OT: Floating Questions

on May 8, 2009 in Other Tales


Lucinda met her interview subject at the swimming pool. She spotted her right away… it was hard to miss the long body of the lizardwoman doing a dead man’s float in the deep end, her long tail strung out behind her. Lucinda waited, ready to grab her attention when she came up for a breath… and then grew a little alarmed when minutes ticked by with no sign of movement from her.

But she’d just barely begun to feel a trickle of panic when the reptilian head whipped up and looked over at her. A few swishes of that long tail turned her body around and propelled her towards the end of the pool where Lucinda stood.

“Ms. Blake,” she said. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. I was simply doing some memory exercises while I waited.”

Her voice was quiet and distinctly feminine to Lucinda’s human ears. It was somewhat flat, but not emotionless… it sounded like she was mildly but pleasantly surprised by everything.

This surprised Lucinda. She knew her interview subject was not human… that was the point. She had been braced for something distinctly inhuman, maybe croaking or hissing and probably subjectively creepy. She was known by the nickname “Hissy”, after all.

“That’s… that’s fine,” Lucinda said. “Are you… are you ready to do this?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Okay. Would you like to go somewhere we can sit down?”

“I have no objection if you’d like to. I am comfortable here.”

“Oh, okay,” Lucinda said, and she sat down near the edge of the pool, folding her legs underneath her. She took a crystal and a pad and pen out of her bag. “Is it alright if I make an echo of this?” she asked, holding up the crystal.

“Of the crystal?”

“Of the interview,” Lucinda said. “It will store everything we say, so I can check on it later.”

“I have no objection.”

“Okay,” Lucinda said. “Do you have any questions before we begin, about what we’re going to be doing, or why I’m doing it, or anything?”

“No,” Hissy said.

“Or about me?”

“No.”

“Okay. Then to start off, the first question I’d like to ask… because I’ve found it varies somewhat from race to race… is how your people greet one another,” Lucinda said. “Some races bow, some shake hands. What do you do?”

“We look at each other like this,” Hissy said. She tilted her head and stared at Lucinda. “To let people know that we see them. We acknowledge their presence. If we wish to be rude to somebody, we do not do that.”

“Do you say anything, like ‘hello’ or ‘welcome’?”

“I could tell you that you are welcome somewhere, or that I appreciate your company, if I meant to,” Hissy said. “But we don’t do that as a matter of course. We talk when it is needful or desirous to do so, and we remain silent otherwise.”

“Interesting,” Lucinda said. “Do you still do that when you greet people, normally? I mean, non-lizardfolk?”

“No,” Hissy said. “It used to be automatic, but I’ve learned not to. Other peoples often consider it to be rude or unsettling.”

“I’ve always seen your race called lizardfolk, which is descriptive enough but… well… it’s almost more of a description than a name. What does your race call itself?”

“Well,” Hissy said. “I could make the sound for you, but I don’t know how you’d spell it.”

“What does it translate as?” Lucinda asked.

Hissy sat there, silently… disconcertingly still, considering that she was floating in twelve feet of water. There was no outward sign Lucinda could discern that let her know the lizardwoman was thinking, but the student reporter waited patiently. She was trying hard not to be anthropocentric. Cetea, the gorgon, had been the most inhuman of her interview subjects, but even with her scaly skin and her strange, reflective eyes, her face had been… human-like.

Hissy was not just a humanoid with lizard-like characteristics, though. She was a humanoid lizard. Her face had an elongated muzzle filled with pebble-like teeth. Lucinda wouldn’t have known what to watch for in it.

We, I suppose” Hissy said finally. “We folks here. It’s actually two words… one would translate as ‘we’ and the other ‘here’, but we say them together and they mean us, the people, folk.

“You say them together? Like a kenning?”

“A knowing?”

“Sorry, it’s not a common concept in Pax… it’s something I learned in my Northern Literature class,” Lucinda said. “It’s a figure of speech where words are strung together to make a sort of allusion, like a fang might be called a wolf-spear or a spear might be called a battle-tooth or something like that.”

“Oh,” Hissy said. “That’s interesting.”

“Do your people do that?”

“Not really. We… it’s hard to explain, it seems natural to me. We speak in multiple registers, and the words we say together are important.”

“So you can literally say two entirely different things at the same time?”

“Yes,” Hissy said. “Sometimes more, though usually not.”

“Could you be talking to one person and having a second conversation with someone else?”

“Well… we call that circle talking or sideways talking, but it’s still one conversation,” Hissy said. “That’s a different mode, though, since in the one-on-one mode I’d still be talking in multiple registers. It’s hard to explain if you don’t understand it. You might think of it as each word is a root that means nothing on its own, it only gains meaning when it’s placed with another.”

“I guess that’s not so different from any other language, than,” Lucinda said.

“It doesn’t sound so different when it’s simplified to that point,” Hissy said. “I could explain it very easily in my own language, but that isn’t terribly helpful. It’s caused a lot of confusion. When three or more of us would stand in a circle and talk among each other, the missionaries thought we were singing. We didn’t understand what the word meant, so they showed us… it just sounded like more of their talking, to us, but with more repetition.”

“That’s interesting,” Lucinda said. “You mean a group of you standing together, all talking at the same time?”

“Yes.”

“Doesn’t that get confusing?”

“How so?”

“Well, I mean… how do you keep track of who’s saying what?” Lucinda asked.

“The same way we are now,” Hissy said. “If you and I started talking at the same time, I would not forget which of us was which.”

“But that would be rude,” Lucinda said. “I mean, in our culture. People talking over each other is rude.”

“Yes, and that’s strange to me,” Hissy said. “In mine, it would be rude to expect everyone else to be silent just because you have something to say. ”

“I suppose that makes sense,” Lucinda said. “So, then, what does it sound like when you sing?”

“It doesn’t,” Hissy said. “We don’t.”

“Do you play music?”

“I think you might say we recite poetry,” Hissy said. “I would say something, two words, and you would have to say something with one of those words and another, and the next person in the circle would then make a pair, and so on. It’s called… flow-weaving, I suppose.”

“Is it hard?”

“Children do it. But some do it better than others. You can do it alone, but it’s more interesting with others to chain off of,” she said.

“One of my other interview subjects told me she thought music was universal,” Lucinda said.

“That’s interesting,” Hissy said.

“Uh… so… how did you learn Pax?”

“From missionaries,” Hissy said.

“Was it hard?” Lucinda asked. “Given the different sounds, the differing basis?”

“It was and it wasn’t,” Hissy said. “It seems simple, in comparison. Most languages do. Elvish is a little more complicated, but Gobol and Kharoline were easy to pick up. Pax was harder because it was first, and I didn’t realize how easy it was.”

“Holy crap,” Lucinda said. “I mean… you speak all those languages?”

“Yes,” Hissy said. “And others. I speak Kobol, but I can’t read it. I learned High Draconic at the mission school. I taught myself Kharoline, Low Draconic, and True Draconic from that.”

True Draconic? You speak True Draconic?”

“I can’t make all the sounds,” Hissy said. “But I understand it. The… logic… behind it is the same as High Draconic, and a lot of the words are similar to my own language. It’s only that High Draconic is intended for more mouths.”

“How did you learn True Draconic?”

“Talking to dragons,” Hissy said. “There are a mated pair of great green dragons whose territory included my village. They never hunted us because they liked having a ‘buffer’, as they put it, between the Imperium and themselves. We gave them gold and other things we didn’t need, when we found it. One of them guarded our egg clutches at all times, since they didn’t have any of their own. Ours and five other villages in their territory. We had better relations with our neighbors than many folk, because of that. We were all practically siblings.”

“And after you were born… hatched… you would, what, just chat with them?”

“Yes. We called them the Uncles.”

“What are their names?”

“I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“Green dragons… I would have expected black dragons, in a swamp.”

“Alkaline swamp,” Hissy said. “Black dragons don’t like alkaline. They fought with a black dragon whose territory butted against theirs, but it was never very serious because she didn’t want their territory and they didn’t want hers.”

“You said ‘uncles’,” Lucinda said. “Are they both males?”

“Yes,” Hissy said. “That’s why they didn’t have any eggs. Although their agreement with the Imperium was that they wouldn’t raise any, anyway. I don’t think the Imperium knew.”

“Gay dragons,” Lucinda said, shaking her head in disbelief. “Gay dragons and a polyglot lizard.”

“I think most of us are good at picking up other languages,” Hissy said. “We all learned Pax and High Draconic quickly, and most of the other students could read Kharoline poems. Everyone who cared to try. The missionaries had books of poetry but they didn’t consider it important that we read them. So most of us didn’t.”

“Why did you?”

“Languages interest me.”

“So, jumping back a bit… the eggs were kept in a communal clutch, but you did know who your parents were, right?”

“Yes,” Hissy said. “We have five of them.”

“Five?”

“The closest to literal translation would be parent/wife, parent/husband, parent/egg, advocate/parent, name/parent,” Hissy said.

“I think I got the first two,” Lucinda said. “Mother and father?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know whose children are whose?”

“We are carried for eight weeks,” Hissy said. “During that time we form a bond with our mothers. We can later recognize each other instinctively. Fatherhood is as uncertain as it is for any other race.”

“What are the others?”

“The parent/egg is the clutch attendant who bonds with our egg,” Hissy said. “Mostly they are women, usually a maternal aunt if one is available and on good terms with her sister. An older female relative, or a well-regarded person, can also be a clutch attendant. It is a necessary position for most villages, though because of the uncles, it has become more like a pleasant tradition for us. Our advocate is the parent who takes our part in all things, so that the others need not worry about being harsh. The name-giver constructs our name out of parts of our other four parents’ names. They are usually selected by the father, as the clutch attendant is selected by the mother, but both have some say.”

“Now, ‘Hissy’ isn’t a translation of your real name, is it?” Lucinda asked.

“No. My real name is formed out of the words bell, leaf, gold, and apple,” Hissy said. “Each of which comes from one of my other parents’ names. One of those words will go into any child I stand as a parent for, unless I’m doing the naming myself.”

“You don’t have music, but you have bells?”

“Wind chimes, water chimes,” Hissy said. “We like the sound. I guess that’s music.”

“Did all five of your parents play a part in raising you?”

“Yes, more or less. Our villages are very communal. All children in a village are the village’s children. But the networks of parents ensure a tightly-woven net through which none can slip unnoticed,” Hissy said. “The missionaries tried to reform that arrangement. They discouraged any talk of our other parents and urged mothers to care for their own eggs directly.”

“How did that go?”

“They had little success,” Hissy said. “Some women took their own eggs and let the missionaries name their children. Nobody interfered. The other adults still looked after their children as much as the mothers would let them. Most of those children grew up to leave the village. Two of my teammates are such children, though they came from different territories.”

“So why did you leave the village?”

“My language hobby was taken to be a sign of unusual intelligence. The missionaries sent me to their school.”

“The mission school wasn’t part of the village?”

“No,” Hissy said. “The missionaries had a fort just outside the uncles’ territory, and they taught classes there, but the big school was in Blackwater. They told my parents that it would be a waste to keep me in the fen, so I went there for four years. The missionaries there encouraged me to take some tests, so I did, and they said I should go to university.”

“Do you think you’re unusually intelligent?”

“I have been told I am.”

“Do you think it’s true, though?”

“They have tests,” Hissy said. “They say I am. It isn’t a thing that I think about.”

“Is that cultural?”

“I suppose it is. Our idea of wisdom is tied to age and accomplishments,” Hissy said. “I’m thirteen years old.”

“Is that… is that young?” Lucinda asked. “I mean, when does your race reckon maturity?”

“When a person is mature. I haven’t taken adult rites, though I don’t know if I will,” Hissy said. “Being away from the village muddies the water.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s an expression we use…”

“We have it, too,” Lucinda said. “I guess I meant ‘how so?'”

“Ordinarily, my parents would decide when I was grown up,” Hissy said. “I suppose when I graduate from the university, human society will consider me an adult. But I’m a child, and we have a saying that would mean something like ‘child’s achievement, child’s crimes’. We say it when you would say ‘it’s no big deal’ or ‘it’s nothing’.”

“You don’t think high test scores are an achievement?”

“Words on paper,” Hissy said. “I like words, but talking is not something to be proud of.”

“You’re on the skirmish team, on the notorious seventh squad, the so-called ‘Monster Squad’… how do you feel about the decision to put all the Harlowe students on one squad?”

“I have no opinion about that.”

“Were you told not to speak about that?”

“No,” Hissy said.

“Did you play skirmish before you came here?”

“No,” Hissy said. “The mission school didn’t have anything like that. We couldn’t have spears. We were discouraged from fighting.”

“How’d you learn how to fight, then?”

“I come from a wild place.”

“Do you like skirmish?”

“Not for itself, no,” Hissy said. “I enjoyed the structure of the seventh squad. Belonging to it felt closer to being back in my village.”

“How so?”

“There were other lizardfolk to talk to,” Hissy said.

“Boys?”

“They are male, yes,” Hissy said. “Also, I enjoyed the sense of belonging to a group. I still do, a little, but I’m coming to understand the difference between my family and my skirmish teammates.”

“Do you feel like you had a choice in coming here?”

“No.”

“Why’s that?”

“I was told I should,” Hissy said. “I didn’t know I could say no. I don’t know if I would have been listened to if I had.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“It doesn’t bother me.”

“Why not?” Lucinda asked.

“Should it bother me?”

“It would bother me,” Lucinda said. “I think, among most races, there would be some resentment at the feeling of being forced into a course of action.”

“Oh,” Hissy said. “Very few people decide things for themselves, among us.”

“You mean somebody always tells you what to do?”

“Group consensus is sought. Usually with a circular discussion.”

“What about personal things? Say you had a decision to make that only affected you,” Lucinda said.

“I would seek another person to discuss it with, and we would arrive at a decision together,” Hissy said.

“Can you really get much done that way?”

“We get everything done that way.”

“Will you go back to your village when you graduate?”

“Probably,” Hissy said.

“What will you do there?”

“I’d have to talk to the others,” Hissy said.

“Is there tolerance of subtle artists?”

“It’s not an uncommon condition. Most of us have some degree of empathy with our mothers and clutch attendants,” Hissy said. “And with the Uncles, which they find amusing. It sometimes approaches telepathy. Those of us who have wider talents often end up being called to lead the larger discussion circles.”

“Like a moderator?”

“Yes.”

“Would you find that sort of life satisfying?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well… now that you’re here, how do you feel about life at Magisterius University?” Lucinda asked.

“It doesn’t bother me.”

“Is that it?”

“There are some times that something annoys me and times that something pleases me,” Hissy said. “But it doesn’t bother me.”

“Some of the non-human students have reported problems dealing with human students, or with the faculty,” Lucinda said. “Have you encountered anything like that?”

“I’m used to dealing with humans.”

“I mean, racism.”

“It doesn’t bother me.”

“But you’ve noticed it?”

“That people don’t like other races?”

“Yes.”

“Yes,” Hissy said.

“And how do you feel about that?”

“It doesn’t bother me,” Hissy said.

“Really?”

“Yes,” Hissy said.

“So if somebody avoids you, or picks on you, or singles you out somehow, you don’t worry that it might be because of your race?”

“Oh, no,” Hissy said. “I know if it’s because of my race. People don’t usually disguise that kind of feeling. It just doesn’t bother me.”

“How can it not bother you?”

“I don’t know,” Hissy said. “I don’t know why it would.”

“Oh. Okay. Well, that covers about everything I’d meant to ask,” Lucinda said, though she was in fact throwing out a whole host of follow-up questions that were apparently meaningless to Hissy. “Um… is there anything you’d like to say, a message to other students or anything like that?”

“No,” Hissy said, which she’d kind of expected.

“Okay, I guess that’s it,” Lucinda said. “Thanks for your time.”

“You’re welcome.”


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3 Responses to “OT: Floating Questions”

  1. pedestrian says:

    This is the Margaret Meade problem. Where an anthropologist or archeologist project their own opinions, beliefs, prejudices superstitions on other society’s, demanding that they fit into the nice neat boxes in our heads.

    The Hawaiians have a saying about missionaries;
    “The missionaries came to do us good and the did very, very well for themselves!”

    Separate from the our petrol addiction, the West’s obsession with the Middle-East is maintaining that eggshell thin veneer of modernism around half the planet and ignoring the underlying realities of the people’s lives.

    Mostly we want them to remain quaint happy villagers/guides/trinket sellers we can grab a quick snapshot of against an ancient ruin, then go home to smugly embrace the wonderfulness of our narcissist existence.

    Current score: 1
  2. Jechtael says:

    The game. Like Shiritori, except that the words are said at the same time? I like it!

    I think I would find it difficult to be involved in a conversation such as the ones of which Hissy spoke. I can handle a couple of conversations at a time in text, but I have to move back and forth. Two auditory conversations and a text conversation is probably my maximum, and I need to occasionally, or even often, ask someone to repeat things; I’m too easily distracted. That’ probably a single-register voice thing, though. Had I been brought up to speak sign language and a verbal language at the same time, without saying the same thing in both (not to say I know more than a touch of sign language anyway), I would likely be able to do something similar. …as a function of being used to it, not of being particularly intelligent.

    I wonder if the dragons even think of “gay” in terms remotely related to the modern Imperial ideas of the term. Bisexuality as a default (or pansexuality limited to their own species of being, whatever that would be called), “we’re not sexual together, we’re just mated”, “we’re not mated, we’re just sexual together and share territory and domestic pursuits”, stuff like that.

    Current score: 0
    • Jechtael says:

      P.S. (I meant to edit this in, but for some reason the edit function is sending me to a blank form despite the “Comment Loaded Successfully” tag): I’d rather be called by the local translation of the etymological base(s) of my name(s) (first & middle) than to be called “Bianca” or “American Girl” or “Fuzzy” or “Four-limbs” because my proper name is difficult for locals to pronounce. That’s just me, though. A lot of people /don’t/ think of their names in an etymological sense. “Harry”? It’s just “Harry”, not short for “Harold” (“great war-leader”) or “Herald” (messenger. See also Evangeline). Joan? Maybe it comes from a famous martyr named Jeanne, maybe it comes from a famous warrior named Jeanne, maybe it comes from a Hebrew name that praises a god the named person’s family doesn’t even worship.

      Current score: 0