Pomonk—A Love Story

You know I always begin my stories with a man walking—a man walking across a plain, a man walking up to some fishermen, a man walking into a bar—and this one is no different. It begins with a man walking out of the forest.

The sun was just beginning to reach over the arbos, the long beams of light lancing through the cool, misty air, when the man emerged from the trees, scattering the hoots and the nattericks. He strode through the fields with purpose, but he took time to tousle the hair of the buffles as he passed by them.

Coming into Pomonk from that direction, he would have had to camp in the forest overnight. It was possible that he had skirted the village after being dropped off by the river, but Jak and Martan were at the jetty from first light and they swore they saw no battos all day. Yes, Remmy, that’s your great uncle Martan, now be quiet and let me tell the story.

His clothing was bulky for early summer, bulging everywhere, odd little bags and canisters strapped on all over, some of them larger and sinister. The man was obviously a soldier, but if the clothing had camouflage, it was not switched on. Instead, it was jet black from head to toe, his boots and sleeves spattered with mud and the green scrapings of forest plants.

People glanced at him as he went past, but for the most part they paid him little heed after an initial stare. If he meant them harm, he would not be striding so conspicuously through the village and if he were indeed a soldier, there was nothing they could do to stop him. Besides, they were all busy getting their awnings ready for Fettaterry. But the children, those not helping with the bunting or working on their moon-kites, they dogged his steps, daring each other to run in front or behind him to get a closer look.

Tomma ran to tell the Widow, she liked to know about strangers and sometimes gave treats for interesting news. She stared at the man as he passed, as though trying to place his face, then went back to sweeping out the leavings of the wind under her chatto. Tomma thought she was sweeping more fiercely than before, but she showed no other reaction, and entirely failed to give him anything.

But in the end, like any polite visitor, the stranger came to the central square and sat down right here on the tiles, waiting to be addressed.

Now that he was still, the children could examine him at leisure, peering from the shelter of the chattos around the square. Each in turn found they had forgotten some errand that required them to cross the square, closer and closer to where he sat.

Closeness didn’t provide them with any more clues about his purpose in the village, although the children made a wonderful game of guessing which lump or bulge matched which exotic weapon from the ’dramas.

Finally, Aidit got too close, tripping and spilling her basket of chattangs all over him, sprawling on the tiles, bloodying her knees. Without rising or speaking, the man lifted her back to her feet and helped her scoop up the precious nuts, taking one for himself and eating it with gusto. After that, no one dared venture close again, and the children found other games to play, or watched him from the distance.

The stranger was still sitting here as the sun went down, patient, cross-legged, idly tracing the patterns of the tiles with his fingers. The mothers started bringing out their mats and rugs for the evening meal, and gradually the square got crowded. Finally, the Widow walked straight up to the man and asked bluntly, “So, what can you do?”

Without saying anything, the man took a short length of wood from one of his many pockets, unsheathed a huge hunting knife, and started whittling. When he was done, still seated, he held it out to the children gathered around, carefully stowing the knife again with his other hand. It was a pomonk, crudely done, but nevertheless capturing its tubby body with a jolly roundness, and giving its flat face a mischievous smile. The Widow turned away with a sneer, but Pyair, the self-appointed leader of the younger children and the bravest, or at least the rashest, ventured out and snatched it from the man’s hand before dashing back behind his parents. After showing it to them, he gave it to his little sister, who beamed at her new toy as the other children clustered around, delighted.

“So, you can entertain the children,” said Leep, approaching from the crowd, as big and ebullient as ever, “That has to be worth something. Come, you can eat with my family.”

As they were walking over to Dian’s mat, Pyair’s mother pushed him and his sister up to say thank you for the toy. Now that he was standing, the man was much more imposing, and the bulges of the equipment strapped to every part of his body even more ominous. The children held back, but the stranger knelt so they were the same height again, and Pyair blurted out a thank you. The man shook his hand solemnly and patted the little girl’s head, then rose again.

Settled amongst Leep’s children and grandchildren, whittling a trinket or toy for each, eating the food being passed around, the stranger continued to offer few answers and no name for himself, so Dian started calling him the Carpenter, and that stuck to him over the coming days.

Leep waved over the Widow and the others on the village council, and they went off to the side of the square to talk about the newcomer. Leep emerged from the group, smiling his usual smile, to tell the Carpenter that there was an empty little chatto on the outskirts of the village, and he was welcome to sleep in that, and receive a full share of the village’s food and water, in return for his carvings.

The Widow clearly didn’t like it—everyone knew she had once had a bad experience with the military even though no one spoke of it—but she did not voice any objections.

In the morning, the Carpenter was up before anyone, out in the fields, moving in the ancient rituals of Tai Chi—yes, he was the person who brought that to our village. Wearing only shorts and a tunic, all his equipment stowed away in his chatto, he did not look at all remarkable to those who saw him: he was fit and muscular, but no more so than the active men of the village, and a stranger would not have been able to pick him out from the rest of them.

Once inside the woodshed, though, proper tools in his hands, the Carpenter turned out to be very skilled indeed, and as the weeks went by, he made many fine objects for the village, both for our own use, and to trade with the other villages and the merchants passing on the river.

He made a point of carving a little flower or animal into every piece—yes, Collet, just like the one you’re holding! Seeing how that doubled their value with the river merchants, the other carpenters quickly copied the habit from him. Often he would stop and show them some special trick of woodworking that he knew, though he was just as ready let them teach him something he didn’t know or needed help with.

When he was repairing some broken doll or toy, he was just as serious and careful as he was when working on some large and intricate carving the village was planning to sell. Naturally the children loved this, and there were always two or three around as he worked, chatting away with each other or just silently watching.

The Carpenter was particularly skilled at making waterproof jars, those fat stylized animals and plants that look like one piece until you twist them just right and the top pops off. He liked to used fresh orm: he would comb the forest for it, and get someone to replant any saplings he found until he had created that big grove down by the river.

The jars were very popular with the chefs and the traders, but he always kept one large one aside for himself, a giant pomonk, big enough to fit Collet inside, and he would work on it in off moments.

His finest pieces, he saved for the Widow, delicately carved birds with moving parts, flowers with paper-thin petals, fanciful interlocking patterns of orm and ebben, puzzles and chains made from single pieces of wood. She always spurned his gifts, which were eagerly seized by the children.

Outside the woodshed, he lived simply. Every morning, he was amongst the first up, exercising in the fields, moving in the slow martial dance older than people on this planet. Every night he would sit watching the sunset. When the other men passed around their beer and wine, he would take no more than a polite sip.

In time, he was joined in his exercises by a couple of the older boys—Jak says he was the first, but so do Hari and Daveed, so maybe all of them were—and then by more and more of the children, enthralled by the slow power of his movements and his gentle, terse instructions to them.

He never shirked his duties, helping out the others when there were chattos to build or bridges to repair. Beyond woodwork, whenever there was hard work to be done in the village—hauling logs from the forest, shifting boulders to clear a new field, lifting a batto out of the river for repairs—the Carpenter was there, ready to lend his strong arms and sturdy back.

And when the hunting parties went out to look for game, he would tag along, keenly interested in the forest. He was unerring in his ability to find the jacks and bullots in the densest foliage, but he never killed any animals himself, always stepping aside to let one of the younger hunters make the kill. Daveed asked him if he had some way to see through the trees, some soldierly technology secreted within his body, but the Carpenter just shrugged and said he was lucky, and no one dared press him on the subject.

When Jool was hit by the tree he was felling, gashing his arm open and breaking it in three places, the Carpenter brought out a compact canister that unfolded into a delicate machinery of needles and syringes, scalpels and forceps, introducing it as a minidoc—you know what they are, we have them everywhere now, but it was new to the village then. Mishel set the arm, and the Carpenter showed him how to use the minidoc to cleanse the wounds and monitor Jool’s vital signs to make sure infection did not take hold as his arm slowly healed.

And a little later, when Old Collet caught a fever, the carpenter brought the minidoc out again, showing Aggat how to nurse her grandmother back to health with it. Yes, Selest, now Aggat is your grandmother, isn’t that funny? And Collet, I’m sure you know that’s who you were named after!

At Leep’s prodding, the carpenter started using the minidoc to scan all the villagers, but he always got Mishel or Aggat or one of the other teenagers to operate it, giving them instructions. He showed them how to interpret its peculiar hungers, special kinds of rock or metal and particular herbs, how to carefully grind everything up into a paste, how to feed it and how to remove its waste pellets.

Everyone’s health improved under its mechanical attention. Mostly it just made dietary or fitness recommendations, but sometimes it dispensed pills that it made, or took more invasive action, injecting serums or in a couple of cases, working away meticulously with its delicate forceps and scalpels on old wounds or recalcitrant growths.

Still the Carpenter kept making his precious gifts for the Widow, and still she kept spurning them, although sometimes the children would catch her watching him as he exercised.

One morning, at the height of summer, right after Consay, the children did not find the Carpenter at his customary place. As their parents emerged from their chattos, they found strange weapons being pointed at them, a band of soldiers dispersed through the village in ones and twos and threes.

Soon the soldiers were loudly rousting those still abed and demanding food from everyone. They knew not to ask for gold—this area has never been rich—but still they were looking for things to take, inspecting the better pots and pans, leering at the prettier girls and boys, teasing them with the easy malice that comes with a uniform and a weapon.

One young woman, identified by her tag as Lt Natwa, looked about the same age as Mall and Hari—your grandfather and his brother, Selest, they were little more than teenagers then. She was harassing them, pinching and poking them, and asking them if they wanted to go to bed with her, when she spotted the carved pomonk on their balcony. Her ready grace was suddenly gone, and she was red-faced, shouting, demanding to know who gave it to them, where he was. But Mall and Hari could only shrug, saying a carpenter who passed through, they didn’t know his name, maybe he was still around, they’d seen him yesterday.

Other soldiers ran up, drawn by the woman’s shouts, and her alarm spread. They made a bristling errison, weapons pointing in every direction, backs to each other, battle visors down, data pads consulted, villagers and food no longer of any interest.

They were yelling for two of their colleagues, shaking their pads and banging their helmets as though there was something wrong with them. Abruptly, all their camouflage went on, and it was impossible to see them, only their tricky flickering outlines as they moved out of the village.

Two soldiers appeared again, their camouflage shutting off as they dropped to the ground, the unearthly whine of the weapon that felled them reaching the village a few moments later. The remaining soldiers must have responded in kind, as the forest erupted in bursts of leaves and falling trees, sudden crackles and spouts of blue and green flames that left everything they touched seared to the core, the racket of the weapons and the din of the explosions only coming later, as sounds do when you’re not watching a ’drama.

The buffles in the fields were as slow as ever to move out of the way, and a couple were caught by stray rounds—one fell on the spot, another staggered a few yards before collapsing. Yes, Collet, that was very sad, buffles are such gentle animals; I’m glad to say the rest of them got out of the way in time.

Then the soldiers reached the undergrowth of the forest, becoming completely invisible.

Out in the forest, the furious firefight continued, the whines and buzzing of the weapons interspersed with the dull thumps and sharp explosions of the impacts. The smoke from the burning trees filled the fields, obscuring everything.

Gradually the sounds of war subsided, becoming sporadic, bursts of noise further and further apart.

Finally, her camouflage flickering spottily, more off than on and totally ineffective, one fighter came staggering back into the village, staring wildly around, firing her weapon behind her, collapsing on the ground. It was the same soldier who found the carving, Lt Natwa.

Out of the smoke in the fields, the Carpenter strode, once again in his black combat armor. The fallen girl fired her weapon at him again and again, with no apparent effect. She checked it, shook it, fired it off to the side, ripping a long gash in the ground, a gout of dust and pebbles erupting from it.

When she aimed again at the figure remorselessly advancing on her, it had no effect, and she screamed her anger and frustration at him. But he was standing over her, looking down grimly, shooting her with a weapon that made no noise at all. She shook and fell back, her head lolling, limp and lifeless.

The Carpenter himself staggered. The villagers ran up to support him, Daveed catching him, but the man collapsed heavily, sending both of them sprawling to the ground.

The Widow took charge, sending someone to fetch the minidoc, instructing people how to get his armor disarmed and off, getting him carried back to his chatto. Now it became clear why the Carpenter had been so careful to teach everyone how to use the minidoc, but it was the Widow herself who nursed him back to health, apparently needing no instruction in using the device.

The Carpenter was confined to bed for many days, and the Widow tended him day and night, chasing away everyone else who tried to help.

But finally, one night, the villagers found him in front of his hut, with the weapons collected from the soldiers piled up next to him. Under bright lights, he was sorting them out, matching the ammunition, setting a few aside for himself, dismantling most, fiddling with them all with his fine tools. From each, he would pull out one or two or three little modules or filaments, run a small scanner pad over it, pull out anything more that his scanner showed, then toss the disabled weapon on the pile. He had his large wooden jar in front of him, and he would toss the extracted components into it as he removed them, along with any ammunition he didn’t want for himself.

Daveed was watching and he picked up one of the more exotic weapons, asking the Carpenter if he would teach him how to use it. “You have knives and guns—those are all you need for hunting,” said the man, gently taking the weapon back and using his pliers to pull something out of it before throwing it on the pile. “If more soldiers come, this won’t save you, and they will kill you for having it.”

When he was done, he called over Leep, telling him to have the weapons melted down into ingots, that those would be good food for the minidoc.

The following morning, the Carpenter asked to see where the soldiers were buried, and then he dug them up, ignoring the state of the bodies, oblivious to the smell, scanning them with his device, pulling out wires and modules and components from the pockets and clothing and soil and dropping them all into the jar. Sometimes he would have to dig into the bodies with his pliers to pull out embedded capsules, and his audience quickly shrank to those few with the strongest stomachs.

After he was done, the bodies were reburied while he went off to scan the forest, crisscrossing it in a tight grid, carefully scanning every part of it with his pad. Periodically it would announce something to him, and he would stop to locate the thing it had identified, under the leaves or embedded in the soil or stuck in the bark of a tree, and he would carefully pull it out and deposit it in the jar, which Jak and Martan had been enlisted to carry along behind him.

Finally, when the Carpenter was satisfied with what his pad was showing him, he shook the jar to settle the contents, snapped the lid into place, and sealed it up with glue and wax to make it completely waterproof. From behind his chatto, he pulled out a small raft that no one had noticed him making, and firmly bound the jar to it.

He went to the men who work the river, and together they helped him pole one of the regular rafts out into the middle of the Took. There, the Carpenter launched his little raft, making sure the carved pomonk was facing downstream.

That evening, as he sat watching the sunset, the Widow came out and sat next to him, finally asking him, “What do you want?” “Peace,” was all the Carpenter said, and they sat there long after the last red had left the sky, Clare and Sondreen bright points in the velvet blue sky.

In the morning, the man was gone, one final carved gift left on the stoop of the Widow’s chatto.

The village talked about him a lot in the days that followed, wondering why he had come to Pomonk, how long he had known the soldiers were coming. When Aggat, Pollet and Adell all had babies, they thought nothing less of him, especially when those sons grew up into fine young men—one of them was your father, Selest and Collet.

It did not even diminish people’s respect when Hari moved out on Silla, her new son bearing a remarkable resemblance to the other newborns, and none at all to Hari. Dee An also had a baby, but if Leep was at all concerned, he showed not the least sign, delighting in this late daughter as she grew up with his grandchildren—Remmy, that’s your friend Young Tibo’s mother.

The woodworkers continued to find a ready trade for the Carpenter’s furniture and carvings and, moreover, none of the buyers seemed to distinguish his pieces from their own, nor, as time went by, new pieces from old. They expanded the workshop, and as you know, there are still find little animals and flowers on every piece they make.

And people continued to use the minidoc whenever it was needed. Either the Carpenter did something to its settings, or its machine intelligence recognized its newly settled status, and gradually it started to grow, building itself new and bigger appendages. As the Carpenter had suggested, it was hungry for the ingots from the melted-down weapons, some metal or alloy in their composition especially nutritious to it.

Once or twice a year, following some schedule or alerted by a communication from the device, a technician would stop by Pomonk, boating in with one of the river traders and staying overnight to tinker with the minidoc, measuring things, adjusting settings, switching out components, feasting on our food, chatting to us about city life.

When melon fever swept through this region, the minidoc kept everyone alive, plus those who got here in time from Casto and Bottik, giving shots and churning out pills and foul-tasting medicines at a furious pace, until finally the government doctors came through and eradicated the virus once more.

But the minidoc was no panacea, and it did not stop the inexorable path of death. Old Tibo’s youngest daughter, ignoring the strictest instructions of her parents, fell in the river and drowned, and the device could do nothing for her bedraggled body—I know you’ve been told that story many times, but you all need to remember never to play by the river on your own! And Grampa Ondray, already a grandfather when the other village grandfathers themselves were children, he finally came to death, and it did not stop his passing, though probably it was more comfortable than it might have been without the medicine from the machine.

When Mall was crushed by the boulder, the life fled from his body long before the minidoc could be brought up, and all its proddings and pokings could not provoke a response from with his mangled remains. But Hari, whose legs were shattered in the same accident, was luckier: in six months, he was walking again, without a limp, running and jumping and climbing with the fittest of the other young men.

The extended bedrest had a more subtle impact on him, however. Whether it was the minidoc’s medication, or his brush with death, or being so utterly and embarrassingly dependent on others, or the gentle patience of the nurses, or the long periods of solitary contemplation, or all of those things, he emerged a changed man. No longer brash and aggressive, but now thoughtful and considerate, he reconciled with Silla and moved back in with her, cherishing her first child as much as the ones that followed—your mother, Remmy, and your other uncles and aunts. During his confinement, he also learned the basic operations of the minidoc, and would happily pitch in when the nurses were short-handed, when before he had to be coerced into any effort outside the hunt.

And the minidoc itself was changing, grown by its steady diet to the size and weight of a batto engine. Already, it could no longer sit on a table and needed four stout men to move it about.

And it turned out it was monitoring more than people’s health. One day, a couple of doctors stopped by the village with the technicians, teaching the nurses the finer points of using the expanded device. When they left, Jinny, the best or maybe the prettiest of the nurses, left with them, off to the city for a couple of years to be trained as a doctor herself.

The doctors adjusted its settings during their visit, and after they left, the minidoc started demanding its own building, giving out meticulous instructions on construction in its mechanically demanding way.

Installed in its own large room, its name changed to autodoc, it became the heart of our proper little oppital. As you know, it can now perform all sorts of medical miracles, and when we can get the metal, it continues to spawn little minidocs just like its original self so that we can take them into the fields and use in other villages. You’ve all taken your lessons in how to use them, haven’t you?

Anyway, in time, Jinny returned, fully trained as a doctor and fashion conscious in the way of city girls. A forlorn stream of lovesick suitors trickled after her, trying to woo her back to the city or convinced they were ready for village life. Most of them lasted no more than a week, one memorably summoning a flyer to whisk him back to civilization before night fell. The children made a game of it, putting dards in their shoes, hiding hoots in their backpacks, and having a generally fine time with their distress.

But one last suitor turned out to have grown up in a village himself, and was not only unsurprised to find a serpon draped across his legs when he woke up, but delighted the children by teaching it to dance. Yes, Remmy, I’ve told this part of the story before, that was me! I had studied agricultural science at the university, and when I wasn’t playing with the children, I spent long hours working with the farmers, tinkering with their crop balances, adjusting their irrigation, developing new cross-strains. Jinny never really acknowledged my courtship, but in time, she moved in with me, in a new chatto next to the new oppital. A long time later, she told me that she had loved all of us who came after her, but that she was glad that I was the one who stayed.

Apart from her new fashion sense, Jinny herself was quite unchanged by city life and marriage, as sweet and easy-going as ever, teaching the other nurses how to be doctors, happily sharing duties, no hierarchy imposed.

And the Widow discovered she had a soulmate in one of the autodoc technicians. He retired to the village and moved in with her, still tinkering with the autodoc from time to time, or the engines of battos that got into trouble on the river. So everyone had to stop calling her the Widow and start using her name again, Monket.

There were a lot of war stories going round in those days, more than a few of them about a pomonk-carving carpenter with no name, but we never did tell this story to people from outside the village. Even soldiers have friends, and we didn’t want some bereaved friend or relative drowning the din of their grief in our blood. Or, you never know, some bravo looking to make a name for himself harming us as a way to get the Carpenter to come back from wherever he went.

As it happens, Onry met Lt Natwa’s sister quite by chance when he went to the city, and fate being strange that way, they married. Even then, he did not tell his in-laws that he knew the circumstances of her death, not wishing to cause any more distress to her family—they had never wished any of their sons or daughters to go into the military in the first place.

Remy, you have a question. Ah, yes, how do I know all these things, when I only came to the village at the end of this? Well, I have been married to Jinny a long time now, and a married couple has no secrets between them, and your grandparents have told me their parts in the story, too.

But I have one last thing to tell you before I am done.

Many years after this all happened—just a year or two after you and Remmy were born, Selest—Monket had grown very old and was a widow once again. She was spending her last days in the oppital, on a diet of tea and soup and medicine. Jinny was herself old by then—she is just about as ancient as me, after all—but she was still taking her turn as doctor, and she stopped by to chat to the Widow, and their talk turned to days long gone by.

Jinny mentioned the Carpenter, and asked Monket why she spurned him. The old woman was silent for a long time, then finally she said, “My husband.” Whether she meant the man was her husband, or had killed her husband, or reminded her of her husband, or the Widow’s mind was wondering and she was thinking of something else entirely, Jinny was never able to tell. Her further questions went unanswered, the Widow either asleep or pretending to be, and Jinny was too polite to bring the subject up again later.