Wednesday, May 4, 2011

It is a Secret to Everybody

Refer to the world outline here:  

A story of the Static-Lands Saga.  The title is a geek-refernce, but this tale has nothing to do with the thing I am referencing.  It is about a man who is the last of his people living among the culture belonging to the people who exterminated them.  

I'm not entirely sure what his religion is, either, but it's not the important thing, the "difference" is the important thing.  I also like the idea of "art as prayer." The idea comes from things in world culture - iconography, sand paintings... I don't know if any culture does tapestries as prayer/sacred art, I just thought it would be neat to have such a thing.  (In my mind, the pattern on the one mentioned seems a bit like the design on the outer garment Wander wears in "Shadow of the Colossus" because that game has become one of my obessions - and it's a nice pattern).  

The Static-Lands Saga

It is a Secret to Everybody

In the city of Fortissimo in the country of Vale there is a tiny bakery on the main market-street.  It is tucked away between a large shoe store and an abandoned bicycle repair shop.  It is, at intervals, the busiest bakery in the city and despite its size, the most expensive, and its products are considered a national treasure.  Although it employs several young people do basic tasks and to run the register, only one man mixes the spices for the cakes, breads and pastries and only that one man knows the full recipes for the things made there.  That man’s name is Zahm and he is the last of his kind.

His mother had taught him to bake, back when he was a little boy living atop the Green Plateau.  Zahm was middle-aged when his shop became well-known and he is now heading into his twilight years.  He wonders if there are any temples left on the Plateau, even if they are only burnt-out hollow structures. 

The bell on Zahm’s door chimed one afternoon as one of his regular customers strode through the door.  The old baker had dismissed his crew earlier as this was one of the slower times of day and slower days of the week, not that one could always tell since the sun held a fixed position.  It was nearly time to close. 

“Call!” Zahm greeted with his slight Green Plateau accent.  It was only a very light accent as he had not been immersed in his people’s idiosyncrasies of language since he was a child.  “Let me guess,” he continued, “Something nice and sweet for your dear mother?”

“What else?” Call replied with a slightly embarrassed smile, “That flakey honey-cake should do.” 

“I have some fresh! Here! Try some!  Nice and hot!”

Zahm proffered a spatula toward Call, laden with a flaky, sticky-dripping dessert.  Call took it, took a bite and closed his eyes in pure pleasure.  Zahm poured the man a cup of warm tea to wash it down. 

“Again, I am reminded of why you are able to set your own prices,” Call said.

“My prices are such because I am only one man and even with help, I can only create so much in a day. This isn’t manufacturing, this is art.” 

“If you shared or sold your recipes, you could make your business bigger.” 

“It is a secret to everybody,” Zahm insisted, “my recipes are one of the last remnants of my people.  I keep them close.  Seriously, is business all you Valiens are interested in?”

Call looked around the shop as Zahm boxed up his order.  Zahm’s Bakery smelled heartily of incense and there were tapestries hung on the walls.  Their patterns were abstract and colorful.  Zahm had once told him that the tapestries were “woven prayers.”  The man never let on what he personally prayed to and no one could remember what it was that the people of the Green Plateau worshipped, just that their ways went contrary to Vale’s ways. Call, like many of Zahm’s other customers, thought that the time for letting-go had come long ago and that the good baker should give up the hokum and identify as Valien.  Zahm was considered a full-citizen, after all, seeing that his skill had earned him a place and much acclaim.

“No,” Call answered, “it’s just that you’ve lived in Vale most of your life and unlike the deer-people, you are fully human.  You’re only as different as you choose to be.  Aside from a few eccentricities, you’re indistinguishable from a normal person.”

“Perhaps I do not wish to be normal, as you say,” Zahm said as he tied off the ribbon on the cake box and handed it to his customer. 

As Call left, Zahm prepared to close the shop for the day.  He looked at one of the wall-tapestries.  He had not woven any of them.  They had been a part of his childhood family home.  He stared at the weaving that represented the Prayer for the Dead.  It was a pattern in mostly blue and white with a brown border.

Zahm had been adopted by a Valien couple at the age of seven.  Being young, he was held to be innocent and salvageable.  His new parents had tried to re-educate him away from the traditions he’d been taught before.  They’d only managed a partial job.  Otherwise, they were nice enough people. 

The people of the Green Plateau had been the victim of Vale’s Great Purge.  The government was different now and had largely put the drama of dictatorship behind itself in favor of a generally democratic system, but the social ghosts of that time lingered.  Vale, when solidifying its rule many years ago, attempted to solidify its beliefs and morality.  Even today, any citizen that worshipped anything other than the nation’s goddess, Materia-Machina, or held un-Machinist values was subject to suspicion.  Sometimes, dissidents were even subject to incarceration and study at psychiatric facilities or were encouraged toward suicide.  This was mostly for the Ilkhan among Vale’s population, as their physical features were cause enough for many Valiens to consider them sub-human.

Zahm knew that the Valiens had a spirituality of a sort, but it wasn’t one he marked as particularly deep.  Most believed in the existence of their goddess, though few took it seriously.  Even with those that did, all Zahm saw was a reverence for a “goddess of gimme.”  People only prayed to Materia-Machina when they wanted something.  The few successful people that gave to charity in her name tended only to do so because they expected blessings of greater wealth in return.  Such donations more often than not went to the fine things owned by the people that solicited the donations, and generally only served to grease social wheels.  Zahm certain that if Materia actually existed that she was not withholding from the poor to punish them, but because mortals bored her and she left them to their own devices.  No one asked Materia-Machina what they could do for her or for others. They only ever asked her “Gimme!”  The ways of the old baker’s childhood home were far different.   

Only Zahm knew anymore what the people of the Green Plateau had worshipped and how they did so.  He felt some knowledge to be too sacred to reveal to people who would only mock it at best.  What brought the wrath of Vale upon his people a generation ago laid mostly in their general culture.  Zahm thought that his culture had probably only worked because of the Plateau’s low population.  The Plateau-people had believed in sharing all gains and all needs with one another and furthermore, in honoring and upholding the weak.  In Vale, it was the strong and the lucky who were respected.  On the Green Plateau, it was almost the other way around.  Strong people were praised, of course, but only if they used their power to help those weaker than themselves.

Back then, when the dictatorship that was running Vale decided that bringing the people of the Green Plateau into line with the common Valien values was an attempt at futility, the people were overtaken and killed.  They had not fought back in a way sufficient enough to spare them, for the thought of killing people for any reason was abhorrent to them.  Children younger than a certain age were taken to be a part of Valien families.  Zahm had been taken to the live in Fortissimo, where he remained ever since.  His adoptive parents had both died some time ago, first his father and then his mother.  Research had shown him that he was the very last of the Green Plateau people still alive. 

Even with a somewhat gentler government, Zahm was certain that the reason he remained alive was because of his formidable baking skills.  The entire city loved his pastries.  Even elected officials came by his shop every now and again.   

He was unmarried.  Zahm had been forbidden to marry on account of keeping to some undesirable bits of his childhood culture.  Vale, and Fortissimo in particular, wished to prevent individuals with “undesirable values” or of “undesirable mental standing” to reproduce.  This was alright by Zahm, for strange reasons.  The first was that he had no particular desire to mate.  “Spiritually minded” is what his true mother might have called him if she had not been the recipient of a sword through her heart.  The strangest reason, however, had to do with being the last of his people.  He wanted to retain that position.  Zahm had decided that when he was gone, so would go his people and he wanted to make sure that Vale would feel the loss. 

Another day, Zahm closed up shop with one customer still inside.  This was Sen, a very special customer with whom Zahm sat down and had tea.  Sen picked at his cinnamon-apple bread.  Sen had been quite depressed lately and Zahm offered a listening ear.  The bulk of Sen’s problems stemmed from his being a lifelong resident of the city and an Ilkhan. 

“I’m thinkin’ of doin’ it, ya know,” Sen said.

“What is that?” Zahm asked.

“One of the clinics,” the young man answered.  “I gotta face it, I got no idea how to live with my own people in the night-land and I ain’t wanted here.  Clinic’s supposed to be quick an’ clean, not like do-it-yerself.  If I jump offa somethin’, I might wind up all busted up and sufferin’ for a good long time.  You’re outta place, too.  You know how hard it is.  Future’s got no place for folks like me, even less for you.  You’re the last of yours.” 

“Which is precisely why I think talk of the clinics is stupid.  Sen… Sen… listen to me.  You should not succumb to what the world wants.  Live and defy the world.”

“You know,” Sen began, “There’s talk of a tribe of Ilkhan that were kinda like your people.  They lived up in the Draklore Mountains – some of ‘em are supposed to still be up there.  They say they’s innocent-minded, which is why the other Ilkhan tribes fought so hard to protect them in the last war.  They needed to be protected, like children.  They couldn’t conceive the worst of human evil, you see?” 

“The worst of human evil?” 

“Well,” Sen continued, “They couldn’t understand why so many of the Valiens hated ‘em – all of us – so much.  This tribe believed that the world was filled with spirits, both good ones and wicked ones.  After the first time they met Valien war parties, this tribe – get this – they start speakin’ ‘bout a kind of evil spirit, not one that can posses someone outright, but curls up inside ‘em.”

Zahm leaned forward, his elbows on the table and his knuckles on his chin.  Sen, noting the strange look his friend was giving him, continued.

“This kind of spirit,” he said, “it just sits inside a person, feedin’ off their soul, changin’ their brain all subtle-like.  They don’t make themselves known, but they change the will of a man so that he don’t even know his own will is bein’ changed.  This kinda demon is all ‘bout hatred.  It feeds offa it, creates it.  Accordin’ to the mountain tribe, these demons are responsible for reasonable people actin’ unreasonably – rational people holdin’ irrational attitudes and thinkin’ that they’re rational despite living evidence against their prejudice.” 

“What do you think, Sen?” Zahm asked. 

“I don’t think its demons,” the Ilkhan replied, taking a small bite of bread.  He swallowed hard.  “I can definitely see why that tribe thinks evil spirits are involved… some folks who pride themselves best on calm an’ logic make the least sense when they talk ‘bout things they hate – and even less sense when those things are people.  Seems downright reasonable to me for somethin’ supernatural to be involved, as strange as such a thought is, but no, I don’t think those demons exist.  Seems to me those poor mountain-folk are just too kind to face the fact that people are a cruel, unreasonable lot.  People’s prejudices make ‘em feel secure, ya know?  I won’t lie and say I got none of my own.”

“You are very smart,” Zahm replied.  “This is why you should go on living. Forget the clinic.  I’ll share with you a secret.”

“One of your secret recipes?” the young man asked hopefully.

“No.  Those are secret to everybody.  I even burned all my old recipe cards and notes, committing all of my secret mixes to memory.  I do not plan on passing them on to anybody, ever.” 

“Why?  Isn’t the honey-flake cake in particular one of the specialties of your folk?”

“It is, which is why I do not want to pass it on.”

“You don’t wish to spread your culture?”

“No.  When I die, so dies the last of my culture, including its recipes.  You see, to survive in a world like this one, a person must find a way to make themselves valuable – indispensable, if possible.  The reason why I am kept alive, dear Sen, is – I believe – because of my skills and my secrets.  No one in this city or nation knows how to make the things that I make.  Many guess at my secret blends and many have tried to replicate my work, but it stands as unique.” 

“Do you fear that you’ll be killed iffin’ you share your recipes?  Isn’t that a might paranoid?” 

“I don’t think they’ll kill me,” Zahm said, “just neglect me.  I do not worship what they worship and they cannot stand what I worship, although they do not know what it is.  They cannot stand that someone in their nation thinks differently than they do. A few think praying at all makes a man worthless in light of the indifference of existence. ‘How dare you hope for anything except what is!’ they’ve said to me and have asked me why I don’t just conform to the way they want everyone to be. Most who visit my shop regard me with a resentment that seethes beneath the surface, behind their smiles.  However, by tickling their tongues and filling their bellies, I have made myself valuable enough to be left alone and to be acknowledged as a person of some worth.  That is my revenge, dear one.”


“Of a kind.  I serve them, the people of Fortissimo, I mean – even those that are openly glad for the deaths of my people.  If my skills are the only reason they have for valuing me, so be it.  Even if I am only appreciated because I can make cakes that send people into fits of delight, it is enough.  My recipes were common to my people and now I am the only one left who knows them.  They enjoy my work now, but when I go, those skills and ways will be lost to them forever.” 

“I think I understand,” Sen replied, tracing a finger over the foremost point on one of his antlers.  “I should find a skill that will make people mourn should I pass – and that’ll make life worth livin’.”

“I don’t think you need a skill, in your case.  I would miss you terribly just because of who you are.”

Sen looked up at Zahm’s gentle smile and smiled himself. “Besides, you’re young,” Zahm added.

“And you’re not-so-young anymore ol’ man,” Sen laughed, “Sure you don’t trust me with makin’ this kinda bread at least?”

“I cannot share my knowledge with anyone,” the baker answered, “not a single soul.  This may be the only epitaph our conquerors respect.  When I die, so do my secrets.  If people don’t mourn me, they shall mourn the loss of their favorite foods, at least – something unique they will not see or taste the likes of again.  They will feel my loss for that, if nothing else.  Then, perhaps, they will finally feel the loss of my people.  With the loss of one life comes the loss of something unique and the same with the loss of an entire people and culture.  Even if conquerors only lament for how the lost ones could have served them, that is one small thing.” 

“I’ll miss more than your bakin’, so don’t die anytime soon, okay?”

“I know, my friend.  I plan on serving this city for a good, long time – to tickle their tongues and please them. That way, when my time comes and I go the way of the rest of my people, their hunger will be all the greater.”


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