The Professors Arrive

Processes and Applications
Section 1 Verse 12

[…]

Identify and provide for those among you who are willing and able to dedicate themselves to the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge.
They should study and comprehend every facet of this book.
They should meditate upon the governing assert until it becomes the kernel of their being.
They should teach the others.

That year, the snow arrived before the Professors.

As far back as Reyan could remember, it had always been the other way around. The Professors were only supposed to come to Orloton in the warm months when the hardroad was clear and safe for their caravans. But a few days earlier, the air had grown unseasonably cold. A shin-deep blanket of snow had rolled down from the craggy peaks of the surrounding mountains to cover the small town.
When word spread through town that the Professors’ caravan had been spotted on the hardroad, Reyan’s heart began to pound. She hoped the unseasonable weather would divert them. But earlier that morning, the air had warmed, and the snow turned sodden and sloppy. It would likely be gone before morning.

It wasn’t that she especially disliked the Professors, but she found their presence disruptive. Whenever they visited Orloton, the town became as tense and precarious as a pulled-back branch. She knew everything would snap violently back to normal the moment the Professors were gone. It would take a week or more for Reyan to find and fall back into the well-worn ruts of her normal life.
Having found no way to forestall their arrival or shorten their visit, she ran off to her tree.

Reyan’s tree was a large pine that stood a dozen crow flaps from the edge of town. From the outside, her tree looked like any of the others that bordered the hardroad. But behind its perennial shroud of needles were limbs worn to a dark and shining polish by the girl’s hands, bare feet, and the rough weave of her pants. Broken bits of scavenged metal and glass dangled in intricate constellations from branches and twigs on frayed bits of rotting string. Golden beads of pitch dripped from symbols and figures she’d carved into the trunk with her knife or thumbnail.

Reyan had been hiding in that same tree ever since she could reach its lowest branch. Whenever the girl was angry, sad, or overwhelmed, she would disappear under its protective skirt to sit in quiet solitude. She liked to believe that her secret sanctuary kept her well-hidden from the rest of the town. But everyone in town knew exactly where she was. The reason no one ever found her there was that no one ever bothered to look.

She was more calm now in the tree’s dim light and close embrace. She wondered if she could simply wait here for the few days it would take for the Professors to leave, and the town to return to normal, but she knew she would not be able to hold out. Even the most obstinate girl needed food, water, and sleep.

Much of her view of the mountains, forest, and stream around Orloton was cropped by branches and deep-green needles. But from her current perch, she could clearly make out the Professors’ caravan as it slowly made its way up the hardroad toward town. Steam poured from the horses’ nostrils and hung in the still air for a moment before the beasts lurched forward to reclaim the swirling clouds of their own exhalations. The horses’ hooves churned the snow into an icy lather speckled black and brown with grit and newly fallen leaves. The trucks’ hammered metal tyres pushed up a bow wave of slush that curled over and sloshed into furrows left by wheels that had traveled the hardroad before them.

A group of children erupted from their hiding place in the brush on the far side of the road. They advanced stomping through the slush and cheering until they were along the side of the caravan. They shouted gleefully and jumped up and down like drops of water on a hot skillet. It would not have mattered to them if the trucks were full of sweetroot or a plague, most children simply could not contain themselves in the face of anything so novel as a caravan.

She tried to imagine a younger version of herself taking part in that boisterous scrum. But she knew she never would have run with a gang of soggy, snot-nosed, cackling children stabbing their noise out into the peaceful calm of the forest. Not even if they’d thought to invite her.

The lead truck was almost under her. She could clearly see the Professors’ unmistakable eye painted broad and unblinking across the top of the truck. Similar eyes decorated the front, rear, and both side of every one of the Professors’ trucks. Most people probably didn’t know about the eyes on the roof. You couldn’t see them from the ground. But Reyan, up in her tree, knew.

She counted four trucks. There were usually two trucks in a Professors’ caravan. One for each Professor. Sometimes there were three if they had a novice with them. But four was unheard of. Stranger still, this fourth truck had no eye peering up at her. Also, there were no reigns reaching out from beneath the windshield to guide its horses. Instead, its horses’ bits were lashed by a long rope to the rear of the truck in front of it.

Those were Rolf’s horses. That was Rolf’s truck.

The cycle of her breath grew short and shallow. A panicked heat flared in her chest. The ice-water squeal splashing up from the children and the oily sense of dread pouring from Rolf’s driver-less truck took hold of opposite ends of her mind and began twisting and wringing until she wanted to smash her head against the tree trunk just to feel something else, something she could control. She dug her fingers into her ears and shut her eyes so tight they squeezed out tears.

Ten days ago, she had hung in the corners and shadows of the stable as Rolf busied himself loading his truck and readying the horses in the sunshine. Once everything was ready, he patted Reyan on the head, climbed into the driver’s seat and disappeared down the hardroad.

He was headed East over the pass to Pesh. As Leader, part of his role was to act as the town’s emissary at potlatch. These things took an unpredictable amount of time, but even the most beleaguered exchange of gifts and honors involved days of ceremony and celebration. Between the potlatch itself and the travel—which certainly would involve other visits along the way—no one expected Rolf to return for at least a few more days.

She thought of the horses. They were being led rather than leading, their heads drooped at the end of their long necks. They were watching the world move past their hooves rather than boldly meeting it head on. The truck’s cab wasn’t simply empty, it was vacant.
She had no doubt. Rolf was not in that caravan.

That was just fear. There was no real reason to believe it. She took in a couple steadying breaths. After a few moments of silent darkness, she unplugged her ears. The mob sounds had lessened. She opened her eyes and turned to see the caravan and the throng of children disappear into town.

What she needed to do was separate facts from the fears. She lined all of them up like waring clans of school children on either side of her mind. Even though they continued to hurl accusations back and forth like dirt clods across the divide, she had at least gained some semblance of control. Next, she would disarm them one by one and begin to sort out the truth.

Her process was cut short when she heard a moan from the Leader’s house. It was subtle as a mosquito’s nip at first, but soon it began to swell and ache until it became a drone of pain and sorrow. It went on for an impossibly long time, and was finally broken when the aggrieved person stopped to take a breath.

When the wail resumed, it had taken on the structure of a single pleading repeated word. “No”, screamed and stretched out. Then “No”, staccato and final. Then “No”, ragged and pleading. Then came a dozen other variations on the theme as though one magical version of the word might convince the world to take heed.

Soon names began to bubble out from town as fathers called their children home. If Rolf had been in his truck and alive, he would have called out to her. This was the final fact. She had guessed right. The truth of it fell across her chest with the finality of a felled tree.

Unlike anyone else in Orloton, Rolf seemed to understand, not only that she needed to be cared for, but had managed to find ways to accomplish the daunting task. This was largely the result of his unflappable sense of duty. Caring for the uncared for was fundamental to his role as Orloton’s leader, and Rolf always took his responsibilities seriously. It was part of what made him so beloved in town and around the circuit.

His wife Lyssa—whose voice was still wailing like a ghost through Orloton’s streets—was left in charge while Rolf was away. She would ensure Reyan was fed, clothed, and sheltered, but there was nothing in the Book that said she had to harsh her throat calling home idiot girls who didn’t have the sense to come in from the cold on her own. But Lyssa couldn’t have called even if she’d wanted to, her voice being occupied expressing grief.


***

It had been at least an hour since the caravan had passed into town but Reyan still could not bring herself to return home.

Somewhere beyond the trees and hills, at the unseen western edge of the featureless sky, the sun set. All the colors—from the bright green of the trees, to the berry-colored tunic of a little girl running between the silent houses—were converging toward the same shade of deep blue. The objects of the forest and the town lost their texture and depth and stood against the uniform blue-gray of the snow and the sky stark and flat as the shadow puppets in the shows that always came to town in late spring.
A cold mist rose from the snow and millions of tiny droplets drifted through the pine needles and continued through the layers of her roughly-woven tunic conveying their chill dampness to her skin. Her gloveless fingers felt fleshy and slow and detached as though they belonged to someone else. Her worn out leather boots had not been oiled in years and drank up the cold and wet. There was a dully throbbing line across the backs of her thighs from sitting on the branch.

She could endure all the shivering dripping aching feelings, but it was hunger that sank its hooks into her stomach and finally pulled her home. She dangled from one of the lower branches and dropped down to the soft cushion of needles that surrounded the trunk. She walked out across the slush, each foot resting for a moment on the surface before breaking through the grainy refrozen crust.
The leader’s house had built so that it was the first one a traveler or visitor came to if they arrived in Orloton on the hardroad. The hardroad spilled into town and pooled into a small town square in front of the leader’s house. The town square served as the market, a ceremonial greeting space, and a parking lot for visitors trucks or cars or bikes.

The professors’ trucks were gathered at the far end of the square curled into a half-circle that reminded Reyan of a slumbering dog. By now, Rolf’s truck had been unhitched from the back of the caravan and moved beside the house, and his horses had been put in the house’s attached stable.
As the snow mist filled the streets and spaces between the houses it seemed to carry silence with it. The normal rumble of conversation, protests of bedtime, and dish-clanking of meals where absent as though the whole town were trying not to wake an angry drunk. The only sounds were the the chortling of a raven, the steady drip and trickle of snow melting from the roofs, and her own boots crunching through the snow.

No light spilled into the square from the front windows of any houses, except for the leader’s. There the windows blazed, and framed in that light she could see grimacing people moving about the rooms as through they were avoiding broken glass or a something sticky on the floor.
Reyan opened the front door and entered as silently as she could, guiding the door shut making sure to lift the latch so it would close without making a sound.

She did her best to make herself small as she stood framed in the archway that led into the room where the people were gathered. The air was full of sorrow and so many whispered conversations it sounded like walking through tall dry grass. Many people were seated in chairs pushed up against the walls and windows. Others stood clustered in threes and fours. One of these clusters contained the three professors from the caravan. They were dressed in their long brown traveling cloaks, a color chosen not only to set them apart from the vibrant clothes of the locals, but to help mask the inevitable dust and grime from months of traveling the circuit. She had seen two of them when they had come to town in previous years, though only at a distance and she’d never actually met them.

The professor who appeared to be the oldest was also the tallest. He was thin and had a sharp nose and bright blue eyes that Reyan found both intelligent and disquieting. He had combed his thinning gray hair straight back in an effort to make it tidy, but as he talked and nodded, hairs fell out of place and wisped about on even the least provocative of breezes. As he reached a hand up to smooth the errant hairs back into place, his sleeve pulled back and Reyan noticed the metal bracelets on his right wrist. One steel, one bronze. A simple Professor would only wear as single karaband. This old man was a partner.

The second oldest was a few inches shorter than the first. Most of his coal black hair had been pulled into a tiny pony tail and tied at the back of his head. Any strands too short to be collected spilled like a river around the stone island of his face. There were no wrinkles around his eyes or mouth to give Reyan any clue about the man’s age or habitual disposition. But his black eyes jumped around as though continually measuring the dimensions of the room and the distances between everyone and everything within it. He frowned and nodded as he listened to the tall gray professor pontificate. As he crossed his arms over his chest, light glinted off the pair of bands he wore. Another partner.

Then there was the youngest of the three. She guessed he was only a few years older than herself. He had dusty blond hair that brushed his shoulders, and had a scar that warped the line of his mouth slightly so that it looked like his upper lip had momentarily adhered to a dry tooth. This one had a broad white stripe down the front of his brown robe. So not a professor yet at all. Though everyone would certainly call this novice “Professor” out of respect for his future station.

A fire was pulsing and spitting in the hearth. Someone had moved the stout wooden chair from its place at the head of the table over near the fire. Lyssa was sitting in the leader’s chair with a plate of untouched food on her lap. She wasn’t moving. She stared unblinking past her knees down at the floor.

At the other end of the woman’s stare, Reyan found the thing that used to be Rolf. He was laid out on a thick woolen travel blanket on the floor in the middle of the room. The face had the white translucent look of a smear of tallow melting in a pan. Reyan’s eyes shot up and searched the walls for something else to see.

Hanging over the mantle were a scythe and an ax. Both were razor sharp and gleaming. Their handles were intricately carved with scenes of the people of Orloton working in their woods and in their fields. Each tool had a ribbon tied at the point where their wooden handles joined to metal. The ribbons were woven of every imaginable color and threaded through a collection of colored glass and metal beads. Having puzzled out how beads could mean numbers when she was very young, Reyan knew these indicated the year the tools had been gifted to Orloton.

Sitting on the mantle beneath the tools, was a large spiraling shell. Once, a few weeks after Reyan had come to live in the leader’s house, Rolf had taken the shell down and shown it to her. It looked like one of the tiny pond snails had lived and continued to grow for a thousand years. There were spikes like a castle’s crenelated wall following the shell’s spiral. The surface of the shell was a chaos of artistry and beauty. In one area there were inlaid jewels, another polished stones. The lip was ringed with gold, and some of the ridges were filled with aluminum. Fine-lined symbols were etched into the various contours until very little about the shell remained unaltered except its basic shape. Inside the shell was a rolled-up strip of leather with symbols and letters and numbers burned into it. Rolf had explained that the shell was used for trade and potlatch. The leather strip described who had held the shell, the dates they’d held it, and who had given it to them. Thirty one Leaders had possessed it at some point. Each of their villages or towns had added some form of decoration or adornment to it. It was a sign that Rolf was a highly respected leader and that the people of his town had a talent for trade.

The shell had been a thing of persistent wonder to her ever since. She never tired of running her fingers down the spirals and trying to figure out the very place where the roughness she felt on the tight spirals near the tip became the spikes near the bottom. She would close her eyes and pass her thumb back and forth across the borders between the natural shell and the various metallic inlays. Once Lyssa had caught her doing it and had yelled and threatened her. But Rolf saw how lovingly she was caressing the shell and told his wife to leave Reyan be.

Cold and sorrow had squeezed a tickling drip from Reyan’s nose. She sniffed more loudly than she intended. All the heads in the room turned to her. The neighbors and relations in the chatting groups or sitting in the chairs quickly lost interest in her and turned back to whatever hushed conversations they were having. But the Professors kept their eyes on her. Soon, they began to look around the room no doubt trying to interpret everyone’s complete lack of interest in this wet sniffling child who had walked in from the cold and dark. Soon, the room’s active disinterest in Reyan became awkward. The tall professor with the thinning gray hair began blinking more than necessary, his smile became twitchy and forced. Finally he spoke. “And who might you be?”

Reyan couldn’t bring herself to acknowledge the stranger. She let her hunger guide her to the table. Someone had pushed it up against the wall and it was crowded with unfamiliar pots and crockery.

“That’d be Reyankaiya.” Reyan made a quarter turn toward the voice that had just spat out her full name like it was a curse. She craned her neck the rest of the way so she could see Lyssa and the professors over her right shoulder. The grieving woman was looking at her now, eyes squinting, mouth screwed up as though she had sipped something spoiled or sour. “But you can just call her ‘Kaiya’”

The tall professor looked uncertainly from Reyan to Lyssa and back, then cleared his throat and said with forced confidence. “Hello, Kaiya, my name is Professor Sevv.” His voice was soft, his eyes pitying. “This is Professor Parr,” indicating the dark-haired one. “And this young man is Kavianhar. We’re all very pleased to meet you.” Sevv stepped forward with his hand out, but stopped short when Reyan winced and shied away from him, shrugging her right shoulder as though the professor had touched her neck with a cold hand. She heard the jangle of his karabands in the silent room. Sevv looked a question at Lyssa. The woman’s eyes met his, moved to point at Reyan, then returned. Her answer was a smirk. Sevv lowered his hand haltingly and the karabands slid into a clinking stack at the end of his wrist.

The moment Reyan had refused the Professor’s proffered hand, the room became tooth-grindingly tense. The girl filled her plate with all the food she could hope to eat then added a small hard roll to her mouth for good measure. She turned to escape back through the arch.

Lyssa spoke smooth and cruel to Reyan’s retreating back. “He asked for you Kaiya, while you were out there playing in the dirt. He asked for you three times before he finally gave up and died.”

Reyan stood stiffly framed in the archway waiting for Lyssa to lash her back with more words. But when a few breaths passed with nothing more said, Reyan continued up to her room.

Reyan didn’t have a proper room because—to Lyssa’s thinking at least—this was not her proper home. She occupied the space between the top of the stable and the rafters of the pitched roof. There was a straw-filled mattress up against the lone triangular wall, and in the middle of the floor was a single wooden chair. Most children would have hated this space, and no doubt Lyssa had expected that to be Reyan’s reaction when she had offered it to her. But Reyan was quite fond of it. It was warm and dry. The smells of fresh hay and manure—which Reyan thought smelled like life—filtered up through the floor boards from the stable below. That she had to climb up and down a ladder and crouch low to move about made it feel secret and special. Protective.

She sat down on the chair with her plate balanced on her lap and began to eat her supper. Down the ladder, down the hall, she could hear the rumble of voices as the adults began to talk again.

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