By Meredith L. Patterson, illustration by Bill Reames
2 April 2001
I have traced out the circle in the ash-white sand, I have drawn the line above to below, I have divided it into two and two and two. From the hillside I can see no fires in the village tonight. From the village no men must see me, alone in the hills where the pale foxes go.
I have brought with me a pot in the women's style, rounded hips and belly for a bowl with two fat breasts fashioned just below the lip. In it are all the materials I need to set out on the sand, to give to Nummo for the answer I need.
At the top of the circle, the two spaces are the hands of Amma, the hands of creation. From a goatskin I pour water into the right part of Amma's section, water for the beginning of all things, water for the hand that never changes; water that sinks into the cooling sand, leaving a crusted hollow in the earth. For the left hand of Amma, the hand of imperfection, there is a broken-off potshard, a women's pot made unwhole and useless, dried breasts and empty belly.
In the centre, below Amma's hands, are the hands of the village, what is here and what is now. I reach inside the pot and take out the folded indigo cloth which the weavers made for Adougo and me on our wedding. Now it goes into the right hand of the village, the village that waits for answers from a blacksmith's wife, the village that will need blacksmith sons. The tail of the cloth spills over into the left hand of the village, open and empty. The blacksmith and his wife have no sons.
At the bottom I have marked out the hands of Nummo, the hands of the Pale Fox, the hands of death. In his right hand I place four white cloths, each a year older than the one before, barely whiter than the sand under them. They would have been for my sons, but Nummo has them now. The infant-cloths I would have used are all I have left of them.
For his left hand, there is me, and when he comes, he will find me waiting inside his circle for his answers. The men go down to the village after they have asked their questions, but if I leave, someone will find my circle in the morning and trouble will come home to me -- so I cannot return to the village until the Pale Fox has left his answer. The men do not work their magic in this way, but already I have changed their ritual by working men's magic.
This is the circle. This is the way things are. This is not the way things are meant to be.
All questions have answers, and I would not do this if the pale foxes had answered my husband. He came here two turns of the moon ago, after my last son came out still and cold. Adougo drew his circle on the ground like the other men, set the wrappings I had made for our fourth dead son into the left hand of Nummo, and asked his question for the Pale Fox. The other men asked in the same way, in their own circles: why is my father sick, why do I bring down only the small game, why does my wife bear only dead boys. After that, they came back to the village, to keep each other company with millet beer until the morning, when they could see what the Pale Fox had told them.
In the morning, the men returned to the hillside, where the footprints of the pale foxes covered the sand. "Ai!" one would say, "Here the footprints cross from the left hand of Nummo to the left hand of the village; an evil spirit has made my father sick." And another would say, "Owo, the foxes walk from the right hand of Nummo to the right hand of Amma; it is ordered that I kill what I kill." So they collected the things they had left there and came down to tell the village that the Hogon could drive the spirit out of the father, that it was the will of Amma that the hunter would bring home bush-buck and not antelope. They had their divination.
But no one, not even the Hogon, could explain why of all the circles, Adougo's had hundreds of tiny fox-footprints dancing all around it, but never a step within the circle to answer his plea.
The pale foxes come when the circles are drawn, and if Nummo will not answer my husband, then I will ask him myself.
I had to learn how to draw the circle, for it is not a thing that women are taught. Adougo would not tell me, and I could not devise a way to trick him into it. The other men would not tell me, would not speak to a blacksmith's wife; for a blacksmith's family wears enigmas like clothing, and it is well known that the smell of iron on us carries mysteries that normal men have no strength to resist. But I could go to the Hogon, telling the other women it was to ask him for another birthing charm . . . and the Hogon is old and his memory full.
So I took clay for a women's pot and clay for a men's pot, and baked them by Adougo's furnace. I took the pots to the brewers, where I left the women's pot as payment and took the men's pot away full of strong millet beer, and I brought the millet beer to the Hogon's house. He welcomed me into his courtyard and I set the beer before him. It lapped like a dark lake at the edges of the basin. He drank from a long reed, stroking his beard as I talked. While his head was high, I spoke with him of birthing charms, fertility medicines, and other matters of which it is proper for women to learn. The beer in the pot sank lower and lower, and the Hogon's head sank lower and lower, and when his beard wet itself in the pot, I coaxed the secrets out of him. He drew rough lines in the courtyard soil with a wavery finger, his high weak voice spoke of what to place where, and before long, he fell asleep sitting against the wall of his house, blowing bubbles through his reed in the mush at the bottom of the beer-pot. I smudged the drawing out with my heel before I left.
And then, after the next festival, when all the men and women but me lay sleeping drunk in their houses, I came here.
The village must have its own blacksmith sons. Someone must work the iron for hoes and ploughs and spear-points, and if a man does not have blacksmith ancestors to stand behind him, the iron will work into him and turn him into something not quite a man. Adougo is a good blacksmith, but he is not a son of the village, and all the village knows that. He was the second son of a blacksmith from another village in Bandiagara, but the village wants one of its own sons to carry on its line. My mother could not provide sons, so now I must.
I must, and I have failed at it, with four sons of my own and one of my mother's. My little brother Temmeli was born full of spirit -- he roared like a tiny lion when he first saw sunlight -- but when he left my mother he took too much out of her. She tried to hold him, squatting in our courtyard with the other women's hands on her to bear her up, but his big head rolled back and forth so much that she could not stay on her feet or even her knees. A midwife took him away, and the other women packed fibre between her legs to slow the bleeding, but she was not a large woman . . . and there was so much blood.
For weeks, I woke up smelling it and thinking she was still there, and I would reach out in the dark, stumbling through the house and the forge trying to find her, until my father woke up from the noise. Then he would hold me, and sing songs with no words, until I was calm enough to realize where I was and go back to sleep with Temmeli.
That was my twelfth year, before I was a woman. A man does not know how to take care of a baby. My mother had taught me to cook and to make pots, but she had promised to teach me of raising children with Temmeli, and now she was gone. One of the village potters had a daughter about the same time, and she agreed to give Temmeli her other breast to suck, but ordinary women cannot raise a blacksmith boy; he would bring secrets into their house that could bring harm to an ordinary family. So I did my part, carrying him back and forth to her until he was weaned, then cooking for him and cleaning up after him . . . and when I was sixteen, he sickened anyway. My father went to the hillside to divine a cure from the pale foxes, but their footprints ran directly from the left hand of the village to the right hand of Nummo, and we knew that soon he would pass from his fever into the peace of the land of the dead. Nummo had already claimed him.
I was sixteen, and my father was almost thirty-five. Even if he could have found another blacksmith woman to marry, there would never have been time for him to teach a new son all he needed to know. So I told my father to find a young blacksmith he trusted, and to arrange a good marriage. Even if the village could not have Temmeli, I could still bring it a son of its own.
Our people know what to do when these things happen. This is how things have always been.
Not all answers have questions. There was never any surprise that I would have boys. A blacksmith's daughter can figure out how to make sure of such things. There are always lumps of iron left over from the making of tools, and if the pieces are small, they are not missed so much. And my father had more on his mind, like finding me a husband, than iron scraps the size of half a finger.
It took many days to gather the pieces I needed from my father's forge. Some were too short, or too pointed, or too twisted; a blacksmith boy must have a long straight body.
"See, see," my father would say, when he spoke to the men he considered for me, "how Leni is an attentive girl, how she always brings straw for the fire and water to cool the iron, how she prepares supper and brings it in to the forge. She is worth all the cowries you have and more." And every time I brought him straw or water or food, I watched the iron scraps that flew onto the ground as he worked, and chose this one or that one as the next one to steal away once the waste-pieces had cooled.
So. A smooth, rounded lump for a head, as big around as my thumbnail. One straight, thin piece for a spine, as long as my longest finger, with thick strong squared arms and thick strong squared legs, and a short straight piece for a penis, all held together and baked with clay, for a totem to bring me many blacksmith sons. I carried it with me to my wedding with Adougo, hidden in the folds of my skirt, and I brought it to our bed that night, to hide at the foot where he would not find it. I take it out every morning to bring it with me, and I hide it again every night, and in four years I have made four boys.
Four boys, for all the good it has done. Every time Adougo came to me at night, every time I waited for my bleeding to begin and no blood showed, I told myself yes, yes, this time it will be different, this will be the time when I show everyone what I can make. He desires it just as I do; in the beginning it was a matter of joy, and now it is a matter of pride. But every time, no matter how much I wanted this one to be the special one, no matter how careful I was, no matter how much ritual and worry and thought, nothing was ever any different. So much life gone into them, and every one the same, stiff and dead.
Suddenly: a faraway keening sound, or a howling, like jackals out in the desert, and sand grains on the wind to sting my eyes.
Even if it is a windstorm, even now, I am not leaving. I drop to my knees in the sand, like the ironmakers do when the furnace roars too high and the sparks fly out seeking cloth to burn, face tucked into my lap and both elbows digging into the earth, arms covering up my ears. The winds are rising, rising, beating me with sand, and I can hear the rattle of pottery striking pottery. The winds are destroying my circle, but I will not move, not until this is over. Is this why women do not call the pale foxes? Have I defiled the earth? Is this the earth taking its price from me before the village can do it? Will the earth take my flesh the way it took my boys' flesh? Will it leave a pile of white huddled bones on the white sand?
Then: silence, silence, and a cold quiet snuffling at my elbow.
I lift my arms, and turn my head, and the Pale Fox is at my side.
So light and tiny, not quite as long as my forearm, with fur as white as the sand. I could hardly see it if not for its eyes, round as pebbles and black like new iron. They shine under the moon, the Dog Star caught up in both its eyes, so that I can see the rest of its face standing out, the rest of its body outlined against the sand. If I took a step forward, I might be able to touch the smooth fur that covers its body, the little tufts on its cheeks and throat and in front of its ears. It looks so fragile, all thin legs, slight body, delicate snout, and ears I can nearly see through. And such large round eyes, sparkling like moonlight on black water, staring at me . . . and I cannot look away . . . .
My eyes sting from the dry air, and I must blink from the pain; when I look again, the world is different, the world is darker. There is no moon, and the sands are black, like no sands I have ever seen. Yet it is quiet and warm here, and the black sands below my knees do not bite at my skin. There is no village anywhere. There is only the black sand stretching far away, and Nummo, the Pale Fox, shining like starlight, sitting before me, watching me, larger than my father's forge.
His eyes. His eyes are the largest I have ever seen, each one as round as my head, and his face is huge. He looks down at me now, his narrow muzzle pointed so that if I were standing, the tip would touch my forehead. His eyes are hard and glittering.
There must be something not right about this. The pale foxes come from the desert to leave their marks on the patterns we draw of our lives, and then they return, and that is the way all the tales have it. Heroes travel to the realm of the Pale Fox and come back belonging to songs and stories. This is no place for shameful women hiding from the village. Yet somehow I am in the place where there is only darkness, where Nummo is chief over all the dead, and Nummo watches me as if there is something he expects.
"What do you want from me?" I squat in the sand, both hands against the black earth, shouting up at him. "You are the Pale Fox, the one who gives answers! I put my question in the sand, why can you not answer me like you answer the men?" But he does not answer me. Perhaps he cannot answer a woman -- perhaps everything is so strange now because I tried to do something so unnatural, and now nothing can be right again.
Something soft beats on the ground, tickling my legs as it runs past. I twist and turn to see what it is -- there are foxes, little foxes, ordinary foxes, kicking up the sand in circles around me, running rings and loops of footprints into the ground. My head throbs as I look for some pattern in their dancing steps -- there must be some sense to the design they have for us! "Why?" I call again, the little foxes blurring in front of my eyes. "Why do my sons die and you hold back the answers? Why do you do it?"
The little foxes stop where they stand, some with one foot in the air, some rolling in the earth, some sprawled on top of each other, some looking at me, some staring up at Nummo and waiting like I am for what he will do. But it is not Nummo that moves. It is something behind him.
His fur ripples as four dark figures make their way out of the shadows, feeling along his soft pale body. Four short figures. Four naked figures. Four boys. One is crawling; one is toddling; and the largest one carries an infant. The biggest one cannot be any older than four years old.
And every one of them looks just like Temmeli.
They creep around to Nummo's forelegs, none of them coming more than halfway to his chest. They clutch Nummo's fur, but their black and white eyes stare straight at me. Four boys -- four years -- four dead sons -- but how are they twins of my brother?
The youngest one hiccups and wails, and it is a sound I know: the baby is hungry and wants his milk. But my breasts have been dry for two turns of the moon now, so how can I feed him? I want to reach for him, for all of them, take my sons and go back to the village where everything can be right . . . but there is something already not right about having four of the same boy, and bringing them back would make it no better.
The baby reaches out, but his hands do not call for me; he writhes and stretches toward Nummo's chest. The eldest boy carries him closer, closer, and the baby's hands work into the fur on the chest of the Pale Fox. He puts his mouth to Nummo's teat, and there is no more wailing: only sucking.
My brother is dead, my dead sons are the sons of the Pale Fox, and the Pale Fox is a woman as well.
This is not the way the tales in the village go. This is not what the Hogons have told us.
Is this the way things are meant to be?
Some answers hide their own questions, like this one. The little foxes settle into the sand, and so do I. If this is the realm of the dead, I wonder what the dead think of it. There is nowhere to go, no way to go back, only emptiness. Yet the pale foxes travel back and forth, and I do not feel dead -- if that is a thing one feels. There is a riddle here. What is it that keeps a living woman in the Pale Fox's world?
And there is a second riddle: what is it that makes a woman bear her brother again and again?
There must be some magic in it. Perhaps a witch has trapped my brother's spirit and sent him into me -- iai, no! Could even a witch bring himself to do something that unclean?
I think if I could see the sky, the Dog Star would be setting before much longer. The children have not come near me. Their round cheeks press against the Pale Fox's fur for comfort, and when they look at me there is suspicion in their cold black eyes. They do not know me as a mother.
I shift, in the sand, and something hard presses into my hip: the totem.
Some magic in it.
Because, after all, I did not ask for a son. I asked for a blacksmith boy, and I got the very same blacksmith boy, the only one I knew, over and over again. More than that I am not sure what to think.
I reach into my skirts, feel the knobby iron under my fingers. I think of taking it and throwing it far across the sand, leaving this thing of death in the land of death; but a fear rises in my stomach, clutching at my chest, my belly, whispering the village must have boys, the village must have boys.
But there is an image in my mind of a line of stillborn children, stretching across the white sands all the way from the horizon to me, following me, following forever, each one the same boy, the same blacksmith boy. My brother, following me to the end of my days.
He does not deserve that, even if I do.
"Go home, Temmeli," I hear myself say, as in a dream, in this place that is itself as a dream. The words are broken, weak, and my voice cracks as I say them, but they spill out on their own all the same. "You can go home, I won't make you follow me any longer. I'm sorry for wanting you to come back, I'm sorry for making you stay with me, I don't need to become your mother, I want my sons to be my own sons." My hands twist into the fibre of my skirt, seeking the rough metal of the totem. It snags once, twice on the cloth, its unfinished edges still as sharp as my wish to do what I should for the village. "I'm sorry!" I shout, because what I should do for the village is still not what is right for me.
One last tug, and though it takes shreds of my skirt with it, the totem comes loose. It lies heavy and dead in the palm of my hand. I turn away from the Pale Fox, away from the children who have never been mine, and I hurl it as hard as I can, as far away as I can put it. The black thing flies away into the darkness, and only a soft puff as it hits the black sand marks where it lands. And I fall again into the sand, the warm black sand of nothingness, turning away now from what has gone behind me, away from what goes before me, looking for a moment for another direction to take before the weight of my body starts to sink into the black sand, and again as in a dream I realize that only magic can keep a person out of the land where they belong . . . .
The sand is ash-white again, and the light over the desert is the grey of almost-morning. What there was of my circle is still there, though hard to make out, from all the paw-prints running over and around it; but no longer do I sit in the hands of Nummo. I am not in the circle at all. My pot, overturned, sits next to me; and one by one, I gather up the pieces of my life that I left in the circle last night. I scatter the edges, blur them back into white sand once more, leaving only my own footprints where the pale foxes have gone. It is almost morning, and there is breakfast to be made.
There will be no speaking of what has happened here. I could not tell Adougo of the totem which turned our last four years into long cold waiting; blacksmiths have secrets, women have secrets, and the Pale Fox has her secrets too. He might understand, later, when he and I are old and our children work the iron for the village. For now, it is my secret and my comfort.
For now, there is starting-over to begin.
Illustration by Bill Reames
Copyright © 1999 Meredith L. Patterson
Meredith L. Patterson isn't sure what she wants to do if she grows up, but it might have something to do with fiction and it might have something to do with linguistics. Her work has appeared in anthologies before; this is her first magazine sale.