There was an assassin named Folau, who sought to slay a magician’s words, and he hunted.
There was a swamp-woman named Abere, who some called demon and others witch, and she waited.
—You’re a young one. Younger than most who come here—too young for revenge. Was it suicide? Love? Both, maybe?
—Yes, young one, you’re right. They do go together sometimes. But you came for love first—I believe that. You won’t find it here, you know.
—There is a flower in the swamp you can make a potion from, they were right when they told you that. But it won’t give you back a love who has gone to another, only the imitation. Some people your age might think that’s enough... ah, I see you don’t. A wise one, you are.
—No, not a wise one? A poet? That will do. Poets know tragedy. And a poet would have heard the story of the rattan bride.
—You haven’t? A pity. Maybe the swamp-witch will tell it to you.
—No, no, no, not me. You’ll know the swamp-witch when you see her—you can be sure of that.
—My name? I have one, but I don’t use it any more. You can call me the Eaten One. You can take that name too, soon enough.
—Oh yes. The marsh-reeds that surround you are no ordinary ones. You can’t cut them. You’re no shaman, so you can’t turn into a fish or bird and escape them. And even that wouldn’t help you—I could turn into a fish, and yet here I am.
—Surely they told you that those flowers only grew where the swamp-witch lurked... yes, they did. You should have believed them. She doesn’t hunt everyone, but a young one like you...
—You’re scared. Don’t be. It’s not such a bad thing, being eaten.
—You don’t believe me? Let me tell you a story.
—There was an assassin named Folau, and he lived on Tovata.
—What’s that you ask—what is there to kill for on Tovata? Where are you from?
—Ah, Nanao. The people of Nanao are wise and rich and proud, and Tovata is poor—yes, that’s true. Nanao is a great island and a powerful god; Tovata is a small god, a humble island at the edge of the sea. But that doesn’t mean that the people on Tovata have no reason to kill. There are disputes over land and fishing grounds. One war-leader might be at odds with another, or with a chief or shaman. A follower might think it’s past time to be a leader. When the outriggers come to trade for hardwood, there are arguments over the price, or maybe one of the sailors is caught in bed with the chief’s daughter. Or it can be something even less—the bure where one man lives might be bigger than another’s, or his wife might have a cowrie necklace that his neighbor’s wife lacks. There’s plenty of work for a man who can wield a dagger and mix poison, don’t ever doubt that.
But Folau. Yes, Folau. One night, a war-leader named Hui’ehu came to visit him—came in secret, as people always do when they visit an assassin. Folau’s bure was deep, deep in the forest, and Hui’ehu came alone at night, even though war-leaders never walk alone. He rustled the thatching on all four sides of the bure and he said the words: “I am at the window, I am at the door, let me enter for I have gifts.”
He came around to the door-flap and stood watching. It didn’t open, but all at once, there Folau was, standing in front with empty hands.
“You should not come in,” Folau said. “I am brewing poison; I am immune to it and you are not. But I will take your gift and hear your words.”
Hui’ehu clapped once and gave the assassin a patterned cloth bag that was filled with kava. “Enele the shaman is my enemy,” he said.
Folau stood waiting.
“He has spoken to the men who follow me. He has told them that Tovata doesn’t favor me, that my war-parties have not returned with sufficient offerings. He has spoken to Tigulu, who wants my men to follow him.”
“And people have listened?”
“Some of my men no longer give me of their crops and catch. If I get nothing from them, I will have nothing to give them.”
—What was that, poet? Yes, he who takes must also give. Folau and Hui’ehu lived on Tovata, not Nanao, and the measure of a leader there is what he can give away. A bride-price, a bone spear, a stone knife... he gives what he takes, but he must give.
You may not know that, but Folau did, because he lived on Tovata and knew its people. “You want me to kill Enele?” he said.
“No,” said Hui’ehu. “I want you to kill his words.”
“Ah, yes.” It would not be enough merely to kill the shaman. In fact, a dagger in the back or poison in the night might simply make Hui’ehu seem a coward or afraid. The shaman would have to be discredited...
—Yes, poet, you see what he had to do. They have those stories on Nanao too, do they? Shamans perform rituals. They call on the divine. And if a shaman’s call fails catastrophically, it isn’t only his body that dies.
There was a harvest ceremony in a month, and with the night still black and moonless, Folau went to the place where it would be held. He had to take a boat, because the sacred place was on an islet just off the shore, one that was joined to Tovata only at low tide. There was a stone wall by the landing—it had been a fortress once—with the great ancestors’ skulls on top of it and the standing stones inside.
Folau stood by the largest of the stones, the one shaped like the dog that Tovata had been before he took stone and became an island. The carved dog looked inward to the other dog’s face, the one that had not been carved, the one that had gazed down from the cliffs since immemorial times. There was an altar just in front of the carved figure, and that was where Enele would be, with the people around him.
He would drink kava, and kava could be poisoned, but he would taste the poison before it killed him. The people would know it was murder and not the god. There were smokes that could kill, bitter roots that could be burned, but those, too, would be known. Maybe a sliver of black swamp-oak that would go unnoticed against Enele’s skin, but there was no secret place to shoot it from, even with a blowgun...
No, this wasn’t a killing that could be accomplished by boiling garland-berries or smearing a sliver of bone with snake-venom. There was another poison, one with no smell and no taste that induced delirium and death, but Folau couldn’t make it with anything to be found on Tovata. He would need dreamer’s orchid, and for that, he would have to go to Isatabu.
—Yes, poet, dreamer’s orchid. The same flower you were going to use for your potion. Are you surprised? Even now, are you surprised?
—You know Isatabu as the Apothecary? So she was. A great healer, worshiped in life, so much so that she took stone rather than dying and became home and hearth to many hundreds. The plants that grow from her soil are famous medicines. But she has more than one face, and so do her creations.
—You’re not a doctor, are you, man from Nanao? If you were, you’d know. Every drug, every potion, can be a poison. A little can heal, more can kill—but even a poet should know this. Your drug would have wrung the imitation of love out of your lost one. Wouldn’t that have been poison, of a kind?
—Yes, you are a poisoner, just as Folau was. Two kinds come as seekers to Isatabu: healers and poisoners. Only the poisoners come to where the swamp-witch is. The man who made the rattan bride—he, too, came here.
—Oh, yes, you haven’t heard that story. I said the swamp-witch would tell you. But she will be a while yet in coming. We have time enough for that story as well—maybe it would amuse you if I told you while you wait.
—Many years ago there was a shaman on Nanao—yes, poet, your country. He was even a poet like you. He loved a woman and lost her, and though he looked for solace in sad verses, they didn’t console him.
He sought for spells to bring his love to life again. He journeyed to many islands and consulted with wizards and gods. But even magicians cannot enter the country of the dead, and even gods cannot bring souls back from that country. Souls... they are something beyond magic.
But on an atoll far from here, the shaman made an offering to an oracle-fish, and when it leaped from the lagoon, its scales formed the shape of dreamer’s-orchid. “You cannot bring your bride back,” it said, “but perhaps you can make her again.”
So he sailed to Isatabu where the dreamer’s-orchid was, and when he camped in the swamp, his fingers began to form strips of rattan into a woman’s shape. And as his hands fashioned the bride, his mind fashioned a spell, and when both were done, the orchid had brought the bride to life...
—A happy ending, poet? Yes, if it had ended there, but it didn’t. Because the shaman’s new bride didn’t truly love him. She was a thing that was made, but she had a soul, and it wasn’t the mate of his. The spell made her act the part of a lover, and she kissed him tenderly and coupled with him among the reeds, but as she did she was screaming inside. And he never knew it; he loved her, and he thought she loved him.
Until the day... but no, poet, I think I’ll let the swamp-witch tell you that.
—What will she do? She will love you, and she will eat you.
—No, you can’t cut through the reeds. There’s more of Folau’s story to tell.
—It is five days across the sea-roads from Tovata to Isatabu, and Folau made the journey alone, because no one will travel with an assassin. It is dangerous to cross the open sea alone in a small boat, especially in the early summer storms, but Folau had done it before.
He came to a village at the mouth of a stream, set against the forested hills that made the form of the sleeping Apothecary. He sat at their cookfire and ate fish and taro and vine-leaves, and he begged a place in a storage-hut for the night. He paid well for it—assassins are generous with those they don’t plan to kill—and they made him free of their stories.
They told him about their war-leaders and chiefs, about the exploits of the ancestors and the follies of the young. He told them stories of Tovata in return, and then he asked about their plants. He named flowers and berries, leaves and roots, the tools of his trade, and they told him where to find them. And then he named the dreamer’s orchid.
“Deep in the swamp, that,” said a fisherman. He was old, white-haired, gnarled as a mangrove. “Have a care, or you’ll meet Abere there.”
“Who is she?” asked Folau, though he had heard.
“A witch,” the fisherman said.
“No, a demon”—that was a woman whose jewelry said she knew a few spells.
“There is a thing I have,” said Folau, “that is stronger than witches and demons.”
At dawn, he took his boat and paddled into the swamp, into the channels that wound between reeds and mangroves. He listened to the birdsong in the trees that rose above the mangrove-islands and watched the dragonflies that hunted within them. A crocodile paced him for a while and then took another turning. They understood each other.
The swamp grew thicker as he went further in. The smell of decay was stronger, and the mangroves shut out more of the light. The channels wound and crossed each other so many times that Folau was no longer sure of where he was going; maybe he would have to become a bird to find his way out again. But he could smell the dreamer’s orchid, and the channels all seemed to be leading toward it.
The orchid’s presence grew powerful, and the water, sky and mangroves faded into each other. And then, all at once, Abere was there...
—No, poet, I don’t know her true form, any more than you will. But I can tell you what Folau saw. She was timeless. Her face was midnight, unblemished by age. Her eyes, golden as the stars. Her hair fell in braids to the channel and spread across the waters all around. She wore ornaments of woven hardwood, and her sulu was made not of cloth but of the living forest. There were two girls with her—servants—but Folau hardly saw them.
“Are you a hunter?” she asked. “Have you come for dreams?”
Folau said nothing.
“Come now, hunter. Surely you don’t believe all the stories you hear. Tell me, it will do you no harm.”
He fought to be silent, but of itself, his mouth shaped the words. “Yes, I have come for dreamer’s orchid. And the dreams that come with it.”
“Dreams such as this?” Abere asked, and Folau saw that she lay, unclothed, on a hummock of land.
The stories tore at Folau, pulled him back. But the dreamer’s orchid was strong, and the world he was in was no longer quite real, and Abere had the beauty of a witch, or a demon. He lay with her, and they were one.
When he woke, the mimia reeds surrounded him—yes, poet, as they do you.
“Abere!” he said. “Where are you?”
“I am here,” came her voice, from everywhere and nowhere. “And shortly you will not be.”
“No witch will trap me,” he said, “nor demon either.” He drew his iron dagger—a treasure, poet; Tovata isn’t Nanao, and it hasn’t the secret of ironworking—and cut the reeds. But as fast as he cut, there were more in front of him.
“I have other weapons,” he said. He took parrotbane from his pouch and scattered it into the water to poison the reeds. But they grew back as quickly as they withered, and his other poisons fared no better.
“Are you done now?” asked Abere. “Have I your permission to eat you?”
“I have taken many poisons,” said Folau. “They have made me immune. But they are in my body, and if you eat me, you will sicken and die.”
“From poison?” Abere’s voice had an edge of hysteria, but it was the hysteria of laughter, not of fear. “I am poison. I am all the things on this swamp, this island—the poisons with them.”
“Then you are the Apothecary? No, I don’t think so. Her name was Isatabu, not Abere. You are no god, just a witch gone mad from dreamer’s orchid.”
“You’re right, hunter. I’m not Isatabu. I am the Apothecary’s other face—the Poisoner. I am stone and I am flesh and I am rattan. And I am god enough for you.” And she stood before Folau in the reeds, with obsidian skin and iron claws.
Folau had only one weapon left. It was a glass mask made from the sand of Bunglon the Chameleon—yes, poet, shaped in the kilns of Nanao—and with it, the assassin could become any creature in the world.
He put it on and turned into a bird, but the reeds closed above him. He became a fish and dove into the current, but Abere gave commands and the mangroves tightened around him and choked him. He became an insect, but the waters boiled around him and drew him into their depths.
Last of all, he became a thing too small to see—no, poet, I don’t know what it was called, and neither did he, but he became one. And then, only then, was Abere thwarted.
“Where are you?” she asked. “I can feel your presence, but where?”
“I am in a drop of water, Abere. Can you tell which one? Search them one by one, and maybe you’ll find me.”
“And will you stay in a drop of water forever? As soon as you become a man again, or even a butterfly, I will find you.”
“How long do you care to wait?”
“How long do you? How long until a minnow swallows you?”
“Maybe the minnow will carry me away. Will you know which one it is?”
There was silence, minutes of silence, and it seemed that nothing in the swamp moved at all.
“Then we are at an impasse, assassin. That doesn’t often happen between man and god. But there are precedents, and maybe we can strike a bargain to end it.”
“What are your terms?” asked Folau.
“I will love you again—truly, and not the imitation of a dreamer’s orchid. You will have more from me than the one who made me. And then I will eat you, as I ate him.”
“That hardly seems a bargain.”
“I haven’t finished.”
“Being eaten seems rather final.”
“It needn’t be, not here,” said Abere. “Make an offering of your body, poisoner, and I will give you your soul.”
She explained what that would mean, although she didn’t really have to; Folau, after all, had heard the stories. And there he became the Eaten One, as you soon will.
—Yes, poet, of course I was Folau. Surely a poet would have understood that long ago. But now you know. It isn’t so bad to be eaten.
—And yes, of course she was the rattan bride. I was going to let her tell you, but of course she was. She was made of the Apothecary’s plants and born of a spell, and when she ate the shaman, she won more than her freedom. She is god and demon and witch, the Apothecary’s other face.
—Maybe she took that face when she took her freedom, or maybe it was always hers. She was made here, remember. And if she leaves you your soul, it will be more than she left her maker.
—But he was innocent? Yes, poet, she knows that now. But she didn’t know then, any more than he knew that he’d enslaved her, and Isatabu had told her how to find healing...
—My soul? It goes anywhere. I can inhabit the fish, the trees, the dragonflies... the reeds that surround you now.
—Don’t be so surprised, poet. Abere left me my soul, after all, and it is the soul of an assassin. You’re not the first one I’ve trapped for her. Poisoners all.
—You would have taken your lost love from her intended and made her into a rattan bride. Is this so much, beside that?
—Hardly. She will eat your body, but you will survive. She will spare your soul if you ask, as she did mine. She is ruler here, and in this part of the world, a ruler is measured by what she gives away.
—Think about it, poet. Tomorrow, the birdsong will be yours to compose. Or if you prefer, you may inhabit the mangroves and feel the water and earth on their roots. You may know poison, know how it is life and death... think what poetry you can make from that.
—Who would hear your verses? As many as you want. You can be a ghost if you like, as I was when I denounced Enele from Tovata’s stone... yes, I slew his words, even if I couldn’t slay him. Or you can haunt an outrigger and tell your stories to the sailors.
—Oh, yes, your soul can leave. A soul can be eaten, but who can hold one? Not a shaman, not even a god. The rattan bride’s maker found that out, didn’t he? But you will come back, as I did. A place where you feel such pleasure, such pain...
—You’ll find out in a few moments. It isn’t so bad to be eaten.
—Think of the poetry, man from Nanao. This will be real love, not the kind that comes from dreamer’s orchid. Think of the verses you will sing when it happens. She is a god, and though she was born of terror and sorrow, she was made of poetry and magic. She’ll remember those verses forever.
There was a man from Nanao, who was poet and poisoner, and he waited.
There was a swamp-woman named Abere, who some called demon and others god, and she hunted.