‘Only the Dogs Bark’, Dawn Lloyd

Illustrations © 2009 Bonnie Brunish

 [ The Priest, © 2009 Bonnie Brunish ] They say when someone is born with brown eyes, the night stops, just for a moment. The sun hangs in the sky and nothing moves, just for a moment. And they say that, just for a moment, there is only one sound—only the dogs bark. But regardless of my brown eyes, my birth was not marked by the dogs. The sun trudged on and the stars circled the blackness. Perhaps those things only happen when a true priest winds his way into this world. But I have been to many births to color test many eyes, and I have declared one a priest and the next a freeman and the next a slave to no halted sun or stars, but to the cacophony of shouting peddlers, hammering blacksmiths, or creaking horse carts.

I would like to say this night was no different, for truly after enough births and enough declarations, there is no real difference from one to the next. Usually mothers kiss you and fall to the ground, hands raised to praise God. Occasionally they fall on you with curses or tears. In the end, the births all become one.

Sometimes, though, a birth is different. Sometimes a child is stillborn. Sometimes it is the eighth child of a family whose seventh starved to death. And sometimes it is born to your sister.

Long tradition holds that a priest does not declare a birth in his own family. But sometimes traditions cannot be upheld. In this case, Shri Jenos had traveled to Mutrah for the feast, and I was the only priest remaining. It wouldn't have been a great problem had not Jenos been oddly delayed in his return, and had not my sister felt the pains come a month early. And so it was that when her time came, only I was there to handle the declaration.

I was pulled from a wonderful dream in which I had gone to bless the feast. I'd chanted the prayers and felt the power surge through my body and into the food. It was the sort of dream I'd had many times. Like flying, it was something one imagines doing when awake, but never actually experiences except in dreams at night. At least that was the case for me. No freeman I'd met ever had the dream. Nor had any priests, it appeared. After the second brown cowl shook its head when I asked, I decided it was wiser not to ask. There are things best not advertised, and differing from those with whom one is supposed to share divine power is surely one.

The banging filtered into my dreams. First the guests were banging their cups against the table, cheering at Lord Shahlar's words. Then the door to the feast hall, and they were cheering my name. Finally my door, and the cheering changed to a yell. Curse whatever gods had dictated that babies should be born at night.

Stumbling on the silk-woven carpet, a gift sent all the way from the mountains so I could trip on it nightly, I yelled something at the wooden door. In retrospect, it probably wasn't intelligible. Thankfully, it was enough to make the banging stop, only to be replaced by my-seven-year old nephew shouting through the door.

Wide awake now, I unbolted the door before feeling for a candle and jabbing it into the banked coals. The boy came in shivering and dripping puddles. He rushed out his proclamation, as if I hadn't heard through the door already. "The baby is coming, and Shri Jenos isn't here, and there aren't any other priests, but it'll be okay because it won't have brown eyes." He paused, barely, for a breath, and then went on while I pulled at my first boot. "But, you can pretend it's yours anyway so it isn't a slave." I tugged at my second boot as he continued. I still don't think he took a breath. "It's coming fast. Don't waste time getting a coat, it's not cold. Hurry up!"

Perhaps it was the boy's excitement, although far more likely my own, but I rushed a bit more than usual. There's no requirement that a priest be present before the birth. The blessing can be said hours later if necessary, and the flecks that show a child's future eye color don't change. But family is family, blood is blood, and the birth was risky. Our mother had been a priest, and her brown eyes had carried through to me. Regardless of our endeavors to marry my blue-eyed sister to a priest so any brown-eyed children she had would be priests and not slaves, she'd married the blue-eyed Helthor. So far, all three births, including the one stillborn, had been blue-eyed children, but still, the danger of a child having brown eyes and being a slave was something that lay at the back of our minds.

Despite the boy's assurances that it was warm outside, and in accordance with his shivering, I took my own coat and wrapped a blanket around him. He didn't seem to notice, hopping instead from one foot to the other with an insistent, "hurry up."

At last I pulled the door closed behind us, the wind yanking it from my hands and slamming it with a ferocity that was sure to earn me several complaints from the neighbors downstairs. Against the banging, I murmured the prayer for guidance one is supposed to say when leaving home. It didn't matter, truly. God had long-since quit listening to me—if he ever had. But God choosing to ignore a follower hardly grants the follower the right to that same apathy. And so I prayed, trying vaguely to convince myself that he heard, and hoping that if not, the action would lull me back into believing he did.

It was at that moment, with the wind snapping at my sleeves and my nephew running ahead into the muddy street, that I began to think. It had been nearly a year and a half since I'd declared anyone a slave. The family's first son was stillborn, the next died of the yellow sickness a few days after birth. The third, the one with brown eyes, was healthy. I'd embraced the mother, and rested a hand on the father's shoulder when his head fell. In response to my offer to leave them for a few minutes, the mother had shaken her head, eyes squeezed shut, and shoved the newborn at me with the command that I take it and leave.

As was the custom, I'd made the journey to Shorm, stories of the brown-eyed slaves dying in the diamond mines to the north plaguing my dreams every night. When I arrived and delivered the baby to House Alford's custodian, she smiled a smile I never liked. She asked if I'd had dinner and whether I planned to leave in the morning or enjoy their hospitality longer. I hadn't eaten, but the thought of eating or sleeping at that place cured my hunger and tiredness just as effectively as any meal or feather bed could have. So I lied about dinner and told them of an old friend I wanted to visit that night. Weeks and months later, when I met the parents in the market or street, they bowed their heads in polite greeting. I looked away.

My prayers changed after that. Oh, I kept up appearances. I was a priest, after all. I still said the standard prayers over the dead and at festivals. I blessed newborn babies and calves alike. I counseled penitents, advised nobles, and made all the appropriate remarks when speaking to Jenos. But alone, my prayers were not of gratitude or hope, but of desperation and anger. The last time, the time after the declaration, I hurled the rocks marking my mentor's grave at the tree so badly that pockets of bark fell to the ground.

After that, I quit trying. Anger is no more effective than pleading, and there is a peace that comes from giving up.

And so here I was now with my nephew splashing mud several yards ahead of me. Unable to decide if I wanted to hurry or delay, I held my steps steady. When we inevitably arrived, my nephew had already bounded into the house to yell, "he's here."

A minute later I was out of the wind and rain and asking Helthor, "how is she?"

"Good," he said, then to the boy, "you remember how we said you were going to spend the night at Ralles'? Go now." The boy raced out the door nearly as excitedly as when he had been pulling me into the rain. Helthor chuckled at the boy's enthusiasm racing out the door, then sobered. "Better than last time."

I don't think he intended that to sting, but when one's sister nearly dies, and the baby does, and the God one is supposed to represent does nothing, everything stabs like an accusation. I mumbled, "Praise God," and he echoed with a lowered head.

The fire leapt in the fireplace, and I shivered as the warmth worked its way into my bones. A silence followed. I never liked small talk, and it was even worse at a birth I shouldn't be attending.

The silence dragged on, and I struck upon the obvious question to break it. "Should I talk to her?"

He shook his head. Jenos had told me of her refusal to let any men in the room at previous births.

"Who's with her?"

"Meera." "Excellent." I'd long since learned to reassure fathers by praising any midwife present. But everyone knew Meera never lost more than a few babies a year. There was no need for reassurances.

The exchange hadn't been nearly as long a silence-breaker as I'd hoped. Apparently he felt the same, because he went to the bedroom door, cracking it just a notch, to say quietly, "Velor is here."

"Shri Velor," I corrected, as if the formality offered protection.

"Shri Velor," he parroted. From the other side of the door, there was a snarl.

More silence.

He poked at the already healthy fire, picked dribbles of candle wax off the otherwise smooth wooden table, turned the arrangement of dried wildflowers, knocked off several petals, realized they'd fallen and tried to put them back, circled the room, inspected the knives by the fire, found a whetstone and began sharpening them. Every few strokes, he paused to stare at the door.

Perhaps an hour passed. He'd sharpened all three knives, dropped the whetstone twice, miraculously not cut himself, pulled several splinters from the boards of the wall, and paced to listen at the door well over a dozen times. I finally gave up, even the unspoken topic would be better than this.

"I'm sure the baby will be fine and healthy and have wonderful blue eyes."

His fingers found a new splinter. "If not, you could take it with you and say it was yours."

I remember my mentor once telling me that irrationality was the last bastion of the desperate, and I tried to mask my incredulity. "We've never had a child, and Irane isn't pregnant now."

"You could say it wasn't hers. It would still be the son of a priest."

"A bastard? Just because Irane can't get pregnant? What do you think I am?"

"That doesn't matter. Not really. You can still claim the baby. Irane doesn't mind."

I frowned, trying to treat the proposal with a dignity it didn't deserve. Then I caught it. "You've discussed this with Irane?"

"We needed to have it agreed before she left."

I didn't jump out of my chair. Decidedly, I did not jump out of my chair. "And so you talked to my wife but you didn't think you should at least mention this to me?"

"We were going to wait until we knew."

I was puzzling at the simplicity of the logic when my thoughts were broken by a scream. Helthor jumped towards the door, stopping only when his hand touched the latch. He cringed until the room silenced, and listened for a short time before walking to take a cup from the shelf, filling it from the near-empty pitcher. He came back to sit at the table, long legs folded under the chair.

We sat silently for another thirty minutes. Once, when the screams were particularly long, he rammed the cup down against the table with a force that shook the planks under my own feet. When I looked, there was a crescent-shaped indention in the table.

"Why is it taking so long?" he roared.

"Babies come when they come," I offered, quite familiar with comforting anxious fathers, but never sure exactly how to do it.

He didn't hear me. "I can't just sit here doing nothing!"

Of course, in the end, that's exactly what he did for the next half hour until the screams came without break, and we heard the midwife calling encouragement, then cheering. Helthor was at the door, hands white against the latch, when it came. Not the screams of child birth. Not the cheering. Not even the laughter that comes sometimes when it's finished. No. What came was silence. Cold silence.

Helthor's knuckles whitened impossibly more, then the massive shoulders began to shake. A part of me wanted to reassure him, to tell him everything was fine and the baby was healthy and well. But such comfort is empty when mere seconds will prove otherwise. So I remained quiet save for the prayer I'd found myself praying far too many times through my life. "God, who sees and hears all, we accept your wisdom in all things, but we beg your mercy." A hopeful prayer, uttered by those with faith. I uttered it too, in vague desperate habit. But desperation is not hope. And hope is not faith.

At last Helthor pushed open the door with a peculiar timidness. I slowed to take my cloak, pulling the hood up high over my head. Perhaps if I looked like another priest, it wouldn't truly be me.

The scene inside could have been any of a dozen births in just as many homes. The washbasin in the corner was full of gray rags stained scarlet. The brown cotton curtains billowed around the edges where the wind whistled through the pane. Straw stuck out a corner of the mattress.

Everything that mattered was different was. Meera stood, her back to the bed. I could see a red and wrinkled head in her arms. My sister craned to see around Meera's body. The midwife didn't turn, and her voice was flat. "It's a boy. Healthy. He'll grow up to be," pause, "strong."

It was Helthor who reacted first, but not with the expected violence. Nothing crashed into the walls. His fist didn't slam into the wardrobe. Instead, there were only words. Soft. "And the eyes?"

I knew Meera couldn't ever bring herself to say the words. "He'll live a fine life. It's not true what they say about House Alford."

I forced my head up and down, glad for the hood hiding my eyes. That's when Helthor did react. He stormed through the door. It banged behind him with barely enough time for me to jump out of the way. The floorboards shuddered. Meera, who had been through even more of these than I, looked to me for guidance. I was, after all, the priest. I gestured for her to finish and hand the baby to my sister, and she put on a wooden smile. Calea reached for it with the anxiousness that would have accompanied any freeborn child. She tugged a hand, and a foot, and finally laid it on her still panting chest. Meera never looked, going instead to pick up the rags at the foot of the bed.

"I'll take care of cleaning," I said softly. "It's been a long night and I'd like to talk to my sister."

Meera, normally the last to leave after a birth, mumbled a quick, "thank you," to me, and an, "I'm sorry," to my sister, and disappeared out the door.

From the bed, Calea was already lost to the child. "He's beautiful, isn't he?" Mothers, faced with the inevitable, often refused to see it.

"He is." The words were monotone. She should have known me well enough to hear it, but if she did, she didn't seem to notice, stroking the wet blond fuzz on his head and bouncing a tiny hand off her finger.

"His hair is the same as Helthor's, but that's my nose. Hair can change color. Mazin's did. So did Elith's. The nose won't change, though," she beamed, running a finger along the bridge of her own. "By the time he's ten, I bet he'll have brown hair and it'll be black by the time he gets married. He'll be tall, too. Look at how tall he is already," she tugged a leg straight to show me. "And all the girls will dream about him, and…"

The voice went on, but all I could think was "slave." I tried to force my face into a smile, but it was frozen. My mentor had always said that at times like these, it was better to stay serious, anyway. Don't give in to the dreams, even for a minute, because that minute will give a cruel, false hope. Later, after being through a few declarations myself, I realized how pointless the advice had been. How could anyone smile knowing that after journeying only the few weeks to Shorm, they'd be laying another baby on House Alford's mat?

I went to look out the window. Beyond the gray clouds, there was only a murky brightness where the sun must have been high by now. The rain continued, and the wind still pushed through the cracks. A few lone figures hurried down the street, shoulders bunched against the cold.

Behind me, Calea cooed on. I'd heard nothing of what she'd said, I realized, and didn't want to start listening now. "Calea," I interrupted softly.

She stopped, and smiled with an unexpected optimism. "It's okay. We have it all worked out. Helthor's friend met someone who has a sister from Azaiba. She's a widow, and wants a child. She's been traveling for six months to find a husband. All you have to do when she goes home with the baby is swear it's yours." They'd already proven the Irane argument hopeless, and how could I champion the theological argument and say this brown-eyed baby was any less suited to the priesthood than myself?

"Calea, I can't." The words were out before I'd planned the next line, even though the counter-argument was inevitable.

"Why not?"

I pulled the curtain back over the window, hiding the world. "We can't just ignore the teachings of Shri'Lan. You and Helthor have blue eyes. How can your son be a priest?"

"How can you make him a slave!"

I tried to turn back. "God made him, not me."

When I finally forced myself to look towards her, it was the baby my eyes fixed on. I couldn't look higher.

She squeezed him close, clutching him in. "And who made the teachings? In the old days, anyone with brown eyes was a priest no matter what color the parents were. What's different about my baby now?"

Every blue-eyed parent with a brown-eyed child told me that story as if to make their baby the one exception. I shouldn't have been annoyed at her for doing the same. But the same irrational logic that made me unwilling to throw away what was left of my faith, even for this, made me expect her to be the one mother who wouldn't ask it.

"You want God to get angry again?" It's a difficult thing to beg forgiveness with reasons you despise. But the reasons were there. Being angry at a God doesn't make him any less real, the indifference just makes you hate him all the more.

"One more priest isn't going to make it so many." She hugged the baby so tightly I wondered if it could breathe.

I pulled off my hood. "It's not about the number of priests, Calea. It's about obeying even if we don't want to."

I walked around the bed to better see the baby. Perhaps it was a diversion from the conversation, perhaps instinct because normally I'd be blessing a newborn right now. As I reached to lay a hand on the head, she jerked away from me. For a split second, we could have been children and me trying to throw her doll in the mud.

I was standing there when the door opened and Helthor loomed. He saw Calea hugging the baby away from me. A massive finger jabbed at my face and behind it his voice boomed. "This is your fault. Your religion and your God and your brown eyes."

Calea gasped. "Don't say that!"

Willing myself to stand my ground, I raised my hands in a gesture used for centuries by those pleading rationality from those well beyond giving it. "God made the laws. I wanted him to have blue eyes just as much as you, but it's your religion the same as mine."

The finger pointing at me curled into a fist and lowered stiffly to his side. "You think you care? You think you'll look at every noble woman and wonder if your son mined her diamond necklace? You think you'll stare up at the stars and wonder if your son is still alive? You think you know anything, priest?"

I glanced back at Calea. How can a person handle a dozen of these, but still get tongue tied? "I didn't mean it like that. I just meant he's my nephew. I wanted to see him grow up, too. But God must have made him a slave for a reason. Maybe something he'll build will save someone's life."

The lunge caught me off guard. I stumbled back, and when I did, my knee hit against the side of the bed and I fell onto Calea's legs. Helthor was on top of me, a knee on my chest and a large hand pinning my throat. Uselessly, I tried to move my leg to kick, but his bulk pinned it. I thrashed a minute more, flailing an arm and trying another knee-jam before forcing myself to relax. Calea squirmed out from under me, and I wanted desperately to see her face to see whose side she was on, as if I didn't know.

It seemed several minutes, although it was probably less than one, before the fingers around my throat loosened and I could concentrate on something other than gagging air. The baby was screaming. Helthor's face was still close to mine, and he presented me with a brute's logic. "You're not going to send him to be a slave. Swear."

Calea offered a mother's support with silence. Helthor's hand still clamped on my neck, I nodded slowly. The fingers tightened a quick warning. When the weight on my chest lifted, I struggled to stand. Unwilling to look at him, or even Calea, I turned my eyes to the baby wailing a reflection of my own horror. But it's no easier to look at a baby one is going to betray than at the family who has betrayed you, and so I focused on the door instead.

Helthor growled at me, and the baby screamed on. I thought to ask about the mother-to-be, hoping to lull the scene to calm, but somehow it seemed wrong to lie like that. Breaking a forced oath was one thing. God would forgive that. But perpetuating that oath freely was something entirely different. And so I stood, silent, panting for a moment before remembering that I hadn't actually blessed the baby. I waited until the yells settled. "I need to bless him."

Calea eyed me as if I would race to Shorm the minute I finished. It's hard to say which is more painful, the distrust of those you love, or the knowledge that the distrust is warranted. Finally, though, she held him out.

I took a few rags to wrap him in, and walked back through the house and out the door. It wasn't until the spray sputtering past the eaves pitted my face that I finally let myself really look at him. Calea was right. Aside from the hair, he was her son—my nephew—completely. After ten years, Irane and I had lost hope in our prayers. But this boy with his brown eyes could easily have been mine. I could write to him, visit when I had to travel, possibly his new mother could even move here and we could all watch him grow.

The brown eyes blinked against the cloud-hidden sun, and I could almost imagine him pleading with me. I set the thoughts aside. They were foolishness treading dangerously close to heresy. Instead, I held the baby to the rain and began. "God, who cares for even the lamb and the rabbit, keep this child close to your heart. Lead him away from danger, and guide his actions to be kind, merciful, and wise. Grant him the insight to know right from wrong, and the faith to do it. Keep him with you always, until the end of his days, and at the end of his time, take him to you that he may live peacefully after." I placed a hand on the baby's head, heart, hand and foot before muttering an addendum of my own, "and grant me the strength to do what I must."

It was useless, I knew, and the irony of adding my own prayer was not lost as I stood there at the edge of the rain. I shivered, and realized that the baby must be colder, so I went inside to ask Helthor for a bucket of water to clean him. Fifteen minutes later we were back in the bedroom handing a clean and blessed son to Calea.

Helthor lugged two chairs into the room and began outlining the plan. "You can't leave until Shri Jenos gets back anyway, so we can send a message to Remesa, that's the mother. From there, all you have to do is go back to her hometown with her and swear the baby is yours."

"That'll take at least a month extra travel time, it's going to look suspicious."

"No problem. You can just say the baby was sick and you had to stop somewhere."

I nodded dumbly. It wasn't quite a lie, and even if it was, was this lie to give my family peace of mind such a bad thing? Didn't I tell even greater ones every day when I prayed and administered the rites as if I were actually gifted by God?

I leaned forward to rest my head in my hands, palms covering my face, elbows on knees. I sat that way long enough to hear Calea move in the bed, and Helthor help her with something. I could hear their breathing, imagined I could hear even the baby's, and feel their blue eyes. I didn't look up, didn't move the fingers hiding my own, when at last I spoke. "Let me send the message. No one will spy on a letter from a priest,"—another lie, but by now it seemed inconsequential.

I heard them let out their breath, but kept my face covered. It was Calea who answered. "Thank you, Velor. You don't know. You can't. Thank you." She stopped, and I knew her shoulders were shaking.

 [ Only the Dogs Bark, © 2009 Bonnie Brunish ] "I have to go pray," I mumbled. It was the only thing I could think to say to escape their gratitude.

And so it was that I left without speaking, or looking at any of my family again. I closed the front door and then realized I hadn't taken my coat. I shivered my way home.

It was two weeks before Jenos returned and I was free to take the baby north. Two weeks after I didn't send the message to Ramesa of Azaiba. I arrived at their house as the sun's rays poked over the rooftops. Helthor and Calea walked with me to the outskirts of town, telling me that little Noren went to sleep best if you walked with him, and that if he didn't burp he'd be colicky all night.

I shook hands with Helthor and kissed Calea, who was fighting valiantly to keep her voice as she told me for the fourth time that I needed to make sure he was warm, and that he wouldn't eat right after he woke up. Unable to stand it any more, I said my last farewells and urged my horse into a brisk walk.

It was a week of traveling before I came to the fork leading east to Azaiba and north to Shorm. The warm sun was high and the flies buzzed. I sat there staring between the scattered trees and the two brown eyes until the horse tugged impatience at the reins. Finally, I turned my eyes towards heaven, begging mercy of a God who wouldn't hear. As I nudged the horse towards Shorm, somewhere, far in the distance, a dog barked.

© 2009 Dawn Lloyd

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