Last chapter, we finally closed out Menolly’s first full day at the Harper Hall, which left her completely exhausted… and in the scrutiny of the other girls at the Hall, most of whom have coalesced into a clique that Menolly will never be good enough to join. Menolly, in return, has Groucho Marx’d all of them, except the one who appears to be friendly.
Dragonsinger: Chapter 5: Content Notes: Poor-shaming
Day two starts with a shriek. Several, actually. Because Dunca sees that Menolly is in her bed, but the nine fire lizards are protective of anyone invading her space, and that only encourages the shrieking from Dunca until Menolly orders them out the window.
This only changed the tone of Dunca’s screams because the woman was now pointing at Menolly’s nudity until she could snatch up the discarded shirt and cover herself.
Cocowhat by depizan
Okay, so Menolly sleeps in the nude. To this point in the books, this is treated like a normal thing. Mirrim even helps Menolly get out of her clothes back in Dragonsong, and this isn’t treated as some sort of Pern-shattering event. If the dragonrider culture were more consistently okay with all sorts of sex positivity, it would be an easier task to pin Menolly not being taken to task about nude sleeping as just one of those things dragonriders are okay with and everybody else isn’t. Except that Menolly has spent time in her Hold, too, and nobody has apparently objected there, either. So what I’m forced to conclude is that Dunca has some sort of nudity taboo, or that these supposedly delicate Holdbred girls do, or both. Considering what sort of acid tongue was possible just by mentioning the possibility of Dunca finding one of the girls with a boy, I have a strong suspicion that this detour into “modesty” and purity culture values is all Dunca’s fault. Which isn’t necessarily bad on face, but it’s in the same cartoonish over-the-top manner as the Mean Girl Squad that it becomes hard to do anything with it other than roll my eyes. And that’s before we get to talk about the practicality of Menolly’s choices regarding her lack of sleepwear later on. Suffice to say, this is fucking bizarre.
Having clothed herself sufficiently and calmed the fire lizards, Menolly is lectured by Dunca about the need to always check in with her when she returns to the cottage. Menolly acquiesces, realizing that she can’t fight Dunca and that Dunca is irrevocably prejudiced against her. Considering how far from Yanus and Mavi Menolly is, temporally, I would expect this to be standing on every one of Menolly’s abuse triggers right now, but there’s no indication of any mental distress at this point.
There is snobbery, which Audiva breaks from when nobody is looking, and then more snobbery, this time about her fruit-stained shirt, for which her current spare is her clothes from her cave days.
Menolly takes her leave to go feed the fire lizards, collecting an extra round of scorn from Dunca about how she shouldn’t be bothering Silvina and that Menolly is her responsibility while she stays at the Hall.
“Don’t get pert with me, girl. You may be the daughter of a Sea-Holder, but while you are at the Harper Craft Hall and in my charge, you are to behave yourself. We’ll have no ranking here.”
Half-torn between laughter and disgust, Menolly rose. “If I may go, please, before the fire lizards come in search of me…”
That sufficed. Dunca couldn’t get her out of the cot fast enough. Someone sniggered, but when Menolly glanced up she wasn’t sure if it had been Audiva or not. It was a small encouragement that someone had recognized Dunca’s hypocrisy.
High. School. Drama. Where even the adults join in on the torture. Still, good on Menolly to fight back on the grounds that she can win on.
Also, if Dunca were really sincere about having no ranking in her house, she’d be getting after the other girls much more than Menolly. As thetext is eager to point out for the woman, Dunca’s a hypocrite.
Feeding with the fire lizards is the usual cavalcade of Camo abandoning whatever he was doing to help, much to the kitchen staff’s consternation. Afterward, because Menolly has not been told where to go, after she asks for directions,one of the journeymen dismissively sends her to the women’s class of music. Because, apparently, despite her giant welcome two days ago to the Hall, she’s not remembered enough for people to recognize her as the new apprentice and be shipped off to Robinton or one of the other Masters.
Now, based on what we’ve seen of the girls here at the Hall, what do you think their skill with music is going to be? Since they’re here, and getting instruction from members of the Harper Hall, there’s every indication that these girls will be able to play competently, yes?
…if you said they’re going to be awful at it, you remembered how much skill Menolly demonstrated yesterday. You also remember that the narrative has been setting up Menolly as an exceptional female compared to the other girls in all other aspects. The journeyman in charge of instruction, Talmor, is patiently trying to teach gitar. Poma cannot get basic fingering down, nor manage an alternative in time. Menolly runs the fingering silently, which attracts Talmor’s attention. He asks her to run the exercise, in both alternate and regular fingering pattern, and she does. Audiva takes notice, and is trying to study her hands to replicate her skill. The other girls are angry at being shown up.
Then Menolly gets to study new music – music meant to be played as entertainment after dinner and as background music for conversations. To Menolly, it’s a very simple piece. Audiva is able to play it, although slower than tempo. Another of the girls can’t really read the music. Pona can play with a little spirit, but not a lot of skill. Menolly gets a hack at it after everyone else, after Talmor is starting to show a fray at the edges.
It was such a relief to play the music as it should be that Menolly found herself increasing the time and emphasizing the chords with a variation of her own in the strum.
Talmor just looked at her. Then he blinked and exhaled heavily, pursing his lips together.
“Well, yes. You’ve seen it before?”
“Oh, no. We had very little occasional music in Half-Circle. This is lovely.”
“You played that cold?”
Only then did Menolly realize what she had done: made the other girls look inadequate. She was aware of their child, chill silence, their hostile stares. But not to play one’s best seemed a dishonesty that she had never practiced and could not. Belatedly, she realized she could have hedged: with her scarred hand she could have faltered, missed some of the chordings. Yet it had been such a relief, after their limping renditions, to play the music as it was meant to be played.
Riddle me this: Why? Why is Menolly even considering not playing to her full ability as a way of trying to get along with any girl not named Audiva? (Who is also apparently giving Menolly the evil eye over her playing ability, because the narrative only mentions Audiva breaking from the pack when it wants to) These girls and Dunca have given her zero welcome, have made her feel completely alien instead of at home, and have gone out of their way to hurt Menolly, as we find out, by withholding the message that Master Domick sent in the morning to attend him for lessons. Yet Menolly has, to this point, met their disapproval and snark with pushback on her own terms and a few well-placed artillery barrages of her own. Why does she stumble here? If this is supposed to be vestigial from Yanus or Mavi, then Menolly should be thinking of something different than “Must try to get along with these girls!” I can find no reason in the narrative at all as to why this thought would enter Menolly’s head, and the narrative is usually really good at providing reasons why it believes women with skills and progressive views should be hurt and try to conform.
Relief from the uncomfortable stares arrives in the form of Sebell, the seniormost Journeyman studying under Robinton, and Menolly’s partner in her apprenticeship. He takes Talmor’s acidic remark that Menolly was misdirected in stride, deduces (with Menolly) why Menolly was not studying under Master Domick this morning (Dunca and the girls withheld the message), which upsets Menolly because she’s convinced Domick doesn’t like her, much to Sebell’s amusement (“Master Domick doesn’t like anyone,” he says, “including himself. So you’re no exception.”), and then asks her all about life in a Sea-Hold on the way to rectify the problem, as “Harper business”, so she doesn’t get to ask questions. Sebell also obliquely references that Harpers do more than just play music – they’re the spy network for Robinton all over Pern.
Before continuing, I’m going to point out that teaching is not, in fact, for everyone. In the most Menolly-friendly interpretation of this scene, Talmor is a reasonably competent journeyman and instructor, perhaps one that is taking his Masterclass that requires actual teaching to demonstrate his competency in a core requirement of being a Master Harper. His current crop of students are more difficult than most, because they’re untrained and his usual methods of instruction aren’t working. Menolly is thus a breath of air – a student with skill, possibly skill beyond his own, that should be studying with the Masters and not him.
In the less charitable interpretation, which seems more in line with what we’ve seen of the Harper Hall and Pern in general, Talmor is a journeyman currently the leader on a Master’s shit list, probably Jerint, who has been assigned to the women’s class as a punishment. He is just going through the motions of teaching and hoping soon for the time where he will be relieved of this torture of dealing with the airheads. Menolly is clearly in the wrong class, to him, because she has more talent in her pinky than any of these hopeless girls.
It doesn’t bode well.
Before Menolly can pursue the line of inquiry about nonmusical Harper business, Sebell asks her about his fire lizard egg, in detail, and then in great detail about life in the Sea Hold, all the way to the lunch bell, where Menolly gets the silent treatment from all the other girls, a request to see Master Oldive after lunch, and then, the sound and fury of Master Domick about her missed appointment.
“I realize,” Domick went on sarcastically, “that you’ve been living holdless and without authority for some time, but while you are an apprentice here, you will obey the masters.”
You have a student whose history includes physical and mental abuse, for which she carries visible scars, and you think the best way to approach them about an issue is to go in full-bore with verbal abuse, not allow her to provide explanation, and believe someone who you should probably know by now is no friend to the student. And because Menolly has reason to believe that a master that starts verbally abusive will progress to physical abuse (Yanus did, Mavi did), this is an extra dose of anti-empathy. Fuck you, you insensitive clod.
And a big hearty fuck you to the Harper Hall that allows him to terrorize students this way and passes off his abusive nature as just who he is, instead of demanding that he find a way to chill out or he can take the long walk to a far distant Hold.
The fire lizards, after the latest barrage, decide they are having none of this shit, and Beauty and the two bronzes enter the hall on attack vector, forcing Menolly to intercede and call them off. Which sends the other girls into a blind shrieking panic, and they scatter. Domick is unfazed by this display.
“Master Domick,” said another voice near the floor, and Audiva crawled from under the table. “Master Domick, Dunca told Menolly nothing about your message, but we knew all about it. Fair’s fair.”
“How did you contrive to alienate Dunca?” asked Domick, his expression sullen but less fierce.
Menolly followed and glanced at the fire lizards.
“Oh, them! Yes! I can quite see her point.” There was no flexibility in Master Domick’s attitude. “They do not, however, intimidate me.”
“That’s enough, girl. Since you haven’t the native intelligence to be tactful, I shall have to-“
Domick’s threat goes unfinished, as Sebell arrives to deflect Domick away – Domick gives instructions to Menolly directly about what her afternoon and next day’s morning will be, and waves off Sebell (“I’m not so lost to common sense as to punish her for being the victim of envy.” he says, which is utter bullshit, because he was about to do just that) before departing. Once the coast is clear, Piemur appears from under the table, having heard everything, and gets Menolly to agree to let him help feed the fire lizards before vanishing to his chores.
Menolly sees Oldive, who gives her an exercise ball to do her physical therapy with, and some pain relief salve, and oils up Beauty when he notices skin cracking on her. The narrative attempts to gaslight us by having Menolly call Beauty’s attack at Domick “deplorable” instead of “utterly justified”, and Oldive scolds Menolly and tells her she needs to stay off her feet more before sending her on to Jerint for her afternoon lesson. Menolly heads back to Dunca’s to collect her pipes, but overhears the other girls discussing her.
“She’s an apprentice,” Pona was shouting in strident and argumentative tones. “He said she was an apprentice. She doesn’t belong with us. We’ve rank to uphold. She doesn’t belong in here with us! Let her go where she does belong…with the apprentices!” The was a vicious, hateful edge to Pona’s voice.
She did belong there [her cave from Dragonsong] because she’d made it her place. And really, what place was there for her in the Harper Hall, much less the cot? She might be called an apprentice, but she wasn’t part of their group either. Ranly had made that plain at the dining table.
And Master Morshal didn’t want her to “presume” to be a harper. Master Domick would as soon she disappeared, for all he’d been willing to teach her. She had played well for him, scarred hands and all. She was certain of that. And she was clearly a far better musician than the girls. No false modesty prompted that evaluation.
If her only use at the Harper Hall was to instruct people on being bogus seamen or turning fire lizard eggs, someone else could easily perform those services. She’d managed to alienate more people than she’d made friends, and the few friends she’d acquired were more interested in her fire lizards than they were in her. Briefly she considered what welcome she would have received if she hasn’t bright the fire lizards or the two eggs with her. Then there would have been no fire lizard song for the Masterharper to rewrite. And he’d apologized to her for that. The Masterharper of Pern had apologized to her, Menolly of Half-Circle Sea Hold, for improving on her song. Her songs were what he needed, he said. Menolly took a deep breath and expelled it slowly.
She did have music in the Harper Hall, and that was important! There might not be girl harpers, but no one had said there couldn’t be girl song-crafters and that mightn’t be a bad future.
Hooray, resilience, even if it is setting sights lower than the original because of the weight of the constant mental and emotional abuse the narrative has been throwing at Menolly. Also, Menolly wins the award for perceptiveness in a main character for this book. And I’m a bit worried, because women expressing “radical” ideas usually is followed by some form of physical abuse.
Having buoyed herself sufficiently, Menolly returns to the task at hand of trying to get her pipes for Jerint’s lesson, concentrating on where the pipes are, when all nine fire lizards return from hyperspace and drop the pipes into her hands. Menolly is delighted, and thinks this discovery is because of the harsh attitudes of the girls. Even though, earlier, other people were talking about training fire lizards to send messages.
Anyway, onward to the Master Instrument Maker, who asks about the technique used to create her pipes (with a Menolly shudder at having to mention packtail), and then asks her to create a drum, which she does while he is supposedly working on a harp, but he is watching her work for some undisclosed amount of time. After she finishes, he sends her onward to Shonagar for her voice lesson. Which mostly consists of breath control and posture. As anyone who has sung can tell you, however, that’s exhausting by itself. After Menolly has a seat, Shonagar has Piemur sing as an experiment to see if the singing fire lizards will sing with any voice. Menolly is surprised by Piemur’s singing voice, and after a while and some encouragement, the singing lizards accompany Piemur’s melody. Shonagar has essentially no comment and sends both of them on their way to feed the fire lizards and themselves. The kitchen has adapted to the schedule of the lizards, and Camo is waiting for Menolly, instead of abandoning something to help feed. Feeding the nine is much easier with two extra perches for them in the form of Camo and Piemur.
At dinner, Piemur lets on that he’s been banned from sitting near the girls’ table because of something he did that rankled Pona, who complained to Dunca, who complained to Silvina. Menolly’s esteem for Piemur rises with this disclosure. Menolly also figures out the easiest way to avoid having to sit by the girls is to be just a little late for dinner perpetually, and has a private laugh at the expense of the girls being afraid of Thread. Which is mean, but I’m giving Menolly a lot of latitude based on previous behaviors. After dinner, Robinton and Sebell ask Menolly to check their eggs, with very little mention of the heaps of abuse being pulled on Menolly, but the attention is enough for Menolly to come to the conclusion that her previous idealization of Harpers will have to be sacrificed to the demands of reality, with the narrative providing an exclamation point on the end by having Dunca swing a litany of complaints at Menolly about everything from her fire lizards to her need to be more respectful of the other girls. According to Dunca…
Menolly’s attitude was presumptuous, uncooperative, unfriendly, and discourteous, and Dunca was not having a tunnel-snake in her cot where the girls were as friendly and as considerate of one another as any fosterer could wish.
After the first few sentences, Menolly raised that she could put forth no defense of herself or her friends acceptable to Dunca. All she could do was say “yes” and “no” at appropriate intervals, when Dunca was corrects to stop for breath. And every time Menolly thought the woman must surely have exhausted the subject, she would she onto another imagined slight until Menolly seriously considered calling beauty to her. The appearance of the fire lizard would certainly curtail the flow of abuse, but would irrevocably destroy any possibility of getting into Dunca’s fair record.
“Now, have I made myself plain?” Dunca asked unexpectedly.
“You have,” and since Menolly’s calm acceptance momentarily robbed her of speech, the girl flew up the stairs, ignoring the stiffness of her feet and grinning at the explosive and furious reprimands Dunca made at her retreat.
And that’s Chapter Five!
Frankly, I’m still trying to piece together why Menolly gives a fuck about Dunca, when she’s already repeatedly come to the conclusion that Dunca hates her, the girls hate her, and nobody, except Audiva, intends to extend even the illusion of an olive branch to Menolly. Even though there’s no reason to believe courtesy would be extended to her, we’re supposed to believe that the girl who ran away from her Hold over parental abuse is so starved for peer acceptance that she’ll keep trying to make friends with people who have no interest in it. Or, for that matter, with Dunca, because Menolly believes Dunca has power over her? This cartoonish group of Mean Girls runs completely counter to how everything else goes in this and the last book. Can they please be excised retroactively?