The Biggest One had spoken. In the event of a tie -- or even a 6 to 4 vote -- his word was law. His callused heel came down in judgment, splintering the Offering in the center of the Circle. Other heels followed, pounding, grinding until the Offering was nothing more than a pulverized heap of its constituent wood, all artfulness gone. It was always a sad sight, a rejected Offering, one that would see no shrine. Behind their indifferent masks, each member of the circle winced to behold it; every stomp that followed a Nrmf vote sent a shock wave up the stomping leg that caused memories of past failures to vibrate sympathetically in the heart of the stomper.
The Biggest One turned away and withdrew to his tent to smoke a pipe of Swrngla weed, his prerogative as the Biggest. As his influence fell off with distance, the circle began to loosen and disperse into various groups of affiliation.
Fourth-from-Smallest retreated to the shade of a Skrlap tree, beneath branches that might someday be crafted into Offerings and judged by the Circle themselves. This was not uncommon behavior for an Offerer after the pronouncement of a Nrmf -- but when he removed his Mask of Indifference and let it fall into the dead leaves at his feet, his desperation hung plain on his face. He looked worse than upset. He looked ready to retire.
Third-from-Biggest saw this and detached himself from his group. If it was not a common occurrence for a Circle member to retire himself after a particularly disappointing second-Nrmf, neither was it unheard of. He felt he had to console Fourth-from-Smallest. It was his responsibility as his bigger.
The language they spoke was rudimentary, with a vocabulary of less than a thousand words, but they spoke it with great nuance. Factoring in all the unspoken connotations of gesture, expression and tone, their exchange might be translated thus:
"You all right?" Third-from-Biggest asked.
"Yeah," said Fourth-from-Smallest. "I guess so."
A considerable pause.
"I quite admired your Offering," Third-from-Biggest said. "It took great risks in its notch deployment, and its radial scratches were a daring gambit, yet I think you succeeded on both counts."
"Your Grrah was the first one. After the presentation, you didn't even hesitate. Thank you for that." He took in a deep breath, and let it leak out of him. "It was going so well, at the beginning. It looked like I was headed for a near-unanimous Grrah. That would have put my offering in the lowest shrine, at least. Maybe even the fifth shrine. And I- I would have become Middle."
"Don't torture yourself with thoughts like that. Placement's not the important thing. Achieving worthiness, creating an Offering that is pleasing to Ia and the other gods, that's what the Circle is about. Take the Biggest One's last effort, for example. What an Offering! Such effortless skill!"
Fourth-from-Smallest hesitated, debating whether or not to say it. It took a few seconds for honesty to get the better part of caution. "I don't know. It was all right, as far as it went. But I think Offerings could do so much more. "
"Hmmm. 'Do.' Very interesting. Can I venture a suggestion, my friend? My own humble-but-considered opinion?"
"Sure, Third-from-Biggest. You always shoot straight with me."
"The next time you throw down, perhaps..." He chose his words with extra care, and seasoned them with extremely subtle hand movements. "Perhaps you might try to rein in your natural predilection towards daring and innovation, and concentrate on a more- well, a more basic presentation."
"How do you mean?"
"Take your Offering today, for instance. Brilliance, of course, sheer brilliance. But possibly a bit extreme in its uncompromising notch variety? And the profusion of vertical scratches -- to those of us who understand you, of course, they are remarkable, revelatory. But to those without the- the interpretive faculties, they are awfully demanding. They require a great deal of effort."
"But it's a system. I set up these correspondences, see. Look…"
Fourth-from-Smallest began to scratch in the soil, moving his dirt-caked big toe with great drive and purpose.
"This here, this notch between these two scratches -- it was at the very top of my Offering, remember? This would correspond to 'shrine.' And with this gouge before it, it would correspond to 'the Great Shrine.' Everything in the village could have its own matching set of scratches and notches and gouges, and-"
"I understand that, Fourth-from-Smallest. It was obvious to me the very moment you threw down, I saw it shining through the dust cloud raised by your Offering's impact. But it is a lot to stomach. For the others. You must admit."
Fourth-from-Smallest sighed. "I suppose."
"And for your next one... I am loathe to mention a topic of such unpleasantness, but your last two Offerings have gotten Nrmfs. You'll really be wanting a Grrah next time round."
Fourth-from-Smallest swallowed, and despite his great pride his head dropped slightly. Some things were impervious to argument. Third-from-Biggest quickly moved into more cheerful territory.
"In any case, I'm sure you'll succeed marvelously on your next go-round. So many of us do so love having you in the Circle. You're sure you're all right?"
"Yes. Thanks, Third-from. You're a real friend."
"Just don't go retiring on me now..."
He clapped Fourth-from-Smallest on the shoulder before heading off to his own tent. Being smaller than Middle, Fourth-from-Smallest had no tent to go to, so he picked up his Mask of Indifference from the dead leaves in which it lay, brushed the dust from it and went for a walk alone.
"Don't go retiring on me." If being elected to the Circle was the highest peak of honor one could hope to attain, then to retire one's self from its service was to fall into the lowest pit of disgrace.
On the other hand, it was natural to seek out a path that would minimize unpleasantness and pain. In certain circumstances, retiring on one's own definitely represented the path of least torment, even with the disgrace figured in.
Then again, future circumstances were impossible to predict. The retiree who thought he was flying from spurns and worse might actually be denying himself many years of estimable bigness. Only Ia knew with any certainty what was to be. The best a man could do was to serve him, to grunt and sweat over his Offerings and hope for the best.
But what if Third-from-Biggest was right, and he was wrong, and his ambitious Offerings were dead ends? What if his efforts were actually carrying him away from a Grrah and a name change and a place in a shrine, and toward a quick forced retirement at his next throwing down?
Fourth-from-Smallest looked up to find himself three-quarters of the way down the path to the Great Shrine. Its sharp pebbles made themselves known even through his thick-soled feet; though he wished it were otherwise, he knew the nearest place of rest lay straight ahead. As he approached the clearing, his legs grew heavier under the weight of the Shrine's sacredness, making walking more and more difficult, until he was sure he could not go on -- but he did go on, and soon emerged from the undergrowth to stand in front of the Great Shrine.
His bravado shrunk before its walls of Skrlap trunks, lashed tightly together with strips of Piskpsk hide. He could not see into the Shrine's dim interior, but he heard no movements therein.
Inside, he was glad to find himself alone with the lavishly decorated sacred altar, and the Biggest One's last Offering which rested upon it. He wanted to examine the Offering with a fresh mind, without the clamoring prayers and praises of others. He approached.
The Offering had been there for a long time -- and the Biggest One had therefore been the Biggest One for a long time, as was the law. Like all Offerings, it had begun with a Skrlap branch, cut to the precise length of the Offerer's arm. Then it had been adorned, in accordance with the Biggest One's inspiration. Fourth-from-Smallest tallied its adornments at two vertical scratches, two radial scratches, five notches and a deep median gouge.
And then he stared, and contemplated the relationship of the scratches to the notches, and the radial to the vertical, and the harmony established by the balance between them -- and the manner in which this harmony was offset by the placement of the gouge, no doubt to discourage complacency and induce meditation. He considered the branch selection, and the way the markings were all deftly carved into the wood, revealing the rich Skrlap grain.
'What an Offering! Such effortless skill!' Third-from-Biggest's words resurfaced in his mind and would not leave it. He had been right. This was a work of great perfection. This was the true goal, and any true Offerer must strive for it. The present solitude did not lessen Fourth-from-Smallest's shame; for his next Offering, he had actually intended to make markings that stood for sounds, instead of things. He shrank before his own absurdity. He was not living up to the responsibilities that were vouchsafed him along with his Mask of Indifference.
The path to success presented itself soon enough. He would acquire a cord of flm branches. They did not have quite the same consistency as Skrlap branches, but flm trees were not sacred, and thus one could simply take as many of their branches as he liked without giving up a female child of breeding age in exchange. He would take his flm branches and journey far away, perhaps all the way to the bleak eastern cliffs, and there he would immerse himself in contemplation and work. Notch by notch, scratch by scratch he would hone his skills, perfect the craft of Offering until nothing but Grrahs were possible.
Someday, he thought, he would be the Biggest One. It would take time; he would have to struggle long into the years of thinning bones and graying beards. Someday, though, it would be his Offering in the Great Shrine, on the sacred altar, decorated on all sides with the skulls of the retired.
About the Author
D.B. Weiss is the author of LUCKY WANDER BOY (2003). He is currently working on the HBO show GAME OF THRONES.