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The Necessary Beggar

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The Necessary Beggar

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Author: Susan Palwick
Publisher: Tor, 2007

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Mythic Fiction (Fantasy)
Contemporary Fantasy
Magical Realism
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Praised as "a deeply felt, deeply moving tale . . . chilling and finely tuned" (Publishers Weekly), Susan Palwick's first novel Flying in Place won widespread acclaim for its haunting exploration of a troubled childhood. Now, after a decade, Palwick returns with the powerful tale of a family cast out of an idyllic realm, learning to live in our own troubled world--an exciting and insightful examination of humanity in the spirit of Ursula Le Guin's The Disposessed and Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land.

Lémabantunk, the Glorious City, is a place of peace and plenty. But it is also a land of swift and severe justice. Young Darroti has been accused of the murder of a highborn woman who had chosen the life of a Mendicant, a holy beggar whose blessing brings forgiveness. Now his entire family must share his shame, and his punishment--exile to an unknown world.

Grieving for the life they have left behind, Darroti and his family find themselves in a hostile land--an all-too-familiar American future, a country under attack in a world torn by hatred and war. There, each tries to cope in their own way. Some will surrender to despair. Some will strive to preserve the old ways. Some will be lured by the new world's temptations. And some, sustained by extraordinary love, will find a way to heal the family's grief and give them hope.




All of us were dumbfounded when Zamatryna-Harani insisted on the old customs for her wedding. The only thing that surprised us more was the marriage itself. Zamatryna had always been stubborn, but she had been stubborn about fitting in, about claiming this new place as her own. Or so we thought; she had been pondering the old ways for years, as you will learn, but she told no one. She kept silent out of love, and the family suspected nothing.

How could we have suspected? She was only six years old when we were exiled from Lémabantunk, the Glorious City, and sent to this strange dry place. She was still at the stage when little girls keep pet beetles and delight in memorizing epic poems, hobbies they put aside soon enough. If we had been allowed to stay in our home--home, I still call it that; this is not home yet after all these years, and I think it never shall be--Zamatryna-Harani would soon have moved on to geometry and horticulture, disciplines which are of course intimately linked, and the beetles, replaced in her affections by birds or toads or badgers, would have been freed to feast on the flowers she had planted.

But we were not allowed to stay there. My youngest son, DarrotiFrella Timbor, was exiled for killing a Mendicant--a woman, no less--which was a terrible thing, an unheard-of thing. To kill anyone is horrible, but to kill a Mendicant is inconceivable. For Mendicants by definition have nothing, and they are helpless, and they are honoring the Elements. None of us understood how he could have done it, or why. He couldn't answer when we asked him. He told us he didn't know. He told us he had been drunk. And indeed, my poor Darroti was often drunk, but he had never been violent.

The dead woman was Gallicina-Malinafa Odarettari, the daughter of the third cousin of the second wife of the Prime Minister. She was twentyyears old, only one month into her year of service as a Mendicant. It was a terrible death. The most grievous acts may be forgiven if the transgressor repents, and if the victim forgives: but the dead cannot forgive. The souls of the dead live on, as trees or birds or flowers, but they can no longer speak to people to say I forgive or I burn in vengeance. They live in a dimension parallel to the one where people live, but unbridgable by speech.

And so we were sent into a dimension like that too, into exile, knowing that we would never be able to return. There is of course an infinity of dimensions, and the Judges who sent us here did not know what this one would be. They knew only that it was a place where we could live, but where we would find no one who spoke our own language, for that is how the dead must exist also. They knew only that it was a place from which we could not return, as the dead cannot return. It was a hard punishment, but fitting.

They did not know that we would land in a refugee camp, in the middle of a desert, in a state called Nevada, in a country called the United States. I have thought about this often, after everything else that has happened. In Lémabantunk one would never think to question the Judges, or to ask how they know what they know. But now I ask questions I will never be able to answer. If no one has ever spoken to the Judges from these other dimensions, how can they know that none are utterly uninhabitable? For certainly I thought at first that we would never survive in this parched place, and sometimes it seems a miracle that we have. And yet everyone must feel that way, who is torn from a known, loved land and sent into darkness.

I do not know what pained Darroti most: his own guilt, or the fact that he had exiled his family. For of course we do not abandon each other, even or especially in disgrace. That is a Law: a Law of Hearts, not simply one of Judges. It is one of the many ways in which our own world differs from this one. And so when Darroti went into exile, we did too: I--his father Timbor--and his brothers with their families. My oldest son, Macsofo, brought his wife Aliniana and their three children, the boy-twins Rikko and Jamfret and the girl Poliniana. My middle son, Erolorit, brought his wife Harani and their daughter Zamatryna. I was glad then that my wife Frella had died of fever six years before, for as much as I missed her, I do not think she could have borne our fate. She was never a strong woman, either in body or mind. I loved her despite her weakness, and my love for her helped me understand Macsofo's love for Aliniana, whose unending wailing grief was a trial to all of us; but I was relieved that Frella was at peace, as we adults were not. What became of Darroti, on whose behalf we had come here, you will soon hear. It pains me to speak too much of it, even now.

The children fared better, of course, and Zamatryna, the oldest, seemed to do the best of all. If she remembered the bejeweled streets and glittering waterfalls of Lémabantunk, the festivals and flowers, she never gave any sign. Instead, once we had emerged from the bleakness of the camp, she became a little American girl. She insisted that we call her Zama because her real name was too long; she kept pet plastic dolls and memorized insipid television jingles about underarm deodorant and automobiles; she acquired a distressing interest in watching young men in cumbersome body armor symbolically slaughter each other on fields which could have been used for more important things, like growing beets.

She also received the highest grades in her mathematics classes, and loved poetry, and delighted to help her mother and auntie in the garden. One cannot completely deny one's heritage. I suppose there are American girls who do these things too, but we all get our talents from somewhere. Zamatryna got hers from Lémabantunk, from her parents and foreparents who grew in that soil.

And yet, since we were in exile and always would be, I had to hope that she would thrive here. I could not wish upon her the homesickness that I, and my children and their wives, felt daily, hourly, like the throbbing of a cut whose edges will not close. And so I delighted for Zamatryna-Harani when she fit in, when she went to her high-school prom looking like an underwear advertisement, accompanied by a young man who--to the horror of the older relatives--had made a great show of giving her mutilated foliage. I still do not know how she could work in the garden in the morning and accept a gift of dead blossoms in the afternoon, but it showed that she had become an American, and so I knew that I should be happy. I dutifully rejoiced for her when, in college, she was adopted by a group of other young women who wore upon their clothing the letters of a language no one here ever speaks, and who devoted tremendous energy to acquiring similar insignia worn by young men. I was pleased for her when she began to date Jerry-the-football-player, an earnestly polite young man who, even when he wasn't wearing his body armor, looked like a collection of tree trunks lashed together. He was a very important football player; the insignia he gave her were the envy of all her friends. I didn't think that she would go out with him for very long. None of us thought so. We saw no poetry in Jerry, and he trampled plants where he walked--although he tried not to, for Zamatryna's sake--and his acquaintance with mathematics was purely functional, a matter of the ledger books he studied. Aliniana, of all people, became very fond of Jerry, and left off her sniffling long enough to predict sadly that Zamatryna would break his heart. I think Jerry expected this himself. There was no doubt that heworshipped Zamatryna, but he always seemed to be holding his breath around her, as one does around a wild, rare creature one does not want to startle.

Imagine our surprise, then, when she announced that they were getting married. And imagine further our surprise when she told us that her wedding must include the Blessing of the Necessary Beggar: a ritual she had never witnessed from a land which she would never see again, and whose streets and scents she surely could barely remember.

This is the custom in Lémabantunk, and among all the people of Gandiffri, the Land of Gifts whose capital Lémabantunk is. A week or so before you are to be married, you go into the streets of your city, or into the countryside if you do not live in a city, and you find a Mendicant. Of course this rarely takes long, because all men when they reach eighteen must spend a year as a Mendicant if they are to be admitted to the Temple as adults. Women have begun to demand to do it, too: they say it is not fair that men should receive special religious privileges, and I think that is true, but it is also true that the streets are more dangerous for women, although not nearly as dangerous as where we live now, in these United States. Gallicina-Malinafa Odarettari was one of the first female Mendicants. We learned after her death that she had been seeking her family's approval for years. Since our exile, I have often wished that she had not received it, although I was pleased, back home, whenever I saw a woman begging.

The tradition of the Necessary Beggar dictates that you choose the first Mendicant you see, for this person is a blessing, an embodiment of the Elements, who has been put in your path for this purpose. Some people cheat: they go in search of Mendicants they already know, or they put out word about the wedding to ensure that their favorites will be waiting on their path. But you are not allowed to choose any relative closer than a fifth cousin; this is very bad form, and bad luck for the marriage.

Once you have found a Mendicant, you bow very low to that person, and you say, "Please grace my wedding, to remind me of the ground of my fortune."

The Mendicant bows back and says, "I will grace your wedding, to remind you always of the gifts you have received."

And then you take the Mendicant home with y...

Copyright © 2007 by Susan Palwick


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