The Awakeners (Awakeners Series #1 & #2)by Sheri S. Tepper
Come to the world of the River.
Come to a world distant in time and space, a world where the pace of life is counted by tides of the great River, but where, as in the river itself, there are swift dark currents flowing under a placid surface.
Meet Pamra Don--a young woman scarred by her mother's death, lured to a preist-hood where the truth must be hidden from… See more details below
Come to the world of the River.
Come to a world distant in time and space, a world where the pace of life is counted by tides of the great River, but where, as in the river itself, there are swift dark currents flowing under a placid surface.
Meet Pamra Don--a young woman scarred by her mother's death, lured to a preist-hood where the truth must be hidden from the faithful. And meet Thrasne, a young boatman who trades from town to town, free from the iron control of the towers of the Awakeners, and the priests of the world of the River--free, that is, as long as he never speaks his mind. These two, by design and accident both, are about to discover many truths. And on the Northshore of the River, the truth can kill you.
Read an Excerpt
There was no need for watchmen on the boats that plied the World River. Since everything moved at the same speed, pulled by the same invincible tides, there was little chance of collision; this no less on the barge Gift of Potipur than on any other boat. Thrasne, third assistant owner's-man, had appointed himself watchman nonetheless, borrowing the title from those who manned the gates between townships on Northshore.
Northshore with its Awakeners and frag powder merchants, its oracular Jarb Mendicants and blue-faced priests of Potipur, glittering with sacred mirrors. Northshore, with its processions of black Melancholics, flailing away at the citizens with their fishskin whips and given good metal coin to do it. Northshore, with its puncon orchards and frag groves and wide fields of white-podded pamet and blue-tasseled grain.
And Northshore's River edge, where lean forms of stalking Laughers, tight-helmed in black, announce their approach with cries of scornful laughter, ha-ha, ha-ha, making the heretics run for cover. Echoing the Laughers, stilt-lizards hoot through their horny lips, scattering the song-fish from around their reedlike legs only to snatch them up one by one to gulp them down headfirst. Ha-ha ha-ha.
Once in a while Thrasne would see the up-pointed finger of a Tower scratching at the sky, fliers gathered around it like flies around dead fish. Once in a greater while he would see the lonely knuckle of a Jarb House. And the River itself, some places smooth as a rain pond, other places full of rocks as a worker pit, everywhere dotted with blight-buoys and striped with jetties, as wide as half the world.
Township after township, town after town, with fences between to keep people from moving east and gates between to let people move west, the World River tugging the ships along on the endless tides, and all the panoply of life laid out for Thrasne's watching.
He knew watchmen were necessary on land to keep fool-hardy youths from sneaking between townships in the forbidden direction or greedy caravaners from rushing too quickly westward, clogging the orderly flow of commerce. He knew that on a boat a watchman could only watch, but that was what Thrasne did best. He wasn't bad at handling sails or sculling oars. He could make the fragwood deck gleam as well as any boatman. He could give orders and see they were carried out, which is what gained him the third assistant's post. And he could stow a cargo so that what was wanted next was always on top. These were necessary and useful talents, but he felt his talent for watching was better than these. Certainly it was more developed.
He had created a little cubby in the forewall of the owner-house, up top deck, where the ventilation shaft opened from the forward hold. Across this shaft he rigged a high grating of poles with a sack of loose pamet on top. When his round was done for the day he could sly up to top deck, wait until no one was looking, then hang himself by his fingertips from the owner-house roof with his toes on a handwide railing and shinny around into the cubby. No windows there; no owner's wife looking for anyone not occupied so she could find something unnecessary for them to do; only the sun-warmed boards of the owner-house wall vibrating to the ceaseless flow of the tides. Sometimes he'd stay until dark, and sometimes past that if there were things to see.
It was from the cubby he had first seen a flame-bird set fire to its nest, from the cubby he'd first seen a strangey, rising from the depths like some great green balloon, looking at him out of huge, wondering eyes from its fringes as it spit its bones at him.
It was from the cubby he had first seen a whole ship and its crew caught by blight, drifting ever farther into the unknown southern currents with wooden men standing at the rail as though they'd been carved there.
It was from the cubby he had watched the golden ship of the Progression gliding by on its seven-year journey, the doll-like figure of the Protector of Man held high on the arms of the personal guards.
It was from the cubby he had watched the crowds on shore, thousands of shouting townspeople and file on file of mirror-staffed Awakeners and gem-decked priests all shouting the Protector's name, "Obol, Obol, Obol."
It was from the cubby he had seen all there was to see for the four years he had been Blint's man, and it was from the cubby he now noticed the hard lines of jetties wavering over the River surface not far ahead, where no jetty was supposed to be.
According to the section chart-of-towns, there were no piers closer than Darkel-don, a good ten-day's tide yet, and just yesterday owner Blint had told them they could fish as they liked till then with no worries at all. Now, having seen what he'd seen, there was nothing to do but slither below and tell Blint of this, though it might put him to wondering how Thrasne had seen the piers. They wouldn't be visible from deck level for some time yet, and it wasn't Thrasne's shift to work the rudder deck at the high stern of the boat.
He reported the sighting in a quiet voice, hoping his very mildness and lack of excitement would throw Blint off the scent. Which it might well have done had not Blint-wife been standing near, overhearing him, going at once to peer over the rail.
"Jetties? There aren't any jetties! I can't see any jetties!"
"Well, boy?" demanded Blint.
Blint's eyes crinkled at the corners. "He saw them from above wife. I told him to be sure to check the owner-house roof was tight."
"Tight? Of course it's tight, Blint. It was rebuilt only a Conjunction ago. What do you mean, tight?"
Blint, who answered few of her questions, did not answer this one, "How close?" he murmured.
"Close enough, sir. We'd better get our nets out of the water or the fisherman caste of the place--assuming there is one, for why else have piers--they'll be heaving stones at us."
"We could move into deeper water."
"There was that bunch in Zebulee with the catapult."
"Ah. So there was. Well then, go tell the boys. Haul in and hide the evidence, tell them. No fishskins drying on the deck. No strangey bones lying about. I'll leave it in your good hands."
"Any chance of trade, you think?"
"Well, we'll have to see, won't we." Owner Blint strolled away, no whit disturbed, leaving it in Thrasne's good hands. If Thrasne hadn't been available, he'd have left it in firstman Birk's good hands, or secondman Thon's. Thrasne scrambled into action. At least the boatmen wouldn't argue with him. The memory of that catapult was too recent.
When they were hard at work getting the nets in--they'd have to be stowed wet, which would stink up the net locker--Thrasne went to the chart room to take another look at the Northshore section chart. They were passing Wilforn now. Nothing of interest listed on the section chart for Wilforn. Next place was Baris, and the section chart didn't say a word about Baris having jetties. Baris had pamet, art work, confections, puncon fruit--when the weather was right--and toys. The Baris Tower was listed as middling active, not fanatical, which meant the Awakeners weren't likely to search the Gift for any kind of contraband, books or such. And that's all Blint had written down six, seven years ago when he'd been by last. Thrasne made a mental note to hide his own books--if there were changes in one thing, there might be changes in others--and to add a description of the piers as soon as he'd had a good look at them. Probably some fisherman moving west had come to Baris and decided piers would be a good idea. Probably sold the local Tower on the idea and got a worker crew to build them. In which case, Thrasne snorted, spitting in habitual disgust, it was sheer luck they were still standing.
He returned to the deck in time to help empty the nets. Not much in the way of fish and two or three hard, clattering things bumping on the deck with an unmistakable wooden sound.
"Blight-fish!" one of the boatmen cursed. "I swear by the carrion birds of Abricor, it's too much. All we get lately's the blight."
"Come on, Swin, it's not that bad. We haven't really seen any of it since Vouye. Be careful!" Thrasne pulled him back. "You almost touched that one."
"It's hard. Probably blight's gone out of it. Almost."
"'Almost' gave the boatman a wooden leg."
The men snorted. An old jest, but a true one. What the blight touched, it turned to wood, slowly or quickly, and if it touched the boatman's hand he would have the choice of cutting the hand off--if he moved without hesitation--or becoming a life-size carving of himself.
Some said once the blight hardened completely it lost its power of contagion, but Thrasne had seen a man lose a foot kicking something that seemed very hard indeed. "Just push it over the side, Swin. Don't stand there looking at it, or you'll forget what you're looking at and pick it up."
Swin grunted and pushed the fish overboard with a boathook. The few remaining fish were free of blight, thrashing around on the deck making high-pitched squeals from their air bladders. The men began clubbing and cleaning them, tossing the gutted fish down where other crewmen waited with the salt kegs. Thrasne turned to stowing the nets. Blight meant extra care there, too. They would have to be lowered into the net locker without touching them and sprayed with a mixture of sulphur and powdered frag leaf. Only when they had steeped in this mixture for a day or two could the men safely handle them again. Now they were plying the long hooks in gingerly fashion, pushing the nets below, and Obers-rom was already mixing frag powder. A good man, Obers-rom. Never needed to be told anything twice.
Thrasne leaned over the rail to watch the blighted fish moving alongside, sinking very slowly as they went, still visible after long minutes had gone by. They floated right side up; they looked almost alive, only the lack of movement betraying that they were fish no more. Or perhaps fish of a different kind. Thrasne had seen a man touched by blight once. In fact, Thrasne had been the one to use the axe, and he still woke in the night sometimes sweating from the memory of it. The boatman had kept his chopped-off leg in a netting sack, sprayed down with blight powder. He carried it about with him to taverns, where he sold topers a look at it in exchange for drinks, daring the foolhardy to touch it and see whether the blight had left it or not.
"Dangers in every caste and trade," said owner Blint from time to time. "None free of peril."
Thrasne supposed that was true. He went below to change his shirt and hide his books. Not that he had many, but those he had he wanted to keep. His book of fables about the Southshore. His History of Northshore in three volumes, nine-tenths of it nonsense, Blint said, and all of it forbidden. Thrasne didn't care. It made a nice thing to do some evenings when the winds were warm, sit on the deck in the light of the owner-house windows and read about how humans first landed on Northshore, down from the stars, and about their great wars with the Thraish, whoever they may have been. Winged creatures, by the sound of it in the stories, who could talk just like men. And all the men using metal tools and weapons, which was enough right there to show you why it was all false and unapproved. But who wanted to read approved books? Lives of the Great Awakeners. The biography of Thoulia. Poof. One might as well read the chart-of-towns; it was more interesting.
They'd be in Baris by noon, and owner Blint would likely seek trade. Most of the towns along this stretch were short of spices and salt. They'd want to give pamet in exchange, and the Gift couldn't take it. No room left in the holds. It would have to be something less bulky. Dried fruit, jam, jelly. Candies, maybe. The confectioners were supposed to be something special along here. Something about candies in one of their Festival myths. And toys. Little things for children. Mechanical ones that could be wound up. The toymakers on this stretch were notable. Not that Thrasne had been along this stretch before; he'd been only four years on the Gift of Potipur, starting when he was twelve as go-get-boy.
As he struggled with the buttons of his shirt, he examined the row of carvings set on his storage chest. There was a long, slender piece of clear fragwood he'd been saving, and he thought he'd make a fish of it. A surprised fish, with blight halfway up its tail. The carvings stared back at him from the chest top: merchants, children, the tall robed figure of an Awakener, even a worker, shapeless and hopeless in its canvas wrappings. The little figures seemed almost to breathe. One at the near end of the row looked at him in eternal supplication, and Thrasne took it into his hands with a little groan, warmth pouring into his belly.
"Suspirra," he whispered. It was his name for her, the otherwise nameless ideal, loveliest of all women, created out of his head and his aching loins. She lay on his pillow when he sought his soltary comforts. She watched him when he dressed and washed himself, always with the same expression of supplication and entreaty. "Love me," she begged silently. "Love me." And he did love her, in a lonely fever, almost forgetting sometimes that she was no longer than his forearm. He had carved her in one daylong frenzy of creation, the wood curling away from his blade as though it sought to reveal what lay within it, the pale soft grain of the face, the darker grain of the long, smooth hair, the gown, clinging to her as though wet so he could see every line of her sweet breasts and belly, the curve of her thighs and the soft mound where they joined. Even her feet had sprung out of the wood magically, every toe perfect, the lines of the nails as clean as the line of her lips.
"Suspirra," and he set her down, turning her slightly away from him.
"You should be artist caste," Blint had said when he first saw Thrasne's carvings. "Some of these towns give high status to artists."
Thrasne had shaken his head. "I'd rather see everything. Not just stick in one town. Maybe, someday, when I'm tired of the River."
Though he could not imagine being tired of the River. There was always something to see on the River. As there was right now--the new piers fringing the edge of Baristown.
When he reached the deck he gave it a careful look over. No signs of nets or hooks. The net poles were put away. He could still smell the sulphur and frag, but the River breeze would carry it outriver this time of day. He checked the hatch over the net locker to see it was tight. Funny the way shorebound fishermen resented any fishing done by the Riverboats. Even though the Riverboats caught different kinds of fish, to say nothing of the deep River strangeys, which probably weren't fish at all. Glizzee spice, now. Everyone wanted that, even fishermen. And Glizzee spice was nothing but ground strangey bone, though the boatmen didn't tell everyone that.
When he'd completed the round, he went back and climbed up to the rudderman. "What did Blint say?"
"Told me to pick the longest pier and see could I come around it."
"No side wharfs, hmm?"
"None we can see from here." Some of the towns had at the end of their piers sideways extensions that ran along the River flow rather than across it. A Riverboat could steer close, toss a line to be made fast, then let the tide turn the boat on the line to lay alongside. Coming around a long pier was harder work than that.
"Is Blint getting the sweeps set?"
"He got Birk out of his hammock. Said for you to stand by here where you could see everything." The man sniggered, not maliciously, and Thrasne grinned at him. Taken all in all, the boatmen rather liked having a carver aboard. There wasn't one of them he hadn't carved something for, as a pretty for themselves or a gift for someone they treasured. When a man only came to his home place every six to eight years, he wanted to have something special for his children, at least. Though it wasn't uncommon to find more children than reason suggested was appropriate. Many a man gone six years came back to find two- and three-year-olds, but such was the life of a boatman and accepted as such. The women couldn't be blamed, not with the procreation laws the way they were. And after all, if things like that mattered to a man, he wouldn't be River.
The pier was coming up on the right, a long one, not completed yet. The oarsmen had the sweeps set in the rope locks to turn the ship as soon as the pier was past. The tide wasn't strong just now, not with the moons all strung out like this, not like Conjunction, when no one in his right mind would try to tie up except at the Riverside itself.
"Hold fast," breathed Thrasne, locking the sculling oars out of the way of the rudder. "Hold fast."
"I see it," grumbled the steersman. "Been doing this for twenty years."
Thrasne ignored him. If Blint wanted him on the steerhouse, it was to take charge of things.
"Hold fast," he muttered again. "Now! Hard over!" He bent his back to the rudder as the bite of the oars took hold, taking up the slack on the tackle until it was tied hard over and they could watch the sweating men at the sweeps. Blint himself was at the line cannon. In a moment it went off with a dull thwump of its huge wooden springs, and the line arched out over the pier, where half a dozen standabouts made it fast.
"Sweeps up," cried Blint. "Stand by the winch!" The ship shuddered as it began to draw toward the pier, moving against the surging tide. Thrasne shook his head, remembering the time they had taken on a boatman from a place called Thou-ne. "Born in Potipur," he said he was. Sanctimonious half-wit. Insisted that no ship had the right to oppose the tide, and the only way to moor was at the end of a line along the bank. Fool had said winching was evil, antilife, and against the will of Potipur. He lasted until the time he took an axe to the rope during a winching operation. Assuming he had been a good swimmer and hadn't encountered the blight, he might still be alive. Since Blint had dropped him over the side in the far mid-River after dark, however, his survival was only conjectural.
There were no other boats at the Baristown piers. Despite this, there was a considerable gathering at the end of the jetty, engaged in some noisy set-to.
"What're they doing?" Thrasne asked.
"Couldn't say," offered Blint. "Have a look if you like. I'll need the walkway down anyhow for those fatbellies coming." He nodded toward the town. Several members of the merchant caste were bustling toward them, each trying to be first without being ostentatious about it. None of them quite broke into a run. Thrasne set the walkway, then strolled over it, hands in pockets, down to the end of the pier.
Most of the crowd were simple standabouts, though there were a few fishermen and merchant apprentices who should have been elsewhere. There was one Laugher in his polished black helm, fiddling with the flasks at his belt, staring at each member of the crowd in turn, as though he would see through to the bones. Those at the end of the jetty, however, were Awakeners directing a worker crew in dragging the River.
Thrasne got a whiff of the workers and moved back a few steps. Using workers to labor in Potipur's behalf was a religious requirement in every town they traveled by, but Thrasne thought it a stinking one, literally and philosophically. The shambling figures were so damned inefficient. Everything had to be done six times over. It took a crew of Awakened workers four times over a field to plow it, and Thrasne had never seen a ditch dug by workers fit to run water through until some competent irrigation manager cleaned it out and trued the sides. Now they were heaving hooks at the ends of long lines, tossing them about a fourth of the distance Thrasne could have thrown them, dragging them back with slow tugs against the tide.
"What're they looking for?" he asked one of the stand-abouts.
"Some woman went in the River. Drowned herself."
"So? Why the dragging?"
"She did it to get out of bein' Sorted. So they say. I don't know. All I know is the Awakener's mad as a fisherman with a blight-fish on a new line."
The Awakener was indeed very angry. He could hear her clearly as she spat at a long-faced, miserable-looking man before her. "Fulder Don! It was your duty to come to us if you thought she would do this!"
"I didn't think she would," the long-faced man said plaintively, his voice flat, almost without expression. "I thought it was just her talk. She talked about a lot of things she never did I didn't think she'd ever leave the baby. She cared so for the baby." The little girl in his arms was crying. About three or four years old, Thrasne thought. Old enough to remember what was going on, without being old enough to understand it.
An old woman with a tight, lipless mouth stood beside the depressed-looking man. "Fulder Don," she said, "I've known since you married that silly fool she'd do something like this. I wouldn't have thought heresy, but who could put it past her? She hadn't an ounce of loyalty in her."
"Mama," begged the man placatingly. "Now, Mama…"
"Don't 'Mama' me. You married beneath you and beneath artist's caste, and that's all there is to it. Take that idiot child and give her to Delia, will you. I can't stand the sight of her. It wasn't enough her mother had to do this dreadful thing, now you're saddled with the child for her whole life."
"Well, Mama, she's my child, too."
"I'm not even certain sure of that." The old woman stomped off down the pier, the cane in her hand slamming down in a furious whap, whap, which sent angry echoes booming under the pier over the lick and slap of the water.
The Awakener threw up her hands, twirled her staff, and began a slow, mind-curling chant. Thrasne shut it out, humming to himself. He couldn't stand Awakener chants. If it was to escape this, this chant-driven pretense of life, this shambling excuse for existence, he did not blame the nameless woman who had drowned herself. The band of workers turned from the River to shamble back up the pier, following the glittering staff, eyeless, faceless, only their feet and hands indicating what lay beneath the loosely woven canvas sacks and hoods they wore.
"Papa," the little girl was pleading. "Papa."
The man paid her no attention, merely stood staring at the River as though he wanted nothing more than to be deep inside it himself. The passivity of that face moved Thrasne. His hands twitched, wanting to capture that face. This was a man who had given up. He would not do anything, not ever again. He would only float, pushed by the tide of others' lives, waiting his end under the canvas hood, deserving it. The child turned, caught by the watchfulness in Thrasne's face, stared at him, eyes wide and accepting with something of that same passivity. "Papa," she said again, hopelessly.
A woman came out of the crowd to take the child, a nothing much of a woman, small and plump, older than middle-aged. "There, there, my Pammy," she said. "There, there." The child sobbed once and laid her head on the woman's shoulder. That, too, Thrasne coveted, that line of child against the woman's body, limp and exhausted, giving up everything in the acceptance of this comfort.
Thranse moved toward the man. What had the old woman called him? Fulder Don. "Fulder Don," he asked casually, as though he were only another standabout, "why did your wife go in the River? How do you know that she did?"
The man looked at his feet, mumbling. "A fisherman saw her. She was sick. She was afraid to die. Afraid to risk Sorting Out. My mother…was always at her. Telling her how bad she was. How incapable. I guess she thought…" His voice trailed away into nothing as he stared into the water, his long, mournful face intent upon another time. "She was so beautiful," he whispered at last. "So very beautiful."
Something in the intonation made Thrasne look at him again. Yes. Under the shabby cloak the man wore the smock of the artist caste. An artist. Not a successful one, from the looks of it. For which Fulder Don's mama probably blamed the dead woman. Thrasne turned quickly to return to the Gift of Potipur, his hands itching for his carving knife. The man, the woman and child; if he was lucky, he could get both the carvings started before Blint found something else for him to do.
They spent three days in Baris. The merchants wanted spice, but they insisted on trading bulk pamet for it. Blint would take no more pamet. "Silly blight-heads," he complained as still another delegation left the boat unsatisfied. "Can't seem to understand every town in this section has more pamet than they can use. We'U have to go all the way to Vobil-dil-go before anyone will want pamet. I told them we'd take toys, or those dried puncon candies, or woven pamet cloth, provided it was something out of the ordinary. They'll come to it eventually. Just takes them two or three days to make up their minds."
On the third day they did make up their minds, and Blint did a brisk business. By dusk all the trading was done, and the crew of the Gift went into Baristown for some jollifications. Thrasne offered to guard the ship. He wanted to finish the carvings and brought them on deck to do so, working in the lantern light from the owner-house windows. He had caught Fulder Don to his own satisfaction, the sorrow, the loss. Now he was finishing the carving of the woman, Delia, and the child.
There were no sounds except the soft push of the water along the sides, an occasional burst of laughter or song from the taverns. The soft bumping had gone on for some time before he even heard it.
Once alerted to the sound, it still took him a while to find it. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. At last he leaned over the side and heard it clearly. Something in the River, knocking against the side of the boat.
He lowered a lantern on a line to see only the oily shifting of the water. Then she came from under the wavelets to look up at him for an instant, turning in the ripples to glance sideways at him from half-closed eyes.
"Suspirra!" He set the lantern down, shaking, rubbing his eyes with his hands. The face was Suspirra's face. The bumping went on. He lowered the light again, and again she shifted to look upward at him, the water flowing across her face, the line in which she was tangled making a silver streak across her breast.
Sick cold in his belly, he could no more have left her there than he could have burned his own Suspirra for firewood. It took long moments to realize the bumping made a wooden clattering rather than the soft sound of flesh. He thought of a carving, first, and only then of the blight. This was the woman they had been dragging for. The woman who had been so beautiful, who was so beautiful. Blighted now. Wooden. And deadly. Still, he could not leave her there.
He brought up one of the small nets, safe enough after its frag powder soak. He rigged a line to the boom. Working silently, cursing the amount of time it took, he pushed the net under her with poles, then heaved the boom all alone against her weight, heavier than he'd thought, to lift her dripping body to the deck.
She turned in the lantern light, toward him and away in a silent dance, eyes half-open in invitation, lips curved as though about to speak. "So beautiful," he murmured, wanting to touch her, holding himself from doing so only with difficulty. "So beautiful."
A burst of laughter as some Riverfront tavern opened a door and spat revelers into the street. Blint would be bringing the crew back shortly. If Blint saw her, he would sell her to the family, or to the Awakeners, though what good she would be to either, Thrasne could not imagine. No. He wouldn't do that. She had fled from them, family and Awakeners both. The woman who had fled was gone. This was his own Suspirra now. He plotted furiously, discarding one notion after another.
Then he thought of the ventilation shaft beneath his own watching post. Up went the net once more as he guided it from the owner-house roof, down into the shaft, suspended there in its netting bag from the pole grating upon which he so often sat, where none could see it, wonder at it, touch it--save Thrasne himself.
When Blint and the crew returned, he was crouched beneath the owner-house window, finishing the carving of Delia and the child. That night, for the first time since he had made her, he did not even look at the small carving of Suspirra.
Northshore: The Awakeners, Volume 1, copyright © 1987 by Sheri S. Tepper, first Tor edition March 1987
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