“The eyes, the eyes
The gaze of the wise
They pierce the veil
and truths surmise”
From the collected verses of the Nation of Cowendru
The forest was unusually alive this day. More so than it had been for months. The birds sang, the frogs croaked, and the wind rustled. E’Schat took all in stride. He ran free and long, hurdling logs and rocks, passing moss and termites. He only pulled up when he reached the lake. The water was calm and unbroken, even in the slight breeze. Breathing heavy, he bent down to look at his reflection. It smiled back at him in the tired, happy way that is achieved only after days of being pent up in the temple clearing.
He gazed at himself. His horns had grown long and sharp with the years. He was stronger than any of the other Mooncalves and his shoulders bulged as he flexed. His dark fur sheened with sweat from his run as he caught his breath. His green eyes captured the setting sun, flashing with celestial fire.
The lake was his place of peace. He came here to think. To talk with himself. To see the future as his imagination was wont to do. As he gazed over beachfront, he watched the sands come alive with the spirits of his ancestors. Cows and bulls came forward, one by one. They praised him for his life of peace, exalted him in their annals for The People That Followed. He would be remembered for the greatest of deeds! He struck a dead branch upright in the sand and watched his banner unfurl, rallying the People under him. He climbed onto their shoulders and they paraded him up and down the beach. Before long, the People put him down and bowed to him, one after the other. They cheered and cried his name, “E’Schat! E’Schat! E’Schat!”
The People melted back into the sands and the corners of his mind. He turned slowly.
“Mooncalf Fa’teem. I apologize – I did not hear you.”
He could, however, smell the lilac meadow that she had surely rolled in on her way out of the cloister. She would indulge herself when she thought no one was watching but E’Schat had seen and knew now what mixed with her aroma.
“It is no wonder when you are in your head as much as you are.”
“I apologize again.”
“It is of no consequence. The Mother wished to see you.”
E’Schat grew cross but his face was calm. Every time he found a moment to go to the lake and watch it feed into the river, the Mother would inevitably call him back. Her pull was sure as the moon.
Ͼ Ѻ Ͽ
E’Schat made the trek back to the temple clearing as he had dozens of times in the past year. That was strange to him. Most of his life he had spent sequestered among the Mooncalves and their cloister. Yet, of late, he had been given a looser rein to explore the valley, more so than ever before. The lake and rivers were becoming more familiar to him and, by the stones and trees, he was finding life to be exuberant.
Life in the cloister was by comparison now stifling. The names and uses of herbs, the calls of the birds, even the meaning of the stones used in ancestor worship now seemed spiritless and stale. Ever since his horns came in, the Mooncalves had been treating him oddly. They asked questions about his desires, if he ever felt angry, or if he had started having odd dreams. He would become terse when they asked those questions, but in truth, he was feeling different. E’Schat wanted to run and climb and when he was out among the forest, he would sharpen his horns with river rocks. He never knew why, but he knew it was a good idea. Life was peaceful here, but he would be a fool if he did not yet understand the danger that is inherent in a peaceful life, especially in the forest.
Never would he forget the creatures that the Mooncalves had told stories of as he drifted off to sleep. Furless beasts that would savage their prey and torture them before rending flesh from bone. The misshapen creatures in his mind were enough to remind him to sharpen daily. Most of the Mooncalves chided him for the action, preferring to dull theirs in order to wear the studs of their orders over the ends.
He took his time getting back to the Mother. He was in no rush to sequester himself from his distractions. As he walked back to the temple clearing with Mooncalf Fa’teem, he watched sisters of the order harvesting berries and lush grasses from the forest. He saw others dig for roots while planting new bulbs. The work was important to sustain life here in the forest. Life begets death, death begets life. If one only cultivates death without room for new life, by the stones and trees, the cycle is out of balance and will strive to fix itself.
Though he dallied as long as possible, the walk back did not take near as long as he had hoped. It was hard to miss the sentinel trees that guarded the temple clearing. They were massive. Primordial. They stood taller than thirty Mooncalves stacked hoof to horn. They stood the test of time. They stood, that alone was an indisputable fact. Their mere existence was profound. The ten sentinels were almost trunk to trunk with a gapped entrance between the two largest trees. E’Schat thought of the great trees often, of how their arrangement could not be accidental. Their placement was too perfect.
E’Schat wondered often about the People that came before. The ancestors of the People had not written much, so the only clues to their existence was in the stones and the trees. The stones told of who they were. The trees spoke of how they had arranged their lives in the forest. What did this arrangement say? E’Schat only guessed that they used it like the People used it now, as a holy place, a site for congregation around the Mother.
When the time is upon you, when you can no longer avoid confrontation, you must act, thought E’Schat as he strode forward and entered the grove, leaving Fa’teem behind.
The Mother had grown so large throughout the year and E’Schat knew that she was swollen with calf. It was a joy among the People for another to join them, yet the pregnancy had only brought gloom to the Mooncalves.
E’Schat greeted the Mother with a curt bow as she looked up from her worship. The act of offering milk had always seemed strange to E’Schat but he understood the importance of the symbol. She squeezed milk from her udders directly over the stone lignam that stood in the center of the grove. The Mother was offering a symbol of her fertility for the continuation of the people. It was an appreciation for the continuance of life.
He watched as she completed the ceremony. Interrupting any act of worship among the People was considered vulgar, one of the many unwritten laws that E’Schat had grown up with. As a result, had he not learned to always wait before speaking? He had learned the many rituals of the Mooncalves in his short time though they disallowed him to perform half of them, and his own anatomy prevented him from doing the other half.
The sweet musk of the grove, strangely complimented by the effluvium of ancient milks, washed over him as he waited. Of all the years of weeks of days that he had lived, never had he remembered the clearing as alive as it was right now. He wondered what made the grove smell so sweet. The spring had brought rains as always, no more, no less, yet the life in the forest was overwhelming. It was right to offer milk.
She covered herself when she had finished and turned to him indicating he could speak.
“By the stones and trees, Mother.”
“By the stones and trees, E’Schat,” replied the Mother. Her tone was laced with sadness.
The Mother had always looked after E’Schat, so her turns of mood were not wholly unfamiliar to him but something had been wrong for some time. She had been given calf from the forest and there was no greater cause for celebration among the People. Yet underneath the excitement of her pregnancy, she had been the most sullen of all the sisters, an enigma to E’Schat.
“You asked me to come?”
The Mother looked at him hard, as if she were examining his conscience, before responding, “You have lived among the Sisters of the Moon for some time now, E’Schat. In that time I have grown to love you as a mother should, as one of her own. As the Mother, I love all of our herd as calves, but with you it has been different for me. Truly, it has been different for all of the sisters having you live with us, but for me especially. Which makes the next part so hard for me. E’Schat – it is time for you to leave.”
E’Schat was confused by her meaning. Hadn’t he just arrived? She called him back from his place of peace just to be asked to go again. She smiled at the puzzlement on his face but the smile swiftly turned to a hard frown accompanied by sigh.
“You must leave the protection of the valley and go out among the world,” she clarified. “The river runs south. Follow it and you shall eventually come to the flood plains and then the ocean. It would be unwise for you to stay in the forest. I have heard tell of others in the Lands Beyond but I have only stories.”
E’Schat wanted to wait for her to finish, to consider what she was saying but something began to come together in his mind.
“Does this have something to do with your calf?”
The Mother was caught not wholly by surprise, but the directness startled her to speechlessness for just a moment.
“Everything yet nothing. It has more to do with you than the calf I carry. When I give birth, everything will change in the valley. I will have to join the herd to care for my child and the Sisters will follow to take care of me.”
“And I am not invited to join the herd? Why? Because I have no milk to give?”
The Mother laughed softly, though E’Schat saw no reason for humor.
“Yes, E’Schat, because you have no milk to give. At least, in a sense. What do you know of the herd, E’Schat?”
E’Schat considered the question, thinking back to the vague references throughout his life.
“The herd of the People is large and we in the glen are small. The herd is dangerous and we are safe. The herd grazes without stop while we live in harmony with our valley. Mother, why would you want to join the herd?”
“My desires and what I think is best have little to do with my choice to leave the valley. They have everything to do with why you must leave. There is little more I can explain. Please, by the stones and trees, trust me.”
The pause grew long and longer, pierced only by a beam of sunlight through the leaves that landed squarely on E’Schat’s doubtful face, as the Mother waited as mothers do.
“By the stones and trees, I trust you,” replied E’Schat finally, “I will leave.”
After all – he did trust her. He trusted her as he trusted the sun and stars to light the skies. As he trusted the moon to once again be full. He did not understand her, but he did trust her.
“I will make preparations for my journey.”
The Mother was visibly relieved. She took the grown bullcalf to her bosom, softly locking horns for only an instant. E’Schat simply stood there and received the hug without acknowledgement of the endearment. He had simply lost the ability to care.
Ͼ Ѻ Ͽ
E’Schat took leave from the grove and left only Ma’dea to consider his retreating form. She knew within her heart that she had done what was necessary, if not what was right. The months preceding this moment had been hard, not only for her, but for her order. It was her order now, handed down from the line of Mothers before her. She was The Mother.
The position was esteemed among the cows but it was an honor that all sisters in the order simultaneously desired and abhorred. It was why most cows stayed with the herd, operating as its warriors and healers, its artisans and builders. Life in the herd was not easy by any means, but life in the service of the moon was harder still. The different tribes of the People had different customs, but at their core essence, the Mooncalves served two major functions: to remember the empty dead and to realize the full life in all things. The Mother realized life by educing it from herself. The process of calving was painful and, as Ma’dea had experienced at the side of her predecessor, could result in death.
Yet painful calving was not the only burden of the Mother. The true reason the cows abhorred the position was Him. The Father. The present Father of the Forest was violently lascivious. As the only intact bull in the herd, it was in his nature. It had been in the nature of all the Fathers before him, yet still, this Father brought a fierce enthusiasm to his responsibilities, one of which was populating the herd through the Mother. Another was to protect the herd.
Ma’dea remembered the herd in better times, when bull calves were allowed to grow with the herd until the Sending. The custom was to send away bulls from the herd that chose not to geld. The custom was for most Fathers to establish warriors among the herd and appoint bodyguards among the steers and strong cows. Now the steers were banished entirely, gelded involuntarily by the Father. The smart bullcalves had read the omens and fled before the Father started hunting them. The slow unwise were not as lucky.
Now that elder Sister Dor’vil had returned to the stones and trees, there were few cows that actually had lived long enough to remember any other living Fathers. Only the Sculptor of the Dead remembered, and that only from the evidence the ancestors had left her. As for bulls or steers, there were none around whatsoever to even ask.
Well, there was one to ask, not that he had known any other living Fathers. Not that he knew the living Father either. E’Schat was safely ignorant of that fact, thanks largely to a dying request and the arduous labors of Ma’dea and her Mooncalves. She only hoped that her work had not been for naught. That E’Schat would survive the world beyond the forest. That E’schat would survive the humans.