Prosatio Silban and the Universal Chorus

WHAT WOULD YOU GIVE TO enter into your world’s oldest and otherwise silent conversation?

The book was slim and hand-sized, pairing quaint movable-typeset Ancient Uulian with peculiar woodcuts, and its novelty was irresistible to Prosatio Silban after a long hour spent browsing Datria Axeol’s extensive and renowned secondhand-literature stall in epicurean Pormaris’ anything-for-a-price South Market.

‘Verses of Song,’ eh? he thought, raising an eyebrow. The artwork is charming, the text suggestive, and the price more than reasonable. I must have this.

Its contents would have been indecipherable to most of his countryfolk.

Its contents would have been indecipherable to most of his countryfolk. But the cook-errant had spent his younger life as a Sacreant, one of the Uulian Commonwell’s religious functionaries, for whom the near-obsolete language was a revered dialect. He threaded his way toward the stall’s entrance, past groaning wooden tables stacked with other printed treasures, where the formidable Datria Axeol perched on a stool as if a mother-hawk guarding her young.

“Excuse me?” ventured Prosatio Silban.

The proprietress squinted at him with her good eye. “Yes?”

He indicated an inkstick-scribbled price on the volume’s yellowing parchment jacket. “Does this truly cost but three in copper?”


“On what?”

“On whether or not it’s worth more to ye.”

Prosatio Silban smiled. “I will give you five.”

“Done. Thankee for yer custom.”

“Thank you.”

Back in his galleywagon, he conducted a more languid and meticulous examination. Each image in the weathered book’s sixty-four vellum pages depicted a different natural feature or phenomenon: trees, a mountain, horses, flowers, a river, lightning. Couplets and triplets, accented by Sacreantal chant-notation, complemented the pictures. He read to himself one devoted to clouds:

Floating hither, thither, yon;
A comfort for gods to lie upon!

A picture of the sun was accompanied by a statelier stanza:

Master of skies,
Illuminator of women and men, field and stream;
Nighttime haunts – beware!

Prosatio Silban creased his brow in perplexity. Such poetry is obviously meant to evoke the emotions, he thought. But these seem a bit insipid. Perhaps they’re more effective if chanted?

He turned back to the cloud-poem, cleared his throat, and applied his voice. As he recited the first line his tongue was set to tingling; by the end of the second, his ears rang with a soundless music. An electric thrill had set his every hair on end. The sensations were not unpleasant – in fact, they were downright enjoyable. His heart throbbed and a manic grin split his face.

By the All-Mother! I’ve never felt the like! he thought, then frowned. This galleywagon is now too small for my grandiose mood; A relaxing stroll through the marketplace might clear the mind and heart … yes! Yes!

Tucking the book into one long-vest pocket, he exited the galleywagon and descended its three steps with elation.

Tucking the book into one long-vest pocket, he exited the galleywagon and descended its three steps with elation. Everything seemed as it always had been, though sharper and more defined. The adjacent merchants in the marketplace’s Itinerants’ Quarter filled the air with their lyrical hawking; their counterpartial customers sang a wary counter-melody. The soft lavender scent of fatberry-oil and musky tang of motley spices tempted his nostrils. Low-hanging clouds and cold afternoon light rendered drab the citizenry’s colorful costumes.

“I see you seeing me,” boomed a rich voice from above.

Prosatio Silban swiveled his head from side to side, then up. “Are you addressing me?” he asked.

“I beg your pardon?” asked a passing porter, a bundle of bright woolen cloth on one shoulder. “Are you addressing me?”

“I was not,” the cook told her. “Just thinking out loud. Forgive me.”

The porter gave him an askance look before continuing on her way.

The booming sounded again, this time more distinctly skyward. “I was addressing you. Come out to the countryside where we may converse in peace.”

Overcome with mute awe, Prosatio Silban began to retrace his steps.

* * *

The lands east of Pormaris justified the necessary ferry-fare – including, of course, his galleywagon – to behold them. A pounded-earth road leading to the middling-distant village of Daywalk was bounded by gentle green hills and a sprinkling of light forest. Warbling magah-birds and fragrant splashes of bright wild-rose completed the bucolic and soul-soothing scene.

Away from the ferry port, Prosatio Silban reined to a halt his dray-beast, alighted from the wide driver’s bench, cleared his throat, and fumbled for the proper words. “I am here,” he said finally, spreading wide his hands. “What would you like to say to me?”

“First of all,” said the booming voice, “let me offer an introduction. I am Clouds. And it has been some time since anyone spoke with me as you have.”

“Why so long?” asked the cook-errant. “Was that ‘anyone’ the anonymous author of those verses?”

“I do not know. The ways of your kind are, to me, a mystery. You are all small and temporary; our kind is vast and eternal. Would you like to meet some of my friends?”

Prosatio Silban nodded. “I would! How do I…that is…ah …?”

“The words you sang readied your ears and tongue for colloquy with me. You have but to chant further verses to speak with all that surrounds you.”

“The words you sang readied your ears and tongue for colloquy with me. You have but to chant further verses to speak with all that surrounds you.”

The beefy cook retrieved the book from his pocket and leafed with care through the fragile pages. Soon, he had chanted his way through a trio of poetries relevant to his immediate environment: a broad, sunlight-reflecting brook; a tall grove of stately olat-trees; and a low, jagged outcrop of dark-veined bluestone. The cook’s heart was light, his forehead damp, and a wordless joy pervaded his being. But no sound at all came, not even a whisper of wind.

“Well?” he asked, glancing about.

A cacophony of voices surrounded him, each vying for primacy. “Well what?” “Who are you?” “How do you dare to importune us?”

Prosatio Silban spread supplicating hands. “I beg your pardon,” he began, “but I –”

“Please,” interrupted Clouds. “This Human is doing his best to communicate with us. He is not used to speaking with anyone or anything other than his own kind.”

“Then he should stay among his own kind, instead of trying to chat with his betters,” came a verbal music from the general direction of the brook.

“Agreement.” This time, flinty words seemed to emanate from the outcrop, while the trees opined, “Given what his kind have done to us, he should quite expect us to return the favor.”

“Quiet, now,” boomed Clouds. “Human, I present Brook, Rocks, and Grove. They do not always agree, but they do mean well.”

Prosatio Silban creased his brow. “I had always supposed that Nature was calm and harmonious,” he said. “I am surprised to find it otherwise.”

“Ours is an endless and dynamic falling-together and coming-apart,” replied Clouds. “It is but one of our many accustomed ways.”

“We do not always agree,” added Rocks, “because we each have our own domains, and they often conflict. But we do agree on one point: Humans are trouble.”

“More trouble than they’re worth,” agreed Brook.

I have an idea,” put in Grove. “Human? Come over here for a moment.”

“Please! All of you! Please!” bellowed Clouds. “This Human has just learned our language. Let us at least be civil to him.”

“What do you care for the thoughts of something so quick and temporary?” crackled Rocks.

“What do you care for the thoughts of something so quick and temporary?” crackled Rocks.

“I care,” Clouds said slowly, “for everything under my protection, which includes you three as well as Birds, Animals, Hills, Mountains, and whatever else I cover. And so should you care as well, at least enough not to embarrass yourselves.”

“Why?” the elements persisted.

At this juncture, Prosatio Silban spoke up again. “If you have been observing us,” he said, “you’ll know that I have greater cause for embarrassment than any of you.”

“That’s true,” said Brook. “For example, there is the little matter of your kind constraining my waters into irrigation channels.”

“What about picking all of my pains-takingly produced fruits?” added Grove. “That sorrow does not easily depart.”

“Or picking at me to build your bridges and erect your fences?” put in Rocks.

The cook’s eyes sought purchase on the ground. “I cannot defend all that my folk has done to destroy or even disturb you,” he said. “But from what I can see, you all manage yourselves better than we do.”

There came an indignant chorus. “What do you know about it?”

“As Cloud said, you all work together in concert,” Prosatio Silban replied. “If Brook didn’t erode Rocks, they would not be able to become soil and give life to Grove. Without Brook, Grove would wither. And Brook is just as much a part of Clouds and Rain as of the world in general. Each of you only exist because of the others, and none of you would be here if any of you were missing. That is a concept my kind has yet to master – or in some cases, even attempt.”

This time, the chorus was a profound whisper. “Well put, Human. Thank you.”

“It has been my privilege and pleasure,” Prosatio Silban said, and bowed. “Thank you all for your time and attention. I will not forget any of you – or of your words. Fare well, if so you fare!”

Pointing his galleywagon back toward the city, the beefy cook chortled to himself.

Pointing his galleywagon back toward the city, the beefy cook chortled to himself. That was extraordinary! I have never had an experience like that, or even close to it, in my life. I must be the luckiest human alive. Surely I can – oh. Now what?

His self-congratulatory reverie was interrupted by the approach of a roiling thunderhead and icy lashing rain, both challenging any further progress. His sturdy buopoth let out a low rattling hoot of alarm, heaving and tugging in vain.

“Easy, Onward! Easy!” Prosatio Silban shouted above the whistling gusts, and the muscular dray-beast desisted. He produced from his long-vest pocket the magikal book and flipped pages with mounting alarm. Where is it? he thought. Ah! thunderheads! and rain!. Thank the All-Mother they’re on facing pages! Raising his voice, the frantic cook recited the complementary couplets:

“Foreboder of sound and fury,
Rattler of nerves and trees!”


“One soaked by these
Does not soon forget – or even parch.”

After a handful of rapid heartbeats, Thunderhead roared at him in echoing tones, “What are you doing, insignificance? Just because you can trade pleasantries with some of us, do you think that makes you worthy of our knowledge and attention? Face my dread companion, Lightning!”

Prosatio Silban dropped the book, leapt from the driver’s bench, and threw himself onto the suddenly sodden mud. “I meant no disrespect!” he groveled. “I just wanted to satisfy my curiosity and pay homage to my natural surroundings. Please! forgive my impertinence!”

Another panicky moment passed, during which the noisy storm battered the frightened cook’s back and ears. He dared a nervous glance at Onward; the buopoth was likewise head-deep in mud, most of its ears covering what passed for its eyes.

“I will allow you this mercy,” Thunderhead rumbled at last. “You will have to find your own way of communing with us, like any other Human, lest your pride presage your fall.” A searing bolt sprang from Thunderhead’s underside, blasting the cook’s wits and transforming Verses of Song into cinders.

As swiftly as the storm had fallen, it receded. Prosatio Silban lifted his head and regarded the smoking ash-pile beside him.

That could well have ended badly, he thought, still quivering, and hove a ragged sigh. I suppose Rock was right. We Humans really are trouble – whether we know it or not.

(If you’re new to these tales, here are the preface and introduction. And if you want the first 85 stories in one easy-to-read package, here’s the e-book!)

5 comments for “Prosatio Silban and the Universal Chorus

  1. Kathryn Hildebrandt
    2022.10.06 at 1355

    For someone they consider so insignificant, they sure do get their knickers in a knot.

    • 2022.10.06 at 2032

      Inappropriately so? I mean, I envisioned their reaction as a long-suffering party’s chance to vent at the cause of said suffering; was that not clear?

      • Kathryn Hildebrandt
        2022.10.06 at 2131

        Well sure. But they’re arrogant too.

        Now, take ants for example. Ants annoy the bejesus out of me. And the species here on the mountain bites, especially when I accidentally stroll through their lines. Doesn’t help that my numpty of a landlord put a shiny black floor in this rustic cabin’s kitchen. However, I do admire their work ethic.

        So if an ant suddenly spoke to me, I’d probably be pleased. I’d take the opportunity to understand their point of view, and negotiate. I wouldn’t be grumpy.

        Your Elements are grumpy. Very Monty Python. 😉 Except for Clouds, of course.

        They say they are superior, but they lack noblesse oblige. They had a chance to negotiate but they let it slide.

        Thunder and Lightning were just bullies. Like most bullies, they gave the impression of feeling secretly inferior.

        No, I’m not saying you wrote the characters wrong. That’s just how they are.

        • 2022.10.06 at 2215

          You make a very good point. By way of explanation, though:

          The Uulian Commonwell is based on a mix (don’t much like the term “mash-up”) of Roman and Sumerian culture: very materialistic and selfish, with capricious gods to match. (That doesn’t reflect my own understanding of [the elements in] our world, which is more of an active non-dualism that I could write reams about and still not express myself intelligibly.) So to my mind, it follows that if the Flickering Gods are whim-driven, so would be the elements of the world They dreamt into being. To my mind again, that’s what makes “this, the most interesting of all possible worlds.” I guess if I made the Exilic Lands more akin to my own spiritual and scientific understanding, they wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

          (By the way, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate these conversations. I’m grateful that you’re thinking of these so deeply as a reader as I have as a writer.)

          • Kathryn Hildebrandt
            2022.10.06 at 2220

            Funny how capricious and childish gods can be, eh?

            My pleasure. It’s cool having such direct access to the writer.

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