Saturday, October 3, 2009

44. Ruthenium


Land of Our Fathers

Ah, Ruthenia! Has any land been ever so lost as thee? In America the Irish gather in bars to drink and grow maudlin about a land they've never seen. The Germans wax eloquent about the Rhine and about poets whose work they can only read in translation. African-Americans, whose history has been so thoroughly obliterated that not one out of ten knows from what land or tribe his ancestors came, hold a deep and abiding love for the continent of Africa.

But where are the Ruthenians? What history was theirs?

I met a Ruthenian-American girl in a bar who told me: "In Ruthenia of old, my ancestors greeted the dawn with one long blast from a great bronze horn. They scorned print and saddles as things that made men weak. A sprig of aspen summoned them to war. They rode bareback into battle.

"My Ruthenian ancestors drank fermented mare's milk and a mushroom wine so strong that outlanders could not finish even the first flagon. The men wore gold rings at the tips of their beards and moustaches. The women wore silver rings braided into their hair. In winter, they took baths in the snow. In summer, they fought knife-duels blindfolded and with their left hands bound together. It was considered a great disgrace for both opponents to survive a duel.

"In Ruthenia, the hunters could run fleeter than horses, pass through a bramble thicket without making a noise, and follow the day-old track of a salmon through a lake. The women wove cloth as light as silk and as strong as denim in patterns that dazzled the eye. When a garment was finished, it was held up for admiration, and if the admiration was less than its maker thought it deserved, she flung it in the fire.

"In Ruthenia, all the children were happy.

"It was the custom in Old Ruthenia that when a girl came of age, she would bathe naked in a mountain pool, and offer herself in marriage to the first man who came along. But in practice her father and brothers guarded the way to the pool with swords, and let through only that man who had already won her heart. Our national epic begins with a scoundrel who kills father and brothers and lover in order to marry a woman who is a symbol of our land, and ends with the death of that villain at the hands of his own children."

"Is this really true?" I asked her.

She finished her drink, and said, "Probably not. But it's a nice thing to think, isn't it?"

for Marianne

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.

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