Methven - Day Six - Part Two
Luckily, before I had a chance to stick my foot back in my mouth, Carleton completed his patrol around the perimeter of our camp and returned to the fireside. And by the time Tong and I got done taking our own turns on sentry, it was time to wake Bruno, Blandy and Bill for their watch.
Morning dawned bright and chilly not ten minutes after my head hit the roll of clothing I used for a pillow.
At least, it seemed like only ten minutes, although, when Bill shook me awake, he swore he'd stood a full watch.
I wasn't the only one grumbling, either. Even Pith, who'd drawn first shift and had gotten two uninterrupted watches worth of nap time was sleepy-eyed and yawning.
Still, a healthy whiz, a couple of cups of Bruno's Sumatran java and a hearty lumberjack breakfast went a long way toward opening my eyes--especially after a quick bath in our friendly, neighborhood mountain stream.
Immediately after we finished brushing our teeth in that same icy brook, Læ put us to work breaking camp. With nine of us pitching in, it went pretty quickly. The tents, the cooking gear and the sleeping bags and pads all went into Bruno's magic suitcase. We slung our weapons over our shoulders or on our belts and the rest of the stuff went into our backpacks. In no more than half an hour, we were on the road.
. . .
The country we've been moving through reminds me a lot of the Rockies. These are young mountains and darned rugged ones.
The trail, such as it is, mostly seems to exist in Læ's and Mantami's imaginations. Oh, we've followed a few obvious game trails, but, once we left the course of the streambed, about midway through that third day on planet, we wound up doing a heckuvva lot of scrambling over glacis and scree, much of which was awfully damned barren.
The vegetation we have encountered is at once familiar and foreign to me. Its general appearance is pretty prosaic--bushes, trees, flowers and grasses. To casual observation--and, when it comes to botany, mine is remarkably casual--none of it would look out of place in your average arboretum. The difference is that, even to my untrained eye, not one single species is familiar. Not one.
I mean, grass is grass, right?
Not on Methven, it isn't. It's such a simple difference to stick so vividly in my mind, but the seeds on every single stalk are oriented so that the hairy tufts on their ends point down. If I remember rightly, on Earth, they always point up. Likewise, there are a lot of downright coniferous-looking trees here--at least, their branches sport clusters of elongated, arrowhead-shaped, deep greenish things that look a lot more like needles than like leaves. But I haven't seen anything that looks like a pine cone since we left California.
. . .
We took our first break in a meadow, after spending most of the morning descending more-or-less North by Northwest according to Bill's compass. While we caught our breath and munched on trail mix, I asked Mantami to name some of the flowers around us.
"I would be pleased to name them for you, Mr. Drew."
"Thank you, Mr. Mantami."
"The blue blossom by your leg is a morning wing. The white one next to it we Vomisa call 'Maj'. I do not think the Traders' Tongue has a name for it."
"So, how would you translate 'Maj'?"
He thought for a moment.
"I am not sure, Mr. Drew. Perhaps 'Pure One'. Or, perhaps 'Lonely One'. The word means both things."
"Huh. How come 'Maj'?"
"Mr. Drew, do you see any others like it nearby?"
I looked around.
"Now that you mention it, Mr. Mantami, no, I don't."
"That is why."
. . .
After lunch, we crossed a pocket valley and turned more to the West. We spent most of the afternoon picking our way around tumbled boulders and across fields of scree. It was more like hiking than climbing, but--mostly because of the altitude--it was tiring, even so.
I asked Bruno why we were sticking to such high country, when we probably could have made better time further down.
. . .
Early evening found us at the foot of a little wall, perhaps a hundred feet high. We were all tired and sore and I expected Læ to call it quits for the day and tackle the vertical the next morning.
She shook her head.
"Absolutely not, Mr. Wilde. Atop this cliff, there is a comfortable ledge sheltered by an overhang which will protect us from the elements in the event of a storm. I intend that we shall make our night's camp there."
"Okay, boss-lady. Break out the gear and I'll get us up."
She shook her head again, but this time the hint of a smile played around the corners of her mouth.
"Thank you, Mr. Wilde, but that will not be necessary."
She turned to Mantami.
"Child, will you scale this cliff for us?"
"Yes, Mother Læ."
Mantami squatted down on his heels, his eyes closed, palms together with fingertips pointed downward, as if in prayer. It seemed to me I'd seen him do that before, although it took me a minute or two to remember where and when.
Then it dawned on me. I'd last seen him perform this same ritual beside our abandoned van, outside of Strawberry. Then, he'd said he was "finding a path". I wondered what he was doing now.
"He be findin' him a path, P."
"Shush, Mr. Lowe. You will distract him."
"Shit, rappin' ain't no 808!"
Tong opened his mouth to argue, but the glint of anger in Læ's eyes stopped him cold.
Mantami ignored their exchange, just as he ignored it when Bruno silently laid a coil of rope on the ground in front of him. He kept his eyes closed and grew very still. His features went slack and he seemed to draw into himself..or perhaps to escape from himself, instead.
Then, in one sinewy motion, he reached for the end of the rope in front of him, put it between his teeth and seemed to leap at the face before him.
Now, mind you, I could have climbed that face without protection. It was seamed with cracks and had enough small ridges and narrow chimneys to make it perfectly scalable as a free climb. But, I'd never climbed it before, I didn't know the condition of the rock and I would've wanted to take some time with field glasses to suss out a route.
Mantami went up that wall as if he were jet-propelled.
Sometimes, when you're on a difficult ascent, you find yourself in a spot where just have to lunge in order to make your next move. You can't worry about falling and there simply isn't any way to get to the next hold without letting go of the one you're on and springing for it, so you just have to forget the danger and put everything you've got into it. The risk and the physical and mental effort necessary make it pretty exhilirating, but it takes a lot out of you and doing it a couple of times in rapid succession will turn even the strongest climber into a damp dishrag.
Mantami bounded up that face in one long, sustained series of lunges. He did a hundred vertical feet in way under a minute, dragging the weight of a hundred feet of climbing rope in his teeth.
It was the damnedest thing I've ever seen.
. . .
Later on, after we'd made camp, I got a moment to talk privately with Læ.
"Lady, I have to tell you, with native climbers like Mantami available, I haven't the slightest idea why you'd ever need the likes of me. What the hell am I doing on this tea party, anyhow?"
She nodded, with something suspiciously like sympathy.
"I imagine Mantami's demonstration of climbing prowess must have been a humbling experience for you, Mr. Wilde."
"You must understand, however, that the Vomisa are a highly insular people."
"A highly insular people, Mr. Wilde. In point of fact, they never voluntarily leave these mountains. Those who do are almost invariably exiles. Sinners, if you will. And their banishment takes its toll."
"You're telling me they're hermits?"
She shook her head.
"Nothing could be less true. Parochial and insular though they are, they are also a highly gregarious folk. That is why exile is such a harsh penalty for them. To be deprived of the company of their own kind is terrible for Vomisa. I can only surmise that Mantami has borne it so well because he was not yet an adult when his..accident..took place."
Her expression became somber.
"It is the only thing that can make his likeliest fate bearable to him."
"What do you mean?"
"I bear a burden of responsibility for Mantami, Mr. Wilde. I would not wish him outcast, even if I did not have that obligation."
She looked away, into the distance.
"It is my most fervent hope that his family will welcome him back into their bosom. I shall bend every effort to make it so."
She turned back to me and her gaze was intense, searching.
"We shall see what transpires once we reach Khasim Clanhome. Until that time, you are not to mention this conversation to Mantami. Is that clear?"
I nodded, unhappily.
"Yeah. Yeah, it's clear. But, listen.."
She raised an eyebrow.
"Mantami is my friend, too. I don't want to see him get hurt any more than you do. But, damnit, I think he has the right to know what he's up against. You've asked me not to tell him about our little chat and you have my word that I won't. But you should. I think you owe it to him."
"Thank you, Mr. Wilde. I will consider your advice."
. . .
As luck would have it, Blandy insisted on taking second watch to have a man-to-man with Carleton and Tong was equally determined to spend third shift chatting with Pith. That meant I wound up partnered with Mantami and Læ for first trick.
Oddly enough, it wasn't awkward at all. When Læ and I were thrown together, she spent the time coaching me on fencing moves. And, when I had Mantami to myself, he spent the time in another one of his little rituals.
This time, he didn't climb anything or get up and follow any trail. He just sat there on his heels, hands in that upside-down steeple position, for the best part of something like twenty minutes. Then he opened his eyes and smiled beatifically.
"What was that all about?"
"It is a..a seeing, Mr. Drew."
"Oh, so that's what it was? Thanks for clearing that up for me."
He smiled brightly.
"You are welcome, Mr. Drew."
I shook my head.
"In case you missed it, that was me being sarcastic."
"Uh-huh. Truly. I have no idea what you mean by 'a seeing', Mantami."
He looked less happy.
"I am not sure how to explain it, Mr. Drew. It is a thing that I was taught to do when I was very young."
"Like you were taught to climb and to do that 'finding a path' trick?"
"So, what is it that you're 'seeing'?"
"Flames, Mr. Drew."
"Flames? Like the ones in the fire over there?"
He shook his head.
"No, Mr. Drew. These are flames of life. All lives have flames. In my seeing, I see the flames around us. I see the flame in you. I see the flame in Mother Læ. I see the flame in.."
"In Tong and Bill and Pith and everybody else in our little boy scout troupe. Yeah, I get it. So, what else is this 'seeing' good for?"
"Mr. Drew, I also see the flames of a family of tacht. A mother tacht and her two cubs are not far from here."
"We'd better alert Læ, then."
He shook his head.
"They have fed well, Mr. Drew. The mother tacht smells our food and dreams of hunting, but she will not wake tonight."
"And you 'see' this?"
"Yes, Mr. Drew."
"Y'know, that kind of thing that could come in handy."
"Yes, Mr. Drew."
(Copyright© 1997 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)