that I wanted to finger his lips.  Oh yes, and lest I forget: he held a long, jointed rattan cane in his massive right hand.

He took my hands, put them together, and made me lean over to put them on the pole.  Oh shit, I thought, here it comes.  By instinct, I looked for routes of escape.  Swordsmen had them well covered.

Well, you just saw me say ‘oh shit’ up there.  I have to warn you now about the coming obscenity in this writing.  Being the family values guy I am, I owe you that.  My story at this point could be said to have some adult content – that is, if I was one.  As it is, it has teenage content, which, as you know perfectly well, is potentially much worse than adult content.

Obscenity where I come from was limited to topics that were uncontrolling in themselves, or that caused moralists to worry that they would excite uncontrol.  Sex was felt to be losing yourself to passion, lust and, ultimately, embarrassing geysering actions, so that all qualified as uncontrol.  Talking about it a lot or showing it too intimately in audiovisuals would also cause people to lose control of themselves; moreover, the participants would eventually be shamed by their involvement in the foci of dissolution.  There was more uncontrol right there. Bodily eliminations came into play, too, as uncontrol, which is why ‘shit’ works as a swear word – uttering it erects a looseness-contaminated finger at sensibility and propriety.  As a human, you can’t actually be a monkey and fling the substance around with social success, but you can be a highly modified ape and fling the concept around almost to the point of making it an art.  You can even work the paradoxes of control, proving you’re a tough, controlling teen by manipulating the dangerous uncontrols successfully – swearing as much as you can, mostly with controlling aggression, having a go at drugs, including alcohol, and embarking on sexual ventures.  Then you can fucking marvel at how fucking hungover you are, but at least you didn’t barf on a chick’s boobs like Kyle.  Oh yes, stereotypical epithets like ‘chick’ were also an uncontrol, a sort of swearing in classification.

Now and again, on Earth, you would see a suggestion that a controlling act might also reach the point of obscenity.  But this was uncommon.  A television station showing a policeman blowing an escapee’s head off would engender viewer complaints, even when the station warned that the content they were about to show might disturb some viewers.  Put the same scene in a movie, though, and it could be a moment of communal triumph.  Just a few sensitive souls would say, ‘that was really unnecessary,’ when all the adventure lovers were saying ‘yeah, cool head-splat.’

A common, though severe, punishment in parts of the old British Raj was to administer 24 thwacks on the bare buttocks with a thick, water-swollen rattan cane.  Each stroke would take out a chunk of skin, draw blood and leave a scar.  Showing that sort of thing on television would have been considered objectionable where I grew up, perhaps even if the flesh removal was transposed to the back.  On the other hand, it wasn’t obscene at the time, because the British Raj worshipped control; that was the native idolatry of the Victorian era and its immediate surroundings.  The society of my birth was just beginning to emerge from this adherent-in-reduction, this enjoinment of the good to the controlling. It was just beginning to recognize that controlling-type obscenity could exist just as easily as uncontrolling-type obscenity.  Adolf Hitler’s Nazis did their bit to help this process along with their hideously overstated parody of Victorian imperial control – they finally pressed the finger of social control deep enough into its latent possibilities to trigger the nausea response.  Still, where I came from, we were all reluctant to be weak and eager to be strong, so uncontrolling obscenity still had the edge in disgust over controlling obscenity.  The laws for the former could be severe: for example, having a child walk in on you while you were looking at a porno flick could excite a severe penalty if the child mentioned it to someone, since the child was considered to have been golfed deep into uncontrol, possibly never to recover from the tee-off.  Further uncontrol, such as drug addiction, would inevitably follow for them.  They would experience a general woolliness of the personality and a tendency to failure and depression, derived from having blown the wings off their controlling-aegis at an early age with one look at sex or, in some superstitions, even nudity.

We were very fond of our superstitions on that world.  We knew that our native North American forebears had often grown up in longhouses, tents and igloos where adults went ahead and had sex whether there were kids around or not, and yet, we were certain such exposures would be fatal to our own kids.  I suppose there were no drugs around in those days to provide the natural end to the story.

As you’ve seen, sDiyyanantse kids like my buddy Nontemmi’k! find shmooshing zombies with a video machine gun to be too obscene to watch.  It’s not that they can’t take it – they’ve all seen animals killed.  They just find it objectionable because humanoids are involved, and they have fellow-feeling for them.  I don’t think that’s in their genes – it’s just cultural.

I don’t know where you come from, but if you’re sDiyyanantse, you’ll find the next bit harder to take than you will if you’re a (hypothetical) Earth person, most likely.  Because the obscenity here, though mixed, is mostly of the controlling variety.

I gotta hurry up.  If you can’t stand obscenity, you’ll find that the next bit follows a certain format.  You can skip right to the end of that format with the large caps and – oh shit, he’s winding up.

At least my clothes are still on, I wonder if they’ll protect me.  Oh boy

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Holy mother of shit, that hurt!  Hah, like – fire … shit!  What am I going to ….

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Bloody fucking hell, ouch, ouch, fuck!, fifty of those, I’ll

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

I’ll fucking die. Hah, but I’m holding my straight face you bast-

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

You, oh, you fuckers! – it’s love you’re beating, the heart

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Of a human being, the BEST PART, CARING, LOVE

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

My God, ha ha lamma sabacthani, I shouldn’t blaspheme, Lord help

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

help me, it’s unbearable, my ass, my back, Lord for-

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

GIVE them, they hurt, all those guys who loved, how many have they

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Aaahhh (pant, pant) beat this way, tortured for no reason, this hurts but

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Aaahhh, nothing could hurt like the love they’ve cut away, these poor mad

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Hah, ah, ah, hah, people, in this aaauhhh … in this ah, insane equation

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

aaaaaahhhh, fuck! of, of the highway rapists of fucking Lot, oh fuck, with

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

AAAAHHH!!, with boys who love each other with all their hearts, God, God, Yeshuÿa qaauma mihels, uh

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

protect me God, I praise your love in the highes-

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

oowwww oh woahw, they’re starting to, ah, hit the same sore spot over and

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

AAAHH can’t they find (pant, pant, pant) a new fucking place to hit, how

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

AAAAHHH, how (pant, pant) many is that is it 25 yet? I am startin ta lose

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

AAAHHH aaugh … fuckers, I … not sure how long I

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

AAAHHH AAHHH not sure how long I can keep quiet oh shit! again! stop!

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“AAAAHHH!!” oh shit I said it out loud, yeah laugh at me you

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

UUUHHHH! how long was love your last priority (pant, pant), you come here to laugh

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“AAAAHHH!!” at someone who kissed the love of his life and is “BEING TORTURED!!”, that’s your

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

mmh, idea of religion, (pant, pant) God forgive you, God forgive you all, God have pity, God have

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“AAAAHHH!! you criminals!” they don’t understand English anyways, (pant) I hate hating people but hurts SO MUCH, no,

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

AAAAHHH!!  silent,  OH, FUCK, I just want to “LOVE, I WANT TO LOVE”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Aaaaah, I’m losing it, I can’t stand it, SOOO PAIN fuh, huh

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“AAAAHHH!!”  “AAAAHHH!!” shit .. fuck …

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!!”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Mom, I can’t … help me … help me

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

fuck … you … you… nazi fascist religious prigs, you bastards you

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“YOU LUNATICS, THIS IS LOVE YOU’RE BEATING”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“YOU’RE BEATING GOD’S OWN LOVE, YOU MISTAKEN ANGELS YOU”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“LAUGHING VICTIMS OF YOUR OWN ERRORS, ITS JUST IM-”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“AAAAHHH!!  IMPOSSIBLE THAT GOD COULD WILL TO WHIP THEIR OWN LOVE”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“AAAAHHH!!”  It’s, huh, getting numb, ‘s numb ‘s no id isn’t, id fuckking hurts! hurts! it

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

ah (pant, pant, pant) no … “NOOOO!!!!”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

let me die … I should have ..  no … why did I

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

shit!  why did I live…. Yithy, help me, mom, Yith, oh God,

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

so-ho painful auw I can’t .. Yith please take me

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

God take me “LET ME DIE!!!” Just

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Let me die … no “AAAAHHH!!” no, won’t die, won’t

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

“I WON’T DIE DO YOU HEAR ME I WON’T”

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

(crying….)  I have to stop crying … why? why? who cares? – I get the machine, KafKA!

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

I get it, huh, no, the Lord is my shepherd (pant) Yahwveih is my herder

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

I … I shall not want, he … makes me to lie down in green pastures

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. Hahaha, love that line, reminds me of cows

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

(pant, pant) nothing there now … nothing … this moonless sky

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

mind of someone else, yes

CCCCRAAAAACCCCKKKKKK!!!

No legend of mine …

No legend of mine ..

Is that it?  Is that?  (pant)

No legend of mine.

Lives there!

(Blackout)

 

*********************************************

{For partial explanation of the lines above with the expressions ‘moonless,’ ‘mind of someone else’ and ‘no legend of mine, see https://thismoonlesssky.wordpress.com/2013/11/28/the-zen-poem-that-unified-a-nation/}

 

*********************************************

 

I don’t hate anyone.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that I’m confined to my stomach, on this slab.

I tried to put my other side on it to cool it but it’s too sore – can’t touch it.

I’m starving, but eating isn’t on my mind.

Just have to let my ribs dig into the rock and try to sleep and breathe.

God help me.  Yith… I hope you’re … ok.  Love you, my buddy.

Hope you didn’t see me get dragged in like this.

I know you.  You’re suffering about this more… more than I am.

Love you.

 

****************************

The next few days were pretty basic.

I agonized a lot, and chafed.  And I started to itch.  I thought about people, I prayed, I sang songs quietly to myself.  I made the major excursion to my bucket as often as I could justify it.  Couldn’t sit down on it, of course, but that never was much of a luxury.

I should have at least got Yith to teach me hello, thank you and that sort of thing in sQodravtse.

As it was, I couldn’t understand a word that was said, and no one could understand me.

The second day after the beating, I got taken someplace mysterious that turned out to be a room with a floor drain.  The guard gave me a bucket of clean water – cold – and a bit of soap-like substance.  Plus a cloth and a clean robe to wear afterward.

The cleaning process was excruciatingly painful but I knew it had to be good for me.

Ordinarily I’d expect to get my next fifty strokes in a few more days.  I wondered how anyone could manage it, and I hoped and prayed I wouldn’t have to find out.

On the third night I could very gingerly roll over onto my back for a short while.  I celebrated, there in the pitch dark, by extremely delicately making {a joke that doesn’t make sense unless you read other parts of the book is removed here.}  That {a solitary act of pleasure} was extraordinarily restorative and I realized it was the only analgesic I had on hand.  No pun intended.  So I palliated myself as best I could after that.  I like to think my healing accelerated remarkably.  Or maybe I just didn’t care as much about pain.

I’m sorry to say my thoughts were always appalling to the Morality Watch.  Maybe I ought not to dwell on this, but hey, what other revenge am I going to get?  I’m too nice to want anything bloodier.  It’s this or nothing.

Meanwhile, I hoped that the escape team was being a little more productive.  In other things, I mean.

Prison life in Daa’if was pretty darn quiet.  Chance to wash every two or three days, no signs of any chance to exercise or work.  No interaction for us solitaries – every once in awhile we got to hear a kerfuffle going on someplace with excited voices, but that was the limit of our social life.  Or, at least, that’s how it was for me.  There was a blank corridor opposite me and I couldn’t see anyone else.

Finally, the sixth night of incarceration rolled around.  Tomorrow Yithy goes free to save the day.  I hope.

I was feeling fairly mobile, though I was still very sore.  Good thing I wasn’t in too much pain, because that was another spectacularly restless night.  Then morning filtered in with its sneaky rays of light and its prayer calls.  Breakfast came and went.

Godspeed you, machine boy, you go.

The day passed with excruciating dullness.

Finally I found a song that could carry me through, at least for a good while: Soul Meets Body by Death Cab for Cutie:

I want to live where soul meets body

And let the sun wrap its arms around me

And bathe my skin in water cool and cleansing

And feel, feel what its like to be new…

 

And I do believe it’s true

That there are roads left in both of our shoes

But if the silence takes you, then I hope it takes me too.

 

So, brown eyes, I hold you near

‘Cause you’re the only song I want to hear,

A melody softly soaring through

my atmosphere

 

Where soul meets body.

 

I changed the eye colour appropriately as I sang it with a certain someone in mind.

Thank you, planet Earth, for that magical energy burst.

Then supper.  A chunk of meat!  Night prayer.  Darkness.

More cane strokes tomorrow unless something happens.  I sure, sure hope.

I sure hope that something … something …

I was almost asleep.

BOOOM! in the distance.  Noises of prisoners stirring, questioning.  I woke up and was completely alert.

B’QHOOOOM! again, much louder.  Lots of talk around me.

Running people, coming my way.  Torches moving.  Yes!   Four men, unrecognizable, heavily hooded and masked – and Xus, Eleya and – the boy!

Bolt was unlocked and I was out of there.  Eleya passed me my sword – which I confess I’d hardly touched in all the time I’d known it.

“Good to see you!” she whispered, “don’t talk now!”

Yith gave me a quick, loving scuff on the back of my head.

And then we pitpatted up the corridor at full speed.  The sweat from our nervous breakout team gave off the odour of freedom – I’ve never forgotten it since.

Huge commotion among the prisoners – they could see it was a jailbreak.  How would you feel if you’d been there for even a month? – let alone five or ten or twenty years – gosh, more time than I’ve been alive, or at least, aware.  A whole lifetime in the mouth of an animal with steel teeth, as isolated as Jonah inside the whale.  And here we were, just swimming by.

Everything was going smoothly.  I found out later that the rescue team had frightened the guards away from the door by firing the Khashakhr once, shouting “Ssaÿaqah!” (or in English style “Sa’iqah”) in loud voices from all sides, and, while one person opened the door, firing again.  Both times, Eleya had simply fired into the air, hoping that the returning bullet wouldn’t hit some far-away person at such an hour of the night.  “Ssaÿaqah” means a thunderclap, but the word is used in the Quran for the sound of God announcing the destruction of two unheeding Arabian civilizations, Thamuud and Ÿa’aad (’Ad).  The Khashakhr was a calamitously loud gun, and nothing like it had ever been heard in Daa’if:  the guards probably thought God was about to destroy the prison with thunderbolts, earthquakes or tons of sulphurous clay, like the city of Lot.

We made it up the passage to the top of the prison in no time.  When we got to the door, though, something wasn’t right.  As the first rescuer opened the wooden doors to step outside, he nearly got his hand chopped off by a dull grey flash of metal.  A lightning-fast turn of his wrist brought his sword up to block the blow, almost at the hilt.  We flung the doors open violently and knocked someone off his feet.

It was dark, but several torches were burning along the walls, lighting up the doorway.

“Aha,” said a familiar looking soldier, who was looking right at us.

My special friend from the Morality Watch.  The one who’d staked out our closet.

“Look at this!  Something rotten, all right!  Destroy them all.”

“The commander was right to have this watched,” said a man standing behind the others.  A Morality soldier lunged with his sword towards one of our guards.  Another deft block by our man, and they were in full combat.  Four more Morality guards charged in – and a boy behind them ran off, probably to fetch reinforcements.  A guard charged sword-first towards Eleya and she threw her hood back, revealing herself as a naked-headed woman.  She twisted and her long brown hair spun out like an eagle taking flight.  In that instant of surprise, her sword swooped down and hammered the man’s weapon right out of his hand.  The broad, curved blade clanged on the paving stones, skittering sideways from the force.  The man hovered a second, measuring his risks for picking up the sword.  Eleya wound up a stroke that would have split his skull from the side if he’d tried.  He straightened and stepped back in the nick of time; her slash cut him across the collarbone.  Blood beaded rapidly out of his tunic and he stepped back, reeling from the shock, and then withdrew.  Meanwhile, one of our guards had kicked the fallen sword back out of the field of action.  The wounded man retreated into a side street, clutching his upper chest.

My special guard decided that I was the real target, and he slash-hammered his way through two men in front of me, hitting their defending swords so hard that he knocked both men off balance momentarily.  They were then engaged by two other Morality guards and drawn away.  Yith tried to head my nemesis off from the side, but the man saw him and engaged his sword with a twisting motion.  Yith lost his grip and the sword flicked up and away with great momentum. It flew back dangerously and landed somewhere behind my back.  I raised my sword in clumsy disbelief at first, but then I got a grip on myself and when his first big thrust came at me, I met it from above and slowed it down to almost nothing as it bent towards the ground.  He was clearly stronger than I was, but he gave up that thrust and zigzagged his sword back slightly to take another angle.  Out of the corner of my eye, while Yith’s sword was still in the air, I’d seen Eleya turn from a two-on-one fight against one adversary and leap back, crouching to pull the Khashakhr out of its leg holster and then tossing it to Xus, who was coming around behind me on my left.  As my guard leaned in for a second thrust on me, Xus caught the gun, turned it upright at an angle, and fired it with a deafening roar.  The bullet knocked a chunk out of the thin, ornately carved cornice of the stone pediment overhead, and the chunk of white stone fell like a dead bird into the battlefield in front of my feet, spewing off chips and dust.

The huge gunblast made my attacker jump and shake his head – it must have temporarily deafened the ear it was close to – and in that moment, my sword was able to knock his aside; otherwise, I might have been skewered through the diaphragm.  Everyone on our side capitalized on the shock of the blast to attack with full force, and all the rescuers yelled out their battle cry – Ssssaaaaÿaaaqaaaah!!!”   The Morality guards, outnumbered eight to five from the beginning and reduced by Eleya to four, saw the cuneiform on the wall, so to speak.  One man was already on the run just after the stonework fell, and two of the others nearly paid with their lives by shifting their eyes to see him leave.  Xus and Eleya had both fallen heavily on my guy, and he too was distracted, looking at the black thing in Xus’s left hand as he fought two swords with his right.  Xus raised the gun up into the air again with a menacing slow thrust and that did it.   The guard turned and took off running to a safe distance.  His two outmatched companions just plain turned and vanished into a side street, following their companion’s trail of blood spots and leaving their captain alone in the small back-entrance square of the courthouse.  But all my nemesis saw for his courage in staying put was the eight of us running in defensive formation into the planned escape route down a narrow passage.  Ten horses and two more team members were waiting for us at the end.

And we were off for the border.  Everything was in order.  There was nothing to stop us but the friction of the wind against our cheeks.

The Morality Watch didn’t have a signal system set up beyond boys or horsemen running with the news.  Our rescuers were well aware of that.  We crossed the long stone bridge over the Shatt ad’Daa’if (the end basin of the Qodra River Canal, the area’s main water source) and travelled through the complicated street patterns of West Daa’if in the nearly pitch dark, following our leaders.  Finally, we made it out to the cricket chirps of the countryside.  Three of our allies fell back to guard the rear, just in case, and three went with us.   Within three hours we had made it through the almost invisible countryside to the border.  Only experienced horses who knew the route by memory and smell allowed us to go the distance.  Clearly, a lot of work had gone into our rescue plan.   Our horses, still the ones we’d bought in Diyyana, just bore us along behind the horses that knew the way.

The border post was manned by a single guard, but there was a barracks nearby where others presumably slept.  As we approached, a second and more familiar face appeared in the guard post entryway.  It was our bailiff, holding a half-drunken cup of tea in his hand.

“Shh …” he whispered.  “Everything is arranged.  Now, please, the other emerald, and you’re on your way.”

Xus reached into his tunic and pulled out a little bag that was attached to a lace.  He untied the lace and turned the bag over to the bailiff.  The man took a torch from the guardpost wall and looked closely.  His teeth glowed and flickered yellow in the torchlight.  It was not a discreet smile.

“Go,” he said to us.  “Best not to come back for awhile.”

“God be with you,” Yith said to him as we paced across the border.  The salutation was not returned. We had our horses walk as quickly as we dared past the border hut and into the darkness surrounding the post.  The animals were nervous.  Before long, we dismounted and more or less felt our way along the road, leading them along behind us.  Luckily, there was a wooden fenceline after a hundred metres or so, and we could follow it slowly.  One thing we didn’t have was a torch, and the two pencil-flashlights we’d bought in Regntum to bring with us had both stopped working awhile ago.  The switches were no good and had broken after a few uses.  Darn reversed technology.  But it scarcely mattered now; we didn’t really need to go anywhere.  We were out of the jurisdiction.  Etennemet viyaadstamet {thank God}.

One of the horses stumbled noisily but harmlessly against an invisible rut in the road below.

“Guys,” Eleya said, “we’re not in a safe walking zone.  But we’re in a safe hugging zone, and I need one.”

“Me too.”

“Oh, yes!”

“And me!” I said, just before my body got snatched and my mouth softly blocked.  I could tell that the right person had found me.  I’m sure the blind are great at lip recognition, and I realized I possessed the skill myself.  It was him, it was him.  So sweet, my lord, so sweet.  The universe was back in my arms.

The only sounds for many minutes were a couple of mini-neighs from the horses, or should I say mini-whinnies, and some jangling of harness bits.  Then a few other signs of horsey relaxation came in that we could easily ignore.  Or we could have, but the slightly comic effect of this relaxation going on for an unexpectedly long time, flooding the ground back there somewhere, finally raised a giggle from inside Yith’s lips.  Then I laughed a little, too.  Oh well.  Real life is like that.  Before long we were laughing quietly but infectiously like fools, so relieved to be with each other, biting each other’s earlobes and pushing each other’s heads around.  I picked my boyfriend right up off his feet, which wasn’t easy to do, and dangled his feet ten centimetres above the ground as we clasped each other.  His arms hurt my sore back, but who cares?  Far above our heads – I saw as I leaned back to hoist him up – brilliant stars were watching us intently.  Being back among them was a great relief.  It’s good to have friends in high places.

After a short while, we all came up for breath and ended up having a fireside chat with no fire.  Our horses were happy not to have to navigate and they stood peaceably enjoying the night air.

“I feel really bad that I cut that guy,” Eleya remarked, “and in a land without antibiotics, too.  I just didn’t think we’d all get out alive if he got that sword.  Those were expert swordfighters, all of them.”

“You did great – I’m sure it was necessary.  I almost blew it,” Xus said.  “When the gun blasted that chunk of stone off the building you could actually maybe guess that it was a weapon rather than the roar of divine thunder.  We really don’t want these guys to find out that there’s a weapon like that.”

“Could just be the divine thunder starting to crack up the building,” Eleya countered.  “Anyways, I’m just glad you didn’t need to use it directly on that guy.  He looked like he was going to run Marrik through there for a second.”

“He was close, but he wouldn’t have made it,” Yith said.  “I had a way of stopping him.”

“You?  You were just standing there with empty hands,” Eleya said pointedly.

“That was the best way for me to be.  Let me give you a longish explanation,” Yith said.  “I know Marrik is going to ask me how my six days in prison went.  I’d already decided I’d tell him the whole story.  Then I thought you might as well all hear the important part.  If we’re going to be in such dangerous situations, this might be good to know.

“This is something only Deiyah and Muumakar know about.  Some of us here were sworn to secrecy by Deiyah about some related topics, but this is partly new information even for, um, some of those people.”

Yith quickly explained how the early Communicators had borrowed some insect brain genetics to give the minds of everyone on the planet an entomological twist.  {The Communicators, wanting to be able to control humans they were shipping around, secretly engineered a way that allows a few unconscious, autonomic responses to be turned on in human brains.  Certain strange, distinctive hand gestures or strange combinations of sounds activate the embedded human reactions. The mechanism involves modifying the genetic development of the human brain by inserting key bits of insect brain genome, giving humans secret automaton-like switches that can be turned on with the gestures.  The gestures are thus called the Insect Signs by the five humans who know about their existence.}

“The mechanism is elegant in some ways, and in others it’s very crude,” he said.  “So, Eleya, what this means right now is that there are five things I can do with my hands, and also five sounds I can make, that will more or less shut down any human on this planet for awhile. Except Marrik, who wasn’t born here.”

“And you guys already knew about something related to this?” Eleya said, looking incredulously at Xus and me.  “I guess I’m not too surprised that Marrik knows something, but (she tilted her head at Xus) you?”

“I’m not allowed to say anything,” Xus answered.

“No one can swear me to secrecy about it,” Yith said, “because all of us Stcho’s’s’s ‘a’sh’sh know it perfectly well and it’s our information.  On this planet, though, it’s officially an aenopikonal {= state} secret.  I think for the sake of Xus, though, I should tell you and let him off the hook – but you then need to swear to me that you’ll keep it as an aenopikonal secret on this world.”

“I will,” Eleya said.

Yith told Eleya the rest of the history of genetic transformation on Vweialer – the sDiyyanantse Signs, the fewwer genes, and the genetic linkage to fewwer resistance.  {People of Diyyana, but not people from other countries on Vweialer, were genetically engineered by the Communicators to be partly resistant to a usually-fatal disease called ‘fewwer tse shallour.’  Their minds can also be manipulated by more secret signals than those of people from elsewhere. The reasons for this are explained in another part of the book, and part of the plot turns around it.}

“So how do you know about this?” Eleya asked Xus.  “Are you telling me you can actually keep a secret?  Even from me?  I don’t know if I like that!”  She ruffled his hair in a mock-threatening way.

“He was there for a conversation between Deiyah and Tumurahashssehah Nap’krnaqshsslmotek’p {one of the Communicator aliens} in the lander after I got fewwer,” Yith said, “though there’s a little more to the story than that.  I think it’s up to Xus how much he wants to say about it now, though – now that I’ve already told you the officially secret part.”

“Hmm,” Eleya mused ominously.  “Will you decide to tell me or not??”

“The truth is,” Xus said, “that some of what Yith just told you, you’ve already heard from my lips before.  You just can’t remember it.”

He then told her about his crowning moment as a bad-boy, his broadcasting of the state secret, and the events that followed while the crowd sat stunned.  {The audience was manipulated with Insect Signs so that they forgot what they’d heard}

“And so here we are today,” he said, giving a small sigh.  “Close to penniless on a dirt road in Qodra with cane marks all over my best friend’s back, instead of living at home, going to school and working on our swimming.”

“Wow.  No wonder that day felt so weird.  Marrik, I think he deserves all those cane marks himself.  Want to find a cane and give them to him?”  She grabbed Xus by the shoulders and gave him a bearish squeeze just so he’d know he was still on the good side – somehow.

“He repented completely,” I said. “Anyways, I love him too much to give him even one, and I don’t think anyone deserves fifty of those.”

“Just kidding.  Neither do I.  Xussi’k!, my love, suddenly I see why you’ve become so unbelievably conscientious most of the time these days.  Apart from one little lapse on a beach recently.”  She stroked the back of his neck affectionately.

“Oi, I have sinned,” Xus moaned, slightly comically but still shaking his head.

I never thought of that.  Here was someone else who had to live without being able to live with himself.  A very appropriate friend for me.

And when I was playing my blame game the other night, I didn’t even think of him.  Gosh, am I loyal or what?

And no doubt he blames himself for everything.

Oh well, maybe everyone has unbearable guilt if they stop to think too much about it.

Or maybe that only applies to everyone you’d actually want to know.

“So, sorry, I got us kind of sidetracked,” Yith piped up.  “I was going to talk about prison.  It was boring for a couple of days and nothing happened, and then one of the guards took an interest in me.  He offered me bread and skins of wine if I’d let him basically mount me like a stallion.  I told him I was married to Marrik and I’d never do it anyways.  He said I’d never see Marrik again, and then he started to threaten me because I had an accident in my blanket one night – he said I was unclean filth and he could stuff my mouth with my blanket, and so on.  I told him he wasn’t going to get what he wanted from me, no matter what he said.  On my second-last night there, before the torches went out, he came down on a special trip to get me, with a huge kitchen slave, a man who never speaks.  He pointed his sword at me and told me to lie face down on the ground and then he gave the sword to the big guy and told him to keep me down. Then he started hoisting up his robe.  By the way, stallion doesn’t begin to describe what he was planning to impale me with.  And I figure the big guy would probably have been next in line – how else could you trust him with the sword?  But just before the big guy could get the sword right up to my neck, I twisted around and did a sign in front of both of them.  These early signs are pretty clumsy, so this one makes people just pass out for around eight hours.  Both of them just fell over, out cold.  And then, because this one makes humans lose some muscular control, they both messed up their clothes and started drooling, and their eyelids opened so you could see their eyes rolling up in their heads.  It couldn’t have been much more disgusting.

“The guard who came to shut the torches down found them there like that.  He roared for help and started yelling at me about what I’d been doing these guys.  I said they’d had a fight with each other over who’d be first to mount me and knocked each other out.  The story didn’t really fit the scene, but it was the only thing I could think of.  I told the guard that if I’d wanted to do anything hostile, the sword was right there – I could have killed both of them any time I wanted to.  That impressed the guards, so they left me alone.  But the next day, they were scared of me.  Obviously the guard who tried to do it had woken up and denied fighting with the slave.  Maybe the slave could be questioned as well, in some way.  When they were releasing me, one of the guards who took me to the exit shoved me out the door and said, ‘May God protect us from ever having a servant of Satan in here again.’  I think that was one of the reasons the gun worked so well the next night.  The guards were all in a state of horror already.”

“Well!” I said, holding him tight and caressing his hair and his neck.  “That’s truly awful, way too awful, but you did well, love, and you’re safe and healthy, that’s the best thing.  And I have to thank you for the help, and come to think of it, I haven’t had a chance yet to say a big, loud THANK YOU to all of you guys for getting me out of that hellfire.  I don’t know what would have happened if I’d had fifty more lashes in the morning – it’s unimaginable.  Every single stroke is more painful than you can imagine, even on new skin.  With skin that already hurts – it’s just insufferable.  I made it through a kind of eternity, all of it pain.  Couldn’t conceive of doing it again.”

All three of them surrounded me and gently, thoughtfully, hugged me in the places where it wouldn’t hurt.  My love for them was so intense that if it had been translated into rock music, it would have blown all our eardrums out.  But love is very quiet.  Still, I’m sure they knew it was there.

“I’m sorry, Marrik,” Yith said quietly.  “If I could have thought of a way to use the signs to get you out of that situation, I would have, no matter what the fallout.”

“I understand,” I quickly replied, giving him a reassuring kiss on the cheek.  But he wanted to keep going.

“We were hugely outnumbered.  All it takes is one hard-of-hearing person who’s looking away, or someone who’s distracted by a loud noise and looks towards it, and that’s it, you’re discovered.  Then if they’re smart enough to run for reinforcements, you could be surrounded.  As soon as someone figures it out, it’s just a matter of looking away and putting in earplugs.  It only works well when you can catch everyone by surprise on the first go.  It was designed for machines, who can make the sounds at unbelievable volume.  Deiyah had a public address system.  I just had…”

“…One perfect human body,” I broke in.  “We’re alive, I’m healing up, and we’re together.  This is heaven.”  We very rudely shared a long kiss, leaving Eleya and Xus with nothing to do but to imitate us.  It was going to be a long night in the dark, so we took a significant fraction of the night to exchange encrypted chat with our lips. It was all good news.

**************************

 

Part 3.  Truth and Reconciliation Hearing in the Sharia Zone

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A Same-Sex Marriage in the Sharia Zone

from This Moonless Sky by Marrik Rajjarsen

Each of the 3 parts will be published 1 week apart.

Islamic law meets an unusual gay couple in Socratic science-fiction (In 3 parts)

Part 1:  A friendly local Muslim couple in the home country give our travellers a warning about the Sharia Zone, and some history of gay-positive Islam in North Africa.

We pride ourselves on being the religion that is compatible with science, with the continuous learning of realities, and yet we impose such a ridiculous classification error on these people, lumping the gentle and kindly ones who lack power with women in with the rapists of Lut. What is this but superstition?

– Muhhammad ad-Dtaa’ifi, Khalzukhli of the Shariokhenei                                                         Ominei, the Sharia Lands

**In the science-fiction novel This Moonless Sky, one thread of the storyline involves two young gay travellers going into a foreign district where a Saudi-style Sharia law applies. They get into trouble there, needless to say.

This all takes place on another planet, but many settlers there have brought their ideas from Earth along with them.

In the course of working out the problems the two gay travellers encounter, all the nuances of Islamic ideas and law about same-sex relationships are explored. The conclusion is that a very strong case can be made in Islam for full acceptance of same-sex marriages. The history of such acceptance in genuine Islamic history on Earth is described.

The details of Islamic thought that are necessarily involved here are carried along by a lively and imaginative story-line that probes the absurdity of traditional views. Without the story, the Islamic material might be too academic or lawyerly for some people, but with it, I hope, it will all go smoothly.

Here’s the basic outline of the story, insofar as it applies to these chapters. There are four main characters:

Marrik: Originally called Mark. He’s 17 years old biologically; he was transported from the Earth to the planet Vweialer by some mechanized aliens called the Communicators, who kept him in cryogenic storage for 400,000 years. He doesn’t add those years to his age. He’s now a citizen of a country called Diyyana, on the new planet.

Yith, or in long form, Yithythyth. He’s a 70-million-year-old Communicator alien who took a liking to Marrik while he was in transport – still not frozen yet. Yith decided to do a little experimenting with human biology after Marrik was frozen. He mapped Marrik’s brain and found out what Marrik’s perfect lover would look like – a boy a couple of years younger. He then grew and genetically transformed some human tissue over the next few years to make a normal human body duplicating the form of that perfect boyfriend. Then, before Marrik was unfrozen, he copied as much of his own alien personality as would fit into the neurons of the new body’s brain. His alien colleagues also added a small piece of nanotechnology that gave him access to all the languages spoken on the planet Vweialer. Many of these languages come from the Earth, since all the humans on Vweialer are descended from people previously transported there by the Communicators. In the first part of the book as a whole, Yith has to convince the always nervous Marrik to be his boyfriend. Finally they get together and even have a preliminary version of a same-sex marriage ceremony.

Xus, or in long form, Xusxerron. He’s locally born in Diyyana, and Marrik’s best friend, also 17. He was a troublemaker at home and was ordered by the justice system to leave the country temporarily on a difficult mission involving travel through three foreign countries. The first one in line is Qodra, where most people have a polytheistic religion similar to the ancient religions of the Middle East. In one zone of Qodra, however, the emperor has allowed Muslims to set up their own zone run by Sharia law – the west side being Shiite and the east side being Sunni of the Hanbali school. Xus is obliged to travel through this Sharia Zone, and his friends Marrik and Yith have volunteered to accompany and help him. Also along is his partner:

Eleya. She’s a Diyyana farm girl, newly married to Xus (who is a farm boy). She’s a multi-talented person who, among other things, turns out to be handy with weaponry. Diyyana is mostly non-violent, but she and the others train in swordfighting and also handgun use for self-protection as they travel over into the foreign lands. Their handgun, called a Khashakhr after its manufacturer, is one of only about five on the entire planet. Such gunpowder weapons are unknown in the countries our heroes will be travelling in. Eleya turns out to be the most adept person with the handgun, so she gets the nod to be the one who carries it, well hidden, in a special holster attached to her leg.

Just to give some background and introduction to the religious topics in this story, I’m going to quote something Marrik said in an early part of the book about how he and Yith could be eligible for a Christian same-sex marriage in the views of the main church in Diyyana, the Tserkvem tse Vweialer. **

I should explain that our Christianity here is not averse to same-sex love. Those who know the bible will know that there are some sayings there about a man lying with another man ‘as with a wife’ being an abomination; traditionally, this was interpreted as being against boy-meets-boy. But it was pointed out, even back on Earth, that many cultures, including those ancient ones, separated men and women so efficiently that many straight guys went for younger guys out of sheer horniness. I always read at home about ‘Bubba’ characters in prison who made it their business to rape the younger guys, and then most everyone would share in. Guys do get fevered up after awhile and, as the old jokes go, start looking differently at the sheep and goats. When other guys are just used as alternates to sheep or goats, then that is an abomination – that’s what our religion believes. We call that ‘surrogacy.’ But that has nothing to do with gay love stories. The guys involved in them are not degraded substitutes in lieu of female company. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” says Yeshua (Jesus). Love is all of the same house, whether male-female or male-male, or female-female.

**At the beginning of the relevant chapters, we find our four heroes pulling up to a guest-house in the far west of their own country, prior to crossing the border. The guest-house is owned by a family of third-generation Muslim settlers in Diyyana; their Muslim community is found in the west of the country, just a few days’ journey from their point of origin in the Sharia Zone in Qodra. Our heroes know next to nothing about Islam, and the guest-house owners decide to give them basic information on what they need to do, not do, and understand. I’ve only included the parts relevant to the other chapters I’ve added in later. Any needed explanations will be given in curly brackets {} **

Story starts here.

In Sirriet, our guesthouse was managed by a couple who were not, by lineal origin, sDiyyanantse {natives of the country Diyyana which we are now situated in at this point in the story}.

Ÿabdullah and Nuureiddiin Baghii were from descended one of the many Earth nationalities that I had no idea existed. (The ‘ÿa’ in his name approximates the Arabic letter ع – ain – which is like saying an English ‘a’ while someone is trying to strangle you. Our sDiyyanantse alphabet has a letter for this sound that relates it to the letter for the consonant form of ‘y.’).

“Our people came from Siwa,” Nuureiddiin said as we sat around her dining room table tucking into a lightly cardamomed lamb couscous that was the equal of anything we’d eaten in Korabaas district. She was a dignified looking woman, robust but not plump, brown of face and full-lipped but clearly, ancestrally, from north of the Sahara. She had put on what had to be her finest dress for the semi-celeb guests; it was a deep purple-indigo, hooded milaya robe that was embroidered on the front with explosively colourful abstractions. The designs looked like a series of necklaces with radiating star pendants on the ends, surrounded by elaborate groups of squarish motifs. Other than the blue background colour, the artwork almost looked Mayan. Above the robe, Nuureiddiin wore three actual necklaces, each bearing silver balls, cylinders and winged pieces. Her outfit gave me a pretty good anticipation of where she was going to say this place called Siwa was.

“It’s a big oasis out in the eastern Sahara desert to the west of Mizri proper – Egypt, that is. We had our own language there that was like the languages of some other oasis people – not like Arabic at all. It was a kind of Amazigh (“Berber,” Yith whispered to me.) But in the families that came to this planet, our language pretty much got lost back in history someplace – now our family language is your language. Both of our families – my husband’s and mine – were in Qodra just across the border from here for a couple of generations, and then a grandparent moved over here. We are Muslim but we have some religious differences from the Muslims of that part of Qodra, and it was much better for us on this side.

… {material related to another subplot removed. Later that evening….}

Presently, we retired to the rooftop terrace and gazed at the stars along with Ÿabdullah and Nuureiddiin. They had a television out there and intended to watch the evening news later on, but it was still a long ways off. In the meantime we just sipped some coconut juice and enjoyed the evening. Our hosts had a pot of mint tea on the go. Yith and I were snugly tucked up together on a cushioned bench; his arm was draped around my shoulder. Eleya and Xus sat next to one another at a table and laid out solitaire arrays with a deck of cards, while still devoting much of their attention to chatting with everyone else. Nuureiddiin was telling us about various events that happened in Sirriet during the year and how they affected the guest house trade. Ÿabdullah, meanwhile, took off his ochre- and cream-embroidered, perforated leather taqiyah hat and ran his fingers through his well thinned, curly black hair. (The cap is a short-sided, pillbox-type item that’s almost like a broad headband with a covering over the top). He brushed a few imperfections off his long, white cotton kameez shirt and stroked the side of his beard. He tightened his right lip, sending an evening shadow into the fold between his cheek and his moustache. Something was bothering him. Eventually the conversation hit a lull and he had his chance.

“You know,” he began hesitantly, looking me in the eye, “since you’re crossing over into Qodra, I have to tell you a few stories that will prepare you for what lies ahead when you get over there. There were many matters of fiqh – that’s our Islamic law – on which we Siwans differed from some of the other groups in Qodra. The main Islamic part of Qodra is just a couple of days’ journey to the west of the border. Things here are not the same as they are over there – and remember, our grandfathers felt that they had to flee.

“Our beliefs irritated some of those Muslims very much. Just to name one harmless thing, we believed that on this planet, there was no direction that could be used as a qiblah, a direction to pray in, since there is no Kaÿaba (Ka’aba, the central shrine of Mecca) here. They had two schools of thought there – the Shia said that the place where the first Muslim of Vweialer, Muhhammad ibn Bakr al-Qazvini, stepped onto this planet, should be the qiblah here. The other fiqhs didn’t like it that al-Qazvini was a Shiite even though he was a devout scholar. Anyways, the jurists felt that Muslims should pray towards the position of the Earth, since Mecca was still there and could not be substituted.

“Well, that would be easy if we were on our sun, since then the relative position of the Earth would move only slowly as the sun rotated and precessed, but our planet rotates daily, revolves annually and inclines on its axis like any other planet. This meant that following the Earth was like being on the roller coaster at Zoës [the coaster at Noviitivolii Park in the town of Zoës has loops and coils]. It was at a radically different place for every one of the five prayers in a day. People needed a full-time astronomer to fnd the qiblah for every prayer. So the mosques hired and trained them – good Islamic science, they said. Often enough, the Earth was straight overhead, or nearly so, and how can you do the sujjuud – the prostrate part of the prayer – when the qiblah is over your head? Some people thought that they had to pray standing up at such times – they said “if we prostrate ourselves, we don’t know who or what we may accidentally be prostrating ourselves towards. We are in fear.” The last part referred to a verse in our second Quran chapter, The Cow, that says “And if you are in fear, perform Salat, the prayer, on foot or riding. And when you’re in safety, remember Allah, who taught you what you didn’t know before.”

“One large mosque compensated for this problem by placing some platforms for prayer on a gyroscope frame [a three-axis gimbal] with loops to put your hands and feet into, and ropes to hang onto when you needed them, so that you could always be rotated to prostrate yourself towards the Earth, no matter which direction it lay in, even if it was directly below you. But only a few people at a time could use them – they hadn’t the money or the space to put in hundreds. The ‘geometric school’ opposed this and said, “pick the vector that best maps the way to the Earth on the ground and prostrate that way – and if it’s exactly overhead or underneath, then spin a wheel and pick the direction the mark falls in. Let Allah decide the direction.” “Roulette!” said some jurists – “mix gambling with prayer to Allah and you will surely burn!” Well, usually the terrestrial sun isn’t absolutely exactly overhead or directly below, so this argument was more theoretical than practical, but it was vigorously argued.

“No one had ever really solved the problem of how a congregation of Muslims would act on Earth if they had a mosque at the antipode of the Kaÿaba, the place exactly opposite the Kaÿaba on the globe where all directions point equally to Mecca. The spot was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean anyways, somewhere around Tahiti, so nothing could be built there. With that one, though, it was easy to agree that, in principle, all directions were acceptable, since you were guaranteed to be facing the qiblah when you prostrated. Here we had more of a conundrum.

“Anyways, our Hanafi fiqh is adaptable and we Siwans decided that God is everywhere. We made God himself the new qiblah for the ‘people of the heavens,’ as we call all of us who are transanimates. We prostrate ourselves to God no matter which way we turn, but in the mosque, we still have a mihrab – a niche in the wall indicating the direction of common prayer. It is usually set to the southeast, because we Siwi are used to praying towards the southeast. We can’t be note-perfect Muslims anyways because we can’t make the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Not unless we want to set 800,000 years aside in our busy schedules and pay a Communicator to backtrack.”

Right. Could be a problem. What would you pay a Communicator in, anyways? Liquid hydrogen? Compliments?

“God is not unreasonable,” Nuureiddiin chipped in, saving me from inventing Communicator bribery. “The Quran says, “It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards east or west (to pray); but it is righteousness to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the traveler, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and to regularly pay the poor-due charity; to fulfil the contracts that you have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the true pious ones.”

I still have no idea how people on this planet can memorize such long tracts of text, but maybe they learned the art from the Muslims. Even on Earth, there are thousands of Muslims who have memorized the entire Quran from cover to cover. Mind you, in its original language, it rhymes, half of the time using words with ‘n’ in the last syllable. That clearly doesn’t hurt when you’re looking for cues and clues. But still.

Ÿabdullah took up the thread again. “I don’t know why some religious people become so crazily adamant – with some of the Hanbali, it was almost as if we’d proposed a revolution against our Prophet, may peace be on him. So they didn’t like that. Already they talked about whipping our ancestors or other hard measures.

“There’s nothing in that story that you really need to know except that some people there become very blast-furnace about their religious views. There is more on that theme.

“For example, there was the matter of friendship with other people of the book. In that same part of Qodra where the Communicators brought recent peoples from western Asia and nearby, there were also some Christians and Jews, and still are. There is a verse in the holy Quran that says, “Oh you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians as your wali; they are but wali of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a wali, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.” As so often happens with scripture taken as law, there is a key word there that causes much debate – wali. The view of some of the red-hots there was that this verse meant no Muslim should be the friend of a Christian or a Jew. But our grandparents considered this, like so much overheated religion, to be an adherent-in-reduction [I’ll explain that one in a minute]. ‘Now look,’ they said, ‘this word “wali” here means someone who has authority over you – it’s like a religious leader, a guide, a father.’ Or what we in Diyyana now would refer to as a ‘guru.’ The basic meaning is a ‘crown’ and Allah is often said to be the ‘wali’ of his people. Well, how often is your friend like a God to you? No matter how polite you may be, this is silly. And if the word is ever used to mean ‘friend,’ then that’s just, you know…”

“A post-ironism,” Yith suggested.

Kind of like the honorary medical degree in ‘what’s up, doc?,’ I thought.

“That sounds about right. OK. We are Muslim, so yes, by all means, since God loves all people and the faith is inherently attractive, be friends with all people of the book, but don’t accept such a person as a guru to draw you away from your faith. That makes sense. To be hostile and paranoid and to go around shunning good people – what sense does that make?

“So you can see, we were really becoming quite the heretics with our practical views.”

I might as well break into Ÿabdullah’s discourse here before he gets too far along and explain the common term he used there, ‘adherent-in-reduction,’ since it’s possibly unique to our culture. It anatomizes a whole cluster of interrelated English words that you’ve already seen being linked together in the text above: sentimentality, romanticism (in the not-necessarily-amorous sense of the word), and superstition. Breathy and explosive concepts like ‘hyperventilated,’ ‘overblown’ and ‘overheated’ go along with it metaphorically. The term ‘adherent-in-reduction’ obviously refers to an interaction between our two main modes of thought, adherent and reductive, which you’ve also already heard about. To recap, our adherent mode binds us directly to the input we get from our senses, and sorts it all in the imagination. It can be lightning-fast or slow and dreamy. It includes a bunch of ‘in’ things: ‘instinctive’ actions, intuitions, and inchoate inklings. And then there’s our logical, reductive faculty, which groups things into categories and trends, and gives them labels. Some of those labels are words, and some are other symbols, including mathematical symbols. These capsule concepts can be worked with in powerful ways according to logical rules. There are various kinds of interchange between the two levels of thought; they don’t work in isolation from each other. For example, a typical metaphor like ‘his reptilian glare’ is an adherently associated pairing of images brought together in words. Even though we’ve used words to produce it, we’d be hard-pressed to map 100% of the features that made ‘his’ glare look reptilian rather than, let’s say, leonine or bullish.

Religious faith depends on the same self-fulfilling prophecy cycle that any and all love depends on: ‘I put my faith in you in the completely unconfirmable but, I hope, correct affirmation that you (will) reciprocate that faith with me.’ Or as Saint Paul bluntly put it – ‘faith is the upholding of things hoped for, the injunction of things not seen.’ Love is never provable; any evidence for it can easily be faked, and often is. As a reality, it depends entirely on interlocking approphecies {= self-fulfilling prophecy processes} – I enjoin that I unreservedly love you and I enjoin that you likewise love me, and I enjoin that you enjoin my love as genuine, as well as your own. Unavoidably, I must then enjoin that you enjoin that I enjoin all this, and so on, through all the mirror-facing-mirror levels of regress. The circularities of approphecy almost completely defy logic, unless they’re handled by a computer using opportunitarian software, the kind the Communicators program themselves into. They are the quintessence of mind-boggling. But the adherent faculties can more-or-less handle them – as ‘gut feelings,’ intuitive inspirations and suchlike. True, sometimes the gut feelings go radically wrong, but often, they are shockingly correct. In any case, with religious feeling and love, you get into the parts of your mind that swell with – literally – enthusiasm – fullness of Theos or God, the word means. In that condition, you are prone to experiencing mystical awe. Naturally, this awe may feel dangerously unsystematized to you, maybe even delusional or ‘crazy,’ as so many love songs have pointed out. So you are tempted to ‘bring some logic to it,’ to give it words and syntax. You want to ‘figure it out,’ that is, make it arithmetic-like. And you want to ‘make some sense of it,’ that is, give it definite borders that you can rub up against.

This is all very well, and people often find a good harmony between their intuitions and their logic in love and faith. Unfortunately, there are a few big grooves of error you can drop into around these parts. The adherent-in-reductive error happens when you become overly nervous about controlling the vagueness of the adherent, and you imagine you can place its whole mystical fervour into a small container constructed for it in your logic, like a genie in a bottle. A common non-religious example is seen in nervous parents who have idealized (another word that goes with adherent-in-reduction) their children as the nicey-nicey, admirable offspring they are supposed to be, but who then become choleric when the children develop in another direction. Think of all those Victorian dads who went berserk when little Valentine insisted on becoming an actor, which was virtually like becoming a prostitute. The box little Valentine was contained in, which was full of hot love and pride for him as a future barrister, businessman or officer, was broken – and who was this actor-creature who was trying to spring out of it? What is this demon that has taken over my son? My son has escaped control and is trying to take my love out into the outer vagueness of the untrustworthy world. He’s no son of mine if he does that. I cut him out of my will, he’s out of my house, I will not speak to him. Oh, but how I love him. Pity he’s now lost. If only he would be himself instead of that delusion he thinks he is. I must delete him from the family so he’ll know he’s gone wrong.

Religion that attempts to control its devotions entirely under law, regulation, stipulation and principle can easily get into the same situation as Valentine’s dad. Yeshua {= Jesus} said, as King James translated it, “The spirit bloweth where it listeth,” – that is, it goes wherever it darn well wants to. Arguably, there is no systematic version of devotion that can completely take in the complexity of love and right as they unfold through time and the deuheiktan {= the theoretical landscape of all possibilities}. Conditions subtly alter through time, and buried human realities are brought to light. Slavery seems inexcusable to us now, whereas at the beginning of Christianity and Islam, it was ubiquitous and not condemned – and it was also tolerated by most other religions and societies as well. It even survived the secular skeptics of the American Revolution, many of whom owned slaves. Try to go back to first-century Christianity or first-generation Islam, and you will be back to slaves again. So that can’t quite be done, but many dogmatic religious people will still try to construct a slightly modernized, very understandable, regular strongbox of legal purity that gets the faithful as close as possible to an understandable ideal. Then you have the religious equivalent of Valentine the Good Son.

When that box of hot faith and ideality is broken by someone with benign but differing views, that person must be ostracised, kicked out of the religious family, perhaps even killed to set a good example. A demon must have taken them over. We cannot be wrong about this, because we are SO devout, our religion is SO hot, fervent, and punctilious – we know we are the true bearers of the faith because we have hot devotion and perfect order.

Thus, all the energy of adherent and exploratory devotion is condensed down into a little crucible of incandescent and vengeful faith – a religious pressure-cooker – and there is little reasoning with those who are steaming themselves inside it. Just as Valentine’s dad brushed off the suggestions from Valentine’s mom and auntie that perhaps acting was not so bad, these religious authorities must stand firm. In reality, a reduced religion becomes a superstition, no matter how hot it is, so that’s how that word ties in with the sentimentalism of Valentine’s dad. To really get into how romanticism ties in, I’d have to say more about how people put their romantic partners, their kids, and so on, into ideality-boxes.

Anyways, you’ve already heard Xus (slightly) misquote the Book of Power on that topic {earlier in the book, section not included here}: “The beloved of a reductionist becomes separated into a talking skeleton and a silent ghost,” he said. The ‘talking skeleton’ is the person as reduced and idealized by the one who’s taking them in sentimental romanticism. The ‘silent ghost’ is the person’s wholeness, going unperceived. Either the person is keeping quiet so as not to upset the sentimentalist, or the sentimentalist is just ignoring anything that doesn’t fit their romanticized conceptions. Valentine has been sending out subtle hints for years that he loves acting, but his father is still caught completely by surprise when he makes his announcement about it.

Ÿabdullah’s point was that making a religious hotbox that excluded friendly contact between neighbours, based on a scripture that spoke about being led astray by charismatic leadership, was inherently superstitious. It made normal, friendly members of other religions objects of a fear taboo, like the umbrella unfolded in the house or the dreaded number four (feared because its Chinese word, ‘sei,’ is pronounced like the word for death, ‘sei??,’ varying only in the ‘rising’ tone on the latter word, which to English speakers sounds like a questioning tone). Congenial neighbours became hoodoo monsters, religious predators waiting to snatch your faith. A taboo is a sort of negative idol, so that gives you the last word our culture commonly connects to adherent-in-reduction in religion – idolatry. Even monotheists who think they have no idols can become fixated on things and concepts as objects of religious awe or dread. A dietary proscription like the Muslim or Jewish avoidance of pork can simply be a discipline – in Islam, the proscription seems to be hygienic in nature, while in Judaism, it’s part of a system against sensual excess – but if religious horror becomes attached to the food that is avoided, then the practice has secondarily taken on superstition.

Oh well, it all gets a little complicated. I’d better give Ÿabdullah the floor back, since the next thing he had to say was the thing that was really bothering him.

“What really motivates me to talk about all our diverse opinions is seeing you two boys sitting together like that. It’s obvious you love each other, and the question of whether you’re khandshn {= lovers, partners} would come into anyone’s mind. Marrik, you have the advantage of being from the Earth rather than this country, so you know how some people react to that.”

“Oh yeah, things were none too pleasant at my school. And there was the death penalty or something like that in some countries on Earth.”

“That’s correct. And many of those people across the line in Qodra are from those countries. And there, you have one of the biggest reasons why we Siwan people got into trouble there. Our oasis had a long history of letting men marry other men. The desert was always troubled with raiding-parties of various kinds, and our crops were among the best in the world. Date palms, olives, eggplants, and our specialty, molukhiya.” (“Herb garden jute or mallow” Yith whispered unhelpfully.) “You can see that plant in the garden below – it’s like having spinach growing on a cane that comes up to your shoulders. Makes an amazing stew with garlic and coriander, which we also grow. We don’t serve it to guests, though, unless they ask. Rather like okra, it strikes some people as being too slimy.

“So, not to get sidetracked and get hungry again, all this food needed to be guarded, and so did our town. Our ancestors had built big walls of mud, caked with salt, that hardened like rock. The families of Siwa all lived inside the walls. They employed unmarried men between twenty and forty years old as guards for the fields. These men, who lived in caves outside the walls, were called our zaggalah, our club-bearers. They were wild devils out there, practicing their arts of war to defend us from crazy Bedouin bandits, raiding Egyptians, and who-knows-who. They also indulged in alcohol, which is haram in Islam – not kosher. They had no married life, and bandits didn’t come every day, so they turned into party animals most evenings. Now, it was clear that some were unmarried because they preferred each other to the pleasures of Allah’s womankind, and we recognized that. Our society had elaborate marriages, and we allowed some of those wild fellows to marry the one they loved amongst themselves, to give them love and companionship. When they were over forty, they could even move into the town – and if they then also wanted to marry a woman and raise a family, it was not impossible. A man can have up to four wives, though only a crazy one would do it, am I not right, Nuureiddiin? Haha. [Yes, she got a laugh from this, too.] In the rest of Islamiyya, the Islamic world, such same-sex marriages were all but unknown.

“You see, in most of Islamiyya, for boys to do something sexual with another boy is forbidden but also traditionally very normal. Boys have no contact with girls for dating or ‘making out,’ let alone what goes on here, so they find another boy who doesn’t mind being a vessel, you could say, and they turn him into a substitute girl.” This is most definitely not approved by religion, but it is so common that everyone is convinced that no one is really samseksamoi (= gay, word adopted from Esperanto), mainly oriented to their own sex, because so many of the heterosexuals are taking part in this. They only distinguish the many, who are ‘real men’ doing the penetrating, and the few who are the soft ones, who play the girl for the rest. But to them, being a soft one, a ‘catamite’ as your bible says, is just a strange habit, like wanting to drink alcohol – not an orientation. To get caught at this kind of boy business requires spectacular carelessness, since multiple adult male witnesses may be needed to make a legal case, and nearly everyone winks and conspires to keep such moments private as long as you take normal precautions. The liaisons don’t become relationships beyond ‘I know Daoud down the street likes to take it,’ and if they did, it would be scandalous and soon criminal.

“We Muslims are very oriented towards family life, and we believe it is the main joy of one’s life to have a family. One cannot drink and carouse, one must wake up before the sunrise for prayer every morning, but to have a beautiful, loving family – this is a luxury God, the merciful, will very likely award you. And in any case, you will get old, and there is traditionally no hospital to look after you – just your family. So there is also some need involved. Relief when you’re a lad can be overlooked, but then your legal sex life takes over, and that is with your wife, or wives, or in the old days, your slaves.

“Now, what had we done, in Siwa? By asking for bachelors to go live, unmarried, outside the walls, we had discovered that there really are some people who love their own sex by nature. The confusion caused by all kinds of hetero youths acting as if they liked boys was dispelled. We had made a different perspective for ourselves.

“And you see, what is forbidden in the Quran, the sin of luti, might be read as all sex with your own sex, or it might be read as that practice I was just describing of surrogacy with catamites – along with the equivalent practice of warriors, the rape of male captives. Every now and then I have to talk to samseksamoi from this country who are crossing over into Qodra, and since they have never been to a country that is hostile, they have very little understanding of how the attitudes work over there. I always brief them as I will do for you now. The animosity there against publicly accepting sex with your own sex is based on the story of Luut, the nephew of the prophet Ibrahim, or Abraham as you call him. In the Quran, it is scattered over many surahs, many chapters, because the surahs are all sermons or lectures, and they use a little piece of the story to illustrate a point. Now here is my contribution to the study of our holy book, the whole story put together in its chronological order in quotes from all the surahs, editing out only some repetition:

“And we (God, that is) sent Luut forth to his people. He (Luut) said to them: ‘You commit indecent acts that no other nation has committed before you. You lust after men and assault them on your highways. You turn your gatherings into orgies. You commit the carnal act, in lust, with men instead of women. Truly, you are an impious people. Are you blind that you should commit indecency, lustfully seeking men instead of women? Surely you are a senseless people. Will you fornicate with males and leave your wives, whom God has created for you? Surely, you are great transgressors.’

“But his people’s only reply was: ‘Bring down God’s scourge on us if what you say is true.’ Their only answer was: ‘Banish him from your city, him and his followers. They are men who would keep chaste.’

“‘Lord,’ he said, ‘deliver me from these degenerate men.’ And when our messengers brought Abraham the good news (about the birth of his son), they said: ‘we are about to destroy the people of this town, for they are wicked men.’ Abraham said, ‘Luut lives there.’

“’We know well who lives in it,’ they replied. ‘We will deliver him and all his relatives, except his wife, who will remain behind.’

“And when our messengers came to Luut, he grew anxious about them, since he was unable to offer them protection. He thought, ‘this is truly a day of grief.’

“His people, long addicted to evil practices, came running towards him. The townsfolk came to him rejoicing. He said: ‘These men are my guests; do not disgrace me. Have fear of God and do not shame me.’ They replied, ‘Did we not forbid you to entertain strangers?’ ‘My people,’ he said, ‘here are my daughters: they are more lawful to you. Take them, if you are bent on evil.’”

Here Eleya grimaced notably. I exchanged a look with her, and Nuureiddin nodded slightly in acknowledgment. Ÿabdullah also nodded and pursed his lip.

“Primitive times,” he said, interrupting himself, “it’s not a recommendation.”

“Oh I know,” Eleya said, “we have two of those stories in the bible, too. One even worse than that one. But anyways, go ahead.”

“OK, we take up again with the so-called ‘people of Luut,’ who your bible call the Sodomites.

“They replied, ‘You know we have no right to your daughters. You know full well what we are seeking.’

“(The angels) said, ‘Luut, we are the messengers of your lord; they shall not touch you…In the morning their hour will come.’ We, God, blinded them and said, ‘Taste my punishment, now that you have heard my warning.’ When the sun rose a dreadful cry rang above them. We laid their town in ruin and rained clay stones upon them.’

“Now, is this the prototype of same-sex relationships? Yithythyth and Marrik, however you met, I would bet it was a scene very different from this.”

“I’ll say,” Yith said, “I had to help with his surgery and then look after him on our ship. And the moment he woke up for the first time, there we were – it was me and Nashtashtsekei At”ot”et”naghgh’t’kah and Tumurahashssehah Nap’krnaqshsslmotek’p {Communicator aliens have long names and tend to look like a toolbox grafted into a complicated dentist’s drill tower. Yith at the time was a typical alien}. The look of amazement in his eyes was way beyond price. He was like “wh… wh…” and he couldn’t even decide if he should start with ‘what,’ ‘where,’ ‘who’ or maybe even ‘why?’ When I think about it, he was beautiful right at that moment and ever after.”

“I knew if I’d died, heaven or hell or death was a lot more bizarre than I’d ever thought,” I admitted. “Then these guys started talking to me as if they were my dad’s friends, except Seby {Yith’s old, pre-human name} was a little more like one of my friends – wait, what friends? He was a bit more like one of my nonexistent friends. They’d been hanging around the Earth for a fair while and they were pretty good at being human friends. But I’ll tell you one thing – I could never understand why I liked them so much, almost from that first moment my eyes couldn’t believe they were there. It’s one of the things that turned me from someone who just assumed spirituality was nonsense to the person I am today. We had a connection and to me, our spirits met. Especially with this guy. But of course, I would never have thought of being his boyfriend. A reassembling, multi-appearance machine who was only distinguished by two red diamond shapes? I loved him, but I had to love him as a pure spirit for a long time. I could have recognized him easily without the diamonds, no matter what parts he was made of.”

“I have to say,” Ÿabdullah said, “Marrik and Yithythyth, with all due respect and with exactly as much affection as could possibly be appropriate, yours is surely the most bizarre love story I ever heard. It just goes to show that the deuheiktan stretches out to places that hardliners could never imagine. But it’s still beautiful, as all real love stories are.

“So what do we know about these people of Luut? No beautiful love stories there. They practised sexual assault of wayfarers. They could have channelled their eros completely toward women but instead they chose to lust after this same-sex mayhem for a thrill. They had wives but they did this anyways. They had taken surrogacy to a whole new level – it was sort of an ongoing surrogate orgy combined with pillaging when the opportunity arose, like invading soldiers raping the males of a conquered town to humiliate them. But this has no correspondence whatsoever to boys who have an orientation towards boys or men who love men. They are not rapists or pillagers; they are lovers and sweethearts. They may or may not even have any possible lust to take to sexual relations with women – many have none at all. So they certainly don’t have wives to abandon, unless their society has forced them to marry against their own grain. The aggressive males of Luut were unquestionably capable of being fully heterosexual family men if they gave up their hobby of violent sin. So it is very easy for Islamic people who are familiar with true same-sex-lovers, like you boys, to discern that the men of Luut have nothing in common with you, and that the sinful practice of luti, as we call it, is sexual surrogacy – acts done by heterosexual males who would adopt same-sex lust as a stopgap, a craze, a sport or a weapon.

“But in many of our lands on Earth, as I mentioned, the most common kind of male-male sex was one or more of the lads going out and arranging to dominate the backside of little Hassan from down the street, who likes it or at least allows it. I’m sorry to be so graphic, but that’s how it is. So many Muslims firmly believe that all same-sex attraction is exactly this, and that every male who wants to be with another male is really a heterosexual, diverted into sin by some sort of rebellious emotion.

“To reinforce this, there are scriptures in the holy Quran that say who it is lawful for a man to have sex with. They specify his wife and his female slaves. For example, “successful are the believers…who restrain their carnal desires – except with their wives and those their right hands possess (that is, slave girls), for then, they are free from blame – but whoever seeks beyond that, they are transgressors.” This relates to a major sin called ‘zina,’ fornication, sex outside of wedlock, or, in the old days, also sex outside of slavelock. Now that scripture I just quoted – it says ‘believers’ as if it was talking about everyone, but then it talks about ‘their wives.’ Many believers don’t have wives, including most women and most young people. Granted, the scripture uses a word for ‘believers,’ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ (al-muuminuuna) that is one of those masculine-inclusive words that might be interpreted as excluding women anyways, in this context. But even among male believers, besides youngsters, there are less numerous groups who normally don’t have wives, such as men who are convinced they are women inside, and men who, biologically, are always like little boys. So it makes sense to suppose that a specific, large and typical group of male believers is being addressed by this scripture and others like it – namely, married heterosexual men, along with youngsters and bachelors who are qualified to become married heterosexual men in the future. These people are being counselled not to fornicate – it’s very straightforward, and doesn’t put anyone in an impossible situation. “Whoever seeks beyond that,” it says – this is advice against greed and excess with multiple women, and conceivably also with male surrogates when women are not available.

“Our holy book also mentions, in the surah ‘Light,’ that there are men who have no ‘natural vigour’ with women, and these are allowed to work as personal attendants and see the nakedness of women they are not married to. If you have the wrong idea that all men who lack vigour with women must be castrated eunuchs or the very old, then you would never ask yourself who would be lawful for these men to take as sexual partners. But when you become aware that most men who are uninterested in that aspect of women are not castrates or decrepit, then this question comes up. When they are capable of full love and affection only for men, whom then should they marry? If you tried to marry these men off as heterosexual family men, it would be madness for the women involved, just as much as for the men themselves – that’s like hiring a blind man to work as a tattoo artist.”

“A blind tattoo artist with a floppy needle,” I quipped.

“Hehe, well, so I’ve heard, indeed. I’ve met women who are being ‘tattooed’ by such an ‘artist’ (he used his fingers for the quotes) and they are mostly not pleased with the result. Well, you know – they should be so lucky, but nearly all married women want to be thought as beautiful and desirable as my Nuuri’k!i’k! [the double-diminutive was extremely affectionate; its target genuinely blushed], and who can blame them? And how long can a man fake that? If he is a superhero, maybe as long as ten years. But the truth wins in the end. This is an impossible situation. Our Prophet, may peace be upon him, spoke to and about the believers he knew and never uttered a statement explicitly recognizing this problem. Neither did any of his companions ask him, “what do you do if you are faced with marriage or in a marriage and find that you have no natural vigour with women but only with men?” Such people are uncommon and traditionally, they grow up in confusion and silence. Thus it seems the matter of other ingrained sexual orientations never came to his attention, unlike the much more common topic of fortuitous surrogacy, which he was against.

“Well, if it is not an outrageous stretch of ijtihad – cautiously extending the principles of the Quran to unanticipated situations – to conclude that if it’s not going too far to say that slavery is now wrong, then neither is it going too far to conclude that those truly and peacefully inclined to their own sex – now that we have discovered them concealed within the great swarm of surrogate players – should be able to marry in keeping with their own God-given nature, and not sin. That is our Siwan judgment, though I have heard that in the last conattainable years {the most recent years for which news has come from Earth, including delay for multi-light-year distance}, our people abandoned these principles under Egyptian pressure – King Farouk, who felt he must possess our oasis and turn it away from its gentle wisdom. But here we are free people in a democratic country, so our principles remain.

“So even though we smile on you in this house and in this town, be very careful when you cross the border. I have some copies of the Quran, and you may take one and study it for your knowledge, as long as you promise you will treat it with due respect – not in idolatry, you understand, but as the valued placebo of God’s love and power. I should tell you it is good for much more than just warding off trouble in Qodra.”

His use of our language’s word for ‘placebo’ here did not have the connotation of fakery that the English word has. It just meant a token carrier of the self-fulfilling prophecy, comparable to a wedding pendant that one never wants to lose or deface. ‘Placebos have apparent reality; injunctions have apparent truth’ is one of the lines we learn in school to get our concepts right before our lectics exams. The reality of love in a wedding pendant, or a wedding ring where I come from, is absolutely real as long as the love is, even though the love isn’t really resident in the pendant or ring. That’s the magic of self-fulfilling prophecy. Love is enjoined to a wedding ring and makes it a true placebo. Every time you contemplate it, it re-enjoins the love to you, and you recapitulate your own love in response. A great piece of helical logic.

“We’ll take along a copy, for sure,” Eleya said.

 

Part 2:  Arrest and trial in the Sharia Lands!

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Review of Sptékwles re Qelmúcw, redacted by Mona Jules

Sptékwles re Qelmúcw. Stories of the PeopleSptékwles re Qelmúcw. Stories of the People by Mona Jules

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For the language learner, this is a spectacularly valuable collection of short tales and autobiographical reflections given in the Secwepemc (Shuswap) language. This is the most widely spoken of the indigenous languages of British Columbia, Canada. The stories, told by fluently speaking elders of the people, are given line-by-line translation into English. Many are recent or contemporary but one goes all the way back to the transcriptions of James Teit.

Most fascinating to me are the tales that are formed like traditional stories, but full of post-imperial elements. A good example is Ida Williams’ tale ‘Re Q’weyél’qs ell re Síntse7 (The Priest and the Altar Boy)’, about a priest who gets the altar boy to piggy-back him out to a graveyard where something, maybe the devil, is rumoured to be eating up the dead. The culprit turns out to be a pig, which, in trying to escape, knocks the priest right off the altar boy’s back and carries him away.

This is a culture that’s going places, and Sptékwles re Qelmúcw is a book that’s helping to take it there.

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The Secwepemc Chapter

c7istken

C7istkte’n (a mostly underground type of home)

 

The Secwepemc Chapter

 

This Moonless Sky is a trilogy, and a lot has happened before we come to this chapter.

This book takes place on another planet, called Vweialer.  The only reason humans live on it is because aliens have painstakingly transported them there.

A group of mechanized interstellar travelers called the Communicators – known as the Stchossian or, in their own alien language, Stcho’s’s’s ‘a’sh’sh – have rescued various individuals and groups from deadly calamities on the planet Earth. They’ve brought them over to this new planet.  Going from Earth to Vweialer is a deep-frozen voyage that requires 400,000 years.  That’s long enough cover 40 light-years of space, which is not really very far.

That’s how it is with real, rather than magical (as in Star Trek, Star Wars) space travel.

The narrator of the book, Marrik, was snatched away from certain death somewhere in western North America.  He was a typical smart, gay, isolated, depressed small town boy called Mark – ‘Marrik’ is a local name-change.  He is now a citizen of a country called Diyyana.

The book doesn’t clue you in to what other sorts of people from the Earth have ended up on this planet, but for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to reveal the secret that some of them are a missing community of Secwepemc people.  This is a nationality that hails from what is now central British Columbia in Canada.  Though their traditional land has been heavily populated by English speakers for over 100 years, they are keeping a most amazing national language in good order – Secwepemctsin, known as ‘Shuswap’ to the English-speakers.  The group in this book was rescued from the Earth long before English ever arrived in their homeland, so they speak their own language.

In this chapter, Marrik has just narrowly escaped with his life from the country next door to this one.  Called Tsagaxk, it features a particularly deadly type of dictatorship.  The system could be described as an Ayn Rand-influenced North Korea.  Marrik’s boyfriend, alas, was killed in Tsagaxk. Yith was his name; originally, he was a mechanized Communicator alien, but he genetically engineered himself into human form just to spend one tiny human lifetime as the special friend of Marrik.  It was a love story.

The country Marrik and his travelling companions know as Spikonikwamekh is the ultimate destination they’ve been trying to reach.  It’s always been friendly to their home nation, and they’ve risked their lives, or sacrificed them, to carry out a task they were given in a court order – delivery of a precious historic manuscript, concealed inside a saddle blanket, to the hereditary chief.  This court order was a punishment for one of them – the sentence was a kind of exile called being ‘sent for perspective.’

Marrik and his three surviving friends are extremely relieved to save their lives by crossing the border into this peaceful land.  They know next to nothing about it other than that it’s friendly.  The one preparation that has been made to help them is that they’ve been given some special gifts made of curved seashells that they’ve been told the locals will appreciate.  The gifts are very light and have stayed intact through their flight from death.

They can’t linger too long in Spikonikwamekh, because they’ve discovered that Tsagaxk, the dictatorship, will soon invade their own country.  Only a message from them can help to ward off the attack.  Before they sail home, though, they must deliver their manuscript.

In the book, the Secwepemc phrases here mainly appear in phonetic spelling that approximates English pronunciation.  Here, unlike in the book, I’ve also included the standard Secwepemc spellings, purely for the benefit of readers who speak the language.

A few passages here relate to other parts of the book and their significance may be obscure. Most of the story, though, is self-standing.

Marrik is 17 years old (+ around 400,000 years frozen); his friends Xus and Eleya are married boyfriend and girlfriend, also 17 – born on this planet, never frozen.  Xati, who they met in a slave labour camp in Tsagaxk, is in his mid-20s.

 

 

 

Spikonikwamekh  [Spikónikwemc]

 

There was nobody there, at first, in Spikonikwamekh.  We walked through tall grasses, in an area where it seemed that some trees had been cleared off to make upland pasture.  There were clumps of poplars and pines here and there.

Then I heard one of the signature sounds of this expedition, something I hadn’t heard for a long, long time.

It was one of the sweetest sounds on Earth, uh, Vweialer.  Ullikummi.

Mooing.

There were cows.

They sounded like they were being herded.  The note of protest or excitement – I was never sure which – was unmistakeable.

“Follow those cows,” I urged, “they’ll lead us to people.”

What the sounds led us to first, in fact, was dogs – a black and white border collie came rushing through the trees to greet us even before we got a clear look at the cows.  Eleya gave it a pat – it was very friendly.  A companion dog followed, also friendly.

Then, as we emerged through the trees, we saw a man on horseback.  Yes, he was herding.  He was in his forties, in Earth years, rather round of face and medium brown, with arching black eyebrows and a black circle beard – a very trim chin beard connecting to a very trim moustache.  He looked perfectly at ease on his horse.  His costume was fairly exotic: the shirt, made of soft hide, had fringes across the chest and around the elbows and shoulders, and patches of blue and red beadwork on the chest.  Beneath that, his pants, or leggings, also had rings of fringe encircling the knees.  His wide-brimmed hat looked like a slightly oversized, felty, round-topped version of a standard western North American cowboy hat from back on Earth.

When he saw us, he gave us his full attention, after whistling his two dogs to keep the herd together.

“Weytkp!” he hailed us.

Yith, I thought, we need you now.  It was always so reassuring to have him there, understanding everything.  What a treat that was.  What a treat that ‘used to be,’ as my mind pseudo-corrected itself to say.

But all was not lost. Eleya pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of her jeans and began to unravel it.

“I made myself a little sheet in the library at home for just this sort of occasion,” she said. “sQodravtse and Spikonikwamekhtshiin greetings.  It’s been beaten up pretty badly in my pocket, but I think I can still read it.”

She glanced at the sheet for a moment or two, then looked at the rider.  “Weytk,” she said back.

That got a smile.

And then, squinting at the page, she said, “Tde Diyyana rwe s’t!,,e,,kwen.”  [Te Diyyana re st’7e7kwen]

The man beckoned Eleya to hand up her piece of paper, and he did a survey to see what was there.   His horse decided Eleya was a friend and nuzzled her shirt.

“T!he,,e k’t!ekukh?” [T’he7e k t’ekuc] he asked.  I wondered if he was speaking Communicatorese.  All those popping t’s, the ones they call ‘glottalized’ because you shut the back of your throat when you say them – they really sounded like Stchossian to my ear.

Eleya took her paper back.  “Good thing I wrote down the Spikonikwamekhtshiin [Spikonikwemctsin] versions, too,” she remarked to us.  “They were easy to copy, unlike the sQodravtse.”  She looked back at the rider.

“Nensken tde Kwetshku’tsh!ke,, ,” [Nensken te Kwetskuts’ke7] she read off haltingly – syllable by syllable on the last word.

I recognized it as the name of the capital city of Spikonikwamekh.

You’d think they’d make a capital city with an easier name.  Whatever happened to Rome, Paris, London, Regntum?  This one was worse than Tegucigalpa.  That’s the capital of Honduras if you’re not an Earth Studies fan.

“Sweti,, ke,, skwest?”  [Sweti7 ke7 skwest?] the horseman asked.  Eleya shrugged slightly – a gesture of modesty.

“Eleya rwen skwekwst,” [Eleya ren skwekwst] she said.  “Elsls ye,,ene rwe Xus, ye,,ene rwe Xati, ye,,ene rwe Marrik.”  [Ell ye7ene re Xus, ye7ene re Xati, ye7ene re Marrik]

“Kwoli,,la rwen skwekwst,” [Kwoli7la ren skwekwst] the man said, pointing to himself and looking at all of us in turn.

Obviously, we’d been introduced.  Kwoli,,la , he was.  (You can say Kwo lee la, but at the end of the ‘lee,’ insert a complete stop of your throat.  It’s just like the one in the middle of ‘uh-uh,’ meaning ‘definitely no,’ in English)  He reached his arm down and twiddled his fingers to signify putting the paper back into his hand.  He looked again.

“Staghghtwenmentshemkhwes,” [Stagtwenmentsemcwes] he said with a slight smile.

“He’s inviting me, that is, us, to his place,” Eleya told us after she got the paper back.  “Before that, I told him where we’re from and where we’re going.”

“Tshkhghwentkhwiyeh meh,, kh,,ilslsenkt,” [Tsxwentcwiye me7 c7illenkt] Kwoli,,la told us, beckoning us to come along.  That phrase wasn’t on Eleya’s cheat-sheet.  It seemed pretty friendly, anyways.   Later, I found out it meant ‘come and let’s get something to eat.’”

(That last sentence of his is pretty daunting.  Let me just diverge here to give you a skippable key [yes, you can skip over it to the next paragraph if you want] guide to the alien phonics of Spikonikwamekhtshin.  I know that members of some language groups, like us native English speakers, never get used to these sounds – in fact, most of them are against our linguistic religion because they live in a taboo zone, the back of the throat.  But some people from other backgrounds are willing to take them on.  So:  I’m using ‘khgh’ [x] as per our sDiyyanantse alphabet, to represent a single sound that’s like ‘kh’ but pronounced much deeper in your throat.  Perhaps you remember that ‘lsls’ [ll] is the lateral ‘s’ that’s pronounced off the side of the tongue, sounding like a baby lisp to the English ear.  And ‘ghgh,’ [g] as I said before, is the ‘uvular glide’ that is like a ‘y’ formed in the very back of your throat.  The Spikonikwamekh ‘r’ sound is halfway between English ‘r’ and ‘w’ and it’s transcribed ‘rw’ here.  I just said that the double comma [,, = ‘7’], as in Kwoli,,la [Kwoli7la], is a heavy glottal stop like the one in uh-uh or oh-oh, and now I’ll add that a single comma in the middle of a word like ‘sta,malt,’ ‘cow,’ is a similar throat-stop that comes in when a consonant is being formed, in other words a preglottalization, if you remember that one from my wedding speech and from the tsKorabaatse language.  You know that the consonants that have an exclamation point behind, as in ‘k!welslsw,,ekh,’ [k’wellw7ec] ‘boyfriend,’ are explosively popped out with the throat closed off, that is, glottalized.  Most of these, like t!, p! and k!, just have one letter, but ‘tsh!’ [ts’] has three.  It is a single sound: you pop out a ‘ch’-like consonant made by putting the tip of your tongue against the ridge behind your upper incisors.  ‘Td’ [t] is a non-breathy ‘t,’ like the ‘t’ in ‘star’ but not like the breathy ‘t’ in ‘tar.’  There, now you can pronounce the universe.  Whew.)

I think Kwoli,,la actually reversed direction with his cows and drove them back to the home pasture just for us.  It was slow progress herding the beasts across the countryside, but we pitched in and became auxiliary border collies, adding in our hisses and whoops to supplement their yaps.  After an hour or so, we all came to a clearing that had a scenic looking home place in the middle of it.  The homestead was a curious collection of buildings, including a small ‘modern’ cottage, a tent covered in hides, and what looked to be a sod-covered igloo partly dug into the ground.   There was no ice involved in the last one; it was just a rounded dome over the ground with a pole going down into it on a slant.  The pole had been cut with steps, like a ladder.  There was another, smaller dome structure set over on the side of hill nearby.  Based on the exhibits pegged to a clothesline stretched out in the yard, our host was a family man with at least one child, but no one else emerged as he whistled and whooped the cattle into a large fenced area on the flat land adjacent to his dwellings.  The dogs were very enthusiastic about this process, play-nipping tails, running from the front of the herd to the back, and half-crouching with a smug, managerial look on their faces to yappily redirect cows that were trying to drool their way in the wrong direction.  I hoped the happy looking, checker-furred geniuses weren’t letting their intellectual superiority go to their heads.  The cows dimly knew they were being outsmarted.

Our host put his horse into a corral of its own, give it a little something to chew on, and gestured us into the yard.  He took his hat in his hand and carried it along, waving it in the direction of the igloo.

“Rwe kh,,istkte,ns-kuukhw,” [Re c7istkte’ns-kucw] he explained as he caught up with us.  As I later figured it out:  ‘our family pit-house.’

He went in backwards, down the stepped pole, then Xus followed, then Eleya, Xati and me.  The ground had been dug out below the low dome-roof to make a mostly underground room that offered plenty of headspace – it wasn’t cramped.   It was high first-class compared to the just-above-bilge steerage of Tundoznein!’s crawlspace.  (I wondered how he was doing back there.)  My feet thumped onto the earthen floor; it was thinly covered with hides. The atmosphere in the pit-house was surprisingly warm and cosy:  the trace remains of fire coals lay in a hollow below the entranceway, and that was enough to make the structure a well-heated home.

“Tsh’k!weghgh,” [Tsk’weg] he explained – ‘Not expensive’ – as he stirred up the coals a little and added fine kindling and a little dried grass to revive the flames.  Then he added more wood.  The smoke drifted up the entranceway, enveloping the top of the entry pole.

There was a bench built in all around the perimeter of the place, but nonetheless, he pointed to a two pairs of stacked chairs.

“Emuutkhwiye ne t‍shelkhwilep,” [Emutcwiye ne tselcwilep] he invited, clearly indicating the meaning by waving his hand from us to the chairs.  Who needs to understand language, really?

We distributed chairs for ourselves.  The room had four bedrolls along the side and a couple of small tables.  Clearly, it was either beds or chairs in there; you couldn’t set out both at the same time.  The wooden stacking chairs looked commercially made, with routed stiles supporting their perfectly curved backs, and with comfortably contoured seats.

There was a large metal tin sitting on one of the small tables, and our host opened it up.  He pulled out some items that looked like misshapen breadrolls or buns.  There was an alluring odour of sourdough – a distant memory for me.

Kwoli,,la turned first to Eleya.  “Qwenenen k tek spikhle,,khw?”  [Qwenenen k tek spicle7cw?] he asked.

She nodded and, after glancing down at her phrase sheet, said “meh,, leh,,” [me7 le7] – ‘that’d be nice.’

She accepted a piece and took the toothy plunge.  “This is really tasty,” she announced to us.  “It’s like some kind of lightly fried bread.  Um, [glancing at her paper and pronouncing carefully] kuukwstshetshemkh.”  [kukstsetsemc] ‘Thank you,’ in other words.

Our host gave a smile and a nod, and passed the bread around to the rest of us.

“Ta,,uus k slekhghe,yenkh,” [Ta7us k slexe’yenc] he said.  ‘Don’t mention it.’   That phrase was on the paper.

As it turns out, the bread was fire-roasted sourdough bannock, originally cooked on a rod or a stick as a sort of bread shishkabob.

“Qwenenen k tek skhwik?” [Qwenenen k tek scwik?] Kwoli,,la had pulled out something else, which turned out to be dried salmon or trout.  Very tasty.  Then he offered us milk or water to drink from pitchers that were chilling under a cloth on a shelf near the entranceway.

“Ta,, k s’tsh!khghwentshiin,” [Ta7 k sts’xwentsin] he said [pardon me], and opened up a small cupboard that stood on a stand against the wall, or edge, whatever you’d call the circular margin of a pole-reinforced ground pit.  Inside the cupboard – my mind did a backflip – was an old-fashioned rotary telephone.  Kwoli,,la picked it up and made a brief call.  He didn’t attempt to explain it to us.  He helped himself to some of the food and drink and took up a place reclining against one of the bedrolls.  He watched us indulgently.

“Kukwstekh-kuukh,” [Kukwstec-kuc] Eleya said, ‘thanks from all of us.’   Our host gave a little wave of the fingers to acknowledge.

“Guys,” I said, relaxing into the spell of good food, drink and atmosphere, “we made it.  Not all of us did, and I get hammered with the pain of that every minute, but I realize I have to stash my grief away somewhere so I can go on.  Those of us who survived, damn it, we did the near-impossible.  I can hardly believe it.”

“Thank God,” Xati said, “ – and I say that even though I’d bet God would have preferred Yithi’k! to survive along with us.  I only hope our friend has an especially nice corner of heaven to wait it out in, because he’s going to be missing someone most sorely.  Anyways, we all have to go that way some time – that’s how life is.  Hard, but true.  Meantime, here we are.  Thank you, thank you so much for including me in your friendship.  You guys are the most exceptional and fantastic people ever.  I never thought I’d get out of that country, and I have the feeling I not only got out, I might even have helped to make it a better place.  We shall see.”

“We’ll see how our country makes out too,” Xus said.  “We’d better get back there at twice light speed and make sure we can get a warning in.  Xati, thanks, it’s a privilege for all of us to be your friend and I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to have met you.”

Xati deeply nodded his thanks and pleasure.

Our host got up, made an ‘I’ll be back” gesture by advancing his raised forefinger, and climbed up the pole.  He returned a few minutes later with two small baskets, each with a different sort of berry in it.  He took a wooden bowl from a shelf and added some small, dully reddish berries to it; then he beat the berries with a wooden spoon until they began to produce a dense froth.  Slowly, he added the other kind of berries, which looked like blueberries, until the froth turned deeply reddish purple and filled the bowl.  Then he got out some small bowls and served some of the material to us.

“Skhghuusem,” [Sxusem]  he said.  The English translation turns out to be soopolallie ice cream.  No ice or cream in it, though.  ‘Soopolallie,’also called ‘soapberry,’ was the first kind of berries, the kind that made the foam.  This was one weird substance, lighter than a mousse and edgy with bitterness, yet playfully foamy and delightfully tasty.  It was one of those wacko things like the durian milkshake that could really become addictive once you got past the shock of first contact.  Xati wasn’t fond of it, so I scavenged his with gratitude.

The phone rang and Kwoli,,la picked it up.  He listened a moment.

“Rwe khghyuum tde kukwpi,, ,” [Re xyum te kukwpi7] he said to us as an aside, with a distinct air of ‘I’m impressed.’  The retrospective translation on that was ‘the big boss.’  He mitigated his marvelling with a half grin of worldly-wise stoicism.  After listening to the caller for a few moments, he said “ekhtek,” [ectek] and held out the phone to us.  Xus took it and said “With Xusxerron Tsvieitkoviich.”

The voice on the other end said, “I’m Selpakhghen, [Selpaxen] I’m going to translate for Kukwpi,, T!eyntshqel’q!lekhgh.  [Kukwpi7 T’eyntsqelq’lex] I’m a third year student of your language at the university, so go slow, please, and don’t say anything too complicated.”

“OK,” Xus pledged.  He told me later that he thought, ‘I’m certainly not going to say anything as complicated as your leader’s name.’

“On behalf of the kukwpi,, and all our people, we give you a very friendly welcome to Spikonikwamekh.  How was your trip?”

“Amazing,” Xus said, “but difficult.  One of us was killed in Tsagaxk just a few days ago and we’re still completely shocked about it.  But we’re extremely glad to be here, and our host here has been more than kind.”

We heard the translation on the other end.

What came back was, “We have some information about who was expected.  Which person was killed?”

“Yithythyth, our Communicator friend who became human, the khandsh of our companion Marrik.”

A moment of silence.

Then: “A terrible tragedy for Marrik and you and also for all of us, a very sad loss that will truly be felt throughout the known universe. I hope we can make your stay as pleasant as possible so nothing here adds to the difficulty you’re experiencing.  We’re dispatching two guides and some horses for you from the nearest outpost of our national communications network.  They’ll probably be with you before nightfall, but I think you’ll need to sleep where you are.  Please put Kwoli,,la on the phone and we’ll continue to make arrangements.  We’ll talk further when you meet us in our capital city.  It will only take you two days to get here.”

Kwoli,,la took the phone back and some brief and efficient communications were uttered.  I began to suspect he had a part-time job as a border officer, hence the secretive phone linkup.  Later, I found out that the Spikonikwamekh people didn’t like to display any technology within easy access range of Tsagaxk.  They recognized that there was a certain pernicious hunger going on there.  Kwoli,,la’s wires were all in shielded underground cables.  Of course, that was curiously appropriate for phone running to an underground house.  He got a small subsidy and a free phone line for keeping an eye on matters related to the border.

After he got off the phone, he made a swirling motion with his arms arching up over his head, and then did a gesture that looked like someone fanning semself with seir hands.

“Tshuutstken en khple,m,” [Tsut.stken en cple’m] he told us, before heading up the ladder and out.  On his way, he beckoned us to have more bread, and made a horizontal circular motion with his finger, starting at his chest, that seemed to indicate ‘I’ll go out and come back.’

Eleya looked at her sheet and verified that it held nothing like the sentence he’d spoken.  I made a crude note of the sounds, and much later, after a lot of work, I can now tell you that the sentence meant “I’m going to heat up stones for the sweat lodge.”  This sweat lodge is an item rather like a sauna in principle, but constructed like a dome-style tent with an earthen floor covered in fresh, soft conifer boughs.  It turned out that it was the small hut I’d seen in the distance when we first came into the homestead.  The thing that made our host’s sentence hard to decipher is that the Spikonikwamekh language has a particular verb that only means ‘to heat up stones for a sweat lodge,’ and you don’t find that sort of thing just everywhere.  I’ve certainly never uttered such a concept – until now.

While Kwoli,,la was out, I had a few moments to sit quietly, chewing the edge of a bannock bun, and looking at my friends.  Xus and Eleya were commenting and joking about who should make the bannock when they moved in together, one of these days – Eleya began to joke that she wouldn’t do it, but she’d teach their kids from an early age.  This was assuming they could find the recipe somewhere.  Mostly, I think, she was using the topic to tease Xus about having his wildness restrained with fatherhood.  Xati, meanwhile, was looking at me without saying anything, just about as often as I was looking at him – I think we were sizing up if we ought to speak to each other or not.  I was struck by how much these friends meant to me, especially now that I was alone, and I realized that I was still holding out on one detail with them – perhaps because to tell the story would falsely excite my own hopes.  I must somehow have raised my storytelling crest-feathers, because Eleya and Xus both went silent and looked at me curiously.

“There’s one thing about Yith I didn’t tell you guys,” I began, “one important thing, I mean.  Maybe important, I don’t know.”

“Okay,” Xus said, “take your time.  I know it might be hard going to talk about it.”

“You two guys saw that they burned him, burned his body, and there wasn’t much there – I couldn’t see his wedding ring and I suppose one of them took it.  Somehow, I got so agitated that I did something I don’t understand.  I picked up a stick to hit it against a rock, and then I was horrified to see that it wasn’t a stick – it was piece of thigh bone with the hip party broken.  And I felt a sort of thunderclap inside me and I hurled the bone onto the rock – and it splintered apart – and a little metal thing fell out.  I have it in my pocket right now.”

I pulled it out and carefully unwrapped it to show it to them.

“Hm! Hm! Hmm!!” Eleya tocsined melodiously, “that must be something interesting, but what would it be?”

“I guess when we get home,” I said, “we can get on the radio and ask the crew.  They must be far too far away to do anything about it, but maybe the next crew that comes along, in fifty years or so, can make something of it.  Language chip or whatever.”

“That sure is intriguing, and frustrating,” Xus commented.  “I hope it’s something that’ll really be, in some way, a gift from him to you as he would have been so eager to give.”

“Even if it was him in total,” I said, “all his memories – how could I wait so long, or even survive so long, to get him back?  And then he wouldn’t have his body – he’d be a machine again.  More power to him, but the boy I love is a boy.”

“You don’t need to apologize for being human,” Xus said.  “We understand that a Yith machine wouldn’t be the perfect mate for you.  That would truly be strange, though, because I think you’d still love each other just as much.”

“Absolutely,” I said, “by now, if his spirit were transferred over into a spider or a toad, all I could do was love a spider or a toad.  But let’s not go there – it would be so easy for the Communicators to become spiders or toads.  I want to ban the idea from the universe by not thinking of it.”

“A good, sound human strategy,” Xati interjected with a smile.

“Well, that’s a pretty interesting thing that happened to you there,” Eleya said slowly, as if still forming the thought she was speaking.  She paused a moment before continuing and looked me in the eye.  She shrugged.

“You smashed a bottle.”  [refers to a previous story]

I have no doubt my mouth hung open.  My mind jolted as if a wall of sheet lightning had hit it.

“Ha,” I finally uttered.  “I wonder what that means.  Nothing has miraculously happened to make the sun break out.”

“True,” she said, “I hope that there isn’t some kind of purely ironic bottle-smashing.  Although, why not?  If bursts of emotion could produce major miracles reliably, it would be a different universe.  My moments of angst haven’t done much for me.  Anyways, Marrik, I don’t want to drive you crazy with hope that the little pin will somehow bring Yithi’k! back.  But I hope something good will happen.  At least you prevented the tech from falling into the wrong hands.  If is it tech.”

“Yeah, true, though it’s crossed my mind – maybe this is evidence that one of the guys made a medical error when they were fixing him up – you know, dropping a tool in surgery.  It can’t be too difficult when you’re working on the small scales they work at.  Maybe he was full of nano-tools of various kinds.  Maybe they don’t even need to do a stringent cleanup – they can just leave all sorts of bits of mechanism lying around.”

“Yes, who knows.  The mystery of Yith.”

“The wonder of him was endless.”

“And is, even after he’s gone.”

“Viyaadstamet.”

We were distracted by the sound of moderately distant hooves.

“Seems too early for our horses to have arrived already,” Xati remarked.  He shunted up the laddered pole – the khghnikhw [xnicw], as I now know it’s called – to have a look.

“It’s the family,” he yelled down.

“Sure wish,” I said, “we had someone – someone – just someone – here who could understand these guys.”

“Don’t we all,” Xus said, “we’re missing our someone very much too.  You know what. Marrik, even though I agree with what Eleya said about getting emotional not being a direct pipeline to miracles, it strikes me that what happened to you did have one rare element of true bottle-smashing, as I understand it.”

“Mmhm?”

“For Eleya to have a major snit is rare, but when it happens, it’s not exactly para-physin. [‘against nature,’ the famous Greek expression of St. Paul, used against everything from surrogative sex to the wearing of long hair by males].”  Eleya made a move to kick Xus’s ankle, but his foot did an instant retraction.  “But you did something that seems to be completely against your nature.  I can hardly imagine you hurling around your boyfriend’s bones – it’s not like you at all.”

“That’s for sure.  But I don’t feel changed, and neither does the world.  Anyways, let’s not set up an epistemic injunction that’ll filter every good thing that happens from here on in and make it relate to me desecrating Yith’s remains.  He deserves better than to have some gaga, self-serving optimism built on his degradation.”

“I’d never set up a bias thing like that.  I don’t think.  Anyways, without prejudice, I find your little pin interesting.  And now, I guess we’d better just drop the topic and let things go as they may.”

“Yes, I don’t want to get carpal tunnel syndrome from wringing my hands.”

You could hear a pin drop from the conversation.

Xati climbed back down, followed by Kwoli,,la.  A boy of about six, in earth years, followed, and then a girl of about eight.  And thereafter a woman.  All were wearing fringed and beaded soft leathers, and all had longish, straight black hair.

“Weytkp,” Eleya, said, that is, ‘hi guys.’

“Weytk enwi,,!” [Weytk enwi7] the woman responded, ‘hello to you.’

“Rwen sem,,e,,em,” Kwoli,,la said, “Ye,,ene rwe Lekhuussniinei.”  [Ren sem7e7em. Ye7ene re Lecusnine]

He surely meant his wife, who he was indicating, and her name must be Lekhuussniinei.

Eleya quickly unfolded her tattered paper again and came up with “Leh,, en k t!uukh?” [Le7 n ktuc], ‘how are you?’, which received the polite reply ‘Meh,,e leh,, ken, kuukwstshetshemkh,” [Me7e le7ken, kukwstsetsemc] ‘Yes, I’m good, thank you.’

“Rwen stshmemelt,” [Ren stsmemelt] Kwoli,,la said, indicating the boy and girl, “rwen s’t!emkekelt, Sekuse,nt,” – his daughter Sekuse,nt – elsls rwen squses,,e, Tmikhw re skwests” – his son Tmikhw.  [ren st’emkekelt, Sekusen’t, ell ren squses7e, Tmicw re skwests]

Eleya introduced us all by name.  There was an awkward pause as we ran out of things to say, and the Kwoli,,la issued his kids some instructions that sent them scooting back up the pole.

“Meh,, neskt te s’q!ilye,” [Me7 neskt te sq’ilye] he said to us, which I’m now proud to tell you (my notes actually worked) means ‘we’re going to go to the sweat-lodge.’

This led up to a remarkably convivial experience.  First, though, we were given a tour of the homestead, including the main conventional house building (conventional to my idea of a house, that is), and given a chance to take care of any personal necessities.  Then we were all issued towels and shorts to wear, plus a shirt for Eleya.  So equipped and accoutred, we began our sauna experience by padding down a hillside path in our bare feet and bathing in a pool of water, a very cold pool – and I mean cold cold, as in, ‘cold’ – that had been widened out in the bed of a creek that ran through the property.  But we couldn’t be too mesmerized by our blue, bumpy and shrivelled skin, because we could anticipate the heat of some very hot stones we could see glowing red inside the small, rounded hut nearby.  We hastened over there next, popped inside the opening flap, and sat around in a close huddle, all eight of us with little room to spare.  Kwoli,,la dipped his fingers into a bucket by his right side and cast water onto the stones to make steam for the hut.  He sang something that sounded devotional, or at least very peaceful, and then reached into a little jar on his left side.  The material that came up was leafy, herbal.  He dashed a handful of these herbs on the stones, and this liberated an intense sagey aroma.  In the context of the steam and the heat, the engagingly pervasive balm had a strangely liberating effect.  Kwoli,,la said something, and little Tmikhw went around issuing each of us a tree branch, which I think came from a fir.  He came back to his place and used his own branch to show us how to rub our skin to the best possible effect.  This action also seemed to combine with the steam in a deeply cleansing way.

This was becoming more fabulous by the moment.  It was powerful releaser, after all the labour and fear and torment of my Tsagaxk experience, and I suddenly found myself in tears in a way that felt good.  By this time I was sweating enough that I could hope my emotional state might go unnoticed.  Within seconds, though, I got a back-pat from Eleya, who was separated from me by Xus, and then Xus put his arm around my waist for a moment, almost a hug.  They were really looking out for me.

From across the stones, Kwoli,,la gave me a slight, understanding nod.  I guessed that his telephone contact had passed on the story of who had died. His daughter asked him something, and I saw the eyes of all the family members discreetly glancing at me.  Kwoli,,la took some herbs up into his hands, gave me another nod, then looked at the stones and uttered a few lines that had the tonality of a prayer.  He threw the leaves onto the fire.  The fragrant smoke curled up to the ceiling of our little dome and drifted there, spreading out, taking the prayer around and down and back through all of us, infused in steam, connecting us in a presence, a memory, an existence.  For you, my love.

We went four rounds of singing, steam-making and herbal smoke, all the while flowing all over like melting ice cubes.  To be a human is such an amazing experience.  You can actually make water all over your body, from head to foot.  Think about it.  No matter how hot the day is, you never get rained on by drippy birds flying around, nor do you ever look down to find a dog, drenched in its own sweat, shaking itself off onto your leg.  Thank heavens for that!  Horses partake of the sweating experience and can even foam – a cappuccino palomino, now, that’s class – but animals that can glaze themselves are relatively few in number.  I hoped Yith had enjoyed this talent, this ability to exude your own swimming pool, while he was still a member of our bizarre species.  And I wished he was here sweating with us today – but then, I’d wished he was here doing everything else with us too, at least since we left Tsagaxk, so there was nothing remarkable in that thought.  All the same, he would have loved the sweat lodge experience.  It took me back to our good times with Deiyah in the Asian baths of Regntum, but this lodge had a spiritual dimension that the baths didn’t aspire to.  Didn’t perspire to, I guess you could say.

Our time in the sweat ended with all of us going outside and burning our fir boughs in the same fire that had earlier been used to heat the stones.  Then we had another ice-cold dip in the stream, but our skins were ready for it and blocked the cold with their built-in excess heat.  We were like baked-Alaska desserts in reverse, with our heated crusts repelling the ice-cold material rather than encasing it.  The rivulets of cold coming through the heat had a tender, scouring effect.

The family led us back to the house so that we could get dressed.  We were shown to our assigned rooms, and I realized that the house was more along the lines of a guest workers’ bunkhouse than a family dwelling.   Lekhuussniinei and the kids fetched out blankets and more towels, and showed us the tea kettle and the preferred technique for running the wood stove.  We made tea for ourselves while they went out and got some dinner going on a barbecue pit.  Just as the sun was about to drop off the cliff, we heard more hoofclops on the road, and three people arrived leading a group of extra horses.  Our government contacts had made it through.

“I thought we were expecting two people,” Xati remarked, “and one of those looks a little young for official business.”

We decided it wouldn’t be too pushy if we ventured out into the yard rather than waiting for our contacts to come visit us.

Kwoli,,la and his son and daughter were busy finding places for the new horses, and Lekhuussniinei had a fire and some pots to stir, so the new arrivals were momentarily at loose ends anyways.  We walked over in their direction with a wave.

One of them was a white-haired man with a long, white moustache; he had a broad face and a warm and open demeanour.  His companion was a much younger man, in his thirties by Earth standards, thinly bearded, pony-tailed, with a somewhat drawn-looking and lined face.  He had his hand on the shoulders of the third person, a dark-haired, brown-faced boy of about twelve, with an exquisitely sloped chin line and with eyes that were slightly downcurved at the corners – an exotically beautiful face.  And a nervous one.  The boy was clearly shy, from his downcast look, and he held a book in one hand.  I could see it shaking.

“Pyin,” urged the younger adult.

“D…d…,” the boy stammered, “does ‘nyone speaks the Engilish?”

“I speak English,” I answered with the best clarity I could muster.  “My friends speak it too.”

The boy looked shocked.

“My name is Marrik, what is your name?” I asked, to give him some time to recover.  I’m sure he was hoping no one would speak English and he’d be off the hook.

“My name is Khlekhtshiin [Clectsín].”

“Are you with your father?”

“Father?  Yes – my father.  His name is Lekhghlekhgh [Lexlex].  My grandfather name is Kwtuunt.” [Kwtunt]

“My friends are Xus and Eleya and Xati.”  I pointed them out.  “We are very glad to meet you.”

Everyone signalled hello.

“Thank you.  Very nice to meet you.  We will go to Kwetshku’tsh!ke,, [Kwetskuts’ke7] tomorrow.”

“We understand, thank you.”

His father said something to him.

“Father say in Kwetshku’tsh!ke,, there is man this ones…” he pointed at the rings on my arm and whistle-hissed with his tongue while making a zipping-off gesture.

“Good!” Xus and I said in unison.  I wouldn’t object to having the vortex rings taken off my arms.  After all, they didn’t belong to me, did they?

“Kukwstshetshelp,” [Kukwtsetselp] Eleya added, reading off her sheet and looking at the older people. This was a thank-you phrase for more than one person at a time – a thank-y’all.

The two adults gave her a smile and acknowledging nod.

Kwoli,,la was on his way back and said something from across the yard.

“He say go in kh,,istke,n,” [c7istken’] Khlekhtshiin said.  I noticed his shakiness had declined a lot.

We each took our turn to go down the laddered pole.  The newcomers went to sit on a bench that lined part of the periphery of the pit-house.  Kwoli,,la soon arrived and started to make some tea – regular tea, as I would call it – by putting leaves in a teapot and setting some water to boil on the indoor fire.  There was some conversation amongst the Spikonikwamekhtshin speakers.

The boy was more or less left out of the convo, and I decided to ask him what was on my mind.

“Excuse me, may I ask you something?”

“Ste,mi?   [Ste’mi] Mm, I beg your pardon?”

“May I ask you a question?”

“Yes.”

“Why are you studying English?”

The boy puzzled about this for a moment and then got it.

“Our people on Earth, many speaks English now – cona…”

“Conattainable?” [i.e., 400,000 years ago, but it’s the newest information you can get in physical form from a spaceship that has covered the distance]

“Yes!  Books, newspaper use English.”

“There are Spikonikwamekh people on Earth?  Where?”

“Many place.  Not Spikonikwamekh – all Spikonikwamekh are here – but … family of Spikonikwamekh.  Places: T’k!emluups, T’k!emtshiin, Skiitshesten, Khghe’ts!uulsls, Khghghghe’tl!te,m…”  [Tk’emlups, Tk’emtsin, Skitsesten, Xets’ull, Xget’tem’]

I just stared at him.  The last word was the most alien thing I’ve ever heard in my life.  We must be talking about two different planets here.

That may not sound logical to you, since these people are human – but one thing I learned in shipboard chats with the Communicators is that they’ve transported people to several planets.  Some were moved again if they had problems with the first place they went to.  You never knew if some of the transanimates had given their first new planet the familiar, previously-enjoyed name of ‘Earth,’ just out of nostalgia.  The towns there could be called anything imaginable.  But let’s not jump to conclusions.

“So, these places are on the real Earth?  Mostly blue coloured planet, number three from a yellow Sun?”

“Books and teachers say.”

“I come from Earth.  I don’t know those places.  Do you know any English names for places near to these places?”

“English name for close place?”

“Yes.”

“Big river we call Se’t! [Set’] is English name Preisha.”

“Preisha?”  Never heard of that one.

“Yes.  Go down Penkuubeh.”

“Goes down to … wait a moment … the Fraser River goes down to Vancouver.”

“Yes, yes!  That ones, bery hard to prononse.  Pirst letter not use in Spikonikwamekhwtshiin.”

This was way over the top.  Half a million years later, on the most arduously attained piece of alien territory on an alien planet, in a round sod-covered house built in what looked like a little lunar crater.

I’d come home.

No, not back to Earth per se.

To the nation that had ancestral title to the land I grew up on.

Or at least, their close cousins.

Meanwhile, my shy friend was slowly unveiling his own double-take.

“Marrik?”

“Yes?”

“You from Earth?  You live in Earth?”

“Yes, I come from a place maybe, on the horse, three days’ ride from the Fraser River.”

“How you come to our world?”

“Communicator spaceship.”

“Commyunicayda speiss’shep?”

“Yes.”

He shook his head and muttered “Ta,, k stshelkhghemsteten. [Ta7 k stselxemsteten]”

I could see the problem.  He didn’t understand me on that last bit.

“Stcho’s’s’s ‘a’sh’sh?” I ventured.

“Stcho’s’s’s ‘a’sh’sh!” he exclaimed revelationally, with his eyes blazing like brown agate full moons.  “Le,, , le,,!  [Le7, le7] Stcho’s’s’s ‘a’sh’sh!!

You have to remember to say things the simple way.

“Tshe’q!meke,,  rwe S’k!wenmelslstiimkh!”  [Tseq’meke7 re Skw’enmelltimc] he added.  He tapped his father on the arm excitedly and told him about my unusual origin.  His dad gave a nod of appreciation but then, as the slightest trace of a serious look hinted, probably advised him not to make a fuss about it.  His exclamation I eventually translated as ‘thunderbird-arrow of the Communicators,’ in other words, their spaceship.

“Marrik was frozen for many thousands of years,” Eleya contributed.

The boy looked puzzled.

“P’hroessen?”

“Ice?  Cold.  Brrr…”  Eleya explained with the appropriate gestures.  She was good.  I think Tsagaxk had taught her a lot about what it was like to be cold.  It had certainly reminded me.

“Skhuyent!” [Scuyent!] he said, catching on.  “Ice!  Thousand of years!  He?”  He turned to me.  “You?”

It isn’t easy to confess to being a frozen and thawed piece of meat, but I did it.

And so we went on to have a good minimalist conversation about my weird history.  I was very glad he didn’t know more English than he did, so we didn’t have to go into the events leading up to my congelation.  I wish there was some way that a boy like him, or a girl of the same age, could grow up without the concept of suicide ever coming into seir mind.  Perhaps, on the other hand, given its deuheiktanal inevitability, one should discuss it and warn people that it’s something they’ll always regret, given any platform for reviewing the outcome.  And who better to tell them than me?  But I was glad I didn’t have to get into that with Khlekhtshiin.  He looked pretty settled in to being alive.

I felt a little disconcerted being interviewed as an interstellar marvel when I knew there should have been someone there who could pipe up and say he used to be an eons-old trans-galactic machine.  And you can’t get cooler than that.  I was relatively cool because I’d been frozen – ha, ha – but imagine if I’d been made of metal and nanofibres – ah well, Khlekhtshiin didn’t know he was getting the lesser phenomenon, so he was free to be impressed by my humble self.

Not long after we began our interstellar conversation, we were interrupted by the return of the rest of the family members with the elements of a huge pot roast dinner.   The roast was packed in strange, tiny potatoes – must have been another species of plant – and stringy onions with an enticing overtone of garlic.  Then there was another tuber, mashed out, that tasted like sweet potato, plus lots of bannock.  When the bannock was being distributed, Khlekhtshiin decided to teach me to say its name properly – s’p!ikhghle,,khw, that would be – and we both ended up having great hilarity at my inept attempts to say the word.  He wanted to show me how it was written, to help me out, and borrowed a notepad from Sekuse,nt, Kwoli,,la’s daughter.  To my surprise, he wrote the word out in mostly English letters as ‘sp’íxle7cw.’  And, yes indeed, why not redispose the number ‘7’ as a glottal stop?  It does seem to sort of stand up and interrupt the flow of the word.  Then just re-apply the unnecessary ‘x’ and ‘c,’ like the Chinese did in their Pinyin transliteration, and voila, a new letter code, looking beguilingly readable but not actually pronounceable until you learn the code.

So it was a very educational night for all of us.  I really needed an emotional graded-gravel road to travel on for a while, and the evening was good for me that way.  Part of me still wanted to spend every available moment doing Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ because of Yith –  holding my head in my hands with my wraith-like mouth howling my agony – and part of me was jumping up and down wanting to get to Regntum and warn Deiyah about the invasion of the cranberry-munchers.  It was very hard to sit still and eat dinner.  The puzzle of trying to describe the interior of a Communicator thunderbird-arrow to a boy who spoke minimal English was a great soother.  Linguistic confusion as a video game – try it sometime.

We slept well that night; even I did.  The visitors took the cabin and the family stuck to its beloved pit-house.  I could only thank God for being in such a safe place.  It made a good back-fire to contain the still-rolling blaze of my inner horror.

On the way out in the morning, Eleya and Xus did something that would have slipped my mind completely – they pulled out the still-intact bag of scaphopod necklaces and bracelets that Deiyah had given us and gave some to Lekhussnineh and Sekusen,t.  The little girl was especially excited and danced around saying, “ki,,khe, skhghiikhghnem, skhghiikhghnem!” – ‘mom, scaphopod shells!’  [ki7ce, sxixnem!]

Kwoli,,la said something and Khlekhtshiin translated it as “you pay too much one dinner, take two cows!”

Our host grinned.  He was joking, but in a way that held a lot of truth.  Post-ironic thanks.

“Say the shells are a gift from our kukwpi,, [kukwpi7],” Xus instructed the boy.  “with his thanks and with our thanks.”

I was pleased to see something that had only survived this far by seeming worthless and anomalous had now been recognized as beautiful and valuable.  It sort of reminded me of my own life up to a certain point.

And chalk up one point for Deiyah’s prescience in giving us the shells.  He might come out of this looking OK if his cards played out right.  In spite of … um, everything.

Boy, my mind is just full of bad stuff this morning, I’m sorry.  (I actually wrote that last line down in my notes.)  Missing my guy and flailing my mental sackcloth and ashes.

Grief is kinda ugly, isn’t it?  What can you do for the person?  Especially when you’re only reading his text.  I’ll try to give you an exemption card, reader.

We said our goodbyes and more thanks, and trotted off into a day that was as much of a balm as the sweat lodge, in its own way.  After three and a half hours or so, we arrived at a village that had a general store and a compact government building.  The houses were mostly pit-houses.  We could see a few sweat lodges around, and a number of barns.  The periphery of the town was ringed with ranch-style fencing and infrastructure – tool sheds and so on.

“If my father say, I must stay,” Khlekhtshiin confided from his horse.  “School today.”  He pointed at the government building, which was quiet.  School must have been in session.  Almost lunch time, I’d guess.

As it happened, we carried on together, crossing over to the north side of the village, and repaired to a pit-house in a broad yard mostly covered in out-of-season berry bushes and canes.  A woman in long and much-fringed suede robes was doing some roof maintenance while a baby slung around her back in a safety-strapped pouch played with the fringes on her shoulder seam.

“Rwen kik,,ekhe, [Ren kik7ece] my mother,” Khlekhtshiin said proudly.  He lept off his horse, handing his dad the reins, and went over to give her a hand with a piece of woodwork she was trying to fix in place.  Pretty soon they had things in order and we were invited in for lunch – dried stuff, mostly: beef jerky, or biltong, you might say, dried fish, and dried berries.  But there was also some bannock and tea and, for a treat, some more skhghuusem, soopolallie ‘ice cream,’ flavoured with a different kind of berries than the last batch.  Eleya had a chance to compliment Khlekhtshiin’s mom on her fine beadwork, as seen on the leathers of everyone in the family, including two girls who’d shown up from school on lunch break.  I could see from clandestine glances and a general tone of excitement that I was the main object of conversation among the kids.  Xus gave each of the kids one of our shell necklaces, which seemed to flabbergast everyone, especially the young recipients.  I realized we were probably giving out the equivalent of semiprecious stones and it was probably way over-the-top, but hey, we didn’t know any better.  So we could blithely ignore the clues and carry on as if we didn’t know any better, and everyone was happy.  We added Khlekhtshiin’s mom into our gift list as thanks for the lunch.  That went over very well too.  I was enjoying the transition from desperately indebted worker, still burdened with his vortex rings, to bestower of wealth and elegance.

Then we were off again, with Khlekhtshiin still along as interpreter, much to his delight.  This was no time to leave a friendly former ice-block in the lurch and go back to class.  We had a leisurely ride through conifer forests – something much less bristly than the upland spruce of our cranberry zone – and were gazed at by many hawks and crows.  At times, we’d break out into open land where there were landlocked ponds rimmed with white mineral salts, and in some of these, elegant black-and-white demoiselle cranes congregated in inward-facing circles, like attenuated avian priests waiting for a spirit to emerge from the water.  On two occasions we came to spots where cables emerged from the ground and connected to a box on a stone pillar, and Lekhghlekhgh got some tools out of his saddle bag and did some work.

“My father has a job for telephone service of gupn’ment,” Khlekhtshiin announced proudly.

“What does your grandfather do?”  Eleya asked.

The boy looked puzzled.

“Anything he want,” was the eventual answer.

“What work does he do?”

“Ah, he works kh’k!e,lmen.”  [ck’el’men] He pointed at a tree and made a sawcutting gesture.  “Also helps gupn’ment.  Numbers, sqle,w.” [sqlew’]

An accountant.  The technocrats of the village.  And there was our sDiyyanantse word for money.  We must have borrowed it from these guys.   I had heard our countries had been on friendly terms for all recorded time on the planet.

We stayed that night at another pit-house, which Khlekhtshiin laboriously explained was one where the owners were subsidized by the government to take in travellers who needed a place to stay.  Other than that, it was just a normal family dwelling with two parents and three kids, one of whom was a teenaged girl with Down’s syndrome.  She took a liking to Eleya and coaxed her into being her partner in a game where the players had to guess how their opponents had shuffled four distinctive painted sticks that were hidden in one player’s closed hands.  The rest of us took turns opposing them.  I think she would have kept going all night if her mother hadn’t obliged her to stop at a certain point – not a happy moment, but she got over it.  Eleya got lots of hugs and seemed genuinely taken with her adorer.

“It’s never exhausting to give out love,” she said afterwards.   But she slept pretty soundly and needed a couple of extra shakes in the morning.

Midday the next day we met up with and started following a large river.   Its banks regularly showed signs of fishing endeavours that had taken place in earlier weeks.  We saw a great diversity of drying racks, weirs and wooden fish traps.  The drying racks were empty – it was too late in the season to be drying fish.  In the late afternoon, we reached the capital city, which amazed all us foreigners, I think, by presenting a broad fringe of suburbs mostly made up of pit-houses.  Smoke from cooking fires came up around the laddered poles.  A few above-ground, whitish tents, also dome-shaped, were scattered in among the pit-houses.  The air was chilly – we’d been moving northeast and were now at the northernmost part of our trip – and we doubled up our layers of clothing with whatever we could find in our packsacks.  The pattern of streets was obviously planned and was a perfect cross-hatching grid except where the ravine banks along the river obliged the roads to slant or twist up and down the hill.  I later learned that the name of the town, Kwetshku’tsh!ke,, , [Kwetskuts’ke7] meant ‘fish-stretcher’ – it referred to little wooden sticks that were inserted as cross-pieces to keep a cleaned, opened-out fish maximally stretched out on the drying rack.  The stretcher sticks always sat horizontally at a perfect 90-degree angle to the vertical rod of the drying rack, where the fish’s tail hung suspended by a ligature.  What better name, then, to please someone who wanted to poke fun at the cross-hatched regularity of the town planning scheme?  It’s the only city I know of with a self-satirizing name.

Mind you, I was also told later that the town on Earth that, conattainable, is the main centre for the T’k!emluluupsemkh, [Tk’emlulupsemc] a people closely related to our Spikonikwamekh, has a name that translates as ‘Buttocks River-Junction.’  I’m not really sure what to make of that.  Is someone pulling my leg?  I was told that the English speaking people who live in the district have no idea that their town’s name, though it’s been modified to be pronounceable by the English tongue, conveys this meaning to the knowledgeable.

As we entered the centre of the city, we reached structures that I, in my cultural insularity, think of as modern buildings, even though they have openable windows.  We actually ended up in a real hotel with a desk clerk and everything, not to mention a triad of stable attendants, two girls and guy.  Since many of the guests were wearing wide-brimmed hats that looked like cowboy hats, I was strongly reminded of western movies I’d seen.  There was no bar, however, no fights, and certainly no guns being drawn.  Some sort of a rancher’s conference was going on.

Khlekhtshiin ran up to me in the lobby as our rooms were arranged tapped my arm excitedly.

“Fast get ready,” he said.  “We go over half hour to dinner with the kukwpi,,.”

“I am happy you will come,” I said.  “Have you met him before?”

Some rephrasing was needed, and then he said “No!  First time!”

I was glad to be the instrument of his social advancement, needless to say.

I deposited my minimal baggage in my room.  The room had the equivalent of a queen-sized bed covered by a quilt made of turquoise and white patches, with red hummingbirds flying among the squares.  It was the most gorgeous bed I’d seen in a long time – but what could be more painful to look at than a bed, when you know you should have been sharing it?  I went back to the lobby as quickly as possible.

The whole group of us was met in the lobby by a pair of escorts, a young man and a middle-aged woman.  The man had a fur hat on, one made of a short, cylindrical round of fur topped with a flat piece of fur, very much like a Russian ushanka with the earflaps up, or a Central Asian qaraqul hat.  Emerging from the top of it was a fan-shaped array of five feathers, probably eagle feathers based on the size.  He also had on several necklaces of different lengths, and some tufts of small feathers at the corners of his leather tunic.  Not to be outdone, the woman had a hat on made of successive layers of what looked like inner birch bark strips, sewn together, studded on their surfaces with coloured quartz and jasper stones.  A group of longish feathers with the tawny, stripey softness of owl feathers were inserted into to a leather disc that rested loosely on the inside of her right shoulder.  The disc was held by a cord that went up over her shoulder and attached to the back of her hat.  She wore a full-length soft-leather dress, belted at the waist, and over it, coming down to the waistline, a shawl made of brightly red, black and white, horizontally chevronned cloth with its lower one-third woven as long, triangular-ended strips.  It had long, white fringes dangling all along its entire edge.  Her look of pendulous delicacy was enhanced by long ear ornaments, each made of a series of ivory-white, curving scaphopod tooth shells, interconnected by black beads.  Each ear ornament started off as a single ribbon of tooth shells, three shells wide, and then diverged into two ribbons as it draped down along her neck and reached her shawl-covered collarbone.

“I’m Selpakhghen, your interpreter; I talked on the phone with Xusxerron,” the young man said to us.  He had a curiously weathered look for someone who seemed to be in his early mid-20s – I suspected he’d spent a lot of time outdoors.  “With me is Yuyuwtetkwe, representing our government; she’s what you would call our minister of culture.”

Eleya had taught us to say a polite ‘weytk,’ ‘hello,’ so we did so, and shook hands in the sDiyyanantse manner, which seemed to go over well.  Then our escort was introduced and young Khlekhtshiin got some pats on the head for his diplomatic services to the country.

“He speak other language,” he confided in me as we headed down the street together, indicating Selpakhghen.

“True,” I answered.  I inquired with Selpakhghen if he spoke English, but he admitted he had never studied the language.

“It looks awful,” he said.  “The spelling makes no sense.”

“It’s historic spelling,” I said, “and you just get used to recognizing words that way.  It’s just as if, when you met a person, you saw a chart on sem that showed seir ancestry and you used that to help recognize sem.  Scholars in the Age of Reason actually took pains to put unpronounced letters into English words, to bring back their similarity to the Latin words they grew out of – like the silent ‘b’ in the word ‘debt,’ for example.”  I spelled the word out for him and told him about its Latin forbear, ‘debitam.’  This was a bit of didactic pabulum that all sDiyyanantse students of English were fed early on in their coursework.

“No silent letters in our language,” he said, “unless you count the seven [glottal stop].  I prefer to speak languages that make sense.  I told our young friend he’s a braver man than I am.”

“Selpakhghen says he thinks you are good,” I said to Khlekhtshiin, just to bring him up to speed.  The boy radiated.

“I not think book of school so much good thing,” he confessed, with wonder coruscating around in his ocular pools of brown.

Somehow we’re always skeptical about our education.  It’s as if we’re born thinking that people plan school curricula to afflict us with nuisances rather than to provide things of practical use and imaginative fascination.  I don’t argue that some educators prefer lifelessly flattened information.  We students, though – we just seem to have this wary attitude about education no matter what we’re given.  Unless, that is, we have the good fortune to be born in a completely impoverished area where education is nearly impossible – then, perhaps, we allow ourselves to crave the knowledge and extract the fun out of it.  Otherwise, we have to be whacked on the head by the need for every scrap of knowledge we’ll consent to assimilate.  We can be a very literal and hands-on species, even those of us – or should I say those of you? – who are intelligent.  It’s another arisot problem, as you can see.  We may or may not have faith in our schoolwork.  We can approphetically make it boring by enjoining in advance that it’s irrelevant.  If that salt – knowledge – loses its savour, what will restore it?

Everyone should get to be treated as a hero for a day if they’ve learned enough of another language to have a conversation with someone.  I decided to give today’s hero a little more bootstrap support.

“If you want to keep talking to me in English,” I said to Khlekhtshiin, “you and I can write to each other when I get back home.”

Assuming my country still exists in some form, I thought.    Well, let’s be optimistic about that.

“Yes, I like to write to you!” Khlekhtshiin chirped.

“Easiest address on the planet; you can even write it in English – Marrik Rajjarsen, Royal Palace, Regntum, Diyyana.  I’ll write it out for you at dinner.”

He promised me his address, too, and we sealed the deal.

I couldn’t lose an English-speaking friend from home.

We arrived at some distinguished looking government buildings with stonework eagles all along the string courses.  A large animal that appeared to be a fox or a wolf prowled around in the carvings of the frieze over the palatial front door.

Carved on the lintel, in English letters, was ‘Tk’wem7iple7smellcw,’ which in our highly readable phonics turns into ‘T’k!wem,,iple,,smelslskhw.’

“Gupn’ment house,”  Khlekhtshiin explained after seeing me looking at the sign.  He was obviously looking for any further chance to be helpful.

“You’re going to the dentist before dinner,” Selpakhghen announced.  “I’m joking,” he added.  “Actually the kukwpi,, has brought in a special smith to take off your Tssagakhghwmkh rings.  Another kind of pain removal.  He’s set up in the basement.”

We all hiked down the stairs and into a room with a bare concrete floor.  The smith was there, and we were introduced to him, but to my surprise, there was nothing fiery going on.  He had a complicated machine set up on wheels; it had a set of levers and gears attached to it, as well as a tank and some tubing.  I got pointed at as the first guinea pig.

“Ten rings!  You’ll be glad to get rid of those!” Selpakhghen translated.  The smith wrapped a ring up in some insulating material.  Then he attached three lever arms to it; each of them gripped the ring with a clasp that was screwed into place.  Then a sort of capsule was placed around the solder joint.  I could see it had rings of tubing inside it.  It clipped together from two pieces placed over the joint; that brought its internal tubing together to make an intact coil.  He stepped around behind his machine and opened the cock on the tank.  Liquid rushed through the tubing and poured into a receptacle on the side of the machine.  It fumed and smoked there.

The smith spoke.  “Liquid nitrogen,” Selpakhghen translated.  “They use very impure solder.  Doesn’t like to get really cold suddenly.”

The smith momentarily flushed air through the nitrogen lines, unclipped the clasp with the tubules, and struck the ring sharply on the solder.  I could see a fissure appear.  At the same time, the three lever arms began to pull and the ring prised open a little.  The smith hit a switch and the lever arms changed direction and began to bend the ring so that one end came in towards me and the other bent oppositely, away from me.  The third arm served as a pivot and protected my skin.  In no time, the ring was off me.

“Nine to go,” the smith said.  “They must have liked you a lot.”

“I wasn’t their favourite,” I said. “That was someone else.  They killed him.  But if he were still with us, he’d be glad to see me getting these rings off.”

“I’m very sorry,” the smith said. “Something wrong with those people.”

“Well, something good is coming along in that country now.  There’s an amazing underground.  If the military moves out to invade our country, interesting things might happen.”

“The kukwpi,, will be very interested.  It’s a good day for him that you came.  I’ll concentrate on my work and get you there quicker.”

He set about knocking rings off with great focus, and before I knew it, I was free.

I had my hugging arms back.  This thought made my emotions spike off the chart.  All packed with love and no place to go.  It’s so hard, so hard, this – death.  Ugh.  Eleya, meanwhile, was the next to be unringed, and it didn’t take long.  Well, I could sure as heck hug her.  And I did, as Xus stepped up to the smith.  I didn’t want to cry in front of Khlekhtshiin, so I bit my mental lip as hard as I could.  My eyes were almost closed.  Eleya must have felt the effort I was making, because something pushed a little water out of her tear ducts.

Xus was soon with us.  “Joining the scrum,” he said as he came in, but his arms were full of love.  I looked around and saw Khlekhtshiin staring at us as if half-repulsed and half-hoping for an invitation.

“We will be okay again in two minutes,” I promised him with a wan half-smile.  “We’re just remembering a good friend who died in Tsagaxk with many of these rings on his arms and legs.”  Again, I had to wallop back tears with brute mental force.  In the background, I heard the gentler banging of Xati having his rings released.

Khlekhtshiin smiled back slightly.  “Lsls,,eghghwkhe,” [Ll7egwce] he said gently.  His dad frowned at him with left eye slanted down.

“Don’t know in English,” he said, looking up at his dad from the corners of his eyes with dramatized pseudo-alarm.

“Basically a nonsense-word,” Selpakhghen explained, “but he says ‘go ahead and melt,’ kind of like a snowbank.  I’m sorry, it sounds rude to me.”

This exchange abruptly changed my mood.  “No, no,” I explained, feeling warmth overtake me, “it’s a private joke – I told him I was frozen like ice for a few thousand years on the Communicator ship.  He’s just giving me the go-ahead to melt and get all slushy with my friends. He read my face so well, he might just as well have been reading my mind.  He’s a very smart fellow.”

Selpakhghen said something to the boy that got a smile.  Lekhghlekhgh gave his son a fond imitation cuff on the back of the head.   His grandfather put his hand on his shoulder.

Xati came over and joined the team, which by this time was more in pats-on-the-back mode than in spring runoff.  Finally we all raised our free arms up together in a fingery tepee, and gave a good ‘yaaay!’ or yells to that effect.  Freedom from vortex.  Yes!  Absolutely a blessing.  We saluted the smith and gave him a good round of ‘kuukwstshetshemkh!’ ‘thank you!,’ after a little coaching from Eleya.

The Minister of Culture said a few things.

“She says on behalf of the government, it’s our privilege to rid you of those hideous devices.  And now, we should go upstairs.  The kukwpi,,’s waiting, and he’s looking forward to the meeting so much that we should have mercy on him and hurry along his way.”

We cantered up the stairs with just a slight trace of dignity.  I felt so much lighter that I could have run up making zooming sounds like a kid.  I’m an airplane!

One more flight of stairs, and we came out into a large reception area, or what you might call an auditorium or a ballroom.  And there at the entrance, waiting to meet us, was a lineup of official-looking people, all in fine leathers, fringes and feathers.

The Minister of Culture and Selpakhghen jumped right in to introductions.

“T!eyntshqel’q!lekhgh, [T’eyntsqelq’lex] our kukwpi,, ,” they began, and then went on to the kukwpi,,’s wife, who was introduced as the Coordinator of Fishing Rights and Inventories, then the Prime Minister, her same-sex partner, the Spirit Minister, and a list of others.  We were introduced by name, except for the unheralded Xati, who had to introduce himself.  Xus explained that he had been our ally and interpreter in Tsagaxk.

The kukwpi,, scanned us as political people do, painting us into the great mural of his memory.  He was in his mid-sixties by my standards, white haired, surprisingly smooth of face, and one of those people who’d be film-star handsome into his nineties.  His brown eyes absorbed and reflected away, moving under the twin porticos of slightly oversized, well-whitened eyebrows.  He was so clean-shaven he looked like he might never have grown a beard.

I’ll give Selpakhghen credit in advance for translating all the Spikonikwamekhtshiin dialogue that follows.

“Ah, Xusxerron – here you are at last.  So you’re the promising young man Deiyah wrote me about!  I hope you were able to bring the item he said you’d bring me.”

“Promising young man?  Um, okay.  Yes, sir, Marrik has it. But I have to apologize for the condition of its carrying container.  It was only saved from destruction in Tsagaxk by being, um, disguised this way.”

I took off Yithy’s backpack from my back and brought out the deplorable, diamond-patterned piece of cloth.  As it came into the atmosphere, an overripe atmosphere of ammonia and ureic rot hit me like an olfactory pillowfight.

“The manuscript is inside the blanket in pouches, and I hope they haven’t been ruptured,” I said, “but we didn’t dare try to wash it, except in a small way that didn’t do anything.  I apologize for its condition, but with luck, the treasure itself is still completely intact.  We’ve taken great care to keep it that way.”

“Whew, well, I won’t argue with success.  Yuyuwtetkwe,” the kukwpi,, addressed the Minister of Culture, “I trust you have people ready to deal with this.”

“Yes, no problem,” she said.  “The university museum has sent us a conservator and two graduate students.  They’d love to get involved in a challenging conservation effort.”

“I hope the museum has fume hoods,” the kukwpi,, said.  “Well, we’re having dinner soon, we need to get this ‘container’ out of our atmosphere.  My sDiyyanantse friends, congratulations, and I extend you the profound thanks of our nation for bringing us this, um, well defended treasure.”

“I can’t say it was our pleasure,” Xus answered, “but it was certainly our honour and I’m glad we did it.  I might as well come clean with you – I was sent to deliver it this way as a punishment for some idiot things I did at home that I’ve almost forgotten about now.  I feel like I’m 90 metres taller than the person who did those things.  I regret more deeply than I can say that one of my favourite people ever, or favourite beings ever, died in our excursion – I guess you’ve heard … but … I suppose … if Deiyah’s object was to make me grow up, it certainly worked.  In fact, I’m going to announce something officially to my friends and my partner right now.”

We looked at him.

“Guys, I have perspective.”

“Congrats, you needed it,” whispered Eleya, giving him a kiss on the left cheek.

“It will serve you well,” the kukwpi,, said.  “In this mortal life, growing up can’t be entirely happy, but you’ve done something magnificent.  And I can understand what Deiyah’s done with you.  Shall we go sit down?  Then I’ll explain.”

A young university student, meanwhile, had come over with a clear plastic bag and dropped Exhibit A into it.  Goodbye, goodbye, last molecules of Yith.  What a life I live.  I was still in love with those molecules in a way that I couldn’t disavow.  As awful as they were in the worlds of reality.

The treasure was surrendered.

He had certainly been ‘the mind of someone else.’

Wt’thet’th’t!  Hey. Soweto.

Alif. Lam. Mim.

Mysterious words, must remember those mysterious words.

We took our seats at a long dining table that had been set up in the middle of the hall.  I sat on one side of the kukwpi,, and Xus sat on the other.  Eleya was beside Xus, Xati next to me, and the kukwpi,,’s wife sat across from him, flanked by Selpakhghen and the Minister of Culture.  On the Minister’s side, Khlekhtshiin and his father and grandfather were strung out side by side.  Khlekhtshiin was obviously in awe of the kukwpi,, and hung on every word he said.  The kukwpi,, had the reins of the conversation in his hand and flicked them to excite a good trot.

“What Deiyah asked you to do, Xusxerron, is probably based on our culture,” he said.  “We strongly recommend that all our young people at your age go on a vision quest to find the dwelling place of their greater spirit.  In the old days, after being prepared by ceremonies, they would go into the forest and live by themselves for a month or two, perhaps fasting for many days, until they found an animal spirit to be their companion for life – a sort of otherself, as your language would put it, from the world of spirits.  When we came to this planet, we found that those animals mostly weren’t here with us.  Even our mainstay, the deer, was gone, along with the subject of so many of our traditional stories, the coyote, the trickster, the changeling.  The bear was gone, the cougar, the elk, the moose, the weasel, the mink, the marten, the porcupine, squirrel, chipmunk, jumping-mouse, vole.  We still had the eagle, the various hawks, the owls, the dog, the otter and the shrew, among others – the hummingbird, the jay, the strange black-and-white crane, almost like the one we’d known before with the red-and-white face, the sandhill crane.  And we had those strange but likeable new beasts, the cow and the horse.  Still, our world of spirits was depopulated.  So we became more focused on the tqelt-kukwpi,, , no relation to my office, haha, the supreme being, who is everywhere in this universe.  Our young people could still go and live off the land, but only if they were good at fishing and at hunting grouse and geese.  Otherwise, they were allowed to drive some cattle off with them and subsist partly on the milk.  Their vision quest could perhaps find them an animal spirit, or it could find them a revelation from the supreme being, or an upsurge from within themselves.  They looked for something telling them how they could emerge from the tight and ever-so-firmly-believed reality of childhood and expand, with a new basis-of-power, into the galaxy-sized space of adult possibilities.  Survival on your own terms, in some place of danger or constraint, seems to be helpful to finding this basis of power; now you know what it’s like to have your sense of reality tempered by the brutality of the real reality, your friendly enemy, your main supporter and your main saboteur.”

“I do indeed,” Xusxerron said, “we all do.  Those of us who survived.”

“I deeply regret your loss.  I’m profoundly sorry that it happened, in a way, in my service.  All I can offer to make it up to you is my perpetual allegiance, my friendship, and the friendship and gratitude of my country.  You can see from what I’ve told you already that we have a relationship with the central poem in your manuscript.

“This moonless sky

is the mind of someone else.

No legend of mine

lives there.

“Our culture, in a way, lost its mind by coming here.  Our legends, many of them, became historical curiosities.  ‘No legend of mine lives there’ – that was certainly true for us.  We still remember Se’k!lep, [Sek’lep] our Coyote trickster of legend, and the many amusing tales we told about him.  You can see him out there on the front of our building.  Yet, he certainly isn’t here with us.  But – I would say that out of all the subnations of the Sekhwepemkhu,lekhw, [Secwepemcul’ecw] our overarching quilt of nations on Earth, we were the most likely to survive the shock of losing him.  We were already in a cultural shift of some kind, and if you knew our culture you’d be able to hear it in our names.  A few of us have traditional-type names, like my friend Yuyuwtetkwe here – though even her name is a witticism, not a real traditional name [Selpakhghen later clarified that it implied she liked to move slow when others moved fast] – but many of us have names that would strike others of our nationality as very odd indeed.  My name, for example, just says ‘hoop dancer’ – though that’s because I was quite a champion at that in my youth, when I was called something else.  Our friend Khlekhtshiin here, who now has a home address in my memory, has a non-traditional name, ‘beautiful of voice,’ but I hear that it suits him very well.  Have you heard him sing?”

“No!” I exclaimed.

“By all accounts he sings very well.”  The boy, meanwhile, had changed from radiant to concerned as it began to seem he’d be asked to do a performance.  “Don’t worry, we won’t ask you for a demonstration now.  But come to my office tomorrow before you go back and sing me something.  Agreed?”

The boy simply nodded, with his eyes just slightly wider than usual.  His dad and grandfather also discreetly nodded their encouragement.  Perils of being a kid – I’ll never forget when my mom made me sing that choo-choo song at some random house we went to on Hallowe’en.  It was so traumatic it gave me a persistent memory.  Hmm.  Maybe if they’d tortured me more, I wouldn’t be such a blank slate. It’s appalling how much we forget.  Ahem, meanwhile, Marrik’sh!ss!, back to reality.

“Khlekhtshiin also speaks English well,” I offered.

“Well – a true bridge among cultures, with some of the coyote spirit of adaptation.  You see, the old trickster does live among us still, in his way.  We’ve had to be very clever and wily to make our way in this new world, where everything was different.  Do you know what the other language of our country is, besides our Spikonikwamekhtshiin?”

“No,” Eleya said after we’d all looked at each other.  “We’ve never heard of another language here.”

“When you came into our city, did you notice some white houses, some rounded tents above the ground?”

We realized that we had, and said so.

“When the Communicators brought us here to this place with no deer, they realized we’d still need meat, so they brought us cattle.  But what did we ever have to do with herd animals?  Or horses?   So they did something to help us – they brought us some volunteers from a tribe of Mongolians who were living over next to your Korabaas province.  Now, those Mongolians, they knew everything about herding, the cattle, and especially the horse.  They taught us all they knew, and in return we gave them free range in our northwest province.  Now it’s 75% Mongolian.  They look much like us, and we have much in common despite the great gulf among our cultures.  Probably we share some ancestors back in the stone axe days.  The main thing that’s odd about them, from our perspective, is that they don’t dig.  They say it disturbs the spirits of the ground.  So they can’t build themselves a comfortable pit-house but must put up walls of flannel above the ground to make their geirr, their tent.  In the city, at least, they’ll consent reluctantly to plumbing or outhouses, but in the country, they just walk out so many paces to the east of the tent and use the prairie, taking a cloak to wrap around them if they want privacy.  Then their dog cleans the place up and the land is sanitized.  But I wouldn’t let that dog lick me too much.

“You know, those Mongolians, you sort of have to give them their own space, because one of the things they won’t dig is fence posts.  They herd on an open range, so they have to stay with their animals all the time, and you can’t grow crops or a garden in their territory unless you offend them by putting in a fence.  Otherwise, their cattle try their darndest to eat everything you plant.  They keep a piece of land in immaculate condition; they’re astonishing stewards of nature – but they don’t eat vegetables.  Even their vitamin C they just get from raw milk.  We, on the other hand, we eat a lot of plants.  The Communicators were kind enough to transport for us, over time, all the good plants we liked, and we found places where almost all of them would grow, either in the wild or in gardens.  That’s how you can have our national dish tonight – coming up soon – skhpe’t!aam [scpet’am], which needs the roots of the spii’t!em (no sDiyyanantse word, so Selpakhghen couldn’t translate it – it’s bitter-root in English) and berries of the speqpeq,,u,,wi (Saskatoon or serviceberry) [spit’em, speqpequ7wi] along with fish eggs and a bunch more mystery veggies for extra flavour.  Some of these things, the cows won’t eat anyways, but now and again we have to put up a fence.  And we like corrals and barns.  For those luxuries, also, you have to dig.

“And of course, to eat roots, you have to dig a lot.  Our relatives on Earth have commented in recent times, conattainable, that our land there used to be just like a garden, even though we had no fields.  We harvested just so among the wild plants, leaving them good places to regrow and plenty of their own seed, and we went from place to place and didn’t put too much stress on any of the populations.  We had no grazing animals to trample them or eat them up, and what the deer ate came to us anyways, in suitable proportion, so we had no problem with them.  Marrik, Lekhghlekhgh called me on the phone this morning from the place you stayed overnight, and he happened to mention that you come from our old land!  That’s amazing to me – I’ve never spoken to someone who personally has been there. [“You wouldn’t believe the processed cheeses they have now!” I thought.].   It must be gorgeous country.”

“It is,” I answered. “It’s quite spectacular.  I don’t think you’d like all the highways, auto junkyards and so on, but surrounding them is a truly breathtaking piece of planet.”

“Well, the arrival of your ancestors in our land, you ‘people from stories,’ as we called you, caused our people immeasurable trouble.  I’m sure you know – all those Eurasian diseases and so on.  Even our national dogs couldn’t survive there – they only live here.  Our group was already gone by the time all this happened, though, so we didn’t experience any of it.  Anyways, all of our relatives on Earth have pretty much stayed on good terms with the seme,, [seme7], the Europeans, thanks to the great kukwpi,, Hwistesmekhghe,,qen [Hwistesmexe7qen], in the 1850s, so I can treat you as a transanimated homelander without qualm.  Welcome back to our land.”

“Kuukwstshetshemkh!” I said fluidly.  I wasn’t sure if I was smart for remembering that, or dumb for not having learned anything else.  I wasn’t challenged to say more, anyways – I just got grins all around.

“How did your people come to be here on this planet?” Eleya inquired.  “Do you know?”

“Oh yes, it’s a famous story.  I’m surprised you haven’t heard about it.  We had a bad autumn and winter in our place along the Se’t! river, and as winter kept blowing its way down the canyon, we were getting desperately low on food.  That wasn’t common in our area because it was pretty rich, but we’d had some trouble with the S’tl!a’tl!emkh [Stl’atl’emc] people to the west and our harvesting grounds had partly been lost.  We were in a bad way.  The time of the main fish run up the river, the spawning migration, was almost diabolically rainy, and with all our tricks and our fires, we were hard-pressed to dry our fish in good condition.  If you dried it out, it just soaked moisture back up from the mist.  A lot got moldy and two young kids died mysteriously, we think now from botulism.  The wet summer led to a partly mild winter with a lot of wet and crusted snow in the valleys. Some game animals that usually came down to the river stayed up in the hills.

“No one had died of starvation yet, but a few travellers had seen our bad state, and before you knew it, we had a raid by some Peskhghlikhghlemkh [Pesxlixlemc] people, speakers of a very different language, thinking they could snatch our territory.  We drove off the first attack, but it was looking bad for us.  There were hundreds of them.  One of our people was keeping watch from a pile of brush not far from his pit-house the night after the raid; he was looking out under a rich moonlight from a nearly full moon.  What did he see but a coyote coming wandering into the area around his place!  But though it looked like a coyote, there was something very strange about it.  It really made his hair stand up.  First of all, the dogs hadn’t smelled it.  Ordinarily, if a coyote came that close on a night with so little wind, the scent would wake them up and they’d be bouncing around to chase the trickster off.  Secondly, it wasn’t sniffing.  It was looking.  Looking.

“He decided it was a spirit coyote, come to offer something, or to snatch something, and he started singing a coyote song, very softly, to let it know he was there.  Yes, the coyote stayed, it didn’t run – it watched him.  He held out his fist as if there was food inside it – it was all he could think of to bring the spirit coyote closer.  In his song, he invited it to come up and tell him what it had to say.  It did come closer.  Stiffly, it approached him.  It walked like it had arthritis.  It didn’t sniff towards him.  He was like someone who sees a ghost in a ghost story, feeling as if his hair was going to turn white, yet he went on with his luring.  When the coyote was close, he sprang out from the brush and grabbed it by the nape and the shoulders, expecting to die or be given immense gifts of magic.  His spearpoint was in the hand that held the shoulder skin, but as he felt the animal under his hands, he realized it was less than half the weight of a real coyote, and his spear might just go through it like a bag of air.

“The coyote began to speak, in a poorly formed version of our language, and it said it was a very strange kind of person in disguise, a member of the nation of S’k!wenmelslstiimkh [Sk’wenmelltimc].  It said four hundred or more Peskhghlikhghlemkh were grouping around our area and we’d be wiped out tomorrow.   But the coyote offered a flying canoe that could take us to a land that was rich and free of enemies, where we could live in prosperity for the next thousands of years, maybe longer.  Now this fellow – we call him Kukwyey,,elkhken [Kukwyey7elcken] because he had long, skinny legs [his name means ‘water strider,’ an insect with long legs that can run across water], he put the coyote on a leather rope because he didn’t trust him, and he went around waking people up and getting them together.  The coyote just walked beside him without saying anything, but that got their attention, all right.  The dogs seemed to be sort of hypnotized by it – they looked like they were going to bark, and then they seemed confused.  Later the Communicators told us that the coyote had a diffuser that picked up human scent and concentrated it, so the coyote smelled to the dogs like people they knew.

“It was still dark; the moon was the only light.  When the people were all gathered together, the coyote started to talk.  At the sound of its voice, the people jumped as if lightning had struck each of them in seir place.  The coyote told them about the attackers, and asked if the people wanted it to request the flying canoe to come and rescue them.  Well, Coyote as a spirit had such a reputation for strange uses of his sense of humour, and the people mostly thought it must be a joke.  But how can you turn down the help of a talking coyote who’s offering to save your life?  So they agreed – send the canoe.  And to their shock, a second moon appeared and then became an enormous fire falling down through the sky towards them, illuminating the whole countryside.

“‘Don’t be scared,’ the coyote said, but a couple of foolish people ran off.  The rest stayed and wouldn’t you know, out on the sandbar next to the river, in a giant blast of flying sand and dust, the fire went out and everyone could see that a long and shiny object was standing there, with a pointed end like a canoe’s.  Several creatures looking like four-legged spiders with long necks and horned heads came out of it and they ran a transparent, hollow line over to the river.  The coyote said they were taking up some water for us to drink on the trip.  We couldn’t see how they’d get the water, since the line ran upward towards their canoe, but as soon as they touched the water with the tip of the line, it was as if part of the river tried to swim upstream into their line.  This was enough extra magic to make sure that the people would take the coyote’s advice.  So when he told them to grab a few of their favorite clothes and items and get into the standing canoe, they all did.  Then they got settled in and something put them all to sleep … and the next day, it seemed, they were here beside our river, just looking at the salmon leaping in the water.  There was no one around and there were so many fish, it didn’t seem anyone had ever fished that river.

“The coyote came up the river bank and took off its skin, and started handling its bones, building itself up into a skeleton resembling a human, but with shiny boxes instead of a heart and other organs.  As it was doing this, it was telling us about the history of the S’k!wenmelslstiimkh nation and how they travelled among the stars of the heavens.  Our kukwpi,, of that time had been killed in the initial raid by the Peskhghlikhghlemkh, and so had most of his family, so everyone called out to Kukwyey,,elkhken to take over the position, since the coyote, or the S’k!wenmelslstiimkh in general, had chosen him.  He had the wit to treat the ex-coyote as if it were a person, and it gave him a name for itself that he found easy to say and remember – Tseqrnaghghtsetch Tmwakhne’t!e’t.   [Tseqrnagt.sets Tmwacnet’et’.] So their friendship got off to a good start, and they negotiated matters like the cattle and the Mongolians, all in an atmosphere of triumph and celebration.  Tseqrnaghghtsetch Tmwakhne’t!e’t asked what our name for the dog was, because people had all brought their dogs along, and Kukwyey,,elkhken told sem ‘sqekhghe [sqexe].’  That’s why to this day the Communicators call a dog ‘sqhweiowqh’wh!ph!hsses’t’ [~sqxweiowqx wh’ph’sesst’] – ‘sqhweiowqh’ from their own mutation of ‘sqekhghe,’ and ‘wh!ph!hsses’t!’ meaning animate creature.  They got many more words from us as well.   Tseqrnaghghtsetch Tmwakhne’t!e’t said he wished all human languages were as easy to pronounce as ours.  We never know when those creatures are joking, though.  Their sense of humour is a lot like ours.

“Anyways, now you know where I got the good legs that made me a champion hoop dancer.  My ancestor all those generations ago was this very same Kukwyey,,elkhken, water-strider, and when I was your age I could almost dance across water myself.  Now, I have to take other forms of satisfaction, and having you here as my guests and as emissaries of my brother Deiyah is a high pleasure.  Thank you again for all the trouble and pain you underwent to visit us and to bring us your cultural treasure.”

Just about then, the food courses started arriving, including the savoury, berry-laden fish-roe pudding that the kukwpi,, had called skhpe’t!aam, and we all set to with gusto.  Much more conversation ensued, but a terrible thing happened – not from my point of view, but perhaps from yours.

I stopped taking notes.  I relaxed.  Really relaxed.  I laughed at things.  I showed Khlekhtshiin how to high-five and taught him the word ‘dude.’  I revelled in the giggles that ensued.  I gave Eleya a little neck massage.  I spoke man-to-man nothings with Xus and Xati and listened to tales of the kukwpi,,’s life and times.  I only drank water and berry juice, but most of the evening has flowed down the neural river and lost itself in the ocean of what-was-that-now?  Avidya.  Anyways, you got the best part.

********************    **********************   *****************

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Book review of The Halcyon Dislocation, by Peter Kazmaier

The Halcyon Dislocation (The Halcyon Cycle #1)The Halcyon Dislocation by Peter Kazmaier

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Peter Kazmaier should be on everyone’s list of ‘polymaths to watch out for,’ but as yet, his literary fame hasn’t outstripped his scientific fame. Maybe it never will, since he has taken some risks with his literature that he might not take if he were putting bread on the table with it. His daring is much to the advantage of the adventurous reader, but I’m glad he has those 100 U.S. patents (q.g.) for Xerox-related technologies to back him up (q.g. is the Latin abbreviation ‘quo gugula,’ meaning ‘google that’).

The story begins with an isolated university, situated on an island, suddenly being translocated to a mysterious new place or dimension. The atmosphere is very B-movie at first, the kind of sci-fi setup that was adored in Rocky Horror Picture Show – a collection of earnest, heterosexual Anglo-Saxons, seemingly American, thrust together into a future-tech mystery. You can sense the neatness of the haircuts even though they’re never described. That the only discernible black student turns out to be Nigerian seems anomalous until one realizes the author is a prof at a regional Canadian university. Perhaps the University of Halcyon, as presented here, is secretly Canadian, as so many Canadian things are – or perhaps, even at the beginning, it symbolizes a cultural experiment in uniformity, a theme that grows as the book goes on.

As young Dave, the hardy student who is the main hero of the book, goes out on expedition to explore the strange para-Earth the University has dropped into, he meets various natural hazards. Increasingly, though, he and his friends also run into a home-made hazard. Free of the surrounding society and left on their own to experiment socially, the administrators of Halcyon U soon promote their own more ambitious social plans, which are much along the lines of an atheist kibbutz. Dave, as a moderate agnostic, and his friend Al, as a moderate Christian, are increasingly excluded from social approval. They spend as much of their time as possible on exploration missions where they can combat natural hazards and leave the social ones behind. Nonetheless, the social hazards catch up to them. (And truthfully – to those in the know, what ogre could be more dreadful than a university administrator gone over to the dark side?) Finally natural and social hazards combine in a most unexpected way.

The great strength of this book is that as it goes along, its perspective becomes ever more enlarged. Any concern that the social questions it asks are going to involve cardboard characters in cardboard scenes is rapidly blown away. There is one surprise after another, and each one gives the book more depth. Ultimately one realizes that one is reading a sophisticated and well-wrought tale, and that the various nods it makes to C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and so on are probably deliberate, and, in any case, welcome. Before long, there is also a ripping suspense; again, not without B-movie elements — “the creatures are charging!” — but viscerally satisfying all the same.

Occasional deep conversations among students, or deep reflections in the main characters’ quiet moments, expand a vision of pluralism where moderate, non-cultish Christianity is a well regarded part of the scene. This is where Kazmaier has gone out on a literary limb that makes one catch one’s breath. Today there is a secular genre, in essence atheistic with shamanistic decoration, as seen in Harry Potter, and there is a Christian genre, which is mostly American, fundamentalist, and apart. To interleave some Christianity into a regular story is a meme challenge. It’s something that would make some readers react to the book with the philosophical equivalent of the old ‘homosexual panic,’ a frisson of dread that one was being come on to by something far too Other. Kazmaier is right in his challenge to modern society: being Christian, especially non-fundamentalist, has become a deviance, subject to many layers of tacit social exclusion. The word ‘God,’ to many people, is a rude noise in the atheist church they dwell in, philosophically. It’s just soooo — uncool. Yet, an interesting case can be made for including God in the sphere of discourse. Kazmaier doesn’t go into great detail or depth about it – on the contrary, his practical and likeable student characters simply find their own path to tolerant atheism or tolerant Christianity.

Meanwhile, in tunnels below the ground and on fortified mountains in the distance, ancient evils are gathering strength.

No doubt we will meet them again in the sequel. And I am dying to read it.

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