[2] Volume I, Summer's Night - Part One: Sescut and Cutset, the Mother and Child (a)

The islands of Sescut and Cutset rise from the black sea as mounds of yet deeper black. As one arrives sailing by boat through the night one somehow glimpses them before they are really there, sensing them as looming premonitions in the great cold distance. Then before one realises it they are present: gaps in the firmament, long, low and pitiless, lying on the horizon, preventing the stars from meeting the ocean. Eventually, one sees the palest glow dancing around them, as though they are decorated with a firmament all of their own, and one wonders whether that glow imperceptibly gave warning of their presence before they became visible. (It is much later that one realises that that this glow must originate in the infamous illuminous fungal forests which grow on those dark islands and are frequently the only reason their names are known in other lands.)

I arrived on Sescut's largest port, Telluctet, as most visitors to the island do. It is the only place on either island where human beings live in any large numbers, huddled around the dark waters of its bay in their brick houses as if for protection against the land itself, and warming themselves with the orange glow of fires. The native inhabitants of Sescut despise the sea and fear it, and are it seems only too happy to allow humans to make the coastal areas their home; inland, however, there are no human dwellings of any kind. The people I talked to in Telluctet were at pains to impress upon me that the instant I moved outside of the narrow band of their dwellings on the shore I would be considered a trespasser in native lands. I found that in fact I was more frequently considered a guest by the natives than an interloper, but I was never under any illusion, in all my time on Sescut, that I was anything other than an outsider whose presence was at the sufferance of its owners.

Telluctet is a bleak and dull place, industrious rather than cultured, and fearful rather than pioneering, and so it is barely worthy of describing in detail, except for two matters of interest.

First, political organisation. For reasons which are historically obscure, the human population of Telluctet are insistent that all are born equal and, hence, all are equally entitled to rule over each other. They therefore discount heredity even to the point of perpetuating the perverse notion that, since traits such as intelligence, wisdom or strength are passed down from generation to generation, and therefore nobody can justifiably claim to be intelligent, wise or strong on his own merits, this means that nobody is more entitled to rule than anybody else even if it could be proved that he was the most intelligent, wise, or strong person in Telluctet. Since he did not earn those traits himself, he is of equal standing as the most stupid and feckless of his compatriots, who likewise did nothing to achieve those unfortunate characteristics other than to inherit them. It also stands to reason for these people of Telluctet, perhaps most remarkably of all, that since sex is also hereditary it too ought not to be taken account into rulership and hence both men and women are equally entitled to lead.

The only system of rulership which they believe to be just, then - and even the people of Telluctet will concede that there are circumstances in which a ruler is required to make decisions - is one in which the position of Mayor is passed on each year at random. The way this happens is as follows. At the start of every year after the first storm (the people of Telluctet measure their years by the beginning of the stormy season which begins periodically and predictably, sweeping in hurricanes from the ocean to the east), all the adult men and women gather at the water's edge on the shore. This is quite a sight: hundreds of them, all in a row along the beach, set twenty or so paces back from where the waves are washing ashore; stood there swathed in their warmest clothes, illuminated by the glow from torches and braziers, all staring out to sea and waiting impatiently for what is about to take place. They stand there in awkward silence, each suspicious of his or her neighbours, because every one of them knows that, potentially, any one of them is capable of being chosen and will, in the next moment, be the next Mayor with dominion over all the rest.

Eventually, the long awaited moment takes place. From the East, coming closer, floating on the black waves, they appear: a vast swarm of blue jellyfish, swept along in the wake of the storm, and clustered together in flotillas thousands strong. Each is barely the size of a man's fist, but together their throngs cover the ocean's surface for a mile or more. Their arrival is inevitable and invariable, I was told: the first storm of the season always drags them from somewhere far beyond the horizon, across the wide sea, and then flings them, who knows how much longer afterwards and after what distance they have traveled, onto the shores of Sescut where they wash up on the beach in their dying multitudes.

The people of Telluctet watch their approach with great intent. They wait in coiled tension. The jellyfish swarm is barely visible at first, in the pale starlight, but eventually the glow from the braziers on the shore finds it as it comes ever closer. Finally, a wave sweeps the first flotilla ashore and they wash up onto the beach with the foam and spray of the water in a jumbled mess of rubbery bodies. The sloshing wave holds them there for a moment, and then recedes, sliding back to the sea, dragging the mass of jellyfish with it. As it retreats it deposits them behind it on the sand, and they lie there, dying in the torch light, like flotsam brought ashore after a wreck.

The people of Telluctet spring into action at this point. They know they have only a matter of seconds before the next wave comes in. Quickly, each of them begins to stride directly forward in time with the others. They march forward as one. The rule is simple: the first of them to stand on a jellyfish becomes the next Mayor. After a few strides, one of them stops, lifts up his hand, and bellows his triumph; those around him confirm it, and suddenly the rest of the population flocks towards him in a great yelling mass of excitement. The winner is hoisted onto shoulders and, the waves washing about their feet, the rest of them march him up back to town for him to take his rightful place as their leader.

That evening and all the next morning the children spend gathering the jellyfish and hauling them in buckets to their mothers: the Feast of the Jellyfish, as it is unimaginatively titled, goes on for days afterwards.

The second matter of interest is the system of duels which the young men of Telluctet fight with each other to while away their boredom when not fishing, drinking or sleeping. Whether because they have so little else to do other than concentrate on trivialities, or simply because young men of the town have been dueling in this way for so long, their duels have developed complex associated rituals which must be carried out precisely lest the duelists face severe sanctions from their peers. I observed some of these rituals during my time in Telluctet - from, of course a safe distance.

The duel begins by one youth whistling outside the house of another. This is known as "the rousing", and for the subject to fail to emerge to confront his challenger would be considered an act of the most despicable moral cowardice. He is to respond, instead, by coming to his door, flinging it open, and asking, "Who challenges?" The first youth shouts his name, and the subject then asks him, "Do you come armed?" The first youth responds "Yes, with a blade", and shows his knife to the subject and any others watching. The subject then draws his own knife and emerges into the street, and the two of them fight.

The aim of the duel is not to kill but to slice the non-knife-wielding hand of the opponent. To conceal the free hand behind the back or otherwise obviously attempt to avoid its injury is punished severely by the youth's peers (I was told that cutting off the hand in question is not uncommon, and indeed I saw several men in Telluctet who appeared to be missing their left hands). Rather, the only accepted way to duel is to hold one's free hand out from one's body at an obtuse angle, parallel to the shoulder. One must then advance on one's opponent and slash at his hand with one's knife while he returns the favour, the winner being determined by the first to draw blood on the hand in question.

The youths' peers watch the proceeding in silence and are forbidden from cheering or shouting encouragement or advice. When a winner is declared they congratulate him and commiserate with the loser; the winner is then cut across the top of the hand with a blade so that his own blood is also spilled. Most of the men of Telluctet have numerous scars on their hands, and many are missing fingers, thumbs, or are otherwise mutilated.

Such is the main pastime of hot-headed young men in a small isolated settlement in the permanent night.


Popular posts from this blog

[7] Volume I, Summer's Night - Part One, Sescut and Cutset, the Mother and Child (f)

[6] Volume I, Summer's Night - Part One, Sescut and Cutset, the Mother and Child (e)

[1] Author's Preface