Dreams of Ilmarinen
Let me run the hills of Ilmarinen
With soles in soil and grass
where braids play the gale
And sun splashes sharp shoulders
I wrap the sky around me
And birth myself to freedom
Let the universe swell my lungs
And stars scorch my heart
my feet pound the river rock
as I run the hills of Ilmarinen
—A song of the Solstice Night
Hand over foot, the young boy managed his way to the top of the plateau. The air was crisp about his pores and the green scent of the Goddess filled his lungs. His arms spread across the horizon, across the turquoise crescent that was Infinity, the greater moon. The other moon, Eon, glittered like an amethyst in the morning sky. Melting snow cascaded beneath his battered soles, vanishing into mists below, the water gathering, pooling over sheets of rock, feeding into the sun gilded Potamis River. A thousand shades met his eyes, from the jade of the leaves to the amber of the oaks to the purple of the ilms. To the north, the Mountains of Ukko met the heavens like strokes of gray-white chalk.
Apart from his sword’s baldric and the lapis lazuli in his braid, the young monk was clad in nothing but sky, with all the ground his shoes and the sun his coat. The sword and the blue mineral were his only accoutrements, but he was more interested in the stone, remembering the girl who had given it to him; she had a pleasing face and an easy gait and he admired the skill with which her henna was applied, the pattern running up her thigh to form an arrow between her breasts.
Effortlessly, his hands and feet met the nooks in the olive tree’s roots. Descending the hill, he spotted his mentor rounding the path.
“Queffi!” the boy called. “I am here!”
QuasiI did not appreciate Xandr’s sudden disappearances, but never punished the boy’s eagerness to explore. Blinded by the sunbeam flaring off the old man’s scalp, the boy suppressed the urge to laugh. It was not as if his mentor lacked for hair; his ash white locks reached to the middle of his back and his silver streaked beard concealed the whole of his collarbone. But the top of his head was as barren as the western hemisphere.
“Recite the names again,” his mentor droned, steadying himself on his quarterstaff.
What enthusiasm Xandr had shown earlier that morning drained from his voice. Not ecology. Again. Why couldn’t they learn more about saurians or mammoths or horgs? He doubted he would ever face mortal danger from an elm.
“High in the canopy there, I see a camphor tree, with elms all about it . . .”
But these trees were easy to name. Oak and camphor were made into homes, its wood integrated with the living whole, a good example, QuasiI loved to remind him, how every life is connected. Lesser known flora, like the dead looking baobab tree, Xandr mistook for a fledgling oak, for which his mentor had rapped him on the head.
They continued on, the boy directing his mentor to things he was certain to recognize, through a grove of twisting bark with dull green leaves. “. . . and these here, of course, are olive trees . . .” The fruits were small and flat, not yet ripe for the beating. It’s odd, he mused, how the younger limbs are smooth but the trunk and the older branches are rough and gnarled . . .
“Xandr!” a voice rumbled. “Focus! What of these flowers here?”
The boy suppressed a groan. “Um . . . blue orchids?”
“They are blue, indeed, but only look like orchids. Did you forget?” Disappointment gnarled his mentor’s face, making him look more like an olive tree. “You must not forget the names of the Goddess, or she will forget you.”
“Yes Queffi, that is true, but—”
QuasiI bent to example a sapling, thumbing the tiny leaves between thumb and forefinger. He was not so different from his pupil, often distracted, aloof, but Xandr’s respect for him never lessened. Despite his great age, his mentor’s hands looked strong enough to squeeze water from a rock. And QuasiI knew things no one else did. He could tell when rain was to fall days in advance; he knew the age of any plant by touch alone; and he referred to each animal as part of a great family, explaining how the rabbit was cousin to the deer and the deer to the ornith.
Every year on the morning of the Solstice, the keepers would descend to the village to select among the wisest of the youth a protégé to be raised in the monastery. A boy or girl showing an aptitude for metallurgy was taught the secrets of metals, and after a lifetime of study was expected to replace their mentor as Keeper of Metallurgy. So it went with all the secrets of the universe. But Xandr was unlike the others. For as long as he could remember, he lived with the keepers, and though he cared little for plants, he was expected to know everything about them. As QuasiI often reminded him, the discipline of ecology was the greatest of all the sciences, but Xandr could not bring himself to agree. He much preferred tales of the Zo with their planet spanning cities and fantastic machines and weapons. The boy could not understand why the Ilmar, despite seemingly limitless knowledge, had no such things as the Zo—why the Ilmar were, in fact, forbidden possessions of any kind. Whenever he asked the keepers about it, he was simply told, “You are the Batal,” and nothing more.
“Shall we go over flowers, then?” QuasiI suggested.
Leaves crackled and seeds popped underfoot as the boy circled. Xandr was a jumble of energy, nimbly ducking branches and hopping roots. “Queffi . . . there are things I wish you to teach me that you never have.”
“Such as?” He arched a bushy eyebrow, knowing what weighed upon his pupil’s heart, and the boy knew it also, knew his mentor was testing him.
Xandr decided to ask a simple question first, to loosen his mentor’s tongue. “I want to know of the things beyond Ilmarinen. Is it true that in the lands south of the river, people must cover their bodies?”
“It is true,” he said matter-of-factly. “Clothing, or fabric, is woven from many different plants, animal skins as well. The most common method is the loom, by which—”
“Queffi!” the boy interrupted. “That is not what I wanted to know.”
QuasiI feigned confusion, but the boy remained adamant, rooted to a mossy root. “With whom have you been speaking?”
“Brother Zoab,” the boy admitted.
“I should have known.” He cleared his throat of morning phlegm, as though he were about to recite from the philosophers. “We are as diverse as the flowers, Xandr. Just as the soft soil suits the ilm so that it may flourish, so do human customs differ. Ice does not fall here as in the Dark Hemisphere, nor does the sun scorch the flesh as in the West. Here in the Womb of Alashiya, we live as simply as we are born, as Kjus teaches.”
“But Queffi,” the boy went on, hopping from his perch, “that is not what Brother Zoab told me . . . he told me that the Ilmar cannot venture beyond our borders without clothing, that we are hated otherwise, that women in some cultures may even be killed—by stones—should their bodies be seen. I do not understand these things, Queffi. I asked Brother Zoab about it, but he gave no answer.” The boy stood in silence, staring into his own palm, wondering at its complexity, at the faint blue lines beneath the skin. “Are we not to roam freely about the world? Or is there some flaw in the people of the outer world?”
“No,” QuasiI asserted. “The body is an absolute good. Mankind is born of the Mother Goddess, just as our cousins, the merquid and the avian. We are lovingly and minutely refined over the aeons. The flaw is not in us—I fear—but in the stars. Before the greater moon loomed in the heavens, we were all Ilmar. For two million years, humanity knew nothing of want or possessions . . . or clothing.”
“Why did we change?” Xandr asked a little too loudly. “Was it the Cataclysm?”
“No—,” he paused, addressing Xandr with uncertainty, with half-truths. “—it was not the world that changed us. It came from within. The Zo ate of the fruit of knowledge, but did not drink from the wells of wisdom. They looked upon themselves and saw that they were fauna, and became ashamed, and in their hubris longed to separate from the Mother Goddess, to become gods themselves. Of all the species of this world, only humans hate what they are, hiding their nature behind clothing. This shame is a great perversion. If one does not see the Goddess within himself, he will not see it in others. If man can hate himself, he will hate others of his kind, and those not of his kind. ”
The boy rocked uneasily, disappointed. He never cared for abstractions, for ideologies, for lessons that forced him to think and ponder until his head hurt. For once, he wished to be given concrete, rigid truths. “But Queffi,” he began, timidly, choosing his words carefully, “you spoke of a time before the greater moon, before the Cataclysm, when we were all Ilmar, when there was no shame, no hubris. Tell me plainly, what happened? And is it true what Brother Zoab says, of the star they call The Wandering God?”
QuasiI paused to glare at the broad shouldered youth who stood up to his chin—then hurried off, his staff clacking against the stones. “I am not so certain Zoab should speak to you of such things. You are not yet a man.”
Xandr held his anger in his fists so that it not show on his face. He was no longer a child. When a boy or girl began to show hair about the loins, they would partake in the rituals of the Solstice Night. Though Xandr had yet to jump the sacred bonfire hand-in-hand with a girl that was to be joined to him, the time was upon him, as evidenced by his maturing body. “No,” he protested, “my hair has grown and my chin is coarse. Soon I’ll be bearded, and a man!” Xandr had never challenged his mentor so openly before, but he still lacked the courage to meet the deep well of wisdom that were his mentor’s eyes.
“Have you been practicing the technique we went over, the delayed counter?”
Devoid of thought, a hand flied to the pommel at his hip. “Yes, every day and night!”
“Wait . . . you always trick me into forgetting my questions this way. But you won’t this time.” And he folded his arms defiantly.
“So the Batal has come of age, eh?” It was more a question than a statement. “Come.” Without a further word, they followed a path clear of shrubs formed by years of treading feet.
Layers of limestone rose above the tree line. An immense white willow grew at its peak. Its trunk always made Xandr think of a bent woman with a cane. It was a place for bloodless battles, long discourses on philosophy, and an observatory for the Zo, Alashiya, and Skullgrin constellations. As was their custom, QuasiI let his staff against the mossy stone and was seated. Xandr folded his legs atop the boulder below, tucking his manhood between his thighs, a thing which had become a bother lately, especially when he thought of the young girls bathing in the waterfalls in the valley below. He assumed it was a part of his growing to maturity, but he was destined to be the Batal, which made him wonder whether he would ever join in the festivities of the Solstice Night.
“The sapling,” QuasiI began, “too feeble for the outer world, remains safe within its seed. There it waits till ready, till strong enough to break its shell and lay roots in the earth.”
More metaphors! If there was one thing Xandr disliked more than abstract answers, it was metaphors. “But teacher,” Xandr informed, “I’ve already bested you with my sword!”
The old monk waved a dismissive hand. “You know how to kill, but it is not what matters. Do not forget the lesson of the Zo, and the sayings of Kjus, ‘knowledge not tempered by wisdom sows destruction’. I may know to destroy this willow,” he added, caressing the violet bulbs of a flower sprouting from between the crevices in the rock, “yet I may not have the wisdom to hear it speak to me.”
Xandr threw his shoulders back, the sunlight turning his hair to gold. “But I am ready, Queffi, ready to leave Ilmarinen, to become the Batal.”
“And how can you be so certain, my son, when you do not know what lies beyond the Potamis? Look there . . .” QuasiI pointed to a tree as tall as the sky, with branches thick enough to walk upon, “the Batal is like the mighty camphor. It begins as a berry no bigger than your thumb, but then it grows, becoming a home to many species . . .”
Having heard the lecture countless times, Xandr’s mind drifted. QuasiI was either stubbornly repeating himself or becoming forgetful. It was not quite as boring as ecology, but philosophy made him want to sleep. He greatly preferred Brother Zoab’s tales of magic and monsters and heroism.
Shifting in his limestone seat, he pulled at his ankle to study his sole. The underside of his foot was black as tar and rough as bark, the cracks in it like some form of lettering. In his fourteen years of pounding up the jagged slopes to his monastery home, of navigating the river rocks lining Ilmarinen’s southern border, of stomping through raw earth and twigs, his feet could have borne him across half the planet. But today—he could not remember from when or where—a sharp sensation followed his steps. Being Ilmarin, it had to have been a long splinter for him to notice. Running a thumbnail to his heel, what he thought a splinter was a knife-edged seedling. His fingernails drew blood as he worked to remove it, as he considered that his questions were also seedlings only now taking root in his awareness.
After his mentor was finished speaking, he looked up from his sole, saying, “But am I not already the Batal?”
QuasiI rubbed his skull, forming new folds of flesh, as he did when frustrated. “No. Not yet.” He gazed into the sunrise, drawing images with his hands. “Only by relinquishing pride, by surrendering possessions, can one hope to escape the mistakes of the past. It is why the Goddess chose us, for of all the world’s peoples, only the Ilmar desire nothing.”
“But will you not tell me, plainly, what I am meant to do?”
The wizened monk drew a long, tired breath. “You will know when you learn to listen to the trees, to hear the voices of Alashiya.”
As if remembering something urgent, the old monk’s attention came away and they became aware of it—between the turquoise moon and the violet glow of the smaller—a gray ribbon of smoke was diffusing over the orange sky.
Xandr could see the turmoil in his mentor’s eyes, but to a boy so innocent, imagination did not lend itself easily to horror. “What could it mean?”
“No,” he murmured, never straying from the ribbon of smoke. Instantly, the staff was in his hand, no longer a stick for walking but a weapon, and QuasiI became more than he had been, a warrior of commanding presence. “We’ve been found! Hurry, Xandr! Today you prove yourself!”
And for the first time the boy sensed real fear in his teacher’s voice.
Go back to: Ages of Aenya (2012): Chapter 1