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EBFIDDLER

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12) Part (12)
Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mal tells Inara a folktale from Shadow


CATEGORY: FICTION    TIMES READ: 2019    RATING:     SERIES: FIREFLY

ENDS WITH A HORSE (12)

Part (12)

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Follows WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11).

The series so far:
A LION’S MOUTH (01)
ADVENTURES IN SITTING (02)
SPARKS FLY (03)
EXPECTATIONS (04)
BREAK OUT (05)
THE TRIAL (06)
SHADOW (07)
ONE MAN’S TRASH (08)
BANDIAGARA (09)
TWO BY TWO BY TWO (10)
WHAT BEGINS WITH AN APPLE (11)

Mal tells Inara a folktale from Shadow

* * *

They couldn’t look for malware twenty-four hours a day. Despite Simon’s insight that River suspected Saffron of having installed a trojan horse, they still hadn’t found the problem. It did, at least, give them a notion of what to look for.

Mal was in his bunk running a system diagnostic on his personal cortex screen. He was by now completely convinced that Saffron’s appearance in his bunk had to do with installing the malware. The code she had dropped in his bed seemed to corroborate this idea. Passwords or access codes, perhaps. Still, having the code didn’t help much if they didn’t know where she’d used it. He was just about ready to give up in frustration when Inara tapped on his open hatch.

“Mal, may I come in?”

“Of course, darlin’; you’re always welcome.” He watched in appreciation of her lovely figure as she descended the ladder.

Things had settled in between the two of them. Now that he was looking, he wondered how he had missed the signs of pregnancy in Inara before. The emotional volatility should have tipped him off. She went from laughing to tears to anger quite easily. Even though those elements had always been present in her personality (well maybe not the tears—Inara didn’t cry much, or at least she didn’t use to) now it was like everything was writ in bold letters, larger size.

“Have you found out what Saffron did?” she asked, as she stepped over and began massaging his shoulders.

“Still don’t know.” He smiled at her in appreciation, as the knots in his shoulder began to relax. “It’s clear she was logged onto my cortex screen, but what she did here, that she couldn’t do from the bridge, I don’t know. I still haven’t found any software that I don’t recognize.”

“Are you sure she was installing software? What if she was snooping in your accounts, or modifying files that already exist on your cortex unit?”

“Could be,” Mal considered. “I already turned my bunk inside out and upside down, searching, in case she took something or planted a bug or booby trap.”

“Did she?”

“Not that I’ve found. Those are good notions you had there, Inara. If that code paper she had was passwords, maybe she used them to access my private accounts and files. Though I don’t know how she woulda come by my personal passwords. Or why she’d write ’em in a code I can’t even read.”

“Could you tell if she did access your files?”

He sighed and rubbed his hands through his hair. “Don’t know. This ain’t really my area of expertise.”

“Why don’t you get someone who does have the expertise to go through it?”

“River?”

“She does seem to have some talents in cortex-hacking. But no, actually I meant Ip. He’s got quite a lot of training in instrumentation and programming. You know he designed most of the scientific instruments in his little crate of tech cargo himself, and he most definitely wrote the software for them all.”

“I didn’t know that, actually.”

“You should talk to him more.”

Mal pursed his lips. “Maybe I should. It’s just, whenever I do, seems like he ends up asking me all these uncomfortable questions. Always wants to know about Shadow and Miranda. He’s just relentless as a chorus of singin’ cicadas with his questions.”

“He can be rather relentless,” she agreed, as she settled down on the bed and patted the space beside her. “But he also loves to talk. If you just ask him a few questions, then settle down to listen, he’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

“And then some. Man could talk a hind leg off a donkey.” Mal settled in next to her, bumping her shoulder playfully. “Maybe I should try asking him. It’s just…” He just wasn’t sure how far to trust Ip. He was reluctant to give the man access to his personal cortex screen. “You know, I think I’ve had about enough software and hardware for tonight. Could use a break from trying to figure out what River meant with this ‘What begins with an apple ends with a horse’ business.”

“You’ve tried asking her directly?”

“I have. She still gets all loopy and squirrelly when I push it.”

“I thought she seemed a little more put together lately. Improving since Saffron left the ship.”

“Hmm,” he agreed. “She’s got her head on straight when it comes to flyin’ the ship. But explaining what’s goin’ on in that brainpan of hers is still more difficult than opening a Chinese puzzle box. And she keeps talkin’ on about ‘ends with a horse.’ Still can’t make head nor tail of it.”

“It certainly can be difficult to sort out what she means with all her references.” Inara snuggled into Mal’s side, getting comfortable. “I’m still trying to figure out one that she was telling me a few days ago.”

He cocked his head, with a little smile. Maybe I can help? he queried with a look.

Inara understood exactly what he meant, and began her story. “River was telling me…well, I think it was a myth, about the god of love, Angus, and a woman who was turned into a swan, named Caer Ibor-something.”

“Oh, you mean the story of Angus and Carr,” Mal responded easily.

“You know what she was talking about?”

“Sure. Only Angus weren’t no god of love, he was just an ordinary fella. River musta been feedin’ you some kinda 废话 fèihuà there.” He stopped for a moment, as he wondered how River knew the tale. That girl seemed to have no limit to the odd bits of information what collected in her mind. Like a magpie, she was. Gorram, still thinking of River as some kinda bird.

“You know this story then?”

“Absolutely,” Mal stated. “Every kid on Shadow heard the story of Angus and Carr. I guess it was…well, you could call it a folktale, I suppose. Carr Filkins, what taught me wilderness survival skills, she was even named for Carr in the tale. Better person for reading nature you never saw. She could spot a bitty twig sticking outta the ground, what nobody else woulda noticed, and she’d stop and dig out a sunroot or a prairie turnip—they’re right tasty, when you roast ’em, though you’d never guess it, the way they look. She could find wild foods and live off the land like nobody else I ever saw. That winter in New Kasmir, if I hadn’t known some of what she taught me, we woulda starved, rations were so short. ’Course, if she was good at tracking vegetables, she weren’t a patch on Terry Chang, who could track animals like nobody’s business. Terry, she could tell you—”

“Terry Chang was a woman?”

“Sure. Why wouldn’t she be?” He regarded her quizzically. “Surely you don’t believe tracking skills are gender-specific? Don’t gotta be a man to be a good tracker, darlin’. Terry weren’t so good at the shooting, but hunting parties always wanted her along, on account of her tracking skills. Between her, and Carr, and Murdoch Harbatkin and Hank Blodgett—well, they’re the ones what taught me most of what I know about outdoorsmanship.”

“So what’s the story of Angus and Carr?” Inara asked, getting him back on track.

“You want the full deal?”

She nodded.

“Okay,” he said, settling in to tell the tale. “Angus was this fella. He fell in love with Carr, what got turned into a swan…”

“Wait a minute. Was she already a swan, or did he fall in love and then she turned into a swan?”

“Alright, I guess I better tell you about Carr first. Carr was a maiden, beautiful and good, but when she was young she got a notion somehow that she weren’t all that beautiful after all, and she had doubts about her own goodness—I mean, who doesn’t? But she had no reason to doubt herself, no real reason anyhow. I reckon maybe she had the kind of parents what told her she weren’t good enough or something, made her doubtful. Anyways, she wanted to be better than she was, so she went to this old crone—”

“An evil old crone?”

“Well, no, not exactly evil. Evil is more—”

“An old witch?”

“No, not a witch, though she did have magical powers. An old crone which made a bargain with Carr. There’s lots of old crones in Shadow folktales,” he said in an aside. The reminiscences had awoken Mal’s Shadow accent, which grew more folksy as he told the story. “I reckon not so much a witch, more of a wise woman, with magical skills. Anyways, the crone showed her how to be beautiful and young-looking always, how to please people with her ways. Reckon that took care of them parents that thought she weren’t good enough.”

“There must have been a catch.” There always was, in folktales, when you made a bargain like that.

“’Course there was a catch. She would always be beautiful and young and graceful, but she could only be a woman one day a year, on All Saints’ Day. Rest of the time she was a swan.”

Inara looked at him, her expression quite serious.

“Time come, Carr begun to regret her bargain. She was beautiful and graceful and all, but she had to spend most of her life as a swan, and live with the swans. And people came and saw her, and said as how she was beautiful and graceful and such, but all they saw was a swan. They didn’t see her as a woman no more. And since the crone had given her eternal youth, Carr was lookin’ at a long future of people lookin’ and admiring and never knowing what she truly was underneath all them feathers.

“That’s where Angus come into the story. He happened upon the swan lake late one night, on All Hallow’s Eve, and saw the magical transformation when Carr turned into a woman. He barely caught a glimpse before she was swallowed up in the mist. He went on home, but he couldn’t get the swan woman outta his mind. Dreamed about her every night. I think he musta known something fishy was goin’ on, ’cause ordinarily a man don’t go about finding a girlfriend that way. And he oughtta known better than to mess with some magical 废话 fèihuà like that—like to get transformed himself, you know. But this is a folktale, not real life, so of course he persisted. Went out lookin’ for the swan woman again and again. Every time he saw a swan, he looked past the fine plumage on the surface, trying to see into the heart of her, to see if he could find the swan woman of his dreams. And of course, thinkin’ on her so much, he fell deeply in love with her.” As he recounted the folktale, Mal’s Shadow accent had grown more and more pronounced, and by now he was in full swing. “Well, the years went on, and at last come a time when Angus come to a lake filled with hundreds of swans. And he looked, right to the heart, and he seen right through the borrowed feathers of the swan woman, and knew she was the woman of his dreams, underneath it all. Chose her right outta a lake full of swans.”

“And love conquered all,” Inara guessed. “His seeing her for what she truly was broke the spell? And they lived happily ever after.”

“No,” he answered. “It was more complicated than that. You can’t expect to reverse years’ worth of magical spells just by fallin’ in love or kissin’ a frog or something. No, you see, now he knew which swan was really the woman he loved, he followed her. She weren’t so sure she loved him, I suppose, so she didn’t make it easy. Flew off to different parts, he had a devil of a time keeping close to her. He waited until the next All Hallow’s Eve, when she transformed into a woman, and for that night and day he courted her.”

“Courted her?” Inara asked, still amused by Mal’s quaint expression.

“Yeah. Told her he loved her, showed her how he loved her, made her know that he loved her for who she was, her true self on the inside, and not just for her beauty and youth and grace what everyone else could see.”

Inara was very moved.

“Then, at midnight, it was time for her to change back into a swan.”

“That doesn’t seem fair! Couldn’t they break the magic spell?”

“They did. But they had to use trickery. You see, the crone objected.”

“So the old crone was still around.”

“Sure was. How else do ya think the magic spell persisted? The crone said they had to prove that their love was forever, not just for a day and a night.”

“But they’d only had one day and one night.”

“That’s right. And that’s where the old language came in handy.”

“The old language?”

“Yeah, it’s…actually, I don’t know much about it myself. But there were some oldtimers on Shadow what knew bits and phrases of the old language—mostly cuss words and greetings, far as I could tell. Reckon it came from Earth-that-was, probably some obscure language that just about died out before the exodus anyways. Well, it seems in the old language, there ain’t no word for ‘a’—y’know, you can say, ‘the day’ but you can’t say ‘a day’—the way you say ‘a day’ is just the same as sayin’ ‘day’. So Angus and Carr—well, they could prove they had loved for a day and a night, which was, in the old language ‘day and night’—in other words, for all time. Forever.”

Inara was so moved she couldn’t speak.

“So it was just a matter of semantics,” Mal concluded. “So how was it River come to mention this tale?”

To Mal’s utter amazement, Inara threw herself into his arms, kissing him and murmuring, “I love you, Mal. I love you, I love you, I love you,” over and over and over again. He didn’t ask any more questions.

I know, he thought, and held her tight.

* * *

Ip was in the kitchen…galley, he corrected himself. He still wasn’t completely used to all the shipboard terminology, and tended to speak of front and back instead of forward and aft; left and right instead of port and starboard; and of course it had taken him aback the first few times he’d heard Zoe refer to the head instead of the bathroom. Restroom. Washroom. Lavatory. WC. Toilet. Facilities. Oh, hell, maybe head was easier to remember after all.

It was his cook day, and he was feeling creative. They were on their way to Bernadette, and thoughts of home brought memories of his mother’s cooking to mind. お母さん Okāsan, despite her busy career as an entomology professor at Harcliffe University, loved to cook. Most of what she cooked reflected her Japanese heritage, but she had a few Chinese-style favorites, and that’s what Ip had in mind this time.

General Tso Chicken. Well, okay, General Tso Chicken-style Protein. The key to making molded protein palatable, Ip found, was in the sauces and the style of preparation. He’d been warned about the abysmal quality of the food available aboard most spaceships before he embarked on his “sabbatical,” so he’d packed some pantry essentials into his hand luggage: sesame oil, chili paste, dehydrated onions, garlic, ginger, lemon and orange zest, and one of his secret ingredients: Filipino-style banana ketchup.

Serenity was well-supplied with soy sauce, and cooking oil was also available. Ip found that if he got creative with the egg-style protein packets, he could make up for the deficiency of fresh eggs; and although wheat flour and cornstarch were in short supply, a little therapeutic time spent pounding and grinding with an old-fashioned mortar and pestle converted the cheap millet that formed Serenity’s primary carbohydrate source into a palatable flour.

So he set about mixing egg-style protein, water, and millet flour into a batter and flavored it with sesame oil. Coating the chunks of chicken-style protein with batter and deep-frying them, then smothering them with spicy sauce, took care of the problem of blandness that too often afflicted a diet based on molded protein.

It wasn’t long before the appetizing smells began drawing the crew toward the dining room. Jayne, as usual, was first and foremost.

“Mmm. Smells good. Whatcha cookin’ there, Doc ’Noyman?”

“General Tso Chicken.”

To Ip’s astonishment, Jayne bolted from the dining room and down the hallway toward crew quarters. Before Ip could even open his mouth, Jayne had plunged down the ladder of his bunk and shut the hatch.

“Now what in the worlds was that all about?”

“Smells good, Ip,” the Captain commented, entering the dining room in his turn. “What was what all about?”

“Jayne just bolted to his bunk and shut the hatch,” Ip said, turning the pieces in the wok as they turned golden brown and crispy. Mal gave a shrug.

“That’s good,” Simon said, as he joined them. “Let’s just hope he keeps it that way. Have you smelled the stench exuding from his quarters?”

“I live in the same corridor,” Mal said drily.

“It’s unsanitary,” Simon continued. “He’s never been a model of exemplary hygiene, but this is worse than ever. I think something’s gone septic. Shouldn’t you—”

Mal was quick to reply. “I won’t have no truck with cleanin’ Jayne’s bunk. Man’s gotta take care of it hisownself.”

“He’s been acting a bit off, if you ask me,” Zoe inserted, joining the conversation. “Not just the awful 腐臭 fǔchòu smell. He’s been playin’ music all the time. I can hear it through the bulkhead.” Her bunk was next to Jayne’s, and everyone nodded in sympathy. “Same gorram music wave, over and over and over again.”

“The Juggling Geese, isn’t it?” Inara asked, nodding in sympathy. “That’s his favorite band.”

“It ain’t bad music,” Zoe continued. “It’s just, he never shuts it off.”

“Not even when he’s sleeping?”

“Well, yes, for sleeping, but it’s back on again before the crack of day-cycle, Captain.”

“What’s on at the crack of day-cycle?” Kaylee asked brightly, as she joined the others. “Smells real good Ip. Do ya need a hand?”

As Ip finished cooking the sauce, the others set the table. Inara, giving Ip a smile, carried the pot of jasmine tea to the table and began to pour.

“Jayne’s music. All the time.”

“Nothin’ wrong with my music,” Jayne called as he re-entered the dining room. “It’s The Juggling Geese, and they’re the shiniest band this side of Boros. The drummer and the lead singer are—”

“Kung Pao Chicken or General Tso Chicken?” River asked of the room in general, giving Jayne a hard stare as she drifted up to the table and took a seat.

“General Tso Chicken tonight,” Ip informed her. “But if you like, I’ll make Kung Pao Chicken next time.”

“Witch,” Jayne muttered under his breath, as he sat down at the table.

“Yeah, but she’s our witch,” Mal responded. “Pass the chicken, Jayne.”

* * *

*

*

*

glossary

废话 fèihuà [nonsense]

お母さん Okāsan [Mom (Japanese)]

腐臭 fǔchòu [rotten, putrid]

Author note: This chapter refers heavily to an incident in What Begins with an Apple, Part 12, link here if you’re interested. Also, the "old language" is Gaelic, where the phrase "Là agus oidhche" means both "a day and a night" or "day and night."

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COMMENTS

Sunday, May 12, 2013 6:06 PM

BYTEMITE


Haha, River trolling Jayne. And Mal, seeing through all that plumage. :)

Monday, May 13, 2013 4:24 PM

BYTEMITE


More on this. That folk story is beautiful. I wonder if it has any relationship to the traditional Swan Lake story from Russia. There's some differences, but enough similarities to wonder.

Mal telling that folk story - something from his youth back on Shadow, discussed without pain - no wonder it moved Inara so much.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 4:06 PM

NUTLUCK


Jaynes reaction to what was for dinner was amusing.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 4:14 PM

AMDOBELL


I'm still suspicious about what Saffron did in Mal's bunk. Maybe instead of worrying whether he can trust Ip to look at his computer he could ask River to take a look instead? I did smile at Jayne bolting back to his bunk when Ip said what the food was, just to check. Ali D :~)
"You can't take the sky from me!"

Wednesday, May 15, 2013 6:27 PM

EBFIDDLER


I think River figured out that Jayne was keeping chickens in his bunk a long time ago. She won't tattle-tale, but that won't stop her from yanking his chain at every opportunity.
I have long liked the folk-tale (my source is Celtic mythology), and some time ago I got the crazy idea that it would be great fun to re-tell it in Mal's dialect, taking a few liberties to change and twist it a bit.
Inara sees all the symbolism of it, and Mal is entirely free of self-consciousness as he unknowingly bares his soul to her through the telling of the story.
Put Jayne in the spotlight, add some off-the-wall element like chickens, sit back, and watch what happens.
Maybe Mal should trust Ip, but he still hasn't gotten over the fact that Ip was friends with Blue Hand Bill. Niggling doubts about what Ip was really up to at Blue Sun, and what might he be up to now? But you're right, Saffron is a greater threat.


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