Tales from Kalgachia - 46
As it always had, winter crept early upon the town of Tsuri. While the lower country to the south still delighted in the gathering of the harvest and all the attendant festivity, the arable land up here - modest smallholdings hewn out of the local gravel and laboriously composted to life over the course of a century - had long since been dug over with the rotted detritus of the short growing season and left to the incoming frost. Livestock, except for the hardier breeds of goat, had been slaughtered or else shut in barns. The profusion of ornamental shrubs in public spaces and domestic gardens - well tended here, as in all of Kalgachia - were mostly hardy evergreen varieties of stunted proportions, planted as a defiant totem of life through the torpid cold of winter.
Venerated shrubs aside, life in the town was proceeding much as it ever had since its ancient origin as a outpost of the Volhyrians, one of the founding tribes of Ashkenatza. Back then it was little more than a lookout site atop a ridge, its occupants ever watchful against incursions by Litovine raiders from the southeast who, it was said, were only attempting to reclaim a salient of land which the Volhyrians had stolen from them - the eventual victory of the latter's ruthless kossar bands, the ensuing Herem rituals and the ascent of a hegemonic Ashkenatzan state had almost succeeded in obscuring that little detail but it had been revived somewhat by Tsuri's present inhabitants, driven as they were by Ketherist precepts of anti-imperialism and persistent mistrust of the archonic Yehudi creed which had been the Volhyrians' gift to this particular segment of Benacia. The Lieutenancy of Lithead, the subnational jurisdiction in which Tsuri now lay, was named for the conquered Litovine people although their genetic relation to the Lieutenancy's present inhabitants had been negligible for some generations; during the Ashkenatzan era, when Tsuri's position on a road to the mountainous north had brought it to an unsurpassed population peak, the Litovine inhabitants had been largely replaced by Volhyrian stock whose kossar descendants maintained a presence there through Ashkenatza's own demise. They had only been driven out by the undead cossack horde of Zemphirius Karymov, a reformed Laqi warlord tasked with expanding the western borders of the Empire of Minarboria and at the time, the only commander in the region capable of beating the kossars at their own irregular warfare game. The area around Tsuri was subsequently assigned for settlement by Deep Singers, who mainly elected to settle more temperate lands to the south and had not arrived to Tsuri in any great amount by the time Minarboria collapsed. Only when the Kalgachi migration began, driven by sheer necessity, did people repopulate the town in any number and even since then, with the road to the high north worn away by a succession of landslides and seismic tremors, the town had never come close to its Ashkenatzan heyday.
Nonetheless there were those who, by desire or circumstance, found themselves content to live in this ridgetop town at the head of a lonely road. It was, in the eyes of neighbouring parishes and to some extent in reality, the kind of place they called a 'goat town' - a refuge for those quiet but physically hardy folk who had never bought into the noisy eusociality of the urban elite, however shrubby their cities may have been, and instead gravitated toward the husbandry of small livestock among other solitary professions. It was no accident that many of these people were Nezeni, the miscegenate offspring of Deep Singers who now found themselves able to explore norms beyond those of their modified ancestors, whose modes of social integration were inspired by those of the beehive and often considered the desire for space and solitude to be signs of a neurological defect requiring medical intervention.
It had occurred to one such Nezeni, a mailman by the name of Strobus Cone, that the adherence of the Deep Singers and their descendants to the ways of the Old Garden seemed to decrease with altitude - ranging from the energetic continuity of genetic modification and biomic engineering in the lowlands around Lepidopterum city, all the way to open comformism with the unmodified population at the heights of Tsuri. Up here, visitors often remarked, people were almost Lywallers. Perhaps the altitude suppressed the Old Garden pheromones, Strobus thought to himself before the resounding blast of a Batavian pipe organ returned his attention to his surroundings - he was, in fact, seated halfway down the amphitheatric bowl of a church. Looking around at the large congregation, an array of green or blue-hued Nezeni faces packed around tiered rings of pews, Strobus sighed at being unable to attend quieter services during the working week because of his early mail round. Once a week was all it took to maintain one's standing - in this town at least - but it seemed that many more of Tsuri's solitary souls shared Strobus' predicament and found themselves obliged to press together for this uncomfortable hour of a Byeday morning, the shared hardship of which ironically made it a little more bearable.
A wave of rising chests announced the commencement of a hymn:
"Please cheer up, dear little Minarbor
If you think that you are sad
Presage not the fires of damnation
With your little tears of sap
Everything is fine, everything is fine
Everything will be alright!
Everything will be alright...!"
It was a song of the old church, known by all without recourse to the hymn book, calming and comforting in its pastel-hued banality. Strobus sang along with the rest in scratchy tones, gazing down as they did upon the shrub in the middle of the arena floor which served as the church altar. The Credent, leading the service in his flowing green robe, circled about the shrub and ran his hands through its leaves as he sang. On Byedays he was assisted by the choir - a dozen children with wandering, almost frightened eyes who nonetheless sang the hymn to its conclusion in decently-trained tune.
"Let us pray," said the Credent.
"O Host of the Deepest Garden, hear us in this place who are gathered around your shrubby work on Micras. Hear our thanks, that upon the approach of Black Harvestfall you rendered unto our forebears a new Salvator..."
At this point the Credent's vocal pace became hesitant. Among the elder parishioners of the inner tiers, feet were shuffled and throats were cleared. The recent canonisation of Vascarina Goldcluck, hitherto an embarrassing necromantic anomaly of the late Minarborian era with a devoted but slightly unhinged sect following, had unsettled those who were raised in the Deep Singer creed of a linear and ever-perfecting Garden and who, until recently, had a seemingly unbreakable hand upon the doctrines of the Kalgachi church. Many rumours circulated as to what had triggered the theological shift - most popularly that the Perfectus for the Church of Kalgachia had died or been ousted - but in Strobus' mind at least, the emphatic resolution of the Third Extraordinary Grand Council in ruling the changes had been more surprising than their actual content. They must have had, he supposed, very good reasons and it was a shame that the crusty old scions of the old doctrine could not accept the changes.
The Credent finished the prayer and handed it off to a reading from his junior Dissitor, a black-haired young man of no discernible Nezeni heritage who was new in the parish and was, it was alleged, the reconciled acolyte of a Goldcluck sect. The enthusiasm with which he commenced his reading seemed to confirm the idea:
"Verily and at hazard to his standing did Kazimir the Lichnik proclaim unto Shyriath the Builder, that the cultivation of a Garden does not entail the displacement of the primal chaos, but rather its enclosure and conversion. That in this spirit must be accepted the spotted rose leaf, the clumpy moss upon the path and the unsightly stinkhorn, though the Gardener never intended these things. By these signs are the glory of the Garden distinguished from the conformity and sterility of the archonic will, from technocracy and vanity. From these signs, indeed, may come salvation..."
He lifted up a heavy bucket. "Who then will accept a touch of sand, beloved by Vascarina the Little, and obtain this salvation?"
The organ struck up again and a handful of parishioners, all of them young, rose from the pews and descended the steps to the altar where the Dissitor received each one in turn, reaching into the bucket and sprinkling a handful of fine sand onto their heads. The elder parishioners remained firmly in their pews, their expressions ranging from polite tolerance to contemptuous scowling. Strobus, being well on the approach to middle age, had not yet partaken in this act of communion but after a moment he rose to his feet.
"Eh, why not," he muttered in feeble qualification to the elder folk around him. He made his way to the aisle and descended toward the altar, quickening his pace to get there before the last communicant in the queue - a goatherd girl with crook still in hand - received her sand. He slowed again in relief as he heard the footsteps of at least two others behind him, seemingly emboldened to join the ritual by his example. The sand itself was fine, pure and more yellow than any Kalgachi geology suggested. Strobus made the mistake of leaving his eyes open as it was flicked across his face, causing him to blink furiously as he nodded his gratitude to the Dissitor with all the decorum he could muster. With some difficulty, being momentarily blinded, he found his way back to his pew. From somebody in the front rows, unseen through the blinding grit, came a quiet hiss of derision as he passed.
The highlight of the Byeday service in most parishes of Tsuri was that attendees would be invited afterwards to the adjoining social hall which opened a free bar for an hour; a nod to the imperatives of jollity laid out by Lord Toastypops and a proven method of getting lapsers, recusants and the terminally shy to make the effort of showing up. This time of year, local tongues abandoned the cooling Batavian beers of summer and opted for the fiery warmth of Kalgachia's own distilled spirits. Strobus, for his part, had gained an accidental taste for rough Schlepogorskaya vodka while trying to anchor the masculine credentials of his youth. Now he downed a measure of the stuff and let its warmth swim through him while he wandered the hall, eavesdropping on others' conversations:
"Shame about that train crash down in Barilan, wasn't it? They say a Tee-al tore the track up..."
"My little boy's got his third climbing award this year. Two hundred feet without ropes! He wants to try the east face of Toastytop but..."
"So I got stung by a bee the other day, right? Twenty Millirand for a jar of honey! Ghahahaha...! Oh come on..."
"Young Mister Cone!" a shrill voice exploded in Strobus' ear and a wrinkled hand tugged at his sleeve. "What a delight!" Before him, clad in her frilly Byeday best, was the elderly and scale-skinned woman he had only ever known as Ms. Cyanid - many years ago she had been his schoolteacher. "Well how are we?" she chirped, cradling a glass of some golden liqueur in her hand. "I must say I was surprised to see you fall in with the Dissitor earlier. Look at you, your hair's still all full of..." She began to swat at Strobus' hair, sending more grains of sand into his eyes.
"Oh it's fine, ma'am, really," said Strobus, shrinking back. "I can clear it up later. It's just-"
"You were late with my mail on Pleaseday!" Ms. Cyanid suddenly announced. "What was that about?"
"Oh... er, the truck from Barilan sorting office broke down. Out of my hands I'm afraid."
"DPW needs composting, the lot of them. Now listen, I've got a package coming next Rustleday. Maybe Thanksday. I'll be expecting it on time."
"Well I'm not walking your round that day, but I can put in a word to-"
"Really though, falling for all this new Vascarina fluff," Ms. Cyanid switched again. "What would your mother have said, if she was alive?"
"Well it's hard to know, ma'am... that was a long time ago. Things have changed."
"Maybe they have, young man, but every season has its end. One day you'll think yourself silly for making your devotions to that oddball lich."
"Are you not a believer, then?"
"Oh I quite believe, dear, but that doesn't justify dragging little miss Goldcluck into the liturgy of our church. If they've canonised her, they'll have to add Shyriath the Builder too... or even one of the Yastrebs, Shrub preserve us. There'd be no end to it!"
"Well I don't think we can limit ourselves to the ways of the Old Garden forever..."
"Why ever not? It's got us all this far."
"By the skin of our teeth, ma'am. But look at us now... no Shrub, the fullbloods in Lepidopterum are mostly licking their wounds and Lord Toastypops has gone back to bed. Remember what happened to the old empire when things got this bad and nobody took charge of the situation?"
"Remember? Really dear, I'm not THAT old..."
"Well you know what I mean. If we don't stake a claim on the future, the future will stake a claim on us."
"What's futuristic about Vascarina Goldcluck? She hasn't been seen since the Shrub himself."
"I think you'll find that's a matter of opinion," said a voice beside them. The robed Dissitor, having spotted the animated conversation from afar and surmised its content, glided alongside whilst taking a swig of Batavian beer straight from the bottle. "If you'll forgive the imposition, madam... Cyanid, is it? There is a school of evidence which suggests that Vascarina is still alive, but it hasn't been found conclusive enough to make it into the doctrine yet."
"Still alive...!" chuckled Ms. Cyanid. "She's nearly twice my age. She would have shuffled off to the Great Garden Beyond by now."
"But you have to remember she was restored from undeath to life by the Shrub... a miraculous act even in those arcane days. What's to say she didn't obtain biological immortality in the process? Like Shyriath the Builder, but I doubt she drank herself to death on Tellian amaretto as he did."
Ms. Cyanid's eyes widened with mirth. "I refuse to believe one can drink onesself to death on this stuff," she looked at her glass and gulped down its last contents. "Strobus, be a darling and fetch me a top-up from the bar, will you?"
Strobus took the empty glass and stepped smartly away, giving the Dissitor an apologetic shrug. By the time he had pushed his way through to the crowded bar, obtained Ms. Cyanid's refill and extracted himself, the Dissitor had parted from the woman and Strobus encountered him on the way back.
"We'll have a hard time convincing that one," the Dissitor sighed. "She'll cause a scene if I push it any more."
"Be thankful she was never your teacher," muttered Strobus.
"I appreciate you stepping up for communion today, you know. You drew a few others out behind you. I'll make it known to Credent Cytoplast... he's somewhat on the fence himself."
"Oh I didn't do it to buff my record, Dissitor. I just tried it out of curiosity. Where do you get the sand?"
"Bereliggle Bay, down in Lywall. Vascarina resided there for some years, before the collapse. Until recently the Gubernatorials were shipping it up to us with scrap metal consignments, for next to nothing. Then some gouging bastard got wind of the religious usage and the prices went up, and up, and up... Shrub be thanked that the church has the deepest pockets in Kalgachia... they need to be these days." He took another swig of beer.
"So you think Vascarina's still alive?"
"It's possible. Strictly off-canon, you understand, but we've had word from our people in Schlepogora that she's somewhere in the backwoods of Lachdolor. Moves around a lot. Avoids company. Shrub only knows what'll happen if the Gubs find her."
"Martyrdom?" said Strobus.
"Worked for Fleurette, I suppose," said the Dissitor, finishing his beer. "They say you should never meet your heroes anyway." He looked down at the glass of amaretto in Strobus' hand. "You'd better get that to old Cyanide before she bites your head off. Can I count on your repeat performance next Byeday?"
"Oh certainly," said Strobus, half distracted by looking for Ms. Cyanid's face in the crowd.
"Good man," said the Dissitor as he swept away. "Garden keep you."
Ms. Cyanide found Strobus before he found her, approaching from behind and swiping the glass of amaretto out of his hand. "I thought you weren't coming back!" she snapped, taking a generous sip. "Ahh, that's better... now then young man, delivering the mail is all well and good but when are you going to get a proper job? I didn't slave away in a stuffy old classroom all those years for you to put paper in holes..."
Strobus looked across to the corner of the hall, where the goatherd girl who took sand communion was stood sipping non-alcoholic fruit juice with an elderly man of the same profession who cradled a small juvenile goat in his arm. Neither spoke to the other, content to silently observe the scene as Strobus did. He avoided the impending eye contact, pondered the strange sense of peace which had enveloped him and turned back to Ms. Cyanid.
"I'm looking at other options..."