This poem is spillover from the September 3, 2013 Poetry Fishbowl. It was inspired by a prompt from my_partner_doug. It also fills the "care from dissimilar people" square on my card for Wordsmith Bingo. This poem has been sponsored by janetmiles. It belongs to the series A Conflagration of Dragons.
Pandu managed to survive
the fall of Shaunaka,
when the dragon Janardana
destroyed the city of the white cliffs.
He found refuge on an Imran ship
that carried him to the desert,
where the tenuous alliance between
Imran and Madhusudana people
granted him sanctuary.
Pandu took a job fetching and carrying
in one of the healing halls, because
he was whole when so many were not.
He tried not to make a nuisance of himself,
tucking his white feathered wings so close
that they blended with his white hair,
so different from the skin wings
and warm colors of the desert folk.
The dry air made his skin itch, though,
ice-blue rippled with darker turquoise
like the sea itself, and always
in want of water or fragrant lotions
that were hard to come by here.
The thin supple scales that gave him
a pearly sheen were turning dull.
The healer in charge of the hall was Ansar,
whose wavy red-and-blond hair matched
his peach skin broadly striped with cinnamon.
His wings were deeper gold, brightening
to vermilion along the bones, and
his high upright horns made Pandu
want to duck away when he nodded.
Pandu did everything that Ansar asked of him,
as quickly as he could, slipping into and out of
the rooms with their thick stone walls.
He ate what he was given, although
the spicy dishes made his mouth burn,
so unlike the salty seafood he used to eat,
of which there was none in the desert
because few of the Imran could digest it.
They were confident and inspiring people,
but quick to turn aggressive if provoked.
Pandu tried to avoid provoking them.
When they shouted at each other,
he sidled away as soon as he could.
He stuck to the corners and stayed
out of the way, but the more he did so,
the more they snapped at him.
It was Ansar who finally cornered him.
"What on sand are you doing?"
the healer demanded. "You skulk around
like a rock-lizard hiding from the sun."
"I don't want to wind up making waves,"
Pandu said softly. "I'm just a guest here."
"Well, if you want to fit in," said Ansar
you're going about it all wrong."
He flicked a leathery golden wing.
"The more you hide, the more people
will think you're doing something wrong.
You are driving everyone over a dune."
"I'm sorry," Pandu said, hunching
further into his own feathers.
"Everyone is loud and pushy
and they scare me when they yell.
It's just so ... different from what I knew."
"Homesick?" the healer asked,
his voice gentling. "We heard
about the dragon's attack."
Everyone had heard about that,
even the Shu and the Eofor with whom
the Madhusudana did not get along.
"Yes," Pandu admitted. The thought
of his old balcony above the sea
made him long for the soothing touch
of saltwater, and he scratched his arm
without realizing how raw it had gotten.
"Now what's this?" Ansar said,
taking hold of Pandu's wrist
to get a better look at the irritated skin.
"I've seen it before, but none of my
Madhusudana patients want to talk with me."
Pandu took a deep breath and reminded himself
that if the Imran wanted forthrightness,
he had better start learning to speak up.
"Our skin dries out in the sun," he explained.
"Here we have no way to keep it wet."
"Finally a straight answer!"
Ansar said happily.
"What did you do at home
to keep your skin supple?"
"We swam in the sea," Pandu said.
"We used oil or lotion between times.
Here there is little water, and we
couldn't bring much in the way of supplies."
"I have just the thing," Ansar said.
He went to the supply room and came back
with a glass bottle of oil, so bright an orange
that it was almost red. "This is palm oil.
It soothes and heals aggravated skin."
By that point Pandu would have tried anything.
Eagerly he held out his arm so that
the healer could coat it with palm oil.
The reddish stuff soaked right in,
soothing the itch that had plagued him
ever since he left the refugee boat.
Pandu sighed in relief.
"Best do the whole surface, I think,"
said Ansar as he looked over Pandu's body.
The healer led them to a private room
and helped Pandu oil himself thoroughly.
"Thank you," Pandu said,
half-drowsing on the narrow bed.
"That stuff helps a lot."
"It does make quite a difference,"
Ansar observed, carefully comparing
the texture of the oiled skin against the dry
as he worked over the flaking area
between the roots of Pandu's wings.
In the hallway, someone shouted
for clean towels, and Pandu flinched.
"I wish they wouldn't do that," he muttered.
"It's infantile and alarming."
"Our people are very different," Ansar said.
"If you are going to live in the desert,
you will have to get used to our ways.
Learn to speak up when you need something,
stand up straight and claim your own space.
I will ask the other staff here to remember
that you are new to this, and discourage them
from yelling at you quite so much."
"That's kind of you," Pandu said.
Maybe they could meet partway
between the two cultures.
He wondered about that as Ansar
let him off the bed to get dressed.
"I wish my Madhusudana patients
could learn to be forthcoming too,"
Ansar said. "It's hard to help
if I don't know what's wrong.
I'm used to Imran complaining loudly,
not pale little sailors who hide under the sheets."
"We don't complain, we gossip,"
Pandu said. "If you scare people,
of course they'll hide from you.
You're so tall and burly, all it takes
is one harsh word to spook them.
Try talking about your family
or something to put them at ease."
"Or maybe I could just have
my Madhusudana assistant
stay in the room holding things for me,"
Ansar said thoughtfully. "If it's gossip
your people run to, then they should
talk to you, and I can listen in."
"We can try it," Pandu said.
Then he chuckled a little.
"I'll warn you, though --
what you say to a Madhusudana
on the morning tide will be
across the bay by evening."
"I'll learn to live with it," Ansar said.
He tipped his head, horns tilting
carefully away from Pandu's face.
"Do you know, I think that is
the first time I've ever heard you laugh.
I hope it won't be the last."
Pandu thought about Ansar trying to deal with
chattery Madhusudana grandmothers
and said, "I think it will be the first of many."
* * *
Refugees often suffer from conditions such as PTSD or cultural bereavement. Treatment is challenging but there are ways to help. Seeing a dragon destroy your city, as in "The Janardanakavita," is pretty much going to cause problems.
Conflict avoidance is one approach to dealing with strife. Cultures vary in how they cope with conflict; for example, Japan relies heavily on conflict avoidance to support life on a crowded island. In this case, the Madhusudana culture is conflict avoidant while the Imran culture is bold and assertive. (Individuals still vary; those are just trends.) There are ways to overcome conflict avoidance.
Red palm oil soothes irritated skin.
Gossip is rarely respected but can have social benefits. In Madhusudana culture, gossip keeps people in touch and discourages misbehavior, reducing the need for direct confrontations which most of them dislike.