Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Red Plastic Cup


THE RED PLASTIC CUP, by Lance Foster. April 17, 2014

On this trip, I found part of an old journal in the small trunk I had traded for, at a remote Kwaaboi village on the Seri River, out on the open plains. There were some odds and ends in it, mostly some rags and an ancient plastic cup. That cup and part of a book were the only things of value. I am always on the lookout for books for the Boss’s collections.

The plastic cup had been finely wrought by the People of Old. It was brilliant red, with a smiling face on it, likely a god of good fortune, with one ear used as a handle. I am sure the Boss will reward me highly for this valuable find.

Unfortunately, a big section had been torn out from the book, whether for tinder or the written content, I cannot say for sure, as many books have suffered such indignity. I suspect it was for the content, as the writer appears to have been a monk who had been sent out as part of a teaching mission, so there must have been valuable medical or agricultural information in the book, that had been traded away earlier.

The good thing was that there were also still a number of blank sheets of monastery-quality paper. And the leather cover was of good construction and in fair condition. However it is what the monk wrote on the remnant sheets that I want to share. Seeing into the heart of a stranger one has never met, that is one of the magical things I experience in this line of work. There’s not much left, just a few entries.

+ + + +

September 23, 2271.

It has been a week since we arrived, after a month of travel from our monastery in the mountains far to the west, and only now do I have a chance to write. Our party of five monks, three men (Brothers James, John, and myself, Robert) and two women (Sisters Edith and Lorena), have been sent by the monastery to teach the village in this region about the new corn. We developed this corn at the monastery especially for this arid region, to get them to stop trying to grow the old tall corn that they know, which fails regularly in these drought conditions. We will teach them grow the new bush corn our mission has developed over the last fifty years, as well as the techniques needed for it to succeed. We were much delayed by spring floods and the summer wars, so it is too late for planting this year of course. We will plant next spring, after preparing the fields this fall and winter.

Perhaps decreased famine and competition for mountain pastures will help suppress the violent warfare sweeping this region between Taanen and Kwaaboi. This is the third mission I have been on in my life, and the first one from our monastery to the warlike Kwaaboi. My second had been to the forested lands further west, which had ended in disaster, and the first one, when I was still very young, on the far away coast, where I was born and where I entered the Order. The only thing I still have from my childhood is a little red plastic cup with a happy face on it, and one ear that you use to hold it. My Happy Man is my greatest treasure. It seems I have been making my way slowly eastward ever since my birth. Perhaps, before I die, I may yet see the land where the sun rises. That is my most fervent hope. But as God wills, of course.

The Kwaaboi people here in this village are in a sad state due to the famine, but they do not appear to know of their degraded conditions, and seem fairly content. Everywhere there is mud, manure, and straw. Infections of eye and skin and ear are endemic, as are toothaches and the coughs from living in their smoky hovels. Of course parasites, both internal and external, as well. Their stunted corn and the animals they catch provide most of their food, which isn’t much. They are a very lean and restless people.

We brought a bag of apples from our home orchard to serve as special gifts, but they immediately took the whole bag. They shared the apples very fairly amongst themselves. This famine is what spurs their desperate wars with the mountain people. The warrior class takes the best horses. Our horses were immediately taken as well, and we were given two burros in exchange. They said they needed them, as if that was enough explanation. Noncombatant Kwaaboi must use burros, cattle, or horses so broken and ill, that it would be kinder to destroy them. But they are prevented by superstition to kill such miserable animals, for they say, “Kill a horse, and you kill your luck.” So basically horses are used until they drop. And then they are eaten.

+ + + +

October 15, 2271

An armed caravan of traders came through with some bottles of vodka and some news. The vodka is made in one of the prosperous hill villages. The village is said to have a secret valley where they grow diverse kinds of potatoes, and with materials from the ancient mines, were able to construct a distillery. This caravan comes through twice a year, and their goods are valued so highly, the traders are given free passage and protection by both Taanen and Kwaaboi, who don’t want to ruin a good thing. The highly skilled caravan warriors who ride with them, tend to scare off the occasional lone outlaws and small rogue bands.

Yesterday Brothers James and Joshua, and Sister Edith, decided to join the trading caravan to head up into the mountains to trade with the people there called the Taanen. Our kind hosts gave them heavy coats with fine Kwaaboi designs, to keep them warm in the high mountains, as we only had our light woolen robes. It is risky and I do not have a good feeling about it, for the Mountain people are inveterate enemies with the Kwaaboi of the plains, and we will likely be considered Kwaaboi allies. But we cannot turn down a chance to make contact with the fearsome Taanen, and will trust in God. We prayed for each other.  They will be back in a month, if God allows it.

I will stay here with Sister Lorena. She is most thoroughly trained in medicines and the children are in bad shape. I will continue to work teaching about our agricultural methods and the new corn. We have noted how a few of the men look at Sister Lorena (Sister Edith is old like James and I) and I worry sometimes. We tell the people we monks are family members, to fit into their conceptions of clan and family alliances, but I don’t think they believe us. For one thing, it is not normal here for a healthy young woman to be unclaimed by a man, and at fifty years old I am a little old to be considered either her husband or brother. And none of us sleep together, which confuses them.

+ + + +

December 3, 2271

Still no news from Brothers James and John and Sister Edith, or about the caravan. It has been over a month now and I am getting worried.

Sister Lorena has become a favorite of the people, due to her youth and charm, and her skills with medicine, and the children adore her. The adults, both men and women, pester her though, because it has become apparent we monks are celibate and do not have relations with each other, sleeping apart. This, they cannot understand, living almost only by passion and practicality. Rutting, warring, and drinking seem to be the main motivation of all of them, although they have rudimentary ideas of God and the spiritual life. Today for example, their elderly shyster “doctor” (really just a sort of herbalist and conjurer) came with his two hulking sons on their horses to make a formal marriage proposal for Lorena to me as the male of her family.

He said, “Why does this woman still not have a husband? Pick one of us. I am a man of knowledge and though old, am still capable of fathering children. My two sons here are young and strong, and in need of more wives as well. She must have a husband. Pick one of us, and let us make the arrangements. It is not natural for such a woman to be alone and childless.”

Lorena suddenly grabbed me, and said, “Robert is my husband.”

The doctor looked at her suspiciously. “Yet you do not sleep with him. I think you are lying.”

She looked at me, and then pulled my head to hers, kissing me fully on the lips. The doctor widened his eyes but waited to see what my reaction would be. One son drew in his breath. Such behavior in front of others is not a matter for those outside the family to see.

So I wrapped my arms around her and kissed her back deeply. Soon I forgot the doctor and his sons, knowing only Lorena, as we embraced, and I lost my ability to think about our visitors as we kissed. There was only Lorena. It was so ...beyond description. It was only the second time I had kissed a woman on the mouth in my lifetime. When we finally broke our embrace, the doctor and his sons were gone. She pushed me from her and walked away.

What does this mean? I cannot dare to think of it, so I will go meditate. Preferably in the cold, cold Seri River at the edge of the village!

+ + + +

October 19, 2271

So my hopes, the ridiculous hopes of a foolish aging man, have been dashed. Lorena has been polite but distant, and she avoids me when she can. Okay, fine. Message received. It’s funny how even a monk trained in self-awareness can still be so easily deceived by his own desires. I thought I was better than this.

^^^^^[A large section of the book is torn out here]^^^^^^

June 5, 2272

The corn is sprouting and things are well enough.

It took us some time to recover from the shock of learning of the deaths of our Brothers James and John, and our Sister Edith last fall. The caravan leaders were sympathetic and explained what had happened. Encountering a large warparty of several hundred Taanen on their way to the trading place, the Taanen had recognized the winter coats of the monks and marked them as Kwaaboi. So the caravan had to give them up or be wiped out, but suffering death as martyrs, they now rest in Heaven with God. In any case, both life and work must go on.

Though rough-mannered and violent, these Kwaaboi are a people of law and custom. Their laws are strict and breaking their laws can result only in one of three sentences: payment to the offended, death, or banishment, which is in effect, just a delayed death sentence, because those who are alone out on there plains will surely die, by beast, by enemy, or by the elements. They are guided in their everyday lives by innumerable proverbs. A few I hear often:

“Prevent your neighbor from eating poison, for it is you who will be kept aawake all night by his screams of pain.”

“When an unmarried woman’s leg is made moist by a man, she by law becomes his wife.”

“Never turn your back on the mountains.”

“A man’s children is the proof that God smiles.”

“An enemy left to live is an enemy left alive to kill you later.”

“God smiles but His laughter is vicious.”

+ + + +

July 18, 2272

The corn is growing well, and it should only be a few more weeks until we can harvest some. I have taught the people and they have been worthy pupils. However there have been some developments that trouble me.

Several of the men come with food for Lorena to cook and are now eating at our campsite regularly, enjoying Lorena’s cooking and her company. It is wife-stealing season. We maintain the appearance of husband and wife, even sleeping by each other when it is cold. But we do not have intimate relations and lay within our separate blankets. There is no privacy here, and I wake sometimes, to see different people peering in our window. They know, I have no doubt.

Today, one of the men eating with us, Cheff, paused and looked at me. “We know you are not her husband. You do not copulate, it is known. Life must continue, new babies must come to replace the many who die. She must choose a husband or we will choose from amongst ourselves. This is the will of God. Do not delay further.” Then he continued to eat.

After they left, I tried to talk to Lorena, to tell her we can just leave now, steal a horse and go west. We might not make it but we could try. She said we both know this would be no good, as they would just follow us and capture us within a day at most. And as a horse thief, I would be killed and as a foreigner and the wife of a thief, she would be enslaved. I tell her we could fight, but she just said to me, sadly and without scorn, which hurt all the more, “You are no warrior, Robert.”

Then I said carefully, so as to seem casual, “We could really become man and wife. We can have intimate relations, and then they will see and leave us alone.” Oh truly, it was the Evil One stirring in me at that moment. I had visions of our life together, of children, of happiness.

But Lorena just said, “No, Robert. Don’t be foolish. Don’t betray your vows. I won’t be the reason for your betrayal. I will do what I have to do, when I have to do it. But I won’t harm your relationship with God.”

I had no words, no way to make her understand that I did love her, and that I didn’t care. She just turned away. So I left to work in the fields. When I don’t know what else to do, work is the salve that comforts me. I worked until I couldn’t work, and I fell asleep in the fields all night.

+ + + +

July 19, 2272

I came back from the fields today and something terrible happened. As I came to our lodge, I could hear a panicked tone in Lorena’s voice. “Robert? Is that you?”

I saw three men there, the doctor and his two sons. The seedy old “doctor” was leaning over her, as she cradled one of the children she had been treating for earache. The old man held a roughly made cigar of herbs, and was blowing smoke into the child’s ear. But he had a cunning look in his eye, and was focused on her thigh. Too late, I saw it, the thin thread of saliva coming from his mouth and landing on her bare thigh.

He looked up at me in triumph. He chuckled, and said, “As our custom says, ‘When an unmarried woman’s leg is made moist by a man, she by law becomes his wife.’” We all can see the shine on her thigh. He laughed. I moved to push him away, but his two sons advanced, holding their iron swords to my throat. I could do nothing.

I avoided her look. I just stood there helplessly as the sons wrapped her in a blanket, and put her on one of the horses. The old doctor was just cackling away. Lorena was silent and emotionless, sitting there and looking at me, before she turned her back and they rode away.

Trembling with rage, I went to work in the fields. The birds were eating the corn and I screamed at them, running wildly, waving my arms. The people stared at me and some of the children cried for Lorena. I returned to the hut, and grabbed a blazing firebrand. I ran to set fire to the cornfields because I wanted these bastards to starve.

But I couldn’t even do that, because the only good thing left of me is this corn. And so I couldn’t do it.

+ + + +

Early January, 2273

The good news is I have found a new life as a dedicated drunk. I sit much of the day and night with four or five other old men, and we just drink. Sometimes we laugh and sometimes we fight.

That monastery with its ideals of peace and love may have messed up my head in some ways (“God smiles but His laughter is vicious” is my new favorite Kwaaboi proverb…poor Lorena), but I learned some good things there too, especially how to ferment! We brewed dozens of jars of corn beer in some of the earthenware jugs I showed them how to make. Now I just drink the corn beer, and then drink even more corn beer until I sleep. I don’t really keep track of dates anymore, but I figure it is sometime early in the New Year, 2273.

Sometimes we also make a mixture out of corn beer and juniper berries, and drink it. I don’t have proper equipment to distill. I wait when the nights are cold enough that the beer freezes and then we strain out the solids in the middle of the night, before it freezes too much. The stuff that is left we call “ice beer” and it has more of a kick, maybe not much, but more. This is the best we all agree. The rest of the slop we feed to the animals.  

I save my Happy Man plastic cup just for this special “ice beer” and we pass it around by his ear until morning, until we are happy and laughing. Occasionally a fight breaks out, but mostly we just visit over the oil lamps until late in the night, and sleep dreamlessly. It’s winter after all, and besides keeping warm and doing minor repairs, there isn’t much to do. Not for old drunk men who have no families.

+ + + +

Early Spring, 2273

I am drinking way too much. It is making me sick, but I don’t care. I just want it all to be over with. This dying is taking way too long. The men are disgusted, saying any fool can drink himself to death, but some of their wives try to get me to eat. I am sick and tired of living in manure and straw.

I wonder if Lorena is still alive. She must be pregnant by now, or might even have a kid. Probably does. I hope she’s ok. Oh, on second thought, I know Lorena, she’s tough. She’s ok. She'll deal. Especially if she has a little one to care for.

+ + + +

Late Spring, 2273

I was thinking about Lorena again, and decided to write something down that I remembered something from my first mission on the coast. I think I was still in my teens. It was really not that significant but it got me to thinking today. I don’t know why. I was visiting with Manuche the fisherman, who had brought one of his catch to me to identify. I remember the conversation going something like this:

“Brother Robert, what is this fish called?”

I examined it. It was more like a lobster or insect with many segments and tentacles. The Poison had done some weird things to the sealife that remained, but people had no choice other than to eat what they caught. So I looked it up in my handbook. It mostly looked like a cuttlefish. That was my best guess anyways. I read the entry for cuttlefish quickly and said, “There is a flat bone in it, that you can dry out and sell to people who keep birds. They tie it to the cage and the bird eats it for calcium.

Manuche said, “People keep birds? Why not just eat them?”

I said, “They keep them as pets, for company, and because they are beautiful to look at. They have wonderful songs sometimes.”

Manuche said, “Why, they may keep them in cages, but only so they can eat them later.” He spat and scoffed. His wife looked up from her bubbling pot.

I really hope Lorena had kids. I really do. That would have been her best chance all the way around.

There’s famine in the land again, and I don’t have much corn beer left. Only one small covered pot I hid out in the fields. Enough for maybe one more good drunk is all. I’m really not feeling well, so maybe I’ll tie one on tonight, and drink to Lorena, wherever she is.

+ + + +

Summer, 2273

I had been having a toothache developing for some weeks now, first as a general soreness in my right upper maxilla. Several of the people here are nursing toothaches, waiting for the traveling dentist to make his way along his route in the region. He is very secretive about his skills. People do the best they can, just suffering in silence or joking about it.

Sometimes they die waiting. Sometimes in great pain they try to pull or knock the tooth out, and usually they die anyways. But most just wait, hoping it will just go away or the dentist will appear or for some kind of a miracle. If Lorena was here, I would be okay, as she was a good dentist, but she’s not. I haven’t heard anything more about her, or even about the doctor and his sons. They all just seem to have disappeared after they took her away.

I’m not the only one with a toothache. Last night, several of us sat around the fire, talking about our toothaches. I held my red plastic cup, because the Happy Man smiling, cheered me up considerably.

Swiid said, “It is a curse from God, sent to punish us for our wickedness. To break us down, our minds, our bodies, to increase suffering.”

Cheke said, “No, it is a blessing, to help us learn to cope with pain and suffering. It refines our character, our spirit. We have a chance to become saints through our suffering, because as God wants more saints, God increases the suffering.”

Pol said, “It is just what happens. And then we die. God smiles but His laughter is vicious. What do you think, Robert?”

I said, “I don’t know, but listening to you fellows, I think you are all right.” They looked at me.

I said, “Is it not true that suffering is just part of being alive? That sooner or later one must suffer, somehow? It is like dying. It goes with being alive. You cannot escape it. But I think it is up to each person, how they use that suffering. If they allow it to just break them down, or if they use it to refine their spirit. In the end, death comes anyways. I would hope to die with a stronger spirit than with a broken mind, for who knows what we will need to endure after we die?”

I traced the smile of the Happy Man on the red Plastic Cup, and then with the same finger, I traced and then placed the same smile on my own face.

+ + + +

That was the last entry in the journal. When I finished reading it, I took that plastic cup and looked at it. And then I copied what that monk Robert wrote that he did. I traced the smile on the red plastic cup, and then traced and placed that smile on my own face. Truly, my Boss will be pleased.

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