By Crystal Koo
My name is Huuri Imh. The ladies and gentlemen of the Court may have previously noted the gills around my neck, as I am of pure Sjenese descent from the country of Kuz.
Sjene is a poor, conservative fishing village at the northeastern tip of Kuz. Many patrims live in the flatlands and find their survival in the sea, sending boats of their catch three times a week to the markets in the Kuz mainland in the far south. But my patrim lived on the hills of Yamera, where the orinu breed in the wildwaters. The people of Yamera dove into the wildwaters and caught the orinu for their hides. The orinu have been in Sjene before any of our race; it was the bodies of these reptiles that carved out the three hundred underground channels of the Sjene wildwater complex, the source of our wells. A diver who can wrestle with the orinu and stab its heart without losing his or her life is held in high regard.
Few patrims live in Yamera and there are no schools in Sjene. Itinerant scholars from the mainland used to come to Sjene to watch the orinu and the divers, and in return they taught the children how to read and write in Kuzan. Then the scholars stopped coming some years before I was born. The last scholar to come, I was told, had put forth the opinion that we should find means of livelihood other than the orinu trade because of the dangers it posed on anyone who handled the reptiles.
In my younger years, the children of Yamera learned the orinu trade from the members of our patrim who brought the orinu home to slit its belly and remove the skin from the carcass. The cured hide was sent to the tanning houses in the mainland, while the liver, which produces its own deadly toxin, was carved away and the flesh cleaned of any trace of the poison before being sold in the mainland as meat. Steam was carefully passed through the liver, turning the toxin into a harmless gas, before the liver was thrown into the wastes piled in front of every hut.
I call the patrims plying the orinu trade “they,” though I come from one of them. The people of Sjene, especially of Yamera, are stubborn in their traditions. They are barnacled to their old ways and trust only in the catching of sea life, refusing to farm them because they find it unnatural. The people of Yamera do not have the luxury nor the minds to find other means of livelihood; my father, my mother, and my elder brother faced the orinu everyday. But I was set aside because my father had greater hopes for me. He wanted to me to leave Sjene, to leave Kuz, and to eventually find myself surrounded by the wealth of Otuja. Although everyone in Sjene knew that the only way to out of the island was an education, only my father dared to want it for his son.
My patrim worked their lives for me; my elder brother Yeherou’s generous spirit prevented him from becoming jealous. I watched with other children how our elders scraped the flesh off from the inner side of the skin of the orinu with their hands, soaked the skin in brine, and let it hang in thick smoke. But when the elders called the children to try skinning, my father took me into the house and gave me old books left behind by the wandering scholars of his childhood. He vowed that I would never have to touch wildwater nor blood.
Contrary to what others may think is the rationale behind my present situation, I was never ill-treated by my peers for not knowing how to use my gills. I was never ridiculed during my adolescence for my incapability to wrestle even with a young orinu. The adults naturally disapproved of my upbringing, but what they might have said to their children seemed to have been countered by the children’s own quiet acceptance of me, which I suspect came from the elders’ own talk of the scholars. While the villagers condemned the liberalities that the scholars had brought, there was still a tone of reverence that was always preserved for the mainland.
It is difficult to say what I myself thought of the arrangement at that time. I did not crave matches with the orinu. Without this desire, I could not have compared with a life I had never lived. Years passed and I became a young man with unused gills. One day my father gave me every coin he had kept aside for me, as well as the name of a tanner at the docks in the Kuz mainland who received imports from Sjene everyday. I can easily bring to recollection the boat ride I had with the Sjene fisherfolk on their way to the mainland, a journey that took a day over rough sea. I had been deathly afraid of drowning.
Ladies and gentlemen of the Court, I write this confession to you in fluent, standard Otujan. When I arrived at the Kuz docks eleven years ago, I could only speak the Sjene dialect and broken Kuzan. I found the tanner, and out of the greatness of his heart, he pointed out to me a small academy and a cheap inn. I was accepted into the academy because of its interest in my gills. The irony, ladies and gentlemen of the Court! For what other good could come out of Sjene? When the other students wanted to see me breathe underwater, I sank my head into the lake and held my breath. I didn’t dare open my gills; I was afraid that I would be overwhelmed by the flow of water through passages never used and that the shock might kill me. Sjenese lungs made me able to hold breath for more than ten minutes, and for them this was already proof of breathing. I studied linguistics in the academy and made Otujan my primary language. I worked as an errand-boy at the docks at night and chance made it that I never had to descend underwater.
When I finished my schooling, it was my gills again that brought me here to Otuja to study law in the scholarium. The scholarium wanted me to compete in the annual water-sport festival of Otuja under its banner. When I tore open the letter in my apartment in Kuz, I thought of how other Sjenese would have wanted such an opportunity and would have deserved it! I broke into laughter that was not far from crying. But who was to say that any other Sjenese who had not sacrificed his gills and whose patrim had not sacrificed themselves could have come this far? A week later, I boarded my first ship to the nation of Otuja.
By night I taught myself how to swim and by day I attended the scholarium’s swimming matches. I never used my gills; doing otherwise would have been death for me. Ten minutes under water was more than enough in Otuja and I wiggled my gills for their satisfaction. I studied with all my might and became a Master. When I left the scholarium, I had my gills stitched closed. I found work in a guild and met a pleasant Otujan girl. I told her I was from the Kuz mainland and that the scars around my neck came from a childhood accident; she asked no more questions and married me. By civil law, I was made a citizen of Otuja, the final reward for my patrim’s labor.
So should it come as a surprise that I would want to return to Sjene for a visit? Is it not right that I would return to my home as the first Sjenese scholar? I left for Kuz and found a small boat to Sjene. When the villagers saw what I had done to my gills, they shrieked and wailed, tearing off my clothes. I escaped to the hills of Yamera. Those I had once looked upon as elders flung clods at me. My peers, with families of their own, herded their children away from my sight.
The people were hollow-cheeked and their faces gray. I learned from those kind enough to whisper to me that the orinu trade had been outlawed in Kuz in fear of its toxins and that the skins and the meat of the reptile had been banned from all marketplaces. The Yamera patrims had been moving to the flatlands to become fisherfolk but now there were disputes over ancestral territories at the beaches. My patrim had refused to move down. My mother had died a year ago; my father had not been far behind and had passed away two days before my return.
Ladies and gentlemen of the Court! How shall I describe my brother Yeherou when I found him? How shall I put misery into words for those who are born too fortunate to understand? Yeherou had tended my parents and cradled them till their last breaths. My brother was a sturdy man with strong wrists. In secret he dove into the wildwaters and killed orinu to sell their skin and meat to pirates. Yeherou had performed the Orinu Dance after our mother’s death.
Why do I insist on writing the Sjenese patrim instead of the Otujan family? Because there is no word in Otujan that can convey the depth of patrim, its connotation of sacrifice until death. The Orinu Dance is a ritual performed by the son of a deceased parent, in which he wrestles with an orinu underwater and kills it with only his bare hands. The presentation of the dead orinu during the burial shows how the extent of the son’s grief gives him strength capable of such violence.
Yeherou would dance again for our father. But the sight of the villagers of Sjene had moved me, and I wanted to proclaim my own grief at the death of my father, the one who had made me a scholar. I remembered how I had been valued for my unused gills in the Kuz mainland and in Otuja. Here were young men and women worthy of being saved from starvation in the same way! They had to go to the mainland, all of them. And then they could come to Otuja.
But I, the prodigal, had to first win their hearts. They would only be barnacled to the old ways of Sjene, the only ways of Sjene. I would have to perform the Orinu Dance to show sincerity and traditional valor; I would risk death for my patrim’s name and my people. Yeherou called me a fool. How could I kill an orinu with my bare hands with my gills and my inexperience with the wildwater? Day and night, I persisted in telling him that such an extraordinary feat would stir the hearts of the Sjenese, until he recognized my father’s resolve in me and yielded. He broke open the stitches on my gills and held my hand as I bled. He brought me to the wildwaters so I could learn to wrestle. When we first went underwater I could not open my gills; I held my breath. It was the first time I was in the wildwaters and I could not control my trembling. The currents pulled me in all directions and I could only clutch on a rock in response. The waters swirled and eddied. Through the clear water I saw my brother treading the currents, walking on them as if on air, his gills opening and closing, his arms gesticulating at me to follow his example. I felt resentful at my incompetence and the sudden emotion freed my gills. The first rush of water through my brittle passages choked me and I turned cold and fainted.
Yeherou revived me on land. We tried again but I could not get through the first breath. Yeherou threw up his arms and sat by the banks as I nursed my gills. I was not to argue with him. He would perform the Orinu Dance and I was to return to my family in Otuja alone.
I realized then that my brother had only been humoring me in his own primitive way, knowing I could never use my gills. Ladies and gentlemen of the Court, do not mistake this as malicious jealousy on his part. As I had said before, my brother was the most generous man in the world. He was not at fault for being ignorant. I agreed with him and made plans together for our father’s burial.
I now come to the part in which the ladies and gentlemen of the Court would have the most interest. When Yeherou left to wrestle the orinu, I went to the cellar where he was steaming the livers of the orinu he had killed. I took three livers and threw them into the wildwater nearest our home. Putting everyone to sleep was the only method I could think of that would allow me to save at least a few youths from the village and bring them to the Kuz mainland in secret. The rest is known to all.
Ladies and gentlemen of the Court, three days after this writing, I will be standing before you, my own lawyer, to plead for my case. I am responsible for the deaths in Sjene. But as everyone had witnessed, I returned to Otuja by my own free will and gave myself to your custody. I did this to prevent foreigners who know nothing of us from bringing shame to Sjene by spreading lies across the world. I have written this honest confession not without reason. I believe in the evolved sensibilities of the people of Otuja, as much as I believe in the backwardness of Sjene and had wished to rescue my people from it. I have written the story of my life, the causes which had prompted this tragedy, and have placed my trust in your judgment. Yes, I refer to it as a tragedy because of the good that was thwarted. Death had never been my intention. It is of underestimating the lethality of the orinu, and of the love I have for my home, that I am most guilty.
But if your instincts were to move you in a way different from that which I hope, then may I ask leave to make two small requests? I am a man of the law; I am aware of the sentence that may fall upon me. I would like to ask that my wife, Eandl Imh, be given a copy of this confession. I also ask that my remains be sent back to Sjene and buried in the Yamera hills, next to the graves of my parents and my brother. Ask the people of the hills; they would know the house of Imh.
Until then, I remain
Tags: Crystal Koo