Sunday, November 28, 2010

Mid Life Crisis

Fenn and Fexx had planned well for their retirement.

This was when the trees were still so tall that the sky could only be seen as snatches of brilliant blue in a dark canopy of leaves. This was when the forest was vast and full of unknowable dangers, when people only went abroad in the woods in the company of other people.

Fenn, a small, intense woman whose age was reflected only in a wisp of white hair at each temple, and Fexx, a craggy-faced man in whom the lack of hair was more than balanced by an ample waist, had worked hard for many years. In a clearing in the dark tall trees they had built a Hogan with many rooms, and had goods stored in these rooms enough to trade for food and clothing for many years. Around their Hogan were the hogans of their children, grown and married, and those hogans beginning to fill with grand-children. The hogans of their friends and neighbours were nearby: a busy little village amid the tall mysterious trees.

All their lives the couple had said: “When our children are grown and married, we will live lives of idleness and want for nothing.” But it was days and weeks and year after year of preparation, labour and trade. The children would labour beside them, travel with them and watch them haggle with tradesmen from other villages. Gradually their worth increased and gradually they achieved their goal. Their children honoured their parents for their hard work, and for raising them in health and security, and for finding honourable trades in which to train them.

Now, their children having grown to maturity and married., Fenn and Fexx discovered that their business affairs could be run by younger folk and they decided to take their well-deserved ease.

So it was: they would waken every morning and dine, and drink fresh clean water from the spring that ran nearby, and they would sit in the sun and play with their grandchildren and teach them songs and games. And the grandchildren would bring them crafts they had made so that the grandparents could admire such skills as they thought were thus displayed.

But after some years Fexx, the man, sitting in the morning sun said to Fenn, the woman: “I am dissatisfied. A life of indolence seemed good when all we had was toil, but it seems less desirable when one actually has nothing else to which to look forward.”

“I do not see it that way,” sniffed Fenn. “I am quite satisfied to dandle babies and teach songs to toddlers. I am every day advising children as to the best materials for making crafts and tools. Perhaps you should teach your grandchildren the skills of old.”

“Leather-making is too dangerous for small ones to learn,” replied Fexx, shading his eyes against the morning sun. “And trading-up is too complex for young ones to grasp.” He blushed a little. “And I am not wise as some teachers, even as you are, who are born seeing things as they truly are. I have only the kind of wisdom that life teaches with a mallet on the head.”

“You need to do something that stretches you,” said Fenn, who was helping a little boy string shells on a braid of hanging moss. “Do something for other people, instead of just for yourself.”

“Hmmph! Your words have wisdom,” replied the man, “I will have to think about that,”. And he went into his Hogan, cool and thatched with long grass, and lay down on his mat to think. In the distance he could hear the village wise-woman singing a healing chant. Her drumming lulled him into drowsiness…The sun had passed the no-shadow mark when the man awoke.

“A shaman seems to provide people with health and security,” he said thoughtfully. “Perhaps I could become a shaman.”

“Becoming a shaman requires long training,” said Fenn with a knowing smile. “And I think it requires a lot of fasting.”

“Nonetheless,” said Fenn resolutely, “Fasting or no, I intend to ask the village shaman what needs to be done for me to become a shaman.”

The village shaman was skeptical.

“Boredom is not a good reason to enter the Unseen World,” she said. “You would be better off teaching young ones the ways of the forest.”

“I would like to try,” said Fexx. “I am not much of a teacher.”

“All the more reason to NOT be a shaman,” said the shaman with a sly grin. “However, I will get you started. Who knows on whom the Gift chooses to reside unless we try?”

She went to a leather bag that hung from the wall of her simple hut and drew out a bone flute, polished smooth from much use.

“You must make a bone flute like this one,” she said, caressing the smooth surface of the bone with her fingertips, “and you must fast for five days, drinking only water, and play songs on the flute, camped on the earthen mound in the next clearing to the west of us. If it is to be, you will be visited by the Gate-Keeper of the Unseen World.”

The People are respectful of the world around them, and have rituals for every time they take something from the woods. Fexx found a hunter, as Fexx was a craftsman and not accustomed to the hunt, and the two of them pronounced the blessings and apologies required for a successful hunt. They went into the deep dim woods and by and by they had taken a deer. After they said the thanksgiving rituals Fexx took the hide to cure it for the hunter and a tibia bone to make the flute. The hunter took the meat and the rest of the Things of Value that result from a good hunt.

Fexx was a fair craftsman and in a couple of weeks had carved a flute that could be played without shame. He took a skin of water and trekked alone to the next clearing to the west, where he assembled firewood enough for four nights of camping. After the first day, hunger began to be truly distracting, but Fexx played diligently on his bone flute. The nights were clear and cold, and Fexx could sometimes see green eyes in the dark, just outside the circle of light cast by his fire. Despite his fears, he sipped his water sparingly, played his bone flute, and waited. After four days of fasting and playing the flute on the earthen mound, Fexx suddenly noticed that the sky was darkening in the middle of the day, and that the grass around the mound seemed to be withering as it does in the fall. A great albino elk stalked majestically out of the forest, shaking its shaggy white mane as it walked slowly up to the earthen mound. The white elk shoved its broad pink muzzle very close to Fexx’s face.

“What is it you seek?” asked the elk, speaking in a deep baritone as clearly as any human. Its eyes were not the pink that one might expect in a true albino, but burned as if lit from within by flames.

“I – I – am not sure,” stammered Fexx, unnerved by the spectre. Fexx had not really expected to have success on the first try. “I want to help people.”

“The Unseen World is not a tool to be used for Good Works,” snorted the albino elk, flames leaping in the enormous eyes. “The shaman is equally a servant of the Not Seen, maintaining Balance. A skillful shaman MAY turn the Balance to the benefit of all, but not always.”

“What do you advise?” asked Fexx, falling into his tradesmen’s bargaining speech.

The albino elk reared and snorted angrily, clouds of steam billowing from its wide red nostrils.

“That is not how this is done!” it barked, sounding more like a real elk. “YOU make the decision, and the Balance decides whether you live or die in the process!”

The great albino elk wheeled on its hind legs and trotted back to the forest, letting out a huge fart of smoke as it passed into the trees. The sunlight returned to mid-day brilliance, and the grass once again became early-summer green.

Fexx sighed and picked up his water-skin. Through frugal use of the water there was enough to put out the embers of last night’s fire, which he did, and then he trudged back to his Hogan in the next clearing.

“Are you a shaman, yet?” asked Fenn, gravely. She was helping her grandson chip flint pieces into tiny but effective arrowheads.

“I had a vision,” said Fexx, uncertainly, “and it disturbed me greatly. I do not think the supernatural is where my skills lie.”

“Then you have acquired knowledge you did not have before,” smiled Fenn, somewhat relieved by her husband’s choice. “And you have lost some of the doughy tummy in the process.” She poked him gently in his midriff.

“I have also acquired a fondness for playing the bone flute,” replied Fexx thoughtfully, gazing at the flute in his hand. “Perhaps I could become a musician.”

“Musicians must study for a long time,” sighed Fenn tolerantly. “I do not think five days of tootling qualifies one for accompanying our singers….” She absent-mindedly scooped up the finished arrowheads and handed them to the boy.

“Nevertheless,” replied Fexx resolutely, “the door stands open to my new career and I intend to walk through it.”

The next morning Fexx went to the Hogan of the Teacher of Songs.

“I have discovered a fondness for playing the bone flute,” said Fexx. “Is it possible that one might become a musician this late in life?”

“Many musicians begin in such a way,” nodded the Teacher of Songs. “I warn you, though, that becoming proficient on the flute is not the same as being a musician. One must also be willing to be available to attend the singers whenever they are required to perform. And one must continually practice to keep up one’s skill.”

“I would like to try,” said Fexx, less uncertain about this than he had been about becoming a shaman.

Fexx found that studying the flute was both daunting and pleasurable. It seemed that he might have always had the talent but never had the opportunity to learn, with his life of craft and trade and busyness. He became quite good on the flute, and he enjoyed it so much that he carved bone flutes for the three of his grandchildren who would sit at his feet while he practiced his scales and runs.

“Perhaps if I had had such an opportunity as a youth,” he explained to Fenn in response to her raised eyebrow, “I might have been able to soften our life of toil with some merry tunes.”

“I am content with our past the way I remember it,” chuckled Fenn, who was not a fan of the flute. “There is much to be said for thoughtful silence.”

The time came when the Teacher of Songs declared that Fexx was ready to accompany the Singers. That night, around the communal fire, Fexx took his place with the drummers and strummers, and the Singers of the Songs of the People. From the first notes, Fexx felt born away on a wind of wonder, his notes shrill against the starry sky or soft upon the dance-hardened earth, the harmonies of instrument and voice blending and separating as the Singers told the stories that bound the People to each other and to the World.

In the morning, though, when the sun slanted through the doorway into his blood-shot eyes, it occurred to Fexx that being a musician required a commitment not only to the art and to the Singers, but also to late nights and early mornings. Still, the wonder of that first performance stayed with him, quickening both his pulse and his step, and he continued to perform with the Singers. The morning after each performance, though, Fexx arose later and later and with greater difficulty until one day he said to Fenn: “It is enough. If I keep up these late nights, I will die. Perhaps if I were a younger man I could continue, but it is enough.”

“Then you have acquired knowledge you did not have before,” smiled Fenn, more than a little relieved by her husband’s choice. “And you have encouraged your grandchildren to explore talents they might otherwise have neglected.”

It was true. The three grandchildren had formed a little performing group of their own, although their music was peculiar to the ears of the elder folk.

For the next little while Fexx took pleasure in playing the bone flute for his own amusement and to accompany his grandchildren. He slept in the morning sun and chatted with his children when they came to visit, until he felt quite recovered from his foray into the world of music and dance. One day, he went to the cool cellar where they kept the ale and found that he and his family had already consumed the small supply. He took some trade goods and two of his sons on the three-day voyage to the next village where there was a brewer of ale.

The brewer was skilful not only at making ale, but also at haggling, and Fexx paid rather more than he intended for the three barrels of ale that they then loaded onto travois behind their mules. He thought long and hard about the bargaining as they made their return journey, and when they had arrived home and had carefully placed the barrels on their stands in the cool cellar, Fexx said thoughtfully to Fenn, who was knitting booties for the latest grandchild:

“I believe I will apprentice myself to the brewer.”

“Oh now REALLY!” said Fenn crossly, glaring at Fexx over her needles. “It is one thing to try a few things in the village, but apprenticing is a LO-O-O-ONG process and you are a man who should be enjoying the well-earned leisure of his autumn years.” She flicked a piece of yarn scornfully, sending the ball bouncing across the earthen floor of the Hogan.

“It does not seem to require much skill,” smiled Fexx. “Just barrels and mash and time. Perhaps I will just make a trip back to the other village and see whether the brewer will brag to me.”

Fexx, though not particularly wise, had found over the years that craftsmen would often brag about their skill over a tankard of ale. In this way Fexx had learned many a small thing that had let him add to his fortune.

This time, Fexx took some trade goods and one of his older grandsons and made the three-day journey to the village of the brewer. He made a gift to the brewer of some pottery vessels he had acquired from the coastal people who have talent at that craft, and the brewer agreeably set out two tankards of ale. After a few samplings of his own product the brewer agreed to take Fexx on a tour of the brewery. It was more primitive than Fexx had expected, but simple and clean. When Fexx complimented the brewer on the tidiness of the long cool hut with its rows of barrels and clay pots, the brewer swelled with pride.

“Cleanliness is the secret to good brewing,” he said, eyes shining with the joy of his profession. “You want only the good yeast growing in your mash, to keep it sweet and not smelly like skunk-soup.”

Unexpectedly, the grandson, who had been trailing silently behind the two convivial men, spoke up.

“This ale, in the maple barrels, is it sweeter tasting because you baked the barrels over coals before filling them with mash?”

The brewer was astounded, and aghast.

“Have you brought a spy to learn my secrets??” he cried.

“Is he correct?” asked Fexx mildly.

“Yes, but-but how??” spluttered the brewer.

“I have been tasting from your mugs as we went along,” replied the youth, somewhat blurrily. “And I was comparing the taste with the wood in the barrel. The birch barrels made the ale sort of bitter…”

“Ale is not for boys of ten winters,” frowned the brewer, bending to peer more closely at the boy..

“I have thirteen winters,” replied the boy proudly. “I will soon be a man.”

“Old enough to apprentice!” said the brewer smiling at the boy with greater interest. “Would you like to live here and learn my trade? ”

“I would!” replied the boy , astonished.

Fexx was equally astonished, and somewhat offended. A master does not bargain directly with the apprentice….and then he remembered that he, Fexx, had thought to apprentice with this brewer. Ah, well, one mustn’t stand in the way of true talent.

“I will pay you nothing, and I will treat you like a slave,” said the brewer, eyes twinkling.

“That’s as it should be,” grinned the boy in return. “And I shall sleep in and speak insolently when chastised.”

“I like this one,” chuckled the brewer, holding his quaking abdomen. ‘We shall get on well, I think.”

“The boy must return to our village for his manhood ritual,” interjected Fexx. “We will return in three weeks with his belongings.”

“Make it four,” said the brewer. “I was unprepared for the appearance of an apprentice, and must create a disgusting hovel in which he will dwell while under my authority.”

By this time the three were exiting the brew-house and had come abreast of the tidy sweet-smelling barn where the goats were housed.

“I can always sleep among the goats,” sighed the boy dramatically.

Fenn was stringing a deer hide for stretching when Fexx and the boy returned. The boy ran to Fenn for a hug and set to pinning the hide on the stretching frame. Fenn dispensed a hug to Fexx, removing the wooden hide pins from her mouth to accept a kiss.

“So,” she teased gently, “Are you a brewer yet?”

“No,” laughed Fexx, “but young Stenn has an offer to apprentice with the brewer! Imagine!”

“And he having yet to finish the Transition Ritual!” replied Fenn, pride creeping into her voice as she gazed at the children. “Oh MY!” she gasped suddenly, pulling away from the embrace. “Exactly WHEN is Stenn to begin his apprentice-ship?? We have to plan his Transition Ritual!!

“We are to return in four weeks,” said Fexx, somewhat bewildered by his wife’s abrupt transition from pride to anxiety.

“Four WEEKS??” cried Fenn, now sliding over from anxiety into anger. “Four WEEKS??!”

Fenn rushed from the Hogan and began shrieking for her daughters. In moments excited and exasperated voices began to fill the quiet of their forest glen. Stenn stood forgotten by the stretching frame with his jaw sagging. It had just occurred to him that HE was the author of this turmoil in the family. It was rather exhilarating….

Fexx was remorseful that his thoughtlessness had caused grief to his wife, although he could tell she reveled in the planning of the Transition Ritual. As a salve to his own conscience, he rounded up the three flute players.

“A tune,” said Fexx to his three talented grandchildren. “We need to come up with an original composition for Stenn’s Transition Ritual.”

So it was, while Fenn and her daughters acquired the appropriate food-stuffs and decorations, Fexx and his three grandchildren composed and rehearsed and developed a complicated tune, sad and merry by turns, to celebrate the Transition Ritual of young Stenn.

There are People across the face of the globe for whom the rituals of transition into adulthood involve pain, mutilations, isolation from family. The River People of the deep wood, however, are of the opinion that life has enough of misfortune that a teenager who has earned the right of the Ritual of Transition need not be subjected to such indignities. Instead, the young person is subjected to OTHER indignities, to demonstrate the candidate’s maturity and independence. For example, the candidate cooks a dish which the candidate must then serve to the elder adults as part of the festive meal. The candidate must prepare and deliver a speech about what lies ahead in life. The candidate must endure many, many stories about his or her childhood, told by teasing aunts and uncles. Many such candidates have confided that ritual mutilation might have been preferable to this last test of maturity.

The Rituals of Transition are mostly celebratory, with dancing and songs and the traditional Stories That Bind the People to the land and to each other. By the time the moon was high over the campfire, most folk were stuffed, wrung dry of song and sore of limb and foot. It was the ideal moment for Fexx and his trio to step forward and present their gift to young Stenn and his proud parents. The bone flute is not particularly well suited to unaccompanied harmonies, but the three young people had been busy experimenting, and with their grandfather had produced a piece that from the beginning caught the imagination of the assembled families. Those who heard the piece for the first time found themselves transported to the time when they, fearful and elated, stepped away from the hogans of their own families to seek their own special destinies. They caught a tentative, strengthening melody that recurred artfully throughout the piece until it dominated, only to fade away at the end of the piece, providing both promise and closure.

“It is Stenn!” cried his mother in agony and delight.

“It is me!” cried each of the uncles, tears running down their faces.

Stenn stood before the flickering firelight, his face white from a tangle of emotion, erect and proud in the recognition that he had passed from childhood into whatever followed. Suddenly, Stenn was pointing as a child would point into the shadows beyond the firelight. A peculiar bent figure in a long hooded robe was limping into the circle of family and friends.

“Forgive my intrusion into your celebrations,” it said in a voice that, while soft and almost feminine, nonetheless rang with echoes of far-off thunder. “I was passing by along the main trail when I heard that last piece of music….”

The figure turned to Fexx and his trio.

“A wonderful piece, full of love and wishes of good fortune!”

Fexx smiled in acknowledgement. His grandchildren shyly stepped back behind their grandfather.

“I have a problem, though,” continued the weirdly sonorous voice. “Your song has a certain magic to it….it disturbs the Balance. It is as though you have given me a gift that I must somehow repay.”

“Nothing of the sort,” protested Fexx, who had suddenly recognized the peddler. “If we have given you a gift, please consider it the hospitality of this special occasion.”

“I would like that very much,” replied the peddler, standing somewhat more erect. “But it doesn’t work that way. The Balance is disturbed in a certain way and must be restored.”

The peddler reached into its sleeve and drew out three gold coins. Stenn thought for minute that they were for him but the peddler turned its back on the fire.

“If you will allow me,” it said in an abstracted tone of voice, “after this you will be able to perform that piece as often as you wish.”

It cupped the coins in both claw-like hands and bowed its head as if saying a blessing. To the watchers around the festive fire it seemed as though the light of the moon flowed down out of the sky and into the peddler’s hands. Fexx thought that light might be flowing from the coins up to the moon, but, no, that would be silly.

The peddler drew its hands apart and the gold coins had become a sort of spider web of shining golden light. The peddler began twisting the gold filaments with its weird clawed fingers until the spider web was as wide as the peddler was tall. Then it threw the web high into the air where it expanded even more, shining and scintillating in the moonlight. Stenn thought at the time that this light show might be enough of a repayment to restore the Balance, but in later years this image came back to him whenever he entered this clearing. Spinning and shining, the web drifted to earth, covering a spot just to the west of the fire-pit, where there were no trees. In fact, there was little of anything growing on that particular spot of flattened earth. The golden web sat gleaming on the earth for a few seconds and then sank into the earth itself, leaving no evidence that anything had happened..

“How wonderful!” began Stenn, turning to thank the peddler. The peddler was gone.

In the days that followed, during which Stenn performed the remaining rituals of cleaning up after his party and packing his belongings for travel, the family recounted over and over the fabulous and unbelievable events of the night of the party. Some of the children even tried to dig down though the packed earth where the gold web had sunk in, to no avail. There was nothing there but dirt.

So Stenn went off to his apprenticeship. His father and uncles accompanied him, as was the way of their People, with trade goods on their mules so as to return from the trip with ale to replenish what the party had depleted. There were rituals for his father and uncles to perform on the return trip, the Rituals of Transition having been rather compacted together by circumstance.

On the day that Stenn’s father and uncles were due to return, Fexx arose earlier than usual and went for a walk in the morning mist. The summer had passed into early fall and the time of harvest was nearly upon the family. Fexx had found that the turmoil of the enormous family was more tiring than he remembered, and these walks through the quiet wood were a good way to calm and focus the mind.

“Even when one has no real agenda for the day,” Fexx had remarked to Fenn (“speak for yourself!” Fenn had retorted) , “a bit of meditation helps to accomplish what little needs doing.” Fenn snorted and continued weaving the rug she had been working on for the winter season.

It was a fine day for a walk: just chilly enough to guarantee that the walker would not work up a sweat, but sunlit and bright to gladden the heart. Geese flew overhead on their way south. Siskins and chickadees chipped and chirred in the undergrowth. Some lazy wasps blundered among the late thistle blossoms. Fexx found a solid branch that would carve nicely into a walking stick. High overhead, a squirrel greeted the day with a long complaining chatter. When his stomach began to growl, Fexx bent his path once again toward the cluster of hogans that housed his burgeoning brood.

Approaching from the South, where a deer path exited the woods into the clearing, Fexx passed over the flattened earth on which the glowing web had come to rest. Fexx breathed an exclamation of surprise! A dozen sturdy saplings had grown up in a circle around the expanse. All oaks, thought Fexx. The squirrels had been busy burying their acorns. He stopped to have a closer look, and grasping one of the saplings by the trunk close to the ground gave an experimental tug. Solid! He braced both feet and heaved with all his might. The sapling could not be budged. The other saplings were just as deeply rooted and, while not identical, were all of similar diameter and height.

Fexx paced off the distances between the saplings that were across from each other on the enclosed earth. One could easily fit three large hogans in the circle.

“It is most peculiar,” said Fexx to Fenn. “Nothing has grown there since I can remember, and now there are a dozen oak saplings growing just where the peddler made the golden web.”

“There is also a mature oak tree not ten paces to the south of the formerly bare patch,” replied Fenn with a small smile, “and it has been a very good year for acorns. Perhaps it is less peculiar than you think.”

“You are often correct and practical when I am fanciful,” laughed Fexx, swooping his mildly protesting wife up in a solid embrace. “But I think this time my thoughts are not without merit.”

“Oaks grow slowly,” said Fenn, kissing him fondly. “It will be years before we can test your theory.”

The following winter was not so much hard as memorable. The snow was deep, deeper than the height of a young sapling. The air was crisp and cold, with day after bright sunlit day so that the snow acquired a thick crust firm enough for children to walk on in their beaded elk-skin boots. One day out of five the sky turned grey with snow clouds and in the morning the sun would rise on a hand’s-breadth of new snow. The livestock made trails between their barns and the watering place that by the secondmonth after the solstice were actual canyons in the snow, the banks high enough that from a distance the sheep were completely invisible and the mules appeared as disembodied horse heads floating about the snow.

In their hogans, the People were dry and warm. The village was a warren of trails through the mounting snow-banks, well-worn from frequent visits back and forth. The children dug tunnels into the banks and reinforced the walls with ice made by burning oil lamps inside the cavities in the snow. There was food in plenty, due to diligence and abundance at harvest time. Even so, the hunters went out every two weeks or so to return with rabbits or the occasional deer. The snow crust would not support adults without snow-shoes, though, so as the snow got deeper, their forays became less frequent.

Once a week the People would gather in the hogan of one or another of the larger families for the ritual Singing of the Songs that Bind. It was a good excuse to make special foods to share, and to dance and laugh over old stories. It was a good time for apprentice singers and musicians to try their hand at the traditional music, or to test out new compositions. Fexx and his grandchildren became adept at adapting their accompaniments to the techniques of the various artists, even the apprentice drummers. The collective experience of the deep snow seemed to deepen their talent and broaden their interpretation of the traditional Songs. And so the People sang and danced and laughed the winter away, so that when the Spring came and the robins could be heard singing in the snowbound trees there was a certain wistfulness in the knowledge that the People would soon be released into the greening woods and pastures.

As it turned out, the snows began to dwindle from the sunny days just about the time the People had eaten as many sheep as they could afford to lose and were dipping into their resources of dried beans and elk-jerky. There were a few days when melt water was running freely through the hogans, which made for a miserable and cranky time when the food and other resources had to be hurriedly slung from the ribs of the hogans to keep them off the sopping-wet floors. Then the waters found other channels (the family hogans having been purposely built on a small hill for drainage) and the People began to rejoice in the impending Spring. The early-blooming bushes were still surrounded by small snow banks when the children made the discovery in the circle of the Golden Web.

“Look! Look!” they cried with astonishment. “See how the trees have grown!”

The People ran to the clearing of the Golden Web.

“By the Songs!” said Fenn in amazement. “The saplings have grown two man-heights over the winter! Whoever heard of such a thing?”

“And look here,” replied Fexx, wandering among the trees in the circle of the Golden Web. “All the branches are on the OUTSIDE of the circle. On the inside, the trunks are bare!”

All the village came to marvel at the circle of oaks, the limbless trunks facing each other like the pillars of a temple. Week by week, the oaks grew taller, much faster than an oak should grow. Fexx was smug: for once his fanciful thought had proven to be right!

Week by week the oaks in the circle grew tall and sturdy, the branches on the outside of the circle full of green foliage and brilliant with songbirds. As is often the case with asymmetrical trees, the oaks of the circle began to lean toward the side without the branches. They do this for two reasons: they hope to get more light for their leaves, and they need to balance the weight of the leafy branches on the fruitful side so as not to fall down. It was a natural thing for trees to do, and yet it was eerie, with a dozen nearly identical trees doing exactly the same thing. People from other villages began coming to look at the Circle of the Golden Web and its twelve sentinel trees. Fexx and Fenn had the largest hogan close to the trees, so travelers would often stop and share food and drink with them. Sometimes the guests would leave gifts for their hosts: trade goods and food, sometimes small magical tokens.

By autumn, Fenn remarked to Fexx:

“We have accumulated a LOT of gifts from our visitors. This has been a most unusual summer!”

“It will not last, I think,” replied Fexx, absently. “I walked out to the Circle of the Golden Webb this morning and I noticed that each of the trees of the Circle has sprouted branches at three to four man-heights about the ground. By Spring I expect that they will be just a circle of ordinary oaks.”

“I wonder,” said Fenn thoughtfully. “There are no forest floor plants growing in the circle, nor other saplings sprouting from the packed earth. It is very odd….”

Just before the first snow of the twelfth month (there being thirteen months in a year of the People) Stenn and his master came to visit the village. The family ran to greet their brother, now fourteen years old, and tall with muscles from chopping endless piles of wood, fetching endless pails of water and wrestling barrel after sloshing barrel of ale onto their trestles. On travois behind two mules the master and apprentice brought two barrels of dark ale. The families came running from their various chores to greet the returning Stenn and his master. There was much hand-clasping and slapping of backs, and much curiosity over the contents of the barrels.

“It’s too early for a journeyman’s project,” said the brewer proudly, “but it’s promising start. Stenn is a fast learner and a hard worker.”

While the apprentice Stenn was being squeezed and teased by friends and family, Fexx and the brewer went to see the Circle of the Golden Web and its unusual oaks. The two men stood in the middle of the circle, surrounded by sturdy trees.

“Have you noticed,” asked the brewer, straining his eyes upward in the gloom cast by the leafy branches overhead, “that the branches on the inside of the circle seem to weave together like the roof of a hogan?”

“I had not until this moment,” replied Fexx. “Perhaps that is why nothing grows inside the circle: no rain, no sunshine. It is like a thatched roof.”

“Have you also noticed that these trees are thicker around than the tree outside the circle, but that tree is taller?”

“I noticed that,” frowned Fexx, running through his memory for possible explanations. “The outsider tree is most likely the parent of all of these, since there is quite a distance to the forest edge, so it SHOULD be taller, but that the off-spring should be thicker through the trunk is, well, odd….” He squinted at the lone oak in the clearing. “Have you noticed that the parent oak is ALSO growing at a slant, like the oaks in the Circle? Odd…”

The community all sampled the apprentice’s first brewing and pronounced it acceptable, and after a week the he and brewer returned to the brewer’s village, laden with gifts and good wishes. Fall came with a good harvest and Winter came with a milder season than the previous year. In the early Spring the People noticed that the Circle of the Golden Web was now a dense copse of oak, still void of underbrush in the middle and now densely thatched overhead with the interweaving of the overhanging branches. The trunks were now so thick that a person could scarcely squeeze between them except for a broad gap to the west and a smaller gap to the east..

Fenn and Fexx took a walk out to see this marvel.

“You know….,” began Fenn tentatively staring up into the dark vault above them, “a person could build almost anything inside this circle of trees and never worry about rain, or wind.”

“True,” agreed Fexx, not knowing where this was going.

“And there has been MUCH more traffic through the deep forest in the past two years than that to which we have traditionally been accustomed,” continued Fenn.

“Also true.”

“And one could hang doors on that gap to make a front entrance, and on THAT gap to make a service entrance….”

“This is a very large space for a home,” protested Fexx, becoming alarmed at the direction the conversation seemed to be taking.

“Silly!” laughed his wife, pushing him affectionately. “Aren’t you always saying that this life of indolence is not to your liking? We could put a way-station here.”

“A hospitality hogan?”

“YES!” she crowed in delight, twirling under the leafy dome. “For travelers through the deep wood. We could even sling logs from the lower clefts of these trees…see, there are no branches but the trunks divide just right, there,” she pointed, “there and there. And we could use the beams to put in a second floor for rooms for guests.”

“Like a tree house?”

“Yes! And we could put a kitchen out back to the east and bring in the meals through the service door…..”

Construction began almost immediately, but there were many other things that needed attention. When harvest was finished there were items that needed to be acquired from the forest before the snows came. Everyone remembered the previous winter, with the snow banked deeper than the height of a child.

Much to his own surprise, Fexx was not horrified by the impending expense of fulfilling his wife’s project. He had a dream of his own.

“We could brew our own ale to serve to travelers….” he murmured dreamily. “We do have family in the business.”

“When his apprenticeship is finished, one would have to ask Stenn whether this is where he wants to ply his trade,” retorted Fenn rather tartly, “here in the village of his youth.”

Stenn chose that moment to poke his head in through the widest gap in the trees of Circle of the Golden Web.

“Ask Stenn what, honoured grandmother?” he asked, most respectfully.

“How are you come to us at just the right moment?” cried Fenn embracing her tall grandson with joy. "Have you finished your apprenticeship?”

“No, grandmother, only visiting,” chuckled Stenn, accepting an affectionate hug from Fexx as well. “My master is delivering a very large order to the Three Valley Gap, and we are hiring a wagon to take the barrels on the new broad trail.” He paused to gaze around at the construction. “What did you want to ask me?”

“Would you like to brew ale for this hospitality hogan here in the village?” asked Fenn, eyes sparkling with enthusiasm. She spread her arms and turned slowly under the dark dome of the overhead branches.

“A Hospitality Hogan? In this circle of oaks?” replied Stenn thoughtfully. “It’s a good location….three trails cross here. My master has told me also that the presence of a brewer increases traffic to a village.” Stenn was silent for a minute, frowning in thought. Fenn had to remind herself that the boy was not yet fifteen. The apprenticeship had matured him.

“I shall want a share of the business,” replied Stenn at last, “in addition to payment for the ale.”

Fexx laughed aloud with delight.

“And here I thought the young ones would not understand the fine points of trade!”

"See?" teased his wife, "you have acquired knowledge you did not have before!"

The master brewer and his apprentice took their leave and continued on the the Three Valley Gap. Before they left, though, the brewer helped Stenn to hammer out a contract with his grandparents that was of benefit to all parties. He also helped them to set out plans for the many smaller hogans needed for brewing, and where to situate them so the guests would not be assaulted by the smells of fermentation. In the process, the brewer extracted from them another contract to regularly purchase barrels of his own product over the next several years.

“People may want some variety in their beverages,” said the brewer with a small smile. “Stenn is very talented, but the fruit my experience may prove to be to the liking of many of your guests.”

And so the circle of oak trees became a focus of to-ing and fro-ing of family and friends, bringing in tall straight jack-pine trunks to sling as beams, and straight-grained fir trunks to split into planks, of fibres of all kinds to weave into fabric, and twist into ropes. Older grandchildren were put to work carving wooden dowels to secure planks to beams.

The family shepherd made note to try for two seasons of breeding (very tricky in a place where winter comes so soon) to meet the increased demand for mutton.

Fenn was in her glory. Though she had not professed a need for activity in her retirement, this project seemed to have restored her youth. She was everywhere, smiling, cajoling, ordering (!) and praising the workers as each stage of the design was completed.

Fexx, on the other hand, by the passing of the Solstice was having second thoughts, The depletion of the treasure in his storage hogans was becoming significant. If the Hospitality Hogan did not show an immediate profit, his old age was looking to be meager and grim indeed.

Well into the Second Month, the second floor had been secured into the clefts of the trees of the Circle of the Golden Web. Planking had been laid down over the beams for the floor and the family had begun making partitions for the rooms. The hogans of the River People tended to be undivided so that all slept in one space, but they knew that travelers might not want to share their lives with other strangers. There was an impressive staircase of half-split logs, planed and polished so that climbers would not get splinters, with a railing made of twisted bark-rope slung from the vertical posts. As yet there were no sleeping mats and no tables in the main hall for eating or drinking, but they had gone a long way in a short time from a circle of trees to an almost-completed Hospitality Hogan.

Fexx looked upon what his wealth had wrought and felt the burnings of anxiety tickling the back of his brain.

On a foggy night, with wet snow covering the village and forest, Fexx awoke to the sound of frantic voices. At first he thought that sleep was fogging his brain, because he could not make out any meaning in the shouted words. Then he realized that they were shouting in a language he did not understand. He threw a quilt around his shoulders and stepped out into the clinging cold.

There were five men standing in the circle of hogans that housed the extended family. Well, not standing, exactly, as one of them was badly injured and was being supported by another man, clearly exhausted. The other three men were panting, winded, doubled over trying to get their breath.

“Do you know the speech of the River People?” shouted Fexx, as he picked his way hurriedly through the sticky snow underfoot. He was wishing that he had taken the time to put on mukluks before coming out.

“I do,” replied the wounded man. His voice was very faint.

“Hakka! Moon! Come quickly!” called Fexx to his younger sons. Two men in their forties came running from their hogans, having remembered their cloaks and mukluks, wives rushing behind with long hair streaming.

“Wolves,” gasped the wounded man. “Dire wolves in the forest. We only escaped because they took our mules.”

“Looks like they nearly got YOU,” said Hakka, sliding his shoulder under the arm of the wounded man. “Come with us.”

“Take them to the Circle,” said Fexx, teeth chattering from his cold bare feet.

“Good idea,” said Moon. “The doors will keep out anything that might harm the wounded.”

“Wolves!” insisted the wounded man. He reached out with a reluctant hand and gingerly raised the leg of his breeches to show a terrifying gash in his calf. There were obvious teeth marks on his shin.

“Wolves,” agreed the exhausted man who had been carrying the wounded man. He was tall and white-skinned, with white hair, and he spoke with a bizarre nasal twang. Fexx had dealt with these people in his travels. They were Sea People, often unprincipled, ocean-going pirates who drove a hard bargain and then took what they wanted anyway. But this fellow had stayed with his companion, who from his dreadlocks was apparently of the Coastal People. Not the behaviour Fexx had come to expect from Sea People.

“You speak our language, too?” chattered Fexx, now shivering uncontrollably.

“Just a few words,” replied the Sea man with a shy smile. He put out a hand. “Trex,” he said by way of introduction.

Fexx was momentarily confused, then remembered the Sea People greeted one another with the Warrior’s Grip. He took the proffered hand firmly.

“Fexx,” he replied, remembering to make eye contact. Trex had green eyes. It was disconcerting….

They carried the wounded man to the nearly-completed hogan in the Circle of the Golden Web. Fexx , his feet now blue with cold nevertheless went with them. Fenn, having been awakened by the shouting, came running with mukluks and socks for Fexx.

“Silly man!” she chided, obviously worried by both the sudden appearance of the strangers and by the conduct of her husband. “What use to me will you be if you die of the lung sickness?”

The other three men had recovered their breath and were helping as much as they could, conversing among themselves in their own language. The three were wearing identical breeches and tunics of soft dark-brown leather, with leather boots up to the knee. One of the three had some sort of medallion sewn into the left breast of his tunic. They all carried long knives in sheaths at their belt. Blood was dripping from the knife sheath of the man bearing the medallion.

“Who are they?” asked Fexx, when he and Trex had a moment to pause.

Trex winced, obviously embarrassed.

“S-soldiers,” he said, stammering a little with the River People speech. “Law-Giver.”

Fexx felt a chill, even in his less than cozy state. The Law Giver had up to now been a far-away rumour. The Peoples had for many generations governed themselves by tradition and consent. Each village had its own council, and such decisions as seemed to work better than others gradually made their way across the Wild, village to village, until new traditions were born. The Law Giver, with his armies, wanted to make the decisions permanent, written down, the same for the Coastal people as for the Plains People. He called it Justice. Fexx had seen this Justice in practice. There was little room for compassion. Still, Fexx had seen, in places where the different traditions of Clans where in conflict, council decisions that were hasty and later to be regretted. A Law for all would change some of that.

The commotion was attracting a crowd. Fenn had sent to the village for the healer, and she had brought some Singers with her. Their families were naturally curious…but now the curious people were getting in the way.

“You,” Fenn pointed to one of her older grandsons loitering near the small door. “Fetch some ale and pemmican for the travelers. And you,” she pointed to two sturdy grand-daughters, “you bring some firewood.” Fenn turned a commanding eye on her son Hakka. “Is the fireplace safe to use?”

“Yes, mother,” smiled Hakka. “It was made without mortar, so we can fire it up any time.”

As often happened with family projects, Fexx quickly found himself without anything to do, so he sat beside the crackling fire talking with the wounded man. The man’s name was Creek. He was of the Coastal People, but he had broken one of their traditions and had escaped the decision of the clan council by going to sea with the family of Trex.

Trex, son of Taras, it turned out, was the youngest of nine children, therefore unlikely to inherit more than a tenth share in the family ship and the spoils of their piracy. Trex had convinced Creek to become his crew on a small, very fast sloop. They were smuggling certain items of value past the Law Giver’s tax men and making a tidy profit.

“Until we got caught,” said Creek ruefully, grimacing as he shifted his bandaged leg. He paused briefly to gaze at the crackling fire and rubbed his hands appreciatively in the warmth. “These soldiers were taking us to the Three Valley Gap to meet with the main battle group.”

“Battle group??! With whom were they doing battle?!” In Fifty years of travelling the Three Valleys and beyond, Fexx had never seen a conflict that required a full battle group.

“None yet,” chuckled Creek, still trying to find a comfortable position. “East of the plains there are People who don’t wish to have their traditions, um, ‘improved’ by a set of written-down Laws. The Law Giver has been visiting them with soldiers to show that his way deserves a fair try.”

“We do things a little differently here,” smiled Fexx. “If we don’t like the way things are going, we just melt away into the deep, dark mysterious woods and start up again. And,” he noted with a snort, “we take our traditions with us!”

“Coastal People, as you may have noticed, “ rejoined Creek with a grin, “are different again. We agree to almost anything, then we do what we would have done anyway! We’ll even put together a system of courts like the Law Giver commands; they just won’t ever see any trials….”

“Apparently YOU will see a trial,” said Fexx gently.

“Well, I am not innocent of the charges,” replied Creek rubbing his head ruefully. “Also, we have committed another crime in the eyes of Taras, father of Trex: We got caught!”

Chuckling, Fexx rose to attend to the other “guests”. Creek reached out to catch the corner of the blanket Fexx was wearing as a cloak.

“These soldiers are good folk,” said Creek earnestly. “The blood dripping from that fellow’s knife sheath is from the wolf that bit me. He saved me. Stabbed the wolf until it let go.”

Fexx left the prisoner warming himself beside the fire and went to speak to the medallioned soldier.

“Wolves?” said Fexx doubtfully.

“Big wolves!” replied the soldier in broken People speech. “No BIG wolves, here, me think.”

“You think right!” replied Fexx in Trade Tongue, a sort of baby-talk version of People Speech. “No big wolves, many many years. You get bite?” Fexx pointed to blood on the soldier’s sleeve.

“No,” the soldier smiled rather shyly. He held up the bloodied sleeve. “Wolf-blood.”

Fexx pointed to the bandaged man by the fire.

“Creek is grateful,” he said.

“Not travel, five days,” sighed the soldier. “We stay?”

“You stay,” agreed Fexx. “You pay?”

“Two sovereigns , five days?” asked the soldier.

Fexx smiled. Bargaining in Trade Tongue. He had missed this.

Five days later, the soldiers and their captives left on the trail through the woods to the Three Valley Gap. A small cluster of farms there served as a gathering place for expeditions across the plains or into the mountains. There were resources there for them, not to mention the battle group with whom they were to rendezvous. In the mean-time, Fexx and Fenn had negotiated a fair price for their hospitality AND had sold the soldiers new mules and provisions. A fair profit and happy customers: the lifeblood of the tradesman.

“I was anxious about the Hospitality Hogan,” remarked Fexx as they watched their family put the finishing touches on the guest quarters.

“I never had any doubts,” said Fenn lightly, which by experience Fexx knew meant that she had simply ignored such doubts.

“Still, it shows the cleverness of my wife,” replied Fexx. “It is a good idea. More travelers will come. Our children will have another trade on which to rely for income. The Law Giver will hear of our hospitality. It is a good thing.”

“And perhaps you will cease to perplex me with ideas on how to occupy us during our retirement,” Fenn laughed. The delighted peal echoed off the walls of the Hospitality Hogan, and vanished into the leafy crown.

At that moment a foot-sore fellow carrying a huge backpack stumbled in through the newly hung front-doors.

“Is this an inn?” he gasped. “I badly need a place to rest. I was afraid to camp with all the wolves howling in the deep wood! I've been walking for almost a day and a night!”

“This is indeed an inn,” replied Fexx graciously. “May we serve you a mug of ale?”

“If I may drink it by your most excellent fire,” replied the man with obvious relief, “then certainly!”

In the morning, as the man was hoisting his pack to leave, he asked: “What is the name of this place?”

“We call it the Circle of the Golden Web,” replied Fexx.

“Hmmmm,” said the man, thinking out loud. “Too long….I’ll tell my friends to look out for the drunken oak in the clearing.”

And so it went. In another year, young Stenn had returned as a journeyman to set up the brewery for the Hospitality Hogan. His obligation to his master required that he spend part of the year back at the parent brewery, but he was able to bring quite a few batches of most excellent ale to maturity right there by his own village. The ale became as famous as the miraculous trees of which the inn was constructed, and the “Drunken Oak” in the clearing was as good an advertisement as they ever needed to identify their inn.

One sultry summer night Fexx was awakened by the moon shining in through the door of the small hogan that was now their home. Sleep would not come, no matter how he hid his head from the moonlight. Fexx arose and went out into the clearing, now surrounded by many, many hogans of his married children and married grandchildren. Torches burned outside the doors of the Hospitality Hogan, to show that late arrivals were welcome. In the grass at his feet, the earthworms were busily casting their mounds amid the grass blades, clearly visible in the bright moonlight.

Suddenly, from a gap in the trees across the clearing emerged an enormous albino elk, snorting flames and prancing sideways toward Fexx. The old man was rooted to the ground, and could only watch as the apparition swerved toward him, its white coat and mane gleaming like silver under the full moon. The great elk shoved its pink muzzle up to Fexx’s face, blowing steam from its nostrils.

“Well,” said the elk in the well-remembered baritone voice. “How do you like the peddler’s bargain?”

“B-b-b-bargain?” stammered Fexx, bewildered as well as fairly frightened. He had no idea these creatures would come when they hadn’t been summoned.

“The inn for your song,” explained the elk, flames dancing in the depths of its huge eyes. “Are you pleased? You get to help people, you make a profit, you keep busy in your retirement, your children’s children have a lasting legacy.” It puffed a rather scalding blast at Fexx, who wiped condensed water from his eyebrows.

“I-I am very pleased,” replied Fexx, stammering again, this time more from perplexity than from nervousness. “Why do you care?”

“The Balance is maintained,” bugled the elk, sounding more like a real elk. It turned abruptly, shook its long pale mane vigorously and pranced back into the forest.

“What’s all this noise?” Fenn was leaning sleepily against the door-post of their hogan.

“Oh,” replied Fexx, “ it’s just the Guardian of the Gate of the Unseen World.”

“Ah,” said Fenn, yawining. “I thought it might be customers.” She yawned again. “I’m going back to bed.”

“Sleep well my darling,” replied Fexx, kissing her cheek affectionately. “I think I’ll stay up for a while.”

Fexx smiled and gazed up at the moon. Far off in the deep wood, a single wolf howled.

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