Escape Pod 854: Pickled Roots and Peeled Shoots and a Bowl of Farflower Tea
Pickled Roots and Peeled Shoots and a Bowl of Farflower Tea
By Chaz Brenchley
there’s rue for you, and here’s some for me
Just that morning, she’d had a novice shave her head for her. He was a promising lad – no, more than promising, he was a promise halfway to being realised already – but still ridiculously young, all awkwardness and angles, nervous of his own body let alone anybody else’s. Let alone hers.
Of course he’d cut her. She’d felt the cold bite of the blade and then its sudden absence as he snatched his hands away, his suppressed cry of self-recrimination, the tentative pressure of a cloth to stem the bleeding. She raised a hand and laid it over his, pressing firmly, teaching him not to be shy. Not with her body, not with her blood.
When she took her hand away, he kept the pressure on a minute longer – again, the promise made actual, swift to learn – before peeling the cloth away and then holding it within her sight, because she still hadn’t turned her head, she still hadn’t moved at all except to give that lesson, and of course she should be shown what he had done.
She bowed her head, acknowledgement of his part and of hers, that she had bled on his cloth. One hand lifted to say that is behind us now, and she straightened her back and knelt as steady on her heels as she had been before, so that he could finish. It was a precept here, a fundamental, that no task was ever interrupted. Readiness, focus, detail: everything in order, and every one thing done before the next. That much he had learned already, and she felt the razor on her skin again; but this was a morning of lessons for him, seemingly.
Well, no boy had ever suffered much from having to learn how to take blood out of fabric. Anyone here could teach him. It was not her task today, though it was now certainly a part of his to seek the lesson.
Freshly scraped, she bowed to him as he to her. He scurried away with his blade, his bowls and cloths; she would sternly have suppressed the smile that rose at his puppy clumsiness, except that that too was something to be embraced, examined, contained. Nothing in her rule preached solemnity, but mockery was not to be tolerated, even in herself. Especially in herself. She considered that smile, determined that it was rooted in love and in hope and in anticipation of the man he would become, and let it stand.
She moved outside in the wake of his turbulence, and stood quiet and receptive on the steps below the shelter. The planet turned beneath her restful feet, bringing the sloth sun up above the mountains. This would be a good morning to gather and glean, out on the slopes, under the trees’ canopy; she could work her garden later, once the hammer heat had passed.
She collected a sister-adept, because her rule preached both solitude and community, and a companionable silence was the finest realisation of both. To that small party she added a brawny novice – not Pamien, because she kept no favourites here, and besides, no one could ever have called him brawny – and a pair of netting sacks.
Down to the river, and they took the boy out between them along the stepping-stones that led across the bitter, hurrying water. Halfway over, she held up an arm to stop them all. He did – just – manage to keep his balance and his feet, neither careering into her nor sliding helplessly from his stone into the water. She had known both in earlier years, with earlier novices.
She faced downstream, and settled herself cross-legged on the stone. Beyond him, her sister-adept did the same.
“Is, is this a teaching?” the boy stammered, hurrying to follow suit, too large to fit easily on the wet and narrow stone.
“Of course. Have we taught you nothing yet? First, tell us everything you know about current and flow, about strength and power and source.” That would not detain them long; this lad was the opposite of promising. Truly, the elders of the community had kept him more for his strength and willingness than for any potential they might see in him. Nevertheless: no teaching was ever entirely wasted. And they kept no mules here, and it was a long, long walk down from the mountain, and a longer one back up when you were burdened. A broad back and tireless legs were not to be lightly dismissed. “And then, when you are quite done and we have meditated on your words awhile, plunge your hands into the water. You will find a fish trap on either side of your stone.”
At this time of year the spratlings should be hatching high above, and not so much swimming as being hurled downstream to the great still lake below, where they would live out their sober middle years growing large and strong enough to tackle the strenuous and ultimately fatal climb back to their spawning-grounds. The line of stepping-stones was only the visible end of a system of underwater walls that steered the little fish through to the traps, while making restful pools outside that channel for their exhausted elders to muster their resources for the final effort. There was teaching of course in everything, and come late summer when the stream was lowest the novices would be wading thigh-deep in the still-chilly waters, learning the patterns of flow and thrust as they rebuilt walls damaged in these surging currents now.
Today, though, two teeming traps meant a lesson on everyone’s plate tonight: structure and similarity, potential, growth. Oh, and not to get caught in a trap.
An hour later, Borin’s face and hands might be badly scratched and his robe smeared with blood and lichen in more or less equal measure, but his second sack was heavy with the tender shoots of twistangle vine, gathered from high in the canopy. His seniors were discoursing helpfully on the nature of spiral climbing, the virtues of energy and range. He was perhaps paying less attention than he might, under his double load; even so, his young ears were the first to catch the sound echoing up from the valley and feeling its way through the trees.
“Forgive me, sisters – but isn’t that the bell?”
They paused to listen, and now it came more clearly through the forest’s noise: a low throbbing call and nothing natural, entirely the work of man. The work of men, indeed, who had carried bars of bronze all this way and then built themselves a furnace to melt it down, dug a pit in a dry paddy and cast the bell right there: a gift, they said, a love-offering, a blessing to the wise.
Three strokes, and three, and the three that all but he had missed: “Visitors,” she said.
“Yes,” said her sister-adept. “Perhaps we should hurry back?”
“No,” she said. “We should never hurry; we should only ever arrive in time. They can be welcomed without us, and shown to the guest-house, and made comfortable. And I want to dig fallonroot from the bell field, now they’re here. I believe we will need that tonight.”
So, they had come at last. There had really been no doubt; they were certain to come in the end, so why not now? It had taken them long enough, longer than she ever expected. Now was the moment, then. Now was always the moment. None better.
She led the way out of the trees, through her rampant garden and towards the compound below. Yes: there between the scattered roofs of the compound, down on the lowest terrace, men – and they would certainly all be men – were standing in strict ranks, five and five, with two more facing them. An officer and a sergeant, perhaps, with ten troopers to back them, to make assurance doubly sure? In jungle uniforms, no doubt: they would be hot under the sun and horribly uncomfortable, heavily equipped and certainly armed. Not expecting trouble, of course, but armed anyway. And treating the compound like a barracks, standing on parade in the closest they could find to a square. Demonstrating their hardiness, perhaps, dismissive of a community in retreat, refusing to seek shade or even minimal relief in the simplicity of the guesthouse.
Well. She could do nothing about them from up here.
“Borin, take the roots and twistangle to the well-house and scrub them thoroughly before you bring them to me. Scrub yourself, too, and change your robe. Just give me the fish now, I’ll clean them myself.”
She heaved the damp sack onto her shoulder and headed towards the separate gather of roofs that she liked to call her kitchen.
“Shouldn’t we go down to speak with them?” her sister-adept asked, a little anxiously.
“We? No. You certainly should, if none of the other elders have thought to do so yet. Me, I have a meal to prepare.”
It wasn’t fair, perhaps – it was she they had come for, after all – but even so. They had sought her this far; they could seek her a little further. She would not go to them. Not even this least little distance, another flight of steps.
When he came to her, when he did come he came alone, out of uniform, as far as she could see unarmed. Perhaps he meant to be disarming.
He was young, and hence unfamiliar, but she knew him none the less, she knew his type: privileged, ambitious, powerful. Political. She’d need to be careful around this one. What he wouldn’t know, of course, was that he needed to be careful around her.
“Major Halder,” he said, with that stiffly military little bow that officers liked to affect in lieu of a salute, when they were out of uniform or dealing with civilians. Or both. “And you are the pilot Marelle, I believe?”
“Here,” she said gently, “I am known as Lanaya. We leave our worldly names behind, when we come to this place.”
“Of course. Lanaya, certainly. Should I say Sister Lanaya?”
“There is no need. We have little use for titles here. Or for rank; your men will be no less welcomed than you are yourself. I hope you have not left them still out in the sun?”
“No, no. I dismissed them to wash and change; they’ll be doing their laundry by now, I expect. It took us some days to get here. We were told it wasn’t possible to fly.”
“That’s right, yes. Some magnetic peculiarity of the mountains, perhaps? Airborne vehicles tend … not to survive.”
“Pilots thrive, on the other hand, I see?” After a moment’s pause – an absolute silence, on her part – he went on, “You seem very well. I am relieved; I had worried that – what is it, twenty years? – of meagre rations and little exercise might have seen you … diminished. Or worse.”
She laughed. “Is that what you expected to find? A collection of half-starved hermits hiding in their huts? Let me assure you, Major—”
“—I thought you set no store by titles?—”
“—No, but you do—there is no life I have found more healthy than the way we live here. I scour these mountains for our food, and that is exercise enough for anyone; and no one goes hungry under my watch. As you will learn this evening, if you will excuse me now…?”
A gesture of her arm towards the great pots steaming over charcoal fires, and she thought he would leave her then, with another of those crisp little bows. There was little that the military class valued above good manners. But he paused, with an expression of genuine curiosity on his face, and said, “When did this happen, that you became a … cook? You, of all people?”
“When I couldn’t be a pilot any longer,” she said, “and I needed something actual to offer.”
“I see. I … see,” he murmured. “Well, we can recover you from this, I believe. I am here to call you back, you know. Of course you can be a pilot. We will welcome you home.”
“I know you would,” she said, “but of course I cannot come.”
A momentary hesitation, and then, yes, that brisk salute. Not quite one soldier to another – she had been a pilot, after all, never military but always to be respected; while he was something else entirely, military by profession and political in nature, his eyes on some other goal than this – but still, something comradely in it. Combative and comradely. He wouldn’t dream of taking no for an answer.
There was a technique she knew, to gut and fillet these little fish – any little fish, which was rather the point – one-handed and without a knife, using just thumbnail and fingers. She let her mind dwell there for a moment, a considered point of time, and then decided to leave them whole this day. They could be fried crisp and eaten entire; the young liked them better that way, and they’d appreciate the guidance of bones and fins and belly, when it came to the teaching. Which it would. She knew this man; he’d bring her to it soon. Soon enough. Over dinner.
The fish could wait, then, floating in a bowl of cool water refreshed with slices of shem. The fruit was too bitter to eat in hand, but its sharp juices would infuse the flesh with flavour, cleanse the gut and soften the bones. Meanwhile, she reached for the basket of scrubbed fallonroot. These she would peel and slice and set to pickle quickly in separate bowls, separate liquors, pink and green and purple. Colour was always a lesson in itself.
And then the vineshoots: young as they were, those too would need peeling. They were thick as a man’s thumb already, even at the tip. Another month, they’d be too tough to be worth the harvest. Borin could save his skin. If anyone was left here, who might have sent him climbing…
Those tasks behind her, of course there were more ahead. That was too obvious even to be a teaching. No novice ever came to her, who didn’t know that already.
She was on her knees when he came a second time, reaching down into one of the great half-buried earthenware jars, drawing tangles of fermented greens out of their pungent brine. These leaves were last winter’s crop, hot on their own account and hotter now after steeping so many months, packed down in salt and spices.
She coiled them into a bowl, wiped her bare arm with a cloth and peered up at him, where he stood against the sun. That was deliberate, surely. He was the type to make a bold silhouette of himself, to look down his own shadow, to have her squint into the light.
She said, “May I help you, Major?”
He said, “It was a compliment to you and a cost to us, that we hiked all through this country to come find you. When they told us not to fly, that it was not possible to fly, no one spoke of magnetic abnormalities. They said it was forbidden, no more than that.”
“Ah, yes. Certainly we are a community that treasures the peace we find here. Rotor-blades and engines… Well. They would not be welcome.”
“No. That was my understanding. So we came as we did, out of courtesy to you and your … community. I might hope for some courtesy in return: not that you would walk with us, perhaps, but at least that you will take me with you as to why. Why not.”
“Major, I walked away from you long ago.”
“You did. Our need for pilots was great even in those days, and it is greater now; you are a rare breed, hard to find and hard to train and hard to keep alive. Our losses have been brutal. We can build ships in plenty, and we have, but they are useless without pilots to helm them. You were always exceptional, even among your cohort, a leader and a teacher, still a legend even when none of our surviving flyers knew you. And yet here you are, in hiding from the world and from the war, seeking shelter from a slew of monks…”
“Say in rejection, rather than in hiding. I have come a long, long way, not to fight with you. I was a merchant pilot, not a soldier. Never that. I flew passengers and cargo, all through human space. I had all the reach and breadth of the Limb at my fingers’ ends, I had the shift and flow of n-space in my head – which is the greater loss, and which you will never understand, and I tell you anyway in courtesy, yes – and your war took that away from me. There is no trade now, except in weaponry and death. You want me to deal in such matters on your behalf, and I will not. Am I plain?”
“Admirably so; and – in courtesy, again – I will match your plainness with my own, and gladly. I was sent to invite you back, but I mean to take you in any case, willing or otherwise. My men … could cause great harm here, and do great damage to something you hold dear. I dislike to threaten you, but – well, as you say. We are at war. And – plainly – a little desperate for strength. We will use what we have. And we do have you.”
“Not with my consent,” she said.
“No,” he said, “seemingly not. Though that may change. We must talk more.”
“Of course,” she said. “At dinner.”
He bowed again, and was gone again. She went to her sauce jars and stirred, and sniffed, and considered. The recent, or the aged? Or the ancient? Everything builds to a narrative, everything has its part in the teaching.
As the sun dropped down to the mountains’ rim, so too did the cold air of the mountain come down in its turn, to mingle with the still-hot air rising from the valley. Now was the perfect time to sit cross-legged at one long table, all the community together and their guests among, and eat and learn and practise, while the sky slowly darkened up above.
She set the major on her one hand and his sergeant on her other, at the centre of the table, to have them close when trouble came. Of course there would be trouble: that was the point and purpose she’d been working to all day, all these years. The troopers she scattered between the adepts and the novices, and trusted those to deal when the crisis came, but these two she wanted for herself. That might be vanity, or greed, and even so. Some tasks were hers to do.
As was the meal, hers to describe, hers to explain:
“Here,” she said, using chopsticks to unfold a budding flower where it floated in a bowl, where it had been steeping for hours now, “this is farflower tea: a lesson in perspective, for we who hold ourselves apart. It lends so little of itself to the water, it almost, almost might as well not be there at all; and yet without it, the water would be a solitude, an emptiness, but here it is touched by presence. As we all are, here or beyond.”
She dipped a ladle, filled a cup, passed it to the major; another to the sergeant. Then she passed the ladle to a brother-adept, to serve all the table else.
The major sipped, and frowned, and sipped again. “I … see exactly what you mean,” he said.
No, you don’t, she thought, you really don’t.
“The flavour is … almost nothing,” he said, “and yet it sings in my throat. I could drink this all day.”
“Please,” she said, gesturing. “We have plenty.”
Novices brought plates to everyone, the fresh-pickled fallonroot, a slice of each colour on every plate and every slice showing the same swirled pattern of holes spiralling in to the centre, like a galaxy revealed.
“One hot, one sour, one bitter,” she explained to the curious major. “They remind us first to be cautious, because the world is rich and deep and dangerous beyond our knowing, and yet never to be tentative as we reach out. Touch your tongue to the pickle, and the concentration will overwhelm your senses; bite through boldly to the sweet raw root beneath, and the one will temper the other, and you will experience the whole. Still potent, but not to overmaster.”
Funbling a little with unfamiliar chopsticks, the major lifted a slice to his mouth, and bit boldly. His eyes widened a little, but he chewed and swallowed, considered a little while, and then nodded. “Yes. It takes me to a limit, but it doesn’t push me through. And the experience is … deliciously unnerving. Unnervingly delicious. Yes. Thank you for the guidance.”
To judge by the low buzz of humour from her people up and down the table, others among his men had been less well advised, or else less heedful. She was aware of gulping, of gasps, of calls for more farflower tea. She didn’t look around. She kept eyes and focus on her own plate, and on the men on either side of her. The sergeant had bulled his way already through his serving, and was sweating profusely but showing no sign of weakness else. Nor, blessedly, any sign of interrupting. He was content to leave the talking to his officer. He would listen, and hold himself in reserve as a good subordinate does, all his attention on the major. Which left her free to do the same.
“I shall be sorry,” he said, “if you don’t choose to come with us voluntarily. Obviously, I am prepared for that contingency,” and far too mannerly to gesture towards his men: no conflict at the table. Unless she precipitated it, of course. No doubt they were all well briefed. And poised at trigger-point, ready to act at a word.
Not armed, though. They had left all their weaponry in the guest-house. That again was his courtesy, and her relief. Sometimes the simplest solutions were the best.
Cautious but never tentative, she said, “You are only a dozen. We are three times as many.”
He snorted. “A dozen soldiers, at the peak of fitness. They have little to fear from monks. Did you imagine that the long march here would leave us weak, or weary?”
“I had supposed you might like to rest a day or two, before you start for home,” she said mildly.
“No. We leave in the morning. With you.”
“I think not. You do remember, I am sure, that there is a long tradition of martial arts in … secluded communities like ours? The discipline here is as physical as it is philosophical. I would pit my youngest novice – see her there, between those two hulking brutes of yours? – against either of those, any of your men. Against the sergeant here, if he likes.”
“Just say the word, sir,” the sergeant growled.
“A wrestling match, to entertain us as we eat? I … don’t think so, no. My men are also disciplined and trained to fight bare-handed, and I shouldn’t wish to see anyone hurt, from either camp. Besides, I think you’re bluffing.”
“Do you? Well. By all means, let us leave the matter untested. I believe we are all done with this course.”
“These greens speak to us of time and immersion, of depth, of maturity and wisdom. The sauce I used is as old as this settlement; it has been brewing in its jar since all this was bare stamped earth and hope, and a few willing hands to the work. The greens themselves had half a year in brine, to let the flavours wake. Those jars you saw lie deep in earth, for equilibrium. The passing seasons barely register; neither heat nor chill will touch them. I believe you’ll find a calmness at their core, to echo that.”
“You have … an odd approach to thinking about food,” he said. “Indeed, I begin to wonder whether you’re actually talking about the food at all.”
“Oh,” she said, “there are lessons all around us, of course. Meaning in everything. But trust me, I am very much talking about the food. We do not trade in metaphor here, but hard reality.”
“Well.” He ate distractedly now, learning nothing, something on his mind. His free hand toyed with something in his pocket: not a weapon, she thought. Not directly a weapon.
“You drive me to this,” he said, taking it out at last, making it plain again. Honestly, she thought, she could almost like this man, though never anything he stood for.
A button, on a box. That was clear enough.
“It sends a signal to a satellite,” he said, “that we have set overhead to watch you. There is no way else to thread a message through these mountains, but this will bring an aircraft straight to me. Another dozen men, and heavier weapons than we could carry. Enough to destroy this place entire, and all in it. All but you. I will fly you out tonight.”
He pressed the button, and a small light flashed.
“It is done,” he said. “They will be here shortly. I hope you will be ready, and make things easy. For all of us. It would be a shame to leave all this in flames and sorrow.”
“It would,” she agreed. “Is there another button, to send it back again?”
“There is not.”
“Ah, well. That does seem a shame.”
The fish were crisp and hot yet on their plates, when the first sound of engines came sliding seemingly down the mountainslope to find them. Word had spread somehow, all up and down the table; everyone looked.
“There!” One of the soldiers pointed, and yes: there was a light against the darkening sky, a solidness. Moving, coming closer.
She said, “Pamien.”
The boy stood, nervous and certain in himself, both at once. As he should be, both. She was almost amused to see that he held one of the tiny fish between his fingers. He might be a promise half fulfilled, but he was young yet; he needed the reassurance of touch. Not of figure, not of metaphor: sometimes the map and the territory share the same reality.
He waited for clarity, for purpose, to be sure: until the twin rotors were clear to be seen in the craft’s own light, the shadow of weapon pods below. Yes, this was all that had been promised; and plenty large enough to take the major away with all his men here and all his reinforcements and her besides. Well.
She might have nodded to Pamien, instruction or consent, but there was no need. With a twist of his fingers, he tore the spine out of the little fish.
She had time, just, to be surprised, to wonder did I teach him that?
Then the craft exploded.
After the racket of its motors, the explosion itself was almost quiet: an abrupt flare of light and colour, a dull heavy sound, a chaos of disintegration, falling.
The silence after, she took care to use.
Speaking quickly, loudly, clearly, she said, “There is no point any of you running for your weapons. You would find them gone. I suspect my novices have thown them all into the river. Similarly, please do not think you can assault any of my people and survive it.” She didn’t need an actual twistangle vineshoot in her hands to let every one of the soldiers feel it around their throat, tightening. And then – to make assurance doubly sure – inside their throat, climbing up from their belly, filling their airway, rising into their mouth, reaching for the light.
When the last of them had subsided, choking and frantic, she lifted her control and gave them ease, while ensuring that each one had two of her people standing over them. Let them wonder, if they cared, whether she had been bluffing earlier; they knew she was not bluffing now.
To the major, she said, “You thought this was a monastery I ran to, seeking refuge? This is a school. I built it. We did, my first pupils and I,” her first generation of novices, her adepts now, the seniors at this table. “It was their first teaching, first steps on their path to pilotry. You have no idea, none, what it takes to steer a spacecraft through n-space, the mental disciplines they have to learn, and then learn to apply. Most pilots cannot teach it at all. I found a way, an exercise of years. You have tasted a very little of it today – and seen a very little of the side-effects. I beg you will not have me show you more.”
At first he didn’t answer, he only breathed. Then, at last, he looked up to where she was standing over him and said, almost in a tone of betrayal, “I thought you were people of peace?”
“Oh, no,” she said. “I said only that I would have no part of your war, that I would not be a soldier for you. My people and I, we stand opposed to your government, your military, your philosophy entire. We have to. The training, the teaching here, the ways we have to guide ships safely from one planet to another: all those militate against your ways of thought. We cannot but resist you, tooth and nail.”
“How, then? By hiding here, where there are no ships?”
“Until now, yes. But you have built us ships, and my people are ready for them now.” Well, perhaps not Borin. There would be a place for him, though. A place for them all. “We will go to take them,” and you know now how we can do that, from a guarded military base, “and fly to join those who fight against you. With luck, with work,” with focus and stretch and immersion, with everything I teach these children every day, “we will soon enough have the peace I treasure, all along the Limb of human reach. Without you and your kind breaking everything to dust as you march by.
“We will be gone within the hour. Don’t think to follow us. Rest here, as I told you, major; take the time you need, recruit your strength before you tackle the path back. Eat whatever you can find, drink tea – and think about it as you do. That above all.”
He might even do that, she thought. He might. That was a leaven of hope, to season all her regrets about this day and everything it brought her, everything it took away. Then she clapped her hands briskly together, bowed over them like the monk she never was, and led her people away.
Once again, that was Pickled Roots and Peeled Shoots and a Bowl of Farflower Tea, by Chaz Brenchley.
Chaz has this to say about the story: I do love the way Zombies Need Brains spells out a close theme every year, and then welcomes a broad interpretation. This particular story was inspired by an episode of Chef’s Table (for I am a total and unashamed foodie, yes), where their focus was on a Korean monk and her temple food.
I enjoyed how the story shifted from one of apparently passive pacifism and withdrawal from conflict, to one of deliberate and methodical planning and eventual coordinated action. Nonviolence as a principle and instrument for social change is vital and powerful, but it can also be wielded as a bludgeon to stifle dissent in the hands of the oppressor. To some, the refusal to reach for violence as a tool is perceived as an exploitable weakness, when instead there is wisdom in choosing the appropriate tool for each task, and the appropriate time and place for each to be used.
Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution noncommercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Please do share it.
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And our closing quotation this week is from Paulo Freire, who said: Every relationship of domination, of exploitation, of oppression is by definition violent, whether or not the violence is expressed by drastic means.
Thanks for joining us, and may your escape pod be fully stocked with stories.
About the Author
Chaz Brenchley has been making a living as a writer since the age of eighteen. He is the author of thrillers, fantasies, ghost stories, science fiction and more. He has also published as Daniel Fox and Ben Macallan. 2021 saw the publication of his “Best Of” collection, Everything in All the Wrong Order. He is currently writing girls’ boarding-school stories set on Mars. His work has won multiple awards. In his fifties he married and moved from Newcastle to California, with two squabbling cats and a famous teddy bear. His website is www.chazbrenchley.co.uk, and he can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Substack and Patreon.
About the Narrator
Dani Daly is a jack of many trades, master of none. But seeing as she loves the rogue life, that’s ok with her. You can hear stories she’s narrated on all four Escape Artists podcasts, StarShipSofa, Glittership and Asimov’s Science Fiction podcast and you can contact her on Twitter @danooli_dani if you’d like her to read for you.