Friday, August 29, 2014

The Culture Column #42: The Dry-farmers [B]

We close out our feature on the Dry-farmers with a discussion of purity laws, diet, and the Place of No Honor.

Purity Laws and Diet

Ritual purity is a major focus for the Dry-farmers. It’s nearly an obsession. Fire is a great and important part of it, not as a force of purity in itself but as a tool (and the Dry-farmers are very concerned with any people who so much as look as though they venerate fire, which is regarded as too dangerous to regard except in a cautious, even paranoid, manner). Water, which is similarly a tool for instilling purity, must first be made holy by heating it until it boils. Frequently these two methods for granting ritual purity are combined; food is boiled more often than not, and it is never eaten without at least rubbing it down with holy water.

The hands are also frequently subjected to ritual cleansing via holy water. Before any religious activity is performed or any pure object (such as purified food) is touched, one’s own hands must be restored to a state of purity. This and other minor rituals are performed without ceremonial dress.

Even diseases can be made pure. Blood is taken from those who are sick (some are intentionally made sick for the purpose of collecting samples) and purified by fire. If cleansed successfully (no ritual by human hands is perfect), the sick-spirits will protect anyone who is given the treated blood. Blood is usually drawn and returned via tools called “snakebite needles,” which are often made by attaching a pig’s bladder (for holding the blood) to a quill (through which the blood passes from and to the body). While not without its problems (the Dry-farmers have no way of preserving purified blood, meaning that they must wait until an epidemic begins among their own or another folkith before they can begin purifying sick-spirits, and the amount of blood that someone can donate presents a cap on how quickly a population can be protected) the process is far, far better than nothing, and there are many who are willing to work with the Dry-farmers in order to receive purified sick-spirits.

While most animals are by default but not essentially impure (that is, they can be cleansed), dogs are vermin of the highest order. This only augments their antipathy toward the Vulture people, who use dogs in a variety of roles in their society. This is only to be expected, though, seeing as how the Vulture people aren’t even human, which is reflected in their capricious natures. They are as likely to trade with you as they are to kill and skin you and use your hide for their masks.

Other animals that are especially disliked are coyotes, ravens, and rats. Against these are cats, which are unique in that they are pure by default— it is very hard to contaminate a cat, and only the most powerful of sick-spirits dare try it. This is seen in their special ability to change the color of their fur in the presence of certain kinds of sick-spirit, which is a sign to leave the area immediately. Interestingly, not all cats are so blessed. The ability is found among almost all Dry-farmer cats (those found lacking are put to death) and in outsider cats descended from the same. That this should be so is only further evidence that the Dry-farmers are a chosen people, selected to lead the world into the time of Glory Sun. Cats in general, but more especially color-cats, are lauded in songs, stories, and all kinds of visual artwork, especially painted pottery.

The laws are more questionable to our society where they lead to infanticide. Newborns must be taken in to the priests, who examine and compare them against the “Ideal Image of Man.” Deformities or more than minor blemishes mean that the child is deemed a host for sick-spirits. Left alone they might introduce more sick-spirits into the People by reproducing with them. This is seen clearly in kitholk who do not take such care to avoid contamination, such as the Vultures, and who consequently suffer an even higher rate of birth defects and, many say, are no longer even human. The Dry-farmers will take spouses from other kitholks when it is necessary to keep the gene pool fresh but refuse to do so with any kitholks that freely let sick-spirit hosts breed with the rest of the population.

The purity laws are very influential on what can and can’t be eaten, and how. The thyroid gland, kidneys, liver, and brain are all out, as well as most fat, meat next to the bones, and the marrow. Red meat (at least as they define it) is also off the menu, which further adds to the trouble with keeping cows in a desert. The Dry-farmers focus instead on ostriches (which can eat a variety of foods and easily deal will water restrictions), rabbits, and pigs. Ostriches are farmed for their eggs, leather, and quills (important both for writing and for making snakebite needles). Rabbits are farmed for their meat (not considered red by the Dry-farmers), fur (which can be sheared like a sheep), and urine and manure (to use as fertilizer).

Pigs are the holy grail of these animals (which are sometimes referred to as “our three cousins”). They eat nearly anything and breed quickly, their meat is nutritious (and not considered red), and their bones are adequate for being made into glue and various tools. More than that, though, their hair is used to soften bread dough and fertilize crops (which their droppings also do), their organs can be made into bags, and their skin can not only be leathered but also turned into a gelatin for improving butter, cleaning drinks, creating another kind of glue, and more. Besides all this, their milk… well, in the face of difficulties in raising cows on the Dry, pigs were turned to instead and selective breeding has developed a pig that is just a little easier to milk. Pig’s milk, which has twice as much fat as a cow’s, can be drunk as is but is more often mixed with rennet from the stomach in order to produce cheese (which is usually grated), cream, and yogurt.

Besides this the Dry-farmers will also eat roadrunners, doves, hawks, and reptiles (especially rattlesnakes), but none of these are farmed. More important to their diet are the various plants that they raise on their land, including maize, many kinds of bean, summer and winter squash, goosefeet, pigweed, tomatoes, cumin, sunflowers, chile peppers, walnuts, asparagus, rhubarbs, pinon nuts. Especially hardy plants grown by the Dry-farmers include peas, broccoli, lettuce, radishes, cabbage, kale, rutabagas, celery, mustard, spinach, onions, garlic, peanuts, and watermelons. One particular plant is sacred above all others to the Dry-farmers: “reddening maize,” which is typically yellow but will, like Dry-farmer cats, change color if it is in an area with a certain kind of sick-spirit.

The Dry-farmers have built canals and reservoirs for the purpose of better irrigation of their crops. Besides biological fertilizer they also make use of shredded “forever stuff,” a substance from before the Crashing-down Time, and bottles and jars. The surplus is placed in storage pits below the ground, where they are kept in jars and covered pits lined with stone.

The most popular dish is the hatch, a catch-all term for a stew made primarily from beans and meat, with whatever other extras happen to be on hand, especially popped corn, pieces of hardened tortilla, chile peppers. Other common foods include pork rinds with a thin layer of meat, chile peppers filled with melted pig’s cheese or stuffed and fried in a batter of ostrich’s egg, and pork sausages seasoned with chile pepper and onion.

The Place of No Honor

It is a dread place. It is the primary reason for the People’s location on the Dry instead of some other, more fertile land. The Place of No Honor is a place where great and terrible sick-spirits were imprisoned in the years leading up to the Crashing-down Time, and the Dry-farmers stand watch to make sure that none are able to break them out. One day, perhaps, they will be able to go down into the Place of No Honor and make use of the powers that are interred there but if this day ever comes then it is a long time off.

It is a place covered with a surface of pitch-black stone that makes the area unbearably hot. It is a place with spiked pillars that rise from the ground like a forest of thorns and rattlesnake fangs breaking through the flesh of the world. Granite slabs stand near the edges, bearing barely-understood scripts and screaming faces. The hated dead are cast here at the bases of these slabs and thereafter left to rot in the sun.

Only the priests of the Glory Sun come here intentionally, and they do so only after purifying feasts and bearing their trunked ritual masks (and bringing their cats with them, of course). Here they maintain the rows of reddening corn carefully grown at the edges, where they may demonstrate that they have not lost their ability to “warntell.” The priests also come to initiate their own and, beside the walls of the great black labyrinth that leads to the depths of the Keep sitting beneath the black-stone ground, tell the new priests the Deep stories. Those that have learned the Deep know that it was not just the sins of humankind that brought down the horrors of the sick-spirits but their folly: they sought to command the sick-spirits in war against each other and in so doing all sides were brought down low. New priests also learn the languages of the tablets, record their names beside the tablets’ screaming faces, and view the star charts displayed on the same.

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