We need water. It is just as important for us as air. This is why we frequently live on the shores of the Ux on rafts or in houses on stilts; we live from catching fish or diving for pearls. We are the Bnaur-Dux – people who breathe water. In fact this description is not completely accurate, for we can no more breathe water than other people can. Something in our blood and the fat cells in our skin is different however and can store oxygen. So far no-one has been able to explain it properly to me. At any rate, we very seldom suffer from incidents of suffocation or run the risk of drowning. But we are not invincible in the depths of the river. The water can kill us if we are not careful. But there are some of us who are able to do much more. They have a rare gift. No-one speaks of it – unless in a whisper. It is almost like a great secret. Those who are blessed with this gift are the Ztaa-Samro – the fire swimmers. Only our men inherit this gift. There has never been a female Bnaur who has made the water sing. But it happens with me. And I am not a man! My name is Noeg. I was named after the pink blossoms of the water clover that grows in the endless meadows near the banks of the Ux and bobs up and down with each wave. I am a pearl diver. I never wanted to be anything else. But everything has changed. This is my story.
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We need water. It is just as important for us as air. This is why we frequently live on the shores of the Ux on rafts or in houses on stilts; we live from catching fish or diving for pearls. We are the Bnaur-Dux – people who breathe water. In fact this description is not completely accurate, for we can no more breathe water than other people can. Something in our blood and the fat cells in our skin is different however and can store oxygen. So far no-one has been able to explain it properly to me. At any rate, we very seldom suffer from incidents of suffocation or run the risk of drowning.
But we are not invincible in the depths of the river. The water can kill us if we are not careful.
But there are some of us who are able to do much more. They have a rare gift. No-one speaks of it – unless in a whisper. It is almost like a great secret. Those who are blessed with this gift are the Ztaa-Samro – the fire swimmers. Only our men inherit this gift. There has never been a female Bnaur who has made the water sing.
But it happens with me. And I am not a man!
My name is Noeg. I was named after the pink blossoms of the water clover that grows in the endless meadows near the banks of the Ux and bobs up and down with each wave. I am a pearl diver. I never wanted to be anything else. But everything has changed.
This is my story.
Explanation of terms from the river country culture:
Form of address:
Polite form of address for an unmarried woman
Polite form of address for a married woman
Polite form of address for an unmarried man
Polite form of address for a married man
Form of address for one's own wife
Form of address for one's own husband
Bnaur-Dux settlement on the seventh river bend
Capital city of the river country
Bnaur-Dux settlement on the second river bend
Bnaur-Dux settlement on the fourth river bend
Small town near the white monastery
Silvery-white ring-shaped mussels
Dark grey edible fish found in huge swarms
Small greedy birds with yellow feathers and blue beaks
Black scorpion with deadly poison
Blue-black shark of up to five metres in length
Ugly flat fish with only one eye that lives on the river bed
Green-blue fish with sharp, pointed teeth and prickly fins
Zaka, the life plant
Pale green fern-like form
Small, gnarled tree bearing sweet red berries
A bush bearing fruit that ferments very quickly
The currency unit in the river country
Turn of the sun One turn of the sun corresponds to one day
The ancient language of scholars and priests
The expression 'Great thunder!'
As the river people fear thunderstorms more than anything else, the expression 'Great thunder' is used to express shock, anger or consternation
The sand sparkled so brilliantly in the sunshine that it made your eyes hurt. Notwithstanding this, old Toog sat in the middle of the white sandbank and shaped one of his famous sculptures with a small stick. It would take him several hours and in the morning it would be gone again.
Dunes towered up behind him like a barrier between the adjacent forest and the water. When the wind blew in the direction of the river it bore a scent of pinewood.
To the right a broad rocky outcrop jutted into the waters of the Ux, that endlessly long, peaceful river which had split up the land for centuries. The small town of Guún lay on the attractively grained stony overhang. It consisted of single-storey houses and innumerable bridges, walkways and dwellings on stilts which fitted snugly into the landscape and connected the river to the mainland.
Rafts and gondolas bobbed on the small waves, and the colourful pennants adorning them looked like small arms waving in the shimmering air.
The heat gradually lessened and Toog mopped his brow with his cap. In the gleaming light he carefully formed the mouth of a woman's face. It was a dainty creature that the blind old man had created today. A sylph-like figure kneeling to one side on the sand, looking into the water. One hand supported her on the white sand and the other one rested on her lap. Long, wavy hair fell luxuriantly over the masterpiece's shoulders reaching to her hips, and the accurately guided stick provided the young woman with a concealed, pensive smile.
Súks, small yellow birds with blue beaks, plunged from the sky to the shore cackling excitedly. A sure sign that fish or mussels were not far away. Toog heard someone's footsteps wading through the gurgling waves, heard water dripping from sodden clothing and heard even more súks hopping over the shell limestone.
A girl had emerged out of the Ux and ignoring the flattering birds was making her way to the shore and to the basket standing beside shoes and a towel. The pretty redhead drew two full bags from her shoulders as she walked, and her eyes narrowed as she noticed the old man.
"Toog-Usu, is that supposed to be me?"
"Now don't say that I haven't captured you well!" mumbled the little man and his beard widened as a broad grin spread across his face.
The girl placed her load in the basket, closed its lid to protect her trophies from the cheeky súks and came closer as she dried her hair with the towel.
"Why did you decide on me today?" she asked.
"Well, I haven't sculptured you for a long time now, you know. When I saw you this morning I just felt like it."
His wet counterpart bent over the sand figure and studied the emerging face intently.
"It's interesting how other people see you."
"For years my hands have had to see for me, Noeg-Asa. And these hands don't lie."
Noeg laughed and tossed back her hair. It shone in a deep orange-red tone in the bright sunlight.
All the Bnaur-Dux were sun-tanned from their permanent outdoor life and Noeg's skin too had a glorious deep brown colour. Muscles trained from frequent swimming rippled in her arms and legs.
She wore only the light creamy white tunic which served as an undergarment for the traditional everyday clothing. It was woven from amsi fibres and was hardwearing yet soft. For the women it was made like a strapless tube that fitted very firmly around the upper part of the body to support the breasts. It became wider from the hips and ended in a knee-length bell-shaped skirt. A neck halter was threaded through an oval eyelet incorporated above the chest which prevented the tunic from slipping. The halter straps had painted illustrations or were elaborately embroidered.
Noeg patted her towel over the material. Jewellery made from xamee mussels chinked on her arms. They were found on the riverbed of the Ux, and with their silvery white sheen and attractive shape were greatly sought-after. They grew in a circular shape with rippled ridges, were extremely hard yet could be worked on easily.
Noeg's left hand displayed the customary Bnaur-Dux life ring tattoos. From the eighth birthday onwards a further ring was added each year on a person's birthday. The first one was over the fingernail on the index finger, then over the hand, the wrist and the arm. Noeg's dark blue rings extended halfway up the back of her hand. There were twelve of them. They were applied with a fine needle and an extract from the víig alga. It was a quick procedure and the skin was numbed beforehand. In spite of this it was not expected of children younger than eight.
The left arm counted as an extension of the heart and the rings advanced symbolically towards the heart.
Like all Bnaur-Dux, Noeg was tall. Her pale blue eyes were distinctive in her brown face, like two windows facing heaven. She had a small scar on her left cheek, but this did not affect her delicate facial expression. When she had time in the mornings, she put on make-up made from the very versatile and valued víig juice and drew a thin line along her eyelashes and across her temples.
The Bnaur-Dux revered the colour blue. Because the colour represented health it was found in many facets of daily life.
"Did you find a blue pearl?" asked Toog.
"Unfortunately not! But I was successful in spite of that. I got as far as the Guganu Trench today. My bags are so full that I had problems resurfacing." Noeg giggled and rubbed her legs dry with sand.
"Teiw will be pleased," commented Toog.
"And Papa. It's the raft market tomorrow. We still need to sell a few buckets of xamees to pay for the wedding."
"Weddings are expensive."
"And Teiw is just a bundle of nerves. I would say the same about Mama if I dared." Noeg brushed the sand from her calves and stood up. "P'raps I'll come back and have a look at your finished work."
"If you do, bring me something to drink!" Toog pointed to his throat, which was a sign that he wanted schnapps. Blue rings curled round his arm almost up to his shoulder. Toog was one of the oldest people in Guún.
Noeg threw her neckerchief around her shoulders, crossed its long ends over and pushed them firmly into the leather belt around her waist. Then she resolutely grabbed the heavy basket and strode up the slope in the direction of the town. Although the heat was at last subsiding and the sun was sinking it was still a while until the evening bells ushered in the night's rest. The fishermen were already sitting in the bobbing gondolas in the harbour making preparations for their catch. Noeg made her way up to the suspension bridge and balanced across it to the gateway.
Smoke was rising from many houses and there were tempting smells in various places. The women were cooking meals for their husbands who would be spending the coming hours on the Ux.
Noeg skipped into an alleyway and went round a group of children playing marbles on the ground with coloured stones. Their fingers were quite green. It seldom rained at the seventh river bend where Guún was situated. The pale green pollen from the reún plant lay almost everywhere and flew up in small clouds when it was touched or the wind blew.
Noeg had reached her house. The flat roof was overshadowed by a huge cedar whose branches rattled against it if there was a storm. Noeg heaved her load up the small steps to the veranda and was surprised that Grandpapa was not lying in the hammock. Instead of this four legs could be seen entwined behind the plant tubs and the girl set down her yield noisily on the wooden floorboards.
"Zel! Give my sister a chance to breathe and help me!"
Two or three heartbeats later a blond head poked out from behind red blossoms.
"I'll never get used to your ability to appear out of nowhere," came a grumble. The man wanted to stand up, but a hand pressed down on his shoulder. Noeg's sister pushed herself up on it with a jerk so that Zel fell back down on the floor.
"Noeg! Did you find a blue pearl?"
"I'm afraid not!” Noeg took off her shoes.
The other girl arranged her beautiful head of hair and looked at the basket.
"You should have taken me with you! I asked where you were this morning but Grandmama said you had already gone. Why didn't you wait for me?"
"Because I didn't want to wake you. If you get even less sleep we'll all be sorry."
"Yes, I know I'm unbearable! But I'll make it up to you again. I've made Ban purée."
"Hey! I thought that was for me." Zel stepped in front of his bride and put his arms round her waist.
"I think Noeg has earned it more than you!"
"Thank you, Teiw!" Noeg rubbed her stiff neck. "Where is everybody?"
"At the market. The Deels have slaughtered a herd of wavy pigs. Mama will be bargaining for all she's worth." laughed Teiw.
She was the middle daughter of the family. She had two life rings less than Noeg. The two sisters looked alike, just that the younger one had dark red curls and would soon be getting married. She and Zel had known each other since early childhood and it had only been a question of time until they married. The bridegroom was a humorous lad with broad shoulders and a pale blond mane that constantly hung over his eyes. He worked as a carpenter, and as well as making furniture he was also very good at building one-man gondolas, which had made him a wealthy man. Teiw was to be congratulated.
Noeg had also once loved.
A boy with beautiful eyes. Noeg only had to close her eyes to recall the sparkle in his green irises. The memory also brought back the dull pain. It was one of those anguishes of heart that would last for a lifetime. Noeg and Síis had lain together as babies in the same cradle, had shared more than they later wanted to know and had spent almost every free moment together. They had crept out at night to catch fireflies, for it was said that these would help you to find precious stones in the mountains. They had shorn a donkey quite bare because they wanted to prove that animals could have goose pimples. They had set light to a gondola in the harbour so that they could see under water at midnight when a see cow gave birth to her calf.
Six years ago Guún had been attacked by river pirates. When the pirates moved on after merciless rampaging, Síis was among the many dead. Noeg mourned so deeply that she did not speak a word for a hundred turns of the sun.
Teiw and Zel were similarly close. Noeg was glad that they were so happy. In spite of this she asked herself more than once whether she wouldn't meanwhile have been Síis sui, his wife, if he had still been alive.
Zel carried the basket of mussels into the house and Teiw brought her sister something to eat. As they later emptied out the spoils and roughly washed the xamees, the rest of the family came home.
The youngest of them, little Wua, clambered on to Noeg's lap.
"I saw a muid!" she announced.
Noeg's eyes widened.
"Only a dead one. It was pinned on to a wooden board. I wonder who would want to hang a scorpion on their wall," laughed Trae, her father, and ruffled Noeg's hair. "You're working too much, my daughter! Teiw's wedding isn't supposed to finish you off."
"Or to ruin you! It's alright, Papa."
The bells pealed. Now the boats would set out. Everyone in Guún touched their brow with their fingertips at that moment. A sign of thanks and a tribute to the fishermen who would spend the night on the river.
After supper Noeg went into the kitchen with her mother and opened her hand.
"Oh Noeg!" whispered Wíig and pursed her lips. "That's..., don't you want to keep them?"
"No. "Teiw shall have them." Two small xamee pearls lay in Noeg's hand. They were so rare that you were extremely lucky to find one. The mussels never opened to be able to take in a grain of sand. A pearl could only develop if two xamees grew together at one of the small feeler openings.
Wíig carefully picked up the precious items.
"This will make it much easier to hire the wedding dress. Thank you, Noeg!“
Weddings were huge events with the Bnaur and had great social significance. The whole town would take part in the celebration and there was just one gorgeous wedding dress in the community, kept by the mayor himself and hired out for a considerable sum. It was the town's most valuable possession. Its insurance. For the dress was embroidered all over with the rare pearls. More were added from generation to generation. The dress was naturally blue in colour. But through the white trimmings the blue material was barely visible and had a considerable weight for the bride.
Noeg put Wua, the baby of the family, to bed and then sat down outside on the veranda to prepare the mussels for selling. The stars had risen and cicadas chirped into the night. Zel and Teiw walked down the sloping street. As they did not yet share a bed, the young man had to return to his parents' house and Teiw accompanied him for some of the way. She would nonetheless return very late and oversleep the next day. Noeg grinned. She couldn't be cross with her sister.
After she had packed her goods, she swung herself on to the balustrade of the veranda. The rock on which the house stood fell steeply down beneath her. You would probably break your neck if you fell down there. Down below was the forest road and at that moment Noeg saw Toog climbing up to his hut.
- I forgot all about him-
Lights twinkling in the distance made Noeg feel a bit wistful. Her love for her sister was not the only reason she worked day and night and spent more time under water than in the fresh air. The ceaseless activity distracted her from unpleasant thoughts. After the wedding Teiw would of course move into Zel's household. Although this was not far away, a great deal would nonetheless change.
There was nobody in Guún to whom Noeg would give her hand for life and even if there were, her father needed her. Since he no longer earned his living as a fisherman but had specialised in seeking mussels, he was home at night but did not bring enough home to be able to live from the takings. And the Seveú family had no sons.
A woman did not count for much in society. She was a nobody except in her own household. Women were not allowed to make any important decisions, elections were held by the men, and reading and writing was not generally planned for women. In this point at least Grandfather Lail had shown himself forward-looking. He had taught his granddaughters to read and write.
In spite of this Noeg did not know what use this should be to her. She could not break the rules of society, and one day she would marry like her mother and sister and give birth to children.
A deep sadness existed inside her. It had been there for a long time. Not just since Síis' death. It was as if something was missing. A strange longing that she could not name. Nobody knew of this. It was just much more difficult to conceal since the loss of her childhood friend. This was why Noeg was so attached to Teiw. For she was noisy, exuberant and full of vitality.
Toog's steps echoed in the alley. Noeg jumped down from the balustrade, took the lamp and crept down the road before Grandpapa could come to the hammock and start up a conversation with her. Halfway along she realised she had no shoes on. But what of it! She would not need them on the shore.
Her sculptured image gazed patiently out on to the black waves of the Ux. Although the evening wind was already nibbling at the tip of the figure's nose and its fingertips, Noeg had to admit that Toog had made a better likeness of her than someone who could see.
"Satisfied?" she asked her silent counterpart.
There had been a time when she had been jealous of Teiw. Because she knew things that Noeg did not yet know. Feeling a man's lips, for example. But this feeling had not lasted long. Noeg had been too busy. In spite of this she still missed Síis. More than in all the previous years.
Noeg did not return to the town after this. To stay outside at night as a woman was generally frowned upon. She nonetheless strolled towards the harbour and continued across the stony peninsula where the reeds grew thicker. It was quiet and peaceful here. Noeg flattened some of the stalks, put out the lamp and snuggled down on the ground.
Noeg knew she needed to find out for herself what she expected from the future. She was not the sort of woman to be satisfied with simple explanations. Something inside her wanted to rebel. Against all traditions and societies. Something that sometimes almost made her scream wanted to force its way to the surface and could only be held back with difficulty.
Noeg was awakened by the warbling of ducks looking for their breakfast near her. Mist from the river moved across the shore and the sun could not yet be seen on the horizon. Just the rusty-red strip in the distance heralded its arrival and Noeg yawned profusely. There was a lot of work waiting for her at the raft market. That meant getting there early enough to find a good place, for not every seller bothered to get out of his gondola to step on to the raft. A spot at the edge was always the best.
Noeg drew her fingers through her hair. It had done her the favour of not getting tangled overnight. She wound it skilfully into a roll on her head. Then she tottered carefully over the slippery stones to the water and began to wash. Why were her hands so cold? The night had not been frosty. As she allowed her hands to glide though the water she had the feeling she heard a slight hissing sound.
-What was going on?-
Noeg felt her cheeks. She lowered her fingers and held them in the Ux again. Her heart began to race without reason. Almost as if her entire body, her whole being, was rejoicing at the contact. Noeg bent her head close to the surface of the water and saw her reflection distorted in the waves. Could she still be dreaming? She spread her fingers and then pressed them together again as if she wanted to take hold of the water. Suddenly a high, very clear tone rang in her ear. Like singing. And it was coming from the water! It seemed to be coming from between her fingers.
Noeg jerked her arms back, stumbled backwards and landed abruptly on a stone.
-Great thunder! What's that?-
If her hands and feet had been cold beforehand, they now felt like icicles. From the outside they looked completely normal but Noeg had to press her fists to her chest and she bent over them groaning. She was in pain. This was no situation to make her heart beat normally again.
The strange singing resonated in her ribcage like an echo.
That was...! It couldn't be...!
Noeg's thoughts were racing. She wasn't an idiot. Although there was no information about the mystical secret of the fire swimmers, what little she knew was sufficient.
Noeg's racing pulse gradually slowed. She shakily looked at her hands. Her fingers were trembling uncontrollably, but the icy coldness seemed to be subsiding. Noeg's glance wandered to the surface of the water which gleamed in the first rays of the sun.
She had never, ever in her life been afraid of the Ux. Not even at night when it was an opaque, dark mass. And inconceivably cold. The deeper currents diminished at night and the warmth from the underground hot springs could no longer spread out well.
Noeg was not afraid of the river during a storm either, when it foamed and roared. But at this moment she would not have touched the transparent surface under pain of death.
She closed her eyes. It was a wonderful sound that she had heard. Like a warm sigh, an expression of some deep feeling, a murmur or vibration. Different from anything she had ever known. Tears welled up unbidden in Noeg's eyes. It was simply too much for her. She did not know how long it took her to get back on her feet. But having managed it, she ran.
Ran as if a pack of wolves were after her, and she did not stop until she reached the kitchen doorway. Her mother Wíig turned her head in surprise.
"Noeg! Papa has already eaten and he's been looking for you everywhere. Where have you been?"
"I... I don't know."
Wíig stopped what she was doing.
"You don't know? Are you alright?"
"What's the matter, love? You've done too much diving recently!"
"No, I..., Mama, feel my hands! Are they cold?"
"Rather the opposite, in fact. Wouldn't you like to lie down? Teiw can accompany your father. I must wake her up anyway."
"No! I want to go with him to the raft! I'll be alright once I've eaten something. Noeg shook her arm without realising it and looked for her leather boots.
Sounds coming from the bathroom revealed that Teiw had got up. Noeg knocked on the door.
"Can I come in?"
"Yes, but shut the door quickly!"
Noeg did as she was told and saw straightaway that towels were missing again. The small room was wood-panelled and in the centre stood a large round tub with ample room for two people. The single window opened on to the back of the house and the huge trunk of the cedar defied any inquisitive eyes.
Teiw tipped a bowl of water over her head and grinned at Noeg. Noeg peeled off her tunic and slipped out of the thin knickerbockers that reached to her calves.
The two girls were sensuous creatures with beautiful breasts and swaying hips. However, their wild outdoor life was shown through numerous scars in various places. Noeg had a scar as thick as her arm on her upper trunk. It wound like a ribbon from her spine to the front of her ribs and the dented skin shone in a reddish white colour.
The window rattled in the wind and some grains of Reún pollen found their way into the room. Noeg folded her arms.
"How long has he been gone?"
Teiw sighed, but was cheeky enough to continue grinning.
"Not long." She lifted her hands defensively out of the tub. "But he wasn't here for long."
"Yes, Mama is sure to understand that." Noeg rolled her eyes.
"Will you give me away?" Teiw gave her most innocent look.
"Have I ever done that?" The older girl was about to get into the wooden tub when she suddenly froze and stared at the bathwater.
"What's wrong?" asked Teiw in surprise and tried to follow Noeg's gaze. Then she lifted her head accusingly and frowned. "Zel and I didn't do it in here, if that's what you're worried about."
-It surely wouldn't happen again!-
Noeg pulled herself together and slid into the water. Nothing happened! No hissing, no singing. Good!
Noeg closed her eyes in deep relief.
"I can imagine how you feel," she heard Teiw say. "You are the eldest after all and ... are you alright?"
Noeg looked up again.
"Don't worry about me!" she smiled apologetically. "So tell me, what concessions have you already made to Zel?"
Teiw scrubbed her knee.
"I've never seen him undressed. We're very good and stick to the traditions, although I did allow him to wash my back today."
"No details please!" laughed Noeg.
"We must find someone for you, sister!"
"If you start matchmaking I'll pull both your legs off, and what kind of bride would you be then?" Noeg began to wash her hair whilst Teiw stepped out of the tub.
"Whatever happens, Noeg, I'll always be near you," she said kindly.
There was loud knocking at the door.
"Girls! Get a move on! We'll be late otherwise."
"Yes Papa!" the girls called and Teiw threw Noeg the last towel.
Father Trae had succeeded in securing the last selling space at the edge of the raft. Before heated discussions could arise about who had first set foot on the sought-after spot, the head of the Seveú family sat down on the blanket and his red-haired daughters did the same.
The raft market was in Guún's harbour and consisted of strong beams tied together to a form a huge area that was anchored to the bed of the Ux. It had no roof, for the recurrent storms would tear it off. But the industrious sellers provided their own shade and brought sunshades or small pavilions with them.
Noeg set up their yellow canopy and was glad that there was a moderate breeze today. The Úndea boys had set up their stall behind this. They sold hunting knives, axes and cutlery. They grinned at the Seveú sisters, for not every father allowed his daughters to be involved at the raft markets. But Trae knew that Noeg and Teiw were good saleswomen, and like his father before him he ignored the expectations of society.
The gondolas full of potential buyers arrived quickly in great numbers. Some had set out the previous evening in order not to miss the monthly market. The occupants came from Luht, Seig and Flaw on the sixth river bend or from Redné or Èrk on the opposite shore. No Bnaur-Dux lived there, and it was only the latter through their special abilities who were able to obtain treasures which the others would never be able to procure. Above all xamee mussels.
The gondolas were manoeuvred along gently by means of long-handled oars. The Ux did not have a strong current and was an extremely ponderous and peaceful waterway. If a storm swept across the land, however, it was transformed into a dangerous, deadly monster, full of eddies and foaming waves.
With tough negotiating skills Noeg sold bag after bag of the circular mussels and did not notice until a while later that her hands were unusually cold again. She felt her brow furtively by pretending to rearrange her hair. Just as on the reedy shore that morning, she did not seem to have a fever. Noeg shifted about uncomfortably. The depths of the Ux were hardly an arm's length away. She could not say what would happen if she touched the water.
She took a deep breath, shook herself and ignored the disturbing, frightening phenomenon as best she could.
Until Syó Lor turned up in his bright red gondola. He had a real jewellery empire along the Ux and beyond this. He was usually the first to arrive on market days so that he could buy up large amounts of materials. He was a Bnaur-Dux himself, but the times when he dived for mussels and pearls himself were long past.
Noeg, however, could increasingly think of nothing else except jumping into the water. She had to grit her teeth to endure the icy burning in her fingers. Before the wholesale trader had moored, she tore off one of her beautiful bracelets in desperation and dropped it over the edge of the raft.
"Oh no! I've just lost my bracelet! l'll fetch it quickly," she called and felt absolutely childish. But what should she do? She quickly took off her neckerchief and plunged headfirst into the river without paying any attention to her father or to Teiw.
The cool water surrounded Noeg and she immediately let the air out of her lungs to be able to reach the bottom and swam with powerful strokes into the middle of the anchoring. The strong chains swayed to and fro in the dim greenish-blue light. Noeg turned on to her back on the riverbed and held the palms of both hands in front of her face. A swarm of burfin fish sailed past her unimpressed. Noeg's heart was racing and cost her a great deal of strength. Her fingers writhed in agonizing pain.
-Please, please! Stop hurting me!-
The quiet hissing came and then the crystal clear singing arose through the movements of her arms and drifted away with the slight current.
Noeg sat up and dared to make a sweeping movement above her head with her right hand. A hissing, bubbling eddy arose. Before Noeg realised what was happening, her own movement jerked her upwards and tossed her into a somersault. She crashed against one of the anchored chains with jolt and the undercurrent continued to sing and danced around her for a while in a circular movement. She dared to touch it and immediately individual bubbles gathered round her fingertips as if drawn to them. They had a reddish colour.
Noeg shut her eyes and tried to calm herself. The coldness in her hands had lessened significantly. That was at least something. Noeg opened her eyes slowly. The eddy had disappeared and no-one had come down from the platform to investigate strange happenings.
Noeg summoned up all the courage she had. She just had to know! Was she really able to create blazing water? As improbable as this might be? Everything pointed to it. So she stretched her arms forwards in a sweeping movement and tried to grasp the water as if she wanted to hold on to it, and this made her shoot forwards as if in a maelstrom. The gurgling singing became treacherously loud and the Ux seemed to divide like silver threads before Noeg. The unparalleled voice of the water carried her body, washing it away in a vibrating current until Noeg crossed her hands. Then she began to advance forwards with a gyrating movement, the sounds changed and the red-coloured bubbles rotated at the same speed as if they were drilling a tunnel in the water.
Noeg spread her fingers. There was more hissing and then blazing red and yellow jets shot forward which made her even faster. Noeg saw wildly flickering brightness wherever she looked and she sped along like an arrow. The singing was exhilarating, majestic and simply beautiful.
Yet all at once a dark prominence appeared in front of Noeg. Was it... a rock? Noeg did not know how to stop and so did what anyone else would have done instinctively. She threw her arms over her head, screwed up her eyes and hoped she would not injure herself too badly. She crashed into something, overturned several times and finally came to a halt, panting heavily. She felt dizzy and needed a while to discover where up and down was. She heard a swarm of súks cackling nearby. Noeg sluggishly lifted her head. She was lying on a sandbank in the sun. The dark shadow had thus simply been the rising bank of the river and she had rolled out of the water into the open air.
Noeg pushed herself into a sitting position and as she did so she glanced at her skin and gave a small shriek. From her fingertips to her elbows her arms were covered in small circles. They looked as if an octopus had fastened itself on to her and left deep round dents. Puzzled, Noeg ran her hands over the absurd pattern. She had no pain, but how should she explain these marks? Then she realised that she had not searched for her bracelet and turned her head to look towards the harbour. But - it wasn't there!
-Great thunder! Where am I?-
Noeg whirled around. The small beach she had been washed up on ended abruptly at a steep, dark cliff that rose up into the sky like a black wall. The small town of Redné was enthroned on its highest point and the beautiful white cloister gleamed like a dazzling blotch in the sun. The Ux was a wide river. At some places the other side could hardly be seen.
Redné lay exactly opposite to Guún and to get there with a gondola took a good ferryman almost two hours! Noeg had landed on the opposite side! She looked at her hands again. Years ago she had heard that the Ztaa-Samro, the fire swimmers, were also called flying fish.
Noeg drew her knees up and slung her arms round herself. Blazing water was considered a gift of the highest value. At that moment she felt like the loneliest person along the densely populated river. For there was no-one she could ask, no-one who could advise her what to do. She was a Bnaur-Dux! A girl from a town not worth mentioning. Who would want to help her? And what would it mean for her family? Noeg wiped her cheeks. Her make-up had apparently run all over her face and was colouring her fingers blue. She took a handful of sand and rubbed the blue mask off with it. Papa and Teiw were sure to be worried. She had to get back. There was only one way this would be possible. Noeg shook her head and laughed at herself cynically. That was absolute madness!
Meanwhile Teiw and Trae had made a small fortune and had not wondered at all where Noeg was. They had either been so occupied with Syó Lor's inclination to buy, or Noeg's unusual outing had actually been so short that it hadn't been noticed. The elder Seveú daughter hid her arms quickly beneath her neckerchief and did not notice Eení Ùndea saying goodbye to her. He was a strongly-built lad with untidy long hair just as the Bnaur women liked it, and a lot of them loved Eení-Us.
Completely dazed, Noeg forced herself to put on a cheerful face whilst the rest of her family were in high spirits. After hanging up her wet clothes she was just about to flop in exhaustion into the armchair in the living room when she leapt up again in alarm. A huge black scorpion was sitting on a rough wooden board opposite the chair.
"Grandpapa," cried Noeg. "You didn't really buy this beast?"
The senior member of the household peered innocently round the corner.
"Oh, Wua was adamant that she wanted it." He laughed. "Perhaps he'll keep fellow creatures away from us."
"Or the opposite will happen. This one is female. Don't they have this red stripe on their heads?"
"I think so. But what of it? The muid is dead. It can't give off scent anymore."
"I don't care. It's ugly. Wherever does Wua want to hang it?"
The grandfather came closer and sat down next to his granddaughter.
"I would have brought you something too, but you so seldom say what you would like."
Noeg bit on her lower lip and made sure that the blanket she had wrapped around herself was covering the upper part of her body. The round marks on her skin had become less noticeable but had not yet disappeared.
"You can answer me a question instead, Grandpapa."
"When... men find out that they have the ability to make blazing water, what is expected of them? What do they do with this ability?"
"That's a difficult question, Noeg, sweetheart. And even more difficult to answer." As expected, old Lail Seveú had lowered his voice. You just didn't speak loudly about the fire swimmers.
"Why are you asking me? Have you seen one?"
"Maybe,"Noeg admitted hesitantly.
The grandfather leant back and rubbed his bearded chin.
"It's said that the Ztaa-Samro are called to serve. But I can't tell you what that actually means. Where did you see one of the fire swimmers?"
"Near Redné. If it really was one."
Lail nodded. He bent down to the girl and searched for her hand under the blanket.
"If you're worried about anything, Noeg, you can talk to me at any time. I hope you know that."
Thank you, Grandpapa." Noeg was suddenly dreadfully tired, so she said goodnight.
She shared the small bedroom with Teiw and Wua. Although each of them had their own narrow bed, the youngest sister usually crawled on to Noeg's mattress and claimed more than half of it for herself. Teiw was already asleep. The following day she and Mama would ask at the town hall about the wedding dress. All of Guún had known about the wedding for many turns of the sun, but it was the custom to request the robe formally. And of course pay the hiring fee.
Teiw lay on her stomach, her head on her arms. Her long hair curled around her bare shoulders. Near the coast it was quite cold at night and Noeg caringly pulled Teiw's blanket up to her ears.
She was grateful that her sisters were asleep. This meant she could take off her neckerchief without anyone seeing the circles on her arms. She put out the light and pushed Wua a little to the side. The branches of the cedar scratched audibly over the roof.
-Called to serve-
Noeg pressed the palms of her hands together. Their temperature was normal. That was extremely reassuring. The fire that had swum with her today had only been a small one. But it had given her an inkling of the tremendous power it contained. Almost as if it could lift up the riverbed or make the rocks burst. Blazing water was certainly no toy!
-But how come I can do it? I am a woman!-
Wua rolled over and her arm plonked on to Noeg's face. Noeg pushed the small body away again and closed her eyes. There was a path for her. She just needed to take it!
An imperial gondola was making its way upstream. It was black with gold embellishments and the long oars swung gracefully up and down like thin red wings. A white flag fluttered at the bow and bore the unmistakeable coat of arms.
Emperor Nenua ruled over the entire land along the Ux. He was said to be a visionary and an open-minded man who was eager to learn. In spite of this, ordinary mortals never got to see him. He resided with the Empress Tsaag and his court in Ghem, the town of green stone, near the Niew Mountains. The region around the first river bend was known for the prasiolite quartz content in the rock and the towering mountains thus had a green shimmer when the sun touched them.
Ghem had been built like a watchman on a plateau above the waters of the Ux, and its enormous harbour was talked of right into the furthest tributaries of the river. In the same way as the imperial palace, which only a few had ever been able to admire with their own eyes. The majority of the population along the river never set foot in the capital. Legal matters were dealt with by the head of the province, and even to appear before him could take a considerable amount of time.
Teiw washed tablecloths and bed linen on the banks of the river and watched the magnificent gondola slowly becoming smaller and smaller in the distance. As little girls she and Noeg had imagined becoming princesses one day and travelling in such an exceptional gondola. From here they would wave in a dignified manner to the people on the shores. Teiw grinned and shook her head at the memory. What simple children they had been! Noeg had often been the initiator of fantastic ideas. With Síis she would certainly have reduced the whole of Guún to a pile of rubble if the boy had still been at her side.
Teiw knew that her sister was sad. The prospect of a dull, quiet family life didn’t make it better. Teiw herself would probably also feel the same. But she had Zel. To lead a quiet life with him filled her with a sense of great satisfaction.
Teiw turned as she heard footsteps. Her bridegroom was walking along the shore towards her. The day was drawing to a close and Zel had finished work. He grinned and pulled Teiw to her feet when he reached her, drew her to him and picked her up to collect some kisses. He did not take any notice of the fact that several women were scrubbing their washing in the river just a few yards away. During a pause for breath Teiw asked:
"Have you seen Noeg?"
"No. Not even once today. Is there anything wrong?"
"I don't know. She's been completely disappearing lately and gets back late."
"But that's normal for her," countered Zel.
"Yes, but this time it's different. She doesn't go looking for mussels and yet she's wet when she comes home. She's exhausted and seems to be cold all the time because she constantly walks around with a blanket."
"P'raps she's got a lover."
"She would have told me that," sniffed Teiw. Surely Noeg wouldn't hide that from her.
Zel stroked his future wife's cheek.
"Ask her! That will be the best thing."
"Probably. Now put me down! I need to finish the washing before it gets dark."
"Unless you want to help me. I'll make you do it, believe me, I will!"
"Only if you want my mother to be after you."
"You're a spoilt brat, Zel Lúvia! That's what I'll tell your mother!" Teiw struggled free whilst Zel laughed and let her go.
Noeg learnt quickly, for she was diligent. She was now easily able to let the water carry her in a specific direction. She danced, twisted and turned in the floods like a water nymph. Stopping was now no problem either. She still just had difficulty with the fire. She was able to create it but the flames did not get bigger; they just danced around her arms. They had such a dazzling brightness, however, that it made Noeg practise only during the daytime; at night it would certainly be noticeable even at a great distance. She was aware, of course, that she was acting strangely and that her family was getting suspicious. But Noeg also noticed a change in herself. The vast hole in her soul seemed to be getting smaller. She sometimes caught herself smiling blissfully and sensed a warm feeling of happiness at the same time. Swimming in fire was driving her sadness away. It was like a treasure. She was afraid of losing it again.
Tradition demanded that five turns of the sun before the wedding the bride's parents should host a meal for the bridegroom's family. Presents were exchanged and final details of the great event were discussed. As naturally only the very best was served, mother Wíig went shopping that morning. Noeg accompanied her to help carry things, and she also wanted to look for a new tiara for herself. At large celebrations the women twisted their hair into a plait into which flowers and ribbons were woven. The end of the plait was lifted up and held in place at the back of the head by a wide brass ring worn like a headband.
Wua had also expressed the desire for jewellery and so the three ladies strolled through the town centre looking in shop windows. Most of the shops were so small and cramped that there was only room for one person and the wares were presented against the house front or at the edge of the path.
Noeg very quickly found an affordable hair adornment embossed with attractive patterns. When Wua fell in love with two white earrings made of hanva wood and began a discussion with Wíig about them, Noeg sat down on the edge of one of the small stone-rimmed pools found everywhere in the town. It would soon be midday and the heat was shimmering in the streets. As no-one was near her, the girl dangled her fingers in the water and playfully let a few red bubbles bounce up and down. The singing that began was no more than a whisper. Noeg finally pulled off her shoes and with a sigh slipped her feet into the cool water. Wua was already whining on the other side of the street as Mama apparently wasn't giving in.
Noeg observed the scene and was about to make a personal wager as to who would win. Relaxed, she wiggled her toes in the water. Suddenly the hissing that had now become very familiar began in her ears and she instantly looked down at her feet . An eddy had arisen and as Noeg kicked her feet a little more, the small pool began to shake, the singing became treacherously loud and flames swirled around in the pool, faster than she had ever seen before. With a jerk she drew back her feet before the stone could burst or people notice her.
That was very interesting!
Up to now it had never occurred to her that her whole body might be necessary to kindle blazing water in its full intensity. Now Noeg had found the answer as to why it had always remained so modest. She rubbed her ankles thoughtfully. For a long time now the process had no longer filled her with the same fear and anxiety as at the beginning. She was nonetheless uneasy because she did not know what this strange fire could actually do. And she just could not think of any way she could help other people with it.
Wíig came across the street with a tear-stained Wua and was shaking her bags in exasperation.
"Would you like to go home now, Noeg? Take these crabs and tell Teiw to start making the stock! And for heaven's sake take Wua with you! I'm going crazy!"
Noeg bent down to her sister.
"Did you get what you wanted, you little scamp?"
"No!" Wua burst into tears again.
"Listen here! If you behave yourself now I'll make you up later like Teiw and I always do."
The little girl wiped her nose.
"Properly with viig and red lips, too?"
"If you like."
Wua sniffed once more because she liked being dramatic, then she took Wíig's bag without being asked.
As soon as Noeg arrived at the veranda, Teiw grabbed her hands and pulled her into the house.
"I hate my hair! I'm fat and I look like a nadgrundel! You must help me!"
Apparently there was someone else who liked being theatrical.
"Calm down! You've already got stress blotches on your neck. It's hours until the guests come. Here! You should make crab soup!"
"Me-ee? Today? It will all taste of salt or I'll burn it."
Noeg took the food into the kitchen and checked whether the fire was burning. Grandmother Asle was sitting at the table chopping vegetables. She was a quiet woman whose left eye was missing. Many years ago during a storm on the Ux she had been hit in the face by an oar and been seriously injured.
When the noisy girls came in she smiled to herself without looking up from her work.
"Girls! The roof will cave in any minute. P'raps that would be good, then we wouldn't have to worry about guests."
Wua began nibbling chopped vegetables whilst Teiw, despite her complaints, put the crabs into a saucepan. She was an excellent cook and even in her agitated state of mind would make something delicious. Noeg began to tidy the house, wrapped up the presents and finally turned the traditional Pui willow garlands which were hung at the door and windows. They signalised hospitality. She was itching to jump into the Ux and try out the new things she had learnt that day. But Teiw would need her today. She would have to stay. Apart from that she loved Zel like a brother, and he was sure to be nervous. He would need her too.
Since Noeg had regularly been making the water sing, her hands did not get so cold any more. A situation she was not sorry about. So she was able to concentrate on make-up once the meal had been prepared. Quite the young lady, Wua gave instructions for each stroke of the brush that was applied to her face and allowed herself to be dressed in a neckerchief interwoven with silver threads. The family meal was without doubt festive, but certainly no reason to get the best finery out of the wardrobe. Noeg decided on a neckerchief embroidered with red Obsía blossoms. Teiw combed Noeg's hair.
"You're so quiet these days, Noeg." Are you perhaps..., could it be...?" Teiw put her lips to Noeg's ear and whispered so that Wua would not hear. "Is there somebody? Have you got a lover?"
Noeg gave a start.
"No! What makes you think that?"
"Well, you're acting as I did when I fell in love with Zel. And so I thought..."
"I would have told you."
"Ha! I knew that!" She patted Noeg's head. "Well, what is it then?"
The elder girl slung her arms around her knees and sighed. If there was anyone she would talk to about her secret then it was Teiw.
"Will you promise to keep quiet? About everything I tell you?"
"Good. Then come with me to the riverbank tomorrow!"
Teiw smiled in relief. She plucked at a few more curls here and there and then stepped back satisfied.
"You're ready now."
Noeg stood up and tweaked Teiw's chin. Before she could say anything more, their father came into the house. His daughters stormed towards him and took his baskets from him. Even on a day like this he had been diving. The work never stopped.
"Papa! Did you find a blue pearl?"
"I'm afraid not. Are my things ready? I haven't got much time to get changed." Trae hurried into the bathroom and grandfather climbed out of the hammock to greet the Lúvia family. Noeg joined him.
"I hope you've hidden the muid properly."
"That would be a good endurance test for them, whether they can stand our clan," murmured old Lail.
Noeg nodded. The Lúvias were pleasant, if somewhat decadent people.
"Good evening, Lail-Usu. Noeg-Asa, you look particularly charming this evening." Eení Úndea waved to the veranda from below.
"Thank you, Eení-Us. Finished work for today?" smiled Noeg.
"Ye-ees." The young man grinned and wiped his damp hair from his brow. "Come to our shop tomorrow! I've caught good nice waak-kehlen fish. Really sharp."
"Did you find a blue pearl?"
"I'm afraid not. But if I had, I would have given it to you."
Noeg grinned and snorted.
"Never in your life."
"Hm, you're right." Eení swung his bag and disappeared down the street.
Noeg sensed her grandfather looking at her sideways.
"What?" she asked.
"He's a nice, good-looking lad."
"He's strong and hardworking."
"But no more than that, eh?" Lail smiled.
Noeg shrugged her shoulders. Fireflies whirred through the night and the smell of Teiw's soup whet her appetite.
"Síis was a good boy," said Lail suddenly into the silence.
"Yes, he was." Noeg closed her eyes and then turned away. "Grandpapa! Thanks to you, Teiw Wua and I know that finding a husband is not the highest asset in life."
"Yes," replied the senior proudly.
"Good. But why do you keep going on about it, then?"
"I suppose because of Teiw. She’s able to marry her childhood sweetheart."
"I'm not a hundred years old, Grandpapa. I'll be able to find someone."
Zel's parents appeared out of the darkness. Their two sons followed them, heavily laden.
"Oh dear! The mother's actually wearing a yít!" cried Lail in surprise.
"I'll go quickly and tell Mama. Then she'll have time to put hers on."
The yít was the traditional royal blue attire that every Bnaur-Dux had in their wardrobe. It likewise consisted of amsi fibres, but was so finely woven that it was transparent, and the women wore it sleeveless over their tunics. A white cord on which xamees were threaded was wound firmly around the body so that the gown did not slip. The cord began below the breast and was wrapped round like a corset as far as the hips. The gown was knee-length at the front but had a train at the rear which reached to the floor. Numerous stitched-on mussels tinkled with every step, which made a lovely sound, especially when dancing. The men wore the yít as a sleeveless shirt over their breeches and secured it with a heavy leather belt studded with rivets.
Wíig opened her mouth to protest about the additional fuss, but the changed her mind and fled into the parents' bedroom.
Zel came in, the evening bells pealed and he winked at Noeg behind his hand as he touched his brow.
"We'll be walking on eggshells this evening," he whispered.
"Don't worry! If it goes wrong we can make omelettes," giggled Noeg.
Zel laughed and pushed his presents into her arms so that he could hug his bride. The meal went well, for it was delicious and Trae was able to tell some entertaining stories. Whilst the parents were eating sweet Duka corn with stewed fruit, the young people withdrew to the veranda. They sat on the balustrade and drank schnapps which Rehs had brought. He was Zel's younger brother.
"I've heard that the hiring fee for the wedding dress has gone up again," he said, filling Noeg's glass again.
"The mayor says that the taxes due to the Emperor have been increased, and that it's not his fault he has to charge so much," pressed Teiw. "Hm, the palace devours enormous amounts. Their lordships show little interest in how insignificant people like us try to make our living."
"You'd even snap back at the Emperor if you had the chance," teased Zel and earned a punch.
Everything was going peacefully in the house. Laughter could even be heard now and then. When grandfather appeared and climbed into the hammock, the final plans had obviously been settled. Rehs hid the schnapps bottle, and everyone who had drunk from it had to surreptitiously steady themselves by holding on to the balustrade. Tikúu schnapps was quite something!
Zel's parents went back down to their house. The bridegroom offered to help with the clearing up. Noeg snorted at this laudable intention. He and Teiw would not lift a finger but would run off somewhere and pounce on each other as usual. Noeg shook herself and swayed into the living room to clear the table together with Mama and Grandmama. Trae looked happy. Then everything was alright.
Late that night Noeg brushed out her hair and crawled on to her mattress. If she was not mistaken, she felt sick. Blow that wretched schnapps!
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