After most of Earth’s population has left for other planets, life is simple in the isolated village of Tober Cove. Fullin, a twenty-year-old musician, lives well off of his craft. But soon he must make a life-changing decision that all residents of Tober Cove must make. Up until their twenty-first birthdays, the people of Tober Cove change gender every year. But at the age of twenty-one, they must commit to being male, female, or a Neut (essentially a hermaphrodite) for the rest of their lives. As Fullin nears the moment of decision, his faith becomes shaken when he uncovers secrets that distort his beliefs.
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A League Of Peoples Book: 2
By James Alan Gardner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1998 James Alan Gardner
All rights reserved.
A Net for a Duck
The night before Commitment, I was down in the marsh with the frogs and the fish, sitting out the time on a mud-crusted log and waiting for the gods to send me a duck.
I'd spent hundreds of hours in that marsh when I was young, practicing my violin. Elderly mosquitoes may still tell their larvae about the human child who was so busy rehearsing arpeggios he didn't have time to swat. Our village doctor claims I forced her to work daily from dawn to dusk, gathering and grinding the herbs I needed for skin ointment when I came home each night. But back then, Cypress Marsh was the only place the Elders of Tober Cove let me practice; they said if they let me play in town, the noise would curdle milk.
Now that I was twenty, they'd stopped complaining. I'd become our cove's most gold-getting export: shipped down-peninsula to weddings, harvest festivals and spring struts, earning five times as much as any fisher or farmer. My foster father told me the Elders sometimes fought over which of them could take the most credit for my success; but the real credit should go to the dragonflies who discovered that where there's a violin, there are all the mosquitoes a bug can eat. They saved my blood and bone ... and even today, Cypress Marsh dragonflies come buzzing at the sound of violin music, like children hearing the dinner bell.
As I sat on the log that night, I considered taking up my bow and giving the dragonflies a thank-you serenade. Of course, I'd brought my violin with me—I never left the cottage without it under my arm, even when I set out to my "day job" hauling nets on the perch boats. The violin made my work easier: in the middle of the afternoon, someone would always say to me, "Fullin, we could sure use a tune." Then I passed a couple hours playing "The Maiden and the Hungry Pigboy" while the other men bent their backs.
We all thought it was a fair exchange.
I had taken the violin out and was softly tuning the strings when a song drifted to me from the far end of the marsh.
I will come to you in winter.
Though we lay us down in snow,
It cannot chill us.
Cappie, waxing romantic. In the years she was a man, her voice was a fine bass, a rough-edged rumble like Master Thunder's lament for his fallen son. Many times I'd told her she could polish that voice into a real moneymaker, if she just made the effort. But in the years she was a woman her voice was scabby—thin as a reed and apt to wobble on anything longer than a quarter note. The pity was, she liked to sing as a woman; as a man, she was the silent type who stared moodily into camp-fires.
I will stay with you through spring.
Though the wild Nor'westers blow,
They cannot spill us.
Lately she'd taken to singing every day: drippy sentimental songs that she directed toward me with a delivery she'd picked up from a throb-woman who passed through Tober Cove with a troupe of traveling players. By popular request I'd gone to the platform to accompany the singer in a tune, and this woman had chosen a moist little ballad designed to set men drooling. You know the kind of song I'm talking about—performed with so many hip grinds, you can't tell whether the woman is singing actual words or just bed-whinnies. Because I was on the stage with her, most of the bump'n'hump was aimed at me ... not that I noticed it much. While the woman was trying to rub up against me, I was working hard just to make sure the pointed end of my violin bow didn't poke out her eye. Still, Cappie got the idea I'd been aroused by all that slinking and strutting, and had taken to doing her own torch routines for my benefit. Let me tell you, Cappie was no South-city seductress—it was all I could do not to cringe every time she began to shimmy.
I will dance with you through summer.
Though the heat makes rivers slow,
It cannot still us.
Cappie had also started to ask what sex I was going to Commit to. The laws of the Patriarch expressly prohibited discussing the choice, but that didn't matter; when Cappie was a woman, she disregarded any law that didn't make sense to her.
"I have to know what you're going to be," she'd say. "It would be a disaster if we both chose the same sex and could never be married."
More and more, I didn't think that would be a disaster at all. It was too cruel to say out loud, but that response clattered around in my brain every time she asked how much I loved her. She asked the question a lot; I thought my unspoken answer just as often.
I'd outgrown her. I was famous throughout the Bruise Peninsula, and well paid for my music: a goat for an evening, a sheep for a day, a cow for an entire weekend. When Cappie wanted to tag along on my out-of-town performances, I discouraged her. Being seen with her embarrassed me. Her love songs and attempts at being wanton stirred nothing in me but pity—the pity you feel for a crippled old dog that still tries to catch rabbits.
I will hold your hand through fall.
Though the sun damps down its glow,
Our love will fill us.
Our love will fill us.
The song ended. I wanted to scream back, "Stop lying to yourself!" ... but of course I didn't. It would only bring Cappie thrashing through the marsh to ask what I meant, or to demand that we talk about our future before it was too late. That was the last thing I wanted. Every talk about our future forced me to invent new ways to dodge her questions.
On top of that, we were both on Commitment Eve vigils and forbidden to see another human being till dawn. Cappie might ignore the law if it didn't suit her, but I wanted to do things right. I had to avoid confrontation, and that meant playing up to Cappie for one more evening.
She would be sweat-trickling now in the darkness, waiting for me to answer her song. I had no stomach for singing back to her, but I could always play my violin. Its sound would carry clearly to her, and I wouldn't have to worry about her hearing the lack of enthusiasm in my voice. A simple tune would do: "Stars in the Hottest Black" came to mind, a song that felt dreamy and romantic but never actually mentioned the word "love." Besides, it was appropriate—the stars were out in abundance, smeared across the summer sky like gems in Mistress Night's hand. I lifted my bow above the strings, inhaled before the down-sweep, and ...
... heard another violin begin to play somewhere deeper in the marsh.
I was so startled I dropped my bow. It bounced against the strings with a soft twang and fell to the dirt at my feet. I snatched it up again quickly, as if someone might steal it.
The player out in the marsh was good.
The violin is a Southern instrument. I inherited mine from my lamented mother, who inherited it from her father, and so on, back seven generations. No one else on the peninsula owned one, let alone played with any skill. I assumed this new player was some out-of-place Southerner, a traveling performer who'd wandered off the road and camped in the marsh for the night. But the tune was native to Tober Cove itself, an unfaithful lover's ballad called "Don't Make Me Choose."
I cursed loud enough to send nearby frogs plopping hastily into the water. There was no telling how an outsider had learned that song, but no tune on earth could bring Cappie running more quickly. She would ran straight to me, not the unknown Southerner—she knew where I was keeping vigil, and she would never guess there was a second violinist out in the night. I had to get away before she arrived. As a matter of fact, I had to find the Southerner as evidence I wasn't the one playing the song.
For a moment, I debated whether to take my violin with me. I didn't want to leave it on its own, but if I slipped on mud while slinking through the midnight marsh, I might tumble into some scum-covered pool, instrument and all. Hurriedly I put the violin away and slid the case into the hollow of the log where I'd been sitting.
Instead of the violin, I took my spear. Tober Cove already had all the violinists it needed, and I intended to make sure this Southerner got the message.
From childhood days practicing in the marsh, I knew the best shortcuts and the most solid trails. As expected, I slipped several times anyway, soaking my pants to the knee. A dunk or two didn't bother me, but I wanted to avoid stepping on a stone that was really a snapping turtle, dug into the mud to lay her eggs. I cautiously approached every rock that lay in my path, knocking the top with the butt end of my spear, waiting to see if a mean little head would appear and bite off a chunk of the shaft.
The music continued to play strong and clear. "Don't Make Me Choose" is a long piece with a dozen choruses and variations, as the singer details the virtues of the two men who want to share her bed. She's twenty years old, and therefore about to choose her sex permanently. She believes one of her lovers will become a woman while the other will stay a man; whichever gender she chooses for herself, she'll be shutting the door on one person and committing to the other. It's a frequent Tober Cove dilemma, which makes it a song of enduring popularity ... except for people like Cappie who find it strikes too close to home.
I soon realized the music was coming from the heart of the marsh, probably the patch of open mud known as the duck flats. Despite the name, you seldom find ducks on the flats—they avoid the place because the people of Tober Cove set so many traps for them there. The tradition is this: every year on Commitment Eve, each candidate for Commitment sets a snare on the flats. If the gods want you to choose a particular sex, they'll send a duck of that sex to tangle itself in your net; if the gods don't have special plans for you, your net stays empty and you can choose whichever sex you like. Two decades had passed since the last divinely inspired duck was netted. The Mocking Priestess attributed this to a growing intelligence on the part of ducks ... but of course, it was her job to say things like that.
As I neared the duck flats, it occurred to me I was close to violating the rules of my vigil. I wasn't supposed to set eyes upon another human being till sunrise ... and a Southerner probably counted as human, even if the laws of the Patriarch sometimes hedged on the issue.
What was the penalty for breaking vigil? I couldn't remember, but the Elders were forever looking for excuses to grab a bigger share of my music income. Earlier that very day, the Patriarch's Man had imposed a "monetary penance" on me for suggesting our village should build a roofed dance pavilion like the one in Wiretown—as if I were the only Tober who thought it wouldn't hurt to borrow ideas from down peninsula. I was the only Tober who got fined for saying so ... which meant I had to observe every little rule carefully, including the one about not setting my eyes on anyone else during vigil. Instead of facing the stranger directly, I pulled up with only a stand of bulrushes between me and the duck flats, then shouted, "Hey!"
The music stopped.
"This is Tober land," I said. The Patriarch had used the same words to repel the Pagans during the Harsh Purification—saying the words made me feel like I wasn't just carrying the spear for show. "Take yourself and your ways," I recited, "and slink back to the pits of iniquity. You are damned, and your smell offends me."
"The gracious welcome I expected," a voice sneered back. "Thank you." I couldn't tell whether the speaker was male or female, and there was none of the nasalness of a Southern accent.
"Who are you?" I asked.
The only answer was a loud thrashing of reeds. I covered my eyes quickly, expecting the stranger to burst through the wall of rushes; but the noise plunged off in the opposite direction. I held my breath as I listened to it recede.
The stillness of the night seeped back in: no sound but crickets chirping, frogs chugging, and hundreds of dragonflies buzzing around the flats. Cautiously, I parted the bulrushes, ready to avert my eyes if the stranger returned.
In the middle of the flats, a fire sputtered on the muddy ground. By its light, I could see footprints everywhere: boots with leather soles that left sharp outlines—city boots, unlike the moccasins worn by everybody local. Judging from the quantity of tracks, I guessed the unknown violinist had been here for hours, but I saw no sign that he or she had intended to stay the night. There was no tent, no gear, nothing but the fire ... as if the stranger had been ready to pick up and run as soon as someone came to investigate the music.
"I'm not going to play hide and seek!" I shouted into the darkness. Immediately, I regretted the noise—Cappie might hear me. If she was close enough, she'd know I was on the flats, and technically speaking, my presence here was another violation of vigil. Once we set our traps we were supposed to stay clear until ...
I didn't know how long the stranger had lingered here, but it wouldn't have taken much to spot my snare. Maybe it was a good idea to amble over that direction—not to break the rules by checking my trap before dawn, but just to see if there were bootprints close to it. Sure enough, the prints were there, lots of them ... and my trap had caught something.
There was a duck tangled in the net, a motionless duck. I felt a perk of excitement—me, the first person in twenty years who warranted the attention of the gods.
But gloating was childish. As chosen favorite of the gods, I had to comport myself with dignity. Gingerly, I picked up the net by the slack at one end, expecting the bird to quack itself into a frenzy.
It didn't move. A fat drip of liquid fell from the duck's body to the mud.
Slowly I untangled the bird. The netting was wet, even though I had set the trap on land, two paces from the edge of the water. I looked at my hands; by starlight, the wetness on my skin seemed black. Lifting my fingers to my nose, I smelled blood.
The duck's body was cold.
When the bird was completely unwrapped, I let the net fall from my hands and walked back with my catch to the stranger's campfire. The flames were almost out; I yanked some dry cattails off the nearest bulrushes and threw them onto the embers. They flared into a fizzing yellow blaze that gave more than enough light to examine the duck.
It was a mallard, its coloration male. Under its tail, however, was nothing but a mess of bloody guts dangling where a knife had cut off a chunk of flesh.
Coloration or not, the duck wasn't male. Not anymore.
I grabbed the bird by its neck, swung it twice around my head, then threw it with all my strength. Its wings fell open limply as it traveled, and dragged against the air; it barely cleared the reeds before it splashed into open water. For a moment I stood there panting. Then I kicked at the cattails I'd thrown on the fire. They scattered in a flurry of sparks, some hissing as they hit water. Methodically I walked around the flats, stamping on burning cattail fluff and grinding it into the mud.
The stranger had castrated my duck. The duck sent to me by the gods. The duck telling me what sex the gods wanted me to choose.
The duck had been cut neuter. Made a Neut.
I'd seen a Neut once. It was my earliest memory: a pale face, fat and blubbery, close to mine; and hands lifting me up, heaving me off the ground. I screamed, terrified—I knew this monster wanted to kill me. Then I was torn away from the thing and there were other people there, throwing stones at the Neut, thrusting at It with the butts of their spears. The Neut howled as a sharp rock opened a cut across Its forehead. It looked back at me once, hungrily, then fled.
That was how we Tobers treated Neuts: immediate exile, and death if the monsters ever returned. Neuts were renegades, malcontents, heretics. Untold generations of our people had chosen a permanent sex in their Commitment Hour, accepting that they had to abandon either their male or female halves ... but Neuts refused to let go of either side. Neuts claimed you didn't have to reject half your life, that people could follow both male and female ways. So Tober Cove hated Neuts with the fierce burning hate you always aim at someone who says your pain is stupid and self-imposed.
To suggest that I should turn Neut—that the gods wanted me to turn Neut—the thought was poison. An evil so disgusting, my brain could hardly grasp it.
"Fullin?" It was Cappie calling, very close—on the other side of the bulrushes, not far from the place where I'd called to the stranger. Perhaps she'd seen the fire I'd made with the cattails. "What are you doing on the flats?" she asked, her voice whetted sharp with anger.
Excerpted from Commitment Hour by James Alan Gardner. Copyright © 1998 James Alan Gardner. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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