Push-Pull | Verso.ink
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By Gerrit Stainer

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Year 110, month of Mapu (Red), polity of Mapangz

Siesta was not quite over in the village, and sound had to fight its way through the air beat down by the sun. But under the bowery roof it was a mighty echo: a moan like a large beast with digestive distress.
Buzhak clamped her mouth shut to stop a laugh. A snort still escaped right before the noise stopped. But when her gangly young companion lowered the push-pull horn from his mouth he laughed too. She had never heard him laugh like that (she had never seen him so afraid either).
"Now we've done it," he said with a tight grin. "No going back."
"No going back." She gave what she hoped was an encouraging smile. “Remember, I checked the books three times. We're not breaking any law.”
He swallowed and nodded, then looked down at the curved brass tubes in his hands. “It reminds me of an engine,” he said.
“You're right,” said Buzhak as she looked around. Nobody else was in sight. At that moment she wanted to put it all away, run home and pretend this never happened. Pedfen must feel the same way. This was the kind of thing that didn't happen in this village. Oma Luchol was one of the villages perched on the Rim – quiet strongholds of civilization with the bluffs to their backs and the desert stretching out before their faces.
Civilization should have music.
“The reeds are all useless,” said Buzhak, gesturing to the case open by her side where a shawm sat unwrapped. “I'll try a drum.”
Pedfen nodded. And while she stood up to look in another case, he pursed his lips and raised the hupsho again. The next tone that came out stayed more or less on the same pitch. Buzhak paused as she fished for a drumstick, and looked at Pedfen. He was boyish and awkward and all the garlic he ate didn't help his acne. Buzhak knew he was scared, but as he blew on that push-pull, even as bad as it sounded she could tell he was feeling his way with the instrument and could play it well given the chance. Ever since his family had moved in two years ago she had thought he had music in him. Standing there, coaxing a tone that was now almost pure, he looked like he might actually fit into his 14 years.
Buzhak smiled and started to beat the side drum. She was glad to have Pedfen in her house: since his aunt had left he had clung to her as a substitute. The attention wearied her on occasion but it was a refreshing change from the affections of suitors.
Pedfen started to time his horn blasts to Buzhak's shaky rhythm. It almost sounded like music.
Then the horn blasts stopped. “Someone's coming.”
“About time,” said Buzhak, then caught his gaze and held it a moment.
“Courage,” she said.
Pedfen nodded and blew the hupsho again, Buzhak kept hitting the drum, and they watched the two figures approach. As they reached the drying floor Buzhak recognized them: Vrrsedha and Odjnoi, prominent men of the village, dressed for their work in the fields.
When they came under the bowery roof Pedfen lowered the horn. Buzhak put down the stick and drew to her full height, straightening her bright cotton. Pedfen followed her lead and straightened his dull linen (but it was neat and clean for a change).
Vrrsedha was only a little older than Buzhak, and easy going. Indeed, he looked amused as he sauntered toward them. Not Odjnoi. Anger was burning the sleep from his eyes as he stomped forward, outpacing the younger man. The shade of the bowery roof had quenched the shine of the carnelian at the end of his gray braid, but his eyes still carried fire.
He came to a stop a few paces from the stage. “I never would believe it if I didn't see it with my own eyes. What the devil do you two think you're doing?”
Pedfen schooled her face into the most calm and assured expression she could manage, met Odjnoi's gaze and kept her voice steady.
“We're trying to play music.”
Odjnoi's eyes narrowed. “Is that so. What you are doing is making an ungodly racket!”
“I don't know.” Vrrsedha had a smile beginning. “It sounded all right once they got going.”
Odjnoi turned to the younger man and lowered his voice, but Buzhak still heard him. “Is there going to be a problem?”
“Ask them, they're the ones trying to play music.”
“I'll deal with them, and I'll thank you not to encourage any misbehavior.” He looked up at the youths. “All right then, you two, what is the meaning of this?”
“We're not breaking any law,” said Buzhak. “And you know it.” But she signaled to Pedfen, who started packing up his horn. It should help him; he was almost shaking with fear.
Odjnoi kept glaring. “And what of it?” he demanded after a moment. “You're old enough to know what behavior is acceptable – and expected! You're old enough to know that we don't touch those!”
Buzhak wanted to let her own anger show, but she was only 20, and Odjnoi was a sitter on the Thing, the town's governing body.
“Pedfen and I both lost our fathers in the war,” she said in a tone of serene reason, drawing her own satisfaction at keeping her voice from shaking. “Of course we know. But you never made it a written law.”
“Well if that's the way it is, we can discuss making it a law, maybe this evening.”
“Maybe you should.”
“The cheek!” he muttered, and turned to Vrrsedha again. “Why don't you fetch another sitter or two while I keep an eye on these two here?”
“Looks like that won't be necessary – here comes Madame Speaker.”
An old woman in yellow and green silk was walking up the aisle, her coiled gray braids looking a little disheveled. She rested her palm on the jeweled hilt of her belt knife as if it were a sword. Oma Luchol was too small to have its own judge, so the speaker of the Thing arbitrated most disputes. Vodle had been speaker for the past 12 years, a testament to the respect her opinion commanded. Earlier that year she had brought about a resolution ending the war relief they sent south – the requirements of which had forced Pedfen's family to leave their homestead upstream and move in with Buzhak's family in town.
Buzhak heard a case close, felt Pedfen step to her side. She put her hand around his arm.
“I couldn't sleep,” the speaker was saying as she advanced down the aisle. “At my age you'd think I'd be nodding off all the time wouldn't you? Not today: I was even going over the docket for tonight's meeting and noticing its sparseness. Should have bored me right into dreamland. I must have been inspired.” She stopped at the foot of the stage and looked up. “I heard the horn and drum and came right away. I imagine we don't have long before the poor souls you shocked from their naps also gather to see what's going on. Two battle-babes getting into the instruments.” She sighed. “I suppose it was only a matter of time. Odjnoi, mount the stage with me.”
Odjnoi gave the speaker his arm and they walked up the steps.
Buzhak stifled a wave of panic: why had she not thought of this? Of course the speaker would take the stage, why shouldn't she? Buzhak felt like her plans were being wrecked as she stepped back to make room for the older people. They faced each other on the stage, and Buzhak, casting about for something that would help her orient herself, decided to stick with what she had intended to say.
“If the docket's short you might as well add this.”
Vodle scrunched up her wrinkled face and Buzhak tried to keep hers smooth under the old woman's sharp gaze. She couldn't tell what the speaker was thinking.
People were gathering, many with brooms. After siesta was the time to sweep the drying floor to prepare for the apricot harvest. Nobody made any move to sweep now. They propped their brooms against the bowery posts and gathered in the center aisle, murmuring. What was Madame Speaker doing – did her presence have anything to do with the noise they had heard?
“We will address the congregation,” said Vodle, and she and Odjnoi turned around.
“Don't worry,” whispered Buzhak to Pedfen, squeezing his arm. “We still have the second part to do, remember?” She said it in another language: her mother had taught her some of the speech of her homeland and she in turn had taught some to Pedfen over the past two years, for occasions such as this when it might be helpful to communicate in secret.
“May I have everyone's attention?” At the sound of the speaker's voice the chatter hushed. “These two youngsters-”
“Move over here,” murmured Odjnoi, “let them all see you.”
They shuffled sideways and Buzhak stood to her full height, thrusting her breasts forward. She had long since grown used to having eyes on her, with her glossy braids, shapely figure and cinnamon skin.
“These two, Buzhak Zheguit and Pedfen Tydhlaf, have seen fit to take some of the instruments of war out of their cases.”
An angry hum surged from the people, cut short by Vodle's voice again.
“No harm has been done and the instruments have been restored to their resting places. I will talk with them about what they have done. Will you all be so good as to go about your sweeping? Thank you.”
Nobody looked satisfied as they went to get their brooms, and some of the looks Buzhak saw thrown her way were ugly. Some of them were not.
“Now you two, walk with me. Odjnoi, please go tell the other sitters about this, tell them I'll meet you all back at the hall soon, after I finish with these.”
Buzhak and Pedfen followed the speaker down the steps, out of the bowery into the hot sun.
“I thought we'd have a little look at one of the orchards,” the old woman said. “I love seeing them so close to harvest time. Now, if you please, tell me what this is about.”
“I was eight when they brought my father's belongings back in a wagon,” said Buzhak. “Pedfen was three. Most of our lives have been lived under this silence.”
“I remember your fathers,” said Vodle. “Buzhak, your father had never fought before. He was a gentle soul who would rather have stayed home and raised his crops, but he entered training and was qualified as a full member of the Bears in a very short time. He was an inspiration. Pedfen, they told stories of your father's bravery during the ambush at Kefan. I presume you've read the letter.”
“I'm proud of him,” Pedfen whispered.
Vodle sighed. “I'm sad for him. I'm sad for all of them, for the waste of life that we were party to, that we encouraged! Give me your arm, my dear. I remember the early days of settlement: as soon as the rim had its villages what did everyone do but start training up battalions of Red orders and organizing marching bands to go with them. It was a peaceful time, there were no real threats, but we Thuss had to show the glories of our civilization to those barbarians and heathens out in the wild. The parades were magnificent, do you remember?”
“I remember,” said Buzhak.
“Then, after so many years of this, news of the war came, and there was actual cheering! People cheering at the news of war, not only young men, but women and children! And what did that do? It killed your fathers. It did not liberate Amemwingeb. Therefore we took on this abstinence from the music of those instruments, therefore we sent the relief to Amemwingeb from the fruits of our labors: acts of contrition.”
“Of course we understand that,” said Buzhak, “but what about last year when they reinstated the Red orders here? Pedfen's uncle even joined the Bears. Once again we have men wearing red and doing exercises, going up into the hills to train, without so much as a drum or pipe. Now our people can once again study the ways of killing, but they can no longer sweeten that with anything joyful. What then? Were you ever going to bring the band back yourselves? Well we decided it's been too long already. We still mourn the loss of our fathers, but it is time for music to come back! Otherwise I'm afraid we will let the soul of our village die.”
“Is anyone else of your opinion?”
Buzhak walked slowly, silent, ashamed.
“I don't know,” she said at last. She had failed to plan adequately for dealing with this woman.
Vodle smiled at her. “My dear girl, you show spirit and enterprise, and what's more, a well-developed sensitivity. I would encourage you to try for the Thing in 13 more years. Meanwhile however, I don't know what effect a mere prank such as this can hope to achieve. Perhaps you can circulate a petition.
“Now I must go back to the hall. I thank you both for the time and the words. You are both free to go. I will find my own way.” And she strode out of the orchard, leaving Pedfen gaping at Buzhak.
“What was that?” he asked when the speaker had gone.
“I don't know,” said Buzhak, taking him by the arm, “but I do know we can't give up. Let's go do the next part – now! They should still be on the floor.”
A petition? They would show the old ones a petition!
She jogged out of the orchard at a different direction from the one Vodle had gone, her hand closing on the pocket of her billowing sirwal. There was her secret weapon: she and Pedfen had bought small flutes at the last fair from the wanderers. She had had to beg them to even let her see them: the wanderers were not even permitted to play their own music when camped in Oma Luchol. But Buzhak, whose family had come from a place where those people were more commonly seen, knew that they must have the flutes. Simple tubes of some hollow woody stem that grew in even hotter places than the Rim, where there was no winter, drilled with holes and fitted with a mouthpiece. Buzhak had bought them and she and Pedfen had been practicing in secret ever since, preparing for this day, this moment.
She slowed her gait as they neared the drying floor. People had laid their brooms aside and were chatting for a while before going on to the rest of the day's tasks. Heads turned as Buzhak strode to the center of the floor with Pedfen close behind her. She raised her flute to her lips and took a deep breath.
Soon a melody was flowing: it started out similar to a popular hymn, but after a few measures it drifted into something she had made up herself. And then Pedfen's joined, in the harmony part that they had worked out between them.
It was the first time any instrument blown by human breath had made music in Oma Luchol for 10 years.
While they played, Buzhak imagined she was looking down at herself in the center of the circle. In only a few days it would fill up with baskets and screens covered with fruit, divided by paths like the spokes of the Wheel. She imagined the lines dividing the circle, first into two, then into four. There was the Yellow, followed by the Red which blindly thought it was first. There was the White third and the Blue fourth. And around and through, the Black rim and spokes. Even, odd, even, odd, never ending motion, progression, the mounting inventions of humanity and the divine intelligence greater than all of them.
Those who had settled and planted here did so guided by their faith in that guiding intelligence that the Black symbolized, gradually blackening the red soil with the charred prunings and pits from their fruit trees. That was well and good, but how could divine intelligence keep directing them if they remained in stagnation?
She thought of the passage she had memorized from the Dialogues, which had influenced her composition.
These two are opposite, yet must love each other.
Here is the one who stays put, who looks to what is close by, urges gentleness toward the common. Raises a hand in restraint against picking or taking too much, bids you spare and save, gathers and watches.
And there is one who wanders, who journeys and seeks, looks to what is far away and values the rare, takes it and brings it home. Brings a spark to kindle a fire of fascination in the minds of those at home. There is one who raises a hand to seize, who spends and spreads, and moves on.
These two would work against each other. But they need each other, and must love each other.
She slipped on a note, squeezed her eyes shut, took a small step sideways, and tried to let everything drain out of her mind except the flute and the song.
When she finished, there was a silence, broken by a pair of hands clapping, joined by another and then more in that curious building of sound that Buzhak had last heard three years before, a sound like a summer cloudburst on a roof or a rock slide.
She opened her eyes. Pedfen was grinning, his face sweaty and flushed. Out of the corner of her eye she saw a knot of people hurrying toward the hall.
“Do you have any more?” someone asked.
“One more tune – that's all we've learned.”
“Let's play it,” said Pedfen, his eyes sparkling.
It was a simple working song. They had worked out to play it once through with Buzhak carrying the melody and Pedfen a simple harmony, then to switch parts and go through again.
A few bars in someone started to sing. It only took a moment for more voices to join in, and then a ragged chorus overwhelmed the flutes. When they finished, the applause was even louder, and then everyone started talking.
Buzhak waved her arms above her head. “I want to say something!” she shouted. She waited for the chatter to die down a little, then carried on in a loud voice.
“You know that our first Cougars are set to go downstream after the last grain harvest. What a shame, if we send them off with no music.”
Some faces turned sour. “Yes?” said one gray-braided woman. “Would you have us send them off with fanfare as if they were would-be heroes on their way to another ambush?”
Out of the corner of her eye Buzhak saw Pedfen glaring at her, but she was stung with annoyance. “Now really! We mourn our fallen, but why should we not at least-”
Pedfen's voice cut in. “What about all the other songs?” he demanded. “What about the one we just played? It wasn't foolishness that made all the music! What about the songs we just played? What about all the other songs they used to play? All the music during harvest, for boilings and burnings, for the holidays? Must we be left without those any longer? Is it not proper to show gratitude for the bounties of the land?
“If we don't have the Thing's horns and drums,” he said even louder, “what's to stop us from playing our flutes, and buying more of them? What's to stop us from getting or making even more instruments and building up a band that way? I can't believe the Thing of this town could ever go so mad as to outlaw music all together, but if they did . . . then I think our fathers would feel their memories insulted and their sacrifices despised.” He let his hands drop. “Well I for one won't give it up. It's not right.”
“Hear, hear,” said a voice from the middle of the crowd.
Buzhak felt a flood of affection for this boy but resisted the urge to put her arm around him. “Listen,” she called out, “Pedfen and I have our work to do this afternoon. Anyone who wants to follow us can hear these songs a few more times.”
Very little work got done in Oma Luchol that afternoon. The commons was swarming and noisy as Pedfen and Buzhak took their places in the kitchen. They played their songs again while everyone was waiting for dinner, and during the meal they were swept apart from their bemused families by other young people talking about music. It surged in a way Buzhak had scarcely dared to hope for: people volunteering to learn an instrument, speculating about how hard it would be to carve more flutes. Even her mother joined the chattering cluster and sang snatches of tunes she remembered from festivals and holidays. The sheet music was in the cases with the instruments, she was sure.
The officers of the Thing took their supper apart in the hall on meeting days, but Buzhak was sure they knew what had happened. The bowery filled up quickly that evening. The cloth shades on the west side swelled like sails in a welcome breeze, and as the lowering sun set them to glowing, the audience rose and the sitters came to the table. They laid the cloths and took their places: five batons pointing inward on white, five knives pointing outward on blue. Finally Speaker Vodle took her seat at the center of the flat side of the table and faced the audience, calling the meeting to order.
They went through the preliminary business, giving no indication of anything out of the ordinary. Buzhak fidgeted while Pedfen moped by her side. She was glad to see many others in the audience acting tense, but it did not help her calm herself and wait.
She closed her eyes and tried to quiet her mind while the sitters droned on about all the important everyday matters of the village – the kind of thing she should be interested in as a responsible citizen. But it all seemed dead and pointless to her. Were they going to ignore what she and Pedfen had done? Well if they did . . .
“Buzhak Zheguit and Pedfen Tydhlaf, please rise?”
Buzhak's eyes snapped open. She grabbed Pedfen's hand and stood, willing her knees not to buckle.
Speaker Vodle tapped her gavel to still the rising murmur of the audience, then spoke in as loud a voice as she could.
“By now I'm sure you all know how these two youths were found here on the stage, after siesta this afternoon, having lifted the instrument cases, opened them, and trying out some of the instruments. Having apprehended them in this action, I questioned them as to their motives, after which we understand that these two have continued with further demonstrations of music, with instruments of their own.
“After a full consultation with the laws of the town we have found no written rule which they can be accused of breaking. In the days when our band was active, the rules concerning use and care of the instruments were all by verbal agreement, as some of you may remember, and since the death of the conductor and so many of the members, that organization also considered dead, there has been no further fixing of regulation regarding it. We may all recall also that our mutual agreement to regard the band as dead was never given the force of statute, it was only recorded in our records as a resolution. Is that correct?”
“That is correct,” answered one of the sitters.
“We have asked the Dogs and some deputies to keep watch on the trapdoors to ensure no unwanted or unexpected access for the time being, until we may resolve this question. Now with the Thing's approval I will speak.
“You two may be seated.”
Buzhak had not felt such a strong wish to bite her nails for years. She stared at the men and women at the table but could not guess what they might do.
“Ten years ago, we judged it proper to impose the state of mourning under which we all have been living, and to which many of us have become so thoroughly adjusted as to lose sight of other possibilities. This has continued its demands on us, but they have helped us who remember the losses we suffered, to bear with them.
“When I saw these two I did not suspect mischief. Consider the character of each of these youths! No, I saw a youthful fancy at work in the older, leading the younger, and then discovered that something more powerful motivated their actions: idealism. And let us admit: such a spirit has been all but absent among us lately. When we began our time of mourning, we all resolved to dedicate ourselves anew to reflection, to wisdom, and above all to a renewed kindness with one another. And I did believe that for a few years we achieved the kindness. But I invite us all, who can remember before the war, to reflect, as I believe many of us have already. Do you remember how our streets and fields once sounded? I remember hearing the laughter of children. I remember how the drying floor used to be swept, with songs and games. Our musicians favored us with songs in the fields and orchards. Do you remember the burnings, the fairs? The wanderers' musicians and ours would join together in contests. Their camp was not silent until we asked them to keep it so, and they used to stay for a full week instead of half.
“We have made an end to our debt to the people in Amemwingeb. Let us make that end complete. I move that we authorize – no, that we order – the cases to be opened again and the band to be reinstated, on the Onday immediately after the apricot harvest is completed. As to the question of the leadership of said ensemble, practice times and all other details, I further move that the Thing be authorized to form the necessary committee to ordain and manage such, that all may be conducted with proper authority.” She sat down.
Buzhak's mouth hung open.
A baton lifted. “Seconded,” said one of the male sitters.
Speaker Vodle turned and scanned the audience, smiled, then looked back to the table. “To the vote, then.” The sitters all bound their scarves over their eyes. Speaker Vodle took up her board. “All in favor – Blue.”
Three arms held their knives high, pointed straight up.
“All against – Blue.”
One knife up, one voter abstaining.
Chalk scraped against slate. “In favor – White.”
Four batons. Despite the rule of silence, there were gasps and murmurs in the audience. Pedfen began to raise his head.
“Against – White.”
Odjnoi's baton twitched, but then rested again on the table. Everyone waited for a moment until he folded his arms and shook his head.
More sounds of chalk, and whispers stirring in the audience. The rules were strict about not giving away the results before they were announced, but it was all that Speaker Vodle could do to call for the unveiling and give the formal announcement before the whispers erupted into cheers.

Many years later, Buzhak recalled growing tired of her two-tune repertoire that evening long before the listeners finally went to bed, and how a couple of weeks later at the first rehearsal so many people showed up that there weren't enough instruments to go around. And at the Games the next year, the village band took honorable mention in the competition for the whole polity.
Three years after the band started up again, Pedfen left town. He took with him the horn they had dug out on that summer day, and left enough silver to pay for it. After years became decades without him returning, news finally reached home of his death from illness. Buzhak had not wanted to believe it, but later that year a caravan brought back his push-pull horn.
Five decades after that summer evening, war erupted again in Amemwingeb, and men from Oma Luchol went to fight, with only the doleful beat of drums to march them out of town. Speaker Buzhak watched them with her heart and eyes full.
This time they were victorious, and Amemwingeb was freed, and most of the fighting men from Oma Luchol returned. When they did, they told of the music that greeted them after their victory in Amemwingeb, how it reminded them of home. The locals told them it was a style that had grown there as an expression of protest and desire for freedom, and most of the compositions were the work of a master horn player from the north, named Pedfen Tydhlaf.

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About Gerrit Stainer

This professional archivist lives in the land of his pioneer forebears, tending a garden and fruit trees and writing love letters to the land in the form of fiction.

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