PROSATIO SILBAN WAS ALONE.
True, he had the company of his faithful dray-beast, Onward. But as for others of the beefy cook’s own species, none were nearby for long miles – one reason why his surroundings were known as the Western Wides.
He had chosen the Wides a-purpose. Having spent a busy and profitable fortnight in the lacustrine island-city of epicurean Pormaris, reputedly the most decadent of the Uulian Commonwell’s Three Cities and Thousand Villages, his soul felt somewhat bruised and in need of quiet solitude. So, with open eyes and heart, he had set out in his galleywagon on the broad packed-dirt road running due west from Pormaris.
Save for the occasional immense baobab and outcrop of bluestone, the cook found himself the tallest feature within eyeshot. The drowsy warmth of the morning sun shone on small patches of sweet-smelling incense-grass, and the sporadic birdsong and soft droning of sapphire-bees wove an intoxicating soundscape. Prosatio Silban was two days out from the Reckless Hills (so called because sensible Uulians consider reckless anyone who passes them). With no particular ambition for a Commonwell return, and not knowing what else to do, he offered a humble acknowledgment to the Flickering Gods for having gotten this far.
“I do not know what I have done to deserve this joy, but I shall try to be worthy. This I affirm.”
“O Galien the All-Mother; Nyentei, Goddess of the Sojourners’ Refreshment; and Oliento, Patroness of Small Pleasures,” he murmured. “Our time here in this, the most interesting of all possible worlds, is both brief and fleeting. Therefore, I thank You for this day and my being in it. I do not know what I have done to deserve this joy, but I shall try to be worthy. This I affirm.”
It was the Uulian wise-woman Enna T’tomal who taught that prayers fell into three types: Favors, Gratitudes, and Astonishments; one could plead for something, give thanks, or recognize the miraculous. Prosatio Silban’s most oft- employed prayers were of the first and second category, and even after many years, he wasn’t sure yet whether he grasped the third. For that is the nature of awe – its object can seem new and ancient, vast and minuscule, imminent and transcendent, known and mysterious all at one and the same moment.
Prosatio Silban gently tugged on the plaited yak-hair reins. Onward answered with his signature rattling hoot and slowed to a halt. The cook was about to rummage beneath the driver’s seat for a fatberry-cake or two (Onward’s favorite food) when his attention was hooked by a huge, deep-blue sphere floating down toward him. A basket of sorts was suspended beneath it by thick ropes, and occupied by a single waving figure.
By Ghu the All-Crafter! he thought. What in or out of the many-fabled Exilic Lands is this?
As the sphere neared him, Prosatio Silban saw that the occupant wore the long beard, blue tunic and wide-brimmed straw hat of an Intuid – one of the mystic M’zei sages from the remote territories north of the Commonwell. “Halloo!” the cook called as the basket touched down on the road not far ahead.
The newcomer raised an eyebrow. “(‘you-now’ know our language)?”
The Intuid lowered his hand. “(‘your’ presence may enlighten our eyes),” he said. The cook bowed, answering in perfectly accented M’zei, “(futures precede us).”
The newcomer raised an eyebrow. “(‘you-now’ know our language)?”
“To be precise, I know your greetings,” the cook replied in smiling Uulian. “I am Prosatio Silban, the Cook For Any Price. Decades ago, I spent nearly a year in your holy city. But I can understand your speech only after a fashion.”
“Then shall speak your-plural own tongue,” said the Intuid, doing so. “Called Avileinu. Over-traveling Exilic Lands – and your-plural Commonwell – to see what may be seen. Why so far from cities and villages?”
“That would take some time to explain,” said the cook. “Perhaps we can pass it in yava-inspired colloquy?”
Avileinu nodded and spread his arms wide. “Cannot think of anything rather done,” he said.
Soon, Prosatio Silban had deployed a table-and-chairs from beneath his galleywagon and set up a large yava-pot on a small tabletop grill. Before long the immediate area was filled with the bitter-minty smell of the famous M’zei stimulant.
The cook filled Avileinu’s cup before his own, and nodded at the sphere. “What is this… apparatus? of yours, and how does it work? I have never seen the like.”
“Quite simple,” replied his visitor. “Burning spirits of distilled palm-wine heat air, caught by sphere’s open bottom, and lifted.”
“How do you steer it?”
“No steering. Wind-borne travel. Can only go up and/or down with spirit-fire.” He paused, grinning. “Might say: much like life.”
“I had that same thought,” Prosatio Silban said, eyes crinkling. “In fact, I had that thought as you approached. I was thinking of the so-called Three Prayers.”
“’Three prayers?’” asked Avileinu, sipping at his cup.
The cook began to relate his understanding of Mistress Enna’s teaching, but the Intuid raised an interruptive hand. “Words obscure important truth,” he said.
“What truth?” asked Prosatio Silban.
Avileinu shook his head. “Not three – only one.”
“(‘your’ speech cannot convey meaning of ‘this’ ‘type’),” said the Intuid.
“Not – what?”
“(‘your’ speech cannot convey meaning of ‘this’ ‘type’),” said the Intuid, slipping back into his own language. “(‘ i-now’ must use ‘my’ speech to explain – though ‘i-now’ actually speak of non-speech).”
“I am listening,” said the cook, cocking his head.
“(‘the’ ‘three’ prayers ‘you-now’ speak of ‘are’ actually one experience, without which we-all ‘are’ ‘alone’).”
“I am not certain I follow you. Are you speaking of one god in particular?”
“(no! M’zei ‘have’ no ‘gods,’ only ‘the’ eternal-moment. ‘the’ experience ‘is’ neither word nor thought. ‘it’ cannot ‘be’ spoken, because to name ‘it’ ‘is’ to destroy ‘it’ – and ‘it’ cannot ‘be’ destroyed.)”
“I do not understand…”
“Then shall show,” Avileinu said, and gestured.
The sun went out.
“Watch,” whispered the Intuid in response to the cook’s startled gasp.
Pitchy darkness gave way to a great golden flame producing neither sound nor heat. It receded to become the lambent, flickerless tip of an enormous candle. Three smaller, unlit candles danced and spun around it. Their dark wicks touched the fire and kindled – with no diminishment of the original flame.
Oh! thought the cook. ONE!
The quadruple candlelight faded by degrees to sunlight and the smell of warm incense-grass. Prosatio Silban found himself beaming, though he could not say why.
“(‘some’ experiences ‘also’ serve to make us feel un-alone),” murmured Avileinu.
The cook continued to grin. The Intuid laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. “(thank you for ‘the’ yava ‘and’ company, but ‘i-now’ must ‘continue’ ‘my’ ‘journey’),” he said, rising.
Prosatio Silban stood as well. “And I,” he said with a happy sigh, “must return to the Commonwell.”