Well, that was a ride, wasn’t it? If only that ending hadn’t fallen flat on its face, we might have finally escaped a Pern novel where women did cool things without being hurt by the narrative or the men in their lives. Alas, we have to try again, this time with Nerilka’s Story, written about the same time as Moreta.
Nerilka’s Story, Prologue and Chapter I: Content Notes: Domestic Abuse, Misogyny, Survivor Guilt
The Prologue for this novel opens thus…
If the reader is unfamiliar with the series The Dragonriders of Pern, certain confusions may occur. Nerilka’s Story is an ancillary tale to Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern, told from the point of view of one of the minor characters in that novel.
Cocowhat by depizan
…and I’m already ready to spend a Whatfruit. Sorry, you don’t get married to one of the main characters at the end if you’re a minor character. Nor do you assist both the Masterhealer and that same main character in the production and distribution of vaccination and medical supplies as a minor character. Nerilka is out of frame a lot of the time, because the narrative chooses to follow Alessan, Capiam, and Moreta around, but she’s not a minor character.
She’s the Hero of Another Story, where lots of important stuff happens to make sure there’s still a Pern left for the dragonriders and Healers to save.
This Prologue focuses on telling the story of the colonists who lost contact and developed a very long-term plan to combat Thread, using people with innate telepathy and fire-breathing, safeties-off teleporting dragons in the air, and the grubs on the ground, derived from the same strain of organism that Thread is. Once having gone north, the traditions (TRADITION!) of the riders and the ground-dwellers became as good as laws. It’s the same as Moreta from this point on, so all the complaints from that prologue apply here as well.
Our prologue time marker here is 1541, near the end of the Sixth Pass again. Except that Chapter I is marked as 3.11.1553 – during Interval, and explicitly marked as such.
This is the first time we’ve seen a year marker that’s not related to the Pass. Apparently, at least in the Holds, there is actually some form of calendar system that days back to an epoch regarding the settlers, and that extends past the Passes and their very a-historical worldview. What else have we been missing out on by focusing so strongly on the dragonrider way of keeping time?
The frame, then, is that Nerilka is telling us her own recollection of what happened during the Great Plague, with explicit disclaimer that Nerilka lacks the skills of the Harper. And unsubtly telling us that she has severe survivor’s guilt about the whole thing, even if she feels that she has finally managed to readjust her attitude toward death after this long time.
The story starts with Tolocamp leaving for the Ruatha Gather. Nerilka did not wave goodbye to the traveling party, a lack of gesture that would haunt her for a significant time afterward. Right now, though, the focus is on the mood at Fort.
Camden is a fine fellow, despite a lack of any vestige of humor and little sensitivity. There is not a devious bone in his body. As his entire plan was to amaze my father with his industry and efficiency in managing the Hold, it also required my parents’ safe return. I could have told poor Campen that all the approval he was likely to receive was a grunt from Father, who would have expected industry and efficiency from his son and heir.
[…the rest of the Hold was giving Tolocamp a send-off, anyway, so…]
No one world have noticed my defection. Except, perhaps, my sharp-eyed sister Avilla, who missed nothing that she might use to her advantage at a later date.
And here there is an illustration, the first I have seen in all the editions that I have been examining to this point, of a fatherly figure placing his hands in his son’s as a group looks on. Perhaps this is an incentive to buy the book – actual pictures. (Or, at this point, the creation of electronic books has finally matured enough to have pictures included. Since this is also the first of the versions to have the actual cover art, I suspect there have been other pictures before and my editions have not been able to license them. Anyway.)
In truth, while I certainly wished then no harm, since Threadfall had been endured the day before with no infestations to ravage the winter fields, I couldn’t have wished them merry on their way. For I had been left behind on purpose, and it had been hard indeed to listen to my sisters’ prattling about their vain hopes for conquests at the Ruatha Gather and know the festivities would not include me.
To be excluded in such a peremptory fashion, a flick of my sire’s wrist to strike me from the travel list, was another insensitive act of judgment. Typical of him when human feelings are concerned – at least typical of his attitudes and judgments until he came back from Ruatha and immured himself in his apartments all those long weeks.
There was no real reason to have excluded me.
Pleading with her mother produces no help, as Nerilka’s appeal is that Alessan’s dead wife, Suriana, would have welcomed her had she lived. Which leads to talk of marriageability, and Nerilka is trying to talk sense into her mother about the real prospects of her sisters, which ticks her mother off.
Although we’ll want to check details and consistency between the two books, because Nerilka admits to bring an unreliable narrator, in these first few pages of action, we’ve already gotten a much closer look at what Hold life and family politics are than in the previous books. One straightforward brother, one catty sister, one uncaring father, one mother more obsessed with marrying her daughters off than anything. It’s not quite Survivor: Pern, but we have all the types and more of either a situation comedy or a teen drama. Reading onward, it appears to be a teen drama, although one with greater consequences than a normal one.
Nerilka is ordered to supervise the bathing of the drudges, and to clean out the lower level snake traps, and to improve her attitude or else her mother will tell Tolocamp to discipline her. “His hand weighed as heavy on the oldest and biggest of us as it did in the youngest.” So, much like Yanus, Tolocamp has no qualms about beating his children.
As she takes out her frustration on drudges that aren’t scrubbing hard enough with the soapsand, Nerilka reflects and ultimately regrets how she handled the situation, for tactical (likely prejudiced against getting to go to another Gather) and empathetic (it’s not Mom’s fault her daughters are plain) reasons.
Here we also get a situation where the later book calls back to the earlier and raises some questions. From Moreta, Capiam said that the journeymen and apprentices for the Healer Craft had called the children the Horde, but presumably had only done so in the privacy of their own halls. Nerilka tells us that the Harpers have done the same, at least in the apprentice ranks, and that they were indelicate enough to say so around her or someone in the family that passed it on to her. Which would suggest that Tolocamp also knows about this. And yet, it appears to not have been ruthlessly squashed by anybody. Perhaps they know the Streisand Effect would come into play?
Furthermore, I’m not entirely sure why supervising bathing is considered a punishment for Nerilka. Wouldn’t someone concerned about her womanly virtue not want to put her info close proximity with naked bodies, especially those bodies that might belong to a permanent underclass that might want to make trouble with her? Surely Lessa can’t be an outlier. Unless we’re supposed to believe that all drudges are like Camo, suffering from sufficient mental disabilities that they require constant supervision. That can’t be true, though, because Nerilka pulled an impressive ruse with the drudges in the last book. (And will do so again in this book.) Plus, we’ve seen drudges work in the kitchens, and I don’t see many societies putting people they don’t trust to do things properly with sharp objects and foodstuffs. Then again, when Lessa was in the kitchens screwing everything up for Fax, it was apparently easy and neither supervisors nor the actual drudges seemed to notice that things were wrong or going that way, so I’m not sure I have a conclusion about what conclusion we’re supposed to draw about the intelligence of the drudges. Which leaves me stuck without a conclusion as to why supervising their bathing is supposed to be a punishment, nor why Nerilka feels safe among them enough to scrub harder for them when she feels they aren’t doing it properly.
At least cleaning the snake traps on the lower level seems like an appropriate kind of punishment to do, although tunnel snakes seem to be dangerous enough that there’s also a risk of harm. Perhaps the fact that there are so many children makes both parents more cavalier about their safety.
Nerilka spends some time noting that the entirety of the daughters of the family, save perhaps the youngest, are all plain, and all the sons are beautiful, which means the marriage prospects of the daughters are dismal at best, for even being the daughter of Fort’s Holder isn’t enough to be marriageable. She also reminisces about Suriana, Alessan’s dead wife, in whose hold Nerilka fostered, and with whom Nerilka gained greatly in the womanly arts and was always better than she is alone.
Nerilka’s singular skill that she has is healing, but the Healer Hall was forbidden to her because it would deprive Fort of free Healer-like services courtesy of her. Given what we know of the Fort storerooms from Nerilka’s ruse in Moreta, it’s probably safe to say this free family labor accounts for a lot of the hoard produced by the horde. (RDR^2)
The next paragraph is the first of what I suspect will be many instances of survivor’s guilt and regret at not treating people better before they die in tragedy.
Now I am appalled at the heedless, uncharitable girl I was that day, unable to swallow disappointment and pride to bid her luckier sisters farewell. For it proved that their luck had run out when they were chosen to attend Ruatha’s Gather. But who could have foreseen that, much less the plague, on the bright cold-season day?
As they say, hindsight is 20/20. That doesn’t mean there won’t be regrets, and that Nerilka probably could have used grief counselors then (and quite probably is writing this as her attempt at getting through all of it, since Pern continues to be a world without mental health professionals), but we’re getting this story from the perspective of someone that survived it.
Nerilka is playing the Horatio role here – she’s the designated survivor, tasked with passing the story on, and specifically spared from the ravages that other characters suffered by the narrative. No Fortinbras at this point, though.
Telling the story would normally be the role of the Harpers, but the song that Tirone composed has clearly made a hash of the necessary details that should be carried on, either as a propaganda piece or as a song that’s supposed to be the collective memory of Pern about what was learned from this plague experience. Or the version that survived to Ninth Pass has degraded from the original to the point that it’s useless. So now we also have Nerilka penning a memoir of what happened. (Now that I think about it, they refer to Records, but without specifically mentioning what is in them. Probably to keep them conveniently able to pull whatever’s needed when the plot demands, but it has the knock-on effect of this story possibly being the first acknowledged memoir of Pern history. If that’s true, then there’s going to be something special about this story that has resulted in its preservation.)
Nerilka’s hindsight continues by telling us that she didn’t put together the drum messages about the “feline” and the ones that followed asking the Masterhealer to go to Igen. Nerilka is confused as to why she’s not supposed to let on that she (and the entire family) knows drum code – I personally think it’s because everybody enjoys the feeling of knowing a Harper secret and that nobody wants to have the Harpers change anything, which they totally would if someone admitted they knew the secret to the drum code. I strongly suspect the Harpers actually know that drum code is nearly universally known, and they use it anyway because it’s still the fastest method of transmitting and broadcasting information short of dragon courier (or, eventually, Fandarel’s telegraph, which ends up using drum code anyway as its mechanism).
Nerilka staying at home allows her to avoid the oldest son, Campen, described as someone cut from the same cloth as Tolocamp, preferring to delegate everything and then criticize the results of someone else’s work, to the point that Nerilka notes when Tolocamp dies, the smooth operation of the Hold will basically be unaffected. She does this mostly by saying she’s going out to gather herbs and roots and other medicinal plants, which doesn’t actually happen in the cold season, but only people who do the work (or pay attention) actually realize this, and so Nerilka takes herself and three siblings out to have a day off, returning with wild plants and a wherry for their efforts. Campen provides us another piece of the drudge puzzle by complaining about “the fecklessness of drudges who worked well only under supervision” at dinner, a complaint so common in the household that Nerilka has to make sure it wasn’t Tolocamp who said it. I’m beginning to think that the perception of drudges is that they are lazy, regardless of the actual industry and capability of the drudges themselves. This provides a convenient excuse for abuse and discounting any other reality as individuals behaving outside the norm, as well as an excuse for maintaining the drudge underclass, because clearly such lazy people couldn’t take care of themselves and need proper permanent supervision from their masters. Nobody mentions, of course, whether all the drudges are black and all the Holders are white, because that might be a little too on the nose for a Terran equivalence.
Nerilka returns to the matter of marriage prospects by telling us about the one suitor she had, that she liked, but his Hold was too small for Tolocamp to part with a daughter for. Suriana had hoped to get Nerilka away to Ruatha long enough for Nerilka to stop thinking about her horrible situation at home, but when Suriana broke her back from being thrown by a runnerbeast, that hope went away. Nerilka is somewhat suspicious of the official story of Suriana’s death, because Capiam was tight-lipped about the details, instead of his usually more chatty self.
We get no more information, though, because that suspicion is the last paragraph of this introductory chapter. The beginning of the next chapter is the quarantine order from Capiam, which apparently comes through “at precisely the same hour” that Nerilka learned about Suriana’s death.
Wait, that can’t be right. The last book says that Alessan had been grieving his wife for almost a year (or just over a year) when the Gather arrives that kicks off the plague. Something like the death of a Lady Holder would be public gossip, and especially if the Gather was going to be a thing for young eligible women to try and turn Alessan’s eye. I can’t see Nerilka somehow not knowing about Suriana’s death until almost a year afterward, especially if she knows drum code and even more so with the family that she has. In fact, the reason that Nerilka is banned from the trip is because she mentions Suriana’s death.
There must be something else to that sentence. Maybe “the same hour” means the equivalent of “at 9am, the same time of day I received the fateful phone call about Suriana a year ago” or “the same day of the year when I learned Suriana died last year.”
Words, they are difficult even with the best intentions. Let’s see how well Nerilka handles hers.