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The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
Poem: "Salt and Pepper"

This poem came out of the September 6, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by a prompt from morrigans_eve.  It is posted here in full, after being offered as the linkbacks perk for the October 5, 2011 Poetry Fishbowl.  Special thanks to aldersprig for managing the linkbacks perk post yesterday, and to all the folks who linked to the Fishbowl Open post.

"Salt and Pepper" falls toward the beginning of Path of the Paladins, between "The Canticle of Days" and "To the Five Roads."  I was amused to discover that Gailah's sacred animal is not any of the ones commonly associated with deities in charge of such spheres as Peace, Good, etc.  You can read the other poems in this series on the Serial Poetry page of my website.

Salt and Pepper

Shahana and Ari stopped at a salt lick
to harvest salt for cooking.
Clear crystal bands of rock salt
glittered amongst the stone and clay
of the cliff face.

On the ground at the base of the cliff
lay a smooth skirt of sand and silt,
moist from the recent rain
and pressed with many prints.

Shahana named the nearest ones --
deer and bear, porcupine and woodchuck
and the dimly glimmering tracks of unicorns --
then led Ari to a different patch
so the girl could identify them on her own.

As they carefully chipped salt crystals
from the cliff, Ari asked,
"Are there any animals sacred to Gailah,
like maybe the unicorns?"

Shahana chuckled.  "Sacred, yes,
but not the unicorns," she said.
"Gailah's animal is the pepper squirrel."

"The pepper squirrel?" Ari echoed,
her mouth falling open.
"But -- they're horrible!  They stink."

"Pepper squirrels mostly stink when they spray,
and they prefer not to do that,"
Shahana explained.

"Still, why not choose a nice  animal
for an icon?" Ari said.

"Pepper squirrels just have a bad reputation,"
said Shahana.  "They're calm and quiet.
They have beautiful ginger fur striped with white.
That caustic, peppery spray keeps them safe,
so they don't need to be aggressive.
They're actually among the most peaceful of animals."

Shahana and Ari continued to talk as they worked,
discussing Gailah and her symbols.
By the time they finished gathering salt,
the late afternoon light stretched across the ground
in tawny bands, and the shadows began to thicken.

As they turned to go, a pepper squirrel
trundled out of the underbrush toward the salt lick.
The wedge-shaped head plowed through the grass
and the plumed tail flowed behind the wide body.
A broad stripe of silver cut through the reddish-brown coat.

"Oh, no, now we'll get sprayed!"
Ari said, flattening herself against the cliff.
"No, we won't," Shahana assured her.
"Can you magic it?" Ari asked.
"I don't need to," said Shahana.
"Just watch."

The pepper squirrel lifted its head
at the sound of their voices, glanced at them,
and then went about its business.
Long claws dug into the soft clay at the base of the cliff.

"That is the most relaxed  animal I've ever seen,"
Ari said quietly.
"They can afford to be,"
Shahana replied.

"Is that why Gailah's banner is
Argent chapé tenny?"
Ari asked.
"Yes, it is,"
said Shahana,
leading Ari away from the salt lick.

"I still don't understand why
Gailah would favor them so,"
said Ari, looking over her shoulder
at the unassuming little animal.

"Because, Ari, they embody a virtue
that Gailah desires for her followers," said Shahana.
"A pepper squirrel will never start a fight --
only finish  one."

* * *


Some points in this poem benefit from extra detail which makes more sense coming at the end.

1) A salt lick or mineral lick is any mineral deposit with a high enough concentration of trace elements to attract wildlife.  Many animals like them, including but not limited to the examples listed here.  Historically, people sometimes competed for the salt in salt-poor regions.

2) The pepper squirrel is not precisely a squirrel (which is a rodent), but more akin to a skunk (which is related to mustelids).  The shape, coloring, and personality are notably skunklike -- particularly the apricot color.  However, the exact biological defense is a bit different, for which I drew some inspiration from the bombardier beetle and hot peppers.

3) Gailah's banner is Argent chapé tenny. "Argent" is the heraldic term for "silver" (typically rendered as white, so the two are functionally synonymous).  "Tenny" is an uncommon tincture variously described as fawn, tan, orange, or brown.  "Chapé" is an uncommon field division with an upward-pointing triangle flanked by corners in a different color; it means "caped." 

Notice that there isn't any charge, just the field division and colors, as appears in some very old examples of heraldry.  It implies that the bearer got to pick early, before people had to start using a lot of decoration to distinguish individual designs.  But it also works because it uses two uncommon elements, a color and a field division, thus making it unlikely that anyone else would have a similar combination.  Finally, it suggests -- but does not illustrate outright -- a related motif, in this case the pepper squirrel.  Fashion trends in heraldry change slowly but they do include a wide range of ways to represent important concepts.  This kind of color/pattern symbolism is one such approach.

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12 comments or Leave a comment
the_vulture From: the_vulture Date: October 5th, 2011 08:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
There's something very Zen to this... :)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 5th, 2011 08:40 pm (UTC) (Link)


A bit, yes.

Gailah's style of peacemaking isn't an exact match for any other deity's style. Everyone has their own way of doing things. A pepper skunk is kind of like the martial artist who would really prefer to avoid fighting, but is capable of mopping the floor with anyone who insists. Peacemaking isn't about removing conflict altogether ... just dealing with it in the least destructive way possible.
the_vulture From: the_vulture Date: October 5th, 2011 10:10 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: *grin*

Okay, okay, gotta tell a story now.

There once was Zen master, renowned for his skill with the sword, who took to living in a mountain village in his elderly years. A young samurai, skilled but brash, sought out the old master out to challenge him, so as to earn prestige by besting him in a duel. However, the young warrior was not heedless of the master's skill. The simple truth of most samurai duels is this: he who strikes first will likely fall to the other's counter-attack. As such, the the young samurai decided that he would insult the old master and goad him into striking first, confident that his skill in the counter-attack would be sufficient to best the elderly master's draw. He approached the old man as he sitting in a meadow near the village, enjoying the view.

A crowd of villagers followed, to see what was happening. In front of the crowd, the young samurai began first calling the old master feeble, decrepit, ugly and other such things. The villagers waited for the old master's response with baited breath, expecting his legendary blade to flash out and cut down the brash young warrior for such impertinence.

But the old man made no response, save to open a basket beside him and bring out the implements for making tea.

Perplexed, the young swordsman then began to insult the older man's skill with the blade, certain that this would sufficiently nettle his pride and goad him to strike. Again, the crowd watched expectantly, waiting for the distinctive sound of a sword clearing its scabbard, marking the death one of the two warriors before them.

Instead, there was naught but the swish of a fan coaxing hot coals into a flame, as the old swordsman set about preparing tea.

Frustrated, the brash young man drew a gasp from the audience as he began insulting the elder's family and lineage, a mortal insult for those of samurai class.

And, yet, the Zen master did not once reach for his katana. In truth, the only reaching he did was in wordlessly offering the young warrior a cup of tea, with not a hint of rage to mar the pleasant smile upon his face.

At this, the youth completely lost his temper and, not unlike a child having a tantrum, began angrily shouting insult after insult whilst stamping about and waving his arms... whilst the master calmly sipped his tea. It was only after the brash youth began to notice the stifled chuckles and hidden smirks of the villagers that he realized he had made a complete fool of himself. Any chance to earn prestige here had been completely undone by his shameful display. With face glowing and head held low, he turned and slunk away.

After they were certain the brash, young swordsman was long away, the villagers wondered allowed at the Zen master's composure throughout the entire event. "How is it," they asked "that you could remain so calm when he was insulting you? How did you not give in to rage when he spoke so poorly of your family?"

The Zen master smiled sagely and answered replied "If one refuses a gift offered by another, to whom does the gift belong?"

ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 16th, 2011 02:12 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: *grin*

*laugh* I love that story.
the_vulture From: the_vulture Date: October 16th, 2011 11:28 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: *grin*

It's one I like to tell. :)
eseme From: eseme Date: October 7th, 2011 02:54 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I like this! I made the same assumption about the unicorns, based on a later poem.

I like the pepper squirrels better, in the end.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: October 7th, 2011 03:06 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

>> Oh, I like this! <<

That's good to hear.

>> I made the same assumption about the unicorns, based on a later poem.<<

The unicorns are attracted to purity of spirit, and they like good paladins in particular. They are somewhat associated with various deities.

>> I like the pepper squirrels better, in the end. <<

Yay! They're different, and they send a subtly different message.
je_reviens From: je_reviens Date: April 12th, 2012 03:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love love love the END of the poem. awesome!
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: April 12th, 2012 06:59 pm (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

Sooth. Virtue is what you make of it. It's not always about being pretty or nice or any of the other usual things.
kengr From: kengr Date: June 17th, 2017 08:58 am (UTC) (Link)
Love the pepper squirrels.

I used to go for walk late at night in the woods near our house. It wasn't that uncommon to encounter a skunk, especially on the dirt roads I used to get into the woods.

Even if I didn't see the skunk (I relied on my excellent night vision rather than a flashlight) you could usually catch the scent from a fair distance.

I'd just pause, see which part of the road the skunk was using, and use a part as from from the skunk as was practical.

We'd both eye each other as we passed, but since neither of us wanted any trouble, there wasn't any.

Had a friend with me once. I just pointed out the skunk and told him to stay calm. He was almost shocked when the skunk continued on its way.

Some folks just don't get that. They have to poke at things or run away in terror. *sigh*
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: June 17th, 2017 09:31 am (UTC) (Link)

Thank you!

>> Love the pepper squirrels. <<


>> I used to go for walk late at night in the woods near our house. It wasn't that uncommon to encounter a skunk, especially on the dirt roads I used to get into the woods.<<

We have them here too. I have seen them in the yard. Once I saw a mama with babies! I was just coming from the raspberry patch, and politely told them I was done picking and they could have what's left. They're actually quite phlegmatic because few animals will mess with them.

I only ever had a problem with one. It kept eating the cat food, and then nobody wanted to go outside while the skunk was there. I'd rattle the door and it wouldn't leave. So I bailed up some water, opened the door, doused the critter, and slammed the door. The skunk ran like hell.

Everyone was amazed that I did that, and wasn't afraid of getting sprayed. I pointed out that the skunk's weapon was A) not armed and B) aimed in the wrong direction. It couldn't have gotten its tail up and ass end rotated 180 degrees before I shut the door.

The funny part is this happened again a while later. I opened the door -- and you could just about see the thought bubble go up, "Oh shit this is THAT house!" and then the skunk ran. :D

kengr From: kengr Date: June 17th, 2017 10:22 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Thank you!

*snicker* I can see that skunk.

Our house had those basement windows that are in sunken wells. In our case, a couple of feet wide, and about 3 feet deep (and as long as the windows, say six or eight feet in the case op the one in the story I'm about to relate)

Now, the bottoms of the wells were dirt. And we lived at the top of a 500 foot unbuildable slope. At the edge of town.

So lots of smaller wildlife there too.

One night mom's chow was barking up a storm in the back yard. And then rather obviously retreated. Seems he'd come out second best in an encounter with a skunk.

The fun part came when we found that the skunk had dug it's burrow so that one of the exits was in a window pit in the back yard. Pretty silly in that he couldn't easily get out of the pit. Though he could jump in from the yard.

We finally sacrificed some decorative garden fencing (sort of like painted hogwire) and put it in the bottom to block the hole. and had to dump some large rocks in to keep it in place.

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