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Excerpt from The Memory Artist

by Brenda W. Clough
©1998 Brenda W. Clough all rights reserved

More than a month later, thinner and considerably wearier, Avven said, “That must be it.”

“Are you sure? Aren’t buffalo wild animals?”

“Those aren’t buffalo. They’re goats. Besides, look at the sky.” She pointed at the marvelous blue depth above. A gray smear of smoke trailed across it, leading the eye down to a chimney still invisible behind the hill. The mountains crowded closer now, still snow-tipped. The valley nestled among them like a green cup. Oak and lodgepole pine furred the slopes all around up to where turf and bare rock ruled. The farm, if it was a farm, was almost too high for agriculture to be profitable. Avven wondered why the inhabitants didn’t move down to easier terrain. There was plenty of empty land in the world.

An-Lattine’s unearthly garments were as fresh and unsullied as the day he arrived, but without the bubble’s protection his pasty-pale face had taken on a pink touch of the sun. His hair, unshorn, had grown long enough to show it was fawn brown. “Tell me, Avven,” he said. “What is a memory artist?”

“I have no idea,” Avven said, startled. “Don’t you know, the anthropologist?”

“Human ethologist,” he corrected her. “I’ve never heard of a memory artist before. Nor have any of my colleagues. It must be a local usage.”

There was a path now by the creek which divided the valley, and as they climbed higher the settlement came into view across the water. It was a comfortable and peaceful prospect. Hayfields and young green grain took up every level patch. Over the steeper hillside young pomel trees marched in orderly terraced rows. The older trees, fewer but taller, had shed their spring bloom and begun to set hard green pellets of fruit. Sheep and llamas grazed between the trees. The path ended at a bridge over the noisy shallow creek. It was a plain wooden bridge, rough planks nailed over logs, and Avven gratefully led the legger across. She had forded the snow-cold water too often this past month.

An-Lattine was breathless with the stiff climb, but he chattered anyway. “You would think that farming would be easier lower down. More water, better depth of soil. So why is this farm more prosperous than the first one? What’s giving them an edge?”

“I see a building,” Avven said. “And listen – there are people.”

This didn’t look like one of those crazily inbred settlements that set Avven’s instincts jangling. The pungent smell of pig manure filled the air. The sty itself was deep in black muck and fenced all around with crooked rails. A fine crop of four shouting children perched on the top bar, and two women stood in the open shed, clinging to the posts and laughing.

Mud-slimed piglets scampered across the sty in all directions, the muck flying in black gobbets from under their scrabbling feet. Avven stared as the largest, stickiest wallow stirred disgustingly, and rose onto oozy legs. An-Lattine clutched her elbow. “What animal is that?”

“It’s the farmer,” Avven said with relief.

“You can’t escape me!” the farmer shouted, playing to his audience, and flung himself full length onto the nearest squealing piglet. Man and pig sank into the mud together almost out of sight, but this time the pig seemed to be caught. “Quick, Cassa, the tonic!”

But Cassa was laughing so hard she couldn’t stand up. Her older companion held up an earthenware bottle and said, “Open wide, piggy! Hold his trotters, Bodey – the trotters! Oh, no!”

And the piglet was gone again, squirting backwards right out of the farmer’s grasp and squealing fit to split anybody’s ears. The children shrieked in excitement, and Bodey slumped backwards in mock disappointment until his muddy hair trailed in the mire.

Suddenly Cassa glanced up. “Medri, look! Strangers!”

The older woman seemed to draw gentle dignity around her thin body like a garment. Stepping over the pig dung she came through the shed and out to them. “Welcome, strangers,” she said. “This is Iriatan House, and I’m Medri, the senior wife.”

“And I’m Cassa, the junior one.” She was considerably younger, only in her teens perhaps, with a foolish blonde prettiness and a small sulky mouth. Both women wore undyed woolen, homespun and handwoven and sewn into loose trousers and blouses fastened with horn toggles. But where Medri was thin and slight, with gray curls, Cassa had some meat on her, especially at breast and hip.

The tranquillity of their greeting made Avven blink. Perhaps this farm was so remote the inhabitants could afford to be unwary. “This is perfect,” an-Lattine exclaimed, almost jumping up and down with excitement.

“This is an-Lattine, a visiting foreigner,” Avven said. “And I’m Avven Coftura, representing the planetary government.”

Medri raised her gray eyebrows. “Truly? Grandpa always said someone would come, some day. How wonderful that you’re here!”

“You knew? The tradition’s been handed down, of our past?” Avven realized her voice was trembling. She had handed out fones to so many unappreciative and disbelieving peasants that this woman’s confident expectation moved her deeply. “This is going to work,” she said, mostly to herself. “We’re going to climb back out of the hole!”

An-Lattine broke in eagerly. “I’ve come a long way – from Epsilon Indi, in fact – to see your Grandpa. Is he here?”

Cassa stared at him. “Whatever for? Anyway, he’s taking his afternoon nap.”

“Stay to supper,” Medri said graciously. “He’ll be there. Except – ” she counted rapidly on her thin fingers.

Avven was relieved to hear there really was a Grandpa after all. “We have food. You need not worry about feeding us.”

“Oh, there’s food enough, mutton stew. But we’re short of knives. Bodey shall carve you some forks, though. There’s time before supper. Bodey, do you hear?”

Bodey climbed over the rail fence, reeking to the skies. His grin was a white streak in his muddy face. “Yes dear,” he said. “And it was a battle, but the pigs have been dosed. Molet held the bottle, and Fiss pried opened their mouths.”

Avven winced at the idea of this fellow having anything to do with food preparation. Cassa said, “Bodey, you smell! Children, see that he’s washed, while we finish cooking.”

The troupe of children screamed with delight and seized Bodey, who allowed himself to be herded down to the creek and ducked. The process was very noisy, and all the participants got soaking wet. An-Lattine made notes on his pad. “A servant or slave, you think?”

Avven remembered that ‘Yes dear.’ “That’s what his name means – ‘worker.’ But we have no slaves or servants. He’s sure to be a very junior husband, and they gave him the name when he married in. But for heaven’s love don’t ask all your personal questions at once.”

“You Terrans have no hustle,” an-Lattine retorted calmly. “And I’ll stick to my own diet this evening, unless you think they’ll be mortally offended.”

They followed the two wives up towards the long house that cuddled into the ridge of the hill. It was one of the largest farm houses Avven had ever seen, and even more impressive was the matching barn facing the house across a fenced barnyard. This family was sufficiently well-off that they didn’t have to live with their animals. Just below the house a ridge of rock curved out in a small natural amphitheater, one step down and a stone’s throw across. Benches, toys, tools, and a central hearth made of loose rocks showed that the place was used often in good weather. A large metal chair with a high slatted back and curving arms stood in the cosiest angle – obviously a relic from past days. “Sit down, guests,” Medri said.

Cassa added kindling to the embers between the rocks, and blew the fire up into a blaze again. “They’ll need to dry off,” she said.

“Are you a daughter of the house?” an-Lattine asked eagerly. “Were you born here?”

She frowned at him over the young flames. “Is he yours?” she asked Avven.

Avven sat down on a bench, smiling. “Everyone asks me that. I’m pleased to say that an-Lattine’s not attached to me in any way. I’m just his native guide.”

“She warned me that it might be rude to be nosy,” an-Lattine said, unabashed. “But I’m in a hurry. We’re only orbiting Earth for a few months. I come from Epsilon Indi. It’s a star.”

“Do you really, a star?” Cassa’s mouth fell open in amazement, so that she looked younger than ever. The children came running up to the fire, followed by their dripping father. “Bodey, this one says he comes from a star!”

“Not a star, a planet,” Bodey corrected her absently. “People don’t live on stars.” Clean, he was stockier and hairier than the rest of his family, his skin tanned browner than Avven’s. He wore only knee pants and crude wooden clogs. His hair was red over dark, the result of spending every daylit moment out in the sun, springing in round curls. The patchy thin beard made him look only recently come to manhood. “Molet, find me some good pomel twigs, will you? That’s a good girl.”

An-Lattine sat up more alertly in the big chair, which he had automatically claimed. “How do you know that? About the planet, I mean.”

But as Bodey sat down on a bench the children poured over him, scaling his bare back, bouncing onto his lap, and diving under his muscular arms. “Story, story!” the littlest one, a boy of about five, shouted, and other voices took up the cry. “About Atta, yes! A story about Atta!”

“Keep them quiet just until the food’s ready,” Cassa said. “I’ll start fetching the platters.”

“All right, all right!” Bodey laughed. “But plant your butts, and keep away from my whittling. Yes, that means you, Tay – sit down! After they’re fed we can talk,” he added to the visitors.

From a sheath at the back of his ragged pants he took out a knife. After wiping the blade on his forearm he began to whittle the bark off a stick. In a remote and quiet tone, very different from his conversational voice, Bodey said:

“Grandpa tells the story that once, a long time ago, Atta’s mother gave him a chore. He was to give the board fence around the barnyard – yes, the fence outside our barn up there, that’s the very one – a lime wash. And Atta said, ‘But I want to go swimming in the creek with the other boys.’ But his mother said, ‘The fence comes first.’

“So Atta took the bucket and the brush out to the fence. And his best cousin Orth passed by, eating a pomel, and he laughed and said, ‘I’m going swimming. Don’t you wish you could? But I guess you’d rather work!’

“But Atta was a clever boy, and he said, ‘Well, now, I wouldn’t cal it work, exactly. It’s not every boy who can wash a board fence with lime.’

“And Orth said – ”

At this moment an-Lattine jumped to his feet with a shout. “I know that story! It’s one of the classics! How do you come to be telling it?”

Bodey stopped dead, in mid-syllable. Molet shrilled, “Don’t interrupt!”

Cassa, returning with a basketful of earthenware plates, exclaimed, “There’s nothing stupider than interrupting memory, stranger. How come you don’t know that?” She set the plates down with a clatter. “Bodey, it isn’t a bad one, is it? Tay, run and fetch Medri!”

“The memory artist,” an-Lattine said. He dashed around the fire to peer into the farmer’s face. “You must be the memory artist. You were remembering that entire ancient story! There’s more, isn’t there? Tell more about Atta!”

Bodey lips still moved, but without sound. His eyes were blank, and his cheeks had lost color under the streaks of beard. Medri came hurrying into the circle, her lean weathered face puckered with worry, and shouldered the star-man aside. “Don’t listen to him, dear. You don’t have to do anything.” She draped her shawl over his bare shoulders and took the knife out of his flaccid fingers. “Fiss, you finish whittling this. Bodey, you come with me. I need you and Cassa to help carry anyway.”

She pulled on Bodey’s hand, and stiffly the younger man rose to his feet. All three adults climbed slowly up to the house, leaving the two newcomers to the hostile gaze of the younger set. “Now Pa can’t finish the story,” Fiss said, whittling with short vicious strokes. He was about nine, a tall thin boy with a sheaf of bright brown hair. “We might never hear how Atta works it out.”

“I’m very sorry,” an-Lattine said. He sat down in the big chair again. “I didn’t know your pa was so – so delicately balanced. Has he always been like that?”

Nobody answered. In the west the last honey-colored light still loitered above the peaks, but here the evening was like soft purple wings folding over the hill. The leaping fire struck unfriendly sparks out of the children’s eyes. Finally Dol, the younger girl, said, “Medri tells us what to do, and Cassa is pretty, and Kell is big and strong. But Bodey remembers how to do everything. It’s a very important job, now that Grandpa doesn’t talk any more.”

“He doesn’t?” an-Lattine said, startled.

“Look,” Avven said. “Here they come.”

The two women led the way down the path with a steaming kettle between them and baskets on their arms. Behind them came Bodey, apparently recovered now, with a long bundle in his arms. As he came into the firelight the bundle resolved itself into a figure, a lean frail form well wrapped against the soft spring evening. “I’ll need that chair,” he called to an-Lattine, who hastily scrambled out of the way. Bodey lowered his burden carefully between the curving metal arms. “There you are,” he said. “You came to see Grandpa, and here he is.”

Gently he straightened the woolly cap as the head lolled against the chair’s high back. This Grandpa was the most ancient man Avven had ever seen. Once he had been tall, once, strong, since the limbs under the blanket were long. But all the flesh had been eroded by relentless time. His face was nearly translucent, wrinkled yet puffy like dried fruit. Strands of sparse white hair stuck out all around the knitted brim of the cap. His eyes were milky with cataract, and his mouth was deeply sunken in for want of teeth. He could indeed have been a hundred years old, or a thousand.

“But – but he shouldn’t be like this!” An-Lattine stuttered with dismay. “This is terrible! How did he come to be so decrepit! He’s supposed to be unageing, undying!”

There was a long pause. “He is?” Bodey stared at the star-man open-mouthed, as if the concept entirely overtaxed his intellect. Avven had to hold her breath to keep from laughing. After all their long journey, the immortal man wasn’t immortal at all! What a comedown for the star-man, to find nothing after all this effort but an ordinary oldster!

“He is very old,” Medri agreed. “I can’t remember a time before he was here. Cassa, will you feed him tonight?”

With only a small pout the younger wife scooped fragrant broth into a bowl and began to spoon it into the withered and pursed mouth. Grandpa stuck a dry clawlike hand out from between his wrappings, the fingers like barkless twigs, but otherwise made no attempt to feed himself. The other two spouses ladled stew into bowls and set the children to eating. An-Lattine brought out his shiny-wrapped concentrate bars, but Avven kicked him lightly on the gleaming gray ankle to make him wait. The adults would all eat together after the children were served.

At last Medri filled a bowl and brought it to Avven. “I hope you will eat mutton and broad beans. We raise our own.”

“I would be very pleased to taste it.” From the edge of her eye Avven could see an-Lattine boiling with comments and questions, but he was learning to let her manage the talk. Avven minded her manners, complimenting Medri on the flavor of the stew, and accepting a flat bread from the basket. With oblique sympathy she edged up on the purpose of their visit. “It’s sad to see the decline of such a fine old man,” she said. “How difficult it must be for your family.”

“He’s been the father all my days,” Medri said with sad pride. “He built this house, cleared the land, planted the orchard – a good life.”

“Alone?” an-Lattine put in.

“Iria directed the work, of course,” Medri said. “She was senior wife before me. And Kell and Bodey helped. And I. But I worry that the end will be soon. This winter Grandpa lost a lot of ground, and now he scarcely eats enough to keep a wren alive. What do you do in such situations, in the city? Is there a cure there for the ailments of age?”

Avven shook her head. “We too have lost a great deal. Once there was the knowledge and the tools to help him. But they’re gone.”

“But we could help,” an-Lattine interrupted. “On my planet, Hanavilbert, we have the skills. We could feed him through his veins, filter the poisons of the years out of his blood, restore his brain to lucidity. Let me take him back to my home! That would be a perfect solution for everybody!” He bounced to his feet, scattering metallic wrappers right and left.

Avven threw down her wooden fork, suddenly furious. “You would, you little insect! Do you know how rare a person of this age is on Earth these days? And you want to take him home as a souvenir!”

An-Lattine flushed with surprise and outrage. “Avven, I know you can’t be an isolationist! At least we’re trying to help a little – ”

“Help? What gives you the right to push all your herky-jerky policies onto us? Except that your people are rich and numerous?” Her plate had fallen face down onto the ground when she jumped to her feet, and the waiting sheepdog was already nosing up the meat. She glared across at the plump little star-man, frustration boiling up in her chest. To live in the ruins of the ancients, condescended to by a parade of kindly but thoughtless do-gooders from the stars, she was used to. But snatching away the oldest Terran alive was too much!

“I was under the impression you understood and supported my work,” an-Lattine said. “Not that your attitude will make any difference. If the University wants something enough –”

A strong square hand clapped onto his shoulder, and a similar powerful grip struck warm even through the thick fibrous armor of Avven’s protective jacket. Bodey smiled gently at them both. “Could you repeat your names for me?”

Reluctantly diverted from the quarrel, Avven told him hers, and Bodey repeated it under his breath. An-Lattine seemed about to say something rude, but instead he muttered, “Vitou Falconn an-Lattine.” Then he added, “Are you remembering our names? In some special way? How does it work?”

“I do remember your name,” Bodey said, letting his hands fall away. He was looking past them, into some distant vista. “Another explorer and traveler of old had it. “Robert Falcon Scott. His friends called him Con.”

Avven had never heard of such a historical figure. “And who was he?”

Bodey blinked. “He ... traveled too far, and died of it.”

An-Lattine scowled, like a small brown rabbit trying to snarl. “Are you threatening me?”

Bodey’s lips moved but no words came out. Medri stepped between them. “Sit down, young man,” she commanded, and automatically an-Lattine obeyed. “Nobody is threatening anybody. This is Iriatan House – do you know what that word means?”

An-Lattine muttered the word into his notepad and glanced at the screen. “It means kindly,” he said. “This is the kindly house.”

“That’s right. You are safe here, both of you, from any malice of man. Although I would be careful at night, about the coydogs,” she added.

Bodey sat down too, leaning his curly head on his hands. “I can’t remember,” he said, with real grief. “Robert Falcon Scott, but I can’t remember any more.” Tears stood in his eyes.

“It’ll come to you,” Cassa said, patting his back.

“You mustn’t drive Bodey too hard,” Medri told the two newcomers sternly. “You’re welcome to talk to him, but you have to give him time to answer the questions.”

“Does he really remember?” Avven couldn’t resist asking. “If he’s a memory artist, how much is memory, and how much art?”

An-Lattine was manipulating his notepad. “I can find out in a few minutes about that old name, at least.”

“You wouldn’t really take Grandpa away?” Molet piped up.

“It sounds so mean,” Fiss said. “Giving away a member of the family.”

“To save his life,” an-Lattine reminded them. “The old man’s starving to death right before your eyes, because you can’t feed him properly.”

“That sound terrible too,” Medri said unhappily. “But we can’t decide until Kell comes back. He’s our other husband.”

“Then we’ll wait for him,” an-Lattine said.

“If that’s all right,” Avven amended, scowling at his intent profile.

An-Lattine didn’t see, bent over his notepad. “Ah, now I have it. Robert Scott, explorer of Antarctica in the pre-atomic era. Here’s his entire biography. There’s an obscure one for you.”

Bodey looked up, beaming behind his sparse short beard. “You know it? You have the knowledge in your box? I’m so glad! If I’d lost it, I’d – well, how would I ever explain to Grandpa?”

An-Lattine pointed at the old man slumped in the grand chair. “Your Grandpa told you things, and you remember them all. Is that how it works?”

Bodey nodded, coming closer. “Could I look at your machine? What else is it for?”

“Look, not touch.” An-Lattine held the blue-shimmering holopad out. “There are too many functions to explain to you.”

Avven watched them, the farmer stocky with manual labor facing the soft pallid star-man. She wondered if Bodey could recognize that the little holopad, with its interactive access to the near-infinite databanks of a starship, superseded him completely. All his hard-won memorization could be excelled by an-Lattine with a casual finger-flick.

But these bitter and envious reflections didn’t seem to trouble Bodey at all. His apple-cheeked face had the sunny joyous wonder of a child. “Your name’s too long,” he told an-Lattine confidingly. “We’ll call you Conn, as the old explorer was called, because you’re a far-traveller too.”

An-Lattine bowed. “If it gives you pleasure, I would be happy to answer to Conn while I’m here. Until your other spouse comes back.”

The meal was more or less over, and while the older children cleared platters away the younger ones insinuated themselves among the adults. Tay hugged Bodey’s bare leg. “I want to hear the rest about Atta,” he begged.

Bodey smiled at Medri. “Is there time, dear? You’re in luck, Tay! Let’s sit down, and you remind me how it began.”

“The barnyard fence,” Dol prompted, wriggling into his lap.

Everyone sat down within earshot of the quiet remote voice that began again, “Grandpa tells the story that once, a long time ago, Atta’s mother gave him a chore ...”

©1998 Brenda and Larry Clough Last modified 30 October 1998