SF Snippet #5: Three Phrases

Our civil war of words continues! Alas, this is the final installment – the story pauses here. Someday, when the poetry overflows from the depths of my not-usually-poetic brain again, I’ll finish it. I know how it ends. But I’m not sure what’s between here and the end. Not yet.

Someday…

Part One. Part Two. Part Three. Part Four.

No one ever heard Disahnahle’s original three phrases. They had only themselves to blame.

The outcry started as a disgruntled rumbling and turned into a volcano. Plains Cousins crowed, seeing those three phrases as a tacit admission of their superiority, while Mountain Cousins trooped up to Disahnahle over the ensuing weeks to complain, at some length, of his betrayal. How can you envy a people too foolish to come in out of the rain? they asked. Why that ill-considered verse? Our reputation rested with you, and you trampled it. And other words to this effect.

Disahnahle stood in the entrance to his cave and listened gravely, head tipped to one side, one ear forward and the other back in an attitude of utmost consideration, until the last group (including some of the most respected members of the community) finished their tirade. He shifted his weight from his off to his near side. They waited. “It is the glory and the curse of poets,” he said finally, “to have meaning invested in our works that we never intended.”

Then he turned and went inside, leaving them alone in a sharp spring wind. The next group that tried to express their opinion were met with the flat of his horn. Further visitors decided it was prudent not to venture into a cave entrance that contained a sharp horn and forehooves with no room for flanking maneuvers.

The Plains Cousins proclaimed Nahkorah victorious. Disahnahle, they said, had as much as conceded defeat. The contest was over. Had she heard? He had retreated to his cave and refused to come out. She had destroyed him.

Nahkorah gazed out over the plains. It was high summer now, just before the rains, and the grass wilted under the blaze of the sun. There were no clouds, except where a fire sent smoke boiling up to the stratosphere some miles distant. Even the snow-fed rivers were shriveling, limping and wincing in the center of muddy channels between their banks. “I envy him his daylight shadows,” she said.

A little later, she ventured up into the mountains, and squeezed herself into a cave entrance that had no consideration for the dimensions of a Plains Cousin. The cavern blessedly widened after several feet. There was a small stream in the center of it, a freshening breeze from somewhere at the back, and stocky hindquarters planted firmly opposite, swaying with the motions of his work. He had propped a slab of mudstone on a ledge and was carving it with short, certain strokes of his horn. Other slabs lay propped all over the cave. She stood in the center of a vortex of words.

She drank from the stream, wandered around and sampled phrases, captured forever in lovely angular script. It certainly seemed easier than etching one’s words on living minds, and entrusting them to endure.

By the time he finished chipping the last phrase, she was standing stone-still in the middle of the cave, beside the stream. And then she began to move, without thought:

Nothing lasts, eternal

Unchanged

Yesterday long past

Someone cooled their hooves in the mud of a stream

Where today you carve a line

Which holds greater worth:

That moment of coolness

Those lasting words?

I know what each of you would say

Nothing lasts

Things become separate

That side of the stream or this

This elevation or that

Mountains rise, plains fall

And it is often forgotten

That this mountain was a plain once

That this plain washed down from a peak

Things separate

Not really separate

Need for divisions

Divides us

Without boundaries we would be no different

We need divisions

Remember the places between

Disahnahle stood there facing her for a moment, tail swishing. He wiped rock dust from his horn onto his shoulder. She waited for him to remark on the symmetry of right side and left side, front and back words, which she felt was this poem’s greatest strength. Had he caught the echo of his first poem to her? He had said they were many surrounding the same center, after all, and she had spoken directly to it in her last phrase. But he said nothing.

“Well?” she said after a long silence.

“Oh, you were done. I thought you were just resting. Usually when there is a trickle of water during a storm, a flood follows.” He turned away, blowing rock dust from his most recent work.

Nahkorah stamped her feet. “You ungracious lout.”

His head swung around, staring at her past his hindquarters, and then she saw his left rear hoof pivoting on its toe. He was right – she had fallen for his tease. “It was very kind of you to come up here and apologize for the fear of my kin,” he said, turning away again.

“Fear?”

“Of course. What else would make them so angry?” Disahnahle had taken down the finished slab and was raising another. She had expected his speech to change when transmitted directly with te’i’ahne, but it was just as clipped as his physical speech. “They fear such admissions as mine. They think that wanting something you are says that we no longer want to be ourselves, that we concede your superiority.”

“Your poem was nothing like that.”

“Of course not. But you are more visible, down there on the plains.”

She had never quite thought of it that way. She pondered it now, as Disahnahle lowered his head and began chipping. “You do realize that what I said about Mountain Cousin poetry was just an observation? That I never meant that one was superior to another, but so different that one could never appreciate the other?”

“You appreciated my three phrases.”

She ground her teeth. The sound harmonized well with the grate of his horn against mudstone. “And I can admit when I was wrong.”

“Never. If you do, I have nothing to strive for. Now hush.”

She hushed. She watched him work, carving one torturously slow character after another, and thought she understood why Mountain Cousins kept their verses so short and simple. If they did not, they would spend a year giving a poem that a Plains Cousin could trip out in moments, and likely forget where the verse had begun before it ended. How could he think, with that noise? How could he keep the phrases in his mind, even short as they were?

He finally stepped back, cocked his head to study his lines, and seemed satisfied. He moved aside so she could come read them.

While you recite,

We speak in pages of stone.

Flowers fallen in swift streams.

Nahkorah had to read it several times before she realized the truth. “That is what I just said.”

“Do you have anywhere to keep it?” he asked. “I doubt you could dance it.”

She kicked him, but not hard. “We have places for our things. Not that you would know that, lurker in caves.”

He planted his forelegs apart, head twisted in a grin that nearly ruined the last of her dignity as she gathered up his gift. She meant to depart in icy silence, majestic, unshakable, but he pricked her flank with his parting words as she left his cave, the poem bounding behind her in its net of te’i’ahne: “The next salvo is yours, Nahkorah. Give me notice so I can free a month to hear it.”

She threw a withering glance over her shoulder. “I once respected you, a minute ago.”

It would have made a far better retort had she not hit her horn on the cave wall turning back.

Image shows a white unicorn standing in front of a huge moon at the end of a rocky path.
Image courtesy Kasamy-Design (CC BY 3.0)

Copyright 2016 by Dana Hunter. All rights reserved.

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SF Snippet #5: Three Phrases
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