The burial 2

When I was a small girl, the Shamanka had come from Taurica to our mountains in the Altai to bury her father according to custom, and then she had stayed with us and had grown in stature and in status. Our people were herdsman and knew things about the cycles of life and those things that were about the beasts of power, but the Shamanka had seen many wondrous things that had been wrought by man and knew to tell of them.

The Western Sea which she called the Euxine was girded by white hills and on the hills stood fragrant pines and in the lush canyon there ran a river that fell over rocks into a pool which renewed life and bestowed immortality on the seeker. Beyond that sea there lay another even greater water, which she had never seen, but had heard many tell of, called the Middle Sea. There on islands lived a seafaring people called the Hellenes who had settled far lands. She told our people of the heroes who set out on a great quest to sack the city of Troy, and of the wily Odysseus who tricked the Trojans into opening the walls of their city by gifting to them a great wooden horse within which his men were hidden. And then she told us how Odysseus was punished by the Gods andlost and  buffeted on the sea, wayfaring for ten long years before reaching his homeland.

The Shamanka told us of a great king who killed his father and married his mother, and then discovering his guilt put out his own eyes. We said that was fitting punishment for such a sin, but she said, no, his crime was that of trying to cheat his destiny. Sometimes, but that was much later when I lived in her house, the Shamanka said that some of these Hellenes who were called physikoibelieved the earth and things upon it did not depend on the Gods but were the result of natural causes. I laughed and asked how this could be, and she told me there were things called elements and such a thing as mathematics which could be used to construct experiments which showed the true way of things. I let her talk because I liked to hear her stories, but sometimes I did not believe the things she said.

These Hellenes fought a powerful Parthian king called Daraya, who tried to conquer them as he had conquered an ancient land in the west where great mounds, even greater than ours, were built as tombs for dead kings. In this hot land there ran a great river that flooded every year and the people were able to live in comfort from their surplus crops. She said they traveled to a bountiful afterlife just as we did but had many strange Gods with animal heads. I said I liked the Gods of the Hellenes better, they were more like people with their anger and petty tyrannies. Then she told me a story, that originated in this land, of a goddess who restored her husband’s body after he was murdered by his evil brother and then conceived a child with him. I asked if the dead can be restored to life, and she said perhaps a powerful magician could do it, but perhaps the story is one that tells of renewal, of the land and of the spirit.

This Daraya conquered the lands of the Indus in the south, and the Shamanka said it was a land of very different ideas, but as great as any that the Hellenes had. She said a wise teacher called Gotama had arisen in the Indus and taught people how to free themselves from suffering. I asked how was it possible that people could accomplish such a thing, and she said, by stilling their mind and becoming at one with the source of all things.

I said I had experience of that, when everything was stilled, when the wind had stopped, when the horses were silent and all things flowed together, but it did not stop me from being sick or hungry or feeling jealousy or anger afterward. And she said, perhaps it is our intent to rise above those things that Gotama taught too, though she did not know.

She learned these things when she lived in the colonies on the western sea established by the Hellenes, for her father was a great trader between them and Skitoi who wanted the fine gold things that the Hellene craftsmen made. The Skitoi, the Saromatae, the Shaka, she said, were all our people, related by blood, inhabiting the great grassy steppe, and were wild and powerful and so ferocious that even the great Daraya had been terrified of them and was unable to conquer their lands.

She told of of other peoples which her father had known along the great caravan routes and said the greatest and richest of these were the Seres, meaning, the people of silk lands. The Shamanka said they were a clever people and many in number who made fine things in silk, ornaments from a green stone called jade, and vessels and statuary of bronze. She said in their land dragons were said to have shaped the earth and taught the people many things, and the people had profited greatly from the teaching. The Seres were clever and damned the waters and made them flow in streams for the sake of their crops, and they built terraces were they planted and so were able to have surplus grain and feed themselves in times of scarcity. I said it must be a poor land indeed that did not have herds and much water as we did, free for the taking, and I felt sorry for those people despite their fine ways. She said there were two masters of thought there, Lao and Kong, who taught opposite ways, one of simplicity and flow like the way we lived and one of hierarchy, of rules and obedience.

She knew so many things that she told us on cold winter nights, and I thought them wondrous for I did not know these thoughts tormented her.

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The Burial I

The Pazyryk belonged to the great horse cultures that came out of the Altai and ruled over the steppe along with the Sarmatians and Scythians for over a thousand years. They were the first and arguably the most outstanding horsemen the world has known as the splendid articles found in their elaborate burials attest to. But they were also nomads who left no written record.

However, we are fortunate to have an account of their culture from the so called father of all lies, Herodotus, in the The Histories. Interestingly many of Herodotus’ claims, seemingly outlandish in previous eras have been proven right over and over again.

The position of women in Sarmatian and Pazyryk culture was high, and Herodotus writes of female warriors known in legend as the Amazons. The Ice Maiden was found relatively recently by Russian archaeologists, and dated to 500 BCE.  From the jewels, carvings and textiles found in her tomb she is supposed to have held a high rank among her people. The archaeologists who found her say she was no princess, but a shamanka of great stature.

The story which will appear in eight short parts over the following weeks is a recreation of a moment in time in the Shamanka’s life, as told by the young horse girl who loved her. It is a morality tale, and though I wrote it, it always manages to move me.

The reader will notice some interesting details of the shamanka’s costume. The long pointed witches hat was supposed to have conferred power upon it’s wearer, and the animal sculptures and carvings and tattoos of panther and deer, probably had the same function; transferring the characteristics of the animal to the human. The steppe cultures had some interesting features in common with Native American, Celtic, Slavic and Scandinavian cultures: the sweat lodge/sauna for purification, the use of cannabis/ hashish for inducing trances; the taking of scalps and so on.

 

 

The Burial

 

Today we buried the Shamanka. The sky was blue, the earth so green, and I chose six dark horses, grown fat on sweet summer grass to travel with her, and they followed me meekly because they trusted me.

She was embalmed, the contents of her body removed and peat and moss stuffed in its place. We dressed her in a silken yellow blouse spun from the cocoons of wild butterflies, and a red woolen skirt, girded with a belt of woven gold. Her stockings were embroidered, her body was adorned with necklaces and gold. Upon her head we put the black pointed hat of her station and pinned it to her blond hair with a gold stag, and under the felt, the wooden frame of the headdress was carved with with swans and panthers, a crouching griffin at the base.

We lay her in a hollowed log long enough to accommodate the headdress that made her deeds magic. We lay her on her side as if she would sleep a short nighttime only. She was a tall woman, and the log was long and heavy, and the tomb deep and wide. We placed her coffin upon rocks and logs, many layers deep, and then we put her things around her. Her head faced east, her feet lay west, and near her face we put a bowl of coriander seeds. On a low birch table, we placed a pitcher filled with mares’ milk, and a hunk of horse meat, and a bronze knife, so that she would never go hungry even after she had passed to the next world. Behind her knees a red cloth case held the bells and beads and the mirror she used for scrying.

I cut her horses’ manes and braided their tails and put fine saddles upon them. Golden griffins and rams ornamented their bridles, tassels and felt fish adorned their saddles. They were old horses but fine. I led them to the burial site, where they were killed by blows to the head, while I turned and looked away. We lowered the horses into the hole and covered it with boulders and rocks so high, so high the mound could be seen from a far, far distance away.

Old women brought roasted mutton and made a feast, and the people told stories about her into the night and for days afterward. They all said twenty-seven summers was too soon, too short a life, for such a one as her. They all told what they knew, but few knew her.

 

Mister Heathcliff’s Fortune, Chapter 21

The great ship, alone in the vastness of a flat and monotonous sea, on a hot still night, a sliver of moon lighting its way, made its way to Europe from the New World. Plop plop, a pod of dolphins appeared at the starboard, and soon bored, swam away. Heathcliff watched them without interest. He had been speaking to the first officer, who also bored, had walked away.

He thought back over the last three years, of his time soldiering and of the two women, so strange and still unknown to him. He was coming back to the only peace he had ever known. But Marie, he thought, I was lost in your arms for a while, and now I am damned to hell forever, without chance of redemption.

It was the other that had damned him from the beginning, but he had been so lost and alone. Before Marie had taken him up, he had fallen into that cursed girl’s arms, and from then he had never had a moment’s peace. She had hounded him with her love and her empty eyes, clinging to him as if she would float away like flotsam if he let go for a minute. She’d hounded him with her suspicions and her jealousy until he was unable to breathe, and he thought he would go mad unless he cast her off in order to save himself.

And then there was Marie herself, so different, different from Catherine Earnshaw and different from Seraphine. She had no need of anyone to make her whole. She had been so generous even when he had gambled her money away. She had said it didn’t matter, but he could have no more because she was expecting their child and had to prepare for his coming. And he had been so desperate then, to provide for her and the child, to prove that he was a man, to not abandon them, the way he himself had been abandoned.

Oh Marie, he thought, you could have saved me if you had only lived. When he saw their child he went mad with rage, but later, comprehending what had happened, had pitied and understood her. In a fit of jealousy, Seraphine had left her to bleed to death and stolen his child. He had gone back there and a doctor had come, unexpectedly and uncalled, and although Heathcliff suspected his efforts would not be of any use, the old man, though he made a poor impression, was able to staunch the bleeding.

He had gone to the Congo woman’s place in the swamp to look for the baby and Seraphine, and not finding them, had riped the place apart. He was about to leave when the Congo woman stood in his way, and he had snapped her neck, and that was what damned him to hell.

He could not find the baby anywhere and knew that Seraphine had killed him, since she was insane and consumed by envy, and he cursed all blacks and knew that he would hate them forever. He had no money, and he had lost the child. He could not live with himself as he was and too was ashamed to try again with Marie, and so he sent a letter to Percy, who he knew was rich enough to take care of her, and then he had taken her there despite her entreaties and cries of protest.

‘Where will you go now?’ Percy had asked him, but he knew that it was all over, and so Percy had lent him money for one last game, which he had won. He paid Percy back and then had put the money into a venture that he knew he would profit from.

 

He had seen that witch Seraphine, once more. She had tried to foist herself on him and when he had pushed her away, revolted by her clinging arms and black skin, she had cursed him with her Congo curses and cried, ‘May you be as tormented and loveless as you have left me; may the spirits of the dead haunt you for the rest of your days.’ And then she had said that his child was dead. ‘What’s it to me!’ he had shouted, but inside he had died along with Marie and that child.

 

He had to forget all that if he wanted to go on living, and he was returning to Cathy, who was familiar, as familiar as if she was a part of himself.

Mister Heathcliff’s Fortune

I thought about what to do and about what Marie had said. Even though he was gone and the danger had passed, I saw how the city was changing, and I thought how greed and the love of money had made men evil. I left some of the money with blacksmith’s family and some in the bank and took as much as I thought we needed. My grandmother passed, the Congo woman was dead. I had no more ties.

On the way to the Choctaw, I stopped at Percy’s to visit Marie’s grave. I found Percy sitting on a bench he had installed under a willow tree close by. He was looking past the grave, past me, out somewhere beyond himself and everything that had happened. He was thin and all the life had gone out of him.

I carried the baby in a sling, and he was getting heavy, so I put him down and knelt near her grave, not caring what Percy thought. When I was finished, I hoisted the baby on my back and started to walk past him.

‘My lust killed her,’ he said. I didn’t say anything, I only stood there. ‘I shouldn’t have done it. That gypsy devil convinced me.’ He looked at me directly. ‘He knew my weaknesses. He used that blood money to play cards, and then he took his winnings and put them to use. He’s a slaver now.’

I turned to go. ‘Is that her baby?’ he asked.

‘Her baby dead. This child is mine,’ I said.

 

I didn’t look back and kept walking. The Choctaw took me in, and I married and became a medicine woman. My husband is raising Marie’s child as his own son. I try not to think about those times and look toward the coming day, but once in a while I read the final words Marie wrote in the book she left behind.

 

Spring again, the rain is falling – oblique drops, first slowly, scattered and sparse, then pattering across the bright foliage, new and shiny. The sound comforts me; it’s familiar. Soon it spreads across rooftops in sheets of gray and the sky darkens. I rarely think of the hurricane these days. In fact I think of nothing at all. My feelings seem to have have fused with the world around me, the new shoots, the buds and rain. Soon the end will come, for me- either death or a new life; we will see. I don’t torment myself any longer with what might pass, and now realize that I have wasted many years living in fear.

There are many kinds of slavery: that of the body and that of the mind and soul.

My grandmother was white, a orphan, living on the streets of a distant city when she was snatched up and brought with many such children to New World. The city fathers thought it might be good for them to have work instead of being indolent. They worked her mercilessly and bred her with African slaves to produce a new stock. She died young, my mother said. The Old Master acquired her daughter on a visit to an English acquaintance. He had her first and lived long enough to regret his son’s obsession with her.

My Father, the Young Master, was enslaved to his vices : drink and cards and women. Sometimes he was ashamed and tried on religiousness and then we were brought into the house with her and had fine clothes and food and lessons. But he never stayed sober. He killed her in time, and then he gambled the plantation away, at first slowly then more recklessly, until only his children were left to hear his pathetic lamentations and bear his curses. He blinded my bother in a fit of rage, after many beatings, though when he recovered he grieved and knew not why he had done it.

When the hurricane came, I left him, wanton, drunken, inert, lying in his own vomit, and made no attempt to drag him away, until a beam crashed down on him, smashing his head. An unpleasant sound like a calabash breaking, despite the howling wind. I couldn’t help him and took the blind man by the hand and waited out the storm. I dug up the coin our father had hidden, and then we departed for the coast on mule back. It was the year 1776, a time of revolutionary change, though I did not know it then. Later the great hurricane came to our island and killed many thousands.

I know what it is to hate and what it is to feel as if one is less than nothing. I understand him and his hatred and his lack of feeling. He doesn’t even love money, like so many do, only the revenge it can bring him. He’s told me many times that when he is rich, he’ll return in splendor and all those who have hurt him will pay the price. He could have loved me. There were nights when I could see that he was almost there. Almost, but not quite. His mind is twisted and he is a slave of his bitterness as I was.

 

My brother died of a fever in Cuba, and I was glad of it. Glad he had gone to a better place. He was unable to feel joy or happiness or pleasure. Life was a misery for him and he was always sad and unwilling to fight against the darkness. I fed us and made our way as best I could, but I was exhausted by him and he knew it. I took care of him well but perfunctorily, and I knew then that I was as heartless as my ancestors had been. When he died I became the mistress of a Creole planter and learned fine ways. But I was afraid that the past would catch up to me, that someone would recognize me, that I would be accused of murdering my father. I lived in a state of near panic always and grew obsessed in my thoughts, though I had the finest things that money could buy. I did not bring my master joy, and he grew weary of me as I did of him. I wanted to earn my own way in the world and after four years, I left for New Orleans with my one skill which I practiced at the gaming tables.

I don’t know why I let that Devil make love to me. He was as alone as I was and for a moment when he talked of the mud and the stables and his moors and the wind and heather and rain, I felt something stir in my own heart. He looked like man I knew on our island who was kind to me and loved me once when my heart as still open. He ran away so many times, and in the end they hung him.

I was afraid to have this child for the Devil’s skin is of a darker hue, and I have heard it said that he is a Gypsy or perhaps from Hindustan and was lost or abandoned long ago. But now there is nothing to be done. If he makes trouble when the child is born, I will go to the Choctaw, a great nation, which has shown me friendship and whose values are better than the white, black and colored world that I have known. If I die, I will ask Seraphine to take him there, for she is a good person, and I believe I can put my faith in her.

 

Marie put down her quill. That is the version of her life that would remain, the version that either she Seraphine would leave with her child. She had tried not to make herself seem too good, to make herself be bad enough to be believable and human. And some of it was the truth, certainly the part about her fears and her memories. The real truth was elusive and she had lied to herself so many times in the past, rationalizing and justifying, trying to piece it all together.

Her father had been a unjust and brutal man, and she considered herself fortunate indeed to have lived through his rages and his beatings. He had driven her mother to an early grave, it was true, but she had been no better than he, vain and stupid and selfish.

She had started crawling onto her brother’s pallet very early on, terrified by the shouting, horrified by the whispering that went on at night and led to brutality and recriminations. Sometimes their father would drag them out of bed just to beat them, particularly after her mother had died and he had no one else to vent his rage on. One night he had caught them at their games, the only games they had ever played, but by then it was too late. Marie gave birth some time later to a dark skinned baby, which was born blind and which they buried in the garden after it sickened and died. Her brother had run away then, and no one set out to find him. He came back for her after the storm. She had waited for her opportunity for a long time, until her father was drunk and incoherent, though she had warned him of the impending storm. She had dragged him bodily, close to a beam that had fallen, and propped it up with books and fallen wood, which she kicked away once she had positioned him under it. The sound of a calabash breaking; she had had no mercy for him. And she was weary of her endless duty, to procure his drink, to wipe up after him, to change and bathe him while he heaped abuse upon abuse on her.

Her brother had known, known from her wild look and her uncontrollable shaking what she had done. After the storm, he had taken her away, down to the sea and put her on a ship to Cuba. He turned back because he said it was his place to stay, and one day she would hear his name again, once the slaves had been freed and justice came to their land. He sent her to the friend of his friends, whose mistress she became. An easy life, but there were rumors on the islands about her and her brother and their family life and so she had run off with her clothing and her jewels and forged papers with a new name and a new story. She didn’t stray so far from the truth, she embellished it a bit here and there, omitting the horror, and omitting what she knew others could not understand.

I almost loved him, she thought, almost but not quite. It was just that he looked like my brother and suffered from the same bitterness and pain, but once I knew about him and Seraphine, I knew I could not trust him again.